“I can’t believe I forgot them,” Gracia said, for the tenth time at least, fumbling for her keys in the depths of her purse.
“It’s really not a problem,” Riza said. “It’s a lovely day. I don’t mind the extra walking, and you can’t very well try on the dress without the right shoes.”
“Exactly. See, only another woman would understand that. Maes would just tell me it’s perfect no matter how it actually looks.”
“Mmm. He’d probably mean it, too.”
Gracia giggled. “He would, but I’m not sure whether that’s because he’s completely blind to my flaws or because he has terrible taste in clothing.”
Riza raised her eyebrows, but she looked like she was holding back a laugh. “I’m sure it’s not my place to speculate.”
“It’ll just be a minute.” Gracia opened the door and placed her purse on the side table. “I had them in a bag and everything, right on my dresser, and—” She stopped speaking at a strange noise that came from somewhere deep inside the house. It sounded almost like an animal, but they had no pets. Having a toddler was hard enough. “What was that? Did you hear that?”
Riza was tense beside her, gun already out from some secret hiding place. Gracia didn’t want to know why Riza had brought a gun on a girls’ shopping trip, but she supposed it was like Roy bringing his ignition gloves everywhere, even to Elicia’s birthday parties. Old habits, Gracia thought, only slightly hysterical.
“I heard it.” Riza edged out of the foyer toward the front hallway, cautious and completely silent.
They heard another noise, this time the dull thud of something hitting the floor or a wall and a muffled cry. “Someone’s in the house,” Gracia whispered, terrified. “Oh my goodness, someone’s in the house, we have to get out and call the police …”
But then they heard the noise again, the strange cry, not quite so muffled, and it was … strange, because it sounded like, it really sounded just like … oh, Gracia thought distantly, mind suddenly gone blank and dull with shock. That was. That was Maes. But Maes was not home. Maes was out with Roy, “catching up,” he’d said, as if they hadn’t just seen each other a month ago, and didn’t speak on the phone several times a week. Maes was out with Roy, catching up, and Gracia was spending the day with Riza, whom she hardly ever got to see, and there was no one else who could be in the house, doing things that … that would mean making noises like that.
Gracia took a few steps down the hall on instinct, then felt a hand on her arm that shook her momentarily out of her strange fugue. She blinked a few times before her eyes focused on Riza, gun disappeared back wherever it came from.
“Gracia,” Riza whispered calmly. Her voice was hardly more than a puff of air, her expression inscrutable. “Maybe you should let me go check it out.”
Then they heard Maes again, groaning, in pain or … well. Not pain. Then another thud. A bed hitting the wall, Gracia thought, detached and analytical. That is what that noise is. A bed hitting the wall in my house while my husband is groaning in something that is not pain. Her face flamed. “No,” she said. “It’s my …” house, husband, life “… concern. I’ll go.”
Riza looked unhappy but nodded, and Gracia drifted down the hall as if she were in a dream, expecting — hoping — to wake up at any minute. All along the walls were pictures of her life with Maes, mostly random snapshots caught by him with his cursed, ever-present camera. The photos blurred as she passed. Closer to the bedrooms, she could hear better, and now there was no mistaking the noises for what they were: groans and moans, Maes panting and murmuring like he would occasionally when he was particularly enthusiastic during sex, and the damn bed banging against the wall in the guest room — at least it wasn’t their bedroom, she thought, suddenly blisteringly furious. Maes had someone in the house, in their house, in their home, he’d brought some trollop home and was having sex with her in their home; worse, he’d gotten Roy to cover for him, so Roy was complicit in this … this … this whatever it was, a tawdry one-time fling or some scandalous ongoing affair. Worse, Gracia thought darkly, Maes was being unusually, shamelessly noisy, ridiculously noisy. The woman wasn’t making a sound, was probably just lying there letting Maes rut at her like a dog and she wasn’t even enjoying it; maybe she felt too guilty to enjoy it. It served her right for daring to have sex with Gracia’s husband in Gracia’s home.
But then she heard, “Maes,” low and desperate, and she froze, body and brain locking up simultaneously. That was no woman moaning. That was a man. That was a man Maes was with. Maes was having sex with a man in their guest room.
She processed it, glacially, point by point. Maes was having sex with a man. Who was the man? That was easy. The man was Roy, because who else other than Roy would Maes want to have sex with? It must be Roy. Yes, it must be Roy, because if it was not Roy, then Roy had covered for Maes having sex with another man, and that was simply ludicrous. Roy would not do that to her, even for Maes. The thought of Maes having sex with Roy was equally ludicrous, but not quite as ludicrous as the thought of Maes having sex with some other man entirely. So it must be Roy, it must be Roy and Maes she had heard. She hadn’t heard a woman moan because there was no woman at all to hear, just Maes and Roy. Maes wasn’t being ridiculously noisy with a guilt-ridden silent woman; what she was hearing was Maes and Roy being noisy together. She was hearing Roy and Maes have noisy sex in the guest room.
But that could not be right, she thought numbly, though she could find no flaw in her logic other than that her conclusion was impossible. She had made a mistake and she was not hearing what she thought she was hearing; she was not hearing Maes and Roy have noisy sex in the guest room. She was not. She was not. She was …
“Oh fuck … ”
Gracia twitched. That was Roy, because that wasn’t Maes, and so it must be Roy, even though she’d never heard his voice drop into that register, never heard him curse at all, because he was always so careful and polite in her presence. That was Roy, cursing and groaning in her guest room, groaning in the guest room with her husband and the bed banging against the wall. “Like that, god, Maes, fuck …”
Roy groaned again, and Maes groaned too, his voice so low and needy it made her shudder.
Her hand was on the doorknob before she even realized what she was doing, but she stopped herself before she opened it, because it would creak when she opened it, and if it creaked, Maes and Roy would look over and see her, and she could not imagine what would happen past that point, what any of them would say if she walked in on Maes and Roy having sex in the guest room. She stayed there, frozen in place by the specter of the creaking door until she remembered dimly that the door no longer squeaked. The door no longer squeaked because Maes and Roy had fixed it a few months ago. Roy had been visiting and Maes said he would put him to work by having him help fix the creaky guest room door, which was only fitting since Roy was the only one who ever stayed in there. Then Maes had sent her and Elicia out of the house for the day because he and Roy were going to be banging and making so much noise … Roy had grinned when Maes had said that, a tiny little smirk that he’d wiped off almost as soon as it had hit his lips, and Maes had grinned too but turned laughing to Gracia, spun her around in the hallway and said, “We don’t want to hurt your precious ears, darling,” and she had believed him.
He had lied to her. He had looked straight at her and lied to her, and naturally she had believed him and taken Elicia out for the day, and left Maes and Roy on their own to fix the door. They’d fixed it, of course, and had showed it off when she came home, both of them grinning goofily, so proud of themselves for accomplishing a minor home repair in five hours. “See,” Maes had said, opening and closing the door again and again without a single creak, “we did it!”
Gracia felt dizzy. She’d been so stupid.
Then she stiffened her spine, twisted the doorknob and opened the door that no longer creaked just enough to look in and see what she didn’t really want to see, for confirmation she didn’t really want. And there was Maes, her beloved, and Roy, whom she also loved, and they were tangled up together, Roy on his back and Maes on top, thrusting, thrusting, strong and fierce, as if to prove beyond any possible doubt what they were doing in case she’d still held out any hope.
“You like that?” Maes said, grinning down at Roy, and Roy let out a completely inarticulate sound of agreement that had Maes laughing. Maes laughed and laughed, delighted, like he would sometimes when Elicia would do something brilliant, like count to 10 or draw a stick-figure family. “Let me,” he said, and he rearranged Roy’s legs, hooking one over his shoulder and wrapping an arm around it, gripping Roy’s hip with his other hand. He thrust again, hard and deep, and Roy threw back his head against the pillow and groaned long and loud and filthy.
“God,” Maes said, like it really was a prayer, staring down at Roy, entranced. “I love you like this. I love you. God, I love you so much …”
Roy shuddered once, hard, then shifted and levered up, one arm behind him for support. “Shut up,” he said, desperately, “shut up, you can’t say that,” and he grabbed at Maes with his other arm and pulled him close for a kiss, shaking.
“I can’t help it,” Maes said, forehead to forehead, after he’d broken away. He thrust his hips once and they both groaned. “You’re so fucking beautiful.”
Roy was beautiful, of course, in an unearthly, ineffable way that drew everyone’s attention to him always, an incontrovertible fact of his existence that he’d used ruthlessly to his advantage over the years, but had never used with Gracia. Gracia had seen Roy’s beauty, obviously — she wasn’t blind — but it was just something there, something to acknowledge but not obsess over, because Roy was never going to be hers, and she didn’t want him anyway, not when she had Maes. Now she looked at Roy again, trying to see him as Maes did. He was all hard muscle and flat planes where she was soft and curved, pale taut skin marred with scars from a war he’d fought before she ever met him. Gracia could not deny that he was beautiful even with the scars. Maes was scarred too; no one had come back from Ishval unmarked. There was a scar on his bicep and a scar on his lower back and a scar on his left buttock that she’d felt but never actually seen until now.
Oh, Gracia thought, brain stuttering to a halt. She processed again, just as slowly. There was a scar on her husband’s left buttock that she’d never seen, because they had sex at night in the dark under the covers, and when Maes came out of the shower he always wrapped a towel around his waist. She’d felt the scar but never seen it, but it hadn’t been important. It hadn’t mattered that Maes had a scar she’d felt but never seen because they always had sex at night in the dark. It mattered now, though, because it was the middle of the day and Maes and Roy were having sex in the guest room with the sun hot and brilliant throughout the room, staring at each other, and she could see every scar on both of their bodies, including the scar on Maes’s buttock that she’d felt but never seen before.
She should not be watching this, she realized. If she was not going to confront them now — and there was no way she was going to confront them now — she should shut the door as quietly as she’d opened it and leave. What good could come from her watching Maes and Roy have noisy sex in the guest room, banging the bed against the wall?
No good could come of it, just more nightmare fodder, but still she stood there and she stood there, hand on the doorknob, watching and listening, feeling stupider and sicker with every passing minute.
“Fuck, I could do this all day,” Maes said, panting, lifting his head up and wiping his mouth. Then he grinned once and swallowed Roy back down and Roy arched up with a cry, and Gracia was still frozen with her hand on the doorknob. Walk away, she thought dimly, just shut the door and leave, but it was like one of those dreams where her legs wouldn’t move and she was trapped like a fly in molasses.
Finally, after far too long, she came to her senses when Roy was atop Maes, straddling him, and Maes was groaning louder and louder. “Oh fuck,” he said, voice strained and breathy, “oh fuck,” and she realized he was about to … to orgasm within Roy. But the room was bright with sunlight and if she stayed she was going to be able to see his face as it happened. She’d never seen his face at that moment; they always had sex at night in the dark, and though she knew what he sounded like as he finished, she’d never seen his face as it happened. She couldn’t … the first time she watched him come couldn’t be when he was with someone else.
She shut the door silently, not that they would have noticed if she’d slammed it, the way they were wrapped up in each other, and she crept back silently down the hall to the foyer where Riza was waiting, scowling at some pictures on the wall. “It’s … it’s Roy,” Gracia said, and saying it out loud was enough to send tears welling up in the corners of her eyes. Saying it was worse than watching it. Saying it to someone else made it real.
“I figured as much,” Riza said, frowning. “What do you want to do?”
What Gracia wanted most was to wake up from this horrible dream, to wake up next to Maes and feel secure in the knowledge that he loved her. “Let’s leave,” she said. “Let’s just go. I can’t be here right now.”
Riza nodded, face set, and they slipped out the door together.
She could not blame Roy for wanting Maes. How could she? Everyone wanted Maes. Maes was handsome and joyous and optimistic. Maes was warm and giving and loved the whole world with his whole heart. Maes was everything anyone could ever want in a husband and lover. So no, she could not blame Roy for wanting Maes. But she blamed Roy for having Maes. Everyone wanted Maes, but they wanted Roy more. As handsome as Maes but more exotic-looking, more fit, more driven, more charming, more confident, a war hero, the war hero, the Flame Alchemist. Roy could have anyone he wanted, woman or man; all of Amestris would spread their legs for him and thank him for the privilege. Out of all of those millions of people available to him, why did he have to take the one who belonged to her?
I love you like this. God, I love you so much .
And Roy had surged, had risen up, helpless, devouring and devoured. You can’t say that, he had said, shaking, and shut Maes up the only way he could.
She dropped her head into her hands, shivering. She had it backwards.
Roy didn’t have Maes. Maes had Roy.
What was she going to do? What could she do? Confront Maes, tell him she knew the truth, demand he stop seeing Roy?
God, I love you like this, Maes had panted, urgent and desperate. Maes had never said anything like that to her, was always so contained in bed, unfailingly gentle, courteous, considerate, affectionate; she’d have said he was passionate until this afternoon, when she saw him truly passionate for the first time. He’d been so frantic he’d been trembling. He was never frantic with her.
Come on, come for me, he’d urged. You’re so fucking beautiful. He never cursed in bed with her, either, never lost his self-possession to that point he also lost his hold on civility. Never cursed, not once.
Oh fuck, oh fuck, he’d said, and groaned as if he were dying.
If she made Maes choose between her and Roy, she had a sickening feeling he wouldn’t pick her.
Gracia twisted her wedding ring on her finger, around and around and around. Riza had led her to a small park a few blocks away, and they were sitting on one of the benches on the opposite side of the pond from the playground. It was a beautiful sunny day, the sort on which Gracia might have brought Elicia here to play with the other children, if Maes hadn’t suggested they send her to Mrs. Penza, since Riza had come to town with Roy. “Have a girls’ day out,” he’d said, and it had sounded so lovely that she’d agreed without thinking twice.
“I thought,” she said, faltering. Around and around went the ring on her finger. “I would understand if he’d … it would have made sense if he’d hadn’t done anything other than … ” Penetrating, she meant; it would have made sense if he hadn’t done more than play what she thought of as the male role, but she couldn’t say that. She didn’t even have the vocabulary for this, not to say aloud. “But then, but then he … they … when Roy was about to, to … then he, Maes, he.” Her cheeks were flaming, and she couldn’t look at Riza. “He used his, his mouth. To finish him. So he … so there wouldn’t be a, a mess.” Hadn’t wanted any telltale stains on the sheets, is what Maes had said, so Gracia wouldn’t realize when she did the laundry.
Riza was silent. When Gracia had composed herself enough to look up, Riza was staring at some trees on the other side of the park. “In my experience,” Riza said, emotionless, “men who are willing to do that are not simply acting out of desperation or convenience.”
Gracia could not disagree. It had certainly not been convenience. It might have been desperation, but not the kind Riza was talking about. Maes had not been willing to do that. Maes had wanted to do that, had gone down on Roy like Roy was giving him a gift by letting him. Maes had been grinning and playful and had drawn it out, teased Roy until Roy had come with a shout and a curse. And then Maes had licked his lips and crawled up the bed and up Roy’s body and kissed him, wet and filthy, kissed Roy even athough he’d just … and Roy had kissed him back, hadn’t even flinched, and then he’d pushed Maes off and down on the bed and climbed atop him and Maes had stared up at him like he was a star that had fallen out of the sky. Roy had stared back equally star-struck, and fucked Maes liked there was nothing in the world he wanted to be doing more.
Oh. She had just thought the word ‘fucked.’ She was 27 years old and had never thought that word before. But that’s what it had been, that’s what she had seen. Fucking, frantic, base and animal. Like they couldn’t have stopped if they’d wanted to, and clearly they hadn’t wanted to.
Oh fuck, oh fuck, Maes had said as he’d fucked Roy, barely coherent, and Roy had keened and moaned, body straining, all scar tissue and hard muscles, and he’d reached for her husband with hands that had killed a thousand men, and her husband had gripped him back hard enough to bruise. Maes never bruised her, had never even kissed her neck hard enough to leave a mark. “I’d never want to mar such perfection,” he’d say with a grin, and kiss her so softly it was like flower petals dusting over her skin, but now she thought all that meant was that he didn’t love her enough to mark her as his own the way he marked Roy.
Gracia didn’t say any of this to Riza. She didn’t think she had the words to properly describe it anyway. “Did you know?” she asked instead, because she could not imagine that Riza did not.
“I thought it had stopped,” was all Riza said, the words falling slow and reluctant from her lips. “After Ishval.”
“After Ishval,” Gracia said, and then again, as if repetition would make it make more sense, because to have stopped after Ishval meant it had been happening during their time there. So this had been going on for years, before she and Maes had married, even … was it better or worse, she wondered, if instead of losing her husband she was simply learning that she’d never really had him in the first place? Oh, part of him she’d had for sure; she did not think she’d been entirely imagining his love for her nor his devotion to Elicia, but she’d never had his whole heart like she’d thought. Maybe not even most of it.
God, I love you like this.
“A lot of soldiers … hmm. Partake,” Riza continued, voice flat like she was discussing the weather. “Nobody talks about it, but everybody knows. But for most, it lasts only so long as they are at war. Then they come home and pretend it never happened.”
“Not Roy,” Gracia said bitterly. Not Maes, she couldn’t bring herself to say.
Riza tilted her head in a half nod. “Roy …” she said. “… and Maes. I think, for them, this ...” She paused and frowned, looking for a word, then, finding one, set her face and kept on, resolute. “I think their relationship preceded Ishval. So far as I know, Roy has never taken another male lover, not during the war, nor any time thereafter.” Her expression went slightly sour. “Though perhaps I wouldn’t know if he had. I don’t delve into his personal life, and he is very good at eluding me when he truly wants to.”
Preceded Ishval. Which meant this affair stretched back to their Academy days. It had been going on for as long as ten years, perhaps. Ten years, and still Maes looked at Roy and trembled. I could do this all day. Gracia thought of the countless stories that started, “Did I ever tell you about the time Roy and I …” Story upon story began that way, after one there was always another, to the point that she would sometimes wonder if Maes even remembered anyone else from the Academy, someone who’d existed outside of the bubble he’d shared with Roy. Did I ever tell you about the time Roy and I fucked? That story, she’d never heard. There’d never even been a hint that such a story existed to tell. Did I ever tell you about the time Roy and I fell in love?
Gracia was not entirely naïve. She knew it happened, men fucking men, men loving men. She had just never thought one of those men would be her husband.
God, I love you. Come on, come for me. You’re so fucking beautiful. She thought she might be sick, and put a hand up to her mouth as if it could dispel the nausea. Riza looked at her, eyes shuttered, then away, emotionless and poised. Did she think Gracia was weak for not being able to accept this? Was Gracia supposed to be able to accept this? Is that what military wives did? Did other women just close their eyes and pretend it wasn’t happening the same way they pretended their husbands never woke up screaming in the middle of the night, that they returned from war the same people who’d gone there? “I can’t decide,” Gracia said finally, “which is the worse betrayal. That Maes is having sex with him, or that he loves him.”
Riza was quiet and gently reproachful. “You have always known Maes loved him.”
That hurt the most, because she had.
The house was fragrant with strange spices when Gracia came home with Elicia. Riza had gone back to her hotel with some reluctance, a little hesitant to leave Gracia on her own for the inevitable confrontation, but as much as Gracia would have appreciated some support, it could not be Riza at her side. Riza was Roy’s, wholeheartedly; even knowing about the affair, Riza was still Roy’s, and would always be Roy’s. There was a bond between the two that Gracia did not think she would ever fully understand, their lives inextricably intertwined: they were not now nor had ever been lovers, but Roy and Riza were closer in many ways than Roy and Maes. Even now, Gracia still believed that to be true. So Riza could not be the one to stand with Gracia, because in the end, Riza would always stand with Roy.
Gracia dropped her key on the side table and took off her coat, unfastening each button with slow, deliberate movements. She could hear Maes and Roy in the kitchen, laughing.
A burst of nausea swirled in her belly at the normalcy. How could it be so normal in her house, when her entire world had collapsed? The pictures should all be on the floor, the glass shattered, the wallpaper shredded and filthy, every vase broken in pieces on the floor.
Elicia scampered into the kitchen as soon as Gracia had taken off her coat.
“Polka Dot!” Roy said, and swung Elicia up in the air while she giggled in toddler ecstasy.
Put down my daughter, Gracia wanted to say. Don’t touch my daughter with the same hands you used to touch my husband, but she grit her teeth and smiled instead.
“Gracia, my love!” Maes swept over from where he had been stirring a pan of something on the stove, and leaned in to kiss her. She managed to turn so that the kiss landed on her cheek, not her lips. She could not bear to be kissed by him, not when she knew he had been kissing Roy earlier— and doing other things with his mouth, too, that she could not think about now, with her daughter there, in the arms of the man Maes loved. “How was your day, dearest piece of my heart?”
“Fine,” she said shortly. She glanced at Roy, who was pointing out the contents of several different pots and pans to a wide-eyed Elicia. How did he feel, she wondered, to hear Maes addressing her this way? Was he so desperate for Maes’s affections that he could disregard all the flowery love that fell from Maes’s lips every time he spoke to her? Or was he so secure in his knowledge that Maes loved him best that it didn’t matter to him what Maes said to her?
“That’s rice,” Roy said. Then his eyes widened comically. “Oh no, I forgot, you don’t like rice at all!”
Elicia looked horrified. “No, Uncle Roy! I love rice, remember?”
“You do?” Roy raised his eyebrows as high as they could go. “Are you sure?”
“I’m sure, I’m sure, I love rice! I’ll eat all the rice!”
Roy pretended to be astonished. “You’ll eat all of it? That whole big pot of rice?”
“You will not,” Maes said, coming over to kiss Elicia and ruffle her hair. So then it was the three of them, Roy holding Elicia and Maes leaning in close to them both, and Gracia dug her nails into her palms so she would not start screaming. “Mommy and Daddy and Uncle Roy want some rice too. Maybe if you’re lucky Uncle Roy will show you how to use chopsticks.”
“Um, no he won’t. Uncle Roy doesn’t know how to use chopsticks very well,” Roy said, grimacing. He shifted Elicia to his hip so she could look more closely at the vegetables and chicken simmering on the stove.
Maes looked shocked. “What? How can you not know how to use chopsticks? It’s your heritage!”
“Only half,” Roy said. “And I’m pretty sure my mother was born and raised in Central. We ate with forks when I was little. Then Aunt Chris didn’t know a thing about Xing and didn’t care if I did either. Really, everything I know about Xingese food I learned at Capitol Wok.” He turned back to Elicia, with a pout on his face that had made many women weak in the knees. “That was a Xingese restaurant. They used to make fun of me there if I tried to use chopsticks. That wasn’t very nice of them, was it?”
“No!” Elicia’s eyes were big and green and trusting of this man who might be the one to break up her family. “No, you shouldn’t make fun of people, because it makes them feel bad.”
Maes beamed. “You’re so caring, sweetheart! Roy, isn’t she the most wonderful caring little girl ever?”
“She’s the most wonderful little girl I know,” Roy agreed.
“I won’t ever make fun of you, Uncle Roy,” Elicia said seriously. “Even if you can’t use chopped sticks very good.” Then she gave him a kiss on his cheek, and he laughed and tickled her until she was shrieking.
Gracia could not bear it for one more second. “Elicia,” she said. “Why don’t you go wash up for dinner now? I’ll set the table with Daddy and … and Uncle Roy.” Saying his name was like choking on acid.
“Okay Mommy!” Elicia said, and ran off singing “rice rice I love rice!” as soon as Roy put her down.
“I should take a picture,” Maes said adoringly. “I haven’t taken a picture of her all day.”
“You’re slipping,” Roy said. “Gracia, where’s Hawkeye? I thought she was coming back with you for dinner.”
“She was tired,” Gracia said. It turned out to be surprisingly easy to lie, to keep her tone uninflected and her expression neutral. This must be what Maes did all the time, just let the lies out like they didn’t mean anything. “She said she’d rather go back to the hotel and have a quiet night before the train ride tomorrow, and that you shouldn’t get all crazy like you always do, because she is allowed to be tired like other humans every once in a while.”
“She’s not allowed, actually. It’s in her contract. I added a provision specifically,” Roy said, at the same time Maes said, “She’s human?” They both laughed, and then Roy shrugged and said, “Her loss. We outdid ourselves today.”
“Did you?” Gracia said, biting her cheek, remembering the way Roy had moaned and Maes had cursed, the way the two of them had stared at each other, as if in that moment there was nothing and no one else in the world that mattered. God, I could do this all day.
Gracia turned to the cabinets to get the dishes, and pretended she wouldn’t rather smash them all to the floor, one by one.
By the time Elicia was in bed, Gracia was at the end of her rope. She could not believe, now, that she had never noticed. How had she not seen the way Maes and Roy were with each other, the way Maes hung on every word Roy said, the way Roy put up with the way Maes touched him all the time, casually, when he never tolerated so much as a pat on the back from anyone else, the way they were always catching each other’s eyes and grinning?
Now that she knew, she felt like an idiot for having been so blind for so long. Fathers and sons were not this close. Brothers were not this intimate. It was there in every little movement that passed between them, every moment they were together. Yet she’d closed her eyes and pretended it was normal, felt blessed that Maes had a friend with whom he had such a deep bond. For god’s sake, she had let Maes have his lover in their house because she could not believe a man who professed such love for his wife and daughter — and showed it every day, in a thousand different ways — could also be in love with someone else. That Maes was in love with a man was … less strange, by nighttime, than it had been during the day; that Maes was in love with anyone else was no less strange at all.
“The one problem with Xingese food,” Maes said, glancing around the kitchen in something akin to despair, “is the mess.”
Roy groaned, head thrown back, eyes closed. Gracia stilled at the sound, but did not shudder.
“Hey, Roy,” Maes said. “Why don’t you develop a spell for cleaning the kitchen?”
“They’re not spells,” Roy said, cracking open one eye. He was sprawled in his chair, shirt untucked, hair even more of a mess than usual. Before, she’d have said he looked relaxed. Now she thought a better word was wanton, loose-limbed and seductive, the untucked shirt and messy hair an invitation to touch even if he wasn’t doing it on purpose — although she couldn’t be sure he wasn’t. “It’s alchemy, Hughes. Science, not magic.”
“Tell that to the nomads,” Maes said. “Hey, Gracia, did I ever tell you about the time Roy and I—”
“No,” Gracia said.
Maes blinked. “But you don’t even know what I was going to say.”
“I’m sure it was a very funny story involving a training exercise in the desert,” Gracia said. “No, you never told me about it. No, I don’t want to hear it.”
Her voice was calm, at least she thought it was, but still Maes shifted in his seat, and Roy opened both eyes and sat up.
“Darling,” Maes said cautiously, “is something wrong?”
Gracia breathed, in and out, striving for tranquility. “Ask me about my day,” she said.
Maes seemed baffled. “We already discussed it at dinner. You said you had lunch with Riza and then you went and looked at that dress you had seen but you didn’t like it when you tried it on. Are you upset that it didn’t fit? There are so many dress stores in the city, sweetheart, and you look spectacular in everything you wear, you’re so beautiful and your body is perfectly proportioned, I’m sure you can find—”
“Ask me,” Gracia said again, icily, “about my day.”
Roy cleared his throat and sat up even straighter. “Um. Maybe I’ll go look in on Elicia.”
“Stay the hell away from my daughter,” Gracia said, though she never took her eyes off her husband and so only saw Roy’s flinch out of the corner of her eye. Nervous anticipation had her stomach in knots, but she could not wait one more minute. It was not fair that she should be feeling like this, confused and betrayed and so angry, while Maes and Roy could be laughing about alchemy and nomads. “Go ahead, Maes, ask me.”
Maes swallowed and his eyes flickered to where Roy was sitting. Even now, she thought, even now he looked to Roy first. God, I love you so much.
“Gracia,” Maes said, very slowly. “How was your day?”
“It was lovely,” Gracia said, with a bright, fake smile, “except that I forgot the shoes I wanted to wear to try on with the dress. So I came home after lunch to get them.”
“You …” Maes said. His face drained of color in slow, steady increments, starting high in his cheekbones and moving down.
“Came home. After lunch. Around 2 o’clock.”
“Fuck,” Roy breathed. He folded forward and dropped his head in his hands, palms grinding into his eyes.
“Yes,” Gracia said. “That’s very appropriate, under the circumstances.”
Maes looked at Roy again. Gracia wanted to hit him, wanted to grab him by the collar and shake him, wanted to yell in his face, look at me, not him, I’m your wife! Instead she sat at the table, surrounded by dirty dishes, in the kitchen of the home where her husband had spent the afternoon fucking his best friend, and waited for Maes to speak.
“Gracia,” Maes tried, but then his speech seemed to fail him. “Gracia, love—”
“Don’t,” she said. “Don’t call me that, not now.”
Maes shrank in on himself a little bit and drew in a shaky breath. He looked like he was about to weep. The only time she’d ever seen him cry had been was Elicia was born. “All right,” he said. He was wringing his hands in his lap. She didn’t think she’d ever seen anyone actually do that before. “I don’t know where to start.”
Of course he didn’t. Of course it would fall on Gracia to navigate this situation she didn’t ask for and couldn’t fathom. “Riza says,” she said — Roy flinched again, off to the side — “that this has been going on since the Academy. Is that true?”
Roy’s voice was faint. “Riza knows?”
“She was here with me. She heard some of it. But she didn’t see.”
She’d thought Maes was pale before, but now he was bone white, like a ghost. He looked, Gracia thought, like she felt. “You … you saw us?”
“Mmm,” Gracia said, nodding. “I’m sorry, should I have knocked? I’m not sure you would have heard me anyway over all the noise. You were being very loud.”
“Fuck,” Roy said. “Fuck, fuck, Gracia, I’m sorry.”
“I don’t want an apology from you,” she said without looking at him. She kept her eyes on Maes. “I don’t want an apology from either of you. I just want to understand how this happened. Right under my nose, for ten years you’ve been … you’ve been sleeping together for ten years, and you … you lied to me, Maes. Is Roy the only one, or do you have other lovers?” She hadn’t wanted to wonder, but it seemed an obvious question now. If Maes had one lover, why not more? Roy visited only once a month; that gave Maes ample opportunity to have other affairs.
“No others,” Maes said. He looked horrified at the thought. “No one else, there’s never been anyone else.” His voice was sincere, but he wasn’t looking at Gracia when he said it. He was looking at Roy. “I swear it. There hasn’t been anyone else.”
“I know there hasn’t,” Roy said … Roy said. In the space of a heartbeat, Gracia was incandescently furious.
“Shut up,” she said, finally turning to face him. “You shut up, you son of a bitch, I can’t believe you have the nerve to be here, you actually have the gall to sit here and eat dinner with us after you spent the afternoon having sex with my husband? In my house?”
For the first time since she’d known him, Gracia saw Roy Mustang at a loss for words.
“I suppose,” she continued, coldly, “I shouldn’t be shocked. After all, what else would you expect from a man who murders people in their beds—”
She ignored Maes’s shocked outcry, staring at Roy in a bitter, cold rage. “It would be stupid to expect any humanity or decency from a man who kills women and children and slaughters babies in their cribs. Why would you see anything wrong with it, why should I expect any compassion from a man who burns people to ashes … ”
Roy vaulted up and out of his chair, pallid and trembling. “I’m sorry,” he said, stricken. “I’m sorry, god, I’m sorry … Maes, I can’t be here, I have to go … ”
“Don’t, she didn’t mean it, she didn’t … Roy.”
But Roy was already gone. The front door clicked shut while Maes was still frozen in his seat. “Damn it,” he said, under his breath. “Goddamn it, Roy—” He was halfway out of the kitchen before he looked back at Gracia. His face was sad — no, he was disappointed, like she’d failed some test. The unjustness of it took her breath away, that he could have the nerve to be disappointed in her, when he was the one had done everything wrong, and her only crime was being naïve enough to believe that he’d meant the vows he took with her.
Maes stared at her for a moment, angry and disbelieving, before his face crumpled into misery. “I’m sorry,” he said. “I’m sorry, Gracia, but I can’t just let him leave like that.”
“You can,” she said, more calmly than she felt. “But you won’t.”
His breath was shaky. She’d never seen him so off-balance. “Maybe so.” Then he was gone too, and the front door opened and shut again a minute later, his footsteps thumping hastily down the outside steps.
Gracia put her head down on the table and just breathed for a long time, eyes burning. Maes did not immediately return, nor even return in the age of time it took for her to gather the shattered pieces of her self-possession together again. When she could breathe without thinking she might burst into tears, she rose to her feet and started cleaning the kitchen, slowly and methodically. First she cleared the table, then she washed the dishes one at a time and placed them in the rack. Maes usually dried the dishes while she washed; when Roy stayed for dinner he would help dry the dishes too, standing shoulder to shoulder with Maes, the two of them flicking water at each other and laughing like schoolboys.
Her eyes burned but she did not cry. Would not. If Maes came home, she would not have him find her in the kitchen, crying. If Maes did not come home … well. If Maes did not come home, then she would know the answer to the question she had not yet dared to ask.
She dried the dishes and put them away, then washed the pots that had been soaking, scouring them so they sparkled like new. She dried them and put them away too, wiped the table and swept the floor. Maes was still not back, and there was nothing left for her to do. Usually when Roy visited, after Elicia went to bed they would play cards or board games, the three of them, Maes and Roy bickering and competitive and so distracting in their immaturity that she always lost. Sometimes they would gather around the piano and Roy would play for them, singing in his serviceable but not spectacular baritone. Maes would join in when he knew the words and even when he didn’t; the songs were mostly inappropriate for mixed company as it was, but were worse when Maes was making up the words as he went along. Gracia would sing along with them sometimes, feeling self-conscious but daring when the songs were lewd — which was most of the time, since Roy had learned to play piano in the parlor at his aunt’s bar … brothel. Roy grew up in a brothel, not a bar. She thought she should get used to saying and thinking such things, to being honest about what things were called and what they truly were.
Time passed, and still Maes had not returned. Gracia went to their bedroom, took off her jewelry and placed it away, bathed and removed her makeup, combed out her hair and brushed her teeth, focusing on each mundane activity that she would not have to think of anything else. She pulled out a nightgown from her pajama drawer, pale pink with faded green and yellow flowers round the hem and a low neckline that flattered her décolletage. It had been part of her trousseau, she remembered, a gift from her aunt, who had smiled at her slyly and winked when Gracia had opened the box.
Gracia frowned and put the nightgown neatly back in the drawer, then took out another, plain and white and modest. On the corner of the dresser was the bag with the shoes she’d meant to take with her that morning, when she’d been rushing to drop Elicia off at the sitter’s before meeting Riza for a late breakfast. “We’ll be back around five,” she’d said to Maes, who had climbed back into bed with the newspaper. She’d bent down to brush a kiss across his cheek, and he’d turned his head to catch her lips at the last moment. He’d tasted of toast and coffee.
“We’ll take care of dinner,” he’d said. “Xingese, if I can convince him.”
“Mmm,” she’d said. “You boys have fun.” Then she’d left, distracted and in a hurry, and the shoes had been left behind in the bag on the dresser. If only she’d remembered to take them, she’d have spent the day out with Riza and come home with Elicia at five o’clock. Maes and Roy would have been cooking in the kitchen, and when she asked them how they spent their day they’d have smiled at her and laughed and lied and she’d have never known any different. She’d have had a new dress and a life she understood, instead of no dress and a life she didn’t understand at all.
She took the bag with the shoes and placed it on a high shelf in the back of her closet, and shut the door tight. Then she got into bed in her plain white nightgown and turned on a lamp, picked a book from the pile on her nightstand, opened it at the marked page, and did not read a single word. You boys have fun, she’d said. Like she’d been giving them permission.
You’re so fucking beautiful. God, I could do this all day.
It was past eleven when she heard the front door open. She breathed unsteadily, tense, but did not get up. Momentarily she heard footsteps down the hall, muted voices — which answered at least one question — then the click of the guest room door as it closed. No creak. Maes came into their room a minute later.
“I saw the light was still on,” he said. He looked tired and unhappy, and rubbed the back of his neck where the muscles would get tight when he was anxious or upset. He smelled of smoke. “I’m just going to brush my teeth.”
“All right,” she said. She wondered if she should say something else, but if so, she didn’t know what it should be. She did not know anything. What to say, what to think, what to feel. So she said nothing, thought nothing, and felt nothing when he walked past the bed to the bathroom and shut the door behind him.
She sat in the bed and thought about nothing until Maes came out of the bathroom. He’d washed his face, and the hair at his temples was still damp. He usually left his glasses in the bathroom at night, but he’d put them back on, and he blinked at her from behind the lenses. He looked like a stranger in their bedroom with his glasses on. “Roy’s in the guest room,” he said unnecessarily. “I’ll sleep on the couch.”
“All right.” Nothing, nothing, nothing.
God, I love you like this. I love you.
Nothing, she thought to herself forcefully, and tried to mean it.
“Gracia,” he said, sighing. “We’ll figure it out in the morning. Somehow, we’ll … we’ll figure it out.”
She did not say anything to that, and he frowned unhappily, took his glasses off and rubbed his eyes. She waited for him to say something that might make her feel anything other than deadened. “Good night,” he said finally.
Nothing. Gracia merely looked at him. Even with the glasses off, he still looked like a stranger to her. “Good night.”
He left then and she stayed sitting up in the bed, not moving, until she’d heard his footsteps walk past the guest room without stopping. She let out a breath she hadn’t realized she’d been holding, then carefully replaced the bookmark exactly where it had been, put the book back on the nightstand and turned out the light. She lay down on her back, hands flat at her side. Dead man’s pose. Dead woman. She did not think, but neither did she sleep.
Chapter 2 and done ... see if you spot the one very subtle pun in and among all the angst.
Thanks for reading!
Gracia got up in the morning after a difficult and restless night. Every time she turned over she reached for Maes; every time he wasn’t there she remembered why and it was like a kick to the chest that left her gasping for breath. When the sun finally rose and light filled the room and Maes was still not there, she thought, “This is how it will be from now on.” Then she dropped her head in her hands and cried like she hadn’t let herself before. Only one day earlier, she’d woken up in the same room, in the same bed, and Maes had tried to kiss her good morning before he’d even brushed his teeth; she’d made a face and pushed him away. She’d pushed him away on what might have been the last morning she’d ever wake up next to him.
She couldn’t bear it, so she got out of bed and washed and dressed, and didn’t look at the side of the bed that belonged to Maes.
When Gracia got to the kitchen, Roy was there, holding a cup of coffee and staring out the window.
With effort, she made her voice entirely neutral when she spoke. “Good morning.” It was not a good morning, but that was what one said.
Roy turned with a jolt. He must have been very distracted not to hear her enter. Usually the only one who could catch him unawares was Riza. She thought his skittishness was probably from the war. Maes had it too, to a lesser degree, but he’d spent less time on the front line than Roy. She’d never asked him for the details. She wondered now if things would be different if she had, if he had been able to share the experience with her the way he shared it with Roy.
At her greeting, a host of complicated emotions swept over Roy’s face; she could not decipher the one that settled there, but then again she’d always had trouble reading him past the surface. “Good morning.”
She knew she ought to apologize for the terrible things she had said the night before, but he did not seem to be expecting it and so she did not bother. If anything, he seemed to be bracing himself for another assault.
Well, she would not lose control of herself like that again. She was too tired to yell, for one thing, and saying such spiteful things to Roy had accomplished nothing in the end but sending Maes to chase after him. Instead she poured herself a cup of coffee. Roy always made it too strong, so she added milk and sugar. “Did you sleep?” It was obvious he had not. He looked dreadful, dark purple circles like deep bruises under his eyes, hair a mess, still wearing yesterday’s wrinkled clothes even though he had brought a bag with him and kept extra clothes here besides. The buttons on his shirt were mismatched. He looked like she felt, but that was what makeup was for, so women could look put together even when their lives were falling apart.
He quirked something at her that might in another lifetime have passed for a grin, rueful and exhausted. “No. I thought about getting drunk instead, but decided that raiding your liquor cabinet would be poor repayment for your hospitality.”
Poor repayment for my hospitality, she thought, was sleeping with my husband. She’d rather he had taken the liquor.
She sipped at her coffee. “Is Maes awake?”
Roy’s mouth spasmed. “… no. He … I think he wasn’t so hesitant to go for the liquor.”
So Maes was passed out, not asleep, which left her alone with Roy until Maes managed to drag himself out of his hangover.
“It’ll probably be a little while before he’s up,” Roy said. “He crashes hard after he drinks.”
Gracia frowned, not on purpose, but to have Roy tell her how her husband reacted to alcohol was infuriating. “I’m aware.”
Roy grimaced. “Yes, of course you are. I’m sorry. I shouldn’t.” He stared into his coffee cup, as if it held some sort of wisdom. “I shouldn’t even be here.”
Gracia did not disagree. Despite the insults she had spit at him the night before, the truth was she had liked Roy from the first time she’d met him and had loved him right away too just because Maes had loved him. Eventually she had grown to love him on his own merit, for his tenacity and dedication and loyalty and morality. What she had thought of as his morality, at least; right now she did not think he or Maes really understood the concept. Still, she had loved him, truly, despite the horrific things he had done in the war. But at this moment, standing in her kitchen, drinking his too-strong coffee in the pale morning sunlight, she thought that if she never had to see him again, she’d be content.
“If I asked you to leave,” she said, “would you go?”
He didn’t hesitate. “Yes.”
“Maes would be upset if you did.”
“Yes.” His voice was level and he met her gaze steadily. That was something else she’d admired about him, the way he looked people in the eyes when he spoke to them. She’d always assumed it meant he was honest. Maes had laughed when she’d told him that, and said all it meant was that Roy was a damn good liar. Not as good as Maes, Gracia thought bitterly. Roy lied to her once a month when he visited. Maes lied to her every day, every time he said, “I love you,” and let her think she was the only one.
“And what about your … affair,” she said. She would call it what it was, part of her new resolve. “Would you break it off with him, if I asked?”
Roy frowned and looked away, tapping his fingers nervously on the rim of his mug. “I don’t want to lie to you,” he said — Not any more than you already have, she thought sourly — “but I don’t know what to say that won’t be worse.”
“Truth is always better than a lie,” she said.
Roy shook his head slowly. “I don’t know about that. You’ve had seven years with Maes, good years, you have Elicia—”
“Don’t,” she interrupted sharply. “Don’t tell me about my marriage. You don’t get to do that.”
He flushed. It made him look ill, with his bruised eyes and messy hair. “No,” he said. “You’re right, of course.” He tapped some more on the rim of his coffee mug, tap tap tap, a nervous tic she’d never seen from him. She supposed she’d never seen him nervous at all. He was always so relaxed around them. Well. Around Maes, in retrospect. She wondered if she’d ever stop picking over the pieces of her memory, slotting them into new spots in the puzzle of her life.
“So you wouldn’t stop … ” — fucking Maes, loving Maes — “… seeing Maes, if I asked you to.”
“If he asked me to,” Roy said, slow and precise, “then I would.”
That stung a bit, even though there had never been any doubt in Gracia’s mind that Roy was Maes’s first and hers a far distant second, that he would do terrible, impossible things for Maes if Maes asked him to. Still, he said it like it pained him, and maybe it did, even if only because it was painful to him to imagine that Maes might ever ask such a thing. Either way it was an empty promise. Maes would never ask. Maes wouldn’t ask because Maes was in love with Roy as much as Roy was in love with Maes, and neither of them would give the other up for her; if they’d been willing to, it would have ended already, when she and Maes got married or when Elicia was born.
“I’m sorry,” Roy said. He sounded sincere. Gracia thought he probably even was. “I know that’s not what you want to hear from me.”
“I don’t really want to hear anything from you,” Gracia said. “If I had my way, Roy, you’d leave my house right now and I’d never have to see you again.”
He flinched a little and looked away, and she felt briefly horrible for saying something so hurtful even if she had every right to say it. “I know that’s not fair to you. I know that you are not the only one to blame, maybe not even the one most to blame — you never promised me anything like Maes did. But right now, it’s hard for me to even look at you.”
“I’ll get out of your way then.” He looked sad and tired, and put his empty mug down in the sink.
“Don’t.” She went to the pantry and started pulling out some things for breakfast. Bread for toasting, sweet butter, raspberry jam, some fruit. “He asked you to stay. He wanted you here and I need to accept that, even if I don’t like it. This is his home too.” At least for now, she didn’t bother to say, and had only just barely started to think. She could not imagine this house without Maes in it. It was absurd, but not as absurd as the idea of Maes cheating on her with Roy, and that had turned out to be an idea that was not nearly absurd enough.
After a frozen moment, Roy moved to the cabinets and pulled out some dishes, then took a paring knife and a cutting board and started slicing the fruit in neat, precise wedges, just the way Elicia liked it. They’d made breakfast together dozens of times because she and Roy were both early risers while Maes liked to sleep in. Usually they made quiet small talk in the few minutes they had before Elicia came out for breakfast, speaking of trivialities, never anything of importance, because they had little in common besides Maes. Still, she wondered how Roy had done it for so long, kept a straight face and an even tone, chatting while making breakfast with his lover’s wife, lying to her with every word he never said.
“Roy,” she said, while he was arranging the bananas and blueberries into a flower for Elicia. “How can you stand it, sharing him?”
Roy did not look up from the plate. “I never expected anything otherwise. He was always very honest with me about what he wanted out of life.”
“That makes one of us,” she said, and didn’t care if it made her sound bitter.
Roy stilled for a long moment, then methodically continued arranging the fruit, now placing strawberry petals around the outside of the flower. “He never lied to you about that,” Roy said, a note of … god, that was defensiveness in his voice, and she thought that she might choke on the irony, that Roy was defending Maes to her. She had to swallow a hysterical laugh. “He always wanted this. A home, a wife, a family.”
This, he’d said. Maes always wanted this. But maybe he’d never really wanted her, not the way she had wanted him. Well, that was one question she would not ask Roy. She wasn’t even sure she would ask Maes. She had some pride left, even now, but did not think it could withstand much further battering. Anyway it was clear that she and Maes viewed love and commitment in very different ways. She didn’t see any point in attempting to quantify the difference.
“You didn’t want it too?”
Roy shrugged. “No. Maes never believed me, but I didn’t.”
Gracia had been wondering. Maes had been pestering Roy to settle down and get married for as long as she’d known him. He had only gotten worse after Elicia had been born. She’d never understood why Roy put up with it before and she understood it even less now. It seemed almost cruel, and for all his flaws, Maes was never deliberately cruel; if Maes knew how deeply Roy was in love with him, why tease him about finding someone else? Except perhaps Maes just assumed that Roy getting married wouldn’t change anything between them any more than anything had changed when Maes himself had wed.
“For what it’s worth, I’m glad you didn’t get married. I’m glad there’s only one injured spouse in all of this.” Gracia plucked the toast from the toaster and piled it on a plate, then pushed it over to Roy, the motion automatic. “I always wondered why you didn’t. I guess I know, now.”
Roy’s mouth tightened. “It’s not like that. My career has always been enough for me.”
Gracia made a polite noise of disagreement. “Your career and my husband.”
“He was mine first,” Roy snapped, then looked immediately contrite. He closed his eyes and breathed out. “I’m sorry. That was uncalled for. This is difficult for me as well.”
Gracia supposed it was, though it didn’t make her feel any special sympathy for him. “You must have known this day would come.”
“In the beginning,” Roy said ruefully, “I was expecting it every time we saw each other. It was an axe hanging over us, waiting for you to just … but then you never did, and time went on, and we just … got comfortable, I suppose. It had been so long, it was easy to think that you’d never ... I stopped waiting for it.”
He reached into his pocket and fished out an ignition glove, then picked up a piece of toast. A snap of his fingers and flame coalesced from nowhere and singed the toast precisely, etching the shape of a dragon onto the square of bread. Another snap for another piece of toast, an elephant this time. Though she’d seen it now dozens of times, it never felt less like magic when he brought forth fire from empty air. He’d used that same magic to destroy Ishval, though she didn’t often dwell on that, didn’t like to think that the flame that so precisely decorated her daughter’s breakfast was the same that had razed an entire civilization to the ground, leaving behind only tears and ashes. Was that part of what drew Maes to him, she wondered, his power to ruin and destroy? Maes always told her she brought sunshine and brightness to his life. Perhaps Maes loved Roy for bringing the exact opposite.
“Did you ever think,” Gracia said, when Roy had finished with the toast and arranged all the fruit, and there was nothing left to occupy his hands, “that it would stop? What you had with him … did you ever think it might end?”
“When he married you, you mean?”
“At first, I suppose so, but Maes, he … he would tell me about you in one breath, how incredible you were, how perfect, and then he’d pull me down to bed in the next, and I was so … so hopeless for him, I couldn’t … ” He shrugged one shoulder, fingers running through the toast crumbs that had fallen to the table. “He’s very difficult to say ‘no’ to. Not that I tried very hard.”
Gracia tried for a moment to imagine what it must be like to be so desperately in love that you would tolerate that kind of pain. She didn’t think she had it in her, and wondered whether that made her stronger or weaker than Roy. Wondered too, bitterly, if it hadn’t been her quaint insistence on remaining chaste before the wedding that had led Maes to continue the affair even after the war had ended. Then she remembered, you’re so fucking beautiful, and I could do this all day, and thought probably not, for even if she’d been chaste then, she certainly was not now, and it had made no difference in the end. “How long,” she asked, “after we got married, how long before you …”
“Gracia.” Roy sounded pained. “Why would you ask that?”
“Because I want to know all of it. I want to know how quickly he broke his promise to me to forsake all others. Was it months? Weeks? Days? You were his best man, you took him out the night before. Did you fuck him then? Did you fuck him when you were helping him get ready before the wedding? Did you fuck him on our honeymoon?”
Roy flinched every time she said ‘fuck,’ which was strangely and intensely gratifying. “I was away on assignment when you were on your honeymoon. And we didn’t, we wouldn’t, not at your wedding. God, Gracia, we wouldn’t have …”
“But the night before?”
He looked miserable, and maybe like he was going to cry. “Yes,” he muttered. “We were a little drunk.”
Not drunk enough, obviously, Gracia thought, or they wouldn’t have been able to go through with it. Gracia wondered if Maes had told Roy he loved him then, even as he’d been preparing to marry her. “And after?” she persisted. “You were in Central three weeks after that for a meeting. We were still living out of boxes. You came over to help us unpack, and I went to the grocery store to get food to make dinner. Did you fuck him then?”
Roy grimaced. “Yes. Gracia please, for god’s sake, stop.”
“I’m sorry,” she said coldly, “is this too difficult for you?”
“For you. What good can come of it now? You already know we were … if you imagine that every time we were alone, we were intimate with each other, you wouldn’t be far wrong. Rehashing every instance is only going to hurt you more.”
She stared at him, really stared, tried to see past the surface beauty to assess the man underneath. He met her gaze steadily enough, if not exactly evenly, a flush high on his cheekbones the only sign that he was uncomfortable at all. If she hadn’t known him so well, she might never even have noticed. Except she didn’t know him as well as she’d assumed, obviously. Then she thought, bizarrely, I have seen this man orgasm. Then more bizarrely, he is the only man I’ve ever seen orgasm. It flashed through her mind, the way he’d looked at that moment, shuddering on the bed, flushed and sweaty and grabbing for Maes, his expression caught halfway between pleasure and pain.
She’d never wanted to see that. She wished now that she hadn’t, that she could forget it, that she wouldn’t have to always know every time she saw Roy what he looked like in his most private moments.
“When I watched you and Maes yesterday,” she said, “I watched for a long time. I saw him … I saw him suck you off. I saw you fuck him.”
His face twisted with discomfort and he dropped his eyes, cheeks flaming.
“I couldn’t believe it,” she continued. “Even standing there, watching, I couldn’t believe it was actually happening. I still don’t believe it, I think. I know it happened, I know I saw it, it’s just … it’s like a horrible dream that I can’t wake up from.”
“I’m sorry,” he said lamely.
“Are you, though?” She didn’t get the sense from him that he was, necessarily. Oh, he was regretful, but for what, exactly, she wasn’t certain. Maybe that she’d gotten hurt. Maybe that she’d found out the way she had. She didn’t think he regretted anything else.
A door creaked down the hall, and a few brief seconds later Elicia burst into the kitchen, running straight to Roy. Always straight to Roy when he was visiting, like he was the sun and the stars and chocolate and her favorite toys, all mixed together. Gracia had always thought it was sweet. “Uncle Roy! You sleeped over!” And then she was tugging on his shirt and he swooped down and picked her up, with only a brief second of hesitation and a flicker of a glance at Gracia. Gracia grit her teeth but said nothing.
“Good morning, Polka Dot,” Roy said. “Did you sleep well?”
“I did! I had lotsa dreams about dragons and fairies and butterfies.” She pulled back and wrinkled her nose at him. “Your hair is all messy, Uncle Roy. You need a haircut.”
He laughed. “I just need a comb, Dot. I forgot mine. I’ll borrow one from your Daddy a little later.”
“I can comb your hair! Daddy lets me do his sometimes. Mommy says I pull too hard but I can be careful!” She wriggled around. “Did you make me the special toast? I smell toast!”
“Of course I did,” Roy said.
“Oh,” she said, round-eyed. “Is that a dragon? Did you make me a dragon? I dreameded about dragons!”
“I thought you might. And guess what else I made you?”
“An ellyfant! Mommy, look, Uncle Roy maded me a dragon and an ellyfant!”
“Elephant,” Gracia said automatically. “Uncle Roy made you an elephant.”
“And a dragon!”
“And a dragon.”
“I wish you could live here always, Uncle Roy,” Elicia said, and gave him a big wet kiss on the cheek. Then you could make me toast with dragons and ellyfants every morning.”
Roy’s flickered to Gracia for an instant. “I think you’d get bored of me if I lived here all the time, Polka Dot.”
“I would not!” Affront rang in every high-pitched syllable.
“You wouldn’t what, sweetheart?” Maes staggered in from the living room, bleary-eyed, disheveled and haggard. He looked horrible, but he dredged up a smile for Elicia, though it was pale and weak compared to his usual, and made his way over to give her a kiss. Then he straightened, and for a horrible second, Gracia thought he was going to kiss her too. For an even worse second, she thought he might kiss Roy. But the moment passed with no further kisses, and Maes sank down into a chair at the table, massaging the back of his neck. Any other day, any day before this one, Gracia would have rubbed the ache out for him. Now the thought of touching him with Roy in the room made her skin crawl.
Elicia was happily, mercifully oblivious to the tension. “I wouldn’t get bored of Uncle Roy if he lived here all the time. You wouldn’t get bored of him, would you Daddy?”
Maes froze, glancing uncertainly from Gracia to Roy and back again. “What brought this on, pumpkin?”
“I tolded Uncle Roy that if he lived here all the time he could make me magic toast every morning, but he said I’d get bored of him, and I said I wouldn’t. I don’t think you can get bored of people, can you Daddy?”
Maes cocked his head and looked at Elicia adoringly. At least that fundamental principle of the universe had not changed. “No, I don’t think you can get bored of people, my littlest love.”
Elicia turned back to Roy with a triumphant look. “See?”
Roy ruffled her hair, and put her carefully in her seat, placing her toast and fruit-flower in front of her. “All right, maybe you wouldn’t, but you know my job’s in East City, Dot. The office would fall apart if I weren’t there to keep everybody in line.”
Elicia started eating the blueberries from the flower, one by one. “Daddy says Miss Riza is really in charge of everything.”
“Daddy says that, does he?” Roy grinned at Maes and Maes grinned back — it was reflexive, like neither of them could help it, even under the circumstances. Gracia turned away abruptly so she wouldn’t have to watch them, turned away like she should have done the day before, frozen in the doorway of the guest room.
“Your Daddy’s right as usual,” Roy said, “but that’s a secret, so I have to go and pretend to be really important or I’ll get fired.”
Elicia screwed up her face. “How can you be fired, Uncle Roy? You make fire.”
“Elicia,” Gracia said tightly. “Eat your breakfast, honey. I’m taking you to Mrs. Penza’s as soon as you’re done.”
“But I was just there yesterday,” Elicia complained. “And it’s Sunday.”
“Mommy and Daddy and Uncle Roy have to do some grownup stuff, darling. But Mrs. Penza said she’s going to be giving Stella a bath and you can help. All right?”
Elicia pouted, but only for a minute, swayed by the prospect of playing with a wet, soapy dog. Then she finished her breakfast quickly. Gracia had no appetite, but forced herself to eat a piece of toast, while Roy toyed listlessly with his fruit and Maes fought back against his hangover with a cup of Roy’s coffee. He added neither milk nor sugar. Gracia thought he probably preferred it the way Roy made it, strong and bitter, though he never complained when she made it weaker. He never complained about anything she’d done. He never complained about anything at all.
“I’ll be back in 30 minutes,” Gracia said, while Elicia was brushing her teeth.
Maes looked up from the pattern he’d been drawing in the condensation on the table. The caffeine had perked him up a little, though he still looked wan and exhausted. “All right. Gracia-”
“Whatever you’re going to say can wait,” Gracia said. “You two can clean the kitchen while I’m out, if you want to do something that doesn’t involve taking your clothes off.” She stalked out before she could regret being petty and vindictive, but heard Maes curse quietly under his breath.
She looked at herself in the mirror as she waited for Elicia to get on her coat. To her own eyes, she appeared tired and sad, but she didn’t think anyone else would notice. She hoped no one else would notice. Behind her reflection in the mirror, she could just make out the kitchen table, reversed. Maes had his elbows on the table and his head in his hands. Roy was rinsing off a plate in the sink, but after he put in the rack, he turned, looked at Maes for a minute, then came around behind him and starting kneading his neck. If he said anything, it was too soft for Gracia to make out, but Maes melted a little under Roy’s touch. For god’s sake, Gracia thought to herself in irritation, when will you learn? But she couldn’t have said whether she was annoyed at herself or them.
“Come on sweetheart,” she said to Elicia, wrenching open the door, “let’s go.”
As she shut the door behind her, she wondered just for a moment what Maes would do if she never came back.
The walk to the sitter’s was only a few minutes, really, though it usually took longer because Elicia was forever stopping and examining things of interest on the sidewalk. When Gracia was in a rush, she would pick Elicia up and carry her. Today she let Elicia stop to inspect every insect and every stray piece of paper.
“Is everything all right?” Mrs. Penza said, worried, as soon as she opened the door. “You look tired, dear.”
“I’m fine.” Gracia was the farthest from fine she had ever been. “I appreciate you looking after her again at the last minute.”
“Nonsense, she’s a doll. We’ll have a good time today, she and I. We’ll take Stella to the park before her bath, I think. Are you sure you’re all right? You look peaked. Do you want a cup of tea? Maybe a biscuit? Mr. Penza picked them up from the bakery yesterday.”
Hot tears sprang to Gracia’s eyes, and she blinked hard, turning to wipe the drops away before they smudged her makeup. Mr. and Mrs. Penza had been married for 40 years, and so far as Gracia could tell, they never argued. Of course you could never tell what was going on inside someone else’s marriage, but they seemed happy with each other and content with their lives in a way Gracia had been only one day previously. Yesterday, it would have been inconceivable to her that she would be facing the end of her world, impossible that it would have been Maes who was the reason her world was ending. She thought for a moment of staying, of sitting down and having a couple of tea and a day-old biscuit, of working out a way to ask, “For god’s sake, what should I do?”
It was a fantasy of course, nonsense, because Gracia would no more blurt out her humiliation than Mrs. Penza would have any kind of answer. Doubtlessly Mr. Penza had always been there by his wife’s side, steadfast and loyal, the way a husband was supposed to be. Wasn’t that the point of marriage? Wasn’t that the point of vows?
Apparently not. Gracia had known this, of course, theoretically and practically; at 27 and only a few years married she already knew women whose husbands had cheated on them, even a few who had taken the drastic step of getting divorced. Gracia felt naïve and silly now for thinking she would never be one of those women, but she had known — known as incontrovertible fact, without a hint of doubt — that Maes would never put her in the position where she’d have to make that kind of choice. But now, what other option was there for her, when her husband was in love with his best friend? What choice could there be for her besides packing up, leaving her husband and her life, taking Elicia far away, somewhere no one had ever heard of Maes Hughes and Roy Mustang, burying her shameful secret so deep no one would ever find it?
She could leave the country, she thought, flee to Aerugo, perhaps. She’d heard they were welcoming to Amestrian expatriates, and many people there spoke Amestrian well enough for then to get by for a while. Elicia would pick up a new language easily at her age, and Gracia could take classes. She’d have to get a job, of course, but that was all right; she’d worked before she’d married Maes, and she knew she was smart — not wise, apparently, and far too trusting, but still smart and industrious — she could get a good job and support herself, even in a foreign country, and … and she was being ridiculous. She was not moving to Aerugo. With effort, she brought herself back to the present, where Mrs. Penza was standing with a slightly anxious look on her face, waiting for her to speak.
“Tea and a biscuit sounds lovely,” Gracia said. She managed to smile, though it surely looked false and strained. “But Maes is expecting me back home.”
“If you’re sure, dear.” The older woman darted forward and gave Gracia a quick, unexpected hug, squeezing tightly for just a moment. “Whatever it was he did, I’m sure he was entirely in the wrong. Men always are. They’re little boys, all of them.”
Gracia laughed a little hysterically. They had been nothing like little boys together in that bed. “So I’m learning. I … thank you, again. I’ll be back for Elicia after lunch.”
Mrs. Penza tsked. “There’s no need to rush. You can leave her here for as long as you need to. We have plenty of fun things to do to keep us occupied. We might bake cookies.” Mrs. Penza hesitated, then added, “And if you would ever like to join us for dinner, or find that you need a place to stay for a night, you only ever need to ask. Mr. Penza would enjoy having somebody new to talk to. He doesn’t get out so much since he retired.”
Gracia swallowed, and blinked away fresh tears. “That is an incredibly lovely offer, but I … I really am fine. I just need to go home and speak with Maes.”
Mrs. Penza did not look convinced, but she let Gracia go.
Gracia walked home slowly, somehow even more reluctant to arrive there than she had been the day before, anticipatory anxiety replaced with cold, lurking dread. We’ll figure it out, Maes had said. But what was there to figure out? If you imagine that every time we were alone, we were intimate with each other, you wouldn’t be far wrong. They were alone now, and she was imagining … though it was ridiculous, they wouldn’t; they knew she was coming back and they wouldn’t … but that wasn’t the point at all, really, whether they actually were or not. The point was that they might be, that she could never again trust that they wouldn’t be. Even if she threatened, even if they promised, the doubt would always be there, insidious and toxic.
She could not be with Maes every hour of every day, even when he was working out of Central Command. She could not lock him in the house, go everywhere with him, ensure that he never crossed paths with Roy again, or at least never saw him alone. They both worked in the military and had complementary skills; their jobs required them to work together with reasonable frequency. And what of the times Maes would travel to East City on assignment — less frequently since Elicia was born, but still several times a year? Even if Maes promised to be true to her, even if he held her hands and looked straight into her eyes and promised, she could never again trust that he wasn’t lying, that he wouldn’t …
You’re so fucking beautiful like this. I could do this all day.
… every time we were alone, we were intimate ...
No. It was impossible. Gracia was strong, and she could bear a heavy burden, but she could not bear this.
Gracia let herself in the house, nausea swirling uncomfortably in her belly. She didn’t try for stealth. The rattling of her keys would give her presence away to anyone listening for it, and even the brush of the door against the carpet was audible. But she didn’t call out to say hello.
Roy’s bag was packed and sitting innocuously by the door. She had a sudden urge to heave it out the front door, to open it up and strew the clothes and toiletries and other sundry personal items on the street, where they would get trampled and stolen and ruined. For a moment, the urge was very, very strong, but she breathed, and it passed. He would be gone soon enough, and his bag would be gone with him.
She heard their voices rumbling indistinctly in the living room and wished they were anywhere else in the house. Well, almost anywhere else. If they’d been in the guest room, she would have walked out and never come back. But if they’d been anywhere else but the living room, she could have gone in and poured herself a drink, which would have been very out of character, especially so early in the morning, but right at that moment she didn’t think she’d ever wanted to be a little drunk quite so much in her life.
Well, she was resourceful; Maes had told her so many times. She headed for their bedroom and the silver flask in the drawer of Maes’s bedside table, the one he kept for nights when the nightmares were a little too real. He never told her specifically what he dreamt of, something else he wouldn’t share with her, though he’d mumbled Roy’s name more than once, desperate and panicked, and she’d always wondered whether in those dreams he’d been afraid for Roy or afraid of him. It could easily have been either or both: Maes had seen Roy get shot, he’d seen Roy burn entire villages to the ground with the inhabitants still trapped inside, he’d even once apparently stopped Roy from killing himself — a story she’d heard only in disconnected bits and pieces and was ambivalent about at the moment. Not that she wished Roy was dead, but she couldn’t help now but wish it had been someone else who’d saved him. Still, there had been weeks and months in Ishval when Maes had been assigned far away from Roy, and some of his nightmares were from those times as well. He never talked to her about any of it, no matter how unsettled and jittery he was afterwards. “They’re just dreams,” he’d say, with dull and hollow eyes. “There’s no point in you having nightmares too.” Then he’d drink himself into insensibility and pretend in the morning that nothing had happened.
That would be a silver lining if she left, she thought, no more nights interrupted by Maes trembling and crying out, although she’d never really minded it, had believed it came with the territory, had only been unhappy that she was less comfort to her husband than a flask of whiskey. She wondered if Maes slept with Roy when he was in East City, and if so, if Roy was more comfort when the nightmares struck than Gracia had ever managed to be.
God, I love you so much, Maes had said, and the way Roy had stared back at him … frowning, Gracia reached for the flask in the drawer. She didn’t even like whiskey, always preferred wine, but she’d make do. She was only going to drink enough to soothe her nerves, anyway, not so much that she would lose control of her tongue. She could not afford to lose her temper. There might not be any more opportunities to take things back, once said.
The bedroom and the living room were the farthest apart of any two rooms in the house, but not so far apart as to account for the time it took her to get from one to the other after she’d had her drink. Perhaps she was just walking slowly. Probably she was. If so, it wasn’t on quite on purpose, but it wasn’t exactly accidental either. From the hall to the foyer, from the foyer to the kitchen, every step took her closer to a conversation she would give anything not to have. She stopped in the kitchen and wiped down the table for no good reason but to delay just a little longer. Two rooms over, Maes and Roy were talking, voices low, too low for her to hear what they were saying but not too low to hear the tone of their voices, muted and intimate. She did not hear any laughter, which was one small thing to be grateful for. If they’d been laughing, she’d have gone in there and started screaming.
She wished Maes had let Roy leave the previous night, then it would only be Maes she needed to confront, and the conversation would have been only half as impossible. But Maes had not let Roy leave, and so now she had to confront the two of them together, a united front. It seemed impossibly unfair. If there was to be a front that was united, it should be her and Maes. If the marriage were to end now, that should be something that happened between just the two of them. Her marriage was to Maes, not to Maes and Roy. But perhaps that was not true. Perhaps Roy had been a third party in the marriage all along, and the only way this conversation could happen was with him there. Certainly Maes had seemed to think so.
The whiskey gave her strength enough to walk from the kitchen to the dining room and then to the living room. Maes and Roy were sitting next to each other on the couch, not quite touching but still in close, intimate proximity, obvious now that she knew to look for it, though perhaps they had simply decided there was no longer any point to keeping it hidden. Maybe they even thought they were doing her a favor now by being open in front of her. If that was what it was, she’d have preferred them to keep hiding it. She had seen more than enough of them being intimate.
They looked horrible, both of them. She hoped she didn’t look as bad, but suspected she did, at least based on the way Mrs. Penza had fussed over her. Neither Maes nor Roy had taken the opportunity to bathe, though Roy had at least fixed his misbuttoned shirt. He still looked disheveled. Today there was nothing wanton about it, only exhaustion. Maes was no better. He needed a shave and his skin was blotchy, his eyes red. He must have had several drinks after he came back from chasing Roy and coaxing him back to the house. Maes was hunched over, his neck probably still sore from sleeping on the couch. It made her feel guilty, stupidly, and she was angry with herself for it. She was not the one who should be feeling guilt in this situation, no matter how sore Maes’s neck was.
Gracia sat down in the chair across the room from the sofa, with a high back and rolled arms. It felt a little like one of those tanks Maes had shown her pictures of. Safe. She placed her hands carefully on the arms of the chair, her feet flat on the floor. Grounded. “Elicia will live with me, of course,” she said, voice steady. “Your hours are not predictable, and she will need stability.”
Maes sagged back into the couch like she’d slapped him. “Gracia—“
“You can have her on Sundays,” she said. “And perhaps you might take her for dinner one or two nights during the week. It would be easier on her to see you somewhat regularly, especially at first.”
“Gracia, please. Are we not even going to talk about this?” Maes looked pale and shaky. And Roy … Roy shifted on the couch, just a fraction of an inch, enough to close the distance between them, enough so their legs just brushed against each other.
Gracia looked for a moment at where their legs touched. Tactile comfort, because what Maes responded to best was touch, even though on the bad nights he couldn’t bear the lightest brush of her fingers on his skin. Come on, harder, I won’t break, Roy had gasped, and had gripped Maes on the hips so hard that he surely left bruises.
“Hand-to-hand practice,” Maes had said once, when she’d stumbled on him getting dressed after a shower, and asked about the bruise on his shoulder. “Got clipped a little too hard.”
“New uniform,” he’d said another time to explain away a dark mark on his neck. “I thought the collar was going to choke me. I had to take it to the tailor.”
“Bumped into the edge of the table in the office,” he’d said when she’d seen a mark peeking out from under the edge of his boxers as he was brushing his teeth. “I’m such a klutz.”
Gracia closed her eyes so she didn’t have to look at their thighs just barely touching or think about all the bruises Maes had lied about over the years, all the marks she’d seen and dismissed, just like she’d seen and dismissed every other sign she ought to have paid attention to. “All right, then, tell me this,” she said. “What would happen if it came out? If the military knew about the two of you. What would happen?”
Maes and Roy shared an uncomfortable look. She pushed down a surge of irritation. It had been cute before, how Maes and Roy could communicate without speaking, but now it was like a slap in the face. We know each other better than you will ever know either of us, was what those looks said.
“It would be difficult,” Maes said cautiously. “Certain … behaviors. Are tolerated, if they’re discreet, but not …” He frowned. “Encouraged.”
“You could destroy both of us, if you wanted to,” Roy said, atypically blunt. He must have been badly rattled. “They’d get rid of us. A dishonorable discharge for Maes, probably, since he’s married with a child and it looks worse when there’s a family involved. Me, they’d demote and bury somewhere. The north, probably, some outpost no one ever goes. That’s what they did to LaGrange when it came out he’d knocked up his secretary. He lasted about a year before he resigned.”
Dishonorable discharge, Gracia thought. Maes Hughes, of all people, dishonorably discharged. Maes Hughes dishonorably discharged and Roy Mustang banished to the frozen far reaches of the country. It was laughable. She would laugh, if she weren’t about to cry.
“I don’t want to destroy you.” She meant it, too, mostly, at least in the moment, sitting in her pretty living room surrounded by pictures of what she’d thought had been her happy life. She was confused, she was angry, but she wasn’t … yet … vindictive. “I just want to understand why you would risk it. If the consequences are so severe, why couldn’t you just …” Give it up, give each other up, accept like everyone else did what marriage and commitment meant. Be the men she'd thought they both were, the men she’d loved, before yesterday.
Maes glanced at Roy helplessly, then back to Gracia. “That’s like asking me why I haven’t stopped breathing, Grace. I know that sounds soppy and ridiculous, but it’s … if I asked you to stop loving Elicia, you wouldn’t even know where to begin.”
Angry words hovered on the tip of her tongue. Don’t you dare compare my love for my daughter to your sordid little fling. But calling a ten-year relationship a fling would be dishonest, and she must be honest now, at least with herself, because no one else would be — though being honest didn’t mean she couldn’t also be resentful. “You could still love him without having sex with him. Or is that also an necessary as breathing?”
Maes flushed. At least there’s that, she thought. At least he’s embarrassed by it. “No. Of course it’s not.” He sounded reluctant to admit it. But then he looked up at her, almost in defiance. “Not as much as breathing.”
“For god’s sake, Maes!” She wanted to throw something at him.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “I’m sorry, but it’s true. It’s not as easy as that. Do you think we’d have kept at it if it was trivial? If it didn’t matter? I love you, Gracia, and I love making love to you, but it’s not …”
“… enough,” she finished bitterly. “I’m not enough for you. Fine, then. I hope Roy is enough for you.”
“Gracia,” Maes said, alarmed.
“What?” She stared at him. How could he possibly be surprised by any of this? “I don’t know what you expected to happen. Either of you. How could you think we could just go on?”
“Because what we have is good. You’ve been happy, I’ve been happy, Roy’s been happy—”
“You’ve been lying to me. It was all a lie, Maes. How can you say I’ve been happy if that happiness was based on a lie?”
“But it wasn’t a lie, that’s the point.” He was calm, he was patient, he was Maes.
“It wasn’t a lie …” She breathed in deeply, breathed out slowly, seeking calm. “You’ve been lying to me since we met. You’ve been fucking him since the Academy.”
He twitched when she said 'fucking,' like Roy had twitched that morning, neither of them used to such crudity coming from her ladylike lips, she supposed. She’d had a similar reaction yesterday. Oh fuck, Maes had said, and writhed and moaned obscenely. Oh fuck, like it was easy and natural. Only with Roy, though, not with her. He was never like that with her.
“…Yes,” Maes said.
“You’re in love with him.”
Maes let out a breath, glanced at Roy, who gave him back a tired, strained twist of a grin that lasted hardly long enough to count.
“Then I don’t know what you imagine there is for us to talk about. I know you love Elicia and you think you love me—”
“I do love you.”
She sighed. “All right, maybe you do. But you’re not in love with me, Maes, you’re in love with Roy. You can’t be in love with both of us.” This seemed like such a simple and obvious truth to her; attraction could strike anywhere, infatuation could flare and burn, but love was a settled thing, comforting, encompassing; to be in love was to want to be with someone always, forever; if Maes was in love with Roy he could not be in love with her.
Maes stared at her, eyes deep and intent, almost frantic. “But I am. God, Gracia, I’m crazy about you. Ask anyone, I’m always talking about you, you and Elicia. She’s my daughter, I can’t help thinking she’s perfect, but you … I drive everyone insane talking about you. Ask anyone.”
“He does,” Roy said. Gracia looked at him icily, but Roy just shrugged. “He does.”
“Well,” she said, and if she sounded nasty, it wasn’t as nasty as she was feeling, “he can hardly talk to everyone about you.”
Maes frowned, but Roy didn’t flinch. “No, he can’t.” He looked at her steadily. “I can’t give him that. I can’t give him any of this.” His eyes roamed over the room, taking in the photos, the furnishings, the everything that made up their life as a family. “And I wouldn’t if I could. I told you, I don’t want this.” He turned to Maes. “I know you don’t understand it, but I don’t.”
Maes rolled his eyes. “You always say that.”
“Because I mean it. This life you have here, with a family and a house and all of it … that’s great for you, Maes, but it’s not for me. It’s not ever going to be for me, no matter how many times you nag me about it.” He turned back to Gracia, expression earnest. “I’m not going to take him away from you, Gracia. I’m no threat.”
She laughed, badly. “I don’t know what’s worse, that you can say that with a straight face, or that I actually believe you.” Maybe Roy really was the world’s best liar like Maes said. Or else she was just as stupid and naïve as she felt.
“Gracia,” Maes said. He got up off the couch and crossed the room to kneel on the floor in front of her. For a moment, she was reminded of the day he had proposed, a flash of memory so strong she had to shut her eyes to force the image away. “Gracia, Gracia, love doesn’t work the way you think it does. I have loved Roy for years but that doesn’t mean I don’t love you too. If we have a second child, would you love her any less than you love Elicia? Or love Elicia less for not being the only one any longer?”
That’s different, she thought. “That’s different.”
“But it’s not. Love isn’t something you run out of or use up.” He took her hands then. She’d always loved the way it felt to have her hands enveloped in his. It had always felt safe. It didn’t feel safe now, but she left her hands resting in his anyway, maybe out of habit, maybe for a moment of nostalgia. “I love you, Gracia. I have from the moment I first met you and I will until the day I die.”
She wanted to believe him. She wanted to believe he loved her still, the way she’d thought he had loved her only yesterday; she wanted to believe he loved her enough that he would give up Roy for her even though she knew he wouldn’t. “If I left,” she said, “you’d stay with him.”
Maes didn’t drop her hands, kept looking into her eyes, but it took him a moment to answer with a slow, pained, “Yes.”
“And if I said I would stay, but only if you left him?”
His eyes flickered. “Please don’t ask me that.”
“I am asking that. I have to ask that, Maes, surely you understand I have to ask that. Would you leave him, if it was the only way I’d stay? Would you even try to give him up for me?”
His face crumpled and he glanced at Roy in anguish. At Roy, of course, always at Roy, how had she never seen it? “Grace, Gracie, please.”
He was miserable, and it made her feel hard and brutal and powerful. “I already know he wouldn’t. He won’t leave you unless you force him to. So it has to be you, Maes.”
I don’t want to lie to you, Roy had told her, but I don’t know what to say that won’t be worse. She’d told Roy that truth was always better, but maybe that wasn’t right after all. There was truth in Maes’s silence now, and she thought she might have preferred a more comfortable lie, in the end.
Although maybe ... maybe there was truth too in the way he was kneeling in front of her, in the tears in his eyes, in the tremble of his hands. What had changed, really, since the previous day, but that she knew a truth she hadn’t known before? It was no less true for having been hidden. Maes loved Roy; Maes had always loved Roy; she had just never known it. Did that mean that everything he had ever said to her was a lie, the fact that he had lied about this one thing? It could have meant that … it might still. But maybe it didn’t.
Roy loved Maes hopelessly, that was true, but Roy didn’t want more from Maes than Maes had always given him, and might not accept more even if it were offered. Maes loved Roy, that was also true, but Maes also loved her and he loved Elicia. That was, perhaps … likely … its own truth too. Maes didn’t fuck her like he fucked Roy, but maybe Maes didn’t make love to Roy the way he did to her. You’re so fucking beautiful, he said to Roy, but he told her, You’re the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen, and showered her with kisses as soft and steady as rainfall. He fucked Roy in the daylight where every flaw and scar was visible, but made love to her in the dark, where both of them were unmarred and and perfect, in the silence of the night where every gentle touch made her tremble and every shivering sigh in her ear made her ache with want. Roy gave Maes something she couldn’t, but perhaps … perhaps … the reverse was true too. Perhaps she gave something to Maes that Roy couldn’t.
The question was, was that enough for her?
For that, she did not have an answer.
They talked in circles. Maes was miserable. He wept, explained, plead. Roy was equally miserable, contrite and uncomfortable. He would not look at Gracia. He could not keep his eyes off Maes, but looked guilty every time Gracia caught him at it.
And Maes, her Maes, her beloved, who knelt at her feet and professed his love for her in front of his lover, Maes could not keep his eyes from sliding back to Roy.
It had always been that way, she thought. She had seen it even if she had not known it for what it was. It had always been that way and it would always be that way between Maes and Roy, and she could either live with it or live without Maes. There seemed no other option. In the end, Maes would always have Roy, because Roy would not leave him unless Maes asked, and it was clear to her now that Maes would never ask, no matter what she threatened. Maes would choose Roy over her — over her and Elicia, even — simply because Roy would never ask him to make that choice. If she demanded that he choose her, she would lose him just for asking.
Maes loved incontrovertibly, more deeply and fully than anyone Gracia had ever met. Asking him to deny any of that love would be like asking him to cut out a piece of his soul. Asking anyone to reject that love was futile. God, I love you, Maes had said, and what choice did Roy have but to love him back?
Eventually the doorbell rang: Riza, here to collect Roy for the train back to East City. Roy’s shoulders slumped, and for a minute he looked like he was facing down his own execution. “She going to glare at me the whole way back,” he said miserably.
“She’ll get over it,” Maes said. “She always does, no matter how badly you piss her off.”
“Yeah,” Roy said unenthusiastically. He dropped his head in his hands, ran his fingers roughly through the mess of his hair.
Maes looked at him, frowning. His fingers twitched with the urge to touch and console. Gracia could see him restraining himself — for her sake, certainly. She just wasn’t sure he’d win the battle in the end. “I’ll get the door,” she said, and fled the room to let Riza in.
“Did you tell them?” Riza asked, without even saying good morning.
“Yes,” Gracia said. “Yes. Last night. It was horrible. It’s still horrible. Maes says he loves me, but they won’t stop. Even for me, Maes won’t … he won’t stop.”
Riza did not look surprised. “No,” she said evenly. “I didn’t think they would. They hid it very well for a long time. Roy would only go to that much trouble for something that mattered.” She pursed her lips disapprovingly. “He’s too lazy to bother, otherwise.”
“I’m sure Maes did the bulk of it,” Gracia said. “He gets a kick out of ordering Roy around.” Then she remembered, come on, come for me, and felt sick.
Riza’s mouth tightened. “I’ll get Roy out of your hair. What are you going to do?”
“I don’t know.” For a moment, Gracia felt the same urge that she’d felt that morning at the sitter’s, the need to ask for guidance, to have someone else make the decision for her. But Riza would be no more help than Mrs. Penza — she’d never been married, had never even had a lover for more than a few months at a time; the most significant relationship she’d ever had was with Roy, and that bond was so abnormal, so complex and twisted and tight, Gracia didn’t see how it could offer any insight for anything so banal as this current mess. Gracia could not figure out what it was about Roy that could inspire such loyalty and devotion, but she could not deny it existed — and in the end the cause was irrelevant. Riza was Roy’s, and she would not hurt him.
Gracia led Riza to the living room. Roy still had his head in his hands, palms grinding tight into his eyes. Maes had his hand on Roy’s shoulder, but he jerked it back as they walked in, then stared at it as if it weren’t his own, as if he couldn’t even understand how it had come to be there.
“Colonel,” Riza said in greeting. Her voice was flat and uninflected, cool and professional. She was in civilian clothes that somehow still looked like a uniform, neatly pressed, conservatively cut, tidy. Maes and Roy looked even more disheveled and disastrous in comparison.
Roy stiffened his shoulders, steeling himself, before he looked up to meet her eyes. His own were bleary and bloodshot. “Lieutenant.”
“The train is in a hour,” Riza said. She looked at him, mouth twitching with displeasure. “You have a few minutes to wash up.”
Roy stared down at himself, then glanced over at Maes — of course — then, slowly, at Gracia, who did her best to look dispassionate but couldn’t be sure she succeeded. “I …” he said, then shook his head in quick, sharp negation. “No, there’s a washroom at the station. I’ll clean up there, if we have time.”
Riza nodded. “As you wish, sir. I’ll get us a taxi.” She nodded again, this time to Maes. “Lieutenant Colonel.”
“Lieutenant,” Maes said. He chewed his lip, looking flustered. Normally he’d have been nattering on about Elicia, shoving pictures in her face, but all he said was a muted, “Have a good trip back.”
“Thank you, sir,” Riza answered. She left without speaking, but brushed her arm against Gracia’s shoulder on her way to the door, a small gesture of comfort Riza accepted gratefully, stomach twisting with nerves. Once Roy was gone, she would be alone with Maes, and she did not know what would happen then, but that everything would change.
Roy rose to his feet, his movements slow and uncoordinated. “I don’t really know what to say,” he murmured. He wasn’t speaking to anyone in particular. “I could say ‘sorry’ again but …” He shrugged helplessly. “… that doesn’t really change anything. I wish …” He did look at Gracia then, with red eyes and a pale, tired face. “I never wanted to hurt you,” he said. “It’s never been about that.”
You can’t say that, he’d said to Maes, when Maes told him he loved him. Shut up, you can’t say that.
“I know,” Gracia said, and she meant it. “Have a safe trip.”
“I’ll walk you out,” Maes said, and followed Roy out of the room.
Gracia sank back into her chair, not listening for any voices. She did not want to hear any private words Maes and Roy might be saying to each other. She leaned back and closed her eyes; the furniture and walls were covered with pictures she did not want to look at of a life that she could no longer have.
What would replace it, she wondered.
She imagined demanding that Maes break it off with Roy, finding just the right words so that somehow Maes would agree to it. She imagined Maes tearfully promising to put their marriage first. Maes would swear his love and loyalty; Roy would never visit their home again. Elicia would ask for her favorite uncle for a little while, but she was young and she’d forget him soon enough. Life would go on much as it had. But every time Maes left, Gracia would wonder where he was going. Every time he came home, she would wonder where he’d been. Every time he went to East City for a meeting, she would wonder if he was seeing Roy, what they might be doing. Maes would come home and tell her that nothing had happened and every time, she would wonder if he was lying. She would always wonder if he was lying, if he was happy or if he was miserable, if he resented her or if he loved her. She didn’t know if she loved him enough to spend her life wondering.
She imagined it another way, demanding that Maes break it off with Roy, and Maes refusing, in tears but resolute, unwilling to make a promise that he knew he could not keep. She imagined getting a divorce, getting a new apartment just for her and Elicia, getting a job, making new friends that never knew Maes and never knew her as Maes’s wife. She’d see Maes once or twice a week when he came to visit Elicia, but they’d only talk as much as they needed, and she’d never ask him about Roy so she’d never have to listen to him lie to her that he wasn’t still seeing him, or be honest and tell her that he was. Every night she’d put Elicia to bed by herself and after that she’d clean the kitchen and the apartment and read a book or play the piano — no, the piano would stay with Maes, for Roy to play when he visited — but maybe she would learn to knit, or do something else that she could do alone, by herself. She tried to imagine getting a new husband some day, but could not picture herself with anyone but Maes, so she would be alone.
She imagined for a moment telling the military, but just the thought made her heart pound and her skin prickle. No, she could not imagine that, Maes discharged, Roy disgraced. Whatever was to happen, whatever decision she made, it would not be that one.
She imagined instead agreeing to let it continue, openly. She knew women who were happy to let their husbands have affairs, some that knew all about them and some that preferred not to. She tried to imagine herself as one of those women. She imagined Maes on his knees, weeping, swearing his love and gratitude, promising that things would not change between them. Most days, she supposed, things would not change. She and Maes and Elicia would live their lives as they had, just the three of them, and Maes would be devoted and attentive and wonderful and sweet and caring and perfect, as he always had been. Once a month or so, Roy would come to their house and sleep in the guest room and make magic toast for Elicia in the morning. They’d play board games and sing inappropriate songs and Maes would tell a hundred stories that began, “Hey, did I ever tell you about the time Roy and I …” And sometimes she’d go out for a few hours in the afternoon and when she came back, Maes and Roy would be bickering in the kitchen and she would close her eyes and pretend as hard as she could that she couldn’t see the way their eyes met like they were the only two people in their own little world.
No. It made her feel ill, imagining that life. Perhaps such a marriage was the right answer for some women, but she did not think she was one of them.
She raised her head, impossible and unimaginable futures fading. From where she was barricaded in the safety of the tank-armchair, she could just see into the foyer. Maes and Roy were standing by the door embracing, their arms clenched tightly around each other, Roy’s head buried in Maes’s shoulder, Maes with one hand threaded in Roy’s hair, close but not passionate. She had seen them passionate, yesterday, and this was not that. This was desperation. She had made them desperate. Her stomach ached, and she felt very tired, very lonely, and inexpressibly sad.
Gracia turned her head away so she would not have to watch if they were to kiss goodbye, like she should have turned away yesterday. She wished she had not seen their intimacy then. She had no wish to see their tenderness now.
A moment later, the door clicked shut.
Gracia closed her eyes and breathed. When she opened them, Maes was standing just across the threshold of the room, wan and tremulous.
Gracia looked at him, the man she knew better than anyone else but whom she didn’t know at all, the man she loved more than any other but whom didn’t love her back quite enough, the man she couldn’t imagine living her life without but whom she could no longer imagine living her life with. “Sit down,” she said softly. “Let’s talk.”