Disclaimer: Not mine. Never mine.
AN: Forgive the angst overdose… really, it wasn't supposed to turn out quite like this, but I'll share anyway. Anyway, I'm working on a few more vignettes and on 'Flames of Ice' (I revamped part of the plot after seeing the ending of the series, which is why it's taken so long). Feedback of any kind appreciated.
A bone that's half-healed in the wrong position must be broken and reset before it can heal properly, and even then it's rarely as strong as before.
Breaking the Dogs
Roy Mustang was drunk. Not pleasantly intoxicated, not loosened up, not comfortably tipsy, but drop-down-dead drunk. Maes Hughes, his usual drinking partner, who would normally have called for the tab once they were both just slightly fuzzy, had been caught completely off guard when the young officer slumped from his barstool to the floor, nearly unconscious.
He blamed the incident on the war. Before Ishbal
(funny, how it was becoming a new method of measuring time, Before Ishbal, After Ishbal, almost deserved to become BI and AI and be set as a standard)
Roy would start babbling once the alcohol began taking effect, bragging about his grand plans for the future in between trying (and, to Hughes' amusement and dismay, usually succeeding) in picking up the prettiest thing in a skirt he could find. That was why the silence had caught him off guard, caused him to underestimate exactly how much Roy had drunk and how hard it was hitting his system.
This was why he was now gifted with the joy of staggering up the short flight of stairs to Roy's floor, said alchemist's near-limp arm slung over his shoulder, attempting to keep them both upright. The task was far easier said than done, especially when upon finally reaching Roy's apartment the door decided that it didn't respond to voice commands and refused to open to a kick.
"All right, Roy, the wall here needs some support." Hughes settled Roy's back against the cool plaster, holding his hands out protectively for a moment in case the alchemist decided to rediscover the law of gravity with his head. Satisfied that nothing of the sort would happen, at least for a few minutes, Hughes set about finding Roy's spare key that he had been given right before the war… a task that was proving considerably harder than it should be, really, given that he only had so many pockets.
A slight twitch from Roy caused him to jump forward, but it was only the opening of hazy black eyes rather than a potential disaster.
Or, on second thought, maybe not. Roy conscious enough to open his eyes and focus at least slightly was a Roy possibly conscious enough to perform alchemy, and Hughes hadn't thought to search him for his gloves. Before Ishbal it wouldn't have mattered—Roy almost certainly wouldn't have had them, let alone have wanted to use them no matter how disoriented he was. Now, though…
Maes really didn't relish the prospect of explaining to the military police why a state alchemist had decided to burn down half of Central because of a car backfiring or some other idiotic thing.
The answer, if it was such, was completely incoherent.
Hughes sighed. "Rule one, then: Absolutely No Alchemy. Got it?"
Roy tilted his head slightly and slitted his eyes, looking for all the world like a great cat, before overbalancing and toppling slowly toward the floor. Maes caught his friend with his right arm while giving a soft victory cry as his left hand closed on the missing key that had somehow managed to conceal itself in his shirt pocket. Once again draping Roy's arm over his shoulder and carrying most of his weight, Hughes managed to maneuver the door open and drag his friend inside.
"All right, couch or bed. Any preference?"
This time Roy's answer was at least fully identifiable as a low moan.
Hughes glanced around the small living area as he decided where to drop his companion, relieved at what he saw. While Roy's quarters still weren't immaculate (it would have terrified him if they were), there was no sign of red anywhere, be it from blood or paint. Roy's alchemy texts and notes were now confined to his desk and a quarter of the couch, his arrays to paper save for a single smudged chalk one, and to Maes' untrained eyes that one seemed much more closely related to the symbol on Roy's gloves than to the madness he had found before.
Another low moan from the man in question wrenched Hughes back to the problem at hand. The couch was closer, but the bedroom was directly connected to the bathroom in case Roy's body decided he had overstepped his limit six or so rounds ago.
"Definitely bed, then. Cleaning this rat-trap once was bad enough."
Hughes smiled and shrugged with his free shoulder as he directed Roy toward the bed, still supporting the majority of his weight. "Of course not, but I still did, didn't I? I just don't want to have to again. Now come on, into bed."
Roy half-fell, half-crawled onto the bed, ending up facing the ceiling, arms draped haphazardly on either side of his head, legs half-hanging over the side.
Maes met his friend's bleary gaze for a moment before shaking his head, fighting the urge to laugh. There really wasn't anything funny about the situation. "You're a mess. I haven't seen you so wasted since you were… what, sixteen? When you tagged along to Danny's party. I should've known a drunk alchemist who could double for a pyromaniac at most times would be a bad thing." Hughes bent down to untie Roy's boots. "Danny nearly died when you passed out. He was certain you'd managed to kill yourself."
"…eas'er ways to die…"
"Yeah, and then there's also the fact that even half-grown mutts tend to need more than two drinks before alcohol poisoning sets in." Hughes stood slowly, slinging the boots under the bed as he did so. "That was almost coherency there, by the way. I'm impressed. You don't feel sick or anything, do you?"
"Don' hav' t' take care o' me."
Hughes frowned, caught off guard by the statement and the hurt managing to show behind the haze of alcohol.
"'M doin' fine, right? You can see that…" Roy's arm sketched a clumsy circle as he gestured toward the main room of the apartment.
Hughes blinked once in confusion before sighing as he managed to follow Roy's somewhat off-kilter train of logic. "Of course you're doing fine. I never said you weren't. The fact that you're not trying to kill yourself through alchemy has nothing to do with my not wanting to just drop you somewhere unable to defend yourself, though."
Roy shook his head vigorously. "You don' need to look after me… don' need to worry 'bout me…"
"Yes, I do. Ignoring the fact that you're the oldest friend I have, I promised an old lady I would."
"I'm going to join the military." Determination, steel in voice and visage. Roy wasn't going to change his mind about this one.
"All right. I've been thinking about it, too. I think I'll tag along." Acceptance, easy acceptance of a life-changing event, the words part truth and part lie. He had toyed with the idea of joining the military, yes, but never so seriously as to really enlist.
"I'm going to be a State Alchemist." Roy's tone is more tentative now, a bit nervous. When he follows his alchemy, he walks alone, always. There are some things even friendship can't change.
"I'll join Investigation then, so when you char-broil the wrong guy you don't end up facing the firing squad."
"And I'll keep your smart mouth from getting you kicked out of boot camp." Brief smirks shared and a moment of silence as one mind treads old ground, one new.
"Have you told your grandmother?"
"No." Hesitation. Fear? "She'll worry."
"Tell her I'm looking out for you. I swear you'll come home in one piece. I'd even promise to protect your virginity but Janet… or was that one Julia, or Jacky… anyway, one of them already claimed that."
"Maes." Roy was one of the few people who could make trying to give someone a concussion seem a boring process. "We're not trying to give the poor woman a heart attack."
"She's dead… you don't have to…"
"No, I don't, but maybe I want to. What's wrong with you, Roy?"
"You don't! You shouldn't! You don't know!"
Catching Roy's fists went hand-in-hand with catching the rest of him as the alchemist lunged forward, snarling incoherently. Hughes reacted on instinct and training, locking both Roy's arms behind his back and pinning him to the ground in one smooth motion.
Hatred flashed across Hughes' face as Roy struggled for a moment more, whimpering once before finally stilling. Roy had never been a violent drunk, not Before Ishbal. This was just one more grievance to add to the growing list of injuries the brass in general and Gran in particular owed them for.
"Roy?" Hughes shifted his grip, slowly releasing the younger man. The alchemist made no further move, though, save for small spasms running the length of his body. Hughes frowned, uneasy, reaching out to brush dark hair away from too-pale, sweat-slicked skin. "Roy?"
"You can't smell it."
Hughes pulled back as though burned. No trace of a drunken lisp had marred the words, but all emotion had also drained from Roy's voice.
"Smell what?" Cautious, keeping his voice carefully neutral… he had never seen Roy like this before, didn't have any precedence on how to act.
"The smoke. The ash. The blood. The bodies. The first time they waited nearly a week before sending men out to bury the Ishbalis. They were waiting for families to claim and bury them, but the dead don't bury each other."
"No. I just made them. The enlisted said cleaning my sector was the worst, even harder than Crimson's. He was insulted."
Maes silently studied his friend, face-down on the floor, head tilted to the side and dark eyes open but unfocused, arms still twisted awkwardly behind his back. Roy had never spoken openly of what happened in Ishbal, though Hughes knew from reports and rumors that none of it had been pretty.
"Do you know what happens when a man burns to death?" Roy's voice lilted over the words now, hovering somewhere between a teacher's lecture and a madman's sing-song. "They scream at first, but you know it's more from fear than pain. After all, there are no nerve endings in the epidermis. The pain doesn't start until the flame reaches the lower layers of the epidermis and starts heating the dermis. That's when the scream changes, becomes higher, raspier, more desperate. They'll keep screaming like that even after the dermis is gone, though, and with it most of the neurons that could sense pain. Maybe it's reflex, or the fear making the pain seem to last. This is all assuming I don't manage to make it hot enough that the breath they draw in to scream doesn't burn and rupture the alveoli. I did that to the boy who tried to shoot me. He didn't get to scream. When the flames are that hot, though, the eyes have a tendency to rupture, and if I was really in good form the teeth and other small bones would rupture, too, from the intensity of the heat. All of that takes a lot of concentration, though, and when I've been snapping all day… Crimson liked it best when I was tired, when their screams were almost loud enough to drown out the roar of the fire as it howled for food."
Hughes drew a shaky breath, eyes fixated on the man that looked like his best friend, stomach churning. They had used Roy as a living weapon, perverted the one thing he had always loved and respected… he had known that, read it, heard it from other alchemists, but there was something heartbreakingly wrong about this, about the way it was told, about the timing, about the position he finally told his story in…
"Kimbley was a psychopath. He'll be sitting in a jail cell with his wrists shackled for the rest of his life." A desperate grab at normalcy, at sanity, a pointless argument because Kimbley wasn't the problem, even if he did exacerbate it.
Roy didn't give any sign that he had heard. "Iron Blood liked him best, at first, because he'd go a step beyond his orders, never questioning. He tried to white-wash the incident the first time Crimson used one of his own bodyguards as a weapon. The second one, though, that lost him the position of favorite real fast. Iron Blood likes dogs that bite for no reason even less than he likes the dogs that won't bite at all, or bite once and then stop."
"Armstrong." Hughes breathed the name quietly, wanting to reach out and stop the flow of information, to move Roy so he didn't look so beaten and vulnerable, but a stronger instinct told him to keep still. This was a story Roy needed to tell someone, that someone needed to know, and at least if he was the recipient there was no danger anyone would use it against the young officer in the future.
"Strongarm. Sent back home due to physical and mental trauma." Roy smirked, the expression horribly twisted, a far cry from his usual self-confident expression. "He lost any hope of a promotion, but maybe he got to keep a little bit of his soul."
"You didn't lose—"
"'Shoot them.' Two words, spoken orders from a superior officer, and I did. He tried to hide behind his profession, then behind a picture of their daughter; she just cried. When they stopped twitching, Iron Blood just sniffed and walked away… tried to, at least. Crystal stopped him, though I didn't really notice at the time what he was doing. One, two, and then all they could do was bleed on her picture. They were the only ones I killed with a gun instead of fire. It hurt, pulling the trigger. The muscles in my hands were too used to snapping. I tried to pull it a third time, but Crystal wouldn't let me. I couldn't stain his hands with tainted blood, too. That and I'm a coward. Death is terrifying when it's all you have to sleep with.
"Crimson thought I was defective. Iron Blood thought I was weak. It should have gotten easier, over the weeks, should have been better to know I was just following orders, but all I wanted it to do was rain. All day, all night, the feel of ashes, in my hair, in my clothes, the taste of grease from roasting bodies on my lips, the stench of charred hair and burnt meat. It permeated the camp, and all I could do was snap myself into a deeper pit of the Hell alchemists don't believe in." Roy's voice ground to a halt, tears falling silently from his eyes, no hitch in his breathing to betray the fact that he was crying.
Slowly, giving enough time for Roy to react, to keep talking or start fighting again, Maes gathered the alchemist into his arms, not sure whether to be grateful or terrified when he remained completely limp.
"Gran wants dogs who jump through hoops. He did his damnedest to break all the alchemists the Fuhrer gave him. He screwed up with you, though. You didn't sell your soul, and you didn't kill your career. You didn't let him break you." Maes shook the man in his arms, slowly, lightly, careful not to hurt him or make him sick, needing to drive home the point, to make it unassailably real. "You didn't break."
Roy was silent for a long minute, head bowed. "'m tired."
"Then sleep. Fixing the world can wait until tomorrow."
The plaintiveness in the tone earned a brief, bitter smile from Hughes. For the second time that night, Maes helped his best friend stagger into bed, Roy's monologue playing over and over in his mind. For Roy not to have tangled his words beyond comprehension, the entire speech must have been something he had gone over with himself many times before.
"I knew the minute you stepped foot on the train to Ishbal that you'd come back a murderer. Do you think it matters to me whether you killed with fire or your pistol, whether the man giving you orders was standing at your side or back in the camp or here in Central?"
Roy just continued to stare at him, eyes blank.
"If you had come back with a taste for killing, then I might have hated you, but you only did what you had to do to survive."
"How d'you know I didn' enjoy it?"
"Because they give you a medal or a promotion and then next thing I know you're planning some idiotic alchemy stunt that's likely to lead to you being splattered across the room."
A brief smile twitched at the corners of Roy's mouth even as his eyes closed to slits again. "Am I tha' transparen'?"
"Yes. You're doing better, though. Now all I've got to do is keep you from starting the party five rounds ahead of me." Hughes allowed his own smirk to show through as a mixture of chagrin and confusion flashed across Roy's face. "Paying the tab is useful for something besides lightening the pocketbook."
Roy's answer was an unintelligible noise partway between a whimper and a laugh as the alchemist burrowed further down into the bed, curling in on himself until he was lying near-fetal. The position made him look young, even younger than he really was, unruly black hair overshadowing the dark circles under his eyes and the faintest dusting of a five-o-clock shadow. Hughes fought the urge to reach down and smooth out the dark locks, to tuck the blanket better around him, to offer more meaningless words of comfort as he would to a lost child. Roy wouldn't appreciate that, though, more than likely greeting the actions with a punch rather than a smile. His minor breakdown and the fact that he had allowed physical contact earlier was a sign that he was still hurting, but his actions of late, his quarters, his work, even his renewed interest in the secretarial pool all showed he was coping… slowly, granted, but still coping.
Maes turned away quickly after the quiet whisper, intent on finding his own bed, just managing not to jump out of his skin or go for his knives when a hand clamped with unexpected force onto his arm.
"Please. The couch is comfortable. I've slept on it before."
(have my own home to go to, don't want to see you hurting anymore tonight, don't want to know how badly you're still hurting and how much of what you do is to keep us from worrying, Hawkeye and I, the one you caught before the war and the one you caught during it)
"I'll stay." Not even the slightest catch to his voice, to give doubt that this was what he was planning on saying all along. "Now go to sleep. You're going to feel like hell tomorrow."
So Maes Hughes found himself elbowing aside alchemy texts for possession of the couch, head toward the open door to his best friend's room, ears pricked for any unexpected noise.
And if muffled sobs and whimpers pulled him from an uneasy sleep filled with ashes and heat, if he ended up rubbing another officer's back while the younger man vomited excess alcohol and restless ghosts summoned by pain shared, if he ended up holding the officer/boy/man/friend/brother as he cried and laughed through the haze and the pain of a second retelling of the story where the actors weren't separated from reality by use of their war names,
(Gran bastard Gran broke rules won rewards psychopath Kimbley coward Marcoh lost Armstrong smart Marcoh good-hearted Armstrong idiot Mustang defective Mustang)
if they ended up falling asleep together on the bathroom floor to a shared nightmare formed from one's memory and another's imagination…
Neither of them mentioned it in the morning.