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Apprenticeship

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Riza looked over the wreck of her father's kitchen. She saw chipped plates and overturned goblets, the picked-over carcass of a chicken, soggy cigar-ends and tobacco dumped from pipes. Evidence that the aging alchemists who made up Berthold Hawkeye's few remaining friends had stopped by long enough to consume what little sustenance remained in the house. Not long enough to clean up after themselves, of course. Control over the elements didn't extend to dirty dishes.

The kitchen should have been the housekeeper's job, during the week. Riza stayed in a ladies' boarding house in the village to save her the five miles each way from school. However, Mrs. Ernst, as Master Hawkeye matter-of-factly told his daughter before retiring for the night, had left on Tuesday. Certain economies, he said, had become necessary. Meaning, Riza guessed, that the woman hadn't been paid for months and had finally gotten sick of it. Not that Riza blamed her.

Not that she could blame anyone who wanted to get out of this house.

With a sinking feeling in her stomach, Riza wondered how soon "certain economies" would mean giving up her room in town. Maybe right away, if she was expected to replace the housekeeper as well as keep up with her studies. At least her education was covered by a scholarship. If not, Berthold might expect to teach her himself, at home.

"What about your idiot apprentice?" Riza called after her father's retreating back. "I guess it's too much to hope that he left, too."

"I never know where Roy goes after his lessons." Somehow, her father managed to sound as though he were the one who was being put upon.

Riza had a test on Monday, so she set her book and writing pad out on the table and went to work on scrubbing the counters. She could look at the lines of ancient poetry when she needed a break from cleaning, and the other way around.

She had been working on the kitchen for an hour when the front door slammed and a male voice trilled a few bars of a drinking song. Riza waited for the footfalls to come up behind her before she turned to say, "Father is sleeping."

"You're here." Roy blinked. "It's Friday." Then he smiled as though he might be able to fool her into thinking he had said something clever.

Roy was wearing one of the suits his aunt had sent him, which must have cost more than anything in the Hawkeyes' house. He smelled like whiskey and gardenias. With a frown, he asked, "Why are you getting your pretty hands dirty?"

Riza knew she shouldn't let it, but the "pretty" affected her. She was barely fifteen, still learning to carry her height -- such as it was -- and her newly heavy breasts, and this absurdly-polished older boy was calling her pretty. Quickly, though, she assessed the import of his “compliment” for it what it really meant. "If by 'pretty' you mean 'useless' I assure you I'm quite capable --"

Roy stepped back, spreading his hands. "I just meant you should leave that to the housekeeper."

Riza didn't know whether she was angrier at Roy for not noticing Mrs. Ernst's absence, or at Father for not telling him. Roy would do for now, and through clenched teeth, she said, "Father had to let her go. On Tuesday."

Roy's eyes darted around the filthy room. "Oops."

"It's not your concern." She fought off the tremor in her voice. "I'll take care of things. I'll walk to school. Staying in town is silly anyway, so don't worry your pretty head about it."

"Oh." He scratched the back of his neck. "I'm sorry. Do – ahh -- ? When people say 'pretty' do they always mean useless?"

Of course, that would be the part he had absorbed. "In my experience?" Riza snapped. "Most of the time."

"Ah hah," Roy said. "That would actually explain a lot."

Riza let out an exasperated breath, squared up her shoulders, and turned back to the sink.

"Because –" he said. "I've been called that." She heard him step closer but let him keep talking to her back. "I was making a joke."

His hand touched her shoulder and she wheeled to around to glare at him.

"Sit," he said. He nodded toward the table where she had laid her books out but not yet touched them.

"I told you I can do this."

"Of course you can," he said. "That's not the point. This isn't your mess. And I can see you're trying to study."

"I – You don't --" She stammered for a moment, his generosity taking her by surprise. But she stopped herself from disclaiming the favor, or even from saying thank you. He was perfectly right that it wasn't her mess. And she was trying to study.

"I'll be quiet," he promised.

"Be my guest," Riza said, stepping aside. She couldn't help wondering whether the impeccable Roy Mustang had any idea what to do when faced with a sink of dirty dishes.

Riza went back to her book, lines of a poem in old Xerxian, with her own clumsy translations written underneath. On rereading she doubted that she had interpreted the verb form correctly and picked up the grammar book to consult its conjugation guide --

She looked up, then, to see Roy staring at the sink. Studying it, really, the way she'd seen him stare at a chessboard, while trying and (so far) failing to win a match against her father. As Riza flipped open her book, her eyes stayed on Roy. He removed his expensive jacket and draped it over the chair across from her. Then he started to roll up his sleeves – He's one to talk about pretty hands, she thought -- but shook his head, and unbuttoned the shirt instead. Now Riza made no attempt to keep her eyes on the book, but watched him shrug out of one sleeve and then the other.

Her school was all girls. The particular ripple of muscle, the sharp angle of shoulder blade was something that had all been theory up until now.

He began to turn around, and she looked quickly down at her book. "Just wouldn't want to get the shirt wet," he said.

"I know." All she could see were his hands, folding the shirt and placing it on top of the jacket. Now that she'd noticed the hands, though, they were distracting enough. So she gave up and looked at his smooth chest, and tightly-defined abdominal muscles.

He met her gaze with a half grin. "I'm not an exhibitionist, or –"

"Or at least that's not your motivation right this minute?"

His mouth quirked upward, the smile took over his face, and Riza thought, How is this my life?

She kept reading and managed only a few glances up at his back. He was getting water all over the place, and he kept holding up the dishes and frowning, as though they weren't clean enough but he wasn't sure how to fix them. Riza could have done it better, and in half the time, she was sure. But that wasn't the point.

Roy went back to scrubbing, and before long he resumed the song he had been whistling when he came home. Riza enjoyed the music, jaunty and slightly off-key, and became more absorbed in her reading. This poet was talking about the impermanence of all earthly things, the possibility of transcendence in a world beyond. She could never decide if she found this beautiful or depressing and wondered how it could be both at once.

She noticed, dimly, that the whistling had stopped, and her eyes travelled up Roy's muscular, bare torso. A little patch of soap bubbles had stuck to the skin beside his navel, which was alarmingly close to Riza's eye level. But he didn't seem to notice, peering down as he was at Riza's book. "Do you like this stuff?" he asked. "Dead languages, I mean."

"The mental exercise is, well, interesting? And I find certain philosophies – useful, I guess you'd say." If she looked around at her everyday life and thought this was all there was to the world, and all she had to look forward to, it would have been easy to get really fucking depressed. She was searching for a more eloquent way to put that into words – school was what it was, and she wasn't used to anyone caring whether she got anything out of it.

Before she could finish the thought, Roy shook his head violently. "I hate it," he said. "I hate all that crap. It makes me want to stab myself."

Now Riza twisted around in the chair and stared up at him. Berthold loved dead languages. Riza knew that much from his brief, abortive attempt to teach her his craft. If it had just been about that, she might still be with it. Roy had been apprenticed to her father for over a year now, longer than Riza had thought anyone would last in that position, but what he was saying now made no sense to her. "What kind of alchemist hates dead languages?"

"That preconception bugs me. People get so caught up in the “wisdom of the ages” part, but if you ask me, that's all just obfuscation to scare people off from learning it. We need more modern-thinking alchemists, ones who can think about application. I get through the translations by pretending it's encryption. Or chess. All that really matters is the math."

Riza dropped her pen abruptly and got to her feet, so she could have this conversation without talking to his distractingly perfect waist. "If you're going to patronize me about alchemy, don't imply I can't do the math."

Roy stepped away from her, his back now running to the sink. "I think we're having a translation problem. I was just trying to make conversation about your schoolwork." He did the charming thing with his smile and his eyebrows again, nodding toward the still-substantial pile of dishes. "I was bored with washing up. I'm easily distracted."

"You don't say," Riza said, still sounding cross, but she exhaled to let the tension leak out of her. She had noticed, recently, that she tended to apologize by reflex, and she was determined to think before she gave one, to make sure that it was truly deserved. But Roy hadn't done anything. "I'm sorry," she said. "I have a bit of a hair trigger on this topic. I really don't need or want anybody to explain alchemy to me."

Roy considered for a moment before gently saying, "You did ask."

She sighed. "I guess I did."

"And for what it's worth, it would never cross my mind that you couldn't handle anything you wanted to try. You won medals last term in marksmanship and trigonometry, as your father makes a point of mentioning whenever he can. I --" Roy nodded toward the sink, "—am struggling a bit with getting the dish soap to make enough bubbles."

Riza was surprised to hear herself giggle, not so much at his words as at his rather bewildered face. "Here," she said, stepping toward the sink. "You need way more soap than this, and you need to run it under fresh water and –" She frowned at him. "Are you messing with me?"

"I wish," he said. She stepped aside to let him work in the sink, making sure to avoid contact with his bare shoulder, which was still much too intriguing for her comfort.

She didn't go immediately back to her chair but to the one he had placed his jacket and shirt on. The gardenia smell was strong on his clothing, and she wondered if she would find lipstick on his collar. (Was that real, or just a thing from novels? How would the lipstick end up there of all places? Riza wished she didn't feel so ridiculously young next to Roy.) .

Riza couldn't ask him about his elegant shirt or the perfume, so she asked something else. "Does Father really talk to you about that? My medals?"

"Of course. He's proud of you."

"Then do you ever wonder why he brought you on?"

"You mean besides for my aunt's money?" he asked ruefully.

"Well," she stammered. "Yes, I mean. Do you wonder why he's not teaching me as well?"

"Quite a bit at first," Roy admitted. He turned his back to the sink now, leaned against it and crossed his arms. "But I assumed it must have been your choice, not his."

Riza was suddenly, absurdly grateful for that. Even if he was just saying that, she was so accustomed to assuming that the alchemists Berthold knew quietly regarded her as a failure.

"He very much wanted the family legacy to stay alive," Riza said. "The more time I spent here, though –" She looked around the dark, dirty, stifling house. "-- the more I thought the legacy needed fresh --" meat, she thought, but left the sentence in the air.

"Blood?" Roy suggested.

"I was going to say 'air.'" Then, she shrugged. "Fortunately, you came along." She forced a smile. "I'm sure you'll do an excellent job of filling Father's shoes. Dead languages or not."

"Thank you," Roy said, giving a little bow.

Riza smiled and turned back to her book, saying only in a low voice, "Don't thank me yet."