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Death Do We Part

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He changed his name when he was wed. Uncustomary by most standards of union, true, but his spouse had taken numerous mates over the years. All of them were on the books and registered duly, neat lines of obedience marching down the pages even as they had the aisle of so many desks. All of them had accepted the second title that they would be known as until their deaths, no two the same despite the hundreds of variations.

It never crossed his mind to be jealous. That would be nonsense.

They awarded him an official contract when they were through with the ceremony. Flame Alchemist, they called him. And congratulations, they'd said, and good job, hearty smiles for the boy who passed his entrance exams with the same cool nonchalance as he would his reviews in later years. The presiding officer had blown gently on the ink to let his signature dry, and Roy Mustang had accepted the certificate with grace.

There had been no reception for the guests to mingle afterwards, but a few of them lingered while he unwrapped the watch from its tissue-paper shroud.

It could have been worse. A toaster, maybe. Dinette set.

Trip for two to Ishbal.

Years later when they shipped him off on a belated honeymoon, Roy went without audible protest. He was contract-bound. Mustang knew his duties by degrees of how far they could be broken, just as he was aware that this time, he could not escape.

The train ticket, he accepted with grave responsibility when it was delivered in the cream-paper envelope, stationary thick and imprinted. The military had arranged his tour, his dining expenses. Sightseeing, souvenirs, it was all taken care of. All Roy needed to do was pack.

So he did.

One suitcase labeled with both names, and when he'd arrived in camp, they'd called out only one of them to let him know his luggage had also arrived. Safe.

That was the start of learning how to answer to his role.

They'd become tired enough on the fields that they stopped calling each other by words of a life before the war, and resorted to only the marriage-vow name. Crystal Alchemist'll be arriving soon, they said to each other while marshaling together for remnants of breakfast. Iron Blood's got himself in a tizzy today. Has anyone seen Strongarm yet?

Flame, stop hogging the damned coffee.

Try and make me, Crimson.

One afternoon the army gave him the ring, like an afterthought or postscript under the dotted line, a blood-stone set in a band of gold that the Brigadier General had set down with a clink on the desk. This one's yours, he announced, already moving to haul a long-chained pendant out and call for Kimberly next. Wedding gifts given long after the fact, delivered en masse for ease of convenience.

Mustang had slid the ring onto his finger with a formal calm that concealed that he was wearing it on the middle digit instead of the fourth.

In sickness and in health, he'd whispered to himself while shielding his nose from the dry pepper-dust of Ishbal's deserts. For better and for worse.

The Alchemists had served their contracts perfectly. They had filed out of their tents and taken up assigned positions. They had killed on command. First for light skirmishes. Then heavy. Then buildings, and just to be secure it had been streets and utilities next, wading through the ruins of a population while grimly clearing out all options of habitation.

And then there had been the matter of hunting down the survivors.

A few Alchemists were eager to chase the remnants of an entire race of people. The rest lagged. Enthusiasts like Kimberly returned reeking of burnt hair, crisped skin. Others, like Armstrong, rejoined camp in silence, solemnly rubbing sand over their knuckles to try and scour away the blood.

Later, Mustang couldn't remember the war without thinking of how everything stank. Even the discharge of spent gunpowder couldn't cover the miasma of genocide. There wasn't enough water to spare getting clean so everyone resorted to Armstrong's method, shoving their hands in the dust and dirt and dry-rubbing their palms together until the cracks of their skin were stained as dark a brown as their victims.

What was your count today, Flame?

I lost track.

Listen to him brag.

Newlywed fantasies were engaged on the battlefield here, amidst corpses as the cordwood-flesh fried. Daydreams were better than thinking about what you were actually doing. Mustang found himself entertaining bedroom tales in the smoke, as obsessed with removal of the band as another man might a piece of a woman's lingerie. He lusted after the idea of yanking the gift off before he was through with his appointed task, wanting desperately with all the eagerness of a randy bridegroom to pry the ring from his gloved hand.

In the seconds after his own ability sparked and connected him to the Philosopher's Stone, he swore he could sense the metal of it melting through the fabric and welding itself to his skin.

Eventually repetition sent Mustang to his knees with each channeling of his energies, each time the Stone gripped him and wrung him dry of all will until he was gasping with the aftershock and shudders. His hair plastered itself across his forehead. Too much sweat. Not enough time to breathe.

The knees of his blue regulation pants turned as grey as his vision with the number of times he was sent stumbling, falling, caught underneath the weight of alchemical flame thundering in his veins. Power swelled before it broke. Crested, rolled out over the air. Left him empty afterwards, to recover his scattered wits and taste anew his muted disgust of the stone.

The revulsion was so strong, it was almost pornographic.

To have and to hold, he whispered much later that night, salving his fingers with an oiling cloth. To love and to cherish.

What are you mumbling about over there, Flame?

You want to go hunting again so soon?

Don't have all the fun, Flame. If you're going, I want a shot too.

Mustang had no illusions about the stone. All the State Alchemists called into the field had been anointed with one, tokens that promised nothing save an expectation of results. He was not precious, was not unique, no more than any pet practitioner was especially valuable in the harem the military had collected. They did not give him the ring because they wanted to reward him. He was the one who had printed his name neatly on the contract, in block print and then with looped signature, and it was far too late now to file foul.

In all the time of his union, Roy Mustang could easily pinpoint the first time he'd thought about divorce.

Marco had been the one to show him just how impossible that idea really was. The Crystal Alchemist had packed his bags and slipped out in the middle of the night, following the path of the deserter despite his marriage vows. No one eloped with the army. If you did anything in secrecy it would be to flee from it, running headlong down the alleyways and accepting a life of disgrace if you were allowed it at all.

They didn't say it out loud, didn't announce a death do you part when they were holding their pens out expectantly for your signature. They didn't have to. Live long enough in the military and you would come to the recognition on your own, hemmed in red-brick monastery walls where you were wedded to a faceless god that smelled of boiling fat.

Consummation wasn't necessary. Neither was a warning. The army was implacable; no amount of counseling could bridge the gap in the relationship, no matter how many times you tried to draw in long breaths and speak reasonably, build a working rapport with your mate.

That left suicide or desertion. Mustang wasn't sure which option was worse.

He'd been leaning towards the former when Marco had lifted his finger, demonstrated the latter. Bid him to stay alive and watch.

The physical act of returning a pocketwatch was simple. But you couldn't change your title so easily once you'd been registered, and in the years gone by there'd still be the risk on your tombstone of being listed by your second name rather than your first. Strangers would visit your grave and know of you only as a word. Crimson. Flame. Sewing Life. That was your type, and hence the whole of your identity.

But Marco had wanted to try escaping anyway.

Crystal, are you sure you'll be all right?

Just Marco, Roy. Please.

Mustang hadn't spoken more than two words to his spouse afterwards, answering any questions posed to him with short, abbreviated grunts. Yes. No. No. No, he hadn't seen Crystal leave. Yes, he knew to recapture the alchemist if he saw Crystal again.

The higher officers had grumbled to each other before finally dismissing him, and Mustang packed his supplies with the same blunt efficiency as a man being told to sleep on the couch, or at a neighbor's. His ticket back to Central had been left on his cot with fastidious care, and Roy had tucked it in the breast pocket of his shirt as neatly as if slipping a nosegay. Straightened his own collar so that his spouse would not have to do it for him. Listened to the other Alchemists get ready for the exodus, voices cat-calling back and forth in the learned language of the state.

Flame, get your ass in gear.

Flame, we're going to leave.

Flame.

The rhythm of the train that brought them home was the rocking of bedsprings through midnight. Eventually, the motion lulled Mustang to sleep.

Miles rolled by while he dreamed. When he disembarked and the porter called out the tags on the suitcases and sacks, it took Roy several tries before he remembered to respond to the right label.

In the years to come, Mustang had problems explaining to his dates just why he would rub the lowest joint of his index finger when distracted, feeling an invisible band constricting him. A burn that had gone into the skin, past the fabric.

Never healed. Invisible.

It didn't hinder his pen when he was scribbling down their phone numbers, lending out promises that he'd call later. And that's what mattered, past the gloves and transmutation circles. Past the fabric still smelling like cinders.

Hughes always tried to convince the Flame Alchemist to marry at least one of the women whose names were written in his research book. Mustang hadn't had the heart to explain that the ledger wasn't really a dining list, not actually a string of addresses in case he was bored on weekends. Some of the names were real, and the rest were his own business.

Roy never bothered to dispel the rumors that he was a playboy, instead engaging in numerous affairs with Sulfur, Sodium, Jenny and Margaret. He was sure that the army didn't care about his minor infractions. It was better for him to keep up the pretense. Hide the reality of Flame's estrangement from his contracted spouse.

Marry someone, Roy, he heard over the phone again and again in his office, or at least settle down with a steady girlfriend. Having a wife is the greatest joy you can find -- excepting a daughter, of course, just like my beautiful Elysia.

Have a relationship, Roy. It'll be good for you. You'll be happy.

Shame Maes came pestering too late.