A Fullmetal Alchemist fan fiction by Lady Norbert
A/N: My friends, I thank you for your patience. Here it is, finally, the last installment of the Elemental Chess Trilogy. I can't thank all my readers enough for how much love and interest you have shown for the trilogy; now here is the promised prequel.
This story's a bit different from the rest of the series, because it doesn't exactly have a plot. It's more of a 'this is how we lived in the war' kind of thing. I hope you enjoy it nevertheless. In keeping with the pattern seen in the other installments, the title and all chapter titles in this story are actual military terms which have been in use for over fifty years.
Special thanks go out to jellyjay, my beta reader; to enemytosleep, the moderator of the FMA Big Bang for which this was written; and to Ginny and Ariel, my assigned fan artists, who made beautiful art to go with this story! You can view their pieces on their respective deviantArt accounts - Arielphf and SeeInBlackAndWhite.
Triumvirate: Derived from the Latin meaning "three men," this is a formal or informal arrangement in which three individuals control a regime, ostensibly with each holding equal power.
Chapter One: Home Front
Home Front: The informal term commonly used to describe the civilian population of a nation at war as an active support system of their military.
Riza is just brushing nineteen when she must accept the reality that her father is on his deathbed.
He's been coughing up blood for some time, finally refusing to get out of bed. The doctor has attended him twice, and refused to come again after Berthold's rudeness on the second visit. She finds it hard to blame him (the doctor, that is), but it was nice, however briefly, to have someone else participating in Berthold's care.
Her father doesn't want to be treated anyway. He's somehow smug in his dying days, as though there is a peculiar sort of dignity to be had by allowing the illness to conquer him gradually without fighting back. All he really wants, of course, is to be with his wife again. It's one of the only two things he has wanted for as long as Riza can remember; the other he has long since achieved, as the tattoo on her back would bear witness if anyone were allowed to take its testimony.
Occasionally he mutters something before she gets out of earshot. It isn't altogether intelligible, but neither is it altogether incomprehensible either. Eventually she pieces together enough barely-caught words to scrabble together an apology in her mind. He is, in his reluctant and half-hearted and slightly sulky way, sorry for how he has always treated her - or not treated her, either one. It isn't much of an apology, but she knows it's the only one she'll ever receive and so she accepts it.
It isn't just a fragmented apology that she gets out of him, however.
At first she wonders if it's only wishful thinking on her own part. But no; there are certain hints, little nudges in his verbal cues. He won't put the actual request into words, but she figures him out. There's something he wants. Usually he just demands whatever it is that's struck his fancy; he seems to think that he's entitled to do that, what with the dying and everything. But there's one particular thing he wants and he simply will not ask for it, as though he's ashamed of the affection it suggests he holds for another person.
As it happens, father and daughter both want the same thing, and she makes a shy telephone call to Central City one afternoon while he's resting. It takes a few minutes of transferring before the call makes its way through the proper channels of the training barracks, a few minutes in which she almost loses her nerve entirely and hangs up, but she forces herself to be patient.
"Mustang speaking." The cadet's voice is clipped, official-sounding, and more self-assured than she knows him to actually be.
"Mr. Mustang...this is Riza Hawkeye."
She hates to call him Mr. Mustang. They've grown up together, sort of, and she feels like they should be on some kind of equal footing. And she knows that he would only too willingly let her call him Roy. She doesn't quite dare, though; when he first came to their house six-odd years ago, she was instructed by her father to call the apprentice "Mr. Mustang" and with Riza, old habits die hard and not without a fight.
He's Roy in her secret heart, however.
There is a pause on the line. When he speaks, his voice is different; a gentleness has crept into the words. "How are you?"
"Well enough, thank you, and yourself?"
"Getting by." He sounds a little wistful. "It's good to hear from you."
"I wish I were calling under more pleasant circumstances, but...it's Father."
She explains the situation. He has a week, if that, and she honestly thinks he would like to see his old apprentice one more time. "I apologize for the abruptness, and if it's not convenient I understand, but I thought -"
"No, no. You were right to call." He sighs. "I'll be on the first possible train."
The Hawkeyes live in a crumbling manor out in the middle of nowhere, or at least that's how it has always seemed to Riza. They have always lived there, apparently; the house is the ancestral family home, dating from some period in the distant past when some forebear or other actually was somebody. She and her father are all that remain of the line, and whatever fortune they once held that enabled the purchase of the sizeable estate has long since disappeared, the last shreds of it doubtless having been funneled into Berthold's obsessive research.
To Riza, the house has always been empty and sad, as though the building itself grieves for the loss of the bloodline. She barely remembers her mother, who might once have brought some semblance of joy to the narrow corridors and creaking stairs, and if she ever had grandparents or anything of the sort, she has long since forgotten them entirely. For nearly her whole life it has been just the two of them, father and daughter, the last of the Hawkeyes - he a bleak and craggy figure, unaware of the ridicule he inspires in his neighbors, and she the hatchling he alternately resents and ignores. She used to wonder if he would have been happier had she been a boy, rather than a girl who bore entirely too much resemblance to her dead mother, but ultimately she decided that her real crime lay in existing at all.
It was a lonely youth, spent either in the company of a father who would rather she were anywhere but there or in the presence of schoolmates who had little more tolerance for her than he did. She was naturally clever, and rather pretty, but skinny and bashful and skittish. It was hard to say how she might have fared throughout adolescence, if not for the fact that one day a handsome boy from Central knocked on her door and announced that he was there to learn alchemy from her father. For the first time, Riza's black and white world was splashed with color, and her solitary hours had someone to fill them who even seemed like he wanted to be there.
She loves her father with a kind of pathetic tenacity, as though determined to give him what he has ever refused to accept. Roy, on the other hand, she loves with a sort of quiet fierceness that sometimes alarms her. Her heart is warm, despite years in the frigid climate of Berthold's cold and occasionally cruel behavior, and almost desperate to belong to someone who wants it. Whether Roy does or ever did want the thing, she isn't entirely sure, but he has never pushed her away, not once. That alone has been enough to secure her undying loyalty.
She meets him at the door, and thinks that he's rather unfairly handsome in his blue uniform. It's not a precisely affectionate reunion, but she is happy to see him even in spite of the reason for his visit, and by all appearances he is happy to see her too.
He is a military man, now, or will be once he completes his basic training. He's trying to get into the State Alchemy program, which will give him access to all sorts of research opportunities and grants - she likes to tease him that he's lazy but the truth is that when he finds something he wants to study, he pursues it relentlessly. She lightly adjusts his epaulets and gives him a quick smile, then sends him to see her father.
She has known for some time that her father is dying, but that does not make her entirely ready to accept the reality when he does, in fact, expire less than an hour later. She hears his violent coughing, and hurries to see if he needs anything, only to find that he has tumbled out of the bed and into Roy's arms.
They call for an ambulance, but even if the house weren't so remote, they both know that it's already much too late. Riza will have to learn to live with the fact that she didn't get to say goodbye. In the short term, she stays up to an indecent hour scrubbing Roy's uniform, which is stained with disturbingly large quantities of blood that the coughing had expelled from Berthold's lungs.
Everything will have to be sold, now, to cover the mounting debts that have threatened to engulf the household for a long time. A lawyer and an accountant come and make lists and mutter to each other and work out details that Riza quite simply doesn't have the energy to sort. All Riza will be able to keep for herself are her clothes and a few small family mementos that have no value whatsoever to anyone else. What she will do now, she has no idea yet. The house is going up for auction in two weeks, by which time she will have to have decided. She helps Roy smuggle her father's alchemy books into his trunk, before anyone has the chance to catalogue the collection; she knows that her father would have wanted him to have them. He stays in the house with her, sits with her in the silence to keep it from being too oppressive, and she only loves him more.
The costs of Berthold's burial are, to her surprise, shouldered by Roy himself. He shakes his head at her when she tries, albeit feebly, to protest. "He was my teacher. It's the least I can do." She doesn't have the words to express her gratitude, nor her suddenly overwhelming distress at the realization that, in perfect truth, he is all she has in the world anymore.
So they take her father, the two of them, to the overgrown cemetery where her mother has been waiting for him all these years. As they stand there, looking down at the pair of graves, she thanks him. They have a little talk about his career path, about his efforts to become a State Alchemist, and he confesses that while he knows he can pass the exam, he hasn't really mastered any particular form of alchemy that's likely to impress.
Then Roy starts talking about the difference he wants to make...his dream of an Amestris that can live in peace, with its citizens happy. She watches his face, sees the conviction in his eyes, which abruptly shifts into embarrassment. He thinks she must believe he's childish, or crazy, or something.
She shakes her head. "I think it's a wonderful dream," she says, and she thinks a little. "Can I entrust my back to that dream?"
It's an odd turn of phrase, and she knows it, and his black eyes are startled and slightly wary. "What do you mean?"
"I mean that I'll give you my father's research."
His expression clouds somewhat. "He said you had it," he admits. "And that I should ask you for it. But it just seemed like too much to ask at a time like this."
"It's asking a lot, but…I think…I think he really wanted you to have it."
Roy is confused when she tells him there are no notes for him to study. "At least, not the sort you mean," she clarifies, even though that doesn't clarify anything at all.
"What sort, then?"
"I don't have my father's research, Mr. Mustang. In a sense…I am my father's research. I'm his repository."
"I don't understand."
They return to the house, and she leads him into the sitting room where, to what she can only imagine must be his profound bewilderment, she turns away from him and sheds the black jacket and shell pink blouse she wore for the burial. The crimson and black array all but screams at him from where it spreads across her pale skin.
"He…my God, Riza, what did he do to you?"
"He asked me to keep his secrets," she replies quietly. "I didn't know what he meant until after I agreed."
There is silence. She has her arms folded in a protective barrier across her breasts, and she finds herself tightening the grip. "How old were you?" he asks at last.
"It was a few months before you came to us."
"You consented to this?"
"Well…I didn't say no," she hedges. Not that she'd thought, at the time, that she had a choice. "He said I was the only one he could trust."
"I'm…so sorry he put you through that. It must have…really hurt."
"It did, but it doesn't anymore. Should I…lie down?" There is a sofa nearby.
"What? Oh. Oh, right."
Funny; she has to smile. The way he says the words, it's almost like an audible blush.