sol 1056

The Shadow of Desire

chapter 2. worn
part 1 of The Contraries Arc

Bring out number weight & measure in a year of dearth.—William Blake, Proverbs of Hell

Roy woke up in his living room when the first rays of dawn hit his face. Groaning, he scrubbed at his face with one hand, and roughed up his hair before pushing himself upright. The pictures in his lap fluttered to the floor, and he stared down at them, blindly, too preoccupied with trying to figure out why he didn't have a hangover. Remembering, he shook his head at the surreal evening of the day before, and stumbled towards the shower.

An hour later—having had no reason to sit around his apartment and stare at the walls—he left for work. He'd begun coming in earlier, over the past year or so. The fewer people he had over to spend the night, he'd been finding, the better. Letting anyone spend the night only made him late for work, and made the apartment that much emptier when he came home again. And besides, he told himself, waiting for the staff car outside his apartment, everyone he brought home said the same things, made the same jokes. It was all so...rote.

It was a cold, silent ride to Headquarters, and Roy mulled over the day's schedule. He had that meeting at ten with General Mascroft concerning upcoming National Alchemists assignments, followed by another meeting on the reporting system. He paid no mind to the city outside the car window, getting out automatically when the car pulled up to the building. He shoved a hand in his coat, nodding absently as some of the younger military staff saluted him at the door. His footsteps followed the same path as they had the night before, in reverse: long, slow, even, quiet. He'd never counted the steps. It would be the same number, every time.

He wasn't far from his own office when he heard someone say his name. His footsteps faltered, then came to a halt as he listened, curious.

"...Little over a year ago, I guess...when he got his promotion, and Ms. Hughes and Alicia took him for dinner..."

Roy swayed, remembering that night, the restaurant, and Alicia's chatter, and the fact that he'd suddenly realized just how...just how much he'd missed having someone who listened, who saw him not as Colonel Mustang or General Mustang, but as Roy. Over the dessert they'd shared with Alicia, he'd realized how much Gracia was like his old friend, and yet an old friend in her own right. It was as if Maes were there, at the table with them, but in a way that made Roy feel more at ease than he had in years, without that familiar constriction in his chest that signaled hidden grief. How quick to laughter Gracia could be, just like Maes. How she smiled at him over Alicia's head, and he found himself smiling back...

"...She'd come by with lunch, sometimes..."

Roy tensed, finally placing the lowered voice as Havoc. Just as quickly, he was certain the only person who would have asked, the only person who would have been granted such personal insight, would be Edward Elric. Bile rose in Roy's throat. It was bad enough, the night before, to have recalled his fleeting stupidity that ruined everything, but another thing altogether to have to stand here, in the hallway, and listen to it through a cracked door. His fingers itched, and he rubbed his forefinger and thumb together, idly, feeling the glove's scratchy material burn into the pads of his fingers.

"So what happened?" Edward's tenor, puzzlement clear, and perhaps also a hint of...

No, Roy told himself, stop imagining things. Clear your throat and push that door open. Havoc can't possibly have finished compiling the reports from the National Alchemists' reviews from last week, and you'll need those for the meeting at ten. Fury was gone for the week, for his sister's wedding, and the remaining staff had been struggling to cover all the work on their own rather than deal with another inept temporary staff member. He'd need to remind Havoc the reports were top priority. Roy's thoughts were interrupted by Havoc's bitter laugh.

"Nothing, Boss," Havoc said. "Just one day..." Roy could practically hear Havoc shrugging. "Back to business as usual."

That's enough, Roy thought, and raised his hand to push the door open. He stared at the array, etched in red on the back of his glove, as if seeing it for the first time. He wasn't sure what it meant, suddenly, and didn't care. Dropping his hand, he turned, and quietly strode the last fifteen feet to his own office door.

"Brigadier General Mustang, I agree. Placement on Bray, Crandell, and Dutcher is approved," Major General Mascroft said, looking around the room. Colonel Parker frowned slightly, but Roy was certain she'd been hoping Dutcher would be moved to her command, rather than Kavanaugh's. Mascroft cleared his throat and shuffled the papers. "I'm still not certain about Jeffrey and Guarino, however."

"Guarino's brother died last month," Colonel Lovell explained. "His low scores reflect that. I've begun the appeal process."

"We'll put him on holding, then," Mascroft said, shrugging. "Jeffrey? This is the second year she's failed to pass the exam."

There was silence around the room, and Roy noted Jeffrey's commanding officer, General Wimmer, frowning down at his papers. Roy sighed, and glanced over his own reports. Crandell would be a valuable addition to the command in the North, but Jeffrey's alchemy, being plant-based, would have been beneficial in the high mountains on the border with Drachma. The logging operations would feel the lack.

The rest of the meeting passed without incident, and Roy nodded at appropriate moments, seeing no need to get involved in the rest of the assignments and transfers. His own preferences had been granted, and more importantly, no one had raised the issue of moving Edward from Kavanaugh's staff to elsewhere. Although, he reminded himself, even if Edward were transferred, he'd probably still hear the news, through the National Alchemists' grapevine.

Roy stood and saluted with the rest of the staff when Generalissimo Thayer stopped by. The man had little to add but a smile and a quick comment, congratulating them with a barbed tease about the lack of explosions, water damage, or holes in the walls. Roy listened, filing the joke away in his head, along with his automatic observations about which people Thayer looked in the eye, and for how long. Then Thayer was gone, and Roy was packing up his papers along with the rest of the group. A few minutes chatting on auto-pilot with Colonel Parker about Crandell's obsession with his motorcycle, and Roy was breezing down the hallways, back to his own office. He passed Havoc in the hallway, and the man saluted but said nothing as he took the papers from Roy.

Back in his own office, Roy closed the door behind himself, and leaned against it, letting his head fall back as his eyes closed. He stayed there for several heartbeats, before realizing there was someone in the office. Warily, he opened his eyes, stiffening his spine as he let the mask drop down over his features.

Edward Elric was leaning against the window, arms crossed, watching him.

"Fullmetal," Roy said, moving to his desk, his expression purposefully blank. "I expected you'd be on your way by now."

"I was bored," Edward said, shrugging. His eyes were narrowed, tracking Roy's movements. "It's almost lunchtime, General."

"So it is." Roy settled himself in his chair and grabbed the thick folder in his inbox. The weekly meeting with the administrative staff was in two hours, and he needed to review the progress updates on the new systems they'd instituted.

Roy realized, halfway through the second page, that Edward hadn't moved. He stifled a sigh, and decided to take the initiative. He closed the folder and settled back, clasping his hands in his lap, and stared at the sofa.

"Take a seat, Fullmetal."


"Fullmetal." Roy didn't look over his shoulder, but gritted his teeth. "I'm on duty."

"I'm not." Edward appeared in the corner of his vision, then, strolling casually towards the sofa and collapsing on it with controlled grace. "Therefore, you're Brigadier General Mustang, but I'm Elric."

"Have it your way...Fulllmetal," Roy added, a smirk almost appearing on his lips when Edward started to look triumphant, then scowled sharply. Roy leaned back in his chair, turning slightly to face away from Edward, staring at the spot Edward had just vacated. "This is twice in two days. Any particular reason I'm owed this honor?"

"Told you already, I'm bored." Edward cocked his head and grinned. Roy's eyebrow twitched, and Ed's grin got wider; he threw his arms over his head, stretching lazily. "Come on, General. Lunchtime. Feed me."

"Feeding you is not my responsibility," Roy shot back. "Go talk Havoc into going with you to the canteen. I'm sure he could use a break." He opened the folder again, and leaned forward, resting his cheek on his fist as he went back to reading.

Edward made a huffing sound. "You're not making this easy, General."

Now you're singing the tune I sang for six years of dealing with you, Roy thought, and nearly smirked. Instead, he just nodded absently, his mind already drawn into the endless notations of reporting changes and arguments for and against each. Eventually, he figured, Edward might give up. He doubted it—Edward was as stubborn as rocks in a creek bed—but he could always hope, he told himself. The word choice made his gut clench for some reason, and his fingers tightened on the pen that had found its way into his right hand. He made a few notes in the margins about issues he'd need to raise in the meeting.

"Hmm," Edward mused out loud, "I could always bring lunch up here." Roy glanced up to see Edward eyeing him, an appraising look on his face. "You're too thin, General. The women will abandon you if you're nothing but skin and bones."

Roy snorted. "Doubt it." A flicker of his old self returned, and he arched an eyebrow. "Jealous, Fullmetal?"

Edward glowered. "Hey, I'm not being paid to do this."

"Then why?" Roy nearly bit his own tongue for asking.

"No reason," Edward replied, but his tone was far too casual, and he didn't quite look Roy in the eye.

The powers save me from meddling underlings, Roy thought; one Hawkeye in my life is enough. He dropped his eyes back to the paper in front of him. He was snapped out of his concentration not by more from Edward, but by a knock on the door. Roy dropped his hand, looking up to see Havoc saluting.

"Brigadier General Mustang," Havoc said. "Generalissimo Thayer, sir." He saluted again, and stepped out of the way. Generalissimo Thayer stepped through the door, flanked by his two assistants, and Roy instantly came to his feet, saluting as well.

"At ease, Brigadier General," Thayer said. He was an older man, with salt-and-pepper hair, though his neatly trimmed beard was solid white. There were lines around his eyes, from years of looking into the distance, Roy mused, dropping his hand to stand with his hands clasped at the small of his back, waiting. Thayer nodded pleasantly to Edward, who had also come to his feet. Thayer looked back at Mustang, and hummed for several seconds before smiling. "The office life doesn't suit you, General Mustang."

"Sir." Roy kept the frown off his face, but didn't hide his reaction entirely. He narrowed his eyes, uncertain whether Thayer meant it as a compliment or a hidden insult. The Generalissimo's smiles often masked a ruthless edge.

"I've been told that two National Alchemists have disappeared in the field, somewhere north of Hyle," Thayer said, shoving his hands in his pockets. Even in such an informal pose, his back was still ramrod straight. "This is quite distressing."

"Yes, sir," Roy answered, automatically. He could see Edward's eyes widen at the news, and the quick flicker of Edward's gaze moving between Thayer and Mustang. Roy kept his focus on Thayer, ignoring Edward.

"I'm assigning you to investigate, General," Thayer said, and smiled. "Leave immediately. This is the highest priority, and your abilities come highly recommended. I trust you'll be able to find out what happened. Take whomever you feel would be helpful, and keep me informed."

"Sir," Roy said, and saluted. Thayer nodded to each of them, and left, his assistants trailing behind him.

Havoc remained by the door, looking a little stunned, and Roy sighed, staring down at the folder on his desk. He'd like to take Havoc—or Hawkeye—but Hawkeye wouldn't be back for another month. And he needed Havoc to remain, to keep things going here.

But, Roy mused, Breda could handle things in the office. His clearance is high enough, and if we leave tomorrow morning, that should be enough time for Havoc to brief Breda on the additional duties. I wonder if I can borrow back Second Lieutenant Farman on such short notice.

"First Lieutenant Havoc," Roy finally said. "Tell First Lieutenant Breda he's got charge of the office. Fill him in on your duties, whatever Warrant Officer Steckman can't do." Roy began straightening up the files on his desk, his mouth moving as part of his mind calculated whom he'd need to contact, what to take, and where everything was. He made a mental note to buy new razors on the way home; he was pretty sure he was out. "Have someone contact Captain Hawkeye so she knows what's going on, and have Warrant Officer Steckman notify the administrative team—Sally is the person to talk to—about the fact that I won't be at the meeting this afternoon." Roy paused, considered that, and flipped the folder open again. "No, scratch that. I'll be there."

"Sir?" Havoc frowned. "But that meeting is slated for five hours, and—"

"I'm aware of that," Roy said, sitting back down. "Go on, First Lieutenant. You'll need all the time you've got to get First Lieutenant Breda up to speed on your duties. And find out when the first train is leaving, tomorrow morning, for Hyle. We'll be on it." Roy thumbed the pages in his calendar, looking for the notation for the telephone number for Farman's current assignment post.

"Just two tickets, sir?"

"No, three," Roy answered, not looking up. "I'm going to see if Second Lieutenant Farman is—"

"Take me," Edward interrupted. Roy froze, his fingers over his calendar, and slowly looked up to see Edward's wide eyes, the mid-day light arching through the windows to turn the gold into an intense bronze. Edward didn't flinch at Roy's glare. "There's no way you'll get Second Lieutenant Farman here in enough time," Edward insisted. "You're supposed to leave immediately, and Farman's down near Rush Valley, with Lieutenant Colonel Tollett. It'd take him until tomorrow afternoon to get here, assuming you can get a hold of them while—"

"Tollett," Roy repeated under his breath. He shook his head when he realized Edward was still talking. "Fullmetal, no. You're due back at Colonel Kavanaugh's post in another day, correct? You should leave now. It's an all-day train ride." Roy picked up the phone, startled when Edward jerked it out of his hand and slammed it back down. Irritated, Roy snapped, "Fullmetal, that's enough."

"You're being stupid," Edward retorted. "I'm right here. And I'm already packed, too."


"—Won't have a problem with it." Edward jabbed a finger at the phone. "Call him. Ask."

"Fullmetal," Roy repeated, his voice sinking into a low growl. The fingers on his right hand were tensed, ready to snap. Behind Edward, Havoc was pressed against the wall by the door, as far away as possible without actually leaving. Edward leaned over the desk, his smile sly. Roy shook his head, glaring. "You're not under my command—"

Edward frowned, then pulled back, nodding, his gaze suddenly contemplative. "No. I'm not. Sir." With a quick bow, he turned and strode from the office, his head high.

Roy blinked, and then realized his hand was still raised. Flexing the fingers a little, he dropped the hand to the desk, staring at the whiteness, the bright against the dark wood of the desk, his thumb on the yellowed papers crimped by the typewriter. Something rustled, and he realized Havoc was still present.

"Dismissed," Roy whispered, and didn't look up as the office door closed. Then, taking a deep breath, he turned the page to continue reading up on the issues to be raised in the afternoon's meeting.

It was almost ten o'clock before Havoc dropped Roy off at his apartment, and Roy was already inside before he remembered he'd wanted to stop by the pharmacy and pick up razors. If he hurried, they'd still be open, and he dropped his briefcase by the door, turning right around and heading out again. The city was gray, the street lamps bronze in the drizzling rain, and it reminded him of Edward's eyes, the golden flecks in the iris cloaking themselves suddenly, relenting and turning away.

Roy pondered the unexpected sensation of disappointment, when Edward had given in so easily. It would have been nice to have Edward along, he thought, and nearly chuckled at the idea. Having Edward underfoot while tracking down missing National Alchemists was probably the last thing he'd really want, if he were being perfectly realistic. Roy still wasn't sure why he was being sent; it was hardly a job for someone who spent his days sitting behind a desk pushing papers.

That's what I do, Roy thought, and barely looked up as he entered the pharmacy. Getting the few travel items he needed, he set them on the counter, paying and accepting his change without a word. The girl murmured something and he merely nodded, taking his package and leaving again. He let the bag swing at his side, and stared at the buildings as he passed. The shop windows were dark, the goods on display lit in streaks, dappled by the raindrops on the windows. A drop hung from a strand of his hair, and a quick breeze blew it against his cheek.

I should call Beth, he thought. He'd called and spoken to Gracia, keeping the conversation light and distant, but he hadn't known who else might take care of his plants, and he didn't know how long he'd be gone. He'd met with his staff, going over the changes in duties, but had begged out of dinner on the pretense he'd be meeting someone late, after work. Roy wondered whether Havoc were fooled, and decided he didn't care. He'd scored a few points at the arduous planning meeting that afternoon, and could live with the compromises they'd reached. In all, affairs were reasonably settled, and he could leave in clear conscience. It still didn't explain why he'd been assigned the task, but some things, he figured, would just have to wait.

He glanced up at the sky, then across the street to the apartments over the shops. Some of the windows were lit, and he restrained himself from staring. He'd always had a fascination with other peoples' houses, that quick glimpse into a homey peace that had never been his. Something about the glow of lamplight, the random sight of someone reading on a sofa, their socked feet tucked up under them. Once, he'd been passing, coming home late from work as usual, and seen someone reading, like that. The person looked up with a brilliant smile, and Roy thought he'd been caught staring through the dark windows. The smile was full of such wonder and welcome, that Roy hadn't been able to stop himself from smiling in return. Then he realized someone else had entered the living room, offering the first person a cup of something hot to drink.

He'd blinked, and shoved away the ache in his chest, and walked on. Someday, perhaps, he'd promised himself. But not now.

I have more important things to do, he reminded himself, and drew his attention away from those beacons of warmth, shining out across the rain-slick streets. Coming to his own apartment building, he unlocked the front door and let himself inside. His footsteps were ponderous in his ears, but his step was still light, and there was no echo as he climbed to the third floor and unlocked his door.

It took him only ten minutes to pack. He'd traveled enough in his life, in the military, that he knew what he needed and what could be left behind. It was, he realized with an almost-smirk, not untruthful to say there was little to be left behind. Except, of course, his books, but those were also in his head. He didn't read as much as he once had, nor did he spend days on end in the library any more. Hadn't, in years, really, but he told himself he didn't feel the need, now. He studied up when it was his turn for the National Alchemists' review, but for the most part, he was exempt from the more stringent standards, not being a field agent.

Roy hung up his uniform and changed into sweatpants and an old sweater. It was one Hughes had given him, perhaps as a birthday present, or maybe some other reason. He never could tell, with Hughes, although he'd never managed to accept gifts with any grace. Hughes never complained, but simply dropped the wrapped package on Roy's kitchen table and left it there, for Roy to open later, in private. Wearing the item around Hughes and Gracia was enough to let them know it was appreciated.

He picked up the scattered pictures on his living room floor, refusing to look at them before putting them back in their box and setting it on the shelf, between the Compendium of Alchemy and Jeziorski's Thesis on Flammable Properties of Metals. Roy ran his finger down the spine of Jeziorski's Thesis, and smiled. It had been one of his first texts. For a second he was tempted to pull it out, and settle down to read—but he entertained the notion only for a second, before he pushed it away as ridiculous. He would make himself some tea; perhaps have a slice of toast before bed.

Settling on the sofa to read would only remind him of the truth. No one would be bringing him a cup of tea, carrying in a book of their own, to come join him in companionable silence.

Roy sighed, and went to call Beth to give his apologies for canceling a second time.

The morning skies were charcoal gray, and Roy got out of the cab, hefting his suitcase and briefcase as he walked into the station. Havoc was waiting, his eyes bleary, the eternal cigarette unlit as the man waited on the station's benches. When Roy approached, Havoc stood up, saluting sharply.

"I never was able to contact Lieutenant Colonel Tollett, sir," Havoc said, apologetically. "I checked in the office before I came here, and there's been no answer. I left word asking him to send Second Lieutenant Farman to join us directly, when he can."

"Good." Roy set down his luggage, and sat down next to Havoc. He accepted his ticket from Havoc, glancing it over, then up at the clock on the wall. "Fifteen minutes. We'll be staying at the officer's quarters in Hyle, tonight." He wanted to tuck the ticket away, and close his eyes, and ignore everything around him, but he could feel Havoc's eyes on him, and he forced himself to smile. It was a shadow of his smirk, he knew, but perhaps it would do. "I hope the girls in Hyle are prettier than in Central," he murmured.

"Farm girls," Havoc said, grinning widely. "Maybe not prettier, but a great deal cheaper."

"Go figure," Edward said behind them. "That would be your first priority."

Roy suppressed a groan and dropped his chin, crossing his arms in exasperation as Edward came around the bench to drop a battered suitcase next to Roy's luggage. A flash of white caught Roy's gaze, and he looked over to see Havoc handing a ticket to Edward.

"What?" Roy couldn't keep the surprise from his voice, or the annoyance. "Fullmetal, we don't require a send-off party—"

"I wouldn't waste the time," Edward retorted, pocketing the ticket with a smug grin. He spread his legs, shoulder-width apart, and put his hands on his hips. "I'm not here under your command. I'm here on temporary loan, from Colonel Kavanaugh to Generalissimo Thayer."

"I'm not amused, Fullmetal." Roy didn't bother to glare. He had a sinking feeling there was nothing to be done about it, but he refused on principle to give way that easily. Roy glanced at Havoc, who barely managed to wipe the grin off his face in time. Roy arched an eyebrow. "I presume you knew about this?"

"Ah, sir," Havoc winced, but the smile was still lurking on his face. "I found out this morning when I stopped by the office. Generalissimo Thayer's assistant, Marguerite, found me and gave me the temporary transfer orders." He fished an envelope from his pocket, and handed it to Roy. "I was going to—"

"Mm," Roy muttered, accepting the envelope and opening it. Scanning the letter quickly, he glowered, but tucked the letter away without a word. He wasn't sure he wanted to know what kind of fast talking Edward had done to weasel his way into the assignment. Edward was still giving him that smug smile, but the young man's eyes were a bit wide. Roy paused, noting that, and wondering what had Edward so on edge, even if Edward were slightly better at masking it now than he had been as a boy.

The sound of a train whistle, from far off, could be heard, and Havoc stood up. Roy stood as well, and glared at Edward until the young man moved away from Roy's luggage. Havoc picked up Roy's suitcase and his own, and Roy grabbed his briefcase, then led the way to the train platform. Edward stayed at Roy's shoulder, suitcase in hand, and that forsaken smirk still on his lips. He was entirely too damn pleased with himself, and it grated on Roy's nerves.

"Fullmetal," Roy ground out. "The fact that you're bored does not give you the right to trot along on my assignment."

"Oh, but sir," Edward replied, lightly, "I'm not bored anymore."

Roy grunted, and turned to face the approaching train.

"And hopefully, soon, you won't be either," Edward whispered behind him. "Then we can all go back to normal..."

The train's screeching brakes covered most of Edward's words, but Roy still picked up the gist. He tensed, wondering what Edward meant, and decided to act as though he hadn't heard. It would be easier that way, he told himself.