By the Book
Duty is a word. It's a good one, it holds you up in the field, but in the end it's only a collection of four dissimilar letters. You can find it in a dictionary. It's printed on the page. Noun. Plural form, duties.
An act or a course of action that is required of one by position, social custom, law, or religion. The social force that binds you to your obligations and the courses of action demanded by that force.
There are more sentences than that, clarifications and ramifications that parse down this airy concept into butcher-shop meat, but you usually stop there.
There aren't pictorial references for this word. The idea is nebulous, based upon roots as suspect as morals, or possibly values, which makes for an inconsistent definition at best. Illustrations are impossible. You have occasionally thought about taping in a picture of Elysia just to see if Maes will ever notice.
Elysia is not duty, which is why you don't. Her photograph would be attached somewhere more appropriate, a place that suits how her father views his offspring. Like jubilance, or adoration. Or love.
Maes has a great deal of that emotion and spends it lavishly for all the world to see. You can feel it radiating off the man in waves. He gives it freely. Somehow Maes has learned the trick of doing this without demeaning the act, retaining quality despite the quantity in bulk-rate.
It frustrates others, or would if Maes wasn't married and in clear demonstration of his devotion to his family unit of two.
It's written in the rosters. Grace's maiden name made into her middle with the addition of a husband. Maes is bound to her through one form of duty, and he is also bound to you through another. In the ties of blood official and not, this makes you a surrogate uncle to Elysia, an awkward brother to Gracia.
You do not think about this one too much. The rules are unspoken, and even though Maes does not hold you to them, you enforce the stricture upon yourself. You are a relation close enough to blood-ties in the whole clan through extension of your connection to your old friend, and there are certain things that you do not do, you do not think. This includes the debate of what would happen if said family did not happen to exist. On the books.
Maes's face is reflected cleanly in Elysia, though she takes primarily after her mother, and you sometimes find a stir of unease when you look at the girl's features. Not resentment; that would be petty. But enough discomfort that you do not visit half as often as Gracia has invited, enough that you refuse the ties that she sends out in an attempt to bring you into better comfort with her family unit.
This is not a matter of relatives, of intimacy. This is you, handling your life by the book.
Over the years, you have really begun to hate it.
Dutyis what reminds you to get out of bed when you know you don't want to. It picks you up and sends you to work. It goes cross-referenced to see-also responsibility, skipping down the pages from index to glossary, telling you exactly what you are expected to do. And in many ways, what you are not.
You do not like the person known as Colonel Roy Mustang that you become at times when either of those two words have entered the picture. But if it is one thing you have learned during all your years in the military, it is that you become a lot of things you do not enjoy.
You yield to laws. You obey the books. And duty does all kinds of things to you, some of which is behind your back. Other times it is in front of your face as you stand dressed as the best man for your best friend's wedding, and clap in time with the crowd's applause.
. . . . .
Duty involves attending the yearly recognition dinner that is held every winter in Central. Suit and tie affair, dress skirts and dress jackets and dress demeanors kept carefully buttoned in place.
All the dry cleaners for blocks are overloaded by truants remembering too late that they need freshly-washed props for their various pretenses of decency.
You usually book three weeks in advance.
The awards dinner is ceremonial at best. Officers are singled out each successful turn of the seasons to be decorated for outstanding achievements. The alchemists who score the most highly are not celebrated here; their rewards are another year being fed by the military, obedient hounds performing tricks for their masters. Such is how the detractors of the State Alchemists view them, but in reality, that's because the alchemy party is held in an entirely separate quarter from the official achievements, and often involves illegal transmutation of drinks.
You are twenty-eight and unwed. You have not had a steady relationship in the past three years, and the longest one only ran for six months. You will retire like this and have an empty house to come back to, bereft of even a pet. You will grow old. Maes has been speaking to you about this, about this duty of the family, and for all your tolerance of your friend, sometimes you would like him to just shut up.
You are invited along with the Family Hughes during these social occasions. Automatic enrollment. Sometimes you attend with Hawkeye, but her attention is always drawn to the antics of Fury two tables over when the soldiers are trying to play some elaborate game with the salt and pepper shakers, and inevitably Liza excuses herself with a sigh to instill some discipline in the ranks. That leaves you sitting alone at the table with the Family Hughes, the pair of bride and groom while their daughter sleeps at home with a babysitter. Maes always leaves a contact number behind in case of emergencies. He's thorough.
So is Liza. No matter how many times she walks through the doors at your side, neither of you taking up the practice of one arm slipped through the other as dates would be escorted. You work together when the uniforms are back on instead of formal suits; it's unseemly to fraternize openly. So the manuals of operations like to say. Hawkeye is another participant in duty; between her and Maes, who stand as pillars fast for comparison, you occasionally wonder why no one has noticed you are lukewarm to the concept.
Liza is currently in the midst of a low-voiced lecture by the look of it when you glance over. Her back is straight as a polestaff. Liza's shoulders are stiff, and she looks down the bridge of her nose at Fury, who is attempting to perform a creative act of cowering behind the floral centerpiece without actually looking as if he is trying to hide.
You wonder what he must have done now.
"Off dreaming about a date again, Roy?"
The matter dissolves in an instant when your elbow is jostled, and you skirt your eyes around their slant-smug corners to discover just who has nudged you.
Maes is there, grinning like a jewel-thief conspirator; he had dropped you off earlier that eve before swinging back for his wife. Now he slips into his seat. Damp droplets cling to his hair; the forecast for a light rain must have been correct after all.
Gracia comes around her husband, also smiling, also touched by the weather in a misting of water across her bangs. You enact ritual greetings when she reaches out her fingers to touch your cheek, and you stand up to kiss hers in return.
"You're beautiful as ever," you say, warm as any glossary illustration, "Mrs. Hughes."
. . . . .
Gracia is just as radiant at her husband's funeral.
She doesn't mean to be; all the officers know this, are aware of the woman's natural appearance in the cruel accuracy of her name. Gracia is a woman who is only enhanced by displays of emotion. This includes grief, for which she is a clear example of, eyes puffed from tears and her cheeks flushed high.
Elysia has cried herself well past the ability to stop. Her hiccups punctuate the priest who performs the rites, reciting from the black tome in his hands as the afternoon marches on. He reads from the book. Cites virtue, honor, and peace. It all runs together while you stand there watching, your eyes upon the hole in the ground that they fill with your friend's body
Pensions dance and tumble in your head. There are automatic forms for these situations. Widows funds. A collection hat already being passed around the offices, though when you saw it being exchanged between Havoc and Fury, you snatched it away from them and put it on your desk. There it sat for the rest of the afternoon, keeping you silent company until you finally departed your office dressed in stone-face, dropping it on Fury's desk while you walked impartially by.
Gracia and Elysia will be provided for. There is no question of that. You penned your signature down on the forms, string upon string of Colonel Roy Mustangs, all arranged in a row like a child's box of soldiers.
Maes's death in the line of fire, ironically, laid a protection of benefits on his family that would last for the rest of their years. If he had lived, he might have been discharged from the military one day, or killed by accident. A fruit-truck could have run him down in the street. Maes might have choked on a piece of bread. None of that would have been rewarded by delivery of a sponsorship to his widow and child.
In certain cold dictionary-definitions, Maes's route of termination was the most dedicated act a forethinking father could perform.
You realize you are thinking this all through the funeral, as they are putting Hughes into the ground and obediently shoveling spadefuls of dirt to keep him there.
It's a lie, of course. Maes didn't die defending his family. He died trying to support you.
You're not sure what you're supposed to think about that just yet. Or feel. Gracia is too good-hearted to blame you. She knew the risks of Maes's job; she accepted it and loved her time with him while knowing all the while that it could be cut short. Others might not have been so capable at handling the threat of death to their loved ones. Gracia embodied her name in that as well, acknowledging the job that her husband attended, rather than demanding he change.
Hughes missing from the equation leaves an imbalance that you do not want to confront. Maes shines with too much life to possibly be dead. He exudes joy, and vibrance, and far too many words that could possibly be encompassed in one single man. He spills over with love for his family, and you are now looking up at the blue sky above and seeing the sun pour down with the same heedless warmth that your friend used to give.
Duty to the military dictates that you will do nothing to the grave. Human transmutation is taboo due to the risks; not because of perversity of nature, you have slowly come to learn, but because the experiments couldn't be yet controlled.
Then there is responsibility to your friend.
Duty does all kinds of things to you, things you're not sure have been a part of yourself all along and were only brought out through orders, or parts grafted on by military surgery.
Without stopping to think, you pull off the ignition gloves from your hands and stuff them into a pocket. Everyone else has gone home already. Everyone save Hawkeye, who stands behind you and will say nothing.
You kneel. You touch the grave, the bare-brown dirt that lies in a barren rectangle on a lawn of green.
Thirty minutes swam on to forty-five. The acceptance speech, performed by some new Lieutenant Colonel with a name like mumbly bread, was ridiculously long.Thank you to my family, thank you to my friends. Thank you to the drivers on the street. Thank you, the dry cleaners, for getting my suit here on time.
You finished three glasses of the wine during that and were pouring yourself a fourth when the bottle gave out first, leaking only a thin red trickle into your glass. Gracia was making a private joke behind her hand to Maes, her fingers flattened together in a half-steeple. Across the room, Liza was restraining her boredom with the occasional roll of her eyes, drumming her knuckles politely in her lap against her dress skirt. Even Fury slumped in his chair; any energy for causing trouble gone drained out of him by sheer duration alone.
The speaker droned.
A sour look to the wine bottle and then an apologetic one to the Family Hughes before you shoved yourself up from the table, had gone wandering through the tables with your eyes fixed upon the entrance to the restrooms.
Cold water over your hand, the faucet running. Your skin hums. You rinse your face once, twice as you think about how long you can pretend stomach indigestion as a means of escaping the rest of the promotional ceremonies. Rain had painted the windows of the halls you'd passed and you can hear it drumming now, a dim rat-tat-tat through the walls.
Bullets. Water. Rat-tat-tat-bang.
When the door creaks open behind you, you don't look around to see who has joined the escape. It could be another officer fleeing for all you care; the meeting has run late, and everyone stuck here will be forced to return to their homes long after schedule, unless they can sneak out the back.
A movement in the mirror above the sink catches your eye. The figure walks through the blur of reflection; it wades through the puddles of refractions, until you see a man step into sight over your shoulder. Haircut short and scruffed, five o'clock shadow coming in heavy into the six of his goatee ruff and stubble. You always joked that the length could go no further, could never reach twelve and become a full beard, but the laugh has grown old over the years.
You speak the man's name to ground him into being. Nail his feet to the floor, his weight tangible. Keep him real. Keep him there.
Hughes is sympathetic. "The wine goes down too fast during these dinners." Another step, and Maes is touching the sink, reaching around you to rest his hand upon the faucet and turn it off from running unheeded over your skin. You can smell the alcohol on your breath when you exhale, head lowered into the crook of a shoulder. Your blood is pounding. Pressure against the temples; three glasses of wine was nothing to a long-tempered tolerance, but the viner's year must have been potent.
"How are you feeling?"
One hand touches your shoulder and then a second, seeking to turn you around.
Submitting blindly, you let yourself be shifted. The movement floods your limbs heavy, sways your head like a sleepy bull. You reach up to steady yourself. You need balance. You need to be steadied, and Maes's jacket feels like overstarched linen to your fingers as you latch upon the lapels.
The steam of the dry-cleaner pressboards still whispers in Maes's suit. Your hands run down the ironed lines of the clothes, finding the secretive folds where jacket turns into dress shirt turns into rows of buttons studded like sleek pearls beneath your fingertips.
"You're drunk, Roy." The excuse is supplied, unforgiving in its kind consideration. The voice hits squarely in the range of awareness that stems from familiarity. Questions have already been worn out during studyroom nights. Conclusions have been formulated and held down as rules, and Maes follows them with the same unwavering relaxation as an alchemist mixing two parts water to one part salt to get tears. "Gracia and I thought you looked flushed."
Maes's words, given to you to place in your mouth.
You follow along for the first part. "Wine's strong."
Hughes continues with the rest. "That's why I'm your friend, Roy." His hand, trying carefully to pluck yours away from their temporary fascination with his clothes. Maes's voice soft, but unyielding, much like the skin of his stomach muscles where you can feel it dimly through his undershirt. The lines of his belly. "Someone's got to look out for you. Gracia and I will take you home. Come on."
Maes's five o'clock scruff is rough, the day's sweat mixing with faint morning aftershave near the joint of his jaw. Chemical spice. It burns on your tongue, pepper tang.
You chase the taste of it from the corner of his ear down to where it beats warm, a heartbeat's private confessions. Nose close to Maes's skin, the crease of his neck where it slides into muscle. You can smell his shampoo. Gracia must choose it for him; Maes never picked anything so floral when you both were in classes together.
Hughes's hand has closed on your fingers, trapping them like a bird with a wing half-spread between one hip and his. His weight is against your leg. The porcelain of the sink basin bumps into the pit of your back; Maes has always been taller than you, and so you are required to drag at his shirt to pull him down.
Someone's throat is making small, hungry noises, and you think it might be yours.
Kneeling at the grave of your friend, you remember.
Fresh dirt silent against your ungloved hand.
Cool moisture meets your palm as you curl your fingers down into the ground. Suddenly the urge strikes you to dig, wild and irrational--one handful of earth and then a second, undoing all the careful work the undertakers had accomplished. Remove the soil that declared that Maes was dead, open the coffin that decreed he was killed, and haul him out to be one with the sun once more.
You get as far as a fistful of loam before you stop yourself, the breath coming hard in your lungs.
Duty. Hughes followed it. Social forces enforced by custom, occupation, government. A word. Four letters, dissimilar. No pictures possible. It is something different to each person, which is why there are so many arguments in court, so many cases gone wrong.
It makes you want to burn the entire library of law down.
You run your fingers in the chiseled letters on Maes's grave as you once had traced the threads of his jacket.
Maes followed the definitions in the book, all too well. He knew them during the awards ceremony conducted in the rainstorm and wine. You gripped his shirt in your hands back then, desperations of cloth, the summation of so many things unsaid and compressed to a single officer's club bathroom.
You held his shirt. Maes, when he touched you, held duty.