"I thought you didn't like ice cream, Roy."
Roy glanced at Havoc, cone up, tongue out. He relinquished control just long enough for Riza to lick off a good swoop of strawberry ice cream and swallow it.
"Mmm...that's so good," she murmured.
Roy smiled, ostensibly at his companion, seated on the bench beside him. "I've acquired some new tastes since I came here," he answered. And added, "I've been told that strawberry was Riza's favourite." He let her take another mouthful before responding to Havoc's raised eyebrows. "What?"
The other man shrugged, looking away. "I don't know. I just...wonder sometimes..."
"If you're trying to live the life Hawkeye was supposed to but never got to. As some kind of penance, maybe, for being alive when she isn't."
Roy reached for his other self, but now she merely hovered in silence. He let his eyes wander over the bustle of people among the rows of tents and booths. To the left of the shaded bench he shared with Havoc, people lined up at a booth selling roasted meat chunks on skewers, while the ice cream booth across from it was doing just as brisk a business. A little farther to the right, a few booths away, he could see Armstrong looming over the crowds, dutifully carrying bags for Winry and Scieszka as they shopped.
"It's not really that," Roy said. "I mean...I suppose there's some penance involved. More than he can imagine," he added internally. "But it's something else too. Riza was always such a grounded person. That was something I never had in my own life. So I'm learning what made her that way. And maybe," he added wryly, "some of it will rub off on me."
Another mouthful of ice cream. "I love you," Riza whispered inside him. Which suddenly made it very hard to swallow.
"So is it working?" Havoc wondered, peering at him.
"A little, I think," Roy nodded, then added, "Yes, I think I've really internalized Riza's grounding influence."
"Oh, that is so bad!" Riza groaned.
He chuckled and stood up, taking his own lick at the ice cream. "C'mon, Jean, I think it's almost time for Vato's race, isn't it?"
Towering above the two rows of booths selling crafts, homemade foods, and general refreshments, a big barn housed the large animal displays. To one side of it, smaller pens accommodated other animals entered in competitions. And on the other side of the large barn lay an open field of short grass. To this field Roy and Havoc now repaired, to watch a foot race and maybe some games to come after it.
Vato Falman had put his name in for one of the foot races almost as soon as they'd arrived at the fair that morning. And through the rest of the morning and into this afternoon, the news had spread, about this military outsider who thought he could compete with the locals.
When the two newcomers joined the other men of their party on the sidelines of the field, they found Falman stripped to his undershirt, doing stretching exercises. Fuery and Breda, meanwhile, seemed to be embroiled in some kind of good-natured argument with Ed, as Alphonse observed.
"You know it would be cheating, don't you?" Fuery said.
"But who'd know?" Ed returned. "Would you tell them?"
Breda held up his hands, taking a mock step backwards. "I'm not getting in the middle of this for anything."
"And what, exactly," Roy wondered, "is Ed planning to cheat at?"
Alphonse flashed a smile, his colour high. "He was talking about entering the weight-lifting contest, without revealing he's got an automail arm and leg. But," the young man added firmly, "he was only joking."
Roy raised an eyebrow at Ed, watching him over the cone as he let Riza have another lick.
Ed grinned. "Of course I wasn't going to actually do it," he snorted.
"Well, good," Roy drawled. "For a minute, there, I thought you might be planning to undermine all the credibility I've built up here, the past few months." He looked at Falman, who smiled before he bent over to press his palms to the ground. "Don't worry about me," the other man remarked to his knees.
The racers were called to assemble just as Winry and Scieszka rushed up, followed dutifully by Armstrong, laden with canvas bags.
"Are we late?" Scieszka cried. "Tell me we haven't missed it!"
Fuery took her hand and pointed to the far end of the field. "No, they haven't even lined up yet. There's plenty of time."
The racers, ten or twelve in all, gradually moved to the ends of their assigned lanes, which were marked along the field with coloured flags tied to stakes. Falman was easily discernible, standing at least a head taller than the next tallest runner.
"We're a short people in this area," Riza remarked.
"But very sturdy and strong," Roy added.
"Stocky and barrel-shaped, you mean?"
"The last thing you ever were," he said warmly, "was barrel-shaped."
"Though I seem to be getting a little flabby now," she said, moving his hand to rest on his stomach. He chuckled, turning back to watch the racers' final preparations.
"Going to share the joke?" Havoc said, drawing Roy's startled eyes to his face.
"Oh. Well...I was just remembering something Riza once said about the people in this area. About being stocky but not barrel-shaped. You sort of had to be there."
Armstrong had set all his packages down near the edge of the field, and now stood behind the row of watchers as they all hugged the sideline. Falman would be running past them in the second lane from the edge. The racers stood poised at the starting line, and a man at the corner raised his arm. A shot retorted through the air as he shouted, "Go!" and the racers were off.
Falman burst forward, instantly in the lead, but almost immediately a second runner, a young man three lanes over, began to catch up. The crowds on the sidelines screamed for their favourites, a cheer swelling to a frenzy as a third runner slowly caught up the two leaders. The pounding of running feet mixed into the shouting like emphatic punctuation. By midfield, Falman's original competitor was neck and neck with him.
Or, thought Roy, hilariously, neck and mid-chest, since the guy really wasn't very tall-
"Oh, shut up!" Riza laughed in his head, then joined her external voice to the shouts of the crowd: "Go Falman!"
The third runner put on a sprint even as the second pulled slightly ahead of Falman. Just over a quarter of the field to go. The screaming of the crows was raucous as the runners' arms and legs rose and fell with fierce rhythm. In a swift flash, they passed Roy's vantage point, the racers' harsh gasps rising and swiftly truncating in a bizarre doppler effect, Falman and the third runner dead even, the second a mere two feet ahead of them.
Approaching the end now–hard to tell from this angle—
"Is he catching up?"
"I can't see!"
Arms thrown in the air as the shouting swelled to a crescendo – the winner – Falman's first rival. But—
"He's second! He's second!" Winry and Scieszka yelled at each other, jumping up and down, and the rest of their group cheered. At the end of the field, Falman walked over to the first- and third-place runners and shook hands and talked for a moment.
"That was great," Havoc said. "Will there be any more races?"
"Horse and wagon," Riza supplied.
"I gather," Roy remarked, "that we've got horses and wagons next. I don't think I'll stay for those, though. It's almost time to get home and prepare for the hay ride at suppertime."
As Falman strolled back to the group, Breda called, "You let him win, didn't you?"
"Not a chance," Falman shook his head. "Those guys were fast. I could hardly keep ahead of the one behind me."
Alphonse looked back toward the end of the field nearest the large barn. "Better get away from the sidelines," he said. "We're going to have company."
The drivers had already begun to lead their horses and wagons out from a space between the barn and the pens, where they'd been waiting. In single file, they moved along the side of the field toward the starting line at the other end. The wagons were relatively small – probably designed for the races in fact, rather than for really carrying much – and this meant that only one horse was hitched to each wagon.
"But they still churn up the field pretty well," Riza remarked. "That's why they hold the foot races first."
Roy backed away from the edge of the field with most of the rest of the audience, to make way for the procession of wagons and horses. "Those who aren't staying for this race," he called to his own people, "we've got at least one car heading back to the house-"
A mild thud – a resounding pop! and the sound of shattering glass— "Oh no!" someone cried—
"Scieszka!" Riza shouted, and leaped forward.
And Scieszka – turning toward the familiar voice and away from a nearby horse rearing behind her – eyes widening in shocked surprise as Roy hurtled toward her and threw her to the ground. They rolled twice, three times over the grass, as people shouted around them and the horse's driver yanked at the reins, even as its hooves smashed onto the spot where Scieszka had just stood. Where jam from a couple of broken jars had started seeping through the canvas bag Scieszka had dropped.
Riza rolled Roy's body away and sat up. She leaned forward, helping Scieszka to sit as well. The young woman straightened her glasses (remarkably unbroken) and shivered, looking around.
"Roy – thank you – I – I – well," she forced a bright tone into her voice. "That was exciting, wasn't it?"
Roy tried to answer, fought to say something, but he had no control of his body. He watched his hand reach out and rest on Scieszka's hair. Even through that light touch, he could sense her trembling.
The young woman faltered, "The – the thing is – someone shouted at me. Did you hear it? I – I could have sworn the voice was—"
Roy seemed to flood back into his body as Riza fled. He jerked back into control with a gasp, then closed his eyes. "I know, Scieszka," he murmured, "I thought I heard her too. It happens sometimes." He opened his eyes and gave her a crooked smile. "It's one of the reasons I stay here."
She stared at him, wide-eyed, as the others finally reached them.
"Scieszka!" Fuery cried, falling to his knees beside her. "Are you all right? I should have been there! I—"
"Oh, now, don't start that," she said, patting his shoulder matter-of-factly. "I'm fine. Roy's got good reflexes."
"I'll say," Ed commented, his hand wound tightly with Winry's. "I've never seen you move that fast before, Mustang."
"And anyway," Scieszka straightened her glasses again, "I should pay more attention to what I'm doing." She looked up, way up, at Armstrong as he came up behind the rest of the group, the offending canvas bag in one hand, oozing red goo. "It's a shame about the jam, though."
Winry grimaced. "The jam's not important. All that matters is that you're okay."
"And the jam is really nothing," Breda said. "We can buy you another couple of jars before we leave."
Winry added, "I think I'm ready to get back to the house for a while, before we go on the hayride. We need to catch our breath. You're really okay, Scieszka?"
The other young woman got up and brushed off her slacks, her young fiancé's arm firmly around her shoulders the whole time. "I'm just fine. Don't bother about me. We're military, remember? We laugh at things like this." But she kept herself securely within that protective circle as she spoke.
Ed stepped to Roy's side and reached a hand down. "Good job, Roy," he said. "Let me help you up."
Roy lifted his knees and wrapped his arms around them. "Thanks, Ed, but you go on. I'll be there in a minute."
The other hesitated, eyes narrowing. "You okay? She's right – we're military. This sort of thing is minor, compared to other things that have happened to us."
"I know. But give me a minute anyway." Roy met his eyes. "Please?"
Ed paused a moment longer, before nodding and turning away. Havoc waited an instant longer, scrutinizing his friend's face, before following Ed. "All right, let's get going, everybody – he's coming, just let him get his balance back – let's move it!"
Roy closed his eyes, as the sounds swirled around him. The creak of wagons and the clomp of horses' hooves as they started to move again. Someone apologizing profusely to Scieszka while she apologized simultaneously for dropping the bag of jam jars and spooking the horse. The swish of people's feet on the grass.
The pounding of his heart, that hadn't yet settled down.
"I'm very sorry," Riza spoke at last. "I had no time."
"I know," he whispered.
"I had to act, or she would have been crushed. I didn't have time to ask for permission."
"I know. It's all right."
"Maybe the others didn't hear my voice when I yelled. Maybe—"
"That part doesn't matter. It could be explained somehow. Don't worry."
A lengthy pause. "But you're still upset. I can feel it. What should I have done?"
"It's nothing you've done!" Roy burst out, then bit his lip, cutting off his external voice. "It's me, not you. It's always me. You need your own body, and I let it die. And locked you into this hell instead, where you have to ask 'permission' just to move." Roy bowed his head, pressing the heels of his hands over his eyes.
"Roy...we've been through all this. I'm sorry. I didn't mean to make you feel this way."
"I know. But I can't help–"
Sometimes she knew him better than he knew himself. She cut firmly into what had once been a familiar refrain: "Roy Mustang, do not start down that road again. We are what we are, now, and we're dealing with it." Her tone softened very slightly. "We have guests, Roy. We wanted them to have a good time. Let's not worry about this now. Please?"
He lowered his hands, leaning them back onto the grass as he stretched out his legs. For a moment he held his face up to the sun, eyes closed. "You're right, as always. I'll behave. But..."
"I know the 'but', my love. It's all right. Let's go."
"Mister Mustang? Are you all right?"
Roy opened his eyes to see two men bending over him, peering at him in concern. He wasn't quite sure who they were, even if they knew him. Probably a couple of the volunteers at the fair. "Hello," he said. "I just needed to catch my breath."
"Would you like us to help you up, sir?" asked one of the volunteers, his gruff face worried under the bill of a ball cap.
Roy glanced aside, to where some of the wagons had finally reached the end of the field and were beginning to line up. He could hear the clops of the horses' feet in the clear air. He smiled wryly, "A diplomatic way of asking if I'll get out of the way so they can race. You're right, this isn't exactly the best place to meditate. Sorry about that."
As he stood, the other volunteer, a slightly younger man, interjected, "Oh no, Mister Mustang, we didn't want to hurry you off if you'd been injured. That was a pretty impressive dive you made, if you don't mind my saying."
Roy stood and brushed grass off his pants. "Thanks," he smiled. "At least I know I can still do it when I need to, eh?" He patted each of them on a shoulder. "And thanks for worrying. You can get the race going now and I'll get out of the way."
The others weren't very far ahead of him, and both he and Riza chuckled to see that Ed and Havoc had lagged even further, watching over their shoulders.
"Like a couple of babysitters," Roy remarked.
"Well, you do need looking after."
"For a little longer, at least," he agreed. "Though I think you do a better job than all of them combined. But anyway, we'll give our friends a really good weekend, and make up for this little lapse. And then, when they're gone..."
"Yes," Riza greed softly inside him. "When they're gone..."