Disclaimer: FMA belongs to Arakawa.
Acknowledgements: This story would not exist without the unintended plotbunny given to me by Stoplight Delight. She has very kindly also allowed me to use to town of Hamner. If you haven't already, I highly recommend reading her story "We That Are Young". It's well-written, well-researched, and updated regularly.
Notes: I haven't edited this as thoroughly as I usually would, in an attempt to have it posted on Royai Day. I'll look over it later, but in the meantime if you could point out any mistakes or inconsistancies I would be grateful. So, a very happy Royai Day to you all, and here's hoping that this story somehow makes sense.
"Advantage" by Dailenna
It was a well known fact to all that Lieutenant General Grumman was an eccentric man. Well liked by both subordinates and equals – although considered somewhat tiresome by his weary superiors – he was known to give little to no excuse for his antics, and society had become accustomed to his ways. He no longer was required to explain himself, and the Lieutenant General took pride in stretching the customs of his acquaintance.
It was no surprise to his peers, then, that one particular year he chose to celebrate his party not with the usual ball, but rather with a costume ball. Everyone who was anyone had been invited, and so too were a few who weren't. Some even mentioned that only Lieutenant General Grumman would invite people to dress in costume and have any expectation of a full party. A full party it was indeed.
Lieutenant Colonel Roy Mustang discovered as much for himself when he entered Grumman's lodgings. The house had been cleaned, dusted and polished so the light of every chandelier and candle shone twice as brightly, aided by its reflection. The stairs in the entrance bustled with movement of various guests dressed as famous people, inanimate objects, animals, and occupations other than their own. One woman even appeared to be dressed in her husband's military uniform, a belt tight around her waist to stop the trousers from dropping over her hips.
But tonight, he was not Lieutenant Colonel Roy Mustang. No, instead he was the Honourable Duke of Hamner, Esquire (whatever that was supposed to mean), and anyone who claimed otherwise could be damned. He'd resolved to enjoy his night and wasn't going to let business stop him.
The Duke paused in the entryway for a moment, watching the crowd before him, searching for faces he knew. The easy stance he carried himself with did very well in suiting him to his costume: he wore a light green coat, heavily embroidered with silver thread, and tight down to the waist, where it flared out over a masculine set of hips. Puffs of lace fell from his wrists, covering most of his hands. A pair of fitted breeches did well in showing off his legs, giving a good view of his shapely calves – although a set of bony knees left much to be desired. Tied around his neck with a careful hand was a silk cravat in what was known in its time as the 'Waterfall' style, carefully held in place with a silver pin that appeared to have an emerald set into the top. Black shoes with silver buckles encased his feet with an extra flourish. None of this dress was as exquisite as the remarkable attention the Duke had paid to his face. Underneath, as white as the wig on his head, his cheeks were rouged, lips were painted, and a 'beauty' spot seemed quite at home an inch above his dimple. The hair of the wig itself was curled at the sides, and at the back drawn neatly into a black ribbon. The look was perfected by the long cane in one hand, and the white kerchief in the other.
To be perfectly honest, he was slightly ruffled by the occasional look of amusement he was awarded upon entrance, but passed them off with a rakish smile and what was a passable bow or nod of the head, depending on to whom he addressed himself. His ascent of the stairs was littered with such glances, which eventually he convinced himself to ignore, and walked directly into the ballroom.
"Name and, er, title, sir?" asked the servant to his left. The man seemed not to be fazed at all by the unusual attire of the guests around him. Likely, if he had been employed at the Grumman mansion for long, he had seen similar get-togethers before, and wasn't surprised by them anymore.
Mustang coughed to clear his throat, and tucked his kerchief into the pocket of his breeches. He wasn't thinking about how uncomfortable they were, really, only how inconvenient. "Roy Mustang, Duke of Hamner," he said, now wearing a smile.
The servant nodded and announced him with a voice as clear as a bell. A few of those filling the ballroom turned to watch his entrance, and Mustang recognised a woman in red and green, and the man beside her wearing a pair of overalls stained with dirt at the knees, loose gloves on his hands, and Wellingtons on his feet. He moved to join them and was greeted with a large grin on one part, and a warm smile on the other.
"What on earth are you wearing?" Maes Hughes asked, his glasses shining in the light.
Mustang tapped his cane on the ground, eyeing his friend's costume. "I was about to ask the same thing of you. Do I not look like a Duke?" He gestured elaborately to his coat before turning to Hughes' wife. "Good evening Gracia. You look lovely; may I ask as to what you have come?"
Gracia Hughes accepted the compliment graciously. "Thank you, Roy. It was Maes' idea. He has come as a gardener, and I am his rose." Her voice gathered a hint of amusement at the last, and she plucked at her skirt – or rather, her stem – as though to remove some imagined speck of dust.
An eyebrow raised, Mustang turned back to the beaming Mr. Hughes. "Lovely little flower, isn't she?" Hughes asked, taking one of her hands fondly.
"I'm sure you never have been anything but one," Mustang told her with a smile. He turned to peruse the other guests in the room. "What else do we have here, tonight? Anything spectacular?"
"Nothing that compares to the lipstick you're wearing, but I did see a horse with six legs around at one point. That wouldn't be the boys in your office, now, would it?"
Mustang frowned, trying to remember the conversation that took place during the lunch hour, just over a week ago. "No – I think I remember Havoc and Breda convincing Feury to come as some sort of magician. The kind with the long flowing robes, and–"
"A pointy hat and beard?" Gracia interrupted.
"Yes, I believe so."
"Unless someone else also had the idea, I believe I saw him just before you made your entrance," she said. "The poor fellow was tripping over his hem every three steps. I don't think he'll be able to dance at all in that outfit."
"That's his own fault for listening to those two," Mustang said with a shake of his head. Second Lieutenants Havoc and Breda had forged a strong alliance very soon after Mustang had chosen them for his team. As two people very willing to pull the odd prank on their superior officer, a mere Master Sergeant stood no chance, and Feury's unassuming nature made him an easy target. Mustang considered the young man lucky that Havoc and Breda were good-natured, and wouldn't do him any lasting harm – and if any joke began to get too out of hand, his other Second Lieutenant would step in to set the boy straight and warn Havoc and Breda away for a while.
Mustang stilled his hands, realising that he had been rolling his cane between his palms in a very un-Duke-like manner, and turned to his friend. "Have you seen anyone from your office, yet?"
A grin appeared on Hughes' face. "Falman said hello a little while ago. I thought the man wouldn't have the spirit for a costume ball, but he looks very piratey tonight."
Mustang laughed. He'd met the Warrant Officer a handful of times, and could not imagine him as a pirate. The concept of such a serious, focussed man in any costume at all was foreign, and Mustang couldn't help but think that Grumman himself must be a magician to get people to attend such an event.
"Sciezska came by, too," Hughes continued. "In her natural state, I believe: she's here as a bookworm."
Flicking his lacy sleeves out of the way, Mustang tapped his chin thoughtfully. "She's the one Fullmetal and his brother found for you, isn't she? The memory-on-legs, as though having Falman in your unit wasn't enough."
Hughes shrugged. "Well, it is Investigations. Those two hand me the facts, and I put the facts together. It works rather well."
At that moment their group was joined by an Ishballan priest with red hair. The three previous members stared for a moment, before a somewhat amused Hughes opened his mouth to ask, "Second Lieutenant Breda, what on earth possessed you to come as an Ishballan?"
A grin appeared on the portly man's face. "Once I found the skin dye I couldn't think of anything better. It was Ishballan or nothing." He made his polite greetings, and turned to Mustang. "Are you the noble Havoc intends to rob, then?"
Mustang blinked bemusedly. "Pardon?"
"Ah, I guess not." Breda looked over his shoulder into the crowd. "He's come as a highwayman, or something of the sort, and told me that he intends to use his 'roguish charm' to convince someone to part with a piece of their costume. Depending on whom, I'm not sure whether he'll bother asking. A thousand sens says that Feury conveniently won't know where his hat is by the end of the evening."
"But only after Havoc's tried – and failed – to 'charm' every woman here out of something," Mustang agreed. Hughes didn't look very impressed, so he added, "except perhaps the married ones," with a smile at Gracia.
The woman rolled her eyes and gave her husband an exasperated look. They had been married for almost two years now, but he still behaved as protectively as a newlywed. It was a surprise to Mustang that she could stand him, at times, but then, he supposed, Hughes knew when to back off, and had used his perceptive skills more than once to dig himself out of the danger zone.
"Speaking of costumes, there have been some brilliant ones around," Breda sad thoughtfully. "Major Freidham spent the last month making the wings for his angel costume, and it seems to have paid off. All of Vangue's unit came as suits of armour, inspired by Alphonse Elric, I believe, and Lieutenant General Grumman had a servant announce at the beginning of the night that if anyone could figure out which person here is the Lieutenant General before eleven o'clock, they will be offered a position on his staff."
Such an offer would not be made lightly. Mustang looked thoughtfully at the crowd, deciding that if Grumman didn't expect to be found, he wouldn't be. Or he would be in a costume Mustang wouldn't wish to find him in. Hastily, he looked away from a short woman dressed as a schoolmarm. At least, he hoped it was a woman.
His attention was diverted properly when a bell rang over the din, and a loud voice proclaimed that dinner was ready, if the guests would remove to the dining room. Slowly, the ballroom emptied into the adjoining room, which had been filled with round tables able to seat at least eight people each. Sciezska, in an interesting ensemble of light pink and books – how she had attached them, Mustang didn't know – was just moving towards an empty table, and Gracia pulled her husband along to join the absent-minded woman. Unable to see anyone else of his acquaintance he'd be willing to share a table with, Mustang followed along, and Breda greeted a clueless chicken, pulling the man along with them.
Once seated, the chicken man revealed himself to be Denny Brosh, and his nervousness was made apparent by the frequent glances he made in the direction of Maria Ross, who had seated herself next to Sciezska to join in with the women's conversation. Ross was dressed in a shade of orange that almost hurt Mustang's eyes, and when questioned, announced that she was a carrot.
The table was only made complete when Major Armstrong joined them, in his military uniform. All eyes turned to him in wary curiosity.
"Did you forget your costume, Major?" Brosh asked hesitantly. The man punctuated the request with a cringe as Armstrong turned to him, shining spectacularly.
"On the contrary, this is my costume!"
Mustang eyed the uniform for any variation to the usual. "And who have you come as, then?"
A thick finger, rippling with muscle that was near to invisible on a normal person, pointed to the epaulettes on the shoulder, where Mustang could see the thick line down the middle flanked by two thinner lines that denoted some of the higher ranks of the military. "I have come as a statue of my great-uncle General Theodorus Frederic Armstrong! The art of standing still for long lengths of time has been passed down in the Armstrong family for generations! Of course," the fellow added, with a knowledgeable smile through his blond moustaches, "I could not participate in the dinner course if I were to remain in my pose, so I have had to suspend my activities for the meal."
Heads nodded weakly at his response, and Mustang used the excuse of servants arriving with food to distract him from the Major's spiel on how best to manage a convincing imitation of a statue.
He was roused from his main meal when Brosh complained that eating pheasant somehow seemed like cannibalism to him at the moment, and used the opportunity to remind the man that if he felt so disheartened he could remove his costume. Of course, Mustang had banked on the man balking at the idea, and wouldn't have tried such a challenge if the potential cannibal had been either of the men sitting beside Brosh – Armstrong was all too likely to make any excuse for disrobing, and Breda would make sure to settle a sizable wager before winning it for himself. As it was, Brosh steeled himself and ate the bird stoically, to the chuckles of the other men.
It wasn't until Mustang had wiped his mouth with a napkin that he realised the colour was coming off his lips. He hadn't brought the make-up with him, but thinking through his options, he didn't think he would have reapplied it, even if it was at hand. Hopefully he hadn't wiped off half of the powder on his face as well.
There was a small dessert – some white, wafery biscuit that put Mustang in mind of eggs, topped with cream and berries – and then soft music consisting of strings and woodwinds struck up back in the ballroom. Not ten minutes later, a third of the room had emptied as people slowly made their way to dance in the ballroom. Gracia insisted on waiting for her dinner to settle before finally accepting Maes' offer to dance, and Mustang took the opportunity to ask Sciezska to dance, since Armstrong had whisked the hapless Lieutenant Ross off earlier, to Brosh's disappointment.
Quite unluckily for Mustang, the former librarian was as clumsy at dancing as she was at almost everything else, walking and forming a rational sentence included. "Sorry!" she said for the fourth time when she stepped on his foot yet again. At least her choice of shoes was quite sensible – no unusual spikes or points to jab at him.
"That's alright," he said absently, having just caught sight of Lieutenant Havoc leading Lieutenant Hawkeye onto the dance floor.
She was in a light blue dress with a ridiculously puffy skirt. The back was high, right up to the nape of her neck, but she displayed a hint more of cleavage than Mustang would have expected; to be entirely truthful, he had expected none whatsoever, so she still showed considerably less than some women's costumes had. The front of her bodice was purple, worked with silver thread and ornamental buttons, and tight sleeves stopped two or three inches below her elbows. Her hair was pulled back from her face in a elegant low roll at the top of her neck, and a round coronet sat assuredly on her head, shining as the light caught the gems and danced around the rim.
Beside her, Havoc appeared nothing like the sort of partner she should have. His long, brown coat and tall boots were coloured to help him blend in with the dark of night, not for a ball such as this. Especially not when he was wearing a hat inside. His waistcoat was suited perhaps, almost navy in colour and with the odd hint of embroidery, but the antique pistols at his hips and the dark mask on his face made him seem more likely to rob her than dance with her.
Nevertheless, the pair danced a very pretty circle around the room, and Mustang found himself glancing in their direction more than once. He had the sense not to stare, and the manners not to ignore his own partner, but when the dance was over he gave Sciezska a bow and readily handed her to Falman with no more than an arched eyebrow and subdued smile at the fellow's striped shirt and open waistcoat.
He reached the Lieutenants just as Hawkeye handed over a small brooch, saying, "Only because it isn't necessary to the costume, and under the condition that you return it before the night's out."
"Of course, Your Highness," Havoc said, pocketing the piece and sweeping his hat off his head in an overdone bow. As he straightened up, grinning, he noticed Mustang joining them. "Evening chief. Nice wig you have there."
Mustang put a smile on his own face. "This is a costume ball, Havoc, not a masque, or did you forget?"
"Ahh, but the mask adds an air of mystery to my character."
"Not being able to see your face doesn't mean any more women will want to dance with you," he snickered. Hawkeye cleared her throat loudly, and Mustang turned to her with a bow not quite as deep as Havoc's, but much more steady and twice as elegant. "I apologise, my Queen, I meant no slur against yourself."
The two Lieutenants traded looks, and Havoc sighed dramatically. "I may as well leave you two to it, then. Thanks for the brooch, Hawkeye. If I don't see you after I've shown it to Breda, I'll give it to you at work on Monday." With that, he swaggered off to find the other man.
Hawkeye ran her aptly-named wine-red eyes up and down over Mustang's costume. "A lord of some kind, are you, sir?"
He inclined his head, eyes twinkling. "Duke of Hamner, I'll have you know."
She met his gaze suddenly, the corners of her lips twitching upwards. "And so young?"
"The same could be said of yourself, Your Majesty. I feel daring tonight – would you care you join me for this dance?" He held a hand out to her questioningly, and was pleased when she took it, and allowed him to lead her to the dance floor.
While years of military service didn't teach a person how to dance, it did give a certain lightness of foot; a soldier couldn't afford to alert enemies to his or her presence by stomping around in the underbrush, and sand was much easier to run on if the foot knew how to adapt to its movement. That in itself gave a peculiar understanding of what was beneath one's boot that Mustang felt come into play the moment Hawkeye allowed him to put his hand on her waist.
Her hand was light on his shoulder as they began to spin in lazy circles. Light, but definitely there. She didn't exactly look him in the eye, but saying that she was watching her feet would be offensive, considering the confident way her step followed his. She'd never hesitated in following him, no matter where he went, and he'd led her into many places more dangerous that a dance floor.
They were halfway across the room when she finally looked up speculatively. "Duke of Hamner, sir?"
He gave her a charming smile, not much different in physicality from the usual smirk he'd bestow upon his informants, but of a completely separate source. "Well, Duke of Eastern City sounds less than half as quaint, and more than twice as presumptuous. Besides, I'm not such a harsh master that the townspeople should mind, just for a night."
"Especially when you aren't present to take your taxes and demand lodging," she added amusedly. Mustang remembered reading once of a woman with a kiss in the corner of her mouth that no one could catch, and wondered absently if this was what it looked like.
"Yes, they wouldn't be particularly pleased with that, would they?" he murmured, tearing his eyes from her face before someone caught him staring and thought something amiss.
The music seemed to pick up, changing in tempo and allowing a speedier circuit around the room. Having to move his feet quicker helped to distract Mustang's mind for a while, and as the pair made small-talk he found that it was a lot easier to keep himself from being caught in her smile again. Except for the moments when it wasn't, and he stumbled over a step for lack of attention.
As the instruments brought the piece to an end, he bowed over her hand. "It was an honour dancing with you, Your Majesty," he told her with a roguish grin.
A soft laugh escaped her mouth. "The honour was mine, Duke." She inclined her head graciously, and removed her hand from his after the smallest of pauses.
They were joined not a moment later by the cheerfully red-cheeked Hugheses. Gracia was trying to plump a somewhat squashed ruffle on her dress, and Maes stood gloriously pleased with himself, despite the sweat patches that had started to grow on his shirt.
"Well, that was an interesting experiment," he said, panting slightly.
Mustang arched a powdered eyebrow. "Yes, I believe I saw you. Was that double-time you were trying?"
"Yeah." Hughes grinned and tried to blow a strand of hair out of his eyes, only succeeding in getting it caught in his glasses. "We were doing quite well until the tempo picked up at the end there. Gracia lost her shoe," he explained, using his fingers to loose the hair.
His wife shot him a look. "I wouldn't have been half as flustered if you had let me go back and get it."
"What, and interrupt the dance?"
Hiding his own grin, Mustang turned to Gracia. "Perhaps you would do better with a more accommodating partner. May I claim the next dance?"
She gave him a level smile. "You may. After I've had a drink and been able to cool down."
Hughes gaped at looked at the two of them disbelievingly. "Are you poaching my partner, Roy?"
"Only with her permission," Mustang pointed out. He leant back to observe his friend's expression from a distance. That particular shade of pink on Hughes' face made him look positively childish.
"Then I'll just have to poach yours," he retaliated, not refuting Mustang's observation very well. "That is, if that's alright with her."
Hawkeye crossed her arms over her chest and eyed him warily. "Not if you're planning on whirling me around as fast as you did Gracia."
Hughes smiled, looking fondly at his wife, seeming to forget already that she had just agreed to dance with another man. "Of course not – honours such as those are kept strictly for wives and children."
"Alright then," Hawkeye said, not fast enough to sound hasty, but definitely moving the conversation on before Hughes realised what a perfect chance that would be to bring up his daughter's latest adventures. "But not until you've had the chance to stop sweating so much."
Hughes looked at Roy with a triumphant grin, and the four of them went to find some refreshments. The drinks were drunk none-too-hastily, but Roy still managed to fit a second one in before they made their way back to the dance floor. He and Gracia stood ready for the music to start, and Hughes and Hawkeye were not too far away. They stood at such a distance that the gleam in his eyes was visible, but Mustang couldn't decide whether it was his competitive gleam or his up-to-no-good gleam. Neither boded well for Hawkeye.
When the strings finally began, and the dancers started moving, Mustang told himself to keep the other couple in the corner of his eye, so if something did go wrong he could dance over and kick some sense into Hughes before moving on.
"Did you intend to match?" Gracia asked.
Mustang blinked and looked down at her curious face. "Hmm?"
"You and Riza," she explained. "You could very well be one of the lords in her court, in that costume."
"Oh. No, I didn't even know what she was coming as," he told her honestly. He glanced over at the other couple thoughtfully. "We're not quite the same era. But I suppose I can see where you're coming from."
"Well, matching or not, you did look lovely dancing together. You're very close, aren't you?"
His feet almost missed a step at that. If Gracia – and likely Hughes – had noticed them, and thought that, who else could have come to the same conclusion? They weren't breaking the military's fraternisation code, by any stretch of the imagination, but if the wrong person's suspicions were aroused it could very well amount to the two of them being watched very closely. Mustang didn't like the idea of either of them being put under surveillance.
"We- ah, we grew up together," he told Gracia. Her movements had allowed for his clumsy step, so she certainly hadn't missed that. Trusting her not to speak to the wrong people wasn't so much the issue, as she was every bit as intelligent as her husband, if in other ways, but he still erred on the side of caution.
A smile bloomed on her face and she nodded agreeably. "Yes, Maes mentioned that once or twice."
When the dance ended, what seemed like half an hour later, Hawkeye left her partner with an expression that Mustang thought must have looked at least as hunted as his own face. The way Hughes' eyes caught onto his own before he began to stride over was eerily foreboding, and Mustang gave Gracia a polite bow of the head, and excused himself, hurrying off to find a new partner to content himself with. If he was dancing Hughes wouldn't be able to corner him.
Some time later, when Mustang's legs were aching, and he was certain that Hughes would have forgotten any 'subtle' hints he had wanted to foist onto his friend, the bell that had been used to signal dinner was ready rung again, and the servant said in a loud voice, "It is now eleven o'clock. Only one person noticed that Lieutenant General Grumman was the giant candelabra. Fuhrer Bradley, if you wish for a position on the Lieutenant General's staff, you have it. If not, you may decline the offer."
A cheerfully one-eyed banana chuckled. "I believe I'll retain my position as the Fuhrer, thank you."
"Very well," the servant replied, with a curt nod. "Let the music continue."
The instruments struck up once more, and Mustang tottered away from the dance floor, thinking to himself that he was certain that candelabra had had breasts. With a shake, he realised that Grumman had likely added that feature to misguide onlookers, and he didn't want to think about it any further.
The number of people in the ballroom had made him suppose that quite a few might have returned to – or never left – the dining room. Instead, he found considerably less than he had expected.
"Where has everyone gone?" he asked Breda and Havoc, interrupting them from what was liable to be a new bet.
"Home," Breda said bluntly. "We're the military – we're used to early mornings, not late nights."
"Speak for yourself."
Havoc yawned, using one dark glove to cover his gaping mouth. "Armstrong left a good half-hour ago, and the Hugheses not long after. I think Freidham's gone. At least I hope so – he was sitting next to me at dinner, and the whole time I was eating, those wings kept pressing into my arm. Made it very hard to use my fork properly."
Breda chuckled. "I think I looked over at your table just in time to see him whack you in the face with them, at one point."
The scowl on Havoc's face grew darker. "I was dazed for two minutes after that. Either feathers aren't as soft as people say, or he had something else in those things."
"The whole bird," Breda suggested. He turned back to Mustang, who was looking at the two blankly. "You don't look so lively. Past your bedtime, sir?"
Grunting, Mustang went to look at his State Alchemists' watch before remembering he didn't have it. "I suppose it is. I should be heading off, then. Did you return Hawkeye's brooch, Havoc?"
The man pulled the piece out of his pocket and grinned at Breda briefly before turning back to his commanding officer. "I looked for her, but I think she's already left."
Mustang nodded. "Monday, then."
Turning and walking away, Mustang remembered to fetch his cane from where he'd left it, leaning against the table, before he strode out and bade goodbye to the bespectacled – and, yes, breasted – candelabra. His legs ached tremendously from all of that dancing, but the night had been fun. If Grumman threw another of these costume balls he'd have to find something easier to eat in without ruining. But those breeches really did set his legs off to advantage.