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militsa

Anxiety


I.

At first he had been very displeased to find Riza Hawkeye in Ishbal. He had spotted her across the muddy camp, her uniform and coat and cheeks smudged with the dust and dirt of battle. He could see immediately that she was dangerous but so contained, even gentle; he knew she was an excellent soldier, disciplined, accurate. She would never do anything rash. How fitting that she was a sharpshooter. Despite the fact that he had last seen her at her fatherís derelict estate, a soft, serious young girl dressed in civilian clothes, he realized that he was not all that surprised to find her here.

What he didnít like about her being here was that this whole enterprise was suspect. He was beginning to feel his soul sullied by being a part of it, and he didnít want hers to be too.

The worst was when he really caught her eyes, those once soft eyes that she now kept averting from him, slipping sideways as if she were looking for something sheíd lost, never still. When he finally fixed them they had that look. It wasnít feral or vicious, it was sad. The eyes told him all he needed to know.

When he had first spoken to her in Ishbal she had asked if he remembered her still. That was inconceivably modest of her. Also, he thought at first, a little disingenuous. But she wasnít cunning, was she? She was frank, and her eyes would betray her if she ever tried to lie, or even dissemble. He had rarely come across such naked eyes. She would never lie to him. Every word they exchanged in the camp was functional, all layers stripped away. They were fellow soldiers now, comrades; their previous relationship was buried beneath this fact.

She regretted sharing her fatherís alchemic secrets with him, wanted him to remove all traces of it from her flesh; for a moment he wanted to slap her before he realized that she was right. His men had called him a hero but he knew better. He had decided he wanted her as his assistant the second he realized that here was someone who would never agree with him or praise him just for the sake of it. Riza Hawkeye was a rare thing—guileless but whip-smart. He could never do better than her.

II.

Even though she wasnít an alchemist, alchemy tended to stake a claim on all who were associated with it. The evening after her fatherís burial he had spent hours looking at her naked back. Before then they had barely exchanged more than formalities, had only ghosted past each other in her fatherís house at the rare times she had been at home during his apprenticeship. And now, with the old man dead in the ground, here she was in his dorm room, lying across his bed, stripped to the waist.

At first she had buried her face in the mattress. He had realized that she was uncomfortable—why wouldnít she be?—and yet, in his anxiety to take in the import of the tattoo that covered her back from her waist to her shoulders, he could barely spare a moment to reassure her.

After the first hour, his heart had begun pounding as the code began to unravel for him. Once he had hooked it, it unspooled for him willingly and he was thrilled. The Masterís secret key to using the highest form of fire alchemy. His fingers itched to try the transmutation circles as he began to scribble them into his notebook.

He was down the rabbit hole, immersed in his passion, his heart pounding in his head so hard that he could hear nothing else in the room, not even her breath. The possibilities of the science overwhelmed him. There were moments when he felt almost euphoric with the potential of the power he could possibly master, alternating with spikes of self-doubt; he simply wasnít this talented.

"Are youÖmaking any progress?" Her voice was timid, afraid to interrupt him. For a while there, he had forgotten, entirely, that what he was looking at was written on her body.

They exchanged only a few more words over the course of that long night. When he believed he was finished, the sun was coming up and the Masterís daughter was snoring gently on his bed, her arms folded beneath her cheek.

He had let her sleep, and when she woke, she sat up and put her shirt and jacket on without a word, not meeting his eyes, her eyes still swollen with sleep.

There was nothing to say to her but Ďthank youí as he saw her to the door. He pressed his hand to his heart as he said it, to show how sincere he was, but she couldnít look at him.

"It was meant for you and no one else," she said, still not meeting his eyes. "So thank my father, not me."

III.

Funny, he had always thought her attractive but because she had been the Masterís daughter he had never dared to entertain any designs on her. She was off-limits now too, now that she was going to be his subordinate, and his second in command. They sat across from one another in the train compartment, the train rattling back to Central. She met his eyes for seconds at a time but then looked away, toward the window, or fussed with her papers or her satchel, always checking on things, always vigilant.

They were traveling in uniform and had to remain properly dressed, but the heat was oppressive and he was compelled to hook two fingers into his collar to let in some air. His hair was damp and wilted and stuck to his brow, and he knew that he was beginning to perspire, stains spreading in the armpits of his jacket. He longed to take it off, and he might have done so had it not been for her, sitting there across from him, her uniform still crisp and neat. Still, he could see her skin was shiny and damp as she leaned toward the window, her elbow on the narrow sill, and placed her chin on her fist. He watched her lips in profile. They were parted slightly, as if she were about to speak, but she never did.

She wasnít talkative, Riza Hawkeye. He wasn't bad at talking to women; he thought he managed well enough when he put his mind to it. But with her, he always felt tongue-tied, even stupid. She saw through him. She didn't think the Flame Alchemist was a hero. She knew he was just a young man searching, and she knew where he had obtained his secrets. She had seen him when he was barely out of his teens and had shown up at his masterís house in his new uniform, when he was still skinny and awkward and the thick worsted wool felt too heavy for his bones. Heíd filled out since then, but she knew him that way; very few people did.

She glanced at him quickly and he saw that familiar pink blush spread across her cheeks. Her nose and mouth twitched a little, like she had seen something she didnít quite approve of, and then turned back to the window. He saw her neck, creamy inches of it between her cropped hair and the collar of her uniform, the little button earrings in her earlobes, watched the gentle pulse in the curve of her neck as she trained her vision on the scenery speeding past.

His heart pulsed in his head, and he felt he would suffocate from the heat. Although they were alone in the car, the walls were closing in and his skin was tingling. At first he thought it was just the temperature, but then he realized that it was more than that, it was her. He could smell the faint perspiration of her skin, not unpleasant, and the scent of soap evaporating around her. She wore no makeup but her skin, he noticed, was pink and flawless.

Except for her back. She had wanted him to scar it, obliterate the alchemy. It was unconscionable for a number of reasons; he could never do it, cause her pain, scar her. Sheíd already asked him again and heíd said no. In his mind he was thinking it would be a shame for a beautiful woman to be scarred so, but she had preempted that thought by saying quietly,

"It doesnít matter, you know. How can I let any man see it the way it is? How could I ever trust him with these secrets? How would I ever know it wasnít some alchemist trying to steal my fatherís work?" She had averted her eyes again, knowing how much they gave her away. "Only you," she added, this time raising her chin and fixing his eyes with hers.

He hadnít known what to say to that. Was that an invitation, or just her way of saying that no man would ever touch her again?


She was watching the desert give way to greening valleys when he stood up and stretched. "Iím going to get something to drink. Would you like anything?" he asked her.

She got to her feet immediately. "Let me go, Major Mustang. What would you like, sir?" She averted her eyes like a servant, and this unmanned him.

"Please, donít do that," he said, his jaw tight. "Iím going to be your commanding officer but it doesnít mean you have to—"

"With all due respect, sir, yes it does," she said. She turned, ready to leave the compartment, and he realized he didnít want her to. He reached out and put his hand on her shoulder. Her felt her tense up, stiffen under his touch. He fought an impulse to wrap his arms around her, put his mouth to her neck. This was so out of bounds he barely knew what he was doing. He withdrew his hands immediately.

"Stay here. Iíll get the water."

He must have sounded very firm, because her shoulders relaxed.

"All right then." She took her seat, suddenly more self-possessed. She crossed her legs and folded her hands in her lap, looked up at him expectantly.

"Right. Off I go, then," Roy said.

"Right," said Riza.

"Be back soon."

He walked a few paces down the corridor before he had to shove his face out an open window and let the breeze from the moving train dry the perspiration from his skin. The heat in that car had been unbearable. He didnít think he could face going back in there, watching her watch the land, knowing that those keen, patient eyes would be trained on him forever; his greatest comfort, and his greatest fear, one in the same.