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A Modest Proposal

part 1 of Wrong Turn Universe

Ooh, can you feel that? That was an educated guess.—Bo Burnham,

This never happened. Never happened.

Master Hawkeye had just said it so casually, too. At the end of their tutorial, Roy had handed over the awkward but serviceable translation of Atridis' First Principles which he'd laboured over until the small hours of the previous night, and his teacher had taken it absently and shoved it on top of a half-eaten plate of toast. Roy had, as usual, felt pained, indignant, and too terrified to comment. Master Hawkeye had then carried on with his note-taking for a couple of minutes. Pursuing his own work during tutorial time was another of his master's habits upon which Roy did not dare to comment.

Then Hawkeye had carefully marked his page with a ribbon, and said offhandedly, "By the way, I shall be away on business this evening and tomorrow. Get Riza to fix you something to eat." As if she didn't cook every meal they ever ate.

And away? On business? What was that? That summer, he had seen his teacher step out of the house a total of twice, and it had given him an utter shock each time. Master Hawkeye was not a man tremendously interested in the world outside of his study. As for business, either people came to see him, or Riza handled them — that is, in the time she wasn't either at school, cooking, attempting to stop the house becoming a salmonella colony, or battling her homework backlog. Apparently, there had been servants to do these things, once. Neither Master Hawkeye nor Riza ever mentioned servants, but there were a set of chimes on the kitchen wall with the names of rooms written next to them in dusty copperplate. Parlour, Blue Bedroom, Breakfast Room, Study. Hawkeye occasionally used the study chime to call for Riza when he wanted a cup of tea. Roy had never even quite worked out which one the breakfast room even was. Half the rooms in the house, the side with the damp problem, were shut up now. They held curling, mouldy jumbles of papers, broken furniture, buckets and bowls to catch the worst of the rain. Hawkeye's wife had been dead for many years; for a long time before Roy arrived, it had been just been the two Hawkeyes, father and daughter, rattling around the old house as it slowly fell apart around them.

When Roy tried to picture Riza back in the years before he'd known her, he could only imagine a six year old with a pencil tucked behind her ear, delivering a telling-off to an elderly accountant. No, Master Hawkeye did not do business.

Therefore, "business" had to be a euphemism for something — and the only subject for which Master Hawkeye would bother to use code was alchemy. Was he meeting another researcher? That would also be strange: Roy had never heard his teacher say a positive word about any other alchemist who'd been dead less than two hundred years. Or perhaps it was one of his rare books? Merchants and scholars occasionally turned up at the house with tiny, crumbling leather bound volumes wrapped lovingly in tissue and linen. Hawkeye would have a forceful, muttered private discussion with them over a couple of drinks in his study. They would usually emerge with the merchant looking pained and tucking his wallet into his jacket, and Hawkeye with a glint of obsessive triumph in his eyes. Then, the merchant would leave the book behind, and Hawkeye would remain shut inside the study for days contemplating his prize. And Riza would sit for a long time at the kitchen table with her big accounts ledger, chewing the end of a pencil and quietly muttering words Roy was always mildly surprised that she knew.

For Master Hawkeye to venture beyond his garden gate, this must be quite a book. It had to be something immensely rare — lost? Taboo? Illegal? He would bring it back to the house, whatever it was, and it would sit among the rest of the forbidden hoard in the locked bookcase in his study. Thinking about that bookcase made Roy's skin prickle.

He thought about it now, and began to get the germ of an idea.

Later that afternoon, when he heard Riza's key turning in the lock, Roy took his opportunity. As she was hanging up her coat, he snuck down to the kitchen, filled the kettle and lit the stove, and then sat at the table with his nose in his textbook.

As Riza entered the kitchen, he looked up, rubbed his eyes tiredly to cunningly imply that he'd been reading for absolutely ages, and said, "Oh, hello, Riza. I was just boiling the kettle. Cup of tea?"

She narrowed her eyes a little bit. How could she possibly be on to him already? It was freakish, the way she managed to find out about things. But she said "Yes, thanks, Mr Mustang," as she moved to the vegetable bin to pull out onions and carrots.

As she started to chop, he decided that it might be good to put at least his cards on the table. "Master Hawkeye said that he'll be away tonight, on business."

"That's right." Riza lined three carrots up and beheaded them with a neat stroke. "I'm making stew for the two of us, if you'd like some."

Roy marched on. "I've never known him go away for the night. I mean, to tell you the truth, I'm kind of curious."

"I know. You have lots of bad habits." She chopped rapidly away at the carrots, then lifted the board and tipped the vegetables into the big cast-iron pot. Roy could only just make out the side of her face, but he thought he saw signs of a smile.

"I suppose he's going to see Mr Meeks?" Mr Meeks was Master Hawkeye's bookseller-in-chief, the only one of the book dealers who was likely to obtain something so mindblowing that it could tempt Hawkeye into actually leaving his house. Mr Meeks did not like Roy, and had once told him to his face that he had "shifty eyes". Roy would have replied that Mr Meeks himself had the bulbous red nose of a cartoon alcoholic, but Master Hawkeye had been standing right there. So he'd bitten his tongue again. It was a general Hawkeye theme, the tongue-biting.

Riza popped a lid on the pot, and didn't say anything. Had the clatter of the pan lid drowned out what he was saying?

"I said I suppose he's going —"

"I heard what you said. Nosiness is a terrible habit. So I've decided I'm going to train you to restrain it. From now on, whenever you ask a question and I think it's annoying, I'll pretend you didn't say anything. It's going to be really good for you."

That was surprisingly barbed for Riza. Normally she teased, but was never caught with blood on her hands. Why so sensitive? He'd only asked, conversationally. But then, Roy sometimes suspected that his personal bar for polite standards of curiosity was set a bit too low. But then, he came from a large family of gossipy, semi-professional nosy parkers; so it was hardly his fault. The Hawkeyes, on the other hand, seemed, bizarrely, to enjoy being secretive for its own sake. Was that what happened when you came from a tiny family of alchemists?

But then again, might Roy's family seem just as bizarre to Riza? He had a sudden image of his foster mother sitting in the Hawkeyes' good front room on the day of his interview: wearing a vast, smelly mink coat, diamonds glittering on every finger and smoking a cigarillo. Master Hawkeye had stared through her as if she was an optical illusion. Yes, he had to admit it was possible that the Hawkeyes might consider his family weird.

Hawkeye's quiet, slippered footsteps shuffled down the stairs. Riza wiped her hands and trotted out of the kitchen to meet him. Roy glanced out of the kitchen doorway and down the hall. Hawkeye was standing at the foot of the stairs in some kind of bizarre travelling outfit, presumably last used some time in the nineteenth century. There seemed to be a cloak involved. As he reached for his shoes, Riza ran up to him and squeezed his hand. That took Roy aback, a little — for the family Hawkeye, this was wildly demonstrative physical affection. As for Roy, he couldn't survive five minutes in a room with his mother and sisters without someone grabbing him by the ear or giving him a noogie.

Riza and her father were talking quietly, now, and Roy felt embarrassed to be so obviously watching them, so he scraped his chair loudly as he stood up. He called, "Have a good journey, Teacher", then departed swiftly for the garden, because that was the only place to retreat to which didn't involve passing them in the hall.

Outside, it struck him that he now had to sit around like an idiot until Hawkeye departed. He sighed, perched on the low stone wall at the edge of the overgrown patio, and stared at the weeds.

After a minute or two, he noticed something orange among the plants at his feet. He bent down, cleared away the tangle of greenery, and picked it up. It was a cigarette butt. Huh. Master Hawkeye had been known to enjoy the occasional pipe, although fewer since he'd developed that vile smoker's cough, but he never smoked cigarettes. And the booksellers smoked in the study; Hawkeye kept a wooden box of cigarettes on his desk to offer them when they visited. Was it possible that little Riza had a sneaky habit? Surely not, thought Roy, but the more he considered it, the more he wasn't quite sure that he'd put it past her.


The apprentice was moping around in the back garden, waiting until it was safe to come back in and try to pretend that he hadn't been eavesdropping. Riza decided to leave him to it. Perhaps if he was embarrassed he'd ask fewer questions. Ordinarily, it was fun to argue with him, but she really did have a lot of chores to get through tonight.

When he walked back into the kitchen, she could see the determined glint in his eye from ten paces away. Apparently, she had underestimated how much his curiosity could overcome his manners. Honestly, alchemists.

"Hello, Riza," he called. His voice was warm and chirpy, but with a little edge of tension in it. "How's the stew?"

"Simmering."

Mr Mustang continued. "Lots of homework this evening?"

"No, but I've got yesterday's still to get through. And there are the chores. I expect Father's left you with lots of reading to do?"

"None. Actually." He sounded genuinely stunned. "What am I going to do with my evening?"

"I don't know, what are you-" And then she thought, oh, come on, and suddenly lost patience with waiting for him to make his move. "Please stop trying to build up to it and just ask whatever you're going to, Mr Mustang. I've got lots to do tonight; it'll save time."

Mr Mustang looked mildly horrified that she had worked it out. Serve him right for having such a bad poker face.

His mouth worked, and then he made an effort to recover, smiled, and said smoothly, "It's a bit of a favour, actually. I was hoping to make some progress with my reading of the Elements of Foundation — but I've just realised that I managed to leave some of my notes on your father's desk. I wondered if I could borrow your spare key to the study? I'll be ever so quick." Ha.

Riza said sweetly, "I'll let you in. I can help you find the notes, I'm sure they must be at the top of Father's pile of papers."

Mr Mustang said quickly, embarrassed, "Oh no, I was in there today, it's a total mess. And Riza, you've got so much to do this evening, I don't want to trouble you. If you could just open the study up and leave me to it, that would be just great. I'd really owe you one." He flashed her a sincere, grateful smile. Oh, for heaven's sake.

Riza said, evenly, "So. You want to try and crack the lock on Father's book cabinet so you can nose at all the banned things."

Mr Mustang's mouth formed a cute, ridiculous little 'o'. Then he pursed his lips and narrowed his eyes, sizing her up. Then he said, defeated, "Yes. I want to crack the lock on your father's cabinet and nose at all the banned things." He added, sulkily, "And there's no try about it, I can definitely get in. I saw the unlocking array once when he forgot to wipe it off the front."

"That's very interesting," said Riza.

Mr Mustang looked hopeful.

"But no." Then she picked up the laundry basket and swept out into the garden cheerfully, leaving a little crumpled heap of teenage alchemist in her wake.

This was not, however, the end of it. He turned up again as Riza was taking the washing in.

"I have a proposition for you!" he said grandly. She gave him a sharp look; he turned a bit pink but soldiered on. "Because we alchemists live on propositions. We make deals, we believe in the sacred principle of equivalent trade." Riza raised an eyebrow, but failed to deter him. "If you let me into the study, I will make you a whisky sour from the stuff in your father's drinks cabinet. I make excellent whisky sours."

As always, she was rolling her eyes at his confidence, but already half-taken in. "I've never had a whisky sour before. How do I know if I'd like them?"

"You will definitely like them. They're delicious, they taste like lemons and honey. You'll like them even if you don't like whisky." I've never tried whisky, Riza didn't say. He leaned forward, took a towel and folded it neatly, edging subtly into her body space as he did so. "And I make them really well. Iris taught me." Iris, his foster-sister, who seemed to shoulder the blame for all manner of his tricks. Perhaps it was her who'd taught him to flirt like no normal seventeen-year old boy should, to smile with his eyes and quip when he ought to be blushing or throwing spit-balls or trying to put his tongue in her ear, like the boys in her class. And now, cocktail-making.

Riza looked up, then hefted the basket. "I'll need to get these things in now before it rains." Mr Mustang looked up through the trees to the cloudless sky and frowned a bit. She was already escaping with the basket by the time he looked down.

Fifteen minutes later, she had put the washing into the laundry press, and swept the kitchen floor. Now she was getting started on her trigonometry homework. As she scribbled workings in pencil, a mug of tea was placed neatly by her elbow. No milk and a slice of lemon. The charming little creep.

"For fifteen minutes with the notes, I'll make you a whisky sour and I will answer any question of your choice about me. Even if the answer is unbelievably humiliating for me, I will tell you." Great.

Riza put down her pencil. "What makes you think I want to plumb the depths of your personal history?"

Mr Mustang sat down across from her, and gave her a lovely and aggravating smile. "Because embarrassing me makes you very, very happy, Riza. And I will live to make you happy. If it gets me fifteen minutes of quality snooping time with your father's books."

Well, that was true. Embarrassing Mr Mustang was a lot of fun. And also, there was the transgression itself, which involved doing at least three separate things which her father would never, never permit — and which she knew she could get away with. They could replace the books exactly, she knew where the alchemical locks were and Mr Mustang, she'd bet, knew how to break and replace them competently enough ... A little thrill went through Riza's insides. They could profane the inner sanctum; it would be a perfect cat burglary. Her father would never know a thing. It would be a little conspiracy between the two of them. Riza made a quick mental inventory of tonight's list of tasks to be accomplished. Yes, actually: she could definitely make time for an hour or two's lawbreaking after dinner.

Still, she wasn't going to fold immediately. Mr Mustang should know she wasn't that easy to get around. Riza worked up a frown of mild disapproval, with maybe a little intrigue at the edges, and took a slow sip of her tea.

After a few moments, she glanced up, casual. On the other side of the table, Mr Mustang was grinning his head off. Damn. He was onto her.

"If I decide the whisky sour isn't delicious enough to justify criminal activity," she said, "I'll want two embarrassing secrets."

"Done!" He put a hand out across the table. She took it, shook it solemnly. Then she gave him the briefest of winks.


Roy fetched the Elements of Foundation, and the notes which had been in his room all the time, and studied at the kitchen table for an hour or so while Riza finished her homework. He did not get a great deal done. His mind was full of the books, his stomach buzzing with the thrill of the deal he'd pulled off and the transgression to come.

They cleared away their books and ate. Their dinner was quiet, and punctuated by nervous smiles. After Roy had washed the dishes and Riza had dried them, he took the jar of thin syrup Riza used for baking. Then he chipped some shards of ice from the icebox and put them into a bowl with lemons and a knife. Riza walked ahead of him up the stairs to the study door. Riza pulled out her big bunch of keys from the pocket of her pinafore skirt, selected one. As she lifted it to the door, she looked back at him over her shoulder and gave him a devastating little sidelong smile. Then the key clicked in the lock and she swung the door slowly open. Roy's heart squeezed itself in his chest a little, and he thought, half meaning it, this is the best idea that man has ever had. I am a genius. Inside, the study was exactly as it had been that afternoon, but Hawkeye's absence somehow made it seem more cluttered, more private, almost oppressive. As they moved across the room, avoiding the scattered papers and piles of books on the floor, Roy felt as if he could feel his master's eyes on the back of his neck.


Ice chips in the shaker, then two little cups of whisky, and a cup of syrup. Squeeze in the juice of a lemon. Clap the lid on quickly and shake vigorously, attempting not to get any water droplets on your teacher's papers, which litter every available surface. Pour quickly into the nearest thing you can find to martini glasses, before the ice waters the cocktail down and prevents you getting yourself and your master's daughter so efficiently tipsy.

Riza took her third whisky sour from him carefully, and picked her way back to her seat on the little sofa. So far, so good. He had cracked the unlocking array on the cabinet of forbidden things very quickly, just as predicted. Riza had favoured him with two little claps, and he'd managed to keep his face turned to the books until he was fairly sure that the involuntary blush was gone. But she had refused to allow him to touch the books yet. Proper trade. First cocktails, then the answering of embarrassing questions. Then he could get his hands on the books. Roy reminded himself of something he'd read recently about the art of statecraft, that in this kind of sneaking diplomacy, the key thing was patience.

"How's the cocktail?" he said. "Is it everything I said it would be?"

Riza took a sip, assessing. Although he presumed that since she was on her third, she must like the things. "You're right," she said, "it does taste like honey. Very alcoholic honey." Another sip. "All right. I've decided I like these. I'll only need one embarrassing secret."

Roy wandered over to the sofa, managing only to spill a couple of drops as he went. He sat down, more heavily than he'd intended, to await his fate.

Riza looked at him for a moment. She raised a finger and frowned, thinking the matter over, or pretending to. She was teasing him, which wasn't new, but he didn't think he'd ever seen her so openly playful, so like a teenage girl instead of a little schoolteacher. He liked it. And he wondered how much of her pink cheeks and her glow of good cheer came from the whisky, and how much from the conspiracy.

Riza said, slowly, rolling it out, "Mr Mustang. Please tell me the most embarrassing thing that has ever happened to you in your life."

Roy exclaimed, "But that's not fair! You're supposed to ask something specific, I don't know, have you ever had an accidental erection in a taxi, and then I say, no, I have not, and then we're quits and you're annoyed and I can read the books." Had Roy just made a penis joke to his teacher's daughter? He began to suspect that he might be slightly drunk.

"That's my question. I'm sticking to it. It's not my fault I'm clever enough to ask a good one. Remember the sacred principle of equivalent trade," said Riza, cruelly.

Roy sighed, feeling trapped, and leant his head against the back of the sofa. He should try and come up with a mildly embarrassing story, not the real goods, just enough to entertain Riza enough for her to let him get his hands on the books. But the whisky had thickened his brain, and the only answer that occurred to him was the truth.

"All right. There was this one time when I was ten," he said gloomily, "I was in the bar, and I really needed to pee, but my foster mother wouldn't let me leave the room because I was supposed to be watching for a customer-" or rather an espionage contact of his mother's, but, utterly cool as that was, he couldn't share it. "And that was my standard excuse for getting out of things then, I've got to pee. So she didn't let me, and I really needed to, and — you can see where this story is going." He looked at Riza appealingly. "Do I really have to finish it?"

"Go on," she said, ruthlessly.

"I tried to dash outside, but — she has really strong arms. And there were people there, customers, and about five of my sisters saw me. And now they all tell the story around the dinner table every New Year's like it's a tradition or something. They're still going to be telling it when I'm thirty," he finished miserably.

Riza watched him, with a mean, sweet little smile on her face. Then, without warning, she doubled over and started laughing hysterically into her knees, her back shaking with the force of it.

"Oh, good," said Roy. "Does this mean I can look at the books now?"

Riza nodded, shakily, still giggling with her face buried in her pinafore skirt.

Roy went to get up, feeling a tipsy little head rush as he did so.

Then Riza popped her head up and said suddenly, seriously, "Wait. Before you look — could I ask you something?" She paused, and started to look hesitant. "I mean, not as part of the deal, just — something I was thinking. It's a very silly question. You don't have to answer. It's just — you're the only person I can ask, really."

Roy nodded, intrigued. Riza, talkative and confiding: whisky sours were clearly magical stuff.

Riza said slowly, "You know how my mother died when I was small? The girls at school, sometimes they act like I know more about life, like I'm wiser than them, that I understand death and grief and things. And I don't! I was so young, I hardly even remember, that's the worst thing. So. Is that how it is for you? Because I know that your parents died when you were little, and I keep thinking, is it because I was too small? Or — am I not doing it right? Grief, I mean."

For a moment, Roy felt completely poleaxed. Where had that come from? He didn't think he'd ever heard Riza talk so much at once, let alone to say something so personal. He wasn't sure how to respond. He decided to try his new, cocktail-influenced technique of simply being honest.

Roy said, "I think I know what you mean. I was four when my parents died, so — it happened to me, it did, and I remember it, but, I don't think it's the same when you're that small. Iris — my foster sister, you know, taught me to make cocktails — her sister drowned when she was fourteen. And she always talks to me, out of everyone, as if I know death, know what it's like. But I don't. It makes me feel like I'm cheating."

Riza said, "So it's not an experience that makes us older and wiser. In fact, maybe we know less than everyone else. We don't even know what it's like to have a mother running around doing mother things all the time. I don't even know enough about what that's like to miss it."

Roy said, "Exactly. We're not more sensible. We're sillier."

"Very silly," said Riza, and raised an eyebrow.

"Extremely silly," said Roy. "Silly enough to break into your father's secret study of secrets."

Riza nudged his shoulder with her own and gave him a sneaky little smile. He nudged back. She pushed against his shoulder again and leaned in closer to grin at him — a proper grin, not her usual closed-lipped little smile. He could see her teeth. They were small, even, very white. Behind her front teeth, he could see just a tiny sliver of pink tongue, pushing, as if she was trying not to laugh.

A moment later, he was surprised to find that they were kissing.

For a few moments, the kiss seemed like something that had just happened to Roy: an unexpected accident, like a book falling on his head, which had come on him without his having had any part in the decision. Then he decided his unconscious mind must have subtly made his moves for him. He was very pleased with it. Good work, brain. Riza had a soft little mouth, and she kissed with energy and determination. Roy was beginning to suspect that she had more experience that he'd previously assumed with naughtiness of several kinds. Her mouth was deliciously cold from the ice in her drink.

They continued with this for a little while. Riza raked her fingers through his hair. It was probably sticking up at the back and looking crazy, he'd have to fix it at some point before she saw and laughed. The feeling of her fingers brushing through the roots of his hair was strange and exciting. It made his skin prickle. Feeling on a roll, he decided to try moving his hand round from between her shoulder blades to the front of her pinafore. The movement ended with him gently cupping her left breast. It felt soft through her layers of clothes, and it fit right into his hand.

She froze, broke the kiss and looked at him with wide-eyed, lovely, worrying surprise. Damn, he thought. At least she can't tell her father because that would mean admitting that she let me in here and — mmfh. She was kissing him again, and her hand was moving round to the small of his back. Yes!

Right. Now that you had the breast, what did you do with it?

Despite his attempts to imply to Riza that he had vast stores of experience and suavity, these were, in fact, actually only the second pair of breasts that Roy had ever touched. The first had been his foster sister Edie's, one of those times she was threatening to make a man of him. Iris had found them and told his mother, and Madam Christmas had cuffed both his and Edie's ears. Then she'd told Edie that she should have made Roy try a cigarette instead. Roy's family life was a complex thing.

Edie had moved his hands on her breasts in circles, he remembered, and put his thumbs over her nipples. He tried that on Riza, gently, and after a few passes was definitely sure he'd located a nipple. Good, now it would be obvious to her that he was sophisticated and totally knew how to please a woman. Oh God, she was pulling up his shirt at the back. Was she? Had it just rucked up? No, her cool little hand was flat against his skin, pressing on the muscles either side of his spine. Roy realised abruptly that he was getting hard. He felt panicky. No, wait, she seemed up for it. This was a high-stakes game, here: it was either going to be a complete triumph or a hugely embarrassing disaster. He realised, with a sudden rush of horror, that matters had progressed far enough that if this ended badly now, things would be so awkward between him and Riza that even Master Hawkeye would work out what had happened. They'd be burying Roy's char-grilled corpse in the back garden by the next sunset. And Master Hawkeye would probably make Riza dig the grave, because he was too busy reading his new book.

Riza broke the kiss again, looked at him with curiosity and moved her other hand down to his pants. She copped a little feel, then gave him a sincere, curious frown and went for the zipper. Look suave, the remnants of his brain ordered. Look like you get up to this stuff all the time. But it was possible that he didn't look suave.


Fifteen minutes later, Roy was feeling increasingly like he was growing into this whole man of the world routine. He had now moved far beyond the previous exciting realm of second base. In fact, he had just been the recipient of a hand job from his master's pretty daughter, a girl whose talent for undetected lawbreaking he was increasingly coming to respect. And had he mentioned that this had happened in his master's off-limits study, about a metre away from a cabinet of very exciting banned alchemy texts, the locking array of which he'd cracked in about thirty seconds? Could life get any better than this? Well, hopefully it could, but this was definitely along the right lines.

The hand job had not, in fact lasted many times longer than it had taken him to crack the lock — but this was a very momentous occasion, so he could hardly be blamed. Now Roy was attempting to return the favour, which was taking rather longer. He was applying himself to the task with the concentration that he gave particularly difficult alchemic code. It was undeniably very, very good to smell Riza and to feel her under his hand, warm and slick. But the geography of the area of her in question was unfamiliar and surprisingly complex. He kept coming across bits that he couldn't quite identify, and while he knew in theory where he was headed, he felt like he was taking a few wrong turns. And he really wanted to be good at this. He was sure that this would be much easier if he could just have a look and see what was what, but every time he gently attempted to remove a few of Riza's clothes, she swatted him away, and then popped his hand back between her legs and inside her knickers. To that, he could hardly bring himself to object. Maybe she wanted to be able to make a quick getaway in case Master Hawkeye unexpectedly returned. Ready for any scenario, good strategic thinking.

Then Riza had started bossing him about. Directions were undeniably helpful, but once she'd started he found that it did his ego no good at all — to the point where it started killing the buzz of what really ought to be one of the most exciting moments of his young life. Left, no up a bit, no not that far left, right again, harder, no not that hard. Not exactly romantic, more like pin the tail on the donkey or something. Roy reminded himself that, as an alchemist, the principle of equivalent exchange was sacred to him. And that Riza looked flushed and pretty. And also that, during those moments when he was getting it right, she would make an endearing little squeaking noise that was somehow worth all the trouble. It reminded him oddly of the chime that sounded when you scored at carnival games of skee ball. That wasn't a very romantic analogy either, was it? Oh well.

Roy had just reached the point where he seemed to be getting many more chiming squeaks and fewer terse instructions, when he was introduced to another part of the exciting world of sex: the telephone rang.

After three rings, Riza swore musically, clambered off him, and ran out into the hallway to pick it up. Her hair was sticking up stupidly at the back, Roy was pleased to note. He occupied himself for a couple of minutes tidying his own hair, and then decided that it would be also good for his dignity if he popped his dick back into his trousers. Then he went over the couch and the sofa with a clean tissue to check they hadn't missed anything. Then he checked the books on the floor and the nearest bookcases for stains too, because he was paranoid like that and it really would be an embarrassing way to die. Riza still wasn't back. She was still in the hall, silent mostly but occasionally murmuring something into the telephone. Was it Master Hawkeye on the end of the line? It was rare for them to get a telephone call late at night. Booksellers and scholars called at the house, tradesmen saved it for the daylight hours, and the Hawkeyes had no relatives that Roy was aware of. More mystery.

Light footsteps tapped down the hall, then Riza was standing in the doorway, looking a bit pink. She said, "I've really got to get to bed. Could you put everything back and lock up for me?" She sounded wobbly, and strangely unlike herself, although in not quite such a nice way as earlier. What, was that it for the night? Just like that? She held out the forbidden key to Roy, casually, as if it was nothing. "You can slip the key under my door when you're done. You'd be doing me a favour?"

"Well," said Roy. "I like doing you favours." He tried to get a bit of innuendo into it, in the hopes that she'd change her mind.

For a moment Riza's little mouth pressed itself together, and she looked as if she was on the verge of some kind of outburst — laughing, crying, Roy really couldn't tell. Then she fixed him with an intense and unreadable stare, ran up to him, and pulled him down into a kiss. She pressed her mouth against his firmly, meaningfully — although he couldn't work out the meaning for the life of him. Then she pulled away, and without a backward glance, she was gone, pattering quickly out of the cluttered little study and down the hall. Her steps sounded on the stairs.

What?

No, really, what?

Roy stood for a few moments exactly where he was, feeling dopey, poleaxed, disappointed, triumphant. Then he slowly looked around himself and took stock of the situation. Here he was, alone in the study. Just him, and the books. All night, if he wanted. The mysteries of Riza Hawkeye's mind, of the telephone call, of Master Hawkeye's trip away, receded. Slowly, Roy wandered back over to the little open cabinet. He sat in front of it cross-legged, and ran a finger across the line of frail leather spines. Then he carefully pulled out a small, enticing volume, cracked open the cover reverently, and started to read.


Four or so hours later, Roy thought to himself, head buzzing, that he hadn't predicted that many taboo alchemy texts might be actually rather difficult to read. Dense, in fact. Dull, even. How could books banned for three hundred years on pain of torture manage to be so boring? He had skimmed most of the volumes in the little cabinet, and discovered what he ought to have known already: alchemy texts bury their secrets, the really good stuff, deep. You won't find it by skimming. So this was why Master Hawkeye locked himself away for so long when he got a new book. Roy had assumed he was just obsessing.

After a while, Roy had resigned himself to the idea that he wasn't going to learn anything really exciting tonight, and contented himself just with running his mind over the surface of the books and their secrets, the tantalising, irritating thrill of being close to so much knowledge, some of it bound to be dangerous, powerful, even wrong.

Of course, the thing he had really been looking for that evening, all along, was not there. Master Hawkeye's notes. His research, his real research. That elegant, simple array of inverted triangles, air and fire, that Roy had seen so many times, but didn't understand and therefore couldn't use, that taunted him like the books in the cabinet. The secrets, the theory that brought it to life and made it possible to use, the array beneath the array, as Hawkeye always said, were buried somewhere else.

Roy felt very annoyed, and also, suddenly, rather grateful. The alchemist within him would have betrayed the terms of his deal with Riza, to snoop much further into Master Hawkeye's secrets than he'd claimed he would. Even worse, he would have betrayed the terms of his apprenticeship to Master Hawkeye. This is why equivalent trade is a moral principle for us, not just a law of science, he thought. It's because alchemists are assholes. We need rules to keep ourselves in line.

Then, in the middle of the night, alone in the place he'd trespassed, he had another small revelation. When he and Riza had struck that deal to commit their little crime together, he realised, Riza had trusted him. And he had trusted her. So conspiracies weren't just deals, in the way that buying and selling a book was a deal. It had never been in any of his books, that. Nothing he'd read on history, or alchemy, or war. Perhaps conspiracies made a bond of trust, between the people who entered into them. Somehow, he found that he rather liked this idea. Apart from anything else, it meant that he had an ally here, in this strange house. After all, while the deal he had with his teacher involved many virtues — hard work, reticence, a hell of a lot of patience — trust was not among them.

Roy carefully replaced the taboo books in the cabinet, one by one. With a little of the melancholy he might get when waving a friend off at the train station, he closed the doors to the cabinet, scribbled a reversal of the unlocking array, and watched a thin wire of light seal the doors shut. Then he washed up the champagne bowls that he and Riza had drunk their cocktails from, and the cocktail shaker with them, and he put the dusty whisky bottle they'd depleted at the back of the drinks cabinet where it wouldn't be noticed.

Feeling thoughtful, sleepy, and much older than he had at the beginning of the night, Roy padded along the upstairs corridor to slip the study key under Riza's bedroom door. As he was about to bend down by the door, however, something made him pause. From inside the bedroom, he could hear faint but distinct sounds of sniffling.

For a moment he was confused, and then his newfound maturity fled from him in an instant. Wow, he thought. Is this the effect I have on girls? She's pining for me. After just one little go. Iris is right, I am going to be a heartbreaker. A moment later, he remembered his foster mother's standard response to Iris's compliments. This was to pinch Roy's ear, hard, and tell him with a smirk that overconfidence would be his doom. Perhaps, he thought with an effort, Riza was crying about something else entirely, something entirely unrelated to his good looks, talent and impeccable sexual technique. Most likely, he speculated, she was crying because Master Hawkeye had spent the rest of the quarter's grocery money on that mysterious book. See? That was very sensitive of him. He congratulated himself on proving his mother wrong. He wasn't overconfident at all.


The really weird thing about the next morning was how normal it was. Master Hawkeye returned some time before breakfast, and by the time Roy had hauled his sleep-deprived, hungover ass downstairs, he could hear Hawkeye bustling about in his study. In the kitchen, Riza stood at the stove grilling toast and boiling eggs for three.

"Good morning, Mr Mustang," she said evenly, without turning around. Mr Mustang? Once you'd laid hands on a man's person, shouldn't that make you on first name terms? Apparently not. He understood, though. It was what he'd expected, really. The deal had been for one night. Now it was over, and they were back to being law-abiding citizens again.

Roy felt a familiar prickle at the back of his neck. He turned, and found Hawkeye was standing in the kitchen doorway watching him, gaunt and intense as usual.

"Good morning, sir," said Roy brightly. "Did you have a good trip?"

Hawkeye grunted.

Roy felt a sudden urge for one last little transgression: asking his teacher a direct question.

"Did you find a new book?" Roy said. Hawkeye looked at him, unreadable, and Roy felt himself starting to babble. "I mean, I suppose I thought you went to see Meeks or one of the other book dealers, and —"

Hawkeye cut him off with a raised hand. "No new book," he said. But his voice was quiet, gravelly, with none of the sharp reproach Roy was expecting for his impertinence.

Master Hawkeye walked across the kitchen to the table, and wrapped his quilted jacket a little tighter. The weather that morning was noticeably chillier than it had been only a week ago. Autumn was starting to set in. There was little sign this morning of Hawkeye's usual quick impatience, his darting eyes and contained energy. Instead, his teacher looked tired, worn at the edges, like his old jacket, like the house itself. Roy supposed that he must be getting older.


In the end, it wasn't until the next time Roy scrawled the unlocking array on the door of the little book cabinet, two years later, that he ever really made sense of that evening. The cabinet and its contents was his now; every book in the study was his. He knew, finally, where Master Hawkeye's notes were kept, and that they were not here. He knew about the creditors, and that they would take anything he and Riza didn't manage to haul out of the old house in a day. And he knew other things too. Last night, as they sat at the little kitchen table drinking tea in their funeral clothes, Riza had told him at last why she'd shut herself in her room that night after his teacher's telephone call. He knew where Master Hawkeye had been that night, and what he'd learnt there, about the tiny, vicious organisms which were feeding on his lungs and spreading like damp.

That evening, he and Riza sat together in the quiet kitchen for the last time, in the heavy shadow of a thing that neither of them knew well, but which they already understood could not be bargained with. And by the end of the evening, they had made another deal.