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Waking Man


In the desert of Ishbal Roy had never expected a winter chill that could make a blade of the wind, but after a brief autumn it had come and on this night cut to the bone. Rather than stay close to the fire with the rest of his company Roy billeted in a house damaged by explosions and mortar fire, alone. It leaned, jogged several inches off its foundation, but the walls were intact, thick, and they blocked the wind, even though the windows gaped open, glassless. It was a sweeping view, and Roy could not look away from the twisted bones of stone and dusty mortar that used to be buildings, charred shapes reaching to grasp a red sunset.

"You can't keep the sun from setting," said Hughes.

Roy had intended to billet alone, but Hughes had followed. Roy ignored him. He watched instead a rat run along the gutter across the street and disappear into the shadows that grew quickly as the sun sank and hid the ruin. Ishbal's blind nights eased the greasy remorse that had churned his stomach for days even as it pressed fatigue upon him. To himself he said aloud, "It's almost bearable at night."

"If you like cold and wind and dark, and I know you don't."

Roy turned away from the dark outside the window and glanced at Hughes sprawled on the floor, back against the wall. "And you're an expert on what I like and don't like?"

"I don't like to brag, but," he said, and buffed his nails on his jacket.

A soft noise escaped Roy, a vibration in his throat that might have been disapproval or might have been agreement. He wasn't sure himself.

"Sit down before you fall down and freeze. No," said Hughes, "sit down before I freeze." He patted the floor next to him.

In answer Roy slipped a flask from his inner breast pocket and, with deliberate movements, unscrewed the top and raised it, nearly full, to his mouth and tipped his head back. His closed eyes watered as vodka burned down his throat and radiated in his empty gut.

Hughes didn't often frown. "That won't last long."

Roy wiped his mouth with the back of his hand, slid his empty flask into his breast pocket and sat. Hughes had brought a military-issue blanket that slowed the cold stone from bleeding heat out of their backsides too quickly. He hunkered close as soon as Roy settled, and then complained about the hard floor, the cold, the dust, until Roy said, "Why the hell did you follow me out here? The company's got a fire. You could have bunked with the rest of them. Get something to eat."

"And miss all this?" Hughes aligned his left side to Roy's right, from shoulders to ankles, and made a scornful sound. "We'll be lucky if supplies come in before tomorrow, and I'd have to put up with all the snoring and farting while I waited."

There was no reply to that, and their shared warmth slowly penetrated his uniform as vodka heated Roy from within until the combination relaxed muscles held at rigid attention for days. Eventually Hughes spoke again, as if in response to himself. "Peace and quiet are almost as good as food." Given the day they'd had—given the entire stupid bloody war they'd had—Roy thought it about time Hughes sounded discouraged. He felt mean, thinking that, but he thought it anyhow; then he felt worse when Hughes continued. "Maybe you've got the right idea. A little amnesia . . . " He cleared his throat and drew a breath as if he would continue, but didn't, and then he sighed and said, "Well."

Roy dropped his chin to his chest, cupped the back of his neck with his palm and muttered, "I have another flask." He expected a holier-than-thou attitude, a lecture or smart-ass remark, but Hughes asked, "More of that rotgut vodka?"

"Whiskey."

Hughes huffed little breaths like ghosts from his mouth, hah, hah, as if testing the air, and then held out his right hand. Roy lifted his hip, dug the flask from his back pocket and gave it to him, both of them careful to remain huddled. The heat seeping into his side made the rest of him seem colder, though, and Roy considered walking around the room to get warm by his own means. He hadn't asked Hughes to follow him in the first place. He could walk to warm himself and call it a bit of sentry duty for a good soldier, but there was little point to his fiction. The entire block had been sterilized to reopen supply lines cut for days, swept clean of barricades and insurgents, of horses and automobiles and people. Swept clean of everything except rats and rubble. And Hughes was a big guy; he generated respectable heat. Why get up at all.

Amnesia and body heat. It was almost pleasant, certainly a better option than staggering around the room. He knew well enough that Hughes would bitch if he rolled away and stood, and a sarcastic voice in his head wondered if, after two days of hunger and all that vodka, he could get to his feet without help. He damn sure had no desire to be bitched at or, more likely, smugly mocked, so he slowly slumped into Hughes, who drank Roy's whiskey in contemplative sips.

Hughes, thought Roy. Before Ishbal he'd called his friend Maes. Easier to be friends, before. Before Ishbal. Before the war. Easy to call him Maes, but he was so familiar as not to need a name—there whenever Roy turned, sometimes beside him, sometimes a step behind, remembered best on a parade ground, always alert and almost always smiling. Small smile on the corner of his mouth, a toothy smirk or a simple warm curve: mirth always ready to explode at a moment's notice—it embarrassed Roy, who held his emotions close. But it was balance, too, Maes' joy sparking off his flinty silence. His father accused him of being sullen; a teacher said he brooded; a girlfriend once described him as intense; but Maes never paid attention to any of Roy's moods. Even when alchemy was the singular thing that separated them, Maes would lounge on Roy's couch while Roy studied, bouncing a ball against the wall and catching it, ka-dumt, ka-dumt until Roy couldn't concentrate on anything except making him stop somehow; but Maes wasn't easy to boss around no matter what their relative rank, and he became a fixture as expected and constant as Roy's desk, providing a heartbeat the entire year Roy studied for the State Alchemists exam. Ka-dumt, ka-dumt.

Roy tripped on the sound and slid under memory into a dream of his old dorm room with Maes on his couch bouncing that damned ball. Roy closed his alchemy book with a snap, stood over Maes and glowered. Maes looked up, smirking until Roy put his hands on his shoulders, straddled his legs, and pushed him back, pushed him flat and held him down with his hips. Roy shuddered, heat flaring in his face, chest, gut, and groin even as his back shuddered with cold because the window was open wide, letting into his dorm room a chill that smelled like concrete and dust, and Maes must have let the ball roll away for his hands were on Roy's face, but Roy heard it still, a muffled, steady pulse, even as Maes said into his mouth, "And everyone thinks you're the smart one."

Roy woke with Hughes' hand on his face, saying, "C'mon, wake up. The temperature's dropping. It's too cold to sleep here."

"I'm awake," he slurred, and lifted his head. He'd fallen asleep draped on Hughes' chest, his leg crooked over Hughes'. He tried to push up, but his right arm had fallen asleep, a dead weight, and for once he came to the conclusion there were some struggles best lost. He surrendered and laid his head back down on Hughes' chest.

"Get up," Hughes said. He shoved at Roy, trying to prop him upright, but Roy felt plastic, formless, and though he'd been pushed up to sitting, he still rested his head on Hughes' shoulder. Hughes shrugged, trying to dislodge him. "You'll freeze. It's getting colder—look at my breath," and he huffed for effect.

"I miss parading at Central," said Roy. "I used to think it was a waste of time, but damn. I'd give anything to be standing on the grass. Green grass."

"You're a sentimental drunk," said Hughes. He looked down at Roy as Roy looked up.

Green grass, always there, Roy thought and was ashamed even as he clutched his sentimentality close. Aloud he said, "On the grass, green grass always summer." Hughes made noises of agreement as he continued his efforts to chivvy Roy off until Roy covered his eyes with his forearm and said, "Maes? I don't want any more days like today."

"I—" He stopped trying to dislodge Roy. "Yeah."

"I never thought," Roy's voice cracked, "that killing for the state would be harder than dying for it."

Hughes drew in a long breath and let it out slowly. "Who knew what to expect?"

"I thought I knew."

"Sorry, Roy," and he could hear the smile in Hughes' voice, "you're just as lost as the rest of us." He folded Roy closer, and Roy felt dizzy, weepy, and absurdly grateful, something he would never admit to Hughes or anyone. He could have slept again, real sleep, dreamless and restoring, but Hughes warned him again to get up, move, find the fire. Roy replied, "I'm too drunk to go back."

"You'll freeze if you don't get moving."

"I won't be seen like this."

"I won't let them see." Hughes heaved with more effort and freed himself. He climbed stiffly to his feet and offered his hand. "Trust me. I know how to do this."

"Do what? Invent instant sor—sobriety? Distract everyone? Hell," Roy said, "survive the war?"

"No, just survive you." He sounded more affectionate than annoyed. "I don't suppose you can make bricks burn. No? Then we got to back to the fire." He gripped both Roy's hands and hauled him up, unsteady but standing.

Hughes' warm hands lingered on his. Roy flushed, not from the vodka this time. He regretted every drop, though, and tried to pull away. "I'll just walk it off. You go get warm."

Hughes held on tight and said dryly, "For a lone wolf, you don't do very well at all by yourself, do you."

"Apparently not," muttered Roy, and Maes' support was a surprise, though it shouldn't have been; he could hardly remember a time when Maes wasn't there. Roy just hadn't expected to need it. He hadn't anticipated a lot of things in this war, but they'd happened anyway.