Roy used to think that "suddenly" didn't exist outside of romance novels and pulp fiction. "Suddenly, she melted into his arms." "Suddenly, a shot rang out." There was no suddenly when women melted into Roy's arms. It happened fast sometimes, but any melting was the predictable result of a campaign of well-crafted sweet nothings and carefully-timed backward glances. As for shots ringing out, that's only to be expected on a firing range.
Ishbal is sudden. One second a guy's asking you for a light, then with no interval at all he's dead at your feet. You only hear the rifle crack in retrospect. The shadow in the doorway becomes a child, becomes an enemy with a gun, becomes a pile of cracking charcoal. There's no transitions, no time to judge. You get an order — say, "Execute those doctors." The instant you hear those words, everything's already changed. You're a murderer or a deserter or a suicide: pick one, or all three. Nothing's happened yet, but it's already irrevocable.
The old woman in the voluminous black robes didn't appear suddenly. She was already squatting in a crumbling doorway when the patrol marched through the alley. Not all civilians fled the sound of soldiers' boots. Some still kept a foolish faith that if they didn't bother the soldiers, the soldiers wouldn't bother them. So Roy kept an eye on the woman, but he was more worried about unseen snipers who might lurk behind blown-out window frames.
His soldiers had their guns leveled on her in an instant, but she didn't flinch or flee.
"Stand up!" Roy held his gloved right hand high. "Put your hands over your head, turn around, and put your hands on the wall!"
The old woman stood up, but she didn't obey his other orders. She was close enough for him to see the red of her eyes— much too close, in this narrow alley, he shouldn't have let her get so close— and he had no trouble hearing her, even when she dropped the screech and spoke in calm, even tones. "If you're not a murderer, then you don't have to die."
That was a clear threat. Of course Roy was a murderer. Still, she hadn't yet reached for a weapon.
"Sir, shall we—"
"Not yet!" Roy snapped. "Woman, turn around now, or—"
Her hand dropped toward the folds of her robe.
Maybe her hand had moved because she'd started to turn, like he'd ordered her to. But he'd already snapped his fingers. In the instant it took for the oxygen surrounding her to burst into flame, he thought he heard a man shout.
Something slams into him, knocking him down behind the wall of a shattered building. His bones ring like a tuning fork. He tries to roll, but he can't tell when he hits the ground.
There's a weight on his back. His cheek is pressed into the sand. There's sand in his mouth.
An alarm clock is going off. Or a siren. The tone goes up and down in a steady rhythm.
Not a siren. His ears are ringing. The woman in the robes— she must have had grenades under them. Maybe a small bomb. When Roy incinerated her, he set it off. She knew he would do that. She did it on purpose.
He pulls himself out from under whatever's pinning him down and staggers to his feet. His vision blacks out as soon as he's upright. The ground lurches like a ship in rough waters. By the time he can see again, what he sees doesn't surprise him. Everyone's dead, of course, mostly in pieces. He can't even tell who was who.
Except, hadn't someone pushed him? A body, he'd shoved a body off his back. Sergeant Law is sprawled partly behind the wall. Roy drops to his knees beside the big man's body. The sand around him is as wet as if a wave had broken over it. Roy can't feel a pulse with his gloves on. He tries to pull one off, but it's gotten all sodden and clingy. He rips it off with his teeth. It's useless now anyway.
Law's eyes open. His lips move, but Roy can't hear anything over the siren.
"Hold on," Roy says, or thinks he says. He can't hear himself. Maybe Law can't hear either. He tries to speak loudly. "I'll take you back."
Roy puts Law's arm across his shoulder and hauls him to his feet. Roy's sight blacks out again when he stands, but he waits patiently for it to clear. Nothing wrong with my legs; therefore, I can walk, Roy thinks, or maybe says aloud. Law can't walk, but Roy can drag him. He can see again now, so he starts walking.
There was no gentle transition between sleep and waking, or even the briefest moment of being awake but not yet remembering. One instant there was nothing, the next he was lying rigid on his back, jaw and fists clenched, with the whole scene playing behind his closed eyes. His ears still rang. He wondered if he'd be able to hear himself if he spoke.
"Make it not have happened," he said experimentally.
"Roy? You awake?" Like his own, the voice was tinny and distorted, but recognizable. He opened his eyes. Hughes was hovering over him, so close that he blotted out any other view. Light flashed off of his glasses, painfully bright.
Roy recoiled. "Stop breathing on me."
"I'll take that as a yes."
Roy pushed Hughes away and surveyed his surroundings. He was on his cot, in his own tent. A lantern glowed on the table, and the air was cool. He was wearing clean, infirmary-issue pajamas. The infirmary must have gotten slammed after he'd arrived. They wouldn't kick out a State Alchemist, even one with minor injuries, unless they absolutely needed his bed.
"Did Law make it?"
"The guy they found you with? I think they sent him to Central."
"Oh." Central had better facilities, but anyone who was so badly wounded that Central was their only hope was unlikely to survive a two-day train ride. "Where's my gun?"
Hughes held it out. "I cleaned it for you. The barrel was clogged."
It gleamed all over, and smelled faintly of oil. Hughes had been meticulous. So Law was dead, everyone in the patrol was dead, and all because Roy had been trigger-happy. If you're not a murderer, then you don't have to die. She'd tested him, and he'd failed. His head ached. He pressed the cool metal grip to his temple.
"Roy!" Hughes grabbed the gun out of his hands. "What are you doing?"
"Nothing." As if he'd ever shoot himself in front of Hughes. "Safety's on… right?"
Hughes laid it down on the table. "I'll keep that here till you're not crazy."
That could be a problem. Roy contemplated Operation Get Hughes Out Of My Tent. Step one: Convince Him That I Am Just Fine. But he felt so foggy and disconnected, he couldn't think of anything less obvious than, "I'm fine. You don't have to watch over me any more."
He rubbed at his forehead. No, that was wrong, that would only convince him—
"Here! Have some aspirin." Hughes materialized beside the cot with a glass of water and a plate. "And cookies from Gracia! She sent me a care package. Everything was baked with her own sweet hands, and sealed in wax paper so it would keep, and then in layers of packaging so it wouldn't break. Isn't that smart? Isn't that thoughtful? Try one! Don't waste a single crumb of her precious love-filled baking!"
The cookie was stale and grainy, crumbling to dust in his fingers. He blew the crumbs off over the edge of the cot. "Del—"
There was dried blood under his fingernails. He'd thought his hands were clean, but they weren't. He broke his gaze before Hughes could notice.
"Did she send any pictures?" asked Roy. That distraction never failed.
"YOU WANT TO SEE?"
"Maybe one or two… I'm a little tired."
"LOOK! IT'S GRACIA PRUNING HER ROSES!"
Roy obediently regarded the photos. Maybe if he had a steady girlfriend back home, he'd be crazy like Hughes, instead of crazy like Roy. It was a disturbingly appealing thought.
"AND THIS IS GRACIA WITH HER NEW KITTEN! ISN'T IT FLUFFY?"
"'s lovely… And that's enough. My head hurts. I want to go to sleep. It is night, isn't it?"
Hughes folded the accordion of photos and whisked them back into his wallet. "Yes, it's night. Go to sleep, then."
"Turn off the light on your way out." He closed his eyes, and waited for the sound of footsteps. There were some scuffling noises, and the light went out. But no sound of the tent flap being unfastened and fastened.
Snippets of memory began to replay themselves. The moment before he snapped his fingers— why had he snapped his fingers? Why hadn't he ordered someone to search the woman? The taste in his mouth after he pulled off his glove, blood mixed with bitter chemicals. A weight across his shoulders, and warmth trickling down his back. The sand and ruins fade to black, and he can't feel his feet touching the ground. I'm dying, he'd thought, and felt neither fear nor sorrow nor the desire to fight, but only a small, quiet acceptance.
Why hadn't he died? What was the point? He'd never leave Ishbal. Even when the war was over, he'd still be here, every night, every moment of every day, until he found the courage to blot it all out. Why didn't Hughes realize that? All that babble about finding Roy a girlfriend. Did Hughes actually think Roy could be redeemed by love? Roy read romance novels on the sly to find out what women wanted. Maybe Hughes took them seriously.
Roy opened his eyes. The light was dim, but it wasn't hard to spot the Hughes-shaped figure curled up on the floor under a blanket. So. No attempt tonight. He was disappointed, then guiltily relieved, then angry at himself for being relieved. But mostly he was tired.
He swung his legs over the edge of the cot, careful not to kick Hughes, and went to fetch his gun. Since he came to Ishbal, he hadn't been able to sleep without it. Hughes ought to have guessed that. For a smart guy, Hughes could be awfully…
…smart. Sure enough, the gun wasn't loaded. He wondered if Hughes had meant to let him take it out like that. No, more likely he'd planned to reload it in the morning, figuring the biggest danger was tonight. Well, Roy would save him the trouble. He found the cartridge, and slammed it into place with a satisfying click.
Just like when he'd burned the old woman, he knew it was the wrong thing to do the moment he did it. But this time, he knew why. Roy threw himself to the floor and rolled. The table tipped over with a crash. Roy looked up. Hughes was on his feet by the cot. On the opposite side of the tent, first one, then another knife fell from the canvas wall, where they'd momentarily stuck at the height of Roy's heart.
"Hughes? You all right?"
"I'm going to put the light on."
Even in the yellow lantern light, Hughes' face was white with shock. He blinked at Roy, then backed up a step and sat down heavily on the cot. The metal parts of the cot began to rattle gently.
"You're cold. You shouldn't sleep on the floor, it's freezing. Here." He put a blanket around Hughes' shoulders.
"Your arm's bleeding," said Hughes.
Roy glanced down. "It's nothing. A paper cut. Maybe you should lie down."
"I'm all right. I'll just look at a prettier face than yours for a minute." He took out his wallet.
Roy knew that Hughes had his share of blood on his hands, and yet he still felt irrationally betrayed that Hughes wasn't immune to its consequences. "All this stuff about 'when I marry Gracia,' and 'when Gracia and I and our grandkids go out on a picnic'— how's that going to work, Hughes? You're not even going to be able to sleep in the same room as her."
Hughes threw down the blanket. "I've thought about that. When I get back, I am going to remind myself every moment of the day that I am back, until I believe it. I'm not going to sleep with weapons. And if that's not enough, she can tie my hands to the bed. I'm not staying here all my life, Roy. I have to move forward."
The ringing in his ears was fainter now. Roy heard him loud and clear.
They picked up the table and replaced its scattered papers, and then Roy stooped to collect the knives on the floor. One of them had blood smeared along the blade.
"Toss me that rag over there," said Roy. "I'll clean this one for you."