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shoes that cut and eyes that burn (like cigarettes)

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His first memory is of the burn that comes with getting his soulmark.

Roy Mustang (he’s Roy Smith, then, the only boy with black hair in the whole orphanage; it’s another three years before Chris Mustang finally tracks down her favorite cousin’s boy, and by then he has a very bad reputation of biting anyone who calls him weird because of it) is two when it happens. He’s woken very suddenly at dawn by a sharp, angry burn down the inside of his right arm, and the pain is so piercing that it sends him into tears. He keeps crying just because of the surprise. He doesn’t know what’s happening. He can’t read, even, and now someone’s written something on his skin and no matter how much he spits and rubs he can’t get it to go away.

Miss Veronica (she’s the night matron, younger than the others, and nicer) gathers him up and takes him to her office, away from the other children. She shows him her mark (a few short words in the crease of her elbow) and says that they mean that somewhere out there in the world, his soul mate had just been born.

Roy (who has stopped crying; Miss Veronica had given him a caramel) wrinkles his nose and screws up his face at the thought. “Soul mate?”

“It means someone who loves you, no matter what.” He considers this. He’s precocious, sure, but he’s only two. He doesn’t actually get it. “The writing is the first words they’ll ever say to you. That’s how you know they’re yours.”

“Mine,” he echoes, and looks at his arm again. The swelling has gone down. When he runs his fingers over the marks again, he can feel them, just a little. The texture of his skin there is rougher. He thrusts his arm into Miss Veronica’s face. “Read.”

She peers at his arm, pronounces the words too small for her (“you’re still growing, they’ll be clearer when you’re older”) and then packs him off to bed again. He doesn’t fall asleep for what feels like a long time, preoccupied with the idea that somewhere outside the orphanage, there is someone that is his. Even at two and a half, Roy Mustang thinks in terms of mine and not mine. There’s this little nagging feeling under his ribs, one that grows and blossoms as he stares at the words he can’t read.

Someone who loves you, no matter what.

Riza’s soulmark is wrapped around her ankle, sloppy, cramped handwriting that looks like someone has spilled spiderwebs across her skin. She’s born with it. It’s not until she’s almost nine that she’s finally grown enough to be able to make out all the letters, because the handwriting is just so cramped . By then her mother is three years dead, and her father doesn’t want to hear a thing about soul marks, so one night when she judges that her ankle is finally big enough, she tromps down to the stream on the edge of the Hawkeye property and bends over to read.

I’m so sorry, I didn’t mean to frighten you. What are you reading?

As soul marks go, she decides, it’s not all bad. Portia Lansbury, the baker’s daughter, has a bunch of swearwords carved permanently into the skin of her collarbone. She has to wear high-necked shirts to hide it. And it’s not something simple, either, like hello or nice to meet you, which are so easy to mix up. She likes that her love of books is caught up in her soul mark. She likes that her soul mate is going to ask her about books.

She doesn’t voice any of this to her father. His soul mark (on the inside of his wrist, in her mother’s loopy writing, It’s lovely to meet you, Mr. Hawkeye. My name is Sabine.) has gone silvery and cold since her mother died. Riza’s is in sharp dark ink, with spatters here and there. She’s careful to always wear socks around the house, because if her father sees her mark, his mouth goes tight and his eyes go cold.

She knows she shouldn’t be so hopeful about her soul mate. She knows, the way that none of the other girls at the village school know, that soul mates aren’t forever. They’re just like a wedding, until death do us part, and once a soul mate is gone, there’s no getting them back. She watches her father, and she knows what it can do, this soul mate business. She doesn’t want to become Father, locked in his study, staring into nothing, hiding all her mother’s things in the attic, because he cannot bear to look at them, but he cannot bear to lose them, either.

But because she’s nine, and she’s a stupid, foolish girl, she hopes, and she starts plotting ways to keep her soul mate safe.

The girls who live with Aunt Chris tease him sometimes about his mark. A manual on rifle mechanics , says his mark. My Spitfire jammed yesterday. “I’ll bet it’s a he,” says Tessa, and swipes lipstick over her mouth, smacking her lips loudly in the mirror. “What kind of a girl reads rifle manuals?”

Same sex soul mates are a little rarer than heterosexual ones, but they’re not uncommon. Neither are soul mate trios. There are platonic soul mates, too, and love squares, but those are very, very rare. None of these variations bother Roy. He just shakes his head a little. “The writing’s a girl’s,” he says, because he would know; he’s surrounded by women, all day, and he has an instinct about handwriting anyway. Tessa makes a disbelieving noise, and grabs his wrist so she can bend over his mark again, studying the Ms and Is. Louisa, on the bed, shuts her magazine and rolls over to look at him.

“Whoever she is, she sounds like a tomboy.”

“Hey,” says Frances, who has a pixie haircut and bicycles seven miles a day. “Watch it, Lou.”

Louisa flaps a hand and ignores her. “When you meet her,” she tells Roy, pinching his cheek, “bring her back to us. We all want to know what Roy-boy’s soul mate will be like.”

Roy shoves her hand away and rubs his sore cheek. Before he can respond, Aunt Chris calls the house to order, and so Louisa and Tessa and Frances all scurry downstairs to report for duty before their shifts start. He waits until the door clicks shut behind them, and then perches on the end of Louisa’s bed, rubbing his forearm like he always does when he’s thinking. It doesn’t matter what his soul mate is, really. What matters is who she is. Louisa doesn’t seem to understand that. Then again, Louisa hasn’t met her soul mate yet, and he overheard Aunt Chris calling her a shallow flibbertigibbet once. Maybe that’s why she says things like that.

Maybe his soul mate will teach him to shoot.

She finds the old dog on her weekly journey into town for groceries. He’s a mutt, and he looks like he has some wolf in him; his fur’s too shaggy to be full-blood hound. She sacrifices half her muffin and one of her jerky strips to his appetite, and he follows her all the way back up to her house. Riza takes him down to the river and washes him down, ignoring his whining, and then lays out in the sunny backyard, watching him dry. She names him Hunter.

The same day, her father comes out of his study to tell her that he will be accepting a student, and the guest room needs to be prepped. She nods.

He says nothing about her dog.

The Hawkeye house smells like a mixture of dust and wood polish, and it creaks. He’s never been in a house that made so much noise after everyone has gone to bed. Roy lies awake in his new bed, listening to the croaks and moans of the old house, and stares at the ceiling. Master Hawkeye is much grimmer than he’d anticipated, a dour man who looks older than he is and barely speaks. He’s quite determined to be a good pupil—such a good pupil, in fact, that someday he will wring praise from the older man. He has no doubt he’ll manage it, eventually. He’s just iffy about how long it’ll take. Maybe Miss Hawkeye will have some idea.

His master’s daughter is a few years younger than him, short, freckled, and slender, with hair cut like Frances’ and eyes that are a mix between brown and red. He wonders if she has Ishvalan blood. He’s heard Ishvalans have red eyes, and he’s never seen eyes that color in his life before now. He won’t ask, though, not until he’s certain he won’t offend. He gets asked about his heritage, too, more often than not. He’d replaced the orphanage biting habit with a flair for elaborate revenge plans for anyone who looked at him sideways and called him slant-eye.

The other boys at his prep school learned very quickly not to call him slant-eye.

Down the hall, he hears the dog (an enormous thing, almost as big as Master Hawkeye’s daughter) whine, and a soft voice. It’s too far away for him to make out the words, but it has him sitting up and cocking his head. He’s not the only one awake after all. Roy hesitates, and then throws caution to the wind; he pulls on his dressing gown, shoves his feet into slippers, and seizes the book he was reading before, Alchemical Circle Theory before stepping over the creaky board in front of his door and starting down the hall.

The library is empty. The stairs moan ominously as he makes his way down, and Roy glances back to the second floor a few times, wondering if he’s woken Master Hawkeye. Since there’s no thud of footsteps or click of a lock, he assumes not. There’s a light on in the kitchen, and he creeps down the hall, trying to be as quiet as possible so he doesn’t disturb anyone. There’s a girl bent over a long, thick book on the table; in front of her there’s a gun, cloth wrapped around the barrel to keep it from leaving oil marks. She has very short, very blonde hair, and little garnets wink in her ears. At her feet is the wolfy dog that growled when Roy first set foot on the property. He watches her for a moment or two. She doesn’t seem to realize he’s there, running her finger down the page and turning it, as if searching for something. Finally, he clears his throat.

She jumps so badly that she pushes the whole table over three inches, and the table is made of heavy, heavy wood; she’s stronger than she looks. She also has the rifle in her hands and is pointing it at his face. Roy puts up both hands and backs away, like that’s going to do anything with a rifle in his face. “I’m so sorry, I didn’t mean to frighten you.”

She lowers the gun, and looks at him with wide eyes. Her lips part. He forces a smile on his face and tries again. “What are you reading?”

If possible, her eyes get even bigger. She licks her lips. “A manual,” she says, “on rifle mechanics. My Spitfire jammed yesterday.”

He feels as though he’s been struck by lightning. By the look of things, so does the girl. They stand there and stare at each other, and at the girl’s feet, the wolfy dog makes a noise somewhere between a growl and a whine, and nudges her hard in the hip. She looks down, and the spell is broken. She has a smattering of freckles across her nose. Miss Hawkeye clears her throat, pets the dog, and says, “Would you like some tea, Mr. Mustang? I think—I think we have to talk.”

“Yes,” he says, but in a fit of panic he adds, “but only if you never call me Mr. Mustang again.”

A smile quivers on her lips as she turns to the stove and strikes a match.

She likes her tea with honey, not milk, he notes. She moves briskly, but carefully, going up on tiptoe to get at the teatin and circling around the hound on the floor with the ease of practice. When she tells him that she only found Hunter two weeks ago, when it was confirmed he would be coming out for an apprenticeship, he doesn’t quite believe her. “I like dogs,” she tells him quietly, and pokes Hunter in the ribs with her socked feet. “She watches him out of the corner of her eye as she sets up the teapot and the mugs, heavy ceramic ones, not little porcelain beauties like in Aunt Chris’s house. He likes the mugs better. It’s only once the tea is ready that she sits down again, and peers at him as if from a great distance. “How old are you?” she asks, in a voice so small he has to strain to hear it. He fiddles with the sleeve of his dressing gown.

“I turned seventeen in February.”

“Seventeen,” she echoes, and her eyes dart up to his face again. She flushes a little, and looks down at her dog. “I’m fourteen,” she says, and now her voice is even tinier. Then in a flash, she looks up again and says, “But I turn fifteen in three weeks,” and she’s fierce about it. He’s not sure why it makes him want to smile, but it does. She doesn’t smile back, not quite, but something glints in her eyes that looks very much like one. Miss Hawkeye ducks her head and peeks at him through her bangs.

Roy says nothing. He knows the look of a girl with something on her mind by now.

“Can I…” she says, and her fingers twitch, as though she wants to reach out but doesn’t there. “Can I see it? The mark.”

His palms are sweaty as he rolls up his sleeve. Miss Hawkeye—Riza—gives him another long look, and then reaches forward, taking his wrist in one long-fingered hand to draw it closer. She traces her words with her fingertip, and it sends goosebumps up his back. There are calluses on her palm, but her touch is moth-light. Finally, she lets him go, swiping her thumb over the pulse-point on the inside of his wrist. His mouth dries out like a desert. Roy has to clear his throat a few times before he can meet her eyes again.

“Can I see yours?” he asks, and his voice is lower than usual, husky. There’s a delightful flush in Riza’s cheeks as she studies him, eyes flickering. Then, slowly, she lifts her left foot from the floor, peeling off her heavy, home-knit wool sock. He doesn’t hesitate about drawing her foot into his lap so he can get a better look at her ankle, but her toes curl a little, as if she didn’t expect it. She has a lovely foot, slender with a high arch, delicate bones. He sets his thumb over the word sorry and his forefinger on mean, and then he looks up at her. She’s looking at him with an expression he can’t quantify; he can’t tell what she’s thinking. It’s a puzzle, a mystery to solve.  So, because he can, and because he wants to, he shifts his thumb to press deep into the arch of her foot. Riza twitches, and gives him another look. This one says a lot of things, but the biggest is do that again and I’ll get mad.

So of course he does it again, and before she can puff out her cheeks and get grumpy, he says, “Hello.”

She wavers. Then she softens. The corners of her mouth turn up, and he’s lost.

“Hello,” she says.

They don’t tell her father.

“He’ll throw you out,” she tells him, her foot still in his lap and dawn creeping up over the horizon. “Or—I don’t know. Maybe he won’t throw you out. But he’s…it’s been hard, since my mother died. I don’t know what he’d do.” Roy runs his fingers over the mark on her ankle and nods.

“All right,” he says, though he wants to sing, and crow, and shout to the world: this one, this one is mine. My soul mate. My Riza. He hasn’t dared speak her given name aloud yet, because he knows if he does he’ll never stop saying it, and that more than anything would give Master Hawkeye the clue that something is up between the two of them. She gives him a look that says she knows exactly what he’s thinking (and how does he know that already? He’s spoken to her for maybe a few hours at most) and then wavers.

“I’ll call you Mr. Mustang in the house,” she says. She flushes a little. “Outside it can be different, maybe.”

A grin tugs at his lips, and he drags his forefinger along the arch of her foot again.

“Maybe,” she repeats, and kicks him in the shin. Roy yelps. “But only if you’re very good.”

“What if I’m not?” Roy says, without thinking, and she goes completely pink. But she’s smiling again.

“Still maybe.” She pauses. “But only when we’re alone.”

“I like this plan.”

Riza flushes fire-engine red, all the way down her throat. He wonders if she’s a full-body blusher, or if it’s just down to her collarbones. She has very pretty collarbones. “Lech.”

He smirks.

The first time they kiss, they’re out in the clover field, and Hunter is gamboling about looking for doves. She kisses him, which isn’t what he expects, but it’s something he loves, the same way he loves the way she sucks in a breath when he draws the tip of her tongue into his mouth and sucks, the same way he loves how her nails dig into his shoulders and the weight of her against his chest when she rolls him over and takes command.

She tastes like the blackberries they’ve been picking and like something he’s always been searching for, and he swears right there to himself that if there’s one thing he’ll never leave behind, it’s Riza Hawkeye.