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Freedom (but that has so many shades of meaning).

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Hawkeye scrubs grime and oil from the long barrel of her rifle before moving on to clean the inside. With her feet up on the table, Armstrong watches the captain grind the force of her arm into the cleansing until the consistent back and forth motion appears almost painful. No, not even almost, but painful in every sense of the word. Something has the captain on edge.

“You know,” says Armstrong evenly, “that it’s a national holiday tomorrow. Anniversary of the Promised Day.”

Even now, seven years later, Hawkeye keeps her collars turned up. To hide the faded violet-red scar of the sword slitting her neck from hollow of throat to top of shoulder. Faded. But never truly fading, not enough, only tinging a greenish purplish at the edges like a bruise that refuses to disappear into the void. During their private wedding ceremony, Armstrong recalls, the captain wore a gorgeous white dress that would have angered any leftover goddesses into attacking her for her beauty. A gorgeous white dress with a high collar that brushed against Hawkeye’s lower jaw. That concealed, for some reason, the symbol of her survival and suffering to the world.

Eight years of knowing her, five years of living with her, three years of being married to her, and Armstrong still doesn’t fully understand the reasons.

“I’m well aware of it being the Promised Day tomorrow.” Hawkeye keeps her timbre to a constrained pitch, as if she has taken the lyrical Cretan horn of her voice, melted the brass, and poured and pounded it into a thin little cylinder of nothing at all. When Hawkeye is truly happy, she can seem overjoyed or faux angry, as Armstrong well knows. Tough love. But when the maelstrom clouds her thoughts, or, worse, sharpens them to points of pain she cannot stand, then her visage crystallises into a field of ice.

Armstrong has had enough of Briggs for a lifetime. Perhaps not a lifetime. But she can live without the mountains invading her wife as well.

“You seem agitated.” She lowers her paper. Folds it crisply and neatly in half. Stabs it through the midline with her sword and clicks her tongue as it falls apart around the blade. Cheap. At least in Briggs the paper was sturdier. Or perhaps more frozen. “We’ll go the beach.”

At this Hawkeye sets the gun on the counter, brushes her hair up into position, and fixes her gaze upon Armstrong still lounging on the futon. “Are you feeling all right, Olive? You don’t happen to have a fever? Or perhaps some aches and pains in unmentionable areas?” Sarcastically dry. Yet drilled through with a note of concern.

When the news of their engagement reached General Mustang’s office, he called in sick to work the next day. The morning after he arrived to sit in Armstrong’s chair and explain the contents of the heavy stack of papers on her desk: a guide, front and back, to everything he’d ever heard Hawkeye say or seen Hawkeye do. As much as General Mustang left a sour taste of someone promoted far above his station solely for his ability to commit mass genocide in the most efficient amount of time and effort, Armstrong had to appreciate his simultaneous ability to skip out on an entire day of work and return with a novel of dating advice.

“You know how it is. Even the Fuehrer needs a day off on occasion.” Armstrong raps her knee on the table. The empty mugs still ringed brown with the dregs  of coffee quiver audibly on their bases. “Such. We’re going to the beach tomorrow. If you wish, bring the boys.”

That loosens the tight muscles aching over Hawkeye’s neck and shoulders. Somewhat. The boys. Mustang, of course, as her commanding officer. The rest of her unit: Havoc, and Breda, and Falman, and Fuery. Havoc and Breda will undoubtedly invite Catalina, if Hawkeye does not do so herself, who will in turn invite Brosh, who will in turn invite the entire remainder of the Investigation Department, while Fuery will certainly call up that new girlfriend of his, the mousy woman from Records, who will suddenly have her friend from Resembool on the phone. The boys, inevitably, will completely swarm the beach, as boys and girls and all both or in-between are wont to do, thereby thoroughly ruining any isolation Armstrong and Hawkeye may have otherwise enjoyed.

No matter the level of enjoyment that Armstrong receives from ordering around her men, she receives an equal if not greater level from isolation. Either totally by herself, or with Hawkeye by herself. Hawkeye, too, knows the value of silence.

Golden. Like her hair, and her eyes.

Sometimes Armstrong wishes to ask the Record Department to look into her ancestry. Xerxian? Ishvalan, perhaps, for those amber eyes? But the last time she attempted an order from the desk of the then-Fuehrer shot her down immediately.

Still. She’s in charge now.

Hawkeye first. Yes, she’s relaxed the pace of her shoulders, the clenched tightness of her jaw. But the lines of stress digging trenches of no-man’s-land around Hawkeye’s eyes and mouth do little but force Armstrong’s hand. Lifting herself from the divan, Armstrong steps slowly, rationally towards the wooden chair on which Hawkeye sits. Erect, as though still in the office. The gun in her hands. Safety on and rounds out for cleaning.

“If you’re trying to sneak up behind me, Olive, you’re doing a pretty pitiful job.” Hawkeye angles her head in Armstrong’s direction. “What’s gotten into you today?”

“What’s gotten into you?” Resting her bent elbows on the curved headboard of the chair, Armstrong presses her fingertips tightly to either side of Hawkeye’s lower neck. “I can feel the muscles bunched up here, Captain Hawkeye. Report your status immediately.”

Hawkeye salutes out of an immediate trained response. A faint smile ghosts over her mouth before she sets her lips into the thin, firm line once again. “Although you are not my commanding officer, sir, I’ll report. To my wife.”

“That’s more like it, Captain.” As Hawkeye touches her hand to her chin ponderingly, Armstrong applies slightly more force. Moves her fingers in a careful circle. Tries to tease out the swirls of knots in her lower neck and shoulder. “Report what has caused this drop in efficiency and morale! Need I retrieve the idea of Miniskirt Mondays to improve troop morale!”

“Yes, sir, because you look lovely in miniskirts.” Hawkeye makes a hum of thought in the back of her throat. “As does General Mustang, if memory serves.”

Armstrong barks out a laugh. Barks, because her fingers twitch over Hawkeye’s sore skin without making so much as a single scratch in the tension palpable enough for her to cleave it in two with her sword. How, she wonders, does Lieutenant Colonel Miles make it look so damn easy? Perhaps if she can recall just how he nimbly skittered his fingers over her shoulders during the many, many meetings with the senior staff and Fuehrer’s private cabinet that had her flesh crawling from that intoxicating combination of boredom and irritation that spells nothing but trouble for anyone so stupid so as to show up in her path . . .

“I suppose I’m simply feeling a bit melancholy today,” says Hawkeye at a weary length. Armstrong listens: She does not do emotions well, and so Hawkeye has learned to speak her heart over her mind. Eight years. Nearly a decade with one another. “The anniversary of the Promised Day is coming up. Summer.” She turns her head towards the window; the white curtains billow gently. “It’s unusually hot this summer, as well.”

Heat. Warmth. Of course, the contact of skin. Gingerly, Armstrong turns down Hawkeye’s collar, keeping her gaze on the captain’s throat to spot any discomfort immediately. The scar. On the left side of Hawkeye’s neck, her left. The same side as her beating heart. With the lightest flutter of a touch possible, one that even Armstrong does not expect from the thick muscles of her arms, she strokes the length of the scar. The muscles on the right side ripple easily, rolling with the touch, uncoiling to the warmth of her ministrations. On the left, however, the less sensitive scar remains taut and stiff. Silk versus iron.

Armstrong narrows her eyes and scrunches her fingers into the sides of Hawkeye’s neck. Hawkeye coughs. “Not so rough. Sir.”

“You can return to calling me Olivier.” Lowering her head and tilting herself slightly forward, she allows the gold of her hair to spill over Hawkeye’s shoulders. Hawkeye reaches up a hand. Curls a lock of sunshine, of what she has always called sunshine and Armstrong has always called power, around her index finger. “It’s almost the Promised Day, and . . . ?”

“It’s almost the Promised Day, and Grumman is no longer Fuehrer.” Armstrong can feel the exact instant at which her breath expires in her lungs, her fingers fall flat over Hawkeye’s shoulders and neck, and her nails wrench her pain into the soft skin a few centimetres above Hawkeye’s collarbones. The captain shakes her off; she moves back willingly. “I supported the both of you until the end; you know that. I hold no grudges whatsoever. I promised Roy I would help him attain the Fuehrership. I failed.” She shrugs and Armstrong catches her shoulders: The hurricanes of emotions she senses in the corded nature of Hawkeye’s tendons terrify her. And she is Olivier Mira Armstrong. She does not do terror.

Except when it comes to Hawkeye.

“It’s not your fault, sir. I would never lay false blame.” Falling silent, Hawkeye breaks free of Armstrong’s grip. Bends over to retrieve the gun lying at her hip and spreads her legs wide to hold the gun between her knees, recommence the cleaning. “Roy and I know full well that you or him was the best that the country had to offer. And the country, for the first time in four centuries, decided for itself. You’ll make an excellent Fuehrer. Sir.”

The crispness and utter evenness of the sir manifest into the shadows of the homunculus that haunted the tunnels beneath Briggs and slaughtered her men. Their serrated edges bite into her chest. Impale her upon tendrils of shadow and nightmare. Choking on imaginary blood, Armstrong takes another step back. She struggles to find a word, any word, to hand to the silence. Struggles to find any noise that could breach the gap between them, an abyss the likes of which she has not seen for years. When the words come at last they come bitter and weak and broken, and she hates herself for not even having the courage to cry.

Because isolation, at the end of days, is easy. But crying, truly feeling, is the closest to hell the earth will ever reach. “I’m sorry, Riza.”

At that Hawkeye freezes. If not for her military training guiding her actions, perhaps, she would have dropped the gun. With the safety clicked firmly on and the rounds entirely removed in either case, the weapon could not have fired. But maybe Armstrong is merely projecting. Is merely begging for Hawkeye to display her storm of feelings in a manner that Armstrong can understand.

Because slicing people open and manipulating underlings into foolish plans, ah, well, all of that is simple.

Yet playing the games of the mind and the heart and the soul, where the goal is not to damage and destroy but to cure and create, has proven a task on an entirely different level than that to which Armstrong has ever, ever been accustomed.

But at the moment Hawkeye hangs, frozen, in the balance. Armstrong waits. Part of her wants to scream. Wants to yell out with the fury of a thousand suns: Do something. Hate me. Hurt me. Act. Act in some way, Riza Hawkeye! Act so that I know you love me, or hate me! But never, never be neutral!

Hawkeye stands from the chair. Her legs unfold. Powerful. Muscular. Thighs broad as cannons and strong as horses’. Settling the gun within the arms of the chair, Hawkeye glances at Armstrong, sweeping her lashes over her cheeks with each blink.

“Wait, Olive.” Her hand on Armstrong’s wrist is a warm weight anchoring the latter to the world. “Olivier Mira Armstrong.”

Armstrong purses her lips. Inside the blizzard wheels another turn and opens its heavens to the eye of the storm. Hawkeye’s pupils have shrunk to tiny points of darkness set in a honeyed gold, like the inverse of stars peppering the night sky. “I’m sorry,” she says again, idiotically, because she has nothing better to offer one of the only two people in the world with whom she would entrust her life. The other being her second-in-command, and even then, based solely off of the fact that he owes her his life.

“No. I’m sorry. I didn’t mean it like that.” Armstrong purses her lips further. Hawkeye’s grip on her wrist intensifies. Yet her voice holds firm, less the flat, emotionless disk of constrainment, more the level tone of a hurricane calmed.

“I’m not bitter about the elections, Olive.” Shaking her head furiously, causing the grown-out again tips of her hair to catch highlights like streams of quicksilver in glass bowls, Hawkeye lowers their joined wrist. Takes her other in a hand as well, curling her fingers over the rise of the wrist bone in a manner that feels at once entirely comfortable and entirely exhilarating. Though to be fair, nearly every second spent in Hawkeye’s company seems at once entirely comfortable and entirely exhilarating in general. Yet this even more so than usual. As if she balances on the razor thin edge of her sword. No, not even on the edge, but on the very tip, teetering to and fro. “I’m not bitter.” Hawkeye’s breath stirs the invisible hairs over Armstrong’s cheeks, warms her skin, though whether the heat springs from the exhalation or from another reaction that Armstrong cannot name for her not being, say, twelve years old anymore, she could not say. “Do you hear me?”

Armstrong nods. When she opens her mouth her timbre is even and cold and professional. Bitter as wormwood and sharp as a two-edged sword. Not that Hawkeye flinches. She has been through the fire and exited the other side with the grime and gristle burnt off in grey ashes to reveal a gold all the more brightly shimmering beneath. “Then, Captain, whatever did you mean?”

“That I was wondering at my life. At ours.” Her fingers press into the skin between Armstrong’s to punctuate, underline, emphasis her statement. “At my promise to Roy and my marriage to you.” Hawkeye exhales. “I suppose that . . . if you had told me a decade ago, or even half a decade ago, that this is where my life would end up, serving the Fuehrer and the Fuehrer hopeful. Every day of my life.”

“Well, if I were your direct superior officer, we wouldn’t have been able to marry. Even so we had to file for an exemption from the anti-fraternisation law.” Armstrong doesn’t mention that she highly suspects Hawkeye’s grandfather, the Fuehrer at the time, may have provided said exemption simply based upon said

“But no, I’m not upset. Especially not at you.” Hawkeye rolls back on the balls of her feet. “Melancholy. For the Promised Day, and its memories.” She almost draws their interlinked hands to her throat before returning said hand to their position between the women, but Armstrong observes and notices. “And now, with you being the Fuehrer, I thought for a moment that I’d failed.” Hawkeye totters backwards. Rushing to catch her, Armstrong finds the woman having perfectly caught herself. Laughing. And now Armstrong sees that emotion: relief. Hope. Gratitude. “But I haven’t. Not at all. I’m sorry for thinking that at all.”

Armstrong gently unclasps her fingers from around Hawkeye’s wrists to draw her in for an embrace. “You of all people deserve the right to think that and everything else.”

Quiet. But the warm quiet between two individuals pledged their lives to one another.

“. . . were you serious about going to the beach?”

Armstrong snorts. “Do I ever lie?”

Hawkeye bops her nose against Armstrong’s, and this time, Armstrong must be a twelve-year-old girl given the colour of her face. “I’ll pack. It’ll just be us, though.”

“No boys?” Armstrong arches her eyebrow.

Hawkeye smirks. Her eyes glint dangerously; Armstrong feels the shiver of anticipation shudder down her spine. “We’ll cause more destruction by ourselves than they ever could. I can promise you that.”