Chapter 32

Havoc nearly collided with Armstrong, both of them reaching to pull the coat up to Ed's chin at the same time.

Al's patience wasn't wearing thin, although that's how it appeared. It was his anxiety that was building up to a barely tolerable level as he traded off between hovering over his sleeping brother and fidgeting with the cot covers for the bed he would be occupying in the very same room tonight.

"Sorry," Havoc chuckled.

"Quite all right," Armstrong replied.

"Is he going to sleep a lot longer?" Al asked.

"Perhaps," Gansworth said from his vantage point in the doorway. "Do you have everything you need squared away now, Alphonse?"

Al turned and opened the small cabinet; his stack of folded clothing, a book, and his clipboard full of paper were right there. The pen and pencil had been replaced with a crayon and a stick of charcoal. A cloth pouch held his basic toiletries.

"My stuff's all here." A bit of red caught his eye on the next shelf; his fingers brushed the material, confirming his suspicion. Ed's cape.

Before he could pull it out to look at it, Havoc cleared his throat and stopped him.

"Al, leave that there, okay?" He met Al's puzzled look with a smile.

"Edward can get upset if someone moves that particular item," Armstrong explained.

"So it is his cape." Al looked back, tempted to touch it again. There was a corner of material protruding from the middle of it that had a rougher texture, stained a rusty brownish-red. He recognized it just as quickly despite the change in color. "Wait. And is that..?"

"From your armor."

Al gasped. "If I ask, do you think he'll let me look at it?"

"I don't see why not, once things are settled."

"Alphonse," Gansworth broke in. "Now that we have everything prepared and we're a little more settled, I'd like to talk to you for just a bit."

Al rubbed his arm sheepishly at the red mark from the injection that was still at work, lingering in his system. "Am I in trouble?"

"No. No, of course not. You were doing your best, weren't you? That's all anyone can ask. I'd just like to take advantage of the opportunity we have here for some dialogue. This hasn't been easy for you. I'd like to hear how all of this felt from your point of view, while it's fresh in your mind."

"I guess."

"Then you'll talk with me alone? We can slip down the hall and I'm certain that these gentlemen will alert us when Edward starts to stir."

"Leave the room? No, I don't want to. I need to stay here."

"You have expressed, very clearly, how important it is to stay here with your brother. I understand you, and I support you, and I assure you that there is no change in plan as far as rooming with Edward. But we have to be prudent in how things are done, and it's important that we always think of him in that respect. There's no assurance that he can't hear us on some level. It's really best for both of you if we have this discussion, and it's best for him that we do this somewhere else."

"I don't know…"

"Hear me out. I know you're concerned about leaving the room. Then let's agree to limit this to a short timeframe. Thirty minutes at most, and I will ask Lieutenant Havoc to come and escort you back immediately if your brother shows any signs of waking up during that time. You have my word. After all, when he awakens, I need to be here as well."

"Oh man." Al rubbed his forehead, ready to concede without a fight but not sure if it was due to the solid logic of the argument or his own fatigue and drug-softened will. At least it would take Ed out of reach, and he wouldn't have to spend so much energy fighting the urge to grab onto him and shake him awake just to hear him say his name again.

It was probably a combination of a lot of things that weighed in favor of this, he decided as he nodded reluctantly.

"Excellent decision, Alphonse. Very mature and appropriate. We're going to leave you two gentlemen here to watch over Edward. We'll be in Alphonse's room, so be sure to come straightaway if he starts coming around."

Havoc raised an eyebrow as Gansworth took Al by the upper arm to steady him on the way out. Was the doctor equal to the task if Al got out of hand?

Armstrong seemed to read his mind.

"Not to worry, Lieutenant. Fuery has been standing by, stationed in Al's room, just in case.

"Ah. Good. Don't know how I missed that detail." And that would mean Winry had someone to talk to while she was waiting to hear how things went, Havoc thought with relief. He had wondered how she would fare with all of the waiting and worrying, especially if she had to do it alone.

"Let's try putting the cot along that side and see if we can get a little more room." They occupied themselves with arranging and re-arranging the extra cot, chairs and side table while keeping a sharp eye on the softly snoring young man.


"Just call Lieutenant Hawkeye! What is your problem?" Winry shouted back, unfazed by the interrogation-style bark of the security officer.

"I'll decide who I…"

"I said call her!" Winry was now getting cross-eyed with anger. "Nothing I say to you makes any difference! I don't know any of these military things you're asking me ! I don't have any of your answers! So just call her already!"

"Will you just calm down?" the exasperated officer asked. "I told you, ma'am, your fingerprints are being matched. Once we have the results back, if you're telling the truth, there won't be any problem."

"I can't believe this! I need to get back. She's just right over there, right there in the next building!"

The door opened and the man who had watched over her from the desk came in with a bemused expression.

"There's someone coming from the Colonel's office to collect you, Miss Rockbell."

The presiding officer didn't skip a beat.

"Everything cleared?" the officer asked.

"It came in as a missing person inquiry. Seems she slipped out while Master Sergeant Fuery was otherwise occupied."

Winry blushed, her lower lip protruding with embarrassed belligerence.

"There was no reason why I had to just sit there!" she protested, but given the outcome of her little defiant stroll, it sounded lame even as she said it.

"The Master Sergeant may need a refresher in security procedures if he was unable to explain them to you in a way you can understand. And he may be looking at some consequences if he failed to explain it at all," the officer said dryly.

She wasn't up on the hierarchy of all of the military ranks, but it was clear to her that this guy had more stripes and stuff on his coat, and that poor Fuery was in trouble because of her impulsive actions.

But before she could utter the first excuse to try and mitigate the damage, her escort had arrived.

Falman's solemn countenance ghosted through the outer office and its stark furnishings, clearly familiar with the layout.

"Hey Vick, you about through busting her chops?" Falman asked evenly.

The interrogator all but abandoned his menacing demeanor, shaking his head and breaking into a wry grin.

"Aw, really? You sure got me this time. I should have known this was one of your set-ups. Missing person, huh? I better get some high marks, this went right by the book, even with those big blue eyes of hers!"

"Oh, you have nothing to worry about there," Falman replied evasively. "Looks like it was all by the book."

"In the middle of high alert status, too. I'll be darned. Never suspected it for a minute."

"Keeping everyone on their toes keeps me on mine. You guys are tough to fool."

"Nice job, Miss," her former oppressor said and offered a hand; she took it with her fingertips, nearly speechless at how gently he shook it.

"Uh…thanks?" she said..

"Yes, she's good at what she does, for sure. Well, that's that, I'd like to stay and do a wrap-up but we actually are on high alert. We need to get moving along. Keep up the good work, gentlemen. Stay alert, I'll be trying to come up with something even better next time."

"Sure, throw it at me. Come by when you've got more time. You too, Miss."


Winry found herself being lead out the door by the dour-faced man, but before she could finish thanking him, Falman set her straight.

"Just so you understand, you were never at risk, there was nothing out of line about having you stay and go through his usual routine. The reason I stretched the truth a little was to cover Fuery's butt. He could have been in a lot of trouble for losing track of you. But no one was going to harm you."

"I wasn't scared," she protested. "But I don't understand. Why did he just suddenly turn into a nice guy?"

"Major Vickers is a nice guy. He's also great as head of Security, which means setting all that nice aside and being very serious when there's a breach. Even more so when he's performing interrogations."


"I do the security audits for the unit; test them for readiness and write their individual evals. Usually something simple, like tripping an alarm. Once in a while, I'll set up a situation for them to react to and then observe. He saw me and made an assumption. I hate to say it," Falman sighed, "but I'm going to have to give him an advisory for releasing you without the rest of the usual processing. He did it just because he knows me. So he failed to follow through on the protocol after all."

"But…darn it. I guess I got a lot of people in trouble. I'm sorry."

"You didn't know. But now you do, so we can say this won't happen again and call it even?"

"Thank you, yes, I promise. I just want to get back now. I really want to know if there's any word on how Ed and Al are doing."

Falman held the door to escort her back in the main building, vouching for both of their identities at the entry check.

"We'll go check on things right after we stop by and have a word with Lieutenant Hawkeye."

She knows about this already? She sent Falman? Winry swallowed hard, steeling for the suddenly embarrassing prospect of facing her.


Just a few strides into the trip down the hall, Al stopped. Gansworth saw the hesitation, the slightly panicked pose; and rather than try to haul his patient along in spite of it, instinct told him offer a bit of solace instead, in return for greater cooperation both now and later.

He only meant to make minor physical contact, to face the boy and place his hands on both shoulders to give them a reassuring, arm's-length squeeze with his hands. This would not only show Alphonse some positive encouragement, but test his reaction to being touched, as an aid to figuring out the best way to get him to start moving again.

The last thing he expected was Al's misinterpretation of his lifted, outreached arms. Al was upon him in an instant, bowed head pressed into his chest, leaving him no decent option other than to go with it and pretend that a full-on hug was what he had intended to offer all along. And while he was slightly startled, Al hit him with another curve.

"Thank you," Al said, his voice indeed warm, grateful and yet painfully insecure. "I'm so glad you're not angry at me."

For just a moment, he was left speechless. So much time was spent throughout his career trying to convince reticent patients to accept his care and guidance, and always it seemed that there was no real faith in his earnest desire to help them. In a "buyer beware" world, people were understandably skeptical, trying to be good consumers as they judged the quality of his work and second-guessed the accuracy of his wisdom. He was performing a service and rarely did he or his patient lose sight of that aspect of the relationship, whether in his former private practice, or now when the bill was always on the house. The boys here were just boys, but even they had countless reasons to treat him warily. Yet this was such a vulnerable, honest expression of trust and dependence.

"Alphonse, you're welcome, but you needn't thank me. I'm not going to be angry with you." His hand mysteriously decided to find its way to the back of Al's head and apply gentle pressure, giving the tousled hair a smoothing stroke as it passed on the way to the broad back to pat firmly but gently for a few moments. Al fairly nestled into his hold, bringing the situation very close to his discomfort level.

Transference, reference, modeling…his brain flipped madly through the various reasons people thought they had genuine emotional ties with the medical personnel that treated them. It happened all the time, a common occurrence, even though he hadn't really experienced much of it firsthand.

He was one of the lucky ones, the kind of physician who easily maintained that wise separation between doctor and patient, almost without thinking. That is, until the case of these boys…

He could explain the Elrics' behavior. But his own was a much deeper mystery. Because every time one of them responded to him by reaching out, it kept tweaking his emotions ever so slightly, so slight he had been successful in his denial of personal feelings until recently. They were patients, and he had to strive to hold them somewhat as objects in order to make the proper decisions about their care. There was far too much emotion and wishful thinking driving their guardianship already. Someone had to maintain objectivity, no matter how likeable and tragic and brave these vulnerable young men might be.

But he would be lying to himself if he didn't admit that they had somehow managed to get under his skin despite his best efforts to the contrary.

He gently released his feigned embrace, easing the separation by holding Al's arms and taking a half-step back.

Al blushed brightly, a little overwhelmed with the relief of letting down his defenses. It was okay now because Dr. Gansworth was really on their side, everybody was, and his gratitude would have fairly gushed out but for the uncertainty of the outcome of all of this. He had been suspicious and difficult and even nasty at times, and the doctor was always there holding out an open hand without passing judgment, ever there to tend to their wounds.

"Let's move along out of the hallway, shall we?"

Gansworth was guiding him along again and he went willingly, hoping to show that he was serious in his appreciation by behaving sensibly and wishing to cooperate.

"Maybe I can see Winry for a minute, too?"

"I'm sure she would like that. I think it's best that we have some time to talk just between the two of us, though."

"It wasn't too bad. She could probably hear about it."

"Well, let's see." Gansworth pushed open the door, expecting that Winry and the Master Sergeant would be surprised to see them.

But the surprise was all his. No one was there.

He dismissed his twitch of unease, annoyed with himself. The base was secure. They had him jumping at his own shadows now. There was no question that paranoia was sometimes quite infectious.

"We've got the place to ourselves," Gansworth said with satisfaction after a quick visual inspection. It seemed that there was suddenly more of Al's weight to support; they'd arrived none too soon. "Sit, son. Easy now, right here. The chairs might be a little tippy for you."

Al dropped on the bed with a grunted "Thank you."

The doctor secured one of the chairs for himself and settled in facing Al.

"Let's do a little deep breathing to get you focused. With my count. It's all right, you don't have to sit up. Go ahead and lie down if you prefer."

Al only waffled for a moment before sticking with his upright position.

The steady, firm voice gave the instructions that walked Al through the deep breathing exercise; it flowed naturally into the warm-up questions, a tactic meant to lessen his resistance and self-consciousness.

"I truly apologize for arriving late. Can you tell me what I missed?"

"What you missed." Al sighed. "I walked in the room and he started out kind of all right. I think he knew me, I just think…he didn't trust me to be like I should be."

"Uh-huh, I see. And did you recognize right off that he had a trust issue?"

"Well, I don't…no, wait. Yeah. He jumped at me at first, I think he was testing right off to see what I would do."

"That must have been worrisome."

"He startled me, that's all."

"Can you tell me what happened next?"

Al was shaking his head, looking off at nothing as he tried to concentrate. "Not exactly."

"You can't remember?"

"I can, I just…things happened so fast, it was so confusing. One second I'm like right here and Ed's sort of got a handle on things, then, you know, he's yanking me around and trying to fight everyone else to keep them away from us."

"Ah. Well…remember how we talked about his motivating factors. We said he could become extremely protective and possessive, and that it was a very real possibility that he would be willing to take things to the point of violence. Did you recall that at all, was it in mind when things went as they did?"

"Everyone was trying to help but it was just making it worse and I really lost track of what I was trying to remember to do and not do. He…at one point he like pushed me down and started throwing all this stuff on me, blankets and whatnot, and it was…I mean, you know me, I can't even stand pulling the covers over my own head…" Al's fist was rapping his sternum in half-conscious memory of the 'heart beating out of your chest' feeling from that claustrophobic situation.

"That's sounds very distressing."

"It was. I took it, though. I just toughed it out and tried to talk some sense into him." Al raked his fingers through his hair, watching the door. He thought he heard someone coming, but it must have been his imagination.

"Try not to be concerned, I assure you that they'll come for us if need be. Go on, Alphonse. Please. Since I wasn't there, I really need to get a sense of what happened. Now, I saw that Edward had to be medicated. You, as well. Let's look at that. Can you tell me what caused Colonel Mustang to decide it was necessary?"

"Well, I…I mean, things were tense, you know, they were…so much was happening, one second he'd be all right, then he'd be trying to fight. I admit it, I lost control a little, too; see, the Colonel, he grabbed me and he pulled me too far away to help and they were actually holding Ed down. And, I can't…I can't believe they wouldn't listen. He was screaming and all he wanted was for them to let me go, at least that's what I heard him saying. We're both like, just let us go, let us help each other , but they wouldn't. How were we supposed to be calm with all of that?"

"That was a difficult situation for you to be in. Of course it was very upsetting. But eventually, you did end up doing well enough to gain the Colonel's permission to stay. Was there a positive effect, then, when the medication was administered?"

"It was ugly when they did it. It was awful. Ed was all red, he'd already screamed himself hoarse. I hate it too, I was so afraid it was going to put me to sleep right then." Al's face was starting to reflect the emotions of his story. "I'm thinking, they're knocking me out, and here's Ed, he's in terrible shape, he needs my help, he wants my help…I wanted to fight but I just…well, I lost it a little. I did. I saw that needle…damn it. I thought, it's all over if I can't stop it."

"And that was the Major?"

"You mean, giving the shots? It was Lieutenant Hawkeye."

Smart move on the Colonel's part, Gansworth conceded. Highly unlikely that Al would resort to violence against the lady; that left the Major, Havoc and Mustang free to handle the necessary strong-arm manipulation.

"So now. We've established that the actual injections touched off considerable turmoil. Moving forward from that. After the medication, what happened?"

"Ed, he was so wound up, it took a long time before it did anything to him. Or maybe it just seemed like a long time. It was so hard to watch and not be able to do anything. Then, when it finally hit him, it maybe calmed him down a little, but mostly it just knocked the wind out of him. He started shaking so hard…and I think…I'm pretty sure that's when you came in. Yeah. I remember. I was thinking that I was so glad you were here; I was sure you could figure out how to help him if he got to shaking any worse."

Gansworth nodded, pleased to hear a vote of confidence in that statement. "I see. From there on I have my own first-hand observations. So all in all, what were your main impressions of the session as a whole? Was it a success in your eyes, do you feel that we are pursuing this in the right way?"

"I want to make sure I'm there when he wakes up. I don't know if he'll figure it out right off, but…I'll call it a success when he understands that I'm back and I'm going to be there with him every day. As long as we keep at it he'll come around. I'll just keep at it. He's starting to understand. He's hard to reach but I know I'll do it."

"Alphonse, I feel that you're being truthful. But it's a very surface-y kind of truth you're giving me. I think there's a lot more going on inside of you, thoughts and feelings that we need to bring out."

"I don't know, maybe. But not now, it's too hard to get into all that. I need to keep my focus on Ed."

"Now is the best time, while it's fresh in your mind. We are talking about Edward's situation, so it should still fall within your need to concentrate on him. So to get back to it…during all of this…were you aware of Colonel Mustang's participation?"

"No, I don't know, I think I have to stop this. I need to get my mind straight so I'm ready . He could wake up and we could be starting all over. You said he might not remember much, and I'll bet you're right. He was there, but he wasn't there, you know?"

"That's the issue, Alphonse. I really don't know. You have me at a disadvantage. Particularly if you won't share more of your direct experience. Remember, I only saw him after most of the activity was over and Edward was sedated. We don't have a lot of time, so please help me to help your brother. I'm only asking for your cooperation here for a bit longer."

"But…sorry. All right. Direct experience. We didn't really get the chance to just look at each other, or talk, or anything. But it wasn't because I wouldn't do it. Ed was so all out there. Man, it's hard to explain. He wasn't just a wild man or crazy, not anything like that, but there wasn't a time when he could even halfway maintain and really talk with me. Ugh, how do I put this in words? It's like…you can have an argument, or something, or you can be scared and be blurting out whatever, like, it could even sound like nonsense and still, there's some level of understanding…you're going back and forth, it's still two people having this exchange, playing off each other. Does that make sense? But we didn't get there, not even close. I tried. I kept talking to him, asking him questions, but we never had the give-and-take. I never got that response."

"I hear you saying that, while he was expressing himself in some manner, he seemed unwilling or incapable of holding a conversation with you."

"Don't say unwilling. You're wrong. I don't think that he didn't want to. He just couldn't."

The term unwilling clearly touched a nerve; supporting Gansworth's belief that Al likely harbored great insecurity where Ed's unpredictable free will was concerned. The boy tried to submerge it but it kept cropping up.

Now was not a good time to delve into that dark of a corridor.

"So his…inability…to engage in a verbal exchange. This in particular is upsetting you."

"Maybe not upset…disappointed. But it's not all bad. Because he's so close. I think he's really trying. It's just that there was this line he couldn't seem to cross. But, hey, he was completely rattled, it was just so much for him to deal with, this big event and we had to wait and worry about it for so long. I know how he feels, it was brutal. He needs time to get used to me and then it should be fine. I think it'll work out. Right? You think I'm right?"

"It seems like a viable possibility. Your willingness to see this through is one of the keys to making it work. So we want to be very protective of your emotional well-being, even though I know that's not something you're comfortable with as a priority. We want to keep you from getting too stressed. My view of this situation is a little different than what I'm hearing from you. If I understand you correctly, you feel that being together with him as much as you can, twenty-four seven if possible, is the absolute best way to go about this. But doesn't it seem like it would be better, more effective, more positive, if you only spend your optimum time with him? See him when you're rested, composed, thinking clearly. And then, when you're tired, cranky, having some of the issues we've been working through - and you know those issues aren't going to evaporate just because you're able to stay with Ed - you can spare him the difficulty, and preserve enough time for yourself to work through what you need to work through in your own space. We can assure that you continue to improve on your own. As a result, you would be more composed and better able to deal with his behaviors when you're with him; and really, it's best for the both of you. Isn't it?"

Al grumbled; talk to the doctor long enough, and he always hit on something that riled up some pretty negative feelings.

"I'm not going to agree to that now, before I even get a chance to try. The Colonel said I can stay with him. I wanna stay with him," he said, suddenly cross.

"All right. I understand. But at least consider it as an option. Keep in mind that you can change your mind. I'm hearing you say that you're still committed to trying this all or nothing approach. All right. So long as you're satisfied with the way things are going, stay with it. Just be honest with yourself. What works at one stage of his recovery may be totally inappropriate at another. Keep an open mind."

Al jumped to his feet, cutting off the carefully considered words.

"They're coming! He must be waking up! Let's go!"

"Hold on, Alphonse, let's see what they're…"

But the door opened to reveal Fuery and Falman, flanking a grim-faced Winry.

Her face bloomed and brightened with a surprised smile.

"Alphonse!" Then she caught herself, reining back the rush of happiness and relief at seeing Al and escaping the rather embarrassing situation she'd managed to get into. If he was already back, things might not have gone well.

"Winry! I saw him! I talked to him!"

"Al, that's…wow, really?"

"Yeah! Yeah! He knew me, he even said he wanted me to stay!" Al cried breathlessly, spontaneously leaping to a whole different perspective in the gallant rush to spare her pain, quite the opposite of what he had been grappling with moments ago.

"Oh my gosh, Al, that's great! That must have been so exciting!" Winry's rush of pleasant surprise at his statement faltered just a little. Al sank back down on the bunk in a slightly hunched posture, and her urge to give him a celebratory hug suddenly seemed inappropriate.

"Ab-absolutely!" Al stretched for the next thing to say, catching himself off-guard and floundering to support the totally unexpected burst of desperate optimism, clueless as to where it came from.

"It's such a relief, I was so worried. So why are you here? Aren't you staying with him yet?"

"Miss Rockbell," Gansworth intervened, clearly seeing that his patient was struggling with this new direction. "Alphonse and I were going over a few of the impressions he had of his meeting with Edward."

"Oh. I'm sorry if I interrupted. But it sounds like it went really well!"

"It had some very encouraging elements, but I think that it's not wise to leave you with the impression that it all went smoothly. Edward's behavior was within the parameters of what we expected, as we discussed."

Winry's quizzical look made Al grimace.

"I didn't mean to give you the wrong idea. But I was telling the truth. He knows me, Win. He wants me there, he really does. He even tried…he even tried… to protect me…" Al's voice choked off into silence, his face scrunching up even harder. He wasn't quite able to look Winry in the eyes now.

Gansworth touched Al's shoulder, to let him know he was there.

"Take your time. There's no need to say anything more. Not until you're comfortable with what you have to say. Miss Rockbell, perhaps we could have a few minutes? This, ah, debriefing, if you will, is very valuable to me. The more I can understand about Edward's behavior, the better."

"Oh?" Winry said softly, watching Al to make sure this was all right with him. "Sure. Anything you need me to do."

Al looked apologetic, conflicted and upset. "Sorry, Winry, but we don't have much time and Dr. Gansworth needs as much information as he can get. He wasn't there when it all started."

"I'd be happy to explain more, later," Gansworth added. "Gentlemen? Can one of you escort Miss Rockbell out?"

He caught Fuery and Falman as they were breaking up out of their huddle. The Warrant Officer's repeated assurance that Winry's wandering was no one's fault, since it occurred while Fuery was forced to leave her alone to secure the extra cot, hadn't eased the compact Sergeant's mind much at all.

"I need to write that report for Lieutenant Hawkeye anyway," Fuery said, resigned to owning up to his breach. They filed out and secured the door behind them.

The room was deathly quiet when it was just the two of them again.

"Thanks," Al said with bowed head.

"Do you know what happened there?"

"I'm not sure. I'm not sure of anything anymore. Can't we just go back now?"

"Soon. Hold on. Let's get back to our conversation."

"I meant what I said. It's all true. Even though it doesn't make sense. He does want me there. Whatever else happened, I know that. That's why we have to get back before he wakes up."

Gansworth's efforts to stop Al from pleading his case to go back to his brother were fruitless. Many of the precious remaining minutes ticked away without meaningful dialogue

"We will go back soon. But please, won't you…"

The door opened again, swinging in abruptly, making Al jump. Havoc's breathless plea made it clear he'd made the journey at a dead run.

"Lieutenant?" Gansworth queried.

"Ed's experiencing some side-effects. Pretty severe, too - you need to come right away. Al, maybe you ought to stay here.".

"Unless you're not going back with me, Lieutenant, there's no one to remain here with him at the moment." Gansworth held out a hand to beckon the boy to join them, even though he was already up and poised to go. "Alphonse, I'm counting on you to keep control of yourself and stay well back unless I tell you that it's okay to approach your brother. My guess is that he's not going to be feeling well at all, so prepare yourself."

Al nodded with a worried frown, holding back his questions so they could leave without delay.


It wasn't the usual stirring, the slowly increasing movement and gradual change in breathing pattern.

It was easily recognizable, though. The sudden groaning and halting, the sharp gestures. The Major knew it far better, but Havoc had seen it a time or two as well, and their expectant if nervous mood fell into worried disappointment.

"That last big dose may have been one too many," the Major murmured.

"I'm going. Be back quick as I can." Havoc was up and on his feet, wasting no time.

Armstrong heard him break into a run as soon as he hit the open corridor; his attention was stolen back by Ed's moan.

"I'm here, lad. Hang on." Unquestionably, these symptoms were after-effects of mixing sedation, with its blinding headache and associated nausea.

"Ah, the light," Ed moaned, pressing fiercely at the pain in his eyes. Armstrong was ready with a rolled, soft cloth, moving aside the mismatched hands and replacing them with the gently applied material.

He kept his voice very low and hushed. Not only light but sound, touch, heat or cold, any sort of sensory input was more pain to bear.

"Try to relax your muscles, Edward. I'll hold this here."

"Major, Major," Ed breathed roughly. "It hurts so much. Make it stop. Please."

"It will stop. It will. It just takes a little time. Bear with me, lad. I've sent for the doctor. He'll be here straightaway."

"Just…do something…I can't, it hurts too much."

"I think I hear him coming now. Try not to fight it. The more you tense up, the worse you'll feel it."

Havoc, Gansworth and Al appeared in the doorway after minutes that felt more like hours. Havoc was shepherding the younger Elric to keep him back; the agreement to stay away until the doctor gave permission to approach seemed to have been forgotten. Back in visual range, Al's urge to go to his brother was a formidable force to resist.

"I'm trying. I can't. It hurts too much."

The doctor was at Ed's side immediately, checking his pulse and talking so quietly it was hard for Al to catch his words, despite straining to hear.

"I'm here now, Edward. We're going to take care of you. I want you to trust me and try to relax. Let me handle this. I just need to do a little evaluation to make sure I get this right the first time." The slender fingers deftly took pulses and pressures, gently probed here and there, checking pupils and squeezing fingertips.

Ed grabbed for the white sleeve and aborted the attempt halfway when the effort caused a spike in the pressure and pain. Armstrong tried taking his hand, to help settle him down, only to have it jerk away and evade his touch.

"Can you take a pill for me?"

Ed groaned and nodded at the same time, trying not to roll side to side and failing to control the urge to writhe.

Pain aside, Gansworth was pleased with the lucid response. He could fully appreciate the enormous effort it took on Ed's part to cooperate.

It took both of them to get the medication administered even with his consent, and keeping it down was touch-and-go as the nausea took a firmer grasp.

Al peered from across the room silently twisting his hands, his shirt, and finally, squatting and gripping his knees.

Gansworth noticed and motioned for Havoc to take Al out of the room, confident that with the help of the Major, the two of them had Edward's situation under control. He was fully engaged in his examination of Edward, and while he played it off as a casual checkup, his concern was quite serious. The ongoing respiratory problems always presented the risk of escalating into a life-threatening emergency; there were countless potential problems from the patched organs and the eternal risk of rejection of the various artificial and transplanted segments of bone and cartilage. Stress amplified the shortcomings of his compromised immune system and his underweight, poorly fueled body faced a struggle even on his best days.

If they kept this up long enough, this incredible stress, this soul-shaking disruption, Ed's physical frailty could once again trump him mental issues and set him back, perhaps even back to square one with total bed confinement and zombie-level 24-hour sedation.

He never took anything for granted. While the lungs were thankfully clear, and the heartbeat was fast but not abnormal for a stressful situation, and his blood oxygen levels looked fine, nothing would be ruled out until everything checked out completely.

When he touched Ed's neck to feel for swollen glands the boy arched back and cried out. This again was another reason to take great care. If he did not accurately distinguish whether a reaction or symptom was physical or psychological, the resulting treatment could easily do more harm than good.

He had to stop the Major from intervening. Because of the constant, close association with Edward, the Major was somewhat prejudiced and automatically reacted to most behaviors as mental issues. It was understandable, since Ed was far more stable physically than he was mentally at the stage where Armstrong took up his role as support system.

Gansworth warned him back by blocking his reach with the back of his hand, a casual touch with no physical force but empowered with a brick wall of authority.

"Look at me. Edward. Did that hurt? I need to see your eyes."

Ed winced and nodded

"Let me see. I'll be very careful. Major, the warm compress, please put it back on his forehead."

He explored carefully; it was one of the muscles connected directly to the embedded socket of the automail.

"Does it bother you to move the automail?"

"My head," Ed moaned, ignoring the question. "Make it stop."

"What's he doing, why does he have to hurt him?" Al's relocation in the hall didn't serve to settle him down.

"He's not hurting Ed. But he has to check and find out if something is already hurting him. That's the only way he can figure out what it is and do something about it."

"But he wasn't. He didn't get injured."

"We don't know that. He did exert a lot of energy, he was pushing and pulling you all over the room, not to mention how reckless he was when he lost it. It's really easy for him to get pulls and sprains. I'd be surprised if he didn't after all that."

Havoc tried to keep talking, to mask the disquieting activity in the room as they struggled to help Ed fight off another bout of nausea.

"I wish I could help."

"Me, too. They'll call us back if they need us, though, and we sure don't want to get in the way. I know it's hard to just stand by and wait. You did a great job in there."

Al slogged to the window and, although he did not know of his brother's habit, let his head fall forward and come to rest smartly on the glass in a nearly perfect replication.

Alert and straining to hear, yet hoping not to hear anything, Al froze when the disquieting noise of bodies engaged in a great deal of movement ended in silence. If there was any way he could go back in without the risk of his presence causing more problems, he'd have been there in a heartbeat.

Havoc went ahead and peered in for the both of them. Armstrong was sitting on the bed himself, his bulk straining it significantly, with Ed leaning back against him. Gansworth had one hand pressed to Ed's forehead and the other resting on his shoulder. Ed was clearly awake although his eyes were nearly closed. Whatever the activity was that lead to it, for the moment, everything looked to be under control.


Swimming up from the pain, the first real thing he could remember was Dr. Gansworth's cool palm on his forehead and the words, "You should be feeling something by now. Some sort of change; hopefully, you're feeling better."

The odd position shouldn't have been comfortable, but it was, and the reason for it tried to be quiet as he cleared his throat. That slip of sound wasn't startling or alarming, though, as they feared. Ed knew by heart every noise the strongman made in the course of a day and identified him immediately. It lent a sense of security, replacing the touch of nervous curiosity about his upright yet fully supported repose on the bed.

"Look at me, Edward, can you, please?" Gansworth asked.

That was asking a lot. It took a few more requests before he reluctantly blinked and finally complied.

"I'm sorry, I know it hurts, but it should be getting tolerable. That's it. Just for a couple of seconds…good. You can keep them closed again if you like."

The pain was lessening; but as it receded, the skin-crawling, irritable feeling was increasing.

Ed made a frustrated sound, raking at his ribs with his fingernails.

Gansworth was way ahead of him.

"Easy, now. I know you're probably feeling a little restless, perhaps a bit aggravated. I'll give you something for that, too, as soon as we're sure you can keep it down."

Gansworth made a point of taking the automail arm and stopping it from scratching; the glimpse of metal being moved by someone else threw the memory switches that they'd all been waiting for.


"You'll see him soon enough. Let's get…"

"No! Wait! I think…it was here. I saw it. Major! Major, where is it? You weren't supposed to let that Al get away!"

"Slow down now…"

"Lad, don't…"Armstrong couldn't get the words out fast enough to stop Ed's poorly considered sudden upper body movement.


"You can't be getting up yet. And you need to minimize your movement of the automail."

The sound of Ed calling his name sent Al spinning back to the doorway. Havoc blocked his path and set his stance for interception, ready to make sure that he stayed back; but Al stopped, showing no intention of challenging him further.

It would be pointless to try and wrestle his way past someone like Havoc. I made more sense to get as close as possible and be ready for the first opportunity to get inside, whether it be by invitation or chance.

When Gansworth called for Havoc he held back for a moment before following, just long enough to make them think that he would continue to stand in the hall and wait for their permission.

Ed had called out for him. As far as Al was concerned, it was all the invitation and permission that he needed. The goal now was simply to get back in. Once there, if Ed wanted him to stay they should be reluctant to remove him just because he was disobedient.

He took the few steps that placed him in the center of the room and the look in Havoc's eye when his head whipped around was not promising.

But before Havoc could backtrack to toss him out, Ed caught sight of his brother's resurrected form and flung out his arm, grasping at the air to reach out in his direction.

"That's it! Right there! Bring it here!"

It? Gansworth frowned. "Do you know who this is, Edward?"

"Come here. Come closer," Ed motioned impatiently.

"Wait, Al."

Al tried to brush Havoc and his warning off and do as his brother bade him; but the Lieutenant snagged his upper arm and hissed in his ear.

"Stop it. Don't make me use force on you. Not in front of him. Understand?"

"I can't see it, it's too far away," Ed whined.

"We will bring him right up to you. That was our intention all along. But let me address your pain first. Then you'll see him."

"Forget that. Let it get closer. I can't see it."

The prospect of Ed's behavior in relation to Al was quite troubling if he was not even sure what he was. Gansworth decided to take more control of the variables. "I'll have your brother sit in the chair and if you're both quiet and well-behaved, we'll bring him a little closer. Alphonse, you can approach and take the chair. Please remain there while I finish helping your brother. He still needs tending to. All right?"

Al gave Havoc an indignant frown and shook him off to go take his place.

"All right."

Ed was worming around, struggling against the Major, trying to get himself set to see better while still taking full advantage of the mountain of human support he was leaning against. He moved the worn blue coat sleeve from flesh to automail hand and back again anxiously.

Gansworth worked quietly, tending to the remaining medical tasks, letting the boys eyeball one another and get used to being close without having to interact. Al seemed satisfied with being in arm's reach and wasn't pushing for anything more. As the pain receded, Ed was wide-eyed and engaged in absorbing the vision of Al, so provokingly close and yet so benignly seated and well-behaved, all from his place safely within Armstrong's capable protection.

"There you go. Drink this. It will settle your stomach. Don't worry, it only contains herbal supplements and some vitamins and minerals that will help your body deal with all it's been through today."

Ed sipped distractedly, making an involuntary nose wrinkle at the less than preferable flavor.

"That looks right," he said while looking straight at Al, finally ready to move forward. "Looks right."

"Of course he does. How is that, now? Take the last of it. That's perfect. You should be feeling much better. It should start working right away."

"Uh-huh." Ed watched warily. It wouldn't shut up before. Now, nothing? Was this the same being as before?

Al watched his brother's look narrow in suspicion.

"You can talk to him, Alphonse. I'm sorry. I didn't mean that you weren't allowed to."

Al nodded, clearing his throat, searching for the right thing, rejecting everything, and finally just stuttering, "Hey. Hi. Again."

Ed rubbed his forehead gingerly, testing to make sure that the pain there was still fading, before peering closer, leaning past the Major's massive bicep. This was a lousy time to be handicapped with pain, dulled senses and sluggish, half-drugged perceptions. If this were any less important he would have curled up in a ball to wait for this miserable state to pass.

Al blushed nervously. Sitting here was calming in a way, but he'd lost his momentum, and with it, his confidence. Ed was calling him an "it." He'd been so sure that they were connecting, but now he was starting to think just the opposite.

He jumped slightly, then realized it was just Havoc putting a hand on his shoulder. The man gave him an encouraging smile, and he took it with a twinge of guilt. Havoc should have been pissed off, the way they had been behaving. That guy was always the bigger man, and it was Al's petty bad behavior that kept bringing up that fact.

"You're touching," Ed said to Havoc, pointing, an eyebrow scrunched down in annoyance.

"That's right. Just letting Al know I'm here and that we're all fine. You doing okay, Ed?"

"Hmph," Ed turned away just for a second, then snapped back to Havoc again. "Just watch that. Watch what you're doing."

"It's cool, Ed. He's not bothering me. No big, it's fine. Like if I…" Al held out an open hand. "Like if I touch you."

Ed stared at the outstretched hand, breath held, frozen.

"It's not a big deal," Al persisted. "It doesn't hurt. It doesn't do anything. Right? It's just there. But I kind of like it. You know, it helps you get that feeling that there's a real person there to connect with."

Ed slowly nodded, and raised his flesh hand slightly, debating.

"I am a real person. I really am Alphonse, and you're really my big brother, just like you always have been."

Ed's hand came closer, hesitating again.

"Sometimes I start to wonder who I am, with everything that's happened. But I've always known who my big brother is. You're the one and only thing I've always been able to depend on in my whole life. I've missed you so much. There's a really big empty spot and you're the only one that belongs there. I don't want to have to miss you any more. Please. Please believe me. Please take me back."

Ed seized his hand abruptly, not to take it in his own, but to pull Al closer, and in the flurry of activity that followed, Al could swear that he'd seen the same stinging tears welling up in those amber eyes that he felt in his own.

Al tried not to stiffen up when Ed grabbed him only to smash his nose into his cheek. It didn't hurt. It didn't seem aggressive so much as…desperate.

"You…you smell…and warm…and…" Ed panted as he worried his way through his clumsy screening for monstrous smells and inhuman traits. His conflict over the need to use his flesh hand to do this verification, and the need for the tactile comfort of the coat sleeve in his fist sent waves of trembling and clattering though both arms.

It was part of the reason that his first attempt to reach out came off more like a small-scale assault.

"Hold up, Edward, what are you trying to do? If you want him to move away use your words. Here, let's have you come over this way…"

"No! He smells right! I want him here! Stay away, just wait, let me…I have to…wait…" Ed's hands pulled back for a moment, then began an invasive inspection of his brother's torso. "Why are you…why are these sticking out like that? What happened? What's wrong with your ribs?"

"They're fine, that's just what they feel like. They're supposed to be there, aren't they?"

"But I can feel them sticking way out!"

"I know, I can't help it. But I'm okay."

"Ah…" Ed yanked up the t-shirt and groped roughly before smacking the flat of his hand on the concave stomach. "It's not right, I don't remember it like this…"

"What you remember is from when I was a little kid! I lost all my belly fat, I'm grown up like you now!"

"Lost it? How?"

"I guess…I don't know…it was already gone when I got my body back. I guess because I got taller and grew up and I don't know, I guess there wasn't much food. If I even ate."

"Get..up…" Ed pulled at him in clumsy impatience.

"Okay, but…" Al barely got to his feet before Ed went over backwards without releasing his hold and dropped them both onto the bed. They would have been half in the Major's lap but for his quick reflexes, vacating the mattress to give them more room for a soft landing, poised to separate them if this got more aggressive.

Ed rolled with Al just enough to reverse their positions and crawled up on top of him.

Past his shoulder, Al got a glimpse of the men in the room hovering so close it was nerve-wracking; clearly they thought Ed's behavior was approaching the high-risk level. It wouldn't take much more before they would butt in and send them back to square one all over again.

But Ed let his weight down gradually, pressing softly into the body beneath him, to lay the side of his head against Al with care, sliding around until his ear found connection with the evidence he sought.

A clear auditory input of normal, thumping heartbeat. Once he had it, he latched on tight, and all at once he became determined to listen with all his heart and soul until he was certain beyond any doubt.

That was a tall order, with the world swirling incomprehensibly, stranding him with only the warmth of flesh against his face and the echoing rhythm of human cardiac activity. He grappled to keep a tight, even tightening hold, but it was impossible to tell if he was succeeding or just wishing. This seemed to be Al, this seemed to be a new truth. They may have actually succeeded in undoing one of his greatest evils. Precious Alphonse's undeserved sentence in that cold, isolated prison of armor might have been commuted after all. The living soul he loved and agonized over more than anything alive in this world may finally have been set free to find happiness and peace and healing instead of darkness and pain and suffering. The disbelief that he fought now was that it was too good to be true. A gift too great to allow himself to accept, he who deserved every second of the torture he had received times ten, he who fell short at every turn.

He wasn't the only one stuck in the moment struggling to understand the significance. Al prayed silently that everyone would be still and quiet, and so far he was not disappointed. Ed's clinging hold was the closest thing to a true embrace they'd managed so far.

Ed's eyes were closed, but he was very much awake, that was clear. For the most part, he was silent, although his lips moved repeatedly without stopping. With a few of his deeper breaths, there was just enough volume to hear what he was repeating to himself.


He echoed the sounds as he heard them, praying beyond hope that they were real.

Al seized upon it as evidence that Ed was not off in some dream state, but truly doing what it appeared - listening to something he felt he needed to hear.

The minutes rolled on into many, until nearly an hour had passed; Al tried to hold still but finally had to shift, prompting the doctor to ask if he was still all right. It seemed that it was inevitable that the doctor's words and his own motion would break this enigmatic spell.

Gansworth went a step further to intrude by touching them both, making light contact with his fingertips on their shoulders.

Ed, deep in concentration, fully focused on the heartbeat as if it were his responsibility to keep it alive with the force of his will. Although his drying throat made the sound crackle, still he murmured to echo each beat; willing the next to come in measured succession.

Al was forced to consider the situation, and his anxiety rose. They wouldn't stand around endlessly waiting for them to tire of this, and Ed was no less clingy than when this started. He was fully convinced that Ed would be very upset if they were made to part before he was ready. Al wasn't sure he'd able to follow a direction along that order without a fight if it meant that Ed would feel rejected or unsure of him again.

It may have appeared to be passive from the start, but with each beat, Ed struggled to believe and accept. With each beat, he fought both the urge to hold tight and the urge to run away, far away, clear back to standby and beyond, to avoid the decision and the leap of faith it would demand. Things were just not as they seemed and the evidence here, though strong, steady, logical and believable, could easily be another delusion that would vanish and leave some unknown reality in its place. His head still throbbed, and a bone-weariness from the emotional wringing of the day added to his difficulty in coping.

By and by, the conflicting messages slid into background angst compared to the drive to hang on and fit in, somehow, with the process of this warm, living circulatory system. It was definitely somebody's. It was somebody's heart pumping in a seemingly normal body much warmer than his own. The warmth from it had a giving, penetrating quality. So human. So different from the massive armored brother he had grown accustomed to. So very much the opposite of the accursed homunculus.

He was incredibly tired from the effort. And tired of thinking. Tired of fighting. Tired of the guilt, the pain, the hard choices. Tired of making plans to save the world, tired of being responsible and culpable and always, always wrong, no matter what. With the beating heart and the warm chest, it felt like he was merging, finding sanctuary. It evolved into the best, most comfortable and fitting sensation since…since the self-transmutation attempt took him into the ethereal blue glow. There would never be enough of this feeling. The longer he stayed, the more thoroughly he became attached. All of that brain-scrambling work to figure out who or what this was; yet in the final analysis, it was gut feeling and pure instinct that rose to the top and confirmed that this was the kind of connection that was worth sacrificing everything for.

Slow, steady and mesmerizing, the muted power strokes of the contracting organ held him fast, rising and falling with the gentle motion of the deeply breathing chest.

They were nearly one organism, warm and at peace with this state of close co-existence.

When the sound and warmth vanished he let out a cry that made every soul in the room jump in startled reaction.

But the loss of the sound felt like the loss of the life and he grappled blindly for he knew not what, like an infant dropping his pacifier unable to understand that it didn't disappear. His mind was too entrenched to make the sudden shift back and utilize all of his senses.

Al tried to go back to him but Ed's manner of struggle, with his arms up and flailing in front of him, prevented the very thing he desperately sought.

"Damn it!" Al glared at Gansworth, furious at his decision to part them and angrier still that Havoc was pulling him out of the way once Ed reacted badly. "I thought you were on our side! It was going just fine!"

"He needs tending to. Be reasonable, it's been over an hour of this, it isn't possible to go on endlessly without a break. There will be many opportunities for bonding sessions later. Shhh. Shhh now, Edward, it's all right, Alphonse is still right here."

Ed's hands covered his ears and clapped against them, trying to re-create the beat pattern and sound, illogically hoping to reverse the interruption and put things back the way they were.

After his initial bout of screaming, he was suddenly quiet again; still upright and moving, but focused internally to the exclusion of everything but the movement against his ears.

It was his pained expression that had Al growing more and more upset. It had been so peaceful, so serene when his brother was clinging close against his chest. They shouldn't have made them separate for any reason.

Havoc tried diverting his attention, not sure himself why Gansworth felt compelled to separate them.

The doctor's thin fingers slid in between Ed's automail hand and his ear with car,e and he let the boy's flesh hand grip his wrist.

Al frowned, viewing Ed's move as a defensive one.

Gansworth knew better. Ed's grip came seeking his presence, not fending it off.

"Open your eyes, Edward, just a little, just for a moment. You need to drink something, you're still dehydrated. I want you to see what I have here for you."

Ed clutched harder at the slender hands, understanding the words and their meaning, homing in on the familiar presence. His throat was completely dry, uncomfortably so, and he hadn't comprehended the feeling of extreme thirst on his own.

But the doctor did, with his firm grip and reliable guidance. Ed grabbed harder, in agreement, in need of somewhere to focus his full attention.

"Ed, let go. Not so rough. You may not feel like doing as I ask but this is important. We're going to have to get some of this liquid in you."

Armstrong reached over and took his old coat by the collar, drawing it slowly over their joined hands, trolling for distraction if not reaction to redirect Ed's focus.

It was almost painful for Al to see it work; to see Ed let go of the man and grab for the coat instead, like an empty-headed kitten, going for the movement of something passing in his field of vision. Without knowing the full significance of the blue garment, the scene played an entirely different tune, frustrating and aggravating him.

"That's it," Gansworth whispered, reaching back for the squeeze bottle with its long straw. "That should give him something else to hang on to. I need some cooperation here."

Watching two men outsmart his genius brother with a coat and a straw was maddening. It tripped his blinding rage, filling his chest with the heat of anger.

"Al, what is it?" Havoc asked quietly in his ear.

The younger Elric spun on him, barely biting back the tirade at having his time with his brother snatched away for something as petty as their power games. This was a show of superiority, rubbing his nose in their total disregard for human dignity; the cold slap of their demeaning, belittling treatment evoked instant outrage, barely able to keep clenching his fists to his side to resist the urge to beat them all for making Edward look so ridiculous.

Brown eyes filled with fire met cool, regretful blue.

"He's all right, Al. Doc's not hurting him. Not at all. Take it easy."

"Of course he's not gonna hurt him with a coat and water. What do you take me for?" Al hissed, trying to keep it low and failing.

"Let's step out."

"You step out! I belong here!"

"It's been one heck of a rough day. I can understand how this is getting on your nerves."

Before Al could reply, Havoc held his arms open and went on.

"We really should step out. Just for a minute. We'll talk this out without disturbing them. Then we can come back."

"They need to stop. You don't understand. This isn't right, have you been around this so long that you don't even see it?"."

"Go on out, Alphonse, and we'll discuss it. Come on. It's not optional."

"Not optional? The hell!"

"Not with that tone of voice. Not with those clenched fists. Move with me now or I'll move us both on three. Got it? One."

Al growled in indecision, pissed beyond words and yet, way in the back of his head, getting the sinking feeling he was screwing up again.

"Two. All you have to do is turn and walk. Do it, Al. Let's go have a talk. Not a scene. Not here."

Al backed in the direction of the door, ready to fight if Havoc should call out the final count and come at him. His attention flicked to Ed, Armstrong and the doctor, still in an oddly synchronized back-and-forth effort, dribbling water in aggravatingly small amounts at each opportunity when the disoriented alchemist dropped his guard. Treating Ed like he was theirs. Treating him without any respect. Treating them both like children.

"I could have given that to him. You saw me before, I can get him to drink. He understands me. Why all that other bullshit?" Al snarled as soon as they were no more than six paces away from the door. He had a mountain of accusations, a gut load of anger, and he was just getting started.

"You sound like you're getting out of control, Al. Do a reality check. There's no reason for you to be all worked up like this."

"I had him, damn it! We finally get together, and they pull this?"


"I have a right! They can't just do whatever they want and ignore me!"

"But, wait. Doctor Gansworth has the authority to…"

"He's my brother, and I want them to knock that shit off, and I'm gonna make 'em!"

"No, you won't."

"Forget that! I'm not going to let them…"

"Alphonse! Enough! I can't let you back in there. Try to listen to me." Havoc was patting at the air between them, trying to illustrate his intent to keep things peaceful without using force. "They know what they're doing with Ed. They know what they're doing. And it's what's best for him."

For a moment, they were both acutely aware of how close they were to the transition from verbal dispute to physical fight. Al was itching to express the sudden rush of fury, so much so that the urge to strike out seemed legitimate.

Havoc was well aware, and cautious to make sure that he kept a firm handle on the situation. He had plenty of experience talking Al down before he became violent, time and again; but it wasn't successful 100% of the time, and this was primed to escalate.

"Stuff it! You can't keep me away from him anymore. That shit in there has got to stop!"

"Listen to me. No one's going to keep you out of that room except you. Your behavior is the problem right now. You're the one calling the shots, Alphonse. You're calm, you cooperate, you're in. If not - you can't go back until you get it together."

Al saw red, an idea flashing into his head that if he hit the taller man in his smarmy face and knocked him out, that would settle it. But an after-image of Ed seeing such a thing wedged into his thoughts, too, robbing the righteousness from the yearning of his clenched fists.

"I should be calling all of the shots," Al railed. "I'm not hanging out here in the hallway all damned day waiting for anybody's permission."

"You're right there. This is too disruptive. You're overtired and you're not thinking straight. Come on, we're going back to the other room.

"What?" Al cried, tripped up just as he was getting ready to spew more venom. "No!"

"Now or I will take you. We can't do this here, so if you plan to keep at it, we're moving the show. You choose."

"Go to hell!"

With that, in a liquid move so fast Al had no chance to fight back, Havoc had him helplessly under control, one arm bent up against his spine, and the other over his head and twisted to the base of his neck, so that his hands nearly met in a most unusual and painful manner. The submission hold was stunning in its swift simplicity and complete effectiveness.

Al was suddenly in no position to do anything, save that which met with the taller man's approval.

"Start walking. Maybe it'll help you get back in control."

His anger deserted him as quickly as it came, leaving him stammering without conviction to defend his behavior. "Me, out of control? I was just giving my opinion! I didn't do anything!"

"We're going to keep it that way. Let's go."

"Look, I'm calm, I'm calm! Stop it, you're hurting me. I don't want to leave."

"Prove it." Havoc was already aware of the change, nodding, backing off in relief. Al's body language and expression were telegraphing the end of his aggressive outburst much better than the boy evidenced in words.

"I don't know what came over me. Please, let me go."

"We're just getting started here, Al. No one wants to upset you, but you have to cooperate if you want to be in there with your brother."

"I know. I know. Please."

The relative silence in the small room picked up Al's raised voice like an echo chamber. Any hope that Gansworth had that Ed was too internally focused to notice was promptly squelched by the golden eyes sudden return to focus, searching the hallway distractedly.

"What is it, Edward?"

Ed raised an arm to point, frowning and shaking his head as if to clear his mind.

"I hear them, too," Gansworth conceded. "They'll be back in to see you later, I'm sure."

Ed's head shook vigorously until it riled his headache back up, slowing his movement to a slow side-to-side sway.

"Slow, Edward. Use words if you can, that helps me to understand."


"Yes. Let me ask, does it meet with your approval if we bring Alphonse back in soon?"


"Are you saying you want to see him now?"

"Now," Ed nodded, cringing.

"I don't think he's ready to come back in just this minute."

"But I hear him."

"I do, too. Major, a here hand please? Let's stay focused a little longer. You're doing quite well."

Ed took another sip and turned away.


"He'll be back shortly as well."

"He has a place now."

Gansworth followed Ed's gaze. He was looking at the additional bed.

"If you mean, Al has a place to rest when he's in your room, then, yes. He has a place." Gansworth moved the drink closer again, getting a little more cooperation. Ed's state of confusion and insecurity served to slow and subdue him; however long it would last, it was important to take full advantage of it. "I want you to eat some of this. You can hold it yourself if you like."

Ed's brow knit as he tried to follow through on his thoughts; his hand started to come up but lost direction and fell again. He flinched back when the bread touched his lips and absently shook his head but the doctor's persistence won out, alternating water and bread until he turned the task over to the Major.

"Keep him busy," he instructed in Armstrong's ear. "Talk to him, keep him engaged. We need to get everyone settled down now. I can't stay much longer."

"But I hear him," Ed said.

"Yes, Edward, he's nearby and he'll be back, just as the good doctor said. Now let's see about…"

"Something's wrong. Al! Come back!"

"Please don't call out into the hallway. That's a bit loud," Gansworth broke in.

Ed paused, trying to decide whether to disobey, and the words of argument in the near distance between Havoc and Al took center stage.

In an uncharacteristic flush of irritation, Gansworth stalked out and confronted the source of Ed's distraction with a tight-lipped glare.

"Move further along here. Move. Both of you. Now. Are you two quite through? Lieutenant Havoc, is this some new procedure? "

"No, sir."

"I appreciate that you're trying to handle this without force. But this is exactly what we're trying to avoid. Do you hear that? Do you hear how upset he's getting? I can't fathom why you'd let this go on close enough for him to hear and disrupt his treatment."

"Hold up," Al challenged. "This isn't my fault. You want to talk disruptive? You started this. Out of nowhere."

"You agreed to the ground rules. You know the potential consequences if you break them. Following my direction is important. It is not negotiable." Gansworth's divided attention caught the Major's admonition to Edward; the disagreement in the room was escalating. It spurred on his scolding. "I cannot attend to the two of you around the clock. Can you not comprehend that there will be certain times for making progress and working on issues, and that the rest of the time, we need to strive for a reasonably uneventful, peaceful co-existence? Do you now understand that the transition between these two conditions will not always be some natural break that occurs by chance? Even if it's positive progress, at some point, sessions will end. And at that point, practical concerns - I'm talking medical examinations, eating, sleeping, toileting, bathing - are going to become the focus instead. Redirection. Distraction. Easing the transition, bringing him along without confrontation, with a minimum of distress. That's what I'm trying to do here. There is a goal when I act. Even if you don't recognize what I'm attempting to do, you must learn to have faith that my actions are purposeful."

"You could have told me that's what we were doing. I could have done that. I could have given him water, instead of you jerking me around."

Gansworth shook his head, still quite stern, but making sure his voice was too low for Ed to overhear.

"No. You could not. I guarantee you that if you had attempted to remove his head from your chest and ordered him to stop, this would have turned into something else entirely. His negative reaction was thoroughly predictable and it was essential that we handle it in this way. Do you believe that he, or you, are best served by making you the bad guy? Follow me, think. What is he attempting to do, Alphonse? What is he attempting to do when he interacts with you, think about it. And what you are attempting to do?"

"We're just trying to be together again."

"And you don't want him to be - what? Like he was before. His reaction to you before. What part of that do we want to get past? What is it?"

"He didn't recognize me."

"More basic than that. He was afraid of you. Did not trust you. Did not believe you, or even believe in who you are. He's trying very hard to be open to you, and he's still very afraid, but he overcame all of that to reach out to you. And what did you do?"

"Me? I did what I thought he wanted me to…I was…I held real still, I tried not to scare him. I tried to just be there for him. And go along with whatever he did."

"Yes. And it was very difficult for you I'm sure, and it was a lot to deal with. In your head. But in the actual, physical sense, you did almost nothing. Follow me? From Ed's perspective he got no feedback from you except the involuntary sounds from your body. So go a step further. That would mean the only real, overt action you would have taken would be to push him away and halt his effort to overcome his fear and doubt; that would be the upshot if I had asked you to be the one to end the session. Correct?"

Al looked weary and defeated as the truth of it sank in. he didn't answer, only cast his eyes downward.

"Listen to me, Alphonse. You should understand now. I'm not going to be arbitrary or mean. You must learn to fully trust my judgment."

Al's head dipped down, perhaps in acknowledgement.

"Now, tell me truthfully. What are you acting out on? How much of this is really due to your convictions, and how much is beyond your control?"

Al didn't reply. Gansworth sighed, reassessing. He had been pushing pretty hard, to try and get Al rolling with some unfiltered response, but the boy was shutting down. It appeared to be out of guilt to some degree, perhaps embarrassment.

"Too broad of a question to answer just like that, I suppose," he conceded in a more sympathetic tone. "Let me ask you something else. There's a lot of tension that I see in you that strikes me as very similar to the distress that you evidenced before. Is the environment causing some discomfort? Do you feel too confined?"

That was an easy one. Ed's room, so small, with the two beds and too many people…it made the back of his neck sweat every time he had to enter the room. Not that it had yet to make him pause so much as a moment before going in; but it definitely made him feel stressed and uncomfortable on top of the mess going down in those four walls and in his own unpredictable head and heart.

But he hesitated. He'd promised that he could cope with it, in order to make sure that they would allow this meeting to go forward. Now, with his bad behavior, and apparent misunderstanding of the doctor's actions, this was another failure in his role in their reunion.

"It's all right to have those feelings, Alphonse," Gansworth said, as if reading his mind. "We discussed this and you assured me that it would not be an issue. I know that you were sincere. I didn't want to discourage you. But remember that I tried to prepare you for the likelihood that you can't just will away your discomfort with small spaces. It comes from a traumatic experience that you're still working through. There's no shame in it. So please be open with me. The more information I have, the better I can help, and make intelligent decisions about how things will proceed."

"What kind of decisions? You're not going back on your word, are you? We're still going to be together."

"At this time, the commitment is still to have the two of you stay together."

"Okay. Okay. That's good."

"Yes. So will you answer my question?"

"Uh." Al fished for the right words, a way to tell the truth with a spin that would make him seem stable and unquestionably safe to leave with Edward. "Okay. It's true. I feel it. It's tight with everybody in there, for sure. It's uncomfortable. But I can handle it!"

Gansworth watched him, analyzing, assessing.

"We need some time to go over this in a real session and we're going to do that soon. But for now, if you can make the effort to maintain on a more even keel, I'm going to try letting you go back in. You must pay attention to my instructions, so listen closely. I want you to stay slightly distanced from Ed and wait. Give him a chance to adjust. Let him bring you in closer only on his terms and only if he insists. We're trying to do a lot of things here, but the most important at the moment is to get him comfortable with have you present whether he's interacting with you or not. Especially when he's not."

"I'll do better," Al nodded, anxious to see why the Major had just called out Ed's name. "Please."

"You'll be taking your evening medication without complaint?"

Al nodded vigorously.

"Very well. I'm trusting you to cooperate. In we go, then. Lieutenant? On your toes."

Toes? Havoc thought, following a step behind Al as they filed back in. More like pins and needles.


What's this? Envy wondered, stretching his feathered neck to work out the kinks. Rage's last meal had been a fighter, pretty formidable for a mere human. The little one was growing so quickly now. Gluttony was getting a soft spot for the adorable little bug, sharing the prey that Envy delivered without a fuss instead of trying to hoard the whole thing.

They'd caught Rage eating human food, as opposed to human flesh, and when he found out, Envy was furious. There was no need to eat that sort of thing instead of properly consuming the carefully selected cuisine his parent provided.

Individual adults were easier to snatch than unwed mother and child pairs. The railroad yard was abundant with transients of all types, people that were nearly disavowed by their own kind anyway. It made hunting easier, if less fun, with the rare exception of the diamond-in-the-rough that knew how to defend themselves.

The huge windows, as always, provided selective vignettes, and this was enough to see that Alphonse was having some sort of interaction with Edward. It seemed every man in the place was in on it, including the elusive but very much marked for death Havoc. Havoc was doing a lot of talking with the lesser Elric. So many times, they went in and out of the room.

It was difficult to determine what this was all about. Was Fullmetal gravely ill and these were visitors? Was it his birthday? Were they preparing to change his location, or perhaps, even release him into the wild?

The doctor kept coming in and out as well, talking to people with a grave expression.

Envy considered his options. He hadn't seen the dogs all week, his worst enemy when it came to getting in the building. Maybe it was worth the risk. After all, if this was something serious, all of their plans could be altered. A replacement for Edward had not been secured, should he be unable to fulfill his duties on the Day.

A replacement for Edward. There was no such thing from Envy's point of view. This was the human he was meant to possess. And as his property, it was imperative that he find out exactly what condition he was being maintained in.

He'd been meaning to experiment with this anyway. With a few quick flaps, he was on the ground at the corner of the building, where the outer guards would pass on a clockwork schedule, identify one another, and move on.

Before long they did just that. And Envy, snickering silently, listened, and memorized the words of validation for one of the soldiers.

Once the guards continued past one another as always, around opposite corners out of all sight, Envy struck. A quick blow to the back of the neck, precisely enough to render the man unconscious for some time, and a quick flick of his motionless body to toss it behind the large privet.

Plucked from the silent form, the official identification clipped smartly to his breast once he assumed the image of his victim. Envy ventured out to swagger right up the front steps, barely suppressing what he assumed would be a tell-tale evil grin as he flashed his ID and gave the correct verbal responses to Lt. Hawkeye, apparently on her way to the ladies' room. He took hers, as well, and waited to turn down the next hall before flashing into her likeness.

Smooth, it was going quite smoothly, until he tried to think of how he would explain his/her lack of Hawkeye's identification.

So he ducked back, as soon as he was close enough to hear Fullmetal's group, and morphed again - this time, into a shadowy, indistinct form, stretching along the edges of the recessed doorframe to blend in, listen, and wait.

It didn't take long to understand the situation.

Simple, and largely irrelevant…except that now, instead of just taking Alphonse, the Elrics would now have to be pulled out as a pair. That was good news. Lust could not complain, it was her order to find out once and for all if Alphonse was capable of alchemy or not. But he couldn't very well snatch one and leave the other as witness. Nope, when the time was right, he would be forced to take them both. And it was all right. Because he could begin taking careful, attentive care of Edward while the others had whatever fun with Alphonse that tickled their fancy until the arrival of the Day.

Thinking of giving his attention to Edward, all alone, with time and privacy and total control…

The sound of footsteps brought him out of his reverie and back on alert. He held very still as the lanky man in the white medical coat hurried by without so much as a glance. One less person in the room. One less potential source of interference, should he choose to act now…

The thought was so exciting he nearly lost it. The temptation to go in and slaughter everyone in sight and take his prize made his whole being tremble and nearly lose the strange camouflage he had adapted.

If it wasn't for Major Armstrong's exasperating baritone, he would have acted out on those urges. But reality slapped him with hard truth that Armstrong, while surely not enough to defeat him, was strong and foolhardy enough that he might hold his own long enough for the Flame Colonel to show up, with that pistol-packing bimbo of his, and no telling who all else might come to their aid as well. It was the slimmest of chances, but it was possible that he would fail to make off with his prize. The pipsqueak might get squished in all that commotion. It would be fun, granted, but it was too risky in such close, well-populated quarters.

Still, he cautiously let his invisible essence spread until he found it, touched it, confirming soul-to-soul that this was the object of his desire. His touch was not without impact. He was confident that neither Edward nor his keepers would have any clue what this feeling was, and after resisting the itch to do so much more, such a little thing was owed him, at the least.

So, with a very large bitter pill, he swallowed his desires and returned to mimicking the Lieutenant's form, striding away and morphing back into the guard's image just before passing Hawkeye's doorway.

When he hit the outside air, a quick survey of the area revealed that the other guard was not in sight. He slipped behind the privet, returned the ID to the motionless soldier and deposited him with his head against the edge of the building and feet toward the sidewalk, clearly visible as if it had been an accidental fall. Satisfied, he flipped back into bird form and sailed away.

So easy. For all of their gyrations, the military's security was totally useless against him. Maybe he would come back and do this again for fun, when the crowd died down. Go and tuck the boys in properly, and kiss them goodnight.

He cawed in laughter at that. No, he really couldn't trust himself to get that close to them and still be in control, not if he couldn't drag them away. No way in hell.


Gansworth absently wiped the perspiration from the palms of his hands by smoothing them down the sides of his coat. The situation was calm enough. Ed was looking at Al but saying very little. Al would utter a few words, innocuous comments, but for the most part, he was quiet now, as well. Havoc and Armstrong were engaging them separately, trying to get them to eat, using their bodies as a bit of a hedge to keep the boys from making any sudden moves at one another.

It was actually less than he had expected, the doses of sedative that allowed for this quiet time. Ed was already getting a therapeutic amount to counteract the rebound from the harder drugs; and Alphonse seemed stable on his routine medication at a quarter-dose. It was enough to take the edge off, both of his nerves, and his claustrophobia, and thankfully seemed to have suppressed his wild moodswings. The slight drowsiness made for a more workable attitude. That, in turn, was a great relief for Havoc and Armstrong, who sorely needed a break from the constant high tension.

The overall climate in the room felt much improved. Ed, ever-sensitive to such things, was inclined to do more watchful waiting while tucked up against the Major for security, looking to him for guidance.

Ed muttered into the thin sandwich before each tiny bite, but he was taking them, and the food was staying down.

Al ate only when prompted, his attention fully on Edward, his mind busy elsewhere.

Satisfied and very, very late for his next patient, Gansworth grabbed up his valise.

"Good day, gentlemen. I have to get going. I'll check in later."

Havoc shared a look with the Major. This was the first test, then. The first time the four of them were left to see how the actual living situation was going to pan out.

Ed was well in hand; Armstrong's guidance was unrelenting, fussing over each bite.

Surprisingly, it was Al that saw it first. The change in Ed's eyes, the shift in mood.

"Ah," Ed gasped, pushing away the food so abruptly that it flew to the floor. "I feel…I feel…"


"Oh no. Oh no. Oh no. It's here. It's here. It's here!" Ed stammered, trying to rise, fruitlessly searching everywhere in the room with wider and wider eyes. His foot slid, and Armstrong's grab to support him was clumsy, adding to the confusion when Ed tried to pry him off in a panic.

"What's here? Edward, it's all right," the Major said, growing more concerned. It sounded like a flashback, but if it was, this episode had a whole new type of presentation; it gave him a strong feeling that something was not right.

Ed, finding nothing, reluctantly directed his search to Alphonse, seeking yet hoping not to detect something amiss in this person he was trying so hard to believe in. The flesh on the back of his neck was burning, and his pulse was raging in his veins. That feeling, it was unmistakable. The last time he'd felt it so strongly, he had run to the library to escape it, and still it had persisted.

But Al's face was flushing, too, and he looked as frightened as he did concerned, suddenly wide awake and on alert.

"What is that?" Al gasped. He wasn't asking Ed. He was looking now, too, wanting to take cover, the pit of his stomach tight with dread. Just like in the old barracks, with the sounds on the roof, and the crazed rat. That strange, terrifying touch of something awful.

"Stay put." Havoc had to pry Al's fist from the front of his shirt before he could start for the door. This could easily be Al picking up on Ed's weird vibe and nothing more; but the hairs on his own neck were bristling, and the Major didn't launch into his usual routine to distract and placate Edward , either.

"Don't do it!" Ed cried. "Stop! Wait! It's here! It's here!"

The fervor of his plea inspired Al, and he grabbed Havoc's arm. "Maybe he's right! Don't go out there!"

"Whoa, Ed, Al, I'll be fine. Take it easy, I just want to get a look…"

Ed was up now, reaching for them both.

"You two get back! Listen to me, dammit, get behind me!" Ed cried. If they were here, they were here for him, and they would tear apart anyone who tried to get between them. He wasn't strong enough to fight them, but at the very least, he could give himself up and prevent anyone else from getting hurt.

Armstrong kept a hand on Ed and they ended up in an awkward huddle, milling as Ed and Havoc engaged in a bumbling competition to get closest to the doorway, and Armstrong and Al tried to haul them both back.

The rush of panic dribbled away as Envy's presence disappeared, leaving them struggling with confusion and one another instead of fear.

Al shook his head, clearing it, sure now that whatever had him on alert had either vanished or was pure imagination. He blushed sheepishly, frustrated at himself for getting carried away with Ed's delusion. He didn't mean to add to the problem. He was supposed to be helping.

Ed was slower to react, slapping away Havoc's hand as he reached the doorway, panting and trembling in dread at the sight he was certain would await him in the hallway. The old wounds stitched at his flesh in an unpredictable pattern of remembered pain, micro-flashbacks, and suddenly the thought of that smell was more than he could bear.

But he couldn't retreat and expand the tragedy by letting someone else know how this felt, what it was like. One shot, he'd take his one shot if that face appeared, and his hands went up, quaking so hard the Major made a grab for him, fearing not only a potential transmutation, but the possibility that this had elevated into a seizure.

"Edward!" Armstrong barked, loud and clear but emotionally neutral. "Come here. Stay in your room as you promised."

The hallway was empty, the windows revealed no motion. Ed was struggling within himself, gagging as he tried to swallow the copious load of saliva that overflowed to start down his chin, trying to get physical control and stop the sirens screaming in his skull long enough to absorb the change in what he was perceiving.

Nothing there. The burning sensation in the back of his neck was being extinguished. It was okay to breathe and the Major's booming voice landed like a life preserver, giving a focus to collect his exploded senses

He came to realize that he was captured in the Major's arms, with his own crossed against his chest, firmly but gently held by those massive paws. Still at the brink of the doorway, at a threshold he no longer had any desire to cross, the last of the adrenaline evaporated and his body weight slowly became the larger man's burden.

Still gasping and coughing but with far less force and distress, Ed quieted otherwise. Havoc hovered close, ready to assist, one eye on Al but proud of the young man for his quick recovery and appropriate reserved behavior.

"Let me help you. Come with me now," the Major said, lowering his voice yet still being firm.

"I don't…" Ed gasped, and had to clear his throat to finish. "…don't see it. It's not here anymore. It's not."

Armstrong made an agreeable grunt as he tried helping Ed walk, then paused to let him shift around to grip the front of his uniform. He tried to get his feet to support his body weight, to no avail. Without the larger man's help he wilted down each time.

"There, now, Edward, this is more efficient."

Ed's ego gave him a split-second of objection, but the rest of his mind and body overruled and he welcomed the feeling that came with the knowledge that the Major, who picked him up as easily as if he were a toddler, was also a fierce and formidable ally who never seemed to look down on him.

A bittersweet moment of affection pierced Alex's heart when Ed relented, raw and unguarded, holding on tight and burying his forehead into the broad chest. It felt like a hug, a desperate, needy hug, like that of a child being rescued from a nightmare.

If only he could. If there was a way, no matter what, he would make the nightmares stop. But that was not likely to ever be the case. With great care and consideration, pausing and giving Ed every chance to control the manner in which he was being deposited, Armstrong successfully returned them to where they were when all of this started.

Havoc had purposely faded back, joining Al in silent, watchful waiting. It was remarkable to see how the Major handled the situation, delft yet powerful, commanding yet compassionate; it clearly was the right fit for Ed's needs. It was somewhat emotional, witnessing how deep the trust had grown.

Al's own heart ached for so many reasons he couldn't begin to sort them out. That was his trust Armstrong was cherishing. It used to belong to him. Ed always had that deep and abiding trust for him, and only for him, in all the world.

It felt like losing everything all over again, watching Ed cling to the weird alchemist while turning his back to his own brother, not even acknowledging his existence in the room, much less the world.

Sure, he felt ashamed about the way he'd just behaved. There were oceans of things he was ashamed about, it wasn't at all that he felt like he was the only one who was worthy of Ed's trust and affection.

Somehow, up until now he'd convinced himself that the reason Ed wasn't showing him that trust was because he was no longer capable of trusting anyone, after all he'd been through.

But clearly, that was not the case.

It was a lack of trust for him, specifically. He'd lost it. Ed recognized him, and still, it didn't click. I see you, you're Alphonse, the other child from my dead mother's womb. I know who you are. It means nothing to me anymore.

Havoc knew what it felt like to be replaced as Ed's caregiver. He recognized that look, although Al's was surely a thousand times more intense. And to his credit, though the emotions swirled and he obviously struggled, in the end, the look transformed to one of resolve. He had come back around to join Havoc on the same page. The important thing was to make sure that Ed was taken care of. The rest of it just had to be swallowed.

"I'm sorry," Ed muttered, watching while the Major checked his shoulder, aware yet comfortable with the fact that this was just busywork to settle them both down again. "I just thought…I don't know."

"Do you want to tell me about it? It might help."

"Just my…" Ed waved a hand around behind his head, swirling a circle in the air around the back of his neck. "I felt it back here. I sensed it. I don't know. I thought I did. I guess not."

"Were you starting to fall asleep and dream sitting up? Maybe one of those?"

"Oh, like…well…no…I don't know. I still do that, though. Sometimes. Maybe."

Armstrong sighed. That snap transition while sitting still, from awake and coherent to asleep; and not only asleep, but falling directly into deep dreaming, was a troubling syndrome that had reappeared stronger than ever in the last couple of weeks.

The doctor surmised its cause was, at least in part, to damaged areas of his brain still trying to repair and reroute.

And it was a reasonable explanation. Alphonse's suggestibility explained his behavior as well, and it would probably be heightened by the small dose of his relaxant. In fact, Ed's susceptibility to waking dreams was seen to increase dramatically with some medications.

And he'd certainly taken plenty of them today.

So no real-life invader, no homunculus toying with them, the Major thought with great relief.

"I'm sorry," Alphonse said quietly. "I guess I panicked."

"It's all right," Havoc assured him. He'd had his own moment of fear that something was about to go down. It would take some getting used to, dealing with both Elrics when things got hairy. In this case, a sort of mini mass hysteria swept through them when Ed went off on his tangent. He'd be more aware and make sure to resist falling into that trap again. Armstrong likely got the same education from the experience.

"No, it's my fault," Ed said, wringing his hands together. "My fault. My fault. I can't be scaring Al. That's not right."

"These things happen. Let's not get down about it. No harm done," the Major smiled, patting Ed's hands until the fretful motion stopped.

But Armstrong noticed another drawback to the new configuration. Everyone had managed to run into one inanimate object or another during this last incident. Walls, beds, chairs…there simply was not enough room to move about in here with four souls and the necessary furnishings.

The plan was to acclimate the boys to being together before uprooting Ed and settling him in the larger room. He sincerely hoped that they would get used to one another quickly.

"Hey, you didn't scare me that much. I overreacted, that's all. We're good."

"I don't like the windows!" Ed blurted, trying hard to figure out what upset him. "Or the door being gone."

The Major took a chance and planted his little seed of an idea.

"Well, Edward, perhaps we can make arrangements so that the two of you don't have to be right at the windows. And make sure that there's a door that closes, as well."

"You should. You should fix it."

Armstrong noticed Havoc's barely perceptible negative shake of his head. It wasn't Ed's reaction, but Al's eager look that prompted it.

"I think he means my…our…that other room. The one I stayed in. It has a door, and a bathroom, and there's no windows, not in the room or in the hallway. We could even go there right now. I mean, it's empty, but it's all made up for us," Al said, poorly concealing the fact that it took everything he had not to jump up and down and insist upon it.

"Where? For us, now?" Ed was looking unsteady again. "No one ever showed it to me. I never knew where it was. They wouldn't tell me. I couldn't find it."

"Another time, Edward. We can discuss it tomorrow if you're feeling up to it. This has been quite a day. I think it's time we started getting everyone settled down. No more heavy thinking for today," Armstrong said.

"I didn't try to find you. I did a couple of times but I didn't try hard enough," Ed said mournfully.

When Al took a breath to respond, he could detect Havoc and Armstrong's tension. He hadn't meant for that to provoke Ed in any way. But it seemed that he wasn't doing a good enough job of figuring out what he should say before he said it. So he tried to concentrate on how his words might impact his brother, but the possibilities were so boundless it seemed impossible to know what was wrong or right.

"It's okay. I was all right, knowing you were here and getting better. It was a little bit of waiting, and I had my own getting better to do. That's all."

Ed swallowed hard and looked at Al sideways. He hadn't been able to bring himself to meet those glistening eyes. Something inside tightened up when he thought about approaching Al; he wanted to, but it was too hard, and it shouldn't be hard. Al looked like he felt, worried, fearful and sad. He hated the idea that he was making Al feel this way, too.

"You look scared. Are you scared of me?" Ed asked in muted tones.

Al, caught by surprise, stammered for the right response. He didn't want to lie. Maybe there was no point in lying anyway. If Ed, with all his challenges, was able to see it, it must be more than obvious.

"It's not that, exactly," he said breathlessly.

"You are."

"Ed, kind of, but...I don't want you to get the wrong idea…"

"Me, too," Ed said, voice lowered in sorrow. "I don't understand it."

"You still…you're afraid of me?"

Ed nodded, head hanging down now .

"It's all wrong."

"What's all wrong?" Al felt his heart clench.

Ed's hands splayed open as he stared at them.

"Al was slipping away." It was hard to hear him, speaking so softly. "'t moving. The helmet went dark. And I wanted to scream, but…I thought…maybe he's playing possum. I hoped so. And if you are, just stay like that. You can do it. You can stay still forever. You don't even have to control your breathing."


"You just have to shut up and hold still. But that wasn't it. Your soul was getting pulled away."

The room was so quiet you could have heard a pin drop.

"And you came back, I saw you move…I was glad you were alive…until they noticed, too. They went right at you, I was trying, but it was hard. I tried to distract them but it didn't work."

"I do remember coming to," Al said. "I know what you're talking about."

"Yeah. I thought, we'll be okay, so long as they don't touch your blood seal. And it's like they read my mind. That thing peeled your helmet off. And I was so, so scared, when he touched it. When you started to scream, I though he was breaking it. I thought he was destroying you."

"I know. I thought that, too. I was so shocked to feel pain," Al said, struggling with his composure, swallowing hard to fight back tears and terror.

The silence that followed drew out into a minute, then two. The boys were hung up in that horrible moment in time.

"But then, you saved him," Havoc added helpfully. "You took him and hid him, and that's why he's here safe and sound today."

"I did a terrible thing. There must have been a million other ways I could have tried instead to protect him. But I buried him and left him to suffer. They were going to torture him, but all I did was beat them to it."

Al shook his head, distressed at Ed's guilt and self-reproach.

"No. They would have killed me. And taken the stone for their evil plans. Ed, you…"

"Then why are you afraid of me?"

"Not that kind of afraid! Listen, it's more like, I'm afraid of screwing up around you! I don't want to do the wrong thing and create problems! I don't want to hurt you!"

"So you're…not really afraid of me?"

"No, Brother, not of you. It's nothing like that. I mean it." Not really, anyway. Just a little uneasy. Nervous and queasy. But not in fear for his own safety. He'd felt like that before, but just a couple of times. It probably wouldn't happen again.

Ed took in the implication that he was the only one with these feelings. It was odd to feel relieved when Al had agreed that he felt the same way, but now it wasn't the case. As always in this twisted existence, his thinking was foreign and apart. The sense of belonging here, or anywhere, eluded him once again, even if this turned out to be Al beyond any doubt.

"I know I look like a monster. And I know I'm not what I was before. That's why I asked Havoc. He's gonna take over my spot."

Al tried to grasp what that had to do with them being afraid of one another, and held his tongue while he thought.

"I'll be there for both of you," Havoc finally broke in. "You don't look like a monster, Ed. Al isn't afraid of you. Neither am I. This is hard but it's bound to get easier. Once we're used to it, all of us being together should feel pretty darned good."

Ed was silent, still not looking at anyone.

"And that spot I'm taking isn't yours. No one could ever replace you, Ed. It's a new spot. You added it yourself. I'm here for you both."

"I just don't want to hurt Al any more."

He was afraid. He was afraid to look at Al and see more pain, or anger, or sadness. He'd have to look eventually but he couldn't do it now, even though he ached to see him and touch him and talk to him long enough to truly, thoroughly believe it was Alphonse.

"You're not going to hurt me. I hope you can tell how much this means to me, you letting me stay with you. I don't know if you understand how great it felt to hear you say you didn't want me to leave."

Ed shook his head slowly. "Felt…great?"

"Yeah. For real."

Ed dared to look, gaze slowly traveling up as far as Al's nervously tight lips.

"Well," Armstrong said quietly, "I'm afraid I must interrupt for a moment. Edward, we need to make a trip down the hall."

"What?" Ed asked, immediately distracted and confused.

The Major nodded patiently, ready to explain to Ed although they had done this hundreds of times. But before he could start, Ed was off on his own tangent, and it became clear that it wasn't the case that he had forgotten the process.

"What do mean, we? Does he have to go? Out there?"

"Well, I mean, I'll have to go sometime," Al said.

Ed growled into his palms, rubbing his face hard. "You should stay in this room. We have to figure something out."

"Hey, now, we can work with this. We can all go at once. Safety in numbers, right? The two of us can escort him and stand watch. Al will have total protection. Just as good as he has in here," Havoc offered brightly.

At least Ed didn't reject the suggestion, although he did not agree, either.

"That works for me. If it works for you, that is," Al said.

"Let's just go ahead and get this out of the way, then," Havoc said, taking an encouraging step in the direction he hoped they would follow.

"Sure." Al was up and hesitant to just go along, waiting to see what Ed would do.

"There we go, come along, lad," Armstrong reached as he, too, made the commitment to moving ahead.

Ed lunged up when he saw Al start to follow Havoc. He hadn't had enough time to process the idea of everyone going at once. It felt unbalanced, as if the whole world might topple over if they all moved in the same direction so quickly.

He managed to grab Al's arm before the Major could stop him.

Once he had that arm, another conflict struck him, and Al's startled face mere inches away froze him gasping in his tracks.

"Edward, just a moment."

"Yeah, let's not get in a rush. Doing okay, Al?"

"Brother," Al whispered, the sensation of Ed's hair brushing against his jaw line stunning him for a second.

Ed didn't reply to any of them. They had stopped moving, and that meant he could breathe again and get his footing.

"Gentlemen," Mustang said as he peered in. "Is this a good time?"

Ed jumped, startled. Havoc managed to get free to perform his identification check.

"It's going..?"

"It's under control, sir," Havoc replied.

Mustang gestured with a sharp nod and waited for some sort of response from the boys. From what he could tell, they were grappling at one another, and at Havoc until his appearance distracted them, but not aggressively.

"So." He cleared his throat, a rumbling sound, and watched Fullmetal waffle in his bid to hang on to Al. "May I ask what we're doing here, Major?"

"Well, sir," Armstrong said, "we were about to transition to a trip to the lavatory so everyone can get ready to turn in for the evening."

The Colonel stroked his chin for a few seconds, contemplating.

"Doesn't seem like that would require so much milling about. Fullmetal, are you setting a good example for your younger brother here? You should be showing him the ropes. You're capable of instructing him. Go ahead and…" Mustang reached out to guide them forward and received the painful chop of steely automail.

"Edward!" Armstrong snagged the elbow a split-second tool late.

"Don't!" Ed snarled. "You're not taking him! Al! If he tells you to go with him, don't! Don't ever let him talk you into leaving here with him, not alone!"

The Colonel rubbed his arm with a groan, not of pain, but of disappointment. Back to that again. He thought he had convinced Ed that he had nothing to do with that incident.

"What are you implying, Fullmetal? Keep your hands to yourself and calm down. I'm not taking him. I asked you to take him yourself. If you want to have control of the situation, do it properly."

"You're not going to hurt him!"

"That's correct. I would not hurt him and I would not hurt you. We have no dispute, so settle down."

"Don't tell me to settle down. Don't tell me you didn't hurt me!"

Mustang took a deep, halting breath. "I did not. I thought we came to an understanding. Don't you remember?"

"What understanding?"

"Think, Edward. Think back. As difficult as that may be, it's more difficult if you insist on blaming me for something I would never do."

Al's head waggled back and forth, following the volley of words in confusion. He wasn't sure what they were on about, but he felt a little better that Ed was arguing instead of losing control and acting out.

"I was there. I know what happened. Just because you talked me into doubting it…"

"It wasn't me. I can be a jackass at times, I'll admit. But you don't really believe that I would attack you and strand you somewhere at night. Lieutenant Hawkeye verified my whereabouts, and she wasn't the only one who gave you that assurance. Ring a bell now?"

Ed cast a worried glare at the floor. The sudden, unexpected appearance of Mustang's face gave him just a flash of the incident, and his first reaction was to protect Alphonse…but the deeper understanding that came with Mustang's words and some time to ruminate did not improve his level of alarm.

They had gone over this, and Lieutenant Hawkeye had been convincing enough.

But that meant something more disturbing, more threatening. He wasn't sure about homunculi in general. Maybe they could all shape-shift. It was a gut-rattling notion to think that they walked right in and took him away on a lark. That it had been so incredibly easy to be fooled.

But it was shattering to think that he might have been in Envy's clutches.

"I don't want to believe you," Ed spat as he ground his fists into his eyes.

Mustang shook his head sideways and tried again.

"Facts don't change according to what you want them to be."

I didn't check him when he made me follow. I didn't get the chance, he was too far ahead of me from the start. What does that mean, is there anything else it could mean? It wasn't the Colonel. So it had to be. It could only be one of those monsters. But why didn't it do more? Just that little bit of damage? The way it just walked in and started barking orders…anyone would be fooled. It could happen again. It could be happening right now!

Mustang took a quick step back to lessen the force of Ed's clumsy attempt to capture him. His first reaction was not to resist or evade; more than anything, he wanted to see where this would go.

"You just hold still." Ed's breath felt hot in his ear just before teeth took hold of the ridge of cartilage there and clamped down.

"Damn it! That hurts, Ed, stop it!" His arm flew up in a purely instinctive response to the pain just as Ed made an unexpected dodge to the right; by chance the back of his hand met squarely with the scarred, fragile jaw, sending Ed reeling.

The Major caught him, as much to prevent him from falling as to subdue him.

It is the old bastard, Ed thought, eyes watering from the unintentionally devastating blow. Not only did he lack the nasty odor, he smelled traces of the Colonel's aftershave, and it was the same as he remembered it.

It was worth taking the hit, because this man was not a threat, and he needed to pursue the issue now that his addled brain had finally put two and two together.

But was it all right to discuss it in front of Al, or what might not be Al at all? Was it too upsetting? Would it give his defenses away? Would revealing too much make Al reluctant to leave when the time came, and spoil his plan? Or give the masquerading enemy too much feedback on how well their devious methods worked?

Mustang held his ground, rubbing his pinched ear and staring at the conflicted young man held unresisting by the massive Major.

"Fullmetal, explain yourself."

Ed expected some barking, not that he cared, that was just the way Mustang dealt with him. But the question, while direct, was not at all angry. It almost sounded…sad, or disappointed, or something like that.

He wanted to ask why, why he wasn't mad, but it seemed like he shouldn't. The Major cautiously freed his hand and he rubbed the annoying impact point with it, trying to decide what to say.

He shrugged and shook his head,

Mustang sized him up, aware now that Al was on the verge of losing control.

"I'm sorry. That was my instinctive reaction to being bitten. I didn't intend to do that."

Al didn't know who to be more upset with, Ed or the Colonel. But at least the officer had apologized.

"I know. Or I'd have given you ten times worse back."

"Are you all right?"

"Shut up. I'm okay."

"Very well, then. And you, Alphonse? This is meeting your expectations?"

Al swallowed and nodded.

Mustang considered the situation. It looked like his appearance had them all on the defensive, and that reserved behavior was actually making them easier to control.

"Then you won't mind if I take a stroll with you all down the hall. I'd like to see how things will be going in a typical evening."

Ed's expression was a bit grumpy but he didn't object. He did, however, gather all of his courage to get a hand on Al and position himself boldly at his side.

"We're not going to follow you," Ed said, the tone in his voice less sure, sickly with worry.

"Fine. However you normally proceed, Major, Lieutenant. I'll just tag along."

"This is our first time going in as a group. Major?"

They made it a good ten feet down the hall before Ed lost his nerve, abandoning Al's side and trying to flee. The Major had to intervene heavily for the balance of the trip.


"There's nothing simple about it," Hawkeye agreed, moving papers on her desk to keep her hands occupied and nothing more. It wasn't the Colonel's habit to hover, but since leaving the scene of the boys' evening routine, he was too restless to sit for long. They'd been see-sawing back and forth, taking turns trying to break off their conversation and go back to work. But each time, the other would rise and follow.

"At least they haven't had to use the alert button. I was starting to wonder if they were going to need more help, at least for this first night. Havoc still says they can handle it. The space issue is going to…"

The trill of the phone interrupted. Hawkeye was quick to grab it.

It soon became apparent to the intuitive Colonel that the call was a personal one.

"I'm sorry, but I'd be glad to give Lieutenant Havoc another message. He is very busy…"

Mustang's eyebrows shot up and his hand came out, motioning with quickly wagging fingers for the handset.

Hawkeye frowned and covered the mouthpiece after asking politely for her caller to hold.

"Sir, it's Havoc's lady friend," she said reluctantly. "Now, what are you up to?"

"Just what I thought. Hand it here. That's an order," he said flatly, but there was a gleam in his eye she didn't care for.

She smacked the phone into his hand.

"Pardon me," he crooned in his deepest, buttery voice. "Miss, I'm afraid I owe you an apology."

He listened, followed by a flirty laugh that annoyed Hawkeye to no end.

"You have a delightful sense of humor. I don't know where the Lieutenant has been hiding you, but we will definitely need to meet sometime. The apology? Well. I have been monopolizing Havoc's time. It's unavoidable. So I hope that you'll place the blame on me. He never gets a chance to make his contacts. Yes, I am. But I promise, as soon as business is settled here, I'll make sure he gets in touch with you. "

Mustang was a bit puzzled. This was a hot, sultry, even slightly bitchy voice. Not at all like Havoc's usual dames.

She sounded totally intriguing. He would have to make it a point to get Havoc to introduce her. Something about her was so hot it was almost dangerous. On first impression, he wanted to see for himself, and backstop Havoc so he didn't chicken out.

The woman on the other end of the phone purred at him, asking questions without missing a beat, eventually making him wonder a little if she might be playing some sort of game.

Well, women were always playing, at least somewhat, in his experience. But still…

"His boss? You might say that, Miss. I'm his commanding officer. Yes? Colonel Roy Mustang, and you are..? Ah, that is a lovely name. And you sound like quite a lovely lady."

Her next comment was a little suggestive and he laughed again, this time with a touch of discomfort. She was certainly quick to shift her interest away from the man she had been arguably stalking for weeks now.

"You have a way with words. Yes, of course, we should chat again sometime. It's been a pleasure talking to you. Oh. Yes, Miss. Really? I'm…flattered. Goodbye."

He passed the phone back to Hawkeye and met her glare.

"When he goes to see her, I'd really like to meet her face to face."

"You're not even going to give him a chance, are you?"

"This person…she might be all wrong for him. I need to see for myself."

Hawkeye rolled her eyes.

"And she's just your type, is that it?"

"Not at all. You've been taking messages from her. What do you think?"

"I think she's a hundred times more interested and persistent than anyone he's been with so far. I think he's got a chance with her. That is, if he can avoid any outside interference."

"You think I'm just trying to interfere? I have his best interest at heart. Look, I even explained to her why he hasn't been able to call. Even though, if you think about it, he could have. He's had breaks. Opportunity. I'm covering for him. He should have returned her calls."

"There's more to calling someone than just having the time to dial a phone. He's been under a lot of stress and that's where his thoughts are. It just makes things worse if you call someone you're starting to get to know and you don't give them your proper attention, or you're in some off mood. Just because you have that 'smooth operator' mode you can launch into just like that," she said, punctuating her words with a snap. "Most people don't have that. And certainly not when they're nervous and trying to start a relationship."

"All right, all right. You make it sound like I did something wrong. But I'm not convinced. This woman needs to be checked out before we let her get her claws into him." He tapped his fingertips on the edge of her desk, trying to chase down what it was, exactly, that sounded off in her conversation. Solaris. He should have asked where she was calling from. It sounded a bit odd, the quality of the phone connection. Echo-ey, yet flat.

Perhaps she was in a booth. It brought the image of a phone booth to mind; and with it, that heart-wrenching association with one of the greatest tragedies of his adult life. That unexpected flood of pain and self-recrimination put a halt to all of the banter. He would see to it that the woman was suitable, and that was that. He had no ulterior motive. And he wasn't in the mood to discuss it, or anything else, anymore. His concentration had to be fully focused on protecting his people, even when there was no apparent danger. The fatal blow could come at any time, anywhere. Had he been more diligent in watching out for Maes he should have been able to intervene, to prevent his murder.

He should have followed his instincts and gone looking for Fullmetal before so much time had passed.

The idea of Ed left hanging there, alone and dying, in the manner that they found him, haunted him daily since the incident and always split his gut with self-recriminating pain. How long had he been there, after being abandoned for dead? Minutes, hours? What went through his head in the silence, while mutilated, naked and helplessly feeling his life fade away; did he realize that no one had come to his defense, and was he crushed with feeling of abandonment as the likelihood grew that no one would ever come at all? Because clearly no one had stepped in to interfere with his captors; when they arrived it was barely in time to help him survive. It was only after the beasts had sated their lust for cruelty, taking every liberty they wanted with him, mind, body and soul, fully at their leisure without the bother of any intervention on the victim's behalf.

It was unforgivable that his own commanding officer's hesitation had allowed such a thing to happen.

"Colonel?" Hawkeye asked as he abruptly turned away, but even as the office door closed sharply, it was without comment. She sighed and shoved the phone back to its usual place on the desk. She supposed that he was actually doing pretty well, he could be a lot touchier and moody with all that was going on, and the tremendous responsibility that went with it.

But she would not be held accountable for what she would do to him if he stole Solaris away from poor Havoc.

Maybe she would just have to tag along on that little social outing, should it ever occur. Yes, that seemed like a very good idea.


Al's medication finally won out over his valiant struggle, and the tousled head was snuggled down to rest for the night.

Ed's exhaustion had yet to get the best of him. The sight of Al asleep set off a whole new set of dominoes toppling in his head, and the Major was helping him the best he could. It was taking everything he could think of, and Havoc, too, to keep Ed from losing control.

"It's dangerous. I should get…no. You should. You should get right there." Ed pointed to Havoc and then to Al's side.

"It's not dangerous, Edward. We're here to keep watch and help if you need us," the Major said, resettling again as Ed's unbalanced body weight slid back and forth restlessly against him. He pried open the automail fingers carefully and reset the grip on his forearm, hoping to anchor him physically as well as mentally. "Try to relax a bit. He'll be sleeping for quite some time. He's perfectly fine. We won't let anything happen to him. We will watch over both of you."

"Listen to me. Listen. You get right there. Right there. Then you can feel if he moves, and he's got the wall on one side and you on the other. That's best. That's safest," Ed railed on, ignoring the Major's reassurances.

"Buddy, I know we've shared a bunk a few times, but I'm not sure that Al would approve. I can keep a better watch like this anyway. We don't want to startle him if he wakes up with somebody there he's not expecting. That's the opposite of making him feel safe, isn't it? And that's a pretty small cot, I'd be squishing him."

"He's asleep!" Ed let go of Armstrong and pawed at the sides of his head, as if he couldn't contain the enormity of the concept in his brain without physical assistance. "Look at him!"

"It's all right. It's all right. What's bothering you, son? What is it?"

"Can't you see? He's just there!"

"I see Alphonse sleeping peacefully and safely. He looks very comfortable to me. What do you see, Edward?"

"No. No. That's not it. You have to keep checking him. Stop it!"

"He's not moving a lot, but he's moving, all right. See his chest? Watch now. See it rise and fall? He's fine."

Armstrong braced himself as Ed grabbed his shoulders with both hands and tried to shake him, rocking back and forth a bit to give the impression that there was actually enough force to make him move.

The effort exhausted Ed quickly, and he ran out of words, strung out on fear for and of the form lying on the strange cot set at a disturbing angle in the wrong part of the room.

They didn't understand, and he was getting so tired, soon no one with a clue would be left awake to make sure something bad didn't happen.

"Easy, now," Havoc joined the Major in pulling Ed back to his bed and applying the gentlest pressure to try and settle him down to rest.

Ed shook his head and resisted ineffectively, finally getting a sentence from his head to form on his lips.

"Don't turn your back to him, please. Watch him. Watch!"

Realization startled the Major, although he kicked himself at the same time for not figuring it out sooner.

"Edward. Do mean, be wary of him as well as protect him? Is that what you mean?"

"Be careful," Ed nodded, eyes closing in relief. They got it, after all. They were soldiers and a warning should be enough to keep them safe. He was losing his fight with sleep and they would have to take over his watch now. When he woke again, they should all still be here, and alive. Then he would resume his assessment of the person that seemed to be Al. He was much more convincing face to face than he was as a stationary object. He couldn't decide whether that was a sign that he was the genuine article or a flaw in an otherwise convincing counterfeit.

It's Al, you're such an idiot! part of his brain, the part that hoped for normalcy, snarled inside.

The rest of his brain writhed like a bag of burning snakes in contemplation of falling helplessly asleep in the same room with an impostor. Only his desperate faith in the two men standing guard, and the sleeping medication, enabled the fatigue of the day to overtake him and let the world of awareness go staggering away.


Gansworth's fingers twitched and the clipboard nearly flew out of his grasp. It wasn't that he was holding it carelessly. Fierce and excessive force magnified the slight mishandling of the object. Recognizing that fact, the doctor forced a deep breath and tried to regroup, consciously willing his hand to relax into something akin to a normal grip.

Signs of failing oxygenation were still developing despite his best efforts. The re-attachment was doing poorly. The prognosis was bad, the odds had been against them from the start.

This man was so young. It had been worth a try. But it was likely for nothing. By tomorrow it would be clear which path he would be taking. The limb couldn't be allowed to risk the boy's life, and if the infection that appeared to be starting could not be stopped, the result could be far worse.

Removal - amputation - would be the only answer. It would be best to reserve the surgery resources now.

A flash of positive inspiration hit him, almost startling him in his mood of remorse. Miss Rockbell might be entreated to join in and give him direction. It was known that, for those fortunate enough in their misfortune to have one at hand, an automail technician attending the amputation can provide the surgeon with specific guidance that would greatly aid in the success of automail installation later, when the mortal danger of the injury has passed.

The boy shifted and murmured, well out of it, and rightfully so. Before he had a chance to think, the doctor found himself patting the good hand to comfort him. It made no sense, and he quickly took up the hand in a businesslike manner to press the fingertips one at a time, to test the capillaries for refill response time. What was happening here?

So many horrible injuries had come to him for treatment, and he'd processed them all, efficiently without any sentimentalism. Why was he going so soft now?

"You're going to be fine. Do you know where you are? Corporal Bell?"

But as he suspected, the movement was far from a sign of consciousness.

This failure of a re-attachment wasn't a result of distraction or carelessness on his part, was it? Certainly, he'd been in haste when he prepared the dirty, raggedly severed limb for the surgery. But speed was important to the procedure, the passage of time increased the odds for infection and rejection. It had nothing to do with where he was supposed to be instead, and the clock on the wall breathing down his neck with every minute he went past the appointed hour.

He was being dishonest with himself. Of course, he had been acutely aware of his dilemma. It might have made him hurry a little more than he would have otherwise. But he had been as thorough as he was capable of, under the circumstances. It was bad luck, not poor procedure, that cause this. He had done everything to clean and disinfect the limb without going too far and spoiling its organic cohesion. So much rock and dirt. It truly was a long shot, at best, because of it.

The Corporal heaved a sigh in his sleep against the soft hiss of the oxygen mask. At least the drugs were keeping him blissfully unaware and comfortable for now.

While he never enjoyed telling someone bad news about their condition, it was part and parcel with the job. He felt that he did it admirably, explaining thoughtfully and factually, and helping the patient through the questions and emotions without the interference of some emotional bent of his own.

But a trickle of dread was leaking into his chest at the thought of revealing the failure and the traumatic prospect of amputation, of losing a limb not once but twice, and suffering from the false hope that it had been restored. It felt cruel and unfair.

He hated it. This was unacceptable. How could he hope to do his best under such conditions?

And worse, what if this change in his outlook wouldn't go away?

The Elric situation was the cause of this. He was certain of it. The endless stress, the intolerable daily angst and tragedy and suffering…and it wasn't even at its apex. Moving Ed into the larger environment was vital or Al would not hold up for long. He would have to fight Mustang but there was no way in the world that Ed would make it through that transition in one piece without serious, around-the-clock daily sedation for a week at minimum.

And still…for all the progress they'd made, Ed was still in the discovery stage, not recovery. He had most of his recollection back, erratic though it was, of the ordeal he had been through.

But there were some elements of the assault that he'd barely touched on, elements that the physical evidence painted a brutal but highly probably portrait of. It would be a test for all of them once Ed began to share those details. Gansworth suspected that the vicious, feral genius of the assailants had been applied in ways they would only understand once Ed remembered and related it to them. The injuries, while grossly damaging and consistent with criminal assaults of this type, had unexplicable elements that defied imagination.

A long, long haul. And they'd been at it so long already.

He flipped the toggle switch for the signal light above the door, changing it to yellow to let the staff know he was done with his exam and that the attendant was needed once again. Yes, he was being a bit over-cautious, but this was serious, and he felt much better about having a live human sit watch in case of suddenly rising fever, vomiting, seizure…

Passing the clipboard on to the orderly, he made his way straight to his office, even though he was behind and had no time to spare for a break.

I can't let this get to me. I can't be coming undone so easily. Things are under control, there's just a great deal that must be addressed, and time is the critical factor. I must remain in control.

"I will remain in control," he proclaimed aloud, smacking a fist down on his desk. He did a double-take and lifted his hand. He hadn't left any paperwork out; his personal clean desk policy was nearly an obsession.

"What's this?" he asked rhetorically, picking up the typed form and adjusting his glasses to see it properly.

A transfer form? He hadn't filled out such a form in months.

But someone had. The boxes were already checked, the posts of duty filled in, the only blank fields highlighted to show where he should sign to authorize the release.

He read through the bold text, the significance sinking in further with each ominous detail.

Edward and Alphonse Elric. To be transferred to the Psychiatric Unit in Central. Transportation to be provided by the receiving Unit. Date range of transfer - between five and ten days from final signature date of the approving supervising physician.

Submitted by order of Fuhrer King Bradley.