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She smoothed the letter with two fingers from where she had crumpled it against her knee, trying in vain to rub out the creases, scowling as she tried to tune out the roar of voices from the rest of the cafeteria's patrons and the clang of dishes and silverware, and failed. She should have brought her lunch today and eaten it in the office. Everyone was out and Mustang was at some luncheon with some general, and she would have been left in peace.
It was a short letter, very succinct, to the point, like all official military correspondences were. The organization was all about conservation, about equivalent exchange like Mustang would always talk about whenever he went on one his long tangents about alchemy. She was sure that the brevity of all official correspondence had to do with equivalent exchange for ink, or something of the sort.
There were only three lines.
1st Lieutenant Riza Hawkeye due for permanent change of station. Transfer from command staff executive officer, East Headquarters to Fifth Corps executive officer, Sengen Station. Acknowledge within three business days.
She'd known exactly what the letter was when Mustang had handed it to her this morning. She couldn't remember if he'd said anything, if he'd met her eyes or not when he did that. He'd known too, she knew, but she couldn't see why he would care much.
It wasn't the first letter. There had been another one, last year, because officers were only authorized two year tours at any one base, and she should have been gone by now. But Mustang had asked her, and she had said she wasn't going to leave, and to her surprise, he had said all right, he would forward her refusal up to headquarters. They'd given her a year extension, and then everything had happened, and with the move from Central to East and all the ruckus with the Fullmetal and the odd deaths and the man they called Scar, it had slipped her mind that her extension was almost up.
She had always wanted to ask Mustang why he'd allowed her to stay, but every time the words had been on the tip of her tongue, she had pushed them back. It wasn't her place.
"Yo, Hawkeye. What's up?"
She knew who it was before his hands and the crisp blue uniform appeared in her field of vision, and she clenched her hand against her thigh, heard the crinkling of paper as the letter crumpled again. There was no saving it now. She definitely should have brought her lunch.
"Good afternoon, sir."
"The manning database is down again," Hughes said, and she raised her head, straightened as he plonked his lunch tray down on the table, grabbed the plastic cup. "Want some water?"
"No, sir, thank you."
"Ok," he said, and disappeared with the clumsy, half-coordinated, yet remarkably agile grace that had been part of his character as long as she could remember. Not that she remembered that far back, because she was only a lieutenant and he was a lieutenant colonel, and he'd been around for quite a while. She paused in mid-chew, glancing at the tray again. She preferred to eat alone, and most people knew that, but Hughes had a penchant for ignoring the obvious, something with Mustang claimed to find deliciously refreshing and something that she just found annoying. But of course, she couldn't tell him that either.
Rank had its privileges.
"They're out of water," he complained, returning to the table with his cup full of something that fizzed and popped, and her eyes widened and then narrowed at him.
"Sir! You can't do that! You're only supposed to get water in the plastic cups!"
Hughes grinned slyly at her and put a finger to his lips. "Shh. I'll pay later. Promise," he added hastily as her eyebrow twitched. She stared at him a moment longer, then decided that her sandwich was much more interesting than his glasses.
"Oh, relax, Hawkeye," he said, and then the cup of cola was thrust in her face. "Here. Have some. It's good for the soul."
"I don't drink caffeine, sir," she said stiffly, and then her mind rewound itself, recalling what he'd said before he had left for his futile trip to the water machine. "What's this about the database being down?"
"Was wondering if you remembered that," he said cheerfully, taking a huge bite of his hamburger. She tried not to wince as bits of bread and meat patty fell to the tray, watched him gingerly try to rescue them as his cheeks bulged with the food he'd already stuffed into his mouth. It was hard not to grimace, looking at that. He opened his mouth, and she held up one hand.
"Please don't talk with your mouth open, sir."
Hughes looked like he was about to protest, thought better of it, spent the better part of the next five minutes chewing and swallowing his soft drink, in alternate motions. When at last he looked like he could breathe properly, he said, "I swear, lieutenant, you take all the joy out of life."
"It's my job, sir."
He made a snorting noise. "I'll have to have a talk with Mustang about this."
She said nothing at the name, knowing he was trying to bait her. He raised an eyebrow at her.
"The manning database, sir?"
The eyebrow dropped. "Eh. Bah. That dumb thing." He rubbed the back of his neck with one hand. Someone dropped a tray in the background, and there was the sound of clattering and utensils plinking to the floor, and a babble of voices broke out for a brief second. "We've called the comm squadron, and they said it would take three days to fix. I know you took records of all those manning numbers last week, Hawkeye…but we needed to send those up the chain tomorrow, and I can't do that with the database down…"
She sighed inwardly, seeing her plans for tonight evaporate. Granted, they hadn't been much as far as plans went – just to make herself a nice dinner and have a nice, long soak in the hot tub, to finish the book she had been reading and to go to bed early. What was another night in the office after all? She should be used to it. They'd told her that it would be a tough job when she'd commissioned and accept the assignment as executive officer, but even they couldn't have warned her exactly how tough it could be, not working for Mustang. He worked all his people hard.
"I understand, sir. I'll get right to it after lunch."
He stopped chewing for a minute, looking her straight in the eye. "I am really sorry about this, lieutenant. Don't worry. I'll stay and help you."
"You don't need t-"
"I never ask someone to do something that I wouldn't do," he said with finality. "I'll stay after and help till it's done."
"What about your family?"
His face fell a bit. "Well, that can't be helped, I suppose. I'll just go home early tomorrow to see Alicia."
Her eyes flew to the lieutenant colonel bars on his shoulders, and her hands reached up to the first lieutenant boards on her own, and understanding dawned in his eyes behind the glasses, and his mouth twitched in a grin. "Rank has nothing to do with it, Hawkeye. I'm a soldier, just like everyone else here."
"It's not proper, sir."
He sat back in his chair, folded his hands. "Well. In that case, I think this is proper. Lieutenant, I order you to let me help you with that database."
She waited ten seconds, mentally counting it out in her own head, before nodding slightly. "Yes, sir. I appreciate the help."
"Smile, Hawkeye," Hughes said, and she stopped. Stared at him. He sighed. "It's all right to not go by the book sometimes, you know."
"I heard," he said finally.
She wracked her mind for things he might be referring to, and then, unable to come up with anything incriminating that she'd done lately, turned puzzled eyes on him. "I'm afraid I'm not understanding you."
"You got your change of station orders today, didn't you?"
She looked away.
"We all get them," he said. "Nothing to worry about. It'll be good to broaden your horizons, you know, get out of headquarters and out to see the world. Everyone joins the military to do that."
"Yes, sir," she said in a low voice, her fingers digging into the letter. It was slightly wet – her palms were sweating for some reason, and she'd taken off her gloves to eat – and she wondered idly if the ink might be bleeding off. It was no matter. She could wash it off in the bathroom later.
"Don't want to leave?" Hughes said, and she looked away, wondering why he had to pick today of all days to come sit with her, wondering if it was proper, just this once, to tell him that he was being nosy.
"We shouldn't discuss military business in the lunchroom, sir."
He steepled his fingers in front of him. "It's always business with you. You've been here a while, haven't you? You started out, when…three years ago? Two?"
"Three, sir," she responded, wishing that he would take his food and go somewhere else, take his chatterbox mouth and go somewhere with that too. She'd bring it up to Mustang this afternoon, to keep his hyperactive friends under control, lieutenant colonel or not.
And Mustang would probably laugh sardonically, tell her she was taking it too seriously, tell her to go do some paperwork.
It was the way things were.
"Ah," Hughes sighed, his eyes misting over. "Nostalgic…where was I, when I was three years into the military? The war was going on then, I remember…" An unpleasant look passed across his face, and he lapsed into silence. She waited for him to continue, but he didn't, staring off into space.
"Sir?" she said.
He jumped a bit. "Oh. Sorry. I must have…"
His eyes went up to her face, then to the lieutenant ranks on her shoulder boards, then traveled to the tray in front of her, and he let it linger there for so long that she wondered if he was in his daze again. Her fingers clenched involuntarily on the letter, and she knew he could not see it, but the movement seemed to rouse him, and his eyes flicked back to her face again. He frowned, as if suddenly realizing something.
"He told you I was leaving, didn't he," she said. It was not a question.
"Who?" Hughes wondered innocently, and she wanted to slap the smirk off his face.
"Don't lie, sir. It's against the honor code."
"Oh, knock it off, Hawkeye," he told her, and tipped his head back, downing the rest of his cola in one gulp. "It's lunchtime."
"I'm always like this," she said. "You should be used to it by now, sir."
"You'd think I would be, after two years. I wonder how Mustang does it. Ah, but well," twirling the empty cup around with one hand, "he won't have to much longer, I suppose. When are you leaving?"
She looked down at her lap.
"I know what you're thinking," Hughes said in a low voice, leaning in towards her. "You can't afford to turn down another assignment, Hawkeye. You already turned down the last one. If you do it again, it'll be a dead-end for your career. You know that, don't you?"
The racket of the cafeteria was a dim roar, and she wanted to shut it all out, including the sound of his words, drilling into her ears. She didn't want to be sitting here like this listening to him, because she knew he was right, and she was always the one doing what was right, but yet this was different.
Did this make her a hypocrite?
"I'm not stupid, sir," she said finally.
He straightened. "Just making sure. I-" He stopped.
"I didn't join the military to see the world," she said finally. The sandwich in her hand was limp, a piece of off-white, slightly squishy meat and cheese, and she dropped it back on the table with a sort of disgust. Odd, she wasn't hungry anymore.
"I know that too," he said, and it was a few moments from when his words reached her to when they actually penetrated her brain, and she stared at him.
"What do you-"
"Mustang is more talkative than you think," Hughes said, and then smiled. "Don't worry. I don't know any deep, dark secrets about you, if that's what you're wondering. Simply the facts."
Her fingers spasmed on the piece of paper still unfolded flat against her thigh, and her eyes burned. "None of his business," she said.
Hughes raised an eyebrow again. "Oh? Considering that it's Mustang's executive officer that you're insisting on staying to be, I would think that it is very much his business."
"So I suppose he knows that I intend to turn this one down, then."
Hughes placed both his hands on the table, palms down, leaning in towards her again. "Listen here, Hawkeye. It may not be my place to say this, but I'll say it anyway. Leave now, while you can. Go far, far away, and don't come back."
She saw the bare truth of his words behind his eyes, felt the intensity of his voice wash over her like a summer storm, or like the fire from the hands of a certain flame alchemist, and she wanted to look away but could not. She swallowed.
"You're smart, and you're strong, and you're tough. The military needs leaders like you. If you stay, all you're going to do is get yourself killed. It's not peaceful times that we live in now, and it's stupid to get yourself killed for nothing. Mustang knows that too."
"I suppose you had a talk with him about that too," she said, unable to keep the bitterness out of her voice. "I can't even decide my own career path, it seems."
"We're your superior officers, Hawkeye. We look out for our subordinates. It's the by-the-book solution, in this case, anyway. I thought you were all about doing things by the book. Right?"
She narrowed her eyes, matching him stare for stare. "And so Mustang? What did he say?"
Hughes looked away.
A little shiver of shock coursed through her, and she frowned. Did that mean that-
"He's a fool," Hughes said slowly. "Of all people, he should know best…he should know." Looking back at her. "You don't know what you've gotten into, working for him like this. If you turn this assignment down, you'll end up following him around for the rest of your career, you know. I wouldn't wish that on anybody. Not with a man like him."
"It's fine," she said, and he shook his head.
"You don't know what he-"
She held up a hand and he stopped in mid-sentence, and she was surprised to see the pained look on his face.
"Sir," she said. "I already told you. It's fine."
"I didn't join the military to see the world. I know that there have been a lot of things wrong with the world, and with the military. I know that I am only one woman and can't fix those things. But I think I've finally found someone – one man – who maybe can." She paused, then grasped the edge of the crumpled letter, bringing it up to the table's surface. "Everyone carries some scars and secrets on their hearts. That's why…"
"That's why-?" he prompted, when she didn't continue.
In answer, she lifted her free hand, placed it at the top of the letter, and slowly, methodically, tore it down the middle into two equal halves. "That's why," she said with an air of finality, letting the two halves waft slowly to the tabletop. "I'm staying."
Hughes shook his head slightly, but she could see he was smiling slightly. "Mustang said that too," he said finally. "That you would be staying. Did you talk to him?"
"Not yet, sir." Hardly daring to hope. "He said…?"
Something flashed across his face, and then he chuckled, grabbing his tray and getting out of his chair. "Well, in that case, it's fine. As you said."
"Sir?" she wondered, a little confused by the abrupt turnaround in his tone, and he grinned at her.
"I'll see you tonight, Lieutenant. Have a good day."
She watched his retreating back as he disappeared into the crowd of blue uniforms, looked down at the two halves of the crinkled letter, thought about what Mustang would say when she presented that to him. He knew she planned to stay. He planned to let her stay. So he probably wouldn't say anything at all, just tell her to go do some more paperwork, as if there had never been a letter in the first place, as if it was natural that she would be staying here for a while.
Maybe she'd regret her decision two or three years down the road, when she was well and firmly shackled to Mustang and his command staff as executive officer. She had always been like that – doing things and then regretting them later. But then again, what was important in life anyway? There was your career and then there was life, and the two were not the same thing, and you only got one chance to do things right.
Mustang would understand. It was her decision, but in the end, it would be his word backing hers. And if he would do so, that meant that he didn't mind her being here. That he and she both knew that staying meant she might be killed, and he might be killed before she was, but even so, he didn't mind. Hughes knew that too, even if he hadn't said so.
There were some things that couldn't be done by the book. And maybe it was better that way, because sometimes it was better to follow one's heart.
And in this case, that was fine.
29 February 2004