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The National Eastern Library's chairs were not at all pleasant, Riza decided.
It was rather ridiculous. One would think that a library's seats would be exceptionally comfortable to encourage the pursuit of knowledge, but sadly they weren't. They were made of lumpy, splintery, second-rate wood that must have been slapped together by a carpenter whose goal in life was to spread worldwide agony.
She shifted her weight and didn't bother concealing the look of loathing she shot at the Colonel.
He caught it and threw her that tragic, hopeful smile in response – the one that could lead legions of men into the depths of hell and back. Riza couldn't stop herself from smiling softly in return, despising herself all the while for being so easily pacified by his infuriating charm.
In retrospect, Riza had to admit calling her superior "useless" wasn't one of her more brilliant ideas. It hit him harder than expected and popped his overinflated ego like a pin to a balloon.
Everyday after the event, whenever he wasn't busy obsessing over the search for Scar, he sulked about the office, leaving his paperwork unfinished or halfheartedly filled with mistakes that she had to spend overtime correcting. But Riza was kind, and she tolerated and even forgave his childish behavior – until she found him standing melodramatically in the rain, staring into the gray overcast, chanting "useless... useless... useless..." like a mournful prayer to the sky.
What was she supposed to do? She couldn't leave him there looking like a wet cat caught in a storm.
So she naively marched straight up to him, held an umbrella over his head, and told him to stop being useless and start being useful.
Riza meant "start doing your work properly," but the Colonel somehow misinterpreted her words as "improve your fire alchemy so it can start in the rain" and declared in a dramatic flourish that she would never be able to call him useless again. Then he proceeded to laugh in a gleeful, maniacal manner, most likely predicting her future misery.
So here she was on what should have been her day off, guarding the Flame Alchemist in the National Eastern Library from a vengeful Ishvalan as she sat on Amestris's most uncomfortable chairs.
To avoid the jagged knots of wood digging into her backside, she would rather stand at her normal post behind him, watching his back as usual. But a row of bookcases left her little room, so she was forced to comply with the Colonel's request that she take the seat across from him. The table between them, covered with neatly arranged textbooks and papers, supported the arm poised to write on his little black journal, and although his dark eyes were directed to the page of a particularly thick book, they weren't moving across the text to take in the words. He definitely wasn't reading. Riza was in the middle of deciphering his pensive look as either concentration toward difficult alchemical formulas or plain daydreaming when he made the answer clear with a question.
"Hawkeye, did I ever thank you? You know, for saving me from Scar?"
She didn't roll her eyes. He rarely thanked her for anything, but he never had to; she understood the gratefulness in every order, the steaming cups of tea stirred with honey she found on her desk, and the hidden smiles in the office. They were enough, would always be enough, and she thought he knew.
"There was no need. It's my job." She answered him rather stiffly, but it was only because the gnarled chairs wouldn't allow her to relax.
"Ah," he said, knowing all too well that it was her way of saying no. He turned the page he wasn't reading. "Well... thank you."
"You're welcome, sir."
For a moment, the Colonel looked ready to return to his research, but he joked, "If only you could have rescued my dignity too."
"We both know that your dignity is beyond hope," Riza retorted, defending her worth as a guard. It was his own fault he ended up in a puddle.
He chuckled good-naturedly. "Ouch, that hurts. Do you enjoy pouring salt into my wounds?"
"It may sting," she said thoughtfully, "but it aids the healing process."
A playful grin spread across his face, and he looked up so he could view her expression. "But I'm sure if you kissed it instead, it'll heal faster."
She remained impassive, not giving him the pleasure of appearing flustered, "Keep dreaming, sir," her deadpan response.
"I plan to," he said mischievously. "After all, I have a lovely subordinate who promised me that she'd do everything in her power to make my dreams come true."
Riza had to rub her temples. "Your memory is faulty. It's 'doing everything my power to make your goals into a reality,'" she corrected.
"And if that is a goal?"
"Then you're straying from your path. Please, don't make me shoot you."
He paused then asked coyly, "Would you kiss that wound better?"
"No," was her flat answer.
He sighed, sad, sidelong smile gently curling his lips. The pen dangling from his fingers twirled atop his thumb, spinning a full three hundred sixty degrees before he caught it in what he probably thought was an amazing feat of dexterity.
"Sir, are you even working?"
He quickly scribbled something in his notes.
"Xerxes wasn't built in a day," he said sagely, leaving the question completely unanswered, and spoken like a true politician, he reclined into his chair.
Unfortunately, he leaned too far and began to tilt backwards.
Eyes widening in surprise, he jerked his body forward to counteract the toppling movement. The chair slipped from beneath him, and Riza leapt to her feet.
He crashed to the floor, knocking his face violently against the table's edge, and Riza rushed to his side to remove the chair from his crumpled, twitching body.
"Urgh, it seems you're right, Lieutenant," he groaned, sounding muffled as he emerged from beneath the tabletop, hand over his mouth. "My dignity is beyond repair after all."
Riza took hold of his forearm and dragged him off the floor.
"Don't say that," she sighed, brushing the wrinkles from his uniform jacket to salvage what she could. "If you don't have any dignity, other men won't respect you. And if you don't have their respect, it's impossible to rise to the top."
He grunted some sort of reply and something about the restroom before stumbling away from her and the aisle of bookcases. "Make sure nobody touches my research," he called over his shoulder, leaving her alone in the empty library.
The only person here to touch his research was her. Did he really think she would scramble his work just to stay longer in these godforsaken chairs as he resorted his piles of information?
When he limped out of sight, she seriously considered rearranging all his papers anyway or turning all textbooks to page six hundred eleven to make sure he was actually working. She decided against it, determined to never become that petty no matter how inconsiderate the Colonel was toward her rare days off.
So instead, she picked up his journal to read the notes he took during the previous hours' research session. It wasn't because she was curious, she told herself, it was because it was her duty to make sure the Colonel wasn't wasting his time. She flipped to the last page with his messy scrawl.
Lunch with Josephine at one o'clock. Ate at the Union Hotel. She ordered a spinach salad with no dressing, but added salt. Drove to the Miss Marlene's Bar to have drinks afterward. Josephine drank a glass of tawny port and I ate seven pretzels. While she visited the restroom, I chatted with Madeline. She dumped her boyfriend. Made date for Sunday breakfast. Left Josephine at the bar while I drove home using the third shortcut.
Arrived at Madeline's doorstep with bouquet of violets. Got slapped. She took the flowers. I'm out 700 cens. Perhaps 0510 is too early for some women.
Ask Elizabeth to dinner. She'll want beef st-"
"Lieuten-" He returned in time to see Riza closing his datebook. "-ant. The bathrooms are locked. I'm not bleeding, am I?"
He removed the palm covering his mouth and Riza ignored the question, putting his journal full of "notes" back onto the table.
"Colonel," she began dangerously. "Have you been cataloging your dates the entire time we've been here?"
He waved his hands in front of him dismissively. Or maybe defensively. "No, nothing like that. Those are my research notes." He inched closer so she could examine his injury.
"Research? As in researching women?" she accused tonelessly. "I could have told you they don't enjoy being woken by a man at five in the morning."
"Why Lieutenant Hawkeye, are you offering to take me out on a date?"
"No. And Elizabeth doesn't want your beef stew either."
He laughed, but immediately winced in pain. "There's no need to get so worked up, Lieutenant. It's an alchemical code."
"Oh." Riza cooled. She thought briefly of the encrypted script staining her back. "A code?"
"Yes. Women are the elements, times usually give ratios, our date's activities are decomposition, modification, separation, or union and so on." He bent closer to her eye-level and bore his bottom teeth. "Really, is my mouth okay?"
His lower lip was swollen with a fresh bruise, but other than that, he was fine.
"You still have all your teeth; I think you'll live."
"Good." He moved to sit back at the table, but changed his mind. "Do you want to know what element Elizabeth is?"
She just wanted him to get back to work.
"Does it matter?"
"Well, I took a lot of time coming up with this code. Personally, I think its symbolism is perfect."
He wanted to tell her.
"All right." Things would move faster if she humored him. "What's Elizabeth?"
"Silicon," he confided, eyes sparkling.
He was going to make her ask why, wasn't he?
"Very clever, sir."
"So you get it?" he asked, sounding surprised.
To be honest, Riza didn't know one element from the next. She only knew that alchemists liked gold. But who didn't?
"No, I don't."
"Do you know the properties of silicon?"
She sat back down and something sharp poked her thigh. A thorn in her side, she thought humorlessly.
"Not really," she replied, becoming increasingly more irritated. It made up sand or dirt or something equally as common.
"Do yo-" He must have seen the murder in her eyes because he hastily dropped himself back into his seat and explained, "It doesn't get as much fame as oxygen or carbon, but it's one of mankind's most useful elements. Silicon's very underappreciated."
"How insightful," she said dully.
"Let me finish," he said patiently, playing professor and apparently enjoying it. "Silicon's used in concrete and cement to pave roads, leading men to their rightful destination, making sure they never stray. In the form of silica it keeps bones sturdy, and when in silicone it connects a broken body to prosthetics, keeping men strong and propelling them forward. It's also used in bandages because it heals wounds quickly, not to mention it waterproofs otherwise useless materials. And its beauty is unrivaled when in chooses to come in the form of amethyst, quartz, opal, or jasper. You may not realize it, but it makes up much of the earth. Twenty-six percent. My world is made of silicon."
He finished, playful tone extinguished and replaced with honesty that felt a little too raw.
"Elizabeth," Riza warned, taking extra care to keep her voice steady, "would say you think too highly of her."
"Really? Silicon is only my second favorite element. Gold is my first." He stared unflinchingly into her eyes, an order for her to dig deeper. An underlying message hid beneath his ranking, and he was waiting for her to uncover it.
"Why is that?" she questioned carefully, getting to the root of his point.
"Gold happens to have properties no other element can come close to matching," he explained intently. "It's amazingly soft, malleable, and gentle, but in a sense, it's tougher than nails. Unlike lesser metals, it won't corrode or tarnish, no matter what hell it's put through; it'll always stay beautiful. Always." He repeated the word meaningfully, stretching it on his tongue. "Because of this, alchemists use gold to symbolize perfection of the body, mind and soul."
He spoke slowly, deliberately, trying to get her to understand.
"It gives a body nearly dead from exhaustion the will to live," he continued. "It eliminates sorrow, fear, and poor concentration from the mind. And gold purifies the heart of all darkness. Could a man ask for anything more perfect? It's practically sinful, how much I love gold."
Secret delivered, the Colonel cracked a small, broken smile.
Riza wasn't sure why she did it. It might have been because the uncomfortable seats drove her into a state of temporary insanity, or because she hated the way he looked utterly pathetic and miserable with that bruise swelling his lip into a permanent pout.
All she knew was that she was out of her chair and leaning over the table with every intention of sealing the gap between them.
She stopped, lips hovering millimeters from her superior's. Her sense of propriety came flooding back to engulf her with unbridled terror.
What on earth was she doing?
Somewhere along the line, the Colonel ceased breathing, and Riza noticed so had she. They were both frozen, each waiting for the other to move. Forward or away.
"Alchemists aren't allowed to transmute gold," he whispered heavily, words grazing warmly against her lips. "They have to wait for it to come to them."
She pulled back, mortified by her own actions. A strained silence fell between them as an irreparable chasm.
"When you stop treating a wound halfway, it only makes the injury worse," he informed her softly.
She couldn't meet his gaze. "I'm sorry, sir."
"I've wandered the wrong path," he confessed, voice labored with something unidentifiable. "What I want... shoot me now. It would be kinder to put me out of my misery."
She didn't want to shoot him – he would be even more useless as a corpse.
But the damage was done. She already breached the line. They shouldn't suffer the consequences of a sin that was never committed.
Once again, she bent over the table, positioning herself over the Colonel. His eyes widened.
"I'm sorry I couldn't save your dignity," Riza breathed, brushing her lips against his bruised mouth, a silicone bandage for his heart. "But you can have mine."
Face heating with embarrassment and stripped of said dignity, she sat back down.
His expression was unreadable, caught in a purgatory of comprehension.
"Don't misunderstand. It's equivalent exchange, nothing more."
And it never could be. Transmuting gold is taboo, and she knew her real name would never be written in his journal.