The soldier twisted, his maimed body soaked with sweat. "Al..." he cried. "Al?"
"Doctor Rockbell?" the nurse called across the room. "He's clearly in pain, and we're already at the highest safe dose of dexomorph. What should we do?"
Winry looked up from the patient she was examining, a frown on her face. "Dammit," she said. "We're going to have to move him; we can't have him disturbing everyone else."
"We don't have room in any of the other wards," the nurse pointed out. "We're at capacity as it is."
Winry sighed. "Put him in my office," she said. "There's room, and I can keep an eye on him. God knows I can work through the sound of screaming if I have to."
The nurse started packing up the IV stand and charts and meds. "This damned war," she said, her tone frustrated. "He looks about twelve. The fucking Bugs don't care who they kill, do they?"
"He's twenty," Winry pointed out. "And a Major. Some kind of weapons tech prodigy, apparently. Brass keeps asking about him."
"Still," the nurse said, wheeling the bed towards Winry's office. "If we wiped every Bug out of the system tomorrow, it wouldn't be too soon for me."
He was fighting the drugs. It took Winry an hour to realize it. She had patient reports to write and yet more requests for meds and supplies to fill out- not that they were likely to be any more fruitful than her last round of requests. She mostly ignored the moans and struggling of the young man in the bed behind her, on the grounds that there wasn't anything she could do about it.
The moaning didn't stop, though, no matter how many times she made sure that his dexomorph levels were steady at the highest setting, or checked for fever, or made sure his vitals were even. "Al," he called, as she was checking for the nth time. His eyes blinked groggily open, and Winry suddenly realized that it wasn't just that he was coming awake because the pain was so severe; it was also because he was actively struggling to reach consciousness.
"Go back to sleep, Major Elric," she told him, curious as to what the hell was so important that he would fight like this. "You're in a med base on Chiron. You're not going to die. I know for a fact that your wounds hurt like hell, and trust me, you'll be better off being unconscious for the worst of it."
"Al," he said, weakly. "Where's Al?"
His eyes were yellow, Winry realized. Weird color- maybe he was one of the outer colony half-breeds? But they barely let outer-colony types in the military. Winry sighed. "I don't know who you're talking about," she said. "I can try to find out, if you'll go to sleep and stop disturbing my other patients."
"Al..phonse," he insisted, his face tightening into a rictus of pain and determination. "Alphonse Elric."
"Okay," she said. "I'll look into it. Just relax, alright? Let us make you better."
He relaxed only fractionally. "Promise?" he got out, looking exhausted by the effort.
Winry frowned. "I said I would, didn't I? Now go back to sleep before I reconsider adding surgery-grade sedatives to your meds."
Alphonse Elric was his brother, of course. The picture in Alphonse's file showed a handsome young man- 19 years old- with the same yellow eyes as his brother. They were from Resembool colony, not far from where the Bug trouble had first started, which probably explained why the older brother had joined the military so young. Alphonse wasn't official military, but was listed as a civilian advisor to Major Elric's staff. He was also listed as Missing In Action. The date was the same as the date of Major Elric's injury.
No matter how hard she tried, she couldn't get any information about what, exactly, had happened to the brothers. It was above her pay grade, apparently.
Once the Bug spit was out of his system, they let him wake up. It was caustic stuff, Bug spit, with a neurotoxic component. Hopefully, Elric would be able to really heal now that it had finally broken down.
"Al," was, predictably, the first thing he said after he came awake again. It was a demand this time; not a request. Apparently, he remembered his earlier flirtation with consciousness.
"You should rest," Winry told him.
"No, dammit," he said, trying to push himself upright with his single arm. "Where is he? Tell me!"
Winry sighed. "He's missing. That's all I know; everything is classified to hell and back."
He squinted at her. "You're a doctor," he said.
She rolled her eyes. "Doctor Rockbell," she said, by way of introduction.
"You're young to be a doctor," he said, blinking.
"You're young to be a Major," she shot back.
"Fuck being a Major," he said. "Call me Ed." He fell back onto the bed again. "One of my arms is gone," he observed, dully.
"A leg too," she said. No point in sugar-coating it. If he was going to flip out, best to get it over with.
He pulled the blanket aside, blinking at the stump of his left leg. "Fuck," he said, simply.
"Once you've healed a little more, we'll fit you with some really great prosthetics," she promised him, smiling. "I'm the best, you'll be pleased to know. It's why they stationed me out here- half our patients come in missing one limb or another."
He scowled. "You don't have to sound so happy about it," he said.
She shrugged. "I like my work," she said. "Would you rather get a prosthetics engineer who didn't?"
He stared at the ceiling, his yellow eyes blank. "I need to contact my superiors," he said.
Lieutenant-Colonel Hughes arrived the next day, on the afternoon shuttle. Winry made an excuse to loiter around while they talked. They hadn't moved him back into the general ward; he was still in her office.
Ed scowled when he saw the older man. "What, the bastard couldn't be bothered to come himself?"
"He's a busy guy, Ed," Colonel Hughes said, cheerfully. "I brought pictures, though, if you miss him. And of course, I have lots of my adorable Elicia, too!"
"Where the fuck is my brother, Hughes?" Ed growled.
Colonel Hughes' face went serious. "I don't know, Ed," he said. "We were hoping you could help us with that. What do you remember about the... incident?"
Ed threw his head back, grimacing with frustration, and, Winry was sure, more than a little pain. "Nothing, dammit. I don't remember a goddamned thing. The last thing I remember, we were on our ship, traveling to Eris. Al was reading this stupid romance novel that Sheska gave him. Then I woke up here, and I knew there was something... that Al was in trouble..." He trailed off, looking into the distance. "FUCK!" he screamed, slamming his fist into the wall next to the bed.
That was enough. Winry came forward. "If you don't calm down, Ed, I'm going to sedate you," she warned. "I'm not letting you hurt yourself because you're upset."
Ed looked up, snarling- and then quailed at the steel in her blue eyes. She had been working on her "troublesome patient" look since she was twelve; she had it down pat. "We have to find him," he said, sullenly. "He's alive, I know he is. He's not dead."
"Nobody said he was," Colonel Hughes said, reassuringly.
Ed looked up at her, and there was fire in his eyes. "Doctor Rockbell," he said. "How soon can I get those prosthetics?"
"Tell me about Al," Winry suggested, checking over her tools. It usually helped if a patient had something to concentrate on other than the procedure. Besides, Ed seemed totally focused on his brother; she was curious.
"What about him?" Ed said, irritable. He was usually irritable.
"He's not in the military, right?" Winry said, filling a syringe. "Why not? I know you joined ridiculously young, but he's of age now. Don't you want him working with you?"
"They wouldn't let him work with me," Ed pointed out. "He's my little brother. There's rules. Besides, one military lapdog in the family is enough."
"You don't like the military?" Winry asked. She moved to his arm, and had the needle into the tender flesh of his stump before he realized it was happening.
"Dammit, woman!" he swore. "Warn me!"
She shrugged. "It's easier if you don't know it's coming," she said, unrepentantly. "The military?" she repeated.
"Fucking pack of useless jerkwads," Ed said, watching her hands as closely as he could.
"Why'd you make so much effort to join up, then?" she asked, powering up her osteolytic laser. "Fourteen's kind of young. You had to have gotten some kind of exception to enlist."
"I was smart enough," he said, setting his face against the pain as she began reshaping his stump. "I got my CO to vouch for me. It was for my mother. And Al, of course."
"Your mother?" Winry asked, keeping him talking. She focused mainly on the task at hand.
"She was sick," Ed said. "Dead now. I thought... if I had access to good enough labs... I thought I could save her. Besides, we needed the money." He gritted his teeth. "That's why I stayed in after she died: the money. Should never have done that. Maybe if we'd gone planetside, we could have- Al wouldn't have-"
"What's Al like?" Winry said. Ed was starting to work himself up; she clearly needed to get him onto a new subject. "I saw his file; he's a cutie."
"Ha," Ed laughed, with the merest spark of humor. "Girls always say that about him."
"Don't they say that about you?" she teased.
"Not hardly," he said. "General consensus is, I'm a rude, inconsiderate jerk. Oh, and my hair makes me look gay."
"I kind of like your hair long," Winry said. "It's an unusual color- you don't usually see a blond that vibrant. Is it related to your eyes?"
"Are you asking if I'm a half-breed?" Ed asked, acerbically.
"I'm just curious," she protested. She was almost done with the laser and ready to begin fitting the neural interface. "If it mattered medically, it'd be in your file."
"Whatever," Ed said, looking away.
"See if I try to give you a compliment again," Winry muttered.
"See?" Ed said. "Rude, inconsiderate jerk. I guess I can add 'cripple' to the list of my undesirable qualities, now."
"You won't be a cripple when I'm done with you," Winry assured him, firmly. "Neural-interface prosthetics are no walk in the park, but when the therapy's done with, no one will be able to tell you're wearing them unless you take your clothes off." She checked him over to make sure she was really done, and then powered down the laser. "Brace yourself," she said reaching for the neural interpolator. "This is going to hurt."
He didn't scream. He should have; she was manipulating his nerves. He had nothing past the local anaesthetic to numb the pain, and that couldn't dent the pain of installation at all. Winry had done this more times than she could count, and they always screamed. Maybe they started off stoic, but an hour into the procedure, every last one broke down, screaming and crying and begging for her to stop. Somehow, Edward Elric never did. He gritted his teeth, nearly biting the leather strap in two, but he never screamed. When he finally passed out from the pain, it was a relief for both of them.
He woke up just as she was about to go off-shift. "Don' feel good," he said, and vomited all over himself.
Winry sighed. She could go find whichever nurse was on duty at the moment, or she could just clean it up. She decided to deal with it herself. "It's okay," she reassured him. "Nausea's normal after an installation. Here's a bowl. If you need to throw up again, do it there."
She undressed him, with his groggy cooperation. She pitched his vomit-soaked clothes and linens into the laundry. He grinned at her when she returned with clean clothes. "S'probably the last time I'm gon' get a beautiful woman to undress me," he observed.
She thumped him on the head- gently.
"Ow!" he protested. "Whassat for?"
"Flirting with me," she said, narrowing her eyes at him.
When she came in the next morning, Nurse Ellen apologized to her. "Major Elric's still in your office," she told her. "I know he needs to be moved, but there still isn't space- we had another boat come in over night, and-"
"It's fine," Winry said. "He's still pretty out of it, so he's not disrupting me too much. Just see that he gets moved out as soon as there's room, okay?"
"Yes, doctor," the nurse said.
The fever had started, Winry noted, as she came into her office. He was sweating again, and shivering. She checked his medistrip; it looked about like she expected it to. "M-morning," he said, his teeth chattering. "Sleep well?"
"You didn't," she said, bluntly. "If it makes you feel better, the fever's normal too. We have to wait for it to break before we can do the installation on your leg. It sucks, but you'll live."
"Good to know," he said. He turned away from her, hiding his misery.
Winry sat down to read through her morning reports.
"Kind," Ed said, suddenly.
"What?" Winry asked, turning.
"Al," Ed explained. "Y-you asked about him. I d-didn't answer. He's kind."
"Yeah?" Winry said, not sure what to say.
Ed curled in on himself. "He's always picking up strays. Animals... h-humans... n-number of times I've had to tell him why we c- c... can't bring a cat on board a spaceship. N-not hygienic. He believes the b-best about everyone. Even me."
You should be resting, Winry couldn't quite bring herself to say. "He sounds like a pretty nice guy."
"H-he'd like you," Ed assured her. "He l-likes everyone. Doesn't hold grudges. D-doesn't even blame me f-for... for Mom and Dad, n'he should. S'my fault she's d-dead. S'my fault he left us. Al n-never blamed me. Not ever."
It took her a moment to realize that the shaking of his shoulders wasn't entirely shivering. There were tears streaking down his face.
"F-fuck," he said, crying openly now. "What's wrong with me?"
She reached out, touched him gently on the elbow. "It's alright," she said. "It's the fever. You'll be okay."
He covered his face with his hand, clearly trying to pull himself together.
"I lost my parents, too," she found herself saying.
"Y-yeah?" he said, wiping his eyes.
"I was eight," she told him. What the hell, maybe it would distract him a little from his suffering. "It was pretty early in the war. Their med base was bombed. Everyone died. It would have been me, too, if I hadn't been on Rush Station visiting my Granny."
"Heh," he said, weakly. "You're a station brat?"
"Pretty much," she admitted. "We were living on asteroid med bases up until Mom and Dad died, but asteroids and stations are practically the same thing. You're from a proper colony, though. Was it nice?"
"N-nicest place in the world," he said. He looked up at the ceiling. "Blue sky. D'you know how long s'been since I saw sky? N'it was g-green. Bet you'd l-like it, station brat like you. N-never seen anything so green, huh?"
"Maybe," she said. "I've never spent much time on planets."
"Al always w-wanted us to go home. Never felt like I c-could, not after she died. Stupid. S-so stupid."
His eyes were devastating. Grief, horror, pain, self-loathing. Winry felt sick looking at him. "I'm going to give you something to make you sleep," she told him, going to the med cabinet. "This isn't helping you heal."
He didn't seem to hear her. "Why'm I here?" he asked. "S'not fair. Al's- he's good. N'me, everything I've done... What kind of world is it wh-where he's gone, n'I'm here? What the fuck k-kind of sense does'at make?"
There was the hiss of the hypospray, and silence followed soon after. It was a relief.
It took a couple of days for his fever to break, and by then they'd been able to move him out of her office. She was doing her rounds when he called across the room to her. "Doctor Rockbell!"
She was pretty much finished with her current patient anyway. "I'll see you later, Lieutenant Cromwell," she said, and crossed the room. "Hey, Ed," she greeted him. She wondered how much he remembered about the fever and his half-delirious breakdown. "I hear you're feeling better. We'll be able to do the leg soon- maybe even tomorrow, if you feel like you can handle it."
"I can handle it," he said, his eyes burning. "I don't have any time to waste. Do it now, as far as I'm concerned."
"Tomorrow," she repeated. "We have to make sure you're really clear of the fever, and that you're strong enough to handle the second installation."
"Nngh," he groaned, frustrated. "Dammit, this is going too slow."
"Look," she said, imperiously, "You're my patient, and I'm not letting you out of here until you're whole and healthy. Rockbells have been surgeons and prosthetics specialists for four generations; this is my family pride on the line."
"Oh, god," Ed said, "You're as bad as Major Armstrong."
She narrowed her eyes. "That had better be a compliment," she told him.
"It is," he assured her. "For certain values of 'compliment'."
"Rest up," she advised him, acidly. "You're going to need it tomorrow."
When Winry came over to check on Ed before the installation, there was a black-haired man in a military uniform sitting next to his bed. Ed was asleep, his face peaceful. The stranger sat with his fingers laced together underneath his chin, watching Ed intently.
"Hello?" she said. "Can I help you?"
He looked up, noting her coat and nametag. "Doctor Rockbell," he concluded. "I admit, I thought you'd be older. Do you have somewhere we can talk privately?"
She led him into her office.
"Colonel Roy Mustang," the man offered, and shook her hand. "I'm Edward's commanding officer. I'd like to talk to you about his condition."
"Doctor Winry Rockbell," she returned, even though clearly, he already knew who she was. "What do you want to know?" She found herself strangely reluctant to talk about Ed to this man. It was silly; Med Base Chiron was a military facility. Mustang was Ed's commander- she had checked, even- and he had every right to know about his subordinate's health.
Mustang smiled, and it was charming. "Give me a general report," he said. "When do you think he'll be well enough to return to duty?"
She bristled, and she suddenly realized why she was so reluctant. Mustang was Ed's CO; he cared about what Ed could do for the military, and not what was best for him. "No time soon," she told him, sharply. There was no way in hell that she was letting this Mustang take that wounded, half-broken young man and throw him back into the meatgrinder of the damned war; not without a fight. Not until he was healed.
Mustang's face fell. In the moment that his mask slipped, Winry saw a hint of genuine worry. "How bad is it?" he asked, quietly. "I've seen your reports, but how bad is it really?"
Winry didn't know what to say. "He's missing two limbs," she told him. "He survived the Arthroid contamination, so he's not likely to die of shock now. He's being fitted for prosthetics, but it's a long process. He should have his new limbs in the next week unless there are complications from the interface installation- which there might be. Two installations in a row is hard on a body. To be honest, if he wasn't so insistent, I'd wait another week before doing the next one."
"He wants to find his brother," Mustang said, and she wasn't sure if it was a realization or an explanation.
"Yes," she said. "In any case, once he's got his new limbs, there's the matter of physical therapy and letting the installation sites heal. It's going to be months at least."
"He's going to take that pretty hard," Mustang said. He stood, turned away from her.
"Can I ask you something?" she said, suddenly.
He nodded, his back still to her.
She crossed her arms. "Is there really any hope? For his brother, I mean. Because if he's killing himself to get back on his feet for a dead man-"
"That's classified," Mustang said, turning to face her. His face looked more lined than it had a moment ago.
"I know it's classified," Winry snapped. She drew herself up to her full height. "But I can tell you that if I don't think he's got a good reason to get out of here, he won't. Not for a long time. Not until he's reallyhealed, and I don't care how hard the both of you fight me over it."
Mustang looked her over closely, as if he were really seeing her for the first time. "Alphonse is alive," he said, finally. "He was able to leave us a message as he was taken. We don't know where he is, or why the Bugs want him, but we have every reason to believe that they're keeping him somewhere."
She let out a breath she didn't know she'd been holding. "We'd better do that installation, then," she said.
Mustang asked to watch the procedure, but she refused. These things were never easier with an audience: not for the patient, and not for her. Ed was quieter this time, harder to draw out. It was fear of the pain, she knew. It was always like this the second time. She found herself talking about her own childhood just to fill the silence.
"Granny was a prosthetics expert," she told him. "She pretty much trained me from the time I was eight. By the time I was twelve, I was designing my own. I wasn't certified on the surgeries until I was eighteen, though, of course. They won't even let you take the tests until then."
"That's stupid," he said, and he seemed outraged on her behalf. "I mean, fuck, they let me come design weapons to kill people with when I was fourteen, and they wouldn't let you start trying to save people until you were eighteen? What's wrong with that fucking picture, you know?"
"I thought you designed weapons to kill Bugs?" she asked, lightly.
His face darkened. "They're called Arthroids," he said. "They're sentient. Just because they look different doesn't make them animals. Aren't you a fucking doctor? I would think you'd understand that."
Huh, she thought. "Anyway," she said, "I was assigned to Chiron pretty much straight out of my exams. That's where you come in."
"Lucky me," he snapped. For a long while, the room was filled with only silence and the smell of burning flesh. "I can understand why you'd hate the Arthroids," he said at last, meekly. "I mean, your parents, and all."
"My parents were killed by friendly fire," she said, powering down her laser. She felt tired, suddenly. "Someone's targeting computer went to hell, and everyone on Med Base Thetis died for it. I don't hate the Bugs- the Arthroids- for it. I just hate the war. It's all just wanton murder on both sides, as far as I'm concerned."
"Yeah," he said, with a short humorless laugh. "That's about the size of it. We're all just a bunch of bloody-handed murderers."
"I didn't mean-" she protested. "It's not your fault-"
"Yes it is," he said, savagely. "I know what I am."
This time, he screamed as she sheathed his nerves.
She stayed away from him during his recovery. She monitored his condition through the medistrip and the nurses' reports, but she let them care for him through the days of fever and chills and vomiting. He wasn't throwing up all over her office, this time, and she had other patients to deal with. She refused to consider that it was because she knew that the illness would make him unguarded, and she didn't think she could bear to see what was behind Edward Elric's eyes again.
He was definitely himself, masks firmly in place, when she visited him again.
"You're stable enough for us to put on your limbs now," she told him. "I've brought you some designs, if you'd like to look over your options."
He reached out, caught her elbow. "Are you pissed at me?" he asked, bluntly. "I know I say a lot of stupid shit. I'm sorry."
"Of course I'm not angry," she told him, and it was true. "Trust me, I've heard worse from patients. You haven't threatened to kill me yet, so there's that."
"Okay," he said. "I won't threaten to kill you."
"Good," she said, and smiled at him.
They spent the next hour looking at schematics, which she explained to him with increasingly enthusiastic levels of detail.
"You are such a freak for prosthetics," he said, laughing at her.
"That's right," she said, defiantly. "And you better be glad of it, too. My designs are the best!"
"Good thing they brought me here, then, Doctor Rockbell." He smiled sideways at her, and for a moment, he looked almost shy.
"Winry," she said. "My first name is Winry. I call you Ed; you can call me that if you want."
Colonel Mustang came for Ed less than two months after his arm and leg were in place.
"He can barely walk," she snapped at him. "He needs more time to heal, and more therapy."
"Our medics can deal with that," he argued. "Write up directions, and I will personally make sure that they're followed to the letter. Whether Edward likes it or not."
"It's too soon," she insisted.
"We have a lead on Alphonse," he said, quietly, and that was that.
He looked almost handsome in his blue uniform the day he left. He'd gotten one of the nurses to braid his hair back- he still didn't have the dexterity in his right hand to do it himself- and he'd obviously dressed carefully. Only the crutches spoiled the picture of a brave young soldier shipping off to war.
"I'll be checking with Colonel Mustang about your progress," she told him. "Don't overdo it. Your installation sites aren't completely healed yet. If you stress them, I might end up having to do the whole thing over again, and neither of us wants that."
"Yeah, yeah," he said, dismissively. "Stop nagging."
She hugged him. "Good luck," she told him. "When you find Alphonse, bring him back here to visit, okay?"
He blushed. "Yeah, okay," he said. He turned, and swung up onto the shuttle's landing ramp.
Winry watched the shuttle until it was only a point in Chiron's black sky.