Follow My Number
If I walk down this hallway, tonight,
It's too quiet,
So I pad through the dark
And call you on the phone
Push your old numbers
And let your house ring
Til I wake your ghost.
Let him walk down your hallway
It's not this quiet
Slide down your receiver
Sprint across the wire
Follow my number
Slide into my hand.
It's the blaze across my nightgown
It's the phone's ring.
I think last night
You were driving circles around me.
--Kristin Hersh w/ Michael Stipe, "Your Ghost"
"You have to go home sometime, you know." Riza was half-in, half-out the door of Roy's office, file folders under one arm bristling with handwritten notes. "You keep working late nights and someone's going to report you for being mentally disturbed."
"Very funny," Roy said, preoccupied with the paperwork in front of him, every item stamped with angry red urgent letters at least once. Behind him, the fall afternoon had slipped from indeterminate gray to raw black. The wind raveled leaves off the trees and sent occasional spatters of rain on the plate-glass window with a sound like distant gunfire. The day had not been pleasant at dawning, and by now was downright surly. It was a day to avoid coming into work if at all possible, and if not, to hurry home snug as soon as one could manage. The old Roy Mustang would have been all too happy to find something leggy and blond to keep him company, or at the very least, an old friend to do the same.
Roy was a touch short on old friends at the moment. "I won't be as disturbed as I will be tomorrow if I come in with this still sitting here waiting on me. Accompanied by any number of Brass with no love for me."
Riza shifted her weight in the doorway, trying to make the work she was taking home with her seem like a few trifles. "I'd be happy to stay and help, if you need me."
Roy waved his pencil at her, not looking up from the latest in a long string of reports. "You were in at six this morning, Hawkeye." He pulled his gaze away from the troop supply tally and protocol survey in his hand, and with the eyepatch it was entirely impossible to tell if he was winking at her or not. "And you're taking four hours home with you, right now. Your dog needs walking and don't think I don't know you're thinking about comfortable shoes and a decent meal. Go home. That's an order."
Riza was inclined for a moment to say that she wasn't thinking about those things so much as she was thinking about her commanding officer, devil-may-care Roy Mustang, Flame-Alchemist and ladies' man, staying late for the fourth night running. True, it was budget crunch, not to mention cleaning up a paper trail mess of apocalyptical proportions, but Roy Mustang was a man out of the office at 1700 hours without fail, on the dot. Other alchemists would set their precious silver watches by the distinctive sound of his office door slamming.
They would be hours behind, at this rate.
But then, lots of things had changed in Amestria, and Roy Mustang was not the least of them.
"Cup of coffee for the road?" Riza offered, one last shot to assuage her guilt for leaving Roy here alone, again. Never mind that Black Hayate was probably pawing the front door in digestive distress, and she had half the contents of her desk under one arm.
"Better not," Roy said, waving vaguely at the wastebin by his desk, and the wealth of crumpled paper cups. "You could use me for a battery-operated marital aid if I have any more caffeine."
Lt. Hawkeye smiled tightly, but had one last volley to shoot. "I can walk Hayate and come back, bring some dinner--"
"Riza." Roy put down his pen and folded his arms on his desk, fixing his lieutenant with a sharp, one-sided glare. "Go. Home."
Riza twisted the doorknob in one hand, shifted her coat on her arm. "Yes, sir." But her surrender was not unconditional. "I'll be up late. Call me if you change your mind."
"Mm." Roy had returned to his paperwork, persistent as the all-day gloom outside the window.
Riza hesitated, looking back at the man behind the desk as though he was some sort of phantom, a memory of a Roy Mustang she had known years before. "Goodnight, Sir." She shut the door firmly behind her, fingers lingering a moment on the brass doorknob before turning down the dark corridor towards home.
Roy waited until the tapping of her heels had receded and yanked open the bottom drawer of his desk. A loaded pistol --standard practice-- lay jumbled in the bottom with outdated sheets of army letterhead, extra pencils, a spare pair of flamecloth gloves, and a dog-eared copy of Burkett's Alchemical Arrays for Advanced Chemistry. Roy nudged the gun aside; he wasn't so far gone as to need it yet, but the heavy glass bottle in the bottom drawer was welcome in his hand. There were two glasses there, chipped crystal. One was recently used; the other had a faint film of old dust.
Roy thunked the half-full bottle and the clean glass on the table, filled two or three or eight fingers worth, drank off half, and kicked the drawer shut before picking his pencil up again and glaring at the work in front of him.
All of it could wait, of course. None of it was as vital as the wielders of those red stampers liked to pretend it was. But it was just as well he sit here and stare at it and pretend it was keeping him from going home.
When really, there was nothing he could think of that was worth going home for.
The silver watch in the pocket of his pants ticked silent minutes away, punctuated by the clink of glass on glass and the occasional furious scribble of a pencil eraser.
The cleaning lady stopped by, unsurprised to see him there. Roy handed over his wastebasket and kept writing, even when she passed through the hallway again, clicking off all but the three emergency lights in the corridor, by the stairs. The line of light under Roy's office door dimmed, the darkness outside the window settled into rainy inhospitability. The frosted glass window of Roy's door became opaque.
Roy busied himself with the wording on the third paragraph of his brief. Somewhere in the night outside an engine started, stalled, gasped into life and pulled away. The headlights flared across Roy's office, lighting corners his desk lamp did not reach and making the shadows leap over the walls like acrobats.
It was a quarter past eleven when someone knocked on his door. The sound was alarming in the thick silence, and the lead of Roy's pencil made a jagged checkmark on his page as he started. There was no one else in this part of the building, Roy would bet money on that, and no footsteps had preceded those three oddly familiar raps on his door. But then, Riza had probably changed into reasonable shoes that would make no sound on the hallway tile, and he would not have heard her jingling her keys at the end of the corridor.
"I thought I told you to stay home, Hawkeye." Roy's hand hovered over the considerably low bottle of scotch, preparing to stash it back in the drawer once the sound of the door opening would muffle his drawer casters. But the door did not open, and there was no indication of anyone behind the dark glass of his office door. "...Lieutenant?"
His voice was loud in the office hush, and intrusive. Even the wind was in check for a moment, holding its breath. Roy scowled, not liking feeling unwelcome behind his own desk, and, scotch glass in hand, stalked across his office and yanked open the door.
The hallway beyond was empty.
Roy was not entirely surprised. He was not even sure now that he had heard the knock on his door, and considered that either he had fallen asleep on his paperwork again, or Delirium Tremens was setting in sooner than expected. He took a long hard look down the yawning dark hallways on either side of his door. Dim outside light leaked in through the window on the far landing, and to his left, the third-floor flight of stairs vanished upwards beyond the puddle of one light. Doors to other offices were dark smudges, the receptionist's desk a coiled shadow. The only sound was the wind moving again outside, scouring the streets and jabbing its cold fingers in the chinks under windowsills and doors.
Its chill couldn't reach in this far, only its voice. And yet Roy was thinking maybe it wouldn't be a bad idea to put his uniform jacket back on, to step back out of the drafty hallway. The hairs on his forearms lifted with inexplicable chill.
He was still glaring at the door to the stairwell, the one island of light down the far end of the hall and the way any intruder would have to pass, when a shrill scream tore through the air, followed by a sound like a gunshot.
Roy, flattened against the doorframe, took great gulps of air and forced his heart to slow down. The scream was nothing more innocuous than his desk telephone ringing insistently, the gunshot the sound his glass made shattering on the floor at his feet. He laughed into his shaking hands, scooping up the fragments of his glass and groping for the receiver of his phone. Hawkeye must have thought to call before coming all the way back down here, even knowing Roy wouldn't have left.
"Mustang," he said, cradling the phone on his shoulder and pouring the shards of his glass out of his hand and into what remained of the base. They tinkled faintly as he tossed them in the trash. They had been a good pair, those two glasses, but he had long since lost need for two of them. The caller on the other line failed to return any salutation. "...Colonel Roy Mustang, who's calling?" Roy was getting irritated. A dead call was no uncommon occurrence in the army, but by god if a man couldn't get quietly drunk in his own office, what did the military stand for? He hung up the phone rather harder than required, the base protesting with a slight "ting" of its ringer.
He shut the door to his office again, checking it twice to make sure the latch caught firmly, and suspiciously returned to his paperwork. He was no longer comfortable, though, and took to occasional swigs straight from the bottle rather than dusting the neglected second glass in his desk drawer.
Drinking straight from the bottle. What would his Father have said? What would Maes--
Roy scribbled hard at an offending paragraph that had never before wronged him.
The alchemist watch in the depths of his pocket quietly ticked to eleven thirty.
There was nothing really threatening about the knocks, he considered. Three of them in a row, familiar, friendly. More the noise you would make on a friend's door before opening it, popping your head around to ask if he wanted a coffee. Probably just the door settling itself in the hinges, or water pipes expanding and contracting with the cooling night. Roy was a scientist. He understood these things. There was nothing phantasmical about that sound he had interpreted as a knock on his door.
And the second time it happened, he snapped his pencil clean in half.
He didn't move from his desk, staring at the door. In daylight, or with the hall lit, whoever stood there would be clearly silhouetted against the glass, but in the dark, he was anonymous. Roy stared at the door, ears straining for any indication of a human on the other side. There wasn't one.
"...Come in." whoever it was, water pipes or pipe dream, Roy wasn't getting up to open the door for it again. If it wanted in, it could open the door its own damn self.
Which is why Roy watched with a peculiar thrill of horror as a tremor vibrated thought the knob, and as it turned smoothly. The latch clicked, eased out of its socket; the door swung open. The light from Roy's desk lamp made a dim rectangular shape on the hallway wall opposite his office as the open door banged demurely against the corner of a filing cabinet. There was no one on the other side.
Last time Roy Mustang checked, settling building foundations could not operate your average doorknob.
He cleared his desk in record time, damp palms slapping on the doorframe as he brought himself up sharp against it and glared down the hall. Nothing had been disturbed. No swinging door, no muffled laughter or retreating footsteps of any prankster members of his command.
"If I find who's behind this I'm going to initiate the army's fastest court martial and burning at the stake!" Roy yelled, because he was Roy Mustang after all, and yelling covered up, ever so slightly, the trembling that was unbecoming in an officer of his stripe. He gave one or two more glares for good measure, thinking comforting thoughts about Havoc and Breda sniggering at pranking their CO. He slammed his office door, because it felt good to slam, but the echoes that followed --like every door on the floor was slamming in mockery-- were less than consoling.
His mind busy with comforting things, scientific process, flawed human observation, and the kind of array it would take to transfigure the door to open and make it look like ghostly hands, Roy checked the door over inch by inch. There were no scribbled chalk marks, though the only alchemist Roy had known with the impudence and finesse needed to pull off such a stunt was now long gone beyond his reach. No wires, no string, and the lock itself was in need of lubricant, and wouldn't easily come unlatched unless he gave it a good wrench with one hand. Hawkeye had been after maintenance to come up and oil the thing for ages.
Roy shut the door and stared at it. Feeling more than a little foolish, he propped a chair underneath the knob, and backed away towards his desk as though expecting the wood to burst into splinters and all of his personal ghosts to barrel through.
It would make for quite an army, Roy thought. Fury would have to make them take numbers. He laughed, uneasily, and then louder, at himself and the chair barricading his door. He was turning into one of those bonkers old officers, sleeping with a loaded pistol and suspicious of his own pencil-holder. He even had the eyepatch already.
This time when the phone rang he was foolishly relived. A human voice, even one staticy though the telephone, was a welcome intrusion. He put his back firmly to the blocked door, picked up the handset, and was halfway through saying his name when he realized it wasn't any use. There's a feeling to the silence when another person is on the line, not even breath so much as listening, a whisper of background noise. From the earpiece of Roy's phone there was nothing. The wire connecting his phone to whatever else was out there might as well have lead off a cliff into space. "Hello?" he prompted, mostly for the sound of his own voice, but still no answer.
Only, behind him, the stealthy scrape of chair legs against flooring, the rattle of a brass doorknob, and the yawning creak of hinges. A cold draft crept over Roy's shoulders and against the back of his neck, teasing the short hairs at his nape upright. His knuckles, clutching the receiver, were white.
Turn around, He told himself, firmly. Turn around and look at it, whatever it is. Turn around and tell it to go back to hell. You have no trades to make tonight, not for your soul.
It seemed to take him hours.
The door was there. And Havoc's chair, still tucked snugly under the doorknob. Nothing had moved except for Roy.
The receiver in his hand was no longer steady.
He hung up the handset and then, with a determined tug, yanked the cord from the bottom of the phone. It slithered through his cold fingers and coiled demurely to the floor. Roy was grimly triumphant. No more phantom callers tonight.
He flung himself in his desk chair and reached for the bottle of scotch. It was halfway to his lips when he realized he wasn't doing much for his hallucinations, drinking straight from the bottle like that. It would be hard to convince anyone, much less Roy Mustang, that he wasn't bringing it on himself, drinking too much.
He had always drunk too much. It was the privilege of an officer, quiet alcoholism and a pistol in the desk drawer. Two options out of the military, one just took a little longer than the other. He'd tried both and hadn't quite managed the trigger either way. For one of them there was the War, and for the other...
For the other there was Maes Hughes.
Roy wondered, not for the first time, what the hell he was doing. At this desk, in this uniform, still bothering to breathe.
He made a grab for his drawer. For the other glass down in the bottom of the drawer, for the pistol, he hadn't quite decided. The drawer stuck, caught on a sagging file folder in the drawer above it. Roy growled, wrenching both the drawer and his arm in the process. The folder burst free, the drawer rocketed open, and a flurry of paper fluttered to the ground.
Police reports. Photographs Roy really didn't ever want to see again. One landed face-up in his drawer, on top of the gun, caught neatly in the dusty glass.
He picked up the photograph, glossy paper shivering in his hand like a living thing.
Black and white did not make it a mercy. Nor did the coroner's sheet, the wedding band and the military-issue cufflink visible on one uncovered hand. The snapshot out of reach, a photo within a photo. The dangling telephone in the booth beyond, a call that had never gotten through.
The image turned Roy's insides to cold lead, as surely as any transfiguration. The phone handset caught his eye and held it, as if he could see it moving, swinging faintly in the breeze, recording only dead air for any listener.
He tore his eyes from the photograph to the phone on his desk, watching without surprise as it began to ring.
The disconnected cord wound around the leg of Roy's desk, and the telephone, with no attachment to anything of this world, was letting Roy Mustang know without a doubt that someone was trying to get a message through.
He picked up the receiver.
About time, Maes would say. What are you doing there this time of night?
But the earpiece was silent. No, not entirely. It was listening.
"Remember what we used to do with empties, back in college?" Roy said, rummaging in his drawer for the flamecloth gloves. "We'd leave half a shot in the bottle, you remember?"
He leaned back in his chair, shoved up the window onto the night. Outside the wind had passed, the darkness was smooth and serene. Cold, pleasantly sharp air gently rustled the papers on Roy's desk. It wiped the alcohol from Roy's mind, leaving him more awake, he thought, than he'd ever been in his entire life.
Roy rammed the cork in the bottle, picked it up by the neck, and cradled the patient phone against his shoulder.
"Last one. Watch this."
He pulled back his arm and threw. The bottle spun out the window in a glittering arc, and Roy's gloved thumb and forefinger brushed together.
The bottle exploded in a blossom of red fire and glittering shards of glass, alcohol igniting, glass atoms rearranging themselves into a sparkling firework. It hung for a shining moment in the sky and then burned into silence, the wind finding enough of a breeze to catch the ash and sweep it away.
From the phone there was a faint sound, quiet enough to be imagined, such as a man might make when smiling, an inarticulate noise of understanding. The earpiece clicked and the phone went totally dead, like any other mute object in the world.
And Roy put his gloved hand to his face, letting the flamecloth become uselessly damp for a long moment before hanging up the disconnected phone.
A sudden commotion behind him nearly put Roy out of this life and into the next before he remembered that the door was still blocked by Havoc's chair, and someone obviously mortal was trying to get in.
Roy laughed a little, hands steady at last as he plugged in the phone again and walked over to open the door for Riza Hawkeye. She stood in the doorway, windblown, suspicious, and bewildered, in civilian clothes and a large paper bag in her hands.
"Expecting prowlers, Colonel?" she asked, sidestepping Havoc's chair.
"Sorry about that," he said, reaching behind his back with one gloved hand and gripping the door for a moment. Something clunked in the doorknob. "Lock's broken. Let maintenance know tomorrow, would you, Lieutenant?"
"Yes sir," Riza said, still dubious. She had seen that faint flash of transfiguration.
"What are you doing here at this hour?" Roy demanded, mock severe, and wiggled his hand out of the glove. "I thought I ordered you home."
"I went," Riza said, "I just came back afterwards. You haven't eaten since four, and it's past midnight. I brought some sandwiches." She rummaged in her bag for a few pleasantly greasy wrapped paper packages, smelling of braunschweiger and mustard. Roy felt like he'd never eaten in his life.
"How are the reports?" Riza asked, clearing a corner of Roy's desk and unpacking her burden, enough food for four.
"Ugly." Roy answered. "Why, you like murky paperwork?"
Riza, without being asked, dragged her chair to the opposite side of the desk and unwrapped one of the sandwiches. "It goes well with sandwiches. Oh!" She groped in the bag. "I left the thermos on the counter at home."
"Here," Roy opened his drawer, sweeping the photograph into it, and snatching up the dusty glass. He wiped it hastily clean on the tail of his shirt. "Nip down to the cooler for me and get us some water, would you?"
Hawkeye eyed the glass dubiously. "Water."
Roy interrogated her with his eyebrows, daring her to believe any other liquid had ever passed his lips. "Yes, lieutenant, water. I'm sure you've heard of it."
Riza's mouth twitched. "Not from you, I haven't."
Her shoes tapped pleasantly out the door and down the hall, and Roy reached for a sandwich. Just as well, he thought, taking a bite and picking up his pencil. Too much booze killed your taste buds, and Roy had a soft spot for braunschweiger. He smiled over the sandwich, listening to Riza's returning footsteps. She liked the stuff too, apparently. Maes never could stand it, threatening to leave the room if Roy brought some home in the dorm days.
"If you don't like it," Roy said aloud, "You can call me and say so."
The phone, not remarkably, did not ring.