On the night of the Immolation, when every center of Ishbalan resistance was razed by the Amestrian State Alchemists, the conflagration burned so hot that the desert became a molten mirror reflecting the fires into the sky. From a distance, it was almost beautiful the way the light bled bright and golden into the smoke-choked air, painting a false dawn against the horizon. Even at the Amestrian base, heavy black clouds of ash and soot obscured the stars and rained debris that stank of charred flesh and hair. Human fat, flash-cooked into a vapor, drifted into camp on vague breezes; where they died, it settled on the ground like an oil slick. Whatever it touched, it clung to like a lover. Nothing was immune --neither equipment nor clothing nor skin-- and with rationing there wasn't nearly enough water to wash it away.
The normally frigid desert night turned sweltering under the thick, insulating layer of smoke. Soldiers well behind the front were coated in greasy sweat that stained their uniforms inside and out. But shedding layers was out of the question; no one wanted to feel the dead on their skin any more than was necessary.
As the long night finally neared an end, the smoke gradually began to dissipate, allowing trapped heat to rise and cool air to settle. Just before sunrise they collided, twisting about each other in a violent dance, and the landscape erupted into a furious sandstorm carrying with it a promise of cleansing even as it threatened to bury dead and living alike. When the meteorologists began predicting visibility of no more than a foot or two, everyone was ordered to bunker in and stay put. It would be far too easy to get lost just stepping out to go to the latrine.
Captain Maes Hughes was going off-shift in Ops when the first reports of the storm were radioed in, but even with that advance warning he'd barely beaten the rest of the camp to grab rations and extra water for himself and his tentmate. Making his way across the base, he dodged several clusters of soldiers on their way to the Supply Depot without really seeing them; the falling grease coated his glasses and the smoke stung his eyes so bitterly he could hardly keep them open. Maes silently thanked whichever ancestor he had inherited his uncanny sense of direction from; he'd never expected to use it for anything more serious than finding his way home after a long pub crawl, but it led him back to his tent as easily as it threaded the streets between the Rampant Gryphon and the BOQ.
As he side-stepped four more soldiers passing the front of his tent, the reports he had heard throughout the long night ran through his mind. The devastation was enormous and would -hopefully-- put an end to this ugly war. That thought was the only thing that had stopped his gorge from rising at each estimated kill count. This is a war, he reminded himself. People die. But the cost… the cost…
It wasn't the dead who would cover that cost, but the living: the Ishbalans left behind to suffer and survive with everything they'd known destroyed in a single night ... and the alchemists who had spent that night obediently dealing out destruction to order.
Change was inevitable; whether they resisted it or bowed to it, all people eventually found their own ways of dealing with it. Unfortunately, Maes knew, far too many here would shatter or snap, end up broken beyond repair.
The cycle of violence and retaliation in Ishbal had only escalated over the past eight years with neither side willing to end it until a final victory had been achieved. The alchemists were brought in for that purpose -as human weapons to assure the defeat of the Ishbalan rebels. But regardless of the power they wielded and the military rank they held, most were scientists, not soldiers. Several had been lost over the past few weeks in the bloody skirmishes that preceded the Immolation. Some found the burden of slaughter insupportable, their shame and guilt growing until they became inconsolable or catatonic and had to be 'retired' to military hospitals. Others stopped feeling anything at all and became automatons, as mindless as the rifle in a sniper's hand but just as deadly when a finger was on the trigger. The worst were those who became addicted to the taste of blood, taking perverse joy at their ever increasing kill counts.
They were the crushed, the fragmented… the fallen.
Other alchemists appeared to deal with the rigors of war as well as could be expected, carrying out their duties without relish but without undue objection. Yet some of these, too, were numbered among the lost. A couple had disappeared into the desert and been charged with desertion. More had been found in their tents dead from a bullet to the head and were excoriated as cowards. A few had deliberately walked into one dangerous situation after another until their luck ran out. The State called them heroes.
Maes was not sure if these men had broken down or if they were the sanest of them all. They never showed fear, rarely complained, and always followed orders until the moment they disappeared or died. The only thing he knew for certain was that they were the quiet ones.
He slipped into the tent he shared with Major Roy Mustang and breathed a sigh of relief when he saw that he'd made it back from last night's mission. If asked, Maes couldn't tell anyone why he genuinely liked the young alchemist. He appeared stand-offish and arrogant. Unapproachable. A complete contrast, Maes' colleagues pointed out gleefully, to the major's gregarious and gossipy tentmate. Maes let the jokes about his logorrhea and Mustang's laconism pass, merely pointing out that it was his good luck to be assigned to bunk with the only person in camp who didn't complain about the weather.
Maes had read the reports of the Flame Alchemist's valor in battle, the praise their superiors gave him for successful missions and respectable kill counts. He'd also heard the gossip: how The Flame kept himself distant from his men, refusing to take part in casual banter and always referring to his subordinates by rank as well as name.
He read more between the lines of those dry reports than just how the man kept his head in battle and never left anyone behind. No one complained when the major's troops consistently suffered fewer casualties than anyone else's, but they did occasionally object to the way Mustang put himself in danger to defend his men. Standing orders were to protect the alchemists at all costs, but The Flame never ordered his men to do anything he was not willing to do himself. And no one, whatever his other complaints, ever requested to be transferred out of Mustang's command. He was considered a model soldier -- possibly even a hero.
When the topic came up in Maes' presence, he kept his own counsel. Most people only listened to words, but the silences between them could also speak volumes to the attentive ear. What he heard in Mustang's taciturnity was beginning to worry him.
Hairline fractures in the young officer's shield had been spidering out, deepening into more serious cracks with every successful mission. Maes saw it in the man's thousand-mile stare during an unguarded moment, in the way his hands sometimes shook when he thought no one was looking, in the restless creak of his cot late at night when he should have been sleeping. He could observe it in Mustang's morning routine as the major donned his uniform in an unvarying procedure: the pants, the shirt, the cavalry skirt and then the jacket -- always in that order, each item carefully checked for fit and hang before the next was shaken out, everything perfectly regulation. Only after Mustang's uniform was adjusted to his satisfaction would he pull the gloves from the left pocket of his pants and slip them on. The fabric was infused with flint in the fingertips and had an alchemic array stitched into the tops: an innocuous-looking `accessory' that enabled The Flame to wield an incredible amount of power. The evening routine was just as stringent: uniform removed, folded and laid on his footlocker with careful precision. The gloves came off first and quickly, but they were carefully inspected, cleaned, then folded and tucked away into the pants pocket.
The alchemist always fought his demons in silence. He'd snap awake from the nightmares with a gasp, but no other sound. Even when he padded out of the tent afterwards to fall to his knees and vomit, he did so quietly. Maes had trained himself to pick up the cues and awaken whenever this happened. He never said anything --never attempted to get the younger man to talk. Instead, he would sit up in his bunk, strike a match to the lantern and wait with a canteen and a dampened cloth in hand for Mustang to return. He was just as quiet when he came back and flopped on his cot, curled up on his side with his back to Maes, ignoring him. He might snap irritably to kill the lamp, but the alchemist's shame was as obvious as the whores in the free-zone to his tentmate.
Maes never gave up and never judged. Eventually Mustang had begun to accept the offer of silent support. He'd still complain about the light, but only after he'd cleaned up and rinsed his mouth out.
Then Maes began to find the odd orange or apple nesting in the middle of his pillow when he came in after a long night in Ops. Fresh fruit was a rarity here; when Supply could ship any in, they rationed it out to the alchemists first. Being considered a human weapon had one advantage: the brass valued materiel above men and treated both accordingly. No one paid much heed to an alchemist's state of mind as long as he was able to go out and kill, but his body was carefully tended.
Maes hadn't had much opportunity to get out in the field; he spent most of his time in Ops monitoring radio communications or shuffling paperwork. It wasn't that he wanted to play hide-and-go-slay with Ishbalan guerillas, but if he were to move up in the ranks, he had to get some battle experience. Unfortunately, somebody upstairs seemed to consider him such a good paper-shuffler that his requests for combat assignments almost invariably came back stamped DENIED. He bottled up his frustration while on duty, but one rainy night in the tent it all fizzed out from under the cap--
“…with a personal note from Lieutenant-Colonel Shit-for-Brains threatening to turn me over to the white-coats for psychiatric evaluation of my death wish the next time I put in a request. Death wish, my ass! I've got a promotion wish and that superannuated son of a bitch is afraid someone like me will dump him out of his cushy little basket by the fire at HQ and he damned well should be -- the way he's been handling assignments on this front is a fucking disgrace…”
--Mustang, a captive audience to his monologue, didn't say a word while Maes paced the small space and ranted. The alchemist simply waited until the show was over to fall back on his cot, throw an arm over his eyes, and demand that Maes douse the light.
Turning, Maes saw his opportunity; without hesitation he drew the knife from the back of his belt and hurled it straight into the padding of Mustang's cot, inches from the man's body. Mustang launched himself up and back, flipping the frame and tangling himself in the blanket. He sat up sputtering and red-faced, his threats of revenge and court-martial as eloquent as his tentmate's earlier soliloquy. Ignoring the other man's indignation, Maes righted the cot, tugged his knife out of the layers of blanket and padding, and held it up for Mustang's inspection. His prize, a large scorpion, was still writhing on the blade, its tail beating a quiet tattoo against the flat. The alchemist's widened eyes and nervous gulp made it extremely difficult for Maes to keep from grinning, but he succeeded … at least until he stepped outside to dispose of the intruder.
Three days later, Maes had been pulled off the radio and sent into the field for a clandestine assignment… with The Flame's unit. It soon became a regular occurrence, and from the start, neither man ever looked back to make sure he was covered.
There had been nothing clandestine about the previous night, however. Maes was grateful he hadn't witnessed the devastation; he only wished he hadn't had to follow it over the radio, either. Knowing what he did, he was hardly surprised at the state in which he found Mustang. His head was drooped and his posture was hunched over, as if he were trying to disappear within himself. When he glanced up at the sound of Maes' arrival, the older man could see the flatness in Mustang's dark gaze. The alchemist was covered in soot and his face was streaked pale and dark where he'd attempted to wipe the grime away with a handkerchief. A hot shower was a precious commodity in this place, and it would take caustic soap and scalding water to get the layer of burnt fat off his skin anyway. Only one thing would do more than just move the grease around.
Maes set the rations down and opened the trunk at the foot of his bed. What he searched for was considered contraband and therefore buried deep, but he doubted the major would turn him in. He pulled out the pint of vodka he'd been saving for a special occasion, snagging a clean handkerchief as well. He crossed the small space between the bunks as he cracked the seal on the alcohol; having soaked the cloth, he knelt in front of Mustang and waited for the other man to pull himself out of his own head long enough to notice he was there.
Ignoring the vodka, Mustang hesitantly took the handkerchief and held it without looking at it. Maes screwed the cap back on the bottle and left it on the floor next to him. Then he lay down on his own cot to stare at the peaked ceiling of the tent and listen to the winds gathering strength outside. There was no such thing as privacy in this place; this was the best he could do.
The roaring of the wind and the constant hiss of sand scraping against the sides of the tent had faded to a hypnotic static by the middle of the day. The air in the tent was hot and languid, too heavy to move even with the aid of a small fan. The only thing that circulated was the odor of scorched flesh from the uniform Mustang had dropped on the floor next to his bunk. Stripping down to undershirt and boxers did little to alleviate the oppressiveness of the heat, but opening up the tent was not an option. There was nothing to do but read or sleep -anything else used up too much energy-- and Maes had finally chosen sleep over a particularly dry weapons manual.
Something startled him awake and it took a moment for him to realize that he was alone. The alchemist's uniform remained in a pile on the floor; the pint of vodka next to it was untouched except for the few ounces Maes had poured into the handkerchief earlier. A gust of wind flung the loose tent-flap back with a rhythmic ruffle-pop, ruffle-pop and quick-dried the sheen of sweat on his body. The amount of sand blown in by the storm told him that Mustang had only left a minute or two before.
The discarded shorts and undershirt by the entrance chilled him.
Maes bolted out without bothering to pull on his uniform. As soon as he stumbled into the storm, the wind buffeted him, nearly knocking him off his feet as sand assaulted him with the relentlessness of a swarm of annoyed yellow jackets. He coughed and yanked the neck of his undershirt up over his nose to keep from choking on the suffocating dust. He could barely keep his eyes open enough to see the shallow trail of footprints leading eastward; in a few more minutes they'd be gone altogether. The tent faded to a shadow after he'd taken twenty steps, then disappeared entirely as he pushed onward into the raging sirocco.
He found Mustang not more than fifty yards from the tent, leaning into the winds with his arms out as if in supplication. His eyes and mouth were closed, his head upturned, his expression serene.
Maes was stunned breathless at the beauty of the alchemist's anguish. Black hair whipped about a round face, placid as though in sleep, but his back, chest and stomach were corded and tight, his fingers curled. Crystalline grains gathered at his hairline, outlined his fine brows and coated his lashes; they collected in the hollows of his throat and collarbone and clung in streaks to skin still tainted with the fat of countless dead. His pale, thin figure was stark against the sepia-toned backdrop of blowing sand. Waiting. Like Prometheus bound to the rock…
Maes cautiously took him by the shoulders, prepared for resistance. He was surprised instead, and nearly unbalanced, when the younger man allowed himself to be turned and guided back to the tent.
Returning was as treacherous as the trip out. The only advantage was the wind at their backs, pushing them forward --little help when Maes had to trudge through shifting sand supporting himself and his friend. His footprints had been reduced to pale dips, almost indistinguishable from the constantly changing waves that surrounded them. He was walking nearly blind; the protection offered by his glasses was superficial at best. The sand had etched a fine frost into his lenses and was now flying around him to do the same to his eyes. His exposed skin had gone beyond irritated to raw and he gave Roy a worried glance, imagining what he must be feeling at this point. His friend's expressionless face told him nothing.
Maes was relieved when his sense of direction didn't fail him and the shadow of their tent loomed immediately ahead. A few long, slow yards later, he was helping Roy inside and staggering from the loss of wind-whap. The muffling of the raging storm made it feel like he had cotton stuffed in his ears; the ceasing of the assault on his flesh gave him a sudden case of vertigo and he let go of Roy to regain his own feet. The other man remained motionless where Maes had left him, not a sway, not a blink, and if Maes hadn't been listening for it, he would have wondered if Roy had stopped breathing as well.
Maes tossed his useless glasses onto his cot and fetched a fistful of handkerchiefs from his trunk. As he moved around the small tent, gathering together a canteen of water and the vodka to treat abraded flesh, Roy never stirred. Maes used a small amount of alcohol to clean his hands -hissing at the sting-- then he dampened a cloth and brushed Roy's bangs off his forehead. For the first time since he'd found him in the storm, he actually looked into his friend's eyes. Maes' throat went tight at the emptiness he saw there as he began to gently wipe Roy's raw, sand-blasted face.
Maes worked his way down, faltering when he reached the man's genitals, but a glance up told him that Roy hadn't noticed. All of his skin had to be treated to prevent infection, no matter how uncomfortable it might make Maes. And regardless of how hard this was on him, it was going to be much worse for Roy. He picked up and soaked a clean cloth, then cringed as he envisioned some condescending jack-ass with more brass than brains wandering in right then and getting the completely wrong idea.
He took a steadying breath and started to treat the man's intimate places. At the first touch of the alcohol-soaked cloth, Roy flinched, then braced himself. Maes hesitated briefly, but when his friend didn't pull away, he went back to the task. He tried to keep the touch light, stopping to mumble an apology before continuing whenever Roy would twitch or make a noise.
He'd gone through several handkerchiefs and most of the vodka, and he still had to care for Roy's feet. Even without close examination, he could tell the bottoms had been shredded on the sharp stones that littered the camp; blood was beginning to seep into the canvas floor of the tent. He rose and took Roy by the shoulders with the intention of helping him to his cot, but froze when he saw dark eyes focused on him. Pained, haunted, but lucid.
Something else in his gaze grabbed Maes by the throat and refused to let go. Gone was the confident mask of Major Mustang, the Flame Alchemist, the model soldier. Roy's shield had crumbled under the weight of anguish and guilt, but his eyes burned with a desperate determination. Perhaps pain was his salvation from the internal maelstrom which had shattered the souls of so many of his colleagues. In Roy Mustang Maes saw a man who was poignantly, vulnerably, heroically human ... a man he would willingly follow into hell, if he asked.
He saw Roy's throat working as he tried to swallow. The whisper that followed was wretched and lost. “I… I'm gone, Maes. All that's left is flame and smoke. I couldn't even feel the storm.”
“You're wrong, Roy,” Maes said. “You're still here; you're still solid.” He took Roy's right hand, the one which he so often used when ordered to employ his devastating alchemic abilities, and pressed it against his chest. “Feel that. You're changed, but you're still human.”
Roy slipped his hand from underneath Maes' and held it up to stare at his palm. “I wanted to be clean. The storm… the sand… it can't even…” His fingers curled into a tight fist and his jaw tensed --whether in determination or an effort at control, Maes couldn't say. Then Roy closed his eyes and laid his head against the other man's shoulder and Maes lightly embraced him, careful of his friend's injuries. He felt Roy's arms wrap around him, uncertain at first, but soon tightening and surprising him with their strength. Then Roy was grasping the back of his shirt as he shook with silent tears.
Maes pulled him closer, giving comfort and support. It would be far too easy for Roy to swing in either direction right now --collapse under the burden of remorse, or become soulless. Not if I can help it, Maes thought. If I have to resort to driving you to distraction and getting on your last nerve to do it, I will.
After a long time, he looked back up, searching Maes' eyes uncertainly. Roy seemed to find what he wanted, because he gave a tiny nod and let the older man help him over to sit on his cot. Maes caught Roy's discomfort as he knelt down to tend to his feet and waited a moment. As Roy scrambled to pull the blanket over his lap, a flush spread across his face and chest that glowed bright even through the redness of scoured skin.
Maes ducked his head to hide a smile tugging at the corner of his lips and poured the last of the vodka into a fresh cloth. “It's too bad about the uniform, Major. You should know better than to leave it with the madam.” He didn't glance back up right away, but he didn't need to. He could sense Roy was bristling with stunned indignation in the tense silence that followed the casual remark.
When he finally met the other man's gaze he caught the flash of understanding; then Roy pulled himself upright. “Yes. Well. Live and learn, Captain. Will you be filing a report?”
“No point, Major. There were no witnesses.”
Outside, the storm had quieted and Maes could hear the base begin to return to life as soldiers emerged from their shelters, tossing good-natured jibes or just complaints about the weather. On the more benign gusts that filtered into the tent, he could smell hot sand, gun oil, and surprise stew from the chow hall. Missing was the odor of scorched flesh; gone were the soot and sticky grime that had coated every exposed surface the night before.
Maes tossed the empty vodka bottle onto the pile of handkerchiefs, forever ruined by fat and dust and blood; then he gently lifted Roy's left foot. “This is gonna hurt,” he said.
“Good,” Roy whispered.