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All Quiet on the Eastern Front

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There is ash in his eyes, ash and sand, somebody's life, it's all in his eyes, tearing at his pupils, collecting at his tear ducts, making them red. Roy fights the urge to rub them because he knows it will only make it worse, but still he cannot stop his hands from floating up from where they rest against his knees, wishing to rub away the hurt, the thousands of human remains mixed in with the sand, but every time he does she stops him. Every time he does she makes a face.

"Don't do that."

Riza's eyes are as red as his (not Riza, he reminds himself, Hawkeye), but he doesn't know how, or why. He doesn't know how all that sand and ash finds her atop those buildings, perched and waiting with her sniper rifles, playing God. (You are playing God, he reminds himself. You who manipulates molecules at your fingertips and command them at your will, you are playing God.) He has been up there with her on occasion (scouting, protecting, hiding, whatever you want to call it) and he doesn't understand how the sandstorms he spends all day whipping into a frenzy even affect her, but they do. Somehow.

He thinks maybe they've been in this desert so long that they are turning into it. Their pores exude heat and sand.

A coyote howls as the sky shifts from orange to deep red, setting sun leading towards peaceful twilight, a warm bed. Everything around them is calm - it's dinner time, the fighting has stopped - and yet Roy knows that on the other side of this hill lies the body of a child he killed and a hundred others, their flesh burnt beyond recognition, some with a bullet put through their head from the woman sitting next to him.

He reaches up to rub his eyes.

"Sir. That isn't going to help."

He turns towards her with tired eyes. "I know that, Riza." (Hawkeye. Hawkeye, Hawkeye, Hawkeye...) His voice comes out much more venomous than he intends it to. Immediately he is regretful, because she doesn't deserve his misplaced anger (what has she ever done but give him her trust, her care, her support, practically everything he could ever want?), but Riza doesn't flinch, not once. Her eyes stay trained on the horizon, the slowly fading crimson giving way to blues.

(Her eyes stay trained on the horizon and yet they are bloodshot and pained just like his, raw from the sun, the sand, the smoke, everything, and he still calls her Riza.)

"It’s Hawkeye," she tells him.

"Right. Hawkeye."

He picks at a frayed thread on his uniform and watches as she stands, back towards him. Her movements betray exhaustion as she wanders away, a whispered explanation of "sentry duty" passing through her lips. Roy watches her, feels a pang within his heart, and his first inclination after she disappears behind the row of haphazardly placed tents is to reach up and rub his eyes.

---

They run into each other later that night on the outskirts of camp. (He says that is what happens, but knows it isn't true. She's on sentry duty, standing in place, and he has gone looking for her.) The corners of her eyebrows are tilted in towards her nose, mouth set in a frown. She takes her job very seriously. He doesn't blame her, not when the buried remains of their comrades lie 500 feet from her current position. The smell of decay would choke them if not for the sand that covers and keeps it at bay. Roy eyes her wearily. It will always be an interesting contrast to see Riza here, beauty and everything feminine wrapped in military fatigues, gripping her gun.

"Sir," she salutes crisply.

"Hawkeye," he says slowly, stumbling on the syllables of her last name after days of using her first, intimating it in much too hushed tones to the desert as if it would transport them back to her father's house.

("Look," he would say to the large boulder behind the camp, "that's Riza!"

"My teacher's daughter," to the lizard that found its way inside his tent, "we used to play in her backyard. Do you see her?"

"Here with me! Riza!")

It's been a month now since she trudged onto the battlefield, shot that man and saved his life. She had been here longer than that (nearly 3 months, he later found out from Maes), but for Roy she has only existed here since that day. Roy and Hawkeye-no-longer-Riza.

He thinks about asking her when the next soldier is coming to relieve her, but decides against it. It sounds too trivial, like a silly attempt at small talk, a line he's fed countless others. ("My, you look lovely. What time do you get off of work?")

"Was there something you wanted?" she asks him. He shakes his head much too vigorously to be convincing.

"No, nothing."

He is a liar. He is a liar and he can see that she knows it in the way she adjusts her rifle, the soft nod. He makes his way to the mess hall, but once he arrives he finds that everything tastes of sand and he can't eat it. He thinks about finding her again, but doesn't. Every word he could want to say to her is wrapped in cliches, in foolish little declarations that tell nothing of what he means.

He drinks his coffee slowly and imagines that the crunch to his soup is just his guilt personified.

---

"Do you think she'll marry me?" Maes is lying on his bed, arms folded and counting imaginary ceiling tiles.

Roy hasn't been paying attention and so it isn't an attempt to tease when he asks, "what?"

"Gracia," Maes clarifies. "I'm thinking of asking her to marry me. When I get home."

Home, Roy thinks. Home for Maes is in Central, in the arms of a woman who writes him letters and dreams of a future for her and her soldier boy, who wants a family, a house, mundane routine... Roy doesn't understand that. He might have once, but not anymore. Home for him is here, in this desert, dressed in a uniform and huddled up next to her gun. Home has followed him here. How can he return to somewhere that's no longer there? That refuses to stay in place?

"Whatever you think," he grunts.

Maes rolls his eyes. "What kind of an answer is that? Here I am, intimating my deepest emotions to you and you can hardly muster a response? I'm hurt," he clutches his chest for effect and grins, but it doesn't quite reach his eyes.

Roy sighs. "I don't see why she wouldn't."

This time the grin takes over Maes' entire face; his teeth bare, eyes crinkle. The crows feet that weren't there a year ago become more pronounced. Off in the distance Roy hears a lone gunshot echo in the cold night air. His heart arrests in his chest, fear mixing in with all the other emotions that swirl within his gut. Maes' voice stings Roy's ears as he talks about the future, about marriage and children. A world without desert and ash. Roy rummages through his pocket, retrieves his gloves, and shakes away the sand. He lifts the flap of the tent and steps out into the darkness. Behind him he hears Maes stop mid-sentence, but amidst the vast silence of desert at night he cannot be bothered enough to care.

He trudges into the night alone.

---

When he finds her it is not where he last saw her, but rather where she left him hours ago while the sun was still setting.

Riza looks up as he approaches, her pale face illuminated in the darkness, a study in tenebrism that makes her look harsh and dramatic. Her hands still where they hover just inches from her tired eyes, fingers clenched.

"Don't," Roy tells her, parroting her earlier concerns, "rubbing will only irritate them further."

Riza blinks once, twice, and stares into his eyes. Roy feels like he is choking on his own heart, feels like he deserves it, somehow, because Riza is looking at him now and she used to look at him then and the space between them is paved with his youthful idealism. (She used to look at him from the window of her father’s house and he’d look at her from the staircase, their curiosity morphing into longing, but never forming words.)

Riza turns towards the fire. She tightens her fists before setting them down onto her thighs and sighs, "yes. You're right."

They sit in silence for the rest of the night, two statues atop empty boxes once filled with rations and ammunition. Roy wonders if they sit long enough, will their granite exteriors erode away with the sand to reveal what's underneath: something soft and forgotten, hidden by forevers of built up walls and defenses? Or will their bodies empty like the boxes they sit on, heartbeats slowing until they stop? Roy thinks he had a heart once, but he buried it in the garden next to his soul and covered them both in the memory of Riza Hawkeye’s shirt as it hit her bedroom floor. He’d leave it there forever, buried in the ground, if he didn’t feel some responsibility towards this woman. He feels responsible for the sand in their eyes and the fire in their hearts that claws at them from the inside, enveloping and red.

Riza’s hair shimmers in the moonlight and Roy doesn't love her, he tells himself.

(He doesn't love her and yet he does. So, so much.)