beta by HaganeCat
All characters portrayed in this work of fan art are not mine and all rights are reserved to Fullmetal Alchemist (Hagane no Renkinjutsushi) © Hiromu Arakawa / Square/Enix.
Thank you, Arakawa-shi.
I drew this illustration first as an illustration for this scene that kept popping into my head and then figured I should just write the scene that let up to it too.
It was full night when the two men and their burden emerged from the tunnels on the outskirts of North City. Darius shoved his shoulder against the mine door they'd ripped open, trying to at least make it look like the thing was still locked shut.
"Help me with the kid," said Heinkel, shifting the unconscious burden off his back. The Fullmetal Alchemist hadn't come around even once since his alchemic 'healing' and over the last hour the lion in Heinkel's blood had felt the thud of the boy's pulse slow and weaken. Darius slipped his good arm around the boy's torso and helped lay him down on the snow.
"We'll need a car."
Darius nodded. "He's bleeding again." The ape-like chimera showed his companion the red smudge on his uniform where he had held the boy. Heinkel nodded and looked around. They were at the edge of a vast flat covered with snow. It had once been fenced with chain link and there was a gate at the end furthest away from them. A parking lot, most likely, although with the mine closed, it was abandoned and empty. A snow covered road, as trackless as the lot, led away towards a sprinkling of lights in the foothills below.
"We'd better change back in case someone sees us. It'll make it harder to carry him, but we don't have much choice."
"If you are tired, I can take him," Darius offered, but Heinkel shook his head.
"With your arm like that, you couldn't hold onto him well enough. He's like dead weight; he isn't conscious enough to hold on himself."
"How much worse is he?"
Heinkel shrugged. "You can smell his condition as well as I can. At least he's not dead yet. Until he is, we've got to try to keep him alive." The lion-man shook his mane and then, concentrating, forced his shape back into its former configuration. His body was smaller in human form, but not by much, however it was much easier to chill or fatigue than when he took on his chimera. He quickly buttoned up his shirt and coat.
"Damn kid," Darius, who had also changed back, was examining his wounded arm. The boy's blade had gone between the radius and ulna bones leaving them both intact but the gaping wound was caked with blood and stuck fast to the fibers of Darius's coat. "This hurts."
"Come on." Heinkel took his charge's arm and slung him back onto his back, hitching the boy high enough to settle him there. The mine had been chilly, but Heinkel's lion body had kept the youngster warm enough. Now, with the cold of a clear winter night blowing on them, the little alchemist twitched with feeble shivers. "Hold it," he said, setting Edward down again. He took off his coat and handed it to Darius. "He'll be hypothermic before we get out of the parking lot if we don't keep him covered. That coat's designed to stretch for our transformations; I should be able to get it on over him."
Darius nodded and helped Heinkel get the boy and his garment situated. The coat covered Edward completely, hiding him very well, though it made Heinkel look even more monstrous than his chimera form. Darius took out his knife and sliced a flap out of the back of the coat where Edward's face lay.
"So he can breathe," he explained. Heinkel nodded and the men headed for the town.
A car had turned out to be the easy part.
The suburbs of North City were apparently so crime free that no one bothered to lock their vehicles. Finding a hospital in the early hours of the morning, however, was not proving as simple. They dared not go any place official; their uniforms would draw too much unwanted attention and the events in Baschool likely had been reported to the authorities. When they didn't find any bodies they might start circulating descriptions in the hope that the Fullmetal Alchemist had survived. If large hospitals were out, that left clinics and small private hospitals. The best of those would likely also be a mistake, since they would certainly report such an odd trio of customers. Their only remaining options were the seedier places – the ones that catered to criminals and people who either couldn't afford a top facility or the attention going to one would bring.
The third place they stopped at that looked like it would fit the bill also indicated it had round the clock service, something the previous places had not. Darius rang the bell. It took a few rings before he saw a window brighten high on the second floor and several more minutes before a face peered at him from the sidelight. Apparently satisfied, the door opened a crack.
"After hours are for emergency only," came an aged woman's oily voice. "Come back in the morning if you can walk."
"We've got a kid who needs help now," Darius explained. "He's got a belly wound and he's fading fast. He needs attention or he'll be dead by morning."
A squinting eye peered around the edge of the doorframe and looked the man over quickly.
"Military, eh? Hmph. OK, you can bring him in. But our rates are double after hours."
Darius snorted. "Don't worry," he said. "If you can keep him alive, he'll be good for it."
Heinkel turned at the sound coming from the back seat. Fullmetal hadn't made a voluntary noise in hours, but the sound he was making now reminded Heinkel faintly of gurgling.
"Damn," the man hissed and quickly shut off the car's engine. They didn't have any more time. The alchemic healing the boy had performed had been failing bit by bit all night, and now it seemed the part that had kept his diaphragm whole was letting go too. Without an airtight bronchial cavity, the boy would not be able to draw enough oxygen into his lungs and would suffocate. Heinkel opened the car's rear door and roughly dragged Edward out. There was no more time to look around – this place was going to have to accept them or it was going to be too late to get any help at all.
He slung the boy over his shoulder and headed for the door Darius stood at. There was a light behind it and as Heinkel ran towards the building, the door swung open to reveal a very short, grey haired woman in a stained lab coat.
"Get your doctor, this kid needs help NOW!" he called, rushing past his companion and into the little lobby.
To her credit, the little woman kept her cool and directed Heinkel to a gurney against the wall. He laid the wounded boy down where she'd indicated and was relieved when, after a quick look at Ed's blue lips and pallor, she reached into a nearby cabinet for a resuscitation mask. While squeezing its bladder, she jabbed a button on the wall with her elbow and the two men heard a buzzer ringing somewhere in the back of the building.
"You two need to help me get him upstairs," the woman commanded. She was small, but spoke with the force of someone who knew their business and expected to be obeyed. She climbed onto the side of the gurney and aimed a nod at an elevator door at the back of the lobby. "Shut the front door and turn off that light. We've only got two doctors on and this kid will need us both. You there, latch that deadbolt and start pushing the gurney. You, open the elevator door and help us get him inside."
The two men knew better than to argue or hesitate. While the woman stood with one foot on the gurney frame, the other knee beside her patient and her hands operating the resuscitation mask, they got into the elevator and up to the second floor. Greeting them as the doors opened was a balding man of indeterminate age, a few days growth of beard and eyes that clearly had been sleeping moments before.
"You said he had a belly wound?" the woman asked Darius.
"Yeah," the man replied. "Well, more than just the belly – he got impaled by a piece of steel."
That comment made both doctors pause.
"Hmmm. Maybe you need to give us a little bit more information on this patient." The new doctor said, taking over the respirator as the short woman began to cut the boy's clothes off him. "Impaled? By what?"
As Darius briefly explained what had happened, the short doctor got Edward's coat and shirt off of him. Heinkel could now see the extent of the boy's injury. That steel beam had made a frighteningly large wound on the slight teen, but the sight of the automail arm and scarring around it was even more unsettling. Heinkel had been a soldier his whole adult life and had seen his share of bodies wrecked by war, but seeing evidence of such violence on one so young was unexpectedly disturbing. 'He's been through hell long before this', the man thought.
Edward's newest wound was a ragged 'H' shaped injury with a sheen of newly transmuted skin over it. Traceries of blood seeped out along the edges indicating that this repair was also failing.
"A steel beam?" The male doctor sounded incredulous. "How long ago?"
"This afternoon," Darius answered. "The kid's military and was hurt fighting a rogue alchemist earlier today."
The old man snorted but kept squeezing the bladder to help Edward breathe. "An alchemist? Then I suppose this boy is one too? Of course, that explains the look of the wound. He tried to fix it himself." The two chimeras nodded. "How many hours ago did you say?"
"It was mid-afternoon," offered Darius. "Maybe three o'clock, so it's been over 10 hours."
The man frowned. "It's amazing he's not dead already. Well, if he's military, at least that means he can probably pay for his treatment. We'll give it our best to see he stays alive to do it."
The deep blackness of oblivion kept sliding away as if the table of the world tipped Edward towards consciousness. Yet whenever he approached it, the hint of pain promised agony. Some desperation had brought him up from the depths, but he could no longer remember what had been so urgent.
Murmurs that he knew to be human voices echoed around him, but he couldn't seem to file their patterns into words he could understand. The table tipped him closer to consciousness and though the voices grew louder, they were still muffled as if he'd had cotton wool in his ears or he was hearing them from under the water.
There was a pulling sensation at his belly and suddenly the agony found him in the blackness, lancing his mind with a red rip of pain. He tried to scream, but no sound came out of his mouth. More pulling followed and needles of unbearable torment radiated from the left side of his body. He tried desperately to get away from the pain, but it pursued him doggedly. He lashed out with all the strength he had, but his arms were so heavy and his legs felt like they were tied down.
The voices rose in alarm; he could tell that much from their tone. The pulling sensation at his side stopped but the agony remained. He slid towards consciousness even faster and became aware of the smell of blood, disinfectant and… linen? Cold on the inside of his elbow followed by a distant drop of pain. Now what? The voices continued, talking urgently and there was more tugging, this time of his automail arm and leg. What the heck were they doing to him?
He had just enough time to form the question before the blackness found him again.
"Can you take that sword thing off his arm?" the male doctor demanded. "He's going to kill one of us with it."
The two soldiers shrugged. "We're not alchemists," said Heinkel. "I don't know how they do that stuff. Why don't you try wrapping the arm in a sheet? That ought to keep it safe at least."
The doctor grumbled but nodded to his partner to do it. "What we're going to have to do is open him up again," he told the waiting soldiers. "You don't have to watch, but I'd like you to stick around just in case. I don't need a critical care patient who's been abandoned on my doorstep."
"We aren't going anywhere," Darius growled dangerously. "We owe him that much."
The doctor grinned. "So, what is this boy to you? Surely they don't put children in charge of soldiers like yourselves?" The question was met with stony silence, however it didn't seem to faze the doctor. "Suit yourself. As long as someone pays the bill, I don't much care. That sedative won't take long to take effect and we need to finish prepping him and actually start the surgery. There's a cot in the back if one of you wants to use it. This operation may take a while."
The voices had gone away and there was no one pulling at him anymore. His throat was dry and a little sore and his head still felt like it was full of cotton wool, but that was clearing bit by bit. His belly… There was still a yawning chasm of pain there, but something was keeping the screaming ache down to a dull roar. They'd given him something, a sedative perhaps. As long as he didn't move, it was bearable.
How long he lay, just enjoying the fact that he wasn't hurting, he didn't know. Time seemed to have taken on an odd, irregular quality, speeding up or slowing down without warning. Occasionally sounds would move around him, or his body would be touched, his wounds examined or a blinding light shone in his eyes, but when he tried to respond, time would speed up again and he was left acknowledging silence. Whatever it was they'd given him was really good stuff.
"How's the kid?" Darius asked as the lady doctor, Maybell, prepared his injured arm for stitches. "Your nurse wouldn't tell us anything all afternoon and since you've got him hooked up to all those tubes and things, we weren't sure how he was doing."
The woman merely smiled. "It was a very bad wound, Mr. Darius. Your young friend might have patched things together with his alchemy, but we needed to make sure all of his organs had been properly repaired. After all, how much could a boy know about human physiology? There was a whole great section of bowel we had to resect because of the way he tried to fix it. If we hadn't, the poor child would have died."
"Yeah, and you wouldn't get paid. I understand very well, but that doesn't tell me what I need to know. How long is it going to be before he's up and moving around? We don't want to stay here any longer than necessary."
"Oh, on that we agree, Mr. Darius. We want you and your friend to leave as soon as possible, but we also want him to be alive when he does. We'll have him awake before the day is out, but it may be weeks before he's healed enough to resume normal activities."
"Possibly months, he was very close to death, Mr. Darius."
The chimera winced as the doctor gave his arm a shot of anesthetic. "He's not going to like that."
"Then perhaps he shouldn't have been engaging in such dangerous activities. What did you say he was doing? Fighting a rogue alchemist? Strange how someone who should be being celebrated as an Amestrian hero is instead being looked after in our humble establishment. It makes one wonder who was the rogue."
"I thought you guys didn't ask any questions?"
She smiled even more broadly. "Oh, we don't care who you are as long as you have the money to pay us. I was just making the observation."
Darius eyed the woman warily. "Payment is conditional on you people keeping quiet. It goes against my nature to abandon a comrade in arms, but as far as I'm concerned, we've done our duty by bringing him here. We get even a whiff of military, we're out of here." The less he said about his and Heinkel's unique situation the better. It wouldn't be good for the kid if he was picked up, but at least he'd probably survive the experience. The two soldiers would most certainly be killed. Darius hadn't had much choice in the decision to be made into a chimera; the wounds that had made him a candidate for the procedure had been severe enough that he would have died if they had not acted, but the very fact of the existence of chimeras like him was something the military dared not let out. If they ever learned that he and Heinkel were not buried in the debris of Baschool, they would not stop until the two men were dead.
"There you are," said Dr. Maybell. "You've got remarkable healing abilities, Mr. Soldier. It had already started scarring over. Baring an infection, you should be just fine in no time." She canted an eye towards him. "If your young friend also has such recuperative powers, you may be out of here sooner than I guessed. Does he?"
Darius shrugged. "Beats me." He examined the bandage she had wrapped his right arm in and then pulled his jacket on over it. Even without the bloody gash in the sleeve, his military uniform would have to go. "We're going to need a change of clothes. You guys keep anything around?"
Maybell shrugged as she packed up her first aid supplies. "We've a few things left behind from other, less fortunate patients," she said. "You and your friend are free to look through them for anything that might fit."
Darius nodded, clearly understanding what she had meant by 'less fortunate' patients. "A real full service shop you run here, eh?"
The woman gave a little bow, managing somehow to put a full measure of sarcasm into it. "It is our pleasure to serve."
He was being touched again. Cool air on his chest and cooler hands in places he didn't feel particularly comfortable having them roused him to wakefulness. There was a strange sensation of pulling and suddenly a discomfort that had been dwarfed by the pain in his side was gone.
"There, it's out*, see if you can't wake him."
The light in his eyes blinded him again and he tried to turn away, though he apparently could not muster much of an effort because the cool hands had no problem holding his head in place.
"Do you understand me, boy?" The voice he'd heard before still sounded like it was underwater, but Ed could make out its meaning. "It's time for us to get you up. You don't need to walk if you aren't able yet, but we need to get you sitting at least. Do you understand what I am saying?"
The voice was simpering, smug and irritating, even through the distortion, and that was enough to motivate Ed to open his eyes. The face above him, bald and lined, looked like it was underwater too; its outline swam and squiggled in his view.
"There you are!" The face spoke with clearly fake cheerfulness. "Don't worry if you can't see or hear right – you're still on some powerful painkillers and they might make things look and feel strange – but it's alright. We'll handle everything. You just relax and we'll take care of things."
Ed tried to open his eyes wider, hoping it would clear his vision. It didn't. He tried to bring his hand to his face to see what was obstructing them, but his left arm seemed strapped down. He tried his right.
"Whoa there!" The irritating voice got suddenly sharp and angry. "You keep flinging that sword thing around, we'll take that whole arm off, got it?"
Ed's automail arm seemed to have turned into a great blob of white. He blinked again, but it stubbornly remained that way.
"Wha…" His lips felt funny too.
"Now, don't do anything but lie there. We'll do all the work. You'll just end up in pain if you try to use your stomach muscles." Two pairs of arms slid under his back and slowly lifted Ed to a sitting position.
The world lurched sickeningly and of its own volition, Ed's stomach tensed.
Pain rippled through his body like a wave and left him shuddering and breathless, but it also cleared his head.
"Sh**!" he hissed through clenched teeth. Even breathing hurt, though Ed understood that the pain he was feeling was being tempered by heavy medication. If it hadn't, he'd have passed out. Another wave shivered through his body and he broke out in a cold sweat.
"Oops! Back down, Jack."
The two men lowered him back though not all the way down. Pillows had been stuffed under Ed's torso raising him up a few inches. It made breathing a bit less painful and brought the world back into somewhat normal focus.
"I'm Dr. Dean and this is my nurse, Jack. Do you remember what happened to you, boy?"
Pain was occupying the most of Ed's mind at that moment, but the question filtered through it. Something bad had happened to him, but the details were hazy. He looked from the doctor to the stocky male nurse and frowned.
"Lion king?" he slurred. His mouth was still numb and wouldn't work right.
"What?" the nurse asked chuckling. "What's that supposed to mean?"
The doctor shrugged. "I think it means he's still loopy. We'll try to get him sitting again in a bit. Keep an eye on his blood pressure. It might have dropped because of the pain or he might still have something bleeding in there."
The nurse nodded. "His buddies were asking about his condition. What do you want me to tell them?"
The doctor shrugged again. "Tell them he's still alive and that's amazing enough."
Though they were talking about him as if he were a piece of meat on the slab, Ed was growing disinterested in the exchange. He actually felt like a piece of meat on a slab, so he couldn't really argue with their treatment of him. Now that they weren't trying to move him anymore, he let the easing pain take him, his focus faltered and his eyes slid shut again.
"Hey, you, soldiers!"
Dr. Maybell stuck her head into the room where Darius and Heinkel were playing cards. It occurred to Heinkel that he wasn't sure if 'Maybell' was her first or last name, though he didn't much care as long as she did her job.
"Yeah?" Darius answered.
"Our nurse has left for the evening and the doctor needs a hand with your friend. Come on."
The two men put down their cards and got up to follow.
"Well, we wanted to see how the kid's doing," said Heinkel.
"Don't expect much," offered Maybell. "He's on medication and in a lot of pain, but the doctor needs him up to make sure his systems are all working. We tried to rouse him earlier today and it didn't go well. The doctor wants to make sure he's got enough hands to handle him if something goes wrong."
"Something goes wrong?" both men asked in unison.
Maybell waved absently at them. "You know, that sword he's got attached to his arm. If he's going to try and kill someone with it, it might as well be those who brought him rather than us, understand?"
"He must be feeling better if he's trying to kill people," offered Darius.
Edward was being housed in the recovery room on the second floor, probably the cleanest room in the building, Heinkel noted, though it was far from what he would have called sterile. The tubes and devices they'd had attached to the boy the day before were gone, though he still had an IV stuck in his arm. Other than that, the kid looked awful; pale as the sheets he was on and with dark circles under his eyes. He looked like someone had run him over with a truck.
The male doctor, Dean, Heinkel didn't know if that was a first or last name either, motioned him to the other side of Edward's bed.
"Put your arms under his back, one up by his shoulders and the other in the middle of the back. We are going to lift him slowly so that he's in a sitting position. Support him completely; I don't want him using his stomach muscles for anything. Understand?"
Heinkel resisted an impulse at sarcasm. "We're elite military," he explained. "I've got a little experience dealing with the injured."
Dean made a face and motioned to Darius. "Then you keep a hold of that metal arm of his. He almost took my nurse's head off with it."
"That was a trick in his condition," the other man muttered, but did as he was asked.
"What's his name?" asked the doctor.
Heinkel hesitated, then decided he wouldn't be giving too much away with just a first name. "Ed," he replied.
The doctor leaned over and gave Fullmetal's flesh shoulder a gentle shake. "Ed? It's time you got up again. We've held off on the pain medication a little so your head should be clearer, but it's going to hurt if you don't do exactly as I say. Wake up, young man."
The boy opened his eyes slowly and blinked at the sight of the bald doctor's face. He grimaced, though whether from the view or some pain he felt, Heinkel didn't know. Then he looked up at Heinkel and the soldier could almost feel the pain that haunted Fullmetal's golden eyes. They always said belly wounds were the worst.
"You?" Ed's voice was hoarse and weak. "You got me help?" He looked down to where Darius was holding his automail arm. "Thanks," he whispered. "You… you saved my life."
Seasoned veteran that he was, Heinkel felt a rush of warmth at the thanks. In the two days he had known this young man, Fullmetal had displayed courage, fortitude, resourcefulness and selflessness. He had earned the soldier's respect. Now, in obvious pain, the boy showed he also had the strength and quality to thank those who helped him. Kimblee, similarly wounded on the way to Briggs, had not been so gracious. For many years Heinkel had wondered if his loyalty to the military was misplaced, if the leaders whose orders he followed had something other than the best interests of their country at heart. The contrast between the two alchemists' character and the events of the past days had seemed to answer that question clearly. Heinkel smiled back at the boy with genuine esteem.
"Well, so far we have," he said. "But wait till you're back on your feet before you call it even."
End of Part 1 -
"This is going to hurt a little," Dr. Dean said with far less empathy than Ed would have liked. "But you've got to keep moving or your internal organs will stick together at the scar tissue where they were injured. That could cause you all kinds of problems later on." The bald doctor nodded to his assistant, the chimera Heinkel, and together the two men slid their arms under Ed's back and began to lift him.
He wasn't kidding, Ed thought as the first pains hit him. It felt like someone was pulling a piece of razor wire through his insides. He tried to relax as he had been told and let the two men carry his weight, but the pain escalated until his muscles twitched and trembled with agony.
"Stop," the boy gasped. He was only about halfway to a sitting position but stabs of torment were already rippling through his abdomen and darkening his vision. The men held still as Ed's trembling eased and the worst of the pain slowly subsided.
"That would be the scar tissue," explained Dean. "Your alchemy did a good job of fixing the damage, but you've got it all over your internal organs. A little pain now will help reduce the chance of adhesions forming between them later."
"Are you… done?" Ed panted weakly. The doctor shook his head with what looked to the alchemist like a faintly sadistic smile.
"I'm sorry, young man. You did a lot of damage to yourself, especially your intestines. With all the scar tissue in there there's a chance adhesions could cause blockages. If we don't move you frequently, your intestines could bind and twist, and that would kill you. Understand?"
Ed felt the cold sweat building up on his brow again. "Frequently?" The word was barely a whisper.
"I'm afraid so." This time the doctor's patronizing smile seemed downright demonic. "But it shouldn't be as painful as this first time. You've been on your back for almost two days. Even with that rhubarb draught1 we gave you, there might already be adhesions forming in your gut. If we move you gently and often, we can keep new ones from forming and it won't hurt as badly the next time we move you."
For some reason, that didn't make Ed feel any better. His body was shaking from the pain and dread and he closed his eyes to steady himself.
"Just a little further, kid." This time it was Heinkel who spoke. "If you're tough enough to let us pull that beam out of you, you're tough enough to endure this."
"Yeah," agreed Darius. "For a little guy, you're pretty damned strong. You can do this."
The comment about his stature elicited a glare from the young man, but he didn't have the energy to respond in a more demonstrative manner. "Fine," he hissed through gritted teeth. "Do it."
Dean nodded to Heinkel and the two brought Ed all the way up to a sitting position. They were efficient and quick, but Ed could feel his insides settling and pulling. The pain was so intense it left him breathless but he did not lose consciousness completely.
"He's even paler. Doc? Do we want to lay him back down?"
"No, his blood pressure dropped but not as low as the last time. I think it's OK to leave him sitting for a while. He'll normalize. You there, crank up the back of the bed."
Ed heard the words as if through a tunnel, but the agony was already easing. He sagged against the rising mattress, cold sweat dripping off of his body.
"Get that blanket over him. The last thing he needs is hypothermia on top of all this."
Ed let the words and actions swirl around him like a maelstrom. His thoughts were scattered, his mind disoriented, but both were coming back to some semblance of order as the agony faded.
"You going to give him something for pain, Doc? Looks like he could use it."
"Not yet. We need him to do a couple of things for us first. Do you think he'll be able change that arm back? We can't have him wielding that weapon from his hospital bed and I can't see how to get it off without taking the whole prosthesis."
A blanket dropped over Ed's shoulder. Wool. Itchy, but at least warm.
"You still with us kid?" Heinkel's voice was near his ear again. Ed gave a barely perceptible nod. "Did you hear what the doc asked?" Again Ed nodded.
"Give me… a minute…" he said raggedly.
"Sure thing, kid." Heinkel assured him.
Ed could feel his automail arm being maneuvered as the sheet that had covered its blade was removed. He dragged his eyes open against an intense, bone deep weariness that the departing pain left behind. It was almost more than he could manage to drag his hands up and press their trembling palms together, but the light of transmutation erupted from his effort as if nothing were the matter. He shrank the blade back into his arm and collapsed almost instantly into sleep.
The next time they woke him the ordeal of moving was nowhere near as painful as the first had been. They managed to get him fully sitting and allowed him the use of a bedpan, a humiliating if highly necessary experience. They also mentioned food for the first time and Ed suddenly became aware of an intense, gnawing hunger.
"Since the medication we gave you didn't give you any problems, I guess we can move onto something a bit more substantial," said Maybell. "You've got a few more hurdles to overcome before we get to solid food though, so how about a nice glass of milk?"
The vision of steak and potatoes that danced in his mind's eye abruptly vanished. He made a face at her suggestion.
"I haven't eaten solid food in three days and that's all you are offering me? No thanks!"
"Well, how about chicken broth? I think we might be able to get some of that from the neighbor. He has a restaurant in the next building."
The steak still sounded better, but the longer they talked about food, the hungrier the young man became. Then Maybell checked his bandages, his pulse and took his temperature as she had every time she had come by. She frowned and peered up at him.
"What's the matter?"
She screwed her face up thoughtfully. "Oh, nothing important, I'm sure. I just have to check your chart. When I come back, I'll have something for you to eat, but if you need anything in the meanwhile, press the button beside the bed and that will bring Jack, our nurse. He'll take good care of you."
Alone in the darkened room, Ed took the opportunity to peek under the dressings himself. The sight of black stitches against his skin made the young man feel a little nauseous, but even more unsettling was the line of transmuted skin that showed him just how extensive his injury had been. It was going to be a huge scar. He thought of the way Winry would react to it and could almost see her silent, worried eyes looking up at him. He blushed furiously. Of course, she would see it the next time she had to do maintenance on his automail, he told himself, though the image of her face that came unbidden to his mind was not from any maintenance session.
He turned to look out the window. Pale winter sunlight filtered through dingy glass panes. Smoke drifted lazily up from the neighbor's chimney and danced in undulating waves as it came up against a bank of smoke just above the rooftops. An inversion layer, Ed remembered. He'd read about the way smoke would hug the ground in cold weather in some book Hoenheim had left behind but when he tried to recall the details, the physics and alchemy of it, it was as if his own brain was clouded too. It gave him a headache to even think about it. He closed his eyes against the grey winter light.
"Wake up, boy, lunch is here."
Ed hadn't heard Maybell come in. In fact, he hadn't even realized he'd fallen asleep again.
"Smells delicious, doesn't it?"
Ed's stomach grumbled in answer, but when he started taking his first sips of soup, it seemed to have an odd aftertaste. Probably just some medicine they'd added to it, he thought as he finished the pitifully small cup and wished there was more. He gave Maybell a hopeful look over the rim.
"It's best to eat small amounts to start with," she laughed. "But I'll bring more in an hour if you're still hungry. You can have as much of it as you want as long as it's in little servings. We can't stress your system or the stitches on your intestines with a big meal right away." She took the cup and wrote something on a clipboard. After studying the paper once more, she looked up at him. "We've got two goals for you today, young man. First, I want to see you on your feet. Do you think you can manage it?"
"I'd like to try," said Ed. "Anything's better than lying around in a hospital bed. Say, where are…" He stopped himself before he asked where the 'gorilla' or 'lion' was.
"Your companions?" Maybell prompted. "Mr. Heinkel is sleeping and Mr. Darius is out. I think they take turns patrolling the area – though that doesn't take very long. North City is a fairly quiet place – more's the pity for us."
Ed nodded. He wasn't entirely sure which name belonged to which chimera; they were already pretty solidly identified in his mind by their transformed state, but it was good to know they hadn't abandoned him yet.
"You make an interesting trio," Maybell continued. "Have they been with you long?"
Ed gave her a sharp look. She asked the question casually enough, but Ed had no idea what the men had told her. By now the military would be looking for them, if Kimblee had shared the details of their encounter with whomever Central Command had sent up to replace General Armstrong. Even with no bodies for them to find, Ed remembered leaving a significant amount of blood at the bottom of that mineshaft. They might not know whose blood it was, but they'd know whatever left it hadn't walked out on their own.
"It's…" Ed began. "I'm…"
Maybell scoffed. "Oh, so even that's classified? Phfft! You military types are all alike – you never give a gal any good gossip." She patted his side and Ed winced. "Let's get you vertical," she said, sounding as if she was looking forward to the chance to torment him.
'Vertical' involved having Ed roll onto his side – a painful experience even though it wasn't the side that he had been injured on. The diminutive doctor took that opportunity to examine the wound on Ed's back; the one that had been entirely closed by alchemy, and pronounced it healing well.
"Does it still hurt?" Maybell asked.
"Um… uh… huh…" he ground out through gritted teeth. Oh, this was so much fun. Ed wondered if the transmuted scar on his back was as impressive as the one on his stomach. If he lived to see her again, Winry would kill him.
The doctor laughed. "It shouldn't for much longer. Barring complications, internal tissues heal over pretty quickly. It should be much better by tomorrow. You won't be able to stress your stomach muscles for a while yet, but I doubt your insides will continue be quite so sore after today."
"That's good news, I guess," Ed panted.
"Let me get Jack to help you stand," said Maybell. "We don't want you stressing that incision."
Jack was burly enough to have no problem getting his patient vertical, though once there, Ed felt odd. His head hurt and he felt a little like he was watching his body from outside of it.
"Let's try a few steps," said Maybell. "After those medications we gave you, you'd probably like to use the bathroom. Why don't you do that while you're up? Just to make sure all your systems are functioning, of course."
The doctor spoke as if in a normal conversation, but Ed was beginning to think every word she said had purpose and several meanings. She wouldn't take no for an answer on this. He mumbled an assent and with Jack half carrying him, Ed managed to make it to the lavatory and do as he was instructed.
However, on his way back to bed, things started going downhill again. Fast.
Darius peeked in just as Jack was closing the bathroom door. He smiled brightly to see Ed up and walking, but the smile vanished an instant later. Ed stared at him, blinking stupidly and suddenly felt the floor roll like a wave underneath his feet. The chimera shouted and rushed towards him but his words were drowned out by a roaring that filled Ed's ears. The roaring became screaming, then falling, and then there was nothing at all.
Darius had moved without thinking. The kid's eyes had that glassed over look of someone who was about to take a header and by the time those eyes rolled back in his head, the chimera was in place to catch the falling boy. Jack the nurse still held Ed's automail arm, but let go of it quickly at Darius' bestial snarl.
"What the hell were you doing?" he snapped. The boy's body sagged as all consciousness left it and Darius struggled to keep him in his arms. Ed's forehead where it rested against Darius' bicep seemed astonishingly hot.
"He's burning up! Didn't you people notice? What kind of doctors are you?"
Jack looked horrified. Opened his mouth to speak and then closed it grimly. "Get him back to his bed!" he ordered. "I'll get the doctor."
Cursing under his breath, Darius hefted his charge and carried him the few feet to the hospital bed. Fullmetal was flushed and beginning to sweat, his half closed eyes were slivers of fevered gold. Even watching Heinkel pull an iron girder out of his belly hadn't filled Darius with the unease that holding the kid's slight and inflamed form did.
"How could a fever come on so fast?" Dr. Dean was shouting at Jack as he entered the room. Maybell hurried in after them.
"He was slightly elevated this afternoon, but it didn't skyrocket until moments before he passed out," Jack answered apologetically. "I…I was trying to get him back to his bed – I thought it was from the exertion."
"It's just like the last patient," Maybell hissed in a low, clipped voice. She glared at Dean while Darius laid Edward out on the hospital bed. "Jack, get him cooled down fast. I need a word with the good doctor here." Her eyes, suddenly cold and serious, leveled on her coworker/husband/compatriot (they still weren't sure) and she jerked her head towards the door. "I'll be back with medication that will fix him right up, but you need to get his temperature down as quick as you can."
Jack nodded and began taking Ed's hospital gown off. Darius blocked him, his arm almost protectively shielding the boy.
"You've got a lot of gall after you couldn't even tell how high his fever was," he growled. Jack's eyes flicked nervously to Darius' face and then back to his charge. He moved Darius' arm away with gentle insistence and continued to disrobe Ed.
"I've got nerve damage in my hands," he explained quietly. "That's why I can't work in a real hospital." He slipped the gown off and turned to open the window behind him. Winter flowed into the room. He picked up a double handful of snow from the sill. "I'm considered handicapped in the only profession I was ever really good at. These guys at least gave me a chance." Jack took the snow and packed it close to Fullmetal's neck. The boy's breath caught for a moment as if registering the temperature, but he did not rouse. Jack reached for another handful for the other side.
"I see," Darius said. "Then I am sorry I yelled at you. What did she mean 'just like the last patient'?"
Jack's eyes flicked up to meet the other man's again. "They won't want me telling you, but you deserve to know," he said. "Our last patient came in with a knife wound. It wasn't serious and we patched him up no problem, but he got sick the next day. A fever that came on like lightning. He died." Jack pulled a thermometer out of his pocket and tucked it into Fullmetal's left armpit.
Jack nodded. "We reported it, of course, but with only one case, and no other information, we couldn't do much more. We do our best, really, and the doctors here know their business, but this isn't much more than a clinic and we don't have the kinds of facilities big hospitals have. We cleaned up after the dead man properly; I know how to disinfect a sickroom, but perhaps we are dealing with a more persistent contaminant."
"But he died."
Jack met his eyes again. "Yes," he said. "And we'll try to make sure your friend doesn't."
Al's armor was laid out before him in pieces and though Ed picked up each one in turn, and shouted at it, Al would not answer. Even the seal, still intact on the back plate, would not speak to him. The metal was cold, almost freezing, yet Ed couldn't stop. He had to put the pieces together, to recreate his brother. However, each time he'd try to move a piece into position, a shadowy figure would come and move it back. Ed lashed out, tried to attack the shadows. They flowed around him like billowing smoke. He screamed in anger and frustration. They did not hear him.
He made his stand before his brother's torso and drew a blade from his automail. The shadows halted in their advance and stooped, taking up Al's scattered limbs. Ed cursed in defiance and slashed at them. The smoke parted lazily, mocking his anger, but when it reformed in front of him, it became the shadowy form of Winry.
Ed froze. Her image was imposed on the smoke like a projection. Behind her he could see Scar, Doctor Marcoh, the little Xingese girl, and the two chimeras that they had tied up and sent with them. They were looking at him… no, through him as if he wasn't there. He waved a hand in front of Winry's face; she did not respond. The hand no longer had its blade though he didn't remember changing it back. As he watched, the steel prosthesis softened, melted and peeled away from a real flesh and blood arm beneath it. He stared at the limb, dumbfounded. The fingers flexed and he could feel the smoke tickling a palm he hadn't possessed in nearly five years. He called out to show his friend but the smoky room was empty; even Al's armor was gone, and sheets of battered paper were swirling in the dust…
When the two doctors came back, their faces were flushed and set. Whatever had happened between them, Darius perceived that Maybell had won the argument and he found himself grudgingly respecting the small woman. They checked Ed's temperature and Dean pulled out a small vial from which he drew a measure of its contents into a syringe. He injected it into the boy's arm.
"What's that?" Darius asked.
Maybell held a bit of gauze over the needle mark. "It's our most potent antibiotic," she said. "If this doesn't knock it out of his system, nothing will. Costs a fortune, but it should work."
"What's wrong with him?"
Dean put the syringe into a steel pan labeled 'Autoclave'. "We don't know for certain, it may be something he picked up here. We have a tendency to house sick people on occasion." Darius bristled, finding the doctor's sarcasm strangely irritating. "We follow sterile procedure, though with such a small and overworked staff, you know how it is."
"No, not really," the chimera leveled at him.
"Well!" Dean's pretense of being affronted didn't even seem to convince his staff. Maybell shook her head.
"It's probably because of his weakened state that he picked this up," she explained. "One of us might be ill with the very same disease right now, but because we are healthy, our immune systems are handling it and we don't even notice the infection." She smiled tentatively at him. "Actually, that's good news for your friend. If a healthy body handles this infection so easily, it should respond well to this aggressive treatment we are giving him."
"So, is that what you tried with the last guy? The one who died?"
Maybell started, looking unsettled for the first time since Darius' had met her, but quickly regained her composure with a steely glance at her nurse. Dean was giving the poor man a murderous glare too and Jack looked like he wanted to melt into the corner; an odd deportment for so imposing a figure of a man. Maybell cleared her throat and seemed to be considering her words very carefully.
"We did not discover that patient's condition until his fever was advanced and he was already compromised. He'd been well on the way to recovery and we considered that rest was what he needed more than anything else, so we did not check on him overnight. My guess is he was ill when he came here and his wound stressed his system enough to give the infection the upper hand."
"And you didn't feel that was something you ought to mention to us?"
Dean stiffened. "Not particularly, at least not before this. We had no reason to think our decontamination procedures were less than adequate. We're sorry your friend is sick and we will do everything possible to get him well. Until he developed these symptoms, there was no reason for us to suspect the previous patient was so contagious."
The silence in the room was thick, broken only by the drip of water from melted snow and Edward Elric's increasingly labored breathing. Darius watched the unconscious boy for a long moment.
"I've got to tell my comrade what's going on here. You will inform me the moment there's any change, understand?"
"Of course," said both Dean and Maybell in unison.
Shattered steel lay across grey pavement. The little Xingeses girl was crying beside an empty and broken shell that had once housed his brother.
He reached out with the hand that had been returned to him and noted the long, ragged nails, the wasted muscles and dark veins under the pale skin. No… No! Dread filled his heart…
"So now all we can do is wait?" asked Heinkel after Darius had awoken him and filled him in on the afternoon's developments.
"Apparently they've given him something that is supposed to knock it out of his system, but seriously, how much can one body take?" Darius looked away.
"That's sort of what I was thinking before we got him here, but you know as well as I do this place was our only choice. He'd have been dead already if we'd kept looking."
"I know. We didn't have any other choice." The dark haired man stared out the window at the snow blanketed town. "We ought to be ready though. Those two won't hesitate to call the authorities if there's no chance of payment. There's no reason for them not to turn us in. I'd rather be away before they do, maybe even out of North City."
"Yeah, that's smart. They don't seem the sentimental sort, those doctors. Not that they'd kill the kid on purpose; he's too potentially valuable for that, but I can't see them mourning for long."
Darius scoffed, but his scowl deepened.
"Still makes you angry though, doesn't it?" Heinkel asked.
"There's something about that kid. I don't know if it's just because we put so much into keeping him alive or what, but he makes you want to be on his side even while he's comatose." The blond man rubbed the sleep from his eyes. "We've only known him a few days, yet I'll be sorry if he dies."
Darius turned back to the window. "Yeah," he said. "Me too."
He felt cool but trembling hands touch his face. Cooler tears fell upon his cheeks though they faded into nothingness before they could drip down his face.
"You can't be here. No! This isn't possible! Brother..." Agony dripped from Al's voice like blood from a jagged wound. He could barely choke the words out, so wretched was the sound of his despair.
Ed tried to reach up, to comfort his brother, but even the thought of such an effort wearied him. He dragged his eyes open with a supreme act of will.
His brother's human face stared down at him, not the steel visage of the armor his soul had been bound to. His golden eyes were wide with anguish and rimmed with tears. Ed opened his mouth to speak, but even that effort was beyond him.
"You can't stay here, Brother, you have to go back." Al sounded desperate, his voice echoing in the vast whiteness of the Portal. "You aren't all here yet, there's still hope." He took Ed's hand between his and spoke slowly and earnestly. "You need to fight now, Brother. Fight hard. Don't stop. Don't ever stop. Please…."
Weariness threatened to overwhelm him, still Ed could not close his eyes on his brother's tormented face. As much as he wanted to rest, he knew what sleep in this place would bring. He had to do as Alphonse bid him.
It would be so, so very hard, but, he could not leave his brother's soul trapped forever and alone in this accursed place. It was his fault Al was here and his task to get him out. To do that, he had to live on. No matter how hard this fight would be, he had to win it.
"I'll take over," Dean sighed and tapped Maybell on the shoulder. Heinkel looked up from the corner he had parked himself in and trapped the man with a laser focused gaze. Dean swallowed. "Let's check his vitals and see if there's been any change," he said, for the soldier's benefit.
"Any change since I checked it fifteen minutes ago?" asked the woman.
Dean flicked a glance at his coworker and pressed his lips into a thin line as if suppressing some reaction or snappy comment.
"Yes," came the doctor's succinct reply and he pulled a thermometer out of his pocket. He folded it into Edward's left armpit and held the flushed limb in place while he measured out the time. When it had been in position long enough to accurately read the boy's temperature, he pulled it out. Heinkel then observed the first signs that might have been relief on the doctor's face. "What was his temperature the last time you checked it?" the bald man asked the other doctor. Maybell, getting ready to leave the room, stopped and pulled up their patient's chart.
"It was holding steady at 103," she answered.
Dean let a genuine smile crack his face. It looked to Heinkel like it was an unusual expression for the man. "One hundred and two, point six," the doctor sighed. "Dropping at last."
Maybell took the opportunity to return Heinkel's intimidating glare with one of her own. Of course, hers, coming from a decidedly lower vantage point even though Heinkel was sitting, lacked some of the soldier's might. "I told you that shot would do the trick," she said. "That boy's lucky you brought him here – another hospital or clinic might not have had the skill to pull him through."
Heinkel's raised eyebrow was wasted on the small woman's retreating back and he decided to keep the retort that popped into his head to himself. Discretion was a skill any good soldier learned early in his career.
Waking meant things hurt again.
Not as much as they had the last time he woke up; he was apparently healing, but the wound still had a dull ache and the skin around the scar on his belly itched. He lifted his left arm to scratch and found the trembling limb again stuck with intravenous needles.
The gorilla chimera in his human form came into view and grinned cheerfully at him. It seemed to Ed that the man had just walked into the room, but some half conscious memory suggested that wasn't exactly right. Something told him a lot more time had passed than his memory could account for.
"Did… did I fall down?" Ed asked, wondering at his ridiculously thready voice. What the heck had happened to him? Darius cocked a wry grin.
"Yeah, about four days ago…" he laughed. "You caught some bug that was going around and had a fever. Pretty bad one, too. It broke a couple of days ago, but you haven't really been coherent yet. You think you're finally with us?"
Ed blinked. Four days? He frowned as he tried to do the math. That meant it had been a week since his fight with Kimblee. At least his higher brain functions seemed to be coming back. The last time he remembered trying to think it had given him a headache.
"Yeah, I think," he whispered. "And I gotta pee. Bad."
Darius laughed out loud again and stood up. "I'll let the nurse handle that. Besides, he owes us for saving his job."
A very affable Jack helped Ed stand again, but the boy was so weak he had to be carried to the lavatory, much to his embarrassment and irritation. Now that his mind was clearing, he expected his body to be whole and functional, too, and it irked him that it was so feeble. He also wanted food. Real food that could restore his strength. Immediately. All they offered him was more soup, saying his system wasn't recovered enough for heavier fare. Hunger, as well as frustration at not being able to do anything for himself, tipped his already volatile nature over the edge. By evening, Maybell had had enough of his bad temper and relented, offering him a small sandwich in return for his silence. Ed greedily devoured the meal and promptly fell asleep.
"Good," she gave an accomplished nod and eyed the soldiers. "I'd hate to have to keep him drugged up for his whole recovery, but I will. Is he always such a disagreeable patient?"
Darius really didn't want her to see the grin that threatened betray him. He turned away and Heinkel found himself at a loss, facing the small woman's question by himself.
"Um, yeah. We'll speak to him. A week in a hospital bed - I can't imagine what's got him so worked up."
It wasn't until several days had passed without incident that Edward was allowed real solid food and that made it an occasion. Heinkel got ground steak, mashed potatoes and steamed cabbage from the restaurant next door and they all sat around Ed's bed eating their meals off the trays Maybell used to carry surgical instruments. Ed was still a little weak, markedly thin, and sore enough to wince when he walked, but was improving rapidly. He seemed to know how far he could push himself and was smart enough not to go beyond that point. Heinkel continued to be impressed with their young charge.
"Man, this is fantastic!" Ed exclaimed around a mouthful, 'Of course, shoe leather would taste good right now, I'm starving!" He shoved another mouthful in.
"And you'd know what shoe leather tastes like?" teased Darius.
"Actually, yeah," answered Ed, but he didn't elaborate, preferring to dig into his buttered potatoes.
"You've got a few more weeks before they'll release you, Dean told me. You're out of danger, they just want you to get back your strength and be able to sit up without help."
Edward nodded absently, but was too busy with his food to reply. Heinkel shrugged and turned his attention to his own meal. Before the men had half their steaks consumed, Edward pushed his tray back and sighed contentedly.
"Man, I needed that." He lay back on the raised pillows and sighed quite contentedly. "You know, if they'd been feeding me enough this whole time, I probably wouldn't have even gotten sick."
Darius paused with a mouthful of steak halfway to his lips. He cocked an eyebrow at the boy. "If they'd been feeding you this whole time, you'd be dead. Perspective, kid."
Edward dismissed the thought and tucked his arms behind his head. "Well, if I'm out of danger, what are you guys' plans? You can't go back to working for Kimblee."
"The whole military is out," answered Heinkel. "We aren't the only chimeras that were made in the Fifth Laboratory. Some of us reenlisted after the experiments, but a lot didn't. Lately they've been hunting down any of us who chose to be discharged. There's no going back for us."
Edward nodded. "Yeah, my brother and I ran into some of those guys in Dublith. The military mowed them down without a second thought. We couldn't figure out why at the time."
"Cleaning up their mess, I suppose," grumbled Darius around a mouthful of steak.
"You're welcome to follow me," grinned Ed.
The two men looked at each other over their food. Darius chuckled and Heinkel laughed outright in response. Ed's grin faded as the men fell into full-throated guffaws at his suggestion.
"You still need a babysitter, kid?" Heinkel wiped his mouth, and putting his own tray down. "If we're out of the military, then your rank of State Alchemist doesn't mean anything to us. If we go anywhere with you it will be as equals, comrades, free to leave or stay any time we want. Got that?"
Ed nodded. "Um, of course, I wouldn't expect anything else." His smile tentatively returned. "Then that means you will?"
Darius put his own now empty tray onto the desk beside him and got up. "Yeah, for the time being," he answered. He came over to stand over Ed's bed with his arms folded across his chest and a knowing smirk on his face. "We can't let a little kid like you run all over Amestris by himself."
Perhaps it was military training, chimera speed or the fact that Edward's injury slowed him down that allowed the older man to duck the swing the boy took at him. Ed's metal fist screamed through the spot Darius' face had occupied fractions of a second before and the motion almost rolled the wincing boy out of his hospital bed. He glared up at the men through a disheveled mop of golden hair and met their hearty laughter with indignation and gritted teeth.
"Don't call me little!"
Now, this really is the end, at least of this story. ;)
Footnote1: From traditional Chinese medicine - a draught of rhubarb and other herbs given soon after surgery has been shown to reduce these adhesions.