Two to be Steady – Part One

How Roy and Hughes might have met and become friends. The starting thought was How did Roy get to be like that? Hughes seemed a reasonable answer. Drama With Occasional Porn, I-3, spoilers eps 3 and 15.

Character(s): Maas Hughes, Roy Mustang

I

When Maas Hughes moseyed into the refectory the first sight to meet his eyes was the unpleasant one of First Lieutenant George Cutter and his cronies bullying another new officer.

He could see right away what had drawn them. This one looked pretty young, slightly built, and was huddled just a bit into his overcoat as if trying to keep the whole world from looking at him. Of course it had the opposite effect on all the lowlife.

I can’t eat a decent lunch with this going on, Maas decided, and started through the lunch-time crowd toward the scene.

He got there just in time to hear Cutter sneer, “…heard Gran transferred you right off, too. Maybe you aren’t as good as he thought you’d be.”

The young man finally stirred, unfolding his arms. The coat slipped off as his shoulders straightened and he laid his right hand, palm down, on the table.

There was a circle on the back of his glove.

Silence spread out like ripples in water after a dropped stone. Maas pursed his lips, seeing the blank chill in those dark eyes now focused on Cutter. This man had not just come to the end of his rope, he’d deliberately dropped it. This could just get bad.

And then he looked at Cutter and couldn’t help but burst out laughing. Cutter looked like a melting ice cube he was sweating so hard, and white showed all the way around his eyes. Heads turned at the unexpected sound, and Maas strolled the rest of the way to the table, slapping Cutter on the shoulder in passing.

“Looks like you have a real talent for picking the wrong target, there, George.” Maas plonked himself down in the chair opposite the young Alchemist. “Why don’t you just run along, before I spare our new friend here the bother?” Just to drive the point home, Maas flicked out one of his knives for a moment. Cutter broke and scurried off, his tiny gang of sycophants on his heels. Maas shook his head, still chuckling.

“What a loser.” He squinted at the exposed circle. “The Flame Alchemist, hm? Well, no wonder you look like death warmed over.”

The Alchemist blinked at him. Maas glanced at the insignia. “And it’ll probably be days before it catches up with him that, in addition to frying him, you could have him up for threatening a superior officer. Too bad I won’t be there to see his expression.” Maas sighed, wistfully.

“Why wouldn’t you?”

Maas smiled to have finally gotten some words out of the man, even if they were a bit flat. “He tried that stunt on me when I was first assigned at Central. Like I said, he has a talent for the wrong target. He stays as clear of me as he can these days.”

The Alchemist accepted this with a nod. After another moment of silence Maas tried a new approach.

“I know the food isn’t the best, but you should probably try to eat a little more than that,” he nodded at the untouched tray.

A head shake met this suggestion. “I was actually just about to leave. I have some practice scheduled for myself.”

If Maas had ever seen someone who really didn’t need to be alone with himself, it was this person. “Practice, huh? Do you mind an audience?” he asked casually.

Finally, the Alchemist actually focused on him. Maas smiled at the question in his look, letting just a hint of challenge slip into the expression. It seemed to do the trick, because the Alchemist’s chin came up just a bit.

“No, I don’t particularly mind,” he answered.

Maas grinned and offered his hand. “Well then, Maas Hughes, pleased to meet you.”

The Alchemist reached out his right hand automatically, pulled up sharply like a stumble, but completed the gesture after all and clasped Maas hand. “Roy Mustang. Likewise.”

And you really sound it, Maas reflected wryly. But, what the hell, it was about time for his monthly act of charity.

Practice, in this case, took place outside. A reasonable precaution, considering that Mustang seemed bound and determined to see how many different ways he could blow things up. And, indeed, it seemed an audience didn’t matter to him. He focused on his targets as if he were completing the last step in creating the Philosopher’s Stone. Maas might as well not have been there, except that Mustang never actually aimed through him.

Twelve hay bales later, Maas was moved to a question. “Wouldn’t a wider range of materials be more useful?”

“If I was working on my range it would,” Mustang replied, a bit distracted. “But this is for precision.”

Maas surveyed the blizzard of charred straw around them. “Precision. Of course.” As he’d half hoped, that pricked Mustang into a more detailed response.

“How much of the straw has actually been burned?” the Alchemist asked, dark eyes snapping but tone cool.

Maas took a longer look, estimating the scattered straw against the intact bales Mustang hadn’t gotten to yet. “Between half and a third,” he guessed.

“Precisely,” a tight smile, “and straw is considerably more flammable than… other things.”

People or buildings, Maas filled in that sudden catch. “Huh. So how can you burn something lightly? Fire is there or not, isn’t it?” he probed, hoping that his subject wasn’t about to clam up again.

Apparently technical details were safe, because Mustang’s mouth relaxed from its hard line and he actually smiled a bit. “What I transmute is actually air, increasing certain elements to make a path for the fire to move along from the initial spark.” He waggled his fingers indicatively. “Oxygen is easiest, but different elements react differently. By adjusting them one way or another, at one remove from the target or another, I can change the properties of the fire also. I’m pretty sure that I can evacuate the air from around a target, too, without ever burning it, but that’s taking longer to do in practice.” Mustang actually grinned. “If I want to do something like simply incinerating…” he looked at one of the remaining bales and snapped his fingers.

The explosion that rocked the yard left only a smear of ash in its wake.

“…then that’s a lot easier.”

Maas grinned, too. Ah, if he can still show off he’ll be fine, he decided. He was a bit relieved, because he had been seriously considering whether he should bundle Mustang off to a doctor before he lost it. He’d seen a couple people returning from Ishvar who were broken, and the idea of an Alchemist in that situation was not a comfortable one. But Mustang was probably just a little torn around the edges.

“Impressive,” he admitted cheerfully. “With your dedication I can see why Colonel Gran promoted you straight up to Captain.”

Maas started back at the look the flashed over Mustang’s face. Rage, disgust, contempt, horror, all tangled together and were gone. He sucked in a breath. “Or not. You really don’t like Gran, I take it?”

Mustang pursed his lips.

“I mean, you looked like you wanted him standing where that hay bale used to be,” Maas continued before shutting up in recognition that the shock was about to start him babbling. That look had been worlds beyond the one Mustang had given Cutter, and that one had been bad enough.

Come to think of it…

“That’s why you finally lost it with Cutter, isn’t it?” Maas hazarded. “When he mentioned Gran.”

Mustang gave him a long look, eyed the Intelligence tabs on Maas uniform, and raised a sardonic brow.

“Oh, come on, you don’t really think I’m investigating you?” Maas was indignant. “I’m a lot smoother than that, thanks so much! Besides, from what I hear Gran can be enough of a bastard to excuse anyone hating him.”

The brow stayed up.

“And on top of that,” Maas huffed, “if you really want to keep a lid on it just being quiet isn’t enough. You should have immediately come out with some harmless reason to be pissed off, like he took the last helping of spinach or something.”

Mustang tilted his head, suddenly thoughtful. “Really?”

Maas put a hand over his face and started laughing. “Yes, really,” he managed. “Good grief, is that what it takes to open you up? I show you how to be successfully insubordinate and you’re fine being friendly?” He lowered his hand just in time to catch the next interesting expression. Irony, this one, shuttered quickly. Mustang said nothing.

“Well,” Maas sighed, “if that’s the case, I should probably mention at this point that you’re doing it again.”

Mustang’s head came up, eyes a little wide. Way too expressive for his own good, this one. Maas was familiar with the problem, since he had the same one, but he’d learned how to keep his expression from matching his thoughts too closely. Mustang obviously hadn’t. Maas tried for a casual tone.

“So, what insubordination did you already successfully get away with?”

Mustang pressed his lips together and shook his head.

“Look, I swear I’m not investigating!” Maas protested.

“I believe you.”

The quiet statement shut Maas up, even while the inward look that went with it made him wild to find out what was going on.

“It isn’t my secret. That’s all.” Mustang smiled, a much more fragile look than the grin. “Thanks for the tip, though.”

I was right the first time! Maas groused to himself as Mustang turned back to his hay. He really needs to talk to someone before whatever he won’t talk about sends him ’round the bend. Maas knew perfectly well, though, that his silent complaints were merely a last ditch effort to keep “someone” from being him.

Because now he was curious.

II

Roy had no idea just what had caused First Lieutenant Maas Hughes to decide that he, Roy, needed a friend. Or, possibly, an overseer, because Roy swore that Hughes had his schedule clocked and mapped.

Maybe it was just reflex. Hughes was in Intelligence, after all, and practically drooling for field assignments. Anyone with eyes could see that Headquarters life bored Hughes to tears. Roy couldn’t imagine what the man’s superiors thought they were about, keeping him cooped up here.

So maybe it was just boredom.

Whatever the cause, Hughes popped up in the damndest places, dragging Roy out of his rooms, out of the library, out of his office and off to get food in the city, or a drink, or just a walk. The only place he left Roy alone was when he was practicing, and that only after Roy had threatened to make Hughes a target.

It had been the first time in months he’d even been able to think something like that as a joke.

Today, it was the library.

“Yo, Mustang!”

Hughes cringed, theatrically, in the cross-fire of the librarian’s glare and Roy’s. He tiptoed over to Roy’s table. “What’s on your menu today, O Great Scholar?” he whispered.

Roy favored him with a resigned look. “I was reading history,” he murmured.

“Darts will be much more fun,” Hughes declared, hauling Roy unceremoniously out of his chair. “Think of it as target practice.”

Roy couldn’t help a smile as he was towed out of the library. The more he got his head back in some kind of order, the clearer it was to him that Hughes and his interruptions had done a lot to keep him from crawling into a hole and brooding himself into useless oblivion.

Even if it was a little unnerving that Hughes always seemed to know where he was.

“So, what’s so interesting about reading history, which is all about the stupid mistakes of dead people, when there are live people all around you making brand new stupid mistakes right where you can watch?” Hughes wanted to know.

“Are they new?” Roy asked back.

Hughes eyed him and clearly decided to skip straight to the end of this debate. “If people really could avoid mistakes by learning from history, would we be where we are now?”

A grin stretched Roy’s mouth. This was one of the things he liked about talking with Hughes; the man could think and argue. “Yes, we would, because everyone learns not to make some mistakes, and then doesn’t listen to other people explaining about the other mistakes that they learned not to make.”

“What, you want a steering committee for the world? Or are you just bucking for the General Staff, personally?”

Roy smoothed his expression and, following Hughes’ advice from the day they met, said lightly, “Something like that.”

From the gleam in Hughes’ eye Roy didn’t think he’d escaped all notice, but Hughes didn’t push it.

And that was the other thing hanging around with Hughes was good for. Practice.

It was a good evening, though, and Roy didn’t mind too badly that Hughes beat him at darts; Roy was, slowly, getting better. The act of aiming didn’t make his hand shake any longer.

It was closing on midnight when one of the other patrons challenged Hughes to a match.

Roy was used to seeing the long lines of Hughes’ face relaxed in a lazy grin. Sardonic, at the most. He’d never seen the cold, focused look that flickered there now, before Hughes turned a wide smile on the challenger.

“Sure thing! My frien’ here just isn’ a challenge, you know?”

Hughes speech hadn’t been slurred like that five seconds ago, either. Roy sat back, making sure his own face was blank and watched.

Hughes lost two rounds, narrowly, with what looked a great deal like drunken distress. By that time Roy was expecting the offer of a “friendly wager” to make the last round “interesting”. He had to keep his beer in front of his face to conceal his amused disgust at the stock dialogue. Hughes agreed. The challenger threw carefully, making a very good score, and turned to Hughes with a triumphant smirk.

Hughes smiled back, narrow eyed, and his speech was clear as glass. “For the end of this, you know, I think I want to use my own.” One of his small, evil looking knives appeared between his fingers. He barely looked at the dartboard as he threw it, to land dead center.

After a moment of frozen silence, the challenger slid the money they had bet toward Hughes and left without a word.

“That wasn’t very nice,” Roy chuckled as Hughes sat back down.

Hughes sniffed. “When someone’s planning to cheat you, nice doesn’t come into it.”

“Point,” Roy admitted. “But how did you know so fast?”

A bit of the hardness returned. “Are you kidding? They’ve been watching us almost since we got here. And anyone who doesn’t know me would expect me to be pretty drunk by now.”

Roy considered his friend for a moment. He hadn’t really thought Hughes had that twisty of a mind, but taking into account tonight’s performance… “Were you playing under your game this whole time?” he asked evenly.

Hughes gave him a pained look. “Give me some credit, Mustang. You’d be ticked off if I did, and you’re a lot more dangerous than them.”

Roy looked away. “No, I’m not. You know I wouldn’t do something like that.”

Hughes was silent for a few moments, looking like he was weighing something. Then the cold expression returned full force and he leaned forward. “Yes, you are. Not to me, no, but I’ve seen it a few times. That look you get. And let me tell you, Mustang, if you don’t do something with that much rage you will lose it some day.”

Roy let his own cold come to the surface, the cold that had begun to grow the day he closed his mouth on the news of Dr. Marco’s desertion. Truth for truth. “What makes you think I’m not doing something with it?” he asked softly.

Hughes’ eyes narrowed, and his mouth tilted. “I did wonder about that,” he admitted.

“I thought you might have,” Roy agreed.

Hughes sat back, laughing. “You’re a stubborn one, all right. All this time just to confirm what I knew the day we met.”

“I should give everything away without seeing a return?” Mustang asked. “Not what you should expect of any alchemist.”

“Fair enough. Oh, and about the whole keeping up a cover thing?”

Roy raised an eyebrow.

“Just cultivate the face you’ve got on now,” Hughes recommended.

“Hughes…”

“Maas, already,” Hughes cut in.

Roy was too intent to argue, which, when he thought about it later, was probably the idea. “Maas, then, this is exactly what I don’t want known.”

Hughes… Maas squinted at him. “You’ve never looked in the mirror when you’re like this, have you?” he asked.

“I beg your pardon?”

“Didn’t think so. Look, it doesn’t make you look harmless, but you aren’t harmless and very few people will think you are no matter how sweet you look.”

Roy glared.

“That one’s good, too,” Maas grinned. “The point is, when you look like that you’re a lot less readable.”

Roy rubbed his forehead, feeling a headache coming on. “Maas. Why are you coaching me in how to be unreadable and as good as telling me that you’ll help me do whatever I’m doing?”

Maas propped his chin on his fist. “You want the truth?”

“Always.” Roy’s voice was sharp.

Maas teeth gleamed briefly. “I’m curious. And you’re doing something covert, which is my specialty. And having known you for a few months I think whatever you’re doing will be something I would appreciate.”

Roy thought about that. Maas was, in his own phrase, laid back and, in Roy’s estimate, cynical. On the one hand, that would probably keep him from being horrified by what Roy wanted to see done. On the other, it would also probably make him skeptical about the scope of Roy’s plans.

And then he thought of that cold, hard focus he’d seen on Maas’ face tonight. It seemed he wasn’t the only one at the table who cultivated a mask, because that look had overwhelming drive and power behind it.

“I suppose you might appreciate it at that,” Roy said slowly.

“Of course! Now, don’t feel you have to tell me anything, Roy,” Maas assured him expansively, “after all, it’ll be much more fun to figure it out myself.”

“Indeed?” Roy couldn’t stop a wicked smile at the thought. If Maas thought he had all the upper hand… “Well, then, perhaps I’ll see if I can make it more… interesting for you.”

Everyone else in the bar probably thought that the two laughing young officers were just drunk.

TBC