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Nobody's Perfect

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"Eat up, Beck," fusses her mom. She always does this, any time anyone's hurt, any time she's worried: if you feed people, seems to be the Catalina parental motto, things will work out all right. "You want a full stomach for the day, don't you? You can't do anything when you're hungry."

"I'm eating, Mom." Becky -- no, Rebecca, she's decided to be Rebecca at the Academy so she sounds more grown-up -- forces a smile. They're both trying to reassure each other that everything's fine, that Rebecca isn't nervous at all. "It's good."

Her seat vibrates with the steady rhythm of the train's engine. Every time she rides a train, Becky feels as if she's riding into the future. Right now, though, it's making it hard to choke down even her mom's good chicken cacciatore. "Okay," says her mom, and pats Becky's hand with a too-bright smile. "I just want you to feel comfortable your first day. Who knows how long it'll be till you get good home cooking. Your brother always said nothing at the Academy was as good as mine."

Becky-- Rebecca has heard this a dozen times. Davy, in her opinion, is less a gourmet than someone who knows how to sweet-talk his mother. "It'll be fine," she says, and hopes she's not lying to them both. Firmly: "Just because you're a better cook than anybody they've got doesn't mean it's bad. You're the best cook in West Argon. That's an unfair advantage, Mom."

Her mother laughs, but she's pleased. Rebecca can tell. "I'll send you care packages, kiddo."

Rebecca grins at her, as bright and confident as she can. "You do that. I'll use 'em to bribe my squad into whatever I want." She buffs her nails against her shoulder, exaggeratedly carefree, and is gratified by her mother's snicker. "Buncha boys, good food'll talk them into electing me queen of Amestris."

Acceptance Day is familiar from Davy's ceremony four years ago. Rebecca's mother is the only one who came to the Central Academy with her, but Davy was the oldest child and the first to join up, and Mr Heimrich who used to live next door was free to watch the store for them. The whole family came, that time.

It's different to be on the field, though. Up in the bleachers, somewhere lost in the mass of proud parents, her mom is cheering wildly, and probably bawling too. Rebecca remembers the feel of those blue-painted wooden benches, in a distant way, but it's hard to remember what it was like to stare down at the field of regimented recruits. She remembers marveling that the huge square of blue-uniformed bodies was somehow already marching in formation like professional soldiers, and trying to pick Davy out from the crowd.

It feels sloppier down here. She feels like she's scrambling to stay even with the guys to either side, the ones in front and behind, and she's never in formation with all of them at once, and there's sweat trickling down the inside of her scratchy collar. Her hair, newly chopped to a fuzzy cloud, is sticking to her forehead inside her cap. She hardly has attention to spare to look for her mom; she's afraid she'll miss a direction, or get caught up in gawking and homesickness and be the one to make the formation go wrong.

She's a soldier now.

She's a cadet. Cadet Catalina, sir.

"'Teeeeeeenshuuun!" bellows the head cadet, and Rebecca salutes with the rest, as crisp as she can.

They issue her a stiff brown card along with her rucksack and her bed linens and her uniforms (gray PT gear, daily blues, formal blues she won't wear for months yet, black boots stiff with polish). On the card in someone's private school handwriting is her rooming assignment: Catalina, R. Dorm A, room 29, rack B. Roommate: Hawkeye, R.

Another Rebecca? she wonders. Surely not; that would be too confusing. Rivera, or Rachel, or -- "Did you have a question, greenie?" snaps the senior handing out cards.

"No, sir!" she gulps, and nearly drops her entire kit trying to salute.

Senior Cadet Vasiliev makes her do it again, and shout No, sir! three times until he judges her to have proper military bearing. "Dismissed, greenie," he finally growls, and she flees.

She has half an hour to get her kit settled, change into daily blues (version Alpha, whatever that means), and get over to Classroom 154 for more orientation, and she's already lost two minutes to Senior Cadet Vasiliev's stupid salute practice. To add insult to injury, she gets lost on the way to Dorm A -- not badly lost, and not for long, but she can feel the seconds ticking away in her head. She bursts into Room 29 in a muddle of gear to find her roommate already making her own bed. Hawkeye, R. is a short-haired girl about her own age, blond like half of Amestris, who greets Rebecca's untidy entrance with a startled look. "Hi," gasps Rebecca without stopping, but she's too slow. One boot, already teetering precariously, topples from the stack just before Rebecca manages to dump the rest on the bare mattress. "Oh, damn it," Rebecca groans, and flops down onto the one empty corner of her bed.

Hawkeye, R. looks as if she's trying not to laugh.

Rebecca briefly considers being offended -- it's been a very long day already, and she's pretty sure the rest of today is going to be full of more running and being yelled at and getting confused by all the military terms Davy never taught her and being yelled at some more -- but she has to admit that it is funny. In Cadet Hawkeye's place, she'd be stifling her laughter a lot less successfully.

"Just a minute," the other girl says to her bed. Her expression is firmly under control again, but there's humor still in her voice, deep and quiet. Rebecca peers at her with suspicion; her little brother Garth has taught her that you've got to watch the quiet ones. "Let me finish with my bed, and I'll come help with yours while you put your kit away."

"Hey, you don't need to do that." Hawkeye darts a quick, unreadable glance at her. Is she going to be the kind of person who thinks she has to let everybody walk all over her so they like her? Rebecca hopes not -- that's annoying, for one thing, and no way to get through the army, for another. "You didn't get here that much earlier, did you? We've both gotta get changed." The other cadet's piles of kit are tidier, and some of it's put away in her own little wardrobe, but not everything. Rebecca levers herself up with a dramatic oof. "You can help me figure out this version Alpha thing, though."

That gets another quick glance. Hawkeye, R. already seems to be big on those. Maybe she's just shy, though. "It's in the rulebook," she says. "First section."

Rebecca, halfway to retrieving her errant boot, stops to blink at her. "You read that already?" They just got it, issued right before all the armfuls of uniform fabric.

Hawkeye shrugs self-consciously. "Not really. I just skimmed through. I wanted to make sure I was doing things right."

Rebecca laughs, surprising even herself. "You're gonna be a good influence, roomie." Rebecca wouldn't be joining the military if she minded rules and regulations and arbitrary jargon, but she wasn't planning to read through the rulebook in her first half-hour, either. At least she has the consolation that Hawkeye's bed-making is tidy but not military-trim; she's going to get dinged on those sloppy corners unless Rebecca shows her what Davy drilled her on last summer. Rebecca may be a sweaty, rushed mess right now, but her roommate's not perfect. She offers a hand. "I'm B-- Rebecca."

Hawkeye leans over her bed to clasp it firmly, balancing herself with her left hand on the headboard so she won't mess her crisp sheets. "Rebecca," she repeats, showing that she definitely caught that abortive 'Becky,' and Rebecca gets the first smile she's seen from Cadet Hawkeye. It's small, and doesn't change the guarded look in her eyes. Definitely shy. "I'm Riza."

"Good to meet you," Rebecca says, with a grin. And then, catching sight of the clock, "Oh man we've gotta hurry, crap!"

After orientation -- the main gist of which, aside from the Army Code, seems to be that they are weak worms who will be molded into the pride of Amestris, and also they can expect a lot of history classes after boot camp -- their squad meets up for the first time. Dorm A, Rooms 26-30: eight greenies, and their senior cadet leader, Cadet Michael Harris. Senior Cadet Harris grills them on their life stories and why they joined up, while he makes them all scrub down and re-polish their boots.

Nick Northman, tall and rangy and splotched with freckles, from a tiny town in the southeast. Urey Maximilian, with a face like an apologetic hound dog, a military brat from Central. Rebecca's pretty sure, from what he says, that he's in the army academy because it genuinely never occurred to him to do anything else with his life. (She's pretty sure Nick joined because there's nothing to do in a tiny isolated town like his but get out while you can, and the army's a good way to do that -- but then, Rebecca's a city girl and proud of it.) Jerik Baraki, part-Ishvalan from his face and name -- a rarity in Amestris, let alone the military, especially with the conflict there ramping up. There've even been rumors of a purge on Ishvalan soldiers who haven't proved their loyalty. Jerik shrugs after he names himself, jaw in a defensive jut, and doesn't say anything about Ishval, and no one wants to ask; all he says is that he grew up in Central, and he wants to be an officer to make a man of himself like the recruitment posters say. (Senior Cadet Harris gives him a jaundiced eye, but doesn't give him a hard time about it. Rebecca can think of a few possible reasons, and wonders which one's true.)

Isaac Morrone, and Rebecca thinks idly that she'll eat her hat if he's not from the same kind of Aerugan immigrant family as her. He's gone to not just high school but two years of engineering school, though, which means either he's some kind of genius or his family has way more money than hers, or maybe both. "I wanted to do more than just work at some company trying to make more and more money for my bosses, y'know?" he says awkwardly, while his squadmates scrub black suds from their boots. "So I signed on to try to give back to the nation instead. I'd rather serve Fuhrer Bradley than some Mr. Smith somewhere."

Johnny Ahrendt and Hans Schwartzkopf are more military kids: Johnny's parents met serving in West City, he says, though he and his brothers weren't born until after they'd mustered out. (Rebecca's romantic heart flutters just a little at this story. She doesn't dare tell anybody she's hoping to meet a cute guy in the military -- that's for later, not boot camp, or they'll think she's some stars-chaser instead of the serious cadet she wants to be -- but she's sick of all the wimpy boys of West Argon. Intra-squad romance, while officially discouraged, is the stuff of dozens of romantic films, and Rebecca avidly watched every one she had the cenz to go to.) Hans Schwartzkopf's mother is the less romantic version of this, she gathers, from what Hans does and doesn't say: she was a sergeant and switchboard operator until she had him, which means she got discharged for pregnancy. He's broad-shouldered and broad-faced and earnest, and he explains that he wants to see the country, and not be just another farm kid.

Riza Hawkeye speaks quietly, but without any visible insecurity. She's from Freiburg in the northwest, she says; she went to high school, then enlisted after her father died. (Nothing about a mother. Rebecca wonders why, but it's not the time to ask. Maybe they don't get along.) She wants to help the people of Amestris, she says, and the army seems the best way to do so. She wants to make a difference to the world. Harris grunts, and moves on to Rebecca.

Rebecca grins at them all, because nobody said that being military means you have to be serious all the time, and tells them her name, and where she came from, and about her brother Davy. She's here, she says, because she wants to make something of herself.

It's true, of course. It's also true that there's no job in the country that gives you as many benefits and pays for your education (even if the military tells you what education it's paying for you to have) and lets you see so much of Amestris over a career, but she doesn't want to sound mercenary by mentioning that. It's everybody's shared polite secret, she's sure. Nobody joins up just for idealism.

On the second day, after a godawful early reveille and a godawful PT run, comes a breakfast so full of incomprehensible snapped rules -- fork at this angle, knife at that angle, bits no more than one inch square, chew that bite and swallow before you cut another, greenie, do you wanna look like you were raised in a barn -- that even though she's starving, Rebecca barely finishes half of her ham and toast before the clean-up bell rings. She wants to cry, or yell, or hit someone -- she's hungry, damn it! -- but everyone else is in the same boat, and she's not going to be the one to break. She sets her jaw, and follows Riza out of the hall.

Riza was the only one of them to manage almost all her plate, which is so unfair it makes Rebecca want to hit something even more, especially because she can't honestly blame Riza for having better manners than her. Or better precision, or a better native ability to follow a dozen stupid and arbitrary instructions at once, or something. It's Rebecca's own fault she's still hungry. But she wanted that ham.

By the end of the second day, Rebecca's seesawed every five minutes, it feels like, between liking her roommate and hating her. It's not that Riza's good at everything, because she's not. She's not afraid to work hard, but she's clearly never done this amount of physical labor before – well, Rebecca hasn't either, but she thinks she's probably done more in the way of running miles and tussling with brothers than Riza. And she's definitely learned more about the army than Riza, who didn't know any of the slang at all before this. Riza's not a perfect cadet, effortlessly showing them all up. None of them are, but the best contenders are Maximilian and Arendt; they're the most athletic, and the ones who seem to have gotten the most tips from parents or friends.

She's not a terrible roommate, either. She's tidy enough -- the senior cadets yell at them about inspection, but that's Rebecca's fault too, and mostly it's the fact that they yell if anything is a centimeter awry, even if they haven't told you how it's supposed to go. So far, she's bleary-eyed in the morning but she got up at reveille anyway, and didn't hog the shower or anything. She's quieter than Rebecca's little sister Ingrid, the only person Rebecca's shared a room with before, and if it's hard to get used to a different room and different pillows and a different body breathing in the other bed, that's not Riza's fault. She's got this weird habit of changing her shirt while facing Rebecca -- back to the wall, not even turning a little -- and it's as if she's trying to have no body shyness, except that she blushes every time, so that one's clearly a work in progress. But hey, whatever. There are worse things in a roommate than a couple of awkward quirks, and Rebecca guesses some of them will smooth out over time anyway. She's probably got a couple of her own so far as Riza's concerned, especially since Riza said she doesn't have any brothers or sisters so she's probably never even shared a room with anyone before.

No, the problem is just that Riza never complains. She has to get frustrated, Rebecca tells herself, she has to, because she's presumably a human being like the rest of them. But she never shows it. She messes up, or she gets jargon wrong -- they all do, because the senior cadets don't explain half of it until somebody's guessed wrong -- or the meal bell rings when she's half done with her food, and she just nods silently and says "Yes, sir," like they're supposed to, and does it over again. Even when Senior Cadet Harris is yelling, or she's doing it for the fifth time, or it's something stupid and pointless, she does whatever it is calmly and respectfully, and you can see that she's doing her best to do it perfectly.

That's exactly what they're supposed to do, and it's driving Rebecca crazy.

The first night was fine. Rebecca was torn between exhaustion and anticipation; the academy will be hard, she knew that from the start, but she'll be part of things, and boot camp will shape her into a real soldier. She spent that first night excited to learn and sure she'd never get to sleep, right up until the minute her head hit the pillow. When she opened her eyes again it was dawn, and reveille was blasting through the dorm.

The second night, she drops onto her bed, and tears prick at her eyes. Startled, she forces them back. She's not lonely. She's just adjusting, that's all.

The third night, and the fourth, she's swamped with such a wave of homesick misery that she cries in the darkness, trying desperately to keep her breathing even so Riza won't hear. She wants her mom -- she wants her stupid whiny siblings -- she wants her dad to ruffle her hair, she wants a real Aerugan dinner with her mom's white bean soup instead of quiche three days running, she wants to sleep in her own bed with her stupid babyish stuffed animals around her. This is the most childish and awful she's felt in years, and she can't stop it. There's snot on her face and cold puddles of tears in her ears, and all she can do is try to keep her roommate -- her stupid friendly self-controlled roommate, who's apparently on some private quest to be the perfect soldier from boot camp on, who probably never cries in her sleep, or at least never snuffles away like this -- from realizing.

Riza probably does hear, but she never says a word. Rebecca can't decide if she's irritated or grateful.

She'd hoped for marksmanship tests at some point during boot camp. Davy showed her how to shoot a gun, a few years back, and she wheedled him into taking her to a firing range every time he came home on leave. She loves the feel of that compact machine in her hands, the way even someone small like her younger self could learn to keep it steady and fight the kickback and punch holes in a target from yards and yards away. She'll do well, she's sure of it. But it seems she won't get to prove that for a good while yet. Senior Cadet Harris starts them off on rough wooden replicas of rifles. He makes them shoulder their rifles, swing them down, swing them up into position, then back to the shoulder: over and over again, yelling corrections and insults.

Riza fumbles her rifle, jerks it back into position, takes Harris's come on, butterfingers, are you shooting or juggling? without changing expression and tries again. Rebecca doesn't dare watch directly, lest she mess up herself, but out of the corner of her eye she can see her roommate's blond brows drawn down in a small, intent frown of concentration.

Part of Rebecca wonders quietly what Riza really wants in the military. What's so worth it that she doesn't even blink at a yelling senior cadet? It can't just be idealism -- no one's that fiercely, all-encompassingly idealistic. What were her other options, or what's her ambition, that it's worth this?

But mostly, she ignores that little voice, because she's tired and she's angry and there are five blisters on her feet and a burning knot in her shoulders that flares every single time she swings this stupid wooden rifle around, and Harris is yelling Come on, Catalina, we're not here to make daisy chains and she wants to yell back more than anything, she wants to swing this damn fake rifle at his damn yelling face and see if he calls it daisy chains, and all she's allowed to say is "Yes, sir!" and do the drill all over again, and her stupid roommate looks ready to do this fifty more times. None of them are perfect, all of them are tired, all of them have to say "Yes, sir!" and "Thank you, sir!" and do what they're told, but Hawkeye's perfect thank-you-sir-may-I-have-another attitude is making Rebecca want to scream. Especially every time Rebecca messes up, which is a lot.

The next time they have any time to themselves is before dinner, when they're supposed to be studying the Army Code of Conduct and writing postcards home. Rebecca's managed a chipper everything's-going-great! message, and is trying to figure out what else she can honestly say that won't make her mom fret that her poor baby's being mistreated. To distract herself, she says, "Hey, Riza?"

Riza looks up from her own postcard. From this angle, it looks like it's mostly blank still, but Rebecca can't see well enough to be really sure.

She's also not sure what exactly she wanted to ask. She was figuring she'd work it out as she said it, but nothing's coming. What's your deal, anyway? is way too rude. And writing your mom or what? is not only prying but not really any kind of segue into what Rebecca wants to know. (What she wants to know is, basically, what's your deal, anyway?) "Harris sure was a jerk about that shoulder-arms thing, huh?" She says it low, just in case he's passing by, but the door's closed so she's not too worried.

Riza shrugs. "He's doing his job, I guess," she says.

In Rebecca's opinion, this is just ridiculous, in terms of giving the benefit of the doubt to a superior officer. You're polite to their faces, but if she's learned anything from Davy and his buddies, it's that griping about your bastard superiors when they're not around to hear you is a proud army tradition. Riza Hawkeye needs to learn this tradition fast, she thinks. "I guess," she says, dubiously. "Doesn't make him not a jerk. I thought my arms were gonna fall off!"

Riza glances at her with -- of all things -- a faint, sidelong smile. "I would have been okay with more practice," she admits.

Rebecca stares at her, lost for words at this new height of idiocy, and Riza shrugs again, more awkwardly.

"I mean -- it wasn't fun," she says, which is all that stops Rebecca from deciding her roommate is a genuine victim of drilling-induced insanity. "He is a jerk. But I wasn't doing it right. Even at the end, I didn't have it smooth like Maximilian."

"I didn't even notice Maximilian. I was too busy trying to keep my arms attached to my body after the fiftieth--" Rebecca pitches her voice low in imitation of Harris's bellow, "aaaaaaarms-up!"

Riza makes a face. It's a very slight face, especially compared to the ones Rebecca's been pulling all conversation (and, to be honest, pulls every conversation she has), but at this point Rebecca is clutching at straws to find evidence that her roommate isn't some sort of boot camp masochist, and even a faint wry expression is reassuring. "I really only noticed until about the twentieth," she admits.

Rebecca points her pen at her. "After we've gotten through this, and covered ourselves with glory and honor and survival, and we get a day's liberty for being awesome--" she ignores the dry look Riza gives her "--I am taking you to a club or something, roomie. You need to learn to have fun."

She expects Riza to earnestly explain that she thinks it is fun to drill herself into the ground and follow it up by reading the rulebook until she's too exhausted to turn the pages. Rebecca is entirely prepared to yell back, because it's that or storm out and have a cry in the bathroom over the fact that boot camp is apparently designed to teach you that you're an idiot who can't do anything right, and having Miss Determined To Be Perfect as a roommate isn't helping matters, and Rebecca absolutely refuses to give stupid Senior Cadet Harris the victory of making her cry. They're the only two women in this squad, and they have to stick together. Perfect Cadet Riza Hawkeye is going to be Rebecca's accomplice in hanging onto self-esteem and a sense of fun whether she likes it or not.

What she gets, instead of that earnest explanation, is a startled look, and then a very small smile. The honest, shy pleasure in it takes the wind entirely out of Rebecca's sails.

"I'm not very good at that," Riza says.

Okay, Rebecca thinks. Okay. Riza Hawkeye's a human being after all -- this, she can work with. "You sure aren't," she says, and grins back with a sudden burst of affection. In her head, she writes Project Teach Riza Hawkeye How To Have Fun on a piece of paper, and tacks it up on the wall. If this weren't boot camp, she'd do it for real. Maybe draw on some stars or something, too. "It's okay, though. I'm a real good teacher."