Whether or No

Liza met him on the battlefield, when he snapped his fingers and blew a sniper she just couldn’t reach to bloody pulp. He was barely three years older than her and already an officer, already a State Alchemist, and she thought he might expect her to be impressed by it.

Instead, she raised her gun and shot the man belly-crawling up from behind. To her surprise, he looked more sick than relieved, and he sat down hard beside her, uncaring of how the dust gathered on his legs, on the folds of his uniform. It was undignified, and she tilted her head at him and frowned.

“I’m sorry,” he said, and his smile was lopsided and tired. “It’s been a long day.”

She didn’t answer at first, and watched as his smile shifted, changed, became something almost rueful. Just when it looked as though it would drop, and he would turn away, she said, “Are you all right, sir?”

The question surprised him, she saw; his eyes widened for a moment, then relaxed. “I’m fine.” His gaze flickered to her coat, the pips on her shoulders, and he added, “Sergeant.”

She looked at him evenly, up and down — there was no blood on him, but his face was drawn, pale, with dark shadows under his eyes. “Sir. I was led to believe we wouldn’t be receiving backup from the State Alchemists in this area.”

He shrugged, leaning gingerly back against a broken-off section of wall. “Maybe you weren’t going to,” he said. The confession was here, and so were you.” His fingers rubbed together, and Liza saw a brief, bright spark between them, which was immediately snuffed out. “So was he.”

Neither of them looked at the blood-spattered cliff across from them, or the body behind them.

“We should go back,” he said, tilting his face up to the sky. “It’ll be dark soon, and we don’t want to be caught in the desert at night.”

“We don’t,” she agreed, but neither of them moved. Exhaustion seemed to weigh him down, gathered in dark rings under his eyes. He carried no gun, she saw, which struck her as peculiar, especially from a ranking Major — but perhaps, since his fingers were weapon enough, he didn’t need a gun.

“What’s your name, Sergeant?” he asked, still not looking down. She watched his fingers on his knees, rubbing slowly, but no more sparks came.

“Sir. Elizabeth Hawkeye, sir.”

“Hawkeye?” He sounded amused by that, and she saw his head tilt so he could give her an appraising look. “Fitting, for a sniper.”

She shrugged, and hiked her gun closer, keeping her own hands curled loosely around its trigger. “My ancestor was a gun maker, sir. The name stuck.”

“Ah, of course.” He sighed again, then rocked up, first to his heels, then rose to his feet. Up close, he didn’t look as tall or broad-shouldered as he did from a distance, framed by the fading sky and moving sands. “Come along, Sergeant. There’s no point in sticking around.” After a moment’s thought, he held out a hand to her. “Roy Mustang.”

She almost refused, looking at his hand and then at his face. Roy Mustang had a decent poker face, but it didn’t hide the tired lines that pressed the corners of his mouth. She looked at him, weighed him, then accepted his help.

“Thank you,” he said, quietly, and she pretended not to hear. They did not walk hand-in-hand together, and two more Ishbarite rebels died before they reached the camp, but Liza watched him walk away without a word, and thought that perhaps she would see him again soon.

Two weeks passed. The Amestris military slowly moved further into Ishbar’s capital city, and Liza took to sleeping with her gun by her side. If she paused to think, she found she was forgetting why she’d enlisted in the first place — the people of the city were frightened, barely able to use the weapons they had, and she watched an entire temple congregation flee, only to be intercepted and taken by front-line gunmen.

She watched as the State Alchemists were set lose upon an unsuspecting population, seeing enormous red flowers bloom against the dark sky, smoky red and imagined she could smell the destruction even from her post. In a single night, it seemed, huge chunks of the entire country lay devastated. Her squad marched through one, and she looked at how entire buildings had been shattered, lying in huge broken chunks, and felt ill.

And then one night, on sentry duty, she met Roy Mustang again.

He was less composed than before; she saw his uniform coat and part of the undershirt below it were unbuttoned, that his slick black hair was disheveled, and the closer he came, the stronger the reek of alcohol grew.

“You.” He squinted at her, swaying in place. “I know you.”

She saluted, because drunk or not, he was still a higher-ranked officer than her. “Sergeant Elizabeth Hawkeye, sir.”

“Ah.” He took a few tottering steps towards her, and she almost broke form to catch his arm when he stumbled, almost fell. “Yes. I remember you. The gun maker’s granddaughter.”

Liza pressed her lips together. “Did you want something, sir?”

He lifted his head, and she could see his eyes were bloodshot, red-rimmed from alcohol and other things, which she couldn’t make herself identify, for fear of making them real. “Fresh air, Sergeant,” he said, voice drawn thin and quiet. “I wanted … I can only make oxygen for fire, not for myself.”

Nonplussed, she said nothing, watching as he stumbled around her, moving to the very farthest edge of the lights cast by their campfires, staring hard into the darkness. Liza waited, trying to ignore the fact that she was lax in patrolling, half-expecting him to collapse where he stood.

“We’re fighting a losing war, Sergeant,” he said, without turning.

“Sir?”

“You could say we’re won,” Mustang said. His hands moved, and she glanced down to his hip, and was surprised to see a gun holstered there now, innocuous and almost hidden by the gaping folds of his jacket. “We’re did most of the killing, and in a day or two, there won’t be anything left, not with the ‘cleanup.'” He laughed, the sound sharp and sudden and loud. “Nothing at all.”

“Sir.” Liza shifted uneasily, glancing over her shoulder. “Sir, come away from there. You’re not well, you should –”

“I’m not well,” he echoed, dropping his head forward. “I’m tired.”

She stepped forward, then risked putting her hand on his shoulder. She could feel him shaking, and it surprised her enough that she almost pulled away. “… Sir?”

“I’m not well,” he sighed again, “but I’m alive. There are a number of people who aren’t even that.” He turned to her slightly, his smile faint, and wry. “I’m sorry, Sergeant. I’m keeping you from your duty. I’ll go.”

But he didn’t move, and Liza didn’t release him. After a moment, he sighed again, and tugged a bit at his already-loose collar. “A few days,” he told her, without looking at her, “I made this entire city burn. I don’t know how many people died, but it’s more than I can count.”

“Sir, you’re drunk, you should –”

“They gave us … amplifiers, for lack of better word.” Mustang lifted his hand, and she saw a small, thin ring on his middle finger, set with a tiny chip of red stone. “By the order of Colonel Grahn, we weren’t to leave a single building standing.” He swayed again, and this time Liza was forced to catch him. He was lighter than he looked, but his shoulders were broad, and she staggered a little under him. “Not people, either …”

“Sir,” she said again, more quietly, and pulled one of his arms over her shoulders. “Let’s get you lying down.”

“Would you stay?” he asked, and something in his tone of voice made her stop, turn to look at him. She wasn’t even sure herself what was there on her face, but he flinched, and she felt him begin to withdraw. “No, I’m sorry, I –”

“I’ll stay,” she said softly, cutting him off, and then spoke again before he could think of another protest. “I won’t … keep you company, but I’ll be there. At least until you fall asleep.” She didn’t know quite why she promised that, but he looked at her with wide dark eyes, and the gratitude in his eyes made her breath catch.

“That’s fine,” he muttered, as they staggered to the officer’s tents, both of them swaying like drunks. “That’s more than fine, Sergeant, I –”

“You’re going to feel horrible tomorrow morning,” she told him before she could stop herself, and he laughed, the sound rough.

“Tomorrow will be a red day,” he said, then made a strange choked sound, which Liza expected was supposed to be a laugh. “No, it’s already red, and, ah …” He came to a sudden stop, lifting one of his hands, and the two of them looked at his glove. Once upon a time, Liza remembered, it had been surprisingly white for a man fighting in a desert — now it was grimy and dulled, with black marks on the fingers that seemed to resemble gun oil.

“Sir,” she murmured, and Mustang shook himself fiercely, turning another sickly smile to her. “One step at a time.”

“One, yes,” he said, shaking his head, and the two of them walked, step by slow, careful step. It seemed to take a small eternity to find his tent, and to wrestle the heavy flap open, and Liza was infinitely grateful to see it unoccupied.

“Here we are,” she murmured, and pushed gently on his shoulders. At first, it seemed his knees wouldn’t bend, still military-stiff despite the drunken sway and nod of him, but finally he let her press him down to sit on his bedroll. Like some oversized child, he blinked at her stupidly as she set to work on his boots.

“Leave those,” he said quietly, and when she looked up at him, he gave her a wry little lopsided smile. “I — I’ve slept in my uniform before. Gets it horribly wrinkled, but …”

Liza hesitated, then sat back on her heels. Without the excuse to touch him, her hands rested on her knees. “Sir. You should try getting some sleep.”

Mustang continued to smile at her, not quite broken, and Liza thought how it was strange that this full-grown soldier and alchemist could so strongly remind her of the war orphans, who’d clustered in the shadows of ruined buildings to watch the Amestris army march past. For a moment, she had the ridiculous urge to smooth his hair and to promise him all sorts of lies — things will be better in the morning, it won’t be so bad once you’ve gotten some sleep, we’ve done the right thing.

Instead, she told him, “Lie down and close your eyes.”

His smile strengthened fractionally. “Yessir,” he said, but the tone was self-mocking more than anything else. And even if his eyes reminded her of a child, he moved like an old man, slow and careful, like he expected his bones to shatter if he went too fast. Liza remained leaning back, watching him as he settled himself down, meeting his gaze when he turned it back to her.

“We’re living in interesting times, Sergeant,” he told her, wistful. “I used to think that was the best ideal. Now, I think I’d give anything just to see this blow over, so we can all retire in boredom.”

It was on the tip of her tongue to say he already had. Liza stopped herself with effort, but couldn’t help reaching down, pulling the blankets out from under his feet and pulling them up, leaving them halfway up his chest. Mustang watched her with heavy eyes, breathing deeply; she wasn’t sure if he even saw her, any more.

“They had a little girl,” he said suddenly, startling her. Liza leaned back again, blinking. His smile was completely gone, replaced by something blank and horrified. “I saw her. She had blood all over her face, but she was smiling.”

“Sir?”

“The doctors. They had a little girl. Her father was using it as an, an excuse — ‘we have a child, please don’t do this.'” Mustang’s eyes closed, and he took in a shuddering breath; this time, Liza didn’t stop herself when she reached out and touched his shoulder. “I –”

She squeezed gently. “You?”

“I couldn’t say no,” Mustang whispered, like a confession. “They had a child waiting for them, and even then, when Colonel Grahn gave me the gun, I couldn’t say no.”

He sounded lost because of it, like a little boy betrayed by his ideals. Liza pressed her lips together and leaned forward, onto her knees beside him. For long moments, neither of them spoke, and then Mustang said, “Alchemists don’t believe in God. But Hell exists, whether you believe or not.”

Liza tightened her fingers once more, against the temptation to brush hair from his eyes. It surprised her, how much this person’s rambling struck a chord in her. Mustang shifted towards her and opened his eyes, looking up at her with sudden, piercing clarity.

“We’re horrible things, State Alchemists,” he told her. Liza opened her mouth to say something, then cut herself off when Mustang sighed and closed his eyes again. Under her fingers, his shoulder didn’t quite relax, not completely, but there was a shift of tensions, and she thought he muttered a name, right as he slipped away.

Buildings had crumbled and cities crisped to dust by a simple snap of this man’s fingers, Liza thought, watching him. As an alchemist, the number of deaths on his head must indeed be almost countless. In sleep, he didn’t look “innocent” so much as “tired,” his fingers twitching under the blankets, as though even in his dreams, he was snapping flame into life.

For long minutes, Liza remained perched by his side, watching him sleep. And when he didn’t move the whole time, except for the shallow rise and fall of his chest, she quietly got up and left.

Nearly six months passed before he came to her again, this time in the afternoon, knocking at the door of her modest little apartment. She opened it and found him still looking haggard, but stronger than before — his eyes were brighter now, and he smelled more of dust and old books than any sort of drink.

“Lieutenant,” he said, and it didn’t surprise her that he’d heard about her promotion. “May I come in?”

Liza didn’t hesitate, stepping aside and nodding to him. Mustang walked slowly, and did not look around with improper curiosity. He was out of uniform, and the clothes he wore were wrinkled, faded into tired comfort — his back, however, was ramrod straight, shoulders squared.

“To what do I owe this honor, sir?” she asked. She did not offer him a place to sit down, or tea; she felt, on some peculiar instinct, that it would only make him uncomfortable. “And congratulations on your own promotion.”

Mustang smiled wryly, shrugging a little. Hollowness lingered in his eyes. “Thank you, Lieutenant.” He paused, as though gathering his thoughts, then tucked his hands behind his back. “I have something to ask you, which you’re free to refuse, now, or at any time.”

“Sir.” Liza found a sense of calm settling over her as she looked at him. It had been a week since she’d held the gun, down at the firing range, and she found herself almost worried that the lack of practice would be a problem.

“This country is falling apart,” he said quietly. “Ever since Fuhrer King Bradley has come to power, we’ve been in some conflict or other. We can’t –” she saw his fingers flex, and though he wore no gloves, she found herself almost surprised that there was no spark or heat, “– we can’t continue like this. We’ll destroy ourselves, otherwise.”

As he spoke, his gaze drifted away from her, to a point far over her right shoulder. He looked almost nervous, though the flame in his eyes remained strong; he was convicted, Liza thought, and the beginnings of what she’d seen months ago on the battlefield were coming to flower.

“It’s too large a task for one man alone,” he said, and now he sounded hesitant, his gaze flickering to meet hers for just a moment. “Or even with several, it could take several years — possibly even decades …”

She looked at him for a long time, weighing his words thoughtfully. If asked, she thought she preferred him now than he had that one night, when he’d looked at her with unseeing eyes and told her about a murdered doctor’s daughter.

He’d not outright said what he intended to do, and Liza thought that was better; the more often he said it out loud, the more likely it would be for someone else to overhear. And she’d heard her own superior muttering about “that damn Mustang,” for all that the man had supposedly holed himself up in his apartment for weeks after the war.

Very slowly, deliberately, Liza lifted her hand. The movement caught his eye, and she held his gaze as she saluted to him, and though she wasn’t in uniform either, her form was perfect.

“I’ll put in a request for my transfer tomorrow, sir,” she said, and watched as he sagged, as though in relief. It wasn’t obvious, no — but like when he’d fallen asleep beside her, there was a shift and change in the way he stood, and she thought he must have been expecting her to say no, especially to a man she’d only met twice before.

The smile he gave her might not have been one on anyone else: it turned the corners of his mouth just slightly, so that someone observing might believe they imagined it. Liza saw it clearly, and thought that perhaps he was relearning that expression, coming back into it by slow degrees. She resisted the urge to smile back.

“Thank you, Lieutenant,” Mustang said quietly. “Your support is … appreciated.”

And she nodded, still holding the salute as he matched it, the two of them solemn-faced and not quite awkward, facing each other.

“Sir,” she said quietly.

This person, I will protect.

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