Maes brings Roy to dinner at Gracia's place, so she can decide whether she wants to be part of his plan to become Fuhrer. The evening doesn't quite go as Hughes hoped it would.
Again, the standard disclaimers about ownership etc...
It was, Hughes decided later, one of the more surreal evenings of his life. It began innocuously enough, as he and Roy strolled down the street toward the house Gracia rented. Roy didn't say much, but he exuded reluctance all the way. It had taken quite a bit of persuasion to get him even to agree to this, and Hughes could tell he still wasn't entirely convinced he should be here.
It was unnerving, too, to see how Roy's eyes constantly swept the street, back and forth, before and behind, ceaselessly on the alert for danger. Part of the reason was that the habits learned in Ishbal were hard to overcome, even now that the danger had been left behind. But this was more than habit. This was a haunting. Hughes saw the shadows in his friend's eyes, shadows of memory and fear. He couldn't guess how many ghosts inhabited the street with them.
Roy stopped walking, eyes on the ground in front of him. "Maes," he said, almost too softly to be heard. "I don't know if I can do this."
Hughes said gently, "She's just a sweet, kind girl, Roy. She won't hurt you."
"I know that. She's not the problem. You know that honour belongs entirely to me." He shifted uncomfortably. "I feel like someone is standing behind me, ready to shove a knife between my shoulder blades."
"But I've got your back. I always will." A thought occurred to Hughes. "I don't suppose you left your gloves back at your place, did you?" At Roy's averted face, he sighed. "No, I guess you couldn't. Well, Roy, between me and those gloves of yours, I'd say you've got all the protection you need."
Roy began walking again, slowly. "Yes," he said. "Yes. You're right." The exertion of his will was almost palpable.
Meas fell back into step with him. "And you do need to start working your way out of that apartment, gradually. You can't rule Amestris from your bedroom, you know." He hoped Gracia wouldn't mind that he'd borrowed her line.
He saw Roy's lips curve into a slight smile. "Good point," he said. He visibly exerted his will again, and returned his attention outward, out of the shadows in his own mind. "So you want me to learn to be civilized again, do you?"
"That's the idea. And Gracia's a good person to start with, being as sympathetic as she is."
"Which means, I suppose, that she knows what...what I did in Ishbal."
Hughes admired the calm with which his friend spoke the words - words he had cried in his terrible grief more than once in the past few weeks, in the darkness of his rooms. Hughes tried to be nonchalant in response. "Yes, of course, everyone knows about the alchemists in Ishbal. But since she's talked to me, she knows it wasn't all glory, the way it's publicized. So at least you won't be fending off congratulations, or signing autographs. She understands that it was hard on you."
Again a sidelong smile. "Hence the pies and cookies?"
"That's for sure. You get way more baked goods than I ever do," Maes complained. Gratifyingly, he heard his friend laugh softly.
As they reached the house and Hughes led the way up the walk, Roy remarked, "If this is a trial run for starting to work my way to the top, I guess I should make a major effort at exercising the charm, should I?"
"Actually," Hughes said, walking up the steps and knocking on the door, "the point tonight is just to get you out for a while, and starting to talk to people again. So it would be better if you're just yourself this time, okay?"
"Ah. Very well. Roy Mustang, mass murderer, it is, then," Roy replied.
Hughes cast a sharp glance over his shoulder, in time to catch the amused lift of an eyebrow and the sly smile. One day, he thought, this guy was going to drive him to drink.
Then the door opened and Gracia was there, smiling and making him forget everything. She kissed him on the cheek and teased, "What, no roses?"
He grinned. "No roses, but I brought a weed. Roy, get up here." He dragged his friend up the last couple of steps. "Gracia, this is Roy Mustang the recluse and baked goods consumer. Roy, this is Gracia, the most beautiful girl in the world."
"I'm so pleased to meet you at last," Gracia laughed, reaching out to shake hands.
Roy, instead, took the proffered hand and pressed his lips to it. "I'm happy to meet you, Gracia. I can see why Maes is smitten. He's a very lucky man."
A light blush touched Gracia's cheeks. Hughes said, "You forgot, I told you not to be charming tonight, remember?" He knew it was already too late, though. He watched his girlfriend take it all in: the slender figure dressed in his best colour (dark blue), the sidelong, intimate smile, the dark, mysterious eyes, fixed intently on her face. Oh yes, Roy Mustang had another fan, no doubt about it, he thought gloomily.
"I hope this can be of some use to you," said Roy, producing the bottle of wine he'd been carrying.
Gracia examined the label and then glanced at Maes, her eyes sparkling. "I see he's got connections too. I'm very impressed. Thank you, Roy, this will be perfect tonight. Now. The two of you can decide: either we be a bit formal and you have a drink in the front room while I finish preparing things, or - "
"Or," said Hughes, "we join you in the kitchen and get in your way and accidentally chop our fingernails into the salad. I vote for that."
"Me too," said Roy.
They followed Gracia into the kitchen, where she set them some fairly simple tasks - Roy to open the bottle and pour the wine, while Maes carved the pork loin roast. She was just finishing some sort of herbed rice dish.
"And the salad is already made. Sorry, Maes," she smiled. "But Roy. Tell me about yourself. How long have you been in the military?"
Hughes watched and listened as he carved the pork slices and set them on a china platter. Gracia spoke casually, asking Roy easy questions, drawing him out to speak of himself without pressure. Maes was sure that Roy must know what she was doing, but his friend relaxed more and more as they talked. It was as though he sensed that he really was safe here, and could finally let down his guard and simply be himself for a short while.
Not that he spilled his guts to any extent. Even at the best of times, he tended to keep his personal and inner life pretty much to himself. But Gracia did learn a few things - the sorts of books he liked to read, whether he'd ever done any gardening, that kind of thing - and Roy didn't seem to mind talking about them.
The discussion took a slightly different turn when they were seated in the dining room, Gracia and Maes at the ends of the table, and Roy between them. When Gracia asked, "How did you meet each other?" the two men answered simultaneously, "At the academy," and then met each other's eyes and burst out laughing.
"I think there's a story here," Gracia said. And this launched them into a series of tales of the exploits of Maes Hughes and Roy Mustang at the academy.
Well, maybe not "exploits," exactly. It wasn't like they were total hellions; there were other students who filled that role much more adequately.
"Though there was that time," Hughes reflected, "when I ended up in jail for burning down the storage shed."
"But I did go in and tell them it was me," Roy reminded him. He explained to Gracia, "I was experimenting with my alchemy and hadn't quite learned to be as precise as I needed to be. But I let them know it wasn't Maes's fault."
"You did," Hughes agreed. "The next day. In the afternoon."
"I had an exam that morning. You knew that."
"I did know. I was supposed to write the same exam," Hughes said.
Roy laughed. Then added, again, to Gracia, "By the way, he aced the course and I barely passed. Even with the extra exam."
"That's right," Hughes said. "I always got the grades - he always got the girls."
"Saved you for me, then," Gracia murmured.
"There, Maes," Roy drawled, leaning back in his chair and smiling that sly smile of his. "It all turned out right in the end, didn't it?"
Hughes grinned back at him. He hadn't seen Roy so relaxed in a long time - since before Ishbal, in fact. He could kiss Gracia, for how well she was handling this. In fact, he could kiss them both, just because. This was going better than he'd ever expected.
"Well, gentlemen," Gracia said now. "Would you like to retire to the parlour while I put on water for tea? I've made a pie for dessert, but I thought we'd have that in a few minutes, after we've had a chance to let things settle."
As they pushed their chairs back, Roy commented, "Thank you for the pies and cookies, by the way, Gracia. They've been delicious, and I've really appreciated them."
"I'm glad to hear that. I always enjoy baking goodies for people."
"Well, they've been a lifesaver for me," he told her. "Kept me cheerful on a few...bad days."
She had begun to turn toward the kitchen, but now turned back, regarding him thoughtfully. "Whatever helps, Roy. I mean that. Sometimes small things can make a big difference during hard times. I hope you're starting to feel better."
"A little," he said quietly. "Between Maes and you..."
She smiled. "That's very good. Now go sit, and I'll bring in the tea."
Roy went into the parlour but Hughes hesitated, watching Gracia depart. It had been so quick: one little mention, and then on to other things. But Roy had talked about it, voluntarily, with her, a virtual stranger. How did she do that??
Yet again, it struck him how very much he loved her, for so many, many reasons. But that little exchange with Roy - whatever magic she worked, that even made it possible - that had to be near the top of the list.
He joined his friend in the parlour. Roy was examining the gardening books in one of Gracia's bookcases, but he turned and smiled over his shoulder when Maes came in. "Very nice girl," he said, and turned back to the books. Hughes could hear the smile in his voice, and all the approving and teasing things Roy hadn't said.
"Why yes," Hughes said, and knew that Roy's hearing was equally as acute.
"There's a lot of good information in these books. Maybe I should take up gardening, do you think?"
"You'd probably need some dirt first," Hughes observed critically. "Maybe behind a house. With a wife in it."
"Oh, don't start that again," Roy groaned. "It's enough for now that you're thinking about a wife." He cast another glance over his shoulder. "You are, aren't you?"
Hughes smirked at him and opened his mouth to make some joke - and then it hit him that no, maybe a wife wasn't as likely as Roy thought she was. Tonight was supposed to help decide that, wasn't it? And despite how well things were going, he couldn't just assume what the verdict would be.
"What is it?" Roy asked. Trust him to notice his friend's sudden consternation.
Hughes forced himself to laugh. "Nothing. It's just you, pushing me ahead of myself. I'm the one supposed to be pushing you, remember?"
"Not about a wife."
"But seriously, Roy, while we're alone...how are you doing? Being here, I mean. I hope it's not as bad as you thought it would be."
"Bad?" Roy turned in surprise. "No. I'm really enjoying this. I'm glad you twisted my arm."
"Good. I should do it more often."
"Don't press your luck, Maes."
Gracia came in a few minutes later, carrying a tray with the tea things. Hughes stepped forward, but Roy was there first, taking the tray and setting it on the low table before the couch. Gracia motioned him to sit beside her, while Hughes took the arm chair near her end of the couch.
She poured him a cup and passed it over. Their fingers touched a he took it, and they shared a warm glance. Then she took the tea pot and began to pour another cup.
"And now, Roy," she said as she poured, "tell me about your plan to overthrow the Fuhrer."
Hughes gasped, "Gracia!" and choked on his tea.
Mustang surged to his feet. Hughes coughed and hacked, fumbling to set his cup on a side table, trying to catch his breath. He had to intervene - explain - say something - before his friend started yelling at Gracia. What was she /thinking/??
"How dare you."
Hughes looked up, still coughing and trying to find his voice, to see that Roy was looking not at Gracia, but at him. His friend's eyes were ablaze with rage, and hurt, and his eerily quiet voice vibrated with barely contained anger.
"How dare you," he repeated. "You betrayed me. Already - before I've even begun - you betrayed me."
He lifted a shaking hand, fingers poised instinctively to snap, the other hand digging into his pocket. Digging for his gloves.
Hughes froze, staring in horror at Mustang's black, implacable eyes. He had never seen that expression on Roy's face, in all their years of friendship - never dreamed Roy was even capable of looking like that. The hatred - the blank, primeval rage - Hughes realized in a flash of dreadful insight that the only people who had ever seen that look on Mustang's face had died horribly, in Ishbal.
He had gone too far, revealing the secret. He was going to pay dearly for it.
"Roy Mustang," said Gracia, her voice cutting like steel between the two men. "Sit down this instant!"
There was no reply. Mustang's eyes remained fixed on Maes's face, rock hard in their singular purpose. Hughes wanted to speak, to cry, "I'm sorry, I'm sorry!" but he was paralyzed by the hot, alien glare.
"I said /sit down/!" Gracia commanded. "Look at me! Roy - /look at me/!"
Suddenly - miraculously - the fixed stare broke. Roy's eyes flickered, and turned away, transferring their hot gaze to Gracia. Otherwise, he barely moved: one hand remained poised while the other still excavated the pocket.
Hughes literally sagged in relief as the tension broke. But he grimly braced himself to leap forward if necessary. If Gracia couldn't defuse this situation, and Mustang tried to hurt her - he'd kill him. Friendship or not, he'd rip his throat out.
Gracia said again, sternly, "You will sit down right now, Roy Mustang. Because if you dare to attack your best friend - if you attack my boyfriend, in my house, as my guest - you will be precisely the tyrannical brute that Maes promised me you were not!"
Roy blinked. He still didn't sit down, but slowly his hand lowered and his fingers loosened. "You don't understand," he said.
"I understand that your friend loves you, and has not betrayed you. How can you even say such a thing?"
"He should never have told you." The anger still vibrated in his voice.
"You are completely wrong about that. Please, Roy, sit down. Let me explain." She waited pointedly, and at last he sat, on the edge, as though he couldn't relax. Or, thought Hughes, still braced and watching anxiously, as though he were poised to flee.
"I'm listening," Roy said, finally. But it was clear that the anger still simmered just below the surface. His gaze was hard on Gracia's face.
"You've asked Maes to work with you on your project," she said, "and he is never going to abandon you. But at the same time, he and I have fallen in love, and we want our relationship to go as deep as it can go. But you know him, Roy. He's a man of honour and integrity. How could he possibly draw me into his life when there's this.../secret/...sitting there between us?"
"Military men are always keeping secrets from their girlfriends or wives," he said stonily. "It comes with the territory."
"Not a secret like this," she insisted. "This would permeate our whole life, in a way that nothing else ever could. It could even be dangerous, not just to Maes, but to me. Do you seriously think your friend could live with himself if he let me walk into that life completely blind to everything around me?"
Roy didn't answer. But he seemed to be contemplating her words, head bowed, as he stared at his hands, now dormant on his lap. He took a deep breath, as though trying to clear his head.
Gracia said softly, "You should know that Maes is so dedicated to your cause that if he had to choose between me and you, he would choose you and this plan. And that is why he told me. He had to know if I could be with him, and live with that possibility. Which is why I'm talking to you now. Because I need to decide."
Roy looked up sharply, peering at her as though trying to read her mind. He searched her face for a long time. Hughes realized with another surge of relief that the blind rage, at least, seemed to have dissipated. Finally, Roy closed his eyes, rubbing a hand across them.
"Damn," he said. He looked at her again, and spoke with astonishing gentleness, "Maes has posed you an impossible dilemma - and it's all my fault. I'm sorry, Gracia. Truly sorry."
"It doesn't have to be impossible," she said. "That's why I wanted to meet you. I just needed - "
"You need to know what kind of person I am," he finished for her. "Whether I'm worthy of Maes's dedication. Whether I will become Fuhrer and become - what did you call it? A tyrannical brute."
"I'm sorry," she bowed her head. "I didn't really mean that."
"Of course you did." He lifted his right hand and stared at it as though he'd never seen it before. "I was ready - I was ready to - " At last his eyes moved past Gracia and met those of his friend, who still watched, holding his breath, to see what would happen.
/You were ready to kill me/, Hughes thought. /And I was ready to kill you/. He suddenly felt as though the whole world was collapsing around him. He couldn't tell yet how Roy felt about it all; his friend's face was closed and unreadable.
"Alright, Gracia," Roy said suddenly. "You want to know what kind of person I am. I'll tell you." He rose again, moving to stand in front of the fireplace, leaning one elbow on the mantle. He moved with his usual grace, and looked like a statue as he stood there, gazing toward the window. It was as though he were isolating himself from both of them, perhaps to give them some objective distance.
As though I could ever be really objective about you now, after all these years and what we've already been through, Hughes thought ruefully. What has happened to us, since those early, straightforward days in the academy?
And then Roy began to tell his story, obliterating all other thought. Because this was a story even Hughes had never heard in its entirety.
It began with what he knew: Roy's decision to join the military and become a State Alchemist, hoping to use his alchemic skills to do something good in the world. Followed by the growing suspicion, as the early months and couple of years passed, that this might not be the place where he could live his ideals, after all. But he stubbornly refused to give up, somehow believing that he could make it work out anyway.
And then. The transfer to Ishbal, where he thought he and his fellow alchemists were merely going to help quell a rebellion, a minor one, but an ongoing irritant to the state. The moment when Tim Marcoh opened his small case and revealed the imperfect versions of the philosopher's stone that he had created. The gradual realization that this marvel was not going to be used to heal all the ills in Ishabal, as Roy would have expected. Instead, one of the stones was set into a ring that he wore with his gloves.
"They told us the stones would make our powers stronger," Roy said, gazing steadily out the window from his position by the mantle. "We had no idea until the first time we used them, just what they would really do to us."
Hughes' stomach and throat tightened as he prepared to hear the story, again, of the State Alchemists in Ishbal. He saw that Gracia was following every word, her eyes fixed raptly on Roy's profile. He hoped she could handle this.
He should have worried about himself first, because this time he heard the full story, the one Roy had never even been able to bear to tell him, his closest friend. And at last, at last, Maes fully understood the drinking and the darkness and the long nights of black despair, and the taboo alchemic symbols Roy had scrawled all over his walls and floor as he drove himself, half-mad, to seek a way to undo the things he had done.
The first time Roy had used the ring to "augment" his powers, standing at the edge of a town, thinking he was simply going to eliminate the rioters that were ranged against the military forces at the outskirts - not only had the rioters died instantly in a swift blaze, but the entire town had almost evaporated, people, buildings, everything.
"There were buildings made of stone," he said. "Stone. But I burned them. There was nothing left of that town but pools of lava where the stone melted."
He had been sure there was some mistake: the glowing red stone was too strong, they'd given him one that was too big, he hadn't aimed properly, or something. But the higher-ups had congratulated him on the "trial run," and next day had sent him to deal with a larger city. He was not expected to help put down a disturbance. He was expected to destroy the city.
And then another. And another, and another. He described each city in detail, as it had been before, and as it was when he was done with it. On and on he went, giving detail after detail. His listeners began to realize that he had scouted each city, street by street, in advance of his attack. He hadn't even needed to; one blast with the help of the ring, and the city would be levelled anyway. But once it was destroyed, he would be the only living person with any memory of how it had once been.
With the second use of the stone, as he became more attuned to it and it to him, he began to feel its awful pull on his soul. Every time he used his skills, he felt the explosions inside him as well as out, in vast bursts of exhilaration. Sometimes it was hard to hold himself back even as much as he managed to do. When the destruction began, so did the hunger, for more and more and more. Sometimes he felt like a god, with the maelstrom swirling around him, the temptation growing to try to destroy the entire world, just to see if he really could.
But with the exhilaration came the sensation of death. He felt them all - every death he inflicted burst screaming into his mind, until he could barely distinguish between the tumult inside and the devastation outside. He only came to himself again, some nights, when he staggered back into his tent, not knowing if he'd been gone an hour or a year. Some days, if he had destroyed too many times, too close together, he fell so deep into the chasm that he couldn't even remember his own name.
Maes wanted to scream. He couldn't bear it! He couldn't go on listening to this - this litany of horror, described so calmly and clinically. He found himself bent over, weeping, both hands clutched convulsively in his hair. He could hear Gracia close by, crying softly. But he couldn't even lift his head to look at her or comfort her. There could be no comfort for this, for Roy or anyone, anywhere in the world.
"What made it hard to sleep or be comfortable when we were in camp," Roy went on, tonelessly, "was the grime we came back wearing." The air was thick with it. The fine sand of Ishbal, the dust of pulverized buildings - and gluing it all together, the vaporized fat of bodies, human and animal. Sometimes they almost choked on it, trying to get a breath as they stumbled away from a scene of destruction. Sometimes it could only be scraped off with pottery shards, or dull knives, or shaving blades...
"Oh god," Maes whispered. He thought he might throw up. He couldn't bear this!
"I asked them how many people I had killed," Roy went on calmly, relentlessly. "They said it wasn't important, that these were nothing but vermin, and you didn't worry about how many cockroaches you had exterminated. But I looked for the information later, when I got back."
Oh god, Maes thought, the realization tightening around his heart. All those books, everywhere in his rooms. They weren't just alchemy books, were they? He was trying to find out exactly how many people he needed to bring back --
"I remembered the name of every city. I looked them up, and found out their populations. The numbers weren't exact, but I think I came close. I think I probably killed about half a million - "
"Stop!" Hughes cried, leaping to his feet. "Stop, Roy, just stop it!" He flung himself across the room, grabbing Mustang's shoulders and turning the man to face him. "Stop doing this to yourself, dammit!"
"But Gracia needs to know - "
"No I don't," she murmured, from behind the handkerchief pressed to her eyes.
"But I haven't even talked about the doctors yet - "
Hughes' breath caught, as he met Roy's dark, anguished eyes. The man had set himself this task and driven himself to fulfill it, no matter how much it hurt. He was always so damned determined to do what was required, to do what he saw as his duty. So he had forced himself to lay his wounded soul open to them, even though he hadn't even been sure he was ready to leave his seclusion in the first place. And it was killing him.
"Roy." It was Gracia, still weeping on the couch. "I'm sorry. I should never have asked you about this. I'm so sorry!"
He pulled out of Maes's hands and moved back to his seat beside her. "No. Don't be sorry," he said gently. "You were right. You need to know everything, if you're going to be involved in this. You both do."
"I just - had no idea - "
"Do you see now? Do you understand why I have to do this? The wars, the senseless destruction, I just can't let them go on. I have to change things."
"And maybe...make some kind of atonement?" she asked, her eyes shrewd upon his pale face.
"Yes. Especially that." His shoulders slumped wearily. "I'm sorry. I think I need to go home."
"Are you sure?" Gracia asked. "If you like, I can make a fresh pot of tea. It might calm you, a little."
"Thank you, but...I think I just need to go. I'm very tired."
"If you have to go," said Maes, "I'll go with you."
"No, you stay." Roy stood up. "You and Gracia have a lot to discuss."
"I'm not letting you walk back by yourself, after all this."
"Maes, I just need to be alone for a while, and you two need to talk. I'll be fine." Roy met his worried gaze and said softly, "If I promise that I'll still be there tomorrow - alive - will you let me go? Please?"
Hughes regarded him for a long moment in silence. "You have to promise," he said at last. "Because you and I need to talk, too."
"We will. Tomorrow." Roy took one of Gracia's hands, and again put it to his lips, closing his eyes. "If you decide against involving yourself in all of this, I'll understand. And you'd be wise not to." He stood, and walked toward the door, stopping to put a hand on Hughes' shoulder. "And if she decides against it - you go with her."
Then he was gone, and Maes and Gracia were left staring at each other.
"I'm so sorry," Gracia said again. "I had no idea this would be so hard on him. I just wanted to see how he'd react if he was caught by surprise. I didn't realize it would feel like such an ambush. You must be furious with me."
"It's alright, sweetheart. I don't think there was any way we could have brought it up with him, that would've ended any differently. Don't be too upset."
"I won't if you won't," she said pointedly.
Hughes sat down and pulled her into his arms. "I've made a career out of worrying about him. You don't have to."
"But we'll need to," Gracia mused. "I can see he has a lot of strength, and he's very determined to do this. But there's still so much pain. He's going to need a lot of help, to heal, so we'll really need to take care of him for a while. I hope you're prepared for how long it might take; he won't be ready to become Fuhrer overnight."
Hughes peered into her face. "Gracia. Are you saying...?"
"What? Oh. Yes, of course. I understand how you feel now, and I think you're doing the right thing. And I'll help in every way I can. I think what Roy needs, more than anything, is just someone to love him, and give him a home he can come to when he needs it. So we'll do that for him."
"Thank you. I love you. Thank you." They held each other for a long time in silence, each of them contemplating the events of the evening and the disturbing turn they had taken. But at last, Maes sighed and said, "Since the mood around here has been so confessional tonight, I guess I should confess something too. I lied about one thing, when we were all talking earlier."
"Really? What?" Gracia lifted her head and peered at him anxiously.
"I said that I got the grades and Roy got the girls. But...I'm afraid he actually got the grades too."
She looked at him expressionlessly for a moment. Then she burst out laughing - howling, actually - and they collapsed against each other, shrieking with laughter.
They were going to be okay, he thought. No matter what else happened, he and Gracia were going to be very okay.