Chapter 1: Opposites Attract
“Many a friendship, long, loyal, and self-sacrificing, rests on no thicker a foundation than a kind word.”
~Frederick W. Faber
On some level, Riza Hawkeye had always known that life at the Military Academy would be extremely challenging, and she wasn’t thinking of the coursework. After all, she recognized that her many years of homeschooling in a small town had ill-prepared her for the intricacies of socializing with an academy full of co-eds. But with each passing day, she grew more and more keenly aware that she was making social blunders left and right: she was apparently too quiet, too smart, and too serious to suit the majority of her peers. Though she’d never given very much thought to her own physical attributes, others evidently did, and either her pretty face made her too intimidating to approach or she was too plain and boring to be worth talking to, depending upon who one asked. And being assigned to a coveted single room as a first-year cadet didn’t win her any popularity contests, either.
In contrast, Rebecca Catalina had been the center of attention in every room she’d occupied since she’d learned to speak. Precocious and observant, she’d developed a wicked sense of humor early on, which had netted her an entourage of superficial admirers wherever she went. Pretty and clever and loud, Rebecca was impossible to overlook. But those same qualities discouraged most people from looking beyond the surface, and Rebecca knew that none of her ‘friends’ could honestly claim they knew her. When she had announced her intention to join the military, even her own family had been baffled until she’d winked and added that it was a target-rich environment she couldn’t ignore. And she while she would never deny that it was a part of her motivation, finding herself an eligible bachelor wasn’t Rebecca’s primary reason for enlisting. Deep down, she longed for the camaraderie she’d observed among the soldiers of her acquaintance. Rebecca wanted what they had – the kind of friendships that she’d be willing to fight and die for.
That first day on the practice range had been an eye opener for both of them.
Catalina had always gotten along better with the boys, but those bonds usually fell apart as soon as jealous girlfriends interfered or when unrequited feelings developed (regardless of whose side they developed on). She’d been disappointed to discover that the young men and women in the military academy were no different in that respect than her scores of superficial and fickle civilian ‘friends.’ So when the pretty, soft-spoken blonde who’d always seemed so cold and aloof had dazzled the entire class with her marksmanship and then proceeded to stammer in doe-eyed confusion when Rebecca introduced herself, Rebecca only saw the opportunity to befriend someone else who knew what it was like to be judged based solely on appearances.
Hawkeye hadn’t even realized how lonely she’d become until Catalina fast-talked her way into her life. Overnight, she had an ally against the jealous and the petty, a stalwart defender who was more than willing to take on Hawkeye’s battles as if they were her own. She had a companion to sit with during mealtimes, one who didn’t mind if she’d rather listen quietly than prattle on about the insignificant minutiae of her day. She had a person who was honestly and openly pleased to see her whenever they met, whose warm and cheerful presence made her smile genuinely in return. And, perhaps most importantly, she had someone for whom she apparently fulfilled a reciprocal role.
Though their relationship had had a slightly unconventional beginning, Hawkeye and Catalina grew to depend on each other’s friendship far more quickly than either girl could have anticipated.
Chapter 2: On the Edge of a Knife
In which Riza and Rebecca are still getting to know each other. "Dammit, why do you have to have such a tragic backstory? It makes it really hard to stay annoyed with you."
“Trust is something that comes easy when you’ve never been a victim.”
~Face to Face, Disconnected
“How’d we get stuck with this stupid job again?” Catalina groaned. She dropped a poorly peeled potato into a huge stockpot and reached for another.
“K.P. is part of the duty roster,” Hawkeye replied calmly. “All the first years have to do it at some point.”
“But seriously, peeling potatoes? How cliché can you get?” Catalina added, scraping her knife petulantly across the mottled skin of the vegetable in her hand. “I feel like I’m in one of those comic strips about military life.”
“Would you rather be washing dishes?” Hawkeye countered, eyes flicking to the other end of the kitchen. Under the watchful eye of the regular kitchen staff, two other cadets were vigorously scrubbing pots, sweating profusely and shooting envious glances at the two girls and their vegetables every few minutes. A third cadet was whistling tunelessly to himself as he wrestled the bucket and mop out of the utility closet.
“Point taken,” Catalina sighed, thinking of the damage hot soapy water would do to her hands. She snuck another glance at her partner.
Naturally, all of Hawkeye’s potatoes were perfectly smooth and white and completely free of eyes and those funny little dark spots. Plus she’d already finished peeling nearly twice the number Catalina had. Catalina glared at her resentfully for a moment, until she realized that the other girl wasn’t going to look up any time soon.
“Well, at least we’re on K.P. together,” Catalina finally added, pouting a little. “I’d hate to be stuck down here with Smythe or Winters for a whole rotat—YEOW!” she yelped, dropping her paring knife with a clatter and reflexively clutching her hand to her chest. “Motherfucking FUCK!!”
Hawkeye flew to her side as the other occupants of the kitchen looked around in alarm.
“Are you all right? Let me see it,” she demanded, trying to pry Catalina’s left hand away from the cut on her right. The brunette’s eyes had welled up with involuntary tears, which she quickly blinked away, knowing that everyone was watching.
“I’m okay, it’s just a scratch,” she said quickly, waving off the concerns of the kitchen staff. “It’s not that bad, I don’t think, it just really hurt!” she added more quietly, for Riza’s benefit. As the others slowly turned back to their own varied tasks, Rebecca allowed Riza to lead her over to the sink and run the injured finger under the tap. As the streaks of blood washed away, the tension slowly left Riza’s face.
“Okay, good. It’s not very deep,” she confirmed softly. “Hold on, let me go and get a first aid kit.” She rummaged around in one of the cabinets for a moment, and returned to Rebecca with a bandage and some ointment.
“Thanks,” Rebecca muttered, a little embarrassed by her earlier outburst. It was just a teensy cut; nothing to squeal over. “Sorry; I didn’t mean to yell so loud.”
“It’s all right,” Hawkeye said, gently taking her hand and tending to the small wound with her usual cool efficiency. “And you don’t have to apologize for anything. Just because it’s not life-threatening doesn’t mean it didn’t hurt.”
Rebecca blinked in surprise: Hawkeye’s gentle empathy was completely sincere. She didn’t even have that faintly superior expression that Catalina had come to recognize on the faces of her peers, the one that said ‘you’re just an attention-seeking little tart, aren’t you?’
No, Riza was a horse of a different color…Riza actually cared about her.
“It could have been a lot worse, I guess,” Rebecca said lightly, attempting to hide her sudden swell of emotion. “I’m just lucky that the knives aren’t all that sharp.” Hawkeye frowned a little.
“Actually, you’re more likely to have an accident with a dull knife than with a properly sharpened one,” she explained, moving back to the sink to wash the excess ointment and smears of Rebecca’s blood from her hands. “You have to use more force when you’re slicing things with a dull blade, which gives you less control, and can consequently lead to nastier accidents.”
“Huh, really?” Catalina replied, wiggling her newly bandaged fingers. Hawkeye had done a surprisingly professional job.
“Mm hm,” the blonde answered absently, already looking for something else under the sink. “Here,” she added, surfacing with a box of disposable gloves. “Put one of these on over it. Just in case it keeps bleeding.”
“Oh, right. Thanks,” Rebecca said, plucking a glove from the box with a small smile. Hawkeye smiled back, a little shyly, and then returned to the mountain of potatoes still waiting to be peeled.
Rebecca watched her for another moment, thoughtfully. Unlike her, Riza kept the blade of the paring knife turned towards herself, with her index finger resting along the blunt edge. As she turned the vegetable with sure, deft little movements, the business end of the knife came dangerously close to the thumb that rested on the unpeeled portion, just millimeters away. And yet, she hadn’t slipped up once, and the peel of each potato came off in one long, continuous spiral.
Slowly, Catalina picked up another potato from the monstrous pile and tried to match Hawkeye’s technique. She fumbled with it a little, frowning. How did Hawkeye make this look so easy? Feeling her friend’s eyes on her, Hawkeye glanced over again.
“Something wrong?” she asked quietly. Rebecca shook her head.
“I was just wondering…” she trailed off, trying to decide exactly what she wanted to ask. Hawkeye stared at her for a minute, and then a flicker of hurt crossed her face. It was gone before Rebecca was even sure of what she’d seen.
“I think I understand. If you wanted to head over to the infirmary, I can take care of the rest of these,” Hawkeye offered, gesturing at the potatoes. Although she sounded sincere, her pretty brown eyes had taken on a hard, wary look that Rebecca had never seen in them before.
“What, alone?” she squeaked out.
“It’s fine,” Hawkeye said, turning away.
“No, it’s not!” Rebecca protested. She couldn’t understand why Hawkeye had sounded so resigned.
“I won’t rat you out for leaving early, if that’s what you’re concerned about,” Hawkeye replied softly, already halfway done with her next potato.
“Rat me…Riza, what the hell are you talking about?” Rebecca demanded, touching her friend’s shoulder to get her attention. She didn’t miss the way Riza flinched at the touch. But Hawkeye recovered herself quickly, and when she looked up at Rebecca, her face was carefully blank.
“It’s all right, Catalina. Go ahead and go; I’ve got this.”
“Seriously, Riza, my finger is fine! Why would you even suggest—oh my god,” she gasped. “People have done that before, haven’t they? Skipped out on you?”
Lots of times, Riza wanted to say, just not in the way you mean.
“Once or twice,” she admitted, averting her eyes.
“Let me guess,” Rebecca said slowly. “Someone sold you a line about having a big test to study for, or a hot date, or some other really big important thing that had to be done right then and there, right?” she asked, bitterness seeping into her voice. “And, oh, hey, you wouldn’t mind finishing up on your own, right? Since you’re such a cool person and all? They’ll, like, totally, make it up to you next time, yeah?”
Riza bit her lip, suddenly unsure of herself. Clearly she wasn’t the only one who’d been taken in.
“You’re injured,” she murmured. “If you wanted to have your wound checked out at the infirmary, I’d understand.”
“I’m FINE. The fuck, you really think I’d up and ditch you? Like one of those selfish cows? I guess it’s nice to know what you really think of me!” Rebecca snapped, eyes flashing.
“I didn’t—that’s not what I meant,” Riza objected quietly.
“Then why are you saying this shit?” Rebecca retorted, pressing forward into Riza’s personal space. On the opposite end of the kitchen, the rest of the kitchen staff was just beginning to realize that something was going on between the two girls. Riza squirmed a little under the added scrutiny.
“You were just complaining that you didn’t want to do this. And you are hurt,” she said, fighting to keep calm. “And you wouldn’t be the first person to skip out on me, no.”
“It’s because you’re too goddamn nice!” Rebecca snapped. “You can’t just go around letting people take advantage of your kind nature!” Noticing that Riza’s eyes kept flicking back to the other occupants of the kitchen, she spared a moment to shoot a nasty glare at them. Their whispering stopped abruptly, and they wisely averted their eyes and decided to let the two girls work out their troubles on their own. “You need to stand up for yourself, do you hear me?” Rebecca hissed, punctuating her words with sharp little jabs to Hawkeye’s shoulder.
“Catalina,” Riza interrupted softly, eyes downcast.
“No, you listen here, Riza Hawkeye,” Rebecca said firmly, narrowing her own eyes. “First of all, I would never ditch you like that. And I’m kinda pissed that you assumed I would! You are my friend, you got that? And friends don’t pull that kind of bullshit on each other. Second of all, we were both assigned to this stupid, lame-ass kitchen patrol. And even if I don’t like it, it’s my duty as a cadet in the Amestrian Military Academy to follow the orders I’m given. More importantly, it’s my duty as your friend to share the burden of the task we were both assigned and muddle through this shit together!”
“Catalina,” Riza said again. “You’re—”
“Nope, I’ve barely even got a scratch, so you can spare me the ‘you’re injured’ bullshit,” Rebecca went on, unheeding. “That’s…enabling, or whatever you call it, and you’re damn lucky I’m not the kind of bitch who’d take you at your word and skip cheerfully out the door, or you’d be stuck here for hours slaving over these fucking things,” she added, brandishing a potato somewhat wildly.
“Catalina,” Riza tried once more, a little bit louder.
“WHAT?!” Rebecca screeched. The others winced at the sudden noise, but kept their attention very firmly on their pots and pans.
“Your cut is bleeding again,” Riza said calmly, pointing at Rebecca’s flailing hand.
“Oh, god DAMN IT!” the other girl snarled. She inspected her bandaged finger intently for a moment. “Forget it; it’s not gushing or anything,” she finally said. “And anyway the glove will keep it off the stupid potatoes. Now will you please shut up about my leaving and just show me how in the hell you’re doing that so perfectly?” Riza just blinked at her for a second, nonplussed by the abrupt change of topic and tone.
“What? Oh, um—yes, here,” she said, picking up a potato and waiting for Rebecca to do the same. “Hold it in your left hand, like that. And then put your right index finger here, and your thumb here, just like this, see? And then you just rotate it with your left hand, and keep guiding the knife with your right thumb, and…and that’s it, really,” she explained quickly, still bemused. “There’s not much to it.”
“God, I’m gonna slice my whole hand off at this rate,” Rebecca said nervously, as she clumsily imitated her friend.
“No, you aren’t,” Riza said reassuringly. “Remember that you’re the one in control. You’re the one guiding the knife, not the other way around. It can’t do anything that you don’t make it do.”
“Huh,” Rebecca said wonderingly. “Never thought of it like that. You know, this is much easier than the way I was trying to do it. Where’d you learn how to do this?”
“What, peel potatoes?” And again with the bewildered look. Which Rebecca thought was rather adorable on her.
“No, cook,” Catalina corrected her, hiding a smile. “Before, you said you were pretty young when your mom died. So who taught you all this stuff?”
“Oh,” Riza replied with some surprise. “Well, I was pretty young, I suppose. But…my mother knew she was really sick, and she wanted to make sure I could look after myself and my father once she was gone. So we started having lessons, each night. Though I didn’t realize that that’s what she was doing at the time. For years I just assumed she really enjoyed cooking. Something my father said finally tipped me off,” she admitted, quietly.
“Dammit, why do you have such a tragic backstory?” Rebecca whined, finishing her potato with a little flourish and reaching for another. “It makes it really hard to stay annoyed with you.”
“So sorry,” Riza said dryly. “I’ll try to be a little less pitiful so you can get back to scolding me, shall I?”
“Oh, shut up, that’s not what I meant at all, and you know it.”
“All right,” Riza conceded. “Then what did you mean?” she asked carefully. Rebecca frowned, considering.
“I guess I wanted to know…why you do it?” she asked quietly. “When the others stick you with their chores, how come you let them get away with it?”
“You make it sound like I always let people walk all over me,” Riza observed, stealing a glance at Rebecca’s profile.
“I’m not some pathetic little pushover,” Riza protested. “Although there are certainly people who drag their feet and waste time complaining about whatever the assigned task is, it’s not as if I end up doing the lion’s share of the work on every rotation.”
“Then what about the people who’ve skipped out and left you holding the bag, huh?”
“It only happened twice, back when I first got here,” Riza said defensively. “They were seniors and I didn’t know how to refuse when they asked.”
Well, she really had known better; she wasn’t that naïve. But she hadn’t been quick enough to protest their flimsy excuses, and they’d made their escapes while she’d still been too stunned by their audacity to react.
“Okay, fine, but why didn’t you say anything afterwards? Lodge a complaint or ask to be reassigned to another rotation or something?” Rebecca asked.
“I…I suppose I was just trying to get along with everyone. They already disliked me; I didn’t want to make it easier,” Hawkeye murmured, slightly embarrassed. She sounded a bit pathetic after all.
“Well, since when do you care what people think of you? I thought we agreed that the other girls here are idiots,” Rebecca said, looking over at her.
Riza mumbled something under her breath.
“Sorry, what was that?” Rebecca asked, leaning closer. Riza sighed.
“I said: I don’t really care what the other girls think about me. I do, however, care what you think,” she said, blushing slightly. “And I assumed…well, never mind. I’m sorry that I doubted you.”
The last of Rebecca’s frustrations melted away.
“Riza, put that knife down a sec,” she ordered. Without thinking, Riza complied.
Rebecca promptly threw her arms around her and squeezed with all of her strength. The other occupants of the kitchen exchanged amused shrugs and smirks, as if to say: Hey, it’s Catalina, what can you do? That girl is nuts.
“Rebecca,” Riza gasped, struggling ineffectually. “You-you can let me go now, please.”
“Admit it. You like me,” Rebecca demanded, grinning maniacally. “You were going to let me get away with outrageous behavior because you like having me around, and you didn’t want to risk losing me if you made a fuss over it.”
“Starting to reconsider,” Riza wheezed, but she was smiling when Rebecca released her.
“Riza, darling, I hate to break this to you, but it’s definitely too late to escape my clutches. Make all the fuss you want, but you’re stuck with me, now,” Rebecca said happily.
“Be still, my heart,” Riza said dryly. But warmth flooded through her chest, and she gently bumped her shoulder against Rebecca’s in an affectionate gesture that the other girl had often used on her. “Come on, let’s get back to work before they accuse us of making a disturbance and try to have us switched to cleaning the latrines.”
“Oh god, anything but that!” Rebecca moaned. “I hate scrubbing toilets. Hey, speaking of which, I was on latrine duty last month with Winters, and I just heard that she and one of the new guys were caught trying to sneak back in past curfew last night…”
As Rebecca babbled on about the latest hot gossip, Riza couldn’t help but marvel at the ease with which their first real argument had been resolved.
“Hey Catalina?” she said, at the next pause in Rebecca’s story.
“You’re stuck with me, too, you know,” she said shyly. Rebecca’s smile lit up her face.
“Damn straight,” she replied. “And don’t you forget it.”
Chapter 3: I've Got Your Back
In which Riza is the responsible one, Rebecca has regrets, and some catty female cadets are called out for being judgmental little beasts. "Too much tequila, honey?"
I’ve Got Your Back
“Amicu certus in re incerta cernitur.” (Literally: A true friend is certain when matters are uncertain. Usually translated as: A friend in need is a friend indeed.)
Deep in thought and absently finger-combing her damp hair, Hawkeye jerked violently when the door to her dorm room flew open.
“You startled me,” she said in an accusatory tone, as Catalina bounded in.
“Oh good, you’re already showered!” Catalina chirped. “I wasn’t sure whether you’d be back from the range yet; thought we might have to wait a bit for you.”
“Wait for me for what?” Hawkeye asked, bewildered.
“A few of us are going out for drinks down at the Wild Turkey. You’ll come, won’t you?”
“Depends,” Hawkeye said slowly, grabbing the damp towel she’d dropped on her bed a few minutes earlier. “What are the chances that this will be a nice, quiet evening out among people who will conduct themselves with poise and dignity?” Rebecca pretended to consider.
“Mm, slim to none,” she shrugged, grinning.
“Then, thanks, but no,” Riza replied, laughing a little as she hung the towel on the hook behind her door.
“Ah, come on! I’ve been dying to get out all week!”
“So why don’t you? You said there were other girls going, didn’t you?” Rebecca huffed and flung herself down flat across the bed, narrowly missing Riza’s toiletry bag.
“But none of them even like me,” she whined.
“They don’t like you, or you don’t like them?” Riza countered, smirking as she tossed the day’s dirty clothing into her laundry hamper.
“We have a healthy level of mutual loathing for each other,” Rebecca said loftily. “They think I’m an obnoxious flirt, and I think they’re self-righteous, jealous snobs.”
“You know, if you’re still trying to convince me to go along, you really aren’t doing a very good job of it,” Riza replied, grinning as she dropped back into her desk chair.
“Well it’s not like we have to talk to them the whole time!” Rebecca cried, sitting upright suddenly. “We just happen to be going the same place, that’s all, but we can pretty much ditch them once we get there.”
“Gee, hard to see why they wouldn’t like you...” Riza teased, resting her chin in her hand and feigning a thoughtful air.
“Come on, Riza! It’s Saturday night! We’ve got no classes tomorrow! What else are you going to do, laundry?”
“Well, the laundry room IS a lot quieter on Saturday nights,” Riza mused.
“You’re not seriously choosing dirty socks over going out for drinks with your peers, are you?” Rebecca gasped, scandalized.
“What’s the magic word?” Riza prompted, looking prim.
“PLEASE?” Rebecca rose onto her knees and dramatically clasped her hands to her breast. “Pretty please with a cherry on top?” Riza laughed.
“All right, all right! I’ll go,” she said, throwing her hands up. “I’ll need to change, though…” she added, gesturing to the sweatshirt and pajama pants she’d thrown on after her shower. Unlike some of the other female cadets, she refused to wander the hallways dressed only in her towel.
“Right, about that,” Rebecca said, rising to her feet and crossing over to Riza’s closet. “You have to have something besides the cadet uniforms and military-issued sweats in here.”
“Well, of course I do,” Riza said indignantly. Rebecca ignored her and began to rummage through the various hanging items.
“Too modest, too plain, too boring…don’t you have any going-out clothes? Short skirts? Dresses?” she asked, exasperated. “We need to take you shopping, stat.” Riza just rolled her eyes.
Finally, Rebecca found a black skirt and a sleeveless red blouse that she approved of (grudgingly). And after a brief tussle with mascara and lipstick (“Hold still—I just need to tart you up a little!”) which Riza had ultimately lost (“You do NOT look like a whore, you just look like you’re wearing lipstick! Stop trying to wipe it off!”), they were on their way.
The Wild Turkey was a rough-and-tumble sort of neighborhood bar not too far from the Academy. Young women, even cadets given daily training on the various methods of killing a man, rarely went there alone. They preferred to travel in packs to avert possible advances from the seedier clientele known to frequent the place. The music was loud, the lighting dim, and the air smoky, but most importantly? The booze was cheap. All of which made the Wild Turkey popular with both the Academy cadets and the students from the nearby Eastern University, in spite of its unsavory reputation.
Sitting alone at the bar and mostly ignoring the other four girls they’d come with, Riza idly toyed with her barely-touched beer. At eighteen, she’d been legally able to drink for two years, now, but until she’d come to the Academy she’d rarely had the opportunity or the inclination to indulge. She didn’t even like beer, really. It left an unpleasant, bitter aftertaste on her tongue. But the fruity mixed drinks her companions were drinking sounded wholly unappealing, and she wasn’t quite brave enough to toss back shots like a university student, not in a place like this. And so instead she just watched and listened as the people around her got more and more inebriated.
Cheap entertainment, she thought with a smirk.
The bartender was flirting with one of his cocktail waitresses, whose low cut blouse and push-up bra were probably netting her a week’s worth of tips from the table of middle-aged businessmen who kept ordering White Drachmans. Riza shuddered at the very thought of cream mixed with vodka, but the businessmen seemed to like them well enough.
A few tables away from them, an elderly gentleman glowered into his scotch, appearing not to notice the noise and bustle all around him. At the table beside his, two women in their late twenties chattered loudly about their boyfriend troubles. Behind them, two of the four cadets she’d come in with were dancing (if you could even call it that) to a catchy pop song blaring from the jukebox. A trio of eager male cadets who Hawkeye didn’t recognize kept them company.
In the opposite corner, the third female cadet had joined a mixed group of university students playing darts. The fourth girl sat nearby, watching them play but not participating, and glowering every time one of the boys talked to her friend.
And across the room, Rebecca was flirting with a group of slightly older men who were playing pool. Badly. Riza was certain that she could beat the lot of them. If she’d had Rebecca’s daring or a lax moral code, she’d have been tempted to con them all by pretending to play badly at first, and then wiping the floor with them once they’d put money on the game. As it was, though, Rebecca merely giggled as one of the men, a stocky blond, pressed his body close against hers while ostensibly teaching her to line up a shot properly.
“Hey, um, Hawkeye?” one of the other girls suddenly materialized beside her. The curly-haired blonde one whose name Hawkeye always forgot.
“Hm?” she said, turning towards her. Strand? No…Stanton?
“We’re heading out now. You coming with?” she asked. Hawkeye frowned slightly. What about Rebecca?
“Thanks, but I’d better wait for Catalina to finish her game,” she replied politely. “You four go on ahead; we’ll see you back in the dorms.”
“Oo-okay, but…” the blonde trailed off, glancing over at Rebecca with a doubtful look as the other three girls approached, shrugging on their coats.
“Come on, Sands,” hissed Scott, sticking her snub nose in the air. “Let Hawkeye figure it out for herself, then.” Sands, that was it, Hawkeye thought. But what were they talking about?
“We can’t just leave her here!” Winters protested, elbowing Scott in the side. “Listen, Hawkeye. Catalina…well, you know her reputation, right?”
“I beg your pardon?” Hawkeye replied, raising a brow. Were they honestly implying what she thought they were?
“She’s boy-crazy,” Smythe said, bluntly. “So, you know, she might not be planning to head back to the dorms, later. And you really shouldn’t go back alone. It’s dangerous to be out there all by yourself.”
“Excuse me, but have any of you actually asked Catalina what her plans are?” Hawkeye asked coldly. “Or are you just guessing that she intends to spend the night with some strange man she’s only just met?”
“I mean, look at her,” Scott said, face twisted in an ugly sneer. “Those guys have been all over her since we walked in.”
“Jealous?” Hawkeye asked, quirking one eyebrow. Scott flushed in anger, and Hawkeye narrowed her eyes. “Just because she’s flirting with someone doesn’t mean she’s going to sleep with him. How often have you left her behind to walk back alone because you’ve simply assumed that she’s that kind of girl and slipped out without saying anything to her?”
God, no wonder Rebecca didn’t like these girls.
“I…we-we didn’t mean it like…” Winters stammered, nervously fiddling with the end of her long braid.
“Bit hypocritical, don’t you agree?” Hawkeye added with a pointed glance at the young woman who’d been caught sneaking out of the men’s dorms only two weeks prior. Winters reddened, and Scott laughed cruelly at her.
“She’s got a point, Christie,” Scott managed, between guffaws. “Tell us again about how you and Mick are just friends?”
“Rachel! We’re not - it’s not like that!” Winters protested, glancing between Hawkeye and Scott.
“Comrades should watch each other’s backs,” Hawkeye interrupted in a low, angry voice. “Not stab each other in them.” Sands and Winters both looked away, suitably chastised, and even Smythe looked glummer than usual, but Scott just rolled her eyes and tossed her hair over her shoulder.
“Do…do you want us to wait with you?” Sands asked timidly, blushing almost as pink as Winters still was when Riza turned to face her.
“Thank you, no. I’ll take my chances with Catalina,” Riza said, as she glanced over at her giggling friend. “Even if she did want to go home with someone, I can certainly take care of myself. Good night.”
The other four girls echoed her farewell with varying degrees of sincerity, and began edging their way to the exit. Abandoning her beer, Riza rose and headed toward her friend and the group of men still hovering around her.
“Riza! Hi!” Rebecca chirped brightly as she approached. “Having fun?”
“Loads,” Riza lied, trying not to frown. Rebecca looked like she’d had a few more than she meant to, if her glazed eyes and slightly slurred speech were any indication.
“Whoa, there!” Rebecca yelped suddenly, slapping at one of the leering men standing near her, who’d taken advantage of her distraction to ‘accidentally’ brush up against her ass. “Geez, buy a girl dinner, first!”
“Come on, sweetheart, I won’t bite,” he said, leaning into her space.
“Why not? Afraid I might like it?” Rebecca returned, batting her eyelashes. Riza swallowed a long-suffering sigh.
“Oh for the love of...excuse me,” she said, firmly. “I think we’re done here. Let’s go, Catalina. Good night, gentlemen.” Rebecca’s drunken grin collapsed into a pout.
“Hey, no...Why can’t I stay with my new boyfriend? I’m a big girl, I can stay out late if I wanna!” she insisted, trying to wriggle away from Riza’s firm hand on her shoulder.
“Yeah, butt out, princess. You’re not her mother,” another, shorter man growled.
“I’ll tell you what,” Riza said, ignoring both men and leaning close to her friend. “If you can tell me his name, I’ll leave right now. You can do whatever you want with whomever you want, and I won’t say another word about it.” Rebecca looked up at her and blinked.
“It’s…uh...aw, shit,” she finally swore softly, realizing that she had no idea what her new ‘boyfriend’s’ name was. “A’right, you win. Let’s go.”
“Hey!” the first man protested, taking a step toward the two girls. Riza fixed him with a steely look.
“Is there a problem?” she asked in her iciest tone. Faced with Hawkeye’s furious glare, stronger men than this cock-sure civilian had crumbled. The fact that she’d shifted her weight into a fighting stance hadn’t gone unnoticed, either, and he abruptly remembered the cute brunette saying she was a cadet up at the military academy.
“Uh…no, no problem,” he faltered out, backtracking. “Um, have a good night, ladies.”
“Thank you,” Riza replied coolly, steering her friend firmly away.
“Bye-bye,” Rebecca waved sadly over her shoulder.
As they left the bar and made their way through a dark alley towards the main road, Rebecca stumbled and would have fallen if Riza hadn’t grabbed her arm. Pulling it around her neck with one hand and wrapping an arm around Rebecca’s waist, Riza could only sigh as Rebecca leaned heavily against her.
“Are you all right?” she asked.
“I don’t feel very good,” Rebecca mumbled softly.
“I can see that. How many drinks did you have?”
“Only two,” she murmured, “and then jussa couple a shots. Prob’ly shouldn’t’ve had that las’ one,” she mused, slurring slightly. “But the boys kept buyin’ ‘em, an’ I los’ track.”
“Oh, Rebecca, you idiot,” Riza scolded. “You know better than to mix beer and liquor like that, don’t you?”
“I dunno,” Rebecca said mournfully.
“Tell me if you start to feel sick,” Riza said sharply. “You hear me?”
“I feel sick.”
Riza half-dragged her over to a trash can near the mouth of the alley, just in time for Rebecca to empty the contents of her stomach. Dimly, Rebecca realized that Riza was gently rubbing her back with one hand and holding her hair out of the way with the other.
“Better?” Riza asked softly when the coughing and retching had subsided.
“I think so,” Rebecca mumbled. “Sorry.”
“Not as sorry as you’ll be tomorrow, when you wake up with an epic hangover,” Riza said lightly. “But come on. Let’s get you back to the dorms and tuck you into bed.”
Although Rebecca didn’t remember much of the walk back to the Academy, she did know that they stopped at least once more so she could puke behind some bushes. And she vaguely registered Hawkeye’s disgruntled monologue about pool-playing bastards and how she’d fleece them next time to teach them not to try to take advantage of an idiot girl who didn’t know her own limits. By the time they reached the Academy, she’d sobered up enough to be ashamed of herself.
Fortunately, the guard on duty at the gate was sympathetic to the follies of young cadets.
“Too much tequila, honey?” she asked kind-heartedly, accepting their IDs from Hawkeye.
“Uh-huh,” Rebecca agreed miserably, resting her head on Riza’s shoulder. The older woman chuckled as she passed the IDs back.
“Take my advice, sweetie, drink lots of water before you go to sleep. That’ll help some. Hope you all don’t have drills tomorrow,” she added, as they passed onto the Academy grounds.
“It’s too bad we don’t, really. It might teach her not to accept drinks from strangers,” Riza said over her shoulder. The guard’s laugh followed them up all the way up the main entrance of the dorms.
Nearly half an hour later, during which time Riza had supervised a trip to the bathroom, teeth brushing and all, Rebecca crawled gratefully onto her bed. Silently, Riza tugged the blanket over her and turned to leave.
“Hey, Riza?” Rebecca called softly, careful not to wake her roommate.
“What’s wrong; do you feel sick again?” Riza whispered back with some alarm.
“No. I just wanted to say thanks. For looking after me,” Rebecca said, in a small voice. “I know I’m a pain in the ass.”
“Don’t worry about it. You’d have done the same for me,” she replied, patting Rebecca’s leg lightly. But just in case, she repositioned Rebecca’s little trash can closer to the bed.
“I know you could’ve left with the other girls,” Rebecca added. “But you stayed for me and made sure I was okay, and then I repay you by puking on your shoes. I’m really sorry.”
“Yeah, Hawkeye’s a goddamned saint, and you don’t deserve her. Now that we’re all clear on that point, could you both please shut up and let me sleep?” Rebecca’s roommate piped up, crabbily.
“Sorry, Fisher,” Hawkeye whispered. “And Catalina, if it makes you feel any better, you got vomit on your own shoes, not mine.”
“You don’t mean – not my patent leather ankle-strap stiletto pumps?” Rebecca whimpered.
“Remember how you insisted that I wear taller heels with this skirt?” Riza replied, struggling to keep the laughter out of her voice. “No good deed goes unpunished.”
“I’m never drinking again,” she moaned. Even Fisher laughed out loud.
Chapter 4: Late Night Rendezvous
In which Riza is plagued by nightmares, and Rebecca solves problems with chocolate. "What on earth is a s'more?"
“There is nothing better than a friend, unless it is a friend with chocolate.”
It had been a very long day, to judge by the dark circles under Major Roy Mustang’s eyes. His face was pale and drawn, but he looked faintly cheerful as he nodded a greeting to a small group of soldiers walking in the opposite direction. Unslinging the rifle strapped across his back, he propped it up against a water barrel before leaning down to splash the lukewarm water on his face. Face dripping, he sighed and stared down into the depths of the barrel.
Behind him, a shadow among shadows moved, swift and silent. Distant torchlight glinted on a twisted metal blade, and Roy just had time to look up in surprise before the knife was buried up to its hilt in his back. His startled cry was muffled by the heavy hand that clamped over his mouth, and his blood splashed across the sand as the shadowy figure carefully lowered his body to the ground. The hooded man slipped back into the shadows, leaving Roy choking and struggling for air as his own blood filled his lungs. His erratic movements grew slower and then ceased altogether as the life drained from his eyes.
Hawkeye jerked violently awake with a strangled cry. Just a dream, she told herself. Oh god, no matter how vivid it had been, how real, it was just a dream. Heart still thundering in her chest, she took a slow, shuddering breath and brushed a hand over her damp face.
It was only then that she realized she was not alone.
“Catalina!” she gasped. The other girl was half-sitting on the edge of her bed and leaning over her, looking concerned.
“Hi. You okay?” she asked, in an uncharacteristically gentle voice. Hawkeye flinched at the pity in her tone.
“Bad dream,” she explained unnecessarily.
“Wanna talk about it?” Rebecca offered.
“Not really,” Hawkeye managed, even as a chill ran down her spine. Rebecca nodded but didn’t move out of her friend’s personal space. It took Riza another few seconds to demand: “What are you doing here? And why are you looming over me?”
Catalina rocked back and settled more comfortably on the bed as Hawkeye sat up and self-consciously tugged her rumpled nightclothes into place. From where she was sitting, the other girl wasn’t able see her back, but Hawkeye still felt vulnerable wearing just a loose tank top. And here she thought she’d be safe in her single room, without a roommate’s prying eyes to contend with. Damn this early summer heat.
“I couldn’t sleep,” Catalina was saying. “So I decided to come and see if you were still awake. And you weren’t, but I could hear you thrashing about and muttering from the hallway, so I thought it might be better to wake you up after all.”
“Thanks, I think,” she murmured, embarrassed. I really need to get a lock for that door, regulations or no, she thought.
“So, now that you’re up, too,” Rebecca chirped cheerfully, “do you wanna make s’mores?”
“It’s...one fifteen in the morning,” Hawkeye retorted, after a quick glance at her clock. “And what on earth is a ‘s’more?’” Rebecca smirked.
“I figured you hadn’t tried them before. Never been camping, right?” Hawkeye rolled her eyes.
“No, the poor little orphaned country mouse has never been camping. Let me guess—I’ve been missing out on a time-honored tradition all these years?”
“Yes!” Rebecca insisted. “Camping’s not just some dull civilian pastime; there’s a lot more to it! Like…like sitting around a campfire late at night, telling ghost stories and roasting weenies and making s’mores, and snuggling up in sleeping bags under the stars, and—and enjoying the great outdoors! Yeah, okay, I’ll give you that last one,” she admitted when Riza just raised an eyebrow.
“I had a forest practically growing in my backyard,” she grumbled. “So why on earth would I need to spend more time in ‘the great outdoors?’ And why would I want to sleep on the ground, under a glorified blanket propped on poles, when I had a nice, soft bed waiting for me?”
“Would’ve prepared you better for the soldier’s life if you had,” Rebecca sniggered. “How’d that survival training go, again?” Riza groaned and slumped back down on her pillows.
“Go away, Catalina,” she said. Rebecca simply flopped down next to her, rolled onto her side and stared steadily at her friend. Finally Hawkeye turned her head to glare at her.
“I’ll only go away after you make s’mores with me,” Rebecca said obstinately, unaffected. Hawkeye glowered at her. Rebecca glowered back. Finally Hawkeye sighed, knowing when she was beaten.
“Oh for pity’s sake,” she grumbled, sitting up again. “You’re lucky I don’t have a roommate, you know that?” Unfazed, Rebecca bounced to her feet and reached for the bag she’d brought with her.
“No, YOU’RE lucky you don’t have a roommate. How’d a freshman like you manage to swing a single room, anyway? I’ve been meaning to ask.”
“I’m sure I don’t know,” Riza said wearily, rubbing sleep out of her eyes. Well that wasn’t entirely true. She had a sneaking suspicion that her absentee grandfather was involved somehow, but she didn’t have any way to confirm that for certain, so she wasn’t really lying. “So…what is all that stuff?” she added, gesturing to the bag in her friend’s hands.
“Marshmallows, chocolate, and graham crackers,” Rebecca said happily as she took each item out of the bag and set them on Hawkeye’s desk. When Riza simply looked blank, Rebecca hastened to explain. “See, you roast the marshmallows over a campfire until they’re all soft and gooey on the inside and just a little bit brown on the outside, and then you smash them in between the crackers with a bit of the chocolate, which melts a little from the heat of the marshmallow. And voila! S’mores!”
“We are not lighting a fire in here, Rebecca,” Riza stated firmly, folding her arms over her chest. Her friend snorted.
“Well of bloody course not. What kind of idiot do you take me for? Don’t answer that,” she added quickly when she saw Riza’s lips curve upwards. “We’re gonna improvise. You’ve got a hotplate somewhere in here, don’t you?”
“Mm-hm, top shelf in the closet,” she replied. The second Rebecca’s back was turned, Hawkeye rose and reached for the sweatshirt she’d left draped over the back of her desk chair. Feeling a lot more secure once she’d pulled it on and thus safely hidden her tattoo from Rebecca’s observant eyes, she then set about clearing papers to one side of her desk so that they’d have a place to assemble their treats.
“All right, here we go,” Rebecca said cheerfully, bending down to plug the hotplate in. “We can use these forks I borrowed from the mess hall to hold the marshmallows over the heat of the hot plate. Might take a bit longer, but it should still work.”
“Um, Rebecca? You don't see any problems with that arrangement?” Riza asked, amused. Her friend blinked at her. “Remember how metal conducts heat? Especially these cheap utensils.”
“Oh crap,” Rebecca muttered, face falling. “I didn’t even think about that. I don’t suppose you have any wire hangers in there, do you?”
“Nope. But I have another idea,” Riza said, bending down to rummage in one of her drawers. She emerged with a pair of socks, and unfolding them, tossed one to Rebecca.
“Seriously?” Rebecca said incredulously. Riza shrugged.
“This was your harebrained scheme in the first place. You couldn’t have ‘borrowed’ a couple of oven mitts while you were pillaging the mess hall?” Rebecca giggled.
“I’ll remember for next time. Now come on!”
Arranging the hotplate in the middle of the floor, Rebecca plopped down cross-legged in front of it and stuck her ‘roasting fork’ out over it with a look of intense concentration on her pretty face. Riza hesitated for just a second before following her lead and self-consciously settling herself on the opposite side of the hotplate. The strangeness of the whole early morning visit was still sinking in.
“You’re a little bit crazy, you know that?” Hawkeye finally said, fondness seeping into her tone. Rebecca grinned.
“Aw, but that’s why you like me. I keep things interesting,” she retorted. “Come on, when’s the last time you did something like this?”
“Roasted marshmallows over a hotplate on the floor of a dorm room just shy of oh-two-hundred? I can honestly say never,” Riza chuckled in reply.
“Come on, you never stayed up late with your friends, talking about boys and braiding each other’s hair? Painting your toenails and all that?”
“What, you mean slumber party sort of things? No, not exactly,” she said thoughtfully, slowly twirling her own fork above the hotplate. Although...now that she thought about it, there had been all those late nights with Roy. They’d certainly stayed up until the small hours of the morning plenty of times, caught up in studying or talking or just enjoying each other’s company. But she was fairly certain that code breaking, nightmares, astronomy, and the relative merits of Drachman fiction over Amestrian were probably not the sort of subjects most teenage girls would want to discuss at a sleepover.
“Hm, I’m beginning to recall something about your having a deprived childhood,” Rebecca said, staring fixedly at her. “So you really never did the slumber party thing, then?”
“Nope. Small town? Home schooled? No girl friends?”
“Something else you missed out on,” Rebecca sighed. “I’d offer to braid your hair, but...”
“But that would be an exercise in futility,” Riza laughed, running her free hand through her short locks.
“I don’t suppose you’d let me paint your nails, then?” Rebecca asked.
“You don’t suppose correctly,” Riza retorted. “And the last time I checked, nail polish is against dress code.” Rebecca wriggled her own painted toes with a mischievous grin.
“Who’s gonna see ‘em? We’re always wearing boots for inspections. What are they gonna do, have everyone stand out there barefoot one day, or follow us into the showers or something, just to make sure no one’s got Harlot Scarlet or Berry Naughty on her toenails?”
“All the same, I’d rather not risk it,” Hawkeye said wryly. “Are those real color names?”
“I’ve got Pink-a-Boo on right now,” Rebecca giggled. “I don’t know who comes up with this stuff.”
“Well you certainly have no room to complain, since you bought it even after seeing what it was called,” Riza teased. “Hey, are they supposed to look like this?” she added doubtfully, poking at the inflated white blob on the end of her fork.
“More or less,” Rebecca confirmed. “It’s better with an open flame, cuz the outside gets all brown and crispy. But beggars can’t be choosers. At least they’re getting melty. Here,” she said, popping up.
She passed Riza a graham cracker with a piece of chocolate on it before assembling her own. In spite of the mess of crumbs and melted marshmallow that wound up all over their faces and fingers, Riza had to admit that this s’mores thing tasted pretty damn good. As she licked the last of the gooey sugar from her forefinger, thinking about a certain late night tea party she’d once had, Riza froze.
There were footsteps echoing down the corridor.
“Shit,” Rebecca whispered, stiffening as she heard them too.
“Under the bed, quick,” Riza instructed, unplugging the hotplate and shoving it against the wall under her desk. Rebecca scrambled to obey while Riza quickly opened books and papers to spread out over the open packages of chocolate and marshmallows still strewn across her desk. She dropped into her desk chair just as the door handle turned.
“Cadet Hawkeye, what are you doing up at this hour?” a stern female voice asked. Feigning surprise, Hawkeye leaped to her feet and hastily saluted the older woman.
“Lieutenant Colonel Weston, ma’am!” she gasped.
“At ease, cadet,” the grey-haired woman said. “Lights out was four hours ago, young lady,” she added, folding her arms and clearly expecting a plausible explanation.
“Forgive me, ma’am. I-I woke up and couldn’t fall back to sleep. So I thought I might as well get some reading done, since I was up anyway,” she stammered quickly. The nervousness wasn’t all an act and she prayed that there were no tell-tale crumbs on her face. But her superior just chuckled quietly at her.
“If you’re really reading the early history of the Xingese Dynasty, then I suspect you won't be awake much longer,” she said lightly, glancing at the pile of books. “However, it is past lights out. And I cannot make exceptions, even for my most diligent students. I'm afraid I'll have to ask you to extinguish the lights now, and get back into bed. Perhaps you could try counting sheep, instead,” she added, not unkindly.
“Yes, ma’am, I understand. And I’m sorry; it won’t happen again.” The older woman waved her apology off.
“Just make sure your light is off by the time I pass back this way, cadet. Good night,” she said, and closed Riza’s door behind her with a soft click. Riza held her breath as the footsteps moved off down the hallway.
“Man, that was close,” Rebecca breathed, wriggling out from under the bed. “Just my luck that the harpy had to pee in the middle of the night. Normally she sleeps like the dead!”
“Won’t she notice you aren’t in your room?” Hawkeye asked, bending down to retrieve the still-warm appliance from under her desk. Rebecca began stuffing the leftover s’more ingredients into the bag she’d brought them in.
“Nah, she never does bed checks. She saw your light on, that’s all.” To Riza’s amusement, Rebecca stuffed the bag of sweets into Riza’s closet under a pile of soft grey standard issue gym shorts. Noting Riza’s raised eyebrow, Rebecca just shrugged. “What? No one would ever search your room for contraband sweets. That old battle ax adores you. Crotchety old thing has never used that motherly tone on any of us, that’s for damn sure.”
“Maybe because you call her a harpy and an old battle ax?” Hawkeye suggested mildly.
“Oh for...all right, fine, you may have a point,” Rebecca huffed.
“We’re just lucky she didn’t come by five minutes sooner,” Riza said with a grimace. “Suppose she’d walked in when we were still roasting the damn things?”
“Think we could have gotten off if we asked her to join our impromptu slumber party?” Rebecca asked, raising an eyebrow.
“Only if you offered to braid her hair,” Riza shot back. And then both girls broke down into hysterical giggles, shushing and elbowing each other in an effort to stifle the noise.
Remembering that Lt. Colonel Weston would be passing by again soon, Riza finally shoved Rebecca towards the bed and flicked out her lamp. They huddled together in the center of the bed in the darkness, straining to hear and still occasionally shaking with silent giggles. After what felt like an age, the slow, heavy footfalls of the Lt. Colonel approached at last. Her steps slowed as she reached Riza’s door and then stopped as if the woman was debating opening the door again. Rebecca threaded her arm through Riza’s and the two girls clutched at each other, excited and slightly afraid of what would happen if they were caught.
Finally the older woman made up her mind, and the two cadets listened with racing hearts as she moved away from the door and back towards her own quarters.
“That,” Rebecca whispered, slightly breathlessly. “That was even better than a ghost story by a campfire.”
“I’ll have to take your word for it,” Riza whispered back. “That was completely insane!”
“I know, wasn’t it great?”
“You madwoman, what would we have done if she’d opened the door again?” Riza asked, although she was giggling again.
“We would have figured something out,” Rebecca said loftily. “I was debating between ‘I was sleepwalking and wandered into the wrong room,’ and ‘I had a horrible nightmare and Riza’s the only one who likes me enough to pet my head before sending me back to my dorm.’ That one would have had tears.”
“It might have worked if you’d thrown yourself at her and wept on her shoulder,” Riza mused. “Hey, don’t get comfy. You should go soon,” she added as Rebecca wormed her way under the comforter.
“But my room is so far away,” she mumbled, shifting over so Riza had room to lie down. “And this way, if you have another bad dream, I can wake you.”
“You’re going to get us both in trouble,” Riza protested halfheartedly, fighting a smile.
“Shh,” Rebecca said, nuzzling her face into Riza’s pillow. “Sleepy now.”
She kept her eyes closed for a few seconds longer before carefully opening one eye to see whether Riza was buying her act. Catching her peeking, Riza couldn’t hold back a snort of laughter. Which led to another lengthy bout of barely restrained giggles as well as a brief fight over the single pillow.
“Fair warning,” Riza murmured sleepily, as the girls finally began to settle down again. “If someone catches us, I’ll disavow any knowledge of your actions.”
“See? You’re getting the hang of the cutthroat rules of a slumber party after all,” Rebecca chuckled.
“Sweet dreams, Rebecca,” Riza whispered, as her eyes drifted closed. And you, too, Mr. Mustang. Please don’t die out there.
Chapter 5: No Surrender
In which the female cadets discuss various hand-to-hand tactics. "If I know I'm weak as a close-range fighter, then I'd better be a damn good long-range asset."
"But every road is rough to me that has no friend to cheer it."
“Winters, Weldon. You’re up first today.”
Everyone watching knew that the young blonde woman would lose before she’d even stepped foot in the ring. But that didn’t make the sparring match any easier to watch.
Hawkeye winced in automatic sympathy as John Weldon, a stocky male cadet, wrenched Christie Winters’s head back, his thick fingers firmly gripping the blonde’s long ponytail. Regardless of how she felt about the other girl on a personal level, Hawkeye knew from experience how badly it hurt to be dragged to one’s feet by one’s hair. And when Weldon wrapped his other arm around Winters’s slender neck in a brutally tight choke hold, simultaneously twisting her hair around his hand until involuntary tears sprung up in her eyes, their instructor calmly declared him the victor.
Across the gym from Hawkeye, Maria Sands protested shrilly, even as Winters slumped to her knees upon her release.
“He grabbed her hair!” Sands cried, clenching her fists at her sides. “That’s not fair!”
“Of course it’s not,” their instructor replied in a tired voice. “But that’s beside the point. Do you think an enemy soldier is going to give a fuck about what is and isn’t fair? If there’s an exploitable weakness, you can be damn sure it will be exploited.”
Winters, having staggered to her feet with a grim, determined expression, simply finger-combed her silky hair back into its ponytail. Hawkeye wasn’t altogether surprised when the other girl’s eyes flicked over to her. Short hair had several obvious advantages in a hand-to-hand match, especially when one’s opponent didn’t play fair. Winters ran her fingers through her hair one last time, with a thoughtful look on her face.
“But—” Sands started to continue her argument.
The slightly smug look on Weldon’s face gave her pause. She looked to Winters, and then to Catalina, and then to Hawkeye, as if searching for support. Catalina had already turned away to strike up a conversation with the cute junior she currently had a crush on, and Hawkeye met her pleading eyes with an impassive expression, willing the other girl to understand before she made things worse.
“I...yes, sir,” Sands said at last.
Hawkeye relaxed slightly in relief. The instructor nodded and called the next two cadets on his list.
Throughout the next several matches, Hawkeye could feel Sands staring at her, and she resolutely kept her eyes directed at the sparring cadets, refusing to meet the accusatory gaze.
“Hawkeye, Harris, you’re up next,” the instructor finally announced, checking off names on the clipboard.
Hawkeye moved into the ring obediently, ignoring the annoyed huff of breath from her opponent. She knew the male cadets didn’t like squaring off against the females, and she also knew better than to imagine it was due to any misplaced notions of chivalry.
They didn’t like it because they thought it was too easy.
And though she hated to admit it, Hawkeye knew that they were often correct.
The simple fact of the matter was that the women in her class were slighter in frame and stature, and that they lacked the muscle mass and sheer brute strength that their male counterparts had. But, as one of her instructors had reminded her, the women (and also the less bulky of the men) usually had better speed and agility. It was just a matter of learning how to use their individual strengths to the best advantage.
As her opponent warily circled her, Hawkeye remembered this lesson, and was prepared when Harris finally took an opening and swiped out at her with one long leg.
Hawkeye caught his foot just before it struck her hip, twisting her body around while pulling hard so that he lost his balance and dropped with a resounding thud. But Harris quickly rolled to his feet and came up swinging. She dodged and danced just slightly out of his reach, making full use of her years of experience getting away from opponents who were bigger and stronger than her.
Hoping to end things quickly, Hawkeye tried to sneak an uppercut past his guard, but Harris blocked and deflected her follow-up left hook like he was batting away a fly. Irritated, Hawkeye managed to land a sharp kick to his ribs, which served only to piss him off. He retaliated with a vicious swipe at her knee, which connected much harder than it should have in a friendly sparring match.
Swallowing her cry of pain (something else she’d had years of practice with), Hawkeye tumbled to the ground before rolling back onto her feet with much less than her usual grace. Panting, she thought quickly, circling her opponent to stall for time. As Harris advanced on her, she took a small step towards him, but stumbled when her injured knee protested under her weight. Harris noticed, and hesitated just long enough to allow Hawkeye to lunge forward and throw her full weight behind a punch to his gut.
Doubled over and wheezing, Harris couldn’t prevent Hawkeye from wrapping her arm around his neck in a chokehold. But before she’d gotten a really secure grip, he took advantage of her nearness to grab hold of her thigh, after which he simply straightened up to his full height and threw her off over his shoulder as though she weighed nothing at all.
Flat on her back and completely winded, Hawkeye glared up at the ceiling as Harris approached her again. To clinch his win, all her had to do was pin her down, which would be simple since he outweighed her by about a hundred pounds. Flushed and still wheezing, he bent over her to gloat a little.
“Not too bad, for a girl,” he panted, grinning down at her.
Hawkeye pursed her lips. And then she suddenly rolled onto her side, swinging a leg at the back of his knees and effectively swiping his legs out from under him. As he landed heavily beside her, she allowed herself a small smirk.
“Sorry? I didn’t quite catch that,” she said sweetly. Harris just groaned.
“A little unorthodox, but effective,” the instructor interjected, his voice slightly amused. “Nice moves, Hawkeye. Work on putting a little more power behind those kicks for next time. And Harris, don’t underestimate your opponents, even when they’re down. Catalina and Cary, you’re up next!”
Hawkeye moved toward the back of the crowd, hoping that no one noticed her favoring her right leg. Her knee would be fine once she iced it, although it’d probably swell up quite a bit over the next few days. There were bleachers along the left side of the gym, but she knew that sitting down would only invite unwanted attention to her weakness. And she refused to give them the satisfaction.
So, biting back a curse and arranging her features into the mask that had served her well since her childhood, Hawkeye stood firm and upright, impassive, and watched the remaining three matches with the same concentration as the rest of the class.
When they were dismissed, she hung back a moment to speak with Lieutenant Bredon, casually waving Rebecca on ahead when her friend paused to wait for her. The instructor often offered helpful pointers to improve, and was always willing to spend a few extra minutes explaining them in more detail.
To her dismay, the other girls were waiting for her when she limped carefully into the locker room.
Winters was wincing as she carefully combed the tangles from her damp hair, but Sands dropped her own hairbrush and marched over to Hawkeye with an angry face. Hawkeye just sighed.
“Sands,” she said, wearily sinking on to the bench running down the middle of the room.
“What was that back there, Hawkeye?” she snapped, hands on hips.
Riza noted with relief that Sands, too, had damp hair, which meant that she’d be able to shower alone once she dealt with the other girl’s little snit. No one had noticed her unwillingness to bathe in front of others, or if they had, they assumed it was due to a prudish sense of modesty, and refrained from commenting.
“What was what?” she asked, raising an eyebrow.
“That bitchy little look you gave me back there! That asshole pulled Christie’s hair, and everyone just acts like that’s no big deal, and no one stands up for her but me, and instead of having some solidarity with the only other women in the damn class, you just stand there and look all prim and holier-than-thou!” Sands snarled, getting progressively louder.
“Maria,” Winters protested softly. Hawkeye met her tired gaze, seeing only resignation in her light blue eyes.
“You’re right, Maria,” Rebecca said suddenly, from behind Hawkeye.
“I- wait, what?” Sands asked, taken by surprise. Rebecca leaned forward to drop an ice pack into Hawkeye’s lap. Riza murmured her thanks and rolled up her sweats to apply it to her sore knee.
“We do have to stick together, just not in the way you mean,” Catalina explained patiently. “Look, they’ve allowed women in the armed forces ever since the foundation of the country. But not everyone thinks that we should be allowed to serve.”
“Well, I know that,” Sands snapped, annoyed.
“Maria, please,” Winters murmured. “Don’t you understand? She was trying to help us both.”
“What do you mean?” Sands asked, bewildered, whirling on her friend.
“Lots of the guys don’t think we should be here. Right or wrong, the attitude is there, okay? And if we start acting like the weak, whiny little girls they seem to think we are, we’d only be proving them right,” Winters said.
“The fact of the matter is that women aren’t always physically capable of the same things men are,” Hawkeye added. “In general, we’re slighter in frame, less muscular, and have less stamina. I can’t drag the two-hundred-pound practice dummies around the field, or carry them to a secure location by myself; can you?”
By her silence, the answer was no.
“Right. So I have to make up for that in other ways, and so do you. We’re smaller, yes, but that means we’re faster. Less muscle means we’re lighter, and have more agility. We have to fight differently. And no, Weldon shouldn’t have grabbed her hair like that; it wasn’t fair play and it sure as hell wasn’t something you should do to a comrade.”
“But Weldon’s a dick,” Catalina called over her shoulder, already halfway to the showers.
“And Lieutenant Bredon had a point,” Hawkeye explained. Behind them, the taps made an ominous screeching noise as Rebecca started up the water. “An enemy solider isn’t going to be thinking about fair play if he gets the drop on us,” she went on patiently. “So we have to be prepared for that, and learn to fight back accordingly.”
Sands was silent as she thought about that. Slowly, she sat down beside Hawkeye on the bench as it sunk in.
“I still don’t understand,” she said at last in a small voice. “I mean, I do, I understand what you’re saying. But why’d you give me that look? Like you were telling me to shut up?”
“Because I was. Everyone already knew it was an unfair move. But complaining about it would only make it worse.”
“Harris kicked you a lot harder than he should have, didn’t he?” Winters asked softly. Hawkeye didn’t answer, and Winters sighed.
“He did?” Sands asked incredulously.
“He wasn’t holding back,” Hawkeye confirmed, unable to hide a small wince as she readjusted the ice pack. “In a friendly match, you’re meant to subdue without seriously injuring your opponent.”
“Why didn’t you say anything to Lieutenant Bredon? He should have stopped the match!” Sands cried.
“Because,” Hawkeye sighed.
“Because we can’t let things like that get to us,” Winters interrupted, with a little huff of breath. “We have to be twice as tough as they are just for them to take us seriously. Look at Catalina. No offence, I know she’s your friend,” she added quickly, glancing at Hawkeye.
To her surprise, Hawkeye just smiled.
“No, Catalina is a special case,” she agreed. “She’s a lot smarter than they think she is. And she uses that to her advantage. They underestimate her, and she strikes back when they least expect it. Did you see what happened during her match?”
“Not really…I was surprised when she flipped him like that,” Winters said. Sands nodded.
“She used his perception of her weakness against him. It’s a good lesson for him, too, really, in underestimating his opponents.”
“But what did she do?”
“When he had her pinned, she winced, like she was in pain, and went limp like she’d given up. He felt guilty for hurting her, and so he loosened up his grip. And then she rolled them and got her elbow and knee into place before he knew what was happening.”
“Sneaky,” Winters said admiringly.
“It certainly wouldn’t have worked on Weldon, but Cary is a pretty decent guy. Catalina just used her knowledge of his character and exploited a weakness.”
“I guess it is a good move. It won’t work on everyone, though,” Sands mused.
“You’d be surprised,” Catalina said, re-entering the room wrapped in her towel. “Cary has seen me use that move before, and he still fell for it.”
“To be honest, I’m not much good at that kind of game,” Winters admitted. Sands looked thoughtful.
“Me either,” Hawkeye said, smiling a little. “Like I said, Catalina is a special case.”
“So…is that why you took up shooting?” Sands asked. “Because you know that you’ll always be weaker than the men at hand-to-hand?”
Although her heart twisted painfully at the thought of why she’d really ‘taken up shooting,’ Hawkeye managed a little half-laugh.
“Not exactly. But you have a good point. If I know I’m weak as a close-range fighter, then I’d better be a damn good long-range asset.”
“Why not spend more time trying to improve your hand-to-hand?” Winters asked, frowning.
“Because there’re only 24 hours in a day, you idiot,” Rebecca answered for her, with a glare. “I don’t see you down at the gym working on your technique every spare moment, either.”
Hawkeye smiled wryly.
“Although maybe I could stand to put in a bit more time working on my weak points,” she said. Winters and Sands both glanced down at Hawkeye’s abused knee, which was already beginning to swell in spite of the ice pack she’d been holding on it.
Winters ran her fingers through her long silky hair again, frowning deeply.
“Don’t cut it all off,” Catalina said suddenly. Winters looked up at her in surprise. “Seriously. You could put it up in a tight bun or a French braid or something before combat training and PT, but you don’t have to cut it.”
“Just make it a little more difficult for them to grab onto,” Riza added softly.
“Exactly,” Rebecca agreed, smirking. “Remember, not everyone looks as cute as Hawkeye here does with a short haircut. You’d be better off hanging onto those luscious locks of yours, Christie.”
Hawkeye snorted and rolled her eyes, but ran a self-conscious hand through her own short strands when the other girls turned to her with appraising looks.
“Listen, do you need to go to the infirmary? I…I could walk you?” Sands offered timidly, eyeing Hawkeye’s swollen knee again.
“That’s all right. I’ll be fine,” Hawkeye replied as she stood. Gingerly, she tested her weight on her injured leg, grateful when it only throbbed a little. “But thank you for the offer.”
“Yeah, sure,” Sands replied. “And hey...thanks.”
“Sure,” Hawkeye replied, offering her the ghost of a smile. “Us girls have to stick together, after all. Right?”
Although this chapter was posted to Infinite Arms over on ff.net, it originally belonged to Pistols. I got caught up with another idea for Pistols before I'd finished this chapter to my satisfaction, and by the time I remembered it, the timing no longer fit the rest of the story. And so I added it to Infinite Arms instead. :)
Chapter 6: Lessons Learned
In which Riza attempts to teach Rebecca how to cook. "You little minx! How many men have you seduced with your cooking?"
“We should look for someone to eat and drink with before looking for something to eat and drink.”
“They say the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach, right?” Rebecca asked.
“A sharp instrument slipped between the ribs would be more direct. As long as you aim slightly to the left of the sternum,” Riza answered with a straight face. Rebecca punched her arm.
“So am I!” Riza retorted. “Did you even hear a word Major Winchester said in class today?”
“Never mind intercostal spaces, I’m talking about my future here!” Rebecca cried.
“Yes, because paying attention to the combat training that’ll ensure you survive long enough to have a future is completely meaningless,” Riza replied under her breath. Rebecca ignored her.
“Look, I’ve seen the way men drool over the housewifely types. You know: the ones who can cook and sew and all that tripe?” Rebecca asked.
Riza frowned. She could cook and sew and ‘all that tripe.’
“I thought you couldn’t stand the idea of...what was it? The ‘simpering bits of fluff who’ve bought into the idea that a woman’s place is barefoot and pregnant in the kitchen?’” she said flippantly, trying not to think about how comfortable she’d always been in a kitchen.
“Come on, we both know a lot of those women are just brainless trophy wives,” Rebecca maintained, folding her arms over her breasts and daring Hawkeye to contradict her. “But that doesn’t mean that we should underestimate the value of a home cooked meal! Especially with the crap they feed us in mess. If I learn to cook, I could have these boys eating out of the palm of my hand!”
“Quite literally,” Hawkeye agreed.
There was a short scuffle as Rebecca launched herself at the taller blonde and attempted to tweak her ear. Riza, putting their recent hand-to-hand lessons to the test, managed to block the attempt, duck under Rebecca’s outstretched arm and pin Rebecca’s arms to her sides from behind her. Although Rebecca squirmed loose before Riza had a firm hold on her and quickly danced out of her reach.
Ignoring the stares they’d drawn, Hawkeye absently straightened her white cadet’s blouse while Catalina smoothed her dark curls, and both girls resumed their leisurely walk as though nothing unusual had happened.
“So...come on, what do you say?” Rebecca cajoled, hitting Riza with her best imitation of puppy dog eyes as they passed a group of bewildered upperclassmen.
“What do I say about what, exactly?” Riza asked, warily. She had a feeling she knew where this was headed.
“I know you can cook,” Rebecca replied. “I’ve seen you in action!”
“Peeling potatoes doesn’t require much in the way of culinary prowess,” Riza evaded.
“Don’t try and play dumb - you told me yourself that you were a good cook,” Rebecca retorted, fixing her friend with an accusatory glare.
Had she? Well, damn. Hawkeye sighed.
“Tell me again why you never learned to cook? I’m the orphan, here. What’s your excuse?”
“Well...Mom tried. But I wasn’t much good at the following instructions part,” Rebecca mumbled. “Eventually she gave up and set her sights on my little sister, and everyone was much happier for it.”
“Let me guess. You’re one of those people who can’t even boil water without causing some sort of catastrophe, aren’t you?”
“Yep! So you’ve got your work cut out for you!” Riza sighed and pinched the bridge of her nose.
“All right. Suppose I agree,” she said, regretting it even as the words left her lips. “Where exactly do you propose to have this cooking lesson? We live in dorms, remember? We don’t even have running water in our rooms, let alone the appliances necessary to prepare food.”
“Sure we do! The kitchen’s enormous!”
“The dining hall kitchen?” Riza asked with an incredulous half-laugh. “And just how will we arrange for permission to have a cooking lesson there?”
“You let me worry about that. You just be ready to impart all that culinary knowledge when the time comes.”
“You’re going to get us both kicked out one of these days, you know that?” Hawkeye asked. Catalina noticed that Hawkeye still hadn’t outright refused, and she grinned over at her.
“Hey, they’ll have to catch us first!”
And so, less than a week later, Hawkeye found herself leading an impromptu cooking class in the middle of the night.
“Oh for the love of....give me that,” she sighed, rescuing a mangled onion from Rebecca's grasp. “You’re worse off than I thought. Here, like this.” Even Mr. Mustang had had some rudimentary skills when they’d first met, Riza mused. And she’d thought he was hopeless. But at least he’d been able to chop vegetables into relatively equal pieces. Rebecca made him look like a world class chef in comparison.
Rebecca pouted for a moment, but watched carefully as Riza demonstrated an easier, less haphazard way to dice an onion.
“Maybe I should just watch you,” she suggested when Riza handed her another onion to chop.
“You'll never learn that way,” Hawkeye said firmly. “Remember the potatoes? Go on, give it another try.”
“Can’t we make something else besides meatloaf?” she whined. “Something more...I dunno, sexy. Like Pâté de Canard en Croûte?”
“Do you even know what that is?” Hawkeye said, incredulous. Leave it to Rebecca to dream big.
“Nope. But it sounds sexy, doesn’t it?”
“Trust me on this. You ought to master the basics before you try to take on the notoriously difficult recipes,” Hawkeye chuckled. “Besides, meatloaf is one of the dishes on the menu for tomorrow, which means they’ve got all the ingredients we need, and they probably won’t notice that a few things are missing.”
“Oh all right, all right. But it seems like such a boring meal,” Rebecca pouted.
“It’s a classic comfort food for a reason,” Riza said, smiling. “Besides, a lot of men prefer the simpler meat-and-potatoes dishes over more complex fare.”
“Yeah?” Rebecca had a sudden epiphany. “Wait, you’re speaking from experience! You little minx! How many men have you seduced with your cooking?”
“Nothing drives them to distraction like my meatloaf and mashed potatoes,” Riza deadpanned. “In fact, my recipe for chicken and dumplings is so irresistible I’ve been chasing men off my doorstep since the day I first wielded a saucepan.”
“I knew you were holding out on me,” Rebecca muttered darkly.
Twenty minutes, two pounds of ground beef, three eggs, four onions and a slightly burned thumb later, Rebecca slammed the oven door closed on the fruits of her labor.
“This is stupid. I'm never gonna remember all this. Maybe I should just hire someone to make stuff for me...” she added speculatively.
“You’d better not be looking at me,” Riza returned, archly. Rebecca was, of course, looking directly at her friend. “I’m not a caterer, Catalina!” Riza protested, crossing her arms.
“But you’re so much better at this stuff than me!” Rebecca wailed.
“God, I can see it now,” Riza moaned, untying her apron and lobbing it into the hamper with the other dirtied aprons and dish towels. “Suffering from a moment of temporary insanity, I’ll reluctantly agree to help you make a meal to impress your latest potential soul mate. And then I’ll spend the entire day slaving over a hot stove, while you bat your eyelashes at the poor schmuck and claim all the credit.”
“Well, I couldn’t very well tell him the truth; he’d dump me and go after you,” Rebecca agreed, grinning.
“So instead, your lover-boy will fall head over heels for my amazing cooking,” Riza continued, trying and failing to hide her smile. “In fact, he’ll be so smitten by the home-cooked meal that he’ll whisk you off to be married right then and there. And then I’ll spend the rest of my life chained up in your dark, damp basement, making all of the meals for you both lest he someday discover the truth and kick you to the curb,” she finished, chuckling.
“Oh come on! I’d never do that!” Rebecca cried. “I mean, your basement cell would be warm and dry and airy! And I’d let you have a window. With gingham curtains and everything! You’d never even miss your normal life, I promise,” she laughed.
“Thanks ever so,” Riza said sarcastically. “But I’ve been the overworked and underappreciated housefrau. I think I’ll pass. You know, I think you’re overlooking something important, here.”
“What’s that?” Rebecca asked, quirking a brow.
“If you married into money, then your husband would already have a household staff - probably one that includes a cook. So you’d never even need to step foot in a kitchen, much less resort to kidnapping.”
Rebecca’s jaw dropped open.
“Brilliant. You’re a fucking genius, Riza,” she breathed. “Why didn’t I think of that before? To snag a rich older guy, I just need to be young and pretty, and I’ve totally got that part down already! Now, where does one meet the wealthy bachelors in this town…?”
“Oh, wonderful. I’ve created a monster,” Riza grumbled, warily watching her starry-eyed friend twirl around the kitchen in delight.
“Hey, I just thought of something else,” Rebecca said, coming to an abrupt stop in front of the oven. “What are we gonna do with these two pans of meatloaf, once they’re done?”
“Stick them in the fridge and hope no one notices,” Riza shrugged, unconcerned. “Hopefully they’ll just serve them up with everything else tomorrow without asking questions.”
Turning to her left, Rebecca pried open one of the doors of the stainless steel industrial refrigerator.
“Hmm…” she said, eyeing the contents thoughtfully. “Well, at least there’s plenty of room in here. Oh, hey, aren’t these—?”
“Fresh peaches,” Riza supplied, peering over Rebecca’s shoulder. Both girls paused to savor the sweet, slightly tangy scent of ripe peaches wafting out of the open door. And then Riza’s face took on a slightly mischievous look. “Say, Catalina…we haven’t talked about desserts, yet.”
“And you thought you’d created a monster?” Rebecca murmured with amusement as her friend nudged her aside and began gathering peaches.
“Even if you’re a lousy cook, you ought to be able to seduce that rich older man of yours with baked goods,” Riza replied, adding shortening and flour to the pile of peaches on the counter. “And a fresh peach pie will get your foot in the door. I guarantee it. Can you pass me a pie tin? Third cupboard on the left.”
“Seriously, how do you know all this stuff?” Rebecca asked. And she wasn’t referring to the layout of the kitchen. “I mean, exactly how many broken hearts have you left in your wake, you little temptress?” She caught the peach that was thrown at her head just before it hit her face. “Hey!”
“Do you want to learn to bake a pie or not?” Riza asked, casually tossing another peach in the air and catching it one-handed.
Glancing from her friend to the peach in her own hand, Rebecca grinned.
“I suppose it couldn’t hurt to use all the assets at my disposal, huh? Bring it on, sensei!”
“That’s the spirit,” Riza laughed.
Chapter 7: Come Dancing
In which Riza reveals a hidden talent and Rebecca tries SO HARD to be a good friend. "For the first time in her life, Rebecca ignored a handsome man's attempts at flirting with her."
“Why not come dancing? It’s only natural.”
“Oi, where on earth have you been? I’ve been looking for you everywhere!” Catalina exclaimed, bursting into Hawkeye’s room.
“And yet oddly, my dorm room was the last place you thought to check at this hour?” Hawkeye asked without looking up.
“Yes! Wait, no…shut up! And get dressed, we’re going out,” Catalina announced, hands on her hips.
“Oh, are we?” Hawkeye said absently, her attention still primarily on the papers spread out in front of her. Rebecca resisted the urge to stamp her foot.
“YES!” she cried. “There’s a whole battalion of gorgeous guys in from Western City right now, here for some training thingy, or something. Anyway, I just heard they’re going to be at Templeton’s tonight, since they do a lady’s night deal on Thursdays—you know, no cover charge if you’re female.”
“Oh? That’s nice, I suppose,” Hawkeye said, turning a page of her textbook with maddening calm.
“Riiiizaaaaaa!” Rebecca whined, leaning over her friend’s shoulder and trying to catch her eye. “Don’t you understand what this means?!”
“A group of men, presumably attractive and unattached, are going out to a bar tonight?” Riza returned, hiding her amusement.
“You’re missing the bigger picture, here! It’s a golden opportunity! We’re talking about officers, with respectable salaries and upward mobility! Suppose one of them is lonely and just waiting for the right girl to come along and sweep him off his feet? Come on, I need my wing-woman for this!”
Riza’s lips curved upwards ever so slightly.
“We have early classes tomorrow,” she reminded Rebecca in an even tone.
“So? The night is still young!” Riza spared an incredulous glance at the clock, and Rebecca rolled her eyes and amended: “Ok, not really. But we’re still young, and you’re only young once! And all we have tomorrow is hand-to-hand, anyway, which I know you hate. We can skip it just this one time, pleeeeaaase?”
“I have a paper to write,” Riza said, tapping her pencil idly against the desk. Rebecca sensed Riza’s resolve weakening.
“And it’s not due until Monday; you have the whole weekend to finish it,” she retorted quickly.
“By the time we’re ready to leave, we’ll only have about an hour before curfew. Don’t you think you’ll need a bit more time to sort through your candidates?” Riza asked next.
“Darling, please. You can’t rush perfection. Of course we’ll need more than just an hour.”
“And how do you suppose we’re going to get back on base after curfew without getting caught?”
“I’ve already got that all sorted; don’t you worry,” Rebecca said confidently. Riza found that she wasn’t surprised.
“Do I even want to know?” she asked, raising her eyebrows.
“Best if you don’t ask questions, really. Plausible deniability,” Rebecca beamed at her.
“Oh, for heaven’s sake,” Riza sighed. “All right. Assuming I do agree to this insane scheme of yours, what’s in it for me, exactly?” she asked, finally giving up on her work and turning to face her friend.
“Um...my unwavering admiration and respect?” In spite of herself, Riza chuckled. “Oh! I know – I’ll get us into the kitchens at night again!” Rebecca cried. “We can make another pie or something. I know you had fun last time; don’t even try to deny it!”
“You know, I never did figure out how you pulled that off,” Riza mused, eyeing her friend suspiciously.
Of course, she wasn’t taking the persuasive power of a fresh peach pie into account.
“Strategic use of my feminine wiles,” Rebecca said breezily, waving a hand. “Which are going completely to waste sitting here arguing with you,” she added, tossing her curls petulantly.
“Fine, fine…you win,” Riza said, smiling a little. “I’ll go. But only on one condition – if you drink enough to make yourself physically ill, again, then I will leave you there. Agreed?”
They both knew it was an idle threat. Riza would be angry, and probably end up scolding and lecturing for days, but she would never just leave Rebecca behind. She simply didn’t have it in her to heartlessly abandon a comrade in need of assistance, however sloppily intoxicated that comrade might be. Rebecca pouted anyway.
“Hey, I said I was sorry,” she mumbled. “But I promise I’ll be more careful this time. Honest and true. Cross my heart and hope to die.”
“I’m holding you to that,” Riza warned as she rose, closing her books. “All right, let me just change and we’ll go.” Rebecca cheered and threw her arms around Riza’s middle, squeezing the breath out of her before releasing her just as quickly and bouncing over to the closet.
“Let’s see your options, then,” she said cheerfully. “Templeton’s is a much nicer place than the Wild Turkey, so we’ll need something with a little more class…”
Riza sighed as Rebecca ransacked her meagre wardrobe for something she considered suitable, tuning out the running commentary. (Ugh, no, not this…boring…too plain…boring…lord, no, not that one again…too long…black, Riza, really? With your complexion?) Her usual skirts and blouses were a little plain, Riza had to admit. But she liked them that way.
“Ugh, you still don’t have any dresses, do you?” Rebecca finally cried, exasperated. “Didn’t we talk about this?” But before Riza could answer her, she whirled around with a slightly maniacal look in her eye. “Oh! I know! Wait here; I’ll be right back!”
Riza didn’t even bat an eyelash at her friend’s abrupt announcement and departure. Which, she mused, was clearly a sign of just how inured she had become to the other girl’s impulsive nature.
Just as Riza had finished re-hanging the clothes Rebecca had rejected, her friend reappeared with a garment bag in her arms.
“Here, try this. It was a little bit too long for me, and you’re a just a couple inches taller, so this should be perfect,” she said triumphantly.
Riza unzipped the bag to reveal a soft pink dress. Even as she opened her mouth to protest, she noticed that it was actually quite simply cut, with a modest boat neckline that would conceal both her cleavage and the entirety of the intricate array tattooed on her back. And the skirt would fall, fashionably, just to her calves.
“Rebecca, I can’t just—where did you get this? It doesn’t seem like your usual style,” she asked, momentarily confused. Rebecca favored shorter, more fitted dresses, preferring to show off her figure whenever possible. Her friend just smirked.
“My aunt sent it to me as an early birthday gift. It’s not my style at all, but I can’t exactly tell her ‘no, thanks’ and mail it back. You’ve no idea the drama that would start. I was thinking about donating it or something, but if it suits you, then you really should just keep it. Go on, try it on!” she prompted. “I bet the color will look great on you, too!”
Riza fidgeted, wondering how to strip off without exposing her back. She’d been very careful to keep her father’s legacy hidden from everyone at the academy, even her closest friend. Roy Mustang was the only living person who truly understood its significance, and as such Riza felt he was the only one who deserved to know of its existence at all. It would make for some interesting maneuvering when annual physicals rolled around, that was for sure.
“Good lord. Here,” Rebecca huffed, spinning on her heel so that she faced away from Riza. “Go on! You have til the count of ten, and then I’m turning around, whether you’re decent or not. One…two…”
Riza shucked her uniform and wriggled into the dress in record time. When Rebecca spun back around, she squealed in delight.
“I knew it! It’s perfect! You’ve just got to keep it! No buts, now, I absolutely insist! Throw on some heels and meet me in my dorm in five!” she called over her shoulder, already dashing down the hall.
“What have I gotten myself into?” Riza wondered aloud. But she was smiling as she smoothed a hand over the soft fabric of the dress.
Having resigned herself to spending another tedious evening drinking lukewarm beer in a smoky room while watching everyone around her get drunk and/or flirt shamelessly with strangers, Riza was pleasantly surprised to find that the place Rebecca dragged her into wasn’t a dive bar at all.
Assuming that it was common knowledge, Rebecca had failed to explain that Templeton’s was in fact a popular dance hall on the west side, boasting a much classier clientele than their usual downtown haunts. There was a fully-stocked bar running along the back of the lounge, of course, but the primary draw was the enormous dance floor and the live orchestra that played five nights a week.
As they entered the main lounge, a vocalist onstage was crooning something sweet and soft about pining for his sweetheart back home, which proved that the band knew how to play to their audience. In spite of the ‘Ladies’ Night’ promotion, the crowd inside Templeton’s was predominately male, and a majority of those were men in uniform.
Rebecca heard Riza’s soft gasp, and glanced over in time to catch the slightly widened eyes and parted lips. Following her friend’s gaze to the dance floor, Rebecca grinned in sudden understanding.
“Why didn’t you ever tell me you liked to dance?” she asked, pleased. “We could’ve come here ages ago!”
“I...it never came up; I don’t know,” Riza mumbled, blushing prettily.
“Secret’s out now,” Rebecca laughed, as she seized Riza’s hand to lead her through the crowd.
Rebecca towed Riza over to one of the numerous small tables arranged along three sides of the dance floor, from which people could sit and watch the dancing while impeccably dressed waiters delivered coffees and fancy cocktails. The two girls had only just seated themselves when Rebecca was approached and consequently whisked away by a distinguished-looking sergeant major from that Western Division she’d been going on and on about. But to Riza’s great surprise, she was herself entreated to dance less than a minute later.
Her partner was a tall, handsome brunet—a civilian, judging by his clothing and bearing—and he was about fifteen years her senior. But he proved to be a decent dancer, holding Riza firmly and guiding her competently through the quick, rhythmic steps of a foxtrot. When the song ended, and the music shifted into an old and still popular waltz, Riza’s heart skipped a beat. And in the next moment, she had surrendered herself completely to the languid, gliding movements of her favorite dance.
Truthfully, he was never far from her thoughts to begin with, especially with a permanent reminder of their connection etched onto her back. But this particular dance, to this particular song…how could she not think about Roy Mustang?
The way her partner’s hand shifted to rest just above her hip was achingly familiar. If she closed her eyes, she could almost pretend that the warm, masculine hand in hers belonged to someone else. And if she strained her imagination just a little, Riza could even hear his voice in her ear, gently instructing and encouraging her. This time, though, she was not a clumsy, inexperienced girl being taught to dance by her best friend (and secret crush), blushing as she took her first, faltering steps in the protective circle of his arms. On the contrary, Riza had since become a graceful amateur dancer whose fluid movements and quiet elegance attracted the interest of quite a few men in the hall, if only she’d known it. But her attention was turned inwards, focused on the cherished memory of an autumn evening in the not-so-distant past.
When the song ended, another man materialized at Riza’s side to ask for the next dance. And then another, and then another after that. Since the music was just a shade too loud to allow for easy conversation, Riza’s partners couldn’t spoil her enjoyment of the evening with a stream of meaningless small talk. It was perfectly socially acceptable to let her mind wander to more pleasant subjects.
That was another nice thing about dancing in a place like this, Riza thought. One could appreciate the camaraderie in being a part of a large, boisterous crowd of people that was having a good time, and share in the infectious energy of the group, without actually having to contribute to a single dull conversation.
“One more,” she kept telling herself, with each new song. “Just one more...”
For the first time in her life, Rebecca ignored a handsome man’s attempts to flirt with her.
Leaning against the bar in the back of the room, she watched, amazed, as Riza glided serenely by. Her friend’s talent was unsurprising—Riza had always moved with some degree of grace, so it was only natural that she’d do well on the dance floor. But Rebecca had never seen Riza’s face go all dreamy and soft like that. And then there was that small, wistful smile on her lips, which somehow made Rebecca want to rush over to gather her up in a hug, and stroke her hair, and tell her that everything would be all right. There was a story in there, somewhere, she just knew it. Just as she knew that Riza wasn’t likely to share it without prompting.
“Friend of yours?” her companion asked, a little irked by her wandering attention. He’d just bought the girl a drink; she could at least pretend to laugh at his jokes. Wrenching her eyes away from Riza with an effort, Rebecca offered him her most charming smile.
“I like to think so. Pretty, isn’t she?”
“Not as pretty as you,” he replied immediately, his good humor restored in an instant. Rebecca giggled.
“Flatterer,” she said, batting her eyelashes coyly. “Tell me more.” She was very pleased she’d thought to give Riza that dress tonight. The soft rosy pink was quite easy to keep track of in a crowd, and she’d always been good at multi-tasking.
Some hours later, Hawkeye realized, belatedly, that she and her current partner had drawn far more attention than she liked with their extremely well-executed quickstep. The dancers around them had actually stopped and formed a small circle, as though enjoying an exhibition put on by professionals. Riza’s first instinct was to bolt, and her second was to think of a valid excuse so that she could bolt gracefully without drawing even more attention to herself.
So as the band struck up a louder and faster number, and another would-be partner approached her with a cheerful smile and an outstretched hand, she plastered a politely regretful expression on her face and shook her head no. Gesturing vaguely toward the powder room, she then mouthed ‘sorry’ at the disappointed man just before she turned to flee.
Riza wove her way carefully through the crowd, suddenly desperate to find Rebecca. We really shouldn’t stay any longer; it’s gotten far too late, nagged the responsible voice in her head.
“Riza!” someone shouted to her left. Riza spun just in time for Rebecca to throw her arms around her in a loose-limbed hug.
“There you are! Are you all right?” Riza asked, concerned. But Rebecca simply smiled.
“Here I am! And yes, I’m fine. I’ve been drinking gin gimlets with some of the boys. They weren’t half bad, either; I think you’d like them. The drinks, I mean, not the boys. Although those were all right, too,” she giggled, and Riza shook her head and hid her smile. And then it occurred to Rebecca that maybe after a few drinks, Riza would be willing to share the story behind her hitherto unmentioned love of dancing. “Come on, let’s go get you a drink or three,” Rebecca chirped, slinging her arm around Riza’s waist affectionately and steering her back towards the bar.
“Oh, no,” Riza said firmly. “No, thank you.” Feeling slightly guilty for having ignored her friend for so long, she made no attempt to remove the arm around her waist, although she did plant her feet to prevent being dragged across to the bar. “Gin gimlets? I thought we discussed this? I don’t have to leave you here, do I?” she teased.
“I’m not drunk, geez,” she huffed, withdrawing her arm from around her friend in order to place both hands on her hips. “Barely even buzzed. And I said I was sorry about that other time!”
“Yes, so you did,” Riza conceded, smiling fondly at her. “But in any case, shouldn’t we head back soon?”
“I guess it is getting pretty late,” Rebecca admitted, pursing her lips. “We can go now, if you’re ready.”
“I think we’d better. It may be easier to sneak back onto campus before the sun rises,” she said dryly, turning to lead the way to the exit. Now that she’d stopped dancing, her aching feet were loudly protesting their confinement in her very cute and very impractical high-heeled shoes (which Rebecca had persuaded her to buy).
“Aw, we’ll be fine,” Rebecca said lightly, looping her arm through Riza’s as they reached the foyer. The heavy doors thudded shut behind them, muffling the music and noise within so efficiently that Riza was left with the disconcerting impression that she’d suddenly gone deaf. But the soft clacking of their heels along the pavement reassured her, and suddenly she was extremely grateful for the sleepy stillness of the empty street around them.
Riza drew in a deep lungful of the fresh, crisp air and shivered slightly, appreciating the solid warmth of Rebecca’s arm in hers. Rebecca was uncharacteristically quiet, which told Riza that she was lost in thought.
“So, target-rich environment tonight,” Riza prompted after walking a few blocks in companionable silence. “Did you meet anyone interesting?”
“Hm, not really,” Rebecca replied. “There was this cute redhead with the prettiest green eyes, but then the jerk groped my ass while we were standing at the bar. Pig,” she added, tossing her head.
“Want me to go back and clock him?” Riza said, glancing back over her shoulder in the direction of Templeton’s. Rebecca snickered.
“Nah, s’okay. It’d be almost criminal to damage such a pretty face—you should’ve seen his cheekbones! And besides, I groped him back, so I figure that makes us even.”
“Oh god, Catalina,” Riza gasped. “Are we going to be allowed back?”
“And here I thought you didn’t really like that kind of place?” Rebecca asked, coyly tilting her head to one side. “You always drag your heels whenever I suggest a night out.”
“Yes, well,” Riza said defensively. “At your usual bar, all I do is sit and nurse my beer in silence while you work the room. And after all the fun we had that last time…”she trailed off when she caught sight of Rebecca’s smirk. “What?”
“Oh, nothing. But I’m on to you, now, Fancy Feet,” Rebecca grinned. “You really like dancing, don’t you? At first I thought you were just too nice to say no to all those guys. And then I realized–you were genuinely enjoying yourself out there.”
“I…I wouldn’t be opposed to going there again, sometime,” Riza said carefully. Rebecca laughed. That was tantamount to an enthusiastic speech full of lavish praise, coming from Riza.
“That can most definitely be arranged,” Rebecca replied brightly. Cheered by Riza’s answering smile, she threw caution to the wind. “Sooooooo, who were you thinking about during all those slow songs with such a smile on your face? Go on, spill.”
“What? N-no, I wasn’t…were you watching me?” Riza spluttered.
“Well, of course I was! Had to keep an eye on my girl and make sure no one tried anything funny, didn’t I?”
“I can take care of myself,” Riza grumbled.
“Preaching to the choir,” Rebecca giggled. “I’ve seen you in action, remember? O-ooh, was it your Mr. Unrequited?”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Riza managed. But even in the semi-darkness of the quiet street, her flushed cheeks were obvious.
“So it was him, huh?” Rebecca said sagely, raising an eyebrow. “Are you ever gonna tell me his name, even? Or what he looks like? How you two met? Come on, you’ve gotta give me something to work with, here.”
“There’s nothing to tell,” Riza insisted, forgetting that she’d been feigning ignorance. “I told you, he’s just a friend. I haven’t even seen him in…years, now.”
“So what? Doesn’t mean you don’t still care for him.”
“Of course I care about him; didn’t I just say we were friends?”
“Friends?” Rebecca echoed, unconvinced. “Okay, then what was so interesting about this ‘just-a-friend’ that your attention was totally focused on him while you were dancing? You had all those gorgeous men practically fighting over you all night, and you didn’t even notice!”
“I –” Riza’s mind went blank. She hadn’t noticed. “I don’t know what you’re talking about,” she said again, faintly.
“You really don’t, do you?” Rebecca said in a changed tone. “While you were dancing, especially during the slower songs, you’d get this expression on your face. It’s a little hard to describe, but it was sort of happy and sad at the same time. You looked…” Heartbroken, was what she wanted to say. “You looked like you were a million miles away.”
Both girls were silent for a long moment.
“You’re right. I was a million miles away,” Riza finally admitted, hesitant. “I was just…remembering. One of the songs they played tonight, one of the waltzes….well, you see, my friend was the person who first taught me how to dance, and it happened to be to that very song. I hadn’t heard it in quite a while, and it made me feel a bit nostalgic. I suppose I got a bit caught up thinking about those days, and about how much his friendship meant to me, back then. That’s all.”
“Oh,” Rebecca managed, mind reeling. And suddenly she felt like a complete ass.
She’d discovered early on that it was difficult for quiet, reserved Riza to trust anyone with personal information, however small the tidbit might be. Once she’d figured it out, Rebecca had resolved to be a friend who was worthy of that trust, hoping that she could become the kind of confidant Riza had never had, growing up.
And what had she done instead?
At the merest hint of a mystery, at the slightest chance that Riza might have a secret she’d not yet shared, Rebecca had plowed right in. With all the grace and tact of a raging bull in a china shop, she’d tried to force a confidence to satisfy her own selfish curiosity, without any regard for her friend’s feelings. What kind of friend did that?
Heartily ashamed of herself, Rebecca opened her mouth to apologize and to beg Riza to just forget she’d ever asked; forget that she’d said anything at all. But before she could speak, Riza shot her a sly look from under her lashes.
“And no, I’m definitely not telling you his name,” she said in an amused tone. Once again, Rebecca was floored. But she recovered quickly.
“Aw, why not?” And why aren’t you angry with me?
“Because I know you,” Riza said lightly, giving Rebecca’s arm a little squeeze.
“Oh?” Rebecca croaked around the lump in her throat. Overcome by a wave of affection, she squeezed Riza’s arm a little more tightly in return.
“Mm-hm.” Riza went on. “If I gave you a name, you’d probably find a way to contact him, and concoct some sort of elaborate plan to reunite us, in hopes that one of us would spontaneously declare undying love for the other the moment we’re together in the same room,” she went on. “You’re picking out wedding colors even as we speak, aren’t you?”
“I was thinking an autumn wedding,” Rebecca replied in a dreamy voice. Let it not be said that Rebecca Catalina was not remarkably quick on the uptake. If Riza wanted a bit of lighthearted humor to smooth over her embarrassment at having shared something so personal, than that’s exactly what Rebecca would provide. “I’ve always looked good in red, you know. Maybe with gold accents? And of course, you’d be radiant in ivory satin.”
“Ivory? I thought the bride was meant to wear white?”
“Pure, stark white hardly looks good on anyone. It’d wash out that peaches and cream complexion of yours, and we certainly can’t have that. Ivory or even cream would be far better. You could’ve just blown me off, you know,” she added, unable to stop herself.
“If it were anyone else, I would have,” Riza replied lightly, without pause. “You’ve certainly got your work cut out for you if you intend to have me married off by autumn. You’ve still got to find the groom, for one thing. Oh, and you will by my maid of honor, won’t you?” she added, turning to smile brightly at Rebecca.
Rebecca laughed, and the lingering knot of anxiety in her stomach dissolved entirely.
“I’d be honored to! I hope your man has some good-looking, single friends. Isn’t it traditional for the maid of honor to hook up with the best man at a wedding?”
“You’re incorrigible,” Riza managed through her giggles.
“It’s one of my best traits,” Rebecca agreed cheerfully.
Chapter 8: Tea and Sympathy
In which Riza is feeling sad and trying not to show it, and Rebecca puts her newly-acquired best friend skills to the test. Also, shoes.
“When the chips are not exactly down but just scattered about, you discover who your real friends are.”
Although they had shared classes and living quarters with her for over a year, Riza Hawkeye remained something of a mystery to the majority of her fellow cadets. With the exception of Catalina, very few of them knew anything about her at all.
Her natural reserve and habitually impassive expression worked against her, leading some to believe she was cold or unfeeling or snobbish, where she was merely more adept at concealing her true emotions than they. More than one person had been surprised by the quiet kindness just beneath her stoic façade, and those few who saw her in the company of Rebecca Catalina were amazed by the warmth of her smile and the quickness of her wit. Though many soon realized that they had misjudged her, Hawkeye still wasn’t the easiest person to get close to.
So one morning, when Catalina overheard a freshmen cadet telling his friend that Hawkeye-sempai was acting strange, she thought nothing of it.
But then Hawkeye didn’t turn up at lunch. Rebecca shrugged off her uneasiness and sat at a table with some of the guys she knew from hand-to hand training. Riza would know where to find her when she came in. There was no reason to worry about her. And yet, Rebecca found herself scanning the dining hall every few minutes, too distracted to follow the thread of the conversation and swallowing her food without even tasting it.
Where on earth is she? Rebecca wondered. Could something have happened?
Telling herself that she was being ridiculous, Rebecca finally excused herself from the table and set out to search for her missing friend.
What, she can’t skip one meal every once in a while? Rebecca asked herself as she marched down the hall. I’m not her mother, for pity’s sake; her eating habits are none of my business. After all, a single unexplained absence didn’t automatically mean Riza was sick or injured or lying dead in a ditch somewhere. Maybe she simply wasn’t hungry. Or maybe she’d wanted a little time to herself; she’d told Rebecca before that she felt that way on occasion. She was probably just in her room, reading or napping or something.
Riza wasn’t in her room.
And she wasn’t lying sick in the infirmary.
She was neither working out in the gym nor squeezing in a bit of extra practice down at the firing range.
And none of their mutual acquaintance seemed to have seen her, either. But Rebecca was definitely NOT getting worried. Because there was nothing to be worried about.
She nearly skived off her afternoon class to keep on looking for Riza, once the lunch period ended. Communications was so dull that she rarely paid attention to the lectures, anyway, so it wasn’t as though she’d miss much if she didn’t go.
But then again, Riza never skipped any of her classes, and Comm was one of the few they had together. Surely she’d turn up there, with a totally normal, mundane reason to explain where she’d wandered off to. And then she’d take careful, copious notes (which she’d let Rebecca borrow later), while Rebecca doodled caricatures of their lecturer all over her own notes and teased the occasional smile out of her friend.
Rebecca sighed. And then grumbled a little. And finally, she joined the throng of cadets heading to Lecture Hall HH130.
Communications was one of the larger classes, and as such it was held in an enormous lecture hall with stadium-style seating. Riza had once referred to it as her favorite classroom, because it reminded her of a drawing she’d seen of an ancient Xerxesian amphitheater. Rebecca had laughed hysterically at the mental image of their instructor dressed in the traditional black and white robes purportedly worn by the Xerxesian performers. The man was certainly narcissistic enough to be an actor.
After a quick look around confirmed that Riza hadn’t arrived before her, Rebecca dashed up the steps and chose a seat near the back. Wasn’t Riza always reminding her that having the high ground was a tactical advantage?
She grew increasingly nervous with every passing moment, scanning each and every face as her fellow cadets trickled into the hall. By the time the final bell rang, signaling the beginning of class, Rebecca was beginning to actively panic. Because Major Heller had started the day’s lecture, in that irritating, raspy voice of his, and Riza still hadn’t arrived.
Just as she was formulating an escape plan, which may or may not have involved belly-crawling to an open window out of the Major’s direct line of sight and shimmying down a drainpipe, the hallway door opened, drawing nearly every eye in the room.
Hawkeye, looking very much alive and unharmed, though perhaps a bit pale, excused herself very quietly when Major Heller turned to see what everyone was looking at. Without another word, she handed him a note. He glanced at it briefly before nodding and directing her to take the empty seat in the front row, just to his left. Unfortunately for Rebecca, that particular seat was miles away from the spot she’d saved in the second to the last row.
The next hour was torturous.
From her vantage point, Catalina could only see the back of Hawkeye’s head. And none of the people between them could even be trusted to pass a note with any degree of reliability. Every so often, Hawkeye would half turn her head as if she wanted to glance back over her shoulder, revealing a small sliver of her profile. She probably felt Rebecca’s curious eyes burning a hole in the back of her head. Or maybe she was lonely sitting all by herself, too. This last thought made Rebecca smile, just a little. It was nice to imagine that her presence might be missed.
At long last, the Major wrapped up his dreary lecture and dismissed the class. Rebecca had bounded down the steps and wriggled her way into the row behind Riza’s before most of the class had even registered the dismissal.
Ignoring the eye rolls and whispers from the group of girls sitting nearby, Rebecca flung her arms around Riza’s neck from behind. Deviating from her usual passive acceptance of Rebecca’s affectionate attack-hugs, Riza actually placed a hand over Rebecca’s arms where they crossed over her collarbone, to hold them in place for a moment. And unless Rebecca was hallucinating, Riza leaned back against her as well, participating in the embrace to the extent that she was able.
“I swear that lecture was even worse than the usual. That man makes ninety minutes feel like ninety days,” Rebecca whined, tightening her hold on Riza just a fraction before releasing her.
“I hope you at least took notes,” Riza replied lightly, tilting her head back to meet Rebecca’s eyes. “I might even have to borrow yours, this time.” Rebecca clambered unceremoniously over the row of seats between them and slid down into the space beside her friend. Feigning annoyance, Rebecca sighed loudly while surreptitiously scanning Riza’s face.
“I can’t believe I actually had to pay attention to the lecture. Do you have any idea how painful that was?”
“I have a fair idea, yes,” Riza replied, quirking her lips into a smile. But her face was still several shades too pale for Rebecca’s peace of mind, and her amusement didn’t quite reach her soft, sad eyes. Rebecca chose her next words carefully.
“Missed you at lunch today,” she said. “I saved you one of those little quiche thingies you like, but then Stevens swiped it from my tray when I wasn’t looking.” Where were you?
“Never drop your guard,” Riza said wryly. “Thanks for the thought, though. Tactics let out early today, and I wasn’t very hungry, so I went out to get some fresh air instead.”
As she’d first suspected, then. Riza had wanted some alone time, and sacrificed her lunch break to get it. Well, that was all right, but…if she’d gotten her hour of peace and quiet, then why did she still look so peaked? And what about that cadet who’d claimed that she’d been acting odd? There was something else going on, here.
“Must have been a pretty long walk if it made you late to class,” Rebecca said, with what she hoped was a nonchalant air. “I was afraid you’d ditched without telling me.”
“I wouldn’t dream of it,” Riza assured her. “And actually, I ran into Lt. Colonel Weston on my way back. She asked me to deliver some paperwork to the quartermaster’s office for her. It took longer than I thought it would.”
“She might have picked an errand girl who wasn’t due in a class,” Rebecca frowned.
“No, it was my own fault. I had trouble finding the office, at first. I must have circled the building twice.”
“Lemme guess,” Rebecca interrupted. “Is his office in that big white building by the library, the one with all the trees around it?”
“Yes, how’d you know?” Riza asked, mildly surprised.
“That damn place is like a maze. I’ve gotten lost there, too.” Rebecca admitted. “Sorry, go on?”
“Well, since I was late arriving, I had to wait a few extra minutes for the ranking officer to come back down and sign the authorization forms, which I then had to take back to Lt. Colonel Weston.”
“Geez, what a pain. Doesn’t she have an aide?” Rebecca asked.
“Out sick,” Riza explained, absently watching the last of their classmates file out of the lecture hall. “And I didn’t really mind; it was a simple enough errand.”
She really didn’t seem to mind, Rebecca mused. So it wasn’t the mild annoyance of running all around campus during her break that was bothering her, either.
“Fair enough,” she said. “So how’d you get away with waltzing in here fifteen minutes late? Heller doesn’t seem the type to take bribes…”
“I had a note,” Riza explained, smiling faintly. “Since I’d done her a favor, Lt. Colonel Weston wrote me a pass to excuse me from attending Communications today.”
“You mean you could have skipped it entirely? And gotten away with it?” Rebecca cried. “Then what on earth are you doing here?!”
“I thought it was better to suffer along with everyone else rather than mope around in my room by myself,” she said. “Besides, who would have taken notes for you if I hadn’t come?”
“You make an excellent point,” Rebecca admitted. Mope around, huh? Ok, now she was getting somewhere. “I still can’t believe Heller didn’t give you one of his infamous speeches about the consequences of our actions,” she added, shaking her head.
“I’m just lucky the Lt. Colonel outranks him, or I’d probably still be running laps as punishment for disrupting his class,” Riza retorted, with almost her usual sass. Rebecca grinned.
“Hey, Comm’s my last class for the day,” Rebecca announced brightly. And she had the beginnings of a brilliant idea. “It’s your last one too, right? Do you have any plans for the rest of the afternoon?”
“Not really, no,” Riza said absentmindedly, gathering her notes into a neat pile.
“No?” Rebecca echoed, her grin turning cat-like.
“I mean, I was thinking about catching up on some reading,” Riza added hurriedly, looking askance at Rebecca as if she feared being roped into some harebrained scheme. Rebecca stuck her tongue out at her.
“Well, I was thinking about heading downtown to do a bit of shopping,” she said. “I really need some new stockings; my best pair suddenly sprouted a nasty run down the back. Plus I could use another lipstick. Apparently orange is back in fashion, heaven help us all. Want to come with? We can maybe grab an early dinner at one of those little cafés on the way back. Spare ourselves the tuna casserole on the menu tonight,” she added, making a face.
Riza only hesitated for a moment.
“Sure, why not? If you’re up for it, there’s a new café on 5th I’d like to try.”
Yes, I know, Rebecca thought.
Aloud, she simply said: “Perfect! Let’s get going, then!”
The shops downtown were lively, teeming with University students and civilians who also seemed to have the afternoon free. The girls chatted lightly as they walked, alternating between teasing each other and discussing their earlier classes and classmates, since they hadn’t had the opportunity to talk during lunch.
Riza was clearly making an effort to be her usual self. And if she didn’t know Riza as well as she did, Rebecca might never have noticed the difference. But Riza’s occasional silences were heavy, and her gentle laughter was just slightly forced. And when Rebecca dragged her into another random embrace, Riza submitted with a sad, soft smile and clung to her just a little more tightly than normal. Her eyes gave it away, Rebecca decided. There was something dark and painful lurking just beneath the surface of those pretty brown eyes, and it was something that Riza clearly wasn’t ready to talk about just yet.
But this time, Rebecca was determined not to pry. Regardless of what had caused it, Riza was hurting. That was all that mattered, here. It would be pointless to ask if she was okay, because she obviously wasn’t. If and when she was ready to talk about it, then Rebecca would be waiting. But for now, rather than push, Rebecca focused her efforts on cheering her friend up the best way she knew how: retail therapy.
“What about this one?” Rebecca asked innocently, holding up a perfectly hideous yellow and brown dress with puffed sleeves. Riza glanced up from the rack she’d been absently perusing and nearly choked.
“I realize I’m no fashion maven,” she managed. “But I’m fairly certain that dress is a crime against humanity.” Rebecca giggled and held it out in front of herself, twisting it this way and that.
“Isn’t it horrible?” she said, laughing. “I don’t think even I could make this look good. How do you suppose they get the sleeves like this?”
“I could explain the how, but not the why,” Riza said, gingerly poking one. “Please tell me this isn’t something women are wearing on purpose.” Rebecca’s laughter was infectious, and soon both girls were giggling, not deterred in the least by the shopkeeper’s baleful glare. Rebecca appeased the woman’s wrath by purchasing three blouses and a skirt that she didn’t need before dragging Riza off to the next shop.
“What on earth are you going to do with that olive-green one?” Riza asked, as they entered the drugstore. “I thought you hated that color.”
“I do! It makes my skin look ghastly—all yellow and sickly. But I could send it to my aunt as an early birthday gift,” Rebecca explained, making a beeline for the candy-colored display of lipsticks and lip glosses.
“The same aunt who sent you the pink dress that you passed on to me?” Riza asked, trailing along after her.
“That’s the one.”
“And here I thought you liked her,” Riza teased.
“That’s the only reason I didn’t buy her that canary yellow dress instead,” Rebecca replied cheerfully. “Now here, what about this color?” she added, holding up a slim black tube.
“It’s fine,” Riza said automatically, without looking at it.
“You haven’t even tried it!” Rebecca protested.
“Wait, you meant for me?” Riza asked, slightly alarmed. “You know I don’t really…”
“Wear much makeup?” Rebecca supplied. “Yes, I know, but I’m not asking you to slather it on with a trowel the way our dear friend Scott does. We’re talking about a little bit of lipstick!” she argued. Riza still looked doubtful. Rebeca sighed. “Look, just try it. It’s a nice light one, very sheer. Hardly any color at all.”
“Then what’s the point?” Riza wondered aloud.
Rebecca ignored her. She turned her attention toward the clerk and bought the lipstick anyway, along with her own two lipsticks and the powder and mascara that the sales girl talked her into.
Thinking she’d escaped successfully, Riza was therefore unprepared for Rebecca’s sneak attack. After a confused flurry of motion (where Rebecca used Riza’s natural dislike of drawing unwanted attention to herself against her), Riza found herself blinking bemusedly into a mirror—at what, she wasn’t certain.
“See? I told you; it’s perfect for you,” Rebecca was saying triumphantly. “Just a tiny bit of extra color and shine. And it’s got all kinds of moisturizers and conditioners and what all else mixed in there, so it will keep your lips from getting chapped, too.”
Riza finally realized she was meant to be forming an opinion on the lipstick that had just been forcibly applied. Studying her own reflection, she was surprised to find that Rebecca was right. It was a good color on her.
“It’s…pretty,” she admitted, flushing a bit at her own vanity. Rebecca beamed.
“Told ya,” she retorted, pressing the tube into Riza’s hands. “Pretty AND practical. No downside. Now come on, let’s find this café of yours! If I’m getting hungry, then you must be absolutely famished, since you skipped lunch.”
Riza’s café turned out to be a frilly little tea shop rather than the sidewalk bistro Rebecca had been imagining. But she saw the way Riza’s face brightened at the prospect of a fancy afternoon tea, and so she swallowed her objections and focused her attention on the menu.
By the time the waitress brought them a tray of delicate little tea sandwiches, Rebecca had laid all of her doubts to rest. The décor was a little on the fussy side, sure, with the lacey doilies, the floral motif on the porcelain tea service, and a general overabundance of the color pink. However, the blend of tea they’d chosen was brewed to perfection, the flavor smooth and faintly floral and unlike anything else Rebecca had tasted. And although she’d been wondering how a few prissy finger foods could satisfy anyone’s appetite, the veritable mountain of cucumber, chicken salad, and egg salad sandwiches on the tray relieved her concerns on that front. She was actually a little shocked when the waitress returned a moment later with second tray, piled high with scones and delicate little bowls of jam and clotted cream and lemon curd.
“Wow, and here I’d been wondering whether I’d have to sneak into the kitchen tonight for some of that tuna casserole,” she commented, awed. Riza smirked at her over the rim of her porcelain cup.
“Have you never had an afternoon tea before?” she asked.
“Nope, not like this. I mean, my mother’s friends used to do a bridge club thing where they served tea and cucumber sandwiches, but they were nothing like these. Nor was the tea, come to that—always tasted like bitter, damp dog fur to me.”
“No wonder you made that face when you saw the sign on the door,” Riza chuckled. “I was about to suggest that we go someplace else, but then you marched right inside.”
“Well,” Rebecca squirmed a little. “I knew you’d been wanting to try this place, and I didn’t want to ruin it for you. Plus I figured I owed you for all those times you’ve gone along to the bars with me without whining about it.”
“Thank you,” Riza said softly.
“Hm? Oh, well of course. I mean, like I said, you’ve gone along with my whims often enough,” Rebecca started to say, as she bit into her second cucumber sandwich.
“No, I mean…thank you. Not just for this,” Riza said, gesturing to the tea accoutrements between them. “But for all of it, the whole afternoon. I needed a bit of cheering up…and this has really helped.”
“Y-you’re welcome. I mean, what else are friends for, yeah?” Rebecca stammered, a little embarrassed at being caught out. She supposed she really shouldn’t have been so surprised that Riza had noticed what she was trying to do—Riza Hawkeye was no one’s fool.
The two girls ate in amiable silence for a few moments, until Rebecca happened to glance up and see the slightly pinched look back on Riza’s face.
Well, that wouldn’t do.
Carefully, Rebecca set her tea cup back in the saucer and folded her hands almost primly before her.
“Hey,” she said softly, startling Riza into looking up at her. “Look, I know something’s been bugging you, and maybe you’d rather not talk about whatever it is. But just so you know - I’m here to listen. Ok?”
Riza’s eyes went suspiciously moist. Before Rebecca could have a panic attack over making her best friend cry, they were rescued by the waitress, who cheerfully delivered a fresh pot of tea and a small plate of exquisite little dessert tarts. By the time she’d gone, Riza had composed herself.
“I don’t think I can eat another bite,” she said ruefully, admiring the tiny lemon tarts. “But these are so pretty I can’t bear to think of letting them go to waste.”
“Oh, we’re not letting these go to waste,” Rebecca said, determined. “If they won’t box them up for us, then I’m stealing one of these horrid pink napkins and sweeping the whole lot into my shopping bag before they can stop me. Except for this one. I’m eating this one,” she added, popping a delicate raspberry tart into her mouth. She made an obscene noise in the back of her throat, and Riza tried and failed to hide a giggle. “Oh god,” Rebecca moaned. “I’m gonna make myself sick, and I don’t even care.”
“I guess just one wouldn’t hurt,” Riza mused, plucking a lemon tart from the tray and biting into it delicately. “Well, damn,” she murmured a moment later.
“What’s the matter?” Rebecca asked, concerned. Riza just sighed.
“These taste better than I thought they would,” she said sorrowfully. “And I’m too full to eat another one.” Rebecca snickered.
“So, hey, have you been to a place like this before?” she asked.
“Mm, no, not to an actual tea shop,” Riza replied thoughtfully. “But there were a few women back home who liked the tradition of afternoon tea. It was usually much simpler fare, just sandwiches and tea. But they went all out for Sunday afternoons, baking little popovers and cakes and things the day before as a special treat for the end of the week. And then, after…” she trailed off, and a crease appeared between her brows.
“After?” Rebecca prompted softly, aware that she was perilously close to dangerous territory. Damn those expressive eyes of hers, she thought, watching Riza’s face carefully.
“After my father died,” Riza said quietly, toying with her teacup. “They started to make more of an effort to include me. Feeding me was their way of showing that they cared, I suppose. Suddenly I was being invited to afternoon tea almost every other day, rather than just every now and then. You know,” she laughed a little. “It’s just occurred to me that they must have had some sort of schedule worked out between them, because it was a different family asking me each time, and never more than one at a time.”
“They sound like some pretty amazing people,” Rebecca said. She’d slipped her hand across the table and curled her fingers around Riza’s without even consciously choosing to do so. Riza, looking down at their joined hands, just smiled.
“They are,” she said simply. And then she looked directly into Rebecca’s eyes. “I’m very grateful to have friends like that.”
“The kind who like to stuff you full of tea and cake on a regular basis?” Rebecca said lightly, even as warmth flooded her chest.
“The kind who can tell that I’m feeling low, and do their level best to cheer me up,” Riza replied. “The kind who can almost make me forget why today’s date is significant.”
An anniversary, then. A birthday or a date of death, maybe. The specific event, and whether it was her mother’s or her father’s, didn’t really signify—the point was that something had happened on this date that made Riza sad to think about, and she was willingly sharing that information with Rebecca. Also, Rebecca realized with a start, she was declaring that the efforts to cheer her up had not been entirely in vain.
“Oh? So the kind that really love you, then,” Rebecca said, squeezing Riza’s hand gently. “And who know that you’d do the same for them in a heartbeat, if the tables were turned.”
“I would, yes,” Riza affirmed, blushing a little bit. Both girls were silent for a slightly awkward moment, as each grappled with her own flood of emotions which seemed far too sentimental and foolish to express aloud. “I’m sorry; I didn’t mean to get all sappy on you,” Riza finally added with a nervous little smile.
“Don’t be sorry. I promise not to hold it against you,” Rebecca said, still feeling oddly shy herself. “Hey, you know what always cheers me up when I’m having a crappy day?” she asked, perking up. “New shoes.”
“The ridiculously impractical ones that make your feet ache just looking at them?” Riza replied, smiling a little more naturally now that the awkward moment had passed.
“Yes! Especially those!” Riza pretended to consider the point, tapping a finger against her chin.
“Well, you do make a compelling argument,” she said, amused. “So…shall we hit up one last shop before we head back?”
“Excellent plan. Oh, hey! Betsy’s is open for another hour. If we hurry, we can burn off some of the calories we’ve just consumed AND still have time to try on the really expensive heels that we’ll never actually be able to afford.”
“Speak for yourself,” Riza said archly. “I haven’t just spent my entire monthly allowance on makeup and low-cut blouses. Maybe I can finally get those red and black ruched-satin peep-toe stilettos we’ve been talking about.”
“You wouldn’t!” Rebecca gasped, scandalized. “I’ve been drooling over those shoes for weeks!”
“I’ll let you borrow them, sometime,” Riza said breezily. “Maybe. If I’m feeling generous.”
“So cruel!” Rebecca wailed, slumping dramatically in her seat. “What if I promise to do all your laundry for a month?” she cried, sitting bolt upright again. “No, two months! I’ll make your bed every morning! I’ll give you all of my desserts at every meal!”
Riza’s soft laughter was music to Rebecca’s ears, and she threw out the most outrageous bargaining chips she could think of, just to hear it again.
And when they finally left the café (in possession of a small paper box containing the leftover tarts, to Rebecca’s delight), Riza turned to her friend with a smile so bright and so warm that Rebecca’s heart’s skipped a beat in reflexive joy.
There’s my girl, she thought, beaming back at her. The little wisps of sadness and pain would probably always be there, lurking just beneath the surface. But as long as it was within her power to do so, Rebecca silently vowed that she would make sure Riza remembered to keep on smiling, too.
Because that’s what friends did for each other.
Chapter 9: Cherished
In which Rebecca finds Riza's stash of childhood treasures and Riza reminisces about the items therein. "You are literally the cutest thing ever!"
“We cherish our friends not for their ability to amuse us, but for ours to be amused by them.”
“And then he said: ‘I’m sorry I let you down.’ Can you believe the nerve?” Rebecca cried. She flung herself dramatically onto Riza’s bed, rumpling the bedclothes and knocking off a pillow in the process.
Riza didn’t really mind. It was a vast improvement over the pacing, which had been incredibly distracting. Especially when one had a heated electrical appliance in hand.
“At least he had the guts to tell you to your face, rather than let you find out from someone else. And he did say he was sorry,” she reasoned, running the iron across a wrinkled pair of slacks. Rebecca huffed loudly and rolled over onto her stomach.
“I know,” she groaned. “I want to be furious, but the scum-sucking bastard is actually trying to do the right thing…I can’t even be pissed off, because he’s being so damned noble about everything! It’s not fair!” Riza bit back a chuckle.
“The least he could do is behave like a cad so that you could have the satisfaction of being the morally superior one,” she teased gently.
“Yes, exactly!” Rebecca cried, in a voice slightly muffled from the way her face was pressed against the mattress. Riza spared a glance at the clock.
“That’s time,” she said softly. Rebecca let out a heavy sigh.
“Okay. Thanks. I’m all done, now.”
“You don’t have to impose a time limit on yourself,” Riza said, resuming her ironing. “I wouldn’t mind if you wanted to keep discussing it.”
“You mean keep whining about it,” Rebecca replied with a rueful grin. “But no, having a self-imposed time limit actually helps,” she admitted. “You’re far too kind to interrupt me otherwise, and I don’t want all of our conversations to be dominated by my pathetic love life. Besides, this way I can’t dwell on it too much.”
As she spoke, Rebecca rolled herself halfway off the bed, clinging to the edge as she reached for the pillow she’d knocked to the ground. It was, of course, too far away, so she finally dropped down onto the floor with a thud. Just after she snagged the wayward pillow, something under Riza’s bed caught her eye, and she froze in the act of pushing herself to her knees.
“When did I tear this sleeve...?” Riza was muttering under her breath, frowning down at one of her white uniform blouses. Realizing that Rebecca had gone oddly silent, she looked over at the spot her friend had lately been occupying. “Catalina? You all right down there?” Riza asked, craning her neck to see around the far end of the bed.
“Yeah, fine, sorry,” Rebecca said, popping back into view as she finally pulled herself upright. “I was just wondering what that thing under your bed was.”
“Under my—? Oh...that’s my treasure box,” Riza confessed.
“Treasure box?” Rebecca repeated with interest, eyes lighting up. Riza flushed slightly.
“I know it’s a little childish of me,” she acknowledged. “But…there are a few mementos I like to keep close to me. They aren’t valuable, or anything, I just didn’t want to leave them back home when I left.”
Rebecca was still kneeling at the side of the bed, and her eyes drifted downwards and to the left as her friend spoke. Her curiosity was blatantly obvious.
“Yes, you can rummage through it, if you like,” Riza said, amused. “But only after you hand me my sewing kit, so I can fix this tear. Bottom drawer, on the left,” she added, pointing at her desk.
Rebecca bounced to her feet at once. With the air of a cat pouncing on a mouse, she unearthed the kit from the depths of the desk drawer in mere seconds.
“Ta-dah!” she cried, beaming as she presented it to her friend. Riza had to laugh.
“Thank you...you know, it’s really not that exciting. Don’t get your hopes up too high,” she cautioned.
Rebecca ignored her and dove under the bed again, while Riza sat at her desk and calmly set about threading a needle. Settling back on the end of the bed cross-legged, Rebecca examined her find with great interest.
The so-called treasure box certainly didn’t look like anything special. It was a nondescript rectangular metal box, about five inches deep and roughly the length and width of a standard sheet of paper. Rebecca tugged at the lid expectantly, and frowned when it didn’t budge. Before she could do more than pout, though, a small key landed on the bed beside her. She glanced up to see Riza’s faint smile, although her attention was already back on her mending. Rebecca inserted the key into the lock almost reverently.
Inside, Rebecca found a few photographs and an odd assortment of seemingly worthless trinkets, along with some folded-up papers down at the bottom. She went for the photos first.
The first one she picked up was of a little blonde girl sitting on a man’s knee. Riza and her father, Rebecca assumed, given that the little girl looked like a miniature version of her friend, ribbons and curls notwithstanding. There wasn’t much of a family resemblance. But it was a charming picture: the father-daughter pair looked like they’d been laughing just a moment before the photo was snapped, all bright eyes and wide grins. Rebecca smiled down at them and then carefully set the photo aside.
The next one was an old fashioned wedding photo. The bride was ducking her head shyly and peeking up at the camera from beneath her lashes, clutching a bouquet of wildflowers to her breast with one hand and her new husband’s arm with the other. But wait a moment...the bride looked almost exactly like Riza. So much so that it couldn’t be anyone other than her mother. But the serious man standing beside her was definitely not the same person in the first photo. Holding them side by side, Rebecca wondered who the man in the first one was, laughing so cheerfully with little Riza on his knee. Perhaps a beloved uncle? Or a close friend of the family? Oh, that could be it! Hadn’t Riza said an old family friend had encouraged her to join the military, back when the girls had first met? And this man was wearing a military uniform, so that certainly fit.
Appeased, Rebecca turned her attention back to the wedding photo and studied the groom, who must be Riza’s father. Although he seemed very solemn at first glance, Rebecca recognized the faint smile on his lips - his daughter smiled in exactly the same way when she was quietly pleased about something. Well, it certainly explained where her reserve had come from, Rebecca thought with a grin. But the resemblance to her mother was simply uncanny. If she hadn’t known better, Rebecca would have sworn that it was her friend’s face smiling out at her. Tearing her eyes away at last, she moved on to the third and final photo.
This one was of a very young Riza and her mother. The older woman was beaming at the camera, practically radiating joy and love. The little girl held a single wilted daisy in one chubby fist and clutched at her mother’s dress with the other. Her mother had a basket full of flowers over one arm, and was holding a wide-brimmed hat to her head with the other hand, as if to secure it against a breeze. The edges of this particular photo seemed more worn than the others, leading Rebecca to believe that it had been handled far more frequently. Remembering that the smiling woman had died only a few years after the photo had been taken, Rebecca bit her lip and replaced it very gently with the others.
Moving on to the assorted knickknacks, Rebecca examined each one in quick, slightly puzzled succession: a key on a long silver chain, a rather beautiful set of hand-painted nesting dolls, a dried rose, a slightly battered volume of poetry written in a foreign language, an origami flower, and a slender metal rod. The last item was the most curious. The rod was no thicker than the lead in a pencil, and Rebecca could not think why it looked familiar.
“Say, Riza,” she began to ask, holding it up.
“It’s a sparkler,” Riza supplied.
Rebecca realized with a start that Riza was watching her. With an elbow on her desk, and her chin in her hand, she had clearly finished her sewing some time ago.
“At least, it was,” Riza said. “It’s a few years old, now, and hasn’t been stored properly, so I don’t know whether it would still work. But it was the last one in the box. I couldn’t bring myself to light it,” she explained. Her eyes had gone slightly dreamy.
“A solstice firework?” Rebecca asked. Riza nodded. “I thought that was mostly a Central City tradition. Did your hometown do the fireworks shows and things too?”
“No,” Riza replied, smiling. “I’m from a farming town, so we always made a much bigger deal over the autumn harvest celebration. But a friend of mine brought those back from Central City one year. They were the first fireworks I’d ever seen in person.”
“Aw, that sounds like a happy childhood memory,” Rebecca said with delight. “Come tell me about these other things,” she added, scooting back a bit to make room for Riza. Riza shook her head, even as she settled on the foot of the bed.
“There’s not much to tell, really...” she began. Rebecca glared at her. “No, there really isn’t! They’re just...mementos of home. I mean...here, this one’s a key to the basement of my house,” she said, pointing to the silver chain. “The rose is from my mother’s garden, the paper zinnia was given to me by an acquaintance the day I left,” she said, ticking the items off one by one.
“And this?” Rebecca prompted, holding up the battered little book bound in scarred calfskin.
“A volume of poetry by a Cretan poet called Baudelaire. It was one of my father’s favorites; I read it to him sometimes when he was ill.”
“You can read Cretan?” Rebecca asked, incredulous.
“Mm-hm. I’m not fluent, mind you, but my Cretan is passable. I do a bit better with Aerugonian, but the Cretan authors are more interesting, in my opinion.”
“Just when you think you know a person,” Rebecca murmured in awe. “What other languages do you speak?!” Riza flushed a little and shrugged one shoulder.
“Just a little bit of Drachman. I doubt I’ll ever need to know it, but I found it fascinating to learn.”
“Wow...” Rebecca breathed. “Wait. Ok. Can we start over? Let’s go back to the key. Why do you have a key to your basement on a necklace?” Riza plucked the necklace out of the box and got that faraway look in her eyes again.
“I don’t trust easily,” she said after a moment.
“Understatement of the year,” Rebecca nodded. Riza smacked her arm lightly.
“And neither did my father,” she went on, as though Rebecca hadn’t spoken. “At times, he was downright paranoid, convinced that he had to guard his secrets; that everyone was after what belonged to him. Seeing him like that, either unwilling or unable to place his confidence in the people closest to him...” she trailed off.
“It was hard for you,” Rebecca suggested gently. And it sure explained a few things.
“It was painful,” Riza agreed. “Anyway, the basement was his workspace, and he always kept the door locked. Then, late one night, he had an accident. He’d been working for several days straight, without stopping to eat or rest. He had a dizzy spell that caused him to fall and hit his head. The door was locked from the inside, and there was no spare key. I couldn’t get to him.”
“Oh my God,” Rebecca whispered, horrified.
“Exactly,” Riza said grimly. “In the end, a friend was able to help me break into the basement, and my father was fine except for a bump on the head and some mild dehydration. But if I hadn’t heard him fall…or if my friend hadn’t been there…” she sighed. “I had a spare key made as soon as possible. And I keep it close as a sort of reminder that shutting everyone out can be just as dangerous as blind trust.”
As she ran her thumb over the key, Riza thought about that terrible night, and about the young man who had proven himself trustworthy again and again and again.
“That was...much heavier than I expected,” Rebecca said, blinking. “I thought you called this a treasure box, not a painful-memories-that-became-life-lessons box.”
“Sorry,” Riza said, laughing gently. “But that’s the only one with a depressing moral lesson attached, I swear. Pick another,” she offered.
“You sure?” Rebecca asked warily. She didn’t want her idle curiosity to dredge up any other painful memories.
“Go on,” Riza encouraged, still smiling. Rebecca hesitated, and then gingerly lifted the dried rose.
“So…you’re sure this wasn’t a gift from a lover?” she asked hopefully. Riza chuckled.
“Well, in a manner of speaking, but not from one of mine,” she teased. Rebecca raised an eyebrow. “I told you my mother kept a rose garden? Back when they were first married, my father used to travel a lot for his work. He brought back a different variety of rose from every place he visited, for her to add to her garden,” Riza explained. “This was her favorite one, a yellow bloom with bright pink tips.”
“Oh, I know the kind you mean,” Rebecca said. “They really are beautiful; she had good taste. Okay, so we’ve done the cautionary tale and the keepsake of your mum…so how about this one?” she asked, pointing at the origami flower.
“A parting gift from the postmistress in my home town,” Riza explained. “Origami is a hobby of hers. She makes all kinds of flowers and animals and things; everyone loves them. She and her husband sell them for a few pennies apiece at the Harvest Festival each year.”
“Does she happen to know anything about the language of flowers?” Rebecca asked, her grin brightening.
“Yes,” Riza replied, surprised. “That’s another one of her hobbies. How’d you guess?”
“You said it was a zinnia, before. She told you what kind of flower it was when she gave it to you, right?”
“I…yes, she did, come to think of it. I didn’t bother to question why she was so particular about it.”
“Zinnias, in the language of flowers, mean ‘remembrance of an absent friend,’” Rebecca explained. “She wanted you to think about your friends back home. Or to know that they were thinking of you. Or possibly both.”
“I should’ve known it was something like that,” Riza said, smiling fondly. “Well, now I’m awfully glad I remembered to send a card on her birthday this year.”
“Man, you have such awesome neighbors,” Rebecca pouted. “I doubt any of mine even knew my name, let alone my birthday. In fact, they probably never even noticed when I left home for the Academy,” she complained.
“Oh, somehow I doubt that,” Riza said, giggling. “They must have wondered why the neighborhood was suddenly so much quieter.”
She just managed to dodge the much-abused pillow that was launched at her face.
“I guess you have a point, though,” Rebecca conceded, returning the origami flower to the box. “Anyone as fabulous as I am is bound to be missed when she’s not around,” she added loftily. “Okay, we already went over your father’s book and the firework, so that just leaves…this!” Rebecca reached for the nesting dolls and examined them more closely. “These are amazing; I’ve never seen a set of nesting dolls like this before!”
“Aren’t they lovely? These were one of the prizes from a Harvest Festival game, one year.”
“Oh, so you won them? Must have been some game,” Rebecca said, admiring the detail on the tiny innermost figure.
“Actually...I didn’t win them. They were given to me,” Riza admitted, truthfully. Rebecca’s head snapped up.
“Given to you?” she repeated, eyes shining. “Given to you by a boy? Omigod, was it your first date? And he won a prize for you, too…and you’ve kept it with all your other important keepsakes. Aww! Riza, you’re so damn cute!” Rebecca squealed, bouncing up and down.
“How could you possibly—?” Riza started to ask, shocked.
“You know how sharks can smell blood in the water from, like, a mile away?” Rebecca asked. “It’s kinda like that. So come on! Tell me all about this festival date! What was his name?”
“It wasn’t a date,” Riza protested, feebly. “We just went as friends...and we had a lot of fun,” she admitted, blushing a little at the memory.
“You’re blushing,” Rebecca pointed out mischievously. “Why all the blushing, Miss we-just-went-as-friends? Hm? What aren’t you telling me?”
“Nothing!” Riza cried. Her cheeks were still pink. “I-it was a festival! We did festival-related things!”
“Like winning games and giving the prizes to your date,” Rebecca nodded sagely.
“No, like competing against a friend to see which of us was better at darts,” Riza corrected her. “And like trying all sorts of different festival foods, and dancing, and shopping for overpriced souvenirs together.”
“Dancing?” Rebecca echoed. Riza swore inwardly. She hadn’t intended to reveal that…but it was too late now.
“So…it may have been the friend I’ve mentioned before,” she admitted, suddenly nervous. “And it may also have been the same night he taught me how to dance.”
Rebecca just stared at her, mouth slightly agape.
“You are literally the cutest thing ever,” she finally said. “You and your adorable, squishy little romantic underbelly! I could just eat you alive!”
“Stop it!” Riza laughed, hiding her crimson face in her hands. “See if I ever tell you anything ever again!”
With a sort of a flying tackle, Rebecca dragged Riza into one of her infamous bear hugs. Riza struggled valiantly, but Rebecca was a determined creature, and in the end both girls ended up on the floor in a tangle of limbs, giggling and out of breath.
“You…are a madwoman,” Riza gasped out, between breaths.
“And you’re…a hopeless…romantic,” Rebecca panted. “But don’t worry…your secret’s…safe with me.”
“Still…not telling you…his name,” Riza added a beat later.
Chapter 10: Parting of Ways
In which our girls are shaken by some unexpected news. "The fuck, Riza, I thought you told me you didn't have any family?"
“Nothing can come between true friends”
Rebecca turned to find her roommate, Angela Fisher, hurrying down the steps towards her.
“Hey Angie, what’s up?” Rebecca asked cheerfully.
“Your girl Hawkeye got yanked out of our last class,” Fisher said in a low, breathless voice. “Asked me to tell you where she’d gone.”
“She was pulled out of class? What on earth for?” Rebecca repeated, surprised. Fisher shook her head.
“That’s what we all wanted to know,” she said. “Right in the middle of class, this cute warrant officer comes walking in with a note for Major Winchester. He read it, looked really surprised, and told Hawkeye to go with him - the warrant officer, I mean.”
“That’s it?” Rebecca cried. “They didn’t say if she was in trouble, or anything?”
“Nope,” Fisher bit her lip. “But after they’d gone, the Major said: ‘Those of you who do not have a meeting with a high-ranking official had best return their attention to me,’” she quoted, imitating the man’s slightly pompous air. “You know, all snooty like he does.”
“High-ranking official…” Catalina repeated, bewildered. “What the hell would a ‘high-ranking official’ want with Riza?”
“Dunno,” Fisher shrugged. “But Hawkeye looked like she was gonna be sick or something, so whatever it is can’t be good.”
“Shit,” Catalina whispered. She’d better be okay.
“Yeah,” Fisher agreed. “Hey, I’ve gotta run. When you see her, tell her she can copy my notes if she needs, ok? See ya!”
“Right, thanks,” Catalina replied half-heartedly, and Fisher darted off down the hall.
Deep in thought, Rebecca stood there for several more minutes before she remembered that she was due on the firing range. The building had emptied while she and Fisher had been talking, and she hurried along the deserted hallways hoping that her instructor would be in a lenient mood. For a fraction of a second, she considered ditching, but she abandoned the idea just as quickly. She had no way to know where Riza’s meeting might be taking place, and anyway Riza would fill her in on whatever was going on as soon as she was able to.
As she passed an open window, a familiar voice stopped Rebecca in her tracks.
“Riza?” she looked around, perplexed. That had definitely been her friend’s voice. But there was no one in the hallway behind her. Then she heard another, deeper voice murmuring something, and Rebecca realized that the sounds were coming from outside. She moved closer to the window and cautiously peered through it.
The window overlooked an enclosed courtyard tucked in between buildings, no more than 500 feet square in size. A few benches had been arranged in between the overgrown planter boxes that lined the walls of the square. And seated on the bench directly across from Rebecca’s window were two persons: none other than Riza Hawkeye and her ‘high-ranking official.’
Squinting through the dirty glass to read his rank insignia, Rebecca nearly yelped in surprise. A major general? All thoughts of the firing range long forgotten, she edged even closer and tried to work out what exactly she was looking at here.
Riza was reading a letter, and the older man was studying her face with an unreadable expression. Patient and watchful, but with something else there, just underneath. Riza looked up from the letter at last, and asked a question too quietly for Rebecca to hear. But the general nodded, looking grim.
“I’m sorry to spring such news on you so suddenly, my dear,” he said. “But I wanted you to hear it from me first.”
“I…I don’t know what to say,” Riza managed. Her face was white with shock, and Rebecca’s heart raced as she considered the sort of news that could possibly make her friend react that way. Was someone dead? But since when did brass send a major general to make the notification? And Riza hadn’t had any living family left to be notified about…right?
To the left of the pair on the bench, a warrant officer stepped into view from the arched doorway that led out of the courtyard. (And he was cute, Rebecca thought fleetingly). He gave the general some sort of signal. The older man simply nodded in reply, and the soldier retreated again.
“I’m afraid I can’t stay any longer, my dear,” the general said gently. “I know it’s rather a lot to ask, but… would you mind terribly dropping me a note every now and again? Just a few lines to let your old grandfather know how you are?” Riza didn’t answer right away, and the general smiled sadly. “It’s all right; I understand. Good luck, child. Farewell.”
As he stood, Riza blinked and seemed to recall her manners. She rose as well and offered him her hand. He enclosed it in both of his and held on while she spoke.
“I beg your pardon, sir,” she said. “I’m just…this is all a bit much to take in,” she added. “But I do appreciate you coming to speak with me in person. Thank you.”
“You are most welcome,” he replied. “If you need anything, anything at all, you have only to ask.” Finally, with one last sad smile, he relinquished her hand and turned to go. Riza stayed where she was and watched him leave.
Reeling, Rebecca turned and sprinted down the hallway. She reached the arch leading to the courtyard just in time to see the General and his aide passing through it. She skidded to a halt and saluted, red-faced and out of breath.
The General regarded her with amusement before tipping his hat and winking rather rakishly at her. If she hadn’t been so stupefied, Rebecca might have winked back, but as it was the General and his aide were already striding purposefully down the steps and out of the building. Why did his face look so familiar? she wondered. And more importantly, had he really referred to himself as Riza’s grandfather? So…had Riza known about him? Or had she been lying about her family all this time?
And then Riza herself drifted out into the hallway, looking somehow small and lost. She seemed not to even see Rebecca approaching on her right side.
“That man’s really your grandfather?” Rebecca said incredulously, nearly in Riza’s ear. Riza jumped and whirled around to face her.
“Catalina, what are you doing here?” she managed to ask.
Hands on hips, Rebecca shot a significant look in the direction of the rapidly departing Major General.
“The fuck, Riza, I thought you told me you didn’t have any family?” Rebecca pouted, trying to conceal the depth of her hurt. Don’t you trust me?
“I-I didn’t…how much did you hear?” Riza choked out. She was trying to surreptitiously blink back her tears before Rebecca noticed, but it was too late. And Rebecca was having none of it. She grabbed Riza’s hand and hauled her into the closest classroom, which was blissfully empty.
“I wasn’t trying to eavesdrop,” Rebecca explained, slightly defensive. “But I overheard the last bit, there. The part where he referred to himself as your grandfather,” she added, fishing around in her pocket for a handkerchief. “But…you told me you didn’t have any living relatives.”
“I said I didn’t have any relatives to speak of,” Riza clarified, swiping at her cheeks and waving away Rebecca’s handkerchief. “I didn’t know whether he wanted to acknowledge me, so I wasn’t going to force the relationship on him. Plus, I knew that he was a general, and I didn’t want it to seem as though I was using the connection to get some kind of unfair advantage.”
“Acknowledge you?” Rebecca repeated, confused. “What do you mean?”
“I –I’d never even met him until about a year and a half ago - three weeks after my father’s funeral. And he introduced himself as an old family friend, then.”
“So, wait…he’s your dad’s dad?”
“No, my mother’s,” Riza corrected her. She started to pace the room, and Rebecca perched on one of the desks and listened intently. “I don’t really know the whole story,” Riza finally said. “Except that they’d been estranged since before I was born.”
“And he came to see you after your dad passed?”
“Yes. I recognized him, when we met, from my mother’s old pictures and things. But I didn’t let on that I knew who he was. And he didn’t actually tell me that he was my maternal grandfather until just now.”
Old pictures? Yes! That was it! That was why he seemed familiar! He was the man she had seen in Riza’s photo! Not with Riza, evidently, but his own daughter sitting on his knee.
“Wow,” Rebecca said softly. “Okay. What, then, he didn’t know who you were, when you met before?”
“Oh, no, he knew,” Riza replied quietly. “He says he wasn’t sure how to approach me. He thought I wouldn’t want anything to do with him, given how he and my father felt about each other,” she explained, still pacing slowly back and forth past Rebecca’s perch.
“What changed?” Rebecca asked. “Why did he come and tell you all of this now?”
“He found out about my early graduation and pending reassignment,” Riza replied. Only then did Rebecca realize that her friend still had a piece of paper clenched tightly in one hand.
“Your—what?” Perplexed, she slid off the desk. Riza let her take the crumpled letter from her hand.
“He wanted to tell me in person; to talk to me before I left. I…I ship out in three days,” Riza said, softly.
“Is this for real?” Rebecca whispered, skimming the letter.
“Looks like,” Riza replied.
“But…you’re still just a cadet! Even with your advanced placement classes, you shouldn’t graduate for another year! How can they—?” Rebecca cried, shocked.
“The eastern rebellion has been going on for a while now. They’re running short on man power,” Riza explained in a low voice. “And snipers are in especially high demand, as well as difficult to train…and my scores are above and beyond the best in the class.”
“Geez, way to reward success,” Rebecca grumbled. That brought the ghost of a smile back to Riza’s lips.
“Well, what’d you think we were signing up for?” she replied, almost amused. “We’re attending a military academy while our country is in the middle of a war. Getting deployed is sort of the end goal, isn’t it?”
“Yeah, but…the front lines? I guess I assumed they’d send the newbies somewhere less, you know, intense,” she murmured, refusing even to think the word ‘deadly.’ She looked closely at her friend. “Aren’t you scared?” she asked, her own voice quavering a little.
“Yes,” Riza admitted. “But…this is what I’ve been training for. I wanted to serve and protect, and if my country needs me badly enough that they’re willing to graduate me early…” she shrugged. “It’s my duty, isn’t it?”
The two girls were quiet for a moment.
“I suppose this means you won’t be needing Fisher’s notes on field medicine, huh?” Rebecca said. Riza’s laugh was a little forced.
“No, I don’t think her notes can help me, now,” she murmured. And then she abruptly dropped into a chair. “God, I never expected…when they called me out of class, I thought—” she checked herself. “Stupid, I know…why on earth would they notify me? But just for a minute, I really thought…I was really afraid that he was…”
And Rebecca suddenly realized what had caused Riza to go so pale.
“Your friend?” she asked gently. Riza nodded, letting out a shaky sigh.
“It’s stupid,” she said again, embarrassed. Rebecca shook her head.
“It’s not. You care about him, of course you’d worry. And how could anyone have guessed you’d get graduated early? It’s not like that happens every day. It’s probably not even one of the options on the betting pool that I’m sure they’ll have started by now. Major Blabbermouth let it slip that you had a meeting with some sort of bigwig,” she explained, when Riza looked blank.
Riza huffed out a little laugh.
“Three days,” she said. “I leave in three days. And there’s so much I need to do before I go.”
“I’ll help,” Rebecca promised, earnestly. “Whatever you need.”
“Thank you. Hey, Rebecca?” Riza asked softly.
Rebecca blinked in surprise. Riza rarely used her first name, sticking stubbornly to the more formal terms of address even when it was just the two of them. No matter how often Rebecca teased her about it.
“Yeah?” Rebecca replied, concerned.
“Can we just…pretend this isn’t happening? Just for today?”
Rebecca’s lip quivered for just a second, and then she nodded firmly.
“On it. Hey, wanna go get drunk?” Never mind that it was barely two in the afternoon.
“Yes, please,” Riza replied in a small voice.
“Come on, then, I know a good place,” Rebecca said, slipping her arm around her friend’s waist. “At least, I think you’ll like it.”
“I trust your judgment.”
Chapter 11: Alone in This Together
In which Rebecca and Riza miss each other dreadfully while one struggles with her conscience and the other struggles to stay alive. "Loneliness was an old, familiar companion."
“Sweet is the memory of distant friends! Like the mellow rays of the departing sun, it falls tenderly, yet sadly, on the heart.”
Six weeks had passed since Hawkeye’s departure. Her old dorm room still stood empty, unlikely to be reassigned to a new cadet until the beginning of the next term.
After one particularly trying day, an exhausted Rebecca found herself standing stupidly in the doorway of the empty room and wondering why. It wasn’t that she’d forgotten Riza was no longer there, but rather that her feet had taken the familiar route automatically. It was as if her subconscious had developed a sort of muscle memory: in need of comfort, and accustomed to finding it with the room’s former inhabitant, she’d been drawn there instinctively.
It happened twice more before Rebecca finally caved and slipped inside. Throwing herself on the bare mattress, she stared up at the ceiling and thought of all the things she wanted to say to her friend.
She missed Riza desperately. The quiet, genuine kindness, the surprisingly wicked sense of humor, the thoughtful and insightful advice...Rebecca even missed the gentle lectures about taking her classes more seriously.
Did Riza miss her at all, Rebecca wondered? Was she being careful, out there? Had she made friends in her unit? Had she received the letter Rebecca had sent, yet? If so, why hadn’t she written back?
Later that night, as she turned into the corridor leading back to her own room, Rebecca nearly ran headlong into Cadet Creevy, the self-appointed photojournalist of his peers.
“Oh! Catalina-sempai!” he cried, leaping back to avoid a collision. His ever-present camera swung precariously from its strap around his neck before he caught and steadied it with one hand.
“Hey, Colin,” she greeted the younger boy, somewhat wearily. “Sorry ‘bout that; I didn’t mean to run you over.”
“No, I’m sorry! I should pay more attention to where I’m going,” he protested at once. “And anyway, you’re just the person I was looking for,” he went on eagerly. He paused to rummage in his pocket, and then produced a small envelope. “Here!”
“What's this?” she asked, surprised.
“Remember when you and Hawkeye-sempai ran into some of us freshman at Templeton’s? A few weeks back?” he asked. “I snapped a couple photos.”
Of course you did, Rebecca thought wryly.
“And I thought maybe you and Hawkeye-sempai might like copies of the ones you’re in,” he was saying cheerfully. “Only, I know she’s gone now, and I don’t know what unit she got assigned to… but maybe you could mail them to her?”
Rebecca melted just a fraction. Creevy could be annoying at times…but he was a sweet kid. And he did take pretty decent photos, which he always freely offered to whoever appeared in them.
“Thanks, Colin,” Rebecca said. “I’m sure Hawkeye would appreciate your thinking of her. Don’t worry; I’ll see that she gets them,” she added. And she rewarded him with a dazzling smile (which made him more than a little weak at the knees) before she waved and continued on down the hall.
Once safely in her own room again, Rebecca opened the envelope to examine the pictures.
She couldn’t help but laugh at the first few. They were group shots, with Creevy’s over-eager friends crowded around the two girls, who had been ambushed at their table by the younger cadets. What had started as their usual girls’ night out had suddenly devolved into an odd sort of group date. She and Riza had even condescended to dance with a few of the younger boys, who had been beyond thrilled by the attention.
But before any of that, when the boys had still been enthusiastically exchanging greetings, Creevy had told everyone to look his way and smile. The boys (clearly accustomed to the constant taking of photos) had quickly arranged themselves around Catalina and Hawkeye, who had remained seated.
In the first photo, the two girls looked a little bemused, but in the second, Creevy had captured them exchanging an amused look. Riza’s face had that secretive little smile of hers, and Rebecca’s expression was slightly mischievous, while all five of the boys beamed directly into the camera. By the third photo, Rebecca had leaned forward a bit and rested a forearm on the shoulder of the boy kneeling at her feet, whose face had turned pink at the contact. Meanwhile, Riza’s perfect posture and benevolent smile left her looking exactly like a young queen surrounded by her adoring subjects.
The last picture was the real jewel of the collection, though. It hadn’t taken long for the unwanted attentions of their new fan club to grate on her nerves, Rebecca recalled. At one point, she had looped an arm around Riza’s neck and leaned in close to propose a ludicrous plan of escape. Halfway through the needlessly complicated plan, which had involved exchanging clothes with strangers in the women’s powder room, Riza had started to laugh, which had made Rebecca laugh. The two of them had leaned against each other, each with an arm across the other’s shoulders, giggling helplessly at the sheer ridiculousness of it all. Colin had snapped a photo without their even noticing he was watching.
I have to find a way to get these to Riza, Rebecca thought...but she wasn’t willing to risk the photos to the postal system. Not on any account. They had to be kept safe.
And what better place to keep something precious than a locked box?
Six weeks earlier
Riza had found her slumped over the desk in her dorm room, surrounded by stacks of notes and sleeping soundly on an opened textbook.
“Catalina,” Riza had called softly, rapping her knuckles against the open door. Rebecca had sat bolt upright, scattering her papers left and right.
“I’m awake,” she’d said, thickly. And then she’d winced and pressed a hand to the back of her neck. “Well, sort of, anyway,” she’d amended.
Riza had just smiled and stepped closer, pausing to set something down at her feet.
“Here,” she’d said, pushing Rebecca’s hair out of the way. She’d kneaded her friend’s neck and shoulder blade, soothing away the knots that had formed. It’d been all Rebecca could do not to moan obscenely or collapse across her work again.
“You’re an angel,” she’d said reverently. Riza had chuckled.
“I have an ulterior motive,” she’d admitted. “I wanted to ask you for a favor.” Rebecca had dragged herself upright and turned in her chair to raise an expectant eyebrow. Meanwhile, Riza had bent down to retrieve the small satchel she’d carried in.
“I was hoping you would look after this for me,” she’d said, sounding a little nervous. Rebecca had taken the opportunity to peek into the bag. ‘This’ had turned out to be Riza’s memory box. Absurdly touched, Rebecca could only nod stupidly.
“Yeah, of course,” she’d stammered out. “Of course I’ll take care of it.”
“The key is taped to the bottom,” Riza had started to explain. And then she’d had to pause for a long moment to collect herself. “If something should happen to me,” she’d finally managed, in a husky voice. “I mean, if I don’t make it back, could you...you see, I’ve left a few personal letters in there, just in case I—if I...would you send them for me? Please?” she’d asked, eyes pleading.
Rebecca had wanted to protest, to say that she’d never have to send those letters, because of course Riza would make it back. She’d be perfectly fine, the war would end in no time, Riza would make it home safe and sound, and then the two of them could go shoe shopping and talk about boys—and everything would be just fine.
But all the meaningless platitudes on the tip of her tongue had melted away under the intensity of Riza’s gaze.
“Of course,” Rebecca had breathed. “Of course I will. I promise.” Riza’s shoulders had relaxed fractionally.
“Thank you,” she’d said sincerely. Rebecca had smiled through her tears.
“You’d better come back, Hawkeye,” she’d said, playfully stern. “Cuz I don’t wanna have to rifle through all your crap looking for love letters.”
“I’ll do my best; I certainly wouldn’t want to inconvenience you,” Riza had retorted, her eyes suspiciously bright.
Rebecca hadn’t even looked at the treasure box since Riza’s departure. She’d carefully hidden it in the top shelf of her closet and prayed that she would never have cause to unlock it. But surely Riza would appreciate having some tangible memory of her academy days to add to her other mementos. For that, Rebecca was willing to make an exception.
Before anything else, though, Rebecca checked the time. Good. Fisher wasn’t due back for at least another half hour. Not that her roommate would snoop even if she knew the box was there, but...Riza had entrusted this to her, and it was private, and Rebecca wasn’t about to share that with anybody else.
She carefully fetched the box down from its hiding place, and felt along the bottom for the key she knew was secured there. Sitting on the edge of her bed, she stared down at the box for a long moment, remembering the afternoon she had first discovered it, and the way Riza had laughed and sighed and blushed over its contents.
Finally, Rebecca turned the key in the lock, resolved to just slip the photos in and close it up again without peeking at the letters Riza had entrusted to her care. But then she found herself staring down at her own name.
“To Rebecca Catalina, in the event of my death,” it read - black ink on cream paper. Rebecca’s heart stuttered in her chest. Her fingers twitched towards the letter, then drew back as though burned.
This letter wasn’t meant for her.
This letter was addressed to a person who would’ve just been notified of the death of her best friend. And Rebecca wasn’t that person. Not yet. And God willing, not ever.
Her hands shook as she nudged the letter aside, intending to leave the photos beneath it. If…if she did ever have to read those words…if, heaven forbid, she had to honor the last wishes of her beloved friend…then she wasn’t sure she could bear to do so after seeing that friend’s face smiling at her from a photograph. Best to leave the pictures where she wouldn’t come across them unprepared, Rebecca thought.
Not that she would ever have cause open this box again, goddammit! Because Riza was going to be FINE!
There were two other envelopes with hers. Rebecca carefully slid the photos underneath them, her heart pounding. Without actually meaning to, she saw that one of the other envelopes was addressed to a Major General Grumman – which must be the grandfather Riza hardly knew. So the third one…surely that was meant for Riza’s mysterious ‘friend?’ How could it be for anyone else?
All Rebecca would need to do was nudge the second envelope a half an inch to the left, and that man’s name would be revealed. But instead, she squeezed her eyes shut and slowly closed the box.
Of course she wanted to know his name. She’d been curious about him ever since she’d learned of his existence. But she wouldn’t stoop to finding out like this, snooping through her friend’s things. Her friend, whose trust was so difficult to earn in the first place, was counting on her to look after these personal items. Rebecca shouldn’t—no, wouldn’t—betray that trust.
“Dammit, Hawkeye,” Rebecca whispered fiercely. A tear rolled down her cheek and dropped onto the box with tiny metallic ‘plink.’ “You’d fucking better come back alive and tell me about him yourself, you hear me? You have to. You have to.”
Miles away, Private Riza Hawkeye stared blankly into the flames of a campfire. She was due on guard duty at first light, but she knew she wouldn’t be able to sleep just yet. All around her, the other soldiers in her unit joked and chattered with each other like old friends, distracting themselves from the death and fear and horror all around them. They didn’t actively exclude her, but they didn’t make much of an effort to engage her in conversation, either.
Even here, she was an outsider: regarded as a sort of prodigy sniper whose skills had made the brass sit up and take notice. She was a comrade, of course, and they’d have her back in a heartbeat… but she was the only female in the unit at the moment, and she was a few years younger than most of the men, and she hadn’t been part of their unit for very long. They simply didn’t have much to say to her.
Hawkeye told herself that she didn’t really mind. Loneliness was an old, familiar companion.
In spite of that bit of self-deception, Riza couldn’t deny that she missed Rebecca dreadfully: Clever, confident Rebecca with her snarky sense of humor, her spontaneity, and her willingness to fly to Riza’s defense at the slightest provocation. Riza even missed those obnoxious unsolicited embraces Rebecca was always forcing on her. If ever Riza had needed a hug, it was now.
Rebecca had always had an uncanny ability to keep Riza from dwelling on unpleasant topics with her lighthearted prattle. What she wouldn’t give to be able to listen to Rebecca talk about her latest heartbreak, or about some juicy bit of gossip, or about the relative merits of a muscular, athletic type of man versus a quieter, intellectual one. Anything to take her mind off of the lives she’d already taken.
Did Rebecca miss her at all? Riza wondered. Which of the upperclassmen was she pursuing this week? Had her marksmanship improved? Did she still go out dancing on the weekends? It had only been a few weeks, but already her Academy days seemed another lifetime ago. A lifetime so far removed from her daily routine here that it felt almost absurd to long for it.
But hell, she still missed Roy, and he hadn’t really been part of her life for over four years, now.
Someone pressed a tin mug into her hand, and Riza’s icy fingers closed around it automatically. The welcome scent of bitter black coffee hit her nose, and she shook herself out of her stupor long enough to thank the corporal who had brought it to her. He smiled wanly and moved away. Hawkeye watched him go.
And tightened her grip on the mug until her knuckles turned white.
Rebecca wasn’t here. And no amount of wishful thinking could change that—she had to get through this nightmare on her own. No one was going to hold her hand and tell her to be strong, that everything would be all right in the end. She had to find the strength within herself, alone.
She had no choice.
There was no going back, now. Far too late for that. But if she went forward…then maybe, just maybe, she might meet her friend again, someday.
All she had to do was stay alive.
Chapter 12: Coming Home
In which Riza returns home at last, a little damaged and a little broken, and Rebecca comforts her as best as she can. "I just - I want you to know that you don't have to deal with it alone. Not anymore. Okay?"
“Friendship is unnecessary, like philosophy, like art.... It has no survival value; rather it is one of those things which give value to survival.”
~C.S. Lewis, The Four Loves
The phone rang at precisely half past one.
“No, ma’am, everything went exactly according to plan.”
“Well done, my dear. And are the preparations for phase two complete?”
“The second phase won’t be necessary. Our secondary target is already en route to the rendezvous point with the primary.”
“Is that so? Well, well. In that case, I’d better let our client know that his initial instincts were correct. And you’d best get back home; the brat should be there shortly. I’ll see you later this evening.”
Central City Station was packed with civilians, each one eagerly scanning the steady stream of soldiers pouring out of the train cars. Those few soldiers who didn’t have anyone waiting to meet them, like Warrant Officer Hawkeye, couldn’t help but search the crowd for a familiar face all the same.
Although she smiled sincerely as one young man seized his teary-eyed sweetheart around the waist and spun her in a dizzy circle, something deep in Hawkeye’s chest twinged at each tearful embrace or beaming face that wasn’t for her.
Moments like this made her keenly aware that the early graduation and transfer that had advanced her career had also torn her away from her peer group at the academy, and that most of these men and women around her were total strangers. A sniper spent the majority of his or her time alone out of sheer necessity, but Hawkeye hadn’t even had the option of spending what little downtime she’d had among her former classmates – among comrades who would’ve at least known her name, rather than strangers who whispered and edged away when she passed.
But none of that mattered, now. The war was over (physically, at least). And that meant that she was free to gather up whatever tattered shreds of her humanity remained and…do what, exactly? Hawkeye wasn’t entirely certain.
Stay in the army? Continue bloodying her hands in the name of protecting those that were still as innocent as she’d once been? Go back home to the countryside? Resign her commission and attempt to scratch out a living for herself in the parched earth as so many others had done before her? She had the house, and she could always sell some of her father’s books if necessary. Either way, she’d have to make her choice, and soon. If she wasn’t willing to accept whatever new assignment they offered, then she would need to submit her resignation.
It would have been nice to talk over things with someone she trusted, someone who could help her weigh the pros and cons to come to a decision. Someone like Major Mustang. Who wasn’t even an option, as he’d been avoiding her ever since their painful discussion nearly five days previous, the pragmatic part of her brain reminded her unhelpfully.
But Hawkeye had long been accustomed to looking after her own interests. And she knew she couldn’t be the only returning soldier without a friend or family member in the city to offer advice…or even to welcome her home. So there was no use in feeling sorry for herself. With a heavy sigh, Hawkeye shouldered her pack and began making her way toward the nearest exit.
A delighted squeal to her left was her only warning before a pair of arms encircled her rib cage and proceeded to squeeze the air from her lungs.
“There you are!” a familiar voice cried. “Finally!”
“Rebecca!” Hawkeye gasped, her arms coming up automatically to return her friend’s enthusiastic embrace. God, she’d forgotten how much she’d missed these hugs. “What are you doing here?”
Catalina tightened her hold for a second, and then released her and bounced back a bit so she could see Hawkeye’s face. It hadn’t escaped her notice that Hawkeye had used her first name.
“Looking for you, dummy,” she replied. “I was starting to think I’d already missed you! Come on, let’s get away from all of this insanity,” she added, glancing around at the overrun platform.
“H-how’d you even know I was coming in today?” Hawkeye asked, dutifully following in Rebecca’s wake as her friend elbowed and shouldered her way through the maddening crowd.
“Lucky coincidence,” Rebecca replied cheerfully. “No thanks to you, I might add. Hey, how come you never wrote me back? I’ve been worried sick about you, you know!”
“I—I didn’t even know you’d written,” Hawkeye stammered, confused. “I’m sorry if I made you worry.”
“I kinda figured you might not have regular mail service all the way out there, but I hoped at least one of them would get to you...” Rebecca said, frowning a little.
“No, I…I didn’t receive any letters, actually,” Hawkeye confirmed with a furrowed brow. Which was odd, come to think of it. She ought to have heard from her solicitor at the very least. And she’d never heard anything back from her grandfather, either.
“What, nothing?” Rebecca was saying incredulously. “And you didn’t think that was strange?”
“I didn’t have a lot of leisure time to think about it, to be honest,” Hawkeye admitted, a little dryly.
“Fair point,” Rebecca conceded. “But still…Ooh, how much you wanna bet they never updated your status from cadet to active solider? You’ve probably got an overflowing mailbox back at the academy postal annex,” she added knowingly.
“Oh, damn. You’re probably right,” Hawkeye sighed, narrowly avoiding a collision with a young mother holding a baby on each hip.
Though it was the last thing she wanted to worry about right now, Hawkeye knew she’d need to address the mail issue as soon as possible - heaven only knew how many time-sensitive documents were languishing away unread. Had that literary agent managed to find a buyer for those books of her father’s? Would they still be interested now, if she’d ignored them for months? Was everything still running smoothly with her house and small property? How many letters had Rebecca sent her, anyway?
“Well, never mind that now,” Rebecca said soothingly as they finally reached the wide arches leading out of the crowded station. “We’ll get you all sorted out tomorrow. See, I got myself assigned to a boring desk job here in Central once I finished my six-month tour. I’ve only been here about a month, but I already know exactly which forms you’ll need to fill out. And I know which officers will misplace them and which ones will have them stamped and signed and filed in triplicate within the hour,” she giggled.
“An admin job? That’s great,” Riza said sincerely. Hopefully it had kept Rebecca out of most of the fighting. That would mean that her hands at least weren’t stained with the blood of innocent men, women and children. She wouldn’t be haunted by the faces of the people she’d gunned down.
“Yep, and in the big city too,” Rebecca was saying, blissfully ignorant of the dark path Riza’s thoughts had just taken. “Although, I’ve just got word that I’m to be transferred to East City next month. I guess my administrative skills have impressed some hot shot general out there. Here’s hoping he’s a young, good looking one, huh?”
“Sure,” Hawkeye smiled, but it didn’t quite reach her eyes. Rebecca grimly evaluated the pallor of her friend’s skin and the dark circles under her eyes.
“Hey, you hungry?” she chirped, determined to remain cheerful for Riza’s sake. “There’s a great little café not too far from here. Let’s get you something to eat before you pass out. Then I’ll help you get settled in your dorm.”
“Oh, but—,” Hawkeye started to protest. Anticipating her reluctance, Rebecca charged ahead.
“I’ve taken the rest of the afternoon off on purpose, so no more ‘buts’ from you, young lady,” she interjected, mock-seriously.
“I suppose I could use something warm to drink,” Riza admitted, and allowed Rebecca to loop an arm through hers as they finally broke free of the crowd.
Rebecca bullied her into eating half a sandwich with her hot tea at the café before leading the way back to the dorms, chattering about light topics all the while. Hawkeye had to admit that fresh food was a welcome change from the field rations that had comprised the majority of her recent diet. And listening to Rebecca’s stories about her officemates was oddly comforting as well – infinitely better than talking logistics for the wholesale slaughter of an entire ethic group and the destruction of their culture.
“They’ve been billeting a bunch of the new arrivals in my building, lately, so maybe we’ll even be neighbors!” Rebecca said hopefully, as they turned their steps towards the military dorms on the east side of town.
Once they arrived, Catalina maneuvered her way to the front of the line, flirting and batting her eyelashes at every obstacle in the way. Hawkeye could never be certain whether it was coincidence or design that her assigned room turned out to be in the same building as her friend.
When they finally reached her room, Riza sank onto the single bed with a deep, bone-weary sigh, and tried not to see the way Rebecca’s eyes immediately darkened with concern.
“You’ve no idea how happy I am to see you,” Rebecca said softly, interrupting her own story of a recent disastrous blind date.
“And you’ve no idea how glad I am that you came to meet me,” Riza replied, smiling faintly again as Rebecca flopped down beside her.
“You’d still be fighting your way free of the crowd,” Rebecca chuckled. “You’re too nice to use your elbows and hips to their best advantage.”
“Just because I don’t go knocking down little old ladies and small children,” Riza retorted. “I meant to ask you before – how did you know I would be there, anyway?” Rebecca frowned.
“Come to think of it, it was a little odd...I mean, I’ve been keeping an eye out for news of you, ever since you left,” she said, shooting her friend a sidelong glance.
Riza knew what she meant. She’d been doing the same, whenever she could - checking the lists of those killed in action for the names of her friends and former classmates. And finding them with depressing regularity.
“Right,” was all she said, with a grim nod.
“Well, anyway, when I got back to the office after lunch, there was a letter on my desk, with the list of all the troops due to arrive on today’s trains. I figured it got dropped in my box by mistake, but I while I was flipping through it to see who it was meant for, I noticed your name on there. You’re the only warrant officer on the list, as it happens, so it stood out. But it also had a little asterisk next to it, which is what caught my eye.”
“Really? That is a bit odd...” Riza mused. Perhaps General Grumman had interfered again, somehow?
Although how he could’ve possibly known that she and Catalina were close, she had no idea. Might he have been keeping tabs on her the whole time she was at school? Or had someone happened to mention it to him in passing at some point? Or was she just being paranoid, and it truly was a happy accident that those particular papers had ended up in Rebecca’s hands?
“Yeah, I suppose...” Rebecca agreed, idly toying with the zipper on Hawkeye’s standard issue duffle. “But anyway, as soon as I saw it, I took the rest of the afternoon off and rushed down to the station to see if I could catch you.”
“I’m glad you did,” Riza said softly.
“Me too. It’s really good to have you back,” Rebecca replied in a serious voice. “You have no idea how much I –” she cut herself off, abruptly, and bit her lip.
Hawkeye shifted, a bit unsure of herself. Mushy, emotional conversations had never been her forte to begin with, and when you took into account the fact that she’d spent the past nine or ten months actively burying her emotions…but this was Rebecca. She couldn’t screw this up.
Riza carefully took her friend’s hand with both of her own and waited until Rebecca raised her watery eyes in mild amazement.
“Me too,” Riza said seriously, willing Rebecca to understand.
Recovering from her surprise, Rebecca offered Riza a tremulous smile through her tears. Riza smiled back, even as her own eyes filled, and a moment later the girls were clinging to each other, shaking with silent sobs.
Riza wasn’t sure how long they stayed like that. But eventually, Rebecca wiped her eyes on her sleeve and cleared her throat. Resting her head on Riza’s shoulder, she began to speak.
She told Riza about her tour – glorified babysitting duty, she called it, guarding a major supply line to the Eastern front. It was a pretty standard assignment for a cadet in the final semester of her academy training (unlike being shipped out right into the thick of the action with the State Alchemists, as Hawkeye had been). But they had seen their fair share of trouble all the same, and Rebecca had not escaped quite as unscathed as Riza had hoped. Still, she’d had her classmates to support her. They had been in it together, sharing in the experience and watching each other’s backs, and helping each other deal with the aftermath of becoming killers.
Once she’d finished, both girls were quiet for a long time.
“I guess what I’m trying to say is, I know I wasn’t exactly out in the thick of things, like you were,” Rebecca finally said, quietly. “But I think I...I mean, I saw some of the reports coming in from the front lines. And I saw some pretty serious shit go down myself. Maybe I can’t really understand exactly what it was like for you out there, living through the very worst of it…but I understand some. So if you ever wanna talk about it, any of it, I’m here to listen. And if you don’t, then that’s fine too. I just…I want you to know that you don’t have to deal with it alone. Not anymore. Okay?”
“Okay,” Riza whispered. The little crying jag had left her drained, but also…feeling lighter, somehow. “I’ve had to keep it locked down for so long, that I...I’m not sure I’m ready to talk about it. Not yet,” she said after another moment. “But…thank you.”
“Hey, what are friends for, huh?” Rebecca replied, straightening up and squeezing Riza’s hand. After another long pause, she added: “A bunch of us are going out later tonight, to kind of celebrate and welcome our boys home and stuff. Think you’d be up to joining us?”
“To be honest, it will probably be a while before I feel like celebrating,” Riza replied softly, turning her head away. Rebecca lightly bumped Riza’s shoulder with her own.
“Okay,” she said gently. She’d known Riza would refuse but she’d felt compelled to ask just in case. “Geez, look how long you let me ramble on and on. And here you’re exhausted and probably just want to get settled in; I told you you’re too nice to me,” Rebecca added teasingly as she stood. “If you change your mind about going out, we’ll be down at Gentleman Jack’s all night.”
“Thanks. I think I’d rather just sleep for about twelve hours straight, if not longer,” Riza replied, only half-joking.
“I bet you’re dying to sleep in a real bed, even if it is a military-issued one,” Rebecca said, smiling. Riza managed a little laugh.
“I’m actually more excited about having a decent shower. Sleeping on cots or even the ground wasn’t really a big deal, but going for days without bathing nearly drove me mad.”
“Well, you’ll have the bathroom in this section all to yourself,” Rebecca smiled. “You’re the only one in this corridor at the moment. Promise you’ll come find me later if you get lonely, won’t you?”
“I will,” Riza promised. “Good night, Rebecca.”
“See you tomorrow!” Rebecca chirped, and then darted forward to claim one last bone-crushing hug before finally leaving Riza by herself, with only her demons for company.
Alone in the surprisingly spacious bathroom, Riza turned the water as hot as she could stand and let it sluice over her skin. As she lifted her face to the stream, she tasted the salt of her tears on her lips. And for the first time in months, she allowed herself to hope that maybe, just maybe, she’d get through this.
Chapter 13: Moral Support
In which Riza explains a few things, and Rebecca FINALLY learns the name of Riza's mysterious 'friend.'
“Nam et secundas res splendidiores facit amicitia et adversas partiens communicansque leviores.”
(“Friendship makes prosperity more shining, and lessens the burden of adversity by dividing it and sharing it.” )
~Marcus Tullius Cicero, De Amicitia
Rather to her surprise, Riza did in fact sleep for twelve whole hours that first night, wakened only once by her nightmares near dawn. Rebecca turned up just before eight o’clock in the morning. Her hands were occupied by a white paper bag and a large thermos, and she had a thick manila folder tucked under one arm.
“Coffee?” Riza managed around a yawn, perking up hopefully at the sight of the thermos.
“Yup!” Rebecca chirped. “And pastries, and a little bit of paperwork,” she added, enjoying the adorably sleep-rumpled look on her normally neat-and-prim friend. Had her hands been free, she may have indulged the impulse to ruffle Riza’s already tousled hair, but unfortunately for her, Riza quickly finger-combed it into some semblance of order even as she stepped aside to let Rebecca in her room.
As promised, Rebecca had stopped by her office to collect the paperwork necessary to have Riza’s mail forwarded to her new temporary address at the barracks. She’d also made a few phone calls, and had been assured by the clerk that anything still being held at the Academy’s postal annex should arrive within a week.
Riza was rather amused by her friend’s unexpected proficiency with bureaucratic procedures and forms. Rebecca shrugged, a little self-consciously.
“It’s like you once said: if I’m not particularly good at one aspect of the job, then I’d better be damn good at something else,” she retorted cheerfully. “The paperwork can get a bit tedious, but...”
She didn’t elaborate, but she didn’t have to – Riza understood what she wasn’t saying. When it came to one’s usefulness to the state, a delicate balance had to be maintained. Both women had seen what happened to the truly talented soldiers during the war. Those who proved efficient killers, like the snipers and State Alchemists, were pushed into the very heart of battle where death was more certainty than risk. The skilled tacticians were obliged to look on living and breathing men as pawns in a game, and to make game-changing decisions about which could be sacrificed and which could be saved without regard for the value of individual lives. The inspirational leaders placed in command positions were obliged to follow orders of their own, some of which forced them to send their subordinates and comrades to their deaths.
But those with more modest abilities, who were also useful in some other way (such as dealing with quarterly budgets or supply inventory)…those soldiers were often more valuable off of the battlefield. Those soldiers were the simple but integral cogs that ensured the country’s infrastructure continued running smoothly from day to day.
And if Rebecca had decided to aim for an administrative position in spite of her potential talent as a sniper, Riza certainly didn’t blame her.
“Catalina…” Riza said, hesitantly.
“Hm?” Rebecca replied, looking up from the forms she was helping to fill out.
“Do you—are you planning to stay? In the military, I mean?”
Rebecca blinked and slowly set down her pen.
“You’re thinking of getting out?” she asked softly. Riza sighed.
“I’m really not sure what I’m thinking,” she admitted. “Never mind; forget it.”
Rebecca opened her mouth to argue. But the tension in Riza’s jaw and the dullness in her eyes made her friend swallow her protests and return her attention to the paperwork.
After dropping off the completed forms to the most competent officer Rebecca knew, the two women were obliged to part ways, since Rebecca was due back at work. Riza took the opportunity to deal with some of her more immediate needs: laundering all of her uniforms and underclothes, assessing which items needed to be repaired or replaced, and picking up some essentials from the shops to tide her over until she could arrange for the remainder of her personal items to be sent to her from the long-term storage facility she’d left them in when she’d shipped out.
The next several days passed in much the same way. Riza dealt with her mundane chores and shopping while Rebecca was at work, occasionally meeting up for Rebecca’s lunch break. The evenings they spent together as often as they were able, talking and reminiscing and trying their best to fill in the pieces of each other’s lives that they’d missed over the past year. And if Riza was tense and edgy or Rebecca occasionally fell silent, each was at least certain that her friend would understand.
“You know, it’s still a male-dominated field,” Rebecca announced suddenly over dinner one night.
“I beg your pardon?” Riza asked, completely nonplussed.
“The military,” Rebecca stated. “Men still outnumber women something like eight to one. The way I figure, it doesn’t hurt to stack the deck in my favor. You know?”
“What on earth are you talking about?”
“Finding myself a good man to settle down with, of course,” Rebeca replied matter-of-factly, acting as though they had been in the middle of a lengthy discussion, when in reality she’d just dropped a non sequitur into a temporary lull in the conversation.
“Ooo-kay,” Riza frowned, wondering whether she’d missed something.
It certainly wouldn’t have been the first time. Her thoughts had been…elsewhere, lately.
Hawkeye still wasn’t sure what she was going to do. Whether to stay in the military and spend the rest of her life trying to atone for the lives she’d taken, or whether to run away and try to find peace living simply in the farming town she’d grown up in…or whether to do something else entirely. The only thing she had decided was that any thoughts about her future couldn’t be settled until she was freed from the burden her father had placed, literally, on her back.
Although she’d known for a fact that Mustang had been on the same train, Hawkeye had deliberately refrained from looking for him when she’d stepped onto the platform that first day. She’d known that he’d been avoiding her since their last meeting, and at that point she hadn’t been quite ready for another painful conversation with him, either.
Her selfish request to destroy the array on her back had crushed another little piece of his soul…she’d seen it in his eyes, even as he’d agreed to it. He would probably need a bit more time to reconcile himself to the idea. The fact that he’d been careful to promise to contact her only once they’d both gotten to Central had only proved that he didn’t want anything to do with her until then.
On top of that, Mustang had a loving family (of both the blood-related and adopted variety) waiting to welcome him home with open arms. He would surely want to spend as much time with them as possible before he was reassigned elsewhere. With his aunt and ‘sisters,’ Mustang could be light and easy in a way he had never been with Riza, and as foolish as it was to make comparisons, she couldn’t deny the pangs of jealousy that stirred within her at the very thought. For them, he would conjure up smiles, comforting words, warm embraces…and for her, all he had left was anguish and shame and sorrow. Of course he would rather be with them.
But he wouldn’t forget about his promise to her, Riza told herself again and again. He couldn’t.
And so with every day that passed without hearing a single word from Mustang, Hawkeye’s anxiety level ratcheted up another notch. And although she thought she’d been hiding it well, Rebecca had noticed.
“All right,” Rebecca sighed, pushing her plate aside. “Listen, I know I said it was fine if you didn’t want to talk about it…but come on, Riza! At this rate, you’re gonna spontaneously combust or something. Is it something about this place making you so anxious? You wanna go back to the barracks?”
Riza looked up from her own food in surprise.
“What do you mean?” she said carefully.
“All week long, off and on, you’ve been all…antsy. You keep checking the clock, you haven’t been able to sit still for more than five minutes at a time, and you just added salt to your coffee instead of sugar.”
Riza froze with the coffee cup halfway to her lips. Knowing that Rebecca wouldn’t lie to her about something like that, she carefully set it back down.
“I’m sorry,” she sighed. “I’m just…a little distracted, that’s all. What was it you were saying?” she tried. Rebecca shook her head.
“Not important.” They could talk about the pros and cons of staying in the service later, she thought. “Look, I hate to be so ham-handed about this, but… does it have to do with the topic which shall not be named? Is there anything I can do to help?” she asked, half-determined and half-terrified. She had promised not to push, after all.
“Actually, no…it’s nothing to do with Ishval. At least, not directly,” Riza replied with a sad little half-laugh.
How strange that her thoughts were so completely consumed with a personal topic, Riza thought. She’d been so sure that she’d never be able to think about anything other than the horrific images from Ishval ever again.
“Yeah? What’s eating at you, then?” Rebecca pressed.
Riza hesitated. Aside from a few details she’d need to leave out, the true story was safe enough to share (with Rebecca, anyway, though probably not with the entire staff of the restaurant). She sighed softly and pushed her own plate away.
“Let’s head back. I’ll tell you about it there,” she promised.
Twenty minutes later, Riza found herself sitting on Rebecca’s bed with her friend staring at her expectantly.
“You’re always giving me advice. I think it’s about time I returned the favor,” Rebecca prompted gently. Riza smiled faintly.
“Should I set a timer?”
“Nah, the first one’s free,” Rebecca replied. “Take all the time you need.” Riza took a deep breath and let it out slowly.
“Do you remember, back when we first met, I told you that my friend’s dreams were what inspired me to enlist in the military?” she began.
“Yes, of course,” Rebecca nodded, rapt. She also recalled very clearly how any subsequent teasing about this ‘friend’ had always made Riza blush a little, no matter how hard she denied it.
“I...we sort of...we ran into each other, out there,” Riza admitted softly, picking at Rebecca’s quilt absently.
“Omigod, what?!” Rebecca squealed, her eyes lighting up. “So what happened? What’d you say? What’d he say? Did he swoop in to rescue you from a group of enemy soldiers? Did you tell him you’ve been in love with him for years? Did you make wild, passionate love under the stars?”
“Christ, Catalina! What kind of trashy romance novels have you been reading?!” Riza gasped, more amused than truly shocked. “You do realize that we were right in the middle of the front lines of a war zone? Our main focus was survival. I mean, we barely had time to eat and sleep, much less...fraternize.”
“Sorry, sorry! Can’t blame a girl for being curious,” Rebecca grinned, unrepentant. There was a certain kind of romance about two lost souls taking comfort in each other’s arms; finding love in spite of the pain and death and fear that threatened to consume them.
“And anyway, I was the one who saved him,” Riza said loftily.
“Shut up! Seriously? Okay, details immediately, please,” Rebecca demanded, resting her chin in her hands and fixing Riza with a hard stare.
Riza had to smile. Were they really sitting here talking about man troubles? It almost felt like old times. All they were missing was the contraband sweets and alcohol.
“We’d just taken one of the sacred cities; a major stronghold,” Riza began. “It had only been cleared that afternoon, and three other battalions besides mine had set up camp right in the main square. I was on watch up in one of the towers on the northern edge of the city.”
Rebecca squirmed in anticipation, but didn’t interrupt.
“There was a wounded insurgent lying in wait, hiding among the corpses that hadn’t been disposed of yet,” Riza went on. “He made a move on two of ours, one of whom turned out to be my friend. They were exhausted and distracted and caught completely off guard—didn’t even have enough time to reach for their weapons.”
“They weren’t walking around unarmed?” Rebecca gasped.
“Not exactly…” Riza hedged, deciding to leave the whole State Alchemist part out of it. “But luckily for them, I had a clean shot and I took it. I’d worked a bit with the other officer, a few days before,” she explained. “So he came around to find me later, to say thanks. And…he brought my friend along with him.”
Riza’s eyes darkened slightly, and Rebecca bit her lip.
“And then?” she prompted carefully, after a few seconds of tense silence.
“You should have seen the look on his face when he recognized me,” Riza murmured. “He was completely horrified.”
“What? How do you mean?” Rebecca gasped, instantly indignant. “What the hell is the matter with him?! Why wouldn’t he be overjoyed to see you again?”
“Because he’d assumed that I was still safe and happy back home. Where he’d left me.”
“And then you turn up right in the middle of a battlefield,” Rebecca said, beginning to understand.
“The people he’d killed, the terrible things that he’d seen—that he’d done—suddenly he realized that I’d seen and done those same things,” Riza explained softly.
“Oh,” Rebecca whispered, creeping closer so that she could lean against her friend’s side.
“I think he blames himself for getting me involved. He knew that I’d been affected by all his talk about his dream of protecting the country and serving the people…and so he holds himself responsible for my demons as well as his.”
Both women were silent for a moment.
“Well, that’s a load of crap,” Rebecca finally stated. “I’m sorry to be so blunt, love, but it’s true. We all had our own reasons for joining up, sure, and once you’re in, you’ve gotta follow orders unless you want to be court-martialed or killed. But ultimately the only one responsible for your choices—is you.”
Riza huffed out a breath.
“I know that, and you know that. And so does he, deep down. But…he can’t help how he feels.”
“So, you’re upset because you know he feels guilty over your choice, even though it wasn’t his fault?” Rebecca asked, frowning.
“That’s part of it, I suppose,” Riza sighed. “It’s…a bit complicated. And we left things on an awkward note. He said he’d get in touch once we were both here in Central City, but...” she trailed off with a helpless little shrug.
“But he hasn’t,” Rebecca supplied. “Do you know how to find him? Or where he’s staying?”
“Yes. He has a place here in town: a townhouse.”
“Yeah? You know the address?” Riza nodded. “So what’s to stop you from going to him?” Rebecca asked tartly, standing up suddenly to rummage through one of her cupboards. “Not a damn thing, that’s what. You know what? You’re going to go over there right now and seduce him.”
“I beg your pardon?” Riza squeaked. “Rebecca, I’m not, we’re not like that, it’s—”
“Nope, stop that. You’re overthinking things. Here. Drink this,” she added, shoving a glass of amber liquid into Riza’s hands.
“Rebecca,” she protested weakly. Sitting on Rebecca’s bed and gossiping over a secret stash of booze increased that sense of nostalgia she’d been feeling. What, no s’mores? Riza thought somewhat hysterically.
“Just drink it; it will calm your nerves a bit,” Rebecca ordered. “Now listen to me,” she added as Riza reluctantly took a sip of the drink. It burned pleasantly going down. “The two of you need to have a real honest conversation about what you’re both thinking and feeling. He’s avoiding you because he’s all guilt-stricken, which you say he shouldn’t be because you made your own damn choice to join up, even if the original idea did come from him. Right?”
“Right,” Riza confirmed.
“So get your ass over there and tell him so!”
“You make it sound so easy,” Riza said softly, staring down into her now empty glass. Rebecca poured out another generous measure and sat down facing her.
“It’s easier than you think,” she said gently, pressing the glass back into Riza’s hands. “Would you rather sit here fretting and moping over it? Or would you rather go talk to him and clear the air between you, before it’s too late?”
“I-I suppose you’re right,” Riza said, fingers tightening around the glass.
“Of course I am; I’m always right,” Rebecca replied with a wink.
“But…what if he doesn’t want to talk to me?” Riza asked in a tiny voice.
“Have a little confidence, dearest. He gave you his address, didn’t he? Seems to me it’d be easier to avoid you without telling you where to find him, yeah?”
“I guess,” she said, doubtfully. He’d actually given her the address years ago, when he’d first bought the place. But he had given it to her…and he’d mentioned that he wouldn’t be staying in the barracks when they got to Central.
“Look, even if you don’t wanna tell him you’re madly in love with him—”
“I am not!” Riza protested at once. Rebecca waved her objections off.
“You are so. But even if you don’t want to admit it, you still need to talk to him about this whole guilt and blame crap before things between you get all awkward and you’re both too damn scared to take the first step to repair your friendship. You DO still want to be friends with him, right?”
“Yes, of course,” Riza said at once. Her glass was half-empty already.
“Then that’s a start. Bottoms up!” Rebecca ordered. Riza complied. “Good girl. Now, let’s get you tarted up just a teeny bit, and then you’re gonna go and tell that man to stop being an ass so you can have your way with him, already!”
As Rebecca bustled around her room gathering lipstick and a short skirt and a tighter blouse than Riza was ultimately willing to wear, Riza dug her nails into her palms and tried to remember how to breathe. If she was really going to do this, just turn up at his door...then that would be it. She wouldn’t leave until he’d fulfilled his promise.
She was going to need another drink for this.
Rebecca followed her, of course. She wasn’t going to send her best friend off alone and half-drunk to meet up with some stranger, regardless of the history they had. She had to at least check up on him. If anything about him seemed dangerous or fishy to her, she’d step in and drag her friend back to the relative safety of the dorms.
She brushed her fingers over the revolver at her hip. Just because she worked a desk job these days didn’t mean she neglected her hard-earned skills. Though she was nowhere near as good a marksman as Riza, she was still a pretty damn good shot. And she’d learned the hard way that she was definitely willing to kill to protect a comrade.
Once they reached the mystery man’s neighborhood (which was actually a lot nicer than Rebecca had expected), the cheerful warm glow of the street lights made it more difficult to hang back and lurk in the shadows. Fortunately, Riza was so focused on her mission objective that she wasn’t looking around with her usual vigilance. Which was only more cause for concern, in Rebecca’s opinion, and she felt perfectly justified in her decision to follow her friend without telling her. Someone had to look out for her.
Finally, Riza slowed and then stopped completely, right in front of a handsome brownstone. (A really nice and undoubtedly expensive brownstone, Rebecca noted. Just who was this guy, anyway?) Across the street, Rebecca loitered casually in front of a lamp post, trying to look innocent.
It took Riza another minute to gather her courage, but when she did, she darted up to the door and jabbed the bell with a violence that made Rebecca raise an eyebrow.
When the door opened, Rebecca gasped aloud. Wasn’t that…? Sweet baby Fuhrer, Riza’s mystery man was Roy Mustang? As in, the Hero of Ishval, the Flame Alchemist, the youngest (and best-looking) alchemist to enlist in over two decades Roy Mustang? HE was Riza’s old childhood friend, for whom she’d carried a torch since before Rebecca had met her? Seriously?!
Well hot damn. Her girl had good taste, at least.
Mustang looked softer than his official photos, unsurprisingly, dressed as he was in casual civilian clothing. But it was his facial expression that interested Rebecca the most. He had the same vaguely haunted look on his face that all of the newly returned soldiers had. But as Riza shouldered her way past him, dropping her polite reticence for the first time since Rebecca had known her, his lips twitched in a faint smile. Clearly, he was happy to see her, even if they’d parted under less than ideal circumstances.
Rebecca waited for half an hour just to be sure everything was all right. She debated trying to peek through a window or something, but quickly dismissed the idea. The last thing she needed was to have a suspicious neighbor call the MPs on her. And suppose Riza had taken her advice and seduced the man? She sure as hell didn’t need an eyeful of that.
When the light in the front room suddenly went out, Rebecca beamed wickedly.
“Atta girl,” she thought, turning to leave. “I knew things would sort themselves out.”
Chapter 14: Scar Tissue
In which Riza holds Roy to his promise. Yep, THAT promise. Also, Hughes gets read in.
"I no doubt deserved my enemies, but I don't believe I deserved my friends."
“I asked you to do this because you’re the only one I can trust,” she’d said softly.
Mustang sighed. He really didn't want to honor her request. A large part of him had been hoping that she'd forget all about it once they were back home. But of course, he hadn't been able to forget: he'd given Riza Hawkeye his word as she knelt over the fresh grave of an Ishvalan child. Like it or not, he simply could not break another promise to her.
At least he'd managed to dissuade her from having it done right then and there, on an abandoned battlefield of blood-soaked sand and half-demolished buildings. He'd been thinking of the unsanitary conditions and the risk of infection, true, but he'd also wanted some time to prepare himself. So he'd reminded Hawkeye that all of the soldiers returning from the front lines would have a short furlough before being reassigned to their new posts, which meant they'd both be in the same city for at least a little while. They'd have enough time to burn and deface her back before they were split up again. Once she'd agreed, he'd been careful to avoid her.
Mustang hadn't yet told her that he wanted her to be his adjutant—he'd decided to wait until their promotions came through officially before he said anything. Before he did anything. It'd be like equivalent exchange—he'd offer her the chance to shoot him in the back (should the need arise) in exchange for defacing the secrets that were imprinted on hers. It had a certain poetic justice, he thought.
The Flame Alchemist and the Hawk's Eye, heroic victors of the Ishvalan War? Of course they'd both be promoted—there was no doubt in Mustang's mind. All they needed to do was wait for the brass to sign off on the paperwork. Having a deadline, even a self-imposed one, would force him to deal with this thing rather than avoiding it and half-hoping it would just go away.
But Hawkeye had grown tired of waiting. After a full week had passed and Mustang still hadn't called to make arrangements, she took matters into her own hands. Really, he should've realized she would call him on it sooner rather than later. As gentle and kind as she'd always been, Riza wasn't the type to pull her punches. Still, Mustang had never imagined that she'd turn up on his doorstep in the middle of the night.
Hawkeye stood trembling in the warm pool of light that spilled out onto his front stoop. Dressed in civilian clothes, she looked more like the timid young girl he remembered from his days of apprenticeship than like the talented sniper with the eyes of a killer that he'd gotten to know over the past several months. Her face was whiter than the blouse she wore, he noticed, but she pushed past him impatiently when he stepped aside to let her in. She hardly waited until the door was closed behind her before she began fumbling with the buttons of her blouse. If he hadn’t known what her intentions were already, he’d have been ecstatic… and Mustang cursed himself for allowing his mind to go straight to the gutter.
This is Riza Hawkeye, he reminded himself. My sensei’s daughter. The girl that he begged me to look after as he died in my arms. Thank god I don’t live in the barracks, he thought.
He could only imagine what the other men would have thought if they’d had to do this in a room at the barracks: a pretty young female cadet slips into Mustang’s room late at night, they hear her screams shortly after, and then she slinks quietly away in the morning, her movements stiff and painful? Her reputation would be forever damaged. She’d be accused of sleeping her way to the top the second they learned about her promotion. And those rumors would only attract the sort of men who’d expect the same treatment in exchange for their “help” on the way up the ladder. At least his neighbors would think nothing of his having a nighttime visitor. None of them would even notice, or care, that she was a solider. As his thoughts raced along this path, Mustang ran a hand through his untidy dark hair, uncertain of what to say to the woman standing before him.
So she spoke first, spitting the words out with a bitterness he’d never before heard in her voice.
"You promised me," was all that she said as her shirt hit the floor and she turned her back to him resolutely. It was a disturbing echo of the first time she’d revealed her secret to him, when she’d stood in her father’s living room just after his funeral, quivering like a leaf. Mustang was taken as completely aback as he had been that first time; all he could do was cock his head to one side like a dim-witted golden retriever, with a bemused expression.
"What, you mean right now?" he asked stupidly. He could’ve slapped himself. No, she meant next year, idiot. She’s standing there half naked just for fun. Roy sighed heavily. He had every intention of honoring his promise, of course, but he couldn’t do this now. Not in the state he was in. An exhausted Flame Alchemist was incredibly dangerous to both himself and to others.
"Yes, now," she said tersely, interrupting his train of thought. "Let's just get this over with. Please," her voice cracked on the last word, and Mustang realized that she was still trembling. Whether it was from fear of the anticipated pain or the cold night air on her bare skin, he wasn't entirely certain. But he wondered just how fragile a grip she had on her composure. How much effort did it take for her to stand there and pretend she was really ready for this? For all her haste to be done with this, Hawkeye still hadn’t removed her bra.
Mustang eased his jacket off his shoulders and moved toward her slowly, deliberately, as one might approach a wounded animal.
"Hey," he said softly. “Just calm down a second, let me get you some tea or water or something. All right?"And he gently placed his jacket over her shoulders before turning her around to face him, making a point not to stare at the pretty black scrap of lace and silk that just barely covered her breasts. The sight of tears streaming down her face distracted him sufficiently. He couldn't remember the last time she'd cried in front of him. Or whether she ever had.
"I—I just want it gone, Roy," she choked, trying to fight back the tears.
It was the use of his first name that revealed the extent of her desperation. Like the obedient daughter she’d been, Hawkeye had always made a point of addressing Mustang formally as per her father’s request, even after she’d shyly told him he could call her Riza if he wanted to. For her to use his first name like that—it told him that her desire to be free of this burden was greater than her fear of the impending pain, and stronger than the grip her late father still had over her heart. She was willing to accept disfigurement and even death if it meant she’d be liberated from bearing the legacy of Berthold Hawkeye on her skin.
Not knowing what else to do, Mustang pulled her into a tight embrace, stroking her short hair and shushing her softly. She melted into him, burying her damp face in his chest.
“Sh, I know you want it gone. This just… isn’t the best time. Not to make excuses, but I—I haven’t really slept in the past couple of nights,” he said thickly. No need to explain why. He knew without having to ask that she’d had brutal nightmares as well—he recognized the haunted look in her eyes. “And you know as well as I do why that makes this way too dangerous to attempt,” he continued.
She didn’t respond, and so he kept talking just to fill the silence, running his hands up and down her back to soothe both her and himself.
“I don’t even have sterile bandages or analgesics here. If I’m going to do this, then I’m going to do it right, okay?” She nodded against him, still clinging to his shirt as though her life depended on it. “I’m not going to lie to you—the thought of using flame alchemy on you, of all people, makes me physically ill. I don’t want to cause you any pain, much less leave you with scars,” she flinched at that, and he pulled back a little. With one finger, he gently tilted her chin, compelling her to look up at him. Mesmerized by the emotions clouding her honey-colored eyes, he dropped his voice to a whisper. “I understand why I have to be the one to do this. And I will destroy it for you, Riza. I gave you my word, didn’t I?”
Mustang gently stroked a thumb across her tear-stained cheek. Before he’d come up with anything else to say, her lips were pressed against his. Throwing all logical thought out the window without the slightest hesitation, he kissed her back passionately. His hands snaked under fabric of their own accord, in search of the soft bare skin underneath the jacket he’d just given her. Meanwhile, her mouth was hot on his, demanding and fierce, and her fingers were tangled in his hair. But he could taste the whiskey on her tongue. And when the implications of that fact finally made it through the haze of lust, the heat pooling in his stomach promptly turned into ice.
She was drunk?
As much as he’d love to fulfill this particular fantasy, how could he knowingly take advantage of Riza when she was drunk and vulnerable and afraid? What kind of callous bastard would that make him? It was with extreme reluctance that he pulled away from her. Nonplussed, Riza just blinked at him, her cheeks flushed, her lips still slightly parted.
"Riza...Have you been drinking?" he asked incredulously. The tone of his question was a little harsher than he’d intended. She gasped, looking stricken for a split second before her cheeks flushed darker. Her expressive eyes went blank, as though someone had flicked a light switch.
She wrenched herself from his grip and would have stalked out the door wearing only his jacket draped over that pretty lacy bra, had he not moved faster and barred her way. They stood facing each other, eyes narrowed. He was at least as stubborn as she was, and they both knew it.
"Please move," her voice was deathly calm although her face was still flushed in humiliation and anger. Fresh tears were starting to well up in her eyes, and she needed to get out of here before they spilled over. She'd made a big enough fool of herself for one night. Why, oh why had she kissed him? Now he knew what she’d kept so carefully hidden all those years…and he’d made his feelings clear by pushing her away.
"No," he said simply, and leaned back against his door, arms folded.
"You can't just keep me here against my will," she managed to say. She was about to break down completely; she had to get out of this place. She didn’t think she could handle Roy’s pity on top of everything else.
"I beg to differ. I’m significantly stronger than you, for one thing. If you’d like to test that statement, I should probably warn you that I don’t intend to fight fair,” he smirked. “Regardless, I’m pretty sure you don’t want to be out on the streets like that," and he gestured at her still-exposed black lace bra. She stared down at herself, appalled. Had she actually forgotten that she was shirtless? It might have been funny if the situation were a little different. "Damn it, Riza!” Mustang snapped, and he dropped the calm façade. “You mean too much to me to let this become some kind of drunken mistake!"
Shit. He hadn’t meant to say that out loud.
"I...wait, what?" She meant too much to him..? What the hell did that even mean?
"Look,” he plunged ahead desperately, hoping to distract her. “I told you I would get rid of the tattoo, and I will. But not tonight. Not when you’re drunk and distraught and I haven't slept more than three hours in the past two days. I'm not willing to risk it. I can’t just…” he made a frustrated little gesture. “You're far too precious to me,” he whispered, unable to hold it in.
“I—oh,” was all that she could think to say. He thought she was drunk. He wasn’t that far off the mark, actually—she’d had more than one drink to work up her courage to come here. (Damn Catalina and her advice for loosening up and bolstering confidence!) Riza had also hoped the buzz of the alcohol in her blood would help dull the pain she knew she’d feel as the tattoo was seared from her flesh…but she wasn’t exactly drunk.
He was offering her an out, she reasoned, giving her the chance to write off the kiss as an alcohol induced lapse in judgment. He’d assumed she wouldn’t have kissed him unless she was drunk, obviously. But he hadn’t made some condescending remark about being like a sister to him, or about how he loved her as a friend but wasn’t in love with her. Also—and something told her that this next bit was important—he had just told her that she was precious to him. She should maybe apologize, or something. As willing as Roy might be to pretend the kiss hadn’t happened, she just couldn’t let it go without comment. It had been a really stupid thing to do.
“I’m sorry,” she said in a tiny voice, the words leaping out before she’d even realized that she’d opened her mouth. “It’s just…” Just what, Riza? she asked herself irritably. It’s just that I’ve been in love with you since we were kids? It’s just that I’ve wanted to kiss you since I was 15? It’s just that I wanted to be kissed by someone before I’m so disfigured that I won’t be able to let any man get to second fucking base without having to warn him about my horrible scars so I don’t freak him out? It’s just that I wanted to remember what it felt like that first time you touched my skin? What it felt like to know you wanted me for at least a brief moment, even if it was only because I was the only one who knew where my father had hidden his research notes? Even if it was because I AM my father’s research notes? It’s just that I have been drinking, kind of a lot, and I’m so damn confused and I still love you and that kiss seemed like a good idea at the time? “I’m sorry,” she finally said again, biting her lip and lowering her eyes.
She must be completely terrified, Roy thought, watching the emotions flit across her face. This is my fault—she had to get wasted just to work up the courage to come to me like this. I should have called her sooner. I’m such a jerk.
And then there was that kiss…oh god, that kiss…but he couldn’t think about that now. That would be a treasured memory he locked carefully away while he prayed for a similar opportunity to arise when she was sober. He sighed heavily and moved towards her, placing his hands firmly on her shoulders.
“I should be the one apologizing, Riza. I’ve been a selfish coward. I shouldn’t have made you wait; you shouldn’t have been forced to come to me like this. I shouldn’t have avoided you on the train home either, and I’m sorry. Please…can you wait just a little longer?”
“Yes,” she said to her shoes after a moment. “But…I still don’t see why. Why won’t you just do it now?”
“Look, you need to understand something: I’m not willing to actually kill you, ok?” He squeezed her shoulders a little. “If I tried to do it now, we’d both be sorry. I absolutely will not take that risk with your life. Remember what I told you before? I can control the range and depth of these damn flames well enough to burn just parts of your skin. It won’t be easy, and it’s still gonna hurt like nothing you’ve ever felt before. But I’m not going to fry off your entire back indiscriminately,” he said firmly.
“But--!” she cried, embarrassment forgotten in indignation. She glared at him. Hadn’t he just said, again, that he would destroy it for her?
“Let me finish,” he said softly. The look in his dark eyes was so intense that she blushed and looked away again. “It’ll have to be precision work. I’m only going to focus on this portion here,” and he ran one hand down to rest just below her shoulder blade. “That part’s the key. Without it, the rest is indecipherable. If some other alchemist somehow sees it, he’ll recognize it as a sigil, but he won’t know what exactly it’s for, even if he studies it as long as I did.”
His words triggered an old memory: Mustang’s hands had trembled when he’d first touched her back. His touch had been feather-light, and his breath had been warm against her neck when he had bent closer to study the tiny writing. And she’d wanted him to touch her skin so badly…Riza bit her lip harder.
So maybe she was a little drunk.
Note to self, Riza…never drink whiskey again unless you want to make a fool of yourself by trying to seduce a friend, she thought. Also, stop taking Rebecca’s advice. (Though to be fair: As far as Rebecca had known when offering both the advice and the bottle, the whole reason that Riza had needed some liquid courage was because she was heading out to seduce someone.)
“Look, it’s really late,” Roy said softly after a moment. “Is anyone waiting for you? Will they notice that you aren’t home at this hour? Er, wait, are you staying in the barracks, or--?”
“Mm-hm. I’m in the women’s dorms at barracks, but I have a whole corridor to myself. There aren’t a lot of female soldiers in my unit,” Riza replied softly. And she’d let Rebecca assume she’d be spending the night with her ‘conquest,’ so she certainly wouldn’t be concerned—and she’d cover for her if the need arose. “No one will be looking for me until Monday. That’s—that’s why I came over here tonight.”
“All right…then stay here tonight,” he said earnestly, giving her arm a reassuring squeeze. “I’ll sleep on the couch. And we’ll deal with this in the morning, okay?” Dammit, Riza thought, don’t I deserve a moment of weakness every now and again? She slowly and carefully laid her head on Roy’s shoulder, relishing the feel of his arms locking around her protectively. She’d take what scraps of his affection she could get. She would not ruin this.
“Okay,” she whispered.
“Hey, thanks for stopping by, Hughes,” Mustang said in a low tone. Hughes just quirked his eyebrow. Normally, his friend would have invited him in, if only for a moment. And why the hell had he asked him to bring gauze and painkillers over at this hour anyway? He’d refused to say on the phone. And he didn’t LOOK injured…actually he looked remarkably well-rested for someone who hadn’t been sleeping lately. Something was definitely up.
“No problem, buddy. I got everything you asked for. But what’s the deal; why’d you need all this stuff?” Yep, that question definitely made Roy uncomfortable, Hughes noticed.
“Erm, no particular reason, I just...um,” Mustang stammered, thinking fast. “Oh all right. Look, I burned myself on the stove and I was too embarrassed to have to go into a pharmacy and admit that. What kind of Flame Alchemist burns himself cooking, huh?” Dammit, why hadn’t he thought up a better story before now!? Hughes wasn’t buying his half-assed excuse. In fact, it was making him even more suspicious.
“You’re acting odd, Roy. And I thought you said you’d been suffering from insomnia, but you certainly look like you got a decent night’s sleep last night.” Roy shifted his weight awkwardly. Time he ended this conversation.
“Yep, slept like a baby! Well anyway, I won’t keep you any longer. Thanks again; see you, Hughes!” And he made to shut the door in his friend’s face. Hughes leaned against the door frame, stopping him.
“Seriously, what’s the deal with you? Hey, do you have a girl in here or something?” It was a Parthian shot, but it struck home. Hughes almost dropped to the floor in shock as Mustang’s face drained of color. “Ohmigod, you do?! Roy Mustang, you sly dog!” he cried giddily. “You never said a word about having a girl back home! So? Who’s the lucky lady? Is she hot? I bet she’s a blonde; you always seemed partial to blondes. Come on, fess up!” Mustang hissed and slapped at his friend.
“Shh! Shut up, you idiot! It’s not like that…and you’ll wake her!” But Hughes was already leaning forward and craning his neck, trying to see over Mustang’s shoulder, hoping to catch a glimpse of his mystery female guest.
Unbeknownst to either man, the sound of voices had in fact woken Riza. She carefully disentangled herself from the nest of blankets on Roy’s couch, and stretched languorously. Although he’d tried to insist on having her take the bed, she’d dug her heels in and made herself comfortable on the leather sofa instead. She’d slept better than she had in weeks, nightmare-free for once. As she moved towards the door, thinking vaguely about coffee, the sound of voices piqued her curiosity. Who could Roy be talking to at this hour? It was barely seven.
Hawkeye was already halfway down the hallway before she realized that she was still wearing the shirt she’d slept in. Before she could think about going back to the den to put on some proper clothes, she heard somebody say something about a dog. Puzzled, she peered cautiously around the corner so she could see into the foyer. Who had a dog? And why did that voice sound so familiar? Hughes’s bright green eyes locked onto hers over Mustang’s shoulder.
It was a toss-up as to which was more stunned by the sight of the other.
“Holy shit! Roy, you’ve got the Hawk’s Eye in there?!?” Maes squawked. He looked like he was about to explode with suppressed excitement. Roy spared a glance back over his shoulder, and realized that the jig was up. With a half-snarl, he grabbed his friend by the lapels of his coat and dragged him inside.
“What did I just say about shutting the hell up, Hughes!” Mustang demanded, snatching the paper bag of medical supplies out of his comrade’s hands. Riza stayed where she was, wondering whether she ought to be embarrassed or amused that Hughes thought someone who looked like Roy would want to seduce someone as plain as her. (And she firmly shoved all thoughts of last night’s ill-advised kiss down deep, back where they belonged).
It didn’t occur to her that she made quite the picture dressed in nothing but one of Roy’s old dress shirts, with her long elegant legs exposed to the thigh, her short blonde hair tousled, and those dark sleepy eyes of hers looking warm and relaxed.
Hughes had the feeling that he’d intruded on something profound. His eyes flicked between his friend and the stunning blonde sex-kitten standing casually in the hall as though she’d always been there. He’d only ever seen her dressed in battle-worn fatigues with a sniper rifle in hand and a hard expression on her pretty face, and he was having a hard time processing the paradigm shift. Utter disbelief all over his face, he turned back to Roy and raised an eyebrow. Mustang simply rolled his eyes and turned away to address Hawkeye.
“I’m really sorry about this, Riza. I was thinking about asking Dr. Knox to come over, but now that Maes is here… I don’t think there’s any sense in telling anyone else now. Plus, Hughes doesn’t know alchemy, so this actually might be better,” he looked at her imploringly. “I meant to warn you beforehand…but I’m going to need another person to help me do this,” he said, willing her to understand why he was so casually inviting another man to see her partially naked body. She did, of course. She always seemed to understand.
Hughes, though, was another story.
“Wait, what? Need another person to help you do what?” he asked warily. Shifting uncomfortably, he glanced at the door, which Mustang had already closed and locked behind him. Riza and Roy both chose to ignore him for the time being.
“Ah. You need someone to help hold me still, is that it?” Hawkeye asked, tucking a stray piece of hair behind her ear and acting as though Hughes had not spoken. What does she mean, hold her still?! Half horrified, half intrigued, Hughes’s mouth dropped open. He couldn’t seem to tear his eyes away from Hawkeye’s face.
“Yes. I was thinking about it last night after you’d gone to sleep. I could maybe tie your arms down, but I don’t want to leave marks where someone could see them and ask awkward questions,” Mustang was saying. “I thought it might be better if we had someone pin you down by your shoulders.” Hawkeye nodded, swallowing hard.
Hughes dabbed at his nosebleed with a handkerchief, mentally running through all sorts of scenarios, each more sordid than the last. This kind of talk, combined with the fact that he’d been asked to bring medical supplies over—just what had he walked into?!
“I understand,” Hawkeye said softly. “Well…if we need to involve someone else, then I’m glad it’s someone that you already know and trust.” Hughes, although he hadn’t moved, was frantically checking the exits, questioning his sanity and wondering how the hell he was going to escape this bizarre, confusing fantasy. Mustang turned to him again, with an apologetic look. Hughes fought the urge to leap back out of reach and squeal like a frightened girl.
“Maes, remember when I told you that Riza and I were old friends? Well…there’s a bit more to the situation than just that.” The serious tone of Roy’s voice roused Hughes. Adjusting his glasses, Hughes glared at his friend.
“Oh, is there really? Gee, Roy. I never would have guessed,” he said, voice dripping with sarcasm. “Could you two please knock it off with the riddles and tell me exactly what the hell I just got myself into?” Whatever was really going on here, it evidently wasn’t what his dirty mind had been imagining, or Roy wouldn’t sound so damn depressed right now. And the girl wouldn’t look so sick. To his annoyance, they exchanged another of those loaded looks, communicating without speaking. It was Hawkeye who spoke first.
“I’m sure Mustang has already told you some of this,” she began. “As you may know, my father was Mustang’s alchemy teacher. During his lifetime, he mastered a very powerful type of elemental alchemy, but he refused to teach it to any of his students. He was afraid that they would misuse flame alchemy to gain fame and glory for themselves, rather than using it to benefit the people.” Hughes listened with rapt attention. At the word “flame,” he looked sharply at Mustang, whose face was grim. “My father knew that he was dying, and he desperately wanted to pass on his knowledge,” Riza went on. “But he felt that Mustang, who was his most promising student, wasn’t quite ready to learn flame alchemy. Several years before his death, he entrusted his research notes to me.” She paused, and Roy took up the story.
“My teacher was very ill during the last few years of his life,” he explained. “He was a proud man, and he needed to be sure that someone would carry on his legacy. So, in the event that he died without actually teaching anyone flame alchemy, he wanted Riza to select a worthy successor to whom his research notes could be given. He was extremely disappointed when I joined the military, which he hated and mistrusted. But, in spite of those feelings, when I went to see him just before his death, he said he regretted not teaching me when he’d had the chance, and then told me that his daughter had all of his research. With his dying breath, he apologized and begged me to look after her.” Hawkeye hadn’t known that part of the story, and she blinked at Roy in surprise. “After the funeral, I asked Riza about the notes.” He turned back to Hawkeye, who took up the thread again.
“And I knew that if my father had told him to ask me for the notes, then he intended Mustang to inherit them. And even though he had joined the military and planned to become a state alchemist, I believed in him, and in his ideals. So I made my choice.” Hughes, who had glanced over at Mustang again, saw him flinch as though her words caused him physical pain. And he thought he could guess what was coming next. “I showed him my father’s notes. And then—after I saw what Mustang had been made to do in the war, what kind of destruction he had been made to inflict as a State Alchemist, in the name of protecting the country…” she trailed off again, and all three were silent for a moment, each thinking about the lives they had taken with their own hands because their superiors told them that it was right.
“The day they announced the war was over,” she continued in a subdued voice, “I asked Mustang to destroy those notes, to burn them so that no one else could ever decipher my father’s secrets. So that no other flame alchemists can be born into this world because of me.” Roy looked utterly miserable. He blamed himself for all of this, Hughes realized. Even the girl’s regrets.
“Look…I appreciate the confidence you’ve placed in me by telling me all of this, and I don’t mean to sound as though I am taking this too lightly, but…how does this involve me, again?” Hughes asked, confused.
Riza exchanged another of those significant looks with Mustang, and then turned around, unbuttoned the shirt she wore, and let it slip off her shoulders to her elbows. She turned her head slightly so that both men could hear her speak. “The research notes…my father made sure that no one would be able to see them unless I chose to reveal them. You see?”
The silence was overwhelming, and Riza wondered whether they’d broken Hughes’s brain.
He stood there for a full three minutes, gaping at the intricate tattoo on her back. Feeling exposed, she finally pulled the shirt back up and tuned to face the two men again, her arms crossed tightly over her chest and her cheeks faintly pink. Hughes still hadn’t moved a muscle. Anxious, she looked to Roy. He was frowning slightly, watching his friend, but he didn’t look worried. He knew that Hughes was replaying the whole story again in his head, going back to insert this key piece of the puzzle into what they’d just told him.
Finally, Hughes straightened his glasses again and cleared his throat.
“Well then. If we’re going to do this thing, then we’re going to need much stronger painkillers.”
Riza was stretched out on her stomach on Roy’s bed, looking far more relaxed than she had any right to. Her bottom half was covered by a sheet; her chin resting on her crossed arms. She watched Roy as he set out the medical supplies on a small round table beside the bed, obsessively straightening and re-straightening the disinfectant, the antiseptic, and the sterile gauze pads that they would be using to bandage her burns. He was trying very hard not to think about the fact that Riza Hawkeye was lying two feet away, in his bed, naked as the day she was born and smelling tantalizingly of his soap.
While she’d been showering, scrubbing her skin as sterile as hot water and soap could make it, the two men had stripped the bed and put on fresh sheets and argued over pain medication. Putting Riza under for the duration of the “operation” was out of the question, as none of them had the medical knowledge necessary to do so safely. Not to mention that they had no access to the drugs and equipment an anesthesiologist would need… Hughes had returned to the pharmacy to fetch some stronger painkillers, of course, but those would be more useful to Riza after the damage was done. In the end, they had no choice. They’d have to burn her skin without giving her anything beforehand at all.
It was Maes who had asked how they’d stifle Riza's screams. He’d also intimated that Roy’s neighbors might mistake the cries of pain for cries of something else, which had earned him a sharp punch in the arm, even though Roy himself had been thinking the exact same thing the night before. Hughes had of course returned the blow, and the two had scuffled like a couple of schoolboys for a moment. They’d stopped abruptly when Riza had padded into the room clad in nothing but a towel.
Hughes had been amused by the discovery of yet another facet of Riza Hawkeye’s character: in addition to the level-headed, efficient sniper and the curvy pin-up girl with smoldering bedroom eyes, there was the shy girl next door, looking vulnerable and innocent. She was blushing from the roots of her hair to the tips of her toes and asking them to please turn around for a moment, as though she hadn’t just stood in front of both men mostly naked less than an hour earlier. A fascinating woman, Hughes had thought with a grin as he’ turned his back obligingly. Though she was not nearly as amazing as his own Gracia, of course.
“So…who else needs a nice stiff drink before we start?” Hughes said lightly, rubbing his damp palms against his thighs. Never mind that it was still rather early in the morning. Riza chuckled softly behind him.
“No booze for the guy about to light my skin on fire, okay?” she said. He grinned at her.
“All right, deal. More for us that way, huh?” And she laughed again, a little more naturally.
Roy glared at them both, but then simply sighed and scrubbed a hand over his face. Hughes was only trying to diffuse the tension in the room with humor, he knew that. And Hawkeye, who was lying there like a sacrificial lamb on an altar, was being braver than anyone he’d ever known. Judging by last night, she was a quivering mass of terror on the inside, but without the alcohol lowering her defenses, she was once again hiding it extremely well.
“Is it weird, that we’re doing this right now? I mean, it feels like we should wait until the dead of night and dress up in some ceremonial robes or something, doesn’t it?” Hughes was saying, gesturing to the bright morning light streaming in through the windows. “It’s just…so normal out there.”
“Mm, maybe we need to put this off until we have some nice stormy weather, with lightning and thunder and torrential rain. Would that be appropriately dark and mysterious for you?” she teased back.
“Yes. I think that it would help,” he huffed, pretending to be offended. “Atmosphere is very important!” Even Roy smiled at that. And then he cleared his throat.
“Maes. Can we have a moment, please?”
“Sure thing. I’ll just, uh, go and get myself that drink then,” Hughes replied, and he sidled out of the room. He shook his head when he realized that Roy wasn’t even going to close the door behind him. Of course he would be standing in the hallway and listening, what kind of intelligence officer did they think he was? He scoffed silently and leaned against the wall, waiting.
Riza turned her head to look at Roy as he sat in a chair beside the bed.
“Last chance to change your mind, Riza,” he said softly. She bit her lip.
“Thank you for offering me the option, but I won’t change my mind. There’s no going back now,” she replied. He smiled ruefully at her.
“Somehow I knew you’d say that,” he murmured. “There’s something I wanted to tell you, before we do this.” He sounded a bit nervous, and Riza’s heart began to beat faster in response to his words. What did he need to tell her? He took a deep breath, and leaned forward with his elbows resting on his knees. Lacing his fingers together, he started to speak in a low and serious voice. “When I left you that day, to report to my military post, I wasn’t sure whether I’d ever see you again. I thought maybe we’d write now and then, but that we’d inevitably grow apart as we went along on our separate ways.” Unable to meet her eyes any longer, he lowered his head.
Where is he going with this? Riza wondered. Was he trying to say he didn’t want to stay in contact with her after he destroyed her tattoo? She wouldn’t blame him, really. She’d caused him so much pain; she had seen it written clearly across his face when she’d greeted him that day on the battlefield. He’d blamed himself for the fact that she’d joined the military and ended up in that nightmarish place; that she’d stained her hands with blood because of a naïve dream he had once shared with her.
It would break her heart to lose him…and not just because he’d been her first real friend. But Riza knew that if removing herself from his life would make him happier… then she would do it. She was a grown woman, after all, and she was good at burying her feelings. She’d find the strength somehow. As she opened her mouth to tell him that she understood what he was trying to say, though, he continued.
“And after a while, we did start to lose contact. When I was in Ishval… I kept thinking how grateful I was that you would never know what I had done. You’d never know how far I had fallen, how blood-stained my hands had become. I’d never have to see the hatred in your eyes, never have to hear you curse me for deceiving you…” and here his voice broke, and he had to swallow several times before he could go on. “And then there you were. The one person I couldn’t bear to face—the one person whose opinion actually mattered to me. Not only did I betray you and your father by using his alchemy to do…what I did, but I’d even made you believe in my foolish ideals, and because of that -”
He made a little choked noise in his throat, and Riza realized with a start that he was close to tears. The rest of his words tumbled out all in a rush, as though they had been waiting to be said for a long time.
“Riza, your innocence was lost because of me. Your hands are stained with blood because of me. I’ve failed your father’s final request, and I’ve betrayed your trust, and I wanted to beg for your forgiveness. I-I’ll understand if you don’t want to see me again after this is over…so I just wanted to ask you now while I still have the chance. Can…can you possibly forgive me?”
The silence stretched on as he waited for her answer, still looking down at the floor rather than at her face.
“You’re an idiot,” she snapped suddenly, voice cold and brittle. Roy’s head snapped up in shock, agony in his dark eyes. But the soft, pained expression on her face froze him solid. “Of course I forgive you,” she whispered. “I can’t believe you thought you had to ask.”
“I—Riza…” he said softly in that choked voice. Riza started to sit up, and then remembered that she was wearing only a sheet. She managed to tug it around to cover herself so that she could sit up and face him. It was her turn to be the strong one, the one with the right words. It was her turn to offer solace and encouragement.
“Yes, I listened to your hopeful, naïve and idealistic plans for the future,” she began. “And when I first saw you again in the crosshairs of the sniper rifle in my bloodstained hands, I wanted to hate you. I even tried to hate you, to blame you for everything…but I couldn’t.”
She’d never be able to hate him. And she wondered if he’d ever realize that.
“I was the one who decided to join the military, Roy; I’m not some innocent victim in all of this. I pulled the trigger again and again of my own volition. You can’t take the blame for everything; I’m responsible for my own actions at least.” She reached out one hand to touch his, while she held the thin sheet to her chest with the other. His cold fingers curled around hers. “Maybe we’ll never be able to truly make amends for the things we’ve done… It’s too late to go back and do things differently. But I listened, when you were talking to Hughes back there. You want to change things, don’t you? Going forward, you want to do some good, to use your talents and skills to make things better? Well, so do I.” Roy was looking at her with mingled disbelief and hope.
“You’d be willing to follow me?”
They stared at each other for a long minute, the silence between them heavy with unspoken words, her hand still warm in his. Somewhere outside a dog barked, and they both jumped a little. Mustang released her hand, the spell between them broken. He cleared his throat.
“Well, we should probably call Hughes back in before his filthy mind starts imagining something inappropriate is going on in here,” he joked weakly. (In the hallway, Hughes snorted and took that as his cue to head to the kitchen.) Hawkeye flushed that lovely color again, and nodded in agreement. A little awkwardly, she shifted to settle herself back down on the bed. Mustang reached out to help her arrange the sheet properly. And if his fingertips brushed her sensitive skin as he did so, she didn’t reproach him.
“Ready when you are, then,” she said, looking up at him.
Mustang could only swear to himself that he would fight with everything he had to become worthy of the complete trust he saw in her eyes.
“Riza, we’re nearly done. Just hold on a little longer, okay?” Mustang said. She nodded stiffly, tears in her eyes and beads of sweat standing out on her pale face. Hughes carefully patted her uninjured shoulder in what he hoped was a comforting manner. To take his mind off her pain, Roy explained what he was doing for Hughes’s benefit.
“In order to remove the darker pigmentation of the tattoo so that it is gone for good, I have to make sure the burns extend down into the dermis layer. The trick is to destroy the skin enough to cause scar tissue to form, but not so badly that she’d end up with nerve damage.” His voice was cool, clinical, as though he were thinking only of the hard scientific facts and not of the suffering of the flesh and blood woman under his hands.
“So…you’re making them third degree burns, then?” Hughes frowned, trying to think back to what he’d learned in biology. He was interested in the particulars of this procedure almost in spite of himself.
“Mm, really they’re on the borderline between second and third,” Roy replied. “We need partial thickness second degree burns. Ironically, if they were worse, they’d hurt her less, because we’d be frying off the nerves entirely and she’d lose the ability to feel anything on those portions of skin, much less pain.” From the corner of his eye, Hughes saw Hawkeye frown a little. He wondered whether she’d fully considered all of the risks before she’d asked for this. “But of course, if we did that, she’d need to undergo surgery for skin grafts, and then she’d be looking at months of recuperation rather than weeks. Plus, we’d need to take her to a real hospital, which would sort of defeat the whole purpose. Once I’m done with this portion,” he gestured, “I’ll have to debride the dead tissue before I bandage her wounds. Did you find those tweezers I was asking you about?”
“Uh-huh. Right there,” he said, nodding towards the table. “So why aren’t you using your ignition-cloth gloves?” He knew what Roy was doing, chattering on like this. But he’d been genuinely curious about the candle his friend had carried carefully into the room, and the circle he had drawn out so painstakingly on the floor. Surely using the gloves would have been faster and easier?
“I’m not using those things on her. Ever,” Mustang said savagely, whirling on his friend. Hughes raised his hands in front of his chest defensively. Even Riza raised her head slightly in alarm. So much for Mr. cool and clinical.
“Okay, okay. I’m sorry, I was just asking. I didn’t even think about it that way…” And Mustang deflated like a balloon. He scrubbed a hand over his face again and sighed before meeting Hughes’s concerned eyes.
“I’m sorry, Maes,” he said quietly. “I didn’t mean to snap at you.” Hughes nodded briskly, and Roy turned his attention back to his childhood friend. “All right, Riza, this is the last bit. We’re almost through,” he murmured, and gently stroked her hair. Hughes resumed his former position with one steady hand on each shoulder, and Riza closed her eyes again and braced herself.
The flame of the candle grew and elongated when Mustang activated the circle, and then slowly trailed through the air until it hovered above Riza’s back. Hughes could feel the heat of it, as close as his hands were to her tattoo, and he marveled again at his friend’s talent. With an intense expression of concentration, Roy moved the white-hot ball of flame slowly over the last spot he needed to eradicate, rather like a blowtorch. The girl’s whole body went rigid with the effort of not crying out aloud.
Her back arched, and a tiny sound escaped her lips before she bit down hard on the knotted handkerchief Hughes had given her earlier. Hughes made a soothing noise and pressed her shoulders down just a little more firmly. She was breathing hard, and small involuntary noises of pain escaped her lips every so often, but she was far less vocal than either man had anticipated. Roy had been terrified he would be hearing her screams of agony in his nightmares for years to come.
Although, now that he thought about it, those little whimpers were just as bad. He wondered about her pain threshold, and then with a horrible sinking feeling, he wondered what had happened when the tattoo was put into place. Had it hurt as badly? Had it been worse? He wasn’t sure if he had the courage to ask her.
At last, the portion he’d needed gone was finished, and Mustang extinguished the fire hovering above Riza’s back. Moving quickly, he pulled the dead and charred tissue away from her fresh wounds with the tweezers, bearing down on the impulse to retch as the skin peeled away like wet tissue paper. Hughes had to turn away at this point, taking deep breaths through his mouth while black spots swam through his vision. But both men had seen worse, had done worse, and they would face this.
Riza’s breath was coming in ragged pants, and she was beginning to shake with the effort of holding her body still under the intense pain. Finally, Mustang covered the raw red and pink wounds with sterile dressings. He wouldn’t bind them with bandages just yet, as he would need Riza to sit up for that part. He wanted to wait until she’d downed enough pain pills before even thinking of moving her around like that. Plus, this way he’d be able to change them a time or two first, with a minimum of movement on her part.
While he tidied up the various medical and alchemic paraphernalia , Hughes fussed over Hawkeye, whose tears were streaming more freely now. He pulled the thin sheet up over her carefully, mindful of her wounds, and then fetched a glass of water with a straw and several pain pills. The wan, watery smile she offered him when he held the straw to her lips completely melted his heart.
Though he didn’t know this girl very well, Hughes felt that being a witness to this very private and very painful moment in her life gave him a vested interest in her well-being. He was already beginning to consider her as a sort of adopted kid sister. Never mind that she was barely four years his junior. Something about her current helpless state, combined with what he now knew of her past, as well as the fortitude with which she’d faced this ordeal…it was making all of his protective instincts kick in. Pulling a clean handkerchief out of his breast pocket, he carefully wiped the tears off of her face and tried to smile as cheerfully as he always did. Watching from the corner of his eye, Roy found himself thinking that Hughes would make an excellent father.
Seeing that Hughes was sufficiently distracted, and their patient was not looking in his direction either, Roy slipped out of the room and allowed himself to sag weakly against the wall of the hallway outside. He covered his face with his hands—his killers’ hands—and started to shake. He took several deep breaths as he slid slowly down the wall until he was sitting on the ground, forcing aside the images now burned into his memory of the wounds he had inflicted on his childhood friend. The way her back had arched in pain, how her muscles had tensed, how the tears had slowly leaked from her eyes though she was fighting them with everything she had… and never mind how her soft silken skin had reddened and blistered and charred under his hands.
“Oh god. I’m sorry, Riza. I’m so sorry,” he whispered into his hands. He could still hear Hughes’s low murmuring from inside the room, punctuated every so often by Riza’s softer tone. When he heard heavy footsteps approaching the door, Roy struggled to pull himself together in time to meet his friend’s discerning eye.
“Ready for that drink now, I’ll bet,” Maes said softly, looking down at Roy. He didn’t comment on the fact that his friend was sitting on the ground against the wall shaking like a leaf. Roy shook his head.
“I can’t—I don’t want to leave her all alone just yet.” Hughes just pursed his lips and watched him for a moment.
“Look, I’m supposed to meet Gracia for a lunch date soon,” he said finally. “How about this: You sit with her now, keep an eye on her. I’ll come back here later this evening and keep you both company, make sure everything is still going all right. I’ll even bring you both some dinner. Deal?” he asked, extending a hand. Mustang knew that even if he refused, Hughes would still show up. He snorted softly.
“Deal,” he replied, and allowed himself to be pulled to his feet.
Hughes left soon after that, and by the time Mustang returned to his room, Riza had fallen asleep. He smiled a little as he remembered that painkillers had always made her tired and loopy. Pulling his chair closer to the bed, he settled down to hold vigil over his sleeping victim. No, not victim—patient, he reminded himself. He couldn’t keep beating himself up like this. It was what she had wanted, and he had agreed…it was done. He couldn’t regret this now.
But the doubt crept in anyway. Should he have left so much of the tattoo untouched? Would it be enough? There was no way he could do this over again…had the burns been deep enough? What if, after all of this, her skin didn’t scar as much as he’d anticipated and the tattoo was still visible? What if he had failed her again? Would she be able to forgive him again? What if he had to do this again, watch her flinch and shudder under his hands as her skin was torn apart by his flames? Had to watch her fight her tears, trying so damned hard to be strong for his sake as though he wouldn’t see how much pain she was in, how she suffered?
God, he hated this! Why did he have to be the one to do this to her? Sure, she’d told him that he was the only one she trusted, but just look where that trust had gotten her. And now, every time she saw her scars in the mirror, she would think of him, and think of what she’d had to endure. She would associate him with her pain and suffering, and she would grow to hate him. How could she not?
He didn’t realize that tears were streaming down his own cheeks until her sleepy voice interrupted his internal monologue.
“Shouldn’t I be the one crying right about now, Mr. Mustang?” she mumbled, with a sleepy eye fixed on his face. Roy froze. She hadn’t called him that since they were mere children. Ever since he’d joined the military, she’d addressed him by his rank. “It’s not your fault. I asked you to do this,” she continued in the same dreamy voice, her eyes slowly closing again. Really she was only half lucid, caught between a memory and a dream. But even so, she still knew exactly what was going through his mind. And her gentle words calmed him down somewhat. What right did he have to cry, anyway? Riza needed him to be strong right now; he couldn’t afford to wallow in self-pity when she still needed him. He swiped at his own face impatiently and reached for the basin of cool water Hughes had left out.
“It doesn’t change the fact that I’m sorry, Miss Riza,” he replied softly, using the honorific he’d always attached to her name when he’d lived under her father’s roof.
He dipped a cloth in the water, and squeezed it out carefully before using it to wipe the sweat off of her forehead. He was sure the fever would kick in soon, if it hadn’t already, as her body fought to heal itself and prevent infection from setting into her burn wounds. He’d need to get her an extra blanket, and he would need to keep checking on her throughout the night.
As the cool cloth touched her skin, Riza’s lips parted to release a soft sigh, and goose bumps sprang up all along Roy’s arms. His hands shook slightly, and his mouth went dry, and he had to tell himself to get a grip before he could continue. Once he finished sponging her forehead, he moved the cloth along her hairline, where her bright golden hair had darkened with sweat, and then over the exposed side of her neck and throat. For a moment, the only sound in the room was her labored breathing and the soft swish of damp cloth on bare skin.
“Riza…I’m so sorry,” he whispered again at last, unable to resist.
“You’re going to have to stop apologizing, Roy,” she said. Her voice was a little clearer than before, and she seemed to be fighting the haze of the painkillers. “You never had to say it out loud…I already knew how you felt about this. And now it’s just redundant.”
“You amaze me, Riza,” he managed through the lump in his throat. She just smiled. And then her eyes flew open again, and she looked at him with a mixture of fear and hope. It was the way she’d often looked at him when they were children, when she was still learning to trust him.
“Will you stay with me for a while?” she asked, her voice suddenly small and childlike. Mustang felt his heart constrict as he recognized the words…she’d asked him the same thing once, long ago. The first time she’d ever asked a favor of him, as a matter of fact, and he’d gladly stayed up half the night reading aloud to the feverish girl. He’d do it again now without hesitation if that’s what she wanted. He snorted a little and reached for her hand.
“I can’t believe you thought you had to ask.”
When Hughes returned in the early evening, he found Roy dozing beside a soundly sleeping Riza. Her left hand was still in his, and his head was resting on the bed next to her shoulder. With his back and neck bowed like that, Hughes was sure he wasn’t comfortable, and he wondered how he’d even managed to fall asleep in such a position. He cleared his throat loudly. Roy jerked awake and cringed at his own sudden movement, his right hand flying to the back of his neck. His left stayed firmly entwined with Riza’s.
“Ouch…dammit Hughes, you startled me. Wait. How’d you get in here? I thought I locked the door when you left earlier,” he half turned towards his friend, puzzled.
“You did. I broke in,” Hughes grinned. “The time it took to pick the lock was totally worth the look on your face, buddy.”
Roy growled under his breath. Before he could retort, Riza stirred a little, and he quickly turned his attention to her with an anxious expression. She exhaled heavily and was quiet again, and Roy reached out his free hand to check on her fever.
“She was having nightmares earlier,” he confessed softly. Hughes raised an eyebrow.
“No, surprisingly enough. She was dreaming about her childhood.” Hughes shook his head, not understanding. Roy clenched his right hand into a fist. “From what she was saying, it was about when this tattoo was put into place.”
“God,” Hughes breathed softly.
“I’ve never been able to ask…when exactly her father did this to her. Was it before or after I left for the academy? Or was it during one of the weeks when I was visiting Chris and the girls? Before I was even his student?” His eyes had gone dark again.
“Does it really matter?” Hughes interrupted him, pulling the other chair over to sit beside him. “Finding out now when it happened won’t change the fact that it happened, you know? It’s ancient history at this point.”
“Yeah. I know. It’s just that…in her dream,” Roy said softly, squeezing her hand a little, “she begged for him to stop hurting her. And then she called out my name.” He closed his eyes.
“She talks in her sleep, huh? That’s just too damn cute,” Hughes practically cooed, clasping his hands together and wriggling a little. Roy whipped his head up to glare at his friend. “Oh, don’t give me that look,” Hughes said, his dewy eyed look replaced with a serious one in the blink of an eye. “She was having a nightmare. That doesn’t necessarily mean she said those words when it actually happened. And to be fair, her back must hurt like hell right now. That’s bound to affect things; mess with her head a bit. When’s the last time she took a pain pill?” Distracted, Roy frowned down at his watch. Hughes clapped his hand on Roy’s shoulder. “All right, so you get her up and medicated, and I’ll go grab the food…”
Mustang smiled weakly.
“You didn’t actually cook, did you? Please tell me you picked up take-out food from somewhere.”
“Hey! What’s that supposed to mean?” Hughes cried indignantly.
“I’m just saying; we have an invalid here. Hawkeye has enough to deal with without getting food poisoning or indigestion or something,” Mustang smirked.
“I’ll have you know, I’ll never have to cook again once Gracia marries me! The woman is a culinary genius! The other day, she made me a boxed lunch, and I have never tasted such--”
“Yeah, yeah,” Roy interrupted, pushing him out the door. “That’s great buddy. Go get the food, already.”
Hughes skipped off down the hall and Roy had to fight the urge to laugh. How did Maes always do that? Make such a heavy atmosphere dissipate like smoke?
Riza’s memories of that night were always foggy. She vaguely remembered cool hands on her head, and a mug of broth being held to her lips. She was sure there had been more pills, too, and she remembered dozing off to the sound of the two men arguing softly over whether or not she would need another blanket.
When she woke again, it was early dawn. Sunday. She would need to be back in the barracks tonight, to be sure no one got suspicious. Once there, she could feign illness for another day or two, and by that time the pain should be manageable enough to stop taking the pills that made her so tired and out of it. She hoped.
Moving slowly, she curled onto one side and drew her knees up. Mentally evaluating her wounds, she tried to calculate when she’d be able to bathe normally again. She would kill for a good bath right about now. She was about to close her eyes again and try to sleep a bit more when she realized someone was in the room with her. She could feel his presence, but it took a confused moment or two before she spotted him in the darkness.
Roy was standing motionless by the window, and seemed to be reading a letter by the pale light there. It was still too dark for her to see his face. She lay perfectly still and watched him for several more minutes before he spoke.
“Did you mean what you said before, about being willing to follow me?” It was difficult to judge his mood from his tone of voice. His silhouette was not nearly as expressive as his dark eyes were, and she wondered what he was thinking.
“You really need to stop asking me that; it’s starting to become insulting,” was all she said. She heard him snort softly.
“All right. I’ll only ask you once more, and then I’m going to take your word for it.” She eyed the envelope in his hand, suspicion dawning.
“Is that what I think it is?”
“When you get back to the barracks tonight, there’ll be a letter just like this one waiting for you, too. I’m sure of it…” he folded the letter and put it back into the envelope. “But we won’t discuss it anymore here. Rest now, Riza.”
“Yes, sir,” she said, half mockingly. He chuckled, and she felt the mattress dip as he sat beside her in the dark. If everything went according to plan, she would be calling him sir for years to come. He ran a hand through her short tousled hair again, and then she felt his lips on her forehead.
“I could get used to that,” he murmured, amused.
Originally posted as a separate story over on ff.net back in 2011. Not entirely sure I want to leave this here, but I'm going to put it up and let it marinate a bit and see how it feels.
Chapter 15: Alibis and Lying Eyes
In which Rebecca frets, and Riza hides her new, secret injuries. "Honey, you don't look so good..."
“A true friend is one who thinks you are a good egg, even if you are half-cracked.”
Riza didn’t return home Friday night. But then, Rebecca hadn’t really expected her to. Judging from the way the lights had flicked out when she’d been stalk—er, doing recon—Riza’s not-so-secret childhood friend had obviously invited her to stay overnight, and she’d just as obviously accepted the invitation.
Based on the few scant details she’d managed to wheedle out of Riza beforehand, Rebecca assumed the two of them would need more than just one partially-inebriated conversation to sort through all their issues. (Especially if they hadn’t managed much of the actual talking part, Rebecca thought with a mischievous grin.) And so she didn’t give it too much thought the following morning as she went about her usual weekend routine alone.
By late Sunday afternoon, though, she was beginning to feel a little anxious.
Sure, Riza had been in love with this guy for years, but she hadn’t dated anyone, or really even looked twice at a man since Rebecca had known her. And here she was spending a whole weekend with some guy she barely knew? (Well, barely knew NOW, childhood friendship notwithstanding).
Maybe she did have some prior knowledge of his character, but people changed! So he’d once been kind to a lonely, sheltered girl, so what? Riza had even admitted that years had passed since they’d actually been in contact with each other. Who knew what his views on love and marriage and family were? Suppose he’d turned out to be some kind of nut job, too damaged by the things he’d seen and done in the war to have a normal, healthy relationship? Or he could just be a womanizing pig - with looks like those, he’d have no trouble keeping his bed warm any given night.
Yes, Riza was a grown woman, and perfectly capable of making her own choices and mistakes. But part of Rebecca was deeply worried that Riza was setting herself up for a nasty heart break.
Meanwhile, on the other side of town, Riza was trying not to flinch as Roy carefully cleaned and bandaged her burns. Getting dressed was going to be painful, and it was also going require another person’s assistance. Though she knew it was silly, considering that she’d been wearing nothing more than a sheet for the past 36 hours, Riza had been extremely embarrassed to have to ask Roy for his help.
Once that was out of the way, though, her main concern became how she was going to explain her little weekend away without lying outright. Rebecca would likely fill in any blanks in the story with her own prurient little imagination, so as long as Riza didn’t flatly deny anything, it shouldn’t be difficult to just let her go on thinking whatever she’d already assumed...
No matter what, though, she couldn’t tell Rebecca the truth. Rebecca wouldn’t understand, not really, and she’d find a way to blame herself for encouraging Riza to take matters into her own hands. Even though she’d had no way to know what Riza’s true purpose was in seeking out her old friend, she would still feel responsible for Riza’s…injuries.
Riza wanted to spare her that misplaced guilt, if she possibly could. Wasn’t it the least she could do, after all Rebecca had done for her? Was it so wrong to conceal something from her best friend, if it was done to protect her from pain?
Roy interrupted her disordered thoughts by gently laying his hand on her uninjured shoulder.
“Ready?” he asked, sounding a little grim. They both knew this would hurt her.
“As I’ll ever be,” she replied. Gritting her teeth, she kept her as movements slow and measured as she could as Roy helped her slip a borrowed t-shirt over her head.
“I thought it’d be easier,” he’d explained sheepishly when offering her the shirt and a well-worn pair of sweats. “In case anyone’s gotten curious, it would be better if you weren’t seen returning in the same clothes you left in...and this way it’ll look like you’re coming back from a run or something.”
“Not a bad idea,” she’d replied. “Let’s just hope no one is looking too closely.” And she’d glared at the bra that she wouldn’t be able to wear for at least another few days - the straps would chafe against her still-raw wounds.
Following her gaze, Roy had stared at the frilly lace undergarment for a moment before the implications of her statement had finally hit him. The way his ears had reddened as he sputtered was oddly reassuring, and Riza had laughed aloud.
Maybe some of Rebecca’s brazenness was rubbing off on her, she’d thought, and her eyes had glowed.
When nine o’clock rolled around on Sunday evening, and Rebecca hadn’t heard a word from her friend, she decided to make one last pass by Riza’s room. If she still wasn’t there, then Rebecca would march back over to Mr. Flame Alchemist’s fancy townhouse and demand that he return her friend at once before she filed an official missing persons report.
Just as she raised a hand to knock on Riza’s door, it flew open, and her fist nearly connected with the face of the very woman she’d been looking for.
“Hey, you’re back!” Rebecca cried, surprised. She made a motion to embrace her friend as usual, but Riza quickly stepped back out of her reach. Before Rebecca had time to feel offended, though, Riza hastened to explain.
“Better keep your distance,” she warned, looking apologetic. “I don’t want you to catch whatever this is.”
Something about her did seem a little off, Rebecca noticed. Her dark eyes were glassy and her face seemed a little flushed.
“You okay?” Rebecca asked, reaching reflexively for Riza’s arm when the other woman swayed slightly on her feet. “Maybe you should lie down,” she added, concerned.
“Mm, prob’ly,” Riza murmured, allowing Rebecca to steer her towards her bed. Moving very slowly, she sat down on its edge.
“Did you just get home?” Rebecca asked. Riza nodded.
“I was just about to come find you,” she said, offering Rebecca a sickly little smile.
“Honey, you don’t look so good,” Rebecca replied, frowning. She’d never seen Riza come down with as much as a cold before, and she wondered whether her friend was always so out of it when she was ill.
“’m alright,” Riza protested weakly. “I just...I took something for it a little bit ago, and it’s kicking in. That kinda stuff always makes me sleepy,” she explained between slow blinks, concentrating carefully on each word.
Watching her struggle for coherence, Rebecca was torn between mild amusement and incandescent rage. And then Riza tilted her chin and looked up at her with those soft doe-eyes of hers – an incredibly innocent and trusting expression on that pretty face—Rebecca’s rage bubbled to the surface.
“Seriously, dearest, you look awful. Did this ‘friend’ of yours just let you wander off by yourself in such a state?” she demanded, folding her arms in annoyance. When she got her hands on that man, she thought darkly.
The corner of Riza’s mouth twitched up.
“Course not. He walked me all the way back here...you just missed him, actually; he only left a moment ago.” Irrational anger drained away at once, and Rebecca raised an eyebrow.
“Lucky for him. I was starting to wonder whether he’d kidnapped you,” she retorted.
“No, no kidnapping,” Riza chuckled gently. “I’d have been back earlier, but he insisted on taking care of me all day yesterday,” she added, her face going a bit dreamy. Still besotted, then, Rebecca noted, and filed that little observation away for future reference.
“Geez, and here I thought you had this whole romantic weekend thing going on,” Rebecca fussed, vaguely upset that things had apparently not gone according to plan. Riza snorted inelegantly, which coaxed a smile out of Rebecca.
“Not exactly,” Riza said. “I mean, unless you count pouring chicken broth down my throat and wiping sweat off my face as romantic gestures.”
“Depends,” Rebecca said slyly. “Did he cook for you?” Riza pursed her lips, trying to focus on the question as the pain medicine continued to slowly dull her mind.
“I dunno. No, I don’t think so. But he’s not really a very good cook, so it was probably better he didn’t,” she finally said with a shy grin.
“You kinda sound like you’re drunk,” Rebecca observed, amused again. Riza’s grin wobbled and slipped into a frown.
“I do? Stupid pills,” she grumbled, adorably. Rebecca barely managed to resist cuddling her. But the woman had a point; it wouldn’t do either of them good for Rebecca to catch the same bug.
“Come on, you. Lie down,” Rebecca instructed, giving Riza’s left shoulder a light push.
Riza sucked in a sharp breath as the blinding flash of pain burned away the medicinal fog with vicious alacrity.
“Wh-what’s wrong!” Rebecca cried, alarmed. Riza’s face had gone whiter than a bone, but there were beads of sweat standing out on her brow and water in her eyes.
“N-nothing,” Riza managed, breathing heavily. “It’s just my—I just got...dizzy, all at once,” she said with an effort. I can’t tell her; she can’t know, Riza chanted in her head. She’d be horrified, she’d be sick; she can’t EVER know...
“Do you feel nauseous? Need to puke?” Rebecca asked, already frantically glancing around the room for a suitable vessel to use. Riza shook her head, though she was a little unsure, herself. That jolt of pain had at least given her back complete clarity. She’d been dangerously close to babbling out something stupid.
“No, I don’t think so...” she said after a moment. “But would you mind getting me a glass of water? Please?”
Rebecca leapt to her feet to comply. By the time she’d returned from the bathroom down the hall, Riza had taken her earlier advice and laid down (thanking god all the while that her borrowed clothing doubled as sleep wear - she couldn’t handle changing with her shoulder pulsating in pain the way it was). She had curled into a tight ball on her right side, with her face to the doorway, a shivering bundle of misery. Her eyes were squeezed shut, but she opened them when Rebecca set the glass on the nightstand with a soft thud.
“Thanks,” she said weakly, but she made no effort to sit up or reach for the glass. Frowning, Rebecca grabbed the blanket folded at the foot of the bunk and carefully spread it over her friend’s trembling form.
“You want me to keep you company for a bit?” Rebecca asked softly. Riza started to nod, though her eyes had already closed again. But then she frowned a little and shook her head.
“Sorry,” she whispered. “I feel awful. And I really don’t want you to catch this.” Rebecca gently brushed Riza’s hair away from her forehead, which was warm, but not alarmingly so.
“You do need rest,” she conceded, running a hand affectionately through the short blonde strands as she spoke. “But don’t think you’re getting out of telling me all the juicy details later, young lady. I’ll come check on you in a bit, okay?”
“K,” Riza replied, smiling just a little as her eyes drifted shut again. Seconds later, she was breathing the deep, slow breaths of the deeply unconscious.
Rebecca indulged herself in one last stroke of Riza’s soft hair. Poor thing. All the stressing and fretting she’d been doing lately had probably contributed to her sudden illness. At least this Roy Mustang had proven himself to be a decent person by looking after her all weekend. And that certainly pointed to them coming to some sort of understanding about their relationship, didn’t it? Though it looked like she might have to wait a little longer to get the whole story.
But for now, Rebecca decided she should notify the powers-that-be that Hawkeye would be out of commission for a couple of days. A girl deserved a bit of coddling when she was ill. Rebecca’s cooking had gotten a bit better over the years due to Riza’s diligent efforts, and she was reasonably sure she could whip up a fairly decent chicken soup. However, she also knew how to pick up a phone and order take out from nearby restaurants worthy of her patronage.
“Don’t you worry about a thing, sweet pea; I’ll look after you,” she whispered. Quietly, she rose and tiptoed to the door, flicking out the lights on her way.
She never even noticed that Riza’s eyes followed her out, glistening with unshed tears of shame and pain and gratitude.
“I don’t deserve you,” she whispered to the darkness.
Chapter 16: Handling the Truth
In which Rebecca is an amazing best friend, and is rewarded with some (carefully edited) backstory. "No doubt she was expecting some heart-warming tale of romance...she almost hated to burst her bubble."
“Your friend is the man who knows all about you and still likes you.”
Although she’d tried to be moderate with the pain killers she’d been given, Hawkeye slept through most of the next several days. She woke more than once to find that Rebecca had been and gone, leaving behind still-warm containers of soup or thermoses of tea with cheerful little notes, such as:
‘Good morning, dearest!
I didn’t want to wake you when I left this morning, but I brought you some soup from that deli we went to last week – Now, I know you didn’t think much of that pastrami on rye, but I promise you that their chicken and rice soup is the best in the whole city. I’ll come by again after work to check on you, so feel free to call me at the office if you want me to bring you anything on my way home.
The soup was really good. Unfortunately, it did nothing to assuage Riza’s vague sense of guilt.
“Dammit, Rebecca,” she sighed one morning, crumpling the daily note in one fist. “How am I ever going to make this up to you?”
And then she noticed the garish pink nail polish on her fingernails.
“What the hell- ?”
Amused in spite of herself, Riza couldn’t help but notice that her unsolicited manicure was almost professional quality. Perhaps it was time to lower the dosage on those pain meds, she thought, shaking her head with a faint smile.
When Rebecca stopped by that evening, bearing an offering of Xingese takeout, Riza was awake and alert and waiting for her. Closing her book, she looked up at her friend and merely raised an eyebrow. Rebecca just grinned mischievously and set about unpacking the takeaway cartons.
“I was bored,” she shrugged, unapologetic. “You didn’t even stir. In fact, I wanted to do your toes, but you were lying on your stomach, so I had to make do with what I could reach.”
Riza spared a moment to be grateful that Rebecca hadn’t tried to roll her over - that would have been a very rude awakening. Even the thought of it sent a chill down her spine.
“Well, I suppose that’s my cue to lay off the cold medicine,” she sighed, thinking of the array of painkillers currently hidden in her nightstand. “Damn stuff always makes me drowsy; I hate taking it.”
“It’s nice to see you up and about,” Rebecca noted, settling in the armchair and drawing her legs underneath herself. “You’re feeling a bit better, then?”
“Almost back to normal,” Riza replied, half-truthfully. The pain level had gone down from excruciating to merely agonizing, at least. “I mostly just feel weak and lethargic,” she admitted, sitting cross-legged on her bed.
“But you’re not, like, feverish or achy, or any of that stuff. Right?” Rebecca probed, frowning faintly.
“No, I think that’s all passed, now,” Riza reassured her, accepting the container of hot and sour soup Rebecca passed over. “By the way, I really appreciate your looking after me, these past few days,” she added, smiling shyly.
“Glad to be of service,” Rebecca beamed. “Oh, and that reminds me - I got your sick leave approved; you’re all clear through the end of the week.”
“You’re a life-saver, Catalina,” Riza said earnestly. Rebecca just grinned, pleased. The girls ate their soup in companionable silence for a few moments, while Riza pretended not to notice Rebecca’s not-so-surreptitious glances at her.
“So...if you’re sure you’re feeling better,” Rebecca finally ventured, setting aside the remainder of her soup and reaching for a different container. “There’s something I’ve been wanting to talk to you about.”
Riza’s face paled.
Had Rebecca noticed them, then? The burns? Could she convince her friend that she’d merely been wounded in action and somehow neglected to mention it before now? Would Rebecca realize that her wounds were far too fresh for that story to be true? Or would she already know that there was no record of a serious injury in Riza’s medical file?
“Yes?” she managed, throat tight.
“Come on, Riza, I’ve been DYING over here!” Rebecca cried, exasperated. Pointing an accusing chopstick at her friend, she added: “Did you think I wasn’t going to find out?”
“Find out?” Riza echoed, faintly.
“You sly little vixen. I mean, the Flame Alchemist?! I can’t BELIEVE you didn’t tell me right away - I need details, immediately!”
“Flame Alchemi - oh, my god.” She knew about Roy. The wave of mingled anxiety and relief was almost dizzying. Thankfully, Rebecca mistook Riza’s stricken expression for one of embarrassment.
“Mm, that was my first thought, too,” she winked cheekily.
“How- how’d you even know?” Riza asked, her brow wrinkled in confusion.
“I followed you,” Rebecca replied. “The other night, when you went to meet him.”
“Rebecca!” Riza cried, scandalized.
“What?” Rebecca rolled her eyes. “Oh please, like I was really just gonna let you wander off unattended after plying you with booze?” she scoffed.
“I...I suppose not, but—” Riza stammered.
God, what if she’d overheard their conversation? What if she’d seen? Riza’s cheeks turned pink, reflecting on the brazen way she’d discarded her blouse to expose her back, right in the middle of his living room…and the ill-advised kiss shortly thereafter. She hadn’t even thought to check whether the curtains over his windows were drawn.
“I didn’t stick around long,” Rebecca was explaining, a little sheepish now that she was faced with Riza’s reaction. “I just wanted to make sure you were gonna be okay, that’s all.”
“You haven’t told anyone, have you?” Riza asked anxiously. “That I was with him?”
Rebecca’s head whipped up, food forgotten.
“Seriously? You’re asking me that? Just who do you think you’re talking to?” she demanded, offended. “I don’t gossip about my friends. Especially not about my best friend. Fuck, Riza, you think I just go around telling everyone I meet all of your personal, private business?”
“No, it’s not – I mean, I don’t think you’d…” Riza stuttered to a halt, ashamed of her instinctive mistrust. “I’m not accusing you of anything, it’s just...” she trailed off uncertainly, wondering how exactly she could possibly explain.
Rebecca had no way to know the true cause of her anxiety, and if Riza had her way, that’s exactly how it would stay. It wasn’t that she didn’t trust Rebecca; she did. Secrets and lies had a way of driving wedges between people, and Riza wasn’t willing to risk losing her best friend. Then again, all it would take was one offhand comment to the wrong person to destroy Major Mustang’s career, and her own, and she couldn’t risk that either. So she had to tread very carefully, here.
“I didn’t mean it like that,” Riza finally mumbled, raking a hand through her hair in frustration. “I’m sorry.”
“Who’m I gonna blab to, anyway?” Rebecca was grumbling. “Amy over in accounts payable? She wouldn’t know a juicy bit of gossip if it came up and goosed her.”
“All right, all right,” Riza said, contrite. “I said I was sorry. I just - I don’t want anyone to get the wrong idea. If they knew we had a personal relationship…well, they wouldn’t be interested in listening to the truth. They’d only care about how it looked.”
“Well, what’s the big deal, anyway? It’s not like he’s the first officer to get involved with a lower-ranking solider,” Rebecca said, still sounding hurt.
“For one thing, we aren’t involved,” Riza sighed. “Not in the way you mean. But that really wouldn’t matter if a rumor got to the wrong ears; even the appearance of fraternization could lead to disciplinary action for either one of us. And that sure as hell wouldn’t do anything for my reputation.”
“Oh…I didn’t even think about that,” Rebecca said, blinking. Was that the only thing that had upset Riza? “I mean, I’m aware of the possibility,” she said. “But it’s a moot point. You know no one’s gonna hear about it from me.”
Riza frowned down at the dregs of her soup.
“Yes, I know,” she said in a small voice. Am I overacting? Riza asked herself. Maybe I’m not being fair to Rebecca.
“And even if I was planning to spread some rumors, shouldn’t I at least have my facts straight?” Rebecca went on. A teasing note had crept back into her voice. “I should at least know which juicy details are real and which are the product of my overactive imagination,” she added, waggling her eyebrows suggestively.
Riza couldn’t help the chuckle that escaped, but she still hesitated.
“Come on, please?” Rebecca wheedled, sensing weakness. Time to bring out the big guns, so to speak. “Look, I brought us tangerine chicken to go with the soup!” she cried, gesturing at another of the takeaway cartons. “That’s your favorite, right?” She knew that it was. “And wasn’t that chicken and rice soup from Milton’s the best you’ve ever tasted? I mean, aside from your own, of course; no doubt you have some prize-winning secret recipe passed down through the Hawkeye family for generations or something.”
“The Grumman family, technically,” Riza interjected, her lips curving. “It was my mother’s recipe.”
Something about that name rang a bell in the back of Rebecca’s mind, but she dismissed it impatiently.
“And I’m sure it was amazing,” she retorted. “But we can discuss recipes later! Right now I just want you to tell me about your ‘it’s-not-what-it-looks-like’ overnight stay with the Flame Alchemist. Who is even hotter than his State title suggests, as I am sure you’re well aware.”
Riza groaned and hid her face in her hands.
She did sort of owe it to her. And what’s more, she knew that Rebecca was as good as her word. If she promised not to say anything, then she wouldn’t.
“Not a word of this to anyone, Rebecca. Promise me,” she said at length, raising her head to look directly into Rebecca’s eyes.
“I swear. I’ll take it to my grave,” Rebecca vowed, sitting up straighter and trying to contain her overwhelming glee.
“All right,” Riza said softly. “I’m not really sure where to begin...”
“Take your time,” Rebecca replied, eyes sparkling. No doubt she was expecting some heart-warming tale of romance, Riza thought with a sigh. She almost hated to burst her bubble.
“Remember when I told you that things were a little awkward between us when we met up in Ishval?” Riza began after a moment. “And that he was less than pleased to see me there?”
“Right,” Rebecca nodded, thinking back to their conversation from several days earlier. “He was all upset because he hadn’t intended to inspire you to join the military yourself, and he felt responsible for getting you involved.”
“Mm-hm. At least, that’s what I thought was going on. And it was a big part of what he was feeling,” Riza acknowledged. “But what I never told you is that my friend—Major Mustang—couldn’t have become the Flame Alchemist without my father’s involvement. Roy Mustang was his most talented apprentice.”
“Wait,” Rebecca interrupted. “So your dad was an alchemist, too?” Riza nodded. “Oh,” Rebecca breathed. “That makes more sense, now.”
“You once said your father wasn’t a trusting man; that he was afraid that people would steal his secrets. I never thought to ask what he did for a living, but - well, it fits.”
“Yes,” Riza agreed softly. “My father was a very skilled alchemist. And he hated the very idea of the State Alchemist program. He refused to join, and frequently said that those who did had sold their souls to the military in exchange for material comfort and prestige.”
“Oh,” Rebecca said, her mind racing ahead. “But, what about - ?”
“He didn’t take the State Alchemist’s Exam until after my father’s death. When he spoke of enlisting prior to that, he was only talking about the regular military, not the State Alchemists,” Riza clarified. “My father still didn’t approve, and they argued a bit, but he never actively tried to prevent his going. He just said he hoped Mr. Mustang wouldn’t come to regret his choice.”
“Oh, god,” Rebecca gasped. Regret his choice—holy fuck. “So, when the Ishvalan conflict escalated and they deployed the State Alchemists…” she said slowly, frowning. “Mustang probably already felt like he’d failed your father by becoming a human weapon. And then you come waltzing onto the battlefield, and...What?”
Riza was gaping at her in open amazement.
“Nothing,” Riza said, quickly recovering her poise. “It’s just...most people wouldn’t understand that feeling of failure. Of betrayal.”
“Well, I’m not most people,” Rebecca replied with a proud toss of her head. “Plus I’ve dated a few alchemists in my time,” she admitted with a sheepish grin.
“Of course,” she said. “Anyway, you’re on the right track. But it’s a little more complicated even than that…”she sighed.
In a steady, calm voice, Riza went on to describe how her father had fallen ill, obliging him to cut Mustang’s apprenticeship short. How his illness had prevented him from passing his secrets to a worthy successor, forcing him to entrust that task to his daughter in his stead. How he’d later died in Mustang’s arms, expressing his regret that he wouldn’t be able to bequeath his legacy to his most promising student, and entreating him to look after his only child with his dying breath.
She finally choked up trying to explain that she had actually been the one to give Mustang her father’s encoded notes. That it was her own actions that had enabled him to learn the secrets of elemental flame alchemy, which in turn had allowed him to pass the S.A. E. and become a State Alchemist.
Rebecca’s eyes welled up in sympathy.
“Oh, honey,” she whispered, when Riza had to stop for a moment.
Riza just shook her head and cleared her throat a few times before going on. She was skirting perilously close to forbidden territory, now, and chose her next words carefully.
“So, you see, we had a bit more to discuss than an old teenage crush,” she said.
“I’ll say,” Rebecca murmured, wiping the tears from her eyes. No bloody wonder Riza had worked herself up into knots over seeing this guy again.
“That first night, I reminded him that he’d broken his promise to stay in touch,” Riza continued. “And then I made a fool of myself by bursting into tears, which I think threw him,” and here she let out a shaky little laugh.
“Of course it threw him; you never cry,” Rebecca noted, slightly awed. “So…what’d he do?”
Interestingly, Riza flushed.
“He panicked, a little,” she said, fidgeting. “And he tried to comfort me…but then he smelled the alcohol on my breath.” Well, tasted it on her tongue, actually, but close enough. Rebecca would never let her hear the end of it if she found out about the kiss.
“So?” Rebecca asked, puzzled. “You’d had a drink before meeting him; why would that matter?”
“Because he thought I was well and truly drunk,” Riza mumbled, embarrassed. “I mean, think about it: I turned up on his doorstep out of the blue, smelling of alcohol and in the middle of an emotional outburst - babbling about broken promises and crying all over him. What would you have thought?”
“Yeah, all right,” Rebecca conceded. “Not an unreasonable assumption to make, under the circumstances.”
“And he was at least half right,” Riza grumbled. “I don’t know what I was thinking, tossing back whiskies like that.”
“Worked, didn’t it?” Rebecca retorted. “Can’t argue with results! So, he thought you were tanked?” she prompted, changing the subject abruptly. When Riza shot her a narrow-eyed glare, she batted her eyelashes innocently, which turned Riza’s glare into an eye-roll. “And then?” Rebecca pressed.
“He was really worried about me; said he didn’t want me going back to the barracks all alone,” Riza continued, still flushing prettily.
“Point in his favor,” Rebecca murmured, approvingly.
“I think he was afraid I’d tried to drink myself into a stupor,” Riza sighed. She certainly wouldn’t have been the first soldier who sought oblivion at the bottom of a bottle. “Anyway, he said we needed to talk when we were both calm–by which he meant sober—so he asked me to stay overnight, and...oh, stop that, I slept on his couch!” Riza cried, interrupting herself to glare at her friend.
Rebecca tried and failed to wipe the unholy grin off her face.
“Sorry,” she said, not sounding sorry at all. “Go on?”
Riza shook her head in fond exasperation.
“The next morning, we talked,” she said slowly. “About Ishval, and about my father. About the guilt and the blame,” she went on, her voice faltering a little.
Rebecca bit her lip, hard. What a tangled mess, she thought. Poor darlings. She was beginning to think that she’d never fully understand the complicated web of betrayal, remorse, overwhelming pain and forgiveness that tied these two people together.
“It was a little intense,” Riza said, smiling faintly again and thinking of the unexpectedly emotional conversation they had shared. “But…really good. We were both able to get some things out in the open, to understand each other better. Forgive each other. You know, it’s amazing, Rebecca. He’s still the same self-assured idealist that I used to know, only…he’s a little less naive, now.”
“How do you mean?”
“In spite of everything we’ve seen and done…or maybe because of all those things,” Riza corrected herself thoughtfully. “Even now, his dreams and goals haven’t changed.”
“His dreams?” Rebecca echoed softly, as though afraid to break whatever spell was causing Riza’s unusual volubility.
“Yes,” Riza replied somewhat dreamily. “He wants to change things. Improve things. Make this country a better place, worthy of the sacrifice of the men and women who’ve given their lives to defend it. Have you ever heard of the alchemist’s creed?”
“Sure: ‘Be Thou for the People.’ Right?”
Rebecca wondered, not for the first time, whether Riza even realized how clearly her feelings showed in her eyes. Right now, they were full of pride and affection and…hope. An answering surge of hope rippled through Rebecca’s heart at the sight of it.
“So what, he wants to use his powers for good, now?” she teased lightly. Riza smiled.
“Something like that, yes,” she replied.
“Then…are you going to stick around and see if he can do it?” Rebecca asked. “Change things, I mean?”
“Yes. Yes, I believe I will,” Riza said quietly. “I honestly don’t think I could do anything else, now.”
“What, you don’t want to go back to the country and raise cattle or sheep or whatever it is they do out there?”
“Don’t think I haven’t considered it,” Riza retorted. “But I’ve done that already, or near enough. And it is a lot more work than you’re imagining, trust me. You’d suffer a nervous breakdown inside six weeks.”
“If I didn’t keel over from sheer boredom first,” Rebecca agreed cheerfully. In a more serious tone, she added: “I know it’s selfish of me, but I’m awfully glad you’re planning to stick around. I was terrified you were going to resign and hare off someplace I’d never see you again.” she admitted. “I mean, I know you were thinking about it.”
“I was,” Riza acknowledged. “But… I can’t let myself off so easily.” Before Rebecca could ask what she meant by that, she went on in a cheerier voice: “Besides, the prospect of living life without ever hearing another of your horrible first date stories, or listening to one of your harebrained schemes,” she shook her head with mock seriousness. “I just couldn’t face that.”
“And I bet they don’t have Xingese restaurants out in the country, do they?” Rebecca teased back, even as the tears in her eyes threatened to spill over. “Life without tangerine chicken? Unbearable.”
“Exactly,” Riza smiled at her. “Speaking of which, pass it over, will you?”
As Rebecca laughed and turned her attention to the pile of takeaway containers on the nightstand, Riza exhaled softly. Talking with Rebecca, even if it was a slightly edited version of events, had been really good, she decided.
“Anything else you wanted to know?” she offered lightly, as she took a delicate bite of her chicken. Rebecca paused with her own chopsticks halfway to her mouth and pursed her lips in thought.
“There’s just one more thing,” Rebecca said, seriously. “Your Roy Mustang – whose connection to you and/or your relatives (outside of the usual comrades-in-arms connection he shares with all persons who serve in the military) I shall be forgetting the moment this conversation ends,” and here she had to pause to take a breath, while Riza tried not to giggle. “So as not to jeopardize either of your careers or reputations –does he have any attractive male friends?”
“I’ve only met one so far,” Riza admitted through her laughter. “A Captain Maes Hughes. Actually, I think you’d like him immensely; he’s a good man and a fine officer. But you’re out of luck, I’m afraid. He’s already engaged,” she said, solemnly shaking her head.
“Damn it! Why are all the good ones taken?” Rebecca wailed.
Chapter 17: Everything's Not Lost
In which Rebecca puts two and two together, fears losing her bff, and tries not to be an emotional wreck.
“Good friendships are fragile things, and require as much care as any other fragile and precious thing.”
The rest of Hawkeye’s sick leave passed without incident, unless she considered the items that seemed to turn up every time she left her room for a meal or a bath.
First there was the white paper pharmacy bag left sitting innocently on her pillow, containing a burn salve which made her want to weep in relief when applied to her slowly healing wounds. Then another, larger paper sack, this one left on the foot of her bed and filled with enough bandages to wrap her entire body from head to toe at least twice. And finally there was the magnificent bouquet of peach roses accented with white yarrow,* which had appeared on her windowsill one morning alongside a pale peach-colored plushie rabbit. The tiny card sticking out of the top of the flowers was simply signed, ‘Get Well Soon’ in a vaguely familiar handwriting.
Riza had ended up standing at the window for a long time, thinking about the only other stuffed animal she’d ever owned: a threadbare white bunny that had belonged to her mother before her. She’d loved that damn bunny. She had a vague memory of tucking it into her mother’s arms some time near the end, when the sick woman’s face had been pinched and pale and eight-year-old Riza had been desperate to coax even the tiniest hint of a smile from her.
She wondered now what had become of the little bunny after her mother’s death. Probably burned, along with so many of Tereza’s other things, if Berthold had had a hand in it.
Feeling slightly childish, but unable to resist the impulse, Riza rubbed the silky fur of the stuffed rabbit against her cheek, absently noting the high quality of the material and the slightly uneven stitching. Hand-sewn, then, and obviously no cheap trinket purchased on a whim.
But how had he known?
Although, the general had written to his daughter – Riza had found a few of his letters once, hidden among some old photos and legal documents in the attic. It was very possible that her mother had replied at some point…perhaps she’d mentioned Riza’s fondness for the old white bunny?
Well. Whether her grandfather knew about her girlhood partiality for an old stuffed rabbit or not, she still appreciated the gesture. Perhaps she could call. Or maybe even visit him, before her furlough ended.
He was he only blood relation she had left, after all.
The sight of the flowers had excited Rebecca’s hopes, and her face fell dramatically when Riza laughingly explained that they’d come from her grandfather. (The bunny she’d hidden under her pillow, unwilling to delve into her reasons for wanting to keep its existence to herself.)
“The general sent them?” Rebecca cried. “But –how’d he even know you– oh. Of course; your sick leave. Well dammit, I was hoping you’d had a visit from your gentleman caller while I was out.”
“My gentleman caller?” Riza repeated incredulously. “What era are you from? You got a corset and crinolines on under that uniform?” Rebecca snorted.
“Well, I was gonna call him your secret lover, but I thought I wasn’t allowed to imply that sort of thing,” Rebecca retorted with a grin.
“No, you most certainly are not!” Riza cried, torn between horror and amusement.
“Yeah, yeah, nothing to gossip about here, I know,” Rebecca grumbled. “I got it. But still! You were really ill, and he might’ve at least checked in on you!”
Remembering the mysterious appearance of the salve and bandages, it was all Riza could do to keep a straight face.
“I’m not even going to dignify that with a response,” was all she said, smiling archly. “What’s all this, anyway?” she added, finally acknowledging the heavy canvas bag Rebecca had hauled in with her.
“Oh! Your rerouted mail finally came in,” Rebecca chirped. “I thought I’d save you a trip down to HQ and pick it up for you. I hope you don’t mind?”
“No, of course not,” Riza replied, pleased. “Although if you were hoping to rummage through dozens of love letters, I’m afraid you’ll be sorely disappointed. The most interesting thing in the lot is most likely be the letter you sent yourself.”
“Oh, I sent more than one,” Rebecca said lightly. “And while I do love you - in a strictly platonic, sororal, and completely non-romantic way –you might not want to read those letters now,” she added, her eyes growing troubled. “I certainly wasn’t writing love letters. They were more like…why-the-hell -are-you-ignoring-me-and-you’d-better-fucking-be-all-right—” her voice cracked on the last word, and Riza’s heart squeezed painfully in her chest.
“Catalina,” she started to say, but Rebecca shook her head.
“No,” she choked out. “Don’t you dare apologize. You couldn’t know I’d written, and you had more important things to worry about out there. I just…I missed you, and I was worried about you, and can we please not talk about this anymore?” she huffed and turned away suddenly. Riza ignored her.
“Rebecca,” she said softly, circling around so she could see her friend’s face. “Hey,” she went on, gently placing a hand on Rebecca’s arm. “You were one of only three people I wrote a letter to when I found out I was being sent to the front lines. You know, just in case.”
Rebecca stiffened. She knew that, of course, the letters being entrusted to her care in Riza’s absence. Although Riza wouldn’t know that she’d peeked at them without meaning to.
“And I suppose I simply assumed you knew,” Riza continued. “But…maybe it’s something I should have said out loud before now.”
She ducked her head, trying to catch Rebecca’s lowered eyes. As she’d hoped, Rebecca reluctantly lifted her own head at the movement.
“What’s that?” she asked sulkily, her eyes damp. Riza smiled softly.
“You’re my best friend, Rebecca. And I love you – in a strictly platonic and completely non-romantic way.”
A watery giggle escaped Rebecca’s lips, even as she brushed a tear from her cheek.
“You forgot ‘sororal,’” she said in a quavering voice.
“That too. Come here,” Riza said, gently drawing her emotional friend into a tight embrace. The half-healed burns on her back screamed in protest as her friend clung to her, but she stubbornly clenched her teeth and ran a soothing hand up and down Rebecca’s spine. Rebecca’s friendship was more than worth a little bit of pain.
After a few moments of quiet sniffling, Rebecca hiccupped and drew back.
“I’m sorry to go all mush-ball on you,” she mumbled, swiping at her eyes with the back of her hand. Emotional displays made Riza uneasy, she knew.
But the corners of Riza’s lips quirked upwards as she reached for the box of tissues on her nightstand.
“Hey, what else are friends for?” she said lightly, offering one to Rebecca. She waited silently as Rebecca carefully dabbed at her eyes and blew her nose.
“Now, do you want to help me sort through ten months’ worth of junk mail?” Riza asked next. “Or would you rather go out for ice cream and talk about what brought that on? Or shall we just forget the whole thing and go out for ice cream anyway?”
Rebecca giggled, more naturally this time.
“Sorry,” she apologized again. “I guess…I was just thinking about my upcoming transfer. I mean, I know it’s not like I’m never gonna see you again, but I only just got you back, you know? And now I’m moving out to Eastern, and you’re staying here in Central, and I’m not ready to lose my best friend all over again,” she sniffled. “And, I dunno, I guess I’m just feeling a little sorry for myself.”
“But Rebecca, I’m not staying here in Central,” Riza replied, surprised. “Didn’t I tell you?”
“What?” Rebecca gaped at her. “No, tell me what? What do you mean? Where are you going?”
“Well, it’s not really official until after the ceremony, but…I’m being promoted,” Riza revealed, smiling. “I’m a Second Lieutenant.”
Rebecca whooped and grabbed both her hands.
“Riza! That’s fantastic!” she cried. “But, Central—?”
“Before I’d even received the notice, my meddlesome grandfather kindly informed me that there are a half a dozen available positions for a Second Lieutenant in Eastern City, under his command. Indirectly, anyway; I’d actually be reporting to someone who would report to him.”
(And one of those someones was a newly promoted Lieutenant Colonel she happened to know, but she would hold off on sharing that little tidbit for the time being. He hadn’t mentioned anything yet, after all, and she didn’t like to presume…)
“Then—Riza! Do you know what this means?!” Rebecca exclaimed, beginning to jump and down, with Riza’s hands still clasped in hers. “We’ll be working together! Well, sort of. But we’ll be in the same city and working in the same building and omigosh, this is the best news I’ve had in weeks!” she crowed.
Riza laughed as her friend finally released her hands in order to execute a ridiculous little shimmying dance around the room.
“I’m sorry I didn’t tell you sooner,” she said. “But I really only found out this morning, when I called my grandfather to thank him for the flowers. I didn’t even realize that he was still stationed in Eastern.”
“Wait. WAIT. Hold on,” Rebecca whirled round to face Riza again, eyes wild. “Grumman. Lieutenant General Grumman is your maternal grandfather.”
“Ye-es. Why—?” Riza said slowly, confused. “You knew that, didn’t you?”
“I’d forgotten the surname!” Rebecca howled. She threw herself onto Riza’s bed and covered her face with her arms. “I KNEW it sounded familiar!”
“Catalina, I don’t think I can handle another dramatic mood shift,” Riza warned as she approached her bed with caution.
“My hot-shot general,” Rebecca moaned. “The one who requested my transfer! It’s him,” she explained. “Grumman. And here I was, getting all carried away all by myself…getting my hopes up for an exciting office romance with a handsome boss… and -and love at first sight, and late nights in the office and clandestine meetings on our days off, and…I mean, I wouldn’t really mind an older man, but this is just too much!” she wailed.
“Well, my grandfather is a widower,” Riza said soberly. “And I wouldn’t mind having you for my step-grandmother.”
She sidestepped neatly to avoid the airborne pillow.
“That’s it! We’re getting that ice cream!” Rebecca announced, sitting up suddenly.
“We’ll make it a sundae. My treat,” Riza promised, biting her lips to hide the grin from her glowering friend.
“With chocolate sauce? And caramel?” Rebecca asked plaintively.
“And a cherry on top.”
“Damn straight! I’m gonna need it to deal with this disappointment,” Rebecca said darkly. “Your grandpa’s just lucky that you happen to be heading the same city, or else I’d – I’d defect!”
“Come on, sweetie. Let’s go and get you that ice cream sundae, now,” Riza said soothingly, patting her friend’s back. Rebecca sniffled dramatically.
“Banana split?” she implored.
“Don’t push your luck.”
According to my research, peach-colored roses signify appreciation, gratitude and sincerity, and can be used to indicate how much you miss someone dear. Yarrow, reputed to have medicinal qualities, symbolizes healing and good health. This could be completely off base, so, you know, grain of salt and all that.
Chapter 18: Best Laid Plans
In which Catalina confronts Mustang and demands to know his intentions.
“There is nothing I would not do for those who are really my friends. I have no notion of loving people by halves, it is not my nature.”
~Jane Austen, Northanger Abbey
“That was quick; I thought you had a stop to – oh!” Riza gasped as her door swung open to reveal Roy Mustang rather than the expected Rebecca. “I beg your pardon; I thought you were someone else,” she added, flustered.
“Perhaps I should have called first, after all,” Mustang said, a little stiffly. “I’m not interfering with your evening plans, I hope?”
But Hawkeye was already moving aside to let him in.
“Not at all, please come in,” she replied. “I’m afraid I can only offer you a choice between the very uncomfortable armchair and the equally uncomfortable bed,” she added apologetically as he stepped inside the room.
“I see these single rooms are just as cozy as I remembered,” he chuckled, opting for the armchair.
“At least it’s only temporary,” Hawkeye replied, perching primly on the edge of her bed as Mustang shrugged out of his coat and draped it over the back of the chair. “And it’s sufficiently lowered my expectations in regards to any military-subsidized accommodations I may occupy in the future.”
Although she was fairly certain her grandfather would find a way to get involved in her housing arrangements, as well. He’d probably end up slipping rental apartment information under her door in the next few days.
“Right. Well,” Roy cleared his throat somewhat awkwardly. “I came by to make a request - but if you’re expecting someone, I could call again when it’s more convenient. That is, if I wouldn’t be imposing…?”
Riza was mildly amused by his uncharacteristic discomfort.
“No, not at all,” she said, hiding a smile. “Catalina shouldn’t be here for another hour or so; she told me this morning she had some errands to run after work.”
“Catalina?” Mustang repeated, raising an eyebrow in query.
Hawkeye’s use of the feminine pronoun had not escaped his notice. And the way Mustang’s stiff formality melted away in the same moment had not escaped hers.
“Sergeant Major Rebecca Catalina. We were at Academy together,” Hawkeye elaborated.
“She’s not just any old schoolmate, though, is she?” Roy mused, studying Riza’s face. She looked genuinely pleased at the prospect of meeting up with this person. “You’re close,” he guessed.
“She’s my best friend,” Riza confirmed quietly.
“Ah, I see.”
“I haven’t told her the whole story…” Riza touched her left shoulder with a slight grimace as she spoke. “I ended up feigning illness to buy myself some recovery time,” she explained. “So naturally, Catalina made it her personal mission to ensure that I was properly fed, hydrated, and entertained until I got back on my feet.”
Roy smiled at the warmth and obvious fondness in her voice.
“Sounds like she’s taken good care of you,” he noted.
“She’s been a tremendous comfort. I don’t know what I’d have done without her,” Riza admitted.
Roy shifted in his chair, obviously uneasy.
“How…how are they healing? The burns?” he clarified unnecessarily.
“As well as can be expected, I suppose,” Riza replied. “No signs of infection, as far as I can tell, and the fever hasn’t returned.”
She hated it when he used that subdued, guilt-ridden tone.
“They still hurt,” she acknowledged, biting back a sigh when he flinched ever so slightly. “It’s getting easier, though, less painful each day,” she hastened to add. “That salve has been really helpful, by the way; I didn’t get a chance to thank you for that.”
Roy flushed, faintly embarrassed, and waved off her thanks.
“Least I could do,” he mumbled. He fell silent, then, and seemed to find the ancient gray carpeting under his feet utterly fascinating.
“What was it that you wanted to talk to me about?” Riza finally prompted gently. “You mentioned a request?”
“Ah, right,” Mustang cleared his throat. “I, uh, I hear congratulations are in order, Second Lieutenant Hawkeye,” he said, smiling faintly.
“Likewise, Lieutenant Colonel Mustang,” Hawkeye returned, with a significant glance at the shiny new rank pips on his shoulders. He flashed her one of those self-assured grins – oh, how she’d missed those!
“Youngest Lieutenant Colonel in over a decade,” he boasted. “And as such, I’ve been offered the opportunity to choose my own subordinates. Eventually I’ll have a full team under my command, but to begin with, I’ll need an adjutant – one who’s at least a Second Lieutenant in rank.”
“Oh?” Riza perked up.
Roy lifted bright, hopeful eyes to meet hers, and Riza’s heart began to race.
Naturally, Riza hadn’t been able to keep her plans from Rebecca for very long. But to Riza’s surprise (and suspicion), Rebecca accepted the news with no more than an amused smile.
“Oh, really?” she’d said. “You’re not nervous, are you? I mean, it’s not like he’d be dumb enough to refuse your application. You already saved his sorry ass once; you’re obviously perfect for the job!”
Of course, Rebecca had then rushed to work and relentlessly badgered her fellow office workers until she found out when and where the infamous Hero of Ishval would be holding his interviews.
Hawkeye could deny it all she wanted, and maybe she really wasn’t fully conscious of it herself, but Rebecca was absolutely certain that Riza still harbored some serious feelings for that man. And if Mustang thought he could somehow take advantage of those feelings…well! He’d be re-evaluating those plans immediately, if Rebecca had anything to say about it.
Lurking in the hallway near the office Mustang had been allocated, Rebecca waited until the private who’d been acting as his secretary slipped away for a coffee break. And then she made her move.
“Wow, he’s SO much better-looking than his official ID photos!” she thought fleetingly as she flung open the office door. “Not that it matters! And it sure as hell doesn’t give the bastard license to mess Riza around!”
Startled by Rebecca’s abrupt entrance, Mustang glanced up from the personnel files he’d been thumbing through. Rebecca closed the door firmly behind herself, suddenly aware that she hadn’t exactly thought this whole confrontation thing through.
“Lieutenant Colonel Mustang?” she demanded, with more confidence than she actually felt.
“Yes?” he replied, politely curious. “How may I help you, er...Sergeant Major?” he added, with a discreet glance at her epaulets.
“What are your intentions towards Riza?” Rebecca blurted out.
“I beg your pardon?” Mustang asked, raising one eyebrow. Catalina stood her ground.
“I said: what are your intentions towards my friend?” she repeated, glaring at him. To her surprise, his haughty expression softened into one of pleased recognition.
“Ah, so you must be Rebecca Catalina,” he said smoothly, rising from his desk and advancing with an outstretched hand. Nonplussed, Rebecca allowed him to shake her hand. “I’ve heard quite a lot about you,” he explained, as he offered her a charming smile. “Hawkeye told me what a help and comfort you’ve been to her these past few weeks.”
“That’s what friends are for,” Rebecca retorted, reminding herself not to fall for his charisma even as a pleased flush spread over her cheeks.
“Implying that I haven’t been much of a friend to her,” Mustang said, with a self-deprecating little laugh. “Well, I suppose I deserve that.” He settled back behind the desk and gestured at the visitor’s chair, wordlessly offering her a seat.
Rebecca ignored him, planting her feet and crossing her arms and generally radiating defiance with every fiber of her being.
“You still haven’t answered my question,” she reminded him, sharply. If Mustang was surprised by the level of hostility, he didn’t let it show.
“You mean about my intentions?” he smirked. “Well, I intend to accept Hawkeye’s application to join my team as my adjutant. Especially since I was the one who suggested that she apply for the position in the first place,” he said conversationally.
“You mean...you asked her?” Rebecca said, confused. Riza hadn’t mentioned that bit.
“Oh, yes,” Mustang replied, studying her with those shrewd dark eyes.
The sudden arrival of a middle-aged Second Lieutenant spared Rebecca the trouble of coming up with a witty reply. The man was short, stocky, and blonde, and looked as surprised to see them as they were to see him.
“Er, sorry, I was looking for a Lieutenant Colonel Mustang?” the lieutenant explained, glancing between Catalina and Mustang doubtfully.
“And you’ve found him,” Mustang said smoothly, sparing a quick glance at the clock above the door. “Ah, you must be my three o’clock. If you’ll excuse me, Sergeant Major,” he added, turning to Rebecca with an apologetic smile. “Perhaps we could continue this discussion some other time?”
But before Rebecca could so much as sneer at him, the new arrival cleared his throat and slowly backed out of the office.
“No, no, that’s all right,” he frowned. “There...seems to have been a misunderstanding. And, uh, well. I don’t think I’m a good fit for the open position after all, so I’ll go ahead and just withdraw my application. Excuse me, sir,” he added, almost sarcastically. “Miss,” he nodded in Rebecca’s general direction, turned on his heel and beat a hasty retreat, letting the door close heavily behind him.
Mustang sighed and allowed his shoulders to slump a bit as he slowly rubbed a hand over his face. Rebecca was stricken by remorse: had her little stunt just cost him a good potential teammate?
“I—I didn’t...” she started to stammer. Mustang straightened at once, charming smile slipping back into place.
“No, you didn’t,” he agreed. “In fact, Sergeant Major, you’ve just done me a favor.”
Mustang chuckled at her confusion and leaned back a bit in his chair.
“His reaction to your presence, the way he addressed you – that tells me he has no respect for women in the military, and would likely object to working with a woman of equal or greater rank. So you’ve just saved me the time and effort it would normally have taken to see that he was not, as he put it, a good fit for my team.”
“Sexist pig,” Rebecca huffed.
“If it makes you feel any better, his primary problem was actually my age,” Mustang assured her.
“Oh, he’s not the first. Most of them hide it a bit better, of course,” he scoffed. “And he may be in for a bumpy career, if he can’t accept the idea of a younger man – or a woman – outranking him. I certainly have no use for a subordinate who would question my qualifications or my authority based on my looks alone.”
“He-he only left because of your age?” Rebecca sputtered, indignant. “What on earth does that have to do with your leadership skills?”
“Rushing to defend my honor, Catalina? Weren’t you just about to give me the ‘break her heart and I’ll break your legs,’ speech?”
Rebecca flushed crimson, and Mustang chuckled again.
“She certainly wouldn’t need to rely on ME to break your legs,” she mumbled.
“Of course not; she could shoot out my kneecaps from a rooftop 2000 yards away, if the occasion called for it. In any event, Sergeant Major,” he emphasized her rank with a quirked brow, reminding her that he was still a superior. “Perhaps now you can see why I’d want to work with someone I already know and trust.”
“Even if it puts her in an awkward position?” Rebecca demanded.
“Do you know how much she cares about you?” she cried, frustrated.
Mustang leaned forward, resting his elbows on his desk.
“Do you?” he asked in a low, dangerous voice.
Shocked into silence by the ferocity of his glare, Rebecca could only stare at him.
“Regardless of any previous relationship we may or may not have had,” Mustang growled, still in that low, dark tone. “Hawkeye and I agree that we’d accomplish our goals much more easily by working together. Those feelings, leading up to that decision: those are the only feelings that anyone should take into account when they consider our professional association. Do I make myself clear?”
Bastard, Rebecca thought, scowling. Why did he have to have such a good point?
“Does Hawkeye even know you’re here?” Mustang went on, studying her face with disconcerting intensity. “I doubt she’d be pleased to learn about our little conversation. Particularly considering that I do, in fact, outrank you, and that I might be moved to speak with your superior officer about this little display of insubordinate behavior.”
“Are you seriously threatening me right now?” Rebecca snapped, even as the blood drained from her face.
“Well, come on, you started it,” Mustang retorted, with a disarming grin.
A startled laugh escaped Rebecca’s lips, and she finally sank heavily into the visitor’s chair he’d offered her earlier.
“Okay. Look,” she said slowly, running a hand through her hair. “I’m not trying to threaten you. Sir,” she quickly amended. “But, I—Riza is my friend. And I don’t want her to get hurt.”
“Neither do I,” Mustang returned.
They watched at each other for a long moment, across the battered expanse of the desk that separated them.
“Obviously you know something of our complicated history, if you felt the need to come talk to me like this,” Mustang finally said. “But I must admit I’m disappointed in you. I’d have thought that Hawkeye’s so-called best friend would guard her secrets more carefully.”
“The fact that she once had feelings for you is no secret,” Rebecca countered, stung. “I just…I want to make sure you’re not going to use that against her, somehow,” she blurted out.
“I suppose that’s not entirely unreasonable,” he sighed.
Rebecca blinked. Did he…was he agreeing with her?
“I still care for her a great deal,” Mustang confessed quietly. “I consider her a friend. And while I can appreciate your concern, I most certainly didn’t ask Hawkeye to join my team so I could… seduce her,” he spat the words out, as if disgusted by the very idea.
“Wouldn’t be the first time an officer got involved in an inappropriate relationship with a lower-ranking solider,” Rebecca argued, regaining some of her bravado.
“I won’t even try to pretend that men in positions of power never make unwanted advances towards those under their command, or that they don’t pull rank to avoid disciplinary action or prevent official complaints from being filed. But I find such repulsive abuses of power utterly reprehensible, and I wouldn’t– I would never—” Mustang cut himself short, clenching his jaw tightly as he struggled to master some strong emotion.
Rebecca was astonished to find that she believed him. Wholeheartedly.
“All right,” she said softly. “So you’re saying that you don’t have designs on Riza’s virtue, correct?”
“The only designs I have towards Hawkeye involve her particular skill set,” he insisted. “And my desire to have the very intelligent, loyal, and trustworthy person possessing those skills under my command and at my service. Besides, she’s already saved my life, once,” he added, with a quirk of his lips. “Who else would I want watching my back?”
“You couldn’t ask for a better,” Rebecca agreed, cheerfully. Mustang glared at her again, but with far less heat.
“I know. That’s the whole – you know, it really shouldn’t come as a surprise to you that I would value Hawkeye for more than just her pretty face,” Mustang complained. “I’ve seen her in action; I’ve more reason than most to appreciate her considerable skills.”
“I already know why you’d want her,” Rebecca sniffed. “But what you’ve yet to demonstrate is why on earth she would want you as her C.O.?”
Mustang made an affronted little noise, but decided to humor her anyway.
“Hawkeye is…she’s a talented solider with tremendous potential for growth,” he said thoughtfully. “Sure, she could sign on under some paper pusher. Have a nice, secure, boring job, trapped behind a desk. Be one of many, indistinguishable from her teammates. Perform the same menial tasks, day in and day out.”
Rebecca nodded, to show she was listening.
“Whereas, were she a member of my team,” Mustang went on, in a warmer voice. “I would ensure that her talents were put to their best use. As the right-hand woman of a Lieutenant Colonel, she’d have more responsibilities, more challenges to overcome. But she’d also gain the field experience necessary to hone her skills. And she’d have far more opportunities to further her career – maybe end up as a Colonel or a General herself, rather than squander her abilities as a glorified secretary to the end of her days.”
Rebecca pursed her lips, pretended to consider his words. He’d clearly put some thought into the sales pitch. Even with their previous friendship taken out of the equation, it was a good offer. Was it any wonder Riza had been swayed?
“Well, you certainly talk a good game,” she said. “Bottom line – you want what’s best for Riza. Yes?”
“Of course,” he replied, clearly offended by the question.
“Excellent! On that, at least, we’re in agreement,” Rebecca beamed and leapt to her feet as Mustang blinked at her, slightly bemused. “You should know that I’ll be keeping a close eye on you, Lieutenant Colonel Mustang. So you’d best treat Riza the way that she deserves to be treated. She’s not the only one who can shoot out a man’s kneecaps from a considerable distance, you hear?”
Mustang’s face was a mask of cool indifference, but his eyes were sparkling.
“I’ll be sure to keep that in mind, Sergeant Major,” he said. “Now get the hell out of my office.”
“Pleased to meet you, sir!” Rebecca chirped, and blew him a kiss over her shoulder as she left.
His low chuckle followed her out the door and Rebecca’s lips quirked into a small, mischievous smile.
This had the potential to be vastly entertaining.
Chapter 19: Reconnaissance
In which Riza and Rebecca discuss their respective bosses.
“I can be on guard against my enemies, but God deliver me from my friends!”
The first several weeks after the official transfer to Eastern went by in something of a blur.
Between getting settled in and adjusting to their new duties, Hawkeye and Catalina were each so busy that they saw very little of each other outside of work. What with finding suitable housing, familiarizing themselves with Eastern Command HQ (the layout thereof as well as the personnel therein), and attending training sessions on what would be expected of them in their new positions, the two friends found themselves too exhausted at the end of each day to do much more than stumble home and collapse into their respective beds.
Even at work, they often only had time for a smile and wave from across the foyer as they scurried off to opposite ends of the building. On rare occasions they were able to exchange breathless greetings as they passed in the hallways. Rarer still were the five minute chats over tepid tea in one of the breakrooms. Some days, Hawkeye didn’t even see much of her own boss, and they were ostensibly sharing an office space.
And then there was Catalina’s C.O. Had he been anyone else, Hawkeye might have considered dropping by Catalina’s office now and then just to say hello. But somehow the idea of trying to have a quick chat with her best friend under the watchful eye of the grandfather she barely knew was… uncomfortable.
During an unprecedented lunch break together, Catalina lamented their busy schedules.
“We’re finally in the same damn city – the same building, even! And I feel like I haven’t talked to you in months!”
“Maybe we should start sending interoffice memos,” Hawkeye teased her. “‘To Sergeant Major Rebecca Catalina, from the desk of Second Lieutenant Riza Hawkeye – marked Personal and Confidential; Subject: Fraternization.’”
“What?!”Rebecca almost shrieked. “Has Tall-Dark-and-Brooding made a pass at you?”
That smirking bastard - he’d lied straight to her face about his intentions towards Riza! When she got her hands on him–! But Riza was laughing and shaking her head.
“Oh, god no! Far from it,” she said quickly. “I was referring to YOU, heartbreaker. I keep hearing about the trail of disappointed suitors left in your wake.”
“News to me,” Rebecca declared. “I haven’t been on a single date since I’ve been here!”
“Isn’t that the issue?” Riza wondered, still chuckling.
“Not my fault if the cowards give up before they even try,” Rebecca huffed. “I can’t turn people down if they haven’t actually asked me, can I?”
“Fair point,” her friend acknowledged.
“I barely have time to see you, let alone date anyone right now,” Rebecca went on, warming to the subject. “I’ve been too busy to even finish unpacking! You should see my living room - it’s like a cardboard-box obstacle course in there.”
“Mine too,” Riza admitted. “And I keep forgetting where I packed certain things – apparently I didn’t label my boxes as well as I thought.”
“All right, that’s it,” Rebecca cried. “We can’t go on like this! I’ll come help you unpack your things, and then you can come help me do mine. Deal?”
“Sure, but when?” Riza laughed. “Weren’t we just complaining that we’re both too busy?”
“Yes, but that’s no excuse! I want to have a proper conversation – one that lasts longer than the time it takes to brew a pot of sub-par coffee! And without ten other people standing about pretending not to listen to our every word,” Rebecca groused. “I want to hear all about your new boss, and tell you about mine! And I want to know what idiots have been complaining about their broken hearts without even consulting me on the matter,” she added darkly.
“You’re right. We need to make time,” Riza agreed. Rebecca pushed her half-eaten lunch to one side and plucked a notebook out of one of her pockets.
“Ok, what about next Saturday?” she asked, frowning down at the pages. Hawkeye shook her head.
“General Grumman is sending us to a conference in Central; we leave on Friday morning.”
“Oh, that recruitment seminar thing?” Catalina asked, looking up. “I thought I heard him talking about sending Boy Wonder.”
“Catalina, you might at least show respect for his rank,” Hawkeye admonished gently, even as she smiled. Catalina just rolled her eyes.
“So when are you back? The following week?”
“No, the Thursday after that, or possibly Friday, depending on the trains. The general asked us to stay an extra few days to help out with any last-minute arrangements, so I haven’t booked the return tickets yet.”
“Let’s see...Oh! We have a half-day that second Friday. Assuming you’re back by then, could we make that work?”
“As long as we don’t get held up any longer in Central, or sent out on assignment immediately on completion of the course,” Hawkeye said, suppressing a small sigh.
“Hmm, yeah, wouldn’t put it past ‘em,” Rebecca mused. “Well, let’s put it down as a maybe, and you send me a wire or call as soon as you’re sure. Though I suppose I could find out from Grumman’s lists just as easily...”
Hawkeye glanced over at the break room clock.
“It’s a date, then. I’d better run; I’ve still got to fill out that requisition for the quartermaster if I want my own desk,” she said, starting to rise.
“Make sure it’s in before three and you’ll have it by next Monday,” Catalina said absently. “You’d have to wait another fortnight otherwise. Major Boothroyd only submits those R-REQs biweekly.”
“Thanks for the tip. See you later,” Riza said, squeezing Rebecca’s shoulder gently as she passed.
Their tentative Unpacking Date did end up working out, which was a small miracle. Hawkeye and Mustang returned to Eastern Command on the agreed-upon Friday just as Rebecca was about to leave for the day. She came bounding down the steps towards them like an over-excited puppy.
“Riza, I’m so glad you made it back on time!” she cried, flinging her arms around her friend’s neck. Pulling back, she turned her head and added coolly, “Lieutenant Colonel, sir.”
“At ease, Sergeant Major,” he replied, eyes twinkling with amusement. “And you’re officially dismissed, Second Lieutenant.”
“Thank you, sir,” Hawkeye replied. “Let me just drop off this report for General Grumman and I’ll be right back down, Catalina,” she added.
Rebecca nodded and turned back to Mustang with false brightness.
“I expect your trip to Central gave you a nice break from this summer heat, sir?”
As Hawkeye strode away, she couldn’t resist glancing back over her shoulder. Mustang and Catalina were still standing together with vaguely polite expressions plastered on their faces, apparently exchanging platitudes on the weather. But just as she turned the corner, Hawkeye heard Catalina say, quite distinctly:
“I hope your accommodations were all right, sir. I noticed that you cancelled the hotel reservations we’d made for you.”
Amazing how much venom one could infuse into a few short sentences, Hawkeye thought, horrified. Without really meaning to, she paused, waiting for Mustang’s response.
“Why, yes, I did cancel them,” he said in his silkiest voice. “I stayed at my apartment in town, instead.”
“Mm. Lieutenant Hawkeye had already made arrangements to stay with some old friends, you see. And since I still have my apartment…well, there was really no need to keep two hotel rooms that no one was going to use, was there? It’s all there in the report, Sergeant Major.”
Was it her imagination, or was that triumph in his tone? Hawkeye wondered. Suddenly realizing that she was eavesdropping (and that Rebecca was waiting for her), she shook herself and continued down the hallway.
Due to the half-day, Grumman wasn’t in his office, which was fortunate for everyone involved. Hawkeye dropped the report in his inbox and vowed to have a few words with him about letting Catalina rummage through confidential reports, uncomfortable as such a conversation might be. Thank heavens it was only Catalina...supposing someone else had seen that particular line item in the expense report and jumped to conclusions? Madame Christmas’s words to Mustang about rumors were still echoing in her head.
By the time she returned to the lobby, Mustang and Catalina were glaring daggers at each other, though each had retained the fake, civil smile. The result was somewhat disturbing.
Hawkeye cleared her throat, lightly, and was almost amused by the way they both snapped to attention and turned to face her with identically innocent expressions.
“There you are, Riza! The Lieutenant Colonel was just leaving. Weren’t you, sir?”
“Most unfortunately, yes,” he admitted. “I had hoped to offer you ladies a lift to wherever you’re headed, but it seems I’m running late for my date,” he added, giving Catalina an exaggerated wink.
“Have a good evening, sir,” Hawkeye said serenely.
“Hope she stands you up, you womanizing pig,” Catalina grumbled under her breath.
“Beg your pardon, Sergeant Major? I didn’t quite catch that,” Mustang said sweetly.
“I said: I hope you enjoy the rest of your night, sir!” Rebecca chirped. Mustang smirked, not fooled in the least.
“And you as well,” he returned, inclining his head in a cordial little nod. “Good evening, Sergeant Major. Second Lieutenant.”
Rebecca stuck her tongue out at his retreating figure. Bemused, Riza shook her head and decided not to comment.
“Ready?” she asked instead. “Are we tackling your place or mine, today?”
“Yours,” Rebecca said. “Mine looks like it’s been hit by a tornado, and I won’t subject you to that after the week I’m sure you’ve had.”
“All right,” Riza agreed placidly. “Do you mind if we stop and pick up dinner on the way? I haven’t eaten since early this morning, and I know I don’t have anything back at the apartment,” she admitted.
“Oooh, can it be pasta? I’ve been craving pasta all week for some reason,” Rebecca said, happily falling into step beside her friend.
“Nicolosi’s?” Riza suggested. Still-packed kitchen accoutrements aside, she wasn’t particularly in the mood to cook.
“Perfect!” Rebecca beamed as she looped her arm through Riza’s.
An hour and a half later, full of antipasto salad and spaghetti carbonara, the two women stood together over a stack of boxes in Hawkeye’s small living area.
“First things first,” Riza said, determined. “Help me find the wine glasses.”
The glasses having been found (and promptly filled), they decided to finish unpacking the rest of the kitchen things, since they were already there. Rebecca got comfortable on the floor, her wineglass within easy reach, and set about unwrapping dishes and various cooking utensils from the newspaper they’d been wrapped in. Riza wiped each item clean with a damp dishcloth before finding it an appropriate place in a cupboard or drawer.
“Your dishes and things are all so much nicer than mine,” Rebecca noted, carefully passing over a ceramic serving dish. “Maybe I need to you take me shopping for a change.”
“Ah, but you forget, I’m not starting from scratch the way you are,” Riza reminded her. “I had an entire house full of my parents’ things to choose from. I had certain things packed up and set aside in storage before I ever went to Academy, but I really ought to get back out there one of these days and sort through what I left behind.”
“Left behind?” Rebecca asked. Riza had never actually mentioned what had become of her childhood home, and Rebecca hadn’t liked to bring it up in case it was a sensitive topic. She’d assumed that Riza had sold everything she could and saved only what she needed. Evidently not.
“Mm-hm. I never really considered selling the house,” Riza explained with a little shrug. “Figured I might want to retire out there someday or something. It’s not like it’s going anywhere; I can always fix it up and get rid of it down the road, if I want to. In the meantime, I don’t have to make a decision about what to do with all the furniture and everything else I’ve been storing there.”
“Makes sense,” Rebecca said unconcernedly.
Inside, she was reeling. Holy crow, Riza owned the house? Outright? Wasn’t there a mortgage or property taxes or something she had to pay to keep it? But Riza didn’t sound concerned about she’d afford such payments, which couldn’t possibly be easy on even a Second Lieutenant’s salary. Rebecca recalled teasing her about being an heiress, back when they’d first met, but…was she one?
“Don’t look so scandalized,” Riza said, amused. Rebecca’s head snapped up to find her friend watching her, a fond smile on her lips. “It’s just an old farm house on the outskirts of a small country town,” Riza insisted. “It’s not like I secretly own a mansion in the fashionable district in Central City or an estate in the West complete with stables and servants and tennis courts.”
“Yeah, but…still!” Rebecca said. “It’s still a whole house! And that’s definitely more than I’ve got. Nice to know you have a nest egg waiting for you, right?”
Riza made a noncommittal noise.
“I’ll have to take you out there, one of these days. Show you around,” she offered. Rebecca beamed, knowing that such an offer was not made as lightly as Riza’s careful tone implied.
“I’d like that,” she said, voice warm and sincere.
They worked in silence for a few minutes before Rebecca spoke again.
“So…how was the conference, anyway?” she asked, passing over a cast iron frying pan. “Interesting?”
“Mm, I suppose,” Riza said thoughtfully, hiding a smile. Rebecca was bursting to ask her about that cancelled hotel reservation. She probably thought she was being subtle, but Riza knew her far too well, now. “Some of it seemed a bit silly, to me.”
Riza explained about the ‘role-playing’ they’d been obligated to do, where they took turns pretending to be the recruiter and the potential recruit, asking each other ridiculous and unrealistic questions from the handouts they’d been given.
“A few parts were actually helpful,” Riza conceded. “But only those that accentuated the positive aspects of military life, about pensions and salary and such. They didn’t give us any advice for dealing with the difficult questions, naturally,” she added, grimly.
“Such as the likelihood of having to kill people on occasion?”
“Right. ‘At some point you’ll have to follow orders that go against every moral fiber in your body or else risk facing a court martial which may end in incarceration or even execution’ isn’t exactly a selling point of the program.”
“But that doesn’t mean no one’s ever going to ask about the negatives. Or that they shouldn’t be aware of them going in,” Rebecca agreed with a small sigh. “Aside from being mostly useless, did those role-playing exercises go smoothly?”
“About as well as can be expected, I suppose. Most everyone was willing to go along with it. And those that thought themselves above it all had the grace to confine their complaints to the hotel bar after hours,” she said.
As Riza had anticipated, Rebecca pounced on the bait.
“Did you two spend a lot of time in the hotel bar, then?” she asked with studied nonchalance.
“No,” Riza replied simply.
Rebecca narrowed her eyes. Riza offered her a bland smile. Rebecca sighed theatrically.
“Dammit. You heard me asking him about the hotel earlier, didn’t you?”
“I admire your restraint,” Riza laughed. “I fully expected you to grill me the moment he was out of earshot.”
“Well? What happened? Where did you stay?” Rebecca demanded, waving a handful of silverware somewhat wildly in emphasis. “I know you don’t have any old friends living in Central; you’d have mentioned them by now…wouldn’t you?”
“Did I ever tell you that Lieutenant Colonel Mustang was raised by his aunt?” Riza asked, seeming to ignore the question. Confused, Rebecca shook her head. “His parents died in an accident when he was small.”
“I did notice that an aunt was listed as next of kin in his file,” Rebecca admitted. Because of course she’d read his personnel file. “Do you know her, then?”
“I hadn’t even met her until last week. One of her employees kidnapped me from the train station,” Riza said, enjoying the look of shock on her friend’s face.
“She what?!” Rebecca cried. “What did Mustang do; stand there gaping like an idiot while some goon bundled you off kicking and screaming into the back of a van?”
“Nothing as sinister as that,” she replied. “A very sweet woman came to meet me at the station. In a chauffeured car, not a van.”
“Okay, but still…what did Sparky have to say about all this?”
“The Lieutenant Colonel wasn’t there,” Riza said, with gentle emphasis on his rank.
“What? Why? Where the hell was he?”
“There was some kind of mix-up with the ticket bookings,” Riza explained. “Somehow we ended up with tickets for separate trains. We agreed that I’d take the earlier of the two, so I could get ourselves and our baggage checked into our hotel while I waited for him to arrive.”
“How’d the aunt know that you’d be there in Central, anyway? Oh, I suppose he’d told her beforehand.”
Riza decided not to correct her.
Not that she had proof. But there was something awfully suspicious about the fact that the tickets had gone wrong in the first place. And about the way that they hadn’t learned about the mix-up until they were already running late and didn’t have enough time to get the tickets changed. Of course, the only other person who’d known their itinerary was Mustang’s C.O. – Riza’s meddling grandfather.
“When she found out that we’d be in town, Ms. Mustang and her employees decided that they wanted to meet me. He used to write to them, almost weekly, when he was my father’s apprentice,” Riza explained, seeing Rebecca’s mounting confusion. “They were curious to see me in person.”
“Oh, because that’s not creepy or stalkerish at all,” Rebecca said wryly.
“It was a very civilized kidnapping,” Riza replied primly. “They served me tea and cookies and asked after my health.”
Rebecca just shook her head, trying not to laugh.
“What’s she like, then? The aunt?” Remembering what they were supposed to be doing, she dug into the next box and unearthed a plate from its protective nest of newspaper.
“Utterly terrifying,” Riza admitted, taking the proffered plate. “And very clever. A savvy businesswoman, from what I could tell, with incredibly loyal employees. I begin to understand where Lieutenant Colonel Mustang’s ideals came from – it’s very clear that she looks after their best interests, and in turn, they’re completely devoted to her.”
“What sort of business did you say she ran?”
“I didn’t. But it’s…well, she calls it her cabaret. It’s rather like a Xingese hostess club, I suppose.”
“Not at all. Although the setup of this cabaret is far less formal,” Riza mused. “To the general public, it’s just a normal neighborhood bar, where the waitresses and bartenders simply happen to be beautiful women who are also very attentive listeners. Fascinating, really, how much information these ladies can pick up from their patrons, with hardly any effort at all.”
Rebecca narrowed her eyes. Just what was that supposed to mean? But before she could open her mouth to ask, Riza continued with her story.
“Anyway, it was his aunt’s fault that we cancelled the hotel reservations – she insisted that Lieutenant Colonel Mustang stay in his townhouse, which she’d had cleaned and prepared specially,” Riza said. “She also declared the hotel to be shabby and filthy, and claimed it was unfit for human habitation.”
“I couldn’t very well stay with my superior officer in his personal residence, unchaperoned. Not without raising a lot of eyebrows,” Riza said. “So, two of his aunt’s employees offered to let me stay with them for the duration of our trip.”
“Huh. That was…good of them, I guess,” Rebecca said uncertainly.
“It was,” Riza replied. “They were really very kind to me, and very accommodating. With all of the conference events, I wasn’t actually there often, but they were extremely solicitous whenever I came in. Saved me a share of dinner, had hot coffee waiting in the morning - that sort of thing.”
Rebecca blinked in surprise at the obvious affection in her friend’s voice. She’d had to fight tooth and nail for that kind of regard from Riza. What the hell had these – these hostesses – done to merit that? Besides feed and caffeinate her?
Although, to be perfectly fair, there were mornings Rebecca would be willing to kill a man for a decent cup of coffee, and anyone who had it hot and waiting for her as she stumbled out of bed would probably have her undying love and devotion for as long as the caffeine high lasted…
“So, what did Combustion Boy–sorry, Lieutenant Colonel Combustion Boy,” Rebecca hastily corrected as Riza’s eyes narrowed. “Have to say about all this? I can’t picture him being all docile and submissive, even to a respected older relative.”
“Just you wait until you meet this particular holy terror of a respected older relative,” Riza muttered, stacking the last of her plates on top of the others with a quiet clink. “But no, you’re quite right. He was upset with her for changing our plans without so much as a warning, and they did argue. But Madame’s a very… persuasive woman, and by the end I think he was more amused than anything else. And then grateful, once we’d actually seen the hotel,” she added, suppressing a shudder.
“I’m quite certain I saw the head chef being hauled off by a mob of cockroaches, when we passed by the kitchen,” Riza replied, reaching for the wine bottle. Rebecca giggled as her friend refilled their glasses.
“Oh, come on! It can’t possibly have been so bad as that!”
“Okay, okay. It was only the sous chef.”
Rebecca choked on her wine, and spent the next three minutes alternately coughing and giggling.
“WARN me before you do that, next time!” she finally admonished, wheezing.
Riza just smiled, her eyes soft and warm, and Rebecca’s heart melted a little.
Okay, so maybe she didn’t need to be jealous of a couple of random women who worked for her best friend’s superior officer’s aunt. They’d just been gracious and welcoming; they certainly weren’t out to steal Riza away from her or anything.
As if they could ever replace me, Rebecca thought. I’m still the favorite friend, dammit!
“So, did I miss anything interesting while we were away?” Riza asked, offering a hand to pull Rebeca to her feet.
“Mm. The usual drama, mostly,” Rebecca shrugged. She followed her friend into the living area, where there was another tower of boxes stacked in front of a tall bookshelf. Rebecca settled cross-legged on the floor beside it before she continued. “Major Burns has been throwing himself at that feisty blonde Lieutenant Nolan, but she’s been busy making eyes at that new Captain that just transferred in…what’s his name?”
“You mean the tall one, with dark hair and blue eyes?” Riza asked, with her hands already full of books.
“No, no, the other one, with the biceps and the cleft in his chin? And those dimples,” Rebecca replied, rummaging in another box.
“Oh, I know who you mean. Macmillan? McDonald? Something like that… ”
“McIntyre! That’s the one.”
“Wait a minute, back up. Isn’t Major Burns married?”
“Sure is,” Rebecca said. “The little rat wants to have himself a wife and a pretty little mistress on the side. Fortunately Maggie Nolan’s not having any of it. But I wish someone would tip off the guy’s wife already,” she said, watching Riza relocate the books Rebecca had just shelved.
Riza arranged her books methodically and precisely, according to some internal logic that she hadn’t shared with her friend. Rebecca promptly relegated herself to book-passer, so as not to mess with Riza’s apparently-not-alphabetical schematic more than she already had.
“Probably no one wants to get sucked into his personal drama,” Riza was saying. She took the next stack of paperbacks Rebecca offered her with a small, grateful smile.
“Yeah, I guess I can understand that,” Rebecca admitted. “I’d sure like to see the cheating pig taken down a few pegs, but I also wouldn’t want to touch the fallout of that scene with a ten foot pole. Apparently he only married her for her father’s money, did you know that? And he’s terrified of the old man.”
“You think that’d stop him from pursuing a mistress in the first place, then,” Riza said, shaking her head.
“Right? Oh, and speaking of old men,” Rebecca paused for a moment and caught Riza’s eye. “Your grandfather’s been pumping me for information on you.”
“He what?” Riza said, shocked.
“Well, at least I THINK that’s what he’s doing,” Rebecca explained hastily. “He keeps asking me these subtle little questions, like he’s fishing for information. If I didn’t do it so often myself, I wouldn’t have even noticed. But he keeps trying to get me to talk about my friends - who I spend time with, whether I see a lot of my mates from Academy these days, like that.”
“Has…has he mentioned me specifically?”
“No, that’s just it!” Rebecca cried. “I can’t quite tell whether he knows that you and I are even friends.”
“Anyone might have told him; it’s not like we’ve kept it secret,” Riza reflected.
“I know. But it’s none of his business who my friends are, really, so I sort of tap dance around the questions and give him vague, trivial answers. And then he looks at me like he knows I’m doing it on purpose, and then I almost feel guilty not telling him! Then I think, well why should I? I’m not obligated to share details of my personal life with him just because I’m his aide. Besides, I don’t know whether I’m supposed to let on that I know you two are related in the first place. It’s all very confusing!”
“What on earth is he playing at?” Riza wondered. “Damn him; if he has questions, I wish he’d just ask me! He shouldn’t be dragging you into it.”
“Maybe…maybe he doesn’t know how to ask you,” Rebecca suggested, after a short silence. “Didn’t you say you don’t actually know each other very well?”
“Yes. To be honest, I still don’t even know whether he wants people to know we’re related,” Riza admitted.
“Why don’t you ask him?”
“Because I’m not sure I’m ready to hear the answer.”
“Oh,” Rebecca breathed. “I’m sorry, Riza.” Idiot! she thought to herself. You should have kept your fat mouth shut!
“What are you sorry for?” Riza said, with a bemused little frown. “It’s not your fault he’s an ass. He could have simply introduced himself the day we met, but instead he decided to play the mysterious benefactor like someone out of a damn novel. And THEN he springs our not-so-secret relationship on me in practically the same breath that he tells me I’m being graduated early and deployed straight to the front immediately thereafter.”
As she spoke, she angrily shelved a battered copy of something with a title in a foreign language. Rebecca made a mental note to ask what it was later. It didn’t look anything like Cretan or Ishvalan script, or even the delicate spidery characters of Xingese…maybe it was Drachman?
“I’m honestly not even surprised he’s taken to pumping my friends for information, now,” Riza grumbled, shoving another old book beside the first, this one with a Cretan title. “I am curious who else he’s talked to, though. And what they’ve told him.”
“Want me to feed him false intel?” Rebecca offered lightly. Riza grinned at her.
“What would scandalize him most, do you think?” she asked. “Carrying on some clandestine affair with a married officer, or swearing off men entirely and thus ensuring he’ll never see great-grandchildren?”
“I’ll have to do some fishing of my own,” Rebecca giggled. “See what gets a reaction out of him, first, and then figure out what rumors to make up from there.”
“It would serve him right, the meddling old sneak,” Riza sighed. “I suppose I ought to just confront him myself, since he won’t come to me. He shouldn’t be trying to spy on me though you; it’s not fair to place you in such an awkward position.”
Privately, Rebecca resolved to confront her boss herself. If he took enough offence to have her transferred, well…it was better than letting him think he could use her to gather intel on her best friend.
“And how are things going with your new boss? Kidnapping relatives aside, I mean?” she asked, changing the topic carefully. Riza frowned, lowering her eyes to the pile of books still waiting to be sorted.
“I’m not entirely sure,” she said slowly. “He’s…hard to read, sometimes.”
“This coming from you, really?” Rebecca teased.
“I’m serious!” Riza protested, but she also smiled and met Rebecca’s eyes again. “I’m not quite sure how to explain it.”
Rebecca made an encouraging hum.
“It’s like…one minute he’s a total stranger. Very professional, distant, polite,” Riza explained. “And then he’ll make some sarcastic little comment and catch my eye like I’m in on the joke, and suddenly it’s like no time has passed at all. Like he’s the same boy I knew all those years ago. Except he’s not. Not really. And then we both remember that fact, and it’s like this – this wall drops between us and neither of us is quite sure how to go on.”
“You’re still figuring each other out, that’s all,” Rebecca reassured her. She rubbed her friend’s arm soothingly. “Sure, you knew each other really well once upon a time, but that was before the military, and before the war, and – well, you’re not different people, exactly. But a lot has happened to you both in the meantime, and some things have changed since you knew each other before,” she said gently. “And I guess those are things you’ll both have to learn before you can really say you know one another again. Like…like how you don’t like tea anymore, you know? Stuff like that.”
“I still like tea,” Riza protested.
“Only if it’s black tea, and only if it’s got more lemon in it than anything else. You used to like all sorts of herbal blends and things, and you used to take sugar and sometimes a splash of cream. Now you only like it with lemon or nothing. Unless it’s iced tea, in which case you promptly turn it into syrup,” she grimaced.
“I – how’d you - ?” Riza stammered, stunned.
“How’d I know? Please,” Rebecca huffed.
“No, never mind, you’re right,” Riza conceded, shaking her head with a rueful grin. Rebecca had always been more observant than she let on; of course she’d have noticed changes in her closest friend’s habits. “I guess I…I stopped drinking tea because there’s more caffeine in coffee, and I needed the extra help to stay alert out there. Plus, we couldn’t always get the sugar at the front, so I learned to deal without. I suppose I just got used to it.”
“See? So, little things like that, little preferences that’ve changed, new habits that you’ve formed, and the reasons behind them. It’s different from getting to know someone new from the start, because there are certain things that you both have to unlearn – or relearn, I guess. That’s all. The awkwardness will pass,” Rebecca said, with a little nod.
Riza wished she had half her friend’s confidence.
“I suppose,” she said uncertainly.
She fussed over a long scratch across the cover of one of her hardbacks for a moment, biting her lip and running her fingers along it over and over again while Rebecca watched her carefully from the corner of her eye.
“So…what’s Matchstick - Lieutenant Colonel Matchstick, sorry - actually like as a commanding officer? Does he treat you right?” Rebecca finally asked.
“Yes, of course he does,” Riza smiled at the slightly threatening tone. It was easy to imagine Rebecca giving Lieutenant Colonel Mustang a piece of her mind at the slightest hint of improper or unfair treatment towards her friend.
“Yeah?” Rebecca affirmed, sounding doubtful.
“He’s a little stiff, sometimes,” Riza said. “But he errs on the side of professionalism, which I think is appropriate. Until it comes to the paperwork, that is. He whines like a child about doing the paperwork. But then he does still get it done, and on time, which is more than I can say for some of his peers.”
“This is actually a point in his favor,” Rebecca admitted, laughing. “My first C.O. out of Academy was the worst. I swear some of the things in that man’s inbox were older than I am. It took me months to get that office sorted out. And the dust! I thought my sinuses would never recover.”
“I hope General Grumman’s office is in better shape?”
“Neat as a pin. ‘A place for everything and everything in its place,’” Rebecca recited in a sing-song voice. “Some people grumble about him being too anal with his organizational system, but it’s refreshing to always be able to find what you need when you need it.”
“Far more efficient that way,” Riza agreed with a faint smile. “Perhaps Lieutenant Colonel Mustang’s unusual paperwork ethic stems from his desire to endear himself to General Grumman, then. Not that I’m complaining, of course,” she added with a soft chuckle.
“It must be working,” Rebecca laughed. “Because the General sure acts as though he likes your little arsonist. At least, I overheard him asking if he’d like to play chess someti – ooooh. Couldn’t that be another roundabout way for Grumman to gather intel on you? Grilling your new C.O. over a friendly game of chess?”
“I wouldn’t put it past dear old granddad. Although having met his formidable aunt, I do believe that the Lieutenant Colonel will be able to hold his own in a verbal sparring match.”
“I have GOT to find a way to listen in on this chess match,” Rebecca said, fiercely determined. “I wonder whether Grumman would notice if I bugged his office…”
“You’re his aide, aren’t you?” Riza asked. “Surely you could find a reason to interrupt with an ‘urgent memo’ and catch at least part of their conversation. Maybe ‘forget’ to close the outer door all the way when you leave.”
“Oh, my sweet, innocent Riza,” Rebecca shook her head in mock sadness. “That’s far too easy. See, what I’ve got to do is find myself a pet tech and charm him into setting the general up with one of those new phones. You know the ones that have an intercom feature? Then I can listen in from the comfort of my own desk, and he’ll never even know!”
“You’re a diabolical genius,” Riza laughed. “Remind me never to get on your bad side?”
“You could never get on my bad side, darling,” Rebecca assured her, dragging her into a tight one-armed embrace. She noticed that Riza didn’t even feign resistance. “Try as you might, you will never be rid of me!”
Chapter 20: Interrogations
In which Rebecca puts a devious plan into action and quickly finds herself in over her head.
“A faithful friend is a strong defense; And he that hath found him hath found a treasure.”
~Louisa May Alcott
Rebecca put her plan into action the following week. Riza decided not to ask how she’d gotten the required equipment so quickly. Plausible deniability, she reminded herself. And when summoned, she presented herself at the general’s office as they’d arranged.
“Sergeant Major,” she said, in response to Catalina’s politely formal greeting. “I’d like to speak with General Grumman, if possible. Is he in?”
“Just a moment, Second Lieutenant, and I’ll see whether he’s available,” Rebecca replied smoothly, picking up the headset on her shiny new phone. “General Grumman, sir? There’s a Second Lieutenant Hawkeye here, requesting to see you. Shall I ask her to make an appointment, or can you spare – oh? Yes, of course, sir. Certainly. Yes, I’ll send her in at once, sir,” she said, raising an eyebrow. Pressing a button on the phone’s receiver, she winked at Hawkeye. “You can go right through, ma’am.”
“Thank you,” Riza said.
“He also said his schedule is to always be clear for you,” Rebecca added quietly, so that only Riza would hear her.
“Oh,” Riza faltered, but quickly regained her self-possession when Rebecca cleared her throat. They weren’t alone, after all. “Um - thank you, Sergeant,” she said quickly.
As Riza passed her desk, Rebecca made a show of shuffling papers and reaching for a pen, continuing to work as if she’d forgotten that she still had the headset on at all. Riza suppressed a smile and opened the office door.
Her grandfather looked positively overjoyed to see her.
“Second Lieutenant, what a delightful surprise!” he said jovially. “Come in, come in.”
Riza snapped to attention and saluted crisply. Grumman’s smile didn’t falter, but his eyes narrowed slightly as he casually returned the salute with a vague little flick of his fingers.
“General Grumman, sir? Thank you for seeing me,” Hawkeye said, once the door was securely shut behind her.
“At ease, Second Lieutenant. Please, have a seat,” Grumman offered, waving his hand at the visitor’s chair.
“Thank you, sir. But I’d prefer to stand, if you don’t mind.”
“As you will,” he replied, the faintest of frowns creasing his brow. It was gone in the next moment. “Now, to what do I owe the pleasure, my dear?”
“I’ve a request to make, sir,” Hawkeye said.
“You needn’t be so formal, child,” he chided gently. “What can I do for you?”
“Just this, sir: If you have questions concerning my personal life, kindly ask me rather than attempting to interrogate my friends and coworkers.”
“Ah,” Grumman’s face lit up. As Riza had feared, he wasn’t chastised in the least. “Then my charming young aide is a particular friend of yours, yes?” he asked. “I’d been given to understand that you and she had grown close during your time together at Academy.”
“Yes, sir, she’s a close friend,” Hawkeye said, eyes flashing. No reason to hide it. Rebecca’s friendship wasn’t something she’d ever be ashamed of.
“Curious, indeed. I wouldn’t have imagined that someone of Becky’s…er, exuberant personality would appeal to your more reserved nature,” he mused.
“With all due respect, sir, you haven’t the slightest idea what would or would not appeal to me,” Hawkeye said coldly.
To her chagrin, General Grumman merely chuckled.
“Oh, I think you’d be surprised, my dear. Although I haven’t been as present in your life as I perhaps ought to have been, I have kept tabs on you since…oh, since your mother first wrote to tell me I had a grandchild. You look extraordinarily like her, as I am sure you’re aware. The baby pictures she sent me might as well have been her own,” he said fondly.
Hawkeye’s lips parted, but no sound came out.
“I still have them. Would you like to see?” her grandfather offered, eyes sparkling. Without waiting for an answer, he leaned forward and plucked a framed photograph from the corner of his desk, turning it around so that Hawkeye could see it.
Her mother’s face smiled up at her, all pride and glowing happiness as she angled the sleeping infant in her arms towards the camera.
“You…you have a picture of me. Of us,” Riza managed, shocked.
“Several, in fact. This one here is my favorite, I think,” he added, handing her a much smaller frame containing a photo of a beaming Tereza with a chubby-legged toddler in her lap, both wearing sundresses in soft pastels. Riza’s little arms were wrapped tightly around a slightly ratty stuffed animal. A white rabbit, in fact.
“I – you – what?” Riza stuttered incoherently, sinking into the chair at last. Grumman’s smile turned faintly triumphant.
“I gave her that bunny when she was about the same age as you are in this photo,” he said. “I was so very pleased to see that she’d passed it on. I didn’t even know she’d kept it, until she sent me this. I was sorry to hear that your father had burnt it along with so many of her other things, when she passed.”
“I don’t understand,” Riza said faintly.
“Hm? What don’t you understand, child?” Grumman asked pleasantly. “Is it about the rabbit?”
“No, although I did wonder…” Riza admitted, surprising herself.
“Oh, I know you’ve outgrown plush toys, my dear, but I thought you still might like to have a bunny of your own to replace this one,” he explained, nodding at the photo. “Terri told me many times how fond you were of her old rabbit. I made that one for her, too, you know.”
“You made them?” Riza asked, incredulous. Of course, she had guessed that her little peach rabbit was handmade rather than mass produced, but she’d never suspected he’d made it himself.
“Hobby of mine,” Grumman said, grinning. “Once you have the right pattern, the actual sewing involved is very straightforward, really. I also crochet! Although my talent there mostly runs to pot holders and tea cozies, so far,” he admitted. “I keep meaning to take up knitting one of these days. Oh, I know there’s not much cause for woolen sweaters or thick scarves here in East City, with the winters being so much milder here than in Central. But I should still like to learn.”
“I could teach you, if you’d like,” Riza offered before her brain caught up with her tongue. “I- that is…”
“Wonderful!” Grumman cried, beaming. “Perhaps we could arrange regular lessons? Bi-weekly, perhaps, as duty permits. Of course, I’ll treat you to dinner as compensation – there’s a lovely little steakhouse downtown I’m sure you’ll enjoy. Rather exclusive, but they always manage to scare up a table for me. You see, the owner and I served together, many, many years ago,” he said in a conspiratorial tone. “I saved his hide more than once, in fact. And he knew your mother, when she was small. He’ll be delighted to meet you.”
“I-I thought…I assumed you wouldn’t want – that you didn’t…” frowning, Riza trailed off. She looked young and lost, and her grandfather’s heart ached for lost time.
“Ah,” he breathed. “You thought I wouldn’t want our familial relationship to be common knowledge, is that it?” Riza nodded silently. “Well, I shouldn’t like every Tom, Dick, and Harry running to you to try and curry favors from me, naturally. But it’s certainly not something I consider a deep, dark secret.”
“I haven’t told anyone except Catalina,” Riza said softly.
“As I thought. She was there that day I visited you at the Academy, yes?” he asked. Riza nodded, though it was clear Grumman already knew the answer. “I thought so. She’s quite loyal to you, as I am sure you are aware,” Grumman chuckled. “Dear girl has been giving me the side-eye ever since I took her on. And she’s been very careful not to let slip any personal information that I didn’t already have.”
“She told me you’d been fishing,” Riza said, the steely note returning to her tone. “Which is why I came to see you today, sir. It’s inappropriate for you to place your subordinate in such a position.”
“Ah. And the loyalty runs both ways, I see. Good, good. Well, I suppose I owe dear Becky an apology, then. I hadn’t realized I’d made her uncomfortable. Rest assured, child, I never meant to imply that her continued employment was conditional on supplying intel. I was merely…curious. I hoped she could fill in some of the details I lacked. Give me a clearer picture of you.”
“You might also like to know that she hates being called Becky, sir,” Hawkeye said. Grumman laughed aloud.
“Did you know she twitches every time I say it? I look forward to the day she snaps and tells me off,” he confided.
Riza just shook her head. Crazy old man.
She also spared a second to hope that Catalina wasn’t about to snap and blow her cover right here and now.
“Now that that’s out of the way, let’s discuss more pleasant matters,” Grumman suggested genially. “How are you settling in to Eastern so far, my dear?”
“Very well, thank you.”
“Ah, to be young and amenable to changes, again,” Grumman sighed wistfully. “Although I suppose it wasn’t such a difficult adjustment for you, since you attended Academy here, eh? Rather more difficult for an old man set in his ways.”
“Being familiar with the city already has been helpful,” Riza acquiesced.
“And your new C.O. is a familiar face for you as well, I understand.”
“As I’m sure you’re well aware, sir, Lieutenant Colonel Mustang apprenticed with my father several years ago,” Riza said, warily. What was he getting at?
“Indeed,” Grumman said easily. “And is that prior relationship going to be an issue for either of you?”
“His previous connection to my father will not have a negative impact on our work, I assure you,” Riza replied, a little primly.
“But you are getting along well, thus far? You’re satisfied under his command?”
“Yes, sir. He’s proving to be a canny tactician and a very capable commander, in spite of his relative youth and inexperience.”
“Experience will come soon enough,” he replied, indulgently. “He certainly seems to have great potential. And he’s an ambitious one. Hungry. I like to see that passion in a young officer; he’ll go far.”
Riza hummed noncommittally.
“He’s treating you well?” Grumman pressed.
“Of course, sir,” Riza replied, somewhat confused. Why on earth wouldn’t he be treating her well?
“Good, good,” her grandfather said, coughing a little. “There are always rumors, of course, and more so with the younger, and er, more attractive officers, you see…” he trailed off, uncomfortable for the first time since Riza had walked in. “Sometimes they’re founded in truth and sometimes it’s all just lies and slander, but one doesn’t like to assume, no matter how well the officer in question comes across in person, and er, well—”
All at once, Riza understood what he was insinuating.
“Sir, what exactly are you trying to say?” she asked, torn between amusement and horror. Grumman cleared his throat.
“Simply this, child: If ever you’re uncomfortable or unsatisfied under his command, you’ve only to say the word and we’ll have you transferred to someone else. No questions asked,” he said, serious and firm.
“I’m sure that won’t be necessary, sir, but I appreciate the offer,” Riza said.
Grumman grinned suddenly.
“Should I ask him what his intentions towards you are, just to be on the safe side?” he asked, raising an eyebrow.
“Please don’t. And besides, Rebecca already has,” Riza admitted.
“I knew I liked that girl!” he chortled. “By the way, you may want to advise to her to give up her pursuit of the handsome Captain Rogers. Dear boy only has eyes for that sassy little civilian consultant he’s been working with, and it certainly appears to be mutual thus far. You know, I don’t think he’s even realized that Catalina has been flirting with him? Hasn’t even registered.”
“I’ll be sure to pass along the message, sir,” Riza said, fighting down a smile. She could only imagine the look on Catalina’s face right about now.
“Excellent, excellent,” Grumman said, sparing a discrete glance at his watch. “I’m terribly sorry to have to cut this meeting short, my dear, but I’ve a scheduled call in just a moment with my counterpart in the North that I daren’t miss. Leave your contact information with our charming Rebecca, and I’ll call you about our knitting lessons before the week is out,” he said, beaming at her.
Riza rose gracefully from her chair.
“You say that as if you don’t already have my contact information, sir,” she said, smirking a bit. Grumman chuckled.
“Yes, well, can you blame an old man for trying to keep tabs on his only grandchild?” he said, his light tone at odds with the sudden darkening of his eyes.
Riza stiffened, suddenly remembering his request for letters, before…what seemed like a lifetime ago, now. God, had it only been a year ago?
“Sir, I think you should know…” she hesitated only a moment before seizing her courage with both hands and forging ahead. “When I was deployed, there was a mix-up with some of the paperwork. My address wasn’t updated, which means I never got any of my mail, the entire time I was out there. It was all routed to my box at the Academy.”
“Oh?” Grumman said.
“I didn’t find out until after I was shipped back. Rebecca was the one who figured it out - she was very upset that I hadn’t responded to her letters, and I had to explain that I’d never received them. And that I hadn’t written myself because…well, when I didn’t get anything from her…”
“You assumed that she wasn’t sincere in her desire to stay in touch with you,” Grumman finished, in a quiet voice. “I see,” he breathed.
“It’s been corrected, now, though. The mix-up,” Hawkeye added, somewhat awkwardly, hoping that he would understand what she wasn’t saying.
“I’m glad to hear it, my dear,” Grumman replied, in that same soft, gentle voice.
“I-I should go. Thank you for seeing me, sir.”
“Of course. Until the next time, child.”
As Hawkeye closed the door carefully after herself, she met Rebecca’s shocked eyes. Rebecca tapped her empty coffee cup with her pen and flicked her eyes towards the door and then back to her friend. Riza nodded once to show she’d understood.
“Thank you, Sergeant Major,” she said quietly, and strode from the office as though nothing out of the ordinary had happened.
She waited in the closest break room for a mere three minutes before Rebecca skidded into view, wide-eyed and out of breath.
“That was…not at all what I expected,” she panted.
“Likewise,” Riza replied, with a wry smile.
“I’m sorry, Ri, I never thought I’d be eavesdropping on such a personal…er, that is, I didn’t mean to—”
"It’s all right, Rebecca; it’s not as though you did it without my knowledge and consent,” Riza interrupted her. “If anyone had to overhear us, I’m glad it was you.”
“Oh Riza!” Rebecca launched herself at her friend, who caught her with the ease of born of long practice. “You sure you’re okay?” she murmured, mostly into Riza’s neck.
“I’m fine. No, really,” she said, when Rebecca pulled back to give her a doubtful look. “It’s just that I didn’t think…I somehow just assumed he wanted nothing to do with me. I thought he was just keeping tabs on me out of a sense of obligation or something, and suddenly he wants to have monthly dinners together and for me to teach him to knit, and he seems to want to make sure that I’m happy…” she managed a hoarse little chuckle. “I’m not entirely sure how I feel about all of that, yet.”
Before Rebecca could reply, the two women heard approaching footsteps and quickly stepped apart and straightened into what Rebecca thought of as their “public personas.” Riza calmly filled a cup with subpar coffee and Rebecca plastered a bored expression on her face and pretended she was waiting her turn. The captain who entered the break room barely spared them a glance, merely nodding a token greeting and reaching into the cabinet for his own paper cup, which he filled in silence once Rebecca had taken her turn.
“Talk more later?” Rebecca asked softly, as the captain wandered back out into the hallway again. Riza smiled.
“Of course. At least we know your system works, now?”
“Yes, true!” Rebecca chirped. “I have SO many plans for this…” she caught sight of Riza’s conflicted look and quickly changed tack. “Not that I would ever use my powers for evil, of course. This is purely for my own personal information!”
“I should go,” Riza said, dryly. “Before you incriminate yourself any further. I assume you’re aware that my grandfather has Lieutenant Colonel Mustang’s name down on his desk calendar for tomorrow afternoon?”
“Well, I am now,” Rebecca purred, with a mischievous smirk. “I’ll keep you posted; don’t worry!”
“That’s not what worries me,” Riza muttered.
The following afternoon, after Rebecca had waved Lieutenant Colonel Mustang through to the inner office, she set the headset carefully down on her desk and worked quietly for several minutes, until she was certain that no one else was paying her any attention. When she eased it back on, holding her breath and praying no one would glance in her direction, she found that the two men were already deep into their chess game.
“I understand you’re unmarried?” Grumman was saying innocently. “Young up-and-coming officer like you ought to have himself a wife to look after him! Any potential candidates in the running, my boy?”
“Ah, n-no sir,” Mustang stammered. Rebecca thought he sounded a bit taken aback. “I’m, er. I’m not seeing anyone special at the moment,” he went on.
“You know, I have a granddaughter about your age,” Grumman said, in a sly tone. “Lovely girl, sweet and very bright, and an excellent cook, as well. Takes after her mother, there, you see. Perhaps I should introduce you two?”
“I’m very flattered, sir, but you should know I consider myself married to my work,” Mustang answered smoothly, seeming to regain his footing. “I shouldn’t like to give any young lady the wrong impression, you understand.”
Damn straight! Rebecca thought, clenching her pencil tightly enough to snap it. Quit trying to pimp out your own blood, you dirty old bastard!
“At such a critical stage in my career, I find I’m obliged to devote most of my time to work,” Mustang said, sounding a bit apologetic. “A fine woman such as your granddaughter surely deserves far more of my attention than I would be free to offer her.”
“Ah, I suspected as much,” Grumman said, a little sadly. “Well, my Elizabeth will be disappointed to hear it, but what else can you do?” He sighed a little theatrically.
Elizabeth? Rebecca frowned.
“I hope I haven’t offended…” Mustang started to say, sounding uncertain.
“No, no, not at all, dear boy,” Grumman hastened to reassure him. “Perhaps one day you’ll change your mind, hm? Check.”
Their conversation drifted to other topics, and Rebecca tuned them out a bit, pondering. Why was he calling Riza by a different name? He HAD said he wasn’t ashamed of their relationship, but he’d also said that he didn’t want anyone taking advantage…what was he playing at?
Did…did Mustang not know who Grumman’s granddaughter was? He couldn’t be playing dumb, could he?
The two men finally finished their game (it sounded like Mustang had lost rather badly, to Rebecca’s untrained ear, at least) and Rebecca disconnected and yanked off the headset just before the office door opened.
Mustang looked vaguely unsettled. And Rebecca couldn’t help herself.
“Not quite prepared to be interrogated by the boss-man, sir?” she said, all innocence.
“Did you know he had a granddaughter?” he asked, perplexed.
Rebecca could hardly contain herself. Riza had never told him. Oh, this was just delicious.
“Sure, he only talks about her all the damn time,” Rebecca replied, with studied nonchalance. “I don’t think she visits very often, but they seem fond enough of each other. Why?”
“Hm,” Mustang narrowed his eyes. “Have you met her, then?” Rebecca bit the inside of her cheek to keep from giggling and giving herself away.
“Oh, sure. She stopped by the other day, actually.”
“Yeah? So what’s she like?” he asked, quirking an eyebrow at her.
“Hmm,” she said, pretending to think. Oh, this was fun. “She’s pretty quiet, I guess? Seems nice. Polite. About my age, or near enough, within a year or two. Um, nice figure, blonde, average height…why? Looking for a date to the Officer’s Ball?” she asked archly. Mustang blanched, but managed a convincing laugh anyway.
“As if I couldn’t find my own date? I’m not so desperate as all that, Sergeant.”
“I have no doubts in my mind, Lieutenant Colonel, sir,” she said sweetly. Too sweetly. Mustang shot her a suspicious glare. She smiled brightly in response.
“Yes, well,” he said, discomfited. “I suppose I’ll see you around, Sergeant,” he added, and he turned to leave. Rebecca watched his departing figure with a tiny smirk on her face.
“Well?” said a voice from behind her. Rebecca flinched violently and only barely suppressed a shriek.
General Grumman stood behind her, a foxy smile on his weathered face.
“S-sir?” she squeaked.
“Your opinion, dear,” he prompted. “You were listening; what did you think of him? Do we think he’s good enough for my precious grandbaby or not?”
“I - what do you – ?”
“Oh please, Becky – yes, all right, yes, I am doing it on purpose,” he chuckled at the look on her face. “Rebecca, then. I didn’t come down in the last shower of rain, dear heart. I know what all those cute little blinking lights on my phone do, you know.”
Rebecca swore, and then clapped a hand over her mouth, mortified. Grumman just snickered.
“I do like your spark, Becca. Oh, that one is all right, then? Good, good; I’m rather partial to nicknames.” Stunned, Rebecca could only nod, eyes wide and one hand still clapped to her mouth. “Now then, I don’t object to you listening in and taking the occasional note for me. My memory isn’t what it used to be, after all. But I must insist that it’s only when we’ve agreed on it beforehand. An old man has his secrets too, you know.”
“I-um, yes sir, I’m sorry sir, I never meant – !”
“Oh, never mind all that,” he said, waving a hand in a dismissive gesture. “I’d have done the same in your place, I’m sure. You’re only looking out for your friend, and since she happens to be very dear to me as well, I think I can find it in my heart to let it slide this once. Provided, of course, that you agree to my stipulations going forward. Do we understand each other?”
Rebecca nodded, dumbly.
“Excellent, excellent,” Grumman crowed, rubbing his hands together gleefully. “Now, what do you think about our newest Lieutenant Colonel? Seems like a decent enough fellow, and he comes from a good family. The prior relationship could complicate things, although she says he’s treated her with nothing but respect and professionalism since she accepted the position as his aide...but he has no idea she’s my granddaughter, does he?” he asked, smirking.
“It certainly doesn’t seem like it, sir,” Rebecca hedged. Grumman raised one eyebrow at her, and she huffed. “Oh all right! He asked whether I’d met her. And I, uh, I took the liberty of describing her in a general sort of way, but I didn’t let on that I knew her, or that he ought to. I was under the impression that you preferred for her to be known under a pseudonym, sir? Am I correct?”
Grumman beamed at her, delighted.
“Oh Rebecca, my dear, we are going to get along very well, you and I,” he purred. “Very well indeed.”