Author's Notes (12-15-06): Yikes. Ok, that took a lot longer than expected. I really HAVE been busy though. But now I'm free! Free at last! For the next couple of weeks, anyway. At any rate, this is actually a brand new chapter! I rewrote the old one so completely, that I realized I had two chapters worth of material before I'd finished. So here's the new chapter 9!

Art: So, my sister is an awesome artist and I commissioned her to do a pic from chapter 8. I'm going to put a link from my bio, but here it is again: www . fileden . com / files / 2006 / 8 / 29 / 193400 / chapter8 . jpg

Disclaimer: I don't own FMA and I'm not making money off this.

Chapter 9

Winry didn't know how much time had passed, but just as suddenly as the whole traumatic ordeal had begun, it ended. Ed had given one final violent jerk, his back arching as his body stiffened, contorting with the pain of his nightmarish memories. He'd cried out one last time, his voice hoarse, throat savaged from all his screaming.

When he collapsed against her, Winry couldn't seem to do anything but lay there, arms wrapped tightly around him where she'd been trying to protect him from harm. She wasn't sure if she'd succeeded, but her own body ached from the attempt.

Panting, she buried her face in the back of his neck. His hair was lank and matted with drops of vomit and blood, but she didn't care. She could hear him breathing and feel his heart beat. The rest of the details were lost.

"Winry...?" She'd forgotten about Al. His young voice was thick with concern. "Are you alright?"

She swallowed a lump in her throat and rolled onto her back, pulling Ed with her, gently. Keeping one hand across his chest and the other over his injured side, she sat up slowly, propping him against her chest.

His hospital shirt was heavily stained and more blood streamed from the nasty gash on the bottom of his chin. Experience in the operating room told her that he needed stitches. That same experience told her she needed to distance herself from the situation if she wanted to be of any use. She tried, but it was like attempting to perform a self-amputation with blunt tools. She gave up, holding him close as her chaotic emotions swirled around her.

Ed groaned low in the back of his throat, spurring her to action before her mind had a chance to focus. She fumbled with the strings on his shirt, pulling the soiled garment away from equally soiled bandages. She needed to remove them and check his gunshot wound. She needed to get him off the floor. She needed to help him.

She needed help...

But Winry knew she wasn't going to be receiving any. She glanced toward her bed and then back to Ed. He'd fallen silent again, blissfully unaware, and helpless in her arms.

"I'm sorry..." Al's quiet voice drifted up from the corner of the room. Under normal circumstances, his words would have tugged at her heartstrings. "I wish I could..."

"It's fine," she interrupted, her words sounding brittle in her own ears. "I can handle this." She shifted her hold and got to her knees, supporting Ed under his single arm and keeping her other arm around his chest.

"Be careful with his leg," Al warned her and she nearly snapped, "I can handle this!"

"Sorry," he muttered, ashamed.

She took a calming breath to try and steady her nerves. "It's fine," she repeated, and then gave him the best smile she could muster. "It's not your fault, so just stop being sorry, ok?"

To be on the safe side, she glanced over Ed's partial leg before moving him. The brace appeared to be intact, but she wouldn't know anything for certain until she'd removed it. There wasn't much else she could do for him in their current position, so she began the slow, painful process of dragging her childhood friend across the room.

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It wasn't easy to get him into the bed alone. She was surprised by how heavy he was, even without his automail. It was awkward trying to keep his mismatched body balanced as she half lifted, half slid him up onto the mattress, paying close attention to his injuries.

"Keep an eye on him while I go get supplies," she told Al, setting him on the foot of the bed where he'd have a better view of his brother. "Yell if anything changes."

"Ok," Al said. "I think he'll be alright for now. Maybe you should take a quick break... put some ice on that bruise?"

She could feel the tender puffiness around her right eye where Ed had hit her with his elbow. She knew full well that if she didn't follow Al's advice, she wouldn't be able to see through the swelling before long. She had exactly one response, but she kept it to herself as she left the room.

Ed came first.

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Winry shook Ed's shoulder gently and leaned in close, pressing her fingers to the side of his neck to check his pulse. "Ed, can you hear me?"

"He's still out cold," Al informed her when Ed didn't respond.

"Good," she replied, pulling her medical supplies out of the first aid kit. "I'm going to stitch up his chin before he comes around."

"Won't that wake him?"

She shook her head, frowning. "Not after what he just went through." Winry cleaned the wound, sterilizing as best she could. She'd stripped him of his shirt and bandages and determined that his newest injury was still her biggest priority. The stitches on his side and back had torn, but the blood had already dried. His leg was a whole other matter, and she'd decided to deal with it once she knew more of the details.

"I've seen a lot of terrible things," she muttered, prepping her suture needle and thread. "But I've never seen anything like that..."

"I have," Al said quietly.

Winry held the needle to the light, trying to thread it and failing as her hands shook and her vision blurred with tears. "Does it happen a lot?" Her voice quivered, but she couldn't help it.

Al remained silent for a long while, and she could practically feel him watching her. "It's only really happened once before," he finally broke the silence. "To Ed, that is. But I've seen similar things happen to other soldiers."

"So you knew about it?" She lowered the needle, blinking back her tears and trying not to wince at the tight pull around her right eye. "But you didn't warn me?"

"I was going to," Al apologized. "But I wanted to explain things first. I'm just not sure how much you want to hear..."

"You promised to tell me everything, Al."

"You heard the things he said, right? During his flashback...?"

Winry nodded, trying not to think about it. There were things he'd yelled in his delirium she knew she'd never be able to forget.

"Well, during our last battle, I guess you could say the worst of Ed's injuries weren't the physical ones."

"That's how it's always been," she said softly, pressing some medical gauze against Ed's chin.

"Exactly," Al said significantly. "It's always been that way for Ed. And just like any other injury, the more you repeat the same damage, over and over, the more lasting and serious it becomes."

Winry slid her fingers into Ed's, resting their hands against his chest lightly. "So how bad is it?"

"Besides these flashbacks, we're not really sure... The only person who can answer that question refuses to talk about it."

"He doesn't want people to worry," Winry said, smiling sadly.

"Well, people worry," Al stated flatly. "Especially after his first flashback left three medics in the hospital and could have ended up killing everyone in the area..." Winry flinched, and Al stopped, realizing he'd said too much. He apologized in a small voice, "I'm sorry... you said you wanted to hear it all..."

"I do." Winry looked away, her gaze falling on the automail arm resting innocently on her nightstand. "I guess it's a good thing I took that off," she mumbled.

"The military took it away from him too, but it just made things worse. After the flashback, he slipped into a major depression, refusing to sleep and barely eating or acknowledging anybody. They finally gave his arm back to him, hoping it would help snap him out of it. And when that didn't work... they transferred him to Central Hospital's psych ward..."

"The psych ward?" Winry realized she was squeezing Ed's hand so tight, her knuckles were whitening. She disentangled her fingers and shifted to face Al. "How could they send him there?" she asked, feeling her anger rising. "After everything he's done for them! After everything he's been through!"

"I know, it's not fair," Al said, trying to appease her. "But think, Winry, what were they supposed to do? Ed wasn't exactly being very cooperative."

"They should have...!" she bit off the last part of her comment. It was useless to dwell on what should have happened, or rather, what should have happened sooner. In the end, they'd brought Ed to her. It was all she would have asked for.

Winry exhaled her frustration and turned back to the task before her. She picked up the needle and thread, feeling a renewed sense of resolve. She could handle it. She could handle anything that fate decided to throw at them.

And so could Ed.

He didn't react as her hooked needle pierced his skin. Winry sewed the wound shut, one stitch at a time, keeping it straight and neat. He'd carry the scar for the rest of his life, but that didn't mean she couldn't do everything in her power to make it easier to bear.

His physical scars had never bothered her, but in the light of the bedroom lamp, she couldn't help but notice many that were unfamiliar. She could see the battlefield tattooed across his chest and arm, his neck and his face, thin white lines of laceration and the angry red tissue of wounds that ran much deeper. He'd always put his own safety last.

As she worked in silence, Winry felt her grief settle about her like a heavy fog, diffusing the momentum that her anger had given her. Finishing with his chin, she placed a bandage over the stitches and then traded her needle and thread for a sponge and a bowl of warm water. She dabbed the blood from his wounds and wiped away the last traces of vomit.

His back was in worse shape than his front. She carefully rolled him onto his right side to clean the exit wound, and even after a month or more of healing, Winry couldn't help but wince at the sight. It looked painful. She was just thankful that the bullet had struck muscle instead of bone or vital internal organs. The odds of sustaining a mere flesh wound from a shot to the abdomen were lower than Winry cared to calculate.

He really had been lucky, in a sense. But after everything that had happened, Winry was finding it difficult to look on the bright side of things.

Words slipped from her mouth as a single tear she hadn't felt form, trickled down her face. "Why didn't you protect him, Al?"

Al gave a small choked cry, "I tried!"

She knew it was true. Al would have done everything in his power to save his brother from more pain. But watching Ed as he lay unconscious, seeing him looking weak and vulnerable, it was almost more than she could bear.

It was unreasonable, but Winry felt like she needed to blame someone. "Maybe you didn't try hard enough..."

Al must have sensed what she was doing, for he took in her accusation without a word. The silence stretched between them, straining to the breaking point.

It was Winry who gave in first. She let out one shaky breath and brushed her tears away with the back of her hand before turning to address the small wooden box. "I'm just exhausted, Al," she sniffed and tried to sound convincing. "Don't mind me."

"You're just being honest, Winry," he corrected her gently. "There's nothing wrong with that."

"No," she disagreed, coming back to her senses. "I'm being totally irrational." She gave him another smile, turning one corner of her mouth up, wryly. "Isn't it your job to keep tabs on me and Ed so we don't do or say something stupid?" she joked lightly, trying to clear the tension.

"Sure," Al replied, sounding more forlorn than Winry would have liked. "But if I was any good at that job, none of this would have happened in the first place."

Winry bit her lip and stared down at her hands feeling guilty. "I'm sorry, Al."

"I'm sorry too," he said simply. "In the back of my head I knew Ed was breaking down, but I didn't move fast enough. After everything Ed had sacrificed for me, I didn't want to hurt his feelings by telling him he was losing control. And then, when he needed me the most, I failed him..." He continued, softly, and Winry sensed that his words weren't really meant for her. "If an apology could change things, I'd apologize a thousand times over..."

"What happened out there on the battlefield?" Winry asked uncertainly. "From those things he said, it seems like Ed thought you'd died..."

"I was trying to protect him and I just collapsed... I can't quite explain it myself, but I could sort of feel my control of the armor slipping away."

"But... why would that happen?"

"I'm not sure, exactly. But I have a theory. Do you remember the last time we were in Central together?" Al asked, not waiting for a response. "I told you about something we'd discovered about the nature of the connection between my soul and the armored body."

"I remember, Al..." Winry could almost hear the conversation. It was one she often worried about during the five long years of their absence. "You told Ling that your body wasn't immortal... that it was like a time bomb, instead..."

"Ed and I called it the Rejection Effect."

Winry wasn't an alchemy expert, but there seemed to be something missing from Al's theory. "But, if that's really what happened, then why are you still here at all? Wouldn't it have destroyed the connection completely?"

"Right," Al gave a breathless sigh. "That's the part I can't figure out either. I mentioned it to Ed during one of the few times he'd actually talk to me, and it seemed like he'd come to his own conclusions... he wouldn't share them though."

"Hmm," Winry said thoughtfully, turning back to Ed, and pulling a blanket up over his bare shoulder. "Maybe he didn't want to worry you?"

Al snorted, "I was obviously worrying about it. That's not exactly a rational excuse for keeping me in the dark."

"And we both know that Ed always acts rationally," Winry said, covering her worry with sarcasm. "He's really quite level-headed."

"And sensible," Al added.

"Not to mention, practical."

"I hate you guys..."

Winry spun, nearly spilling the cleaning supplies as she set them aside. "ED! You're awake!"

"Am I?" His voice was painfully raw. He squeezed his eyes shut, knitting his brow in concentration or pain. "What's...?" his voice cracked, and he didn't try to finish his question.

"You're ok, Ed." Winry leaned forward, placing her hand on his shoulder, hoping the contact would soothe him. "Everything's going to be ok."

Ed shifted and Winry helped him roll onto his back. He groaned and freed his hand from the blanket, groping blindly. "Win... ry?"

"It's me, Ed," she said, taking his hand and squeezing reassuringly. "You're at my home in Rush Valley."

He gritted his teeth, pushing his head back into the pillow.

"Try to relax," she urged. His hand shook in her grasp and she pressed it against her chest to steady him. "Ed, you need to..." she trailed off, lowering his hand slowly. "Ed?" She put her other hand to his shoulder, shaking him gently. "Ed?"

"Winry," Al spoke her name and she twitched as though startling out of a daze. "He passed out again."

She sat back on the bed, feeling numb.

"He might be like this for a while," Al said softly, apologetically.

She let go of Ed's hand, placing it on his covers. "I'm not sure if I can take much more of this," she said, realizing the truthfulness of it as the words left her mouth. She was starting to feel sick, and she knew it had nothing to do with any actual illness.

"It's trauma, Winry. For both of you."

She pulled her legs up to her chest and wrapped her arms around them, hugging herself tightly. Al was absolutely right, but there was something in his statement that bothered Winry more.

"And what about you, Al?"

He didn't have an answer for her.

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(A/N2): Anybody out there still reading? 8D