He walks her to work, the air fresh and cool as the sun casts its clean early light on the gradually awakening streets. They will not stop at the café today – or any other day. She has already told him she will not visit it again, to make it easier. But nothing will ease this for him. Nothing.
The fulfillment of his dream has become a nightmare of inescapable loss. What he'd thought was a beginning was in fact the ending, the end of everything.
He had lain in bed for a long time, absorbing what he'd seen on her face, recognizing what it meant, not wanting to believe it. But at last addressing the soft question to her shivering back, "Who is he?" he had whispered.
She had lifted her head, stiffening, her hair a tangled waterfall of gold down her shoulders. He yearned to touch it, but didn't dare. She did not look back, saying only, "What do you mean?"
Perhaps, had come the anguished thought, if he didn't ask the question then it would not be true. But he had forced himself to ask, though he could hardly bear it. "Who is the man you wanted to see when you opened your eyes just now?"
A long silence, and then, "You're mistaken. There's no one. It's just…I realized what I've done to you, how unfair I've been. I've made a terrible mistake. I'm very sorry."
Not long after, forestalling his questions, she had left the room to shower in preparation for work. He wondered if she expected him to be gone when she came out of the bathroom, but she hadn't seemed surprised to find him dressed and sitting at the kitchen table. He had made coffee for her, even though the rich aroma, tinged with an undertone of bitterness, now made him nauseous.
From that moment until this, he has tried to find answers, but receives nothing from her but apologies for how badly she has treated him. He reasons with her as they walk the tree-lined streets, trying to break through her wall of weary reserve, but he can find no opening. "You said before that you weren't ready," he urges. "We simply forgot to be cautious, and moved too quickly. We'll just go more slowly, that's all."
"No," she shakes her head, her fair hair once again rolled and confined by a clip at the back. She is all business now, taking refuge in the formality of her military uniform. Yet her voice softens, "I should never even have entertained the possibility, because it can't – I can't – "She abandons her explanation, adding quietly, shoulders slumping, "Whatever the reasons, I misled you. What I did last night should never have happened. And I can't let this go on. I'm very sorry."
He cannot believe that his life, his hopes, have altered so drastically in just a few hours. He tries yet again, demanding suddenly, "What happened yesterday? What did your lover do, that hurt you so badly?"
"He's not my – " She cuts herself off, biting her lip as her cheeks colour, as though she realizes how many things she's admitted with those three words.
He is right, then. But he'd known that the moment she awakened.
She lowers her voice. "I'm sorry. I'm so sorry I've done this to you. It's unconscionable. Believe me – it's best that I let you go, and keep you from getting any more involved than you are."
"I already am involved," he insists. "Last night – "
"Last night was a mistake," she says again, shaking her head. "I was cruel to do that to you. I'll never forgive myself."
"Then it meant nothing to you? Nothing?" He still can't make himself accept that this is happening.
"Of course it meant something, or I'd never – but I've allowed you to believe we might have a future. I should never have done that to you. I'm so sorry."
Rounding a corner to draw near the main entrance of East City military headquarters, he entertains for one last instant the thought that he might still change what is happening, still persuade her to give him a chance. But as she jerks to a halt beside him, all remaining colour draining from her already pale face, he understands in a flash of terrible insight that he has never had a chance for a future with her. Never.
The uniformed officer approaching from the other direction has halted abruptly, one foot on the lowest of the steps leading into the building as he waits, still as stone, watching them.
Her superior officer, the Flame Alchemist.
Ashen face utterly expressionless, the man's bleak, shadowed eyes take everything in, encompassing the two of them together. He knows – somehow he has guessed – what has happened between them. As the officer's eyes meet his, the breath chokes off in his throat, as for one long, irrational moment he waits, heart pounding, for the man to thrust a hand into a pocket and produce one of his famous gloves.
There has been no external sign, no change in expression – yet somehow he recognizes that his life has never been in more danger than at this moment.
But at last the dark eyes shift, coming to rest instead on the woman's face. Still the colonel has not moved.
Her wide eyes return the gaze. Her inner self, her very soul open to the man, nothing hidden, visible and vulnerable in a way she has never, ever been with him. Her face radiates a profound grief he has never before seen there, and in response, the other man's tension seems to dissipate, eyes reflecting back the same grief. Not a word is spoken, yet the communication is palpable, deeper than words, a profound communion, soul to soul. There is far, far more expressed between them than merely their mutual pain. The officer's lips twitch upward almost imperceptibly, wearily, in the beginning of what might eventually become a wry smile.
And finally he understands.
He is shut out, irrelevant, can never hope to intrude upon that powerful, subliminal rapport that binds these two so deeply.
Yet he has no choice but to try. "Riza. This man." His voice the faintest rasping whisper, but he knows by the slight tilting of her head that she hears him. She retains at least that much sanity, still. He wants to gasp, as though there is not enough air in all the world. "Of all men – the destroyer of Ishbal. This murderer." He will not allow himself to weep, though he wants to fall pleading at her feet. "How can this possibly be? Do you really hate yourself so much?"
She turns her gentle gaze upon his face, eyes grieving and compassionate at once. "There is no hatred," she murmurs. "There is only – "
"Don't!" he blurts sharply. "I don't want to hear it. I can't stand it."
"I know. I'm sorry." She lifts a hand as though to touch his arm, then draws it back as he flinches. Instead she tells him softly, "There is truly nothing you can do to change this. It will be best if you go now. And forget you ever knew me."
She turns from him, leaves him standing alone, and walks toward her lover. He is already virtually forgotten; that is abundantly clear. Stumbling blindly away, hardly seeing where he is going, he knows only that he must escape as quickly as he can.
As he staggers toward the corner of the military building, he hears the man's voice behind him, low and intimate, vibrating with barely suppressed emotion. "I don't know why you don't just blow my brains out and get it over with."
He can hear a smile in her voice, quiet and equally intimate, as she replies, "I probably would, if you weren't already pointing your own gun at your head."
One final glimpse, through tears, before he turns the corner. His darling, his beautiful one – standing face to face with the monster, the killer, the man who has hurt her – smiling, both of them smiling. Dark, brooding eyes locked with eyes full of light, sharing again that yearning, wordless communion more profound than any mere bodily union. Until the man turns crisply and begins walking up the stairs toward the entrance, head high. She follows behind, watching her superior officer's back, lips curved in a faint smile.
He flees the sight, rounding the corner and pressing himself against the wall of the building, closing his eyes against the stinging of tears. He will hurry to the municipal office and hand in his resignation to the Mayor – effective immediately. It will destroy his career, but he will not remain in this job a moment longer, lest he encounter the two of them again. He simply could not bear that.
He will leave this place, he decides in despair – his job, this city, everything. He will go somewhere, anywhere – Liore, perhaps, where he can throw himself into the work of trying to help calm the troubles. Yes, that's where he'll go, and if it puts him in danger he doesn't care. Taking a bullet could not possibly hurt this badly.
He pushes himself away from the wall, crossing the street through a break in the growing traffic. Wiping his eyes with the back of a hand, he leaves her behind forever, trudging slowly toward his fate.