Part I: you'll ask me to pray for rain
What Riza should feel is grief. And she will feel grief; she did, after all, love her father. But now what she feels is cold, and behind the cold, the welling of anger, sluggish as blood from an old wound.
She is angry not so much that her father has left her alone but that he has not left her, not quite — has given her his burden and his guilt, and left her, now, to bear it on her own. It is not something she can lay down. He made sure of that.
Riza's back itches, irrationally; it has healed years since. But she doesn't scratch it. Her fingers tighten in the worn coverlet on her bed, and she gazes out the window at the sun setting over the gentle hills, the fields that had been sold by her ancestors long ago.
She is angry at him for giving her this burden. She is angry at herself at the gulf that lay between them, that she could not but see as an albatross what he saw as a gift, a legacy. His only legacy.
Riza doesn't want it. It should be an honor but all she can think is Why me?
She is angry above all with herself that she did not ask before it was done, or at least before he died. Now it is too late, too late.
Her father explains the what but not the why, and the obliqueness is not a surprise, from him. She has come not only to accept it but also to expect it, to learn how to read between the lines and to read his silences for meaning. But in this, she cannot see his purpose, and she does not know the words to ask.
("I have encapsulated all my study into a seal," he said. "A large one, but it is a lifetime of work. It is the legacy I will leave you, my dear, and you must guard it. I have nothing else.")
She lies quite still on the coverlet, her back bared and cold where the alcohol evaporates. She has never had anything stronger than watered wine on special occasions, but for this he gave her a double shot of whiskey. For analgesic purposes, of course. Her head swims, but not enough.
Her father wields the needle. To have anyone else do it would mean showing them the seal. He begins with confidence, though. Perhaps he is used to it. Perhaps, she thinks fuzzily, this is not uncommon for alchemists. Secret symbols, coded words, arrays upon arrays . . . .
The tattooing hurts. She expected it to. The pain is greater where the pattern crosses her spine, her shoulder blades, the nape of her neck; less on the fleshy sides of her back. She does not cry out, and she is proud of this. Her eyes water, but that is an uncontrollable reaction, and she feels no shame.
Afterward he cleans and bandages her back. She will not see the seal for a week, when he deems it sufficiently healed.
Roy Mustang is already living with them at that point, of course, in the small room that was the butler's when they had a butler, before she was born. He knows nothing of the tattoo; it is a secret from everyone but especially from him, who knows enough of her father's alchemy to make use of it.
(The seal is a mystery to Riza, a mystery in black and red. It doesn't help that she can only see it backward in a mirror, craning her head. There is an alembic, a salamander, there are triangles within triangles, there are words that she cannot read backwards but suspects she wouldn't understand even if she could.)
Roy Mustang is something of an enigma to her. He is intelligent and quick-witted, of course, because her father would tolerate no student who was not. He is monomanaiacally focused on his studies when he is in the house, which doesn't surprise her. It is what she expects of alchemists. But he goes out when he has an evening to spare, and comes back with bright eyes, smiling. It is a peculiar thing in this house, which is old and silent and full of dust, to hear him laugh. She doesn't know what to make of that.
She calls him "Mister Mustang." He always looks pained, and more than once has told her to call him Roy, because he is only two years her senior. She never does. She wants to keep that distance; she knows what alchemists are like. She doesn't want to be responsible for someone else who will always, always have his heart focused on something far away.
Still, there are times when she wishes the laughter would linger a little longer in the house when he comes home. There is little enough of it.
Her father has left her debts. The house has been mortgaged more than once; the bank will take it. Her father had sold off all of the heirlooms, the antiques, the art, while he was living, to pay for their food and coal and oil and clothing — he would not sell his alchemy, and there was no other means of support. She is glad that the remaining furniture, the dusty old carpets and drapes, will bring enough to settle his debts.
She watches as the men carry them out — the kitchen table, the study's desk, the sideboard. The workmen are kind to her, and she understands that it is pity.
In some ways, it's unnecessary. She would be glad of the clean break if she knew what she was going to do with herself, now.
"Shame there wasn't anything left over for you, ma'am," the head mover says. "Got family or summat?" She can see in his eyes that he thinks she is young, vulnerable.
She doesn't feel vulnerable. "I'll be fine," she assures him. "He did leave me something, after all." Her back aches like fire, though it is long healed.
Throughout his apprenticeship Riza does not precisely avoid Mister Mustang so much as she stays beneath his notice. He is fascinated by his studies; he is clearly less fascinated by the weedy daughter of his teacher. She is two years younger than him, quiet, and does not go out of her way to make herself attractive; she is not a child even when he first arrives, but it would be easy for him to dismiss her as one. It's just as well; she does not want an attachment.
Still — still. Still, it is hard to live in the same house as someone for two years without connecting on some level. For them it begins in the second year (what will be his last year, though neither of them yet know it), late at night, when she comes down to the big empty kitchen for a cup of tea and finds him trying to light the stove.
There is a trick to it. She doesn't say anything, but brushes his hand away from the switch and twists it, sharply right then sharply left until the gas lights beneath the pan he has set there. And he grins at her, clearly a little embarrassed (he is here for fire alchemy and yet he needs her help to light the stove). She takes pity on him.
"Father forget to stop for food?"
"Yes," he says, and laughs. "I should be used to it by now."
"I don't know what we have in the icebox." She lights another burner and puts the kettle on.
"There's some cheese," he says. "It's all dried up, but it's not moldy. And some beer, and — I was thinking of maybe making a rarebit."
"The mustard is in the cupboard," she says, automatically, and then realizes that he's looking at her oddly. She wonders if he has just now realized that they are two teenagers, male and female, alone together, late at night. Her feet are bare on the cracked tiles of the floor. But — no, it's not even that. It's as if he's noticed her at all for the first time.
She makes her tea; he makes his rarebit. It breaks into an oily mess, but he pours it onto the toast with apparent relish, and she thinks of the hungry boys in her form at the academy and smiles. It is strange, to think of her father's apprentice as a teenage boy, eager to wolf down anything as long as it will fill him up.
When he sits at the table, it's with a look of invitation. That's a novelty. She has friends enough at the academy, but she is used to her home being large and silent. Company here is rare. So she sits, with her cup of tea, curling her bare feet beneath the chair.
"I don't know anything about you," he says. "That's kind of embarrassing. — Tell me something about yourself."
"Like what?" she asks.
"Anything." He glances up, out the small window to the clouded night, and then back to her. "What do you do for fun?"
"Target practice," she says, and he nearly chokes on a piece of toast. He looks at her for a long moment as though sure she's having him on, but she just nods. "Yes. Target practice. There are old rifles in the barn, and plenty of bullets, and it's easy enough to set up targets on the hay bales. It's very calming." It's the truth. After a lifetime of breathing her father's work and her family's dust, she loves the cold snap of the early-morning air, the purity of sighting along the barrel, the satisfaction of drawing the trigger and seeing the hole appear on the bullseye, or, anyway, near it.
He looks at her for a long moment, and then grins again. He has a strange grin: fey, wild. "That's — an unusual pastime for a young lady."
"And alchemy is a perfectly normal pursuit?"
"Touche," he says. Then, "I understand there's good deer hunting around these parts."
"No," she says. "I never shoot at anything living."
"I think that's a wonderful dream," she says to him, beside her father's grave, beside her mother's grave. (She has not thought of her mother in so long. She died when Riza was five years old; she is just a blur of memories, soft hands and soft dark eyes. Her father says — said — her father always said that Riza has her mother's eyes, and her mother's fortitude. She wonders sometimes why her mother estranged her family for the sake of her father, whose first love would always be his studies.)
She does think it's a wonderful dream. And part of that is that she is surprised by it. Her father is the only alchemist she has ever known, and he wrapped himself deeper and deeper into his mysteries and his secrets. Roy (when did she begin to think of him as Roy?) wants to take it out into the world and make things better. The thought makes her feel lighter, as if the weight between her shoulders is not so heavy.
(And part of it is that she is weary of carrying this alone. The secret is too heavy on her mind; the responsibility threatens to bow her. If she can share it . . . .)
He doesn't understand even as she leads him back into the house (empty now but for the fixings, and her bed, which even the creditors were willing to leave her until she vacated). She takes him there, because it is the only place available to sit, and says, "You'll probably want some paper. For notes."
She feels strangely diffident.
"Okay," he says, but he's clearly confused. He has a notebook; he find a pen. She watches him, and wonders if she's doing the right thing. But she wants to believe that her — legacy, as her father would call it, is good for something. She doesn't want to carry it alone anymore.
"I have to take off my shirt," she says, and he starts, and she realizes then that she's doing what her father did: describing without explaining. Well, she is his daughter as well as her forgotten mother's. "Don't worry," she says. "You'll see."
She slips off the jacket, dark for mourning, and then unbuttons her shirt. "Riza," he says, and then his voice chokes off because by now he surely can see the seal. Her bra straps obscure it, she knows; she reaches back to unhook it, slides it off, her back to him, and then pulls the quilt off the end of the bed to hold over her breasts for a semblance of modesty.
"Good god," he says, breathless. She can't tell if he's awed or horrified. Most likely both.
"He says it was all his research," she says, looking resolutely out the curtainless window. The sky is low and grey. Appropriate for a funeral. "Does it make sense to you?"
". . . Yes," he says. "But — Riza — "
"Copy it, please," she says. "It's cold in here." The boiler has been turned off.
"Of course," he says, and then she hears the scratching of pen on paper. She looks resolutely out the window. The sun is setting, obscured by clouds; she can see the lighter patches, the darker patches, the moving shadows on the hills. She has never been half-undressed for anyone but the doctor before — and her father, but only for the tattoo, and his touch then was impersonal as a surgeon's. It feels as though Roy's gaze on her back is tangible.
After a little while he is done. It takes less time than she expected. It seems as though the work of a lifetime — the burden on her back — should take more than twenty minutes to record. "I'm done," he says.
"Is it what you needed?" she asks. "Will it help you with your — dream?"
There is a pause behind her, and then Roy's voice is thick as he says, "Yes. Yes. I — there's no way they won't make me a State Alchemist if I can put this into practice." He puts his hand on her shoulder, and she jumps at the unexpected touch. His hand is warm, and soft except for the calluses at the inside of his index finger, the base of his thumb. Pen calluses. She is surprised and unnerved by her own intense reaction to the touch of skin on skin.
"Thank you," he says. She shivers a little.
"You're welcome." Her voice sounds small to her own ears. "Do something good with it. Okay?"
"Yes," he says. "Uh. I'll let you put your shirt back on."
Her fingers shake as she buttons her shirt. She turns around and her eyes catch his, and he looks at her for a long time. Then he says, "Thank you, Riza. This — you have no idea how — "
"I think maybe I do," she says, thinking of the pain of the needle on her spine, on her shoulders. "Actually." And she smiles a little. And thinks: Do something good with it, please, please make it worthwhile.
"Of course," he says. His fingers, soft and warm, touch her cheek and then her chin, and she thinks for one dizzy moment that he will kiss her. And he does, but at the last minute he veers and does not kiss her mouth. His lips brush her forehead, chastely.
She is his teacher's daughter.
Part II: and high as the flames will rise
Riza enjoys the military academy. She doesn't really expect to — but if he is doing something worthwhile, she feel obliged to do so herself. And she is good with a gun, she knows this, and what other skills does she have?
(Her education: she can analyze poetry, translate glyphs from fallen Xerxes, solve for x or y or z, lay a correct table. What will that do for her?)
She enjoys the academy, because she is very good at it — not just at sharpshooting, it turns out, but also at strategy. In the simulations, she never loses her head. She can always remember the theories.
She thanks her father for this, even as she does not thank him for the circumlocutions she must go through to shower on her own, that the tattoo on her back will not be revealed to all and sundry.
She is not surprised when they decide to send her to the front lines.
"Do you remember me?" Riza asks, although she can see from Roy's eyes that he can. She can see from his eyes that he is horrified.
Still, she has saved his life.
She is only a few weeks on the front lines when she meets Captain Hughes. He seems concerned for her at first. Riza knows that concern well; she's only twenty years old, and she could pass for years younger, easily. He wants to protect her. They all do.
When they see that she can shoot the cigarette out of a man's mouth at a hundred paces, that protective instinct evaporates. Or rather, it shifts: rather than wanting to protect her, they want her to protect the company.
Still, it is Captain Hughes who gives her her nickname. "Cadet Riza Hawkeye?" he asks, examining the holes she made on the practice target. Two neatly dead-center; one half an inch to the left.
"Sir," she says.
"Hawkeye. Where'd that name come from, anyway?"
What kind of question is that? She sputters a little; it takes a lot to make her sputter, these days. "My father's family. They're all dead."
He looks at her, eyebrows raised. His eyes are an eerie shade of green. "And your mother's family?"
None of your business, she thinks, but his smile is so friendly that she can't bring herself to say it. Companionable without a hint of hitting on her, even; there are plenty of horny, desperate soldiers here, but few friends. She misses friendliness. She thought she was lonely in her father's house, but at least then she had friends from the academy . . . . "I have no idea. She cut ties with them before I was born."
"Well," he says. "Hawkeye's a good name for you. I'll rest a lot easier knowing that the eyes of the hawk are watching my back."
"Thank you, sir," she says.
She can see the disappointment in Roy's eyes when he looks at her, and it fills her with rage. Rage, because she followed him, and how dare he judge her for taking the same path she took? And rage, because she kills with a bullet but he kills with her father's legacy, and she gave it to him, and —
It takes her weeks to realize that when Roy Mustang looks at her he is not disappointed in her. He is disappointed in himself.
The first time she kills a man, she has been in Ishbal three weeks.
They have stationed her in an abandoned tower. Its walls are crumbling but its floor is sturdy enough, and she can lean in, blend into the walls, the dusty color of her jacket, the dusty color of her hair.
She can see her squad moving out, carefully, from one broken wall to another, from the cover of one pile of fallen stones to another. She can see so clearly from above, and so she can see the Ishbalan moving just as stealthily from the northwest, quick and quiet . . . .
She raises her rifle and peers through the sight. He is armed with a — some kind of explosion. She knows her duty. She sights through the crosshairs, not his head but his chest — headshots are riskier, a good body shot will drop a man more reliably — and.
("I never shoot at anything living.")
He is someone's son, brother, lover. He is —
If she does not kill him, he will kill her squadmates. Her finger twitches on the trigger. She has seconds to decide. Less.
(It would be comforting to say that she had no choice. And it would be a lie. She could hold back. She could run away. She could shoot herself.)
She pulls the trigger. The bullet catches him through the chest, and there is blood on the sand and a cry that she cannot hear, and he drops.
She does not cry, and she does not vomit. Her throat convulses again and again, and she closes her eyes against the sunlight.
"How many have you killed?" Mustang asks her, quietly, by the light of the fire. Hughes is a little way away, talking with the men in his squad.
"Seventeen," Riza says. She cannot but keep count. She is a sniper, and every kill is intimate; every kill is hers. She looks at her own pale hands. "You?"
"I don't know." He is looking at his gloves, white but for the array. She knows that array; it is part of the seal on her back. She has seen it many times, in reverse. She wonders if he knew what he was doing when he stitched them in blood-red. "Isn't that terrible? I don't know. I have burned down — barracks, houses. How many dead? I don't know."
She swallows. She can feel her tattoo like a brand. It is in some way her responsibility. His eyes are so dark, and so bleak. His eyes are black, and impenetrable as a cloudless sky; her father's were blue, razor-sharp, mad. Her own eyes are brown, and soft, and she wonders if she is too soft for this.
The most comforting presence in this hell that is the war, that is Ishbal, that is her life — the most comforting presence is an alchemist. Riza would never have predicted that, but it's true.
It's not Major Mustang. His familiarity draws her just as her guilt cuts like acid, and that cannot be comfortable. No, her comforter is the Strongarm Alchemist, Alex Louis Armstrong, and she would not have expected that.
He is wealthy and landed, as her father's family was once upon a time. He can summon stone, much as Major Mustang can summon fire. But by the campfire he is —
"I refuse to believe that my orders are to kill children," he says, with a certainty that radiates off him like the glow of dawn. "To fight those who threaten my comrades, certainly. But it cannot be true that we are to harm civilians. That isn't right."
She has nothing to say, because in the months of the war she has come to the point that she will believe any orders from Central Command. She has watched Major Mustang's back as he destroyed an apartment block — men, women, children, everyone. But still, Alex is so bedrock-sure of his own moral code that it's like sinking into deep warm water just to sit near him. Comforting.
Riza has a tent to herself. It is not in deference to her rank — she is still, technically speaking, a cadet, and ought to be in the barracks. But she is a woman, and there are no other women in her squad. So she has a tent to herself.
It's just as well. She would have to take exceptional care to not reveal her tattoo in a shared tent. As it is, she can strip out of her sweaty uniform and slip into the worn undershirt she sleeps in without concern.
(She is glad that she has no mirror. She doesn't want to see the tattoo. When she sees it, she thinks of white gloves with red stitching, she thinks of arcs of flame and spouts of fire, she thinks of burned bodies. She has been Mustang's angel of death, walking through the aftermath of the battlefield, shooting those who linger, burned beyond saving but not quite dead. She feels no guilt at those killings. It is mercy.)
She hears a scuffing of feet, a clearing of the throat, outside her tent. In her undershirt she says, "Who is it?"
"It's me." Roy's voice. (She should never have stopped thinking of him as Mister Mustang, Major Mustang.)
"Come in," she says, helplessly.
She is decent in undershirt and workout pants, but clearly underdressed next to his uniform, and he hesitates, clears his throat again.
"Yes?" she asks, because she wants sleep and the oblivion it brings.
"I," he says. "I wanted to — "
"Tell me you made the right choice," he says. "Giving the array to me."
— and she is trapped in that moment, when she was just three years younger than now but when she was a child, and when she wanted so badly to share her burden. His eyes are dark and desperate, and though she has wanted to compare them to the night sky now what she sees is gunmetal and burned wood. Her tongue sticks to the roof of her mouth.
"Please," he says.
"I couldn't have done anything else," she says. Her voice cracks.
He looks at her for a long time, and then he says, "I almost could blame you."
"I almost could blame you," she said. "I followed you into this war."
"I know," he says, and laughs. The sound is hard and bitter. "What reparations we have to make to one another — "
"We could call it even," she says. Her voice is parched as the desert sands, parched as blown ash. She wets her lips. "Neither of us would be here without — "
He kisses her. Not on the forehead as he did once before, but on the mouth. His lips are as dry and cracked as hers, as chapped as hers, but he draws her lower lip into his mouth and wets it, and she shivers a long line down her spine. She can taste his eagerness on the tip of her tongue.
(She knows neither he nor Captain Hughes visit the whores. They are mostly Ishbalan women, and they are mostly not — volunteers, and she has seen the way that makes his expression twist.)
"Riza," he says. "I don't think anyone else understands — "
"I am not my tattoo," she says hoarsely, urgently. "Don't bed me because you want — "
"No," he says, "no, I mean, I don't think anyone else knows — you're a killer too, we both have blood — "
The cleanness of fire; the cleanness of a bullet from two hundred yards. She opens her mouth to him, lets him skate his hand up her back, over the lines her father drew there, the lines that made him the state's killer.
He has to leave before dawn. Riza kisses him before he goes, sleepy and gentler than she knew she could, here in the coarse sand. He touches the nape of her neck, above her tattoo, before he departs.
(She is sore. She never told him that it was the first time for actual intercourse for her, and at any rate physical activity tore her hymen long since — but then, perhaps he guessed; the tattoo on her back is enough to put a crimp in anyone's sex life.)
Riza cannot blame Roy for being what she made him. But she can blame herself.
Part III: with ash in your mouth, you'll ask it to burn again
It is the child's body by the side of the road that stops her.
He was an Ishbalan, she can tell as much by his dark skin, even if his eyes are mercifully closed. He did not die easily. Riza can see, now, the difference between an easy death and a hard one. She wishes she had passed by a little earlier. She could not have saved him, but she could have eased his death.
It is her only peace, now, that she can hasten death for those who have no other hope.
She has passed many bodies on her way home, and yet this one she cannot pass by. Perhaps it is because he is a child. Perhaps it is simply that he is one too many. She stops and lays down her rifle beside her, and begins to dig.
The grave must be shallow; she doesn't have the time or the energy for anything better. And it is a gruesome thing to drag his body into the gully she has made, but there is relief in covering him with soil. The Ishbalans bury their dead, too. She doesn't know what words they might say over the grave, but at least she can do — something.
She has her hands on the mound of soil when Mustang passes by, tells her that she should come along or be left behind.
"Inside me the war isn't over yet," she says, and sees the way his face hardens, like the roots of an old tree digging in around a stone. He cannot give up, and yet he cannot deny the truth of her words.
She cannot deny that she is a killer — that she has killed men coldly from afar, that she, as Kimblee had said, has not only killed but felt the satisfaction of a job well done. She cannot deny that she has enabled Mustang to become a killer, too, a more efficient killer than he ever could have been had she not —
Should she have killed him, sighted him through her scope and shot him in the head? She could have done it. She could have —
His eyes are anguished and steady, and she cannot think that would have been the right path, despite it all, despite it all.
"My back," she says to him. "I want you to burn it beyond recognition."
"What?" he demands, and without even standing, without even turning, she can see the outrage on his face. "I could never — "
"You have to," she says. Her father's burden was laid on her back not by her own will, but she shared it of her own volition, and now there are countless people burned to ash, burning in her conscience. "If I can't repent, at least I can prevent the creation of another Flame Alchemist. To remove the burden of my father's legacy and allow me to be independent — "
She looks hard at him. She cannot look away. You have your mother's eyes — and your mother's fortitude.
"All right," he says. He laughs, and there is no pleasure in the sound, nothing by dry bitterness like dust. She thinks of the life his laughter once brought to her father's dark house — but now that life is tempered by a thousand griefs. "All right," he says, "what else can I say?"
In the chaos of the withdrawal from Ishbal it isn't hard to find a private place. Mustang drapes a blanket over the rocks to make a shady spot. Riza sheds her shirt. It makes her think of the first time she showed him the seal — it makes her think of when her father marked it on her back. She strips off her belt so that she can bite it against the pain.
"Are you sure?" Mustang asks, and his voice is thick. He does not want this.
She has wanted none of this, but the universe did not see fit to accommodate her.
"It's my legacy," she says, kneeling. She makes no effort to hide her breasts, now. He has seen them bared, he has touched them. "It's mine to do with what I want. And what I want is to destroy it." She shivers, and knows that it makes the tattoo tremble and jump. "He gave it to me to be its custodian, and it's my right to be done with it."
"All right," Mustang says. "It's — going to hurt."
"I know." She lies down and lies still, to make this easier for him, and slips her belt between her teeth.
She hears him snap and hears the sizzle of her own skin, feels the pain like a slap, and would have cried out if she were not biting down on leather. He snaps again, and she hears another hiss of burning flesh and skin — her own burning flesh and skin. She does not cry out, but her eyes water, and she bites deeply enough into her belt to nearly bite through it.
"Hold still," Mustang says. His voice sounds odd. "I'm going to put disinfectant on the burns, and bandage them. They're not deep enough to do you permanent . . . permanent harm."
"They're deep enough to — " she begins. Her voice shakes so badly she can barely understand it.
But he can. "Yes. They won't ever be — it won't ever be legible."
"Good," she says, and lies still, her head swimming with agony, as he tends to her burns.
When she accepts that she will be his subordinate, she knows that the promise is not only to him but to her father.
("If I ever stray from the correct path, shoot me with your own hands.")
And she thinks that her father's burden has not gone away after all, for all that she can feel it lighten every time she sees her own maimed back in the bathroom mirror.
("Do you accept?"
"I do, sir. I will follow you into hell if you ask me.")
She sees the backwards salamander again in the bathroom mirror, between the two scars that rendered the seal impotent.
Because he has the power to change the world. And because you have the duty to ensure that he changes it for the better.
It is a heavy burden, but it is hers, and the fairness of it is irrelevant. She bears the responsibility; all she can do is share it. And hope.