She’s not supposed to be out here. She’s supposed to be finishing the washing up, only Roy is better at washing-up, and faster, and lazy . Splitting wood is hard. It takes her whole weight behind the hatchet to shift it, only barely anchored by the frozen clay caked red onto her boots.
She’s not supposed to be out here, because 11 years old is ostensibly too young to have a hatchet. “Ostensibly” is a thing her father says. Ostensibly. She savors the heavy cat-eye marble feel of it rolling around behind her teeth. Ostensibly , this is supposed to be Roy’s chore, because ostensibly he’s a strapping young man better suited to wielding a hatchet than she is, but really Roy Mustang is a kind of baby idiot who doesn’t know how to do anything. He never does it right , and the wood gets wasted, and anyway neither Roy nor her father know the words you have to say when the old, splintered axe-handle inevitably takes out its pound of flesh and drips your blood onto the chopping-stump, and then the wood doesn’t catch, or a draft blows the smoke back into the house when you try to light it, or worse.
She tongues nervously at her bottom lip, splitting in the cold, and stares at the spatter of blood congealing on the wood.
“This blood is of the living, and it’s not for you.”
There is nothing at the treeline.
Riza is at Mrs. Thompson’s. Master Hawkeye handed that down, cryptically as ever, over dinner last night, scraping away from the table and rasping “Riza. Mrs. Thompson would like your help again tomorrow.”
And Riza didn’t say anything, just nodded, white-lipped and silent.
He finishes his lesson early, cracks his neck, and strolls out into the November afternoon, which is golden and miraculously, unseasonably warm, and there is nothing watching from the treeline.
Mrs. Thompson’s is four miles away. There is nothing at the treeline.
So when he finds her, she’s down on her knees in the dust, grimacing and hunched over the thrashing rooster pinned between her legs. He remembers the bird as black, but it wasn’t, not really. The tail, maybe, but not black -black, more like a deep, iridescent green. It was red, and orange, and green-black and half as big as she was, squawking frantically, struggling like a mad thing.
“What are you even doing ?” he’d said, and Riza fixed him with one of her withering stares, like she wasn’t wrestling a fucking chicken, and she said:
“Helping Mrs. Thompson with the chickens.”
Flat. Cryptic. Just like her father.
And its eyes were a crazed, bloodshot yellow, and her face was green, and her lips were white, and its wings were pinned under her knees and its throat was stretched out in her fist and the knife flashing abruptly in her other hand was bright and silver in the sun and she’d swallowed, nauseously, and said “Sorry, chicken” and then everything was red.
She said something after, too, lips working silently, but he didn’t hear, was too busy staring, open-mouthed.
“ What the fuck.”
And she’d stood, shakily, still green, dust on her skirt and blood on her face and she said “Mrs. Thompson got a new rooster. That one was causing trouble.”
“So you killed it!?”
“You’re so stupid . What do you think you do with a chicken you don’t need anymore? The butcher’s all the way in town.”
It was chicken that night, roasted, and he couldn’t eat it. Couldn’t stop staring at the sack of glossy, green-black feathers hung on a hook by the door.
It’s just he can’t stop seeing it, a feeling like the bottom of his stomach’s been ripped out like a handful of feathers. Roy sits in his room, knees to his chest, and tries as hard as he can not to be hungry.
Except. Except his body, it seems, has other ideas, stretching the nauseous, gutted sensation into a yawning gulf. Horrifyingly, his stomach actually growls not too long after, and no amount of gritted teeth or clenched fists does anything to dispel it, so he slinks out, padding down to rifle through the cabinets for anything but meat.
He doesn’t look outside. The Hawkeye house has fewer windows than you’d expect for its size, but every single one of them seems to look out on a hunched mass of woodland that only ever reminds him how far away everything is. The trees aren’t even tall enough to pin the sky where it’s supposed to be, not like a good, honest city block, so the moon looms too low overhead, much bigger than it was ever supposed to be. It makes the light all wrong , somehow, too much and not enough at the same time; more than enough to see by, not enough to make out something coming up behind him until Roy turns around with a heel of bread cupped in one hand and Riza is right there, huge-eyed and accusatory in a nightshirt and a faded cardigan.
Her face is white, like teeth.
Roy almost screams.
“ Fuck!” he pants, hand pressed to his throat, working down a dry, painful swallow. “What are you doing down here!?”
“I heard a noise,” she whispers back, skinny arms crossed, folding her sweater tight around her waist. Her mouth twists in the gloom. “Hungry? You didn’t eat much at dinner.”
“You killed that thing!”
“ Yeah , I did,” she snaps. “Where do you think they come from, when you buy ‘em? They’re not born headless, stupid .”
She’s been calling him that since he got here, Roy thinks, and it’s...jarring. It might be the first time in his whole life somebody doesn’t like him, that the charm and the bright-young-man earnestness has fallen so spectacularly flat. He flicks a nervous glance outside so he won’t have to meet her furious stare.
There is nothing at the treeline.
“Right, of course,” he mutters, “Because I’m from the city, so clearly I don’t know a goddamn thing about—”
“NO you don’t. You don’t know anything about anything , you’re just an idiot boy, from the stupid city, and you don’t know how to do anything !” she hisses.
“Oh, and you do? You can barely lift that fucking hatchet, and you looked like you were about to throw up when you…..”
The words curdle in the back of his throat.
“She gives them to us,” Riza says, half-turned away, narrow jaw set, “You know we’re poor , right? That’s why Dad has to teach idiots like you. So if I come help for the day, she gives us a chicken. Or eggs, or,” she looks back and offers him a one-shouldered shrug, “jams and stuff. She makes me do it, though. Kill it. She says it’s important.”
“ Why? ”
“Because she’s a crazy old lady who thinks she has to teach me how to do stuff because I don’t have a mom. Like killing chickens and keeping the haint away.”
She’s about to call him stupid again. He can see it gathering like thunderheads behind her face. Stupid, how do you not know what a haint is? So instead, Roy pulls himself up the foot he has over her, and guesses, blindly, with all the confidence he can muster, and says:
“Don’t be an idiot . Ghosts aren’t real. There is absolutely no scientific evidence that—”
“Evidence like what?” Riza snaps, “Pictures? Light goes through ghosts, how would you take a picture of one? How are you supposed to keep it one place long enough to take a picture even if you could see it on film, ‘Oh, excuse me, Mr. Haint, but would you mind waiting here while we go get the photographer? It’ll only be a moment!’”
She’s four years younger and almost a foot shorter, and it doesn’t even help. There is an impenetrable, gimlet-eyed, feral rage surrounding Riza Hawkeye, and Roy wrecks himself on the coast of it again and again, back-footed and sputtering.
“You can’t just—you’d have to set up some kind of trial, you need—”
“Replicable results? Yeah, I know. So I’m telling you, anytime blood gets spilled around here, something bad happens after. You and Dad get blood on the hatchet, and the wood won’t light, or it won’t stay lit, or it burns somebody. Jacob Cooper, two miles down the road, cut his foot open on a nail, and then his family’s horse came up lame the next day. Sarah Waters was butchering a calf, and then she lost her baby. Somebody got hurt out in the hayfield, and the man who went out after, his scythe jumped and he lost his hand, and he bled out and died . You have to say that the blood isn’t for it , or somebody gets hurt worse. If you don’t, something always happens.” Her face stills, just for a moment, uncrumpling from its thunderous scowl, and her voice flattens into the vaguely sing-song lilt of recitation. “‘This blood is of the living, and it’s not for you.’ It has to be that, and I’ve tested it saying other things, or not saying anything, and I wrote everything down. Replicable results .”
Roy rakes his fingers through his hair, twists at the roots. His jaw clenches, almost involuntarily. “That’s not even a little bit right, you—and it still doesn’t prove anything! It’s just some...country superstition, and there is no such thing as ghosts!”
She eyes him coldly, already halfway up the stairs. “Maybe not where you’re from.”
He’s not supposed to be awake this early. Nobody , probably, is ever supposed to be awake this early, in the ugly yellow-grey bruise-light before it starts being morning for real . Nothing is even supposed to exist , let alone be awake. Even roosters, Roy thinks, know better.
He doesn’t want to think about roosters.
Instead, Roy thinks very, very hard about ectothermic reactions, and keeping the lines of his conduction array straight.
It’s been a cold autumn, practically winter already. He only just manages to melt the rime of frost circling the edge of the wash basin, and it’s already re-forming, crystalizing over the reflection of the Hawkeye estate. The hayfield. The woods beyond.
There is nothing at the treeline.
Roy starts to shave.
It is, objectively, a beautiful shaving kit. Real Badger hair bristles on the brush, tortoiseshell handles, a real leather strop, finer than gloves. It’s the first thing he ever bought for himself, with the first money he ever earned for himself, even though Aunt Chris and Emily and Violet and Ruby , and everyone else said he needed it about as much as a coroner needed a first aid kit. Roy scrapes the razor over his perfectly smooth cheeks, carefully contouring every imagined shadow. Hair grows back thicker after you shave.
It’s just that the mirror in his room is small, and tarnished around the edges, so that he has to crane his head at awkward, sidelong angles to see what he’s doing, and it pushes the bleak, withered hayfield into the corner of his eye, and he can’t help but wonder, while he’s trying not to think about roosters, whether or not somebody really did bleed to death out there.
The razor is so sharp he barely even realizes he’s cut himself until he sees blood in the water, and even that barely registers as his blood, just a thready curiosity unspooling in the wash basin that’s he stooping to examine, until he hears the crack .
It sounds like a gunshot, a bone breaking, and Roy whips his head around, hand curled protectively over his throat, but it’s nothing. The window is cracked, one bright, white line forking across the pane, which is something that can happen to glass, sometimes, when the temperature changes suddenly, and Master Berthold Hawkeye is an expert in combustion and thermodynamics, so he ought to know. Roy uncurls his fingers from under his jaw, and they come away red.
I’m telling you, anytime blood gets spilled around here, something bad happens after. Riza’s voice echoes in the back of his head, You have to say that the blood isn’t for it , or somebody gets hurt worse. If you don’t, something always happens. ‘This blood is of the living, and it’s not for you.’
So he doesn’t say anything, because there’s no such thing as ghosts.
Eventually, the bleeding stops.
Two hours later, Master Hawkeye isn’t at breakfast, which is not in itself unusual, but he isn’t in his study either, or any of the parlours, or, when Roy knocks, swallowing hard around the lump in his throat (Master Hawkeye’s reproaches, when disturbed at his work, are both scathing and specific), in his laboratory.
Riza isn’t at breakfast either, or in any of the parlours, or anywhere, until she is.
“You can’t go in there. Dad’s sick.”
“Will you stop doing that!?”
“Go away . Dad’s sick,” she repeats, and Roy realizes, belatedly, that they are both standing in front of Master Hawkeye’s bedroom, and Riza is holding a tray bearing a steaming mug of tea. There’s a guilty writhe in the pit of his stomach, and Roy almost thinks something bad happens when you spill blood , but he pushes it away and instead he says:
“If he’s sick, shouldn’t we get a doctor?”
“It doesn’t—listen just go away! Why do you even care?” Riza snaps, and Roy realizes that they’ve been whispering this whole time, harsh and low back-and-forth and then—
Hawkeye the Elder materializes in the doorway. There’s something faintly ridiculous about the whole thing; Riza’s jaw is set, chin tucked into her chest, and glowering protectively against the shadow of her father’s hunched, vulturine shape looming over her shoulder.
“Riza,” he rasps, “That’s enough.”
He hesitates, just a little, just a moment, before dropping his hand down to the downy thatch of her hair. “Enough. Please inform Mister Mustang that I will be with him shortly.”
He does not take the tea.
His voice is wet the whole lesson, an ugly, choking rattle in the back of his throat. He leans heavier on his cane than Roy’s ever seen before, and just for a moment, in the midst of a racking cough that leaves Master Hawkeye doubled over the edge of his desk, Roy thinks he sees blood glistening on the edge of his knuckles.
Roy’s lesson ends early.
It’s not even three o’clock and already starting to get dark, a day that somehow slipped on the ice and knocked itself out into a concussed evening ahead of schedule. He finds Riza sitting alone, knees drawn to her chest and barefoot, pressed up against a window in one of the lesser-used parlours, watching the sun sink. And on the one hand, the impulse to spook her is, frankly, a little mean, and he’s older, and should, and does know better, and it’s certainly not going to make him any friends, but on the other hand she does the same to him all the time.
“What’s wrong with him.”
Riza whips her head around, and Roy can almost pinpoint the exact moment her expression changes, wide-eyed terror crystallizing back into her usual withering, thousand-yard stare.
“He’s sick,” she snaps, “Like I told you.”
“So... should we get the doctor?” He’s whispering again. Can’t seem to help it today.
“There’s no point,” she murmurs, turning her face back to window. Her cheek presses up against the glass, and it barely even moves. She’s too skinny. Not enough flesh there to shift, balanced on the point of her cheekbone. She shrugs, and continues, “The doctor comes, and leaves some medicine and Dad doesn’t take it, ‘cause he forgets, or he’s busy, or he just...doesn’t. Dad’s sick. Dad’s always sick. It’s just sometimes, he’s worse.”
“Sick with what?”
It’s like trying to get close to a stray cat. Roy moves very slowly, very quietly, palms up and eyes down until he’s managed to occupy the opposite corner of the window seat.
“I dunno.” Riza’s mouth twists. “Nobody wants to tell me. People ask how he is, but they do it like:” Her voice drops, and softens, affecting a soothing, don’t-spook-the-horse lilt, “ ‘And how’s your father, dear? Feeling better?’ You know? Like they don’t think I know how bad it is.”
He does know, is the thing. Roy knows that voice, that’s the funeral voice, standing in a little chapel with Aunt Chris’s rings pressing into his shoulder while people he didn’t know came up one after another to say
“ ‘I’m so sorry to hear what happened. You’re a very brave young man,’” he echoes.
Riza snorts. “Well they were wrong about that , weren’t they? You can’t even stomach a chicken dinner.”
It’s dark outside.
There is nothing at the treeline.
His hands are shaking. That’s good , Riza thinks, that’s probably a good thing, what would it say about a man who could do this to his own child without his hands shaking?
An uglier part of her thinks that it’s got less to do with fatherly concern, and more to do with the fact that he’s not well not enough anymore to keep his hands steady even if he wanted to. Berthold Hawkeye shakes just about all the time these days, a persistent, shivering tremor like an imminent landslide.
His hands are shaking as he picks up the pen.
When he lowers the tip to his daughter’s back, they are still.
It’s not really a pen, it’s a series of workarounds, which is to say that Berthold Hawkeye is a much better alchemist than he is a tattooist, even if his knowledge of medical alchemy is almost entirely theoretical.
Almost; there is a thin, black band circling the widest part of his left arm, proof of concept.
It’s just a little sharper than a pen, just enough to break the skin, so it doesn’t even hurt much, at first. It feels a little bit like a skinned knee, or, Riza remembers with sudden, excruciating clarity, almost exactly like the time she went to help Mrs. Thompson with the chickens, and she couldn’t—the bird got loose, and scratched open the back of her wrist before she managed to get it pinned again. Riza breathes shallowly into the crook of her arm while her father dabs at the blood beading up over her shoulders.
That was the day Roy came , she remembers. After I caught it the second time, he showed up, and—
It’s something to do with carbon-based pigments and the elemental composition of the human body, which amounts to: Berthold Hawkeye is not a tattooist, or a doctor, but he can bind the pigment to her skin with alchemy along the shape he’s cut, and it’ll take. It should take, but with his health, there’s no way to do it all at once. He can’t sit up that long. Today is just the basic array. Simple shapes.
It hurts like nothing ever has, not hot or cold or lightning or red or blue or white or anything she’s ever heard anyone call pain before. It hurts like leaving, like the stopped breath of thinking there’s one more step on the stairs than there really is, like a fingernail bent backwards over a bee sting. Every nerve in her body is sheared off, axons carded and spun like wool into something else that has never known anything but the hurting.
There was something you were supposed to say . Riza knows this, abruptly, in some thin splinter of consciousness, mercifully disconnected from anything else. Something you were supposed to say to stop bad things from happening .
Berthold Hawkeye rinses his hands in a wash-basin, rimed around the edges with frost as his daughter gingerly sits up. They shake, a palsied shiver like paper over a broken window.
She can’t remember what it was. The words are gone, swallowed, and anyway, Riza thinks, staring vaguely out of the window while they finish bandaging her back, she’s getting too old for superstition.
There is nothing at the treeline.
It is, objectively, a beautiful shaving kit. Real boar hair bristles on the brush, mother-of-pearl handles, a real leather strop, finer than gloves.
Maes bought it for him, some New Year’s after the war, a six month stretch during which everyone he knew started begging him to stop trying to grow out a mustache.
He doesn’t want to think about Maes.
Instead, Roy thinks about—
Maes, still, he can’t stop thinking about Maes, who they buried a week ago, not even a week, really, and the sun comes up raw and red, staggering out of the night before with a mean hangover, and it’s almost exactly the same color as that fucking phone booth and the pipes groan and shriek in protest while he lets the water run hotter and hotter.
He’s functioning. This is a thing that functioning person does, keeping a routine.
There was so much blood.
It’s been a cold spring, never really stopped being winter. The steam wafting up from the sink barely even manages to fog the mirror.
But it does, just a little, and the effort required to wipe it clean again seems suddenly monumental, outrageous. So instead he squints sidelong into his reflection in the bathroom window, tilting his jaw at odd angles and craning his neck.
Roy’s apartment overlooks a park, the privilege, one supposes, of an officer’s salary. He can see it, grass silvered over with patches of frost, and the trees still bare, blackened and bony in the red dawn. He catches flashes of it, black and white and red all over, out of the corner of his eye as he scrapes the razor over the ragged planes of his jaw and the razor is so sharp he doesn’t even realize he’s cut himself until he sees the blood pooling in the hollow of his throat, and even then, it barely even registers as his blood, just a curiously wet shadow he can’t place, and Roy leans closer to the window to examine it and—
There was something , he remembers, back at the old house, something about blood, and the window cracked —
Maes Hughes stands at the treeline.