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Senior year started not with a bang, but a crack. 

Rather, the crack of an egg, two eggs, three eggs, hitting Roy’s Jeep in the early hours of Monday morning, intermittent between shrill childish snorts and guffaws, was what started off senior year. It took a hot minute, a grand total of T-Minus-negative-ten seconds for Roy to register that this series of sounds was not, in fact, his alarm and launch out of bed to check the window. He attempted to throw it open against the pained protest of his still-healing torso, but it wouldn't budge.

The house he shared with some of his teammates, lovingly referred to as Headquarters between members of the Central State University Men’s Rugby Team, was probably as old as the already old city of Central. And, as he had just learned, the windows of Headquarters had probably not been replaced in the last few decades, at the very least. Needless to say, it was immovable object vs unstoppable force, and at least Roy could watch the scene unfold as he watched from the second story window, jiggling the lock, smoke pouring out his ears.

Havoc, plaid pajama pants and cigarette and all, was already halfway up the driveway to reprimand a pair of teenage boys on bikes with a carton of eggs. The pair didn't look impressed, one even throwing another egg at the dark green Jeep's bumper for good measure. By the time Roy could find the finesse to get the old, rickety window to open just a wee tiny crack, it was clear Havoc’s resolve was waning; the one exceptionally short boy with a blonde braid, was giving him the middle finger, and the other, lankier with a long black ponytail, threw an egg at Havoc’s bare feet, which he languidly and clumsily dodged.

Havoc, 0. Actual children, 2. Roy’s beloved and revered chariot (eight-year-old used Jeep),  -4. But who was counting? 

“Where the hell are your parents?” Havoc asked with his arms crossed, his voice muffled through the tiny crack of the wooden window pane.

“Dead,” said the puny one, right before dabbing, gaining another guffaw from his dorky friend. The window budged just a bit more.

Havoc looked ready to retort when the string-bean cut him off. “Don’t you like, have an old town road to like, ride ‘til you can’t no more?” The pair of kids high-fived as Roy watched Havoc take a long, long drag from his cigarette.

It pinched all his fingers, but with a heave the old wood finally gave way, and Roy’s injured side throbbed across his stomach as he finally got the wood open enough to stick his head out of.

Hey,” all three heads in the driveway whipped their attention onto him like he was a maniac screaming out a window or something. “What the hell do you think you’re doing to my car?”

“Are you stupid or blind?” asked Shrimp With A Braid.

“This isn’t your car,” said Stringbean Ponytail. 

Roy sputtered, slamming his hands against the window to stick his head out further. “What the fuck do you mean it’s not my car?”

“What, you expect me to believe you’re the fucking scrub that owns this car?” asked Shrimp, laughing as his dumb smug face contorted into something even dumber and smugger, that didn’t relent until Stringbean slowly stuck out a hand to mutter something that sounded like, “Wait, wait a second…”

Roy would not wait a second, however, and catapulted over his bed as quickly as his injuries might carry him to the bedside table where his keys sat. Returning to the window, he stuck his arm out to hit his car’s panic button before he stuck out his head; the alarm blaring and echoing unnaturally through the quiet morning air, his feat had been worth every bit of shock and fear painted across the faces of the two hooligans. Even as Havoc shook his head at him, the cigarette that had been in his mouth now lying on the concrete.

The moment Roy clicked the alarm off, the whole neighborhood fell silent, save a few chirping birds in the tree across the street. 

“Oh, this isn’t the right guy.”

Oh shit.

“Wrong address, punks,” said Havoc, yelping as Stringbean hurled what was left of the carton of eggs to the ground with a harsh splat and mounted his bike, ready to make a break for it. 

“Fullmetal, don’t just stand there, let’s go,” he called to his friend. But Fullmetal didn’t move right away, no, he was too busy staring at Roy, really scowling at him with an amount of rage and spite Roy thought unusual for a child his size, if laughable.

Never one to back down from a challenge, however, he leaned down with his arms crossed on the windowsill, glaring right back with a smirk to let the little shithead know who'd won. And maybe it was only about five seconds, but it was five seconds of sharp pain radiating from his side again just from standing in this position; when Fullmetal finally took off on his bike, Roy slipped back inside ready to make his own sprint down the stairs before he was stopped by the overwhelming physical ache that shot up his whole left side now, and instead had to limp out his door and down the stairs to scope out the damage to his precious car. One. Agonizing. Step. At a time.

He’d have to grab some ice before his first class, maybe a copious amount of ibuprofen, because he was not doing this kicked animal bullshit all day. 

Roy got maybe halfway down the stairs, trying to withhold a grimace like it was going to will his pain away, before Riza, team manager and psychic genius, apparently, appeared at the bottom of the steps, Hayate at her feet. Blonde hair unkempt from sleep and still in her pajamas, she must've seen or heard what'd happened because, naturally, she already had some dish rags and a bucket that reeked of vinegar. 

"Aren't you a sight for sore eyes," he said, playing cheerful.

She thought he was funny, she just never showed it. "What, did you fall asleep in your contacts again?"

"Who? Me?" Roy replied, grinning shamelessly when but one of Riza's raised at him in what he knew was amusement. His teasing lasted but all of two seconds, until his foot hit the next step. He didn't mean to wince, especially not in front of Riza, but he did, and she'd seen already, giant saucer eyes flicking wide for just a moment before she got to calculating.

He gave a shakey sigh, dropping the grin as Riza looked him up and down once, assessing the damage before settling to look Roy in the eye; there weren’t a lot of people in the world who noticed, but the two of them had been something of a packaged deal for years now, and communicating with Riza Hawkeye almost exclusively using eye contact was a language Roy was sure only he spoke.

“Good morning to you too," Riza said, or rather, do you need help down the stairs?

“‘Morning, Chief. Sorry to have woken you up." Leave me that scrap of my pride, thanks.

“Me and the whole neighborhood, I'm sure,” she replied, holding out a hand to him anyway as he hit the bottom step; he took it without complaining. You look like shit.

“Good thing the neighbors already hate us, or else this might've gotten us on their bad side.” I look like shit and so does my car, we’re practically matching.

The damage wouldn’t last, as the eggs that’d hit his car hadn’t been left to simmer even ten minutes before Roy and Riza got outside, but the eggs on the concrete would probably start smelling over-easy pretty soon if they were left out in the warm August sun too long. 

"You sure took your time getting up this morning, Oh Captain my Captain, all things considered. Good thing I have this fucking 8 AM, or your paint job would be toast," Havoc called to them, standing at the edge of the driveway with but another cigarette in his mouth. 

One egg had hit the bumper, two along the door handles, another on his driver's side window. "What the hell even was that? Who the hell were those kids?"

"Beats me. They said it was revenge for "Winry" or some shit, but I'm only half-awake right now, so that whole phrase means nothing to me," said Havoc, taking out his cigarette to hold high above his head, so he could bend over and scratch Hayate behind the ears. 

"Did you get a good look at their faces at least? Maybe a picture?"

"Did you think to come down the stairs to take a look at them yourself? Or did you sound your alarm out the window for the drama of it all?"

Riza broke into a grin at that one, her and Havoc clearly delighted in his misery as Roy frowned, looking towards the crushed carton of eggs left by the perpetrators. "Someone should probably clean that up too, huh?"

“Sorry Cap, I did my best, but I’m tapping out on this one,” Havoc replied, looking down upon the smashed eggs, like maybe they could clean up themselves if he asked nicely. “At least before I get some coffee in me. Ask Feury maybe? He’s got no vices to tend to.”

“Sorry about the cigarette, that one looked fresh.”

“But a small price to pay to defend your honor, Colonel,” Havoc shrugged, slapping Roy on the back before he headed inside; only Riza saw the grimace that immediately painted his face as Havoc walked away. Riza set down the bucket, throwing her hair up in her trusted clip, as Roy hobbled around the other side of his car, just to make sure there weren't any other scratches or dents.

This car had been his first big purchase ever,  after some old lady in the outskirts of town who never drove it sold it to him for a bargain after he'd worked and saved and worked and saved to drive something that wasn't a screaming metal death trap waiting to be borrowed like his Aunt's old car. Something cool, or if that was too immature, something respectable. It was a fond memory, bringing this car home and scrubbing it until he could see his reflection in the gleam of the shiny green paint. 

So he groaned as he got back around to the side with eggs running down the doors, exasperated at this point.

“You don’t have to help,” said Riza, pulling out a rag and squeezing the excess solution back into the bucket. 

“No, I’m the one who should be cleaning this off, you don’t have to help,” Roy replied, reaching for the other dishtowel sitting in the bucket of water before he realized that bending over was still incredibly painful. Despite his efforts to make it a smooth movement, his hand faltered, and he straightened back up, unable to take the pain. 

Riza, of course, noticed immediately. Instead of saying anything, however, she picked up the bucket to hold like she might a bag of groceries, close to her chest, or rather, high enough so that Roy wouldn’t have to bend over to dunk and redunk the rag. She'd have to bear the smell of the vinegar, with it that close to her face, but he knew if he asked or insisted otherwise, she would deny it. 

And so they got to work. 


Dr. Grumman’s office was on the top floor, naturally, because being a high-profile, respected, tenured professor came with perks like big offices with a nice view of the quad in old buildings where the elevator was always under construction. Roy had made it this far into his first day of classes unscathed and unbothered, if a bit wired on pain medication and coffee. He’d pulled out an ironed button up and slacks to impress, he’d done the reading ahead of time like every good pre-law student who wanted to show off how ready he was for law school, and at the very least, did not groan in pain every time he sat down at a desk. But Grumman, not one for preparation or a schedule, emailed him for a 3 o’clock meeting at 2:30, and Roy, not one to refuse Grumman, both out of obligation and because he flat out liked the guy, was set to be five minutes early. 

Until, of course, he got to the stairs. 

Every step was a reminder. Grumman had ignored his emails all summer about writing him a letter of recommendation for his law school apps. Step. First day back, Grumman surely would’ve checked his email. Step. Yeah, he was kooky, but there was a method to the madness, Roy was well aware. Step. Grumman had been his advisor since he was a scrawny high school student taking college-level classes, sliding him opportunity after opportunity to both grow and grow up. Step. Grumman was also a rockstar in law world, the stamp of approval from him would surely get Roy anywhere he wanted to go. Step. And Roy wanted to go a lot of places. Step step step.

It only took two breaks, but Roy made it up three flights of stairs without surrendering and texting Hawkeye his last will and testament (he’d leave everything to Hayate, of course). Careful not to drag his feet through the hall of offices, he straightened out his spine before knocking on the big oak door with a black label reading Grumman across the front at eye level. 

“Please come in!” called a familiar voice. Stepping inside offices on this side of campus was a little like stepping back in time. Back to when Central State University was still the Central Military Academy and when Roy would’ve had to follow decorum, salute and wait for permission and so on, instead of waltzing in with a smile and taking the open seat in front of Grumman’s large and elaborately carved desk. Wall to wall, between bookshelves and dark blue drapes and half a dozen esteemed awards, were rows and rows of photos of students in uniform, graduating classes of cadets from years prior. The sword hanging above Grumman’s was a pretty stark contrast to the eccentric professor, who was already pulling out old chessboard he kept in the bottom drawer of his desk, but Roy could see where this was lost on students who hadn’t been around when Central was still a military academy, who were only familiar with the new graduating class photos full of caps and gowns instead of dress blues.

“Welcome back, Mustang,” Grumman grinned, although it was mostly concealed by his mustache, reaching across the board to shake Roy’s hand with a little more strength than he looked like he would have for a man his age. Without asking Roy’s take on the matter, Grumman pushed forward a white pawn two spaces, nodding to him that it was his turn. “Did you have a good summer?”

“I did, sir.” Roy moved his pawn forward two, black mirroring white. Of all habits to keep, however, Roy had always been unable to drop the 'sir' when talking to his advisor. “How was the coast?”

“Mustang,” Grumman sighed, likely only half-dramatics, as he pushed forward another piece. “if I could take this city and push it to the beach so I could keep working here with the promise of sunshine and piña coladas immediately after, every day, I’d do it.”

Roy smirked. “I don’t doubt that, sir.”

A knight, another pawn. “How’s my granddaughter these days? Still running a taut ship over at the rugby house, I’m sure.”

“She’s our secret weapon, sir.”

“Please remind her to call her old grandfather, if you would.” Roy slid his bishop in front of the queen he’d left open. “She won’t forget, but keeping you boys ship-shape is a full-time job, I’m sure.”

“Of course, sir,” Roy replied. He would not remind her. 

The room fell silent for a few turns before Grumman slid his bishop to claim one of Roy’s pawns. “I took a look at your email. Or rather, emails.

Roy tried not to jump out of his seat at the implication, instead taking his time with his turn as a chance to control himself. That’d been the thing he’d struggled with first, learning chess: being patient, not getting ahead of himself, thinking several steps ahead instead of doing what was immediately gratifying - 

“Look at me, boy.”

When he looked up from the board, Roy couldn’t help but feel like from the look on Grumman’s face, he was being laughed at just a little. 

Grumman threw his hands up. “I’ll write it, of course I’ll write the damn letter.” Roy exhaled. “You thought after all this time I’d get hung up on a stupid letter? Please. I’ll get you wherever you want to go, Mustang.”

“Thank you, sir, I -”

“On one condition.”

Roy straightened out.

“Name it.”

Grumman steepled his hands, leaning forward over the board. “Remember when you were starting classes here? You were, what, 16?”

“Right, sir.”

“Taking chemistry classes and wearing shirts that were a few sizes too big,” Grumman laughed. “Do you remember who your senior mentor was? To keep you on the straight and narrow, make sure you were using all the resources this school rose to your fingertips to their full potential.”

“Of course," Roy shrugged, not quite following, but ready with an answer anyway. "My senior mentor was Olivier Armstrong. She’s still around campus, I see still see her sometimes.”

“What was that like?" Grumman mused. "Being a high schooler with his head in his ass, being shown the ropes by someone with the achievements and the success and the chutzpah like Armstrong had?”

Roy thought back. To be fair, he’d spent a lot of that year trying to set things on fire with the lab bunsen burners and trying to get a rise out of Olivier, The General Herself. She’d been a good mentor, he decided, if a military dog through and through, strict and harsh and absolutely unafraid of telling him exactly what he was doing wrong at any given moment in extensive detail. But he probably wouldn’t have done so hot that first year without her barking, and wouldn’t have gotten into rugby without her dragging him to the practices she oversaw as manager, and liked to think that they held a good deal of respect for each other now, even if she still treated him like a child and he still teased her just for fun. 

“Important,” Roy replied. “Paramount.”

It was a long-standing tradition of Central Military, setting up new and bright-eyed students with high-achieving upperclassmen.

“I’d agree. In fact, I’d say you’ve grown into someone with his own achievements and success and chutzpah.”

 A tradition Roy had no time for his last year at Central State, and no intention in getting involved in, no thanks.

“Thank you, sir.” This conversation wasn’t going where he wanted this to go.

“You’ve always had the spark. You’ve always been bright. You’re a leader already, Roy Mustang. So why not extend that? Make a good thing for the next generation?”

Where Roy’s tactics could be a little direct, Grumman had problems with cutting to the point.

“In exchange for my recommendation…” Don’t say it. “You’ll be a mentor this year.” Unbelievable. “And I’ll get you anywhere you want to go, boy.”

Taking a moment to unclench his jaw, Roy stared at the black and white chessboard before him instead of saying something right away; pardon him for thinking that being Grumman’s TA, his research assistant, acing his classes, helping him grade the other students’ assignments for crying out loud, had not been enough. 

“You’ll do it?” asked Grumman, eyeing him carefully (like grandaughter, like grandfather?) from behind his hand steeple.

Roy would not frown and would not cringe. He would instead take a deep breath, try not to heave too much on the sigh and reply, firmly, “Of course.”

The old professor before him beamed, mustache curling into a smile all its own. “Wonderful,” Grumman clapped his hands together, pointing to Roy and back to the board with the implication that it was still his turn. “You’ll like the boy who applied this year. He’s 15 - 

“That’s the youngest we’ve ever had-” Roy had been the youngest before, see, but apparently not anymore. 

“He likes chemistry, wears shirts that are too big for him, has no sense of manners. A firecracker, but very smart. He's more than a little bit like you -”

It was at that moment that the door to Grumman’s office must have swung open with a bang behind Roy’s back, hitting a bookcase as the intruder continued running his mouth, mid-spiel, “SorryI’mlateDr.GrummanIgotlostthiscampusissobig -”

Roy rolled his eyes, perturbed by the rudeness as he rose to his feet to turn toward the door, ready to give the dirtiest of looks he could muster before he was taken aback - 

Their visitor, short of both stature and breath, wore a bright red hoodie and dirty sneakers, bangs flying any which way out of a blond braid. Roy blinked, brow unfurling once he got a good look at the kid’s face at the very same instant the eyes of the kid in question went wide in realization upon seeing Roy.

They’d held that for a few moments, like they’d both been caught red-handed.

It hadn't been just any old student. It was the fucking shithead who’d egged his car. 

Grumman made his way around the side of his desk. “Speak of the devil, we were just talking about you. Roy, this is Edward Elric, your new ment-”

“Hey Fullmetal,” said Roy, cool and slow, cutting off Grumman with something of a sneer. At the use of his nickname, Edward’s deer-in-the-headlights look turned loathsome, his hands balled into fists. 

Grumman seemed oblivious if nothing short of delighted. “Oh, so you know each other?”

“Something like that,” muttered Edward. 

“Excellent,” Grumman announced with an air of finality and clapped either of the pair on the back before moving a bit slowly back to his desk. “Do close the door behind you, Mr. Elric, we have quite a bit to go over if you have the time. Last one there’s a rotten egg.”

Despite being bitter as hell and his side starting to ache, Roy stifled the urge to laugh at Fullmetal’s pained expression.

Chapter Text

Havoc texts him outside the group chat a few days before the start of the August preseason while he’s prepping plays to run with the team.

 

[13:34] Cap, Colonel, bud

[13:34] u good?

 

[13:36] ?

 

[13:36] what are u gonna make me spell it out?

[13:37] are. You. Good?

 

[13:37] if you miss me havoc you can just say so

 

[13:38] listen when the other option is this bumfuck nowhere town every day we spend apart is practically a knife in my back

 

[13:38] (kissy face emoji)

 

[13:38] but that’s not the point

[13:38] no bullshit, are you okay?

 

[13:39] i’m fine? Are you okay???

 

[13:41] yea im good i was just worried bc i follow you on spotify and you’ve been listening to a fuck ton of frank ocean lately

 

Roy had to read that last message a few times over. He took a screenshot and sent it to Hawkeye in seconds, who’d replied quickly with an [13:41] oh damn. He has a point.

 

[13:43] wow

 

[13:44] i don’t wanna pry but i have some playlists to run for the store at work and your feed shows up it’s not my fault

[13:44] happy people don’t listen to white ferrari that many times in a row

 

Well, Havoc certainly had a point.

Look, it didn’t matter to Roy at the end of the day if he wasn’t showing much more than a poker face over anything else these days, the familiar but trusty “I’m Good I’m So Good I’m Probably Even Better Than You Are You Okay?” schtick had gotten him this far in the shittiest moments of his life, and he had no intention of jumping ship for a more emotionally vulnerable method now. But of all the tells to give, he hadn’t once thought his Spotify feed would be the most accurate giveaway. Good play, Havoc, good play.

 

[13:45] you must really wanna come back to central

 

[13:45] oh fuck off i’m trying to be a good friend

[13:46] if the solaris thing is bothering u that much it’s okay man i’m here for you.

[13:46] i’m here for you so much i won’t even hit on her now that you’re split

 

[13:47] has anyone ever told you how unbelievably generous you are

 

For a split second, Roy considered telling Havoc - a good roommate, an honest friend, a known party animal with a weakness for big-chested women, but truly the definition of a hardworking, stand-up guy - the truth about what was really going on before immediately ruling against it. But a better play than a one-man scrum, Roy decided, might’ve been to just go along with Havoc’s well-intended support and obvious need of an excuse to get out of the rinky-dink, one-traffic-light town he was from and back to school. His “recent” “split” from Solaris, if you could call it that, truly didn’t warrant even half of a Frank Ocean song, but his delayed answer to Havoc technically wasn’t a lie.

 

[13:48] I guess when you put it that way, I’ve been better

[13:49] maybe just enough emotional turmoil to, say, be your excuse for ditching the family store early

 

Havoc’s reply was immediate.

 

[13:49] great text the homeboys we’re having a bonfire Friday

[13:50] i can bring firewood if you get booze

[13:50] pour one out for our sad love lives

 

Roy shook his head but did as he'd been asked, telling Riza first that the boys would be back at the house sooner rather than later, sorry if she'd been enjoying the peace and quiet. Breda was definitely in, as Havoc would wind up driving through his hometown on the way to Central anyway, and who was he to deny a free ride? Feury said he was in but might be late, as that Friday was the last day of his summer internship. It was barely ten minutes after his initial invite that Falman replied with a screenshot of his train ticket back from Briggs to Central. Armstrong, having graduated two years ago but had lived at HQ and was therefore forever welcome to join in their debauchery, said that he was required to go to some employee training on campus the next morning, and so regretfully, he'd have to decline (Roy could hear Alex's exact voice in his head as he read the text off his phone). Reaching out to a grad like Armstrong also meant Roy would, surely and obviously, have to reach out to Hughes, given they'd been roommates and co-captains before Maes had gotten his diploma in the spring. Hughes being Hughes, of course, didn't answer right away. This was normal and expected, the man was practically unreachable to anyone who wasn't his wife, but then he didn't answer in a few hours, and the sun went down, still with no response. 

Roy made a point not to listen to Frank Ocean for a few days.


"Hayate, Hayate, get down."

It took some effort to stop Riza's painfully enthusiastic dog from weaving between his feet, greeting him with a bark loud enough for the neighborhood to hear, but Roy had made it back to Headquarters for the semester in one piece. Stepping over the front door threshold of HQ with a case of beer in one hand and a canister of gasoline in the other felt no different than it normally did, and Roy supposed that should've comforted him in one way or another. He could be honest and agree that nothing made Headquarters special or stand out in any spectacular way, at least not to any given passerby who wasn't privy to the house that stood short and worn on an otherwise quiet residential street facing the edge of campus, the rolling woods of the surrounding county fanning out behind it. But neither large nor glamorous, the history was there: HQ was rugby team tradition tracing back to the Central State's military era, if what was contained in the halls he walked through were any clue of the weird, niche in-between of bellicose discipline and varsity fellowship. Banners of the school's blue and gold- Go Alchemists! - and the national crest on one wall, old framed and signed jerseys from notable alumni hanging next to a Beastie Boys poster on the other. An Xbox and a used, albeit comfortable couch, a bookshelf of old textbooks and scratches on top of scratches on the hardwood floor from more intense games of beer pong. HQ really was the same as it had ever been, but it was hard to deny the pull of the time that had past, from when he'd bounded in this house as a pint-sized military school dog, taken in by the upperclassmen because he could tutor them in chemistry, to walking in now, grown, looking for something to hold onto as the sand began to pool at his feet and fall out to the bottom of the hourglass.

He knew he'd leave HQ sooner or later, it wasn't about the house.

Roy set down his supplies to hull off his backpack, and as he slung it off his shoulder and down by the door, he caught an eyeful of Hughes' old rugby jersey, number 16, framed and signed alongside Alex's from the year before. It was a new addition, must've just gotten back from getting framed, hung now as a permanent contribution to the unofficial hall of fame. RIDE OR DIE, someone had written in all caps, one line taking up on whole stripe on the right sleeve, BROTHERS FOR LIFE, DARKEST DAYS, COLDEST NIGHTS.

Or something like that.

Be honest; this time last year, he was riding the high of making Captain - youngest in a decade, mind you - with Hughes, side by side, into junior year. This time, this year, he was using his most recent split with what was, at best, an on-again, off-again booty call as an excuse for spending the summer choleric because it happened to coincide with Hughes' wedding, right before his senior year. This time next year, he wouldn't have a bed to call his in this house, and who knew where they'd be, in proximity to one another. 

It wasn't about Hughes. It wasn't but it was. It was more than being bummed his best friend got married and graduated and left school and the team and HQ a year before he did, that's for sure, but it was always more than that, wasn't it? Wasn't it.

It's not like he'd died, Roy reminded himself, feeling worse.

It's not like Roy'd been in love with the guy, right? Right?

Something smelly and fuzzy was pawing his shorts for attention, but it was enough to snap Roy back to the moment. Surely he had plenty of other distractions to crowd his headspace, he thought, reaching down to scratch a whining Hayate behind the ear. Surely he had enough constants to keep him going despite the weird nauseating sandpit in his stomach that started whenever he thought too long about his old roommate these days. "Right boy?" he asked, tone as high and stupid as Hayate's happy, dumb face. "It's fine. It's all fine. Everything's fine."

And then, came a clang from the kitchen.

While Hayate barked and ran after the sound, Roy was less quick to stretch out and follow a few paces behind him. There was only one other person who would be in the house right now anyway; Riza, given there weren't a lot of places around Central that were dog-friendly, emotional support or not, had taken the opportunity to stay in the rugby house through the summertime, if how clean it was at the moment was any evidence of only one mindful young woman living there instead of a hoard of smelly jocks. Roy pressed open the kitchen door to find that it was a simple spatula that had clattered to the tan-tiled floor. As Hayate sniffed it as though it might give him valuable information, Roy noted his judgment had been correct: that the spatula had been kicked off by none other than Theresa Elizabeth Hawkeye, on her knees atop the counter, reaching for one of the many empty liquor bottles they had lining their kitchen cabinets. 

They stood like statues, staring at one another because stone men don't blink, for what felt like at least an hour as Roy decided Riza's eyes were a little less deer in the headlights and a little more try me I dare you.

"You had all summer to throw those away if you really hate them so much," he said, finally, as he took to cross the kitchen floor with his hands in his pockets.

"You know, better late than never," she replied, strained, big brown eyes blinking at him as she slowly but surely continued to wrap her hand around the neck of a dusty Fireball bottle.

As Roy got closer to the counter, he watched as Riza struggled with the reach to remove his empty bottle - nay, his trophy - from its place of honor, collecting dust atop the cabinets. "I feel like that's usually my line."

Riza had always disliked the team bottle collection, but where she'd won out on the chore chart, she'd lost the vote re: the display of functional alcoholism. At least she still had one more year of school after this year to try the vote again. Democracy indeed entailed a slow justice. "What can I say?" she grunted. "Maybe I missed you this summer, Cap."

Roy gasped, intentionally and facetiously overdramatic, as he started to snake his arms around her waist when her attention had been entirely diverted now to an empty bottle of Stoli. "You missed me?"

In one fell motion, Roy hoisted Riza up and off the counter and into his arms before she could swipe the other bottle, spinning in circles. Hayate barked and jumped up to his hips, concern growing for his owner, who'd yelped more than yelled, smacking Roy's chest between snorts and laughter. 

"Wow, she missed me! Miss Hawkeye missed me, what an honor!"

"Let go of me, you a-a-a-ssssss!"

When he finally stopped, both of their faces were red from the laughter still pouring past their grins, Riza herself clutching his shoulder with her free hand, the bottle of Fireball still in the other. 

"Are you done defacing my house now?" Roy asked, grin nothing short of shit-eating, not yet relinquishing her from the bridal-style grip he'd been holding her up with.

Oh, if looks could kill. Or at least maim. 

"I thought maybe if I recycled one at a time, no one would notice they were gone until it was too late," she retorted, the glint in her eyes nothing short of charmed even if her tone read as unimpressed. 

"How many have you tossed already?"

Riza's free elbow nonchalantly rested on Roy's shoulder, hand holding up her cheek like being held up in this way was extremely normal. "Four."

"Jesus," Roy said, preparing to lower Riza to the ground before suddenly standing up straight; another yelp of protest escaped from his captive before she could stop herself. "Your mistake was tossing the Fireball bottle, I would've noticed immediately."

Her nostrils flared, if only to hide the smile. "You know I didn't really miss you, it's all been a ruse."

"I've been here almost weekly since the semester let out, and I text you probably every day between, of course it was a lie, and a bad one at that."

"You act like those two things are mutually exclusive when you absolutely have and continue to text me from the next room."

"True. I can't believe you aren't sick of me yet."

"Who says I'm not?"

"Unbelievable."

In the end, Roy lowered Riza back down to the floor and the bottle went back up where it belonged ("don't let Hayate jump on you, he'll think it's an okay thing to do"). He knew she knew that kind of outburst from him - whatever handsy sentimental nonsense that just was - was unusual, and relieved, because he knew he didn't have to explain himself. The two of them had been a solidified front for years now; there was no need for poker faces there, and even if Roy couldn't or wouldn't find the words, Riza rarely seemed to need them. Even now, they hauled mismatched lawn chairs from the garage and crumpled up newspapers to toss in the firepit in a quiet that was nothing less than easy and comfortable, with the occasional break to mention something of remote importance ("Havoc's going to come in pretending like he's mopey and single but he hasn't texted Rebecca back all summer", "Aunt Chris says hello, says the girls thought you were a lot of fun when you swung by the bar last time and want you to come back soon"). Taking a deep breath and catching a lung-full of the warm and sticky summer breeze that threatened to turn into fall at any moment, Roy admittedly felt a little stupid about the funk he'd been in. Things would be easier with his friends back, as they poured into the backyard one by one with logs and hot dogs and marshmallows to grab a beer and clap a hand on his back for the first time in weeks. Things were easiest with Riza, who'd left her hair down in a rare display of relaxation. Things were fine, now that he'd have his team. He was gonna be fine. 

“Cap, are you really going to light up the fire with gasoline?” asked Falman, sweat already beading on his forehead. “Isn’t that a bit dangerous?”

“More than a bit dangerous,” Hawkeye countered, instinctively wrapping Hayate’s leash around her wrist taking some five paces back from the chair circle they had made for her own safety. The rest of the guys followed suit immediately, leaving Roy and a firepit and a canister of gasoline. 

Roy downed what remained in his first Pabst of the night before giving a confident nod. “Trust me, Falman, I’m a professional ,” he said, fueled by the warm feeling just starting to bubble in his gut, and before Falman could respond with “I don’t think professional fire starters are a thing” or Breda replied with “alright everyone remember: stop, drop and roll” or Havoc could yeehaw or whatever it was they did out in the boonies, a small amount of gasoline had been poured into some tinfoil and set in the middle of their wooden teepee structure, a match had been lit, and a small fire had caught under the kindling. Hayate barked as the bigger logs caught and begun to burn in the blink of an eye, but with a little extra fanning and an extra match to drop along the bottom, it was only a matter of time before an ideal, picturesque campfire crackled before them. 

“What did I say?” he asked, plopping back down in his seat, tossing a marshmallow in his mouth. “A profeshanall. ” 

And as cotton candy skies faded to black, it was like Roy would never be stupid enough to extrapolate one bad feeling into weeks of pouting and dumb decisions again. 

It was like that. For a little bit. 

The sun had gone down and Roy couldn't remember how many beers in he was or when the last time he drank water was, which should've been his first clue and second clue, respectively. 

“I didn’t have a single third date all summer. Not a single one,” Havoc moaned, flicking his lighter on and bringing the flame to the tip of the cigarette hanging from his mouth. “My balls are gonna skip the blue part and move on to the part where they shrivel up and fall off.”

“Sounds medically improbable, but okay,” Falman mused, methodically applying some of the more pungent bug sprays Roy had ever smelled.

“So does having no balls mean you can't make yourself useful, or?” Breda and his sarcasm trailed off as he extended another log and a handful of newspaper to Havoc to put on the fire, who took the materials with a huff.

“Why did you need a third date? Sounds like you had enough first and second dates to stay busy,” Fuery said, genuine as always, before getting pulled in around the neck by Havoc, who leaned over his much shorter frame like a tragic heroine in a soap opera.

“Because, you sweet summer child, when you’re a good country boy who was raised right by his mama to respect the boundaries of the young lady he’s courting,” Havoc took a drag, “the third date is where you fuck. And I, for one, did none of that this summer.”

The chirps were instantaneous.

Just this summer?” 

“Do I want to know what you did instead?”

“Silver lining - I’ve been to your hometown, Havoc, and you’re related to almost everyone there.”

While Havoc whipped a crumpled ball of what looked like the sports section at Breda’s head for that last one, Roy found himself busy neglecting the roast and the I told you from Riza sitting across from him in order to flip over his phone and check his most recent notification, or rather, disappoint himself. 

 

[20:12] Sorry i missed this man! Gracia and i had plans already, but you guys have fun! Tell the boys not to do anything i wouldn’t do and hawkeye that i’m sorry for all the things i would do.

 

Roy tapped the half-empty Pabst in his hand without rhythm, thinking only for a moment he should maybe try to stop himself before his stomach started to rot and his mood went south, but wordlessly, seamlessly, it started anyway. He must’ve been too obviously deflated because Havoc ribbed him in the side and when Roy turned to look, blew smoke in his face.

“Wow, you’re just going to let them gang up on me like this so you can make sad eyes over all the texts you aren’t getting from Solaris? Some Captain you are,” he muttered, cigarette hanging from his teeth.

Roy blinked, noting how slow his lids already moved. “Who says I’m texting Solaris?” he challenged.

“Why else would you look that fucking mooned, man?” Havoc asked. His tone was sarcastic, but his brow had been furrowed in a way that could only mean genuine concern. 

“He’s got a point, Captain,” said Feury from beside Havoc with a shrug. “I know we’re all here early mostly because Havoc was bored at home, but you don’t seem like yourself.”

Here's the breakdown: the fakeout is a classic play applicable across sports besides rugby where it looks like player 1 passes the ball to teammate player 2, but in a flurry of fancy feet and quick movement, actually passes the ball off to a stealthy player 3, free to make a run for it as the defense crowds around player 2 in a successful ploy. In this instance, Roy was player 1 on the offensive team, and where everyone who knew him decently well thought he had passed the ball off to Solaris about three or four weeks ago, who'd told him she was no longer interested in whatever it was they'd been doing before peacing out to Cabo with her brothers. However, putting the "fake" in "fakeout", he'd actually passed the ball off to Hughes, who'd graduated and gotten married in the span of May to June and Roy, the best man mind you, hadn't had it in himself to ask Maes about, well, whatever it was they'd had. Or didn't have? It was complicated.

Looking around the circle, the rest of his friends in their mismatched lawn chairs seemed to look at him with a concern that matched Havoc's, and Roy thought maybe, for a hot second, he'd come clean. He wouldn't really, but he thought that.

“I’m gonna be fine," is what he said instead, the broken record.

“Yeah, you’re gonna be fine, but you seem disappointed now," said Feury, who'd somehow found the nicest way to say "you're being a fucking pissbaby, Captain".

“We weren’t even together, not really.”

“With no due respect, Cap," nice, Breda, "you don’t fool us. You catch feelings like most students catch the bus.”

“Too bad he doesn’t bring those warm-and-fuzzies to practice," Falman muttered quietly over his hot dog, laughing only when Breda and Feury chortled before him. 

"It doesn't matter what you were, doesn't matter how hot she is, doesn't matter if every other guy on that campus would think you're a fucking maniac for doing so; if you're really this pressed about her this far out, you should just delete her number," said Havoc through his teeth, cigarette hanging out the side of his mouth.

"Cut the cord."

"Nip the temptation to drunk text her in the bud, Cap."

Hawkeye, notably quiet to no one except him, still betrayed no thought as their gazes connected from across the firepit. 

Solaris cut it off and left for Cabo at the beginning of the summer, is what she would say if she were to speak to him, just then.

This is true, he would reply. 

And you didn't tell the team until a few weeks ago, she would continue.

Not 'til I got called on it, he would concede.

And you’re not telling them about Hughes, she would say.

Absolutely fucking not, he would reply.

Instead, Roy turned to Havoc, holding up his beer can in mock-toast. “You know what, Havoc, you’re right.”

“I don’t think you’ve ever told me I’m right this many times in succession, Captain.”

“I’m deleting her number,” Roy said, ignoring him, careful to mind the slurring of his own speech. He pulled up Solaris’s contact on his phone and held it up to show Havoc. 

“Wait, actually you should send me that first…”

“God, Havoc," Roy ran a hand over his face. "Your desperation is actually sad, you know that?”

"I'm kidding, Colonel." He wasn't kidding. "I don't need your sloppy seconds."

"Make sure he actually deletes it," said Breda. "No takebacks."

"I don't know what you take me for," Roy said dryly, throwing back the rest of his drink with the kind of ease that only came with binge drinking. And with the click of a big, red delete button and his throat working double time, he was, in the eyes of his friends, no longer in a place where they had to be worried about him.

There was a light applause from the guys, save Havoc, who puffed through his cigarette, "no, don't applaud him, it was half-empty, he's still a lightweight." Only Riza's face was discernible above the flames from where she was sitting, the furthest away from him, but she was still and unreadable in a way that made Roy turn his attention to his phone, which he would flip face down, and the food, still sitting in a grocery store bag beside his feet.

Point being, Roy was fine, and they could continue on with their night. 

Central was a big enough city in and of itself, but with campus lying on the outskirts of the suburbs, closer to the cornfields than downtown, the light pollution was less of a hindrance from seeing the stars on what was a beautiful clear night. Roy, leaning so far back into his plastic adriondack that the collar of his hoodie bunched up around his chin, thought maybe even if there'd been clouds rolling in, he could still see more constellations here than he'd ever been able to from the fire escape of his childhood home above his aunt's bar.

He was drunk drunk. You know. Couldn't even think in sentences, just in colors and temperatures and memories. Right now he was grey and slow and his face was hot and for no good reason at all, only to embarrass him and let other people know he was, in fact, drunk. It was Havoc's fault, for pulling out whiskey, as if Roy could resist even the worst whiskeys. He ruminated on two things in particular as he felt himself drift away from the group conversation: looking at the sky as a kid and how stupid he was now. Grey and slow and slow and slwo tand...

"I know I've told you this all before, I really used to be a gymnast," said Feury, a little buzzed himself, standing off to the side of the chair circle, just out of Roy's line of vision. 

"I swear it's never come up," Falman assured.

"So that's why you're so light on your feet, right? Gotta be nimble for that kind of thing," said Breda through a mouth full, graham cracker and marshmallow accumulating on his beard.

"Waitwaitwait, show us something cool," Havoc stuttered, motioning something like a tumble pass lazily with his hands.

Roy chewed on one of his hood strings. He was like, better than this, right? Not better than cartwheels, but better than sulking on a nice night. He genuinely didn't know and felt like he had to check.

"Now's probably not a good time for anything crazy, I'm a little out of practice, but I can walk on my hands?" Feury suggested, meek, but team seemed enthusiastic, granted, also very buzzed.

Riza, who'd disappeared at some point to take Hayate back in the house and grab a sweatshirt, kicked Roy's shin walking back on the way to her respective lawnchair (one of those navy blue ones that every soccer parent has in their garage, you know). Instead of checking on her once she had sat down, Roy kept his head completely turned toward the action, doing his best to peek between Havoc and Breda's giant heads. If he'd been paying attention, this would be the third and final clue.

Because she would know exactly how he was feeling before he'd even start to say it, goddamnit, and she'd think he could do better than this, pure and earnest, and that was just the worst thing, wasn't it?

"Here goes nothing," said Feury with a shrug, lifting his hands above his head and in one fluid, cyclical sweeping motion, had replaced in the space where his arms had just been, his two bare feet, pointing towards the sky. Perfectly straight, Feury took a few steps with his hands, even stood with just one hand below him as the team let out a chorus of ooooOOOooooooOOos, before he just as gracefully let his feet fall to the ground, wiping his hands on what'd been his freshman welcome week shirt just two years before. 

"Any more than that and I'll be sick," he said with a light laugh.

"That's still way more than anything I can do, probably," Breda said, finally going for a napkin.

"Anyone else got any cool party tricks?" Havoc asked, half-sounding like he wasn't expecting an affirmative. "Hawkeye?

Riza shook her head.

"Untrue, Hawkeye's got mad trick shot game."

"Thanks, Breda."

"And the rest of us got nothing."

Be honest: was it worse to know you could do better than pouting, than petulance, than sulking, and consistently ruin your own betterment? Or to not actually be better than this self-sabotage at all, and unable to meet even the most plain of expectations despite having no real rivers to cross? It was two sides of the same coin, roses by any other name, Roy knew, the other name being a word that snuck up on him from time to time, one he remembered from his stint trying to learn his father's tongue if nothing else: wúyòng.

"Captain, you got any weird talents you wanna share with the class?" asked Feury, mindlessly wiping grass of his hands.

“I can spit fire," said Roy suddenly, and just as swiftly, five heads whipped their attention towards him, mouths open but making no sound.

"I -" Havoc started, pursing his lips with a mischievous glint in his eye. “What the hell?”

“It’s easy, I’ll show you," Roy slurred. Rising to his feet, the fact of the matter became almost aggressively apparent: he was drunk. He was drunk and turning from grey to orange, orange to red, the world moving around him as he stood still, or was the world still and he in motion? 

Here's the breakdown: just as Roy had gone through a stint trying to learn Mandarin when he was thirteen, around same time in his life, he tried blowing fire like a dragon in his favorite fantasy novel. He wound up getting good at one of those two things. Having done it a thousand times, in that stupid way adolescent boys were drawn to anything even remotely dangerous like moths to the literal flame, Roy had simplified the secret process of spitting fire down into three easy steps. Three steps he was sure that, even if he couldn't speak Mandarin or stop making himself upset, he really could do.

“Captain," piped Riza, severe. "I think this is a bad idea."

"It's a terrible idea, that's why he should do it," Havoc noted, to scattered agreements from the rest of the party. 

Step one involved finding a flame source. For this, he used Havoc's lighter, handed over without a protest. Being a smoker certainly had it's drawbacks, but at least Havoc had a nice, metal light, a few steps up from the shoddy plastic Bic lighters that used to break at the bottom of Roy's backpack if he wasn't careful. He flicked it a few times, the spark appearing doubled in Roy's vision.

“Wait, hold on - " Roy pulled off his sweatshirt as his teammates took a few steps back. The shirt he was wearing was last year's season shirt - they'd gone nearly undefeated, as detailed on the back, their one loss being settled in a cut-throat double overtime with DrachU. They'd been so successful, they'd been allowed to invest in polyester shirts rather than the standard cotton. 

Step two meant taking whatever source of gasoline that he had and rubbing it over his lips. That was the secret, see, it had nothing to do with him and everything to do with the science. It was all moving molecules, in the end. Oxygen, carbon, hydrogen, spinning, spinning, spinning. 

Except Roy couldn't seem to get his fingers in the circular opening of the plastic red gasoline cannister, so he pulled it up to his lips like he was taking a swig, careful to keep his mouth closed. The pervasive smell wrapped around his nose, a few drips slid down his chin.

He'd look back on it later when he was sober, thinking maybe doing this too many times in his youth was why he couldn't grow a decent beard now. 

"I can't look away, it's a trainwreck waiting to happen," said Breda. 

"I have a bad feeling about this," Falman hiccupped.

Havoc shooking his head, holding out his beer in some kind of mock toast. "I have faith in you Cap, blow us away!"

Riza's eyes were wide, mouth pulled into a tight frown, wavering as she tried to pull out the courage to move closer to him, white-knuckling her sleeves as she fearfully stepped back. Forward, and back, and forward, and back again.

Step three was to blow. Isooctane + oxygen -> carbon dioxide + water. alcohol + untempered feelings -> ???

“Roy don't!"

Roy took a deep breath and blew as hard as he could into the lighter.


When they were much, much younger, and technically neighbors instead of roommates, Roy remembered falling out of a tree he’d climbed behind the Hawkeye house where he and Riza would sometimes go hiking along the creek. It had started raining, see, and his foot had slipped on a branch, twisting his ankle and cutting up his arms and legs somewhere in the fall. Knowing Hawkeye - she’d been Little Riza then, but he wasn’t allowed to call her that even if it was true - she’d only be a few steps behind, and he couldn’t, just couldn’t let her see him face down in the mud like this because he was fifteen and about as in love with her as anyone could be at fifteen. By the time she’d come running round the bend, carrying a frog with both hands, he was already on his feet, pretending like his own hands weren’t shaking as he swiped dirt and leaves off his clothes.

With eyes as big as the moon and twice as shiny, it was no question that she’d be able to see right through him as he looked down and away from her, as if he’d dissipate on sight.

“Are you alright?” she called through the rain as she got closer and he stayed stiller, the drops of water sliding off the ends of his messy fringe and landing square on his nose. He’d noticed, despite his best efforts, his clothes were still damp and dirty and betraying nothing.

He cleared his throat instead of answering, and from where he was avoiding the sight of her, he could see her tilt her head to the side in what would be a quick but thorough analysis. The frog in her grasp let out a croak.

“Are you alright?” she asked again, sweetly, blinking. Knowing. But never moving a little closer to spot where his face hung in shame. That would be his responsibility, and she would wait for it.

“Yeah, ‘m fine,” he practically squeaked, like he was a mouse instead of the Big Bad City Slicker, the Roy Mustang, who was as cool as he tried to be. The rain began to fall harder.

“You’re bad at lying,” she announced, the tomboy, the hick, with a certain amount of audacity she didn’t need to perform these days to make a point. But Riza had always had guts and brown irises a strong like the trees that surrounded them and didn’t squirm when blood dripped from his palms.

Roy swallowed the lump in his throat along with his pride, before saying in a small voice, “I just really hate it when it rains.”

Riza had let the frog go to help him limp home without thinking twice about it.


It didn’t take Roy too much time after blinking back to consciousness, his contacts dry and worn from sleep, to realize that he was in the hospital. The smell of iodoform confirmed that as he adjusted to the feeling of being in his own body again, calm and sober. Another second, two seconds, and he realized he wasn't sure if he was checked in or not: he was in as much of a bed as there was in hospitals, in a gown with IVs coming out his arms and oxygen puffing just below his nostrils. But he was surrounded by curtains, minus one dull white wall with a great, wide window, and judging by as much as he could see of the ceiling, the room he was in was much larger than what he saw, likely filled with beds and materials just like the ones that surrounded him. 

Two important details prodded Roy wide-awake, once he noticed them.

First, Riza was asleep at the foot of his bed, having pulled up a chair at his bedside and folded her arms to lay her head on, still in the sweatshirt and gym shorts she’d been in at the bonfire. Long and shiny blonde hair laying every which way, her breath was so quiet he had to watch her back for a moment to make sure she was actually alive. There was a spare blanket and pillow in the chair she'd left behind closer to the window that had not been so much as touched, though that seemed normal; it was unlike her, he supposed, to get comfortable. To say his memory of last night was fuzzy was an understatement. The ride getting here and checking in? He vaguely remembers sitting in the passenger seat of his car, all the windows rolled down. He also remembered eating at some point, but in a setting too bright and white to have been from the bonfire. He certainly seemed to have gotten what he needed over the course of the night, but how, Roy wasn't sure. 

Second of all, and simply put, it was late as hell; the room had been dimmed save a nightlight in the corner, the sky behind Riza's sleeping form through the window was blank and dotted with tiny, glimmering stars. The moon and the glow of the city several stories below were the only light along with the blue numbers on the analog clock on the wall above, jarring what was otherwise a peaceful view.

3:42 AM. 

What the fuck had happened?

His head pounding but the rest of him fully numb, Roy decided to retrace his steps. There’d been Pabst and mismatched lawn chairs drawn up to their firepit in the backyard of HQ, s'mores and hot dogs and tales from the summer passed between him and his roommates, great. A sky full of stars and a clean summer breeze and Feury doing handstands, all very cool. And then there was Roy, drinking like a sailor, doing chemistry, frowning and heartsick. 

As soon as he started, Roy was ready to stop.

It was cold in here, wasn't it? Roy usually ran hot, but for other people, this room would certainly feel cold, right? Riza (who drove him here, who endured his shit attitude and shit antics without resentment, who basically babysat him for free) was probably cold, he thought. Nauseous, he could make himself useful and put the blanket over her shoulders. Except when he went to push himself up from the chalky, white pillows, a sharp, throbbing pain broke through the numbness and shot through his torso, reaching from the tip of his toes through his leg and reaching to grab at his shoulder. He cried out before he could stop himself, and as he went to clutch the source of the pain, he felt through his gown what could only be the padding of bandages.

It was almost as though it was timed, how Riza quickly jolted awake mere seconds later, her hand reaching out to grab his forearm with a scratchy "No. Don't." She slowly moved to sit up straight with a yawn, brown eyes slowly fluttering open and wide, slipping in and out of focus before honing in on him. Roy looked down, up, away from her, not saying anything, giving her a moment to come to as she rubbed her face with the sleeve of her hoodie. Riza tended to be efficient, however, and Roy figured it wouldn't take long for one of two things to happen: he was either in for it, or in for it.

He took note of the pattern of faint triangles on his hospital smock when he started. “Hey Hawk -”

“You know, I’ve watched you do a lot of stupid things over the years.”

At least he was prepared, you know? 

So she was pissed and maybe a bit bold, to the untrained eye. But Roy was hardly a stranger and could discern the details in a whirl of the fan overhead still without quite looking at her; exactly how she carried herself when she was wired on adrenaline and nothing else, how her fingers curled when she was bone tired. The righteous fury, that was secondary. 

“You know what I’ve always admired about you, Hawkeye -”

“And I’m talking a lot of stupid things, here.”

“- besides your attention to detail -”

“Things that were obviously terrible, or dangerous, things I told you were a bad idea.”

“- and vivid and accurate memory -”

“But when you get an idea in your head, boy, do you have to do something about it.”

“- is the way you’re always there for me.”

"Then why won't you look at me?"

Even if she sounded like she might, Riza wouldn't cry either. He could tell when he finally found the gall to meet those big, strong eyes that she already had, the whites twinged pink. In some other scenario, he’d have taken this chance to crack a joke about how flattered he was by her sense of charge over him, that that was sweet of her to be so concerned with his well-being before the fan turned overhead and this particular reality seemed to hit him all in waves. The IV. The oxygen tube. The anticipatory sort of numbness all over his body that only came from being cranked with painkillers that would wear off sooner or later. They were, after all, sitting in a hospital at four in the morning because he’d hurt himself enough to warrant an emergency room visit. Remember the last time she’d spent this much time in a hospital? He’d been there for not even half the time she’d devoted, making barely 24 hours of the 48-hour vigils she’d keep for Berthold, but he’d certainly been present to watch her brave face crumble when her father flatlined.

Roy's smirk fell from his face.

“No 'I was drunk' bullshit," Riza said, somehow still stony as she mimicked him with deadly accuracy, "You've been acting weird but now you're just being stupid, what the hell were you trying to do?’

Nothing, I -”

“So what then? Are you a complete idiot?”

Another turn, and now she was at the hospital again because of him, and he’d just fallen asleep like it was nothing and made her wait for? Hours? She hadn’t even gotten to get changed, she hadn’t taken the pillow or blanket the nurse left for her. What if she had an episode? What if she already had the episode and she had to sit here and cope with that all alone, in a fucking hospital, without Hayate to work and with Roy personally passed out getting his burns patched up -

Roy had burned his torso. That was what had happened. Roy had blown on the lighter after gasoline hadn't just dribbled down his chin, but spilled on his shirt. Even the smallest of puffs would've had him lit up like he was the prized pig at the barbecue. And then everything had gone spinning and it was Riza who had to sit vigil at the hospital because God knew she wouldn't be able to relax, while the staff cleaned up not just any old injury of his, his burns

Oh. Oh shit.

“Alright, alright, I'm an idiot," Roy sighed. "I’m sorry. For being stupid, for putting you in this position.”

Riza’s glare did not soften, but glazed over something sad instead. She dropped her head to look at her hands, thumbs twiddling, picking nervously in her lap.

"I should've stopped you," she stated.

"Absolutely not, that wasn't your responsibility."

"It's not about it being my responsibility, it's just that I could've done something and I didn't - "

"Hawkeye, stop." Her head popped up as he now grew stern. "I did this. This was on me, we're here because of what I did, not what you didn't do. You shouldn't have had to come sit in a hospital alone. That was my fault. Let me apologize."

The two of them went quiet, listening only to the fan. He knew, she'd gotten his point.

"I'm your emergency contact, remember?" Riza nearly whispered. "They would've called me in, anyway."

"That's true, some honor you've been given," he paused when she gave a small smile. "You didn't call my aunt, right?"

"Hell no."

"Thanks for that one."

"Anytime."

One turn, two turns. 

"You should go home," Roy stated, trying to sound like he was sure, and he was capable. 

Riza shook her head with some immediacy like it was the easiest decision in the world. “I could, but I won't. No need to make the trip more than once. The guys have Hayate - they were all too drunk to drive, but not too drunk to make sure he hits the bathroom before bed.”

"That dog is so spoiled," he replied, trying for a wider smile.

"Almost as spoiled as you," she replied, flat but amused. "At least he deserves it."

Roy scoffed. "You're so mean to me."

She rolled her eyes. Close enough. "Just a terror."

One turn, two turns.

"Are you sure you're okay?"

Riza's gaze flicked to his torso, then back up to him.

"I'm fine," she said as if she had just decided. "I mean, I'm fine. I'm also not the one sitting in a hospital bed." 

Oh, right. "Fine, how bad is it?" 

Pretty bad. He'd passed out twice in the car on the way over, she said, thrown up in the parking lot. The explosion caused mostly second degree burns, big and red and bubbly, all over the left side of his from what would be the middle of his ribcage to the top of his hipbone. He came out of the emergency skin graft as quickly as he'd come in, warning that he might find another big scar along the back of his leg. The wound on his stomach that was huge, Riza emphasized, but the doctors thought he'd be good to heal up from home, and they'd wrapped up all the supplies he would need in a bag and given her the card for the follow-up appointment. The only reason they were still here was that Roy, as drunk as he'd been and top of burning himself with gasoline, was dehydrated, and would be released once he was through with the IV.

"So the t-shirt I'd been wearing?" he asked, sardonic.

"Probably sitting in a waste-bin somewhere now," Riza shrugged through what looked like a shiver. "I didn't want to look at it."

"I don't blame you." Roy paused, dreading the answer to his final question. "How long do I have until this is all a funny memory?'

"Three weeks of rest and antibacterial ointment and changing your wrappings every few hours. A few more weeks before you're totally back to normal after that."

Roy would laugh if he wasn't afraid he'd also cry.

Fuck," he swore instead, under his breath, coughing on the exhale. "That’s the entire presemester.”

"We're lucky that's all it was," Riza said, and while Roy knew she was right, it didn't make things better at all. "First game of the season isn't until October, you'll be able to catch up."

"I know, I just," Roy tossed his head back on the pillows, tracing along the designs of the stucco on the ceiling. "I'm the Captain, I'm supposed to be the example. Like, good leaders don't sit on the sidelines at practice while the rest of the team works out, they're out there, giving 110, showing everyone else how it's done, where the standard is. How am I supposed to do that if I'm, if I'm..?"

"Useless?" Riza suggested.

Roy snapped his attention back up to her. "Well jeez, okay, not really what I was going for there, Hawkeye..."

But Riza just shook her head. "It's not ideal but we'll figure something out," she said, sure as shooting. "You can go to all the practices, you can work with Darius and Heinkel on catching up, you can make sure you heal-up properly..."

"It'd be easier if we still had two captains."

Here's the breakdown: Riza knew. Riza knew everything. Riza knew and she somehow didn't resent him for throwing a summer-long hissyfit and she didn't blame him, somehow. She'd sat patiently and trusted him to get through it. And then he'd set himself on fire. 

What was worse? Knowing you could do better, but that you just weren't, or this being the actual best you could be. 

Suddenly, Riza knocked twice on the wooden arm of the chair she sat in, cross-legged now. He knocked twice back, on the plastic railing of his bed. 

"I got my new course schedule this week, after they'd fixed the errors," she said, casual, practiced. She looked so, so tired.

"Oh really?" he replied, frustration and self-loathing bubbling behind his eyes. "What changed?"

"So you know how I'd tested out of calc? Every year they try to tell me I need to take it with Irving even though I'm way past it. Thankfully, Harris was available to confirm that the credits were already on my report, and so I was good to move forward with and take that 400-level gravity class with Arzen. Vato said he's brutal for grading, but he also said that about Edison, so I guess we'll have to see."

Roy traced letters with his pointer finger into the blanket over him.

"The other upside is that gravity won't start until 10, and then after that I have my junior seminar with Yoki, 312 with O'Toole, and 301 with Urey. I was hoping I could get out of it, but I'm finally taking my public speaking credit this year, which I'd probably dread if I didn't know Ross and Breda were going to be in the same one. Armstrong recommended Claus's poetry class highly, and if there's anyone who's literary judgments I trust, it's his. Karley's in it too, but he's embarrassed about it, so keep your mouth shut."

The keep your mouth shut bit dropped the facade of code in her tone, telling Roy loud and clear that she'd meant what she said, she wouldn't hear a single argument against it, and not about Karley being embarrassed to take poetry. 

"And," Roy swallowed, throat thick, "all this scheduled before practice, right?"

"Of course, Captain."

He didn't deserve her, truly.

Roy nodded and blinked, blinked and nodded. She'd made her point, careful to give him a moment, lest he got emotional. He laid back completely now, resigned, prepared to get on with what remained of his summer vacation after resting for what he hoped would feel like a long time.

"If you insist on staying, you should at least get some sleep," he murmured, low and husky in his throat. 

Riza didn't say anything to him, only furrowed her brow and scooted her chair up the bed a little bit closer. She tried, gently, with small hands, to adjust his blanket to lay proper.

“Stop," he reached for one of her hands. "Go to sleep.”

She took pause, frozen in his grasp, before the warmth of her palm retreated and he could feel, as he watched the fan circle above him, the weight of her resting her head back on the hospital bed. 

Chapter Text

“So are you like, some kind of narc or something?” 

Infanticide was illegal, Roy reminded himself. 

“How do you figure?” He asked instead, pained both emotionally and physically, as he held the door open to Comanche’s Coffee for the pint-sized terror in his company to barrel through without so much of a nod in gratitude. Resisting the urge to just let the door close and hobble home with whatever dignity was left to him today, Roy slowly, reluctantly followed behind Elric at a stiffer pace.

Fullmetal didn’t seem to notice or care either way, spilling across the black-and-white-tiled floors on their way to get in line, moving just a little too quickly and a little too loudly to go unnoticed by the other coffee house patrons. “You dress like someone who brings in an income to get their work clothes in the fancy part of the department store, but your face makes me think you’re like, two years old tops, which makes the only plausible explanation...” Elric’s vocal observations trailed off, unperturbed by the collection of people staring at him now; Roy noted that the kid drags only one of his feet when he walks, creating an annoying scuff step, scuff step, scuff step.

“What, 22 Jump Street?"

“You said it, not me,” Fullmetal said with a shrug, picking up an extra bag of chips from the shelves along the variety of baked goods for sale with what had been explained to Roy as being his good hand, fingers just peeking out past the giant red sleeve of his hoodie. “Well, okay, those slacks said it more than anything. You don't even have to wear uniforms in college and you choose to dress like this? What are you trying to compensate for? Jesus.”

Their conversation on the way over after their meeting with Grumman had been informative for Roy, as Fullmetal was at that age where even the most throwaway of comments rendered defensive, bitter explanations of the truth. Rather, if he just loudly and snarkily assumed something obnoxious about Fullmetal, the kid would surely gun in with an irritated correction and lengthy clarifications. So Edward Elric was fifteen years old (not five), a junior at the local high school after skipping a grade (fifth grade, but he also skipped kindergarten, to be clear). He was just missing a few health and gym credits for the most part, as the rest of his credits could be filled from the classes he was planning on taking at CSU. This semester it was English 100, Intro to Chem, and Grumman’s local government course (Underwater Basket Weaving wasn't a thing, and if it was, maybe it'd be fun, asshole). He’d missed only three questions on the SAT, he boasted, and wanted to major in chemical engineering (“Why?” “I'll be good at it” "How do you know you'll be good at it?" "Oh, I know.") He was completely unwilling to explain his role in the defacing of Roy's car this morning, however, and only went as far as to mutter, "it was a misunderstanding, god. I'm sorry your car got caught up in it."

Riza's (and only Riza's) close friend Rebecca worked at Commanche's behind the counter, and judging by the unbridled delight on her face, would have little sympathy for Roy's pain.

"You on babysitting duty, Mustang?" she asked cheekily when they finally approached, Fullmetal dropping his bag of chips at the counter with a glare at her tone. 

"Something like that," Roy replied, picking up the bag of chips and carrying it over Fullmetal's head, who'd only had time to mutter a quick "hey" before it was dropped back onto the shelf along the front side of the counter. "Large black today."

"It's 3 in the afternoon."

"I'm aware, Catalina."

"I'll take a medium cold brew, please," Fullmetal interjected.

"I'm not paying for that, just the large black," Roy said to Rebecca, who didn't seem like she was in any rush to move away from the register, and thus, the show. "What on Earth do you need a cold brew for?" 

"That's my order," said Fullmetal, the duh afterward going unspoken. "What's it to you?"

"Just seems like a lot of caffeine for someone so shor- OW." Before he could finish the thought, a big black boot stomped on Roy's foot.

"Woops," Fullmetal said, feigning innocence, grinning like a demon.

Another thing, Edward didn't like being told he was short.

Leaving Fullmetal to place his order on his own, Roy stifled a groan as he dropped his stuff down at a table in the front corner, planted snug between the two front windows with a clear view of the quiet street outside. Commanche's, unassuming and otherwise unnoticeable, wasn't officially a part of Central State U, but the sidewalk opposite the road they were on, littered with unofficial campus merch stores and pubs safe enough to take families to on Parent's Weekend, was technically campus property. It was also home to what Roy knew to be the best and strongest coffee within walking distance of the school, as he'd come to rely on so intently in the last few years, and was conveniently equidistant between campus and the soccer fields, as the dull throb in his side reminded him he had to go to rugby practice tonight. He'd been wired and fired up just an hour ago, ready for the beginning of the end, the start of senior year and all that entailed. Now, he was gritting his teeth just to take a seat, not just his burn aching, but his whole body felt exhausted, weak. In his own defense though, he reminded himself, he'd effectively just been dragged through the mud by Grumman, the old coot. 

"You'll be expected to meet weekly," he'd practically sang through his stupid mustache, leaning back into his fancy leather chair in his office. "I expect monthly progress reports, as well as an interview with the both of you separately at the end of each term detailing your trials and triumphs over the course of the semester.

"And then and only then," Grumman said, looking exclusively towards Roy now, the mischievous glint in his eye turned evil, "we can talk about that letter of yours."

Dragged through the mud. 

Scuff, scuff, scuff. Fullmetal, with a cold brew between his two, sweatshirt-clad hands, traipsed past the coffee and cream and headed straight for the table Roy had chosen. And then stomped on, he added. 

"So you bring me all the way out to this mad expensive coffee place and then don't even offer to pay, that's a little rude," Fullmetal derided, shaking his head as he dropped his heavy backpack off to the side of the table and drew in his chair with a long screech

"Better get used to it, we're meeting here weekly from now on," said Roy, grinning the tightest of close-lipped smiles, feeling it maybe turn genuine as Fullmetal's smug expression turned into a frown.

Roy, see, was nothing if not self-efficacious. It wasn't that he could, he would; he would play the game, he would do what needed to be done, and he would win.

"You're kidding me, you're taking this seriously?" Ed seemed incredulous like the seriousness of this ongoing engagement hadn't dawned on him just yet. Roy could help him on that front, though, he was his senior mentor, after all. 

It didn't matter if the end goal was a perfect rugby season, a sparkling recommendation letter, seeing this kid through his first year as a college student and then never again as soon as he stopped being necessary, Roy was going to do whatever it took to get where he wanted to be. 

"I am. And so should you."

"Why?" Fullmetal asked, finally sounding serious as he sat back in his chair. 

"Well, why are you taking classes here, Fullmetal?" Roy countered, talking slowly like he did in his upper-level law courses mid-debate when he had not just a point to make, but a mock case to win.

"Don't call me that."

"Maybe you're smart enough, driven enough to do well in school, but instead of being a big fish in your tiny high school pond, you go to college. Why?"

Edward crossed his arms, looking between the two windows, above Roy's head, at his coffee in front of him. "I get bored in school easily," he muttered.

Roy found his hands steepled, leaning at an angle uncomfortable for his side. "It's not just that though, right?

"You're smart enough to take college classes as a high schooler, great. But you're taking not one, not two, but three courses at Central State University, right? Nationally-ranked, very prestigious, still riding on that strict military reputation..."

Fullmetal's brows were furrowed, but not in confusion, as he appeared to be following Roy's logic plain and clear. Roy pressed on. "And it's not cheap, taking classes here. Maybe it's changed since I was in your shoes, but do you still get scholarships for qualifying for dual-enrollment?"

"Yeah."

"Do you know how expensive this school is without military funding, and without your scholarship?"

Tan skin paled; a nerve had been struck. "Very expensive," Fullmetal muttered.

"An understatement, but technically true," said Roy. "Makes your coffee look like chump change in comparison."

"What's your point?" Fullmetal said, stark. 

"You're not here because you're bored, you're not here for fun. You chose to go the extra mile here because you have goals, right?" Roy turned towards his bookbag, pulling out his laptop and his black leather planner. "Well, I, coincidentally, also have goals. Goals that are best achieved with the support of someone smarter-" debatable "- and more powerful -" fine "- than I am. Which is why I'm going to choose to extend that same grace to you," Fullmetal scoffed, "and get you through this year with grades so sparkling the bursar will have to send you here for free next year, and you're going to get me a glowing recommendation from Grumman and not fuck this up."

"You know, I knew you were a bastard when I saw you this morning, but I had no idea how slimy you really were," Fullmetal jeered, looking more like he was baring his teeth rather than grinning.

"I never said I was nice," Roy replied, smile pulled so tight it was more of a sneer. To an onlooker there was probably little difference between how the two of them smiled feral together a table over coffee and how two old dogs growled at each other over a scrap of meat.

As he turned away to flip through his planner, the severity of Roy’s packed schedule would perhaps be the bigger issue at hand. Fridays were a sacred time, off-limits from extraneous responsibilities, but Tuesdays and Thursdays were his most packed academically. Mondays were usually reserved for longer practices, especially once the season picked up and the team had more kinks to work out game after game, leaving only: "Wednesdays. When can you meet on Wednesdays?"

"I usually have English until 2:50."

"Great, so I'll meet you here Wednesdays at 2:55."

"Make it 3."

"I'm a busy man, Fullmetal, I have shit to do -"

"I only have one leg, give me the extra time," Edward cut him off. It took Roy a few beats to realize what had just been said to him, and he frowned at the insight.

"You...walked in here, right?"

Fullmetal rolled his eyes, pulling his left foot, the one he'd been dragging a bit earlier, up to an adjacent chair, tugging on his pant leg to reveal not a tan leg, but a silver metal bar that connected to his sock and shoe and disappeared under the leg of his jeans. 

A prosthetic, that made sense, Roy thought, pursing his lips. "Okay, fine, 3 o'clock, Wednesdays. Now, about your text books -"

"I -" Fullmetal uncrossed his arms, sitting up straight, still looking anywhere else but at his new mentor. He rubbed his nose with the sleeve of his hoodie. "You're not gonna ask about my leg?"

"Do you want me to ask about your leg?" Roy asked, sarcasm absent. It was strange, but it was like Fullmetal's whole demeanor changed from snappy, crabby, childish to? Relieved?

"No, usually it's just like, a whole thing I have to go over with people when I first meet them. I didn't know if, y'know -"

Roy held up a hand to stop him there. "Fullmetal, I'm gonna be honest, but unless you really feel like it's pertinent to your success at this school, I do not care."

That did it, pulled Fullmetal back from the weirdly vulnerable space he'd occupied and put the defiant fire back in his gaze. "You really are an asshole," he griped, breaking into a spiteful-looking smile. "You're really gonna make sure I can go here for free?"

"Where the hell are your parents?" Jean had asked. 

"Dead."

Roy stuck out his hand to shake on it, for good measure. "Absolutely."

When Fullmetal reached out to shake, though, Roy took care not to show a physical response to the "bad" right hand. He knew the look of a burn injury anywhere, and the immense scars that riddled Fullmetal's hand fit the bill, in between the black brace he wore along his wrist, from the tips of his stiff fingers past the worn sleeve of his red hoodie. The skin of his palm was leathery and tender, even if his grip was unrelenting.

"Sounds good to me," Fullmetal shook, none the wiser.

It was neither here nor there, Roy decided once the handshake broke. He took a long sip of his coffee before continuing. "As I was saying about your books..."


Week 2. Roy should have known it was a matter of time. Still active in the old team group chat from last year, he and Hughes were technically still in touch daily, even if not so directly. The avoidance that had once been strict and intentional sat like a dull gnaw now at the back of his mind, healing with time much like the burn going up and down his abdomen, but still stung pretty bad when prodded...

 

[2:25] hey, do you have a minute?

[2:25] something weird came up at work, I want your take on it.

 

When he was out in his day to day life and feeling like himself, there were moments where Roy thought he could handle – wanted to be able to handle – a real conversation with Hughes. Now that they’d found the new norm, Roy settling into the semester while Maes had undoubtedly settled into his cushy forensics jobs and the comfort of married life, it only seemed fair he, you know, call his best friend and ask how things were going. If the group chat was anything to go by, Hughes was overwhelmingly happy, beaming about Gracia as often as they'd let him get away with it before descending into chirps and barf emojis. It should’ve been an easy conversation.

Should’ve, obviously, being operative.

Roy wasn't bitter and he wasn't jealous, let it be known. Not of Gracia, not of Hughes, not of his two dear and close friends. He just didn't know to deal with the whole situation yet, hadn't known how much it was all going to eat at him when Hughes had confessed to him he was going to propose to his long-time girlfriend, that they were going to get married right out of school, that Roy would be their best man because they both loved him so much -

The I screwed around with my best friend freshman year and we never talked about it and then he got married and I don’t know how to cope with being left behind bit, as far as Roy was concerned, had two potential outcomes at this point. First, he could bring it up – hey, maybe not a great time, but I don’t know how to tell you that I love you and I don’t know if it’s still in the ride-or-die-brothers-for-life way – and let it all blow up in his face. Or, he could shove it down and play into the silence, continuing to avoid Hughes until the bottle he shoved a life time of baggage into, again, blew up in his face. Which, to be fair, was different from what he was doing now – he wasn’t shoving anything down, he was just waiting to decide whether or not he was going to shove everything down. The difference between eating, not eating, and being eaten were important.

In other important clarifications, Hughes hadn't texted the group chat, judging by the way Fuery and Breda continued chatting together over their laptops at his new usual spot in Comanche's, unaffected by their phones buzzing, or lack thereof. Hughes had just texted him, and him only, and something about the way he'd strung the words together seemed serious…

Not serious enough, however, to answer. Instead, Roy convinced himself it was probably a dumb chem question, and that, if asked why he'd left Hughes on read, he could just say he was busy and assumed Hughes could use whatever investigative skills he had to Google the answer himself. That was fine, that would do, that was a good enough reason for Roy to slide his phone into his trousers pocket, where it could burn a hole for the rest of the afternoon, for all he could care.

 

He wasn't expecting it, to be honest, but Fullmetal was prompt, walking in the door to Commanche's with the ring of a bell at 3 o'clock sharp. Roy gave a small wave, in an attempt to get his attention and he got it alright, as Fullmetal stuck out his tongue upon seeing him.

Fuery offered a small ‘ha’, having seen the exchange. "Is that your new mentee, Cap? You seem to be getting on well."

"Oh, you have no idea," Roy said, answering sarcasm with sarcasm. "Not all the kids these days are as nice as you are, Fuery."

“Don’t they match up mentors and mentees by personality for that program?” asked Breda, laughing from his gut up when Roy shot him a look.

“I don’t think they do that anymore,” he replied coolly. They absolutely still did that, had done it when Roy himself was in Ed’s position.

What did it say about him, to be flanked generationally in the mentoring program by people like The General Herself above him and Fullmetal below?

Breda, coming down from a stretch, stood up to push his belongings into his backpack. "We should leave you to it though, I'd hate to be a distraction."

"Right," Fuery went to follow suit, nodding to Roy as he picked up his and Breda’s empty coffee cups, ever considerate. “We'll see you at practice later, Colonel."

"See you soon, Colonel," Breda said, nearly colliding with Fullmetal as he spun around and bumped shoulders on accident, “Woops, sorry, Pipsqueak.”

Fullmetal fumed, taking the seat Fuery had just been in, as Roy waved back to the guys as they departed. “Relax,” Roy coaxed, “he didn’t mean to offend you, Shortsto – OW –”

Out of nowhere, a boot, likely scuffed and tacky, collided with Roy’s shin, hard. “Hey –

Fullmetal feigned ignorance, however. "Colonel?" he remarked, like he was testing out the word.

"Yes?”

“Is that what they call you?”

“Yes.”

"What kind of nickname is 'Colonel'?" asked Edward, still with a slight look of disgust on his face.

"What kind of nickname is 'Fullmetal'?" asked Roy drolly, only half listening as he took a drink of his own coffee.

"It's a codename,” Fullmetal replied, dead serious, in a way where Roy had to stop himself from snorting out the sip he just took.

"So a nickname?”

"It's different? 'Ed' is something my teachers would call me in class. 'Fullmetal' is something my team would call me if I was like, a government spy or something."

Oh, he was serious serious about this.

"That other dipshit you egged my car with,” Roy steepled his hands, “does he have a nickname?"

Fullmetal rolled his eyes. "A codename. And yeah."

"What is it?" asked Roy, going in for a sip of his coffee.

Fullmetal looked like he was in pain regarding what he was about to mutter under his breath. "Yung Lord.”

Roy managed to stop himself from a full-on spit take, getting the coffee down his throat before laughing harshly.

"It's not that bad,” Fullmetal whined.

Holding up his hands in surrender, Roy caught his breath. "No, no, no, but you're right, Fullmetal, Colonel is definitely the stupidest nickname out of the three."

Ed rolled his eyes again, so far Roy was sure they'd see the back of his skull. "Oh shut up, it's dumb as hell and it's still cooler than 'Colonel'," he muttered, letting a few beats pass before he asked. "How did you get it?”

"Those guys we just saw, we play on the rugby team together. Everyone on the team gets a nickname, but for the last few generations of players leading up to the split between the military and the school, team MVPs got military rank nicknames."

"And you got the Colonel."

Somehow. "Right. The big one got Second Lieutenant, along with another one of the guys, because they have some mean tag-team defense. The other one started the team as Twinkle Toes, but wound up our Sargeant after he saved the team's ass a few games in a row – he’s a junior now, and his freshman year was the last year Central State was Central Military.”

It didn’t stop there, of course. Falman joined the same year Fuery had but was already a Junior – he’d been given the leftover of Warrant Officer because of his penchant for being a rule-stickler. Havoc being their other Second Lieutenant with a mind built for protective, defensive plays. Riza was their Lieutenant, being given the highest title of any of the other Juniors since she’d come on as their manager. But Roy had been given his nickname long before any of them, before Hughes had been named the Brigadier General and Armstrong had been demoted to Major, due to his association with his senior mentor, the team’s old manager.

"So is there like, a General?” asked Fullmetal, genuinely intrigued, feet kicking from below the table.

"Of course.”

"Where is he now?"

"They work for the University, actually.” Pronouns, Fullmetal, could be an unfortunate display of bias. "I could take you to meet The General, if you want, if you actually start working."

"Pfft, yeah whatever, you've been playing a dumb computer game since I walked over here,” Fullmetal quipped.

"Have not," Roy protested.

"Have so, I know the sound of 2048 when I hear it."

Roy admittedly was up to 6144, but that was neither here nor there. At 4 o’clock, with only mild chirping from Roy regarding Edward's work speed ("You couldn't have gotten all your work done that fast." "Oh ye of little faith") and from Edward regarding Roy’s not one, but two bookbags (“One for school, one for my rugby gear, it’s called being practical.” “Since when is carrying two whole bags practical?”), they swept clean their table and took a detour back to campus.

Olivier Armstrong made every room she walked into feel ten degrees colder and struck fear in the hearts of students and faculty alike across CSU, but Roy remembered her cadet days at the military academy, when she carried a backpack with her initials monogrammed on the front, and so he remained unafraid. She'd been his senior mentor, after all, a thousand years ago, which means with each hour they'd been forced to spend together, he'd become much less intimidated and much more prone to goading her on, just to see her get irritated. He was one in a million on that front, few people daring to cross The General Herself, but her iron-fisted reputation was not to be disrespected, even by Roy. Especially not when one considered the utter devotion of those she led, particularly as the winningest rugby teams in Central history. Older and wiser now, Roy did his best to stay out of her way these days, given that running into Olivier during working hours meant he'd, unfortunately, ended up at Campus Security for something other than a parking pass, but his much younger self had laid it out formulaic: if he endured the verbal abuse typical of the strong military types long enough to speed through his homework, then he'd have leverage in convincing her to take him to the rugby practice she oversaw. Kickstarting his love for the game, he supposed, was something Roy could thank Olivier for.

Not that he would ever, but it was a nice thought.

Rugby aside, both of Fullmetal’s feet dragged as the Campus Security building got closer, realization crystallizing in real-time on his face.

“I can’t tell if you’re kidding or not?” he murmured suspiciously when Roy held open the door to the Wellesley Building, waving him to walk through.

“Why wouldn’t I be serious?” Roy asked, the door to a long, dull grey hallway rolling out ahead of them.

“So you are a narc –“

“Why is that your go-to – “

Mustang.”

He could never get a ‘hello’ out of her. Ever. And he had no idea why. No ‘hi Roy, how are you, it’s been a while!’, no ‘good to see you, Mustang!’, not even a ‘greetings’.

Just Mustang, full of spite. It was, at least, unique to one possible person.

“Olivier,” Roy turned on his heel; coming up behind them, stomping like she’d never left a march line, was one Olivier Armstrong, “it’s good to see –“

“It’s Officer Armstrong to you,” she said, clipped, eyeing him up and down like he was still to be inspected for a tucked shirt and adequately shined shoes. On the down sweep of her glare, she caught Fullmetal, sour expression rotting as she took in the ratty red hoodie, baggy pants, and poorly-kept combat boots. “And you.”

Edward’s eyes were wide like moons, his mouth drawn like a single thin line across his face. “Olivier,” Roy stepped in, sounding saccharine, “this is Edward Elric, I’m his senior mentor.”

“Unfortunate, all things considered,” she stated as though it was indisputable. “You couldn’t have gotten stuck with a more depraved and gutless delinquent.”

See, they did pair mentors and mentees for this program based on personality. It was beyond Roy that Olivier’s reputation preceded her as much as his had, even if she still seemed to blame him for their partnership.

“I’m aware, ma’am,” Fullmetal squeaked; color Roy impressed at Ed’s ability to clown him even when clearly scared shitless. This, however, was the Olivier effect – back in the day, the male/female ratio of Central Military Academy had been nothing short of depressing, and it wasn’t as though Armstrong was the type to roll over for the Boy’s Club. If you can’t join them, beat them, continuously, until they called you, well.

“I go by ‘sir’, usually,” Armstrong seemed to command.

“Yes sir,” said Fullmetal.

Olivier turned to glower at Roy through her hair, which he was sure should have been annoying in her face like that. “So you brought your protégé to Campus Security as, what, a scare tactic? We aren’t law enforcement, and this isn’t Scared Straight, Mustang.”

“Actually, I brought him here introduce him to you,” he smarmed, smiling so hard his cheeks were starting to hurt. “He wanted to meet The General.”

“I see,” Olivier’s stone blue eyes narrowed, darting between Ed and Roy, Roy and Ed. She stuck out a hand to shake Fullmetal’s, which he took in his scarred hand with some hesitancy. “Well, now we’ve met,” she announced, “and I have work to do.”

Olivier, with a swift nod, pushed herself between them to continue trotting down the hall. Edward did not turn to watch her go, but instead, stood very still, his face running through every possible human emotion.

Come on, this was hysterical. “I’m doing great, by the way,” Roy called down after Olivier, taking care to sound as smug as possible.

“I don’t care,” Olivier barked.

She’d cared a little bit, enough to coach him through college-level note taking and to show him the best places to study on campus. Even if she saw his success as a reflection of her own, Roy had been adopted into her company, where he would do as well as her 4.0, because she was getting a 4.0.

“Hughes got married –“

“I saw the photos, they seem happy.”

“Hawkeye’s still our manager.”

“Of course, she is. The team is in the best of hands with her.”

“I’m gonna see Alex later, at practice,” Roy continued. “Anything you want me to say to him?”

“Absolutely not, if I had anything to discuss with my spineless excuse of a brother, I would call him myself.”

Roy wondered what Armstrong Christmases were like since Olivier picked him over her own brother as the Colonel, Alex dropping to harbor Major as his title. The logic was, despite being two years older and thus the senior teammate, that Alex had dropped out of Central’s dual enrollment program when he’d tried it, and Roy, at 17, had been tutoring her upperclassmen players out of academic probation. At the end of the day, it’d been Roy who stood right hand to The General, and her brother who she’d grated as a coward, which had to cut after a while. Not that Alex, a polite and reverent younger sibling, had ever uttered a word against his ‘dearest older sister’.

“The team’s looking strong this year,” Roy raised his voice through cupped hands to get her attention as she went to turn a corner, “hope to see you at a game!”

Olivier stopped. “I’ll be there,” she replied, barely a smidge softer at the mention of her greatest hobby. “I look forward to it.”

At the end of the day, the military nicknames hadn’t been in good nature, nor in support of their school. Just as Roy started taking classes there, Central Military had gone under federal investigation regarding some shady financial dealings involving much of the higher staff. Not that it was the talk of the town, or anyone, anyone at all. Rather, it seemed to be a hush topic, any discussion of what administration was being investigated for was as forbidden as saying Voldemort or Beetlejuice. Dean Bradley assured that so long as the school continued to comply with the federal investigators, everything would remain under control, and the professors below him acted as his megaphone. Most students were satisfied with this answer, but not given enough details to question the goings-on of the school anyway. Olivier, a military brat herself, in what would be her greatest act of dissent against the structure that her family had honored for generations, decided to give titles to the people, the team she respected most, as the sanctity of the school fell under the state’s jurisdiction at the concluding court case. If the administration couldn’t respect the students as much as their brass, then Olivier would treat her fellow students like brass – of course, she was unanimously named their General.

Plenty had changed since then, but much had stayed the same. The school culture became more liberal, but many of the tenured professors remained in their positions. The uniform policy dropped but the patriotic décor found in the older buildings remained untouched. The General Herself had graduated and returned again, still with the personal policy of honoring the student body.

“Holy shit,” Edward said, once the click of Olivier’s boots faded and disappeared.

“She’s a lot cooler than she seems,” Roy gave shrug. More like ice cold, in reality, but it was neither here nor there.

“I see why you turned out the way you did.”

“And what’s that supposed to mean?”

At practice later, when he changed into his practice clothes, the bruise left from Fullmetal’s big black boot had begun to purple.


Week 3, it’d be a stretch to say that Fullmetal was warming up to Roy, but at least he stopped pretending like he’d mistakenly kicked Roy’s shins under the coffee shop table. Admittedly, he was still kicking Roy’s shins, just intentionally now, but with a smile, which probably was a decent sign? Roy would figure he'd made it when, during one of the times where the two of them periodically saw each other on campus, Fullmetal waved back to him instead of scowling as he stomped double time in a moving sea of students, en route to some other responsibility.

This Wednesday, Fullmetal wouldn’t explain over text, and Roy didn’t really care to know in the first place, but instead of coming to their meeting this week alone, Edward had entered Comanche’s with the twinkle of the bell, shoulder to shoulder with another boy, or specifically, his brother, if their matching golden hair and pale brown eyes were anything to go by.

[14:44] don't be an asshole to him istg was all Ed had given him as a heads up, and Roy had rolled his eyes and returned to working-not-working on his thesis outline without thinking twice about it. Now, he watched carefully, Fullmetal's intent behind the otherwise cryptic text unfolding before his eyes. Edward's brother was clearly the younger of the two, if not by much, but was still taller than Ed even with the lean as he walked, two skinny legs in braces and an arm guiding him in a forearm crutch for good measure. Peripheral nerve damage, Roy assumed, if not something cerebral? The point being that Edward, in a way Roy both hadn't expected and maybe should have expected, appeared to be nothing less than a protective and doting older sibling, relaxed when turned to his brother and watchful as he seemed to silently warn Rebecca behind the counter, the group of other students working in the corner, the businessman with the loosened tie sitting by the bar, to mind their own, or else. Otherwise, it was strange to watch Fullmetal appear to be so, well, normal, as he chattered animatedly with his brother, moving from the desserts to the coffee press, to the cashier and towards the table; Roy blinked back into himself, feeling a little like he'd been watching something not meant for him to see, before the Elrics got close enough to really notice him observing with intent.

“Bastard, brother,” Fullmetal announced, lackadaisical, pointing the extra drink he carried between his brother and Roy as he took a sip of his own standard black cold brew. “Alphonse, this is the Colonel Bastard.”

Alphonse stuck out his free hand with earnest enthusiasm to shake Roy’s, his face much softer and rounder than that of his brother’s, not at all like his firm, focused handshake. “Thanks for letting me sit in on your meeting, Mr. Mustang, I'll try not to be a bother to you guys.” Oh no, Roy thought, Fullmetal's brother was, of all the things he could've been, sweet. “You can just call me Al, if you want.”

One of Edward's eyebrows piqued at the statement, all but screaming he can call you what now? Roy, on the other hand, changed his mind: there was no way these two were related. 

"It's nice to meet you, Al," he said instead, taking care to sound kinder than he'd normally would, given the company, through a smile without smarm. "As far as being a bother goes, it'd be hard for anyone to beat out this one here. He certainly has a penchant for it."

Fullmetal's face contorted into an almost comical sneer as he set down his and Al's drinks with a noticeable amount of force, cut off in the middle of a retort that started something like Well you're one to talk aren't you, you slimy-

"Brother has a big personality," said Al, bashfully.

"You know as well as anyone, I suppose," Roy replied.

Fullmetal let out a long, strained, loud exhale. 

Al's 9th grade English book was noticeably juvenile next to the picture-less, black-and-white, 10-point font of Ed’s college Calc book, but the brothers, as Roy looked up from behind his screen to peer at them every so often, seemed to focus in on their studies with an equally intense rigor and concentration. Maybe Alphonse should join them more often; something about his presence made Fullmetal noticeably more controlled and diligent on the task at hand, rather than pushing Roy's buttons for a laugh in between equations. If he didn’t know any better, he’d think that Ed’s sharp right turn towards the conscientious was because he himself wanted to set a good example for his younger brother, which would, Roy conceded, be rather endearing.

That is, if he didn’t know any better and if it wasn’t Fullmetal. For now, since he did know better and it was Fullmetal in question here, Roy decided to lean into the quiet and relish in the full twenty minutes of work he got done before he was interrupted.

"So why do you two meet here, instead of somewhere on campus?" asked Al as he reached for his drink, looking between Roy and his brother, innocently enough. "Besides the good hot chocolate?"

"It's convenient," Roy said with a shrug, not bothering to look up from his keyboard.

"The bastard picked it out," Ed said, drumming his pencil against the top of his textbook. "Coffee's alright."

Roy stopped typing. "The best coffee in all of Central-"

"It's pretty good but-"

"I don't have a lot of time in my schedule," Roy turned to Al, ignoring the rest of what Fullmetal had to say, "so if we want to keep up a weekly meeting time - "

"- 'want' is an interesting word choice -"

"- then meeting a little off-campus, where it won't get busy for another two hours at least, makes this one of the more optimal places to work, with or without the coffee."

Week 3, and Roy already had a sixth sense for when Fullmetal was prepared to reply with something uncouth. 

"He acts like he's so busy," and Edward was off like a shot, clearly talking exclusively to Al while scowling in Roy's direction, " but all I've ever seen him do is play 2048 on his expensive computer and strut around campus with his rugby shit and his girlfriend - "

Roy was sure, see, that Fullmetal had said something else after "girlfriend", but it was like a hook had snatched his collar mid-sprint. Blinking through the whiplash and Fullmetal's running mouth, Roy sputtered "wait, what?"

"You heard me, like no one's gonna forget you play rugby if you go two seconds without some kind of physical reminder -"

"No, no, no, no, not that," Roy chided, holding up his hands to make it stop, cease, wait a second. "My girlfriend?"

"Yeah?"

"What girlfriend?"

The mischief and the irritation on Fullmetal's face were quickly painted over with sheer confusion. 

"That girl? That one girl I see you with literally all the time outside of this coffee shop and Grumman's class? Long blonde hair in the clip?"

“No-"

To be fair,

"I-"

it didn't take a rocket scientist to know what, or rather,

"It's not-"

who Fullmetal meant,

"We’re not together all the time…”

Edward, looking as unconvinced as Roy felt, sat back in his chair with a creak, folding his arms before he shared a quick look with Alphonse, whose gold blond head of hair had been spinning as it turned back and forth, following the banter of his tablemates. 

“It’s really none of your business, Fullmetal," he said instead, stern, and with an air of finality that lasted a whole three, two, one...

“So she’s your girlfriend, got it,” Ed nodded, dripping sarcasm as his shit-eating aura threatened to spill out his ears, nearly breaking into a full grin as Al snorted beside them.

“Hawkeye’s not my girlfriend -"

“I'm just saying that you and Hawkeye," Ed dropped his voice to sound deep and stupid, Roy was being mocked now," seem pretty close -"

“- she’s one of my roommates.”

The lightning-fast look of knowing only shared by brothers connected Ed and Al before Roy could even attempt to quell them.

“And they were roommates!” said Ed, in a voice that was weird for him, clearly meant to mimic something.

“Oh my god, they were roommates… ” said Al, mimicking Ed’s mimicry.

The brothers broke out into full snickers, leaving Roy to do nothing but blink, dumbfounded at how what he'd said could possibly have garnered such a reaction. And they were roommates - “Literally, what the fuck are you two talking about?” 

"It's a Vine!" replied Alphonse in his sweet tone, like he hadn't hoodwinked and betrayed Roy just a few moments ago. 

"Wait, so do you like, not know what Vine is?" asked Ed, genuinely incredulous. Roy shrugged, face pulled wry. “So you're old, single, and don't know what real comedy is. I almost feel bad for you now..." 

"I don't know what you -" Roy sighed, head lolling back to look up at the ceiling to seek patience, guidance, a holy intervention, before turning back to the two brothers. "You should be working. Why are you still talking? Get back to work."

Fullmetal murmured something like another mimic that only Alphonse could hear and smile at, but in just a few moments, the table descended into quiet once more. With only the gentle clink of coffee mugs and the steam of kettles going off in the kitchen, Roy, Edward, and Al finally relaxed long enough to settle back into their working pattern.

For five more minutes. 

"So how'd you meet Hawkeye then?" asked Alphonse, not as a mockery, but with warm, genuine interest. Roy could've been peeved, should've been peeved, but he responded nonetheless. As nonchalantly as he could, not looking up from the mess of a word doc in front of him, in a way that most certainly could not be mocked even if someone tried.

"We've been friends since we were kids," he stated. 

"Oh, that makes sense," said Al, with a perplexingly understanding nod, letting the quiet drag out until he turned to look at his brother. "So, like Ed and Winry?"

"Who's Winry?" Roy paused, watching Ed's entire face turn as red as that beloved red hoodie of his. 2+2 and everything, Roy felt smug as he leaned back in his chair, crossing his arms with a smirk. "Oh, the Winry?"

"Shut up," a chord had been struck, "it's not like that."

"It's a little like that," whispered Al, much to Ed's guttural irritation. "She's been our friend since we were all little, we were practically raised together."

"Winry's the one he had to avenge by egging my car right?" Al nodded, beaming at their combined effort to embarrass his brother.

"I said that was an accident -"

"And then never followed up with an explanation -"

"It's kind of a long story," Alphonse insisted, "but believe it or not, Edward and Ling had a good reason!"

"Oh, I'm sure," Roy scoffed. "Because the most reasonable and honorable of people egg cars for revenge instead of working out their problems like adults."

"That car is a piece of shit anywa-"

"A car hit Winry's dog," Al said, cutting off Edward with a wave of his hand and a solemn nod. "She has this old dog that wanders sometimes, you know, and this big Jeep hit her one night."

Roy frowned, crossing his arms and tapping his fingers, as he assessed the looks on the brothers' faces: Edward, disgusted, Alphonse, honest. The story was true, which was by all means, disappointing. 

"Wait, wait, wait, you're forgetting the important part," Ed interjected, more muted than before. "A car hit Winry's dog and didn't stop. Me and Ling," Roy controlled the urge to interrupt with The Yung Prince, "we were with Winry when it happened, and she was so upset, and so we did the first thing we could think of to do."

"They got on their bikes and follow the car that did it," Al explained.

"Your lame car just happened to look like another one that was on the road, the one that did it."

"Another green Jeep?" Roy asked, unconvinced, but then the two brothers nodded so sincerely it was like there was nothing left for him to do besides listen. 

"So I followed the one that wasn't yours, but it went up to this snooty gated community and I couldn't get a closer look," Ed drew the route with his finger in the air as he talked. "Ling followed you to your house, decided it had to be you -"

"But obviously, they were wrong."

"- and we decided we'd egg the car in the morning to get back at the fucker who hurt Den - "

"Slashing tires comes with a lot of legal troubles," Alphonse explained with another nod, and between the two of them, that seemed to be the end of that.

It was stupid. Fullmetal's reason for egging his car, but also the deep, well-affirmed knowledge that if he'd personally seen a car hit, say, Hayate, just as an example, he would've done the same thing. More likely, he would've done worse than egg someone's car, but that detail was neither here nor there. 

"How's Winry's dog then?" asked Roy, looking back again towards his laptop.

"Den's okay. They had to take off her leg, but she's a champ, she recovered no problem," said Ed, a little more of his usual mischief creeping back into his frame as he settled down.

"She's in good hands with Winry and her grandma. They usually fix cars, but Winry's got a knack for technical stuff all around. She tweaked my braces and my crutch, and she customized Brother's prosthetic," Al explained, holding up the shiny metal crutch that had been leaning against their table unattended to, Roy noticed the small cat keychain tied to the end. "She'll make Den a new leg, no sweat."

"Winry's," Ed huffed, folding his arms as he fumbled for the words; Roy once again halted himself from laughing in the kid's face, "very smart."

"Great, I'm glad to hear it," Roy replied, typing a few nonsense words into his outline before he realized the brothers were still looking at him, expectantly. "Now get back to work."

Al, satisfied, turned back to his homework without protest. Ed took a moment longer, looking between his shoes and Roy and his empty coffee cup as his face began to pale back to it's normal color. 

Much later that night, when Roy was settling to get some sleep, he'd turned to Havoc, who was getting some reading done in his own bed on the opposite side of their room. 

"Jean."

"Colonel."

"What's Vine?'

Havoc's head whipped up from his textbook in record speed. "You, for real, don't know what Vine is?"

Roy, sitting cross-legged upon his sheets, gave a shrug. "Why is that everyone's immediate response?"

"Because everyone who hasn't been living under a rock like you have, apparently, knows what the hell Vine is," Havoc dropped the textbook gently at the side of his bed before reaching for his phone, plugging in a few keystrokes before looking up at Roy's incredulous face. "I'm sending you some homework. View at your leisure."

Roy's phone, resting on his bedside table, vibrated three times in succession. When he opened the messages, there were three links to nearly 20 minute-long videos of what Roy could piece together as being Vine compilations. 

Havoc had to bitch at him three separate times once it was lights out to stop laughing, he was trying to get some fucking sleep, after all. 


Week 4, or the week of the first exam in a typical semester. It was most obvious in a place like Comanche's, where students flocked in larger droves than usual as their biggest and most difficult tests came and went. Any place that served coffee was sure to be bustling this particular Wednesday at 3, Riza reminded him, and in order to secure a spot for himself and Ed, Roy went to claim his table early. Riza tagged along, permission assumed, mentioning only that she could make use of this time to prepare for her own upper-level Physics exam on Friday.

And unlike Roy, there was no wasting time with Riza; other than a short conversation with Rebecca at the register, whispering to one another over her complimentary piping hot cup of chai (Roy had been here regularly since the start of the semester, and hadn't once been offered a free drink, but okay), Riza could sit down at the table just behind him, pull out her textbooks, and get through all of her intended work in record time. Riza could do all of this while periodically checking over Roy's shoulder, just at her back, to make sure he was also on task. Roy cursed her ability to know he was playing 2048 just by the patterned clacks of his keyboard, hanging over his chair and hers, lamenting with great jest that maybe she'd struggle with getting her work done too, if her work was as open-ended and grave as a senior thesis. She'd get him right between the eyebrows with her pen and push him back to his own table without missing a beat; he'd back his chair up to hit hers, sometimes she'd laugh about it.

A scientist first, it was hard for Roy to deny the pattern here: the more comfortable he got, the greater discomfort was inevitably around the corner. Exhibit A, 2:57, closing another tab on his open browser of thesis sources, the sound of Riza scoffing fondly over her own work a few inches behind him, the chronic ache in his side looser than it'd felt in ages. Exhibit B, a text from Hughes, [2:58] hey dipshit, i know you're '""busy""" but call me when you get the chance. it's important. Exhibit C, Fullmetal shuffling through the door, backpack half unzipped and shoes untied.

Roy bided his time carefully until he technically wasn't lying: [3:01] sorry, working for another hour, we can talk after, not that he would call. Fullmetal, on the other hand, moved slow, waiting until he caught Roy on an off-glance to waggle his eyebrows with a thumbs up, pointedly looking towards Riza, then back at him, then back at Riza, then back at him.

Roy shook his head once, quick and swift. Fullmetal nodded. Roy shook his head slowly, with great emphasis. Fullmetal just nodded slower.

Sliding his phone into his bookbag's front pouch before he got any other notifications, Roy gave the bridge of his nose a quick pinch and scrunched his eyes closed, willing the clock to read 3:20 or something later when he opened them again, closer and closer to the end of the day...

When he did finally open his eyes, Fullmetal had gotten his coffee and pulled up a seat at Hawkeye's table, diablerie apparent as he rested his head in his hands, looming over Riza's physics book with interest.

"You think you can find the answer to Number 4?" Riza had leaned over to ask him amiably; Fullmetal's eyebrows flew up into his hairline as he shook his head.

"Hell no, but you should let me know when you do," he said, running a finger along the complicated equations written at the top of the page as Riza nodded at him in agreement, "For science, this is so much math..."

Roy cleared his throat, maybe a little obnoxiously on his part. "Fullmetal, this is my roommate, Riza Hawkeye," Fullmetal's face flashed something shameless at the emphasis on 'roommate', Roy resisted the urge to talk through his teeth. "Hawkeye, this is Edward Elric."

"You're not gonna work at our table?" Fullmetal asked Riza, but she just shook her head.

"She's got real work to do," Roy cut in and Edward rolled his eyes, "and she doesn't need you distracting her -"

"That's true, he's under the impression that's his job." Riza teased slow and quiet, like she was telling a secret only to Ed as the corners of his mouth tugged into a grin; it was so unfair. "Maybe you'll have better luck than I have this afternoon, Edward, on keeping him focused."

Fullmetal let out a sharp ha as he switched tables, taking the chair to Roy's left. "See, even your girlfriend -" goddamnit Edward "- thinks you're a lazy S-O-B."

"Yeah, yeah, yeah," Roy cleared his throat in between quick affirmations before, perhaps abruptly, switching topics, sparing a quick glance at the back of Hawkeye's head; she was back to looking over her notes, seemingly composed at Fullmetal’s accusation. "How have your exams been this week? Running into any issues?"

Ed had not been so hung up, not on Roy's clear sheepishness nor anything else, apparently. "Issues? I'm barely breaking a sweat," he said with a cocky shrug of his shoulder. He'd gotten 103 on his first Chem exam, relaying with excitement how he figured out the trick question for bonus points. Grumman's exam tomorrow was sure to be a breeze, he'd even made flashcards. He'd just gotten out of English, and his professor said his first essay results would be put up on the grade portal just after three o’clock, but Ed was unperturbed by that outcome as well.

"I mean, come on, you and everyone else on this campus talked such a big game about how hard college was gonna be," Ed threw his hands up behind his head, a picture of utter relaxation emphasized by the tables of stressed-out students surrounding him, "but it's nothing I can't do."

"Doesn't Yakovlev teach your English class?" Roy inquired, innocently enough, through a sip of his coffee, returning to his own work at hand as Fullmetal started to pull out his own supplies.

"Yeah, what about it?"

"He's a notoriously tough grader." Stated as fact.

"Maybe he is for everyone else, but I'm not too worried about him." Also stated, confidently, as fact.

Roy tsked, wondering what it would be like to sit in a class with a student as outspoken and chaotic as Fullmetal with a military hardass like Yakovlev bearing over him, correcting his every annunciation.

Fullmetal took out his phone, tapping in what was likely his student ID and password with a familiar ease. “I’m gonna check my grade right now, and you’ll see. Look, I did so…” Ed paused, the color sinking from his face. “Oh.”

Roy hadn't noticed immediately over his own work, Edward going very still and quiet. When he did finally look up, Fullmetal's phone was up to his nose, his gaze moving in the same pattern, reading the same thing over and over.

“What’s the matter?”

Fullmetal slumped back in his chair, sitting his phone out on the table. "I..." he seemed to shake his head in disbelief, picking the phone back up and down like it'd give him a different answer each time.

"Spit it out, Fullmetal."

68%. Sophomoric, in need of serious edits. That was the comment left at the top of Fullmetal's first English paper, representative of the various red strikethroughs and edits as Roy continued to scroll down the page, each line contributing more to the blood bath. He scowled, so Yakolev hadn't changed much from the absolute insufferable asshole he was known to be when Roy had taken his class. As if he wasn't grading what would've been a literal sophomore in high school's paper. If Fullmetal needed that much help, Yakolev didn't need to humiliate the kid like –

Oh shit, Fullmetal’s wide eyes were glassed over, almost like they were filling with? No - not with tears, right? It was like someone pulled the fire alarm if only in the realm of Roy's mind, the long harsh beeps screeching and echoes overlapping in his brain, the lights overhead blinking sporadically, the sprinklers threatening to drip and empty. Was Edward crying? Oh no. No, no, no. That just wouldn't do. Roy wasn't equipped to deal with tears. Don't cry nopenopenope -

“Hey, you can’t let this get to you," Roy said, much calmer than he felt. "Pull it together, you can do better next time.”

“I tanked it, though," Fullmetal's voice was wet, his throat caught. "There’s only three exams, no bonus points. I can't believe how screwed I am…”

As he spoke, Edward rubbed his forehead in circles as his frustration threatened to spill over like lava from a volcano. Roy needed to stop it, the crying, not just before they made a scene in a busy coffee shop, but before the tears even started. What he said wasn’t a lie - Fullmetal was by no means the first or last perfectionist student to ever flunk their first exam of a three-test course, even if he didn't have the foresight to know how common and fixable his situation was. He really could be okay, if he just trusted his own intelligence and capability long enough to focus on a game plan. But how was Roy supposed to tell that to Fullmetal, in a way he’d actually listen? Cradle him like his mother, spout more nonsense platitudes about how everything was going to be alright? He’d would be insulted from the get-go, and would fight the support at every corner, because when he looked at Roy he didn’t see Roy, who had at some point genuinely wanted to see him succeed, he saw The Colonel Bastard, slimy and irreverent.

It was a hole Roy had dug for himself, see.

There were two options, however, if he wanted to stop Ed from making a blubbering mess of himself in the middle of Commanche’s. The second was to pick the fight before Edward could.

“Fullmetal, did you forget how you got here?" Roy asked, steady and indifferent. "No one is forcing you to take hard classes, you could be sitting in high school like every other fifteen year old.”

In an instant, Edward's face twisted from one of deep concern to spite and defiance.

“What’s your point?” he growled, and Roy caught him dead in the eye, where the pools of tears begun to drain, the molten drying solid.

"Pull yourself together."

“Isn’t this what you did?” Edward spat, shooting, hurling daggers with his glare. "Didn't you do dual enrollment, take a bunch of stupid hard classes when you should've been in high school? Shouldn't you understand?"

“Yeah, I did, and I understand perfectly well.” It was weird, how much harder it was being cross with Fullmetal as Roy and not Bastard, when the banter was harsh sans entertaining. "You chose to do this, so don’t hold up now.”

The expression morphing Fullmetal’s features was one of rage, white-knuckling the plastic coffee cup in his hand; where Roy had expected next something explosive and deafening, he instead froze when he heard a soft creak from the chair behind him.

“He used to cry all the time, you know.” Riza had spun around from her seat at the other table, giving Ed a look Roy knew as her warmest, one she usually reserved for small animals and nervous underclassmen on the rugby team and Roy, sometimes, when he wasn't expecting it but also hadn’t known he needed it. People mistook Riza for being taciturn or aloof, which Roy knew better than anyone to be absolutely untrue, but it did make times like this, where she chose to close the distance she tended to keep and show how kind her heart really was, feel something special to whoever she’d taken to.

Tension pulling his brows together, Roy wondered if he ever looked at her with quite as much awe Fullmetal looked at her with, just now, his frown dissipating into a mischievous smirk as he seemed to replay what she’d said to him once or twice over.

“Hawkeye,” Roy warned.

She ignored him, naturally. “My dad used to be his tutor," Riza explained, folding her arms over the back of the chair, resting her head to meet Ed at eye level. "He was very strict and used to get on him about being a crier all the time. Over the smallest mistakes."

"Hawk -"

"He doesn’t look it now, but when he got a bad mark, he was all waterworks.”

Hawkeye, that’s not true -”

Edward, unperturbed by anything Roy had to say at this point, looked nothing short of delighted. “That’s hysterical," he said with a devilish grin; Roy ran a hand over his face, but not a soul in that coffee shop could have been bothered to pay attention to him.

“Now, he’s right about one thing,” Riza continued, unaffected as Ed continued to hang on her every word. “Crying’s probably not going to help you get your work done, it’s not going to pull your grades up for you, it won’t help you prepare for the next exam, but that’s okay. Everyone cries sometimes -”

“Hawkeye - ”

“Except for me,” she concluded, smug.

“Unbelievable."

Fullmetal just nodded at her fervently, taking in her words as gospel, each bounce of his ponytail a 'thank you, I’ll do better next time' before he turned back to Roy. “What are you staring at, Crybaby? We have work to do."

Before Roy could turn around to give Riza a look, to say something, even if silently, she’d already returned to her studies, and put in her headphones for good measure.

Riza was pissed at him, and true to form, wasted no time in letting him know. Roy looked at the clock at the bottom of his laptop screen to gauge how long he’d have to sit and stew in her disappointment. 3:20 PM. Awesome.

It was because she had his back, in the end, because they’d agreed to take care of each other, swore on it. And it was easy, letting that manifest in small ways: her reminding him to get to Commanche’s early if he wanted a table to work at, him teasing her, if only to get a small smile, a quick laugh. What was hard was the flipside: when she had to step in when he became callous or careless, and him, well, letting her down. Some efficiency she had; it was almost embarrassing how quickly he deflated at the prospect of Riza upset, but between the two options, or between this and her actively calling him out in the middle of Commanche's, causing the scene he was trying to avoid, Roy supposed he could handle the 40 minute wait until she told him exactly how he'd fucked up.

They parted ways with Fullmetal in front of the coffee shop and walked a few minutes in a loaded silence.

“So are you usually that cruel with Edward?” asked Riza, finally; Roy shrunk at her candor.

Heaving his book bag on one shoulder, his rugby bag on the other, he gripped the straps like a bitter lifeline. "It was the truth."

She turned her head to look up at him, pointed despite the height difference. "Barely."

The steps of their feet against the pavement seemed to scrape louder than normal, just the two of them passing house upon house in the emptiness of twilight, the sun setting earlier these days. “He was gonna start crying," Roy huffed, a little quieter, "I just wanted to, you know, stop him before he started.”

“You’ve never seen someone cry before?”

“He's got exams, he can't afford to get distracted, waste his own time."

"He's also fifteen and has never taken a college course before in his life," Riza pointed out and Roy frowned, like he'd forgot that to be the case. "Edward’s not one of the guys on the rugby team who you can be so blunt with. He's not just a regular student. He's also not you, although the similarities are striking," she trailed off, carefully watching him moue once she'd hit a short pause; Roy stared at his feet taking long strides between the concrete cracks.

"Just because you think you can muscle through all of your setbacks -"

"Fullmetal's not the type to be coddled, he's motivated by a challenge -"

" - doesn't mean he should be encouraged to do the same," Riza emphasized. "It's not sustainable, and it's not like you."

Her words might’ve seem loaded if Roy didn’t know exactly what she meant when he looked at her. As if she had been the one to let up on their promise, ever, since they made it however many years ago now. As if she hadn’t been the one to drape a blanket over him on the nights he fell asleep studying on the couch yet again, as if she hadn’t been the one to keep him in line as he kept his boys in line as Team Captain, fair and strong and dedicated to the troop. As if she hadn’t been given a front row seat to his months-long Hughes-induced breakdown, his paranoid discomfort at being left behind, the crushing fear of failure he shared with Fullmetal. If you want to take care of anyone else, she seemed to say, you have to also take care of yourself. And you don’t take care of yourself.

Roy groaned, just loud and dramatic enough for a small echo to radiate into the open afternoon air.

"Why do you always have to be right?" Riza broke into a small smile, similar to the one she’d given to Fullmetal earlier, and Roy felt a pang of distaste in the back of his throat when he thought of how distraught the kid had been. “I just –“

“Hm?”

"Edward already doesn't respect me,” Roy stated, hands waving with fret as he talked. “If I give him too much slack, he won't do well in his classes, then Grumman will be on my ass, and then -"

The genuine look of puzzlement on Riza's face was what stopped him.

“What?”

"You think he doesn't respect you?"

"I don't think, I know. It's obvious, we're not friends."

"Huh,” Riza acquiesced, unconvincingly. “That's an interesting take, I suppose."

"What."

"Nothing."

"Hawkeye."

When Riza looked up to give him another faux-innocent bat of her lashes and seemingly innocuous shrug of her shoulders, Roy didn't hesitate to check her right in the hip, just enough to get a yelp out of her as she tread faster to keep her balance. She tried to trip him, he elbowed her in the side, she didn’t laugh about it, but smiled pretty wide.


Thunderstorms wrought the campus at the tail-end of September, right before midterms, unexpected but not unusual as the stark heat of summer and the chilled breeze of fall clashed with the changing of the seasons. 

Week 5. Roy grabbed his regular order and worked at their usual spot in Comanche’s for twenty minutes before it occurred to him that Fullmetal's absence might actually mean something was wrong.  Tapping the wood of the table with his knuckles, knee bouncing more erratically with time, and not from the caffeine, he decided the bare minimum would be to check-in and make sure Ed was, baseline, alive. 

 

[15:20] hooky isn’t like you, fullmetal

[15:20] what could possibly be more fun than hanging out with me?

 

It took an abnormal amount of time to get an answer back, his phone vibrating so hard it fell off the table and clattered onto the floor. Could a text alert physically carry the rage of an adolescent boy? Asking for a friend.

 

[15:25] fuck off

[15:26] it’s raining

 

[15:26] what’s the matter? going to melt???

 

[15:27] it makes my prosthetic and my bad hand ache and i’m tired

[15:27] try not to be an asshole for 20 minutes jfc

[15:27] i skipped everything today, i promise i'll catch up later

 

Roy’s bouncing leg stopped abruptly. If he was frank, he wasn't expecting a real, legitimate excuse from Ed regarding his absence, figuring it was only a matter of time before the kid got so annoyed he would try to skip their regular meeting time. But it wasn't as if Fullmetal was the type to weasel out of doing actual work in the first place; even pretending like that was something he would do felt spurious, fake, flat-out wrong. Phantom pain, however, was a very real thing. So was the doom and gloom of this week’s weather as well as the special kind of ache that came with nerve damage, as Roy could certainly attest to himself. And then there was the very true reality that Fullmetal was entirely responsible for getting himself across town to get to his classes. Each inconvenience on their own might not seem so daunting- what's a little rain, what's a little ache, what's a little commute- but when they begin to stack, one on top of the other, higher and higher…

 

[15:27] that’s no good, fullmetal


The kid could do it, Roy knew. He could drag himself out the door in time for class with limbs that made his bones ache and get that stupid red hoodie of his soaking wet in the pouring rain and get struck by lightning on his bicycle halfway to CSU. Roy didn’t doubt that he could do all that and continue being a prized pupil all by himself through sheer willpower alone, truly, but he shouldn’t have had to, right? There had to be something, anything to make it a little bit easier...

It came as simply as flicking a lightbulb from off to on, Roy had an idea.

 

[15:28] send me your address, i think i have something that might be of use to you

[15:28] ??? okay sure

 

And so he packed up and waved to Rebecca behind the counter before heading back to HQ to toss Fullmetal's loan in the closest shoebox he could find with Siri on the ready to navigate to the Elric house. Roy had been told once, in the hot minute he’d been in counseling as a troubled teenager, that his feelings didn’t need to be “big enough” in order to utilize tools to mediate them. The woman who had told him this was nice enough, smart enough, her office smelling like mothballs and Werther’s Originals, but Roy was Roy, and did not listen, and would continue, years later, to never listen. The particular item he was going to retrieve came at a moment of weakness, or rather, after a weekend of dreary, slow, foggy rain and Roy only getting out of bed for the essentials, if that. Hawkeye, ever point-blank, encouraged the purchase after her spot-on assessment: “you’re useless when it rains”. Roy still hated the rain, on a weird personal level, but it wasn't as though he had much time to be useless these days.

Fullmetal’s house was in a receded neighborhood of duplexes, similar to CSU’s student-approved housing but further away from Central, closer to real civilization and the heart of the city. Roy drove slowly as he counted house numbers before spotting one with a small metal ramp and understanding without a doubt what that could have possibly been for. He didn’t bother to turn his engine off as he parked in the driveway, taking long strides up to the door to avoid the thick drops of rain. 

Expecting a buzz, the doorbell instead rang a long melodious chime.

 

[15:54] leave it on the doorstep. I don’t have my leg on, and I’m not hobbling to meet you

 

Doing as he was asked, Roy typed out a response with his free hand.

 

[15:55] Fine, don’t get up on my account

[15:55] sit under it for twenty minutes on low/medium. It probably won’t totally take the pain away but you’ll feel a lot less tired, might make it easier to get motivated

 

He hadn’t noticed the reply until he was parked back in the driveway of HQ. 

 

[16:02] what the hell is this thing

[16:02] is this a litebright

[16:02] there’s no holes for the little rainbow pellets

[16:03] there’s also no pellets

 

[16:18] it’s a light box. 

 

[16:18] why??

 

[16:19] do you really want the ins and outs of how serotonin works in the brain or?

 

[16:19] no i mean, why do you have one?

 

[16:20] im 

 

Roy debated, briefly, exactly how much of himself he wanted to share here in an effort to be an emotionally vulnerable and committed mentor. Emphasis on "briefly".  

 

[16:22] useless on rainy days

[16:22] but for real don’t start with longer than 20 min, and make sure the light is looking down on you, but that shouldn’t be hard, given your stature

 

[16:23] omfg eat shit

 

The rest of Roy’s night was pretty par for the course as far as Wednesdays went. He ate and studied and did his stretches and remembered to call his aunt back and gave Hayate a scratch behind the ear before toppling into bed, face first. 

Never a heavy sleeper, his phone woke him up in the middle of the night, as though Fullmetal had come into the room he shared with Havoc and flicked the overhead light on and off in rapid succession himself.

 

[01:33] hey kernel thanks for the box this thing’s great

 

[01:34] fullmetal what are you doing up

[01:34] you have an 8 am

 

[01:34] the fancy lamp gave me a shitton of energy i feel great

 

[01:35] how long did you sit under the light

 

[01:36] like

[01:36] an hour

[01:36] maybe two hours

 

[01:38] on what setting???

 

[01:38] ...

[01:38] ….hiiiiiiigh

 

[01:40] fullmetal

[01:41] i could not have been more clear

 

[01:42] i think im abt to find the cure for cancer

[01:42] or at least rearrange my whole room

[01:42] bet you i can do it one-handed

 

Roy turned off his ringer and went back to sleep, pulling his pillow over his face for good measure.