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Shine on this life that’s burning out.

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Those days, two words came to mind whenever she watched him, whether it was from behind as he walked down the marble steps of Headquarters or from a distance as he haunted the corridors like a ghost, a pale and rapidly thinning shadow of the powerful soldier he was supposed to be.

 

Caged tiger. That was it. Riza Hawkeye shifted her gaze away from the sight of her superior burning the carpet beneath his boots. Request funding for upholstery repair within the next two weeks, she wrote down.

 

“Sir.”

 

“In a moment.”

 

Step, step, step, step, turn. True to the grace of man who had but to snap his fingers in order to reduce anything in his way — be it wall, be it man — to cinders, Colonel Roy Mustang was precise down to the last detail, even when he was agitated.

 

“It’s urgent.”

 

“If you need my signature, put it away with the rest of it. It’ll be signed by 3:30.”

 

3:30. Two hours. In two hours, she could savor a nice, hot, Black Hayate-free soak in her bathtub. In two hours, a severely depressed man could go out for a drink, slink back to a cold apartment whose bed had gone back to containing only one body at a time, slump down, find a gun in the drawer and end it. But she had to remember that the colonel was not severely depressed. He was the Flame Alchemist. He was a soldier, a murderer for the State. He was beyond such pettiness.

 

“Colonel.”

 

“That’s ‘sir’ and ‘colonel’ in under two minutes. Call me by name, and we can all buy a bottle of champagne in celebration.”

 

The smile flashed like a knife. Knives made her think of Brigadier General Hughes and the single lot where they had buried him with the State’s heroes. She could not afford to dwell on that, not with Colonel Roy Mustang meeting her gaze, eyes dark and fathomless and full of shadows similar to the rings smudging the skin below them. They glared at Riza, making her wonder how many nights her superior must have lost to sleeplessness since rain had come on a cloudless day at the cemetery.

 

“No… it’s raining.”

 

One man, shoulders shaking, braced against the crushing blow of a pain that no one should have been allowed to bear alone, but they were soldiers. They were trained for this sort of thing. There were things she would not tell her superior, little shifts she saw in him that were enough to make something in her want to reach out and hold him, just hold him, in the hopes that he wasn’t going to shake himself apart.

 

“Hawkeye. If you have something to say, come out with it.”

 

It was the subtle set of his shoulders, the stiffening of his back and the slight narrow of his eyes that told her that he did not want to be touched, or pitied, or cared for. The guarded look in the eyes told her everything, informed her how much he wanted to be alone. Alone, where he could blame himself for the death of a friend.

 

“It’s nothing… sir.”

 

“Then you’re dismissed.”

 

Scars of the battlefield. Names, places, dates, numbers, all pertaining to how fast and how well and how many. Grave markers in the grass, reduced to nothing but statistical figures and red tape that she had spent half a year in the Academy learning how to organize. There had been many more before Hughes but Riza knew the truth. Roy needed Hughes the way a man needed water in his lungs. They had been beyond friends, beyond brothers, beyond lovers, and now that Hughes was gone there was nothing left to do but hurt and breathe and kill. Perhaps, the Flame Alchemist knew this too.

 

It seemed like the longest walk of her life, crossing the distance between her desk and the doorway; maybe it was the feel of Roy’s eyes on her, cold and silent, as she saluted, turned from him, and left the room. It was only after the wooden doors clicked shut behind her that she remembered how to breathe.

 

The others must have realized by then. The man they served was going to slip away from them like smoke. The grief was too deep; he couldn’t have possibly been able to claw his way out of it. But they were good soldiers, just like she was. They would follow him, turning their eyes upward whenever another one of his limbs broke off and fell to dust.

 

One deep breath and Riza had straightened her position, walking with the usual air and presence of command that many respected her for. She tried not to think about her superior alone in the office with Hughes’s memory cutting his thoughts to ribbons. Stiff upper lip. Things were easier for them all that way.