The brass elect to put Hawkeye straight into command over a platoon, even fresh out of the Academy as she is, which must mean they're short-handed; she's grateful that they also give her Master Sergeant Koch. Sergeant Koch ranks below her, technically, but only the stupidest (and most short-lived) second louies lord their commission over an experienced NCO. Sergeant Koch chain-smokes awful cigarettes with furious intensity, and tells her the second day that all military dogs smoke or drink or both, and she should decide quick which vice she's going to go for. (Technically the military rations both beer and cigarettes, but in practice there's a thriving market in smuggled alcohol and tobacco, and also rotgut brewed under bunks, not very well hidden. No one tries to stop it. This isn't a spitpolish war, not anymore.) She isn't going to do either, but she's not sure how to correct him without sounding either snotty or contrary.
He calls her 'sir' instead of 'ma'am.' It's technically incorrect, but she likes it. She doesn't tell him so. She suspects he knows anyway.
Hawkeye's too easy on the recruits at first. She feels sorry for them—she asked for this, chose it deliberately, knew perfectly well what she was getting in for, at least as much as any overambitious seventeen-year-old could. The rebellion was already going on when she had entered the Academy. These boys, though, were mostly drafted, given a month of basic and a week of transport and then thrown into the desert. She doesn't want to make it any harder for them.
Sergeant Koch stops that in its tracks, though. "You're not doing them any favors by being nice," he says, her second week. "Worst thing for an enlisted man, to flap around helpless. A firm hand'll keep 'em in line, and probably save their lives, too." He takes a drag of his cigarette, blows a long plume of foul-smelling smoke, and says, "Second most important thing, sir."
"What's the most important?" she asks, as she knows he knows she will.
"War is hell," sergeant says, which is every bit the cliché, but said with bitter conviction.
She works with Koch for four months. He teaches her a lot that she never learned in the Academy. At the end of those months, they're trying to take a city block when one of the buildings simply explodes—like no munitions she's ever seen, just pure force—taking the lives of three of her men, and the limbs of three more, including Koch, who goes out missing both of his legs and all of his hearing. (He sent her on ahead to lead the boys out, and brought up the rear himself. She wonders if this is his way out of the hell that is war—the most honorable way he can go out, short of in a coffin.) She doesn't think too hard about what, exactly, made the building go up so suddenly and completely. Thinking about it won't make it any better.
The next platoon sergeant she works with is younger, less hardened, and though he too chain-smokes it seems more like a pleasure than a grudge match between him and the tobacco. Sergeant Havoc's a country boy, it's plain as day, but he's good at what he does. If the war goes on much longer, he'll have a battlefield commission under his belt; they're stretched too thin to ignore talent. And Havoc is young (though, actually, a little older than she is) and has his pride; unlike some of the older sergeants, he won't try to duck out from under a commission.
He's an excellent shot with a sniper rifle, a talent she appreciates. With what she's learned from Koch, she's got just enough know-how to keep her second platoon together for two months, and then when they reassign her it's not because of catastrophic loss but because of need. Major Mustang's second was killed in a firefight; the military, in its infinite wisdom, transferred herself and Sergeant Havoc as a set.
"Bodyguard duty," Havoc says, blowing smoke. It wreathes his head in the light of the camp lanterns. His cigarettes at least smell better than Koch's. He doesn't call her sir or ma'am, and she always forgets to be annoyed about that. It seems foolish, when she's fairly certain he'll be promoted to her rank any day yet.
"Not entirely," she says. Major Mustang is a state alchemist; everyone knows that. But that means he's spent more time on alchemical research than leading men, and while she knows she's green yet, she did have three and a half years of command training, and more than half a year wartime command experience, and that's worth something. "We'll be keeping an eye on his platoons. His company has three."
"One for you, one for me, and one for luck?" Havoc grins, the cigarette drooping from his mouth but miraculously not quite falling out. She has spent the last two months genuinely impressed by his ability to do nearly everything with the cigarette in his mouth. She wonders if he smokes while bathing. (Not lasciviously: while the desert heat has provoked quite a lot of fraternization—overlooked nearly as much as the rotgut and the roll-your-owns—there is very little erotic about the thirty-second trickle of lukewarm water that makes up the showers the troops are allotted. As an officer, she has the privilege of a full minute. She is glad that she has not taken the female soldier's prerogative and kept her hair long.) "Still," Havoc continues, "it'll be mostly bodyguard work. You know how they are about the alchemists."
"Yes," she says, and sighs. She isn't sure anymore why she joined the military, but she knows it wasn't to play guardian for the precious crown jewels of the army. She's a soldier, not a guardian and especially not a babysitter.
Havoc's field commission comes without fanfare or ceremony. One day he is a sergeant; the next he is a second lieutenant, subordinate to her only by her seniority (which is a strange thing; he has been in the field for three years, she for less than a year; such is the advantage of the academy). She suspects, based on the timing, that it is simply that the higher-ups need him to be leader of one of Mustang's platoons in name as well as fact. Still. It is not undeserved. She gives him his letter patent and they drink warm beer (the beer is always warm, now; she's nearly forgotten what cold beer in a cold mug tastes like) to celebrate, inasmuch as it's a celebration.
The next day, Hawkeye hands over her platoon to another wild-eyed lieutenant fresh out of the academy—the lines of his uniforms still starched-fresh, and no dust collected in the corners of his eyes yet; she knows she was so new and green half a year prior, and yet cannot remember it, cannot remember the world before the desert—and move across the camp to their new company, Mustang's company, L-4 Company, and the One Hundred Seventh and One Hundred Eighth platoons respectively.
"I expect you to handle most of the day-to-day operations of the company," Major Mustang says to the pair of them, the first day out. "Technically I'm keeping the One Hundred Sixth under my own command, but that's just because they couldn't spare me more than two lieutenants."
They couldn't spare more than one lieutenant, really, Hawkeye knows, which is why Havoc's commission came so suddenly. All she says is, "Sir." Havoc must look more questioning, because Mustang goes on.
"It's not lack of interest. It's lack of knowledge. I'm not here because anyone was particularly impressed with my tactical abilities." He looks down at his hand, and frowns, and that makes Hawkeye look down, too. He's wearing white gloves with alchemic circles imprinted on the backs, and on his ring finger is a weirdly gaudy ring with a red-purple stone. Flame Alchemist. She knows it abstractly, but she's not quite sure what, practically, it means. "Which is not to say that I'm not interested in command. But I need details men—and women—on the ground to handle the specifics. I won't second-guess you."
"Sir," she says again. "Thank you, sir."
Afterward, as they go over the city block map, Havoc says in a low voice, "So we get to do all the dirty work, yeah?" He sounds amused. 'Doing all the dirty work' is practically a sergeant's job description, so it's not like this is a change for him.
Hawkeye closes her eyes, trying to imagine sight lines. If they take the north tower, they have a clear lookout down Vareshi Street, but the north tower will be hard to hold; there are raids near there daily. Eyes closed, she thinks suddenly of the Major's gloves, the oily gleam of the ring. She doesn't know what it is, but she doubts he's wearing it out of some misguided sense of fashion. "I'm not sure it's all the dirty work," she says.
Sergeant Koch made it clear that staying far away from alchemists was a good way to keep from dying young. Even though they were ostensibly on the same side.
They take the north tower, after all, and it's the right decision. Havoc and the One Hundred Eighth go in first to stabilize the blocks around the tower, and then Hawkeye and her platoon take the tower itself. It's hard, messy work, flushing insurgents out of the building room by room, stairwell by stairwell. Fortunately, if such a thing can really be called fortunate, the tower is of strategic importance, which means that it doesn't have any noncombatants in it to start with.
Still, the affair is so bloody (two men down in her own platoon—one will recover, one will almost certainly not) that it would make her sick if she was still capable of being made sick. Once it's over, for the time being, she relieves the private on lookout duty and takes the uppermost platform herself, rifle across her knees. The simplicity of lookout, of sniper work, is a relief after the up-close-and-personal chaos of the day's conflict.
The wind off the desert is cold at night, which is a relief. Cold and, this high up, strong, too. It tugs at her bangs and ruffles through the hair at the back of her neck. She watches the street, but there's nothing—the two soldiers on patrol, two more down at the end of the street, and straight below her, in the belly of the north tower, the makeshift command center where Havoc and Mustang and the platoon sergeants are planning the next day's operations, if in fact there's any operation for the next day besides recouping.
She doesn't startle at the sound of feet on the steps behind her. It's not an Ishbalan; there's no way an enemy combatant could make it this far up the tower without her having heard the sounds of conflict. The tower is riddled with soldiers. Still she looks around, and is surprised to see that it's Mustang. His ring glows faintly in the dark. It makes the hairs go up on the back of her neck.
"You should sleep, lieutenant," he says.
"Sir," she says, which is the politely military version of 'mind your own business.' There's no way she could sleep right now, anyway. She needs to wrap herself in silence and concentration for a little while, and then, yes, she'll call Private Phair up to replace her and get some sleep. But not until. She looks back at the street—not ignoring him, but there's no point of a sentry who's not watching.
"I'm not sure what I did to deserve two sharpshooters as seconds," Mustang says, mildly. Flattery.
"Perhaps the brass thinks you need them," she says, and her tone is not mild but tart. It's probably true, if he has a habit of wandering around the base and distracting the sentries.
He laughs, then; actually laughs. He has a very nice laugh. She's irritated at herself for noticing that.
"Probably I do," he says. "Good night, lieutenant."
"Mm," Hawkeye says, shouldering her gun. There's nothing to shoot, but she sights through the scope anyway, because it calms her.
It's a week later that Mustang makes his first really incomprehensible request, though not his last. "Tomorrow I'll be in the southeast," he says, while they're planning. He takes the pen from Havoc's fingers (even though there are plenty of pens rolling around on the table, and he doesn't actually need to steal one) and uses it to circle four blocks, "from Ishbala-Nar to Tiglath this way, and from Varhen to the Donkey Well this way."
"I can put together a unit—" Havoc begins, but Mustang cuts him off with a gesture. His gloves are stark, blood and bone, in the lamplight.
"I'm going alone."
"No," Hawkeye says. "You're not. Sir. With all due respect."
Mustang responds well to a firm hand, all things considered (it always makes her remember what Sergeant Koch said), but this time he doesn't. "I am, Lieutenant," he says, and the faint emphasis on her rank makes her close her mouth and set her jaw. It's not going to look good for her if he gets himself killed—not to mention that she's grown rather fond of him, and wouldn't prefer to identify his corpse. "I can control my alchemy sufficiently that I don't set myself on fire, even . . . now, but I can't guarantee anyone else their safety."
She says nothing.
Later, it's Havoc who catches her sneaking out of camp. She's wearing the camouflage poncho that goes over the stark shoot-me blue of the uniform—it's a dusty melange of grays and tans for this desert war—and has a rifle in one hand and a bandoleer slung over the other arm. Havoc doesn't say anything, but cocks an eyebrow.
"If he gets himself killed," she says, checking her buckles, "it's going to look bad on my record. Letting my CO and a state alchemist wander off alone and die? Not happening."
"It's not going to look very good for your record if you get burnt to a crisp, either," Havoc says mildly. "Flame Alchemist, remember?"
It's the first time either of them have spoken his title. Still she gives a little shake of her head.
"If my CO does something stupid, I might not be able to avoid doing something stupid, too," she says. "Chain of command."
"I hope someday I inspire that kind of loyalty."
She makes an impatient noise. "You have it," she says, "you just don't need it, because you don't see fit to wander off by yourself in the middle of a war zone."
Havoc barks a laugh. "Well, I'm staying here," he says. He lights another cigarette, the match flaring brilliant in the dimness. "Somebody's gotta look after the company."
She grins, and salutes him.
She follows Mustang out of the camp, north toward Tiglath Way. He looks back now and again, but she's fairly sure she hasn't been seen. Not being seen is one of the foremost tools in a sniper's toolbox, and though he's pretty observant, she's also pretty good at it. When he reaches the intersection between Tiglath and Varhen, he stops; she chooses a station in the blown-out window of an abandoned building, props her rifle against the windowframe, and waits.
She's glad she came, because she kills someone trying to sneak up on Mustang. He looks around at the gunshots, but she doubts he even knows. There's enough random gunfire in Ishbal that it doesn't mean anything. He stands still and surveys the block for a good long time; she can't see his face, can't read his expression.
She's watching through the scope when he begins. She can't hear his fingers snap from this distance, but she can see it—and the flash-sizzle as flames slice through the air out of nowhere, and suddenly things are exploding, erupting into flame, going up in gusts of hot white-yellow and clouds of fine white smoke. The heat off the conflagration sweeps over her like a tangible thing, like a slap; it drives the air temporarily from her lungs and makes her squint, though she doesn't close her eyes. She can see Mustang only in silhouette now, one arm upraised, and there's another flash, and another . . . Sparks and ash swirl on the air, and distantly something cracks, a beam collapses. She understands why he didn't want a unit of men under his control here, but she still can't believe he would come without any backup. Stupid. Impressive, but stupid.
Afterward he lowers his hand and stands still for a moment, and then coughs—his lungs as full of smoke as hers; more, because she's pulled the edge of her poncho up over her nose and mouth—and she goes down, unafraid, to his side. He doesn't even look surprised. His skin on the right side of his face is pink, as if with a mild sunburn. He looks at her reprovingly, but she knows perfectly well that she did the correct thing.
"I thought you said you didn't burn yourself, sir," she says.
"This?" He touches the side of his face. "This is nothing." His eyes are distant, faintly horrified.
"Mmm," she says. She can hear the screams of people dying, smell the burn. He turns suddenly, looking her directly in the face, as if searching for something.
Whatever he says there, he just grunts, and says, "Should I assume that Havoc is lurking around somewhere, too?"
She smiles. "No, sir," she says. "The job only required one of us. I'm a better shot."
"I did order you not to come."
"The order to keep you alive took precedence, sir," she says.
He looks at her sideways, a strange oblique look. Then he says, "Fair enough. You're willing to be backup to that again?" He sounds dubious; he looks anguished, though he's trying to hide it.
"I do my job, sir," she says. The air tastes gritty with blown ash.
When she tells him about it, Havoc snorts, and says, "Well, we knew it was something to do with fire."
Hawkeye finds it difficult to express in words the scale of the destruction that Mustang could effect, so she simply agrees. "Yes." Her eyes keep going back to the ember at the end of his cigarette, and that keeps reminding her of the smolder of the buildings.
"Is he . . . angry?" Havoc asks, sounding concerned. She realizes that he is asking whether Mustang will bring her up on charges for insubordination.
She smiles again. "I think he's not sure what to make of me." Which means no, he won't. It's a powerful feeling.
Still, she does a good deal more work with Havoc, day to day. Mustang's alchemy doesn't require backup, so he works alone. He doesn't try to go off alone again—that she knows of—but sometimes, mid-battle, she will hear the unmistakable sound of a building cracking and caving beneath the pressure of flames, or smell the scent of roasting flesh, and she knows. It's no better and no worse than Sergeant Koch told her. War is hell.
They spend evenings together, three of them. Havoc has the most battlefield experience, Hawkeye the most explicit tactical training. Mustang is a surprisingly good leader despite this. "Lieutenant Hawkeye," he says, putting a finger down on the map. "Let's assume they push through here."
"Why assume that?" Havoc asks, immediately. He's not happy with assumptions, which, as he puts it, will get you killed. His cigarette twitches as he speaks.
Major Mustang pauses, looking at the map. Extensive tactical training or not, he's got good instincts, and that's partly because he's very intuitive. (She's not. She's methodical, analytical. Havoc is neither—Havoc figures things out best kin esthetically, visually, by moving the tokens representing units and companies around on the map until he's got a feel for it in his head. Hands-on, is Havoc. It's an important angle.) Finally he says, "This building used to be a temple, so it's an important symbol—I think they're likely to rally there, and even more so because the Sunset Wall is beginning to fall down here and here . . . ."
Havoc nods, satisfied.
"So," Mustang says, "Assume they push through there. Where would you have me put the platoons, Hawkeye?"
She considers the map without speaking for some time, then reaches out to mark two locations. "Here," she says, "and here."
"That's only two."
"Keep the One Oh Six in reserve for backup. We'll need it." She says the last grimly.
Mustang considers the board a moment longer, then nods. "Very well," he says. "I defer to your expertise. And if we can keep this block intact, I'll buy a cold beer for each of you afterward."
Havoc grins. "Ain't no such thing as a cold beer in Ishbal, sir," he says.
So of course they have to hold the block, if only that Mustang can prove Havoc wrong. (This seems to be happening more and more. Poor Havoc, Hawkeye thinks, but she can't help being entertained.) And afterward, in the command tent, they find Mustang bending over the table to chalk a drawing on it. The expression on his face is just this side of manic, but privately, she would much rather see that crazy grin than the anguish that takes it over from time to time, just as she'd rather see Havoc roll his eyes and sigh, exhaling a cloud of cigarette smoke, than look exhausted, as so often he does.
"Sir?" Havoc asks, and then Mustang finishes it, pulls three bottles—not very good beer, but at least name-brand—and puts them in the center of the diagram. A flash of light, and suddenly they're frosted over.
Hawkeye isn't even the biggest fan of alcohol, but she can't help smiling when Havoc says, "Hot damn," excited as a kid. She opens the beer on the butt of her gun, and takes a long drink. It tastes not like itself but like fresh air.
She looks over the mouth of her bottle, at Havoc grinning, his cigarette glowing at the tip, and Mustang looking insufferably pleased with himself as his fingers make patterns in the frost on his bottle, and realizes that she is . . . not happy, but perhaps content. Even with the smoke and the dust, she could keep doing this, working like this, with them.
It's a strange thing to find, here in the desert, on the bloody battlefield, but it's good. It's a small thing to hang onto, but it's enough.