It was, perhaps, an hour to dawn. The desert finches were starting to sing—those few who were left in the scrawny trees clinging to hillsides far, far from the craters where cities had been. The moon was long since set; the stars burned cloudless bright between the settlements, where the smoke wasn't as dense. Night breeze blew in fits and spurts, fresh and cool and carrying hints of gunsmoke and broken earth, acrid bite of explosives, ozone stink of alchemy. And fire. Always fire. Faint noises in the far distance, the dim, seething pain of a country torn by a war it had lost, irrevocably, hours ago with the first strike to the capital.
Roy, limp-shouldered and jostling in the truck as it hauled over dunes and jagged-paved tracks, was shaking with exhaustion; his eyes were heavy-lidded and crusted, his movements hesitant, his steps slow when they sent him out. But did it matter, really, how weak and defenseless he might be? All he needed was a glove and the grinding of fingertips. He was invincible, untouchable, the great human weapon in the long red hours of the decisive night. He had lost track ten minutes in of how many people he must have killed. He was, they said, a hero.
He was sick to his stomach. He thought he might be going mad.
Another rocky drive, another settlement. The caravan pulled up, Lieutenant Biggs at the head grumbled and rubbed his eyes and said, "Well, then," and Roy just turned and walked out alone. He needed no escort. Half the soldiers were asleep in the seats, and though he technically outranked them, could have had them jumping to formation, it didn't matter. Nobody else needed to come. The little town looked empty, curtains over mud-brick entrances ajar. Wind stirred ragged cloth. That house right there, he thought, that house he stumbled by, foreign boots shuffling in the sand—a family lived in that house, walked in and out that door for years. Somebody carved that lintel. Somebody plastered those walls. Somebody's toys are lying in the corner. And that one. And that one.
All he had to do was snap his fingers. Again. Again in this endless night of terror.
His face was slick, not with sweat, but with droplets of fat, condensed out of the smoke. Human fat, burnt off rangy Ishbalan bodies. It clung to his skin; he tried, again and again, to wipe it on the sleeve of his trenchcoat, leaving long greasy streaks, but it never went away, and there was always more to find him in the next cloud, the next wind blowing off the next town of charred corpses. When he licked his lips in the dry desert night it tingled on his tongue. It made him want to fall to his knees and throw up. It made him want to wipe it off with his gloves, let the spark catch it, let it burn his hands off. But he was, in the end, an obedient soldier and a coward.
When the flames died, this time late in this little town near the mountains, there was a woman.
He blinked, snapped. Flames crashed and vanished; grease beaded on his chin.
There was still a woman.
He laughed. That was it, he had snapped. Should he make like Kimberly now, incinerate his own men, run for the hills? What would his voice sound like, ringing out in cold laughter amongst broken buildings?
He snapped. The fireball was blue-hot; stone walls melted; slag smoldered after the flames died. But there was still a woman.
Somebody was laughing. She was laughing, soft and icy. He snapped; she stopped; but then, after a moment, she was laughing.
She came towards him, indomitable, heels crunching in the smoldering cinders. He'd stumbled out of view of the caravan. Biggs was probably dozing at the wheel, nobody on watch, and drifting clouds of smoke distorted voices, swallowed cries. Nobody would come if he screamed. She raised hands with lizard palms. Her breasts were cold amongst the flame, the stamp of immortality nestled between them. I was a woman of Ishbal, she whispered. I was a woman of Ishbal.
But her eyes weren't red, not like the others. She wouldn't burn. Not like the others He'd incinerated half her country; who could walk out of the holocaust now? The angel of vengeance, the first of the furies upon his head?
He stumbled to his knees, cheek brushing the silky fabric of her dress, the coiled strength of her thigh. Was it fat he smelled or her cunt? Had she kissed him, licked the grease off his lips with serpent tongue? The Stone flickered on his hand; she raised it in hers, smiled. A soldier at a massacre, she whispered, or might have—don't you have the biggest hard-on of your life right now? Cool hands over the fly of his pants, perhaps? Cool hands sliding over his balls, there in the smoldering and empty and endless night, even as he begged her not to touch him?
Grease repels water, fresh or salty; where, he wondered, might his tears fall now?
Later, after dawn, when they brought him back half-conscious and mumbling as if in fever to field headquarters, the military doctors attributed his breakdown to exhaustion and overwork, chided Gran for pushing his alchemists so far in one night. Gran himself, man of iron, was unharmed, unchanged. But Kimberly was renegade and rampaging, Armstrong comatose with shell-shock, Marcoh AWOL. By contrast, by contrast, his own confusion was nothing.
He told himself he'd hallucinated it all. People didn't walk out of fire. Nobody had touched him. Nobody had freed the erection he hadn't had from pants spattered with grease and sand. There had to be ways of staying sane. The firestorm was bad enough; it had to be real, he'd worn the proof on his skin, he'd seen the proof in the survey photos of the morning after, the endless charred remnants of Ishbal. But the woman—the rational mind bucked, refused to believe. She wasn't possible. She wasn't real. She couldn't be.
It was only years later, when the Fuhrer reformed out of sheeting flame, that he thought that, just maybe, she was.