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What Is This For, Who Is This For?

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He knows that array like the back of his hand.

It’s still strange to see it on Lieutenant Hawkeye’s skin--even stranger than it was back when she was Miss Hawkeye, and thinking about her that way makes Roy’s hand sweat in his glove. This isn’t just about defacing someone’s back, her back, this is about undoing her father’s life’s work and the possibilities of Roy’s own research. Not that he wants for there to be anyone else like him, anyone else compelled to do what he’s done, but there’s still that niggling alchemical sense of never destroy knowledge, never set yourself back, never stop moving forward.

Her skin is raw and cool even through his glove, the array a familiar painstaking red. Erasing this is moving forward, the same way taking over the country will be. He makes a mantra out of it, silent except for a faint burst of laughter.

It isn’t working.

She’s silent, her head bowed, her shoulders even. Even, but not relaxed--he feels the tiniest twitch of muscles under her skin, and swallows hard. Would it be easier if Lieutenant Hawkeye spoke up? Frankly, he isn’t sure. He traces the outermost circle of the flame array with the tip of his finger, and hears her breath hitch.

"Are you all right, Lieutenant?"

"I could ask the same of you, Major."

"Cold feet," he says. The joke is awful but at least he can’t help smiling. He’d check if she is too, but he’s not sure he’s ever seen her smile. Now would be a strange time to start.

Tattoos extend past the first layer of skin; he knows that much. They’re as deep as the pores that surround them and the follicles of barely-visible hair, and the ink has been dry for years so it’s not as if he can target it specifically. No matter how many times he runs the idea through his head, he can’t think of anything else that will work but burning clean through to the second layer of dermis and leaving nothing but scars behind. But if the flames reach any deeper than that--a shudder runs through his shoulders. The difference between a second- and a third-degree burn is life and death. He’s learned that, more than anyone else who’s served in Ishval.

And the images of charred corpses are still seared onto the back of his eyes when he marks out the area with his thumb. He can’t impede her range of motion, either. Sweat trickles from his temples, clings to his eyelashes. Roy dabs it out of the way with his sleeve.

"I’ll count you off," he says.

"Yes, sir."

"One. Two." He braces his thumb to snap. "Three."

She doesn’t scream.

Roy’s world shrinks to the narrow stretch of skin across her back. His flames dance over it and settle deeper, eat through the first layer and start to crisp the second.

Concentrate. He narrows the passageway of oxygen even further. The fire brightens and surges and there’s a scream locked in his throat that he doesn’t dare let out. Just a little longer. Her skin blisters and cracks and he’s almost deep enough, almost--

The second layer of her dermis is charring, and Roy cuts off the flow of oxygen, smothers the flames in a heartbeat. He thinks it’s a heartbeat, at least. His own might’ve stopped for a moment.

Shakily, he draws in a breath. “Lieutenant, can you hear me?”

Her voice is faint, but steady. “Yes, sir.”

He only lets himself close his eyes for another count of three. Once he opens them, he surveys the damage. White and gold blisters already swell out of her skin, two as big as his fist and dozens more like pebbles in a field of red--and no black, nothing charred to the bone. But the burns aren’t confined to the array. They spill over the edges, almost around the curve of Lieutenant Hawkeye’s waist. It looks natural, he thinks. It looks like I meant to hurt her.

The thought turns his stomach, but he can’t let it do more than that. Move forward. Clear the way.

That thought isn’t much better, frankly.

"I didn’t get everything," he admits. "Once more." Once more will blot out the alchemical circle, and the vital part of the equation for combustion. Let everyone who’s heard of Roy assume he creates fire, instead of altering the moisture in the air. "Ready?"

She is, and she stays conscious through it all.

***

This round of bandages soaked through quicker than the other five. The linen isn’t just stained at the edges, it’s crisp on the outer layer, wet clean through underneath. It’s a good sign: the sooner the blisters burst, the healthier the new skin will probably be. Roy’s burned himself enough to know what a relief it is when skin takes its old, familiar shape.

So he tells Lieutenant Hawkeye, "Looking good. There’s no blood."

“That’s good to hear.” She sighs. “Thank you, Major.”

“It’s the least I can do,” he says truthfully. “I don’t usually get to look after people I’ve burned, after all.”

Lieutenant Hawkeye nods, her head sliding across the pillow. The shadows under her eyes lengthen as the sun sinks lower. “How long will I need to rest?”

“Close to two weeks, according to the doctor. I don’t think she buys my cover story."

"What did you tell her?"

"Ah, just got a little carried away showing off in a bar."

"I see no reason she wouldn’t believe that, sir."

"Well, I neglected to mention I was showing off for a girl." He balls up the gauze and incinerates it with a snap on its way to the wastebasket. "Which is probably what she thinks I’m really doing with my leave."

She doesn’t raise her eyebrows, but something about the way she looks at him makes it feel like she has.

“It’s not entirely untrue, although I don’t know if I’m doing much in the way of showing off right now.”

“You’re…” Lieutenant Hawkeye hesitates. It’s more unsettling than the red ruin on her back. “You’re doing more than enough, sir.”

His laughter comes out more halting and uneasy than he means it to. And thankfully, she’s turned toward the pillow so she can’t see him grimace it away. He pries the stopper out of a bottle of disinfectant, gets a drop on the fingertip of his left glove, and belatedly takes those off and sets them aside. "Well, I wouldn’t want to be accused of being half-assed."

“I’ve never heard anyone accuse you of that.”

“But you’ve heard me accused of other things, is that right?” Before she answers, he tells her, “Hold still.” She complies, and he pours the disinfectant onto her back, traces a quick alchemical circle in the droplets to spread the fluid around evenly. Her skin, already cool to the touch, almost chills under his palm for a moment before the reaction starts. Even if there’s no blood, the burst edges of some of the blisters bubble up--not deeply infected, but they’ve definitely benefited from a cleaning. He probably needs to bandage them tighter. "I might have to wrap the bandages around your chest this time. Is that all right?"

“It is.”

“Can you sit up?”

“I think so.” She doesn’t so much sit up as roll up, bracing one arm beneath her. She hisses through her teeth, her eyes briefly squeezed shut in pain; Roy pretends not to notice.

"Good. Just lift your arms, and--" Roy unravels the end of a strip of linen, already dressed. "Once it’s on, I’ll redisperse the ointment so that it’s all on your back."

She nods, and rearranges herself on the bed so that he can wrap the bandages around her.

Roy has seen Lieutenant Hawkeye naked three times now. The first time, her state of undress was completely dwarfed by the knowledge she was sharing with him and he almost didn’t notice at all--beyond his surprise when she started taking her shirt off in the first place, of course. The second, he was thinking about her skin, but in an entirely different context that didn’t leave much space to think about her sexually. This time, he can’t help the pang of guilt not matter where he looks, so he tries not to look at all. Which means he’s thinking about looking.

The loop slips. He holds it in place, his bare thumb pressed to skin he hasn’t burned.

“Does the burn itch?” he asks, forces his attention back to the task at hand. Then again, when the task at hand involves bracing his hand on Lieutenant Hawkeye’s side, feeling her breath rise and fall under his palm--he pulls the bandage tighter than he meant to, and she flinches.

“Sorry about that,” he says.

“That didn’t hurt, really,” she says. “But it is starting to itch.”

“Good. Your skin’s growing back.” He shifts his hand to tuck the edge in and reach for another roll. It’ll take three. "I’ll scratch yours, you’ll scratch mine." He laughs, in case she doesn’t.

And no, she doesn’t, but when he leans forward he sees the corner of her smile, faint but present.

He wants to see the rest. But if he leans in any closer he’ll have to make excuses.

"So," he tries to change the subject, "when your leave is up, what do you plan on telling the brass?"

“They already approved my personal leave. If they ask any further, I’ll tell them that I needed to experience what peacetime felt like.”

“Is that true?”

“It would be,” she says, “if I felt at peace.”

Roy nods, tucks in the end of the second roll. "I wonder if anyone does."

He unwinds the third bandage in silence.

***

Rain drums on the roof and in the streets, and wind howls against the glass, loud enough to break Roy’s concentration. He puts the pen down, glances out the window, which is futile because the entire pane is streaked with water, then picks up the pen again and tries to recall where he left off.

Over on the bed, Lieutenant Hawkeye turns a page of her book. He could ask her what she’s reading. This letter refuses to write itself.

He glances at her back. The bandages are still fresh; the skin just outside their edges is red but not inflamed. She’s breathing evenly. He watches the small of her back rise and fall before a particularly violent burst of rain spatters against the glass.

“I hate this weather,” he admits.

She glances up from her book. “Because of the way your alchemy works?”

“No. Well, not just that.” He scowls down at the street below, or would if he could see any of it. “Being forced to stay inside--I’ve never enjoyed that.” Well, he’s never enjoyed being forced to do anything, but that goes without saying. "I even took my reading outside when I was growing up."

"Were you raised in the country?"

"No, I lived in Central. My family is still there." He taps his pen on the corner of the still-mostly-blank page. "Well, my aunt is. She raised me." Come to think of it, he never told Master Hawkeye that, let alone Lieutenant Hawkeye. And he never asked Master Hawkeye about his late wife, let alone Lieutenant Hawkeye about her mother. "You know, even after everything we’ve been through, I still don’t know much about you."

She’s silent for a while, and Roy fidgets with his pen, twiddles it between his fingers. “There isn’t much to tell,” she says. “And you’ve seen the important parts. Sir,” she adds, and her shoulders flex, draw tighter.

There’s an opportunity for a lewd joke in there. He resists the urge to follow through on it, barely. Instead, he says, “I could say the same about you and me.”

"You did, sir."

"Well, no, I said that I don’t know much about you, not that you don’t know much about me. Do you think you have the important parts?"

“I believe everything you’ve told me,” she says. “And if I hadn’t believed those dreams were important to you, I never would have shared this.” She doesn’t need to specify what this is.

Sheets of rain run down the window. He loosens his collar; the humidity’s ridiculous, but for all that, his throat is parched. "Do you want something to drink? Coffee? Tea?"

"Tea, thank you."

"How do you take it?"

"Just sugar, sir."

He smiles and sets his pen down, heads to the hot plate in the corner. "Me too. When I don’t take coffee, that is."

"You prefer coffee?"

"I do."

"There. Now I really do know all the important parts, sir."

He snaps the hot plate to life. Hawkeye’s smile is close, almost more of a smirk, but wonderful to see.

***

"And then he yelled down at me to get either a hot iron or an axe, whichever was handier. It turns out, he froze his palms to the bark when he activated the transmutation circle. And it wasn’t just water--he’d drawn out the sap, so when I climbed the tree and tried to use the hot iron to get him unstuck, the sugar melted and it would have burned his hands if we weren’t careful."

"So that’s why you chopped my father out of a tree."

Roy smirks. "It was either that or leave him there until summer."

“He’d have liked that even less.” Hawkeye’s sitting up now, not lying on her stomach. She winces when she moves her shoulders too sharply, but she says she still prefers that to strict bed rest. She can’t wear anything that’ll rub against her back, though. Roy understands that, and Roy has been more scrupulous about not staring than anyone he’s served with would think to give him credit for. That doesn’t mean he’s inured to the sight of her, but in a way her skin’s become a comforting sight. He so rarely gets to watch any of his burns heal.

"I can believe he never told you that story."

“It’s not the kind of story he’d want to tell,” she agrees.

“Well, it doesn’t exactly paint him in a favorable light.”

Hawkeye shakes her head. “It was a failed line of research. He never liked to revisit those.”

Her tone is cool, precise, as level as her expression usually is. There’s nothing to indicate that anything’s wrong, but Roy shifts his weight on the mattress anyway. “We don’t have to talk about this, if you don’t want to.”

“It’s all right,” she tells him. He waits for the sir. It doesn’t come. “It’s easier now than it used to be.”

“To talk about him?”

She nods. “Ever since you burned my back--”

The words linger in the air, the rest of the sentence unspoken but tangible. Slowly, Roy rests his hand on her shoulder, above the bandages. Either her skin heats, or his palm does. Possibly both.

He waits. He has no idea what to say, or how to move, or whether he’s already said or moved enough. She reaches her hand up toward his, touches the back of his hand with a fingertip. She’s not pushing him away, but not telling him to stay, either.

He wants to learn to read her, more than any inscrutable array he’s ever seen.

"Did he ever tell you about the time he stranded the sheep in the middle of the lake?"

"Yes, but he said that was you, sir."

"--ha! Well."

***

Hawkeye stretches twice a day now, ten minutes at a time. The injury must make her move more stiffly than normal, but Roy barely sees it. She circles her shoulders, seamlessly switches from that to pulling her arm behind her head. There’s no wasted movement, no unnecessary hesitation, no break as she shifts from one stretch to the next. It reminds him of alchemy, in a way he can’t describe as well as he’d like to; he thinks it’s related to the idea of an unbroken circle, of small gestures becoming a unified whole. Some women might find the comparison romantic. Hawkeye--well, Hawkeye might not laugh in his face, but she wouldn’t go weak-kneed, either.

"Don’t take this the wrong way," he says, "but you look like you know those stretches well."

“I learned them at the Academy,” she says. “You probably haven’t forgotten them either, sir.”

Roy remembers waking up at the crack of dawn for basic training, and suppresses a shudder. “I wish I had forgotten that.”

She pauses in the middle of bringing one arm across her chest. “Bodies don’t usually forget.”

He waits.

She lets go of her arm. It floats back to her side like she’s only half-aware of where it is. “When you and I returned to the city, right after we stepped out of the car, I saw a man at the top of the hill, crouching, and I felt like I was looking at him through my rifle’s sight. Everything narrowed--I saw a point in the middle of his forehead. I don’t even know why. I don’t know what he was doing. But the way I look at people is different now. My body assumes before my mind catches up.”

Roy runs through the chemical composition of air, what’s flammable, what’s not, before he can stop the thought. "I know exactly what you mean," he says. "I’m sorry."

“I didn’t think it would be like this.”

“Neither did I,” he says, almost too quietly to hear himself. "I don’t remember what I thought."

“I do,” she says. “You told me at my father’s funeral.”

A smile tightens his jaw, whether he means it to or not. "Right. I did. If I ever forget again, I’ll need you to remind me."

***

His room has a leak, so he’s sharing hers. Frankly, he’s been essentially sharing it from the beginning, for everything but sleep anyway, but now he’s dragged a cot in here and the proprietor is only charging them for one so it’s more or less official. Between the rain and the darkness, it’s almost impossible to see Hawkeye on her cot, even if they’re barely an arm’s reach apart.

But she can’t sleep either. He doesn’t need to see her to know that.

Every time she drifts off, she instinctively turns onto her back. Every time she turns onto her back, it’s impossible for her to sleep. Her mattress creaks, louder than the rain on the siding, and she adjusts the pillow to no avail.

After the fifth rotation, he asks, "Has it been like this every night?"

If he hadn’t spent so much time watching her over the past week, he wouldn’t have seen her spine stiffen, her shoulders jerk up. But he has, and so he does. It doesn’t make him happy to see, exactly, but there’s something about catching her off-guard that leaves him unbalanced, too.

“Not every night, sir,” she says.

"Does anything help? Should I get you something to drink?"

"No thank you, sir." She curls away from him, hides her face in the shadow of her hair and pillow. “I apologize if I woke you.”

"I wasn’t asleep yet, either."

"Is it the rain?"

"Probably." He sighs, folds his arms behind his head. "In the house I grew up in, the gutters were so thin that I swear I could hear every drop. I can’t help listening for it, now."

"And the air is so thick."

"Well, the air is the same. There’s just more water to push it around. But I know what you mean." He must be more tired than he thinks, because he’s not sure he meant to say this aloud. "At least it never rained in Ishval."

Hawkeye’s cot creaks. She’s turned to her other side, and her eyes catch some of the last flares of light from the streetlamps that haven’t guttered out yet. “Only dust storms, sir.”

“All of our conversations seem to go back to Ishval lately. So much for being able to sleep.” He sighs. “I’m sorry about that. I--"

"It’s fine, sir," she says. "I know. I was there."

"I never want to be there again. I never want to do that again."

She doesn’t say you won’t have to.

“I want to talk with you about something trivial, for once,” he says. “Like our favorite radio programs or what food we can’t stand or what our relatives do when they’re drunk. Why does it seem so impossible?"

“You already know what my father did when he was drunk, sir.”

Roy laughs, and his chest feels warmer. "And you already know about my aunt?"

"I don’t, sir."

"That’s because she doesn’t do anything interesting. You can’t even tell when she’s drunk, most of the time. She could drink half of Central under the table. Most of the country, frankly. She once matched a Briggs lieutenant drink-for-drink. He tried to recruit her."

“I assume she turned him down?”

"Yes, but he still visits when he’s on leave. When Briggs gives leave at all, that is. He might have stopped coming by now,” Roy adds. “I haven’t seen him since my last promotion.”

She nods, barely visible in the dark. "You’d have more to talk about now, sir."

"And we’re back to Ishval again."

"I’m sorry, sir."

"You don’t have to be." He sits up, glances out the window, hardly brighter than the room. "It’s my thoughts wandering, not yours steering."

Her mattress creaks again, and her silhouette heightens. She must have sat up too. He leans in closer, notices her reaching back to tug at something.

Damn. He should have asked about the burns and the bandages earlier, before they both tried to go to sleep. “How’s your back?”

“It’s holding up, sir,” she says. “One of the bandages slipped, that’s all.”

“Let me tuck it back in?”

She nods. He barely has to stand up to get from his cot to hers, and sits on the edge. She leans over, points out which bandage is giving her trouble, and he touches his fingers to the spot to let her know he’s there too. It doesn’t take much tightening, but the gauze is heavy, a little warm, a little slick. The humidity outside has crept in here too, thickened the air.

He tucks the end of the bandage in, presses his knuckles to her back, just once. "There," he says, and straightens up to go--

--and she puts her hand on his knee.

Roy would normally have something to say in this situation. Roy would normally have ten things to say in this situation, about five of which would get him slapped. Roy has absolutely nothing to say right now.

Neither does she. But she leans back, and her bare shoulder brushes against his chin, and that speaks volumes.

Her breath warms his lips, and he’s not sure which one of them closes the gap but it doesn’t matter at all. Her hand tightens on his knee but the rest of her relaxes against his chest and he feels just as many contradictions, the cool pressure of her skin and the heat of her mouth, the tightness of her grip and the softness of her lips. He threads his hand through her hair and she presses closer, slips her tongue past his lips, and whatever was cool before is only heat now.

Her other hand settles on his shoulder, steady and sure. She doesn’t knead the muscle or pull him closer, just holds on. The hairs at the nape of her neck cling to his fingertips. He wants to trace each one, wants to feel that smoothness everywhere on his skin. He could kiss her for hours if he didn’t think his heart would race all the way up to his throat and stay there, but he’s not sure he’d mind.

Her hand is still on his knee, and he settles his atop it, intertwines their fingers.

"A little late to ask," he breathes, "but is this okay?"

This time, it’s clear that she kisses him first.

And they do wind up kissing for hours, until the rain outside tapers off and a faint sliver of moonlight breaks through.

***

He jolts awake, immediately throws the blanket off, and flares his fingers out to keep from snapping. The light is low and red, something could be burning, everything still smells like it is--no. No, there’s no smoke. Just the faint scent of blood, lingering, and dust motes drifting through low beams of sunlight. There’s no smoke, and there’s no fire, and the only people in this room are breathing and alive.

“Sir?”

He means to apologize for waking Hawkeye up, but all the moisture’s been sucked out of his mouth. His pulse runs as ragged as his breath. He orders both of them to steady themselves, and they don’t change.

At least his vision sharpens more by the second. There’s Hawkeye, kneeling on her cot. He’s too bleary-eyed to make out anything but her silhouette, but it’s a silhouette he knows. That counts for something.

“Lieutenant,” he manages. “Sorry I woke you.” He flexes his hands, tries to convince himself that it’s okay to let them relax, he’s not even wearing gloves.

“Don’t worry about it,” she says. “I--wasn’t sleeping well. Wasn’t sleeping at all, she means, but doesn’t have to say. “If you want to keep trying to sleep, I’ll go downstairs.”

“Don’t,” he begins, and can’t go any further. Don’t trouble yourself, he should have said. But it doesn’t come. He closes his eyes, turns away.

Hawkeye’s cot groans, and it takes Roy a moment to register the solid warmth of her arms around his chest, her weight at his back. It’s not tender enough to mistake for pity; just a steady, welcome presence. He relaxes into the mattress, and she follows, and even if they aren’t face-to-face he knows there’s no blame or reproach or resentment in her eyes.

She’s been there too.

A half-hour later, at a more reasonable proximity to dawn, he says, “Your feet are freezing,” because nothing else needs to be said.

***

Roy barely needs to apply any ointment to her back, now. According to the doctor, Hawkeye’s burns are healing as well as anyone could hope for, and the scarring shouldn’t impede her range of motion at all if she keeps up with her stretching. The doctor could’ve sounded a little less grudging about all of it, but Aunt Chris says that she’s the kind of person who grumbles to patients because she refuses to vent her frustrations anywhere else. Roy will take that tradeoff.

He unrolls a fresh length of gauze. Hawkeye’s bandages only need to be changed once a day now, and she’s already able to hold one end to the bandage in place while he winds the rest around her. “Does anything itch,” he asks, “or hurt more than it should?”

“No, sir.” She reaches her right hand over her left shoulder to where the worst of the burn was, smooths her fingertips over the thick yellow scab while she still can. “How much of it is new skin now?”

“About half. And it worked--I can’t read any of the formulae.”

“Good.”

He winds the bandage around her carefully, and she traps it under her fingers until it can hold itself down. “And it’s easier to deal with, now?”

“Much.”

His hand slides over hers. It wasn’t intentional, but when his fingers fold over hers--well, that is.

"So," he says, and keeps talking more to fill the increasingly awkward silence, "you’re still planning to lay low after this."

“Most likely. I’m not sure where I’ve been assigned--I’ll find out when I report back, I think.”

"Same. Through from all the talk, I think they’ll send me to Eastern."

She looks at him over her shoulder, her nose almost close enough to brush his. Her eyes are lovely. The thought catches him off-guard, but now that he’s noticed he can’t look away. To think, he’s gotten used to her body, and trying not to look at certain parts of it, but hasn’t truly looked her in the eyes until now.

“They want you to go back?” she asks, her voice soft.

“Not to Ishval, I don’t think.” Or whatever’s left of it. “Eastern’s big enough; there are plenty of places they can send me. And I want them to send me all over the region,” he adds. “I want to learn more about the people who live there. There’s still so much I don’t know about this country. Isn’t that strange? I’ve lived here all my life, and still…”

“You’ll learn,” she says.

"I’ll have to."

Her fingers tent up, so they’re interlaced with his. “You will.”

Even if the signals she’s sending are as clear as orders, Roy’s still more awkward than he’s been in years. But he’s caught in Hawkeye’s sights and he has no desire to get out. They kiss, and it’s like their first, no point in wondering which of them started it. She holds tight to his hand, leans her shoulder against him, and it’s warm, solid, right.

He threads his hand through her hair, leans closer. The bed strains and creaks beneath them and Hawkeye shoulders him down onto it, his back to the headboard. She turns, pulls back and faces him, and the skin of her chest strains over the bandages, flushed pink and warm. He breathes, opens his mouth to ask if this is all right, and doesn’t get a word out before she straddles his hips and kisses him again.

Slowly, as softly as he can manage, he trails his fingertips down her spine. He skirts the places where her skin is rawest but traces what he can. Even through the bandages he can feel her back humming, almost, the warmth of her body and the rush of her blood and the promise of life and growth and change wound up in all of it. Hawkeye’s breath comes in sharp pants, but the force of her grip on his shoulders doesn’t say stop.

She rocks her hips, and his hand slips lower, fingertips just barely past her waistband. She gasps into his mouth, and he mutters an apology that gets lost in the tangle of their tongues. But when he withdraws his hand, she pulls back just enough to look him in the eye and tell him, clearly, "Yes."

This time, he thinks, she’s the one burning him.

He slides his fingers in and heat races to his groin, leaves him gasping for breath. She’s slick and tight around him, her hips hitching just enough to pull him deeper fraction by fraction. By the time his fingers are buried in her to the knuckle he thinks he might break if he doesn’t get a hand on himself soon. She must sense it, must read it in how he strains desperately underneath her, because she unfastens his pants and draws him out. He’s seen how quick and agile her hands can be. Now he feels it in how she works over his hardness, seizes him at the base and pulls him just fast enough to keep him at the edge.

She rides his hand, grips him tight, and he buries his face in her shoulder. Sweat gathers on her skin and against his eyelashes, and when he parts his lips to breathe his tongue darts out to her collarbone. She twists, and he turns his hand, strokes her inside and out, and no matter how hard the headboard and mattress protest she doesn’t stop. This doesn’t stop.

She arches back, tightens and shudders around his fingers. One more twist of her hand, one more look in her eyes, and yes, he breaks.

The mattress quiets; the air is thick and heady. He sighs, leans against her. He’ll have to change--they both will, and he’ll redo the bandages just to be safe--but for now he can’t imagine anything but sitting like this, holding her like this.

Roy thinks back to the end of the Ishvalan campaign, and what he told Hughes as they watched the Fuhrer address his troops from above. His power, as it stands, isn’t enough to protect the people of Amestris. But he can protect the people closest to him, the people he’s responsible to and for. And if they do the same, spreading that protection down the ranks--well, protecting a nation doesn’t seem as impossible when you realize that it’s a formal word for people doing what comes naturally. People look out for each other, and work together, and share and live and grow and love. That’s what a country should be: not a military, but a people.

It comes to him, as he curls an arm around Riza’s waist, that she’s one of the people he’s protected, now. Has protected, and will protect, whatever else happens.

***

So there she is, on the other side of his desk, in his office in Eastern, holding a formal salute.

Well, that was unexpected.

Not unwanted, but unexpected. Even as she runs through her orders from the high command to report here, to him, Roy runs through all the other definitely-not-orders things he’s thought since. Anti-fraternization laws are what they are, and he knows that his trust of her is more important than anything else that passed between them.

He wanted to be closer to her. This is definitely close.

But before he says anything else, he has to ask her why. Why this path, after all she went through, even if he suspects he already knows the answer. He needs to hear it from her.

“If this world is based on the principle of equivalent exchange,” she says, “then we must carry corpses across a river of blood in exchange for a new generation to live in happiness.”

She understands, and he did know after all. Hearing it from her, though, still leaves him speechless for a couple of seconds. And it also cements his resolve: if she’s going to be important to him, if she really is one of the people he’s going to take responsibility for, then he can trust her with himself as well.

He places his hands on the desk, stands up. "I'm appointing you as my adjutant", he says. "I want you to protect my back. Do you understand? If I'm leaving you in charge of defending my back, it also means you can shoot me from behind at any time."

She’s trusted her back to him twice, now. It’s time for him to do the same.

"If I ever stray from my path, shoot me, immediately, with your own hands. You have that right. Will you follow me?"

He looks her in the eyes, and reads her answer. "I understand. I will follow you, if you wish it, into the depths of hell."

She will. He knows: he’d do the same for her.

***