Altered States of Consciousness

A/N: This deals with a situation presented in chapter 93 ("Shackles") of my 100 themes collection, "Chaotic Sonata". You don't need to have read 93 for this to make sense, though-it's just something that came from my imagination, as opposed to the actual manga, and is expanded upon in 93. NOTE: 93 will be posted early to mid August 2010.

Riza trudged back through the lines, bone-weary from just staying crouched in the same position all day.

"Well hello, Ms. Sharpshooter. We meet again, I see."

A chill went down Riza's spine. She knew she should ignore the man and keep on walking, but her body froze.

"Headed back for the evening? May I accompany you?" He put a hand at the small of Riza's back, giving her a light push to start her walking again. Riza flinched away. "Long day? Surprise attack?"

Shaking her head, Riza was finally able to form a word. "No."

"Hmmm…" The man looked at his hands thoughtfully. Riza could now see that they were flecked with blood, his sleeves stained with the stuff. She was going to be sick…

"…don't believe I've introduced myself properly. Zolf J. Kimblee, Crimson Alchemist." He held out a hand. When Riza didn't take it, his grin momentarily widened eerily before he managed to contort it into a somewhat demented frown. "I must say, Ms. Sharpshooter, you're not being very polite."

Looking at the ground, the sky—anywhere but Kimblee's hands—Riza murmured, "War isn't polite."

Kimblee chuckled. "Well, that depends on how you look at it. I see it as this: putting people out of their misery is a kindness."

"How is it kind, when we were the ones to make them miserable in the first place?" Riza wanted to know.

Again, Kimblee laughed. "Ms. Sharpshooter, misery is only a state of mind. People who live in the most squalid conditions can choose to make whatever they want of it. The same goes for you."

"You said not to forget these people," recalled Riza. "Perhaps the way I choose to view this helps me remember."

"Try though you might to sound wise beyond your years, Ms. Sharpshooter, you and I both know that you're just digging yourself into a guilty hole, and no matter how you justify it, the guilt will make you miserable."

"I thought you said misery was a choice," Riza countered.

Kimblee nodded, smiling again. "So is guilt, and the two go hand-in-hand. If you choose to be guilty, you choose to be miserable."

"Guilt… You feel it when you do something wrong. You can't control it. That's why I feel guilty—this war is wrong."

Kimblee stopped, almost rounding on Riza, his face inches from hers, his expression suddenly very serious. "Then why don't I feel guilty, Ms. Sharpshooter?" he almost whispered.

An explosion sounded close by. Kimblee smirked, but didn't move. "Music to my ears," he murmured. "Explosions are some of the most beautiful chemical reactions, wouldn't you agree?"

Suddenly, all Riza could think of was the house, how she'd so easily laid waste to it just to try to ease the pain, how she'd felt momentarily relief and even a rush of excitement, how she'd known it had been so very wrong but hadn't cared. She could feel the ground tremble beneath her feet, smelled the smoke, watched the ashes drift lazily in the breeze…

"My, my, Ms. Sharpshooter, you look like you might be ill." Kimblee's remark brought her back to the present. Riza realized she was kneeling on the ground, bent double, clutching her stomach, and about to heave.

"Do you need some help?" Kimblee sounded almost genuinely concerned. Even though Riza wasn't looking, she could tell by his voice that he was frowning, perhaps puzzled more than concerned. His hand appeared in front of her, an offer to help her to her feet.

"No," Riza gasped.

Despite this insistence, Kimblee knelt for a moment by her side, looped one of her arms around his shoulder, put one of his around her waist, and stood again.

This was making no sense to Riza. Why? she wanted to ask. Why are you helping me? But she couldn't form the words. She was tired, confused, dizzy, hot…

There was a shout, a tangle of voices—Riza couldn't really sort one from the other at this point.

"Exhausted, I think. Perhaps sick, as well. She collapsed on me," Kimblee was saying.

"Hey, are you okay? Hawkeye, answer me!" Major Mustang's voice demanded. Then, to someone else, "Get a doctor or somebody!"

Riza opened her mouth. It felt like it had been stuffed with cotton, but she had to say it, had to tell someone, and he would understand. "It's gone… I did it… The house… Couldn't take it…"

"Delirious?" Kimblee suggested curiously.

Riza could hear Roy's breath hitch as he tried to answer once, abandoned the effort, and started again. "Yeah. C'mon, Kimblee—if you're going to be useful, help me get her coat off."

One of Roy's arms slid under the back of her head, and she knew he could feel the cold sweat that had broken out at the nape of her neck. It must have been Kimblee tugging at her jacket, then. Riza winced and whimpered, almost unable to control her reaction.

"I don't like it, either," Roy murmured in her ear. "And I sure as hell don't get it. What were you thinking, talking to him?"

"I can hear you, you know, Major Mustang." Kimblee didn't sound at all put out about this, however. Maybe he was even enjoying this a little. It wouldn't have surprised Riza if he was. "If it soothes you any, Ms. Sharpshooter is not the best conversational partner I've had by any stretch of the imagination. I would chalk that up to her sudden illness, but judging by her reaction to me, I'd go so far as to say she dislikes me just as much as you do."

"And it just tears you to pieces, I bet," Roy muttered sarcastically. A bit louder, he asked, "So why did you bother helping her?"

A rustle of fabric suggested that Kimblee shrugged. "I may not agree with her philosophy, but she is a comrade in need of help. She's one of the best among us, Major Mustang—surely even you can appreciate that."

"Whatever happened… putting out of misery?" Riza breathed.

There was a smile in Kimblee's voice as he began to answer. "Hmm… Yes, it was a bit of a decision, but your skills ultimately won. It wasn't out of kindness, Ms. Sharpshooter." Here, his voice grew softer in volume, and Riza could imagine his expression turning over to a frown again. "But, as I'm sure you've gathered, I'm not a kind person."

"I think you should leave, Kimblee." Roy was trying his best to sound authoritative, but there was a slight tremble in his voice that told Riza that Roy knew just as well as she did what Kimblee was capable of.

"As you wish. After all, how does the saying go? Ah—Two's company, three's a crowd. I'm sure I'll see the both of you soon enough, anyway." He started walking away for a moment, then came a pause in his footsteps. "Get well soon, Ms. Sharpshooter—I wouldn't want my efforts to be for nothing."

Roy let out a heavy breath. "If there is one person in this world I truly hate…" He trailed off. "But you said something about the house, Riza. Please tell me you didn't…"

Riza shook her head, tears leaking out of the corners of her closed eyes. "I did," she all but mouthed, barely able to produce any sound.

"Oh God." She could hear Roy sit back abruptly, sounding like he might start retching now.

"Another case of heat exhaustion? Do they teach you cadets anything anymore, or are you just especially stupid?" a new voice snapped as a strange hand was laid on her forehead for a moment. "And you—" the voice now addressed Roy. "Leaving her out in the sun like this—are you an idiot, Mustang?" A sigh. "Don't answer that—I know what you'll say. And I agree; you are. We all are. Now let's get her to a tent. Come on, help me out."

Two sets of arms lifted Riza surprisingly gently.

"Skin and bone," the doctor remarked. "She's still a kid—what the hell were they thinking, letting her in? We're losing an entire generation to this damned war. Is she a runaway or something, Mustang?" When Roy said nothing, the doctor grunted. "You're too damn loyal to your friends, Mustang. It's going to come back to haunt you some day. I'd dare say it's already come back to bite this one." He turned his attention back to Riza. "The best of us make mistakes, kid. I'd say coming here was about the worst one you or anyone else could make, but we can still correct it. I can mark you as unfit for duty, send you back home, and you can try to get on as if this had never happened."

"Not gonna happen, Knox," Roy muttered, keeping his voice low. "We're all in too deep."

"You're only in too deep if you believe you are," Knox retorted. "But if you think there's a way to make it right, even if you don't know exactly what it is, no matter how hopeless others may think it seems, you can rise above the tragedies of being human. That's how the great men think, Mustang. You'd do well to remember that."

Though Dr. Knox had been speaking to Roy, it seemed as though Riza, too, had been waiting to hear just that. Her eyes fluttered open. She still felt weak and feverish, but no longer did she feel quite so anguished.

"Ah, she lives," Knox deadpanned as he and Roy settled Riza on a cot. "You're still not looking so well, kid. I'm keeping you here, but he—" Knox gestured to Roy. "—will be the one to keep you company." He turned to Roy and rattled off a standard set of instructions, ending it with, "Maybe this'll do the both of you some good."

Roy exchanged a glance with Riza, happy to see that she had relaxed, that the green tinge and red blotches that had covered her skin earlier were fading, and that she just seemed more lucid in general. Whether or not Knox knew it (though Roy suspected he did) it already had.

A/N: So, I started typing with the beginning in mind. I knew I wanted that part. I just had no idea how to end it, so it just kept coming and coming until I could figure it out.

I've tried to keep everyone in-character, but Knox might be a bit too optimistic.