The first time he meets Riza Hawkeye, she is ten years old to his fourteen, with a grim, chapped slash of a mouth and a battered shovel aimed at the back of his head.
“What are you doing here?” she snaps, brave like only kids that age can ever be, and Roy starts, toppling down off the rotten crate he’d been standing on, and finds himself on the ground, staring up at her, all feral elbows and skinned knees under a hand-me-down skirt. There’s a smudge of dirt over one thunderously lowered eyebrow, half-hidden under her scarecrow-blonde hair. She’s a full foot shorter than him, Roy estimates, maybe more, and she is terrifying , knuckles white on her fucking shovel , which is bigger than both of them. “I said, what are you doing here?”
“Hey, calm–look, i was just–” he inches tentatively backward, crablike on heels and elbows, awkwardly trying to raise his hands at the same time, no harm, no worries, see, it’s fine, “I knocked, but nobody answered, so I came around to the window? To see if anybody was home?” Roy braces for the impact, which never comes. He stands, slowly, wincing. “I’m looking for Berthold Hawkeye?”
“What do you want with my Dad?”
“Your–? I’m supposed to study with him, I...I have a letter?”
She tips her chin up imperiously, staring down her nose at the crumpled envelope in his outstretched hand, and he can’t escape the feeling that he’s trying to lure in a wild animal.
“Ok”, she says at length. He doesn’t notice the color of her eyes, only that whatever colour they are is oddly translucent, and her stare goes right through him and out the other side and on and on for miles after that. She whirls, back straight and shovel still firmly in hand, and he meets Berthold Hawkeye for the first time with mud still flaking off the backs of his good trousers.
Later, at dinner, Riza kicks him under the table, while her father’s back is turned and whispers “Don’t bother me. And don’t try to be nice to me to earn points with my Dad. It won’t work.” Her chin juts out, the lines of her little face raptorial and severe.
And he’s still thinking about how impossibly large the house is for one man and one (terrifying) child and how the sky is so big without a city to hold it in, too big, can’t be safe, and how he’s finally going to learn how to do more than repair broken pint glasses, and how to get the mud out of his pants so that his aunt won’t kill him, so all he manages to whisper back is:
“Who raised you?”
She hmphs at him, unimpressed, and goes back to her dinner.
Riza Hawkeye is a ghost.
She has chores, supposedly, which manifest only in shelves mysteriously free of dust and the miraculous appearance of fresh produce at seemingly random intervals. She cooks, allegedly, but only the same five dishes, three of which are variations on scrambled eggs. If her father notices, he says nothing. A week consists of:
- Scrambled eggs (plain)
- Scrambled eggs (with onions and peppers)
- Meat (miscellaneous, grilled)
- Omelettes (still technically scrambled egg)
- Stew (unidentifiable)
Aside from meals, he never sees her for more than a second, and then only at night, materializing huge-eyed and silent over his shoulder as he scribbles shaky circles in the margins of Aurelias’s Principles of Alchemy, gnawing on his lip.
“You’re doing that wrong.” she whispers, and the noise is so sudden in the yawning emptiness of the dark sitting room that Roy fumbles his pencil, almost losing it entirely, and bites through his lip, tasting blood. The house is like a desert at night, freezing and silent, bruised blue-and-yellow with the sky too big outside. Riza settles back into the sofa, at the edge of his little pool of lamplight, idly swinging one foot.
“ Fuck me!” he breathes, fingering his bleeding mouth. His heartbeat pounds manically in his ears. Riza, when he turns to face her, crosses her arms and frowns.
“And you shouldn’t swear.”
She’s an only child , Ruby wrote back after his last letter home, She’s probably lonely . She’s not, Roy thinks. She is profoundly uninterested in him, or anything he has to say, but she’s there, a straw-haired spectre at his side, and it’s company , even if she’s only here to snip at him. The house is like a desert. She may not be lonely, but he is.
“Ok, fine. ” he sighs, “What am I doing wrong?”
“I dunno. It just doesn’t look like when Dad does it.”
The silence stretches between them; he can barely see her face between the book, the 2 am gloom and the barricade of her one drawn-up knee hugged to her chest, but Roy can feel her glaring, that same clear, resentful, thousand-mile stare.
“Where’s your Mom?” he says, finally, looking firmly down at his book.
“Dead, where’s yours? ” she fires back.
“Dead. My Dad, too. I live with my Aunt.” The pencil scritches softly, louder than both of them.
The sofa dips, and suddenly, her finger stabs at his sketchy transmutation circle. “That,” she murmurs, tapping a vague triangle “I think is supposed to go there ”, and she skims her finger over and down, to a blank space he’d been puzzling over for hours. He looks at her, and she shrugs, one-shouldered and sullen. “I’m pretty sure that’s how Dad does it. I’ve seen him a bunch of times.”
He looks down, and up, and she’s gone, leaving only a cold spot on the sofa and a hissed “Don’t bleed on the pages, stupid” echoing in his ears.
“He’d been sick for so long, but it never seemed to make a difference. I guess I thought…” There is frost on the ground, on Berthold Hawkeye’s fresh grave and the edges of the leaves that stir faintly at her feet. Riza whispers at the headstone, her enormous, translucent eyes cast down, not looking at him. Roy wants to put a hand on her shoulder. Doesn’t. The late autumn air turns the buttons on his new uniform into hard points of cold he can feel through the wool. “What anybody thinks. He was getting worse. He kept working, but he was. I should’ve known.”
She huffs a laugh, turns away from the grave. Her eyes are dry. “It’s fine.”
She is twenty to his twenty-four, with a grave, chapped slash of mouth just starting to crack in the cold, a feathery red line opening down the center of her lower lip, and a black dress he’s never seen before. Not that he would’ve had any reason to, not like he’s come back since–
But it makes her look thinner, and of course it does, it’s black , but it makes her look thinner , like a sheet of ice or paper, shadows smeared purple under her eyes, trembling, almost imperceptibly, but trembling, and he is gripped by the insane impulse to put his hand to her mouth, brush the blood away from her lip with his fingers. Instead, he says:
“Hey. Don’t bleed on the grave, stupid.”
Riza smiles, wan and thin.
Berthold Hawkeye has no wake, but a procession of neighbours files by the house anyway, in twos and threes, dressed as somberly as possible, with condolences and casseroles. Eventually, the last of them leaves. Roy stays. The house slumps into the bruised blue-and yellow evening as like a man with a concussion; they pick at the casseroles; brew coffee and forget to drink it; shuffle papers, and dodge each other’s eyes, until at some point, Riza materializes, huge-eyed and silent behind his shoulder and whispers:
“Roy. I have to show you something.”