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come rain, come shine

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Oh no, it was back again, that warmth in her chest, knotting and radiating up to her face, threatening to give her away unless she could will her cheeks from blushing. It crept up on her these days, and she could probably just blame it on the summer heat, despite the fact that Maria and Rebecca’s dorm room fan did plenty to keep the August night cool. It’d been getting late, see, and she’d be heading back to the house soon, and she’d see her friends tomorrow for the start of the fall semester anyway, but not before Rebecca asked, “hey wait, did you guys see the photos from Gracia and Maes’ wedding yet?”

Maria had seen a few, mostly just ones she’d been in as a bridesmaid. Rebecca had started through the online photo album, but hadn’t finished. Riza hadn’t seen a single professional photo from the event, only the few drunken Snapchats she’d opened and saved the morning after and the shared photo album on her phone Fuery started for the rugby team to dump all their pictures.

The outside air blowing on their feet from the rotating fan, the trio sat atop Maria’s bed, flipping from photo to photo on her laptop, reminiscent of the beginning of break, when everyone had stayed in Central a few weeks longer, together, before heading home for the summer just to be around for The Wedding. Without a lot of family on either side to speak of, Maes and Gracia had gotten as many of their classmates and friends from school involved in what had been a lovely, breezy June wedding, not a cloud above them or a care in the world. For the most part, anyway. Riza learned later from Roy and some of the other groomsmen that Hughes had been puking his guts out before the ceremony, “never ever getting that hung over normally ”, Roy would mimic later, knowing better. Maria mentioned that Gracia had failed to mention a grass allergy, requiring some of the girls to take an emergency trip to the pharmacy to get the bride to the altar without breaking out in hives, if a bit high. One of the bouquets arrived with bright pink lilies instead of white roses, which Gracia, graciously, fixed by dispersing the lilies in with the roses, so every girl had a balanced bouquet. The dark blue icing of the cake had stained the teeth and hands of the bride and groom after they’d gone through with the tradition of feeding each other the first slices, to which Maes had decided he and the groomsmen would dig into the dessert shamelessly, each sharing matching blue smiles after to alleviate Gracia’s embarrassment. It didn’t seem to matter, the details, it was obvious in each of the photos that Maria or Rebecca stopped to coo and fawn over, they’d been in love, and it’d been a beautiful day.

And that kind of celebration usually made people a little soft-hearted, a little lovey-dovey, Riza had assumed at the time, and continued to do so now, uncomfortably warm despite the influx of night air. She’d never been to a wedding before Maes and Gracia’s, that was clearly where this pressure she held between her lungs and behind her cheekbones was coming from. Maybe she was just happy for her friends. Maybe she was just a little bit more of a romantic than she thought.

“You should get this one of the team printed, Riza,” said Maria, pointing to a photo of last year’s Central State University Men’s Rugby Team, shoulder to shoulder and dressed in dapper (or at least, not ill-fitting) suits and ties instead of their normal blues and golds. Maes and Roy, co-captains, and for one day, the groom and the best man, stood giddy and laughing in the middle, the graduating seniors and stood up tall in the back, Havoc, Falman, and Breda alongside the juniors in the middle row, Fuery and the underclassmen crouching in the middle. Riza, the teams’ honored manager, stood arm and arm with Gracia and hand to leash with Hayate, who’d swapped out the emotional support vest for a bowtie that day. It was a nice photo of one of the best teams they’d had in recent years, boasting a nearly undefeated season, a state championship trophy, and an even closer bond. 

“I might. It’d be nice in the office,” was all Riza had said, trying not to muse too hard about how different things would be this year, trading out Maes for the slew of new challenges that seemed to litter this year’s new team, starting and ending with their very injured and very stubborn Captain.

There were a couple other print and frame-worthy photos of their friends. One of Falman and Armstrong passing each other tissues during the ceremony. One of Gracia and her bridesmaids, throwing up deuces wearing heart-shaped sunglasses, holding wine glasses. One of Maria and Denny, strange to look at without their usual baseball caps and gym shorts, over-statedly winking at the camera. One of Breda, frowning, nearly nose to nose with Hayate at the reception. One of Havoc, winking at the camera as he lit a smoke for Gracia’s grandmother (“I bet he remembered to call her back this summer,” Rebecca moaned). One of Hughes, smiling as he bawled at the altar, holding in his hand a packet of pages that held all of his wedding vows. One of Feury, tie around his head, snapping a picture of what looked like the first dance, the brightness of his phone illuminating a focused face in the dimmed light. Photos of their friends dancing and laughing, carefree and shiny. 

“Damn Rizzo, you look hot,” said Rebecca upon one particular click, turning the laptop to face Riza, who resisted the immediate urge to roll her eyes into the back of her head at the tone. 

But the photo was not so embarrassing or ugly or shame-inducing, nothing she’d be ashamed to have plastered on social media or hanging even in her room. It was weird, actually, to see a photo of herself that she’d liked so much, that she could both concede to being beautiful as well as actually recognize herself as being herself in; Riza was in the middle of the frame, blurry dancers littering the corners. She was looking off to the side, her profile beaming as she smiled wider than she’d known herself to, cheeks rubicund and eyes almost relieved, she thought. Beautiful, maybe so.

She’d actually asked Roy to dance, or rather held a hand out to him when they were all already a few drinks in and out on the dance floor and the music transitioned from a celebratory and upbeat pop song to something slower and more romantic, apt for the occasion. It seemed like a good idea at the time, not because it was romantic, no, because sometimes there were questions that deserved a little more honor, that they shouldn’t always have to communicate over secret codes created in their childhood and unspoken glances from across the room.

“Are you alright?” Riza had asked him, doing her best to sound offhand as the crooning voice over the speaker system moved into the bridge.

“I’m mostly sober, if that’s what you’re asking,” he replied, smile crooked as he swayed the two of them leisurely, looking at her forehead, over her shoulder at the dancing couples around them, at the disco ball overhead.

“That’s not what I’m asking, I think you know that,” she whispered, and the hand in hers relaxed.

Roy nodded, comprehending and affirming, once he’d finished scanning the room for listening ears. “I’m good. I’m really good.”

She didn’t have to ask if she was sure, but when he finally met her gaze, he gave that wide, earnest smile of his, with the dimples and the chipped front tooth, along with a shrug. “I’m doing a lot better than I thought I would,” he said, quietly, honestly. “I’m really happy for them.”

“Me too.” Riza waited for the swell of the chorus to die down, to slow back into the second verse before continuing, “I just wanted to check-in.”

“Always looking out for me, doesn’t it get exhausting?”

“You said it, not me.”

Ouch ,” Roy laughed, deep from his stomach. “And here I was, having a good night, looking good, a little drunk, dancing in a beautiful ballroom with a pretty girl. Look, even Hayate’s jealous of me.”

Riza had turned around, her back to the tables, to see Hayate, leash tied to their table, his head on his paws with big, whining eyes. 

Snap. The moment the photographer had taken was a photo of Riza laughing, effortless and lovely, an arm wrapped around Roy’s broad shoulders, free of a dress coat, the clasp of their hands in the middle of the portrait. Where she’d been looking out of frame, laughing at something the camera couldn’t capture, Roy was looking at her with a look that pinched her heart when she thought of naming it anything other than warm .

Riza had asked him to dance, but Roy had been the one to pull her so close. She was sure she’d have taken better note then, were she a glass of wine shorter, of the change in proximity she usually kept with him, kept with everyone. But she had no experience at weddings, let alone dancing one-to-one like that, not like Roy did, judging by the way he swayed, stepped, held them both with the utmost confidence. Granted, Roy did everything with (stupid, arrogant, foolish) confidence, she reminded herself. Even when he spent his summer tripping over his own feet, even when he’d burned himself, he injured himself confidently. He hauled himself to practice after refusing his oxy prescription with confidence, forcing his head up high. This was where Rebecca had it wrong: Roy was forward, even when he wasn't, and he was self-assured, even when he had doubts, and probably would've looked at anyone else in the world like that, because that was generally how high he thought of others.

But they'd always been something of a duo, that hadn't changed.

“We’re gonna have a good year,” he had said to her, clipped and assured.

“We are going to have a good year,” she replied, and the song had ended, and they’d let each other go without thinking about it as the dancing stopped, and the night moved on. 

“Too bad Roy’s in this photo,” Rebecca was still talking, here in the present, curly hair wrapped up in a bun nearly as big as her head, pajama shirt falling off her shoulder. “I’d swipe right if I saw this photo of you on Tinder.”

Riza remembered to breathe in and out, the oxygen reminding where she was. “Thanks, Becca. That’s sweet of you,” she said, droll, but not missing the beat. She watched, with some dull disappointment, as Maria clicked on, moving onto the next photo of Hughes and a collection of his distant cousins.

Rebecca, on the other hand, appeared to be dissatisfied as she moved Maria’s hands out of the way, despite her protests, to click the cursor back to the photo of Riza and Roy.

"What's up?" Maria scoffed.

“Okay wait, hold on, I'm sorry," Rebecca waved her hand vaguely as she tried to find the words. "Is no one else gonna say it?”

“Say what?” asked Riza slowly, feeling her brow knot along her forehead.

“I thought about it, but verbalizing it makes it real, and I didn’t know if that was a discussion we were planning on having tonight,” said Maria, turning to talk to Rebecca on her right like Riza wasn’t immediately to her left and suddenly it was about her, wasn't it?

“Makes what real?” Riza asked, this time more like a statement than a request, hands wringing her sweatshirt sleeves ever so slightly in irritation. 

“Allow me to demonstrate.” Rebecca sat up, crossing her long skinny legs beneath her, before taking Maria’s laptop for herself to set down in her lap, focused already on a series of clicks and keystrokes.

“Fine, I guess we’re having this discussion tonight,” Maria said. She leaned back against the wall comfortable and folded her arms, settling in like there was a show to watch, Riza noted. 

“What discussion?” Riza tried to venture again, too tentative, sounding less irritated than she'd intended to. It was a schtick between them, her two closest friends; Becca being nosy and doting, Maria and Riza acting unimpressed, even if and when she proved to be on to something.

Rebecca elected to ignore their attempts to reason, as she was apt to do. “I’m going to show you two images in a quick succession, Riza," click click click, "and I want you to tell me what differences you see.”

“If at any point you think this is stupid, Riza, don’t humor her. You don’t owe any explanations,” Maria nudged her at the elbow, tucking her arms into her cutout t-shirt like she would rather fold in on herself than continue to watch what might happen.

Riza was not so foolish, she knew they were barreling towards something dangerously close to orbit. What exactly, she would just have to wait until Rebecca turned the laptop around towards her, squaring her face to face with a photo of the happy bride and groom, Maes centered in the middle, Gracia basking just under a well-placed spotlight, watching him with a matching smile.

Holding each other close, hands clasped tight, cheeks rosy and gazes full. Warm.

“So here we have Maes and Gracia. Cute. Heartwarming. Hallmark-movie approved,” Rebecca said, speaking like she was presenting evidence at some kind of court case or presenting before an important board of directors. Before either her or Maria could press on, Rebecca clicked over to another tab, back to the photo of Riza and Roy.

Holding each other close, hands clasped tight, cheeks rosy and gazes full. Warmer.

“What do you see?” asked Rebecca, clicking between the two tabs, looking between her two friends pointedly. 

“Straight people,” Maria deadpanned.

“One of those pictures is of Maes and Gracia, the other one is of me and Roy,” Riza said coolly, fingers pushing back cuticles, teeth biting at the inside of her cheek.

“And?”

Riza stopped, suddenly, “I don’t know, they’re just different pictures.”

They weren’t that different. 

Eight years, they'd known each other. Not a lot of the people they hung around with now knew that about them, that she’d known him since she'd lived in her father’s house long before Central State University was even a place, let alone one she frequented. Since their knees were knobby and there were rules about how much time they could spend together, alone or not. They’d had strict orders from all sides on how they’d been allowed to interact, him calling her Miss Hawkeye, her calling him Mr. Mustang (it was a little funny, in hindsight), fumbling with a certain amount of propriety reserved for people who weren’t technically children, peers, and eventually friends. Like everything else at Hawkeye Manor, they were parts of the very weird, very Midwestern museum, where a touch did a world of damage to the more important, more expensive pieces. So they’d been assigned such set boundaries so they wouldn't get too close to each other but like moths to the flame they both liked to toe the line; he'd thought she was special, because she wasn't much like anyone he'd known in the city, and she’d had such an embarrassing crush on him as a prepubescent girl that the distant memory made her curl her toes.

But then she'd gotten burned, literally. So things changed, things were different now. But not that different, clearly.

“I have to hand it to you, Becca, for finding two so aggressively similar pictures,” Maria said. “He’s really got Hughes and Riza in the same pose.”

Riza had to bite her tongue so as not to scoff.

"Thanks M, it's a skill," Rebecca replied.

“Someone should tell that photographer to work on his angles.”

That comment though, admittedly made Riza smirk. When Rebecca caught her and Maria grinning at each other, she tutted.

“Unbelievable.”

When Riza, against all odds, got into university and needed somewhere to go with her dog and her very weird, very traumatized, very Midwestern museum piece, Hughes had been the first of the team to pull her in as one of them, pay her in full, in kindness, in friendship. Like she was just a regular person and not on the basis of being Olivier's choice replacement or Roy's friend or Weird Old Berthold's kid, not like she needed the lifeline. Riza was able to quite quickly connect the dots between all the things Roy took a shamed, hushed voice to about his plebe year away at military school with everything that was admirable about Hughes. But everyone had something they wrapped up tight so as to keep the house standing, and if she was allowed to harbor the fire at her feet that’d started when she was twelve, Roy could grapple with whatever was left behind of his best friend tying the knot with someone else.

“Roy’s not so bad, Becca.”

The picking her up off the counter the night of the bonfire, and swinging her around, that should've been a red flag for her. The hand that grazed her shoulder when he passed her from her seat on the couch, working alone in a house emptied by the summer. The way he accepted her to lean on, to begin to walk as he gripped the burn that riddled his side, crossed his abdomen, that she'd help him wrap so carefully, ego be damned. Even when he acted like he wasn't he was reaching for her, like a child who'd never been to a museum might reach past the ropes set up to keep patrons back, like he didn't know how much damage one touch might do to one old oil painting. There’d been more of it, the sudden closeness and the touching, and they'd gotten too comfortable and it didn’t matter if he was confident or insecure or an egotist or if he needed her because she could not, would not pursue, tamper with, ruin everything she'd worked for. She knew somewhere he still thought her special and maybe he needed to lean on her but she couldn't lean back, even if she wanted to, because the rest of the house needed to stay standing. There were rules about closeness in museums, things had changed but weren’t so different. 

“He’s not so bad, I just think, nay, know Riza deserves better than babysitting Mr. Five-Year-Plan.”

He had an extended family, his Aunt, his sisters, to blame on the comforting need to reach, to touch, to hold. She didn’t have anyone else, had never had anyone else even when she had a father, who’d never ever touched her until he did and then died, right? Leaving her with scars on her back and with a grandpa she still tiptoed around and with the freedom to do what she wanted now and with Roy. And it wasn't that she had a complex about it, the touching, it was that she was starved for it.

“That’s harsh, Becs, he’s helped me out in a bind or two. I just think you should go easy on her.”

After her father died, she graduated high school and got an emotional support dog to keep her hands steady, but naturally, dorms weren't built for dogs like Hayate (you know, who were very vocal, if not awful at their jobs). Knowing she'd need somewhere to live, Roy had casually, timidly invited her to live at Headquarters with him and team, to work as their manager and have a normal college experience because "orphans take care of orphans". And maybe everyone else pitied her but maybe she was valuable enough to be adopted into the ranks, nicknamed "The Lieutenant", honored in a long line of prized rugby team members, on and off the field. And maybe she hadn't known what the hell she was doing when she chose to go to college when her father's death gave her nothing else to strive for but she was good at physics, excelling in her major somehow. And they lived together and worked together and relied on each other, as one did with their closest friends in college, as one did with their family. And it’d all been simple enough, looking but not touching, staying on their best behavior, but then Hughes got married and she’d been confronted with how comfortable they'd gotten and called out by her friends for the way he looked at her in a photo that she wanted to keep all to herself, somewhere safe. 

“It’s not like it matters, she probably doesn’t even like him anyway.”

So much had happened since they were young, but it’d all cumulated in that house that they lived in now, not then. Not in the museum where she'd been told to stand very still like a piece of art on the wall, but the kitchen they shared, in knowing each others’ coffee order by heart and silent hours studying in the den, in laundry getting mixed up and the warm presence of someone at her back to worry about. Why wouldn’t she be protective of that, of him? Because oil paintings corrode when touched by human hands.

That stoke in her chest burned her now. She hoped it didn't rise to her cheeks; her face had always been round and girlish, how unfair.

“Hm?” Riza hummed in response, pulling her eyes from the screen to look back and forth between her friends, none the wiser, so it would seem.

“You don’t like him, right?” Rebecca pressed; Riza blinked.

Wrong.

“Right.” 

"See?" Rebecca turned to Maria like she'd just proven a point, handing back over her laptop to finish up the slideshow of photos; Maria rolled her eyes as she sat back up. Riza assumed she was in the clear, exhaling. "That said," Becca continued, "you should probably tell him that, judging by that look."

Don't miss the beat, don't miss the opening, keep it up. 

"Yeah," Riza said, flat, offering what she hoped looked something like a bemused smirk, more than anything else. "You're probably right."

"Great, now can we keep the rest of the walk down memory lane brisk? I have an 8 AM tomorrow," Maria chided, leading the way for the rest of the slideshow. 

Riza, even when distracted, found that she noticed the details, the small things, the minute change of the temperature in the gallery, even when she didn't want to. 

 

 

Chapter Text

Newton's First Law states that an object will remain at rest or in uniform motion in a straight line unless acted upon by an external force.

2:30 on a Tuesday at Madame Christmas’s bar, so empty that any sound they made echoed on the high, gold-tiled ceiling, Roy had taken maybe half a glance at the course catalog on Riza’s laptop screen before going back to the glass he was drying with an old rag. “Just take Chem,” he had replied with a shrug.

No,” Riza had answered too quickly, and that was where it all started. 

A lot of freshmen didn’t know what they wanted to major in going into their first semester, and Riza had been assured it was perfectly fine to not know what she wanted to study right away, but a few months out now from her father’s passing, every decision she made felt like it weighed the same and weighed heavy on her tense and tired shoulders. Getting to pick out a new set of sheets was as grave as deciding what she would keep from the old manor; choosing between leashes for her new dog was as consuming as deciding her course schedule. For a long while, she’d been moving from one necessary and pre-determined task to complete the next – Father’s needs, Father’s needs, Father’s funeral, her own high school graduation – the suddenly vast and directionless vacuum she found herself in now was daunting, to say the least.

Hayate was still a puppy at this time, and not good at his job yet, so he continued to chew at the wooden barstool she sat on instead of noticing the way Riza’s frown creased deeper.

She mostly knew what she didn’t want at this point. She didn’t want to major in anything related to law or civics, because she wanted to reduce the risk of running into her grandfather as little as possible once on campus. Riza’s somewhat embarrassing taste in books ran closer to Twilight than Othello, and the idea of getting a degree in psychology made her want to laugh aloud, the prospect of being taught something new about brains or trauma a bitter, bitter joke. But she also didn’t want to do something that wouldn’t help someone, out there, in the long run? And that was important to her. But chemistry had been her father’s (truest, realest, only) passion, which was enough of a reason for it to not ever even kind of be on Riza’s radar.

“Okay…” Roy watched her carefully, putting the glass and dishrag down to turn his attention more intently to the class catalog whilst maintaining what Riza could sense was a controlled distance; they weren’t as good then as they were now at reading one another, he still treated their interactions like a test in her trust. “There’s Bio?” he asked, innocently enough, after a few clicks and scrolls.

Riza felt her stomach churn at the suggestion; she didn’t know how to ask if that meant knives and guts, amongst other things. Things that had never bothered her before and suddenly made her go green. Things, specifically, that were dead and smelled like it.

“But they dissect a frog and a fetal pig in the lab component,” Roy said, again too practiced in his insouciance. Riza shooed away thoughts of the toads in the old woods behind her home, splayed open on wet mud and fall foliage, red guts bleeding into red leaves.

“It’s pretty gross, I didn’t like it either,” Roy continued; he must have gotten a glimpse of her face out of the corner of his black eyes, in the reflection of the computer screen, “so if you didn’t want to take it, that would be understandable.”

He was trying to meet her where she was, in the great nothing. The least she could do was say something.

She managed to shake her head, sending the mental image of frog guts far away, cropped blonde hair tickling her ears instead.

Roy nodded, but pursed his lips, like if he frowned hard enough at her laptop, it would tell him what to do next. “It puts you in a bit of a predicament, that’s all,” he admitted as he sat in the barstool next to her, swiveling in his seat. “Those are two science credits most everyone starts with. Like, literally everyone. There might be another option, I don’t know off the top of my head what else you could take.”

“There’s nothing else?” Else, else, else echoed against those high gold ceilings; if she looked up, she might see her reflection in the gold geometric pattern. She wondered if she looked as tired as she felt.

“I mean,” Roy hummed, old habits showing as he continued turning at the waist on the swivel stool, back and forth, back and forth. “There’s technically Physics? That’s fairly inoffensive, but like, no one ever picks that one, because it’s hard and ‘cause you have to take Calc first –“

“I tested out of Calc,” Riza said, more as though she was reminding herself and not as though she was answering Roy’s rambling.

Roy stopped turning in his seat. “You tested out of Calc?”

“Yes?”

He didn’t verbalize a response right away, but she always thought his nonverbal tells were the most giving anyway; she didn’t want to put words in his mouth, but for a tick it was almost as though he looked proud. “I didn’t mean to sound so surprised,” he insisted, after a moment. “You’re really smart, Calc is just fucked up.”

And you had to scrape the rest of your grades off the ground, Riza, when you spent weeks skipping school to take care of your stubborn, dying father, Riza, who would be disappointed in whatever you decide to choose now, Riza, is how that thought should’ve ended, but here she was projecting. Roy hadn’t once berated her for her choices as she continued to adjust to life after Hawkeye Manor, not out loud anyway. At the very least, he wouldn’t have dare used her first name.

Black eyes twinkled something different then, like if she looked hard enough inside, she’d see someone had flicked a lightbulb on. “I have an idea,” Roy said suddenly; Riza watched him absently pat his pants pockets, his shirt pocket, before he finally found his phone in the front bib of his red apron.

The corners of her mouth curled up before her brow could furrow. “What’s that?”

“Registrar’s office is closed today - fine, whatever, we don’t need them anyway - but I happen to know one, and only one person who’s ever taken Physics for their freshman science credit. I think she’ll be able to talk to you about fit.”

“Who?”

Riza thought maybe if Roy rolled his eyes any harder, they would just roll back into his head. “I – it’s – she’s – you’ll understand when you meet her.”

Okay.

Using the glass as a makeshift easel of sorts to lean his phone up against, Riza watched Roy scroll and scroll through his contacts – the sheer number of people to know struck her as overwhelming – before he rested on one in particular. The General, with two skulls flanking either side of the title.

Tell us how you really feel, she thought to herself.

“Why are we Facetiming her?” is what Riza’s curiosity asked instead.

Roy grinned something wry and wicked. “Because she gets pissed even looking at my face, and I love pissing her off.”

Adjusting the screen to get both of them in frame, Riza realized this was the first time today she’d gotten a good look at herself – she didn’t look quite as tired as she felt, sure, but her cropped cut looked more like a nest atop her head, the plain t-shirt she’d pulled on was still wrinkled from being folded up in a busted cardboard box, stuffed with all her other clothes. She hadn’t put earrings in this morning, rounding up, at best, a plain-looking reflection, and at worst, a plain mess.

She should’ve checked herself in the mirror of Christmas’s golden ceiling when she had the chance, maybe.

It took a number of rings, but when the screen turned, it suddenly felt like she and Roy hadn’t just been answered, they’d been invited to a hearing before royalty. The General, skulls and all, turned out to be – Riza gulped – regal, fierce, beautiful. But not in the way people thought of beautiful when they heard the word; this woman instead was probably best described as ‘striking’ or ‘distinctive’, like the dangerously long and heavy icicles that used to hang off the manor’s back porch in the wintertime. She was a number of years older than Roy, but he tended to look young for his age anyway, whereas the woman on the screen had a glint in the blue eye that wasn’t hidden by long, glossy hair that made her seem older than she looked. That commanded respect and a sense of duty. That made her seem, frankly, unstoppable.

Okay. Riza decided this was fine, even if she was sweating, even if she definitely should’ve checked her appearance in a mirror, the ceiling, a spoon, anything, before getting on this call -

“General,” Roy, ever unflappable, threw up a mock salute, enjoying already the prospect of being a nuisance. And if he had had a dangerous eyeroll, The General’s was lethal. “Mustang,” she practically spat; she seemed to assess him quickly, whatever initial insult she had intended to swat at Roy dying on her lips, “you look suspicious.”

“And you’re as radiant as ever,” Roy replied, feigning innocence. “Hey, question – “

“I’m at work,” The General replied, as blunt and unimpressed as her stiff, black collar, and suddenly, the call went dead; she had hung up on them.

“Oh come on,” Roy said as his impish grin fell. “I said she looked radiant.”

Now it was Riza’s turn to roll her eyes. “Who was that, then?”

“Central assigns mentors to high schoolers who want to take college courses, you know, so she was my mentor way back when,” Roy explained, “I’m sure she must’ve come up before once, her name’s Olivier Armstrong – “

Riza’s heart dropped like a shot into her gut; the name had come up once before alright. “The same Olivier Armstrong who used to manage the rugby team?”

He hadn’t read her distress as he held up his phone, struggling to get cell phone service inside this heavy, dense, hole-in-the-wall of a bar. “Yeah, you got it – “

“The one who’s reviewing my student manager application? For the rugby team.”

“Yeah probably." He didn’t get it at all, did he? “The very same.”

When he finally got service again, Roy called back Olivier, oblivious, as Riza tugged a few fingers through her hair to brush it out, praying it’d lay flat, maybe.

Olivier picked up on the second ring this time, glaring into the camera instead of answering with a “hello”.

“Look, there’s no one else I can ask,” Roy started before she could, dropping the sarcasm. “We’re reliant on your unique expertise right now.”

Olivier piqued one (perfectly arched) eyebrow in response. “Fine,” she muttered.

Roy let out a strained exhale. “This is my friend, Riza Hawkeye – “

Cold blue eyes moved quickly to glance between Roy and Riza, back and forth, though the intensity of her glare did not relent. “The Riza Hawkeye who applied for my old Student Manager position?” Olivier cut him off almost immediately; Riza’s heart rose from her stomach to her throat in one, hopefully unnoticeable, burst.

This was okay, this was fine. Her application had been looked at. Olivier hadn’t said anything other than that, which was fine, but she also knew who she was, which was also fine, Riza assured herself. The mere concept of being seen was not a threat, she assured herself.

The Riza Hawkeye who is severely underqualified for the position and shouldn’t have bothered in the first place?

“Is he holding you hostage?” Olivier asked instead. “Blink twice if you need help.”

Riza shook her head, trying to remember how to use words on the offbeat.

“Why would I call you if I had a hostage?” Roy whined.

“I want to take Physics,” was all Riza managed to come up with.

And?

And?

“You took it,” Roy said, head sliding back into the focus of the frame. “Does it count for the freshman science requirement?”

“Technically yes, but most students don’t go that route their first semester because of the Calculus requirement that needs to come first in order to take the corresponding lab.”

“I tested out of Calc,” Riza interjected, and the imposing, x-ray vision gaze of Armstrong flicked from Roy to her and stayed on her now.

She wouldn’t anticipate an answer, but old habits were hard to break –  surely she’d be called a liar, or be told she was foolish, or Olivier would scold her, saying her Calculus experience was irrelevant, because no matter what she did the class wouldn’t be a good fit and that would be on her. And look, now Riza had wasted someone else’s time too, what was she thinking –

Olivier Armstrong said none of those things, instead, she simply sniffed, once, and said:

“That’s impressive.”

Riza exhaled.

“Okay great, aside from the credits, what else would she need to know?” Maybe it was the angle of the phone, but even as Roy continued the interrogation, Olivier stared as though she hadn’t stopped analyzing Riza, like she was a page of text to be read. “Is it interesting? How’s the workload? How’s the professor? Is it hard?”

“Stupid questions, all of them,” Olivier bit down, sharp. “Pass your friend the phone, Mustang, and find your way out of the frame.”

Roy groaned, mimicking Olivier under his breath as he slid off the swiveling barstool, stepping carefully over Hayate with a ‘stuuuuupid questionnnnnns’ and a ‘find your way ouuuuuuut of fraaameee’.

It took a few months and a 10 minute Facetime conversation, sure, but Riza finally found something she wanted to do, and not because she didn’t want to do anything else.

She wanted to be like Olivier Armstrong.

They didn’t talk long, but it’d been long enough. Physics wasn’t for the weak of heart, but if she’d done well in math, that was half the battle. The professor was a ‘pathetic, groveling excuse of a man’, but graded fairly, she’d succeed so long as she understood the text. Olivier let her ask as many questions as she wanted before, without warning, Riza found that the tables had been turned: would she call herself detail-oriented? How did she approach problems, balance responsibilities, work with difficult people?

The conversation had moved quickly, from being about physics to being about rugby, but Riza noticed and didn’t miss a step, not a single one until Armstrong gave her a swift, but genuine ‘good luck’ and hung up before Roy could say goodbye from behind the bar.

So Riza would take Physics and grow out her hair, she decided upon hanging up. She’d never let her hair grow past her ears, and would probably get irritated if her bangs were any lower on her face than they already were, but maybe if she took care of it she could look nice with it long -

“Alright, alright,” Roy took his phone back, laughing at her only a little, “try not to drool on the counter, would you?”

They weren’t then who they’d grown to be now, but that day was a start for her. “No need to be jealous,” she’d stated simply before the sarcasm could feel too foreign on her lips.

Roy’s eyebrows flew up his forehead to hide under the fringe he’d kept much longer then, surprised. “As if,” he scoffed, smiling for real now, clicking the “add to schedule” button beside the Physics 100 listing on her behalf.

It would be maybe a few hours after finalizing her course schedule before Riza received a curt and otherwise ungraceful email from the work-study office explaining that her student manager training for the Central State University Men’s Rugby Team (Go Alchemists!) would start in August with the pre-semester camp. It would be another two months before she tred as quietly as she could into her Intro to Physics course and a month after that before she realized this class was something that she could do, and do well. It wouldn’t be until their third game of the season where she realized that The Second Law of Motion could be practically applied to a team frustrated as they slipped and slid through the mud, trying to fight and claw through a torrential downpour. It wouldn’t be until the end of term when her professor left her what she assumed was supposed to be a glowing review on her essay response to a morbid final paper question (“What kind of backwards, whackadoo school are we going to where it’s okay to say ‘you’d make a good sniper’ on someone’s A-plus final paper, I implore you?” asked Rebecca, who’d been the only other girl in their Physics class). But it wouldn’t be until winter break before Riza told her grandfather over their monthly lunch that, instead of set foot in the law building, ever, actually, she wanted to major in Physics, and she tried not to delight too much in the twitch of his mustache, the utter disbelief in his old face.

He had tried to brush it off with a chuckle and almost succeeded, his nonverbal cues much stronger than those of his protégé. "Well, good for you, my dear," Grumman conceded, his teacup hiding his mouth. "If anything changes, don't hesitate to let me know. You've got friends in high places, after all."


Two years later, Riza’s hair fell long past her shoulders now. Despite her best efforts, Hayate still struggled with keep good discipline too much to be an objectively good emotional support dog, but he was unabashedly number one in her heart. She still trusted her grandfather about as far as she could throw him, which still wasn’t far, even if she’d taken up lifting. Rebecca was still deeply opinionated about even the minor details, and Roy, frankly, still looked like a child in the face, even if his neck got wider, his shoulders broader. Riza was still spending all of her time between dense physics textbooks and sweaty, smelly rugby players. These two things, in particular, were common knowledge to anyone who knew her.

Which is why she was a bit perplexed at the new job offer sitting in her voicemail inbox.

When Riza left Yoki’s Junior Seminar course just before 10, she had a few Snapchats from Rebecca and Maria, a text from Coach Darius regarding the status of the team’s Gatorade stock, and two missed calls and a voice message from a number she didn’t recognize but would come to understand, with a quick Google search, as being Central State’s Dean's Office.

Everything about the call seemed fake, and nonsensical on top of that, like she was asked to explain what a circus was to someone in a clown costume. The voice – a man’s, irritated and coarse – had seemed to trip over her name and failed to give his own, and had said very little other than her profile had been reviewed and she was requested to interview for an open position. An open position for Student Assistant to the Dean. And she should call back as soon as possible, ending with the number that had left the strange and somewhat ominous message on her phone to start with.

Stopping in the hallway to look at her phone in her hand once the recording concluded, the truth of the matter was certainly stranger than the message was itself: she, Riza Hawkeye, had a job. A practically full-time, part-time job, that required a lot of paperwork, a lot of patience, and Gatorade (grape Gatorade tastes like cough syrup, Coach Darius, that’s why no one drinks it). A job she liked. A job that paid her well enough, while also giving her a place to live and keep her dog at. This was as common and constant of knowledge, or at least she’d presumed, as the color of the sky, as the expectation of the changing seasons.

Maybe it was a mistake? A clerical error. Whoever had called hadn’t had the foresight to even leave their name, the idea the whole thing was a slip-up wasn’t unlikely. The office had probably realized by now that they’d called the wrong Riza (as though there was more than one Riza on this campus) and called the proper applicant. She’d simply set them straight if they called her again.

WIth no time to dwell, Riza moved on, checking the rest of her messages on the way to her next class, navigating the walk that had grown familiar over the semester with ease.

 

[catalinab, snap] (a blurry photo of a group of boys from behind, walking through a hallway)
[catalinab, chat] why can’t the boys in the engineering building walk in groups without taking up the whole hallway?
[catalinab, chat] if they each walked two inches closer to each other, i could get by!!!! It’s not rocket science!!!! what on EARTH do they have to prove!!!

[_maaaaariaross, chat] don’t u know becca? they can’t be heterosexual AND walk within three feet of one another, they gotta pick just one
[_maaaaariaross, snap] (a photo of her close friend, Denny Brosh, throwing up a peace sign while taking a sip from his coffee cup)
[_maaaaariaross, chat] the law boys do it too, denny does it now just to bother me

[catalinab, chat] side note re: dumb boys
[catalinab, chat] rizzo does rugby have practice tonight
[catalinab, chat] if not can we go for a run around the field

[_maaaariaross, chat] wow engineering boys got you that heated huh?

[catalinab, chat] more like I just drank my weight in coffee at work this morning for no good reason other than it being free
[catalinab, chat] i hate my job but I love my job

[_maaaariaross, chat] rip in pieces

[lt.hawkeye, chat] no rugby tonight, we should go for a run
[lt.hawkeye, chat] u can listen to this weird voice mail I just got offering me a job to work for the dean and tell me how weird it is

 

It took all of two seconds of a quiet, brisk walk through the autumn leaves between tall, stone buildings for her friends to answer, albeit with captionless photos of their faces, both looking as though someone had stuck something repugnant in their faces, just out of frame.

 

[catalinab, chat] im sorry, lol what?
[catalinab, chat] don’t they know your soul has already been sold?

[_maaaariaross, chat] I have a lot of questions but they can wait til later (runner emoji)

 

In her next class, Modern & Contemporary Poetry, Riza could feel her phone vibrate again where it sat in her backpack at her feet, and tried with moderate success to focus on her partner discussion instead.

Your projectile nose

Has meddled in the more serious business

Of the battle-field

With the same incautious aloofness

Of intense occupation

That it snuffles the trail of the female

And the comfortable

Passing odors of love

Sheska was awkward, but Riza found that that made her more interesting to talk to. A sophomore, shy would’ve been a generous way to describe how timidly she approached the class until it was time to turn her desk toward a partner - namely, Riza - and discuss the meaning of the poem or poems they’d been asked to read for homework. Then, she’d drop a bomb of a statement, like she’d ‘accidentally’ read the whole book or had memorized the poem they’d been assigned to annotate, and that the poem was good, but not as good as (insert whatever famous poet Sheska was reading on her own that week here).

“Anyway,” Sheska stopped to catch her breath just as Riza’s phone stopped ringing, “I like Mina Loy enough, but some of the sudden turns of phrase the modernist poets like to use remind me too much of, like, the slam poetry scene from 22 Jump Street.”

See? Full of surprises. “Do go on,” Riza replied, feeling a warm smile pull across her face all on its own.

“Like look,” Sheska unfurled the book she white-knuckled in her small hands to point to Sketch of a Man, “’through the activity of pushing. THINGS.’” she quoted emphatically; Riza stifled a snort. “It’s awfully close to ‘SLAM. Poetry. YELLING.’”

Riza held a hand to her mouth, her laughter getting the attention of the groups that worked beside them; Sheska’s Jonah Hill impression was not too shabby. “You’re right,” she wiped a tear from her eye. “You’re so right.”

Sheska laughed a little too, before running her fingers down each line of the poem one last time, like she was checking to make sure she hadn’t missed something. Riza took the pause in discussion to reach into the front zipper of her bag to check and just see if – there it was, another message left from the same number as earlier.

Your genius

So much less in your brain

Than in your body

Reinforcing the hitherto negligible

“Hey Sheska, weird question,” Riza said, bringing her phone to sit up on her desk; Sheska’s head popped up so quickly, her glasses went lopsided across her nose. “You work in administration, right? In the Dean’s Office?”

“Right.”

“Do you know off the top of your head if there are any work-study positions open?”

Sheska tapped her chin, thinking hard for a few moments before answering cheerfully. “Nope, we shouldn’t have any open for the rest of the semester, as far as I know. Why do you ask?”

Riza hummed, eyeing the ‘missed call’ notification on her screen that stretched over the 9 AM to 10 AM block of her course schedule background. “I just, I keep getting these spam calls about a student assistant position in the administration office that I didn’t apply for.”

“Student assistant to whom?”

“The Dean.”

Sheska’s eyes went wide, looking wider behind her circular wireframes. “Oh, that sounds like an amazing opportunity!” she exclaimed, near-congratulatory before she stopped herself. “If it’s real, that is.”

“Exactly.”

“I mean, who knows? I’m the lowest rung on the admin ladder, and the Dean’s the Dean, so he can do whatever he wants without asking me,” Sheska joked, if only to herself. “But maybe it’s new? Did you check the work-study portal?”

“No, I didn’t,” Riza said, taking pause. "It's been so long since I've had to use it, I don't know if I remember my password,” she admitted.

But Sheska’s polite smile widened, knowing and sheepish for knowing so well. “Oh, have I been there,” she said, only a bit self-deprecating. “But if you want, I can check out for you, and let you know?”

It was like Riza had been hooked at the collar and tugged at, just so, to sit up straighter. Even now, she still wasn’t prone to anticipating gestures of goodwill from others. “Thanks Sheska, that’d be really helpful.”

Sheska nodded, peering over her textbook, letting her bangs curtain over her eyes. “Or I’ll take it for myself,” she shrugged, big brown eyes darting back up at her to see if her joke had landed.

Riza snorted again, the idea of funny, anxious Sheska even standing side-by-side with someone as rigidly old-school and disciplined as Dean Bradley. The three eyes between the two of them, on their own, told a good story. “Maybe you should take it,” Riza replied, shaking her head, “heaven knows I’m tied up.”

Professor Claus motioned to reel in the wavering attention of the class once more, and as thirty or so sleepy students turned their desks to face the front of the room once more, Riza slid her phone back in her bag’s front pouch. She couldn’t help but consider the perspective of a Riza Hawkeye showing up to Dean Bradley’s militant and ornate office in the towering and somber administrative office in Old Main, across from the fountain and the quad, locked behind giant marble columns. Filing paperwork, taking calls, adjusting the schedule for the most powerful figure on campus. It was certainly a concept - a nice, shiny, opportunistic concept – comfortable in all ways except the ones she’d come to know well.


The second message was almost as messy as the first, but this time, a name and title had been left – Randy Storch, Assistant to the Dean. Riza googled him during a quick and noisy lunch break in the mess hall and he was, much to her surprise, a real person, looking as grave as he sounded in his picture for the CSU employee directory.

Her shoulder tugged when she noted in his employee profile that Storch had worked in Central’s administration under Bradley since long before she’d started her college career, and once she made the connection, it was hard to shake the connotation of something crooked.

But it was harder to shake Alex Armstrong, who she’d run into in the athletics building, and who just loved Mina Loy, of all poets, but again, this was an interaction she could anticipate. She was busy after all, lots to do, one task to the next.


It’d been a nice fall so far; it was unusual for Central to experience more than a week of orange leaves and jean jacket-friendly temperatures before it turned to constant rain and dirt-colored slush and ice rinks instead of sidewalks. For them to have gotten well into October with nothing to show for it but crisp fresh air and a slight drop in temperature felt like a gesture of encouragement; running laps around the field at sunset with just a zip-up to keep her warm, a relief.

“Riza, Jesus, we have to stop letting you set the pace,” Rebecca whined at their halfway break, offering Riza a swig from her water bottle from where she’d stop to sit on the grass.

“I don’t set the pace, Hayate does,” Riza said, a smirk creeping across her face as she shook her head at the gesture; Rebecca took this cue to down the rest of the bottle’s contents in one go. “Sounds like he should keep it up.”

“Ha ha ha,” Rebecca jeered. She tossed her spare arm out to scratch Hayate across the top of his head, emphasizing with great sarcasm this time, “HA HA HA.”

Much to her distaste, Hayate licked her nose.

“Hear that?” Maria laughed, holding a hand up to her ear like she was listening for something, “he says ‘no excuses!’”

Rebecca scoffed. “’Yesterday you said tomorrow,’ says Hayate.”

“See that look on his face?” It was the look he usually had when he didn’t have his vest on, tongue rolled out dumb, happily panting. “He’s saying ’You better work, bitch!’”

Riza tossed her head back to laugh at that one, the three of them thoroughly distracted from their workout now. So distracted, in fact, that she almost didn’t notice her name being called from over the top of the bleachers until it echoed, bouncing off the treetops.

“Riza!” Riza, Riza, Riza - It was Sheska, trying and struggling to keep up a jog to get across the field and meet them, backpack half unzipped and bouncing on her shoulders. “Hey Riza!”

“Sheska, hey!” Riza and her friends set to move and meet her halfway across the field, but it didn’t seem to matter much – Sheska’s hair was now half a mess, round cheeks a bright red, her glasses slightly disheveled across her nose. It would’ve been endearing, watching Sheska be herself, messy if charming, but it seemed unusual to Riza to watch her exert this kind of energy for something other than getting to class on time, let alone on her behalf.

“Sorry, I was just going to – gasp – text you but – wheeze – then I saw you and –“

“It’s okay, go ahead and catch your breath,” said Maria, handing Sheska her water bottle; Sheska’s already wide eyes seemed to bug out of her head upon connecting with Maria’s hand and gingerly taking the bottle from her grasp. She took a big gulp, two big gulps, thrusting the bottle back into Maria’s hands with a shy glance at her feet before turning towards Riza, brows furrowed in confusion.

“Hi again,” she said, breath successfully caught.

“Hi Sheska.”

“So, remember when you asked me earlier if the Dean’s Office had any openings?” Sheska gulped, finally adjusting her glasses. “Well they do, and it’s the Student Assistant position you asked about.”

“That’s the one that kept calling you today, right? The job you didn’t apply for?” asked Rebecca, to which Riza and Sheska seemed to nod an affirmative at the near same time.

“Which was pretty abnormal as is – being scouted without having shown any interest isn't how I've seen the office handle anything before – but it gets weirder,” Sheska fumbled through her jacket pockets, her pants pockets, until she pulled out her cell phone and with a few taps, pulled up the job posting on CSU’s work-study portal. “Do you guys see what I see?”

Maria took the phone first to scan the posting, shaking her head at first before her eyes grew to match the size and uncertainty of Sheska’s. “Oh. Oh, that’s weird,” she muttered, turning the screen toward Rebecca and Riza to see for themselves.

It was a negligible, single grey line on the screen, but weird, indeed.

Posted 10:51 PM, October 10.

“This went up yesterday,” Rebecca noted.

“Last night,” Riza extrapolated, scrolling through the short job description and weekly hour breakdown. Being a junior with the same posted position since her freshman year, the only thing that was memorable about the work-study portal was how otherwise unmemorable it was - the only time Riza used it was during the hours she had filled out the application to replace Olivier Armstrong as the rugby team’s Student Manager, painstakingly slow and with near-obsessive attention. While it wouldn’t be a stretch to say that her manager job was more intensive than the average work-study job (it would be the truth, to be honest), she thought it also wouldn’t be a stretch for the Dean’s Student Assistant to be a similar level of intensity, which was what made the lack of information on the posting particularly striking. 

Even the primary list of duties seemed bare-bones, picked over:

  • Supports overall daily management of the Dean's calendar, correspondence, file directory  
  • Records donor checks and maintains current donor files
  • Manages mail and replenishes office supplies
  • Upholds confidentiality agreement at all times.

It was like a premonition, the warmth in her throat and behind her eyes when something felt wrong, getting ready, as though she was preparing to spit fire when the threat arose.

“So let me get this straight,” Maria pushed up her long sleeves, folding her arms over her chest, “the Dean’s Office puts up a new job posting late last night and? Goes through all of the profiles of working students to find Riza and offer her the job during the nine o’clock block, first thing this morning? With a timeline like that, someone in that office has to be working some serious overtime.”

“Or they’re disorganized, and that’s what they need Riza for,” said Rebecca brusquely.

"I mean, she'd be good at it," Maria said, getting a nudge on Riza's side in on her elbow. 

Riza hummed something minor, quelling the heat in her gullet with an intake of cool air. “Here's what I know: someone named Randy Storch left the messages. I checked the school website and he's definitely a real person, and the Dean's current assistant now, but he's also ex-military -"

"Because that's always a good sign," Rebecca bit, not noticing, or rather, ignoring how Sheska looked at her puzzlingly.

"But always an organized sign," Riza continued. "Assuming he'd work as the supervisor to the position, I have doubts that office is being run any differently than it's ever been done that they'd suddenly need to create a new student position just to organize it all."

“About that,” Sheska took her phone back, fidgeting with the edge of the plastic case with her nail. “I tried to ask my supervisor about it, but she said she didn’t know a lot, just that they wanted to be exclusive about the new hire -"

“That’s fishy,” Rebecca shook her head, long curly hair bounding with each sway. “Why put the posting out at all if they were just going to call Riza in the morning?”

“I don't think we know for sure that Riza's the only one they called,” Maria ventured. "There's gotta be others, right?"

“Did she say anything else? Like how many people they might’ve tried to scout this morning?” Riza asked Sheska, almost feeling the loose end run out between her fingers before she could finish the question.

Sheska gave another shrug. “Nothing we didn't already know. Administration is going through some transitional stuff and the Dean would like another assistant.”

“What kind of transitional stuff?” Rebecca’s eyes narrowed, not asking so much as stating, Riza watched Maria’s face darken in a similar, telling way. “Did we not just wrap up some ‘transitional stuff’?”

“It could be plenty of things. Maybe Bradley’s on his way out? He’s kind of old, right?” asked Sheska, so innocently, so foolishly, but she wouldn’t know like they did. Sheska was a student in the first class that would go through all four years at Central State University as Central State University students, and not technical “transfers” between the new, state-funded CSU and the old Central Military Academy. She probably saw the school for what it was now, and she couldn’t be faulted for that. Maybe Sheska thought the military décor in the old buildings was funny, almost quirky, when juxtaposed with students like her and her friends going to classes hungover in sweatpants. Maybe she thought the staff who still came to work in uniform were over the top, or that the school’s overwhelming obsession with athletics was just how college was. She likely didn’t understand how much legal work had gone into making it seem, publicly, like CMA had been swallowed up by greater academic opportunities or the appeal of a regular college experience on student matriculation or literally anything that wasn’t the truth of the matter. She likely also didn’t understand the truth of the matter, which was that almost the entire old administration had been accused of laundering profound amounts of money from student scholarships and research grant funds before they’d been removed and tried. Almost the entire administration, save a few who’d been left out of the scheme, supposedly like Storch, supposedly like Bradley.

Students don’t go to school to distrust the institution giving them an education, but opportunities can be scarce, and double-edged in ways that might go unnoticed to the untrained eye. It was a truth more complicated than they had time to explain to Sheska, and more comfortable than Riza or Rebecca or Maria had ever intended to be with.

The cozy fall breeze dropped, just then, and wrapped a bit chillier around the nose.

“He just looks old because of the ‘stache and the eyepatch,” said Rebecca, heedlessly waving away Riza’s concerns with the flick of her wrist and her gossip-prone tone. “Don’t forget, he’s Solaris’s and Iggy’s older brother; he’s probably younger than he looks.”

In yet another instance of truth being stranger than fiction, stranger than Sheska or Riza being assistant to the Dean was last year’s stunning but ruthless valedictorian, Solaris, and this year’s voracious but dense Men’s Hockey Team star, Iggy, being, against all odds, blood siblings to the Dean.

“There’s a lot to unpack there, none of which matters to the point at hand,” Maria grimaced, turning to look Riza in the eye. “I already know the answer to this question, because I know you and what you’re like, but it’s worth asking: what’s the chance you applied to a new work-study position on accident?”

What was less than zero? She shrunk at the notion. "None. Leaving the team wasn't even something that crossed my mind."

Hayate circled between their feet, growing impatient with no one to pay him attention, to lend him a touch.

“That’s fair, I can’t imagine those boys without you," said Maria.

“Mustang would have a stroke," said Rebecca.

“He’d be fine," said Riza.

“So what?” Maria continued; the sun was close to setting now, and the four shadows they casted stretched long across the field. “This was all one big coincidence?”

“Or someone put up the posting to make it look less weird when they called her, because they want her specifically,” said Rebecca, the last of the golden light betraying more concern in her face than she could school in her tone.

“Well, whatever work they didn't put into making this all look legitimate will have been for nothing, since I'm not taking it to begin with," Riza said decidedly, leaning over to pick up Hayate, who curled into her neck and got comfortable against her collarbones, on top of her heartbeat. "I have a job. I'm busy. There's no reason for me to have been chosen over anyone else, and there's no reason it can't be any other student. I haven't done anything notably fantastic this year worth promoting me for, I'm not the only person who can be picky about details or solve problems on this campus, it's not like I have recommendations coming in from high place- "

The 's' on the end of 'places' spilled out between her teeth like steam with the return of familiar ache in her shoulder, pinching and hissing. Hayate's slight, furry frame felt heavy, suddenly, and the heat behind her eyes made her tired.

To be fair, it wasn’t as though she didn’t have friends in high places.

It’d be so like him, her mother’s father, to meddle when he decided it would be a good time, for him, personally, to meddle. She hated to go to her grandfather for anything and absolutely loathed when it had anything to do with her own - emphasis on her own - college career. Grumman had been tenured at this university before the name King Bradley meant anything to anyone, and despite having been a key player in transforming CMA to CSU, was by no means excluded from otherwise shady tactical maneuvers, like giving leg-ups to his favorite pawns, whether she’d asked for them or not. What was a little nepotism when most everyone thought you were just an eccentric and absurd old man at first glance? What was a little job recommendation for the granddaughter who didn’t trust you?

He’d had plenty of chances to help her when she needed it, but he'd missed out.

Before Riza folded in on the old knot in her back too quickly and before any of the other girls noticed she'd checked out and flown away, her phone had started to ring, the vibration from her pocket aggressive and demanding. All sets of eyes flicked to Riza's hip in an instant. “You don’t think it’s –“ a brisk shhhh cut off Sheska before she could end the thought, leaving Riza in silence to slide her hand into her pocket, grasp her phone, and check the number.

She exhaled, feeling foolish for having held her breath at all. It was Roy.

“Thanks for checking on this, Sheska, I appreciate you thinking of me,” Riza said, having now found the energy to shoot Sheska the warmest smile she could muster before she gestured to her phone, turning away to take the call with Hayate still in her arms.

 “Oh, oh sure,” Sheska seemed surprised to watch their investigation die without closure, but returned her smile anyway. Rebecca and Maria would catch her up, wrap up that conversation, appreciate her detective work, what have you; for now, the only thing Riza had to do was tap the green call button and say something.

“Hey.”

“Hi,” his mouth was full, he was probably talking through food. “Breda made chili, he wanted to know if you were going to want a bowl when you come home.”

When you come home. “Yeah, yeah,” she replied, perhaps too quickly. “Tell him I said thanks, tell him I appreciate it.”

“Sure,” Roy paused, to swallow, likely. “You okay?”

“Yes. Fine.” Surely it wasn’t that obvious.

“You sound anxious.” But he’d gotten good, almost too good, at telling.

“I’m okay,” she assured him, pulling Hayate in closer, as the fall winds seemed to tell her it was time to turn it in. “I’ll explain when I get back.” Back home.

“Alright, just don’t wear yourself out, okay?”

“Well, since you asked so nicely.”

A snicker. “I mean it, Hawkeye. I’ll see you soon?”

“Yeah.”

As soon as she hung up, Riza buried her face in Hayate's fur, and always a good boy, he even let her, and didn't squirm in her grasp to get a good lick on her nose.

She made a quick game plan on her way back to the spot her friends remained across the field. She’d call back Storch in the morning and thank him, but she’d have to decline, and she’d have no time to be convinced otherwise. Then she would call Grumman and set him straight, that if he didn’t like the kinds of things she was up to now, there were other ways to tell her. And then Riza would start her day, the incessant, singular movement of one activity after another, with the addition of rugby practice at six.

Sheska was delaying her turn to leave when Riza stepped back into the fold.

“Well, have a good workout!” She was navigating up the bleachers awfully slow, and blushing. “Fight hard? Or, you know, however you encourage each other?“

“You’re welcome to join us if you want,” Maria called, wrapping up her offer with a cheeky grin. In response, Sheska tripped over nothing, catching herself while her phone clattered on the metal steps.

“M-maybe some other time!” she promised, shrill, and was halfway up the bleachers before anyone could look twice.

Riza waved her off, suddenly looking forward to their next class together.

“You’re such a tease, Maria,” Rebecca scolded once Sheska was out of sight, colored by amusement.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Maria tsked, mischief suiting her sweet, boyish face. “She is cute though.”

“Ridiculous.”


Like anyone else, the boys of the Central State University Men’s Rugby Team wanted to be ambitious with a night off of practice – catch up on homework, get ahead on their remaining responsibilities for the upcoming week, maybe grab a few more hours of sleep - but what it really meant was what was predictably unfolding in their living room, Riza knew before she could even pull off her jacket and round the corner. Havoc and Breda would be bickering over The Game (you know, The Game, as opposed to Literally Any Other Game). Fuery would be running flashcards with his big headphones over his ears, Falman liked to swaddle himself under a blanket or two on the right side of the couch, with just his tired face sticking out of his makeshift hood, actually watching The Game Havoc and Breda would talk over. Roy, undoubtedly, would be half-snoring with some book or another over his eyes, draped over the opposite arm of their worn defeated couch, would unsettle himself once she took a seat in the rocking chair to his left and insist he hadn’t been asleep, not at all, how dare he be insulted like this in his own home

Hayate was unleashed before Riza kicked her shoes off, and he rounded the corner from the small, dark front entryway to the living room and was met with an enthralled chorus of greetings. One sneaker off, she could hear Havoc had already devolved into a baby voice for the goodest very best baby boyyyyy yesssss, two sneakers off, and someone had acquired Hayate’s rope, and from the sounds of it, had started a game of tug of war.

Jacket off now and hung neatly on her unspoken hook, Riza wouldn’t get to check her bets on the happenings at Headquarters. Stopping her in her tracks, again, was her phone going off once more. Specifically, a it was a phone call. A phone call from the Dean’s Office.

Riza stole a glance at her rocking chair sitting in the warm yellow light of the living room before she accepted the notification from the foyer.

“Hello?”

“Hello, Riza Hawkeye?”

“Yes.”

“This is Randy Storch, Assistant to the Dean, how are you this evening?”

The lights were off in the front entryway, in the hallway to the kitchen, but with the light leaking in from the living room she could still make out the numbers on the clock. 8:33.

“I’m fine, thanks.”

“Lovely.” Though he sounded far from it; Storch seemed as irritated as his messages had been. Impatient. Demanding. “I presume you got the messages I left regarding the position for Student Assistant to the Dean and called to check-in, see if you had any questions.”

Any questions? Any at all? Riza thought she had a few more than ‘any’, starting with Why are you calling me at this hour? and What did Grumman do to put you up to this?

“I did receive your messages, and thank you for calling back,” Riza said, invoking with great gratitude Rebecca’s customer service voice; she’d succeeded in her mimicry perhaps too well, watching out of the corner of her eye as Roy leaned over the couch armrest to spy, likely, who she was and what she’d done with the real Riza Hawkeye.

She waved weakly to him from where she stood, shifting her weight from foot to foot, back and forth, “I won’t waste your time with questions, as I won’t be taking the position, but I thank you for your consideration.”

Roy sat up like he’d been yanked by the collar, turning to mutter something to Falman beside him, Havoc at his feet, inciting no less than public outrage, surely.

Storch was no less perplexed. “You’re rejecting the posting?” he asked, in a way that Riza could identify quickly and harken back to her short-lived cadet days. You’re refusing orders?

“I’m more than satisfied with my current work-study position, I’m not interested in replacing it for any other opportunity,” she replied, flat.

Hell yeah.” It was Havoc, giving a poor attempt at a whisper. When Riza turned toward the living room once more, all of her roommates were on their feet, peering at her with great audience from behind the wooden frame, if also blocking the light.

“Miss Hawkeye, I cannot emphasize the significance of this phone call,” Storch stated emphatically. Close, she thought, to speaking through his teeth. Without warning, Riza felt three feet tall again, expecting the very worst. She'd be scolded, she'd told she was foolish. “Your current posting is not so different than what your responsibilities would be as a Student Administrative Assistant. Consider it as a stepping stone for bigger opportunities, such as being chosen to work directly under Dean Bradley.”

“Just a quick clarification question,” Riza snipped – mind the tone, mind the tone, “how is managing the Men’s Rugby Team like managing The Dean, if you wouldn't mind being specific?”

An “ooooooooooh shit” echoed behind her – that was probably Breda. Another, playfully inquisitive “Is Riza going to babysit the Dean?” – that was Fuery. “But who is going to babysit us?” – a dull delivery, but effective, was definitely Falman.

“In fact,” Riza continued, increasingly irritated before Storch could impose again, “I admit I’m perplexed as to how I was chosen for this opportunity, since I’ve given no interest in applying.”

Storch heaved, sighing with what sounded like his entire, angry chest. “Student employee reviews are accessible to administration, and the reviews you’ve received from your coaches have been glowing and made you a stand-out candidate Miss Hawkeye.”

So not Grumman? Or he’s keeping it hush at Grumman’s request. “I’m glad to hear it, but I still will have to decline, really. Thank you for call –“

“Is it about the money?” Storch cut her off, unrelenting and unwilling to take anything masked for a 'no'. “Your hourly rate, you’ll find, can be negotiable, and much, much more respectable than what you’re making now.”

“I’m not interested in payment, have a good night –“

“In case you change your mind –“

“Mr. Storch, please–“

“-this posting will be available through the end of the semester, as your employment will be most needed for work anticipated for the spring semester,” a snarl, or as professional as a snarl could stand. Riza stopped in place, focusing with her critical eye on the great vacuum that was the rest of their front hallway, so dark, maybe anything could be through the other side. For as many questions as she’d had, they’d only multiplied since picking up the phone. Was he serious, would they wait the whole semester only to coerce her again in December into taking the job? And what work were they anticipating that only she could do, that would warrant the bizarre timeline this last day had followed, the polite language masking an aggressive intent?

There was so much she wanted to know, but more than that, she knew what she didn’t want to do, and Riza had rather do anything than continue this conversation.

At that point, something grazed her foot and she jumped. It was just Hayate, pawing once more at her feet, looking up at her with his typical, all-knowing, dumb face.

“I’ll take some time to consider it,” said Riza. “Please have a good night.”

That had been enough. “Thank you, Miss Hawkeye. Dean Bradley and I look forward to hearing from you.” It took very little wrestling after that, but finally, Riza was able to end the call, tapping the off-button rather unceremoniously. One of the boys finessed a hand through the group to flip the hall light switch on, giving her a full, unshaded view of Headquarters’ most expectant residents.

“So,” Breda broke the silence first, clapping his hands together, “how do we all feel about chili, round dos? Dinner for the Lieutenant, seconds for anyone else?”

“Don’t threaten me with a good time,” Havoc replied, clapping a hand on Riza’s shoulder as she was caught up in a wave, carrying her, the rest of the boys, and their scattered affirmatives along the now-lit path to the kitchen. At one point or another, be it because of the narrow hall or not but lasting a little too long, Roy’s shoulder pressed into hers.

“What was that?” he had asked firmly, taking the seat beside her at the creaky wooden table.

The hum of the microwave, the soft scratch of socks across tile, the smell of onion and cumin and pepper, and Roy, speaking almost exactly as she read him – What the hell was that? is what he meant.

“I think Grumman tried to get me a job in the Dean’s Office. They’ve been relentless today.” And I'm tired, of him and of the calls.

“Why would he do that?” I mean, I know why he would do that, I just don't know what business he'd have in the Dean's Office that he needed you wrapped up in too.

“He likes to think he’s helpful,” Riza shrugged. He's my grandfather, I'm wrapped up in his business whether I want to be or not.

“Helpful to who? I – what even – you – he – “ Roy sputtered, short-circuiting, talking with his hands as if he moved them enough, he might be able to communicate with her. He sighed, simmering down long enough to collect his thoughts. “I mean, it sounds like a great opportunity, if you’re thinking about taking it, you know, congratulations -”

“I’m not taking the job.”

“Great. So on that note, what the hell?” Roy’s voice rose in pitch as he continued, ignoring Havoc’s snort, laughing at him. “The season hasn’t even started yet, what would we even start to do without you?”

The beat of silence that followed probably went unnoticed to everyone else; Roy cleared his throat, his baritone back to normal. “Er – doesn’t Grumman understand how much paperwork would get rerouted to me if we didn’t have a manager? Hard pass.”

“Yeah, because that’s the only problem with this scenario,” Fuery butted in with a grin from where he was perched on their old laminate countertops.

I think you’re a valuable member of this team, Hawkeye,” Breda announced, carefully placing a big red bowl of chili in front of her, followed by a half-eaten package of saltines. “Unlike some people.”

“Okay, not what I said –“

“No, no, he’s got a point,” Havoc held up his hands as though to give in, the corner of his mouth that usually held a cigarette twitching something waggish, “the Colonel’s paper allergies are top priority against a nothing job for the Dean, that probably offers nothing of worth other than better pay, hours, prestige –“

“But we wouldn’t get anything done if Hawkeye left us, it’s no joke,” Falman offered, standing against the wall, patchwork blanket still wrapped around his head like a hood. “Who would keep Darius from ordering only grape Gatorade?”

Riza blew the steam rising from the top of the bowl in front of her. “I’m not going anywhere,” she interjected, loudly.

“I mean, if the Dean put in a special order – “ Havoc started, ever-willing to play the scamp if only to get a rise out of their respected and feared Captain.

Roy cut him off quickly. “This isn’t a military school anymore, an offer isn’t an order –“

“Who cares about the Dean? Money is, after all, king,” said Breda.

“You’d still be honorary rugby family, we couldn’t emotionally replace you, Lieutenant,” Fuery was sweet, even when he was teasing, “even if we’d have to find some other underclassman to abuse and under-pay.”

“You all make a much more convincing case for her to leave than whoever was on the phone,” Falman observed.

“Whatever, over my dead body,” said Roy, crossing his arms in a dictionary definition image of stubbornness. “Or at least until I graduate in the spring. Whichever comes first, I guess.”

“Graduation or death,” Riza raised the spoon to her lips; it was still a bit hot, but she took the bite anyway. “Decent odds, as far as job security goes.”

That got a good laugh out of the group, Roy included, who in relenting his indignant, jealous pout, kicked Riza’s foot under the table, intentionally, unintentionally, and still too warm.