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for the serpent has died and i'm leaning by your side

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There’s a lot of noise in the time immediately after Edward deals the killing blow to the homunculus that nearly became a god. The eerie silence which he expects from all the old stories of good versus evil is instead enveloped very quickly by cheering and yelling and shrieks of jubilation which clatter around in his head like a rouge bouncy ball. He feels the ground trembling beneath him, and he tenses – before realising it is simply the footfalls of soldiers around him and Hawkeye. He estimates that entire battalions pass the two of them and it makes him laugh a little at how easy it is for him to tell which soldiers come from Fort Briggs, and which come from Central. The Briggs men are softer, quicker in their pacing and barely bely the exertion they must feel – the Central soldiers, on the other hand, are heavy and clumsy in their gait, and have no idea of what fitness is apparently.

He feels Hawkeye shift next to him, resting her weight on her other foot, gripping his side a little tighter than he expects as she does so. Her breathing is laboured, and for the first time since the battle has finished Roy really thinks about how much he has put her through today.

It is too much. He should never have had to ask this much of her – and yet she would broker no deal where her role was less. It was difficult to try and ignore the dark circles under her eyes as they woke early this morning, nor the slight gauntness to her frame as they dressed for the battle that would come. The months she spent under the watchful eye of not just one homunculi, but two – took a toll on her physically in ways he didn’t want to think about.

Mentally was another problem altogether.

“Hawkeye…” he begins, his mouth dry and cracking over her name. He feels her breath hitch, followed by a tensing of her muscles.

“Sir?” she responds quietly. Her voice is jagged and rough and he wonders just how much of a patchwork job the young girl from Xing had done. Her cut had been clean, and he would vehemently argue it was the only blessing to come out of that awful situation – at the time all he could think of was her blood spilling out of her like a grotesque necklace, dripping down the hollow of her throat, but in actuality he should – she should – count themselves lucky that a clean cut was all she got. He’s well-aware of how cruel the homunculi could be.

He would never admit this to her, but he had woken up more times than he could count in a cold sweat, images of her impaled on Bradley’s swords like an animal left to be bled (he had read the reports of what had gone down in Dublith the last time the Elric’s had visited, and his informants based there had not spared him any detail). He imagined her being left on his doorstep, gutted and bloodless like a carcass ready to be cut for consumption, ribs brutally smashed open: there would only be hollow where her heart ought to be and damn him for not doing enough to protect her.

He doesn’t know too much about the physiology of homunculi, only that they fought well and burned better, but it doesn’t take much to assume that all of them were capable of eating humans. He wonders if it would have come to that, and whether Wrath was possible of the empathy to make her death a quick and clean one.

He doesn’t want to think about the kind of pain that she’s in – what she is doing just to remain upright for his sake – he feels like he has been hit by a truck and ran over at least half a dozen times. Both of his hands are aching and cramping and stinging in a way that is far worse than when he had to burn himself; he feels the blood still dripping down his gloved fingers slowly – the warmth of which makes him feel ill. There’s a pain behind his eyes that reminds him of the migraines he used to get when he was a teenager, and he idly wonders why he didn’t suffer a worse fate with Truth. The Elric’s had lost their bodies in extremely violent and distressing ways; it didn’t make sense that he wouldn’t also suffers something similar. He doubts Truth cares how people come to the Gate – like his refusal to perform human transmutation himself meant anything to the weird not-entity that he can still recall (and he’ll be damned if the last thing he remembers seeing is something like that, he would much prefer a view a little closer to home).

“Sir?” Hawkeye asks him again, her voice barely a whisper this time.

“Am I bleeding out of my eye sockets?” The question is so inane and he has to try his best not to crack a smile – he feels the adrenaline lessening now; his heart no longer feels like it is lodged in his throat, and he feels his pulse strongly in his fingers, a steady but painful tha-thump, tha-thump. Tha-thump. The pain is sharpening now in his hands, and he grimaces as he tries to adjust his right hand that is loosely curled into her side. The stiffening in his tendons is a bad sign – he knows enough about first aid to realise that he needs to be seen by at least a nurse soon, but his men are his first priority. His bleeding, while continuous, has slowed – he feels the gummy texture of the haemoglobin stick around the entry and exit wound on his hand as he shifts it from Hawkeye’s waist to her shoulder, his gloves fraying seams catching on her loose hair. It’s a familiar sensation under his fingertips, even through the fabric of his gloves – she was blessed with thin hair, but plenty of it.

He puts the slightest amount of tension on her hair - not a tug, his head is throbbing and he doesn't imagine how badly she must be feeling, what she isn't letting on to him. The Lieutenant inclines her head ever so slightly – it's an old code of theirs – older than their names; than the well-placed taps of pens on wood; than a lifted eyebrow across an office.

"You shouldn't be speaking," he murmurs, twisting her hair in between his fingers more until he thinks he will not be separated from her. The noises around them are becoming more frequent and loud as every second passes; as every breath passes through his lungs. The air is tinged with gunpowder and smoke. It comes in waves as the wind shifts and Roy is suddenly reminded an awful lot of Ishval. It is the same sounds as after a heavy attack gone successfully; the same atmosphere when the commanders officially declared the end of the war – there is chaos here, but it is tinged with relief, with joy that is barely restrained. He knows there are dead bodies littering the parade grounds here, as there were amongst the sand dunes and rubble.

These soldiers, at least, will be noticed and taken care of with the respect they should not even have to deserve. The Promised Day – whatever the military decides is a fitting name – will immortalise these men and their ranks in stone. There will be parades and minutes of silence as people pay faux penance for sins that they let grow instead of addressing.

A band of Northern soldiers suddenly sprints by, yelling loudly and frantically – their accents a stark contrast to the reserved tones of Central. There is more movement their way now, and eventually Riza stands a little straighter, taking slightly deeper breaths that he can almost feel rattle around in her lungs. “We should move, sir,” she tells him firmly, her voice only wavering a little. “Triage tents are being set up to the north.”

Roy hesitates before he nods, and lets himself be guided by her hands. The cacophony grows louder with every steady, laboured step they make – the familiar screams of makeshift surgery; the frustrated yells for help; the hoarse sobs that are a constant beat in this human symphony. It is too reminiscent of Ishval, and Roy feels ill at the implications of what that means.

He doesn’t need to tell Riza what he is feeling. He knows that she understands, that she too, remembers. Her fingers grip into his coat even tighter as they pass what sounds like a rudimentary operating theatre. They might be walking on polished stone instead of stone carved by sand, but the horrors remain the same and the cruelty of humanity is still laid bare for anybody to see.

He has no idea where they are anymore on the parade grounds. His mind’s eye is hopelessly lost – though he supposes even with eyesight it would still be difficult to recognise the parade grounds now. Riza explains that the middle is torn beyond repair, alchemic or otherwise, and so what’s left of the Central troops and the Briggs battalions find themselves on the perimeters of the land, skirting structural faults that look ready to collapse at a moment’s notice.

They walk in silence for a bit, both intently focused on staying upright amongst the chaos around them. The tang of iron is palpable in the air, and he feels it coat his tongue in a greasy film.

“Hawkeye-” he starts, but she roughly yanks him down suddenly onto what feels like a cot, and he’s still as she lets out a pained sigh, her hand that was so tightly gripping his side loosening. She breathes deeply for a minute, and he can hear how exerted she is. His hand finds her wrist and he strokes over her pulse point, marvelling at how frantically it beats and flutters under his touch. Eventually he feels the tempo lessen and her body begin to relax next to him, leaning into him a little more than what would be considered strictly appropriate. He doesn’t care. She’s warm next to him, and smells faintly of his soap and sweat.

He wonders what will become of the Briggs soldiers, the ones he saw that were soaked with Amestrian blood. General Armstrong would be wise to make a hasty exit from Central if she wanted to keep her men relatively intact. Central soldiers may have been taken by surprise in this attack, hopelessly under-skilled and out-manoeuvred: but vengeance was something that was bred into their bones, into their very beings.

It is cooler here, and all he can hear is the familiar cadences of Amestrian, with the heavy Northern accent thundering out every so often. Northerners were such loud people.

Riza huffs a little and he doesn't stop the smile growing on his face. Against each and every insurmountable obstacle that they faced today, they still made it through – every single one of them, and every single one of his men. Anticipating causalities was a necessary evil of their plan - and it wasn't entirely unlikely that at least one person in his team would get severely injured or worse.

He hadn't been anticipating Riza, however. The entire day had been a flurry of emotional highs and lows and he could still hear her choked-out pleas ringing in his ears to just stop, please don't make me do this, this is not you, this is not who you are this is not

She truly was his weakness – only she could render him immobile, it was only her now that he could not raise a hand to.

"Thank you for following my orders, Lieutenant," he begins lowly. She shifts a little next to him and it must be killing her that she can't respond but it is killing him more knowing that he is the reason she cannot in the first place. "Without you today..." he sighs and trails off, his gloved thumb rubbing against the bare skin of her neck carefully.

"I fear today might have turned out very differently if not for you. Thank you." His tone is soft, barely carrying over the cacophony surrounding them - soldiers are passing the two of them more frequently where they sit, near what he can only assume is the main triage camp being frantically set up. He knows it is not coincidence that she has moved them both to be near it – not for her sake, of course, but for his. Her ridiculous and at times maddening ability to put him above everything else (including herself) never fails to amuse him as much as it annoys him.

She shifts against him again and the hand resting on his back curls into his side, and he feels the indent of her fingernails, even through the heavy cloth of his coat. He doesn’t stop the small smile he can feel growing on his face, but instead lifts his head up. He can feel the sun on his skin, despite the cool spring breeze that moves through the parade grounds every so often. In spite of the pain that is slowly ebbing from his hands and eyes to the rest of his body, he feels lighter than he has in months.

It wasn’t like his plans (which were always very well-laid, thank you very much) normally went awry, but it was honestly refreshing to realise he wouldn’t need to worry about almost anything for a while now. He wouldn’t need to worry for his life – for her life. He could spend just a little bit of time remembering that he had helped defeat the greatest evil to befall his country in living memory and almost everyone had come out the other side relatively intact.

“Thank you for not dying,” she responds after a while, her voice barely above a whisper now. She shifts a little closer to him, her leg warm against his own. They’re quiet for a while, Riza rubbing his back in a soothing motion, sometimes stopping to trace messages instead. Roy doesn’t care what people must be thinking, at this blatant expression of familiarity that most certainly goes beyond the safe boundaries of a superior officer and his subordinate. He realises that she’s rested her head on his shoulder, and her breathing has slowed, no longer stiff and rattle-like. Her hand still traces letters lightly on the small of his back but they are lazy now, no longer urgent.

Home, he realises after another while, focusing on the languid strokes and the barest pressure of her nails as she begins the word again. Her m’s are beyond recognition, but the kiss she presses into the shoulder her head rests on speaks far more than her bruised and bloody fingers.

His hand shifts from where it had been resting on the edge of her shoulder back to the fragile and mottled skin of her neck, careful not to agitate her wound with the roughness of his ignition gloves as he splays them against the space where her shoulder meets her neck. His thumb slips under the thin fabric of her turtleneck, rubbing firmly against the bone at the top of her spine. It juts out a little more than what he was expecting – and though she’s allowed to relax her posture now, for crying out loud, it certainly points to an underlying concern that she’s not in the healthiest of conditions.

She needs the rest. They all do.