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this is dedicated to the one I love

Chapter Text

Patient Observation Chart

Patient Name: Roy Mustang
DOB: 12/1/84

Admitted: 4/21/15, Emergency Ward
Transferred: 4/24/15, Rehab Wing

Holly Gilliam skips most of the clipboard’s content after this—the height and weight, vitals, medical history, the measurable things—the Flame Alchemist has been one of her primary patients for nearly two weeks, which means she’d gotten to know the gist of his charts well enough a few days in and like the back of her hand, by now. She’s keen to follow his recovery as closely as possible, and not just because this is her first big case in a big city hospital that she has great ambitions to work at, permanently, sometime soon. Not just because she is intelligent, smart enough to have graduated at the top of her class this spring before, well, everything, and not because she was particularly invested in the Colonel’s progress, like her fellow nurses who might swoon over the national hero’s jawline or dark eyes or disarming grin.

It's that the better she knew exactly how he purports to be doing, the easier it is to find holes in his alibis, see. And nothing gets Holly’s heart thumping these days quite like new evidence that pointed to her ongoing theory that Colonel Roy Mustang is, at the very least, hiding something.

“Gilliam, I’m telling you this as a senior, and not a friend,” Cass cuts her off with a steady hand before Holly can even begin to divulge her most recent findings over their pre-shift coffees, “you better try to rein in that nose of yours before someone above me finds out it’s been sniffing somewhere it doesn’t belong. You’re like a goddamn bloodhound.”

Holly bites her lip, another bad and nervous habit of hers that Ma back west would tell her to knock off immediately if she was here to scold her instead of Miss Cass, RN. But Cass isn’t Ma, indeed, and Ma’s probably busy right about now. She is, after all, one of hundreds of mothers keeping vigil at her bedside every night since her daughter became one of the lucky few Promised Day Angels, packing up her nursing school dorm a few weeks early and replacing her final exams with a temporary assignment at Saint Dwynwen’s Rehabilitation Wing in Central City. Holly didn’t know, quite yet, that she and her fellow fledgling nurses would be memorialized and thanked in beautiful street murals and romantic radio ballads for years to come, and when she came to find out, would sit empty with the memories of her ethereal bloody feet and the heavenly long hours and personally waiting hand and foot on the nation’s saving grace in fourteen hour shifts.

She had a long way to go, until then, when all of this would be a distant memory.

Most Responsible Diagnosis: sharp force trauma through both hands (reconstructive surgery successful 4/22/15, started PT 5/6/15). For now, Holly Gilliam has a whole lead to chase, an overheard conversation that she needs to relay to someone, anyone, who might confirm that her suspicions aren’t unfounded, and there’s only one person in this hospital she might trust with that grave responsibility, even if most of that trust is founded on similarities with her Ma back west. “Listen, I really think I caught him this time, Cass—”

“There’s nothing to catch, Gilliam,” Cass hisses, catching the ‘m’ on ‘Gilliam’ just like her mother might, too; Holly hasn’t remembered to ask Cass yet if she was a Central transplant as well, and if not from her own hometown of Durbuy, maybe Crupet? Torgny? Blankenberge? “The man can hardly write his own name, let alone see that he wrote it on the proper line afterward. What could he possibly be plotting?”

“That’s what I’m trying to explain, Cass, I think that he can see, he’s just lyi—”

Cass shushes her with a steady, stout hand again, keeping her head still as her eyes dart toward the location of every other breathing soul in the break room—a janitor asleep with his head lolled back on the ottoman, a few other girls from the nightshift clocking out with all the enthusiasm of wet rags dripping off a clothesline. “You think Roy Mustang, a man tortured by rebels defending the late Fuhrer, is lying about being blind? And for what? And what incentive might he have to lie?”

“Well, it’s less like lying and more like omitting details?” More like he’s keeping his poker hand close to his chest and playing chess across different planes at the same time, and Holly is, at best, a plastic chip or a small pawn, useful and disposable from his perspective. “And I guess I don’t know, really, what incentive he’d have to lie, but what incentive does his adjutant have to lie for him, then?”

Now that piques Cass’s attention, if reluctantly. It’s obvious how she keeps it all in her brow, the tug and pull between wanting to listen to Holly and wanting this conversation to be over, Holly could see it. Eventually, the rope snaps and Cass just shakes her head before conceding. “Fine, go ahead, tell me more. But keep quiet.”

Diagnosis: total blindness (1/60, next to no field of vision). “So this was yesterday, when I was making my final loops at the end of my shift,” Holly doesn’t mean to talk with her hands like she’s illustrating a ghost story, whispering low and soft, “I heard it straight from the mouth of that bodyguard of his, you know the one.”

Cass may not be one for ghost stories herself, but even she partook in a little patient gossip from time to time. “The lieutenant he’s definitely not sleeping with, but demanded to share a room with post-op,” she mutters, knowing and interested.

“Yes! I, uh— Rita? Is that her name?”

“Rosa?”

“Whatever. I overheard her say to him, just before I walked into his room, that she could tell he could see ‘more light than before’ based on where he turned his head adjacent to the window.”

Cass simply blinks a response, once, twice, holding her tongue while another nurse moved for the coffee pot behind them; she and Holly take a sip from their mugs in unison, and once they were safe, Cass took to spluttering a, “Wait, he can see light now?”

“Apparently!” To the knowledge of his Lieutenant, and not to, oh you know, his doctors or the eye specialists or Holly herself

“And how long did you have to wait outside the room before getting this nugget of information, Gilliam?”

“Only about a minute or so?”

God.

There’s more to the story than that of course. Like how she’d been putting up with the Colonel’s poorly masked impatience for weeks. Like how the hallway the Colonel’s room was in had been unusually quiet as Holly trotted down the tile yesterday, save the crackling portable radio Mustang had shmoozed off another nurse to obtain; how the song that Holly had to duck her head and listen for their conversation through was the same swooning ballad that must’ve been topping the popularity charts this week and last, given how often it seems to play.

Each night before you go to bed, my baby, whisper a little prayer for me, my baby, and tell all the stars above, this is dedicated to the one I love.

Like how she’d had a full minute to listen only because that’s how long it’d taken for the Colonel’s Lieutenant’s back to straighten out, not unlike the military’s actual watch dogs, like she’d sniffed out a foul stench. How Holly must’ve been the foul stench, and even if the pair were silent when Gilliam walked into the room, Mustang still seemed to regard her as someone who’d just interrupted a conversation he was having. And how his charts indicated no changes in his vision in either eye, from earlier in the day, the day before, the day before that, and so on, though the range of motion in both his hands was returning quite nicely.

“He’s hiding something, Cass,” concludes Holly, in the present. “Just how many people have you ever read about bouncing back from total blindness unassisted? No surgery, no exercise, no glasses?”

“You have to remember I’m not nearly as green as you, Gilliam,” Cass replies, shoulders shrugging with her catch on the Gilliam ‘m’ and a well-earned nonchalance. “I’ve seen a lot of things in these halls they didn’t write about in textbooks.”

The you’ll understand when you’re older went unspoken, of course. “But I’m in the room for his eye exams every time and nothing has changed. He answers so confidently, every time, that nothing. Has. Changed. And to be corrected in his act so casually by the Lieutenant while they’re alone? This whole thing smells fishy.”

“Fishier than anything you’ve witnessed from him before?” Cass asks knowingly, and Holly considers, with resentment, all of the evidence she collected over the last two weeks. “Worse than the secret Doctors’ visit?” Exhibit A, the unscheduled visit from two doctors unlisted in Amestris’s national registry who called themselves Mustang’s primary care physicians and sounded like they were in a gang of some kind—while one of the men certainly looked the part, stout and gentle, the other was in a wheelchair and smelled like an ash tray, and had to be lying, right? “Worse than holding up the phone line for hours at a time?” Exhibit B, rom an area code in the north, an area code in Central, and area code out east that perhaps intended to help Mustang run Saint Dwynwen’s from a distance. “Worse than the strange and cryptic conversations he has with our friend, Al?” Don’t even get her started.

“They were saying ‘alka—’ darn, ‘alka—’ something?” Before that, Holly had occasionally caught on to the whispers between her patient and Cass’s primary patient, Alphonse Elric, and what she heard seemed? Cultish? Eldritch? Evil? Chilling. “Something about the healing properties of alka-something and something called a Philosopher’s Stone. The one word was like ‘alchemy’, but wasn’t, and I still have no idea what a Philosopher’s Stone is. Cass—what on God’s green earth could that possibly refer to?”

“I don’t know,” Cass admits as a smirk unfolds across her face, and it hits Holly, suddenly, how if she’d really been like her Ma or from somewhere like Torgny as Holly had projected, then ‘I don’t know’ would sound much more like ‘I d’no’. “Maybe they were trying to talk about alchemy with Drachman accents.”

“Why would they talk about alchemy with Drachman accents?”

Cass’s laugh is dry and Holly is back at square one with another strange happenstance that stunk something rotten under her nose and her nose alone. It’s not as though she’d ever been any kind of prying busybody before she’d started working in Central—goal-minded, yes, relentless, she’d been told, but not a super sleuth of any sort. But she wasn’t brought to Central to work on her own merit or passion or even due to a decent reference, she was brought here as a lifeline when a national something made everything that once was look the same at first glance, forever changed at the next. There exists two Hollys, frankly, the one who could’ve been satisfied with her assignment to nurse one of the Nation’s highest ranking military officials and the inevitable promise of employment that held, and there was one, now, waiting for her shift to start, who felt that life could hardly be as simple as words printed upon her (smarmy, insolent, bossy, sonofa) patient’s clipboard.

“Holly, kid.” Cass waved a hand in front of Holly’s eyes as she spoke; Holly must’ve zoned out too long. “Are you alright?”

“Fine.”

Not convincing enough, however; perhaps she should ask for some pointers from her patient. “A lot of people have been ‘fine’. Most of our patients have been fine, but,” Cass swallows, face like ceramic glazing over, and maybe Holly sold Cass short, for a moment there, “you know what happened on that day, no one’s really gotten settled back to normal. So I’ll ask you again, are you alright?”

“I’m really fine, Cass.”

“It’s okay to be nervous—”

“What—”

“—or lonely when you first move somewhere new, far away from home—"

“No, no, no—that’s not it at all. I just,” Holly uses her whole body to breath in air through her nose, out through her mouth, “don’t trust the Colonel. There’s something off about him, I don’t understand what he’d have to hide. And it’s hindering my responsibilities to do my best as a nurse here.”

Cass nods, though she seems more relieved that her lukewarm attempts at mentorship were over for the day. “Well, kid, I’ve certainly been there. Any nurse in this building has been there. Your love for the work, unfortunately, can’t reach every patient.” Holly knows this to be true and frowns every time she is reminded. “However, we’re all a little tepid these days, and most of us didn’t put our lives on the line to protect the city from rebels.”

But that was the thing about it that probably bothers her most, still—those who’d been closest to the wreckage at Central’s military headquarters didn’t seem quite so panicked. They seem, well, like they were just anticipating their next steps, where average civilians still walked into the ER with no symptoms, no problems, just a general, heavy knowledge that something had happened to them. Mustang, in all his dealings with Holly, certainly seemed impatient and persistent, making his civility seem forced, no matter what he said; his adjutant is quiet and scrutinous, watching Holly like she’s waiting for her to so much as breath out of line, and that’s not even considering the other survivors recuperating on the same floor…

“Does Alphonse mention him at all?” Holly asks suddenly, pretending not to notice how Cass lets out a shallow sigh, “They just hang out an awful lot, hell if I can understand why.”

“Just in passing, just in his requests to visit, if he can be bothered to ask me, what with that busybody brother of his right there to wait on his every need, twice as fast,” before Holly could press any further, however, Cass is pushing out from her seat at the table and disposing of her mug in the sink, wiping her hands on her stiff-pressed white dress, “I’ll give you credit for one thing, Gilliam, these military dogs certainly think they have their run of the place. But you’ll roll Mustang to the lounge to say hello to him, though, first thing this morning, right?”

Holly nods swiftly, absently; she’s not sure when she had time to empty her coffee mug this morning, she could’ve sworn she had just a few more sips left. “And Gilliam?” asks Cass from the doorway, just before she stepped out into the aseptic wafts of flowers and iodoform. “Let me know if you need anything.”

Comments: of sound mind and spirit, recovery on par with projected timeline


One of those deceiving afternoons that appear verdant and blue and comfortable from the window but are quickly betrayed by a bitter wind chill, Ed and Al spend some time wandering the grounds of the hospital.

That is, if “some time” meant “snuck off long enough to cause some concern between the nurses at the disappearance of not one, but two patients” and “the grounds of the hospital” meant “the five block radius that the hospital sat in the middle of, including the closest bakery and bookstore”, then sure, Ed and Al spent some time wandering the grounds of the hospital.

The Promised Day had given way to a very clear and very chilly spring, and though time passed slow in the rehab wing, it was hard not to look out at the wide open sky and not feel a sense of urgency to make something of the day. This particular afternoon in question was no exception and made for a fairly simple equation: beautiful weather, plus a schedule free of any physical therapy sessions for both brothers after one o’clock, plus Alphonse actually, really, finally having enough strength to get out of bed? All together, they’d yielded something enough to move Edward into action, because while he was deeply protective of his brother’s recovery, he’d also perhaps built up too much unexpended energy squeezing rubber balls and waiting, metal foot bouncing, at his brother’s bedside. And Al might’ve conceded in his brother’s defense, when they had snuck around hallways, down flights of stairs, and out the front doors of Saint Dwynwen’s, that these last few weeks were the longest that Ed, that the both of them, had been in one place since they set out on their journey, regardless of where one considered their story to have technically started.

They’d come an awfully long way, hadn’t they?

And in a way that anyone who they’d met along that journey might predict unprompted, a “quick walk around outside” soon turned into a trip down to Collette’s Café on the corner, and a trip to Collette’s Cafe turned into buying three different pieces of cake and strolling around the block to walk off any impending stomach aches, which turned into a short excursion to see inside the bookstore they just happened upon, to stop inside the stationary store and run their hands along the envelopes more fine and beautiful than perhaps was ever truly necessary for a letter, and so on and so forth. Al hadn’t cared much for the validity of their excuses, not when everything around him was so novel now. Wiping sugary sweet chocolate frosting off his nose and rising to his feet, walking to the end of the block, walking across the cobblestone street to a new block. Standing, assisted only by his forearm crutches for just under five minutes and feeling the sinews in his muscles tug and stretch and fold again to keep him straight and upright. What a thrill it was, to feel his own body moving.

“Zampano has a contact for getting letters across the desert,” Al had explained, speaking just above a whisper into Ed’s ear; after a while, he’d gotten to be too tired to walk, but not tired enough to resign to his hospital bed once more, and so Ed had weaved between pedestrians and through the busy Central streets carrying Al on his back. It was funny, though it didn’t warrant a laugh, how people actually stared at them less now that they were just two boys giving piggy-back rides instead of The Legendary Fullmetal Alchemist, who might’ve been whoever was inside the giant suit of armor, might’ve been the very short, very intrepid teenage boy he traveled with—who could be sure?

Still short, but with no need to be intrepid at the moment, Ed snorted something fond in response. “So when you say ‘contact’, I’m free to assume that you mean ‘shady black market business’, right?”

“Assuming will cost you a five-cenz piece.”

“Then I’ll refrain. Continue.”

Though the muscle had built up considerably, Al could still feel the difference in Ed’s weaker, newer arm, anticipating a slip before Ed even considered adjusting his hold. “Anyway, if I wanted to get in touch with Mei,” a pause, “and Ling and Lan Fan, Zampano said this guy could almost certainly get the letters to them, though it’d might take a while.”

“If that’s what you want, then I guess it’s the only option you got,” Ed agreed between nods. “But are you not worried about jumping the gun a little bit? I mean, you’ve just been in therapy this whole time, you gonna write a letter about the power of foam rollers?”

“I mean, it only makes sense to write them, right? Make sure they got home okay and everything.”

“Sure,” Ed replied, and Al could tell he was trying not to smirk. “All three of them, huh?”

Okay, so he’d meant Mei, mostly, but Ed didn’t have eyes on the back of his head and wouldn’t be able to call Al’s bluff. He’d never been good at lying, and with a whole face to betray him now, Al may never get one past his brother again.

The paper from the stationary store that Al eventually decided on was thick, the color of the cream he stirred into his tea. It smelled fresh, too, and much like the afternoon itself it seemed sewn and pressed with the wanting to write something important and worthwhile. The envelopes matched in material and shade, and if he ran his fingers over the speckled etches melded together to make one piece of parchment, he could feel the space between the fitfully patterned ridges and valleys. It’d been the cheaper, simpler version of his first choice letter set, at which the checkout clerk had taken one look at Alphonse examining the shiny gold birds that littered the edges of the paper and cheerfully asked when the date was.

“The date for what?” Al inquired, tilting his head rather innocuously.

“For your wedding, my good sir,” replied the clerk, her expression altogether jovial at his expense.

A whole entire face to betray him now, it seemed wildly unfair, didn’t it?

Now, whether or not Al was ready to spend that much time (three hours) out of his room otherwise unassisted and unaccompanied should have been up to his nurses to decide (they’d decided he was not ready, and the boys had been reckless, but that was beside the point), but more desperate than any medical professional’s recommendation was how Al’s body felt to him when he used it to its full strength and beyond, again and again, over and over, until it became too much. “Too much” was relative, obviously, to the years it’d spent doing nothing without him, but the sure feeling of satisfaction when he pushed toward a new physical feat was not. Being tired was a reward for finding a decent enough rhythm with his crutches to walk. The feeling that his legs might buckle if he tried to run, the dull comfort he felt when he held onto Ed’s back, these were motivators cumulating not in some final end goal, but to see what the next immediate stepping stone had in store for him. The list Al started many years ago of things he wanted to experience once he was corporeal again were just dominoes, infinitely knocking down more and more sensations he needed to experience for the first time once more, that he’d forgotten about when he’d been little more than a soul standing just over seven feet tall.

Come the following afternoon, Al’s nose is stuffed for the first time in about five years.

His primary nurse is a tall, round-faced woman named Cass, who wastes no time in berating Ed within an earshot of his brother’s room. Listening in, Al’s attention fades in and out, most of his notice drawn to the sensations in his fingers as they run over the pressed-stiff white sheets of his bed, the warmth of his toes under the blankets, and staying perfectly, unremarkably quiet. Al had admittedly forgotten about getting sick, as a concept. Simply overlooked how a getting a small fever might feel more like he’d stuck his head in a bucket of cotton, how no amount of sleep could chase away the hot exhaustion behind his eyelids. It was honestly fresh, maybe a little more exciting than it should have been, though Al was not so foolish to share that with his brother, who didn’t seem like he’d appreciate the thought after being called every synonym for “foolish” and “irresponsible” until Cass’s round face burned red.

“Well Al, what did we learn today about running around outside without a damn coat on?” Ed mutters, holding his calloused and tough left hand up to feel across Al’s forehead with a frown. He’s not mad, not at all. In fact, the closer he sounded to their mother, the less angry he was, usually; the only real difference today is that Al couldn’t seem to conjure the notion of his mother saying “damn”, ever.

I learned about the breeze, Ed, how it pimples the skin on my neck. About the sunshine, the electricity that passes between people on the street, the pulse that connects us all without sight. “But I wasn’t even a little bit cold. Not at all.” The point of protesting was not to fuss, the point was pulling Ed’s leg (either automail or flesh, both were fine). It’d worked well enough, and the more Ed’s pointed nose had curled at the nostrils, the more satisfied Al found himself, given the other option at stake.

As of today, Alphonse had had his body back for 29 days and had observed his brother waver between two reactions to the matter.

“Yeah, yeah, I know, but that’s how colds work, in case you forgot.” A passing stranger likely wouldn’t realize that this mordant kind of scolding is actually Ed’s way of doting—or, rather, Ed’s role as teacher in Al’s reeducation in simple bodily maintenance. “You think you’re fine but you wear a coat anyways so you don’t get sick, dummy.”

“But you weren’t wearing a coat either, Brother.”

Ed is smug as he folds his arms, leaning back in the chair he’d dragged up to Al’s bedside. “Well, I never get sick,” he replies, awfully proud of himself.

“Interesting.” Al lets him simmer before adding: “Is that a recent development, or?”

Ed’s bloated smirk deflates slowly as Al goes on to recite, with rather vivid detail, all the times in the last few years on the road that he’d gotten sick—head colds and stomach flus and migraines and an allergy to mold that’d come out of nowhere, frankly. “You’re hanging out way too much with the Colonel,” was all Ed had to say for himself at the end of it.

What they were not going to talk about this morning was the moment yesterday afternoon after they had gotten separated in the bookstore around the corner and down the street. It was simply inevitable they would pan off into different directions upon walking through the front door—Ed felt less impatient in recovery if he felt like he was learning something, and Al just wanted a story or two to read before bed at night. Time flew over their heads as they navigated the labyrinth of aisles at their own pace, and the pressure Alphonse kept on his wrists eventually grew too sharp to justify standing any longer with the assistance of his crutches, so he’d eventually found a place to sit in a musty corner, hidden within the oak shelves that contained the mystery section. He’d craned at the neck, feeling unusually small now that he couldn’t clear the top row, especially not from where he’d been sitting on a footstool left behind by some employee charged with shelving the dime novel gore. To be so small, to be enveloped in a space, Al had lost himself until he’d heard his name, whisper-shouted like a player on a stage might do. It was Edward, a little white in the face, looking for Alphonse like he’d gotten lost, like they’d really been separated. To Al’s notice, Ed’s neck was also craned at an angle like he too was still expecting to find his brother in a great knight’s armor, ducking low so as to miss the ceiling, and not within a thin, tired pile of flesh and bone.

When Ed’s eyes finally found Al, they were just short of panicked, a fear which dissipated quickly once they’d begun to well up with tears.

“Brother? Brother, I’m fine!” This was Ed’s second response, and even if they used their imaginations to pretend otherwise, there were always tears. “Hey, I’m okay.”

“I know.” Ed’s voice was wet, riddled with disbelief as he offered an arm for Al to pull himself up with. “I know.”

The sound of scissors snipping his hair short, the noticeable weight that fell from his shoulders and pooled on the ground, the fresh shear tickling the fingertips when he brushed past the nape of his neck. The smell of food—just the smell of plain bread—wafting through his nose and directly into his stomach if only to tease him and remind him, oh, he could feel hunger too, that the pangs could be satiated with something delicious or something interesting or something just enough. Closing his eyes and going to sleep was almost a disappointment if it wasn’t for the chance to dream, to watch the world as he knew it expand twice over from his mind’s eye. Was all of this really what he’d been missing? To ask Ed was to put a good deal of pressure on him—it wasn’t as though Ed didn’t have his own world to reenter in time.

It was funny—actually funny this time—to look back upon Mei Chang’s tutelage in the North where Al had tried to absorb what she could explain of Alkahestry, specifically the Dragon’s Pulse. Clear as a whistle, he could still hear Mei’s indignance at his suggestion that there had to be some tangible, measurable, scientific way to know for sure that he was reading the Pulse correctly, because they’d been trying to meditate for hours in that middle-of-nowhere house between barrels and crates and he still felt nothing. Clear your mind and think with your senses, she’d been bossy, like he was pretending not to be able to read something she’d written out in plain Amestrian, like this! See, it’s easy!

There’d been nothing easy about it at all, but it wasn’t as though their lesson hadn’t been in vain; maybe, he considered, the mere promise of a body was what made the difference in reading or not reading the Dragon’s Pulse. Alphonse wasn’t metal anymore, and perhaps those thrilling specifics in what he touched and smelled and tasted and dreamt were more than just feelings. Was all of this the Pulse? Was this what she attuned herself to and interpreted with great ease all the time? No, Al was certainly his brother’s brother, and in all of his impatience, considered maybe Mei Chang, in particular, was the person to talk to about his recovery. Not just for what he could learn, but because she would spend at least an hour trying to put words to what he didn’t understand before she lost patience, and because they hadn’t had much time to just say more than hello after, oh, you know, just transmuting his body and soul back to the mortal plane in one piece.

There was so much to do, so much to learn, so much to write about with only twelve envelopes to fill, though as of right now, Day 29, there was very little connecting his thoughts from Dear Mei, I hope you got back to Xing alright to do you ever realize how joyful it is to just walk?

Was that coming on too strong?

After sitting together for a while, Ed stood to stretch out his back with a groan, Al turning to pull out his rewards from yesterday’s endeavors from the top drawer of his bedside table—thick, cream paper and an envelope of equal quality.  “I’m going down to the cafeteria to grab a sandwich,” said Edward, without a trace of his earlier concern, “do you want anything? They’re feeding you up here, right?”

“Brother, I’m fine. Thanks for asking, but I—” Digging through the drawer’s contents, Al stopped abruptly, suddenly realizing in rush, his folly. He’d had the paper, he’d had envelopes, he’d even had Amestrian flag stamps, though he didn’t know yet if he technically needed them to get illegal mail to Xing... “Actually, can you grab me a pen?”

“A pen?”

Al held up the cardstock he’d purchased the day before, sheepish. “You know, to write with.”

Ed snorted, a wide grin spreading over his face like the daybreak. “Yeah, sure. I’ll be right back.”


“Alphonse.”

“Yeah, Colonel?”

“Is…” Roy shuts his eyes too tight sometimes and it’s regrettable; like the tension pooling across his nose and between his brows could ease the responsibility off of his other senses, enabling them to fill the void that would appear when he reopened his eyes once more. “Is someone pacing, Alphonse?”

Whatever he was hearing—the scuff, scuff, scuff—is too distant to be fully irritating, but is still more movement than the physical rehabilitation wing’s lounge saw at this early and usually very empty hour in the morning, making it a wholly unique phenomena that Roy couldn’t seem to piece together on his own. Instead, he awaits a reply and is met with a knowing, but amused sigh. “It’s Ed,” Al replies, all warmth and no metal. “He likes to stalk around the payphones when he wants to call Winry but can’t.”

Of course. The thought of Edward, face contorted like he’s a little red goblin in a little red coat, stomping his thick boots up and down the wall of rotary phones, bubbles up like a memory rather than something played pretend; Roy has certainly seen this before. “Well, why can’t he? If he’s missing change, it’s not as though a couple hundred patients in this building couldn’t throw him a cenz or two in gratitude.”

“It’s not that, I don’t think. He should have plenty of money. I think he’s just taking his time.”

Roy scoffs, folding his arms. “Worrying Winry sick, you mean.”

“Oh yes, absolutely.” Al is grinning; Roy can hear grins now, and Al smiles often, more often than just the time they spent making fun of his brother together, probably more than anyone else in the rehab wing, if that sort of thing were measurable. It’s the one real difference between trying to read a suit of armor based on the tone with which he spoke and trying to read an adolescent boy on the same basis while blind. He still doesn’t know what Al actually looks like yet, not after these last few weeks, let alone these last few years, but he has been told that Al both does and does not look like Edward, that he’s having a hard time gaining weight back, and that the stagnant helmet of his armored suit truly hadn’t captured even a sliver of the expressions that could paint his face.

“But also,” Al continues, his boyish voice moving through the air molecules in a way that told Roy he was looking away from the table they sat at, still watching out for his brother. “I think he’s trying to get used to everything he got back.”

Fullmetal’s footsteps plod down the tile floors, away, and Al, thoughtful and somehow even further away, chose his next words with great care.

“I think we both got used to how we were living for so long that it’ll be a little while before he looks at his arm or me and admits that we’re not going anywhere.” Al isn’t smiling anymore. “And I think it’ll be a little while after that to feel like he can tell Winry we’re actually, really back without feeling like he’s bluffing.”

Conversely, the Lieutenant had told Roy just last night that she thought that one of his nurses was suspicious of him, and while he hasn’t really been up to anything the new Fuhrer doesn’t know about, it’s not to his benefit to disobey the strict orders he was under to keep mute on his recovery, just like it might also not be to his benefit to be seen as someone strange or frightening by the hospital staff. When he asked Hawkeye to clarify whether he’s become stranger or more frightening since the Promised Day, as he hasn’t been able to check for himself, she moved on to say that it might be in his best interest to, for a few days, actually act like the patient he is, and twiddle his thumbs (the best he can, all things considered) while the rest of his team takes care of business on his behalf. When he asked, one more time, if he seemed suspicious somehow, she replied simply that he seemed like he was treading water in a situation where he could simply float on his back.

All this to say, when his nurse comes back around first thing in the morning on her rounds, he thinks about all the studying he’s been doing now that his hands were as bound as his eyes—how the people of Ishval had managed to create solid, sturdy buildings in a landscape that was constantly being swept up by the wind, but hadn’t figured out how to save the railroad that once crossed the Eastern Desert and into Xing from sinking beneath the sand. All thoughts of alkahestry and the Philsopher's stone quickly become [redacted] and [redacted] with the NDA he was under, and so he becomes his own ouroboros as he considers a back-up plan for the ever-likely outcome that he didn’t convalesce enough of his vision to return to his post, that he remained ridden with the constant feedback loop, replaying the events of the Promised Day, over and over. When his nurse finally leaves, he asks Hawkeye if she can be reassigned as someone else’s nurse, and she replies that she’d look into it.

“Do you think I’ll get in trouble if I open a window?” So Breda’s out today to assist in getting Havoc back East to his mother, Feury’s off settling his transfer back to Central from the southern border, and Hawkeye, freshly discharged from the rehab wing, is likely standing in Central HQ at the moment, taking care of—in this wild, new world they found themselves in—Fullmetal’s retirement paperwork. Due to the collusion of all his subordinates, Roy is ultimately left with an inordinate amount of time to bide with Alphonse Elric, who had been assigned the same hall of the rehab wing after the Promise Day and who took that fact as an invitation to sit with Roy at the same table in the lounge, daily, without fail.

“If one of the staff members comes and yells at you, we’ll just tell them I told you to do it,” Roy offers, as if he had any real jurisdiction here, and as if Alphonse hadn’t assisted in a government coup about a month earlier without anyone’s permission. Nonetheless Al seems satisfied enough with their plan, and Roy listens to him push back his chair and step without real pace or pattern away from the table.

“It’s a beautiful day, you can see the tops of everyone’s heads from up here,” Al proclaims, and then suddenly, the creak of a wooden window and a breeze—cold, but fresh, wafting past his face and over his eyes. “Brother and I asked Lieutenant Hawkeye yesterday if your eyesight was doing any better, but she didn’t have a lot to say about it. How is your eyesight, Colonel? Any updates?”

Today, Roy had woken up in a sweat to see the same clear tunnel as the day before, not closed yet, but shaped suspiciously like two long swords that moved as needles might, through his palms like they were only only glove and no flesh; like Lieutenant Hawkeye, looking far away from him, holding her blood-red neck closed with a shaking white hand and a strong will, over and over and over and over; like the hands of Truth, coming back for seconds. “Not really anything new, Al.”

“Oh. Well, like you said before: it should just be a matter of time, right?”

The air coming in from outside is maybe a little bit colder than should have been comfortable, but Al doesn’t say anything about it, so Roy doesn’t either.

Time passes and Al remains quiet after that, save an apology to Roy when his nurse finally does come by to close the window (neither he nor Hawkeye could seem to remember her name this morning—unfortunate, really). Typically, Al was a relay man, sharing bright descriptions of what was probably a very dull and uninteresting environment, of all the things normal people took for granted, back to Roy with a sort of precocious optimism. Roy didn’t care much whether the people out the window looked like tiny ants or whether the sky was beautiful or not, but it was a relief, he supposed, to know all this things stayed present even if he couldn’t check for himself. Today, however, instead of more jokes at Edward’s expense or long profiles of the other people who came in and out of the lounge, Roy hears nothing but a rhythmic scraping sound. “Is that?” He starts and stops, listening closely as he turns his head toward the scratches and their tune. “Are you sketching, Alphonse?”

“Good guess, Colonel, but I’m just writing a letter,” Al replies, grinning again. “Just a quick one, to my friend, Mei.”

Roy goes quiet, but continues to hear the scratching after that. It was faint and repetitive, white noise to lull him at least down to the earth, until it occurs to Roy he’d been sitting quiet and listening to scribbles for five minutes. There was nothing quick about this. Nothing at all. Alphonse Elric was in the process of writing a novel to his friend, to his, er—

“Mei is...” Roy is sheepish, embarrassed that he has to ask, “she helped us on the Promised Day?”

Al actually snorts at him and the gaps in his memory. “Uhm, I mean no disrespect, Colonel, but ‘help’ is a sort of an understated way to describe what she did on the Promised Day.”

A fair assessment, but they’d gotten a lot of help on the Promised Day, and without the ability to see the faces to even attach a name to, it became near impossible to recall with accuracy all of their allies who ultimately, Roy was indebted to. He could pull a few characters from the fuzz; Izumi Curtis had been the hands that’d held him upright in his first moments back after his meeting with the Truth, Darius and Zampano had stayed with the Lieutenant until he’d come up to the surface once more.

“She’s also the one, who taught me everything I know about alkahestry, so if you’re coming up with a list of things to thank her for, Colonel.”

Ha ha, very clever Alphonse, except Roy still doesn’t think he knows anyone named Mei, from that day or from ever, but before he can be decisive about it, he recalls Hawkeye narrating the colloquial final battle with some clarity and more force.

“It’s the young girl who had been seen travelling with Scar—she must be the alkahestrist. She’s using her throwing knives to arrange a circle around Edward’s broken automail arm and—” her throat had caught, the fist she held in his jacket pulled tight—“And he has his arm. Edward. Ed has his arm back, sir.”

“Right,” Roy replies, and he thinks about what exactly he’d sputtered to a little girl in pink about a month ago, after she’d saved his Lieutenant’s life. “Yes, of course.”


She doesn’t miss Amestris. That’s not what this is.

Honestly, what was there about Amestris to miss at all? Between there and here, the food simply isn’t comparable. The trees ask to be climbed in Xing, practically placing their branches just perfectly so in order to assure a leg up. The flowers grow free and plentiful, as confidently as the strong, majestic mountains they sprouted upon; Amestrian fields were wide and bare, and the cold gnawed more than nipped. So much had been missing in her travels: her mother wasn’t in Amestris, nor the familiar, well-worn walls of their clan’s siheyuan complex, nor her favorite blankets and books. And no amount of study had prepared her for how fundamentally broken the Amestrian language was, missing entire words, words that are foundational to expressing oneself fully like they might in Xingese. The earth beneath her feet upon touching ground in Xing whispers welcomes and good tidings into the soles, rather than the incoherent sufferings of souls looking for their great beyond and digging in the wrong direction, remember? Amestris had been a withering, strangled place; Xing is home.

Also, a controversial opinion indeed, but Amestris simply didn’t have enough stray cats. Hard to swallow, perhaps, but it was true.

The late summer heat is overwhelming but there’s no sun as far as Mei can see between pillars, past the heavy layer of humidity that had draped over the entirety of the Ancient Capital earlier that morning and still hadn’t let up by noon. Her silk collar clings wet to the back of her neck as she stalks one of the long, innermost hallways of the Imperial Palace, her simple flats hitting the marble floors like the beat of a small drum. Impatience prods her to walk faster every time she catches sight of another palace butler or clan representative, the letter in her palm bound to burn a hole straight through if she didn’t find a place to read it soon. Alone. Very alone, if possible.

It’s not that there’s too many people in the palace these days—it took some coaxing from His Majesty at the very start of his reign, but like water lapping the edge of the stream, more and more high-ranking members of Xing’s clans and their entourages could be found making business or conversation in what used to be a very large, very exclusive, and very empty castle. The Son of Heaven, or rather, Ling Yao liked the sound of people nearby, and Mei was fine with that, whatever. He had a point, that it was much harder to sew dissonance across their forty or so half-siblings when the family is kept close and forced to look one another in the eye, yeah, yeah, sure, sure, but peace also made any attempts at privacy near futile some days. Today being one instance, with the August Magpie Festival coming up within the week and preparations for the holiday looming atop the fog.

That said, Mei had a plan: at the end of this corridor was the Great Hall, the lungs of the Imperial Palace, a splattering of malachite and garnet and topaz tiles, great gold pillars, and about a hundred bodies moving in and out like air being inhaled and exhaled over the city. Past that, through another modestly busy corridor, around a few corners, and past the terraces, there was a small garden beside a running stream with a bench that was frequently empty. If Mei could get there, get there soon, and find nothing and no one besides herself, her thoughts, and this letter with Amestrian script addressing her across the front, then she’d finally be safe. A few months ago, before she’d become so acquainted with the layout of the Emperor’s Palace, it would’ve been a gamble to assume she could make it with a record time, but it wasn’t as though Mei feared a challenge, then or now. She took one last look back down at the letter, then back up to face the tall, heavy red door, and carefully pushed it open just wide enough to slip through the crack.

No rank or title could water Mei like a sprout and make her any taller, a fact that would be disappointing if she couldn’t reluctantly admit that gave her an advantage when navigating through the most congested parts of the castle unnoticed. Especially with Xiao Mei at home, the Chang girl with the tiny panda became faceless, and she couldn’t be stopped and recognized as one of the highest ranking officials in the Kingdom if the strongest indicator of her rank sat at most peoples’ hips. The Emperor Regent’s most trusted advisors, his Most Honored Hands, were given a lot by way of responsibility and duty, but were also gifted with golden and pearl pins shaped like chrysanthemums to wear at all times to signify their status to the Emperor. Before her own initiation, she’d only seen such a brooch once before: pinned to a hooded man atop a massive, white horse, who brought news of her dying Emperor and his impossible challenge of immortality on a fateful and rainy day. Mei wore one now, and still couldn’t believe she, a Chang, wore one every day after years of primarily hearing about them through whispers that barely peered out from the poor mouths of her fellow clansmen.

“Are you able to stand straight while wearing the Hand, Chang? I know it’s quite heavy, especially for a girl your size.” Speaking of stray cats, Ling Yao’s grin was sly and curled when he’d carefully adjusted the pin to her robes during her promotional ceremony. “Careful not to poke your eyes out when you go to put it on and take it off, now.”

A younger Mei, just a few months ago, would’ve replied with something like “No, I’ll be sure to consider my place and poke my Lord’s eyes out first.” But that would’ve been before everything, before the Emperor Regent and one of his Most Honored Hands had just been two of three children and a dead body wandering across the sandy badlands with a map and cart of rations.

The journey home that she still can’t describe quickly becomes part of her narrative regardless, the roots she reminds herself of when she forgets to be humble: if she could mourn with and walk beside and eventually learn to trust a Yao and his shadow, then what was to say she couldn’t do the same with any and all of the people she tip-toed between now? If all of the histories that had made up Amestris could work together for the greater good that was a country still standing, then perhaps the vision the Emperor Regent had of a bustling, but peaceful castle was not so foolish in comparison.

Ultimately, Mei’s downfall comes by way of a domino effect: perhaps one of the royal guards had sneezed, and the sound had merely been lost in the talking and the echoes of the talking. Maybe then one of the maids had stepped too far to get out of the guard’s projectile range, thus knocking into a royal cousin, a Chen or a Zhou or both, who elbowed one of the priests, who tripped into another prince or a merchant or the Dowager Empress for all she cared to know. Regardless of the preceding series of events, a secretary of some kind goes on to drop all of the scrolls and brushes in his arms to clatter and roll across the floor. He’s flustered as he drops to his knees, scrambling to collect everything he was missing to absolutely no concern of anyone around him. When a brush hits Mei’s foot, she pushes down her immediate reaction, the internal Xiao Mei that tells her to move along, and instead, tucks her letter into her wide, purple sash, getting on her knees to pick up the brush. She picks up another and another and another, hands deft between the feet of all the Great Hall’s inhabitants too busy in their business to dirty their pants.

“Here, you dropped these, sir!” Mei taps the secretary on the shoulder, handing over her finds back to the secretary with a warm smile. He’d probably been brought in to assist in festival planning, and if not, was very new, all fresh-faced and distressed by his own misstep, but Mei doesn’t realize the weight of what she’s done until the secretary’s cheeks flush the color of poppies upon meeting her gaze.

See, she had been warned, by her sweet mother, her uncles and aunts and cousins, by every Chang who lived a little too far away from the Ancient Capital to truly bask in it’s holy might—the closer one was to the Emperor, the closer one was to God, sure, but a God that demanded propriety and respect from everyone and everything below. Being the Royal Princess to such a small, squalored clan like the Changs had always been more of a responsibility than a simple title, but it was still what she expected to hear when she was called to lift supplies to the village or to attend to a child’s illness—“The Princess is here, she’ll help us. Princess Mei.” Being the Princess in the Capital was a whole other kind of high honor, if you considered an utter lack of eye contact from underlings who never told her “no” as they kept their phrases simple and cordial. Being the Emperor’s Hand was its own beast, and Mei was still acclimating to her proximity to the Heavens that was presumed when one saw the golden chrysanthemum pinned to her breast. People like this secretary, who might’ve passed her home village with his nose in the air, now held her to an inhumanly high level. A sacred level. A “punishable if not followed properly” level.

The secretary’s eyes are so wide and round and white that they could serve dinner, probably. “His Most Honored Hand,” he stutters, and to Mei’s dismay, follows the expectations of his role accordingly. She'd gotten similar instruction not even a year ago when she'd first seen a Hand on that rainy afternoon.

One was to make themselves lower than the Hand's line of sight, perhaps bowing below the chin if one wanted to be safe; the secretary proves ambitious as he drops to his hands and knees, gently setting down the brushes he'd so carefully collected first, and presses his forehead to the beautiful kaleidoscope floor. Mei looks around for any wandering eyes around her as she rises, stepping on the front of her own silks as she does so. She misses her old hemp robes. "No, no, you really don't have to do that—" she begins to insist.

"His Most Honored Hand! Please forgive my impudence!" The secretary shrills at full volume, his announcement bouncing off the floor and rising above the echoes of the chatter.

Mei recalls, as time slows in motion, that she hadn’t followed her mother’s instruction when the Hand had delivered the Emperor’s message to her village.

"His Most Honored Hand."

Rather than bowing or lowering her gaze, the Mei of a year ago, standing in the rain, with her panda and her pink hemp robes, had craned at the neck to look up past the horse’s thick chest and decorative bridle and under the hood of the cold Hand.

"His Most Honored Hand."

It seemed important at the time, like his was a face she’d never forget, but she couldn’t remember what he looked like at this particular moment. Not when she was busy watching the merchant join the secretary on his knees, along with the priest and the guard and the Zhous and the Chens and so on and so forth, each gasping at their own, historically severe miscalculation and lowering themselves below Mei’s line of sight until every individual that inhabited the Great Hall bowed to her, nothing to show her but the top of their heads.

"His Most Honored Hand."

She was never going to get out of here now. Mei was going to be stuck in the Great Hall forever.

"This role will change your life forever, my Princess." Mother had the best hand for brushing out knots when Mei's long hair got tangled, and her journey to the west had delayed the time she cherished, sitting on the second wooden step with the breeze on her face on a cool early summer night. Her mother would brush her hair out gentle, with slow strokes, until each thread gleamed softly on its own, and Mei would hum along with the cicadas.

"I know that, Mama," Mei replied. She’d been looking up at the sky for Zhinü and Niulang and the bridge of stars that would connect them, though the August Magpie Festival would still be a ways off, Mei often thought in the back of her most romantic mind that maybe the Goddess could lighten up and allow the lovers to visit twice a year instead.

"Oh, my Princess." Another thing, about Mei’s return from Amestris: while it'd always been common for the royal concubines to refer to the Emperor's children by their superior rank, Mei's mother had always gone back and forth between the two. Sometimes she was just "Princess", but usually she’d been just "Mei", that is, until Mei came back from her long journey as an escort and valuable comrade to the new Crown Prince and his key to immortality. "There are some places, I believe, we reach and don’t fully realize until we're deep within, hm?"

The Mei of today checks again for the letter once she reaches a much quieter corridor on the other side of the Great Hall and pats it down closer to her heart just to make sure. It's unmistakable in its size and density, the paper unique in its quality, and she wonders if Alphonse had bought it special. She smiles at her feet, leaning back against the closed door, considering that if Alphonse had chosen it special, maybe he’d gone into a shop somewhere, which maybe meant he had enough strength now to make the trip. And who knows, by now maybe he was even back to whatever his normal self was, when he’s more than skin and bone and gratitude to be alive.

She still can’t believe what they’d pulled off, some days. Other days, she’s very busy and doesn’t have time to practice alkahestry at all and remembers Alphonse when she’s reminding herself what she’s capable of.

It wouldn’t be an August Magpie celebration without lanterns, and the corridor she turned into now was certainly more decorated than the halls deeper within the castle; every other lantern she passes is shaped like a star in the sky, each next lantern shaped like a magpie instead. The open windows catch whatever breeze the day can bring in and with it, the smell of the gardens in full bloom: she can see it now, the open grounds illuminated by the lanterns, food and warm faces, looking up towards the sky to see if the lovers can be spotted reuniting after a long year apart. When Mei clears the veranda and bounds from rock the rock, finding perfect solitude in the form of a stone bench beneath a young tree and a small pond, she wonders if her close proximity to the heavens these days will lend her a better glimpse at Zhinü’s and Niulang’s face when they were finally allowed to embrace once more.

She settles instead, for satisfying her curiosity about this letter, tearing open the parchment and pulling out the enclosed papers—written on front to back. Mei can hear Alphonse’s voice when she reads even the first line.

Dear Mei,

And she finds herself unable to get much further.

When was the last time she’d heard her own name?

Somewhere here on Earth, underneath all the names and the titles, the “”Chang” and the “Royal Princess” and “The Emperor Regent’s Most Honored Hand”, Mei is still here, you know. It might take some digging past silks and tradition, propriety and the livelihood of a whole family tree on her shoulders, but somewhere swimming in her gut was a little girl with long braids and handfuls of hope and ambition. A little girl who’d, at some point, been seen as a fighter before a princess, a medic before a royal, a real person before a figurehead. And Amestris’s problems had been too grave and painful to call everything she’d done “adventurous”, and she wasn’t such a romantic that the pain she’d witnessed was anything like mere plots of fables or hero’s tales, but she’d made friends, hadn’t she? She’d helped good people in need, hadn’t she? She ran, skipping and jumping, through a foreign land on a mission and hadn’t exactly gotten what she’d set out for, but brought her back home with so much more than what she could hold in her hands. For better or for worse.

Mei had left for Amestris with the hopes of returning with safety guaranteed for her clan. She’d gotten just that, along with a country to help run and everything she could ever ask for at her feet before she could request it, but what did one do when they got everything they needed and not what they wanted?

Mei is barely through the second line when she hears a voice call to her from the veranda and subsequently jumps a foot in the air. “Excuse me, Hand to the Emperor? Princess Chang?”

What?” Mei snaps, though there was little to prove for it other than a slight dent in the parchment she’d gripped. That wouldn’t do, taking her frustration out on—Mei turned to look—a simple palace servant, probably no older than herself, truly. “Can I help you?” she asks instead, schooling her tone into something more patient.

“My Lady, I have a message and a parcel from the Emperor.” The servant holds something up as he nears closer, and it takes all too long for Mei to recognize the item as a stack of thick letters, not unlike the one in her hand, wrapped up with string. When she takes the parcel, it occurs to her that Alphonse Elric hadn’t sent her one letter, he had sent her a stack of letters.

“And,” Mei has to stop and swallow, though, and recalls that yes, she can speak. “And the message?”

“‘Princess Chang, it appears that The Royal Family’s Black Market Courier—” Mei hated when Yao used that joke, he used it only because she hated it for being so overtly suspicious—”got some of our mail mixed up. Perhaps the letter he brought to you this morning fell out of good favor with her sisters’.”

Mei thanks the servant with a deep bow before she returns to her stone bench, holding the stack of letters close to her chest. Without ruminating on what she’d just obtained for too long, she decides to start her read of the Al’s first letter over from the first line.

Dear Mei,

I hope this letter finds you in good health back home sweet home in Xing. Did you find the desert easier to navigate the second time through? Since you and Ling and Lan Fan left, I’ve been working on getting stronger in the hospital. It’s not easy, but it’s also a privilege to get to be myself again.

She doesn’t miss Amestris. She misses getting to be Mei.


The day Colonel Roy Mustang is discharged from Saint Dwynwyn’s, Holly Gilliam puts in her transfer to Saint Joseph’s out west in her hometown of Durbuy. She didn’t keep much in her locker, hadn’t brought her own mug to take her coffee in, and so her whole departure was as ceremonious and meaningful as clocking out one last time, and saying goodbye to Miss Cass with her coat dangling in her arms.

“It came back while he was sleeping, Cass,” Holly mutters, at least twice as bitter as she sounds, and half as quiet as she needed to be, given it was just to the two of them. She’d already recounted the story as she knew it: a week since their last conversation on the matter, Holly had been reassigned to a group of patients on the opposite end of the rehab wing and Roy Mustang had fallen asleep at some lazy afternoon hour only to wake up with perfect vision. His doctors were dumbfounded but gleeful, and given the progress made in physical therapy after his hand operations, would be given the clear to go home in three day’s time. Three days ago, Holly decided to follow suit, and here she was, keeping her honest promise (though, not without two days of utter rage and despair, anguish and tears and frustration and what did he do and how did he get away with it—)

Cass heaves a sigh, taking an effort to cross one aching leg over another, “Gilliam—”

Given she’s no longer Holly’s superior, Holly finds that she doesn’t have to waste time doing anything other than shooting Cass a tired, weighty glare. “Have you ever heard of a patient who fell asleep blind and woke up seeing 20/20, Cass? Have you?”

“No, I haven’t, but damnit, it’s a good thing, isn’t it?” Cass replies. “We haven’t gotten a lot of good things these days, let alone total mirac—”

“Stop,” this time, it’s Holly who holds her hand up stern. “There’s nothing miraculous about it. There were signs the whole time, that I just couldn’t piece together, pointing to God knows what.”

“Wouldn’t that still be a good thing though? A God to cut through all this mess?”

“Sure, but you know what I’d like?” Holly asks, and Cass peers at her curiously, waiting for a conclusion to the rhetoric. “Less mess.”

Holly is pulled into a hug before she can stop it, the weight of the world two months post-Promise Day holding her close and dear. It’s probably the first time anyone’s hugged her since she got to this big and lonesome city, and it’s the closest to the warmth of her family home’s hearse this side of an eight-hour train ride. “Your family will be happy to have you back out west, kid,” Cass says in her ear, “and your hometown won’t know a nurse who will work harder for them. I hope you get what you’re looking for.”

“Thanks, Cass,” Holly whispers, and she means it.

When she takes to round her floor one last time, it’s the golden hour, and as empty as it could possibly be, unsurprising given that dinner is being served right now on another floor. She takes her time and walks slow, standing under the warmest windows and letting the light paint her white gown yellow. Maybe Cass was right, maybe as often as there were times of reckoning that came and left a nation in tatters without warning, there might also be days of miracles, sudden recoveries at the beck and call of nothing, good coincidences, sweet dr—

It hits her as clear as a smack across the face while she’s standing in the lounge, and Holly stomps all the way back to the Colonel’s now empty room. She’s like a bloodhound on all fours that’d caught on to the stench of the missing person her keepers didn’t know ever disappeared. Holly checks under the bed, in the drawers, along the windowsill, behind the door before she wrings her coat out with white knuckles and hurls it to the floor.

That bastard had taken the radio with him.