Pairing: Roy/Riza, Riza-centric this time.
Genre: Drabble (x4)
Rating: PG for nudity.
Disclaimer: Don't own, don't shoot. Or sue.
A/N: <3 for sutlers who is a spectacular beta and rocks my rotten punctuation liek woe. Second prompt from the 7stages writing contest.
Apologies to those who get this a couple of times.
The ribbon has gone dry in her typewriter. Hawkeye doesn’t mind: efficiency is one thing, cacophony another. Her office belongs to coffee, to ink, to the dusky laughter of men, and the too-infrequent scratch of pens. To keep from having to drag the damned thing out from under her desk, she’ll cajole, threaten, and mutilate her charges as required. Their handwriting will be neat. Their reports will be done on time. A typewriter will not be necessary.
Her men sometimes twit her, and occasionally they test her, but the papers rarely reach “last resort” levels. None of them like to see the tightness around her mouth as she drags the machine out of its bag, or the slight flinching of her fingers as she types.
They used to wonder about her reluctance. It was the colonel who first realized that the striking keys sounded like bullets from an unfamiliar gun.
* * *
The key –if there is a key—is in the breath. Preparing for a shot, she lets the air run out of her nose and pulls the trigger at the dead point, the shallow end of the “oh-god-now” ache, when her lungs feel flat in her chest. The neat, black-hemmed bullet holes in the target satisfy her, clumps of three as symmetrical as painted grapes. More pleasing to Hawkeye than the precision of her shots is their constancy: this array is familiar to her from fifteen years of repetition. It has not varied in over a decade.
Back when she was still young enough to view her gift as a talent, rather than a tool, she took herself off to competition. The ribbon that she won that weekend still hangs from the frame of her mother’s old oak cheval mirror, and when she lies in bed, the silvered glass shows her the back of a faded red rosette.
After the initial pang of embarrassment, she has never regretted coming in second: that was a timely dose of humility. More to the point, she learned her little trick of breathing from the first-place finisher, a still-eyed corporal who must have seen something of his own fatal deliberation in her. Riza still thinks of him every time she goes to stand at the line, in the space of breath before her first round.
* * *
Riza has never appreciated her own pallor until now, staring at the thin, hard line that differentiates her flesh from the bandages. The difference between bleached wool and skin is more texture than color: knitted fiber against milk. She knows that there’s a broad, angry pink scar under all the binding, and there is her face, a medley of shades, bruise-dabbed, smoke-smeared, red-peeling-white from the sun. But the war stops at her throat, and the skin beyond belongs as much to a lady as to a soldier. Riza is well aware that somewhere on the other side of this god-forsaken desert, women pay money for skin like hers –and here she is, tattering it to ribbons. Then again, who is there to care?
It is the morning after the end of the war in Ishvar. Riza has just spent the night with a man she does not love, because he looked something like the man that she does. The stranger whispered over her skin. In the dark, in his haste, he missed the scars.
She has heard that every girl’s first time hurts. As water drips into the basin under her elbows, Riza wishes that were the whole of it.
* * *
The night of her father’s funeral, she digs her old nightgown out of the bottom drawer of her dresser. The gesture seems as though it ought to comfort her: the battered cotton shift belonged to a child that he occasionally still welcomed to his lap, who knew that his skin was too hot, and his flesh smelled like dry wood. She has not yet managed to cry for her father, and she thinks that the familiar, soap-scoured scent of the fabric should do something to ease the stiffness of her grief.
Instead, the nightgown only reminds her of how far they have come from those nights in his study, from inexpertly mixed mugs of cocoa-powder water and her father’s sotto voce dialogue with his papers. There was a time the hem trailed across her toes: ten years later, the ruffles at the bottom of the dress barely cover her knees, and she realizes she has forgotten how revealing a pair of straps can be. Her tattoo seems to hulk on her back: she imagines the ink climbing over her shoulders and down her arms like thorns.
By three in the morning, Riza is cold and uncomforted still. When the impulse for hot chocolate strikes her, she doesn’t resist, just drifts down the stairs, past the funeral bunting and the parlor where she stood this afternoon to receive the regrets of strangers.
Five minutes later, she is sitting at the kitchen table, a cup of hot water before her and a packet of cocoa unopened in her hand, when Roy Mustang walks in. “Riza?”
She has not turned on any lights, but he might, and that would be mortifying on so many levels that she cannot name them all. So she bolts to her feet and faces him. “Mr. Mustang, I must have disturbed you. I am sorry, you should--”
“Couldn’t sleep?” He says, with such sympathy that she is ashamed, because although she couldn’t, she knows that insomnia wasn’t the problem. Rather than explain what is –it would come out incomprehensible anyway, something to do with failing and grief, with nightgowns and memories that no longer fit, and Riza is very much afraid that trying to express it would make her cry—she shakes her head.
“Cocoa?” He goes to the stove where she has left the kettle. “Any water left over?”
“Yes.” She manages, barely. His head swivels around, and she knows he is looking for tears, for grief, for anger, something to explain her reticence.
“I’m sorry if I’m interrupting,” he tells her finally.
“No,” she murmurs. Then, because it is true, however bald, “There was nothing to interrupt.”
He only looks at her, then goes back to rummaging for a packet of cocoa and a cup. He does not say any of the things she is expecting about grief or time. Since she does not want to say those things either, she sits with her back to the corner, and sets herself to study him.
He is still wearing his uniform, the back of the jacket all rumpled. In the flushed dimness of the kitchen the deep blue wool looks warm to the touch. She notes, absently, that he makes his hot chocolate properly, powder in the bottom of the cup, the water over it. Watching him, Riza reaches for the warm round of her mug. The movement of her hands across the wooden table dislodges the strap of her chemise and it slips over her shoulder, perilously low on her arm. Glancing down to look for it, she ends up staring at the little bow where the lace meets cotton, instead. The raveled satin is the same lapis blue as his uniform.
When she raises her eyes, he is watching her: she tucks the strap back into place self-consciously and retreats to courtesy. “I appreciate your taking leave to visit him, and to arrange all of this.”
“So you said this morning,” he reminds her, sprawling against the counter. His gaze finally makes it back from the ribbon to her face. “My reply still stands.”
Ordinarily, this is where she would squirm in embarrassment, but the dryness of his voice and the crook in his mouth are peripheral to her at this moment: she is seeing only the wide blue swath of his uniform. Then her eyes refocus, and she loses the shape and the color of him, sees only the determined set of his jaw, and the shadows of fatigue around his eyes.
“You came here for my father’s research, didn’t you?” The question is mostly rhetorical. Still, he jerks, his elbow knocks the cup of chocolate, and a bit of milky gray liquid sloshes over the rim. Muttering, he borrows a rag from the sink and mops up the spill. Only when the counter and rag are clean does he answer her.
“Yes, I did.” She appreciates that he does not prevaricate. Almost as an aside, he adds, “Your father told me that you had his notes.”
Riza had gathered that from their conversation this morning. Still, it is good to have their respective positions clear. The ink itches under her skin, and she fights the urge to reach back and scratch. “In a manner of speaking. Is that why you’ve stayed, out of the hope I would share them with you?”
His features twitch with distaste, but he answers calmly. “No. I am here to see to his funeral.”
“What will you do if I do not show you his work?” She is too practical to pretend that his response will not influence her decision.
“Pursue his research on my own. He left me some of his notes, and his library. I think I may already be close: one of the reasons I visited in the first place was in hopes of getting confirmation for my conclusions.”
“Mmn.” She is certain that he is bluffing about the extent of his knowledge: Mustang is gifted, but even he could not recreate her father’s lifework in so short a time. She is equally sure that he is not exaggerating about his determination. He will work out the secrets of flame alchemy, if it comes to that.
Her father did not reveal his secrets to Roy Mustang. Item the first, she thinks, her fingers plying the ribbon at her shoulder. Item the second: she is not her father. Fourteen years have schooled her in his biases. If he had lived long enough, he would have disowned his student for choosing military blues. Mustang’s reasons would not have mattered to him.
They matter to her.
If I could protect everyone with these hands, he says, I would be happy. She measures the smudges of grief on his face, and the slight rigidity of his shoulders, and she believes him. She believes, as well, that this man will use her father’s trust with judgment and compassion.
She rises and pads across the kitchen. He starts to say something: neither of them hear what, because there is the rushing of blood in her ears, because he forgets his direction and even the meaning of the words when she turns in front of him and he sees the array.
Wordlessly, she reaches up and peels the straps of her chemise from her shoulders. Cotton gathers in folds at her waist, and the lace ruffle skates down the back of her calves. In the warm quiet of the kitchen, his breath is shallow with wonder. His fingers trace reverently over her skin.
On the other side of her back, Riza presses her arms over her bare breasts and covers her mouth with her palm. Tears march down her cheeks and over her fingers, like soldiers over hills.
* * *
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