luc court

Hearth Warmth

It is a summer day in Central and the air is too hot to breathe. Humidity piles thick. This is the perfect weather to lie down and sleep in; this is the kind of weather you find a friend to drowse away the waning hours of afternoon with, your head pillowed on their shins while they restlessly cross and recross their ankles, forcing you to adjust each time.

Instead, you find yourself wrinkling your nose and thinking about how the heat only makes the abattoir of Roy's room reek all the worse.

Roy Mustang was shipped back home last week. Neat as a parcel of vegetables with the stamp upside-down on the crate. You hadn't seen him since his arrival upon the train platform, the way his eyes had focused on everything but you; hair with a cow-lick in back that hadn't been smoothed down and the nervous flash of his knuckles. Too many gestures when he made his excuses that he was tired, that he just needed to get some real sleep which wasn't jostled on the train-tracks. Too many shakes of his head.

That wasn't normal. Even for Roy.

Especially for Roy and you let him go back to his bunk on West and Third with the knowledge that you'd come to him later.

Roy doesn't always like people chasing after him immediately. It makes him pull inwards, clamming up; it brings out the lie on his face as he tries to divert you down one path or another. If you slip up even a second he's lured your attention off some entirely different tack. Roy prefers to fluster people if he can. It gives him time to figure out what's important.

You can either love him or hate him for that. Instead, you chose to mull the matter over in your girlfriend's hair, debated solutions to the problem of Equation Mustang. She suggested food. You agreed. One covered basket later and the pie swung heavy in your hand, an offering you were sure your friend wouldn't turn away.

Because, honestly, Roy is really shitty at taking care of himself.

That includes his dining habits — but not his clothes, which is no surprise. His health gets equally dismissed. Predictably enough, Roy is prone to fevers, ignoring any infections inside him until his body tries to set itself on fire to burn them out.

Even then he never bothers to consider the jeopardy of his life. In revenge, you dump cold towels unceremoniously on his face while he engages in sleepy delirium, too weak to banter you out of his personal problem.

Someday Roy will get a girlfriend — a steady one — and stop making you worry like this. If he's remembered to eat two meals out of the day, see the doctor when his lungs are moist enough that it sounds like pneumonia. You'll be glad when he does. Roy's difficult enough as it is; an entire platoon wouldn't be enough to make sure the man stays out of trouble.

Until then, you'll hike up your sleeves and double-roll the cuffs.

"This is the last time I'm saving your ass, Roy," you say, and even try to mean it.

Both of you know that the ultimatum is a lie.

Roy watches you work, cat-eyed from his perch where you'd shoved him out of the way. You'd thought to move him off the circles chalked out on the floor, only to discover that they were everywhere, trailing down the cramped aisles of the furniture. Ground, walls. Parts of the ceiling in some spots, diagrams breeding spider-like throughout the room.

In desperation, you upended him onto the bed. Roy's violated some kind of renter's agreement with all this, you're sure of it. Complex alchemy forfeits the safety deposit. Hauling in enough buckets of blood to repaint the walls? You can only imagine the penalties.

Your heel skids against one of the containers as you work your kneeling way across the floorboards. The bucket sloshes with a clang; the contents lip the edge of the metal, but don't overspill.

"How did you get these things anyway?" Last you checked, the market isn't selling B-positive by the pint.

"Do you really want to know the answer to that, Maes?"

Roy's head is tilted back on the bed, his face half-swallowed by the lump of the pillow. The skin on his neck shows a smear of what you can only hope is dirt.


Your reply is made warningly. You have rarely needed to use that tone on him; you know your friend is like the flame he possesses, customarily warm and yet prone to unexpected flares, reacting poorly to snuffing attempts. Like fire. Careless enough to consume all its fuel and thereby be extinguished. The blaze doesn't realize how fast the logs are sizzling down to shreds, too busy sporting with flecks of ash that tumble upwards into the air.

That's why someone has to tend the fire. Feed it. Otherwise it will kill itself.

Roy caves quickly this time, closing his lids as he whispers debatable confession to the ceiling. "I... bought them from a butcher."

"A butcher." Flat.

"Yes," he affirms, opening an eye that stares at you with dark, summer-heat challenge, "that's right, Maes."

You let that answer go for now. If the truth is worse, you're not sure you want to hear it, and it's too easy to fall into the bait of becoming agitated. Lose your patience with Roy and he will drag you along by your nose until you forget why you were here in the first place. Then how will the floors get clean?

Flies are stacking thick on the windowsill. You grab a sponge and work hard to scrub evidence of what you are sure will get your friend court-martialed.

"How can you stand to sleep in here, Roy?"

"I can't."

You believe that answer easily. The stench of cow-blood is permeating everything. Fabric left in this room will need a good cycle through the washing machines after this. That means laundry of Roy's clothes. Bedsheets, drapes; everything should be dumped into a tub to get the meaty reek of mass-slaughter out of the fibers.

Replace the odor with spring-fresh detergent. Or else memory will come back to haunt whoever is unlucky enough to touch that cloth to skin, and inhale the lingering perfume of death.

Idly, you wonder if Roy will ever join you for steak tartar again.

Roy has discovered Gracia's apple crisp as he's plucked his wandering way back to the table. He's perched on the chair, sitting on the desk, feet upon the seat. One of his left toes looks either stubbed or dirty; you grab his ankle long enough to swipe the wet cloth across it and only succeed in leaving a pink trail of water behind. It drips down the arch of his foot.

You catch the streak with curved fingers and then return to rinse the cloth out in muddy cleaning water.

In dim-light portraiture, Roy sits upon the desk and watches you wipe away the taboo his life has committed. The gun is next to his left hip. You can guess it's loaded, but a quick glance announced that the safety was on. Roy, playing with death. Someday it will devour even him once it's out of logs, when the blaze of the Flame Alchemist has nothing left to burn but himself.

Even in finding a new purpose in life, Roy's still using himself as his own kindling.

Gracia's apple pie is an episode of sugar on the air. Roy pauses in his private contemplations to lick his thumb where some of the filling has spilled out over a knuckle. Only a third of the floor's been washed away and the waterbucket's already gritty with chalk dust, smelling of rancid flesh. You'll be busy like this for hours.

Roy reaches for a second piece of dessert, his fingers moving over the checkered cloth of Gracia's basket like a blind man reading ridges on a map. Flies buzz.

In the silence of Roy's teeth chewing, you bend your back to the task and tend the fire of your old friend once more.