Five crates of candles were what you listed when all was said and done. The requisition sheet had crinkled under the force of the crabbed scribble you applied, fingers too sore to obey when you tried to properly form the loops of rank and serial number. Back then your hands were always numb, and the fact you could still grip a pen was miracle enough. You pressed your luck with them as you tried with everything else, taking a cool measure of pride in the fact that everyone else was fooled.
Name, rank. Number. Commanding officers interpreted the terseness of your scrawl as confidence. Supplies Crew shipped you what you asked for and you kept arranging candles on the table of your tent. Practice, you called it.
When you returned to Central City after the war, you let yourself remember the past in short bursts only. Allow yourself that luxury in the same way you soak your knuckles in hot towels. Flares of spark-memory shoot off the flint of your mind when you open it up and rummage for the tinder.
It's tiresome to try and light anything the traditional way now that you're twenty-nine, the casual skill a small weight against the shameful possibility of middle-age mediocrity. History is much the same. Tradition means nothing for remembering things with any duration longer than brief bursts. You know the shape of the monsters looming in your mind well enough, there's no need to drag them into full view like a mad cousin down from the attic, exhibited on display for no other reason than to acknowledge an unchangeable past. Other people can choose to lay out their own lives to themselves in a fixed manner. Other people can also use matches, but you're out of the habit of both.
The sounds of traffic outside Central's offices always distracts from those misshapen memories, particularly the laughter of children, and you repeat your personal mantra until the inferno of the past fades. You listed five boxes. You don't need to recall more.
Five boxes. Five boxes. Five boxes.
When you say it long enough the words slur to fireboxes, then you know it has been years since you suffered the dusty smell of tents and Kimberly's laughter.
The Crimson Alchemist had mocked you for the duration of five crates. "Cheap imitation wannabe," he'd started with, watching you crook your knuckles again and again, concentrating on lighting only the wicks of the candles instead of melting the entire row into so much puddling wax. "Copycat."
Five boxes. At times you remember the actual totaled damages were much higher because you lost patience with all of Kimberly's jibes, and ignited the workbench.
When the air of Central's summer is in your nose carrying the death-stench of neighborhood barbecues, your recollection is the strongest, the most clear. Then the list reorders itself in your own handwriting. More lines are revealed. One replacement tent, two benches, and a burn kit for Kimberly.
Even so, you like to claim that it was only five crates.
"Listen," Kimberly had said after you'd both collaborated to extinguish the bench, taking your hands in his. "Look."
You stared as directed, at the twin brands of conjuration circles embedded into the other man's palms. The lines of the Crimson Alchemist's life were painted dark with ink. Such patterns weren't dissimilar to those on your own gloves, the triangles and whorls of detonation. Explosion. Combustion. Reactions at the very core, all with a destructive bent -- your training identified the meaning of Kimberly's palms automatically, finding the cousin-stems of transmutation and knowing them as familiar.
Crimson Alchemist. Flame Alchemist.
Kimberly waited long enough to establish that reminder of genealogy before taking his grip away.
"If you want to make gestures like I do, you'll need more class. You should tattoo," declared Kimberly once, an authority on battlefield style.
This was after the workbench, before the tent.
You stirred yourself when he said that, shook off your trance. Even now you turn your head in the same fashion, incline your chin at thin air whenever you remember how his voice had been so casual over the matter of death. Even when you are safe in Central and the grills running on the neighborhood lawns are sizzling with sausage links and steak, Kimberly's voice intrudes. You nod towards it, always.
Acknowledging. Not agreeing.
But your gaze has been known to wander; no one asks what you are looking at when distracted. Everyone is fooled.
"I have gloves."
"What will you do if your gloves are destroyed?"
This is said afterwards when the Crimson Alchemist is drawing circles on your palms with indelible marker, the kind you know will be wiped off in two hours from the sweat on your skin. Blame the battlefield.
"Tattoos aren't much better, Kimberly. I can take gloves off. I can't do that with ink." Here you frowned, as you do a thousand times in ember-brief recollection. "Can you cut that out?"
"Hah." He doesn't. "You think you can remove yourself from being an alchemist that easy, just by taking off your clothes?" Kimberly's long eyes twisted themselves into a snake's dry amusement. "Have you forgotten what kind of creatures we are?"
And then you don't remember very much after that, a glitch-skip in memory as your mind fills with fire. You know that in that time, something must have happened because filled on record there's an additional requisition chit for a pair of boots. Size Kimberly.
Admit it. You always had a temper like a tinderbox.
"We both specialize in the same things."
You remember Kimberly saying this later, much later, when history comes back into focus where it has hazed into summer-flame. He had a habit of prattling when smug. "But you worry too much about your control, Roy. Why don't you spend your efforts like I do? Just let it all out. Why else do we have such power, if not to use it freely?"
It was tempting, how Kimberly described chemical reaction. Analytical. Clean, far cleaner than the battlefield, and a relief in comparison to reality.
You don't let yourself be taken in. "An explosion that damages friendly troops is naturally a detriment. The point isn't to leave everyone dead, after all." Just the ones you're told to.
"You must be kidding. There's no such thing as friendly troops." Kimberly had stretched then, skimming his knuckles through the air like paper planes before folding them neatly behind his head. "Only friendly materials."
Rumor had reached your ears already by that point in time. Kimberly's death-toll was one of the highest on the field, and some whispered that it was because he didn't care for being choosy with his targets.
You chose to say nothing about it at the time of hearing. It wouldn't have looked good, commenting on the other alchemist whose tent you had to split, all because someone higher up on the chain of command found it logical to have the two most flammable alchemists housed together. Something about fireproofing and cost-effective materials, or maybe they thought you'd have something in common.
You don't. And your reply to Kimberly stated as much. "You shouldn't think of human lives that way."
"Why not? We're only tools ourselves. Weapons for the military to point and shoot. They're afraid of our power," Kimberly added, letting his eyes slip closed, "but they're attracted to it anyway. Power's a glorious thing, isn't it? It's what we are. And you and I in particular--we're the ones who burn."
You'd spent five crates-worth of candles during the war because you hadn't been able to control what you were feeling, the sick horror of it invading your throat even while you'd forced your knuckles to be steady. The nerves themselves had gone dead from having to strike a spark so often, lumps of flesh that you'd ordered to write and snap and even make dramatic motions at times when conversation required such falsification.
Your fellow officers had wondered why you needed so much practice, you who should have already been a master at a knife's edge combustion. Lighting cigars at ten paces normally took no effort at all. A taper was even simpler and ran no risk of crisping someone's face. But the temper of your tinderbox was locked down; you dared not acknowledge it openly, only watching your own control slide downhill while ever trying to mask it behind oilcloth-grey composure.
Instead, you tried to light candles.
And ruined every single one.
The war had gone on and Kimberly had watched you melt wax effigies in endless rows, laughing at you while your own frustration boiled strong.
When you wrote it down for the official record, you listed five crates of candle-casualties to replace the ones that died at your hand. Nothing more.