Stockings and metal was a bitch of a combination.
Edward kicked his shoes off and collapsed back onto his bed. The stockings could wait. Now, he just wanted to be off his feet. Two six hour shifts in one day and barely enough time to grab a snack and a nap in between. And there was so much to remember—four new patients!—and there were samples to file on top of that, and then there was his laboratory notes...Edward sighed, shutting his eyes for a moment before rolling over onto his stomach and reluctantly reaching for his notebook.
And here he'd thought alchemy was hard.
He discarded the white headscarf that marked him as a trainee nurse, but he left his hair in the ponytail—the last thing he needed was for it to be in his face while he worked. The uniform was uncomfortable but if he ignored it and finished the notes, maybe he could phone Al before curfew. His brother certainly worried enough, and Edward had to admit that he missed him. This was the longest he and Al had ever been apart. His brother handled the separation by phoning and sending food packages at every conceivable opportunity, to the extent that every staff member in the hospital knew about Edward's 'boyfriend'. Edward complained about that, and the implication that Edward couldn't feed himself...but not strongly enough to make Al stop. Even though all this was for Al's sake, his cure, Edward regretted it. It felt like betrayal—In the face of Al's determination not to be left behind by his older brother, Edward was somewhere Al couldn't follow. Gifted alchemist and loyal though Al might be, he could not be accepted as a trainee in a woman-only mid-wifery programme.
Granted, the woman-only part gave Edward problems too—most notably the stockings. God, they itched! Luckily, he'd managed to pass off his complete lack of grace or feminine qualities as due to being a country girl with little experience in dresses and high heels. Make-up and padding helped, and he managed passably, so long as he remembered to speak quietly and be polite to people—and to keep his metal covered, hence the despised stockings.
Finally! Notes finished, Edward stretched, then slowly massaged his flesh hand. About time. He was looking forward to talking to Al—
The door swung open even before he'd had time to register the knock. Edward snapped his notebook shut, hoping that nothing was showing that shouldn't be. Lucky he hadn't changed out of his uniform. "I didn't say come in—"
"This is an emergency, Miss Rockbell. Report to reception immediately." Ward-master Hall sounded harried. "A military unit was attacked near here; since we're the nearest medical facility, they've come here. Your help is required; now go."
He didn't wait for a response, but rapped on the next door in the dormitory.
Edward stepped into his shoes, retrieving his head scarf. Not soldiers. "But we're a maternity center—"
"In an emergency situation, everyone does what she can. You know how to patch a wound, I hope?" Hall obviously considered the matter settled.
Edward slowly walked downstairs. He should hide; the chances of being recognised and having his cover blown were too high. He was so close, only another month and he could have the information he needed. But...it was an emergency. Al would not accept a human life as the price of his cure; Edward knew that. But this—this was different. He would not be directly responsible if—
Edward stopped. It was no different. Al would not accept his not trying to help, any more than he would Edward using human life for the cure. And even if he didn't tell Al, well—Edward would know. He would always know. With a sigh, Edward adjusted the headscarf.
"It's a pain being such a great person," he said, straightening his uniform and stepping into the main ward. "Sometimes I—"
The smell of it was strong and rancid, with it the acid tinge of smoke. It curled in Edward's stomach, twisting as he stared.
The pristine maternity ward was a mess of activity. People everywhere: nurses struggling to find enough beds for people, soldiers in uniform on the floor or leaning beside a bed, waiting their turns. And there was blood, a lot of it, and shit, that was bone and there was so much noise and god, the smell—bitter smoke and then in the darkness something moved—
"Snap out of it, trainee!"
Edward jumped, startled to find himself addressed by one of the doctors. A tray was pushed into his hands; and, while he struggled to understand the bandages and equipment within, the doctor who had spoken pushed him towards an unattended ward.
"This is no time to be getting faint! Clean and bandage anything you can, and alert a senior nurse to anything more serious. Get to it!"
The response was automatic and Edward didn't even register it. He moved towards the ward holding the box tightly. He could do this. He'd patched wounds before—true they were usually his own but even so—
It was easy, once he stopped thinking about it. Antiseptic and bandages, painkiller for those that needed stitches. It helped that he was already tired, the fatigue making this automatic. Clean the wound, ascertain the patient's condition. Apply the bandage. Move on to the next. The ward cleared and filled again as a military truck arrived to take those already treated to less haphazard surroundings, and those still waiting took their places. It was almost dreamlike, a slow sequence of unrelated details, the startlingly crisp uniform on one new recruit, the smell of cigarettes as an ensign passed through, tallying up who was present and who unaccounted for, the very blue eyes of one of his patients—
It must have been hours, Edward thought, moving aside to let the young woman whose arm he'd just bandaged to be shifted out, turning automatically to the next bed. At least they had beds for them all, now—
He couldn't move his hands.
Edward stared until he realised that those weren't his hands, that someone had placed their own hands over his. Gloved hands, stained with smoke and dirt and red peeking through, too sharp, too smooth to be blood. An intertwined circle, an array—
"This is certainly an unexpected pleasure."
The voice was smooth despite being roughened, and the smirk it contained readily apparent. Edward looked up to find himself facing very familiar amused eyes.
"I hardly expected to meet you here," Roy's eyes flickered down to Edward's name card and then back up. "Elisabeth?"
Edward tugged his hands free of Mustang's sharply, turning away to straighten his uniform. "I can't say I expected to see you here, either."
"That's a new look for you, Fullmetal." Damnit, Roy didn't have to sound as though he was enjoying the view. "It suits you."
"Don't call me Fullmetal," Edward said sharply, straightening the contents of his tray. "I'm undercover—" He yelped, swatting Roy away. "Get your hands off me!"
Roy's smile was unrepentant. "I was just wondering how undercover you'd gone."
"You lech! Don't you care that there are other people in the room—"
Edward looked around. The room was empty save for the two of them. When had that happened? "Are you really the last patient? But why? Surely your rank—"
"There were others with more serious injuries. I could wait. Besides, I'd never ask my men to endure something I wouldn't." Now that Edward looked, he could see fatigue and pain in Roy's face, not completely hidden by the smug mask the man wore. "Besides, when Havoc mentioned that while taking roster, he'd passed a pretty young nurse who was uncannily like our missing alchemist, I decided to wait."
"Now," Roy's lazy smile said he enjoyed being in control. "What do you have to say for yourself, Fullmetal?"
"Where is your injury?"
Apparently that wasn't the response Roy was expecting. It wasn't what Edward was expecting either; it just happened. "Excuse me?"
"You said there were others with injuries more serious, so obviously you were injured. Tell me where it is, and I can bandage it for you." Edward sounded determined now, more sure of himself.
Roy looked as though he was having serious misgivings about this.
"In case you haven't noticed, I've been bandaging your men all night. I'm not wearing the trainee's uniform for nothing."
Roy nodded slowly, lying back against the headboard. "Some shrapnel grazed my thigh."
Roy shifted so that Edward could see the torn uniform. Brilliant. There was no way he could treat that while keeping Roy's pants on. The bastard probably planned it that way. Edward reached for his scissors, cutting away the fabric sourly.
It appeared Roy wasn't delighted about this either. "This is my dress uniform!"
"Was your dress uniform," Edward corrected. "What happened?"
Roy sighed, watching Edward work. "We've been keeping the peace in an outlying suburb—a couple of gangs at odds with each other were causing trouble for regular citizens. We were just wrapping things up tonight, about to head back to Central, when..." He shrugged. "A car loaded with explosives was set alight near the barracks. Most of the men were off duty, so—"
Edward didn't really want to think about that. "Were the others...I mean, was anyone—"
"If you're wondering about Hawkeye and the troops, they're all fine. I'd sent most of them, except Havoc, on a surveillance mission in the next town."
That was something, at least. To be honest, Edward wasn't sure if he and the military were on the same side anymore; but, all the same, he didn't want something like this happening to someone he cared about. He was thoughtful as he carefully wiped the dirt and dried blood away from the gash in Roy's leg. "You should have had someone look at this sooner," he said. "It looks like you've got shrapnel in there."
"You can remove it?"
"Yes," Edward admitted reluctantly. "But it will hurt like a cow."
"Then get it over with."
Bossy as ever. Edward found a sterile pair of tweezers and started to work. "I expect you're wondering why a maternity clinic?" he said, so he wouldn't have to think about what he was doing, and because Roy would have asked eventually.
"I assume you've abandoned research into the Philosopher's stone and are researching natural human growth, which you intend to replicate." At Edward's sharp intake of breath, Roy managed a slightly pained smirk. "Am I wrong?"
"You've got the most of it."
"I see. And have you made progress?"
Edward carefully removed a sliver of metal. "I think it would be possible to grow and mature a human body by artificial means. Of course, that body still has to start somewhere, and it's that I'm researching. I want to determine the point where a human life starts and join Al to the body at precisely that point—any later and you run the risk of creating a homunculus."
"So that way you avoid taking human life, as well? That's all good in theory, Fullmetal, but what will you experiment with? Surely not the pregnant women here—"
"Who do you take me for, Tucker? I have more morals than that," Edward snapped, viciously freeing another fragment. "We will start at the very beginning. You may not know this, Colonel, but one of the staff here has produced a method of fertilising an egg artificially and developing it in an artificial womb—he aims to help women who can't bear children to have a child of their own."
"So that would explain why this particular clinic," Roy said. "But not the dress."
He could be having an open wound picked at, and still be grabby? Edward slapped Roy's hands away again. "Leave it. This clinic has a long policy of accepting only female nurses, to help the mothers feel more comfortable. This is in no way a statement of my personal tastes."
Edward took revenge by bathing the wound with liberal amounts of sterilizer. It was somehow immensely satisfying hearing Roy whimper. "You were saying?"
"Have pity, Fullmetal, please—"
Appeased, Edward began to bandage. He'd had plenty of practice that evening, and it wasn't long before the wound was neatly tied off. "Well," he said, gathering everything back onto his tray. "I'll just be going then—"
"I think not."
This time Roy was not so easily slapped away. "Let go! Look, I patched you up, didn't I? The least you can do is—"
"Let you disappear again?" Roy sounded supremely amused. "What do you take me for, Fullmetal?"
Roy's hand was insistent on Edward's good wrist, caught at an angle just the right amount of painful that Edward was brought down to the level of the bed. He managed to get a knee onto the bed to steady himself, but couldn't pull away. "What are you doing, you bastard—" He yelped as he felt a touch on his thigh. "The hell do you think you're doing? Do I look like a girl?" Roy laughed, withdrawing his hand although he still kept his hold on Edward's wrist. "Don't answer that—"
Roy's fingers cupped Edward's chin, forcing his eyes up. "Its been a while, Fullmetal," he said, silky. "You've ... matured."
"WHO ARE YOU SAYING HASN'T GOTTEN TALLER?"
Roy winced, letting go of Edward's wrist. "I stand corrected."
That was the last straw. Edward viciously lashed out with his free hand, determined that he was not enduring anything more from Mustang. The Colonel was expecting this and blocked Edward's move with a smug grin that only served to make Edward even angrier. He struggled wildly, sending the contents of the tray flying.
"Temper, temper." God, Roy sounded like he was enjoying this, the bastard. "You know they say that stress can stunt growt—nnnghHH!"
Edward flailed, suddenly free, and barely managed to escape an undignified tumble off the bed. He grabbed the covers to steady himself. What had happened?
Mustang was pale, his breathing pained. "Needle—"
The syringe. Edward winced, his own skin prickling in sympathy. Somewhere during the fight it had been embedded in Mustang's leg. "Hold still."
Mustang let out a sharp breath as the syringe was pulled out. "My thanks." He took a deep breath and a moment to steady himself. "Fullmetal, tell me that syringe was empty?"
"It is now."
"And what, pray tell, was in it?"
He didn't think he'd ever heard Mustang sound quite so strained before. One for the record books."Only some of our strongest painkillers."
"Ah. Fortuitous, that. I seem to be in considerable need of painkillers." There was a pause as Roy shifted. "So why a cow?"
"You said it hurts like a cow. Why a cow? Why not a horse? Or, for that matter, something more obviously lethal?"
Edward shrugged, massaging his wrist. "Pinako didn't like us using 'bitch'." He watched Roy hold a hand out in front of him and squint at it. He'd been stupid to think that Mustang might be willing to overlook his presence in the ward, to imagine that the man owed him any favours. He'd be lucky if he was even given the time to pack up his notes.
There was something strange in Mustang's tone that made Edward look up.
"It wouldn't hurt to file a report once in a while, you know." Roy looked uncomfortable. "Hawkeye was concerned by your and Alphonse's long absence."
"Reports can be intercepted. Besides, this research isn't exactly of use to the military." Edward shrugged. "We thought you'd stop us."
"Even so, it would be prudent to avoid worrying Hawkeye. She's scary when she's worried."
"She's scary any time."
Roy sighed and Edward was suddenly surprised to find himself pulled close. "Edward," he said, voice slightly unsteady. "What I'm trying to say . . ."
His fingers lingered over Edward's lips and Edward felt himself shiver involuntarily. "So, what is it?"
"Patience, Edward. What I'm trying to say..." Roy's fingers brushed his cheek gently, and Edward could feel the roughness of the granite crystals embedded in his gloves even through the gentleness of the caress. "What I'm saying is..." His cheek pressed against Edward's, the warmth of his breath lingering over Edward's skin. A moment passed in anticipation and then he bent towards Edward's neck.
"And?" Edward prompted. Mustang was heavy and the strange unaccountable lethargy that seemed to have come over Edward at his touch was quickly dissipating.
"You bastard! You can't fall asleep after saying something like that!"
Mustang, apparently, could. Shaking him didn't help and Edward had to admit that an unconscious Colonel Mustang was, in many ways, preferable to an awake one. He settled Mustang back on the bed, more out of habit than out of any concern for his unexpected patient, weighing his options. Flight was always an option, but he couldn't bear it, not when they were so close to a cure...
Edward sighed, picking up his scattered equipment. Running wasn't a choice. Who knew when they'd get another chance like this? He studied the Colonel's sleeping face wistfully. It would be too much to hope that they'd be able to keep out of the way of the military entirely, but even so...maybe they could come to some kind of arrangement.
God, how to break it to Al? Edward drew his hand over his face and groaned.
A second later, he stirred. There was something strange in that contact, something lacking. Roy's touch was different somehow—
It was odd, lifting Roy's hand to his face. For one the hand was limp and heavy, and it took both of his to hold it. And then, it felt vaguely perverted. Knowing that the owner of said hand probably had the rights to the term 'pervert' didn't make things any better. All the same—Edward shut his eyes trying to determine what made this different.
Roy's hand was warm, his fingers rough but still somehow gentle. Working hands, but refined. The smell of smoke and battle still hung on the gloves, but there was something else, something that could only be defined as Roy—
"Colonel Mustang!" The door swung open with military briskness and Edward jumped, dropping Roy's hand as if burned. "Sir, the transport you requested—"
The two soldiers and Edward stared at each other.
"Uh...he, that is, the Colonel, is asleep right now," Edward said. God, why was he blushing?
"Ah...So he is." The soldiers didn't seem to be any more aware of what to do than Edward. "Have you, uh, finished?"
"Um, the Colonel's wounds—you know—"
Edward blinked. That seemed an age away now. "Oh. Oh, yes, his wound. I've bandaged it. He just needs to remember to change the bandages regularly and not to do anything that will open it." He stood up, holding his tray tightly. "I'll just be on my way."
"Our thanks, Miss."
Edward nodded, uncomfortably aware of how short the trainee uniform was, and how he'd never quite got the hang of walking like a woman. He couldn't help a sigh as he shut the door, resting his head against it as he tried to calm himself down. He'd kept this disguise up for weeks. He wouldn't go to pieces now. Think of Al. Think of Al.
Of course, resting his head against the door meant he could hear the conversation on the other side.
"Can you believe it?"
"And I thought all that talk about the Colonel was just rumours." There was an impressed whistle. "Pulling a looker like that, and while he's unconscious—"
What? Edward blinked. What exactly did they think happened?
"I hate to think what we'd have been interrupting had he been awake—"
Edward saw red. He was just about to march back into the room and inform the soldiers of how gravely they were mistaken when a hand grabbed his wrist. Startled, he managed to stop himself from punching the ward director in the guts, but only barely.
"It's been a long night, Miss Rockbell," the ward director said gravely, and Edward was startled to recognise the name he'd given the hospital. "I think some well-deserved rest is in order. We can talk in the morning."
That was a clear dismissal. Edward hesitated then decided that rest did indeed sound good. It wasn't like Mustang could do anything at the moment. Whatever hell there was to pay tomorrow, he could pay it better after a good night's sleep.