"Oy! Mustang! Over here!" Maes Hughes called, waving a hand over his head to be seen in the crowded train station. The man had short, neat black hair which was kept slicked back away from his warm, brown eyes over which set a small, square set of glasses. Those were new, but other than that, nothing had changed about his old friend. Roy made his way to him and let himself be hugged fiercely. His eyes sought for Edward but the boy had already escaped into the busy streets of Central City. "How are you?" Maes asked, releasing Roy.
"Fine," came the soldier's automatic reply. "How are you?"
"Great, thanks. Oh, and I guess you haven't heard yet. I'm just Colonel, now, got promoted again!"
"Ooh, so I can drop the Lieutenant in favor of just plain Colonel? Aren't you something, climbing the ladder like that?" Roy teased, ruffling the other man's hair.
"You make any friends?" Roy hesitated. Friends…Edward Elric…Fullmetal…his only friend during his time in the war. The only one he'd ever confided in. The only one he'd let touch his heart.
"…No, not really. We were busy. Have you met anyone you like?" He mostly zoned out as they headed to the car and Maes chattered on and on about the different people he'd met. Most people thought Roy disliked Maes's incessant babbling, but it was actually quite the opposite. Roy liked to listen, even if he didn't listen that intently, even if he let it just become background noise, he liked having that voice there, never prying too deeply into his life, just going on about something trivial. It gave him a good excuse not to say anything. It was one of the reasons Roy liked Maes. They got in the car and the younger man suddenly realized his friend wasn't paying an ounce of attention to what he was saying. Coming to a natural close, he stopped talking, leaving the car steeped in silence.
Deafening silence. Mustang leaned his head against the window and wished Maes would say something, anything to fill the emptiness. After little over a year and a half of constant battle-noise and anxiety and chatter, the silence was more than a little unnerving. He inhaled deeply and let his breath hiss out through his teeth again.
"You okay?" Maes asked, his voice incredibly soft and concerned.
"Yeah. I'm fine."
"You going back to your apartment or do you want to get a new place? You could stay with me if you want…"
"No, I'll go back to my old place. I just want to see the office first." Now Maes seemed to understand what Roy wanted, so when they started to fall silent, again, he spoke up.
"So I met this girl, Gracia. She's really sweet, and a great cook, and she doesn't mind me being in the military…you should meet her some time. She's really pretty, too. And we share a lot of the same interests and…" he took a deep breath. "What I'm trying to say is that I'm going to ask her to marry me." Now he had his friend's full attention.
"Really? That's wonderful. When?"
"I…I don't know, yet. I still need to buy a ring. I was wondering if you'd help me pick one out. I mean…I'm new at this – and I know you are too, but still…"
"I know women, Maes, I'm not completely new at this."
"Oh, yes, Roy Mustang the Mustang of Central, Amestris's biggest playboy, huh?" Maes teasingly slapped Roy on the shoulder. "I bet there are bucket-loads of girls just can't wait for a chance to get to take a ride on The 'Stang!"
"Shut up, I don't just sleep around…" Roy chuckled. "And don't call me that."
"Oh, would you prefer Royboy?"
"Oh, God, no! Flame will do. Or Major Mustang. Or just Mustang. Or Roy. But not the 'Stang or Royboy. Both of those will get you gutted."
"Aw, I like them." Mustang rolled his eyes as they came to a stop at the office. "Oh, and I hear you won't be a Major much longer. They say the Fuhrer himself is insisting on promoting you to Lieutenant Colonel and pronouncing you the Hero of Ishval." Mustang's mood plummeted instantaneously. He forced a chuckle.
"Is that so?" he managed to reply as they got out. "I suppose I should be honored." By the time Maes could see his face again, he'd regained his careful, impassive mask and they headed inside. Many of the faces he saw there were familiar from the war, nameless killers, all looking a little stressed, some surprised to see him and others yet completely vacant. One face he noticed was that of Major Louis Armstrong. He had left due to an injury early on in the war. It was not a secret that the injury had not justified his leaving, but Armstrong was a soft-hearted man despite being built like a freight train. Now the man also known as the Strong Arm Alchemist stared balefully at him, recognizing the look of a hollow, empty killer when he saw one. It was something Maes simply couldn't fathom and was therefore blissfully unaware that his friend had become. A fact for which Roy was infinitesimally grateful.
After Roy got a good feel for the office, Maes took him to his old apartment. The two friends stopped on the doorstep of his place, staring at each other.
"Want me to come in?" Maes asked at length. Roy shook his head.
"I'm just going to crash, I've got the worst jet lag," he replied. Maes nodded sympathetically, patted his arm, and walked off, leaving him to head inside by himself. Roy stared around at the apartment he'd basically forgotten. The old familiarity that he thought he would receive was complete absent. Instead, the place felt foreign, even a little hostile.
Instead of seeing a home he'd once occupied, all he could see were vantage points and escape routes and cover in case of a firefight. He saw potential weapons and weak points and where to hide should he come under attack. He saw vulnerabilities and how dangerous it would be to jump from the window. He noticed where the most dangerous zones to sit or stand were and made a mental note to move chairs and couches out of those areas. He estimated the trajectory of pushing over the bookshelf or throwing a plate across the kitchen. Each room was greeted with the same analysis until he decided he would probably be better off just scrapping the whole place down to it's barest structure and restarting, if he really wanted a secure environment against attack. And no matter of rearranging would help if artillery was involved in the attack – the walls were so thin he could hear his neighbors talking in their apartment.
Forcefully shoving these thoughts from his head, he went to the bathroom, unceremoniously stripped, and turned the water on, not even waiting for it to heat up before getting in. Slowly, the water heated up and he kept turning up until it was almost scalding. Groaning his appreciation, he leaned back his head and combed his fingers through his hair, forcibly relaxing his muscles. Now that he was alone with no distractions, his mind was free to wander over the past year and a half of his life – exactly where he didn't want it to go. This was going to be a harder transition than he'd imagined.
It had been one week since his return to Central, leaving him in an all-time low. And that's when he saw it. Bright, gold hair and warm, sun-kissed skin. At first, he didn't recognize the teen because he did not wear the military uniform – he was dressed in tight, black leather pants, a black tank top, a red coat, and black boots – but closer inspection proved it was undeniably Edward Elric. Beside him walked a giant suit of armor that only Roy, Edward, and the armor itself knew was empty. For a long moment, the newly appointed Lieutenant Colonel just stared. Then he realized Edward was staring back. His golden gaze was like the first ray of sunlight after a week of endless night. It dully occurred to Roy that he'd missed the boy, though there was no way in Hell he'd admit that to himself or anyone else.
"Hey, Lieutenant Colonel, now, isn't it?" Edward was the first to speak. At some point, he'd crossed the street to stand right in front of Mustang.
"You look awful." That was the truth. The boy was gaunt with dark bags under his eyes. His braid was sloppy with strands poking out. His clothes were mussed and rumpled. He looked as bad as Roy felt.
"Yeah. I just got back in town. I went to get my automail tuned up and my brother insisted on returning with me."
"Ed! Who's this?" the giant suit of armor asked in the voice of a young boy, jogging over to them. Roy scanned it up and down.
"Lieutenant Colonel Roy Mustang, the Flame Alchemist," he introduced himself.
"I'm Alfonse Elric. Ed's my big brother."
"I see." He forced a smile and started towards the office.
"Mr. Mustang," Alfonse called, hurrying to catch up.
"That's Colonel Mustang, please."
"Oh, Colonel Mustang. Can I ask a favor of you?"
"It rarely hurts to ask."
"Will you look after my brother? He's been kind of weird lately. I don't know what's wrong with him. I don't think he's sleeping well, either." Rou chuckled. He knew that feeling. He rarely made it through a night without waking up due to dreams and it took him hours to fight down the guilt and self-loathing enough to fall asleep.
"Well, I won't go out of my way, but sure." Edward caught up with them and followed Roy to work, leaving Alfonse to get them a hotel room for until they found an apartment. They split up at the office without a word. Part of Ed wanted to talk to Roy about the war about the past week, about anything. He wanted to feel close like he had, before. The other part of him wanted to stay as far away from the man as possible. How was he supposed to deal with Mustang, now? How was he supposed to interact with him, knowing what they'd both done in Ishval, knowing the colonel's guilt mirrored his own, if not surpassed it? How was he supposed to look that man in the eyes? He squeezed his eyes shut and took a moment to collect himself before going to report for duty at the office of one Colonel Maes Hughes. Figures I'd get placed under Flame's best friend, he thought.
"Hey, you're Fullmetal, right?" the grinning man behind the desk greeted him. "You start work under me today?"
"Yes," Edward replied. "You're Colonel Maes Hughes?"
"Flame mentioned you, once." The words slipped out before he could think about them. Somehow, it felt like some confession, causing him to blush a little and look away.
"Flame…oh, you mean Mustang! You know him?"
"We talked a few times in Ishval."
"You went to Ishval? But you're so young…"
"Whatever, anyways. Let's get back to work, shall we?" Maes laughed and dug around in his desk for some files.
"Well, you have his work-ethic, I'm sure he liked that about you."
"I wouldn't know, sir." Maes laughed again and handed him the file that would explain his task. Edward took it idly noticing how much Maes laughed. He could see why Roy liked the man. Everything about him was warm and friendly and comforting. Yet somehow, he got the feeling that just as that warmth had no affect on him, as it would have before Ishval, Roy was experiencing a similar reaction. That grin, that laugh, those gentle eyes…all of them made Edward want to puke. Not because he was disgusted with them. No, it was more like he felt so miserably unworthy of such kindness, such gentleness, such benevolence that just being near this man created gross dissonance and caused his stomach to rebel.
He flipped through the file. Bring some murderer in for justice. He took it with him and turned to leave. At least it was something to do. He needed to keep his hands busy. If he let himself get idle for even a minute, he wouldn't be able to keep the images out of his head. Move forward…that's all we can do. I wonder how Flame's coping…I wonder if he's jumpy at every, little thing, like I am. I wonder if he sits alone at night and wishes with every fiber of his being that someone would just knock him unconscious so he could finally get some sleep. I wonder if he feels like I do…
"Hey, Fullmetal…I can't get ahold of Mustang," Maes's worried voice came over the receiver. "He won't answer his door…can you maybe see if you can get him to come out? I mean…can't you…I don't know…force your way in or something?"
"…I'll see what I can do." Edward stood up, hanging up the office phone he'd been using. He spent almost all his time in the office. He now left and headed towards Roy's apartment. He'd walked the colonel home a few times, so he knew where it was, but he'd never been inside. They didn't talk hardly ever, even when they were together, they were usually silent. What was there to say?
Edward knocked on the door. No answer. Of course no answer. He wouldn't have answered the door, if someone had come to visit him in his hotel room. He knocked again, just to be sure. Then, he clapped his hands together and pressed them to the door. The lock clicked open and the door swung inwards. The apartment was dark…and a mess. Papers and books were strewn all over the place. The shades were closed. How long had Roy been locked up in here?
"Flame?" Edward called hesitantly. Silence. His eyes adjusted and he finally was able to make out the colonel's figure, sitting on his knees on the floor. In his hand was a pistol, which was now pressed to his jaw, his finger trembling on the trigger. For a moment, Edward was frozen, then his body burst into motion. Lunging forward, he grabbed the gun from the older man's hand and flung it from him like it had burned him. "Flame!" he gasped. "What the hell do you think you're doing?!" Empty, emotionless eyes turned to meet his. Oh, God, I left him alone too long, Edward realized.
"How do you do it, Fullmetal? How do you live?" Roy croaked brokenly. Tearstains traced lines down his cheeks, his eyes were red from crying, his face was gaunt and pale, his hair was a mess, his clothes were wrinkled and mussed.
"I live because there's no other choice! Pulling that trigger never was an option for you, soldier!" Edward snapped, realizing that no amount of tender affection would reach this man. He would beat sense into Roy – literally if need be. He slapped him as hard as he could, almost knocking the older man to the ground. "You can be anything you want, Flame, but you will not be a weak, pathetic coward who runs away!" Mustang seemed to jolt back to reality, his eyes widening.
"Fullmetal," he murmured. And the next thing the boy knew, the older man had yanked him into a fierce hug and was crying into his shoulder. "How do you do it?!" he demanded. Edward gentled, threading his hand through the colonel's hair.
"I find a reason to live…and I dedicate myself to that goal so that nothing else matters. For me, it's getting my brother's body back. You aren't limited by such a small goal though, Flame. You told me, already…why you're in the army. What your goal in life is. You're going to change this country. And to do that, you need to make your way to the top. And I'll support you…every step of the way, because, Flame…I don't believe there would be a single better man for this country than you. So hurry up and get there, okay, Fuhrer Mustang?" Roy didn't have the voice to answer, so he just nodded into Edward's chest. "I'm sorry."
"I should've checked on you sooner. I should've been there. We both knew it would be like this…when we came back." Mustang nodded, his little bout of crying finished. He sat up and wiped his eyes.
"Thank you, Fullmetal. I needed that." He rubbed his cheek ruefully. "Though you didn't have to use the automail hand, did you?" They stood up only to fall back into another embrace when they were both silent for too long.
"How long has it been since you've eaten?" Edward asked. The only reply was a shrug, so he disentangled himself and went to the kitchen to warm up some left overs he found in the fridge. They cleared a space on the floor and ate dinner together, neither one quite sure what to say but feeling the pressing need to say something mounting with each moment of silence.
"Hughes called you to come here?" Roy asked at last.
"Yeah," Edward replied with a small smile. "He's a good friend."
"Do you remember that guy – Kimblee…from Ishval?"
"Salf J. Kimblee…the Red Lotus Alchemist. What about him?"
"He blew up some military base and killed a bunch of officers. They're putting out a warrant for him. Permission to use lethal force."
"He was always a little…overzealous. He killed because he liked exerting his will over other people."
"But he was right…that we can't turn away from what we did. I thought I could put it behind me and just move on but maybe…that's not what needs to happen. Maybe we need to own what we did, own our guilt…and spend our lives bettering the world as recompense. Can we really presume to just…ignore what we did."
"It's a fine line between moving on and ignoring. I agree we shouldn't forget it – that we should spend our lives repaying for what we did, but we also can't…linger too hard on it. We did what we did and regretting…will get us nowhere."
"Do you think it's alright to talk about it…if it's just us?" That made Roy pause. He honestly didn't know the answer to that. Was it okay to just talk about what they did? Would it do any good to talk about it? Would it do any harm? It could desensitize them to what they did…or do the opposite and drive them into depression, cause them to obsess. Then again, the alternative hadn't worked out too well, either.
"Yeah…it's okay, Fullmetal. It's okay to talk about it."
"You know, I never told my brother."
"I didn't think you would…could."
"No. He shouldn't have to bear that." Edward nodded his agreement. "I never gave Maes the specifics – I never told him my daily counts or talked about the war…ever with him. It wouldn't be fair to him." Edward scooted a little closer to Roy until he could lean his head on his shoulder. "Thirty-two-thousand four hundred and six…in the end."
"I wrote down…daily. I have a notebook and in the middle are these pages of just lists of my daily count. I added them all up and that's the final count – well, my best estimate. I guess I can't really know for sure. And that's not including the people that died indirectly because of the war – injuries or starvation or disease…" Edward sat up, grabbed Mustang's head by his hair, and pulled it down into his lap, combing his fingers through those ebony locks soothingly.
"You'll probably have to kill more people – people that may or may not be worthy of killing – at least indirectly."
"You gonna be okay?"
"Yeah. Somehow…it doesn't feel so bad…when you're nice to me…as when other people are."
"I know…it's because I know you, Flame. I know what you've done…who you are…I have seen your soul, your suffering, your weakness…and you've seen mine."
"And that makes it okay?"
"Yes." Mustang closed his eyes and let the doubts sink into the back of his mind, allowing himself just this moment to relish being cared for. It was nice to lean on someone at long last. The war had destroyed his ability to trust. It was a relief to have that back, even if it was only one, seventeen-year-old boy. He would bask in the warmth and light of that boy's gaze as long as he feasibly could.