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Sons of the Desert

Chapter Text

Creator…

I have been guilty of pride. I sought vengeance in Your name when it was not my place to judge. I took lives in anger when the skills taught to me in Your name were meant as a means of defense and meditation. I took the lives of innocents and tried to take the lives of others. Why, then, O Creator, have you spared me? Am I to atone for what I've done? What path am I—

"Toby."

Scar slowly drew his thoughts back from years and miles away to give his companion an odd look.

"What?"

"Toby. How does that sound?"

Scar shook his head and turned back to stare at the passing countryside. The sun was starting to set, and they had reached the point where expanses of grass and tall, leafy ash and elms were giving way to bare earth, scrubby plants, and short, drooping meskaa trees. Clouds gathered far ahead to the east, but as Scar mentioned, the rains wouldn't hit for another month.

"It's not funny anymore, Miles."

Miles gave a quiet chuckle and downshifted as they began the ascent up a hill. "Oh, I don't know. It's a lot less painful than banging my head against a wall. I can't call you 'Ishvalan'. We're going to be among a whole populace of Ishvalans in a matter of time, so a name like that won't exactly stand out."

"Your general didn't seem to have a problem with it."

"She's not here."

Scar frowned. No, she wasn't here, but her parting words were more than just a dramatic exit. We'll meet again, Ishvalan. Whatever meeting she was planning on was intended to be on her terms, as were most of her dealings. Scar gave an inward sigh. He never had much luck with women.

She did give them a good car from the Armstrong family fleet, though. Scar had to admit it was a nice change from trudging across Amestris on foot or sneaking onto empty railway cars. So here he was, with only a small bundle of meager possessions donated by a group of Ishvalans Miles had managed to make contact with before they left for their homeland. The only item Scar could really call his, and then only partly, was the tattered remains of his brother's research notes. The puzzle hidden in its pages was now dwarfed by the new one that Brother and Ishvala seemed to have conspired to present him with.

What now?

He never meant to outlive either his objective or his anonymity. His purpose and his identity were now blank slates with a few cautious ideas written on them. He had severed his ties with humanity only to forge an odd assortment of new ones through the strangest quirks of fate. Now he traveled with two of these companions, men he had grown to respect, one almost immediately, the other over time.

He envied Miles. The major was his opposite in many ways. He was comfortable in his own skin, and he was accustomed to living in two worlds. Perhaps it was his military training and his natural leadership, but he was much more confident about this endeavor than Scar was. When they arrived in Ishval, it would not be Miles who would feel like a fish out of water.

As much as Scar liked him, however, the name game was getting old.

"Metzengerstein."

"What?"

The passenger in the back seat laughed quietly. Scar glanced over his shoulder at him. He was not someone Scar envied, but in the face of improbability, he had grown fond of him. Colonel Mustang had suggested to Miles that he take Marcoh along with him, since the doctor had practically begged to practice medicine in Ishval.

Marcoh's features, wizened before their time, crinkled into a smile. "I once had a classmate named Metzengerstein," he remarked. "He wasn't terribly bright."

"Fine," Miles said. "Forget that one. Give me time. Something brilliant will come to me."

Scar went back to staring out the window.

Creator, I'm grateful for Miles' friendship, but if you sent him to me as a trial, it's working.

...................................................................................................................................

The initial impression of Ishval was a bleak one, and it was Miles' first look at the land of his grandfather. Even with his considerable experience of battle, he gazed in silent awe at the destruction.

"I gave Edward Elric crap about how the Amestrians really did a number on Ishval," he muttered in dark anger, "but I wasn't even close."

They had stopped the car and gotten out to gaze at what looked like nothing more than a field of rubble. It was only barely recognizable as a place where people once lived. Native plants had grown in, around, and over the wreckage as the desert reclaimed the area.

"This is just the outer extremity," Marcoh said. "I understand the military has set up a refugee camp closer to the center."

"Hmm! Refugees in our own land," Scar remarked dryly.

Marcoh pursed his lips and looked down at his shoes. "I didn't mean it like that."

Scar glanced at the older man. He knew how important it was to Marcoh to come here and how much courage it must have taken. He dropped his hand on the doctor's shoulder. "I know you didn't."

"Let's get going then," Miles said, turning abruptly away from the grim aspect before them.

They got back in the car and drove on. The road they traveled on showed evidence of having been recently cleared, with piles of rubble lining each side. Miles sped up a little, anxious to get to where there was some semblance of civilization. As dusk fell over the land, they could see lights ahead. The rubble began to give way to a large cleared area.

Set back from the road along each side were rows of white army tents. Standing around and between them were a number of Ishvalans. They paused momentarily to watch the car drive by, only half interested at first. They then did a double-take, seeing the driver and his front seat passenger.

"That looks like headquarters up there." Miles jerked his chin toward a large tent up ahead. Above it, fluttering in the evening breeze, was the green and white Amestrian flag.

There was a select few who were aware of the real evil behind the white rampant dragon that danced overhead. The general public had been given the safe, "official" version of how the military senior staff had plotted to use a massive alchemical experiment to overthrow the government. They had no knowledge of the cold, inhuman hand that directed the near calamity. It was debatable as to whether being kept in ignorance was really for the citizenry's own good. Scar didn't really care anymore. It was only right that the Amestrians should be here to clean up the mess they made, and it was now up to them to change what that flag represented. He had done his part.

A couple of officers came out of the tent as the car pulled up and came to a stop. One of them, a thick patch of reddish hair on his head, wore his uniform jacket open to accommodate his stocky midriff. The other was taller and slenderer with a neatly trimmed mustache and goatee. A couple of strands of unruly dark brown hair fell over his forehead from his otherwise precise military haircut. Miles got out of the car and walked over to them. They clicked their heels together and snapped a salute.

"Welcome to Ishval, Major," Lt. Breda said with a half-grin. "It's good to see you again."

"Thank you, Lieutenant." Miles turned to the other soldier, his smile broadening. "Karley! Did you decide you couldn't take the cold anymore?"

Karley grinned back. "Just for a while. They needed a good communications man here, and Mustang won't let go of Fuery."

"Yeah, me he sends out here," Breda growled good-naturedly. They all knew that he was Mustang's watchdog and had been sent as the best man for the job.

He looked past Miles as Scar and Marcoh got out of the car. "Ah. It's true then," he said under his breath. "There were rumors…"

"Is it going to be a problem, Lieutenant?" Miles asked quietly.

"No, sir," Breda murmured quickly. "It's your command, after all." Aloud, he called, "Good evening, gentlemen! Doctor Marcoh! Glad you could make it!" He turned to Scar as the big Ishvalan approached. "Welcome home…uh…" He faltered for a moment, and Miles waved his hand.

"Don't worry about it right now," the major said. "Just don't call him late for dinner."

"Whatever you say, sir. Speaking of which, I'll take you over to the mess tent whenever you're ready."

.............................................................................................................................

The sun rose early in midsummer.

Somewhere just outside his tent Scar could hear the squawking of a cactus wren. It had woken him up some time ago and it apparently had no intention of leaving. Not that he minded. That sound had been such an integral part of his life growing up in Ishval that he stopped noticing. Hearing it again, he realized how much he had missed it. They were bold, jaunty birds who acted like they owned the place. As Scar listened to its raucous call, he considered how the Ishvalans ought to be learning by the bird's example.

When they drove in the evening before, the Ishvalans they had passed seemed listless and dispirited. Scar supposed it was not to be wondered at. The journey here had been a long one, and they were still exhausted, both physically and mentally. They had been offered rides on military transport, but many were reluctant to take the offer, not being entirely confident that they would actually be taken home and not driven out to some remote place and shot. They opted to walk.

Time had dulled the edges of their memory, and when they arrived, they were overwhelmed by the scale of destruction. They were then relegated to rows of identical, featureless tents. They had lost the feeling of home and individuality, even in their own land. More and more of them would be arriving here every day, having uprooted themselves from wherever they had tried to make a home over the past six years. Yes, their needs were being seen to. They were given food and water, shelter and blankets. But it would be a long time before this place would feel like home again.

The squawking stopped and there was a brief fluttering of wings. The bird had flown off but was probably still close by. They were very territorial. Scar then heard the crunch of two sets of footsteps not far from his tent.

"Major!" he heard a man's voice call. He thought he might have heard that voice before, but he wasn't sure.

"Behaving yourself, Havoc?" Miles' voice replied. The footsteps had halted and the voices were now closer together.

"Aww, I don't have to behave myself anymore, Major. I'm a civilian."

"I thought you'd get back into uniform once you were on your feet."

"Yeah, I did, too. But I like this new setup better."

"Gun running?" There was a grin in Miles' voice.

"No, no. I prefer 'merchant adventurer.' If the army can't get a hold of it, I can."

"Sounds like you're enjoying yourself."

"Oh, hell, yeah! I have some of my buddies to hang out with here, and I still get to eat McGinty's cooking. Damn! Remember what we used to say about him during those training exercises?"

"McGinty doesn't take shit from anybody, but he's got no problem dishing it up on a plate."

The two men laughed, then Havoc said, "So, I hear you brought our new best friend along with you."

There was a pause, then Miles spoke in a slightly cautious tone. "Doctor Marcoh?"

"No, Major. The other guy. You know…" Scar could imagine the other speaker drawing an X on his forehead with his finger. "Or is it a big secret?"

"Apparently not," Miles replied dryly.

"Hey, we're all on the same side now, right? If the colonel okayed it, that's jake with me."

"General Armstrong didn't seek the colonel's approval."

Havoc gave a chuckle. "Yeah, but he'll balls his way through it. Well, I'll see you around, Major. If there's anything you need, you just let me know."

"Thank you, Mr. Havoc. I'll keep that in mind."

One set of footsteps moved away and out of hearing, while the other moved closer to Scar's tent.

"You up?"

Scar sat up on his cot and set his feet on the ground. "I am now. I'm not sure who chattered the loudest, you two or that bird."

Miles laughed quietly. "Sorry about that."

The tent flap lifted and the major ducked his head down to step inside. Scar met his eyes as he straightened up. "I'm not going to apologize for being here, Miles."

"No one's asking you to. Between the general and me, you didn't have much choice."

"And I'm tired of hearing whether Mustang approves."

"So am I. Consider it a closed subject. Are you up for a tour?"

Scar drew in a deep breath and let it out slowly. The clear light of morning was unlikely to make the landscape look any better, but it couldn't look any worse. "I suppose."

"Do you think you could stomach breakfast first?"

Scar reached over to the stool where he had put his shirt. "I spent the past six years eating peoples' garbage. I can stomach anything. I'll be with you in a few minutes."

Miles nodded and stepped outside. Scar pulled his shirt on over his head, then rose to his feet, facing east toward the rising sun. He closed his eyes and lifted his hands, palms facing up.

Creator, thank you for the light of this day, even if the light proves to be harsh.

...................................................................................................................

"I almost can't believe it can be done."

They stood on a hill overlooking what was once Kanda. Vegetation wove in and out of the skeletal buildings and through the streets, doing little to soften the devastation. Miles looked back down at the map he had brought with him.

"Did you live down there somewhere?" he asked.

Scar didn't need to look at the map. He had stood on this hill many times for a few moments of solitude. It was once quieter here than down in the city below. Now the city was just as eerily silent as the last time he stood here, blood dripping from his face and his arm. He had broken that silence with a primal scream.

He pointed off to the right. "It's hard to see now, but there's a slightly wider street. The third one from this narrow street just below."

Miles frowned at the wreckage below, then nodded. "Yeah, I see it."

"About a half mile from the base of this hill is...was my parents' house. On the right side of the street."

It was hard to tell where one building started and another ended. "I'll take your word for it."

Scar pointed further off to the right. "My brother kept a room where he did his studying. It was two streets over and three doors down." He then gazed off to his left, shaking his head after a few moments. "There's no trace of it now, but over there"—he pointed to a spot roughly half a mile away—"in the middle of this district, was the Kanda temple, where I was educated and trained." He lowered his arm. "It was as much a home to me as my parents' house."

Miles consulted the map once more. A series of gridlines had been drawn on it in preparation for clearing. He took a pencil from his pocket and drew circles roughly around the spots where Scar had pointed. To Scar's questioning look, he replied, "Just as a point of reference."

Scar shook his head. "I'm not ready to go down there yet," he said.

"That's just as well, then," Miles said. "It's going to be off limits to anyone other than authorized personnel for the time being. You said yourself the place is full of snakes and scorpions and God knows what else." He rolled up the map and tucked it under his arm. He nodded at the scene below. "I probably don't even have to ask this, but wasn't this Kimblee's handiwork?"

Scar's jaw tightened. "Yes."

Miles looked over at him. There was a lot of anger and hatred packed into that single word. "Ready to head back?"

Scar didn't reply at first. He gazed out before him, trying to envision what Kanda had once looked like and remember what it had sounded like, but all that came to his mind were shadows and echoes. He turned away. "Yes, I'm ready."

They walked back to the main camp, passing Karley and his team as they pulled the newly-built steel lattice radio tower to an upright position. On the other side of the road were the supply tents. The flaps of one of them were pulled wide open and a few Ishvalans were inside. A woman stood peering into a box being held by a soldier, and a tall, blond man with a short beard was offering candy sticks from a jar to two children. He looked up and waved as Scar and Miles paused nearby. A moment later, the woman came out, followed by the soldier carrying the box, then by the two children happily sucking on their candy. Scar watched them as they walked on toward the tent city. The woman was chatting pleasantly with the soldier, and the children certainly seemed content. He supposed it was an encouraging sight.

Up ahead, leaning against the trunk of a meskaa tree was an Ishvalan man. He watched the small family and their soldier escort with only vague interest, then, apparently bored, he pushed away from the tree and started along the road toward Scar and Miles. He was a handsome man, but his features were somewhat marred by an underlying truculence. As he drew closer, both he and Scar stopped and regarded each other in mutual recognition.

"So. It's you," the man remarked with little enthusiasm. "I heard you were back." He gave Miles a noncommittal glance before jerking his head toward a group of soldiers. "It's like we never left. The place still looks like hell and it's still crawling with Amestrians."

"Who are here to rebuild," Miles said stiffly.

The man gave Miles a sharp look and a slight, mocking smile. Before he opened his mouth again, Scar spoke.

"Stanno, where is Rada?"

Stanno turned to him, almost startled. "Rada?" He gave a short, harsh laugh. "Hell if I know and hell if I care!"

It was Scar's turn to look startled. "What do you mean? What happened?"

Stanno brushed away the questions dismissively. "I don't want to talk about it." He gave them both a look of barely concealed scorn before continuing on his way. "I've got no time for anybody who sleeps with the enemy."

Scar watched his retreating back, a troubled frown on his face.

"Tch! Nice guy," Miles said caustically. "Friend of yours?"

"Hardly."

"Good thing. What do you suppose he meant by that last comment?"

Scar's frown deepened. "I'm not sure."

"I certainly hope he wasn't referring to us." Miles clapped a hand on Scar's shoulder. "I like you. Just not that much."

Chapter Text

The encounter with Stanno left Scar broodingly quiet, and Miles left the subject untouched. He himself was irritated enough by the man's attitude, something they did not need here.

The heat was beginning to irritate him as well. Miles pulled off his uniform jacket and slung it over his shoulder. He wiped the perspiration off his forehead with the back of his hand in an impatient gesture. Scar glanced at him.

"It's still early," he said. "It's going to get hotter."

"Well, that's just great, isn't it?" Miles grumbled. "Can we find some damn shade for a few minutes?"

Scar nodded toward the supply tent that stood nearby and they went inside. It wasn't much cooler in there, but they were out of the sun's intense rays.

A group of four soldiers, working in their shirt sleeves, were shifting packing crates and taking inventory of their contents. When the major entered, they stopped what they were doing and stood at attention.

"As you were," Miles said wearily. "Is there any water in here?"

"Right over here, Major!"

Jean Havoc waved the two of them over to a table that stood at one end of the tent. There was a collection of tin cups next to a barrel with a spigot at the bottom. He held out two of the cups. "Belly up!"

He grinned at Miles as the major gulped down the water. "You Briggs boys may have finally met your match. Or is there really much of a difference between stinkin' hot and stinkin' cold?"

"I'll take the cold any day," Miles replied.

"I realize Colonel Mustang was anxious to start this project," Scar said, "but it's not the right time of year."

"You could have said something," Miles remarked.

"No one asked me."

"So how do you folks do anything in this heat?" Havoc ventured to ask.

Scar looked at him and realized why he was familiar. He remembered seeing him on a rainy day back in East City in the company of Colonel Mustang. At the time, he had taken the gathering of so many alchemists in one place as a sign from God. He still believed so, but not in the way he originally imagined. If Mustang and his men had not appeared when they did, he would have taken Edward Elric's life. He wasn't exactly fond of the boy, but he was glad he was prevented from making that mistake.

"We work around it," Scar replied. "In the early morning and late into the evening. We spend the middle of the day inside."

"Well, we're on a timetable," Miles said. "We don't have the leisure to spend waking hours doing nothing."

"I never said we were idle," Scar countered. "That time is spent doing domestic work, teaching, studying, that sort of thing. Whatever needs to be done inside."

"It is also a good time for prayer and meditation."

Scar turned quickly. Entering the tent was his master, still as strong and serene as he had always been.

"Saahad!" Scar stepped up to him, taking his hand and touching it to his forehead in the gesture of respect. "Did you just get here?"

The old priest beamed at his pupil. "Oh, no! I've been here for several days. Some of our brothers and I accepted the kindness of a ride here from an amiable young soldier." He gave Scar an appraising look. "No one seemed to know what had happened to you, but you look well!" He looked over at Miles. "And you. You must be Major Miles."

Scar led the old priest back over to the table. "Miles, this is my teacher, Saahad Bozidar."

The old man held out his hand and Miles took it with a slight hesitance, wondering if he should copy Scar's gesture, but the priest simply shook his hand firmly. "I am very pleased to finally meet you."

"Likewise, sir," Miles replied.

"I understand you are the commanding officer?"

"For the military. I'm temporarily authorized to act in a civil capacity if called upon."

"I'm sure we are in good hands," Bozidar said with a benevolent smile.

"Something to wet your whistle?" Jean said, holding out a cup of water.

"Yes, thank you, Mr. Havoc." Bozidar took the cup and drained it. "My student here was able to tell me something about you, Major. Your grandfather was Ishvalan?"

"Yes, sir," Miles said, then added, "He died during the war."

Bozidar nodded solemnly. "I see. What was his name?"

"Attar Tosakesh."

"Hmm." Bozidar tapped his fingers against his cup. "Yes. I remember the family name. They were rug weavers."

Miles smiled. "I still have the one he sent me."

The old priest brightened. "But that's excellent! You must let me see it! I haven't seen craftsmanship like that in a long time!"

"It's being sent here from Briggs along with some of my things," Miles replied.

"Are you're planning on staying with us for some time, then?"

"It depends on how well the reconstruction goes," Miles said with a slight shrug. "I'm on loan from Briggs. My assignment has tentatively been set for a year. If I feel sufficient progress has been made, I'll be heading back up north."

"Ah, well." Bozidar smiled. "Then perhaps you shouldn't get too used to the heat." He turned to Scar, studying his features. "And you, my son. Is your heart easier?"

Scar hesitated long enough for the old priest to regard him more closely. "It must be very discouraging to see our holy land in such a state."

"I knew what it would look like," Scar replied. His eyes fell away from his master's scrutiny, but the old man did not press him further.

The soldiers in the tent had paused to wipe the sweat from their faces and to half-listen to the conversation, but one of them suddenly tensed as he glanced out through the tent flaps.

"Duck and cover!" he hissed. He and the other soldiers scrambled behind the stacks of crates.

Havoc looked around in alarm. "Oh, crap!" As he seemed to contemplate diving under the table, an elderly Ishvalan woman hobbled into the tent. Her gnarled hand clutched the top of her walking stick like a claw, and her myopic red eyes darted around the tent before they finally fell on Havoc. She squinted, then pointed her stick in his direction.

"You! Boy!" she snapped. "Have those glasses come yet?"

"Uh…no ma'am. Not yet," Havoc replied cautiously. "They relayed a message out here just this morning. They said it would take a couple more days."

"A couple more days!" the old woman squawked indignantly. "A couple more days? You made me send them my old pair so they could get copied and they still have those, too! What if I died before they got here? With my poor eyes, what if I was walking along the road and fell in a hole?"

Havoc looked as though he would be happy to dig one for her. "I'm sorry, ma'am."

"He's doing the best he can, baata," Bozidar said, bending down and patting the woman's shoulder. "Just be patient."

"Hmph! I can't afford to be patient at my age! I could wake up tomorrow morning and I'd be dead!" She leaned back to squint up at Scar for a moment. "Hmph. No, no…" she mumbled under her breath. She hobbled up to Miles, peered at his uniform with a scowl, then narrowed her eyes up at his face. "Take those things off, boy! Let me see you properly."

Miles took off his dark glasses and looked down at the old woman. She squinted hard at him, rubbing her chin. She poked a finger at him. "What's your family, boy?"

"Miles, ma'am."

The woman shook her head in exasperation. "No, no! That's can't be right! That's not a proper name!"

"This is the grandson of Attar Tosakesh, baata," Bozidar told her. "The weaver. Do you remember him?"

The old woman drew in a sharp breath and stared up at Miles. "Do tell?" She squinted again. "Yes…yes…you have the same nose! Hmph! I should say I remember him! Oh, wasn't he the handsome one, Attar was! All the girls made eyes at him, shameless hussies! Then he goes and marries that foreign girl. Hmph!" She rapped her walking stick against the ground. "Listen, boy! Your grandfather was the youngest son of Arad and Shulee, who was the aunt of my mother, Nenya. She was the eldest of four and had problems with her knees."

Miles stared at her in surprise. "Are you telling me we're related?"

"Major!" Bozidar exclaimed. "What a blessing for you!"

Miles regarded the old woman as though he wasn't so sure.

She poked him in the stomach. "Your grandfather was my first cousin once removed!"

"Not far enough," Havoc muttered.

Miles shot him a look, then turned back to the old woman. "That makes us…second cousins?"

The woman waved her hand. "Something like that." She jabbed her stick in Havoc's direction. "Tell that boy to hurry up with my glasses!"

"I think he's already done everything he can."

"Hmph! Well, I don't know what this world is coming to! That I don't. There was a time when children respected their elders! Come along, young Attar!" The old woman whacked Miles across the backside with her stick, making him jump with a yelp and making Havoc clap his hand over his mouth. "Walk me back to my tent. With my poor eyes I could step on a scorpion and fall in a hole. And you!" She waved her cane at Scar. "What's-your-name! Where's your chuva? You don't look proper!"

Her question appeared to be rhetorical because she hobbled off toward the entrance, waving at Miles. "Come along, boy! Come along!"

Miles put his glasses back on, his expression stony. "Excuse me, gentlemen," he muttered darkly.

He followed the old woman out of the tent while she launched into a tirade on everything that wasn't proper. When her voice finally faded, one of the soldiers peered cautiously around the side of a stack of crates.

"Is she gone?" he whispered.

"Yeah, she's gone," Havoc called back. "She grabbed the major by the ear and swooped off with him."

"Poor bastard!" one of the other soldiers said mournfully, shaking his head.

"He will come to appreciate his good fortune in time, I'm sure," Bozidar chided the men gently. "I hope we are able to see more such reunions in the days to come." He turned his attention back to Scar, appraising him thoughtfully. Then he nodded. "Come with me, my son."

They made their way across the headquarters area and on to the tent city. Bozidar gazed beyond the compound at the ruins that lay shimmering in the heat. "Yes, there is much to be done," he mused to himself.

The old priest led Scar along the edge of the rows of tents. There were not many Ishvalans out at this time of the day, but their subdued voices could be heard.

"You'd think our people would be happier to be here, wouldn't you," Bozidar remarked. "There seems to be a general air of melancholy and distrust. Many wish to have as little contact with the Amestrians as they can. They are welcome to take advantage of meals in the mess tent, but very few of them do so. Ah, well," he sighed. "The healing process will take some time."

Yes, it probably will, Scar thought. His own hatred of the Amestrians had been tempered. The only one he would still desire to kill in the foulest, most painful fashion was Kimblee. He would probably always feel that way.

"But it's early days, yet," Bozidar went on. "Once the rebuilding begins in earnest, I'm sure things will start looking up."

Bozidar came to a stop at one of the tents. He lifted the flap and Scar followed him inside.

The interior had no furniture, not even one of the army-issue cots. Bozidar had always been very much an ascetic. There were only a couple of blankets on the ground. On one of them were all the priest's belongings: a stack of a few worn books and a small, neatly folded pile of clothing.

Bozidar knelt and went through the clothing, then stood up. He held one of the long striped sashes that identified Ishvalans as much as their red eyes.

"The old baata asked where your chuva went. I suppose it's long gone."

"I can barely even remember what happened to it, Saahad," Scar admitted.

"Well, fortunately, I have a few extras that have been given to me over time by some who have lost loved ones." Bozidar turned to his pupil. "Shall we observe the honors properly?"

Scar considered the striped sash in the priest's hands. Someone's mother had made it long ago in anticipation of the ceremony that would bestow it. Perhaps whoever had given it to the priest found the loss associated with it too painful to keep. His own had been bloodstained and shredded and had been cast aside along with everything else that made him who he was. Well, a new start had to be made somewhere.

He nodded finally. "If you would, Saahad."

Bozidar unfolded the chuva, softly intoning a blessing on it. Repeating the prayer, he draped the sash over Scar's shoulder and wound it around his waist, tying the ends in a knot at his hip. "I claim this child in the name of the Creator Ishvala."

He stepped back with a smile to admire the effect. "There now. I have been your spiritual father, after all."

Scar placed his hand upon the thick band where it lay across his chest. It was odd to feel its weight again.

"Thank you, Saahad. I'm very honored."

Bozidar smiled, then studied his pupil's face with the gentle scrutiny that always seemed to bore straight into his heart. "But you are still troubled."

He gave Scar no further prompting. He merely waited for him to speak. Scar looked back at him, dreading what he had to say yet anxious to say it.

"I have to leave the priesthood,"

Bozidar nodded thoughtfully. "I see," he murmured. After a moment he said, "To be honest, I had a feeling this would happen."

Scar wasn't sure whether to be relieved or ashamed at that reply. "I suppose I don't really have to explain why."

"As long as you understand yourself."

"Yes, Saahad. Of course I do." The old priest looked at him as though expecting more. "I dishonored my calling."

"How?"

Scar hesitated. This was how Bozidar taught.

"By committing murder in God's name, and by using alchemy to do it."

"Why?"

Scar's frowned deepened. He felt like a novice. "Because I sought revenge for our people."

The priest nodded, then he said, "No."

Scar waited for him to go on. This was when Bozidar stopped asking questions. "You gave in to despair. You felt you needed to be God's judge on earth not because God wanted you to, but because you felt God had failed you."

Scar suddenly felt cold. "I lost my vocation, Saahad! Not my faith!"

"No, I don't think you actually lost your faith." His master smiled, placing a firm hand on his shoulder. "You just misplaced it for a while. God did not fail us. We may think we were left to the mercy of those who worshipped power, but ultimately, they were the ones who were overcome, and we are here. There are many of our people whose faith has been shaken. They think we were abandoned by God or we were being tested or we were being punished. It was much the same centuries ago when the great earthquake destroyed Old Ishval. The river that once flowed here disappeared and the face of the land was changed," he went on. "We thought we were being punished then, too. And yet, we are here. Come with me."

He beckoned for Scar to follow him outside and he placed his hand on Scar's shoulders and turned him to face the view beyond the tents. "What do you see?"

"I see ruins, Saahad."

"What else?"

Scar shrugged slightly. "Cactus. Scrub. Meskaa trees."

"What do you hear?"

"I hear…cicadas…quail…" Scar smiled a little. "Cactus wrens."

"It looks dead out there," Bozidar said quietly. "But it isn't. There are many plants and creatures out there that have learned to live and thrive here. So have we." He turned Scar to face him and tapped him on the chest with his fist. "God has not tested us so much as he has tempered us. He has molded us into a tenacious people, and our faith should be just as tenacious."

Scar gave a half-smile. The weight that had been pressing on his heart had lifted, if only a little. "Thank you, Saahad. I hope someday to be half as wise as you."

"Ah, my son, the wisest man knows that there is always more to learn. That's what my master taught me," Bozidar said. "And the best way to learn is to teach." He considered Scar for a moment, then nodded. "Yes, I think that will do admirably."

Scar looked at him, slightly puzzled. "What will?"

"You will teach," Bozidar replied simply. "You did so before, and you will do so again. There will be many children here once all our people have returned. School will give them structure and a sense of security, and I would not want the education I gave you to go to waste."

"You want me to teach all the children?"

"We'll find some assistants for you. Whoever you think will do. You will be in charge of organizing everything." He gave Scar a look that was almost sly. "That should keep you busy."

...............................................................................................................................................

Miles brought his cup down hard on the table. "You what?"

"I left the priesthood," Scar replied simply, frowning slightly at his plate. Somehow, creamed chipped beef was a term that covered any number of evils. "I discussed it with Bozidar and he gave me his blessing."

"You didn't get any damn blessing from me, you bastard!" Miles growled. He pointed his finger in Scar's face. "I dragged your sorry ass out here to help restore our culture and our religion, remember?"

"I'm sorry, Miles," Scar replied calmly. "I'm discussing it with you now, and there's no reason for you to be so concerned. If you need a spiritual leader, Saahad Bozidar is much better suited for that than I am. He's put me in charge of teaching the children. They're our future, after all."

Miles glared at him for a moment, then sighed wearily and rubbed his forehead. "All right. I'll trust you on this." He gave Scar a wry half-smile. "Sorry. Didn't mean to bite your head off. It's been a rough day."

Scar shrugged and turned his attention back to his dinner. "You have a lot of responsibilities on your shoulders."

"Tell me about it!" Miles muttered.

Havoc walked into the mess tent and headed for the chow line. "Hey, Major!" he called out. "How's your auntie?"

Miles glowered at him. "Do you have any idea how many latrines you'd be digging right now if you were still in uniform, Havoc?" he growled. He disregarded the former lieutenant's snickering and turned back to Scar. "I have a welt on my ass this big from that stick of hers!" He spread his thumb and forefinger apart almost to their limit. "When I wasn't fetching and carrying for that old bat, I had to listen to her bitching about every goddamn thing she could think of!"

Scar kept his expression somber. "You may find this hard to believe, but I envy you. Part of your family actually survived."

"Please! She's all yours!"

Scar shook his head and drank some of his coffee. He would have been grateful for any family at all, but he wasn't prepared to go quite that far.

Chapter Text

Lt. Breda and Jean Havoc stood inside the entrance of the supply tent, watching the back of the old Ishvalan woman as she toddled off across the hard-packed earth of the headquarters compound.

"Guess you're off her shit list," Breda commented.

Havoc snorted quietly, placing a cigarette between his lips and reaching for his lighter. "Yeah, now I can die."

The old woman peered around her with renewed interest, her eyes magnified by the thick lenses of her new glasses. She made little clucking noises of disapproval to herself as she hobbled along. All these soldiers! She shook her head, glaring at a couple of men in uniform. That one needs to stand up straight! Really! What would his mother say? That yellow-haired fellow is decent, I suppose, aside from being cheeky. I have half a mind to—

She stopped her dark ruminations as she saw Scar walking toward her. She considered him for a moment and raised her finger to catch his attention, but he quickened his stride, giving her a silent inclination of his head as he passed her. She watched him for a few more moments with a look of concentration on her face, her fingertips lightly pressed against her chin. Then she grimaced, shook her head, and continued on her way.

She passed the tall radio tower, giving it a withering look as though it was something someone had been playing with and had forgotten to put away. As she passed the front of the communications tent, she paused and used her stick to lift the flap. Peering in, she whispered a little "ah" of triumph and hobbled in.

Miles stood behind Karley, who was adjusting the knobs on the transceiver and listening intently to his headphones. He flipped a switch and slowly turned another knob. He grinned. "Perfect!" he pronounced. "West City Command Center, straight through and clear as a bell." He looked up at Miles. "Maybe it's not as hot today."

"Fat chance," Miles muttered.

"Yeah, I guess I got spoiled. The cold of Briggs was perfect for radio."

"You're doing fine, Karley. Let me know when—"

"There you are, young Attar!"

Miles' jaw clenched. "Shit!" he hissed under his breath.

Karley hunched over his transceiver and tried to look invisible.

Miles steeled himself and turned around. "Good day to you, Aunt Zulema."

"Hmph! What's good about it? I can't sleep on those cots! Not with my back! I could barely get up this morning! One of these fine days I won't be able to budge and no one will think to come and look for me and I'll just die there!"

Miles managed to not look optimistic. "I see you got your new glasses."

Zulema pushed the metal frames up on her nose. "Yes, yes." She peered experimentally around the tent. "They'll do, I suppose."

"They make you look ten years younger," Miles remarked. It was a safe enough comment. Ten years either way wouldn't make much of a difference.

"Hmph!" Zulema pointed her stick at him. "Enough of your cheek, boy!" A little smile pulled at her mouth, nonetheless. "So what are you doing here?"

"I'm working," Miles replied patiently. "Or, at least, I was. Now I'm talking to you."

"Eh-h!" Zulema exclaimed, her voice sliding up at the end of the syllable. It was a sound that Miles was beginning to hear a lot. It was a sound Ishvalans used to express a variety of things, such as astonishment, pleasure, being impressed, or in Zulema's case, sarcasm. "Too busy to talk to your old auntie, I suppose!"

"Was there something you wanted to talk to me about? Something specific, I mean?"

"Yes!" There were some folding chairs by a map-covered table off to one side of the tent and Zulema made her way to it, easing herself down onto one of the chairs with a soft groan. "That fellow," she mused.

"Which one?"

"Turyan's boy."

Miles frowned slightly. "Who?"

"Turyan Ruhad! Oh, my, yes!" Zulema rested both her hands on the top of her stick and looked off into the past as though it stood in front of her. "Wasn't he a pillar of the community?" She turned her eyes sharply on Miles. "He was chieftain of Kanda, you know! A venerable family! A noble house, you know!" she added.

Miles shook his head. "I don't know. I have no idea who you're talking about. Who is Turyan's boy?"

"That fellow you're so chummy with!" Zulema replied impatiently. "The fellow with the scar on his face! The priest! You know! Of course you know!"

"Oh!" Miles looked at her with new interest. He picked up another chair and put it in front of her. "Yes, him. Of course," he said, sitting down. "But he's not a priest anymore."

"He's not? Hmph!" Zulema ruminated on this for a moment. "Hmph! Well, I don't know what the world is coming to these days! Used to be—"

"What about him?" Miles asked, cutting her off gently. "His father was Turyan Ruhad, you said."

"I did! A very fine man, Turyan was. Two fine, strapping sons! But would you believe it?" Zulema cried, lifting a hand to the heavens to express her astonishment. "The younger became a priest, which is proper enough, but the elder was a bookworm! The one renounced worldly things, the other had his nose in a book day and night! Poor Turyan! Never a grandchild in sight!" She scowled and muttered, "If that cursed war never happened, who knows?" A look of real sorrow crossed her face for a moment, making her almost look younger. Then she hardened her features. "But there it is."

"So my friend," Miles said. "Turyan's boy. What is—"

"And then, of course, there was that terrible falling out he had with his sister!" Zulema went on, apparently nowhere near done yet. She shook her head. "Terribly headstrong, that girl! After their parents went to Ishvala's bosom, Turyan was head of the family. It went to him to find a husband for his younger sister, Zoya. But what did she do? She defied her elder brother and married some potter from South Kanda! A nobody! Oh, wasn't there a fight! The whole neighborhood heard about it! Turyan was livid! He disowned her and never spoke to her again! Not ever! Neither her, nor her husband, nor her children. A son and two daughters, she had. It was as though they never were." She heaved a sigh for the vagaries of human frailty. She shook a finger at Miles. "But that's what comes of improper behavior and not respecting your elders!"

Miles' head drooped between his shoulders. It was too damn hot for this. "Aunt Zulema, did you want to say something about the guy with the scar, or what?"

Zulema glared at Miles for a moment, then gave a little gasp. "Oh, yes! Him! Yes! I saw him just now as I was on my way here, and I said to myself, 'now what is that fellow's name?'"

Miles' head snapped up, his attention now riveted on her every word. "What is it?" he asked. "Do you know?"

Zulema looked annoyed. "No, I don't!" she snapped. "I can't remember! I thought you knew! That's why I came here!"

Miles put his hands to his face. "No, Aunt Zulema," he said, his voice muffled. "I don't know his name. He hasn't told me."

"Hmph! Well, that's odd, I must say. What do you call him?"

"A lot of things, just not to his face."

"Well, I simply can't remember! He never seemed to stay in one place. He was always buzzing around here and there. I don't think his father even knew, but he spent time with Zoya and her family. Both him and that brother of his, the scholar," she said with a dismissive wave of her hand. "And if he wasn't there he was out ministering, I suppose." She leaned forward and lowered her voice, her signal for conveying particularly juicy gossip. "He kept company with the vatrishi!"

Miles spread his hands. "That means absolutely nothing to me. What's a vatrishi?"

"Those people!" Zulema said with a nod and a knowing look. "They played music at weddings and festivals and the like. They lived on the outskirts in their camps, I suppose you'd call them. Very clever, in their own way, I suppose, but not much better than beggars. Not proper at all. No, no."

She held her arm out toward Miles. "Well, that's me for now," she said wearily. "I think I'll go back to my tent and have a nap, and when I wake up, I'll still be alive, with the help of God."

With a sigh of resignation, Miles stood up and dutifully took Zulema's arm, helping her to her feet. "You're probably going to outlive us all."

After seeing Zulema back to her tent, Miles returned to headquarters. He headed for the supply tent to fill his canteen up with water. Stepping into the relative cool of the tent's interior, he nodded to the men inside. Breda and the quartermaster were receiving that morning's shipment from Central Command, and Havoc was going through crates with "Havoc Sundries" stamped on them.

"Himself was just in here," Breda commented. He shrugged. "Well, a while ago. He was asking if we could get hold of school supplies."

Miles nodded. "Yes, I sent him. I told him you were the person to go to. And if you couldn't get what he needed, Havoc could, or so he keeps saying."

"Hey, I even gave him some books my mom sent," Havoc said. "She figured the kids here could use them."

"Thank you, gentlemen." Miles filled his canteen from the barrel and hooked it back onto his belt. "I'll go see where he's wandered off to. Carry on."

Breda saluted. "Sir!"

"See you later, Major."

Breda and Havoc returned to their work. "School teacher, huh?" Havoc said after a while.

"Guess so," Breda replied. "Can you picture Scar as a school teacher?"

"You mean, lurking up and down between the desks with a big, fat ruler in his hand? Hell, yes!"

Scar looked up as Miles approached. He was sitting on what used to be a low wall under the shade of a couple of trees.

"These are useless," he said, holding up one of the books Havoc had given him.

Miles took the book from him. It was a thin, hardbound book with a slightly tattered blue cover and bright, bold lettering that said My Little Blue Story Book. He opened it and flipped through the pages. In the very simplest language, the book told of the idyllic exploits of a trio of siblings, Tom, Susan, and Betty, as well as their small dog, Flip. The children lived in a large house in a verdant paradise. They had a lovely, smiling mother and a benign, wise father. Their entire family was blue-eyed and ivory-skinned. They apparently had sumptuous meals every day, and they didn't seem to have a care in the world.

"Well, this would certainly appeal to Amestrian children," Miles observed. "But yes, I see your point."

"I suppose we could do without books to start with," Scar said, taking the little reader back from Miles and putting it with the others. "We will eventually print our own, books that not only teach the children to read but teach them our language and our culture."

Miles nodded. "That's an excellent idea." He smiled slightly. "I've been learning a little more about Ishvalan culture on my own. Zulema is quite a fount of information."

"Don't you mean gossip?" Scar gathered up the books and stood up.

"Gossip has its place." Miles wondered if he should let on about what he knew. He decided to keep it to himself for a while.

They headed back to the communications tent. Karley looked over his shoulder as they entered. "I got through to Briggs, sir," he said with a grin. "The general sends her regards."

"How are they doing without me?" Miles asked with a grin. "Sorry. I mean us."

"Oh, well," Karley grinned back. "Apparently the place has lost some of its spark, but they're managing. The general said she'd be interested to hear how your first week has gone."

"If I make it through to the weekend, I'll tell her," Miles replied dryly.

Scar had gone over to the map table, setting down his collection of books. Miles joined him and slid a map out from under the others. It showed Ishval as well as a larger area to the west. He pointed to a line with hatch marks on it that curved close to the western border of Ishval. "They're repairing the railroad here. We'll be able to bring in supplies a lot faster once that's established."

"Along with a flood of tourists," Scar remarked.

Miles gave him an odd look. "What?"

"It was a joke, Miles."

"Oh." Miles smirked and shook his head. "Nice try." He unhooked the canteen from his belt and walked over to the tent opening. Lifting the flap and taking a drink, he looked outside. "Well, well," he said after a few moments. "Looks like he found a friend."

"Who?" Scar asked, still frowning thoughtfully at the maps.

"That Stanno character you were talking to the other day." Miles looked back at Scar. "Breda's been asking the Ishvalans what their professions are so he could see about getting government funding for them to start up again. Stanno told him he made cheese. What the hell is there to make cheese from out here?"

Scar's brow furrowed. "Goat's milk," he replied. "When there were goats here. But he's lying. He's a carpenter."

"A carpenter?" Miles frowned angrily. "That's just the sort of craftsman we need! What an asshole! Why would he lie about that?"

"Because he isn't going to go to any effort to cooperate with you or with the Amestrians," Scar said. He shrugged. "Because he's an asshole."

Miles looked back outside to watch the two Ishvalan men cross the compound. Dear General Armstrong, he thought. Summer camp is great. So far, I've met a crazy old lady and a lying asshole. Tomorrow we're going to make cheese from invisible goats. He sighed.

"Karley!" he called over his shoulder. "What time is it?"

"Twelve thirty-five, sir."

"I'm going to the mess tent. You coming?" he asked Scar.

"I suppose." Scar conveniently forgot his books on the table and followed Miles outside.

As they neared the mess tent, they could see Stanno and his friend a short distance ahead. Walking toward them was a young soldier. As if on a signal, the two Ishvalans parted just enough for the soldier to walk between them, but then they both slammed into him with their shoulders, knocking him on his back.

In mock astonishment, Stanno bent over the stunned Amestrian but made no attempt to help him get up. "Eh-h, how did that happen?" he exclaimed.

"You need to watch where you're going!" the other Ishvalan scolded. "Maybe you shouldn't be in a place where the sun can addle your brains."

As the two men laughed, the soldier scrambled to his feet with his fists clenched. Miles and Scar strode up to them as the two Ishvalans were just beginning to ball up their fists. Miles pushed between them.

"On your way, soldier," he said to the Amestrian.

The young man, shaking with anger, stood his ground. "But, sir, they did that—"

"I know what they did," Miles cut him off. "Back off. That's an order."

"You heard the man," Stanno said to the soldier. "Piss off!"

Miles turned on him. "What the hell is your problem?" he demanded.

Stanno gave a short harsh laugh. "My problem? Where do you want me to start?" He flung out an arm to indicate the soldiers that were starting to gather. "We don't need these Ammy bastards on our land again!"

Out of the corner of his eye, Miles could see that a sizable group of Ishvalans had appeared seemingly out of nowhere. He glanced at Scar. The big Ishvalan stood behind Stanno with a dark, unreadable scowl on his face. The tension in the air was becoming palpable, and Miles sincerely hoped he could rely on Scar to keep this situation from getting ugly.

"What we don't need is grown men acting like children!" Miles told Stanno.

The major's strong, calm voice had no apparent effect. Stanno's friend jerked his chin at Miles. "How'd you manage to stay alive with that uniform on, eh?"

"Yeah, how about it, Major?" Stanno grinned unpleasantly. "Who did you sleep with?"

Miles froze. He could hear a collective gasp of outrage from the soldiers around them. He was truly torn between swallowing the insult and sending a haymaker across Stanno's smug face. Before he had to make that decision, Stanno was spun around and Scar had a fistful of his shirt. The two men glared at each other, and the deep seated anger in Scar's eyes seemed to come from more than just the offense against his friend. In a cold moment of realization, Miles started forward as he saw Scar clench his right hand. It might have just been to make a fist, but then again, it might not.

"Ran, tse, dre, ket!"

The compound was suddenly filled with singing and the rhythmic beating of a drum. Scar gave a start, his murderous glare at Stanno turning into a look of perplexity. Then he looked over at Miles, who wore much the same expression. Scar's attention was then arrested by something past Miles' shoulder, and the major turned around.

The crowd behind them, both Amestrians and Ishvalans, had parted to make a path for a tall, lanky Ishvalan man. He had a double-headed drum before him slung from his shoulders and he was beating it alternately on one side with a wooden spoon and on the other with a long, thin strip of wood. Both a long, silver braid and a long-necked stringed instrument bounced against his back. He was followed by a line of a dozen young women moving along with a half-walking, half-skipping step and holding hands. They ranged from a tall, slender young woman at the head of the line to a girl of about nine at the end. They were singing in what Miles guessed was Ishvalan, and they were accompanied by a collection of five young men playing various instruments.

They circled around the crowd, who backed away to let them pass. The girls smiled brightly as they sang, coquettishly glancing at whoever they danced by. Miles looked over at Scar to make sure he was seeing the same thing. By the look on his face, however, Scar appeared to be seeing more. He looked shaken, staring at the young musicians in utter disbelief.

The young woman led her line of singers to where Scar stood and briefly surrounded him in a circle. The leader gave him a joyful smile as she passed in front of him, as did the girl behind her. As they peeled away and moved on, Scar's eyes followed them with a kind of dread and a kind of hunger.

The man with the drum followed behind them, and as he passed Scar, he grinned and winked before moving on. After him, a young man playing a bagpipe stepped past Scar. He couldn't change his expression much as he blew into the mouthpiece, but he made sure to catch Scar's eye.

The Amestrians watched them with wonder, and many of them were either tapping their feet or nodding in time to the infectious rhythm of the drum.

The Ishvalans stared with even greater astonishment, as though unable to quite believe what they were seeing. Some of them even stretched their hands toward the young singers as though to convince themselves that they were real. The girls reached out to brush their hands as they passed by, as if to assure them. The Ishvalans' astonishment began to be replaced with smiles of delight.

The group moved to the center of the crowd and the girls paused in their singing. The man with the braid gave a rapid series of beats on his drum while the young man who had been playing a long flute stepped forward. He quickly slid the flute into his chuva and pulled out a shorter wooden instrument with a flared end like a horn. He raised it to his lips and blew a short, shrill cadenza, sounding like a very loud oboe. He played a slow melody, accompanied by the drummer and one of the string players. The tune grew faster, the drum pounding and the strings strumming along with him. This came to an end and the young man quickly switched back to his flute as the girls took up their singing again, finishing up with a decisive cadence of the drum. The soldiers broke into applause and whistles. The Ishvalans joined in the applause as well, but a strange sound emanated from among them, a kind of high, ululating cry. It came out in little tentative bursts, here and there, as something once familiar but long out of practice. The musicians laughed and answered back with the same sound, stronger and more confident.

The man with the drum stepped forward and bowed. As he straightened, he opened his mouth to speak, but the two lead girls from the line suddenly broke ranks. The bagpiper shoved his instrument into the arms of one of his companions with a discordant squawk and followed them. They ran straight toward Scar and threw their arms around him, laughing and crying at the same time.

"You made it!" the young man laughed. "You actually made it!"

"We missed you so much!" one of the girls cried, burying her face against Scar's chest.

Standing on her toes, the other girl grasped Scar's head and pulled it down so she could kiss the scar on his forehead. "Your poor face!"

The group's leader smiled over at them, then he spoke briefly to the other young musicians. He unbuckled the drum from his shoulder and pulled the stringed instrument on his back around to the front. With a nod to his musicians, they started up another song. This time the man sang by himself, and Miles was torn between listening to his clear tenor and watching the small drama beside him.

The three young Ishvalans, in roughly their early to mid-twenties, bore a definite resemblance to each other, probably siblings. Scar stood paralyzed, enveloped in their embrace and staring intently into each of their faces.

"God! My God!" he whispered. "I was sure you were dead!"

"We saw your wanted posters," the young man said. He glanced anxiously at Miles and his uniform. "You're not under arrest, are you?"

Miles grinned slightly as he took off his glasses. "No, he's not under arrest." His smile grew as the three took in his red eyes with startled looks. "I'm not taking him away. I brought him here." He gave Scar a wry look. "So he could at least do me the kindness of making introductions."

Scar glanced at Miles, slightly startled, as though he had forgotten he was there. Turning to the young man, he said. "This is Damyan." His eyes dwelled a little longer on Damyan's face. He was nearly as tall as Scar and had a handsome, pleasant countenance. "You look so much like Mattas!"

Damyan grinned, apparently pleased by this.

Turning to one of the girls, Scar said, "This is Naisha."

Naisha gave Miles a pert look. "Nice to meet you!"

"And this," Scar said, turning to the other girl who was wrapped around his arm. "This is Vesya."

"Hello," Vesya said softly.

Both sisters were remarkably pretty, but Miles' attention was immediately captured by Vesya, who he guessed was the younger of the two. She was a little shorter and noticeably a little curvier. Ishval was suddenly not so harsh a place.

"This is Major Miles," Scar told them. Then to Miles, he added in a tone that had not entirely lost its disbelief, "These are my cousins."

"Oh!" Zulema's rambling story flashed up in his mind. Zoya's children. Miles nodded to them. "I'm very pleased to meet you."

"Thank you so much for bringing Andakar back!" Vesya said.

For a moment, Miles couldn't take his eyes off the girl's face. She had given him the sweetest smile he could ever remember seeing, and until she demurely lowered them, her eyes held him captive. Then he realized what she had just said. He flinched and stared at Scar.

"Andakar?"

An unguarded look of anger, accusation, and embarrassment passed across Scar's face and he tried to temper his expression. He backed away from his cousins' embrace and they looked at him with puzzlement.

"What's wrong?" Naisha demanded. "Andakar, what's the matter?"

Scar nearly winced as though in pain. "That was—" he blurted out angrily. The siblings stared at him in astonishment and he lowered his voice, although it was still hard-edged. "That…was my name once."

Damyan and Vesya still watched him anxiously and Naisha frowned. "What do you mean, was? It still is!"

Scar shook his head. "No. I'm sorry," he replied with an effort. "I left that name behind me when I left Ishval. I'm not who I was. I can't be who I was."

Naisha's scowl grew deeper and she suddenly punched Scar in the chest. Scar gave a jump out of surprise rather than pain. "That's complete bullshit!" she cried. She punched him three more times for emphasis. "You're Andakar son of Turyan of the house of Ruhad!"

Damyan grabbed her wrist. "Nai, stop it!"

"No! You're our family!" She glared at Scar, and now Miles could see how far the family resemblance extended. Naisha had Scar's eyes. She apparently had his temper, as well. "You can't come back to us after all these years and pretend you're a stranger! That's what your father did to us and I won't take it from you!"

Scar flinched, and his angry frown softened, if only slightly. While the two of them glared at each other, another girl came hurrying up to them.

"Come on!" she urged the siblings. "Time for the big finish! Hi, Saahad Andakar!" she said to Scar, waving at him as though she were merely passing him on the street.

"You stay right there!" Naisha warned Scar over her shoulder as they jogged off to join the others. "I'm not through with you yet!"

As Scar glowered after them with a troubled look, Miles moved to his side. "Andakar, huh?" he said with a grin he could not suppress. "I like it. Better than Toby."

Chapter Text

The girls formed a semi-circle and the boys grouped around their leader. Damyan had retrieved his bagpipe and was blowing into it to inflate it. The youngest girl now had an hourglass-shaped drum resting on her hip, her fingers poised over its head. The leader nodded to his group and the instrumentalists started up an introduction. It had the peculiar richness of an upbeat song in a minor key. Then the girls joined in, this time in Amestrian.

From far away, our homeland calls us.
From far away, we hear her call.
Sing my land, sing out your story!
Sing us home, sing to us all!

Hear us, father, hear us, mother!
Hear our song from where you lie!
We will carry on your story,
Raise our voices to the sky!

Come my brother, come my sister!
Answer our homeland with your song!
Come my land, give us your welcome!
Bring us back where we belong!

The instrumentalists wove in and out with their various parts in an intricate accompaniment. The girls stood proudly, their eyes drawing their listeners in to share their joy. Whether because of his Ishvalan blood or just the quality of the performance, Miles felt the hair on his arms rise. Looking around at the others gathered there, he could tell the song was having a similar effect on them, particularly the Ishvalans, who listened with rapt intensity. He saw Bozidar standing among the crowd, the glint of a tear running down his face.

When they ended on a sustained chord, the audience burst into applause and cheers, Ishvalans and Amestrians alike. They crowded around the performers, offering their praise. The lanky man handed his instrument to one of his young musicians and moved through the crowd, making his way to stand in front of Scar.

The two men regarded each other for a moment, searching each other's faces, sizing each other up in the way of old friends after a long absence.

"You made it," the man observed simply. There was a tone of gratitude and satisfaction in his voice.

"You, too," Scar replied.

The man let out a laugh, throwing his arms around Scar. The big Ishvalan hesitated a moment before returning the embrace. It was a gesture he had fallen out of practice with, but he held the other man tightly. Finally the man stepped back, quickly drawing a sleeve across his eyes.

"Sorry," he mumbled with a laugh. He took in a deep breath and a sniffle and regarded Scar appraisingly. "Sweet Ishvala, it's good to see you! Still in one piece, too!"

"More or less," Scar replied.

"That's good enough." The man grinned and turned to Miles, holding out his hand. "Dejan Shua."

Miles clasped his hand. "Major Miles."

Dejan nodded at Miles' uniform. "You're kind of a rare bird, aren't you?"

Miles tensed slightly. He'd already had enough of that kind of reaction, but Dejan regarded him with polite but shrewd interest. Miles decided he liked him. "Lucky, more like it," he said.

"I suppose we all were," Dejan replied easily, "or we wouldn't be here. Oh, here! Hold on a second." He turned and called over his shoulder, "Mika, come on over here!"

The youngest girl trotted up, her drum bouncing against her hip. She stood beside Dejan and he dropped his hand on the girl's shoulder. "You remember Mika?"

Scar gave a quiet gasp as he looked down at the girl. "This is Mika?"

"This is, indeed," Dejan replied. "And she's upholding the family tradition of being her father's drummer. Look, she's got my dad's hands. Show 'em, baby!"

Mika obligingly held up one of her hands, displaying long, slender fingers.

Dejan grinned proudly and gave the girl a squeeze. "That's my girl! Mika, you remember what I told you about Saahad Andakar, don't you?"

Mika nodded. "Uh-huh! Sure I do!" She held out her hand and Scar offered his. Mika took it in both of hers and touched it briefly to her forehead. Dejan beamed proudly.

"Did I raise her right, or what?"

Scar tilted the girl's chin up. "She's a credit to you, Dejan," he replied quietly. He looked back at Dejan. "Katri?"

Dejan patted Mika's shoulder. "Go make sure everyone's got their stuff, baby."

"Sure, Dad." The girl ran off, waving back at them.

Dejan turned back to Scar and shook his head, his smile fading. "No, Katri didn't make it. Last anyone saw of her, she was chucking rocks at the soldiers, so you have to figure how that turned out. Mika barely remembers her, so I suppose there's a mercy in that."

"And your father?" Scar seemed much more interested in the answer to this question.

A deeper sorrow passed over Dejan's face. "I wish I could tell you different, but he's in Ishvala's care now."

Scar nodded slowly. "I see," he said heavily. He searched his friend's face. "I'm truly sorry, Dejan."

"Ah, you and me both, my friend," Dejan replied in a heartfelt sigh. "The last time I saw him, he was bleeding from his gut and he told me to get my woman and my baby and my skinny brown ass out of Ishval." He winced, then shrugged and sighed. "Two out of three."

"And them?" Scar nodded toward the young musicians.

Dejan's smile returned and he chuckled. "Oh, yeah! Them, too!"

Scar regarded him with amazement. "You got them all out by yourself?"

"Well, sort of." Dejan gave a modest shrug. "Let me tell you, I've been through some tough times, but I've never been scared that shitless in my life. I ran into your young kinfolk first. Of course, Damyan had to get his girl, Yasna, and the rest we collected on the way." He looked over his shoulder, doing what looked like a quick head count. "I didn't even realize how many there were altogether until the next morning." He looked back at Scar. "As you can see, I had a lot of mouths to feed."

"However did you manage?"

Dejan grinned. "Since I put them to work carrying all my instruments, I figured I may as well teach them how to play them. After a time, we were able to scrape by pretty well."

"As vatrishi?"

"That's what I like about you, Andakar!" Dejan punched him in the arm. "Anyone else would say that like it's a bad thing. We started out setting up here and there, anywhere there was a crowd. I would play and the girls would sing. We'd set out a little basket for people to toss coins into, and believe me, they did. As the lads got better with the instruments, we built it up. It still amazes me how good they got!" He spread his hands and declared, "So you see? What Ishvala takes with one hand, he often gives back with the other!"

The group of musicians, now laden with their belongings, started gathering close by. One of the young men suddenly looked around.

"I smell food!"

"Oh, God, where?" one of the girls gasped, looking around.

"The mess tent is right over there," Miles told them, pointing his thumb over his shoulder. "Help yourselves."

The young Ishvalans scrambled in the direction the major pointed, and Mika tugged at Dejan's arm. "Come on, Dad! I'm starving!"

"Take it easy, baby!" Dejan laughed. "I'm gonna need that arm!" As Mika dragged him away, he called back to Scar. "You coming? I still have loads to tell you!"

Naisha shot Scar a warning look as she followed after them.

Miles looked around the compound. The soldiers were already going about their business, and the Ishvalans were drifting away in little groups, chatting easily with each other. It was a calm, orderly, peaceful scene. Stanno and his friend were nowhere to be seen.

"That went well," Miles observed. "Damn good thing those cousins of yours showed up."

Scar stood watching the entrance of the mess tent. The sound of excited voices could be heard from inside. "Damyan was the dutiful first born. Vesya was the shy youngest." A smile pulled at the corner of his mouth. "Naisha was the troublemaker. Once I was able to find my parents and get my brother to leave his damn books, I was going to go back and find them," he said, nodding at the tent. "I never got the chance." He lifted a hand toward the mess tent. "And I never dared hoped to see Dejan again." He turned to Miles, a hint of bewilderment in his crimson eyes. He shook his head. "Every time I turn around, God puzzles me with His mercy."

Miles gave a wry smile. "And you envied me for my family." He clapped Scar on the back and started heading for the tent. "Come on. We've been in the sun long enough."

The young Ishvalans had wasted no time. Most of them were already seated around one of the long tables, and McGinty and his crew were serving the rest. As Scar passed by the table, Naisha pointed to a plate of food sitting across from her.

"That's your spot," she said in a tone that dared him to argue with her.

Miles joined the serving line. Lunch was corned beef hash, carrots, and McGinty's ubiquitous biscuits. McGinty, a grizzled veteran, filled a plate for him, nodding at the Ishvalans as they headed for the table, inhaling the aroma of their food as though it was something divine.

"That's a nice buncha kids!" McGinty said. "They said my chow smelled delicious."

"Well, most of it looks like it came out of a can," Miles remarked.

McGinty sniffed and drew himself up. "That ain't the point, sir! They're still nice kids! They said thanks and everything! Here!" He handed the major his plate.

Miles took it and started to turn away. He paused and looked back. "Thank you."

He went over to the table, and the young man seated next to Scar nudged the boy on his other side. The two slid over to make room for Miles.

"Thanks," Miles said to them, realizing as he sat down that he was right across the table from Vesya. "Thanks very much." Then he noticed that no one had started eating yet.

Dejan, sitting down at the head of the table, took a quick look around. "Everybody set?"

Naisha, at Dejan's left, looked across at Scar, who sat silently with his arms folded. "Andakar needs to say the blessing. He's the oldest."

Everyone around the table waited expectantly, their eyes on Scar. He unfolded his arms and held his hands before him, palms up. He spoke briefly and quietly in Ishvalan, and as soon as he lowered his hands, the young people around the table pounced on their food.

Naisha stabbed her fork into a carrot and used it to point accusingly at Scar. "We were really scared for you," she said. "We started seeing those posters everywhere."

Damyan nodded his head toward Vesya. "Vesya said she could have done a much better sketch."

"Not that I would have!" Vesya said quickly. The others around her laughed and she ducked her head down with an embarrassed giggle, a blush under her tawny skin.

"Every day, we read any newspaper we could get a hold of," Naisha went on. She looked at Scar with affectionate reproach. "We know what you were doing. Is that where this 'that's not my name anymore' and 'I'm not who I was' business came from?"

"It's not that simple," Scar said. Naisha continued to watch him expectantly and he was compelled to elaborate. "Do you remember how I taught you that our names are gifts from God?"

"Of course I remember. And don't talk to me like I'm a little kid, Andakar. I'm twenty-four."

A muscle in Scar's cheek twitched slightly, but he answered as patiently as he could. "I left Ishval because I thought I'd lost everything. I chose a path that would take me far outside God's teachings, so I had to cast aside what God had given me."

Naisha swallowed a mouthful of hash. "And then what?"

"There was no 'then what.' I never expected to survive, let alone make it back here."

"But you did!" Naisha shot back. "You tried so hard to walk away from God that you walked all the way around and ended up right back where you started from. And the things that you thought you'd lost, like us"—she jerked a thumb at herself—"are still here. And you may have cast your name away, but we held onto it, and now we're giving it back to you because you don't throw away stuff God gives you!" She jabbed her fork in his direction to emphasize each word. She stabbed another carrot and popped it in her mouth, jerking her chin at him as she chewed, daring him to argue with her.

Scar stared at her for a moment, then shot a glance at Miles as the major gave a quiet snort of laughter.

"I'm not sure how," he said, "but I think she's got you there."

Scar turned back to Naisha, who gave him a smile that was both innocent and smug. Finally, he gave a weary, resigned sigh. "All right, Naisha. If it means that much to you, then call me whatever you want."

Dejan winked at Naisha. "You're scary, you know that?"

Naisha stuck her tongue out at him, then followed up with a playful smile.

"So, Dejan," Miles said, taking advantage of a lull in the conversation. "You're a vatrishi—"

Dejan held up one finger. "Vatrish," he said, then held up another finger. "Two vatrishi."

"And you, Andakar," Miles went on with mild emphasis, "are the son of the chieftain of Kanda and the scion of the noble house of Ruhad."

Scar gave him a sharp look. "How did you know that?"

"I have a formidable network of information," Miles replied cryptically. "So how would two people from opposite ends of the Ishvalan society get to be friends?"

"It was sort of unlikely," Dejan agreed. "But some of the best stories are. Andakar was in his novitiate as a priest of Ishvala when I first met him, just a few years older than me. I was a poor kid from the bad side of town with a drunk dad and no future. It was—damn, how many years ago?" he asked Scar.

"Fifteen."

"God help us!" Dejan shook his head. "There I was, leaning over a public fountain, trying to rinse the blood out of my mouth after my dad beat the crap out of me. So when this young man with nice, clean clothes and a noble demeanor came up to me, I was a little wary. I thought he was going to tell me to stop getting the water dirty and chase me off. But he asked me if I needed help. I was still a little wary, and I said I could handle it. He said I should see a doctor. I said I didn't have any money. He said he'd take care of it. I said I didn't know him from Ishvala's ass and he should piss off. He said he had committed himself to a life of prayer and charitable works and if he ever heard me blaspheme again he'd smack me harder than whoever had smacked me first." Dejan grinned at the recollection. "That was Andakar all over."

Miles raised an eyebrow and looked from him to Scar. "That's how you became friends?"

"I was very zealous back then," Scar replied.

"Zealous, yes, but true to his word," Dejan went on. "He got me patched up and made sure I got home. He even came back later to see how I was doing."

"Because he wasn't a horrific snob like his father," Naisha added.

"My father was not a snob, Naisha," Scar said, somewhere between affection, sternness, and long-suffering patience. It sounded to Miles like an old argument. "You didn't know him."

"That sure as hell wasn't my—"

"Then," Dejan said loudly, grabbing Naisha's hand and squeezing it. "He taught me how to read and write and he helped my dad straighten himself out. But here's the best part." He hooked his thumb under the striped sash across his chest. "You know what this is, right?"

"Of course," Miles replied readily. "It's a chuva."

"Do you know what chuva means?"

"Uh…" Miles hesitated, sensing a trick question. "It doesn't mean 'sash'?"

"It means 'legitimate.' I wasn't," Dejan said, "so up until about seven years ago, give or take, I didn't have one. Andakar here, with his powers of persuasion, got my dad to perform the chuvai with me."

"That's the bestowal ceremony," Scar explained to Miles.

"Since my mother was dead, Andakar was willing to call it good and placed an official blessing on it. I took my father's name, Shua, as my last name. Then he performed the wedding between me and Mika's mother." Scar gave a rather uncharacteristic snort, and Dejan shrugged. "Yeah, okay, that...kind of blew hot and cold. She didn't actually like me all that much."

Naisha reached over and rubbed Dejan's forearm. "I like you."

Dejan caught her hand and kissed her knuckles. He turned back to Miles, either not noticing the sudden furrowing of Scar's brow or ignoring it. "Then, you see, I could do the chuvai with Mika." He leaned forward, tapping the table with his forefinger for emphasis. "My dad taught me everything about music, but I still lived in a dirty little hovel on the edge of town. This man," he pointed to Scar. "This man gave me and my little girl a future."

Damyan sniffled. "I love that story!" The young Ishvalans, having quieted down to listen to Dejan, burst into laughter.

"I suppose you have something better to offer?" Dejan retorted in a good-natured challenge.

"Maybe I do." Damyan put his arm around the girl sitting next to him, the one who had come to retrieve him and his sisters for their final song. They beamed happily at Scar. "Yasna and I are going to get married."

There was a pattering of applause from around the table. Miles raised his tin mug to the young couple.

"Congratulations!"

Scar gave the young couple a rare smile. "I'm very happy for you both."

"Thanks!" Damyan squeezed Yasna's shoulders. "You'll perform the ceremony, won't you, Andakar?"

Scar hesitated for a moment, then shook his head. "I'm sorry, Damyan. I can't. I made the decision to leave the priesthood."

The young man's face fell, and he and his sisters gazed at Scar in surprise. Naisha frowned. "Why would you do that?"

"Please, Naisha, don't argue with me about this," Scar replied firmly. "If you said you knew what I was doing, then there's your answer."

Naisha was about to make another retort, but the stern look in Scar's eyes made her give a grudging nod. Then a thought seemed to occur to her. "So does that mean you're head of the family now?"

"No, that's Damyan's right." Scar turned to the young man. "I'll speak to Saahad Bozidar. He'll be more than happy to perform your wedding."

Over at the serving line, McGinty and his assistants were starting to clean up. Yasna stood up and beckoned to the others. "Come on!"

Most of the group followed her, grabbing empty plates and cups and carrying them over behind the serving line. McGinty stared at them uneasily as they started gathering up his gear and asking him where to do the washing up. He pointed mutely to the flap at the back of the tent and they bustled out.

"So who do we talk to about getting settled?" Dejan asked.

"Lt. Breda," Miles replied. "If he's not in the tent with the flag over it, just ask one of the soldiers."

Naisha got up. "We'll take care of it." Vesya and Damyan joined her. Dejan started to rise, but Naisha pushed him back down. "It's okay, sweetie. You sit."

"Good to meet you, Major Miles!" Damyan said as he started away.

"Are you going to be here for dinner?" Naisha asked.

"If it's half as entertaining as lunch was, then I'll definitely be here," Miles replied. He looked at Vesya, whom he caught glancing at him. Definitely.

As her siblings headed for the door, Naisha hesitated. She put her arms around Dejan's neck and whispered something in his ear. Dejan smiled and turned his head to kiss her on the lips. "Leave it to me, sweetheart."

Scar frowned at them, but Naisha hurried off to follow the others out of the tent. Scar turned to Dejan, who looked at him innocently and pointed to the untouched plate before him. "Are you going to eat that?"

Scar pushed the plate over. "Leave what to you?"

"Your cousin," Dejan began, applying himself to the plate before him, "is quite a girl. She's smart, she's feisty, she's stubborn, she's headstrong, and she's sweeter than desert honey. I love her and Mika loves her. Now, Damyan has already given us his blessing, but I know that it would mean a lot to Naisha—and me, of course—if we also have your approval. You know that's kind of a sore spot for her."

"Yes, I know." Scar leaned his forehead on his hands wearily. "Yes, of course you have my approval."

Dejan grinned. "I'm thrilled as hell to be related to you, Andakar!" He regarded Scar for a moment. "You don't seem quite as excited."

"I'm just as happy for you as I am for Damyan." Scar lifted his head and returned his friend's look. "But how are you going to support a family as a vatrish? Not just a wife and a child, but all the others you brought back. We can only depend on the government's charity for so long."

"Ah." Dejan nodded. "I can see why you asked that. The same thing can be said about Damyan, and he grew up learning a respectable craft. But if nobody around here has a bean to their name, what good are a few songs or a few clay pots, right?"

"That's exactly what I'm worried about."

Dejan grinned. "Hold on a second." He got up and went over to his pile of belongings along the side of the tent. He took a canvas bag from his pack and brought it back to the table. Pulling on the drawstring opening, he upended the bag over the table. A shower of coins and three thick rolls of bank notes spilled out. Scar and Miles stared at it and Dejan grinned at their reaction.

"Take a guess," he challenged them.

Miles picked up one of the rolls of notes, then glanced at the others, almost incredulously. "It's got to be over a hundred thousand here."

Dejan spread his arms triumphantly. "Nearly two hundred thousand cenz! I'm not talking about a few raggedy street musicians on a drum and a fiddle and a bagpipe picking up a few stray coins. Andakar, do remember back when us vatrishi got together just for fun? Remember how good we sounded?"

"Of course I remember."

"Good times, eh?" Dejan turned to Miles. "You see, normally we were pretty fierce rivals. We'd pick up whatever jobs we could get from the quality or just play for coins from the passersby, but strictly on our own. But I always wondered if folks would pay money to hear us play all together. So I took all the old songs I knew, all the dance tunes, all the little ditties the girls learned growing up, all the marketplace chants, and put them all together. We traveled all over the place, stopping at little country festivals, village squares, the occasional train station, wherever we could find an audience. The Amestrians weren't quite sure about us at first, but the better those kids got, the better our take was."

"I'll admit this is very impressive." Scar gestured at the money. "And when this runs out?"

Dejan sat down again and leaned forward. "Oh, this is just scratching the surface! Once things get settled here, we're going to take this music from the streets of Ishval to the concert stages of Amestris! We're going to make Ishvalan culture fashionable! That'll pave the way for all our pottery, our rugs, our embroidery, everything! All the things we once made for ourselves will end up in fancy shops and get bought by rich Amestrians who want the latest thing!" He pitched his voice into a high falsetto. "'Oh, Mildred! You must see my lovely Ishvalan vase! I paid a fortune for it!' 'Oh, Hildegard, I'm so jealous! I must go and pay ever so much more than you did!'"

Miles laughed, but Scar shook his head. "Are you sure you aren't putting a little too much faith in this plan? I'm not sure Amestrian tastes can be influenced that easily."

"No," Miles said. "It's brilliant! It's what I've been trying to do for years. Changing the Amestrian perception of Ishvalans. You already made an impression on my men here."

"All right," Scar conceded. "But how do you intend to get on all these Amestrian stages?"

"That," Dejan said, "I admit, is the tricky part."

"I'll bring it up in my report to Colonel Mustang," Miles said. "It's exactly the sort of thing that could get government funding. Not only will it set Dejan up in business, it'll be a major part of restoring Ishvalan culture!"

Dejan laughed. "Two for the price of one!" He began to scoop the money back into the bag. "Thanks, Major! You're an absolute brick!" He pulled the cord tight on the bag and stood up. "Well, I'm going to see what my children are up to. See you gentlemen later."

"Dejan." Scar stood up as the lanky musician moved off. "I haven't thanked you yet."

"For what?" Dejan asked. "For taking the little missy off your hands?"

"No. For keeping them safe." Scar regarded him solemnly. "You came back to Ishval a hero."

"Oh…ah…" Dejan gave a soft, bashful laugh and scratched the back of his head. "I'm not sure I'd go quite that far."

"I would."

"Well, that's a huge compliment, coming from you, Andakar," Dejan said, a pleased smile spread across his face. He gave them a parting wave and left.

Miles watched Scar for a moment as the big Ishvalan stood in thoughtful silence. "He's not the only hero to come back to Ishval, you know."

"Are you talking about me?" Scar looked over his shoulder at Miles, then shook his head. "I don't think of myself that way. Only a handful of people will ever know what I did on the Promised Day." He nodded to the tent door. "Dejan will be able to take the credit for the rest of us."

Chapter Text

The car pulled up into what had become the parking lot behind the headquarters tent. The driver turned off the ignition and sat behind the wheel for several moments, glaring morosely out the windshield.

"I can't believe I'm doing this," he grumbled.

The woman seated next to him smiled gently as she put on her gloves and gathered up her straw hat and her purse. Her husband had been saying the same thing so many times since they started out from Central that she had lost count. She looked over her shoulder at the young man who sat dozing in the back seat. He was carrying eighteen credits at Central University, and he had learned to catch naps wherever and whenever he could.

"Anthony, we're here."

Anthony's eyes blinked opened and he rubbed his face before squinting out the window. "Wow, that sun's pretty fierce," he said, stifling a yawn.

"The sun isn't the half of it," the driver muttered.

Anthony reached over the back of the front seat and clapped his father on the shoulder. "It's going to be okay, Father," he said. "We all made this decision together and we're going to face it together."

Knox gave a deep sigh, opened the car door and stepped out onto a land he had always hoped he would never see again other than in his nightmares. I can't believe I'm doing this!

Anthony got out of the car briskly and opened the door for his mother, offering his hand to help her out. She put her hat on her head and looked around with curious interest.

Knox looked over the car hood at her and she turned to him and smiled. God knows why or how, but ever since the day she and the boy came back, she seemed to have gotten younger and prettier. She had also gotten stronger and more confident. She was the one who had finally talked him into taking this on after Marcoh's pleading had failed. She told him that it was time to face his demons.

"I'm so glad you came! So very glad!"

Marcoh came bustling up to them, a wide-brimmed hat on his head and a big gap-toothed smile on his face. He grabbed Knox's hand and pumped it enthusiastically. "I'm telling you, Knox, you are not going to regret this!"

Knox just grunted in reply and Marcoh went over to Mrs. Knox. "So good to see you again, Emily!" He took her gloved hand in both of his and squeezed it. "So wonderful of you to come! I'm so glad you managed to convince the old fellow!"

"Thank you, Timothy," Mrs. Knox said. She leaned a little closer to him with a conspiratorial smile. "Between you and me, I think he finally decided to come because he was beginning to feel left out."

"Hah!" Knox scoffed irritably.

Marcoh chuckled and turned to the young man. "And you, Anthony! How is school? I hear you're at the top of your class!"

"Well, nearly," Anthony replied with a modest shrug. "The semester's nearly over, so I'm coming out for weekends and then staying the summer."

Marcoh's eyes widened. "Shouldn't you be getting ready for finals?"

Anthony gave the charming grin of the Gifted yet Unassuming. "I think I'll be okay."

"If you're done sucking up to my family, Marcoh," Knox said dryly. "Could you tell us where to check in?"

"Yes, yes! Of course! Right this way!" Marcoh gestured toward the headquarters tent. "Then I'll show you where you'll be working."

"Dear," Mrs. Knox said. "Let me handle the domestic arrangements. You and Anthony go with Dr. Marcoh and look around."

Knox groaned softly. "You sure?"

"Yes, dear," Mrs. Knox said firmly. "You go ahead."

"Come on, Father," Anthony said, joining the two older men. "Best to just dive into it."

"Good idea," Marcoh agreed. "Emily, Lieutenant Breda and Quartermaster Sergeant Packard will provide you with everything you need." He turned back to the two Knox men. "This way, gentlemen!"

Knox followed Marcoh's bustling, slightly stooped figure, patting his jacket pockets nervously. "Dammit! I need a cigarette!"

Anthony watched him with a wry smile. "You really ought to quit, Father."

"I'm sure as hell not going to quit while I'm here!" Knox growled back.

Marcoh led them to a large, newly erected tent a short distance away from the headquarters compound. Inside the tent were several rows of examination tables, and along the back were crates labeled "medical supplies" and tables stacked with folded sheets. Marcoh gestured to the crates.

"Most of this came just this morning, so it hasn't even been unpacked yet."

"We can take care of that," Anthony said readily.

Knox looked up and down the tent. At one end, occupying several tables were long sheet-wrapped bundles. Marcoh noticed him staring and followed his gaze.

"Oh…yes. Those are some of our first subjects." He turned back to look at Knox. "There are going to be so many, many more."

Knox felt his mouth going dry and his heart rate speed up. With trembling hands, he finally tapped a cigarette out of its pack and put it between his lips. "'Scuse me," he muttered and went outside.

He fumbled with his lighter for a moment, made a mental note to fill it with fluid at the next available opportunity, and lit his cigarette. He drew the smoke in gratefully and closed his eyes.

Ishval. I've gotta be out of my mind.

Yes, what he had been asked to do was of a much nobler nature than what he had been ordered to do last time he was here, but he was still waiting to feel better about it. Think of it as a professional challenge, Emily told him. Think of it as a healing process. She had fixed him with those soulful eyes of hers. Once you can get over this, we can start sleeping in the same bed again. That's really what clinched it.

"You are Dr. Knox?"

Knox's eyes flew open and he sucked in more smoke than he had intended to. He pulled the cigarette out of his mouth and coughed, his eyes watering. When he straightened up and when his vision cleared, he found himself staring up into the red-eyed, scarred visage of an Ishvalan.

"Sonofabitch!" Knox wheezed. "You startled me—" Then he realized who he was looking at. "You—you're—"

Scar gave an inward sigh. "Yes, Dr. Knox, your reputation has preceded you as well," he said. "On behalf of my people, I appreciate your taking the trouble to come here."

"Yeah…well…" Knox cleared his throat and drew himself up. He had been cryptically assured that the serial killer everyone feared so much "no longer existed." He had plenty of sins on his own head, and he had been involved with his own cover-ups for Mustang's sake, so he had no right to act scandalized or self-righteous. He knocked the ash off the end of his cigarette to give himself something else to look at. "Mustang pestered me. Marcoh pestered me." He cleared his throat again. "When it comes down to it, I'm doing this for my family."

Scar nodded, and when Knox glanced at him, he could see a look of somber approval in the Ishvalan's face. "Dr. Marcoh has assured me you are one of the best, if not the best, in your field."

Knox lifted his shoulders slightly. "I considered forensic anthropology as a career at one time," he said. Speaking in clinical terms had a certain soothing effect. "More of a hobby, really."

"Are you prepared for the scope of this undertaking, Dr. Knox?" Scar asked. "There are tens of thousands of remains out there."

Knox met the man's eyes directly. He detected a challenge in his voice that irritated him, even if it seemed to be well meant. He took one more drag on his cigarette and dropped it on the ground, grinding it out with his heel. "Then I guess it's time to nut up or shut up, isn't it?"

He turned abruptly and went back into the tent. Scar continued on his way, a smile playing on his lips.

...................................................................................................................

"Have there been many other family reunions?"

"A few. Old neighbors have started to find each other, too, which has the added advantage of getting Auntie off my back. Now she has a couple of other old biddies to gossip with."

General Armstrong smiled at the voice in her headphones. She had missed hearing it and feeling its speaker's presence at her elbow. "Have relations begun to thaw, so to speak?"

Miles gave a quiet laugh. "Nothing stays cold here for long, that's for sure. I've only been here a week, but, yes, I've already seen some improvement. There's a certain element that is still resentful of our presence, but for the most part, the Ishvalans are beginning to recognize how sincere our efforts are."

"Not just our favorite son of Ishvala?"

"No. Not just him. He does, however, wield a certain amount of influence. He doesn't do so actively, but people tend to look up to him. His father was the chieftain of Kanda, and his family is apparently a noble house. What that means in Ishval I have yet to learn. On top of that, more of those who worked with him to create the reverse transmutation circle have shown up here, and they're more inclined to follow his example. Then, of course, there are his cousins and their group."

"They sound like a lively bunch."

"They certainly have their own way of doing things." Armstrong could hear a smile in Miles' voice. "Instead of just getting settled in the tents where we set them up, they did some exploring and staked out their own little area just barely outside the safety zone. It had more trees and they thought it was nicer, so they cleared it out by themselves, yanked up some tents and moved them. It was organized chaos. Breda tried to explain to them how concerned and responsible we are for their welfare, but they assured him they had already checked it for snakes. They were very pleasant about it, but even Andakar had to finally give up."

"You seem to have gotten used to calling him that."

"It took a few days, but yes. He's the one who isn't quite used to it yet."

"How is he doing?"

"He seems to be all right. He's busy getting ready to teach school once we get enough kids here, and he's coming to terms with being a regular guy rather than a priest."

"He's hardly a regular guy." General Armstrong remarked. "He's unique, in fact. Has he shown any interest in using his particular gifts?"

There was a slight pause on the other end of the radio. "No, ma'am," came the reply. "He hasn't."

"Have you or has anyone else asked him about it?"

"I haven't brought it up, and as far as I know, neither has anyone else. He's been keeping the tattoos hidden under long sleeves all the time, so no one has noticed." Miles paused again. "He may feel that they have served the purpose for which they were intended, and he has…retired them, so to speak."

"Do you think he would be willing to bring them out of retirement?"

"My guess is that it would depend on the circumstances. If there were a threat to his people, particularly someone he cared about, a threat against which simple physical force would be inadequate, he might, but only as a last resort."

"What about the nation as a whole?"

"If he felt the cause was just, and if he was the nation's last hope, and it didn't involve human transmutation, he might. But like I said, ma'am, he hasn't discussed it with me."

"Is it a matter of trust? Or distrust?"

"No, I think he's got other things on his mind. It just hasn't come up."

General Armstrong nodded. "Keep your finger on his pulse, Miles, and keep me apprised."

"Yes, ma'am."

Miles took off his headphones and sat back in his chair, frowning thoughtfully at the transceiver. As far as the Ishvalan project was concerned, he was answerable to Colonel Mustang and, ultimately, Fuhrer Grumman. General Armstrong's interest was "academic." Although the subject was dropped when Mustang requested Miles' services—and, by extension and unbeknownst to the colonel, Scar's—Miles knew the general was still interested in Scar's hybrid alchemy. She saw in it an even greater potential than Xingese alkahestry, and she also had a personal stake in it. They had danced around it in their conversation just now, but the message was clear. Keep your finger on his pulse.

Miles was not being asked to force Scar to surrender the secrets of his alchemy. If and when the time came, the general would broach the subject herself. But she needed to know if it was worth pursuing, and Scar could refuse if he wanted to. But no matter how much Miles rationalized it, he was still stuck in the middle.

"Let's look in here, dear!"

Miles closed his eyes. Not only was he cornered, he was outnumbered. He looked over his shoulder as Zulema and one of her new cohorts entered the tent. The other old woman gazed around in slightly suspicious wonder, her wrinkled lips pursed in a silent "o."

"Attar! You remember my neighbor, Aleah?"

"Of course I do." They all looked alike to him. "How are you this evening, baata Aleah?"

"Well enough," Aleah muttered, peering curiously at the transceiver.

"So what brings you here, Aunt Zulema?" Miles asked.

"I needed to speak to Turyan's boy, but I can't find him."

"Oh, really?" Probably saw you coming. "Is there something you'd like me to tell him?"

"Yes!" Zulema tapped the ground for emphasis. "Those young cousins of his!"

"Tch!" Aleah clucked softly.

"What about them?"

"The way they're keeping company with that vatrish!" Zulema exclaimed in disbelief. "He's turning them all into vatrishi! They've made their little camp off on the outskirts! Those young people are all from good families! It isn't proper!"

Aleah shook her head. "Not proper at all."

Miles rubbed the bridge of his nose. "Dejan is a good person, Auntie. He rescued all those kids. He's also an accomplished musician." He hadn't yet told her about any of the upcoming wedding plans. He'd never hear the end of that.

"Yes, yes, I know!" Zulema waved her hand dismissively. "The fellow's just giving himself airs! He's corrupting those young people!" She leaned closer toward Miles, enveloping him in the scent of military-issue soap and a few other things he wasn't sure he recognized. "I told you about the vatrishi and their—" She dropped her voice. "—goings on, did I not?"

Aleah nodded shrewdly. "Goings on!" she chorused in a sepulchral whisper.

"Uh…I'm not sure. What kind of goings on?"

"Really, Attar!" Zulema drew herself up indignantly. "Surely you don't expect me to explain it to you. I am a decent, God-fearing woman!"

"What?" Miles looked from one set of watery red eyes to the other. "You mean sex?"

Both Zulema and Aleah went rigid. "Eh-h! For shame, boy!" Zulema hissed. She raised her palm to her chin and blew on it, banishing an evil thought.

Miles sighed and shook his head. "I beg your pardon, ladies."

Zulema poked Miles' shoulder. "Something must be done! Those children must be taken in hand! I would tell this to Turyan's boy, but I can't find him!"

"Probably because he's with them right now," Miles said.

Zulema's eyes grew even wider behind the lenses of her glasses. "Is he, now?"

"Yes, ma'am. And his cousin Damyan is there, too."

"Him!" Zulema shrugged. "His mother's milk is barely dry on his lips!"

"He's twenty-six and head of his household. I'm sure between him and Andakar, they'll make sure there aren't any—" Miles lowered his voice to an ominous hush. "—goings on."

"Hmph!" Zulema prepared to shuffle away. "They'll have their hands full, then. No good will come of this, Attar. Mark my words!"

"Consider them marked, Auntie."

The two old women tottered out of the tent and Miles sat back in his chair and laughed to himself. If the Ishvalans had unleashed an army of these old baatas at the Amestrians, they would have won the war.

................................................................................................................................

Lt. Hawkeye set a stack of papers next to the colonel's right elbow and stepped back to study his face. His brows were furrowed slightly over his dark eyes as they flicked back and forth across the report he held in his hands. For an instant, the lieutenant was visited by an urge she often had but always stifled, to reach out and brush the unruly black hair from the colonel's forehead.

Roy lifted the page he was reading and slowly folded it to the back of the report as he started on the next page.

"You read through that once already, didn't you, sir?" Riza finally asked.

"Do you think I'm wasting time so I don't have to move on to the paperwork you just put on my desk?"

"I didn't think that at all, sir."

Roy glanced up at her with a little half smile. He could hear the lack of sincerity in her voice. "This is Major Miles' first official report from Ishval, and yes, I have read it already. Now I'm reading between the lines."

"And have you found anything?"

Roy let out a sigh. "Not really. The only thing in it that differs from Breda's report is the total lack of any mention of Scar."

"Does that surprise you?"

"No, but it bothers me."

"Are you going to call him on it?"

Roy shook his head. "I know Scar is there, and Miles knows I know. It's just…I have a lot of respect for the major, and I wish he trusted me more." He looked over the report one more time. "Damn! I'd love to have him on my team!" he said, almost to himself.

Riza smiled slightly. "Aren't we all on the same team now, sir?"

"Oh, no. He's Armstrong's man. He always will be." Roy put the report down then, as an afterthought, he picked it up again. "This is rather interesting." He quickly flipped to the last page. "Here's something that didn't get into Breda's report. Apparently there's a group of Ishvalan musicians that will be in need of an Amestrian agent."

"An agent?"

"Yes, you know. A theatrical agent. An impresario." Roy rubbed his chin. "Madame Christmas would probably have some contacts, but I don't even know where she is right now." He looked back up at Riza. "Know anybody in show biz?"

Riza shook her head. "No, sir. I don't. I don't really get to the theater."

Roy looked up at her. "No? Perhaps we should go, then. When would you be free?"

Riza gave a little start. "Are…are you asking me out, sir?"

Roy held up the report. "For research purposes."

"Oh. Yes, sir. Of course."

Roy looked at her as she stood in front of his desk rigidly still, her lips compressed. He tried hard not to smile as he watched the blush creep up her throat to her cheeks. "Would you be free this coming Saturday?"

"I—I think so, sir." A look of alarm crossed her face. "But—"

Roy frowned. "What is it? Is Saturday not good?"

"No, sir, that's not it. I—I—" Riza cleared her throat. "I don't have an evening gown, sir."

"Oh. Well, it's only Tuesday. Do you need to take some time off to go shopping?"

"No. Yes. Yes, I—I think I do."

Roy nodded. He suddenly felt bad at finding amusement in the lieutenant's discomfiture. It occurred to him why she wouldn't have formal evening attire. He had been out of the evening circuit for a while, but he recalled that the fashion in gowns tended toward low backs, hardly something the lieutenant would be comfortable wearing.

"Look, I'm sorry. If it's a problem—"

"Oh, no!" Riza said quickly. "It's not a problem at all! I'll find something!"

"All right. Take as much time as you need." Roy smiled and laid his hand on top of the pile of paperwork. "I promise I'll get this done while you're out."

Riza returned his smile. "That's reassuring, sir."

"Dismissed."

Riza saluted and turned to head for the door.

"White."

Riza paused and looked back. "Sir?"

"A white dress. I think you'd look good in white. It's late spring, after all."

Roses bloomed on her cheeks again. He could see them all the way across the room, and he wondered why he had said that. "I'll think about it, sir."

She left the office and walked down the corridor, keeping her eyes on the floor. She wasn't quite sure how to explain the silly grin on her face to anyone she might pass by.

Chapter Text

Scar sat up and swung his feet to the ground, propping his elbows on his knees and holding his head in his hands. He drew in several slow, deep breaths and let them out just as slowly, commanding his heart to calm its frantic beating.

He hated the way these nightmares made him feel so helpless and vulnerable. They had dulled over time, but ever since he came back to Ishval, they seemed to have become as vivid as the events that inspired them. They hardly ever varied, but they never grew stale. He could still smell the dust and the blood. He could still hear his brother's voice exhorting him to live.

But what left him most disturbed was the overwhelming, crippling hatred that lingered after he woke up. He wanted to reach out to the image of Kimblee's pale, self-satisfied visage with its grin of intellectual and visceral arousal and tear it to bloody shreds.

Going back to sleep was impossible. Rather than lie down again and stare at the ceiling of his tent until the sun rose, Scar got up, pulled on a loose tunic and stepped outside. The desert was bathed in the glow of a bright full moon. Perhaps others would have their dreams disturbed by it as well. But the rows of tents were quiet, only an occasional snore or cough brushing against the silence.

Scar started walking. He passed through the headquarters compound, heading south. He paused near the large tent erected at Marcoh's request where, for the past two weeks, the six-year-old remains of slaughtered Ishvalans were being examined and an attempt made to identify them. Marcoh had thought of that before he even came to Ishval, and he had approached Dr. Knox about it before he left. It had apparently taken a great deal of persuasion to convince the coroner to make the trip, but he finally consented.

Just beyond this tent were a couple of sentries. One stood with his rifle loosely cradled in his arms, gazing up at the moon; the other sat perched on a block of rubble, his rifle propped up within arm's reach. Scar made no sound as he approached, but the soldier who was sitting lifted his head and rose to his feet. The other soldier turned with a start, gripping his rifle.

Scar's silhouette was unmistakable, and as soon as they realized who it was, the soldiers relaxed somewhat. Old instincts died hard, and although he was no longer a threat, even, as the prevailing opinion would have it, "not such a bad fellow after all," he still inspired a certain awe.

"Kind of late for a walk, isn't it…sir?" the soldier holding his rifle asked tentatively.

"Or early. I couldn't sleep," Scar replied, then added, "I'm not planning on overthrowing the government."

"Uh…no, sir…I wasn't…"

The other soldier, from what Scar could tell, a little older than the other, chuckled quietly. "Take it easy, Wally." He nodded up toward the sky. "It's like daylight out here. I'm surprised anybody can sleep." He looked back at Scar. "All's quiet, sir."

An eerie, high-pitched howling came from somewhere off to the east, and the older soldier chuckled again. "Except for a few critters."

An answering howl echoed the first one. Wally clutched at his rifle. "What the hell was that!" he hissed.

"Jackals," the other soldier replied. "I remember them from before. Relax, city boy, they're harmless."

Scar turned to look at him. "You were here before?"

The soldier returned his gaze steadily. "Yeah. Near the end. That was long enough." In the moonlight, Scar could see a determined look cross his features. "I had to come back and finally get my head cleared." He gave Scar a nod. "This is your home, sir. You go wherever you please."

There really were no landmarks anymore, but a road of sorts had been cleared for the removal of rubble and Scar followed that for some distance. He was surprised at how far it went. It finally began to descend to an area where there were more trees, not just meskaa, but taller cottonwoods. The rustling and sighing of their leaves in the night breeze gave the illusion of the sound of water.

Scar looked at where the ground sloped down to the dry riverbed below. In the rainy season, it would be filled with a roiling, churning current, but it would last for only a day or two and then dry up until the next downpour. Centuries ago, an actual river, the Halik, as it was called then, flowed through here and on to the southwest. Then there was a massive earthquake, centered somewhere deep below the mountains to the east where the river originated. The Halik disappeared overnight, and it was taken as a sign that Ishvala was somehow displeased. The people were forced to reexamine themselves. What had they done wrong? Perhaps they led lives that were not virtuous enough. Stricter tenets were established. Life, already made hard by trying to find water elsewhere, became harder, and Ishvalans became known for their rigidity.

The pendulum eventually began to swing back as views and beliefs became somewhat more moderate over time. Then the Amestrians annexed the holy land of Ishval, and once again, its people felt bewildered and abandoned.

Scar sat on the ground and gazed down at the silt-filled channel below. It was criss-crossed with animal tracks, perhaps even from the jackals they had heard before. He often sat in a spot like this along the dry wash in his youth, struggling with the calling that sang in his heart. The singing had since grown mute, leaving a bittersweet ache. He knew he had made the right decision, but he still felt lost. He drew up his knees and wrapped his arms around them, lowering his head.

Creator, sing in my heart the way you used to. Tell me what to do.

All he could hear was the whispering of the leaves. He sighed and lay back, stretching out on the ground. It was pleasantly cool here. He reached his arms out on either side of him and dug his fingers into the sand.

He shot upright, snatching his hands away from the ground as though they had been burned. The roaring in his ears ceased. He sat holding his breath. He could now hear only the hiss from the trees. He slowly lowered one hand, pressing his palm to the earth. Nothing. He lowered his other hand so that both were in contact with the ground. His teeth clenched as his ears were filled with a rushing, roaring sound. It was as though it came from a distance, but it was still clear. It was unmistakably the sound of rushing water.

Scar scrambled to his feet and leaped down into the dry riverbed. He thrust his hands into the layer of silt, burying his arms nearly to the elbows. The sound remained the same, but it had a kind of urgency. Scar squeezed his eyes shut and let the roaring fill his mind. It was loud, but not painful, and it drowned out every other sound. Except for something very faint.

The two soldiers jumped to attention as they heard the pounding of feet.

"What—" the older one started to say.

"It's nothing!" Scar called back breathlessly as he ran passed them. "Don't worry about it!"

The other sound, he could swear, was singing.

............................................................................................................

Miles stifled a yawn and scratched at the stubble that was forming at the precise edge of his sideburns. If this wasn't of such staggering importance, he would be pissed. He seriously needed to shave.

Saahad Bozidar was an early riser anyway. When his former disciple came rushing to his tent, he was already awake and at his morning prayers. Now he stood gazing at Scar's intense expression, his own eyes wide.

"My son, are you certain of this? Have you taken time to consider?"

"Yes, Saahad, I am certain. I don't need any more time."

"He had me up at three in the morning, chasing after him as he kept slapping his hands on the ground," Miles said. "I've never seen him this excited."

Scar pushed impatiently at his sleeves, exposing the tattoos on both his arms. "I'm not sure how to explain it yet, master. I don't think my brother even realized it. It may just be simple alkahestry, the dragon's pulse that Mei Chang described, but it's more than that. I know it is! And I know where it is. It got louder the further east I moved."

"A lot further east," Miles grumbled.

Bozidar searched Scar's face. "Do you realize what these signs portend?"

"Yes, Saahad! If we can locate the Halik, we can redirect it to flow above ground again and Ishval will thrive! There will be no more struggling to grow food! No more dependence on the whims of the rainy season or digging over and over again to find new wells!"

Bozidar waved his hand. "Yes, yes, my son, of course! But beyond that."

Scar frowned uneasily. "Saahad?"

Saahad Bozidar took one of Scar's hands in his. "Was it simply the sound of water you heard? You mentioned something else. Not so much a sound but a feeling." He turned Scar's arm and pointed to the markings on it. "You made this discovery by chance because you had occasion to place both your hands against the ground. Was this discovery waiting for you to find it? Are you not the only one who could interpret it? Perhaps it is because of your brother's work. But perhaps it is more."

Scar stared at him. He slowly drew his hand from his master's grasp and rolled his sleeves back down. After his initial excitement, he had tempered his impression of what he thought he had experienced. His hands trembled slightly. "I am not a prophet, Saahad. Me, of all people!"

"Yes, you of all people. Many prophets have spoken those very words, my son," Bozidar said gently. "It must be very frightening."

"I am not a prophet!" Scar repeated firmly. "I have tattoos on my arms that no one else has, that's all. That's the only reason I could sense what I did. All I know is that it was not simply some random force. There was a sense of direction to it that seemed to either point to or come from the east, which was the source of the Halik."

Saahad Bozidar held Scar's eyes for a moment, then nodded. "Then you must go east and find it. If it is indeed God's will, your brother's alchemy, or both, then you will find what you seek." A smile grew on the old priest's face. "And you will truly save us."

................................................................................................................

Scar sat on the edge of Miles' cot, his chin resting on his clasped hands.

"I don't want anyone to think that God has decided to channel His will through me. I have no business claiming that kind of distinction, no matter what Saahad Bozidar says. It could possibly be that I'm being called to do this one thing, and the fact that I have these particular markings on my arms has made it possible."

Standing in front of his shaving mirror, Miles glanced out of the corner of his eye for a moment before turning his attention back to his task. He gently pressed the edge of the straight razor against his skin in a well-practiced motion, making a clean line along the inside edge of his right sideburn. He lowered the blade into the basin of water on the stool before him and rinsed off the lather before again applying it to his face.

"Are you saying God wouldn't talk to you without your tats?"

"No. I'm the one who would have been limited without them." Scar pulled his sleeves up and gazed again in wonder at his arms, shaking his head. "I wonder if he even realized what he had done," he mused, "or if there was more he was trying to tell me."

"Your brother?"

"Yes. He was the kind of brilliant scholar who assumed you knew what he was talking about, that what he had discovered were such universal truths that everyone should be familiar with them."

"Must have been frustrating for him." Miles frowned critically at his handiwork, then turned his head to finish the left side.

"Possibly. I wish I had had the patience to really listen to him then." Scar shrugged. "I was too concerned about the occupation and the war to see beyond it, I suppose. Mattas was always cooler in a crisis. I was the hothead."

"I can see that."

"Damyan is a lot like Mattas. He even looks like him."

Miles held the razor still for a moment while he smiled. "Don't tell me. Naisha takes after you."

"I suppose."

Miles scraped carefully as he ventured a question. "Then who does Vesya take after?"

"Her father. He was a quiet, shy man with a very gentle nature. That's probably why Zoya was attracted to him." Scar watched Miles handle the cutthroat razor for a few moments. "Isn't that dangerous? Isn't that why safety razors were invented?"

Miles rinsed off his razor and carefully folded it closed. "It's the only way I can get the kind of shave I want." He wiped the remnants of soap from his face and made one final inspection in the mirror. "It also adds to my mystique. Everybody wonders how I do it."

He returned Scar's skeptical grimace with a smirk and Scar shook his head. "I'm more inclined to wonder why you do it."

Miles looked back at his mirror, spreading his hands. "Isn't it obvious?"

Scar stood up. "Pose all you want. I haven't seen Dejan's prediction come true."

"Oh? What would that be?" Miles picked up his shirt and started pulling it on.

"That all the women in Ishval would be on you like stink on shit."

Miles' arm stopped halfway through its sleeve. "Dejan said that?"

"You think I'd say something that ridiculous?"

Miles laughed and shook his head as he shrugged into his shirt. "Don't tell that to my auntie. If she has to lift her petticoats any higher she's going to create her own scandal."

............................................................................................................................

Their team was going to include two Amestrian military. One was an engineer and surveyor, the other would be the radio operator. This was meant to be a preliminary venture to simply narrow down a possible source of the river. If it did indeed exist and was accessible, the information would be sent to Central, and a team of geologists would be sent out to determine the next course of action.

The two soldiers were a little mystified about this sudden expedition. Scar had asked that no mention be made of any possible divine intervention in this discovery. The official report would simply refer to "historical and anecdotal" information.

They would be gone for at least four or five days. Scar went to his tent on the edge of the tent city to put his pack together. Naisha, Vesya, and Yasna had begun a campaign of making clothing with fabric provided by Jean Havoc, and he would soon be presented with a new wardrobe whether he wanted one or not. In the meantime, he didn't have much in the way of personal belongings, so it did not take him long to put them together.

He supposed he should go and tell his cousins where he was going, deciding that, for now, at least, he would tell them only the barest facts. He slung his pack over his shoulder and started toward the little camp that his cousins and their friends had established.

He had not gone far when he heard the sound of harsh voices and a woman screaming. He dropped his pack on the ground and started running. He reached the top of a small rise in the road, and on the other side he saw the source of the disturbance.

Stanno's friend stood holding a woman's arms behind her back. She struggled in his grip, screaming and sobbing desperately. "Let her go! Leave her alone!"

Stanno stood a few feet away from the woman, holding on to the arm of a small girl who thrashed against him. Seeing Scar approach, Stanno looked up with bitter anger.

"You're just in time!" he said. The little girl gave a cry of pain as he roughly twisted her hair in his hand and pulled it away from her face, leaving a couple of strands hanging down in front. His shocking treatment of her was almost less remarkable than the girl's appearance. She had the dusky skin of any Ishvalan, but her hair was raven black and her eyes were as blue as a spring sky.

Scar halted, frozen. Despite the wretched misery and the trails left by tears running through the dust on the little girl's face, Scar knew he was looking at a diminutive version of Solf J. Kimblee.

Stanno easily read Scar's expression. "Does this answer your question?" he sneered. "And that whore still had the nerve to come back here!"

It was then that Scar noticed the woman had fallen silent. He turned away from the child to look at her and he drew in a sharp breath. The woman stared at him through the silver-white hair that obscured much of her thin, haggard face, which she quickly turned away. He still recognized her. For a moment, he couldn't tear his eyes away from her, then he raised them to glare dangerously at the man who was holding her arms. He nervously withdrew his hands and backed away. The woman fell to her knees. She covered her face with her hands and doubled over sobbing, her forehead pressed to the ground.

Stanno pushed the child away from him, and she stumbled to the woman's side, throwing a thin arm over her. She glared at Scar and Stanno, her small body shaking with terror and fury.

Stanno spat contemptuously. "You should weep!" he said to the woman. He turned dismissively from her to Scar. "To think I almost gave my name to that slu—"

He had only enough time to widen his eyes before Scar's fist connected with his jaw and sent him flying backwards. He didn't have the chance to recover before Scar strode up to him, grabbed him by the throat, and hauled him to his feet.

Pulling the man closer, Scar hissed in his face. "If you touch, speak to, or even come near her, I'll—"

Scar caught himself before he finished his threat. That was all he needed to do—turn his destructive alchemy on one of his own people, even if it was Stanno. Scar shoved him away and turned back to the woman and the little girl. By this time, Naisha, Dejan, Damyan, and Yasna had come running from their camp. They reached down to help the woman to her feet, her little girl still clinging to her ragged skirt. The woman hung weakly between Naisha and Damyan, and Yasna gently pushed her hair out of her face.

"Rada?" she gasped. "Oh, Rada!" She kissed the woman's wet cheeks, nearly in tears herself. "Rada, honey, are you okay?"

Scar looked past them to see a small crowd of Ishvalans and soldiers begin to gather. Miles had just arrived as well, carrying both their packs and watching the scene cautiously. "Dejan!" Scar called with a jerk of his head.

"What is it?" Dejan asked under his breath, coming up close to Scar. "What the hell's going on?"

"Just take care of them while I'm gone!" Scar said in a low, desperate voice. "Take them back to your camp and keep them safe!"

"Of course!" Dejan replied readily, still a little puzzled. He turned back to see that Damyan and Naisha were already leading Rada away. Yasna had managed to coax the little girl into her arms and was following after them. Dejan joined them as they made their way back to their camp. Scar stood where he was for several moments, gazing after them. He took no notice of Stanno and his friend slinking away, and he didn't turn his head until Miles finally came up and nudged his shoulder.

"Whoever she is," he said, "she's in good hands. We need to go."

Scar nodded slowly. "Yes…yes, I'm coming."

He turned to follow Miles to where the rest of the expedition was waiting, but his mind remained with the image that had burned into it, desperately seeking an answer.

Rada. Rada, how did this happen?

Chapter Text

The sun was setting, casting a warm, pinkish-orange glow to the walls of the tent. Vesya sat on the edge of her cot with Rada's daughter on her lap. The little girl felt stiff and tense in her arms like a wild animal that kept still out of fear rather than trust. Vesya looked down and noticed a row of bruises on the little girl's arm left by Stanno's fingers, and she rubbed the spot gently, tears springing to her eyes.

When they first brought the two of them to the camp, Rada was so ill they practically had to carry her. It had taken all her strength to make it home, and then she had to put up with Stanno's abuse. Her little girl was traumatized, shaking uncontrollably in Yasna's arms and struggling frantically to be near her mother. They brought them into the tent that Naisha, Yasna, and Vesya shared and got them both calmed down. Then they sent for Dr. Marcoh.

A few feet away, Rada lay on the other cot, her eyes half closed and her features pinched and haggard. Yasna sat on the ground by her head, stroking her hair and crying softly. Naisha stood, her expression solemn and uncompromising, as she watched Dr. Marcoh close the latch on his medical bag.

"It's just a mild sedative," he was telling Naisha. "I don't want to upset her stomach too much. When she wakes up, try to get her to eat something. Some broth, perhaps. Nothing solid."

"I'll go talk to Mr. McGinty. He probably has some kind of powdered beef stock or something like that," Naisha replied.

"Yes," Marcoh agreed. "Just the thing. On top of everything else, she's very dehydrated, and the salt will help her retain more water. If she can't keep it down, just keep trying. Oh, and Mrs. Knox brought some rather nice tea with her. I'm sure she'll be happy to give you some. I'll bring it by later." He picked up his bag and put on his hat. He paused to pat the little girl on the head. "Make sure this little one gets some rest as well. See about getting her some canned milk from McGinty while you're there. It would be so much better to have fresh food, but for now we have to make do."

"Thank you so much, Dr. Marcoh!" Naisha said as he left. She turned back to gaze down at Rada and she scowled. "Goddam sonofabitch!" she muttered angrily.

"Nai! Shh!" Vesya whispered, putting a hand over the little girl's ear.

Naisha lifted her hands and dropped them in a frustrated gesture. "I'm sorry. I'm just so angry! That Stanno is such a—" She pursed her lips and went over to Rada's side and bent over her, rubbing her shoulder. "Rada, sweetie, you don't worry about a thing! We're going to take care of you, okay? You just get some sleep."

Rada struggled against the sedative. "Danika…"

"She's fine," Naisha assured her gently. "She's in better shape that you are. Just go to sleep. We'll stay here with you all night."

Vesya kissed the top of the little girl's head. They figured Danika had to be about five or six, born sometime after the fall of Ishval. Rada had not been able to say much, and they had not pressed her for any kind of explanation.

"You see?" Vesya whispered reassuringly to Danika. "Your mother is our dear friend, and you're going to be part of our family now. You don't have to be scared." The little girl didn't say a word, but Vesya could tell she was listening intently to everything they were saying.

Naisha sat down on the blanket that served as a rug and propped her chin on her hand. "Why did Andakar have to take off like that?" she muttered. "We need him here!"

"You heard what Dr. Marcoh said, and he was told by Saahad Bozidar," Vesya replied. "He's only going to be gone for a few days."

"That could've waited!" Naisha retorted glumly. "That river has been underground for hundreds of years. It's not going anywhere!" She frowned at the blanket for a few moments, then turned her head to give her sister a sidelong look and a smile. "I'm surprised you're not a little more upset about your major going away."

Vesya gave a little start. "He's not my major!"

"No? I saw that picture you drew of him in your sketch pad."

Vesya drew in a sharp breath. "Nai! You didn't!" she gasped, horrified. "Oh, God, did you show anyone else?"

Naisha lifted a shoulder. "Dejan happened to be looking over my shoulder. He said, 'well, well, well, if it isn't Major Sideburns!'"

Vesya looked away, her face burning. "Well…it doesn't matter anyway. I can't think about anything like that now. Not while poor Rada's so sick."

"She'll be all right! She just needs some time and care. It doesn't stop me from thinking about Dejan. I'll bet Yasna's thinking about Damyan, aren't you?"

Yasna let out a little hiccup of a sob as she looked over at Naisha mournfully.

Naisha shrugged. "Okay, maybe not right now."

"Yes, well, you're engaged," Vesya said. "It's just natural."

"So why shouldn't it be natural for you, little Vesya?" Naisha lay back and stretched out on the blanket. "He is awfully handsome! And my, doesn't he make that uniform look good!"

Vesya couldn't help but smile. "Don't let Dejan hear you say that."

"Oh, he'd just smack me on the butt and say that he's handsome, too."

Vesya shook her head. "You two are going to get in trouble."

"Huh! Who from? All those nosy old baatas? Who cares?"

"I care!" Vesya insisted. "Damyan said that Andakar said that Major Miles said that his auntie said—"

"Oh, God Above, Vesya!" Naisha giggled. "Listen to yourself! You old gossip!" She sat up and looked at her sister with affectionate sternness. "Now listen to me! We're going to take care of Rada and Danika and they're going to be just fine! It's going to be as close to the way things used to be as we can make it. It's going to be even better! We're together, there's no more war, we're going to get a brand new house to live in and a big family to share it with, and maybe even get Major-Officer-and-a-Gentleman-Miles to be part of that family, too!"

"Oh, stop it, Nai!"

"I won't! You're such a sweetie, Vesya, but you're too shy. I want the major to be my brother-in-law. So you need to get busy."

"Naisha, I couldn't!"

"Oh, I know." Naisha put on a mock serious expression and shook her finger. "A respectable girl does not throw herself at a man, missy!" She grinned. "She has to be a lot more subtle."

Vesya shook her head, gently rocking Danika back and forth. "You're talking to the moon, Nai."

..............................................................................................................................

The two soldiers were asleep. Scar had volunteered to take the first watch, not that there was much to watch for out here. They had driven roughly two thirds of the way to the mountains that lay due east on the Amestrian border. Cactus and meskaa had been replaced by rolling hills covered in dry, yellow grass and short, dark green oaks.

Miles had stopped the car at one point earlier that day to gaze out in amazement. Many miles east from where they had started lay an entirely different set of ruins. These were much, much older than the wreckage of modern day Ishval. The remnants of walls and streets stretched out for some considerable distance, and it was hard to tell where the ruins stopped and open land began.

"What the hell is that?" Miles demanded, even as he realized the answer. "Is that what's left of Old Ishval?"

Scar gazed out the window for several moments without speaking. Then he nodded. "It is."

Miles continued to stare. "This is incredible! I've never even heard of it until you told me about it yesterday! There has never been any mention of this anywhere!"

"Not in Amestrian accounts, no," Scar replied. "There was no interest in it."

"No interest? I find that hard to believe."

"It's not that incredible, Miles." Scar waved his hand at the scene. "It lay too far outside the boundaries of the nationwide transmutation circle. There was nothing here that was of any use to the homunculi."

"Hm. That makes sense," Miles mused. He shook his head. "Even so, the potential for knowledge here is—"

"You won't find many Ishvalans who even want to venture into those ruins," Scar interjected. "It's considered bad luck. The land was said to be cursed. Otherwise Ishval would have been rebuilt here." He turned to frown morosely at the road ahead. "Sometimes I wonder if the curse was ever lifted."

Scar fell silent and stayed that way for the rest of the day.

Miles, stretched out on his bedroll, turned his head and considered the big Ishvalan's seated figure as the orange light from the low campfire flickered on his troubled features. After a while, Miles got up and sat across the fire from him. Scar looked up at him.

"What are you doing up?"

"You mean, considering how little sleep I got last night?" Miles said in a low voice. "I don't know. Maybe because I know something's eating you, something other than whether Ishvala is trying to talk to you. You're not the chattiest person I've ever been around, but you haven't said a damn thing since we started out."

Scar just stared back at the fire.

"If it's none of my business, say so. But I'm curious about that woman and the little girl." Scar didn't reply, but he didn't object, either, so Miles went on. "Let me guess, then. You know her, and you're concerned about her welfare. Her daughter bears an uncanny resemblance to a certain mutual friend of ours. Stanno and that friend of his were giving them grief over this particular resemblance, and you belted him." Miles waited for a reaction. "Feel free to step in anytime."

Scar remained silent for so long that Miles assumed he had decided to ignore him. But finally he began to speak quietly.

"They lived within a few streets of each other. Zoya and her family, Yasna's family, and Rada's family. They grew up together. Damyan and Rada were the same age, Naisha and Yasna were the same age, and Vesya was the youngest by a year. Mattas and I kept an eye on them when we could, and we both felt privileged to be part of their world. I officiated at each of the girls' fifteenth birthdays, their coming-of-age ceremony. And we all knew someday Damyan and Yasna would get married. Even with the civil war going on around them, they managed to squeeze a little happiness out of life.

"Then Stanno came along. He was held in high esteem by the community, a master carpenter, by all outward appearances a fine, respectable man from an old family. But he was an interloper in this little world, prowling around it like a wolf stalking its prey. Rada turned the heads of a lot of men. She was beautiful, graceful, and modest. Her father wouldn't give her hand to just anyone, even though he had three younger daughters to find husbands for as well. When Stanno approached him, he was flattered. Rada was even more so. He's very handsome, you have to admit."

"I suppose."

"But he was arrogant and conceited. He was also a frequent customer of the falshaii, the prostitutes in the taverns outside—"

"Whoa! Hold on! There are Ishvalan prostitutes?"

"Once, yes." Scar shrugged. "Men are men, and if there's a demand, there will be a supply. For women born outside of society who have no father or anyone else to claim them and who have no other craft or talent, it's the only life left for them. It's tragic and it's wrong. It was outwardly condemned but quietly tolerated." He went on. "I saw Stanno there once. He—"

"And what were you doing there?"

Scar let out an exasperated breath. "I was preaching," he said with deliberate slowness. "I also liked to listen to the vatrishi play, especially Dejan and his father, Shua. The falshaii and the rough taverns they worked in were on the other side of the camps. As soon as Stanno stepped into that world he shed his respectable skin and became loud, foul-mouthed, and abusive. The women were afraid of him, but they couldn't afford to turn away customers.

"I tried to say something to Rada's father, but he wouldn't listen to me. Rather than waiting for the best husband for his daughter, someone who would provide for her and respect her and make her happy and get her out of Ishval safely if it came to that, he was holding out for the highest bidder. And Rada…" Scar gave a helpless shrug. "She was so trusting, and she saw good in everyone. Stanno had her completely fooled, and he gradually drew her away from the world she had grown up in. She was so much in love. I had never seen her look happier or more beautiful.

"I was asked to bless their betrothal. I almost refused. I went through the motions, and Rada could tell that somehow I was angry. I think she wanted to ask me what was wrong, but once she was Stanno's intended, he kept a jealous eye on her." Scar's mouth twisted in a bitter smile. "She thought he was just being attentive. Then the state alchemists came to Ishval, and that was the last I saw of either of them until I came back here."

"But sometime in between, Kimblee got involved," said Miles. "Should we add rape to his list of accomplishments? It wouldn't surprise me. Then again, the way your friend Stanno was going on, he seemed to be suggesting it was her fault."

"He's that kind of man," Scar growled. Then he grew troubled again with a thoughtful frown. "But those were desperate times…"

"Meaning she might have acted out of self-preservation?"

Scar paused, then shook his head. "I don't know, Miles. I honestly don't know. It doesn't seem possible."

"Or is that what you'd prefer to think?"

Scar shot him a hard look. "There's no point trying to speculate ahead of the facts." He laced his fingers together, clasping his hands tensely. "Dejan and Damyan will take care of her and her daughter, but it's going to be hard for her. You can be sure Stanno is going to act like the injured party and let everyone know who that child's father is."

"Are most Ishvalans really going to care that much?" Miles asked, a little incredulous.

"Ishvalan women are held to a very rigid standard of virtue, no matter how modern an age this is. Old habits die hard."

"But if a man wants to go to a brothel, that's okay?"

"We were oppressed, Miles. Not perfect."

"Hmm. What about you?"

"I have no right to judge her," Scar replied. He pressed his clasped hands to his forehead and closed his eyes. "God, Miles, she was so ashamed she couldn't look at me!"

Miles considered him for a few minutes, then said. "I'll finish out your watch. You get some sleep. You have to find a river tomorrow. That's the business at hand, remember? The rest you can take care of when we get back."

Maybe it did him good to unburden himself a little, but Scar at least seemed like he had gone back to sleep. Miles figured he'd give himself another half hour or so before he woke the next soldier. Until then, he tossed a handful of sticks onto the fire to keep it going but not burn too brightly, and he mused over the story he had just heard.

Or at least, the story that Scar told. Miles had not risen to a position of trust at General Armstrong's side because of his dashing facial hair. He became her chief interrogator. He was good at teasing out lies and unspoken truths. Between Scar's words there was another story that was easy enough to read. It was a story about a young priest, jealous and heartbroken, who had to sanction the betrothal of the beautiful, innocent girl he loved and a man who wasn't good enough for her, a swaggering whoremonger. Flash forward six years. Both the young priest and the beautiful girl had since lost their innocence the hard way. They had come back to Ishval with a variety of scars, and it looked like it was going to take some time for those scars to fade.

Chapter Text

Breda looked over his shoulder as Miles burst into the communications tent like a rush of wind.

"Uhh…hold on, sir," he said into the microphone. He struggled slightly to disentangle himself from the headset as he tried to stand up to salute, but Miles waved his attempt aside impatiently.

"Is that the colonel?" he demanded, pointing to the radio.

"Yes, sir, it is. I was just—"

Miles gestured for the headset. "I need to talk to him."

With the urgency in Miles' actions very evident, Breda mutely handed him the equipment to him and discreetly stepped outside. Miles sat down in the chair and put the headset on.

"Colonel Mustang, sir!" he announced.

Mustang sat in front of the transceiver at the Eastern Command center, startled at the interruption. "Major?" He straightened up in his chair and cleared his throat authoritatively. "Major Miles! This is an unexpected pleasure."

"Yes, sir. I have some unexpected news. You'll be receiving an official report, but I wanted to let you know as soon as possible."

"Does this have something to do with the expedition Breda was mentioning? Something about finding a long lost river?"

"Yes, sir, it does. I would have informed you before I left, but I wanted to make sure it wasn't some wild goose chase."

"I see." A small grin pulled at the corner of Roy's mouth. "That's twice, Major."

On his end, Miles frowned slightly. "Sir?"

"That's twice now you failed to inform me of something before you left."

Miles smiled wryly. "Ah."

"Ah, indeed."

"My apologies, sir."

"Yes, I should hope so," Roy said stiffly. "That could be considered insubordination, Major. You are working for me, now. The time for prevarication and subterfuge is over."

"It was really more of an oversight than an omission, sir."

"I rather doubt that, but even so, it doesn't matter."

Miles could hear the chill in the colonel's voice over his headphones. "No, sir, I suppose it doesn't," he replied, keeping his own tone on the cool side.

"No, it doesn't."

Miles heard a throat clearing sound through his headphones, then a moment of silence. Then there was a sudden rattling noise.

At the Eastern Command center, Roy had pulled the headset off in a frustrated gesture and tossed them on the table. He pushed his fingers through his hair and sat that way for a few seconds. He picked the headset up and put it back on.

"Goddammit, Major!" he exclaimed fiercely. "We're supposed to be in this thing together! All of us! Did you feel you had to sneak Scar out of Central because you thought I'd arrest him? Son of a bitch! What do you take me for? I literally fought alongside the man! He saved our asses! Was it Armstrong's idea?"

Miles smiled to himself. "I suppose you could say we assumed we had your tacit approval. We also figured you'd find out soon enough through your own very impressive network."

"Don't suck up to me, Major!"

"No, seriously. You have an amazing team."

"Yes, I do! And it would be that much more amazing if you were on it!"

Miles winced slightly at the sharp rise in volume. "I am, sir."

"No, you're not! You're one of hers! You'll always be one of hers!"

Miles shrugged slightly at the rising tension in the colonel's voice. "Old loyalties just don't die, sir."

"No, I wasn't saying that they should, I just—"

Miles heard a dull thud. At Eastern Command, Roy had lowered his head to bang it on the table.

"Sir…"

"What?"

"Don't hurt yourself. This isn't a popularity contest."

There were a few moments of silence. "Miles?"

"Colonel?"

"This project is so important to me. I would have thought you understood that."

"I do, sir."

"So are you on my side, or not?"

Miles was about to say we're all on the same side now, sir, which was true, but he smiled and said, "Yes, Colonel. I'm on your side."

"But you're on her side, too, right?"

Miles shrugged. "This isn't her baby, sir. She's got the north to keep an eye on. But she loves this county just as much as you do, and she's just as anxious for Ishval's success as you are. But yes, I would definitely still take a bullet for her."

Now it was Roy's turn to smile. "Okay. Fair enough." His smile faded. "But she was never in Ishval. She didn't see what I saw. She didn't do what I did. Maybe she would have had the strength to say 'I'm not going to do this.' I didn't. This has to work, Miles! I've been working for the past six years to rise to a position where I could make a difference, and now I'm here and I have to make this work! Please tell me you understand that!"

Miles grinned. He almost applauded. "I do, Colonel."

"Does he?"

"Andakar Ruhad of Ishval, formerly Scar of no fixed abode?"

"Yeah, him."

"Sir, let me tell you about what we found, and you'll get an idea of the level of confidence he has in you to see it through."

Roy gave a start. "Oh! Yes, this river business. Breda has been telling be about that, something about Scar—sorry—Andakar using his alkahestry or his alchemy—alchemestry—"

Miles laughed. "Works for me, sir."

"—to find some underground river that used to be above ground. From what Breda has been told me, there was some massive earthquake about a thousand years ago, and the river just got swallowed up." Roy picked up one of the books he had stacked at his elbow that he had been referring to while talking to Breda. He tossed the book aside. "I couldn't find that anywhere in my research."

"I hadn't heard about it either," Miles replied. "Existing reference material on Ishval is written by Amestrians, and they don't always get it right or they don't want to admit something. Like that business about growing wheat and cotton out here. It was an experiment by the Amestrian government many years ago, after Ishval was annexed, and it failed. It's just not wet enough out here."

"Oh." Roy picked up another book and tossed it aside, mentally cursing the waste of his time.

"But that's not the half of it, sir," Miles went on. "That earthquake didn't just swallow up the river. It left Old Ishval in ruins, and those ruins have lain untouched ever since. Have you ever heard any mention of it?"

Roy glared at the books. He had half a mind to torch them. "No."

"Can you guess why?"

Roy thought for a moment, then snapped his fingers, Fortunately, he wasn't wearing his gloves. "The nationwide transmutation circle!"

"Well done, sir. Not being an alchemist, that didn't occur to me right away. The surviving Ishvalans declared that the area was cursed and moved further west to rebuild." He paused for a moment, then added. "Do you see the irony?"

"The—" Roy frowned, then drew in a quick breath. "Oh! They moved straight into the path of what would be the transmutation circle." He pressed his hand to his forehead. "If they'd taken their chances and stayed where they were…Oh, hell!"

"Exactly. Amestris might simply have left them alone." Miles allowed himself a grim smile. "Makes you think, doesn't it?"

"Yeah, it does." Roy drummed his fingers. He didn't really want to think about it. He was never going to get those years of his life back. Neither would a lot of other people. A lot of other people. "Well, we're here to look to the future, Miles. Tell me more about this river."

"Yes, sir. Andakar was able to figure out where it had gone, and he was able to locate it. Dead nuts on. He's the only one who could. He said it seems to go beyond just sensing a natural flow of energy in the earth. He said he could actually hear the river when he placed both his hands on the ground."

Roy nodded with growing excitement. "Forming a circle!"

"Exactly. So we took a couple of men and drove out to the mountains."

Roy's eyes flicked up to the map on the wall. "There's a minor range along the extreme eastern border. So you went rock climbing?"

"Not all the way to the top, fortunately. I'm not a geologist, but you could tell there had been some sort of upheaval there once. Andakar just stopped at one point and said, 'it's here.' By that time, he couldn't even put his hands on the mountainside, the noise was so loud. He just looked at this one spot for a few minutes, told us to step back, and used his right hand to put a hole in the mountain."

Miles laughed and shook his head. "It was the damnedest thing I'd ever seen in my life, sir! A huge gush of water shot straight out of the mountainside like an instant waterfall! We all stood there, getting soaked, laughing our damn heads off. After a while, he plugged it back up, and he said he had only made a tiny opening. I can only imagine what a bigger one would look like, but there is most definitely an underground river. The old riverbed is still there and fills up during the rainy season, so the water will have a natural destination."

Roy stood up and traced his finger along the map on the wall, from the mountains and just below Ishval, moving further west. "There's another river that flows south toward the border with Aerugo. It might connect with that, working with what we've got." He gazed at the map for a few more moments, savoring this revelation. "Major, send me all the information you can so I can get the ball rolling on this as soon as possible!"

"Right away, sir. I'll be writing up the official report with as much pertinent information as you'll need. But just to let you know, it will differ slightly from what I just told you."

"And why is that?"

"Andakar has asked that his role be downplayed in this."

"He doesn't want to draw attention to himself?" Roy frowned slightly. "He's not a wanted man anymore, Major. He doesn't have anything to worry about. As far as the rest of Amestris is concerned, Scar is dead."

"It's not so much that. He's not looking for any kind of personal glory out of this. He wants it to look like a team effort."

"I see. All right. I'll respect that."

"And sir, when he had gotten the hole sealed up again and we were standing there dripping wet, he looked at me and said, 'Mustang needs to know about this as soon as possible. If he's as committed to restoring Ishval as he claims to be, he won't waste time.'"

"Huh. That sounds a little more like high praise with a faint damn rather than a vote of confidence."

"Well, sir, consider the source."

Roy grinned. "I suppose so. You tell him from me that I'm completely on top of this. And Miles?"

"Yes, sir?"

"Thanks for opening up."

Miles smiled. "My pleasure, sir."

Miles sat back in his chair. He honestly liked Mustang. Yes, perhaps he was something of an upstart. He was a couple of years younger than Miles and was already a colonel. Being a state alchemist had given him something of a leg up, but the ambition that drove him to seek out promotion was based on altruistic ideals. Miles could only respect that.

He had not entirely opened up, however. He had not mentioned to Mustang any kind of divine force involved in this discovery. Scar did not deny the possibility that Ishvala had a hand in it, but he found it hard to believe that God thought he was even remotely worthy of such an honor. In practical terms it didn't really matter. They found what they were looking for. Miles couldn't help thinking, though, with a private smile, what else Ishvala might have in store for His wayward son.

Chapter Text

Scar gazed down for several minutes at the spot of bare ground where his tent formerly stood. He felt he ought to be mystified, but he wasn't. He turned and headed toward his cousins' camp.

Walking toward him along the road was Dr. Marcoh. The doctor lifted his scarred face, and his features brightened.

"You're back!" he exclaimed. "How did it go?"

"It all went well," Scar replied. "At this point it will be in the hands of Amestrian bureaucracy, but if everything else goes as well, Ishval will have a river by next spring."

Marcoh lifted his hands and clapped them together. "That's wonderful news!" The folds of his face wrinkled in a smile. "What a godsend! Quite literally!"

Scar grew cautiously still. "Why did you say that?"

"Master Bozidar and I were discussing your discovery—" Marcoh quickly raised his hand. "Only between ourselves, I assure you. I enjoy talking with him very much." He laid his hand on Scar's arm. "I said this to you once, and I still feel the same way, now even more so." He gazed up earnestly into Scar's face. "I see God in you."

Scar stared at him for a moment. The first time he heard Marcoh utter those words, they sent him into a rage. Since then he had grown to know the man and his generous, compassionate nature better. His features softened and he shook his head. "I'm not sure what you see, Marcoh. But this time I'll take what you said as a kindness."

Marcoh gave a humble nod. "Thank you. But I suppose you want to know how our newcomers are doing." The doctor's face fell and he sighed deeply. "That poor young woman! She was suffering from exhaustion, dehydration, and malnutrition, but she's on the mend. They're being very well looked after."

"Doctor Marcoh!"

The two men turned to see Naisha running up the path carrying a hat. Marcoh clapped his hand to the top of his head and chuckled. "Oh, dear." He held out his hand to take the hat. "Thank you, my dear girl. One of these days I'll forget my head."

"Sure you can't stay for supper?"

"I'd love to, my dear, but I promised Knox I'd give him a hand with his work while the light's still good. Another time?"

"Any time! And thanks again!" Naisha gave him a kiss on the cheek. "You're an absolute brick!"

"My pleasure, my dear." Marcoh settled his hat on his head and nodded to them. "I'll be on my way, then."

Naisha watched him with a smile as he walked away, then she reached up to kiss Scar on the cheek. "Glad you're back."

"Naisha, where is my tent?"

"Your tent? We moved it over to our place, of course," Naisha replied.

"You could have asked first."

Naisha made a flicking motion with her hand. "Eh-h, you should be with your family."

Scar shook his head. Some battles were not meant to be fought. "How are things here?" he asked.

Naisha linked her arm through Scar's as they headed back up the road. "Not too bad. We've been keeping ourselves busy. Vesya started on those children's books you wanted. They're going to be so cute! And Yasna and I started working on our wedding dresses. We want them to be just right, with all the embroidery and everything! We aren't half as good as Rada, but she's been feeling crummy, so we can't exactly ask her. 'Rada, sweetie,'" Naisha whined vapidly, "'we know you've been puking your guts out, but would you be a dear and whip up a couple of dresses for us, thanks so-o much!' I mean, honestly!"

Scar gave a brief, slight smile, then he sobered. "Dr. Marcoh said Rada was quite ill. I didn't even realize it."

"Yes, well, the first couple of days were rough," Naisha said with a weary sigh. "Rada was practically skin and bones, and she could barely keep anything down at first. She must have always made sure Danika had more of what little food they could get hold of. But we nursed her through it and she's better now. Dr. Marcoh has been by every single day to check on the both of them. Honestly, Andakar, he's one of the nicest people I've ever met! It's like the more he can do for us, the happier he gets."

"That doesn't surprise me." That, Scar had learned, was the sort of person Tim Marcoh was. He was fortunate in finding a way to battle his demons.

"Mrs. Knox is really sweet, too. She brought us some tea and then she just stayed and chatted with us," Naisha went on. "I have to say, I've met some really kind and generous Amestrians since the war ended. So many Ishvalans would just complain and complain about how awful Amestrians were and how much they hated them, but you can't just lump people in a group and say they're no good. We're all just people and some of us are good, and some of us aren't so good. There are some Ishvalans who are complete dickheads!" she added pointedly.

"Who?" Scar frowned. "Do you mean Stanno? Has he been giving you trouble?"

"Oh, no, he hasn't shown his face around here. But when they've gone for supplies, Dejan and Damyan have heard that Stanno's been making comments."

"What kind of comments?" Scar asked with rancor mounting in his voice.

"They wouldn't say," Naisha replied. "Probably thought I'd go find that miserable prick and kick him in the nuts."

Scar paused in his steps and gave the girl an exasperated look. "Naisha, when did you start talking like that?"

Naisha looked up at him with a little smirk. "When did you finally start noticing? Oh, take it easy! I wouldn't really do that! Come on." She pulled on his arm and they continued toward the camp. "I honestly don't care what Stanno or anyone else thinks. Rada's my friend and I love her and if she wants to tell me what happened, I'll listen, but only when she's good and ready."

"She hasn't told you anything?" Scar asked, feeling oddly relieved but disappointed at the same time.

Naisha shook her head decisively. "No. The important thing is, she's home and she's with us and she knows we'll take care of her and her little girl, no questions asked."

Scar nodded then said, almost to himself, "At least the man involved is dead. At least," he added with a scowl, "I believe it was him."

He could feel Naisha give a shudder. "I'm not sure I really want to know this, but who was he?"

"He was one of the state alchemists who were sent here. Solf Kimblee. The Crimson Alchemist."

Naisha was silent for a moment, then asked. "Andakar, did you—was he one of the ones—"

"No, I'm not the one who killed him," Scar replied. "But it wasn't for lack of trying."

Naisha waved her hand quickly. "Never mind. At least that time is over now." As they reached the outskirts of the camp, Naisha stopped and fixed Scar with a firm look. "You have to be really nice to them," she warned quickly in an undertone.

"Why wouldn't I be?"

"I just want to make sure. You have to understand that they've had a really hard time. Actually, it's Danika I'm more worried about. She's a little…strange, I guess. She knows that other Ishvalans look at her funny, like she's some kind of freak. She shouldn't have to grow up like that, and she shouldn't have that look in her eyes."

"What look?" Scar asked warily.

"It's like…there's no trust. We've all been so kind to her, and Dejan—you know what a clown he is—has been pulling out all his tricks just to try and get a little smile out of her. But she just won't open up to anybody. She'll hang around Mika, at least, but she still doesn't say anything. I want so much to help them both, and I need you to help me. Promise?"

Scar studied the girl's features for a moment. She was everything Dejan said she was: feisty, stubborn, headstrong, and it all came from a deeply ingrained sense of loyalty to anyone close to her. "Yes, I promise. I'll do whatever I can," he assured her, although he felt it might be like the blind leading the lame.

The camp still had the same atmosphere of organized yet unrepentant chaos. There was an eclectic arrangement of camp stools, crates, and brick-and-board benches around makeshift tables. Clotheslines zigzagged around the site between tent poles and trees. A breeze that came along lifted some drying towels to momentarily reveal a flurry of activity. A couple of cooking fires were burning, and there was an assembly line of sorts around the tables where a meal was being prepared. Roasted vegetables were being chopped and mixed together with oil, vinegar, and herbs. Melons and cucumbers were being sliced and set out on plates.

Attached to the end of one of the tables was what looked like a large meat grinder. Yasna was filling the top opening with slender brown pods and Dejan was struggling with the crank handle. A coarse meal fell into a bowl under the grinder. Once the pods were ground, the meal was run through the grinder again to make a finer consistency. The flour was then whisked away to another station where canned milk and salt were added and the dough was kneaded.

Scar stood and stared at the bounty of fresh fruits and vegetables. "Where did all this come from?"

"We raided some old gardens," Damyan said, carrying a watermelon under his arm. He jerked his head in the direction of the ruins beyond their camp. "They're all out there. They've been reseeding themselves for years and they're all overgrown. A lot of it was either dried up or split open and rotting."

"And covered with ants! Eeww!" Mika declared as she carefully arranged the plates of fruit. "Mr. McGinty gave us some stuff, too, 'cause he likes us!" Beside her, watching her every move, was Danika. The little girl's nose barely topped the table, and when she saw Scar she ducked her head down.

"No one is supposed to be going out into the ruins without authorization," Scar remarked.

Dejan leaned on the handle of the grinder and drew his arm across his forehead. "When I was a kid I got pretty good at snitching stuff from people's gardens. A bunch of bones and a few snakes are nothing compared to dodging an angry baata."

"I expect you'll be hearing from Miles about that."

"Well, then we'll feed him a sample of Vesya's cooking, won't we?" Dejan said with a wink at the girl.

"Hush, Dejan!" Vesya shook her head and applied herself to kneading dough.

"How long has it been since you've had flatbread?" Naisha asked Scar. "I mean real flatbread made with meskaa flour? Look at this!" She gestured theatrically to the grinder. "It's the latest model, made with carbonized steel, strong enough to grind even the toughest pods into dust. That nice Mr. Havoc got it for us! He's getting three sewing machines for us, too! He just gets on the radio and it's on a truck in just a couple of days!"

Yasna nudged her. "He said he can get his hands on just about anything!" The two girls exploded into giggles. Dejan looked at Scar and rolled his eyes.

In a matter of a few more minutes, a veritable feast was laid out on the tables. The roasted vegetables were set out in a large bowl next to a plate piled high with freshly toasted flatbread. As they sat around the camp with their dinner, the young musicians went into ecstasies about the food. It seemed as though nearly everything they did was a kind of minor celebration. Scar envied the way they were able to enjoy life so much.

Damyan swallowed a piece of flatbread. "Some goat cheese would go great with this, wouldn't it?"

Yasna, sitting next to him, nodded. "That'd be wonderful!" she sighed.

"Too bad about the goats," Vesya said sadly. "They must have all gotten killed during the war, too."

Naisha shrugged. "Some of them must have gotten released and run off. It's not like their owners could take them when they escaped."

Scar gave a slight start and looked at them. "We saw goat droppings when we were out in the wild area east of here," he said.

"Did you see any goats?" Damyan asked.

Scar shook his head. "They're all feral by now and they kept out of sight. But the droppings looked fresh."

The young Ishvalans looked at each other with mounting interest. "I'll bet there's a whole flock of them out there!" Yasna said.

"I think it's called a herd," Dejan corrected her.

"A herd of goats?"

"Of course I heard of goats!" Dejan retorted. "I'm Ishvalan!"

The others groaned. "You're a real card, and you need to be dealt with," Damyan told Dejan.

"Oh, now, Damyan," Dejan chided him. "Let me have my little pleasures. Why, when I was growing up, we were so poor we couldn't even pay attention."

Naisha stood up. "That's it. I'm leaving!" She took one of the tin plates and dished up a small amount of food on it, then she disappeared through the curtains of laundry.

Before he turned back to his food, Scar once again caught Danika watching him, and once again, she looked quickly away. She sat close to Mika and had been like the older girl's shadow this entire time. She kept her head down, her dark hair acting as a curtain in front of her face, but as Scar glanced at her, he could see one blue eye stealthily appraising him. He knew she was just a little girl, a completely innocent victim of circumstances, but she made him uneasy. Was it simply her outward resemblance to Kimblee that was troubling, or was there more to it? The idea of Kimblee passing on anything other than just his eye and hair color to another human being was disturbing. Scar frowned to himself. You're imagining things.

Mika set her plate aside and spoke up. "Hey, Master Andakar! When's school gonna start? Can I help teach?"

Scar couldn't help but smile a little. "You're a bit young for that kind of responsibility."

"But I already know all kinds of stuff! Dad and Naisha taught me how to read and write, and Stoyan taught me math." Mika pointed to Dejan's flute player, a solemn young man who sat nearby.

"There is still much for you to learn, and you can't neglect your own education. Stoyan, Naisha, and Vesya are going to help with the teaching," Scar told her.

"Yeah, I know, but—"

"But perhaps you can be of some help with the younger children." Scar looked at the silent little girl beside Mika. "Like Danika."

Danika gave a flinch, and Scar could see her visible eye widen with alarm.

"Do you want to go to school?" Scar asked her, watching her intently to gauge her reaction.

He could see her shoulders tense, and she looked down and shook her head. Mika gave a long-suffering sigh. "Naisha said she was gonna teach the little kids like you, and Vesya's gonna help her," she told Danika. "That'd be okay, wouldn't it?"

Before she could decide whether to shake or nod her head, Danika suddenly looked over her shoulder. Naisha was lifting a hanging sheet out of her way, and her other arm was around Rada's shoulders. Danika jumped up and said "Mama!" in the faintest breath of a whisper. She ran over and wrapped her arms around Rada's legs.

Naisha had to steady Rada as she nearly lost her balance. "Careful, sweetie," Naisha said gently.

Rada put a hand on Danika's head and gave her a wan smile. Then she lifted her head and saw Scar and she grew warily still. Naisha tightened her hold around her shoulders with a reassuring squeeze and whispered something to her, Rada gave a slight nod .

Scar realized that he was staring at her. She was thin and still somewhat haggard, and she had a lost, wary look. His attention was then caught by Naisha giving a slight jerk of her head and a look that, knowing Naisha, was probably telling him get off your butt and get over here!

Scar stood up and walked over to the two women. As he approached, Danika buried her face in the folds of her mother's skirt as though she was trying to disappear into them.

"Danika, sweetie." Naisha peered around behind Rada. "It's okay! Andakar looks big and scary, but he isn't. Honest!"

Scar didn't think that helped much. Danika stubbornly kept her face hidden. Rada looked down at her and stroked her hair. "I'm so sorry, Saahad-I mean-Zhaarad Andakar," she said with a bit of fluster as she corrected herself. "She's very shy around strangers."

"I understand," Scar replied. He had started getting used to small children taking to him, but this was definitely not going to be one of those occasions. "Don't let it concern you or her."

"I wanted to thank you," Rada went on. "The other day, when I first came here…when Stanno—" She pressed her lips together for a moment, then said simply, "Thank you."

"It was—" Scar began. To say my pleasure would have been accurate because he truly enjoyed hitting Stanno, but it might not be appropriate to say so. "—necessary, I suppose. I couldn't stand by and let him treat you like that." He hesitated for a moment, casting about for something else to say. "Are you feeling better?"

Rada nodded. "Yes, I am, thank you." She seemed to be avoiding direct eye contact, but Scar could see her focus for a brief moment on his scar. He had grown used to that reaction, but this was the first time it made him feel self-conscious, and he began to wonder just how disfigured he really looked.

"She's so much better! I got her to come out and say hello, didn't I?" Naisha said cheerfully, giving Rada's shoulders a hug. "Everything's going to get better, isn't it?"

Scar noticed how stiffly Rada held herself in Naisha's embrace. She gave a faint smile and a slight nod, but she didn't seem to share Naisha's conviction.

A sudden stirring at the edge of the camp caught Scar's attention.

"Dr. Marcoh!" Naisha called out with a smile. "You're just in time! There's still plenty of food left."

Marcoh waved his hand. "Oh, no, my dear, thank you, but that isn't what I came for." He stepped up to Scar with a somber look on his face. "Come with me," he said. "I've been helping Knox, and…well…there's something you need to see."

Chapter Text

To accommodate all the remains that had been recovered over the past weeks, an additional tent had been pitched next to the original one. Every day, a list was posted at headquarters. Male, approx. 30-40 yrs, 5 ft. 9 in. tall, distinguishing marks: onset of arthritis in forefinger and index finger of right hand, evidence of previous fracture of left ulna…Female, approx. 15-20, 4 ft. 7 in. tall, non-childbearing, slender build…Each day the Ishvalans would check the list to see if there was anyone they recognized. Some were relieved, some were disappointed, and some suffered grief all over again.

The coroner's team had done their best to treat both the dead and the living with the utmost respect. Knox thought he had grown inured to facing bereaved relatives who were stunned and bewildered by the deaths of their loved ones, but he constantly had to brace himself against the bleak expressions of these Ishvalans as he offered them a set of bleached or charred bones to view.

He was good at what he did. He should have been proud of his accomplishments. He had already reunited many of the surviving Ishvalans with their departed family and friends. He was able to tease out the minutest details and clues, making these mute bones speak, but what they had to say haunted him now just as much as they did then. These people kept thanking him, and it was all he could do to keep his composure and his detachment and not break down completely.

Very often he would let his son deal with the living. He was going to make one hell of a good doctor. He was so calm, yet so compassionate. The old ladies just ate him up. Thank God for that kid. Knox allowed himself a smile, then grimaced as he bent down to stub out his cigarette. This was killing his back. He wished Marcoh would hurry the hell up. This would be the last bunch for the day, and he really wanted to get this one over with.

"They're coming."

Anthony stood at the tent entrance, peering out into the evening. He turned to look at his father slumped on a bench between the tables holding the last subjects he examined.

"Do you want me to take over, Father?"

Knox sighed and shook his head. "No." He stood up and arched his back with a groan "It's kind of a special case." He allowed his son a smile. "But after this I'm hitting the hay."

Anthony nodded then lifted up the tent flap for two men to enter. Marcoh gave the young man a pat on the shoulder before stepping up to the three tables Knox stood next to. Anthony remained at the entrance, raising the flap a little higher for the tall Ishvalan who was hesitating outside. Scar considered the young man for a moment, studying his honest, open countenance before stepping past him.

Marcoh motioned for Scar to join them at the first table, then he nodded to Knox, who gruffly cleared his throat.

"We've had a lot of missing limbs," Knox began. Best to get straight to the point. This isn't some old woman we're dealing with here, after all. "But the nature of this injury, if you can call it that, is what really narrowed this one down." He pulled down the sheet, revealing the upper half of a skeleton.

"Bring that lantern over here, will you," Knox said to Anthony. The young man picked up the kerosene lantern and carried it over, holding it above the table. Knox took a magnifying glass from the pocket of his lab coat. He held it over where the humerus ended just below the humeral head. "It isn't a break. It's…well, I'm not sure 'cut' is the right word. This is more Marcoh's field," he said.

"Take a close look," Marcoh told Scar quietly.

Scar hesitated. He knew what he would see. He took a deep breath, steeled himself, and bent closer to look through the glass.

What had looked like a clean, shear cut actually showed up under the lens as a slightly jagged edge made up of tiny crenellations. Fine rectangular outlines of transmutation marks continued just above the edge for about an inch, then faded. Scar straightened up slowly, his eyes travelling up to the grinning, eyeless face. It was hard to believe that this collection of bones had once been the framework for the brilliant, compassionate, yet modest young man that had laid the foundation for this country's liberation. How could he not have considered what a poorer place the world would become without him?

.......................................................................................................................................................................................................

Scar gazed down at the brittle leather cord that he had idly laced between his fingers. On the cord were strung three strips of gold engraved with ancient Ishvalan characters, prayers for the health and prosperity of the house of Ruhad, an heirloom passed down through many generations. His father never took it off, and he died wearing it. Knox had commented on the irony of the prohibition of looting during the war, considering all the other atrocities that were committed. It was not, however, unheard of, and it was lucky that this particular article had been left untouched, allowing the identification of these remains.

They had found his mother as well. Her bones had been close to Father's and were identifiable by the toe she had broken many years before. She had dropped a large clay jug full of water on her foot, and Scar remembered how they all doted on her while she recuperated. It was at that point that he had asked the others to leave him alone. When he could no longer hear their voices or their footsteps, he leaned heavily on the table holding his brother's remains and let the tears finally flow, his chest heaving with sobs.

Thunder rumbled in the distance and a breeze made the sides of the tent ripple. Scar looked up from where he sat, realizing that he had completely lost track of time. It had grown dark a long time ago, and it could have been ten or midnight or three in the morning. It didn't matter. It was his duty to keep this vigil and offer the prayers he was never able to say until now. It offered him some little comfort to do this much for them.

Eventually, his mind wandered from his meditations and returned to Rada. When he first met her, he was fresh out of his novitiate, full of the raw zeal and passion of his calling. She was on the brink of womanhood, and there was a radiance about her, like a star that had glided down from the desert sky, and she took him completely unawares. To her, he was simply the older cousin of her closest friends, a priest of Ishvala, but she was warm and friendly toward him, just like she was with everyone. He had given himself, body and soul, to Ishvala, and he did not regret his calling, but his heart was stirred with feelings that he had to assure himself were innocent.

On her fifteenth birthday, he was asked to officiate at her coming of age ceremony. She wore a dress that she and her mother had sewn and embroidered for the occasion, and she glowed with joy and a sense of adventure. At one time, Ishvalan girls would actually be married off at this age. That practice had stopped a number of generations ago and parents generally waited until their daughters were more mature before they would give them away. Even while he recited the prayers exhorting a maiden to be faithful, chaste, and dutiful, he offered up his own plea. Please, Creator, don't take her away from me too soon.

Seeing her again, he had searched her face for the girl he remembered, the girl who would sit in the shade with her friends and hang on his every word as he tried to convey the revelations that sang in his heart. He couldn't help but be flattered by her admiration, perhaps foolishly so. The face he saw earlier was barely a shadow of that girl. Saahad Bozidar had warned him against putting too much emphasis on divine retribution, but he found himself briefly harboring a tiny, perverse imp of a notion that it was his seemingly innocent infatuation that had somehow set fate in motion. His master would tell him that God didn't work that way and that he was probably just looking for a way to blame himself.

Rain began to fall, but it was the sound of footsteps that made Scar raise his head. Naisha entered the tent wearing a shawl over her head and carrying two brown glass bottles in her hand. Scar would have preferred to complete his vigil by himself, but he knew that if anyone was going to intrude on his solitude, it would be her, and there was nothing he could do about it.

"I'd have thought you'd be asleep by now," Scar remarked. "Now you'll be caught in the rain."

"Doesn't matter." Naisha sat down beside him. "I was worried about you. Here." She handed him the bottles then nodded toward the door. The rain was starting to fall a little harder. "I hope it's a huge downpour. Then Damyan can start digging for clay."

Scar frowned slightly at the label on the bottles. "How did you get this?"

"I begged them off Mr. Havoc."

"At this hour?"

"It's only eleven. He was up drinking with his buddies, and I said I needed it for medicinal purposes."

"And he believed you?"

Naisha gave a little chuckle. "Well, if he didn't, he didn't mind."

"I don't drink."

"Tonight you do."

"I'm not sure this is appropriate."

"You are too young to be an old fart, Andakar. Open the damn bottles."

Scar sighed and twisted the wire off the cap and examined the crimped edges of the cork crowns.

"Aw, nuts!" Naisha grumbled. "I didn't ask him for a bottle opener."

"I think I can manage," Scar said. Although still struggling in his mind over the proper uses of alchemy, if any, he let the slightest amount of power moved through his arm into his right hand and loosened the caps. Hoping Naisha hadn't noticed, he pulled the caps off and handed one of the bottles to her.

She lifted it briefly. "Cheers!" She took a sip from it, then sat closer to him, picking up the talismans that he had placed on the bench. Leaning against his shoulder, she thoughtfully examined the gold strips and sighed. She looked up at the tables. The sheets had been pulled back over the skeletons.

"I'm sorry, Andakar," she said softly. "I'm sorry I always tore him down. It wouldn't have hurt so much if I hadn't wanted so badly for him to like us. I remember sneaking up to North Kanda one day and seeing him walking along the street, his head held high, everybody greeting him. I could tell right away who he was because he kind of looked like you. I wanted to jump out in front of him and shout 'notice me!'"

Scar put his arm around her shoulders. "He was very proud and very stubborn, but I think it hurt him as well. If your mother had come to ask his forgiveness, I think he would have broken down and begged for hers."

"She would never have done that," Naisha said. "She was proud and stubborn, too. They were a real pair." She nodded toward the tables. "Which one's which?"

"That one is Mattas," Scar said, pointing the table on their right. Pointing to the table at his left, he said. "That one is Father. The one on the other side is Mother." He looked back at the girl. "Do you want to see them?"

Naisha quickly shook her head. "No. I really don't. I don't want to remember them as just a bunch of bones. Sorry," she added.

"It's all right." Scar patted her shoulder and took his first swallow of beer since before he took his vows. It wasn't something he had much of a palate for, but he supposed if it came from Havoc's private "reserve" it was probably of good quality.

The two sat in companionable silence for a time. It brought back some bittersweet memories. Naisha was always the one with the questions, and he tried to answer them as best he could. Her mother had long since resigned herself to the situation, and as soon as Naisha was old enough to realize something was wrong, Zoya explained only briefly, feeling that nothing more needed to be said about a circumstance for which there was no remedy. Scar never quite understood why Naisha would want so much to be reconciled with someone she had never known. It had nothing to do with status. Her family was everything to her, and to have it fragmented was much more painful to her than either her parents or her siblings.

Both Scar and his brother took it upon themselves to maintain a relationship with them. As a priest, it was Scar's responsibility to educate the young, and Brother was a natural scholar who felt that young people should always be inquisitive. If Father disapproved, he never said anything. He never spoke of his sister or her family. After all, to do so meant he had to acknowledge their existence. Perhaps, in a way, he tacitly allowed it so there would at least be some sort of connection, however thin. Now they would never know.

Scar looked down at the talismans in Naisha's hands. "Give those to Damyan," he said.

Naisha looked back at him, shocked. "No! These are yours, Andakar!" She held the center tablet up so she could see it better in the light from the lantern. "See? You taught me how to read the old script. This says 'Ruhad' right here. Damyan is head of the house of Kafik." She set down her beer bottle and held the leather cord up to Scar's throat. "You are the head of the house of Ruhad."

"A house that will end with me, Naisha."

"Oh, bullshit," Naisha scolded gently. "You don't know that. Especially since you're not a priest anymore."

Scar wasn't about to argue with her. "It's enough for me to know that you're happy."

"Hmm!" Naisha looked closely at the cracked leather the talismans were on. "I'm going to get this cord replaced, and you're going to wear it, and you're not going to give me any crap about it."

"Yes, baata Naisha."

"Oh, don't even start!"

.............................................................................................................................

Sunlight broke through the clouds that still scudded across the sky the next morning. Vesya cautiously lifted the flap of the coroner's tent, ducking away from the water that still dripped off the canvas, and peered inside. She gave a little sigh of relief and walked in.

Scar and Naisha were still sitting on the bench, propped against each other, sound asleep. Two empty beer bottles sat on the ground at their feet. Vesya regarded them with an affectionate smile and debated whether she should wake them up. For two people who shared a contentious temperament, they looked remarkably peaceful.

"Oh, my dears," Vesya said quietly to herself. She stepped closer and carefully kissed them both on the cheek and left.

Chapter Text

Roy gazed around the Fuhrer's office. It had been moved to an undamaged section of the Central Command complex. Aside from having a big hole in the exterior wall, the old office held too many unpleasant memories. The new one was a little smaller, but that didn't detract from its atmosphere of authority. Someday he would be sitting behind that big oak desk, but he could bide his time until then. He turned back to the young woman who was pouring tea into his cup.

"Thank you," he told her.

"Of course, sir," she replied.

"Thank you, Lieutenant," Grumman said with a grin visible under his mustache. "That will be all for now."

The lieutenant clicked her heels. "Yes, sir."

She left the room briskly and Grumman's eyes followed her all the way. As the door closed, he chuckled. "This job has its perks," he remarked.

Roy gave a half-smile. "Surely you don't take advantage of your position, do you, Excellency?"

Grumman looked shocked. "Good heavens, no! That would be reprehensible!" He let out another chuckle. "Let's just say I'm enjoying the view from the top." He picked up his teacup and took a sip from it. "Now," he said, giving his mustache a quick wipe. His expression grew a little sterner. "I called you out here to talk to you about your Ishvalan project."

"Well, sir, it isn't mine exclusively—"

Grumman held up his hand. "Fine, then. It's yours and Breda's and Miles' and that Scar fellow or whatever his nom de guerre is. And of course we can't forget Mr. Havoc, who is there representing the private sector," he said, a little testily. "Now, don't get me wrong. This is something that needs to be done, and you have my support. However…"

Grumman opened a drawer of his desk and pulled out a thick file folder. He dropped it in front of him, where it landed on the desk top with a thud. "These are copies of all the requisition orders that have come through here since the project began, as well as invoices from a certain private enterprise called 'Havoc Sundries'." He opened the file and flipped through the papers inside. "Tents, food, blankets, radio equipment, generators, water towers, lumber, you name it, it's in here. Everything one would need to start up a small city."

"With respect, sir," Roy replied. "Those are all necessities, not just for the Ishvalans, but for the soldiers stationed there."

"I'm not disputing that, Colonel," Grumman said, peering over his glasses at Roy. "It's the sheer scope of it. We shipped almost an entire forest of pine there."

"For coffins, sir."

"Hmm." Grumman nodded with a grim frown. "I see." He flipped through a few more papers and selected several of them. "Then there's this other stuff that's five and ten cenzing us to death. Sewing machines? Several thousand yards of fabric? A couple of hundred spools of thread?"

"They need clothes, sir."

"School supplies…hmm, well, can't really grouse about that…" Grumman rustled through the papers. "Potter's wheels? A pottery kiln?"

"It's to help some of the craftsmen get back to work, sir," Roy explained. "I've been told that in the near future, Ishvalan crafts are likely to be quite popular."

"Is that so?"

"Yes, sir. In time, those pieces of equipment will pay for themselves."

Grumman laughed skeptically. "Well, won't that be handy!" He looked through more invoices. "Beekeeping equipment?"

"Ishvalan honey is supposed to be very good, sir. I recall that you're rather partial to honey in your tea."

"A printing press with a set of Amestrian type blocks as well as rather expensive custom-made Ishvalan character type blocks?"

"They want to print their own books for the children."

"Tom, Betty, and Susan aren't good enough for them?"

"Apparently not, sir. They also plan on compiling an Amestrian-Ishvalan dictionary. Those could even be sold to the general public."

"I see." Grumman held up another bill. "Ladies' undergarments?"

Roy let out a snicker and Grumman raised an eyebrow. "Really, Colonel! You're not a schoolboy anymore."

"Forgive me, sir. There's a story behind that. It caused quite a stir."

"I daresay."

"Apparently, they had to get only female personnel to distribute the garments to the old ladies, who had to be thoroughly convinced that their bloomers hadn't been touched by male hands. Except for the one Havoc put on his head." Roy cleared his throat. "He'd had a few beers."

"Very amusing. And then…" Grumman took another folder from one of his drawers and waved it. "This geological impact survey what-have-you! This river business! You are aware that these people don't work for free, are you not?"

"Of course, I am, sir," Roy answered readily. "But with a permanent source of water, they'll be able to grow large scale commercial crops. Cotton needs Ishval's hot climate, but it also needs plenty of water. But this isn't just for Ishval's benefitl" he went on eagerly. "Think of the potential for hydroelectric power!"

Grumman raised an eyebrow. "You certainly have done your homework." He sighed and stacked all the papers back together. He closed the folder and looked across at Roy. "If it was entirely up to me, young Mustang, you could have whatever you wanted and damn the cost. But unlike my illustrious predecessor, I don't see the people of this nation as merely a natural resource. I am answerable to them. What's more, I'm answerable to how their taxes are being spent.

"Ishval isn't the only place that needs fixing up. We've managed to settle things down at our borders to the south and west, and that needs our attention as well. We have one hell of a mess to clean up all over this damn country! There aren't any damn homunculi running the shop anymore. They had total control over everything, and now that they're gone, the economy is a shambles. And after we passed off that little tea party on the Promised Day as an alchemical experiment that nearly killed them, folks are a little leery of state alchemists these days. It's just us plain humans, and we have limited resources. You and your people out there are just going to have to tighten your belts until we can get the rest of our house in order."

"I…I understand, sir."

"Good." Grumman sat back and studied the look of anxious consternation on Roy's face. "In the meantime, if you can hunt around for other avenues to consider, I would strongly recommend you do so." A little smile twitched under his mustache. "And just to show you how much confidence I have in you, I'm going to supply you with a little extra clout, you might say."

Grumman opened another drawer in his desk and pulled out an envelope. He handed it to Roy, who took it and stared at the official seal for a few moments. Grumman took a letter opener from his organizer and held it out, but Roy ripped the envelope open and pulled out the letter.

…By order of his Excellency, Fuhrer Grumman, the rank of Brigadier General is to be conferred on Colonel Roy Mustang, effective immediately…

Roy stood up involuntarily, clutching the now slightly crumpled letter in his hands. He clamped his lips shut to hold in the laugh that threatened to burst through them. He drew himself up, clapped his heels together and saluted.

"Your Excellency!" he said, his voice trembling very slightly. "I am deeply, deeply honored!"

Grumman rose and returned the salute with a grin. "I have no doubt that you will live up to the honor, Brigadier. I'll make sure you get your stars before you leave Central."

"Yes, your Excellency! Thank you!"

"Very good. You are dismissed."

Roy gave a parting salute and left the office. Grumman laughed softly and sat back down, reaching for his tea cup. "Yes, I like this job."

Riza looked up as Roy stepped out into the corridor, closing the large oak door behind him. The look on his face was a little hard to read, but he looked somewhat pale and tense. He nodded to her and they started down the corridor.

"How…how did it go, sir?" Riza asked, feeling a little apprehensive.

"Some problems with the rebuild budget," Roy said in a subdued voice. He returned the salutes of a couple of captains that walked by them.

They continued on for a few more minutes until Roy paused and looked up and down the now empty corridor. He turned to Riza and pulled the letter from his coat pocket. "And this."

He handed her the letter and watched her expression as she unfolded it and began to read. A smile grew on his face as her eyes widened. She looked up from the letter at him, and they stood staring at each other silently for several moments.

"Brigadier!" Riza finally said in a soft, reverent tone, just to hear what it would sound like.

Roy looked at her for another few seconds, then suddenly grabbed her by the shoulders and kissed her. Just as suddenly, he pushed her away. Both of their faces were quite pink.

"I—I'm so sorry!" Roy stammered. "I don't know what came over me. It was—it just seemed like—the thing to do."

Riza cleared her throat. "Understandable, sir."

"I—I would never dream of using my position—I—I mean—I have in the past—but—I mean—not like that!"

"Of course not, sir."

They both looked down at their boots. "We should…uh…celebrate," Roy said tentatively. "That is...if you…if you'd like to…"

"I packed my dress," Riza said quickly.

"Oh, God, really?" Roy nearly gasped. Their trip to the theater several weeks ago had been a pleasant, cordial evening that ended with a handshake, but Roy still dreamed of the creamy white dress Riza had worn. It had a high back, but the front scooped down to a low sweetheart neckline. He still couldn't remember what had happened onstage.

Chapter Text

Miles let the hum of surprise and indignation go on for a few minutes before he held up his hand to get the assembly's attention. They were entitled to a reaction like that, but it was time to move on.

"Brigadier General Mustang has asked me to convey his sincerest apologies. He is just as disappointed as everyone here," Miles said. "Six months was the best estimate he could get on the building materials at this point, and yes, he's aware that it's going to start getting cold by then."Cold, hell! he thought. "He's looking into other possibilities at the moment."

The mess tent was filled with Ishvalans, primarily men, a scant handful of women, primarily old, and several soldiers. They had begun to meet like this once or twice a week to discuss plans and to address any problems and issues that had arisen. With the help of Karley's new PA system, the last piece of state-of-the-art radio equipment he was likely to get for some time, a general announcement was made for this particular meeting, and there was quite a crowd.

Scar had already expressed his opinion to General Mustang over the radio. He wasn't particularly indignant, but neither was he surprised. After trading a few mild barbs, Mustang swore, if for no other reason than as a personal challenge, that he would bust his ass to get Ishval back on its feet, even if he had to pay for it himself. Satisfied at least by the brigadier's conviction, Scar now sat with his usual somber scowl, waiting to see how well Miles would handle this situation, ready to assist with whatever authority he held. Beside him sat Damyan, then Naisha and Dejan. It was not common for a young woman to attend such a gathering, but since she was in the company of two older male relatives as well as her fiancé, she seemed to be accepted.

Stanno and three companions he had collected sat at one of the other tables, their attitude somewhere between boredom and belligerence. Zulema sat near the door, her hands resting on her walking stick, her narrowed eyes traveling over the crowd, which had reached standing room only and flowed outside the tent.

"What sort of possibilities?" a man in the crowd asked.

"One of them could be private funding."

"From who?" another man asked. "Amestrians?" There was a small ripple of skeptical laughter.

"Seems to me Amestrians would rather forget about us," Stanno remarked. His companions and several of the other Ishvalans nodded and murmured in agreement.

"If that was the case," Scar replied, "we wouldn't have been allowed to return to our homeland."

Stanno shrugged. "Out of sight, out of mind."

Miles could practically hear Scar's temper bristle and he went on quickly. "The brigadier is trying to start a public awareness campaign to aid Ishval. While he's working on that on his end, any cost-cutting measures we can think of would help, too."

Naisha's hand shot up. "We're starting a vegetable garden!"

Miles gave her a smile. "That's very good," he said, then added, "I might add that you got the seeds from off-limit areas."

Naisha gave him an innocent look. "Desperate times, Major!"

"I'll overlook it this time, considering the circumstances."

Naisha smiled sweetly at him. "I knew you would." Dejan grinned and tousled her hair.

"Right, moving along—yes, Miss Naisha?"

Naisha lowered her hand. "All the stuff that got sent here, the sewing machines and the pottery stuff and the printing press and everything. Do we have to send it back?"

"No," Miles replied. "General Mustang assured me that the budget cuts would not be retroactive. All that equipment stays."

Havoc raised his hand. "Whatever you folks make, I can ship to my parents' store to sell."

"Like my pots?" Damyan asked.

"Call them ceramics and it'll up the price," Havoc replied with a grin.

"What about my honey?" asked another man whose face was swollen on one side.

"Is it wild honey?" Havoc asked.

"I'll say!" The man pointed to his face. "Ishvalan bees are mean little devils."

"Then we'll charge twice as much," Havoc told him.

There was a mild ripple of approval from the assembly. This isn't turning out so bad after all, Miles thought. "Are there any—" He sighed. "Yes, Miss Naisha?"

"The goats!" Naisha said excitedly. "Andakar said there are goats out there! We should go catch them! Then we'll have meat and milk and cheese and wool!"

One of the Amestrian soldiers present raised his hand. "My family's from Resembool, Major. I know a bit about herding sheep."

"Hmph!"

Everyone turned to Zulema, who had a skeptical sneer on her face.

Miles nearly groaned out loud. "Did you have something you wanted to contribute, Aunt Zulema?"

"Goats are not sheep," she said. "You don't herd goats. They prefer to be led, usually by the oldest doe. But now they've gone wild, and they'll scatter if you don't approach them just right."

"Are you volunteering?" Miles could easily see her trotting along at the head of a pack of goats.

"At my age?" Zulema cried indignantly. "Certainly not! It's all I can do to get myself out of bed in the morning. One of these days I'll wake up and I'll be—"

"Any volunteers!" Miles called out.

The soldier who had spoken raised his hand again. "I'll go, sir. I'll do what I can."

"I'll go, too," Havoc said. "I could use a field trip."

Miles looked around. "Anyone else?"

"Sounds like fun," Dejan said. "I'll go!"

Zulema humphed again and muttered something in Ishvalan.

Miles nodded and scribbled a note on the clipboard he was holding. "That's some good progress for now. Are there any other announcements?"

Scar stood up. "School will begin next week," he said to the assembly. "For now we're going to divide the children up into three or four groups, depending on how many there are and what their ages are. We have enough supplies for now, and we've started printing beginning readers in Amestrian and Ishvalan." He gave a slight, wry smile and added, "Thanks to the generosity of the Amestrian government."

Saahad Bozidar stood. "I would also like to make an announcement. In a matter of a few days, we will be holding a funeral for the remains of our brothers and sisters who have been identified so far, of which there are seventy-five. This ceremony is not exclusive to the bereaved. All are invited to attend, Ishvalans and Amestrians alike. My brother priests and I intend to chant the full funeral litany. We need seventy-five graves dug, as well as enough people to carry the coffins. Some of the dead have only one family member left, and they'll need help. We should only need two people for each coffin. They won't weigh quite as much as they would normally." This grim implication of the desiccated state of the remains was spoken simply. "We are, however, in need of carpenters to build enough coffins for this funeral and for those to come, which will be many. We already have a couple of volunteers from our Amestrian ranks, but it's going to be quite a task." He turned to Stanno. "May we depend on you, Zhaarad Stanno?"

Stanno gave a slight nod. "Of course."

"Excellent!" Saahad Bozidar looked around the rest of the crowd. "Is there—"

"But I expect to be paid for my labor."

"What?" Scar cried angrily.

Stanno ignored him and stood up to address the old priest. "I'm sorry, Saahad. But those people are the victims of war. I think it's fair that the Amestrians cover the cost of their burial."

"There's no money, Stanno!" Scar growled. "Haven't you been listening?"

"I spent years learning my trade!" Stanno retorted. "I am a master at my craft! I don't work for free!" He gestured at Miles and at a few of the other soldiers. "They're on the government's payroll, aren't they?"

Bozidar frowned slightly, but he turned to give Miles a questioning look.

"I'm not sure an exception can be made," Miles said cautiously. "I could radio the brigadier—"

"No!" Scar glowered at Stanno. "We can find enough people to build coffins without his help! Anyone who can't even show charity to the dead isn't worth wasting your time on."

Stanno glared back. "You're willing to put your family in some piece-of-crap pine box that some Ammy bluecoat threw together? Don't you want to bury the chieftain of Kanda in the best coffin you can get?"

Scar bridled with a burst of rage. "I wouldn't piss in one of your coffins!"

The crowd muttered softly. Scar's cousins and Dejan looked at each other with guardedly impressed expressions. Stanno took a threatening step toward Scar, but Bozidar moved between them. He turned to Scar with a patient but stern look. "My son, there is no need for that."

"What do you expect, Saahad?" Stanno sneered. "He thinks he's God's gift to Ishval, but it wasn't that long ago he was a common criminal." He jerked his chin at the gold strips that hung from Scar's neck. "He'll wear his father's talismans, but he can't be bothered to give his own parents a proper burial." He gestured at Dejan. "And he's letting his cousin marry that desert rat!"

Scar pressed forward against the restraining hand Saahad Bozidar held on his chest. "You—"

"—Pig!" Naisha cried, jumping to her feet. "You take that back!"

"Nai, honey," Dejan said calmly. "It's okay. I can run away from my own fights."

"There, you see?" Stanno gave Naisha a condescending smirk. "Don't expect him to defend your honor."

Naisha drew herself up and furiously blurted out something in Ishvalan. There was a bare second of shocked silence, then the assembly erupted in a jumble of scandalized muttering, gasps of astonishment, and even some laughter. Scar turned and stared at Naisha. Damyan and Dejan both leapt to their feet and clapped their hands over her mouth. Stanno's mouth fell open, and Saahad Bozidar's eyes widened as much any of his students had ever seen.

"EH-H!" Zulema stood up, waving her stick. "What did I tell you? What did I tell you? No good would come of it!"

Miles glanced around quickly at the crowd. Whatever Naisha said must have been a doozy.

"I move that we adjourn for today," he announced. "We've covered enough ground for now."

"Yes,"Bozidar replied. "I think enough has been said."

Stanno threw his hands in the air and pushed his way through the crowd. At the door of the tent he paused and turned. "Hey, Scar!" he called back. "Ask Rada why she's alive and her family isn't! Then you might see who isn't worth wasting your time on!"

Scar frowned darkly at the door as the assembly filed out. He started to follow after Stanno, but he felt a hand on his shoulder. He turned to meet Saahad Bozidar's somber expression. "I would like to speak to the two of you," he said quietly, including a rather red-faced Naisha with a nod of his head.

Damyan took his hand from his sister's mouth. "I can't take you anywhere," he said, shaking his head.

Dejan kissed her on the cheek and leaned close to her ear. "We'll wait outside while Teacher reams your backside."

Naisha gave him a shove. "Fine! Beat it!"

Trying not to grin too broadly, they followed the rest of the crowd outside.

While waiting for the tent to empty, Saahad Bozidar turned to Miles. "Does this delay mean you'll be staying with us for a while longer, Major?"

"Yes, sir," Miles replied. "I need to clear it with General Armstrong, but she'll see the necessity for it. It may only be a matter of a few extra months."

Scar heard a quiet gasp behind him and he turned to see Naisha staring at Miles with a look of dismay.

"What's wrong?" he asked her under his breath.

Naisha gave a little jump and she turned to Scar with a scowl. "What's wrong?" she snapped back. "Nothing's wrong! Everything's just great!" She stormed over to one of the tables and dropped down onto the bench.

After a moment, Scar went and sat down beside her. He felt foolish. Because of what his brother once described as an overdeveloped sense of justice, he had gotten in trouble more than once for getting into fights when he was a schoolboy. If he hadn't been such a good student, he would have been in a lot more trouble. He would be sat down and given long lectures on thinking before he acted. This would be another one of those lectures. He would sometimes be parked on a bench alongside whoever he had been fighting with, a partner in crime of sorts. Now his cousin sat beside him with a morose expression on her face, her chin resting on her fists. He glanced at her out of the corner of his eye.

"Should I bother asking where you learned that?"

"Shut up!" Naisha mumbled.

They sat silently for a few moments, watching Saahad Bozidar as he spoke with Miles. Naisha glanced at Scar, then looked quickly away when he glanced back at her.

"What did Stanno mean by what he said about Rada?" Scar asked under his breath. "Do you know anything about it?"

"I don't know and I don't care!" Naisha hissed back. "Stanno can pound sand up his ass! You never told me Miles was leaving!"

"You never asked," Scar replied. "He'll stay as long as he can, but he's a Briggs man. They lost a lot of men during the battle at Central and his general needs him."

"Well, maybe we need him here!"

"What difference—" Scar fell silent as Bozidar walked over to the table and sat across from them.

The old priest shook his head. "You two certainly come from the same stock," he remarked.

"I'm so sorry, Saahad Bozidar!" Naisha said quickly. "I just got so angry!"

"I understand, my daughter," Bozidar replied. "As humans, we should become angry at injustice. Not—" he said pointedly, "—at petty insults. It is a situation that simply feeds on itself and gets worse. Now is not the time for this kind of behavior. We must work together peacefully, not just with the Amestrians but with each other."

"Tell that to Stanno!" Scar muttered.

Bozidar sighed. "I intend to speak to Stanno. Don't concern yourself too much with him, my son. Be more concerned on your own behalf. Whether you want them to or not, our people look up to you. Just now you announced that school would be starting, then in practically the same breath, you swore crudely. And you, my daughter!" He frowned at Naisha. "I don't think I've ever heard that phrase more than twice in my life, and that was from a couple of burly drunks who were about to get into a fight. How are parents expected to trust their children's education to two such people?" He looked from one of them to the other. "Two grown people who are acting like children."

Scar drew in a deep breath and let it out slowly. "I'm deeply sorry, Saahad," he said quietly.

"I know you are, my son," Bozidar said, a smile finally spreading under his mustache. "I've always known what a good heart you have, but your passionate temper has always been your undoing. And yours, my daughter," he said to Naisha. "You both need to learn to channel all that energy into more constructive pursuits. Will you promise me that?"

"Oh, yes, Saahad Bozidar!"

"Of course, Saahad."

"Good." The old priest nodded approvingly and stood up. He gave them one last, benevolent, pleading look. "And for the love of God, watch your language!"

The two cousins sat silently as the old priest walked away from the table, gave a cordial parting nod to Miles, Breda, and Havoc, who were off to one side talking, and left the tent.

Naisha immediately buried her face in her hands and hissed out a stream of the most vitriolic language Scar had ever heard come out of anyone. He watched her cautiously for a few moments, tempted to move away down the bench from her. Then she dropped her hands on the table and sighed.

"Vesya's gonna find out and she's gonna give me such a look," she said in a resigned voice. She turned to Scar, widened her eyes sorrowfully, and pulled down the corners of her mouth. For the first time in a very, very long time, Scar burst out laughing. It felt pretty good.

Chapter Text

"Poor Turyan! He must be weeping right now and all the consolation of being in Ishvala's bosom is no consolation at all! To think that his family has come to such a state! Such an old, venerable family, too! You take care, girl! Take care!"

Vesya stood mutely still, her lips pressed together in a thin, hard line as Zulema shook a bony finger close to her face. She held a freshly printed sheet of the beginning reader she had been working on. The ink was still drying, and she didn't want to put it down, although she wasn't sure what she would do if her hands were free. Despite how angry she was getting, she couldn't even picture herself slapping the old woman, let alone actually do it.

Karley stood nearby, his hands on the windlass of the printing press, as much at a loss as Vesya. He had been helping her work the press, having learned from his father, who printed a local newspaper in North City. If he knew how to approach the old woman, he would have stepped in, but he was just as terrified of her as everyone else.

"That sister of yours will come to no good end! You mind that you don't follow her example! Imagine!" Zulema crowed on. "She had no business being there in the first place, if you ask me!"

"I don't think anyone did!"

Vesya nearly went limp with relief as Miles stepped into the tent, his expression darkly angry. Zulema turned to face him, her shoulders hunched, ready for battle. If she were a chicken, the feathers around her neck would be bristling.

"I could hear you screeching all the way across the compound," Miles said. "Isn't it time for your afternoon nap or something?"

"Don't get cheeky with me, young Attar!" Zulema snapped back. "I'm only doing my duty! No one seems to care about how these children are being brought up!"

"They were brought up just fine, Aunt Zulema, and they're not children," Miles replied firmly. "Right now all you're doing is getting in the way while these people are trying to work."

"Work? Work, is it?" Zulema eyed Karley narrowly. "I found them in this tent alone! What sort of work might they be at?"

Karley raised his hands helplessly. "I haven't laid a hand on her, Major! I swear!"

"Stand down, Karley," Miles told him, trying not to grin. He turned to Vesya. "I'm very sorry, Miss Vesya."

Vesya smiled and was about to speak, but Zulema let out a loud hmph. "No one has apologized to me, and I'm the one who had to listen to the smut that came out of her sister's mouth!" She quickly blew on her palm, the third or fourth time she had done so since she left the mess tent.

"What the heck did she say, anyway?" Karley asked.

"I'm not sure," Miles replied. "It was in Ishvalan, and it sounded like—"

Zulema drew herself up, sucking in air in preparation for a loud shriek. But Vesya hurried up to him and pressed her fingertips to his lips. She froze that way for a moment as she stared into his eyes, then she quickly pulled her hand away, her face burning.

Zulema gave them both a particularly narrow look and with a snort of disgust, she waddled out of the tent.

Miles watched her leave, perhaps to make sure that she wasn't planning on coming back, and he turned back to Vesya. "Well, I guess that saved us all from another tongue lashing," he said with a smile. "I get the feeling you have a pretty good idea of what Naisha said. I'd be interested in a translation."

Vesya kept her eyes away from his face, but she had to smile, too. "It could have been a number of things, actually, and I couldn't possibly tell you which." She gave a deep sigh. "Poor Naisha. Whatever made her that angry?"

"Stanno was mouthing off," Miles explained. "As far as I'm concerned, she had every right to react the way she did."

Vesya's slender eyebrows furrowed and she carried the sheet of paper over to a nearby table and set it down. "Your auntie didn't mention that."

"That doesn't surprise me all that much," Miles said. He shook his head. "I sure won't miss her when I go."

Vesya's hand jumped and the paper slipped from her fingers, floating back and forth as it fell to the ground. Miles stepped forward quickly and grabbed it by the corner before it touched the dirt. As he stood beside Vesya, he held the paper carefully and examined it. On one side was a brightly colored picture of a little girl with long silver-white braids. She appeared to be trying to have a conversation with a speckled bird that was looking up at her with its head tilted. Just below the picture were two lines of text. The one on top was in Amestrian and said Zita talks to the bird. The second line was in the combination of swirls, angles, and slashes that made up Ishvalan characters, and Miles assumed it said the same thing.

The picture on the facing page had the same girl, now joined by a boy. They were sitting on a striped rug and each held a piece of round flatbread. The text below it said Adir and Zita eat dinner.

"That's very nicely done," he said, handing the page. "You designed this yourself?"

"Thank you," she said in a whisper, taking the page from him by the edges. She cleared her throat. "Yes, I did." She had never stood so close to him before, and she could smell the scent from him. It was probably nothing more that shaving cream, but it was spicy and masculine and it made her light-headed. The paper trembled in her hands and she turned away to set it back on the table.

She cleared her throat again. "You're leaving?" she asked.

"Eventually, yes," Miles replied. "I'll be returning to Briggs when I'm satisfied that Ishval is on the road to recovery. At this rate, it might be about fifteen months, give or take. Karley will be leaving as well," he said, nodding to the radio man.

"I didn't know that," Vesya said lightly, her eyes still on the table.

Miles shrugged. "I suppose I assumed it was common knowledge by now, considering how gossip travels around here. I'm surprised Andakar didn't tell you."

Vesya shook her head. "He doesn't always think about things like that. And he's been busy." She took a step back from the table and turned, giving Miles and untroubled smile. "It was good of you to bring him back. And for coming to help us."

Miles returned her smile. "I'm glad I was able to, Miss." He turned to Karley. "But I still have to break the news to the general." His smile widened. "The major general. I'll be in the radio tent."

Karley saluted. "Give her my regards, sir."

"I will." Miles gave Vesya a nod. "I hope my aunt didn't upset you too much, Miss Vesya."

"Oh, no. Not at all!" Vesya replied with a little wave of her hand. "I'm fine!"

"Then I'll see you later."

"Yes, thank you, Major."

Miles left the tent and Vesya turned back to the table, slowly arranging the printed pages that were laid out on it. They would be stacked together, then sewn. Eventually they would be given hardback bindings. She gazed down at the pictures of Adir and Zita, their striped chuvas across their chests, their red eyes gazing back at her, their smiles glowing from their brown faces. They weren't surrounded by acres of grassy lawns, they didn't live in a big blue house with white trim, but they looked happy.

Vesya sat down on a stool at the table and watched Karley as he turned the windlass to raise the platen and carefully remove the printed paper from the bed. He carried the page carefully by its corners and laid it out on the table.

"Mr. Karley?"

"Yes, Miss?"

"What is General Armstrong like?"

Karley looked at the girl, a little surprised, then he thought for a moment, a smile playing on his lips. "Well, I guess the first word that comes to my mind, anyway, is…magnificent."

Vesya raised her eyebrows a little. "Really?"

Karley nodded. "She's not just a soldier, she's a natural-born warrior. She's absolutely ruthless, and although the law of Briggs is survival of the fittest, I think she's got a real soft spot for all of us under her command. On top of that, she's gorgeous as hell. She's got these big blue eyes and she's got these lips that—" Karley grinned a little sheepishly. "Well, we like to call her our queen."

"You must all love her very much," Vesya said quietly.

"Yeah, I guess we do. But the major is her absolute right-hand man. I'm really surprised she let go of him, even for a couple of months. I mean, she's practically an army all by herself, but she and the major are a team."

Vesya realized she was just pushing the papers around on the table aimlessly and she straightened up and clasped her hands in her lap. "Goodness!" was all she could think of to say.

"That was the last page, wasn't it, Miss Vesya?" Karley asked, glancing over the pages on the table.

"Hmm?" Vesya looked at him a little blankly for a moment. "Oh. Yes, it was. Tomorrow, I'm going to put them all together and sew the bindings."

"I wish I could help you there," Karley said. "But it's all I can do to sew the buttons back on my uniform."

Vesya smiled at him. "That's all right, Mr. Karley. You've been so much help already. I can probably get my sister to help me." Her smiled turned a little wry. "Sounds like she needs to be kept out of trouble, anyway."

Karley grinned and patted the handle of the windlass. "I'll get the press cleaned up for you, though."

"Oh, would you? Thank you!" Vesya stood up from her stool. "I suppose I should go home and see if Naisha's all right."

"You take care, then."

Vesya left the tent and headed back to her camp, trying to ignore the looks she got from a few of the people she passed. When she got home, she found Naisha and Dejan sitting at one of the tables with Mrs. Knox and the large Brown Betty teapot that she had brought with her. At the other end of the table Rada sat sewing the collar onto a shirt that Vesya had started for Andakar but had to set aside to work on her book. Danika sat on a short stool beside her, leaning against her hip.

"Hello, dear!" Mrs. Knox called to Vesya. "You're just in time. There's still some tea left."

"Yes, we're celebrating Naisha's latest social triumph," Dejan said, putting his arm around Naisha's shoulders and squeezing them.

"Shut up, Dejan," Naisha replied wearily.

Mrs. Knox smiled gently. "Oh, don't let it bother you, dear. Someday, you'll look back on it and laugh."

"Ha, ha," Naisha muttered glumly.

Vesya went over to stand beside Rada. "Thanks for doing that," she said, watching her sew.

"It's no trouble," Rada replied, her eyes intent on her stitches. "I needed something to do."

Vesya drew in a quick breath. "We need to sew the schoolbooks together. Would you like to come with me tomorrow and help with that?"

Rada's hand paused for a moment. "I don't…I'm not ready…" She lifted her head and smiled. "I'd like to finish this shirt."

"That's all right." Vesya looked over at her sister. "You'll help, won't you, Nai?"

"Yeah, sure."

Vesya bent down to look at Danika. "I think you'll like your new schoolbook," she told her. "I'll bring one back for you tomorrow."

Danika pressed herself closer to her mother's side and didn't reply. Vesya gave a little sigh and patted her on the head. When she straightened up, she noticed Mrs. Knox studying Rada and frowning slightly. The coroner's wife looked up to meet Vesya's look with a smile and she patted the upended wooden crate beside her that was serving as a chair.

"Come and have some tea. You've been working hard all day." Mrs. Knox poured tea into a tin cup for her.

Naisha watched her sister as she sat down and sipped some tea. "Um…Vesya?"

"Hmm?"

Naisha looked away, frowning down at the cup between her hands and turning it around slowly. "I heard some news today."

"Did you? So did I," Vesya said. She pointed to another cup with a spoon in it that sat on the table near Naisha's elbow. "Is that honey? Could you pass it over? Thanks." Vesya took the cup, ignoring the anxious look on her sister's face. She spooned some honey into her tea. "I heard that Major Miles isn't staying here. He's just here for a while, then he's going back to Briggs."

"Vesya…"

"His general must miss him something awful!" Vesya went on quickly. "I can see why. He probably misses her, too. So does Mr. Karley. He said she's magnificent and they all adore her." She took a sip from her cup. "She must really be something." She looked at Naisha and smiled consolingly at her forlorn expression. "It's all right, Nai, honest! I told you, he's not my major. He's hers."

"But, Ves—"

Dejan nudged Naisha gently with his shoulder. "Don't push it, love," he said quietly.

Vesya stood up. "I'm going to go lie down for a little while. Staring at those prints all day made my eyes swim. Thanks for the tea, Mrs. Knox."

"Of course, dear."

Vesya turned away and headed to her tent. She slipped off her sandals and stretched out on her cot, staring up at the peak of the tent. A leak had sprung in one of the seams the other night, and she reminded herself to get a pot or a bucket to catch the drips before it rained again. Then she turned over onto her stomach and buried her face in her pillow, stuffing a wad of it into her mouth so Naisha wouldn't hear her crying.

..................................................................................................................................

Emily Knox strode along the road toward the headquarters compound, her basket of tea things hanging from her arm, a thoughtful frown on her face.

Those children. Emily shook her head. No, that's silly. They're not children. They lost their parents and they had to grow up quickly. Still, they held on to something childlike. They held onto each other and they held onto hope. But not Rada. I wonder what it is she's holding onto.

After Knox came back from Ishval, he told Emily very little of what he had done there, as if he was trying to deny that it had happened. But it was clear that something was tormenting him. After having one too many nightmares, she finally had to take Anthony and leave. It broke her heart, but she told herself that it would only be temporary. During their separation, he sent them money so they could live comfortably, but Emily still felt at loose ends. Her father had been a doctor, too, and she decided to volunteer at a nearby hospital.

She found herself being an understanding listener to soldiers who had come back from the various conflicts around Amestris. They were suffering from what the doctors were calling shell-shock. They had a variety of symptoms, but no specific ailment. What they needed was someone to tell them that what they felt was real and that they weren't cowards or malingerers. They were haunted by guilt. They found it hard to connect with their families. They came back from these wars as different people, as damaged people.

They weren't the only ones suffering. A colleague of her father who had taken an interest in these cases talked to her about patients who had suffered from acts of violence. He said he had found similar symptoms to the soldiers. He observed that battlefields could be anywhere, down a dark alley, on a lonely road, or in one's own home. Those who had suffered rape or abuse were also haunted by guilt, sometimes for years, as though they were somehow responsible for the violence they had suffered. They all had a closed-down look in their eyes. It was difficult for them to trust anyone. They did not think they had the strength to face down their demons. Someone had to tell them they were.

Armed with this understanding, Emily and Anthony finally went to see Knox. They sat having coffee and talked late into the night. Knox was surprisingly open to the idea of them all living together again. He had apparently just enjoyed a couple of minor triumphs, and his lease on life had brightened, if only a little. From that point, things steadily improved. They still slept in separate rooms, but Emily hoped that this trip to Ishval would be the healing that they needed.

Coming back to Ishval did not appear to be working wonders for everyone, though. Whatever Rada had suffered had given her that closed-down look. Emily shook her head. She wished she could help that young woman, but trying to draw her into a conversation was like trying to mix oil and water. Yes, she could smile and act as normal as she could, but she had that invisible shell around her to keep others from getting too close. Someone was going to have to win her trust and draw her back out of herself. If she didn't do a bolt first.

...................................................................................................................................

There was another storm later that afternoon. The light had grown dim, but Rada didn't want to light the lantern while Danika was taking her nap, so her sewing sat in her lap until the cloudburst blew over. She ran her finger along the straight, even seam she was halfway through completing. When she was done with that, she would add some embroidery around the collar. Her small skill was still admirable, considering how little she had to be proud of.

She looked across at the small curled-up figure of her sleeping daughter. At the moment, the girl's face was relaxed and babylike. When she awoke, her features would once again be hardened by a reality that she couldn't quite understand and Rada couldn't explain.

When she heard that Ishval was being reopened, she had mixed feelings. For the past six years she had been at odds with the world in general and Ishvalans in particular. She had always let them assume whatever they wanted to about her, neither correcting nor affirming what they said either to her or behind her back. She didn't feel entirely worthy of their pity, but she had no time for their finger pointing. If any of them began to take too much of an interest in her, she knew it was time to move on. So in a moment of either immense courage or terrible folly, she decided to go back. To go "home" seemed too much to hope for.

She smiled to herself. Brave, sensible Naisha, smiling, happy Yasna, and sweet, soft-spoken Vesya. They hadn't changed much. They still had lives full of hope. But as kind as they were, they were almost strangers now. She was grateful to them for nursing her back to health, but she would only continue to be a burden to them. Someday they would learn the truth and she didn't want to be here when that happened. She would rather remember them the way they were right now. She didn't want to see them become like the others, the ones who looked at her and saw her as she saw herself, as diminished and unworthy, the ones who once smiled and greeted her on the street or in the marketplace, and the one who once pledged himself to her in all affection and honor.

Then there was Zhaarad Andakar. He had come back greatly changed. From what she had heard, he had done terrible things. He had struck back at the Amestrians with the arm of God. Even when she was a girl, she knew that he was something above and apart from the rest of them, that this solemn, earnest young priest was destined to do mighty things. She could not bear to have him find out how low she had sunk. She would finish the shirt and leave it for him in the hope that he would remember her kindly.

Chapter Text

Miles could easily picture the firm set of the general's lips, and he could practically hear the crackling of her annoyance over the radio. "I suppose it can't be helped," she said finally. "Stay as long as you need to, Miles. Just don't get too attached to the place."

"I'll try, ma'am," Miles replied. "We should be able to work our way out of this setback, as long as there aren't any more."

"Well, all I can say is if Mustang still thinks he can be Fuhrer, he'd better learn to manage finances a little better," General Armstrong remarked irritably. "You can't run a country on idealism alone. How did the Ishvalans react?"

"After some grumbling, most of them are taking it in their stride and are making the best of it." Miles smiled wryly. "Like how they deal with the heat. There's nothing they can do about it, so they work around it."

"And our boy Andakar?" Armstrong gave the name a slightly amused emphasis.

"More or less the same. I think he was almost expecting a snafu like this."

"I suppose he would. He seems to be more of a pragmatist, barring the occasional minor miracle. Any more sign of those?"

"No, ma'am. Right now he's more focused on getting school started and trying to keep his temper and his family under control."

"Oh?"

Miles laughed quietly. "Well, Naisha, mostly. She's the type who likes to go against the established order. You'd like her, ma'am. But no," he went on. "After the business with finding the river, he's been avoiding anything alchemical. It was kind of an accident to begin with."

"Yes, but it just shows how unique his talents are!" Miles could hear a slight tapping noise which was probably the general's fingertip against the table in front of her. "He's letting it go to waste, Miles!"

"He'd argue with you about that, ma'am."

"Let him! I'll give him as good as I get!"

Miles smiled. "I have no doubt of that, ma'am."

...............................................................................................

"This is extremely kind of you, Mrs. Bradley."

"Oh, not at all, I assure you, Brigadier!" Mrs. Bradley sat back and beamed at her two guests. "I owe you both so much! I'm just glad I could catch you before you left Central."

Riza smiled as she poured out three cups of tea, moving the little strainer along as she did so. She recognized the tea set as the same one Fuhrer Bradley had in his office. She never expected to see it again, and certainly not under these circumstances.

"We certainly would have asked after you, ma'am," Riza said. "How are you doing?"

Mrs. Bradley sighed. "As well as can be expected. I've more or less retired from public life, although I do like to have an occasional guest," she added, given them another smile. She took the teacup Riza handed to her and gave it a stir, her lips pursed. "I have my hands full with little Selim. Not him, so much," she added quickly, "but from some who think I shouldn't be attempting it. General Grumman, for one." She sipped her tea and set the cup down. "I don't care what anyone says about Selim. Neither my husband nor I had any idea what he was, but he was still my son. He still is. And I think there's very little that a truly loving mother can't overcome!"

Roy raised his cup to her. He wasn't about to judge anyone else's crackpot idealism. "That was very well spoken, Mrs. Bradley."

"Thank you, Brigadier. You're very kind. Now!" Mrs. Bradley regarded the two officers with a new little twinkle in her eye. "This was not strictly a social invitation. I asked you both here to talk a little business."

Roy glanced at Riza, then looked back at Mrs. Bradley. "Business?"

"Yes. I understand that there have been some budget shortfalls in your Ishvalan project," Mrs. Bradley said with a shrewd look in her eye.

Roy smiled a little. "You're very well informed, Mrs. Bradley. But it's a nationwide problem, apparently. It's been discovered that certain people who have since been removed from power had their hands pretty deep in the cookie jar." A little vague, but not entirely inaccurate.

"Yes, I understand the economy had taken rather a beating along with everything else," Mrs. Bradley said. "Fortunately, Bradley made some very wise investments while he was still with us, and along with my widow's pension, I've been able to retire in relative comfort."

Roy glanced over at the manor house that towered at the edge of the wide green lawn. "Indeed."

"That being the case," Mrs. Bradley went on, "I have a proposal to make. Considering the great need, and considering my personal debt to you, I would like to create an endowment and call it the Ishval Foundation. What do you think of that?"

Roy's cup paused halfway to his mouth and he slowly set it down. "Mrs. Bradley, are you quite serious? It's not that I don't believe you," he added quickly. "I just want to make sure I heard you right."

"Oh, you heard me just fine, Brigadier," Mrs. Bradley replied with a wink. "And yes, I'm quite serious. I feel that we are bound by honor to make war reparations, and if the government can't pay for it, then it's up to us private citizens."

Roy leaned forward, his excitement growing. "Have you thought about how to present this to the public?"

"Well, through the usual means," Mrs. Bradley replied. "Newspapers, radio, that sort of thing. I contacted those nice people at Capital Radio, and they've consented to give me a spot on one of their weekend news programs."

Like they'd say no. Roy grinned. "You, Mrs. Bradley, are what is called a mover and a shaker."

Mrs. Bradley brought her fingers to her mouth and laughed delicately. "Oh, Brigadier, now you're just flattering me!"

"Not at all, ma'am, I assure you! This is exactly the sort of campaign I wanted to start, and you're way ahead of me." Roy made a bold gesture by reaching out and putting his hand on Mrs. Bradley's. "Can I leave this to you to handle? If there's anything I can do, just tell me."

"You can certainly leave it to me, Brigadier," Mrs. Bradley replied. She drew in a deep breath and let it out. "Well! So much for retirement!"

An impeccably dressed butler stepped quietly up to Mrs. Bradley and bent down to speak near her ear.

"He is?" Mrs. Bradley said. "Yes, thank you, Smithers. I'll be there in a moment." She turned to Roy and Riza. "I'm afraid you'll have to excuse me. Selim has just woken up from his nap."

Both officers stood and bowed. "Of course, Mrs. Bradley."

"Feel free to finish your tea," Mrs. Bradley said as she got up and left the table. "Then just ring to have someone show you out."

"Thank you!"

Roy and Riza sat down and watched Mrs. Bradley cross the lawn to the house. "What a remarkable woman," Roy said quietly.

Riza nodded. "I think it was almost worth having to shovel that pack of lies to the public just to spare her."

Roy sat back and grinned with satisfaction. "And to get her on our team." He looked over at Riza. "Is this worthy of another celebratory dinner?"

Riza hesitated for a moment, then said, "We have an early train to catch, sir."

"Yes. Of course. You're right."

Their last evening out had been very pleasant. Riza looked just as lovely in her dress as she did the first time, and they were both riding a wave of elation from the news of the promotion. When they returned to the hotel and he walked her to the door of her room, perhaps it was the way he stood there gazing at her made it seem like he was about to kiss her again, but she slipped into her room and locked the door pretty quickly. He supposed he had already taken one too many liberties.

She was right, of course. She usually was. It didn't matter how exalted his rank was. The parameters their relationship was based on had always been unspoken but always understood. He had strayed briefly from that path, and although he might still be within her threshold of tolerance, losing her was far worse than getting a bullet in his back.

Chapter Text

Scar stood at the foot of his father's coffin. It was a plain pine box. There was no inlaid design. It didn't have finely beveled edges or ornate brass nail heads. It wasn't even sanded smooth. It was definitely not the workmanship that the chieftain of Kanda would have expected his son to provide for him. Then again, his death was not the one he would have expected, either.

Scar turned to the next coffin. He felt particularly bad about that one. His mother truly deserved better. She was a good, kind, gentle woman, and his first teacher. She was proud of her husband and her sons but probably disappointed at not having been made a grandmother. At least Vesya had painted a small spray of blue and yellow flowers on the lid along with her name and a simple prayer. Mother would have liked that.

Scar smiled to himself as he looked at the third coffin. Mattas wouldn't have cared what he got buried in. He would even have seen the humor in it. Scar wished he was there so he could tell him what he had said to Stanno. It had been a long time since the two of them had shared a good laugh.

A long row of pale pine boxes, the smell of cut wood still fresh from them, stretched for quite a distance. It would be a long procession from here to the open area at the northern edge of the ruins. For the past several days, Master Bozidar and some of his fellow priests had gone out to a venerable grove of myrrh trees to bleed them for their resin. They then burned the dried pellets of resin as incense to consecrate the burial ground. The sharp, musky aroma hung in the air for hours.

Miles stepped up beside him. He had not packed his dress uniform, but the one he had on was immaculate. Scar had asked him to help carry his father's coffin, which held pride of place at the beginning of the procession. He would have preferred to carry his brother's coffin, but it was his duty to bear his father to his final resting place.

He asked Damyan and Dejan to carry his mother, and before he had a chance to consider other options, Breda and Havoc volunteered to carry Mattas. As members of Mustang's team, they felt they owed it to the architect of the reverse transmutation circle. Scar was surprisingly touched by their sincerity, but as he considered them standing side by side, he said, "I'm not sure this is going to work."

"We thought of that," Breda replied readily. "I did, anyway." He was holding a thick roll of blankets under his arm, and he lifted it to rest on his shoulder. The top of the roll was on a level with Havoc's shoulder. To Scar's somewhat skeptical look, Breda said, "It's okay. We practiced."

They now stood by Mattas' coffin, the blanket roll tucked under Breda's arm.

"If they drop him…" Scar muttered under his breath.

"They won't drop him," Miles assured him. "They have more riding on their shoulders than just your brother. They have their honor, Mustang's honor, and Amestris' honor."

Scar nodded. None of that meant much to him, but he supposed it would have to do.

Naisha, Vesya, and Yasna joined them, their heads covered with shawls. Each of them carried a bunch of flowers tied together with sprigs of green leaves.

Naisha and Vesya went over to Scar and hugged him. Naisha looked up into his face.

"Are you all right?" she asked.

"Yes, I'm fine," Scar replied, holding them close for a moment. "I've done as much grieving as I can." He glanced at the small bouquet she held, then took a closer look. It had a small, slightly burnt yellow rosebud along with a few fragile-looking late wildflowers. "Where did you find roses?"

"Never you mind," Naisha said, with a sidelong look at Miles, who had a hint of a smile on his face and said nothing.

Scar shook his head. "Something's going to end up biting you."

Damyan looked over at his sister and grinned. "Snakes hide when they see Naisha coming."

Vesya shaded her eyes against the morning sun and looked down the long line of coffins. In twos and threes, many more Ishvalans were coming up to join the procession.

"There's going to be quite a turnout," she said.

"It's the first time they've been able to attend a funeral without having to worry about getting shot at or blown up," Scar remarked. He nearly added or burned alive, but didn't in deference to Mustang's men. Unless they dropped Mattas, then they would hear that and a lot more besides.

"I'm surprised your auntie's not here," Dejan said to Miles. "She seems to like being in the thick of things."

"I know," Miles replied. "I even asked her if she was coming, but she muttered something about not feeling up to it. She'll go on and on about the way things were done in the old days and she'll complain about everything that's going on right now, but she'll avoid anything having to do with the war. Too many bad memories, I suppose."

"I couldn't get Rada to come, either," Naisha said.

"You can't really blame her," Vesya said. "She said she couldn't leave Danika."

Naisha scowled slightly. "I suppose. But if it wasn't that, she'd think of some other excuse. She just won't set foot outside the camp. I wish—" She lifted her shoulders and dropped them, letting out an exasperated sigh. "Well, I wish a lot of things," she said under her breath.

Saahad Bozidar, along with the five surviving priests of Ishvala, moved slowly up the line toward them. He had stopped to speak a few words of encouragement and condolence to the bearers of each coffin. As they gathered at the head of the line, Saahad Bozidar turned to Scar and nodded. He joined the waiting priests and bowed to them, speaking something in Ishvalan. They bowed in return and replied in a quiet chorus. Scar repeated the response softly to himself. He looked over his shoulder at Miles and nodded. They bent down and lifted the coffin of Turyan Ruhad to their shoulders. At this signal, one after the other, all the way down the line, the coffins were raised and the procession began.

Scar glanced quickly behind him to see if Breda and Havoc were having any trouble. Breda had the end of Mattas' coffin resting securely on the roll of blankets, a look of somber determination on his face.

As they walked, Saahad Bozidar lifted his hands and began to sing in a long, wavering call. The priests and Scar joined in with a slow chant, its harmonies almost primitive but filling the air richly like the pungent incense they used. Although he was on the other side of the coffin, Miles could hear Scar's deep, resonant voice as it blended with the voices of the other priests. Although no longer allowed to perform the actual rituals, Saahad Bozidar had allowed Scar to at least fill in the bass harmony, saying that it wouldn't sound the same without it. Chanting in ancient Ishvalan, they opened with the exhortation used in all their rites.

Blessed is the morning and blessed is the evening Blessed are the works of Your hand, O Creator Ishvala Blessed is the earth below and blessed is the firmament above Blessed are the works of Your hand, O Creator Ishvala...

It took a solid half an hour to reach the cemetery. Miles could feel the sweat gathering around the rims of his dark glasses and dripping down his chest, back, sides, and legs. Not for the first time, he longed for the cold of Briggs. It was with great relief that he and Scar finally set the coffin on the ground beside the open grave that would receive it. The priests spread out in a line, taking up another chant. This time, the Ishvalans joined the responses as they arrived and took their places at the graves. Flexing his shoulders slightly underneath his uniform, Miles glanced around him, listening to the solemn, melancholy harmonies that grew stronger as more people arrived. Close by, Scar's cousins, Yasna, and Dejan sang along, their voices carrying through the sultry air.

Miles was impressed. Although some soft crying could be heard throughout the crowd along with the singing, the gathering seemed more like a celebration than a cause for sorrow. There had been no rehearsal, but it flowed along almost seamlessly. These people had taken these chants and rituals, practiced for generations, into exile and underground with them, and they certainly didn't seem to be in any danger of dying out.

Finally, they began to lower the coffins into the graves on ropes. Holding a list in his hand, in a voice that carried, Saahad Bozidar read off the names of the dead.

"Turyan Ruhad. Zinaida Ruhad. Mattas Ruhad. Nimir Heshed…"

Naisha dropped her bouquet of flowers into Scar's father's grave and Yasna placed hers in his mother's grave. Breda and Havoc stepped back to let Vesya drop hers into Mattas' grave. Up until now she had been perfectly composed, but now she drew in a little sob and covered her hands with her face. Naisha moved to her side, but Miles reached her first and handed her a crisp white handkerchief from his uniform pocket. Vesya looked up at him through her fingers, a little startled, then took it from him, whispering a thank you.

Saahad Bozidar gave the final blessing, and the funeral was concluded. Shovels were produced and the graves were filled. Despite the growing heat, many stayed beside the graves or moved around the cemetery to speak to others. Scar thanked his bearers, then lingered by his graves. leaning on the handle of his shovel with his eyes closed. He felt a pat on his back and smiled when he heard Naisha's voice saying "Eww! You're sweaty!"

"Damn!" A much gruffer voice made him open his eyes and turn his head. Standing nearby was Knox, who stood scowling out at the cemetery. "We just scratched the surface." He gave a quiet grunt. "But I'm damned if I won't see it through to the end."

"Thank you, Dr. Knox," Scar said. "I haven't told you that yet."

"Ah, well…" Knox's hand started moving toward his jacket pocket where he kept his cigarettes, but stopped himself. "I guess this is where I say I'm just doing my bit. Marcoh deals with the living, and I deal with the dead."

"Excuse me. Dr. Knox, is it?" Dejan stepped up to him and held out his hand. "Name's Dejan Shua. Can I ask you something?"

Knox shook his hand. "Go ahead."

"Have you been able to go over the old vatrishi camps yet?" Dejan asked. "They're just outside the southern edges of Kanda and Daliha. I was wondering what the chances were of anyone collecting my old man."

Knox shook his head. "The recovery teams keep a chart of where they've searched. They haven't gotten that far yet. If they do find him, he'll end up on the list. Any distinguishing features?"

Dejan smiled. "Ah, well, he drank, he cussed, he blasphemed, but when he played the fiddle, God wept for joy." He gave Knox a slightly rueful look. "But I don't think his bones will tell you that."

"Oh, I don't know," Knox said thoughtfully, rubbing his chin. "He played the fiddle, huh?"

"Yeah." Dejan briefly mimed playing an Ishvalan fiddle, which was held upright rather than under the chin. "Like you wouldn't believe."

"Hmm. The fingers of his left hand might indicate a higher occurrence of muscle strain where the tendons connect with the bone."

Dejan looked impressed. "Really?"

Knox nodded. "I'll keep an eye out for that. But right now, I've gotta get out of this damn sun." He gave Scar and Dejan a parting nod and moved on.

"Maybe they'll find Katri as well," Scar suggested.

"That might be a little harder," Dejan said with a wry grin. "With the way she danced in the taverns, you'd think she didn't even have bones. And I don't think her skeleton would show what an angry girl she was." He shook his head and looked somber for a moment. "I loved her and I'm sorry she's dead and I suppose I miss her. But," he said, brightening, "she left me a fine daughter, and I have a lovely bride-to-be." He looked around the cemetery. "Who I'd better find before she gets herself into trouble. See you."

"Later, then," Scar replied as Dejan left. He moved over to his brother's grave and stood before it, gazing down at it with a slight, thoughtful frown.

You can't die! You have to live!

"You certainly did have a grand plan, Brother," he said quietly. "I'm still trying to figure out how you meant me to fit into it. I'm beginning to think that you and Ishvala are simply having a good laugh together at my expense."

Chapter Text

"Are you sure you have enough teachers?" Saahad Bozidar asked a little anxiously.

"Yes, I'm sure."

"And you have enough tents? Is there enough room for all those children? There are three hundred and fifty, was it?"

"Three hundred and eighty. Yes, we have just enough." Scar hid a smile as his old master played the mother hen.

"Oh, and did Mr. McGinty tell you he will cook lunch for them? I thought that was very generous of him to take the time to do that."

Scar nodded. McGinty had taken quite a shine to his cousins and their friends and would do nearly anything they asked. "We're as ready as we'll ever be, Saahad."

"You must let me know how I can help, my son," Bozidar insisted. "These children are our future and we must make every effort to teach them well." He gave a sigh. "Three hundred and eighty! On the one hand, I was gratified that so many of us were able to return. On the other hand, as a people, there seems to be so few of us. By the way, have your cousins set a date for their weddings?"

Scar shook his head. "They've been debating on whether to wait to get married until they had actual roofs over their heads, and who knows when that might happen."

"Yes, that's a consideration, no doubt about that. A tent city is no place to start a family," Bozidar said heavily. "I pray that someday soon the wind will be at our backs instead of in our faces."

They walked across from the northern end of the headquarters compound to the southern end, where Damyan and a few other craftsmen had set up work areas. Before they even reached it, they could hear a thumping sound coming from the area. They found Damyan under a three-sided tent, repeatedly slamming a lump of clay onto a table to work out any pockets of air. Dejan and Miles stood close by, watching him.

"I think we should sell Dejan's hair," Damyan was saying with a grin. "We should get a few cenz for it."

Dejan protectively grabbed the end of his braid, which reached to his waist, and shook it at Damyan. "Like hell we should! You know how long it took me to grow this?"

"Uh…six years?"

"Exactly."

Damyan brought his lump of clay over to his wheel and centered it on the plaster bat that was pinned to the wheel head. "Well, then, in six years we can do it again."

"You're a riot." Dejan turned to Scar as he joined them. "This is the thanks I get."

"He's letting you marry his sister, isn't he?" Scar remarked.

"I think that's what he means," Damyan said with a wry grin, sitting down at the wheel. "He figures he's doing me a favor. She sure doesn't listen to me. She's just like Mother, who was stubborn as hell, but for Father she was sweeter than wild honey. Most of the time," he added.

"Naisha's quite a girl," Miles agreed. "I still want to know what it was she said at the assembly."

Damyan laughed and pointed to Dejan. "You can thank him for that."

"I thought as much," Scar remarked.

"No, no! It was my dad who coined that phrase years ago," Dejan protested. "It caught on pretty quick after that."

"So what was it?" Miles asked.

"Please, gentlemen," Saahad Bozidar said firmly. "I don't think it bears repeating."

"Ah…well, let me put it this way," Dejan said to Miles. "It has to do with you, your mother, and a part of a goat that's only the goat's business. So it insults you, your mother, and the goat all at the same time. And we're all about economy these days, aren't we?"

Not much more enlightened than before, Miles just shook his head. "I'll pass that on to General Mustang."

As they talked, Damyan gave the kick wheel a push with his foot. He scooped a handful of water out of a bucket to wet the clay and spun the wheel faster. With the heel of his hand he pushed the lump down then with both hands circling it he pulled it higher into a rough cylinder. He did this several times to make the clay more malleable, adding more water, then he pressed his fingers down into the center to make a crater. He drew his fingers up on the inside and the outside of the vessel he was forming, making it taller, then pressing it down again.

The sun glinted off the wet clay as it spun and came alive under Damyan's hands. The others watched him silently, almost mesmerized. Seemingly without effort, he soon had a tall, graceful jar before him. He took a small sponge from the bucket of water and ran it along the side of the jar, smoothing it out. Finally, he let the wheel slow to a stop and inspected his work carefully. It was about a foot and a half tall with a smooth curve at the shoulders, tapering into a slightly flared mouth. It was so simple, and even in its raw, wet stage, a thing of beauty.

"Ah, that's nice," Dejan said approvingly.

Scar nodded silently in agreement, then felt a hand grasp his shoulder firmly. He turned to see Saahad Bozidar gazing intently at the jar.

"Bless the labor of our hands, O Creator Ishvala, and keep us humble," he breathed softly. "For all good things come from You."

The old priest shot Scar a determined look. "Come with me, my son!" He beckoned urgently to Miles. "And you!"

.........................................................................................................................

The mess tent hummed with curious voices. This assembly had been called suddenly and was even more heavily attended than the last. Many had come strictly for the entertainment potential, but Naisha had declined to make an appearance. Scar looked around at the crowd, feeling uncomfortable. He trusted Saahad Bozidar completely, but he was braced for a backlash.

Saahad Bozidar held up his hand for silence and the crowd quieted. From the table behind him he took Damyan's jar, still damp and still attached to its plaster bat, and held it up.

"Less than an hour ago I stood and watched a young man take a simple lump of clay, dug by his own hands from the earth, and form it into this jar. It is the craft he learned from his father, who learned it from his father, and so on. It is a commonplace enough vessel, but as I watched it come into being under his hand, it struck me as being a small miracle. Most of you have learned your own crafts, and each one of them is, as this is, a small miracle. A small act of creation. Not making something from nothing, but taking something raw and crude and turning it into a thing of beauty and usefulness.

"Ishvala put us on this earth and blessed us with everything we needed to make these things for their proper use, and these things can only be good because they come from our Creator. Now," the old priest went on, setting the jar carefully down on the table. "Bearing in mind what I just told you, I want you to take this idea one step further, as I have done."

He picked up a wooden crate that sat on the ground behind him. He lifted it and upended it in front of him. Broken bricks, chunks of stone blocks, and bits of wood fell at his feet in a small dusty cloud. Those who sat or stood further away craned their necks to peer curiously at the pile of what appeared to be refuse.

Saahad Bozidar reached down and picked up a piece of a brick. "At one time this was simply clay formed by the hand of a man, perhaps one of young Damyan's ancestors. It's no different from any other brick. I picked it up from a pile of what was once someone's home. All of Ishval is littered with these things. Some of them are in a little better repair than this, but the rest is destined simply to be disposed of. Under the current circumstances, that's terrible waste and a great shame, particularly considering the fact that we have a means of remedy. This is where I need you all to see it the way I see it."

He turned around and nodded at Scar, who sat behind him. Scar stood and joined the old priest.

"Push up your sleeves, my son," the old priest said quietly.

With some reluctance, Scar pushed the sleeves of his loose-fitting shirt up past his elbows. Many had already seen the array on his arms, but many had not, and there was a rush of excited murmurs.

"Hold them up," Bozidar prompted him.

With even more reluctance, Scar held his arms up.

"Many of you have heard the story behind these markings. You participated in the battle against the evil forces that would have destroyed us. It was these markings that helped turn the tide and saved not just us Ishvalans, but all of Amestris.

"Most of you should remember Mattas Ruhad, a gifted scholar and Andakar's elder brother. It was he who created this particular array, combining Amestrian alchemy and Xingese alkahestry and forming it into something new." Bozidar paused, making sure he had everyone's undivided attention, then he said, slowly and deliberately, "Something uniquely Ishvalan."

This created the stir that he had hoped for, planting the concept in everyone's mind that he had intended. "It was this new form of alchemy that saved us and allowed us to return here, but it has not outlived its usefulness. With it, Andakar was able to locate the Halik, which, in time, will flow through Ishval once again, bringing with it the prosperity that our people enjoyed long ago. It is my firm belief that Andakar has been…" He thought for a moment, carefully choosing his words, "…granted a certain validation for the use of this ability. Not for his personal gain or to rob anyone of their livelihood, but for the good of our people."

He turned once again to Scar. "Will you favor us with a demonstration?"

Scar gave a small inward sigh and reached down to pick up several chunks of broken brick. Holding them in his left hand, he concentrated a flow of energy down his arm, into his hand, and into the pieces of brick. Lightning appeared to crackle around them for a few moments, and then a single brick lay in Scar's hand. The transmutation marks were visible to him, but not obvious to anyone looking at it from several feet away.

Silence hung over the assembly for several moments, but it was not, as Scar would have expected, one of fear or anger or resentment. The crowd leaned forward for a better look at the brick and began talking amongst themselves with a growing sense of excitement.

Bozidar went on. "We have always believed that alchemy was an offense against God, but this is not an abomination like human transmutation. This is simply doing what we have always done, taking the clay and the stone and the wood that already exists and reforming it into something useful. It only remains for you to decide whether to accept or reject this idea, because Andakar will not do it without your consent."

The Ishvalans gathered around looked at each other and whispered amongst themselves. One of them finally stood up. "I was in Central that day, and we Ishvalans were able to strike a blow that no one else could. If you and Zhaarad Andakar are for it, then so am I."

Nearly all of those present nodded in agreement. Another man stood up. "Seems to me that if we aren't doing anyone any harm or making anything unnatural, God can't get angry. Seems to me that He's already blessed our Zhaarad Andakar."

Choruses of "well said!" and "that's right!" rumbled throughout the crowd. Bozidar glanced at Scar with a smile under his mustache.

"Then why stop at just bricks? Why not reconstruct entire houses and be done with it?"

Scar glared across the crowd at Stanno. He should have figured. "Because we still live by the labor of our hands," he growled back, struggling to keep his anger in check. "And not all of us are content to sit back on our complacent asses and let others do the work." He felt Saahad Bozidar's warning hand on his arm and he turned away from Stanno to the rest of the assembly. "I can make the materials available to everyone, but wouldn't you rather have a roof over your heads that you can tell your children and your children's children you built with your own hands?"

A resounding cry for acceptance ended any further need for debate. As Saahad Bozidar clapped him on the shoulder, Scar looked down at the brick in his hand.

Seems to me that He's already blessed our Zhaarad Andakar.

Scar had to wonder about that.

Chapter Text

Roy shook his head in disbelief. "So now, after all this time, after all these years, they accept alchemy, just like that?"

"It's a unique situation." Riza said. "Not just any alchemist could go waltzing in there. It had to be one of their own, someone trusted not to abuse his alchemy."

Roy propped his chin on his folded hands, then mused, "Can he be trusted?"

"Was that rhetorical, or are you asking my opinion, sir?"

Roy looked up, a little surprised. "I always value your opinion, Lieutenant."

"Then I'd say, yes, he can be trusted."

Roy raised an eyebrow. "You sound very sure."

"Because I am, sir."

"Feminine intuition?"

Riza's brows furrowed slightly. "No, sir. He's a man of tremendous honor. Yes, he was once a fugitive from the law, but face to face, have you ever known him to be anything but straightforward? He's worked too hard to get his people to where they are now, and he's not going to do anything to jeopardize that. He's not going to betray their trust and he's not going to betray yours. Not you as a representative of the Amestrian government, but you as a man."

Roy sat back and considered her. Riza gazed back at him with solemn brown eyes. "Do you still feel as though you owe him a favor? I still maintain that you're the one who ultimately talked me out of frying Envy's hide."

"There was more to it than just frying Envy's hide," Riza said quietly. "I still feel that he was the one who brought you back from where you were headed." She gave a small smile. "If nothing else, he saved me a bullet."

"As I recall, I invited you to go ahead and shoot," Roy replied with a little smirk of his own.

Riza finally just shrugged, a little tired of this particular trip down Memory Lane. She never wanted to have to face that road again. "Well, sir, if you don't want to take my word for it, you could just call him on it."

Roy shook his head. She was right, as usual. "No, I don't think I will. This country was founded on the abuse of alchemy. We were raised to believe that it was to be used for the good of the people, and then we turned it on those same people. We Amestrian alchemists don't have much to be proud of." He gave Riza a wry grin. "Maybe it's time for an Ishvalan alchemist to show us how it's done."

...........................................................................................................................................

Naisha stood just inside Dejan's tent, her arms crossed and a petulant, anxious look on her face.

"I don't see why you need to go. You don't know a damn thing about goats."

Dejan glanced up from his packing. "This was your idea, sweetheart. Remember?" He pitched his voice into a falsetto. "We should go catch the goats! Then we'll have meat and milk and cheese and wool!"

Naisha marched over to Dejan's cot and grabbed his pillow and hit him with it. "Fine! Go ahead! Go on your little camping trip! You're probably just going out there to drink and tell dirty jokes, anyway! You probably won't even find any damn goats!"

Dejan grabbed the pillow from her and threw it back at her. "Listen, Nai, if I thought I could take you with me without completely destroying your reputation, I would."

Naisha dropped sullenly onto Dejan's cot. "I can destroy it all by myself, thanks! It's not that I want to go, I just need you here! Everything's just falling apart!"

Dejan gave her an indulgent smirk as he stuffed a shirt into his pack. "How do you figure that?"

Naisha pouted. "Well, first there's me and my big mouth and now everyone thinks I'm some kind of crazy bitch!"

"You're not a crazy bitch," Dejan assured her. "You might want to think twice about getting lippy with the quality," he added with a grin. "But I think you're wonderful."

Naisha managed a smile, but it faded. "And Vesya's mad at me!"

"Maybe you shouldn't have been poking around her stuff."

"It was an accident, Dejan! I was cleaning up the tent and when I was making up her cot, Miles' handkerchief just fell on the ground and Vesya just had to walk in! I think she was more mad about it getting dirty than about me finding it."

"Oh, she won't stay mad for long."

"Maybe," Naisha mumbled. She gestured angrily toward the door of the tent. "And now that Andakar is out there fixing all the bricks and stuff so we don't have to wait for new ones, Miles will be leaving even sooner!"

"That's probably a good thing," Dejan remarked. "It'll be less time for Vesya to get too attached to him."

"No, Dejan! You don't get it! She has to make him get attached to her before it's too late!" Naisha argued. "And she's not even trying!"

"Maybe she doesn't want to! Look, Nai, people have to follow their own hearts. You can't jerk other people's hearts around for them. Let Vesya work things out for herself."

Unconvinced, Naisha leaned forward, propping her chin on her fists. "And then there's Rada," she muttered sullenly. "There's something still…wrong about her, but she won't say what it is! It's like she's pulling farther and farther away from us. And Danika's scared about starting school! Every time it gets brought up, she just gets this look on her face and she goes and hides behind her mama. I'm so worried about them and I don't know what to do!"

Dejan put his pack aside and sat down next to her, gathering her into his arms. "You've got a heart as big as the world, Nai," he said soothingly. "But your shoulders…well, they're not so big. You can't take on everyone else's troubles and you can't fix them all by yourself."

Naisha rested her head on his shoulder. "I just want everyone to be happy," she said in a small, quiet voice. "I want things to be like they used to be."

"Ah, now, see, that's the problem, love," Dejan pressed his lips against her temple. "You're not a kid anymore. You can't bring that time back. We've all been kicked around and we've all changed, and it seems like we're going through a rough patch right now, but things'll get better. Not the same, mind you, but definitely better."

"And what if they don't?"

Dejan squeezed her tightly and rubbed his face against her neck, making her giggle. "What if! What if! What if!" He lifted his head and looked into her face. "Kiss me!"

Naisha pressed her mouth against his and he held her there for several moments. Then he moved his lips to her ear and sang softly. "What if the stars fell out of the sky? What it the hawk refused to fly? What if my love for you should die? Never, my darling, never, says I."

Naisha held him close and nestled her face against his neck. "I love you so much, Dejan!" she whispered. "You go ahead and go on your trip and you'd better bring back a whole truckload of goats or I'm going to be seriously pissed at you!"

Chapter Text

Scar slowly opened his eyes. He expected the sun to be up. He was sure he would have slept like the dead all night. After spending most of the day putting on a one-man show turning piles of rubble into bricks, blocks, and beams, he was exhausted. Dr. Marcoh had offered to help, but he didn't think that would be as acceptable to the Ishvalans as their own "Ishvalan alchemy." Saahad Bozidar even offered to take over his teaching duties, but he wouldn't give that up.

His performance drew quite a crowd and it made him uncomfortable. People followed him as he moved from one pile of rubble to another, surrounding him with choruses of oohs and ahhs. They started crowding closer and he had to tell them, as calmly as he could, that they needed to keep at a distance. They obediently backed away like scolded children, only to draw closer again after a while.

A rainstorm approached late in the afternoon, and he was sure the Ishvalans would stand in the middle of a downpour just to keep watching him. He claimed he was getting tired, not adding that it was their company he was tiring of. They parted to let him pass, thanking him as he walked by. Some of them even reached out to reverently touch the tattoos on his arms. He loved his people, but he was never so glad to get away from them.

But as tired as he was, something had disturbed his sleep. It might have been the rumble of distant thunder or a flicker of lightning as the rainstorm moved farther away. He couldn't recall if he had been dreaming or what he might have been dreaming of, but he had the vague sense that something was wrong. Then he heard a sound. He sat up and listened intently to the night. At first he thought it might have only been a faint sigh of wind, but then he realized it was whispering. He couldn't make out words, but he could hear a sense of urgency.

He stepped out of his tent. The night air was pleasant with a cool moistness in it. There were still a few clouds overhead, but a bright three-quarter moon shone through them. Scar looked carefully around the camp. The tents were arranged in a rough semi-circle, and his was on one end of it. He saw no movement either in the center of the camp or between the tents. He moved slowly away along the path down to the main road that led in and out of the settlement. In the moonlight he could make out a figure on the road, heading away from Ishval.

The figure wasn't a large one, and it walked quickly but a little unsteadily, as though burdened. Scar followed, his bare feet making no sound. As he drew closer, he could make out more details. It was a woman, and she was carrying a pack across her back and a child whose thin legs dangled from her hip. The child let out a whimper.

"But Mama, I'm sleepy!"

"Hush!" There was a frantic edge that broke through the mother's voice. "In a while we'll stop and then you can sleep."

For a moment, Scar was stunned by the sheer folly of it and the fear that something terrible would happen to her if she went outside the safety of Ishval's borders. That came second to another, deeper fear.

He had no claim on her. Her life was her own and what she did was her own business. But as she moved farther away, he was filled with dread at the thought of losing her.

He nearly called out, but then he caught himself, not wanting to frighten her. His heart pounding, he quickened his pace, closing the distance between them. Then Danika lifted her head and saw him. She gave a little cry and tightened her arms around her mother, burying her face.

Rada stiffened and spun around, stumbling. She gave a sharp gasp and she held Danika tightly, bracing herself to run.

"Rada, where are you going?" Scar asked, keeping a calm tone while still moving slowly toward her.

"Away," Rada said tensely. "Someplace where no one knows me." She began to back away and Scar stopped.

"Why?" he demanded. "What good will that do?"

"I can't…I can't stay here."

"Why not? Tell me!"

Rada just shook her head.

"You're safe here! You're being cared for!" Scar said sternly. "This is your home, Rada! This is where you belong! How are you going to live and take care of your child if you leave?"

"Same as I've always done!" Rada countered in a sudden show of defiance. Then she recoiled slightly. "Please, Zhaarad Andakar, just let me go!"

Scar grew increasingly mystified, frustrated, and angry. "No, I won't! You can go back to camp on your own feet or I can pick you both up under one arm and carry you back! It's your choice!"

Rada stared at him with disbelief. Danika squirmed in her arms and she struggled to hold her more tightly. "I…I'll just try again, some other night!"

Scar had no doubt that she would. He could enlist Naisha's help, sending her into a panic as she frantically set up a rotation of sentries to keep Rada a virtual prisoner, a disaster waiting to happen. In his desperation, Scar did something he hadn't done since he was seven years old. He told a lie. A big one.

"Then I'll find you. The same way I found the Halik. The same way I knew you tried to leave tonight."

Rada watched him with cautious doubt. "What do you mean?"

When he was a boy, Scar broke a clay jar and buried the pieces in the garden. He told his mother that he didn't know where the jar was. Eventually, with gentle coaxing, she got the truth out of him. After he tearfully confessed, she hugged him and told him that he was a good boy, but telling lies made Ishvala very sad.

He raised his arms. "If I press both my hands against the ground, I create a transmutation circle. I can feel the life force of other people through the currents in the earth. I can tell where they are," Scar said, praying for Ishvala and his mother to forgive him and for Rada to have a little of that trusting girl still inside her. "No matter how far you go, I'll find you."

He must have cut a dreadful figure as he stood shirtless in the moonlight, his torso covered with battle scars and his arms covered in strange, mystical markings. Rada stared at him in silent awe for several moments, then she lowered her head in weary defeat.

"I don't know what to do!" she whispered.

Scar felt wretched. He wanted to comfort her somehow. He could battle countless chimeras and face down virtually indestructible homunculi, but he didn't have the courage to take a woman into his arms. "Please," he said as gently as he could. "Please come back. Whatever it is you're afraid of, I'll protect you both from it, I promise!"

Rada lifted her face and gazed at him with a sorrow that pierced his heart. Then she mutely nodded and headed back toward the camp. He let her walk past him and followed behind her in case she suddenly changed her mind and ran. They reached the camp, and Scar watched them to make sure they went back into their tent. Just as Rada slipped through the door, Danika lifted her head from her mother's shoulder for a moment and looked back at Scar with a malevolent glare before hiding her face again.

Chapter Text

The first day of school did not turn out to be the bedlam that Scar feared it might be. It wasn't without a few bumps, but any new endeavor was bound to have those. The fact that they were able to do this at all was well worth the trouble. The children, ranging from five to seventeen, were eager to be doing something other than just cooling their heels around the tent city under the watchful eyes of their parents or guardians. Over the past six years their upbringing in different parts of Amestris had been varied. Some were a little better disciplined, some were not, but they all had energy to burn.

Scar took one of the oldest groups. Imir, one of the priests, took the other. He was scholarly but jovial, a former fellow teacher, and Scar knew the students would like him. His own group would have to do without joviality.

Serving as classrooms were eight large tents, the last that were available. It would be a little tight, and each class was to be divided with the boys on one side and the girls on the other. It was Scar's experience that this did not make discipline any easier, but he deferred to tradition and to the parents' sensibilities.

Before class started, the students were all assembled in the "yard" in front of the tents. Scar looked out at the small sea of faces gazing back at him. Off to one side, standing out like a black sheep, was Danika. Vesya stood on one side of her and Naisha on the other, each holding one of the girl's hands. Danika stood frowning sullenly at the ground.

Scar still couldn't make heads or tails out of that child. He was eager for Rada's sake that she should be accepted and do well, but that was his hope, not his expectation. He told himself that she was simply a troubled child, but he found her increasingly unsettling. After he had brought the two of them back the night before, his dreams had been particularly disturbing, where he couldn't tell where Kimblee ended and Danika began.

But she was only one little girl out of nearly four hundred students who were waiting for him to get things started.

"Doishteve," he announced to the students. (AN: do-eesh-te-veh)

Most of the older children bowed their heads. To the puzzled looks of the others, Scar explained, "That means 'welcome.' It is second person plural as well as second person formal. Second person familiar is doishtede."

Out of the corner of his eye, he could see Naisha stifle a smirk and a slight roll of her eyes. Fine, so he was a little pedantic.

"You're here to learn that and much more," he went on. "The conditions are a little rough still, but I expect the same standard of behavior from you as if this was the finest schoolhouse ever built. And before any of you get any ideas, my standards are very high. Before we begin, Saahad Imir will say a brief prayer."

Scar moved aside as Saahad Imir stepped forward. Like the other priests, he was a warrior as well, and he tall and robust. He nodded to the students with a smile.

"Good morning!" he greeted them. "As in all our endeavors, we ask for Ishvala's blessing and help." He raised his hands, closed his eyes, and spoke in Amestrian for the benefit of those whose Ishvalan wasn't so good. "O Creator Ishvala, look on these children with favor. Let their minds and hearts be open to knowledge. Look also on us teachers with favor. Grant us, in Your mercy, even a grain of Your infinite patience, and we'll probably do all right."

A little ripple of laughter ran through the crowd of students, and Saahad Imir turned to Scar with a little grin. "Almost like old times," he said wistfully under his breath.

The morning went by fairly well. Scar was pleased with his class, a mix of fifteen to seventeen-year-olds. An unbidden thought came to him of another boy around this age, one he had fought against and nearly killed. Those brothers had been forced to grow up too fast, led to desperation by finding themselves parentless. Their friend was also parentless, another act of desperation. Scar forced his mind back to Ishvalan grammar.

During the lunch break, Scar joined his cousins and Stoyan, their fellow musician and now their fellow teacher. "How has it gone so far?" he asked.

"Pretty well," Naisha replied. She beamed at Vesya. "They love their little books!"

Vesya gave her a small smile in return. Scar had noticed a little uncharacteristic coldness on Vesya's part toward her sister over the past couple of days. It seemed to be thawing, so he was spared having to inquire. Instead, he asked, "How is Danika doing?"

Vesya gave a little sigh and shrugged. "Well, it's the first day. A lot of the little ones are starting out shy, but I suppose we couldn't really expect much from her." She looked across the yard to where Mika sat under a tree with Danika sitting in a little huddle next to her. "Some of the kids have been whispering and pointing at her, so she just sits there with her head down." She paused, then added, "Naisha's been doing a good job of keeping their attention off Danika and on her, though."

Naisha gave her a grateful smile. Well, whatever it was between them, Scar thought with some relief, it seems to have blown over.

"And what about you?" he asked Stoyan, who had a class of twelve to fourteen-year-olds. He had been one of Scar's more exceptional students before the fall of Ishval, and he had been his first choice as one of the teachers.

"You've certainly trusted me with a mixed bunch, Zhaarad Andakar," the young man replied. "I've got one group of boys who will probably end up causing problems." He gave a rare half grin. "I remember a group just like them in my class when I was a kid. Must have been their older brothers."

Stoyan had always been a serious student and had little patience for troublemakers. "I'm sure you'll be able to keep them in line," Scar told him.

Fortunately, there was no trouble that day, and when school ended, some of the older students stayed behind to talk to Scar. They were curious about the events of what he knew to be the Promised Day. As much as he would have liked to give them the unvarnished truth, he had to keep to as much of the official story as he could. It wasn't much more than what they'd already heard, but hearing it from one of the major players, one of their own, no less, was impressive enough.

They then tagged along as he went to continue his reconstruction of the building materials, but they kept at a respectful distance, watching him in eager silence. Finally, one of them asked,

"Zhaarad Andakar, would you ever be willing to take on an apprentice?"

Scar straightened up from a newly formed stack of stone blocks to stare at the young man who had spoken. "No!" he nearly blurted out. He regarded their open, hopeful expressions and thought it would be better to make this a teachable moment.

"Why would you want to study alchemy?" he asked them.

They looked at each other as though surprised at the question. The young man who had spoken replied for the others.

"To help our people," he said, somewhat cautiously, hoping he had given the answer Scar was looking for.

Scar nodded slightly. "That's certainly a worthy cause." This was where he would turn it around. He wasn't quite the expert at it that Master Bozidar was, but you don't learn from the best without having some of it rub off on you. "You can help our people by finishing your education, learning a useful craft, studying medicine or engineering or statesmanship. Find what you've been gifted with and use that to help our people. Once you've done that, if you still want to study alchemy, come back to me." Then he added, "And we'll discuss theory."

He smiled slightly at the mix of disappointment and hope in the students' faces. At least he'd bought himself some time.

The rest of the week went progressively smoother. There was much less confusion as to who was supposed to go where, and there was much less anxiety on the part of the younger children. Danika, of course, was the exception. Her mother seemed resigned to their situation, but Danika seemed to be growing increasingly resentful. She was like a nut whose shell grew harder at any attempts to make a crack in it. Getting her ready for school every morning was becoming an ordeal that everyone dreaded. When school ended, she walked back silently with Naisha and Vesya, and as soon as the camp was in sight she made a break for it and dove into her tent.

As they were leaving the camp one morning at the end of the week, she literally dug her heels into the dirt when Naisha took her hand. Rada stepped forward to try to help, but Naisha held up her hand.

"She'll be fine, Rada," she said sternly. "She has to get used to this and she has to stop clinging to you so much."

That was Scar's very thought, and he was glad Naisha said it instead of him. It was painful to see the look of helplessness on Rada's face, but he was beginning to lose patience. It finally took Mika to coax some cooperation out of the little girl, and they managed to get to school on time.

Scar had originally planned to resume their regular studies that morning, but his students felt otherwise. The East City Herald was being delivered by truck every other day, and Capital Radio news programs were broadcast over the PA system. Armed with this information, the students launched into a discussion of current events. Scar was impressed by their grasp of world affairs and he let them continue for a while. Their questions inevitably turned to whether Scar knew any of the notable persons mentioned in the news. Had he met Fuhrer Grumman? Did he know Brigadier General Mustang? Wasn't Mustang one of the state alchemists? Isn't he the Flame Alchemist? What is he like? Does he really want to help Ishval?

He supposed it wasn't surprising that his students would be more interested in what was going on in the world at that moment than in other academic pursuits. Eventually he got them back on the lesson plan for the remainder of the day.

When school was dismissed, several parents came to collect the younger children, but many of the older ones lingered in the yard to socialize. Imir joined Scar as he stood near a group of his students who were continuing their earlier discussion.

"That's a lively bunch you've got there," the priest remarked. "I take it you weren't conjugating verbs this morning."

"I'm afraid not."

Imir chuckled. "And here I thought you'd be the one to put them to sleep."

Scar was about to reply when he spun around, his red eyes sweeping over the school yard. A cloud of dust was suddenly rising from the far end, and there was a cacophony of children screaming and yelling. Above all their voices, one stood out in a frenzied, wild shrieking.

"NO STOP IT NO NO NO STOP IT STOP IT…"

Scar ran across the yard, weaving between the students who were also hurrying over to see what the commotion was about.

"Stand aside! All of you!" Scar roared over the noise. Anxious faces turned to him as the students scrambled to let him pass.

At the edge of the crowd was Danika. She was screaming and grabbing handfuls of dirt and rocks and throwing them wildly at anyone who tried to get close to her. Naisha, Vesya, and Mika were all trying to move in to stop her, but they kept getting pelted with rocks. Scar pushed through the edge of the crowd.

"Danika!" he shouted, raising his arm to ward off a handful of sand. "Stop this now!"

Danika froze and stared up at him, her eyes wide and her face streaked with dirt and tears. Scar reached out to grab her, but she spun around and ran. She was remarkably fast, and she nearly reached the edge of the headquarters compound before Scar closed the distance between them and grabbed one of her arms. She thrashed so wildly that he was afraid she would dislocate her shoulder.

"Stop it stop it stop it!" she half-screamed, half-sobbed.

"Danika! Calm down!" Scar managed to grasp her other arm as she flailed it around outside his reach. Then he suddenly let go of her.

They stared at each other for a moment, and then Danika took the opportunity to dart away again. Scar caught up with her and, bracing himself for the impact, took her by the arms again.

Terror. Rage. Hatred. Sorrow. Loneliness.

It was like a flood that rushed up his arms and pressed against his chest, making his heart pound as wildly as hers. For a few very intense seconds, he was transported to the hill overlooking Kanda, staring in utter disbelief at the horrific devastation below. Everything was gone. Everyone was gone. How could this have happened? How could he go on?

How could anyone so small contain all that anguish?

He dropped to his knees and pulled the little girl into his arms, holding her tightly. She struggled in his embrace, growling and whimpering, but he held her there. It wasn't the rush of her emotions that struck him the hardest, but the realization that came with it.

She wasn't Kimblee. She was him.

Chapter Text

"It's all right!" Scar told her, keeping his voice as gentle as he could while trying to keep her from slipping out of his arms. "It's all right! Don't be afraid! You're not alone!"

After a few minutes, Danika's rigid body sagged in his arms and she began to cry wearily. Scar was aware that there were people beginning to crowd around them, not only children but several soldiers from the headquarters compound, including Miles. Scar stayed on his knees for a little longer, holding Danika as her weeping grew quieter. He felt a hand on his shoulder and he looked up at Naisha.

"What happened?" he asked.

Naisha shook her head. "I don't know exactly. Mika was there, she can tell you."

Scar looked around at the crowd surrounding him and found Mika. She looked anxious and shaken.

"Tell me what happened," he said to her.

Mika frowned angrily. "Me and Danika were sitting under our tree waiting for you and Naisha and Vesya, just minding our own gosh darn business, and those three boys over there—" She glanced around, searching through the crowd. Her arm shot out and she pointed. "Them!"

At the far edge of the crowd, a trio of boys, probably thirteen or fourteen, give a guilty jump as Scar's eyes fell on them.

"They came over and started saying dumb stuff to Danika!" Mika went on indignantly. "They were poking at her and grabbing at her hair. I shoved one of 'em and I told 'em to get lost or I'd sock 'em right in their stupid faces! Then they—" She paused, her expression growing troubled. "Then they started saying some other stuff. About Danika's mom. It was kind of bad. And then Danika just kind of went crackers."

The three boys had started to back away, but two of them were collared by Stoyan. The third boy he nailed with a fierce glare. They were apparently his troublemakers.

Scar rose to his feet with Danika still in his arms. He looked around to find Saahad Imir and nodded to him.

Imir took his cue promptly. "Come along, everyone!" he cheerfully called out, waving his hands. "School's out for the day. No reason to stand around gawking! I'm sure your parents are waiting for you! Have a good weekend!"

Naisha and the other teachers helped get the stragglers on their way, and Scar beckoned Vesya over with a nod of his head. "Stay with her." He put his mouth close to Danika's ear. "I'm going to leave you with Vesya, and then I'll come back. All right?"

The girl grew still and then nodded and he set her back on her feet. She clung to his arm for a moment, gazing up at him with forlorn blue eyes before letting Vesya take her hand.

Scar turned to the three boys who stood sweating under Stoyan's baleful eye. "I apologize, Zhaarad Andakar!" the young man muttered furiously. "I should have been paying better attention."

Scar raised his hand. "It's all right, Stoyan." His eyes raked over the three boys, who appeared to only just start considering the gravity of their misconduct. "Come with me."

He led them back across the school yard to the tent where their class was held. Stoyan followed behind them, his expression still dark with anger. Inside, Scar pointed silently to a spot in front of the rows of benches and wooden tables. The boys lined up and stood with their eyes on the ground. Scar stood before them, towering over them menacingly.

"Tell me what you did," he said. "And bear in mind that there are witnesses. If you lie to me you'll only make things worse."

The boys glanced nervously at each other, elbowing each other furtively.

"One of you had better start talking!" Scar growled.

All three of them flinched. "Uh…" one of them began. The other two watched him anxiously.

"Yes?" Scar prompted him.

"I—we're sorry, Zhaarad Andakar!" the boy blurted out. "We won't do it again!"

The other two boys shook their heads in emphatic agreement.

"That," Scar replied coldly, "should be understood. But that isn't what I wanted to hear."

The boy drew in a deep breath, apparently resigned to his fate. "We were…uh…teasing her…and…and…"

"Why were you teasing her?"

The boy looked at him, a little blankly. "Why?"

"It's not that hard a question."

"Uh…well…" The boy looked down and scratched his head. "'Cause…she's…uh…"

He shot a sidelong glare at the other two boys, who stood unhelpfully mute. One of them swallowed. "'Cause…she's different," he confessed in a weak murmur.

Scar nodded slightly. "I see. And anyone who's different is fair game, is that it?"

The boys stared down at their feet, then jumped when Stoyan snapped at them. "Answer him!"

"N-no, Zhaarad!" they yelped.

"I'm glad you think so." Scar's eyes narrowed slightly. "Then there's the matter of certain remarks you are said to have made concerning Danika's mother." He watched them as they cringed. "Would one of you care to elaborate on that?"

Scar could see the red creeping into the boys' faces. He supposed that was a good sign if they were properly ashamed. They might be redeemable.

"It…" one of the boys began. "It was…uh…I heard my father talking with his friends, and they…I mean…well…one of them said that…"

"Come on!" Scar prompted him harshly as he hesitated. "I daresay you had no problem discussing it amongst yourselves! Out with it!"

Caving in under the pressure, the boy continued, "He…my father's friend…he said that…that she…that girl's mother…she…back during the war…she and one of the alchemists…" The boy's face was turning an interesting shade of brick red. "…she…let him…you know…" His voice died away and he raised his eyes pleadingly to Scar's. "God, Zhaarad Andakar!" he cried. "I said I was sorry!"

Scar stared at him with a cold feeling in the pit of his stomach. "Who is this friend of your father's?" he asked.

"Z-Zhaarad Stanno!" the boy replied promptly, taking heart at being able to finger somebody else. "The carpenter!"

One of the other boys nodded eagerly. "Yeah! He was saying that he was all ready to marry that woman, but when she—"

Scar raised his hand to silence the boy and he glowered at the three of them with eyes as unfeeling as death. "Spreading gossip is a shameful pastime," he said, his voice frigid. "It's malicious and sinful.I intend to have a serious talk with your parents. In the meantime, the three of you are going to be supplied with pencil and paper and you are going to write out the sentence 'I will not repeat gossip and I will respect others.' You will each write it correctly and legibly three hundred times."

The boys' jaws dropped. "Three—"

"Four hundred times. And then you will write it another four hundred times in Ishvalan."

The boys glanced at each other with blank expressions. "Uh…" one of them ventured. "I…I don't know how to say all that in Ishvalan."

"Then I suggest you find out." Scar turned to Stoyan. "Keep an eye on them."

Stoyan nodded grimly, although he looked as though he thought they'd gotten off far too easy. "Of course, Zhaarad Andakar."

Scar stepped out of the tent and crossed the now empty school yard. Vesya was sitting with Danika on a small bench under the shade of a tree at the edge of the yard. She was dipping a cloth into a tin basin full of water and was wiping the dirt from the little girl's face. Beside them stood Naisha, Mika, and Miles.

As Scar approached, Miles looked up and frowned slightly at the dark expression on the big Ishvalan's face. "Everything all right?" he asked.

"Yes," Scar replied. "It's all in hand."

"Are those guys in big huge fat trouble?" Mika demanded.

"Trouble enough," Scar told her. "Let's hope that's the last of it."

Mika glanced at the little girl. "Is Danika in trouble?" she asked cautiously.

Danika looked alarmed, but Scar shook his head and laid his hand gently on the girl's hair. "No." He turned to his cousins. "You can go on back to camp. We'll be there in a while."

"Are you sure?" Vesya asked. "What should I tell Rada? She's going to worry."

"Then tell her not to." Scar added, "Mika, don't tell her what those boys said."

Mika shook her head solemnly. "I won't."

"Let me walk you ladies back to your camp," Miles said.

Vesya stood up and turned to him, but her eyes didn't go any higher than the collar of his uniform. "Oh, that's all—"

"That would be lovely!" Naisha declared quickly, beaming at Miles. "You're such a gentleman, Major!"

The sisters exchanged a brief, peculiar look which Scar tried not to notice. I don't want to know. I have enough to contend with.

When they were alone, Scar sat down on the bench. He took the wet cloth and tilted up Danika's chin. He could feel her give a slight flinch, but then she relaxed and sat still as he applied the cloth to her face. It was a different set of blue eyes that gazed out of that small face. They didn't belong to a sinister, calculating, psychotic alchemist. They were the eyes of a little girl who looked scared and lost. Scar wasn't sure if it was because of a change in her or a change in him, but somewhere in those eyes was something that hadn't been there before, a glimmer of trust.

"Do you feel better?" Scar asked her.

She didn't answer, but not out of defiance. She seemed drained and unsure of what to say.

"Those boys aren't going to bother you anymore," Scar went on. "And neither is anyone else. I'm going to see to that." He searched her face. "Do you believe me?"

Danika hesitated, then gave a little nod.

"Good. I hope that means you'll start to like going to school."

A flicker of doubt passed through the girl's expression, and she frowned slightly. Her shell had grown softer, but it was still there. Scar had cleaned her face as well as he could, and he started wiping the grime from her hands. He tried a different tack, if only to get her to say something. "Is there anything you'd like to ask me?"

Danika looked up at him for a moment with a solemn, thoughtful frown. "How'd you hurt your face?" she asked.

Until now Scar had barely heard her string two words together. Her voice was high and soft and it brushed against his ear like the wing of a butterfly. It was hard to imagine something so light and fragile coming out of the same person who was screaming so wildly just a short time ago. Then he considered her question.

"I was hurt during the war," he replied simply. There was no point in telling her that her father did it to him.

Danika looked down with a little scowl, watching him clean her hand.

"Do you know about the war?" Scar asked. "Did your mother tell you anything about it?"

Danika's scowled deepened and Scar thought she was returning to her stubborn silence. "She said a bad thing happened."

"That's all?"

Danika nodded. "I was scared to come here. I didn't wanna see the bad thing."

Well, he couldn't blame her for that. "I'll tell you something, Danika," Scar said. "I was a little scared myself. But the bad thing is gone."

She didn't look convinced. Bad things, after all, came in all shapes and sizes. "But my mama's still sad."

Scar almost felt that he should not ask her this question. "Why is she sad?"

"I dunno."

She was too young to understand but old enough to realize something was wrong. Her dark brows furrowed and her eyes started to well up with tears. "Those boys said stuff about her but I don't know why."

Scar put the cloth down and took Danika's hands in both of his. He could feel a rise of anger and sorrow seeping into his arms. He supposed he hadn't discovered this particular ability until now because it appeared he needed to have both hands in contact with someone else's bare skin, something he'd had no occasion to do since the complete array had been tattooed onto his arms. Once again he wondered just how farsighted his brother had been. "I don't want you to think about what they said anymore," he told her. "It doesn't matter."

"But they said stuff and I don't understand!" Danika argued. "I don't know what they meant! They said my mama was bad and they said there was a—" She made a grimace of concentration. "—a state ak—alk—alkamiss—and he was really bad and they said he was my father 'cause he and my mama did it—"

Scar jaw tightened and he quickly put his fingertips over the girl's mouth. He kept his mounting fury in check but he seriously wanted to storm into that tent and slam those boys' heads together. Then again, their worst offense was simply being juvenile. It was the adults who were causing the problem. He lifted his fingers from Danika's lips. "Forget about what they said. They were just speaking out of ignorance."

"But I don't have a father!" Danika blurted out insistently. "I don't know what my mama did but she's not bad!" Her face began to crumple. "They were pulling my hair and they said it's the wrong color and my eyes are the wrong color! Nobody likes my hair and my mama gets sad and makes us leave places a lot 'cause people look at my hair 'cause it's not white like hers." She gulped a little sob and the tears spilled from her eyes. "I think it's 'cause I'm the bad thing-"

"Ishvala have mercy!" Scar murmured, drawing her into his arms. She nestled against his chest and he let her cry for a few moments. After a while he lifted her face, brushing back her hair. "I want you to listen to me very carefully, Danika, and I want you to believe every word I'm going to tell you. Will you do that?"

Danika looked up at him, drawing in a few little gasps, and she nodded.

"You are not bad," he told her. "Your mother isn't bad. You're both good people. This place is your home and there's no reason for you to leave. You can stay here and live and go to school and have friends and be happy. And there's something else I want you to do. I want you to keep your head up. You don't have to hide your face. You are Ishvalan, and you should be proud of that." He took her face between his hands. "Do you believe me?"

A faint warmth flowed into his hands and down his arms like a summer breeze, gently making its way between the icy shards of misery that still lingered. Danika nodded again and Scar used the cloth to wipe away the remnants of her tears.

"There." He made a final inspection of her face. Whether Kimblee could take any credit for it or not, she was a pretty child, especially now that she wasn't glaring at him. He stood up and held out his hand. "Are you ready to go home? We've kept your mother waiting long enough."

Danika slid off the bench and took his hand. "I don't want her to be sad anymore."

"Perhaps we can tell her she has no reason to be."

They reached the headquarters compound and headed across it. They turned a few heads along the way, this tall, broad-shouldered man walking hand in hand with this small girl who took two steps for each one of his strides.

As they passed the mess tent, Scar paused. Just outside the tent was a long metal trough filled with water. There were a couple of soldiers standing at one end of it. At the other end were a few Ishvalans. One of them, his back to the compound, was bending over the trough and splashing water on his face.

"Wait here for a moment," Scar told Danika under his breath, adding as an afterthought, "Close your eyes and cover your ears."

Danika obediently squeezed her eys shut and pressed her hands against her ears.

Scar went up behind the man who was washing his face, and the other Ishvalans started to back away as he approached. He grabbed a fistful of the man's hair and shoved his face into the water. The man struggled frantically, grabbing blindly for the edge of the trough. The soldiers watched with cautious curiosity but made no move to interfere. Not only was it a matter between two Ishvalans, one of the Ishvalans was Scar.

After what he felt was a sufficient amount of time, Scar pulled the man's head out of the trough, pulling an arc of water along with it. Stanno staggered back, sputtering and gasping, water streaming from his hair and down his face. He stared with incredulous anger at Scar.

"You bastard!" he shouted. "Are you crazy?"

"You're lucky," Scar told him, turning away. "I could have had you writing sentences."

He rejoined Danika. She still had her hands over her ears, but she stared up at him in wide-eyed awe.

Scar gave a quiet sigh. "Let's go home."

Chapter Text

Danika peered between the slats of the new goat pen. It had been sturdily built with spare lumber, tree branches, and a lot of optimism. Fortunately, the optimism paid off. Late the night before, Havoc, Dejan, and Sergeant Benjamin returned with a truckload of goats. It created quite a stir, but Scar was so tired he would have slept through a stampede.

Scar lifted the girl up so she could stand on the slats and look over the top, and she let out a soft "ooh!" of wonder as she looked down at the hairy animals milling around in their enclosure. When Scar asked her earlier if she wanted to go see them, Danika was hesitant. Then he told her that Mika had reported that there were some babies, and that settled it.

Danika turned to her mother. "Mama, you wanna come?"

Rada looked at her daughter's hopeful face, and she seemed to shrink a little. When Scar brought Danika home the previous day, Rada didn't ask about any details of the incident at school, as if she'd rather not know. For the rest of that evening, Scar kept Danika engaged in conversation, getting her to open up even more. He asked her about what she had learned in school and discovered that she was paying more attention than either Naisha or Vesya thought she was. He dug deep into his childhood memories to tell her stories that his mother had told him when he was her age. Her blue eyes grew wide and so did her smile, completely captivating Scar by displaying a pair of dimples. She certainly didn't inherit those from the Crimson Alchemist. All this time, Rada watched with increasing wonder as her little girl seemed to blossom in front of her. At one point, Scar turned to find her wondering gaze directed at him, and for fleeting moment, he thought he caught a light in her eyes that he hadn't seen in a very long time. But it didn't stand the test.

"M-maybe tomorrow," she told Danika after several moments of hesitation. Scar was tempted to tell her that he would hold her to that, but he decided not to push it. At least not yet.

On their way across the headquarters compound, Danika walked with her head up, or at least a little higher than when she would trail after Mika. Scar, after all, cast a broader, safer shadow. Although he was touched by the eagerness with which she ran to catch up with him, he patiently slowed his customary stride to match the little girl's pace. After all, the closer she got to him, the farther away she got from Kimblee.

The enclosure had been built about five feet high to prevent the goats from being able to jump or climb over it, which Zulema warned they might do. They had panicked at first, but tubs of fresh water and a couple of salt licks were already set up in the pen. Once some alfalfa was tossed in, they settled down as if the whole thing had been their idea. The old woman squinted critically between the slats at the goats. She pointed to one of them.

"That one's limping!" She turned an accusing look at Dejan. "What did you do to her?"

"That one's limping?" Dejan shot back. "When you were handing out your expert advice, baata-Zulee, you should have mentioned that these damn things' heads are at groin level!" He shifted onto his left foot to take the pressure off his sore right hip, sucking in air through his teeth. "I'm gonna make a new bagpipe out of that animal's ratty hide! Damn thing butted me right in the nethers and into a prickly pear."

Danika gave him a curious glance out of the corner of her eye. "What's nethers?" she asked.

Scar was hastily trying to figure out how to field that question, but Dejan tousled the little girl's hair. "That just means Uncle Dejan sat on a cactus. Don't give it another thought, little blackbird."

Danika's brows furrowed thoughtfully as she took in the new nickname, then she gave a little nod and turned her attention back to the goats.

"Oh! Speaking of birds!" Dejan brightened and looked at Scar. "While we were out there, we saw a silver hawk!"

Even Zulema raised her head with renewed interest. "Are you sure?"

"Of course I'm sure! It stooped down and snatched up a rabbit that Havoc was just about to pop with Benji's pistol. Flew right off with it."

"That could mean it has young to feed," Scar remarked.

"What's a silver hawk?" Danika asked.

"Ah, they're beautiful creatures!" Dejan told her. "They live on the cliffs in the eastern mountains, and you used to see them flying over Ishval. They don't go much further west, so they're special to us, you might say. But they're shy, and the war scared them off. It's the first one I've seen since I was a kid." He grinned. "Seems like a good omen to me."

"From your mouth to God's ears," Scar replied.

Miles walked up to the enclosure and leaned his forearms on it. Beside him was Sergeant Benjamin, whom Scar recognized as one of the sentries he'd met the night he found the Halik. The sergeant nodded to Dejan.

"Getting around a little easier?" he asked.

"I'll live," Dejan replied wryly. "I just hope I can still father children and they don't end up looking like goats."

"Where did the hay come from?" Scar asked quickly as Danika was opening her mouth to ask what might have been a tough question to answer. "Did the government loosen its purse strings?"

"No, it was donated," Miles replied with a slight grin. "Before they left, Sergeant Benjamin radioed Resembool and talked to his father about sending some feed, saying he'd try to pay him back for it. Seems that word got around and a couple of benefactors said they'd cover it until the Ishvalans were able to take care of it themselves."

"Yeah, I thought that was damn generous of those two boys," Benjamin said.

Scar looked quickly at him. "What two boys?"

"The Elric brothers," Benjamin replied. "These two kids that grew up near my folks' farm." He grinned and shook his head. "I remember them when they were just little squirts. I don't remember their old man much, but it turns out he left them a fair wad of money when he died."

After a moment, Scar asked carefully, "Did you speak to them?"

"No," Benjamin replied. "But my dad passed on something Edward said. Something about throwing an Amestrian pebble into the sea of Ishval, whatever that means."

Scar nodded with a very faint smile. He supposed he should not have been surprised. It must have been as much a gesture of defiant pride as generosity on Fullmetal's part. Scar spent only a brief time with Hohenheim, but he could see that Edward accepted his father's help about as graciously as he accepted his. The boy was unlikely to spend his inheritance on a life of leisure.

"How are they doing?"

"My dad said they're doing pretty well. They're staying at the Rockbell place. He said Alphonse looks a little underfed, but Miss Pinako and Miss Winry are taking care of that." Benjamin gave Scar a curious look. "Do you know them?"

"We met."

"You weren't mentioned, by the way," Miles said. "By either of your names."

"Uh, yeah," Benjamin added. "I kind of figured you didn't want any…publicity."

Scar glanced at him and met a pair of honest, shrewd green eyes. "I appreciate that, Sergeant," he said.

A few other people had gathered to inspect the new arrivals, among them Saahad Bozidar. He smiled at Danika.

"It's good to see you out and about, little one," he said.

Danika gave him a shy look and Scar whispered into her ear. "Thank you, Saahad Bozidar," she replied softly.

"What do you think about the goats?" Bozidar asked.

Danika considered the animals for a moment. "They're all hairy," she observed.

"Yes, they are, aren't they?" Saahad Bozidar looked over at Zulema, whose forehead was visible over the top slat of the pen. "You may have raised some of these very goats, baata-Zulema," he said.

Zulema craned her neck to look across the top slat at the old priest. "It's hard to say. They would have been kids then." She made a disapproving tsk-ing sound. "They're in a dreadful state, but at least their undercoats haven't grown in yet."

"When do you shear them?" Benjamin asked.

Zulema eyed him critically. "We don't. They have sensitive skin and the guard hairs protect them from the sun. We comb the undercoat when they begin to shed in the spring. That was my family's trade. We combed, carded, and spun, then the yarn was sold to the weavers. Your family, young Attar," she said to Miles.

"Have any others from your trade come back?" Miles asked her. "Anyone else from your family?"

The old woman shrugged. "One or two, I think." She paused, then added quietly, "From my family...no one."

Danika gave a little gasp and pointed into the pen. "There's babies!" she breathed.

Two goat kids trotted alongside their mother, keeping tightly inside her shadow. Saahad Bozidar touched Scar's arm. "I would like to speak to you for a moment."

Scar sighed quietly. He knew what this would be about. "Dejan, will you stay with her for a few minutes?"

"Absolutely!" Dejan moved closer to Danika and put his arm around her. She accepted this arrangement quietly. "I'll tell her all about the Great Goat Roundup of 1915."

Without too many sordid details, Scar hoped as he followed his old master.

They walked out of earshot from the pen and Bozidar turned to regard his former pupil sternly.

"It's in one ear and out the other with you, isn't it?"

"Saahad?"

The old priest shook his head. "Don't 'Saahad' me. If Stanno can't take the moral high ground, then you must."

Scar's brows furrowed. "Why should I have to make up for his deficiencies?"

"Because that's what I taught you."

"He's a yaakhtai!"

Bozidar raised a startled, disapproving eyebrow. "You certainly have embraced the secular life."

Scar let out an exasperated breath. "I'm sorry."

"Stanno is a bitterly unhappy man."

"Then he only has himself to blame."

"Perhaps. The war drove many to acts of desperation, of which you are aware, my son." Saahad Bozidar spoke quietly and without reproach. "Stanno told me what happened between him and Rada."

"He—" Scar stared at his old master. "What did he tell you?"

The old priest shrugged. "His version." He raised his hand as Scar was about to speak. "I counseled him against anger as best I could and told him to speak no more of it to anyone. I want no more confrontations between the two of you." He lifted his hands in exasperation. "Aside from being too old to punish, you're too big!"

Scar managed a half smile. He took the old priest's hand and touched it to his forehead. "Forgive me, Saahad. I swear to you, I'll keep my temper."

Bozidar nodded and gave Scar a long, thoughtful look. "When emotions run high, there are always two sides to a story."

As his master walked away, Scar's smile faded. He lifted his hands and gazed at them for a moment. Brother, I may have to truly put this gift you've burdened me with to the test.

Laughter came from the direction of the goat pen and Scar looked up, realizing that he'd nearly forgotten about Danika. She seemed comfortable with Dejan, but Scar didn't want her to become too anxious and he headed back.

"…and if Havoc hadn't found those needle nose pliers in the truck, I told him he'd have had to pull the spines out with his teeth!" Dejan was telling Miles. "He said there wasn't enough beer or money in the world. Ah, there you are!" he said as Scar came up beside Danika, who seemed amused but wasn't quite sure what they were laughing about. Dejan grasped the tip of her chin and turned her face toward Scar as she giggled. "Look at those dimples! Who knew?"

Scar smiled. For a few moments, at least, the dark thoughts that were plaguing him vanished and he swung the little girl into his arms. "I knew."

Chapter Text

Scar touched the back of his fingers to the girl's forehead as she slumped in her seat. No doubt about it.

He'd forgotten about the fever. He'd had it himself when he was about seven or eight, a little older than the average. It was a kind of a rite of passage, bearing with it a certain pride in having endured two days of semi-consciousness.

"I'll take her home," the girl next to her said.

Scar sighed quietly and nodded. "Go ahead."

As the girl pulled her friend to her feet, Scar looked around at his class. "Anyone else?" he asked. "Speak up now while you can walk home on your own two feet."

One boy near the back raised his hand and gave a few pathetic sounding coughs. "Can I go home?"

The other boys around him snickered. Scar was not amused. "Nice try," he growled. His eyes swept over them one more time. "I don't want anyone either pretending they have it or pretending they don't," he said sternly.

Two more students, a boy and a girl, rose unsteadily to their feet. Scar gave them each a nod of his head. "Very well. You and you." He pointed to a couple of his other students. "Help them home."

The remaining students buzzed with subdued excitement amongst themselves, and Scar raised his hand for silence. "The rest of you…" He could hear voices gathering in volume outside the tent. Imir must have called for morning recess. "The rest of you can go outside," he said resignedly.

He followed them out of the tent and found Imir standing nearby, surveying the schoolyard. The priest turned to him.

"I've sent home five kids."

"I've had three."

"So far. Look at this!" Imir jerked his chin toward the schoolyard. "Half the little ones are gone."

The yard was certainly quieter than normal. "The ones who didn't catch it before the exile," Scar said. "Or those who were born afterwards."

"I was five," Imir mused nostalgically . "Except for having to drink that wretched tea, I don't remember it bothering me much. My uncle said he didn't catch it until he was twenty-five and it laid him out flat for a week."

"It's harder on adults," Scar agreed. "These older children are—" He stopped suddenly, his eyes widening. "I'm going over to headquarters!" he told Imir. "Let the rest of the students go home. If they don't come down with it, we might need their help."

Scar hurried across the school yard, passing several of the smaller children sitting in the shade of a tree. Vesya sat among them, her arms around Mika and Danika, who leaned morosely against her. Scar went over to them and knelt down. Danika opened one eye.

"Zhaarad Andakar…" she muttered.

Scar touched her burning forehead. "What, little blackbird?"

"I don't feel good."

"I know." He looked at Mika. "You don't feel much better, do you?"

"Nuh-uh," Mika mumbled.

"We'll get you home soon enough," Scar said. He looked around at the other children. In about a week they would be up and full of energy, their illness a dim memory, but it was still hard to see the future of Ishval in such a forlorn state. "Where's Naisha?" he asked.

"She's rounding up the others," Vesya replied. "We're going to need help getting them all home."

"We're dismissing early," Scar told her, straightening up. "The older students will help you."

"Andakar!" Vesya said with sudden urgency. "The soldiers!"

"I know. I'm heading there now."

Scar continued on his way. As he headed across the compound, his found his fears justified. As many as six or seven soldiers were stumbling toward the medical tent, either on their own or with one or two comrades helping them along. As he paused for a moment, he felt someone stumble into him. He turned and caught Karley as he began to slump to the ground.

"'S—scuse me," the radio man mumbled. "Tryin' to get…tryin' to…get somewheres…"

Scar pulled Karley's arm over his shoulder. "Not like that, you're not." He practically had to drag him the rest of the way. He pushed through the flaps of the medical tent to find that there was already a sizeable crowd inside. Soldiers were lying on cots or on blankets spread on the ground. If they hadn't already passed out, they were moaning and tossing weakly. In the midst of this disaster area was Dr. Marcoh, calmly but authoritatively issuing orders to his assistants. As Scar stepped up to him he threw up his arms.

"Why didn't we foresee this?" he exclaimed. "We could have been better prepared! It went through the ranks during the war like a brushfire!" Marcoh said. He paused for a moment, glancing a little uncomfortably at Scar. "I suppose it was the least we deserved."

Scar shook his head dismissively. "Where do you want this one?"

Marcoh looked around. Space was quickly becoming a premium. "You'll have to lay him on the ground. Sergeant!" he called across the tent. "Are there any more blankets?"

Sergeant Benjamin, who seemed to be in perfect health, glanced around. "Just a couple!" he called back. He pointed to the corner of the tent. "There's a spot back here."

Scar picked his way between the other patients to reach the empty spot Benjamin had indicated, and the sergeant helped him lay Karley onto a blanket. Benjamin straightened up with a groan and flexed his back.

"This is a stinkin' mess," he observed. "I remember getting it. Sick as a dog doesn't even come close. I thought I was gonna have to die to get better." He shook his head. "I sure don't want to go through that again."

"You won't," Scar replied. "You only get it once."

Benjamin brightened. "Really? Well, that's swell! 'Course, you kind of have to live through it first." His face fell. "One of my buddies died from it."

"More likely from complications," Marcoh said as he joined them. "He may already have had a compromised immune system. I remember only three deaths altogether. I came down with it myself. I tried to research it, but…well…" He looked ruefully at Scar. "I wasn't allowed to devote any time to it."

Scar studied the doctor's withered face. He knew that Marcoh had become a doctor not to gain wealth or prestige, but out of a sincere desire to help those who suffered and to save lives. What he was forced to do during the war went against everything he believed in and would always weigh heavily on his conscience. But right now he was looking for answers, not solace.

"It's generally a childhood ailment," Scar told him. "As far as anyone has been able to tell, it's not contagious through human contact. It tends to start about a month or so into the rainy season."

"Yes, I see." Marcoh rubbed his chin thoughtfully. "It could be airborne then, something that gets released when the rain loosens up the ground."

"Hell, with all this construction going on," Benjamin said, "all kinds of crap could've gotten kicked up."

Marcoh looked at the prone soldiers around him. "Probably some kind of bacteria or fungus that lies dormant most of the year. I don't suppose there's any cure?"

Scar shook his head. "No. It will simply run its course. The main thing is to keep the fever down as much as possible."

Marcoh nodded. "Yes, yes! That's where much of the damage comes from. Right, then!" he said decisively. "We won't know the full extent of the outbreak for another day or so. We'll need to assign those who haven't caught it to attend to those who have. They may have to double up. We'll need plenty of water and towels." He frowned in thought. "We have a little quinine, but it won't go very far with all these cases."

"There's a kind of tea that's made from the bark of the kechua tree," Scar said. "They grow along the old riverbed. It acts like quinine and helps to bring the fever down."

"Ah! That's excellent!" Marcoh said excitedly. Then he sobered. "Have many Ishvalans come down with it yet?"

"Mostly the younger children so far," Scar replied. "They'll be over the worst of it in two or three days. It's the adults who suffer the most. Have you seen Major Miles?"

Marcoh spread his hands. "I've barely even been outside this tent since early morning. I haven't seen Knox, either. I'd have thought he'd be here by now."

"Maybe he's got it, too," Benjamin said. "Want me to go check?"

"Perhaps in a while," Marcoh replied. "We might need to see if he has room in the mortuary tents. To nurse the sick back to health, Sergeant!" he added quickly, seeing the look of alarm on Benjamin's face.

Scar headed out of the tent, grateful to get away from the stifling atmosphere. As he stepped into the sunlight, he came face to face with Miles.

"Good!" Scar declared. "I was looking for you. This is going to be—" He stopped and looked more intently into Miles' face. He wasn't wearing his dark glasses, and as he gazed silently at Scar, his eyes seemed to lose focus by the second.

The major scowled slightly. "Son of a bitch," he muttered matter-of-factly. Then his eyes slowly closed and he tipped forward into Scar's arms.

..........................................................................................................................................

Just remembering it made Roy feel lightheaded. Hughes had warned him about it. It'll knock you on your ass so fast you won't know what hit you. You won't die, but you might wish you couldHughes had smirked grimly. Some of our boys are calling it Ishvala's Revenge.

"How many men have come down with it?"

"I don't know yet. There were at least thirty or forty just in the medical tent. The supply tent is starting to fill up as well. Miles and Breda made it back to their own tents."

"Miles and Breda? So who the hell is in command?"

"The position seems to be vacant at the moment."

Roy frowned irritably at the transceiver. "That sounded awfully smug, Mr. Ruhad. One might think you have anarchist sympathies."

"I'm as much an anarchist as you are a fascist, Brigadier, and you can take that however you like."

For a moment, Roy bristled, but then realized that he had almost missed an unaccustomed warmth in Scar's voice. He smiled to himself. Fine. Score one to you, Ishvalan. "So it's not total chaos over there?"

"The situation is about as well in hand as it can be," Scar replied. "Those who are well are looking after those who are sick. I suppose if anyone is handing out orders right now, it would be Marcoh."

"Oh. Well, that's good. What about your people?"

"My people…" Scar began, then thought for a moment. It had been roughly three quarters of an hour since he left the medical tent. Since then the settlement had become alive with activity. An expedition had gone down to the riverbed to peel bark off the scrubby kechua trees. Zulema and her ancient cohorts had started preparing kettles of water to brew the tea. Honey was being harvested to cut the tea's bitter taste. Ishvalans who weren't tending sick children were gathering basins and buckets of water and draping wet towels on the foreheads of the ailing soldiers. The Amestrians who were still on their feet were marked as those who had fought here before, but that had apparently gone by unnoticed.

"My people and your people have recognized their shared humanity," Scar said finally. "One could almost use the phrase 'our people.'"

Roy raised an eyebrow. "Almost?"

"No sense in tempting fate," Scar replied with a half-smile. "We'll see what happens after the fever has run its course."

...................................................................................................................

Scar met his cousins on the road back to their camp. They had stayed behind to make sure all the sick children had been taken home. Stoyan was carrying Mika on his back, and Naisha had Danika on her hip.

Scar held out his arms. "I'll take her."

Naisha gratefully passed her over, and Danika settled her head on Scar's shoulder. Even through his shirt he could feel the heat radiating off her body.

"Mika!" Dejan ran frantically up the road toward them. "Mika! Baby!"

Stoyan let her slide off his back into her father's arms. Dejan cradled her against his chest and kissed her forehead. "Oh, baby, I'm so sorry! I brought you all the way back here and then this happens!"

Mika gave a little scowl, her eyes shut tightly. "'S'okay, Dad," she murmured.

"Is anyone else sick?" Scar asked.

"A couple of the girls," Dejan replied. "Eyla and Shaadi. Yasna's looking after them."

Scar nodded. It could be worse. "The Amestrians are dropping like flies. A good two thirds of the soldiers will have it by the end of the day. I had to carry Miles back to his tent."

Vesya drew in a sharp breath and Naisha gave her a quick look. Then she gave a nod. "Right. I'm going over to help out. It's a good bet McGinty's laid out. This is his first time here, too. Someone has to feed everybody."

"I'm coming, too!" Vesya said quickly.

Naisha grinned impishly. "Figured you would."

Vesya brushed past her impatiently. "Hush, Nai!"

Naisha followed her sister back toward headquarters, calling back over her shoulder, "Send along anyone you can spare!"

Scar frowned as he watched his cousins disappear over the rise in the road. "Dejan, is there something I should know?"

Dejan turned away to carry Mika back to camp and to hide his grin. "Not yet."

Before they reached the circle of tents, Rada came running to meet them. This was the farthest away from the camp that she had ventured, but she didn't seem to notice. She tilted her head to try to peer at Danika's face, which was buried against Scar's neck.

"Danika?" she called softly.

The little girl barely stirred. "Mmm…"

Rada started to hold her arms out for her, but Scar said, "Show me where you want her."

Her features pinched with worry, Rada nodded and headed back toward the tents. Scar followed her to the tent she shared with her daughter and she held the flap open for Scar to duck through. She quickly pulled down the blanket on Danika's cot and fluffed up the pillow, then turned nervously to Scar. He almost smiled at her. This was the most animated he'd seen her since she arrived, and despite the circumstances, there was something heartwarming about it. He gently laid Danika down on her cot and Rada drew the blanket up over her. The little girl whimpered irritably for a moment, then lay still.

Rada touched the girl's forehead. "I'd forgotten what it was like," she said quietly. "I remember sitting by my little—" She suddenly clamped her lips closed and she grew very still, as if waiting for something to pass that she didn't want to be noticed by. Scar even found himself hesitating to break the silence.

"I'll bring you some water," he said finally, keeping his voice low. "Once the kechua tea gets made, I'll bring that, too."

Rada lowered herself to sit beside her daughter's cot. She seemed to have forgotten Scar was there, but then she whispered, almost imperceptibly. "Thank you."

She said nothing else and Scar left the tent with some reluctance, leaving Rada with what seemed like another presence, even if it was only a memory.

............................................................................................................

He felt like he was surrounded by a wall of flames. He thought he had died and gone to Hell, but there it was again—a blessed coolness against his forehead and the far off sound of a song. He couldn't understand the words. He didn't try to. He just listened to the soothing melody and the angelic voice that was his lifeline. He couldn't move any part of his body, but he felt as though he could float up away from the searing heat, if only for a few moments. Other sounds joined in with the singing. Simple, everyday sounds that offered their own cooling relief. One sound jarred through them, like the cawing of a crow amongst the cooing of doves.

"Eh-h, girl! How long have you been here! Where's that fellow who was here before?"

"I sent him to help Naisha. She's trying to cook for everyone all by herself."

"All by herself, is it? Then why isn't her sister helping her, I'd like to know!"

"Because I'm doing this."

A moist coolness touched his face, his burning cheeks. He felt wet fabric touch his parched lips and he opened them slightly. A hand slipped under his head and he felt himself lifted slightly.

"I'm sorry," he heard the angel whisper. "This is going to taste nasty. There's not enough honey in it."

Something hard touched his mouth and he opened his lips again. A warm liquid trickled inside his mouth and he swallowed it greedily, then gagged on the bitterness.

"Just a little more."

He was prepared for it this time and swallowed. He would do anything to hear that voice again.

"Well, I don't think this is proper! He's not your kinsman!"

No, not that voice!

"I don't care!"

Ah, yes, that one!

"I don't want his general to think we didn't take care of him!"

The crow made a few more perfunctory mutters then faded blissfully away. After a few moments the singing started again and he was content to float just above the flames. He was vaguely aware that this wouldn't be an eternity, but if he had that voice to keep him company, it might not be so bad after all.

...............................................................................................................................................

Knox wrung his hands, clutching them together to keep them from reaching for the pack of cigarettes. This wasn't right. This was so unfair. God sure took His sweet time to hand out punishment. He was the one who should be lying there suffering. Oh, yeah. He already did, last time he was here. It seemed like ages and ages ago now.

Goddamn, godforsaken place! No, this is supposed to be holy ground, and they had come back and defiled it all over again. And this is what they got. Okay, God, you got me this time. I swear that if they make it through this okay I'll be the best damn husband and father You ever saw! Please, just don't take them away from me! I don't want to be alone anymore!

He reached over and took the cloth from Emily's forehead. He dunked it in the bucket of water at his feet, squeezed it out, and put it gently back on her forehead. He turned on his stool and repeated the process for Anthony, then slumped dejectedly for another ten minutes.

"Hey, Dr. Knox!"

Knox jumped and swore under his breath. "Whaddya want?" he growled over his shoulder.

"I got that tea stuff for you!" Sergeant Benjamin poked his head through the tent flaps and held out a small tin pot. "Wish we'd had this stuff back in the day. The Ishvalans swear by it."

"Oh." Knox took the pot and sniffed its contents. It had an acrid vegetable sort of smell. "You tried this yet?"

Benjamin nodded with a wry grin. "Just a sip. Makes the idea of drinking piss not seem so bad."

"Swell."

"Anything else I can get you?" Benjamin asked. "You hungry? Miss Naisha's been cooking up a storm over at the mess tent. Havoc's over there giving her a hand. They're making some kind of soup and some of that flat bread the Ishvalans make."

"Maybe later." Knox realized he had absolutely no idea what was going on outside this tent. "How's it going out there?"

Benjamin shrugged. "Not so bad, although that's easy to say if you're not sick. Dr. Marcoh's busy taking notes 'cause there's not much else he can do."

"Huh!" Knox grunted. "Guess we'll read all about it in the Amestrian Journal of Medicine."

"And Zhaarad Andakar hasn't stood still for half a minute," Benjamin went on. "He says Marcoh's in charge, but Andakar's the one who got everybody mobilized. We didn't know what the hell we were doing, and the Ishvalans could just as easily left us to fend for ourselves. But it seems like they'll do whatever he tells them."

"Hmm…" Knox mused. "Doesn't that strike you as a little scary?"

Benjamin grinned and shook his head. "If it was anyone else, maybe. But, no, I can't say that it does."

Chapter Text

The sun had nearly set by the time Scar finally left the headquarters compound. The Ishvalans, a people used to hardship, had taken charge of the situation with a kind of stubborn pride. This was their fever and they knew exactly what to expect, tending to the Amestrians as they would their children.

Not everyone was quite so helpful. Just a few days before, Stanno had actually been seen planing wooden beams in preparation for rebuilding the Great Temple. Either Saahad Bozidar had finally shamed him into doing some work, or he was simply bored. But since the fever struck, the carpenter and his associates were conspicuous by their absence. Scar didn't particularly care. He was just as happy to not have to cross paths with Stanno and have to put his promise to Saahad Bozidar to the test.

When Scar reached camp, it was quiet. Nearly everyone was still over at headquarters, helping however they could with the general operation of the settlement. The only ones here would be those with the fever and those caring for them, who were probably catching a few moments' rest. Rest sounded good right about now, and Scar headed for his tent.

It wasn't as quiet as he first thought. He paused by Rada's tent and could hear muffled weeping from within. With a cold sense of foreboding—weeping from the bedside of a sick child was not a good sign—he lifted the tent flap. Rada sat on the ground beside Danika's cot, her face buried in her hands, sobbing quietly but heartbrokenly.

His heart pounding, Scar pushed through the flaps and bent down to look closely at Danika. The little girl was breathing shallowly, but she was definitely breathing. Profoundly relieved, Scar went down on one knee beside Rada.

"What is it?" he demanded, keeping his voice low. He pulled her hands away from her face. "Rada, what's—"

He hadn't realized what he was doing. He held her hands in both of his, and for a moment he was nearly paralyzed.

What coursed up his arms was heavy and thick as tar. It was the coldest, most miserable day in the farthest reaches of the north. It was dark and threatening like the sewers underneath Central City. It was shame and grief, fresh and raw and at the same time old and festering. It was exhaustion, emotional and physical. It grasped at his heart like the hands of a starving beggar. He was pinned down, helpless, unable to move.

Why did you kill my mom and dad?

Scar quickly let go of her hands. That was the last place he wanted to go.

He carefully grasped Rada's shoulders where her skin was covered with the fabric of her sleeves. "Rada, tell me what's wrong!"

She shook her head slowly. In between weak, raspy sobs, she barely managed to get out, "I'm…so…tired…"

Those three small words spoke of so much more than just sitting beside her daughter's bed all day. They were heavy with the weight of years, a burden she could no longer bear. Scar knew how heavy it could be. It almost seemed strange for her to be so light when he lifted her in his arms and laid her on her cot.

"I'll sit by Danika," Scar told her. "You rest."

He turned his attention to the little girl. On a crate between the two cots sat a kerosene lantern, a basin of water, and a tin cup with a spoon in it. He took the cloth from Danika's forehead, soaked it in the basin, and put it back on the girl's head. He picked up the cup and dipped the end of his finger into the tea that it held, then tasted it. He had asked that the ration of honey be distributed a little more generously for the smaller children so the tea wouldn't be too bitter for them. It tasted as passable as could be expected, and he took a spoonful of it and lifted Danika's head.

She stirred a little and scowled. Scar touched the spoon to her lips and she clamped them tightly closed, giving a little grunt. Scar couldn't help smiling a little. His mother had gone through the same battle of wills with him.

"Come on, little blackbird," he coaxed softly. "You want to feel better, don't you?"

With a scowl still on her face, Danika opened her mouth slightly and Scar tipped the spoon's contents into her mouth. Danika swallowed and gave a little shudder. Scar laid her head back down on her pillow and put his mouth close to her ear.

"You're a brave little girl," he whispered. "I'm proud of you."

A tiny smile appeared at the corner of Danika's lips for a moment before she drifted back to sleep.

Scar drew up one knee and rested his forearm on it, and he sat watching Danika's face in the diminishing light. The moment brought to mind the nights when he would sit awake and watch while Mei slept, her pet whatever-it-was curled up by her side. He wondered briefly how she was doing, whether she was happy. He marveled at how easily these little girls worked their way into his heart. Then they grew up and got complicated. Like his cousins and the mysterious yet somehow significant glances they kept exchanging. Like Rada.

Like that Rockbell girl. The flood of Rada's heavy-laden emotions that had found such a harmony with his own remorse had brought that Amestrian girl's image sharply to the forefront of his mind, and it wasn't pleasant.

What was done, was done. It couldn't be remedied, but his answer to her question that frigid day in Baschool might have been unfair. Having already resigned himself to whatever fate met him at the conclusion of his mission, he was not seeking to exonerate himself. But he should have at least told the girl the truth, however hard it might have been for her to hear it.

"Is she asleep?"

Stirred out of his thoughts, he turned to look over at Rada. Her crying had softened, and he thought she had fallen asleep herself. But she lay watching him with the kind of calm that comes with resignation. He looked closely at Danika for a moment. Her breathing was quiet and even, and her face was relaxed.

"It looks like she is," Scar replied. "By this time tomorrow, she'll be much better."

Rada gave a slight nod, her head resting on her arm. "I know that you're not a priest anymore," she said quietly. "But can I ask you something anyway?"

Scar frowned slightly. "You can ask," he said cautiously. "I left the priesthood for good reason, so I don't know how well I can answer."

It might not have been the reply she was hoping for, and she hesitated before venturing on. "Does…does God ever stop forgiving?"

When Rada sat alongside his cousins under the shade of a tree years ago, Scar would have told her what Saahad Bozidar had taught him, that God's mercy was infinite. But that was a time of innocence, relatively speaking. And being the good and wise and pious man that Bozidar was, he didn't truly know what shame felt like or the isolation that came with it. These days Scar was finding God's mercy increasingly inexplicable, and if Rada was looking for comfort, he might not be able to give it to her.

"Why are you asking?" It might have been the coward's way out, except that part of him dreaded to know why.

She didn't reply for several moments, but when she spoke, there was a quiet resolve to her voice. Perhaps because it had grown darker by now and she could hide in the night's obscurity.

"I showed him where they were hiding. I said I'd do whatever he wanted, and he killed them anyway." Scar heard a quick gasp of breath, as if she was surprised that what she said had actually passed her lips. "I didn't know! God forgive me! I didn't know!"

Scar sat silent and still, as if any sound or motion would shatter the momentum of her words, but after a moment, perhaps while she drew on a reserve of courage, she went on.

"Papa was late getting back. He said the soldiers found where they were meeting and started shooting. He'd gotten shot in the leg and practically had to crawl back. He said the state alchemists were heading this way. Mama was frantic and my sisters started crying. Papa said he couldn't run and Mama wouldn't leave him. She helped him get into the back room and she told us all to hide there. She said if we were all quiet the alchemists would think no one was left on our street. I just stood there, staring at them huddling in the corner. Stanno said that the Amestrians wouldn't leave a stone unturned and we didn't have a hope.

"I thought if I could just find Stanno, he could help carry Papa and we could get out. I told my family I was going to get help and I went out into the street. The whole place was deserted. Then I saw him. He was just standing up at the corner, looking around. He looked like he was out for a stroll. He laced his fingers together and stretched them, and I could see some marks on the palms of his hands. Then he stood still because he had seen me.

"We just stared at each other. Then he smiled. If I thought I was as afraid as I could be before that, I was wrong. I started running toward him. The alchemist stopped smiling and he spread his arms, but I stumbled and fell right at his feet. I begged him not to do this. I told him my father was hurt and my sisters were frightened. I told him that if he would leave us alone I'd do whatever he wanted.

"I just knelt there, expecting him to kill me. Then he said, 'well, this is different.' He crouched down in front of me and he looked at me for a minute. He was smiling again. He asked me where my family was. His smile made me think that he might actually show some mercy, so I said they were hiding in our house. He asked me which house. He even lowered his voice as though he didn't want anyone else to know, as if he might get in trouble. I kept my voice low, too, and I said it was the third house behind us. He nodded, and then he took my arms and pulled me up. He pulled me—"

Rada's voice caught in her throat. "He pulled me into an empty house. I thought—I thought he was trying to hide me. Then he—then he pushed my face against the wall. I—I—couldn't—" Her breathing grew short and shallow, then sounded muffled as she covered her face with her hands.

Scar moved to the side of her cot. Again he drew her hands from her face and held them in both of his. If he hadn't already been on his knees, the force of what surged through his arms would have dropped him. In his darkest moments he could not recall feeling this kind of terror. He didn't want to hear the rest, but she had come this far, and he would finish the journey with her. "It's all right," he told her. "I understand."

"Do you?" Rada forced the words out bitterly. "Stanno didn't!" She took a deep breath and plunged on. "The alchemist left me there. He said, 'Sorry, sweetheart, I have my orders.' A few minutes later there was a huge explosion and the floor lifted under me, and then everything went quiet. My legs were already shaking so badly I couldn't get up. I lay there for a long time. It seemed like forever. When I finally got up and went outside, it was like a different place. There was smoke and dust everywhere and all the houses were flattened. And it was quiet. My ears were still ringing from the explosion, but when that started to go away, I still couldn't hear anything. I had to climb over rubble to get to where my house had been, but it was crushed, like it had been lifted up and slammed down by a giant hand. I called out for my family, but there was nothing. Nothing at all.

"I started running. I couldn't even tell where the street was. I heard voices. There were people running past me, carrying bundles, then I felt someone grab me and I screamed. Then a hand clapped over my mouth. It was Stanno. I started crying and I hugged him tightly. I was so grateful that he was there. He asked me where my family was. I said they were all dead. I said the alchemist killed them. He let out a curse and asked me how I'd gotten away. I—I told him everything. Up until then I barely believed it had happened but it all just came out, every bit of it.

"He didn't say anything. He let go of me. I reached out to him but he pushed me away. He said, 'don't touch me!' I didn't understand. All I wanted was to be in his arms and I tried to get close to him again. Then he hit me and I fell down. He called me a dirty bitch whore. He said I sold out my family and let that Ammy alchemist bastard have me to save my own skin. He said to stay out of his sight. And then he was gone.

"After that it was like my feet moved on their own. I joined some people I didn't even know and we managed to get out of Ishval from the south, through the vatrishi camps. It was dark and insane and we just kept going. They took care of me, even when I started to show. I lied and told them my husband had been killed. When Danika was born, the women went silent. Then I told them I was raped, but now they weren't sure what to believe. One night I left. I went from place to place. I worked, I scrubbed floors, I did mending. I went back and forth from Amestrians to Ishvalans. I couldn't stay anywhere for long. I was always afraid someone would find out what I did."

Scar waited for her to continue, but she stayed silent. "What you did?" He spoke almost harshly. "Rada, did you even listen to your own story?"

She gave a flinch and drew in a gasp, fresh fear and despair darting from her hands into his. "You don't believe me!"

"Yes, I do. Every word." The muddy tide of her emotions twisted with his own rage.

There's no eternity long enough, no damnation complete enough for your black soul, Crimson Alchemist!

And you, Stanno! I should have held your head under water a lot longer!

"Listen to me, Rada! All you did wrong was to put your faith in faithless men! Even if you lied to Kimblee, he would have hunted your family down. You are the only Ishvalan he spared, but he simply left you to a worse fate, whether it was to die at someone else's hands or be rejected by your own people! He tricked you, Rada! And Stanno failed you! You are the one who was betrayed!"

He held one of her hands tightly and reached out to stroke her hair. "The shame is not yours!" he said with slow deliberation. "You are blameless! You have no blood on your hands! You are a good woman and God still loves you!" He cupped her face and felt the dampness of tears on her skin. "Tell me you believe me!"

Rada wept quietly and finally nodded. Scar could feel the poisonous flow ebb a little, her sorrow mingled with relief. It was fragile and struggling to survive, but it was there nonetheless, something she hadn't felt in a long time. She turned her head a little to press her lips to the heel of his hand. He nearly jumped out of his skin, and he almost didn't hear her when she brokenly whispered her thanks.

.................................................................................................................................................

Scar stepped out of the tent into the early morning light and stretched his back. He hadn't meant to fall asleep, but he had woken up stretched out on the blanket that covered the ground between Rada's and Danika's cots. Danika had curled herself into a ball, her lips slightly parted, her fever markedly lower than the night before. Rada lay in tranquil sleep, her silver hair spread over her pillow.

He went to the edge of the camp, faced the rising sun and knelt for his morning devotions.

Creator, thank you for the light of this day…

It was hard to decide where to start.

I hope I did not presume too much to tell Rada what I told her, sinner that I am. She is still as pure and innocent as when she was a girl, even if she doesn't see herself that way, and You surely love her. I beg You to ease her heart and give her contentment…

Let the fever pass without taking any lives, O Creator. You have somehow seen fit to let these Amestrians find their way into our hearts. Restore them to health and open their eyes to see this land the way we see it…

I ask little for myself, O Creator, only that You grant me the wisdom and patience to care for my family and my people…

…and deliver me from the temptation to rip Stanno's spine out through his nose…

Scar fed kindling into the embers of the previous night's campfire, blowing on it to bring the flames to life. He filled the tin kettle with water from their barrel and set it over the fire to boil.

He spooned tea leaves into the red teapot that Damyan had recently presented to their extended family along with a set of cups. The young man had shrugged it off as not his best effort, but it was a thing of beauty.

He heard the rustle of canvas and a footstep and he looked up. Rada emerged from her tent and came over to the fire.

"Good morning, Zhaarad Andakar," she said as she approached him. She seemed subdued, and there was still a somewhat troubled look behind her eyes.

"Good morning." Scar studied her face. "How do you feel?"

Rada had to think for a moment. "Strange, I suppose. I feel all right," she added quickly. "I just…" She gave a small shrug. "It's almost as if I went to sleep as one person and woke up another. I'm just not sure who." She ducked her head self-consciously. "I'm sorry! That must not make very much sense."

"No, it does," Scar replied. "I know that feeling very well." He waved his hand slightly at Rada's questioning look. "I hope you took what I told you to heart. I meant what I said."

Rada gave a slow nod and regarded him anxiously. "Are you going to tell anyone else what I told you?"

Scar shook his head. "Not if you don't want me to. But I think you deserve some sort of vindication."

Rada looked alarmed and shook her head. "Oh, don't, please! I don't want to draw any more attention to myself!"

Scar lifted his hands. "As you wish. At least let me tell Saahad Bozidar the truth. And—" he said before she could argue. "And when Danika feels better, you owe her a trip to see the goats." He reached out and took her hands in his. He could still feel a darkness lurking there, but its edge was gone. It was replaced with bewilderment and a kind of loss, as if there was an empty place waiting to be filled. It was as good a sign as any. "If I come with you, do you think you can do that?"

Rada gazed up at him doubtfully, but either from the firm hold of his hands or from within herself, she seemed to gather a little strength. She finally nodded.

"You're such a good man, Zhaarad Andakar," she said. "I'm sorry for putting you to so much trouble."

"You haven't," he replied. He was prepared to be as much a pillar of strength for her as she needed him to be. A pillar of virtue—well, he wasn't ready to tell her that he was not as good a man as she thought.

"There's something I'd like to give you," Rada said. "If you'll accept it."

Before Scar could reply, Rada hurried back to her tent. After a moment she came back out with a bundle of fabric in her arms. She held it out to him.

He took the bundle from her and unfolded it. It was a tunic-length shirt made from the bleached muslin that had been supplied by Havoc's family store. Scar vaguely remembered Vesya measuring the breadth of his shoulders a couple of weeks ago, then he completely forgot about it. Around the neck opening and extending across the shoulders was an embroidered geometric pattern in light brown thread that contrasted subtly with fabric. The stitching was so regular and even that it looked like it had been done by a machine. Scar gazed at it for a few moments, then looked up at Rada.

"You did all this work for me?"

"I—I just finished it for Vesya!" Rada replied quickly. "Because she was busy helping you with the school! You—um—can still tell people she made it—I mean—if they ask."

It was not uncommon for a woman to make clothing for a man other than a male relation. Embroidery, however, was considered a much more exclusive, intimate gesture. Scar smiled a little.

"I would be proud to tell people exactly who made this," he said.

A blush rose faintly under Rada's cheeks, one of pleasure rather than shame, and a smile grew on her face. For a moment, Scar caught of glimpse of who Danika got her dimples from.

Chapter Text

"Why wasn't I informed of this immediately?"

Roy couldn't resist a smug grin, but he was glad General Armstrong couldn't see it. "I'm informing you now, General," he said with polite calm. "The situation is well under control."

There was a smoldering silence on the other end of the telephone, broken only by what Roy guessed were fingers drumming on the top of a desk. Then there was an irritable growl.

"So…he called you but he didn't call me."

It was all Roy could do to not jump up and dance. "I'm sure it was a simply an oversight rather than an omission."

"I dragged his half-dead ass out of the rubble, took him to my own house, had him treated by my family physician, and he doesn't have the decency to let me know that my second-in-command is bedridden with their damn tropical fever!"

"Desert fever," Roy interjected.

"Whatever! That bastard!"

"Now, now, General," Roy said soothingly. "Don't take it personally. Mr. Ruhad is a very busy man. I took the liberty of assuming that he left it to me to contact Fuhrer Grumman and you."

"You took your sweet time about it!"

Roy shrugged. "I'm a very busy man myself. You may rest assured that Major Miles is getting the very best of care and he'll be in tip-top condition before you know it." Roy manfully resisted snickering. He had always wanted to say "tip-top" at least once in his life.

"Thanks!"

Roy flinched at the loud click, then he placed the handset delicately onto the cradle with a wicked grin. "You're welcome, General."

2nd Lieutenant Henschel stood stiffly before General Armstrong's desk as she slammed the telephone down and sat glaring at it as though her gaze could melt it. He had been honored by his appointment as temporary adjutant to the general, but Miles' boots were extremely hard to fill. He was already wishing he was facing the ravages of the desert fever rather than the brunt of Olivier Mira Armstrong's wrath.

...............................................................................................................

It was the rustling of paper that first filtered into Miles' consciousness. He opened his eyes slowly and narrowed them to slits against the light and against the dull ache in his head. He had a vague recollection of heat, but little else. No, that wasn't right. There was the shadowy impression of a beautiful face. There was the soft singing and the gentle pressure of something cool and moist against his face. Oh, yes. And someone trying to spoon something poisonous down his throat. Well, he wasn't dead, as far as he could tell.

He looked carefully around; moving his eyes was a little painful. He was lying on his cot in his tent. That much he could figure out. He turned his head slightly. Sitting on a stool, perusing an issue of the East City Herald with a thoughtful frown on his face, was Sergeant Benjamin.

Miles scowled slightly, as much as the ache in his head would allow. "I thought I was going to see a beautiful girl sitting there, Sergeant," he murmured.

Benjamin stood and saluted. "Sorry to disappoint, sir."

Miles smirked a little. "As you were. What time is it?"

Benjamin pulled a battered watch from his pocket. "Ten twenty-three, sir. And it's the seventeenth, by the way." He glanced at the front page of the paper. "Sorry. This is yesterday's. It's the eighteenth."

Miles nodded, then his eyes widened, which hurt. "The eighteenth?"

"Yeah, well…you've been out of commission for a few days. Ishvalan desert fever. You and about two thirds of the men."

"Shit! I can't lay here all—" Miles tried to sit up and his head spun.

Benjamin carefully pushed him back down. "Yes, you can, sir. You have to be declared fit for duty by Dr. Marcoh before you can get your uniform back on."

Miles pressed his hands to his face. "Three days! I've been out for three days! What the hell has been going on?"

"Well, let's see…" Benjamin sat back down and glanced over the front page of the Herald. "There's a call to dissolve Parliament and hold a general election by the end of the year. Aerugo and Creta recalled their ambassadors again." He turned a couple of pages. "Government bonds aren't worth crap right now. Hmm…I think I'll hold onto mine. You never know…"

"No, Sergeant," Miles said a little irritably. "I mean what's been going on here in Ishval."

"Not much, considering," Benjamin replied with a shrug. "School's out for the duration, but most of the little shavers are up and about already. You'd think they'd never been sick. And since we're a little low on personnel, a lot of the clearing and building work is on hold. Figure on at least two or three more days before things start getting back to normal." He reached down and picked up a canteen. "You need some water, sir? I bet your mouth tastes like the bottom of a birdcage."

"I'll have to take your word for that." Miles took the canteen and turned his head to drink out of it. "Who's been running the show? Breda?"

"No, he's got it, too," Benjamin replied. "It's been sort of a team effort. Dr. Marcoh's been kind of overseeing the sick men, although he's been pretty much learning everything from the Ishvalans. He's going to write a paper, he says. The young ladies have taken over the mess tent, with favorable results. McGinty may find himself out of a job when he gets off his ass. The priests have been helping to tend the sick on top of praying for everybody, so our bodies and souls are being taken care of. And Master Andakar's been pretty much supervising it all. He radioed the brigadier as soon as he had the chance."

"I see." Miles thought for a moment. "Did he contact Briggs?"

Benjamin shook his head. "I don't think so, sir."

Uh-oh.

.........................................................................................................................

It was a peaceful evening. Naisha, Vesya, and the other girls had just gotten back from the mess tent, and they were sitting around the campfire with tin cups and bowls of the rich vegetable broth that was achieving widespread popularity. Rada sat gazing thoughtfully at the cup cradled in her hands or sometimes at her daughter, a smile playing on her lips. Scar watched her from across the fire, wondering what was going through her mind, whether she was beginning to find some happiness or whether she dreaded an uncertain future. He couldn't very well make a habit of taking her hands in his or touching her face to read her feelings. People might misunderstand.

Danika and Mika sat together on a cot that had been carried outside and placed near the campfire. They giggled at the story Dejan was telling them and the sound effects that went along with it.

"…and the cactus wren said, 'No, I'm the noisiest creature in the desert! When I sing, everyone hears me! Guah-guah-guah-guah!' And the jackal said, 'You foolish little bird! When I make my call, I can be heard for miles and miles! Yi-yi-yi-yiiih!' And so they carried on for some time, getting louder and louder." Dejan leaned closer to the girls. "And do you know what happened then?"

"Naisha told them to belt up because she's the noisiest creature in the desert," Damyan said.

Naisha rapped him on the head with her tin cup.

"Hey, who's telling this story?" Dejan turned back to the girls. "So while all that noise was going on, they didn't even notice that the nice, plump grasshopper they were fighting over had hopped clean away!"

Mika grinned, but Danika looked concerned. "But what did they get to eat?"

"Probably something that wouldn't hop away," Dejan replied. "The point is that they were fighting over something silly and they lost sight of what was important."

Danika nodded thoughtfully. "I don't think I'd wanna eat a grasshopper anyhow."

"If you had nothing else to eat, you'd settle for anything," Scar said, adding cautiously, "They're not that bad."

The young girls looked horrified and Naisha groaned. "Oh, Andakar, you didn't!"

"Just think!" Dejan exclaimed. "All those grasshoppers jumping around in your belly!" He reached out and tickled the girls' stomachs.

The girls squealed indignantly, and Scar was gratified by the genuine smile on Rada's face as she watched them. Then she stood up.

"It's getting late, Danika. Time for bed."

"You, too, Mika," Dejan said.

The giggling stopped promptly and Mika groaned. "Aww, c'mon, Dad! I feel like I've been in bed the whole gosh darn day!"

"Well, some us haven't been in bed the whole gosh darn day and we're tired!"

"Please, Mama! Just one more story!" In a moment of sudden inspiration Danika looked hopefully at Scar. "Zhaarad Andakar tells good stories!"

"Well…" Rada turned to Scar. "Maybe one more. If Zhaarad Andakar doesn't mind."

It occurred to Scar that he would stay up all night reading out of the Central City telephone book just to hear that hint of winsomeness in Rada's voice again. He set down his cup. "All right."

"Pushover," Dejan muttered with a grin.

Scar sat forward, leaning his elbows on his knees and delving into his memory for something he hadn't already told Danika. Then one came to mind.

"A very, very long time ago, before the great earthquake, Ishval was ruled by the warrior princes. One of these princes had three sons—"

"Ah! I love this one!" Dejan exclaimed. "The oldest—"

Scar gave him a mild glare. "Who's telling this story?"

Dejan mutely raised his hands and Scar continued.

"All three sons were equally strong and skilled in combat. When their father reached a venerable age, he wondered which of his sons should rule Ishval after him. He thought and thought, but they seemed so evenly matched that he simply could not make up his mind. Finally, he called his sons to him and asked them each this question.

"What is the greatest strength a prince should have?

"The eldest, who was a great warrior, replied readily. 'Strength of body is the greatest! A prince must be able to fight and defeat any foe and thus protect his people.'

"The middle son, who was something of a scholar, gave his reply. 'Strength of mind is the greatest. A prince should be well-learned and thus be able to teach his people about the workings of the world so that they should not be ignorant.'

"The old prince nodded. Those were indeed equally fine answers. He began to wonder how much harder his decision would be. He then turned to his third son. 'And you, my youngest. What is your answer?'

"At first the youngest son was unsure of what to say. His brothers had already given the answers he had thought of. But finally, he replied, 'Strength of heart is the greatest. He who is possessed of this strength will know the joys and sorrows of his people and will rule with justice and compassion.'

"His father smiled, for the weight upon his heart had been lifted. 'You, my youngest, have given me the wisest answer, and when I leave this world to rest in Ishvala's bosom, you will rule this land after me. And so he did."

Mika and Danika both let out sighs of satisfaction, and Scar said, "And now it's time for you girls to go to bed."

"Oh, no it isn't!" Dejan said, wagging his finger reprovingly. "You haven't finished yet!"

"I told it the way I remembered it."

Dejan rolled his eyes contemptuously. "Bushwah!" He looked at the girls, who were perfectly happy for any delay. "Now this isn't just a story, my dears, this is history. The youngest son really did become the ruler of Ishval, and he was known not just for his strength, but for his wisdom and compassion. And his name was Andakar."

Both girls' mouths dropped open and they stared at Scar, who shook his head as he stood up. "It's just a name," he said dismissively. "It was my mother's idea. She must have thought I would amount to something." He looked down at the girls with gentle sternness. "Bed."

Danika gave a great sigh of resignation. "Okay."

"Hey!" Mika said suddenly. "So how come there's no more princes?"

"That," Scar told her, "is a story for another time."

Chapter Text

"I haven't actually been declared fit for duty, but I wanted to contact you as soon as I was able to stay upright for more than ten minutes."

"I appreciate that, Miles, especially after your friend's total lack of consideration. You can tell him that he's firmly on my shit list."

"He asked me to pass on his sincerest apologies, ma'am."

"Hmm! He is the last man I'd expect smarm from."

Miles grinned. "Okay. His actual words were 'she ought to know better than to think I'd let you die.'"

"That's more like it." General Armstrong sat back in her chair, her eyes closed and a smile on her lips, taking a moment to let the relief wash over her. "I'm surprised at you, Miles." There was a warmth in her voice that she didn't often use. "Imagine, a man of your strength letting a little bug get the best of you."

Miles gave a grim laugh. "It was not a little bug, ma'am. It was more like a freight train."

"Any casualties?"

"No, ma'am," Miles replied. "The Ishvalans took good care of us." He smiled at the recollection of his ministering angel. "Extremely good care."

..........................................................................................................................................

Just keep walking. It's all right. He's right behind you. Don't disappoint him.

They passed a couple of older women who nodded at them. They seemed friendly, but a lot of people seemed friendly on the surface. A lot of people hid malice behind their smiles.

No, you have to stop thinking like that.

Rada tightened her hold on Naisha's arm. Vesya was on her other side, and Yasna was next to her, their arms linked together, walking and laughing. It was almost like the way things used to be. Almost.

The men strolled easily along behind them, talking amongst themselves. She could hear his voice, but she kept wanting to look behind her to make sure he was still there. Danika skipped ahead of them alongside Mika. They were only going to the mess tent for supper, but they were so happy and excited, as though they were going somewhere grand.

Look at her, how brave she is! She stepped out into the world and you're still clinging to the doorway. Are you going to just stay behind while she goes on ahead?

The trip to the goat pen early the previous morning had gone fairly well, even though she was terrified. She clung to her daughter's hand for reassurance, rather than the other way around. Zhaarad Andakar walked close to them but kept at a respectable distance. To think, a man as great as him treating her like a respectable woman! All the time, it was his hands she longed to cling to—hands that held such power, hands that could draw her out of the darkness, hands that could find her if she got lost.

Danika adored watching the goats. When they got there, a boy with a bandana around his head and a ready smile that showed off a missing tooth was busy milking one of the does. Zhaarad Andakar and the boy, whose name was Rick, talked easily to each other like old friends. Rick handed them the metal bucket of milk and they each drank out of it. It was warm and creamy and brought back a flood of memories—memories of a happier time that had been too painful to remember until now.

By then, more people had appeared, going about their morning routines, and she quietly begged to go back. Zhaarad Andakar readily complied, and she could tell that he was pleased with her.

Now it was early evening and the headquarters compound was much busier, full of both Ishvalans and Amestrians. She decided to give the advice Zhaarad Andakar had given Danika a try, to keep her head up. It made her feel open and vulnerable, but nothing truly worth having was easy to get. She watched the soldiers around the compound. They were nothing like they were back during the war. They weren't armed for combat, some were even just in shirtsleeves or undershirts. There was no oppressive tension in the air. Naisha and Yasna even flirted with a couple of them.

Her own people were the ones she felt were watching them with more curiosity. Some, she was sure, were judging her on sight. That's her! She's the one they've been talking about!

What you did was purest courage because it was in the face of terror, Zhaarad Andakar told her. You're stronger than you think you are.

She raised her chin just a little higher.

As they reached the mess tent, a tall blond man with blue eyes and a small beard stepped aside to let them enter.

"Evening, ladies!" he greeted them.

"Hello, Jean," Naisha replied cordially. "How's tricks?"

The man grinned. "Same old, same old." He nodded toward the interior of the tent. "McGinty's back in full swing. I think he missed us more than we missed him."

"Oh, now, don't bad-mouth McGinty," Naisha chided. "I have so much respect for that man after having to feed this camp. I still can't make biscuits like he does."

"You're blocking the entrance, woman!" Damyan called to his sister, who turned and stuck her tongue out at him before heading inside.

"Nice shirt!" Rada heard the blond man say as the men followed in behind them.

It was the biggest tent in the camp, and Rada gazed around at it for a moment before she realized how many of the occupants had turned to look at them. For a moment, Rada felt as though she was under everyone's burning scrutiny. But it was only casual curiosity, and once it was satisfied, they went back to their meals and conversation.

Danika and Mika had already raced up to the serving line and were taking their plates of food. A man with slightly unkempt salt-and-pepper hair and a beard streaked with grey grinned as Naisha stepped up to the serving line.

"Evening, Miss Naisha!"

Naisha smiled at him fondly. "Good evening to you, Mr. McGinty! I'm so glad you're feeling better!"

"Yeah, me, too. I ain't never been that sick in my life!"

A soldier sitting nearby called out, "That's 'cause you don't eat your own cooking!"

There was a ripple of laughter in the vicinity and McGinty scowled darkly at the soldiers.

"Don't mind them," Naisha said soothingly. "They just tease you because they like you so much."

"I had no idea I was so damn popular," McGinty grumbled.

"I don't think you've met my friend Rada," Naisha went on, pulling Rada out from behind her. "She's Danika's mom."

McGinty's scowl turned into a benevolent grin. "You don't say! Nice to meet you, ma'am! That's a mighty cute little girl you got there!"

Rada gave him a little smile. He had the sort of appearance that would be alarming if she had met him in a dark alley, but Naisha certainly seemed to approve of him. He had also managed to find the quickest way to a mother's heart, and she was no exception. "Thank you."

"An' if you don't mind me sayin' so, ma'am, you look like you could use a little fattening up, so I'm gonna pile it on."

"Oh, I…" Rada stared at the amount of food that McGinty was ceremoniously slapping onto a tin plate. "I couldn't eat that much!"

"Aw, just do your best," McGinty replied. He gave her a wink. "I'm sure them boys'll polish off whatever you can't finish. They're always up here for seconds and thirds sometimes." He leaned over and raised his voice to the nearby group of soldiers. "And they say thank you!"

He handed Rada her plate. "There ya go."

"Thank you…Mr. McGinty."

McGinty gave a pleased little simper. "My pleasure."

"Over here, Mama!" Danika called from the table that she and Mika had claimed.

As the rest of their group got their dinner, they filled up the table. Rada stared despairingly at her heavily laden plate, then looked up as Zhaarad Andakar sat down across from her. Their table quieted as he raised his hands and spoke the blessing. Rada glanced around a little nervously. It had been her experience that Amestrians preferred not to witness Ishvalan customs or hear the language, but none of the soldiers seemed to take any notice, let alone offense.

As everyone at their table started eating, Rada found Zhaarad Andakar considering her thoughtfully. "Are you all right?" he asked.

Rada took a deep breath and let it out. "Yes, I think so."

There was a hint of a smile on his face. "Good."

He was wearing the shirt she had made. She had started one for Stanno years ago, but never had the chance to finish it. It was probably buried under the rubble, like the rest of her life. Better to not dwell on it.

She was surprised that Zhaarad Andakar seemed so pleased by something so commonplace. He was not a vain man—not like Stanno, she had to admit to herself. As a priest, Zhaarad Andakar shunned ornamentation. Now he wore an embroidered shirt and gold talismans along with his chuva, but they seemed to blend together to become part of him, like the scar on his face.

She lowered her eyes quickly, hoping that he had not noticed how long they had dwelt on his features. They had hardened over the past six years—the past six years had left their mark on all of them—but his eyes had not lost their intensity. No one had been able to put that fire out, thank God. When she first met his eyes when she came back, she nearly died of shame under their gaze. Now they were her beacon.

There was a stirring among the soldiers, signaling a new arrival. Rada glanced up cautiously, hoping it was not Stanno. It was the Ishvalan officer, Major Miles, and she let out a breath of relief. Anyone who held Zhaarad Andakar's high esteem had to be a very worthy person. In fact, he seemed to have the respect of the whole camp, judging by the way the soldiers greeted him.

Naisha promptly waved him over. "Major! Come and sit with us!" she cried. "It feels like we haven't seen you in ages!"

Major Miles came up to their table. "I know," he said apologetically. "I've had a ton of paperwork to catch up with since I got over the fever. And I can't stay, I'm afraid. I'm just grabbing a bite to take back with me. However," he went on, looking at Vesya. "I did want to take a moment to thank you, Miss Vesya, for your kind attention. I owe my recovery to you."

Vesya gave a little bashful shrug. "Oh…it wasn't just me. Sergeant Benjamin helped, too."

"I know," Miles replied with a warm smile. "But he doesn't sing as nicely as you do."

Vesya's cheeks grew fiercely red and she looked down, taking a sudden deep interest in the biscuit she held in her hand. Naisha grinned, but forbore from making any comment.

"Well, then, I'll see you folks later," Miles said. He started to leave, then tapped Zhaarad Andakar on the shoulder. "Nice shirt."

"Thank you," Zhaarad Andakar replied. "Rada made it for me."

"Did she?" Miles gave an impressed nod and smiled at her. "Very nice!"

She felt as though her cheeks must be growing as warm as Vesya's, not so much at Miles' notice, but as Zhaarad Andakar's. Naisha laughed and gave her a nudge with her shoulder, pushing her slightly into Vesya.

"What are we going to do with you two?"

"Just because nothing makes you blush, Nai!" Dejan said with a wink.

More out of nervousness, Rada joined in the laughter. A glance at Zhaarad Andakar found him watching her with his usual solemn expression but with warm approval in his eyes.

Almost like the way things used to be, she thought. She realized she couldn't stop smiling.

Chapter Text

"Right! This'll do!" Sergeant Benjamin called to the driver.

The truck slowed to a stop behind the mortuary tents and Benjamin hopped off the tailgate. Dr. Knox walked around the side of the tent, expecting another delivery of remains.

"What've you got for me, Benji?" he asked. He sounded gruff, but he had actually begun to enjoy his work. He was even thinking of sending in his own paper for publication. He just wasn't sure who to send it to, one of the medical journals or an archeology magazine. Damn, maybe he'd write a book!

"Well, it's not actually for you," Benjamin replied. "But I was told that personal effects were to be brought here first."

Knox shrugged. "Okay, so what is it?"

Benjamin turned back to the truck, which was half full of debris from what were once homes and workplaces. On the edge sat a rough wooden chest. Benjamin patted the top.

"I think I know who this ought to go to. But it's heavy."

Knox gave a soft grunt and nodded. "I'll go get Anthony. My back can't take it right now." He left briefly and came back with his son, who regarded the chest with curiosity.

"Right!" Anthony said. "I'll get this end."

He and Benjamin carried the chest around to the front of the closest tent and took it inside. Standing at one of the examination tables, laying a sheet over the remains that lay on it, was Dr. Marcoh. He looked up as the chest was set down on top of an empty table. Benjamin nodded to him.

"You might be interested in this, Dr. Marcoh," the sergeant said. As the older man approached, Benjamin lifted the lid and pulled out a handful of yellowed papers. "I took a quick look in here when I found it, and even I could recognize some of these symbols."

Marcoh frowned as he examined the papers, then his eyes suddenly widened. "Good God!" he whispered in awe. The papers were a collection of notes and drawings and he recognized both the symbols that were drawn and the handwriting. He would never forget that handwriting.

....................................................................................................................................................................................

Scar stared at the papers as he slowly leafed through them. The sketches and the quickly written notes were crammed together in a jumble on each page. It was strange to have them in his hands. He had finally buried his brother, but this seemed to bring Mattas back to life.

"There was a kind of false floor in what was left of this one building," Benjamin was saying. "In Section 138 of North Kanda. When I stepped on this one piece of flagstone it sounded hollow so I pried it up." He gestured to the chest. "And there it was."

Marcoh watched Scar's face with anticipation. He hadn't touched the rest of the contents of the chest, and he was excited as a child at a birthday party. "Well? Look at what else is in here!"

Scar set the papers down, realizing that his hands were shaking slightly. He turned his attention to the chest. Inside were books, crammed together to make the best use of the limited space. He picked one of them up and opened it, only to find that it was written in Xingese. The alkahestry symbols were recognizable, but that was all. On top of everything else, Mattas was a philologist and linguist and had taught himself several foreign languages, simply for the sake of doing so.

Other books were basic alchemical textbooks, and Scar found copious notes in his brother's writing taking up most of the margins, much of it indicating his frustration. This doesn't make sense! This seems to contradict this! Whoever wrote this was a yaakhtai!

"Would you find any of these useful?" Scar asked Marcoh, handing him a couple of the books.

Marcoh gave a slight start. "Me? But…they were your brother's! They're yours!"

Scar shook his head. "I have no use for books on alchemy. I'd rather you had them. The Xingese books as well, if you can get them translated."

Marcoh took the books reverently from Scar's hands. "Are you sure?"

"Yes." With a slight smile he added, "I know you'll take care of them." Scar took more books from the chest. Mattas seemed to have stuffed most of his library in here. That was so typical of him. Their world was crashing down around them, and he still took the time to safeguard his precious books.

Scar had removed nearly a third of the contents of the chest when he came upon a sheet of oilcloth that seemed to be bundled around the remainder. He unfolded the stiff fabric and gazed down at what it had been hiding.

These books were much older, hand bound and fragile. Scar lifted one out and opened it. The text inside was Ishvalan script, handwritten at least a hundred, even two hundred years ago. The others were similar, although the more modern ones had actually been printed in Ishvalan. They were histories, theological writings, and even poetry. Scar's heart rate sped up as he realized how much of Ishval's culture had been preserved in this chest. Some of the priests had been able to carry a few rare books out of Ishval, but Saahad Bozidar mourned what they had been forced to leave behind. Much of it was right here. This was what took Mattas so long to join them.

Marcoh breathed a sigh of amazement. "These are marvelous!" he exclaimed. With a nod of approval from Scar, he carefully lifted out one of the books. "This really is a treasure—oh!" A folded piece of paper had been stuck to the back of the book and fluttered to the ground.

"I got it!" Benjamin said, quickly diving for it.

He handed the paper to Scar, who unfolded it. The note was hastily written but definitely in Mattas' hand:

If someone is reading this other than me, something probably happened to me. If that's the case, I really hope that I was able to find the right people to help carry out my plan. If not, well, I guess we're all screwed and it doesn't really matter who is reading this. I'm giving my kid brother the most crucial notes in case I don't make it, and I hope he can figure them out. If something does happen to me, I hope Andakar doesn't go and do something stupid. I hope he just gets the job done. He's smart but just a little hot-headed and close-minded. He needs to watch that. He also seriously needs to get laid, but he may not take my word for it. I just hope Ishvala keeps an eye on him if I can't.

Scar stared at the note for several moments before he realized that the writing was starting to get misty. He blinked rapidly and folded the note, tucking it into the folds of his chuva.

"I'd like to keep these books here for now," he said. His voice came out a little huskily and he cleared his throat. "Saahad Bozidar will want to see them."

Dr. Marcoh studied Scar for a moment, then nodded, his face crinkling into a smile. "Yes, of course. I'll personally keep an eye on them."

Scar nodded his thanks and left the tent. He took the note out and read it again. To anyone passing him, his features were as somber as ever, but in his heart he couldn't decide whether to laugh or cry. How like Mattas! To put a lifetime into a few words and still be a smartass.

Chapter Text

"Fritz! Are you there?"

Frederick "Fritz" Kessler sopped the beads of sweat off his bald pate and glared at the transceiver. Of course I'm here, you fat bastard!

"Yes, Dave!" he replied in his fake jovial voice. "I'm here in Ishval and it's time for Out and About With Fritz!"

Fritz sat back in the folding camp chair and let the show's inane theme music jangle for the next twenty seconds while he considered the recent turn in his career.

Ever since his groundbreaking interview with Mrs. Bradley, with the station barricaded against armed military, death breathing down their necks—it still gave him goosebumps—he thought he was finally on the road to being recognized as a serious radio journalist. Then, a couple of months later, when Dave, the station manager, approached him about covering stories in remote locations, he imagined exotic foreign climes, battle zones, thrills, chills, and above all, hardhitting, goosebump-raising news.

Now he was dragging his remote equipment all over Amestris, visiting every "charming" little provincial backwater town, interviewing the village idiot, sampling regional cuisine (Mmm! Pickled pigs feet! Again!), letting the local oompah band, handbell choir, or aging madrigal group do a few numbers, and generally giving every slack-jawed yokel his fifteen minutes of fame.

Riding the wave of Radio Capital's newfound popularity, Dave decided to create some new shows to give the station a less "boring" reputation. Out and About,much to Fritz's dismay, became a smash hit, and the station was bombarded with phone calls every week, begging to have Fritz come and showcase some dumpy hamlet that would be completely forgotten about once the show was over. It wasn't hardhitting (although Fritz was tempted more than once to bust a few of the locals in the chops), no thrills, no chills, no goosebumps. This is what he would become famous for. It was enough to make a man cry.

Then he was told he was going to Ishval. It was actually Mrs. Bradley's idea. She thought it was time to let the Ishvalan people be heard. She was a regular visitor to the station now, promoting her Ishvalan Foundation program. Of course, Dave lapped it up, along with all the interviews with her.

This could be a fantastic opportunity! Finally, something really newsworthy, something with substance! Something on the cutting edge! Dave must have seen the glint in Fritz's eyes because he scowled and said No controversy, Fritz! Keep it light! Keep it entertaining! Great. While Dave was sitting in his nice, cool office back in Central, Fritz would be sweltering in hundred-degree heat doing the same vapid, cutesy-poo garbage he was always getting stuck with.

First, however, they had to wait for the local fever season to end. Then it had to be arranged through the military authorities. Fuhrer Grumman and Brigadier General Mustang (Fritz would kill to have them on his show!) were all for it. They informed the officer in command to expect Fritz, and here he was. This same officer was now sitting just a few feet away from him. This was definitely not a slack-jawed yokel.

Fritz faded the theme music out and leaned toward his microphone. "Hello again, everyone! I'm talking to you today from Ishval." Fritz gave that last word a slightly deeper tone for dramatic effect. "Today's program is brought to you by—" He quickly consulted a slip of paper. "—Havoc General Store. In your hearts for eighty years, if we can't get it for you, no one else can either.

"Sitting with me is Major Miles, formerly of Briggs, currently the commanding officer in charge of the Amestrian forces involved in the Ishvalan restoration project here. Welcome to the show, Major!"

Miles gave a slight inclination of his head. "Thank you, Mr. Kessler."

"Please, call me Fritz," Fritz said, but only because he was obliged to do so. He was supposed to be approachable. "So how is the rebuilding going? Are you pleased with the progress so far?"

"It's going as well as can be expected, considering the circumstances," Miles replied. "We've had a few setbacks."

Boy, does he ever have a voice for radio! "What sort of setbacks?"

"Well, the fever brought everything to a near halt for about a week."

"Yes, from what I hear, it was pretty nasty. But it's over now, isn't that right?"

"Yes," Miles replied with a slight smile. "You're not likely to catch it now."

Just how not likely is not likely? "And I understand there have been some budget difficulties," Fritz said. "How have you overcome those?"

Miles paused only for an instant, then said, "Everyone, Amestrians and Ishvalans, military and civilian, has been giving a hundred and ten percent to keep this project going. From the old baatas to the—"

"Excuse me! What was that word you just used?"

"Baatas? It's a term of respect for an elderly woman, sort of like 'granny' or 'auntie'. As I was saying, from the old down to the little kids, everyone has been pitching in. We've been supplementing the camp's diet with local produce, goat's milk, and honey, and we've been using local herbal remedies for a number of ailments, like the fever."

"And now, I understand that funds from the Ishvalan Foundation, the endowment headed by Mrs. Bradley, have made their way into the project," Fritz said. He had been told to plug Mrs. Bradley's brainchild as much as he could.

"That's true," the major replied. "Brigadier General Mustang has informed me that the flow of supplies will be increasing within the week, which will coincide with the completion of repair to the railroad."

"That's good to hear. Now tell me, Major," Fritz went on. Now was his chance to get into something really meaty. Dave said, This is supposed to be a fun show! Don't make people uncomfortable! Screw you, Dave. "How have the Ishvalans reacted to the Amestrians being here? Have there been any tensions? Any incidents?"

"Not really," Miles said easily, which was disappointing. "There was a kind of polarization at first. The Ishvalans kept pretty much to themselves. But since then, there's been a growing sense of acceptance, as though the soldiers have been drawn into the family." Warm and fuzzy, but boring. "Is the fact that you're part Ishvalan had an impact on that?"

"I suppose it helped," Miles replied, as though he was slightly bored by the question. "So are you considered an outsider or one of their own?" The major's brows furrowed just a little. God, this is exciting, Fritz thought.

"A bit of both, if I actually had to say so."

"That's very interesting!" Fritz remarked. "Then are you seen you as a sort of bridge, as it were, between them and the Amestrian government, someone in whom they can place their trust and view your blue uniform as a symbol of benign authority?"

The major fixed him with a hard look. "Trust doesn't come easy when your entire race was targeted for extinction. Any trust I gained, I had to earn. They had to get to the point where they could look past the blue uniform, not just on me, but on all the soldiers here."

"Ah, that was nice, Miles!"

Fritz glanced at the lanky Ishvalan who sat next to the major and who, until now, had kept his mouth shut. Well, this was Out and About, after all, and local characters were supposed to be the highlight of the show.

"Well, we liked him right away because he's so good-looking!" the young woman sitting next to the man said with a giggle.

The man smirked and pointed at her. "How do you like that, Fritz? I'm the one she's engaged to!"

The girl wrinkled her nose at him affectionately. "Just keeping you on your toes, sweetie."

The other girl giggled. "You're so bad, Nai!"

Somebody kill me. Fritz smiled thinly at them. They were apparently the local family act. The man was holding some kind of skinny banjo thing that he probably wanted to play.

"Yes, Major!" Fritz chimed in, trying to regain control of his show. "Well said. Now how about introducing us to our next guests?" He hoped the resignation in his voice wasn't too obvious.

"This is Dejan Shua," Miles said. "The young lady on his right is his fiancée, Naisha Kafik, and the other young lady is their friend Yasna Nahur."

"It's a pleasure to meet you all," Fritz said, trying to sound sincere.

"Likewise," Dejan said easily.

"It's so nice to meet you, Fritz!" one of the girls gushed. Fritz had already forgotten who was who.

"We love your show!" the other one added.

Yeah, I get that a lot. "Thank you," Fritz replied. "So tell me, Dejan," he continued with a growing sense of futility. "What is that instrument you have there?"

"This?" Dejan asked, as though surprised, tipping up the neck of his banjo-thing.

Yes, that, you bumpkin!

"This is an Ishvalan lute," Dejan said. He picked out a few notes on the bottom string. "My dad made this one, God rest him."

"Your father is no longer with us?" Fritz thought he could grab another news moment. This was Ishval, after all, damn it! "Was he killed during the war?"

Dejan's red eyes flicked up to his with a somewhat sharp, shrewd look. "Yeah, he was," he replied, his tone wistful rather than angry. "A lot of people were."

This was more like it! "So, do you feel any resentment toward the Amestrians who are here?"

Dejan gave a slight shrug. He picked out a tune of sorts on his lute for a couple of moments, then he said, "Let me tell you a story."

Oh, God, Fritz thought despairingly.

"This is a very old legend," Dejan continued. "There was once a mighty Ishvalan warrior who was a hero among his people. One dark day they were attacked by a fierce demon that had risen up out of the ground. It tried to lay waste to Ishval and devour the people. The warrior battled with the demon for days and days, and he finally vanquished it. But his land was destroyed and so many of his loved ones were dead. He gathered together those who remained, and in their despair, they wept for days and days. They wept for so long that they had no more tears left. So they began to weep blood. And that is why Ishvalans have red eyes."

Fritz stared at him, not really sure where this was going. But Dejan flashed a grin. "So why did I tell that story, eh?" He played a few more notes. "We've wept long enough, Fritz. The time for weeping is over." His smile broadened. "It's time to start singing. Ready, girls?" he said to the ladies next to him, and they perked up at attention in front of their microphones.

Before Fritz could make a move, Dejan launched into a quick, lively tune, his long fingers dancing up and down the neck of his lute. It was simple yet exotic, with a primitive—no, an ancient quality to it. Then the two girls began to sing in what must have been Ishvalan. There was a kind of nasal sound to their singing, and their harmony moved in and out of a pleasant dissonance. Fritz, who thought he had heard everything and who had considered himself as jaded and effete as the most hardened newshound, started getting goosebumps.

After that, Fritz completely lost control of the show. Dejan kept calling in more musicians and they crowded around the few extra microphones that Fritz had brought with him. They played, they sang, they joked with each other. They seemed to hop back and forth between homey innocence to worldly sophistication. They were energetic, they were brilliant, they were radio gold! And Fritz just sat back and glowed with the knowledge that he was the one who would be able to say, and you heard it here first, ladies and gentlemen, on Out and About with Fritz!

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Roy glanced at the door as he heard the familiar, quick double knock.

"Come in!" he called.

Lieutenant Hawkeye opened the door. She could convey a myriad of signals with her eyes, like I hope you're not slacking off or sit up straight, you have an important visitor. This time her eyes were enigmatic but held a glint of amusement. Roy stiffened slightly.

"Excuse me, General," she said. "There's someone here to see you."

"Oh?" Roy stood up cautiously, feeling somewhat unprepared.

The lieutenant merely stepped aside, holding the door open farther, and Roy nearly jumped. Sweeping into the room, her perfume wafting ahead of her, a fox fur stole draped over her ample bosom, was Madame Christmas.

"Roy boy!" she exclaimed in her husky contralto. "First you're in Central, then you're out east, You're never where you're supposed to be! You're harder to get a hold of than a catfish in a jar of face cream!"

Roy stepped around his desk. "Madame Christmas! When did you—"

He was enveloped in a mighty embrace. His foster mother and aunt had never been overly affectionate, but it had been a long time. She released him before he suffocated, and she held him out at arm's length.

"Look at you!" she gushed approvingly. "Brigadier General! Now ain't that a kick in the head!"

Roy gestured toward a set of sofas in the middle of the room. "When did you get back?" he asked. "And how the hell are you?"

"Oh, I'm all right. I've been back for about a month now. I've got a nice little place near the river. You should come by next time you're in Central. But what about you? You scamp! I expected great things from you, but not this soon!"

Roy grinned and sat across from her. "Oh, you shouldn't underestimate me, Madame! I'm not even finished yet."

"I bet! Riza, dear, come and sit down!" Madame Christmas patted the cushion next to her. "I haven't clapped eyes on you in ages!"

Riza was still by the door, standing at attention, waiting to be dismissed. "Oh…well…"

"At ease, Lieutenant," Roy told her with a smile. "Come and join us. This is something of a family reunion."

"Yes, sir."

As Riza moved toward the couch and sat down, Madame Christmas eyed her appraisingly, a smiled playing on her crimson-painted lips. "You look well, dear," she remarked.

"Thank you, ma'am. So do you."

Madame Christmas gave a deep laugh. "Oh, this tough old hide is going to last forever!" She spread herself back against the cushions and looked across at Roy. "But this is not, strictly speaking, a family reunion."

"No?"

"No. I'm here to talk business." Madame Christmas opened an ornately jeweled cigarette case, pulled out a slender cigarette and gave Roy an expectant look.

Roy hid a smirk and pulled one of his gloves from his pocket and put it on, something he rarely did these days. He stood up and leaned toward his foster mother and with a snap of his fingers, lit the end of her cigarette. She drew in the smoke and exhaled with a sigh.

"Thanks, duckie." She fixed Roy with a firm look. "Now. I don't know who you need to talk to or what strings you have to pull, but I want that act!"

Roy looked back at her blankly as he sat back down. "Act? What act?"

Madame Christmas rolled her eyes. "Roy, honey, don't you listen to the radio? Don't you listen to the buzz? Don't tell me you've been cooped up in here all weekend and you don't even know what's going on in the world!" She turned to Riza. "Please tell me you're not that much of a slave driver!"

Roy stared at her a moment, then suddenly grinned and nodded. "Oh, I see! You're talking about the show they did from Ishval! Yes, it was interesting, wasn't it?"

"Interesting? Roy, it was fabulous! That show is usual so painfully dreary, the same damn thing every damn week. But this time—Roy, I want those people! Those musicians! You have to get them for me!"

Roy glanced at Riza, somewhat puzzled and a little apprehensive. "What do you want them for?"

Madame Christmas lifted her hands in exasperation. "I want to represent them! They're fresh! They're unique! They have a new sound! And they are so charming! Now, I must add…" She tapped the ashes from her cigarette into a small marble dish that sat on a side table. "Normally, when I hear the word charming I want to get up and run in the opposite direction. Have you ever seen Marion Pendleton and his Marionettes?"

Roy said, "I've heard of them."

"Hideous!" Madame Christmas declared. "One of the longest running shows on earth. Either the man switches out those kids when they get too old, or he's giving them something to stunt their growth. Family act my foot! Anyway, the variety pages are always going on about how charming they are." She sat back with a serene, triumphant smile. "I intend to redefine charming."

Roy smiled at her with amused surprise. "You're going back into the theater!"

Madame Christmas winked. "Wondered when you'd catch on."

"Back?" Riza asked curiously.

Madame Christmas waved her hand. "Oh, a couple of centuries ago, I was a showgirl. Back then I had the legs for it. Since my shop got blown to kingdom come, I needed a new line of work, so I thought, what the hell! I decided to go back into the theater! Not onstage, mind you," she added.

"I think you could still dazzle," Roy said with a grin.

Madame Christmas chuckled. "Oh, Roy-boy, that's the sweetest pile of horseshit I think you've ever shoveled out. But, no. I know the industry and I know how to network, I thought I'd try my hand at being an agent. Those darling Ishvalans are the freshest thing to come along in ages. Audiences will swarm to hear them play! I can feel it in my bones! Now, who, as they say in the business, do I have to sleep with?"

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Dejan grinned at the transceiver. "Oh, Madame, just address it to Dejan Shua, Ishval, Amestris. It'll find me, don't worry! Everybody here knows who I am."

"I bet." Madame Christmas chuckled warmly. "Now, I want you to read it carefully. I promise you there aren't any loopholes or funny stuff. It's as straightforward a contract as you could want. I don't want anyone to think I'm exploiting you or taking advantage of you because you're some kind of simple rustic hayseed. You are so not."

"Thanks, Madame," Dejan replied. "I'm sure the contract will be fine, but business is business. I'll take a good squint at it."

"Excellent. You won't go entertaining any other offers before I've got your signature on the bottom line, will you?"

"Of course not," Dejan assured her. "Let me tell you something about Ishvalans. Family is very important to us, particularly when we have so little else. I was told about your connection to General Mustang, whom I've never met. I know his background regarding Ishval is a little dodgy, but-"

"Oh, now, let me tell you something, duckie!" Madame Christmas returned, a little heatedly. "My Roy has a streak of honor a country mile wide. He's always done his duty, even if it killed him to do so. You can take it from me that every time he snapped his fingers in Ishval, a piece of him died. It's a wonder there was any of him left when he came home. Now he's trying to do right by you, from the very bottom of his heart!"

Dejan smiled. "And Ishvala bless and keep him all his days! I was going to say, that judging by the respect he has of his people, not to mention how he's been pulling for us out here, he sounds like a decent fellow."

"Oh, he is! You can take my word for that. I'm the one who raised him!"

"Well, there it is! I can definitely say we have an accord, Madame Christmas!"

"Fabulous! Now, I realize that you're all still trying to get your lives put back together out there, and the concert season in Central doesn't really start until mid-winter, but I am so looking forward to meeting you, you darling man!"

"Likewise, Madame Christmas. Keep in touch."

"Oh, count on it!"

Dejan sat back in the folding chair and took the headphones from his ears. He had a calm smile on his face, but his mind was reeling. "Hey, Karley. I need you to pinch me."

Karley looked up from the newspaper he was reading. "Do I have to?"

Dejan shook his head with a grin. "No, not really. You did hear that conversation, right?"

"Half of it."

"That'll do, I guess. Thanks!"

"Don't mention it."

Dejan stepped outside of the radio tent and surveyed the world around him, which had become a much more wonderful place than when he went into the radio tent. He gazed benignly at those who were going about their usual business in and around the headquarters compound. Then he closed his eyes, drew in a long, deep breath, lifted his face toward the sky, and let out a piercing, high-pitched, ululating howl that would have put even the most enterprising jackal to shame.

Everyone in the compound, the mess tent, the supply tent, the medical tent, rushed out to see who or what the hell had made that sound. Dejan spread his arms.

"Yes! Here he is!" he cried. "This desert rat is going to grab the world by the balls! You know him! You love him! Dejan Shua of Ishval!" He dropped his arms as everyone continued about their business, grinning and shaking their heads.

Dejan smiled and sighed to himself. "My dad would've been so proud!"

Chapter Text

Mika carried her drum over to the blanket where Danika was sitting and dropped down next to her.

"Man, I'm pooped!" she exclaimed, pulling the strap of her drum over her shoulder.

"We're only taking a break, Mika," Dejan called to her. "Don't get too comfortable."

The other members of the troupe groaned and some of them began to make themselves scarce. They had been practicing for two hours straight.

Mika slumped. "Aww, Dad, I got a test tomorrow! I gotta study my Ishvalan!"

Dejan walked over to her and crouched down in front of her with a grin. "Yeo sheho de!"

Mika smiled back at him. "Yeo sheho de, Dad!"

Dejan spread his hands. "There! That's all the Ishvalan you need to know!"

Danika looked up to share a smile with Rada, who sat nearby mending clothes. That was one of the few phrases that her mother spoke to her in Ishvalan, and it was always spoken softly so no Amestrians could hear. I love you!

"That's very touching, Dejan," Scar said, looking up from the composition books he was grading. "But I want all the children to be fluent in Ishvalan. And your daughter should not be neglecting her school work in favor of a stage career."

Dejan sighed. "Fine. What sort of father would I be if I didn't want the best for my little girl, eh?" He took Mika's face between his hands and kissed her on top of her head. "And just to show you how responsible I am, I'll help you study."

"Sweet! Let's go get my work sheet!"

Danika watched them wistfully as they left, hand in hand. She idly tapped the head of Mika's drum and let out a little sigh.

"Hey, Mama?"

"Yes, Danika?"

"Mika's dad is really nice, huh?"

"Yes, he is."

"Um…" Danika frowned in concentration, keeping her eyes down. "Didn't I have a dad, too?"

Rada's hands stilled and Scar glanced over at her, then at Danika. Ever since the incident at school, there had been no further comments regarding Danika's parentage, but the seed had been sown.

"Mama?"

Rada avoided her daughter's eyes and resumed her mending. "I…I can't explain, sweetheart…" she murmured weakly.

Scar watched Danika as her face fell a little and she said nothing else. She must have grown attuned to her mother's moods from a very early age, learning to drop any subject that seemed to trouble her. Scar had no such compunctions.

"Yes, you did, Danika."

Rada flinched and stared at him. She gave a subtle shake of her head, her eyes pleading, but Scar returned her look with one that said trust me.

Danika gazed up at Scar expectantly. "Really?"

Scar pushed the composition books aside and turned in his seat to face Danika. "But your mother is right. It is hard to explain." He had to think for a moment. He certainly couldn't begin a discussion on human reproduction, but Danika certainly deserved some sort of explanation. If her mother couldn't bear to give her one, then it was up to him, if for no other reason than by virtue of having the better acquaintance with the Crimson Alchemist. "Your father was an Amestrian named Solf J. Kimblee, and he—"

"What's the 'J' for?"

That drew Scar up a little short. It wasn't something that ever occurred to him to be curious about. "I have no idea."

"Those boys at school said he was a…a state alkamiss. What's that?"

This might not have been as delicate a subject as where babies came from, but it was still complicated. "He was an alchemist," Scar said, pronouncing the word carefully. "Someone who has learned and practices alchemy." He pointed to the red ceramic tea pot that sat on the table. "Damyan made this out of clay." He touched his hand to his shirt. "Your mother made this out of cloth and thread. They had to learn how to do these things. Someone who uses alchemy can make these things in a moment by using the energy from the earth. Alchemists feel that their craft is meant help people, and sometimes it does. It can be used to heal wounds or—"

"Or put bricks and stuff back together, like you do!" Danika interrupted excitedly. "Did my dad do stuff like that to help people?"

Scar shook his head. "No, he didn't. There are some alchemists who use their craft to do cruel and wicked things, and they're used by the Amestrians as weapons, like during the war here in Ishval."

Danika grew quiet and somber. "That's the bad thing that happened, huh?"

"Yes. Those alchemists were called state alchemists, and they hurt and killed many of our people. Kimblee was the worst of them."

"How come?"

"Because he killed more people than the others, and he felt no remorse at all. He wasn't sorry for what he did," Scar added as Danika's dark brows furrowed slightly.

"Then…" Danika frowned. "How can he be a dad? Mika's dad is really nice."

"Danika, there are a lot of very bad people in the world. It's as if they're born with no goodness in them at all. That man, Kimblee, was one of those people. That's why he hurt your mother."

"Zhaarad Andakar!" Rada begged in a whisper, but Scar held up his hand and waited for Danika to speak.

"Well…but…how come he's my dad?" she demanded, her confusion and distress growing.

Scar sighed and rubbed the back of his head. "That's something that you really wouldn't understand until you're older."

Danika looked at him with a cautious frown. "'Cause it's a grownup thing? Mika says that sometimes she asks her dad or Naisha stuff, and they say they can't tell her yet 'cause it's a grownup thing."

"Uh…yes," Scar replied, deeply thankful that she was aware of that concept.

Danika let out a little breath of exasperation. She seemed to accept the fact that she would have to be satisfied with missing that particular piece of the puzzle. She considered for a moment, then asked, "Do I look like him? Is that how come I'm different?"

"He had black hair and blue eyes like you do, yes," Scar replied. "Beyond that…" Beyond that, what? Did he not want to admit that he saw a stronger resemblance, or was he seeing a stronger resemblance that wasn't there? When he first saw Danika, he thought it was unmistakable. Since then, the similarities and differences had grown subtler. "Beyond that, there really isn't much else," he said with what he felt was certainty.

"Did you ever see him?"

Scar nodded. "Yes, I did. More than once."

"What if…" Danika paused as though dreading her next question, but Scar waited patiently. "What if he saw me?"

"He won't, little blackbird," Scar replied. "You don't have to worry about that. He's dead." Although he couldn't help thinking that the Crimson Alchemist would always have one more trick up his sleeve, Marcoh had assured him that, to the best of his knowledge, Kimblee was dead. He would have to be content with that.

"Oh, God!" Rada whispered. She dropped her sewing and covered her face with her hands. "Oh, God!"

Mistaking her mother's overwhelming relief for distress, Danika jumped to her feet and hurried to her side. "Mama! Mama, are you okay?"

Rada quickly wiped her eyes and smiled, giving Danika a tight hug. "Yes. It's all right, sweetheart!"

Danika put her arms around her mother as much to comfort her as to receive comfort, and she scowled fiercely. "I'm glad that Kimlee man is dead!" She turned to Scar, her blue eyes smoldering with fury. "I don't wanna have a dad like that! People shouldn't hurt other people! That's bad and mean and wrong!"

Scar had to smile. That came from your offspring, Kimblee!

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Scar set the last of the composition books on the pile and set down his red pencil. Barring some dodgy grammar, he had the feeling that the future of Ishval was in fairly good hands. His students' assignment was to expound on what they felt were the most important issues that needed to be addressed in the restoration of Ishval, both in the short term and the long term. These young people were on the brink of adulthood, with some were teetering a little closer to the edge than others. There were a couple who apparently viewed the assignment with a much less mature eye than their classmates (the world would never be without a few class clowns), but on the whole, the thoughts of these young people held a great deal of promise.

As Scar loaded the books into the cardboard box in which he would carry them back to school, he looked up to see Rada approaching him from her tent.

"Zhaarad Andakar, I'm so sorry to bother you," she began. "But Danika simply won't go to sleep until she asks you something." She smiled a little. "She doesn't seem to want to take my word for it."

Scar stood up. "It's no bother."

He followed Rada into her tent to find Danika lying on her cot, a stubborn little frown on her face and an anxious look in her eyes.

"What is this I hear?" Scar asked her with gentle, slightly teasing severity. "Why won't you go to sleep for your mother?"

"'Cause I gotta ask you something, please!" Danika insisted. "Something really, really, really important!"

To deserve three 'reallys', it must be something truly momentous. Scar sat down on the edge of the cot. "What is it?"

Danika took a deep breath. "If that Kimlee man was a really, really bad person, and he was my dad, then does that mean that I'm gonna be a bad person when I grow up even if I don't wanna be?"

Scar considered her question gravely and carefully, mostly for her benefit, but also because that same question had briefly lurked in his own mind. He was no longer in any doubt.

"In a way, Danika," he said finally, "you answered your own question. Kimblee made the choice to do what he did. But he has no hold or claim on you, so you are able to make your own choice." He thought for a moment, then said, "Do you remember the story I told you about the three princes?"

Danika nodded, her eyes lighting up. "Uh-huh!"

"Do you remember the youngest prince's answer to his father's question?"

Danika nodded again. "He said, um, he said that the most strongest thing was jusiss—"

"Justice," Scar corrected her gently.

"Uh-huh! Justice and com…compassion!"

"That's right. Do you know what those words mean?"

"Um…" Danika thought for a moment. "Being really good?"

"Well, yes. They're different types of goodness. Justice is being fair. Compassion is being kind."

"That's it!" Danika cried excitedly, kicking her legs under her blanket. "That's how I wanna be!"

"Then there's your answer," Scar told her. O Creator, let this child's words become a prayer for the world!

Danika let out an enormous sigh of relief. "Oh, good!"

"And if you want to be a very good girl," Scar added as he stood up, "then you should listen to your mother and go to sleep."

"I will!" Danika promised. She suddenly reached out her arms. "Oh! Oh! Wait a minute!"

"What is it now?"

Danika beckoned Scar closer and he sat back on the edge of the cot. "A little bit more!" Danika said. "I wanna tell you one more thing!"

Scar bent down closer to her and she wrapped her arms around his neck. "Yeo sheho de!" she whispered. After a moment, she released him, lying back on her pillow and grinning as though they had just shared a clever secret.

Scar smiled down at her, the butterfly touch still making his ear tingle. There was a time, not that long ago, that he was sure he would never be able to say those words again in any language, let alone with such certainty. "Yeo sheho de, Danika."

Chapter Text

The railway station at Ishval was still little more than a whistle stop. The original station building had been blown up during the civil war, along with much of the track. The new station was now in the process of being rebuilt, having been designed in the style of Ishvalan architecture rather than to Amestrian tastes. It would have thick walls and small windows to keep the interior cool in the summer.

Four transport trucks waited along the track, and their crews stood in their shade. Dejan walked closer to the track and gazed down its length.

"It's not gonna come any faster if you stare at it," Havoc called to him. "It's like those people who keep pushing the elevator button." He shook his head. "I hate that."

"Yeah," Breda drawled with a grin. "After I explained it to you."

"Shut up," Havoc muttered. He went to join Dejan.

The lanky Ishvalan gave a contented sigh. "I left Ishval in the middle of the night, scared enough to piss myself. Next time I leave, it's gonna be in style!" He pointed at the track where it disappeared into the distance. "All the way to Central!"

Havoc nodded, then suddenly grinned. "Oh, hey, this is cool!" He dug into his pocket and pulled out a fifty-cenz piece. As Dejan watched him with a puzzled look, he went over to the track and set the coin on the rail.

"What are you doing that for?"

"When the train runs over this coin, it'll be squashed flat," Havoc explained. "It's really cool!"

"Are you out of your mind?" Dejan demanded, striding over to the rail and snatching up the coin. He held it up in front of Havoc's face. "This is money!"

Havoc shrugged. "It's fifty cenz. What's the big deal?"

"It once took me a solid hour of playing to earn this much money!"

Havoc took the coin from him and held it up. "When you're rich and famous, you're gonna be handing out tips way bigger than this to some Amestrian kid who wants to carry your luggage into some swanky hotel, and then he's gonna ask you for your autograph. Come on!" He flipped the coin in the air and Dejan caught it. "Live a little!"

Dejan looked down at the coin in his hand, then back up at Havoc. "Squashed flat, huh?"

Havoc nodded. "And you can still see the dragon on it."

Dejan set the coin back on the track. "Time to be a big spender, I guess."

Back in the shade of one of the trucks, Miles checked his watch. "It should be any minute now," he called out.

Through the liquid ripples of heat in the distance, the black smoke from the engine could now be seen. In a matter of minutes, the Southbound 10:37 from Resembool to South City and points in between pulled into Ishval Station. One of the soldiers took the canvas mail sack from the back of one of the trucks and headed for the train. At the same time, the railway crew began unloading crates and sacks from the freight cars and carrying them over to the trucks, where the soldiers began loading them.

A couple of crewmen started carrying cages, one in each hand, from one of the train cars. "Show me where you want these!" one of them called.

"This one!" Breda called, pointing to the truck on the end.

There were two dozen cages altogether, holding twenty-one hens and three roosters. One of the crewmen handed his cages to one of the soldiers and took a piece of paper from his pocket. After consulting it briefly, he looked around. "Major Miles?" he called.

"Here!" Miles approached the man, who handed him the paper.

"Just need your signature on this invoice. Twenty-four Resembool Reds to be delivered to Major Miles, Ishval, from a Mr. Edward Elric."

"Aww, isn't that nice!" Breda remarked. "Nothing says 'I love you' like chickens."

Along with the chickens were several large burlap bags with Quality Hen Scratch printed on them.

"That is one very generous young man," Miles observed as he stood back to watch the birds and their feed being loaded.

"He certainly seems to have the scratch for it," Dejan added.

The train was pulling mostly light freight and mail, but there were also a single passenger car. Ishval was not exactly a popular tourist destination, so it was a surprise to see two travellers alight from the train. One of them was dressed in knickerbockers and a tweed cap, and he had several bags of some sort of equipment hanging from his shoulders. He stepped off the train and gazed around curiously. His companion was dressed in a trench coat and a battered fedora, and he cast a somewhat more jaundiced eye at his surroundings before slipping on a pair of dark glasses against the glare of the desert sun.

While a member of the train's crew carried a couple of trunks off the train for these new arrivals, the man in the trench coat approached the trucks.

"Who the hell is that?" Breda muttered.

"I don't know," Miles said darkly.

The man glanced around at the soldiers, and noting the epaulettes on Miles' shoulders, he stopped before the major.

"Is there any sort of transportation available into Ishval? On one of your trucks, maybe?"

"That depends," Miles replied, keeping the tone of his voice in the chilly side of neutral. "We weren't expecting visitors. May I ask what your business is here?"

"My business?" The man regarded Miles for a moment. "Edification, Major. Enlightenment. Making the world a little smaller." He pulled a card from his pocket and held it out.

Miles took the card. It said:

Zebulon Oderkirk
Cruikshank Brothers Film Studio

Miles had never heard of the individual standing in front of him, but he was very familiar with the name of the Cruikshank Brothers. They were one of the two leading motion picture companies in Amestris. The men at Briggs would often go down into North City on their leave time to catch a show at one of the cinema houses there. He had even gone a few times himself.

"So, Mr…Oderkirk," Miles said as he handed the card back. "Am I to understand that you intend to do some filming here?"

"You understand correctly, Major…"

"Miles. I wasn't informed that you would be coming. Did you or your company receive any kind of authorization?"

Oderkirk's features hardened. "No, I didn't. I wasn't aware that I needed to."

"It would have been helpful," Miles said."Ishval isn't exactly a resort town."

"And I'm not exactly doing a travelogue," Oderkirk replied coldly. "I'm a newsman. It's important to me that people know what's going on in the world. And when I hear that I'm supposed to get permission for me and my guy to film I have to wonder if there's something somebody wants to hide. Like what's really happening in Ishval."

"We aren't hiding anything," Miles said, beginning to bristle slightly. "You may have heard the broadcast that Radio Capital did here a couple of weeks ago."

Oderkirk chuckled. "Oh, yes! Good ol' Fritzy! Ishval is now officially the happiest place on earth! Come on, Major! It's time to scrape off the candy coating and take off the…uh…" He pulled his sunglasses down a little and peered over the lenses. "…rose-colored glasses."

"Is there problem, Zeb?" the other new arrival asked as he joined his associate, his bags of equipment rattling from his shoulders.

Oderkirk jerked his head toward him. "My cameraman, Hannibal Smith." He looked over his shoulder. "A possible bump in the road, Smitty. Nothing I can't handle."

Smitty didn't look assured. "Like the way we got handled in Liore?"

Oderkirk pointed at him and addressed himself to Miles. "That's what I'm talking about! We went to film what was going on in Liore, right? We took some serious, award-winning footage! Or I should say, it would have been award-winning if the military hadn't smashed up our equipment! What the hell kind of government does that to its people, I ask you!"

The kind of government who sends state alchemists and snipers to kill its own citizens, Miles was tempted to say. "All right. Why don't you come back with us, and I'll contact Brigadier General Mustang to let him know that you want to do a project here."

"And find out just how tight you need to tie my hands?" Oderkirk countered. "Is that what happened to Fritzy?"

"It's simply a matter of courtesy." Miles took off his glasses and Oderkirk gave a slight flinch at his red-eyed glare. "If you're here because you sincerely want the rest of Amestris to know about what's happening in Ishval and what it's really like here, then you can have the run of the place. But if you're just some kind of loose cannon who's here to exploit these—my people - to further your own career, I'll hand you your ass on a plate. Do we understand each other?"

Oderkirk pushed his glasses back up his nose and smiled. "I think we can work together, Major."

............................................................................................................................................................

"Let him go ahead, Major. Now that he's there, we can't very well kick him out. You know how that would look?"

"Like we're trying to hide something."

"Which we're not."

"Of course not."

"Except for one thing." Roy leaned back in his chair in front of the transceiver and rubbed his eyes. "And he's going to be a lot harder to hide on film than on radio."

"Exactly," Miles said. "Fritz wanted to do a story, but he didn't want to put too much effort into it. He just wanted to get in, get it over with, and go home. Scar never even came up."

"Then we'll just have to make sure he doesn't come up this time, either."

What do you mean, "we"?

So we're harboring a murderer. This country was harboring murderers in some very high places for a long time, Miles thought darkly as he made his way across the headquarters compound. Problem is, none of them had their damn "wanted" posters plastered everywhere.

A whole nation can put on a collective pout and say how sorry it is for supporting a program of genocide and feel better about itself, but how forgiving would it be toward one man who tried to avenge his people? This project can't afford to lose money or support on odds that long. Andakar is as aware of that as anyone. He's no coward, but he doesn't need to have his already recognizable face up on the silver screen. He'll just have to lie low for a few days.

Miles found Oderkirk and Smitty in the mess tent with all their gear piled off to one side. "Well, gentlemen," he said. "I spoke to General Mustang, and he's already looking forward to seeing your work. So, as we say here, doishteve na Ishval!"

"I'm guessing that's either some sort of welcome," Oderkirk said, "Or I just got severely cussed out."

Miles grinned slightly. "I have to practice my Ishvalan obscenities a little more before I try that." He nodded toward their equipment. "I'll have one of my men show you where you can set up camp, then you can take a look around."

"We can look around anywhere?"

"Anywhere you won't be intruding on someone's privacy or where you won't be disrupting someone's work." Miles raised an eyebrow just a little. "There is such a thing as journalistic responsibility, is there not?"

Oderkirk spread his hands. "Of course there is, Major. But this isn't just news, it's an art form. Am I right, Smitty?"

Smitty swallowed the biscuit he was eating and chased it down with some coffee. "Considering how long it takes you to frame a shot, it's an effing miracle sometimes." He looked up at Miles. "I'm the one cranking the camera, but I shoot where he points."

"Do you get to the flicks often, Major?" Oderkirk asked.

Miles smirked. "There's not much showing out here."

"Cruikshank Brothers' main competitor is Hoffman-Sikes," Oderkirk went on. "They're the ones who got access to all the choice material. Close-ups of the Fuhrer—or perhaps I should say the Fuhrer that was. Haven't seen much of him lately. Anyhow, they never got their cameras busted up. You wanna know why?"

"Because they were, until recently, a propaganda machine?" Miles suggested.

Oderkirk's mouth fell open slightly, then he nodded. "As good as. I'm impressed, Major. No flies on you, huh?"

Miles gave a modest shrug. "Not that I've noticed."

"Anyhow, Cruikshank Brothers has had to depend a little more on quality filmmaking and being a little more daring, at least as much as the government would allow. If our gear doesn't get smashed, who knows what we might come up with?"

"Go ahead and be a little daring, Mr. Oderkirk," Miles said. "But if you see an angry old woman coming at you with a stick, don't come crying to me."

Chapter Text

"Well, Smitty, either we're in the catbird seat or we've been snowed."

Oderkirk tossed his fedora onto the cot he had just set up and turned to his companion, who sat on his cot with his camera on his lap. He had a small bulb syringe that he was using to blow dust out of the inside of the camera.

"We'll find out, I guess," Smitty replied, intent on his work.

"But go figure! An Ishvalan officer! Bet they broke the mold with him."

Smitty glanced up with a wry look. "Yeah, I think they kind of did."

"I want lots of footage of him. He's got presence! Got to get him to do that thing with his glasses. The ladies'll go ape shit over him." Oderkirk went over to peer out through the flaps of their tent. He shook his head. "What a business!" he murmured.

"Ours?"

Oderkirk gave a quiet snort of laughter. "No, pal." He jerked his head toward the tent opening. "This. I wanted to film here so bad it hurt! But try to get clearance? Fuggedaboutit!" He put on a gravelly, officious voice. "'No, sorry, much too dangerous! Can't have civilians running around in a battle zone! No, no, no!' That's all I ever got. But those bastards over at H and S got in, of course! And it was crap! There was no drama, no spontaneity, totally scripted! And sterile! All butcher shop and no slaughterhouse!"

Smitty sighed inwardly. He'd heard this same rant many times. "Before my time, Zeb."

"I wonder why they haven't already set up an official crew to document the rebuild," Oderkirk went on. "You'd think they'd have hauled a couple of cameras onto Old Lady Bradley's bandwagon."

"Maybe because up until now they didn't have the money," Smitty suggested. "Maybe we just beat them to it."

"We would've been out here sooner if either of us had a car," Oderkirk said sullenly. "Or if the Cruikshank boys had stumped up the cash. Cheap ass bastards! You know what Mr. C the Elder said to me?"

"Yes," Smitty muttered.

Oderkirk went on anyway. "He said 'if you can get yourselves out there, Zeb, I'm behind you all the way. Just don't waste too much film.' He's got no idea how this could make his company's fortune! No idea, Smitty!"

"No, I think he does, Zeb. He's just counting on us to make it for him."

"That's about it." Oderkirk nodded and grinned. "And we will, all right."

................................................................................................................................................................

The chalk Scar held in his hand paused an inch away from the blackboard. "Cameramen?"

"That's right."

Scar considered for a moment, then went on writing in Ishvalan script for that afternoon's lesson. "It's about time."

Miles raised an eyebrow. "Maybe. Except Mustang didn't even know they were coming here. They just showed up."

Scar stepped back to inspect his work. "Then they're not a mouthpiece for the government." There was approval in his voice.

"No, but that's not necessarily a good thing. This Oderkirk fellow certainly has some anti-military sentiments, but he may just be looking to make a name for himself. And he could certainly do that by exposing the fact that not only are you still alive and well but that you're here with the government's blessing."

"Is that what it is?" Scar asked dryly.

"The point is, and I hope you agree with me, that we want the rest of the country to see what we're doing here, but we don't want them to see you. So you'd be doing yourself and your family and the rest of us a big favor if you kept out of their way," Miles said.

Scar frowned. "Why can't you just keep them out of my way? I have work to do."

"I know that. I know it's a pain in the ass. But Oderkirk is suspicious enough already. He's had run-ins with the military before. The new government is trying to get away from the heavy-handed stuff. I want him to have all the artistic freedom he wants."

"Within the limits of decency, I hope."

"Of course."

Scar gave a resigned sigh but kept a grudging scowl. "All right, Miles. I wanted this country to acknowledge us. I suppose this is one way to make that happen."

Miles smiled with approval and a bit of relief. "That's the stuff!"

Scar gave him a sidelong glance. "I should ask Rada if she'll sew some Ishvalan clothing for you. You've been in that uniform too long."

...................................................................................................................................

Breda stepped into the supply tent and caught Havoc leaning against a stack of crates with a goofy look on his face. Following the former second lieutenant's gaze, Breda looked across the tent. Seated at a sewing machine, her feet working the treadle up and down in a seesaw motion, was Miss Rada. A corner of the supply tent had been cleared for a small workspace, and she had been busily sewing away for the past week.

Well, Breda couldn't really blame Havoc. She was certainly a looker. She had been in Ishval for some time but had emerged only recently. There was apparently some story about her that was of a delicate nature and which was being kept discreet. Judging by who her little girl obviously took after, the story might not a pretty one. She seemed to have been taken under Scar's formidable wing, so the men were treating her like gold, partly out of respect and partly out of self-preservation.

He gave Havoc a nudge as he walked past him. "Quit drooling," he muttered.

Havoc straightened up with a start. "I wasn't!"

Breda jerked his chin at the stack of crates Havoc had been using to prop himself up with. "That's from your shop, isn't it?"

"Huh? Oh. Yeah." Havoc took off the lid of the top crate and started rummaging around in it. "Aw, Mom!" he muttered. "Why does she send me so much underwear?"

"Maybe she's using it for packing material," Breda suggested.

"What does she think I'm doing with—ooh, what's this?" Havoc let out a gasp. "Aw, Mom!" He pulled out a couple of magazines and gazed at them with ecstatic gratitude. "Mom, you're the best!"

With a scowl, Breda came up behind him and looked over his shoulder. Havoc was staring at the cover of one of the magazines, which had a picture of a young woman seated in front of a dressing table. She was clad only in her undies and was looking back over her shoulder with a perky expression. The name McButterick was printed above her. A slip of paper was peeking out of one of the magazines and Breda pulled it out and glanced at it. He chuckled and handed it to Havoc.

"What's that?" Havoc took the note and read it. Dear Jean. These are not for you so stop getting your sweaty hands all over them. I figured some of the ladies would like to take a look at these pattern catalogs. We sent all that sewing equipment so someone must be using it. Love and kisses, Mother. P.S. I threw out those magazines you had under your bed. They'll just rot your brain, dear. It's better this way. Trust me. I'm your mother. Havoc sighed.

"Tough luck," Breda observed sympathetically. He nodded toward Rada. "So go hand them over."

As Havoc headed across the tent, he quickly wiped his hands on his pants. They did feel a little damp.

....

Rada paused in her work and looked up, feeling pleased with herself that she had stopped jumping every time something loomed into her peripheral vision. She smiled. Not just Mr. Havoc, but all the soldiers who worked in and around the supply tent were very kind, and she felt surprisingly comfortable here. She wasn't sure she would be at first.

She had worked for an Amestrian seamstress for several months, so she was already familiar with the new sewing machine that had been delivered to Ishval. She volunteered to make clothes for anyone who needed them. But when she first stood staring at the sleek black machine with the gold scrollwork, she shuddered and began to regret her decision. She had been forced to leave the seamstress's employ rather suddenly to avoid the advances of the woman's husband. Her skin prickled and her heart pounded as she recalled the man's hot breath on her neck.

You're stronger than you think you are.

Rada took a deep breath and sat down at the machine, deftly threading it and winding the bobbin. Since then the whirring of the machine became a calming sound, and with the soldiers coming and going, busy with their own duties but taking the time to smile and greet her, she felt safe.

Not for the first time, she noted the difference in the way the soldiers were now and the way they were during the war. Back then, she realized, they hated the Ishvalans because they had to, otherwise how could such good people bring themselves to do so much killing? Now they were here because they wanted to be here. This was what their better natures led them to do, and they didn't have to feel ashamed about what they were doing. This was the way things were supposed to be.

She mentioned this to Zhaarad Andakar just the day before and it seemed to take him by surprise. A little embarrassed, she lowered her eyes from his expression of mild astonishment. "I suppose that sounds foolish."

She ventured to look up and she found him studying her features with a smile playing his lips. "No, it doesn't," he replied. "Not from you."

The recollection still made her cheeks grow warm.

"'Scuse me, Miss Rada." Havoc cleared his throat and held out the pattern catalogs. "My mother sent these. She thought you'd like to…you know…look through them."

He had put the other catalog on top. It had a picture of a woman in a stylish dress who was crossing a city street. When Rada looked at the other catalog, she happened to glance up at Havoc, who gave a little jump and took a step back, trying to not look like he was gawking at the picture. They both turned a little pink and quickly looked away from each other.

"These are very nice, Mr. Havoc," Rada said. "Thank you. Thank your mother."

"Yeah, absolutely!" Havoc replied quickly.

Rada flipped through the pages. "Oh, there are children's clothes in here! Hmm…I could probably figure out patterns from these pictures."

"You don't have to do that," Havoc said. "We can order that stuff and they'll mail it here."

"But I don't have any money."

Havoc waved his hand. "Not a problem. We'll put it on the Ishvalan Foundation's tab. That's what it's for, after all. And now that those movie guys are here, Ishval's gonna get some more publicity."

"Movie guys?" Rada asked.

"Yeah! They're gonna do a newsreel or something here." He grinned a little shyly. "You know, I bet you'd look swell up on the big screen."

Rada smiled and shook her head as she inspected the seam she had just completed. She felt flattered but she also felt an instinctive, intrusive wariness. She fought it down. "That's nice of you to say that, but I don't think I'd want so many people looking at me."

"Oh." Havoc rubbed the back of his head a little self-consciously. "Yeah, when you put it like that, I guess it does seem a little creepy."

...

Havoc had the vague feeling he had committed some sort of faux pas, but Miss Rada didn't seem to hold it against him. He himself had nearly been immortalized on film a couple of times when some newsreel guys were covering the training exercises a couple of years ago. He even took one of his girlfriends to the pictures so she could see him, but he must have ended up on the cutting room floor—along with that particular relationship. Story of his life.

Miss Rada suddenly looked up, and her face lit up with a big smile, dimples and everything. For a split second, Havoc's heart soared when he thought she was going to direct it at him, but she didn't. He looked over his shoulder to see that Scar had entered the supply tent. Havoc looked back at Miss Rada and he sighed to himself.

You're kidding me! Aww, man! Life is so unfair!

Scar came towards them and Havoc moved over to make room for him. There wasn't a lot of room back there, what with being surrounded by stacks of crates, but Havoc didn't feel like abandoning the field just yet.

"Is school out already?" Rada asked as Scar approached them. "Where's Danika?"

"Some of the students and the soldiers are going to play football," Scar replied. "She and Mika went to watch."

Havoc perked up. Sports held the same cherished level of interest as did girls, and when he was having rotten luck with the latter, he found solace in the former. "Football? Hey, I'm a pretty good wingback!"

"Then I expect they could use you," Scar suggested.

The big Ishvalan spoke in what passed for him as a cordial tone, but Havoc couldn't help taking it as an invitation to make himself scarce. He leaned up against a stack of crates with a smile. "Well, they know where to find me."

Scar lost interest in him fairly quickly and he turned back to Rada. "How was your day?" he asked.

"It was good," Rada said. "I got a lot done. Oh, and Mr. Havoc's mother sent us some pattern catalogs." She turned to give Havoc a smile, including him back into the conversation. "That was so thoughtful of her."

"Yup!" Havoc agreed. "She does stuff like that all the time." He picked up the catalogs and handed them to Scar. "Here. Take a gander."

Scar took the catalogs and glanced at the top one with minimal interest, then he looked at the second one. Havoc watched with innocently perverse glee as his features froze for a moment. Then another moment passed. Then he handed the catalogs back to Havoc, his face like cold stone, but Havoc was willing to bet a sizable chunk of change that they both had the same image in their heads. "Thank your mother for us, Mr. Havoc."

"Will do!" Havoc replied cheerfully.

One of the soldiers who worked in the supply tent sauntered through the entrance, singing nonchalantly but in a slightly loud voice.

You oughta be in pictures,
You're wonderful to see,
You oughta be in pictures,
Oh what a hit you would be!

Breda frowned at him and looked over to catch Havoc's eye. Voices could now be heard approaching the tent, and Havoc suddenly turned toward Scar and gave him a hard shove, knocking him to the ground in the narrow space between two rows of packing crates.

Scar landed on his backside and glared furiously at Havoc and started to get to his feet, which would probably have been a little scary under different circumstances, but Havoc moved quickly to casually prop his elbow on top of one of the crates, blocking the space between the rows.

"This is where we receive shipments of supplies," Sergeant Benjamin was saying as he entered with Oderkirk and Smitty, who was carrying his camera on a tall wooden tripod. "We take inventory and then distribute it."

"Uh-huh."

Havoc didn't look back at Scar, but he could tell by the silence that he was staying still. Oderkirk glanced around the interior of the tent and wrote quickly in a thick notebook he was carrying. "And this stuff is paid for by this thing that Mrs. Bradley set up?"

"A lot of it," Benjamin replied. "Takes the burden off the taxpayers."

Oderkirk turned back to Smitty, who was opening up the legs of his tripod and setting it on the ground. "The light's okay in here, right?"

Smitty pulled a short tube from his pocket and held it up to his eye. "Yeah, it'll do."

Oderkirk nodded and glanced critically around the tent. He didn't seem particularly interested in what was in the crates, just in the fact that they were there. His gaze fell on Havoc and he gave him a slight nod. Then he saw Rada and he stilled, his eyes lingering on her for a moment. He started for the little work area, and Havoc glanced at Rada. She was already bewildered by his sudden actions a few moments earlier, and he could see her start to tense up. He shifted a little to better block the view of the space between the crates.

Oderkirk took off his hat as he approached the table and gave a little bow.

"Forgive the intrusion, Miss," he said politely. He held his hat against his chest as though in a sign of respect, but his eyes searched her face with intent appraisal. "But I just have to tell you that you have very fine bone structure. Delicate, but striking. A face that was made for film. Would you mind very much if we took some footage of you?"

Rada stared at him, the look on her face changing slowly from tension to panic. Havoc heard a slight stirring noise behind him, and he straightened up. "You know, Miss Rada and I were just talking about that, Mr. Oderkirk," he announced. "But she confessed to me that she's a little camera shy. Isn't that right, Miss Rada?"

Rada looked up at him, startled. Then a look of gratitude crossed her features. "Yes," she said. "Yes, that's right."

Oderkirk wasn't deterred and he smiled. "Well, the thing about cameras is they're very impartial. You don't have to worry about what they think."

Havoc could practically feel a wave of rage searing the top layers of skin off his back, and in a moment of dismay he realized that if Scar was going to launch himself at Oderkirk, he was right in the line of fire.

But Rada held her own ground. She looked up at Oderkirk and said, a little shakily but clearly, "No, I really don't want to."

Oderkirk looked genuinely disappointed. "Oh. Well, that's a real shame, if you don't mind me saying so, Miss." He put his hat back on and gave Rada another little bow and a smile. "If you should happen to change your mind, let me know."

He walked away, jotting down more notes in his book. "Okay, Smitty!" he called. "You got enough?"

Smitty, his cap turned backwards and his eye pressed to the eyepiece of his camera, was cranking away and slowly panning around the tent. He straightened up. "Yeah, I guess. It's just boxes, anyway."

"Mostly," Oderkirk said, shutting up his book. "Right, Sergeant. Shall we move on? I'd like to get some exterior shots."

"Sure," Benjamin replied. "Let's go."

The cameramen followed Benjamin out of the tent. The soldiers waited for a few moments before relaxing and resuming their activities. Rada leaned forward and rested her forehead on her hands.

"I thought he'd never go away!" she breathed.

Havoc smiled easily. "You handled him pretty well, Miss Rada." He looked over his shoulder. "All clear," he said.

Scar got to his feet and gave Havoc a somewhat grudging look of approval. "That was quick thinking."

Havoc shrugged and grinned. "Well, I've been told I'm not the sharpest knife in the drawer, but I have my moments." His grin faded. "You know, if you don't want to end up as the next big box office hit, you might want to be more careful."

"I'm aware of that," Scar growled. "But that fellow needs to keep to his place. This isn't his playground." He turned to Rada. "If he bothers you again, tell me."

"And then what?" Havoc asked. "You're gonna make us go to all this trouble just to have you walk right up to him and—" He caught himself before saying make his head explode, but the implication was not lost and Scar glowered at him.

"He's right, Zhaarad Andakar," Rada said, reaching out and touching his arm. "You shouldn't take any chances."

"I'm less concerned about being discovered than about you being harassed by that man."

"Well, I'm not!" Rada countered. "I'll be all right, but we can't afford to lose you. Promise me you'll be careful!"

The gently stern defiance in her voice brought a rare smile to Scar's face. "All right, but only if you promise to go straight to Miles if there's any more trouble."

Rada's dimples reappeared. "I promise."

Havoc gave a slight smirk and turned away with a wave. "Well you kids behave yourselves." He figured he might as well go play some football, considering how his membership in this particular mutual admiration society had just expired.

"Thank you, Mr. Havoc!" he heard Rada call after him.

Havoc looked back to catch the smile she gave him. He also caught how Scar hovered by her protectively. Oh, well. A fella could dream.

Chapter Text

An area between the headquarters compound and the tent city was clear and flat. It was slated for building, but in the meantime it had become a decent football field.

A couple of rough goals were set up on each end with sheets instead of nets. It was far too obvious to form teams of Amestrians vs. Ishvalans, so they simply drew straws. The teams then divided themselves into "shirts" and "skins", somewhat to the annoyance of the female soldiers who wanted to participate. They kept to the "shirts" and swore to annihilate the other team.

The Ishvalan girls stayed on the sidelines and giggled, whispering comments to each other behind their hands. Zulema waddled by to see what all the fuss was about and to glare censoriously at the proceedings. She went over to one group of girls and shook her finger at them.

"For shame!" she squawked. "You should be home at your duties, not ogling at half-naked men!"

The girls clustered closer together and burst into more giggling. Zulema lifted her hands in the air.

"Eh-h!" she sighed. "Ishvala save us! We're all doomed!" She contemptuously blew on her palm.

"Hey, Auntie Zulee! We're short a man!" a bare-chested Dejan called to her from the field. "You wanna be on my team?"

Zulema shot him an acidic, if slightly myopic look and waddled away.

"You sure you wanna do that?" one of the soldiers asked. "Could she put a curse on you or something?"

"Oh, she's just a big sweetheart," Dejan replied. "I just have to keep out of range of that stick of hers."

Havoc came trotting up. "You fellas need a wingback?"

"Just the man we're looking for!" Dejan exclaimed. "Strip to the waist, my friend!"

With boyish excitement, Havoc peeled off his shirt and went over to the sidelines to a group of girls. "Could one of you ladies hold onto this for me?"

The girls gazed at him rapturously, and one of them timidly held out her hand. "I will!"

"Thanks, Miss!" Havoc gave her a brilliant smile, draped the shirt over her hand, and returned to the field, a gratifying chorus of sighs and giggles following after him.

Dejan gave him a wry smirk. "You trollop!"

Havoc innocently spread his hands. "What can I say? I've still got it!" He grinned. "We should bottle it and sell it!"

"As what? A laxative?"

Havoc frowned. "Okay, are we playing football, or what?"

........................................................................................................................................

"I feel a little silly now," Rada said. "I probably shouldn't have made such a fuss, but the idea just scared me."

"You didn't make a fuss," Scar replied. "And you shouldn't feel silly. He had no right to approach you like that."

"Maybe. It's his job, after all." Rada sighed wistfully. "I wish I could be brave like Naisha. She always seems to know exactly what to do or say when things like that happen."

"Yes, and she often gets herself in trouble," Scar said with a slight smile. "You don't have to emulate anyone else, Rada."

They had left the supply tent and were heading toward the football field to collect Danika. As he always did, Scar kept a decorous minimum of three feet of space between them as they walked side by side, but more and more often he found himself having to subdue the ache in his heart to close the distance of those few feet and feel her hand in his.

Years before, at her fifteenth birthday ceremony, her family, her neighbors, and her friends gathered to celebrate. As he often did, Scar got the hosts to hire Dejan and his father to perform. The vatrishi struck up a tune on his lute and began to sing, and everyone lined up in a wide semi-circle to dance. With a playful smile, Rada grasped his hand.

"Come and dance!" She hadn't shown him any particular favor. She was in love with everyone that day, and she had included him in her joy. He didn't want the evening to end.

Every time she smiled at him, as she did now, that girl returned. He would content himself with simply being this close to her.

...............................................................................................................................................

The footballers played a brief scrimmage to warm up, then paused for a few minutes to catch their breath.

"All right, Havoc," Dejan said, holding the football against his hip. "I take it back. You even gave Stoyan a run for his money. We can definitely use what you've got."

Havoc chuckled. "To score goals or score with the ladies?"

Dejan shook his head. "Don't spoil it."

Damyan and Stoyan, who were on the "shirts", came up to join them. Damyan jerked his chin at something behind them. "Here comes that film crew."

Approaching the field were Benjamin, Oderkirk, and Smitty. Oderkirk was listening to something Benjamin was telling him, intently jotting notes in his book.

"Ooh, really?" Dejan drew himself up and looked behind him. "Fame has come looking for me?"

Havoc smirked and was about to make a biting comment when something caught his attention. "Aw, shit!" he groaned. "Why can't he just keep his damn head down?"

"Huh?" Dejan turned and looked toward where Havoc had nodded. Approaching from the other side of the field were Scar and Rada. "No! Don't do that!" he quickly warned Havoc, who was about to wave his arms. "You'll get everyone's attention like that." He glanced toward Oderkirk again, then dropped the football on the ground. It rolled a couple of feet and stopped, and Dejan stepped nonchalantly away.

"Stoyan," he said under his breath. "Bend it."

Stoyan gave a slight nod and took several steps to his left. He lined up his shot, ran toward the ball, and gave it a hard kick, his foot curling around it slightly. The ball soared into the air, then gave a curve to the left, heading toward what would have been out of bounds.

Stoyan waited for a few more seconds, then yelled out, "Heads—"

The ball connected with Oderkirk's head, knocking him flat on his back to a chorus of pained oohs from the players.

"—up!" Stoyan concluded.

Scar looked up and across the field. He couldn't see who it was that everyone was crowding around, but he saw the young man with the camera over his shoulder. He swore softly under his breath.

"We'd better go around the other way," he said to Rada. "Danika will be fine where she is."

On the other side of the field, the players had surrounded the prone Oderkirk with a concerned ring.

"Gosh, Mister," Stoyan said with solemn innocence. "Sorry about that! My aim was really off."

"Are you okay?" Damyan asked. "How many fingers am I holding up?"

"Do you think he's got a concussion?" one of the soldiers asked.

"Dunno," Dejan said. He bent lower over Oderkirk. "Can you tell us your name? What year is it? Who's the Fuhrer? Who won the National Cup in 1911?"

"The West City Wingers," a soldier replied.

"Hell, no, that was 1910!" Havoc said. "It was the South City Spears!"

"I wasn't asking you!" Dejan said sternly. He looked back down at Oderkirk and smiled gently. "Are you seeing spots?"

"I'm seeing a bunch of crazy people!" Oderkirk snapped irritably. "I'm fine!"

Damyan took a quick look over his shoulder, then heaved a sigh. "Well, that's a relief!"

"I'll say!" one of the soldiers said. "Let's get back to the game!"

The players promptly abandoned Oderkirk and headed back to the field. Oderkirk sat up and watched them sullenly. "It's just one big happy, isn't it?"

"Pretty much," Benjamin replied cheerfully.

"Man, I wish I'd gotten that," Smitty said. "That was classic."

Oderkirk glared at him as he got to his feet and brushed himself off. "Let's leave the slapstick to Hoffman-Sikes."

Smitty insisted that they film at least a small portion of the game. Although he wasn't much interested in sports, Oderkirk watched the ball's progress warily. As a clump of players ran past him, something across the field caught his eye and he stared for a moment. He nudged Benjamin and gave a slight jerk of his chin.

"Hey, Sergeant, that little girl over there."

Benjamin looked across the field. Standing by the sidelines were Mika and Danika. They were jumping up and down, cheering for both teams indiscriminately. He grew quietly wary. "Which one?"

"The one with the dark hair. Is she Ishvalan?"

"Yeah."

"Pure Ishvalan?"

"Pure enough."

"What's that supposed to mean?"

"Does it matter?"

Oderkirk turned to study Benjamin's profile as the sergeant concentrated on the game. "What's with the cagey answers?"

"What's with the questions?"

"I asked you first."

Benjamin glared. "Look, it's one thing to report on Ishval and the Ishvalans and all of us who are here to rebuild. It's another thing to poke into people's privacy."

Oderkirk lifted his hands innocently. "I'm not poking into anybody's anything! I was just curious!"

"Curiosity killed the cat," Benjamin replied ominously.

Oderkirk gave a short, humorless laugh. "I wish I had five cenz for every time somebody's told me that."

"I'm just saying that there's people looking out for that little girl and you don't wanna get on their bad side."

"Oh? And who might these people be?"

Oderkirk liked to think he could read people pretty well, and when he caught a slight clenching of the sergeant's jaw, he got a definite sense that the man realized he had said a little too much. Oderkirk smiled to himself.

"You can go into any room you want except for the one that's locked."

Benjamin's frown deepened. "Huh?"

Oderkirk shook his head. "Nothing. Just an old story. How about it, Smitty? You got enough of the sweaty bodies running hither and yon?"

Smitty straightened up and turned his cap back around. "Yeah, I guess."

"Great. Looks like we're done here, Sergeant." Oderkirk looked around. "Let's move on. There's still plenty of daylight left."

.............................................................................................................................................

"Damn, I wish that woman would let us film her!" Oderkirk muttered under his breath as he picked at his breakfast and gazed around the mess tent.

Smitty sighed. "There's lots of other pretty women here."

"Oh, there are plenty of pretty women everywhere," Oderkirk said. "But every now and then one just stands out. The kind of woman whose face you just have to see again. That's what I'm looking for!" He leaned forward to make sure Smitty wasn't tuning him out. "It's not about all the destruction. That's just the backdrop, and there's only so much of it that people want to see. They want to see the human element. I want to give Ishval a human face. That face!"

"She said no, Zeb."

Oderkirk waved the comment away. "Maybe she'll change her mind." He grinned. "Maybe I can persuade her to change her mind. I can be charming when I want to."

Smitty's fork paused halfway to his mouth and he was about to express a certain level of skepticism when he noticed Oderkirk looking at something behind him. He turned around to see an older man approaching their table. It was a little hard to tell just how old he might be. His face was lined but he was muscular and moved with a powerful grace. He bowed to them and spoke in a softly deep voice.

"Good morning, gentleman. My name is Bozidar. I am a priest of Ishvala, and I would be pleased to be your guide this morning, if you wish."

"Even from the ruins," the old priest declared, spreading his hands toward the work tables, "life begins again! These books were hidden by one of our departed sons, and we are in the process of translating them into Amestrian."

Smitty panned slowly around the room, taking in the printing press, the tables, and the priests who were busily writing out text.

"If I may," Oderkirk said as he peered over the shoulder of one of the priests, who moved his hand away from the paper he was writing on to reveal several lines of poetry.

Our road is riven, our way is weary
The land lies lean, its fertile fields fallow
Our sin has sealed us, we wail in the wild
Creator, we crave conciliation, revive and restore us

"It doesn't rhyme," Oderkirk observed.

The priest looked up at him with charitable patience. "Old Ishvalan poetry is based on alliteration rather than rhyme."

Oderkirk nodded slightly. "Kind of depressing stuff. Just how old is it?"

"About a thousand years old. Just after the Great Earthquake. This was written by a priest, Rihir, who was brother to Vozrahir, the last prince of Ishval."

"Wait!" Oderkirk quickly opened up his notebook and pulled out his pencil. "Run that by me again!"

Bozidar laughed quietly and pointed to one of the other priests. "Saahad Mazur is translating the histories. We'll send you a copy."

The priest who was translating the poetry returned to his work. "Or he could buy one like everyone else," he added under his breath.

......................................................................................................................................................................

"This may seem commonplace, but I think it is our greatest accomplishment so far." Bozidar took them just beyond the headquarters compound to the school yard. "This has had the greatest effect toward making life normal."

Oderkirk could hear the hum of voices coming from the row of large tents. Occasionally one or two voices would rise above the others. There were even a few short bursts of excited, childish laughter. Oderkirk walked slowly past the tents, listening to the sounds from each.

"Would it be possible to film inside one of the classes?" He turned to Bozidar with a smile. "Like you said, it's a positive sign."

"Yes, yes! Of course!" Bozidar agreed. "I'm sure the children would enjoy it."

Oderkirk paused near one of the tents. He could hear a deep, resonant voice from within.

"…and it was then that Ishval was divided into its six districts, each headed by a chieftain, and named for the six 'princely' virtues, which is somewhat ironic when one considers that some of these virtues were in somewhat short supply by the end of that era. They are Strength…"

The voice paused expectantly, and a chorus of younger, lighter voices replied, "Kanda!"

"Wisdom…"

"Daliha!"

"Piety…"

"Gunja!"

"Temperance…"

"Wahir!"

"Compassion…"

"Lejia!"

"And Fidelity."

"Maazra!"

"Very good."

There was something about that voice that Oderkirk liked and he wondered who it was coming out of. He pointed to that tent. "How about this one?"

"That one? Oh…" Bozidar hesitated. "No, not that one. That is Zhaarad Andakar's class. He would not like to be disturbed, I think."

"Are you sure? Could we ask him?"

"No, I'm quite sure. Let's ask young Zhaarad Stoyan!" Bozidar said, placing a friendly but firm hand on Oderkirk's shoulder and steering him toward one of the other tents. "He has a rather lively group of students and I'm sure he'll be amenable."

.............................................................................................................................................................

"So why are you building this first?" Oderkirk asked as Smitty cranked away. "Shouldn't you be building houses first?"

"The Great Temple is at the center of Ishval," Bozidar replied. "It was generally agreed upon to begin restoring the heart before moving on to the rest of the body." The old priest sighed. "The previous temple stood for nearly a thousand years before the war. It was destroyed in a matter of days. The one that stood before that one was gone in a matter of a few minutes when the great earthquake struck." He smiled. "But still, we rebuild. Perhaps this one will stand the test of time."

"Saahad Bozidar!" Some workers standing in the interior of the temple's skeletal frame waved to the priest, beckoning him over.

"Ah. Will you excuse me, gentlemen?"

"Sure," Oderkirk replied, somewhat absently as he gazed up with a frown at the arches overhead.

As the old priest walked away, Smitty paused in his filming and regarded his partner with a sense of unease. "Okay, Zeb. What's eating you?"

"Hmm. More of the same, Smitty," Oderkirk mused. "More of the same."

Smitty groaned quietly. "I was afraid of that. You know, we're kind of lucky they're letting us do this at all. I think you should just appreciate that fact a little more."

"Oh, yeah, they're letting us do this," Oderkirk sneered. "They want us to make them look good. They want us to show the nation how generous and benevolent they are, but it's just a front, just like everything else."

"Were you born paranoid, Zeb?"

"No! I was born naturally inquisitive! That's why I got into this business. I've always been curious! Drove my folks up the wall."

"I feel for them."

Oderkirk chuckled. "I don't like secrets and I don't like being told I can't do something."

"Which is how we got in so much trouble in Liore."

"No!" Oderkirk countered. "That was repression of free speech!"

"That was you dragging me into a restricted area after you'd been told half a dozen times that we couldn't film there."

"But why, Smitty! That's my favorite question, one that has always intrigued me! Why doesn't that woman want us to film her? Why did Sergeant Benjamin get so defensive about that little girl? Why were we warned off that Andakar guy? Why, why, why?"

Smitty opened his mouth to say that he didn't give a flying monkey's ass, but another voice forestalled him.

"Because they've all got something to hide."

Chapter Text

It took a moment for their eyes to adjust from the sunlight bouncing off the pale stone blocks to the dark of the shade of an unfinished wall where the speaker sat. It took another moment for the speaker to bother to turn his head to regard them. He was Ishvalan with features that were handsome yet cloaked in disdain.

Oderkirk stepped closer to him. "Is that a fact?"

The Ishvalan nodded. "Yeah." He gave the two cameramen an appraising look. "So, what do you think of Ishval so far? Isn't it grand?"

"Uh…"

"After enjoying six years of Amestrian hospitality, it was the least we could do to let you bastards come back here and camp out." The Ishvalan shook his head. "What a fuck up," he muttered.

Oderkirk exchanged a wary glance with Smitty. Part of him was sorely tempted to give this man a wide berth; the other part was intrigued. He had come across a variety of characters in this place, but this was the first time he had heard any of them express themselves quite like this. He found himself wondering how he could work this guy into the film. "You sound like you're not happy with what's going on here."

The Ishvalan gave a quietly derisive snort. "Well, it's not like anyone asked me for my opinion. No, I'm sorry!" he added as an afterthought. "That's not entirely true! I have voiced my opinion, and I got slapped down for it." He smiled thinly. "Literally."

Oderkirk's eyebrows went up. "By who? The military?"

"Oh, no, not them!" The Ishvalan said. "They're way too careful for that nowadays. They're happy to sit back and watch us beat each other up. We're a backwards people, after all."

"You didn't hear me say that," Oderkirk said, a little defensively.

"No, of course not."

"I didn't catch your name."

"Probably because I didn't throw it at you."

Oderkirk waited for him to continue, but the Ishvalan remained unhelpfully silent. Oderkirk supposed certain allowances ought to be made, but he was beginning to dislike this man's attitude. "What did you mean by what you said before, about people having something to hide?"

The Ishvalan jerked his thumb over his shoulder at the wall against which he was leaning. "See this?"

"I can't exactly miss it."

"Look closer. You'll see something I'll bet you missed at first glance."

Oderkirk moved closer to the wall. This portion was about four feet high and the stone blocks were a foot and a half thick. He stared at it for a few moments. "Okay, so what am I looking at?"

The Ishvalan stood up and shaded a spot on top of one of the blocks with his hand. "It's hard to see with the sun shining on it."

Oderkirk peered closer. What had seemed like a fairly smooth surface was actually scored with a faint pattern of interlocking rectangles. He frowned and shook his head. "So?"

"Those are transmutation marks," the Ishvalan explained. "These stones were repaired by alchemy. Alchemy!" He raised his voice in angry emphasis. "The Great Temple, dedicated to the glory and worship of Ishvala, built by alchemy! Have you ever heard of anything so fucking hypocritical? But wait a minute!" he went on, switching to a mocking tone of joyful wonder. "Didn't you know? It's okay now, because Zhaarad Andakar did it! Zhaarad Andakar is a prophet! Zhaarad Andakar has Ishvala's personal blessing! The sun rises straight out of Zhaarad Andakar's ass every morning, and aren't we grateful? Oh, hell, yes!" the Ishvalan hissed bitterly. "I'm a master carpenter! I used to have the respect of the entire community! Now I'm looked down on and accused of being lazy because I won't defile my hands with this blasphemy!"

The last thing Oderkirk wanted to get involved in was some kind of religious fanaticism, but he couldn't help wanting to see it through. "I guess I see your point. Is that what this Zhaarad Andakar is trying hide? The fact that he's using alchemy?"

"Oh, that's just a little something on the side," the Ishvalan said with a half-grin. "No, the main dish is even better!"

Oderkirk turned to him. "And that is…"

The Ishvalan's smiled turned grim. "Oh, you'll find out. If you haven't seen him yet, you will. There's something about him that's kind of hard to miss. He's usually not far from that woman and that girl I expect you were talking about. The woman's a whore and the girl is her half-breed bastard brat by a state alchemist that she took a quick fancy to. But don't let anyone hear you say that, especially not our Zhaarad Andakar, 'cause you could get hurt." The Ishvalan lifted his arms and dropped them in a gesture of futility. "Ishval's being run by fools, misfits, and murderers, and no one seems to understand why I'm not falling all over myself to contribute my labor." With a smirk and a parting nod, he turned. "Have fun."

As Oderkirk stood silently watching the Ishvalan walk away, he heard Smitty remark drily behind him, "There's a big, fat 'why' for you, Zeb. With a little bit of what the hell thrown in."

"I'll say," Oderkirk mused in agreement.

...................................................................................................................

Knox laid two pieces of a slender tibia in place on the table before him, completing the puzzle of all that was left of a girl whose life had come to sudden halt in her mid-teens. He stepped back to take in the whole picture of what was probably a family of five—father, mother, and three daughters ranging in age from about eight to fifteen. They had been found huddled under a pile of rubble, as though they had been waiting for death to come. The father had sustained a fractured femur as the result of a bullet wound. The bullet had been found underneath him. Standard army issue.

He looked again at the bracelet of red ceramic beads that he held in his hand. They each had tiny flowers painted on them. It had been on the wrist of the oldest girl. He had recently bought a necklace of the same type of beads from Damyan as a gift for Emily, who thought they were lovely.

"Here," he said, handing the bracelet to Anthony, who stood beside him. "Go ask Damyan if he remembers these. Tell him where we found them."

"Sure." Anthony took the bracelet and paused before leaving. "You okay?"

"Huh? Oh, yeah, sure." Knox rumbled. He gave a little shrug. "I dunno. Just when I think I'm getting used to this, I realize that I'm not."

Anthony smiled. "That's probably just as well."

....................................................................................................................

Rada stared at the bracelet, her stomach twisting. She had given it to her sister for her fifteenth birthday, just a couple of weeks before the alchemist strolled onto their street. She had offered payment for it, but Damyan wouldn't take her money.They'll be from me, too, he said.

"I knew they were your sister's," Damyan said quietly. "Vesya painted white flowers on them because we'd run out of yellow." He searched her face. "Will you be all right?" he asked. "Do you want me to come with you?"

Rada looked up from the beads cupped in her hand, her eyes bleak but determined. "No," she said. "I'll be fine."

"You're sure?" Damyan hesitated, then said, "I could go get Andakar."

"No!" Rada gasped softly. "I'm not going to bother him during school! It's all right, Damyan." She stood up from the sewing table. "I can manage by myself."

As she walked across the compound toward the mortuary tents, she realized that she should have expected this and should have been better prepared. She drew herself up slightly and tightened her hold on the little bead bracelet with a shaking hand. It didn't matter. With this it would all be over.

..........................................................................................................................................

"I just don't get that guy's angle," Oderkirk said, shaking his head. "Is he the local crazy or is he the voice of reason?"

"I dunno, Zeb. I think you should just forget what he said," Smitty said cautiously. "He just sounds like he's got an ax to grind."

"Nothing wrong with that," Oderkirk replied drily. "I have a few—"

Smitty turned to his partner as Oderkirk suddenly fell silent and stopped, staring ahead. Smitty followed his gaze to see the woman from the supply tent walking across the headquarters compound toward them.

The woman seemed preoccupied, and she didn't notice the two cameramen until she was only a few feet away from them. She glanced at them and gave a little start edging away from them slightly. Oderkirk smiled disarmingly and touched the brim of his fedora.

"Good morning, Miss," he said.

She gave him a faint nod and quickly continued past them without a word. Oderkirk turned to watch her cross the compound and pause before a large tent before going inside. The tent had a board hanging above the door with the word 'mortuary' painted on it.

"Huh," Oderkirk mused. "Wonder what she's doing in there?"

"Ordering your coffin if you're not careful, Zeb," Smitty muttered. "Give it up!"

"I'm not doing anything!" Oderkirk shot back. "I'm just standing here minding my own business."

"The hell you are! Let's go find that Bozidar guy and get him to show us around some more," Smitty said. "We're here to film, remember?"

Oderkirk nodded absently, still gazing at the mortuary tent. "Why would that guy make those remarks about that woman?"

"Maybe he's a jerk. Maybe he's a liar," Smitty replied promptly. "Maybe it's some sort of tribal conflict, which I really don't want to get involved in."

"Tribal conflict!" Oderkirk scoffed with distaste. "Honestly, Smitty! These people are definitely not backwards! We've seen enough to put that idea to rest!" The voice he had heard from the tent at the school was enough all by itself. It had a rough edge to it, but it belonged to a man who was refined and well-educated—a man who was keeping a secret from outsiders.

A series of sharp, breathless screams came from the mortuary tent and echoed across the compound. Both soldiers and Ishvalans turned toward the sound, startled but not particularly alarmed. Sounds of grief were not uncommon from the mortuary tent, and everyone soon resumed their activities.

After several moments, the woman who had entered the tent earlier was led out by two Amestrians, a young man in a lab coat and a woman. She hung sobbing in their supporting arms as they slowly walked her back across the compound. Oderkirk hurried off to one side, pulling Smitty after him, and he stood watching as the woman was escorted to the medical tent.

"Not our problem, Zeb!" Smitty warned as Oderkirk started to cautiously follow them.

"I'm just gonna peek in for a second."

"Oh, God!" Smitty groaned, clutching his camera protectively. "It's Liore all over again!"

"This isn't Liore. We're not filming this. I just need to know what's going on." Oderkirk gave a jerk of his head. "Go get some atmosphere shots or something. I won't be long."

Smitty shouldered his camera and walked away, shaking his head despairingly. Oderkirk glanced around the compound. Whatever attention had been directed at the incident had lessened by now and he casually walked across the compound toward the medical tent. He paused outside the entrance with his back to it, standing with his hands in his pockets and gazing around indifferently. From within the tent he could hear the woman still crying softly and a couple of other voices making soothing sounds.

Oderkirk turned and cautiously pushed one of the tent flaps aside with his finger and peered inside. To the right of the entrance was a group of standing screens made of sheets stretched across wooden frames. Oderkirk slipped through the entrance and between two of the screens, shifting them noiselessly to hide himself. Through a slim gap between the edge of the sheet and the frame of one screen he could make out a row of cots lining each side of the tent's interior. He could tell that the crying woman was on the cot very close to where he was, probably just in the next space.

"Would you like me to give you a mild sedative?" a man's voice asked. It sounded like an older man, not the one who brought the woman here.

"N-no…no…I'm all right…just…"

"Are you sure, dear?" a woman asked. "That was probably quite a shock for you."

"No…please…I'll be all right…"

"Anthony," the older man said. "Go over to the school and tell Master Andakar."

"Sure, Doctor."

"No!" the Ishvalan woman cried weakly. "Please don't!"

"He'll want to know, Miss Rada," the older man said with gentle firmness. "Don't upset yourself anymore."

"I should get back to Knox," the other woman said softly. "He was a little shaken himself." There was affectionate warmth in her voice. "I think the poor man took it personally."

"I'm…so sorry…"

"Oh, don't give it another thought, dear! He'll be fine. And so will you."

Oderkirk heard footsteps pass by his hiding place. A rustle of canvas and a brief shimmer of light indicated that someone had left the tent. Oderkirk stood rigidly still and strained to hear what was happening on the other side of the screen. The woman's crying had subsided to an occasional catch of breath.

For a few moments, Oderkirk started to wonder what the hell he was doing. He supposed it was a compulsion. To him, information was like alcohol to a drunk, and he had to admit that he might have a problem. Mr. Cruikshank the Elder found it amusing and tended to encourage him. Mr. Cruikshank the Younger, who was the real brains and the financial advisor of the company, didn't think it was so funny, and he kept bringing up Liore. Yeah, Liore was a shame. All their footage had been confiscated for the sake of "national security." What a crock!

Ishval, however, was a friendly, open place, according to the authorities, anyhow. Shoot anywhere you want but don't focus the lens too sharply. Why? What will I see? Oh, nothing…

The shadowy, seamy underside of society was his favorite subject, but try to convince anyone to invest in a project like that. People go to the flicks to be entertained. They don't want to have to think too much about what they're seeing. They want to see clean city streets, not dark alleyways. They want to have confidence in their leaders, not get shown how they're being lied to. Ignorance is bliss, but knowledge is power, people. Why doesn't anyone get it?

Oderkirk gave a start as a broad shadow passed across the fabric of the screen in front of him.

"Rada!"

Crap, it's him!

"Are you all right? Marcoh! Is she all right?" The voice was tense, worried.

"Yes, she's fine," the doctor replied assuringly. "It was just a little more of a shock than she expected, that's all."

"I'm so sorry, Zhaarad Andakar!" the woman apologized bleakly. "They didn't need to send for you!"

"I was already on my way," the voice replied. "I could hear you scream all the way from the school."

"Oh, no!"

Oderkirk shifted silently to peer out between the sheet and the screen frame. Most of his view was blocked by a man's broad back, but he could see the woman's face from where she lay on her cot. The broad back bent down and a pair of hands helped the woman to a sitting position. The man then moved out of view for a moment and Oderkirk could see the woman clearly. She sat looking down, her face drawn but calm. There were still tear tracks on her cheeks.

The man reappeared and sat down on something. The woman raised her eyes with a sad look.

"You should have waited for me," the man said, gently scolding. "I'd have gone with you."

"I didn't want to put you to any trouble!" the woman protested. "I've done that enough!"

"It wouldn't have been any trouble," the man replied. He paused for a moment. "You're sure it's them?"

"Yes." The woman raised her arm to reveal something in her hand, but Oderkirk couldn't see it. "They found this." A fresh tear rolled down her face. "I gave it to Shulee."

"Ah." The man's hand reached up to brush the tear away and his fingertips lingered on her face. The woman closed her eyes and turned her head slightly toward the man's hand as if to draw something from his touch.

"I just couldn't wait. I had to see them!" Her eyes opened and she searched the man's face. "I needed to go by myself. I can't spend the rest of my life being sheltered or afraid." She smiled a little, her expression showing a shy affection. "And I suppose I wanted you to be proud of me."

The man had drawn his hand from her face but it poised in midair. "Rada…" His voice had grown softly tender.

"What are you doing there!"

Oderkirk jumped and spun around to find himself confronted by an older man with a disfigured face. The brows wrinkled threateningly over one visible dark eye, the other eye being obscured in folds of flesh. He stood gripping the edge of one of the screens after having pulled it aside.

"I—I—"

A rustle of sound made Oderkirk give another jump and he turned to face a tall Ishvalan man as he stepped around the screen. The man glared at him, first in surprise, then in anger, his brows furrowing. But it wasn't the burning red eyes that caught Oderkirk's attention. It was the pale X-shaped scar that crossed over them and stood out in sharp contrast to the man's dark skin.

Oderkirk stared at the scar. He was astonished. He was elated.

He was screwed.

Chapter Text

His wanted posters didn't come close to doing him justice. The simple pencil sketch couldn't possibly capture the man's noble, savage, brute force aura. Or his size. Dear God, he was big.

The wizened doctor seemed to shrink down from his initial outrage. "Oh, dear…" he murmured quietly. He looked at the scarred Ishvalan with timid apology. "I didn't realize…"

Scar shook his head. "It's all right, Marcoh," he said "It was bound to happen. If it wasn't him, it would have been someone else."

Oderkirk took offense at the dismissive way Scar growled him and jerked his chin in his direction. What annoyed him was the offhand insinuation that just anyone could have blown the lid off this story. It could only be Zebulon Oderkirk, the only investigative filmmaker with the single-minded tenacity, creative recklessness, and suicidal tendencies crucial to this business.

The woman rushed out from the other side of the screen. She looked from Scar to Oderkirk and her eyes, lashes still damp with tears, widened with alarm. She put her hands to her mouth. "Oh, God!" she breathed.

Now that, Oderkirk thought, was a little undeserved. Standing right behind her was a man who took dozens of lives with malice aforethought, and she was gaping at him as though he were some kind of monster.

"I…uh…have people who know I'm here," Oderkirk said with nervous caution. Truth to tell, the Cruikshank boys would probably just shrug and write him off as a cautionary tale. The moral of this story is - - grasp all, lose all. His old cow of a mother would sit back with a cigarette in one hand and a gin and tonic in the other and tell her friends that she knew he would get it in the neck one day. Fortunately, Scar didn't know that.

"I have no intention of doing you any harm," Scar replied, almost as though he meant it. "But I think you should answer the doctor's question. What are you doing here?"

"Ah." Oderkirk considered a few different explanations, but then drew himself up. "It seems to me that I should be asking you that. Do the authorities know you're lying low out here?"

Scar's expression grew ominous, but he hesitated long enough for Oderkirk to form his own conclusion. He grinned triumphantly and nodded. "Oh! I see! You- -"

"You followed me!" The woman had spoken, not accusingly, just stating a sudden realization, but there was dread in the way she looked at him. "You followed me in here!"

Oderkirk froze for a moment. "What- -no, honestly, I didn't!" he stammered a little too emphatically and not quickly enough to cover up the flicker of guilt that crossed his face.

Scar's glower darkened further. "She told you she wanted to have nothing to do with you or your filming, and you're still pursuing her? What sort of perverted mind do you have?"

"Okay, listen, pal!" Oderkirk shot back with all his bantam-weight pugnacity. "That's going a little too far! Just for the record, I'm not a pervert! I just wanted to ask the lady for a few minutes of her time! It's not like I was trying to do some kinda skin flick! And you're hardly in a- -"

A large hand wrapped itself around Oderkirk's throat and lifted him off his feet. Through the haze of spots that was beginning to develop before his vision, he could see a pair of red eyes, burning with rage, close to his face.

"I think you've outstayed your welcome," a deep, menacing voice informed him.

"Andakar! Don't!"

Oderkirk was dropped to the ground. Rubbing his throat, he looked up blearily to see the woman standing in front of Scar and trying to hold him back, which looked like quite a feat, considering how petite she was. Scar still glared at him as though still hankering for his balls for breakfast. What struck Oderkirk as almost scarier, however, was the way the woman turned from the big Ishvalan to pin him to the ground with her own glare.

"You were supposed to be helping us!" she declared furiously. "You were supposed to be showing the Amestrians how we're struggling to rebuild our lives! But you don't understand! You want to take away the one man we'd be lost without because you want to be famous! You don't know him! You don't know him at all!"

"Rada, there's no- -"

Rada held up her hand, waving it a little to brush off Scar's comment. She didn't take her eyes off Oderkirk, but she tempered her imperious look to a pleading one. "You have no idea how much we need him! Please, please, don't tell anyone about him! If you want to take your pictures of me so badly, then I'll do it! I'll do whatever you- -"

"Rada! Don't!" Scar turned her around to face him. "You don't have to do this!"

"Yes, I do!" Rada argued. "I owe you so much and this is such a small thing, really!"

"It doesn't matter how small it is! It's not worth it! I'm not worth it!"

Rada drew in a sharp gasp. "Don't say that!" she cried indignantly. "Don't you ever say that!"

"Shehai li Ishvala! Don't you think I have the right to say that? I killed people, Rada! And not all the blood I spilled was guilty! That's my burden, not yours!"

"I don't care!" Rada put her hands in his, holding them tightly. He drew in a sudden gasp and stared at her. "You're a good man, Andakar!" she told him with gentle reproach. "You're a good man and God loves you! We've all done things we regretted, but I know this is right! Don't ever think I'm going to stand back and let them take you away if there's something I can do about it!"

Scar made no reply or objection. He seemed to only be able to gaze silently at her. Oderkirk was beginning to know how he felt, particularly when Rada turned back to him with a glare of fierce determination.

"What do you need me to do?" she demanded.

Oderkirk stared back at her, transfixed. If he thought she was photogenic before, he would have gladly risked life and limb to film her the way she was looking at him right now. Just ten second's worth of footage! Never in a million years could he get an actress to manage anything that genuine. Finally he gave a deep, resigned sigh and got slowly to his feet. "Not a damn thing, Miss."

Rada's brows furrowed suspiciously. "What do you mean?"

Oderkirk rubbed his nose thoughtfully. This went against his instincts, mainly the instinct to be suspicious and the instinct to run and most of all, the instinct to capture a moment in time. But that moment had passed, and not for a whole mantlepiece groaning with awards would he ever cause her to feel that way again.

"Ever since I got into this work, I was determined to make truth my business, which is probably why I'm so behind on my bills and I don't have a car or a decent apartment or even a girlfriend. Smitty and I came here thinking we were doing something great—well, Smitty came because he was getting paid—but I really felt like I was doing something…I don't know…heroic, I guess. I wanted to show the world what was really going on here, and if I could expose a few of the military's secrets, so much the better. So I did uncover a secret, something that people were desperate to keep. Not cunning, furtive military types huddled around their tables in their smoke-filled rooms, but just regular people. Mostly," he murmured with a cautious look at Scar. He shrugged and lifted his hands. "But I don't want to work under these conditions, and I'm pretty sure you don't either."

Rada regarded him with wary apprehension. "Then what are you going to do?"

"Not sure." Oderkirk considered for a moment, then a smile grew on his face. "I find mysteries very attractive," he said finally. His smile turned into a rueful smirk. "And I'll be the first one to admit that it gets me in trouble." He regarded the others standing before him. "But I don't mind keeping a secret if I can be convinced that it's worth keeping."

....................................................................................................................................................................

"Huh." Smitty usually tended to his camera like a mother cared for an infant, but it sat on his lap unattended. That was the extent to which he was moved.

"Huh?" Oderkirk lifted his hands and dropped them in his lap. "I tell you that whole outrageous story and that's the best you can come up with?"

Smitty shrugged. "Yeah." He frowned slightly. "Are you sure it was okay for me to hear all that?"

Oderkirk gave him a wry look. "If your reaction's anything to go by, then, yeah, I think was a good call. You've always been blessed with the gift of detachment."

"Unlike you."

"Unlike me," Oderkirk admitted.

"So, Zeb. You finally found the conspiracy you've been looking for," Smitty remarked. "And you're just gonna sit on it?"

"Yup."

Smitty shrugged. "Just asking."

"I'm just glad somebody finally gave me the inside story. I'm grateful enough to not upset the status quo. Anyway, it's old news now."

Smitty raised a quizzical eyebrow. "Scar isn't."

"Yes, he is. He's dead and buried and I'm not gonna be the one to dig him up. And it's Andakar, by the way, who's actually an okay joe once he's decided not to kill you." Oderkirk reflected for several moments. "It comes down to proportions, I guess. How do you compare the lives of a few dozen alchemists to the thousands of lives lost here, or the deception of an entire nation? Which is worse? Since it turns out you and me and the whole damn country owe him our lives, it's a pretty fair exchange." He gave a half grin. "And I'm one up on the government, which offers a certain satisfaction all by itself."

Smitty raised a knowing eyebrow. "But there's a little more to it, isn't there?"

"You got me there, Smitty," Oderkirk admitted. "When it comes down to it, there's a certain remarkable young lady who I'd hate to disappoint." He sighed. "I guess I'd rather lose my head over a girl than have it pinched off."

Smitty grinned and shook his head. "Never figured you as the romantic type, Zeb."

Oderkirk drew himself up. "That's 'cause I don't discuss my love life with you."

"That's 'cause you ain't got one."

"That's beside the point. But you should've seen her, Smitty! She was glorious! What a lady!" Oderkirk held up a finger for emphasis. "And she is a lady, not what that creep at the temple would have led us to believe."

Smitty had turned his attention back to putting his camera to bed. "When a man talks about a woman that way, he's gotta be holding a grudge about something."

Oderkirk nodded. "I figured the guy must've been talking out of his ass. I asked Andakar about that, but he said that's one thing he wouldn't tell me. It involved the honor of the lady in question and wasn't open for discussion."

"What a gent."

"So I asked him about the other stuff that guy was complaining about."

"Yeah? So what's his problem?"

"Aside from being the soulless offspring of a jackal and a snake?" Oderkirk pitched his voice as low as he could in an attempt to imitate Scar. He ended up coughing. "Aside from that, he basically has no business preaching about hypocrisy, but he was welcome say something about the alchemy thing to Andakar's face if he really wanted to and if he was man enough. But God's not as much on that guy's agenda as he'd like people to think. He was a pretty big noise in the city once upon a time, and he still thinks he should be getting respect handed to him on a silver platter while he sits back and has people peel grapes for him."

Smitty bent down to put his camera away in the case that sat between his feet. "I hate people like that," he remarked, more for form's sake than out of rancor.

"Yeah," Oderkirk sighed. He swivelled around on his cot and lay back, his arms behind his head. "So I've got no big secret to expose, no gorgeous dame to film, but I have a clean conscience."

"And you're still in one piece."

"And I'm still in one piece."

............................................................................................................................................................................

It was dusk by the time Scar returned to camp. He had to admit to a certain perverse pleasure at having told someone the entire truth about what happened on the Promised Day, even if it was Oderkirk. Miles wouldn't like it, but he didn't necessarily have to confer with Miles about everything. As he approached the circle of tents, he saw Rada waiting for him and he smiled to himself. She came out to meet him and she looked up to search his face anxiously.

"Well?" she asked.

"It's all right," Scar told her. "We reached a satisfactory agreement."

Rada breathed a sigh of relief. "Thank God!"

"Someday, someone else will find me here, and someday, the rest of Amestris will know."

"Maybe, but it won't be today."

"No, not today." Scar's eyes lingered on her face, then he frowned slightly. "Please don't ever do that again."

Rada's eyebrows went up. "What? Don't come to your defense? How could I not?"

"I can defend myself. You don't need to throw yourself at every calamity that comes along."

Rada looked away. "I don't! But I can't just stand aside if someone I…someone I care about needs my help!"

Scar smiled and lifted her chin. "I didn't mean to sound ungrateful. Forgive me."

She smiled back at him. "There's nothing to forgive." She glanced back over her shoulder. "Dinner's ready," she said. "You must be hungry."

"Very."

"Come along then!"

She turned and Scar watched her as she moved away. It wasn't so much her words that had extinguished his rage earlier in the medical tent. He honestly couldn't remember what she had said. When she took his hands, he felt a sweet rush, almost painfully exquisite, but quiet and gentle. It traveled up his arms and wrapped around his heart, settling there contentedly. For a few brief moments, it was a distant, innocent time where he was a young priest who belonged to God and she was a young maiden who had yet to belong to anyone. That moment disappeared when she drew her hands from his, but now she turned and was beckoning to him with a maiden's smile, which was all he needed.

Chapter Text

The camp had been tidied up and the tables were pushed to the side and laden with a modest feast. Everyone had on the best clothes they could round up, particularly the two couples, Dejan and Naisha, and Damyan and Yasna, who were celebrating their betrothals. Saahad Bozidar had approached them and suggested that since they were all living in such close quarters, it would be seemly if they finally had their intentions, which he had every confidence were honorable, officially blessed.

"I realize that everyone's circumstances are less than ideal," the old priest said, gesturing toward the tents that they would still be living in for some time. "But I think it's about time."

In the space of a day and with the slightly chaotic, vaguely unorthodox methods that characterized most of their activities, the two couples and their extended family organized a double betrothal ceremony. Abandoned gardens were once again ransacked for produce and flowers. After driving out early that morning to bag some rabbits, Havoc swung by the train station to pick up several cases of beer that he had radioed his father the night before to send out on the morning train. Honey and goat cheese were procured with funds from the musicians' savings, supplementing the feast as well as stimulating the fledgling local economy.

Smitty stood aside as Oderkirk took one more look through the camera's eyepiece at the spot at the edge of the camp where the ceremony would take place. They only had one reel of film left, and he wanted it to count. He was sincerely proud of what they had accomplished during their last couple of days in Ishval, and he could hardly wait to get back and start editing. The day before, they had filmed a funeral for the remains of about fifty people, including Rada's family. Smitty was concerned that it might be too grim for audiences, but the procession that flowed past the camera had a solemn dignity to it that would look good on screen. Scar passed by, carrying the front end of Rada's father's coffin, but his head was on the side away from the camera. Someone would have to know him pretty well to spot him from the shoulders down.

Making the betrothal ceremony the final shot would end the reel on an upbeat note. A little saccharine for Oderkirk's personal taste, but one had to pay the bills.

"Don't use up too much footage on the ceremony itself," Oderkirk said, consulting his notes. "They're probably just going to be standing there. Save it for the festivities afterwards. There's supposed to be dancing."

Smitty nodded. "So, this is kind of like an engagement party?"

"Something like that," Oderkirk replied. "With some religious stuff thrown in to put the cap on it. Sort of a dress rehearsal for the wedding."

"When my sister got engaged, we just went over to my parents' house and had cheese and crackers and cocktail weenies."

"No expense was spared, huh?" Oderkirk remarked. "Kind of glad I didn't go."

"You weren't invited." Smitty glanced down at the little dark-haired girl who was holding his light meter up to her eye and she giggled as he waved his hand in front of it. She turned to look around the camp. She grew still for a moment, then held the tube up to Smitty.

"You can have this back now," she told him. She started to move away, than looked back up at him. "Thank you!" she added, then ran off.

"Cute kid," Smitty remarked.

"Well, consider her mother."

"Wonder who her father was."

"That, Smitty, is what we're not supposed to ask."

Danika trotted up to Rada. Through the tube of the light meter she had seen a forlorn look on her mother's face. "Mama! What's the matter?" she demanded.

Rada blinked rapidly and shook her head with a reassuring smile. "Nothing's the matter, sweetheart."

Danika tilted her head dubiously. "Really?"

"Yes, dear."

Danika's dark brows furrowed. "Really really?"

"Yes. Really really."

Danika seemed only partly mollified. "'Cause you looked kinda sad. Kinda like the way you used to."

"It was only for a minute," Rada admitted, then she added, "I was thinking about the funeral yesterday."

Danika grew solemn. "Oh," she said quietly. She looked up at Rada cautiously. "But it's okay now, isn't it? Now it's a happy time?"

Rada smiled and nodded. "Yes, now it's a happy time."

"Well, that's good!" Danika declared. "'Cause I get kinda scared when you look sad."

Rada bent down and kissed the girl on both cheeks. "Well, then, there's nothing to be scared of, is there?"

......................................................................................................................................

Scar stood off to one side, surveying the proceedings and watching Rada. He had noticed her preoccupation and the little furrow that had developed between her eyebrows. The funeral had been harder for her than she expected. She followed her parents' coffins in somber, thoughtful silence, her features composed. But when the priests chanted the final blessing for the dead, her calm deserted her and she broke down weeping. Scar was one step away from taking her in his arms, but he hesitated just long enough for both Naisha and Vesya to rush to her side. Danika was more upset at seeing her mother like this than about the burial of people to whom she was related but had never met, and Scar picked her up and let her cry on his shoulder.

It could be that the previous day's events were still troubling her, but Scar thought there was more to it than that. Once again, he hesitated long enough for Danika to take it upon herself to make sure her mother was all right. As soon as she was satisfied, she scampered away, leaving Rada's smile to fade.

"I still can't believe you did that!"

Scar shook himself from his own thoughts to glance at Miles, who stood next to him, his arms folded, a slight frown on his face. Scar followed his line of vision to the movements of the film crew.

"I'm sorry, Miles, but that's one thing that does not lie heavily on my conscience," Scar replied. "Oderkirk seems to be more of a man of honor than I first thought."

"You'd better hope he is." Miles shifted his shoulders under his uniform jacket. "Anyway, it's past praying—oh, great!" he suddenly groaned softly. "Who let her in?"

"Baata Zulee!" Dejan exclaimed, crossing the campsite with his arms wide with welcome. "You sweet thing! I'm so glad you decided to come!"

"Hmph!" the old woman grunted. With one hand she leaned on her stick and the other hand rested on the shoulder of Rick, with whom she shared something of a professional interest in goats. "I just came to make sure this occasion doesn't fall into debauchery."

"Ah, no, you didn't!" Dejan chided her, shaking his finger. "You came to get tipsy and wink at the bagpipe player!"

Zulema's lips pursed, and after glaring at Rick, who had the temerity to chuckle at her expense, she glowered at Dejan. "One of these fine days, vatrish, that clever tongue of yours is going to shrivel up and fall out of your head!"

Dejan clapped his hands over his mouth in mock horror. "No! Really?"

"She should know," Miles said under his breath. "She's the local expert on anything that's shriveled."

Scar gave him a nudge with his elbow. "Respect your elders, Miles. Set a good example for the children."

"She's driving me crazy!" Miles muttered as Rick helped the old woman hobble to a seat. "She has to give me a daily account of all the indecent behavior that's going on. Not only are our male soldiers making bold eyes at the young maidens, she has informed me, the young maidens' eyes are getting just as bold. Before you know it, there'll be goings on, Ishvala forbid—" Miles raised his hand and blew on his palm and Scar coughed rather than let out a laugh. "—but not if she has anything to do with it." He shook his head. "She's become the terror of the settlement. I could put her on sentry duty and she wouldn't even need a rifle. She could nag the enemy to death."

"She's just serving her purpose," Scar said. "It's better to have an old baata prevent you from committing an indiscretion than to have a girl's father or brothers catch you."

Miles gave a quiet snort. "I'd rather take my chances."

Saahad Bozidar arrived, accompanied by Saahad Imir, who would be assisting in the chant. Dejan, as the older of the two bridegrooms-to-be, went up to greet them formally, taking their hands in turn and touching them to his forehead.

"Welcome, Saahadii!" Dejan said. He spread his arms to encompass the surrounding campsite. "Such as it is, welcome to our home!"

"Your welcome is just as warm as if from under a roof, Zhaarad Dejan," Bozidar replied.

Dejan's brows went up, although he grinned with pleasure. "You do me too much honor, Saahad!"

Bozidar shook his head. "Not at all. Are you not a master of your craft?" He held out a hand to the young musicians around them. "Do you not have apprentices? I think that qualifies you."

Dejan beamed. "Did you hear that, Nai?" he said to his intended as she joined him at his side. "I'm not even married to you yet and I've already moved up in the world!"

Naisha patted his arm and kissed him on the cheek. "I knew you would, sweetie."

Bozidar glanced around. "And where are our other supplicants? Ah, here!" he said as Damyan and Yasna approached. Bozidar gave a sigh of contentment. "It does my old heart good to see children I've watched grow up start their own families, especially through these perilous times."

"We're pretty happy about it," Damyan agreed with a grin and giving Yasna's shoulders a squeeze.

"We've waited a long time!" Yasna added.

Imir crossed the camp to meet Scar. "Well, that's two down, eh?" he said with a half-grin.

Scar looked over at his cousins and nodded. "I'm sure Vesya will find someone before long."

"I've heard that there's a three-to-one ratio of women to men, according to the final head count," Imir said. He looked at Miles for affirmation and the major nodded. "Of course you have to factor out those who are married, too old, or too young, but that still makes for—shall we say—competitive odds. Very complicated." He gave Scar a sidelong glance. "And you, my friend. Have you considered opening your life to such a complication, now that you are no longer bound from it?"

Scar frowned. "That's not why I relinquished my vows."

"No, no! Of course not! Ah, I think we're ready to start," Imir said as Bozidar caught his eye.

Bozidar moved to the edge of the camp and stood a moment to inspect the makeshift decorations. A semicircle of poles had been driven into the ground and strips of colored cloth had been used to tie garlands of honeysuckle vines to the tops. Bozidar nodded with approval. The next generation would be able to celebrate these milestones in a more elaborate manner within the walls of their own homes, but in the meantime, this would do admirably. He turned to face the gathering.

"My children," he addressed them in a clear voice. "We have spent so many days of late counting up and mourning our dead." He regarded the two couples before him with a benign smile. "It is a joy to be able to preside over this moment of life, not only in the company of our loved ones…" His eyes travelled to those in the gathering dressed in blue uniforms. "…but with our guests."

He closed his eyes, raised his hands, and began the opening litany that asked God's blessing for their intention. Imir led the responses and the Ishvalans present joined him, breaking into the ancient harmonies. The Amestrians stood in courteous silence, although many of them wondered privately just how long this was going to take. Bozidar did not translate what was being said either in the ancient language of the chant or the common language in which he questioned the couples about their intentions. The word of God, he felt, spoke for itself.

Scar stood behind his cousins, his bass voice joining in the responses. His attention was diverted several times to Rada, who stood with her eyes down, sometimes closed. Danika stood next to Mika up in front of the crowd so she could see, and her eyes were glued to the ritual rather than on her mother. She didn't see Rada slip quietly away before the ceremony had finished. Scar gave her a few minutes before he would follow her. He did not expect her to go far, and he knew she would want those few minutes alone.

The blessing was chanted and the final response was made, and the couples were free to exchange the final ritual, but the betrothal kiss shared by each couple was observed with more ardor than ceremony. With the ensuing applause and raucous cheering covering his departure, Scar followed the path Rada had taken away from the camp.

He found her in a small grove of meskaa trees at the bottom of a slope. She stood with her back to him, her hand resting on a low limb of one of the trees and her forehead resting on her hand.

"Don't waste any more tears on Stanno," Scar pleaded quietly. "He's not worth it."

Rada lifted her head to look back at him. She hadn't cried after all, but her expression was bleak. "I wanted him so badly I couldn't sleep at night," she replied. "After our betrothal, I started counting the hours until the wedding." She broke a twig of feathery leaves from the tree branch and ran it idly through her fingers. "He could say such pretty things. I honestly didn't think he was lying when he said them."

Scar felt a cold knot in the pit of his stomach and a sudden, shameful rush of anger as old jealousies were stirred. "You don't still love him, do you?"

"Oh, no," Rada replied in a sensible tone, as if expecting the question. "But it hurts just the same." She waved the twig in the direction of the camp, where festive noises could be heard. "This brought it all back."

"He would have made you unhappy," Scar went on, as if needing to reinforce his argument. "You were nothing more than a prize to him, something he had that other men didn't. He would never have been what he should have been to you."

"I know that now." She let the twig slip from her fingers, watching it fall. "I didn't then." She sighed and looked up at Scar with a wan smile. "For a time he was my whole world, and I thought I was his. I thought I was everything he ever wanted, but he didn't hesitate to toss me aside."

Her smile grew warmer. "But you…I always thought you were as far above me as heaven from the earth, but when I thought I couldn't be any lower in your eyes, you took my hand and raised me back up and told me I was a good woman."

Scar shook his head. "I only told you the truth. I'm as far from heaven as I could possibly be."

Rada drew closer to him and took one of his hands between hers and looked up into his face. "I've heard it said that you only find your true reflection in someone else's eyes."

Scar raised his other hand to cover hers. It was still there. The sweet warmth that was strange because he was unaccustomed to it and yet familiar, as though it was a part of him that had been missing.

Music could be heard from the campsite and a smile grew on Scar's face. He pulled gently on Rada's hands.

"Come and dance."

Chapter Text

"That's right, that's right!" Dejan was saying to the line of Ishvalans and Amestrians that was beginning to form. He started to turn away from them. "Pardon my back, but it'll be easier to pick up the steps—oh, hello! Nice of you to show up!" he called with a grin as Scar and Rada returned and joined the line. He cocked an eyebrow and his grin grew a little wider at the sight of their clasped hands.

As Vesya stepped up next to Scar, Naisha quickly pushed Miles into line on her other side before anyone else could claim that spot.

"Vesya will show you the steps, Major Miles," Naisha declared. "She's a much better dancer than me!" She grinned mischievously. "Hold on tight and don't take your eyes off her!"

"I think I can manage that." Miles turned to Vesya with a slight bow and held out his hand. "May I have the honor?"

"The steps aren't that hard," Vesya said as she slipped her hand into his. "I'm sure you'll pick them up in no time."

She spoke with matter-of-fact calm, but Scar could feel her other hand tense in his. He glanced at her out of the corner of his eye and could see a blush darkening her cheeks, something that happened often enough for him to dismiss it.

A little further down the line, Emily Knox clutched her husband's hand. She had insisted on him coming. She was happy that he was so involved in his work, but he needed to start spending more time with living people. Going out and having fun was something they hadn't done in a very, very long time, and he was surprisingly persuadable. "Do you remember the polka parties?" she whispered to him.

Knox gave a little grin. "How could I forget? That's where I met you."

Emily looked over her shoulder at Dr. Marcoh, who was sitting near the tables. "Timothy, are you going to join in?"

Marcoh waved his hand. "No, I don't think so. I'm not sure my back could take it."

Knox rolled his shoulders slightly. "I hope mine holds out," he muttered.

Emily's brow puckered. "Oh, dear, are you sure you're up to this?"

Knox squeezed her hand. "I've got my favorite dance partner back. It's worth giving it a whirl."

Emily giggled like a schoolgirl. She turned to her son, who was about to move in next to her. "No, Anthony!" she scolded him playfully. "Get in between those two young ladies there!"

"They oughta show you a thing or two!" Knox added.

Anthony just shook his head and smiled as the two Ishvalan girls gladly let him join in between them. He hadn't seen his parents like this since he was little. They deserved to be a little goofy.

"Now then!" Dejan announced, turning away from the line of dancers. "You start off on your right foot and take two steps—right, left—" He took two steps to the right. "Then right foot skip, left foot skip, skip, skip, hop onto your right foot with your left foot up, then to the left—left, right—little hop onto your left foot, back on your right, back to your left, then right, left, right, then still on your right foot, give a little hop while you cross your left foot in front, then do a quick switch, hopping on your left foot and swinging your right foot in front. That leaves your right foot up to start it all over again." Dejan turned around and lifted his hands. "And you just keep doing that until the music stops!"

Some of the Amestrians realized they hadn't quite paid enough attention. "Uh…" Havoc frowned a little. "Could you run that by me again?"

Dejan waved off his comment as he joined Naisha at the head of the line. "By the time we're done, you'll have picked it up." He nodded the small knot of his musicians, led by Stoyan. "Hit it!"

After a few measures of introduction, Dejan stepped off, leading the line of dancers in a large semi-circle around the musicians. Most of the Amestrians stumbled a little through the first repetitions, but most of them, Havoc included, eventually caught on without sending the entire line tumbling like dominoes. Even a few of the Ishvalans needed time to refresh their memories.

With each step Scar took and as every repeat of the pattern grew more and more familiar, the life that he meant to abandon revisited him with increasing clarity, bittersweet rather than bitter. Would his father have set aside his pride to see his nephew betrothed to his childhood sweetheart? Perhaps. How would he have reacted to his niece's betrothal to a vatrish? Not well, most likely. They would never know. Mattas would certainly have been in the thick of a celebration like this. He might even have found himself a girl, Scar surprised himself by thinking, and he almost laughed out loud.

A laugh did startle him. Beside him, her feet hopping more surely than his in time to the music, Rada was watching Danika as the little girl skipped around the musicians to her own choreography. Stoyan, who was playing Dejan's lute, leaned closer and said something to Mika, whose fingers danced on the head of her drum. She grinned back at him and the music began to speed up a little. There were a few cries of protest from some of the dancers, but they adjusted their speed until the musicians finally brought the dance to an end.

Havoc leaned on his knees, sucking air as the other dancers moved away. "Man!" he said with a cough. "And here I'm thinking how great it was that I had two legs to dance with."

"If you quit, I'll quit," Knox called to him, wheezing a bit himself.

"Dancing or smoking?"

Miles lingered behind, keeping Vesya's hand in his. "Thank you, Miss Vesya," he said. "You're an excellent teacher."

"You're just a good dancer," Vesya replied, not quite meeting his gaze. She seemed a little more intent on the hand that he was holding. "You picked it up right away."

Miles' smiled broadened. "So you did notice!"

"Of course I did," she said softly. She raised her eyes. "Um…there'll be more dancing."

"Will you show me the steps?" Miles asked.

"If you'd like."

"I'd like that very much," Miles replied before releasing her hand.

With a grin grew on her face, Naisha dashed up to Rada, wrapping an arm around her shoulders and pulling her aside.

"Tell me the truth!" she whispered. "What were you doing off by yourselves?"

Rada smiled and shook her head. "We were just talking, Nai. It's nothing to get excited about."

"How can I not get excited? I'm finally officially engaged! I want everybody to be as happy as I am!"

Rada hugged her. "We are, sweetie. Can't you tell?"

Oderkirk watched the two women carefully. The sun was dipping low, just behind his shoulder. Soon there wouldn't be enough light.

"Smitty!" he hissed. "How much film is left?"

Smitty thought for a moment, doing some quick calculations in his head. "It's nearly run out. Maybe thirty seconds."

"Good enough. Scoot over."

Oderkirk shoved his partner out of the way and manned the camera himself, cranking away until the last inch of film slipped through. He straightened up with a victorious grin.

"Aw, Zeb, that was sneaky!"

"Of course it was! But did you see that smile I got?"

"Well, yeah, I suppose. What if her…uh…large boyfriend finds out?"

"I think he's too much of a gentleman to refer to himself as her boyfriend," Oderkirk replied. "And she's too much of a lady to rat on me. Besides, there's no cinema here. When's he ever gonna see this?"

Smitty shook his head. Working with Zebulon Oderkirk was a real adventure.

Mika hung on her father's arm. "Da-ad, can we eat now?" she begged dramatically. "I'm starving!"

"Yes, yes, baby!" Dejan squeezed her face between his hands. "We had to get the first dance in! Then Saahad Bozidar has to say the blessing."

The girl gave the old priest a pleading gaze and Saahad Bozidar stepped to the head of one of the long tables. He raised his hands and spoke the blessing that was becoming familiar to the Amestrians.

Let those who hunger be filled, let those who journey find rest, let those who do not know You be enlightened and be satisfied, O Creator.

"So how is this different from a wedding ceremony?" Havoc asked as they began to eat, scattered around the camp.

"Not that much, really," Dejan replied. "I've played at a lot of both, and I've noticed a few important differences. Let's say you're a visiting Amestrian," he said, gesturing to Havoc, "and you're not really sure what you've stumbled into. The trick is to observe who's getting drunk. Now, at a betrothal, that would be pretty much everybody, particularly the bridegroom-to-be. After all, not much changes after a betrothal, and the only people who have to do anything when the party is over are the people who have to clean up."

"That would be the bride-to-be and her mother, who would spend the rest of the night telling her daughter how she shouldn't settle and she can still change her mind!" Naisha announced.

Dejan lifted his bottle of beer to her in a salute. "At least you didn't."

"Me? Eh-h, no!" Naisha raised her hands. "I'm marrying a prince!"

"Thanks, sweetheart! But at a wedding," Dejan continued, "the bridegroom takes a little more care to keep a clear head so he can spend the better part of the night manfully taking what is his!"

Several of the young women standing nearby let out not-so-scandalized shrieks and pushed Dejan playfully.

"But everybody else gets drunk?" Havoc suggested.

"Oh, hell, yes!" Dejan replied. "Especially the bride."

"That's it! That's enough!" Zulema declared in outrage. "I'm not listening to anymore of this drivel! I'm going home! Where's that boy?"

"Oh, come on, Auntie Zulee!" Dejan implored. "Don't leave yet! The sun isn't even down!" He put his hands together and bowed in front of her. "I'll be good! I promise!"

Zulema slapped his hands aside. "Enough of your cheek and your silly talk, you magpie! You're indecent, that's what you are! When I was a girl—"

"Was that before or after the earthquake?"

Dejan hopped back as Zulema took a swipe at him with her stick. "When I was a girl," she continued firmly, "a bride would barely eat, let alone drink! She would spend her wedding feast weeping for her lost maidenhood!"

"Tch! Catch me doing that!" Naisha muttered.

"Oh, Baata Zulee!" Dejan chided her. "You know very well that was an act. Once her lad got her into the sack, then there'd be an earthquake!"

Zulema gave him a scathing glare. "You're going straight to hell." She looked around. "Where is that wretched boy?"

"Here, Baata Zulema!" Rick called out wearily as he trotted up.

"Are you sure we can't persuade you to stay?" Dejan asked.

Until now, Miles had called upon all his military discipline to refrain from commenting, and he still maintained the demeanor of a career officer. "Don't you want to make sure the evening doesn't end up in a drunken orgy?"

Zulema held out her arm to Rick, who helped haul her to her feet. "I'll leave that to you, young Attar."

"I feel safer already!" Dejan declared, grinning at Miles and stepping aside as Zulema waddled past him, mumbling ominous predictions to herself.

Bozidar gave a sigh as he turned to Havoc. "Please don't take what Zhaarad Dejan says too seriously. Drunkenness is frowned upon here as much as it is anywhere else, if not perhaps more so. Among other things, it displays a weakness of character."

"But Ishvala provided us with the means," Dejan replied. He took a bottle of beer from a nearby table and held it up. "These things can only be good because they come from our Creator. I heard you say that yourself."

"Don't split hairs with me, young man. Ishvala also provided us with good judgment, and too much strong drink can rob a perfectly reasonable man of his proper senses." The old priest regarded him with mild sternness. "Your father, for example, as I recall."

"Oh, I'm not arguing that!" Dejan assured him. "That was a real rough patch he went through after my mom died, and he tried to find solace by crawling into a bottle. It made him hell to live with." He pointed over to Scar. "But my friend over there helped me coax him out, which was a job and a half, wasn't it?"

"You may have tried to coax him," Scar said. "He needed to be pulled out by force."

"Well, one way or another, we managed. After that, he still indulged from time to time, but he always managed to keep his head." Dejan grinned. "He made the smoothest halmi you've ever had!"

Bozidar shook his head. "I've seen more than one honest believer turn into a devil after too much halmi."

Havoc looked back and forth at them. "Okay, what's halmi?"

"It's short for halik mitat," Dejan explained, "which means silver fire. Have you seen those big ugly plants? They've got these big, fat leaves that have spines along the edges and a long spike at the tip that can go right through your arm if you're not careful."

Havoc nodded. "Yeah, I've seen those around."

"They're called zhitai, aren't they?" Miles said. "The fiber from the leaves is used to make rope."

"That's right, Major! You've been doing your homework! But there's much more to them than that. You dig up the whole thing, take out the heart at the center, roast it for about three days, mash it up, put it in a barrel for a good long time, then you bottle it. It's actually a bit more complicated than that, but that's the idea."

"I see." Miles nodded. "So this hooch is powerful stuff?"

"Hooch?" Dejan looked offended. "Hooch? The process is a closely guarded secret, handed down through generations of men who weren't always sure who their fathers were, but it got handed down just the same. My dad was taught by Old Vashto, who ran a tavern and…" He cleared his throat significantly. "…another establishment."

Havoc raised his eyebrows questioningly, and Miles quietly explained. "A brothel."

"Shh!" Dejan quickly raised his fingers to his lips. "Please, Major! There's ladies present. Unfortunately, my dad never got the chance to pass all the secrets down to me, and it died with him." His face fell slightly. "God, I wish he could have been here."

Havoc clapped him on the shoulder and raised his bottle. "Well, we'll drink to him then, even if it's just beer."

"It'll do," Dejan replied, raising his bottle in return. He drained it and as his face was lifted toward the sky, he suddenly pointed up. "Ah, look at that!"

Everyone looked up to see two pale grey birds soaring high above them. They looped around each other in graceful, unhurried figure eights, riding the last of the day's warm rising air and enjoying the early evening sky as much as those on the ground.

"Those are silver hawks, aren't they?" Havoc said. "I remember that one we saw a few months ago."

"A courting pair?" Scar suggested, shading his eyes.

"Dancing like that?" Dejan said, nudging him with his elbow and grinning. "I should say so! That's cause for celebration all by itself! Damyan! Stoyan!" he called out. "Let's strike up another tune! Nai, my bride-to-be, give us a song!"

"Hmm…" Naisha thought for a moment. "How about Netreho Mina (Maiden Bride)?"

Dejan nodded as Stoyan handed him his lute. "Vesya, go sing with your sister!"

"No, no!" Naisha said suddenly. "Rada!" she called, beckoning to her. "Come over here! We used to sing this together all the time, remember!"

Dejan's eyebrows shot up. "Did you, indeed? Rada, sweetheart! You've been holding out on me!" He waved her over. "I need to hear this!"

"Oh…" Rada looked from one of them to the other. "I—" Her mouth nearly formed the word couldn't, but then she smiled and stepped over to Naisha's side, linking her arm through hers. "All right."

There was a ripple of applause and Dejan let out a short ululating cry and started into the song. After the introduction, the two women began to sing in Ishvalan.

(Maiden bride, have you made your veil?
Maiden bride, are your sleeves embroidered?
Do the lads find you fair?
Do they know your heart is given?

Maiden bride, is he your brave hawk?
Maiden bride, are you his bright sunrise?
Does your heart beat only for him?
Will you love him forever?)

Rada might not have been riding the same wave of euphoria as Naisha, but as she sang along with her friend, she looked radiantly happy. She had transformed not back into a girl whose life had been simple and untroubled, but into a woman who had known sorrow and found joy that much sweeter. Scar watched her, transfixed. Delight was not an emotion he was very familiar with. It was something that existed for other people, but he could easily see why they would seek its intoxication. It was with a measure of guilt that he ignored the voice in his head warning him that he was not entitled to entertain these notions. Could he strain the limits of God's indulgence just a little further?

...........................................................................................................................................................

The moon was rising over the eastern mountains and the party had dwindled to a few die-hards. Most of the Amestrians had gone back to their tents, with the exception of Havoc and the two cameramen, who had used up all their film and would be leaving in the morning. Voices and music carried on the night air to where Scar leaned against a remnant of the corner of a house. It was a pleasant sound to have at one's back, subdued and comfortable, but he felt the need for some solitude.

Not utter solitude. He smiled to himself when he heard the light sound of approaching footsteps. It was nothing they had either planned or discussed, but when Rada came to stand by his elbow, he couldn't deny that he had hoped for it.

"For all her grumbling, Danika was asleep barely a minute after her head hit the pillow," Rada said. She had a blanket wrapped around her shoulders. It was autumn now, and the air had grown dryer and the temperature dropped at night.

"Aren't you tired?" Scar asked her. "You've been busy all day."

Rada shook her head. "I'm fine. I'd rather be here."

Scar smiled slightly. "What's here that's so special?"

Rada shrugged under the blanket and looked up. "The night sky. A few stars. The moon. You."

Scar followed her gaze. "The sky, the moon, and the stars are pure and untroubled. I don't exactly fall into that category."

"Neither do I." Rada turned to him. "But we're within each other's reach."

Scar let out a quiet sigh. "I'm a wretched sinner, Rada. I'm disfigured." His arguments were beginning to sound weak, even to him.

"And you're your own worst judge," she replied readily. "Don't tell me I shouldn't go looking for you." He could see her smile in the moonlight. "After all, you'll always be able to tell where I am, no matter how far I go. You told me so yourself."

Scar frowned slightly. "I did?"

She nudged his arm. "You did! That night I tried to leave! You told me you could find me by using your alchemy. You could put your hands on the ground and sense where I was."

"Oh." He must have blocked out that memory. He wasn't proud of it. "Rada, that…isn't true."

She looked up at him quizzically. "It isn't?"

"No. That isn't something I can do." He took a deep breath. Another transgression that had come to confront him. "I lied."

Rada stared at him. "Why would you do that?"

"Because it was all I could think of to convince you to stay," Scar replied. He felt as though he shouldn't be saying these things to her, but at least this time it was the truth. "If you left, I would be the one who was lost."

After a moment, she said "oh" very softly. He was standing with his arms folded and his sleeves pushed up. The marks on his arms were barely visible in the moonlight. She lightly traced the lines of the array on his right forearm with a fingertip. "Did you really find the river?"

"Yes. It's definitely there."

"What else can your alchemy do?"

Scar unfolded his arms and raised them. "My right arm deconstructs. My left arm reconstructs." He lowered his arms to his sides. "Together they do…things I wasn't quite prepared for."

"Like?" She looked up at him, her head tilted a little.

He had not wanted anyone else to know this. Her he would tell. "I'm able to sense another person's emotions if my hands touch their bare skin."

She gazed at him silently for a moment, then said, "Really?"

Scar nodded. "Really."

She reached down and lifted his hands, pressing her palms against his. What he felt beggared description and at the same time rendered it unnecessary. Their fingers curled down, weaving tightly between each other's. He bent his head down to cover the lips she offered him with his.

Heaven didn't seem quite so far away anymore.

...........................................................................................................................

"See? What did I tell you? She couldn't have been any safer!"

Scar was aware of whispering voices, but he was too comfortable and content to move or indicate that he was awake. They had talked well into the night, baring their souls to each other, finally dozing off sitting against the wall, her head tucked into the hollow of his throat, the blanket around both of them.

Danika was still very concerned. "But something coulda bit them!"

"Ah, no, little blackbird! I have a feeling that Ishvala's keeping a close eye on these two."

Chapter Text

"You shouldn't have, Major. I mean that. Seriously."

Miles smiled to himself. She could deny it all she wanted. She could scowl as much as she liked. She could be as brusque and cold as she liked, but he never forgot her birthday.

"I just wanted you to see an example of Ishvalan craftsmanship, ma'am."

In the northern reaches of Briggs, if you blinked, you generally missed autumn. It was already snowing. Major General Armstrong sat in the relative comfort of the radio room and admired the teapot in her hands. It really was lovely. It was a deep maroon and had a slight grain to it. An intricate geometric pattern spanned the pot's middle, matching the same pattern on the set of four matching cups.

"What are these characters on the bottom?" Olivier asked, tipping the pot upside down.

"Those are the equivalent of a 'D' and a 'K' in Ishvalan," Miles replied. "They stand for Damyan Kafik, the artist who created these pieces. Although there really ought to be a 'V' as well. His sister is the one who painted the design, but she's too modest to take any credit."

"They seem to be a very talented duo." Oliver set the teapot down in front of the transceiver and fitted the lid back on top. "Have they actually started turning a profit?"

"Yes, they have. A number of our soldiers have placed orders for tea sets and dinner sets to send to their families. Damyan's beginning to find it hard to keep up, but he's enjoying every minute of it."

"Sounds very positive. And the building? How is that shaping up?"

"It's progressing. They've gotten a good start on the Great Temple, but that's going to take at least a year to complete. Another team has been assigned to plan out the housing," Miles said. "They're following the same design as Ishval had previously. It's like a big wheel with the district of Gunja in the center and the Great Temple at its heart. The other five districts radiate out from there. It used to be that the higher your social status was, the closer to the center you lived."

"Used to be?" Olivier asked. "How is that going to work out now?"

"It's gotten a little complicated," Miles replied with a wry smile. That was something he was thankful to not be involved in. "There are those who feel very strongly about being as close to the center as possible. There are still a number of prominent families represented among the survivors. Andakar is trying to convince them that it doesn't matter, but some are a little harder to convince than others. For the most part, though, people tend to listen to him, since he's a descendant of the nobility from the Age of Princes."

"This is before that earthquake?"

"Yes, ma'am. There was the ruling family, of which there are no direct descendants, but apparently the wife of the last prince of Ishval was a daughter of the House of Ruhad, Andakar's family."

Olivier's brows rose. "Hm! Did you realize you were in such elevated company?"

"There is something about him, I'll admit," Miles replied. "But his personal philosophy is much more egalitarian. There are a couple of others who claim nobility who don't necessarily display it. There's one fellow, Stanno, who is a descendant of the noble House of Dreva, but he's a complete waste of space."

"Noble is as noble does."

"Exactly," Miles said with a nod. "But how are things up north, ma'am? I haven't heard much."

Olivier leaned back in her seat. "It's quiet, but it could the calm before the storm."

Miles frowned. "Is it?"

"Our operatives in Drachma have reported that there has been a surge in the production of weapons. After your stunning victory over the Drachman invasion force—have you received any sort of commendation for that?" Olivier demanded.

"I was just doing my duty, ma'am."

"Horseshit! Mustang gets a promotion for getting himself blinded and you get nothing." the general growled. "There ain't no justice, as they say."

Miles lifted a shoulder. "They also say that the wheels of justice grind exceedingly slow but exceedingly fine."

"Whoever 'they' are, they're a bunch of assholes! At any rate, Drachma is in the process of rebuilding its forces."

Miles leaned closer to the transceiver. "Any time frame?"

"Hard to say. Within a year, a couple of years, perhaps." Olivier smiled grimly. "'They' also say that revenge is a dish best served cold."

"Everything up there is cold, ma'am."

Olivier looked down at her teapot and traced her finger along the design around its middle. "Almost everything."

....................................................................................................................................................................

"My family had the same house just yards—feet practically!—from the back gate of the Great Temple, for generations!" The woman drew herself up with haughty indignation. "I could have shown you where the foundations were, but no-o-o!" She sniffed. "It's all been dug up and scraped flat. My family's house, mind you!"

Scar simply couldn't muster up very much sympathy. "Don't you think you ought to be grateful simply to be alive, Zhaarana?" he asked her.

"Yes, yes, of course!" she replied testily. "Praise Ishvala for His mercy! But why should I have to live next door to someone who used to live all the way out on the edge of North Wahir, eh? And why is my house going to be so small, eh?" She jabbed the building plans spread out on the table with her finger.

"Because it's only you and you're niece, Zhaarana," Scar replied with thin patience. "We have to accommodate families according to their needs and their potential growth. If your niece marries—" The mousy young woman who stood mutely beside her aunt was probably desperate to escape her clutches. "—she'll be leaving home and you won't need a large house." The plans for his house, one he had not foreseen the need for until a few weeks ago, indicated quite a potential for growth. He wasn't going to tell her that.

"Huh! If she marries! She's plain as plain, poor thing!" the elder woman pronounced as though she was somehow doing her niece a favor.

Two of the architects, one Ishvalan, the other Amestrian, stood off to one side, keeping their heads down over their blueprints. They were technicians and perfectly amiable people, but they knew what their limitations were. They were more than happy to let Scar handle the public, and they had a quiet side bet as to when he would finally lose it.

Scar's expression and tone darkened. "Zhaarana, if you're not satisfied with the house that is being built for you at the government's expense, you are free to return to wherever in Amestris you were living before."

The woman stared at him incredulously then threw a hand in the air with dismissive contempt. She stormed out of the tent, rattling off something scathing in Ishvalan. Her niece scurried after her like a baby quail after its mother. As they were leaving, another woman stepped past them into the tent, and Scar's frown of irritation softened to a smile of recognition.

"Avizeh!" he greeted her, then added, "Ah, your pardon! Zhaarana Avizeh!"

The woman smiled and held out her hand to clasp Scar's. "Oh, now, I told you already, there's no need to be so formal, and I wouldn't dream of putting on airs."

"You're not a servant anymore, Zhaarana," Scar reminded her.

"No, my dear, but I am a friend, aren't I?"

Scar nodded. "Of course you are." He gestured toward the building plans. "Did you want to see where your house will be?"

Avizeh waved her hand. "Oh, I'm sure it'll be fine, although I might bring Nimir and the kids to take a look." She jerked her head toward the door and lowered her voice. "As long as I'm not next door to her." She sighed. "I suppose it's hard to go from being quality to just being ordinary."

"Hm. Quality is a relative term," Scar remarked.

Avizeh beamed a smile at him. "You haven't really changed much, you know that? You always were a champion to us poor folk, one way or another." Her smiled grew a little sad. "Your parents would have been so proud of you!"

Scar considered her words. He hoped she was right.

He left the tent and made his way home. He had papers to grade and a lecture to plan. They were starting to run out of pencils at school, and he made a mental note to order more the next day. The translation of The Chronicles of Rihir were ready for publication, and Saahad Bozidar wanted him to take a final look the manuscript before it was sent off to East City University Press. Suddenly there didn't seem to be enough hours in the day.

When he reached their camp, dinner was being prepared. Rada looked up and gave him a smile. She set down the bowl she had in her hands and went over to him, slipping her arms around his waist as he gathered her close to him and breathed in the smell of her. He never imagined the combination of wood smoke and army surplus shampoo could be so arousing.

He had never sought a tempestuous life, but neither did he seek a quiet one. What he had desired was to simply do God's will; whether he had been successful in doing that remained to be seen. All he could do now was be cautiously grateful. He had the feeling God wasn't done with him yet.

...................................................................................................................................................

The dark theater had gone quiet except for the mournful dirge played on the piano up at the front. Roy's fingers curled over the ends of the armrests on either side of him, gripping them tightly as he stared at the screen. Coffin after coffin after coffin trudged across his vision. It was a scene that had jumped right out of his nightmares. The intertitle said The Ishvalans Lay Their Departed To Rest. The film had moved disconcertingly from cheerful scenes of smiling Ishvalan children and Amestrians and Ishvalans playing football to images of bleak desolation, piles of lifeless rubble, jagged remnants of buildings stained with what might not have been detectable to the untrained eye. Roy immediately recognized them as scorch marks.

The final scenes depicted a celebration. Life Begins Again! the intertitle declared. A line of people, both Ishvalan and Amestrian, danced past the camera. A tune that was probably not Ishvalan, more likely whatever the pianist thought was appropriate, tinkled merrily along with the dancers. There was shot of a couple of very attractive Ishvalan ladies who seemed to be sharing a secret with each other. They caught sight of the camera, and one of them, quite a beauty by any standards, looked a little wary for a moment, then an almost playful smile grew on her face. This elicited whistles from the male members of the audience, something Roy might have joined in on at one time, but at the moment his heart was still pounding and a cold sweat beaded on his forehead.

The screen announced that the film had come to The End and that it had been a proud Cruikshank Brothers Production. Then the curtain lowered to mark the break until the main feature began. The audience applauded and hummed approvingly. Mr. Oderkirk's project seemed to have left the desired impression.

"I don't think I saw him anywhere," Riza leaned over to whisper.

"What?"

Riza leaned a little closer. "You-know-who. I didn't see him."

"Oh." Roy forced himself to calm down. "N—no, I didn't either," he whispered back.

Riza grew immediately alert at the tension he couldn't hide. "What's wrong?"

Roy shook his head. "Nothing."

Riza didn't reply, but she didn't have to. She put her hand over his, prying his fingers off the armrest so he could have something warm and soft and alive to hang onto. "It's all right," she whispered. "You're doing everything you can."

Coffin after coffin after coffin. "Will it ever be enough?" he barely whispered back, almost to himself.

Chapter Text

Knox stepped out of the mortuary tent and into the early evening to find Zulema peering up at the notice board that stood out in front. It held lists of descriptions of the remains that had been cataloged so far. There were separate lists for men, women, and children. He had caught her at this several times already. "Caught" seemed to be the right word for it; she always took off as soon as anyone noticed. But she kept coming back.

"Can I help you, ma'am?" Knox asked. One of these days she might answer him. "Is there someone you're looking for?"

Zulema stepped away from the notice board, looking slightly shifty-eyed, and she shook her head. "No, thank you," she mumbled and shuffled away.

Approaching the tent was Dejan, who waved cheerfully at the old woman. "Good evening, Auntie Zulee. Didn't find your name on the list yet, did you?"

Zulema barely gave him a glance and muttered to herself as she continued on her way. Dejan stepped up to the notice board and ran his eyes over the list, lifting the top page when he was done to peruse the next.

"Sorry, Dejan," Knox said, moving next to him. "We really didn't find much in the area you told us about. People may have lived there, but they didn't necessarily die there. There were a couple of female skeletons, aged roughly thirty-five to forty—"

Dejan nodded. "The falshaii. The 'professional' ladies," he explained with a wink as Knox gave him a questioning look.

"If you say so. But we haven't found anyone matching the description you gave. Six feet, four or five inches tall, right?"

"About that. Just a bit taller than me."

"And he was only about forty?" Knox scratched his chin thoughtfully. "And you're how old?"

"I'm thirty." Dejan shrugged. "What can I say? He and my mom were both orphans and they were both young and unsupervised. He was only seventeen or so when he sired me."

"Where did you last see him?"

Dejan thought for a moment, then grimaced and rubbed his forehead as though a memory somewhere behind it pained him. "He wouldn't have made it back to the camps. It was about the edge of South Kanda." He sighed and dropped his hand. "Things were a little crazy that day."

Knox studied Dejan's profile for a moment. "I've gotta say, you're taking this awfully well."

A subdued smile grew on Dejan's face as he peered at the list. "I just take it a day at a time, Dr. Knox. Oh!" His interest was suddenly caught by one of the entries. "Here's a fellow with a bit of a hunchback! Five foot five," he read. "Sixty-five to seventy."

Knox looked to where Dejan was pointing. "Oh, yeah. He was picked up on the outskirts of the camps. Somebody you know? Knew?"

"That has to be Old Vashto." Dejan sighed. "I'm probably the closest thing left to family he's got, except for maybe a few bedbugs. I guess I should see about carrying his coffin."

"We'll keep looking," Knox said. "I'll let you know if we find anything."

"I can't ask for better than that. Thanks, Doc!"

Knox continued on his way back to his tent. Emily's tent was pitched just a few feet away from his, and she had set up a small "dining" area between them. She was sitting there now with a cup of tea and a magazine, and Knox bent down to kiss her on top of her head.

"Hello, dear," she said, smiling up at him. "How was work?"

"Same old thing," Knox replied, sitting across from her. "Is Anthony still over helping Marcoh?"

"Yes, I believe so."

Knox gave a little grin. "You're sure he isn't out chasing girls with Havoc?"

Emily gave him a playfully reproving look. "No, I couldn't say for sure." They shared a quiet laugh, and Emily set down her cup. "Let's go for a walk. The air is getting cooler and it's so nice out."

Knox was about to groan that he just got home and he was too tired, but then he caught sight of Emily's hopeful face. He stood up. "Let's do that."

Arm in arm, they strolled leisurely through the headquarters compound as the sun began to set. Work had ended for the day all around the settlement and many were out with the same intention as the Knoxes.

A burst of music came from the radio tent along with some brief cheering and laughing. The flaps along the front of the tent were tied out of the way, opening it up to the compound. Inside the tent, Havoc and Breda stood behind Karley as he gave the knobs on the transceiver a little more fine tuning. He had unplugged the headphones, so the signal was amplified by the speakers on the console. He turned the volume up a little more.

"How's that?"

"That's perfect!" Havoc pronounced. "It's officially Saturday night!"

A dance band of accordions, saxophones, and a couple of tubas had struck up a tune.

You can take my szynka, take my fine kielbasi! You can take my pierogi, but give me back my kiszka!

"That takes me back," Havoc said with a wistful, nostalgic smile. "Remember when we'd go into town after the joint exercises? Drinking and dancing all night long!"

"And then we'd have to be up by o-six-hundred the next morning," Karley added, shaking his head. "The general has little to no sympathy for a hangover."

"That part I don't miss." Havoc turned to Breda, spreading his arms. "Breda! I need a new vice to take my mind off cigarettes!" He noisily drew in a deep breath and blew it out. "Hear that? Clear as a bell! How about a polka?"

Breda returned a look of mild disgust and leaned away. "Don't touch me."

Havoc took a quick look around outside the tent. He suddenly gave a sharp whistle. "Hey, Molly!" he called to a young woman in uniform who was crossing the compound. "Come on over here and cut a rug with me!"

Molly obliging stepped forward. "Gee, I didn't pack my fluffy petticoat."

"That's okay," Havoc told her, grabbing her hand. "Neither did I!"

As the singer on the radio further bemoaned the purloining of his sausage, Havoc and Molly danced in a wide circle in front of the tent. Havoc looked over his shoulder as they passed the Knoxes.

"What?" he called out to them. "You two just gonna stand there?"

Emily tightened her hold on Knox's arm. "Oh, dear!" she breathed.

"Uh…" Knox cautiously watched the couple whirl by. "I don't know—"

It apparently wasn't up to him. Emily hauled him forward, grabbed his left hand, put her other hand on his shoulder and gave him a firmly expectant look. He had to smile and surrender.

"Okay, honey," he said as he set his hand on Emily's waist. "Just don't leave me in your dust."

......................................

Vesya paused at the edge of the small crowd that had gathered near the radio tent. She had been on her way home after finishing up at her brother's workshop, but she was attracted by the sound of music and laughter. She laughed softly along with the others as Havoc and his partner flashed by, adding variations to their steps. At one point he grabbed her by the waist and lifted her in the air while executing a turn, then setting her back on her feet without missing a beat.

The music was loud, boisterous and infectious, and Vesya raised herself very slightly on the balls of her feet to surreptitiously copy the dancers' steps in place. Right-left-right, left-right-left, right-left-right…

"You look like you've done this before."

Vesya gave a little guilty jump and looked up to see Major Miles standing beside her. He had shed his uniform jacket and his dark glasses in favor of a close-fitting tee shirt and a slightly amused look in his scarlet eyes.

"Oh…no, I haven't," Vesya replied, stilling her feet. She hoped the heat in her cheeks wasn't as obvious to him as it felt to her. "I've seen it before, though. We would try to hit all the country fairs that we could while we were traveling around Amestris."

"Traveling? You make it sound like exile was fun."

Vesya gave a little shrug. "We made the best of it. We especially loved fairs! Most of the time they would let us perform, if not for money, at least for food. And there'd always be a dance band like the one on the radio. Sometimes Dejan and Naisha would dance together." She nodded at Havoc and smiled at the recollection.

"But you didn't?"

"Oh, no!"

Miles considered her with a smile playing on his lips. "You say that as though it should be obvious."

Vesya looked away, feeling somewhat flustered and unsure if it felt pleasant or not. "I just…never did."

"That's a shame," Miles went on. "You're much too pretty to be a wallflower."

Vesya looked up at him, genuinely puzzled. "A what?"

"That's someone who isn't dancing," Miles told her, taking her hand, "but should be."

Before she had a chance to protest, he had her by the waist, her hand firmly in his. "Now it's my turn to show you a few steps," he said. "So hold on tight."

At first Vesya froze. All her upbringing told her that there was something not quite right about this. But something else was rather capably persuading her otherwise. A smile grew on her face and she hopped easily onto her left foot as he led off with his right. The band on the radio segued from one tune to another.

On Tuesday you sure got me rarin'
For those kisses you'd be sharin'
I showed up but you're not darin'!
Girl, you let me down!

The radio tent, the compound, other faces flew by in a blur. It was the most wonderfully frightening thing she had ever done. It wasn't just the brisk tempo of the music and the steps. It was the barely credible fact that Miles had his arm around her. They were so close. The muscles in his arm felt even bigger and firmer than they looked under his uniform jacket. His eyes were even warmer close up. She briefly wondered what Naisha would think if she saw her, then she thought it was just as well that she wasn't there. She would be squealing like a pig, a thought that made Vesya giggle breathlessly.

The last tune came to a decisive ending and the dancers came to a halt. Miles gave Vesya one last spin, turning her back to face him.

"You have done this before!" he remarked.

Vesya shook her head, a delighted smile still on her face. "No, really, I haven't!"

"Then you're a fast learner."

Vesya gave a little giggle. "I suppose I am."

Breda tossed his canteen to Havoc, who looked a little out of breath. "Clear as a bell, huh?"

Havoc took several gulps of water. "I'm working on it!"

"How about you, dear?" Emily asked her husband. "Holding up all right?"

Knox nodded. They had kept at a much more sedate pace than the others, so he was not as breathless as he could have been. "Just about. I might have to sit the next one out, though."

"Of course." Emily patted him on the arm, then reached up and kissed him on the cheek. "Thank you, dear!" she said, smiling up at him. "That brought back a lot of very pleasant memories."

"Yeah, it did." Knox smiled back at her and wrapped his arm around her shoulders. "It really did."

A cheerful voice over the radio announced, "That was Danny Marx and His Polka Sharks, and you're spending another Saturday night in East City with me, your host, Johnny Cross, that's Cross by name, not by nature! So don't touch that dial unless you're gonna turn it up! Next we've got a little number by an East City favorite, Janos Bartha and his combo…"

A violin started off with a sinuous, meandering solo announcing the beginning of a csardas. It was joined after a few measures by a cimbalom as it rippled up the scale ending with a metallic trill.

"Oh, man! You know who's good at this?" Havoc declared over the music. "The colonel—I mean, the brigadier!"

"Him and the lieutenant," Breda corrected him. "It takes two, you know."

"The major's a pretty smooth operator, too," Karley added, nodding in Miles' direction.

Havoc grinned as he looked over his shoulder. Miles was taking Vesya through the initial steps. "Yeah, I can see that."

Vesya held onto Miles' upper arm with one hand and his shoulder with the other. He held her firmly with his hands against her back below her shoulder blades. They stood close and slightly offset to each other, and they moved in a slow, tight circle. Step, step, pause, step, step pause, step, step, pause, then a slight sway from side to side. Miles began to add a few variations and Vesya followed along, a little hesitantly at first, until she was able to start anticipating what the next step might be. Then the music began to speed up with a sharper rhythm and their steps became quicker, still moving around each other in a tight circle. It was a little dizzying, and Vesya clung to him tightly.

Miles stepped away from her slightly, taking one of her hands and turning her several times, moving from her right side to her left side, then turning away from her, drawing her behind him, passing her hand from his right to his left, and ending up facing her again. As the music grew gradually faster, Vesya picked up on the basic pattern and began to add her own variations that complemented Miles' movements. She would briefly let go of him and spin around behind him as he turned in the opposite direction to face her again and swing her back into his arms.

A sizeable crowd had begun to gather to watch the dancers. The Amestrians clapped and whistled in time to the music. Some of the Ishvalans followed the couple's movements with curiosity. Others, generally older, eyed the two with a somewhat uneasy disapproval.

Vesya twirled faster, sometimes on her own and sometimes with Miles' help. He would turn her one direction, her skirt flaring out, then he would spin her the other way, making her skirt wrap itself high around her thighs as she changed direction. This brought more appreciative whistles from the soldiers.

"Stop it! Stop it! Stop it!" Pushing through the crowd and barreling forward at an alarming speed, Zulema waved her stick as though she could somehow erase the disturbing scene before her and managing at least to bring the dancing to a sudden stop. "This is disgraceful!" she squawked. She jabbed at the air in Miles' direction. "Attar! How could you! Have you grown so far away from your people? Take your hands off that girl! Where is her brother, eh? What will he have to say about this, eh?"

"Auntie Zulee—" Miles began firmly.

"Oh, don't you Auntie Zulee me, you young scoundrel! And you, missy!" Zulema turned her fiery glare on Vesya. "Taking after that sister of yours, are you! Turning into quite the hussy, aren't you!"

Vesya drew in a quick, indignant gasp and began to pull away from Miles, but he kept his arm around her and glared back at the old woman.

"Aunt Zulema, you need to stop this now!" he warned her darkly, his anger mounting.

"Hush, boy!" Zulema snapped back at him. "Hush! Don't you give me any of your back sass! And you, too!" She turned and tossed a hand at the crowd behind her as a few voices had called out cool off, old lady! and go crash some other party! "You're no better, standing around watching them! It's disgusting!" She turned back fiercely to Miles and Vesya. "Ishvala have mercy on both of you for your shamelessness! Never!" She stabbed the ground furiously with the end of her stick. "Never have I seen the like! Never in all my days!"

Even the most thoroughly disciplined, self-possessed, cool-under-fire officer had his breaking point, and Miles managed at that moment to find his.

"Then take a good look!" he told Zulema.

He pulled Vesya tightly and pressed his mouth against her in a hard kiss. This was met with a chorus of approving howls and cheers from the Amestrians and shocked gasps and cries from most of the Ishvalans. Several of the younger ones stifled laughter and were glared at by their elders. Zulema simply gaped.

Vesya went rigid for a moment, then slid a hand around the back of Miles' neck and gripped his shoulder tightly with the other. What had started out as an impulsive act of defiance turned into something quite different, and even the Amestrians seemed a little surprised as how long it was lasting.

Zulema finally managed to shake herself from her momentary paralysis and she launched herself forward. Hearing a low whoosh cutting through the air, Miles grabbed Vesya and jumped back before Zulema could connect with her stick. She started screeching wildly and rapidly in Ishvalan, shaking her stick and her fist and very nearly spitting with outrage. The two watched her warily as though she was a small rabid terrier. Finally, Zulema grabbed Vesya's wrist in a surprisingly strong grip and dragged her away, all the while keeping up her vitriolic shrieking, either at Miles, Vesya, or the company around her. Even as she and Vesya left the compound and headed away, the old woman's voice could still be heard.

Miles watched them leave, a darkly brooding and slightly embarrassed look on his face. The music on the radio came to a stop with three sharp scrapes of the violin, and the announcer came back on.

"I hope you guys got your gals good and dizzy with that one! Now we have a few words from tonight's sponsor. Are you bothered by household pests? Can you hear them nibbling away inside your cupboards? Are they driving you crazy?"

"Turn that damn thing off!" Miles growled.

"Yes, sir!" Karley quickly flipped the power switch on the transceiver, plunging the compound into an awkward silence.

The crowd began to disperse, talking with subdued voices amongst themselves, either with amusement or incredulity. They all seemed to avoid eye contact with Miles, who wore an expression like a thunderstorm that hadn't quite passed.

Knox leaned close to Emily's ear. "What just happened?" he whispered.

"Shh! I'll tell you later."

"You know," Havoc began suddenly in a slightly forced voice, "I once took a girlfriend of mine to the zoo, and there were these monkeys or baboons or something, and I tossed them a couple of peanuts, you know, and they just snapped them up, and then I said to my girl, watch this, and I pretended to throw a peanut into the cage, but I didn't really. Wow! Did those monkeys get mad! They were jumping up and down and throwing themselves at the bars of the cage! And the screeching!" He chuckled and shook his head and looked around at the others, who did not seem to be quite as amused by his story as he was and possibly felt that he should either bring it to a swift conclusion or just shut the hell up. He stuffed his hands into his pockets. "Well, that old lady had them beat, that's all I can say."

Miles gave him a cold, uncompromising look. "Thank God for that, Mr. Havoc."

Chapter Text

The camp had finally gone quiet. Vesya stood stiffly with her arms folded, her eyes fixed on the ground. The others stared at each other for several moments, bewildered.

"All right," Dejan said finally. "I caught most of that…I think. I didn't realize 'crazy baata' was its own dialect."

Damyan turned to his sister. "Um…Ves?" he asked cautiously. "What was she going on about?"

"What a horrible old woman!" Naisha exclaimed. "What was she saying about Miles? And why does she keep calling him Attar?"

"That was his grandfather's name," Scar explained, watching his youngest cousin with concern. As little credence as he was tempted to give to the frenzied rant that Zulema just delivered, Vesya was clearly upset.

"What's his real name, then?"

"I don't know," Scar replied.

"How can you not know? Haven't you ever asked him?"

"I don't think that's the issue right now."

"What was that part about his hands?" Damyan asked. "Did she actually say they were all over Vesya?"

"I expect that was an exaggeration." Scar said with a slight tone of distaste.

"And he's supposed to have…how did she put it?" Damyan frowned. "He…ravished her?"

"I got the part about 'right in front of Ishvala and all Creation'," Dejan added.

Naisha rolled her eyes in exasperation. "That did not happen! And Vesya most definitely was not 'cavorting like a woman of sin.' That is not even possible!"

"Well, something happened!" Damyan exclaimed.

Dejan turned to Vesya, who was still sullenly silent. "Vesya, honey," he said kindly. "Do you want to set the record straight?"

Vesya finally lifted her eyes and looked at the others, her slender brows furrowed. "No," she said. And she turned and walked away.

Naisha stared after her, then started following her. "Vesya, wait! What's the matter?"

"Leave me alone, Nai!" Vesya called back without turning around, and she disappeared past the circle of tents.

Danika watched the adults with anxious concern. She turned to Rada. "Mama, what's the matter with Auntie Vesya?"

Rada shook her head and patted Danika's hand. "It's all right, sweetie," she said quietly. "Just keep practicing your reading."

Not entirely satisfied, Danika leaned closer to Mika, who sat next to her doing homework. "Is that a grown-up thing they're talking about?" she whispered.

Mika nodded somberly. "Uh-huh."

Naisha stood helplessly dumbfounded for a few moments, then she turned around. She threw her hands in the air. "This is just not right! Of all people for that nosy old baata to come down on…I mean…our little Vesya? I want to know what's going on!" She gave a gasp and covered her mouth. "And what about Miles? Somebody has to talk to him!"

"That would be me," Damyan said wearily. "She's my sister and I'm the head of the family."

"What are you going to do?" Naisha demanded, suddenly alarmed.

"Relax, Nai!" Damyan told her, a little irritably, turning to leave for headquarters. "I'm just going to get his side of whatever it is."

After he left, Naisha stood scowling anxiously. "I still think someone needs to talk to Vesya." She folded her arms petulantly. "Not me, apparently," she muttered.

They all looked at each other and finally Scar sighed. "I will. I'll at least see where she's gone off to."

He headed in the direction Vesya had taken. Beyond this side of the campsite were groups of trees and the remnants of a couple of buildings, a spot that Scar was beginning to collect fond memories of. He found Vesya fairly quickly. She was sitting on the ground against the fragment of a wall, her knees drawn up and her arms wrapped around them. She looked up as he approached and gave him a rueful smile.

"I'm glad it's you," she said. "I love Naisha, but she always has to start an uproar."

"It sounds like you started one of your own," Scar remarked.

Vesya let out a sigh. "It wasn't anything, really! Baata Zulee just…overreacted."

Scar nodded. "Well, if it wasn't anything, and you're all right, I've leave you alone." He turned to move away.

"Wait."

Scar paused and looked back at his cousin. She was looking up at him with a forlorn expression. "Do you mind staying for a minute?"

"Of course I don't mind." Scar sat down next to her. She leaned against his shoulder and was quiet for several minutes. She was always the quiet one, but it was not for lack of anything going on inside her head. If there was something she wanted to say, he knew she would say it in her own good time. They maintained a companionable silence for a little while longer until Vesya finally spoke up.

"It really was nothing," she insisted. "And everybody who was there will tell you the same thing."

"You had a sizeable audience?"

Scar felt her shrug against his shoulder. "It was by the communications tent. There was some music playing on the radio. Miles and I were dancing—"

Scar's eyebrows went up. "Dancing?"

"Amestrian dancing. You know. The kind where there's just two people."

Scar tried not to smile. "I've heard of it."

"Well, he was teaching me a dance, and it was so much fun!" Her voice was soft and wistful. "It wasn't like anything I've ever done before. And then Zulema barged in and started screaming at us, telling us how shameful we were acting. I suppose Miles just got angry with her, and he…um…kissed me."

After a moment of silence, Scar said, "He kissed you?"

"Mm-hmm."

"Because he was angry as Zulema?"

"That's right. That's what really set her off. I guess that's what he was trying to do."

Scar waited for her to continue, but she remained quiet. "Vesya, are you sure he didn't kiss you because he likes you?"

Vesya blew out an exasperated breath. "See, that's what Nai would've said! That's why I didn't tell her!"

"Hmm." Scar thought for a moment. "I see your point."

Vesya watched him out of the corner of her eye, expecting him to comment further, but he simply sat gazing into the twilight. She put her chin back on her knees. "Maybe he does," she mumbled.

"What was that?"

"I said…" Vesya raised her voice a little. "Maybe he does. Like me."

"That's the impression I've gotten."

"Well, it doesn't much matter, does it?"

"Why not?"

"Andakar! He's not staying!" Vesya exclaimed impatiently. "This isn't his home! This isn't…" Her voice faltered a little. "…where his heart is."

"Oh."

"And when he's all done here, when he's sure everything's going to be all right here, which it pretty much is, he's going to go back up north to his magnificent general in Briggs and I'm just going to be that girl he met that summer in Ishval."

Scar considered what she said and then nodded. "I see."

"Do you? Honestly?"

"I understand what you're saying," Scar said carefully. "I understand that that's the way you see it."

"There's no other way to see it!"

"Perhaps," Scar mused. "There was a time when I looked at life in much sharper contrasts than I do now. I was convinced that my perspective was the only one I could believe in."

Vesya regarded him with a troubled frown, then she lowered her forehead onto her knees. Her voice was muffled in her skirt. "When Naisha and I were younger, we would talk about the sort of man we wanted to marry, and we both decided on the same thing. He had to be as handsome as Father, as smart as Mattas, and as strong as you." She gave a little breath of a laugh. "Then she met Dejan. I mean, he is all those things, but in his own way." Her arms tightened around her knees and said, barely audibly, "Miles really is all those things."

"But, as you said," Scar replied, more to prompt her than to agree with her, "he's leaving."

"Mm-hmm."

"He's going back to his—what did you call her? His magnificent general?"

Vesya turned her head slightly to look at Scar. "Have you ever seen her?"

"Yes, I have."

"Is she really that beautiful?"

"She is certainly very striking. Flowing blonde hair, large blue eyes, full lips…I suppose magnificent is as good a word as any."

"Well, there it is."

"What is?"

Vesya leaned back against the wall, raising her hands and dropping them down to her sides. "Do I really have to explain it to you?"

"Yes."

She let out an impatient puff of air. "He'll forget about me as soon as he's with her!"

"And you're determined to convince yourself of this?"

Scar turned to look at her and she met his gaze levelly. "Yes, that's exactly it. I have to. I don't want any false hope. I don't want him taking my heart with him when he leaves because he won't even know he has it. I don't want to be 'that girl.' Please tell me you understand! If I tell Naisha, she just won't get it!"

Scar put his arm around her shoulders and gave her a gentle squeeze.

"All right, Vesya. I suppose that's the wisest course."

Vesya leaned against him. "Thank you!" she breathed with weary relief.

When he was a priest, Scar would sometimes be called upon to counsel young people against giving in to desires of the flesh. He found this painfully awkward as well as slightly hypocritical on his part, considering that he had lost his own heart to a young maiden who was beyond his reach. He would tell these despondent, hormone-ridden children to pray for guidance. He figured if they were busy praying, they wouldn't have time for anything else. Even now, when his young maiden was all grown up and well within his reach, he didn't feel much more qualified to counsel anyone on affairs of the heart. Heartache, however, he was well acquainted with, and he knew that Vesya was looking for the way that would hurt less.

............................................................................................................................

Miles gave his uniform jacket a few more brisk swipes with a clothing brush. He kept all his gear in immaculate condition, a habit he developed early on. The other cadets in the officers' training program found it amusing to make a show of picking white hairs, real or otherwise, off his jacket. It got old very quickly. Once he got to Briggs, he was just as meticulous with his appearance and just as self-conscious about his features, but he quickly learned just how different an environment Briggs was. The idea of going back was starting to sound more and more attractive.

He frowned with a touch of annoyance at the sound of footsteps that stopped just outside his tent.

"Can I have a word with you, Major?"

Miles smiled grimly to himself. The moment of reckoning. He lifted the tent flap to see Damyan standing outside. Miles gestured toward the interior. "Of course. Come in."

Damyan stepped in and Miles nodded to the folding chair in front of a small table that stood across from his cot. "Have a seat."

Damyan went over to the chair and sat down. He was generally an easy-going, self-possessed young man, so any discomfort in his movements was fairly obvious. Miles sat on his cot and considered his visitor.

"So, is this where you beat me up?"

Damyan smiled wryly. "I guess that's what I'm here to find out. None of us really took anything Baata Zulema said seriously."

Miles glowered. "Did she drag Vesya all the way back to your camp?"

"Yes, she did. We heard her coming from quite a ways away."

"Is Vesya all right?" Miles asked in concern.

"She's fine," Damyan replied carefully. "But she wasn't talking. So I thought I'd better do my brotherly duty and see what you had to say." He flashed a grin. "Before I beat you up."

Miles shrugged. "I can tell you in one sentence. We were dancing and I kissed her."

"Oh. You mean, like a peck on the cheek, or something a little more involved?"

"I kissed her on the lips, and for the record, she kissed me back," Miles said. He raised his right hand. "And I swear to you, Damyan, that's all that happened."

Damyan nodded slowly. "I believe you, Miles."

Miles studied the younger man's features. "You don't look particularly convinced."

Damyan leaned back in the chair and crossed his arms with a thoughtful, slightly troubled look on his face. "Don't tell Naisha this, but Vesya's my favorite sister. I don't like seeing her unhappy."

"Is she unhappy?"

"I think so." He smiled a little. "Naisha's all up front. You know exactly what she's thinking because she'll tell you. Vesya's the deep one. The quiet ones are like that. But, yes, I think she's unhappy, and I think there's more to it than just Baata Zulee barging in and breaking up all the fun." Damyan fixed Miles with a hard, steady look. "I really like you, Miles. I'm honored to know you. But you're not a permanent fixture here, which is a shame, but that's a fact, isn't it?"

Miles returned Damyan's look just as steadily. "The honor is mine, Damyan, and yes, that's a fact."

"I realize that Amestrians have different ways, and I don't consider myself as strict as a lot of my Ishvalan brethren, but I still don't think it's right to mess with a girl's feelings if you're not serious about her."

Miles might have taken offense at Damyan's blunt tone, but he knew that he was the one who had crossed the line. He sighed and dropped his gaze, rubbing the back of his head. "I fully admit that my actions were not well-considered or the ones of a gentleman. I didn't have your sister's best interests at heart, and for that I apologize." He looked back at Damyan. "I should tell her that myself."

Damyan shook his head. "I'll tell her." He gave a small, wry smirk. "If you tell a girl you're sorry you kissed her, it may not go down well."

"I wouldn't have put it quite like that, but if you think it's best, then I'll leave it to you."

Damyan nodded and stood up, holding out his hand. "Thanks, Miles. I guess I won't have to beat you up after all."

Miles shook his hand. "Glad to hear it."

"Good night, then."

"Good night, Damyan."

After the young man left, Miles remained sitting on his cot for some time, his elbows propped on his knees and his chin resting thoughtfully on his clasped hands.

He could tell himself he was, he could tell Damyan that he was, but he wasn't all that sorry. Yes, he shouldn't have embarrassed Vesya. He shouldn't have gotten her into that situation. He shouldn't have let it escalate the way it did. But he enjoyed that kiss. It still tingled on his lips. Maybe she felt the same way, but it was better if he didn't know. It would be just a pleasant memory, which was about as much as he could afford to carry back to Briggs.

Chapter Text

They had been spotted well in advance by the sentry, who was surprised as hell at finally seeing anything approaching from the east. Miles stood on top of a stack of bricks at the edge of the construction zone in the northeast district of Wahir. He gazed across the distant landscape through his binoculars.

"Ten, eleven, twelve…" he counted to himself. He shook his head. "With the heat distortion, I'm not sure if there's thirteen or fourteen."

Sergeant Benjamin stood on the ground close by. "Just do what my dad does when he goes out to count his sheep," he said. "Count their legs and divide by four."

Miles frowned and looked narrowly down at the sergeant. "Is that supposed to be funny?"

Benjamin quietly cleared his throat. "Not really, sir. Just an old joke."

Miles turned back to survey the approaching caravan and Benjamin stood silently awaiting orders. The major had not been entirely himself for the past week or so. He had reverted to his much stricter, "survival of the fittest" Briggs attitude, and the relatively casual atmosphere that had existed here in Ishval had all but disappeared. Benjamin had missed the ruckus over at the radio tent the other evening, but he had heard all about it. The general consensus was that those who were witnesses would pay good money to see a repeat performance. This opinion was expressed in low voices and well out of the major's hearing, since it seemed fairly obvious that the subject was a sore one to him.

"I'm going back to contact Eastern Command." Miles jumped down from the bricks. "When they get here, bring them up to the open space on the north side of the headquarters compound."

"The football field, sir?" Benjamin asked in a flat tone. That wouldn't go down well.

"Yes, Sergeant, the football field. The season's going to have to be suspended for a time. The wind has been from the west the last couple of days, so the mess tent won't smell like camels."

"Yes, sir."

"Let them know that there will be water for their camels and feed if they need it. How much of the goats' alfalfa is left?"

"There's four or five bales," Benjamin said. "I don't know how far that'll go. I don't know how much a camel eats."

"As soon as you get a chance, radio your father in Resembool and have him put some extra feed on the Elrics' tab."

"Yes, sir!"

Miles headed away at a brisk walk and Sergeant Benjamin watched him for a moment before turning to survey the eastern horizon. Major Miles seemed less angry than troubled, Benjamin thought. Well, he wasn't the first soldier to make a fool of himself over a girl, and he wouldn't be the last, although Benjamin figured he probably ought to keep that to himself.

..............................................................

"It doesn't look like a large group, sir. Approximately twelve to fourteen camels. It may be more of an exploratory venture."

"Hmm." Roy mused. "They're probably well aware that Ishval has no economy as such. Still, it's a significant move on Xing's part."

"From what I've learned from the Ishvalans, there would be several caravans in the course of a year, each from different clans, so it's not really a centralized effort. But yes, it is a very positive sign. One of the clans has made the first move. It shows that they have enough confidence in the new administration to make the journey."

"Find out as much as you can from them about the political situation in Xing. I've convinced Fuhrer Grumman that Ling Yao is the most likely to succeed his father and would be very receptive to diplomatic negotiations, but I'd like to be assured that I can back that up," Roy said. "I want those people treated like gold, Major. I want them to take a very positive report back to Xing and start spreading the word."

"We're preparing for their arrival even now, sir. We'll wine and dine them, so to speak, and I'll personally make sure they go back with good news."

...............................................................

The jingling of bells heralded the caravan's arrival outside the headquarters compound. A crowd of Ishvalans had gathered to see the exotic creatures amble into the settlement. There were seven riders, each leading a laden pack camel. The riders, some with wide straw hats and some with headcloths, reined in their camels and urged them to lower themselves to the ground. Several of the animals had ropes of bells around their necks that jangled with every movement. The riders dismounted, moving with the stiffness of long travel.

Their leader, a mature but hale man, black hair streaked with grey showing from underneath his hat, approached Miles.

The major placed his palms together and bowed in deference to Xingese custom, then he said, "Doishteve na Ishval!"

The caravan leader smiled and bowed in reply. "This is a warm welcome, indeed," he said in accented Amestrian. "I am Liwei Chang."

"Major Miles." Miles extended his hand and Liwei grasped it firmly.

"I must tell you, Major Miles," Liwei said. "We were somewhat anxious when we first arrived. The ruins are quite grim. Not much better than what's left of Old Ishval."

"Ishval is still a bit rough around the edges," Miles admitted. "But we have started to build."

"It is good to hear." Liwei's smile widened. "We might have come a little early, but we beat the other clans here. That's something, at least."

"You're a member of the Chang clan?"

The straw hat bobbed as Liwei nodded. "I am, indeed. We are not as significant in size as many of the other families, but we make up for it in determination."

"I've seen an example of that," Miles replied. "I briefly met a young kinswoman of yours, Mei Chang."

Liwei's eyes widened as he regarded the major. "Our princess? Ah, yes! We pinned a very great amount of hope on those small shoulders." He smiled and shook his head. "She and the Honorable Xiao Mei came home only a month or so before we left, and in the company of that rascal of Yao, who claims that he will be the next Emperor. The princess was surprisingly content with this arrangement, and she told us that Ling Yao intends to deal generously with all the families so none will be lost to obscurity."

"Is Ling Yao's succession likely, do you think?"

Liwei gave a somewhat non-committal shrug. "Princess Mei seems quite sure of it. She even seemed quite relieved. She said that he's a little greedy, but she trusts him to rule wisely."

"I'm glad to hear it." Miles gestured to the water troughs. "As soon as you've got your camels attended to, please come over to the mess tent to eat. If there's anything else you need, just ask Sergeant Benjamin."

"Thank you, Major," Liwei replied with another bow, which Miles returned before leaving. The caravan leader turned to his companions, who had already started watering and unloading their animals. He spoke to them in Xingese and they nodded with approval.

As they gathered around the troughs, one of them unwound the cloth from his head, revealing tawny brown skin, red eyes, and a disheveled mane of silver hair. He was lanky and taller than the Xingese, with a lean face and a shrewd look. He gave his camel a shove to one side and used the water trough to dunk his head. He gave himself a shake, splashing water on his companions, who loudly but jokingly protested and scooped up water to splash back at him. He replied to them in brisk Xingese and set them all laughing. He gave his hair a perfunctory toweling off with his headcloth and stepped away from the others to survey Ishval.

After a few moments he drew in a deep breath and blew out his cheeks. Then his lips crooked in a wry half grin. "Ishvala have mercy on my raggedy soul!" he said to himself in a tone that did not necessarily foresee that end as a certainty.

"'Scuse me, sir?"

The man turned to the Amestrian soldier who had addressed him. "Sir?" he repeated with a touch of incredulity. "I finally step back onto Ishvalan soil and the first thing somebody calls me is 'sir'." He gave a short laugh. "That's grand, that is!"

Despite all the sentry duty he had performed during his military career, Sergeant Benjamin was taken a little off guard, but he recovered quickly. "I'm glad you think so, sir," he replied. "I'm Sergeant Benjamin. If there's any—"

"Who was that other fellow, the officer?" the man asked. "Ishvalan, is he?"

"Yes, partly, anyway. That's Major Miles. He's in command here."

"Huh." The man looked off in the direction Miles had gone to return to headquarters. "I'll be damned."

"If there's anything you need," Benjamin continued. "Just let us know. You might want to sign in with Lieutenant Breda and see if—"

"Sign in?" The man frowned slightly.

"It's just a formality, sir," Benjamin replied. "Just to see how many people have returned. You'll be issued a tent, a cot, blankets, whatever you need, and you can check the list to see if you can find any family members or friends."

"Ah." The man nodded, then he clapped Benjamin on the shoulder. "Well, thanks, Sergeant Benjamin, but I haven't decided if I'm going to stay." He grinned slightly. "There's a few old friends I'm interested in digging up, but I don't think they're on your list. I'll just take a look around first, if it's all the same to you."

"Oh." Benjamin considered the newcomer for a moment, then he gave a shrug. "That's fine. Just so you know, there are certain areas that are off limits to unauthorized personnel. They're still clearing some areas and there's a danger of snakes and scorpions and the like."

The man waved a hand, unconcerned. "A lot of those critters used to be neighbors of—" He paused suddenly as he looked past Benjamin's shoulder. "Besides, snakes come out at night," the man remarked, mostly to himself.

Benjamin glanced back to where the man was looking. Stanno and a couple of his friends had just passed by to take a look at the new arrivals. Stanno had registered a slightly puzzled surprise at seeing the other Ishvalan, but then he gave a dismissive shrug and continued on his way.

"Somebody you know?" Benjamin ventured to ask.

The man shook his head. "Just a mean drunk, as I recall." He gave Benjamin a friendly nod. "Thanks, anyhow, Sergeant. If anybody asks me, I'll tell 'em you're doing a fine job."

.................................................................

As he strode casually through the headquarters compound, he drew a lot of curious looks, something he took little notice of. His clothing seemed to be a mixture of cultures. He wore a high collared Xingese shirt under a long pale coat of unknown origin that flapped around leather boots that his pants were tucked into. Around his waist was a wide, tooled leather belt. From his left earlobe hung a simple representation of a feather in silver with two small lapis beads strung at its top. He contemplated his surroundings with mild interest, whistling softly to himself as he strode along.

Beyond the southeast edge of the compound stood the site of the precinct of the Great Temple. The man paused near it for a moment, observing the activity of those who were working on the temple's construction. He looked around the area, getting his bearings, and then he headed toward the south.

The edge had come off the heat of the day, now that it was autumn, and the walk was pleasant. He took a route that he figured was somewhere between the districts of Kanda and Daliha, if memory served him. It was a much different aspect than the one that had met them at their first sighting of Ishval—the melancholy desolation of the outer borders and the equally melancholy rows and rows of tents. Here he was surrounded by bustling workers, both Ishvalan and Amestrian, and neat stacks of building materials. Stakes were driven into the ground with different colored strips of cloth tied to them that were probably significant of something, but it was not of his immediate concern.

He drew a number of looks, and he even acknowledged a few of them with an offhand nod, but he continued on his way. It would still be a bit of a walk. He began humming to himself, just an old tune that he'd been fond of but hadn't thought of for a while. Now that he was here, it had come to mind. As he neared his destination, just beyond the southernmost edge of Kanda, he passed a couple of soldiers off to his left who called and waved at him. He paused for a moment as one of them approached. He gave him a nod.

"Afternoon, soldier," he said.

"Good afternoon, sir," the soldier replied politely.

The man grinned. He could get used to this. "Am I heading somewhere I'm not supposed to be?"

The soldier took in the man's appearance, trying not to look overly curious. "I guess it depends on where you're going. Most of this area has been checked over." He turned around and pointed behind him. "We're still working a ways over there. You can see where we've got the yellow flags up." He turned back to the man. "That means 'caution'."

The man gave the distant stakes with their makeshift yellow pennants an obligatory glance. "Thanks. That's good to know." He jerked his head toward the south. "Any yellow flags over yonder?"

The soldier looked off in that direction and shook his head. "No, we got finished with that whole area last week."

The man nodded. "Mind you," he added cordially. "It wouldn't have made a bug's turd worth of difference. I've got business over there."

"Oh…uh…all right…" the soldier replied cautiously. "If you…uh…need any help with anything, just …uh…"

"I'll give a shout," the man said with an indulgent smile. "Thanks."

As he headed away, the soldier was joined by his companion. "Who was that?"

The soldier shrugged. "Dunno. I've never seen him before."

"Well, ya know," the other soldier said under his breath, even though they were alone. "Sometimes these folks kinda look a lot alike."

The first soldier gave him a sneer of annoyance. "Well, sometimes you can't tell your ass from a hole in the ground, either."

.................................

The place had looked better, the man thought, but it didn't really look much worse than he remembered. It was hard to tell what had been done by the Amestrians and what had been the result of time and neglect. Old Vashto's place was just a skeleton of its former dilapidated self. He'd nearly tripped over the old fart's body that night, and he would have hustled on, but he remembered that Vashto had stitched himself a money belt that he always had on him, something the old fellow wasn't going to have much use for where he was going.

The vatrishi had done their bit to help with the resistance, for all the good that did anybody. Mostly they tried to keep their heads down. He had tried to, but he ended up in the wrong place at the wrong time, so that didn't work out so well, either. As was His habit, however, Ishvala had other ideas. The man had observed over time that the Creator tended to let his people kick the shit out of each other, but every now and then He seemed to take a fancy to some poor, undeserving bastard and nudge him out of harm's way. If the same poor bastard had a morsel of sense in his noggin, he'd realize what had happened to him, say a few humble prayers of thanks, and take full advantage of his second chance. He liked to think that that's just what he did.

Before the man considered his ultimate destination, he headed in a different direction. First things first, after all. She already knew he was all right and was smiling down on him as he always hoped she did, but it had been a long time since he'd made a proper devotion. He hoped he could remember the words. If not, she and Ishvala would probably understand.

As he drew nearer, however, he stopped and he listened hard. Mingled with the trilling of desert doves and the occasional squawk of a cactus wren, he could hear singing. He listened for several moments. It was the same song he had been humming earlier. What's more, he knew that voice.

He also caught a whiff of the musky tang of incense and a grin spread across his face. Well, well. The boy beat him to it.

Sure enough, there he was, sitting on the ground under the low draping branches of a mature meskaa tree. That thing sure as hell got bigger. It spread its shadow well past the grave that lay near it. That was nice. She would've liked that. He smirked. He didn't think much of that damn braid hanging down the boy's back, though.

"What the hell is that?" he demanded.

The singer gave an almighty jump and let out a yelp. He scrambled to his feet and spun around and stood staring. His startled look gave way to mute, paralyzed shock. The man couldn't help but grin. Good to see you, too, son.

He jerked his chin at him. "What's that for?" he asked, indicating the braid. "Giving the girls something to hang onto?"

Dejan, who had been in good voice just a moment ago, finally managed to find it again, but just barely. "Dad?" he gasped.

Shua stepped past him and crouched down beside the grave. At its head, set into the ground, was a glossy ceramic rectangle. It had a painted border of flowers intertwined with the words of one of the prayers he was going to try to remember. In the center was the name Maya done in fancy Ishvalan script. He nodded with approval.

"That's nice!" he said.

"Dad!"

There was also a small ceramic bowl made of the same reddish clay sitting on top of the grave just below the plaque. In it lay a little glowing cluster of myrrh, its smoke lifting its humble petition to Ishvala. Shua rose up again and turned back to Dejan.

"Have you said all the prayers you're supposed to?" he asked. "I was kind of worried I'd fuck it up. It's been a while, you know?"

"Dad!"

Shua pointed to the lute that Dejan was gripping. "That's the one I made. Looks like you took good care of it."

"Dad!" By this time, Dejan's voice was breaking.

Shua scowled impatiently. "You used to chatter like a cactus wren, boy! Is that all you can say?"

Dejan clutched at his head as it drooped and his shoulders shook as he began to weep. Now he couldn't say anything at all. Shua gave a deep sigh and pulled Dejan into a hug. Dejan clung to him tightly as though afraid he might disappear.

"I missed you, too, son," Shua said warmly. "But you drop that lute, I'm gonna shove the pieces up your ass."

Chapter Text

"I thought I was pretty much a goner and no mistake—would you stop that!" Shua snapped as Dejan grabbed his arm and squeezed it for the third time.

Dejan laughed and shook his head. He felt giddy. "Sorry, Dad! I just can't believe you're real!"

"You're gonna find out just how real I am when I bloody your nose for you," Shua growled. "Anyhow, so there I was, bleeding out of my gut, right?"

"I felt like shit leaving you like that!" Dejan said mournfully.

"Well, don't. I chased you off, remember? Well, not actually chased you," Shua added. "I think I cursed you and all your future generations—oh, hell! Mika!" he exclaimed suddenly. "You still have her, right?"

"Of course I do!" Dejan said with a grin. "Ah, Dad, you're gonna love her!"

"Katri?" Shua asked, not as enthusiastically.

Dejan shook his head. "Nuh-uh," he replied simply.

"Well, that doesn't surprise me," Shua said with a deep sigh. "She always was a disaster waiting to happen. She must have walked right into something on purpose. It'd be the only way she'd get any peace, poor lass." He nodded toward the grave. "Your ma was about the only person she actually liked."

"Dad!" Dejan grabbed his arm again.

Shua irritably pulled out of his grip. "What did I tell you?"

"Dad, listen! I'm getting married!"

Shua let out a short laugh. "Oh, yeah, because the first time was such a success!"

"No, listen! This one actually likes me! She's wonderful! And you know the best part? Well, maybe not the best part, 'cause like I said, she's wonderful and she—"

"Get on with it!"

"You remember Andakar?"

Shua smiled. "Ah, son, you don't forget somebody like that. Please tell me he's still around."

"He is, and it's his cousin I'm marrying! Remember Naisha?"

Shua scowled a little. "Was she the cute one or the skinny one?"

"The…" Dejan shook his head. "Dad, she is cute, and she's not skinny."

"The other one was cuter."

"Well, the other one is-" Dejan waved his hand. "Never mind. The thing is, like I said, she likes me." He practically giggled. "She loves me!"

Shua gave a quiet snort of laughter. "Well, son, as long as you're happy."

Dejan chuckled. "Oh, Dad, you haven't heard the half of it! But you finish your story! Why are you thank God not dead?"

"Oh, yeah! Anyhow, so there I was on the ground, figuring that was pretty much it for me. So I closed my eyes for a bit, hoping I'd manage to just sleep through dying. Next thing I know, somebody's got me by the armpits and the knees and they're trotting off with me. I thought maybe I was going to get buried and maybe I should say something, but I must've passed out. Next thing I know, I'm on my back in some dingy place and I can feel a bunch of bandages around my belly. There were people all around me, and some of them didn't sound so good.

"I look around a little, and there's this Amestrian fellow standing over me. Blue eyes, blond hair, all that. He wasn't in a uniform, but he had a kind of apron on with blood all over it, which made me a little nervous. Then he kneels down next to me and gives me a grin. 'You're a lucky one, you are,' he said. I wasn't so sure of that, and I must've looked a little suspicious, but he tells me not to worry, that they'd get me out of there as soon as I could be moved. Then somebody called out 'Doctor!' and he took off.

"I think it was a couple of days later. There was some sort of ruckus, and I got hauled up to my feet between a couple of fellows who wouldn't have given me the time of day normally. Turns out there was a group of us who were going to get out of Ishval that very night. I told them to go out through the vatrishi camps. I told them the Amestrians probably wouldn't bother with that area, which was probably true, but I just wanted to get my stuff. I found Old Vashto along the way, who cheerfully handed me his life savings."

Dejan's eyes widened. "He did?"

"Well, he was a little more permanently dead than I was. The folks who were with me got all high and mighty about looting, but I told them that this fellow had been my partner and I was his sole beneficiary. So we got to the camps and I went back to our place and grabbed my fiddle. Everything else was gone, by the way," Shua said pointedly with a narrow look at his son.

"Well, yeah, Dad," Dejan replied with a shrug. "I would've taken your fiddle, too, but you always told me you'd break my arm if I touched it without your permission. So I took Vashto's."

Shua laughed. "Sweet Ishvala, son! Looks like we both robbed that poor dead bastard blind! Fair enough. So, me and the other Ishvalans headed south for a bit. They were going to try their luck in Aerugo. I went east, and I just kept going." He shook his head and laughed softly. "Ah, Dejan, there's some grand spots out that way. I went all over the place." He nudged Dejan's shoulder. "I saw the ocean. I even went out on a boat!" He sobered for a moment. "Some of that was a little scary, but I'll tell you about that later. Then I ended up in Xing. Now that's a fine place! I met some very interesting people. And—best of all—I played for the Emperor!"

Dejan grinned with amazement. "Go on! You never did!"

"I did! He wasn't feeling so good, and his courtiers were searching around for stuff to take his mind off dying. Somebody spotted me playing at a tavern in the capital city, and they bundled me off to the palace. The Emperor liked me so much, he kept me on for a time, and I got paid. Then I heard that things were looking up back home, so I thought I'd catch a ride with one of the caravans just to see for myself." He spread his hands. "And here I am!"

Dejan shook his head. "I still can't believe it!" He scrambled to his feet. "Come on! I can't wait for you to see Mika and Naisha!"

"All in good time, son," Shua said, getting up and walking away. "There's something I have to do, and I'm gonna need your help."

"Oh…sure." Dejan followed and fell in step with him. "What is it?"

"Me and Vashto had just finished up a batch when the word came down that Amestrians were sending in their alchemists," Shua explained as they walked along. "Everybody went into a panic and started hightailing it out of Ishval- -"

"I know, Dad. I was there."

"I know you know. But you can't leave stuff out when you're telling a tale. Anyhow, me and Vash figured there was a chance we might make it back, so just as a sort of insurance, you might say, we sealed up the barrels good and tight and buried them."

Dejan stared at him. "You buried them?"

"That's what you do with shit you don't want people to find."

"You could've let me in on your plan," Dejan said, a little resentfully.

"I was going to," Shua replied offhandedly. "Then I got shot and I had other things on my mind. It wasn't like I had time to draw a map."

"A map?"

Shua paused at the ramshackle carcass of boards and bricks that was once Vashto's tavern and brothel. Not much action these days. "Now, let me see…" Shua positioned himself at the southern edge of what was left of the building. He closed his eyes for a moment, then started walking, counting to himself. Dejan watched him curiously, following behind him slowly.

"…eighteen, nineteen, twenty!" Shua stopped and turned ninety degrees to his left. He continued counting out paces, changing direction several times and zig-zagging all over the place. Somewhat at a loss, Dejan trailed behind him and they eventually ended up many yards to the rear of Vashto's tavern in a tangled area of low-hanging meskaa and ironwood trees, scrub, dead branches, and bits of old refuse. Occasionally he would close his eyes to remember what must have been an intricate pattern that he and Vashto cooked up. At one point he stopped and stepped backwards. "…six, seven, eight!" He turned directly east and surveyed the ground ahead of him for a moment. A smiled grew on his face. "Yes, I think it's right—"

His smile suddenly disappeared. "Wait a second!" He strode forward to a spot in the middle of a rough square formed by four meskaa trees. He stared at the spot, looking back and forth. "Son of a bitch!" he muttered. The spot had been covered with what appeared to Dejan as a haphazard pile of branches and junk, but Shua apparently saw more. He started raking the pile aside, then he dropped to his knees and started pawing at the ground. "Son of a bitch!" he snarled. He sat back on his heels, still staring at the ground in front of him with a look of outrage and disbelief. "Somebody's been at it! Somebody's been fucking at it!"

Dejan came up behind him and looked over his shoulder. Just in front of Shua was a shallow mound of earth that looked like it had been only recently turned. Dejan leaned closer then suddenly had to scramble back as Shua jumped to his feet and wheeled around, shoving Dejan out of his way. Dejan followed him as he strode the distance back to the ruins of the tavern and right into the midst of it, searching around impatiently and muttering angry curses to himself. Then he looked up and scowled at Dejan, who was watching him with a slightly bewildered expression.

"Get over here and help me!"

"I would if I knew what you were looking for."

"A shovel! A shovel!" Shua snapped back with increasing frustration. "Get over here and help me look! Vashto had a couple of 'em and I remember carrying them back in here that night!" He started to kick aside loose boards, plowing through what used to be the interior of the tavern.

Dejan followed suit but did so with a little more caution, using a stick to lift piles of rubble and peering underneath. He wondered vaguely what had become of the falshaii, the women who had plied the only trade available to them. Some of them had died in the final campaign of the war. The rest must have fled the country. It was unlikely that such a business would be allowed to resume in Ishval now, not if Andakar had anything to do with it, because he probably would. Dejan smiled to himself. He was looking forward to seeing the look on Andakar's face when he saw Shua.

As he bent down to gingerly lift what was once a blanket, Dejan caught a ripple of movement out of the corner of his eye and he froze. But before he was able to slowly turn his head, his heart pounding, he heard a sharp chunk. Holding his breath and not moving any other part of his body, he looked to his right. Impaled against what was once a four-by-four upright stud was a pit viper, a long-bladed knife stuck through it just below its head. It thrashed wildly for several seconds, then grew still. Still extremely wary, Dejan slowly straightened up and stared at the dead reptile. Then he turned to look at Shua, who was watching him with a grim, slightly irritated expression.

"Watch yourself!" he muttered. He stepped forward and gave the snake's body a tentative kick with the toe of his boot, but the creature was quite dead. He bent down and extracted his knife, holding the snake up off the tip. He grinned at Dejan. "Hungry?" he asked.

"Uh…no…thanks." Dejan swallowed and took a deep breath, letting it out slowly. He gave Shua a somber look. "Thanks, Dad."

"Ah, well, what's a father for, anyhow?" Shua flicked the snake's body off his knife, then bent down to pick up a rag. He cleaned the blood off the blade and held the knife up proudly. It was almost a short sword, its steel blade gleaming. Near the hilt, which was wrapped in braided black leather, a hook extended from the blade. Shua reached under his coat to the small of his back and produced a twin to the first dagger. "Pretty, aren't they?"

Dejan nodded slowly, still a little shaky and deeply impressed. "Very nice. Where did you pick those up?"

"A place called Veraserpta. I passed through there on my way east." Shua gave the knives an expert twirl. "I rendered a local landowner a service by saving his life, and he gave me these out of gratitude. I chanced upon him being ambushed by a couple of dissatisfied characters and I knocked their heads together." He slipped the knives back beneath his coat. "If I'd known what a black-hearted bastard he was ahead of time, I would've given his miserable serfs a hand." He shrugged easily. "Live and learn. Oh!" He suddenly darted forward, pushing some scraps of boards and bits of broken chair aside with very little caution.

Dejan shot out a warning hand. "Dad! Be careful!"

"Aw, quit, boy!" Shua straightened up, holding the handle of a very beat-up-looking spade. "Vipers are jealous of their own turf. That would've been the only one here." He tossed the spade to Dejan and rummaged around in the debris again. "Ah!" Grabbing at the handle of another spade of similar decrepitude, he turned and strode back to the site of his stash, waving to Dejan to follow him. "Come on!"

It took longer than Dejan thought it would, and when they were done, he crouched down beside the edge of what was a sizeable pit. By the time they had unearthed them all and unwound the now decaying burlap bags from around them, there were nine small wooden barrels lining the edge of the pit. Dejan considered them with a critical look.

"Hey, Dad? Were you and Vash drunk when you dreamt up that whole dance you used to find this spot? 'Cause it's pretty much a straight shot from the back of the tavern."

Shua glared up at his son with a foreboding, possibly slightly embarrassed look. "Maybe," he mumbled.

Dejan gave a snort of laughter. "That must've looked funny as hell."

Shua managed a wry smirk. "Yeah, it kind of was." He stood down in the pit, carefully poking the tip of his spade into the dirt. He had taken off his long coat, revealing his twin daggers sheathed in a pair of crossed black leather scabbards strapped to the back of his wide belt. His grin disappeared and he gave the earth at his feet one more angry stab. "There should've been ten of those barrels down here. If I catch whoever's been stealing my booze, I'm gonna rip his damn head off and drag his dirty, thieving carcass back across the desert behind my camel." He threw the spade up out of the pit and held out his arm. "Help me outta here."

Dejan braced his heels into the ground as he pulled Shua out of the hole. Shua retrieved his spade and used it to knock the dirt from the soles of his boots, a darkly brooding look still on his face. "Who's in charge here? That Ishvalan bluecoat?"

"Miles? Yeah, he's in charge," Dejan replied. "And don't call him a bluecoat to his face, Dad. He's all right."

"Well, thank Ishvala for that! Go fetch him for me."

Dejan gave a start. "What?"

Shua looked at him with exasperation. "Go get him," he said slowly, "and bring him back here!" He waved at the barrels of halmi. "I'm damned if I'm gonna let this outta my sight! I'll wait for you here."

Dejan lifted his arms and dropped them. "But, Dad, that's gonna take at least a couple of hours, maybe more!"

"Then I suggest you hop to it."

Dejan stood considering his father for a moment. His mind was still reeling from this miraculous reappearance and the rush of memories that had accompanied it. It was hard not to feel like a harried teenager all over again. Then he smiled. The good times definitely ended up outweighing the bad ones.

"Sure, Dad."

............................................................................................................

Shua looked up in surprise from where he sat on one of the barrels. A small army transport truck threaded its way as close as it could get to the area near the pit and stopped. Shua laughed and spread his arms as he stood up and walked toward it.

"That's brilliant, Dejan!" he cried. "Absolutely brilliant! I'm proud to admit you're my son!"

Dejan opened the passenger door and hopped down, a slightly sheepish grin on his face. The driver's side door opened and Miles, who wasn't smiling, stepped down. Dejan hurried to place himself between the two men.

"Miles," he began with a bit of repressed excitement. "This is my father, Shua. Dad, this is Major Miles, generously on loan to us from Briggs."

Miles held out his hand. "I'm glad, or perhaps I should say I'm amazed to meet you, Shua. Dejan's told us a lot about you."

Shua grasped his hand and shook it. "It's all lies."

"Well, I suppose the part about you being dead was a forgivable oversight." Miles looked passed him to the row of barrels. "I'm not so sure about the rest of it. Dejan has already briefed me on the situation. Is there anything you'd care to add?"

"Hell, yes!" Shua replied. "I'd like to lodge a complaint and I demand an investigation!"

Miles raised an eyebrow. "Oh?"

"See those?" Shua pointed to the barrels.

"Yes."

"Those are solely my property. I know for an almost absolute fact that my business partner is resting in Ishvala's bosom, or at least in the general vicinity. He was a stingy-assed old bastard, but he had a heart of…well, not gold, 'cause if he'd had the slightest suspicion that he did, he'd have carved it out of his chest, and then where would he be?"

Miles' jaw tightened slightly. "Would you mind getting to the point?"

"The point? The point, Major, is that I've been robbed of three gallons of aged halmi."

Miles frowned skeptically. "It's been underground for nearly seven years. Are you even sure it's any good?"

Shua let out an impatient breath. "Look. Old Vashto may have been second cousin to a cockroach, but if there was one thing he knew up, down, and sideways, it was halmi. Usually we didn't age the stuff longer than a few months because we needed a fast turnover. But Vashto had done long agings before—he was older than dirt himself, so he'd know—"

"Was this alcohol for private consumption?" Miles interjected suddenly.

Shua paused for an instant. "No."

"Did you ever pay any tax on it?"

Shua grinned slyly. "Vashto assured me it was taken care of."

Miles stared at him for a moment. "He bribed officials?"

"Not with money. More like services rendered," Shua said with a wink. "A posting out here could get dry and lonely, you know what I'm saying?"

Miles raised his hand. "I don't want to hear it. I'm just informing you that as of now, if you intend to deal in alcohol, you need to apply for a liquor license. As for any other…business ventures, shall we say…I expect you may have difficulties getting that started back up."

Shua frowned. "Vashto was the pimp, not me. I just provided the booze and the musical entertainment. So did my boy here, so he can vouch for me."

Dejan grinned disarmingly at Miles when the major turned to him with a wry, circumspect half smile. "I think he's going to be doing a lot of that," Miles remarked. "What about during the war? How did you manage to stay in business?"

Shua gave a shrug. "Well, we did kind of have to go a little deeper underground, but we managed. Speaking of underground…" He jerked a thumb over his shoulder. "Let's get back to the business at hand. I'm missing a barrel of halmi, which is so well aged by now that it probably isn't even silver anymore. I'm talking sholmi now."

Dejan gave a quick gasp and Miles frowned at him slightly. "Don't tell me. That means 'golden fire'?"

Shua pointed at him. "You're good!" He grinned at Dejan, still pointing at Miles. "He's good!"

"So we have a renegade barrel of strong liquor on the loose," Miles said, unconcerned with how good he was. "I haven't yet seen any evidence of drunkenness. How long ago do you think this may have occurred?"

"Hmm." Shua scratched his head. "I'm guessing maybe just a week at most, judging by how loose the soil was where it had been dug up. You know," he went on in a mournful tone. "I don't really mind sharing. I've had some pretty good fortune lately, so I've been feeling generous. Good fortune is meant to be shared, right? I was looking forward to celebrating with my boy here—" He gave Dejan an affectionate punch on the shoulder. "Not to mention seeing my little grandbaby again and that wonderful, if a little daft girl that my son's convinced to marry him." He gave Miles a hard look. "But I have my limits."

"So do I," Miles replied. "If somebody has made off with three gallons of moonshine—"

"Moonshine?" Shua cried indignantly.

Miles held up his hand. "And if there's any trouble, like personal injury or property damage or, God forbid, death by alcohol poisoning, I'm going to hold you responsible."

Shua drew himself up and folded his arms. "Oh, fine!"

"Now, as far as an investigation is concerned, I'll order a search of all military personnel and property. However, I'm very reluctant to organize a tent-to-tent search of all the Ishvalan inhabitants. It's been drilled into the head of every soldier here that the local people are to be treated with the utmost respect and I'm not going to start intruding on their privacy."

Shua frowned thoughtfully. "No, I see what you mean. You know, Major, it might be better just to sit back and wait for our man to reveal himself."

"How?" Miles asked.

"How do you know it's a man?" Dejan suggested.

"Shh!" Shua hissed at him impatiently. "Anybody who tries to drink that much sholmi is going to get so stupid drunk they'll be practically glowing in the dark. They'll give themselves away, mark my words. And keep it between you, me, and the bird in the tree," he added, tapping the side of his narrow nose. "Make sure all your boys are accounted for, then let nature take its course."

Miles frowned slightly as he considered this. Finally he nodded. "It may not be the best option, but it'll have to do for now." He jerked his head at the barrels. "By rights, I should confiscate this lot, but if you can promise me that you don't intend to sell any of it, I suppose it would fall under the legal annual limit of homebrew."

Shua looked behind him and sighed. "Well, that's fair," he said. "I did promise some to my Xingese friends in gratitude for the company across the desert."

"That's fine," Miles replied. "Let's get this loaded on the truck and get it back before it gets dark."

As he followed them back to where the barrels waited, Miles was struck by how much more like brothers the two appeared, rather than father and son. Dejan had mentioned that his parents were quite young when they had him. Miles hoped that this was not an indication of a lifetime habit of irresponsibility on Shua's part, but he wasn't ready to bet a month's salary on it.

Chapter Text

As they drove back, Miles glanced at his passengers out of the corner of his eye. The two of them chattered away at each other, sometimes in Amestrian and sometimes in a kind of rapid-fire Ishvalan street patois, which he caught some of. They reminisced, joked, and squabbled.

As they neared the camp, Dejan pointed toward the windshield. "There it is, Dad! Home sweet home!"

Shua scowled slightly. "Who the hell are all those people?"

Dejan chuckled. "You'll see!" He nudged Miles' arm. "Stay for dinner!"

Miles was hoping not to be asked that. He shook his head. "I don't think so, Dejan, thanks all the same."

"Oh, come on, Miles!" Dejan cajoled. "You've been avoiding us long enough! Poor little Vesya misses you."

"I doubt that very much."

"How would you know? You haven't said a word to each other! Look, you're both adults. You can deal with this like adults."

"Dejan, I'd rather not discuss it right now," Miles said, his voice tight.

"Don't mind me," Shua said easily. "Discuss it all you want."

Dejan leaned closer to the windshield to wave as Naisha came out to meet them. "Look, Dad! There she is!"

Shua leaned forward. "Huh. Well, she certainly isn't so skinny anymore. She looks cranky."

"She's probably worried. I didn't say I'd be late."

"And you have to keep her informed of your whereabouts?" Shua shook his head. "Aw, son, you need to nip that in the bud right now."

"I like being worried about."

"I've always worried about you," Shua muttered.

Miles brought the truck to a stop, killed the engine, and sat still for a moment. Admittedly, he had been avoiding not only this place, but Damyan's pottery workshop and anywhere else where he might run into Vesya. The thought of seeing her again bothered him because he wanted so much to see her again. He wanted to see the frown of concentration on her face when she painted her brother's bisqueware before its final firing. He wanted to see the way her eyes momentarily dipped down whenever they met, as though she needed to compose herself. He wanted to see the little curl at the corners of her lips when she smiled that particular smile that she did not seem to reward anyone else with.

He had been attracted to other women. He'd even had a couple of amicable, no-strings-attached liaisons over the years. But he had always kept his heart well guarded, a habit that had become as integral a part of him as it had to all those who served in the unique world of Briggs. His loyalty would always be to the officer who had saved his life by keeping him close by her and out of the notice of Central Command. She had given him a sense of purpose when he felt he had lost his. He had learned to read her well enough to anticipate her commands, but she was still a glorious, icy mystery. It had become the only life he ever wanted.

Why, oh why, then, was a demure little Ishvalan maiden managing to invade his thoughts during the day and his dreams at night without even trying? It was just another example of how this strange desert world and its inhabitants kept disrupting the orderly pattern of his command and his life. The less he tried to think about it, the better, he hoped.

Dejan nudged him again. "You have to at least help us unload the barrels," he said as he climbed out of the cab of the truck.

Miles sighed and opened the door. As he stepped out and headed toward the back of the truck, he wished he had brought his glasses with him. He had gotten out of the habit of wearing them during his stay here, and he had left them behind when Dejan rushed into headquarters. Now he felt the need for the inscrutability they gave him.

He lifted one of the barrels, giving the rest of them a grim look, and he followed Shua.

Up ahead, Dejan set his barrel down to take Naisha in his arms.

"Where have you been, sweetie?" she asked. "I was starting to get worried!"

Dejan gave her a tight squeeze and a kiss. "No worries, love!" he assured her. "I've got a surprise for you!"

Shua came up behind them with his barrel. He paused as he passed by, giving Naisha a grin and a wink. "How's tricks, laleh?"

Naisha flinched and her eyes widened to stare at him. She then let out a loud shriek, startling Shua enough to make him jump and drop the barrel on his foot. He let out a bellow of pain and limped around in a small circle, swearing copiously in at least three different languages.

Miles just stood and watched. Did trouble actually follow this man everywhere?

Naisha stood with her hands clapped to her mouth for a moment, then she rushed to Shua's side, trying to peer into his face as he hobbled around, moaning in pain.

"Shua!" she cried frantically. "Shua! I'm so sorry!"

She tried to reach out to him but he batted her hand away. "It's—oh, sweet Ishvala that stinkin' hurts—it's all right—shit—nothing that won't—oh, mercy—mend!"

"You— You're not dead!" Naisha still gaped in amazement. "You should see a doctor!"

Shua finally paused and reached out to lean on Naisha's shoulder, still bent over. "If I'm not dead, why do I need a doctor?"

"No, no! I mean, for your foot! You might have broken it!"

With an effort Shua straightened himself up. He looked down at his foot and flexed it, wincing and sucking in a hiss. "These boots ought to be sturdy enough. I got them in a place called Jirabodia. Great leather workers." He set his foot down and put some weight on it. "There. Better already!" He turned to give Naisha a closer inspection and grinned. "You filled out."

"Eh-h!" Naisha pushed him, but not too hard. "You're so wicked!"

"Ah, I'm the worst villain alive!" Shua laughed and opened his arms. "Come and kiss me, daughter!"

With a little cry, Naisha threw her arms around him. "I'm so glad you're not dead!" she whispered tearfully.

Shua chuckled. "I'm a bit pleased about it myself."

"Shehai li Ishvala!" a deep voice declared. "I heard a commotion and I knew it had to be either a plague or Shua!"

Standing outside the ring of tents was Scar, his arms folded and a severe look on his face. Shua stood still for a moment then said quietly in Naisha's ear, "Excuse me a minute, love."

Naisha nodded, wiping her cheek with the back of her hand.

Still limping a little, Shua strode up to Scar and threw his arms around him. "This is a proper miracle, this is! This place wouldn't be Ishval without you."

Scar held him tightly. "Or you."

With a final clap against Scar's back, Shua stepped back. "Ah, well, I think Ishvala's just keeping me around for laughs, although I'm thinking the Creator has an odd sense of humor. Let me tell you why."

Scar had to smile. "I wish you would."

"I got shot by an Amestrian," Shua said, "and then I got patched up by an Amestrian."

Scar gave him an odd look. "You did?"

"I did! A couple of Amestrian doctors, as a matter of fact. A husband and wife, I think." Shua spread his arms. "What a turnaround, eh?"

Scar managed to hide a slight shudder of surprise. "Very ironic," he said quietly.

"Anyway, you'll see to getting those two married, right?" Shua jerked a thumb over his shoulder at Dejan and Naisha.

"I'll see that they get married," Scar replied. "But I can't perform the ceremony."

Shua dropped his arms to his sides and scowled. "Eh-h! Why ever not?"

"Because I left the priesthood."

"Ah, now, why would you go and do a thing like that for?"

Scar lifted his shoulders. "It's a long story."

Shua shrugged. "If you say so. I thought you did a pretty decent job." He tapped himself on the spot between his eyebrows. "And that?"

"Also a long story."

"I bet, but I've got something for you," Shua said. "Unless you know another Ishvalan with a scar like that."

"I don't."

"Good, because I was given very specific instructions."

Scar frowned slightly. "By whom?"

"You seem to have caught the fancy of a Xingese princess, you rogue!" Shua replied, grinning. "I have a letter for you from her."

Scar gave a start. "Mei?"

"That's the one! I traveled here with the Chang family caravan. As soon as I'm done unloading my moonshine—" Shua emphasized the last word for Miles' benefit as he came alongside them with his barrel. "I'll go and fetch it." He turned and backhanded a clap on Miles' shoulder. "Awfully obliged to you, Major!" he said cheerfully and headed back to retrieve his dropped barrel. "Be a darling, Naisha," he called out on his way, "and show us where we can stow all this."

Miles watched Shua for a moment then turned to Scar with a not entirely pleased expression. "I hope you're going to keep an eye on him," he said.

"Shua is really only a danger to himself," Scar assured him. "And he doesn't always give a good first impression."

"I noticed. Here, take this." Miles handed the barrel over to Scar. "Twenty-seven gallons of hard liquor!" he growled. "And three more unaccounted for. Neither situation makes me comfortable."

"Halmi?" Scar asked, nodding at the barrel.

"Apparently, it's reached the point when it's something called sholmi," Miles said.

"Ishvala!" Scar's murmured in awe. "And some of it's missing?"

"Stolen, according to Shua. He also seems to think the thief will give himself away as soon as he drinks enough of it."

"That's entirely possible." Scar's frowned thoughtfully. "Either that or whoever took it is planning on selling it. It's the only pure Ishvalan sholmi in existence. It would be extremely valuable."

Miles considered him somberly. "Only an Ishvalan would know that." He thought for a moment. "I'd expect them to try to sell it to the caravan, but Shua has already promised them some for letting him join them. I'll ask them about it, just in case."

Scar nodded silently as he watched Dejan, Naisha, and Shua walk by. Both men were carrying barrels, and Naisha walked between them with her arms around them both. She beamed at Miles. "Nice to see you again, Major!"

"You, too, Miss Naisha," Miles replied.

"Vesya isn't here right now," Naisha went on, turning around and walking backwards. "She and Damyan are working late at their shop. But you could wait for them," she suggested brightly.

"I'm afraid I can't stay that long," Miles said. "If you…" He paused, frowning slightly at having to choose something safe to say. "If you could convey my apologies."

"Hmm…" was all Naisha said in reply as she turned back around.

Miles turned back to Scar, who was considering him critically. "Are you relieved or disappointed?" Scar asked.

Miles shook his head as he turned back to the truck. "It doesn't matter," he murmured.

Scar carried his barrel into the campsite as Dejan was in the process of gathering his musicians around him.

"Come on, come on, everybody!" he called. "I want you to meet the man who made all this possible!"

The members of Dejan's troupe eyed the newcomer curiously, and Shua frowned slightly as he looked around at them.

"My children!" Dejan announced. "This is my father." He turned to Shua with a proud grin, spreading his arms to indicate the astonished faces around him. "Dad, these are my apprentices!"

"Your what?"

"And this young lady," Dejan continued, putting his hand on Shua's shoulder and turning him around, "needs no introduction."

Shua glanced around, a little puzzled, then he looked down. Squeezing through the circle of the other musicians was Mika, who stopped in front of Shua and gazed up at him in wonder. Shua drew in a sharp gasp, all traces of his worldly, streetwise smirk gone, replaced by a look of sincere astonishment. He reached down and tipped up the girl's chin, staring at her face.

"God!" he whispered. "Holy God, Dejan, she looks like your ma!" He lowered himself to one knee in front of her and took her face between his hands. "Ah, you did a good job, son!"

Mika stared harder at him. "Are you…are you…"

"Your djaari, Mika," Shua said. "I don't expect you remember me, do you?"

Mika shook her head.

"Well, I don't—" Shua's voice caught in his throat for a moment and he shook his head and continued hoarsely. "I don't know how impressed you are, but I'm pleased as hell!" He gathered the girl into his arms and held her tightly while the musicians around him laughed and let out an approving chorus of eh-hs. Dejan grinned at Naisha, who was watching the reunion with tears in her eyes.

Shua opened his eyes and looked past Mika to see another small figure emerge from the surrounding crowd of musicians. Danika gazed back at him with wide blue eyes.

Shua grinned at her. "Mika!" he whispered. "Who's your pretty friend?"

Mika looked behind her, wiping her face with the back of her hand. "That's Danika," she said. She looked around at the surrounding faces, then pointed. "That's her mama, Miss Rada."

Shua turned and did a slight double take. He rose to his feet and gathered Rada's hands in both of his. "Ah, now, aren't you a sight for sore eyes!" He pulled her closer and gave her a stern look. "I saw that goat turd carpenter fellow earlier. Tell me you didn't end up marrying him!"

"Oh…" Rada glanced over at Scar as he came up with his barrel. "Well, no, I didn't."

"Thank Ishvala for that!" Shua declared. "He was nowhere good enough for a nice girl like you. I hope you found someone better," he added with a glance at Danika.

Rada's smile grew. "Actually, I did."

Mika tugged on Shua's coat. "Hey, djaari! You came back just in time!" she announced excitedly. "We're gonna have a big ol' wedding and Dad's gonna marry Naisha and Damyan's gonna marry Yasna and Rada's gonna marry Zhaarad Andakar! Then Naisha's gonna be my mom and Zhaarad Andakar's gonna be Danika's dad! Isn't that the best thing ever?"

Shua spun back to face Scar. "Oh, I see! I see!" He crowed with laughter. "So much for your long story!" He started clapping his hands together and singing in Ishvalan, grabbing Rada by the hand and leading her in a brief dance. The young musicians laughed and clapped along with him.

Miles came up carrying up another barrel and Shua danced around him. "Major! Any chance of a ride back?" he asked. "I'd like to take a couple of barrels to my friends in the caravan, and then I want to bring all my stuff back here."

"I'll take you as far as headquarters," Miles replied, trying to move past him. "If someone else is willing to take you the rest of the way, that's fine. I have work to do."

"Fair enough." Shua paused in front of the two little girls, who were still gazing up at him in awe. "Have you kids ever seen a camel before?" he asked them.

Both girls shook their heads, their eyes growing wider with excitement.

"How would you like to come with me to see the caravan?"

Danika let out an ecstatic gasp. "Can I, Mama?" she begged, clasping her hands together. "Can I, pleeease?"

"Oh…" Rada looked from her to Shua. "I suppose."

"I'll watch over her like she was my own," Shua assured her. "Well…better."

..............................................................................................................................................

It was late, but the camp was still raucous with music and laughter. Shua had tapped one of the barrels and after ceremoniously pouring the first taste out on the ground for the Creator, he generously offered it around to everyone present. Not everyone cared for the smoky taste, which Shua admitted, often had to be acquired.

Dejan then sat his father down and astonished him with an impromptu concert. The tears that welled up in his eyes might have been as much from the sholmi as from his son's accomplishments, but he told Dejan more than once how proud he was of him. He was not a man given to idle compliments, and it was exactly what Dejan had been waiting to hear. It wasn't long before Shua brought out his fiddle and joined in.

There seemed to be little point in trying to turn in for the night, but Scar was content to wait. Rada sat beside him, leaning against his shoulder, her arm threaded through his. She had given up trying to get Danika to go to bed. The little girl was wound up as tight as a watch spring, and Rada was simply waiting for her to wind down and finally collapse.

On the table where they sat together was the letter from Mei. Scar had already shown it to Rada, needing no explanation. He had already told her all his darkest secrets so she would know exactly what she was getting herself into. To his profound relief and somewhat to his bafflement, she still wanted to be his wife.

She turned the letter toward her and reread it.

Dear Mister Scar,

I hope you are alive and well. Before we left I had heard that you might be dead, but Lan Fan said that she did not think so. She said that anyone who could beat King Bradley had to be a great warrior and would not be so easily killed. I hope that is true and that you are able to read this letter.

I also hope that you are happy. Happiness did not seem like something you were looking for, and I hope you have not forgotten what it is like.

We made it safely back to Xing. I was a little afraid to face my family with nothing to show for my journey, but Ling Yao spoke to the Chang clan elders and said very kind things about me. He also left them his word that he would indeed succeed His Imperial Majesty and that he would support all the clans.

I do not feel that my trip was in vain. I met many good and worthy people, like you and Doctor Marcoh and Mister Yoki and, most of all, Mister Alphonse. It is much too long a story to put into a letter, but he was able to get his body back, and when he is well and strong enough, he is going to come to Xing to study alkahestry with me. I am so very excited! I grew so fond of him and I cannot wait to see him again!

Please write back to me and let me know how you are. If you give your letter to Master Liwei, he will make sure it gets to me. I wish you and your people much joy and good fortune. Xiao Mei also sends her regards.

With sincere affection,

Mei Chang, Seventeenth Princess of Xing

"Are you happy?" Rada asked.

Scar studied her face in the light of the lantern. "More than I ever thought was possible. More than I'll ever deserve."

Rada smiled and shook her head. "Yeo sheho de," she said softly, tilting her chin up a little.

Scar whispered the words back to her and kissed her. It might have been a commonplace gesture to other people, but he couldn't imagine the touch and taste of her lips ever becoming anything less than glorious. There was something almost unseemly about how good it felt, but he certainly wasn't going to stop.

A loud, sloshing thump shook the table and they both jumped. Shua dropped unsteadily onto an upended crate across from them and he hugged his barrel affectionately. "I could watch you two do that all night!"

"Sorry, Shua," Scar replied. "You won't." He frowned. "I haven't seen you this drunk in a long time."

"Well, I haven't seen you this sober in a long time," Shua returned with a smirk. "And that's sayin' a lot 'cause I've never seen you not sober and I haven't seen you in a long, long time." He closed one eye and shook his finger at Scar. "But you know, I take that back! Not the long time part, 'cause that's true enough, but the sober part. You're love drunk, my friend!" He laughed, now shaking his finger at Rada. "I saw that right off, all those years ago, and I said so to Dejan, I said, that poor bastard's got it bad!"

"You didn't really say that, did you?" Rada chided him.

"Oh, now, how would you know, laleh?" Shua countered. "You were off being all fifteen and dancing. See?" he challenged Scar. "I'm not that drunk."

Scar rubbed his forehead wearily. "If you say so, Shua."

"I do." He smiled beneficently at Rada. "You're so damn pretty!" he drawled. He pointed at Scar. "I've got half a mind to fight you for her."

"You'd lose."

"Ha!" Shua declared indignantly. He smiled at Rada again. "It'd be worth it," he sighed. "You're so damn pretty. So's that…" He waved vaguely behind him. "…that cousin of yours, Andakar."

"Which one? I have three."

"The one who's marrying my boy. The skinny one who isn't so skinny anymore. Turned into a real looker, that one. But I wouldn't fight my son for her. Nope!" He shook his head. "My son deserves a good woman, and damn if he didn't find himself one! She's full of piss and vinegar and she'll keep him out of trouble." He blew out a long, alcohol-laden breath. "Katri was full of piss and vinegar, too, but it was pretty rank stuff." He grimaced and waved his hand quickly. "No, no! I do the poor lass an injustice! But God help me, she was a burden to herself! I did what I could, didn't I, Saahad?" he appealed plaintively.

Scar nodded, not bothering to correct the title Shua used. By morning he'd forget anyway. "You did what you could."

Shua suddenly dropped his face into his hand and sniffled. "I love that boy!" he said tearfully. "I love him so much and I was a complete shit as a father!"

"No, you weren't," Scar corrected him.

"Of course not!" Rada agreed. "If you were, Dejan wouldn't be as fond of you as he is. All he's talked about is how much he wished you were here."

Shua raised his head and gazed at her gratefully. "That's nice! You're a nice girl, and you, lahaat"— He turned to Scar, needing a moment to focus on him—"are a lucky bastard!"

Scar smiled at Rada. "I'm aware of that, Shua."

"Well, that's good!" Shua drew in a deep breath. "I oughtta go tell Dejan how much I love him, but he probably wouldn't believe me 'cause—'cause I'm drunk."

"Then wait until you're sober," Rada suggested.

Shua shook his head, which made him dizzy for a moment. He wrapped his arms around the barrel for balance and rested his head against it. "Then I won't wanna say it."

"You should tell him while you can," Scar said. "You shouldn't waste the time you have with your loved ones because you don't know when you might lose them. I learned that to my sorrow." He frowned slightly. "Shua?"

"He's asleep," Rada said quietly.

Scar regarded Shua with mild disgust. "We should just leave him there."

"No, no." Rada patted his arm and stood up. "Let's go get Dejan to pour him into bed."

Scar watched her as she walked toward the fire where the others were gathered. As drunk as he might be at the moment, Shua had always been an astute observer of humanity. Scar could only agree with him that he was, in fact, a very lucky bastard.

Chapter Text

"I must say, young Mustang," Fuhrer Grumman declared, leafing through the report on his desk with one hand and holding the phone to his ear with the other. "I'm impressed! I wouldn't have thought so much could get done in so short a time."

"It's a drop in the bucket, really, sir," Roy replied, although he was quite pleased with the praise. "But most of the groundwork is in place for the next phase. There really is a very strong sense of teamwork and morale is high. There are even going to be some weddings taking place quite soon, at the end of the month, I believe."

"Well, well! Life goes on, doesn't it?" Grumman said offhandedly, adjusting his glasses as he squinted at a page of one of the reports.

"Yes, sir," Roy replied. "Interestingly enough, one of the grooms is going to be Scar."

Grumman straightened up in his chair. "Ho, ho! You don't say? Well, that ought to keep him out of trouble!" He flipped through a few more pages. "Good news about the caravan. It's a little primitive, but a good sign, nonetheless. Xing would make an extremely handy ally. "

"It would, indeed, Excellency," Roy agreed. "I gave Major Miles strict orders to make sure they return to Xing with a good impression of the new administration."

"Very good," Grumman said. "And Mrs. Bradley's little charity has been growing by leaps and bounds as well. It got a shot in the arm from that film that ran in the cinemas a few weeks ago. Did you happen to catch it?"

"Yes, I did, sir."

"We took a bit of a gamble on that one, as I recall. What did you think?"

"It was…interesting." The memory of it still gave Roy chills.

"I certainly thought so."

Roy's eyebrows went up. "You went to a movie theater?"

Grumman chuckled. "I try to get out every now and then. I went incognito. Not in drag this time, though." He laughed harder. "I must say, though, some of those Ishvalan ladies are quite attractive! I sat all the way through the main feature and the newsreels just to see that bit again. Very tasty! Are any of those girls getting married?"

"I really couldn't say." Roy could easily imagine the old fox twirling his mustache. "Sir, if we could move on to more weighty matters, did Parliament make a decision on my proposal?"

Roy heard Grumman give a soft groan. "You certainly had those people stirred up, young Mustang. There were all the radical young 'uns who were all for letting the Ishvalans go, then there was the Old Guard who refuse to give up any Amestrian territory for any reason. Fortunately, there were many who were a bit more level-headed who decided to tack on a few amendments to sweeten the pot for everyone concerned."

"Amendments?" Roy felt his stomach knot up. "What sort of amendments?" he demanded.

"Now, now, don't get too fired up," Grumman said calmly. "You know, my boy, if you want to try and take my place once I'm ready to leave it up for grabs, you're going to have to start thinking less like a soldier and more like a politician. I realize how proprietary you must feel about it, and your intentions are very altruistic and noble, I'm sure, but sometimes you have to bend a little to make everyone happy."

Roy set his jaw. "I understand, sir."

"I'll tell you ahead of time that you left out one or two important considerations which have been added, like establishing a military presence should the Ishvalans decide to stay."

"A military presence?" Roy exclaimed. "How is that supposed to make everyone happy? That's the last thing they'd want! That would practically guarantee their rejection of the proposal!"

"Not necessarily. We have soldiers there now, don't we? It doesn't seem to be causing a problem," Grumman replied. "It's still ultimately the Ishvalans' decision, Roy. All things considered, I don't think you'll be too displeased with the final result. I'll send it out to you right away, then you can get it to Ishval."

Roy sighed wearily and nodded. "Yes, sir. I'll have someone take it out there as soon as—"

"Let me rephrase that," Grumman interjected. "I want you to take it to Ishval and present it to the Ishvalans personally. Not to put too fine a point on it, our people have been sweating it out in the desert for nearly half a year while you've been parked on your keister. Don't you think it's high time for an inspection?" He waited for several seconds, listening to the silence on the other end of the line. "Brigadier?"

Roy gave a slight shudder. "An…inspection?"

"I think that's what I said."

"Yes…yes, of course, sir!" Roy swallowed. "I was planning one…" His voice trailed off, seemingly on its own.

"Were you?" Grumman raised an eyebrow. "Waiting for the weather to cool down out there, is that it?"

"N—no, sir, not necessarily."

"Were you waiting for me to order you to go? I hope not." Grumman frowned somberly. "I've never known you to be indecisive, young Mustang. This is your baby. Get out there and see how it's growing up! Wangle yourself an invitation to Scar's wedding, if you have to! You're practically a friend of the family, after all!"

"Not exactly, sir," Roy replied stiffly.

"Just get out there! Present our proposal and give them some time to make their decisions. Then I want your inspection report on my desk at the end of the month!"

"Yes, Excellency!"

Roy placed the handset into the cradle and stared at it for a moment. His face had grown hot by the end of his conversation, and now he could feel the blood draining from it.

He could still hear the screams of terror and agony as flames engulfed homes. He could still smell the sickening odor of charred flesh. He could still see the piles of blackened corpses. He could still feel the weight of the oppressive heat as it tightened around his chest.

A quick double knock at his door made him jump and he realized that he had been holding his breath. He let the air burst from hsi lungs and swore softly to himself. "Come in!" he called out.

Lieutenant Hawkeye entered the room carrying the morning paper. "I thought you might like to see this, sir," she said as she approached Roy's desk. "There's an article—" She stopped when she saw how pale he looked. "What's wrong?"

Roy looked up at her, his gaze clinging desperately to her reassuring, familiar features. "I have to go to Ishval," he said flatly.

"Oh." Riza's voice was quiet. "Well, sir, you knew you would have to someday, didn't you?"

"Yes…yes." Roy clasped his hands tightly on the desk before him and stared at them, then he brought them up to press against his forehead. "Damn it!" he growled. "I want this mission to succeed! It has to succeed! I want to raise Ishval out of the ashes of the war! But the thought of seeing it again makes me sick!" He let out a sigh of exhaustion. "I was sure they would want to have nothing more to do with us. I was sure they would demand their independence and would no longer be part of Amestris and I might never have to go there again!"

"You didn't really think that, did you sir?" Riza asked. "I can't imagine you being so unrealistic."

Roy dropped his hands on the top of his desk. "I guess I can't really think straight when it comes to Ishval."

Riza contemplated him for a few moments. She knew what he was feeling. She had felt the same fear. The thought of finally having to confront their greatest shame had loomed over them both.

"You won't be going back alone, sir," she said finally. "I'll be right next to you, just like always."

Roy looked up at her, a grateful but bleak smile growing on his face. "To keep me from turning tail and running?"

Riza smiled and shook his head. "You'll be all right sir. After all, Ishval isn't the madhouse it once was."

"I don't know. The idea of Scar getting married is a little insane." Roy remarked with a grim half smile. "Next thing you know, they'll have snow."

"Stranger things have happened, sir."

............................................................................................................................................

Scar didn't have anything like the fine rice paper that Mei had written her letter on, but the plain, unlined paper from the school's supply was of decent enough quality, even though the ink from the fountain pen bled slightly through the other side. He stared at the blank, slightly off-white page on the table before him. The person that Mei knew him as was still inside him. He could feel still feel the anger on occasion, even though he had less occasion to express it. Time was a little more on his side these days and he could afford to be more circumspect.

Dear Mei,

I was very glad to receive your letter. It came as something of a surprise, but a pleasant one. I was also very relieved to hear that you returned home safely. I don't know how much news has reached you about what has happened here, but for your family to make the journey across the desert, whatever you have heard must be positive. It will take many years for Ishval to return to what it once was, but at least our feet are on that road. It has even been hinted that the Amestrians may offer us our independence, but at what cost is still unclear.

But we are making progress and there is much to hope for. Much to my surprise, I was reunited with members of my family whom I was sure I had lost. I was also able to lay my parents and my brother to rest, which gave me a great deal of peace.

Am I happy? You were right in thinking that happiness was not something I sought, but Ishvala's will is often cloudy to man, and happiness appears to have sought me. As it turns out, I am going to be married in a month's time to a woman I once knew and whom I thought had died in the war. It also is much too long a story to put in a letter, but I hope that someday you will be able to meet her. I think you would approve.

Dr. Marcoh told me what had happened to Alphonse. It is a strange story, but I suppose that young man's life has been nothing but a strange story. Despite having been at odds, I am glad for him. He struck me as being wiser and more practical than his brother. I find the idea of him travelling to Xing somewhat reassuring. Alchemy and its practice will always be less of a blessing and more of a curse as far as I am concerned, but I am sure that Alphonse will give his responsiblities the grave consideration they deserve.

To be honest, Mei, I don't actually know how many years older Alphonse is than you, or even how old you are, for that matter. I'm not your father, and I realize that you have a sufficient number of older, wiser relatives to advise you. But if you don't mind me taking the liberty, I would like to say that, when the time comes, I approve. That is strictly between you and me, however. I would ask you to not tell either of the Elric brothers or, by extension, Miss Rockbell, of my existence. I don't think it would be of any benefit to any of us. If they would prefer to think of Scar as dead, then they may do so. My memories are still very fresh in my mind, but now that I have a future, I must look to it.

I would like to return your kind wishes to you and your family. May Ishvala bless and protect you.

One piece of my past has caught up with me, for good or ill, and I am now, as I once was,

Andakar Ruhad

Chapter Text

Vesya pressed the tip of her tongue against her upper lip as she painted an even line around the edge of a green-fired cup. She had loaded just the right amount of paint on her brush, and she slowly turned the little pedestal on which the cup was the next to last piece in the remaining set. She had completed four others that afternoon, and she was pleased with her progress. Their work was beginning to gain a bit of notoriety, thanks to the jars, vases, tea sets, and dinner sets that the soldiers had sent to family and friends. They were getting new orders from as far as West City. It gave them both deep satisfaction to be able to make a living from the craft their father had taught them.

Damyan set the last unfired piece to dry in the sand-filled bin he had built and placed the lid on top of it. He took off his clay-spattered apron and hung it on the nail that had been driven into one of the tent posts. He then went over to stand behind his sister, making sure not to get too close and distract her. He waited until she had finished her line before he spoke.

"It's late, Ves," he told her. "You can finish that up tomorrow."

Vesya rubbed her eyes, then turned the lantern up brighter. She shook her head. "I really want to finish this set tonight so we can get them glazed and fired tomorrow," she said. She pointed to a small book that sat near her on her work table. It held the list of orders that still waited to be filled. "We have so much more to do."

Damyan shrugged. "All right. Just don't stay too late. Dejan wants to rehearse tomorrow morning, remember. He said that lady, Madame Christmas, may have a theater for us to perform at in a few months."

Vesya let out a groan. "Oh, I forgot about that! I told Rada I'd help her with the wedding dresses tomorrow!"

"Well, then, all the more reason to not wear yourself out." Damyan patted her on the shoulder and leaned down to kiss her cheek. "Be careful on the way back."

Vesya had already turned back to her work. "Mm-hmm," she replied, dipping her brush in the cobalt blue paint. She touched the tip to the upended cup and slowly turned the pedestal. Damyan had told her that little imperfections would actually make the pieces more valuable since it showed how each piece was hand painted. She had her doubts about that, and she disliked making mistakes. She worked in silence for some time, carefully forming the intricate geometric pattern that she had chosen for this set. She finished the cup and set it aside with the others. She reached for the last cup and centered it on the pedestal.

Yes, she was definitely going to be busy for some time, but she preferred it that way. When she kept herself occupied she didn't have time to sit and daydream or brood or feel sorry for herself. Even when she was busy helping make her sister's wedding dress instead of her own, she tried to dwell on Naisha's joy. She told herself that her heart was not irretrievably lost. It might take a little while for it to find its way back, and it might be a little bruised, but it wouldn't be broken. It will have learned to not cast its sights too high and to be content with less.

Her hand faltered slightly, leaving a tiny blob of paint where it wasn't supposed to be. She stared at it for a moment in dismay, then decided she would just have to work it into the rest of the design. They couldn't afford to waste material and labor. Probably no one would even notice it, but it would bother her. It would always be the odd one, the one that would never be quite good enough, the last one to be chosen.

She put down her paintbrush and leaned her head on her hand. Perhaps she was a little worn out. No wonder she couldn't keep her hand steady. It would simply have to wait until the next day. She rinsed her brush clean, squeezed the water out of the bristles and reformed them to a fine point before setting the brush down with the others. She stood up and took a look around the work area to make sure everything was in order. Damyan would be here early to start glazing the bisqueware. She would come with him and finish the cup then.

She turned the lantern down until the flame went out. There were enough lights set up around the compound and along the road that passed by the tent city, and the moon was nearly full, so there was enough light to walk back by. The air was pleasantly cool and the sky was brilliantly clear. The brightness of the moon obscured some of the stars, but there was still a thick blanket of them. She walked slowly, gazing upwards, thinking idly that they would see the same stars and the same moon in the sky over Briggs. But would it be too cold to stand outside and look up at them? She frowned slightly and shook her head. What a ridiculous thing to think about!

Once she passed out of the headquarters compound and started on the road that ran along the tent city, the lights were fewer and farther between. From the tops of their tall poles, the glare of the electric bulbs cast the darkness beyond into sharper contrast. Vesya stepped through the gloom in between each cone of light with little concern. She could hear voices drifting over from the tent city as people were preparing to go to bed. Then she came to the stretch of road that lay between the tent city and her own campsite. This was where the string of lights ended and the road ahead lay only in the milky glow of the moon.

The scuff of a sandal against the ground just off to her left made her give a start and pause for a moment. She had just left the glare of the last light and her eyes hadn't yet adjusted to the darkness. Silence fell again and she continued on, quickening her steps. Then she heard a laugh and she turned quickly to her right. She thought she saw a figure dart along the side of the road. She began to back away, ready to start running, then she felt herself backing into a solid object.

She gave a little cry and spun around. Now that her eyes had grown more used to the dimness, she could see Stanno standing in front of her. Not only that, she could smell him. A few days ago, she wouldn't have recognized the smoky pungency of sholmi, and Stanno reeked of it. He normally never gave her as much as a second glance, but now he loomed over her, and she could see the glint of his teeth as he smiled.

"Dark out, isn't it?" he drawled.

Behind her, Vesya could hear snickering from what sounded like two other men. She glanced over her shoulder to see Stanno's friends coming up unsteadily to surround her. She turned back to Stanno. She didn't look up as far as his face. She didn't want to see that crooked grin again.

"I know it's dark," she said, trying to keep her voice level. "That's why I'm going home."

"It's dark, but it's early!" one of Stanno's friends remarked.

Stanno laughed as though this was a brilliant statement. "It is!" he cried. "There's still plenty of time." He bent down a little to look into Vesya's face and she backed away from the stench of alcohol on his breath, only to feel the hand of one of the men behind her drop down heavily on her shoulder. "What shall we do to pass the time?" Stanno asked. He took Vesya's chin in his hand and tilted up her face. "What would you like to do, eh?"

The man behind her held her other shoulder as Vesya struggled to pull herself out of Stanno's grasp. The man brought his mouth close to her ear, his lips nearly touching her. "She likes to dance, doesn't she?"

Stanno snapped his fingers. "She does!"

He grabbed her by her arms and swung her around in a circle. Vesya let out a cry and stumbled, unable to get her feet back underneath her. Stanno pulled her against him. "She likes to feel a man's hands on her, doesn't she!"

He grabbed her by the wrist and wrapped his arm around her waist. He then bounced her around in a clumsy mockery of a polka while his friends looked on and laughed. Vesya thrashed against his hold, whimpering breathlessly with fear and anger. Then Stanno suddenly let go of her and she tried to take the opportunity to run, but he had thrown her into the arms of one of his friends, who lumbered about while holding her hard against his chest. He let her go and she immediately darted away, only to run straight into the other man, who clutched at her and laughed hoarsely. They started pushing her back and forth between each other.

Vesya caught her breath enough to start letting out a scream, but Stanno clapped his hand over her mouth while his friend pinned her arms back.

"Now, don't go spoilin' all the fun, laleh!" he told her as she struggled. "I just remembered somethin' else you like!"

He moved his hand away and before she could cry out, he crushed his mouth against hers. The stink of alcohol on his breath was making her sick. She didn't want to breathe in and she felt like she was suffocating.

"Stanno!" his other friend growled, pushing him aside. Stanno laughed and stepped out of the way to let his friend pull Vesya against him and clumsily kiss her. By now Vesya was sobbing and thrashing weakly as they started shoving her back and forth between them like a rag doll, trying to kiss her or grope at her. At one point, one of the men spun her wildly, much to the amusement of the others, and she felt herself being pulled tightly in the circle of one of their arms.

It took her a moment to realize that the laughter had died away and that the arm that held her didn't belong to any of them. She went limp with relief as she felt crisp wool against her cheek and smelled a clean, reassuring scent.

"Well," she heard Miles say. His voice was calm but she could hear an underlying tightness. "I think I may have found Shua's thief. I'd hate to think you'd do something like this sober."

"Piss off, half-breed!" Stanno snarled.

"Take your stinking bluecoats and go back where you came from!" one of the other men added, flinging out his arm, which nearly threw him off balance.

Miles ignored them and spoke to Vesya in a low voice. "Are you all right?"

Vesya nodded mutely, clinging tightly to him and burying her face against his jacket.

"I'll take you home as soon as I've dealt with these three," Miles told her.

"Oh, you'll deal with us, eh?" Stanno retorted with a laugh. "Us three? You're by yourself, Major!"

This seemed to only just occur to the other two, and they began to close in on Miles and circle around him. One of them snatched up a handful of Vesya's skirt and tugged at it. Stanno slipped behind Miles and jabbed him in the back with his elbow. The three of them began laughing again.

"Go back to your Ammy whoremasters!" Stanno taunted.

One of his friends made a grab at Vesya. "And keep your damn hands off our women!"

Miles pulled Vesya tighter as he watched the three with tense wariness. "Don't do anything stupid, Stanno," he warned.

"Save it, half-breed!" Stanno spat back furiously. "I'm not one o' your bluecoat dogs!"

He drew back his fist and made a wild lunge toward Miles, who took a step back and reached for his sidearm. Except for regular cleanings, the automatic pistol had never left its holster since he had brought it to Ishval. Now, with a single, quick, practiced movement, he pulled it out and aimed it at Stanno's face.

"Fun's over," he said darkly.

With their vision and judgment somewhat impaired by alcohol and the dim light, the three drunks could still hear the metallic click of the pistol. Stanno stumbled to a halt and stared at it as if unsure what it was. Then recognition dawned on him. His focus seemed to sharpen even though he weaved on his feet. On either side of him, the other two men chuckled weakly for a moment, then fell silent. For a moment Stanno looked genuinely scared, then he lifted his eyes to Miles' face as a grin pulled at one end of his mouth. He suddenly gave a cry and threw his hands up in the air.

"Ishvala have mercy!" he called out, his voice slurred but loud. "What're you tryinna do, Major? Start it all over again?"

Vesya became aware of other voices and hurried footsteps. A large group of people had gathered around them, some of them carrying lanterns. The light gleamed dully off the pistol in Miles' hand and many of those who stood there were gasping and murmuring with astonishment and alarm. Vesya stiffened in Miles' hold as she looked with horror from the gun to Miles' face, which was set with a hard coldness that she had never seen on him before.

"Major!" Breda's voice rang out as he pressed through the growing crowd. "What hap—shit!" he hissed as he saw the pistol and drew up short.

From further along the road, Scar, Damyan, Dejan, Shua, and Naisha came running up.

"What happened here?" Damyan demanded. "Did something happen to Vesya? Ves, are you all right?"

"Damyan, take your sister," Miles told him, handing Vesya over to him without lowering the pistol or taking his eyes off Stanno. Vesya clung to his arm for a moment before Damyan drew her away. "Lieutenant!" he called to Breda. "Get a couple of soldiers and place these men under guard for public intoxication, disorderly conduct, and battery."

Breda gave a grim nod. "Yes, sir!"

"Battery?" Stanno cried incredulously and gave a laugh. "So now it's battery? What's it when you do it, Major?"

"What are you talking about?" Damyan looked from Miles to Stanno. "What did they do?" He lowered his head close to Vesya's, who was covering her face with her hands. "Ves! Tell me what happened!"

Shua pushed forward and went up to Stanno. He grabbed him by the chin and brought his face close before Stanno tore out of his grip.

"Getcher hands off me!"

"Ha!" Shua cried triumphantly, stepping back and pointing at Stanno. "This is the bastard who stole my sholmi!"

"Shua!" Miles yelled. "Get the hell out of the way!"

"Shoot him, Major!" Shua went on. "Then I want his liver on a stick!"

"Dad, would you shut up?" Dejan grabbed Shua by the arm and pulled him away.

Scar stepped forward and grasped Miles' arm. "Put the gun down!" he said slowly in a low, warning tone. "You don't need it anymore!"

Miles realized that his arm had nearly frozen in this position, and it was only now that he noticed the quiet rumble of murmurs from the Ishvalans behind him. He slowly lowered his arm.

"Thanks for finally showing up!" he muttered to Scar.

"You should have called for help first!" Scar growled back.

"There wasn't time! I was outnumbered and I had my hands full!"

There was a sudden explosion of swearing in Ishvalan as Damyan shot forward and tried to grab Stanno by the throat. Stanno pushed him back and Scar and Dejan grabbed him by the arms before he could move in again.

Damyan spat out a few more Ishvalan obscenities before switching back to Amestrian. "Son of a jackal! You touch my sister again and I'll kill you!"

"I told you, Major!" Shua called out. "Didn't I tell you whoever stole my booze would do something stupid?"

Miles glowered at him. "Yes, thanks, Shua," he growled.

By this time, Breda had returned with three more soldiers armed with rifles, although they kept them strapped to their backs. "All right, gentlemen," he said to Stanno and his friends. "Let's go sleep it off."

He took hold of Stanno's arm to lead him away, but Stanno yanked out of his grip and walked away with unsteady dignity. The other two followed with their escort. Miles finally holstered his pistol and turned to look at the faces around him. The Ishvalans gazed back at him with apprehension or, in some cases, mute anger. Then they started moving away into the darkness.

"Well, that's over!" Naisha declared with forced cheerfulness, holding up the lantern she was carrying. "Let's all go home, make some tea, and calm down!"

As the others started moving away, Scar remained for a moment, watching Miles. "I don't think this is over yet," he said quietly.

Miles sighed and rubbed his eyes wearily. "No, I don't think it is."

Chapter Text

There was a crisp coldness in the early morning air, although he had been much colder. Scar stood before the three graves, softly intoning the chant for the dead. It wasn't something he needed to do until a year after their burial, but he felt he had a lot of time to make up for. He had placed a bare pinch of incense in each of the three small ceramic bowls made for this specific purpose—another product of Damyan's labor—and had set the crystals alight.

Having completed his prayers, he stepped over to Mattas' grave and crouched down to one knee.

"I think I'm feeling the lack of you more keenly now than I ever have, Brother," he said quietly. "Vesya cried herself to sleep last night. She was inconsolable, and I didn't know what to tell her. And I've never seen Damyan that angry. He reminded me more of me than of you." A wry smile pulled briefly at the corner of his mouth. "Which may not be a good thing."

Scar leaned forward and brushed some loose dirt from the ceramic plaque that had been set into the soil near the head of the grave. "You and Miles would have gotten along well." He let out a long sigh. "Part of me can't honestly blame him. I would have done much worse to Stanno. But of all the things Miles could have done, he had to draw a weapon. The significance wasn't lost on anyone.

"Even as I walked here, I was constantly stopped by people asking outrageous questions and demanding answers from me. Everything from whether it was true that Miles tried to shoot someone to whether Stanno was going to be put in front of a firing squad. People were arguing with each other. Some of them even argued with me after I told them the truth." Scar shook his head, scowling with irritation. "Then they started telling me how I ought to take Father's place as chieftain of Kanda. I told them I would have to be elected to that position, just like all the other chieftains, and when that would happen would depend on what the Amestrians decide to do about us. That started a fresh round of debate, but by then I'd had enough and I left them to it."

Scar rose to his feet and brushed off his hands. "From your place in Ishvala's bosom, Brother, see if you can somehow persuade the Creator to make His will a little clearer or to grant this poor sinner the vision to see it more clearly."

.........................................................................................................................

Sergeant Benjamin stifled a yawn, switched his rifle to his right shoulder, and fervently wished that his relief would be coming soon. He had been a guard in a stockade before. Hell, he'd even spent a few days in one for his own drunk and disorderly adventure. Whichever side of the bars he'd been on, it wasn't fun.

This particular setup was a little different, and he felt uncomfortable about it. No bars, no locks, no damn walls, even. Just a tent. All he had to do was stand there and hope nothing happened. The last thing he wanted to do was make the present situation worse. He felt bad for Major Miles. Benjamin never realized how much of a problem he had with authority until he joined the army, which was why he was still a sergeant. But he truly respected the major and he was honored to be serving under his command. He felt that the major had done exactly what he should have done, but he knew that the higher-ups might not see it that way, a situation that Benjamin was very familiar with.

He glanced up at the sound of footsteps and saw Rada approaching, carrying a bucket of water. He gave her a friendly nod.

"I'd offer to carry that to wherever you're taking it, Miss Rada," he said. "But I'm a little tied up right now."

Rada stopped in front of the tent and smiled at him. "That's all right, Sergeant," she replied. "I'm bringing it here. May I see him for a moment? Is he allowed visitors?"

Benjamin gave a little start. "Uh…I'm not sure. Nobody said he wasn't." He looked down at the bucket. "If you just want to leave the water, I'll make sure he gets it, 'cause I expect he'll have a powerful thirst when he finally wakes up. Although if you don't mind me saying so, it's more kindness than he deserves."

Rada gave a little sigh. "Everyone deserves a little kindness, Sergeant, even if they might not enjoy it." She glanced at the rifle a little uneasily. "I'm sorry it came to this."

Benjamin smiled and patted the stock. "Just between you and me, miss," he whispered, "it's not loaded." He winked and jerked his head behind him. "That poor bastard in there isn't going to be up for any mischief for a while."

"Then there's no need for you to worry," Rada replied. "Certainly not on my account."

Benjamin scratched his head. "Well…all right." He reached back and lifted the tent flap. "But if you need me, just give a shout."

"I will, Sergeant. Thank you."

Rada stepped in through the tent flaps and up to the side of the cot. She looked down at the cot's occupant for a few moments. He was a sorry sight. A white haze of stubble covered the lower part of his face and his clothes were dirty and disheveled. He still smelled slightly of alcohol. Rada let out a deep sigh, lifted the bucket, and poured most of its contents over Stanno's face. Stanno thrashed and gave a shocked, angry cry. He pushed himself up from the cot, then froze for a moment. With a low groan, he slowly sank back down. Dragging his sleeve across his face, he squinted around the tent, his gaze finally resting on Rada. He grimaced as well as he could, but every movement seemed to be a painful effort.

"…the hell…" he mumbled. "…what're you doing…"

"This is what my mother would do whenever my father had drunk too much halmi," Rada replied calmly. "She never said a cross word to him."

Stanno carefully laid his arm over his eyes. "…lot of good that did them…they're dead…"

"That's not the point, Stanno," Rada said. She frowned sadly. "Look at you! You used to have everyone's respect, and look at what you've sunk to! You could have gained honor by laboring for the common good, but you've become a wastrel, a thief, and a drunk!"

Stanno lifted his arm slightly to glare at her. "Don't talk to me about honor, you slut!" he muttered. "You gave yours up a long time ago."

Rada upended the bucket, spilling the remainder of its contents over his head, making Stanno let out another yelp.

"It was a gamble I had to make," she replied. "I had nothing else to bargain with, and I honestly don't care what you think about it anymore. But I never wanted to see you suffer. I never wanted to see you like this."

"It's a little late now, isn't it!" Stanno had wrapped both his arms around his head and his voice, though muffled, was bitter. "Ever since you shamed yourself—and me—my life has sunk deeper and deeper down the shithole! Those years after the war were hell! It was a struggle just to live!" He lowered his arms and glared blearily up at the roof of the tent until the light hurt his eyes and he closed them. "I had to become a day laborer just to eat! Me! A master carpenter cleaning out stables for a few coins! Fucking, tight-assed Ammy bastards! I can't imagine how much worse it would've been if I'd been dragging you around with me!"

"Or how much better," Rada countered.

Stanno gave a harsh laugh, then winced at the pain it caused.

"You would have had someone to share your burdens with," Rada went on. "You would have had someone to share all your woes with, someone who would have devoted herself to you completely if you'd only had the courage and the decency to accept her and forgive her and love her. But all you do, all you've ever done, is blame others for your failings. You are a master carpenter, Stanno! You used to make such beautiful things! I remember that chest that my father bought from you! I used to just sit and look at it, thinking what a deep, wonderful soul you must have had to create such a thing of beauty! But it's as though you take your own talent for granted. You take everything for granted! You live on the pride of your family name and you expect admiration from everyone, but you give nothing back! I loved you so much once, but now I just feel sorry for you! I wish you could be more content with life."

Stanno cracked open one eye. "The last thing—" His jaw clenched and he swallowed hard. "The last think I want is your pity," he said with an effort.

Rada shrugged. "Take it or leave it, then. I realized a long time ago that you're not the man I thought you were, but I'll never give up hope that there must be something inside you that's worthy. I'll never give up hope that you'll learn to be a better man than you are now." She considered him critically for a moment, then she set the bucket on the ground next to him. "Here," she said. "You might need this."

With that, she turned away and stepped out of the tent, only to nearly collide with Scar. He stopped suddenly and stared at her in surprise.

"Rada! What were you doing in there?" he demanded anxiously.

She gave him a smile and laid her hand against his chest, giving it a pat. "It's all right," she assured him. "We just had a little talk, that's all."

Scar frowned slightly. "A little talk?"

Rada nodded. "Yes." She stood up on her toes to kiss him on the cheek. "And I feel so much better for it! And I think Stanno might even feel better as well."

From inside the tent came a painful retching sound and a pathetic appeal to the Creator.

"Well," Rada added, "he'll feel better eventually, I'm sure."

..........................................................................................................................................

Roy stared at the map on the wall above the radio transceiver, his eyes focused on the spot that said Ishval. It always seemed to burn there like an angry ember. Now he could imagine the ember bursting into flames, the wound reopening and spilling blood across the land once again.

"Major," Roy said slowly. "What in the hell prompted you to do such a thing?"

Miles' jaw set. He had not expected a positive reaction, but from his early days as an officer he had developed a deep-seated hatred of having his judgment questioned. At Briggs, at least, he had passed the general's fierce testing period with flying colors and she had placed her complete faith in him from that time on.

"Sir," Miles replied with cool courtesy. "I acted as I thought best for the situation. Those men were drunk and they were belligerent."

"You pulled a gun on an unarmed civilian!"

"I was outnumbered, sir, and it wasn't just myself I was defending."

"You pulled a gun on an unarmed Ishvalan civilian!" Roy's voice rose in volume.

"Sir, I'm fully aware of the impact of my actions," Miles said, keeping his own voice under tight control. "I realize how it must have looked and how it must sound, but I assure you that if there had been any other—"

Roy brought his fist down on the table in front of him. "You are the commanding officer there, Miles! You are a representative of the Amestrian military! You are my representative! Goddamit! I trusted you! Do you have any idea how damaging this could be? How much you may have tarnished our reputation in Ishval even more than it already was? Do you realize what you may have started?"

Miles had to pause. There was a definite tone of panic in Mustang's voice. The brigadier was clearly taking this incident very personally, which was, as far as Miles was concerned, conduct unbecoming an officer, not to mention the pot calling the kettle black. He let the silence hang for another moment, then spoke with chilly calm.

"Brigadier General Mustang, let me assure you that the situation is entirely under control. Let me also assure you that I am very much aware of the unique responsibility of my position here, not only as an officer of the Amestrian military, but as an Ishvalan."

"Which I had hoped would make you more perceptive to how sensitive this situation is!" Roy retorted. "Tell me something, Major Miles! Did I make a mistake?"

Even though they were confined to the earphones, the words seemed to hang heavily in the air. Miles went rigid for a moment. He had heard much worse throughout his career, insults either veiled or blatant. He'd had to swallow them all to survive in this game, and he had managed to rise through the ranks by developing a tough skin. But this barb, launched by a man who had risen through the ranks with the aid of an alchemical bag of tricks, had managed to pierce it.

Roy continued. "I will be arriving at the end of the month to conduct an inspection and to personally deliver a number of proposals to the Ishvalan people concerning their future. I will also be making a considered reevaluation of the current situation!" he added pointedly.

Well, that was a little unexpected, but Miles refused to let it take him by surprise. With frigid civility he replied, "Then I look forward to your arrival, Brigadier."

Roy flipped off the transceiver and wearily leaned his head on his hands, trying to calm his pounding heart. He had to admit to himself that he had handled that badly. He had insulted a fine officer and had possibly created a rift that could not be repaired, but it couldn't be helped. He slowly removed the headphones from his ears and set them down on the table before him. If anything went wrong in Ishval, it would be on his head, and he would never get the blood off his hands.

........................................................................................................................................

Miles sat for some time in silence, resting his chin against his fist, the headset dangling from his fingers. Finally he shook his head and swore to himself in fluent, well-accented Ishvalan. For a culture that seemed to be so concerned with propriety, it was a remarkably satisfying language to cuss with.

"That was impressive," a voice behind him remarked drily. "I suppose that didn't go well."

Miles glared at the dials and switches on the transceiver. "He's coming here."

Scar frowned slightly. "Because of the gun business? Mustang's finally going to show his face here just for that?"

"No, not just for that. Apparently he's decided to come and make an inspection. He's also bringing the results of Parliament's vote on Ishval, so we need to let everyone know." Miles turned in his chair. "But I expect he's probably going to hand me my walking papers."

Scar regarded him grimly. "That's what he told you?"

"Not in so many words, but it's a possibility." Miles' expression brooded darkly and he was silent for a few moments. Then he said, "But I think I'll save him the trouble."

"What do you mean?" Scar asked somewhat cautiously.

"I think it's time I headed back to Briggs."

A look of angry dismay crossed Scar's features. "No, Miles! It's too soon!" He nodded at the transceiver and moved toward it. "Let me talk to Mustang!"

Miles waved his hand. "No, there's no need for that. I gave him a full report on the incident. There's nothing you could add."

"I could tell him he's a fool!"

"He's not a fool, Andakar. He may have overreacted, but he's staking his career on the restoration of Ishval. If anything goes wrong, it's a reflection on him."

"It's a reflection on his guilty conscience and the glare is blinding him!" Scar countered tersely. "Yes, you pointed a gun at an Ishvalan! But Stanno was hardly an innocent child, and there was no possibility you would have actually pulled the trigger! Surely Mustang realizes that!"

"Perhaps he does," Miles said with a slight, almost unconcerned shrug. "To him it was what the gesture represented. But truth to tell…" He held his thumb and forefinger a scant inch apart. "I was that close to blowing Stanno's brains out the back of his head." He studied the look of surprise on Scar's face. "A lot of people will tell you that I'm one of the coolest men under fire they've ever seen, and I have never in my life fired a weapon in anger. But when I saw what Stanno and the others were doing to Vesya, I felt a real desire, if only for a couple of seconds, to kill them. I wouldn't admit this to Mustang, but that's long enough for me to feel that my judgment was impaired."

"How can you say that?" Scar demanded. "You were perfectly calm!"

"I'm sure that's what it looked like. But I could feel the difference. I've become too involved where I should have stayed detached." Miles let out a long, slow breath. He smiled thinly. "Besides, you don't really need me anymore. This land is well on its way to recovery. There are responsible people in place. Master Bozidar is an able guardian of the Ishvalan faith. Dejan has the development of Ishvalan culture well in hand. Damyan and many of the craftsmen have reestablished their livelihoods, and you, my red-eyed brother, are keeping it all bound together. As long as whoever Mustang replaces me with is open-minded enough to cooperate with you and the other Ishvalans, the outcome is good."

Scar was still moved to argue. "I would rather have you than someone who has no ties to our people!" he stated angrily. Then his expression softened with a tinge of sorrow. "I would rather have a friend."

Miles looked up at the big Ishvalan. They'd come a long way since that day in Baschool. He had a gun out then, and nobody seemed to care. "I'm sorry, Andakar. I have to remove myself to deflect criticism away from this project. The restoration of Ishval has to take precedence over anything else—over sentiment or friendship or…whatever."

"If sentiment and friendship can't be part of Ishval's foundations, then what will it stand on?"

Before Miles could consider a reply to that, the flaps of the tent were pushed open.

"Major Miles!" Shua declared, striding in. "Just the man I want to—" He pulled up short as he took in the solemn expressions on the other two men. "Eh-h, what's this? Why the long faces?"

Miles gave an impatient sigh. "We're dealing with the backlash from last night's incident."

"Backlash?" Shua looked from him to Scar, then back. "You mean because you waved a gun at that yaakhtai? I would have done the same thing!"

"I wish you had," Miles replied. "You're not an officer in uniform. I am, and that has turned me from an asset to a liability."

"Tch!" Shua scoffed. "Look. I'm long, thin, brown, and I just spent a couple of weeks on a camel so I probably smell funny, but that doesn't make me a turd."

Miles rubbed his face wearily. "What do you want, Shua?"

Shua snapped his fingers. "Ah, right! What are you going to do about that drunk bastard and his chums? I have a few suggestions."

Miles scowled. "I have a few suggestions of my own, Shua. I want all that liquor gone, to start with. And the sooner, the better."

"Gone? How do you figure I manage that? Drink it all myself? Are you trying to kill me?"

Miles shook his head impatiently. "I don't care how you get rid of it. Just get rid of it. Send it to Xing on the caravan if you have to."

"I already gave them a couple of barrels for free," Shua replied. "I like them, just not that much. This stuff is valuable."

"Then find someone else to unload it on."

Shua pulled a face of mock outrage. "You mean, sell it? Without a license? Under the table? That's pretty shady, Major! I'm surprised at you!" He grinned. "You know anybody?"

"Talk to Havoc," Miles told him. "Between him and his father, they'll work something out for you. Just don't tell me about it."

"Thanks! I'll do that!" Shua's expression grew a little darker. "And our boy Stanno? What about him? Not only is he a dirty thief, he's got no respect for nice girls. Or bad girls, for that matter."

Miles turned to Scar. "Should we opt for rough justice and let Damyan beat him to a pulp?"

Scar shook his head. "As much as I'd like to see that happen, I don't want to see Damyan lower himself to that level." He smiled slightly. "Punishment seems to be already forthcoming. I was just by Stanno's tent, and it sounded like he was being tormented by the demon of his sins."

"Why don't you put the bastard to work!" Shua grinned wickedly. "Someplace where there's lots of hammering!"

Miles rubbed his chin thoughtfully. "Put him on work release?

"It's time he was put to some use," Scar agreed. "He's done precious little since he got here."

Miles gave a nod. "It'll have to do, I suppose. We're here to build, not waste manpower. I'll see about having the three of them assigned to where they'd be of the most use." He turned back to the transceiver and picked up the headset. "In the meantime, I should radio General Armstrong."

"Armstrong?" Shua said suddenly.

Miles looked over his shoulder at him. "Yes. Major General Olivier Mira Armstrong. She's the commander of Fort Briggs."

Shua chuckled. "I met her parents while I was in Xing! Phil and Sophie! And that sweet little sister of hers! Richer than God, but decent folks. We had a few laughs."

Miles turned away with a slight shake of his head. "That's great, Shua. Now, unless you actually have something useful to tell me, I have business to take care of."

Shua waved his hand and headed for the tent flaps. "No, that's about it. I'll see you around, lads."

Scar remained, watching Miles' back as he turned to dials on the transceiver to transmit to Briggs. "You're staying for the weddings, aren't you?"

"Of course I am! I wouldn't miss that for anything!" He half-grinned back at Scar. "If I don't see you get married with my own eyes, no one's going to believe me."

Chapter Text

Roy put the phone to his ear in a distracted, irritated manner. "This is Mustang."

"What did you say to him, you little punk bastard?" a female voice demanded in a furious hiss.

Roy groaned mentally. There was no question of who he was speaking to and to whom she was referring. He wasn't normally a stickler for protocol, anyway.

"If you already talked to him, you should know," Roy replied stiffly. "Maybe I should ask you what he said to you."

"All he gave me were the facts!" General Armstrong snapped back. "He berated himself but left out how much of an asshole you must have been! Unlike some people, Miles is a man of integrity! But for him to radio me and tell me he wants to come back to Briggs at the end of the month, I figure it had to take a lot more than some minor local dustup to make him bail on Ishval! Out with it, Mustang! What did you say to him?"

Roy sat bolt upright in his chair. "He's leaving? He didn't tell me that!"

"Oh, he will, don't worry!" Olivier sneered back. "His call to me was unofficial, but you can rest assured he'll observe all the proper procedures. He's an outstanding officer, as you very well know but seem to have overlooked! Briggs will welcome him back with open arms, and then you'll realize what you've lost!"

Roy quickly recovered from his moment of shock, angry at himself for letting his guard down in front of his keenest rival, even if it was over the phone. He was normally very good at keeping a charming composure in front of her, but she had lanced him where he was most sensitive.

"It was hardly a minor local dustup, General!" he growled. "You've been holed up snug in your fort with all your abominable snowmen for years! You didn't see what happened in Ishval! And it all started with a gunshot, a moment of unspeakable outrage that could never be retrieved or repaired! You didn't see what we did to those people! It is our responsibility—our moral obligation—to fix what we did wrong! What Miles did may seem minor, but it doesn't matter! He should have known! I can't risk that kind of lack of judgment in Ishval!"

At her desk inside her northern citadel, Olivier had pushed her chair back and had risen to her feet. "And what right do you have to blame Miles for the sins that lie on your head, Mustang? Whose judgment are we really talking about here?"

The question hit home with a resounding, painful thud, but the last thing he was going to do was admit to that frigid blonde harpy that she might have a point. Unfortunately, the only option that left him was to dig a deeper hole for himself.

"There are bigger issues at stake than the career of one officer!" Roy shot back, also rising out of his chair. "The Ishvalans are going to be given the choice of independence or remaining as part of Amestris. What Miles did couldn't have happened at a worse time! We can't have another enemy on our borders, General! You should know that! Amestris' image is at an all-time low! We're surrounded by hostile nations! If we can't convince the rest of the world that we can maintain our internal stability by peaceful means, we're sitting ducks! We have to show potential allies like Xing that we're not a bunch of bloodthirsty imperialist warmongers and that it would be to their advantage to maintain positive diplomatic ties with us!" Roy didn't have a mirror anywhere close at hand, but he had a good idea that his face was turning red. "What might have seemed minor to you could have far-reaching consequences! What's the saying? For want of a nail a kingdom was lost?"

There was a moment of silence on the other end of the line, then Roy heard a contemptuous chuckle. "You completely pulled all that drivel out of your ass, Mustang!" Olivier said in a scathing tone. "You screwed up and you know it! Now Miles is all mine again and you can't have him back!"

Roy took the receiver from his ear and stared at it for a moment. Putting it back, he exclaimed, "That's the most childish thing I've ever heard!"

"Oh, yeah?" Olivier countered. "Well, how about this?" She blew a loud raspberry into her mouthpiece and hung up.

Roy stood still for several moments in one of his least favorite attitudes, that of holding a telephone receiver in his hand after having lost the opportunity to get in the last word. That, of course, was not foremost among his problems. He set the receiver back into its cradle and clasped his hands behind his back, trying to collect his errant thoughts while they ran rampant through his mind like a lot of unruly children. He gazed around his office, which now seemed unnervingly quiet. None of his staff was there. Two of them were in Ishval, ironically enough. Fuery was off lending a hand with the master radio equipment. Where was the lieutenant? That was definitely a sad state of affairs if he couldn't keep track of her.

He pushed his chair back and strode across his office and out the door. He vaguely remembered her mentioning something about going to the documents library. He turned a sharp right down the corridor and hit the stairwell at a brisk pace. He swung around the landing to the next flight and nearly collided with Lieutenant Hawkeye as she was on her way up. She had to briefly juggle the armload of manila folders she was carrying, and then she stared at Roy with growing alarm.

"Brigadier! Is something wrong?"

He gazed at her for several moments. What did she really think of him? Deep down, did she harbor thoughts of him being a complete idiot? It would serve him right, but what he needed most right now was an honest assessment that would be delivered with a grain of kindness.

"Can we get out of here for a while?" he asked.

.............................................................................................................................

East City was having its first cold snap. The sky was heavy with clouds that had moved in from the north (probably sent expressly with General Armstrong's compliments, Roy thought darkly), and the seating at the sidewalk café was mercifully sparse. Riza huddled in her uniform overcoat and cradled a steaming cup of coffee in her hands. When she let out a deep sigh, her breath turned to a light cloud of steam.

"Well," she said finally. "Sounds like you've had quite a day."

Roy breathed out his own cloud of steam. "I don't think I've caused so much damage in such a short amount of time since I left Ishval." He gave a quiet, bitter laugh and rested his head between his hands. "Why can't I seem to do right by those people?"

"You haven't exactly brought Ishval to its knees," Riza replied, a little drily.

"Not this time, maybe."

Riza shook her head dismissively. "You've been doing everything in your power to make sure they have whatever they need. That's practically all you've been doing. If you have to fault yourself for anything, you might be a little…overzealous."

"Or I missed the trees for the forest," Roy said with a wry half smile. He picked up his coffee and took a swallow. "Now that Miles has pulled a you-can't-fire-me-I-quit, I have to find someone who is even remotely as qualified as he was to head the project out there." His expression hardened. "Damn it! He should have left the gun as the absolute last resort!" he grumbled. "He's not the trigger-happy type, so his actions still have me questioning his judgment."

Riza paused a moment before asking her next question. "Have you told Fuhrer Grumman yet?"

Roy groaned. "No. I haven't had Miles' official request for a transfer yet. I'll wait until then."

Riza frowned a little disapprovingly. "Then you should be back at headquarters, sir. You might miss his transmission."

Roy huffed a quiet, grim chuckle. "You mean I should wait by the phone all day just so I can get dumped?"

"Not exactly." Riza hid a slight smile in her coffee cup.

Roy took his billfold from his jacket and put some money on the table. "I suppose you're right. May as well get it over with."

................................................................................................................................................

Vesya's feet pounded along the road. She had left behind the echoes of her family calling after her—except for Andakar. He had barely finished breaking the news to them before she darted away, but he made no attempt to stop her. Maybe he understood better than anyone else. Her lungs labored against this unaccustomed exertion, but it was nothing compared to the strain of her heart threatening to burst out of her chest in a thousand pieces.

She drew odd looks from people as they flashed past her. She didn't care what any of them thought anymore. She had only one desperate aim now. When her parents died, her world fell apart. It was threatening to do so again, but not if there was anything she could possibly do about it, particularly since she felt responsible. She wasn't even all that sure of what was in her power to do. She would worry about that when she got there.

..................................................................................................................................................

Miles rose from the chair in front of the transceiver. His second conversation with Brigadier General Mustang had been short, to the point, and free of any embarrassing emotional outbursts. Mustang did sound a little stiffly awkward when he agreed to Miles' transfer and expressed his regret over the circumstances, and Miles made no extraordinary effort to put him at ease. Now Miles felt a little drained, and he fought against a feeling of growing futility. His time here had not been wasted, he had to remind himself. Much had been accomplished, and even Mustang had passed on Fuhrer Grumman's praise. It was, however, hard to not feel bitter. Perhaps what they said was true—no good deed goes unpunished. He would have liked to see the first houses completed and people moving into them. He shrugged slightly. Well, he would come back and visit when time permitted. He wondered if what he would come back to would still be part of Amestris or a foreign country by that time.

He stretched and rolled his shoulders and rubbed the back of his neck. He felt as though he'd been hunched over that damn radio for hours, but it was probably just tension that had him all knotted up. It was time to go over to the mess tent and enjoy McGinty's cooking while he still had the chance.

As he headed for the tent flaps, he became aware of the hurried scuff of running feet approaching, and the flaps were thrown open as Vesya burst into the tent. She came to a halt in front of Miles and stared up at him, her breathing ragged. She swallowed hard before sucking in a dry gasp of a sob.

"Is it true?" she demanded. "You're leaving?"

She would almost be adorably comical with her windblown hair and the little smudge of blue paint on the tip of her nose if it weren't for the heartbreak in her voice and the desperation in her eyes. He would almost smile except for the grip that was clutching his own heart.

"I'm afraid so," he replied, his voice as level as he could make it. "I know it's sudden, but—"

"Please don't!" Vesya cried. "You shouldn't have to go like this! Not because of me! I was foolish and careless and I never should have gone home alone so late! It was my fault and you shouldn't be punished for it!"

"Vesya!" Miles said gently. "In no way, shape or form was it your fault! Don't even think that! And I'm not being punished. It was my decision to leave."

Vesya gazed back at him, startled. "You…you want to leave?" she asked in a small, sorrowful voice.

"No, I—" Miles let out an exasperated, somewhat despairing breath. "Please understand, Vesya. It's for the best."

"How is it for the best?" Vesya demanded frantically, her voice cracking and catching in her throat. "Who is it supposed to be best for?"

Miles started to open his mouth to try and explain, but he found that he couldn't answer her question. He knew that the logic he had based his decision on was sound she would understand it clearly. That wasn't the problem. It suddenly struck him that something was wrong. The scenario of returning to the familiar, regular rhythm of life at Briggs was no longer as idyllic as it first sounded. The pattern had been disrupted without him realizing it. It had taken on a wildness, born from the heat of this arid land, that was rebelling against logic and sound decisions, and right now it was telling him that there was only one possible thing he could do to keep from making the biggest mistake of his life.

He swiftly closed the distance between them and swung Vesya into his arms. This time she didn't stiffen with surprise but wrapped her arms around his neck and met his lips with as much hunger as he met hers. He covered her face with kisses, tasting the tears on her cheeks. He brought his mouth close to her ear.

"Come with me!" he whispered fiercely. "Marry me and come back to Briggs with me!"

She drew in a sharp breath and pushed away from him a little so she could search his face as though doubting both her hearing and his sincerity.

"I mean it, Vesya!" he assured her, holding her gaze hard. "I love you! I love everything about you! I love how you look and how you move and how you talk and God I love the way your lips feel on mine!" He gathered her tightly against him and kissed her passionately. He moved his hands to either side of her face. "Please tell me you'll marry me!"

Vesya gazed back at him, still a little out of breath, but calm and resolute. "I'll go wherever you go, Miles," she said solemnly. "I don't care where." A smile grew on her lips and she let out a wisp of a giggle. "I love you, too! So very much!"

He grinned and held her close, lifting her off her feet and laughing. Life might not have fallen back into perfect balance, but it was definitely starting to feel better.

..................................................................................................................

"Henschel!"

The second lieutenant turned to meet his approaching superior. He had long since stopped jumping when she barked at him like that. He saluted.

"General!" He stood at attention to await her orders.

Olivier planted herself before him. "I'm leaving for a short trip to Ishval at the end of the month. I'll only be gone for about a week. I don't think I could stand rubbing elbows with Mustang any longer than that," she added in a mutter. She fixed Henschel with a hard look. "You will have command of Briggs while I'm gone."

This time Henschel gave a start. "Ishval?" He thought for a moment while this sank in along with a tinge of dread. "Is there a problem with Major Miles' return?"

"No, he's still coming back." A hint of a smirk pulled at the corner of Olivier's mouth. "He just won't be alone."

Henschel scowled. "Ma'am?"

Olivier let out a slight breath of impatience. "He's getting married," she said simply. "I'm going to the wedding."

The other soldiers that were within earshot in the cavernous hall froze and stared at their general. Henschel caught his jaw before it dropped all the way, then he voiced everyone else's incredulous thought. "Miles is getting married?"

Olivier nearly rolled her eyes. "I know this is a big place, but it doesn't echo that much, Lieutenant. Yes, that's what I said. He's bringing back a little desert flower to freeze her ass off up here." She folded her arms across her chest. "I give it a month before she starts whining to go home."

"Huh," Henschel remarked thoughtfully. "So…did he say what she's like?"

"Oh, he gushed a little about her," Olivier replied, a little dismissively, then added, "Apparently she's Scar's cousin, so maybe she's from some fairly hardy stock. She's gonna have to be if she expects to survive here."

Henschel kept his expression neutral. The general didn't object to any of her personnel being married. Some of their personnel were even married to each other. The rest generally kept their spouses down in North City. As long as their connubial bliss didn't interfere with their work, General Armstrong had no problem with them.

As the general's temporary adjutant, Henschel had needed to redouble his efforts to read her moods nearly as well as Miles could, but even a rookie could tell that this piece of news seemed to be rankling his superior. He supposed it wasn't to be wondered at. Her number-one-right-hand-man was finally returning to resume his trusted position, but he would bring a distraction with him. Maybe it would work out. Maybe it wouldn't.

Chapter Text

Scar stood in the middle of a carefully leveled piece of ground. A large rectangle had been marked out with twine and wooden stakes, creating a space big enough for what would eventually be a two-story house. He had struggled with this idea for some time. After having renounced worldly things as a priest then spending years of deprivation as an instrument of vengeance, such an indulgence felt truly shameful.

But he had other people to consider, namely Rada and Danika, who had also suffered years of deprivation and who deserved something better. This indulgence was more for their sakes, and he had to admit to a certain masculine vanity in wanting to provide them with the very best. He finally decided to recreate his father's house, which had included servants' quarters. Based on the potential for their family's growth, something that both he and Rada were planning on being considerable, it would be sufficient. Scar smiled to himself. Perhaps it was premature, or possibly even tempting Providence, but he already had names picked out.

Scar looked over at the two women who would soon comprise his immediate family. Danika moved about in the square marked off by twine where her room would be, singing quietly to herself. Rada strolled slowly around the space where their kitchen would be. There was a look of thoughtful concentration on her face as she must have been making calculations in her mind of what furnishings and utensils they would need. It would be some time yet before the house would go from merely a vision to a reality, but it was pleasing to have come even this far.

Rada looked back at him and smiled. She joined him at his side and threaded her arm through his, resting her head against his upper arm. "I really shouldn't be daydreaming like this," she said. "There's so much to do. I should be working on the embroidery on Vesya's wedding dress. Four weddings all at once! Can you believe it?"

Scar was still amazed at his own impending nuptials, let alone anyone else's. Miles and Vesya certainly took them all by surprise, not just with their announcement but by the news that they would both be leaving. It was a bittersweet moment. Miles had solemnly and properly asked Damyan for his sister's hand. Naisha started crying, then Vesya, then nearly everyone in Dejan's ensemble.

Scar had studied his friend's face. "This will truly make you my brother, Miles."

"Cousins, isn't it?"

Scar waved his hand. "It amounts to the same thing. I'm just surprised it took you this long."

Miles gave a slight shrug and grinned. "Maybe I just needed that final kick in the pants." He grew a little solemn for a moment. "You know, for all my respect and devotion for General Armstrong, I think I've always known that if I was ever to really fall for a woman, she would have to be someone who was a little softer, a little more vulnerable." He met Scar's eyes with warm humor. "Someone who actually needed my protection."

"Good morning to you, neighbor!" Dejan called and waved from where he stood with Shua in front of the outline of his house. It was marked out cater-corner from Scar's on one side of what would be a cul-de-sac, and it was going to be rather large. It had to accommodate not just his new bride, his daughter, and his father, but his young musicians, whom he had for all intents and purposes adopted. Across the road, facing Dejan's, would be Damyan and Yasna's house. Two more houses were marked out for that particular street, and it was tacitly wished by everyone that Miles and Vesya would have occupied one of them. No one spoke about it out loud for fear of Naisha bursting into tears.

Scar harbored doubts about the two of them making a life together in the frozen north. It wouldn't be as hard for Miles, who was accustomed to life in the Briggs fortress. How would Vesya take it? How would she be received by the stern, icy queen of the citadel? What would she do there, separated from her family and surrounded by strangers? She and Miles might need a lot more than just love to keep each other warm.

It was more than he wanted to have on his mind. Foremost among his concerns was the impending arrival of not only Brigadier General Mustang, but Major General Armstrong as well. From what Miles had told him, the two were likely to strain the limits of cordiality. That, in itself, was not something he was very worried about.

"What's that look for?" Rada asked with amused suspicion.

Scar looked down at her with a hint of a wicked smile. "I was picturing Mustang and Armstrong getting into a fight during the wedding feast like a couple of jilted suitors. Then they could be forcibly ejected by the bridegrooms' families. It's something I almost wish would happen."

Rada smacked his arm. "Shame on you, Andakar Ruhad! Don't you dare wish such a thing! I don't want my wedding day ruined by a bunch of brawling drunks! That's what happened at my aunt's wedding." She covered her mouth and giggled. "She had rejected three other suitors before settling on my uncle, and all three of them showed up uninvited. One of them tried to beat my uncle with the roasted haunch of a goat. It was a mess!"

"Mustang is showing up more or less uninvited," Scar remarked. "But I wouldn't waste good food by beating him with it."

Rada laughed softly then grew a bit somber. "How do you think he'll be received by our people?"

Scar gave a slight shrug. "It's hard to say. On the one hand, he is still the Flame Alchemist. There are many who still bear his scars. On the other hand, he is one our most outspoken and steadfast champions among the Amestrians. Should he be condemned or welcomed?"

"He should be heard," Rada said quietly. She looked up to meet his gaze as he regarded her. "If we're ever going to move forward, we have to learn from the past, then set it aside. You have a lot of influence, Andakar. Surely you can persuade everyone to judge him on what he says and does now, not on what he once did."

Scar covered her hand with his. "You are a wise and gracious woman, Rada. Perhaps you're the one who should be doing the persuading."

"Oh, be serious!"

"I am."

Rada shook her head impatiently. "You're the one they'll listen to. There are a lot of people who think that whatever the outcome, you should be not just chieftain of Kanda, but of all Ishval." Andakar made no reply and she gave him a sidelong look. "I've even heard one or two say that we should restore the royal seat."

Scar gave a dismissive snort. "That's absolutely preposterous! Our leaders should be elected by the households. That's the way it's been done for over a thousand years."

"I know that," Rada replied. "That's why there's also been talk of restoring the khorovar."

Scar frowned thoughtfully and nodded. "So I've heard."

The khorovar was an office that was created after the restoration of Ishval following the Great Earthquake. The khorovar was the supreme chieftain over all of Ishval, a position he would hold for ten years and to which he could be reelected as many times as the people wanted him in office. If he was suspected of corruption or breaking faith with the people, he could be stripped of his title by the other chieftains, but generally, the people chose wisely.

This office was "temporarily" eliminated when the Amestrians annexed Ishval, and an administrator from the Amestrian military command was "temporarily" placed in charge of the region. This lasted until there was no one left in Ishval to govern.

Scar caught Rada giving him a pointed look. "Rada, my beloved," he said firmly. "All I want to do is marry you, build our house, raise our family, and teach the children. My contentious days are behind me."

Rada raised a slim eyebrow. "Are you sure?"

Scar glowered and blew on his palm. "Don't even think about it!"

Rada giggled at him. "You can blow as hard as you like. If the households choose you, are you going to say no?"

Scar fought against a smile and gathered her into his arms. "Just be my bright sunrise, Rada." He kissed at the edge of her hairline and smiled. "Not my campaign manager."

"Eh-h!" Rada gave a little smirk as she ruffled the silver-white strands of hair that fell over Scar's forehead. "And what sort of wife would I be if I didn't sing the praises of my brave silver hawk?"

"She's got you there, lahaat," Shua said as he stepped over the twine border. "And don't give me that 'don't you ever knock' look. You don't have a door." He went up to them, grinning cheekily at Rada. "You can sing my praises all you like, sweetheart."

"Djaari Shua!" Danika cried, running up with her arms spread wide.

"Hey, there, little blackbird!" Shua swung her up in his arms. "How do you like your new house?"

Danika giggled. "It's not a house yet!" she declared emphatically.

"Ah, well!" Shua touched his forehead to hers. "I'll bet you've got a fine house inside that little noggin of yours!"

"I do!" Danika replied excitedly. "It's hyooge!" She stretched her arms high above her head. "It's a hundredy-four feet tall and it's blue with flowers and I have a big, big bed with a big soft blanket and big soft pillows and we're gonna have a big, big garden and big shady trees and Mama's gonna have lots of babies and I'm gonna have the bestest, strongest Papa in the whole world!"

"Sounds like you've got it all figured out!" Shua told her. He turned to Scar and Rada. "I hope you're getting all this."

"We might have a little trouble with the hundredy-four-foot-tall house," Scar replied drily.

"Can we go see the camels?" Danika begged excitedly. "Please please please?"

"Sorry, love," Shua said. "They all went home yesterday morning while you were at school."

"Awww!" Danika moaned. "I didn't get to say bye!"

"That's all right," Shua assured her, setting her back on her feet. "I said bye for you. They'll be back again, don't worry."

"Okay!" Apparently satisfied with that, Danika trotted back to her future bedroom.

"Are you sure they're coming back?" Scar asked.

"The caravan? Oh, sure they are," Shua replied easily.

"They weren't worried about what happened with Miles?" Rada asked.

"Well…" Shua gave a slight shrug. "They were a little anxious about it at first. But the night before they left, we tapped open one of the barrels I gave them and I convinced them it was nothing worse than a family squabble. They know all about family squabbles so they took it well, particularly after the sholmi warmed them up." Shua chuckled. "Have you ever seen a man with a hangover ride a camel? Funny as hell! But now that they know Ishval is open for business, they'll definitely be back."

"And they'll spread the news to the other clans?" Scar suggested.

Shua shook his head. "They'll probably stay pretty cagey about it, but purely for business reasons, not politics. They want to keep the Ishvalan market to themselves for as long as they can."

"That may suit them, but not us," Scar remarked with a frown.

Shua grinned and held up a finger. "Which is why I sent an extra letter on the sly along with yours to Mei Chang. She'll pass on to her wag of a brother."

Scar nodded approvingly. "That was well done, Shua." He gave him a wry look. "Maybe I should put your name forward for khorovar."

"What?" Shua looked outraged. "You mean work for a living? No thanks!"

........................................................................................................................................

Vesya had to still her hand before the brush touched the surface of the unglazed plate.

"Miles! You're making my hand shake!" she giggled.

"That's not all I'm doing, is it?" Miles asked as he lifted her hair to brush his lips along her neck.

"No." Vesya put down her brush and turned to kiss him. "Now go sit over there and let me work."

Miles gave her an amused smirk and got up from the stool that was next to her chair. He walked slowly around the tented workshop, examining the many pieces of ceramic ware that sat on makeshift shelves. Vesya was trying to finish decorating as many of them as she could before they left Ishval. She said that Naisha could take over for her, but Damyan was already bemoaning the loss of his preferred artist.

On one of the lower shelves sat a worn cardboard folder with the edges of sheets of paper sticking out from the ends. Miles bent a little closer and could make out the markings of pencil drawings. He slid a finger under the cardboard cover and lifted it slightly. Underneath was a sketch of a couple of the girls in Dejan's group. It looked like it was done quickly, but it still captured the youthful humor in the girls' eyes.

Miles looked back at Vesya, who was carefully focused on the plate she was decorating. He quietly lifted the folder from the shelf and sat down on a nearby stool. Opening the folder on his lap, he began to leaf through the collection of drawings inside. Each one had a stylized "VK" in Ishvalan script in the lower right-hand corner.

He smiled at a sketch of Dejan sitting back against a tree, sound asleep, with a younger version of Mika curled up beside him. Another sketch showed Damyan in the process of blowing up his bagpipe. There was an almost caricature-like sketch of Dejan and Naisha dancing together.

Then he came across a drawing that startled him. It had been done with painstaking care and was quite lifelike. It was a portrait of him. He certainly never posed for it, but the artist had captured his likeness in nearly minute detail. He was shown with his dark glasses poised before his face, and he wore a solemn look of authority. If it hadn't been for the familiar initials down at the bottom corner, it would have been almost unnerving.

"Miles!"

He nearly jumped. He hadn't noticed Vesya getting up from her seat, and now she stared at him as though he was the one who had caught her in a compromising position. She hurried over with her hands held out to gather up the folder, but he held it away from her.

"When did you draw this?" Miles asked, trying hard not to grin.

Vesya's tawny cheeks reddened. "A while ago," she mumbled. "A few weeks after we got here, I think."

Miles looked back at his portrait. "So you did this from memory? This is amazing! Your artwork, I mean," he added with a smile. He held the folder at arm's length, making a show of examining the picture. "I'm not sure I look quite that good in real life." He looked at her and lifted an eyebrow. "We're getting married, Vesya. Do you really think we should be keeping secrets from each other?" he teased.

"I just…I suppose I just got in the habit of not wanting anyone else to see it," Vesya explained a little awkwardly. "Especially you."

"I don't see why you should be embarrassed about it," Miles said. "I'm really flattered." He closed up the folder and handed it to her. "But I suppose I really shouldn't have been looking through it without asking."

Vesya held the folder in her arms against her chest. She lifted her shoulders a little and smiled back at him. "It's all right. Like you said, we shouldn't keep secrets from each other." She gazed at him affectionately and her smile grew. "Will you tell me something about you?"

Miles folded his arms and gave her an indulgent look. "Go ahead."

Vesya gave a slightly nervous little giggle and asked, "What's your first name?"

Miles stiffened and he hesitated. "Uh…" He let out a somewhat awkward laugh and rubbed the back of his head. "My first name, huh?"

Vesya frowned slightly. "You don't want to tell me?"

Miles drew in a deep breath and let it out slowly. "No, of course I'll tell you. But I'd rather you didn't tell anyone else."

Vesya looked at him with mild dread. "Why? Is it awful?"

"Well, I always thought so." He crooked a finger and beckoned her closer.

She stepped up to him and he took her hand to pull her down closer. He whispered into her ear. Her eyes widened slightly and she straightened up.

"Endeavor?"

Miles quickly put his finger to his lips and Vesya instinctively put her hand over her mouth. They both listened to the noises outside the tent, but no one seemed to be nearby. Vesya moved her hand.

"It's…interesting…" she said quietly.

Miles smirked ruefully. "My father's idea. It was a kind of tradition on his side of the family. His mother's name was Constance. Her mother's name was Patience. My mother seemed to like the idea."

"What was your father's name?"

"Prosperity. He shortened it to Prosper, which sounded a lot better."

"I like that name." Vesya smiled. "I think I like yours, too."

"Well, that's kind of you," Miles replied drily. "I'm still not going to use it. I suppose I should consider myself lucky I wasn't named after my grandfather Tenacious."

Vesya clapped her hand over her mouth again, this time to keep from laughing.

Miles lifted his hands in frustration. "There! You see? Needless to say, Miles suits me just fine."

Vesya bent down again and kissed him. "Miles suits me just fine, too."

Miles pulled her onto his lap and returned her kiss, and they would have stayed in this position for some time, except they heard the sound of approaching footsteps and the clearing of a throat. They both looked toward the front of the tent and saw Anthony Knox standing by Damyan's potter's wheel. His somber expression turned a little sheepish for a moment.

"Sorry to intrude, Major, but you're wanted over at the mortuary tent," the young man said. "It's about your aunt."

Miles stared back at him in alarm. "My aunt?" Vesya slid quickly off his lap and he stood up. "What do you mean, my aunt? She isn't—"

Anthony quickly waved his hand. "No, no!" he said with a slight laugh. "No, she's…well, she's not fine. She's actually very upset, and my father thought you should be there."

Miles and Vesya quickly followed the younger Knox out of the artisans' area and across the compound.

"Father said that she's been—well, lurking was how he put it—around the lists of remains like she was looking for someone," Anthony said. "Then, a little over a week ago, she stopped coming."

"Now that you mention it, I haven't seen her for about a week." Miles gave an irritated grunt. "Where was she the other night when I really needed her to stick her nose in?"

"But she finally showed up today," Anthony went on. "She seemed to know exactly what she was looking for."

They reached the mortuary tent and Anthony lifted the tent flaps for them. Miles stepped in and looked around at the rows of tables. Vesya put her hand on his arm and pointed to a table at the far right. Huddled on a chair beside it was Zulema. Her head rested on her hand on the edge of the table, and she was weeping with quiet, dry sobs. With her other hand, she was gently stroking the finger bones of a skeleton.

Vesya gave a little gasp and hurried to the old woman's side, putting her arm around her shoulder. Miles followed her over to the table and looked down at the skeleton that lay there. The hand Zulema stroked was twisted and deformed, the fingers curved outward with large knobs of bone at the joints. The feet and toes were in the same condition. Both knee joints looked knobby and enlarged.

Miles crouched to one knee beside Zulema. She lifted her head slightly and peered at him through her tears.

"He—he could barely move, it hurt him so!" she half mumbled, half wailed. She choked on a sob. "He told me to go without him! He s-said he would only be a burden to me!" She looked back at the twisted hand and brushed her fingers lovingly over it. "He told me that he loved me with all his heart, but he could—he could already hear Ishvala calling him home." She lowered her head and renewed her weeping.

Vesya's eyes filled with tears and she gently stroked the old woman's head. "Oh, Auntie Zulee!"

Miles took a clean handkerchief from his jacket and pressed it into the old woman's hand. She gave him a little nod of thanks and shakily applied it to her eyes and nose.

"This is your husband, Aunt Zulema?" Miles asked quietly.

Zulema nodded, drawing a shuddering breath. "My Zahar, yes. Oh, he was a good man! You should have seen the way he fussed over the little kid goats. Even the old buck was fond of him. Such a gentle man." She clenched the handkerchief in her hand. "Ah, but he was a lion in bed!"

Miles almost laughed out loud. "Eh-h, are you sure you should be telling me that, Auntie?" he teased her gently.

A tiny smile pulled at the old woman's lips and she gave Miles a slightly admonishing look out of the corner of her eye. "You're a grown man, young Attar," she said. "And soon you'll be taking a wife of your own. These things shouldn't come to you as a surprise." She patted Vesya's hand where it sat on her shoulder, then gave it a squeeze. "Promise me you'll be good to each other."

"Of course we will, Auntie!" Miles assured her.

"We promise!" Vesya added, kissing the old woman's cheek.

"And you'll carry my Zahar to his resting place?" Zulema asked anxiously.

"I will, Aunt Zulema," Miles said solemnly. "Would you like me to ask Andakar as well?"

Zulema thought for a moment, then nodded. "You two are of a height," she said. "I'd hate to think of my Zahar rolling from one end of his coffin to the other." She heaved a deep, heartfelt sigh. "And when I'm gone, who's going to carry me, I ask you?"

"I promise I'll do that, too," Miles said.

Zulema shook her head and waved her hand feebly. "Ah, but you'll be gone! You'll be hundreds of miles away and you might not be able to come back!"

"Aunt Zulema, you have my word of honor that I'll get leave to come back here," Miles told her firmly. "We'll both come back to see you laid properly to rest."

"But then you'll be gone again, and who will say the prayers for me if I have no more family in Ishval?" Zulema seemed to ask no one in particular.

"Don't be silly, Auntie!" Vesya chided her. "My family can do that if we aren't able to!"

Zulema sighed mournfully. "It won't be the same. I suppose that vatrish that sister of yours is marrying is a decent soul," she admitted a little grudgingly, "but he's entirely too silly and he'll probably forget. Your brother…well…he's a good boy, but he's still just a boy."

"What about Andakar?" Miles asked. "He's not a boy."

"And he's certainly not silly," Vesya added.

"Turyan's boy?" Zulema gave her head a slight, speculative wag. "Well, that would be an honor, surely…" She shook head. "Ah, but he never sits still. He buzzes about like a bee, doing this and that. He'd never have the time."

She shook her head again and turned her attention back to the gnarled bones before her, giving them a careful pat with her fingertips. "No, no," she said with inconsolable heaviness. "It just won't be the same."

Miles and Vesya exchanged a helpless look and Miles rose to his feet. Bending over the old woman, he kissed her on top of her head. "You sit with Uncle Zahar for a while, Auntie. I'll come back for you later."

Vesya slipped her hand into Miles' as they headed for the exit. "We will be able to come back, won't we?" she asked him softly.

"Of course we will!" Miles replied. "The problem is convincing her that we will."

Knox stepped up to them as they neared the tent flaps. "Thanks for coming," he rumbled quietly. "I didn't know what to do with her. That's more my wife's talent, but she's off helping Marcoh today." He let out a heavy, weary sigh. "That poor old bastard on that table must've been in agony. I've rarely seen arthritis that bad. I bet he could barely move."

"He couldn't, apparently," Miles replied. "He made Zulema leave him behind."

Knox looked over at the old woman for a moment, his face growing troubled. "Aww, shit!" he muttered dejectedly. "Damn it to hell!" He patted his pockets and pulled out a pack of cigarettes. He jerked his head toward the tent opening. "I'm going outside!"

They had barely stepped out into the open air when Knox lit up and took a long drag off his cigarette. He blew the smoke out and ruminatively watched it dissipate. Then he gave a loud sniff and looked away. "Sorry about that," he said gruffly, clearing his throat. "In a way, that just hit a little too close to home."

"I couldn't have done it," Vesya said softly. "I couldn't have left my husband like that."

"I'm surprised Zulema did," Miles said. "She's such a stubborn old…dear."

"Sometimes being stubborn doesn't get you what you want," Knox remarked. "Being old doesn't either." He gave them a crook of a wry grin. "But when you're stubborn and old, no one can convince you otherwise."

Chapter Text

"There it is," Roy said. "The Ishvalan Express."

Riza blinked into the early morning sun. The train wasn't even inside the passenger station because it was made up mostly of freight cars. Behind the coal tender was a single passenger car.

"It's either a goods train with passenger service or it's a passenger train with goods service," Roy went on. "I don't think anyone has made up their minds about it. I'm not sure I can handle the luxury."

Riza glanced at her commander. His voice was a little loud and his humor sounded a little forced, which was a sign that he was nervous. She knew that as they got closer to Ishval, he would grow silent. As they trudged across the yard to the train, they heard squeaking behind them along with the sound of wheels grinding through gravel. They turned around and gave a start. Bustling up behind them, dressed in a khaki skirt and jacket outfit and sensible shoes, was Madame Christmas. Laboring behind her was a green-uniformed railway attendant pushing a cart loaded with luggage. She waved cheerfully at them.

"Good morning, my lovelies!" she called out, evidently in a very good mood. "Surprised, ain't ya?"

Roy stared at her. "What are you doing?"

"What do you mean, what am I doing?" Madame Christmas huffed back. "I'm taking a little business trip. What does it look like?"

Roy looked past her at the loaded cart. "Business?"

"Listen, Roy-boy. At my age, you need all this crap. Riza, dear!" She leaned over and kissed the air next to the lieutenant's cheek. "I know you're glad to see me!"

"I didn't say I wasn't glad to see you," Roy retorted. "It's just that…are you boarding this train?"

Madame Christmas gave Roy a weary look. "Do you actually think I'd make this poor boy drag all my bits and bobs all the way out here just to be mean?" she said. She looked back at the attendant with a motherly smile. "Could you please load that up for me? There's a dear!"

"Sure, ma'am," the attendant replied uncertainly, looking the train up and down.

"I don't expect there's a baggage car, hon," Madame added. "It's not that kind of show. Just pile it up at one end of the passenger car. We pretty much have the place to ourselves so there ought to be plenty of room."

"Yes, ma'am!" The young man touched the edge of his cap in a salute and gave the baggage cart a shove toward the passenger car.

"Madame," Riza said on behalf of a still perplexed Roy. "Are you traveling to Ishval? Because that's where this train is going."

"Well, that's a hell of a relief!" Madame Christmas declared, striding forward.

They boarded with the help of a couple of wooden crates as steps, since there was no platform. When they got inside, they gazed around at the worn, scratched, and chipped bare wood seats.

"Well," Madame Christmas observed. "At least I can say I've aged better."

The young attendant had hustled back in to load on the rest of Madame's luggage, and he then took a rag from his back pocket and dusted off a set of seats. He looked at the passengers a little sheepishly. "This car don't get much use," he explained.

"Well, your attention to detail does you credit, hon," Madame Christmas told him. She reached into her handbag and pulled out a small roll of bills. "Here's for all your trouble."

The attendant's eyes widened a little, and his grin widened even farther as he took the tip. He snapped another salute. "Thanks, ma'am!"

Roy and Riza loaded their single suitcases up on the luggage rack and took one of the seats, but Roy kept a tight hold on the satchel containing the documents entrusted to him. Madame Christmas spread herself on the seat opposite, heaving a deep sigh and settling herself as comfortably as she could. She looked across at her travelling companions and smiled impishly.

"Well, all right, enough suspense," she declared. "I'm going to Ishval to inspect my investment."

Roy still looked perplexed. "Sorry?"

"My little folk ensemble!" Madame Christmas leaned forward as far as her stays would permit and smacked Roy on the knee. "Don't you remember?"

Roy rubbed his knee. "I've had other things on my mind."

"Not to mention," Madame went on, "dear Dejan invited me to his wedding." She gave a husky laugh. "I'm so looking forward to this! I get to meet his whole darling family, including his father, who I understand is a bit of a rascal."

"You do understand that the accommodations are a little…rugged, don't you?" Riza asked.

Madame Christmas waved a gloved hand. "Yes, yes, I know! It's all Campfire Girls. I can manage. I brought an inflatable mattress, but I may need to have some of the young'uns blow it up for me."

Roy sat back in his seat. He couldn't decide whether he was irritated or relieved, which meant he felt a little of both. He had to admit, having her along was almost as much of a comfort as the lieutenant.

The voices of railway workers loading cargo onto the freight cars drifted in through the windows, but other than that, there was little to no sign of any activity for a good twenty minutes. Finally, an aging conductor heaved himself into the car and shuffled over to them.

"Tickets, please!" he wheezed.

They each produced their tickets, which he punched with agonizing slowness and handed back to them. "Sorry 'bout the delay, folks," the old codger mumbled. "We're waitin' on another passenger."

"Another?" Riza asked in surprise.

"Yup." The conductor gave a little emphysemic chuckle as he turned to leave. "Kind of a record for this trip. She oughta be comin' up along any minute now, though, then we can shove off."

Riza turned to Roy with a questioning look, but he shrugged. "I can't think of who else would—" He stared at Riza for a moment, then groaned quietly and closed his eyes. "Come to think of it, I can."

The sound of footsteps striding over gravel heralded the arrival of the final passenger. A pair of army boots stomped up the wooden crate steps and Major General Olivier Armstrong stood framed in the doorway. She looked around the car and her eyes fell on the three other passengers. She gave Riza a curt but cordial nod and a cold glance to Roy.

Madame Christmas peered around her seat. "Oh, my, look what the bear dragged in!" she chuckled. "How's your old man, dear?"

"Hmm!" Olivier acknowledged the older woman's greeting with stiff courtesy. "Well enough, as far as I know. He's out of the country at the moment."

"Ooh, hope he's not getting into too much mischief," Madame replied.

"That I wouldn't know," Olivier said. She stalked down the aisle to the far corner of the car, slung her duffle bag up on the luggage rack and dropped into a seat.

Madame examined her manicure and sighed. "I wish I could say she used to be such a sweet little thing, but she never was," she said under her breath.

The locomotive finally fired up and gave a lurch, pulling the train out of East City Station and heading for the last place on earth Roy Mustang wanted to be.

Madame Christmas dozed, Riza read a book, and Roy stared out the window at the countryside that flashed by. He felt strangely isolated. He knew that Riza had the same sort of nightmares that he did. They both kept them as subdued as they could, not letting them interfere with their work, but she was better at it. He had managed to let the demon get the better of him, his guilt taking the hypocritical form of righteous indignation. The woman who sat silently at the other end of the car had condensed it down to one annoyingly accurate statement: what right do you have to blame Miles for the sins that lie on your head, Mustang?

Roy had since contained his demon, but only barely. He could still feel it writhing and slithering around in his chest. He had to keep reminding himself that there were bigger issues at stake. Everyone involved had to put their personal grievances aside for the greater good. He certainly wasn't going to offer flowers to Armstrong this time, but neither was he going to let her provoke him. The future of an entire people lay in the satchel on the seat beside him. Everything else either came after that or had to be disregarded.

They made a short stop at the station in Resembool to take on water and more cargo. Roy searched the platform for any golden-headed boys, but they apparently had no business at the station that day. It was just as well. He didn't feel up to fielding any curious questions from them. The existence of a certain person was still a closely guarded secret, and Fullmetal had a tendency to fly off the handle. Roy allowed himself a slight, grim smile behind the hand on which his chin rested. He would almost like to be the one to break the news about Scar's marriage to Edward, just to see the look on the kid's face. But it would have to wait for another time. Let the Elrics recuperate from their ordeal in peace and get their lives back together. That's what they all wanted to do, wasn't it?

Madame Christmas woke up and sent Roy to retrieve a picnic hamper from her luggage. As she passed sandwiches to her companions, she leaned out into the aisle.

"Care for a snack, dear?" she called out.

"I'm good," the gruff reply came from the other end of the car.

Madame shrugged and gave a smirk. "All the more for us, then."

The train left Resembool station and continued on the last leg of its trip. Roy politely declined the offer of a sandwich from Madame Christmas. His stomach was beginning to feel knotted up, although he maintained a calm demeanor. He had to resist the temptation to keep glancing at Riza to see if she was feeling the same. It would have been hard to tell, anyway. She was the stronger of the two of them, and he didn't know what he would ever do without her. Ever since Ishval—because of Ishval, really—she had been both his beacon and his anchor. When Bradley took her away from him, his world nearly collapsed around him. But within the next moment he pulled it back together for her sake. He'd play Bradley's game to keep her safe and make that homunculus bastard pay. Even if someone else ended up exacting the price, he had gotten Riza back, once and for all.

All she seemed to want from him was to be able to watch his back, but he owed her so much more than that. He wanted to turn around and face her as she kept pace behind him. He wanted to pull her through the barrier that stood between them and into his arms, but every time he pictured doing it, his hand was covered in blood. Even after all this time, it hadn't washed away.

He fought against the urge to clasp his head between his hands. If he couldn't reach out to the woman he loved, how could he reach out to the Ishvalans? Is all they would see the blood-soaked gloves? Would any of them ever be able to see past the barrier?

.....................................................................................................................................

Just as Riza had figured, Roy grew more and more somberly quiet and tensely still as the train headed southeast. The lieutenant exchanged a few glances with Madame Christmas, the other person in Roy's life who knew him best, maybe even a little better. Not only had she raised him, Roy had stayed with his aunt for a while when he returned from Ishval. She had heard the nightmares of his childhood, but the ones that were still fresh from the war. He wasn't the type to be coddled, and she wasn't particularly maternal, but she hovered near him just to let him know that he wasn't completely alone, and that seemed to be enough for him. After that, Riza took over the job of keeping an eye on him, and Madame Christmas took a lot of comfort from that.

The train slowed to a halt alongside the nearly complete building that served as Ishval Station. Roy gazed out the window at it. It was the same sort of architecture that he recalled from Ishval itself, at least those buildings that were still standing. It would have thick walls and small windows and a flat roof, features that were much more practical for this climate than a typical A-frame building where heat would collect beneath the peak of the roof. As charming as the sight might be, Roy was reluctant to leave his seat. Riza had to give him a slight nudge, and he reached up and pulled down their suitcases. General Armstrong swung her duffel bag down and strode past them to the door. She declined to wait for a set of steps to be placed outside and she simply jumped down.

Madame Christmas rose a little stiffly from her seat, assisted by Roy, and she waved at her luggage.

"I'll need to get someone to deal with all that," she said, a slight groan in her voice as she rubbed her ample backside. "You'd think I had enough padding."

"There's our welcoming committee," Riza said as she stepped down from the train.

As Roy helped Madame Christmas maneuver the steps, he looked over his shoulder at the row of canvas-covered military transport trucks lined up near the track and the blue-uniformed soldiers standing among them. They snapped to attention as the officers approached, and Roy searched their faces for any that were familiar. Finding one, he managed to smile.

Breda grinned back. "Welcome to Ishval, sirs!" he said.

Another familiar face, not in uniform, the shock of yellow hair on his head not much changed, came bounding out from between the trucks.

"Lieutenant!" he cried gleefully. Ignoring both generals, he went straight to Riza and picked her up in his arms and bounced around with her. "It's so good to see you!"

"Put me down!" Riza cried indignantly.

"Is that an order?" Havoc asked, still bouncing.

"Yes!"

"Too bad!" Havoc laughed. "I'm not in the army anymore!"

"Jean, will you please put me down?" Riza asked between clenched teeth.

Havoc promptly set her back on her feet. "Well, since you said please."

He thrust his hand out to Roy, who took it with a warning look. "Has civilian life gone to your head, Havoc?"

"It must have," Olivier remarked with a smirk. "There wasn't much else up there."

"Nice to see you, too, General Armstrong," Havoc replied drily.

Olivier glanced around. "I would have expected Major Miles to meet me here."

"Major Miles sends his apologies, General," Breda said promptly. "But the Ishvalans have been reestablishing their traditions, and they're all at prayers right now, including the major. By the time we get loaded up here and get back, they'll be done."

Olivier scowled slightly and then gave a nod. "Thank you, Lieutenant."

Madame Christmas gave the trucks a weary look. "Is this our ride into town?"

"Oh, it's not so bad," Havoc assured her. He leaned closer to her and gave her a conspiratorial nudge. "You can ride with me!"

Madame Christmas chuckled. "Oh, won't that be fun!" She waved toward the train. "I've got a few bags in there still. If you fetch them for me, I'll make it worth your while," she said with a broad wink.

Havoc shook his head with a grin and headed for the passenger car. "You're just a little too much woman for me, Madame," he said.

The soldiers had already begun to unload freight from the train and transfer it onto the trucks, which was somewhat time-consuming. To keep his mind occupied on simpler matters, Roy lent a hand. He found himself carrying one end of a mattress from the train to one of the trucks.

"Just in time!" Havoc declared, giving the mattress a hearty slap. "Shua's gonna be pleased!"

"Who's Shua?" Roy grunted.

"He's one of the local characters," Havoc replied. "Among his other talents, he makes some pretty lethal liquor, and my dad sent him these mattresses in trade. Shua's gonna give them to the first couples who get married." He flashed a grin. "Act fast while supplies last!"

Out of sheer impatience, General Armstrong began loading cases onto the trucks, and coupled with the soldiers' practiced efficiency, the task was completed in under forty-five minutes. Havoc hoisted Madame Christmas into the cab of the truck he drove, and Roy and Riza joined Breda. Olivier claimed a seat in the closest truck, much to the nervousness of its driver.

As they drove away from the station, Breda glanced at his passengers. It had been a while since he last saw them, and he had seen them under much worse conditions, but something seemed not quite right. Well, not so much with the lieutenant. She looked virtually unchanged, which was a reassuring sight. It was the brigadier who had him concerned.

Breda had kept up radio contact with Roy, not exactly behind Miles' back, but giving his own interpretation of events. He felt he had dropped the ball over the incident with the major, but he didn't actually see what had happened, and Miles had reported it himself. Breda wasn't too surprised at the result, and he was honestly torn in his loyalties. But he still dutifully kept his commander informed, even up to the night before his arrival. He thought Roy was better prepared with what he was facing here, but perhaps that wasn't the case. He had seen him sleep-deprived before, but not quite this pale and drawn. Everyone had dealt with returning to Ishval in their own way and in proportion to what they remembered Ishval for. Breda had to suppose that the brigadier was carrying the heaviest load.

"Anything else I need to know?" Roy said finally in a business-like tone.

"Not much," Breda replied. "A lot of people were up late last night, arguing about it. A lot of it was in Ishvalan, so there was some I didn't catch. It gets pretty rapid when they get excited. But there's a pretty good mix of opinions."

"And Scar still hasn't voiced his?"

"Not to me. But he's been generally quiet on the subject."

"I'd have thought he'd be the most outspoken," Riza commented.

"I think he's been mostly listening."

"Or he's just saving it up for one final boot to the groin," Roy muttered. "It's probably a done deal already and anything I have to say won't mean shit."

"I wouldn't say that, sir," Riza said.

"I wouldn't either," Breda added. "I'm sure everyone is very anxious to hear what you have to say."

"Don't patronize me, either of you!" Roy grumbled. "It's tantamount to an insult to the Ishvalan people to send the last surviving state alchemist to try to convince them to stay."

"You're not the last surviving state alchemist," Riza reminded him.

"Major Armstrong doesn't count," Roy argued. "He had the moral fortitude to see that wretched farce for what it was and he turned his back on it. Maybe the Fuhrer should have sent him instead."

Breda shook his head. "He'd end up bawling like a baby."

Roy managed a grim smile. "Probably." He drew in a deep breath and let it out slowly. Well, it was too late now. He just needed to man up and try to make his countrymen proud.

Breda told him that the arrival of the freight trucks had become a commonplace occurrence and would not cause much of a stir, but by the time they had reached the headquarters compound, a large crowd had gathered. Dozens of pairs of red eyes were searching the cabs of the trucks, and Roy found himself wanting to slump in his seat to escape notice. Breda pulled the truck up to its appointed spot behind the supply tent and hopped down easily from the cab. Roy turned reluctantly to slide across the seat after Riza and step onto Ishvalan soil.

Breda promptly joined them. "This way, sir," he said.

Roy gave a stiff nod and followed him. He could feel eyes on him, but he kept his own focused straight ahead at the green flag that fluttered above the tents. He could hear low voices from the Ishvalans around him. More than once he heard the hushed words—Flame Alchemist. He began to feel closed in on all sides, and despite the coolness of the air, he started to sweat. When he was a small boy, he had slipped and fallen into the deep end of a swimming pool. For what seemed like an eternity, he struggled to clear the surface and grab a breath of air. He was convinced that he had been abandoned and had been left to die until one of the lifeguards jumped in and hauled him out of the water. He felt like that right now. Then he heard the reassuring crunch of Riza's light step just to his right. He felt an overwhelming desire to grasp her hand and hold onto it for dear life, but he had to be content with her presence.

Armstrong was striding on ahead like she owned the place, as shiny as a pair of brass balls. By the time he approached, Armstrong had already reached where Miles and Karley stood waiting and had received a greeting salute and a warm smile from her adjutant. As the major turned to greet Roy, the smile was still there, but the warmth had left it, or so Roy imagined with a measure of foolishly petulant resentment. He definitely did not feel like the most popular kid on the block.

The Ishvalans moved in a little closer, and he didn't dare turn to look at them. It felt as though their gaze was boring through his skin, melting holes that went straight through him. If he could burn away into nothing it would almost be a relief, not to mention a fitting end. He realized that Miles was waiting for him to return his salute, and his hand snapped to his forehead.

"Doishteve," Miles said. "Welcome to Ishval, Brigadier."

"Thank you, Major," Roy replied. His voice struck him as sounding tight and strained and he cleared his throat. "I'm very impressed by the progress I've seen so far." He could barely recall anything he had seen on the drive in. He hesitated slightly before making his next comment. "You're to be commended for all your hard work."

He knew it would come out like a hollow compliment, but he was damned if he did and damned if he didn't. Miles was wearing his dark glasses, so if he had batted an eye, Roy couldn't tell.

Miles gave a slight inclination of his head. "Thank you, sir." He turned back to Armstrong, the ranking officer. "We've arranged a tour, unless you'd prefer to rest for a while."

"I've been on my ass for hours already, Miles," Armstrong replied tersely. "I'd rather be stretching my legs."

Miles turned to Roy who gave a curt nod, not to be outdone, even though the idea of being followed everywhere by pairs of red eyes, curious or condemning, filled him with dread down to his core. He lips were tightly sealed, even though he felt like his lungs were desperate for air. His heart rate sped. His hand tightened around the handle of his satchel until his knuckles turned white, but it was all he had to hang onto.

A stirring off to his right almost made him jump and he turned his head, dreading to see what this new ordeal might be. The Ishvalans gathered around him had parted and Scar strode through the path they had created. He moved with a solemn authority, looking firmly and comfortably established in his surroundings. For one unaccountable moment, Roy felt their roles reverse from that wet day in East City. Scar came to a stop, his eyes taking all the newcomers into one greeting.

"Doishteve na Ishval, Amestrii," he said.

"You look much improved since I saw you last," Armstrong remarked. "I didn't expect to see you again quite this soon."

"Nor I you, General," Scar replied, then he turned to Roy, his red eyes lingering on Roy's dark irises. Roy kept his gaze steady against what he felt was a challenge. Then Scar wordlessly held out his hand. Roy glanced down at it for a moment, then looked back into the Ishvalan's scarred face and clasped his proffered hand with the impression of having passed a minor test. Then Scar startled him by placing his other hand over his and holding it tightly. Roy stared at him, the hair along the back of his neck rising. It didn't feel like a gesture of friendly esteem, regardless of what it might look like, and Roy wanted to yank his hand out of the other man's grip.

Scar regarded him intently for a few moments, then said, "You need to come and meet my family, Roy Mustang."

Roy flinched. It sounded like an imperative statement rather than an invitation. "Your—" He looked back at Miles, wondering if this had been planned. Apparently it hadn't, because the major looked a little puzzled.

"I was just about to take the officers on a tour, Andakar," he said.

"General Armstrong will appreciate it," Scar replied. "The brigadier and the lieutenant have already seen Ishval."

He said it simply, not as an accusation, but Roy was sure his face was burning and he finally withdrew his hand. "I'm sure much has changed," he said stiffly. "I'm here to do an inspection, after all."

"And it will wait for you," Scar replied. "You would not insult me by refusing my hospitality, would you?" This last statement was delivered with what Roy thought might have been a very fleeting, wry smile.

"Well, I certainly wouldn't!" Madame Christmas declared as she came up leaning on Havoc's arm. "Clamoring down from that truck was an ordeal, and I'm not a monkey. So if you're offering," she said, addressing Scar, "I'd kill for a hot cup of something, preferably as a chaser to something stiff. And then if you would be so very kind as to tell me where I can find a Mr. Dejan Shua, we have some business to discuss."

Whatever his initial reaction might have been, Scar recovered smoothly. "I can see to all three of your requests if you would join us."

"Fabulous!" Madame Christmas breathed with relief, barging past Roy. "Lead on!"

Roy gave a slight nod. "Very well," he said, beginning to feel a little irritated on top of everything else, faced with multiple forces that were all conspiring against him. "If you insist."

"I do." Scar looked back over at Miles. "Meet us when you can."

Miles still looked a little puzzled, but he nodded easily. "Fine."

Scar turned and started walking away, apparently expecting Roy and Riza to follow him. Roy glanced back at Armstrong and Miles. "If you'll excuse us…" he muttered, and he strode after the big Ishvalan, the lieutenant hurrying along beside him.

There were scattered groups of curious onlookers along the road. Some of them were soldiers who saluted as he passed, and Roy nearly missed some of them as he tried to keep his eyes on Scar. It was a strange, not entirely comforting sight to see his foster mother chatting familiarly with a once notorious criminal and walking force of God. He refused to break into a trot, and Scar finally paused to let them catch up.

"What the hell is going on?" Roy hissed under his breath.

"Just what I said," Scar replied. "I want you to meet my family."

"Surely it could have waited!"

"You did well to come here, Roy Mustang," Scar said calmly as though ignoring Roy's remark. "It was a brave thing. But you need to be somewhere quiet for a while."

"What does that mean?" Roy demanded.

"It means you're jumpier than a long-tailed cat in a room full of rockers, Roy-boy," Madame Christmas replied.

Scar studied her for a moment. "You're very perceptive, Zhaarana."

"Well, I did raise him from a boy, and that includes getting him through puberty," Madame Christmas replied easily. "So I can read him like a cheap novel."

Scar looked back at Roy. "And she's right. You're trying to hide it, but you're on the verge of panic. You're deeply troubled at heart, which is good."

"Oh, is it?" Roy snapped back.

"Yes. It's an indication of your sincerity. You're here in good faith."

"God damn it!" Roy shouted furiously. "Of course I'm here in good faith!" He suddenly stiffened. There were still a number of people around them, keeping their distance but still watching them. His outburst was followed by an awkward silence, and now he was certain that his face was red.

"I was trying to spare you from embarrassing yourself," Scar remarked as he turned to continue on his way. "It seems my efforts were wasted."

Chapter Text

"This is nice tea," Riza said, taking a sip from her tin cup. "It must be Xingese. They probably got it straight off the caravan."

Roy just nodded morosely as he gazed out at their surroundings. After having made such a point about his family, Scar simply deposited them on a bench under a tree and excused himself. They were each given a cup of tea and a shy smile by a very pretty girl, and then neither Roy nor the lieutenant drew much attention. Scar had also made a point about Roy needing to be someplace quiet, which this place most certainly was not. This campsite was noisy, boisterous, and buzzing with all kinds of domestic activity, most of it accompanied by lively chatter, laughter, and occasional bursts of song.

There was a particularly raucous burst of laughter from a nearby table, and Roy looked over to where his foster mother sat with a couple of lean-looking Ishvalans. The one with the long braid was Dejan, the fellow for whom she was acting as an agent. He and Madame Christmas had greeted each other like old friends, and she had wasted no time in making herself at home. The other Ishvalan was apparently Dejan's father, Shua, although he looked more like an older brother. He certainly had a rascally look about him. The three of them were having a grand old time discussing show business, accompanied by a pot of tea and a bottle of some sort of gold-colored liquid. Roy wouldn't have minded a shot of that himself, but no one had offered him anything other than tea. It was probably just as well. He hadn't eaten anything all day, and it would go straight to his head, and then he might really embarrass himself.

Roy's attention was arrested by two younger girls as they darted across the camp. They wove between the older ones, who good-naturedly shooed them away. One of the girls had her silver hair in a short bob. The smaller girl was the one that really caught Roy's eye. She stood out in sharp contrast to the others with her long raven-black hair and eyes that were so blue Roy could see them from where he sat. He heard a quick intake of breath beside him.

"Brigadier!" Riza whispered.

"I know," Roy whispered back. "She must be part Amestrian."

"Yes, but…" The lieutenant paused, leaning slightly to get a better look before the little girl and her friend ducked under a table, giggling. "I could have sworn…"

"What?"

Riza shook her head. "I'm not sure. Just a resemblance I thought I saw. I wonder how old she is."

Roy shrugged. Children were not things he knew much about, let alone guess their ages.

The two girls clambered out from under the table and scampered away. They nearly collided with Scar and a younger Ishvalan man who had just entered the camp from the other side. They paused as the two girls raced around them a couple of times. The younger girl paused to lean back and say something to Scar. He reached down and put his hand on the top of her head. Whatever he replied made the girl let out another giggle and jump up and down. The younger man made a feint to chase after the girls, who shrieked and ran off with the man in pursuit. Scar watched them for a moment, then made his way through the domestic bustle, replying to greetings from the young women.

He joined them on the bench. "I apologize for my absence. My cousin and I were discussing building plans." He turned to contemplate Roy. "Are you feeling better?"

"I was fine to begin with," Roy replied irritably.

"No, you weren't."

"How would you know?"

"I just do." Scar nodded toward the table where Shua was pouring out another round of whatever was in the bottle. "Your Madame Christmas knows you better, and she was of the same opinion. Curious name," he remarked.

"It was her stage name," Roy replied, then added with a touch of acerbity, "You ought to know about those."

Scar's brows furrowed slightly and Riza spoke up quickly.

"Are all these people related to you somehow?"

"Not all of them, but I suppose they might as well be," Scar replied. He pointed to where Madame Christmas was sitting. A young woman had just joined them in an animated conversation. "That's my cousin, Naisha. She's marrying Dejan, which will make not only Dejan, his daughter Mika, and his father Shua part of my family, but all his musicians as well. The young man I was talking to just now is my cousin Damyan, who will be marrying Yasna, that girl over there. The girl next to her is my other cousin Vesya. She's marrying Miles, and they'll both be leaving for Briggs."

Roy started out only half listening to what Scar was saying. But as his last cousin was mentioned, Roy's eyes lingered on her face. She was the same young woman who had given them tea when they arrived. She must have known who he was, and he would have expected her to show some kind of resentment, but she didn't. She just gave them both a cup of tea, told them very nicely to be careful because it was hot, and then she went about her business. She seemed like a sweet girl, and he hoped for her sake that she was a lot stronger than she looked or Briggs would eat her up.

"I expected you to tear into me about Miles," Roy said. "Why didn't you?"

"Miles wouldn't let me," Scar replied. "His decision wasn't entirely based on what you said to him, so you're not entitled to take sole credit for it."

While Roy was trying to make a retort to that, the little dark-haired girl came running up and planted her hands on Scar's knees, her blue eyes dancing.

"Listen! Listen!" she cried breathlessly. "Djaari Shua taught me a song!"

Scar seemed somewhat concerned. "Shua taught you a song?"

"Uh-huh! He said—" Her dark eyebrows puckered for a moment. "—he said it was so clean you could eat off it!" she finished. She put on a superior look. "I told him you can't do that, but he said he's been eating off songs his whole life. I said you have to eat off a plate, and then he said do I want to learn the song or not, and then I said oh, yes, please—"

"Danika," Scar interrupted her gently. "Why don't you just sing it for us?"

"Okay!" She took a deep breath and began to sing in Ishvalan, bobbing back and forth and clapping her hands to the rhythm. As she sang, a smile hinted at the edges of Scar's mouth. Suddenly the little girl paused with a grimace of concentration. She frowned with annoyance. "I forgot the rest!"

"That's all right," Scar assured her. "That was very good. I'll have to thank Shua."

The little girl smiled delightedly and placed her small hands on either side of Scar's face, gazing into it. "Yeo sheho de!"

Scar gently touched the girl's cheek. "Yeo sheho de," he replied softly. "You should greet our guests, Danika."

Danika turned to gaze with inquisitive blue eyes at the two Amestrians. Roy felt an odd sensation as he focused more intently on the girl's features.

Surely not…

"This is Brigadier General Roy Mustang," Scar told the girl. "And this is Lieutenant Riza Hawkeye."

Danika held her hand out to Roy, who offered his. The girl took his hand in both of hers and touched it to her forehead. She then went through the same motions with the lieutenant.

"Nice to meet you!" the little girl chirped. "My name's Danika, and I'm five-and-a-half years old and Zhaarad Andakar's gonna be my papa in two days—" She held up two fingers, perhaps to avoid confusion. "—and me and him and my mama are gonna live in a big, beautiful house and we're gonna love each other so, so, so much!" she declared, wrapping her arms around herself and twisting from side to side in emphasis.

Roy hesitated. Some sort of response was apparently in order. "That's…nice…"

"I can see how happy you are about that," Riza said smoothly. She was apparently better with children than he was.

Danika giggled in agreement. She hopped back over to Scar and whispered something to him. Scar put an arm around her, pulling her a little closer as he listened.

"Why don't you ask them?" Scar replied to her aloud.

The little girl nodded and turned to Roy and Riza. "Would you like some soup? My Auntie Naisha makes it. It's really good!"

At the moment, Roy didn't find the idea of food appealing, no matter whose auntie made it. "Oh. I…"

"That would be lovely," Riza said. "We'd like some very much." She turned to Roy and said under her breath, "You haven't eaten anything since we left."

Roy sighed resignedly and looked at the girl. "Yes, thank you."

Riza stood up. "Let me help you," she said. She exchanged a quick glance with Roy, signaling to him that she would be back shortly and that he should either not worry or that he should behave himself. It could have been both. Then she took the hand that Danika offered her and they walked away. Roy watched them for a few moments.

"If you think you know what you're seeing, you're right."

Roy turned to Scar with a questioning frown.

"She's the product of a desperate bargain that went wrong," Scar explained. He returned Roy's slightly puzzled look with a frank, thoughtful gaze and went on. "Tell me something, Flame Alchemist. If you were about to unleash your fire on an Ishvalan neighborhood and a girl threw herself at your feet and swore to do whatever you wished if you would only spare her family, what would you have done?"

Roy gave a start and his eyes widened as he looked across the camp to stare after the little girl. "Oh, my God!" he whispered.

"Seriously, what would you have done?" Scar pressed him. "Not in hindsight, but then."

"I sure as hell wouldn't have done what Kimblee must have done!" Roy hissed back.

Scar calmly nodded. "I didn't think you would have. But just how blindly did you follow orders back then? Would Rada and her family be alive today if it had been up to you?"

Roy bristled angrily. "How the hell do you expect me to answer that?"

"Truthfully."

"Is this some sort of test?"

"I'm just curious."

"I thought we were trying to put the war behind us."

"It will always be behind us," Scar said with quiet calm. "We may never be able to completely outrun it."

Roy let out a long, slow breath. He could try to argue the fairness of the question, but he would ultimately lose. After all, he had expected to be confronted about his history in Ishval. He supposed there could be worse places for that to happen than under the shade of a tree and over a cup of tea. "I honestly don't know," he said finally. "If it had been early on in the war, maybe not. Later I reached a turning point. After that I could barely face my own reflection in my shaving mirror." He shook his head. "I wish I could say I would have pretended that the neighborhood was completely deserted and just walked away. I wish I could say I'd have given her and her family five minutes to run like hell." He shook his head slowly. "All I can tell you for certain is that I swore to myself that I would never let it happen again."

Scar considered his words with thoughtful reflection and he finally nodded. "As my bride-to-be has told me, you should be judged on your present words and actions, rather than those of your past. This is, after all, the man you are now." He smiled slightly. "Rada would probably scold me for testing you like that."

"I thought it wasn't a test."

"She'd scold me just the same."

"She must be quite a girl."

"She is."

Roy looked around the camp at the various women gathered there, wondering what sort of woman Scar's intended might be. Then he looked down as a fresh, yet familiar wave of dejection swept over him. He slowly opened his hands and gazed bleakly at them.

"Let me ask you something now," Roy said. "It's something I once asked my best friend, Hughes."

"The one Envy killed?"

"Yeah…him," Roy said heavily. "When we were both here in Ishval, all he wanted to do was get through the war so he could go home to his girl. That's when I asked him this question." A humorless smile pulled at the corner of Roy's mouth. "He got pretty angry with me."

"What did you ask him?"

Roy hesitated. He clasped his hands together and frowned at them. "I asked him how he could embrace the woman he loved with hands covered in blood."

Scar was silent for several moments and Roy turned to gauge his reaction, expecting anger. But what he saw in the Ishvalan's scarred face was a measure of what he felt in his own heart, and Roy realized just how deeply the other man understood, particularly when Scar returned his gaze.

"What did your friend say?"

Roy gave a small, rueful smile at the recollection. "He grabbed me by the jacket and really lit into me. He said that the happiness of being with her was worth having to keep the nightmare of what he'd done here inside him. He'd never let it touch her. It took a lot of strength to do that, strength I didn't have."

"Are you implying that I do?"

The Ishvalan had spoken quietly, without any hint of the accusation that Roy would have expected. Then he continued.

"I could tell myself that I'm doing something noble and selfless to expiate the sins on my head or the blood on my hands. I could say I'm honoring a disgraced woman with my name and raising my enemy's child as my own." Scar looked across the campsite and pointed. "There she is, next to Lieutenant Hawkeye."

Roy looked where he was pointing. He could always pick Riza out of a crowd. Walking beside her was an Ishvalan woman. They each carried a small bowl of something that gave off a wisp of steam. She was about Riza's height, and she had soft, delicate features and a winning smile. Roy drew in a quick breath and he straightened up, his eyes widening.

"The truth is," Scar said, and Roy could hear the warmth of a smile in his voice, "I didn't have the strength to resist."

............................................................................................................................................

A group of children were kicking a football around the schoolyard, taking advantage of that comfortable time between prayers and supper. Zulema sat on a bench made up of a board laid across a wooden crate on one side and a couple of concrete blocks on the other. She kept to a patch of dappled sunlight where it was warm. She had been feeling older lately, ever since laying Zahar to rest the week before. Part of her was ready to join him, and she had spent a good measure of time in the past several days examining her life to see what she needed to leave at the temple altar. It would have been nice for the temple to have been completed first. Would half a temple count for a lifetime's worth of transgressions? She would have to ask Saahad Bozidar about that. These things were important.

Part of her, however, could see that her work upon this earth was not yet completed. She had family she needed to provide for. Not with wealth—she had none of that, but wealth was not always measured in coin or possessions. She had a lifetime of wisdom yet to impart. She was also troubled about her family's situation. Yes, she would see her sole surviving relation marry into a good family, but as soon as that was accomplished, they would be leaving Ishval. Where in all the abundance of earth and the vastness of heaven and the ample comfort of the Creator's bosom was the sense in that? What was wrong with young people these days? It annoyed her worse than anything. It wasn't proper.

She had expressed her dissatisfaction, but it was dismissed. Very kindly, to be sure. Oh, don't worry, Auntie Zulee! We'll come back, Auntie Zulee! Don't make such a fuss, Auntie Zulee! The old woman glowered. If she didn't make a fuss about it, who would? Being angry about it was much better than being sad about it, and she had cried enough tears over Zahar, bless his gentle, loving soul. Being angry made her want to do something. She enjoyed complaining. It was one of her favorite pastimes. But she could not see how to alter the course of events. She was only one small, old woman.

She heard some adult voices drawing closer, and she turned to see who was coming. Well, if it wasn't young Attar himself. And who was that with him? Ah! Zulema's eyes narrowed. That must be that general he's always on about. The corners of Zulema's mouth turned down. Well, now she had seen everything! Look at that woman! Even more brazen than that slip of a girl Naisha! Well, she was Amestrian, after all, so there was no accounting for her upbringing. What sort of father would allow his daughter to strut about like that with a look in her eye like that and a sword at her hip, no less! A sword, shehai li Ishvala! Zulema gripped the knotted handle of her stick. No, it wasn't decent. Not decent at all.

And this was the woman who would be taking young Attar away. Him and his young bride. Oh, that was trouble begging to happen! When a man took a woman to himself, it was she who should fill his days and nights and none other! How did young Attar think he could possibly divide himself like that without causing strife? Oh, this was so ill-advised it set her teeth on edge! But would anyone listen to her? No, no one listened to her until it was too late, and then it would be oh, Auntie Zulee, why didn't we listen to you! Not that that was likely to happen, either.

"Aunt Zulema!" Miles called to her as he and the general walked toward her. "There's someone I'd like you to meet."

Zulema drew herself up and put on a look of patronizing indulgence. "Oh. Yes?"

"This is my commanding officer, Major General Olivier Mira Armstrong," Miles said. "General Armstrong, this is my Aunt Zulema."

The general gave a nod. "It's a pleasure to finally meet you, ma'am," she said with brusque courtesy. "Major Miles speaks very highly of you."

Zulema inclined her head slightly. "Does he now?" she replied coolly. "Well, it does this old heart good to be so well spoken of." Her eyes traveled up and down, taking in General Armstrong's figure, her uniform, and her overall appearance as though she were sizing up a somewhat questionable melon in the marketplace. "My young kinsman has mentioned you once or twice, as I recall."

"Rather more often than that, Auntie," Miles said with a gently reproving, if somewhat suspicious tone to his voice.

"Ah, well, I'm just an old woman," Zulema sighed with a frail, faraway expression. "My hearing is not what it once was. When you get to be my age, often the sounds of this world are drowned out by the gentle callings of Ishvala, and sometimes I like to just sit and listen to them." Her eyes flicked up briefly to Miles' face, and although he was wearing those silly dark glasses of his, she could catch the set of his jaw. Ah, well, she thought, let him squirm a little.

A slight smile tugged at General Armstrong's lips. "And here I was looking forward to meeting a kindred spirit."

Zulema's eyebrows went up. "Eh?"

"A woman of action," Olivier explained. "A force to be reckoned with."

Zulema stirred slightly on her bench and lifted her shoulders. "Well…I have my little ways, I suppose."

Miles stifled what might have been a snort of derision, but the general disregarded it. "I'm sure you're entirely too modest, ma'am," Olivier replied with crisp warmth her voice. "You're the sort of woman who is a bastion of the community, someone who sees a need and addresses it, am I right?" she asked with a conspiratorial curl to her lips.

Zulema smiled back knowingly. "I can address a need until I've gone blue in the face, but not everyone listens. The young folk think they know everything these days."

"That's why they need a wise old head like yours," Olivier said. She leaned down and patted the gnarled hands that rested on top of the walking stick. "So don't let them give you any crap. I'm sure if you want something done, you'll find a way to make it happen." She drew herself up with brisk respect. "It's been a pleasure, ma'am!"

Zulema chuckled like a contented hen. "Indeed."

"Now, if you'll excuse us, Auntie," Miles said, "I have a few more things I'd like to show the general."

Zulema waved a hand. "You run along then. I'll just sit here where it's warm."

She watched them walk away, a smile lurking around her mouth. A woman of action, is it?

"I'm not sure what she was up to, but you handled that well, ma'am," Miles said once they were well out of Zulema's hearing, which was a lot sharper than she let on.

Olivier shrugged. "I was being completely sincere, Miles," she replied. "That old lady could probably bite nails in half if she wanted to."

"She probably could," Miles agreed with a wry smile. "That kind of scares me."

Chapter Text

This was not quite how Roy pictured his reintroduction to Ishval. He hadn't been so much reintroduced as sucked in. It reminded him of how Hughes had mercilessly badgered him to come to Elycia's second birthday party. He finally relented and ended up in the middle of a lively celebration among a bunch of people he didn't know, and Hughes was too busy being the charming master of ceremonies to pay much attention to him.

To give him credit, Scar had quite a lovely lady friend to pay attention to. Roy glanced down the table at them a couple of times, somewhat apprehensively. He imagined that watching Scar kiss a woman would be rather like watching someone get mauled by a bear, but such was not the case, much to his relief.

Madame Christmas was too wrapped up with her new best friends, and even Riza, who sat right across from him, was deep in conversation with the two little girls who sat on either side of her. Kimblee's kid, of all people! Roy was still having trouble wrapping his mind around that, but she seemed like a perfectly normal, gregarious little girl. Thank God her biological father had not lived to know of her existence or worse, bring her up.

As he munched on a piece of flatbread, which had a crumbly texture and a nutty taste, Roy looked down the table at Vesya. She sat quietly, listening to other peoples' conversations, rather like he was. At one point she looked up and met Roy's gaze, and they both looked quickly away, slightly embarrassed.

"Roy!" Madame Christmas startled him by reaching over and tapping the table in front of him with a polished fingernail. "We have a question for you!"

"Hmm?" Roy shook himself from his thoughts. "What's that?"

Dejan leaned forward, his elbows on the table. "If my Ishvalan brethren decide to take up your offer of independence, how is that going to affect the contract I have with my agent here? If we're no longer citizens of Amestris, does that void our contract? If it does, what sort of new one do we have to come up with?"

"Oh…" Roy considered the question. "I'm not sure."

"We need to know these things, Roy!" Madame Christmas urged. "We need to know whether we're going to have to get visas for everybody and just how big a mountain of paperwork and how big a tangle of red tape we have to deal with. Politics and show business may seem like they have a lot in common," she said knowingly, "but they don't."

"I'll try to look into it," Roy replied a little uncertainly.

Madame Christmas shook her finger at him. "You do that!"

"I realize that one man's dream could be another man's nightmare," Dejan said. "But my life has sort of been leading up to this."

"I thought it was leading up to getting married to me," Naisha teased him.

Dejan chuckled. "That's true, sweetheart. But we've got a lot of mouths to feed. Being independent won't be much fun if you're hungry."

"Does that mean you'd vote to stay?" Roy asked him.

Dejan nodded. "To be honest, Brigadier, I rather like Amestrians. We spent a lot of time among just ordinary folk on our travels, and they're no worse and no better than we are. While we were working the county fair and folk festival circuit, we met up with a lot of groups like ours, and let me tell you something—music cuts through barriers and crosses borders. However," he said with a shrug, "that's not something a lot of my fellow Ishvalans care that much about."

Roy glanced down the table at Scar, who sat quietly, as Breda had described, listening.

"I was depending on selling my pots all over Amestris," Damyan added. "It's bad enough I'm losing my best painter," he said, gesturing to Vesya. "On top of worrying about export fees and import fees and God knows what else, I'm going to have to take on an apprentice."

"That's what your children are for," his girl Yasna reminded him.

"Sure, in about ten or twelve years," Damyan replied. He shook his head. "It took me a long time to master the wheel, and I could never draw or paint as well as Ves."

"Maybe you could send me work to do once we've gone to Briggs," Vesya suggested. "I'll probably need something to do."

"Oh, please don't start talking about that now!" Naisha cried. "I don't want to think about that!"

Vesya gave her an affectionate but weary smile as she got up and started to gather empty plates. "It's going to be all right, Nai. Really."

Naisha didn't seem convinced, and she had a sullen look on her face as she helped her sister clear the table.

Roy sat for a few moments, staring down at the tin plate before him.

"Let me take that, sir," Riza said as she reached for it.

"No, I'll get it," Roy said, picking up the plate and standing. He reached over and took Riza's plate as well. "You stay here and entertain these young ladies," he said with a nod to the two little girls, who replied with giggles.

Roy carried the plates to where Vesya stood over a tin basin full of water, and she turned to him as he handed the plates to her.

"You didn't have to get up," she scolded him gently. "You're our guest."

"I'd like to be remembered as a good guest," Roy said. He hesitated awkwardly, watching Vesya's hands as she put the plates in the water with the others. He lowered his voice. "Um…listen…I…owe you an apology."

Vesya looked at him with solemn ruby-colored eyes. "What for?"

Roy sighed and self-consciously rubbed the back of his head. "Because of this whole business with Miles. I'm sorry about the way things turned out, but I don't think he would accept an apology from me." He gave her a rueful smile. "Between officers, you know. Besides, I think you're the one who…well…" He struggled for a moment to find the right words. "It's going to be harder on you."

Vesya looked away, concentrating on the dishes, slowly wiping one of them with a cloth. She lifted a shoulder. "I just want to be with Miles," she said finally. "I knew he was going leave, but now I get to leave with him." She turned back to Roy with a reassuring smile. "So it's all right, you see. There's nothing you have to be sorry about."

Roy nodded, feeling a bit more ashamed than he already had. "You're being extremely kind," he said. "If I were you, I'd want to kick me."

Vesya gave a soft little laugh and shook her head. "Don't be silly."

Roy studied her profile for a few moments. He couldn't think of anyone who was as much a polar opposite to Olivier Armstrong as this girl. On an impulse, he reached into an inner pocket of his jacket and took out a card. "I'm probably the last person you'd consider, but when you're up in Briggs, if you feel like you need someone to talk to who doesn't have any Briggs loyalty at stake, don't hesitate to give me a call."

Vesya gave him a surprised look, then stared at the card for a moment. She wiped her hands dry on her skirt and took the card, examining it closely. She looked back at him with a more intent regard. He had thought that she either had no idea of what she was in for or she was pretending she didn't, but he could now see a glimpse of anxiety.

"I mean it," Roy said. "Don't even think twice."

Vesya slipped the card into her pocket. "Thank you," she said in nearly a whisper.

Roy nodded to her and stepped away, not wanting to labor the point any further. He returned to the table and resumed his seat across from Riza.

She gave him a slight smile. "Flirting?" she asked mildly.

"No," Roy replied. "Just making a lame effort to help out a damsel in distress."

"Isn't that the same thing?"

Roy opened his mouth to try to argue, but a ceramic cup was ceremoniously clopped down on the table in front of him and he looked up sharply.

"Scoot over, sweetheart," Shua said to Riza as he sat down on the bench next to her. He filled the cup with some of the gold liquor from an unlabeled bottle.

"Give that a try," he said with a not entirely reassuring grin.

It had been a day full of challenges, so what was one more? Roy lifted the cup to his lips and took a swallow. The liquid slid down his throat, burning it in the best possible way, leaving a peculiar smoky aftertaste. Roy suppressed the urge to cough, and he downed the rest of the drink.

"I—" He did have to clear his throat a little. "I could get used to that."

"Then you'd better do it quick, because I don't have much left," Shua told him, pouring out another shot. "I'm saving the last of it for the wedding. Then everybody's going to have to wait another six years for a treat like this. I was assured by a worthy fellow by the name of Piers Havoc—"

"Jean's father?" Roy asked in surprise.

Shua nodded. "The same. He told me that there would be quite a demand in Amestris not just for this stuff, but for its little sister, halmi, which I can whip up in a few months. He said he'd point me in the right direction to get hold of a license. Of course," he added with a shrug, "all that may change, depending on the political climate."

"You'd still be able to export it," Roy said, downing his second shot. It followed the first one a little easier now that his throat was numb.

Shua waved his hand dismissively. "Sure, but it'd be a hell of a lot less complicated, not to mention cheaper, if we were all one big happy family." He jerked his chin toward Roy. "Would a peek at those papers you're carrying be worth the price of a drink?"

Roy regarded him cautiously as his feet searched for the satchel he had left beneath the table and clamped it between his heels. "They'll be on public display once I've delivered the proposals."

"But then they'll be covered by everybody's grubby fingerprints," Shua replied in a tone of distaste, filling Roy's cup a third time. "I'd like to take a look at them while they're still virginal."

Roy contemplated the drink in front of him as the buzz suddenly struck him. "I…uh…wish I could oblige," he said, prudently sliding the cup away. "But I'm under orders."

"Ah, well. Fair enough," Shua said with an easy shrug. "I tried." He took the cup and set it down in front of Riza. "You won't let it go to waste, will you, laleh?"

Riza contemplated the cup for a moment, then took it and held it up. "To Ishval!" she declared, then downed its contents.

Shua let out a laugh. "I'll drink to that!" he replied, taking a swig straight from the bottle. He set it down and regarded the two Amestrians companionably. "So what does your Fuhrer Grumman think about the Ishvalan question? I've been reading the newspapers that we get here, and it seems like he's playing his cards close to his chest. I'd be interested in an insider's opinion."

"I suppose I could ask you the same thing," Roy said. Some of the young Ishvalans had gathered close to them to listen to the conversation, which would have made Roy slightly nervous if it weren't for Shua's home brew coursing through his veins. He gave a nod toward the other end of the table where Scar sat. "Grumman's not the only one keeping his views to himself."

"I'm deferring to the will of Ishvala and the will of Ishvala's people," Scar replied simply.

"That's two completely different things you're talking about," Shua remarked. "One is infinitely wise. The other, not so much."

"Then let's hope they meet somewhere in the middle," Scar said.

"I saw the Fuhrer's picture in the newspaper this morning!" one of the girls piped up. She turned eagerly to Roy. He had been told what her name was along with all the others, but he was unable to recall it. "Do you know him?"

"I know him very well," Roy replied. "He's—"

"What's he like?" another girl asked. "Is he nice?"

"Well," Roy began, wondering how candid he should be. "He's a fine officer, and—"

"Eyla!" the second girl said suddenly, nudging the first girl and giggling. "Do that thing!"

Eyla promptly took the ends of her two long silver-white braids and crossed them under her nose, curling up her lip to hold them in place. She slyly raised an eyebrow and twirled one of the tips of her hair. Roy stared at her for a moment, then he burst out laughing until tears ran down his face.

.........................................................................................................................................

The sun had set and they were gathered around a crackling fire. Dejan and Shua played the lute and fiddle together for a while, simply improvising and trying to outdo each other. Then they accompanied some of the young women while they sang. Roy was feeling surprisingly mellow, even though the effects of the liquor had worn off. He and Riza sat next to each other on a couple of stools, and it was pleasant to see the play of the firelight on Riza's face, not to mention her smile as she listened to the music. Roy found himself thinking that there wasn't anything he'd rather be doing than this, and no one else's company he'd rather be doing it in.

As the musicians took a brief rest from playing, Riza turned to Dejan. "When I was here…well…before…" she began hesitantly, but Dejan regarded her kindly, encouraging her to continue. "Late one night I could hear someone singing off in the distance. I certainly couldn't remember the words, because they were in Ishvalan, and I couldn't really remember the tune. I just remember that it was beautiful in a haunting sort of way."

"Well, we've got plenty of tunes like that," Dejan replied. "It would take a while to narrow it down."

"It was in the middle of the summer," Riza went on. "I was helping with sentry duty because a lot of us were down with the fever."

Shua, who had been idly plucking the strings of his fiddle, suddenly perked up with interest. "Was it a really hot night?" he asked. "Big, yellow moon?"

Riza looked at him and nodded. "Yes, it was."

Shua chuckled. He tilted up his chin and started to sing a mournful, wandering sort of tune, and Riza's smile grew with recognition.

"That was you?" she gasped.

Dejan, however, looked horrified. "Oh, God, Dad, don't!"

Shua stopped singing and scowled. "Why not?"

"But it's lovely!" Riza protested.

Shua gestured to her. "See? She thinks it lovely!"

"What does it mean?" Riza asked.

"Oh, it's just some nonsense I made up after having knocked a few back," Shua said with affected modesty.

"Dad!" Dejan moaned.

"Shua, please," Scar said warningly.

Shua ignored them both and turned back to Riza. "Loosely translated, it goes something like 'Hey, you white-assed Amestrian whoremongers, are your women so ugly that you have to come to our land and fu—"

"Dad!"

"Shua!"

Shua rolled his eyes. "'—and molest our goats?'"

Riza's eyes widened, then she covered her mouth and started laughing.

"There! You see?" Shua looked smugly over and Dejan and Scar and spread his hands. "I knew she was a plucky lass!"

Roy grinned at his lieutenant, feeling immensely proud of her. "I've known that for years."

Madame Christmas sat back in the folding chair she brought with her, observing the proceedings like a benign dowager. The musicians began to tune up again, and a few of the young girls came up to Madame Christmas and urged her to join her in a dance.

She lifted her hands to protest. "Oh, my dears, my two-three-kick-turn-turn-turn-kick-turn days are way behind me!"

"Oh, come on! It'll be easy!" one of the girls urged winsomely.

"Oh, well," the older woman conceded with a girlish smile. "I'll give it a whirl!" As she heaved herself out of her chair, she beckoned to Roy and Riza. "Come on, you two! Come and help hold me up!"

As Roy hesitated, one of the girls grabbed his hand. "We'll teach you the steps!"

As Roy let the girl pull him to his feet, he quickly took Riza's hand, pulling her along with him. "Now I really need you to watch my back!" he told her with a smile.

When Miles finally brought General Armstrong to the campsite, they found Roy Mustang in his element, surrounded by a bunch of giggling girls.

"Tch!" Olivier muttered in disgust. "Typical!"

....................................................................................................................................

It was late, and he was tired, but Miles wanted to spend this time with Vesya. Except for midday prayers, he had seen very little of her that day, and probably not much tomorrow, either. They sat quietly watching the last flames of the campfire, his arm around her and she snuggled close against his side.

Everyone else had finally gone to bed after the general's arrival and introduction had caused a fresh round of excitement. She was fielding a few curious questions on what she thought of Ishval so far, when Shua, who had been eyeing her with a somewhat predatory grin, struck up a tune on his fiddle and sang a bit of song. It was partly in that dialect unique to the vatrishi, but Miles could understand it well enough to know that it was not the sort of ditty you sang in mixed company. Scar had clapped his hands over Danika's ears and warned Shua rather severely to give it a rest. Shua just gave a satisfied chuckle, unrepentant and unmoved at failing to get a rise out of the general. It seemed fairly obvious that he would give it another try at the next available opportunity, but it was Shua whom Miles felt concern for if he did. Just not much.

What had caused him some concern was introducing General Armstrong to his bride-to-be. When he had first announced his intentions to the general, there had been a marked pause before she replied, and even over the radio, that moment of silence had been a heavy one. The next moment the general recovered smoothly and had congratulated him, but the surprise might have stolen a little of the warmth he would have expected to hear.

When the two women finally met in person, Vesya had returned the general's handshake, which Miles forewarned her would be firm, with a becoming grace but with a somewhat nervous smile. What was odd was that the general seemed slightly ill at ease herself. Miles knew her well enough to spot it. She could hold her own in a room full of gruff, foul-mouthed, battle-hardened generals, but she didn't seem to quite know what to make of Vesya. She might have been reserving her opinion until she had seen the girl's mettle either proven or shaken by Briggs. In the meantime, she was on the other woman's turf.

Miles refused to entertain even the slightest notion that this might not be the best idea he ever had. Not the part about marrying Vesya. He would make that same decision again and again if he had to. Besides, she hadn't thought twice about coming with him, so this was not the disservice that some people might think. No, she was a brave girl. Anyone who could survive the Ishvalan purge had to have a hell of a lot of spirit.

He gave her shoulders a squeeze and kissed the top of her head. "Everything's going to be fine," he said softly into her hair, as much to reassure himself as her.

She looked up into his face and smiled affectionately. "I know it will."

She wrapped her arms around him and gave a contented sigh, although she was harboring her own small pang of remorse. The brigadier's card still lay in her pocket, unknown to Miles, and although they had agreed not to keep secrets from each other, she thought it best to keep it that way.

Chapter Text

"I did some extensive research on Ishval," Roy said as they walked along in the early morning. They were both early risers, and they decided to take advantage of a few spare hours to make an unofficial tour. Roy carried his precious satchel with him, feeling as though it had become attached to his hand. "But some of my sources were inaccurate, apparently."

"That doesn't surprise me," Scar replied. "Until recently, it seemed that the Amestrian government had a stranglehold on information."

"Then correct me if this is wrong," Roy went on. "I understand that the election process traditionally used in Ishval involves the collective decision made by each household, rather than by individuals."

Scar nodded. "That's true."

"The book I got that from went on to describe this arrangement as socially backward, saying that it negated the voice of a large percentage of the population." Roy glanced at Scar's expression, which remained irritatingly unreadable. "Basically, whatever the head of the household decided on was how the household's vote was cast. Is that an accurate assessment?"

"Not really," Scar replied. "It's true that Ishvalan society is strongly patriarchal. But within the family structure, the women certainly have their share of influence. Whenever a choice must be made, the election of a chieftain, for example, a husband is obliged to confer not only with his wife but with those of his children who are of a reasonable age. They must all come to an agreement before the head of the household can cast the family's vote."

"And what if they can't come to an agreement?" Roy asked. "The author of the book I read voiced the concern that the head of the household could simply bully his family into agreeing with him."

"Your author obviously didn't do enough research," Scar said. "If a household can't come to an equable decision by the time the vote is called for, they don't vote. Ideally, a husband and wife should know each other's hearts well enough to prevent that from happening." He smiled slightly. "Even if the ideal can't be attained, there are ways around it. My mother once told me that a wise woman could easily get her husband to not only agree to her way of thinking without him realizing it, but she could make him think it was his idea to begin with."

Roy grinned a little. "That's the sort of thing history books don't tell you."

They walked on through the headquarters compound and past the school, which would not be in session today, due to the brigadier's address later on. Scar wanted every Ishvalan to be present for this occasion, even the children. They passed by workers, both Amestrian and Ishvalan, who were also getting an early start on the day. Many of them paused what they were doing as Roy and Scar walked by, and Roy expected to be visited by the same uneasiness he had felt the day before. But he didn't get the same feeling of being gawked at this time, perhaps because the novelty had worn off, or because he was in Scar's company, strolling along beside him as though they did this sort of thing every day.

They walked along the outskirts of what looked like a future residential area. Stretched along both sides of a graded dirt road was a field of yellow twine and wooden stakes. Within these spaces, men were digging trenches for foundations. One group had begun singing, not with the high, slightly nasal quality used by the girls Roy listened to the night before, but with full, open-throated voices. One man took a higher part. The others kept to a single sustained note, creating a kind of drone that underscored the simple melody. It was a rich sound that seemed to come straight out of the earth to be amplified through the throats of men. He hadn't heard songs like that the last time he was here, but back then, men didn't have the time to build homes, let alone accompany their labor with song. It told of a more profound sign of renewal than just bricks being set on top of each other.

They headed further into the center of Ishval, into the district of Gunja, where the Great Temple was being built. It sat on an elevated piece of ground and would be an imposing structure when it was completed. Since the population was relatively small, the single temple would suffice for many years. Once Ishval began to grow, lesser temples would be built as needed, but that wouldn't be for a long time.

The walls were surrounded by scaffolding, where a number of men were already at work. Scar led Roy up the wide steps and across the porch and through what would be the doors of the temple. Inside, even though there was no roof and the walls stood only a few feet above their heads, the interior already seemed to demand a reverent quiet. The sound of their footsteps across the flagstone floor echoed off the stone walls, but it wasn't the only sound to be heard. Off to one side of the temple interior, a man sat on a tall stool with his back to them, bending over a large slab of dark wood resting on two sawhorses. He was tapping carefully against the handle of a gouging tool with a cylindrical wooden mallet.

They stepped closer and with a silent nod, Scar invited Roy to inspect this work in progress. The slab of wood—oak, as far as Roy could tell—was in fact a massive door, and it was already covered with intricate carvings. The artistry was impressive, and Roy leaned over to get a closer look at the detail. His shadow fell across the spot that the man was currently working on, and the Ishvalan straightened up with an irritable frown.

"You're in my light," he growled.

Roy had already realized his mistake and backed away. "Sorry!" he said quickly. "I was just admiring your work. It's beautiful."

Still frowning, the man bent back over the door, setting the v-shaped blade of his tool back into the wood and resuming his tapping, carving out a thin, straight line along the inner border on one side of the door. The result was so fine that it seemed hardly worth the effort, since it would be visible only close up. "Thanks," he muttered.

Roy stepped around the door, looking closely at the carvings and keeping well out of the man's way. After several moments, the man glanced up at him briefly while he brushed away a coil of shaved wood.

"The Flame Alchemist, eh? I'm honored," the man said with a bite of irony in his voice.

Roy looked across at him, a little surprised. He had begun to think that the man either had no particular interest in him or didn't know who he was, which, on the one hand was a relief. On the other, it gave his ego a slight pricking, but he reminded himself that that wasn't what he was here for. Roy glanced at Scar, who stood off to one side in impassive silence. If this was yet another test, Roy knew not to expect any help. He turned back to the Ishvalan with a courteous smile.

"The honor is mine," he replied. "I'm obviously in the presence of a true artist. I'll let you get on with your work." He gave a slight bow and stepped away from the door with the feeling that he had emerged from the encounter, if not successfully, then at least unscathed.

The Isvhalan's mallet paused and his eyes flicked up and followed Roy with a wry look as he stepped away from the door.

"Shall we continue?" Roy said to Scar as he joined him. He was sure he had caught a glimmer of approval in the big Ishvalan's crimson eyes.

They started moving on together across the interior of the temple when they heard the voice of the other man behind them.

"Andakar!" he called.

Scar tensed slightly, more with impatience than anything else, as far as Roy could tell. He turned to look back. "What do you want, Stanno?"

Stanno stood up and reached into a pocket of the leather apron he wore around his waist. He pulled out a small object and tossed it to Scar, who one-handed it out of the air and examined it. It was a bracelet of reddish-colored wood carved into the likeness of a garland of flowers and rubbed until it shone with a soft luster. With a cautious, questioning frown, he looked back at Stanno.

Stanno gave the bracelet a curt, self-conscious nod. "Give that to Rada," he said quietly, almost mumbling the words. "Call it a wedding present."

Scar's eyebrows lifted a little and he looked down at the bracelet. Roy thought it was a fine piece of work, and he could think of a lot of Amestrian ladies who would pay good money for something like that. He would have said so, but it seemed there were deeper issues going on.

"She'll like this," Scar remarked simply.

Stanno gave a brief, uncomfortable roll of his shoulders. "Tell her I don't have a deep, wonderful soul. I never did." With an almost defiant gesture, he pointed to the bracelet and raised his voice. "But I'm still the best at what I do!" The defiance diminished a little and he looked away. "Tell her…" His jaw set hard for a moment, and then he muttered rapidly, "Tell her I'm sorry."

He turned abruptly and dropped back onto his stool, bending over his work with a scowl and offering no further comment. Scar watched him for a moment with a thoughtful expression, then he slipped the bracelet into the folds of his striped sash. "I'll tell her," he said quietly.

Scar led the way not further inside but back out of the temple. He was the tour guide, so Roy followed him without question. When they stepped outside onto the porch and into the full light of day, Scar took the bracelet out again and slowly turned it around in his fingers. A smile flickered across his face and he murmured something softly in Ishvalan. It was fairly obvious that what had just transpired had no political significance, being more of a personal nature, so Roy made no comment, even though he had to admit to a certain curiosity.

Scar glanced at him, and either out of courtesy or because he could read Roy's mind—which he seemed uncannily able to do—he said, "A wise young woman, my Rada." He tucked the bracelet back in his sash and continued down the steps with an air of satisfaction. "If a man can't recognize a good woman's worth, the more fool him. I think Stanno is only just realizing that."

That didn't entirely satisfy Roy's curiosity. If anything, it had piqued it even more, but Scar seemed disinclined to elaborate further, so Roy didn't pursue it.

As the sun rose in the sky, they headed up to the top of a hill that overlooked Kanda. Below them, the activity of building had increased as the morning progressed. It was a heartening, encouraging sight, and it filled Roy with more optimism than he had felt in a long time. They stood in silence for a while, studying the view, until Roy finally spoke.

"All right, I'll admit it."

Scar gave him a sidelong look. "I'd be careful of that, if I were you."

Roy gave a mild smirk. "I'll admit that I was a little nervous when I first arrived yesterday."

"A little?"

"Okay, fine." Roy gave a conciliatory shrug. "I would like to think I have enough self-discipline to not piss myself in public, but yes, I was in pretty bad shape when I got here. I'd been dreading this for a long time. I…um…" he went on hesitantly. "It seems I have a lot to thank you for. You made my return to Ishval a lot smoother that it might have been." Roy smiled. "You and that family of yours."

Scar nodded slowly, acknowledging Roy's remark. "I was trying to build up your confidence, because you're going to need it. Others will not be so accommodating. It will be one thing to show your true remorse when you come before my people, but it will be another matter entirely if you stand before them with fear behind your words and no conviction." His lips pulled in a wry smile. "I don't want my people to make their decision based on whether you pissed yourself in public."

"Thanks. I'll bear that in mind," Roy replied drily.

They made their way back to the headquarters compound and over to the mess tent. It was eleven-thirty by this time, and the presentation was scheduled for one. Roy had wanted it sooner, mainly to get it over with, but Scar insisted that they wait until everyone had eaten so they would be listening to Roy and not their stomachs.

As they entered the tent, Roy returned the salutes of the soldiers as they stood to attention, and Scar went to speak to the old priest, Bozidar. Roy went up to the chow line, where he saw another familiar face.

"Holy shit, McGinty!" he declared with a grin. "Are you still alive?"

The grizzled army cook gave a toothy smile. "Nah!" he replied. "I been dead for years, but I slung hash for so long, my body's just actin' on its own!"

Roy laughed and nodded toward the selection of food. "I'll have the blue plate special."

McGinty took a battered tin plate from a stack by his left elbow. "You'll get what everybody else gets and you'll like it!" he growled good-naturedly. "I got no time for doin' no specials on the chow line. I've gotta get done with this and then help out for the weddin' feast tomorrow!"

Roy raised a dubious eyebrow. "You're cooking for a wedding?"

McGinty shook his head, suddenly bashful. "Naw. I'm just giving those sweet girls a hand. They covered for me when I was laid low with the fever." He slapped a spoonful of something brown onto Roy's plate and gave a mournful sigh. "If we end up gettin' booted outta here, I'm gonna miss this place! I'm gonna miss those kids. Nicest bunch o' kids you could meet!" He delicately balanced one of his biscuits on top of the pile of food on Roy's plate and gazed at it wistfully. "I sure hope they all decide to stick around."

Roy was tempted, strictly out of habit, to make a remark about McGinty's cooking being the primary source of the Ishvalan's dissatisfaction with the Amestrians. But the old fellow looked too genuinely disconsolate to be picked on.

"We'll just have to wait and see what happens," he said, taking the plate. "There's always the training exercises to look forward to."

McGinty remained disconsolate. "Ain't the same thing at all!" he muttered.

Roy could only shrug, and he turned to sit down at a nearby table, laying his satchel beside him. All around him was a flurry of activity. The mess tent was filling up with soldiers as well as many Ishvalans who had come to eat, but there were also a number of soldiers moving purposefully around the outer edges. Many of them were busy rolling up the sides of the tent so when the presentation began, those who weren't able to find a seat inside could at least get a partial view of what was going on.

At one of the other tables, surrounded by people who were eating and watching him with mild curiosity, Karley was inspecting the console of his sound system, testing the speakers that he had set up around the tent. He flipped a switch and everyone cringed as a loud shriek of feedback echoed across the compound. Karley quickly adjusted a couple of knobs and moved a box speaker from the table to the ground.

"Sorry!" he called out with an embarrassed grin. He took a microphone that stood upright from a circular stand and slid it toward him. He blew into it a couple of times, and the sound was amplified across the compound. "Testing…one, two, three…"

A few moments later, Riza walked into the tent and approached Karley's table. "It sounds good," she told him. She turned and saw Roy sitting a few tables over and she went to sit across from him.

"Did you sleep well, sir?" she asked.

"All right, I guess," Roy replied. "It took a little while to get used to the quiet." He contemplated the food on his plate. "It's a different kind of quiet from last time."

Riza nodded gravely. "Last time it was oppressive, because you never knew what might shatter the silence. This time the quiet is like…" She thought for a moment with a slight frown. "It's not exactly comforting, just something you feel is a lot bigger than you are, and you just have to acknowledge that it's there." She shrugged with a little smile. "Anyway, that's how I got to sleep."

"I guess I'm just a city boy at heart," Roy said.

Riza studied his face. "Are you ready?"

Roy shrugged and glanced at his satchel. "As I'll ever be. The document isn't even that long," he said. "It's pretty much to the point. The question and answer portion of this picnic is what could take a while."

A rustle of activity heralded the arrival of General Armstrong as the soldiers once again got to their feet and snapped to attention.

Olivier flicked a returning salute. "As you were," she told them briskly. She strode up to the chow line, where McGinty quickly filled a plate for her and passed it to her with a salute.

"There ya go, General!"

She nodded her thanks and sat down beside Riza. Roy glanced at her plate and frowned. "How do you rate two biscuits?"

Olivier cast him a bored look. "I outrank you."

While Roy tried to think of something charmingly scathing to reply, Shua slid onto the bench next to him with a tin mug of coffee. Olivier spared him a single, narrow-eyed glance and turned her attention back to her food.

Shua watched her for a few moments, then said, "I'd love to nibble on one of your biscuits."

Olivier tensed and glared at him. "What part of 'leave me alone or I'll castrate you' don't you understand?"

Shua gave a derisive snort. "Please! I've scrapped with tougher bastards than you, laleh."

"I don't think so," Olivier replied coldly. "And you can keep your little Ishvalan endearments to yourself."

"Now, don't be like that!" Shua said with a coaxing tone in his voice and an unwholesome smile on his face. "I tell you what!" he suggested, leaning a little closer. "The caravan's long gone, but I could still give you a ride on my camel."

Olivier's expression turned livid, but before she could stab Shua in the eye with her fork, Scar stepped up quickly and laid his hand on her arm.

"Shua!" he growled sharply.

Shua sat back and raised his hands with an innocent look. "I'm just trying to make our guests feel welcome. You know I'm harmless, Zhaarad."

"You're a danger to yourself is what you are," Scar remarked.

Olivier pulled her arm from Scar's grasp. "You were lucky this time!" she snarled.

Shua's grin returned. "Ah, sweetheart, I—"

"Don't!" Scar warned.

Shua shrugged and folded his arms, but gave Olivier a conspiratorial wink. She gave a snort of disgust and abruptly left the table. Roy finally let out the laughter he was choking on, and he and Shua snickered together like a couple of naughty schoolboys. Riza shook her head with mild disapproval.

"You're incorrigible, the both of you."

"Ah, well," Shua sighed as he pulled Olivier's unfinished plate toward him and picked up one of the biscuits. "Life's too short, anyhow."

"Yours will be, if you're not careful," Scar said.

Roy found himself in a better mood than the one he had started out with, and even McGinty's food suddenly tasted better. He almost began to feel equal to the task ahead of him.

Chapter Text

He was surrounded by a sea of expectant faces. Those who arrived first had already claimed seats around the tables. Off to his left sat Riza, General Armstrong, Major Miles, Breda, and Havoc. To his right were Scar, Rada, Dejan, Shua, and as many of that group as could squeeze itself at that table.

The two younger girls had taken up positions under the table. Everyone else stood, and he couldn't even see where the crowd ended. A rumble of subdued voices surrounded him, but he could make out a few individuals. He heard Madame Christmas say something about a "good house" and "SRO," and he heard Dejan wearily admonishing his father to behave himself. There was no podium, so he simply stood in the center of the mess tent. Juggling his papers and the microphone in one hand, he pulled out his pocket watch. There were just a few minutes left. As he slipped his watch back into his pocket, the old priest, Saahad Bozidar, stepped up beside him.

"May I take a moment to ask for the blessing of Ishvala on this endeavor?" he asked quietly.

It certainly couldn't hurt, Roy thought. "Of course," he said. "Would you like to use the microphone?"

The old man's eyes brightened, like a child who had been offered the loan of a toy. "Yes, if I may."

"Here you go." Roy handed the microphone to him and slid the switch to the "on" position. He then lifted Saahad Bozidar's hand slightly so that the microphone was closer to his mouth. "Whenever you're ready," Roy said, stepping back.

"My children," Bozidar began, and smiled at little at hearing his voice so amplified. "This device truly shows us what an age we have entered. Much has changed, and more changes are in our future. Let us ask the Creator for the wisdom to recognize what is good."

He closed his eyes and half spoke-half chanted in Ishvalan. Roy could hear in the particular intonation of the old man's voice that the words he spoke were deeply ingrained and deeply familiar, used countless times on countless occasions.

Then the old man switched to Amestrian. "Grant your people the sight to see beyond ourselves, O Creator. Grant your people the understanding to hear beyond words. Open our hearts and minds to recognize your will in what we are about to undertake." After a few final words in Ishvalan, Bozidar handed the microphone back to Roy.

"Thank you," he said quietly.

"Thank you, Master—Saahad Bozidar," Roy replied, and he turned to face the crowd.

There was a palpable stirring that rippled from the inner circle of the crowd out to the outer edges. Roy stood for a moment, realizing that he had become surprisingly calm. All he had to do now was let the documents speak for themselves.

No, he thought with a slight frown as he looked down at the first page. That wasn't quite true. Roy's hand holding the paper dropped to his side and he looked out at the crowd.

"I was given an official letter of apology from the Amestrian government, drafted by a Parliamentary committee that obviously did not realize the enormity of the task given to them. Those people aren't even here. They're back in Central, probably congratulating each other on a job well done.

"What they don't realize is that there are no words of apology that would be even remotely adequate. I can't just stand here and read this out loud. I can't just say 'I'm sorry' or 'the Fuhrer's sorry' or 'my government's sorry.' Each one of us who was involved in the War of Extermination has our own feelings about what happened." Roy lifted the sheets of paper in his hand. "This letter will be available for everyone to read, but those who weren't here can't speak for us." He contemplated the faces looking back at him, and his voice turned bleak. "There are no words that can adequately convey my remorse. That is a very, very deep pit that I will not be able to fill in my lifetime, but that doesn't mean I'm not going to try. I can't turn back time and change history. All I can do is pledge to you that what happened here will never be forgotten or repeated."

It was eerily quiet, and Roy looked around at the faces before him. They gazed back at him, intent and expectant, but he could have sworn that there was a sense of relaxing throughout the crowd. His pathetic excuse for the inexcusable had apparently fallen on fertile ground and had been allowed to take root. He had gotten through the initial stage, and they were ready for the next. He looked back down at the papers in his hand, slipping the top letter to the bottom a little clumsily while trying to hold the microphone.

"These proposals," he continued, "are the end result of a lot of debate. I've read them over numerous times, and they're about as straightforward as they can be." Reading from the page before him, Roy gripped the microphone and read out loud. "'Contingent upon an officially and legally conducted electoral process, if those citizens of Amestris who currently inhabit the region of Ishval choose to secede from the nation of Amestris, they will be recognized as a sovereign foreign nation and will be free to form whatever government they so choose. The current reconstruction and reparation agreement established between the Amestrian government and the Ishvalan people will still be honored until a year from its inception. After this time, the nation formed by the Ishvalan people will receive no aid or revenues from Amestris other than from subsequent trade agreements.'"

Roy paused and looked up at the crowd. "This last part isn't meant to be some kind of retaliation. The truth is, the Amestrian economy is currently suffering a crisis bordering on depression, and the national budget simply can't bear the weight of any long term reparation programs or foreign aid. The Ishvalan Foundation that was started by Mrs. Bradley is a private organization, and they are free to give you whatever they can, but that'll be it, and it may be a little harder to convince Amestrian people to contribute to it if you choose to no longer be Amestrians."

Turning back to his papers, he read on. "'Also after this time, all Amestrian military personnel will be removed from the territory of Ishval and the Ishvalans will be free to create their own military body. The nation formed by the people of Ishval will be invited to open diplomatic channels with the nation of Amestris and will be encouraged to consider treaties of mutual benefit with the nation of Amestris.'"

Turning to the next page, Roy went on. "'Contingent upon an officially and legally conducted electoral process, if those citizens of Amestris who currently inhabit the region of Ishval choose to remain a part of the nation of Amestris, Ishval will be elevated to the status of a semi-autonomous province, with all accompanying rights and privileges, as well as recognition of the validity of all local customs and religious beliefs and practices. The office of provincial governor will be created for whomever the people of Ishval choose to elect to this position.'" Roy paused for a moment. The next item was going to be a real kicker. "'The Province of Ishval will be awarded a seat in Parliament, and the Ishvalans will be free to elect their own representative.'"

Roy allowed himself a slight smile, pleased at the stir this news caused among the crowd. It had received some objections from some of the die-hard conservatives in Parliament, but it was inevitable that it would pass. The last part might be a little tougher to sell.

"'Furthermore, if the people of Ishval elect to remain part of Amestris, they will have the opportunity to decide whether they will allow the establishment of an Amestrian garrison in Ishval for the defense of the territory and its borders. If so, the Amestrian military will lease the land upon which any facility is built for a period of time to be determined and agreed upon by both the Amestrian government and the people of Ishval, and this lease will be brought up for review at the end this period. The people of Ishval will also have the opportunity to make recommendations for and will be granted final approval of the garrison commander.'"

Roy let the murmuring die down as the crowd absorbed this information, then he continued.

"'The people of Ishval will be given a period of two months to prepare for and conduct an election no later than the thirty-first of January, 1916, which will coincide with the next Parliamentary election.'"

Roy drew in a deep breath and lifted his head. "All of these documents will be available to read if you wish, and I have brought several copies. Are there any questions?"

Heads turned searchingly, almost daring each other to speak up. Then one man standing just behind the tables called out.

"Why do we need to wait two months to make our decision? Why not now?"

His voice carried well, and many heads nodded in agreement. Another man said, "We've been arguing over this for weeks!

This seemed to be a sentiment shared by quite a number of the Ishvalans, and Roy considered the question. They apparently had no idea what a labyrinth of a bureaucracy the Amestrian government could be. Before he could even try to start to explain that, out of the corner of his eye he saw Scar stand up. Somewhat relieved, Roy helpfully held the mic out to him. Scar gave it a slightly distasteful look, then stepped over and took it. The effect was a little unnerving.

"If all we can do is argue over it," Scar's voice boomed startlingly over the loudspeakers, "then we're clearly not ready to make a wise decision, particularly now that we know what the outcomes are."

A different set of heads nodded in agreement this time, but then someone shouted, "All we've ever wanted is to govern ourselves as a free people! Do we need two months to consider whether or not to raise our pride up out of the dirt?"

There were a number of angry "Nos!" that were called out in response to this. The sound ran like a ripple through the crowd, but there seemed to be just as many people who were in disagreement, not necessarily with the sentiment, but with the haste urged by the first group. Roy watched uneasily as numerous arguments started breaking out all through the crowd, including a number of shrill female voices. He turned to Scar, hoping that he would be able to use his authority to prevent a possible riot.

"You've got the mic," Roy muttered. "Say something."

Scar frowned darkly at the crowd and was about to raise the microphone to his mouth, but it was suddenly snatched from his hand by Shua.

"I've heard enough," he grumbled.

"Shua, what are you doing?" Scar demanded suspiciously.

Shua waved him aside. "Go sit down." He raised up the microphone and putting two fingers in his mouth, he blew out a piercing whistle. The people in the crowd cringed and fell silent for a moment, and Shua took immediate advantage. "Shehai li Ishvala!" he declared contemptuously. "How's a man to sleep with all this caterwauling going on, eh?"

There were a few snickers from the crowd, and Roy was sure he heard Madame Christmas' low chuckle. Shua took a few steps forward and, laying his hand over his heart, he made a little bow.

"Shua's the name, for those who don't know me, although you'd have to be blind and deaf not to have noticed me around lately." He surveyed the surrounding assemblage. "I recognize a few of your faces." He lifted his hand. "Now, don't worry, I won't say who, since I might recognize you from your trips to Old Vashto's place back in the day." He gave a wink. "But of course, you're much to proud to admit that you ever did such a thing.

"Now, as soon as somebody up and mentions 'pride,' everybody gets all hot and bothered." Shua shook his head. "Me, I've got no pride." He raised up a finger. "No, I take that back! I'm proud as hell of my son and his lovely bride and my sweet little granddaughter and all those young musicians. They are Ishval to me! That is something I can see and touch and hear. But beyond that, you can keep pride." He began to walk slowly back and forth, looking out at individual faces in the crowd and locking eyes with them for a brief moment before moving on. "You can't eat it. You can't drink it, more's the pity. It won't keep you warm at night or keep the sun off your head. And you sure as hell can't make love to it. You'll end up hungry, cold, and alone. So what's it good for then, hmm? Well, let me tell you…" He raised his voice sharply. "Fuck all!"

As the crowd seethed with a mixture of laughter and hisses of disapproval, Shua looked over at where General Armstrong was sitting. "Beg your pardon, ladies!" He grinned cheekily at the glare she gave him and turned back to the assemblage.

"Now, like everybody else here," Shua went on in an easy-going manner, "while the Amestrians were busy stomping on our balls, I sneaked out of Ishval as soon as a chance presented itself. And like a lot of you, I did a bit of travelling. Unlike a lot of you, though, I didn't spend my time sniveling about how miserable I was or how ill-treated I'd been. I took advantage of every opportunity that came my way, and all I had to my name were some raggedy clothes and my trusty fiddle. Oh, and a bit of cash I had borrowed from a friend, but other than that I had nothing but my wits to live on.

"I started heading east and just kept going. There's a great, big world out there, in case you didn't know. A lot of little countries, a few big countries, and they're all full of people. Some of them are welcoming and friendly and they'll feed you for nothing more than a song and a good tale because they've figured out that there are better things in life than pride. Others are not so warm and friendly. There are some places where you don't dare step into a tavern or even walk down the street without the right papers for fear of having your ass thrown in prison for being a spy. There are places where the rich are shamefully rich, the poor are shamefully poor, and there's nothing in between. After a while, you can start to smell the kinds of places that are good to avoid."

Shua smiled at his recollections. "I have seen some grand things. Like when I finally reached the sea! God, that was a glorious sight to see! Along the eastern coast there's a little country called Shumao. I'd picked up enough of several languages along the way to get by nearly everywhere I went, and although it took a little work to get my tongue around Shumalo, I managed to understand and be understood. They're fisher folk, mostly, very friendly and hospitable, and absolutely piss poor. But they made me feel like family! I even went out on their fishing boats with them to earn my keep.

"Now, as wonderful as this all sounds, my brethren," Shua went on in a more somber voice, "I have also seen shit that would turn you white! One day we had ventured pretty far out on the ocean in search of a good haul. Normally these fellows were a jovial crew, singing along with their work and joking with each other. But on this particular day, there wasn't much joking and no singing. Lookouts were posted fore and aft. One of them even had an ancient telescope that he kept scanning the horizon with. Suddenly this fellow gets all excited and yells at all of us to haul up the nets and come about fast. I could just make out something on the horizon, and I asked what the problem was. The fellow hands me the telescope with a grim look on his face.

"What I saw, my brethren, was a line of battleships," Shua pronounced in a hard tone. "Not bouncy little boats with fluffy white sails. Battleships! Ah, what did they call them?" he growled, grimacing as he tried to remember. He snapped his fingers and looked up. "Dreadnoughts! Anyhow, our boys all scrambled to pull out every oar they had on that boat and we set to. I had never seen those fellows so scared. And as if that wasn't enough, our lookout starts screaming that the ships had begun to pick up speed. Then we heard a distant booming sound, and somewhere far behind us but still too close, there was a huge splash. Our fellows were nearly hysterical with terror, but they pulled on those oars like their lives depended on it, because it did. Finally, the dreadnoughts fell back, but we kept up our speed. When the captain called a halt in sight of their own shore, the whole crew was completely exhausted and silent. We pulled in without much of a take for the day, but we were still alive.

"I asked the captain who those people were and why they would possibly need to fire on a harmless fishing boat. He told me that the country on the far side of that ocean was the terror of all the neighboring lands. Anyone unlucky enough to be anywhere near their waters is snatched up and sent to work as slaves down in their mines or God knows what else. None of the other countries are strong enough to challenge them, and they all live in the fear that one day, these ships will cross the ocean to their shores and take them all.

"So why, you must be thinking," Shua went on, "should any of us here care about what's going on half a world away? Because that world can get very small in a very short time. If those people have the means to build ships like that, who's to say they might not take to the land someday. It would take a strong, well-armed nation to defend itself against that kind of power." He gave the crowd a hard look. "Not a people struggling to survive who have nothing better to throw at an invasion force than pride and goat shit!

"Now, the brigadier just gave us some fairly decent terms to consider, and he gave us a fairly decent time in which to consider them. If I were you, I'd take advantage of that time to give some good hard thought to what's really important to you." Shua turned away from the crowd and shoved the microphone back into Roy's hand. "They're all yours," he said cheerfully

Roy watched him as he sauntered back to his seat, then he considered the microphone in his hand. He looked up at the crowd and lifted his shoulders slightly.

"There really isn't much I can add to that," he said. "I should tell you that whenever you decide to have your election, my government is not currently in the position to consider the results until the time given in these documents. It's not my place to tell you what to do. All I can do is recommend, like Shua said, that you take advantage of this period of time to discuss these issues with your families and give your decision the careful, considered thought it deserves. I won't keep you here any longer. I'll be here for another few days, so if any of you have any further questions, please don't hesitate to ask." He drew himself up slightly and said in an authoritative tone, "Thank you for your time."

He turned to Karley and nodded, and the Briggs radio man flipped off the switches on the console. Many of the Ishvalans still seemed dissatisfied, but they took the hint that the presentation was officially over and started drifting away from the mess tent, some still arguing amongst themselves. Roy looked over at Shua as he stood up to join the others who were leaving.

"Thank you," he said. "You gave us all a lot to think about."

Shua gave a modest shrug and was about to reply when he caught sight of General Armstrong approaching them.

"That was impressive," she said with gruff approval. "Maybe you're not a complete moron."

Shua gave a quiet chuckle. "Oh, sweetheart, I love it when you talk dirty!"

Olivier gave him a look of utter disgust and stormed away.

"Exit, stage left," Madame Christmas remarked drily as she came up. She turned to Shua and patted him on the cheek. "That was brilliant, my dear! You reminded me of Murgatroyd Guildersleeve when he did that marvelous Act Three speech in All Your Boys Will Come Home. He got five curtain calls every damn night." She fitted a cigarette into her mother-of-pearl holder. "Never a dry eye in the house."

"Why, thank you, Madame!" Shua said with a little bow. "That's very high praise, coming from you."

Roy reached into his pocket for his gloves, but Madame Christmas shook her head. "Not here, Roy boy," she warned quietly.

Roy pulled a slightly embarrassed face and quickly took his hand out of his pocket. "Sorry. Force of habit."

"Tricky little buggers, aren't they?" Madame Christmas pulled an ornate cigarette lighter from her reticule. Roy started to reach for it, but Shua took it from her and flipped it open, holding the flame to the end of her cigarette. She took a delicate puff from the end of her holder and blew the smoke off to one side. "Thanks, duckie." She cocked her head in the direction in which General Armstrong disappeared. "I suppose it's amusing, but she's really not your type. Frankly, I don't think she's anyone's type."

Shua gave her a wink. "All the fun's in the chase."

"Meaning you wouldn't know what to do with her once you caught her?"

"That wouldn't be a problem," Shua replied. "My only dilemma would be choosing from all the possibilities."

Madame Christmas burst out laughing and gave him a playful shove against his shoulder. "Well, dear, send me a postcard!"

Roy turned away from them, shaking his head, and he found himself facing Scar.

"I have a question," the big Ishvalan said. Roy spread his hands, inviting him to continue. "I'm surprised at what we're being offered if we choose to stay. It's more generous than I would have expected. What guarantees are there that these concessions will be honored? Not just to this generation, but for those who will come after us."

"Apart from my personal word of honor?" Roy asked with a slight smile.

"Yes."

Roy held up the documents. "This is actually worth a bit more than the paper it's printed on."

"Is it? I have your personal word of honor on that as well?"

"Well, let's see…" Roy affected a look of concentration. "That's Scar, ten, state alchemists, zero. I'm not sure I'd like to risk those odds by lying to you."

"Zero?" Scar moved closer to him, emanating just a little menace. "Thousands, Flame Alchemist. Thousands."

Roy held up his hand. "Point taken." He returned the Ishvalan's intent gaze. "How about this, then? Old Man Grumman isn't going to last forever in his current office. At some point he's going to want to retire because he's too fond of his leisure time. When that happens, I'm going to be the next Fuhrer. You have my personal word of honor on that, too." A grin spread across his face. "And if you're still an Amestrian citizen by then, you can vote for me!"

.................................................................................................................

"Hi, Mom!…Yeah, it's your boy…yeah, I can hear you just fine…Listen, could you…yes, Mom, I'm fine…no, I haven't caught anything…Mom! Listen!…I need you to send some stuff out for me on the very next train, okay? I know it's short notice, but…okay, I need you to send me three sets of ladies thermal underwear…no, Mom, of course not! It's for a lady who's moving up to Briggs at the end of the week. She's getting married to Major Miles. Remember him?…yeah, it's great. Anyway, she's gonna need some boots, too…oh, heck, yeah! Wool socks, straight from Resembool. Put her down for three pairs of those…well, okay, four pairs. The major's paying for it…Oh, you've got those in, too? Oh, that'd be swell! Do they have hoods? Absolutely!…Oh, yeah, hold on, I've got 'em right here…"

Havoc pulled a slip of paper from his shirt pocket. "You got a piece of paper handy? Okay, it's thirty-eight, twenty-six, thirty-seven," he read wistfully. "…Yes, Mom, I'm aware of that…It's not like I haven't been trying… Aw, Mom, I've been my absolutely most charming, gentlemanly, helpful best. You'd be so proud of me! But those two had their eyes on each other from the get go…no, I didn't measure her myself! One of the other ladies did. Rada, the one who's been using the sewing machine you sent…yeah, she's a peach!…no, she's getting married, too…no, there are actually quite a few ladies here with equally impressive measurements…well, that's really open-minded of you, Mom, but it's going to have to wait until the election…yeah, I hope so, too…" Havoc looked down at his legs stretched out in front of him as he sat in front of the radio transceiver. "Part of me kind of belongs here…Did Dad talk to you about me opening a store here?…Sure, it'd do well, especially if they okay the garrison. They'll want Amestrian goods…But I'm gonna stop talking about that. I don't wanna jinx the whole thing…You got that right! Anyhow, if you could get that stuff out here as soon as…Gloves! Oh heck, yeah! Sure, Mom, anything else you can think of. I'm pretty sure she's not used to the cold.,.thanks! And send the bill along with it. I'll make sure Major Miles gets it and pays up…Yup! Thanks again!…Say hi to Dad for me, and everyone else!…I'll talk to you again in a few days…I love you, too, Mom."

Chapter Text

Rada's work area was getting a little cramped. She had many pieces of clothing that she was working on just for the wedding, and she had to keep them all organized in different piles. She had begun to despair that she might not get everything done in time, but Mrs. Knox volunteered to help her.

"I can't embroider my way out of a paper bag," she said, "but I'll be happy to finish hems or sew on buttons or whatever else you might need."

Rada readily accepted her help, and the two women worked companionably together. Rada was finishing a dress for Danika, and Emily was sewing a hem on a dark grey wool coat for Damyan.

"This is really lovely!" Emily exclaimed as she held up the knee-length coat. Rada had already embroidered a border on the finished edges. "Are they traditional?"

"Oh, yes," Rada said. "The design is very old. When I was little, my grandmother told me that they wore coats like this at court during the days of the princes."

"Surely your grandmother wasn't that old."

Rada laughed. "I almost thought she was. No, that was something she had been told when she was little. I didn't really think about it, but then I saw a picture in one of the old books that Andakar's brother Mattas had hidden. It was a copy of a copy of a very old drawing that was supposed to be what someone remembered from those days, and it really is the same sort of coat."

"Well, your menfolk are going to look very smart for their weddings." Emily remarked. "I suppose Major Miles will be in his dress uniform."

"Yes, he had it sent down from Briggs," Rada replied. "I have to admit, I was glad I only had to make three coats instead of four."

Emily nodded and glanced over at the bridal ensembles draped carefully over a nearby table. They consisted of a red short-sleeved tunic trimmed with embroidered ribbon that would be worn over a white long-sleeved underdress. The hem, the sleeves, and the neck opening were all elaborately embroidered. Emily gave a nostalgic sigh.

"I bought my wedding dress at a bargain basement sale two hours before my wedding," she said. "My mother was frantic, but I just never found the right dress until that moment."

"How long have you been married?" Rada asked her.

"Twenty-three years," Emily replied. She smiled. "Poor Knox was so nervous! He dropped the ring twice. But I had my perfect dress and I was marrying my sweetheart, so I was happy as a lark." She gave another sigh, perhaps not so nostalgic. "We went through some tough times, though. I was really afraid I was going to lose him for good after he came back from this place."

Rada glanced over at her. She had seldom considered the effect the war had on the Amestrians, but she knew that it had to have been a bitter experience for everyone involved. Then Emily brightened.

"But I finally just made the decision to go and get him back, even if I had to drag him by the collar." She smiled at Rada. "It was the smartest thing I ever did. The next smartest thing was to talk him into coming back here, because it really has done wonders for him. For both of us." She gave a little laugh. "Knox has actually gotten quite romantic."

"Has he?" Rada asked, eager to hear a good story.

"We've gone on a lot of moonlit walks lately," Emily said. Her smile grew mischievous. "We even started bringing a blanket with us."

"Eh-h! Have you, now?" Rada exclaimed teasingly. "Zhaarana Emily! How naughty of you!"

Both women burst into laughter. Some of the soldiers who were working in the supply tent glanced their way and smiled. There didn't seem to be any cultural differences when it came to laughing over girl stuff.

The entrance to the supply tent was always wide open during the day, and there was a lot of traffic going in and out. A couple of soldiers stepped aside as Danika burst into the tent, followed at a more sedate pace by Scar. The little girl ran up to the sewing table.

"Mama! Mama!" she cried breathlessly. "Is it done yet?"

"Just a little longer, sweetie," Rada assured her. "I'm almost done."

Danika hopped up and down in an agony of excitement while Rada completed the last stitches on the hem of her dress. Scar dropped his hand down on her head.

"Calm down, child!" he said with a quiet laugh.

"But this is the most bee-yoo-tifullest dress I ever, ever had in my whole life!" Danika groaned.

"Then it's worth being patient for, isn't it?"

Danika stopped hopping, but she clasped her hands tightly and jiggled. Rada finally snipped off the thread, shook out the dress, and held it up for Danika to see. The little girl clapped her hands to the sides of her face and drew in a loud, ecstatic gasp. Rada stood and held the dress up to Danika's shoulders. It was light blue with a high-waisted bodice and short puffy sleeves. The skirt was gathered full at the edge of the bodice and reached down to Danika's ankles. The little girl gazed down at the dress in wonder, her fingers brushing the fabric almost reverently.

"Well, you look like you're going to be the belle of the ball, Miss Danika!" Emily remarked.

Danika looked up with a puzzled expression. "The what?"

"You're going to be the prettiest girl at the wedding," Emily explained.

"Oh." Danika thought for a moment. "No, I think Mama is."

Emily laughed. "All right. I won't argue with you about that."

"Nor will I," Scar added, his eyes dwelling on Rada, who smiled back at him.

She carefully laid Danika's dress along with the others and picked up the long striped sash she was working on. It was a band of red fabric folded over with narrow strips of black fabric quilted onto it along its length. The little girl squirmed with excitement once again.

"That's my chuva!" she practically screamed, then she clapped her hands over her mouth as the adults laughed softly.

"I certainly don't have to ask you how excited you are about that," Emily said.

Danika shook her head emphatically. "Nope! 'Cause tomorrow, Zhaarad Andakar's gonna be my papa forever and ever!" Her smile changed to an angry scowl. "Instead of that stupid mean Kimlee man!"

An uneasy expression flickered across Rada's face, and Emily briefly felt as though she had intruded on an awkward family moment. Andakar, however, didn't seem troubled at all, and he gently stroked Danika's hair with a look of pride in his eyes. He apparently had not thought her too young to reveal that sort of information to her, and Emily was not about to question the man's wisdom. It did not seem to have failed him yet.

A commotion of excited voices, growing from just a few to many, drifted in from somewhere out in the compound. Scar and Rada exchanged puzzled looks, then Scar's expression turned to a glower.

"What now?" he growled, turning away to head outside.

At the far end of the compound, a crowd had gathered, and more people were hurrying to join them, craning their necks to see over everyone else's heads. Over the laughter and shouts of encouragement, Scar could hear the clash of steel against steel, a sound that, to his mind, should be neither laughed at nor encouraged. He pushed through the crowd to find the cause of this disturbance.

In an open space at the center of the crowd, Shua and General Armstrong were engaged in what appeared to be combat. The general, a look of fury on her face, was lashing out with her family heirloom saber, and Shua was easily parrying her attacks with a pair of long daggers, grinning gleefully.

"Shua!" Scar roared out. "What the hell are you—"

"Not now, lad!" Shua called back, twisting to one side to avoid a potentially lethal thrust. "I'm a little busy!"

"Quit squirming, you weasel!" Olivier snarled.

The crowd cheered and surged along with the combatants as they lunged back and forth.

"How did this start?" Scar demanded of anyone who would pay attention.

"How else?" a voice beside him replied. He turned to find Havoc standing next to him, and he seemed to be enjoying the spectacle as much as everyone else. "I only caught the end of it, but I think I heard something about camels."

"Hump this, asshole!" Olivier cried as she backhanded a slash that Shua caught in the hooked guard at the base of one of his daggers. With a sharp twist of his wrist he pulled the general's sword from her hand and flung it in the air. He hopped away from her, singing a few lines of a mocking song in a high-pitched nasal voice, which sent up a wail of laughter from the Ishvalans. Olivier grabbed the sword's handle out of the air as it came down and went for him again with renewed outrage.

The spectators were evenly mixed between Amestrians and Ishvalans, and the loyalties, which seemed good-natured enough, were just as equally divided. But Scar didn't like what he was seeing and he contemplated breaking it up. He felt a jostling behind him as Roy pushed through the crowd. He took in the scene before him with a quick, grim glance, and Scar was about to enlist his help to bring the fight to a halt.

Roy then cupped his hands around his mouth and shouted, "Let her have it, Shua!"

Scar shot him a look of outrage, and Olivier snapped back with, "Shut your trap, Mustang! You're next!"

"Don't get your hopes up, Brigadier!" Shua called out. "Once I'm done with her, she'll never look at another man!"

He jerked his head aside in barely enough time to avoid having his ear sliced off. As it was, Olivier managed to nick him enough to draw blood, which set off a cheer from the Amestrians. At the other side of the surrounding crowd, Miles had pushed his way through and watched with alarm.

"General!" he cried.

"Stay out of this, Miles!" Olivier ordered through gritted teeth. "I'm having fun!"

She caught the edge of her sword in the guard of one of Shua's daggers and sent it flying with a twist of her blade. She began to hack relentlessly against his remaining weapon, making him retreat further away from where his first dagger had landed, its point embedded in the ground. Shua's smiled began to disappear as his took the jarring force of each blow of the general's sword. Scar decided it was time to intervene, but a small form darted past him and out through the forest of legs onto the field of battle.

"Stop it stop it stop it!"

Scar hadn't even noticed that Danika had trotted after him when he left the supply tent. She stood with her fists clenched and her blue eyes blazing furiously at the two combatants. Shua spun around and Olivier missed him with a powerful downward swing of her sword. She couldn't control the force of her own momentum and she stumbled forward toward Danika, her sword extended. Shua reached out quickly and wrapped his arm around her waist just as Scar leaped out from the crowd to scoop Danika into his arms.

They stood frozen for a few seconds while the save was cheered by the spectators, then Danika struggled in Scar's arms with frantic anger. "You stop right now!" she shouted, leaning away from Scar's hold, nearly in tears. "You don't fight! Hurting people is bad!"

"Danika! Calm down!" Scar told her firmly. "They're not trying to hurt each other!" He wasn't entirely sure of that, but he wouldn't tell her otherwise.

Shua quickly sheathed his dagger. "That's right, little blackbird," he assured her, his arm still tight around Olivier. "We were just having a little fun, that's all. Weren't we, General?" he said to Olivier, giving her a squeeze.

"Uh…yes," Olivier mumbled back. "It's…it's called sparring."

"Exactly!" Shua said with a grin. "No one got hurt!"

Danika did not appear convinced, and then she caught sight of the blood that had dripped from Shua's ear onto his shirt. Her eyes widened with horror. "Djaari Shua! You're bleeding!" she gasped, and she burst into tears.

"I am?" Shua frowned and looked down at himself, then saw the few drops on his shirt. "Oh, I guess I am!" He let go of Olivier and went over to cup Danika's face in his hands. "I barely even felt it, laleh! Don't let it bother you! See? Look!"

He moved back to Olivier's side and put his arm around her shoulders. "We're still friends! Watch this!" He leaned closer to Olivier. "Kiss me!" he whispered.

"Like hell!" Olivier hissed back.

Shua jerked her closer to him. "Just on the cheek!"

With a badly concealed look of revulsion, Olivier gave him a quick peck on his cheek. She drew herself up with somewhat tattered dignity and turned to Danika. She had absolutely no idea how to talk to a child, and this one was glaring back at her with fierce blue eyes that had a disturbingly adult depth to them. But it appeared that she was expected to say something. "There," she pronounced with finality. "Nothing to worry about."

Danika was only barely mollified, and she gave a little hiccup of a sob in reply. She turned her head toward Scar and wrapped her arms around his neck. It seemed as though the entertainment had come to an end and the crowd began to disperse, laughing and talking amongst themselves. Scar held Danika closer and regarded Shua and Olivier severely.

"This stops now," he told them, his voice low and stern, and he turned abruptly away.

Shua watched his broad retreating back as the big Ishvalan strode across the compound, Danika clinging to him. "Ah, well," he sighed, giving Olivier's shoulder another squeeze. "It was fun while it lasted."

Olivier shrugged roughly away from his arm. "If I thought you were that clever, I'd have said you planned the whole thing, you filthy-minded bastard!" she growled.

Shua chuckled. He stepped away to retrieve his dagger from where it stood in the ground. Wiping it against his pant leg, he sheathed it next to its twin behind his back. "Ah, sweetheart, if I was that clever, I'd have planned for a lot more than just a kiss on the cheek!"

...................................................................................................................................

The setting sun cast a rosy tinge onto the desert. Brigadier General Mustang and his adjutant stood among a grove of tall cottonwood trees, their leaves whispering in the light evening breeze. They contemplated the dry river bed below them.

"It'll be a glorious sight," Roy observed. He turned to study her profile. "Can you picture it?"

Riza nodded. "The Engineering Corps said they were ahead of schedule. The river could be released as early as late winter."

"Just in time for spring planting," Roy added. "It's such a basic element, but it's going to make such a massive change to this land." He drew in a deep breath of cool air. "If they choose to establish their own nation, they'll need every advantage they can get."

Riza took a final look up the river bed toward the distant mountains. "And it will be a symbol of how alchemy can actually do some good."

Roy shrugged. "Alchemy. Alkahestry. The voice of God. Who knows?"

"Seems to be all the same thing, wrapped up in one man," Riza said quietly.

Roy stayed silent, staring down at the sandy bottom of the river bed. He gave a little shudder as two pieces of a puzzle clicked together in his head and he realized how Scar had so easily read his emotions when he first arrived. A half smile crossed his features. "You say that like it's a good thing," he remarked. "Should one man have that kind of power?"

"Depends on the man," Riza replied. "Do you still not entirely trust him?"

"I have to," Roy said. "He's the one holding all this together. But I'll certainly feel a lot better if he stays one of us."

"I don't think he's ever going to see himself as one of us."

"I meant an Amestrian citizen, rather than a foreign power right on our border."

"I honestly don't think the Ishvalans are going to be a threat. Besides, you were the one pushing for their independence."

"I was pushing for them to have the choice," Roy replied. "I hope they don't actually take us up on it."

"Well, you've done your part. The ball's in their court now." Riza gazed up at the red-tinged clouds in the sky. "We should go. It'll be dark by the time we get back."

"I suppose," Roy said reluctantly. "But it's so peaceful here. It's nice to be able to stand somewhere in Ishval and say it's peaceful and have it not be because everyone around you is dead."

Riza smiled and nodded. "I know exactly what you mean."

Roy turned to her to gaze at her smile. The way she could see into his soul was a lot more comforting than the way Scar could.

..........................................................................................

Rada leaned against Scar's shoulder, dozing off as they sat in front of the fire. Her hand was clasped in his, their fingers intertwined, and Scar moved his other hand to cover hers. He smiled at the feeling of contentment that flowed up his arms and caressed his heart. He turned his head to brush his lips against her temple in gratitude, and she stirred and lifted her face to his. He kissed her unhurriedly, savoring the complex stream of emotions as he felt her desire meet his. Then he gently pulled away. She wasn't entirely his yet.

"You must be tired," he said.

Her head dropped back to his shoulder and she nodded. "I'm exhausted!"

Scar lifted his shoulder slightly to nudge her. "We'll sleep in each other's arms after tomorrow, my love. But for now, you should go to bed."

"Mm." Rada raised her arms and stretched them. "So should you."

"I will, by and by." Scar nodded at the fire. "I'll get this banked down for the morning."

Rada patted him on the shoulder and bent down to kiss him one more time. "Good night, my silver hawk," she said sleepily. "I'll be your bright sunrise in the morning."

Scar laughed softly. "Good night, my love."

Her footsteps retreated toward the tent she shared with Danika, and Scar sat before the fire a while longer, considering the day's events. Surprisingly, the scrap between Shua and General Armstrong had not caused any strain on Amestrian-Ishvalan relations. Perhaps it was another sign of how times had changed. He shook his head. Shua had entirely too much spare time and too much mischief in him to use it constructively. It would be a relief when General Armstrong finally boarded the train, but Scar had to wonder how Shua would fill the void that she would leave. He needed something constructive to do.

Another set of footsteps made Scar look over his shoulder, and he was surprised and not entirely pleased to see the general herself entering the camp.

"What brings you here?" he asked her quietly. "And keep your voice down. Shua went to bed, but he wasn't drinking, so he may sleep light."

"I just wanted a moment of your time," Olivier replied. "I expect you'll be too preoccupied tomorrow."

Scar rose to his feet. "A moment then." He nodded toward the outer edges of the campsite, and he followed the general as she headed away from the light of the fire.

She stopped and turned to him. "You may recall that I mentioned this when you were recuperating in my house," she began. "I've been wanting to discuss your unique brand of alkahestry. I think it could be extremely useful."

"Useful for what?"

"As a means of defense," Olivier replied, unmoved by the tone of warning in Scar's voice. "And one of the first lines of defense is to always have the advantage over your opponent. After Miles kicked Drachma's ass, they've started to regroup, and I want to be ready for them."

Scar folded his arms and regarded the woman before him. He had not given her remark from all those months ago any consideration, and he had little to no inclination to do so now. "And what do you expect me to do about it?" he replied.

"I expect you to remember that I smuggled you out of the ruins of Central Command, hid you from the authorities, and had you nursed back to health," Olivier countered readily.

Scar gave a slight lift of his shoulders. "I'm not ungrateful," he said. "But do you actually expect me to compromise my beliefs to become a human weapon?"

"You wouldn't think twice about using your power to defend your own people, would you?"

"That's not the same thing as being a pawn for the military," Scar returned.

Olivier scoffed. "You'd be as much a pawn as I am." She leaned in a little closer to him. "But I could ensure that the military made it worth your while, despite the fact that you owe me, Ishvalan."

Scar bridled angrily. "I helped save your entire country!" he growled. "So I don't think I owe you anything. And no matter what fate my brethren choose for themselves, my allegiance will always be to God, my family, and my people, and whatever abilities I have belong to them. Not to Grumman, not to Mustang, and not to—"

He stopped suddenly and turned as a muffled shriek cut through the peace of the night, and he sprinted back into the camp. As he entered through the circle of tents, Rada emerged from her tent, looking sleepy and disheveled, and holding a frantically weeping Danika in her arms.

"What's wrong?" Scar demanded.

"I think she just had a nightmare," Rada replied. "I was just drifting off to sleep when she let out a scream." She shook her head wearily. "She wants you."

Danika had twisted around and was holding her arms out to Scar, and he gathered her into his embrace, carrying her over near the fire and sitting down with her in his lap. She curled herself up against him and continued to cry, although now her weeping was not as desperate.

"What's this now?" he asked, his deep voice softened. "Was it a dream?"

Danika nodded. "It—it was a—a awful dream!" she sobbed. "It was the—the most awfullest dream!"

"Do you want to tell me about it?"

Danika shuddered as she made a few attempts to draw in enough breath to speak. "I—I dreamed that I was all alone! I was looking all around for you 'cause—'cause you were s'posed to give me my—my chuva so you could be my papa, and then—and then that Kimlee man came and said that you couldn't be my papa 'cause he was my papa and he was gonna take me away and—and—" Danika nearly choked on her words. "—and he was so, so scary 'cause—'cause he didn't have a face—"

Danika's sobbing grew harder and she buried her face into the fabric of Scar's shirt. He didn't need to touch her bare skin to tell how terrified she was. He knew from experience how adept the Crimson Alchemist was at invading a night's sleep and tearing it into shreds. The little girl deserved as much time as she needed to let such a horrific image fade from her mind. The thought of it nearly made Scar shudder.

A few other heads had popped out of the surrounding tents, but once they realized what was going on, they went back to bed. Fortunately, Shua wasn't one of them. He must have been a heavier sleeper than Scar thought he was.

Danika grew calmer, and Rada brought out a blanket. She handed it to Scar and he wrapped it around the little girl.

"Now, listen to me, Danika," he said, his arms securely around her. "I know your dream frightened you badly, but none of it was real. Kimblee is gone forever, and he can't take you away or hurt you or do anything to anyone." He gently pressed her head against his chest over his heart. "Can you hear that?"

The little girl nodded mutely.

"That is real," Scar went on. "I'm real. I'm right here, and I'm never going to let anyone take you away from me. Do you believe me?"

Danika nodded again and gave a little sniffle. The tight little ball she had made of herself began to relax. In a cautious whisper she asked, "Can I—can I call you Papa now, even though it's not time yet?"

Scar smiled and kissed the top of her head. "Of course you can. Haven't I been as good as a father to you all this time?"

Danika snuggled against him, more at peace but still seeking comfort. "I love you, Papa!"

"I love you, too, my little blackbird." Scar held her close one more time. "Bless this child, O Creator," he prayed softly, "and grant her the wholesome, untroubled sleep of the innocent."

He looked up at Rada and nodded, then he stood up and handed Danika to her mother. Brushing a lock of hair from the little girl's face, he said, "Go on back to sleep now, little one."

"What if the bad dream comes back?" Danika mumbled sleepily.

"Then I'll come and chase it away," Scar assured her.

Danika dropped her head on Rada's shoulder, content with this answer. "'kay."

Rada exchanged a final smile with Scar and carried her daughter back to their tent.

Scar stood by the fire for a few more moments, letting his shoulders sag wearily. This day needed to end.

"Well, I can see there's no point arguing with you over your priorities."

Scar looked back over his shoulder with an irritable scowl.

"Yes, I'm still here," Olivier said with a smirk. "I suppose I'll have to wait for diplomatic relations to open up with Xing to get hold of alkahestry."

"I don't understand why you even think you need it," Scar replied. "It seems to me that the loyalty of your men is your greatest strength."

Olivier shrugged easily. "That's true enough." She contemplated Scar for a few moments. "I don't suppose you could indulge me in a small demonstration of your skills, could you"

Scar shook his head in annoyance. "What sort of demonstration? Don't expect me to make someone's head explode."

"As tempting as that would be, no, I'll pass on that. I'll leave it to your discretion."

Scar was sorely tempted to simply wish her a dismissive good night, but after a moment's consideration, he held out his hands.

"Put your hands in mine," he said. "If you're wearing gloves, take them off."

Olivier gave him a narrow-eyed look. "This sounds like something Shua would come up with."

"You wanted a demonstration, didn't you?" Scar countered impatiently. "If not, I'm tired and you're keeping me from my bed."

Olivier let out a derisive tch! and placed her hands over Scar's palms. Her hands were smaller that he expected, and his fingers curled around them easily.

If he had to put a single word to what he felt, he would have said complicated, but he took a few moments to tease apart what was flowing from her hands into his. It was like unravelling a skein of yarn into individual threads.

"You are frustrated, suspicious, and angry."

Olivier rolled her eyes. "Oh, really?" she sneered sarcastically. "You think so?"

She started to pull away, but Scar tightened his hold. He closed his eyes and picked out a faint impression, one little string, to concentrate on. It seemed to linger behind the others as if trying to escape notice. When he realized what it was, it surprised him at first. But then, he supposed, it made sense. He opened his eyes to look at her.

"You're lonely," he said quietly. He felt tension suddenly shoot out of her hands and up his arms and he would have smiled if it hadn't struck him as so sad. "You're lonely, and it's the only thing that scares you."

Olivier stared at him for a moment, then angrily wrenched her hands out of his grip. "I have never heard a bigger load of bullshit in my life!" She glared at him with contempt, but he knew that his aim had struck true. "If all you can come up with is a stupid parlor trick, then you can keep your damn alkahestry!"

With a scornful toss of her blonde hair, she turned abruptly and stormed away.

Scar headed for his tent, secure in the knowledge that she would not broach the subject again.

Chapter Text

It seemed like a shameful indulgence compared with what he'd been accustomed to over the last six years.

The water tanks had to be filled and the water had to be heated and conveyed through a system of pipes into the shower tent. A bucket and a sponge would have been much simpler and just as serviceable. But Scar truly enjoyed standing under the rain of warm water that flowed from the shower head. He particularly enjoyed it when no one else was occupying any of the other three canvas partitions that were grouped together in the middle of the shower tent. They always felt obliged to chatter.

He let the water run through his hair and over his shoulders while he stood in contemplation. His life was about to change forever. A dream that had once been so utterly beyond his grasp was about to become real. He once thought that he had lost everything except his hatred; now he was receiving blessings in abundance. He felt elated. He felt humbled. He felt that anything was possible. Debate over the election, Naisha weeping over losing her sister, Shua baiting General Armstrong, General Armstrong's retaliation, none of that would bother him today.

Well, he thought wryly as he finally turned off the valve, perhaps there were some things that were too much to hope for.

..................................................................................................................................

"Are you sure you don't want to lop that off, son?" Shua asked. He lay stretched out on his cot in the tent he was sharing with Dejan, his hands behind his head, watching his son get dressed for the wedding. "It looks like a hell of a lot of trouble."

Dejan shook his head as he nimbly braided his hair, starting with his hands behind him at the back of his neck and then pulling the remainder in front to finish it off. He tied the end securely with a strip of cloth, then flipped the braid back over his shoulder. "It's so people remember me. I intend to make a name for myself in this world. Besides," he said with a grin. "Naisha likes it."

"Oh, well, that settles it, then!" Shua replied with a touch of sarcasm. "She can wrap it around your throat if you piss her off enough."

"Real funny, Dad," Dejan replied drily as he shrugged into his coat. "Katri might have done something like that, but not my Naisha."

"No, that's true enough," Shua admitted. He sat up and flashed a proud smile. "You did well, son. You always said you would."

.....................................................................................................................................

His pants were pressed with a razor-sharp crease, he could practically see himself in the shine on his shoes, and his dress uniform jacket was as immaculate as the day he received it. But there was a certain calming effect to applying the clothing brush to it. For a man who could observe the approach of a massive invasion force without batting an eye, Miles felt remarkably nervous as he anticipated the step he was about to take. Had he made the right decision? Had they jumped into this too soon? Did she really love him that much? Did he really love her? Would they be happy together?

Hell, yes.

Maybe, but who cares.

God, he hoped so.

Hell, yes!

Oh, holy God, he hoped so!

........................................................................................................................................

"Damyan! Are you ready yet?" Dejan demanded, poking his head through the tent flaps. "You're holding up the show! Don't tell me you're nervous."

"Me? No." Damyan pushed his arms through the sleeves of his dark grey coat and straightened up. "How do I look?"

"Like a prince!" Dejan replied with a grin. "I'd marry you myself! Now get a move on, both of you!" He gave a friendly nod to Stoyan, who sat cross-legged on his cot, improvising a tune on his flute. "Are you sure you'll be all right bunking with my dad, Stoyan?"

The sleeping arrangements had gone through some necessary reorganization to accommodate the married couples. A few more tents had been sent for, but they were still in somewhat short supply. Stoyan gave an easy shrug. "I'm fine with Shua," he said.

"And he thinks pretty highly of you," Dejan replied. "He says you're a better flute player than I ever was, and I'd take offense at that except it's true. Anyway, we'll get started on our house in earnest once the party's over." With a pointed look at Damyan, he added, "If we ever get started!"

........................................................................................................................................

Danika sat as still as she possibly could, which was no small feat for a little girl who was anticipating such an exciting and desperately longed-for event. Earlier, her mother had sat her down in a galvanized metal tub full of warm water and had scrubbed her within an inch of her life. She then sat wrapped up in a sheet while her hair dried, and then Rada had brushed it until it was as glossy as the wing of a raven. She was finally dressed in her new blue dress and she had been presented with a real treat—a blue satin ribbon that her mother slipped under her hair and tied into a bow on top of her head. She was then parked off to one side of the camp on an upended crate in the shade of one of the meskaa trees and was adjured to not move for fear that she would get her dress dirty before the ceremony began.

It wasn't so hard at first. She certainly wanted to keep her new dress in pristine condition. But as time wore on, she got bored, and she was also getting hungry. The cooking area had been moved to just beyond the tents to make room, and delicious smells were filling the air. The entire camp had been rearranged, tidied, and decorated, and everyone else was rushing about getting everything ready, and she wished she could at least get down and lend a hand. Then she reminded herself of the magnitude of the occasion, and she was able to more easily resign herself to perform her task of simply waiting.

Guests had begun to arrive, which was exciting to watch. She grinned as Zhaarad Havoc came, carrying a large crate that tinkled with the sound of glass bottles. He sent her a friendly wink and she waved back. Then Baata Zulema arrived, supported by Rick, who managed to look only slightly beleaguered by his task. Others filtered in, Ishvalan and Amestrian, and they began to fill up the space surrounding the spot where the ceremony would take place. A simple pedestal made up of stone blocks stood in the middle of the appointed area, and on top of it sat an ancient brass bowl, one of the few items of value that the priests had managed to rescue from the war. Aromatic resins from the Xingese caravan lay in the bowl ready to be lit. Miles had purchased them for the wedding, not knowing at the time that it would be burned for him as well.

General Armstrong strode into the camp, and Danika gave a little frown. She wasn't sure she liked the general. She had given Shua a cut on his ear, and Danika didn't buy that "we're still friends" story for a minute. Well, she would be gone in a couple more days, so it didn't matter. Then Brigadier General Mustang and Lieutenant Hawkeye arrived, and Danika perked up. She liked them rather a lot, especially Zhaarana Riza. She watched them as they paused to talk to Zhaarad Havoc, and then the lieutenant looked around and caught sight of the little girl. She said something to the brigadier and walked over to where Danika sat.

"You look very pretty, Danika," Riza said.

Danika dimpled and gave her feet a little kick. "Thank you!"

Riza was dressed in a somewhat different uniform than the one she had been wearing. Instead of pants tucked into boots, she wore a skirt and low-heeled shoes, and her legs were encased in silky-looking stockings. "You look very nice, too," Danika observed.

"Why, thank you, Miss Danika!" Riza replied with a smile.

Roy had explained Danika's circumstances to her, and Riza marveled at how fate had twisted together the lives of so many people and how some tragedies had been turned into triumphs. She sat down on a stool next to Danika's crate. "You're going to have a very remarkable man as a father," she said.

Danika regarded the lieutenant with curiosity. "Are you and my papa—I mean, Zhaarad Andakar—" she corrected herself. That particular arrangement was still an intimate one, not yet to be shared. "Are you and him friends?"

Riza gave a little shrug. "We didn't exactly start out that way, but then we started working together to fix something that was wrong. I have a lot of respect for him. I've met a lot of courageous men in my life, and he's one of them."

Danika nodded in agreement. "He's really, really brave. And strong, too! And really, really smart!" She giggled. "And he loves me and my mama a whole, whole lot, and we love him back!"

Riza smiled at her. "I'm very happy for you. That's the way things should be." She honestly enjoyed talking to this little girl, and she found herself envying her. Her own father had also been a powerful alchemist with an intimidating personality, but because of his devotion to his studies, he'd had little use or room in his life for affection. Scar had managed to find a better balance.

They both spotted him at the same time. He tended to stand out in a crowd. Danika drew in a soft breath of admiration, and even Riza was impressed. Scar, as well as the other grooms, were dressed in the height of formal male Ishvalan attire. Even with their somewhat straightened circumstances, their womenfolk had managed, under Rada's supervision and with help from the Havoc family inventory, to make them look quite regal. They all had black, loose fitting trousers below linen tunics with elaborate embroidery of geometric designs, as well as their traditional striped sash. The long wool coats, ranging from black to charcoal grey, topped off the ensemble. Miles, of course, looked dashing in his long-coated dress uniform.

The men stood to one side of the camp with their escorts, and the brides were gathering on the other side with theirs. Rada waved to her daughter, and Riza helped her down from the crate to join her mother. From what Riza was able to learn, both the bride and the groom were walked to the altar by their parents, but since everyone in the wedding party was parentless, with the exception of Dejan, substitutes had been arranged. Naisha, Vesya, Damyan, and his bride, Yasna, had plenty of volunteers from the ranks of their musical ensemble who were as good as family. Danika would be leading in her mother. This was a little irregular, but since she was Rada's only surviving relative, it was deemed appropriate.

Scar had found himself in something of a dilemma. All three of his cousins, as well as Dejan and Miles, being in the wedding party, were unavailable. His spiritual father, Saahad Bozidar, was occupied as the celebrant. He had spent several days trying to decide who to ask to walk him to the altar. After much consideration, he finally decided upon a somewhat surprising choice, and Dr. Marcoh stood at his side, wearing a carefully cleaned and pressed suit and looking proud and somewhat emotional. The two men had formed a close, if somewhat unlikely bond, and Marcoh's untiring devotion to the Ishvalan people had not gone unnoticed by Scar.

Finally, the old priest approached the pedestal and lit the incense in the bowl. He intoned an opening invocation, then turned and nodded to the participants. They had only briefly rehearsed the simple choreography, made slightly more complicated by the number of couples involved. Starting with Scar, the oldest of the bridegrooms, they processed in a slow circle around the altar, the men walking around the front and the women heading around behind. They closed the circle and made three rotations, then they formed two lines on either side of the altar with each groom facing his respective bride.

Bozidar nodded to the escorts, and Marcoh and Danika led their charges before the old priest, then stepped aside. Scar and Rada stood next to each other, their hands at their sides, their gaze intent on Bozidar and the aromatic smoke drifting up from the brass bowl. As he did at the betrothal ceremony, Bozidar kept to the ancient ceremonial Ishvalan, but the Amestrians were able to figure out what was going on from the context. Intentions were questioned and proven, counsel was given, and love and honor were enjoined. The bride and groom gave their replies and made their vows before God and before those gathered. Bozidar beckoned for their hands and he laid them, hers over his, within the rising smoke of the incense, that their intention would rise to heaven as a pleasing scent.

Bozidar then bade them welcome each other as husband and wife, and Scar drew Rada into his arms and kissed her. Having maintained a respectful silence until now, those gathered around them roared out a loud cheer.

One of the girls from the musicians' group carried a folded striped sash over to Rada, who handed it to Bozidar. Then she beckoned Danika to come forward, and she stepped back to let her take her place in front of Scar.

Now that the moment of her chuvai had come, Danika stood motionless, gazing up with solemn blue eyes at Bozidar as he lifted the chuva and held it over the rising smoke, intoning a blessing for it. The old priest then handed the chuva to Scar, who held it between his two hands and repeated the blessing. He lowered himself to one knee in front of Danika and slowly unfolded the sash. As he laid it over Danika's shoulder, then wrapped it around her waist and tied it, he spoke another brief prayer. Then he repeated it in Amestrian, so everyone present would know exactly what he was doing.

"I claim this child as mine in the name of the Creator Ishvala."

He met Danika's eyes, which were wide and solemn with the gravity of what had just occurred. Despite how grown up she had wanted to behave throughout the proceedings, her eyes filled up with tears and with a sob she threw her arms tightly around Scar's neck.

Standing next to Roy, Madame Christmas swore under her breath as she desperately rummaged in her handbag. She finally found her handkerchief and yanked it out just as a couple of tears were about to completely ruin her makeup. Since she was already taken care of, Roy offered his handkerchief to Riza, who hadn't expected to get so emotional. Roy just smiled to himself, sniffling females on either side of him.

The wedding ritual was repeated three more times. Miles was led in by Zulema, although it seemed more like the other way around as the old woman leaned on his arm. Olivier watched with detached calm as Miles and his new bride held their hands over the incense. Then, as Miles pulled Vesya into his arms for their first kiss as a married couple, Olivier was surprised and annoyed at finding herself stiffening tensely. She couldn't even recognize the emotion she was feeling, but it was extremely unpleasant. She was further irritated as she recalled what Scar told her the night before. It was still bullshit, she told herself angrily. Complete bullshit.

When it was Dejan and Naisha's turn, Shua gave his daughter-in-law a wink as he presented his son at the altar, and when it came to their kiss, Naisha threw herself at Dejan hard enough to nearly knock him over.

Damyan and Yasna's vows took a little extra time. Saahad Bozidar waited patiently while Yasna had a giggling fit that she passed on to Damyan, and they had to repeat their responses several times before they could get through it. If he hadn't known that they had been sweethearts since they were children, the old priest would have had doubts about their future. He certainly had no doubts once Damyan swept his new bride into his arms and jumped around with her, both of them laughing and crying at the same time.

One final ritual remained to be observed. It had no religious significance, but it was a longstanding tradition. Each of the grooms lowered themselves down and perched their brides on one shoulder. When they successfully rose up without losing their burdens, the women let out a high pitched whoop, and a loud cheer of approval went up from the men as their brothers proved how ably they could support their wives and uphold Ishvalan manhood. The men then began to sing a boisterous song, clapping out the rhythm, as the bridegrooms paraded around the camp with their brides still on their shoulders, finally making their way to their places at the tables.

This was the signal for everyone to sit down, and the tables were quickly covered with platters of food. The main dish was roast lamb, courtesy of Havoc's father, who had begun to make a fairly handsome profit from selling Shua's sholmi and wanted to pass on his good fortune. There was a thick stew made with rabbit and vegetables, paper-thin layers of pastry wrapped around a filling of chicken, eggs, and almonds, cold vegetable salads, fresh fruit, and piles of flatbread and McGinty's biscuits. Added to this was plenty of beer supplied by the Havocs, red and white wine, courtesy of the Knox family, and the last of Shua's precious sholmi.

Soon the musicians began playing, but as Dejan started leading the first tune, he suddenly stopped.

"Aw, hell!" he cried.

Shua scowled back at him. "What's wrong?"

Dejan spread his hands in mock dismay. "I'm playing at my own wedding! You know what that means?"

Shua let out a laugh as he scraped his bow across the strings of his fiddle. "That means you're not getting paid!"

The musicians thought this was uproariously funny, and it took them a few moments to compose themselves enough to start playing again.

Scar and Rada held pride of place at the head of the first table, and Roy and Riza sat a few places down from them. Roy was usually rather garrulous at these kinds of gatherings, but now he sat quietly observing. He noticed that Rada was wearing the wooden bracelet that the carpenter in the temple made for her, and she occasionally glanced down at it, running her fingertip over the intricate carvings with a smile playing on her lips. Then she would turn her attention back to her husband with a look of adoration.

Feeling suddenly melancholy, Roy took a drink of wine from his cup. A nice red from Aerugo. A fairly young vintage, but mellow. He drained the cup and was about to reach for the nearby bottle, when another liquid was poured into his glass. He looked up with a start to find Shua at his right shoulder, holding a bottle of his sholmi.

"If I keep this stuff around too much longer," the Ishvalan fiddler said, "I'll end up drinking it myself, and that wouldn't be pretty. You wouldn't mind helping me finish it off, would you, Brigadier?"

Roy obligingly took a swallow of the liquor, feeling a pleasant bloom of heat spread through his chest after the first few moments. "No, I wouldn't mind at all."

Shua chuckled and topped off his cup again. "I didn't think so. Zhaarad!" he called to Scar, lifting the bottle. "How about you?"

"No, thank you," Scar replied.

"Ah, no, how silly of me to ask," Shua said with an easy grin. "Rada, sweetheart, I suppose you want to keep a clear head as well?"

"I'm sorry, Shua," Rada said, taking a small sip of wine. "I'm just not a drinker."

"Very wise," Shua agreed. "For some, this stuff is a magical elixir. For others, it's just a bottle full of stupid." He moved on with his bottle toward the other end of the table where General Armstrong sat. "How about you, General? Feel like taking a chance?" he asked, moving the mouth of the bottle toward her cup.

Olivier quickly covered the cup with her hand. "No, thanks."

Shua raised an eyebrow. "Are you sure?"

She glared up at him. "Positive," she growled.

"Well," Shua said as he moved away. "That's disappointing."

Roy took another swallow, feeling rather smug about not being a lightweight like some people. He gazed around him again, thinking how this was just the sort of new beginning Ishval needed, with new families starting, Ishvalans and Amestrians sharing a meal and a celebration together, and a man who was once an illusive terror transformed into the patriarch of a loving family. It was a wonderful sight, but it only seemed to deepen his melancholy.

The musicians began playing again, and the four brides got up and sang together. After making another couple of rounds with his bottle, refilling Roy's cup more than once, Shua coaxed Danika to stand up in front of everyone and sing the song he had taught her, accompanying her on his fiddle. She sang it all the way through without forgetting any of the words, and she ended the song with a triumphant little swoop of her voice, raising her hands in the air. She was loudly cheered and she ran giggling to climb back into Scar's lap.

As the musicians paused for a break, Roy stared down at the amber liquid in his cup. He had heard an old saying, in wine there is truth. He supposed it didn't necessarily have to be wine, and as he took one more mouthful of sholmi, a realization finally dawned on him. No, it didn't just dawn on him. It had been there for a long time, but he never had the strength to face it, and if he didn't face it now, he might never feel this brave again. He picked up his cup and stood with a slight unsteadiness.

"Excuse me!" he called out. "Could I have everyone's attention for a moment?"

The conversation lulled as the guests all turned to him, and Riza looked up at him with cautious curiosity.

"Thank you," Roy continued. "I wanted to take this moment to say a few words in honor of the brides and their very lucky husbands. I have been in the company of lovely ladies before, but the present company is truly exceptional. That includes you, General Armstrong!" he added, lifting his cup in Olivier's direction.

She just rolled her eyes, and Shua called out, "I saw her first, Mustang!"

"No, you—forget it!" Roy shook his head and waved off Shua's comment. "Anyway, I feel very privileged to have been part of this. It may be the conviviality of all of you gathered here, or it may be because of the interesting vintages I keep finding in my cup, but I'm feeling…"

"Stupid drunk?" Olivier suggested as he paused.

"Inspired!" Roy concluded, ignoring her. "I've seen the impossible become possible, and I see a bright future. But there's one thing that could make it just a little brighter.

"I've learned a lot since I came here, for which I'm grateful, and the one thing that really stands out at this moment is something you said to me, Andakar Ruhad of Ishval," Roy said, pointing to Scar. "Just the other day, you told me a really universal truth, that a man who can't recognize the worth of a good woman is a fool."

Riza suddenly stiffened as Roy spread his hands in a self-deprecating gesture. "I'm the first one to admit that I've done a lot of foolish things in my life, but I'm not such a fool as to underestimate the worth of the woman sitting beside me here, who has been beside me all these years and who has had my total trust all that time. I'd be a complete fool if I thought I was even remotely worthy of her, but I'm sure as hell going to give it a try!"

He turned to Riza, who sat rigid, her head down and her face burning, refusing to look at him. "Lieu—" he began, then shook his head. "Riza Hawkeye, will you marry me?"

There were a few quiet gasps from the others seated at the tables, and Roy heard General Armstrong mutter something that was probably not complimentary, but he kept his attention on Riza.

Without looking up, Riza whispered urgently, "Please, Brigadier, stop it!"

"No, I won't!" Roy sat back down and lifted her chin to make her look at him. "I love you, Riza. I've loved you for years, and if you didn't love me back, you never would have put up with me for this long!"

"Sir!" Riza hissed in a plea and a warning. "I think you've had too much to drink!"

"No, I think I've had just the right amount," Roy replied. "Just enough to have a moment of clarity! We've both been trying to shoulder the same burden by ourselves and letting it keep us apart when we should have been carrying it together. It's not like we don't already know the worst about each other. We already know what we did here. You already know that I'm a complete idiot and that I'm useless when I'm wet." He slid off his chair onto his knees, eliciting a little squeal of protest from her. "But what you don't know is how desperately I love you and how I would gladly embarrass myself in front of all these people and how I—"

Riza quickly put her fingers over his lips with a stern look in her brown eyes. She hadn't realized how quiet it had become until she had gotten him to shut up. She was almost afraid to look around, knowing that everyone was staring at them. She just focused on Roy's face as he gazed back at her with earnest, pleading eyes. She tried with all her will not to, but she finally broke into a smile.

"You really are an idiot, you know that?" she scolded him gently.

Roy took her fingers away from his mouth, holding her hand tightly in his. "Of course I know. And now, so does everyone else."

"I'll still shoot you if you ever step out of line," Riza warned him.

Roy kissed her fingers and grinned. "And I'll die the happiest man on earth."

"Well, as long as that's understood," Riza said. She drew in a deep breath, let it out slowly, and smiled at him. "Then I'll marry you, Roy Mustang."

Both tables exploded in cheers, whistles, and high, ululating jackal howls as Roy stood up, pulling Riza up with him and kissing her.

Madame Christmas fanned herself with her handkerchief. "Oh, dear God, I was ready to get down on my knees! I never would have gotten up again!"

Shua laughed to himself and kissed the nearly empty bottle in his hand. A magic elixir. A bottle full of stupid. Sometimes it was both.

......................................................................................

Instead of the raucous call of a cactus wren, Scar was awoken by the quieter trilling of a desert quail. He couldn't recall ever having had a sounder sleep. It might have been because of the new mattress he had slept on, another shameful indulgence, but then he remembered the other reason.

He turned his head to see Rada lying beside him, her breath soft and even as she slept. He watched her in silent wonder, not daring to spoil the moment by waking her. He had been more nervous than he cared to admit. He dreaded disappointing her or, God forbid, hurting her. But the moment his hands were pressed to her skin, he could read every current, every rhythm, every sensation. Her body sang to him, and he was never so eager to answer to his name than when she breathed it.

"Ma—ma!" a little voice outside their tent sang softly. "Pa—pa!"

Rada's eyes opened suddenly and stared into his. The next few moments were filled with a scramble to find clothing that had been cast aside the night before with little regard to where it landed.

"Here! This is—no, this is mine!"

"No, give me that, silly! This is yours!"

In another moment, Rada called out, "Come in, sweetie!"

Danika came barreling into their tent and flung herself onto the bed. She kissed them both, then snuggled down between them, letting out a sigh of utter contentment. Scar propped his head on his hand and watched his small family. It almost seemed strange that this should feel so natural, so right, when he could barely imagine how all of this could have come out of so much misery. He quickly ran the back of his knuckles over the corner of his eye to catch the tear that had escaped. Neither Rada nor Danika had noticed, being too preoccupied with tickling each other. He sent them into squeals of laughter by suddenly scooping them together into his arms and holding them tightly. He was acutely aware of how fragile happiness was and how quickly something precious could be lost and how helpless he would be to stop it. But as he drew strength from them, he felt invincible.

Chapter Text

Vesya stood in the middle of the tent, dressed for snow. She wore a long coat of cream-colored suede trimmed with fur. Her gloves were the same cream color, and her fur-lined boots were dark grey.

Havoc nodded. "Looks like a good fit," he pronounced.

Naisha watched with an anxious frown on her face and made no comment, for once.

"Put up the hood, honey," Miles said.

Vesya pulled the coat's hood up over her head, the fur trim framing her face. "There!" she said. "How do I look?"

Miles smiled. "Adorable."

Naisha, however, stared at her sister for a moment, then let out a sob. She clapped her hands over her mouth and ran out of the tent.

Vesya's shoulders drooped. "Oh, dear," she sighed.

Miles let out his own sigh. He appreciated how close the Kafik siblings were, but he couldn't help getting a little tired of Naisha's emotional displays. Damyan seemed to be taking it a lot better, but he was the more even-tempered then his sister. Well, it was a done deal, and he, for one, was looking forward to reuniting with his Briggs comrades.

"So, how did everything else work out?" Havoc asked. "Is there anything else you think you might need? We guarantee one-hundred-percent satisfaction or your money back."

"Everything was fine," Vesya replied. She looked up at Miles. "Am I forgetting anything?"

"I think you're pretty well prepared," Miles replied. "Besides, if you need anything else, we can always get it in North City."

"Yes, but you won't get the same service with a smile," Havoc remarked.

"I'll take my chances," Miles said with a smirk. "Thanks. I'll wire the payment as soon as I can."

Havoc waved his hand as he left the tent. "That's fine. I know where you live."

Vesya pushed her hood back and took off her gloves. "This is hot!" she breathed. She started unbuttoning her coat. "It's hard to imagine being so cold that I'd need something like this."

"Trust me, you'll need it," Miles told her. He helped her take her coat off. "Winter has already set in up north."

Vesya sat down on a stool and struggled to pull off one of her boots. Miles knelt in front of her and grasped her left boot at the back of its heel and slipped it off her foot. She lifted her right foot to let him slide that one off, then she looked down at her feet, clad in thick wool socks, and wiggled her toes thoughtfully. She glanced over at the new suitcase with its new leather smell. Inside it were a number of new things that Miles had added to the order from Havoc's family store. Aside from the thermal underwear, there were some soft wool sweaters and skirts, a silver brush, comb, and mirror set, and some silky lingerie that Vesya hadn't known even existed.

She wasn't used to having this sort of attention lavished on her, and her cheeks still grew warm at the thought of such extravagance. It put her in mind of stories that her mother used to tell them when they were little, stories from the old days about virtuous but poor young maidens who caught the eyes and captured the hearts of brave, dashing princes and the obstacles they had to overcome to live happily ever after. Even when she was little, she knew that princes were long gone and existed only in stories. She had since come to learn that they didn't necessarily have to wear crowns.

"Thank you for all these things, Miles," she said, probably for the fifth time. "I hope it didn't cost too much."

"Don't worry about how much it cost," Miles replied, peeling off one of her socks. "It was entirely my pleasure to get them for you."

She smiled and tapped him on top of his head as he was occupied in pulling off her other sock. He looked up and she bent down to kiss him.

"You are my prince," she said softly.

Miles gave a quiet laugh. "I wouldn't go quite that far, but I'd be happy to slay a couple of dragons for you."

...................................................................................................................................

The northwest-bound train came through Ishval twice a week and didn't often drop off or take on passengers. This morning, a group of travelers was gathered by the station house, awaiting its arrival. Vesya stood a little way apart from the others, gazing down the track to where it curved into the distance and disappeared. Behind her were those who, besides herself, were leaving Ishval: Miles, Brigadier General Mustang, Lieutenant Hawkeye, Madame Christmas, Mr. Karley, and Major General Armstrong. They had been joined on the trip to the station by Mr. Havoc and Andakar. Vesya was glad that no one else had come along. She had already said her good-byes, and Shua had been specifically prohibited from seeing General Armstrong off any further than the mess tent. He refused to believe her when she told him that she would most definitely not miss him.

Vesya was relieved that the hardest part was over, but a lump still rose in her throat when she thought of all the tearful faces that she had just left. Naisha had managed to contain herself as long as she could before breaking down and having to be consoled by Dejan. Damyan, her level-headed big brother who had always looked out for her and who carried her home when she fell and scraped her knees, had given her a tight hug and surprised her by blinking back his own tears.

She felt an arm tighten around her shoulders.

"Are you all right?" Miles asked.

Vesya put her hand over his and leaned closer to him. "I'm fine."

"We're not leaving forever," Miles went on. "We'll come back to visit."

"I know."

"Even if Ishval becomes independent, we'll probably be able to apply for dual citizenship. That'll make travel a lot easier."

"That would be nice," Vesya replied distractedly. The sound of a distant train whistle made her jump. "Oh God!" she whispered.

"Better go say good-bye," Miles said quietly.

Vesya turned to face the station house to see her cousin walking toward her, and she ran into his open arms.

"We only just found you!" Her small, tearful voice was muffled in his shirt.

"You'll see me again," Scar assured her.

Vesya clung to him for a moment, then looked up into his face. "We're going to vote for Ishval to stay and for you to be khorovar!" she blurted out. "We already decided!"

Scar laughed quietly. "I thank you for your confidence, although it may be misplaced." He held her tightly, pressing his cheek against the top of her head. "Ishvala bless and protect you, little Vesya!"

The whistle sounded again, closer this time. Vesya reached up to kiss Scar on both cheeks. "Take care of everyone!" she told him. "And yourself!"

Miles joined them and Vesya moved aside as the two men embraced. "Hold down the fort, red-eyed brother," Miles said.

"Hold down your own fort," Scar replied. "And keep my cousin safe."

"I already pledged that to her before God and everyone else," Miles said with a wry smile. "You're just going to have to trust me that I'll keep my word."

Roy approached and held out his hand. "Keep in touch," he said to Scar. "One way or the other, let me know what happens as soon as it happens."

Scar took his hand firmly. "I will. And congratulations, both of you," he added, including Riza with a nod. "There's an old Ishvalan saying that a man without a wife is like a man with only one hand."

"Seems to me the lieutenant's going to have to make up for a few more deficiencies than that," General Armstrong remarked drily as she approached.

Roy smirked. "I'm the first one to admit that she completes me," he replied smoothly. The train came into view, slowing down, and Roy had to raise his voice as he turned to his former second lieutenant. "Havoc! Stay out of trouble!"

Havoc shook his hand and shrugged. "Aw, you know me!"

"Yeah, that's why I said it."

Madame Christmas gave a tired wave. Sleeping on an inflatable mattress was not conducive to a good night's rest for a woman of her age, and she was desperately looking forward to her own bed. "So long, boys!" she called. "If you can't be good, be careful!"

The train pulled up to the station, still the somewhat worse-for-wear passenger car in front of a line of freight cars. There were no porters, so the travelers loaded their luggage on themselves, with the exception of Madame Christmas, who enlisted Roy and Havoc's help to load on all her cases.

The train gave a long warning whistle, and after one last tight hug from her cousin, Vesya joined her husband and boarded the train. She took a seat by the window on the side facing the station and took her last look at Ishval, unsure of when she would see it again.

Steam billowed out from the engine, and with a spin of the wheels, the train pulled slowly out of the station, gradually gaining speed before it disappeared into the distance. Havoc turned away to head back for the transport truck that they had arrived in. He paused by Scar as the big Ishvalan stood still gazing into the distance with a thoughtful expression.

"Ready?" Havoc asked.

Scar nodded but made no move toward the truck.

Havoc glanced back over his shoulder, then nodded toward the distant tracks. "You kind of look like you wish you were on it."

Scar shook his head. "I've had my fill of trains," he said. "And I have no desire to leave Ishval." He frowned. "I just didn't expect my family to be fragmented so soon after having gathered it back together." He gave a slight shrug and turned away from the side of the tracks. "Well, she's with her husband, which is as it should be."

Havoc nodded and smiled a little to himself. Although he could still be a scary bastard if he wanted to, something Havoc had come to notice about Scar that Scar might not admit to was that the big guy was awfully sentimental. Not in a gooey, fluffy way, not in a Major-Armstrong-bursting-into-tears-and-ripping-his-shirt-off sort of way, but more than just a this is my land or these are my people or, most importantly, this is my family sort of way. Havoc was beginning to realize what it was that drove the man to go on his murderous rampage. If he thought about it that way, he wondered if he might not have done the same thing.

The trip was a long and tedious one. Even the novelty of being on a train for the first time in her life wore off very quickly. It also didn't help much that she felt out of place among the people she was sitting with. Miles was trying his best to keep her involved in the conversation, which was almost entirely centered around Briggs and what had been happening there and what was going to happen in the future. As cheerful as Miles tried to be, Briggs only sounded like a grim, cold, cheerless place.

Mr. Karley, who sat on the seat across from her reminisced briefly with her about events back in Ishval and of working the printing press together, but he soon became more involved with anticipating his return home.

General Armstrong she could not quite understand. Apart from having a somewhat common tie to Miles, they seemed to have absolutely nothing in common, and the general made no particular effort to engage with her. Vesya didn't really expect her to. They barely knew each other, after all. But she was beginning to think that the other woman was uncomfortable around her, something that Vesya couldn't help but feel was mutual. She didn't want to feel that way. They were going to be living in the same place for the foreseeable future, and she wanted to be able to find some sort of connection.

The general seemed much more at ease in discussing her northern fortress, so at one point, Vesya ventured to ask, "How cold does it actually get up in the north?"

Olivier turned to her with a faint glimmer of approval at her interest. "We set a record a couple of years ago when we hit minus fifty-eight degrees," she said proudly.

Karley grinned. "That was quite a day," he agreed. "Sergeant Bailey lost his nose to frostbite."

Vesya's eyes widened. "How awful!" she gasped. "How does he smell?"

"Terrible!" Olivier, Karley, and Miles answered in chorus. They all laughed, but Vesya felt foolish and a little resentful.

Miles hugged her around her shoulders and kissed the top of her head, still chuckling. "Sorry, sweetheart. Bailey really only lost the tip of his nose, but it became Briggs' longest running joke."

"It's not an easy life up in the north," Olivier told Vesya. "But those are the toughest men and women in Amestris. That's why we always beat the crap out of Mustang's Eastern forces at the training exercises," she added with grim pleasure.

Vesya almost retorted that she thought General Mustang was nice, but she was already well aware that General Armstrong didn't care much for Mustang, nor did she seem particularly concerned with "nice" as a concept. So Vesya kept quiet. Miles thought the world of this woman. So did Mr. Karley and all the men at Briggs. Vesya hadn't had the chance yet to see exactly why that was, but Miles wouldn't admire someone so much if they didn't deserve it. The last thing she wanted to do was be a disappointment to her husband. She would become a Briggs bear, no matter how impossible it seemed now.

It was the biggest thing Vesya had ever seen. By the time they got to the base of the massive fort, it seemed to fill her entire field of vision. Everywhere she looked, there it was. Vesya dreaded having to step out once again into the unbelievably bitter cold. When they first got off the train, she almost let out a cry of pain, it was so cold. But she kept her lips sealed tightly shut.

Karley, however, let out a whoop, but it was almost one of enjoyment. "Damn!" he cried. "I almost forgot what it was like!"

Vesya clung tightly to Miles' arm as they trudged through the snow. It was only a few yards from the car to the fort, but it seemed like it took forever. The heavy steel doors opened and they stepped inside, and Vesya was dismayed by the fact that it wasn't all that much warmer. A small group of soldiers dressed in long, fur-trimmed coats, snapped to attention.

"Welcome back, General Armstrong!" one of them declared with a broad smile. He turned to Miles. "It's good to see you again, Major!" he said, relief evident in his voice.

"Thanks, Henschel," Miles replied. "It's good to be back."

Henschel's eyes fell on Vesya, and he stepped up to her with a smile and held out his hand. "Welcome to Briggs, Mrs. Miles!"

Vesya smiled back at him and shook his hand. His greeting was the warmest thing she had encountered here so far. She looked beyond him to the other three soldiers. After greeting their commander with broad grins, they turned to her with their grins going silly.

"Get our gear stowed, Henschel," General Armstrong ordered briskly as she strode on.

Miles followed her a couple of paces behind, and Vesya found it almost difficult to keep up with them. They continued on through a series of corridors that Vesya was sure she would have gotten hopelessly lost in on her own. Then they passed through a set of steel double doors into a massive chamber lined with pipes, cables, and conduits and filled with the low thrumming of unseen machinery. The chamber was crowded with men, some women, some in uniform, some in work overalls, some wearing heavy leather gauntlets and welding masks pushed up from their faces. As soon as they saw Miles, they sent up a roaring cheer, which was followed by a rumble of approving murmurs as they caught sight of Vesya at Miles' side.

Walking through the crowd, Vesya was met with either slightly awkward bows or openly appreciative grins from the men as they made their way through the chamber.

"As you were!" General Armstrong called out with gruff good-humor. "You'd think none of you had ever seen a girl before!"

The men chuckled and resumed their work, some of them still calling out, "Welcome back, sir!"

One thing was for certain, Vesya realized with a swell of pride. If General Armstrong was beloved by all these men, so was her second-in-command.

......................................................................................................................................

The girl reminded her of Catherine. She had the same sort of big eyes, the same, shy, pretty little sweetheart look. Catherine could hold her own in a scrap, though. This little desert flower would probably run screaming if you said "boo" to her. That seemed to be the sort of woman most men made idiots of themselves over. But Miles wasn't like most men. It was kind of disappointing. He never seemed the type to lose his head like that. Granted, he was the sort of man a lot of women would make idiots of themselves over. He was certainly the best looking man to grace the halls of Briggs, Ishvalan or Amestrian.

At least she was quiet. At a small "welcome back" supper in the officers' mess that evening, she was seated across from Miles and didn't say much. They all talked shop, naturally, and it went straight over her head. Occasionally, one of the men took pity on her and asked her something about herself. She was an artist, which Olivier already knew. The tea set Miles had sent her from Ishval was well-crafted, but a talent like that was better suited to her homeland. It would be useless here, unless she could do technical drawings, which Olivier doubted. She was a singer and a dancer, as well, something that also would be of no use in the fort. They didn't have time for amateur theatrics here.

But those subjects got exhausted pretty quickly, and as soon at the talk got back to the business at hand, she clammed up. She would sometimes glance across the table at Miles with a wistful, longing look that Olivier began to lose patience with. This poor girl would soon be in for a rude awakening. She didn't marry some greenhorn soldier boy. This was Briggs' second-in-command. He was ruthless in battle, cold and merciless in interrogations, fearless, brilliant, dependable, one of the best! He was a Briggs man, body and soul, and the sooner this little slip of a girl got used to the fact that she would come second, the better off she'd be.

.....................................................................................................................................

It was dark. It was dark when he left, and it was dark when he came back.

"I have to go," he whispered to her, brushing the hair from her face and finding her lips for a good-bye kiss.

She tilted her chin up sleepily and reached her arms out to twine around his neck, hoping that he might stay a few minutes longer. But his routine didn't change. They had only been here a week, but she had already come to realize this. At five o'clock every morning, his alarm would go off, he would shower, shave, dress, and tie his hair back in the space of half an hour. He would say good-bye and leave, and she would curl up on his side of the bed to capture the last bit of warmth that was still there and bury her face in his pillow to breathe in the scent that he left.

On the morning after their arrival, Miles had taken her on a tour of parts of the fort. The entire fort was simply too big to take in in one day, and a lot of it simply looked alike. She would have been happy to explore on her own, but Miles stressed more than once that Briggs was not a place to simply wander around in. So she spent most of her day in their room.

It was Miles' room. Being a higher ranking officer, his quarters were fairly spacious compared to the enlisted men, but it still wasn't very big. Vesya didn't have very many possessions, so it didn't really matter. This was their own little world, where she could actually feel like he was hers.

One of the places he made sure she could get to easily was the officers' mess, where she could take her meals. He was seldom available for either breakfast or lunch, but they all generally dined together. After a week, Vesya was beginning to dread this ritual. She felt painfully superfluous, as though she had not actually been invited but was being tolerated. This was Miles' work, so it was important to him to discuss the day's events, and she didn't interrupt or change the subject or, worst of all, complain. She never complained, and she swore she never would.

But perhaps it was beginning to show on her face. At one point during dinner, General Armstrong actually addressed her directly.

"We need to find something for you to do," she announced.

Vesya looked at her, a little surprised, but pleased. "Oh! I'd like that very much!" she replied, grateful for any kindness from the general.

"Everyone has to pull their weight around here," the general continued, which didn't sound quite so kind. "The question is, what can you do?" She turned to Miles with a smirk. "I don't think she'd be much good at scraping icicles."

Vesya was fairly sure she could if given the chance, but she didn't say so. Miles just looked non-committal for a moment, then said, "What about the library?"

General Armstrong looked blankly at him for a moment, then let out a quiet snort. "Oh, that thing?"

"A lot of the men use it," Miles went on, "but nobody really attends to it. I'm not even sure everything has been cataloged."

The idea appealed to Vesya. "I could do that easily!" she said, eager for the opportunity.

General Armstrong looked doubtful for a moment, then shrugged. "Well, I suppose it's a start. Have someone show it to her tomorrow, Miles."

"Yes, ma'am!"

When Miles came back later that night after finishing up his work, Vesya sat up in bed. She always tried to make a point of staying awake until he returned, or she would at least leave the light on for him.

"I really do want to work in the library!" she said. "Wouldn't you be able to take me there yourself, Miles?"

He shook his head. "No, honey, I can't." He sat down on the bed next to her. "I have a lot to catch up on since I left, and I'm just going to be too busy. You know about the news from Drachma."

Vesya nodded. That's all anyone talked about lately. The country just on the other side of the border was engaged in rebuilding their forces after being decimated by Briggs. Everyone in the fort had a let 'em come, we'll be ready for 'em attitude, which was fine for them, but it filled Vesya with dread.

"The R and D guys have been working on a larger caliber gun, and I'm supervising the testing tomorrow. If you hear a lot of noise coming from up top, it's just us." He covered his mouth with the back of his hand while he yawned. "Anyway, I'm beat." He stood up and started taking off his uniform. "I'll be in bed in a couple of minutes."

Vesya nodded and settled back down. More than likely, he would be asleep as soon as his head hit the pillow, but at least they'd be alone together.

..................................................................................................................................

The young soldier who had been ordered to escort Vesya to the library wasn't even entirely sure where it was. He had some directions that he had quickly written down that didn't seem to be doing him much good. After a couple of wrong turns, they finally came across a door with a handwritten sign that said "Library".

"Oh," the soldier remarked. "That probably should have been easier." He opened the door and flipped on the light.

It was not a large room, but it was full of books, a lot of them piled haphazardly on tables rather than on the shelves. Vesya was pleased with the prospect of having some actual work to do. She was well aware that the general merely wanted to keep her busy and out of the way. Well, that was all right, too.

"Is there anything else I can do for you, Mrs. Miles?" the soldier asked.

Vesya smiled a little. She would always like the sound of that. "Yes, I'll need a broom and some dust rags."

"Will do."

Figuring the she may as well make a thorough job of it, she also asked for a ladder, and she spent the next several days taking all the books off the shelves and dusting the shelves from the top down. Then she dusted all the books one by one. Then she swept the floor, the tables, and any other surface that had collected dust.

When this had been completed to her satisfaction, she used the tables to sort the books by category. As far as she could figure out, there were three basic categories. A large number of the books were technical manuals. The next largest group was non-fiction, mainly history and science and even some works on alchemy.

Then there was fiction. Vesya frowned at the stacks of these works that she had arranged on the table. There were a few hardbound books of literature, basic classics that she had heard of before and even read when she was in school. The majority, however, were somewhat battered paperbacks with lurid cover art. Out of curiosity, she started flipping through a few of them, but they quickly made her blush.

When she mentioned them to Miles one night after they had gone to bed (she didn't bother bringing it up during dinner—the general wasn't particularly interested), Miles burst out laughing.

"Oh! Those!"

Vesya smirked at him. "Don't tell me you read dirty books, Miles!"

"Uh…" Miles still chuckled. "Not for a while. For one thing, I'm too busy. For another," he said, pulling her into his arms, "I have much better things to do with my spare time."

............................................................................................................................

The first month went by, if not idyllically, then better than Vesya had expected it to. She had accepted the necessity of Miles' schedule. He was, after all, working diligently to safeguard the country from the menace to the north. He told her stories of what life was like in Drachma, and the idea of being conquered and subjugated by such a cruel and despotic power was not worth considering.

She tolerated the daily ritual of dinner in the officers' mess, listening quietly to the conversation that invariably centered on the fort and the events that occurred within its walls. There was seldom any discussion of what was going on in the rest of Amestris, unless the general made some sort of scathing comment regarding either Fuhrer Grumman or Brigadier General Mustang.

She wrote home each week, even though she didn't have that much to say after the first couple of weeks. She kept it to one letter for everyone to read, addressing them to Damyan, but she received several letters in reply, something she dearly looked forward to. As would be expected, Damyan's letters were straightforward and sensible, but laced with humor. Naisha supplied her with local gossip. Dejan's letters were like stories, filled with colorful characters and details.

Andakar's letters were not very long, but she still loved reading them. He wasn't interested in gossip, simply giving a brief description of what he was occupied with. He seemed to think it wasn't very interesting, but Vesya had specifically asked everyone to let her know what they were doing. Andakar was more concerned with how she was doing. He wanted to be sure that she was happy, or at least content. He told her how he prayed for her and Miles every morning and evening. She kept all her letters in a cardboard box at the bottom of the wardrobe in their room, often re-reading them while waiting for Miles to come home.

She didn't discuss her letters at the dinner table. They were too personal to her. In her mind, Ishval had become a faraway paradise, untouched by the bitter cold and the rampant militarism of the north, and she wanted to keep it that way.

The monotony of daily life did have the occasional variation. Miles had one day off a week, which he kept faithfully, not letting work interfere. They would spend it entirely together. A couple of times they drove down into North City, which was just as cold as Briggs but was a rustic, friendlier, more colorful place. There were shops and restaurants and even two movie houses, something Vesya had never experienced before. It was thrilling to sit in the darkened theater and watch the shorts, newsreels, and feature films. On days like these, she actually felt like a normal married woman.

One day when the sun was out and there was no threat of a sudden snowstorm, he took her up onto the roof. It was a glorious sight with the snow-laden landscape stretching out for miles on either side of the citadel. She stood nearly at the same level of the white capped mountain range into which the fort was built. Above them, an eagle soared against the brilliant blue sky. She could easily see how Miles had come to love this place.

But the rest of the time, Miles belonged to his commanding officer, and Vesya felt that she couldn't really begrudge the general for it. He was her loyal shadow, the one man she trusted above all others to help her defend the border and keep the people of Amestris safe. Vesya was deeply proud of her husband for his dedication not just to his general and to his uniform, but to the Ishvalan heritage that he strove to uphold and elevate in the eyes of others by his honor and courage.

As her second month at Briggs began, she had learned to find contentment when and where she could. Somewhere in the back of her mind, she envisioned that at some point, things would get better. The frantic level of activity, the arms race that Briggs was running, would someday come to an end.

One day there seemed to be a stirring within the fort. Something had happened, and even in the quiet of the library, Vesya could sense it. There were low, urgent voices passing by the door, and when she went down to lunch, which she took by herself, there was definitely a heightened tension inside Briggs. It didn't appear to be a threat, rather a threat that had been resolved. After listening to the conversations around her, she gathered that some Drachman spies had been captured. They were described in various scathing terms, as though they weren't even human.

At dinner that evening, the conversation inevitably turned to the subject of the spies, but not for very long. Judgment was being reserved, it appeared. At any rate, Vesya was more concerned about what they would be doing the next day, which was Miles' day off. Or so she thought. Near the end of dinner, Miles looked across the table at her.

"Vesya, I'm sorry, we're going to have to postpone our trip into town."

Vesya looked up from her plate, startled. They didn't discuss their personal time with others, for one thing. But she had understood that Miles' limited free time was sacrosanct. For it to be cancelled was a strange turn of events.

"I'm going to be busy tomorrow," Miles went on. "It's not something that can wait."

"Oh." Vesya looked from him to General Armstrong and back. "Is it about the spies that were caught?"

Miles nodded. "We're starting interrogations in the morning,"he said. "It's going to take several days."

Lieutenant Henschel nodded in agreement. "They're gonna be tough."

Until this point, Vesya hadn't been too concerned, but now she turned to Miles with growing alarm. "Is it going to be dangerous?"

Miles gave her a slight smile. "Only for them, sweetheart."

The next evening, Vesya expected the table to be full of talk about the spies, but the others seemed slightly subdued. She didn't usually press Miles for details about his work, but she was a little more curious this time.

"How did it go today?" she asked. Everyone looked at her, a little surprised. "I mean…with the spies."

"They're highly disciplined," Miles replied after a moment's hesitation. "They'll be tough to crack."

General Armstrong gave a dismissive snort. "If they were that disciplined, they wouldn't have gotten caught."

The others chuckled quietly, and it was then that Vesya noticed Miles rubbing the knuckles of his right hand, clenching it into a fist and flexing his fingers, grimacing slightly.

"Miles, did you hurt your hand?" she asked.

He shook his head. "Just a little," he replied. "It'll be fine."

"Are you sure you don't want the doctor to take a look at that?" General Armstrong asked. "You might need to use that again."

"It's fine," Miles said easily. "I'm just a little out of practice, I suppose."

Henschel grinned. "Probably not much call for knuckle dusters in Ishval."

Vesya looked around at them, somewhat at a loss. "Knuckle dusters?"

"Brass knuckles," Lieutenant Hobson replied eagerly. He was a weapons technician and something of a walking encyclopedia on the subject. "Also called knuckle dusters or just knucks, and they're actually made out of steel. They're designed to concentrate a punch's force by directing it toward a harder and smaller contact area which results in increased tissue disruption, including an increased likelihood of fracturing the victim's bones on impact."

"Hobson!" Miles said warningly, but the lieutenant had built up too much momentum.

"The extended and rounded palm grip also spreads the counter-force across the attacker's palm that would otherwise be absorbed primarily by the attacker's fingers, reducing the likelihood of damage to the attacker's hand, although the Major may have lost his grip a little. He was putting a lot of power behind those-Ouch!" Hobson jumped in his chair and glared across at Henschel, reaching down to rub his shin. "What was that for?"

"I don't think Mrs. Miles is really all that interested," Henschel said with a hard, deliberate look.

Vesya was staring at Hobson through his rant, then she turned to Miles. "Were you using those on the Drachmans?" she asked. There was a tone of accusation in her question.

Miles frowned as he concentrated on his wine glass for a moment, twirling the stem in his fingers before raising it to his lips. "Don't worry too much about them, sweetheart. They expect it."

Vesya continued to stare at him. "But…"

"It's their job to keep their secrets to themselves," Miles continued. "It's my job to get them to change their minds. Just saying 'please' has proven ineffective."

"It's no different on their side of the border," General Armstrong added. She let out a short, grim snicker. "I liked the look on the first one's face when you slipped into Ishvalan in the middle of speaking Drachman."

The others at the table laughed, but Vesya didn't find it amusing. Until now she hadn't given much thought to what interrogating spies might actually entail. Despite the way the soldiers talked about them, they were still human. They might even have families. She found this situation and the fact that Miles seemed so indifferent about it very disturbing. "Did you hurt them very badly?" she asked.

A look of annoyance briefly crossed her husband's face. "These men have important information that we need," he told her in a stern tone tempered by patience. "They've trained for years to withstand whatever I throw at them, but every man has a breaking point. I just have to find it, and it may take me a while. This is my work, Vesya. I'm not sentimental about it, and you shouldn't be either. You just need to let me get on with it."

The room had become deathly silent. The others had left Miles to scold his wife without any interference. He had spoken as gently as he could, but Vesya could feel her cheeks burning. "I'm sorry," she said, her voice barely above a whisper.

The door to the room swung open and one of the other officers strode in. "Sorry I'm late!" he announced cheerfully. "I had to make sure the men left a few bloodstains on the floor for tomorrow. Here ya go, Major!" He stepped up next to Miles' chair and placed two human teeth on the table next to his plate. "For your collection."

Vesya clapped her hand over her mouth. "Oh, God!" she gasped. She shoved her chair back and rushed out of the room.

The young officer stood somewhat dumbfounded. "Uh…what just happened?" he asked.

Miles sat back in his chair with a deep sigh and said nothing.

"Seems our desert flower wasn't entirely sure what she was signing up for," General Armstrong said quietly. She looked over at Miles with a somber frown. "You might want to deal with that, Major."

Miles dropped his napkin onto the table and got up from his chair. "Yes, ma'am," he muttered.

.......................................................................................................................................

She had already reached their room by the time he caught up with her, which was what he wanted. He wasn't about to have a domestic dispute out in the hallway. He felt wretched enough about it without having a possible audience. She was sitting on the bed with her knees drawn up and her arms wrapped around them. She looked up with a bleak expression as he approached. Half of him felt miserable for making her feel that way. The other half was angry. That half had to stay put for the time being.

She looked away from him quickly, shame and embarrassment in her features, and it hurt like hell to see her like that. He sat down next to her, and it gave him tremendous relief when she leaned against him, seeking comfort. He held her close.

"Vesya, honey, I'm sorry I had to talk to you like that," he said quietly, kissing her hair. "But you have to understand. I'm a soldier. This is what I do. But no matter what I do when I'm on duty, I will not bring it home."

He felt her nod under his chin. "I know, Miles. I understand. I'm sorry."

The angry half of him dissipated. He tiled her chin up to make her look at him. "Honey, you don't have to apologize. I know we rushed into this. I asked you to come with me and you took me up on it, no questions asked. I should have prepared you a little better."

"I said I'd go wherever you go," Vesya said, looking into his eyes. "I said I didn't care where. I wanted you so badly. I still do."

Miles traced the line of her jaw with his finger. He smiled sadly. "You kind of sound like you're trying to convince yourself as much as me."

He expected her to protest, which he was hoping she would do, but she didn't. "I love you so much, Miles! I'm just scared! I don't want anything to come between us!"

He held her tightly. It was hard not to notice how reticent she had become since she came to Briggs, how brave she was trying to be. She was doing it for his sake, but he had to wonder if she would ever reach a breaking point. He hoped it wouldn't come to that. He rocked her gently back and forth.

"It's going to be okay, sweetheart. I'm going to make it okay. I promise."

But she felt stiff in his arms.

Chapter Text

She didn't get it. She just didn't get it. For someone who had grown up during the Ishvalan war, the girl should have been a little more hardened. As the baby of the family, perhaps she had been over-protected, sheltered from the worst of it. It was an awful thing to do to a girl, raise her to be a weak, sentimental, useless woman!

Maybe Miles had been made to feel obligated (by Scar, for instance) to marry an Ishvalan girl and start pumping out babies. Olivier found herself hoping to hear of the blessed event quite soon because if that started happening, that girl was getting shipped straight back to Ishval, and no amount of tears or pleading (from her or Miles) would make Olivier change her mind. Briggs was no place for children, no matter whose they were. They'd be safer back in Ishval where they belonged and where they would have their sprawling, disorderly family to take care of them. That way, Miles wouldn't have to worry about his brood and would be able to keep his head in the game.

The girl was simply more trouble than she was worth. What did Miles see in her? Fine, she was pretty. She had a nice figure. From what little Olivier had noticed, she certainly turned heads. Is that all he wanted? Something soft and pretty and willing to take to bed every night?

Did he think about her when he was on duty?

The thought was an unbidden one, and she thrust is angrily from her mind, snapping an order at a slightly bewildered young private who had the misfortune to loom into her peripheral vision.

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Vesya could tell what was going on. It reminded her of the time when they were traveling around Amestris with Dejan. She and Naisha had gone into a little shop in a town in the south. On a shelf behind the front counter was a row of beautiful porcelain dolls, each one unique with hand-painted faces and fancy hand-stitched dresses. They were nestled inside boxes, cushioned wi