Title: Conversations by Starlight
Author: Rhyssa Fireheart
Pairing: None really
Fandom: Fullmetal Alchemist
Rating: T for language and situations
Disclaimer: Don’t own it, never will. Just like to play around with it in my mind.
Summary: He stared at her, finally taking to time to actually look. In the months since they’d met, he realized that they’d never seen each other by daylight before. Or rather, he’d never seen her. All his knowledge of her was wrapped in starlight and night. Even though he’d wanted to see her by daylight, the darkness was her domain.
Also posted here over on Fanfiction.net
Ishballan Civil War front
Men countered the chill of the desert air by huddling around fires. Overhead, stars covered the night sky with silent clarity. Wrapped in their uniforms and cloaks, they were gathered between tents, speaking amongst themselves in hushed whispers.
“Did you hear? The State Alchemists are taking the field tomorrow morning.”
“This war will be over soon now that they are here.”
“Wonder how they’re going to fight?”
The sounds drifted on the wind, random snippets of conversations repeated over fires, passed around like precious gems by the war-weary soldiers. The woman walking quietly through the darkness took the words in and held them to her, turning the meanings over and over in her mind.
“So the Fuhrer finally decided to bring in the alchemists. I guess the regular army wasn’t killing Ishballans quickly enough for him.” Her voice was thoughtful.
“Is that what you think, Major?”
“Marshall, does it really matter what I think? We’ve been in this hell for almost four years now. Ours is one of the only intact squads left, and that’s not saying much. How much longer can this go on? Honestly, wiping out an entire race is just a bit extreme, wouldn’t you agree?”
“Lorie, look, I know what you’re saying, but you’re wrong. This is something that needs to be done and the Fuhrer is doing the right thing. This war will be over soon and we can all go home. I know I’m looking forward to being able to drink or eat something without sand infesting it.”
“There is that.”
The couple continued on their way, their forms melding into the darkness that surrounded the camps.
The next morning dawned in a blaze of glorious reds, light spreading from the east in a wave, saturating the day in crimson. Ash and smoke soon floated on the breeze, dust clinging to everything. Buildings collapsed, were reformed, remade, recycled. The crimson of blood soon saturated the ground, running in waves to mirror the skies above. The alchemists had gone to war.
Fires blazed in tiny pinpoints against the darkness, holding back the night. Only the brightest of stars shone through the choked air, fighting smoke and dust for a chance to shine upon a forsaken city. The woman walked alone through the camps again, listening to the new tenor of whispers. Men were hopeful, afraid, injured, scared. She danced at the edges of the light, never speaking, always listening, always watching her fellow soldiers.
The tents where the alchemists stayed were placed a slight distance away from the rest of the camp; a visual fence between the common soldier and the favored elite. But they too gathered by firelight, the words fewer, less urgent. She passed them by, her destination a small hillside outside the camps, another visual break from the rest.
Unseen eyes followed, tracked her progress up the hillside. The man turned to the others around the fire and asked a simple question.
“Who’s that walking up the hill?”
“Who?” One of the soldiers turned and looked in the direction indicated. “Oh, her. Haven’t you heard about Major Sandersen yet? She’s call the ‘Angel of Death’ around here.” The man’s voice betrayed hints of fear through the obvious disgust.
“You sound as if you don’t like her much. Why’s that?”
“Well, sir, I have nothing against killing enemies. If I did, I wouldn’t be here. But her type… they’re assassins. Sneaking into people’s homes and killing them in the dark. That’s just not right, sir.” The soldier looked back at the fire, denying the darkness.
“Interesting.” The first man watched as the scene was repeated over several nights. The war continued on, unheeding of the participants feelings.
Another cold desert night, another endless span of time spent staring at the uncaring stars above. The winds had cleared the air, allowing stars to shine with diamond clarity upon the scene below. He climbed the hillside and found the woman seated against a rock, head tilted back to the sky. He’d thought her careless in a war zone, until he noticed the glitter of her eyes on him, a hand tucked under her jacket near her weapons.
“Good evening,” he said quietly after he sat down on the ground, leaning back against the same rock as she.
“Hello.” Her hands didn’t relax but her eyes returned to the vista above.
“Oh, do you mind if I join you?” He asked in an amused voice. She laughed softly in reply.
“Feel free. I’m Lorie.” She held her hand out to him; eyes once more focused his way. He reached over to shake her hand in return, not missing how her glance caught the marking on his palm.
“Ah, so you’re the Crimson Alchemist. You don’t look much like a ten-foot tall monster who can crush buildings in one blow.” Her voice laughed at him, sharing one of the rumoured descriptions heard in the city.
“I’m currently in disguise.”
“So I see.” Her chuckles died away and silence returned to the hilltop and they both allowed it. She didn’t seem to mind his presence on her hill and he felt oddly relaxed just sitting under the stars. After what seemed like hours, she stirred slightly, pulling out a watch to check the time with a sigh.
“It’s time for me to go to work,” she said to him, getting to her feet to stretch. “I should get back before my squad comes looking for me. Good night, Zolf. Nice meeting you.” Her footsteps faded into the night as he looked after her retreating form.
Once more she haunted the edges, listening to the conversations of her fellow soldiers, never joining in. Early on in the campaign, when her squad had first been called up, she would step into the light, sitting with others around the fires to talk about inconsequential things, the moments that make up life. But once word got around about what her squad did the atmosphere changed. The fires became less welcoming as time went on, faces turned away to hide expressions. Shooting someone in the face was fine, but cutting their throat from behind in the dark apparently wasn’t. So she went back to being a ghost on the edge of light, listening to the daily lives of the men who fought in the daylight. Her time was the night.
“You’re here early.” She didn’t show any surprise at finding him already seated against their rock. It was theirs now; he joined her on the hilltop almost every night. Most times they simply exchanged greetings, watching the fires flicker like earthborn stars until it was time for her to go to work. Less often, they chatted quietly about inconsequential things – the weather, camp food, the sand that got into everything. Occasionally they spoke of things important to each, discussions that defined who they were.
“I wanted to get out of camp for a while. Figured this place might be empty and you wouldn’t mind.”
“No, I don’t mind at all. No one comes here since they realized I do. I think the other soldiers are afraid of me. The rest of my squad, my partner, they don’t have any problems blending in with the rest of the soldiers, but me…. They’re afraid of the Angel of Death. So I come here to be alone.” He noticed her voice showed no emotions when she said that. As if being feared by her own people didn’t bother her. It surprised him because he’d not met anyone that felt the same way he did about public opinion.
“And that doesn’t bother you at all? Having others afraid of you?”
“Should it? I understand why they feel that way. They can’t help it. They like to think that the kinds of death they deal out in the daylight are better ones than what I give. They think that sneaking around and killing someone from behind is dishonorable somehow, as if any death in war can have honor. You live or you die by your own skills. Mine just happen to be different than theirs. I think what bothers them the most is that I can do what they do, but they know they could never, ever do what I do.” She tipped her head over to look at him, her mouth curved slightly. “What about you? All the state alchemists are looked at with fear as well, especially the combat ones. Doesn’t it bother you to know that most of them would be scared to death to shake your hand because they’re afraid you might blow them up?”
“As you said, why should I? I enjoy using my alchemy, it’s such a heady power to have and I will never give that up.”
“What’s it like? To cause explosions like that? I’ve been trying to imagine how it would feel, but I don’t think anything I can do compares.”
“It’s… beautiful. The sounds of the explosions just resonate throughout my body. I can feel it deep in my bones. It’s hard to explain really. Using my alchemy to change the land, to cause death, it’s fulfilling. As you said before, you live or die by your own skills. Mine just happen to be blowing things and people up.” He fell silent for a moment and then shrugged, slightly embarrassed from trying to explain such an intimate part of himself.
“I can completely understand that feeling.” Silence fell once again before she stood up with a sigh. He felt a fleeting touch on his shoulder as she passed him, disappearing into the darkness like the ghost she was.
“What’s the matter?” Her voice reached out to him through the night, pulling him back to the starlight washed hilltop. He’d been pacing around, kicking rocks and muttering under his breath. He paused at her words, sighed and walked over to sit beside her.
“It certainly didn’t seem like nothing a few moments ago. Unless you’re mad at the sand; which wouldn’t be a bad thing, mind you.” A soft laugh. Her voice sounded like black velvet darkness to him, soothing and dangerous. He looked over, seeing her eyes tilted his way, a crooked smile. “Bad mission today?”
“Not really. Those never go bad for me. Unless you count the idiots that think they need to protect me. I had to teach them how wrong that impression of theirs was. Almost ruined my uniform jacket.”
“Ah, I heard a whisper about that today.” She still watched him, her smile faded away. “Have you considered their side of it though? They’re assigned to you, which means you’re their protection. If they don’t keep you safe, then their protection is gone and they are more vulnerable.”
“So what? That doesn’t mean they have protect me. Stay out of my way and clean up the debris and everything will be fine. Besides, they choose to enlist and fight. They need to rely on themselves for protection, not me. I’m there to destroy.”
“That’s true, but individuals working separately are far easier to defeat than those working together.”
“The old ‘united we stand, divided we fall’ mantra? That’s garbage. They are just as capable of killing as I am, just not as quickly, or as many at once.”
“That’s the point. Did you know that it’s started to become an honor of sorts, to be assigned to one of the alchemists? They fear you and they honor you, because you can do what they can’t. They see the killing you do as more impersonal than what they can give. My kind of death is far too personal for them to handle, but when you are around, they don’t have to look down the barrel of a gun to see a child’s face before pulling the trigger. You’re their scapegoat, one of the safe little lies they tell themselves at night to get to sleep. It’s the scale of the killing that scares most of them, and if they can help keep you alive to do the killing instead, it lets them avoid waking up with nightmares.”
“They have nightmares because they refuse to freely accept the responsibility they took on when putting on this uniform. They want to play the victims now, wallowing in self-pity because war is cruel and people die. They want to forget the death surrounding them, the deaths they’ve dealt out, because by forgetting they think they can sleep better at night. They tell themselves lies and wonder why they still have dreams.”
“That’s most likely true. But which do you think is better – telling yourself small lies and protecting the man that can kill so many so quickly, or sitting here in this desert hell for even more years on end, letting this killing ground grind us down into a slow death. They aren’t equipped to look death in the face and say ‘Well come and welcome.’ Most of them have families to go home to; people they love and who love them back. All they want to see is the life before them, not blood and tears. Do you have someone back home, waiting for you?”
“That’s why you can accept death, because you don’t have the happiness and life of someone else hanging over you like a sword on a string. I’m not saying having others who love you is a bad thing. But most of them want to deny that dying is just as much part of life as living is. To get something, you have to give something in return, isn’t that what you alchemists say? They can’t always accept having to give in return, that’s all.”
“You’re probably right. I told a group of them something similar earlier today. The men were complaining about having to accept killing as their jobs. They just wanted to deny how killing someone else who wants to kill you can be exhilarating.”
“I overheard you talking to them for a bit when I was on my way to my tent.”
“I didn’t see you there.”
“You weren’t supposed to. What kind of Angel of Death would I be if people saw me during the day?” The smile was back in her voice, replacing the seriousness of before. “Besides, I didn’t stay around long. Working at night means I have to sleep during the day, so I don’t hang around much then.” A click as her watch opened and closed again. “And on that note….”
This time he reached up to briefly take her hand as she touched his shoulder. She paused to look down into his eyes and smile at him.
“Sleep well, Zolf.”
The campaign was dragging on, days filled with thunder, nights filled with terror and pain. He’d been waiting for over an hour now, but she’d not come to the hilltop yet. Over the months since they’d been meeting, she’d never missed a night that he knew of. He didn’t always come up, but she never missed a night. Something was wrong. He headed back into camp, looking for the medical tents, trying to find a doctor, a nurse, anyone.
“Excuse me, I’m looking for…” He paused suddenly, having to dig through his memories for her last name. “Major Sandersen. She’s part of the Special Forces, I think.” The nurse he’d accosted looked annoyed that some soldier had grabbed her late at night, but the look on his face convinced her to provide assistance.
“Follow me, I’ll take you to the admissions tent and you can talk to them.” She pulled her arm from his grasp and walked off without waiting to see if he was following.
At the admissions tent there was a group of men huddled near one of the tables, speaking quietly between themselves. Judging by the bandages they sported, they’d been recently discharged. He didn’t notice their attention snap to him when he asked about her again at another table.
“Who are you to be asking about the Major?” One of the men asked. He was dark-skinned, tall and almost skeletally thin.
“I’m a friend, who are you?” He replied angrily. The doctors were staying out of the way, perhaps getting ready to patch things up once the inevitable fight broke out.
“Ah, you’re the one she talks to up on the hill, aren’t you? The Crimson Alchemist. I’m Lt. Marshall, her partner. These other three are Howards, Reeve and Jurgens.” The other men nodded at the sounds of their names. Howards was a huge man, impossible to believe he was on an assassination squad. Reeve and Jurgens could have been twins. They were both so nondescript; neither would stand out in a crowd. “We were all injured in an ambush last night; Lorie and Spinter are still being cared for. I can take you to see her if you want.”
“Not sure really. We got the assignment from Lorie and headed out. It was supposed to be a special target, one of the Ishballan religious leaders. Take him out and maybe these idiots would stop fighting. We ran into five of those fighting priests of theirs though. We’re good, but they caught us off-guard. Got beat up pretty good before putting those bastards down. Spinter ended up with a broken leg and Lorie was bashed in the head; knocked her out for a bit. Plus she’s got some broken ribs from when they first hit us. I keep telling her she should let me go first, stupid woman.”
He followed the man silently, unwilling to speak. Afraid that if he tried to speak, he’d start yelling, reaching for something to destroy. They soon reached a tent and he ducked inside. She lay sleeping in a cot, looking small and injured. Marshall followed him in, crouching by the bedside to touch her shoulder. She didn’t stir at first, and he shook her gently, saying her name this time.
“Marshall? What’s wrong? Is something wrong with Spinter?” Her velvet voice was muzzy sounding, the darkness in it brittle and fine.
“Nah, he’s doing fine. Got himself one of the nurses fawning over him for some reason. She must like skinny wimps like him. Brought you a visitor.” With that, he stood up and turned to leave them alone, pausing only to say “Don’t stay long. Doctors say the blow to her head was pretty bad and she needs rest.”
He didn’t acknowledge the words, just stood there with his hands in his pockets, jacket gaping open. Her eyes found his and she tried to smile. He finally moved when she began trying to sit up, stepping forward to put his hand on her shoulder and push her back down. He grabbed a nearby stool and dragged it over to sit on. They sat in silence for a few moments, neither really looking at the other.
“The stars are covered tonight. Do you think they notice when one of them dies?”
“The stars, do you think they notice when one of them dies? Or does it take thousands of them dying to attract attention?”
“I really haven’t thought about it. That’s not exactly uppermost on my mind right now, you know.” He tried to not sound aggravated at her words, but he really wondered what prompted her to say that. She had learned the nuances of his voice over the months the two of them had spent speaking in the night hours, he had no idea how much it revealed to her.
“I’m sorry. I should have sent someone to the hill to let you know I wasn’t going to be there. I didn’t mean to worry you.” She reached out to touch his knee and he covered her hand with his. He examined the bandages that covered her arm, trying to see if the injuries they covered were serious or not. “I just have some scrapes and a lot of bruises, except for my head and ribs. Nothing really serious.” Her voice trailed off. “Damn, I miss my stars.”
“Why are you so concerned about not seeing the damn stars?” He asked angrily. Angry that she’d allowed herself to get hurt. Angry that someone had dared to hurt her.
“No reason. Just routine I guess. I’m used to our conversations being under the starlight. It was just how I liked starting my work day off, I guess. Not going to be doing any work for a while unless the doctors think I’m worth having a healing alchemist come in, so I’m already missing my stars.” She shrugged. “It doesn’t have to make sense.”
He stared at her, finally taking to time to actually look. In the months since they’d met, he realized that they’d never seen each other by daylight before. Or rather, he’d never seen her. All his knowledge of her was wrapped in starlight and night. Even though he’d wanted to see her by daylight, the darkness was her domain.
A bandage covered most of her head, the slight tint of red seeping through on the right side. What he could see of her dark hair was pulled back into a loose braid, strands falling out. The bruises on her face had almost swelled the right eye shut, but he could still tell they were a dark grey. He’d known her skin wasn’t dark, but under this light it seemed too pale, as if she had no blood left in her. For all that he knew she was a killer, one of the best assassins the military would deny having, she still looked fragile and delicate. Her smile was the same though, slight and crooked, when she offered it to him.
“So you miss the stars tonight? All right.” He dropped her hand and stood up, reaching into his pocket for a piece of chalk. He rarely used any circles but the ones on his hands, but that didn’t mean he didn’t know how. It only took a few moments to scribe what he wanted on the roof of the tent, and seconds to activate the circle. He’d been careful to not remove too much of the roof because he’d have to put it back before he left for the evening. The glow of the transmutation brought Marshall back into the tent, looking to see what was going on.
“Marshall, I’m fine, why are you waiting around? Go get some rest and tell the other three to do so as well. I’m not going anywhere and I’m sure Spinter is fine as well.” Her voice was sharp and strong, more filled with the night than he’d ever heard it. Marshall looked unwilling, but he tossed her a salute and left the tent without arguing.
“Blow out the lights, please?” He did so and then moved the stool out of the way so he could sit on the floor, leaning against the cot to look up through the opening in the roof at the stars covering the sky. He felt her hand touch his shoulder and move away. He reached out instead to take her hand, moving her arm so it lay across his chest. They sat in silence for a while.
“I suppose that it would take thousands dying for it to be noticed.” He said into the night, picking up her conversation from earlier. Her hand shifted against him as she laughed.
“Why is that though? Shouldn’t the death of one matter just as much?”
“Not really. It’s like equivalent exchange. You can’t expect one to equal many; it’s not the same thing. And sometimes it takes the deaths of many to get your point across, to get the attention you’re after. And because the death of one really isn’t that big of a deal in the long run. Sure, that one will be missed by those close to it, but in the grand scheme of the universe, it really means nothing.”
“I know. That’s why I wondered why we were given the assignment. Killing one person, even a religious leader, would it really have made that much of a difference? Maybe to the Ishballans, because they were the ones that started this whole mess over the death of a single child. Why can’t people be as accommodating as the stars?” She sighed and let her voice drift back into darkness.
“There’s another reason I wanted to talk to you. I don’t think I could have told you in the daylight. It wouldn’t have seemed right.” Now she sounded sad and upset, and he twisted slightly to look over his shoulder. “My squad is being pulled out. Last night was supposed to be our last mission before being sent from the front lines. Word is it that the war will be over soon, so they don’t see the need for our talents anymore.”
“What? Where are they sending you?” He shifted to sit sideways, facing her at last. “They can’t do that!”
“Yes they can, Zolf. We’re just dogs of the military, remember? They own my soul and I have to go wherever they send me. If we’re lucky, it’ll be back to our base to recover for a while. I’ve been in this hellhole for over four years now; I need to see if I can live as a human being again.”
“So you just want to forget everything that happened here? Is that it?” He growled the words at her. Her hand smacked him on the chest lightly in response.
“Of course not. I don’t plan to forget anything that happened here, or anyone I met. Especially not you. But that doesn’t mean I’m going to fight against being redeployed somewhere else. I can accept many things into my soul, but after living this long in hell and having seen a glimpse of heaven, I need a break to just breathe. To make sure I’m still sane.” She looked at him through the gloom inside the tent, watching his copper colored eyes to see if he understood. He stared back before offering her a small smile. Shifting to lean back against the bed again, he laced his fingers with hers, lying her hand back against his chest.
“All right,” he said quietly, “So what does happen when thousands of stars die? Does a large portion of the sky go dark then?” Her voice was black velvet when she answered and they continued talking through the night. At some point, they both dozed off looking at the sky, unaware of the dawn glow overtaking the stars.
Marshall looked through the tent opening, surprised to see the other man still there sitting next to her bed. A flash of anger crossed his face when he saw the clasped hands, but he’d smoothed it away by the time he stopped next to the bed to wake them up.
“Lorie, wake up. They’re going to move us out today back to East Headquarters so we’ve got to get ready to go.” He prodded the alchemist’s leg with his foot. “You, too, alchemist.”
“All right, Marshall, we’re up. Have you seen about getting our things packed up already?” She seemed completely unconcerned that he’d found her asleep and holding hands with someone. “Zolf? Wake up, please.”
“I’m awake. Oh, Lt. Marshall?” His voice came out coated in honeyed sweetness. Once Marshall turned around he continued, “Kick me again and it’ll be the last thing you do. Remember that.” Marshall stared back, but any further disagreements stopped when she began to sit up.
“Just help me up. I’m not going to be transported out of camp lying on my back. And I’m sick of being in bed. Marshall, go check on Spinter and make sure the others are ready to leave as well.” She flung the commands at her partner, holding out her hand to Kimbley to help her up. Looking up at the brightening sky, she said more softly, “Don’t forget to fix the roof or one of the nurses will have a fit.” He scribed the circle once more, dropping the tent into a murky gloom.
They stood together, both silent and needing no words. She heard her name called outside the tent, but she pushed the words away. Day was advancing, his time to work. But for now, the in-between twilight inside the tent was what she sought; it was a time for them both. Voices called for her again; she couldn’t put off leaving any longer.
“I’m sorry, Zolf, I can’t stay any longer. I wish I could. Stay safe.” With that, she stretched up to place a kiss on his lips before turning to slip out of the tent. He just stood in the dim interior, trying to deny the coming of the light.
He no longer went to the hilltop under the starlight. What was the purpose? She wasn’t there and he’d heard no word in the weeks since her squad had been pulled out. He kept turning her words over in his mind, everything they’d spoken of, everything she’d told him that last night. He killed Ishaballans by the hundreds, especially any warrior priest he found. They’d been the ones to injure her, after all, so they had to pay the most. All Ishballans had to die. It would take thousands of deaths to make the world notice, but he could do it.
There were plenty of stars in the sky after all.