The lights dimmed and the loud hum of the audience settled down into an atmosphere of hushed anticipation. The heavy red velvet curtains slowly parted, revealing a darkened stage, in the center of which the silhouette of a figure could just be seen. The audience grew silent, and sound of a drum could be heard, a rhythm of high and low notes that was intricate but at an easy walking pace.
A spotlight illuminated the apron and the shadowy figure stepped into it. He was a tall, lanky Ishvalan with a large drum strapped to his shoulders. He held it at an angle, playing one side with a large wooden spoon and the other side with a long, thin stick. He continued with his alternating rhythm, regarding the audience with a wry half-smile.
"Nice house!" he commented approvingly. "And you're all dressed up. I hope that wasn't for me."
There was a ripple of laughter and Dejan grinned. "Well, I can't promise anything too fancy, but I promise to give you your money's worth. I come from a place east of here. Maybe you've heard of it." He altered the tapping of his drum just slightly, offering a variation. "Imagine, if you will, a hot, dry day in the desert. If you can't, that's all right," he added. "But on such a day, some time ago, I stepped back onto Ishvalan soil, much the same as you see me right now, and I was carrying this very drum. I hadn't seen the old place for a while, and I wasn't sure what to expect."
He stepped up the speed and the intricacy of his rhythm, adding a note of tension. "So what's the first thing I and my young folk clap our eyes on, eh?" He looked out at the audience as though expecting an answer. Not getting one, he continued. "Well, I'll tell you! I saw strife, ladies and gentlemen!" he announced loudly, giving his drum a single low, hard smack with his spoon, the look on his face growing stern. "I saw men nearly coming to blows!" He gave the drum another hard strike.
The smiles on many of the audience members began to fade uncomfortably. "There was hostility! There was discord!" Each stressed word was punctuated with another single beat of the drum. "Ishvalans and Amestrians on the verge of bloodshed once again because of an idle, misplaced word here, a hard, unfriendly look there!" Dejan's speech came out rapidly, the beat of his drum startling, and with one more loud hit, he added, "And nobody could find where Old Vashto had buried his homemade liquor!"
Dejan picked up his easy rhythm tapping again as the audience relaxed and laughed. He grinned along with them. "We found it later, though, so no worries about that," he said with a wink. "But in the meantime, there was state of affairs that needed remedying, and that right quick. So this, ladies and gentlemen," Dejan announced in conclusion with a grin that promised something wonderful, "is what we decided to do!"
The stage lit up, revealing a painted backdrop of a sunset against rolling desert hills. In answer to the rhythm of Dejan's drum, a line of young women came strolling out from the wings, singing as they crossed the stage. Along with them came a group of five young men playing a variety of instruments. As they appeared, the audience erupted into applause. For a few moments, the music was practically drowned out, but Dejan didn't care. The audience's reaction was the sweetest music he'd ever heard in his life.
Not bad for a dirty little desert rat.
:) :) :)
She stood ankle deep in blood, and it sucked at her boots. Dripping arms arose from the red mire. Heads emerged, split open by bullet wounds but with eyes open and staring at her. Wide mouths gaped mutely at her. Hands clutched at her legs, pulling her down to drown in blood.
Her back arched as she awoke, gasping for air, her chest heaving and her heart thudding against her ribs. She laid staring wide-eyed up at the darkened ceiling.
That was a new one.
It had actually been a while. She had even begun to think that once she left the military, the nightmares would stop. Must have been a little too much hope for. Maybe it was because she felt guilty for hanging up her uniform. She thought she had done the right thing. She would not let herself be made an exception. She would not let Fuhrer Grumman "find" her another position within the military in recognition of her service. She would not allow him to be accused of favoritism. But she still felt like she was abandoning her post. That, of course, came second to the step they had finally taken, the one that they had forbidden themselves. She often found herself visited by the impression that something felt wrong.
Feeling a hand on her arm, she gave a start and a little breathless cry. Then she heard Roy's quiet laugh.
"It's just me," he said softly.
Riza pressed a hand to her forehead. "Sorry," she whispered back. "Did I wake you up?"
"No. I was already awake," Roy said, then added, "I had a nightmare."
He rolled toward her then rolled back with her in his arms, holding her close against his chest. She lay on top of him, her arm tensely folded close to her sides and her head resting over his heart, listening to its still rapid beating from whatever hideous image his subconscious had dredged up to torment him with.
Riza let out a weary sigh, ending in a rueful little chuckle. "God, Roy, aren't we a pair?"
He lifted his head a little to kiss the top of her head. "We sure are."
They lay silently, waiting for their pulses to calm down. "You want some hot chocolate?" Riza asked after a while. "I don't think I could get back to sleep."
"In a bit," Roy replied, his hand brushing gently and soothingly along the length of her back. "I like this a lot better than hot chocolate."
Riza smiled in the darkness, relaxing her arms and sliding them around him. Maybe things didn't feel so wrong after all. "Me, too."
:) :) :)
Sergeant Major Augustus Benjamin turned to his commanding officer with a sharp salute. "They're all yours, Colonel," he said, and only Miles could see the hint of a smile on his adjutant's lips.
Colonel Miles turned to regard the new troops lined up in neat rows before him. It was June, it was two o'clock in the afternoon, and it was hot. He had delayed his appearance for several minutes, just so the new arrivals could get a taste of the desert sun. He could see their pale foreheads glistening with sweat and he wondered what had brought them here.
He had submitted a request to both Brigadier General Mustang and to Fuhrer Grumman that no one should be sent to Ishval who hadn't requested to do so. He didn't want anyone harboring resentment against either the place or its inhabitants because they were here as the result of some disciplinary action or had wanted to be posted somewhere else. Fortunately, the attitude toward Ishval was still an indulgent one. No one wanted a repeat of what happened the last time Amestrian soldiers occupied this land.
He still wondered what made them volunteer. Perhaps it was the same motivation for volunteering for Briggs, those that did, at any rate. Perhaps there was something they were running away from and Ishval was just as remote, only not cold. Well, that was all right. Miles was used to that.
Most of them appeared to be in their early twenties, fresh out of basic training, so they wouldn't have been veterans of the Ishvalan campaign. Maybe they were just curious. Maybe, and this was the most ideal situation and one that Miles most hoped for, they had a genuine desire to be there, whether it was to do their part to bury the shame of Amestris' past or simply for the adventure. Those were the soldiers who would be most welcome here.
However, first things first.
"Welcome to Ishval," Miles said. He darkened his voice with just a slight hint of menace, and it was possible that some of those beads of sweat got bigger. "You may have noticed that it's hot. Just so you know, it's going to get hotter. In a few months, you're probably all going to come down with Ishvalan desert fever. It's miserable, and it's inevitable, so until then, I highly suggest that you treat the inhabitants with respect and courtesy because you're going to need someone to pull you through it. We don't have enough medical personnel to handle an outbreak and the Ishvalans understand it better than any Amestrian doctor does. Think of it as a rite of passage.
"It's possible that some of you may have volunteered to serve here because you thought it would be easy. It's a small facility, it shares a border with an uninhabited stretch of desert, and there doesn't seem to be anyone out there who might threaten this border. That," Miles said, pronouncing the word loudly and percussively, making a number of the young soldiers flinch, "is just the sort of complacency that an enemy could take advantage of. I promise you, you will not only be spending long hours patrolling this border but training to fight in the desert heat. Slackness, negligence, or ineptitude in the performance of your duties will not be tolerated.
"As you may know," Miles went on, "I was formerly stationed at Fort Briggs, where the rule is survival of the fittest. Survival is also the watchword here. I'm speaking of the survival of the Ishvalan people. Your job is not only to defend the border of Amestris, but also to defend the people who live here. And I mean from anyone."
Miles pointed to the flags that flew above the still unfinished wall of the fort. Just below the green and white dragon flag of Amestris fluttered a white flag. In the middle of it was a representation in solid grey of a bird of prey, its head turned over its back in a posture of vigilance. Across the bottom of the flag was a band of red and gold stripes, reminiscent of the striped sashes worn by the Ishvalan people.
"The silver hawk on that flag is unique to this region. Some even thought it had become extinct, but it's making a comeback. Just like the people here." Miles took off his glasses to reveal his red eyes. Some of the soldiers were aware of the colonel's heritage, some were caught unprepared. "Whatever notions concerning Ishvalans you may have brought with you stay at the door. These people can prove their worth to you on their own. You'll need to prove your worth to them as well, and above all, to me. Only then will I consider you to be one of us, a silver hawk of Ishval.
Miles could tell he had gripped every one of them. He let a little more menace creep into his voice. "I will not tolerate any of these people, my people, being treated like second-class citizens. You're here to do a job, and if you don't do it to my satisfaction, may Ishvala have mercy on your soul." He took a slight pause to replace his dark glasses. "Because I will not."
With that, he took a step back, allowing Sergeant Major Benjamin to step forward. "Dis-missed!" he bellowed at them.
The troops turned and marched off the grounds to their barracks, grateful to get out of the heat and out from under the uncompromising gaze of their commanding officer.
Once they had all filed off, Benjamin gave an approving nod. "Very nice, sir. I almost teared up for a minute."
Miles allowed himself a grin. "It's just the sun in your eyes, Benji," he said.
:) :) :)
Scar recognized the young man at once. Even without his gold eyes and hair, there was something about him that gave him away. There was an earnestness and a grave sincerity that emanated from him even when he dwelt inside his suit of armor.
Jerso and Zampano walked along behind him, staring around curiously. Scar was just walking out the door of the Great Temple as they were approaching it, and he saw them first. He stood still, inwardly astonished but waiting calmly for the inevitable moment of recognition. He wasn't about to duck back into the temple and hide.
Finally, the young man paused at the foot of the temple steps, leaning back and shading his eyes to take in the imposing structure. It was a moment later that he noticed the figure standing at the top of the steps. The young man slowly lowered his hand and stared at him for several moments.
Finally, in a voice that sounded like it had only barely reached maturity, he said quietly, "Scar?"
Scar gazed back at him for a moment, then replied in a voice that was warmer than he expected it to come out, "Alphonse Elric."
The two chimeras, who had both been looking away to watch the progress of a couple of young women who were passing by, turned suddenly to gape up at the big Ishvalan.
"Sonofabitch!" Jerso murmured.
"Hey, Scar!" Zampano exclaimed with a charming grasp of the obvious. "You're alive!"
Now that the initial shock was over, Scar waited for what might come next. He had no illusions one way or another, and he let Alphonse take the initiative. The young man regarded his former foe with a quizzical look for a moment, then he mounted the steps toward him. He stopped one step lower, but Scar could tell that the top of the boy's head would reach just past his chin.
Alphonse held out his hand and smiled. "This is a surprise."
Scar took his hand. "It is, indeed."
After having established that, there came the moment when neither knew what else to say. The two chimeras, however, bounded up the steps and started affectionately pummeling Scar's shoulders.
"Hey, man, go figure!"
"How'd you get here?"
"Does anybody else know you're here?"
"Did they let you off the hook in Central?"
"Where's a good place to eat around here?"
Scar raised one of his hands to ask for silence. "I'll answer the last question first," he said. "You must come to my home for dinner." He turned to Alphonse. "If that's agreeable to you."
The young man's eyebrows rose. "Do you cook?"
"No," Scar replied as he headed down the steps to the street, beckoning them to follow him. "My wife does."
The three Amestrians exchanged incredulous looks and hurried after him.
Jerso and Zampano sat around the low, round table after they had finished eating, simpering shyly at Rada.
"Would you care for more tea?" she asked them.
They practically giggled. "Yes, ma'am!" Jerso managed to say. "That'd be swell!"
Alphonse and Scar had gone outside and they sat on a bench at the back wall of the house, looking out at the verdant kitchen garden. Scar held his daughter in his lap, who sat gurgling happily while her brother got bounced on Alphonse's knee. The twins would occasionally turn to each other and giggle lustily as though at a joke only they understood.
While Mattas urged Alphonse to bounce some more, the young man regarded Scar's daughter, who sat contentedly gnawing on a wooden teething ring.
"Winry," he said, and he shook his head again and smiled. "That was kind of a nice touch."
Scar gave a slight shrug. "It's the first name that came to me, and once that happened, no others would do."
Alphonse looked up at the children's father. "There was a story going around that you had died in the rubble when Central Command got half blown up."
"That story was neither encouraged nor discouraged," Scar admitted. "It was simply allowed to spread." Hoping to change the subject, he said, "I've been writing to Mei."
"You have?" Al's face lit up. "That's good! She was really fond of you."
"She's much fonder of you," Scar remarked.
Al smiled. "I'm really looking forward to seeing her." He considered Scar for a moment, not ready to be sidetracked. "You really should let Ed and Winry know, or at least let me tell them."
Scar shook his head. "The fewer people who know, the better."
Al let out a sigh. "I think you're underestimating them."
"It's not a matter of esteem," Scar argued. "You have to understand, Alphonse, I'm not thinking about myself."
They looked across the garden at Danika, who was busy observing the progress of a butterfly.
"No, I do understand," Al replied. "But, I mean, we went through so much together. I just think they'd feel better, I guess, knowing."
Scar had to smile at the boy's ingenuousness and the disappointment in his voice. "I doubt that somehow. I realize you're not obligated to me for anything, and I can't stop you. But I have to ask you to simply let them think what they think."
Al opened his mouth to argue further, but then he smiled and gave a resigned shake of his head. "Fine. I'll respect that."
"Thank you, Alphonse."
"But you can't hide forever, you know."
Scar lifted his shoulders. He'd been told that many times already. "I'll deal with that when the time comes. I've escaped notice so far. I think the rest of Amestris has started to lose interest in Ishval. Now that it's been well and truly established, they don't have to feel guilty about it anymore."
Al looked a little surprised. "What about the soldiers? Aren't they writing home about you?"
"No, they're not," Scar replied. "There seems to be an unspoken agreement among them not to, but I think it's more in deference to my wife, who is a lot more attractive than I am."
Alphonse grinned. He was certainly taken with Rada at first sight. Jerso and Zampano were acting like schoolboys around her. And the significance of Danika's appearance wasn't lost on him either. He didn't ask outright, but it was clear that there must be quite a story behind that. Scar referred to her as his, but although there was an unknown variable in the equation, the math was stacked against him. The main thing was that the little girl was happy and Scar was responsible for that.
Al shook his head slightly. Not Scar. Maybe it could really be said that Scar was dead. Andakar Ruhad had earned the respect of his entire community. Even though Al could feel himself practically bursting with the news, he would keep it to himself. Maybe he didn't owe this man anything, but this would be another opportunity to give eleven when he could have settled for ten. ;)