When Miles received his new orders, shortly after his promotion to the rank of Major, the soldier from the Personnel Office gave him a friendly warning along with the official letter. “Make sure all your affairs are in order before you head off. You won’t be taking much leave up there, and things tend to fall apart back home if you’re not careful.”
He took it with a grain of salt. He’d known he was likely to be assigned to Briggs for some time before the official announcement, and he had since heard endless rumors and horror stories about the infamous northern fort and its commander. Better to file it all away and wait until he’d actually seen the damn place before making any judgments.
The night before he was due to leave, Miles got into an argument with his wife, the latest of their increasingly common verbal feuds. It was largely his fault; he knew he’d been hard to live with ever since the fighting in the East had escalated and he felt himself torn by opposing senses of disgust and obligation. He’d taken to channeling his inner turmoil into a roiling, bitter anger, and his wife bore the brunt of his moodiness. They could hardly have a conversation anymore that didn’t end in a shouting match.
He slept on the couch that night and left the next morning without bothering to wake her.
As Miles watched the landscape outside the train window begin to shift from pleasantly rolling hills to something snowy and forbidding, the soldier’s advice ran tauntingly through his head. He pushed it back. It was nonsense.
As it turned out, very little of what he’d heard about Briggs was an exaggeration. It was cold, harsh, inhospitable, and at its worst, deadly. Bordered by Drachma on one side and largely unmapped wilderness on the other, the soldiers at the fort had grown to match their environment. Miles knew he would have to adapt immediately or die. He learned to differentiate ‘cold’ from ‘deathly cold’ and to predict the temperamental northern weather by watching the sky. He learned how the tactics of Drachman soldiers compared to those of the other neighboring countries. He learned what military protocol was upheld and what was dismissed as useless and ignored so far from Central. It was enough to banish all the old worries far to the back of his mind. (He didn’t have time to call home much.)
When burly, fearsome Buccaneer approached him several weeks in with a grin and elbowed him roughly in the side, saying, “You’re not doing too bad, new guy,” Miles allowed himself a rare smile. He outranked the big man, but the Law of Briggs placed earned respect well before rank in importance.
“Thank you, Captain,” he said, brisk and formal despite the swell of pride in his chest.
Buccaneer snorted. “You still talk like a Central boy, but we’ll beat that out of you yet.” Then, suddenly and with an even gruffer tone than usual, he added, “Here,” and shoved an envelope with an official seal toward him.
Miles blinked in confusion and took it. “What is this?”
“Orders from up top. You’re being assigned to assist the General directly.” At Miles’ shocked expression, Buccaneer grinned and let out a harsh laugh. “Like I said, you’re not doing too bad. Keep it up and you might survive.”
Of all the stories he’d heard, the ones about Brigadier General Olivier Armstrong, the Northern Wall of Briggs herself, had painted the most incomplete picture. He’d heard her called dangerous, vicious, and scarily competent. He’d heard every variation of her Ice Queen nickname, including several of the less flattering ones, and he’d heard the flowery phrase, ‘as beautiful and deadly as the northern land she protects’. Perhaps most disturbingly, a soldier who’d spent a short stint at Briggs had stroked his chin, smiled, and told him she was a ‘harsh taskmaster’ in a tone of fond reminiscence.
To a certain extent, all of these descriptors were true. The General was certainly not someone to be trifled with, and ‘scarily competent’ was at best an understatement of her talents. But the woman surpassed her reputation and garnered respect and loyalty where others would find disdain and resentment. It was not fear of punishment but of her disappointment that gripped Miles as he approached General Armstrong’s office and knocked on the door.
From within, a brisk voice said, “Enter.”
Miles obeyed, shifting quickly into a salute after he crossed the threshold. “Sir,” he began, “Major Miles reporting. I’ve been assigned–”
“Quiet.” The General didn’t even look up, examining a paper in her hand with a bored expression. “I know who you are. I chose you for this position.”
Miles silently considered that. He’d suspected as much, of course. General Armstrong wouldn’t allow her subordinates to be reassigned without her complete knowledge and approval. Now he was left with further questions. After a brief hesitation, he gave in to the urge and asked, “If I may, Sir, why place a relative newcomer in such a post?”
Her eyes flicked upward to peer at him over the edge of the paper. She stared for a long moment, as though evaluating every aspect of him, and then let her gaze drift back down. “Your ability to adapt is impressive, and you show initiative and quick thinking in the field. As an outsider to Briggs, I expect you to bring a valuable perspective.” She paused to pick up a pen, sign the bottom of the paper she’d been reading, and push it aside. Then she set her chin against the back of her hands and looked him straight in the eye. “In my position, I require capable men with unique insight following me. If you prove to be such a man, I’ll keep you. If not, I’ll throw you back to the useless dogs at Central Command. Is that understood, Major?”
It would be trial by fire, then. “…Yes, sir.”
“Good. I hope you’ll ask only intelligent questions of me in the future.”
It was as good as a dismissal, and Miles obeyed the unspoken command.
What no one back home had been quite able to put into words about his future commanding officer was this: Brigadier General Olivier Armstrong expected only excellence from her subordinates, because she truly believed them capable of everything she demanded. She brought out the best in those who could survive her.
He would learn the rest of the picture after Order #3066 was signed into law.
“Shut up and follow me, Miles!”
General Armstrong’s words to him, plain, straightforward, and free from deception or hidden meanings, had allowed Miles a few blessed, peaceful nights to simply feel utter and complete relief. The Fuhrer’s piece of paper meant nothing. He was not going to be executed. He was not going to be dismissed from his post. He was not pitied by his General for the color of his eyes.
It was a beautiful train of thought that could not last for long, because that piece of paper truly meant everything. Those with too much of the wrong blood were being cut down as traitors and rebels. His grandfather, aunts, uncles, distant relatives barely remembered from childhood. If his mother hadn’t had a weak heart and died when he was young, she would have been a target as well. He’d missed it by a single generation. One of the lucky ones.
In the east, Ishval was burning.
Ineffectual anger and suspicion at his superior’s motives became simple survivor’s guilt, and it ate away at his mind just as eagerly. The soldier sent to deliver the message had to search the halls to find him, because Miles wasn’t sleeping in the barracks as he should have been. “The General wants to see you in her quarters, sir.” Grateful for the distraction, Miles nodded and turned toward the elevator.
General Armstrong’s private quarters were rather like her office: sparse and utilitarian. As he entered, Miles noticed a bookshelf, a neatly made bed, and a chair beside a desk in which the General was sitting, facing the doorway. “You’re no use to me in this condition, Major,” she said as he closed the door behind him, cutting him off before he could even salute.
He tightened his jaw. “Sir?”
“Don’t feign ignorance with me, Miles,” she snapped. “A soldier of Briggs must keep his mind within these walls, not drifting to the foolish choices made by this country. You let your thoughts wander and you die.”
Hiding anything from the General was, of course, a useless endeavor. He’d known this from the beginning. With the slightest of sighs, Miles said, “I understand.”
“I know you understand, because you are not an idiot, but understanding does not mean putting it into practice.” General Armstrong stood and crossed to where Miles was standing in two long strides, continuing to speak as she did, “You can do nothing by fretting and becoming useless. The time for reparations will come, but you must find something to sustain yourself until then.” Her sword hit the floor and she rested her hands on its hilt, leaning forward to look him up and down. She was taking in, no doubt, everything about his exhausted, troubled appearance he had attempted to keep concealed. After this long moment of study, she lifted her chin and spoke. “If you require a more temporary distraction in order to move beyond this, I can provide that much, but you’ll have to find a permanent solution on your own.”
Miles looked down at her. It was always mildly surprising to remember he actually had to look down at her, that she didn’t tower over everyone as she seemed to with her demeanor. The confusion must have been evident on his face, because she sighed, shifted the sword to her right hand, and reached out to curl her fingers roughly around his collar. “You need to bring your focus back to Briggs. By whatever means necessary.”
Later on, he would remember the night in flashes, a series of sensations rather than a single, continuous event. ‘Repressed the memory,’ he would have joked if he were at liberty to ever discuss it with anyone. He would remember her gloved hand on his chest when he submitted to her suggestion and she pushed him back against the bed. He would remember the sheer strength and power that radiated from her body, the feel of muscle and scar tissue beneath his fingertips. He would remember biting his tongue to keep from saying anything wrong. (‘Olivier’ would almost certainly get him a sword in his gut, but moaning out ‘General’ or any variation seemed somehow worse.) He would remember thinking, with smothered guilt, ‘things fall apart.’
However at the moment, staring up at the ceiling, Miles simply wondered if he should leave now. He’d been summoned here and hadn’t yet been dismissed, but this was all woefully beyond both standard military protocol and the de facto Law of Briggs.
The General shifted beside him, and Miles turned his head to find her eyes open, inspecting him. He’d suspected she hadn’t really fallen asleep when she’d turned away. He imagined it was a rare person indeed who caught Olivier Armstrong sleeping.
“Are you going to survive this war, Miles?” she asked.
He nodded slowly. “I believe I will.”
“Good.” She sat up and turned her back to him. “It would be an annoyance replacing you.” She rose from the bed and began to dress, a swift and orderly action.
Miles watched her. “…Thank you, General.”
“Hm.” She did not pause or look back at him over her shoulder. Only once she had shrugged on the heavy outer coat of her uniform did she speak again, “You’re due to your station at 0800 hours. I’ll expect you to be in top form, Major Miles.”
Miles wondered, pen in hand and eyes on the blank paper before him, if he was that sort of man, now. The kind that saw troubles at home as an excuse to wander instead of something to be fixed. One of those soldiers who professed loyalty and then cried ‘out of sight, out of mind’ the moment they were stationed more than a few miles away. He hadn’t thought of his wife while he was in the Brigadier General’s room, only of the desperate need to clear his chaotic mind and of Olivier Armstrong’s strange form of kindness. He’d hardly thought of her at all since coming to Briggs.
He shook his head and summoned his attention back to his desk. He’d been trying for the better part of a week to confess his sins, beg forgiveness, and try to rebuild the home he once had from halfway across the country, but he was held back by the limits of communication. Military phone lines were hardly private, and letters could be opened. Careless phrasing could get him in trouble under the fraternization laws, possibly even throw suspicion on his commanding officer.
And it seemed far too distant. This sort of thing should be discussed face to face; he would not go the coward’s way. The letters became terse updates, and the phone calls were brief and uncomfortable, Miles biting his tongue while his wife pressed him to talk more.
He dropped the pen and watched it roll across the desk and clatter to the floor. Somehow, he had become a terrible person.
Brigadier General Olivier Armstrong became Major General Olivier Armstrong with very little ceremony, just an expression of determination and grim satisfaction while an out-of-place looking official pinned the new rank on her uniform.
They seemed to be handing out ranks left and right in the aftermath of the war – presumably there were now a lot of vacant positions to fill – though, with the exception of the Major General, promotions were rather thin on the ground at Fort Briggs.
Miles shared this observation with Buccaneer, who snorted. “Briggs never has Central’s approval,” he scoffed. “Good thing we’ve never needed it.”
“True enough,” Miles agreed with a nod, though he knew the reasons ran deeper in his case. He would remain a Major for a good long while, regardless of any personal merit. Assuming, of course, he remained a soldier at all. He pushed that thought down. “At least the General is getting some respect.”
“Hah, ‘bought time, too. They’d be begging on their knees for scraps of Drachman mercy if it weren’t for the boss.” His expression changed as he looked past Miles’ shoulder. “Speak of the devil…”
Miles turned in time for General Armstrong to reach them and snap, “Back to work! This is not a celebration. We can’t afford to slack off.”
“Yes, sir,” they replied in unison, with Buccaneer adding a grin and an emphasized ‘Major General’ to the end of his.
They both turned to leave, but with a brisk, “Miles,” she halted him in his tracks. He faced her while Buccaneer continued on. “You’ve survived to the end of this war,” she told him. “Will you continue to follow me?”
Miles thought for a moment how ridiculous it was to say a war was over, like a declaration of victory flipped the switch instantly to peacetime. He thought of his Ishvalan cousins suffering and seething in slums while his Amestrian cousins wandered dark halls like insomniacs and contemplated the blood on their hands. Then he drew himself up, squared his shoulders, and said, “I’ll follow you for as long as you permit me to, Major General Armstrong.”
She smiled, one of her strange, genuine affairs that were still tinged with something bitter or wry, and strode past him. “Good to hear it, Major Miles.” Her tone of voice suggested she hadn’t expected anything less.
The ripples reached them in the North within a few weeks as the soldiers began to get shuffled around to fill the open positions. Many of their best men were recalled to Central, and in return, they received a handful of young, fresh-faced recruits and problem soldiers they couldn’t stick anywhere else. It was a severe blow to the stability of Briggs, and the Major General made no effort to hide her frustration. Between her simple anger and her desire to rapidly build her fortress back to its former glory, the newcomers were in for a nasty shock.
Miles put off his plans and stayed in Briggs until the training was well underway, the recruits were beginning to show promise, and General Armstrong had calmed down enough that she wouldn’t be tempted to kill him for even bringing it up. Then he requested two weeks’ leave and boarded a train bound for Central.
From the moment he stepped off the platform, he felt uncomfortably out of place. The colorful cacophony down south was a stark contrast to the silent monochrome of the Briggs Mountains. Soldiers and civilians alike bumped and jostled him as he navigated the crowded streets, and had it always been so hot in Central? Miles had lived here most of his life, but he felt like a tourist now. After getting his bearings and recalling the route, he found the right building and knocked.
His wife answered the door. Her eyes lit up, but the smile she gave him was slightly puzzled. “Why did you knock?” she asked. “You do still live here, you know.”
“Oh,” Miles said, as though the thought hadn’t even occurred to him. “…Sorry.” There was simply no good way to explain he felt less at home right now than he did shivering in the mountains.
Her expression faltered slightly, but she stepped back to let him pass. “Welcome home,” she said. “It’s good to see you.”
He mustered up a smile in return. “It’s good to see you, too.” And it was, despite it all. He’d known this woman for years, and he loved her. Their old arguments, the guilt eating away at him, his discomfort in his own home, none of it changed that fact.
She closed the door as he moved past her and watched as he scanned the room, taking in small changes, and set down his luggage. “What are you wearing those sunglasses for?” she asked. “It’s cloudy today.”
Miles turned to face her. “They’re for protecting against snow blindness. I forgot I was wearing them,” he lied. In truth, the newer recruits had stared when they saw his eyes and goggled for a moment too long before registering his commands and obeying them. Over time, that look melted from shock and mild fear into pity, and Miles began to keep the glasses on even indoors. Very slowly, he reached up to remove them. “Sorry.”
Her face contorted oddly, like she didn’t know what to make of him. “You never used to say ‘sorry’ much. You’d just keep quiet when you knew you were wrong and wait for the subject to change.” She smiled a bit, trying to make light of it. “That’s the second time you’ve apologized to me since I opened the door.”
‘Because that’s what I’m here to do,’ he thought, but he kept it to himself. He wasn’t ready for that conversation, not so soon after he’d arrived. Panic gripped him at the very idea of it. He needed more time. Instead, he offered an apologetic grin and said, “Sorry.”
She didn’t laugh.
He should have taken that first chance to make his confession. Three days into his leave – three days of stalling and stilted, painfully awkward conversations – he received an urgent call from Northern Command. There was a skirmish on the border; gunfire was being exchanged with Drachman troops.
His wife frowned at him as he packed. “But you haven’t actually been called back, right? Do you really need to leave so suddenly?”
Miles hefted his bag over his shoulder. “Briggs functions as a unit. I can’t risk the possibility of the Major General needing me somewhere in an emergency like this,” he explained. “I’m sorry. Please understand.”
She stared at his face, but the dark glasses were back in place and she could no longer look him in the eye. She sighed and stepped to the side out of the doorway. “Alright. I understand,” she said. “Just…come back safe. Whenever you can.”
Miles stepped forward, brushed her hair out of her face, and leaned down to kiss her forehead. “Thank you,” he whispered. “I truly am sorry.” He moved past her and toward the front door.
“It’s strange,” she said suddenly, making him stop and look over his shoulder. “I should be feeling like I’m going to miss you, but I just feel like we haven’t really had the chance to get to know each other. I’m not sure why.” Her smile was wistful, almost sad.
The corners of his eyes itched terribly, and he turned to leave before he felt like crying.
He made it back to Briggs in time for Armstrong to snap, “I didn’t call you back here, Miles!” before snarling her orders and throwing him into the defense.
It didn’t take long to drive off their attackers: a victory. They had a small number of casualties, but as the General said in her short speech to the men afterward, it could have been far worse. The scouts alerted them to movement and prevented them from being caught off guard, and the combatants all fought well. It was a success to be proud of.
But though she hid it well, anyone who had served Major General Armstrong for any length of time knew she felt the loss of each and every one of her men deeply. When Miles entered her office, she was sitting at her desk, eyes downcast, with an expression suggesting she was lost in thought. It was a rare thing to see and disconcerting, and he cleared his throat quickly to draw her attention.
She looked up at him, and her features shifted into a much more familiar scowl. “You should have remained in Central, Miles,” she said.
He straightened. “I apologize, sir. I felt I might be needed here and disobeyed your orders.”
She made a dismissive noise. “I had plans in place for your absence. Your reappearance could have caused more confusion than assistance.” She was silent for a beat, then added, “You did well, regardless.”
He smiled as subtly as he could manage, relieved his scolding was brief. “Thank you, sir.”
“Henschel has temporarily taken over your post, but I suppose you’ll be reporting back early, now. You can inform him of that.” The General leaned back in her chair, looking down again. Her expression was less faraway with him still in the room, but she still looked very weary.
Her words were clearly meant as a dismissal, but Miles ignored it. “Are you alright, sir?”
The look she gave him was mildly incredulous. “I was not injured in the conflict,” she replied briskly. “I’m fine.”
He considered taking the tone as a warning and leaving it be, but after a brief hesitation, he said, “That’s not how I meant it.”
Her eyes widened slightly, then quickly narrowed. “I see,” she said. Holding his gaze, she slowly, rose from her chair and walked around to the front of her desk. Miles was distinctly reminded of the way she’d scrutinized him after he’d questioned the new position she’d appointed him to, and he wondered if she was just going to throw him out without another word.
Finally, she closed her eyes and turned her head to the side, facing the map of Amestris pinned to the wall beside her desk. She looked at it instead of him as she spoke. “The men that fell were all new recruits. That’s to be expected. They lack experience,” she said, in a voice that managed to be quiet without losing any of its usual hardness. “But the ones who were still here and hadn’t run home with their tails between their legs , they were survivors. They understood the law up here. All they lacked was proper training.”
Miles blinked. “Sir, it’s impossible to predict Drachma’s movement, and the soldiers’ training was up to standard. You couldn’t have had them any better prepared.”
The General shot him a glare. “I know that,” she snapped. “I’m merely stating the facts of the situation.” She turned away again, focusing her furious expression on the map once more. Her hands, already lightly curled into fists, clenched. “I’m sick of those dogs in command screwing with my men,” she muttered darkly.
Miles stood straight and still with his hands behind his back. He watched as her eyes bored into the map, as though she could eliminate the higher ups in Central from here just by the ferocity of her glare. He’d prompted her into answering him, but now that she had allowed him a glimpse into her mind, at the feelings of anger and regret, he wasn’t sure how to respond.
She spared him the necessity by turning around suddenly and saying, “But there’s nothing I can do about that yet.” Her tone had become brisk and businesslike again. She made to stride past him and out the door, but she paused at his side, close enough that her arm brushed his and he could feel her sigh more than hear it. She lifted her hand and set it on his shoulder. “It’s good that you’re here, Miles,” she said in an undertone, without looking at him. She stood like that for the span of several seconds, maintaining that small point of contact. Then, in a louder voice and while moving forward again, she added, “Henschel can’t do your job nearly as well. Now come on, there’s work to be done cleaning up the mess Drachma made.”
Miles took a deep breath and let it out slowly. That brief moment felt more intimate than anything else between them, and so soon after being home, it seemed like the worse betrayal. He turned sharply to follow his General.
Experience and familiarity had taught Miles to understand the unspoken meanings behind Major General Armstrong’s spoken commands.
‘Put them to work’ was one that changed frequently with the situation. In the presence of overconfident new recruits, it meant, ‘give them a taste of what it’s like to be a Briggs soldier.’ When Second Lieutenant Falman arrived in their midst, it was, ‘find out what makes this man so valuable to Roy Mustang.’ And when the Elric brothers came stumbling in, the meaning became, ‘find out what you can and keep them out of the way.’
A new one came with the arrival of Kimblee. The General gave him a sharp look over the Command Center’s report and said, “I’m going to figure out what those Elric boys are hiding from us. I’m trusting this matter to you.”
Miles understood how the firm tone and the look in her eyes translated. She was giving him the chance to meet the man behind the worst of the Ishval massacre face to face, but warning him not to let it become a confrontation. The time for reparations will come. But it hadn’t arrived yet. He nodded slowly. “Yes, sir.”
He didn’t obey the order as well as he could have. He’d reigned in his anger better than most would have managed, but he’d been hostile enough, made enough of a barely-veiled threat, that the sight of a fully-healed Kimblee strolling through the hallways of Briggs was more than surprising; it gave him a jolt of genuine fear.
When Armstrong caught his elbow a few days later and whispered, “I’m taking care of General Raven. Don’t let that one near the lower levels,” Miles wondered if he was being punished, though she couldn’t possibly know of his disobedience.
Either way, he would make sure to follow that order perfectly.
There had been a time, shortly after his assignment to Briggs, that the weather had changed suddenly when Miles was on patrol and he nearly got lost out in a blizzard. One of the other men in his group found him and dragged him back inside, and he got a very thorough lecture about weather patterns from the doctor as she checked him over for frostbite and any other damage. It had shaken him pretty badly at the time, and he made sure he never made such a dangerous rookie mistake again.
Looking out at the snow whipping through Baschool, Miles thought it was rather funny the things you could come to appreciate. Their hasty plan would not have worked if not for the blizzard. Pursuing Scar in this was too risky even for Kimblee. They were lucky.
Then came the call from Briggs.
Buccaneer’s voice was gruff and irritated. “We’ve got soldiers from Central crawling all over the place. They’re taking the General.”
“She’s been called to Central on the Fuhrer’s authority. I thought you should know right away, in case it affected your orders.”
Of course, he’d been told to bring the alkahestry girl back in secret. That would have been one thing, but it would be near impossible to smuggle in the group they had now without General Armstrong in charge. He bit his tongue; there was nothing he could do from here. “How are the men reacting?” he asked.
“Couple of the new boys are a little panicked. Most are just angry.”
Miles could understand that. He doubted if any of their soldiers didn’t feel a jolt of similar emotions, if only for a moment. Our queen is gone. How could they do that? What are we going to do without our queen? But they were Briggs troops, and they would survive anything that came. “Keep it quiet and put on a good show when the replacement arrives. Acting out of order will only harm the General,” he said. “I’ll take care of things here, somehow.”
Buccaneer gave a brisk, “Yes, sir,” and disconnected.
Miles removed his glasses and pinched the bridge of his nose. Now he just had to find a way to avert a disaster.
General Armstrong’s replacement was an idiot. He knew nothing about what it took to command a military fort, never mind one situated in a barren, inhospitable environment and bordering a hostile nation. Due to his rank and position, Miles was suddenly shouldering a great deal more responsibility than usual to compensate for the man’s incompetence, and he was still being treated like a mere errand boy for his trouble.
It took all his strength to keep from slamming the door like a child when he left the General’s office, where the replacement had gallingly taken up residence. He looked up to find Buccaneer leaning against the wall opposite, waiting for him.
The big man took one look at him and said, “If you hold him while I punch, I promise to use my right arm.” He flexed the clawed fingers of his automail hand threateningly in demonstration.
Miles smiled without any real humor. “That offer is more tempting every time you make it,” he admitted with a sigh.
Buccaneer chuckled and began to walk down the hall, and Miles fell into step beside him. They turned three corners and entered the elevator before he hunched down and continued speaking in a low, rumbling voice. “Everything’s all set. My men are ready to move as soon as I give the word.”
Miles nodded. “I’ve made the arrangements to transport Alphonse Elric and Miss Rockbell. Be ready when we leave for the train station tomorrow.”
The fact that he had decidedly unofficial business to deal with in addition to his official orders helped to make the replacement’s incompetence all the more frustrating. Worse still was the fact that he wouldn’t even be able to go directly to Central and assist General Armstrong. Someone had to go to the East for the joint training and to make contact with Grumman, and it made sense for Miles to be that one.
He turned face Buccaneer. “Give them hell down there, Captain,” he said sternly.
Buccaneer grinned and responded with an enthusiastic salute. “Will do, Major.”
The radio was all he had. Grumman’s maneuver had done its job, but it had also confined them to the East. Only the muddled, confused reports over the radio told Miles what was going on in Central, and even that had been useless ever since the strange pulse of energy ripped through and took everyone out, then receded just as quickly. Now there was nothing.
It had to be over – the short, vague explanation that had been released told him that much – but he could not rest until he knew what had happened to those in the middle of it all. What had become of the Briggs soldiers, the Elric boys, Mustang’s men? What had happened to the General? He alternated between sitting and staring at the useless machine pumping out static and jumping up to pace impatiently until, finally, the communications officer held up the phone and said, “Message for you from Central, sir.”
He quickly grabbed the receiver. “Yes?”
The answering voice was no-nonsense and wonderfully familiar. “Major Miles?”
“General,” he sighed, not even bothering to hide the relief in his voice. She, at least, had survived. He shook his head and forced his voice back into a professional tone. “What’s the situation?”
“We’ve won,” she said simply. “The country is no longer in danger from this particular threat.” There was a brief pause before she expanded on the explanation. “Briggs troops were a driving force during the resistance, and they took the brunt of the counterattack. There are many injuries and casualties on our side.”
Miles closed his eyes and nodded to himself, keeping silent. It was to be expected. A small group of their soldiers with a handful of Mustang’s men against the entire force of the Central Army, not to mention the inhuman beasts behind it all. That any of them survived at all was miraculous. But, still…
The General interrupted his thoughts. “Any news on your end?” she asked.
It took him a moment to regain his bearings, lost among the images of faces he’d been summoning up, wondering which ones had been lost. “No, sir,” he responded. “Not much happened here beyond the incident with the Fuhrer, but I’m sure you know about that.”
“Yes, I’m aware,” she said, her voice suddenly somewhat subdued. She remained silent for several long moments before speaking again. “You should be made aware of this, Miles,” she began, tone clipped and official. “Captain Buccaneer was among those killed in the line of duty.”
He nearly dropped the receiver. “What?”
“He was guarding Central Command’s main gate under my orders and wound up in a direct confrontation with King Bradley. He completed his mission and died dealing a critical blow to the Fuhrer, without which it is unlikely we would have succeeded.” She paused again, then added, “His men say he went out with a smile.”
Miles fumbled blindly for the back of his chair and sat down slowly. Over the years, he had come to consider Buccaneer a close friend, and his face had not been one he’d imagined among the list of the dead. The man had been so completely, stubbornly alive that it was impossible to think of a force that could take him down. He tried to come to terms with the idea. Buccaneer dead. Buccaneer cut down by Fuhrer Bradley. Buccaneer managing one last, fatal blow against his enemy, condemning him with his dying breath. Miles gripped the receiver until his hand stopped shaking. “I suppose,” he finally managed to reply, “he couldn’t have gone out any other way.”
“He was always an excellent soldier,” the General agreed quietly.
Miles considered the tone of her voice and the bonds she had with her closest subordinates. Buccaneer had been at Briggs even longer than he had. “Are you alright?”
“I sustained a few minor injuries,” she said. “I’ll survive.”
“That’s not what I meant, sir.”
He heard her sigh, sounding almost exasperated. He thought she might truly refuse to answer him this time, but she eventually said, “Many of my best men lost their lives because the leader of the country they’d sworn to protect was a traitor. I won’t pretend I’m not furious, but as I said, I’ll survive.”
“Of course, sir,” Miles replied. It was an honest, if clearly restrained, answer, which was the best he would get right now. “Do you have any orders for those of us still stationed in the East?” The General’s replacement had miraculously vanished sometime after the Fuhrer’s train accident. As far as he was concerned, that put them officially back under Armstrong’s command.
There was a brief silence while she considered. “Put someone in charge and send them back to Briggs. Then find a way to come to Central as quickly as possible.”
“That’s what I just said, Miles,” she snapped. “I’m going to be stuck here for longer than expected, and there’s something I’ll need your assistance with.”
The state of the city was significantly worse than the newspapers and radio reports had led him to believe. Between the rubble and hesitant beginnings of reconstruction, Miles suspected it was only his uniform that allowed him to wander freely; barricades and guards were keeping most curious passersby away from the middle of the city.
Fortunately, the Armstrong Manor was far enough from headquarters that it had sustained little structural damage. Unfortunately, the same couldn’t be said for its owner. It seemed damages were being underreported all around.
“With all due respect, sir,” Miles began after he’d been let into the building, “what the hell happened?”
The Major General shot him a look that clearly indicated she believed he was overreacting. “I told you I’d sustained a few minor injuries,” she said simply. Even at a glance, he could tell most normal human beings would not call her injuries minor: her arm in a sling, bloodied bandages, and purple-green bruises blossoming across her exposed skin. She gave an explanation before he could protest. “You remember the homunculus that attacked Briggs from below?”
“You took on that monster by yourself?”
“No,” she replied, sounding annoyed. “My brother and that teacher of the Elric brothers’ stuck their noses in.”
Miles hid a smirk at her choice of phrasing. That explained how anyone managed to survive an attack from that thing. “Ah. I see.”
The General raised an eyebrow at his expression. “I’d forgotten. You’ve met her, haven’t you?”
He nodded, remembering the woman sitting casually in their holding cell, looking for all the world like she’d intended to be there from the beginning. “She reminded me a bit of you,” he admitted.
“Hmph. I’ll assume that’s complimentary and let it pass,” she said, sweeping past him and walking down the long hallway, but there was a slight smile on her face. Miles got the impression she rather respected Mrs. Curtis.
He kept his own respect, as well as how grateful he was to her for helping to keep his General alive, to himself. Instead, he turned to follow at her shoulder and asked, “Will you be staying here until your injuries have healed?”
She glanced at him sideways. “That wasn’t my intention, but it’s turning out that way,” she replied. “I have a lot of work to do here in Central. I’m assisting with the reconstruction, and I have to see to the recovery of my men who were injured in combat.” She stopped suddenly, and Miles had to take a step backward to maintain the proper distance. “Not to mention more than few funerals,” she finished, looking down.
Miles stood still, watching her back, content to stay silent until she spoke or began walking again. Then he saw, to his astonishment, that her shoulders were shaking slightly. Alarmed, he tried to prompt her response. “Sir?”
She took a deep breath. “I have to alert their families,” she said without turning around. “I’ve always been terrible at that. And right now, I can’t even guarantee them they won’t be labeled as traitors in death.” Her left hand clenched into a fist. “They should be hailed as heroes, and I’ll have to explain how my orders prevented them from being buried with full military honors.”
Miles reached out with his hand and stopped himself just as quickly. He was admittedly panicking slightly at the sight of General Armstrong showing anything like vulnerability in his presence when she normally hid it so well, but he wasn’t sure how she would react to any attempt at comforting her. He risked it and carefully set his hand on her shoulder. She immediately reached up with her own uninjured hand and gripped his hard. He was further surprised to find it trembling.
She twisted around to face him, which had the effect of bringing them even closer, and she let go of his hand in order to grab his collar instead. Miles had just enough time to register the familiarity of the action before she pulled him down and pressed her mouth roughly to his.
Unlike that moment years before, this was clearly for her own benefit rather than his. There was a hint of something desperate rather than methodical to it. Perhaps, for once, the situation was too much for even Major General Armstrong to take in stride, losing one of her closest subordinates along with many others and having the survivors labeled as traitors. Perhaps she needed to reassure herself that he, at least, had lived through it. Or perhaps she suffered this deeply with each loss, and he just happened to be here to witness this one, small break in the façade.
His hand drifted unconsciously to her side, and he felt her wince beneath his fingertips. ‘Broken ribs’ he thought absently, adding that to his mental list of her injuries. At that painful touch, she pulled away suddenly and stepped back. “I apologize,” she said immediately, before he could quite register what had happened. “That was out of line.”
Miles blinked, trying to regain his bearings. So the boundaries melted away when she believed it was for his own good, but they held when she was the one in need of distraction. He wondered if this was always the rule or if it had changed at all when, between then and now, he had quietly confessed to her that he had a wife in Central. (The General had looked at him sharply and said, “I wasn’t aware,” and he had replied, “I don’t talk about her as often as I probably should.” The rest remained unspoken.) “No, it’s alright,” he said. “Really.”
But the she had already turned away, stiff-backed and stoic once more. “I had a purpose in calling you here,” she announced as though nothing had happened. “Come on. I have something to show you.”
Miles frowned but obeyed, following her a half-step closer this time.
The scarred Ishvalan was unconscious and badly injured, but most definitely alive and recovering in one of the many spare rooms of the Armstrong Manor.
Miles found himself temporarily forgetting recent events in favor of staring from the doorway. “So this is where he wound up,” he commented in an almost casual tone. “I’d wondered.”
The General nodded from where she stood a bit farther back. “Yes,” she said. “The official record states he returned to Central pursuing the Fullmetal Alchemist and was killed in the crossfire during the coup. I have no plans to correct that assumption.”
Miles turned to look over his shoulder at her. “What are you planning on doing?” he asked. While harboring a known serial killer, albeit one that had just played a pivotal role in saving the country, was not exactly outside the realm of possibility for Major General Armstrong, he still felt it deserved an explanation.
She stepped forward to join him in peering through the doorway. “Originally, I had planned to keep him alive for the sake of finally gaining knowledge of alkahestry for the North, but I ran into Mustang when I happened to be at the hospital.” Miles smiled knowingly, and she duly ignored him, continuing, “It seems he has plans to pursue policy changes and rebuilding in Ishval, and he wondered if he might borrow you from me for as long as it takes to implement them.” She gestured to the unconscious man on the bed. “I thought he might more useful there, should you choose to go.”
Miles looked down at her in surprise, and she leveled him a blank look in return. For the General to willingly give up valuable assets and trusted soldiers was unheard of, not to mention handing them over to Roy Mustang, a man who she may have grudgingly respected but still profoundly and vocally disliked. Knowing Miles’ sense of obligation and longing for the homeland he barely knew, she had been the one to matter-of-factly suggest he could make a difference from within the military. Now, once again, she was offering him a tremendous gift as though it were a passing thought. And he couldn’t possibly accept it at this juncture. “Sir, you’ve just finished explaining to me the losses Briggs has suffered. I wouldn’t leave your side while it’s in such a state.” His post, he silently chastised himself as soon as he had spoken. He should have said he wouldn’t leave his post.
Armstrong scoffed. “As valuable as you are, Briggs will be able to manage without your presence for the time being.” She looked him in the eye and frowned when he still seemed to be hesitating. Softly, she said, “Don’t make me order you to take the offer, Miles.”
Slowly, his reservations faded and he allowed himself to smile. “Yes, sir,” he said. “Thank you, sir.”
“Hm.” She reached past him for the handle and pulled the door closed without any further comment, leaving Scar to continue resting in silence.
Miles watched this simple movement raptly, the shift of her weight, the way she let her fingers slip off the handle one by one before dropping her hand to her side. She was really standing rather close to him, and he was having a harder time than she evidently was in pretending nothing out of the ordinary was happening – and that was disregarding the presence of a wanted murderer in the building. Years of a lingering awkwardness he had almost convinced himself he had imagined were front and center once more. He came to a decision. “Before I go, there’s something I’ll have to take care of,” he told her. “I’ve been putting it off, but I can’t let it go anymore. It may take some time.”
The General lifted her chin and looked up at him. “I understand,” she said after a moment. “Just make sure you’re ready by the time Mustang comes calling again. I don’t want to waste time explaining things to that man.”
“I’ll take care of it by then,” he assured her.
She considered him for a few more seconds before adding, “Should you wind up needing it, you may stay in the Armstrong Manor until your transfer to Ishval. I’ll require your assistance with Scar, anyway, once he regains consciousness.”
She understood his own unspoken words as well as he understood hers. Obligatorily, he said, “That’s not necessary, sir. I don’t want to put you out.”
“Please, this building held an entire platoon for weeks. It can handle two soldiers and a half-dead assassin.” She walked past him before he could thank her again.
Early in their preparations for the Promised Day, Miles had turned to the younger Elric brother and asked if they should be telling their families to flee the country. The head of the suit of armor had drooped slightly to stare at the ground, and in a voice far too jaded for a boy his age, he had answered, “If we don’t keep this from happening, it won’t end with Amestris.” So his wife had remained in Central, blissfully unaware.
This was the second war Miles had survived by simply being in the wrong place at the right time, and he supposed the reparations for this one would come now, breaking through the uncomfortable silence in his own dining room. He took a sip of his coffee – good coffee; he longed for the bitter, terrible stuff from Briggs – swallowed, and confessed, “I’ve been unfaithful to you.”
His wife, sitting across from him with her hands wrapped around her own mug, closed her eyes and took a deep breath. She let it out shakily. “I thought so.”
He blinked. He wasn’t sure what reaction he had been expecting, but he was sure it wasn’t that. “You did?” he asked, bewilderment momentarily cutting through the guilt.
She sighed again, determinedly looking down at her hands and not at him. “We were fighting all the time,” she explained dully. “Then you were assigned so far away, and we hardly ever talked at all, didn’t even argue. When you did call, you were so restrained.” She looked up but off to the side, staring at the wall. “You’re a very loyal man. It’s one of your best traits,” she said, “but it’s obvious your loyalty hasn’t been directed toward me for some time now.”
Miles said nothing. It was an accurate summary; there was no need for a response. Apparently, he didn’t need to speak to be transparent. The steam from his coffee rose and curled in the air. He took another sip to fill the silence.
Across from him, his wife finally turned to look him in the eye. “Is it that general from Briggs?” she asked bluntly. “The woman?” At Miles’ alarmed reaction, she frowned. “I’m not trying to get you in trouble. You should know me better than that. I’d just like to hear the truth from you.”
He certainly owed her that much. “Yes,” he answered reluctantly. “It’s her.”
She closed her eyes again and nodded. “She’s been in Central, lately. I’ve seen her,” she said. “She’s very striking.”
Miles began to protest automatically. His betrayal wasn’t nearly so simple and shallow as that. “That’s not what –”
But she held up her hand and cut him off. “Please, I’m trying very hard to be calm and rational and not like those hysterical women in romance novels,” she said, sounding extremely pained, “but I really don’t want to hear your reasons. It’ll just sound like an excuse, and then I’ll want to scream.”
He shut his mouth.
When the coffee grew cold, she collected the mugs and placed them in the sink, indulging in the distracting monotony that the chore provided, and Miles stood and pushed in his chair. “I can collect my things and be out of here tonight,” he offered to her back. He didn’t have much, and he wouldn’t dare fight for his half of anything they once shared.
She paused in her cleaning. “…Do you have a place to stay?”
He smiled despite himself. She easily hated him right now, but she still wouldn’t have him sleeping in the streets. She was always too generous by far. “I’ve made arrangements,” he said softly.
She stood still for a moment longer, then glanced at him over her shoulder. “I am glad you told me instead of letting me find out some other way.”
“I’m sorry it took me this long.” He shook his head. That wasn’t right. “I’m sorry it happened at all. I really am.”
She sighed, resumed her cleaning. “Me too.”
He walked out of the kitchen.
The promotion came only a few weeks before the first real step toward policy reform, and Miles was as unused to the new rank as he was to the men Brigadier General Mustang had assigned to him. It seemed like a lot of uncertainty to be carrying on their first mission to Ishval, even if it was just a preliminary trip to assess the situation. This was going to be a long, painful process, and he’d like to at least begin it from a place of security.
Still, as they drew closer to their destination and he caught his first glimpse of Ishval over the horizon, the homeland he hadn’t seen since childhood, Miles couldn’t help but feel hopeful. With luck and a lot of hard work, they could do great things here.
In addition to Mustang’s carefully selected soldiers, a group of cautiously optimistic Ishvalans, chosen by their own communities, were accompanying them on this initial trip to see what has become of their Holy Land. One man broke off from this group and approached Miles.
Scar wore a hooded coat and a new pair of sunglasses to obscure his face, and he silently mingled with the other Ishvalans as they travelled. He was meant to stay that way until they were well within the ruined land of Ishval and beyond the eyes of the military police. If he repeatedly broke off from the group to speak with one of the soldiers, it would draw unnecessary attention. Miles implied as much with a raised eyebrow, but the man merely tugged on his hood to lengthen the shadow across his face. “We’re nearly in the land of Ishvala,” he noted quietly, and though his tone was as gruff as it ever was, there seemed to be a hint of something almost pleased. This was his home in a way it never would be for Miles.
He gave Scar a wry smile. “I hope you didn’t draw attention to yourself just to tell me that,” he said.
Scar ignored the warning, but elaborated, “The desert is harsh in a way unlike the mountains are. There are no villages left standing. No supplies. No communication. We need to be prepared.”
“Your warning is a little late.” They were more than a day’s travel from East City and several hours from any small towns. Miles knew it was simply that Scar’s pessimism, his expectation that something would go wrong and they should all be ready for it, had finally won out over his wariness of the other soldiers.
“Your affairs should be in order before we go any farther,” he insisted.
Startled at this choice of words, Miles let out a sudden bark of laughter, grinning with a sort of grim nostalgia. Scar was looking at him like he was mad, and he held up a hand to beg for patience. “I only have one to speak of,” he said once he got his laughter under control, “and it’s already been taken care of. I won’t let anything fall apart this time.”
“I wasn’t aware the Brigadier General would be putting me directly in charge of the initial effort. I can’t say I’m entirely confident in my abilities as a diplomat.”
“Your unique perspective makes you the only one with even half a chance of succeeding, but that chance drops to zero if you let your guard down. Stop wasting your time with useless worrying and do your job.”
“I intend to give it my best effort, General.”
“Good. And don’t let yourself go soft under Mustang’s command. I’ll still expect the best from you once you return to Briggs, Lieutenant Colonel.”