luc court

Trick of the Light

He was gone for only a day after the funeral. And then he was lying again. Gravedirt smell on his skin and Colonel Mustang was traipsing into the offices with an ease that overrode reality. No account given. No explanation. Absent for a day, and that was all he seemed to humanly need.

"We're going to uncover why Hughes was killed," he said to them, pushing his desk chair back with one foot."We don't have any room for failure," he said.

Colonel Mustang upheld his reputation as a man so far gone into smirking that the expression was terminally default. When the time came to bury him at last, the mortician would have to chisel his lips back into a proper, neutral line, an artificial solemnity that never existed in his waking moments save during interrogations.

Military march was the surest way to undo Roy Mustang's arrogance.

When Roy heard the news, he'd still been en route. The death had been deemed too important not to telegraph, despite the cost of mobile lines. He'd swung off the train with his face already composed, eyes distant, checking off formula after methodical formula while he stared at points over people's shoulders and took their news directly. With indifference.

Hawkeye had met up with him at the gate when their carriages disembarked."Colonel," came her smart salute.

Roy moved past her without looking.

They'd whispered about it later, he knew, how Colonel Mustang showed no signs of public grief, but only a patient ruthlessness. While Gracia was weeping and even Armstrong succumbing to bright eyes and the need to turn his face away hurriedly for days after the actual burial, Mustang had only kept his hair combed back underneath his hat.

One day. Alone. He'd parted with Hawkeye after their last vigil over the grave, and Mustang had disappeared into the rain of a cloud-free day.

Roy tallies mental equations every time his thoughts threaten to wander back to that too-sunny afternoon. Work is a large dog in his head, just out of sight on the kitchen floor while its nails click restless, tick tick tick.

It keeps him occupied. Every time his mind begins to stray, there's the sound of the warhound again, and Mustang calls himself to account.

He shouldn't, really, be as amused as he is. Everything is funny these days. Everything makes him smile even as he knows the expression is all wrong, too drooped in one corner, too high in another. He catches sight of his own face in the rearview mirror of the gloss-black car that picks him up for work these days—can't risk a man like you also getting assassinated, they giggle, skimming over the fact that what they really want is to keep track of him.

He hates the military. Maybe he doesn't. Roy and straight-line thinking aren't on speaking terms anymore, though he likes to pretend.

There's a hole punched out of Roy's world, ever since Hughes's sudden death in Central. Until he can get the answers he needs, Roy's not working right. He can sense that damage inside him. Like a pocketwatch, his gears are faulty. And—like a pocketwatch—he doesn't dare show anything other than that pristine clock facade, the slim lines of the hour and minute hands performing their customary sweeps. Ticking.

Before it had been easy. Before he had known which branches of the military were corrupt, who wore their petty greed on their chests and polished it daily.

Now he doesn't know what to suspect.

The Elrics have both taken off, abandoning all orders and advice. This loss, too, is a strange one. It impacts Roy like a .45 mm handgun. He wanders around with his organs missing and cold air breezing in through his ribs, all while he asks pleasantly for a cup of coffee and if someone's seen today's paper.

Back when the world hadn't played prestidigitation with its own rules, Roy would have paced his office in concern masked as mockery. Now he realizes that the Elrics have slipped out of his grasp, out of the ancient, lame explanation that Roy was watching out for them in Hohenheim's memory.He thinks that once, maybe, it would have hurt more to see them go.

Both brothers have taken their own ways. Parts of Ishbal have dissolved in a massive explosion; strange alchemists have broken into Headquarters and demanded for even stranger children back. The Rockbell girl had ended up at Gracia's, and Roy had seen Kimblee once, very briefly, coated in military blues.

The sight of those colors on a man with snake-flat eyes brings all the wrong memories to the fore of Roy's mind; he had tasted ash for days after that single glimpse, and a sadist's laughter.

Later in his office, when the night has advanced onto day, Hawkeye brings over a bowl from the mess hall. Roy puts down his pen with a dry laugh when he sees the contents. Soup. Beef broth, to be precise; spoon turned to one-quarter's degree, a skim of grease all around the rim. Vegetable chunks.Hawkeye introduces the meal without pretense.

"You've missed dinner again, Colonel. That's the third day in a row."

He stands so that he does not have to look at it. Hawkeye sits, prim, after placing the tray upon his desk, first ushering the paperwork aside.

Roy's face is doing all kinds of things, but most of them concern the attempt to smile.

Maes, is what he really says, but they both pretend he's used the deceased's surname.

"Hughes," he enunciates, "used to do things like that for me. You should go home, not stay late. You saw the reward for that kind of dedication."

She looks at him, and for a split-second, Roy watches those piercing brown eyes see everything inside of him.

"I don't do it because I want to be loved," she says. "Colonel."

He doesn't know if he believes her, but he's grateful anyway."That's good," comes his reply, dispassionate and wandering. By now he is standing behind her chair. The hairclip comes loose in a soft nick of sound. He pulls her hair over her shoulders and tilts her head back towards him.

Looking down at the bridge of her nose, Roy can see the small lines on Liza's face that have faded in over the years, testaments to unvoiced worry.

Holding her head, cradling her skull with one hand on either side of her temples, Roy is struck by the horrifying sentiment that he is touching something very precious. If he closes his fingers, he might crack her brainpan like a ceramic centerpiece.

But she's stronger than that. That's what he tells himself as he leans down and kisses her, his mouth full of ripe-plum hopelessness. In a trick of the light, he sees sheafs of blonde hair again pouring over a woman's shoulders; not his office, but a clinic far away, on the other side of a gun and a memory.

He wonders if it is only a matter of time before Hawkeye, too, is taken down in this war which has betrayed even the last few rules of engagement that Mustang used to believe. How the battlefield was one thing—including medical clinics and tents where Kimblee laughed and painted his hands with leaking intestines—and your home city was another. Then they became one and the same, and you didn't know whose name would make it on the funeral march next.The dry feeling in his throat is almost as bad as an old fear of killing, and of being killed.

No. Worse.

Hawkeye responds. Careful mouth on his, elegant in the way she keeps from bumping teeth. Waves of passion are inappropriate for this time and place and life. They are two creatures of the military, and this shows no signs of changing, even unto death.

Roy isn't sure if he'll vomit. He can't stop thinking of rumors, superstitions on the field, how some regiments claimed that the Ishbal people practiced death curses and begged their deity for revenge with their last breath. He wonders if they hexed him to know the pain of losing a loved one. If they wanted him to live to discover what it was like.

If that's the truth, then Mustang's swimming in a cloud of ill fortune daily.

Roy's never had a family for that reason. Instead he has Liza Hawkeye in his office with her head tilted back and her throat ivory-white in the lamplight, and her eyes are closed as serenely as if she were in prayer. He has Maes Hughes under the ground and a whole set of other officers still living, men who would follow him out of painfully blind trust.

He has Liza on the carpet.

When his hands are on the floor just above her shoulders, Roy drowns in a cold horror as he discovers he can't fathom his own motivations. Buttons come off, one by one. He watches his fingers move, studying them from afar and blindly thankful for all the nights in recital with a hundred other women. Well-practiced, his hands barely tremble.

Even so, there's a small voice in his head screaming, what will she expect after this, screaming what if she dies after this, screaming why am I doing this at all? And then, an even worse one, almost entirely missed: my god what about birth control?Then it's too late, and Roy's eyes are wrenching closed. Hawkeye's knee bumps against his ribs and he thinks he's been shot, a dull nudging impact that you would only discover right before you pass out.

He denies it all, and in the desperation, feels very, very human."I don't know what I'm doing," he admits, several hours later.

Hawkeye halts in untangling his pants from his socks, turning them right-side out."I know."

He's reeling afterwards. For days. It's a trick of the light that explains why the rest of the military thinks Roy is at all sane, because he doesn't feel it, doesn't feel anything except a persistent urge to stumble against the walls and hang fast to them, hoping for an explanation.

Eventually, the worst of it calms. Never entirely vanishes, but Roy finds he is able to stuff the seasick rolling of his nerves back into a corner where even he can barely sense them. He's done it before; he knows it can last.

Hawkeye says nothing during the week that they prepare for their investigations. She hands him his notes. His coat. His hat, and then, just once, she reaches up and brushes back his bangs from his eyes. The gesture is perfunctory; Hawkeye makes it with the same firm-lipped determination as if she were reloading her gun.

Something Roy doesn't actually tell her: he thinks he's stopped breathing. A while ago, in fact, because it feels like there's a marble of stale air in his mouth, fat against his tongue. Even when he speaks, it doesn't go away. The sphere forces itself against the roof of his mouth, depressing his jaw, until Mustang's teeth are pregnant with an expression full of nothingness.

Of silence. Which makes it all the easier to watch the minute creases around Liza's eyes, the worry-lines and marks of aging, years sacrificed to the military. The sun through the windows reveals those delicate etchings when it shines on her skin. There are very few around her mouth; most of Liza's history involves her eyes, from when she's squinted down innumerable sights, uncountable guns. She touches his face. She doesn't linger.

They pack their supplies and plans.