The hospital air was quiet and cool after the din of sirens and mess of devastation at the warehouse. White walls formed an oppressive blank canvas, and merciless lights stripped away every pretence of vanity. There were no lies here. Every shadow and every flaw was exposed for the doctors to see. It was a haven of honesty amidst the coy secrecy of the surrounding military command.
Roy gazed at the youth between the clean, scratchy sheets, cataloguing his appearance. Ed’s braid was coming unwound, and there was no mistaking the nature of the rusty streaks through that bright gold fall. An injury must have been bleeding profusely to saturate his hair that much, but there were no marks on him. His skin was unblemished apart from a healthy flush of life and a few smears of grime.
He had to admit that Ed looked a hundred times better than he had only a few hours ago. Where there had been the lingering threat of death there was now an empowered strength. Only the depth of his slumber seemed ominous. He had not yet stirred. The glow of the arrays had vanished like something from a dream, but still his eyes remained closed and his body locked tight in rest.
Roy sighed, drumming his fingers against the foot of the bed. Deja vu washed over him in powerful waves, and he fought against the urge to pace fretfully as he waited for the doctor. Al sat silently in one of the chairs, and Roy could feel the weight of his gaze on his back. The youngest Elric had barely spoken since they arrived at the hospital, but it was obvious that he was struggling as much as anyone else to understand what had happened. It had only been a matter of hours since Edward had discharged himself from the hospital, and he was already back in one of the uncomfortable beds. It was almost as if he had never woken up from his collapse at the dormitories.
Someone pushed the door open quietly, and Roy looked up to see Maes slip through. His jacket was slung over his shoulder, and his shirt was half-undone revealing an expanse of toned chest. Automatically he searched for the scar that the bullet should have left, but there was nothing there. At Roy’s insistence, Hughes had undergone an hour of medical testing, but the doctor’s findings were crystal clear. His body was as healthy as it had been before he was shot. There was nothing that indicated that he had ever been dead.
‘That was a bit too intimate for my liking,’ Maes grumbled, rubbing at a bruise where they had drawn some blood. ‘I’m sure doctors get their kicks out of those exams.’
‘You are a medical miracle,’ Roy pointed out, grinning as a strange thrill of emotion shot through him. It was going to take a long time for him to believe that his friend was truly back from the dead. He kept expecting him to disappear, nothing more than a hallucination of his exhausted mind.
'I'm not going anywhere,' Hughes said quietly with a smile, shaking his head as he sank into one of the chairs at Ed's bedside. 'You can stop looking at me like you're wondering if you've gone mad.'
'Sorry,' Roy said wryly, blinking. 'It's just-'
'Incredible? Amazing? Unbelievable?' Hughes nodded. 'I know. I can barely believe it myself.' His smile faded away as he glanced down at the stiff piece of paper in his hand. The parchment crinkled beneath his fingertips, and he scowled at the innocuous document as though it had done him personal harm.
'What's that?' Roy asked quietly, narrowing his eyes at the offending object.
Maes gave a lopsided smile and turned it around for him to see. 'My death certificate. The doctor said that it could be destroyed. I just -' He sighed heavily and shook his head. 'This is all too surreal. I remember dying and then I remember opening my eyes in that place. There was nothing in between. No bright lights and no tropical paradise – only oblivion.'
Roy sighed heavily, looking down at his feet. Religion was a tricky thing, especially for a soldier. It was impossible to see so much war and hate and keep your faith, but if you didn't believe in something then you were lost. You could not face imminent death on the front-line knowing that there was nothing waiting for you on the other side.
'Did you really expect anything else?' Al's voice was gentle. Roy had almost forgotten he was there, keeping quiet watch over his brother. Now his young face was earnest and curious, and Roy wondered if he could recall any of the time his body and mind had spent in the clutches of the gate. He had never mentioned anything, but Ed wasn't the only Elric good at keeping things to himself.
A feeble shrug was Al's only answer for a moment before Maes confessed, 'I'd hoped there'd be something. Even if it was a fiery inferno it would have been some kind of proof that there was an existence beyond death.' With a philosophical chuckle he shook his head. 'Maybe I just wasn't looking hard enough. Maybe there was somewhere I was meant to go, or something I was meant to do.'
He pocketed the death certificate, folding it neatly with steady fingers before tucking it away out of sight. In one swift movement he leaned across and picking up Ed's chart from the bedside table. Flicking though the documentation, Hughes raised his eyebrows in surprise at the plethora of medical information.
'You do know that's confidential,' Roy said wearily, not stopping his friend in his inquisitiveness.
'I'm in Investigations. Sticking my nose in where it doesn't belong is part of my job.' Maes glanced up, seeking Al's permission with a quick gesture before he carried on. 'Besides, you two look like you haven't slept in days. Something must be wrong.'
'Is it really that obvious?'
'You look like shit,' Hughes replied bluntly.
'Thanks,' Roy said, sarcasm dripping from his voice as he rubbed a hand over his unshaven jaw. He should have known that Maes would notice how tired they both were. Al looked as though sleep were a distant memory. Black circles smudged under his eyes, and his hair was sticking up in all directions. Roy had a sinking feeling that he looked twice as bad. Adrenaline was probably the only fuel he had. He couldn’t remember when he had last eaten anything except coffee, but his stomach was a dead weight. He would pay for depriving his body of its necessities later; he was certain of it.
Hughes stopped turning the pages abruptly, a frown twitching his brow as he stared at one portion of the notes. His eyes flicked back and forth as he read the same bit repeatedly, as though he was unable to believe the words.
'He's dying?' Maes asked hoarsely, grief already etching its way into his features as he scrutinised the two other men. He must have gleaned an answer from their silence because he held up one of the x-rays to the bright light that illuminated the room, his face disbelieving. ‘How long have you known that this was happening?’
‘Since he collapsed last night.’ Roy could hear the unmistakable anger in his own voice, and felt his hands clench into fists. Last night? Was it only that long ago? It felt like an eternity.
Maes looked from Al to him, his natural observation skills easily picking up the cues in their body language. ‘You mean he didn’t tell you it was happening?’ He shook his head and crossed his arms without waiting for an answer. ‘Stupid question I suppose. Ed never shares his problems. It’s been, what, two years since he brought your body back, Al? The notes make it pretty clear that this all started back then.’
Alphonse nodded in agreement, his grey eyes resting on his brother’s sleeping face. Every worry and concern, every trace of anger and pain was contained in his expression. Roy knew that, when Ed woke up, he wouldn’t be the only one to give the alchemist a firm talking to about the value of honesty and not doing idiotic things. It would go in one ear and out the other, but at least it would make them feel better.
‘Two years is a long time to bear this by himself. Armstrong would weep at the nobility of it.’ Maes pursed his lips tight, not doubt holding back his own opinion of Edward's actions
‘It’s stubbornness,’ Roy bit out as he began to pace back and forth.
‘It answers one of my questions,’ Hughes murmured, looking very uncomfortable as Roy and Al both stared at him, waiting for him to expand on his statement. Falteringly, he began to explain what had happened at the gate, mentioning the other soldiers and the strange woman who had emerged from the darkness. His understanding was patchy, but it was better than nothing.
'The woman said she needed one more life or the gate wouldn't let us go. Ed said he'd stay behind – said something about the wounds he had probably killing him whereas I was alive and unharmed. He wouldn't take no for an answer. When I came to in the warehouse district and saw him I thought he must have had some kind of trick up his sleeve.' Hughes leaned forward, licking his lips and shrugging hopelessly. 'I guess I was wrong. He really was going to give his life if it meant getting me out.’
For a moment there was stiff, choking silence. Roy felt as though his heart had been clawed apart. A physical ache flashed from his chest to his stomach, making him feel sick. He hadn’t let himself think that Ed might not come back, but to know that the alchemist had actually suggested leaving them all behind to return Hughes to Amestris was agonising. Were they meaningless to him? Did Ed truly think that he would not be missed?
'Brother always blames himself for what happened to you,' Al murmured. 'I mean, I know neither of us pulled the trigger, but it was still because of what we were doing that you died.' He swallowed tightly. ‘I think Ed will always regret trying to bring back mum. At first I thought he would get over it, but I think that, in Ed's mind, it was the beginning of the end. It was the starting point for a trail of consequences we couldn't begin to imagine, and he holds himself responsible for all of it.’
'But he absolved himself,' Hughes protested, trying to understand. 'He got your body back and undid the wrongs he blamed himself for.'
Al's face flickered into a pained grimace, and Roy knew he was thinking of the cost of that recompense. 'It doesn't matter. I don't think he'll ever forgive himself. In his mind there's no way to redress the balance of it all. Even bringing you back won't be enough.'
Roy slumped wearily. His body was snapping with painful tension; it was crushing him, and his spirit began to fail under the assault of his emotions. He needed Ed to wake up and answer his questions. He had to find some way to grab the truth from all of this speculation, before his own assumptions and uncertainties tore him apart.
Forcing his mind into the present, he took two deep breaths, pinching the bridge of his nose to release some tension. The behaviour was unusual enough to make both Al and Hughes look at him uncertainly. A few days ago it had been easy to present the world with his usual smug, confident demeanour. Now it was as though he had lost his footing. Waves of emotion crashed against his foundations, shaking him to his core. It made his head feel hot and heavy, and he longed to get out in the cold air and somehow lose himself in the heartless night.
With another sigh, Roy let his logical thoughts take over, grimacing as it presented him with a list of everything that had to be done. It was ironic, really, that it was easier to deal with Hughes' resurrection than it was to handle Ed's condition. At least when it came to Maes, Roy felt like he was in control. He knew what he had to do, and he knew how to go about it. With Fullmetal he was completely lost and utterly helpless.
He hated that.
Letting his hands fall to his sides, he perched on the edge of the bed, finding some comfort in having at least having one situation he could command. He might not be able to help Ed, but he could help Hughes.
'I told Riza to call Gracia while you were with the doctor,' he said softly, knowing that it was only Ed's condition that had prevented Maes from heading straight home to his family. Even now, at the mention of his wife's name, Hughes shifted as though to get to his feet. Only Roy's hand on his arm prevented him from leaving.
‘Wait! She won’t be here for a while yet. I didn’t want to leave telling her until morning. She’s going to need to know the truth from one of us and see it for herself first-hand. It’s the only way she will really be able to believe it. Things might be less of a shock for her if someone explains what happened.’
The doubt on Maes’ face was clear, and Roy gently took his friend’s shoulders. ‘Once she gets here I’ll talk to her for five minutes and then you can have her back: her and Elysia. I know you don’t want to wait even that long, but we have to be careful about this. If anyone untrustworthy finds out the truth of what happened you’ll end up in one of the labs.'
His friend fidgeted, obviously torn between his immediate need to hold his family in his arms and the basic instinct to protect himself and those he loved. A flicker in his eyes told Roy that there was something else, something unspoken, that was bothering Hughes.
Maes cleared is throat as though he were trying to find the words to voice his fears. He looked uncertain, as though he barely wanted to credit his imaginings. Yet it was clear that his mind was being preyed upon. ‘It’s been years,' he said roughly. 'What if she’s moved on? What if they don’t want me any more?’ He looked lost and, for the first time in a long time, terribly afraid. Roy felt his heart clench painfully as he tried to imagine what must have be rushing through his mind. Life was not like a light bulb that could be switched on and off without consequences. Every death affected countless people, and he knew that Maes was trying to work out where he fitted in to a world that had carried on while he was gone.
‘That’s not possible,’ Al murmured, looking at the pair of them with gentle concern. His soft voice was determined, and he held Hughes' gaze confidently as he continued. ‘Gracia and Elysia have missed you so much. Ed and I visit as often as we can, and we know they’d give anything to have you back.’
‘How can you be so sure? What if they don't believe it's really me?’ He went to stand, raking a hand through his hair as he shifted restlessly. Behind his glasses his eyes were downcast, and his face was racked with uncertainty.
‘We believe it's you,’ Roy pointed out, pushing his friend back down into the chair. ‘We did from the moment we set eyes on you. Hawkeye was the only one who had any doubts at all, and that's only because it's her job to be paranoid.’ He grinned then, relieved to see an echo of that expression on his friend's face.
Steady footsteps made the three of them look up, and Roy felt the smile slip from his face. Doctor Collins paced into the room; firm, grim lines bracketed his mouth. His gnarled hands were clutching a folder, and Roy could see the edge of several x-ray sheets poking out of the top. The three of them made room for the doctor as he nodded in greeting, his movements brisk as he placed the film on the light box.
Four developments had been done, and each showed the same thing. A supernova of light marred the blackness of the film. Its core was pure white, fading outward in a monochrome halo that obscured Ed’s ribs and spine. Faint suggestions of bone could be seen in the shades of grey at the edge, but nothing more.
‘I am at a loss to explain this,’ the doctor said stiffly, as though it was an admission he would rather not make. ‘Our x-ray machine is in functioning order, yet every time we attempt a diagnosis the negatives appear over-exposed. We cannot get a clear picture of his thoracic cavity.’
‘What does that mean?’ Al asked, moving towards the wall and trying to pick out any useful information from the black celluloid.
'It means we can't tell the status of his illness.' Collins sighed, shutting tired eyes for a moment. Roy knew how the man must feel. It was challenging when something tested your competence, and he knew that the doctor had been trying desperately to analyse Edward's condition. 'For all we know his lungs are whole again. We can hear a heartbeat and he is breathing, but it is impossible to guess the level of his decline. We will have to rely on the patient's own estimation and hope that he is truthful.' Collins did not sound as if he was holding out much hope for that possibility, and he eventually slipped the x-rays back into the folder. 'My expertise have failed at this point. I cannot offer you anything more than a diagnosis on symptoms alone. Perhaps over the next few days his status will become more apparent.'
'Is his prognosis the same?' Maes asked quietly, voicing the question the other two did not want to contemplate.
'Yes. Until I can find evidence that contradicts the first x-rays then his outlook will not change. I'm sorry.' He let his gaze rest on Al and Roy's rumpled appearance and the shadows under their eyes. 'There are spare beds nearby. If you wish to use them then they are available to you.'
Roy didn't need to tell the doctor that they wouldn't be sleeping tonight. The man could no doubt see the determination written on Al's face and the resilience in Roy's frame. He shared a concerned glance with Hughes before nodding in resignation. His footsteps faded away, squeaking on the linoleum floor and leaving the others to stand in grim silence.
None of them spoke. There was nothing that could be said. They had hoped to find the answers to some of their questions. Instead they were back at the beginning, stuck with the gnawing ache of fear and the confusion of the unknown. Roy closed his eyes tight and struggled for control, trying to find some order in the tangled mess his life had become. It was impossible to tell whether this latest development was positive or negative, and in the mean time all they could do was wait. He had to admit that none of them were particularly known for their patience.
When he opened his eyes again, he saw Hawkeye standing in the doorway, neat and presentable. It was obvious from her expression that she had heard the doctor’s words about Ed’s condition. Fear and despair fought a flickering battle in her eyes, but she pushed her feelings back and lifted her chin. ‘I’ve been at the office,’ she said quietly. ‘I thought you might need these.’
She gestured a sheaf of papers that were tucked under her arm, and Roy raised an eyebrow as he recognised the Fuhrer’s seal emblazoned in the corner. 'They're drafts of lieutenant Colonel Hughes' “mission” documents, including official authorisation from the ex-Fuhrer Bradley.' Her lips curved with a faintly smug smile as she held them out to him. 'They're fake, of course, but they'll pass even close scrutiny.'
'Where did you get these?' Hughes asked in amazement as he took one of the pages and peered at it.
'Havoc has hidden talents. With all the girlfriends he's had he seems to have a lot of interesting connections as well.' Hawkeye managed a mock grimace. 'I'm afraid it does mean you'll lose your post-mortem promotion, sir.
Maes chuckled weakly at that and shrugged. 'Easy come, easy go.'
'They're not completely perfect,' Riza confessed, 'but if anyone starts asking difficult questions we at least need to make sure we’re all telling the same story.' She took a deep breath and straightened her shoulders. 'Gracia's also here. She's waiting.'
That announcement was met with silence, and Maes took a deep, steadying breath as he tried to keep calm. 'How is she?' he asked, his voice tinged with desperation. Like a thirsty man in the desert he drank in Riza's reply.
'Curious,' Hawkeye said with a shrug. 'Possibly a touch afraid. It isn't exactly usual to be called to the hospital at this time of the night. I tried to reassure her, but I'm not sure if I was successful.'
'Al, I'll be right back. If there's any change then come and get me,' Roy said quickly, slipping into the familiar comfort of orders as he turned on his heel. Hawkeye and Hughes were right behind him, and he swallowed a knot of dread as he tried to think of how this encounter would unwind. A normal woman simply wouldn't believe it, but Gracia was remarkable. Still, it wasn't going to be easy.
'Wait here,' he said quietly, fixing Hughes with a firm look. 'If you barge in there now, you'll probably scare the life out of her, and I know that's not what you want. Riza, can you stay here and watch him?'
The lieutenant nodded once in acknowledgement, her stance relaxed. Only the gently brush of her fingers on the butt of her gun cautioned Hughes against any rash action. The man himself paced back and forth, his face pinched and pale as he sought to find release from the anxiety that had him in its claws.
Gracia Hughes sat in a chair in a small, clean waiting room. Her hair had been brushed and her clothes were neat, but there was still a faint trace of tiredness about her. She waited patiently, and Roy saw her glance curiously at the clock. She did not seem upset at being called in at this hour of the night. In her arms Elysia napped peacefully, her brunette pigtails dark against the white of Gracia's blouse.
She went to stand up when he walked in, but he quickly waved her back into the chair before sitting next to her. As soon as he saw the concern in her eyes Roy knew that he must look a mess. There was no woman in the world more caring or gentle than Gracia, and he couldn't help but smile as she reached out and straightened his collar in a maternal gesture.
'Roy, what's wrong? Is there something I can do to help?' she asked quietly so as not to disturb her daughter. 'You look exhausted.'
'I'm fine, Gracia.' Of course she would ask about his well being before having a concern for her own. It had never been any other way. She always put other people before herself. She was the perfect wife for Hughes.
Clearing his throat he tried to find the best way to tell her what had happened. His tongue felt thick and clumsy as his mind scrambled in panic. 'It's just -' He hesitated, unsure how to go about informing someone that their dead husband was actually alive.
'Did you find Maes' remains?' she whispered, her voice heavy with sadness. 'I didn't mean to cause so much fuss over it. I know you have better things to be doing.'
'Nothing is more important than that,' Roy replied earnestly, wishing he could get Hawkeye to do this instead. Surely she would know what to say? Clearing his throat he began to speak, staring unseeingly at the floor as he tried to explain. 'The remains were being used for alchemical purposes. I put Ed on the case. I knew he would do everything possible to find out what was happening. I wouldn't trust anyone else with something this important to me.'
He was surprised by his own admission, but Gracia nodded in understanding as though she had realised that fact long ago. Gently she brushed Elysia's hair with her palm, waiting for him to continue.
'At first it looked like he wasn't turning up much, but tonight he must have discovered something. He hasn't reported the details to me yet, but I'm sure he will when he's able.'
The startled look on her face made Roy wince. He would have to tell her about Ed eventually. She would probably drag the truth about that out of someone sooner rather than later. He prayed it wouldn't be him. He didn't have the strength for that.
He stumbled over his words as he went on, looking up at Gracia through the strands of hair that fell across his forehead and into his eyes. 'There was an explosion in the warehouse district tonight. When we went to investigate we found Edward and Maes in the middle of it all.'
She tipped her head slightly to one side, her eyes narrowing as she tried to follow what he was saying. 'I – I don't understand.'
He saw her confusion in the taut smoothness of her face and the tense line of her jaw. Her grip around her daughter had tightened, and she clung to Elysia like a drowning woman to driftwood.
Finally he managed to croak out the truth of it. 'Somehow Ed managed to bring Hughes back. He's alive.'
It sounded false and completely unbelievable. The proof of his own eyes was one thing, but now he came to tell someone else it seemed foolish. He would be lucky if she didn't call the doctor and suggest he have his head examined.
Crystalline tears welled up in Gracia's eyes, splashing unnoticed into Elysia's hair. Her bottom lip trembled, and she pursed it tight as she tried to make sense of what he was saying. 'Alive?' she repeated, as though she couldn't understand what he was saying.
Roy nodded, his words coming quickly as he tried to curtail her doubts. 'We've had the doctor take a look at him. It's as though he was never shot.' Carefully he reached over and took her hand in his, noticing that she was still wearing her wedding band. 'It's not a trick or some sick joke, Gracia. He's waiting to see you just outside.'
He had thought she would hesitate or insist that he had made a mistake. He expected questions or curses. Instead she leapt out of the chair, startling Elysia awake as she darted out into the corridor. He heard her gasp of surprise and the little girl's squeal of joy, and felt a smile curve his own lips. Quietly moving towards the doorway, he saw Gracia wrapped in Hughes' arms, her face buried in his shoulder as she wept in disbelief. Elysia was clinging to her father and laughed out loud as he swept her up and gathered his wife close again.
With shaking hands, Gracia brushed her fingertips over Hughes' jaw and cheeks. Her eyes were bright as she stared at him in wonder. 'It's really you,' she whispered, biting her lip as another sob shook her shoulders. 'It's really you!' She rained kisses down on her husband's cheeks and lips as tears dripped off of her chin. 'I thought I'd lost you.'
'So did I,' Hughes choked out, tightening his grasp on both of them as he pressed his forehead against Gracia's brow and looked into her eyes. 'I love you.'
'I love you too,’ she replied hoarsely, smiling shakily. ‘I’ve missed you so much!’
Hawkeye was watching the reunion with tears in her eyes, and she discreetly motioned to Roy. They moved away silently, giving the reunited family some privacy. It was as though something broken had been made whole again, and Roy couldn’t help but glance over his shoulder at the touching scene. He had never, ever thought he would see Gracia truly smile again, or hear Elysia's unbridled laughter. Now the little girl was cradled in her father's arms, despite her size, and was chattering happily as she ran her fingers over his stubbled jaw.
'I think that's one of the most beautiful things I've ever seen,' Hawkeye said quietly. 'They're so happy.' She cleared her throat awkwardly. 'I know you don't believe in miracles, sir, but doesn't this make you think about changing your mind?'
'Perhaps,' he said quietly, moving into Ed's room. His stomach twisted uncomfortably as joy collided with grief and concern. 'I just wish that Ed had thought to spare a miracle for himself. I think he could use one right now.'
Riza nodded, her eyes lingering on Al's slumped form. He had rested his head against the mattress and now slept soundly, despite his previous protests. He clung to his brother's wrist as though ensuring that he could not go anywhere, and the faint trace of tear-tracks were fresh on his cheeks. Very gently Roy shook Al's shoulder, bringing him back to the edge of wakefulness. 'Al, there's a bed right next door. Come on. You need sleep.'
'Don't want to leave him,' Al managed, sounding unbearably young. His eyelids were already fluttering closed again as his body demanded the rest it had been denied.
'I'll wake you up as soon as there's a change,' Roy promised. 'I'll look after Ed. Trust me.' His words were gentle, and he noticed Hawkeye lift an eyebrow at his sincerity before she gentle took Al by the elbow and helped him to his feet.
'He's not going anywhere, Al,' she said reassuringly. 'We'll make sure of it. Havoc and Falman are guarding the doors, so even if he discharges himself again we'll stop him.'
Roy wondered if she was telling the truth about that and stuck his head out of the door, seeing the familiar forms on either side of the entrance to the hospital wing. Smoke from Havoc's cigarette curled in the air, and Falman had propped himself against the wall. He knew they may not be stoic and grim like typical sentries, but they would do their job.
Just then Havoc turned and caught his eye, giving him a reassuring smile through the window in the door. Sleep seemed to have become an optional luxury among Roy's staff lately, and he wondered if he should force a mandatory vacation for them all once this was over.
He realised Hawkeye had said something, and he looked up to see her watching him with a trace of patient disapproval. After her gentle cajoling, Al had shuffled out of the door, and he heard the bed next door creak softly as the younger Elric collapsed onto the mattress. 'Sorry, I wasn't listening.'
'I said perhaps you should get some rest as well?'
'I need to stay here. I'll get some sleep in the chair.' He gestured to the uncomfortable things clustered around Ed's bed and quickly held up his hand to stem her protests. 'Do me a favour. Go home and get a few hours. Someone here needs to be awake tomorrow morning. The rest of us aren't going to be good for anything much.'
Hawkeye's lips tightened, and he knew she wanted to argue. Her fingertips drummed twice on her hip as she considered his request before finally allowing one sharp nod. 'Understood.' With efficient movements she grabbed a blanket and shook it out, casting it around Roy's shoulders with one final glare. The fact she had to stand on tiptoes to reach properly did nothing to reduce the vague threat in her gaze, and he smiled in thanks.
Sinking heavily into one of the chairs he watched Hawkeye depart, flicking the light off as she went. The room was plunged into soft twilight, lit by nothing other than the streetlamps beyond the window. Shifting his weight, Roy winced as the seat creaked threateningly.
He watched Ed through lowered lashes, trying to struggle against sleep as he maintained his vigil. Exhaustion made sounds hazy, and more than once he thought he had slipped into a dream. Faint laughter and half-forgotten memories stirred in his mind, melting together in a blur of colour and sound.
A shape near the doorway dragged him back to reality. Blinking his gritty eyes, he craned his neck to see Elysia standing on the threshold. Maes' daughter had escaped from clumsy toddler-hood and was now a graceful seven-year old. She had her mother's kind expression and her father's mischief. At that moment, though, she was all Gracia. Large eyes were shining brightly as she tiptoed across the room and hauled herself up onto the bed. For a few seconds she just looked down at the sleeping young man with a thoughtful frown, and Roy wondered what she was thinking.
With great care she pressed her lips to Ed's cheek and whispered, 'Thank you for getting my daddy back.' She spared a smile for Roy before she curled up on top of the sheets, pressing her cheek against the cool metal of Ed's arm.
'What are you doing, Elysia?' he asked curiously, wondering if he should pick her up and take her back to Hughes.
'Looking after him,' she murmured as she let her eyes drift shut. 'He played with me when Daddy couldn't and made me smile when I was sad,' She scowled for a moment, blinking blearily, 'but there's no one to take care of him. I can't get his mummy back.'
She didn't notice her parents standing behind her in the hallway, both gazing into the room with tears in their eyes at their daughter's words. Only a child could take such a complex situation and make it so incredibly simple. Roy caught Maes' eye and gave a quick nod, silently agreeing to watch the little girl. He knew that Hughes and Gracia wouldn't leave the hospital, but they would cherish the moment to simply share one another’s company again.
Elysia was already drifting off, her thoughtful frown smoothed away by sleep. As carefully as he could, Roy draped another blanket over her, tucking it up under her chin as she clung to Ed as though he were a teddy bear.
Roy could still remember her wails of grief at the funeral. Her inability to understand what was happening had torn the adults around her to pieces. Even now he wondered if she realised the true impossibility of what had taken place today.
He wasn't sure he quite grasped it himself. One part of his mind kept saying that it simply couldn't be done. It had to be a trick, a lie. Yet Hughes was flesh and blood, and he realised how desperately he wanted to believe it was true.
Gently, so as not to disturb the two sleepers on the bed, he rested his forearms on the mattress and let his head settle on the top of his hands. It would make his neck stiff, and he would suffer for it come morning. Roy knew that he could find an empty bed, but he had two promises to keep. Elysia was easy; she was as much of an angel as her father proclaimed and taking care of her was wonderfully simple.
Ed was a different matter. It felt as though Roy had spent the better part of his life trying to look after him. Of course it had all been through off-hand manipulation, like a puppet-master tugging all the right strings. Sometimes he smoothed the young alchemist's path through his influence, or removed the obstacles in his way before Fullmetal even came across them. At first it had been easy, but it had become more and more difficult to watch Edward from a distance. Inexorably they had all been drawn deeper into the convoluted plots of the Homunculi, and even then Ed had been determined to do things his own way.
Roy had told Gracia how much he trusted the young alchemist, and he hadn't been lying. Still, he wondered whether that faith was returned. If Ed had a problem that he couldn't solve alone was there anyone he would turn to, or would he just struggle on until he succeeded or died trying?
With a sigh Roy shifted slightly. He could make Ed's life easier, but the young blonde rarely let anyone offer him physical comfort. It was only at times like this, when he was helpless to stop them, that anyone got the chance to really take care of him. Even Elysia had jumped at the opportunity. Why did he have to hold everyone at arm's length?
Roy snorted irritably and shut his eyes, forcing his thoughts aside as he sought sleep. 'Goodnight, idiot,' he muttered in a low voice, hoping, rather than believing that Ed would hear him.
Slumber tugged his awareness and finally pulled him into its velveteen depths. He did not feel the mattress shift as the blanket was gently tugged up further around his shoulders, or hear the hoarse whisper of reply.