Title: Guard and Witness
Warnings: Angst and violence
Summary: The alchemists arrive at the front.
Disclaimer: Fullmetal Alchemist isn't mine… I'd add too much fire…
A/N: Holy Shnikes! Angel's writing a chapter fic! Well, yes. Yes, I am... Kudos to everyone whose reviews encouraged me to try it… So, yeah, this is my take on the Ishbal War. History shows us that most wars, at some point, reach a stand off, which is what I imagined when I began writing. I saw these two forces, after years of bloodshed, unable to move each other, and the alchemists coming in to turn the tide. I saw the situation escalating from there. And I saw Roy and Riza caught up in it- young, inexperienced, perhaps not so confident (or arrogant) as we'll see them later... This is the beginning. This event that shapes them… And I hope you enjoy reading!
Time: 0430 Hours
Location: Military Encampment, Ishbal
Duration of Conflict: Seven years, two months, twenty-two days
Riza carefully pins her new rank insignia on her uniform. The brightly polished brass looks as out of place on the dirty fabric as the new title does in front of her name.
It's her, but it's not her. Or, at least, it shouldn't be her. It's been less than a year since she graduated from basic training; by all rights, she shouldn't be anything more than a private.
Rapid field promotions are becoming commonplace in the units deployed to Ishbal because the chain of command keeps being shot to pieces. She has received two of them now- the first when she was transferred from the rear guard to the front lines, and the second last night when the previous sergeant died.
The soldiers she bunks with still call her "corporal" and she isn't accustomed enough to her new title to realize she should correct them. When she does realize it, she's too tired to really care anyway. There has been fighting every day this week, and water is on short rations because some of the pipelines were damaged.
It's her shift for guard duty along the perimeter of the encampment. She shoulders her rifle and makes her way carefully between rows of tents and makeshift buildings. Her station is several meters out, on one of the many sand dunes separating them from the Ishbalans.
She doubts that whoever coined the phrase "it's a dirty job, but someone has to do it" ever had to lie on their stomach in the hot desert sand, peering down the barrel of a semi-automatic rifle for hours on end. And she's quite certain they never had to do it after two days without a shower or a fresh change of clothes.
Otherwise, they'd have been able to come up with a much more creative phrase.
It isn't just dirty. It's foul, odious, disgusting, unsanitary, and countless other adjectives she likes to tick off to pass the time.
Ruefully, she wishes she'd been given another talent... Sewing, maybe, or playing the piano- something that would please her aunts back home.
But, no. Her father had wanted a son, and her mother had wanted to a prodigy, and tradition had beaten out a path before her in six successive pairs of combat boots. Even her own genetic code joined the conspiracy by giving her the rare 20/20 sight that left the military practically salivating.
And so she lays there, courtesy of both nurture and nature, out on that damn sand dune with the sun beating down relentlessly on her back. About a half mile out to the east is the curtain of smoky haze that marks the extreme front. If she squints, she can just make out the rows of barbed wire and barricades, and the crumbling Ishbalan city beyond.
There doesn't seem to be much activity there now. She can still hear the boom of heavy artillery fire, but it's slow and infrequent- indicative of routine shelling.
The push to the city limits was costly, and the lines are still undermanned. Even with the reinforcements- in the form of State Alchemists- that are supposedly arriving today, she imagines it's going to be difficult to advance any further.
She's heard some of her comrades call them human weapons, and claim they can end the war in a matter of days, but she isn't about to get her hopes up that high.
She spots their convoy shortly after sunrise, a black line of armored transports winding their way across the desert.
And she freezes suddenly, muscles tensing, as she spots two figures low-crawling across the sand. Signalmen for a larger force, she knows, waiting to strike.
But she doesn't give them the chance.
Two quick shots take them down, and alert the camp to the ambush. The trucks in the convoy skid to a halt, almost colliding, and the other snipers on guard duty open fire as more Ishbalans swarm from hiding.
She twists her body and tries to get them in her own sights, but before she can, a ball of fire rips across the sand.
It takes her a moment to realize that it came from the convoy.
The young corporal nearest to her on the perimeter swears violently and grumbles, "That got 'em. Damn alchemists, stealing all the glory."
She nods absently in agreement, wondering how a man can have the power to shoot fire that way. A moment later, it occurs to her that it would be a horrible way to die, but she swiftly shakes that thought from her mind.
A group of soldiers comes up to relieve them of the guard, and she gratefully hands over her position to another sergeant- Vachel, she remembers, he was promoted just before she was.
He gives her a hand up, chuckling as her knees pop, then lies in the sand she's vacated.
"Nice shooting, Hawkeye." he tosses over his shoulder.
She nods briefly to acknowledge the compliment, and starts back down the dunes. She plans to head for her tent, but movement on the drill ground- the center of camp- catches her attention.
The alchemists are there, unloading from the trucks that brought them. She notices a dark-haired young man, wearing the cleanest uniform she's seen since her training days, shaking hands with a rather fierce-looking colonel. Others come up, clapping him on the back, and offering him praises.
"Great fireworks show, Mustang," says one.
So this is the alchemist who can make fire. Curiously, she moves closer to get a better look him.
He looks far to composed, she thinks, for a soldier who's just had his first battle- and first kill- but the muscles bunched up at his jaw give him away. He maintains his poise with gritted teeth until he is dismissed. Then he salutes stiffly and all but runs off the drill ground.
She follows him, covertly, because new soldiers are apt to do stupid things when they're still learning to cope, but he doesn't make it far. He stumbles between a row of tents, sinks to his knees, and vomits in the sand.
Riza isn't surprised; she's seen a lot of rookies react this way, at first, when faced with the realities of war. She ignores the distressed corner of her mind that tells her this is the way people ought to react to it- numbing oneself is the only way to survive.
The alchemist coughs and spits, and takes a large gulp from his canteen. A mistake, of course- it all comes back up.
She turns and leaves before he notices her, not wanting to embarrass him. After all, it's only natural to feel shocked after taking someone's life.
The distressed voice in her head nags at her again, reminding her how long it's been since she ceased to be shocked by anything.