Spoilers for the Sins. Set after episode 25. Hawkeye.
In a perfect world, he would have picked her up at the curb. His car would have smelled like old leather and fire; a smoking habit that she would have frowned upon every time, all while he widened his eyes in mulish innocence. The cigarette would be have held between the knuckles of his index and middle fingers, artful as a baton in the hands of a drunk conductor. His mouth would have been caught open, the edge of his teeth just barely visible through the smoke.
In a perfect world, fire would have been an amusement. Not a weapon. He would not have worn gloves, which in turn would never have been stored in the top drawer of his desk where another man might have kept a gun. He would not have bought a bottle of brandy for fuel in case he needed it to explode.
There would not have been a war, and he would never have been in it.
Liza knew that such things were impossible She was too old for the stories her mother used to read, of fairy tales when right and wrong were as clear-cut as the woodblock illustrations on the page. The dragons, easy to delineate. Wicked monsters threatened kingdoms night after night, but were always vanquished by bedtime, with a minimum of bloodshed.
Because this was the real world, no one was waiting when Hawkeye pushed open the front door and found the drizzled rain of autumn coating the streets in uniform gray. Pedestrians shuffled across the sidewalks. Here and there, umbrellas bobbled. Liza tested the air with her hand before determining that she could survive a case of damp hair.
There was no car. Hawkeye had to walk instead.
She'd ordered an equipment manual from the Military Exchange three weeks ago, indifferent to the actual date of arrival. The Exchange had a notoriously cheap selection, understocked and poorly supplied save for the stolid rows of mass-produced beige covers. Identical thick slabs in bold to proclaim the title. Typewriter insides.
Liza should have tried a commercial bookstore, but the miniscule discount in savings had been enough to convince her to order from the Exchange, and her studies were not pressing either. Hobby-level only. Makeshift work to take up time, ignore the empty spaces while all of Central stood around in shock, murmuring numb platitudes and tugging nervously at their mourner's black.
Work, while Liza's commanding officer locked himself in his office with only a mute phone for company, and coffee long-gone cold.
In a better world, intelligence officers would not be assassinated on the street.
It was six blocks to the nearest Exchange branch. Hawkeye took it on foot, flapping up the lapels of her woolen regulation jacket to ward off the thin, petty winds. Autumn chill fought with the material and won ground around her neck and wrists, sneaking in along Liza's extremities until it finally caressed her belly.
Bells jingled as she clattered inside. Two stamps of her feet shook waterdrops off her boots. A smear of grit on the front stoop was her apology for muddy shoes, and Liza felt the warmer air of the store hit her face like a fox-fur muff.
Ill weather had kept most casual shoppers at home. Yellow lights blinked blearily as they dangled over the Exchange shelves, empty of visitors along with supplies. Liza was not surprised at either. Numerous resources were being shipped to Ishbal; as for the former, she wouldn't have left her apartment either, if it wasn't for the fact that she had nothing else to do.
At the counter, a woman browsed the watch supply that decorated one corner of the checkout register, lit with rows of tiny bulbs. Even that selection was sparse. The only supply officer on duty watched his sole customer with an expression of bored interest; he jerked at the sound of the door chimes and glanced up, caught guilty in the act of pre-flirtation.
Hawkeye's gloves made wet slaps upon the counter.
"One order, under the name of Hawkeye," she announced crisply, pushing her handgear aside and wiping at the damp streak left behind with her thumb. "It should have been in by now. It's a book," she added helpfully, watching the supply officer's gaze drift back to the vicinity of the other woman's chest.
The man tore his eyes back at that, and then gave a respectful nod in Liza's direction. "Please wait one minute, m'am. I'll check immediately."
Liza suppressed the urge to sigh when he finally returned to business, unlatching himself away from the register and heading for the back storage room. Instead, she glanced to the side in curiosity of the other patron, only to discover a pair of dark eyes watching her with no small amount of amusement.
"Hawkeye?" Not waiting for affirmation of Liza's name, the stranger smiled. "You're a soldier." The declaration of the obvious was breathed out in brandy-smooth delight. She brushed her hair back with both hands, dark locks obedient beneath long, elegant gloves that ran all the way from fingertips to the depths of fine-spun sleeves. A scarf in ivory print pillowed out around her neckline. It looked as if it was cut from satin. Warm.
Hawkeye studied the other woman. No badges decorated the expensive jacket. No clips of office to properly rank the stranger. Bereft of any hints of identity, Liza answered with only the basics.
This response pleased the stranger. She inclined her head. "Then, you must have heard of the... troubles that Central has suffered lately, along with the rising chaos in Lior. As a soldier, are you... afraid of what might happen?"
A cursory flick of her eyes, and Hawkeye found her back straightening, shoulders wide in an unconscious defense. "Fear is a luxury in these times. M'am," she tacked on, uncaring of civilian status.
Glossy lipstick smiled. "Not afraid? Fear is a weakness. Some would say that it is a sin."
Despite herself, Liza found every inch of her spine bristling with nerves she did not think existed. Her hands settled upon the counter. The glass-top reflected a hazy glow of her naked fingers.
She found herself impatient with the service officer; why was the damned book taking so long?
Pushing instincts aside, Liza focused on her answer. "I can't afford such things, m'am. A soldier must be prepared for any situation. I don't have the option for weakness."
"Do you truly believe this, First Lieutenant?" Words condescending; the question was bemused, belittling. "Everyone has a vice, Liza Hawkeye. It's what defines our needs."
Outside, car engines whirred through the rain. The sounds were muffled, drumming around the dry center of the Exchange, and Liza felt the harbored silence yield underneath the stranger's slow molasses-speech.
"Sins are motivated by the need to take." The pleasant sing-song of the woman's voice threaded through the shop, a recitation as elementary as the times tables. "Virtues give. Sins take. What unifies them is only that shared motivation. The basic, undying hunger drives them all."
Glass squeaked under Liza's fingertips. Associations were coming back to her now; she did not know why, but this woman was familiar, and disturbingly so. Something about that chin. Rounded. The eyes, half-closed, submissive.
A face Liza swore she had seen before.
And how did she know Hawkeye's first name?
Hughes had been too skilled an operative to be taken by surprise. The bullet that had stolen his life had been fired at close range. Liza had seen the autopsy reports; more importantly, she had studied the telephone booth where the body had been found, traced the path of the lone spent casing. The gunpowder dusting on Hughes's clothes revealed the proximity of the shooter.
Liza, of all people, knew her munitions, and knew as well that whatever killed Maes Hughes must have been able to get much too close.
She swallowed. The cheap lighting of the Military Exchange danced before her vision; the empty shelves towered together, and Liza was suddenly, painfully aware that the world was quiet of everything save the stranger's voice, and the dull pounding of her own heart.
"So simple, when you think about it, yes? Gluttony, greed, and lust all want to be filled. Envy is a sin which is based around wanting to be what another is, or to have what they have. Pride wants to be rewarded for being himself. Even sloth," the dark-haired woman lectured, eyes downcast in polite rue, "only wants to be handed something."
Liza's littlest fingers pressed against her palms.
Why hadn't the supplies official returned yet?
Ignoring the way Hawkeye's hands had pulled into slow circles, the stranger smiled beatifically. "Wrath, though." The woman paused, thoughtful, though Hawkeye did not for one minute believe it was out of a need to pick her words. "Wrath is dangerous. Out of all the sins, wrath is not a need to consume. It is a hunger for freedom, to be unleashed in full and allowed permission to do whatever it wishes.
"Wrath does not need to be given anything. It can be angry on its own, and that is why you must watch out for it, Liza. It can be the most dangerous vice of all."
Hawkeye's knuckles kept twitching. Her gun was on her right hip. She rarely went anywhere without it. Her leg was underneath the inch-thick wool of her jacket; it would take less than three seconds to flick the cloth back and yank the weapon out. Hawkeye had practiced the motions more times than she could count, in the privacy of her apartment when she'd first bought the coat. She could visualize the motions cleanly.
"Are you a wrathful person, Liza?" Fabric rustled. One step, and then a second brought the stranger in close proximity. The heavy waves of black hair brushed against her shoulders as she swayed forward. Hawkeye could smell perfume; thick, cloying, like moist soil or the midnight sea.
"Are you tired of self-restraint?"
In a perfect world, Liza's hand would have been on her gun in one point two seconds. She would have drawn it, snapped off a quick bead in a smooth squeeze of her trigger finger. Liza had trained for hours doing precisely that, keeping her grip from clenching in a spasm that would jerk the muzzle up and so skew her aim.
Instead, Hawkeye got as far as pointing her hand at the stranger in a long dictator's line, before she realized that she was holding nothing.
The woman was at a distance once more, having pulled away at an impossible speed. Liza did not let herself wonder if she had hallucinated that fluid hunter's stalk at all. She stared along the accusatory angle of her gun-hand, finger crooked on a trigger that was not there. Her lungs made flutter-breaths.
The woman smiled. Patient. Her lips were full of a horrible, maternal affection, facing down a child come in from the rain with grass stains on their knees and eager tales of playmates.
"Click," she whispered, terrifyingly tolerant. The shape of her eyes were all wrong. The air reeked of mold and water. Here was the monster from Liza's dusty tales, the troll or ogre or dragon grinning back, and Liza found her innards twisting in a weakness that she neither wanted to own or to acknowledge.
The stranger's fingers lifted. They formed into a mirror of Liza's, pointing at her face. Mimicked kickback, thumb depressing like a hammer, wrist tilting into the air.
Hawkeye's empty grasp remained rigid, refusing to tremble.
"You're dead now, Liza. Please remember to change into dry socks when you get home, dear child, or else you'll catch a cold."
And then she was gone.
Once upon a time, Liza might have reacted with the speed of a storybook, might have caught the creature's threat. Might have had the problem solved by dinner, with room for dessert. But she was no white knight. There were no leather-smoked cars, and her mother was a very long way home.