Nurse Carol Smith pushed open the door to Colonel Mustang's hospital room with her rather generous hip, maneuvering her way into the chamber while balancing gauze and antiseptics on a thin metal tray. She looked down at the bed's occupant and smiled. Mustang was still asleep, but he was sleeping on his side in an entirely natural way. For the past two weeks, the man had stayed in whatever position they'd arranged him in the night before since he was catatonic and did not shift in his sleep. Now though, it was easy to see by his curled position and his rumpled sheets that he'd been tossing and turning during the night.
The night nurse, Ellen had informed Carol just a few hours ago of Mustang's return to consciousness the night before and Carol had been overjoyed to hear the news. Over the past two weeks, she'd grown very fond of Maes Hughes, and to think that he'd been able to talk to his best friend again after all this time was certainly cause for celebration. The beaming—though exhausted—smile on Major Hughes' face when he left this morning was proof enough of that. Sure, the Colonel had eventually dissolved into hysterics and needed sedation, but at least he'd been cognizant for a while.
Carol had been very invested in Mustang's health since day one. Not to say that she cared for the rest of her patients any less, but she had also treated many of the men that had been in Lior under his command and had heard the stories of his bravery and self-sacrifice on the battlefield... suffice it to say, nearly everyone in the hospital was rallying for Mustang's recovery. Many of the wounded soldiers had asked about him daily, two of whom had been his fellow prisoners and witnesses to his long weeks of torture. Both refused to talk about the experience other than to say that neither of them was abused anywhere near as badly as their beloved Colonel had been.
Carol put down the tray and moved to Mustang's bedside. She took his arm gently and lifted it, peeling off a swatch of gauze that covered a long line of stitches on his forearm. Mustang stirred slightly at her touch, but did not wake.
The wound looked pretty good. It had been a deep, festering gash when they'd brought him in, but now the flesh was knitting beautifully; the doctor would probably let her remove the stitches within the next few days. With a satisfied smile, Carol dabbed antiseptic onto the wound carefully, watching Mustang's face closely as she worked. His brow was furrowed slightly; no doubt because the disinfecting agent stung his damaged flesh. A low whimper resonated from his throat and Carol stopped applying the salve, feeling that he was close to waking up.
"Colonel Mustang?" she asked softly, "Sir?"
At her quiet words Mustang's eyes flew open and he stiffened, his startled gaze flashing over to look at her with an expression of dazed terror. He jerked his arm out of her gentle grasp and tried to move away from her, pushing himself to the opposite side of the bed.
"Shh... It's okay, sweetheart..." she said soothingly, keeping her voice low and mellow. "My name is Carol. I'm a nurse here in the hospital."
For a moment he didn't say anything, but then he mumbled, "Hospital... Central..." as if reminding himself of something that he'd forgotten. Carol slowly reached forward for his arm again, but he flinched away from her.
"I need to finish cleaning and bandaging your arm," she told him kindly, entirely unsurprised by his skittishness. Mustang looked down at his arm as if unaware that he was wounded and then turned his dark, uncertain eyes back on Carol. He hesitated for a moment longer, then cautiously moved back toward her and allowed her to take his arm.
As gently as she was able, Carol finished cleaning the gash and began to tape fresh gauze over it. Mustang watched her like a hawk the whole time, his body tensed with an intense distrust that he was visibly trying to shake off. He knew that she was no threat to him... he knew that, but that did not make him any less afraid of her. Carol had dealt with torture victims before—not many, but a few—and remembered well how long it took to gain their trust.
"You seem to be doing much better," she said brightly as she rolled up the remaining length of gauze and set it back on the tray. "It's nice to see you alert."
Mustang looked at her uncomfortably as if unsure of how he was supposed to respond to her statement. Finally he looked away from her, his expression disturbed. His mind wasn't quite right still, that was plain to see... but Carol didn't expect any more from him. Torture victims—especially those who had faced the severity of the torture that Mustang had endured—were typically wounded much further than any physical manifestation. The poor man must be reeling now, his unbalanced mind trying to cope with everything that had happened.
"Major Hughes was very happy that he got to talk to you last night," she prodded, hoping that the familiar name would put him more at ease. As she had anticipated, he turned back to her.
"Maes? Where... where is he?" he asked, some of the suspicion dissipating from his pale face.
"He left a few hours ago... but I expect him back before too long. He's barely left your side since he brought you in."
"I... saw him. Last night," he recalled, more to himself than to her.
"That's right," she encouraged, "Do you remember what you talked about?"
He looked like he was about to reply, but then his face darkened. A change came over him suddenly: the fearful confusion in his eyes disappeared behind an abrupt façade of hardness and he straightened himself, managing to pull himself up to sit upright against the headboard. His gaze became even and cold, his face guardedly expressionless.
"I don't remember," he said flatly.
Carol balked slightly at his unexpected shift in demeanor. His newfound collected coldness was unquestionably an act. It was pretty impressive that he was able to shut himself off from his feelings so quickly... but it was also pretty sad. Still, after being tormented so violently for so long it had probably been necessary for him to put his emotions on the back burner at times...
It was just heart wrenching to see that he'd gotten so good at it.
"...That's okay, darling." Carol said flippantly after a moment's pause. "It's normal for you to be a little forgetful after being catatonic for two weeks." She didn't believe for one second that he had really forgotten his conversation with Hughes the night before, but whatever it had been about was obviously too distressing for Mustang to allow himself to think about now and so she didn't press him. She would let Hughes worry about that.
Speak of the devil; Mustang's head jerked up as he heard a noise at the door and Hughes stepped in cautiously. For a moment they just looked at each other a little awkwardly, but then Hughes inched forward and sat on the corner of the bed.
"Good morning," he said, a lopsided smile lilting his words, "How are you feeling?"
"...I don't know," Mustang replied, looking away. He didn't sound like he was trying to be evasive, it seemed he just honestly didn't know how to translate how he felt into words. Hughes looked over at him, chewing his bottom lip. He reached over to rest his hand on his friend's arm, but Mustang stiffened and flinched away as he had done with Carol.
"Don't touch me... please, Maes." He mumbled, adding the last part almost apologetically as Hughes gave him a look of pained surprise. Clearly, Hughes had been expecting him to be as clingy as he'd been the night before and the fact that he wasn't robbed Hughes of a method of comforting him.
"Okay, that's fine." Hughes said quickly, forcing another smile to cover his suddenly lost expression, "I understand."
A tense silence filled the room then, weighing on all of them like a thick layer of dust. Carol picked up the tray and straightened, taking this as her cue to leave them alone together. She was sure that they had a lot to discuss and she did not need to play witness to any of it.
"I'll come by and check on you after a while," she told Mustang, then turned to Hughes with an encouraging smile and patted him on the shoulder as she made her exit.
Maes watched Roy uncertainly, trying to decide how to best approach him. He didn't want to be touched—that much was clear—and even though Maes desperately just wanted to hold him again, he knew better than to try.
Maes was a very tactile person. He hugged everyone. He often reached over and touched people while he was talking to them and always offered physical contact as a form of comfort. Maes had always been this way, but it had intensified greatly after his daughter was born. Roy, on the other hand, was almost the exact opposite. He had always been very insistent about his personal space. Maes was the only person in the world who could get away with flinging an arm around Roy's shoulders as they walked down the street together or grabbing him and hugging him for no reason at all.
Roy usually tolerated Maes' boyish affections with eye-rolls and loud sighs, but he'd never really complained about it or refused it. While he didn't complain though, he didn't typically reciprocate either. Of all the times that he and Maes had hugged over the years, only twice had the embrace been initiated by Roy—once just after Elysia had been born and once on the day Maes' father died. Maes understood that it took a lot for Roy to let down his defensive walls and touch someone, but he had never completely rejected—or even perhaps feared—Maes' touch before.
Maes had never seen the injured man as closed-off as he was now. Roy wasn't even looking at him. Of course, Maes quietly understood his reasons... but it was still disheartening that he'd retreated back within himself again after his short breakdown the night before.
Well, these things do take time.
"I talked to Ed this morning." Maes said, hoping to lure Roy into conversation.
Roy looked up at him as intently as if Maes had just told him that the sun had exploded.
"Yeah, he's fine. I told you that he wasn't in Lior... do you remember? He's—"
"I didn't tell them anything."
Maes stopped talking, the sudden desperation in Roy's voice squeezing his heart with pity. "I believe you," Maes said finally, watching as Roy drew up his unbroken leg and wrapped his arms around himself protectively. His onyx eyes became dark and haunted, his thoughts distant and plainly upset.
"Do you want to talk about it...?" Maes asked, his entire being aching to hold his friend and soothe his troubled mind.
Maes worked his jaw and clenched his hands uselessly in his lap. Roy closed his eyes for a moment to collect himself. After an impossibly long stretch of silence, he opened them again. They were suddenly hard and piercing. He raised his gaze back up to Maes, his demeanor abruptly businesslike.
Maes blinked for a moment, taken off-guard, but then he understood and got to his feet, standing at attention and saluting his Colonel. Maes knew what was expected of him now and felt a little more at ease; Roy wanted to retreat behind the mask he wore as Colonel Mustang and tacitly demanded that Major Hughes do the same. This was not uncommon practice for Roy, and Maes was more than happy to oblige his professional military decorum if it meant helping him adjust.
So, with the calculated coldness that can only be learned by being in the military for so many years, Major Hughes launched into an emotionless report of what was going on in Lior. He told him about how he and Hawkeye lead the rescue mission the moment that they had been given clearance from the Fuhrer, collecting all the bodies and survivors that they could find and bringing them back to Central. Maes briefly described how they found Roy in the auditorium, bound and beaten as he detachedly listed off elements.
"And you'd been like that ever since, sir . Until yesterday, that is. That was two weeks ago."
"That's..." Roy started, but then trailed off as if searching for an adequate word, "...interesting."
Maes watched Roy's mind wander vaguely and paused in his report, waiting for the Colonel to reestablish eye-contact. After a few moments, Roy looked up at him again, his expression entirely implacable. He had always been very good at keeping his feelings to himself.
Maes continued on and told him that Brigadier General Shanks had been sent in with nearly four hundred troops almost three weeks ago and most of the guerrillas had surrendered to them, choosing to go quietly now that they were so outnumbered. Maes also told him that Dahveed Jenkins, the leader of the rebellion had been captured and was being held in Central. The Major caught a flicker of grim satisfaction cross Roy's face.
Finally, Maes wrapped up his report with a brief detailing of the surviving soldiers' health. He could tell that Roy was glad to hear that they were all doing well and most of them had long been discharged from the hospital. Roy nodded slowly to himself as Maes finished the report, silently mulling over everything.
"I want a list of names of the casualties," he said after a few beats.
"Is anyone else still in the hospital?"
Maes thought for a moment. "There are three other than you, I believe. Privates Nelson and Cornell and then Lieutenant Beal."
Roy's eyes grew slightly wider. "Beal survived...? What about Jordan?" he asked hopefully.
"Private Jordan was discharged last week, sir."
Roy closed his eyes briefly and leaned his head back against the headboard, looking painfully relieved.
Maes smiled and sat down on the corner of the bed again, thinking that it was safe for him to drop his military-man act now that Roy was in a better state of mind.
"I want to see Beal." Roy said suddenly, opening his eyes.
"Okay, I'll let him know."
Maes knew why Roy had asked about Lieutenant Beal and Private Jordan specifically; of the eight men who had been captured alongside Roy, they were the only two who had survived the entire ordeal with him. For five weeks they had endured agony together in Lior, watching in horrified silence as everyone else around them was slowly killed off.
Beal and Jordan had been found in Lior not half an hour after Maes found Roy. Maes remembered vividly how the injured men had staggered forward seemingly out of nowhere, carrying between them the limp form of Private Lindor. Both men had been relieved to see that Roy had already been found and was being treated. Jordan didn't talk much, but Beal had insisted on reporting to Maes even as the medic team was cleaning and bandaging his wounds.
"The Colonel broke us out of there a few days ago," Beal had said, his voice hitched with pain and fatigue, "He ordered us to leave without him because he couldn't walk and we couldn't carry both him and Lindor... I said we'd come back for him when the coast was clear and we did, watching from outside the window in the back and waiting for a chance to grab him and take him to our hiding place. But... well, those motherfuckers had been very angry that he'd helped us escape... by the time we got back, there wasn't much left of him for us to save."
Beal had not gone into detail about how badly they had beaten Roy after they discovered that his allies were missing, but mentioned that the Colonel had been completely coherent beforehand... and was in the catatonic state that Maes found him in afterward.
"He did that a lot, actually, toward the end..." Beal had said in reference to Roy's methodic listing of the elements, "When the pain got too bad for him, or if he thought he was close to letting information spill. It was like he would just... go away for a while, his mind wandering off somewhere else while his body was being torn apart. But this time... his mind just never came back." Then Beal had looked up at Maes, suddenly desperate, "I was sure that he was going to die that night, whether or not we took him away from there... If I had known he could still survive, I would have never left him again..."
The guilt in Beal's eyes then had been profound and when Maes had seen him last—just a few days ago, actually—the guilt was still there. It would probably do both Roy and Beal good to see each other and know that they were okay. There is no bond in the world stronger than that forged between soldiers during war. Maes knew that from experience.
"Speaking of people seeing you..." Maes remembered suddenly, "Your staff has requested audience with you. I told them I'd ask you if you were up to it."
Roy looked hesitant for a moment and thought silently for a few beats before admitting, "...I don't know if I'm comfortable with that just yet..." Roy's voice was low and disturbed, sounding almost frightened at the prospect of seeing his friends.
"That's okay. I told them it was probably too soon... you have a lot of adjusting to do, after all..."
Roy nodded wordlessly, but his unsettled expression did not ease. He wrapped his arms more tightly around himself and shuddered. Like Maes, Roy had dropped his military façade and now his nervous, unbalanced rawness was visible again, sending daggers of sorrow into Maes' heart. He looked completely overwhelmed. He looked like he wanted to cry or scream. He looked as if every terror known to man was running through his damaged mind on a brutal and never-ending loop of torment.
"...I'm so sorry that this happened, Roy..." Maes ventured softly, unable to keep the grief from his voice. "You never should have been put in that situation."
Roy looked down at his bandaged hands and did not reply, biting his already-injured lip.
"Stop that. You'll split it open again." Maes told him, allowing himself to give a faintly paternal smile.
"I'm used to it being split open." Roy shrugged as if unconcerned. Maes' smile faltered and his stomach turned with sick sadness. Roy must have realized the morbidity of his statement, for he looked suddenly embarrassed and turned away from Maes, easing himself back down onto the bed so that he could curl onto his side under the blankets.
"I'm tired." Roy rasped after a long stretch of painful silence.
"I don't doubt it." Maes replied gently, "Do you want me to stay with you while you sleep?"
Maes didn't get an answer, but he hadn't really been expecting one. Roy didn't feel safe, Maes understood that, but he also understood that no matter how terrified Roy was, he could probably never bring himself to ask for Maes' protection... especially not now, when Roy knew that he was safe and still wanted someone to watch his back. Perhaps that's why Roy and Maes had always been so close; they understood each other without words.
"Okay, Roy. I'll be right here if you need me."
Roy gave no response other than to curl himself into a tighter ball and close his eyes.