Roy was naked on his knees long after midnight, shivering in his underheated apartment and watching the spiders spin webs in the corners, with chalk from smudged circles and dried paint the color of blood staining his shins, with a splinter under one toe, with tears trickling hot from his eyes, but he barely even noticed he was weeping.
Half the apple pie was still on a cracked plate on the window sill, covered with a bowl so it didn't go stale before tomorrow, because it was all he had in the house. After Hughes had left, he'd shredded the basket, squinting at complex arrays, envisioning the flow of power around, in, out, through, beyond, taking human form, breathing human life to the bones of the dead. Knowing he wouldn't dare do it, no more than he'd dare kill himself. Knowing he'd rather strive for the impossible in his own living world. He didn't even notice how his hands worked nervously over the cheap wicker, tugging it apart, until it was in pieces, his wrists sore, his fingers bruised. He was hungry, but he didn't want anymore pie, and there was nothing else. He was tired, his back aching from bending over books and floorboards. Mostly, he didn't care.
Then, sitting there, he'd begun to rebraid the shreds of the basking, twisting them together at random, fibers tearing at his skin. Half past nine, when Hughes and anybody else respectable would be readying for bed, it resembled a rope. Quarter to midnight, when the night guard would be changing at headquarters, it had become a sheath of torn strands, damp from his sweat and even a little blood. I'm going to be Fuhrer, he thought, alarm bells ringing constant in his mind because he'd barely slept in the week since leaving Ishbal. I'm going to be Fuhrer, and what he'd made, he thought, resembled a whip, but he didn't understand why it had come from his hands.
And then Hughes had come back.
"I couldn't sleep," he'd explained, one hand rubbing his eyes with the lassitude of a late night, misbuttoned shirt hanging crinkled from his shoulders. "Thinking of you here like this. God, Roy, planning to be Fuhrer is one thing, but that's not going to get you out of here if you don't pull yourself together."
Roy watched him as if he was very far away, on the other side of plate glass, voice through a tinny gramophone, nobody he had to answer to, distant warmth.
"I haven't left Ishbal," he said finally, mouth like dried cotton, words dead without meaning. "You've got to help me leave Ishbal."
Help me wake up, he used to slur at Hughes when they were too drunk to think straight. Get me out of this mess, it's all blurry, wake me the fuck up so I'm here and now, because here and now meant naked with all his skin pressed against the warm length of the other man's body, here and now meant squirming, begging, burning aroused with teeth at his nipple, mouth at his cock, fingers at his ass. Hughes liked to work him over when he was far, far gone, liked to make him scream when he came that he was alive, far and away from all those godforsaken rules and arrays, alive.
But now, now he wasn't drunk, just still smelling wildfire in the desert, still tasting the fat round his lips from roasted corpses, and Hughes was touching him with a sort of uncertain, desperate devotion that was entirely new and meant that both of them were far too sober and utterly unhappy. He wasn't hard in the least, and Hughes' fingers skated uncertain down his back after his clothes had all hit the floor.
"Roy," Hughes murmured, "please, tell me what's going on."
"They gave me a fucking medal," he croaked against his shoulder.
"I know," Hughes said, as gently as he could.
"I didn't want it. They shouldn't have. They—I—" he clutched at familiar arms, soft hair pressed against his skin, sank to his knees, buried his face against the side of Hughes' leg, smelling old worn trousers he must have thrown on in the middle of the night to come here. "Give me penance," he whispered.
Hughes backed away, slowly. "Roy, please—"
"After what you've been through—"
"After what I did."
The ragged sheath of wicker was on the floor close to Hughes' feet, and he looked down at it, back to Roy, kneeling naked with his head bowed, archetypal tableau laid out careless amongst circles and notes for the greatest blasphemy of mankind.
"Roy, you can't possibly mean—"
"Give me penance."
They did so much, communicated so much, without words, and so it was without words, slowly and hesitantly, that Hughes understood enough, accepted enough, to pick up the sheath of bent and ragged twigs, run his hands over it, grit his teeth, walk round Roy with hastily laced shoes smudging holes in nested, gridded arrays.
"Give me penance," he whispered again, the long pale line of his back shining flawless in the gloom, and Hughes drew a deep breath, let it out, snapped the twigs down to score scratches along his skin, and Roy didn't flinch, didn't tell him not to, and after another long while Hughes set his jaw and started beating him in earnest, eyes narrowed behind shining-mirror glasses, arm rising higher and higher as Roy sagged under the blows, trusting somehow that he'd know when he'd gone too far.
The bent and torn wicker, battered kindling, burned, scything like wildcat claws across his skin, hammering at muscles long knotted to stone, boiling blood until everything from his shoulders to his thighs was angry, glowing red. Pain pounded in his ears, remorseless, not in the least sensual—which he'd feared, asking the man he loved to beat him as he knelt naked at his feet, because it couldn't enjoy it, that would be wrong, this wasn't meant to be enjoyed. For a while, he bit everything back; then he gave up and started screaming, and heard, from very far away, Hughes swear under his breath.
"Don't stop," he choked out, because he was burning yellow, white, incandescent, because every time Hughes scored over a place he'd already been the terrible spike of pain almost shorted out the part of him that couldn't forget wide red eyes and wider red firestorms, and his knees and back buckled and he caught his weight on his hands, and skin stretched tight over all the welts and scratches on his ass, and the next blow there was agony, and he deserved it, he deserved it, he deserved it...
Hughes was an angel, Hughes was a god, because by a miracle he knew that he should stop not when he bled, not when he screamed, but when he began to cry. Sobs choked up his breathing and heaved his scorched and burning back, but when Hughes walked back before him and crouched and whispered his name, that made it better, not by much because he didn't deserve much, but better enough. Hughes reached out with his free hand and cupped the side of his face, thumbed away tears, and there they were still for an age, tableau again, until Roy whispered, exhausted and fervent, "Thank you."
Hughes stood and looked away for a long while, his expression turned inwards, a crease between his eyebrows, one hand on his face with the pretense, perhaps, of pushing his glasses up, but lingering like he wanted to hide behind it instead. "Roy," he said quietly, and dropped the cracking wicker mess, and Roy noticed there was already a promise ring on one long, knobby finger.
"Get back to her," he said quietly. "Leave me here, I'll be fine now. Get back to her."
And, somehow, sooner than he thought he'd dare, Hughes left.
He closed his eyes, there alone on the floor as the wee hours wore on and the pain slowly faded, and the flames sprung up high behind his eyelids, as they had since that endless night in the East, but as tears seeped out they diminished, dying, leaving behind a wasteland of fertile black ash.