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Good Soldiers

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When the cadets got their orders, which were in every way the orders they had expected, Jason Kittinger insisted that they get together and kill a bottle of very expensive whiskey. "I've been saving this for a special occasion," he said, reaching up to pour the last drop into Riza's glass. She sat on the sofa and Kitt, who had moved onto the floor to pour drinks from the coffee table, draped one arm over her knee to support himself. Gesturing emphatically with his free hand, he declaimed, "Let's all drink to the Amestrian Army. Travel the world, see interesting people, and kill them."

By this time, it was just the four of them: Riza and Rebecca, Kitt and his roommate Joey Brewster. They sprawled out in the girls' apartment, the place their little cohort usually met. Becca had talked the landlord into a sweet deal on a spacious flat, which was great for casual parties. Also, when everybody else filtered out for the night, Kitt could act like he was going to be along right after them, then spend the night in Riza's bed instead. It had started as a subterfuge and continued long after it was clear that nobody actually gave a shit.

"If you think they're sending you to Ishbal to kill people, Kittinger," Joey said, "You may be overestimating the lethal force of your translation skills."

"You've got it, Joseph. They're going to have us intercepting communications about rebel movements so that we can track them down when we need to deliver flowers."

"Or keep them from blowing up our people," Becca interjected. "That last train station bombing was ten kilometers from where my parents live. We're fighting them there so we don't have to fight them here."

"They wouldn't be fighting us here," Kitt answered, "if we would mind our own damn business in Ishbal. Am I the only one who remembers this started because we shot a kid?"

"I didn't shoot anyone," Becca said.

"And that kid didn't blow up a train station. We could run through retributive justice as a justification for war back to the beginning of time. That's not the goddamn point." He was shaking by now, practically vibrating against Riza's leg.

"Kitt. . ." Riza squeezed his shoulder, and he raised his eyes, a puzzled look on his face. "Calm down, okay?"

Joey laughed. "Don't go assuming Hawkeye agrees with you about everything, just because she lets you put your face on her thigh."

Kitt started to pull away, but Riza slid her fingers into his thick, sandy hair, and angled his head back toward her. She gave Joey a meaningful look to say that she was perfectly fine with Kittinger's cheek resting just where it was. That was true. It felt very good, and gave her interesting thoughts for later. Her experience of going to bed with a drunk Kitt -- admittedly limited; this was only the third or fourth time in two years that she'd known him to overindulge -- suggested she wasn't getting anything else out of him. But he had a very nice mouth.

"I don't want you to get worked up." Riza ruffled his hair. "You've had too much to drink and this won't accomplish anything." She thought she was done but the others were all looking at her, and she realized she was supposed to say something. Maybe they were waiting for her to figure out the secret to world peace. "You knew what you were signing up for. We all did. We'll spend a few months in the combat zone. You'll get some practical experience with your language skills."

He rolled his head back on her knee and looked at her with hazy blue eyes. "Well said. Flawlessly reasoned. What kind of practical experience will you be getting, I wonder?" In case anyone hadn't understood the implications for Riza's rifle specialty, he stretched out his arm, sighted down it, and made a 'psshew' 'psshew' sound, like the whistle of bullets.

Joey stood up. "All righty now, Kitten." Putting a hand on his friend's shoulder, he looked apologetically at Riza. "You are wasted, and I'd better get you home so the girls don't have to deal with you."

"Ahh, no." Kitt resisted, leaning back into Riza's leg. He raised his eyes to her in appeal.

"It's okay, Joe," Riza said. "I appreciate it, but we can take care of him."

"You heard the lady," said Kitt. "She can take care of me. Besides, doesn't Mercedes get in on the train tomorrow morning? You're going to want the place to yourselves."

"She does, and we will. Very well, then." Joey made a mock-formal bow to Becca. "Thank you for the hospitality." He repeated the gesture to Riza and said, "My best friend is a traitor and a sloppy drunk, and I wish you joy of him."

Kitt raised his hand in what started as a salute and turned into a middle finger. Joey, laughing, flipped the bird behind his back and headed out the door.

When he was gone, Riza sighed. "Kittinger, Kittinger. What are we going to do with your subversive ass?"

He waggled his eyebrows in the manner of a famous Cretan film comedian and said, "I have a few suggestions."

"Get a rooooooom," moaned Becca, now facedown on the chaise lounge.

Riza touched the top of Kitt's spine and walked her fingers down the tense, knotted muscles. "Becca's got an idea there. Adjourn to the bedroom."

When Kitt turned to look at Riza, she melted a little under the force of that smile.

*

Riza had met Kitt at the start of her second year at Eastern Academy in New Optain. She persisted in thinking of it like that, even though she must have met him in their first semester. He remembered meeting her, certainly, and their cohort wasn't all that large. But she had spent that year overwhelmed with the demands of classwork and drills. Room placement with the outgoing Becca had saved her from total isolation. On the rare occasions Riza had been talked into taking an evening off, she went with Becca to the movies or civilian bars in the city.

All this kept her from knowing the rest of her class very well. All this, and having a months-long affair with her marksmanship instructor. Tommy Ames was a captain, a combat veteran with two Ishbal tours already behind him, and a first-class dickhead. Riza knew this last part, and not just retroactively, not just because Becca kept telling her, not even just because he'd been busted down to first lieutenant and sent back to Ishbal due to a critical mass of complaints from female trainees. (Not from Riza. Whenever she had considered complaining, Riza had thought of how willingly she'd gone along with his suggestions, how he'd gotten her to the point of chasing after him, most of the time.)

Tommy was a manipulative bully with no trace of human sympathy, and Riza knew this when she was fucking him -- knew this before she ever fucked him -- but that was simple enough in its way. Like with the Army, you got what you signed on for. When submission and compliance failed to result in affection or compassion from the other party, you had no grounds for complaint.

Riza let Tommy have not only her virginity but plenty more besides, and she thought she understood what she was getting and not getting in the bargain. It was only when he was gone that she realized how much she had missed because of him. She'd been so absorbed in seeing him, or avoiding him, or thinking about what he would do next or working just as hard on not thinking about what he'd do -- with the affair taking up the attention that wasn't required by drills or by academic work, she had missed huge parts of what should have been her life. At the start of second year, she could count on one hand the fellow cadets she'd exchanged more than a dozen words with outside of a classroom.

Vowing to be different, vowing to be better -- if only because, after all, it was the spirit of the corps that was supposed to keep you alive in wartime -- she had agreed to go with Becca to Joey Brewster's back-to-school party. That night started to change things for Riza, centering her in a solid group of friends that would stay with her throughout her time at the Academy.

And there'd been Kitt. She would never be sure how she had managed to get through her first year without noticing him. He was good-looking in a slim, refined way that stood out from the broad-shouldered paragons of military fitness that you bumped into every ten feet. He wasn't exactly outspoken, in normal circumstances, but then, neither was she. Still, he could cite a couple of class discussions that she distinctly remembered being part of. But when they had really talked for the first time, at Joey's party -- a casual, pleasant, buzzed-but-not-drunk conversation -- Riza was too embarrassed to admit she didn't know exactly who the other cadet was.

Her inability to place him didn't seem important, at first. They were just having a friendly chat, and Riza was less caught up in him, particularly, than in the idea that she didn't have to suck at dealing with people.

Then, he looked around to see that they had the room to themselves. They'd come up to Joey's parents’ guest room, with a group, to listen to records, and everyone else had drifted off. He turned to her just as she was noticing they were alone. "I have to say this," he told her. "I will hate myself if I don't say this. I see you in class, I see you in drills, I never see you at something like this, so I'll hate myself forever if I don't take the chance to tell you. I think that you are the most amazing woman I have ever met."

She realized, at that point, there was never going to be a good opportunity to ask him his name.

Instead, she let him kiss her. She kissed him back, even though she half believed he was pulling some kind of bullshit scam to get just that result. It was enough, right then, that he remembered some random thing she'd said in class two months ago, that he believed she would like for someone to tell her that she was amazing. They kissed for a while, and did more than kiss -- though not much more, because either he was a bullshit artist in which case, forget him, or he was sincere in which case he'd probably be terrible in bed, and she'd have to look into his sincere face and pretend that he hadn't been.

Riza stood up and said, "That's probably enough for now." She looked and saw his fatigue jacket on the back of a chair, with his last name, KITTINGER, stenciled on the pocket. "Kitt," she said in relief. Joey's roommate from the dorms. She knew this. "You – you like that nickname? That's what you go by?"

"Sure," he said. "Nobody calls me Jason."

Riza's fingers kept running up the front of her blouse, to make sure the buttons were done, even after she assured herself they were. "I'm going to have to take some time and think about this, Kitt."

"However long you need."

But there wasn't all that much to think about. Relationships between opposite-sex cadets of the same level weren't forbidden by regulation – not in the way that, say, a captain screwing a first-year cadet who was also his student was forbidden. There was supposedly a social code under which dating within the class was simply not done, but what the code actually seemed to be was it was done all the time and simply not discussed. A relationship you didn't have to discuss with anyone sounded just about perfect to Riza.

After what felt like a long time, but was only a few weeks when she went back to count, they went to bed together. Despite the odd combination of adoration, gratitude, and apology that counted as seduction with Kitt, the sex turned out to be very nice. The third time he slept over, she got all the way undressed, lay down on her side, and let him take a full look at her back.

He kissed her skin between the shoulder blades, and ran the soft pads of his fingers over the intricate lines of ink. "Did you do this design?" he asked, with awe in his voice. It was the last question she had expected. Tommy had seen her tattoos and demanded, "What's all this shit?" before he laughed and dug his fingernails into them. After that, he liked to fuck her from behind because, he said, he was a great appreciator of the visual arts.

"Most definitely not my design." Riza wasn't quite able to keep the edge out of her voice. This was on her body, she would have to deal with it. Well done, Father, she thought. Any man I go to bed with for long enough, we'll end up having a conversation that you started. Thank you for that.

Kitt, too wrapped up in his exploration to gauge her tone, kept touching the work, and praising it. The articulation, the sharpness, the attention to detail. "Just the craft of it," he said. "I don't know who did your ink, but this was somebody's labor of love."

Love. She wanted to laugh at the irony, but then his arm tightened around the front of her body, and she realized it wasn't her tattoos that he wanted to talk about. "I love you, Riza Hawkeye," he said, then, for the first time.

It took her months to say it back to him. She tested the words out to see how right they felt. She liked the feeling, it turned out.

By the time the cadets got their deployment orders, Kitt and Riza had been together for a year and a half.

*
Kitt's arm stretched across Riza's ribcage, a comforting weight against the rapid rise and fall of her chest. His late-night stubble scratched her bare shoulder as he rested his cheek there, and turned his mouth toward her ear. "Sometimes," he said, "I'm not sure if you're on my side."

Riza had trouble gasping out a reply. Her breath was still heavy with the climax echoing through her body. What she wanted to say was, Do we have to talk about this now? Instead, her breathlessness lent an unintended, but useful, post-coital purr to her voice. "After that? Any woman would walk across hot coals for a man who can do that."

"Heh." The sound Kitt made wasn't quite a laugh, and he looked as though he didn't know whether to be gratified or embarrassed. He had, as Riza guessed before they went to bed, been too drunk to get a useful erection. Not that she'd tried to help him for very long, before coaxing him to work on her with his fingers, then his mouth, then his fingers again. It really had been a great orgasm, but she decided not to press that point too much. He might get his feelings hurt and decide that she secretly didn't like him to fuck her.

To tell the truth (which, God knew, she wasn't going to do), it hadn't been particularly great for her, lately. But that wasn't him. It was more that she was too worn out to meet him halfway. That wasn't his fault, although she sometimes wondered how disengaged she would have to be from their lovemaking before he took notice. On the other hand, in their early months together, he had kept asking if everything was working for her, so much that she had to beg him to stop. If it isn't working, I'll tell you, she’d promised. It wasn't his fault she hadn't followed through. There was no easy fix for any of this, short of actual telepathy, and anyway. It wasn't sex that Kitt was worried about right now.

He rolled to the side and leaned on his elbow, looking down at her face. "When we talk about the war," he said, "I can't tell if you're on my side."

She put a hand to her forehead and let out a long breath, trying to process the transition from half-drunken sex to whatever this was. "I don't see where taking sides comes into it. I'm not saying you're wrong. I just don't know what we're supposed to do."

"Right," he said and, in a flat cadence that must have been meant as an imitation of her own, added, "We knew what we were signing up for." When she pulled back from him a little, he said, "I started reading Ishbalan because I liked the poetry."

Riza had heard this before. She could even remember a time when she’d thought she loved this about him, the way he could wrap his tongue around the foreign vowels and talk about the perfection of a particular line break with the shining-eyed enthusiasm Joey had for a well-placed trumpet solo on one of his favorite jazz records. Now Riza just thought that Kitt was once again managing to treat the war, which was happening to all of them, as though it had happened, particularly, to him.

"You didn't think you were joining the Army to recite poems," she said.

"I joined the Army because I'm a second son, and where I come from that's what second sons do." Where he came from was the agrarian West, from a family estate the size of some entire counties. Riza usually didn't resent this – if they were going to get married one day, which she still thought they might, it certainly wasn't bad to know that he could afford some independence from the Army -- but it annoyed her when he was explaining why the rules shouldn't apply to him. "I'm here, doing this, because a lieutenant colonel sat down in my parents' living room and talked with me for three hours about how important it was to have officers in our service who understand the Ishbalan people. Maybe he even meant it." Drily, he added, "That might have been the policy before the policy was to round up everyone with too much Ishbalan blood and kick them out of the service. That, by the way, is not a thing either of us signed up to be part of."

"You're right," Riza said, and he looked surprised. But there was nothing to gain from arguing this point, and besides. He was right. "I feel the same way. That is, I don't agree with that policy."

"But, you're going to say --" He paused to let Riza fill in her argument, and when she didn't take the bait, did it for her. "We aren't in a position to make policy, we signed up to follow orders, these are the orders, so what are we supposed to do about it anyway? That's your answer."

"Do you have a better one?" After trying so hard not to argue, the words came out sharper than she meant, and she wondered if they were going to have a real fight.

Kitt didn't argue back, though. He didn't even answer, just let out a long breath toward the ceiling. Then he rolled closer to her, shifting his weight, and for a second Riza thought he was aroused after all, that he was going to get on top of her, and she might as well let him. But no, she should do more than let him. She should encourage him, respond to him, make a goddamn effort actually to be there. She ought to give making love to Kitt at least the same level of mindfulness that she would have given a moderately complex combat exercise. He deserved that because he was a kind, decent man trying to live a good life. He deserved some respect and affection from the woman who was sharing his bed. She liked the feel of his body well enough. She had gotten herself into this in the first place.

Then his hand moved to her face and she realized he wasn't trying to have sex with her at all. He just wanted to lean closer and look into her eyes. "I must be hard to live with," he said.

This was so unexpected that Riza let out a laugh. "Do you really want me to respond to that?"

"All right." He sighed. "I'll take that as given. I just -- I hope you think I'm worth all the work?"

He looked so genuinely abject that Riza put her hand on the back of his head and guided his lips toward hers. "You have your good points." The long deep kiss that followed saved her from having to say more. The whiskey taste was still strong, and she found a salty film on his lips that she realized was the taste of her.

When they finally disentangled, Kitt was looking down at her again. "I wonder if you have any idea," he said, "how very much I love you, Riza Hawkeye."

"You mention it kind of often." It was far too flip, and she repented before he could turn his head in embarrassment. "Hey. You know, you're pretty great. You're a good man, and you're good to me. Before I was with you I didn't know I could be with someone who wanted to treat me well. That might not sound like a lot to you, but it means so much."

As she kissed him again, Riza wished that, when her feelings came out in words, they didn't end up sounding so paltry, so grudging. Every one of those words was heartfelt, and true. She hoped he understood that. With equal certainty, she knew that they didn't add up to love, and knowing she didn't love him, she didn't think she could keep saying that she did She wondered whether Kitt, absorbed as he tended to be in his own declarations, had noticed that.

*

Kitt woke her up, his face nuzzled into her shoulder.

"How are you feeling?" he murmured.

"I think this is more about how you're feeling." Pulling herself out of sleep, Riza slid a hand down his abdomen until her fingertips brushed his hard cock. He drew in a sharp breath. In the pre-dawn shadows of the bedroom, she caught the uncertain look on his face. He hoped she would respond with enthusiasm or, at least, permission, but had a faint idea she would be in her rights to say, "My God, will you let me sleep?" It did cross her mind. She was so fucking tired these days, all the time, and she could still feel the whiskey, but. . .

She raised her other hand to the back of Kitt's head and pulled him toward her. "You're not going to be done with last night until you get to fuck me, are you?"

"It will," he answered, pausing to kiss her on the neck, "leave a gaping void in the center of my existence."

"Oh, well, in that case." She kissed him lightly. "How much time do we have?"

"An hour and a half until you need to leave," he said, so promptly that she knew he'd worked that out before deciding to wake her. It should have meant that he needed to leave, too, but he had been skipping his drills so often that they'd had to agree to stop arguing about it. That part was Kitt's business. "Plenty of time. And I'll make you breakfast."

"Can we have breakfast first?" He looked so stricken for a second that she laughed, then he laughed, and she reached back down and cradled his erection. "All right," she said. "Maybe later."

*

Riza had no idea how, but accepting she wasn't in love with Kitt made it much, much easier to have sex with him.

*

Afterwards, he looked into her eyes and said, "You seem happy. That's good."

Her body froze at that. He must have known that it didn't always make her happy. It gratified her a tiny bit, to realize that he did notice. But at the same time she wondered how often he must have known she wasn't enjoying herself. He'd just taken what he could have of her anyway. Although, maybe that was what she'd told him to do all along.

"Of course I'm happy," she said. "I've got an amazing boyfriend."

It made her a little sick to see how thrilled he looked, over such crumbs of affection. A little bit of affection, she reminded herself, and the complete surrender of her body.

"I have to go before long, babe," she sighed. "I've got a doctor's exam after drills, so I'd better wash up good."

"Gotta make sure you're healthy enough to get shot at," Kitt answered.

"That's right," Riza said, sliding out of bed, and away from this conversation. "And don't forget you owe me breakfast."

She scrubbed off hard, and thoroughly. When she came into the kitchen in her drill uniform, Rebecca was enthusiastically digging into a pile of flapjacks. If there was any trace of the political argument she and Kitt had been in the night before, it had disappeared in the scent of butter and bacon. "I dunno what you're doing to merit the five-star treatment here, roomie," Becca said cheerfully, "but keep it up."

Kitt's fair skin reddened. Riza came up behind Becca's chair and embraced her, squeezing a little too hard. "You can ask the questions or you can eat the pancakes."

"Fine, I know it's none of my beeswax. But I'm gonna miss this little domestic arrangement." Tilting her head back, she kissed Riza's chin. "I love you."

"I love you, too," Riza said.

Kitt dropped his spatula.

Riza leaned to pick it up for him, and as she straightened he was staring at her.

"What?" she said, although she was afraid she knew.

"I guess that isn't always so hard for you to say," Kitt answered.

All right, then. He had noticed.

Becca giggled. "Don't be jealous, Kittinger, she loves you too." When neither of them spoke, Becca said, "Oh. I stepped into a thing, didn't I? Maybe I ought to go."

"No," said Riza, at the same time Kitt said, "Please."

Becca looked at Riza, making it clear who had the deciding vote. "Go on ahead," Riza said.

"If you're sure." Becca backed out of the room, keeping her eyes on Riza like she might blink a signal in code. Riza nodded as vigorously as she could. A minute later, the front door shut.

Riza pointed at the stove top. The scrambled eggs were smoking. "You want to get those."

Kitt swore and went to the stove. Riza looked at the table top, and in a moment, he set a plate in front of her. Pancakes, two strips of bacon, eggs. He'd even gotten rid of the burnt parts. She took a fork and put a bite of pancake in her mouth. "This is good." She couldn't taste anything. Weakly, she said, "Is there coffee?"

She tried to force a few more bites while he filled a mug. He set it in front of her and she smiled. Sitting across from her, Kitt crossed his arms and rested his chin in his hands. "Are we okay?"

Riza took a bite, chewed, and tried to focus on getting the food down so she wouldn't have to figure out what to say. I can't tell you what you want to hear about love, and I'm not sure it matters because we'll be in Ishbal in a month. She set the fork down and he hadn't moved. "Are you going to sit there and stare at me eating until I say what you want to hear?" Riza asked.

He stood, spread his arms in exasperation, and flopped down backwards in the chair. "Better?"

She laughed.

"Riza!"

"You're being a child. Turn around and we can talk. Are you really mad because I told Becca I love her?"

"Of course not." He sighed, heavily, but shifted back to face her. "I just want us to be okay. This morning it seems like we should be okay." Sure it did. He'd carefully constructed an hour in which they'd had good sex and he'd cooked for her. Those seemed like things happy couples did. "But you're not even willing to pretend you love me, too."

"You want me to pretend?"

"Yes! No. I don't know." He put his head back in his hands. "This is hard. But if you want me to get the hell out --"

"No. I don't want you to leave." She stood up, leaned forward to touch his forehead and tilted his head back so that he'd meet her eyes. "The thing is, we're shipping out in a month. We have a lot of freedom here, but we can't be together like this in active service. Can we just take a month and enjoy what we have and then see what happens?"

"You're saying we're done in a month. No matter what."

"I'm saying," she told him, "We've got no control of our lives after the next month." She squeezed his hand and then let it go. "I liked this morning. And the breakfast is good. So let's not drive ourselves crazy pretending we have any big decisions to make."

*

"Are you sexually active?" asked the medical officer.

Riza hesitated long enough that he looked up from his clipboard. "They haven't asked me that before. What do you mean?" she asked, as though there might be a definition of 'sexually active' that didn't include being fucked by your regular partner less than six hours ago.

"Intercourse," he said. "That is, contact between a penis and a vagina –"

"I know what intercourse is." She sounded more exasperated than she meant to, but this doctor had already stuck half a dozen needles in her arm, and had his fingers inside her in several different configurations. Free medical care was a perk of military service, but enough was enough. Besides, he was just a corporal and she could probably get away with mouthing off.

"Standard language, cadet," he said without changing his detached tone. "And you did ask. So to be as clear as possible, has there been a penis in the vicinity of your vagina since, let's say, your last menstrual period?"

"Yes."

"When did you last --?"

"This morning," she snapped.

His eyebrows rose. "I was about to say, 'Menstruate.'"

Oh. "I haven't bled regularly since I was a pleb." Between the contraceptive injections most female cadets were required to have, and the low body fat brought on by diet and exercise regimes at the Academy, this seemed to be a common experience. "They told me it's normal."

"It is." The doctor looked at her like she was still supposed to say something.

"I had just a little bit, maybe, six weeks ago? Before that, maybe a couple months?"

He nodded. "Nausea? Fatigue?"

"I've had stomach flu off and on," she said, and it was starting to dawn on her why he would be asking. "Of course, I've been tired. We're drilling all the time, that's nothing new."

"Hmm." He looked at his clipboard. "The contraceptive injections you got are ninety-five percent effective."

"So, wait, how many times do you have to have sex before it's not effective?"

"Ninety-five percent effective over time. I'm sure you signed the waiver. If you want to be careful, use a barrier method, too. I'm surprised no one told you that. You ought to be using condoms for disease prevention, anyway."

Riza pressed her eyes shut. "I’m not screwing random guys. I have a –" She shook her head. "All right, sure."

He scribbled a note. "There's an alternative prescription you can get by special request."

"Does alternative mean better? If it's better, why wasn't I getting it already?"

"These decisions are made above my level," said the doctor, and Riza knew enough about the Army to guess that meant 'to save money.' He continued, "I'll make a note to be sure you get that next time. Meanwhile, I'll need to run your blood work by our alchemists, but my bet is you're pregnant." Looking up at her, he said, "You're lucky we caught this now because it's a real pain in everybody's ass when you figure it out at the front. Look at it this way. You get two weeks' light duty. We can fit you in tomorrow."

Two minutes ago, he'd been explaining to her what 'intercourse' was. Now he had just brushed past the part where she agreed to terminate a pregnancy. She had agreed, when she had enlisted, although at the time it hadn't occurred to her it would be necessary. Those drugs were supposed to work.

"Tomorrow?" she said, her voice sounding weak.

"We'll take care of notifying the proper people that you'll be missing class and drills. Meanwhile, there might be someone you want to talk to?"

"I --" Riza began, but what could she say? She'd basically, accidentally, confessed to being shacked up with a man. "Tomorrow's fine."

"You'll need someone to pick you up afterwards. I'm specifically instructed to tell you that whoever it might be, no conclusions will be drawn regarding your relationship." He added, "Standard language".

*
The lights were out when Riza opened the apartment door, and for a moment she thought Kitt must have actually gone to his drills today. She felt a wave of relief at putting the conversation off for a few hours, then guilt at the relief and embarrassment about the guilt and then Kitt's voice came from the darkened living room. "Everything check out okay?" he asked. "You healthy enough to get blown up? Sane enough to kill people?"

Riza set her bag on the counter and let out a breath. "Isn't there something you're supposed to be doing? There has to be."

"Didn't we agree not to talk about that?" He stepped into the doorway, his too-long-for-regulations hair tousled from sleep, giving his shadow a messy silhouette. "You don't baby-sit and I don't bitch."

That was true. For the past few months, Kitt's attendance at exercises had been unreliable, at classes almost nonexistent. You didn't get away with that at the Academy, and he ran extra gauntlets, scrubbed spotless floors, and dug unnecessary trenches whenever he showed up long enough for anyone in authority to catch him.

His friends kept warning him that he'd end up in the brig -- that, for God's sake, flogging was still permitted by the regs -- but Kitt correctly predicted this was never going to happen. He was in good physical shape, because of the Academy training, but wasn't notably strong and he definitely wasn't big. He'd come into the military with soft hands, luxuriant fair hair, and a smooth jawline. There wasn't a master sergeant or a senior officer in the place who didn't think a day's honest work would toughen him up.

It did, but not in the way any of them meant. It just made him more stubborn. The first few times, Riza couldn't help scolding him. It was so obvious that he was making more work for himself by refusing to toe the line. But her disapproval obviously wasn't making a difference, and she didn't have the energy to do his job as well as her own. As long as she didn't have to hear him complain about the punishment, she would agree not to notice the crime.

"Right," she said now. "Sorry I broke our deal. Though I swear, I'd understand you better if you were just a drunk."

Riza's head hurt. She walked past Kitt toward the dark living room, and when he reached a hand out to hug her around the waist, she sidestepped. Without looking back at him, she sat on the couch, where displaced pillows told her he had just been lounging, and covered her face with her hands.

"Are you all right?" he asked.

"This is not a good day," she answered through her fingers.

"Hey," he said, "Hey. I'm sorry. Is this –" His hand rested cautiously on her shoulder. "Is this all right, or do you want me to get out?"

Maybe to his surprise, and certainly to her own, Riza found herself leaning into his touch. He took this as encouragement, and in a moment her back was pressed to his chest. He didn't say he was sorry, he didn't ask what was wrong, and it was the silence that allowed her to gather the words and, eventually, say, "I have to get an abortion. Tomorrow, I guess. Probably tomorrow."

Stillness followed, and more silence, until he pulled away slowly and nudged her shoulder so she would turn to look at him. "Explain?" he said, finally.

"I think you can fill in the cause and effect."

"I thought the injections were supposed to be. . ."

"Ninety-five percent effective over time, is what the doctor said. So either something's fishy about the Army's math or we're really really special. Anyway, you don't have to come. Becca can go with me. Though you can come." She heard herself talking too fast but couldn't seem to stop. "They said you can come and they won't draw any kind of conclusions. Maybe you and Becca both can come –"

"Sure." Kitt closed his eyes, breathed deeply, then looked at her again. "Have you thought about telling them 'no'?"

"Why in the world would I do that?"

"Have you thought this through? The war could be over in nine months."

"Seven and a half," she said automatically. They were quiet again as he let the implication settle. She choked down a hundred replies before she managed, "You think I would use –- that -- to get out of combat?"

"I think it's leverage that you have, and you shouldn't throw it away without considering."

"There's nothing to consider. It's what I --."

"Signed up for. So you keep saying." Kitt shook his head. "They can change their mind about letting Ishbalans in the service, you can fucking change your mind about having an abortion."

"And then what? They make me spend the next eight months in the brig, give birth in prison, and take my baby to be raised by God-knows-who. Then I still get shipped off to the front."

"That wouldn't happen."

"How can you know that?"

"Do you want me to say it?" Kitt ran a hand through his hair. "Because my family has money, all right?"

"You think they can buy me from the Army?"

"They can buy lawyers. They can buy doctors. Dad's gotten my idiot older brother out of enough jams. Getting you a discharge would be nothing. We could get married -- "

"I don't want a discharge."

"We get married, you get a discharge. I put my tour in, my family takes care of you, just for a bit – they've got enough residual noblesse oblige. I know they'd do that, especially if it's a boy – I put in my tour and get out in a few years." He shrugged. "The timing's not ideal, but . . ."

"Kitt! Will you listen for a second!" She pressed her fingers to her temples. "I joined the Army to fight."

"To fight this war?"

"If I skip out of combat, it doesn't end the war. The only thing it does is confirm all the bad things people say about women in the military."

"You care about that right now?"

"When is it more important to care than when it actually matters? And on top of that – and on top of just listening to the worst marriage proposal of all time – that is a terrible reason to have a baby."

He stood and looked down at her. "That's not the reason. Obviously."

"No? What do you think the reason is?" Riza said, and then she could have bitten off her own tongue. Like her professor in military law had said, you should ever ask a question when you don't want to hear the answer.

Kitt got on his knees. Not on his knees gallantly, either, not taking her hand romantically like a gesture in an advertisement intended to sell diamonds.

He knelt like a supplicant, his clasped hands resting on her lower thigh. "I feel like I'm not supposed to say this, Riza. Like it's not fair for me to say what I want you to do. But if I don't say what I want, you won't know what I want, and -- I'm thinking of you. I'm thinking of family, of my family. I don't belong with the people I came from, I've never felt like I belonged to them but with you I think I could I could make something –" He raised his eyes hesitantly, fearfully towards hers. "I love you, and I don't know how you feel anymore. I'm asking you to think about it. Just before you let the Army make the choice for you, think about what we could have together. Think about what you're giving up."

She did what he asked, then. She thought, because he insisted, of leaving the Army behind, becoming a mother before she was twenty, depending on the uncertain charity of his wealthy, conservative parents toward a girl with no money or family who had snared their son into marriage, of waiting desperately for news of her husband's safe return. It was a terrible, paralyzing future, and maybe her imagination failed, but she couldn't imagine the war holding anything worse.

"Kitt," she said, squeezing his hand. "Sweetie. This isn't a workable plan."

"But I'll go," he said, as if his participation in the war was the question. "I'll go to the front. I'll be a model soldier, I'll put in my time. I'll do everything they ask me to. You know I can do that when it's important enough. I'd do that. See?"

"You're talking like there's some kind of bargain to make, when there isn't. You're going to the front whether you like it or not. Just like I'm doing what I signed up to do. Stop talking like there's any way around it."

He lifted his hand from her, then. He rose slowly, turned his back and walked toward the radio. Riza felt the warmth in her face, then, remembered they were in an apartment and wondered how loud she had raised her voice. He turned on the radio, loud, flipped from 'The latest updates from the Ishbalan sector' to a random station playing a popular song.

"I didn't mean to shout –" she began, but he just sat on the sofa beside her, let the music play and didn't speak. He put a hand on her shoulder, and she stiffened but didn't pull away as he leaned toward her ear.

"I know these guys from Aerugo. Guys who know the border." He didn't look at her. "There's a community of Amestrians down there. There's a whole network. Do you want me to keep talking?"

"If you're asking me for something – if you want me to do something for you –"

"With me."

"If you're asking that, I want you to tell me what it is."

"Leave the Army with me. Leave the country with me. Say yes, right now, and we can be out of here tonight."

"How long have you been thinking about this? When were you going to tell me?"

"I'm telling you now."

"Kitt, this is treason."

"We're not at war with Aerugo."

"That's just because nobody's proved they're arming the Ishbalans yet. That could change next week. And they could shoot us for desertion as easily as treason."

"They shoot riflemen at the front," said Kitt. "I trust these guys to keep you safe more than I trust whatever idiot junior officer you'd get assigned to in Ishbal. Look, I don't care if you want an abortion. But we can get out of here faster if you're not recovering from surgery. I'll find a doctor in Aerugo who'll do it, I swear to you."

"If the abortion doesn't matter, why am I just hearing this now?"

"Because I wasn't sure about telling you. I was scared of how you'd react. But, you having a baby felt like a sign."

"I'm not having a baby. Let's be clear on this. I'm too young and I didn't plan it and I don't want it. That's nothing to do with the Army."

"Really? Nothing?" He shook his head. "I respect your choices, Riza. I do. I also think you might be making different ones if the Army didn't have a thumb on the scale."

"Well, you're wrong," she snapped, "if you think being a fugitive deserter in another goddamn country makes me feel better about being a nineteen-year-old unwed mother."

"You wouldn't be unwed! I want to marry you."

"You want to marry me and leave the country with me. Where the hell is this coming from?"

"Have you listened to a damn thing I've said for the past year? I'm in love with you and I don't want to be part of this war. Could either of those things possibly be clearer?"

That brought her up short because, well, of course he didn't want to be in the war. He didn't want to fight, and he certainly didn't want to die, for something that went against all of his beliefs. What could she say to that? I thought you were whining. I thought it was just talk. I sure as hell didn't think you intended to do anything about it. "Maybe that's true," she said. "Maybe I haven't really been listening to you. I'm sorry."

"For what?" he said. "Riza?" She didn't look at him, didn't answer. "I love you," he said. "I tried to get you to talk about it this morning and you said it didn't matter because we didn't have any choices to make. Well, we have choices now, and now you have to understand. I love you so much. I would do absolutely anything for you."

"Except suck it up and accept my choice," she said quietly.

His eyes rose to her cautiously. "Just give yourself time to think about it. If you love me it should be easy."

"So I should give myself time, but also make up my mind tonight. Right, Kitt. Maybe you're right. Maybe if I did love you, it would be easy." She met his eyes. "I guess that answers all of our questions."

She let the words hang in the air. He stared at her for a long time. "That. Well. That's – brutal. But." He closed his eyes. "I guess there's not any chance we can go back to the way I thought things were half an hour ago."

"Sure," she said quietly. "Sure. But – I'm still pregnant. And we're still in a war you don't want to fight."

"And you're still not in love with me." He stood. "Well. I guess that's settled. I'm so glad we had this talk."

"Kitt." She stood and put her hand on his shoulder. "You don't have to run out right now."

"I think I do," he said. "I can't keep up this conversation. I can't – Do what you're going to do, I can't have any part of it."

"That's fine," she said. "But I'm going tomorrow. Becca can take me. Don't do anything crazy until we can talk again."

"Fine." Kitt raked both hands through his thick hair, then pulled them out, leaving it even more of a mess. "Fine," he repeated, then, meeting her eyes, "Would it kill you to show any emotion? Because you are ripping my fucking life apart. Would it kill you to act like it costs you something?"

"Are you mad at me because I'm not crying?"

"Yes. No. I don't know." When he stepped back toward her, Riza could see the tears welling at the corners of his eyes. She could tell they were about to spill, and she knew the last way she wanted to end the evening was in wiping tears off of his face.

"I'm sorry," she said. "I'm sorry I'm not doing any of this the way that you want me to. But maybe you should spend the night somewhere else, and we can talk about this later."

"Later," he repeated. "Sure."

Riza kept her head down, and he must have closed the door softly because she never heard him leave.

*

"I was seventeen," Becca said.

"Oh?" Riza looked uneasily around the waiting room. A couple female plebs sat with their eyes on the floor. Riza quickly looked down. No thinking about what anyone else was doing there, that was an unspoken rule. Then, belatedly getting the import of Becca's words, Riza looked at her friend. "Oh."

"Yeah. My mom took me, though she was not happy, although that was because -- well, first, my family had already pulled all these strings to get me in the Academy and she thought I'd just blown it. Plus, she must have thought I was stupid for believing dumb old Calvin Hargrove when he told me I wouldn't get knocked up if he didn't -- anyway. I was naive back then but also I was totally in love with him for like two minutes. Which was about how long he lasted. By the way, those two minutes and the two minutes I was in love with him were not the same. That is not when seventeen-year-old boys are at their most endearing." She stopped and reached over to clutch Riza's hand. "This probably isn't helping."

"It is," Riza promised.

"The point is, it's a sucky thing to go through. But it happens. You're not alone. All things considered, you're lucky to be here with me instead of my mom. When you're done, you'll just want to go home and take a nap. I'll tuck you in and I'll go to the store and I'll get you -- let's see, a hot water bottle and you won't feel like getting out of bed tomorrow, so a bunch of crossword puzzles, some sports magazines where the guys are all shirtless, and -- is it you who really likes raspberry sorbet with dark chocolate, or is that me?"

Riza smiled in spite of herself. "I think everybody likes that."

"Sorbet and chocolate, then, and some mint teas. Plus, when you get your energy back you'll probably want a big chunk of steak so I'll go to the market and --"

The door to the inner office swung open. "Hawkeye, Riza," said a nurse. Becca pressed her palm to Riza's and kissed her on the forehead.

*

The whole thing took longer than Riza wanted it to take, but nowhere near as long as it seemed that it should have. Becca had brought a stack of student papers -- she had gotten the afternoon free by switching sections with another teaching assistant, and offering to grade a backlog of lab assignments for him. When Riza came back into the lobby, Becca still had half the pile to go.

They took a cab back to their apartment, Becca uncharacteristically quiet, letting Riza rest against her shoulder. At home, Riza sank gratefully into bed. She woke up a mess of pains, sharp and dull, but Becca was there with the promised treats. She helped position the hot water bottle comfortably between the pillows and Riza's aching abdomen.

"It gets better," Becca promised, then made a face. "Not as fast as they try to tell you it should, though. Sorry." She hesitated. "We can stay up and play cards until -- that is -- I guess I wasn't sure if you were expecting -- someone --"

"Kitt knows."

"Okay."

"I'm not expecting him."

"Okay." Becca looked like she was about to let it go, and Riza wasn't sure if she was glad of that or not. But then Becca said, "I get him keeping a distance for the actual, well, this afternoon. But why can't he --?"

"We had the conversation. It didn't go very well."

Becca frowned. "Did you break up?"

"I don't know," Riza admitted. "But I shot him down on a lot of things."

"Did he –" Becca's eyes widened. "Did he want to marry you?"

"Among other things."

"Oh." She hesitated. "But you can't. I mean, you couldn't."

"I couldn't."

"Meaning what?" Becca laughed. "You think I would have tried? Well, he is gorgeous and also rich, and if you want to get a husband, rich and gorgeous isn't a bad way to go. But I'm nobody's model soldier. I'd go in the commandant's office and cry, and they'd give me a discharge stamp and say 'This is why they shouldn't take girls in the first place.'"

"You wouldn't really do that," Riza said.

"I might. In the absence of a rich pretty boy who wants to marry me, it's all very abstract."

"I didn't want to marry him." Riza swallowed. "I couldn't. It's not his fault, and it must have been hard. He loved me a lot. That is, I think he did. Didn't he?"

Becca's eyes narrowed. "If somebody loved you," she said resting her fingers on the top of Riza's spine, "They'd be here rubbing your back. Now. Tell me where it hurts.”

*

Riza woke up, achey and needing to pee. She tried to tread quietly, feeling guilty that Becca had stayed up so late with her, and would now have a full day's work and training while Riza got to rest.

In the hallway, she heard Becca talking on the phone. "What do you mean 'why?' Because he makes better pancakes than I do." She paused, as if listening. Then, in a voice that was lower but still audible, she said, "Because Riza's sad, all right? Because there's only so much I can do to make her feel better. Because we have to go to a war zone next month, and your roommate doesn't have the luxury of being a judgmental prick for as long as he feels like." Another pause to listen, then, "Oh. . . .I didn't know. . .No, of course not. . .Look, I'm going to come over and we can. . .Right, sure. No. Wow. Yeah, okay, see you then."

Riza didn't have the time or presence of mind to duck into the bathroom before her roommate stepped into the hallway. Becca frowned. "Have you been there?"

"Was that Joey?"

"No," Becca said, automatically, then, "Yes. He and Mercedes are having some kind of drama, so if you're okay on your own, I need to go over there."

"It's fine." Riza smiled. "I still don't believe I've got two whole days off. Medical or not. I'm gonna go back to bed and feel like I robbed a bank."

"Good." Becca flung her arms out and grabbed Riza into a bone-crushing hug. "It'll be okay."

"Sure." Right then, Riza decided that whatever Becca didn't want to tell her, she didn't really need to know.

For an hour or so, she thought that Becca might have cleared out so that Kitt could come over. She spent that time trying to make her hair look right so that she wouldn't have to think about what to say to him. After that, she took the hot water bottle and a crossword puzzle and went back to bed.

*

On Monday morning, instead of her usual hour of calisthenics, Riza reported to an office in the basement of the library. "I'm here for my light duty assignment. I had, ah, surgery?"

The iron-haired female sergeant nodded efficiently and said, with surprising cheerfulness, "I hope you can still drink coffee. We have basically got a tankard of coffee and I hate to be wasteful." Riza took it gratefully, as she took instruction for the gloriously mindless filing task that awaited her. Sergeant Honeywell had no questions about Riza's surgery, her studies, or the battlefield assignment that awaited her. She only wanted to know if she had a favorite radio serial and, when this elicited no strong opinions, began merrily to recap the plot of Young Alchemists in Love.

The sergeant's cheerful babble was soothing, as was the repetitive nature of the work. Together they required just enough attention that Riza's thoughts weren't tempted into any frolics of their own. She only had to leave the library for her regular classes, which were in the doldrums of routine that set in before the panic of exam review. She could sit in the back, quietly, and after the first day, she didn't even bother to dread that someone would ask where she had been during drills.

Kitt didn't show up to the one class they shared, which in itself wasn't a surprise. When they instructor glanced at the roll and called, "Kittinger?" several cadets snickered, and one said, "Yeah, right." Toward the end of the period, though, an M.P. put his head in the door and asked the same question. The instructor sighed. "I imagine he'll show up for his field discipline. He's reliable enough at that."

The officer looked skeptical, but left. You really will end up in the brig, you idiot, Riza thought, but she quickly rejected the notion that it was her responsibility. They were going to Ishbal together; they'd have to be in the same room eventually, and he would figure out how to deal with it or he wouldn't.

By her third day with Sergeant Honeywell, Riza started to get restless and worried about the training she was missing. The physical discomfort hadn't abated much, but she was getting used to it. Maybe she would go to the clinic tomorrow and convince them to speed up her recovery schedule. On the way home, she decided to sign in at the gun range, as though she were simply paying a recreational visit. She braced to defend her right to be there, but once again nobody treated her as though there was anything abnormal going on. The twenty minutes she had planned to spend turned into an hour and a half, and only the vague notion that she should get some dinner sent her home.

Riza shot as well as she ever had, that day. She took the score sheet with her. She was going to put it up on the back of her door, to look at while she thought about goals and targets. On the walk home, she felt like she was breathing normally for the first time in a week. She was starting to think that things were -- not all right, not by any means. There was still a war, and without sharing the extremity of Kitt's objections, it wasn't a fight that she was proud of. But things weren't any worse than they had been a week ago and well -- now that it had happened, the confrontation with Kitt felt inevitable. Now it was over, and they could mend fences and move forward.

Back at the apartment, Riza opened the door to see Joey.

"Hey," she said, and started to look around to see who else was there.

Joey cleared his throat. "Mercedes is in the kitchen with Becca."

"Hiiii, babe!" A tell redhead leaned backwards out of the doorway and made kissing sounds at Riza. Joey's girlfriend was a touring singer/ stage comedienne, and it was hard to resist a theatricality that she came by so honestly. Besides, she was a legitimate sweetheart, which Joey certainly deserved. She and Becca particularly enjoyed each other's company -- though the two of them in the same room could be exhausting for anyone who didn’t have the same kind of energy.

"Hi," Riza said, and made an effort to smile. She turned uncertainly to Joey and asked quietly, "Is Kitt --?"

Loudly, Joey answered, "I got some new records last night." He held one up, showing off a picture of Sylvie Simone, a favorite singer that he and Riza shared.

"We put the record player in my bedroom," Riza began.

"Great." Joey pushed past her, and she followed him uncertainly into her own room. Joey shut the door and went toward the turntable, as Riza sat on the bed. "Riza. When's the last time you heard from Kittinger?"

"Thursday afternoon," Riza said. "We had a little, ah, discussion. What did he tell you?"

The needle dropped, and as a jazzy piano riff started, Joey turned to Riza. "More than I probably needed to know. I'm sorry."

"It's his life, too." Riza looked down at her hands. "It wouldn't be fair to expect him to keep everything to himself. We're all friends."

Joey spun the volume upward on the record. "Did he say anything to you about Aerugo?"

Riza thought of Kitt turning up the radio before he broached the same subject. She wondered if all these men watched the same bad spy movies, and who they thought was listening in. "No," she said.

"Good. Me neither. Nobody heard anything about Aerugo and we're going to leave it that way."

"Did he leave?" Riza asked. Why the hell hadn't it occurred to her that he would leave without her?

"I haven't seen Kitt since Thursday night, either. He's missed his classes, but that's normal. He's missed his field discipline, too, though, and that's not like him."

"No," Riza said. "Kitt has to make a point of his disobedience. I can't believe he'd really leave, though." Without me, the silent thought echoed. "The M.P.'s are going to come looking for him."

"They already have. Becca happened to be over when they came around Sunday and -- between us, I think we convinced them he'd had a little snit because of, well --" Joey swallowed. "-- girl problems?"

"Sunday," Riza repeated. "That's three days. Why haven't they interviewed me?"

"Becca is really good at this. They thought he had a girlfriend, and they already had your name. As soon as Becca saw what was up, she started crying. They thought they were dragging it out of her." Joey rubbed the back of his head uneasily. "I'm afraid they must have checked your medical records to corroborate. Chances are Becca convinced them it was a lovers' quarrel and they're embarrassed to come bug you about it." He smiled. "They should have sent a woman investigator, right? It would take men to fall for all that."

Riza's faced flushed, and yet it made sense. "The point is to convince the Army that Kitt deserted because he had a fight with his pregnant girlfriend, because she refused to disobey medical orders. Which is -- not exactly untrue."

"Not exactly," Joey agreed. "But investigators like a good story. If the story they're getting is about a rich kid who was already having trouble hacking it in the Academy, and then flipped out when his girlfriend dumped him --"

"Then it's not a story about a potential intelligence officer who spoke fluent Ishbalan, knew people in Aerugo, and spouted subversive rhetoric when he was alone with his friends."

"Right. If they catch the first guy, he's going to get court-martialed. The second guy is going to get shot."

"I hope he has enough sense to stick to that story. If he doesn't --"

"If he doesn't, maybe he deserves to get shot!"

Riza felt a wrenching sob run through her chest, and covered her mouth in an effort to keep it back. She found herself rocking back and forth on the bed as tears started to leak from her eyes.

Joey sat down, clasping her shoulder. "I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm sorry. It's just –" As she leaned into him, he said, "It's been a hell of a week. I'm sorry. I shouldn't say that to you. I only meant it's up to Kitt to take care of himself after a certain point. He did what he was going to do, he didn't ask – us."

Joey tripped over the last word, but it was clear enough he meant Kitt hadn't asked Joey, who was supposed to be his best friend.

"He asked me," Riza said. "I just didn't think he was serious."

"Of course not. Because it's fucking crazy. I always knew he was a selfish son of a bitch. He never had any feeling for the corps, and I should have known it was going to lead somewhere like this." Joey took both Riza's hands. "I'm sorry about the way the story is going to get out. I promise, nobody's going to blame you."

She slid one hand out of his grip, forcing a smile to show her appreciation, and rubbed at her wet eyes.

"Everybody paying any attention to you and to Kittinger has to know that you're the reliable one. You're the good soldier, here, Hawkeye."

"Really? Because this sounds like exactly the kind of situation that people use as a reason to keep women out of active service."

"People who are looking for a reason to say that, maybe." Joey let out a bitter laugh. "I'd like to hear somebody say this is a reason to keep out entitled rich boys with overdeveloped virgin-whore complexes."

"Did he call me a 'whore'?" Riza asked quietly.

Joey winced, and tried not to look at her for a second. He could handle an elaborately arranged deception of the academy authorities, especially if Becca took the lead, but a spontaneous lie to a friend was beyond him. "I just shouldn't talk," he said. "I should just keep my mouth fucking closed. He didn't mean it."

"It's all right. If he hates me now, I'd just as soon know."

"He's a brat," Joey said. "He was saying all kinds of things. It doesn’t mean he really thinks you're – that."

"Would you?" Riza asked. "If it was your girlfriend and she – decided to do something you didn't want, I guess?"

"That's different –" He hesitated. "Mercedes isn't in the corps. We have more options."

"She's got a career. She can't dance on stage when she's getting ready to drop a kid, and it's not like she's at a point she can tell directors to wait around for her."

"I still think it's different," he said quietly. "She and I know we want to have kids one day. We could work around whatever happened."

"Well, we hadn't decided we wanted anything like that. I didn't realize he did until --" She caught the look Joey gave her. "Let me guess. You could have told me he wanted that from me. I don't think it counts if he didn't say it to me."

"It's not that he ever said anything, Riza. It was just pretty obvious he had all his life plans wrapped up in you. Although for what it's worth -- it was just as easy to look and see you're not anybody's girl who sits at home waiting for news."

"I feel like that's supposed to be a compliment."

"It's just who you are. You're a good soldier."

"Great." She shook her head. "I feel like it's my turn to make an ominous judgment about your relationship. Why aren't you and Mercedes engaged yet?"

He cleared his throat, and Riza looked up. "We actually are. As of this weekend. Just, well, it didn't seem like the time to tell you. Considering."

"Oh, God." Riza hugged him. "God, God, I feel like a jerk. Congratulations," she murmured into the shoulder of his jacket. "Are you thinking soon?"

"We were going to have a crazy party for everyone before we have to ship out."

"You should," Riza said, pulling back. "You still should. Now more than ever."

"I'm not so sure now. We're down a best man. I'd thought about asking you, but that might be weird?"

"Yeah," she said uncertainly. "I'm not sure I'm up for that, but -- there should be a party. I don't want to spend the next five weeks moping and worrying. We'll have plenty of time to do that."

*

Joey and Mercedes got married the day after exams ended, a week before their cohort was scheduled to ship to the front. Riza had gratefully returned to her regular training routine by then. She still had sporadic, unpredictable abdominal pains, but she had been fighting various battles with her body since basic training. This was different, but it wasn't new.

Becca stood by Joey as his best man. She was resplendent in dress blues, with matching flowers woven into her elaborately-braided long hair. Riza wore her uniform, too, though she wore her short hair plain, conceding to the occasion only a pair of long earrings that Kitt had given her for a birthday.

After posing for endless pictures with the wedding party, and delivering a hilarious if incoherent toast, Becca came to plop down by Riza. "I have got the intel on all of Joey's single cousins, and Mercedes' friends from the theater who might not all be single but are apparently open minded. I have arranged and sorted several charts and diagrams in my head --"

"I am, as always, impressed with your efficiency and effort," said Riza.

"I'm in the wedding party. Getting laid is practically an obligation. However, if you should want the benefit of my research -- Do you have your eye on anyone?"

Riza smiled. "I'm just watching. It's better like that right now."

Becca gave a sympathetic look, squeezed Riza's hand, and, after a while, went off to dance with a groomsman. Riza took it on herself to circulate, remembering this was likely to be her last normal social obligation for some time. She made a point of talking to as many of her classmates as she could, sipping sparkling water. Becca, increasingly more drunk, checked in on her periodically.

Late in the evening, after the bride and groom had left, Riza ended up in an intense conversation with a female cadet she'd hardly spoken to before. Thornton was headed to do her field service at Fort Briggs in the North. They were trading facts and rumors about the Fort's notorious commander – Thornton was thrilled to learn Riza had actually been sponsored by General Armstrong -- and Riza found herself regretting that she hadn't gotten to know this cadet better. Maybe in my next life, I'll spend more time making friends and less catering to emotionally needy men. She felt bad about the thought right away. It wasn't fair to blame Kitt for liking her and, the past few depressive months aside, she had been more social because of him than she would have been on her own.

For the first time that night, Riza let herself imagine what today would have been like with Kitt there. Seated faux-casually next to each other, they would have forgotten the war for a few hours and made each other laugh with ridiculous stories about Joey. Kitt would have asked her to dance, and they would have done it with well-mannered hands, their bodies hardly touching, while silently shot through with the nearness of each other.

Riza felt a pair of hands on her shoulders. "Hey, beautiful. Who'da thought we'd be closing the place down?"

Looking up in surprise, Riza saw that the meeting hall had nearly emptied out. "Hey, roomie," she said to Becca. "Did you run through your list already?"

"No." Becca hugged her tightly from behind, and leaned down. "I thought about it, mmkay, and then I was like, 'This is one of my last nights in real life before -- you know, before.' And why, I ask you, would I want to spend it with some dumb boy I'm never going to see again?"

"Why indeed?" Riza patted Becca's cheek, then smiled an apology at Thornton. "I should get this drunk girl home."

Slumping down onto Riza's shoulders, Becca said, "H-o-o-o-me." The word came out like a purr.

*

Riza was thankful to be sober, as she put her arm around Becca's waist and escorted her from the cab. Guiding her friend into the living room, Riza settled her onto the sofa and went to pour some water. On her way back from the kitchen, she saw a handful of letters that had come through the mail slot. Bills, probably, trying to catch them before they deployed. Glancing in the halflight, she saw the logo of the utility company, the Academy bursar's office, and a postmark from her home village in a familiar red envelope. That would be Miss Jillian's School for Young Ladies, almost touchingly wrong-headed in its belief that Riza had anything to offer in the way of alumna donations. She dropped them all on the counter in a pile.

"Here you go." She took a seat beside Becca and handed her a full glass of water. "Drink up. You'll appreciate me in the morning."

Raising the drink in a pantomime of her earlier toastmaster duties, Becca said, "I always appreciate you, Riza Hawkeye." She held up a finger as though she had more to say, then drained the entire glass as Riza watched. Once finished, she slammed it down on the end table, then looked at Riza. "I hate him," she said. In case Riza might be unclear on the point, she added, "Kittinger. He shouldn't have run off like that."

"Don't," Riza said. "Please. I don't hate him. I think I was more angry at him when he was here."

Becca blinked. "You get angry? You always seem so calm." She put a hand on Riza's shoulder and leaned into it. "People should appreciate you more."

Becca reached up to slide her fingers around Riza's mouth. Somehow the Let's put you to bed, you're drunk caught in Riza's throat. She kept letting Becca touch her, until it wasn't a surprise that Becca was kissing her. Riza didn't open her mouth, but she let their lips touch for as long as Becca wanted them to.

Pulling back, finally, Becca said, "I don't know why I did that."

"It's all right."

"The moment seemed to require it."

Riza smiled. "Let's get you to bed." Only after she'd said it did Riza realize that could sound like a different kind of offer. She wasn't sure what she would have done if Becca had taken her up on it. But Becca just nodded and let Riza walk her to the door and turn the bed down. By the time Riza closed the door, her friend's breath already sounded like sleep.

Walking back through the apartment, Riza wondered if her life had just gotten more complicated. Just what I need, she thought. Somebody else I can't love back in the right way. But that wasn't fair to Becca. It might not even be fair to Kitt.

She thought back, now, to the interrupted fantasy of her afternoon at the wedding. If Kitt had been there, they would have danced. Becca would have checked some name off her list and found a party; Riza and Kitt would have slipped out soon after the bride and groom departed, and come back here to tear each other's clothes off. Riza would have been an active participant in that love scene, would have held on to Kitt in the reflected glow of their friends' happiness, in the fever of their own bodies to forget what they were being sent off to do.

And then what? Then, obviously, they would lie there together, in the physical and emotional glow of the day. Kitt would say how much he loved her, she wouldn't know how to answer, and then he would say, I want to keep what we have. I don't want to lose it. I know these people in Aerugo.

Sighing, she picked up the mail off the counter, flipped through the bills, but stopped on the letter from her old school. The envelope looked the same as a dozen she had received and discarded. But the weight was wrong. She pulled open the seal and out fell a stack of postcards. On top was a handwritten note: We thought you'd enjoy seeing what some of our current students did on their summer vacation! Her pulse quickened as she recognized the handwriting. The surface of every card bore a different image, but the same printed message: "Greetings from Aerugo!" On the back, each card had a message signed in a different girl's name, in different handwriting.

Riza spread them out and stared. She and Kitt had taken Cryptology together. As a linguist, he had been a prodigy at ciphers, but she hadn't been far behind. They had mastered the fundamentals of all the classic codes, and played with their own variations. She knew right now that she would be up until dawn working out the code. Maybe it said, "I miss you," maybe it said, "I told you so," maybe just, "I heard I missed my best friend's wedding and I feel rotten about it."

The words wouldn't matter, in the end. The gist of the message was clear enough on the face of those postcards.

No, Riza thought. Sorry, Kittinger, I'm not going to do this. I'm not going to spend one of these last precious nights trying to read signals that don't matter anyway. I'm sorry, but you had your chance. She dropped the cards, stood up, and walked to Becca's door.

Tapping, she said, "Can I come in?"

Becca made an indistinct and entirely ambiguous noise. Riza walked in, stripped down to her T-shirt and underpants, and slid into the bed beside her.

"Is this all right?" she asked.

"I told you I love you," Becca mumbled.

"Go to sleep." Riza slipped an arm under Becca's side, and curled around her, resting a cheek against the other woman's shoulder.

Becca snuggled in to her, and repeated, "I love you so much."

Riza lay there, letting the heat of her friend's body bleed into her own. She tried to tell herself that her answering silence was because they were happy, because words were unnecessary, and not because she once again had no idea what the hell she was supposed to say.