The first day back to work, it doesn't hit them.

It just feels normal, or as normal as life can be when there's a First-Lieutenant-shaped hole in their lives.

Just like if she were on vacation.

Except she's never on vacation.

They don't meet her eyes, they don't look to her desk. They just do their work, just the way they should have been doing all the while.

Except they've never done it and it's never mattered.

And it's pretty calm in the office. It's more peaceful now. They don't need to be so afraid of death glares originating at eye level or below. They laugh and they joke and they try so hard. Havoc smirks and laughs and jokes and Fuery titters along, pulling Breda in with him.

But it's still pretty calm in the office. There are no glares, no guns. It's sort of reassuring, they reassure themselves. No glares, no guns, good.

Except that they're never going to see those eyes so narrowed, so angry, so alive again.

Lunch arrives with little aplomb. They file neatly out, silent, not quite afraid, but more apprehensive. What to say? What to do? It's quiet and orderly and just as she wanted, for once.

Except that what she wants doesn't matter anymore. She's not here to get it.

And then it's tea break, and no one has skived. Jean hasn't finished his third pack of cigarettes, Hayate is below Breda's desk, and Roy's desk is clean. It's the perfect office.

Except that it can't ever be the perfect office. Not ever again.

It's five, and no one moves when the clock chimes. No one ever did, because you weren't dismissed till she said you were dismissed. Fuery twitches and Falman stares out the window, counting the birds on the roof of the houses opposite.

Then Roy stands. It's the most he's moved all day, because he never eats at the cafeteria, never needs to move other than for stretch breaks because food is always, always somehow on his table.

He stands, clenches his jaw, picks up his hat which he wore to work, takes up his cloak and leaves.

They shuffle out after him, sliding their papers into the out-tray on her table.

Except that she's not there to submit them. And she won't be.

Sheska comes in, two hours after they're gone, just before she's leaving from her own job. The papers are sorted neatly and deposited in the correct places. She reminds herself that it's a temporary job, that someone will take over soon.

And as the unhappy feeling coils around her stomach, as she grits her teeth in a very uncharacteristic manner, she knows.

And she's the first one to really notice.

The eighth day passes much like the seventh, not that any of them have been keeping count.

Oh no, really. Who would?

They report on time, the register is checked and submitted. They're taking turns because it's only fair that someone have to substitute for her when she's away.

They're a little more appreciative now, because gee, that's a lot of things to take note of.

Lunch is a quiet, subdued affair, because you can't joke all the time while eating - you need to chew, and there are lapses of uncomfortable silence amongst them.

But that's okay. It was always awkward when she was on leave anyway.

They'd joke the first couple of days away, then they'd be a little more serious, because she'd need an office to come back to, and they'd never hear the end of it if they all got fired for talking too loudly, burning down the office with a haphazardly thrown cigarette, or just plain got fired.

The paperwork still sorts itself. The office is still loud and Havoc is still joking. Roy chuckles with them occasionally, but the papers are signed, ordered and completed.

Then, as he stands to leave, his un-gloved hands brush the surface of her desk. His fingers pause and the room stops moving.

They can see the scar on his right hand, that thin, thin line right down the middle of the back. He looks up at them, and they're almost afraid to look back.

They don't know what they'll see.

They don't know what they'll expect to see.

It's almost as if they can't remember what it is they're so afraid of, can't remember what it is they were trying to forget, can't remember what was different.

Because nothing felt different.

It's like the air doesn't move now, like they're all puppets on strings and someone's got a really tight grip on them.

Roy raises an eyebrow and smirks. Jean chuckles and makes a joke about the Colonel, oh sorry, the General.

Nothing was different.

The day is over, the sun is setting, bright, red, and shaking.

Mustang's hands shake with them.

Alex hasn't reported to work in two weeks, and Olivier isn't too sure why she's concerned.

Oh, she's never cared about that big oaf anyway, he's just another huge lump of muscle capable of soundlessly communicating with other big lumps of muscle (like the one she just lost, a nagging thought in her brain goes) and occasionally calling her 'sister'.

Why would she bother? She has work to do, Briggs is waiting for her, and by the gods she wants to get out of this so easily sniped seat.

But that retard who's always wanted it doesn't seem to want to move at all, and she can't understand why. It's not like he's never said he wanted it. He's always said it. It was always on his lips. And now, his little band of merry men has the worst productivity of any post-war unit.

She can't understand why.

She can, but she chooses not to, because viewing Mustang as an idiot is far easier than empathizing with him.

Besides, it is much more befitting of her status of Ice Queen to do the former.

And she doesn't want to remember either.

Olivier looks out the window in the general direction of Armstrong Manor, the direction of which is very familiar seeing as her bed in Briggs is in that direction, not that anyone would know. Alex, you big idiot. She grits her teeth and snatches the next stack of papers from Miles, swearing under her breath, deciding that she'll give him ten more days to stew before she personally marches down to the Manor and kicks his ass so hard he can't sit down for a week.

She's done it before, so she can do it again.

The Ishbalan smiles weakly as he quickly ducks out of the range of Temporary Fuhrer Armstrong's sword range, which is really quite large. Something's nagging on her, and he'd hate for her to take it out on him.

He'd hate it more if it was him that was nagging on her though.

He sighs and wonders for how long more it is that he will be judged by his eye color.

Everyone's got something nagging on them, after all. Everyone, maybe except Buccaneer.

Denny Brosh scoots by outside the door, now shouldering the much heavier responsibility of Second Lieutenant and the exponential amounts of paperwork that appear to come with promotion.

First Lieutenant Ross is at the training grounds running a group of new recruits ragged. They want to meet the war heroes? Well, they've got to pass Basic Military Training first.

Besides, war makes no heroes.

It only takes them.

It's the twenty-first day, and Fuery's called in sick.

He wasn't sick yesterday. Wasn't even remotely tired, but they know. It's starting to seep into their bones, and they're starting to feel old, weary, tired.

But it isn't really feeling old, weary, or tired. They know this feeling very well.

Roy knows this feeling very well, but he shoves it to the back of his mind and studiously continues pushing his papers, completing a form in three times the time it would take him to do so on a normal day.

On a normal day…

Fuery's the first of them all, and that surprises Jean, because he'd always expected the General to be the first for it to hit home. Looks like it'd be the other way then, he muses as he puffs on what is not the third packet, but the fifth.

He's lucky it's already four, or he'd make it through six packs today and that's not good at all.

He's not really like them, he supposes. He's not like Breda, who knows but ignores, not like Falman who sees but forgets, not like Fuery who's truly that innocent and oblivious, and not like Roy, who doesn't seem to see or know anything at all.

He saw it, felt it most acutely when it happened, though perhaps not as acutely as the man most deeply entrenched in denial, but still, he knew.

So Fuery really wasn't the first one out of them, and Sheska really wasn't the first one of them all, but Jean was.

Gracia probably felt it, but Jean was most acutely aware. It hurt him then and there, and that was it. He'd be a liar to insist that was it, but he would anyway, because he was entitled to his form of denial, as was everyone else.

It's just that his denial was a different stage of denial. Because he's over that, but not over it all.

Which is why he can joke around, can laugh and can gently guide them all back to normalcy.

Before going out in the evenings and getting dead drunk at the places that'd let a wheelchair-bound man drink himself to oblivion.

It's the thirtieth, and someone finally snaps in front of all of them.

But it's not Roy.

It's General Armstrong.

"Mustang!" she barks, and Roy turns warm dark eyes towards her, his customary smirk placed on his face in that perfect, dazzling smile as he snaps to attention.

Olivier slams something down on the table. It's large, silver, and shiny, and they all know full well what that is even without having ever seen it before.

The Fuhrer's medallion.

"I, Fuhrer Olivier Mira Armstrong hereby order you to take that right now so that I can go check on my little brother and then get back to that icy outpost which I absolutely love." She glares at him determinedly, hand deceptively near her sword hilt.

"And I will hear no oppositions." She pauses, "It's what you've always wanted, isn't it?"

He looks at her as if she has gone mad, and as if he is seeing things for the first time in a long, long time.

Perhaps she has, but he definitely is.

Then, Roy snaps.

His eyes change, he swallows and his hands start to shake the way they've been doing for the past three weeks, just harder.

He stares into the silence before he catches himself and snaps back a salute, a sloppy half-hearted one that has even Fuery (who's in the office this time, it's Falman's turn to catch that bug, it seems) wide-eyed and surprised.

Olivier relaxes slightly, haughty look still perfectly preserved until she reaches forward and taps his shoulder lightly, colleague to colleague and friend to fellow friend, frown melting into a small, sympathetic smile.

"Take some time off, Mustang. You need it."

Roy does exactly that.

It's been six months, and Jean suspects that no one's in denial anymore because although Brigadier General Hawkeye's desk hasn't been touched in months, there are no papers in the in-tray, no papers in the out-tray, and nothing at all on the desk other than the sparse decorations still pinned to the shelf which they helped move to the office they all use now.

Because Amestris is now under the governance of Fuhrer Mustang, and Fuhrer Mustang needs a larger office to accommodate a smaller number of people than his previous staff of five.

The Fuhrer doesn't want to hire more personal staff, and they all know why.

(Because the only one he wants to hire is her.)

And the only one he can't hire, is her.

Work still ends at five though, and as they leave the building, the same one that they've been using for the past couple of months-which-seemed-like-years now, the sun is slowly setting.

It's red, bright, and steady.

And they sit there, on the doorsteps of what used to be home, staring out into blank space, giving themselves a little time.

It's been half a year, after all.

Half a year since a First-Lieutenant now Brigadier General-shaped hole was forcibly placed in their lives.

That's three ranks too many, but no one's complaining. No one will, because this is the one thing that Fuhrer Mustang will never compromise on.

They sit on the steps and Jean on the landing, Roy furthest back of them all, almost in the shadows of the building.

He's not Roy now, though. He hasn't been Roy for a few months already.

But Jean can deal with that, because if Roy can deal with Riza not being around, then surely he, a friend, can deal with much smaller changes.

Roy will come round, he will, given enough time.

And the sun is setting, drawing the curtains on what has been a troubling half year.

It's like they're all school kids.

School's let out, and they're waiting to be picked up.

(Except that their mother isn't there, not like all the other mothers.)

And she's never going to come.