The sky had gone red on the day she met him.
She had been in Ishbal for a year now. Ahead of her, the soldiers swept through towns and cities, indiscriminate. She followed, much neater, picking off her targets individually from behind the sight of her rifle. It was astonishing how easily they dropped.
That was the first illusion she lost in Ishbal: the idea that it's hard to separate a human being from his life. Her belief in the rightness of the military and her devotion to her country went later. By that red day, she was counting down the time until she could leave the military. She didn't know what she'd do then, but whatever it was, it had to be better than this.
She had heard they were sending alchemists from Central, armed with some new kind of weapon. So long as it got this over faster, that was fine with her. Still, she wasn't really prepared to see the alchemists when they walked into the camp. They were so clean. Everything in this war was coated with dust at the very least, and probably also blood. The alchemists were not. But she was too tired to hate them for that.
It was not until later that day, with the redness in the sky fading to black, that she got to meet one of them up close, and it was only because she fell.
There was a short rut in the sidepath (made maybe by grasping fingers, the last motions of a dying civilian, she thought as she tripped), and fatigue made her limbs too heavy and awkward to stop her fall. She wound up kissing the ground, a small smear of blood mingling with the dirt.
She hurriedly propped herself up on her hands and was about to get to her feet when she saw one of the alchemists step into her path. He regarded her with calm dark eyes, then reached out to take one of her hands and help her up. He did not offer a hand in help, maybe knowing that she would refuse it, but simply took one of hers.
She was about ready to resent him for his utter poise, his pristine purity in the face of all this filth, when in the distance there was a yell, a gunshot, and a scream. His gloved hand, so sure on hers a moment ago, trembled.
She lifted her eyes to his and saw not a shining knight but a soldier trying to stave off the realization that he had walked into hell. She had thought she would hate him, but instead she wanted to protect him--an infinitely harder task.
In the darkness and the fires, they had been waiting for the road home to appear to them. Most of them would get it and flee gratefully down the path, but Roy Mustang was becoming increasingly convinced that he would not. He had walked the road home when he first stepped into the camps at Ishbal, though he didn't know it, and now he was home, and he would never leave.
There was one other alchemist who was home, and the thing Roy feared most about him was the way the other man seemed to sense a kinship with him.
Roy woke up in the semi-darkness of the tents (always faintly lit by the fires outside) one night with hands shaking him by the shoulders. "Flame. Flame. Wake up--"
He awoke and looked up into mad gold eyes. "Kimbley," he said. His throat felt very dry, as if it choked up with ash. "I was trying to sleep."
Kimbley shook him again, impatiently. "I found a bunch of civilians hiding in a basement outside their allowed zone. Do you want to come with me?"
Roy sat up now, fighting down the sudden bile that rose in his throat. "What?" he said, trying to keep his voice steady.
"You know, Flame." Kimbley looked almost disappointed in him. "You don't want to?" He licked his lips and leaned a little closer, still not letting go of his shoulders. "We could work together," he purred. "It'd be beautiful."
"No," Roy said. Kimbley seemed almost drunk, but there was no smell of liquor on his breath. He smelled a little like he'd kissed death, that's all--but then, Roy suspected he smelled that way, too. "Go away, Kimbley."
"What is wrong with you, Flame?" Kimbley demanded. "You could have so much fun here." He leaned back a little, but his fingers still dug into Roy's shoulders. "Maybe I'm wrong about you. Maybe you're not worth it after all." He smiled. His grip loosened to almost a caress. "Want to see how I have fun?"
"Crimson!" Roy snapped, somehow managing to force volume out of his dry throat. "Get out!"
For a moment, Kimbley recoiled. Then he smiled, looking down at his hands on Roy's shoulders. "I--"
"Let go of Major Mustang," Hawkeye said from the entrance to the tent. She had a gun aimed at Kimbley's head, and there was no emotion showing on her face.
Irritation flickered over Kimbley's face. "I could make his body combust before you even finished pulling that trigger," he said. "It's very easy..."
Her hand did not shake. "And afterwards, I would kill you," she said.
They stared at each other in bitter silence for a moment. Then Kimbley pushed Roy violently away from him and ran out of the tent.
"Are you all right, sir?" Hawkeye said, her voice suddenly dropped to a near-whisper.
Roy got out of his cot, finally, forcing himself to stay on his feet. He found he couldn't speak, so he only nodded.
Riza dropped to her knees, trembling all over with relief. "I saw him go into your tent. I almost didn't follow him--" I was afraid, the unspoken thought, "but then I heard you call out." She pushed herself slowly back to her feet and stared at him for a moment longer. "Major Mustang," she finally said, "if you want, I will find a way to get you out of here."
He shook his head. "I don't think there's anywhere else I can go. This is the only place in the world that would take me."
"I would take you anywhere," she murmured. Then she hesitated. "Will you be all right here?"
No, he would never be all right here. "I'll be fine, Sergeant. Kimbley won't be back for a while, and he'll have forgotten all about me by the time he is."
She paused; for a moment he thought she'd say something. But she simply nodded and left. He managed, somehow, to fall asleep afterwards, and in the morning, their conversation was little more than a dream, like everything else in this nightmare.
Save for the day they met, there was only one time when she touched him during the war.
It was near the end. Most of the killing was done, but she thought the smell of death and burning would never leave the air. Maybe she was trying to escape it when she took a side route back to the camp, but she knew that wouldn't work. She did, however, find something there.
Roy Mustang was on his knees in the center of one of the lesser-traveled roads, staring blindly down at the ground. He did not move as she knelt beside him and pulled him into her arms, hoping somehow that by holding him she could impart a little humanity into his broken shell. She remembered how he'd looked the day he came here, and it was nothing like this. The bloodshed around him had taken out his hope and his heart as surely as the military had plundered life from Ishbal itself.
She wanted to kiss him, and she almost did. But in the end, she simply
held him until he was ready to stand again, then walked him back to the