Maes reflected that he was spending a lot of time lately, escorting people down the street who really didn't want to go with him.
"Are you sure we should bother him so soon?" Gracia fretted as she strove to keep pace with his long strides.
He slowed down. "Roy did say we should talk today," he reminded her.
"But it's barely noon. Maybe he'd like more time. I wonder if he really wants to see either of us yet."
"I know Roy," Hughes said. "He's been expecting me since dawn. If I didn't show up, he'd be really surprised." He caught her skeptical glance, and laughed. "He'd know I'd be so worried about him that I couldn't stay away. If I didn't show up, he'd think something had happened to me."
"I hope you're right. But I wouldn't blame him if he slammed the door in our faces."
"He won't," Maes said. "We've got cookies."
They did, indeed, have cookies. He and Gracia had finally fallen asleep in each other's arms on the couch last night. By the time Maes woke up, the sun shining through the windows into his face, Gracia was up, showered and dressed, and making breakfast in the kitchen. The aroma of baking bread had set his mouth water, and he'd thrown back the blanket she'd placed over him, picked up his glasses from the side table she'd set them on, and crept into the kitchen doorway just to watch her.
She hummed as she checked the eggs boiling on the stove and then drew a package of bacon from the icebox. The water kettle was heating up beside the eggs, and a plain brown teapot sat waiting on the counter nearby - a more "everyday" pot than the china teapot used after dinner last evening. The table by the window was already set, with a pristine white cloth and blue dishes with little red flowers around the edges. One small glass of orange juice had been set at the head of one of the plates. He realized immediately what a treasure it was; oranges were still hard to come by, as the eastern growers laboured to re-establish orchards, and trade routes to the east stabilized slowly. She'd probably used her last couple of oranges to squeeze this juice for him.
Maes came up behind her and slid his arms around her waist, leaning his cheek against her hair. Gracia leaned back against him as she continued her rhythmic slicing of the bacon.
This morning - the comfortable domesticity and simplicity of it, in the company of this woman - this was the sort of morning he wanted to wake up to, every day for the rest of his life. But before he could take hold of that, he had to clean up the current mess first. And that meant settling things once and for all with Roy.
So after breakfast, Maes helped Gracia make a special batch of cookies to take to Roy as a peace offering. Or rather, he "helped" until she seated him firmly back at the table with a cup of tea, while she finished the cookies with the batter he hadn't already scooped out and eaten. He'd obediently stayed out of her way after that but rose to his feet almost immediately, pacing back and forth behind her, from doorway to table, until she said quietly over her shoulder, "If you need to go to him now, I could meet you later. Do you want to go alone?"
He halted abruptly. "No. That is - no."
There were plenty of cookies, despite his earlier thievery. Gracia packed them in layers, in a small box that he now carried in a cloth bag. It swung by his leg as he walked, rotating slowly from the occasional bump.
They strolled toward Roy's apartment building, nodding to people as they passed, and stopping a couple of times to pet a dog and chat with its owner. The weather was growing cooler as autumn took hold, and the bright morning sun on the turning leaves created canopies of rustling red and gold arching over the walks.
As they drew near the building, Maes's pace kept increasing and he had to force himself to slow down for Gracia's sake. He found himself wiping a damp palm on his pant leg. He wasn't sure if he was eager to have this little talk, or if the urge to rush came from the fervent wish just to get it over with.
Roy lived on the second floor. As they came out of the stairwell, Maes led the way down the long hall, but as he approached Roy's apartment, his steps faltered. The door stood half open, a cold breeze blowing through it into the hallway. There was no sound from inside, and he saw nothing but darkness in the wedge of space between door and frame.
"What the hell...?" He passed the bag of cookies to Gracia, even as he slowed her progress with an outstretched arm. For a moment he hesitated, glancing back, debating whether he should send her back outside. But he whipped his head around again as a light gust of wind hit him form inside the apartment. That smell...? Strong - sour - sharp -
"Roy. No. You promised me..." He was hardly aware of his own hissed words, so loudly was his heart suddenly pounding in his ears. The throwing knife dropped from his sleeve into his hand, and he heard Gracia gasp at is appearance, but there was no chance to explain. He had to see. Had to be in time. "Stay back," he said quietly. It was all he dared take time for.
He inched forward, flattening himself against the wall. Still no sound from inside. The acrid smell grew stronger as he came nearer. Not a burned smell, which he might have expected, but something more acidic. He pushed the door slightly, and peered with one eye around the frame. He could see a corner of the desk to his left, but nothing beyond it. A pail of...something...sat on the desk, the liquid shimmering with tiny quicksilver ripples as the breeze blew over it. The smell assaulted him again in a fresh gust. Ammonia.
Another cautious push of the door, and his view broadened. The apartment wasn't as dark as he'd thought at first; he could see an open window in the wall past the desk, a curtain billowing as cool air rushed in, drawn by the wider door opening. Sunlight streaked from the window in a band across the floor, sharply illuminating the arm chair and table in its path before leaping like flame up the bookcases on the right.
And the alchemical arrays were almost gone. For weeks they had been painted or scrawled all over the floor and walls, in fact, on almost every open surface in the apartment, sometimes created with paint, and other times with actual blood. But the swath of sunlight across the floor showed that it was completely clean, and that many of the circles on the wall were half-scrubbed off.
And just as he recognized that, Maes finally saw him. With the streak of light blazing across the centre of the room, the back half had been cast into contrasting darkness. And deep in the shadows stood the slender shape of a man, half turned away, head bent.
"Roy...?" Hughes called softly, his heart still pounding in his throat. "Are you...alright?"
Roy's head lifted, but he made no other move. "Maes," he said.
"Tell me what's going on."
Hughes stepped further into the room, and now saw a couple more pails full of soapy water, one under the window and the other near a bookcase. At last Roy left the shadows and came forward into the light from the window.
He hadn't even changed his clothes since last night, except to remove his suit jacket. But he wore the same pants and light blue shirt, though the shirt sleeves were now rolled up. His pale face was drawn and weary, and there were dark circles around his eyes. He gripped a cleaning rag in one hand.
Hughes slid his knife stealthily into a pocket. "You're washing the floor? That's all this is? You had me scared half to death."
"Did I? Sorry. I've been cleaning since dawn. What took you?"
Hughes fought back a wild urge to laugh and call Gracia in to tell her 'I told you so.' But perhaps he'd wait till he understood what was really going on here, before bringing her in. He said. "I overslept. Roy - you look like hell."
Roy's lips twitched. "Why thanks, Maes," he said drily.
"Have you had any sleep at all?"
The rag twisted and twisted in his hands. "No," he said finally. "I spent a lot of the night drinking."
Maes should have guessed. He probably would have, if the ammonia hadn't masked the smell of the alcohol. But he could smell it now, as he stepped closer and grabbed the front of Roy's shirt with one hand. "No wonder you look like shit. Dammit, you've got to stop doing this to yourself - "
He bit the words off; Roy wouldn't have heard them anyway. His eyes had focused sharply over Hughes's shoulder, and for one shocking instant, fear flashed across his face. Hughes whirled around, already reaching again for his knife, then heaved a sigh of relief. It was only Gracia, walking hesitantly across the room toward the two men.
"I'm sorry to interrupt," she said. "I was getting worried."
"It's okay," Hughes said. "Roy's just cleaning up. I might have thought of that when I smelled the ammonia, except that I was too afraid there was something else going on." He glanced back and raised a pointed eyebrow at his friend. "But I'm partly right, aren't I? You drank all night, trying to get up the nerve. Didn't you?"
Still the rag, twisting and twisting. "Not...exactly," Roy said at last.
"Not exactly? What's that supposed to mean?" Hughes demanded. "Is that supposed to reassure me - "
"Maes, just drop it," Roy snapped. "I'm still here, aren't I? I told you I would be. And I didn't drink 'all night', just part of it. After a few hours of drinking, I realized I wasn't going to achieve the oblivion I was looking for. Since I'd promised you I wouldn't look for any other kind," he added with a grimace. "So I finally decided to stop drinking and start thinking instead."
"I see," Hughes said. "And what did you think about?"
Roy's eyes strayed to where Gracia had come to a stop, a little behind Maes. "I think I should wait outside after all," she said, turning back toward the door.
"No," Roy said. "That is...don't stay if you're uncomfortable. That's my fault, and I'm sorry. But I need to say something, and...I think you should hear it too. If you want to stay."
She hesitated, and she and Maes shared an uneasy glance. But finally she nodded, walking to the arm chair by the window. Roy was already clearing it off for her, pulling several sheets of paper from the seat. Hughes could see that they were covered with alchemic arrays, and he suppressed a shudder. Every time he'd come here for the past several weeks, all of those circles, with their dark aura, had made his skin crawl and his hair want to stand up.
As Gracia sat down, she accidentally brushed against Roy's arm, and he jerked backward with a gasp. The papers - and the rag - flew from his hands, scattering on the floor, floating all over it with the help of the breeze still flowing into the window. The two men crouched down simultaneously and began to gather them again. But Roy's hands shook as he reached for them, and almost immediately he stood again, turning back toward the dark half of the room, fists clenched at his sides.
"Roy," Gracia said softly. "What's wrong? You can't be...afraid? Not of me?"
He stood still as stone, facing into the shadows.
Hughes looked from one to the other, holding his breath. Gracia's eyes were fixed on Mustang's profile, partly obscured, as usual, by the fall of his hair. She said softly, "I don't think less of you, now that I know everything. Is that what you're afraid of? I understand why Maes loves you so much. I'm going to help him help you. I think you're doing the right thing."
He took a deep breath. "It's...not that I'm afraid of you, Gracia," he said. "Not exactly. I'm more...afraid of myself."
"You shouldn't be. You're a good person, Roy. I saw that last night."
"Right." His laugh had no humour in it. "I killed half a million people, but I'm a 'good person'. And last night," he said tightly, turning back to fling the words like daggers at his two visitors, "last night, you almost saw me killing my best friend right in front of you."
"Roy - " she began, but Maes said softly, "Gracia," and gave his head a small shake. He watched his friend in silence. They couldn't help him here. This one, Roy had to work through on his own.
The table stood half in light, half in shadow. Roy leaned both hands on it, and bowed his head. "I just...I don't know what to say, Maes."
Hughes could feel Gracia's eyes on him, urging him to say something reassuring. But he said nothing.
"I kept thinking about it, all night. I kept seeing you there - watching while I - I - if I'd already had my gloves on, you'd be dead. If I needed any more proof that I should have put a bullet through my skull back in Ishbal..."
Hughes could see Gracia biting her lip, trying to understand why he wasn't saying anything. He wanted to - he did - but he stared as though hypnotized at his friend's drooping shoulders and pale face. There was nothing he could say to him help with this.
"I don't know why you want to support me, Maes," Roy said unsteadily. "I told you the horrible things I've done, the people I killed - so many, many people - and I was on the verge of killing you – and after all that, you wanted to walk home with me, to make sure I'd be alright." He barked a high-pitched laugh that carried more than a tinge of hysteria. "I mean - you've got to be insane to do that! But there you are, dammit, sticking with me, and there I am, ready to snap my fingers and turn you to ash." His voice fell, on the verge of tears. "It was...all I could think about, all night."
Hughes reminded himself to breathe. The memory flashed into his mind, involuntarily: sitting in the chair in Gracia's living room, gazing up at his friend's black, implacable eyes. Staring his own death in the face. It wasn't something he was ever likely to forget.
"I don't deserve any of the support or help you're giving me," Roy choked. "I know I don't. But I realized it's finally time I did something to earn it. And I know I can't do it hiding in this place, driving myself mad, dreaming of raising half a million people from the dead. If I'm really going to climb that ladder, become Fuhrer, and change things in this country...I have to leave them behind. I have to leave them dead." His hands clenched into fists on the table. "If you only knew...how hard that is...how unbearable..."
He straightened, and for a moment Maes caught a glimpse of his face - his dark, haunted eyes strained with grief. Then he turned away, running his fingers along a row of volumes in his bookcase. "But Gracia's questions showed me how far I have to go. If I really am going to do what I say - if I'm going to try to become Fuhrer - I have to be able to deal with exactly the sort of surprise that last night was. I have to convince everybody I'm being completely cooperative, even if I hate everything they're doing and everything they stand for. I'll have to be able to smile right into their faces and obey them without even a twitch. I certainly did nothing of the sort, last night. I did the exact opposite, in fact. And I almost destroyed the only good thing I have left..."
Roy faltered for a moment, grief sweeping afresh across his pale face. Then, as Hughes had seen more than a few times in the last weeks, his friend drew himself back from the edge by sheer force of will. "But it stops now. I will do what I must, to become Fuhrer. And..."
For the first time he turned, meeting his friend's eyes. "And I swear, Maes, by - by everything sacred..." He stopped, searching for something meaningful. Then said solemnly, "I swear by all the dead in Ishbal - I will never do that to you again, Maes."
Hughes stepped forward and drew his friend into a fierce hug. He could feel Roy's hands clenching convulsively in the fabric of his jacket, and for several moments, the man's slender form shook as he held him.
"That's a lot of thinking you did, Roy, drunk or not. I know how hard that was," Hughes murmured. "Or maybe I don't really know, though I can guess, a little. But I've already promised you - I'm not going anywhere. I'm going to help make it alright, and help you succeed." He glanced back at Gracia, to see her dabbing at her eyes again, and cast her a reassuring smile.
At last Roy lifted his head, wiping the backs of his hand across damp eyes, his composure gradually returning. He managed a small smile, but Hughes knew how easy it would be for him to withdraw again, in mortification, after revealing so much of himself. Something else was called for now.
Maes kept his hands on the man's shoulders, and smiled crookedly. "I know last night was tough," he said softly. "But if it's any consolation, you weren't the only one harbouring murderous thoughts - I was ready to kill you, too."
Roy gaped at him in astonishment. Hughes grinned. And watched his friend, gratifyingly, sag back against the bookcase and burst out laughing. The two of them leaned against each other, laughing uncontrollably, until they were almost retching for breath.
"Now - now you tell me!" Roy gasped. "You could've saved me the whole long speech!"
"Not a chance, pal! After you worked all night on the thing? I wasn't going to let all that thinking go to waste."
"Liar. You just wanted to see me grovel."
"Oh yeah. I don't get to see that nearly often enough."
"And I notice you didn't make any great vow never to try to kill me."
"That's my ace in the hole, Mustang, and don't you forget it."
Roy put an elbow on a shelf and weakly leaned his head on his hand, still laughing. Hughes waved to Gracia, drawing her out of the chair and into the curve of his arm.
"You always manage to do this." She smiled, indicating the laughter, recalling how she and Maes had ended up the same way last night.
"It's the one thing I do well," he said, planting a kiss on her forehead.
"Oh," Roy said, finally getting his breath, "you do one or two other things too. But this - this keeps me sane. Don't ever stop, Maes."
"I don't intend to. In fact, I've got plans for you this afternoon," Hughes said promptly. "We're all going out for a very long lunch. A party, really. I might even let you have another drink, if you make a toast to us." He tightened his arm around Gracia's shoulders. "This beautiful woman accepted my proposal last night."
Roy's smile was so genuine and spontaneous that even Hughes was taken aback. It was one of the reasons he loved the guy - in the midst of his own struggles, he could take such pleasure in a friend's happiness.
"I'm glad," Roy said. "So glad." He said softly to Gracia, "I know my problems have been a factor in your decision, which should never have happened. But I promise to be on my best behaviour."
"I don't expect any regrets, Roy," she answered "You just keep Maes safe, and I'll be happy."
"Don't worry." He fell automatically into his usual amused drawl. "I'll be out there doing all the dangerous work while he's cozy and secure behind his desk. So you've got nothing to worry about. Right, Maes?" He glanced, with a sidelong smile, at his friend. The two men's eyes met. For a fraction of an instant, Hughes could not bring himself to return the smile. And for the first time, the beginning of a question sparked in Roy's eyes.
Which could not be allowed, especially now, at the very beginning. Hughes recovered quickly. "Exactly why I decided to work behind the scenes. No heroics here, thank you very much." At least...he hoped not. He wondered, though, if even Roy had a complete grasp on how difficult - even dangerous - this project could be. He couldn't think of that now, though. "Enough shop talk, Mustang," he complained. "I'm starving and I want to party."
"Right," said Roy. "Just let me get my jacket."
"Tell you what. Go have a shower - and then get your jacket." Hughes raised a wry eyebrow.
Roy glanced down at his rumpled and now rather grimy shirt and pants, and laughed. He looked suddenly like a great weight had rolled off his shoulders. "Got it. Five minutes."
"Take ten." Then, as he walked toward the bathroom, Hughes called after him,
"You're being so cooperative, I'm getting suspicious!" Roy merely flung up a dismissive hand, still chuckling, and disappeared.
Maes turned to Gracia. He saw that the cloth bag still dangled from one of her hands, and he took it from her, setting it on the table. "He'll find them later. I'm sure he'll enjoy them."
"I hope so."
"Well, sweetheart?" he said softly. "The adventure's about to start, and it won't exactly be just the two of us. Are you sure about this?"
"I am," she said. "He's actually rather sweet, isn't he?"
"'Sweet'." He repeated the word experimentally. "'Sweet'. I think I'll let you tell him that. I'm not that brave."
She laughed. "Oh, he's daring and heroic too, of course. But I'm marrying a man who is equally heroic. A man who will help his friend scale the heights while he stays in the background. It's going to be hard on you when he faces danger, and you know you can't remove him to safety."
This time, he didn't allow himself even the tiniest hesitation. "We'll do everything possible to keep him safe," Maes said staunchly. "And when he reaches his goal, I'm so glad you'll be there to congratulate and support him."
"We both will," Gracia amended, amused.
"Oh, yes," Maes said, smiling, his green eyes wide and guileless. "That's what I meant."