Roy hadn’t meant to let dinner with Vanessa run late. He’d left the office at five with every intention of being back by seven, but Vanessa was a chatterbox through and through. He didn’t mind, really. It was good to take his mind off things, and it’d been too long since he’d last seen her. Work kept him busy, as always.
He jogged through the empty halls of Bradley and Son, keeping an ear peeled for the sound of approaching footsteps and keeping his pace just slow enough that he could slow to a walk on a dime, if need be. Wouldn’t do to let anyone catch him rushing; he had a reputation to mind, after all. Mr. Bradley’s secretary, Louise with the dark red lipstick, the too-tight sweaters, and the smirk of a loan shark, had a tendency to roam the halls even when no one else was around, and she seemed to get a lot of joy out of laughing at him in particular.
Strains of music reached him from the distance, but he turned away off the main hallway instead. He skidded to a stop in the lobby in front of his office. Shrugging out of his jacket, he scanned the room; Riza’s desk was empty, but the light in his office was on. Of course she was still working, even as the party raged just down the hall. He rolled his eyes fondly.
He pushed open the door to his office, and found her busily straightening the photographs on his desk with a focused look on her face. He laughed. “Diligent as ever, I see,” he said. When she glanced up at him, he quirked a skeptical eyebrow. Straight-faced, she said, “Everyone knows I’m the best secretary Bradley and Son has ever seen, Mr. Mustang.”
“Right,” Roy said, hanging his jacket on the coat-stand beside the door. “That’s why my folders on the Samson case are sitting on my desk, when I’m pretty sure I locked those up before leaving.”
“I’m sure I don’t know what you’re implying,” she said, but there was the world’s tiniest dimple at the corner of her mouth that told him she was amused. Most wouldn’t have noticed it, but he’d known Riza Hawkeye long enough to see more than ‘most.’
She leaned against the desk then, crossing her arms. “You know Samson’s innocent,” she said, raising an eyebrow at him.
He hadn’t, actually, until that moment. He’d suspected it was so; nothing he had seen in the file seemed to point to Samson’s guilt, and there was that note that had arrived with it: “I’m trusting you with this.” It wasn’t the first note of that kind he’d ever received, and when he’d seen it, Roy’d been struck by the sudden feeling that all the air had left the room, that he was drowning. But he hadn’t known. Yes, he’d feared the worst, but it was Riza’s opinion now that clinched it for him.
It was damn near uncanny, how good she was. Definitely better than him. Roy was no slouch when it came to putting a line together, but his specialty was in his delivery. Riza, on the other hand, could connect the dots faster than anyone he’d ever met, and she knew the law to the letter. He’d learned his business from books and teachers, but Riza grew up to it. And yet, there she was. His secretary. What a joke.
She was still waiting for a reply. With a heavy sigh, he said, “So? Bradley’s still going to make me take him down. That’s my job, isn’t it?”
She frowned. He raised his hands in a gesture of defeat. “We can’t save them all. I have to keep climbing, Riza.” She met his eyes squarely, her gaze unhappy. “I like it as little as you. You know that.”
“I do,” she said, uncrossing her arms. “It just --”
The silence hung there between them. Soft strains of music drifted into the room. Roy ran a hand through his hair, and, as he did about twice a day, wished he’d never been hired by Bradley and Son, all those years ago. Wishes were, of course, fanciful, useless things. There was no taking back what he’d done then, and there’d be no taking back what he was going to do now. His only option, as always, was to keep moving forward.
Riza straightened, and made a show of checking her watch. “They’ll be wondering where you are,” she said. The firm set of her jaw said the topic was closed, for the moment. She needed time to deliberate. That was understandable; it’d been a long while since they’d last been told to do this. Roy had almost begun to wonder if Bradley was done with them. Wishing, again. Foolish of him.
He bowed his head, deferring to her judgement. “Right,” he said. “Let me just put those files away, then.”
“I’ve got it,” Riza said, throwing him a tiny smile as she turned away. That was good. He knew she was only angry at the situation, not at him, but it was good to have it confirmed. “You need to fix your hair,” she added. “They’ll think -- well.”
Roy raised a questioning eyebrow, then realized what she meant and flushed red. With a quiet cough, he turned away to inspect his reflection in the glass on the door. Behind him came the noise of Riza unlocking his filing cabinet -- without his key, again, mind you, because he kept that with him at all times -- and putting the reports away, undoubtedly using his own private filing system, too.
Hair (mostly) back in place, he waited for her to join him, then he swung the door open. “Time to go make nice?”
“I’m afraid so.”
He sighed. “Very well. After you, Miss Hawkeye.”
She led him away from the office, towards the music. The hallway brightened gradually as they approached the lounge, and the sounds of merriment became louder. There was no question in Roy’s mind that he’d have a headache by the end of this. He glanced at Riza, wondering if he should get in one complaint while they were still alone, but the line of her spine was still stiffer than usual. He held his tongue.
When they entered the room, there were shouts of welcome from a few of Roy’s peers. Riza walked away without a backwards glance, heading towards the other secretaries, who were congregated in the far corner.
“Roy, buddy!” Hughes bounded over and swung an arm around Roy’s shoulders. “Where’ve you been? The party’s already started!”
“I had a date,” Roy said, carelessly, shrugging Hughes away. “It ran late. Old Hawkeye had to come get me, can you believe it?”
The men that had flocked to him laughed, casting admiring and fearful glances over their shoulders at Riza. Roy kind of wanted to punch all of them.
Hughes changed the topic, gushing on about his lovely, pregnant wife and her lovely, pregnant glow. Roy, grateful for the distraction, took the chance to scan the room. There were a few couples on the floor, dancing to the tunes churned out by the old gramophone in the corner. Bradley was over by the food table, mixing drinks for his employees like the benevolent boss he was. He met Roy’s eyes from across the room and smiled. Roy smiled back, determinedly ignoring the chill that ran down his spine at the ice in Bradley’s gaze.
There was a tap at his elbow, and he turned to find Jeannie, Hughes’ secretary, at his side. She smiled up at him coyly. “You owe me a dance from last time, Mr. Mustang,” she said, and he laughed.
“I certainly do!” he said, and he bowed elaborately and offered her his hand. Jeannie was a nice sort. She put up with Hughes fielding calls out to, well, everyone without killing him; while Roy loved the guy, he was very sure he wouldn’t have had the strength to do the same.
The night flew by after that. In between dances, he chatted with the higher ups, letting them know how much progress he was making on his cases and how impressed he was with their own work. And he wasn’t much of a dancer, but he still wound up (poorly) jitterbugging his way through the secretarial pool, making wounded faces when they laughed at him. The dances were quick and, honestly, kind of exhausting, but the music was catchy and it kept him busy. Besides, he preferred their honest amusement to the false camaraderie the other lawyers projected.
Eventually, though, the music slowed into a mellower, jazzier number, and with a charming smile Roy passed his current dance partner, Nell, off to another man. Hughes was waiting for him off to the side, a glass of something in one hand and a knowing look in his eye. That was par for the course with Hughes, of course.
“That for me?” Roy asked, gesturing at the glass.
“Thought you could use a drink, what with all that dancing. Tiring stuff, eh?”
“Thanks,” Roy said, and he met Hughes’ eyes seriously to let him know he meant it. He was thirsty, but under no circumstances did Roy want to have to interact with Bradley right now. The Samson case, and all the cases that had come before it, were weighing heavily on his mind. He’d thought it was a game, or a test, at first, when he was just a low-level nobody working the ground floor. Build a bulletproof case against this man based on these facts! Let us see what you can do! He’d been a fool for believing it, twice a fool for getting Riza involved, and thrice a fool and damned for continuing once he realized the truth of it -- too cowardly to quit and too stupid to work out an alternative.
He shook his head to clear it, and took a long swallow from his glass. It went down smooth. Apparently, in addition to being the most corrupt son of a bitch in New York, Bradley also mixed one hell of a drink.
Hughes’ eyes narrowed suddenly. “On your seven, Roy,” he said, and then he did that thing -- that thing where he faded into the background, and next thing you knew he was off talking to someone across the room, like he’d never been standing with you in the first place. Frowning, Roy turned to see what it was that made Hughes flee. And --
Oh, hell. Louise, Bradley’s secretary and one of only two women he had yet to dance with, was slinking her way towards him with a wicked gleam in her eye. Roy suppressed a shudder. He cast about desperately for an escape route, but all the other women were either already dancing or sitting on the other side of the room, chatting and laughing and altogether much too far away for him to reach before Louise reached him.
He was about to do something desperate, like run to Alex Louis Armstrong and ask him to recount the entire history of Armstrong, Armstrong, & Armstrong on the spot, when a hand caught his arm from the side. Then Riza was there, raising her eyebrows at him in a way that said she was most assuredly laughing at him, for all that the set of her mouth was severe.
“I’d say that you owe me a dance, Mr. Mustang, after making me run after you like that to get you here in the first place.”
He heaved an internal sigh of relief and thanked heaven for Riza Hawkeye’s sharp ears and sharper eyes. Of course she caught his excuse for his absence, and of course she noticed Louise setting her sights on him. “Well, when you put it like that, Riza,” he said, lips twitching, “how can I refuse?”
He repeated the bow he had given Jeannie, and offered her his arm. The look on her face expressed clearly just how ridiculous she found him, but she accepted, and Roy led her past Louise with a tiny smirk. Then they were out in the middle of the room, as the gramophone switched onto another slow song. Roy hesitated, glancing at Riza uncertainly. This wasn’t something they did. But she just tucked herself into the crook of his arm, taking his left hand in her right, and started to sway.
“Isn’t this, uh --” Roy swallowed. Her hair was tickling his cheek; he could smell her perfume, subtle but lovely. “Isn’t this a little closer than usual?”
“It’s called the balboa, Mr. Mustang,” she said, quietly. “It’s all the rage right now. Just follow my feet.”
He tilted his head down to watch her, focusing very hard on not being distracted by how close she was, how he could see each and every one of her eyelashes and the tiny, soft smile she was wearing. The steps seemed simple enough, and soon he was moving through them reasonably well. With nothing else to focus on, though, his mind moved to how warm Riza was, and how well her hand fit in his, and how he could feel every breath she took all along where they were pressed together.
So quietly he could barely hear her over the lilting music, Riza said, “I know there’s nothing we can do for your Sampson. I know why there’s nothing we can do.”
Roy lost his feet, stumbling. Riza guided him back into the steps with her hand against his back. “Aren’t I supposed to be leading you?” he said, joking half-heartedly. She didn’t reply. He sighed, then, fighting the urge to hang his head, to rest it on her shoulder. His neck felt so heavy. “I could say no. I could quit.” He, too, spoke barely above a whisper. “But in the long run, what would it accomplish? Bradley would just find someone else to put him away. And he’d continue, unchallenged, until the day he up and dies, Riza. If I stay on, I can keep moving. And someday, I will take him down. Him and this whole damn firm.”
She shushed him, glancing worriedly around them, but no one was listening. “I know that. And I’m with you. But still -- we’re going to be condemning an innocent man to a life behind bars, if not worse. Another innocent man. We can’t forget that.”
“I know the cost,” Roy said. “I won’t forget.” He wouldn’t. He couldn’t. Sampson would be another name on his list of unforgivable offences, his case burnt into Roy’s memory.
“Good.” Riza sighed, and he felt the tension leave her body. For a few moments they danced in silence, letting the music envelope and carry them. Then she turned her face to his and met his eyes. “But don’t let this break you, either.”
He smiled slightly. “As if you’d let it.” She smiled back, then turned away, but there was the lightest of pressures when she rested the side of her head almost imperceptibly against his shoulder. It was everything he could do not to press his lips to her hair, not to cling to her and never let her go.
The song trilled towards a close, and Roy sighed lowly. For a moment, he tightened his hold on her, indulging in the feel of her in his arms. Then he twirled her away, surprising a quiet laugh out of her, which made the end of the dance feel almost worth it.
When she regained her balance, her cheeks were flushed and her eyes twinkling. He smiled, and she huffed and rolled her eyes at him. “You’re ridiculous, Mr. Mustang,” she said, straightening her blouse busily.
“I know,” he said, with an exaggerated sigh. “It keeps me up at nights.”
“I bet,” she said, raising an eyebrow. Then: “That’d be why you’re always napping instead of working, I guess.”
“You’re so cruel to me, Riza,” Roy said, drooping despondently. People nearby chuckled, and Roy suppressed a smile. It was so very easy to sell the lazy boss and long-suffering employee facade when that was what people were looking for, anyway. He was already too good at his job; it wouldn’t do for him to like it as well. Then he’d be a threat.
Riza sniffed. “That is what they pay me for, yes.” She straightened her shoulders. “Thank you for the dance, Mr. Mustang. Now if you’ll excuse me, I need a nice, stiff drink.” And she was off, head held high and heels clicking busily against the floor while Roy’s “friends” patted him sympathetically on the back.
“You’ve got a tiger working for you, Roy my man,” Gran said, nudging him with his elbow.
“Working for me? I’m pretty sure I work for her, by this point,” Roy said.
It was maybe the truest thing he’d said to these people in years.