It was a couple days after the funeral.
“Your… your father said to come to you, for his research notes.”
Riza blinked at him for a handful of seconds, the words barely penetrating through the haze of grief. Roy – sheepish and guilty and red-eyed – seemed to crumble a bit as she stared at him, the dashing soldier flaking away to reveal the lost little boy who’d been her father’s protégé.
“Yes,” she said slowly. “Of course.” Her father had once sworn he’d take his research to his grave, but it didn’t surprise her that he’d changed his mind.
Riza stood shakily. There were no windows in the small salon/library that her father had used as a study until he’d grown too weak to stand, and Roy had closed the door behind him. She took a deep breath and felt a small pulse of – of hate towards her father. Of course he’d had every right to want to share his life’s work with his student, every right to pick this man, this surrogate son, once it became clear that Riza had neither the aptitude nor inclination to study alchemy. She hadn’t even minded the pain when he’d done it; there was a long history of alchemists – paranoid and possessive creatures that they were – tattooing their proprietary arrays into their flesh. By the time he’d finished it, the array had been too large and Berthold too weak to bear it himself, so he’d chosen the next best thing: his young, strong, dutiful daughter.
But she hated the position he’d put her in now, her brilliant, thoughtless, mad alchemist father. Sixteen years old and six days an orphan, having to see the shock and confusion in this handsome man’s eyes as she stripped off her shirt, having to – against all her instincts – turn around and offer this twenty-year-old man (father’s student, family friend, acquaintance, barely more than a stranger, oh god) her naked back while she was alone in the house with him, alone with no one else to turn to.
Maybe she would have chosen this, if she’d been free to. She liked Roy, trusted him. His words at the gravesite had genuinely moved her. But the choice had been thrust upon her, and in that moment Riza hated. Riza squeezed her eyes shut and tried not to shake.
Roy gasped. A sharp, cut-off sound. A heavy footstep, then another, closer. Then, the rough rasp of wool cloth over her shoulders. His coat.
“I’m so sorry,” Roy said, voice low and gravelly, eyes averted as she clutched his military jacket over her bare breasts. “I didn’t know Berthold did that to you. I’m – fuck,” he broke off, voice cracking slightly on the fervent curse.
Riza tried to smile, to do something. The sick pit of fear in her stomach had drained away, leaving her empty and hollow. “It’s alright,” she said, a lie. “It’s not your fault,” which at the very least was true.
Roy looked at her, eyes darting sideways and up since he was still physically half-turned away. “This has all been incredibly unfair to you,” he said, something dry and comfortingly bitter in his voice. Like he was resentful on her behalf.
“I think it’s been unfair on all of us,” she said, thinking of her mother (vanished into the mists some ten years ago, and why hadn’t she been enough to make her stay) her father (brilliant and proud and only forty-five, god he’d had so much more to give, so much more he’d wanted to do) and herself, sixteen and penniless and alone. Riza took another deep breath and felt the steady composure that had served her so well all her life, first as the neglected daughter of a genius and then as a sickroom nurse for her own father, settle down around her like a mantle. “Why don’t we go into the kitchen where there’s better lighting, have a drink and try again?” she offered.
Roy eyed her sharply before nodding slowly. “Alright.”
Riza straddled a kitchen chair, topless again, while Roy painstakingly transcribed every detail of the array onto page after page of paper.
“This is revolutionary,” he muttered reverently some five minutes in.
“Could you… could you tell me what it is?” Riza asked. She’d had maybe two swallows of the whiskey, not enough to do more than slightly warm the hollow in her stomach and she was craving distraction. The room was cold and her arms goosepimpled. “I never went past the very basics of alchemy and father’s never been good at putting things in lay terms,” she stopped, swallowed. “Never was good,” the past tense tasted liked ashes. Learning to speak of Berthold that way was horrific.
Roy was silent for a heartbeat, her slip of the tongue lying stagnant and fetid in the air around them, souring the room.
“It’s about rearranging the molecular composition of the air,” he began after a moment. He was good at explaining it. Even though he hadn’t built the array, he obviously understood it, and he was better at putting it in non-alchemical terms that she could somewhat get. It was fascinating and – as Riza began to grasp the immensity of what her father had discovered – terrifying.
“This array will make you unstoppable,” Riza said once he’d finished. What Roy had described sounded just a little worse than an instantly rechargeable, aimable, human bomb.
“Yes,” he said simply, baldly. “I’m done now, you can get dressed.”
Riza nodded, did so and stood. “What are you going to do now,” she asked, hovering a trifle awkwardly. Roy had all six pages spread out before him and had pulled a small notebook out of his pocket that he was now madly scribbling away at.
“I need to synthesize this into a smaller array I can use and wear that can’t be reversed engineered by another alchemist even if they get a good look at it.”
“Wear,” Riza said flatly.
“Yes. I’m sorry.” Roy looked apologetic, but determined. Like whatever sorrow he felt was not about to start to stop him. “I’m going to make a name for myself off of your father’s hard work.”
Riza shrugged. “He gave it to you to do what you wished.”
“Yeah.” His jaw clenched. “And I’ll never find out if he’d regret that.”
Riza nodded slightly, and went to the stove to put the kettle on. She didn’t feel nearly ready to confront his grief on top of her own. She’d make herself some tea, and retreat to her room, and make the world go away for a little while. But first, “are you going back with that?” To Central, where alchemists stole each-other’s research easy as breathing. Riza could barely breathe at the thought of her father’s horrible wonderful terror getting out among men like that, spread around the entire military.
“Not until I synthesize the array,” Roy reassured her, those black eyes seeing far too much. “I have a couple weeks bereavement leave. I’ll spend them holed up somewhere with this.”
“Feel free to use the couch in the salon until you have to go back,” Riza offered. “Having his reference books at hand might make your job easier.” Better to keep those notes in the house. Better for her not to be alone right then.
Roy looked at her, hair falling into his eyes, expression unreadable. “I’ll take you up on that.”
Two weeks later. Two weeks of Roy studying and practicing and causing small controlled fires in the backyard. Two weeks of Riza cleaning and sorting and packing up her father’s things for sale. The house would have to go. Too much upkeep for just one person, and she could live off the proceeds while she finished school.
Roy was leaving in the morning, his new array stitched in red on the back of the ignition glove he’d transmuted out of white cloth and matches, his cheeks hollow from lack of sleep. He’d synthesized the array in five days, and spent the other nine honing his ability to a knife’s edge. She’d watched him singe a single straw out of an entire heap, and later a single hair from the back of his arm. His control was near-complete.
Which was good, because it made what she was about to ask him slightly less terrifying.
“Before you go, I need you to do something for me.”
He looked up from the dinner they were sharing, the bowl of soup she’d made him. The past two weeks had been – on top of hectically busy and utterly grief-stricken – bewilderingly domestic. She’d once again been cooking and cleaning for a genius alchemist in the midst of a project, only this time he was young and handsome and not her father. Only this time, she was (almost) fully supportive of his goal to get this done as quickly as possible.
“I want you to burn the array off my back.”
Roy stared at her, for once shocked beyond words. It gave her a chance to explain her reasoning without interruption, which she was grateful for.
“I don’t want to live like this. In the future, when I chose a husband or, or a lover, all I want to worry about is whether I can trust him with me. I don’t want to have to vet him for this too, decide whether he’s… I don’t even have the words! Trustworthy enough to be given the powers of a vengeful god? And that’s without even talking about accidents. Doctors. Assaults. And, well, I haven’t been able to go swimming in two years, you know.”
At that, Roy finally smiled slightly, his face losing that terrifying gray cast. “I can see your point. Not swimming in the summer here is a tragedy. Let’s do it now? I fear I’ve lost my appetite.”
Riza nodded. She hadn’t touched her soup and honestly hadn’t been planning to. Too afraid she’d just sick it back up from the pain.
Afterwards, after the screaming and the horrible smell of burnt hair and roasted meat, Riza lay facedown on her bed, covered in sweat feeling oddly cold. When she surfaced a bit from the grey-red depths of pain, she noticed Roy kneeling beside her, stroking her hair away from her face.
“I singed off the crucial parts,” he said when he saw her eyes were clear and focused again. “Most of the array is still there, but it’s nonsense now, don’t you worry. I think. Well, I think I should leave now. Back to Central. My leave’s up in two days and all I’ve done since I arrived has been to cause you pain, one way or the other. But before I go, I wanted to tell how incredibly brave you are. You mentioned earlier, how you didn’t want to have to ‘vet’ people for flame alchemy, but I have to say between you and the array, you are the far greater treasure, Riza Hawkeye. Never forget that. I dearly hope to meet you again, under better circumstances. Call me, should you ever need anything.”
And then he leaned in, and pressed a dry kiss to her forehead. Riza grabbed his hand when he moved to stand and squeezed it.
“Take care of yourself, Roy Mustang,” she said, her voice weak but heartfelt. “Least until I catch up with you.”
He grinned at her, and there was something almost joyful in those pitch-dark eyes. “See you soon, Riza Hawkeye.‘Til we meet again.”
Riza smiled and let her eyes shut, and she was dreaming before she heard the front door of her father’s house softly close behind Roy Mustang for the last time.