"What happens if we leave transmutation marks behind?" Riza asked idly as she chalked a fusion array into the tile. It could only improve them. This was the most hideously decorated bathroom she had seen.
"The Madame has already threatened to make me replace anything we break," Roy responded as he held the (temporarily!) detached mirror from the medicine cabinet in place. "I may ask her to let us pay for someone qualified to re-tile instead."
Energy crackled beneath her fingertips as she tacked the mirror in place. "You can use your shiny new salary to pay for it. I am still in the dorms until I sit the Exam."
Roy straightened. "I've sat the exam. You'll do fine. And then you'll have a Major's paycheck and a stipend to pay any tiler in Amestris to rid my aunt of the curse of hideous orange."
"I'm glad you're so confident, given everyone thinks you're helping me study for it." Instead they were converting a makeshift medical center. The oldest towel his sisters' owned lined the bathtub, more smothered Roy's childhood bed, and just visible through the opened door was a side table overflowing with bandages, gauze and a tub of the best burn salve the military could requisition. Having such a dangerous specialisation made this slightly easier. But if they were caught, no claims of training accidents were likely to spare them.
Beside her Roy ran through the same inventory. "I think..." he took deep breath that juddered on the exhale, "I think I'm as ready as I'm ever going to be. Let's do this before I lose my remaining nerve." The smile was strained as he unbuttoned his shirt and he seemed to read her thoughts from her answering expression. "I know we agreed it can wait, or we can raid the library for a better way, but I want it gone."
She wanted to object. This was madness. They were making plans to inflict potentially life threatening burns in the name of removing a tattoo, when they should be able to... ink over it, or draw the ink out of the skin, or do something. But every something that came to mind required research or time or resources the pair of them lacked. This, though? Fire was something they could do. Riza remembered the first time she watched through her scope as people screamed in the furnace of Roy's alchemy. This was a price she would pay.
"This is not how my teenage brain thought this would go," Roy joked as he tossed his underpants on the pile of their combined clothing. "Master Hawkeye would have skinned me for stripping in front of you, though."
"Father would skin us both. Especially when he learnt we were destroying his research. Amorous teens he could deal with. This in unforgivable." Her underwear could stay, Riza decided; she'd be able to change them later. Roy was the one they couldn't leave in wet clothes.
Silently he pulled on a pair of ignition gloves, the red stitching standing out starkly as he held out a third to Riza. The roughened fingertips dragged at her gun calluses unpleasantly. The array prickled at the edge of her consciousness as she fed a trickle of energy into the circle and watched it briefly light up. That felt incorrect too. It was… familiar in its own way, the same base research as Roy’s but spun down a subtly different tangent. Less power, more complex supporting braces; she’d never be able to take out a whole squad when she lacked the brute strength to push aside that volume of nitrogen. (And weren’t they both so grateful for that fact, terrifying as she was in her own way.) It still felt wrong. Too close to her own arrays and yet just enough differences, backs of hands instead of wrists, and it was no wonder the pair of them had to spend a solid week practising each other’s specialities.
Riza pushed past the strangeness and snapped her fingers. The ignition cloth sparked and caught on the channel of carefully corralled oxygen, a lick of flame darting past Roy to impact the wick of the fat candle spiked to the edge of the tub. There was pride in Roy’s half smile as he focused in turn and snuffed it before relighting in turn. An alchemist’s weapons check before heading into battle.
“And if I can’t… if I lose my nerve and change my mind…” Roy pleaded as he turned to kneel under the shower head. “We both know I deserve every moment of this. Don’t let me stop.” In the paired mirrors they’d set up the older alchemist could see the sprawling encoded arcanium tattooed across the width and length of his back, the secret research their alchemy master was too paranoid to carve into a stone tablet locked in a box hidden in an entrapped compartment at the bottom of a well like any normal secretive alchemist.
She rested her bare hand on his shoulder, rubbed her thumb over the edge of the inked lines. “I promise. If you can’t, I’ll finish it.”
Roy closed his eyes to better visualise the needed alchemy. “I'm starting with the upper left section,” he said with forced calm as Riza took a half step clear. A breath, a subtle shift in the air currents she could only feel because she was searching for it, and a snap. The spark leapt from his fingers and grew into a fireball as it curved around his arm and impacted his shoulder with a hiss and a yelp. A short yelp, given Roy instinctively dropped the transmutation.
There was a patch of shiny red skin but only a tiny patch in the center was blistering. “Good aim, but hotter and longer;” Riza offered dryly, letting her friend claim the illusion that had been on purpose. He huffed as his knuckles clenched on the side of the bath. This time the flame came from the candle, a solid tongue that hesitated a second in the air behind him before lashing down.
The familiar scent of charring flesh filled the air as Roy screamed and she hoped none of his sisters came rushing in. Patterns of light shifted and danced. Then she didn’t have time to think as his control slipped and the tightly gathered fire exploded outwards. In panic Riza yanked the surrounding gases hard enough that the pressure change made her ears pop as the flames were smothered. Roy’s eyes were scrunched shut as he sobbed. “Please tell me that was enough?”
The damage was… hopefully not as bad as it looked, because every battlefield instinct was screaming to fetch a medic. A patch the size of her hand was blistered and angry red marks trailed to the right across his spine almost to the other shoulder. Maybe they’d scar deeply enough to destroy the ink, but they weren’t in the key locations, and Riza winced as she saw a patch that was vital had escaped injury.
“You still need the anchoring brace on the western side of the circle,” she reluctantly answered. “And the south-eastern ignition key.” Roy whined at that, high and sharp, his arms shaking and head bowed as he tried to unclench a hand enough to relight the candle. Father’s lessons droned through her mind. ‘The more physical and mental distress you are under, the harder it is to control a complex array. The more complex the array, the more energy it can discharge if it rebounds.’
With a snap of her own fingers the candle was once more merrily flickering. “Stay. I’m taking over,” she ordered. Roy managed a noise of protest through the tears as she stepped into the tub behind him. “Stay still.”
“Not a… not a dog.”
She curled her left hand over his shoulder to hold him steady. “Of course not. Dogs listen to me.”
His huff of amusement was closer to another sob. “Military dogs. We’ll make... the worst... pack ever.”
Oxygen gathered to her will. “Their fault for collaring us,” Riza retorted grimly. “Brace yourself.” The ribbon twisted invisibly outward until it brushed the candle and ignited. That was the easy part. Under her hand Roy tried to jolt free as she wrestled more air against the offending patch of skin, fought to make the flame hotter so it wouldn’t need to be held so long as her friend screamed until he sank his teeth into his left forearm.
Those were five of the longest seconds of her life, and it wasn’t over yet. “Please, please, please Riza,” Roy begged around his mouthful of flesh and she couldn’t tell if he was pleading for her to stop or to get it over with. On reflection, she decided she didn’t want to know.
“Last bit, just hold on a little longer,” she said as she gripped his neck and bent him further forward, used her leg to brace against his side until she was almost sideways pinning him in place. This time she threw everything she had at the alchemy, pushing the energy until her stomach swooped warningly in order to hit the entire handspan at once. Skin sizzled and charred as Roy writhed in agony.
The fire winked out. Four long heartbeats passed as she took in the injuries and registered the damage, then with a frantic scramble she lunged for the faucet and yanked the shower on full force. Roy cried out as frigid water crashed down across his burned back. A half step, some wriggling, and Riza’s knees sank to the porcelain in front of him to crush her friend against her chest in a tight hug while he pressed his face into her neck and sobbed.
“It’s done,” she soothed. “It’s gone, Roy. It’s gone, it dies with us, it’s done.”