Chapter 80: What You Leave Behind
"Don't you want to study it?" Riza asked quietly.
Roy was sitting at the table, staring at the cold stove. At the sound of her voice, he looked up. "What? Oh. The... your... that..."
The words were sticking in his throat. Her expression was puzzled, anxious and maybe even just a little hurt. His stomach twisted again. She had bared her body to him, with valour that no one her age should have to display, and how had he reacted? He had run away. He hadn't even had the courage to face up to what his sensei – a man he had idolized and loved as a father – had done to his only living child.
He turned away now, too, fixing his eyes upon the stove once more. "I'm not ready," he mumbled, shame creeping from his innards.
Riza took a tiny step towards him. "Mr. Mustang? You said you wanted to use your alchemy for the good of the people. W-won't my father's secrets help you to do that?"
"They'd probably allow me to become a State Alchemist," Roy concurred flatly. "But I can't..." He shook his head, helpless. "I can't."
"I understand," Riza murmured. He heard a rustle of cheap cotton as she shrunk further in upon herself. "I'm sorry."
"For what?" Roy breathed, looking up in consternation. "Riza, it's not your fault. He... he never should have done that to you."
Her wide carmine eyes shone suddenly with tears, and her lower lip quivered. She bit it resolutely, and then turned away. Though it was surely not her intention, the dark ink of the tattoo showed through the thin white fabric of her blouse, which was stretched taut over her back by her stance. Roy's body shuddered with violent disillusion.
"It h-had to be kept safe," Riza whispered, as if repeating by rote a lesson that had served her through a brutal trial. "It's powerful. It's dangerous. I had to keep it safe for him."
"Is that what he told you?" Roy asked, dreading the answer.
"It's true," Riza said. "It has to be passed on to a good person. I..." She hesitated, and then said, so softly that it was almost inaudible, "I think you're a good person, Mr. Mustang."
This quiet affirmation shattered the last of Roy's composure. He buried his head in his hands, resorting to a physical mask as his emotional one crumbled. He screwed his eyes tightly closed against the tears as the strain and sorrow of the last few days thundered in his ears. Strain and sorrow... and guilt. Because he had failed to protect her. He had failed to keep her safe. He never should have left her alone in this house. By his compliance with his sensei's demands, he had abandoned her to Hawkeye's perverse devices. Now she was mutilated, branded forever with the mark of her father's depravity and her erstwhile playmate's cowardice. He was an accomplice in this horrible misdeed, and to study the markings now would be to condone what had been done to her. It would cement his complicity in this crime against her person and her dignity.
A gentle hand brushed against his sleeve, hesitant, and then gripped his arm. "Don't..." Riza implored. "It didn't hurt me, not very much."
As if the pain of tattooing were the greatest concern here. Roy shook his head mutely, keeping his face well hidden. A long silence elapsed. At last, Riza released her hold on his arm.
"What about your dream?" she asked. "You wanted to do good, to change the country and protect the people. Are you going to give up on that because... just because the information you need is on m-my back?"
Roy raised his head sharply, forgetting the tear snaking down his cheek. "Why didn't he just write the damned thing down?" he exclaimed.
Riza took a step back, startled by the violence of his tone. The sudden fear in her eyes frightened and chastised Roy. He knew it was not a reaction to his words, but to his tone. He had shouted at her as Hawkeye-sensei had been wont to do. He raised a hand to his mouth. "Riza... I'm sorry..."
She closed her eyes and nodded. "Y-you can't give up," she said softly. "It isn't right."
Riza bowed her head, and a tremor tore through her slender body. Then she looked up, fixing him with her extraordinary eyes. "Please, Mr. Mustang. You can't give up."
It was at that moment that it occurred to Roy that perhaps his lofty ambitions were more than naive dreams. They were a way to give meaning to the misery and privation that he had known as a small child, and to the stresses and indignities of the last two years. What were these aspirations but a bold and perhaps a little arrogant desire to ensure that others did not have to suffer what he had? And if achieving that would imbue his tribulations with some purpose... might the same not be said for Riza? He could not imagine the pain she had suffered (and at the hand of her father, no less) during the application of that tattoo. Perhaps, if the information entrusted to her were to be used for good, it would ease the bitterness of the memories.
"You're right," he said softly. "I can't."
Riza's lips curled into a tiny smile and she nodded in firm accord.
Mr. Mustang's days of furlough were drawing to a close, and as the journey back to Central would take at least two days, he had to depart the following morning. That evening when their frugal supper was finished and the dishes cleaned and put away, Riza poured two mugs of the tea that the soldier had bought, and sat down across from him.
"It's decided, then?" she said softly. "You're going to try to decipher the... the code?"
He sighed softly. "I can't," he said. "I have to be back in Central for Monday."
"I could go with you," Riza suggested breathlessly. The notion had occurred to her that afternoon, and she had been looking for an opportunity to broach it since. "It would be easier to find work in a big city. I could stay in Central for a while, and you could... could study it when you had time."
Mr. Mustang grunted noncommittally, then stiffened a little. "You'd do that?" he asked. "You'd come to Central for me?"
Riza bit her lip. She had realized in the graveyard that she could trust him. Oddly enough, the moment that had cemented that certainty was when he handed her his card and gave her leave to go her own way. That act had deviated so far from anything her father had ever done: where he had sought to control her and possess her and use her, Mr. Mustang was willing to let her go. He was willing to give her her freedom, and to give her control of her own life. This was a wondrous discovery, and soothed Riza's battered heart: she could still trust him after all.
He cared for her and respected her enough to let her go, but the truth was that Riza did not want to. Yes, she wanted to leave this hated house, and the village where she excited nothing but scorn and gossip, and all the unhappy memories of the last desolate years, but she was not ready to strike out on her own. Surely she could find work, for she was a clever and well-educated person; and with work came money for food and for lodgings... but she was afraid to be wholly alone. Living in the same city as Mr. Mustang would make her feel safer. Continuing to consort with him would help her cling to her fragile sense of self.
"If you wanted me to," she whispered, waiting breathlessly. The... the thing that he had to study (for to think of it as a tattoo was nothing but a cruel reminder of her hideous and mutilated body) was the perfect excuse for her to follow him as she longed to. At least for a little while, they could be together.
"I-I'd love that, Riza," he pledged. "I can't have you on campus, but we could find you a room – a nice room – in the city. I... we'd find some way to make enough money for food and lodgings. And—"
There was a knock at the back door.
Riza looked at Mr. Mustang, and he looked at her. The question was plain: who on earth would be calling on them?
"Shall I..." Mr. Mustang gestured vaguely.
Riza shook her head. "N-no, it's... it's my house, for a little while, anyway." Nervously, she crossed the kitchen and entered the lean-to. Drawing in a bracing breath, she unlatched and opened the door.
A tall, kind-eyed man in a brown suit stood there, a folder of russet card under his arm. It took Riza a moment to realize that it was under his only arm.
"Mr. Regnier?" she said softly, her voice quavering with wonder.
Her former teacher smiled a little, sadly. "Hello, Riza. How are you?"
There was genuine concern in his voice. Riza forced a small smile. "I'm well, thank you," she replied.
A silence lapsed. "May I come in?" Mr. Regnier said at last.
"Oh!" Riza straightened a little, startled by the suggestion and fearful lest he should take her for a poor hostess. "Please, do. Would you like some tea?"
"That would be lovely, thank you," Mr. Regnier told her, following her through to the kitchen. He stopped short at the sight of Mr. Mustang, sitting in his splendid blue uniform. "Well, now. What have we here?"
The cadet's eyes widened and he sprung to his feet, snapping into a crisp salute. "Sir!"
Mr. Regnier chuckled softly. "At ease, mister. I'm not a captain anymore."
"No, sir," said Mr. Mustang, lowering his hand a little sheepishly. "I... it's good to see you, sir."
"And you. Riza..." Mr. Regnier turned towards her, his face gentle with empathy. "I was so sorry to hear of your bereavement, my dear. How very brave you are: I'm so proud of you." He took a step towards her, as if to initiate an embrace.
Riza shied away, intimidated by the sight of a man she had not seen in years. Seeing her hesitation, Mr. Regnier stopped dead.
"I thought to bring you flowers," he said; "for I understand that is the traditional token of condolence. However, I have something that may prove more useful in the long run." He smiled a little, holding out the folder to her.
Riza took it, and opened it carefully. Inside, there was a piece of heavy parchment bearing her name and...
She looked up at Mr. Regnier with wonder. "It's... is it..."
"I realize it's highly irregular, when you didn't sit your final exams," Mr. Regnier said; "but you are the best student I've had, and you worked so hard. It'd be a pity if you didn't graduate just because your father... just because you had to leave school so unexpectedly. It's a real diploma," he added; "registered with the State and everything. I've had it for months, I confess, but I didn't have the courage to bring it 'round. I hope you'll forgive me?"
"I..." Riza didn't know what to say. She stared at her name, splendidly set in a handsome cursive typeface. It was strangely empowering, this piece of paper. It stated unequivocally that she was clever enough, as clever as a sixteen-year-old girl. It proved that she had a good education, and that she was equal to any task that a graduate was. It meant that she would be able to find work, and good work, too. It meant that she could survive.
"I... heard about the house, too," Mr. Regnier murmured gently. "Where will you go?"
"To Central," Riza said. She was momentarily surprised at the deep timbre of her voice, until she realized that Mr. Mustang had spoken, too. A consoling warmth suffused her breast. He wanted her to come with him: he truly did.
"You're in the National Academy, then," Mr. Regnier said to the cadet, who nodded modestly. "Well done, my boy. Have you family there, Riza?"
Riza was about to say that she did not, but Mr. Mustang spoke first. "Her mother's father, sir," he said. "He's a brigadier general. I'll see she gets there safely."
"But I—" Riza started to protest, but then she caught Mr. Mustang's eye and realized his intention. He wasn't going to force her to live with her grandfather: he was merely trying to placate the adult. If Mr. Regnier knew that she intended to live on her own, he would feel bound to interfere. He might even turn Riza over to the authorities. "Yes," she said, echoing Mr. Mustang. "He's a brigadier general."
"I'm glad," her teacher said. "I hope he'll take good care of you: you deserve it."
Riza's throat constricted a little. This was goodbye, she realized. She had never had a chance to say a proper goodbye to Mr. Regnier. "Th-thank you for everything," she said softly.
"Don't thank me," he said. "The pupil's brilliance is no credit to the teacher: you did your own work, and you have your own sharp mind. Be proud of it."
"Well... thank you for the diploma, then," Riza said. "I need it."
Mr. Regnier nodded as if he understood. "You earned it. And Riza!" He reached into his pocket and pulled out a creased envelope. "I haven't given up hope of you attending university, and I hope you haven't, either. Here's a little something to help you. It isn't much, but it's the most I could wrangle from the school budget."
Riza opened the envelope and shook her head. "I can't accept it," she said. "You're very kind, but I don't need charity."
"It isn't charity; it's a scholarship," Mr. Regnier said. "It's only a thousand sens, but it's a start. Do you know what a scholarship is, Riza?"
She shook her head shamefacedly. Mr. Mustang was smiling. "It's money to pay for your education," he said. "It's like a prize."
"A prize..." she echoed softly, fingering the bank notes. She couldn't help feeling a tiny twinge of conceit. She had won a prize, for she was a clever girl. She could use it to pay for her studies, if she wanted to. She could go to university, maybe. She had her school diploma, and her father could no longer stop her. Maybe she would amount to something some day after all.
Roy had bought a round-trip ticket for himself before leaving Central. Raising the money for Riza's fare presented a difficulty. She offered to pay for it out of her thousand sens, but of course that was out of the question. She would have little enough to live on once they got to Central, and Roy was not about to squander her windfall on the train ticket.
In the end, he gathered a few articles from the house – a lamp, a couple of paintings, and two or three books that looked more impressive than they were, and took them to the village pawnbroker's. They raised only three hundred and eighty sens, but since Riza was under fourteen, and Roy only had to pay the military fare, it was enough. That afternoon, they boarded the overnight train to East City, where they would catch the express to Central. With the crates of alchemy texts in the baggage car, they settled as best they could in third class.
For a long while Riza sat quietly, reading from a book of history that she had brought with her. Around ten o'clock, she put it away, and put her hands in her lap.
"Everything will be all right," Roy said quietly. He wanted to add that he would take care of her, but the words seemed to stick in his throat.
"If it isn't, I'll still manage," she murmured.
She was so brave, so strong, so stoic... and not yet thirteen. Roy's heart ached. She should never have had to grow up so quickly. "If you want to lie down, I'll watch over you," he offered shyly.
"Thank you, but I'm not ti—" She was interrupted by an enormous yawn. "I suppose I'm a little tired," she admitted with chagrin.
Roy took off his coat and his jacket. He folded the latter, and set it on the bench opposite, close by the wall. The latter he handed to her. "In place of a blanket," he said.
She nodded a little, holding the heavy woollen garment. "Mr. Mustang," she ventured. "Do you think... do you think I'm just running away?"
Roy considered the question. She was leaving behind her childhood: some good memories, but more bad; some friends, but more enemies; some laughter, but more tears. She had been driven from her home by the tax collectors, and estranged from her neighbours by her father's misanthropy. There was nothing left for her in Hamner. What could she do but seek a new life elsewhere? It was necessity, not cowardice, that drove her.
"No," he said. "You're not running away. It's... an adventure."
She nodded a little, as if she understood. "The house..." she said.
"Yes?" Roy coaxed gently.
"I al-always meant to have that stupid step mended," she said, her voice faltering only a little. "Now I'll never have the chance."
Roy hesitated, not sure what to say. There were unshed tears in her eyes, and he wanted to comfort her, but he could not. They hardly knew each other anymore: he had no words to consol her.
Before his eyes, her expression fixed itself into one of stoic determination. "I suppose that means it isn't my problem anymore," she said firmly. "I would like to sleep a little, Mr. Mustang – if you don't mind?"
"Not at all," he said hoarsely.
"Thank you, sir," she murmured. Then she eased herself down onto the hard bench, pillowing her cornflower-coloured head on the dark blue of his jacket. She drew the coat over her and hid her face in the collar.
Roy watched as her breathing slowed and grew deeper, and her grip on the greatcoat eased. The tiny lines of worry at the corners of her mouth vanished as she settled into slumber. He wanted to reach out and stroke her hair, but he could not do that anymore than he could comfort her while she was awake. He folded his arms across his chest and watched her. He desperately hoped that between the two of them they could get her settled in Central. Where the money would come from he did not know. Some of the cadets, especially those with families, had permission to take part-time employment after hours. Perhaps he could apply for such permission himself. And if Riza could find work, as she thought... but what sort of work could a thirteen-year-old girl, even one who had her diploma, get in a big city like Central? Perhaps Maes could help – but no. Maes had his own troubles now, with Ira dead and Ben so ill. Would he even return to the Academy on time, or would he take bereavement leave to be with his family?
It was strange to think that they had all come so far, and changed so much. Maes Hughes, once a carefree tinker's boy who had peddled marbles in the schoolyard and befriended a little throwaway reviled by his peers and his betters alike; now a veteran of battle, a career soldier whose brother and comrade had fallen in the field. Roy Mustang, once a ragged beggar-child starved for affection that only a child even younger than himself had cared enough to provide; now a proud young cadet, well on his way to becoming an officer and hopefully a State Alchemist. Riza Hawkeye, once a merry, carefree little girl who had laughed and loved and lived with such joyous abandon; now a sombre young woman hardened by grief and privation, who had been betrayed and violated by the one person in the world who should have protected her with her very life.
Whatever lay ahead, whatever challenges or pains or joys, one thing was certain. Nothing would ever be as it once had been. As much as he might wish for the old days, Roy knew those times would never come again.
They were not children anymore.
TO BE CONTINUED...
"Shall Never See So Much"
Coming Soon from