Title: Occupational Therapy
Author: Jordanna Morgan
Archive Rights: Please request the author's consent.
Characters: Winry, Edward, Alphonse.
Setting: A few days after the Elrics' human transmutation.
Summary: After the transmutation, Winry helps Al overcome a new fear.
Disclaimer: They belong to Hiromu Arakawa. I'm just playing with them.
Notes: Written for the prompt word "Egg" at Fan Flashworks. …Naturally, this story features another cameo by Buck, the nefarious rooster who figured into a few of my previous stories.
Three days after the horrifying mistake that had ripped apart her best friends' lives and bodies, Winry Rockbell still woke up to a numb, hollow feeling in her gut.
In some part of her, the situation she faced each morning was familiar business. She was an automail mechanic in training. Loss of limbs was a problem she already had considerable experience with, and she was well-practiced in the procedures for handling it. The empty voids that now took the place of Edward's arm and leg were nothing she hadn't seen in a hundred other patients before…
Except that this time, it was Ed. It was the strongest and most vital boy she had ever known—reduced to lying helpless in his bed down the hall, his body crippled, his mind hazy from pain and medication. To be focused and professional was difficult when everything in her screamed that seeing him like this was just wrong; that it was all a bad dream, that she just needed to wake up for real and it wouldn't be true.
But every morning proved again that it was true, and all she could do was try to help as best she could.
…And then there was Alphonse. Winry still hadn't absorbed the reality of his fate in the brothers' tragedy—not even when she heard his soft voice from within the metal monster he'd become. Although he had opened his chestplate and shown her the emptiness of the armor, she kept on expecting the flesh-and-blood boy she knew to pop out of it, smiling and safe.
Maybe she just couldn't quite accept that both of her friends had suffered so tremendously.
After dressing in her work coveralls and pulling back most of her long hair, Winry's first order of business was to check on Ed. Unlike the days when the boys had squirreled themselves away behind a firmly closed door, plotting the very action that had so harmed them, the door to their room remained partly open now. Ed might not have liked that if he thought about it, but Winry and Granny wanted to be able to look in on him at any time, and Al wasn't about to contradict their judgment when it came to his brother's care.
When Winry peeked into the room, she saw that Al was absent—which surprised her. Until now, she had invariably found him by Ed's side at this hour of the morning. Concerned, she quietly pushed the door open and stepped in.
Ed was awake; at least, as much so as he could be when dosed with painkillers. For an instant, Winry saw him staring away toward the grayish light from the window. His expression was troubled, his golden eyes harder and more alert than she expected, given the time and his condition. As the creak of the door reached him, he quickly shifted in the bed, pulling the sheet up close to his neck with his surviving left hand.
"Hey," Winry greeted him somberly, moving closer to the bed. "Where did Al run off to?"
Something dark passed through Ed's eyes before his intact shoulder twitched in a shrug. "…He just went to get something."
It was a credible answer. Since Ed woke up the morning after the transmutation, Al had been fussily attentive, always quick to run and fetch anything his bedridden brother might want. Maybe Ed was finally starting to regain his appetite, and had sent Al to bring him a pre-breakfast snack.
Still, that fleeting look in Ed's eyes made Winry wonder.
For the moment she dismissed her curiosity, and forced a smile. "Okay. While he's gone, I'm just going to check your bandages."
As Winry grasped the edge of the sheet and moved to pull it back, Ed tried to clutch it against him—an effort that was awkward with only one hand. The fabric escaped from his fingers and slipped down around his waist, baring his upper body.
There, on Ed's left shoulder, just at the side of his neck, Winry saw a cluster of faint purple marks. They were splayed across his flesh in a five-point configuration that mirrored the fingers of a very large hand.
Winry stiffened, her breath shuddering to a halt in her chest.
"…Al did that?"
Ed scowled and looked away, his arm twisting upward in a halfhearted attempt to cover the bruises with his hand. "He didn't mean to! I was having a bad dream, and he just wanted to wake me up. Only…"
"He squeezed a little too hard, without knowing it," Winry whispered, feeling a prick of heat in her eyes.
Of course, it was bound to happen—and sooner, rather than later. Just like an automail limb, Al's new shell of a body not only had the strength of steel, it lacked nerves to feel the amount of pressure he exerted with his touch. Now that Winry thought about it, she recalled how carefully he had been moving, handling objects gingerly when he did so at all. It was clear that he recognized the dilemma, and had been doing his best to manage it on his own; but last night, seeing Ed in the throes of a nightmare, his own troubled emotions must have unconsciously made him tighten his grip.
Now Winry understood why Al wasn't in the room… and knowing the younger Elric's gentle heart, she felt sick at the thought of how badly he must have felt.
"When he realized it hurt me, he got really upset. I tried to tell him it was okay, but he just ran out." The eyes Ed raised to Winry were almost as misty as her own. "Look, will you go find him, and tell him it's alright? I… I don't want him to…"
His lone fist clenched in his lap, and Winry understood.
She reached out. Her fingers skimmed over the back of his hand, offering the slightest squeeze in passing, before she turned for the door.
Alphonse wasn't in the house. Winry eventually found him sitting in the front yard: balled up as small as he could make his huge frame, staring out across the windblown grass of the neighboring field.
When he registered her approach, his helmet turned to the side, very slightly. Not enough to meet her gaze.
"Ed told you what happened, didn't he." His voice was dull beneath its metallic resonance.
Winry put her hands on her hips. "No—but I got it out of him anyway," she said, and was gratified by the miniscule start that rattled through the armor. "Al, he knows you didn't mean to hurt him, and he's not upset."
"That's not the point!"
With that exclamation, Al twisted sideways to face her. Between his sheer size and the loud clattering of metal, Winry had to admit that his new form could be… intimidating… but she refused to flinch at the abrupt movement of his menacing-looking bulk. She merely frowned at him as he dropped his gaze, remorsefully shaking his not-head.
"It could happen again," he whispered. "Even if I don't mean to, I could hurt him again, and next time could be worse. I… I should never even touch him anymore."
A pang squeezed Winry's heart. She took a long moment to find the right words before she spoke.
"You know something, Al? …If you never touch Ed, I think you'll hurt him a lot more than if you just accidentally hold him too tight." As Al looked up at her sharply, she pressed on. "What if he thinks you stay away from him because you blame him for what happened?"
It was Al who winced this time, a rattling vibration between his plates. "But that's not… I could never! It was my fault just as much, and I—"
"Then you've got to stick with him, don't you? He needs you close to him now."
The spiked shoulders of the armor slumped. Soul-spark eyes stared up at Winry, and Al gave a creaking shrug.
"What do I do?"
For a brief moment, Winry considered that question. Then she reached out and seized Al's gauntlet, tugging at it firmly. "Come on. Get up."
"But Winry—!" Al protested, although he submissively began to clamber to his feet. She noticed the way his leather hand remained open and limp in hers, refusing to return her grip at all. He was afraid of hurting her, too.
Brooking no argument, Winry dragged Alphonse to the henhouse in the backyard. Granny's prize rooster Buck rolled an eye at them from atop the corner post of the chicken run—but then he hopped down and quickly strutted away towards the back porch. Although the diabolical fowl was no stranger to Al as the boy had once been, he apparently wanted no part of the colossal metal scarecrow that now came lurching into his territory.
"You know how Granny makes our automail patients collect the eggs, right?" Winry asked, pulling Al around to a row of small sliding doors at the rear of the coop, which provided access to the nest boxes from outside.
"Uh… yeah? But I thought that was just something you have them do to help out while they're recovering."
Winry shook her head as she slid open the doors, checking what lay within. "It's actually a part of their therapy—and I think it's just what you need." The first nest was empty, but the second held a fresh clutch of eggs. Smiling, she stepped aside and pointed into the nest box. "…So I'm officially making it your job to gather these."
Al started noisily. "Me? But Winry, I'll break them!"
"Sure, you'll break some of them. Especially at first. But after a little while, you'll get the hang of picking them up without a sense of touch, and then you won't worry about handling anything else. So you're going to do this every day, until you can gather all the eggs without breaking any for three days in a row." She grinned up at the metal boy. "Ed will have to do this too when he gets his automail arm, you know. You want a head start on him, don't you?"
If there was one thing Winry knew would motivate the Elric brothers, it was competition.
Al quivered and tipped his helmet to one side, staring at the open door of the nest box. After a long moment, he stepped up to it. An even more lengthy hesitation passed then, but at last he raised his gauntlet, and slowly reached inside.
There was a soft crunch-squish, and Al's huge hand withdrew, dripping with pulped golden yolk. He let out a despairing whimper.
"Hey, no giving up after the first try." Winry drew a polishing cloth from the pocket of her coveralls, and used it to wipe away the mess on Al's palm. "You just have to keep practicing."
"It's okay, Al." As she looked up at his stark metal face, an unexpected lump rose in her throat. "We can live with a few less eggs—but Ed can't live without you. Even if it isn't your real hand anymore, he needs your hand to hold more than ever right now… so you'd better learn to do it right."
The armor became rigid at the admonition. Al's shoulders squared, and with a new sense of resolve that Winry could palpably feel, he carefully reached into the nest box once more.
When his trembling hand emerged with an intact egg cradled safely in its fingers, she couldn't have felt more proud.
2016 Jordanna Morgan