Author's Note: This story was written as a birthday present for my friend Zeyd (VengefulNoob). Unfortunately, it ended up being a lot longer than I anticipated so although his birthday was the 19th of December, it is still unfinished. However, because of the length, I decided to start posting it in sections defined by every time there is a shift in perspective so the length of each chapter will vary a lot. It's essentially a big one-shot. Enjoy.
If my story "Trials" was the conclusion of some large Royai idea, this story is the beginning.
And I shot
And I hit
And things I can't live with are pushing me harder to grow
But had I not been through this
I would not be a witness
To a strength many can't claim to know.
- "Stand to Attention" by Bitter Ruin
The dancing bonfire before her did nothing to warm her but was quite triumphant at providing a distraction; somewhere to look that was not at the current state of the desert around her. She tried to block out the joyous, inebriated cries of her comrades as they downed beer by the case like they were trying to drink the entirety of the Stray Dog Company's shipments and they truthfully probably were. It would make packing tomorrow morning much easier with fewer supplies to pack. Out of the corner of her eye she could see men, forsaking uniform to the extremes of bare chests and sometimes even pantlessness as they shouted out nonsense about victory or, less nauseatingly, about going home.
Home for her was currently an apartment she shared with her friend Rebecca on the base where their military school was located. It was cramped, had a strange odor when they moved in, and was often messy with Rebecca's things but it sounded like heaven compared to here.
The war had made her feel ill when she first arrived in Ishval, she could actually remember throwing up on more than one occasion when her commanding officer's back was turned, but after a while she grew numb to everything she saw. While she worked, a kill was as meaningless as a short homework assignment: no sense of accomplishment, no need to keep track of how many, get it done and move on to the next. It wasn't until something new and outside of the routine raised that she had to reevaluate her feelings and would find herself feeling sick again. The last new thing had been seeing Roy Mustang destroying city blocks with her father's flame alchemy. The scene around her was the latest.
She knew she was supposed to be happy that the war was over and, on a personal level, she was glad she would be leaving Ishval tomorrow, but there was no success to be had here. The so-called win by Amestris was the result of thousands of Amestrians, for Ishvalans are also Amestrian, dying at the hands of their own countrymen. They weren't dying for a country or its people for those things were really the same on both sides; they were dying over opinions on a government. The side one fought on didn't even indicate their opinion on the situation for the blame was pinned on ethnicity and ancient culture.
The Ishvalans were right in their outrage and the government stubbornly refused to admit it.
And yet, I fired my gun for the government.
"Hey Hawkeye," A voice to her right said calmly. For a second her mind didn't register the voice as anyone's but his but then she realized how unlikely that was. The last place he would be right now is near a fire.
She lifted her head to look at the man sitting next to her: Sergeant Lancer, a fellow sniper who she had spent a lot of long hours with in towers. She was thankful that by his tone and gloomy expression he didn't seem to be partaking in the partying either although he was lacking his uniform jacket. She could understand though: it was refreshing to feel relieved of duty. She had taken hers off too but had still covered up with her white coat as she didn't have the alcohol in her veins to fight off the chill of the desert at night.
"You did a really great job out there," he said with genuine respect.
"Thank you," she answered, her voice sounding so much quieter than she was expecting.
He held out a bottle to her that looked like some sort of hard liquor.
"I'm fine," she said, dismissing the bottle. She didn't have a taste for straight liquor and even if she did, she would have refused. She wanted to be fully in control of her behavior that night even if a bit of liquid courage was a slightly tempting sentiment.
"I'm not saying you should run around with those drunken loons but you can't just sit and watch the fire all night," Lancer insisted. He wasn't too much older than her but his military experience far exceeded hers and his words held a sense of acquired knowledge.
She had to do it.
"I've been watching fires too long already," she said, standing up, no longer talking to him but to herself. "May as well put one out."
Lancer looked confused at her statement but simply shrugged his shoulders as he took a swig from his bottle, his eyes drifting towards the flames.
"I guess that's the spirit," he said dubiously.
Riza stood up and walked out of the semicircle of people gathered around the fire, looking out at the stretch of desert before her. There were tents, some pitched and some collapsed, other bonfires, people running, empty bottles, people laying face down in the sand: another warzone.
She hoped he hadn't succumbed to the revelry but she knew he hadn't.
She walked slowly but purposefully across the field trying to block out the drunken shouting, side-stepping around broken glass and discarded clothing, until his tent was in sight. It was much smaller than the ones that housed groups of enlisted men and separated from the pack to indicate his status. Now it also happened to be fortunately located in a quieter area of the celebration.
She walked around the side of the tent and could hear talking within. He was busy with someone. What she had to do was important but there was no way she was going to interrupt him. The matter was private and her reputation amongst the military was in very high standing at the moment, particularly for a female soldier. One small infraction such as approaching an officer's tent at night, though misinterpreted, could ruin her career. Military men were not known for keeping secrets amongst each other, especially where women were concerned.
She moved away from the tent, far enough that it would not look too much like she was waiting for him but close enough that she could keep a watch out for his guest's departure.
Keeping a close eye on things is what I'm known for after all, isn't it? She thought bitterly, running her fingers through the sand and letting it slip through her fingers.
After 15 minutes of sitting on the ground, running scenarios over and over in her head of how she was going to approach the matter when she could speak to him, she could see the silhouette of someone stumbling from his tent and walking shakily in her direction.
"Hawkeye!" the man shouted, his face slowly coming into view as he waved at her, his dark hair mussed and his glasses slightly askew.
"Captain Hughes," she said, standing up respectfully. Habit told her she should salute him but she overcame the instinct; Hughes was practically a friend now and this wasn't really a night for formalities.
He stopped in front of her and let his eyes drift sluggishly to the scene behind her. He knitted his brows in distain.
"Inappropriate," he muttered. Riza could smell the alcohol on his own breath. Clearly, he had not been drinking for the same reasons as the men he was judging.
"I try to just think of it as them celebrating going home," Riza offered.
"Home," he said gently like he had never heard the word before. "It remains the same but it's different now."
Riza nodded solemnly. For a man who was visibly drunk he sounded surprisingly clear to her. As appealing as the idea of returning home sounded, going back there, having to face all the people she knows who don't understand what had happened here . . . maybe staying in desert would be easier. She knew a part of herself would never leave anyway.
"I'm proposing to my girlfriend," Hughes said matter-of-factly, finally looking at her directly. He thought for a beat and pointed at her. "You should come to the wedding."
"Send me an invitation. I would be happy to go," Riza answered evenly, unsure if he would remember this conversation tomorrow. He had already mentioned proposing to his girlfriend a few times before when he was sober but this was the first time he had said anything about her coming to the wedding.
"Are you going to see Roy?" he asked a bit louder and more enthusiastically than she would have liked. Luckily, no one around seemed to notice.
Before she could answer, and she really didn't know how she would, he threw an arm over her shoulders in an avuncular gesture and leaned in so that he was whispering in her ear: "I'm glad. You're the one he needs now."
His cryptic comment startled her and she was unable to hide the small jump of her shoulders at the thought that he might have been talking about her to Hughes. But what could he need her for? How much did Hughes know?
She was about to ask him what he meant when he removed his arm from her shoulder and stumbled off in the direction of his own tent, shouting out an almost sing-song, "Goodnight!"
She watched Hughes walk away, tripping over a bottle but regaining himself fairly well, and then turned around to face his tent. There was a noticeable glow within from a lantern and as she moved closer, she could see the faint shadow of him pacing back and forth across the small space.
I shouldn't beat around the bush, she thought to herself. It will be done and then I will no longer carry this burden and then I can use the rest of the night to decide where to go from here.
Slowly she reached for the door flap of his tent and bent it back enough to reveal her face.
"Excuse me," she said, trying to sound strong but the words coming out almost in a whisper.
He was startled, jumping slightly when he heard her and then lifting his head up towards her and squinting.
Her resolve halted at the sound of that name, so foreign to her now. For nearly the last four years she has been Hawkeye or Cadet Hawkeye. Riza was another person, a shy but emotionally strong girl who cloistered herself from the world and spent all her time working to support herself and her father, cleaning the dilapidated estate they lived in, and studying alone to keep up her education. She was Hawkeye now. She thought she had made the transition after a few weeks in military school but she truly became her after her first kill and she was terrified that it would be a while before she could ever find Riza again.
But the fact was, at the sound of the name a flood of emotions came to her of a life she once knew. When she had encountered him on the battlefield the first time he hadn't referred to her as anything but "you" and only called her Cadet or Hawkeye when not speaking to her directly. She had adapted to the new titles fine when talking to him but she could tell he wasn't yet comfortable with her calling him "sir" or "Major." But for her to hear that name, especially from him, it reminded her that he was the only one who knew who she was before: that hard-working but quiet girl who had secretly harbored such affection for him that he never knew about.
She took a moment to compose herself and try to push back the memories.
I am Cadet Hawkeye and he is Major Mustang.
"It is not appropriate to call me that, sir," she said, walking into the sparsely furnished tent. In spite of him having far nicer and more private quarters than your average enlisted man, the place itself was still far from cozy. It seemed to only contain a cot, a small desk with a box and cushion for a chair, and an overturned crate for a side table upon which there was only a dimly burning lamp that lit up his tired face, a pair of ignition gloves, and an empty bottle of whiskey.
He sat on the edge of the bed, looking up at her as she entered: dark hair mussed, bags under his eyes from not having a proper sleep since arriving there, wearing just an undershirt and uniform pants but no shoes.
"Traditional protocol has been dropped tonight if you haven't noticed. And besides, no one heard me," he said apathetically. "So to what do I owe this pleasure?" he asked, without a touch of joy. It almost sounded like something he would have said back when he was a teenager but the smile that would have accompanied the question was nowhere to be found.
She wanted to answer immediately but her eye had been caught by the empty bottle of whiskey on his nightstand and she couldn't stop staring at it. Hughes had been drunk. If he had been drinking too there was no way he could do what she would ask of him.
"Have you been drinking?" she asked bluntly without answering him, her eyes still clearly trained on the bottle, unable to look at him directly yet.
He turned around to see where she was looking.
"Hughes drank most of that. I only had some of it and that was hours ago," he clarified, curiosity edged in his voice as to why his state of sobriety was so important. He didn't have any orders to give until morning and she wasn't even under his command. It should have been clear to her by the fact that he was cooped up in his tent instead of outside celebrating or stumbling around that he was not intoxicated, but he was a sad drinker anyway. Not that she would have known. He left the Hawkeye estate before he could legally drink and had never really indulged until he got to the military academy.
She stepped a bit closer to him in order to get a better look at him, finding no traces of alcohol in his visage. She nodded in confirmation and stood up a bit straighter. She forced herself to look frankly at him as she spoke so he would understand the severity of the matter.
"Do you remember what I said in the field today?" she asked, her amber eyes boring into his dark ones, almost challenging him to feign forgetfulness. He looked away from her stare and down at his hands hanging limply between his legs.
"Yes," he answered, his voice low and somber.
She took a deep breath.
"You made me a promise," she said, hoping she wouldn't have to explain much further.
He remained silent for what felt like hours but was actually just seconds. He knew what he had promised her but he didn't want to have to face it; especially not so soon. He had taken off his gloves the second they announced that the war was over and had been afraid to touch them since. Even just walking past the bonfires outside of his tent had been a painful reminder.
"I know this is sudden," she started, anticipating his response, "but I'm going to be going back to school after this and you'll be returning to some city office and who knows when we will see each other again. I can't wait. I need these secrets to die among the mess they created." She let out a breath and felt her strength crumbling. She was prepared to beg him if she had to.
"If I have to go back to the real world, please don't make me have to take them with me; not after this," she murmured, unshed tears behind her eyes that she refused to let fall in front of him. She wouldn't let him see her tears when her father died, back when she was still Riza, and she certainly wasn't going to let him see her cry now.
With a heavy sigh, he pressed his hands to his face, covering his eyes and propping his elbows on his knees. He couldn't say no. If he had to put on the gloves again while still here among the ruins of Ishval at least it was as a small favor to her, the absolute least he could do to help alleviate some of the guilt she felt that he was to blame for.
"Okay," he said finally, standing up and turning to her. "I'll need to go get some supplies from the medic's tent because I don't have everything I need here. Do you mind waiting?" he asked, gesturing to the bed.
She shook her head and took a seat as he crouched down in front of her and looked under the bed, pulling out a bottle similar to the one on his nightstand.
"It's probably not to your tastes but you should have some to take the edge off," he said handing her the bottle as he stood up to his full height. "I'll be back in a few minutes."
She watched him shove his feet into his boots without giving a care to the laces or the protective spats and leave the tent with a loud flutter of the door flap. She looked down at the bottle in her hands. She wasn't a fan of whiskey. Regardless, she twisted off the top and took a considerable gulp, feeling it burn all the way down as she scrunched up her face. Spotting a canteen next to the bed, she grabbed it and took a sip of water to alleviate some of the heat that still lingered.
Two more drinks and then I'll stop, she promised herself.
By the time she had repeated the process twice she could feel a slight haziness in her head but nothing that affected her to any notable degree. It certainly wouldn't numb the pain like it was supposed to. The blurry feeling was coupled with warmth in her chest that was really the opposite of what she needed.
She stood up and took off her shoes and coat just as he reentered the tent, a large bucket of what sounded like water under one arm, two cloths covered in plastic (one very large and one small) and a tube of some sort of ointment in his other hand. If he was going to honor her request to destroy her entire back, it didn't look like he had enough supplies.
He didn't say anything at first as he kicked off his boots and took the canteen she had been drinking out of off the bed and filled it with water from the bucket, setting it down on the ground. He then took the large cloth and laid it down on the bed, covering up about two thirds of the whole surface, and removed his pillow so she would have more space without things getting in the way. He worked with extreme care and slowness that was making her impatient and tense.
He finally stood up and looked at her, his face reddening to match her own alcohol-induced color.
"If you wouldn't mind situating yourself," he said, respectfully turning away from her and the bed to face the opposite wall.
Her hands suddenly unsteady, she crossed her arms in front of her in order to slowly take off her tank top, folding it and placing it carefully on the floor next to her coat. She then reached around her back to undo her bra letting that fall off her shoulders as well, realizing now that she will probably have to forego wearing one after this until the wounds are healed. She knelt down and put it under her coat so he wouldn't see it, that sense of childish embarrassment and modesty still lingering in her from her youth.
She crawled onto the bed, placing herself on the cloth as he had most likely intended her to lay, her back positioned in the center of it, and gripped onto the underside of the metal frame of the cot in preparation.
"Are you done?" he asked when he couldn't hear her moving around anymore.
"Yes," she answered tentatively, moving a bit to make sure that she was positioned in a way that would cover her front.
She felt rather than heard him take a seat on the edge of the bed so that he could lean over her and inspect the area before doing anything to it. She felt like telling him that it was no use and that one sizable blast would be sufficient so she could be done with this as soon as possible but she couldn't bring the words to form. She could see out of the corner of her eye the way he studied the tattoo on her back with sad fascination, regret evident there the same way it had been the first time he saw it, only this time it wasn't out of pity for what had been done to her but out of his own personal shame. She wanted to tell him something comforting but nothing would come.
"Can I touch you?" he asked softly, soothingly. She had to stifle a shiver that ran down her spine. Those feelings she once had for him when she was a foolish teenager had never completely left in spite of all the years of not hearing from him. If only he had said "it" instead of "you." The last time they had been in this position four years ago he had phrased it the same way and she had felt the same shiver.