A/n: I started this fic during the US hurricane and finished it during the snowstorm. How fitting for a story about a natural disaster.
Warnings: Blood, discussion of illness and surgery, discussion of death. If you have questions/concerns, please feel free to message me!
Many, MANY thanks to Izzy (bookofstars on tumblr, izilen on Ao3) for being a spectacular beta.
Disclaimer: I own nothing and make no profit.
Ed knows Winry's decision before she makes it. For the last three days she's been absorbed in the radio broadcast, listening constantly at work and at home, even while feeding the kids at the dinner table. They're calling the earthquake the worst natural disaster in Amestrian history. It rocked the entire northern region from Briggs to North City with a tremor that devastated countless towns in between. These people are now without power, without food, many trapped inside collapsed buildings or stranded without homes. Less than a day after the earthquake, the government declared a state of emergency and put out a plea for volunteers to help in any capacity—victim rescue, manual labor, and especially medical care.
After three days of anxious listening, Winry tells him that she has to go. Ed doesn't argue because there's no sense to it; she gets that look and he knows there's no dissuading her. Instead he packs her things into a single suitcase, rolls her clothes into neat little rows alongside her toiletry bag and her mother's gross anatomy textbook. She returns from making the arrangements with Garfiel and her apprentices with the news that Paninya's leaving, too. Roof repairs have been slow, and North City can use another pair of feet on the ground. This news means the loss of their only trusted babysitter, but Ed is glad to hear it. There's no telling how long the relief efforts will take, but at least Winry won't be alone in it.
Winry teases him when she finds the stationery and stamps stowed in the front pocket of her suitcase. She calls him a hypocrite. He just shrugs and says that maybe she'll feel different.
The night before she goes, Winry tucks her three babies in one at a time. At almost four years old, Henry is the only one old enough to understand when Winry says that she'll be gone for a while. He tells her to bring presents when she comes home. Annelise demands a bedtime story, and then another. Sofia has fallen asleep against Ed's shoulder by the time her turn comes, and though she's too young to understand, Winry takes her into her arms and kisses her and says she'll be home soon. She backs out of the room afterward, turning only after the lights go out.
Ed and Winry don't sleep. They can't, not with her suitcase and toolbox standing at the door and a one-way train ticket in her coat pocket. Instead they make use of the short time that remains. They take it slow, drawing every second to its fullest length until breath fails and leaves them dizzy. In recovery they lie tangled up and speaking in soft whispers.
Sometime after midnight the baby cries and Ed rolls out of bed. He clicks on the bedside lamp so he can find his pants and pull them on before shuffling groggily from the room. When he returns he finds Winry sprawled diagonally across the mattress, her arms crossed behind her head and her long hair dangling over the edge. She smiles at him, but she's not all in it. Ed ditches his pajamas and climbs back over the covers.
"I need to do this," she says, rolling on her side to face him as he turns out the light.
He hears the resolve fraying in her sigh. "Yes, you do."
"I'm gonna miss you."
Ed makes a quiet sound in his throat, caught between a scoff and a laugh. He reaches across the gap to sweep her hair from her eyes, but Winry catches his hand before he can pull back, presses her mouth to his thumb. She is naked, tousled, beautiful even as a silhouette in the dark. All of a sudden Ed feels a sense of overwhelming distance, like the six centimeters between them stretch out for kilometers, and he desperately wants her to stay when he knows she shouldn't. As a compromise he scoots closer, tugging her hips until their bodies press flush together and her knee bumps against his automail. He draws a palm over the swoop of her hip, stores the curves of her body in a secret corner of his mind along with the rest of her—her voice, her taste, the tiny smirk she saves for conquering a mechanical hitch.
"Don't worry about us," he says, brushing his nose against her cheek. "Just be safe."
Winry trembles when he kisses her jaw, her mouth. She huddles against him and holds his forehead against hers. Her throat hitches like she might cry, but instead of breaking down she braces her shoulders, curls her fingers against his scalp and hangs on stronger.
She draws her tongue over his bottom lip and he is lost, utterly lost.
He sees her off early the next morning, before the children wake up. Winry doesn't want anyone to have to watch her leave, but Ed stays on the front step until her back disappears in the distance. When she's gone he goes inside, quietly shutting the door behind him before crossing to the kitchen table and sitting down. Ed looks around the empty room. He folds his hands in his lap.
The first letter comes a week and a half later. Ed is sitting at the kitchen table with a paper about fission theory, so engrossed in what he's reading that he doesn't notice Annelise happily scribbling in his notebook. Then Henry breaks the quiet by announcing that he sees someone down the road. He has been perched in his usual spot for almost an hour, kneeling backward on the couch so he can peer out the window with his chin in his hands.
Henry shouts it again, leaping from his seat, and narrowly avoids stepping on the snoozing dog. The sudden noise draws Ed from his book and Annelise from her drawing.
"What is it, Henry?" Annelise says. When he doesn't answer, she climbs down from the chair to meet him by the door. "Is it Mommy?"
It's the post delivery. Henry and Annelise sulk back to their business when Ed opens the door to reveal the postal service woman standing there with a stack of mail wrapped in a newspaper. Ed takes it back to the table, dodging a fistful of cereal that Sofia chucks gleefully at his head and scowling at the first letter in the stack, which happens to be a nagging report from Central. He trades Annelise his pink and green-colored notebook in exchange for Mustang's letter, pockets the book before it can suffer any more damage, and finds Winry's letter at the bottom of the pile. He recognizes her neat print before he reads the return address.
11 January (1923)
Hi, don't worry, I made it here but haven't had time to write. The first week went so fast that it's a blur now, but I'll try to go back to the beginning so you can have an idea of what's happened. We got here to North City after three days. It took two on the train, and then another day on a bus from Central City because the train tracks were blocked by debris further along. We got here after nightfall, which wouldn't mean anything except that there's no electricity, so the city basically shuts down after night. They assigned us to rooms… the way it works, there's a few hotels that houses all the volunteers and staff. I was expecting us to be packed eight per room, but all the local hotels have opened up their beds to house us more comfortably ("free" for me, but then, I am a volunteer). The one I'm in, actually, you know it… It's 'The Sunrise Inn', we stayed there when we came to the city for the conference before Annelise was born, remember? It looks exactly the same. Anyway, there's not a lot of space, so we all have to share rooms. Some of them are really packed in, one bed with cots, but I got lucky and they just put Paninya and me in the same room. She is a blanket hog, but I can't complain because she doesn't snore and it's just the two of us instead of up to four, like some other rooms have.
The weather is… January. It's freezing, it snows often, but I'm usually moving around so much that it doesn't matter. When my hands get too cold I just rub them until the feeling comes back. The snow is beautiful, but it would be much more convenient if this earthquake had hit during the summer time. The city is in shambles. So many buildings and houses have collapsed, people are sleeping packed in the shelters or in tents outside/whatever is left of their homes (which is so dangerous, but we can't make them leave). There have been lots of aftershocks, and after every one we get a rush of new patients to and—well, I'm getting ahead of the story here.
Okay, so right when we arrived with the rest of the new recruits, they assigned us to rooms, and I thought they were going to just send us to bed, but instead they pulled aside all the medical-related people and put us to work… it was a good thing I slept pretty much for three days straight, because I haven't slept much since then. They brought me and some other new people to the medical unit, which is a banquet room in town hall filled with cots (the hospital roof caved in, and town hall is basically central command, so they stuck all the wounded in here. There's an operation room, too, but it's in a room next door). We were sorted into shifts called "squads", and then my shift relieved the off shift. The groups are Alpha, Bravo, Charlie—I'm in Bravo. Every team has a leader (who is an experienced emergency room doctor), and then about ten med staff/aids with different levels of experience, which you would think is plenty but it's NOT. Not even close. I'll get there in a bit.
We got our uniforms, which are these navy jumpsuits with the symbol of the Response Corps on the front and embroidered on the chest (it's a carved stick/staff with a serpent wound around it—weirdly familiar, though I never thought I'd be the one wearing it!). My uniform is way too big, I have to roll the sleeves up four times just so I can work, but everyone's seems too big no matter what size the person is. Along with my uniform I got a new toolbox with my name written on it in marker… at first I was surprised I couldn't use my own, and then I looked inside… a set of medical/surgical supplies. Needles, forceps, scissors, clamps, hand mirror, tourniquet, a HANDSAW. A handsaw! Thank goodness I haven't had to use it.
I told them when I signed up that I am an automail mechanic with some surgical training. I can set up an IV drip, check vitals, put in/remove stitches, etc. I mean, I have supervised and witnessed several surgeries, but I think I had different expectations for this place. I thought I would be assisting real doctors, just cleaning up and looking after post-op patients, maybe assisting in surgery if things got rocky. Ed, I had no idea. I was so unprepared. This place is a disaster, and I just don't have the training they were looking for. So many buildings and houses are just destroyed. People are sleeping in tents and out in the streets/buildings that are still standing. Injuries run from cuts/scrapes, concussions to missing limbs/gangrene/awful puncture wounds. Illness spreads easily, too, and we get patients with frostbite from living outdoors without enough clothing.
Most of the professional staff is experienced veteran doctors who know what they're doing… and me, and a few of the others. My squad leader is named Gwen—she's an older woman who was a surgeon in the Cretan border conflict. She assigned me to take care of five patients right away, all of them fresh out of the operating room. NONE of them stable enough to be alone for ten minutes. Every time I turned around someone was bleeding/crashing/going delusional and trying to crawl out of bed. Other team members kept having to help me… I felt so useless. It was awful. The shift went for twelve hours. The watches are supposed to rotate on a schedule, but the current medical team was so short-staffed that they relieved half of them right away because they had been working for almost twenty-four hours straight. The normal rotation goes like this:
First shift: 7 a.m. – 3 p.m.
Second shift: 3 p.m. – 11 p.m.
Third Shift: 11 p.m. – 3 a.m.
Fourth Shift: 3 a.m. – 7 a.m.
The night shift is broken into two because there's fewer actual surgeries at night, and because there's only so much you can do by lamplight. Mostly they just sedate the patients/try to make them comfortable through the night. So far my favorite shift for active duty is fourth shift. After your active duty you get a shift for sleeping (which means if your duty is on second or third shift, you get ripped off for sleep), which for fourth shift means you get breakfast at the end of the shift and then crawl away to sleep for seven hours. [
But my first shift went from 6 p.m. to 7 a.m. the next morning. I was so tired, but also so wound up that I couldn't sleep when I first went to the room. My stuff was all there, with a second jumpsuit. Paninya was already out when I got back (construction crew works from sunrise to sunset, so from about 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. with a couple breaks) so I had a good cry in the shower (cold!) and then climbed into bed. It was very sad and I felt very sorry for myself.
A week later and I still feel so helpless… I haven't had to do any surgeries completely by myself, but I've helped in more than I can count already, and in those I've done stuff like suction and administering pain killers, cleaning/stitching/dressing wounds, etc. It's much trickier when you're just taking care of your assigned patients and don't know how to help them… a lot of the time there's nothing I can do, or I don't do something that I should have done. When they crash, someone usually jumps in to help me, but I can't return the favor. The experienced vets are very impatient, but I understand they just need us to catch up as soon as possible. Apparently the saying is "nurses eat their young". It is very true. Gwen screamed at me for not signing out a narcotic. I deserved it but it was still embarrassing, and in front of my entire squad. I just hope I can catch up soon, because none of the staff respects me, and I don't deserve their respect anyway.
Wow, I'm sorry, that got pretty depressing, didn't it? Let me try again—it is hard work, and I'm in way over my head, but I'm so glad I'm here. I guess having one less-experienced member is better than none (even though it sometimes feels like I'm more of a hindrance). And I'm learning so much every day, I'm sure I'll catch up soon. Aside from the work… let's see… the food… the cook's named Mitch, and he cooks with whatever rations are sent to him, which means the food is usually awful, but after working a shift it tastes wonderful. I have no complaints about it, except that all of it comes from cans/rice and can't possibly be any good for you. At least there's always coffee, no cream or sugar but I drank it black at home anyway.
This letter's getting way too long and I ought to go to sleep… I hope you're well, and the kids. Give them an extra kiss for me. Tell them I'm doing fine, because I am, really.
P.S. PLEASE take care of your maintenance! Garfiel and the others don't have time to put you back together now that I've left them with all of my customers!
Functionally speaking, not much is different in Ed's everyday life. He still does all the cooking and cleaning around the house, he takes care of the children and the dog during the day. They're still too young for school, but he's not in a hurry to send them off anyway. He rather likes having them around, revels in the simple childish things they do, as though he himself had never had the chance to try.
When he has a spare moment, and sometimes when he has no moments to spare, he works on his research. In the evening he prepares dinner, gives baths, reads bedtime stories, and puts everyone to bed. But there's a gap in his day now. It forces itself like a wooden wedge into his gut when he least expects it. He never felt it when he was the one traveling, not like this.
A month goes by and he still hears her voice throughout the house. Henry asks if he can sleep on the living room sofa, too.
1 February 1923
I'm sorry it's taken so long to get back to you! Living in watches isn't good for keeping track of time. One day sort of just becomes the next one, there's no real sense of day and night here.
Oh, now that I know it's safe, I can tell you… so I've been feeling sore and tired, and in the first couple weeks I felt strangely ill, and for a while I thought I might be pregnant! Can you even imagine? Luckily, it turns out that being on your feet all day and eating questionable food gives you some of the same side-effects as pregnancy, because my cycle is completely normal. That's one less thing to worry about (how's that for optimism?). Okay, moving on…
To answer what you said—yes, I know, I need to have faith in my knowledge and the rest will follow… but it's so hard to be patient when people are depending on me! I just keep waiting for the day I slip up and get somebody killed. The vets still don't trust or respect me. They all know each other really well, but don't talk to me aside from giving orders. Sometimes they even go to the bar after shift ends, I don't know how they have the energy for it. I mean, I know they're all much older and have much more experience, but I wish I could prove myself to them somehow. All I have to talk to are other med staff… most of them are really nice, but it's like I said, the ones in my watch don't really like me. I didn't help make myself look any better when they asked if I could drive an ambulance, and I asked if it was anything like driving a tractor.
I'm not here to make friends. I'm here to help people. During the day, when everyone is busy and I have to keep up with my work, I don't really think about it unless someone does something to me directly—like Isaiah, one of the aids on my watch, he always jabs me when he walks by, and I told him to stop but nobody listens to anything I have to say. He thinks because he's way older and more experienced he can do whatever he wants, but really he's insecure because he's forty and nobody lets him operate on patients. During the day I can get over it, but when I get back to my room in the evening, I get to thinking… I almost never see Paninya. She's made some friends with the construction crew, and our schedules rarely overlap anyway. And I just feel so lonely, you know? In the hotel all by myself. It seems absurd that I have it to myself when others are so busy. Maybe I'll offer up some space. And I know there are people who love and support me, but they're not here with me, and that's hard…
Work keeps me too busy for social stuff anyway. One of my patients, he has an infection in his abdominal cavity and it started looking really bad. I was afraid he might go into shock, so I called Gwen over and she ordered me to accompany him to surgery. We opened the wound, cleaned it out, etc. I'm sorry if any of this makes you queasy. Probably it doesn't, but I really have lost my sense of what is and is not gross any more. This place is like a breathing petri dish. I wash my hands as much as I can, but it's never enough, and the infection rate here is disgusting… almost a 50% rate of post-op infection, with 30% mortality rate. I wish there was something I could do. I've lost a few patients (none of them my fault, thank goodness), but it's hard. I keep telling myself that I'm doing the best I can, but it doesn't seem like enough. After the first time one of mine died (male, 75 years old, partially crushed skull), I went outside to cry but I ran into someone from my watch and I couldn't let them see. None of them ever cry, and I'm not injured—who says I even have the right? It's all very frustrating. Ah, I don't want to talk about it anymore. Let's move on to something else…
There's one person who will talk to me in my watch so far. Her name is Hannah, and she is the youngest med staff here besides me… she is thirty-five. She's in my squad, but we have opposite assignments. Also, the head surgeon of Alpha squad, Dr. Knox, he said hello to me during shift change, and guess what? He knew my parents in Ishval. I guess they're still helping me out, even if it just means giving me someone to say hello to. We chatted a little about the system they have here, all that kind of stuff. He smokes a lot, but then, so does everybody else. I've never met so many doctors/nurses/surgeons who smoke! There's like a black market for cigarettes here, but Dr. Knox either knows somebody or has a lot of pocket change because he's always got one hanging from his mouth.
Oh, and you know who else I ran in to? Ms. Riza! She keeps telling me to call her Riza, but it still feels weird to me. Seeing her also meant I saw the Major General… Mr. Mustang also says to call him Roy, but YOU don't even do that and I just can't. I'll stick with Mr. Mustang, it's the least formal I think I can get. I got weird looks when they came to the command center and treated me like a friend while everyone else was saluting… They're here quite a lot apparently, but I don't often see them. It turns out he's in charge of the relief efforts, along with his other duties with all the foreign relations… I can't imagine how stressed he must be, but both of them look well. (I can't say the same for his mustache, but who am I to judge? I usually look like I crawled out of a trench.) Ms. Riza caught me when I wasn't surrounded by the rest of my team and asked if I'd like to get coffee after my shift. I really wanted to, but I had maintenance duty after my on shift, so I told her to catch me next time she was around. I hope she does come find me for that coffee, I would really like that. Take care.
Ed almost never re-reads her latest letter, because when he does he hears it in her voice and doesn't like the sound of the words from her mouth. It lives in his back trouser pocket. He slips it there when he gets dressed every morning and carries it with him through the day. In the evening, he transfers it back to the sitting room table before going to sleep. The action is automatic, absentminded.
Henry has since abandoned his post by the window, but Ed can see that he hasn't stopped waiting. He notices him glancing hopefully toward Winry's seat at the dinner table and privately thinks that window-watching was a less painful gesture—after all, by the time he was Henry's age there was an empty chair in Ed's life, too. Even now Ed catches himself peering out through the kitchen window like he expects to see her coming up the walk.
After two weeks the edges of the letter have grown rigid. He thumbs along the edge of the page and notices the ink fading, her curved letters blurring from black to blue like a bruise.
16 February 1923
I can't believe I'm going to miss Sofia's first birthday. There are a hundred things I ought to write about, but she's been on my mind today. Does she eat cereal with the right side of the spoon yet? If you do something for her birthday, take pictures! My half of the dresser could use them. Oh, and if you don't mind, I know it's obscenely expensive to ship things up here, but could you send me some extra socks? I keep running out before laundry day, and there's nothing worse than working through the night in sub-freezing temps with yesterday's sweaty socks. I've been washing them in the shower and hanging them, but I can't keep up with it.
Anyway, things have been going. I'm so tired—right now I'm sitting out in a first aid tent. It's third shift, 2300 hours, and I just got relieved. Technically I'm off duty right now, but the flu is going around so I never know when I'm gonna be called. I might nap in the storage room just in case. There's mats in there we're allowed to use if we don't want to walk back to the hotel in the dark.
Since last time, I had my first surgery. They discovered survivors trapped in the cellar of an apartment complex in the next town over. They lived for almost two months on canned vegetables/fish (I guess they're kind of like us in that way). But the food was gone by the time they were found, and most of them had some sort of injury, and they happened to be brought in by ambulance while I was on duty. Greg and Rita (Bravo aids) quickly got swamped trying to help them all, so when someone got brought in with a missing finger (they couldn't find her finger for some reason), Gwen sent me to take care of it. It wasn't a very hard surgery, but the little girl cried the whole time. Her name is Janie, seven years old, SO CUTE. I wound up giving her half of my rations because she just looked so sad and lonely (and skinny). After that, Gwen started giving me minor things to work on, still mostly assistant stuff, but I'm okay with that. She doesn't like me, but I don't think she DIS-likes me. At this point I would just settle for an acknowledgment of my existence outside of "Rockbell, cot seven! Rockbell, nine's got gravel up his nose, pick it out!" Ah. At least she likes me more than Isaiah. I think he's jealous that I got assigned to the surgery instead of him because he's been extra nasty to me, but I really don't understand him. Being in charge of somebody so fragile terrifies me, I'd almost rather work on primary care/superficial wounds/post-op because there's less of a chance that I'll hurt somebody.
So far the tolls aren't looking any better. As soon as we send one out, three more come in. I feel like I'm not even in Amestris sometimes, like it's the end of the world and I'm in some strange apocalyptic place. I never thought I'd get used to seeing dead bodies—not that I'm used to it, I don't think you ever get USED to it, but I'm not scared like I used to be. It still makes me so sad every time it happens, but if I cried over every person who died here I wouldn't get anything done. On one hand, I feel bad. Nobody is crying for these people. Nobody even knows who they are half the time. If we can't identify the person, the squad leader takes a picture for the records and that… that's it. I'm so lucky that I have someplace to go home to, and people who would know if something happened.
Miss you all. Do something fun for Sofia's birthday! She might not remember it, but Henry and Annelise might, and anyway, it'll make me feel better.
Ed goes back to sleeping in his bed because sleeping on the couch hasn't yielded any better results, and because he can tell it makes his children nervous. Even Sofia, who doesn't understand the difference, seems affected. She often cries through the night, a wailing sob that keeps her siblings from getting proper rest, and after several days of this Ed gives up.
All the books he's read say that after six months you should leave the baby to itself when it cries. Apparently doing so teaches independence and self-restraint, but at this point Ed doesn't feel like he has either of these traits, so he gives in. He lifts the screaming infant from her crib and paces back and forth through the dark sitting room, cradling her head into his shoulder until her sobs fade into sniffles and then into long, slow breaths. When he's sure she's asleep, he gently places her back in her crib, and when that fails, he brings her to his room and lets her share his pillow.
Within two days, Ed wakes up to the sound of snoring and finds that the number of babies in his bed has multiplied. On his left, Henry has curled up on Winry's side of the bed with his legs tucked beneath his body and his night shirt creeping up his back. On his right, Annelise has wedged herself between Ed and Sofia and sleeps peacefully, drooling on his pillow.
On Sofia's birthday, they awake to an unusual surprise. When Henry rubs the frost away from the window glass, he screams that the ground is covered with snow. Ed had read about the weather system coming in from the north, but hadn't told his children and hadn't pointed out when the flakes began to fall the night before. A snowstorm of this magnitude is unusual in Resembool, especially at this time of year, and Ed thinks it's much more exciting to discover it in the daytime, when you can do something about it. The kids can barely wait to get outside, but Ed reminds them that they have things to do before they can go out and play. They have to make Sofia's birthday breakfast, wash the dishes, and brush their teeth.
Ed "helps" Henry and Annelise make apple pie crepes, then bundles them up in their winter coats and takes them outside, where the two elder children are delighted to find their red wagon affixed with sleigh rails instead of wheels. They hop in, cheering in delight, and once Ed's zipped Sofia into the front of his coat he pulls them all the way to the park.
28 February 1923
Have I ever told you that you have the most impeccable timing? The last few days have been so bizarre, and then to top it off, your package/letter comes just as my squad gets relieved. The socks made my day—you can tell Annelise that the rainbow ones are lovely (and thank you, Ed, for sending some more practical ones). All the extra sleeping clothes, too. How did you know I'd need them? The second suitcase will come in handy as well. Paninya took over the only dresser and I haven't got any place to store my things. I'm going to go ahead and not think about the shipping cost.
I loved your letter, and the pictures! I won't lie to you, I saw them while I was sitting outside the command center and started weeping in public. Hannah ran over and asked if I was okay (she thought I finally snapped or something) and then I had to show her the pictures. She said, 'I never knew you had kids!' but nobody ever asked me before! Oh, Ed, these pictures are so beautiful—the one of the three of them all covered in snow, especially—they just look so healthy and happy. I wish I could have been there, but this is more than I could have asked for. Thank you so much, for everything.
Anyway, like I was saying, it has been a very weird couple of weeks. It started off with me thinking they were going to send me home (which is crazy, they couldn't afford to send me home). I finally got fed up with Isaiah, so when he pulled my hair I called him an asshole and kneed him in the groin, right in front of everyone… Gwen saw, and she put me on bed pan duty (which is hardly a punishment, I'm so used to it). But then after the shift, she gave me an extra sugar packet with my coffee, which is basically unheard of because stores are so scarce. I mean, I don't drink coffee with sugar, but I didn't want to seem rude so I thanked her and used it anyway. So that was the first thing. And Isaiah hasn't even looked at me since then, so it ended well enough.
Then the very next day, while I was catching up on my charting, there was another aftershock. They happen pretty frequently, but this one was huge. It crumbled a couple of the weaker buildings in the area, which meant a surge of patients. All hands were called to the command center (even poor Alpha squad, which had JUST gotten sent to bed after an eight-hour shift), and basically everyone just tried to work on as many people as possible. Whenever this happens it's complete chaos—you just grab whoever looks most injured and try to fix them, and it's an infection control nightmare because they run out of gloves, soap, etc. Anyway, I was working with Dr. Knox and Robbie (from Bravo) on this man who had his trachea crushed by debris just outside the command center. He's fine now, we made a trachea bypass incision so he could breathe, then reinforced his damaged windpipe with some tubing—not perfect (and very painful) but at least he's still alive.
We were finishing him up when I heard Gwen say something like, 'It's destroyed, we'll have to remove it' and I turned around… Rita and Gwen had a patient with automail! The rescue squad pulled him out from his house, and he was in pretty good shape except his automail outfitting was mangled (Pro-x model 300, damn cheap material) and they were going to amputate so they could suture the rest of the wound. I basically jumped over three patients and shoved poor Rita out of the way. Gwen told me to mind my own business, but I just couldn't let them do it… this man already went through grafting once, he shouldn't have to do it again! Poor guy already passed out from pain/blood loss. So I told them I could fix it… the cylinder of the outfitting was squashed into an oval shape and bleeding like crazy… I used a wooden doorstop and a lever to force the outfitting back into the right shape, then reinforced it with a coffee lid and rubber bands… if I had more time I could have done it properly, but it was the best I could do with what I had. I salvaged the remaining nerve ending connectors and tucked all the loose parts inside the outfitting/wrapped it all up to keep from getting any more damaged, then stitched up the tears along the edge of the outfitting and doused them in antiseptic. It was a patchy job, but I was so proud of myself. I finally did something nobody else could do, and I saved this man a lot of suffering. You should have seen their faces, Gwen's especially, but she shouldn't be so surprised—I told her from the start I was an automail engineer!
We all worked through the night and the next day, taking naps in the supply closet whenever we could, but after it was all over Gwen took all of Bravo squad to the bar and bought a round of drinks. And best of all, she congratulated me on my good work, in front of everyone. It was like, for the first time in all of this, the rest of my squad actually noticed me as a person with a skill set instead of an inexperienced aid. Actually it was a little embarrassing truth be told, to get noticed all at once like that, but I was pleased. It gave me some much-needed optimism, which is hard to come by around this place.
Okay, I'm going to go shower now and put on something clean (these uniforms get disgusting after a few days—I actually get into the shower wearing it and peel it off/wash it by hand). This week has been so wild, I really need to rest a little. Paninya is almost never in the room anymore (it seems unfair of me to have this room to myself when everyone else is sharing, but they haven't assigned anyone else to the room yet). I'm pretty sure Paninya's gotten involved with a woman on her construction team, she spends most of her time with her and all their friends. I kind of miss having her around actually, but I'm glad at least one of us doesn't have to be lonely in that way. The hotel room gets so quiet nowadays, it makes me think of the time we stayed here. Do you remember making fun of the really ugly seafoam green comforter? It's the same in all the rooms. My room is exactly like the one we stayed in… well, not exactly. My re-creation isn't quite the same. It's not as hot.
Hmm… I was gonna keep rambling, but I think I'll leave you with that. Take care.
They'd made that trip to North City in the dead of winter. Ed remembers because it was his primary excuse not to go. Winry had found the invitation lying at the top of the trash bin, prodded him for information, and when she found out it was actually more of a gala she suggested that they both go. Henry was finally old enough to spend a few days with a sitter, and she had spent the last three weeks all but glued to her workbench—what she needed, she'd said, was a weekend away. She was all worked up and wanted to unwind. She wanted to wear a little black dress, to eat free food and drink free wine, to feel sexy for the first time in months.
When phrased like that, Ed had suddenly found the whole trip much more appealing. She hadn't cared about the conference itself any more than he, but soon it became an opportunity rather than a chore. They spent the entire weekend cooped up in that hotel together, emerging only for the evening gala and sneaking back to the room before end-of-the-night pleasantries.
Outside, the weather had been abysmal. Ed and Winry returned from dinner shivering from the walk and dusted in a layer of snow. But inside, they'd had no such complaint. Inside it had been hot, hot like melting, hot like strands of Winry's long hair plastered to the back of her neck and the sound of his name on her breath. They were so hot that Ed had raised himself up to give her a little air when it was over. He remembers because he'd watched her shoulder blades come together as she propped herself on her elbows, and the bead of sweat as it rolled down the ridge of her spine and pooled at the small of her back.
Ed thinks of her now, curled up under that hideous green comforter with her hood pulled over her ears to keep the cold out. No electricity, no light, no heat.
25 March 1923
Sorry I haven't written in so long. Things have been absolutely insane here. There was a GI outbreak that made many people sick. We suspect it's from contamination in the drinking water. Luckily I've always had clean water. Plus we're getting into the rainy season now, which hasn't been good for illness. There's been an influx of pneumonia that landed lots of otherwise healthy people back in the cots… including that little girl who was my first solo surgery (Janie, remember?). She and the others cough all through the night.
By the way, when you get this, make sure to thank the kids for the drawings they sent. They are beautiful! I hung them on my wall with their photographs.
Mr. Mustang and his team have been here pretty much nonstop, trying to help organize everything. I finally had that coffee day with Ms. Riza. It was nice, she's so easy to talk to, but when I got back to my room (I almost wrote 'home', ugh) it made me feel unusually sad. I miss you so much, all of you, it almost makes it worse to write. I can't believe it's been almost three months. I don't know what I was expecting, but it wasn't this. Every time we start to improve, something happens to take us back.
We're still having aftershocks. Whenever that happens, Gwen assigns me to ambulance duty and I ride with a few other squad members to aid some of the towns that can't get to us. We operate right in the back of the ambulance, then draw straws to decide who has to hose it out after the shift ends. I try not to think about these things when I'm off duty, but they follow me, you know? I can't shake it sometimes. I know I have to move forward, but it's not easy.
I've been getting to know the townspeople better, but that's not always a good thing. It makes it harder when something happens to somebody. I always wish I could do more for these people, but there's only so much I can give. On the bright side, I somehow became the go-to girl for automail issues. Both with patients and the relief staff. It started off with that surgery I told you about in my last letter, and then one day Paninya came to be for repairs when she damaged her automail at work. She had to wait for me to get off duty, and then all of Bravo watched me repair her knee joint (which was nerve-wracking, because Dominic's automail is a work of ART and I'm still afraid I'll mess it up).
That's probably my favorite thing, repairing automail. It's therapeutic to just work with a wrench for a while, instead of a scalpel… although I have been using the scalpel for these things, too. The surgeons usually consult me to see if someone's a candidate for grafting before they amputate, and I either show them where/how to make the cut in order to save the most nerves or do it myself. Never thought I'd have to use that saw, but there you have it. I would probably panic, but there's no time for that. After the first time I went out back and threw up. Dr. Knox saw it happen and told me to 'get your shit together'. He even offered me a cigarette but I don't think I've reached that point yet (no worries, I don't see that point as a possibility).
So that's it, I guess. I'm okay, just tired and overwhelmed. I would give a year's salary for some fresh fruit, but there's none for kilometers and it's impossible to ship it from home without it getting rotten. And on top of that, technically we're not allowed to keep food in our rooms, so I'd have nowhere to store it. Which reminds me of something Ms. Riza said—she mentioned that supplies have been running low lately. There's only so much Mr. Mustang can pull for government funding, and outside donations to the organization have been dwindling. I almost couldn't believe it, but then I realized that the rest of the country doesn't have the perspective I do. It's like a different world out there.
The next letter that comes isn't a letter at all. It clearly traveled through the rain at least once, for the envelope is warped and wrinkled and a little damp, and at first Ed is afraid her letter may have been reduced to a glob of wet paper and ink. Cursing the careless post carrier who may have ruined his lifeline, Ed lets the letter dry on the sunny windowsill for a whole day before taking it up again.
Ed tears the flap of the envelope and finds a newspaper clipping folded into quarters. He gently eases it apart, wincing as the paper crackles and threatens to tear beneath his fingers. Once he's unfolded it, he presses it flat against the kitchen table and turns it over. Immediately he almost wishes he hadn't—after three months without her, Ed had adopted in his head a more glorified image than this. The photo was taken from the side and a little behind, but even from her profile he can see that she's lost a lot of weight. She's the center of the photograph, standing in what looks like the a crowded hospital room (the command center, it must be) two pens holding her hair up in a sloppy bun. She had mentioned that the uniforms were too big, but that had been an understatement. She's practically swimming in it. The hems of her pants are rolled up several times just so they don't drag down past her trainers. In the background, a foot sticks out from under a sheet with a shoe hanging on by the toes. Ed looks at the photo for several long seconds, then walks out of the room.
He comes back a few minutes later, sits down at the table and reaches across for the newspaper clipping. This time he's a little more prepared, and on the second viewing the knot in his gut eases up a little. Winry's shoulders are slumped forward, drooping as if there were an invisible weight perched there, but despite the evident exhaustion there's something powerful in her posture. She stands with her feet apart, leaning on her heels, her hands clasped behind her back and what looks like a scalpel dangling from between two fingers. It's hardly a defeated pose—on the contrary, she looks physically strong, sturdy. Her chin is tipped up, jaw set in a hard line, brows furrowed but eyes appraising. Ed smirks when he spots the head of a wrench sticking out from her jacket pocket.
Below the image there's a short caption, smudged from the rain but still legible:
North City (AP). Winry Rockbell, 24, of Resembool waits for the ambulance to bring in another wave of injured citizens from the aftermath of January's devastating earthquake. A dwindling budget has meant a decrease in supplies for practitioners, but surgeons like Rockbell aren't giving up just yet. "I guess to [former donors], it's all over and done," she said on Tuesday. "It's been so long since the earthquake that most people don't pay attention to relief efforts anymore, like time makes the problem go away. But we're still here."
Instead of swapping out this photo for her last letter, Ed pins it to the photo board, where it stands out amidst the smiling color photographs. Annelise, whose table chair faces the board, notices it during dinner. She and Henry both scramble down from their seats, tussle over who gets to use the step stool first, and when Annelise wins the fight she climbs up to look at the picture. When she still can't get high enough, she gives a frustrated cry and orders Henry to take it down. He does, unpinning the fragile paper more carefully than Ed had thought possible for a boy of almost four.
"Is that Mommy?" says Annelise. She cranes to look past Henry's shoulder at the clipping in his hands, like she doesn't believe that the woman in the photograph can possibly be her mother.
"Yup, that's her!" Henry sounds almost satisfied. Almost proud. He looks up at his father, and the look on his face makes Ed smile.
Annelise reaches up and jabs a finger at the picture. "Who's foot's that?" she says. "Is he sleeping with his shoes on, Daddy?"
Ed turns back to the plate. He picks up the knife and resumes cutting Sofia's food into safe-sized bites. He feels the corner of his mouth droop out of its short-lived grin as he thinks about what Winry might say. Generally she has the same philosophy that her parents had—if children ask questions, they deserve real answers. But all Ed wants is for his children to have what he never could.
"Yeah," he says.
28 April 1923
What were you thinking? You could have gotten all four of us in huge trouble if someone from infection/pest control found out. Not to mention if someone had reported Mr. Mustang for playing favorites, he could have gotten reprimanded or worse!
In other words—YES, I just received your package! And you know, until I got it I didn't even remember it was my birthday. I really have no sense of time around here.
I stashed the whole thing under my bed and covered it in a sheet, just in case someone comes in my room for some reason (although nobody ever does. Paninya's finally made it official with the construction lady and hasn't been back in weeks). I almost feel bad having it, it's so unfair to everyone else, but I'm greedy so I'm not going to tell anyone because then it will be GONE.
Remember what I said about your timing? Well, it still stands. I was having an awful day, six surgeries back-to-back, and I was fantasizing about sleep/walking back to my hotel when I ran into Ms. Riza… in hindsight, I guess, she was probably looking for me. Anyway, she invited me for coffee and I said I couldn't, I was just too tired, and I was still covered in blood, but then she said I really ought to come so eventually I gave in. We went to the usual place, we had a drink. Then Mr. Mustang showed up with this rolling suitcase and said they were going to be staying for a few days in the same hotel with the rest of his team, and wouldn't I give him a tour? And obviously I was in no mood for tour-giving, but they are just so nice to me, so I agreed of course.
I'm sure you know the rest. We went to the hotel, I showed them around, they asked to see what the rooms look like (which I thought was suspicious, since I know for a fact they've stayed here before), and then in my room he told me the suitcase was for me and… Ed! Thank you so much. The card from the kids was wonderful—three little handprints! It's too cute. I can't believe it, they're all growing up so fast.
The socks were exactly what I needed, but I actually burst into tears when I saw all that fresh fruit. Apples! I don't remember the last time I had an apple. As we speak I am just finishing one up, and I think I'll chase it with a pear. It's too much, of course. You shouldn't be calling favors with such high-ranked military personnel, but I guess at this point it doesn't count with Ms. Riza and Mr. Mustang. When I tried to pay him back, he said it wasn't necessary because you two have some sort of running tab that I don't know about…? I don't know, but it was such a nice thing to do. Thank you so much. I'll have to try to pace myself, or else I'll eat it all before it's even ripe.
So what else is new? Well, in the realm of not-so-great news, I am still very busy… in other words, pneumonia and the GI bug are still on the rise, and the latest aftershock brought us more patients (but still fewer than the other times). We are doing fewer major surgeries these days, a lot of our focus has shifted to infection control and primary care.
Oh, Isaiah finally apologized for being such a jerk to me the first few months. We are not friends, but I accepted his apology and now there's no more awkwardness between us (read: he no longer cringes every time he looks at me). Took long enough!
Yesterday I went to the bar after shift with the rest of my squad. They go out an awful lot for people who work as much as I do, and I don't usually go with them, but I like to do something from time to time aside from sleep and work.
I'm off to bed now… with a full belly! Amazing. You're really something else, but you already knew that.
Outside, rain pelts the window like bullet spray. Ed can hear it from where he sits at Winry's workbench, scribbling out the last lines of an equation. This is the last bit of information he needs before he sends the report to Al and Mei in Xing. It takes over a month for anything to reach that side of the world, and the couple moves so frequently that he never knows when they'll receive his message. But he doesn't care as long as it reaches their hands eventually; it's been a long time since they worked with hard deadlines.
Once he's sealed the letter in its envelope and written out the address in pen, Ed leans back in the chair and stretches until his joints pop. He stands, pushing in the chair just like he found it, then spots his untouched sandwich. He hasn't been properly hungry in months, but he eats half of it on his journey up from the basement and wraps the rest for tomorrow. After reading Winry's latest letter, he's had a particularly difficult time throwing away his leftovers.
Ed pauses in the kitchen, cups his hands around his eyes to see out into the dark. It is well after midnight, but the rain keeps falling as hard as it has for the last three days. Aside from giving Henry and Annelise a good reason to go puddle jumping, the rain bears him no inconvenience. It actually soothes him a bit, instilling him with a sense of calm while he stares up at the ceiling of his bedroom for hours into the night, and he's found that he's more prone to drifting off with the white noise than without.
12 May 1923
Hi, hope you are well. I'm doing fine. Well, actually, that's not true. That patient I told you about, Janie, she died last night. The pneumonia kept getting worse no matter what I did for treatment—and I tried everything. Prescriptions, fluids, everything, but none of it worked. She basically suffocated. I was with her when she passed away, I even held her hand, but it didn't matter. I wanted to be strong for her, to give her the attention she deserved while passing and the grief she deserved after, but…I'm just all out. It's too much. I just stood up and moved on to the next patient. I've learned so much here, but it's never enough. All this knowledge in my head and I can't even save one little girl from drowning in her own lungs.
I'm sorry to burden you with this, but I know that you get it, and I have to tell somebody or else I'll just fall apart. I think I'm starting to understand why you never wrote.
Ed doesn't reply to that letter. He doesn't stop carrying the previous letter, either, doesn't add it to the growing stack in his bedside table. The letter dated 28 April remains where it's been for almost a month, pressed between his wallet and the fabric of his pants.
12 May he folds in half, then into thirds. He tucks it into the breast pocket of his shirt and that's where it stays.
15 May 1923
I'm sorry about that last letter. Okay, I'm not sorry that I wrote it and sent it, but I am sorry if it made you worry. I'm still a little shaken, but I'm feeling a little better today. Rita and Hannah came to my hotel room the day after it happened, and we spent hours talking about all sorts of things—our job, how we deal with being constantly surrounded by death, all that kind of thing. Rita has a battery-operated kettle and Hannah somehow got a hold of a packet of hot chocolate powder, so we split it three ways. As you might imagine it was watery, but it was still better than the coffee here and I haven't had chocolate in 3+ months (!) so it was actually amazing. It was really nice of them to come. They made me feel like I wasn't alone in this. I can't thank them enough, but I think they understand.
Of course, during our next shift, we paid for not sleeping and had to double up on caffeine to stay awake. Lucky for us it was a calmer day than usual. The number of surgeries is finally starting to decrease noticeably. For the first time the outlook doesn't look awful. I ran into Paninya the other day… she hurt her shoulder, but she's fine… she says that construction has been going well, too. They're still working on the hospital, but they've built two shelters in North City and several more in neighboring towns. They've also repaired a lot of homes, and made sure to build them sturdier so they'll resist earthquakes in the future.
I still have no idea how long I'll be needed here, but I plan on staying until they send me home. Maybe not even then, if I feel like they could use my help.
The kids' room is gathering dust. Ed turns on the lights in search of Sofia's missing shoe and notices the thin layer of gray on the bureau. Until this moment he hadn't noted their migration, too concerned about Henry's recent weepiness, but now the cause of both conditions seems rather obvious. Ed thinks of Winry coming home to it forgets what he was doing.
When Henry comes into the room to find his father standing up on the bed, dusting the ceiling fan, he comes to a dead stop. No doubt he came in to investigate the source of the racket, which turns out to be Sofia banging a wooden spoon on an upturned saucepan, but he pays her little heed aside from when he ducks the spoon as it comes flying at his head.
"What's going on?" says Henry, and though Ed hears the waver in his voice he doesn't turn around.
Annelise pops out from inside the closet, brandishing a feather duster like sword. There's a purple handkerchief tied around her forehead like a sweatband, and tufts of her blonde hair stick straight up from around the edges.
"Spring cleaning, big brother!" she cries.
She lunges at Henry with it, makes a swipe at him, and prances off when he doesn't react. Slowly Henry bends, picks the wooden spoon up off the floor, and looks at it. He sniffles. Then Henry crosses the room and hands the spoon back to Sofia, who thanks him with a jovial shriek. From the corner of his eye, Ed watches as Henry finds the clean dust rag on the floor and begins to polish his bookshelf.
27 June 1923
You'll never guess where I am writing this letter from… don't freak out. I am in a cot in the command center. That's right, I am now a patient in my own hospital. No worries, I'm completely fine, but it was a close call. I only have a few minutes to write this so I have to be brief, but basically I was riding passenger in the ambulance. Greg was driving, it was raining and dark (3rd shift), and he realized at the last second that the bridge out of North City had collapsed. He swerved, we wound up down at the bottom of the hill in a ravine, and he had to drag me out before the whole ambulance went into the river. Luckily the ambulance behind us (Rita and Robbie) stayed on the road, and it was even luckier that none of us were carrying patients.
I have no recollection of any of this, but apparently I resisted treatment (which is a nice way of saying I tried to fight them off) and they eventually had to coax me into the back of the ambulance (knock me out), and this morning I woke up here! I feel fine now, I just have a minor headache, but that's a small price to pay for survival. The secret is to always wear your seatbelt. Greg wasn't wearing his, and his head nearly went through the windshield. He needed eight stitches in his eyebrow. We're both very lucky.
You must know that I am only telling you this because it's the right thing to do. Otherwise nothing has changed, so please do not worry. I'll be back on my feet tomorrow.
I've got three minutes before Hannah takes this to the post box, but things that have happened since last we spoke: um, Mitch made something called "cheesy grits" that may follow me into my nightmares. Oh, and I got to witness a birth! The woman was perfectly healthy, but she thought it might be safer to give birth here instead of at her home, since the water is still in a questionable state. Personally I would have just stayed home, I wouldn't want to give birth in this disease-ridden place (I didn't tell her this, of course), but the whole thing went smoothly… such a nice change of pace! I really needed that. Okay, Gwen threatened to stick me with a sedative unless I rest now, so I'm gonna wrap this up. I'll write you soon to prove that I'm all right.
Admittedly, Ed does get a little nervous when her promised follow-up letter doesn't arrive within the next two weeks. He acknowledges that he has no right to feel any sort of concern about this, not with his record, yet even so he catches himself checking the post more often than usual. Henry notices this, too, but he doesn't ask because he knows that when the letter does come, he'll receive a report on its contents (most of which Ed glosses over, re-phrases, or completely makes up while reading aloud). Still, the change puts them both at ill-ease, which in turn makes Annelise suspicious, which is never a good thing because she is cleverer than perhaps both of them and has a way with getting the information she wants. Two days later she somehow gets Ed to confess that Winry may or may not have gotten into a precarious situation at some point recently.
Henry has a complete meltdown. He is inconsolable, thoroughly convinced that his mother is dead. Annelise becomes so angry with Ed for keeping secrets that she actually aims a swat at him, except she hits his automail leg by mistake and then dissolves into tears because she thinks she's broken her fingers. Sofia sees the other two crying and cries too, just on principle. It takes some quick thinking and even quicker talking to calm them down, but none of them really feels any better until the next letter arrives. Lucky for Ed, this happens the following afternoon.
13 July 1923
I know all those things you said in your last letter, you only said because as my husband you are morally obligated to do so. Well thank you, but you very know well that I am incapable of 'taking it easy'! I'm completely fine now. Within a couple days I was off light duty and back to work as usual… they even had me remove Greg's stitches, so they must not be concerned about psychological trauma.
Jokes aside, last week's report looked really good—we're down emergency visits by almost fifty percent since the same time three months ago. The Gwen heard that they might start cutting the forces back if the trend keeps up… which doesn't necessarily mean anything in terms of me coming home, but it's good news in general. We'll get the official word in the upcoming weeks. I'll be sure to let you know what happens.
Not much new to report that I haven't already told you. I might be on the road for a little while in the next few weeks, so if you don't hear from me, that's why. There's still no power in North City or the surrounding areas, but a bunch of nearby towns have finished setting up their own primary and critical care units. Gwen and I are going to go and assess the places/make sure they meet the standard for sanitation, supplies, etc. I hear there's a town a few hours north of here that has a large population of automail-users! I've been itching to get into my old toolbox, so I hope it's true.
Mr. Mustang seems to be making the most of the limited means. I'm glad he's been working so hard for us this whole time. Getting the nearby towns back on their feet means that we're all better off. The trouble is that smaller towns have even less funding and thereby less reliable infrastructure (or at least they did, before January). Construction teams have been working nonstop. I'm excited to see how everyone's moving forward.
"What are you doing, Daddy?"
For the first time since she left, Ed is glad that Winry's not here. The apparently anomalous event is Ed sitting on the kitchen floor, oiling his automail. If Winry could have heard Annelise ask the question, like he's never maintained his this before, she would have left a welt in the back of his head.
Ed leans in to inspect the joint of his knee. It's been squeaking when he walks, a telltale sign of neglect. Hopefully if he can find the source of the noise, he can oil it up before anything starts to chafe in the gears.
"Just maintenance, Annie," he says, too distracted by his search to give a proper answer.
It comes out like 'may-niss' and could possibly be one of the cutest things he's ever heard, second to Henry's mispronunciation of 'ow-phonse'. Ed glances sidelong at Annelise and smirks. With her standing and him sitting, she almost reaches his eye level.
"It means I'm fixing my leg."
"Is it broke?"
"Not yet. I'm trying to make sure it doesn't break. See?" Ed holds up the oil can and rag as proof. "If it were broken, what would I need?"
"A... a wrench," she says, after searching for the word.
Ed laughs. "Actually I was gonna say 'a hospital', but that's a more optimistic answer."
He goes back to oiling the automail. If he can't find the source of the squeak, he'd better just pop the knee cap and slather the whole thing. Better to overkill than leave room for repairs. After a few moments of watching, Annelise sits down and scoots over to get a better look. She has the thumb of one hand stuck in her mouth, but she squints at his leg like she's pondering a math equation.
Ed has always found it interesting how none of his children bother to question his leg. Before Henry was old enough to understand, he used to think that Ed wore armor on his leg. Annelise just assumed he was born with it like that. Neither of them thinks twice about it—to them, the sight of gears and the smell of axle grease are as mundane as the weather. There's something strange and funny about Annelise's concern, though, as if she's more confused by Ed performing the maintenance than she is by the automail itself. The fascination in her bright blue eyes is something he well recognizes, but not from her.
"That's Mommy's job," she says.
"That's right," says Ed. "But she's not here, so I'm supposed to do it when she's gone."
Annelise hesitates, withdrawing the thumb from her mouth to reach over and poke the exposed wires with her finger. When she looks up at him, he regrets the unease in her expression.
"Is she gonna come back?"
Ed ruffles her hair with the hand that isn't coated in grease, kisses her forehead. "Of course," he says, and hopes she can tell that he means it.
11 August 1923
Six months to the day. There's almost nothing about my situation that even remotely resembles where I was six months ago. I have this entirely new skill set that I have no idea what I'll do with once I come home. I've met so many people, and helped so many, and lost so many. It's enough to make my head hurt thinking about it.
Like I said in my last letter, I've been on the move. Lots of automail clients in that northern town, just like I had hoped… and guess what? Their automail engineer hasn't been around in months! I talked Gwen into letting us stay here a little longer than expected, so I could repair as many people as possible. It's been wonderful to get back into automail engineering for a bit. It's like returning to myself. The weird thing is, I was almost surprised when they tried to pay me for helping them… I had actually forgotten, I do this for a living in my other life! I haven't actually seen physical currency in months. I hope I don't forget to charge any of the clients back in Rush Valley, or Garfiel will strangle me.
Also, they finally sent the first group of people home. Only non-military people such as myself, and I suspect I would have been one of them if I wasn't out here in the woods. Who knows when second rounds will happen? It could be months from now. Things are looking more stable, but we're far from finished here, at least on the whole.
I hope you, Henry, Annelise, and Sofia are all healthy and happy. I'm not going to leave a return address, because I have no idea where I'll be next… so I'll just have to trust that everything is fine at home. You seem to have done pretty well so far!
The letter leaves Ed with an odd sense of satisfaction that he doesn't feel he deserves. He's glad to carry it with him for as long as he does, but it doesn't prepare him well for the note that follows.
The writing is jarred and sloppy, worse even than when she wrote him after her concussion. He sits down before he starts to read.
2 September 1923
I shouldn't have left. We just got back to the command center to find the whole place in chaos. While we were gone, there was an accident on one of the construction sites and the façade of a building came down on the workers. Paninya was in there, along with the rest of her team. And when Bravo was sent in for first aid, the rest of it came down… Rita and Greg are dead. And Paninya's girlfriend is severely injured. Her name is Lana. She's alive but Dr. Knox says her prospects are not looking good. Paninya hasn't woken up yet but they think she'll be all right. I'll have to talk to her before she has to hear it from someone else.
I should have been there with them, instead of up north having fun with automail. Maybe I'd have been killed, too, but I could have at least helped—they were short-staffed here because they sent so many people home already, and because Gwen and I weren't here they had to put people with less experience on for surgery. I know there's no sense in it, but I feel so guilty. Just a few weeks ago I was sharing hot chocolate with her and now she's gone. Damn it. I don't know what to do. Why is it that I keep getting lucky like this?
You know, it's almost scary the way things work here. For so much of the time I spent here I thought I was inconveniencing people, I was in the way, I couldn't learn fast enough. And maybe that's so—when it was just me added in the group, I couldn't do much alone. But when they needed me, I wasn't there. One person really does make that big of a difference. Individually we are all insignificant, but without each member there can't be a collective, either. One more pair of hands could have made all the difference, but I guess I'll never know.
Ed had been ready to start reinforcing the rules. Since Winry left he's been sloppier than he'd admit aloud. He's basically let the kids call the shots, which doesn't amount to much difference in their daily life. They still eat meals together, play together, solve puzzles and read books. The difference is that the kids seem to think that they are doing these things of their volition alone.
He finds it rather amusing that children with such perceived independence still feel the need to sleep in his bed. Ed really ought not let them do this—the books suggest that never forcing children to sleep in their own beds leads to lifelong dependency and neediness. Up until 2 September arrives, Ed is ready to finally kick them out. Winry will be home sooner rather than later (he hopes), and he doesn't want her to think that he's lost his wherewithal. Her coming home to three babies that stubbornly refuse to stay in their room isn't indicative of proactive parenting.
The day the letter arrives Ed wanders around the house like a lost man. He tries and fails to work on his research, and loses a game of checkers against Henry for the first time. In the evening, he tucks all three kids into their own beds, then tries a second attempt at his work. Failing that, he shuffles back into his bedroom for sleep. The trouble occurs when he opens his arms, prepared to fall face-first into the mattress, and there is already someone there. Two someones, in fact—Henry and Annelise both, one having taken over each of the two pillows. Ed doesn't have to read any parenting books to know that this is a bad habit, but now he finds that he doesn't care enough to do anything about it, and that maybe he had been dreading this night alone, too.
7 September 1923
The services were nice, if you could call them that. The military sent their bodies back home, but we had a small service where some of the staff and military people made speeches. After the ceremony we all went to the bar together (except for Charlie squad, who was on duty for the long shift). I got rather drunk and cried a lot. Hannah did, too, so it wasn't as embarrassing that I couldn't keep myself together.
I'm feeling better now. Mostly I'm glad the details are over. The construction is back under way—turns out it wasn't the fault of any one person, which I honestly prefer. A few people wanted someone to blame, but what's the use? The problem is fixed now, and the crew is double-checking the other construction sites to make sure nothing like this happens again. Lana is still in bad shape, Paninya's been checking back every few hours to see if there's any news. So far nothing. She's unconscious/unresponsive, broken limbs, possible respiratory issues.
Once the injured people were treated and released, our numbers in the treatment room actually hit a record new low. We're almost exclusively down to primary care now, which will be unnecessary whenever the construction is finished on the proper hospital and the local clinics. Infection rates are still not great, which leads to more casualties than I'm happy with (as if I could be happy with any number other than zero), but they're at al all time low too.
There's talks of making cuts again, sending people home. At this point I'll be happy either way—getting sent home or staying here. If they need me, I'm glad to stay. But I'm just so tired. I want a hot shower and I want to hug my babies. I've learned more in the last seven months than I thought I ever could. I know I keep saying it, but it never stops amazing me. But I'm just so tired, you know?
When he flips through the mail, he almost throws away the postcard. It looks so unremarkable that he mistakes it for an advertisement, and is in the middle of grumbling about junk mail when he turns it over and sees his address in Winry's handwriting.
The body of the postcard doesn't tell him much. There's his address on the right, with a postmark, but there's nothing written on the left side but a question mark that takes up most of the message space. Beneath it, in a tinier version of Winry's writing, is one line: "14 September1923 – Progress"
Ed flips the card over, as if expecting to find more on the other side when he already knows there's not, but the only writing reads "Greetings from North City!" in bold, curving letters. It's actually quite tacky-looking, just like a card from a tourist trap. The image itself is unremarkable, if a little bland for a postcard. There's the brick face of a building, its windows glittering in a reflection of the sunlight. A plaque above the front door reads "City Hall". Everything about the photograph, from the paint on the door to the sidewalk along the bottom edge, looks impeccably clean. Almost like new.
He squints suspiciously at the card but nevertheless pins it up on the photo board.
All four of them are seated in their usual chairs, Henry and Annelise bickering about who got more cereal while Ed picks absently at his toast and Sofia feeds her breakfast to the dog under the table. A knock on the door stops them all in place. Henry, ever the optimist, jumps down from his chair and climbs up on the couch to see the front step through the window. The disappointed groan that follows signals to everyone that it's just the daily post delivery.
Ed fixes the postwoman with a nonplussed look when he opens the door. "Isn't it a little early?" he says.
She grins apologetically, offering the stack of mail wrapped in newspaper as recompense. "Sorry, just doing a personal favor this morning," she says. She presses the stack into his hands. "Gotta run. Have a nice day!"
"Yeah, thanks," Ed says distractedly, but he's already turned back into the house.
He eases the door shut with his foot, cradling the mail in his arm and picking through it as per his daily ritual. Her letter is at the bottom. His eyes fall on the back of the envelope first, but he doesn't need to turn it over to know who it's from—he'd know the off-white stationery in his sleep now. Annelise and Henry set their spoons down as Ed tosses aside the rest of the mail, tears the flap open with his thumb and slides the letter out.
18 September 1923
Things are looking up in North City. The construction team finished up the hospital, so they kicked us out of central command and turned it back into town hall. Aren't those the tackiest postcards you've ever seen? Anyway, I spent three days working on primary care, trying to set everyone up for a proper fresh start. Most of the time I was doing charting, because we really slipped up on that as time went on, and I wanted each of the townspeople to have the best record of care possible. Who had what surgery, what their long-term treatment plans are, etc. Oh, and Lana woke up! Her prognosis is much improved, we're thinking she'll be all right. I'm so glad.
I thought they'd have to kick me out kicking and screaming, but really, I left feeling sure that everything was going to be okay. Now I've got three suitcases, two toolboxes, and not enough hands to carry it all. I thought I'd be anxious, but I'm not. For the moment, I've decided the only thing better than the train ride home is arriving at the platform. Care to prove me wrong?
Ed stares at the letter for a full five seconds before he turns it over and examines the front of the envelope. There's no postage mark.
The sound of Henry's voice is what eventually snaps him out of his trance. "What is it?"
Ed looks up. Three pairs of bright eyes watch him for answers, anticipation plain on their faces, and he's almost surprised to see hope there as well. With a deep breath, Ed sets the letter on the countertop and turns to face them, their three children. Ed props his fists on his hips.
"Shoes on, everybody," he says, and that's all it takes.