Orphead

Feb. 8th, 2010 07:18 pm
kashiwrites: (Default)
When Riza found him, he was sitting on a rough chunk of concrete in almost complete darkness, knees drawn up, huddling over the bloody, shaking hands curled in his lap. Only the radiance from a single ceiling fixture, dangling lopsidedly halfway down the ruined tunnel, outlined his profile and provided enough light for her to pick her way toward him through the piles of rubble.

“Oh no!” Ed, white-faced beside the hospital gurney on which his brother lay. “We’ve left a blind man wandering those wrecked tunnels all alone!”

“He was hanging onto me,” Izumi, muttering. “But Alphonse was stumbling so much that I was trying to help you. I didn’t even notice when he let go.”


She moved slowly, trying not to breathe the cold air too deeply, with its light fog of cement dust and the strong smell of burned metal. She took soft steps, setting her foot down with care each time, testing the shattered, treacherous rubble to make sure it wouldn’t shift under her. Some of the uncertainty of her footing undoubtedly stemmed from her own dizziness; she’d had only a few minutes’ worth of the blood transfusion by the time Ed and Izumi brought their prize into the Emergency department.

Their long-sought prize: a boy who appeared to be in his early teens, so thin he was virtually just skin and bones, with long, stringy, light brown hair hanging down his back and over his shoulders. But those large, luminous eyes had turned to her and a bright smile had suffused his face. And when he greeted her, she knew his voice, though it was equally thin, and hoarse from disuse. And lacked the metallic echo.

Alphonse Elric, in the flesh, at last.

“Where’s Colonel Mustang?” Falman, coming to the end of both beds. “Nobody can find him anywhere.”

And Ed and Izumi, staring at each other, aghast.


Riza’s foot slipped on a rock that suddenly snapped with a sharp crack, and she slid sideways with a jerk, waving her arms to keep her balance. Ahead in the shadows, she saw him raise his head.

They weren’t going to let her come, at first. But when she’d pushed herself up, glaring at the nurses and yanking the needle out of her arm, at last the chimera man who had carried her out of the tunnels had agreed to carry her back. She’d left him back a ways, on safer ground with better light, with instructions to bring a search party if they didn’t come out in an hour.

Now, fumbling with one hand against a rough wall that was leaning in a rather odd direction, she could just see ahead, just see the vapour of Mustang’s breath in the cold air. He was breathing too quickly, in short, almost jerky spurts.

“Who…who’s there?” he whispered. He leaned his head back against the wall behind him, and she could see the fringe of his hair hanging in his eyes.

Riza tried to call back, but could hardly even manage a rasp. “It’s me, Colonel.” She mouthed the words in silence. “Wait for me.” Swallowing around the pain in her throat, she took another couple of unsteady steps, reaching out the fingers of one hand to touch the wall and keep herself upright. Ahead in the tunnel, she saw his head tilt, just slightly, as he listened to her halting steps and the occasional clatter of a dislodged piece of rubble on the floor. Down the tunnel, the dangling light fixture buzzed and flickered.

At last, as she drew close, he bowed his head again over his hands. “Lieutenant Hawkeye,” he murmured, “you should not have come back.”

She went to one knee and shifted a couple of chunks of masonry along the base of the wall beside him, then slowly turned and lowered herself to the floor, her feet sliding out in front of her with the scrape of dust and metal shards. She leaned with a sigh of relief back against the wall. “How…did you know…?” she whispered.

“Of course it would be you,” he said softly. “Who else but you, always? But this time…” He swallowed and hunched even further between his trembling shoulders. “You shouldn’t have come back,” he repeated.

“Not leaving,” she shook her head. She lifted a hand and touched the backs of her fingers to his cheek. He flinched and jerked away from her touch, but she’d already confirmed what she suspected. “Come back now. Hypothermia…“

“Hypothermia,” Mustang agreed. “Heading toward shock too, I imagine.”

“Then come back.”

“No.” He turned his head away and took a long, careful breath. But despite his efforts at control, and the tension in his voice signalling how he had tightened his jaw, she could hear the shiver beneath his words. “Hawkeye. Listen to me. It’s over. We’ve won and Amestris is safe. Alphonse has his body back, and the homunculi and the power behind them are gone. We’ve done the work we set out to do.”

“Not all…”

“We did all that was actually possible. You must see that now – “ He broke off with a sharp catch of breath, and she realized what word he’d used.

“I know about your eyes.” She forced the words out with a rasp. “Doesn’t matter.”

She almost thought he smiled, but she wasn’t quite sure in the faulty light. “I knew you’d say that,” he answered quietly. “But I’ve been sitting here in the dark…in the dark that’s all I have left…and I’ve been thinking things through. I let them go…Ed and Al and Izumi…so I could stop and think. It’s funny how clear things become when you can’t see. We wanted to overthrow the forces that had set Amestris on the destructive path it’s been on, and we’ve done that. Our country has been saved, Hawkeye. I know I had aspirations to lead the country, but maybe that wasn’t my real task. Maybe I was just supposed to clear away the garbage so someone else could start clean. You know Olivia Armstrong will be a much stronger leader than I ever would have – ”

“No!” It came out with such force that she couldn’t help but gasp at the stab of pain that blazed up the left side of her head and down her arm and upper chest. Off to her right, she heard the small chink of falling concrete, as though her cry had shaken loose a precarious chunk of ceiling.

“Hawkeye, please be careful.” Mustang half-turned toward her, lifting his hands, and then he, too, gasped and had to curl them back in his lap. He bent over them, shivering uncontrollably, his breathing harsh and ragged. “Dammit,” he whispered, “y-you’ll hurt yourself if you stay here. You sh-should be in the h-hospital.”

“So should you. Not leaving,” she repeated.

“Please. Go back. There’s nothing left for you to do here. Just go back, and let that be the one last thing you ever do for me.”

“No.”

He fell silent, and at first she thought he was just shivering, until she recognized with some alarm that he had begun to weep. “Hawkeye…why? Are you going to smear your blood on my hands too? Why can’t you just leave me here? I’m finished.”

“No. Not finished.” She shifted gradually on the dusty floor until she faced him, with one shoulder leaning against the wall for support. “Your job – not done – “

“Yes it is. You have to understand that. Just listen to me. Olivia is there, she’s strong and capable. No one will do better at bringing order out of the chaos we’ve thrown the country into. But I – “ Again he leaned his head back against the wall, staring with sightless eyes into the dark, his cheeks gleaming with tears. “Hawkeye, I can’t see. I’m a physical wreck. And I…I don’t even know if I’m an alchemist any more. I’m empty. I’m just…empty.” He clamped his jaws tight, to keep his teeth from chattering.

It was certainly true that he was almost spent; even in the near-dark, Riza could see that. Cold and shock, as he’d said, on top of utter physical exhaustion. What had happened during that final battle, to leave him in this state, when Ed and Izumi hadn’t appeared to have suffered to anywhere near the same extent?

It didn’t matter. She could get those details later. But if she couldn’t persuade him soon to come back to the hospital with her, it would be too late. The faint light down the tunnel cast an odd glazed sheen over the moisture on his face, and she wondered if it was starting to turn to ice.

She swallowed, and braced herself for more pain as she forced her voice to work. “Listen…listen,” she said. “Yes, the general is strong, but…she’s military. She’ll be…new version of…same thing. Maybe better…while she leads…but who will come after? Another military person…”

“There are ways to choose a proper successor – “

Shut up!” She reeled, her head thumping against the wall. For an instant she thought she had burst open the slice in her neck, but as she clamped a palm over the wound, she realized that wasn’t the case. She’d only made it start to burn, so hot that it almost felt cold. The coolness of her palm brought almost instant ease, so she left her hand there.

“Riza? Riza! Are you all right? I’m sorry – god, I’m s-so s-sorry…”

“Quiet.” Her voice was hardly more than a squawk; she wondered if she’d ever speak properly again. “No time. Colonel, think. Always, we planned – set up democratic council – again. General Armstrong – won’t do that. Will keep things military. It’s what she knows.”

“It’s what I know, too,” Roy whispered. “And I have blood…s-so much b-blood…” He lifted his ruined hands again, and lowered his eyes to them, as though even without sight he could see blood dripping from them. “I’ve learned so many terrible things about myself in the past few hours…th-things I always hid from…things I would never let myself – see!” He blurted the last word as a high-pitched bark of laughter. “At least Olivia doesn’t have that. And the country doesn’t need another murderer for a – “

Riza pulled herself away from the wall, planting her hands on either side of his face and forcing him to turn his head toward her. His voice choked off in a surprised gulp. “Listen,” she commanded. “No one innocent…not you…not Ed…not me…not Hughes.” His eyes widened as the breath caught in his throat. He tried to pull back, but she wouldn’t release him. “This is why…we continue…making restitution. We don’t quit.”

“Is that what you think I’m doing? Quitting?” The hysterical laughter lurked again at the edges of his voice. “Don’t you understand, Hawkeye? I’m trying to give the country what’s best for it. And…and I don’t think that’s me.”

She released the pressure of her hands, but kept them there, cupping his face. “Colonel, please listen. When I was…at hospital…and when…coming back here…all I heard, from everyone…where is Colonel Mustang? Where is Colonel Mustang? In hallways…in street. Military and…civilians. They weren’t…asking for…General Armstrong. Asking for you, Roy. You.

At the sound of his first name, which she had never used in addressing him before, he grew still and sat in silence for a long moment. Somewhere in the distance, Riza could hear a faint, dripping sound echoing in a tunnel. At last Mustang’s brows drew together and he murmured, “I don’t understand how the people…would ever…”

“I…we need you. All need you. You understand…weakness. Despair. You don’t want to rule…you want to help. And…you know you need help. Not like…Bradley. Not even like…General Armstrong. Already…people follow you. You are who they want. Flame Alchemist. Alchemist…for the people.”

“But I d-don’t even think I’m the F-Flame Alchemist any more. I think my p-power…is g-gone.” Tight jaw or not, he could no longer prevent the shivering from affecting his speech.

“Your power…never in hands,” Riza whispered. “Vision…never in eyes.” She slid her own hands down his cheeks and pressed them against his chest. “Here. Always here. Roy.” Beneath her fingers, she could feel his heart labouring. Battered, yes, perhaps even broken, but not stopping. Not yet.

He lowered his head, and this time she clearly saw his face crumple as the sobs came now without resistance. She pulled his head onto her good shoulder, and slid her arms around him. She let him cry for a few moments, trying to contain the shivering in the circle of her arms, hoping at least that her own body warmth would keep his condition from worsening.

“Riza…I’m tired,” he murmured at last. “S-so…tired…”

“I know. You can…rest at hospital.”

“I d-don’t know if I can make it there. I’m s-so cold I c-can’t feel my f-feet and hardly my legs. But I can s-still feel my damn s-skewered hands, can you b-believe it?”

Riza managed a quiet laugh. “Not fair…is it? But I…have help. We’ll get you back. Just…let me…help you up…”

“No.” He swallowed, took a quick breath, and already his voice was firmer. “You’re not strong enough. I’ll get up myself. But you’ll…,” for an instant he faltered, “you’ll have to guide me through the mess.”

“Of course. Always had…your back…haven’t I? Always will.” She pulled away from him and got to her knees, pressing a hand against the wall and lurching to her feet. Leaning down, she slid a hand around Roy’s upper arm and said, “Get on…knees. Lean on wall, put opposite foot down, and push up.”

It took some work, and Riza couldn’t do much more than guide his movements rather than lifting, but at last, even without being able to use his hands to brace himself, Roy managed to push himself up the wall until he was standing on his feet.

“Well, that was fun,” he muttered. “Nothing like a little dignity to set the tone. And I’m sure the place is a real mess, isn’t it? This isn’t going to be easy, with you so weak and me stumbling around like a…,” his lips twisted, “…blind man.”

“Soon,” Riza whispered, “you can call. Chimera man – waiting. He’ll come help.”

“You are efficient, aren’t you?” Roy managed a smile.

Riza allowed herself a little chuckle. “No. Needed him…carry me. But here…I’ll try to guide…”

Before she could take hold of him, he laid his wrists on her shoulders and peered into her face as though he could actually see her. “Listen…you have to know that you don’t have to s-stay with me now, if you want to d-do something else with your life. You don’t have to chain yourself to – “

“No!” She gripped his forearms. “Not leaving. Told you.”

“Riza…are you sure? You’re absolutely s-sure? This is a whole n-n-new situation now.”

“Yes.” She swallowed around the burning in her throat and whispered, “I’ll never leave you, Roy. Never. Doesn’t matter what…happened in past. All we can do is go forward. No looking back – “ she broke off, staring at his shadowed eyes as she bit her lip, wondering if he’d noticed her clumsiness.

But he lowered his head until their foreheads were touching, and closed his eyes. “No looking back,” he breathed. “I suppose I need to remind myself about that ag-gain. It’s hard to remember, when you’ve had your own p-past thrown in your face with such f-force. Sometime I have to tell you about the Gate… But never mind that for now. I know you’re right. You’re always right. And I…I s-still need you to remind me. And to keep pointing me in the right direction – damn.” He lifted his head. “I can’t believe how literal that’s suddenly become.”

“Don’t worry.” Riza cleared her throat again, feeling the muscles relax as other worries began to dissipate. “We’ll train Black Hayate to help guide you, and you’ll just look like you’re taking him for a walk.”

“Your voice is coming back. Thank goodness. And that’s a good idea.” His voice, too, was growing stronger. She could hear a smile in it as he added, “Do you think I’ll look like a dashing man of mystery if I start wearing sunglasses?”

She laughed softly. “Let’s get you out of here. Now you’re getting delirious.”

“Right.” Roy laid an arm across her shoulders, taking care not to jar her injured neck. “Let’s leave this place behind us and get on with the next phase. No looking back.”

“No looking back,” she agreed, slipping an arm around his waist and turning him toward the tunnel leading out.

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kashiwrites

May 2012

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