Non-critical (I think) spoilers for manga chapter 34.
Her position in the battlefield was that of a sniper, so Riza Hawkeye usually returned to camp smelling like gunpowder and dust. Her own chosen duty was the defense of the Flame Alchemist, instead of making the most kills like the others, so she usually returned to camp also smelling like ashes and explosions. Occasionally, when she had to go close-range in either his defense or her own, she would come back smelling like death and blood, and the brown-white camouflage coat she was given by the faceless man at Supplies quarters would be dyed dark, in patterns so fascinating in their drips and flows and splashes. The first time she washed the coat. The second and third and fourth she didn’t. By the fifth time, Riza Hawkeye had a flagrant set of embroidery on her coat, twisting that way and this like one of the complex alchemical arrays she’d seen the Flame Alchemist do, a lifetime ago, and she washed it. Too many patterns, too many intertwining relations between one bloodstain and the next, and the coat lost its purpose as camouflage.
The stains didn’t go away, of course, and Riza ended up filing the Supplies department for another one. In a week it came, fresh and clean and brown-white. She was more careful this time, he was more careful, and it took longer to dye the coat. She didn’t ask how many times he’d have to change his, sometimes charcoal black in ashes and dust as he walked off the fork in the camp’s road that took him to the Alchemists’ separate quarters. Charcoal black, just like the military-issued jackets they used in the main headquarters, in peace and in cities alive with people going on their business. Here they used brown-white, in sun-seared desert sands and disillusioned troops, in abandoned buildings rife with bullet holes, snipers hidden between windows and on rooftops, and the dead walking the streets of memories at night. Here she shot a boy who happened to be aiming his gun. Here was where he fell, and here was where he twitched while the blood gushed out of his wounds. Here was where she ran as she moved on as a soldier in the fury of battle, not caring for anything but one moment and the next, stepping over the dead like a pile of debris. Here was the corner where she retreated, reloading her gun as she prepared for another kill.
The blood marks were gone, lost to footsteps and explosions. The bullet holes were gone from the walls, lost to yet more explosions. That was where he snapped his fingers and turned the boy to crisps, the boy who happened to be aiming his gun. That was where he pulled out his own gun and fired. That was where the bloodstains were supposed to be, but on the next day he snapped his fingers and turned everything to twisted pieces of steel and dust. Riza remembered, because her own chosen duty was the defense of the Flame Alchemist. She knew he did not remember, because her position was that of a sniper, and a sniper that was easily seen would be dead before the battle even began. Here was where she threw her empty pack of bullets away, and behind that pile of debris was where he took shelter from incoming enemy fire. The memories of here and there played over in her mind at night, recalling in vivid details what she never paid attention to in the heat of battle, over and over again like a plea for a return of the lives she took.
Riza simply accepted the steady resupply of bullets as she went, along the way accepting the fact that she was making one of the highest kills for the snipers. Sergeant Hawkeye, they said, putting another star on her shoulder. Then it was Sergeant-Major and another star. She accepted it gracefully like any soldier would and dutifully went back to her own chosen task, quite aware of the fact that he also received another star. Quite aware of the fact that she, in attempting to protect, had killed more than many who were there to kill, for in attempting to protect she had the task of killing for not one but two. And she knew he was quite aware of the fact that he, in attempting to remain himself in the madness of burnt flesh and muscles contracting in infernal death throes, had killed more than many who merely attempted to kill, for in trying to collect the pieces of youthful idealism he had the task of killing for not one but for all. And since there was nothing to be said on the matter, Riza went on in her duty and fired at flesh-and-blood targets, precise aim as she paid with lead and gunpowder for yet more and more lives. Stacked on top of each other, the bodies of the men she killed would tower far above her, threatening to come crashing down in vengeance at any moment. So she returned to pulling her trigger and sending more and more to their deaths, just as he continued to snap his fingers and turned his brown-white coat to charcoal black.
They kept separate quarters, the sharpshooters, the grunts, the Alchemists, Intel. Somehow they still ended up talking together in the instants of peace in the battlefield. Tent flaps would sway, buildings would crumble, and just in the moments the gunfire stopped one of them would start talking. It was rarely Riza, as she was concealed away in a sniper’s recess for much of the time, following the path his patrol or offensive would take with a steady hand and a scope. They would talk in grim and determined faces, turning this way and that as they surveyed their surroundings. Sometimes, when they were close enough for her to hear, it would be about home. Sometimes it would be about Captain Hughes’ girlfriend back in Central. Sometimes it would be about who would get the bigger share of the night’s alcohol reserves. And sometimes it was about the war itself, about the madness and the insane stubbornness that forced them to stay when going back was just the simple matter of disobedience and a mark on the record. But she knew that he was stubborn, and that he paid for sanity with a piece of himself every other day. So when they returned to camp and sit their circles on the debris, reluctant to take their separate forks in the road to separate tasteless dinner and water that smelled of metal, she said nothing and passed along the drink.
Some of them snapped. Major Armstrong returned to Central, disobeyed an order. Hughes said he was the smart one, in the battlefield with Riza perched in her little hideout, and his companion said nothing to change the subject. The Major was an Alchemist, and his talent was close-range. It was hard enough to stay, to kill and live with being killed, to run among exploding shells and expect to come back to camp not remembering what home looked like. She knew it was difficult enough to pull the trigger and live through it, the act of killing not so much as the remembrance of the trigger being pulled, and she had tried to imagine snapping fingers and burnt flesh. The Major lived with the junction between alchemy and sheer martial discipline, seeing point-blank the disassemblies of the human construct. It was only logical to assume that he had lost more pieces than he had to offer, and in the breaking was perhaps the wiser of them. He was going back to something of a disgrace, but also away from the ghost streets and imaginary corpses, back into the drunken sweetness of rainfall and pancakes baking in the oven. The rest of them stayed, weighing the sheer logic and illogic of it together and declared an answer to have already been found.
Guns were easier because you didn’t have to see your enemies up close, didn’t have to see the instant where living flesh and blood turn to clammy inanimate objects. It was the numbers and the calculations, wind speed and the angle of moving targets. And then the enemies simply rolled up and died, or yelled and took cover. Riza was good enough that her targets did the rolling more than anything else, adding to the ever-taller stack.
Guns were easier, but it never became easy. Easy perhaps in the heat of battle, instincts from countless shots fired taking over the need for moral encumbrance. The need to kill became almost sacred, like the criteria of survival.
Killing and living were inseparable from each other for years, just as much as she knew alchemy stopped to mean books and arrays for him but ashes and dust, less chalk than snapping fingers, more the drone than the researcher. Riza couldn’t say the same for herself, as she had always known what her skills were made for; when you learn how to shoot a gun, it meant that you learn how to rob a life of its meaning. What she was taught by her new teacher was that once you learn how to rob a life of its meaning, once you learn how to create death, you would no longer be able to tell between the meaning of your own life and that of pulling the trigger. So in trying to keep her distance, Riza kept to her chosen duty solemnly and planted a purpose firmly in front of her like a declaration. Death was the means to rob a purpose out of life, but in her hands, death was merely a part of her purpose. She told herself that way she wouldn’t be consumed in it, wouldn’t lose herself in-between the lines of killing and living, and set her sights straight to one place to make sure he wouldn’t be consume in his own fire. That way the need to kill would become instead the criteria of a promise to be kept, a script to lie to every other day.
And abruptly, they were herded off onto a train, the faceless men telling them it was all over, the war was won and they were heroes. He was a hero, and she was also a silent hero; a faceless sniper whose hands picked out the fates of who would live and die like a death goddess, and Hughes and everyone else who stayed toward the end. People cheered in the station as their train arrived, heralding them as the brave young men and women who finally ended the war. Someone remarked that was the taste of heroism. Riza found that the taste was bland, just like the first bite of pancake she hurriedly took when she arrived at home with its three years of dust. She’d sat in muted wonder and horror at it, more so than in the blood splashing in intricate patterns on her coat, at the bland taste of the pancake that was supposed to be sweet and soft and Just Like Home. Not like the caking of dust falling inside a crumbled ruin. The Sergeant-Major spent the day trying to recover the fragments of herself that she killed with a hundred bullets, only to discover that the pieces were like glass and cut the more she tried to remember. The next day she got back into her uniform and went to receive the Medal of Honor, given to everyone who managed to kill the most enemies, whether it be soldiers, women or babies. Some of them wore it proudly. Riza went back to her stripes unless she absolutely had to.
She kept her commission, and they added another stripe on her shoulder. Second Lieutenant Hawkeye, congratulations on your new rank and I must commend you on your good work for the military. The common reply would be a salute and a crisp Thank You Sir, so she did just that.
And she would walk back to base, into cramp quarters filled with resting heroes and belongings carelessly strewn around, took her usual seat in the corner and watched from the sniper’s vantage point the quiet conversations. Some were ready to be shipped back home, some, like the Second Lieutenant, kept their commissions.
He came, brown-white coat splattered with charcoal black, and asked if she was coming.
Riza Hawkeye was supposed to be sent elsewhere, but she remained in East City. Because her position was that of a sniper and her own chosen duty was the defense of the Flame Alchemist, she would keep to her purpose and set her sights straight before she herself was consumed.