War changed people, he knew that. He had read the histories, the accounts, even talked to the older officers, those with weathered faces and friendly eyes that turned dark and distant when asked about the action they had seen. War was a trial of fire where every day gave you matters of life and death, and logically he knew it would be impossible to enter such an extreme situation and come out from it unscathed. As a result, Lieutenant Colonel Roy Mustang had come to the East and the Ishbal Rebellion unflinching, accepting and prepared for the fact that when he returned he would be a different person. He would be sadder and quieter, perhaps, or a little colder, perhaps even a little crueller. Certainly he expected to come out of the experience a stronger person. What he had not anticipated was this; sitting in a corner of his tent shaking like a child, a bottle of banned liquor in his right hand and the chains of his silver watch digging viciously into the palm of the other. It was probably that pain which was keeping him from actually breaking down; unfortunately, it was nowhere near enough to wipe his mind blank. That was what the alcohol was for.
There was a burst of gunfire outside, not the rapid fire of an automatic, but the regular, calculated crack of a handgun. Roy squeezed his eyes shut and greedily lifted the bottle to his lips, feeling his eyes water as the alcohol burned all the way down his throat. It was starting to take effect, finally; his head felt light and the low chair was beginning to sway as if it were a saddle on a python, but the part of him that he most wanted the alcohol to drown, the memory of the two people he had shot in the clinic today, that stubbornly resisted all attempts to be dulled. It seemed to have seared itself into the very flesh of his brain, and all the alcohol managed to do was make it burn further.
Roy rested his forehead on his fists, biting his lip. Killing soldiers and rebels was one thing; they were combatants, people who had willingly picked up a weapon to fight with. He had faced them in battle from the very onset of this war, and suffered little crisis of conscience over what he had done to them. After all, they had been doing their best to see him dead, and everything his blue uniform stood for. Not like that physician couple. They hadn’t cared what uniform their patients were wearing when they arrived at their clinic. Neither had they been trying to hurt anyone. Not like him. He had pointed his handgun at their heart as they had stood backed against a wall. The woman’s eyes had been blue, he remembered with sickening clarity. He had found himself trying to speak to them, trying to make his own eyes tell her that no, he didn’t want to do this, that really he was nothing more than a dog of the military, and that none of this was his fault. He had imagined that he had seen something almost pitying in her eyes, as if she knew and understood what he was trying to communicate. In a way, it made things worse.
She had been the one he shot first. He hadn’t even thought about it. The impact had made her stumble backwards into the arms of her husband before she crumpled lifeless onto the floor. Her husband had looked as if he couldn’t believe it initially, crouching by her side and shouting her name before reality hit and he looked up at Roy. There had been no pity in his eyes, only terror and revulsion and other things so agonizing that before he knew it, Roy had fired the gun twice again as if in self-defence. Both shots hit the man full in the chest, and between one moment and the next, he too was lying at Roy’s feet. The trigger had been disgustingly easy to pull.
Roy shuddered. The execution had been horrible, even more so than using that damned Philosopher’s Stone to annihilate whole blocks with a snap of his fingers. At least doing in that he hadn’t had to see any of the people who had undoubtedly died in those blasts … he lifted the bottle again, pouring its contents into his mouth. He must have poured it too quickly for he began to choke, coughing violently. It loosened his death grip on his watch, which swung like a pendulum into the chair leg as he crouched over himself feeling as if he was going to cough his lungs out. Damnit, he had come to this war to fight armed rebels, not shoot physicians in cold blood like so much cattle—
Heavy boots outside jolted his attention. Roy blinked bleary eyes for a moment, wondering what was going on, before realising there was a shadow on the walls of his tent and that having alcohol in camp quarters when there was a war going on was grounds for severe disciplinary action. Somehow he managed to bundle the half-empty bottle under his cot and straighten his coat. “What is—” he began. Good god, was that his voice? He cleared his throat and tried again. “What is it?”
“Lieutenant McKay, reporting,” responded the shadow outside. “I have a message from General Gran for Lieutenant Colonel Mustang.”
If he concentrated very, very hard, Roy found that he could stand up. A little more effort and he could walk. Slowly he managed to walk over and open the tent-flap a small fraction; hopefully the lieutenant wouldn’t notice the smell of alcohol on his breath. “What message?” he asked.
It had gotten dark outside, he was surprised to note. Ignoring the sounds of gunfire and hurrying men and vehicles coming from all around, the lieutenant held out a sealed envelope. “Here, sir.”
Roy hesitated. The lieutenant’s hand didn’t waver. Finally Roy took it. “Thank you.” The lieutenant saluted, then marched away. Stumbling back into his tent, Roy sat heavily on his cot and ripped the envelope open. He pulled out the heavy parchment inside, read it—
General Basque Gran congratulates Lieutenant Colonel Roy Mustang for his efforts in neutralising the traitors, Ishbal collaborators Doctor Rockwell and wife— Roy scrunched up the parchment and hurled it viciously away. His gloves lay nearby; snatching up one Roy dragged it sharply over the surface of the wooden fold-up table and caught the spark that resulted. The parchment burst into flame. As it curled up and crumbled, Roy put his hands over his face and tried to stop himself from shaking.
Dog of the military.
He had to get out.
* * *
A beautiful red and gold glow licked the city skyline, as if the sunset that had occurred several hours ago had been caught and made to hold still. The glow was dancing. It danced over silhouettes of buildings, danced around vehicles, and it danced with people, jerking them around in twisted contortions and making them leap and run in mindless trails until they fell down, as if they had danced themselves to complete and utter exhaustion.
Roy wondered whose division would end up with the unenviable task of cleaning up the bodies.
The road was dark. Roy looked around tiredly, trying to remember just why exactly he was out here again and what had driven him then continued walking. His boots were scraping against the road, a regular harsh pulse. Probably doing hell to the leather; he’d have to take of that later. It didn’t do for a Lieutenant Colonel’s uniform to look shabby. Then again, neither was it acceptable for a Lieutenant Colonel to be wandering around dark back streets, an empty liquor bottle in hand. Right now, however, Roy didn’t give a shit. Let him be seen and found, let him be called up for disciplinary action and maybe court martialed, hell, let the Generals kick him out of the military if they so wanted. At this point in time, he’d thank them for it, and give them his National Alchemist watch on a cake. If he knew how to make a cake, of course.
It occurred to Roy then that he was drunk, and given current circumstance, drunk was not a good thing to be. For starters, he was in a war-zone, and there was always the chance some guerrilla rebel could take a pot-shot at him. Which was unlikely to happen; this district of the city was one of the earliest to fall under military control, and those wearing the blue uniform had been able to walk in complete safety here for quite some time now. No, the more immediate danger to Roy at the moment was the being drunk meant he didn’t have enough water. Given his particular talent in alchemy, a regular intake of water was important – one of the side effects of constantly having flames and explosions going off around you were that you became dehydrated very quickly. Roy’s lips were cracked, and the skin of his face felt dry and itchy. He felt like a desiccated corpse.
Some still sober part of his mind pointed out that if Roy didn’t get a good drink of water soon, the next time he snapped his fingers he could very well dry himself out enough that when he smiled his skin would crack and bleed. Besides, his bottle was empty. Roy agreed with this assessment, and, without thinking, opened the first door he came across. It was unlocked, of course, all the buildings around here had broken locks from being forced open by soldiers. Stepping inside, he walked perhaps a couple of meters before he stumbled over something – a chair, by the feel of it. He was going to break his neck if he walked around here in the dark, so he felt around for the light switch, swearing under his breath all the while. He ended up walking quite a way, down a hall, perhaps, then through another door, getting more and more frustrated all the while. It was only when his fingers found the switch that he remembered all power in the neighbourhood was cut as a result of the destruction—
The light turned on.
Roy blinked unfocusedly. Unsteadily he wandered further into the room as he tried to work out what was going on. The only places in the ‘clean’ areas of the city that still had power were those where the military had moved in and fixed the power supplies, often bringing in external generators, or those buildings which had their own generators in the first place. The only buildings that would have their own generators were government buildings, or houses for the wealthy, or—
Or hospital clinics.
Roy stopped at the edge of the massive bloodstain by the wall.
The empty bottle dropped from Roy’s hand. He wanted to back away and run, but his feet wouldn’t obey him. Although the bodies had been taken away, as executioner, Roy could remember them exactly; the way the woman’s brown ponytail soaked up the blood, the two bullet holes in the back of the man’s white shirt, the photograph the man had been clutching with its smiling little girl, the shock and terror that had been in their eyes the he had pulled the trigger, once, twice, three times, his gun, his bullets, his General’s orders, his cowardice in obeying, his finger on the trigger, his arrogance in thinking he could prepare himself for warfare—
—he was drawing his handgun before he knew what he was doing, flicking away the leather holster’s restraint and yanking the weapon up to point the barrel up under his chin. His hands were shaking, hell, his whole body was shaking. It would be so easy to pull the trigger, disgustingly easy, and he would stop shaking, get out of this insane massacre the military called a war—
The voice broke through the alcohol-haze. Roy blinked, realising just what he was doing, and suddenly felt sick and very, very sober. He couldn’t lower the handgun fast enough. He spun around, eyes wild to confront the speaker. Doctor Marco looked at him sadly.
What conversation passed then Roy could barely connect to. He heard the older soldier telling him that it wasn’t his fault, that he had been only following orders, heard him with the desperation of a man who needs reassurance from someone, anyone, that his world is still something beautiful and worth continuing. He hadn’t really believed him.
“What am I going to do?” he heard himself saying desperately.
The smile the old soldier gave him then ripped the breath from his throat. “Don’t tell anyone you saw me go.”
It was only then, as the man turned to leave, that Roy realised that Marco was dressed in his heavy overcoat and holding a briefcase as if he were about to go on a journey … which he was. Before Roy could say anything, the one person who had spoken to him kindly and given him the comfort he had tried so hard to find, had walked away.
For a long moment Roy stared down the dark hallway into which Marco had disappeared, running his words over in his head and trying to burn them over the image of the people he had shot that day. Against his will, he found himself turning back to the bloodstain on the floor. The dark red was sickening, he thought. Then he choked, ran over to the corner, and promptly retched.
Later that night, much more sober, he returned to his tent where he slept the sleep of the dead. He woke to find himself much calmer and General Basque Gran in a rage over Marco’s disappearance. While assisting in the investigation to track down the researcher and the documents he had taken with him, Roy conducted himself with all the bearing of a proper military officer; cold, dutiful, and always in control of himself. As a result, no one ever suspected him of protecting a deserter.
They never did.
* * *
Colonel Roy Mustang placed the vase on his makeshift desk, carefully keeping his expression as detached as possible. Not that the child standing behind him could have seen it anyway. “A deserter?” he asked in a bored voice.
Edward didn’t reply, at least not verbally. Instead, Roy could feel the boy’s gaze trying to drill a hole in his head. Children, these days, they thought the world revolved around them and everything would somehow work to accommodate their wishes. It was amusing to go against that. Roy shrugged, ever so slightly. “I don’t know.”
There was a sound of frustration from behind him, then the stomp of short legs leaving the room. Roy smiled to himself, more for the benefit of his subordinates in the room than anything else. Once he had finished arranging his desk, however, he left to find some privacy, which turned out to be the officers' restroom.
Quietly, Roy stood in front of the mirror. He stared hard at himself, trying to remember the face he had looked into six years ago before the East Rebellion, and compare it to what he was seeing now. As he did so, he replayed that evening after the execution of the physician, the drinking, the wandering, feeling again the cold barrel of the gun beneath his chin. It was startling that he could remember that.
How had he changed since then?
The door of the restroom opened. Introspection broken, Roy looked away slightly to see Lieutenant Colonel Hughes enter. The man waved. “Yo there.”
Roy nodded. “Hughes.”
The other officer sauntered over. “Trying to get away from the Central invasion, huh? I don’t blame you – we’re quite a large party.” He laughed a little and slapped Roy on the back. Suddenly his glasses gleamed. “Hey, have I shown you the latest picture I have of Alicia? She’s three now, and bee-yoo-tiful! I have it right here—”
Roy rolled his eyes and walked away, leaving Hughes talking to thin air. It was a pointless exercise, he decided, comparing his past and present self. As long as the person he saw in the mirror was someone he could live with, he would walk forward without hesitation. And really, that was all that mattered.
“Mustang, come back! Awww, c’mon! You have got to see this picture!”
Roy smirked, already half out the door. “I’m a busy man, Hughes,” he said. “Why don’t you go find Edward? I’m sure he’ll love to hear all about Alicia. Again.”
Before Hughes could find anything to say in reply, Roy left. He had a soft smile on his face.