"After the Ball is Over"
"A little maiden climbed an old man's knee
Begged for a story – 'Do, uncle, please!
Why are you single; why live alone?
Have you no babies; have you no home?'
'I had a sweetheart, years, years ago;
Where she is now, pet, you will soon know.
List to the story, I'll tell it all,
I believed her faithless, after the ball.'"
The Colonel had the most astonishing tolerance for pomp. One would think that prowess on the battlefield and in the ballroom would be such dichotomous skills, yet he could fell a thousand warriors and flatter a thousand aldermen's wives without injury to body or reputation. He could sit through mind-numbing speeches while managing to maintain a look of intense fascination (it had something to do with the eyebrows), just like he had spent long minutes staring fixedly off into the distance, waiting for the jump of a shadow, the fall of a foot, that would put him back onto his guard.
Riza wasn't sure how far to carry the parallel, though. She had known him after battle, known how he shook, how he convulsively wiped his lips with his sleeve, how he scrubbed himself for two hours, showering when he was supposed to sleep and yet still found cause to ask if he smelled like smoke, like something darker still. She had known how he stood straight and proud and stoic when they pinned yet another medal to his chest, and thanked them crisply – thank you, sir, may I have another – and she had known how he snuck liquor into his tent and lay awake, drinking, until Kimbley returned late in the night, reeking, she was sure, as Roy didn't, and demanded a tithe from his partner – celebration, not consolation. She herself had lain awake, listening to their conversation just one tent over, Crimson's drawling jeer and Flame's hollow murmur.
She had known him after battle, but he fled after the ball. She didn't know if he went to scotch to drown out the taste of champagne, if he ran to yet another secretary's bed, if he ripped the metals from his chest as soon as he was out of sight. Knowing him, he probably did all three, then went home and bathed for two hours and thought of fire. But it was hard to predict the Colonel. Perhaps he liked champagne, and perhaps he liked solitude, and perhaps he liked to pretend that his metals were for valor rather than murdering the hapless parents of a girl he knew. Perhaps he liked to pretend he fought a different war.
Perhaps he liked these events, liked making empty, middle-aged society wives blush, but Riza doubted it. The society wives tended to twirl a bit of hair about their ring-bedecked fingers and breathlessly ask him about his grand deeds – they had heard ever so much about it from their husbands, but oh, oh, imagine hearing such tales from the Flame Alchemist himself! Were the Ishvaran sand people as brutish as reputed? Did they truly smell so very foul? Did they not eat their young? Three times, Riza had been close enough to hear the exchange. Twice the Colonel had said something generic about the horrors of war being unfit for such an occasion, once national security, and then had gracefully offered to get them something to drink.
Grace had been lost on one of these harpies. Riza stepped in, then, and said that a visiting dignitary wanted to meet with Colonel Mustang, who, regrettably, would have no time to spend chatting about past trauma, however much he might want to. Naturally, the harpy had no choice but to let him go, though with a suggestive invitation that perhaps one day he'd like to talk to her in a more...intimate setting. Her husband was away so often! It got so lonely. The Colonel, of course, assured her that he would like nothing better than to talk away some evening with a vapid shell of a married woman, but, alas, duty called. As they had broken away, Roy took Riza's wrist in his hand and caressed it briefly in thanks, then disappeared to be witty and charming to some general or another.
He used to leave the parties with Hughes. That had been their ritual. So long as the speeches were concluded, and so long as Hughes wasn't with Gracia and Elysia – they never had to worry about Roy, who seemed to feel as though a date would get in the way of his flattery and flirting – the two of them would skip out at ten-fifteen. Riza stayed to the last, so she never knew for sure where they went, but she knew them both well enough to make an educated guess.
Roy would probably share with his oldest friend how he truly felt about these events, but that was all right; Hughes was safe. He'd always had the most amazing eyes and ears and something besides, an odd intuition that led him to know who was a spy and who was a gossip and who was a drunk. Few knew the Flame Alchemist's character and contempt, his ambition, because the Lieutenant Colonel kept it between the two of them.
Now, though, Roy trusted no one. He drank alone. Riza was tempted on more than one occasion to inform him that she would be his confidante, if he so wished – but, knowing him, he probably held Hughes' protection as something sacred. To allow anyone else into his confidence...In his overrationalization, he probably would view that as treachery. She was fine with that; she had enough worries without Roy's as well. But when he came to the office and asked her quietly for a glass of water and drew the blinds – she couldn't help but wonder if it wouldn't be better if she could suffer for his sake.
The Colonel danced with everyone at these events. Old widows were a favorite of his, a soldier's mother whose son had decided that she needed to get away from her cats and radio for one night. He was fond of younger daughters as well, girls bored at the ceremony of it all who would giggle over this charming man – not too old, though, and of the quality that the older girls they wished to emulate would sigh over – riveted on them. (On more than one occasion, he had solemnly declared that Elysia Hughes was the finest dancer he had ever known.) He knew just how to dance with other men's wives, keeping them far enough from him to avoid offense, but close enough to thrill a bit, muttering a nothing to make them blush when it was the least conspicuous, ingratiating himself to the head of a general's household. He danced with the unmarrieds as well, the slinky women who would love to have a colonel to make them respectable, but he was most polite to these ones, showing them in no uncertain terms that the colonel would like to stay a bachelor, thank you.
Riza herself didn't dance. She came to parties armed – though, upon consideration, so did he, and so did many others. The difference among them was that she came ostentatiously armed, a pistol at the small of her back and a pistol in her boot. How tempting a target would something like this be to an insurgent force? So she didn't drink or make merry: she stood guard, even when Havoc came over to chide her lack of festivity or Fury stumbled by, self-conscious in his drunkenness. She stood guard even as the Colonel flirted with anything animate.
And so there was only one point during the evening when she broke her guard, and when Roy broke his.
There were couples who spoke fondly of their song – Hughes and Gracia started cooing at each other whenever "Goodnight Irene" began to play.This, then, was their song, hers and Roy's – a treacly bit of melancholia in three-fourths time, one that had been fashionable two decades earlier and was suffering an unfortunate resurgence in popularity. Riza had never asked him why this song, or why any song, but every time the first bars started playing, he broke off with whatever unmarriable he was currently flattering and sort of drifted over to her. He nodded, and she nodded back, and said nothing; then he leaned against the wall beside her until the orchestra struck into the main melody and pushed himself off.
"Well," he would always say, as though searching for the right words, as though he didn't know exactly what to say, a small laugh in his voice. "Would you do me the honor of this dance?" Riza still would say nothing, but hold out her hand as he reached for it, her answer a foregone conclusion. He would smile at her, shyly, gently, and lead her out onto the dance floor, and slip his free hand about her waist (and God, how well it fit!) and take a deep breath, and together they stepped out into the nothingness.
Somehow, it pleased her to note that he either held her too close or too far, and would have to take a moment to adjust himself, and whenever he would speak, it would be soft and awkward and unpolished. It was nice how at the end of the song he would lower his lips to her hand jerkily, and linger there just a touch too long, and would flee back to Hughes, who would drape his arm about his friend and lead him off.
What Roy gave to her was not the generosity of his dances with older women and younger girls, nor the duty of his dances with the flirts, nor the political maneuvering of his dances with married women. What he gave to her was genuine; what he gave to her, she could feel beneath her eyes and in her stomach and see in his smile and his lowered head.
Few knew the Colonel.Few knew that he even possessed a distaste for wholesale slaughter, that the Flame Alchemist was any different from the Crimson. Few understood that his jockeying for power had nothing to do with megalomania; of those who grasped that it was idealism, few understood that it went beyond that. Few knew of a promise to a friend. Few knew of the Rockbells.
So she shouldn't blame them for talking behind their hands, for speaking poorly of the power-hungry and cold man he seemed, but she did. She blamed them. She hated them. She hated them, because they should have been able to see how he fled from the balls and how he caressed her wrist in apology, in thanks, before going on to change the way the country ran. They should have been able to see how he shook and wiped his lips compulsively, how he drowned indecision with scotch, how willingly he sacrificed himself in part and in whole. But they blinded themselves to this, and all they saw was the arrogant young colonel, addicted to war, addicted to sex and power.
And she had to admit – that was him. He wasn't addicted to war, but for all the rest...It was him, but it was him in part; for there was so much more to him.
This, then, this man of the ball – this was the quintessential Colonel Roy Mustang, with a tolerance for pomp, but nothing more than a tolerance. Resented, yes; hated, yes; and always feigning blindness to resentment and hatred both. Graceful and awkward; cultured and backward; wise and naïve; intelligent and flirtatious and modest and everything else, doing kindnesses and hating the people who pointed that out. Shaking so hard he couldn't even pour a glass to steady himself, the scent of ash and desert and blood on him, in him, so that it had become his scent that no scrubbing could remove, declaring to Kimbley, to himself, that murder wasn't intrinsic to man, until his murmur was all but drowned out by the distant swirl of sand. This was the Colonel; this was the Flame; this was the man who would slide his hand into the curve of her waist, shy for all his familiarity, and grasp her hand, and take a deep breath and lead her in three-fourths time out into nothingness, into everything.
"After the ball is over,
After the break of morn -
After the dancers' leaving;
After the stars are gone;
Many a heart is aching, if you could read them all;
Many the hopes that have vanished after the ball."
(A/N: Oh, come on. You know they're having hot naked sex on Roy's desk. YOU KNOW IT. Um. The song, "After the Ball is Over," was written by Charles K. Harris in the 1880s or 1890s, and is widely believed to be, you know, the first pop mega-hit. Rock on, Charles K. Harris. Rock on.)