They took the train together from New Optain to Border City, eight fresh cadets headed to their assignments at Eastern Command. There should have been nine of them, if Kitt had come, but no one mentioned his name on the long journey out. At least, if someone did, they didn't mention him to Riza.
Most of them had someone to hug at the departure station. Becca had her mother and three younger brothers showering her with advice and gifts she'd likely have to trash or give away, due to small living quarters. But she cried and thanked them anyway. Joey Brewster, who had gotten married exactly a week before, spent twenty minutes making out with his wife on the platform. He would suffer merciless teasing, later, but he cared exactly nothing about this.
Riza's departure from New Optain required no goodbyes to anyone. She still exchanged letters with some people: girls from school back in her village, occasionally her friend Miles in his station at Fort Briggs. But she hadn't seen any of them in person for years. Kitt was gone, and for all intents and purposes unreachable. The latest gossip said that his influential family wanted him declared dead, as though he might have been carried off by Aerugeon spies rather than fleeing the country himself. The only other person she could think of who mattered in her life was Roy Mustang, and he was at the front somewhere ahead of her.
Otherwise, all of Riza's people were here on this train. Eastern was the smallest of Amestris's regional academies and its cadets had a reputation for sticking together. Even considering that, her cohort had been exceptionally close. They made a boisterous group on the journey out, in-jokes of years' duration flying and rowdy card games keeping them too occupied to think very much about what waited for them on the other end of the ride. Riza was quiet, the way she was usually quiet, and let the companionship wash over her. She had expected to sit next to Becca, but Becca was playing Hearts. Riza ended up letting Joey tell her jokes while he tried to pretend he didn't miss Mercedes, that they didn't both miss Kitt.
Riza had things to work out with Becca, but those could wait. They'd be in the same Border City dormitory for at least a few days before getting their specific assignments. That would be a helpful transition from the week they had just spent sleeping in the same bed, something they had so far avoided talking about, even when they were doing it. Riza kept trying to classify it as mutual comfort. But for comfort, it had involved a lot of kissing, and her hand on occasion between Becca's thighs. Riza had kept her own clothes on and she had (mostly, probably) never gotten off, but there had been times that was true with men, too. It was hard to know what was supposed to count.
A corporal met the cadets on the station platform in Border City, and they stood in the noonday sun as he marked their names off on a clipboard. Then the new arrivals crammed their bodies and supplies into in the back of a covered, sweltering transport. The heat in B.C. was supposed to be the first real hint of what the desert was like, and it didn't make her feel any better.
Becca sat next to Riza and squeezed her hand. "It's an adventure," she said.
"Sure." Riza smiled.
Nobody talked much on the drive to HQ, and when the vehicle came to what seemed like a permanent stop, they all got to their feet and started shifting their packs.
Outside, their corporal was talking. "Just one?" he said warily.
Another male voice answered. "They said I get one. Do you need me to get the major in here?"
"No no. All right." The back of the transport swung open, and the corporal, haloed by the blinding sun, said, "Which one of you has the best rifle scores?"
Riza looked across the truck at Joey. He looked back at her, and everybody else was looking at the two of them.
Joey stood and raised a hand. "I had a nine point seven."
Quietly but clearly, Riza said, "Nine point nine."
The corporal laughed. "Well, I think I know who you're taking." He pointed at Joey.
"No." The owner of the second voice, a barrel-chested sergeant, stepped up beside the corporal. "I'm taking the nine-nine. Everybody out!" He pointed at Riza and Joey. "You two first."
Joey put his hand on Riza's shoulder, maneuvering so that he was ahead of her when they got out of the truck. "Corporal, I don't think she should be --"
"You weren't ordered to think," said the sergeant. He looked at Riza. "What's your name?"
"Hawkeye. R," he said, scrawling on a pad. "Congratulations, cadet, you're now attached to the 57th Infantry, which is. . .several clicks forward of here."
"You can't do that!" cried Becca. "That's not now it works." The corporal and the sergeant both glared at her. There was an uneasy hierarchical disconnect in the case of non-commissioned officers dealing with Academy cadets, who had commissions but no actual authority. It wasn't always clear how they were supposed to interact -- accidentally saluting a corporal, for instance, was a sure way for a cadet to embarrass herself -- but it was obvious enough that Becca was out of line.
"It's fine," Riza said, trying to ignore her pounding heart. She was getting posted to the front. Today. This was always going to happen to her, it was just happening sooner than they'd been told to expect. Months sooner. "I'll get my combat stars early, that's all. You guys will be playing catch up with me."
"I can go," said Joey. He addressed the NCO's, not her. "I'm a rifle specialist, too. There's a point-two difference in our scores. Do they even have a place to put a girl at the front?"
The corporal looked at the sergeant. "Do they?"
The sergeant grunted and spit. "That's the Dragon Lady's unit. The kid'll be fine." To the corporal, he said, "Harry Slayton's the rifle commander out there. Have you met that guy? He'll love getting this one in response to his request."
"Slayton?" The corporal laughed. "Oh, that's priceless." Then he looked at Riza, running his eyes up and down her figure. "Yeah, he might enjoy that."
"Oh, good," Joey said. "She won't just get shot out there, she'll get raped."
"Do you think you're helping?" Riza hissed at him. All he was doing was layering one kind of numb, sick fear onto another.
"She's right," said the sergeant. "You're not helping. You're being fucking insubordinate -- all of you are." He took in Joey and Becca and the other cadets, male and female, who had just been standing there. To Joey, he said, "I wouldn't take you at this point if you were qualified."
Riza patred Joey's shoulder. "Stay pretty for your wife, Brewster. You'll get your shot at combat stars one day."
The NCO's both laughed at this, and the corporal said, "I think she'll handle the boys out there just fine." To Riza, he said, "You're headed back to the depot in ten minutes. I'd hit the latrine."
"I'll radio ahead," the sergeant said, with a laugh. "Hawkeye, comma, R."
Riza, still dazed at her change of fortune, started saying good-bye to her classmates. She deliberately didn't try to sort out the different degrees of envy, pity, and anxiety with which they told her to stay safe and be sure to write.
Becca and Joey held off until the others had dispersed. Jamming his hands in his pockets, Joey said, "If Kitt were here, he'd have done the same thing."
Riza looked from Joey to Becca and decided she didn't mind saying this in front of both of them. "I'm sure Kittinger would have whined at them really hard. If he were here. But he's not here. Because he fucking deserted. And before that, by the way, we broke up. For a lot of reasons that mostly boil down to his chronic inability to deal with reality. If anybody knows this, you do."
Joey sighed. "I just don't want anything to happen to you."
"It's a war," Riza said. "It's kind of hard to guarantee it won't." And because of that, she realized, this might be the last time she and Joey ever saw each other. They weren't going to have time to go through a whole fight-and-make-up cycle. So Riza hugged him lightly and stepped back. "Word to the wise, Brewster. Don't volunteer for any suicide missions until you've been married at least a month."
"It's true," said Becca. "Mercedes wouldn't like it much."
"All right," he said, resigned. They looked at each other for long enough to realize this was all the good-bye they were going to get.
Joey reluctantly trailed after the rest of the unit, but Becca followed Riza into the washroom. "Don't let Brewster freak you out," Riza told her. "Going to the front doesn't mean I'm going to get assaulted. They've made a lot of changes since Drachma. You heard him say there's a female commander out there."
Becca nodded mutely, then grabbed Riza and hugged, hard. "Please take care of yourself." Riza looked up to see Becca was crying (why was Becca crying?) and, still in a half-dazed state, felt a plastic bottle pressed into her palm.
"What is this?"
“Pain reliever. I know you. You’ll refuse to go to the infirmary and tell them you have cramps.”
“Thank you. How did you get all these?”
“I went in the infirmary and said I had cramps.” She wiped a tear from her eyes. "I'm not you. It's okay." Becca brushed Riza's lips with hers. Then she backed out of the washroom to let Riza take care of things, including the unpredictable flow of blood she was still having, over a month after her procedure.
Riza spent the ride to the front wishing she'd been able to think of a better way to say good-bye.
Despite the jarring motion along the rock-strewn road and the dull, constant pain in her abdomen, despite the cramped position she had been forced to squeeze into among broken equipment and an empty water tank, Riza managed to fall asleep on her ride to the front. Her reward for sleep was a dream where she was in bed with Kitt. She knew it was a dream, the way she always recognized she was dreaming, but Riza let herself fall into it anyway. The mattress was soft and she lay on her side, as Kitt's lips traced over the inked patterns on her naked back.
Riza faced an open window, where a white curtain billowed in the breeze. Beyond, she saw a glimpse of sunlight over fields of swaying grain.
"I like this place," she told Kitt drowsily. "Did you invent it?"
"It's Aerugo. But you don't get to stay. You made that choice." As he spoke, he put a hand on her shoulder and pushed it down toward the mattress. He slid a leg over to straddle her.
"This is a bad time for me to be dreaming about sex," Riza said. "Remember what happened before?"
Kitt ran hand over her hard, flat belly. "You escaped all right the first time."
"This is different," Riza said. "They gave me a gun. I'll have to shoot my way out."
"I told you this would happen," Kitt said, which was true. He had told her that, whatever the stated reasons for sending cadets to the front, they would slam a gun in her hand as soon as she got here. Kitt stroked his fingers along the exposed line of her throat. "Tell me where you're going." His thumb stopped on her larynx. "Say the name."
His fingers closed on her throat. "Your pronunciation is terrible."
She woke up.
The driver was pulling aside the canvas on the back of the truck. Dawn over the last rocky hills at HQ had given way to the blinding midday of the Ishbalan desert. Riza's dream world fell away. She was alone, curled between her rucksack and bedroll with a rifle strapped across her chest.
"Get up, soldier," grunted the sergeant.
Riza scrambled upright. "Yes s-- yes." She just stopped herself from saying "sir," turning her almost-gaffe into a stammer. Still, when she'd clambered over the tailgate with her bag and bedding and gun, she had to remind herself not to salute.
"This is it?" To Riza's surprise, they were in a village, maybe even a town.
"Last outpost of civilization," the sergeant said. "Now if I can figure out who the hell is supposed to be picking you up. . ."
Across the street, Riza saw two young men in traditional Ishbalan garb, a woman with a baby on her back, and a stray dog. It didn't look much different from the Ishbalan quarter of East City. From behind her, Riza heard a wolf whistle, and that wasn't much different from cities back home, either. She wasn't going to acknowledge the taunt, but then it was a woman's voice that said, "Hey, sweetheart. How much do you make?"
Riza turned slowly to the building behind her. The façade was stone, and it looked like it might once have been an inn. Now a woman with ethnically indeterminate features and curly, brightly-dyed red hair hung out the window. "How much does the Army pay you? Come up in here, you can double it."
The sergeant beside Riza laughed, and called back. "Double? I know what she makes and I know what you people charge. And she's a blonde." Looking down at Riza, he said, "You could triple what you make. You could triple what I make."
The whistles continued from above, but Riza waved dismissively upward and didn't look back at the women. They had brothels in East City, too. She could have taken up that profession without leaving home. Riza didn't respond to the sergeant's comment – what good would it do? – but asked, "Are you dropping me off here?"
He laughed again. "Hey, we're right by the command center in town. Madame Selene's is the first place most new men want to see. Nobody told me you'd be a girl. You should be thankful this is here," he added. "You don't want to be in a camp where you're the only female company the men can get."
A voice from above called, "We'll take your money, too, blondie! We're all open-minded here."
Before Riza could wave them off again, a woman said, "Hey, what about him!?"
"I like the tall one!"
"Oh, he never comes up here."
"Thank you for the interest, ladies," said a male voice right behind Riza. "I am, as always, flattered. What did you bring me, sergeant?"
The sergeant and Riza turned at once, and found themselves facing an officer with glasses and a stubbly beard. "At ease," the man said, before Riza and the sergeant could realize they should be saluting. Then, he added, "First Lieutenant Hughes." Hughes walked right past them and stuck his head into the back off the truck. "Beer? Letters from home? The latest adventures of Shelley Shoop? Nothing?"
"I wasn't even supposed to come here," the sergeant grunted. "I was hauling a bunch of cherries to HQ and I was supposed to take all this junk back to the train station, but then they threw me this kid at the last minute. I had to come all the way out here."
"I guess it's just as well you don't have anything," Hughes was saying. "Because if you did, Hawkeye and I would have to haul it up to the outpost by ourselves." Looking her in the eye for the first time – he had playful green eyes, a good fifteen inches above hers – he said, "You must be Hawkeye, comma, R."
"Riza," Hughes repeated, then turned to the sergeant. "You can go. Do I need to sign anything?"
The sergeant shook his head, saluted, and got back into the truck. As the engine started, Hughes looked at Riza and said, "I've been the XO for a week, so I'm just getting the hang of this. If you were a sack of beets, I would need to sign something. But cadets?" He shrugged. "You ready?" He pointed to a path behind them, built into the side of a hill, which led up at a steep incline.
Hughes glanced at Riza’s bag and at her. Riza had known enough men of the officer class to assume that his breeding was telling him not to make a lady carry her own things, while his military experience was warning him not to suggest she was incapable. It was a tribute to her level of exhaustion and soreness that Riza would have accepted the insult at this point, and gladly, but that was all the more reason not to let him know. She shouldered her bag and gun, and nodded.
"Riza, did you say? That's pretty. No one will ever call you that, of course. Hawkeye is too perfect. The Sniper with the Hawk's Eye. Everyone will think it's a prophecy."
"I only hope I can live up to it, sir."
"If you don't live up to it, people will think it's ironic. When I was a cherry, my nickname was 'Shorty.'" Then he winced, "Sorry about the language."
"It's all right," Riza said instinctively, amused by an officer apologizing for his language, then confused by what he thought he'd said. "Shorty?"
"No. Ahh." He scratched his neck. "Cherry? Like – you've never been in combat so you haven't – popped --"
"Oh!" Riza had heard the word thrown around to refer to the cadets, but with all the weird new terms, she hadn't connected it to the sexual reference. "I'm not offended," she said, then, having had her fill today of men acting like she was delicate or naïve, added, "I'm not a virgin."
Hughes' eyebrows went up, and hastily, in case he took it as some kind of offer, Riza said, "I'm seeing someone."
"Me too!" Hughes exclaimed. Within an instant, he had popped out a wallet and displayed an array of pictures showing the same slim blonde woman. In one, she was formally dressed and posed in a cap and gown; in another, she wore a riding habit and stood by a horse; in the last, as though Hughes needed evidence linking the two of them together, they sat on a blanket under a tree, with his arm slung around her and his cheek pressed against hers. In all the pictures, her smile looked seconds away from breaking into a happy laugh. Hughes-in-the-picture wore a wide, blissed-out grin that looked like a mirror of Hughes-in-real-life, at least for the second he was showing it off. "Her name's Gracia."
"Those are. . .pretty," Riza said, feeling doubly stupid by the inadequacy of her words and the haste of the unnecessary lie. If Hughes asked for more details about her entirely fictitious boyfriend, she could describe Kitt and make him a civilian (but that was too raw; a stab of pain hit her abdomen right then, as though to punish her for thinking it) or Becca and make her a civilian and also a boy (which was funny, actually, though it might be cruel; Riza needed to write as soon as she could and apologize for the way she'd said good-bye.) Or she could have described Roy Mustang – Roy, who had, entirely without intention, led her into the military, who had never been her lover, who she had hardly thought about in months. But, then, how could she describe Roy in a way that made him sound the least bit plausible?
She smiled up at Hughes. "I don't have a picture."
As they reached the edge of the town, Riza looked upward, to a scraggly path topped by tents and an incongruous stone tower. "Are we going up there?"
"As high as we can get. That's basically what war is. The art of defending the high ground. We've been occupying this town for some time, and certain officers enjoy the creature comforts. But nobody actually wants to defend an urban position. So that's why everything that really matters is up the hill, inside the wire. You're Slayton's new rifleman?"
"That's my specialty."
"Well, you'll have the highest of the high ground. That," he said, pointing at the tower, "is a prime sniper nest. Now as for how we get up there -- If you walk where I walk, you'll be fine." He led her along a narrow path marked off by barbed wire, and took short steps, probably for her benefit, so that she could put her feet where his had been.
"Land mines?" she asked, wondering if it was a test.
"Very good. Now, personally, I think it's silly. We've had sappers all through this area, and that's on top of knowing where they were in the first place."
"Because our sides planted the mines."
"Because we occupied this town, and then we unoccupied it. The village was basically abandoned, and Command didn't think we were going to want it back. But then since we left the place standing, the locals moved back in. So did we." He gave her a cockeyed smile. "Welcome to Ishbal. You're getting the hang of it fast. I'd say that your brains will serve you well here except that I haven't seen a lot of evidence that being smart gets you anywhere."
"Unless this is an initiation prank," Riza said, straining to match the length of Hughes' stride with her much shorter legs.
"Observant and not gullible, but cautious all the same." Hughes said approvingly. "And I only wish it were a prank. Although speaking of that –" He hesitated, letting her catch up to him. "You may have gathered HQ didn't convey that the new rifleman was not a man. I can't say how the camp will react, but they'll probably react." He tilted his head. "Just tell them you're seeing someone, and let me know if anyone gives you trouble."
As they topped the rise of the hill, a new vista opened up in front of them. In a trick of perspective, what had looked like a small, steep area from below turned out to be vast and mostly flat. As her eyes adjusted to the sameness, she saw they were approaching the tower, which masked a good deal of what was ahead.
Hughes said he was taking her to the major who commanded the company but, after ducking into the man's tent, he apologetically came back. "I'm supposed to take you to the sniper captain. Who is not a captain actually but a second lieutenant, which is part of why you got roped into this. We're short handed, your marksmanship scores were very good, someone saw your scores, and now you're here. What can you learn from this?"
Riza, who was starting to think she understood Hughes' sense of humor, said, "Never be good at anything," then let just enough of a beat fall before adding, "Sir."
He gave a cockeyed grin in response, and kicked at the flap of the next tent. "Come out and meet your new man."
"For fuck's sake, Hughes," groaned a voice from inside.
"Don't be a baby, Slayer." Hughes glanced over at Riza and murmured, "This is the guy to whom you owe your surprise trip today. Second Lieutenant Harry Slayton. Nobody ever calls him by his real name, for obvious reasons."
Half a minute later, a man pushed out of the tent, buttoning his uniform jacket. "I'm on night watch starting in an hour. If I haven't had some fucking sleep, the whole outpost will regret it."
"I brought your new rifleman," Hughes said.
Slayton looked right past Riza. "Where?" Hughes nodded toward her. "I see what you're showing me. I'm just choosing to believe that's a stripper, or a new girl from Madame Selene's. I'm choosing to believe you brought her up as a joke, that this is your fucked up sense of humor at work, not the Amestrian Army's. Because if I've been asking for another sniper for three weeks, and that's what they sent me, I'm going back in the tent to shoot myself. Same end result and I get to fucking sleep."
"Second Lieutenant Slayton," Hughes said, hitting the modifier hard. "Allow me to introduce Cadet Hawkeye. Your new sniper."
Riza saluted, and when Slayton's eyes brushed over her, she could see they were a striking deep blue. He had a strong jaw and thick chestnut colored hair that had grown long on the sides. The total effect was handsome, a face that would lead a charge onscreen, or sweep a girl off her feet. His eyes went back to Hughes.
"What does it do?" Slayton said. "Does it give head? Because – respectfully offering my suggestion, sir. If my men could get free blow jobs, that would actually do something for morale."
Riza sucked in her breath. A decade ago, five senior officers at Fort Briggs had been charged with gang raping a female lieutenant, and it had been justified in similar terms.
Hughes stepped toward him. "You know they shot those guys at Briggs, right?"
"Good God, I was joking." Slayton looked at Riza and, for the first time, addressed words to her. "Joking. Look, kid," he said. She thought he was in his mid-20s at most, about the same as Hughes. "I'm sure you're very good at target practice. You won some blue ribbons or a little gold trophy that said, 'I did it.' This is going to do fuck-all for you at the front. We're undermanned, the stakes are life and death, you can't be taking a piss-break every half hour, and –" He reached around Riza's rifle to slap her arm. "I've never seen a girl with the upper body strength to hack it over the long haul."
How many female riflemen have you seen at all? Riza wondered. But even though he was mouthing off to Hughes, she knew he wouldn't be equally tolerant to her talking back. Somewhere inside, not even so deep down, she wanted to shrug off her bag and her gun and collapse to the ground and say, I agree with you, you're right, send me home.
But he wasn't right.
“Do you want to feel my muscles?” Riza asked.
Slayton glanced toward Hughes, who raised his eyebrows at Riza. She nodded, and Hughes shrugged.
Riza dropped her rucksack, then pulled off the shoulder strap and set her rifle butt on the sandy earth. She slipped off the right sleeve of her uniform jacket and tilted the gun to slap into her opposite hand. Folding the jacket deliberately, she set it on top of her bag. This left her in trousers and a too-tight-because-it-was-cut-for-a-man black T-shirt – tight because of that and because she'd gained a cup size in the past three months, without a new wardrobe to compensate. The hip holster carrying her service-issue pistol was clearly visible. Riza rolled her sleeves up tightly onto her shoulder – right hand on left, then left on right, switching the rifle again as she did -- so that they barely covered her bra straps. Slayton ran a hand down each of her upper arms and over the back of her neck. "I've seen worse, I guess."
When he stepped back, Riza picked up the gun with both hands and lifted it over her head. She moved it to her left shoulder, overhead again, then to her right, then back, then again, increasing speed as she got the rhythm of it. It was basic drill team stuff, but she could keep this up for a very long time. After the jarring ride on the rocky road, the unpredictable stabbing pains in her abs and lower back and the recurring ache in her breasts, she was ready to welcome this familiar tedium.
Rapidly moving the gun from arm to arm freed up her brain and she realized she'd seen this maneuver somewhere, probably in a war film with the unconventional yet determined young hero (the one who was supposed to look like Slayton, not like her) having to prove his mettle for some implausible reason. If it had been like a movie, she would have had to keep going until her arms were about to fall off and the officer gave a look of resigned admiration.
But as it really went, it took less than a minute for Slayton to say, "All right, all right," then, "Halt! Belay! What the fuck ever." As she set the rifle butt down, he came behind and put his hand on her back. "I'm on shift all night and I'd like to get some goddamn sleep." His hand moved to the back of her neck. Then he stopped at the chain holding her dog tags, pulled it up and read them. "No medallion. You're a cherry but at least you're not in the actual Virgin Brigade." Before she could respond to that – she knew enough about the Astartian Sisterhood to find the suggestion ridiculous for more reasons than the obvious one -- he said, "Who was your rifle instructor?"
She hoped he couldn't feel her muscles tighten at the start of the question. Was he getting at something? Did he know about Tommy Ames? By this point, should she just assume everyone did?
"It's not a hard question," Slayton said. "I know all the guys at Central."
She relaxed, realizing he knew nothing. "I went to Eastern, sir."
"You went to – fuck me, Hughes, she didn't even go to the real Academy. Are you at least a senior?"
"Third class," she said. "They cancelled our fourth year."
"Hughes!" Slayton protested, as though this could possibly have been the executive officer's fault. Then Slayton's hands stopped moving. He pulled the collar of Riza's T-shirt down, and ran the flat of his hand down her back to the top of her bra strap. "Is this religious or something?" he demanded and, before she could answer, said, "Hughes, check out these tats."
"Stop pawing your rifleman, Slayer." Hughes' voice hinted he was about out of patience. "She's seeing someone. Not me, of course. I've got a girl back in Central and in fact I just got some new pictures. . ."
When Hughes went for his pocket, Slayton backed up. "No need."
"Really, because if you want to show off pictures of your wife. . ."
"I'm as satisfied as I'm going to get with this bullshit," said Slayton. "Do not think that this gets HQ out of sending me a real rifleman. You –" He pointed at Riza. "I'm on all night, but meet me at first light at the base of the tower for orientation. Right now I'm gonna get some fucking sleep before the sun goes down."
He moved toward the tent, and Hughes said, "Dismissed," in a tight voice.
"Oh, I'm sorry." Slayton gave an extravagant salute, and added, "Sir."
Hughes put a hand on Slayton's shoulder and, making the most of his several-inch height advantage, leaned in toward the other man. "Let's get this straight, Slayer. I've been an insubordinate motherfucker from time to time, when I thought it was warranted. That, plus the fact that I don't want anybody dying because you're falling asleep at your post, and the fact of not really caring if you vent at me, is why I don't have you running windsprints for the next hour. But if you take any of your bullshit out on your men, especially if you do it because your men are women, then, well – your balls are in the Dragon Lady's hands."
Slayton gave another put-upon sigh, saluted again, and went back into his tent.
When he was gone, Hughes looked at Riza. "Well handled. Thank you for helping to make my day." Then he frowned. "If that guy gives you a problem, don't worry about any chain of command bullshit. Let somebody know."
"Is he likely to give me a problem?" There was so much macho play-acting to deal with in the Army, there was no way to survive if you were too sensitive. But it would be naïve to think there was never a real threat behind the posturing. Riza hadn't completely learned to sort it out for herself, but one thing she had figured out was that other men often knew who were the real problems. That could be useful if you found one who would talk to you. If you could convince them that it mattered.
Hughes took the question seriously. "Slayer used to be a careerist," he said. "Now he just wants to go home. I don't think he'll do anything to cause himself extra trouble. But that's assuming people make sense, which is a thing I try never to do."
Riza gave a thin smile.
“Can I ask a nosy question now?” said Hughes.
“Sure?” Riza said, and braced for a query about her nonexistent boyfriend.
“I don’t know why, if you were, you’d be in the trenches with the rest of us grunts but -- are you an alchemist?”
The tattoos, Riza realized. She had been cautious, for a while, about letting anyone see them. But there had been a vogue for alchemy-inspired fashions in the past few years, and she had given up on maintaining anything like modesty since the Academy.
“Not in the slightest,” Riza said. “I’m not even really into it. Just -- there used to be someone in my life who was.”
“An ex?” Hughes said sympathetically.
“Right.” That was as easy an explanation as any, though she decided not to think too deeply about whether she meant her father or Roy. “Same for you?” she guessed.
Hughes let out a laugh. “Yes, actually. You can see we have something in common.”
“I don’t really have a boyfriend,” Riza blurted. “I said I was seeing someone, but I just -- I wanted people to leave me alone. I hate lying.”
“It’s not a bad precaution,” Hughes said. “If you want, I can keep passing the story on. I’ll be sure to make him big and mean.”
Riza smiled. “I can take care of myself, really,” she said, which she hoped he could tell was a way of thanking him. Then remembering something she’d meant to ask, she said, “Who’s the Dragon Lady?”
Major Amanda Chase was the artillery commander, a veteran of the Drachman campaign ten years before, and equal in rank to the unit commander that Hughes reported to.
“So why isn’t she the executive officer?” Riza asked, still trying, with Hughes’ help, to get a handle on the overlapping chains of command.
“The XO needs to deal with people,” Hughes said. “As a people person, Major Chase is very good with cannons. She outranks you but she’s not your commanding officer. You’re just, I’m pretty sure, supposed to be sharing her tent.”
“They’re putting me with a major? Why would --” Riza stopped. “Are we the only two women in the company?”
“Momentarily. There was – there used to be -- ”
“Right.” Riza gave him a look that said she wasn’t ready to hear any stories about dead girls right now.
They went to another tent, but this time Hughes was considerably more decorous, stopping to listen for movement inside. When he heard it, he cleared his throat to say, “Ma’am, it’s Hughes --”
The tent flap jerked back and they were looking at a broad-shouldered woman, not nearly as tall as Hughes, but with at least ten inches on Riza. She had very short hair, clipped almost to her skull, copper red shot through with silver.
“What now?” Chase asked. As she leaned forward, a round medallion clinked against her dog tags. Riza recognized the circle and torch of the Astartian Sisterhood.
“New rifle officer,” said Hughes.
“Slayton finally bitched enough? Fine, I’m tired of sharing my men.” She looked down at Riza’s uniform. “Academy cadet? Is this a joke?”
“Probationary Cadet Riza Hawkeye, ma’am,“ she said, saluting. “I came from Eastern. They cancelled our final year, and --”
“Great,” said Chase, in the tone that meant it wasn’t, and looked past Riza as she asked, “They want to stick her with me?”
“Nobody knows where to stick her,” Hughes said. “I figured you’d want first shot.”
“Guess you’re right.” She shrugged at Hughes, and turned away from him, mumbling, “Dismissed," over her shoulder. When Riza looked back to give Hughes a parting salute, along with a grateful smile, Chase tapped her on the shoulder. “Don’t dawdle, don’t flirt, and for God’s sake don’t do both at once.”
Riza moved into the tent with her bag and gun, and the flap closed behind them. The space was bigger than Riza had felt the right to expect, with a stripped cot in one corner and another, clearly inhabited by Chase, next to it. There was room for at least two more beds, easily, and she suspected they had been filled at some point. More ghosts.
“Did Slayton call for you at first light?” Chase guessed. When Riza nodded, she said, "With the noise around here, you’ll be awake well before that. I advise getting sleep while you have the chance. A couple rules, but one that really counts --” She saw Riza still standing and sighed. “At ease, for God’s sake. Let’s just say you're always at ease when you're in here. And you can call me Chase in here. Out there it’s ma’am or 'Major.' Don’t think I'm being friendly, I just prefer not to trip over you standing there like an idiot. Or have to give you permission every five minutes to wipe your fucking nose. At ease,” she repeated.
Riza dropped her gun and bag and sank gratefully onto the cot. She would as soon have set down the bedroll and sunk into sleep, but she didn’t want to misstep again. Sitting upright, she asked, “The rules, ma’am? Is that all of them?”
Chase closed her eyes and put a hand to her temple. “Men. Don’t bring men in here.”
“I just --” Riza stammered. “Hughes just walked me over here.”
“I don’t mean him. You’re going to make me spell it out. Don’t fuck any men in this tent.”
“You’re Sisterhood?” Riza said.
“I have to be celibate not to want to deal with your sex life in my living space?”
Whatever the major’s claims about wanting informality, Riza held back from saying, “I have to be a slut because I’m not in your virgin club?” But then -- she was nineteen, she’d already had sex with three men and (maybe, sort of, she didn’t know what counted) one woman. The most honest reason she could have given that she was sure not to be fucking men in this tent was that she was still bleeding sporadically from an abortion she’d had less than a month before, and right now the idea of a man ever getting inside her again was nauseating.
Whatever Chase’s definition of a slut, Riza was pretty sure she fit squarely inside it. Maybe that was even an objectively correct definition. She just would have liked permission not to think about it right now. “I’m sorry,” Riza said. “I can promise I’m entirely focused on doing my job and staying alive.”
“Sure you are. Or right now you think you are. But there’s one of you, and there’s a whole lot of them, and they’ll all want to curl up next to you and tell you they can keep you safe, and sooner or later you’ll find one you want to do that with. I’ve seen it too many times. I’ve got no interest in busting you for frat violations, believe it or not, I’m just asking you to keep it out of my sight.”
“Fine,” Riza said. “I’ll keep that in mind.” Easier to agree about something that wasn’t going to be an issue than fight someone she’d never be on equal ground with, anyway.
Chase went back, then, to the book she’d been reading, her interest in Riza exhausted by that lecture. Riza folded her uniform, and changed into sweats. The sun had almost set. She could feel the desert’s nighttime cold start to set in, and, knowing this might be the last good sleep she could count on, spread out her bedroll and sank gratefully into the cot. A thought hit her, then, and she looked at Chase. “Someone else was in here before me. Did she bring men in?”
Chase gave a withering look over the top of her book. “She was in the Sisterhood.”
Riza' s first encounter with the Astartian Sisterhood had occurred during orientation week at the Academy. She was walking across the quad with Becca when two women in upperclass uniforms approached, one from each side, and shoved pamphlets into their hands.
Before Riza could figure out what was happening, Becca had read the paper and shoved it back. "Virgin Squad? Yeah, sorry, that horse has left the barn."
The taller woman, a dark-haired ethnic Xingese, apparently realized Becca was mocking them, and crossed her arms with a scowl. Her smaller, earnest, blonde companion did not. Opening the pamphlet, the cadet pointed. "It doesn't work that way. You just have to pledge that from now on -"
"It sounds super. Just -" Becca reached to her neck and pulled out a star-shaped medallion. "If you could be the one to call my mom and tell her, not only did I join the Army, but I'm converting . . ."
"No thank you," Riza said to the Astartian women. She gave Becca a little shove in the back and, smiling at both Sisters, steered her forward.
"You didn't have to do that," Becca complained.
"I've known you for a day and a half. If I have to back you up in a religious brawl I have no personal stake in, I will –"
"Aww, roomie, you'd do that for me?"
"But I'd rather not," Riza said firmly. She had come here knowing absolutely no one and was happy, mostly, that Becca had decided to take their random cohabitation as a mandate of instant friendship. Still.
She looked down at the pamphlet, which said, "COULD THE SISTERHOOD OF ASTARTIA BE FOR YOU?" On the back, there were photos of smiling uniformed women, in a range of ages and ethnicities. Under the picture were the words "SOUL – BODY – MIND" in rows of descending size. Looking back at the pamphleteers, she saw they were out of earshot, and already moving on to fresh pedestrians. "They're just doing what they think is right," Riza said.
"They're extremely pushy." Becca scowled. "And I already have a religion."
Riza didn't, really, and she'd worked hard enough to get out from under her father's alchemy practices to be happy about that. Still. She touched the sore spot on her arm, from the morning's visit to the clinic. "At least we wouldn't have to get so many shots."
"We wouldn't get shots because we wouldn't be allowed to have sex. Last time I checked, free birth control was a military perk. Wait." She stopped and gave Riza a wondering look. "Wait, are you qualified for the Virgin Squad?"
"It doesn't work like that." Riza walked swiftly forward.
"Oh my God!" Becca trilled, loping after her. "This term is going to be way more fun than I thought. Operation Get Hawkeye Laid."
"Catalina –" Riza warned.
"Oh come on." Becca grabbed her shoulder and leaned in, giggling into Riza's ear. She singsonged, "You don't want to end up like those girls."
"I'm focusing on other things right now. Besides." She could recite her orientation manual. "Relationships within the ranks are officially discouraged and lead to complications."
Becca's eyes widened in horror. "I'm not talking about dating these guys."
Of the small group of women in their Academy cohort, about a quarter joined up with the Sisterhood. This was, Riza came to understand, a significantly smaller percentage than in previous generations. Twenty years before, when female officers were first given full equality in assignments and, theoretically, pay, more than two-thirds of servicewomen had been Astartian. Whatever benefits of membership had been apparent back then, all Riza knew now was that they were exempt from mandatory birth control injections.
"Hence the stereotype that Army women are virgins or sluts," Becca said, cheerfully, the first time she'd dragged Riza into New Optain to go to an upscale bar.
"I don’t actually want to be a slut?" Riza said cautiously. She didn't necessarily want to stay a virgin, either. On some level she appreciated Becca's casual worldliness, and she didn't want to insult her (so far, only) friend. Still, she wasn't entirely comfortable with these options.
"You don't have to be a slut," Becca said, patiently and not at all insulted. "You're totally allowed to have standards. Like, for instance, the way I don't sleep with military guys."
"Why not, besides the obvious?" Knowing Becca, it wouldn’t be the obvious.
"Military guys, on top of all their other failings, are, as a group, terrified of us. If they're going to screw somebody who threatens their manhood, they're going to do each other. Which – no judgment – totally happens. I know it's against the rules, but it does. And I mean, seriously, no judgment. Between you and me, it's kind of hot, and once I have a couple more of these drinks, I will speculate wildly on which dudes in our class are doing each other."
"That's probably also not the point."
"Probably." Becca sounded regretful. Then, more brightly, she added, "The point is, civilian guys are pretty sure you put out, so they buy you drinks, and they think you're fun, and so you have fun, and so you're crazy fun girl. Then if you want to sleep with somebody, you pretty much have your pick. At least –" She hesitated, as though it had just crossed her mind that Riza might have found presenting herself as 'crazy fun girl' to be a challenge. "That's how it tends to work for me."
Becca sounded so apologetic that Riza, for whom this did not remotely reflect her experience of dating, made herself say, "We'll see what happens."
In fact, while doing the town with Becca and the non-celibate members of their cohort could be fun, Riza soon gathered that upscale bars in New Optain were not going to be the answer for her. Also, she wished she could have Becca's instinctive disdain for military men. It might have saved her a lot of complication.
But that was still to come.
Riza was dressed and waiting before first light, rifle at the ready.
Slayton walked back and forth, looking her over. "You're quite the early bird," he said, hitting the second word hard. He flicked his eyes up and down her, in case maybe she'd forgotten that he'd noticed she was a woman, and that he wasn't too happy about it. Better "early bird" than "eager beaver," which she had gotten from male officers at the Academy. Also, because of those officers, she knew he'd have found something snide to say if she'd been right on time, and God forbid she'd been late.
"I'm ready, sir." Riza saluted.
"At ease." Slayton sighed, like the formality was an annoyance, though he'd certainly have been merciless if she hadn't followed it. If she was going to get the contempt anyway, she might as well do everything by the book and avoid the censure. This was something Slayton might not have figured out himself, based on how he'd acted toward Hughes.
Now the officer shoved some papers into her hand. "Walk." He snapped his fingers, and didn't look back, expecting Riza to fall in step. "In the time that somehow wasn't the twelve hours I spent on station overnight, I wrote up some things you need to know. That's not an excuse not to listen, but I'm not going to say anything twice. You'll have a free hour to study in the afternoon and if you get through it all, maybe a break before you go on sentry duty. Which will only be ten hours since we're easing you in."
"Yes, sir." While walking, she folded the paper and slipped it into her belt. It was too dark to read, but she appreciated having something to hold on to. As the officer continued talking, and she followed, Riza felt some relief. She hadn't known what to expect but what the lieutenant was describing was a job. She had held jobs before. Not jobs where she expected to be shot at, but she could learn procedures. She could follow orders. She could even take initiative given half the chance.
For now, she took in the tour of the encampment. It was a sizable operation, and the rifle specialists consisted of two dozen enlisted men under Slayton's command: two sergeants and the rest rank and file. They were stationed around camp to watch the perimeter, and regularly went out with mobile patrols besides.
"Don't worry, you'll get your chance," Slayton told her. "You'll learn the ropes around here, first, but everybody goes out. Don't be in any hurry. You're fairly safe inside the wire. On the other hand, on patrol you get to shoot these insurgent motherfuckers up close, where you can hear them scream. So there's an upside."
"I can't wait." Riza let him take whatever he would from her deadpan.
"Yeah, I know. I'm the worst person you ever met. Talk to me in a month."
After they'd made the rounds of all the sniper stations, which took half the morning, Slayton gathered the handful of bleary-eyed men who were off duty and introduced her to them. Riza wanted to apologize for interrupting their sleep. They looked at her with undisguised curiosity, some of it even aimed at her face instead of her breasts, which the uniform jacket at least had the advantage of covering. She must have been a novelty to them, and with all those eyes on her, Riza's instinct was to smile and try to appear nonthreatening. That was wrong. She moved to correct it with a stern officer's face, and a silent tirade at her finishing school teachers and at all the men over the years who had, as though that would solve everything, given her the unsolicited advice that she should smile more.
"Do we salute her?" the sergeant said, uncertainly, addressing the question to Slayton.
"She's an officer," he said. Though it wasn't precisely correct, that was where he had, perhaps unilaterally, decided to slot her. "Refer to her as Cadet Hawkeye. Obey her orders like they came from me. Salute her, say 'ma'am'." He looked uncertain at that – the military guidelines on gendered language were a hodgepodge that changed every week – but she nodded. 'Ma'am' was as good as anything, and she'd never been saluted before.
"Answer any of her questions," Slayton continued. "She's getting the usual orientation, although we can leave some parts out. I'm assuming she won't be requiring directions to the nearest brothel."
"I saw it," said Riza.
Slayton glanced over at her, surprised she'd interrupted his patter. It was a risk, but with the enlisted men listening, she wasn't as ready to roll over for everything he had to say.
She said, "I might need a job there. I mean, if I'm terrible at this one, I'd still like some way to do my part, so maybe they'll hire me."
A few of the men chuckled. A few others looked up to see if it might be okay to chuckle. Now Riza smiled and decided they were on her side, at least for the moment.
Slayton rolled his eyes. "Female comedians. Just what I need in my life."
He dismissed the men and hung back with Riza. "I wasn't going to say that."
"You already basically said it, to Lieutenant Hughes." By reminding him how he'd talked to his superior, Riza figured she ought to be able to earn some leeway for her own comments. And if he wasn't going to tolerate that, she might as well find out now. "You made it pretty clear what you thought women at the front were good for."
"I don't have a problem with women."
"As long as they're not in your military."
"I don't have a personal problem with you," he said. "I have a big problem with what it means that they sent you here. We're undermanned, if we lose a few people we'll be catastrophically undermanned, and the way they react to my requests is by pulling a cadet off the nearest transport."
"A girl cadet."
"Can we pull men from the other specialties?"
"Artillery needs their people as much as we do. Infantry's not properly trained."
"Can we train them?"
He stepped back and gave an assessing look that, this time, did not encompass her breasts or her shoulders. "Can we?" he asked.
"I’m willing to try. Meanwhile if you'll let me look at the schedule books, I'll see if I can figure out a way to move everyone to more frequent but shorter shifts. If we do it right, we'll have the same number on at any time but with longer breaks. It's something General Armstrong has had success with at Briggs. My friend Miles – Major Miles – was telling me –"
"All right," he said. "Give it a shot, eager beaver." He winced. "I didn't even mean that in a dirty way, believe it or not. If you're volunteering to take on extra work, and it gets me more sleep, I'm ready to be convinced. You might not have to go for that second job after all. Now you've got twenty minutes to review those pages and clean your rifle. After that, you're at your station."
Riza did her first watch, and the next day she did another, and another after that. They rotated stations, so that nobody got so familiar with the territory that they became complacent. It was the fourth day before she had a shift in the bell tower. This was the critical station of the entire encampment, looking out on the best access point from No Man's Land. Standing orders were clear. Riza had been on the shift for six and a half hours when she squinted through her scope into the faint dusk, and saw a man starting to climb the wire at the perimeter. Later, she would marvel at how little thought it had taken her to squeeze the trigger, how when she finally became a killer, it turned out to be something she had decided a long time ago.
In the moment, she only registered the man's head blowing to pieces. She thought of the boys in her village who used to drop melons from the bridge and watch them crash on the rocks. She'd seen men die that way before, by that time, and she only had a moment to wonder that she'd been the one to cause it.
Slayton gave her an incident report to initial at the end of the shift. He kept these statistics for her, the way she kept them for the rest of the unit. She would be grateful, later, for the paperwork, because within two weeks, she had no mental tally of how many lives she had taken.
When Riza wasn't on sentry duty, she worked on a plan to experiment with the rotation, which Slayton approved on an interim basis. HQ didn't send them any new riflemen, but they didn't lose any either, and Riza persuaded Hughes to ask the company commander for permission to train some extra snipers.
While other riflemen went on patrol, Riza continued to be confined to the outpost, within the wire. Slayton insisted she wasn't ready to go out. Hughes confided his opinion that the rifle commander knew he couldn't get anyone to do Riza's job if she was a casualty.
"So sometimes it pays to be good at things."
"Depends on whether you consider being alive in this place to be a benefit."
HQ did, finally, send a commission for Slayton's promotion to First Lieutenant. He wasn't able to enjoy it that much because Hughes got his promotion to Captain on the same day.
Then, when she'd been at the front for six weeks, Riza put her eye to the rifle scope, and what she saw there changed the rest of her war.
After making its memorable entrance, the Alchemy Battle Group set up temporary quarters inside the wire. They were pleased with what they had accomplished that day, or at least the off-duty officers drank and laughed enough to give the impression that they were.
Riza's first instinct was to stay in her tent. She had entertained fleeting fantasies about encountering Roy Mustang on the battlefield, but if she had imagined, "See him through a rifle scope, fire a shot that saves his life, and then greet him with, 'Do you remember me?' – well, she would have dismissed that fantasy as excessive melodrama. But it had really happened, and trying to follow that up could only be a disappointment. Still, if she didn't go down there, she would just sit in her tent while Chase read a book and acted like Riza was invisible.
Besides. It was Roy.
Riza didn't think it would take much work to find Roy Mustang in the middle of a party, but as it happened, he found her. She entered the senior officers' tent and sidled toward a group of officers playing cards, when something metallic tapped her shoulder. Roy stood behind her, holding a flask and a metal cup. Before she could protest, he poured a drink and thrust it into her hand.
"To life," he said. "Specifically, you saving mine." He gave what struck her as a slightly-too-broad grin (I know him? Does he not remember that I know him?), but she tried to return the smile as she clicked her cup against his.
"It was nothing," Riza said. "It was the same that anyone at my station would have done." The liquor burned her mouth as it went down.
"Let me at least thank you for saving Hughes, then." Roy turned his head and jabbed his chin toward Hughes, who was watching them from across the tent. Roy gave Hughes an exaggerated wave, then leaned down closer to Riza. "He's trying to figure out what's up with you and me."
"I've known Hughesie since the Academy. We're friends."
"I mean –" Riza swallowed. A few feet away, an alchemist and two artillerymen were yelling over a raucous card game. No one was listening to her or to Roy. "Why should he wonder? If you two are so close. You lived with my family for years. Why would I be a secret from your friends?"
Roy's smile curdled before her eyes. "I haven't told – that is, I've found a certain level of reticence to be – there are reasons it is prudent – particularly in regard to certain –" His hand brushed over the top of her back, where the ink on her flesh held the formula for the powerful alchemy he practiced. "If you understand."
"I understand." Riza shoved the cup back toward him. "Thank you for the drink." Tears burned her eyes as she walked outside. Outside, the darkness hit her quickly. So did the cold, that startling counterpoint to the daytime heat.
"Would you believe me," Roy's voice said, behind her, "if I told you I don't know what I said?" He touched her shoulder again.
Riza rubbed her eyes and turned slowly to him as she spoke. "Oh, I believe you don't know." He gave her an expectant look, and she realized he actually wanted her to tell him. That was the thing that was so hard to get used to with Roy, the way he asked you things because he truly wanted answers. "First, you implied you were only talking to me to mess with your friend. Then you wanted to make sure I didn't tell anybody how we knew each other."
"I didn't intend for you to get that impression."
"It's not an impression I just wildly got. It's what you said."
"I –" He began, like he was about to argue. Then he held up a hand. "Can we start again? It's been four years, Riza Hawkeye. I've missed you. I'd like to talk."
There was a room at the base of the old bell tower where some of the snipers had taken to napping on their short breaks. Everyone off-duty was carousing with the alchemists, so Roy and Riza could have the place to themselves. She set a lantern inside and shut the door behind them. "I don't have to be on shift for another six hours," she said. "I doubt I'd sleep much tonight, anyway."
"I never sleep much." Roy settled next to her on the straw-stuffed pallet someone had snagged for the room, when its rightful owner died or just wasn't looking. "This is cozy." He lay back and stretched his arms over his head. "Reminds me of that room in the barn where you used to go so Master Hawkeye couldn't find you."
Riza shook her head, surprised that he still used the honorific to refer to her father. "I can't believe you knew about that. Did you go in there to mess with my stuff?"
"I went there so your father couldn't find me. Same reason you did. And of course there was no messing. A girl's stuff is sacred." He paused. "I did read your diary a couple times."
"I didn't have a diary. Fuck you. Pour me some more whiskey."
He tipped the flask into her cup. "How'd you end up with a mouth like that on you? What have you been doing all this time?"
"I joined the Army. Which answers both questions, really."
"And raises a lot of other ones. I'd assumed you were settled somewhere in the East. Teaching school. Or married or. . ." He frowned. "I told you to let me know if you needed anything. I did try to write, but I guess you didn't get my letters." He was watching her face and whatever she showed there changed his approach. "Okay, you did get them. You just didn't write back."
"I wrote you letters. Half a dozen at least."
"I wonder why I never --"
"I didn't send them."
"Oh." Roy chewed over that for the course of a long silence. "To spare my feelings?"
"No!" Then, "Maybe. Some of them, yes. They weren't all very nice letters. But mostly – You kept saying to let you know if I needed anything. And. I didn't need anything."
Roy let out a high-pitched cry that turned into her name. "Riza?! I don't believe you could be so damned literal." She turned her face away from his examining gaze and after she didn't answer for a long moment, he sighed. "No. But you could be that damned obstinate. You are a Hawkeye. Just like your father."
"Leave him out of this."
"I shouldn't have mentioned him. That was low of me."
This, Riza knew, was the sort of thing Roy would say when a less exasperating person would say he was sorry. She'd have to take it as an apology, or they would never get anywhere. "I wasn't being obstinate," she said, even as she suspected he was on to something. "But nothing I wrote ever seemed appropriate."
"I told myself you weren't answering me because you were happy somewhere. And I guess, also, in the back of my mind I knew you might be angry. At me, and at yourself, for sharing your father's secret with someone who was going to run off and use it for the military. We both knew that was the last thing he would have wanted."
"There were times I felt that way."
"But then – if you joined the military yourself – it makes no sense –"
"You did have positive words for the military last time we spoke."
He bit his lip and drew a breath in, rolling his head back. "Please don't say that. If I thought I was to blame for you being here –"
"You keep talking like I somehow got stuck here. I didn't. I earned my way onto the field because I'm good. Maybe HQ takes infantrymen who wash out and throws them on the front lines to get rid of them. But they don't do that with girl officers. I got pulled off a transport to come here, over a guy who was a squad leader at the Academy, because I had better rifle scores." Because someone wanted to have fun at Slayton's expense, too, maybe, but it wouldn't have been an issue if she weren't qualified. "If I had just fallen into this, I'd be back in Border City putting stamps on transfer orders instead of here saving your life."
She'd gotten to her feet at some point during this rant. He stared up at her.
Riza crossed her arms. "I don't see why it's somehow fine for you to be here and not for me."
"I don't recall saying that it's fine for me to be here."
"Oh." The – admission? confession? – was so different from what she had expected that it deflated all her resistance.
Roy beckoned for her to sit by him again, holding out the flask. She shook her head at the drink but lowered her body back onto the pallet. "Your point is well taken," he said. "I promise never again to cast aspersions on your right to make choices that are every bit as questionable as my own."
"Thanks? I suppose that is what I was asking you for." A silent moment passed. "It's true that I have wondered if I did the right thing, sharing Father's formula. But it was, and it is, a sign of the trust I placed in you. I hope you know that was the only time –" She swallowed and, feeling his gaze on her, tried to make it into a joke. "That was the only time I've taken my shirt off for a man who knew anything about alchemy." When his mouth dropped open a few inches and he didn't answer, she said in a small voice, "That was supposed to be funny."
"It's okay," he said, but he visibly inched away from her. "But Hughes did tell me you have someone. That you're seeing someone."
"Good old Hughes." Riza laughed. "That might be . . . not entirely accurate. By which I mean, a total fabrication."
"A lie?" said Roy. "Did you get Hughes to lie to me?"
"Not to you, specifically. That's just a story I told when I got here. To keep away the wrong kind of attention. It's not a very well-developed story, and I'm not a very good liar. But telling Hughes something is a good way to make sure everybody hears it." She smiled. "I confessed the truth to him almost right away. But he still helped me out."
"That's very sensible, in your position, actually. You don't know what kind of creeps are in a unit like this and if it keeps them from thinking they have a shot with you. . ." He shook his head. "I can't believe Hughes would lie to me."
"Maybe he thought it was none of your business."
"Maybe. Maybe you think it's none of my business. God," he said, as though considering the idea for the first time, "Maybe it is none of my business."
"Maybe." She smiled and then silence fell. Companionable silence, she thought, except that she was suddenly aware of how close their bodies were. The renewed connection between them drew so much on the past, on the sense of alliance that developed because neither of them was particularly happy in her father's household. There was so much of that to sort through that she'd almost forgotten the other part, which was that he was breathtakingly pretty. They had been teenagers, living in close quarters. The first time she had touched herself, under a thin blanket, and half-accidentally discovered a new pleasure, of course it had been Roy she was imagining.
She thought of telling him that now. It had been so long ago, and so much experience had intervened. Telling him seemed like the sophisticated, worldly thing to do, to share a ridiculous story of innocence flirting with transgression, so that both of them could laugh at the children they had been.
Instead, she turned her head toward the wall. "There has been someone, though. More than one someone. I'm not exactly in the Astartian Sisterhood."
"Good," Roy said. "Those people are no damn fun."
She thought, for a second, of kissing him. Then she thought of lying back on the mattress, stretching her arms over her head, turning her eyes toward him to see what he would do, and letting him do it. She had never flattered herself that Roy returned her teenage crush. Still, Riza had felt his eyes on her from time to time. Even if it was only a youthful reflex, a body searching for other willing bodies the way a sniper's eyes scanned the landscape for spots where trouble might flare up. She wasn't a fourteen-year-old virgin anymore. She knew that men could enjoy her body, could even fall in love with it. If she were to lie back, right now, and look up at him, Riza didn't think he would turn away.
She leaned forward, circled her knees with her arms, and pulled them up toward her chin. "There was someone," she said. "Not that long ago."
"Do you want to tell me about it?" From Roy, that was an honest question. If she said she didn't want to tell him, there would never be another word on the subject.
"I think I need to. It won't feel honest if I don't." When he tilted his head, she said hastily, "That doesn't mean I need you to tell me everything you've been up to. You're the way you've always been. I'm the one who's changed."
"Oh. My." Roy raised a hand to his face and muffled a laugh. "Forgive me if I'm not sure how to take that."
"I think you know how to take that." He would leave the Hawkeyes' house as soon as his day's lessons were over. She would be up reading or fussing in the kitchen when he came in, glassy-eyed and smelling of a woman's perfume. And not always a woman's. Once when she stood at the sink, he leaned over her and she caught a scent of aftershave, like pine needles rubbed over leather. Roy had a few bottles, gifts from his aunt, but they smelled tangy, like an orange with cloves in it.
"I never noticed you wearing that scent before. What are you covering up?" She meant liquor or cigar smoke, but he stepped back from her and stared.
"Oh," he said. "It's just – spilled something at the pub, I guess."
The next day she'd been in the village and seen a military officer, arms full of recruiting pamphlets, with a small group of young men gathered around him. She ducked into the post office, but as she came out, the recruitment officer brushed past her. He was about thirty, with side whiskers and pomaded hair, and he reeked of the same cologne that had been on Roy, the night before.
That was a week before he left to join the military, and Riza had trouble thinking that was a coincidence. She could have asked him now, could have asked him about the odd vibrations she sensed between him and Hughes. (An ex who was an alchemist, Hughes had said. They had that in common.)
"We're not talking about your sordid past," Riza said. "This ismy sordid past time."
"All right, then. What was his name? Who broke your heart and whose ass do I have to kick? Was he another cadet?"
"Emphasis on was."
"Oh. Fuck." Roy sat up and stared at her. "Why didn't you stop me? I hate this damn war."
It took her a second to understand what he had assumed, and then she squeezed his hand. "No," she said. "Sorry, it's not what you think – He didn't die. He deserted."
"Deserted you or the Army?"
"Does it make a difference? Both."
"Oh." In barely a syllable, the shift from compassion to contempt gave her whiplash. It shamed her a little, the satisfaction she got from subjecting Kitt to Roy's scorn. A little, but there was still satisfaction. "He did it, by coincidence, the week we got our orders to the front."
Roy spoke through clenched teeth. "That doesn't sound like a coincidence."
She could have stopped there, let him fill in the rest of the story himself. Maybe she would have if she hadn't gone and made that comment about being honest with him. "The coincidence was, that's also when we found out I was pregnant. Or. Not exactly a coincidence, since they gave us all physicals with the new orders and made the girls get checked out." She kept her eyes straight ahead so she didn't have to see any reaction on his face, didn't have to see if he was taking a reassessing look at her body. "I had an abortion, obviously."
"You wouldn't have had a choice."
"I had a choice," she said, feeling testy, not because of him but because of the thousand other times she'd had some form of this conversation. "Maybe it was a harsh one, but I knew the terms when I enlisted."
"Of course," he said. "I only meant he must have known that, too. Sounds like he took the excuse to run off and avoid deployment."
"Oh, so if I was actually having his baby, that would have been a good reason to run?"
"Of course not. That would have made him a scoundrel. This way he's just a coward."
Riza was starting to realize that her story was like one of the hypotheticals they gave out in a psychology class, where your assignment of motive and blame said more about you than it did about the story. "It wasn’t like that," she said. "He wanted me to come with him."
Roy raised an eyebrow. "Run off to Aerugo to live with all the deserters? Have his baby and live on a collective farm or whatever the hell they do in that place?"
"Something like that." Pretty much exactly like that, but Riza wasn't going to give Roy too much credit now.
"But you weren't willing to throw everything over for love."
"I wouldn't throw everything over for him. I don't know what I would have done for love." She let out a bitter laugh. "He was in love with me. I don't have any doubt in my mind about that. So. I was a coldhearted bitch to a man who only wanted to make me happy. Now you know the worst thing about me."
"It takes a bit of the romantic shine off his desertion that he decided to do it anyway."
"He really felt conflicted about the war," she said quietly. "No, not conflicted. He hated it. I was the only reason he stayed around as long as he did. God." She winced. "The only way to keep the man I was with for two years from sounding like a coward is to make him sound like a traitor. I don't know if I should even be saying any of this to you."
"I'm not an informer."
"I hadn't thought of that possibility. I probably should have."
"It's not bad to be wary," Roy said. "But -- I saw Hughes today, and first thing he started talking to me about the war. How it's changed us, made us all killers. Now understand, Maes Hughes is the best friend I've ever had. Before I met him, I didn't think I could make friends like that. My first thought when he started talking to me was that Hughes has a family. He has vulnerabilities, and he's just the kind of guy they'd use to try and get to me. Sound me out if they thought my loyalty was suspect."
"Hughes?" Riza said in amazement.
"It makes sense in a certain light. Just like I'm the kind of person they'd use to get to you. You know what the next thing I thought was? Fuck it. If they're looking for an excuse to shoot me, let it be because I trusted a friend."
"That's –" Riza said. "It's –" But she didn’t know what it was. This was what made Roy Mustang so hard to pin down, the sudden pivots from hard-bitten practicality to personal loyalty and idealism. He knew what it was going to take to get where he needed to go, but if he had to cast his friends off to do it, he didn't want it that badly. It made her worry for him.
It made her want to follow him anywhere.
Then, considering the import of that realization, and the implications of what he had just said, Riza asked, "Is it?"
"Your loyalty. Is it suspect?"
Riza leaned toward Roy and put her hand on top of his wrist. His eyes met hers and Riza didn't know what she was thinking about, except for his eyes. They sat in silence, the length of which was impossible to measure, and she couldn't imagine how it was going to end, until there were three sharp raps on the door.
Bang bang bang! "If you're jerking off in there, ten seconds to get it back in your pants."
Riza lifted her hand off of Roy's, and whispered, "Lieutenant Slayton."
The door shook a few times before it burst inward. Slayton gave it a scowl, then turned in their direction. "Are you so busy playing with your dick --?" he said, just as she said, "Sir," and he froze. For a second she thought he was going to apologize and back out. Then his eyes fell on Roy. "Why, Cadet Hawkeye. Is this your elusive boyfriend?"
"This," said Roy, "is Major Mustang."
Riza could see Slayton's political gears start moving, as he raced through the chain of command in his head trying to place an unfamiliar major. Then he crossed his arms and leaned back into the doorframe. "When you say 'major', you mean 'alchemist.' See, when I hear 'major' I think of an officer who worked his way up and earned the title."
Just from sitting next to Roy on the bed, Riza could feel his muscles tighten. "You're what?" he asked. "A brigadier?" Slayton let the question hang there, and Roy persisted. "If I should be saluting you, I'd like to know."
"First lieutenant," he said, then, "Cadet Hawkeye's unit commander."
"I was under the impression Riza was off duty."
"Sure she is." Slayton slouched, much too casually, his back against the door. Conversationally, he went on, "You two look awfully -- what's the word? Fraternal. It's cute."
"We were talking," Roy said, ice in his voice. "The cadet and I are old acquaintances, and we were talking. Maybe you can't have a conversation without your dick getting in the way --"
"Speaking of --" Riza stood and put a hand on his shoulder. "I need to sleep. This conversation is ridiculous, and I need to get back to my tent. It's been pleasant to catch up with you, sir, and --"
"Sure thing." Roy raised his hand, clenched in a fist, and after a second's hesitation, Riza made her own fist and tapped against his. She had seen him and Hughes do this -- she thought it might mean something among Central Academy boys -- and she liked being included in the gesture.
Then Roy took her hand, gave it an affectionate squeeze, and lifted it to his mouth. His eyes went to Slayton, and he brushed her knuckles with his lips. It was a perfectly innocuous action between opposite sex officers, in certain ceremonial contexts. Though since they were neither in dress uniform nor in the presence of a foreign head of state, Riza didn't think any of the relevant situations applied.
She pulled her hand away and tapped Roy on the shoulder, steering him toward the door. The only thing she wanted less than to stay behind in the room alone with her lieutenant was to go, and leave him alone with Roy.
"You really can be an ass," she said, when they were out of Slayton's earshot.
"Don't forget to say, 'Major'."
"You really can be a major ass."
"I set that one up for you," Roy said, magnanimously. Craning his neck back toward the room, he added, "I don't like that guy."
"If Slayton's the biggest problem in my life," Riza answered, "I'm doing pretty well.
In Riza's dream that night, Kitt was on top of her, thrusting into her, and she couldn't feel anything. "Sorry," she told him. "This isn't working." He kept on until she said again, "This isn't working," then, "Stop."
Because it was a dream, they didn't have to go through the messy process of disentangling their bodies, but she recognized the weary sigh with which he pulled away from her. Like he'd been laboring so hard at fucking her, just to make her happy, and here she was not appreciating him.
"These are not your best aspect thats you're showing off right now," she said. They were sitting back to back, fully clothed, on the bed.
"Whose fault is that?" Kitt said. "We had a lot of good sex, and this is what you're dreaming about."
"These really aren't your best aspects." Riza was sitting up, wearing one of Kitt's T-shirts. Leaning back, she saw the drab jacket draped over his shoulders. Over the pocket, it bore the insignia of the Aerugeon flag, and his block-printed name, "Kittinger." "You really left," she said.
"What else am I going to do? The Army lies to us, uses us. We're just supposed to bend over and take it?"
"Hmm," said Riza. "Why do men always say that like it's the worst thing in the world? I've done that." Riza rolled her head back against his shoulder. "I've done that for you."
He touched her hair, uncertainly. "That's different," he said. "You wanted to do that."
"I agreed to. That doesn't mean I wanted to. You men don't get the point of your own metaphors."
"Some of us do," said the voice of the man in Kitt's place. She froze because it wasn't Kitt's voice at all.
"Don't move." He spread his fingers out on her back. The area that his hand covered on her skin grew outward, warming with the temperature of his body. Then it grew hotter and hotter, and she looked behind her to see not Roy, and not a bedroom, but the Ishbalan countryside, all in flames.
When Riza woke up, she didn't feel rested at all.
She came on shift at dawn, to relieve Slayton in the bell tower. He said nothing as she shouldered her rifle and replaced him on the turret. However, instead of leaving the post as quickly as possible, he only backed away and slouched against the opposite wall. Considering how often he talked about the importance of getting back to his tent and sleeping, he must really want to bug her about something. Riza ignored him in the futile hope that he would leave her be, and got to work scanning the perimeter.
"So," the lieutenant said, several minutes after the situation had become desperately uncomfortable. "Roy Mustang." Then, dragging the words out, "Royyyy Mus- tang."
"It's a ridiculous name," Riza said, pretending to agree with what she pretended he was talking about.
"A friend of yours," he prompted. This time Riza let the silence hang until Slayton broke it by saying, "I wonder what the deal is with that guy."
"He's an alchemist. Gods know where the Army finds people to do that."
"But you know him." Having figured out what game Riza was playing, or maybe just bored with waiting on her to respond, he said, "It's interesting to see you looking so cozy. You've always been so -- what's the word? -- standoffish. And I've tried to respect that."
Riza restrained the urge to snort out loud.
"I've tried to respect that," he continued. "What with that boyfriend you have back home --"
"I never said it was a boyfriend."
"I'd thought about that, too, and strictly speaking it's none of my business if you're a dyke. It's not even against regulations to be a dyke, since the regs don't acknowledge that dykes exist. So it's not my business if you're a lez, or if you're taken, or whatever. But then I wonder what it is about that guy that you're suddenly so friendly."
Riza repositioned the gun and lifted her eye to the scope. "You must be bored."
"It's boring here." Riza didn't look back, but she could hear him walking closer to her. "But knowing you're not always so standoffish, I'm thinking maybe you're selective about who you allow into your space --" His leg brushed her hip and now she had to acknowledge him standing over her.
Looking up, she said, "There's no need for you to stay in here."
"This makes you uncomfortable?" He stepped back, enough to count as a gesture but not actually to clear her space. "Chill out. I'm not going to rape you."
"Thanks," Riza grunted, looking through the scope again. "If you'd rape me, you'd lie to me, but thanks for the meaningless reassurance." When he laughed in response to that, she said, "Here's something to think about. What if I turned around right now and shot you in the balls, and I said it was because you tried to rape me? Take a mental inventory of how many people in this camp would believe your side of the story."
Now he let out a full on laugh. "You're fucking nuts." But he stepped back. He wasn't really threatened by her, she thought, and she wasn't really afraid he'd attack her. Still, they had to do this dance.
She felt incredibly tired.
"If you're not planning to get any sleep, sir, I could certainly use some more."
"So you don't want my company."
"We've established that."
"Sure, Hawkeye," he said. "All right." Then, as if he weren't changing the subject, "I heard this funny story about Eastern Academy. That's where you went, didn't you say that?"
There was no good in dragging this out. "I did."
"I was back at HQ last week on a resupply run," he said. "I talked to a guy who told me about an officer in his unit who used to teach rifle to the plebs at Eastern. Tommy Ames," Slayton prompted. "He might have been the same time as you?"
Riza had no idea how much information Slayton had, or where he would have heard it from. No point in denying it and letting him catch her in a lie. "Captain Ames was my instructor. An excellent marksman. I attribute a good deal of my skill to the Captain's instruction, yes."
"It's funny you say 'Captain.' The story I heard is, he got busted back to lieutenant and sent to the front."
"Is that so?"
"You didn't know that?"
"He was a captain when he taught me."
"The story goes, he got busted down because of messing around with girl cadets."
So this was what he'd been saving up. He would have come out with it sooner or later, she was sure; seeing her with Roy was just icing on the cake. Looking at her hand, Riza saw that it wasn't shaking. Still, she didn't trust herself to answer out loud.
"That doesn't surprise you," Slayton prompted.
"It's not something I would ever have thought about," Riza lied. Her voice stayed as steady as her hand.
"Is that so? I guess I just have a hard time believing --"
"Believing what?" Suddenly, though, Riza was barely listening. Instead, she looked through her rifle scope.
"A good-looking girl like you. I have a hard time believing a guy like that would have been able to let you be." When she pivoted her rifle instead of answering, he said, "Unless he didn't think you were good looking."
"Unless he thought I'd shoot him in the balls for trying a stunt like that. Lieutenant, come take a look at this --" She moved aside for him to use her rifle scope.
"It's a kid with a goat," he said. "We can't shoot 'em if they're not trying to breach the perimeter."
"Don't sound so heartbroken about it," she said drily.
"Well, missy, it would make our jobs a lot easier. And us a lot safer. I've been saying we need a broader no man's land."
And more land mines that we can't find when we come back through here, she thought. But she focused on the issue at hand. "I don't like how close they are to the wire."
Slayton looked down at her. "You want me to go tell the kid to take his goat and get away from our perimeter?"
"No," Riza said. "I think -- I think that's what he wants."
"The kid with the goat. He has a master plan."
"He keeps going out into the brush and coming back. I think there's someone else out there, and they're screened from us somehow. But they're over toward the artillery position. Meanwhile the kid keeps getting closer to the wire. It's like they want us to come out there and chase him off."
"A distraction instead of a direct attack," Slayton said. "So instead of sending someone down there, we should send someone out the other way. . ."
"We should let artillery know, anyway."
Slayton looked around. "Is there a fucking radio here that works or –" He glanced at the shortwave, which was set to receive. "Never mind, I'll go down."
Now she was left waiting. It felt like entirely too long, even for Riza's well-tested patience. The kid kept coming up to the fence, once hitting it with a rock. Dammit, kid, Riza thought. Go home! She idly considered a warning shot, at his feet. He would run off then, him and his animal, and let the grownups play their dangerous games.
After thirty minutes, by the clock propped on the floor next to the window, she heard shouting down the hill. The boy turned and looked, then stood and bounded away. Good, she thought. Let him go back to the village. A few minutes later, three Ishbalan men walked toward the gate with their hands over their heads. A much larger group of Amestrian infantry walked behind them.
An arrest then. No casualties. Riza didn't envy these men their fate as Amestrian prisoners, but at least they weren't lying there with their heads blown open.
They hadn't blasted a hole in the perimeter either.
Riza kept watching but didn't see anything out of the ordinary, and then she saw two soldiers approaching the tower. Slayton and, with him, Chase. Riza stayed at her station.
"Tell me what you saw," Chase was saying, as they walked into the room. "I want to know exactly what clued you in."
"I told you,” Slayton said.
"Show me then." Riza kept up her scanning of the perimeter, as Chase came to stand behind her. "You were standing, what, here? Looking out --?"
Slayton must have pointed, because Chase's feet shifted direction. "So behind there. You saw a kid and he was doing what?"
"He was walking back and forth and –" Slayton began, and then he hesitated. "Over that way because that's where we found –"
If Chase were asking because she really needed to know, Riza might have offered an explanation. She had a feeling, though, that wasn't the actual purpose of the question.
"Just to get this straight," Chase said. "You were where Hawkeye is now? And then you waited for her to come relieve you, and then you came down to find me? You didn't radio?"
"I was looking," Slayton said stiffly. "I saw it."
"Mmm-hmm," she said. "Why don't you get some rest, lieutenant? You ought to be off shift. We can take this up tomorrow."
There was a satisfaction in watching Slayton salute Chase and back down. It was the first time Riza had thought with any clarity, I'd like to be a senior officer one day. Then she was alone with Chase, and this situation carried its own set of discomforts.
"They'll do that whenever they can get away with it, you know," Chase said. "You do all the work, they'll take all the credit."
"Men?" It was time for a sales pitch for the Astartian sisterhood, then. Because obviously if she belonged to a society of female officers this would never happen.
"Officers. Superiors. Politicians. Anybody you'll let get a leg up on you."
"Of course. Ma'am."
"And, yes, a lot of time they are men. Though," Chase added, "Slayton is especially bad about it. On the other hand, he's pretty bad at it. There's not a person in command who doesn't realize how much better he's gotten at administration since you've come on. Those shift adjustments you've done are impressive."
"He tried to take credit for that, too?"
"I told you. If you let them get away with it --"
"Of course, ma'am." Riza bit her lip and now she felt tears start to rise in her eyes. It wasn't enough to do your job right, you had to spin it right. Then if someone tried to steal the credit, that was your fault, too, for being foolish.
"Hey," Chase said, on the way out. "You did good."
"Oh," Riza said quietly. "Thank you."
"I think Lieutenant Slayton should treat me like everyone else," Riza said to the Hughes, over breakfast in the officers’ mess tent.
Hughes stopped with a spoonful of gruel in front of his mouth. "Meaning what?" He gave Slayton a wary look.
"I never go outside the wire," Riza said.
"She's a cadet," Slayton answered, and Riza noted how they were able to have this conversation without addressing each other directly. "She's not even supposed to be here. Anyway, I need her inside the wire."
"You need her to do your paperwork." This came from Chase, who was seated by herself at the other end of the table.
"Yes, all right, you've got me," Slayton said. "Hawkeye's a good administrator. She's also a good sniper, which is something we can use here, on the last line of defense."
"She's a good rifle, period," said Chase. "We dragged her out here, she ought to be able to get her stars in the field like anyone else. She's going to have to go home and defend the fact that she won them. We're not doing her any favors by treating her like a special case."
"Fine." Slayton turned and gave her a long, assessing look before he said, "I can think of a lot better uses for that ass than getting it shot off, but who cares what I think?"
"Nobody cares what you think," Hughes said. "And watch your mouth, or you're gonna end up on field discipline." Threatening a fellow officer with a physical labor detail was a pretty big deal, and this was the second time Riza had heard Hughes do it to Slayton. Riza liked Hughes, but she was opposed to idle threats, not so much on principle as out of concern that the real thing would stop working.
Slayton looked like he was about to talk back and force Hughes to follow through, but then he thought better of it. "Whatever. You're the goddamn XO."
Then Hughes looked at Riza for a long moment. Finally, he said, "You're right, and Chase is right. I hate that you're right, but then, I guess I'd go crazy if I was stuck inside the wire, too." He looked at his watch. "We're going out overnight, and it happens I'm leading. Get your field gear in order, make sure you know rules of engagement, and meet with Sergeant Shepard about your place in the line." He rubbed his temple. "Be careful what you wish for, Cadet."
Riza left gratefully, thinking the whole exchange had been awkward as hell. She and Hughes were friends. Making a request of him as an executive officer gave her a momentary flashback to what it had been like to salute Captain Ames when she was still sore from how violently he'd fucked her the night before. If Hughes had known that, he might not have been so worried about the effect of Slayton's mild lewdness.
Or maybe he would have been more concerned. Riza couldn't always keep straight why people thought they had to look after her.
"Hawkeye," Chase called after her.
Riza turned in surprise. "Yes, ma'am?" She wasn't sure whether to thank the major for speaking up for her, when she wasn't sure that the defense was really about her at all.
Falling into step with her, Chase said quietly. "I want you to understand that nobody's questioning your field abilities."
"Really? Because it seems like everyone is."
"What no one is saying," Chase told her, "is they're afraid you'll get captured."
"What, they think I'll change sides? Start shooting at them?" Riza said, puzzled.
"No. I mean, they're afraid of what will happen to you."
"I thought the Ishbalans don't even take prisoners."
"They don't. Civilian hostages, yes. But anyone in a uniform, they've executed, and quickly. If they get you, they'll kill you, and they'll take pictures." Riza swallowed, and Chase said, "It's better to know." Riza might have liked to make that decision herself, but, then, Chase wasn't telling her anything that hadn't been in Amestrian newspapers before she had ever enlisted. Including the pictures.
"But," Chase continued, "these guys are afraid of what will happen if they capture a woman. Frankly, they're afraid you'd be raped, which I don't buy. Ishbalans generally won't torture, and they almost certainly won't rape. I'm sure there are Ishbalan criminals who commit rape, but as a communally enforced punishment it's almost unheard of. There are cultural ideas about purity, and very specific prohbitions --"
"I know about it," Riza said. "I have a friend – two friends –" -- at least she still had one of them; Kitt was lost, but she ought to write to Miles "— who've studied Ishbalan culture, so we've been through a few of these conversations. Is that really what the men are all worried about?" Not that she wanted to die, either, but it was the same chance everyone was taking.
"So far, this is all theory. There aren't many of us this far forward, and the Ishbalans haven't taken a military woman prisoner. And of course, after Drachma –"
"You were in the last Drachman campaign, right?"
"The most recent Drachman campaign, yes," Chase said shortly. "I doubt it will be the last, even with General Armstrong on the wall. To be clear, I wasn't raped. I was never a prisoner. But I met some of the prisoners that Drachma let go. We all knew if a woman got captured, she could expect to be gang raped by the Drachman garrison for at least a week. You had to decide if you wanted to live through it." She shook her head. "Some of the Sisterhood petitioned for cyanide pills to be standard issue. They weren't, although rumor had it some women went to med bay and engineered their own cocktails. Men, too, for that matter. Being a Drachman POW wasn't a cakewalk for anyone."
"You say rumor. That means you didn't do it yourself?" Riza asked.
"No," she said. "I don't mean to be righteous about it because, like I said, I was never captured. I was never even wounded. I'm not going to speculate on anyone else's experience. Understandably, Drachma made an impression on our powers that be. A disproportionate impression, maybe, on those who don't want women at the front in the first place. It's a reason to keep us locked up and treat us differently. But it even trickles down to guys like Hughes. I've got no doubt he respects the hell out of you, but part of him will still want to get in front of you in a firefight. And he doesn't want to imagine you as a prisoner."
"I'm not keen to imagine that, either," Riza said. "Do we – I assume there still aren't any cyanide pills."
"If the Ishbalans get you, you won't need one. Although –" She looked at Riza's hip. "You always carry a service weapon."
"If I can get at my pistol," Riza said, "I'm using it on the bad guys."
Chase smirked. "You'll do just fine out there. Or. I shouldn't say you'll do fine." She looked around the camp. "You'll have just as much chance as any of these assholes."
The raiding party mustered by the inside of the wire, as the day's last light was fading. They had to cross rough, exposed terrain on foot. Most of the enemy's advantage came from surprise and greater mobility, and traveling under cover of night was supposed to neutralize that. Riza could understand the theory. She didn't have any desire to walk across the open area in broad, hot daylight, like a row of sitting ducks. But her training was so visually oriented that going out blind made the anxiety all the worse.
Riza stood, checking that her uniform hung correctly and convincing herself she wasn't afraid of the dark, when Roy approached and gave her a sidelong hug.
"I heard they're sending you out," he said. "Do me a favor and don't die. I can't afford the therapy."
"He says that to me, too," offered Hughes, who was, naturally, standing beside Roy. "Leave it to Roy Mustang to put your problems in perspective of what really matters, which is, how do your problems affect Roy Mustang? He doesn't get to give you orders like that, by the way. You're not in his direct chain of command."
"In this case, sir," she said to Hughes, "I'll do my best to follow." Riza remembered standing with Roy next to her father's grave. She'd asked him, then, not to get killed. He'd recoiled from the suggestion, not wanting the bad luck he associated with it. She wondered if he applied a different standard to others than he did to himself. Or, maybe the years he'd spent in active combat had changed his philosophy.
Hughes frowned at Roy. "Are you guys coming out with us, too? Did the orders change?"
"No no no," said Roy. "Alchemy's headed in the other direction tomorrow morning, along with field artillery. Your group, from what I understand, is on a finesse mission. What we're doing is –" Roy pulled a glove from his belt and slipped it over his hand ''—very much not that. But -- " He looked at Hughes and then at Riza, and said in a voice that brooked no discussion, "I will meet you both back here in two days' time." He bumped his gloved fist against Hughes's, and then against hers, and then turned to leave them.
When he'd gone, Hughes looked at Riza. "Inspires confidence, doesn't he?"
"Yeah," Hughes said. "Me too."
The Ishbalan night was dark, and cold, but it was also short. Six hours, with brief but regular stops for rest and water, took them across the most open terrain to the base of the hills. By then, the sky was already lightening. They would descend in force just before dawn, capture any enemy operatives, then search or occupy their positions, and travel back over the next night.
"It's kind of almost an adventure," Riza said.
"That depends on who's up there." Hughes squinted toward the hills, as though he could will the darkness aside. Then, in a non sequitur that wasn't, he added, "God, I love Gracia."
"And I love what's his name."
"If you don't mind me saying, so, Hawkeye, you are singularly lacking in imagination regarding your imaginary love interest. For the record, he's a seal trainer named Fred. I've already told half the --" Then, she thought, he whistled, and pushed down on her shoulders. "Cover!"
Not his whistle, she realized, as she heard another one. This was what it sounded like to be on the other end of a sniper round.
"Goddammit." Hughes fumbled for his binoculars. "Where is he?"
Where would I be? Riza thought. She'd done her best to see the terrain on the way in, and the light was already better. She did a quick mental calculation, stood, looked up, and fired her rounds. Dropping immediately, she went to reload. Hughes, taking her cue, stood and fired in the same direction. When he dropped, a private named Baxter stood and repeated the action. Several others followed suit.
No return fire came.
Finished with her reload, Riza asked Hughes, "Did we get him?"
"That or he's moving. Come on."
The firefight went by fast. The Amestrians made better targets, but they also had superior numbers. Either Riza's shot or one of the subsequent rounds must have taken out the sniper, and the rest of the fighters faced a hail of bullets. As Riza advanced over the ground, all she saw were bodies. One Ishbalan was very young, on his back with eyes open. She wished she had to ask herself what had happened to make that boy want her dead, but she didn't. That was what knowing Kitt and Miles had gotten her.
A hand closed on Riza's throat. The man at her back said something in Ishbalan. Because she'd been thinking of Kitt, Riza heard the echo of a verse he'd taught her, a children's rhyme that demonstrated the language's glottal stop. He'd pushed her hand against his Adam's apple so she could feel him vocalize. She'd been on top of him. They'd been in bed.
A hand in the right place could break your neck in seconds. They wouldn't have to take you prisoner, mutilate your body and take pictures. They'd just leave you here for the wild dogs. Riza snapped the butt of her rifle into the man's chest. His breath came out in a gasp. She heard ribs crack. Then he smiled, and she looked down to see he had pulled her sidearm from its holster. It tipped upward, and Riza swung the rifle wildly at him, knowing she'd be too late.
Then his eyes widened, he fell back, and Riza knocked the pistol from his hand. She drove her boot heel into his palm as she bent down for the gun, but as she did, she realized he wasn't going to move. A small triangular knife protruded from his neck.
Turning, she saw Hughes. "Tell Roy – " he panted. Looking down at his empty hand, he said with wonder, "Roy says those throwing knives aren't good for anything. So you tell him –" He let out a giddy laugh, then a whoop of triumph. "How about that, huh? That was pretty damn –" He looked back at the bloody neck of the Ishbalan man. "Damn," he said, then touched Riza's arm. "You okay?"
"Just thinking," she said. Thinking that Hughes was the last person she'd expected to cheer another man's death. Thinking that, whoever this fighter was, it wasn't fair to him that his last words in his own language just reminded Riza of fucking her self-righteous Amestrian boyfriend. Looking up at Hughes, she said, "I hope we're done here."
Back at camp, Hughes found Riza cleaning her rifle. "I want you to know," he said, "I'm putting your name in for a citation."
Riza stared. "For what?"
He laughed. "Valor? That's what soldiers who act quickly and risk life and limb, saving their entire patrol in the process, generally get cited for."
Her mind went over the previous morning's events. Looking, standing up, shooting. "I don't need special treatment, sir. I was just following training and doing my job."
Hughes crowed. "I knew I got it right." He leaned closer. "I'll let you in on a secret, Hawkeye. That's what every medal winner says. That's how you can tell they deserve it."
Riza looked at her feet. "I guess. You saved my life out there."
"Right," Hughes said. "That." He took a seat beside her and reached into his holster to take out the throwing knives. Although they looked thoroughly clean, he began to rub one after the other on his uniform tunic. "They trained me on these," he said, "because I was an all-star pitcher in prep school. 'Hughes has great aim.' It was kind of a joke, because my rifle scores never made the jump from 'excellent' to 'superior.' But give me something I could throw –" Then he looked over Riza's head and past her. "Hey! Roy! Can you believe these goddamn things worked?"
"Major Mustang!" Riza started to stand, but Roy touched her arm.
"Please don't. I need an excuse to sit." Sliding to the bench, he maneuvered into place between her and Hughes, so that they each had to scoot aside.
Riza thought of him coming into the Hawkeyes' kitchen, carrying a strange man or woman's scent. Now, he smelled like brimstone. He looked to one side at Riza, holding her gun, and to the other, at Hughes with his knives. Snapping off a glove, he set it in his lap. "How'd it go?" he asked them. "Good guys win?"
"Hawkeye's a hero," said Hughes.
"Hawkeye's exhausted," said Riza.
"And I," Hughes said, resting his hand on Roy's shoulder. "I need to get the fuck home and see Gracia before I lose my mind."
First Lieutenant Kranz, the number two man in the artillery squad, was telling the room how good it was to be married.
"Fucking newlywed," Slayton groaned. He was sitting next to Kranz and Shepard, the husky but baby-faced master sergeant who was ranking NCO among the rifles.
"Let me tell you," Kranz said, "last time I was home --"
Riza sat on the other side of the tent, some paperwork in her lap. Hughes had settled in next to her, and he glanced warily up at the others, then at Riza. She shrugged, letting him know he didn't need to cut the men's talk off for her sake. In truth, she got an illicit thrill from being the only girl in the room, being allowed to hear what they said among each other. Her married friends back at home would never have a conversation like this go on in her presence. It didn't make her like the guys any more, either for what they were saying or because they were treating her like furniture. But that was part of the benefit of (sort of, almost) belonging to the club of officers.
"I had three days' leave," Kranz said. "That's an important part of the story later on. So Carmen meets me in the train station and she's crying. Just bawling her eyes out."
Shepard supplied his version of a trembling female voice, "Oh, sweetie, I missed you soooo much."
"You're not even married," Slayton complained at him. "What do you know about it?"
"I know enough women!"
"So she's crying at me," Kranz persisted. "She's draped on my shoulder all the way home, she can't get a sentence out, and I'm thinking, okay, she's getting it out of her system. But the closer we get to home, it just gets worse and worse. Finally, we get to the house, we're in the bedroom, and by that time she is just bawling uncontrollably. So I'm all, 'Honey, baby, what is it?'"
"Ohhh, God," Slayton groaned. "I see where this is going. Three days?"
"What?" asked Shepard.
"Three days," Kranz repeated. "So finally, she says, like it's the most awful thing in the world, 'I just started my period.'"
Slayton let out a hearty laugh. Shepard asked, with genuine consternation, "So what did you do?"
"What did I --?" He mimed patting a woman on the shoulder. 'Oh, sweetheart. Oh, baby. It's wonderful that you care so much. Oh, honey -- Now --" He tilted his hand forward. "Get on your knees."
Slayton roared with laughter. "I was gonna say --" He made a flipping gesture with his hand. "Roll over." The three men laughed some more, while Hughes caught Riza's eye and made a face. She covered her mouth and looked down to keep from laughing at Hughes's expression of distaste.
"Wait, wait," Shepard said. "You never fucked a girl on her period?"
"That's disgusting," said Slayton
"How come that's disgusting and sticking it up a girl's ass isn't disgusting?"
"I have to explain this to you?"
Hughes, who had been writing on the edge of his paper, tilted it so Riza could see. This is more personal information than I wanted about Slayer.
"I'm just saying," continued Shepard. "That sounds kind of queer."
Now Hughes' eyebrows went up, and his incredulous expression was so funny, Riza had to fake a cough.
"It's not queer," Slayton said. "It's a girl. Girls have more than one opening for a reason. You're allowed to use them."
Now Hughes was coughing as Riza wrote on her paper, Wouldn't this logic apply to men, too?
Maybe Slayer's surprisingly open-minded, Hughes wrote back.
"So my wife," said Kranz, clearly annoyed at the others for running off with his story, "is working it nonstop the whole time I'm home. I've never gotten this much head in my life. And the whole time – well, the whole time she doesn't have my dick in her mouth, right – that whole time, she's apologizing. Like, she's not living up to her duties."
Shepard guffawed. "And you're like, 'Oh, sweetheart.'" He patted an imaginary head bent in front of him. "'Don't worry, I'm sure this won't happen again.'"
"Fucking newlyweds." Slayton groaned. "It won't happen again, you know. Wait five years. I come home from six months deployment, Sofia doesn't remember her knees come apart."
"Oh my God," said Shepard, in his 'woman' voice again, staring at his lap in mock horror. "Is that what that thing is for?"
This cracked the three men up again, but it brought a loud, weary sigh out of Hughes. Slayton turned. "Got some commentary, Captain?"
"I dunno, Slayer," Hughes said. "Maybe your wife just isn't interested in anything you're offering."
"I know you're the goddamn XO, but that doesn't mean you get away with insulting my wife."
In the mildest voice possible, Hughes said, "If you think that was an insult to your wife, you're not a very good listener."
Riza had an instinct to nudge Hughes, but everybody was looking at them. If only there were a table to kick him underneath. He ought to know that the point of this whole exercise was not to let anyone know it was bothering you.
Slayton crossed his arms and leaned back, looking at Hughes. "You're not even engaged to that girl."
"What's that supposed to mean?"
"Graaaacia. You're bound and determined to show you're better than us for the sake of some girl who hasn't even agreed to marry you. It's gonna be goddamn hilarious when she doesn't even wait for you."
Hughes clenched a fist, and now Riza put a hand on his arm. Slayton's eyes traveled down to take in the gesture, and he drawled, "You're such a champion of women. I notice Hawkeye isn't offended."
"Hawkeye --" Hughes began.
"Hawkeye --" Riza interrupted, giving Hughes' arm a squeeze and then letting go, "-- is waiting to hear something worth responding to."
"This isn't even a man-woman thing," Slayton said. Somehow when he smiled, that look was harder than his anger. "Tell me this, Hawkeye. You've got a hypothetical boyfriend back home. Nobody's ever seen him, but let's assume he exists. You've been away for six months, do you want him to be like, 'Let's cuddle and get used to each other again'?"
"I'm not like that much, anyway."
Slayton laughed, and Hughes gave her a puzzled look. Riza felt like she had switched sides without meaning to, and part of her wanted to frame an apology. But on the other hand she meant what she was saying, and was annoyed by the sense that Hughes wanted her to be more sheltered than she was. "If I'm home after six months, and I've only got three days, sure. I'm going to want to fuck."
Hughes put a hand to his forehead. When the rest of the men laughed, Riza found herself gratified by the approval, followed quickly by the sense that they would have laughed with the same appreciation if a dog had unexpectedly started to talk. That, of course, had to be just the moment when Roy Mustang walked into the tent.
Roy came in pointing at Hughes, but he stopped and looked to Riza. "Wait, what is this I missed?"
"It was a hypothetical," Shepard volunteered.
"All right, I --" Roy's eyes stopped on Riza for a second, but then he refocused and said, "Hughesie, my friend. Guess who has been harassing your superiors ceaselessly and has, in fact, confirmed weekend passes to Border City, effective immediately?"
Hughes jumped to his feet. "Merciful god in heaven."
Shrugging, thrusting his hands into his pockets, Mustang said, "You don't have to call me that. 'Roy' is fine."
Hughes swatted Roy on the shoulder. To Riza, he explained, "I'm way overdue for two weeks' leave, and apparently the only way I'm going to get it is to go to Border and camp out at HQ."
"Let us know how Graaacia is." Slayton leered.
"Fuck off," said Hughes. But he was bored now, and he kept casually drumming his fingers along Roy's back.
Roy looked at Riza. "Are you stuck here?"
"I'm always stuck here. Besides, what would I do in Border City?"
"What's Hughes gonna do in Border City?" Slayton asked. "Show the hookers pictures of his girlfriend?"
Roy laughed. "You say that like he wouldn't."
Shepard looked up suddenly. "Hey, you're Mustang? I'm supposed to go to Border this weekend, too. I heard you know all the good places."
"You heard I what?"
"Mustang's the guy to ask. About what places have the best girls and stuff." He gave a half shrug like he didn't really care. "Everybody says."
Roy nodded toward Riza. "Do you not notice there's a lady present?"
"Oh, sure." Shepard gave a half-bow toward Riza. "I'm sure none of the girls in B.C. are as hot as Hawkeye. But she won't go out with me."
Now it was Roy's turn to put a hand to his forehead, in what Riza took as a 'kids these days,' expression, even though Shepard was probably older than he was.
"Aww, Shep," Riza said. "You never asked." When he looked hopeful for a second, she quickly added, "But you're right."
Roy looked apologetically at Riza. "It sucks you're stuck here. Hughes and I have to go to catch the transport but –" He cuffed her on the shoulder. "Someday we'll all do the town together." He moved toward the exit, then hesitated, and gestured for Shepard to follow. Grinning, Shepard trotted after him.
Hughes hung back to shrug at Riza. In a low voice, she said, "He really is going to give that guy tips on -- night life?"
"Roy Goddamn Mustang." Hughes looked at Riza. "Your guess is as good as mine."
"Go," said Riza. "You don't want to miss your ride." With a grateful squeeze of her shoulder, Hughes dashed after Roy.
Riza was left in the tent with just Slayton and Kranz, and she wasn't eager to engage with these guys in an extended conversation about her sex life with the long-distance lover whose nonexistence the lieutenant seemed to have deduced. Keeping her head down, she gathered the paperwork.
As Riza knelt, the tent flap opened, and Major Chase's well-polished boots entered. "Slayer," she said, "you ready to mind the fort if Hughes and I both take tonight and in Border?"
Slayton looked up and couldn't quite hide the eagerness in his voice. "Really?"
"Don't get too excited. Between the guys passing through with Bravo Company and the alchemists, somebody will pull rank on you if anything interesting happens. But I'm overdue for a liberty, and since we're actually fully staffed for once -- Hawkeye, when's the last time you got off base?"
"Me?" Riza said in surprise. "I've only been here – well, barely two months."
"Two months?" Chase repeated. "Slayton, she hasn't gotten a liberty for two months? She's not even supposed to be here."
"She draws up the schedule herself!"
"Oh, now you'll admit it's her work!"
"She likes doing it. And she doesn't want to go to Border." He belatedly remembered to look at Riza as though she had a stake in the conversation. "Tell her you never wanted to go."
"He's right, ma'am," said Riza. "What am I going to do in Border City?"
"Not get shot at, for one thing." Hands on her hips, the major looked down at Riza in way that made her self-conscious, as though her lack of stature and self-assertiveness were equally her own fault. "You don't have friends you could call in Border?"
"Oh, I -- Becca could probably make it up from her posting, if I call her tonight."
"Got a lot to pack up?"
"No, of course not." She still hesitated. "I have to check with the lieutenant."
She looked toward Slayton, who nodded, as though he had a real choice, after Chase's not-quite-request. He walked to Riza and took the paperwork from her hands. "Go have fun in B.C.while Mustang scopes out all the whorehouses." To Chase, he said, "We might not even burn the place down while you're gone."
Riza hadn't fully processed, by the time they got out of the tent, what had just happened. She was going to be out of the war zone. Chase had lobbied to get her time off. She might see Becca, as early as tonight. Looking at Chase, she said, "Why?"
"I wasn't going to leave you here with those guys, was I?"
Riza stiffened. "I wasn't aware you'd been looking out for me. I wasn't aware I'd needed you to."
Putting her hands in her pockets, Chase leaned back and looked assessingly at Riza. "That was a bad joke," she said, which as a non-apology was almost Mustangesque. But then she said, "Sorry," which was not a thing Roy was likely to do. "How about this? I wouldn't mind the company."
Hughes and Roy had already left, but Riza and Chase were able to catch another transport to Border City. When they got off, Riza found a pay phone and called Becca's dormitory. Catalina was still on shift, said the cadet who answered, but she'd be off soon. Riza left a message, naming a bar that Chase had mentioned, because it was easy to find. She went back to meet the Major, and they walked toward town together. "I guess I should thank you," Riza said.
"But you're not sure yet," said Chase.
"I'm not sure of a lot of things," Riza admitted, then ventured, "You and I didn't exactly get off on the right foot. Personally, I mean." She realized this sounded a lot like one of Roy's non-apologies, and this annoyed her because Riza had not, in her mind, done anything wrong.
"I went to B.C. a few times with Stephanie -- with Captain Lopresti," Chase said, and at first it sounded like a non sequitur. "I won't claim we painted the town red. We usually had a little wine and went to the movies. Then we stayed up talking in the hotel room. Once when it was really hot, we stayed out all night on the Commons. About as exciting as it gets for a couple of old virgins."
Riza felt her face warm. "I'm not either of those things. Sorry if we're not very compatible." She drew in a sharp breath. She hadn't meant to apologize, even sarcastically.
"What I'm trying to say," Chase told her, "is that I miss my friend. We were comfortable together. We were alike in ways that you and I aren't, and I didn't give you enough of a break at first."
They walked into the bar, and the first person Riza saw turned out to be Tommy Ames. She knew it from the outline of his back, powerful shoulders against his white collared shirt, and the sandy hair he still kept cropped short. Her first thought wasn't, That's Captain Ames, but What's wrong with me, that I think I'm seeing him here?. Only when he saw her – when his eyes passed over her, then his head swiveled back, and he pointed across the bar at her and said, "No way!" – was Riza certain in her recognition.
Riza reached back and put a hand on Chase's arm, hoping to signal that they might want to retreat. But Ames had already crossed toward her, flanked by two fellow officers. There was something she didn't trust about his smile, although she couldn't pin it down. "What the hell are you doing here?" he said, with a bombastic note of welcome. "Are you stationed in B.C.?"
"No. I'm at the front." She pointed over her shoulder, as though they had left the bombs and barricades right outside the door. "I can't really say where."
She hated the apology in her voice, but he matched her tone with a slurred. "Right, right. Of course. Me too. I just can't believe – guys, this was one of my students at the Academy." He touched her shoulder, and her body stiffened. But she let go of Chase and gave her an it's-okay-really smile, until Ames said, "This is Lisa." He choked on the name right away, though not soon enough to prevent Riza's vivid fantasy about shooting him in the balls. She tried to mask the anger by putting the smile on harder.
"Riza," he said. "Riza Hawkeye – I'm really drunk, Riza Hawkeye. Wait, wait, I know this. I know this. Riza came to the Academy from East City. She likes, she likes – what do you like? That movie with the dog. You saw it six times. And – lemon custards. Lemon drinks, too. Anything with a little pucker in it. In fact, right now I'm gonna buy you a drink of –" He trailed off, shifting his eyes from Riza to look at Chase. His gaze lingered on the Sisterhood medallion around her neck, then glanced pointedly at Riza's neck, to confirm she wasn't wearing one, too. "Have I met your friend?"
"Major Chase," Chase said.
Ames was, at least, sober enough to process the rank. He backed off a little bit. "Captain Ames," he said with a salute. Which was crazy because he'd been busted back to second lieutenant when he got shitcanned by the Academy, and that was barely a year ago. Of course, the quick promotion might only mean they had sent him to a place with a high casualty rate. She decided not to think about how that made her feel. Riza had no practice wanting a specific person to die, even when they were at the other end of her rifle scope. Intent to kill, certainly. Never desire.
Ames looked back at Riza. "We're going to be at the bar, so if you want to join us --"
Riza swallowed. Lied. "Maybe later."
He took one look back at Riza, shrugged, then walked away. The abrupt disinterest was the first thing about his behavior tonight that felt fully familiar.
One of his friends said, loudly, "Didn't you get busted from the Academy for fooling around with girls like that?"
"Like her? No. Not her. She was a good sport."
Riza touched Chase's hand. "Can we --? Somewhere else? Anywhere else?"
"Absolutely." Chase put a hand to the small of Riza's back and guided her out of the bar.
By the time they stepped onto the sidewalk, Riza's chest was starting to heave.
"Do you need something?" Chase asked. Riza appreciated that she hadn't said, Are you all right?, when that evidently wasn't so.
Riza couldn't gather the breath to answer. She kept walking. Chase followed, still touching her back. When Riza managed to speak, she found herself gasping, "I'm sorry I'm sorry. This never happens. I don't know why this is happening."
Chase didn't try to make her talk more. On the next block she stopped in front of a tea house. "Do you want to try here? They're open late and they don't allow drunks."
When they got inside, Chase nodded at a middle aged woman behind the counter. "Mariel?" she said.
"Mandy! After all this time. I'll get you black tea with milk. And your friend?"
"Chamomile," Riza was startled into saying. "That is, uh --" She felt the sobs rising again, and it was Chase who said, "Washroom?" Riza stumbled through the door, still guided by Chase.
The ladies' room was spacious, furnished with a sofa and a lot of mirrors. Riza went right to the sink and started to run hot water. Seeing Chase hesitate in the doorway behind her, she said, "Come on in if you want." She stopped the sink and let the heat envelop her hands. The hot skin gave her somewhere to focus, and now she was almost breathing normally. "I guess you probably heard enough to know what that was about. Or maybe you knew already. There was a full investigation but my record got expunged. I think they felt sorry for me." Looking up, she added, "I didn't cry then. They decided I was pathetic all on their own."
"So," Chase said the next part, clearly choosing her words carefully, "He did get in trouble for taking advantage of his trainees. But you weren't part of that."
"I wasn't --" Riza swallowed. "I wasn't one of the ones who complained. In the version he sold internal affairs, I was basically his girlfriend, and he felt really bad for lying to me." She gave a bitter laugh. "I think I was supposed to tell them that I knew what kind of guy he was and he would never do the things those other girls were saying."
"I told them he never did anything to me that I didn't --" Riza stopped herself from saying want "-- didn't agree to. Which was true. I never said anything about what I thought he was capable of. His lawyer must have decided not to tell him that. I doubt he would have been so friendly tonight, if he knew."
"But he never hurt you?"
Riza took her hands out of the hot sink, and turned her back to it, gripping the edge with her fingers. "He always said that. 'I'm not going to hurt you.'" That had confused the hell of her, at first, because he said it with such confidence, and then he hurt her a lot. It took half a dozen times, at least, before she understood that by 'hurt' he meant 'harm.' He'd promised he wouldn't harm her, and he never had. He'd fucked her hard, but he always made sure she was wet enough. She'd be sore the next morning, but she wouldn't be damaged.
Then there was the other confusing part, which was that, most of the time, she didn't want it not to hurt.
Her head was starting to pound, but she was breathing better. She went to the sofa and sat, on the far side from Chase, making sure to leave a cushion between them.
"You didn't wash your face," Chase said.
"What?" Riza looked down at her hands, then rubbed beneath her eyes. The tears felt cold against her hot finger, but she could feel a film of salt drying against her cheeks. "I guess I forgot."
"Here." Chase stood, and wet a paper towel in the basin before draining the water. She came to sit right next to Riza and handed her the towel. As Riza wiped her face, Chase said, "Do you want to know what I think?"
"I can guess what you must think," Riza said, trying to keep her voice steady. "Nobody ever regrets not having sex."
"I wasn't going to say anything remotely like that. Even if that were true, which I doubt. . .I don't think anybody's ever happy they slept with a jerk or a bully. That doesn't prove anything about whether you should be having sex. I hope I haven't said anything to make you think I think that." Chase put a hand cautiously on Riza's arm. Riza made a conscious effort to relax into her touch. "He was your instructor," Chase said. "You wanted to do well. He was also your superior officer."
"He didn't order me to fuck him," Riza said. She had even asked him -- at the beginning, before anything really happened -- if he was telling her she had to do this. Of course not, he'd answered, You can go back and play with your little friends. Then he hadn't spoken to her, called on her, or looked straight at her for the next two days. She was the one who had gone to his office hours on the third day. If ‘you asked for it’ had ever literally been true, this was the time. "Nothing happened that I didn't agree to," she repeated.
"You were, what, seventeen?" Riza nodded. "He was older, a teacher, an officer. Nothing about that is all right. For him," Chase emphasized. "If Internal took it off your record, it's not because they felt sorry for you. It's because they understood he was the one with the responsibility."
"Okay," Riza looked down at her hands.
"Are you sorry you told me?"
"Kind of," Riza admitted. "Not totally. I could think of worse people to find out." There was a reason this wasn't the conversation she'd had with Roy.
"Did you know I'm second generation military, on both sides?" Chase asked. "Both my parents were officers," Chase continued. "My mother was a major when she retired. Dad was a full colonel."
"That must be rare for her generation," Riza said, trying to work out the math on Chase's age. Based on what she'd said about Drachma, she must be close to forty.
"She was one of the first fully commissioned officers in the modern Amestrian Army. There wasn't any place for her at the Academy back then, but she went through reserve officer training at her women's college. She was the best at everything there. World class athlete in three sports, honors degree in History with a focus on military strategy. One of the most determined overachievers you could imagine meeting. I think she'd even impress you."
"If you're going to tell me that I remind you of her --" Riza began warily.
"I couldn't come up with a higher compliment," Chase answered. "And yes, you do a little. But that's not why I was telling you. Mom was assigned as staff to a Lieutenant Colonel at South City HQ. Even with her qualifications, she could have basically ended up answering phones and getting coffee. A lot of her peers did, and they put in a whole career like that. Or they gave up and quit to get married. Mom had the luck to get assigned to a commanding officer who was willing to recognize her talents. She put in a fifteen year career as his right hand, very quietly making his organization run."
Riza swallowed. "Is this about me and Slayton?"
"A little bit," Chase admitted. "But I brought it up because she also had a fifteen-year affair with him. Or, I don't know when one thing turned into the other, but there was a fifteen-year working relationship that was also an affair."
"The Colonel was your father?"
"No." She let out a bitter laugh. "The Colonel -- General, eventually -- was my Uncle Mac. He was twenty years older than Mom. He had a wife and kids the whole time. Also a handful of other affairs, I'd guess. Secretaries or chorus girls or whatever. But it always came back to him and Mom. Then he retired and moved back to Central, with his wife."
"So who did your mom --?" Riza faltered.
"Mac's best friend was a widower. He retired around the same time and Mom, I guess, saw the writing on the wall. She was thirty-eight, she'd advanced about as far as she was going to, she had no idea what kind of commander she was going to draw. Things were better than when she’d started, but not that much better. So when Dad asked her to marry him, she took her retirement. I learned this all a lot later, of course. Dad and Mac were still friends -- I played with his grandkids. It was only after Dad died and we moved to Rush Valley, Mom told me the whole story."
Riza shifted. "I'm not sure what kind of cautionary tale this is supposed to be."
"I don't mean it that way. Or not exactly. Mom was satisfied -- she is satisfied -- with the career she had. She made sure I knew that. Even the relationship she and Mac had, I'm not going to pretend I understand all of it but she always made sure to tell me that she was aware of all its . . .terms and conditions is what she said."
"It turned out all right for her."
"She's all right these days. Other than worrying about her only daughter being in a combat zone. She's in her seventies, and I got a postcard last week from the mountain-climbing vacation she took with my stepdad and his grandkids. She's had a good life, but it's never been the one she wanted me to have. When I started making noises about going to the Academy -- this was twenty years ago -- she didn't send me to talk to Dad's friends, or Mac's. She got women from a younger generation to talk to me, and they were all Astartian sisters. And Mom, without ever telling me anything bad about Mac, without saying she regretted a minute she spent with him -- she let me know that she never wanted me to be in a position where sleeping with my superior was the best possible career move. That's what my joining the Sisterhood meant to her."
"I could see why you'd be pissed at me, then." Riza rubbed at her eye with the back of one hand. "You've built this nice cozy pro-woman culture and an idiot like me comes along and wrecks it by screwing her asshole rifle instructor."
"No," Chase said. "We've made a lot of changes to the culture, but it's evidently not enough as long as there are still officers who think teenage Academy cadets are there for them to fuck. And as long as he's got you convinced it was your fault."
"I didn't say I thought it was my fault." Riza rolled her head back over the top of the couch and bit her lip to get her breathing back under control. "I said it was my decision. Your mom had hers and you had yours and it only seems fair for me to have mine."
Chase let out a frustrated breath. "This is why I'm not in recruitment. For the Army or the Sisterhood."
"It's okay. I'm really obstinate. Everybody says." Riza was aware, as she sat still, of her own pulse. For the first time since seeing Ames, she recognized the thread of arousal mixed into the anxiety and fear. If she went to Tommy, she knew he wouldn't harm her. She'd place herself, for an hour or so, in the control of someone who would put hands on her body like it was something he wanted, that mattered, that wasn't just a disposable piece of meat. She would feel that, and she would like it, while it was going on. "If you're sad you told that whole story and it didn't change my mind -- I'm not going back to that bar to meet him. If I'd somehow seen him when I was on my own? I might have. Would have."
"It's not my place to stop you," Chase said. "I'm not your mother, and in this context, I'm not even your commanding officer."
"No," Riza said. "I don't want to. Or, I'm not going to. I've decided not to. This is me deciding."
Riza's face looked okay, she guessed, when they came out of the washroom. She wasn't going to see Ames again, anyway, and it wasn't as though she cared about impressing anyone else.
A male voice drifted in from the front of the shop. "The only thing I could think to say to her was, 'If your female impersonators are going to wear stockings that look that cheap, why are you even bothering with the black market?'"
Mariel, through laughter, said, "Dear boy, if your aunt could hear you now."
"Are you kidding? My aunt would agree with me. My aunt and I have had this conversation."
Chase turned to give Riza a look like, What the hell? But Riza knew who was talking and she hung back while Chase turned the corner.
"Miss Mandy, I kept your tea warm," said Mariel.
"You're Mariel's friend Mandy?" said Roy Mustang.
"You're an expert on black market hosiery?" Chase replied.
"Of course," Roy said, unruffled. "Frankly, I'm insulted by the implication that you think I wouldn't be."
"I have chamomile for your friend," Mariel interjected, at which point Riza gave up on the idea of hiding and walked into the dining room.
Her entrance stopped Roy cold. "You said you weren't coming!" Riza had the odd sense his feelings might actually be hurt. She remembered him in the bell tower room, saying, Hughes lied to me?
"I kidnapped her," said Chase.
Roy gave Riza a concerned, questioning look, as though she might really be there under duress.
"She's joking," Riza said. "We had a last minute schedule change and -- the major and I were just going to have some tea and -- go to a movie?" she said questioningly to Chase. Suddenly, she dreaded the idea of Roy feeling obligated to let her tag along and ruin his own plans. And she didn't really want to think about what those plans might be.
"Sure," said Chase, following Riza's cue. "We're headed right out, so --"
To Riza's consternation (and maybe to her secret delight), Roy looked crestfallen. "I'd invite myself along," he sighed. "But I promised Hughes I'd wait for him here. Hughes found an hour's entertainment that required some privacy. . ."
"Oh," Riza said, reaching the counter to pick up her tea. She swirled the mug and looked down at it. She thought of Hughes and his pictures of lovely Gracia, of his awkwardness at the other men's crude jokes. "It's none of my business, but I'm a little disappointed."
"Oh, don't be," Roy grinned, and Riza realized she'd walked into his setup. "He found somebody to let him use a phone for an hour, and he's talking to Gracia. It's not so much that he needed privacy -- he would have been perfectly content to let me sit there and update me on everything his darling had to say, but --" Roy made a face. "I have to draw the line somewhere. I was just going to sit here and have tea and visit with my aunt's friend, and I'm fine doing that. If you ladies need to leave, I certainly understand --"
Riza glanced at Chase. "I guess we could stay."
Before Chase could nod, Roy was pulling out chairs for them. "Now just go on like I wasn't here." He straddled his own chair and put his chin in his hands. "What have you been talking about?"
Chase glanced at Riza, who impulsively said, "The history of the Astartian Sisterhood."
Roy, clearly not expecting that answer, turned to look at Chase.
"I'm trying to make a convert," the major responded. Narrowing her eyes at Roy, she said, "Go ahead. There's a smartass remark you're dying to share. Let it out."
"Now why would you think that I'd want to give you a hard time about your organization?" Roy took a handful of edamame from a bowl at the center of the table and snapped one in half. "I'm a feminist."
"You are?" Riza asked.
"Sure. I'm no idiot." He popped the soy bean into his mouth, chewed and swallowed before adding, "I know this Army's better off with ladies like you two in it."
Riza shook her head. "I'm not even sure I'm a feminist." Her comment drew a wary glance from Chase, but instead of letting the older woman intimidate her, Riza stuck her chin out. "I do my job. I live my life. People can look at that and make whatever judgment they want, but I don't know if I can claim it makes me part of any kind of movement." Then her eyes fell to the table. "That's just what I think right now. I could be wrong."
"Oh," said Roy. After a moment's silence, he added, "You've actually given this some thought. Which just makes it clear how glib and self-serving everything coming out of my mouth has been. I withdraw the point, and. . .I'm sorry."
"You're sorry?" With a look at Chase, Riza said, "We should note the date and time."
Roy drew himself up a little bit. "I've apologized to you before."
"No, in fact. You never say you're sorry. You might say --" She raised her fingers and started to count off, 'I misspoke,' or - 'I wasn't thinking,' or -" This one she liked, so she took some time over it, "'That was low of me.'"
Roy was so fascinated by this deconstruction that he forgot to be glib. "Do I do that?"
"And I am properly chastened," Roy said. "But I'm going to ask Major Chase an obnoxious anyway. Maybe I should apologize in advance, but . . you know Astartia was a fertility goddess, right? The whole virgin thing seems a bit antithetical to that."
"If you know so much about Astartia," Chase said, "then I'm sure you know that her sect dates back to ancient Xerxes. That the guardians of her temple -- the celibate female guardians -- led the defense of the great city against the Northern Horde."
"Also," Riza said, "you know it's rude to talk about someone else's deity in the past tense."
Roy laughed. "This is the story of my life. Smart women keeping me honest. All right, then. You've got ancient history covered," Roy answered. "But how about thirty years ago? When the Army expanded the assignments available to female officers, as long as they agreed to take mandatory contraceptive injections The only exemption was for religious objections, which was a loophole that got thrown into the reg at the last minute by some Parliamentarian who didn't think women belonged in the military in the first place. No one expected it to be used, because the only sects with a religious objection to women using birth control were too conservative to allow women to enlist."
"I didn't know that was the reason." Riza looked at Chase to see if she would contradict him, but she stayed silent.
"The first year," Roy continued, "nobody used the exemption. The second year, two recruits from the East showed up and announced that they belonged to the ancient and venerated Sisterhood of the Goddess Astartia. They had pledged their virginity to her, and they wanted to be warriors, but because they had made that pledge, they weren't going to take any injections. The recruitment officers, I can only assume, had no idea what to make of this. But there were only two girls, so what was the big deal? Then the next year, there were five; the year after that, there were twenty. By the end of the decade -- which, I guess, would be around when you joined, Major -- there were, what? Sixty percent?"
"Two out of three," said Chase. Her next words had an air of careful nonchalance. She had intuited, pretty quickly, that the best way to deal with Roy was to give as good as he gave, and with a similar air of detached interest. "I hope you're not questioning the motives of our illustrious founders."
"You misunderstand," said Roy. "I'm praising the ingenuity of your illustrious founders. I sure as hell wouldn't let this Army shoot me up with experimental drugs if I had a way to avoid it."
"The drugs were never really the point." Chase sighed and rubbed a palm over the ends of her spiky hair. "That might have been the issue that got a lot of women interested to start with. But the real thing was that they banded together and got the Army to listen to their concerns." She shook her head, "No, not they. We. We got together and did it. I feel comfortable saying I'm part of that. I was just in my teens, but I knew these women. They were my mother's friends. And a lot of women came into the Army because they wanted to be Astartian." She nodded at Riza. "I bet there were more women in my class than in Hawkeye's."
"Maybe," Riza said, hesitantly. "Although recruitment's down across the board. And the Astartians in our class were pretty --" Riza hesitated "-- vocal."
"Fundamentalist?" Chase suggested.
"Junior Anti-Sex League?" Roy said. Chase looked up from the sugar packet she'd been fiddling with, gave Roy a concentrated look, then flicked some of the coarse grain in his direction.
Roy wet a fingertip with his tongue, and wiped a bit of sugar off his cheek. "Fair enough. But I'm actually serious about that. It feels like a problem to me to be telling young women they have a place in the Army, they have a group to belong to that will back them up -- as long as they completely give up the idea of being sexual creatures." He glanced at Riza. "I can't put myself in Hawkeye's place, so she's in her rights to tell me to shut up."
Riza wondered what exactly would be involved in telling a major to shut up -- did she still need to call him "Sir"? would that be funny? -- but Chase wanted to give an answer. "There have always been differences of opinion about how important celibacy is to the Order. I've always taken it seriously. But I also take it as personal, not something for the Sisterhood to enforce. Back when I joined, there were girls who took the contraceptive shots, anyway, and plenty of others who used different kinds of birth control --"
"What was wrong with the shots?" Riza said, looking down at the inside of her arm.
"Nothing now, probably. But thirty years ago," said Chase, "these drugs were still pretty new. Women in the military were about the only ones who could get medical birth control. Aside from some professional dancers and high-level athletes, maybe. The brass was so excited to have this available, they rushed it out without proper testing. Or maybe just the stuff they gave the officers was poor quality control. But a lot of women got sick, and with some of them it was serious."
"Allergic reactions to the bonding agents," Roy said. Chase gave him a look and he shrugged. "I heard."
"How old are you?" Chase asked. "Twenty-three?"
"Twenty-four?" Roy said, as though he was unsure himself. He probably was unsure. Riza had always assumed Roy lied about his age when he entered the Academy, and Roy only bothered to keep track of the lies that he considered important. There was no way, Riza thought, that he was five years older than her.
"This all happened before you were born," Chase said.
"I grew up with my own set of family friends."
"Not quite," Roy said. "There are older professions." He sat back, squaring his shoulders with a look that was a little too intent on conveying that its owner didn't care what anybody else thought. Suddenly, years of Roy's references to his aunt the prosperous businesswoman appeared in a new light. So did his careless, familiar way of talking about tawdry subjects, an urbane pose that Riza had never taken very seriously. "I grew up in the red light district of Easy City," he continued, after giving the women time to absorb his remark. "Not a very nice part. Or, I thought it was a nice part -- it was a nice place to grow up, for a kid like me. But let's say that isn't the societal consensus."
Chase glanced at Riza, asking with a look if Roy was putting them on. But Riza nodded.
Roy shot Riza a knowing look, making it clear he'd seen what passed between her and Chase. "I grew up around some interesting women. This was all before I knew Riza, of course. She's taking me on faith."
"I believe you, though," Riza said. Growing up in a brothel seemed, once she thought of it, very much of a piece with the rest of his life. Also, in the same sense that he never truly apologized, Roy always seemed to avoid telling a direct lie. He might evade, insinuate, or misdirect -- all right, he did these things all the time -- but Riza didn't believe he would invent a story like this. Especially, she couldn't help thinking, a story that didn't seem to benefit him in any way.
"The ladies of East City's Cretan Quarter," Roy continued, "got a chance to try out everything that came on the market before anyone else did. Discreetly, of course. In the name of public health. But the women on that street were getting vaccines and antibiotics and, of course, diaphragms before anyone else in the country knew what they were. That was earlier, of course, but when the shots and the pills came along -" He shook his head. "To be blunt, the story was that no self-respecting East City whore would accept the stuff they were giving the Army women."
Riza frowned. "But that doesn't apply anymore, right? Anyone on the street can get the pill as long as they can pay for it. The Army still gives us the cheapest stuff they can get away with, but the only complaints I know of are when it doesn't --" She stopped, feeling Roy's eyes on her. He already knew about her abortion, but she hadn't tried to express the most humiliating part, the assumption that letting her boyfriend fuck her without protection was safe because the Army had let her think it was.
Chase, thankfully, seemed to miss the implications. Riza didn't want to talk to her about Kitt any more than she'd wanted to talk to Roy about Ames. Somehow each of the relationships hit a different point of her anxieties -- that Roy would be disappointed she'd let herself be used; that Chase would blame her for wanting to be close to someone.
"It's not a medical issue anymore," Chase admitted. "It's gotten to be more than tha." She smiled. "I knew the first female Colonel in the Amestrian Army, and I'm not sure she ever forgave the women my age for starting a virginity movement. But what we say is that it's about trusting women to make that choice, yes," she said, and, as Roy's mouth twitched, added, "Now you have something smartass to say."
"Just that you're trusting women's choices as long as they're the same choices you made. Whatever you can say about my aunt's family business, if a woman wanted to have a child, she could find a way to do it."
"Oh, yes, I'm sure East City whorehouses all have generous family and medical leave."
"The good ones take care of their own." He smiled. "Like I said, it wasn't a bad place to grow up."
"When you say 'the good ones,'" Chase answered, "that assumes there are less good ones. Which are part of the same system that lets the good ones exist.
"I think that 'system' is called human nature. There are always going to be people who want sex more than they need money, and people willing to fill that need." He shrugged. "I don't have a problem with either of those choices."
"Yes, I'm sure that's it. It is just human nature that it's almost impossible for a young woman without money to get into university, or any kind of job, but if she's marginally pretty she can come in off the street and make a living on her back. I'm sure every woman who makes that choice is just following her personal preferences."
Roy started to answer back, then stopped and looked thoughtfully at Chase. "I am going to admit I never thought of it like that. That is, I knew all of that, and I've thought about it, but not quite in the same way." And then he smiled. "Believe it or not, Major, I admire your Sisterhood a lot. Your founders came into a situation they didn't control and figured out how to get some power for their group and really changed the way things are done. I admire people who can do that, and I wish I could figure out how to be one of them."
"So the Astartian founders go into the pantheon of your heroes, along with East City's great madams."
"I'd say it's not as different as you might believe, if I could get you to take it as a compliment." He stretched his arms over his head and looked at Riza. "Cadet Hawkeye, I have no idea whether you're scandalized or just bored."
"Neither. I'm listening. And I hear what you're both saying, but, I don't know. Respectfully, Major Chase -- one of the reasons there aren't as many job opportunities for girls is that the military won't take us for standard enlistment. I only got in because I basically harassed General Armstrong's aide until she agreed to sponsor me."
Roy's jaw dropped. "You did? Olivier Armstrong? I -- well, I'm wildly conflicted about this."
"You don't like Armstrong?" Riza asked.
"Jealous of her career?" Chase suggested.
"Naturally I'm jealous," Roy said, unruffled by the suggestion. "Also, I asked her out once and . . . that went badly. I didn't know she was a general at the time. I would love to tell that story, Hawkeye, but yours sounds much more interesting."
"Yes," Chase said drily. "I've noticed you don't like to talk about yourself."
"The point is," Riza said. "I've never heard the Sisterhood talking about how to help out women who could be in the ranks. And you talked about family leave, but the Army didn't even have a maternity policy before last year besides, 'Get an abortion or resign and lose all your benefits.' I was in the first Academy class who knew we could have kids one day without abandoning our careers. And that only applies to captains and higher. Even with combat experience, it will realistically be ten years before I can think about that rank."
"Those are --" Chase pressed her hands together. "Those are definitely issues the Sisterhood could have been more cognizant of, over the years."
"But it's not exactly a surprise," Riza answered, "that maternity leave isn't going to be a priority for a club that no one's going to join if they think they'll ever want to have sex." When the others were quiet, Riza realized she had said much more than she intended to, and felt the color rise to her cheeks. "Ma'am," she added, looking down. "I'm sorry."
"Don't be. You make a lot of sense, which -- I am grateful for. Because I'd hate for the winner of tonight's Feminist Derby to be Mr. 'It's Fine to Patronize Brothels as Long as You Tip Properly.'"
"I didn't, actually, mention it," Roy said, clearly not put off at all, "but proper gratuities are important in any service customer service experience. Speaking of –" He stood up, reached for his wallet, and put a large bill on the table. "My sisters in arms, I've enjoyed the conversation. Staying up late, talking about ideas. It's like being back at the Academy, except I don't hate two-thirds of the people in the room at any given time. But –" He stood and stretched. "I should go see what's keeping Hughes."
"Oh shit," said Riza, "I forgot about Becca. Do you think she'll go to that other place?"
Roy looked questioningly, and Riza tried not to let her body shake with how much she didn't want to go back to a bar that might have Tommy Ames in it.
"If she leaves there," Chase said, "she's sure to come by here. We could move closer to the window and see if she comes along." She looked up at Roy. "You should get Hughes and come back."
His eyebrows went up. "My existence doesn't offend you?"
"I think you know better than that."
"I think that people should be impressed with me more often than they actually are." He rocked back on his heels and put his hands in his pockets. "I probably don't need to say this, but that whole conversation about – my family – I'd prefer if it wasn't grist for the gossip mill. Hughes knows – more or less, Hughes knows parts of it – probably – or maybe not – Hughes can be incredibly unobservant when it's convenient for him. But –"
"It's fine," Chase said, "The gossip mill doesn't give a shit what a middle-aged virgin religious fanatic has to say, anyway."
"You know you can trust me," said Riza.
"That I do, Riza Hawkeye." He winked at her as he walked out the door.
They got more tea and moved to a table where Riza could look out the window. Sipping quietly, Chase watched Riza until the younger woman put down her cup. "I have to say." Her eyes travelled to the door through which Roy had just left. "That is not what I expected."
"Oh?" Riza said, careful to keep any cues Chase might take as encouragement out of her voice.
"The part where he listened like he really wanted to know."
"He does that," Riza agreed. "It's flattering and -- unnerving. Especially when you're not used to being listened to." She remembered being a girl in her father's house, when the young apprentice arrived. The first few times that Roy had engaged her in conversation, she had twisted her insides around trying to figure out what he wanted. Very belatedly it dawned on her that he cared what she had to say.
"That it is." Chase pressed the back of one hand to her own cheek. "God, my face feels hot. Am I blushing?"
"No." But once she'd said it, Riza noticed the reddish undertones in the officer's fair skin. "Maybe a little." She laughed. "How come this is the embarrassing conversation?"
"No reason." Chase took a long drink from her tea, then set it down. "I'm old enough to be his mother.
"Well, that might be true, but --" Riza stared, trying to process. Too bewildered by the evening's extreme shift in boundaries to be sure whether saying it was a bad idea, she asked, "Do you have a crush on Mustang?"
Chase swirled her teacup, looking down into the liquid. "It's not like I'm immune to liking people. I know it's silly. It's not like there's a chance of it becoming an issue, even if I wanted it to."
Riza took a sip of tea and couldn't resist a grin. "I think Mustang likes older women."
"Really?" Chase crossed her arms and leaned back, looking at Riza. "I was watching. I think he likes you."
"That's what he's getting at by talking about all the prostitutes he knows?"
"Yes, actually. He's trusting you with his family secrets. And he's letting you know how, and I put this in quotes, ‘open-minded’ he is."
Riza set the cup down and looked at Chase. "Are you encouraging me to like him? After the conversation we had before, it seems like you should be warning me off superior officers."
"I'm not encouraging," said Chase. "I'm just observing, and – I was warning you off, before, in abstract. I had no idea what your options were."
It hadn't crossed Riza's mind, before, to think of Roy as one of her options.. Of course. . ."Don't take this the wrong way," she said to chase, "But what would you know about any of it?"
She regretted the words an instant later, but she didn't apologize. The fact that they were talking to each other was good, and it would probably turn out to be valuable. Still. In some ways, all the conversation had just made it clear how much of a gap there was between them.
On the other hand, it wasn't like Riza had proven to be some kind of relationship expert. "Not like I can talk," she amended, "since everything I've thought I understood about any of this turned out to be wrong."
There might have been time to talk more, but then Riza heard a banging on the window and looked up to see Becca pressed against the glass. After that, the time was taken up with frantic, near-violent hugs and breathless introductions.
"It's so amazing to meet you," Becca said to Chase, giving Riza a chance to be relieved that she hadn't written to Becca with her reservations about her tentmate. Now Becca was able to be uncomplicatedly starstruck by Chase's rank. "I want to know everything about you because I want to be just like you only –" She cast an uneasy glance at the Astartian medallion. "Not that. No offense. Because I already have a religion and also, I don't think I could give up sex. Not with military guys obviously because they are pretty much across the board not my type, and also will never make any more money than I do – oh! This doesn’t have anything to do with what we were just talking about, it's a completely different subject."
Becca turned to Riza. "Guess who I saw in that other place? Tommy Fuckface. I totally didn't punch him, not that I would have. Well, I totally would have if I could think of a reason. I mean, I have a reason. I have lots of violent fantasies about that guy. Just so you know. Hugs?" To Chase, she said, "This guy is the actual worst, there are scientific tests that have been done that prove he is the worst --"
The door opened, and Hughes and Roy stepped inside. Becca stopped midsentence to gawk. "Who's the pretty one?" she said, at her typical volume, which might have been able to pick discretion out of a lineup but didn't have much real use for it.
"I'm Captain Hughes," Hughes said cheerfully, "but I'm taken. The runner up is Roy Mustang."
"You've been waiting to use that one," Roy said murderously.
Hughes grinned, but Becca's attention was all on Roy. "The mythical mysterious Mr. Mustang. I know what he's thinking – " Looking from herself to the other women at the table, she said, "Blonde, brunette, redhead."
Hughes turned to Roy. "What stories have you been paying people to spread about you?"
"Only the best, Hughesie. Only the best."
They never made it to the movies. They never even made it to a hotel, or another bar, although Roy eventually produced his standard flask, and -- once hours were officially over and she had locked the door -- Mariel brought out several bottles of Cretan red wine.
Riza drank just enough for the night to settle into her memory with a faint air of unreality. Though that might have been there anyway, with the combination of her father's apprentice and her Academy roommate/maybe-sort-of-lover, and people she had met at the front.
The conversation never returned to the serious level it had when it was just her and Chase and Roy. Watching Roy now, it was hard to think of him even being capable of that level of seriousness. Mariel kept bringing decadent foods, and Roy kept paying from a seemingly bottomless wallet. Riza couldn't help thinking, "Is this what the money the Army gives you for my father's knowledge pays for?" She wondered what he had been planning to do with all that money if he hadn't run into them.
But mostly it was a good evening, and there was never enough of a lull that she had to think about Tommy Ames.
Becca couldn't stay the night. She had to head back to her posting before the last train. Riza walked her outside, prepared for an awkward parting. Before Riza could assemble the right words, Rebecca started talking to her about a guy. He was a civilian engineer who had come from Central to examine the division's water system, and she had been tasked with showing him around. He was smart and adorable and just such a gentleman. They'd been exchanging letters, it was incredibly exciting, this might be The One.
Riza had trouble sorting out if they'd actually done anything (which made her think not; Becca wasn't shy) or (harder to tell, and impossible to ask about) if the relationship existed outside of Becca's head. What was really important, Riza surmised, was the fact that Becca was telling her about it. Riza hadn't been sure about how they'd left things between them, and this was a pretty clear announcement of Becca's intention to move on.
"I hope that works out for you," Riza said. "I think about you a lot, but you and I can't always --"
Becca frowned. "Can't always what?"
"For each other," Riza finished, awkwardly.
Becca laughed, and slapped her shoulder. "Oh, roomie, I love you. It's not like I want to date you!"
It was what Riza had thought she wanted to hear. She wished it made her feel better.
When Becca was gone, Riza went back into the shop. Roy and Hughes had taken over an overstuffed sofa. Chase was straddling a chair across from them, and whatever story she was telling about a particularly incompetent drill instructor had the men doubled over with laughter.
Riza walked toward them, and was going to pull up a chair for herself, when Roy moved aside to make space for her on the sofa. She tried to avoid the implication of Chase's raised eyebrows and slid in beside him. There was plenty of room. Tilting her head to look up at Roy, she said, "Hey, you."
"Hey, yourself. Did I make a good impression on The Best Friend there?"
"I couldn't say. We weren't talking about you."
"Ouch!" said Hughes, while Chase laughed.
Roy sighed, like he was somehow the one put upon, then flagged Mariel down for "some more of this excellent wine."
Riza woke up with the side of her face in a cushion, or -- maybe that was the sleeve of Roy's jacket. She sat up, rubbing her cheek, squinting at the light that came in through the windows. Chase was straddling the same chair from the night before. "Where did you sleep?" Riza asked quietly.
"I'm okay," Chase answered, which wasn't an answer. Riza thought of Roy back at the front, telling her he never slept much. Glancing over at him now, she would hardly have thought so. He rested against Hughes' shoulder, looking much younger and ridiculously angelic. Riza remembered coming into her father's kitchen to find Roy asleep with his face in a book, more than a few times. At rest, his face didn't look much different than it had when he was fifteen.
Riza started to rise. "Maybe we should help Mariel get the counter ready or something."
Roy's palm pressed against the top of her wrist. "Don't go," he mumbled. "This is nice." He leaned harder into Hughes at the same time. "This is all really nice."
Sliding her hand out from under his, Riza touched the back of Roy's wrist and brushed her fingers up his arm. "Maybe we should help Mariel with the dishes. She didn't set out to keep an inn here, and she's going to want to open up for regular customers, eventually."
"You're a smart girl. I mean woman," Roy said. Looking over at Chase, he said, "This is a smart woman."
"I agree," Chase said. Standing, she added, "I think we should help Mariel. She looked over Roy and Riza, and shook her head.
"What's that about?" Roy asked Riza, standing up and starting to stretch.
When Roy's weight lifted off of him, Hughes stirred and sat up. His glasses had pulled off and fallen halfway down his face. Riza giggled.
Adjusting them, Hughes frowned. "Did I really get my leave pass or was that part of a dream?"
"Not a dream," Roy assured him.
"So why did I get it from a three-headed green elephant with wings?"
Roy patted him on the back. "Come help us clean this place up, and all that mess in your head will sort itself out."
They said good-bye to Hughes at the train station. He was his typical cheerful self, but there was a fraught moment when he hugged Roy hard and said, "Don't die."
"That's my line." Roy grimaced as he shrugged out of the taller man's embrace. Riza had a sense he let the contact go on longer than he needed to, before pulling out his crotchety schtick. "Love to Gracia."
"No problem there," Hughes said, mugging vaudeville style.
Roy rolled his eyes. "Give her my love, you idiot."
Hughes opened his mouth but stopped, thinking the better of whatever sarcastic and, probably, obscene comeback he had thought of. He turned to the women. "I'll be back before you know it," he said, then made a face when he realized what a double-edged promise it was for him. Riza would miss the young captain's steady presence, but she didn't blame him for wanting to spend the time with someone he loved and missed. If Riza had still had someone in the outside world to visit, she would have wanted to go, too.
Turning to Chase, Hughes said, "You know the colonel will probably make you acting XO while I'm away."
Chase made such an expression of distaste that Roy laughed and said, "Better you than Slayer."
"You think Slayton wants a job he can't delegate to Hawkeye?" Chase asked.
"He'd probably try," Riza said, matter-of-factly, then, "I'd do fine at it, too, I bet."
"That's why we're all going to work for her one day," Hughes said, stabbing a thumb in Riza's direction.
Riza caught a look from Chase that made her think, Maybe doing everything for Slayton is why they won't ever work for me. But then Chase patted Riza's shoulder, and said, "All in good time."
Back at the camp, they had new orders. Intelligence indicated a particularly well-armed pocket of insurgents, and the generals were making a lot of noise about going on offense. Kranz had it on good authority, he told the group coming back from Border, that the brigadier had sent the company's colonel a nasty telegram and now they were recalibrating optimum strategies. Colonel Digby was stationed at base camp, but he would be coming down to the village to lead new inspections personally.
The words sounded innocuous enough, but Roy straightened and looked pale. Chase caught his eye and nodded. Riza felt her stomach clench, but when Roy tried to speak to her, she averted her gaze. "I should go report in."
She went to see Slayton.
"Well if it isn't my little daytripper." Slayton looked up. He'd been cleaning a rifle, but he tilted it toward Riza and handed her the chamois he'd been using.
Wordlessly, Riza took the gun and continued the process. "New orders, sir?"
"Yeah. Shitbirds back in HQ decided that not enough of us were dying, we must be slacking off. So. They're trying to fix that."
The lieutenant raised his eyebrows and there might have been a moment of sympathy between them. Then Slayton got to his feet and said, "When you're done with that, you can figure out how to fix the rotation now that we need to have twice as many men out in the field at any given time." Riza started to speak, and Slayton said, "Don't worry, I'll get you the new parameters. It's a lot of math but I have faith in you." Dropping a memo in front of her, he said, "The major won't come asking for it for another thirty minutes, probably."
"Thank you," she said, still rubbing the gun. "Didn't we get reinforcements?"
"Five untrained idiots, yeah. I've got no problems twice that many men wouldn't fix." He stretched an arm over his head. "I'm not gonna get that many men. At this point I'd settle for getting a good night's sleep, and laid."
"You could have got either of those in B.C," Riza said. "If you had the money to pay for them. So I heard."
"Sure you heard." He glowered at her. "You're a waste of a weekend's liberty. Even if you weren't stuck with the Dragon Lady, I bet you couldn't relax enough to enjoy it. And the only way you got laid is if . . ." A smirk settled over his face. "I guess you could have saved Mustang the money he spent on whores."
"Shut up," Riza said.
Slayton pulled back, pointed at himself, and gave her a disbelieving look. "Do you want to amend that statement, Cadet? I could put you on field discipline for the rest of the night."
"You could. And then you could do your own rotation charts." Of course, he could just as easily have her do the charts and then put her on field discipline. But she'd like to see him get that by Chase.
"I'll let it go," he said, with fake magnanimity. "We're all under a lot of pressure." He stretched out next to her, watching her finish the gun. "So what did you get up to in Border?"
She closed her eyes for a second, and thought of Tommy Ames, and Roy Mustang. "When it comes to messing with my head, sir," she told him. "I respectfully submit that you're an amateur."
In the dream, Riza was lying on her stomach. She propped up on her elbows to keep her bare breasts from the dirt floor, and her skin lay exposed to the night air.
The hand pressed down against the back of her neck belonged to Tommy Ames.
"You miss me," he said.
"Right. That's why I ran out of there and didn't come back."
"You didn't come back because you didn't want to disappoint your Eagle Girls leader. You ran out because you didn't want me to see you cry." He brought a hand down over her eyes. "You never used to cry, but it's not such a big deal. Everyone does." The warm saltwater pooled against his hand. He pressed and rubbed it down her face, leaving her skin sticky, and she was shaking with sobs as he slid his fingers into her cunt.
Now they were in her old dormitory room, and she was bent over, hugging one of the desk chairs. He fucked her from behind, and she registered no pain or pleasure, just the sense of her body being filled, bits of her self crowded out. In the mirror, she could see Becca, placidly reading a magazine. She raised her eyes to meet Riza's, once, and said, "He's an engineer. We've been corresponding." Then she flipped the page and looked back down.
"I never took you to my room," Riza told Ames. She was sitting now, still naked, but with her knees pulled up against her chest. "That was my place and Becca's. Kitt's too, for a while. You're trying to trick me."
When she looked up, they were in the ammunition shed behind the range, and she had been here with him often enough. "You know how dreams work," Ames told her. He was sprawled on his back, looking at the ceiling. Wearing clothes, Riza noticed. She did know how dreams worked, and since she knew she was dreaming it ought to be that she could make him do whatever she wanted. But here she couldn't even do what she wanted, couldn't get up and walk across a room like a normal person.
"I don't want to talk to you," Riza said.
"You've never been much for conversation."
"I didn't want to fuck you, either."
"You never stopped me."
"I meant --" How could she not even make herself understood in a dream? "I didn't want to dream about fucking you."
"Whatever you say." Then he was behind her. He circled her ribcage with a well-muscled arm, pushing up into the underside of her breasts. She braced for him to enter her again, knew her body would bend to his movement, hoped she was wet enough that maybe she just wouldn't feel it. Then a pistol clicked behind Riza's ear. She raised her hips and shifted her knees apart, shivering with the anticipation and sense and memory of cool steel touching her clit. He'd do that to her, and then he'd have her clean the gun after it was over.
Tommy didn't lower the gun. Instead he raised it, pressing it into the base of her skull. "No more games, princess."
The shot woke her up.
"Bad dream?" Chase was standing over her. For a moment, Riza thought it was one of those dreams that you woke up from, and into another dream.
"I'm fine," Riza started to sit up. "Did it sound like --?" And suddenly she was doubled over, heaving. Chase brought a towel -- her own; it must have been her only one. Riza wiped her mouth, stomach still spasming. Chase left the tent and Riza hardly had time to fear she was in trouble when the officer came back in with sand to throw over the vomit on the floor of the tent.
"Have you been sick?" Chase said cautiously, pressing the back of her hand to Riza's forehead. "No fever. Runs?" For a moment, the nightmare of a serious illness hitting the camp overtook whatever personal concern the major had for Riza.
Riza's stomach knotted, remembering the grippe that had run through her village once every few years. One particularly vicious wave had taken her mother. Of all the stupid ways to die in this war, vomiting in a tent had to be the most pointless. But, slowing her thoughts to the methodical, sequential way she had learned to survive in the field, she decided there wasn't any good reason to think she was getting a bug. "No, ma'am," she said, shakily, "I don't think I'm sick -- I just -- I don't know what happened. This never happens, I never do this."
"Re-entry," said Chase. "One of us should have warned you." Riza stared, thinking blankly that Chase meant something sexual, but the older woman said, "Coming back after you've been away. Even just a couple days in Border City. Sitting around like we did the other night, talking about ideas, like we were going to get back to a world where they mattered."
"Yeah," Riza said shakily. "Spending a few hours not feeling like a machine. Or a piece of meat. At least." She made a face. "People are a different kind of meat, in Border City."
Chase put a hand on the back of Riza's neck, and gave a bitter laugh. "I wish I could assure you that everything's going to be all right and you'll get out of here okay."
"But it's possible. You being here tells me that it's possible. That's something."
"Is it?" Chase wondered. She lifted herself off the cot. "Big day tomorrow. Let's get some rest."
But Riza didn't. She lay on her back, looking at the tent ceiling, terrified of waking Chase. Terrified of going to sleep and facing another dream like the one she had come out of. With that fear came guilt that her nightmares were not, as Chase would have thought, about the bombs that had exploded beside her, or the bullets she had put between men's eyes.
It wasn't that she wanted violent, bloody dreams.
Still. Why couldn't she at least dream about fucking Roy?
Roy found her the next morning, at breakfast. The alchemists usually ate together, before the standard officers, but Riza got there early and Roy had stayed late, so they had a corner of the tent to themselves.
"How's re-entry?" he asked her, with a symapathetic grimace.
"Nobody warned me," she sighed. He kept looking at her, with concern, until she had to say, "I didn't sleep well, but I'll be all right." Not wanting to whine at him, she said, "It was good to see you in Border the other night. Hope we didn't ruin your evening."
"Not at all. Running into you made my evening." He hesitated. "You know, I like your major."
"She's not my major," Riza said. "I don't have any claim on her, and don't worry, she's not converting me to anything. But she's all right. She comes from a perspective I still don't really understand. But maybe the talking helped."
"Mmm hmm," said Roy. "Do you think she likes me?"
Riza's jaw dropped a little and felt like she was talking to a child when she said, "She's Astartian."
"Well, obviously, I didn't mean --" His eyes widened. "Wait, did you mean --? She does, doesn't she? She said something?" It didn't take long for Roy to adjust to the idea that someone might be interested in him. It probably surprised him more when people weren't. Riza didn't answer, but that did nothing to discourage him. "Well, well. I guess even warrior nuns get crushes."
"Don't say anything to her," said Riza. "I'm not acknowledging you're right or wrong. Just -- don't be cruel, it isn't like you."
"That's debatable." Roy looked down at his hand. "But thank you for thinking so." Sitting back, he said, "Huh. I guess in the presence of mortal danger, a lot of people might consider abandoning their sexual principles."
"Don't flatter yourself," Riza said. "She might be a little charmed by you, but I don't see Chase giving you come hither looks at the front."
"You never know. But I meant me."
Riza raised an eyebrow. "You have sexual principles?"
"Sure. I don't think I could ever sleep with someone who'd taken a chastity vow. It's not the same as a married woman. A marriage vow has two sides and not all partners are created equal. Some men deserve to get cheated on. Would you judge Harry Slayton's wife if she's back in Central fooling around?"
"Maybe," said Riza. "She might be worse than he is." At a look from Roy, she remembered the conversation among the officers in the tent. "All right, I doubt it."
"A marriage is more like a contract, whereas an oath, no matter that it's made to a deity that I have trouble taking very seriously –" Catching Riza's look, he said, "I'm not amusing you. You usually find my clever sophistry at least a little bit amusing. Not that you ever express it as such, but I know how to recognize that lack of reaction that shows you are laughing inside. You are looking at me now with actual disapproval." He put a hand out, touched her cheek, and tipped it toward him. "What's wrong?"
"Sir." She moved away from him, pushing her hair from her eyes. Then, because no one could overhear them, she said in a small voice, "Roy. I know I'm not in a position to ask this, but if you could please just tell me what you want from me. If the answer is nothing, that's all I need to know. But if I'm supposed to be getting something from all this -- this touching me and treating me like I'm special." She looked up at him. "If you want me, I'm yours. You just have to say so."
"Riza," he said, and in the silence that followed she thought, Well, I've done the impossible. Roy Mustang is speechless. "Riza," he repeated, then started to put a hand on her arm, looked at it and drew it back. "Believe me," he said. "If I thought I could be with someone – with anyone – while I'm out here." He reached across to put his fingers on the back of her wrist. "I wish it was you. I'd like it to be you."
She remembered all the times Kitt had said, "I love you," how he'd kept repeating it long after she'd stopped being able to say it back. It had frustrated her, then, but she would have given anything for that kind of certainty on Roy's lips. Instead, she got half-declarations full of 'if's.
"If you were going to be with someone, if it was at the front. But you're saying you won't. What's the problem? Regs?" She bit her lip against saying the regs would have been against him fucking Hughes, if that had really happened. But she was above that, or she ought to be, and she doubted it mattered. Anything that happened with him and Hughes must have been before he met Gracia.
"Regs?" Roy said, as though the idea was ludicrous. Then he stood, looking down at where she sat. "We're not in a love story."
"We're not in any kind of story. We're in real life. Do you even get that?"
"Believe me, I understand that. But we tell ourselves stories all the time. It's how we get through doing what we do every day. It would be really easy, really nice, to turn this into a love story starring me and you."
"Would that be so terrible?"
"It wouldn't be true."
"As opposed to everything else they tell us out here."
"All right, you deserve a better answer. I could get very lost in you, Riza Hawkeye. I can't afford to lose myself right now." He paused and, with a rueful smile, he said, "I'm sorry."
Colonel Digby led a raid the next day, down to the occupied village. On the way, the infantry packed tightly into two transports, two snipers standing by the tailgate of each the whole time. Riza shared her duty with Private Baxter, one of the kids she had trained, an eager boy, and excitable, talking to her the whole time about his favorite soccer team back in New Optain.
The raid was a bust. It made an impressive show of force when they all streamed out of the trucks, but none of the rebel leaders could be located. Riza watched it all through her scope, shifting from one rooftop to the next, as the colonel verbally harassed the owner of each successive establishment. Enlisted men were searching the interiors, as this went on, but it had been made clear to the snipers that they were there to protect the officers.
At least this was a boring, stupid mission, Riza thought, rather than a terrifying, stupid one.
Then they raided the brothel, dragging half a dozen girls into the street. One infantryman called a whore by name. Laughing, he stepped forward, pulled her toward him, then kissed her on the mouth. Other men joined in with encouragement, or jeers or catcalls. She pulled away from him, and wiped her mouth with the back of her hand. Then she spit on the ground, and the soldier yanked her back. A group of men started to close around her. Riza wondered if she was about to watch a gang rape. She counted the men crowding around the girl -- one, two, three, four, five -- and mapped out the head shots it would take to kill them all.
I'd go to jail for that, she thought, followed by, Yes, I would. I'm willing to go to jail for that. A consequential end to her war, at least. She calculated, without passion, that she would have to shoot very soon, to make sure she hit them without shooting the girl. Maybe she could fire over their heads, as a warning. Did she know those men? Did it make a difference?
Then Digby shouted. He came and got in the lead man's face about wasting time, playing around, being out of formation. Riza could tell, from the way he pushed the whore back toward her companions, that the tirade had nothing to do with worrying for her welfare.
Now that the colonel was near the women, Riza gave them a once-over with her scope. One of them might have knife, or a gun.
She wondered what was going on inside the house.
The next building was a coffee house, the sort where young men gathered inside to smoke and to argue. The men were angry and demonstrative about being rousted like this. Probably scared, Riza thought. With her scope, she scanned the surrounding crowd.
One skinny teenager ran toward the colonel, waving his arms. Riza took in the scene. No weapon visible, and the security detail on the ground had already cordoned off the colonel. One of the larger, older Ishbalan men was already running toward the boy. Riza hoped he would be able to restrain his friend, that they would both be spared a needless beating from the guards.
The boy fell. Blood pooled from his head, and the echo of a gunshot reverberated through the street. Riza looked to the adjoining rooftop and saw Private Baxter lowering his gun. She felt a spasm like the one that preceded last night's retching, and choked it back because she needed to scan the crowd below.
The kid hadn't been a threat. Riza had watched the whole thing. He hadn't been armed. Now, though, there was a dead boy and a crowd that could easily become a mob. It was the murder of an Ishbalan child that had started this war.
This time, there was no riot. This time, the intimidation worked the way the Army hoped it would. The MP's put a few men in handcuffs, including the one who had gone to restrain the charging youth, and the crowd dispersed.
Riza had to move on before she found out what they did with the dead boy.
Back at the transports, at the end of the day, men crowded around Baxter, offering him cigarettes and swigs from their canteens. One man looked up. "Getting slow in your old age, Hawkeye?"
"Yeah," said another, "Gonna let this whippersnapper replace you? When the shot went off, everybody was sure it was you."
If that boy had needed shooting, Riza thought, I would have shot him. Baxter was laughing, pleased with himself, and Riza tried to see beneath the facade. Had she done that bad a job of training this kid, that he thought deadly force was warranted, even necessary, in these circumstances? Or was he just bored with the assignment and felt like putting a bullet in a dirty Ishbalan, and thought this one would do? It's Baxter, she thought. He still has acne spots all over his face. He loves soccer and he shows around pictures of his bucktoothed fiancee like she's the most beautiful woman in the world.
"Yeah," said Riza. "I guess I'm getting slow."
When they got back to camp, it was time for Riza's too-short off shift. She was tired and sore and nearly dehydrated, and with the way she'd been sleeping, she needed rest.
In the tent, Chase was looking at paperwork. "How was it?" she asked Riza.
One of my men killed someone he shouldn't have killed, she wanted to say. I saw a woman almost get raped, and I don't know how many it happened to that I didn't see.
"They rousted Madame Selene's," Riza said. "You might suggest there should be a female officer next time they try something like that."
Chase looked up with a frown. "Did something happen?"
"I have no way of knowing," Riza said honestly. "I don't want it to sound like I'm saying something did when I have no way --"
"I get it. I'll make sure to ask some uncomfortable questions." Chase rolled her head back on her shoulders. "God, how much do I not want to go in every time they raid a whorehouse." She let out an unexpected laugh. "Sorry, I was just thinking, that ought to be Mustang's job."
"Yeah." Riza slumped onto the cot and could feel sleep approaching as soon as she closed her eyes. "You were wrong about him, by the way. He doesn't want me. He had some long fucking existential bullshit to share about it, but that's what it comes down to."
"You're tired. We can talk about that some other time." Riza was grateful that Chase didn't try to shower her with sympathy. That had its place, but Chase was in a position to know that every guy who decided you weren't worth fucking didn't have to be a tragedy. The major's voice followed her into sleep. "Anything else from today?"
"No," Riza said, thinking that if she was going to get Baxter in trouble, she wasn't going to do it by breaking chain of command. Chase was the acting XO, but Baxter's immediate superior was Harry Slayton.
So I have that to look forward to when I wake up, Riza thought, and let herself sink into the darkness.
In her dream, sweet bright-eyed Baxter pushed Riza's back into the wall of the whorehouse. As the other men watched, he pulled off her shirt and her uniform jacket, and each of the laughing young boys from the transport came by and slapped her in the face.
Roy stood back, his eyes trained on her.
"Don't you want a turn?" Riza asked.
Riza didn't sleep well that night, either.
"Baxter tells me you're getting slow," Slayton said as soon Riza walked into his tent.
The private looked up from polishing his rifle. "I didn't say that, ma'am." Riza breathed in and tried not to think of her dream.
"Well, Bax," said Slayton. "The Colonel commended you for eliminating a threat, which suggests you were a split second faster than Hawkeye."
"That's true," Riza said. Then to Baxter. "I'll take over the, umm -- what you're doing?"
When the private looked up blankly, Slayton said, "Mommy and Daddy need their alone time. Dismissed." Baxter ducked out of the tent, and Slayton turned to Riza. "Cute little killer. Ain't he just? Be proud. You handpicked that one."
"I wasn't slow." Riza breathed deeply. "Baxter should never have shot. He made a terrible decision. The target was unarmed -- it was very clear from my position he was unarmed -- and the Colonel was protected. There was a much greater risk of starting a riot by shooting than of that kid doing any damage at all."
"That's your subjective appraisal."
"Of course it's subjective. That is," she admitted, "I don't know if Bax could see everything I saw. But he should have known that I could see it. I had the angle on that target. He read the situation wrong and he ignored protocol. I keep going over how I could have trained him wrong."
"Did you reprimand him?"
"I don't see how I could reprimand him when the Colonel had already commended him."
"That settles it, Hawkeye. He's the Colonel."
"He didn't see what I saw. He doesn't -- respectfully, sir -- know what I know."
Slayton thought for a moment. "There wasn't a riot, though. And you haven't said this to anyone."
"It's a serious accusation. I'm over him in the field, technically, but you're his commanding officer."
"Thank you," Slayton said. "You did the --" She thought he was going to say "right thing," then laughed at the absurdity of the situation. "You think he needs a reprimand?"
"He needs to know not to do that again."
"Have you figured out how you're going to tell him he shot a kid for no reason?"
Riza sucked in a breath. "We'll do an intensive review of field protocols and recognition of warning signals. If he puts it together, we'll deal with it then."
Slayton nodded. "Anything else?"
"That depends. Planning to go to back to Madame Selene's any time soon?"
"Did Sibella ask about me?" He looked hopeful for a second, then cringed. "She's not pregnant, is she?" When Riza had no response, he attempted to clarify. "Little redhead?"
The wild shifts from mood to mood could have been funny, in another context. It was odd talking with Slayton like this, almost like he was a person. "I didn't have any conversations with the girls," she said. "But the infantry was shoving them around. I don't know that anyone got hurt but -- I told Chase to follow up on it."
"All right," he said. "I'll see if she needs me to put extra pressure on anybody."
"Yes, Hawkeye. I know it's supposed to be my job to reinforce every terrible opinion you have of me, but an Army that's getting its kicks beating up whores has a morale problem. Besides, where the hell else are we going to go if they won't let us in that place?"
"They're not going to turn an occupying army away."
"They're not oppressed people. They're Amestrian girls who came out from East City or Border to make a lot of money fast, then go home and forget this ever happened. Sibella went to a better finishing school than my wife." He shook his head. "But no. They couldn't exactly turn a sortie from the camp away. Still, I'd feel like a shit going there under those circumstances." He shrugged. "And one of the girls could have a knife."
Crouching into the sniper's nest for the fifth hour of her shift, Riza was starting to wonder how long her hand would remain steady. Was this what Chase had meant about re-entry? Convincing herself she had gotten acclimated to the worst, dulling the emotional reaction to everything around her, tricking herself into thinking the equilibrium that was letting her function could be a permanent state.
She envied Slayton a little, his constant commitment to getting some sleep. Her sleep was only worsening things, but he seemed to be satisfied as long as you let him lie down. She wondered what that guy dreamed about. His wife back home? In his dreams, she wondered, was his wife welcoming and compliant? Or, did he get to take out his anger and his aggression and his lust by doing things to her that he could never get away with in waking hours? Or maybe it wasn't the wife he was dreaming about at all.
Slayton found her a couple hours before her shift was scheduled to end. "I talked to Bax," he said. "Told him you'd be doing a protocol review with him and running a few scenarios. Said it was a standard thing we were making everybody do."
Riza inhaled and kept her eyes fixed on the field. "Are you telling me this is something I'm actually going to do with everyone?"
"It's not a bad idea," he said. "And chill out, I'll take half of them myself."
"You didn't tell him anything else, though. About what I saw?"
"You're the one who was there. I thought it would be better coming from you. He'll be your relief come midnight. You can start working out a schedule for the rest of the men, then."
"That's fine. I'm not sleeping anyway."
She'd only meant that factually, but she didn't blame Slayton for reading it as sarcasm. "Look, I've been giving up some of my own sleep trying to work this out. And you know what that means to me. They're not letting us go back to Selene's until some something is resolved. So I'm apparently never getting laid again in my life." With that, he rapped his knuckles lightly against the back of her neck. "Gotta leave me something."
Riza's muscles stiffened; she focused on her breathing and the weight of the powerful rifle in her hand. "Do you keep saying that to me thinking I'm eventually going to help you out with that problem?"
"Not really," he said matter-of-factly, and Riza realized she believed him. There was a lot of misdirected frustration in Slayton's life, but he hadn't figured out how to make any of it work for him. He might be a bully on the surface, but his swagger faded as soon as you pushed back. He was casting lines out at random and would have no idea what to do if anybody bit. One thing Riza was certain of: he would never reel her in, take an assessing look, and say, If I was going to consider doing something like this, you would be almost somewhere near the top of the list of people I would do it with, probably.
Without taking her eye from the rifle scope, she said, "Do you want to fuck me?"
Silence for a second, and then Slayton said, "Ehh, I bet you're still pretty tight. You'd do." Riza didn't answer. Let him do the work himself. "I just expressed a lack of objection to the general idea." More silence. "So what's the punchline?"
"You tell me. You've had your eyes and your hands all over my body since I got here, but you can't get your mind around the idea I'd want to do anything about it. It's almost like you don't believe your own sales pitch." She let the silence hang for a moment, then for good measure, added, "Sir."
"You are a weird, weird chick." Riza didn't respond. "Are you serious? Because I'm completely willing to believe you're serious."
Finally, Riza looked up from the rifle long enough to say. "I've got another two hours on shift here, sir. After that we've got training schedules to work through. So it's probably best to let me do my job and you can get that sleep you're talking about." She looked back toward the field. "I guess you have condoms, because I don't. I'll see you at twenty-four hundred."
When Baxter came at midnight to relieve her, Slayton trailed right behind him. While the private settled into place with his gun, Riza moved from her spot, stretched, and didn't look Slayton's way.
"The lieutenant told me, ma'am, that we're going to have some refresher courses soon?"
"Yes," Riza said. "He and I are going to get to work on that schedule -- right now." She actually had no idea when they were going to work on it. She didn't much like the idea of Slayton getting up off of her and then sticking a chart in her face. At least when Ames had kept her late on some pretext, he hadn't expected her really to do the work. She thought now, unpleasantly, of Chase's story about her mother and the officer she'd served for fifteen years. But this wasn't that, this was getting to sleep at night, keeping her hands from shaking. This was the chance to look at all the men in her own lines and think, What's the worst you could do to me, anyway?
"Did I screw something up?" Baxter asked. "That is -- ma'am. Is this about what I did the other day?"
"We all need to review the protocols," said Riza.
"You're not in trouble," added Slayton.
Despite the officer's words, Baxter was still looking at her, plaintively. She was getting another kind of hard look from Slayton. She was caught in the room between these two gazes, one asking her, Am I a murderer?, the other wondering, How soon are we going to fuck? It crossed her mind to hang back with the private, and let Slayton squirm for a while, but after a certain point of pulling his strings, it would get to a point where she was the jerk.
"I'll catch you tomorrow, Baxter," Riza said. He needed to get his job done right now, anyway. "It'll be routine. Don't let it distract you."
Riza walked toward the door and didn't look for Slayton behind her. When they were out of Baxter's potential sightline, the lieutenant immediately flanked her so that she was half pinned against the wall. Her pulse sped up, a fear reaction, until she forcibly reminded herself that she had asked for this. Or something more or less like it. Now, at least, she knew he hadn't been seriously pursuing her before. He'd never crowded her with anything like this kind of intent.
Or maybe she was reading more into his actions now, because of what she knew. Anyway, her heart was racing even faster, but she told herself the emotion wasn't fear. With that thought, she could feel the burning and wetness between her thighs, too.
"You're not bait and switching me now, are you?" Slayton shifted his leg forward, so his knee wasn't touching her, but if she tried to move one way or other it would.
This was the last clear chance. She could look up at him and say, "Lieutenant, I have no idea what you're talking about, kindly let me go." She could say it loud enough for Baxter to hear. Slayton almost seemed to expect she would say it.
Riza gave him a nod. "Downstairs."
The last time she had seen Slayton in this room, he had walked in on her and Roy. That hadn't even been in her mind when she named the place, but she bet it was on Slayton's. He jammed a chair up underneath the doorknob, testing it a few times to his satisfaction, and while he messed with that, Riza slipped out of her jacket and pulled the black T-shirt over her head.
When she had her top off and could see again, Slayton was staring. She unhooked the brassiere and started to let it drop. Slayton was close enough now to catch the thing in his hands. He held it up and glanced at it oddly, stretching out the material. Riza wondered if he'd ever fucked a girl who wore a bra. Hookers must still be in corsets, and maybe his wife was, too.
Riza swatted his palm with her knuckles. He dropped the bra, and his hand moved directly to her breast. She wasn't small there, but he had long fingers that could curve over the bosom and touch her rib cage.
"Oh, that's good," he said, with a low growl in his voice. "God, woman, you look good." He moved in to kiss her. She pressed her lips shut and leaned away, but not enough to get her breast out of his grasp. When he gripped her tighter, she felt a constriction between her thighs. "No?" he asked.
"Don't waste your time seducing me."
"All riiiiight." He kept massaging her breast, but the hand that had been on her neck slid to her stomach and flattened out to move past her belt, inside her uniform trousers. Riza undid her fastener, and, keeping a hand on top of her hip holster, yanked the pants and underwear down.
"I get it, princess." Slayton's hand now rested on exposed skin, fingertips laced in the pale bush she'd let grow since coming to the front. "I'm not fast enough for you." His fingers mapped the perimeter of her clit, now, dancing on either side to show he knew where he was going but wasn't ready to do what she wanted. He gave her a questioning look.
"Act like this was your idea," she told him. "Don't pretend that you care if I like it."
"My my. What would your buddy Chase and her tightass tribe think about that?"
"I didn't say to force me, I said to act like it was your idea. But if you'd rather play a different game --" Riza pulled the pistol from her holster, put a hand around the barrel and flipped him the handle. She hoped he'd have the sense to leave the safety on. Talk about stupid ways to die.
He looked at her, then raised the gun and tapped her under the chin. With the hand still between her legs, he found the edges of her cunt and pushed two fingers in. Riza bit down on her lip. "My God," he said. "You are so fucking wet." She watched a smug grin spread over his face, the kind that even a nice man would give way to when he knew he'd hit the right button. Even Kitt used to look at her like that. Slayton wasn't a nice man, but then that was why she'd picked him.
He pushed the barrel of the gun into the underside of her chin. Riza didn't know if any submission fantasy could survive her awareness of a dozen ways to disarm him. He was doing a better job of fingering her, but then she reached over to lay the back of her hand against his crotch. She traced the contour of his erection, then tightened her grip, enough that he let out a strangled little gasp. He looked down and seemed to understand for the first time, that he wasn't going to be able to handle the gun, and her, and his own cock at the same time.
"I'll get that for you," Riza said, in a small, high voice. "Just. Please. Don't hurt me."
Slayton nodded, then slid his hand out of her. He pressed wet fingers into her shoulder and pushed her downward. She sunk to her knees and undid his fasteners and belt. He had narrow hips, and his trousers fell straight down. As they pooled around his feet, Riza fished into the pocket to pull out the packaged rubber he had stashed there. Her fingers fumbled for a second, and Slayton tapped her cheek with the pistol. "No stalling, missy."
"Sorry," she said, then looked up at the gun. "You could at least act like you know how to use that thing." Before he could work out an answer, Riza pulled the boxer shorts down off of his hips. She spent a moment undoing his bootlaces and tugging the shoes off, which kept her eyes away from his thick, hard cock.
He tapped her chin, again, with the gun barrel, coaxing her to look up. "Don't want to think about what that's going to feel like inside you?" Of course, she was thinking about it. Her clit throbbed with the sensation his fingers had started to awaken, like her body was trying to close a circuit.
"I was thinking," she said. "My ex had a bigger dick than you and he wasn't anywhere near such an ass about it."
"Is that a fact?" Slayton laughed. She nodded because it was true. Kitt had been well-hung and perpetually apologetic about it, no matter how many times she assured him she liked the way it felt. Ames, though by no means lacking, was smaller than either of them. He just hadn't cared what she thought about his body, ever, a quality Riza wished she could find in a man who didn't happen to be a sociopath.
"Also," she said, helping Slayton's feet free. "I don't want you tripping over your own clothes and setting that gun off. You are not doing too well at this."
"I've never fucked a woman at gunpoint before. Sorry to destroy your fantasies. For what it's worth, you're maybe not as good at being submissive as you think you are."
This wasn't supposed to be making her want to laugh. She bit down on her lip and said, "You're surprisingly terrible at giving orders." She tore open the condom packet, then reached up to cradle his cock. Her hands went to work sliding the rubber on, and she added, "Maybe it's not that surprising."
Slayton sucked in a breath and looked down at her. Through clenched teeth, he asked, "What am I ordering you to do now?"
Wordlessly, she sidestepped him, moved toward the beat up mattress and bent over it.
"You want me this way," she told him.
He shrugged and then, looking at Riza's gun, set it down and kicked it across the floor. "Not my game. We're gonna play this my way."
Riza let out an impatient gasp. She closed her eyes and lay forward across the bed. His arm came from behind her. She e reached across her body and grabbed tightly onto her nipple. She'd expected it but she still let out a gasp of startled pain as he rolled the bead of flesh between his fingers and dug into the aureole with his short cut nails.
Moving his lips right against her ear, he said, "That's right, you uptight little bitch. You act so above it all, like you're so fucking better than everybody else. You're just a fucking animal, with tits and a cunt --" His fingers opened her again, and as he spoke, he worked the head of his penis inside her. "You cunt's no better than anybody's cunt." She let out a breath, willing herself to relax, to let him in. It worked, a little. She'd gotten incredibly wet, and there was some lubricant in the condom, but he was still big and the entry was rough. She moved forward along with him the first few times, then found the rhythm of his body.
He kept talking. "Nothing special about your cunt. Just because it's the only one in a hundred miles that doesn't cost money, that isn't under lock and key. That doesn't make you special, it makes you cheap. You're not even a whore, you're cheaper than a whore."
She didn't answer, just braced herself as he kept thrusting into her. Closing her eyes, she tried to expel every bad dream she'd had over the past month. This might be the last time she got to decide what to do with her body. It might be smashed or cut open tomorrow. If this was the worst she could think to do to herself, it didn't feel like so much.
She came suddenly, and fast, her body spasming much more quickly than the speed of his thrusts. He dug a nail deeper into her nipple, and she gasped out a series of sharp cries. Slayton followed with a heavy moan, and she felt him release and then go limp inside her. They both breathed for a long moment, and then she bucked and he moved off of her. Riza gasped again as he pulled out, and she hit his chest with her shoulder as she stood.
He said, "Hey!" and she hit him again. Sidestepping, Riza stopped to raise her trousers and fasten her belt, then went to pick up her bra and T-shirt. "You are a weird, freaky chick," Slayton said.
"You didn't seem to mind. Are you sure you've never done that before?"
"I didn't say I'd never done that before."
"Well, you sure knew what to say."
He went to work looking for his own clothes. "You know that's not me. You wanted me to say that shit. It's not what I'm really like."
"I'm sorry if I gave you the impression that I care what you're really like." Riza picked up the pistol and checked that Slayton hadn't knocked anything loose kicking it around the floor. "I'm sure you're usually very gentle when you're fucking women who aren't your wife."
"You don't know anything about my wife."
"Except what you tell everybody."
He started to snap back in the same tempo, then paused and crossed his arms. Now dressed except for his boots, he leaned back against the door. "You're one to talk."
She shrugged. "I guess."
"So did Mustang dump you, or did the queer refuse to fuck you in the first place?"
"It's not like that," Riza said, figuring she'd let Slayton decide which part she was denying.
"I figure it's pretty much got to be one or the other. Wait, maybe he didn't dump you. Maybe he's just not enough for you or --" Now he smirked. "Maybe he wouldn't play your game."
"Whatever. Come on, Slayer. We've got training schedules to make up."
He shook his head. "I did those."
"Did you think I was going to fuck you and then put you to work? I don't have that little class. I've got you off for the next twelve. You should sleep as much of that time as you can, so when we're up here next time. . ."
"There's no next time," she snapped. "I'm not your mistress. This happened once. That's all you get. Don't start giving me special treatment."
"Of course, you're getting special treatment, Hawkeye. You're my right hand."
"Don't play games."
"Me?" He shook his head. "Hawkeye. Cadet. I set the schedule up myself because it's not that fucking hard. And I put you off duty because you've looked goddamn awful the last few days."
"Not too awful to fuck."
"Awful like tired. Like you didn't feel well."
She pointed toward the bed. "And that was supposed to help?"
"I clearly don't have any idea what's going in that weird little slutty freak head of yours. But don't get mad at me for doing what you asked me to do. And don't get mad again when I try to be decent about it."
"Yeah. Decent's the word I was looking for."
Slayton opened the door. "It's way after midnight. Get out of here. Get some rest, we'll talk in twelve."
Riza shoved past him, and looked back at his rumpled uniform and bare feet. "Put your damn boots on. You look ridiculous."
She went back to the tent and fell, almost immediately, into heavy, peaceful, dreamless sleep.
The sun was high when Riza woke, and she had a moment of panic before remembering that Slayton had given her twelve straight hours off shift. Checking the watch on her equipment belt, she saw she had slept for ten of them. Stirring, she felt a raw ache between her legs, blending with all the usual pain. She probably smelled like sex, too, but she also smelled like sweat and dirt, and, with water a rationed commodity at the front, she'd already had her shower for the week. She might be able to wash her face in the creek that ran through the camp, if she felt like getting out there. She still had some of the pain relievers Becca had given her, too, if she wanted to take one of those.
She could also lie on her side for two more hours.
Sitting up, Riza felt the ragged mess her hair had turned into. She went to look for her knife, and for something to see her reflection in, so she could hack the hair shorter. While she was digging around, Chase stuck her head in the tent and said, "Mail just came in."
Riza looked up. "I never get mail." She got it from Becca, sometimes, but that probably wasn't why Chase was telling her.
"The alchemy group is out there. Rumor has it they're heading out on a mission tonight." When Riza kept looking at the major, Chase shrugged. "Maybe you got some mail?"
"Maybe." Or maybe Chase thought she wanted to say good-bye to Roy. Well, why not? She was annoyed with him, but they never knew what might be the last time they would see someone. Riza followed Chase toward the center of the compound.
They saw Roy right away. He cut off his conversation with Colonel Gran, the alchemist they called Iron Blood, and jogged after them.
"Hey," Roy said. Riza stopped when he put his hand on her shoulder. "How have you been?"
She pushed the hair back from her eyes. "Good. I mean. Alive. I just - I just got a good sleep, so --"
"Good," he said. "Sleep is good. Okay then."
"We're checking for mail," Riza explained. "Becca might have written."
"You?" Roy asked Chase.
"My mom. More mountain-climbing postcards, and maybe the news from Rush Valley. How'd you make out?"
Roy flipped up two conspicuously pink envelopes. "My aunt," he said, and, noticing another soldier who appeared to be listening in, he waved the second envelope. "A sister."
Chase raised her eyebrows at him. Riza looked down and together they walked to the mail call. She didn't have a letter -- she hadn't really expected one -- but Chase had three clipped together and she grinned as she opened them. Look at this." She pulled out a folded paper and several photographs. "This is where Mom and David have been vacationing --" Riza got involved in looking over the pictures, and it was several minutes before she heard Slayton's voice say, "Mustang!"
"Hear from your wife?" Roy was asking. "She keeping busy?"
Slayton ignored him and reached down to touch the pink envelopes, which Roy grabbed away from him. Riza couldn't make out what they were saying to each other, next, but as Slayton leaned over to Roy, Riza froze. He said something in Roy's ear, and Roy turned to stare at him. Slayton's voice came in a murmur again and Riza just had time to register the impending disaster before she heard the crack of Roy's fist against Slayton's jaw.
Slayton was considerably taller and a bit broader than Roy. But he hadn't been ready for the blow, and he stumbled and fell squarely to the ground. Roy jumped on top and started pummeling Slayton's face. Chase ran forward, yelling, "Mustang! What the hell?" Roy was pulling on his glove when Chase grabbed his shoulder and yanked him backward.
"Thank you!" Slayton sputtered, pressing the back of his hand to his jaw.
"Shut up," said Chase, pointing at Slayton.
Roy laughed, and Chase yanked him around. "What the hell do you think you are doing?"
"The fact that it's Slayton isn't enough evidence he had it coming?"
Chase turned to Riza. "Mustang started it, right? I'm not seeing things, am I?"
"You're asking her?" Slayton yelped. "She's his . . ."
"Shut up, Harry," snapped Chase. "This is the last time I'm saying it."
At the same time, Riza said, "It was Mustang."
Slayton let out a self-satisfied, "Hah!"
Riza turned on him. "I'm not taking sides with you. Everybody saw. She only asked me because everybody saw." She glared at him, and he looked away. She couldn't take much satisfaction in staring him down, though, since she wouldn't look at Roy.
Roy was arguing with Chase. "Now, I'm sure we can work this out. . ."
"Work this out, ma'am." Chase corrected him.
Roy pointed to the stripe on his own sleeve.
"Oh, fuck you, Mustang. 'Major' is just a title. You know I rank you. You punch a subordinate officer like that, I could have you arrested. I should at least put you on field discipline." She looked toward Colonel Gran, who had been watching the whole fracas with raised eyebrows. "I have the authority to discipline your majors. Not one of them has privileges above a captain."
"I will not be wanting to stop you," said Gran, in his strong Northern accent, with a smirk.
"We're going on a raid tonight," Roy protested.
The other alchemist flipped out his pocket watch. "Six hours from now. You need anything cleaned around here, Major Chase, then Mustang is your man. He's very tidy."
Roy let out a breath. "Fine," he mumbled. "If I really wanted to hurt that asshole, I could have set him on fire. But fine."
Chase turned her back and called to the duty sergeant. "You've got a volunteer for the next couple hours."
With Chase's attention elsewhere, Slayton leaned toward Riza. "You thought I wasn't going to tell him?"
"Oh my God, you jackass." Riza started to move toward him, and it was Roy who put an arm around her shoulder. She whirled on Roy, slamming the heel of her hand into his chest. "Don't. Help. Me." Pulling clear of his grip, she walked after Chase.
Behind her, she heard Gran say to Slayton, "You leave now. You lucky he not burn you."
"Thanks for the support, Colonel," Roy said, sounding surprised and gratified.
"Is nothing. I have bet with Kimblee if you make it out alive. I am, how do you say it? In back of your horse."
"I don't think that's how you say that, sir."
"What you do to annoy Miss Hawkeye at you, anyway, Mustang?"
Riza shook her head, tuning them out as well as she could, only thinking dimly that she was surprised Roy's colonel knew her name. Passing Chase, Riza said, "I think I am going to take that extra hour's sleep." When Chase fell in behind her, Riza added, "I'm sorry."
"Why would you be sorry? Idiot men hitting each other. As far as I know, it's got nothing to do with you."
Not ready to respond to that yet, Riza asked, "Are you really going to make Major Mustang dig a ditch?"
"He'll do it," Chase answered. "An officer hitting a subordinate sets a bad example. Once he thinks about it, he'll know how much more trouble he could be in."
"And you can't let him act like you're friends, in front of people." Riza made for the tent.
Chase followed her in. "Hawkeye," she said, "I can't emphasize how much I don't want to know what's going on here, and what you have to do with it. Unless -- Is there some reason you shouldn't be working under Harry Slayton anymore?"
"Look. If he did something and you need me to back you up -- there are better solutions than Mustang torching the guy's face."
Riza shook her head. "No. No, ma'am. I'm sorry if I gave that impression, but I'm not a victim here."
"Ahh." Chase said. "Is this the part where you tell me how you were fully in control and making your own choices?"
"I don't know if you believe me when I say that."
"I don't know if I believe you either. But I think you believe you, so --" She shook her head. "What I told you the first day goes. Just keep it where I don't have to see anything."
"Yes, ma'am." Riza looked at her feet. "It's not, ma'am -- there's not an ongoing thing that you'll need to be avoiding. There was an issue. I resolved it."
Riza sighed. "I didn't say they resolved it."
"Well, as far as I'm concerned, no one in the company knows what Mustang and Slayton were fighting about. I'm willing to keep it that way."
"Yeah." Riza sighed. "I should go talk to Mustang, shouldn't I?"
When Riza found Roy, he was digging a ditch.
"Kitt used to do this," she told him.
He turned, rested the shovel long enough to push the sweaty hair back from his eyes, and said, "Who?"
"The guy back at the Academy. I told you about him."
"Right," Roy said. "Your deserter. He was a ditch digger, too?"
"He used to get field discipline. All the time. Not for fighting, just -- he wouldn't do things he was supposed to do. He was a skinny guy, with nice hands and family money, and every officer in the Army thought they were going to be the one to teach him the value of a day's hard work. But he just took the punishment and did the exact same thing a few days later."
"You put up with this?"
"We had a deal. I wouldn't fuss at him if he wouldn't complain about how sore he was from doing twice as much work as everybody else."
"I can see why you two got along so well."
"It was mostly the sex," she answered.
Roy shook his head, and went back to his shovel. "Now you're just being cruel." Looking down at the dirt, he said, "Harry Slayton, though?"
"Whatever he told you about me, I'd thank you not to repeat it to anyone."
"Don't worry about that." Roy gawked. "Wait, is that what you're down here about? It's your turn to tell me not to spread gossip about you?"
"I can't believe he told you. I had no idea he was that dumb."
At that, Roy's eyebrows went up and he stopped digging again. "Not dumb enough for that. Just dumb enough to do what you wanted? Riza. Let me give you this treasured bit of advice, as one player to another. The dumb ones are easy. But they are hardly ever worth it."
"Player?" Riza repeated with a laugh. "Did I get some kind of promotion?"
"My days of regarding you as a downy innocent are certainly at an end."
"But you'll still get in a fistfight over my nonexistent honor."
"That was something else." He hesitated. "Your career might not end up being everything it should. If they see you as the kind of person who --"
"How am I getting the 'Don't be a slut' lecture from you days after your little speech to Chase about not crushing my spirits as a sexual creature?"
"I didn't call you a slut. I called you a player. You decided what you wanted, you went and got it. I admire that. The alternative is that you're fucking Harry Slayton because you like him so much. And that I have trouble getting my head around."
"I'm not fucking him, all right? It was one thing that happened because --" She stopped. "Did he tell you -- I mean, what did he tell you?"
"Enough to give me the idea."
"Well, you know, then." She wrapped her arms around her breasts, as though huddling around herself in spite of the heat. "I can't exactly walk into a house in Border and give somebody 100 cenz and tell him to shove me around and fuck me."
"You're underestimating Border City. Including the prices, I have to say. Although -- I doubt you'd have to pay."
"Like, what, they'd pay for me?"
"No. You'd be a terrible whore. That's not a good thing or a bad thing. So would I. But if you want to go somewhere in Border and have a man beat you up and bend you over something, and never ask your name -- if that's what it takes to get your head out of this place -- I could find you a place to do it in about five minutes. Whoever you drew would be a lot better at it than Slayton, too."
"This is a thing people do?"
"Of course not. You're better than that."
"No, I--" He laughed. "When I'm in the mood to have sex, it's a mood where I'm trying to believe that I like myself. I don't say that to judge you. What you want is probably more honest."
"What is it you think I want?"
"Affirmation. That you can be powerless and let somebody do their worst, and you can survive it. None of this bullshit of holding you and telling you everything is going to be okay, when you know that absolutely nothing out there is okay."
She let out a breath. "I would have let you tell me that, you know."
"I know. So that's why I punched Slayton."
"Oh, that makes sense."
"Sure it does. I lost my temper and I punched him because I knew if I was dumber, or a better liar -- I could have had you."
"You could have --" Riza stared. "First of all, if you ever again make any reference to having me. . ."
Roy winced. "I phrased that badly --" Then, seeing her glare, he amended. "I'm sorry." He followed up with a bright smile. "See? I can be taught."
"Great," Riza said. "Wait, are we making up, or are we fighting? I can't always tell." She swallowed. "I can't ever tell."
"I'm supposed to be digging."
"Roy," she said. He looked up. "You said you could have had me. Does that mean I've wrecked everything?"
"I didn't mean I could have --" He hesitated, unsure of what to do about the term Riza had banned and then used herself, eventually just dropping it. "-- if you'd never fucked Slayton. I meant it could have happened if we were different people."
"You mean you're not good for me?" He'd decided he wasn't, she guessed, but her getting knocked around by a stranger in some seedy house in Border City was apparently just fine. Then, she realized with startling clarity, if she survived this month and went back there, this was something she had a firm intention of trying.
"I don't see how either of us can be good for anybody, out here," said Roy. "Only – with most other people, I wouldn't care. It matters to me that we don't end up hating each other."
"Okay," Riza said, chewing it over. "You know your way of accomplishing that is pretty damn weird, don't you?"
"What else did you expect?" He was about to go back to digging but stopped. "Riza," he said. "I – owe you – that is – When I found out you'd joined the Army, I was upset about it. I thought it was terrible. I wanted to imagine that you were back home. Safe. I needed to imagine that about someone."
"You needed me safe at home and not answering your letters."
"I needed to believe it. I didn't need it to be true. I was trying to put you in a role in my story, and that wasn't fair to you. You got here on your own, and you've got as much right to it as I have. Which might not be much, but there it is. You deserve more credit than I gave you, and I am truly sorry."
"And this . . ." Riza asked. "This morning changed your mind?"
"Yes," Roy said with a grin. "If this was my story, I would never have written that subplot."
Baxter's shots tore through the bullseye, three times in a row.
"Good," Riza said. He moved the rifle off his shoulder, and started to reload, but then he looked up at her.
"This isn't about target accuracy. Is it, ma'am?" he asked.
"This is a comprehensive review," she answered. "You can never be too familiar with basic skills." It was obvious enough, though, that the private's basic skills were fine. It was also obvious that he wasn't an idiot. Switching tactics, she said, "What do you think this is about?"
Baxter shook his head. "I thought I did right, when I took that shot. I was so focused on worrying about what could happen to the colonel, I lost sight of everything else. Then everybody congratulated me, so I thought I must have been right. But I kept thinking. Why didn't Hawkeye shoot?" He raised his eyes to her. "Is that what this is about?"
It took nerve for Baxter to say that. Riza owed him a straightforward response. "You shouldn't have shot. But I'm glad you realized that on your own. Lieutenant Slayton and I aren't taking this any further. We realize it was an honest mistake. And it's at least as much our fault for not training your group better. We'll be running scenarios with all of you over the next week."
"Yes, ma'am," he said. "Thank you, ma'am. I'll do better next time."
"That's all any of us can do," Riza said, "Now let's try a few more rounds."
As Baxter knelt, Riza heard a whistle and a call of, "Hawkeye!"
Turning, she saw Captain Hughes striding across the camp. She went to attention and saluted, a formality Hughes utterly ignored when pulling her into a bonecrushing hug. Letting her go, he said, "Is it true Slayer got punched in the face? And then Roy had to dig a ditch? What was that about?"
"You'd have to ask Major Mustang, sir." Now it was Roy's turn to keep something quiet for her. She had no doubt that he would. Even to his best friend.
Hughes sighed. "I miss all the good stuff."
"I'm glad you're back," Riza said.
"Really? Because I personally have mixed feelings about it."
Riza smiled. "How is Gracia?"
Hughes grinned, and Riza thought he was about to say something smartass, but then he sighed and looked down at her. "It's like you just get there and then you have to turn around and come back. She's wonderful, but it's we just figure out how to talk to each other again, and then it's over."
"She doesn't understand how it is out here," Riza said.
"Thank God for that. I wouldn't want her to."
"Because no one would want a girl who'd been through the war."
"I didn't mean it that way," said Hughes. "It's just that I love her. And I wouldn't wish this on anyone." Shifting abruptly, he looked toward Baxter, who had continued his loading and shooting without instruction from Riza. "What's going on here?" Hughes asked her. "Target practice?"
"Among other things. It's a long story, but we're reviewing rules of engagement."
"We still have those?" Hughes asked.
Riza stiffened. "Snipers need to know who we're allowed to shoot at."
"I know." Hughes gave a grim smile. "That was a bad joke. What I mean to say is, do you think anyone gives a fuck who we're shooting at anymore?"
"Someone has to, sir."
"I hope that's true," said Hughes.
This time, when she dreamed, Riza recognized the room. It sat over the barn, next to her father's house. The air smelled like straw and sugar candy and a men's cologne made with orange peels.
"I haven't thought about this place in years." Riza turned back toward the doorway. "Not until you brought it up."
"I always liked it here," Roy said. He was wearing a white dress shirt, his hands tucked in the pockets of civilian clothes. Riza caught herself in the mirror, in the plaid school uniform of Miss Jillian's.
"Are we going to read my diary now?" Riza asked.
"You said you never had one. You've been holding out."
"Maybe I should start writing now. Who's going to believe us, otherwise?" She sat in the nest of pillows she had smuggled out of the guest rooms no one used anymore. "Meanwhile you can sit here with me."
Roy's head rested on her shoulder, and when she looked down, she saw they were both in their Army uniforms.
"I knew it was too good to be true," Roy said.
"You should have come out to see me here when you had a chance," Riza told him. "What were we both so afraid of? Looking back now, it's hard to believe there could have been anything."
"There was, though. There always is." He put his arm around her waist, and she nestled easily against his body. "You like this?" he asked.
"Of course I do. I'm writing your subplots, this time."
"That's true," Roy said. "How fair is that? I'd let you, though." He kissed the top of her head. "I trust the stories you'd write for us, Riza Hawkeye."
"More than your own?" she asked.
"Maybe," he said. "If this is part of one, I'm okay with it." He stretched out on top of the pillows and let Riza curl around him. "This is all I want," he said. "Having a place like this with you. It's all I'm asking for."
"It doesn't have to be all we want," Riza said. "But we can decide to let it be all there is."
"For now," he told her.
The desert sun woke her up, and Riza went back to her station.