"Goddamn frikkin' absolutely shitty weather—"
Lieutenant Jan Havoc wiped mud from his face, dripping messily all over the tiled floor. Still cursing, he sat down and dragged one boot off; it released his foot with an audible POP!, allowing a flood of grayish water to slosh out.
"—just HAD to go and rain today, didn't it? Bastard driver could've parked someplace that wasn't ass-deep in—"
THUD-flop went the boot onto the floor; plop! went the soggy sock that followed it; the blond wiped dripping strands of hair out of his eyes and wiggled cold, pink toes at the world, continuing his diatribe. He began to work at the other boot, muttering:
"—goddamn gate security jerkoffs aren't worth the bullets it'd take to blow their—"
"I never said you had to check on it yourself, you know," said a reproachful voice from the doorway behind him. Hughes ducked back around the edge just in time to miss the mud-encrusted boot that was heaved at him a moment later; it thunked against the hallway wall, leaving treadmarks before landing with a messy splort of soaked leather on the floor. "Temper, temper... You're going to burst a vein if you keep that up—"
Havoc dragged his other sock off, allowing it to join its fellow on the floor. The reply he snarled at his fellow officer involved acts that were not merely unnatural; they also defied several laws of physics, including gravity, and if Hughes had actually been capable of them he could probably have made a great deal of money in the entertainment industry. He blinked. "...Interesting, but I don't think my wife would approve. But hey, if you're looking for a date, I know this girl down in Legal that used to be able to flip her—"
This time the soggy cardboard box that Havoc had been carrying managed to impact squarely in Hughes' midriff before the officer could dodge; he caught it carefully before it reached the ground. "Uhf! ...so this is the stuff, huh?"
"Yeah." Glowering, the other man fished around in one pocket before pulling out a carton of cigarettes; he looked mournfully at his drenched smokes and sighed, tossing them towards the Intelligence officer. "Here."
"Damn well better be—I bought 'em two days ago and I'm not keeling over yet. Got any dry ones on you?" Some of his irritation faded slightly when Hughes silently offered his own pack. "Urgh; Noir Filters. Dunno how you can smoke these things—"
"Deal with it." Flicking his lighter, Havoc hunched one wet shoulder beneath his uniform jacket and cupped a hand around the cigarette against drafts, inhaling with the long, nicotine-laden sigh of someone who knew the monkey on their back on a first-name basis. He gestured with the smoke towards the dripping box that his coworker had tucked beneath one arm. "The truckdriver's in the lock-up, but hell if I know what you'll get out of him—think he was just a stooge, y'know, expendable. You might want to check his pickup-sheets, though..."
The other officer snorted, pushing his glasses up his nose and kicking the man's boot back towards him from where it lay in the hall. "Don't try to teach your granny to suck eggs, Havoc; we'll trace this. After all," he added as he turned to go, "we've both got a stake in this one."
"Damn straight," the annoyed man growled back as he puffed away. They both knew that smoking inside was prohibited; equally, they both knew that it would be less than five minutes before Lieutenant Hawkeye's nose picked up and tracked the scent of a clandestine light-up to the back entrance of the complex's kitchen (the only place willing to allow anybody muddy to his eyebrows in from the rain; Havoc sat in the middle of a tiled drainage area usually used for washing off the garbage-cans.) However, a smoke was a smoke, and this might be the man's last for a while.
Until the next batch of supplies came in, anyway.
Thunder grumbled outside, rattling the nearby hose in its rack; pulling up his rainslicker, the Intelligence officer paused before heading out into the afternoon storm. "Uh—should I tell—?" He made a snapping motion with one hand, and Havoc shook his head emphatically; with a shrug, Hughes nodded and pulled his hat down a little lower. "You really should've gotten somebody else to look into it, y'know; normally I wouldn't send a dead dog out in this weather, but an enlisted grunt—"
The blond shrugged, smoke rising as he shifted his cigarette to the other corner of his mouth; it looked natural there. "Nahh. Doesn't do to let stuff like this slide."
Hughes shrugged again. "Right; I'll let you know what I find out." Pushing the door open, he stepped out into the surrusation of the heavy rain, leaving silence and cigarette-smoke behind him.
Havoc sat damply, dripping. A few more deep drags, and he regretfully crushed the butt against the tiles at his feet, gathering his boots up and reaching down for his socks...
...just as a door down the hall opened to the sound of issued boot-heels, moving in a familiar, brisk stride. "...Lieutenant Havoc? Is that you?"
But Jan Havoc was already gone; bare footprints, the sound of a rapid retreat, a pair of muddy socks and a faintly-smoking cigarette butt were all that Hawkeye found to show that he had been there.
These things usually tended to take a while, thought Hughes as he flipped through reports a couple of hours later. Oh, every now and then you could zoom through a case of deliberate tampering if the perpetrators were clumsy or vain enough to leave clues scattered all over the place, but most often you had to pick your way through as if you were walking on explosive, incendiary eggs with bad dispositions.
Of course, this time word had spread, and the majority of his staff had their noses to the grindstone. A few choice remarks about what would've happened if a certain blond Lieutenant hadn't wondered why Supply had gotten their cigarette shipment in two days early, and voila—you had an air of grim determination that would make an armchair general manager weep with appreciation.
And it didn't hurt that most of his staff were smokers, either. But it was sort of interesting that even the ones that weren't were working like they were...
It hadn't hurt that Havoc was such a mistrustful type, either; the man worried about everything. If it wasn't mad alchemists, sewer monsters or Ishbal terrorists, it was the sad lack of dateable women on base or dark suspicions that they were watering the beer at his favorite bar. Havoc had made a fine art of paranoid cynicism; if somebody else wasn't worrying about something, he'd do it for them.
Hence the cigarettes. Hughes scanned the notes on the delivery-driver's interview with half an eye, still thinking about his fellow smoker's instinct for what the man called 'bad juju.' It usually took somebody in Intelligence to notice something weird in normal daily scheduling, but...
Hughes glanced down at the handful of samples lying on his desk; there were the ones on the left (warped by water and half-shapeless, courtesy of Havoc's last treasured pack) and the ones on the right (pristine and temptingly smokable, if you didn't mind an unhealthy dose of poison inhaled directly into your lungs). And people said smoking was bad for you...
Well, it was, when the tobacco had been laced with poison.
In retrospect, the whole thing was fairly simple. Since the Ishbal mess had started up again, a lot of smokes had been shipped out to the troops via Central's supply depot; wartime countries always experienced tobacco shortages, and Havoc had made sure to buy his month's allotment as soon as the crates arrived. A dedicated chainsmoker like Jan Havoc knew not only when the trucks were supposed to arrive, he also knew the drivers; and when the crates had arrived two days early and with different carriers, it had been enough to send him out into the rain to poke his long nose suspiciously into the shipment.
A damn good thing he did, too, thought the Intelligence officer, fighting back a shiver as he flipped forward to the toxicology report. Three different organic poisons, all from extremely toxic plants such as oleander; all you had to do was dry the leaves, chop them up, stain them to match tobacco and mix them in; it would be interesting finding out just which cigarette factory had been bribed for the use of their machinery. Odds were that the perpetrator was either one of the isolated terrorist groups; this was too large to be a single whacko's handiwork.
Whatever; they'd sort it out. And in the meantime, Hughes had developed a new appreciation for Havoc's hand-to-hand combat skills, not to mention his determination; taking the driver down squarely into a 6-inch-deep mud-puddle had been... well, he wouldn't have wanted to be the one to do it.
God, he needed a smoke.
He glanced over at his staff, standing up and stretching; rain continued to beat on the windowpanes, the noise making a shushed background as he spoke. "Okay, guys... everybody listen up." Reaching behind him, the head of Intelligence fished out a cardboard box that had until that morning contained files. "You all know who got this ball rolling; so we're gonna do a little pass-the-hat for him, since he gave up his last box of smokes for this." Hughes grinned at the looks of comprehension that flickered across his coworkers' faces; it was good to work with people you knew weren't morons. "Bear in mind that he prefers non-filtered tips but'll smoke anything in a pinch, and dig deep, okay?" He dug out his wallet and pulled a few bills out. "And somebody go buy the man a pair of dry socks; he's probably hiding out in the Men's head by now."
...not that that'll keep Hawkeye off his case if she really wants to find him, but...
As the box moved from desk to desk (and several nonsmokers resolved to hit up their nicotine-addicted acquaintances as soon as possible), Hughes grinned again at the thud-thap!-thud of falling cigarettes; and he then he glanced back down at his report and considered the poisons listed there, smile fading—
—all that toxic smoke, being drawn into the lungs of men and women on their first inhale, scattered throughout the troops... It didn't have to kill them; all they had to do was to fall over sick and incapacitated. But it probably would have killed them for the most part, leaving widows and orphans behind in a huge, sweeping wave. There were a lot of smokers in the military; it would have crippled operations at every level.
And Havoc had just sat there like a rain-soaked cat, sour and grouchy and muttering 'Doesn't do to let stuff like this slide' and wiggling his wet toes and bad temper at God and everybody. Hughes wondered if the man knew what he had done; he really did.
Cantankerous, irritable, cynical... but sometimes you needed people like that. It was a damn shame, really, reflected Hughes; Havoc would've made a fine intelligence agent, if only he could've been trusted to keep his mouth shut.
His cigarettes weighed heavily in his pocket. ...dammit...
Maes Hughes stood up, feeling around for the pack and pulling it out with a sigh. What the hell. And besides, Gracia's been trying to get me to quit for ages; she says I'm a lot more fun to kiss when I don't taste like an ashtray. With a twinge of regret, he tossed the whole thing into the box as it was brought back to his desk more than half-full; thunder rumbled overhead as if in approval.
"Damn things are too expensive anyway," he said out loud.
In the sky outside the office windows, the stormclouds drifted like rising smoke.