At Stake

If I just snap my fingers one more time, he thought, it could be over.

There was dust in Ishbal, now. Clouds of it, dust and ash, from buildings fallen and explosions that cast all manner of things into the air around them. Behind the dust, there were strong, healthy flames, fed by god only knew what.

They used to burn witches and heretics. To cleanse their souls, they said, and burn away the sin with scathing fire. Could I burn like that—would the lick of flames on my skin wipe me clean?

He looked down at the ground in front of him, and it seemed to answer.

No. Not now, not ever again.

This building hadn't burned, yet, though it was only a matter of time. It hadn't seen any fire at all, not even courtesy of his hand, but Roy Mustang had seen enough other burned-out shells hulking in the eerie, smoke-cloaked false dusk to know that flames didn't erase bloodstains.

In his dreams, he dripped red everywhere he went. He waded through swamps of blackening blood, clots clinging to his uniform as he felt heads and arms bob past his calves and shuddered with the unspeakable horror of it. He waded until he reached land, realizing only after he'd climbed up onto it that he was perched on an ever-growing mound of human skulls.

Oh, god! Oh, I

The skulls would grin at him, their teeth clacking and crunching, and then they'd speak


And he ran from them, back through the swamp and into a forest of dead, burned out trees; but his legs, weighted with the stains that plagued him, wouldn't carry him fast enough.

'Stop, please.' A little girl, no more than five years old, appeared in front of him. She was half-turned away and backlit by the fire-filled sky, but he could see her strange smile, as though she had been interrupted in the middle of play.

'Stop what?' he asked, hoarsely.

Her voice was high and soft, a strange childish monotone. 'Stop, that hurts. I didn't do anything. Please, no, not that. Mommy, save me.' She grinned, then, and turned towards him, and he could see that half her face was burned off, the skin melted and cracked to reveal the cooked muscle and scorched bone beneath. 'Mommy, where are you. I can't see. Stop, please'

He would scream, then, in his dream, and sit bolt upright in his tent, utterly drenched with sweat and shaking so hard his teeth chatteredchattered like the skulls.

Mustang did not sleep much, anymore.

If I'd knownoh, god, if only I'd known

They didn't tell you about war. Not the quiet, ghost-eyed ones that had lived through it and come back. Not the civilians who'd survived it. Certainly not the arrogant, confidence-exuding recruitment officers. They didn't tell you that 'collateral damage' meant piles of corpses and knowing that you'd done itohgod, you'd killed that baby on the ground!

They didn't tell you how to deal with the guilt; they acted like you weren't supposed to have it, weren't supposed to be human, and when you shook with the pain your hands, your fire, your bullets—your fault—were causing, they just laughed and asked if you were old enough to deal with this, kid, and what did you say to that?

Did you say no, I'll never be old enough hateful enough crazy enough to deal with this and run and die like some of them did, just another number, another deserter who couldn't handle reality, the poor bastard or did you shake it off and say it's nothing really guys I'm alright and kill the old man, burn the hospital, rape the woman that suddenly looked likelooked like

No, not yours, but somebody else's sister, terrified and tortured and YOU'RE JUST ANOTHER ONE OF THEM, ohgodyou didn't mean tooh, no

Roy dropped to his knees on the sand-covered concrete, retching, but he hadn't been able to keep anything in his stomach for days—save for the alcohol he'd been throwing back shots of, one after another, so he could continue to function—and nothing came out. Nothing but a strangled cry, brutally forced through a screen of held-back tears.

They'd held a picture in their hands, a little girlwhat right do I have to tears when they all should be for her

He leaned forward and tugged his gloves off, shoving them in his pockets and gingerly touching the dark spot on the floor, as though he expected it to burn him. When it didn't, he sat back on his heels and squeezed his eyes shut.

No, it's right. Fire's too good for me.

Standing, he drew his gun from its holster and looked at it, dark metal gleaming red in the waning light.

I'm not he thought, and pressed the muzzle against his throat. Never again.