Title: A Bishop of Ill-Begotten Faith
Prompt: "Memories warm you up from the inside. But they also tear you apart." - Haruki Murakami
Fandom/Series: Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood
Word Count: 3,081
Disclaimer: I do not, in any way, profit from the story and all creative rights to the characters belong to their original creator(s).
Summary: Vato Falman is a simple man.
As his fellow soldiers and friends are reassigned across the nation, Falman reflects on just how much they have sacrificed, and how much they all still risk to lose.Cast off and desperate for a friend, trapped in the cold and the quiet of Briggs, the Warrant Officer finds solace in his memories. And on the eve of war, he finally understands the sheer tragedy of following a man who loves far too much, and cares far too little.
A Bishop of Ill-Begotten Faith
Vato Falman was a simple man.
The people who were close to him soon learned that he didn't have much to say. Ashen-faced and rail-thin, his premature silver hair giving him the appearance of a much older man, he was a quiet, dignified person –– a presence more comfortable ghosting the peripheries of the room than taking an active participation in the center of it. A man consistently content with his place at the edge of conversation.
He was an awkward presence in Amestrian blue. His uniform fit him poorly, both in body –– the cuffs of his sleeves barely reached his wrists –– and in spirit. Vato Falman was no fighter. He didn’t relish assignment that took him outside the archive room or, god forbid, out into the field. What he lacked in pleasure for combat, however, the solemn Warrant Officer made up for in sheer brainpower.
Falman knew an eidetic memory was a good trait to have as an intelligence officer. Some of the men had taken to referring to him as a walking encyclopedia, and though the moniker felt acutely dehumanizing, Falman could not deny its truth. He had memorized hundreds of addresses and phone numbers and names during his stint in the military; he had cataloged every honorific and appellation and serial number he had ever filed, and was able to summon the information with the ease of perusing an index. He knew a bitter enemy from a forgotten ally long before an introduction hung unbroken in the air.
He knew he had little right to feel as lonely as he did, with the company of so many remembered faces. He knew he should feel beholden to the Amestrian military for giving him a livelihood, for taking a disorderly son of a bookkeeper and turning him into a soldier. Instead, he lay awake at night dreading the day circumstance would wrench him away from his reports and force him to shoot a gun. To take the life of another person.
He knew that killing was not for him. He knew fate had consigned to deny him a choice in the matter.
Falman knew a great many things. Not all of them, he realized, as useful, or as welcome, as a serial number. Sometimes the memories ran too deep. Sometimes he knew too much.
Falman knew Kain Fuery was afraid of the dark. The Sergeant Major had made a name for himself fighting in the border skirmishes with Creta. According to the official report of an incident shortly after the young man’s induction, following a nighttime perimeter sweep, Fuery had lost his phosphor flares; his radio had gone quiet. He wandered for hours through the craters and calderas of a battlefield without a name. When he found his regiment, he begged them to hang a lantern from the lintel of the barracks, to chase away the shadows.
Falman knew Heymans Breda was one of the most intelligent men in the military. He remembered Breda from the military academy, back when Falman was a sickly cadet already going gray at the temples. He remembered how Officer Cadet Breda said it wasn't due to stress, or a bad hand in the genetic crapshoot. 'You think too much,' Breda had affirmed in that blunt, brusque manner of his. Falman knew the Second Lieutenant had the mind of a philosopher and the wisdom of an academic. Instead, he had elected to become a soldier. Falman believed it said less about Breda's intelligence and far more about his heart.
He knew Jean Havoc smoked cigarettes because he was a brave man. And the Warrant Officer knew bravery was being the only person to know how frightened one truly is. The acrid smoke, the miasma of nicotine and aftershave, hid far more than the blonde man's crooked grin. When Havoc lost his legs, some of the smoke blew thin on the wind. The veneer splintered, and Falman knew the Second Lieutenant had lost something he could never bargain or threaten or charm his way into getting back.
Falman knew the Colonel was in love with his adjutant.
If Vato were more like Major Armstrong, a man predisposed to sentiment, he would have bemoaned the tragedy of it. The fraternization policies were in place to avoid any adverse impact on discipline, authority, and morale, to ensure the ability of command to accomplish its mission. Falman respected the Colonel and the Lieutenant far too much to believe they would ever entertain toeing the line. They were officers before they were man and woman. Like Falman, they had sacrificed their humanity for the monikers of their duty. What was unsaid had to remain unsaid, diffusing between glances that somehow trapped a whole universe of meaning within the silence.
Falman knew the Colonel and the Lieutenant shared a past; it had not been difficult for him to trace the tangled history of the Hero of Ishval and the progeny of a disgraced alchemist from the East. But the precise extent of their story remained stubbornly elusive, even to someone as intuitive as Falman. Roy Mustang and Riza Hawkeye never spoke of the time before Ishval, and their wonted, almost martial silence on the matter provoked defamatory tittle-tattle from Eastern Headquarters all the way to Central. There was plenty of rumor and hearsay, which Falman took pains to avoid, or outright slander, which Falman despised, even as some of the brass in the Amestrian military reveled in it, keen to knock the cocky, ambitious Colonel down a few pegs.
Colonel Mustang, for all his heresies, never acknowledged the whispers. Neither did Hawkeye.
And though he had unprecedented insight into the relationship between his superiors, Warrant Officer Falman was a simple man, and simple men do not meditate on the nature of tragedy.
Because Vato Falman was in love with the Colonel's adjutant, too.
"Officer Cadet Falman!"
Vato stepped forward. The rainwater had pooled in his boots. Mud crusted the hem of his trousers. The sleet was bitterly cold; he could barely move his fingers, and he had long ago lost feeling in his feet. When the Sergeant pressed a pistol into his hands, Vato nearly dropped it. The metal smarted on his palm, florets of ice crusted across the grip.
"Torso, center target," the man barked, shouting to be heard over the deluge. "You're surrounded by Ishvalan hostiles and you're the only one with a full magazine."
Vato tried to blow his hair out of his eyes, but the rain plastered it to his forehead. He held the pistol loosely in his hand, unable to curl his fingers around the grip. He extended his arms out in front of him and squinted at the target with his dominant eye... trying, in what he considered to be a truly herculean effort, to peer through the rain and sleet. He tried to blink the soft straw dummies into focus. Behind him, he heard Officer Cadet Havoc murmuring some words of half-crafted encouragement. Officer Cadet Breda just grunted. He doubted either one envied him.
"Hurry it up, Cadet! It's raining like a pissing cow out here."
Vato brought the pistol to bear. He swallowed. He fired a single shot, the recoil jarring his arm in its socket, sending a sharp of pain from his fingertips to his elbow. He heard wood splinter as the bullet buried in the fence behind the line of targets. Some of the recruits snickered. Breda grunted again.
The Sergeant shook his head, throwing damp in all directions. The weather had turned him irritable, and Vato Falman was a far easier target than a cadre of straw dummies several hundred yards away, half-obscured by rain. "That was embarrassing, Cadet. You're a bloody disgrace; the impact was at least half a meter right and back of your target."
"It's raining quite heavily, Sergeant," said Vato quietly. He fought the urge to look down at the mud. "There is a refraction index I failed to take into account when I took the shot, sir. The ratio of the velocity of light on a normal day to its velocity in a specified medium, particularly this rain––"
"I didn't ask for an explanation, Cadet! Even with your squinty eyes you should be able to tell the difference between a bloody fence and a human-shaped dummy! You ought to know, Falman, you see one every time you look in the damn mirror! HAWKEYE."
Vato inclined his head, the rain running like teardrops down his high cheekbones. He took an interest in his patched boots as a petite woman pushed through the crowd of assembled trainees. Vato looked up as she stood at his shoulder. He couldn't see her face beneath the hood of her cloak, but he knew that somewhere under there was a thin, joyless face and a pair of hard eyes.
Her eyes had always reminded Vato of burnished glass, or butterscotch.
"Hawkeye, show everyone how it's done. Take aim!"
Instead, the woman turned to her peer. Vato squirmed, unused to and uncomfortable with being the sole focus of her bright amber eyes. She made him feel at once immeasurably important… and very, very small. Like a marble statue ready eroded to dust.
"Cadet," she said, her voice low and soft, "assume a proper shooting position with your feet shoulder width apart and your knees slightly bent. Don't lock out your knees and don't flex your leg muscles. Establish a grounded base with the lower half of your body."
The Sergeant crossed his arms. His mustache bristled. "I gave you an order, Hawkeye. We don't have time for this. If Cadet Falman knows what's good for him, he'll drag himself through this training and then go hide behind a desk in Central for the rest of his life."
Hawkeye didn't seem to hear her commanding officer. Or, more likely, she elected to ignore him. She kept her attention on Vato: "You were blading your body sideways, Cadet. Square your shoulders towards the target. Your arms should be extended but not locked."
"Hawkeye!" shouted the Sergeant. Vato knew it was only because of her exceptional reputation he didn't haul Hawkeye away by the scruff of the collar. "Shoot the damn gun or shut the hell up."
She moved closer to him. Her words feathered across his cheek. She must have been pressed up on her toes… "Don't anticipate the shot. Instead, focus on your aim and technique. Press the trigger in a controlled manner and focus on your front sight."
"Woman, I swear––"
Vato Falman took another shot. The bullet didn't hit the center of the target.
But it did hit the target.
He could almost imagine Riza Hawkeye's smile.
Later, as they filtered back inside to shelter from the rain, Vato found her in the mess hall.
"May I sit with you?"
A curt nod. "Of course."
Vato took a seat, his back ramrod straight, easily one of the tallest recruits in the mess. The younger soldier sat hunched over her meal, her shoulders bunched. She looked, Vato decided, blatantly exhausted and thoroughly miserable. She seemed to radiate an aura that precluded anything but the utmost solemnity.
"Why did you help me?" Vato asked after a moment of pregnant silence.
Cadet Hawkeye stopped pushing her food around her plate and looked up at him through her winged bangs. She continued to stare, unblinking, and Vato cleared his throat.
"In this sort of cutthroat environment, selflessness is a rare thing. I only regret that I have nothing with which to repay you for your kindness."
Her words were cold and clipped when she said, "I taught you how to be a better killer; that is no kindness."
Her answer surprised him. The reputation of the Hawk's Eye was well-established: a young sniper who had been propelled through the curriculum, her training regiment accelerated until she surpassed cadets much older than her, including Vato himself. But… a gunsmith and weapons expert, a tactical genius, who abhorred killing. Rather than baffling, Vato found the contradiction intriguing.
Here was a person who found as little joy in combat as he did.
"I have no desire to kill," he said gently.
"Well, certainly, there are individuals who take pride in their skills and seek the glory of fighting in war… there's that Major Kimblee fellow, you know…"
Vato didn't realize her question was rhetorical until she gave him a funny look, quirking her eyebrows and pursing her mouth into a thin line. He trailed off, throughly embarrassed.
Still, her expression almost made it worth it. She seemed so much softer and kinder when she wasn't peering down a proverbial crosshair.
"You're very… unembroidered, Cadet," she noted wryly.
Vato felt the tips of his ears burning. He prayed to a god he didn't believe in that he wasn't blushing. "I suppose I just like to answer questions."
"What is Major Kimblee's serial number?"
"O-513190," intoned Vato without decoration.
"Hmm." Cadet Hawkeye stabbed an amorphous pile of something akin to spinach, but she didn't eat it. "Do you have all our serial numbers memorized?"
He shrugged. "Not by conscious effort, no. I just happened to see the Major's dossier in passing."
"Do you know my serial number, Officer Cadet Falman?"
"Ah," he shifted, "I do not. Information about you is not readily available. If you don't mind my saying so, Cadet, you're something of an enigma around here."
"I am a soldier," she said quietly. The barriers went back up and she receded to a place Vato wasn't welcome, somewhere lead-lined and dark. "And soldiers are very simple people."
But she was not a soldier, Vato realized, though he didn't say it aloud. She placed no stock in promotion and glory like some of the military brass. She took no pleasure in killing. She was not a simple person because she shirked the reputation that had bestowed upon her so much respect and renown.
He wondered, then, what had brought her to the battlefield. It was not the Führer's empty propaganda; the man's words dripped with so much sticky rhetoric it was a small wonder his mouth didn't glue shut. It wasn't for King and country, like Havoc and Breda, or to dredge up an inkling of a purpose, like himself. No… Riza Hawkeye had found her calling a long time ago, and it, whatever it was, had lead her to the doorstep of war and bloodshed. The military was not the cause, merely a consequence.
"They're sending to Ishval tomorrow. The Daliha District."
Vato's blood ran like ice water. "I'm… I'm so sorry… forgive me, I didn't know…"
He understood now why the Sergeant had neglected to punish Hawkeye for her insubordination. It would seem more than a little redundant to discipline a woman about to be shipped to the front lines of hell.
She peered at him with her beautiful, terrifying amber eyes. "It is not you who should be begging my forgiveness, Vato. We simple people have forfeited the right to contrition."
"But not regret," he countered. "There is nothing more human than ruminating on what could have been."
"Speculating on the past does nothing to change the present," she said bitterly. "It only brings more pain."
"Good," affirmed Vato, uncharacteristically unyielding. "Pain reminds us that there is a world beyond the battlefield. Pain means you still care."
She flashed a small, sad smile that nearly broke his heart. "But I don't care, Vato. I don't care about Amestris, or the Führer, or the military. I care about one man, and if I see him on the battlefield, we will greet each other with the blindness of strangers.
"Because the world has changed us. Because its destruction is our shared truth, and our collective shame."
When the Führer reassigned Falman to the North, the Warrant Officer accepted his new orders with grace.
When Lieutenant-Colonel Hughes bled to death in a phone booth, when Lust shredded Lieutenant Havoc's spine, Falman swallowed his grief, crushed it into a singularity within his chest, and endured.
When Roy Mustang chose a prodigious sniper as his adjutant, long ago, and when Bradley stripped her from the Colonel's side, Falman said nothing; a suspicion had crystallized into a certainty, and he merely accepted what he had always supposed to be true.
He knew there was little room for kindness and mercy in the world. As soldiers, they could ill-afford the luxury of tenderness. A bleeding heart tended to summon the sharks. Falman's commanding officer had his ambitions, and Roy Mustang did not allow his pain to stand in his way. If the Colonel began to regret, even for an instant, the future would recede back into that infinite distance.
But when Bradley took away the Flame Alchemist's shadow, Mustang had inadvertently revealed that he was a selfless man in a selfish world. That he loved far too much, and cared far too little. That in protecting his back, Riza Hawkeye had become his biggest blind spot.
A tragedy indeed.
Of course, Falman understood that every soldier is prepared to die from the moment they don the uniform. But Hawkeye had shown him that not every military officer was a cold, unfeeling fixture of the system. They had names and families. They lived and loved. The scarce fissures and cracks that existed were still plenty wide enough for something devestatingly tender to find its way out.
They were human.
And Hawkeye had shown Falman a human who had adopted two lonely, lost little boys from Resembool, who cried at funerals, who raged at the death of his beloved friend. Who buried his grief. Buried it, and salted the earth, because it hurt so much.
And no matter what was to come, irregardless of her own well-being, Riza Hawkeye was ready to die to fulfill the duty of her superior, to stitch the Colonel's humanity back together when heartbreak threatened to tear it apart.
And Falman loved her for it.
But the words were not for him. Vato Falman knew his place. He would follow his orders. He would carry his commanding officer's paperwork to and from the archives. He would nod when he needed to nod. He would salute when he needed to salute. He would deliver the mail, sign on the dotted line, stay quiet, said his "Yes, sirs" and "No, sirs", make himself readily available while remaining entirely invisible.
Because Vato Falman was a simple man. And simple men are not made for glory.