the speed of happiness
1. Madame Christmas
`You set all this up not because you love my company so much but because... you needed people to help you with the furniture.´
That's true. Five seconds into the new building and she already has him carrying boxes and moving chairs and hanging New Year's decoration.
`If you can't do this at least for your mother, what sort of heartless son are you?´
He sighs and leaves the box on the floor and leaps towards her, giving her a quick peck on the cheek as he sprints. Riza Hawkeye looks away for a moment, as if she felt she was intruding. The idea seems very funny and endearing for a moment. She busies herself with the dog that dog they are always carrying around and that she is never sure if it's Riza Hawkeye's or her son's, she is never sure if that matters at all.
`You don't mind. Do you?´ he asks her, patting the animal's head.
A dog in a New Year's party, her party. But how could she mind? Roy has always been a dog's boy.
`It's a pretty good place,´ he says, looking around, particularly concerned with the height of the ceilings, or just inspecting closely as if trying to find leaks, stains. `But you didn't have to change cities just to keep an eye on me. You were doing well in Central.´
`I was doing very well,´ she replies. `That's the problem. It got boring. A woman needs a challenge from time to time.´
`And that I happen to be living here had nothing to do with your decision to open a bar in East City. Is that so?´
`It will be good to have someone else to help keep an eye on him,´ Riza Hawkeye offers, humorously. `He needs constant vigilance or he slacks off.´
Roy takes a couple of steps towards them. She notices the playful gleam in his eyes as he confronts his subordinate.
`How little loyalty,´ he comments, tutting. `Didn't I just promote you, Colonel? I can just as easily demote you right here.´
The as-of-yet-Colonel clears her throat.
`You cannot demote me on New Year's Eve, sir, as it is not a working day. You'll have to wait until Tuesday.´
They eye each other for a long moment. This is entertaining but there's a party to organize and less than an hour to do so.
`I see you are slacking off already,´ she tells her son. `Hello, Miss Hawkeye, very happy to see you here.´
The young woman greets back.
`Good afternoon, Miss Mustang.´
`Not in here. In here I'm plain Madame Christmas. Or owner. Or boss, if you like.´
She could swear it was Roy's idea, the party. He went about it in a real subtle and back-handed way but she brought him up, she can tell a mile away, the boy is like an open book to her. As soon as she told him of the provisional date for the bar opening Roy nagged her a bit to postpone it, so that they could do it on New Year's Eve, and make a party out of it as well. Well, he said a party but she guesses there's something more to it, something more to tonight. He has only invited his subordinates, the ones that have been with him for years, so it's something very private and meaningful, she can tell, even if the exact meaning of it escapes her. She hasn't asked him.
He was the first to come in to help, you have to give him that, a couple of hours before the guests arrive and the music starts playing (hopefully, as she can't make the damn player work) and the champagne starts running. She likes that phrase, the champagne running. It sounds merry and glamorous. Like she wanted her new place to be. He came in with Riza Hawkeye tagging after him, unsurprisingly. That's just another phrase, tagging after him, because truth is these two always walk side by side these days, more than they used to. She hasn't asked about that either.
Roy introduces himself to the new girls; a couple of her employees decided to stay in Central so she searched for two local girls to replace them (she was sad to see Madeline go, but she's sure that girl is going to do brilliant things on her own, maybe even become her competitor in the business). Having East City girls would also help spread the word of the new bar strategy, something General Mustang has learned from his mother, if only the newspapers would ask.
The new girls (Julia and Emma, not their real names, of course) watch on as the others attack Roy with hugs and lipsticked kisses and glasses of champagne.
`Ah, you are trying to get me drunk already so you can get your wicked way with me, I know you,´ he is telling them, letting himself be dragged into embraces and hair-ruffling like he was their little brother.
Riza Hawkeye laughs at the scene.
She watches her.
Because her plan for the evening involves cornering Miss Hawkeye at some point and asking her a couple of embarrassing questions. Not because she is curious - there is little to be curious about, her son is a very obvious man - but because she feels like it's her responsibility to make the girl sweat a bit. That makes it sound as if Roy is her little girl and she needs to check all the prospective pretenders who might steal him away. She is not sure Roy would enjoy being compared to a precious and to-be-protected daughter but she'll have to remember to tell him afterwards, just to see his face. She also wants to see Riza Hawkeye's face when she asks her those embarrassing questions. She just has to find the perfect time.
`Did you get the paper today? There's a picture of me. Again,´ Roy boasts, rummaging through the week-old newspapers with the intention of showing off in front of the new girls.
The new girls look confused. Maybe she should have warned them about Roy, but it's more fun this way.
The boy would get some airs if she told him, but she is actually quite proud of him. The fuss the papers are making about him and all that, she hasn't completely processed it - he is her boy, after all, the whole thing is ridiculous, in a way - but what she can appreciate is how happy he looks these days, and how tall he walks, like he is wearing a new expensive suit every day. Like the day he went out to the world - to study, to become an alchemist, he said then, a real one - with his little suitcase neatly packed and his shirt perfectly ironed (he did it himself) and his hair amusingly perfect, her serious little man. He has a look on his face now that's very much like that one. Like he has his whole life ahead of him and his whole life is starting now, right this very minute.
And then there's the pretty blond girl by his side, and that has a lot to do with that look on Roy's face. She doesn't need to guess. She's had years of it. Roy has never said anything, not really, or not clearly, because the boy is like that, but that doesn't mean she hasn't been paying attention. Wearing his heart on his sleeve, he's always done that. One time she said that would get him into trouble but in the end he has proven her wrong, in the end, she concedes, stubborn boy, wear your heart on your sleeve if you want, go on. And well, that woman is not pretty in the same way the girls in her shop are pretty, she is subdued and kind of humble to look at, and she doesn't wear make up, but she looks tough and from what Roy has been saying all these years she is kind and loyal and brave and once he said she is the thing that will not let him stray off his path and she was a bit taken aback by those words then, worried about what sort of path her son was walking on and what sort of straying off he was so terrified of and though she has the feeling she will never understand what he meant, not completely, she can tell by the way he looks at Riza Hawkeye that whatever he meant it has worked out for him. So she can probably forgive that the woman is not as pretty as the girls in her bar and that she wears that short hair and that she doesn't wear make up. It is a mother's job to find faults, is it not, but she doesn't have the heart to find much fault with this, with the way her boy pivots around this woman, quietly, and he lights up when he catches her eye in the same way he always lit up whenever he spoke about her and after all these years he still does that, light up, and the light seems to burn brighter each time, and the tension in his lips as he stops himself from grinning when there's no good, logical reason for grinning and she feels a small pang of nostalgia and pain and longing in her heart, like she is losing him a little, like it's suddenly a bit too much, being confronted with the proof that her boy is not exactly hers any more.
And she would feel a bit jealous or pout a bit or secretly fall into a bit silly self-pity for a moment, if it weren't for the fact that he looks so damn happy.
Let there be music.
Fuery knocks timidly on the door. The door opens and Roy Mustang appears and takes him by the arm and into a world of dust and chairs and tables of old, dark wood and girls, a lot of girls. At least five girls. And of course, the world of the General's mother.
`Do you remember Fuery?´ And the woman nods. `He is a brilliant sound engineer. He'll fix us up with some music.´
`Let's see the machine, then.´
He wears his hair combed back and parted and dons a thick and elegant coat that, actually and against what you might expect, makes him look younger. He looks as if he considers this a very formal occasion and dressed according to such notion.
Roy looks delighted at his obvious effort to have a decent appearance, he practically beams at him as his mother shakes Fuery's hand.
Okay, so here's the deal. It's kind of weird to think that Roy Mustang has a mother, just like everybody else. Of course Fuery knew, deep down and logically knew, that he must have a family, just like everybody else. But the thing is, to Fuery, Roy Mustang doesn't necessarily belong to the everybody else category of person. And he realizes that is foolish in a way, and he realizes he is idolizing Mustang, no doubt, it must be an age thing, he is still too young, he'll probably get over it, but he also argues with himself that maybe it's not a bad thing, idolizing the man you are willing to die for, the man you are willing to die for just so that he can become president.
Even idolised men like Mustang have mothers, then. That's something. That's something to think about, something to ponder, and Fuery does.
The other thing is... General Mustang's mother is weird. Everybody's mothers are weird, granted and Fuery sighs, thinking just how weird his own mother is, and missing her a bit, for a moment - but Madame Christmas is sort of weirder. Least of all because of that name which must just be an artistic name but it's weird and Fuery hasn't been given the okay to call her anything else.
She leads him to the record player he is supposed to fix. More like a jukebox, a big, antique model. It's beautiful. But definitely tricky to fix. In a way he feels he is too young to remember how they work but as soon as he opens it Fuery is sure he can manage. Part of the success of the party depends on it - Roy said that, no pressure - and Fuery actually enjoys being depended on.
`This model,´ he is saying, resting one hand on top of the record player almost lovingly. `It's a very good model, but it's quite old.´
He thinks she must have got in an auction or some such event. Or maybe it's a familiar inheritance, a machine with history. Fuery is fascinated by objects and their secret history.
`I like second hand things,´ the owner says, winking at Roy. `That's why I got you.´
`Oh, thanks. That's very nice. What an appalling thing to say to an adopted son, I could end up traumatized.´
Roy Mustang is also sort of weird so maybe, Fuery concludes, it is only fitting that his mother should be weird, too. Or the other way around.
He is still working on the jukebox when Havoc and Breda arrive some time later, but it's almost ready.
Havoc seems much more agile these days and he is probably still moving around with crutches because he is a touch cowardly and he must feel insecure about walking on his own. Also, he seems to be enjoying the fact that he can come and go and Breda will be trailing after him, making sure he is comfortable and attending to his every whim. Fuery does not write off this slightly mischievous pleasure as Havoc's real reason to insist on such a slow and calm recovery. Right now he can swear Havoc's smile is not completely innocent as Breda not only helps him out of his coat but also his scarf and hangs his things by the door.
`He is making you work even tonight?´ Havoc reaches Fuery's side. `That's illegal.´
Roy is listening to them from the bar and Fuery can tell he takes a moment to decide if he should take Havoc's bait or not - he decides against it, in the end, but he flashes both Havoc and Fuery and expression that clearly says I am sorely regretting coming up with that Unions scheme now, just for the record.
`So these girls all work here?´ Breda asks.
`Yes,´ Fuery replies distractedly, just the finishing touches now.
`That's no way of socializing,´ Breda says, disappointed, and Havoc, of the same opinion, nods.
`The General wanted a private thing. Just us, his m- his mother and the bar staff.´
Just those people and apparently a dog, Havoc confirms as Black Hayate appears out of nowhere and starts nibbling at his ankle in a friendly way, as if hurrying him into getting well already, a sort of almost knowing impatience to the wagging of its tail.
Breda and Havoc are about to argue against the party plan - Fuery swears times of peace have aggravated The Anguish of the Single Man for Havoc and Breda; he is glad to be younger and thus less pathetic - but then the record player is fixed and there is music.
Their hostesses all cheer and clap at him as if they were a single organism (to Fuery basically they are except for maybe one of them, Emma she said was her name, and Fuery remembers because of her unusual height and because apparently they live on the same street) and he tries not to blush. No, wait, he is blushing.
Everybody seems cheered up by the music.
`Now this looks more like a party,´ he can hear one of the girls saying behind him.
He doesn't turn around, happy for a moment to stay with the machine, letting the other's conversations reach him as he were out of the room, but with the door open.
`You were right, he is good,´ the bar owner is saying, he guesses to Roy.
`I only work with the very best,´ the General replies. And then he adds: `That, of course, excludes you two.´
A noise of feigned hurt, from Havoc. And he can imagine the pointed silence coming from Breda now.
`Just for that now I'm going to ask the colonel to dance with me.´
`There are six other women in the bar and you want to dance with Colonel Hawkeye?´ Roy inquires.
Fuery considers this an strategic mistake.
`None taken,´ comes Colonel Hawkeye's voice, clearly amused.
`You know what I mean.´
No reply. Fuery examines the record collection and still doesn't turn, preferring to imagine the General and the Colonel just looking at each other by means of finishing that conversation, as they often do, their own private language excluding the rest of the planet and this too Fuery idealizes the same way he idealizes Roy Mustang and again maybe he is just young but he would be sorry to lose the faith in the idea that some people light up our lives like this.
`Those girls scare me a bit,´ Havoc ends up admitting.
`And Hawkeye doesn't?´
`You can't dance like you are now,´ Breda interrupts, level-headed. `Consider that.´
`Then you go dance with the Colonel.´
`That would be weird. No offence, Colonel.´
`None taken,´ Hawkeye replies, this time polite and understanding.
Hayate barks by his side, startling Fuery out of his daze. He picks the dog up. Now that he lives in a flat he could get a pet but Fuery feels that getting a dog, just like that, thoughtless and without intervention of fate or heavy rain, would be a betrayal to Black Hayate. He is waiting for some sign. Actually he remembers a conversation he had one day in the office, working late with the General, in which Roy had promised him that if this dog ever had puppies we'll give you one and it was the we he used, so casual and weighty, that Fuery remembers so clearly now.
Behind him the conversations of his friends mesh and overlap as he plays with the dog, mixing with the music and the clinking of glasses and the laughter and the wind of the foul-weather day outside against the windows.
`I wish Ross was here.´
`On your way here you said you wished Rebecca could have come. Can't you make up your mind?´
`Is that my drink?´
`Yes. It is also mine. We were sharing.´
`I'm guessing your dancing card will be full tonight, Colonel.´
`Not at all.´
`Aw, are you waiting for me to ask you to dance?´
`There are six other women here, why would you want to dance with me?´
`Retribution! She got you there.´
`Who uses the expression dancing card anymore?´
`I'm an old-fashioned guy. Sir, do you know if any of these girls are interested in an old-fashioned guy?´
`Oh, I'm sure they are interested in an old-fashioned guy, I doubt they are interested in you.´
`Would you like another drink, Lieutenant Colonel?´
`Yes, thank you, Colonel. No, don't bother, I'll get it.´
`Hey, Fuery, what the hell are you doing? Come over here and start getting drunk already.´
Black Hayate bark, happily and in agreement, in his arms.
Let there be music, and there is music.
`We thought you wouldn't make it,´ Breda greets him as soon as he crosses the door.
Breda has this smirk of feigned disinterest on his face, like he didn't much care if he managed to come or not, and Falman is so happy to see that stupid expression that he thinks he might break down and cry right here.
But. He is a tough man from the North now so no crying for him, he resolves, and waves at everybody inside the bar. It has been a few months since he has seen most of them General Mustang and Colonel Hawkeye have been up North recently on some official business but Havoc, Fuery, Breda, he hasn't seen them since the summer. And the dog, he's missed Black Hayate too, he is finding out just now. People say that in only a few months nobody changes that much but Falman has eidetic memory so he notices the little nuances, the tiny differences in his friends' faces and demeanour. He is happy to check that Havoc, at some point, stopped struggling against the inevitable fate of his goatee, rest in peace and Falman smiles to himself.
`Are you hungry?´ Roy asks. `We've left you plenty of food. Something warm if you want, it must be freezing outside.´
It is cold outside but he makes a very big deal of telling anyone who might listen that cold in East is not real cold, not like in the North, that's real cold, this is almost tropical to him - and Havoc and Breda roll their eyes every time he does this but somehow he can't stop himself. It's not a matter of us and them but Falman has developed what Olivier Armstrong calls Northern Pride. And he came in wearing a thin, beige trench-coat as if the cold outside meant nothing.
A woman - Falman recognizes her, although they haven't socialized just yet - the General's mother, tries to coax him into a table.
`I'd like to wash my hands first,´ he says.
`Wash his hands. I like this one,´ the woman tells Roy. `The toilet is behind that glass screen, by the music.´
He is a bit weary, emotions heightened by the weariness, a train connection that couldn't be, some snow on the tracks. He hasn't completely processed he is back here. The city. And among these people. There's a hint of the temporary in his life now because he knows one day he will come back for good. As much as he gets on with and admires the people in Briggs, it's just not the same. But ah, he is getting pre-emptively nostalgic now (he has suddenly started missing the people in the North, his comrades, his girlfriend, his superior), and who knows what awaits him, maybe he is wrong, so he splashes some water into his face inside a bathroom that smells recently painted and recently cleaned into brightness.
His own face in the mirror and he wonders if he has changed at all, if the others, upon looking at him, would think well, he looks different. He does not think so. He does not look older, and maybe he is just being indulgent, but none of them do. In fact if he were to give his opinion one way or the other Falman would say that they all look younger than a year ago.
And maybe that fact alone is reason to celebrate the upcoming year.
The music from the other room swings by him, in a 2x4 tempo, old and modern at the same time. Inside the pocket of his jacket he still keeps the scribbled instructions that have led him here, a shop with no name lit up just yet, you would miss it if you weren't looking for it, if you don't notice the light in the windows and the people inside.
It's not like he didn't find out about the perks of being an almost-cripple real soon. So soon. When he should have been drowning in self-pity and despair - and let's face it, he did that for a bit; fortunately for him Roy Mustang is and will always be an idiot - he also had time to notice how nice the nurses were to him. And how nice the nurses were, period. So yes, playing the sympathy card comes naturally to him, and now that he is recovering and looking forward to a non-crutches-assisted future he can really enjoy those perks.
The perks, tonight, are called Julia and Vanessa, for example, just because they happen to be the two girls cooing him right now and being vowed by the tales of his bravery in the face of death and danger and that's how he got his very distinguished war injuries.
But in the end these are not girls he can seriously hit on. First because of the way Madame Christmas arched an eyebrow at him like a warning, these are her girls. Second, because they are hostess bar staff, and hence glamorous and upfront and contractually too nice. Actually, he is blatantly lying: the real reason is that he knows they'd probably turn him down and he is not too keen on getting rejected on New Year's Eve.
The only thing that soothes his anguish is complaining about this to General Mustang.
`I was promised girls.´
`This is a private celebration,´ Roy answers, genuinely bewildered. `Why would I invite random girls?
`To make me happy. And Breda. He is complaining too.´
`No, I'm not.´
`Can't you get your own dates?´ Falman interrupts.
Falman is swinging his drink a real drink, none of that champagne for girls in a way that seems to be tainting Havoc and his datelessness.
`Hey, just because you got a girl up North it doesn't give you the right to get cocky with us.´
`Yes, it does,´ Falman says flatly.
`Yes, it does,´ Roy agrees.
And well, so does Havoc.
At some point Madame Christmas threatens to show everybody pictures of Roy when he was a little boy. Everyone cheers and lights up and gets excited at the perspective, even the two new girls of the staff who hadn't met Roy until hours ago. Roy looks embarrassed and delighted at turns, and definitely disappointed at not being the respected superior figure he often fantasizes he is. And she, well, Riza Hawkeye is a bit ashamed of fitting into that particular clich but she smiles to herself at the thought of those photographs, at having that shared moment of Roy trying to snatch the album from his mother's hands to avoid public humiliation and everybody else laughing and trying to get a glimpse while Madame Christmas slightly tilts the scrapbook towards Riza with a knowing smirk. Yes, that's the kind of situation she would like to have happen and yet she is a bit appalled to admit it.
Things calm down from that moment on, though and Roy is lucky and his child pictures are not shown around.
Now they are with their back to the bar, relaxed, his left arm and her right arm resting casually on the bar. Their elbows are predictably touching - anyone could see it if they wanted, and anyone could ignore it just as well. It's the first time they have been out with other people in such a laid-back, unofficial context. They still navigate the waters between secrecy and discretion. Riza knows everybody is aware of how things stand and yet decorum is exciting for them. As she struggles to adapt to their new situation - he struggles, too, and perhaps is more open about it, which means it's less evident - and its doubts and its joys she finds that merely brushing hands in public still constitutes a delightful indulgence.
They are testing the limits tonight: putting up a show for the rest of them, a banter a little too aggressive, a happiness a little too public, like they are trying so hard to say it's no big deal. It's no big deal, but including other people in their own sense of normalcy is tricky, and it bothers her a bit, and maybe she should admit she is, simply, being possessive.
And Roy has spent all night with a strange tension in his shoulders, she has noticed, and when he looks at her Riza gets this odd feeling that he wants to say something, or maybe he wants to run away, or maybe he wants to take her into a dark corner and just be alone with her for a moment. They are happy and happiness is the one thing they can't translate into words. He is happy and she wonders if he feels guilty about it. She wonders if he has found himself thinking about Hughes at some point of the evening and she knows he must have. She, too, would like to take Roy into a corner and be alone with him for a moment.
But that's not likely to happen any time soon, not with Roy's mother suddenly appearing in front of them (the elbows touching each other suddenly separated cruelly, the fragile link of I'm here broken) and grabbing her arm gently.
`Come, Riza. Let's have a champagne cocktail together, us girls.´
The use of her first name wrong-foots her a bit and she follows blindly, not knowing what to say. Roy shrugs as she leaves his side, his eyes full of ordinary terror. That sight would be funny if Riza wasn't, herself, a bit terrified. She understands she is being tested, somehow.
The woman leads her behind the bar, almost into the backroom. She keeps the bottle out of sight and for a moment (she's just set up shop recently) she can't remember where she put it. The drink is of an sparkling pink colour. Holding a glass of it in her hand, a glass of that colour, makes Riza feel a bit vain. She is shy and the attentive stare of the woman is making her jumpy, as if they hadn't known each other (briefly, peripherically, inconsistentially) for ages.
The two of them stay under the door frame, looking over the rest of the guests, keeping an eye on them, and there's this moment when the music stops and Fuery takes a moment to change the record so there's a void of sound in the air, this unexpected silence, and people face the nearest person and start a conversation until the bar is buzzing again. The drink in her hand is surprisingly sweet and very sparkly and Riza finds her glance going back to Roy instinctively but she stops herself in time; the woman by her side has a mother's excuse so she uses it, unabashedly looking at her son with fondness - it clashes a bit, that expression and the toughness of her face, her strong and robust presence.
`I never wanted children. I didn't like children,´ she tells Riza without tearing her eyes from Roy's back. `I guess I still don't like them. But I was the only family he had left so I had no choice. How do you turn away a cute idiot like that one?´
She looks on at her son and Riza realizes this is a trap, the question (only semi-rhetorical) and the grin on her face, and she knows she is falling into it like an amateur because she follows that gaze and ends up watching Roy as well as he talks to Havoc and Breda and she should be smarter than this, this lame trap, but she smiles as she looks at him and Madame Christmas catches her with the corner of her eye and Riza guesses the smile must be idiotic and embarrassing and she shuts down her expression immediately but also too late, she has been already caught.
The other woman makes no comment about it which is definitely worse.
`He was a good boy. Very independent,´ she reminisces. `He was always playing in his room on his own. Never seemed to need anyone else, including me. That boy could manage on his own. I always worried he would be become a lonely person.´
Riza sips at her champagne and shoots Roy another quick glance, not letting it show, her private, almost arrogant smirk.
`He couldn't become a lonely person. Roy might manage well on his own but he loves taking care of people.´
`I hope he has someone to take care of him as well.´
Another trap? Riza swears the woman is leaning a bit towards him, enveloping her with complicity, secrecy.
`We all take care of him.´
`That's not what I was asking.´
Ah, she's been waiting, uneasy, for a situation like this one. The inescapable question of her and Roy. The intransmittable answer. What are they? In the eyes of a mother what sort of word could convey her and Roy? They are friends, yes, and, no doubt, they are more than friends. Lovers? Technically, yet somehow insufficient. Partners, in a broad and perhaps undetermined sense. If she were to meet Roy's mother for the first time today, how would he introduce her? Riza knows the answer: He would put his hand on the small of her back and say, simply, quizzically, this is Hawkeye and there's a part of her that's very satisfied with that, she is quite happy being Hawkeye in the terms she knows Roy means it, and she never aspires to being anything other than Hawkeye but that's no small ambition, she realizes, because for Roy that statement, the ambiguous this is Hawkeye encompasses meanings and attributions that no conventional definition can hope to communicate, it is a generous term, a term that excludes everyone in existence except her, how people are divided into two species, this is Hawkeye and the rest. Who wouldn't be happy with that knowledge, that distinction? But there's always the problem of the outside world. She knows what Roy thinks and feels and means in this, but that's unrelatable to anyone else. Both she and Roy are notoriously inexperienced when it comes to this kind of social crossroads. What can she tell Madame Christmas? What are they, she and Roy? They are what they are.
But then Madame Christmas laughs, loud but privately, at her,.
`I didn't mean to put you in a bind. I don't want to pry.´
In her smile Riza thinks she sees bits of Roy and his smile and for a moment she can't speak, sudden emotion trapped in her throat, like fingers pressing down her neck.
`No, it's okay,´ she manages politely. Always very politely. Awkward Riza, always. `It's just that... I don't know what he said to you or...´
The woman throws her head back a bit, chuckling softly.
`Oh, he has said many things. Years of them. He's always been very obvious. Do you want to know if I think you are obvious too, Miss Hawkeye?´
She is straightening her uniform, glad for the first time tonight Roy insisted in everybody coming dressed like this it was a Roy thing, she understands it, and it might be the last day of the year, but they had been working just as well. Now the formal, dignified gesture helps her stand her ground.
`I like to think that I am a very private and discreet person. We both are,´ she smiles. That taut, sharp smile she knows can inspire fear in the hearts of people people like for example Breda.
She can tell the moment the other woman decides to let it go and take pity on Riza; it was, most likely, the very deliberate use of we. A modest answer, yes, and a modest proposal.
Riza wonders if it's also an obvious one.
6. Black Hayate
All night from hand to hand. Enjoyable, for sure. A dog here is a novelty, after all. The girls seem to be more interested in the pet than in a group of uniformed, tolerably handsome men. Black Hayate is happy with the attention but a bit confused with the surroundings.
He's never been here, there are a lot of people the dog has never seen or smelled before, and then the music started, throwing him even more off balance with those strange new sounds.
It's really nice being petted and stroked and handed from one hand to the other of so many people (plus that young man with glasses is here and he always brings delicious treats to Hayate) but even sociable dogs like himself need some space from time to time. And this dog is free to wander about the place this place so new to him, he wants to explore the corners and their every scent - because everybody knows how well-educated this dog is, or rather how well his owner educated him.
So he goes off by himself for a while, avoiding discovery. He is no puppy, he is an imposing, fierce animal, sure he is. And animals like that need their space too, just like people.
Hayate is sniffling under a table (this faint smell of closed space and oak wood and winter wind) when he notices a familiar scent approaching.
`Hey,´ this familiar person calls him. `This is where you were.´
The man crouches in front of Black Hayate as if he had just found a secret hide-out, a treasure trove.
The dog considers the man in front of him. This part-time owner. We can call him that. The dog knows that he is not his owner, of course. The blond woman is. The dog lives with her, but lately the man stays in the house for long periods of time as well. Some days the dog has woken the man up in the morning because even though Black Hayate is very disciplined from time to time he finds it entertaining licking people's feet in the mornings until they wake, sometimes it's worth the risk of having his owner scold him.
The man places a little plate in front of him.
`Here you go.´
This man bringing him food is also something familiar for the dog. Black Hayate trusts this gesture and hurries towards his meal like he has done many times. The dog likes him because he brings him food very often and very often he is generous with it, in both amount and quality. And the man seems pleased - a low sort of laughter - with the dog's eagerness right now.
`You know, my mother acts like she doesn't want you here but she had this dog food prepared already,´ he tells Black Hayate. `She is a real softie.´
People are sometimes like that, Black Hayate knows it well, talking to their animals. Because they know pets can't understand them they go on and on, talking and venting and spilling secrets even. This man talks to him a lot. When he takes Black Hayate on walks (he does it a lot, sometimes without Black Hayate's owner) or when he waits in the house: he does a lot of waiting in the dog's house - waiting for the dog's owner to finish taking a shower, or waiting while cooking and the dog comes into the kitchen enticed by the smell of food, the man talks to him, acknowledges his presence and then, like many people who talk to pets, is struck by the absurdity of his behaviour and laughs, but then he keeps talking to the dog anyway.
`Do you mind me being around all the time?´ The man asks him. `You know I value your approval, boy. I hope I can be a good owner to you... when the moment comes. If I'm lucky and the moment comes. What do you say?´
He is stroking behind the dog's ear so whatever he is asking Black Hayate is more than happy to oblige.
There's a limit to how many times he can watch Havoc pretend he loses his balance and stumble and grab the nearest girl's arm (Havoc, bless him, is too proper to grab anything but arms and shoulders).
This one time now, Breda discovers, is his limit. It's just after midnight and the energy of the night has not gone but has been transformed into this kind of subdued mirth where everybody seems to be either hazily swinging to the music or having meaningful conversations progressively filled with even more meaningful silences. Even Roy, whom Breda expected would make some sort of emotional and embarrassing speech at midnight, seems to have settled into a more thoughtful persona, going around putting his hand on everybody's shoulders and asking if anyone needed their glasses filled. Breda is perhaps a bit disappointed at the lack of embarrassing speech. He falls on the nearest chair on the bar and watches, with an sceptic and hopefully obvious frown on his face, Havoc's performance.
And then Madame Christmas, surprising owner of this joint and even more surprising mother of Roy Mustang, takes the chair next to him and starts a conversation.
`Your friend looks like he is having a good time,´ she says, gesturing towards Havoc and two of her girls.
`Too good, if you ask me.´
`Lieutenant Colonel Breda.´
`Did I say it right? I mess the ranks all the time. I'm still upset Roy is not longer a Colonel. It sounded much better than General. General is such a dull word, don't you think?´
The woman offers him a glass - definitely not champagne, definitely something stronger, of the sort she is drinking.
`You seem like a man who can hold his liquor.´
`Is that an insult?´
She laughs. Her laughter is soft and nice, not what you would expect from such a character. Because, even though they don't know each other that well, by now - fifteen minutes into the new year - Breda knows she is quite the character. Fortunately she has no idea Breda is horrible at handling alcohol.
`No, in my book it isn't.´
He accepts the drink.
`Drink up, you all deserve to relax tonight. Last year was pretty rough on you lot.´
You have no idea, Breda says to himself, but from what they all later discovered, she has a pretty good idea. Rough does not even begin to cover it. If you had asked him some years ago he would have never believed he was the kind of person who could survive such events. And if you had asked him years ago he would have said there was nothing in the world to make him want to go through such hardships on purpose. Now he would probably do it again, if asked. This is what New Year's Eve is for, after all: to reflect on the ways things have changed. Sudden epiphanies, inebriated declarations, improvised proposals. The Breda from years ago could have never imagined that such rough times expected him. But he also had no idea that something good was coming too.
Lost in his own thoughts a private conversation with the Heymans Breda he once was included he just know notices that bar's owner is looking at him with a questioning, odd gleam in her eyes.
`That name. Breda. I've just remembered when you once beat him at chess. He was moaning for days on the phone.´
`Don't mind me saying but your son is a very sore loser.´
`And so are you, from what I hear.´
`Ah. So he did tell you about the time I beat him and about the fifty-two times he beat me. Great.´
`I'm sure you let him win many of those. He is your superior, after all.´
Breda lights up: `From now on that is going to be my official version, thank you.´
He suddenly realizes he is talking with Roy's mother, just like that, and he gets all stiff as if the thought had just occurred to him, oh god, here he was, just talking with his mother as if they were old pals and he suddenly feels the burning need to say something very polite.
`It's very nice of you to let us spend the night here,´ he says and who talks like that, and why is he talking to Roy Mustang's mother - his mother, wow - as if she were a stranger he just picked up in the street. `Good party.´
Good party? Why don't you try to put in some verb or some subject there, make it proper language, anything.
Bless Falman, he comes to the rescue.
`I thought Ross was going to be here as well?´ He asks him.
`She left yesterday,´ he shrugs, he also wishes she had stayed. `To spend her days off in Central.´
`Ah. Well, she has her family there.´
`She has Denny Brosh. Some people have all the luck, but you know all about that yourself.´
Falman looks embarrassed and delighted, and Breda hates him completely for a whole second.
`Don't be stingy,´ interrupts Roy, who's been following the conversation and pretending he wasn't and now he finally makes his way to the bar with the excuse they run out of appetizers, and what does he mean by that, appetizers were served two hours ago. `You whiners, you and Havoc. Real men, like Lieutenant Colonel Falman and myself, we find women ourselves, without having to complain to others.´
Breda clears his throat.
`Sir, don't take this as insubordination, but the amount of time that you required to get one woman, and I mean decades, I don't think I have that long to spare, so please don't set yourself as an example.´
`Insubordination? That is high treason.´ Roy turns to the bar, `Julia, get me a glass of what this insubordinate gentleman is having.´
The girl giggles away and serves him. Sitting at the other side of Breda but never missing a beat, even if she pretends to be engaged in conversation with two of her girls behind the bar Madame Christmas glares at Roy.
`Which number is that drink?´
`Just three,´ Roy replies diligently. `Well, three and a half, technically.´
Breda worries he might get caught in the crossfire but the woman seems to let it be. Breda guesses that mothers have the same power over their children everywhere and not even Roy Mustang can escape such destiny.
`So how is he?´ Falman asks Breda, leaning closer in confidence, throwing a discreet glance towards Havoc.
`Havoc? He is peachy. That girl from Xing patched him up perfectly, like new. Now he is just milking it.´
`Insubordination and now spreading ugly rumours about your fellow soldiers? The charges keep on piling, Lieutenant Colonel.´
`Colonel Hawkeye told me that you cannot take any official action against us tonight and that I shouldn't listen to your threats, sir.´
`That woman is evil.´
Breda gives him a sympathetic nod. A nod that is like a friendly punch to the shoulder, but Breda is not the friendly-punch-in-the-shoulder type.
`Decades, sir, decades.´
`Don't say it like that,´ Roy pouts. The pouting, Breda knows a lot about the pouting. `It was just slightly over a decade.´
`That sounds even sadder.´
`So basically-´ Falman shyly offers.
`Yes,´ Roy nods. `Basically, we live in a world where Lieutenant Colonel Falman is our role model when it comes to romance.´
`I'll drink to that,´ Falman says. Breda swears that's a smug smile the second of the night! The nerve! Breda hopes his girlfriend is very ugly. Very.
`Me, too,´ Roy clinks his glass.
Breda has no choice but to give in.
`I'll drink myself into oblivion to that.´
He likes the fact that so much of it seems to be made out of wood, floors and panels on the walls too, old things, he likes the feelings of things having a history. The place is smaller and less sophisticated than the bar in Central but that only adds to the charm - specially on a night like this, he appreciates that the spaces between bodies could be this superfluous, this companionable. A smaller place is easier to warm up through human touch.
Of course at some point they would find a quiet corner after midnight to be almost alone among everybody else. Of course the jukebox is playing softer, slower music now - Fuery is carefully choosing tunes, assisted by the very blonde and very tall Emma, who seems very fond of him, Roy notices with no little irrational pride. Havoc is making an art out of trying to slow dance with crutches; it's a mess and it's making the girls laugh, but that works, too. Havoc is not as dumb as he looks.
Somehow Roy has the feeling that he is watching his people as if behind a glass, yes, like this stained-glass wall between the bar and the entrance to the toilets, as if they belonged to a different room even if he can see them and take care of them and be warmed by seeing them happy and enjoying themselves but in the end there is a glass in between and he can't completely cross over. This is not the first time Roy feels like this.
Someone calls him, and there's a hand on his elbow, gentle and firm, and suddenly there's someone on his side of the glass cage.
He smiles even before turning and meeting her eyes. Her hand lingers before withdrawing slowly, fingers brushing down the inside of his arm. Hawkeye is not big on public displays of affection - not even now, when there are so little secrets to keep - so the moment feels an exhilaration.
`What's the problem?´ She asks.
`Nothing. Everything is perfect.´
And he hides whatever tight-lipped curve his mouth is making behind the glass as he drinks up. What was that gesture? He is not sure himself. Perfect is a word that makes him feel uneasy, because perfect is an ending, a stop.
`My mother didn't end up showing you those pictures, did she?´ He changes the subject.
`No need to panic. She just asked me a couple of very embarrassing questions.´
He pities her. He brushes his hand against the back of her neck in sympathy.
`Sorry about that.´
`You know one day I will see those pictures.´
`I know. I'm just trying to stall that event. I was a chubby kid. I don't want those pictures to shatter your image of perfect, handsome me, that is all.´
`I can honestly say you should not worry about that,´ she teases him.
Something is off with him and Hawkeye is the one who would pick up on that, for sure. To be honest, he himself doesn't quite know what's wrong - he is happy tonight. But maybe being happy is making him a bit melancholic, too. Maybe all the champagne and the laughter and being surrounded by friends and family and yes, at some point, even though he really tried to push that particular thought to the back of his mind, Roy couldn't stop wishing Hughes were here to see all this. Hughes who once was the guy who annoyed him at the Academy by poking his fingers in Roy's mixed vegetables at lunch and asking `Are you eating all that? and now Roy misses him horribly, he misses him much more now that everything is fine and peaceful than when they were all running around Central trying not to get killed by monsters.
He sighs and leaves his glass of champagne, half-empty, on the table.
`Don't let me drink too much,´ he tells Hawkeye. `I get sad when I drink.´
`I know,´ she says sweetly, as if they had known each other for a million years, at least, and Roy can still hear Breda's voice making fun of him Decades, sir, decades. Hawkeye adds: `But I hope you don't have any reason to feel sad this year.´
She is right. She often is. Beginnings can inspire melancholy because change is scary but this is a good thing, tonight is a good thing and Roy is happy, so happy that it becomes a complicated happiness, that's why.
`You are right,´ he says but now she is looking at him with a weird, awkward expression on her face. `What is it, Colonel?´
She looks down at her feet, drawing a long breath as if gathering up courage. She winces when he looks back at him, like she already considers what she is about to say silly.
`It's just that - I promise to make it my endeavour so that you don't have any reason to be sad ever again, sir.´
He looks at her at her resolved expression, at the way she didn't meet his eyes but sideways when she said it, at their private joke of sir, at how that ever again sounded, at how that ever sounded, specially and looks at her wide-eyed, and finds he can't quite handle it, that something inside him is about to burst like a balloon with too much air or any other easy metaphor.
He covers his mouth with his hand trying to stop a panicked laugh or a panicked sob, he is not sure which. On the other hand he is certain his face must be getting comically red, feeling the heat spread all over his cheeks.
`Are you laughing at me?´ Hawkeye frowns.
How can he explain? Even that menacing frown of hers makes him want to laugh hysterically. He gestures with his hands, from her to himself, meaning the space between them, which she has just shrunk to nothing.
`No, I'm just - I'm very touched, Riza,´ he replies honestly.
`You are laughing at me.´
`No, no, I swear. It's just that... Come here.´
He grabs her elbow and takes her with him to a corner, between the jukebox and the toilets, behind the ridiculous glass screen. He puts his arms on her shoulders and looks as if he is about to say something and as if that something refuses to be said so Roy just sighs, frustrated, and leans in to kiss her, in a hurry, messily, with Hawkeye rushing to meet him halfway. It's a brief moment but the intensity of the kiss baffles them both, he is flushed, and maybe they have been holding back all night and this is the result.
`Sorry,´ he says, inappropriateness as an afterthought. `That... couldn't wait.´
She flashes him a smug smile.
`No, it couldn't,´ she agrees, grabbing his shirt and drawing him back to her for another, deeper kiss.
Her mouth is warm and there are traces of something sweet, a drink. His jacket is undone and she rests one hand against his stomach. When she lets him go (her fingers still a fist in his shirt and no, don't worry, Colonel, I'm not going anywhere) Roy runs his hands through his hair, thoroughly light-headed and a bit dizzy. It takes him a moment to recover.
`Nice way to welcome the year,´ he tells her. `I suggest we do this every year.´
`I believe I just proposed that we do this every year, sir.´
He guesses his smile at that must be very idiotic and embarrassing and he feels lucky Hawkeye doesn't drop him on the spot, just because of that expression. Lucky boy. His answer to her improvised outburst must be very obvious too but because let's not take anything for granted and because it's a New Year's party and because it gives him a excuse to touch her Roy leans in to whisper the very obvious reply.
Maybe being happy is not enjoying the moment like everybody says, he decides, because right Roy is looking forward to the next year. And the next one.
And the next one.
And the next one...