No one really bothered to mention that the Northwest Patrol Route is pretty much a trek across a frozen tundra wasteland. That’s Central for you.
Matt drops the last load—well, the last fairly pathetic armful—of firewood onto the pile. “Sorry,” he says. “That’s the best I can do.”
“This is fine,” Axel says.
Saxon, glancing up from the never-pleasant task of trying to stretch the rations just a little more, looks like he begs to differ.
Axel’s smiling, though, so Matt smiles back. “Don’t tell General Mustang,” Axel says, bringing his hands together and then touching the kindling, which immediately lights.
“I wouldn’t tell Mustang the time of day,” Saxon mutters without looking up. “Or the way to water in the desert. Or that he’d lit his own coat on fire—”
“Hey, come on,” Matt says uneasily. “It’s not his fault we’re out here.”
Saxon gives him a look that would make anyone who didn’t live with Mello begin to cry.
Matt considers Axel, who has leaned in towards the fire, open palms extended to the heat. Matt’s never quite had the guts to ask how he lost the eye—or to tell him how bitchin’ the eyepatch looks against his hair.
“I thought there was only supposed to be one Flame Alchemist,” he says instead.
“There was.” Axel rubs his hands together. “I cheated.”
There are rumors. There are rumors that Axel used to smile all the time, used to draw the most beautifully intricate circles the Exam Board had ever seen. There were rumors that there had been a boy, then—a boy with hair like wheat and a smile like the sunrise.
But those were just rumors, after all.
“How’s your blond friend?” Axel asks. “Didn’t he get transferred, too?”
Matt settles on the opposite side of the fire and nods. “Eastern border. The letters are pretty much extended rants about how much he hates sand. Given how much ends up in the envelopes, I kind of can’t blame him.”
“What about the rest of your harem?” Saxon asks, handing out what passes for dinner these days.
Matt has been starting to think that this is actually the way Saxon talks to people he likes—people he doesn’t like probably don’t merit speech at all.
“Near got sent up to Briggs,” Matt says. “He’s got mixed feelings about the whole thing, but he keeps thrashing everyone at the camouflage drills, which he’s been enjoying so far.”
An amused Axel turns to Saxon next. “Don’t you have someone?”
Saxon stabs a twig into the fire. “No.”
“You did, though,” Axel says, ignoring the Mayday face Matt is making with gusto. “Because it was the Titanium Alchemist and the Alchemist of Light. It was the two of you.”
Saxon’s eyes are harder than his namesake. “Briefly,” he says, “it was.”
There’s a pause.
“Well,” Axel says, so cheerfully that Matt is very worried he’ll get a titanium spike through his remaining eye, “there’s still hope. Until both of you are dead, there’s always hope.”
And Matt starts to think—and then to wonder—and then to fear.
Saxon sees his face and smiles thinly. Almost lazily, he turns to Axel. “Why don’t you tell him, Silverwrit?”
“Tell him what?” Even a less-experienced liar than Matt would identify that innocence as fake.
Meticulously, Saxon folds the packets of his finished food. “Tell him about your taboo.”
Axel is quiet for a moment, looking at the fire. He slips off his right glove, reaches out to the edge of the flames, and entices one onto his fingertip, where it dances just above his skin. “If they didn’t stigmatize it,” he says, “maybe it wouldn’t always go so wrong.” He looks at Matt, plaintively. “Wouldn’t you do anything? For Mello, or Near—wouldn’t you do anything you had to if it meant you could have them again?” He turns to Saxon. “Wouldn’t you?”
Saxon looks away.
“I guess I should have learned my lesson,” Axel says, pulling the glove back on. “But I don’t have anything left to lose, so I figure I might as well see it through.”
Matt wishes, furiously, that he could stop staring at the eyepatch—staring, and imagining…—because it’s got to be rude.
“That’s not the only thing I gave,” Axel says. He undoes the first few buttons of his coat and holds his shirt open underneath. If there had been anything substantial in Matt’s stomach, it would have been in danger when he saw the scar. “When I woke up,” Axel says, “I had an automail heart. Apparently I was legally dead for two minutes between when they heard the screams and when they got me upstairs to the operating room.”
“I do have to award points for the performance of forbidden alchemy in the basement of a military hospital,” Saxon says. Coming from him, that’s a fairly high compliment.
“It seems to me that the most important part of life is finding the thing you’re willing to die for,” Axel says, buttoning his coat again. “So there’s nothing anyone can do to me now.”
“I would, though,” Matt says. “For Mello and Near—I’d do anything it took.”
“I’m going to eviscerate Mustang with my bare hands,” Saxon says, “for sending me into the frozen wilderness with not one, but two ginger romantics.”
Axel grins. “Tough shit, Harry,” he says.