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Another Military Party

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The Fuhrer’s wife loved a party, and the Fuhrer loved to indulge his wife: this was the unofficial reason bandied about for the military balls that were held twice a year in Central. Officially, the balls were a chance to celebrate the fine work that the officers had done throughout the year and honor a few soldiers of exceptional merit. Attendance, while not technically mandatory, was very strongly encouraged.

A simple matter of being disgraced, threatened, under constant observation, and all too well aware of the darkest secrets underlying Amestris’ government was no excuse for an officer not to put in an appearance, which was why Colonel Mustang now found himself sipping brandied punch and exchanging idiotic pleasantries about the weather with Major General Hakuro’s wife.

The crowds of people felt oppressive, and so did his neat formal suit, which was odd because generally Mustang was all in favor of making a dapper impression. He’d always rather enjoyed the balls, too. While he was stationed at East he’d made it a point to time his visits to Central to allow him to put in an appearance. For one thing, the balls provided an unparalleled opportunity to observe the social networks among the senior staff, to see where alliances were strong and where there might be room for an ambitious young officer on his way up the ladder to insert himself. For another, there were few sights in this world more impressive than Major Alex Armstrong taking his sister Strongine out on the dance floor for a polka.

Major Armstrong was here tonight as usual, resplendent in a purple jacket and waistcoat, although with Major Armstrong one always had the suspicion that the outfit would not last the whole night. How the man maintained his clothing budget, nobody knew. But the rest of the Armstrong sisters had left the country – all, of course, except the Major General, and while Alex Louis and Olivier Mira performing a polka was a sight that Mustang would pay good money to see, he didn’t really think he was likely to have the opportunity.

He became aware that the pause in the conversation that signaled his turn to speak had gone on almost too long, and said, “Yes, it really is a shame.”

“And of course it’s been so cloudy too,” said Mrs. Hakuro, and heaved a sigh, one hand pressed to her pearls. “Goodness, it just feels like spring will never come.”

Mustang kept his face still and his smile polite – as far as he knew, Hakuro wasn’t in the inner circle, but what he didn’t know these days felt like a lot more than it used to – and said, “Surely you bring the spring with you, Mrs. Hakuro.” He saw her mouth open again and cut her off by dropping a small bow, smiling. “Please excuse me – I shouldn’t monopolize such a lovely woman anymore, it’s not fair to the rest of the party.”

Was her smile as he walked away simply that of a flattered military wife, or was there a knowing twist to it? He couldn’t be sure. The back of his neck under the layers of shirt collar, vest, tie and jacket was crawling as if eyes were on him, but then, that was a constant at this party. Hard to put on the impression of ease with Fuhrer King Bradley seated at the high table on the dais, genial in his military uniform, beaming out over the men and women under his command. Harder with Selim Bradley perched beside him, a homunculus grinning out from behind the wide child’s eyes.

Hard not to feel unprepared and unarmed in his layers of formalwear and unmarked white gloves. The Fuhrer was the only person in attendance who could get away with showing up in his dress military attire, rather than a suit or gown. It gave him the air of being ready for a battle that the rest of the guests didn’t see coming.

If he was hungry, he didn’t feel it; the tension in his back overrode any signals that might be coming from his stomach. He drifted over to the buffet anyway, out of habit, while the orchestra struck up a quadrille. The small tables near the hors d’oeuvres sat six, and over the years he and Hawkeye and Hughes and Gracia had begun to make a tradition of staking one out as a base of operations for the party. Mustang would claim a dance with Gracia around halfway through the evening, after which Hughes would shout at him to stop monopolizing his wife, get his own if he wanted one, why didn’t he, and disappear with Gracia onto the dance floor for the next three songs. Hawkeye would lean back in her chair with a glass of water in her hand, and would claim she was watching the table when anyone asked her to dance; Mustang, meanwhile, would dutifully take his turn with each Armstrong sister, and look over their shoulders to catch the line of suppressed laughter that hovered around Hawkeye’s mouth. He would get his revenge by announcing that he felt like sitting down and could watch the table for a while, and let that expert kidnapper Hughes drag his second-in-command out for a waltz while a slightly tipsy Gracia laughed and stole tiny pastries off her husband’s dessert plate and announced, as she did every year, that her lemon tart could kick this lemon tart’s ass.

But Hughes, of course, wasn’t there, and Gracia had no reason to come to military parties anymore to endure subpar military lemon tarts. As for Hawkeye – he didn’t have to glance over to place her. The sleeveless indigo dress she wore was similar in color to the standard blue combat gear, but still easy to track among the black and gray suits worn by the Fuhrer’s other aides. Absently he wondered if, as one of the Fuhrer’s bodyguards, she was allowed to break the general rule against weaponry at the party and keep her usual gun strapped underneath that high-necked charmeuse gown. Probably not, in which case she must be feeling as exposed as he was, if not more. Not that he’d see it on her face, if he allowed himself to look there. In the set of her shoulders and the line of her back, maybe, but not her face.

And he wasn’t looking over there anyway. It was enough to keep the awareness of her presence through his peripheral vision, as he’d done countless times before in combat, noting her placement and adapting his strategy accordingly without shifting his focus from the danger in front of him. When you worked closely with a sniper, you learned not to alert the enemy to their position. Bradley liked to think that by placing Hawkeye under his command he’d rendered her useless in the game, a liability rather than an asset. It was important to maintain that illusion.

So he didn’t glance over there, and he didn’t look over his shoulder, either, though the empty space behind him itched at his back. Instead, he loaded his plate with a few mini-quiches and headed over to the table along the side wall where Lieutenant Focker was sitting with Sheska and Sergeant Brosh.

As he saw Mustang approaching, Brosh picked up his full plate and jerked out of his chair. “I think I’m done eating,” he said, too loudly, and marched off to the other side of the room. Sheska squinted after him and bit her lip; Focker snorted and then gave Mustang an amiable nod, as if nothing had happened. “Colonel.”

“Lieutenant Focker,” said Mustang, with an answering nod. Focker had worked with Hughes, and Hughes had complained about him in the way that meant he respected him. Mustang trusted him as much as he did any man in Central right now, which was to say, not much. Still, it never hurt to sound out a potentially decent soldier a little and find out where he stood, and Sheska and that magpie’s-nest of a brain of hers were an excellent resource. He set his plate down on the table and rested a hand on the chair in front of him, about to pull it out. “Have you –”

He just had enough time to realize that Focker’s eyes had shifted to focus on something behind him when he heard a voice boom out, “Colonel Mustang!”

Mustang let a smirk flicker across his face and half-turned to face Major General Armstrong, elegant and intimidating in a well-fitted blue gown that shimmered under her black Briggsian military jacket. The stars of her rank blazed from her shoulders. He had to admire her way of skirting the dress code; no one could accuse her of being underdressed for the ball. She was standing with Brigadier General Allen, Focker’s direct superior, and both of them had dessert plates in their hand.

“Aiming for my seat, Colonel?” Armstrong took a step forward and raised an aggressive eyebrow, while Allen – clearly used to the Major General’s ways – calmly stepped around her and seated himself at the table.

The quadrille had come to an end, and the orchestra was taking a brief pause for breath. Couples were starting to drift off the dance floor and back towards the table. Then the next tune began; Mustang recognized the intro, and felt the smirk settle into place. “On the contrary,” he said. “That’s a drachmenne they’re playing, isn’t it? I came to ask if the resident Drachma expert would honor me with a dance. That is, if you dance, Major General.”

The drachmenne – so-called because it was rumored to have originated in Drachma, where they had to dance energetically (the saying went) to keep warm – had only started catching on in central Amestris two or three years ago. It vaguely resembled a polka crammed into three-quarter time and incorporated a number of showy jumps and lifts. It also happened to be the only kind of physical activity at which Mustang thought he might have a chance of coming out looking better than the Major General. While every educated Amestrian learned the more traditional forms as a matter of course, it was difficult to imagine the Northern Wall taking time out of ruling Briggs with an iron fist to practice the latest dance craze.

Then again, this was Olivier Mira Armstrong, who never let herself be outmatched at anything. The Ice Queen of Briggs eyed him, and then gave a snort of what seemed to be acknowledgment. “Good luck keeping up, Mustang,” she said, and tossed her dessert plate onto the table. Miraculously, it clattered into place without sending mousse or strawberries all over the tablecloth.

Mustang was starting to second-guess his own cleverness, but there wasn’t much backing down now. “I’m sure it will be a pleasure,” he said, offered his arm, and sallied out onto the dance floor. He was reasonably sure he could hear snickering behind him.

He had half-expected she would fight for the lead, but she let him take it without argument; he was slightly relieved until he realized that the distinction between lead and follow was mostly a formality when you were dancing with a partner as capable of exerting her strength as Major General Olivier Armstrong. He should probably have remembered this from past dances with the Armstrong sisters, but then with them he’d generally stuck with relatively sedate waltzes and quadrilles. The drachmenne, on the other hand, had about thirty potential variations that involved the leading partner lifting or throwing the follow, and about six in which the follow lifted or threw the lead. Mustang attempted to lead Armstrong in a supported jump and found himself sailing into an over-shoulder twist instead, just barely managing to get his knees under him in time to land with panache. He settled a confident smile on his face as they galloped off into the base step of the drachmenne; Armstrong tossed her head, long blonde hair whipping past his face, and then back-led him into a cannonball. A cautious circle started to open up around them, as other, less ambitious drachmenne dancers backed away to avoid getting accidentally kicked in the head.

The cannonball was almost instantly followed by a sideways grizzly, reverse-engineered so the leader spun around the follow’s arm rather than vice-versa. “If the drachmenne weren’t so new,” Mustang remarked, after carefully harboring his breath for a few moments to make sure he could get the words out without breathing hard or revealing signs of exertion, “I would say this technique had been passed down in the Armstrong family for generations.”

“This is the Briggs way, Colonel,” retorted Armstrong, and jerked them sideways as another couple spun past. “I warned you about keeping up.”

With some difficulty, Mustang suppressed the mental image of Olivier drilling a squad of hardened Briggs soldiers in combat drachmenne aerial jumps. “I have a great deal of respect for the Briggs way –” Mustang exerted as much skill as he possessed, and managed to actually lead a move, sending the General into a candlestick over his head. She landed with flair, skirt and coat swirling. “- but in Central, this kind of dance involves a certain amount of cooperation.”

“This is cooperation,” said Armstrong, lips curving into a vulpine smile. “I’m not smashing you into the floor.” He extended his right arm and she spun out, kicking her left foot into the air. Major Armstrong and his partner skidded to a halt to avoided running into her leg, and promptly crashed into the Hakuros instead. “For the length of this dance, at least, Colonel.”

“As you know,” said Mustang, restraining the urge to crane his head to observe what from the sound of it seemed to be a fairly epic pile-up behind them, “I’m honored to be your partner in this particular dance.” He grinned at her, and then, out of habit, looked over her shoulder towards the other end of the room to catch Hawkeye’s eye – she of all people would get the joke of him doing his damnedest to pretend he was still leading this drachmenne while flying over Armstrong’s shoulder every other moment – before he remembered that he wasn’t supposed to be looking, and neither was she.

Too bad, he decided. If anyone could use a laugh these days, it was him and his man. The music was drawing to a close; he looked over at Hawkeye again, and their eyes met. For a second he had the gratification of seeing the familiar expression of amused irony on her face that said Colonel, you know you’re ridiculous, and for a second everything was almost normal. Then her eyes jerked abruptly upwards and her face was blotted out by a broad back in blue. Mustang felt his own eyes narrow as he sent the Major General into the somersault that was generally accepted to be the most elegant ending to the dance, while the music swelled to a triumphant chord - unfortunately marred by a slight screech as one or two violinists lifted their bows a trifle too dramatically. The drachmenne had a tendency to encourage that in musicians.

Mustang released Armstrong’s hands and offered her a formal bow, which had the benefit of allowing him to at least partially recover his breath. “Thank you for the dance, Major General. I appreciated the demonstration of Northern cooperation.” He straightened again. “Perhaps I’ll send you some flowers to show my gratitude. They can brighten your house until spring.”

General Armstrong was already walking back to her table. Unless she was hiding it very well, she wasn’t in the least bit out of breath. But it was possible, he told himself optimistically, that she was hiding it very well. “I’ll throw them out,” she said, without looking over her shoulder.

“Then I’ll deliver them myself.”

Armstrong lifted a dismissive hand and waved it at him. “Hnh! I’ll throw you out.”

Mustang laughed, but his eyes were already straying back out across the hall, picking through the groups of civilian-garbed soldiers clumping around the edges of the dance floor. Everyone was milling about as they waited for the intro that would signal what the next dance would be, and he’d lost sight of his target in the density of people. Finally the orchestra, having taken rather longer than their usual break to recover from the drachmenne, set bows to strings and started up the slow strains of an infantère – a formal and stylized dance that dated back centuries. It involved a lot of solemn walking around in set patterns on the dance floor, the man’s left hand just lightly touching the woman’s upper right arm. Occasionally the couple would turn to face each other, place palms together and dip a sedate bow before wheeling around each other, returning to position, and continuing to navigate the other couples. It was all very dignified and very military; it was generally considered that one infantère was plenty per ball, but it had a certain charm, and qualities to appreciate.

Right now, the quality of the dance that Mustang most appreciated was its orderliness. Couples were beginning to line up in two straight rows along the wide expanse of the dance floor. Mustang skimmed down them hastily. There was Armstrong, apparently recovered from his fall, facing an unnerved-looking Corporal Anjete from the records hall; there, Brosh and Sheska; General Gardner and his wife, Major Thomas and her husband . . .

There at the farthest end of the line, a stiff patch of indigo stood in the shadow cast by a shape in the deeper military blue. Lieutenant Hawkeye and her direct superior. The Fuhrer.

She was looking straight in front of her, with perfect military posture; he knew the stance well, and though he couldn’t see the set look on her face from all the way over here he could pull it up directly from memory. He felt his own eyes narrowing, and smoothed his expression out with an effort, resting his palms flat against his pants to keep his fists from clenching. It suddenly felt very important that he go somewhere he could see her face – no, that wasn’t really relevant. What was important was that she be able to see his face.

Mustang knew his lieutenant’s strength and her control. She would finish out her dance with a Homunculus, this petty and – unfortunately – effective display of Bradley’s power, and never flinch from the necessity. He knew she wouldn’t catch his eye to look for the subtle reassurance that she wasn’t alone, that someone else understood the chilling secrets underlying this sedate military party. She would make sure not to look for him at all. She would keep her eyes straight ahead, back stiff and face wooden, the mask of the perfect soldier covering everything underneath.

But just in case – just in case she did glance over, just once, he wanted to be where she could see him.

He started to make his way across the floor, slow and casual, nodding to acquaintances as he went. The line had started moving, and Hawkeye and Bradley and the other couple in their set were proceeding around each other in the infantère’s regimented patterns. The route Mustang had to follow felt as restrictive and predetermined as the dance. Greet this person, avoid that one; send that one a confident smile to let them know that the party’s fine, thanks, and despite your current awkward political position you’re sure you’ll soon be on the way up again. If he looked over at the progress of the infantère between most of the short exchanges, he told himself that no one would take too much note of this. The patterns created by the swirling of partners in and out of each other’s orbits were certainly interesting enough to hold a viewer’s attention.

He was halfway across the room by now and could see the lead pair better. Bradley was a tall man, and when he turned towards his partner for the palm-to-palm salute that perfect direct posture of Hawkeye’s gave her an excellent excuse not to look up at the Fuhrer’s expression. Mustang wasn’t so lucky; the jovially amused look on Bradley’s face made him press his palms down flatter against his sides.

“He’s always that way,” said a fond voice next to him – it took him only a moment to identify it. He restrained his jerk upright, with an effort, and turned his attention to the Fuhrer’s wife. She’d come up while he was distracted, and he hadn’t noticed – damn it, he had to be more careful.

“He’s such a sweet man – he’s so tired by this time of night, but of course now dinner's over he has to dance with all his subordinates. Well!” She laughed. “Not the men, of course, I have to dance with them. It’s a nice way to build trust, isn’t it?”

“Trust?” Mustang kept his expression still. Mrs. Bradley was an unknown quantity. There was no telling how much she knew, if she knew anything at all; she might be anything from a pawn to a homunculus herself.

“Of course! Few things rely on real partnership as much as a dance.” Mrs. Bradley bestowed a benevolent smile on him. “My instructors used to say it was something like a four-minute marriage – of course you young folk wouldn’t know much about that, but take it from an old married woman that they weren’t too far off the mark. Not as much for these dull old processionals, of course.” She waved her hand out at the parade of the infantère, and her smile broadened, the lines crinkling at the corners of her eyes. “That’s why he always saves the waltzes for me – oh, King!” The wave turned energetic as Bradley and Hawkeye marched by.

The Fuhrer glanced over and lifted his free right arm in acknowledgement, with an affectionate smile for his wife – or what any observer would call an affectionate smile, at any rate. Who knew if the homunculus truly felt anything that could be termed affection? It certainly wasn’t anything resembling fondness that was in the Fuhrer’s face when his gaze passed over Mustang, though the smile was nearly the same. Perhaps a little narrower. Mustang managed a cool nod of acknowledgment. Hawkeye didn’t look at either of them, but she must have registered him in her peripheral vision, because her chin lifted ever so slightly. It was a targeted gesture of reassurance: she was letting him know that these small, symbolic measures, calculated to intimidate, were not going to succeed.

Calculated to intimidate and infuriate. She was doing her part. He had to make sure to do his.

“Lieutenant Hawkeye’s a lovely girl – pardon me, I suppose I should say a very good soldier,” said Mrs. Bradley, as the Fuhrer and the Lieutenant disappeared again behind one of the oldest Central generals and his equally creaky wife. “Well, she’s both those things, of course. Selim’s very taken with her – I’m so glad we’re getting the opportunity to know her. She used to work closely with you, didn’t she, Colonel?”

“Yes, I always found her a very fine officer,” said Mustang formally. “One of the finest I’ve worked with.”

Mrs. Bradley beamed, as pleased as a doting aunt who’s just received a compliment on her niece’s graduation. “You must have been happy to see her promoted.”

“I’m afraid I’m too selfish for that, Mrs. Bradley,” said Mustang. “When I come across good men, I like to keep them.”

The Fuhrer’s wife’s eyes flicked over to Hawkeye and then back to Mustang, taking on a speculative glint. “A lovely girl,” she repeated, musingly, and then shot Mustang a conspiratorial grin. “Oh, I can’t blame you for that kind of selfishness. Don’t let the good ones go! Why, after my first date with King, he didn’t have a chance of getting away.” She giggled like a girl, cheeks flushing faintly to match the rose of her gown. “But no matter how many times I tell him that, that awful man still claims he’s the one who did the deciding!”

The part of Mustang’s brain not currently occupied with tracking Bradley and Hawkeye across the dance floor was having difficulty deciding whether it was horrifically fascinated by the prospect of learning the details of the Homunculus Wrath’s romantic life, or just horrified. The mental images did not seem likely to be anything other than traumatic; then again, he hadn’t thought that the line of duty would ever require him to know about Lieutenant Havoc’s fondness for busty women either, and look how that had turned out. In a war like this you took potentially useful information where you found it. Fortunately, he was saved from having to consider this further by the chords that signaled that the infantère was coming to a close.

“Ah, excuse me, Colonel,” said Mrs. Bradley. “I should go tell Selim, this next dance is going to be his last before bedtime. I promised him he could see one more waltz!” She bustled back off towards the dais where the high table sat. Lieutenant Shtolhi, one of the Fuhrer’s aides, trailed discreetly after her.

The infantère swept into its final strains, the two rows of dancers lining up, palm to palm. Mustang took two or three steps closer, hoping for a better view of Hawkeye’s expression. Despite her best efforts, by this point there were faint lines of strain on her face – invisible, he would guess, to anyone who didn’t know her well, but there. As all participants took a step back and bowed, he saw them ease and felt the tension in his own forehead release as well. The greater ordeal was ongoing, but at least this smaller trial was done.

Bradley said something to Hawkeye that Mustang couldn’t hear. He couldn’t hear her response either, but he could see it – a flat yes, sir – and the two of them moved out of the circle of the dance floor towards the front of the room. The orchestra started up again, slowly. Mrs. Bradley had predicted with accuracy; the tune was a waltz.

As Bradley and Hawkeye progressed, Selim slid off his seat and hopped down the stars that separated the dais from the main ball floor. His path seemed set to intersect his ostensible father and the lieutenant. The hair on the back of Mustang’s neck prickled, and he started on a zigzagging course in that direction. He could hear Selim’s bright child’s voice, as Bradley and Hawkeye approached him: “You’re a really good dancer, Lieutenant!”

Hawkeye’s answer was lower, but Mustang was closer now and could make it out. “Thank you, Selim,” she said. Her voice was calm and empty of emotion, except for a slight hitch in her breath at the beginning.

“My mother said I could stay up for this waltz,” said Selim. “We’ve been learning that dance at school. It’s fun, isn’t it?”

“I don’t waltz very much,” said Hawkeye.

“Lieutenant . . .” The smile on Selim’s face widened. “You’ll dance the waltz with me, right? I’d really like to dance the last one with you!”

Hawkeye’s eyes widened for a bare moment before she tightened her jaw, bringing her face back under control. It highlighted the faint healing mark of the cut on her cheek, the one she’d gotten shortly before she told him Selim Bradley was a homunculus.

She said nothing, and the child-shaped creature smiled more brightly and reached for her hand.

It never reached her, because, with three swift strides, Mustang got there first. He bent down and lifted up the small boy under the arms, just as if he were a real child, any child, and after all, Mustang was not supposed to know that Selim was anything other than what he seemed; there was no particular reason his skin should be crawling as he picked up the small, rigid figure and swung him off to the side.

“You Bradleys, always monopolizing the pretty women!” he said, projecting geniality into his voice, and smiled, smiled – an adult indulging a child by pretending to treat him as another adult. Mrs. Bradley was beaming. “I’m cutting in on principle. Lieutenant?”

“Colonel,” said Hawkeye, her face once again even and unreadable. Mustang didn’t risk waiting, or looking over at the Fuhrer. He placed his right hand on her back and reached for hers with his left, ungracefully, propelling her onto the dance floor as she grasped at his shoulder for purchase.

It took a few moments of stumbling before they settled into the proper rhythm of the dance. Selim had been exaggerating; Hawkeye could navigate a waltz with adequate competence, but she wasn’t the kind of exceptional dancer who could seamlessly adapt to an unexpected step, and they’d gotten off to an awkward start in his haste to pull her away. Unfamiliarity made it awkward, too. They had never danced together, not at any of the formal Central balls, or the less formal socials in East. They had never spoken about it; Mustang had not thought too much about it; it was simply one of the things that they did not do, like delivering the casual pats on the back that he or she might give to Havoc or Fuery, or referring to each other by name without the careful formality of rank. In this one respect they were new partners, and it takes a minute in any dance to acclimate to a new partner’s body. Mustang knew Hawkeye’s body very well from the observations a commander needs to make in combat, and from older, darker history, too. But all his knowledge came from a distance; there was a significant difference between that kind of observation, and the constant contact of closed waltz position.

Her breathing was coming a little faster than normal, and so was his - not particularly surprising, considering that he had just casually manhandled a homunculus. The sheer folly of that act would probably sink in later. For now, he couldn’t feel anything about that but a kind of grim, absurd satisfaction in having caught the created human in the trap of its own disguise by treating it exactly as the child it appeared.

Besides, he didn’t have to think about how foolish he’d been, because Hawkeye was doing it for him. She was still keeping her expression schooled – even out here on the dance floor, eyes were undoubtedly watching – but from this close he could see the work she was doing to keep it clear. “Colonel,” she said, “do you remember the conversation we were having at lunch the other day?” This code was easy to translate: I told you Selim Bradley was a homunculus; are you completely insane?

“Of course I remember it,” he told her. “It was good to have a chance to talk about old times.”

“I was thinking about it, so I wrote to Isaac from my class.”

“Oh?”

“Yes. Dove and Isaac are working in the same unit now. He asked after Oscar –”

I-D-I-O … “I don’t think I need all the details,” he said smoothly, repressing a laugh. It came through in a faint smile on his face and, involuntarily, in pressure from the white-gloved fingers of his right hand on her back.

Through the cotton of the gloves and the thin slippery fabric of her dress, he could feel the raised bumps of old scarring.

He straightened his fingers immediately; he wouldn’t have blamed her if she’d jerked away. She must have seen it in his face, because the repressed anger and anxiety in her gaze lessened, replaced by something less identifiable. She didn’t jerk. She moved slightly backward into his hand, which was proper waltz technique, and gripped his shoulder a little more tightly, which wasn’t: another signal of reassurance. “Maybe you’re right, Colonel,” she said quietly. “We shouldn’t talk too much about old times.”

He slowed his breathing by force of will and opened his mouth to respond – with what, he hadn’t yet figured out – and then stifled a startled exclamation as another couple almost whirled into them. Easy to imagine they were alone on this dance floor, but that was far from the truth. He had to exert pressure from his right hand again, just barely managing to steer her out of the way. As they turned together he felt a sudden impulse to let the glove fall and skim his bare fingers along her gowned back. He wanted to learn how the raw damage of his painfully careful flames had weathered with time; wanted to know, as he had no right to know, where the boundaries of the scar tissue faded into warm unwounded skin. Those burns contained the seeds of the course they traveled now and all the damage they both might take from it. They had been the beginning of a pact.

He kept his hand in the correct placement for waltz position. He said, instead, his voice almost casual, “Sorry – I should be paying more attention.”

It was her turn to smile, very slightly. “You’re fine, sir. I’m watching your back. We won’t crash.”

Their steps had been smoothing out as they spoke, unconsciously adjusting to each other’s quirks of posture and movement, and by now they had settled into an even rhythm. It was starting to feel natural – which should not have been as startling as it was – and his hand relaxed against the warmth of her back.

The tension in Hawkeye’s posture was still there. Well, they were surrounded by enemies, and there was tension in his back, too; it wasn’t going to go away. But it was less now than it had been all night, for her, and, he suspected, for himself as well.

There was a comfort in this. A comfort in simple contact with someone he trusted that he had not realized he’d been missing until now. And for a moment he could almost be grateful to the homunculus Selim Bradley, because, although that had certainly not been his intention, he had given them a chance to take it.

Though not, of course, for very long. The average waltz lasted three minutes, three and a half at most, and already the music was shifting into its final strains. Mustang drew a breath and glanced out over the floor. Couples around them were spinning towards the edges of the dancing area, hoping not to have to navigate the press of crowds from the center when the waltz ended. The Bradleys were among them, and Mustang dared to flicker a cold smile in the Fuhrer’s direction, and then felt Hawkeye stepping on his foot, which might have been legitimately accidental if it had happened at the beginning of their dance but certainly was not now.

He returned his gaze to his lieutenant, ruefully acknowledging her warning. Her eyes met his and held steady, as they would not be able to do once the dance ended. The evening was far from over. There would be seven, perhaps eight more dances before they were done, and they both knew that they would not dance any of them together. He felt a fierce reluctance to release her. In reality he wouldn’t be any more alone after this dance, he knew; she would be across the room, watching his back as always, however much she pretended not to see him. But he didn’t want her across the room.

He didn’t want his men scattered across the country. He didn’t want Hughes to be gone. There were a lot of things wrong with the world right now, and some of them he could eventually change and some of them wouldn’t ever be right, but either way patience was required, and self-indulgence was not. The waltz ended, and they took three final, slow steps, and halted.

He let his hand drop from her back, and she slipped hers away from his shoulder. But he left his other hand in hers a moment longer, and gripped it briefly before letting it slide away. They had never before used these kinds of codes, the unspoken messages passed through physical contact, and possibly they never would again. He thought she would be able to translate it, though: Be watchful. Be careful. Don’t die.

Something like a very faint smile crossed Hawkeye’s face. She inclined her head slightly, the acknowledgment of an order accepted, and then said aloud, formally, “Thank you, sir.” To anyone listening, she might have been thanking him for the dance.

Mustang nodded back. “Thank you, lieutenant.”

Then he turned away from her, at an angle that would allow him to watch her out of his peripheral vision. The Bradleys were talking now with Olivier Armstrong at the front of the room: the Major General coolly aggressive, King Bradley (worryingly) laughing, Mrs. Bradley flushed and happy with the Fuhrer’s arm linked in hers. Selim was nowhere to be seen; he must have indeed been sent to bed. That, at least, was a relief. He gave the group a wide berth – Armstrong wouldn’t welcome his interference – and headed towards the edge of the dance floor. Brigadier General Clemin was standing over there with a lady friend, and if Mustang goaded him enough in front of her, he might let something slip. Hawkeye was moving back towards the rest of the Fuhrer’s aides, where she would quietly absorb any information that fell. They would check in over lunch in a few days, have a casual conversation, avoiding each other’s eyes and focusing on the food to subtly convince an observer of the unimportance of their discourse. They would keep a careful distance; they would hold their positions.

The Promised Day was coming, and when it came, Mustang thought, allowing himself a sharp, narrow-eyed smile, they would show Central an entirely different kind of party.