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To Lead or To Follow

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“Your orders, sir?” asks First Lieutenant Riza Hawkeye.

Colonel Roy Mustang takes a moment to glance at the members of his team that he is able to gather: Riza, Second Lieutenant Heymans Breda, and Master Sergeant Kain Fuery.

“Whatever action we may take, we’re heading straight for the battlefield. And no matter the outcome, there’s no turning back,” he answers. The confidence in his voice masks the apprehension that only Riza is able to sense. “Even if we win, this mission still won’t be close to completion, not until we rebuild this nation with me as the Fuhrer. We’ll still have the task of setting things right. In other words, I’m only giving you a single order to obey. Don’t die. Understood?”

The three soldiers click their heels in unison as they acknowledge his command. “Sir!”

Black Hayate yelps in apparent affirmation as well.

“You don’t plan on bringing him to fight, do you, Lieutenant Hawkeye?” Fuery asks hesitantly, looking sympathetically at the excited Shiba Inu.

“Why—are you going to take care of him, Fuery?” Breda teases.

Riza chuckles. “That fight with Gluttony in the bell tower was too close of a call. I’m leaving him with a neighbor.”

“Lieutenant, I’ll go with you,” Roy interjects.

Her eyes widen in apparent skepticism. “With all due respect, sir, I’ll be fine.”

“The first thing to do is secure Mrs. Bradley. Since you know her itinerary, it would be best for you and I to do this together. You can drop off Hayate on the way and we can review our plans in greater detail.”

Riza tries to argue, reminding him that Mrs. Bradley isn’t set to leave Central for a few more hours. But he’s insistent that the two of them need to strategize, so she relents, realizing this isn’t worth a fight.

Breda and Fuery both laugh.

“It wouldn’t be a reunion without the two of you going at it,” Breda remarks.

Roy and Riza join in their laughter. Things will never be the same, but at least they’re still able to share moments like these, no matter how fleeting they are. The last time they said goodbye, they had no idea when they’d see each other again, but at least their goodbyes here are less uncertain.

Initially, the drive to Riza’s house is silent. It’s the first time in months they’re able to be alone, but the only sound in the car comes from Black Hayate, who is sitting in Roy’s lap panting excitedly at all the attention he’s receiving. She desperately wants to break this silence, but so much time has elapsed that she isn’t even sure where to start.

Thankfully Roy is the one who speaks first, asking her with whom they are leaving Black Hayate.

“Mr. and Mrs. Wilson, who live three doors down from me,” she answers. “They were never able to have any children of their own, so they have a dog of their own who loves Black Hayate.”

Hearing his name, the dog turns to look at his mistress, who keeps one hand on the steering wheel as she gives him an affectionate scratch on the top of his head. He coos in delight.

“Have you ever wanted children of your own, Lieutenant?”

The question takes her by surprise. Something about the idea seems so, well, childish. Creating a life with someone by falling in love together, getting married, and having children feels distant and foreign to her. To many people those are trademarks of a life well-lived, but those people don’t carry the same burdens she does.

This vision of a less complicated life is something she used to hold close to her heart, but that was before all this. Before the homunculi, or Hughes’ death, or Ishval.

And most importantly, those visions were before she found out during a routine physical that she’s incapable of carrying a child.

It’s hard for her to think of a response that fully encapsulates her complex emotions. This is one of those moments where she wishes she had the fortitude to lie to him, but not only does she refuse to ever shield him from the truth, she’s also keenly aware of how familiar he is with her. She couldn’t lie to him, even if she tried.

“Sometimes I think, I might have liked that,” she responds, doing her best to keep her tone calm and even-keeled. “But there are more important things.”

It’s clear that he immediately understands her implication as he sighs and runs his fingers through his hair. “You’re great to this guy,” he observes, petting Black Hayate gently and lovingly. “You’d be an excellent mother, Hawkeye. Probably much better than I would be as a father.”

She can’t help but agree with his assessment. From the very beginning, Roy has had a difficult time meaningfully connecting with the Elric brothers. His concern for both of them is unmistakably genuine, but his temper is quick to clash with Edward’s and he has a difficult time relating to Alphonse. He doesn’t understand how to blend the harsh reality of their life choices with the fact that they are still children.

Conversely, Riza never shies away from telling them the truth, while also realizing that their understandings of the world are not the same as hers. It feels so natural to her, the way she is able to speak to them with honesty and dignity while still maintaining a sense of tenderness. There’s a mutual affection and respect between them, and although she’s not really sure how they could care for someone like her, she’s grateful to feel connected.

“You say that as if you’ve considered what it might be like for either of us to be parents, Colonel,” she remarks in jest as she pulls up to the front of her apartment complex.

Roy notably doesn’t respond to her comment as they pull up to her apartment complex. Instead he opens the door and lets Hayate out, keeping a firm grip on the leash. She motions to retrieve the leash, but he insists on holding it as they make their way up the stairs to Riza’s apartment on the third floor of the building.

They approach a door right by the stairwell and Riza knocks on it. A bespectacled woman with salt-and-pepper hair answers the door. She’s wearing a grey nightgown, covered by a long blue bathrobe. Black Hayate wags his tail the moment he sees her face.

“I apologize for coming a little later than expected, Mrs. Wilson,” Riza explains sheepishly, holding out the leash.

Mrs. Wilson smiles tiredly as she adjusts her glasses and takes hold of the leash. “It’s alright, dear.” She eyes Roy curiously, observing the stars on his epaulette, but chooses not to mention anything and instead bids the pair good night.

The two walk down the hall silently and approach Riza’s apartment. She unlocks the door and enters while Roy stands in the hallway, waiting for her to confirm he can come in. After all, they can never be too careful. She does a quick survey of the apartment to ensure there are no explosives or bugs before snapping her fingers, which signals to him that it’s safe to enter. He closes and locks the door behind him.

She invites him to sit at her kitchen table and offers him coffee, reminding him that it’s going to be a long night. There was a time when a simple cup of coffee brewed and mixed to his ideal proportions would be enough to make him smile, but his acceptance of her hospitality is terse tonight. It’s difficult not to let his impersonal response sting, given that their only interactions they have had the past few months have been in passing. Still, she also understands that the future of their nation depends on them, so she dutifully prepares his beverage in silence.

Pulling a map from the cabinet, she spreads it out on the table and takes a seat next to him. They review their plans in detail: Breda and Fuery will gather Eastern forces while Roy and Riza take Mrs. Bradley to a safe location. Once she’s safely ensconced, they will reconvene and coordinate with Radio Capital to deliver the message that Central is being threatened by a conspiracy from within. From there, Eastern forces will team up with Briggs soldiers under the guise of protecting it from a coup.

Though she understands this is what must be done to save and preserve the country, the plan makes her sick to her stomach. Mrs. Bradley has always been kind to her and is clearly a pawn caught in the middle of this mess; her husband’s and son’s faults are not hers. Riza looks forward to the day when Mrs. Bradley can live peacefully, extricated from her inadvertent connection to the pure evil of the homunculi.

Even then, she can’t help but envy Mrs. Bradley, whose life is so opposite of her own: she’s a homemaker with a husband to provide for her and a son to bring her joy, and she isn’t saddled with the never-ending need for atonement. Everything is guided by beautiful simplicity, genuine grace, and deep love.

The only commonality between those two women is their unwavering love and devotion to the respective men of their lives. But Riza’s love is not simple, nor is it graceful.

The colonel takes a final sip of his coffee and checks his pocket watch. “2100,” he states. “We’ve got two hours.”

She urges him to take a nap. “We’re in for a long day, so please, make yourself comfortable on my bed. I’ll sit here and guard the door.”

“What do you think our future will be?” he mumbles, ignoring her suggestion and changing the topic of conversation.

“That’s a difficult question, sir. I think the future of our country depends on how effectively we’re all able to carry out our plan.”

He nods. “Say we pull this off. What’s our future when all is said and done?”

“That plan has never changed, colonel,” she remarks. “We have always planned to get you to the top, restore the power of the people, and atone for our sins. What we are doing now is simply a detour, a means to those ends. And I will follow you wherever you go to reach the end.”

“I see.”

In her mind, her words feel impactful and affirmative, but she realizes from his brief answer that he likely isn’t satisfied. It’s easy to say these things with confidence, the way she has just now; actually moving forward is an entirely different story.

She notes his lack of engagement and asks, “Is something the matter, Colonel?”

Roy doesn’t respond verbally, but she’s taken by surprise when she feels his fingertips brush hers under the table. “What if, tonight, I asked you to lead instead, Lieutenant?”

“I’m not sure what you mean, sir,” she responds, giving him a puzzled look. After all, she has pledged to follow him, so she has no idea how to lead him. Nor does she even know where he wants to be led.

“There is a serious chance this could be our last evening alive,” he responds, gently interlacing his fingers with hers. “If I die, I want to be able to say I spent it with you.”

It’s both a memory and a fantasy for her. A memory of the time when he left her behind after her father’s funeral, after she gave him the secrets to flame alchemy; a fantasy of a life she always wishes they could have had together if things were different.

All those years ago, as he thanked her for sharing her father’s research and offered himself as a resource to her in the future, neither of them knew how to bid the other farewell. They held their hands out for a handshake and immediately it felt too formal, but something about an embrace didn’t feel like it was enough either. He had pressed his lips to hers softly, with an inquisitive and kind affection. She’s held onto that fleeting feeling for years, hoping she might be able to experience it again but also knowing that chasing it would be futile and uneventful.

In some ways this moment is a fantasy come to life, but if she’s being honest with herself, she’s never fantasized about it under such circumstances. Still, these circumstances are too much to bear, and she refuses to be bound by what she wishes could be when there are very real, albeit temporary, possibilities right in front of her.

Logically she realizes this is a terrible idea. Though she knows a handful of married military couples, none of them are in the same chain of command and therefore don’t violate the anti-fraternization laws; meanwhile, as Roy’s subordinate and adjutant, she is explicitly prohibited from engaging in any type of romantic relationship with him. And all this aside, she still remembers how her heart broke again and again while they were in Ishval together.

But in spite of all this, Riza loves this man with every fiber of her being, and it’s been this way for as long as she can remember. So she decides this is worth it—whatever this is—and leans in, kissing him with the passion of someone who doesn’t even know if she will live to see the sunrise.

The slightly bitter aftertaste of coffee lingers on his breath. It’s sharp and acidic and not at all what she remembers, but she doesn’t care. Still, she quickly becomes aware of the rapidly increasing beat of her heart and the warmth between them, and she pulls away, thinking of how to fill the silence. For once, she wants to say something instead of relying on what they’ve known for so long, and there are so many things she wants to say.

I’ll spend every moment with you.

I’ve always wanted this.

Nothing else matters right now.

Still, words can’t do justice to what she holds in her heart and soul. None of those responses will ever truly encapsulate how she feels. There’s a reason that words have never mattered too much to them.

Grasping his fingertips in the palm of her hand, she guides him gently to her room and onto the bed. They lay down and she turns to kiss him, but is taken aback by how wet his face feels. Pulling away, she feels him shaking, gently sobbing. She wants to ask him what is wrong, but she doesn’t even need to ask as she sees the look in his eyes.

It’s uncertainty. Uncertainty about what life will look like when all is said and done, or if there even will be life beyond this Promised Day. Uncertainty about what is happening in this moment, or if he deserves her.

She swipes her thumb under Roy’s eyes to brush away his tears as she presses a gentle kiss onto his cheek.

“I’m sorry to be useless, Lieutenant,” he says.

“You aren’t,” she reassures him simply. It takes all her effort to not end her sentence with “sir” or “Colonel”.

Her response is true: anything will do. Whatever he wants, whatever he is able to give, whatever he has room for. She refuses to be selfish because there’s more to the two of them than this precise moment. There are tears of joy, stomach aches from laughter. Mountains of seemingly excessive paperwork, moments they thought they might die.

It’s all been more than enough, more than she could ever hope to deserve. She has always loved him for all he is, this cursed day be damned.

She knows that he is the Flame Alchemist, but she kisses him again and swears in that moment that she’s able to create fire too. Unclasping her hair, she tosses the barrette on the ground unceremoniously. Her body sinks on top of his and presses into him, and it’s almost too much to handle, but somehow also feels just right. She feels his hands frame either side of her face, gently caressing her hair, and it feels both deeply passionate and immensely tender.

He breaks away and she worries that she has done something wrong; instead, he looks up at her and smiles. It’s passionate, but more than that, it’s warm and kind in a way that is rare for people to see, even Riza.

“I hope you know how beautiful you are,” Roy tells her, “because I’ve always known, and I’ve always hoped I would be able to tell you.”

It’s never been in her nature to seek praise from others, but she relishes in it nonetheless. He asks to undress her and she wants to let him, but she has a feeling that he will want to take his time, and the clock isn’t on their side tonight. Instead she removes her clothing quickly and neatly. Maybe next time, if there even is a next time.

“Is that all I have to say to get you undressed?” he asks, accompanied by the shit-eating grin she both loves and hates so much.

“You asked me to lead,” she remarks, slightly teasing him in her tone. Before letting him get another word in edgewise, she presses a kiss to his lips while beginning to cautiously undress him. She feels him tremble in pleasure and anticipation under her, which in turn encourages her to remove his clothing with more confidence and urgency.

In the back of her mind she wants to take note of every single mark on his body: the cauterized wound on his side, the mole on the top of his chest, the scar on his knee from when they played in the yard as children. But she can’t, so to compensate she presses her body on top of his again, this time skin-on-skin, and the feeling makes her want to cry out. It isn’t even the physical pleasure that overwhelms her; rather, it’s the idea that this is the culmination of so many other forms of intimacy they have developed over their years together. And so, rather than carrying on with the heat of the moment, she holds him in an embrace, a motion he is all too eager to return.

Keenly aware of her inexperience, she confesses, “I’ve never—”

Roy cuts her off, gently tracing his fingertips along her scarred back. She feels an apology in his touch, an apology that lingers in every single interaction they ever have alone. “Nor have I.”

She doesn’t even know why they have to say this to each other. Of course neither of them have been intimate with anyone else; there’s no time, and moreover, there’s no one who could hold a candle to all they’ve shared with each other.

Shifting her weight, she moves towards his waist and apprehensively cups him in her hand. He sighs softly and it’s like music to her ears, a sound she never thought she’d hear. This confirmation of his pleasure emboldens her to pump up and down, and she feels his body shift at her touch, instinctively asking for more.

“Will you let me lead now?” he asks with a timidness that doesn’t quite match the passion of this moment.

Riza has never heard him this shy before, and it almost breaks her in the best way possible. She’s barely able to finish nodding before she’s on her back, his hands caressing her face and his lips pressed against her neck.

They’ve never touched each other so intimately before but it feels like they’ve known each other this way for an entire eternity as she feels both chills and heat pooling in her belly. She’s already slick, a combination of both her arousal and the sweat from the closeness of their bodies. It’s agonizing just how much she wants this now that it’s happening, and her hips instinctively shift up as Roy’s fingers trail down to separate her folds. Sinking into his touch, it takes all her energy to stifle the moan emerging from her throat as his fingers slip into her—one first, then two.

This is already enough for her, but he spreads her legs and his eyes move to meet hers, asking apprehensively if he can continue. She kisses him reassuringly and pulls his body down on top of hers as a yes, guiding him inside her. Her heart races as he eases his way into her and the feeling is at first unfamiliar, but as he begins to move in her and her hips writhe to meet him, she knows this is right.

They move like this together, as if they’ve always known how to do this, until it’s too much to bear and Riza cries out softly at the height of her quick climax. At first she’s embarrassed at how easily he’s able to bring her to the edge, but it really doesn’t matter, because it’s Roy and of course he knows her in a way that no one else can or will. It’s more than how their skin feels together; it’s about everything else that has brought them to this point.

Her body shudders in completion, and in response he motions to pull out from on top of her, seemingly content with having satisfied her. But she tells him that she wants to keep going in a nearly breathless whisper that seems to set him alight, encouraging him to continue driving into her.

“I’m close,” he warns in response. She notices that he’s barely even able to finish his sentence.

“Come inside me,” she urges him, with that same unrecognizably delicate sigh in her voice.

He blinks, shocked. “Are you sure?”

Never one to second guess herself, she pulls his face down to meet hers in a kiss to affirm her choice. She notices his thrusts pick up with a new roughness and urgency in apparent understanding of her message. It doesn’t take long for him to tip over the edge and spill his seed into her, and she feels like she could sob in pure elation.

They lay together, knowing there is still so much ahead of them, but in this stolen moment, all that matters to Riza is this. She leans in to his chest and breathes in his scent, an oddly intoxicating combination of sweat and coffee and sandalwood soap.

He pushes her bangs out of her face.. “Why did you let me—”

She cuts him off. “I can’t have children of my own,” she confesses.

“I see,” he answers as a pained look of sympathy washes over his face. “I’m sorry. I didn’t know.”

She smiles. Of course he would feel sorry, because she knows just how much he cares about her. Still, it’s not something that she tells people, and it’s not important to her anyway. She’s learned to live with it, knowing that there are other goals that are also worth living for.

“It doesn’t matter,” she answers simply. Her voice fills with warmth, because she doesn’t want him to dwell on this revelation, and because she refuses to fill these precious moments with her own personal sorrow. “Thank you. For everything.”

“Next time will be better,” he mumbles tenderly, taking her hand in his and kissing it. “I look forward to the future with you, whatever that may mean.”

She’s unable to even consider the possibility of a next time in the face of their mission. But she also can’t think of how anything could top this moment, nor does she want to.

Roy presses a kiss to her forehead as he motions to retrieve his clothing from the floor. “We should get going, Lieutenant.”

The words remind her of their reality, but at least she knows how to move forward.

Whether he asks her to lead or to follow, into hell and back, Riza will always be there to guard and guide him.