"So tell me about yourself," he said, moving to light the cigarette.
And I lived the free life of a rover
From the Murray's green basin to the dusty outback
I waltzed my Matilda all over
Outside, sand was rattling against the tent-flaps. A storm had howled up to accompany nightfall, and was raking the encampment in long dry heaves. No rain here. Hughes missed it. Rain was benign, sometimes even a blessing: this bitter tempest of wind and sand made it feel like the earth itself was attacking them.
It didn't help that he was hundreds of miles from home—and his new girlfriend—with a standoffish whelp of a sergeant for his sole companion. On long campaigns, the military tended to bunk its personnel two-per-tent, with one superior and one subordinate officer each. All else was random: Hughes, as a strategist, would never see action, while his bunkmate was scheduled to go into battle tomorrow. The idea was that the younger officer would learn from the older.
It seemed to him that the only lesson the subordinates learned was how to give lip.
But he endured it, quietly. It was perhaps a more valuable learning experience for him. His children, when he had them, would be nineteen someday. Dealing with sergeant major Roy Mustang was good practice.
Case in point. Hughes hadn't put the cigarette to his lips when the boy, with a smug smile but no words, offhandedly snapped his fingers. The end of the cigarette flared ostentatiously to life. Hughes ripped it away from his face; a moment later half the stick was gone, dissolved into grey charcoal.
The boy fixed his smile on Hughes. "There's your answer," he said. "Fire."
Hughes shook the cigarette irately. "That wasn't my question, lieutenant."
The boy shrugged. "But that's what you really wanted to know." He leaned back and rummaged in his duffel-bag, withdrawing a well-polished silver watch. He dangled it between them, but Hughes didn't need a second look to know what it was. In fact, he'd known for a long time. Intelligence officers have to be perceptive, and the first thing Hughes had registered about his new companion was that he carried the symbol of a state alchemist.
"I know how things work, sir," the boy continued, laying the watch across his lap. "What's important in the military. You don't have to couch things in small talk." He glanced wryly down at it. "This is what everyone wants to know about. So there you go: my talent is fire."
Hughes did not follow his gaze. He studied the boy, nonplussed. It was true: he had been curious. Who wasn't? The military alchemists were a cult within a cult, freakishly elite, and the rumors concerning them were endless. Hughes had always wanted to meet one, not to confirm any of the stories—most were too wild for his sensibility—but to determine if they were also separated by some emotional quality, some inner strength of character or, alternatively, a fragility that offset their physical genius.
After three days of bunking with Roy, he had already decided that alchemists were just as human as everybody else. Or at least that their teenage breed was just as unassailable and exhausting. But he had also noticed that there was something else there, too, something in Roy which did not quite fit the stereotypic self-centered teenager attitude.
The boy had noticed that Hughes did not seem interested in the watch. It was his turn to look puzzled. "I don't generally have to make a circle," he ventured uncertainly, as if offering more information would satisfy his commanding officer. "These gloves I'm wearing have a circle sewed on, and flint inside. So I just focus my energy to the circle, snap, and the flint ignites. I can control the flame without the circle." His face twitched at a smile. He was obviously proud of his ability.
Hughes shook his head. Sighing, he lay a hand on the boy's shoulder and met his eyes steadily. "Sergeant, that's still not what I asked."
Roy's eyes darkened, but a smile inexplicably bloomed beneath them. "Damn, you intelligence guys are persistent. I guess the general was right." He sighed himself, then leaned back out of Hughes's reach to stretch indolently against the taut tent-fabric. When he spoke, he didn't look at Hughes. "All right, I'll give you the important stuff. My damage. I have to say I'm pretty good." The smile stretched, but the eyes didn't change. "If I really exert, I can bring down one platoon in one shot. Three-fourths of one if they're cavalry. That's without materials—if you give me ready fuel, like the coal in a coal-car, for example, I could take out the whole train. I've never done guerilla fighting before, but judging from the size of these cities, I could probably burn a building with enough time. Our position in a desert is particularly advantageous. I don't function well when it rains." As he spoke, his voice gradually fell in tone and emotion, from the uppity boasting of an ambitious teenager to the articulate flatness of a mechanic reading gun statistics. He let his eyes wander to the door of the tent, beyond which squatted the city they must attack, besieged by the sand.
Hughes blinked. The boy had misinterpreted him again, but it was not the mistake of a teenager. Or rather, it was not a natural mistake. He winced as if he'd just tasted something sour. "Roy—"
The boy cut him off authoritatively. "I'm getting to it." Now his voice was quieter, confident but confidential. "The most important thing." He turned away from Ishbal to gaze unblinkingly at Hughes, as if to emphasize the gravity of the information he was about to relay. "The red water. I don't know its effect on my abilities yet, but according to Colonel Marco, it amplifies natural alchemy at least tenfold. Applied to me, this means I could extend both the range and the intensity of my flame. At its greatest strength, my fire could consume that entire city. And there are more of us. I believe that ten alchemists, working under the influence of the red water, could suppress this entire rebellion within two days." He was not smiling now. "Major, we are going to win this war."
The boy fell silent, easing back against the tent-fabric. He had nothing more important to relate.
Hughes, for his part, could only stare at Roy speechlessly. He had sensed something massively perverted in their exchange, but could not identify what it was. All he knew was that he suddenly pitied Roy, moreso for the fact that Roy did not know enough to pity himself.
Roy, meanwhile, had taken the silence as proof that he had satisfied his officer's request. Shrugging off his outer coat, he lay down atop his sleeping bag, propped up his duffel as a pillow, and turned on his side, facing outwards, away from Hughes. He gave a large yawn and a long, spidery stretch, his gangly nineteen-year-old limbs brushing the sides of their small tent. Then he was still.
And Hughes sat there, smoking his half-gone cigarette, watching the boy sleep, and wishing his breathing were not so mechanical.
... that's not what I asked you...
It's time to stop rambling 'cause there's work to be done
So they gave me a tin hat and they gave me a gun
And they sent me away to the war
And the band played Waltzing Matilda
As our ship pulled away from the quay
And amidst all the cheers, flag-waving, and tears
We sailed off to Gallipoli
"Of course I had no parents. Who joins the military that has a family? Hah. Sorry, Maes—no, you don't count, you got the job before the wife. Anyway, it isn't totally true. I lived with my grandfather until I was twelve. We lived in the north, on the edges of the Black Forest. Yes, thin sunlight up there, that's why I'm so pale. Actually I'm just drunk a lot. Hah, hah! Oh lay off, you're drunk too. No, it's not always my fault.
You should really blame it on my grandfather. He raised me drinking. He was a war veteran himself. Remember in the academy we learned about the invasions of the 1800's? Right, those. He was a general. Headed the entire Southern front. Never let me forget it, either. I must have gotten the Gallipoli story five hundred times. God. I was so bored of him, I didn't know what it meant then. God.
... No, Maes, I'm fine. Bartender, can you get me another vodka? On my tab. Thanks. No, I told you, I'm fine. Don't ever tell Elysia any war stories, ok? Right, I know you know that. Anyway. He was a general, and he raised me like his soldier. It was good training, I guess. What? No, no. He never taught me to use a gun. God! He wasn't violent like that. Just... efficient. I didn't need a gun anyway, he knew that, realized it early on.
That's right. Didn't take long to discover a fire-talent in the tundra! Hah, hah. He didn't army train me at first. Just made me do things, light the stove, melt a path through the snow, thaw out our clothes. To fine-tune my control, you know? And all that time he kept telling me how useful it was, how useful I was. It felt good. I liked being useful... yeah, good point, I guess I still do. Sort of. Because useful is the only real virtue, isn't it? Him and the military.
Yes, he was a general through and through and through... dammit, this vodka goes so fast. Pricey shit, too, do you think it's ok for another? Huh, why not? Come on, I'll even split the tab with you. What? Right, sorry Maes. Stop being so damn sober all of a sudden. I'm telling.
Fine, so one day the scout came, like he always does, told the general I'd make a great state alchemist. But the general already knew that, he'd known it, and he'd made me know it too. Sat right there and let the scout butter me up, so much so I promised him I'd go to central and take the test and enlist. General had planned it all along, that sneaky bastard. I think I knew it then too.
But I went anyway. Signed up and passed and they gave me a watch and a name and I even enlisted for service that same day.
... Why? Well why did you enlist? Hah hah, thought so. No, sorry, I didn't mean that that way, Maes. It's just very you. So how patriotic were you at the start? ... Me neither. No, I didn't really want to fight. Not in the sense that fighting's fun, I mean. I just wanted to do something. Something useful, you know. Be something. Right, Maes, all that I can be. Hah hah! I was, wasn't I? Once. Highlight of my career. Military fucking glory. I wonder if I'll get old and tell my kids about Ishbal like the general told me about Gallipoli, brag 'bout what a good little tool I was, tell 'em how old grampa Roy took out an entire city all by himself, all those people with just one snap, didn't even have to shoot the poor bastards, I was that good, just click and burn and burn and burn, just like a lighter, hah hah hah... God. God.
Shut up, Maes. I'll tell you when I've had enough."
How the blood stained the sand and the water
And how in that hell that they called Suvla Bay
We were butchered like lambs at the slaughter
And the band played Waltzing Matilda
While we stopped to bury our slain
We buried ours and the Turks buried theirs
Then we started all over again
Now those that were left, well we tried to survive
In a mad world of blood, death and fire
And for ten weary weeks I kept myself alive
While around me the corpses piled higher
Then a big Turkish shell knocked me arse over head
And when I woke up in my hospital bed
And saw what it had done, I wished I was dead
He couldn't stand to look at the landscape below. Literally: the flame, urged down the hill by the desert-born wind, had settled in the valley like a predator and there consumed itself, and beneath the rubble, its masochistic heat had melted the sand-packed streets into shimmering webs of glass. They sluggishly threw back the glow of the sinking sun, and flickered with the glimmers the remaining flames still etched across the clouds. The glare was too bright for human eyes. Between them, like boulders in a mire, the tortured buildings hulked. Their windows were black with soot or darkness.
There was no movement.
He felt a hand on his shoulder.
He neither turned nor responded. The silence in the blackened windows captivated him. The fire's hunger had sucked the oxygen from the buildings, robbing them of the air into which humans speak. All that remained was a black pool of smoke, like an oil spill.
"Here, Roy." He felt something pressed into his left hand. He closed his fingers on three metal pips, cold despite the warmth of the hand that gave them.
"Congratulations, major," said Hughes softly. "You outrank me now."
It would be the only time in his life that Roy Mustang was not be happy to receive a promotion.
War was hell, and hell was fire.
Roy stood on the hill with the silver in his hand and felt like Judas.
"Roy, man, what is all this junk?" Hughes began to clear himself a little oasis of standing room. The papers he swept away were covered in sprawling geometric arrays; as he removed them, he found that the floor was tatooed with similar designs.
Roy mumbled something through a yawn. He picked his way across the room, making scrupulously sure not to disturb the mess.
"These look like arrays."
The major smiled blearily. "That's because they are." He glanced uninterestedly at the sprawl. "And they're taboo, too. Oh, well, they're actually illegal." He sniffed, the ghost of a laugh. And smirked, as always—that was one thing that hadn't changed after Ishbal.
Hughes frowned. He knew what illegal meant, and in that sense, he understood that Roy was as law-abiding as any other member of the military. And he knew what taboo meant, knew that officers were supposed to be sober and dignified and that the major got drunk as a fish every weekend and cussed out his higher-ups in seedy bars. Roy's definitions were different. Ishbal had changed that. The legal code he adhered to had not been written by the government. Under it, taboo meant something ineluctably forbidden, something far more horrendous than a simple breach of protocol. And illegal—
Hughes was up like a shot and seizing Roy by the collar. Roy swayed, surprised, but was too tired or possibly too drunk to protest. "Listen to me," Hughes commanded. He made sure to hold Roy's eyes, as he should have done in Ishbal many years ago. "I know I don't know anything about alchemy. But you should know—you of all people!—that things are forbidden for a reason."
He knew. Hughes saw it on his face, through the numb smear of the alcohol, and let him down.
"Relax, Maes," Roy responded tamely, in that flat thick tone which meant he was too tired for cockiness. "I haven't done anything yet."
"You were going to."
Roy shrugged, burying his hands in his pockets. Hughes's anxiety eased somewhat. Roy's hands were more expressive than his face. When he hid them, it signaled defeat. "Well, I mean I did kill a lot of people. Think how good it would be if... "
"No," Hughes snapped. "It wouldn't. It was a war. It was your job."
Another sniff, this one not a laugh. Roy jerked his head away reflexively. The sick, black silence Hughes remembered from years ago was still there, cancerously alive beneath the titles, privileges, and vodka. And so, at some level, was the confused nineteen-year-old. "You weren't there."
"That's true," Hughes admitted. "Not at the battlefield. But I was a strategist, Roy. I remember. I got a desk job so I could avoid doing what you do—so I wouldn't have to regret it the way you do." He gazed sympathetically at the major's back. "I know you care. But trying to chemically resurrect your victims? That isn't the way to redeem yourself. God, Roy, that's not even right."
Roy did not turn around, but Hughes caught the wince in his shoulders. "... I know," he murmured.
Hughes frowned. He tipped over a book with his boot—it triggered an avalanche of paper that buried both his feet—and indicated the rubble savagely. "Actually, you don't. Unless all this junk is something else." He glanced back at Roy's desk, where a well-polished revolver visibly claimed the only clear space. "It's sure as hell not some elaborate suicide-ploy. If you wanted to purge yourself that way, there's a much faster method."
"Hah." Roy inclined his head over one shoulder. "Tried that one already. Realized I'm far too much of a coward. And besides, what would it fix?" He smiled sardonically. "I'd just be another useless weapon."
Hughes returned a softer smile. He felt, fleetingly, as if he were again the patient senior officer, and Roy his sulking adolescent subordinate. Only this time his pupil had learned something. "You never were a weapon, Roy. Or useless."
The major gazed at him soberly, without a word, for almost a minute. Then his face caved, and he gave a bizarre bleat which was somewhere between a sob and a laugh. "Oh, God." Drawing a long, defeated sigh, Roy pivoted to face Hughes fully. His hands were stuffed deep and almost sheepishly in his pockets. "All right, Maes. You're right. You win." As he capitulated, his smile disappeared, replaced by a harder, clearer look. "I should thank you," he said.
At that moment, Hughes could think of many, many things for which Roy owed him thanks. But he took the bait anyway. "For what?"
A different smile appeared. It was the first time Hughes had seen it, although he—and the rest of the military—would eventually learn to characterize Roy by its presence. It was at once brash and sage, and behind it, like fire-shadow, flickered an archness tempered by experience. If an older Hughes had seen that smile, he would not have been surprised that Roy made no attempt to answer his question. No obvious attempt, at least.
"Actually, Maes, I've also thought up a third plan for redeeming myself. I think you'll like it."
Hughes raised an eyebrow.
"Let's hear it, Roy."