The Colonel looks smaller out of uniform. Petrifyingly normal.
Ed thinks, it's amazing what denim and white cotton can do (faded, a little threadbare, just loose enough to be baggy on that compact frame). And then wonders why he even cares. But the novelty of seeing the Colonel in civilian dress soon wears off. They're shown into the study, the biggest room in the home. It appears more lived-in than elsewhere, and is comfortably littered with papers and assorted stationery. An antique radio perches in one corner; the window overlooks a view of a small lake strewn with water-lilies; a couple of framed scrolls covered in arcane symbols hang over a shelf.
But it is the bookcase that attracts Ed's attention: a solid, lacquered-oak structure slightly taller than Al and spanning half the breadth of the wall, its lower shelves filled end to end with literature ? books, sheafs of documents bound with thick string, stout tomes of reference.
He borrows a book from the Colonel that first time he visits.
Things are actually like this. He is so engrossed in page-turning that he does not notice the Colonel until he comes up right behind him and coughs, proceeding to announce with a hint of smugness that Ed is free to take it back to HQ if he wants. The Colonel, as ever, is superb at catalysing reactions flared with pique, Edward Elric-style. ("Plenty of hope yet for your intellectual development, Fullmetal, if I do say so?" "WHO'RE YOU CALLING STUPID, YOU?" "'Niisan, you're going to fall off that stool if you don't?" "WHO THE HELL'S A BEANSPROUT, HUH? yaargh!")
The memory makes Ed scowl. But it comes to pass that he returns with a shin sore from its violent acquaintance with the side of the Colonel's study desk, a patiently resigned Al, and a hardcover treatise on alchemical philosophy. It is beautifully bound, its spine of a thickness that fits snugly into the space between his thumb and index finger, and Ed isn't too sure why he chose it. He was only running his fingers over the book spines on a shelf at that height, ignoring Al's feeble remonstrances that they were guests of the Colonel and it really isn't very nice to poke around his private property, 'niisan; then an upwards glance revealed a small flash of gold, and procuring a stool led to his discovery of the volume, covered in smooth russet-coloured leather and edged with gilt.
Chance, Fullmetal, chance, the Colonel lightly remarks before they leave. Apparently he's seen everything, although he was in the kitchen getting them tea when Ed and Al first stepped into the study.
Chance, Roy Mustang tells him, can do a lot.
Ed takes in the lazy amusement of the Colonel's gaze before he walks off without a word, leaving Al to thank their erstwhile host and apologise for 'niisan, you know what he's like, sir.
That weekend Ed commences reading in the library, at a carrel beside the shelves of books on intellectual alchemy. The Elric brothers like reading about their profession, but this is especially true of Ed. People are surprised to learn that, to see how quickly he loses himself in words and diagrams, absorbing or reinforcing hermetic concepts and methods with the efficacy of a sponge. Concentration is a thing that comes to him with queer, innate swiftness, and no one who passes him now has the heart to fault him for failing to return their greetings.
Again: Ed likes books, good books on alchemy. He likes on a near-subconscious level their solid weight in his hands, the soft rustle the pages make as the fingers of his good hand turns them. The passage of knowledge into his mind from the paper before him that is, sometimes, almost palpable. But there is an extra edge to reading the Colonel's book. Ed is used to perusing unmarked books, even if they are aging or dog-eared, but the leaves of this one are liberally scored with dark blue ink. As he starts flipping through it he sees that there are double lines alongside paragraphs of text and underlinings within them, all admirably straight, and small asterisks in the page margins. There are footnotes at the bottoms of pages in neat cursive referring to other pages, to other books, and even to specific pages within other books. Aside from that the pages are in pristine condition. Ed turns another page, and a stiff piece of card with a thin silk cord looped through a hole at its top slides out.
He initially finds this unspeakably weird. This mixture of care and carelessness is difficult to reconcile with ? with ? what?
For some time he sits staring blankly at the open book, his fingers slack on the edge of a page. In his mind's eye he sees that mouth quirk, half-amused and half-smug. And somehow that does the trick. Epiphany descends in a cold haze of comprehension: it centres on how little he knows about Roy Mustang.
How much he realises he wants to know.
(the contradiction jolts him like a whiff of ammonium carbonate, and for a moment he instinctively pushes the book away)
Okay, he tells himself flatly. Okay. Starting over. He shakes his head and turns to the book again. Making himself note the flows of blue ink, he observes the various markings; reads the assorted notes. It does not end there. Curiosity is insidious and insistent, and he ends up hunting the shelves for the other books the Colonel has referred to, tracing the flows of ideas and references with a strange, fierce zeal. Pushing at the dark blue boundaries marked on the yellowing paper with all the mental energy he possesses. Halfway through reading Ed glances at the range of volumes he's removed from the shelves in his attempt to unravel the Colonel's thought processes, and is forced to a grudging admiration for the man's erudition and memory.
And it is interesting: exhilaratingly, intensely so. Ed sits and reads and reads, linking dissertations on military ethics to studies of alchemical practice and politics; he wrestles with the metaphysical kinks of various philosophical and practical justifications for alchemy, and only the protests of his stomach eventually return him to the reality of a stiff bottom and the lengthening shadows outside. But now he is done with the book, and his fingers feel queer and light as they move to close it. He breathes in deeply as he rubs his tired eyes, willing his mind to relax.
The Colonel. The knowledge comes from reading the book ? the markings, the notes, all that dark blue ink blotting the parchment fibres of its pages ? they are the Colonel. They are his signposts and self-inscriptions, cordoning off the book as his own, as something he possesses. Ed closes his eyes, seeing ghostly remnants of double lines before them, and it occurs to him: those markings feel like Arrays. They circumscribe in order to provide focus, whether for ideas or for energy. He opens the book again, absently running his gloved fingertips over the pages, and thinks about how personal an alchemical working is, how oddly similar the marking of a book is to that individual expression of power and skill.
At dinner it somehow happens that Al remarks, a touch pensively, on how difficult it is to read Colonel Mustang; at least it is for me, although I'm pretty sure he wasn't offended by our last visit. What do you think, 'niisan?
Ed's fork pauses en route to his mouth, and it clatters to his plate as he erupts into a fit of near-hysterical cackles.
No, he weakly wheezes, after Al has unceremoniously pounded him on the back, no, take it from me, Al, I didn't think he was all that difficult to read, really. And wiping the tears that leak from the corners of his eyes, he has to fight a wave of fresh hilarity at the look of utter incomprehension on his brother's faceplate.
There was only one problem with his reading.
There was one book the Colonel had referred to that wasn't in the library's catalogue, a volume of what appeared to be a psychological treatise written by an alchemist in the second century. ("It fell apart, sir," the librarian said regretfully. "You're the first person who's asked for it this decade.")
Implication: it was another book the Colonel owned.
The next time he went back to the Colonel's home the leather-bound book was his only companion. The smile the man wore when he opened the door was exactly as Ed remembered ? slight, amused, a vaguely feline tilt to his mouth.
In his hand the book was a concrete excuse for returning, even if it was a decidedly lousy one considering that the simple expedient of leaving it on his superior's desk back at HQ would have rendered the journey unnecessary. Now he unconsciously squared his shoulders, acutely aware of that smile and the too-bland voice with which the Colonel greeted him.
"I hope it proved educational?"
"It was fine," he said shortly.
"There's something else I'd like to read," Ed said after a pause.
Ed told him, holding out the russet-leather book as he did so.
"You know," Roy Mustang said lightly, very lightly, "You don't look like you're interested in mind games."
Ed snorted. "Unlike you, I suppose."
Roy ran a hand over his hair ? the action made his cotton shirt slide lower on his right shoulder ? and laughed, low and clear. "Come in," he said.
"I'm afraid I'll be intruding," Ed sardonically replied.
"No, Fullmetal." Arms crossed, dark gaze faintly challenging. "I'm inviting you."
Their eyes met. Ed curled his mouth in a slight, satisfied grin, and the door shut behind them in well-oiled silence.