Disclaimer: All rights and privileges of Fullmetal Alchemists characters, objects, locations, plots, belong to Hiromu Arakawa.
The word alchemy comes from the Arabic al-kīmiya or al-khīmiya, which might be formed from the article al- and the Greek word chumeia, meaning "cast together", "pour together", "weld", "alloy", etc (1)
The war had dragged on for so long that they seemed to have reached an implicit understanding with the Ishvalans: nights, at least, were sacred -for the most part. Riza could now sit by the campfire and read a book or drink a cup of coffee without wincing at an explosion or a scream after every other sip. Tonight, it was a book. Her coffee was not ready yet.
She had not lifted her eyes from the book on her lap since she sat by the fire. The night was cold and –if she could allow herself to say it without feeling like a heretic- somewhat damp (Damp? Couldn't she think of another word? A less provocative word? Nothing was damp in Ishval except the newly-soiled earth). The sky was unusually bright for Ishvalan winter as she'd come to know it. So bright, in fact, that she could have been able to read without much effort even farther away from the fire, yet she had made herself take a seat and remain there despite campfire noise. Something at the back of her mind told her that tonight she should not be alone and, since she usually listened to that voice, she decided to stay.
A man had died today. A man she should have killed, but didn't.
She shifted positions so she was sitting on her other leg, eyes still fixed on the page before her, senses barely registering what went on around her. There was the smell of coffee, smoke, and burnt potatoes, and the clinking of pots and metal. There was the crackling of firewood and a mild, not altogether unpleasant, scent of scorched leaves (she had no idea what kind of wood they used or where they obtained it. There were, after all, not many trees left). There was laughter, some singing in the background. There was this sensation that she could only associate with dampness, though she knew she could never feel that in Ishval. There was the sound of her heart beating, dun, dun, dun, and an intense throbbing in her head that she –if no one else- could hear rather well. And there was another sound coming close, close, closer.
But not any kind of footsteps. These were firm and steady, so even and, by now, so devoid of any personality that they could almost be arrogant. The man stopped right behind her, his steps lifting a cloud of thin sand that almost made her cough. She knew who it was before he even spoke.
"I did not know you were interested in alchemic research, Officer Hawkeye. I could have helped you out in that regard, you know. It would have been easier than wading through…" a pause that lasted long enough for him to peer over her shoulder, "Zeit?"
She blinked. Major Mustang, the Flame Alchemist, no more than just a boy though with a much more fathomless stare and now -hopefully by virtue of her skill- her superior officer, and the last man she wanted to see in the whole world.
She could not quite conceal the surprise at his knowing the author with just a glance, all the while berating herself because she should have expected it of him. He was brilliant, much though the adjective tasted just a tad bitter in her mouth. Zeit was rather obscure; she'd assumed he was too smug for the tone. She narrowed her eyes, slightly, at him, and after marking her page with her brother's last letter to her, closed the book.
"If I had intended for you to find out, Sir, I would have asked."
He smiled. She had a hard time tolerating that complacent, conceited, self-indulgent smile -which to her would forever be a smirk- mostly because she knew it was an act, but an act for what? She had been practicing come-backs for whenever he smiled like that to her but just then she could not, for the life of her, remember any. She decided to play his game for now and smiled her biggest, most radiant smile. That visibly shook him.
"Should I consider myself honored?" His smile grew at her puzzlement. "Your smiles are so seldom, Officer Hawkeye. This must be a fortunate omen of sorts."
That was far from pleasing and Riza knew that he knew it. 'My, he does recover quickly. He's probably found that useful, being a soldier...'
If she had learned something about Major Mustang during their short acquaintance, it had been that he was an incredibly reserved individual. There were layers and layers of him and sometimes she just wished to rip them apart and have a real gaze at the man within. Whatever his smile concealed, none of her guesses had even finished glimpsing the tip of the iceberg, and that did unnerve her. (She cursed yet again at her choice of watery imagery. That was most… improper of her).
Roy Mustang had already made a name for himself amongst his peers and superiors. He had been the epitome of a city-boy when he first arrived to Ishval, impeccable in every possible way, except for his hair that stuck out in all directions in a rebellion of black strands. She thought it odd that that word had come to mind because he looked far from rebellious -polished boots and belt, uniform pressed better than even hers, cap perfectly in place (no awkward tilt), back straighter than an iron ruler- but, for some reason she could not put her finger on yet, he never had looked ordinary. He was the prodigy whose alchemic solutions baffled even General Gran himself, and the genius who could outwit Lieutenant Marcoh. He was, at once, the man who put his record in jeopardy by sneaking water in during Major Armstrong's confinement because it was inhumane to let someone's throat burn dry, and the arrogant brat who bet his whole month's evening rations on a match against Kimbley, just to have one night free of his unpleasant company should he win. He was a star, a hero, a genius, her boss, but nobody could really tell who Roy Mustang was. Yes, he wore the same blue uniform, ate the same tasteless food, slept in the same worn-out tents, but he was never like the others.
Riza looked up at him and straightened, huddling herself closer in her cloak, holding onto the book as for dear life. "Can I do something for you, Major?"
"Why Zeit?" he asked
"For someone who is not an alchemist, he strikes me as somewhat profound, don't you think?"
She watched with some degree of discomfort as he settled across from her to shake up the charred wood of her fire, then removed his gloves and rubbed his hands for warmth. It was amusing to see the "Flame Alchemist" getting cold. Some emotion must have shown in her face because, when he next looked at her, he had the tiniest, most awkward smile. She had not seen that smile before; it seemed loaded with boyish self-consciousness, yet delight at her recognition and, if she was reading it correctly, there was some relief and a desire to please. It was one of the most unguarded expressions she had seen in him. This intrigued her very much, both for the spontaneity as for the brevity of the gesture. The next second, the slight frown was back.
She sighed. "You seem to think an awful lot about alchemists and an awful little about everyone else. I am not an alchemist, but that does not mean I cannot understand a profound scientific treatise. I should think you ought to be more concerned about sending soldiers to war who cannot think for themselves and are so thick-headed that wouldn't know the difference between a group of symbols and an array. Actually, my grandfather used to read things like this," she held out the book, "to us for fun."
The way his head tilted at her words, eyes slightly widened, showed her that she had revealed too much, a rare occurrence by all standards. Riza hated feeling so exposed, especially in front of someone like him, and her frown came unbidden. Silence hung so heavy between them afterwards that the crackling of firewood and the hiss from the boiling coffee pot had begun to turn annoying. The Major had taken to shine the rim of his cap without another glance to her, so she decided to go to bed herself, when his voice forestalled her.
"Your grandfather must be quite the wise man."
"Both wise and pleasant," she said, more pointedly than she had intended.
"Officer Hawkeye. If there is something on your mind, I suggest you say it."
"I do not catch your meaning, Sir."
"There is no need to stop being straightforward with me. Aside from your skill with your guns -which even I must admit is more than remarkable- your truthfulness is the one other thing I admire about you. Double-meaning word games do not suit you."
"And what exactly do you expect me to say after such a confession? I cannot acknowledge myself flattered at your blunt admission, yet you must be aware that I cannot react without offending you and damaging your trust in my work."
"Yes, because everything is work, isn't it?"
"You are the one who sat by my fire and demanded that I give you my attention. That is what you get if you interrupt me when I am busy."
He chuckled at that. "I am sure that wasn't quite what you meant," he said, getting up to hand her a cup of hot coffee, "though I must confess your fire has not gone unnoticed."
She had to blink once for that to fully sink in; then had to blink again to keep herself from getting flustered. "That won't work with me, Major. I'm sorry. I have seen you in action before, on and off the battlefield. Don't think I only look at you from the safety of my redoubt."
He lowered his head at that, sipped some of his coffee, winced at the taste. "I am sure you didn't mean that, either."
"Just why are you here, Sir? I must be rested for the morning and here you are, giving me coffee, keeping me awake. If there was a point to this conversation, please make it. Otherwise, I will go to bed and pretend this never happened at all."
"Actually, there was a point," he said, enunciating every word rather too distinctly. "If you know me as well as you say you do, you should know I never do anything without its serving a purpose now, do I?"
She said nothing, but the coffee was burning in her mouth yet she had to gulp hard to make it go down.
"Furthermore, if you know me as well as you say you do," he continued, his lips only slightly curled upwards, "you are, of course, aware that I know you have not turned a single page of that book since you sat down two hours ago."
Her head shot up at that and she heard herself gasp. When she opened the book back to the spot she'd bookmarked, the familiar line greeted her:
"Alchemy is the science of transforming a substance into another."
"Alchemy is the science of transforming a substance into another," Major Mustang said, echoing her thoughts. "Zeit's Alchemic Laws's famous first line. Isn't that what you're looking at?"
"Sir…" She desperately wanted to say more, but couldn't. She couldn't even raise her head to look at him. Frustration and anger were already settling in as they always did during her encounters with Major Mustang, with the accompanying knot at the base of her throat. She rarely failed at anything, but she was about to fail in this, the one thing she considered important; the one thing that could save her from being completely lost in a mess of blood and mangled bodies. The bitterness was extreme.
"Hawkeye," he said, voice a note lower than usual. "I am not so simple that I don't realize what the matter is with you tonight, why you ate so little, and why you are sitting at this small fire when there's a raging flame over there." He gestured behind them, where many of their comrades sat. "I am also certain that you are not so simple to have thought that I would not confront you about it. I know my alchemy bothers you. I can do nothing to change that, nor do I want to; I am not here to beg for favors from you or anyone, but you are my subordinate. Don't you ever question my methods again like you did today. Do not ever make choices on your own again."
His voice was so leveled and detached that it scared her, but she would not allow him to treat her like a child.
"I did not question your methods. This has nothing to do with your alchemy," she finally said, making herself look fully at him.
"So it has to do with me, then. Aren't we the same? My alchemy and me, we are the same."
"Alchemy was not meant to destroy. Alchemy was meant to create, to build."
"And just where do you get that from?"
"You said yourself that I wasn't simple and you were right because I am not. I read-"
His laughter –high-pitched, drawn-out, sarcastic, foreign- interrupted her. By then, a few people had turned to look. Major Mustang waved his outburst with a hand, set his coffee mug aside, crossed his arms over his chest, and looked at her with such intensity that she could almost see a line between his eyes and hers.
"Your scant knowledge of Zeit does not make you an expert alchemist."
"I never set myself out to be one, but you must know that I am not ignorant of the profession and the-"
"Profession? Is Alchemy really a profession?"
"I don't think even you alchemists can tell," she said, hearing her voice rise as if she were watching herself from a distance. " 'Alchemy is the science of transforming a substance into another.' What kind of a definition is that? If that is anything to go by, then everything in the world is or could be alchemy, couldn't it? A child growing to old age, the water as it evaporates and turns into rain that turns into vapor again, love, hate… don't they all imply change? By definition, could they not also be alchemy?"
"If you were interested in becoming a philosopher then you've wasted your time here in the desert. It would have been easier for a pretty girl like you to go to school and bat your lashes at your professors."
"Is it such a rarity for you to meet a woman who thinks?"
"Not a rarity," he said, biting his lip briefly, "merely an inconvenience."
"Well, then, I am sorry to inconvenience you further, but I will not stop a lifetime of habit and enjoyment just because it makes you uncomfortable. What I do with my time and my books does not concern you."
"Regrettably, it does. It becomes my concern if, while you are supposed to watch my back, you are only worrying about details like the definition of alchemy, or the reason why the military needs us, proud, egotistical alchemists, when they have iron and gunpowder –both faster and cleaner, right? I cannot afford that. Now, confident and independent though you think you may be, you would do well to recognize that you do need me as much as I need you -especially after today- and the fact that you are reading alchemy serves to validate my point."
She had to grip the coffee mug tightly not to drop it, but she did drop the book. "I will not pretend to even have an idea of understanding what you meant by that."
He stared directly at her, for the second time since they met. She could almost feel his gaze burning into her. It felt so… private. She was sure he felt it too; it was too strong for him not to feel it. He lowered his head, without breaking eye-contact, and said, "You want to know why I like to play with fire."
She was only aware that she was biting her lip because it hurt; meanwhile, his eyes never wavered from hers.
"That is awfully conceited of you, isn't it, Sir?"
Suddenly the smirk was back. He grabbed his coffee again and downed it in a long swig, then poured himself some more with as much freedom and liberality as if he were pouring it from his own pot.
"But you do, don't you? I have seen you look at me when I do it."
She felt her jaw tighten but, the truth was, she did look at him. She could not help but be entranced at the precision of his movements, the power that flowed from him and rearranged nature to his whim. It was as close to magic as she had ever imagined magic would be and yet she could not accept it. She could not understand that kind of power. She closed her eyes.
The wind was biting at her exposed skin: face, neck, the back of her hands. She unpinned her hair to cover her neck, which felt much better, though her exasperation was only –oddly- rising with the cold. No. She had too much dignity to try to deny it, but now he would have to hear her explanation, whether it suited him to, or not. She held on to her coffee mug and returned his stare –almost a glare- with one of her own.
"Let's just say, how long does it take it you to ignite and grow a spark with that firelighter of yours? 3, 4, 5 seconds? And then to transmute, as you alchemists like to call it, another 5? You're quite good, I give you that, it's almost instantaneous. Then the reaction needs to occur; let's give that… what, 10, 20, 30 seconds? Then depending on the distance, you reach your target in about another 20 to 40 seconds. That gives you a total of more than a minute. A bullet zaps through your head in less than ten seconds, faster if you're close. You are not a commodity to me, Major, you are my responsibility. If something happens to you, it ruins my record. I will not have you die while on my watch."
She saw the fire smolder in his eyes, the indignation running like ripples through his back as he straightened, squared his shoulders.
"And you have been studying Alchemy to offer your helping hand? Will you mock me because I cannot make fire? That is hardly anything I can expect to correct, so I recommend you make better use of your time and stop studying for my sake. I never asked you to do that. It certainly is not part of your job description."
"I have been studying Alchemy to understand you better."
"Why should you want to understand me at all?"
"Because you are a stranger to me. Because I feel I know that man who died today better than I know you and you're alive and we wear the same uniform. Because I don't…"
"Because you don't like alchemists?"
"I don't like Alchemy. Not when it's used like that. It's not the same."
She might as well have physically hurt him. He was pushed back and was left there clutching at a fistful of sand.
"That explains a lot," he said, too low and too tight and too far away.
"That explains nothing at all, Sir. Do you doubt my intentions or my ability to protect you?"
"I never said that."
"That is the only way I can interpret what you are saying right now. Do you think that when I am out there I am thinking of anything beside your safety? Do you think that because I'm far away I don't see or feel or get my hands dirty? How patronizing of you. Would you imply that to me this is some kind of game? When I am out there, your safety is my number one prio-" Realization suddenly hit her. "You think I delayed shooting him on purpose. You think I was afraid." Her hand went instinctively to her mouth to cover up a small gasp.
He took a deep breath and stood but, instead of leaving, he sat an arm's length away from her. "I don't know what happened out there today and, frankly, I do not care to discuss it so long as you are clear on what I am expecting from you. I don't want today's episode repeated."
"I am not sure what you mean by being clear on your expectations. Shouldn't you expect me to protect you? What else should you expect? I did, and I do, to the best of my abilities. I do not question orders, Sir, and I did not do it today."
"You implicitly did when you did not shoot him. The order was to provide cover for the alchemists until they had ascertained the-" His voice faltered there, making her wince, "until they had ascertained the Ishvalan hideout had been eliminated. How does that man show up out of nowhere with all of you around?"
"He seemed to be dead, Sir. Although they are rebels, I refuse to become a murderer by shooting them unne-"
"Rebels? Murderers?" The ghost of a fiendish light shone in his eyes for a moment. Riza had never felt smaller in her entire life. "It is not a crime to want freedom! Anyway, aren't we all murderers already?"
"We are if we begin to shoot for pleasure. I was not about to spend my bullets on a corpse; I thought he was dead."
"Well, you thought wrong."
The Major would not have been a good sharpshooter. His marksmanship was excellent, but he aimed for the slow kill -long, merciless death. She bit her lip and looked down, eyes fixed on the shabby tips of her boots.
"Had you waited for me to react, I would have killed him," she said in a low murmur.
"Well. I did not have any reason to think you would react, did I?"
"What are you saying?"
"I am saying that you should have shot him. You should have shot him and then the rest would not have come."
"That was not my fault. You blew our cover with all that fire." Unable to recognize herself, Riza took a deep breath to calm down.
"That would have been unnecessary had you shot him first. I know you saw him; you had to. They say you can feel them even before they twitch so much as an eyebrow."
"You blew our cover."
"I had to do something! Many soldiers could have died if he'd reached the transmission center."
"Well, you didn't have to do anything, that's the whole point! That was my job. I am there to watch out for you, to protect you, to save you. Do you think I was all right, watching you burn those people to ashes? I was not all right, and I know you weren't either. You want to hide yourself behind that smirk, behind that masquerade of charm, but I know that's not all there is to you and it hurts me that you feel the need to escape like that, even now. Forgive me for wanting to think that this matters to you for other reasons beside my incompetence and don't think, for a minute, that I would not have spared you from killing them if I could, especially after all the trouble it's caused me already." She could not remain there a minute longer and rose in a rush. The wind stirred her hair all over her face and she was blinded by the strands, but when she tried to push them away, the sudden heat on her lap made her realize she'd let go of her coffee mug. "Just because I stand from far away doesn't mean I don't see, Major. And all I see now is that for this to work you are going to have to learn to trust me a little better. Good night, Sir."
She stopped midway to her tent, remembering she'd forgotten to salute, but could not bring herself to turn back.
Riza could not tell how many hours had passed since she had turned in to sleep, but the fact remained that she knew she would not be able to, no matter how many sheep she tried to count, no matter how many more times she cleaned her gun. She was cold, hungry, and miserable.
The last time her emotions had gotten the best of her had been with her brother and the pain was still too sharp to try and explore further. She hated herself for her lack of composure, for her slipping self-control, for caring so much about her stupid ego. It wasn't about failing anymore. It wasn't about who'd been right or wrong anymore. She had hurt him. She had to have hurt him, and the thought of winning against him for once was every bit as bitter as it had been appealing before. Tears brimmed in her eyes but she was too tired and too frustrated to care, all the while hating herself because she was wasting water. She was, after all, just a selfish fool.
A sudden gust of wind danced its way into her tent and she shuddered, gasped and grasped at her blanket, wrapping it tighter against herself. When she looked again there was a shadow at the entrance. She quickly turned her lamp back on and saw him.
"Have you not been taught to knock on doors?" she asked, though her voice sounded like that of a stranger. He regarded her intently, and she understood the reason why when she had to sniffle. She rose, pretending to be busy with her lamp and matches so she could dry her face without him noticing.
Major Mustang took a few, tentative, steps in. "I knew you'd be awake," he said, his voice still and even, almost matter-of-fact, as if he was convinced she had to be awake because that moment was important and there was nothing else to it.
"I thought men like you would cling to some form of convention in these matters."
"Because you are a woman? For someone who is so bent on being treated just like everyone else, it surprises me that you would draw such a distinction now." The tent was so small and he suddenly seemed so big. She sat back on her bed, as did he, with his back to her. "The truth is, I didn't knock because that would have been, what, 20… 30 seconds wasted? You could have even faked sleep."
"And you just knew I would be awake."
"And you wanted to talk to me because...?"
He made a sound closely resembling a grunt, unfastened his jacket and his shirt's collar button, ran a hand through his hair. The usual precision accompanied his movements, though she could not help but notice how foreign they all seemed in him. He was fidgeting. She had never seen him so self-conscious before. She did not like it, the feeling that he did not fit; it was quite unwelcome.
"I had to make something clear to you," he began, resting his elbows on his legs, his head propped on his intertwined fingers. "I did not intend to accuse you of neglecting your work. I swear… if there is anyone I believe capable for this, it would have to be you."
She was startled at his admission, and certainly unprepared to receive it. She had no words to say, though he waited for her a while. In the end, he cleared his throat and continued.
"I wish… What I want is for you to stop worrying about my technique. There are… reasons… why I do what I do and how I do it, and though I am aware that snapping at a lighter may not be the most orthodox or elegant or effective way of producing results, that is what works for me and so far has worked well. That is… that is all I know how to do."
He seemed so dejected, so sullen, so passionless, so… scared that she felt herself immediately reach out to him. She stopped an inch away of resting her hand on his shoulder.
"That is not true."
"How can you even say that? You said I was a stranger to you, and so I am. I like it that way. You needn't be bothered about me like that. I just need you to protect my back during the day. Now, if you want to watch my back during the night, too,-"
"Do not even finish that thought," she said, and saw him wince at her tone.
" 'It will have to be under different conditions,' was all I was going to say," and for the boldness of the statement, the way he said it made him seem so shy and lost. His tone became haughty again much too soon. "No need to get so defensive. You should loosen up, Officer Hawkeye. The world is too grim already to go about it with a frowning face. That is all Zeit is doing to you… making you angry, that is."
Suddenly she was eager to have him gone, to have this conversation over, to forget any of that had ever happened and to be able to just look at him from her distance, like before (Why had she ever wished to know him better?), but with every passing minute that possibility seemed to be more and more remote. The Major looked so different now. In the dim light, as he buried his head between his fingers where she could not see the smirk she had interpreted as contempt, where the fire she had mistaken as arrogance was gone, where there was no reason for him to shrug or for her to read it as insolence, she noticed, for the first time, that his shoulders slumped now, not shyly, but heavy with a weight she knew not how to remove. Whatever had screamed so strongly before that he liked to play by his own rules, and had made her uneasy (because Riza liked rules), was gone and replaced by despondency, regret… resignation.
She could not say why that disturbed her. They were all resigned to fate, anyway, but whoever saw him that first day, like she had, had a reason to weep for the loss. It made her almost desperate that every time he did show her something of himself he always left her at the edge, always felt a need to cover up, to hide. How she wished he would stop hiding -he'd be happier that way because, right then, he seemed infinitely sad. It was… unbearable.
"This was never about me reading that book, was it, Sir?" she heard herself ask, completely against her will. "It seemed strange that it would bother you so much that I was reading some book someone lent me."
"First, I know that book is yours, I've seen you read it before. I brought my own books. I knew they'd be… hard to… come by around here. That is hardly something to be embarrassed about. I knew you'd be a book fan, as a quick glance around here confirms."
For the first time since coming in, he looked around her tent. His eyes settled on the uniform she had just taken off –that still smelled strongly of coffee-, lying in a crumple at the foot of her bed, a stark contrast to the neatly laid out uniform she had left on her chair for the next day. She had a small mirror propped up against the one chair in her tent; a flower someone had given her and she had absently grabbed (some illusions were worth-preserving, after all) was resting beside it. Then there was her backpack, gun-cleaning kit, a couple of boxes with books stacked on them (and she was sure he knew there were books inside them, too), he was looking at it all, and she suddenly felt so exposed… His eyes finally settled on a particular volume she had left atop her backpack. "Cookbook?" he asked, lifting it up.
"I like looking at the pictures," she admitted in a quick whisper.
He tried to cover up a small chuckle, and she decided to give him the illusion of thinking she had not noticed for, at least, seeming repentant.
"So, you do like to read."
"I learned how to read when I was three and have not stopped since."
"Yes, that sounds like you," he said, so low she had to strain to hear it. "And, of course, you are bent on finishing your alchemic treatise."
She nodded -a foolish thing to do since he still had his back to her. He understood, nonetheless.
"Alchemy… is all about equivalent exchange, but I am sure you know that by now."
"I thought I'd only read the first page," she said.
"But you also said your grandfather had read that to you before, didn't you?"
She could not believe he had remembered.
"Today, when that man fell upon us like that, all I could see were his red eyes and behind them a pool of blood. Whose blood, I didn't know, but I knew that I had to make sure he did not get closer or else many lives would be lost. If he pulled a stunt he could have destroyed the communications center and you along with it. It was a quick decision. He was so close to me it took me no more than a minute to do it, but in that minute I hated you with all my heart for not having shot him. When I transmuted and the flames were coming upon him he lifted his arm and I saw the golden glint of a wedding band. I had just made a woman a widow. In a few more dragging moments there was nothing left but the smell." He smelled his fingers, both sets, one at a time. "Why didn't you shoot him?"
She couldn't say it. She couldn't hurt him again.
"Why didn't you shoot him, Hawkeye?"
Her eyes stung already. She had not cried so much in all of her childhood as she had in the last six months in Ishval. There had to be more water in that desert than they were seeing. So many tears ran through the desert every day!
"Why didn't you shoot him, Hawkeye?"
"You…" she began, but had to pause to breathe. "You… were… in my line of… fire."
His shoulders shook at that, but that was his only visible reaction.
"Thank you for telling me," he said, at last. "It must have been hard for you to."
She did not find her voice to answer.
They remained in silence for a few moments –how many, she couldn't tell. The desert seemed to come alive at night, and they could hear a wide variety of chirps and creaks all around them. Finally, she felt him press his hand on the mattress and, when he removed it, she noticed a book was there.
"Here," he said. "This is much less obscure than Zeit and by all means more to the point."
"But it won't have the nice turns of phrase and carefully indexed footnotes that correlate to the Alchemic Dictionary, will it?"
"No, it won't."
"Therefore it will be less enjoyable?"
"This is easier. After you've finished it we can have a discussion."
She looked at the thinner volume, looked at his back, looked at the way his shoulders had locked, the way he held his gloves -tightly gripping them within his left hand,- looked back at the book.
"You forgot this," he said, placing her Zeit copy on top. After patting the book one last time, he made his way out, stopping abruptly at the entrance.
"It was equivalent exchange," he said. "His life for my delusions of innocence."
In another whirlwind of cold wind he was out.
She knew she'd regret not going after him but, still, she didn't.
Riza remembered her days at the Academy the same way you remember someone you used to know when you were five and have not seen since. Those kinds of memories only surface when triggered.
"Do not look at them for too long, Riza," her instructor had said just as she was cleaning her locker for the last time before getting on the train that would take her to the desert. "A stare that lasts a second too long breeds intimacy. That one second will pierce your heart, deeper and deeper every time, over and over, if you look for too long."
She remembered nodding, acknowledging, understanding. Everything had seemed so clear in the hallways of the Central Academy. Here, the sand blurred your vision. The sun scorched your brain.
"A gunman's work is a cold work. That is the only way to get through without crumbling," another of her teachers had said, and after a pat on her shoulder he had disappeared, now only a shadow in the recesses of her memory, another nameless face. Whoever said that had never fought for his life, but she knew. It hurt. She felt it in her fingertips every time she pulled the trigger. It racked her brain at night.
Equivalent exchange. That's what he had called it. It was trading her humanity for her life, one bullet at a time. She never thought she'd sell herself so cheap.
Her talk with the Major had changed things at a very primal level that she could not quite understand. The things he had said, the way he had said them… He wasn't the charming dandy, all right, but he was not quite the person she had believed him to be, either. How could she have misread him so badly?
"I hated you with all of my heart…"
Her pulse rose every time she thought about it. It brought back that prickly sensation to her eyes that she had to blink away. For days afterward she could think of little else. It was so unprofessional of her; she was so undeserving of his trust and it was painful to think that she had actually accused him of not trusting her and felt justified in doing so.
The nightmares began shortly after, when her anger vanished, leaving her with an unsettling feeling of guilt. With her eyes closed she saw the Major's agony, the lines of strain around his eyes and mouth, the labored breathing. She had memorized every line on his face and each told a story of shock and fear and guilt and shame. She had put him through it. She had made him do it. How could she?
"I hated you with all of my heart..."
If he only knew how much that hurt…
If he only knew… she was sure he would not have said it. Her instructor –the only one whose name she could recall- had warned her. "Too much staring breeds intimacy," and she finally realized what that meant. The Major was different in her eyes now. It was difficult for her to understand what had been important about that Ishvalan, but a man who would care for his enemies as much as he did for his friends was a rarity here, a rarity that she could not help but notice, the shadow of a hope she could not help but cling to.
She found herself watching him, constantly, to make sure he was all right, to make sure no one had hurt him. He would be upset if he found out because it meant that she had no faith in his alchemy, but that was not it, and yet she could not explain what was. She felt guilt at having undermined his skill when he had only commended hers and, deep within, she felt that she would be accountable for any mistake he made if, fate forbid, she had somehow shaken his confidence.
(This upset her. It was too presumptuous of her to even think it.)
And whenever she looked at him, she could not look for more than a few seconds. She did not want to see it again (the moment he'd lost his illusion –a moment she had not even witnessed- repeated over and over and over every time he used his fire), yet she saw it even with her eyes closed. She saw it all: the furrow of his brow when he flicked the lighter (concentration, anger, power, fear, all crammed in one single gesture); saw how his shoulders tensed, then sagged under the weight of the world, how his back changed before transmuting and afterwards; saw the world melting at his touch. Riza could see -almost feel- the hesitation, could almost time the very second when his fingers did not move, when he looked into red eyes and wondered just how had he ended up in hell, before he snapped his fingers and everything else everyone saw was red. She saw it –every time. It was a surprising, startling, disturbing discovery. She, who had seen him arrive, would have never thought he'd hesitate at anything, and had never stopped to think that maybe –just maybe- he could be as lost as she was. That bothered her. It bothered her like a sore.
For days afterwards, sleep found her reliving that day, retracing the steps that had put them in such a compromising situation. It was her fault and she knew it, deep down. The man ought to have been shot. By every single rule in her book, he ought to have been shot, just to be sure; the stakes were too high. That had become an unquestionable fact. Her carelessness had put her comrades at risk, and who knows what would have happened if the Major had not acted as timely as he did. Actually, she knew the answer very well: the Major would have been hurled down in a second, Armstrong closely following, then Grier. She would have jumped down to kill the man, blowing her own cover, but a grenade explosion would have finished her off first. Hordes of Ishvalans –who, thanks to the Major had only been four more men and a boy- would have swarmed in and finished with the Communications Center, cutting off their hopes of sending word out for help.
Riza could not remember if he had moved before transmuting. Maybe he had and that was what brought him in front of the Ishvalan (It had to be; she would have never picked such a poor location, would she?), putting him right in the bull's eye. Could she have positioned herself better? Maybe she could have. She could have moved, found her range again. Maybe she should have shot and risked it. After all, she prized herself for her excellent marksmanship. Yes. She should have attempted that shot –that would have spared him from having to kill. She could have shot and killed the Ishvalan, but, what if she had killed the Major instead? What if he had died? The mere thought of it made her heart race and her stomach churn; it made her queasy with anxiety; it felt every bit as painful as the wound to her shoulder had, half a year ago… maybe worse, but that was the more physical pain she had ever felt and had nothing else to compare it to. No. She had, but she did not think about that. After one or two weeks the events had become a blur of sand and flames and tears, and she no longer knew if what she remembered –the reality her thoughts had constructed- was even accurate.
It was equivalent exchange.
"It was equivalent exchange."
Riza had never despised Alchemy more than when she heard him say that.
She'd had to shoot a man, the other day. The corner of her eye caught the glint of steel from an adjoining roof and it must have taken her a second to react. Fear had gripped her at the thought of that bullet being aimed at the Major. In that single second she had imagined the iron, heated by the sudden mechanical burst that propelled it, flying to lodge within the Major's body, and the fear of it stopped her breath. She gasped as if she'd been drowning after she heard the man fall, desperate for air and relief and assurance. For a moment there she got a glimpse of what it must feel like to die, the powerless, desperate, vain, struggle against being squeezed alive. She crouched against the railing, panting.
Someone was calling her.
"Hawkeye, are you all right? Answer me! Are you all right?"
Riza nodded and looked down, searching for him. He was looking at her, dirt and mud and blood all over him, but he was alive. Understanding ran like energy through her. It was the same thing she'd felt when she looked at him for the first time, the way his eyes had fixed on hers and had found something there that felt, oh, so familiar. She felt the same longing, the same need, the same hunger for connection and understanding she had felt then. Alchemy.
Just when had she stopped feeling remorse to kill for Roy Mustang? It scared her sick.
That night she returned to her tent and grabbed the book from under her chair where it had sat, unread, for weeks. Sand and dust had accumulated on the carved leather cover, and it took her more than an hour to get rid of it all. The thought of her grandmother's shock at her being so careless with a book of such quality made her smile.
"Well, it's time to make it right," Riza said to herself. Sitting by the campfire, she began to read and, for the first time, she did not mind the cold or the taste of her overly-diluted coffee.
"Humankind cannot gain anything without first giving something in return."
One time he brought her tea. She must have told him she liked it, though she could not remember when. It was mint –the only kind he'd been able to snatch from one of his superiors, he said- which was fine by her.
"It isn't as sweet as your orange-flavored kind, and I'm sorry that I got no honey," he said, wincing at the try-out sip because the one sugar he'd managed to get was not enough to counteract the strength of the mint, "but that's probably all right. We are not in for much sweetness here, anyway."
She nodded and drank, gratefully.
He was put on confinement one night, something about failure to meet dress standards, he'd lied. That night she discovered that she missed his voice, thick, silky and dark. Riza had never realized that when he came to sit with her, they talked. Days later, as they sat together again, he looked strangely at her and, in his confusion, she saw that he could not tell when those fireside talks had become a habit, and that bothered him. She smiled and sipped her tea.
Riza also found out that sand and death are not good conversation topics. Neither are academy jokes and guns. His voice was different when he talked of trivialities. She missed the real voice. She wished they could have talked about chess (then she would have been able to mention her grandfather). She wished they could have talked about Zeit.
After "Good night, Major," "Good night, Officer," empty and inconsequential, she had her rendezvous with her book, Zeit and the Alchemic Dictionary almost forgotten in a frenzy of formulae and data. She could not believe the Major liked this other book better. It may be better –practical, to the point- but she knows that he cannot prefer this to Zeit's almost lyrical prose. The way the elements rupture then combine in mathematical –yet artistic- accuracy could never be more poetic than when Zeit describes the alchemic reactions. She knows that is the kind of prose Major Mustang would prefer, yet wonders why she's been given Turner's dry words instead. Is this how she is perceived, then? Practical? She frowns. No, it cannot be. She really is not practical at all.
Days go by, however, and she is able to find alchemy more and more in everything she sees.
"There are three steps in alchemy to perform a successful transmutation, the first of which is the understanding of the molecular composition of the object to be transmuted."
She had known, instinctively, that there was alchemy in rain. In Ishval, she learned there was also alchemy in the way the sand moves and shifts around, making and tearing dunes at will. What she had not known was that the human brain could be as alchemical; patterns could be formed and altered with enough conditioning, but it was important to recognize which pattern was to be altered, first.
"The second step is decomposition, in which all bonds in the given substance are broken through the use of alchemic energy…"
She has noticed that those rare moments when he is unguarded have become more frequent, and wonders why.
More surprising is the discovery that those rare moments when she is unguarded have become even more frequent.
"The final step is reconstruction, in which the released atoms are rearranged into something new."
One night she burned her hand while fiddling with the campfire. She had been careless and she knew it, but he cradled her hand in his and said he was sorry. He did not think less of her because she cried. The next day he brought her more tea.
"Humankind cannot win anything without first giving something in return. To obtain, something of equal value must be lost."
They have not talked in a while. He won't look at her like he used to. He would come and sit by the fire and be silent and then leave and then come again and be silent and then leave. It was a new pattern. They were creatures of habit, both of them.
She misses him. She even misses the smirk. It is now replaced by a perpetual frown that she cannot begin to wipe away. Despair.
She has learned there is Alchemy in the whiz of a bullet, but someone has to pull the trigger first.
Riza misses the old spark in his eyes. Nowadays every look they share is full of pain and shame, every word an apology. His eyes are bright with a strange light that could well be tears. She sees him breaking down and hates herself for not being able to prevent it.
There is Alchemy in a scream, but death has become routine and no one has energy left to waste in anguish.
She misses the arrogance in his step, but knows that the sun is too hot and the sand is too dry and his legs are too tired to make the effort.
There is Alchemy in death, and every good alchemist knows this truth: death turns people into fuel.
She decided she would not become anyone's fuel just yet. There was something she needed to do first.
Turner's last few pages are devoured with the same eagerness with which the three of them devoured the box of chocolates that Miss Gracia sent Officer Hughes a month ago, and in the same rush she closed the book, grabbed her coat and left her tent without bothering to hunt for her hairclip. When she stopped again, she was inside the Major's tent, looking at him through the twilight.
"Have you not been taught to knock on doors?" he asked, snapping his fingers to light his lamp (because now, to Riza's relief, he no longer needs the lighter).
"I knew you'd be awake."
He gave her a slight smirk. "I thought women like you would cling to some form of convention in these matters."
She put her hand over her chest as she caught her breath. "The truth is, I did not knock because that would have been, what, 20… 30 seconds wasted? You could have even faked sleep."
"And you just knew I would be awake."
"And you wanted to talk to me because?"
She took a deep breath, then another one.
"Are you nervous?" he asked.
"It wasn't equivalent exchange," she said, even more breathless than before.
The Major's eyebrow shot up at that, his fingers tapped at the desk.
Riza clenched her fist. This had to be done, and it had to be done now. He needed to hear it. She would do that much for him. She blinked one, two, three times.
"It wasn't equivalent exchange. It was a sacrifice –your sacrifice. It wasn't even your fault."
"We agreed to never speak of it again," he said, his palm flattened on the desk. The minuscule pieces of pyrotex cloth on his glove caught the light from his lamp and glinted like tiny droplets of water.
"We agreed to no such thing. Just tell me this: Why him? What was so important about him? That could not have been the first time you killed somebody."
"No. No, it wasn't."
"Because…" He flexed his fingers again and again as a short silence lingered. "Because I had not been told to. That was… the first time I did it on my own."
Her gun suddenly felt too heavy at her hip. She swallowed hard, but fast, trying to regain her voice.
"It wasn't your fault," she said. "I know it wasn't."
"It wasn't yours, either." He shook the glass he was holding, swirling the liquid around, and looked at it for longer than he needed to before deciding he would drink. "I was selfish to wish to keep my pretense of a clean conscience at your expense. I have... regretted it, the things I said, what I did to you... I've regretted it every day since."
The stinging sensation to her eyes came back in a rush, and she squeezed them shut to contain the tears.
"I was supposed to be there to protect you -from everything- but I could not even save you from those memories, and now you won't let go."
"Don't speak to me in such a weak voice," he said, making a great, unsuccessful effort to smile. "That's not who you are."
"It is who I am right now."
"No." His fist hit the desk with a thud. "I won't let you feel sorry about this. This war is not of your making and whatever it's done to me can't be anyone else's fault, but mine. You are... you are the only good thing that's happened to me here."
She opened her eyes, startled.
Again, he tried to smile. "I knew Maes from before. I said, here. Am I not pathetic? In all the time I've been here, I can only recognize one good thing. I should be grateful, for being alive. You've done so much to keep me alive, but I'm really a waste."
"You have said what you had to say, so now let me have my turn." She waited for him to nod his approval. It was another of their patterns. "You were right to be angry. Had I shot him while he was still on the ground, if only to make sure he was dead, the others would not have come. We could have saved a few lives that day... we could have saved the boy."
"You had no reason shoot him; you thought he was dead. There is no guarantee..."
"Let me finish. After all of this, I understand that things will happen as they will, and all we can do is live the moment as best we can." She paused, briefly. Why was so hard to get through with what she had come to say? She took a deep breath. "I was very angry with you. After I said all those things you still came to my tent, trying to understand me, when I did not even want to see you. After you left, I was even angrier... with you, with myself. I blamed you for being where you were, for not trusting me, but the truth was that I did not trust you, either. I blamed you for blaming me, but the truth was... what hurt the most was the knowledge that I had a part in waking you up to all of this. I would have shielded you for as long as I could."
He gripped the edge of his seat with one hand, clutching the glass so tightly with the other that she feared he would crush it.
"It had to happen sooner or later," he said, his voice a whisper. "I can't let you do this to yourself."
"Every time you think of death you will think of that day and then you will think of me. It is not a pleasant succession of thoughts. It is not how I want you to remember me."
"Every time I think of hope, I'll think of you. Is that pleasant enough?"
"I was harsh, and resentful, and proud," she said. "What happened that day... it wasn't your fault."
"You did not shoot that day because you wanted to save me! Whose fault was it, but mine?"
"I did not shoot to save you, and you shot to save me! That's what I want you to understand, what I have come to realize…"
"Please. You can't absolve me."
"No, I can't. I just wanted to say… I'm sorry. You… you saved our lives, and I never even thanked you. How can you say it was equivalent exchange? It wasn't. Equivalent exchange would have been your life for his, our lives for the lives of his companions. You got all of our lives -Turner, Armstrong, Grier, the people at the Center, me... You did not lose a part of yourself. It's still there. It has to be! It wasn't equivalent exchange."
He studied his gloved hand, the palm then the back, eyes tracing the shapes of his array: earth, air, fire… the power he held at his command, both his greatest gift and biggest curse. His jaw trembled, and she felt that familiar knot in her throat. Finally, he looked up.
"How do you figure all of that out?"
She took a few tentative steps in, placed the book on his desk and pushed it next to the bottle from which he'd been drinking.
Major Mustang put his hand over his old copy of An Alchemist's View of the World, leafed through it then looked back up at her.
"I finished it. You owe me."
After an eternity, he nodded. His eyes glinted gloriously, perilously. Right then he was fully alive.
"Excellent," he said.
She released a breath she did not know she had been holding. He had understood.
"I won't let you do it alone next time," she said. "I'll be with you."
He smiled -his other smile- in return. "You already are."
After that night, Riza began to dream about rain and felt no regrets about it.
(1) From Alchemy on Wikipedia (wikipedia . org)
The three steps of Alchemy, from Alchemy on Anime Indepth (Fullmetal Alchemist Indepth) (animeindepth . com)