Disclaimer: Not mine. "Fullmetal Alchemist" is the awesome property of Hiromu Arakawa.
A/N: Kimblee/Riza. Set during the Ishval War of Extermination. An imagining of what if, what might have, or what could have happened in the gap between Kimblee's definitive lecture to the shell-shocked soldiers and the Kimblee-led Kanda campaign (using the Philosopher's Stone), which effectively ends the war. Rated for gore and strong sexual situations. Not your usual pairing, I know, but the story includes tiny hints of Royai. Reviews and comments are highly appreciated. Thank you for reading. Cheers!
Act I: Contrition
"Look at the people you're killing in the face and don't forget them. Don't forget. Never forget."
"…because they won't forget you, either."
The words resonated in her head, strong and steadfast as the beat of her heart, thrumming in cadence to the faint peal of the bell in Ishval's main square that signaled the crack of another day in this created hell.
0.00 Hours. Kill tally: three Ishvalan insurgents. The soft far-off clang of the bell not only meant the woman could start the end of her shift in this sector but was also an all-too-brief interval from the crackle of gunfire and the sporadic boom of artillery that punctuated the night.
She sighed and moved her face away from the rifle scope to blink away the strain in her eyes. Officer Cadet Riza Hawkeye, Scout Sniper, 1st Squadron of the Reconnaissance and Target Tactics Battalion, Amestris Central Army found herself getting assigned – or was it having requested? She wasn't sure anymore – these drudging night patrol duties for the past three days. It had been four since the words began taking root in her mind, their tendrils winding around her concentration and rationality in a chokehold. It even felt as if they were working down her arm to the tip of her trigger finger, making it vacillate ever so slightly when previously it had been so sure.
For three straight days, Riza had chosen to forgo a backup scout squad, a spotter allowed to her on normal daytime missions, and a night's rest on a cot, all in favor of riskier night sentry duty where she would be alone, hiding in the darkness with unfamiliar shadows twisting around corners of buildings in the distance – as well as creeping in the terrifying corners of the walls surrounding her. This she chose if simply – but temporarily - instead of dozens of doomed targets, the proud precision of her gun connected with just a handful.
That meant fewer corpses to remember. Fewer souls to haunt her memory.
Tonight, Riza considered herself fortunate, if she could call it that at all. She was posted in the lower-class residential district of Gunja where the army had taken full control just a week prior. The town was currently under mop-up operations and was generally quiet save for the odd insurgent or guerilla bomber attempting to sneak into the Amestrian Army main base camp whose fringes lay just a kilometer from the town's western borders. Riza stationed herself on the rooftop pavilion of one of the tallest buildings on the northern outskirts of Gunja which faced a vast sandstone mesa reported to be hiding pockets of Ishvalan resistance. The district's proximity to the mountains made its north border a weak link in the army's defensive line, but the high command had started moving the main thrust of its forces for a final offensive against the Ishvalan stronghold of Kanda and had no choice but to trust recon platoons and sniper scouts like her to hold it.
The young cadet figured the Ishvalans had focused their sights on the upcoming Kanda push as well. Three kills was a record low for her in this conflict, albeit a positive one if her weary soul had any say in it. The moon and the stars played a big part in this reversal of fortune, shrouded as they were under heavy cloud cover. There was no break in the gray swathe that the wind billowed in the sky and the promise of a thunderstorm was as certain as another Ishval red dawn. For hours, Riza scanned the blocks of white adobe ruins in her scope's sweeping periphery, finding it difficult to distinguish between moving black shadows and imaginary ghosts conjured by her mind. It had taken a couple of passes on her sight grid to be convinced that, yes, she had made three kills: two center mass hits and one headshot. She knew she was not in her element tonight. One of the men she had shot in the chest was still convulsing a few seconds after bullet impact and her sniper's eye simply stared through the scope; that instead of pulling back on the rifle bolt and going for a double tap to the head, she watched the dying throes… became mesmerized by the progression of blood as it quickly dyed the Ishvalan's robe red with every rise and fall of his life-gasping lungs.
Had she allowed the man a final desperate prayer to his god? Or did she merely give him precious seconds to utter final curses damning his killer's soul to an eternal hell?
Riza's fingers suddenly dropped to the side of her gun as her sights passed the long-still corpse of that man for heaven knows how many times. Her trained body hardly betrayed it, but the sniper's heart pounded heavily against the rubble-strewn concrete floor of the roof as she sprawled in prone position.
"Shit," Riza muttered under her breath as instinct forced her hand back into the familiar mold of the rifle's trigger and stock like a magnet. Hoping to recharge away her fatigue, she deeply drew in cool, humid air. She then exhaled sharply when a short static pop interrupted the kinetoscope of images and broken phonograph of sounds in her brain.
"Red Tail, come in. Red Tail, over."
Keeping her right eye fixed on her sights, Riza reached with her left arm to grab the two-way radio leaning on the low roof ledge in front of her.
"This is Red Tail, go ahead," she replied hoarsely to the voice on the other end of the channel.
"Peregrine reporting position at GD Sector 3B north-west from your station," answered the sniper assigned to relieve Riza in that area.
She craned her neck to the left to confirm he was referring to a mid-rise tenement two lots up from her location. "Copy, Peregrine."
"What's your status?"
"Three targets eliminated from this area, so far."
A few seconds elapsed before Riza received an acknowledgement. "Are you sure, Red Tail? I'm seeing four bodies from this spot, over."
Riza dropped the radio and furrowed her brows above the metal of her weapon. She adjusted the scope's magnification and broadened her scan down range while her left hand felt around the floor for spent shell casings.
I only fired three rounds, she swore to herself. Unconvinced, Riza picked up the radio and whispered into the receiver, "Red Tail to make a visual on that, over."
"Affirmative. I'll take it from here then. C.O. requests your position at GD Sector 5C by 0400 hours."
"Roger, Peregrine." A gust blew the beginnings of a drizzle into the side of her stoic face. "Red Tail out."
The blonde sniper moved the radio away from her side. Keeping a constant light pressure on the trigger, her left hand cradled under the gun's front stock and then braced the butt firmly against the pocket of her right shoulder. Carefully, she lurched forward and angled the muzzle lower over the gap in the ledge. Within seconds, Riza caught the presence of an unfamiliar – and dead – target in her sights, located behind some ruins just a few yards off her building's perimeter.
"What the – " Riza hissed. Her pulse quickened uncharacteristically for a sniper. She knew it was impossible to have made this particular kill from the trajectory of her previous spot. And even from that distance, she could see the massive extent of the trauma inflicted on the body, damage surely not from one of her .30 caliber bullets. This was a heavy, close contact kill, with the man's torso blasted wide open revealing ribs clawing out of its cavity, looking like bony stamens growing around a pistil of organs and entrails. And surrounding it was a bloom of blood arranged in a perfect corolla of petals and sprays.
Riza couldn't wrench her eye away from the near-artful carnage. More, she could hardly believe she allowed herself to recognize a metaphor of beauty in this ugly scene. Why in this garden of death and destruction she could see a flower…
A crimson flower.
"You missed one, Miss Sniper," a low voice ghosted somewhere from behind her.
With a sharp gasp, Riza pulled her rifle into a right arm tuck and swiftly pivoted onto her back. She lifted her torso a few inches from the ground, and with it, the gun; her target area partially framed by a bent left knee. Trepidly, the weapon's muzzle traced the ill-defined outlines of a shadow receding into the darkened stairwell leading up to the pavilion. Seconds passed where the shadow infuriatingly wavered between disappearing and taking shape. Nervously panting, Riza debated whether she should just fire into the void when two tattooed palms rose in a gesture of surrender.
The pale hands floated starkly against the murk and their strange inked crests, in turn, were prominent on the white. They almost seemed to carry a life of their own until the smiling face and blue military uniform of their possessor emerged from behind them.
Having seen the face of the shadow, Riza eased the tension of her tightly wound stance and sat up, but without disengaging her aim from the man – and superior officer – who now stood half-concealed behind the stairwell entry a couple of yards away. "Major, sir," she said, taming the flitter in her voice. "You surprised me there. If you hadn't shown yourself when you did, I would've shot you."
Major Solf J. Kimblee, State Alchemist, regarded the in-hindsight threat as though it were an everyday greeting. His easy smile did not falter as he lowered his right hand in concession, the other moon-marked one seeming as if waving hello. "From the way you have your rifle pointed at me; I think I might say the same to you."
Riza froze momentarily as the Crimson Alchemist's amusement-accented words stung. Wordlessly, she broke the impasse between them by raising her rifle, pulling on its bolt to open the breech, and ejected the unspent bullet from its chamber. Silently and adeptly, she laid the rifle in front of her and began to collect her sniper accoutrements in an orderly fashion – all the while sneaking furtive glances at Kimblee who now leaned casually against the door frame with arms crossed, narrow eyes watching her.
She wasn't taking too kindly to his intrusion of her somber rituals, but soldiered on methodically, nonetheless. "Sir, if I may ask, why are you patrolling this sector at this time of night?"
Kimblee looked toward the tableau of mountains off in the distance, the wind picking up and whipping sections of long, jet black hair across his face. "Area surveillance," he replied. "There are reports of a small band of rebels encamped at the foot of those cliffs. I was merely calculating range and vantages should my unit find need to… neutralize them."
"The distance between those mountains and the closest concealed position is 1.17 miles, Major," Riza offered matter-of-factly as she put away the radio pack and scope neatly into her haversack. The subtext underlying Kimblee's preferred 'neutralization' methods was not lost on her. But, surely, that span was too great for even his brand of alchemy, she thought.
"Is that so?" He turned to her, one of his knuckles grazing his chin thoughtfully. "Then I suppose, fortunately, it looks like we managed to subdue most of them tonight, eh?"
His bright amber eyes met dull brown in the gray moonlight. Subdue. Not a word Riza would ever use in reference to her – their – skills. "Major Kimblee, I was not informed of your presence in the vicinity." Her gaze fixed on his willfully. "I could've mistaken you for an enemy and targeted you."
The State Alchemist's brow shot up slightly. Flashing a cryptic smile, he countered, "If that had been the case, my careless self should be honored to die by a hand steeled by such conviction and precision…" Pause. "Because I know you would be careful not to mistake me for an Ishvalan, Miss Sniper."
The enigmatic man's irrefutable retorts left the female sniper stumped. She was way beyond expecting even an iota of empathy from him for her choices as a fellow soldier, much less as a grunt not officially graduated from the military academy yet. However, Riza started to feel stirrings of awe – envy even - at how easily the major made himself liberated from and omniscient to a battlefield he simply saw in shades of black and red with nothing in between, and that she found his nihilism and, perhaps, his personal philosophies, oddly captivating.
On this, Riza decided to take her own high road by conceding to her weakness the only way she could. She swallowed hard before mumbling, "I appreciate you having my back down there, Major Kimblee..."
Brown eyes fluttered down. Cheeks flushed hotly. The skies above her opened up. "Thank you."
"Mmm," Solf J. Kimblee hummed softly to himself while observing the cadet as she gathered her gear and wedged against the corner of the rooftop's balustrade. She had drawn her knees to her chest and planted the now sheathed rifle muzzle between them. He stood in rapt fascination of her body language unfolding before him, how he could almost count the hairline cracks forming in the woman's strong, indomitable façade in the way she gripped the gun barrel, how fingers pressed into her forehead and temple, and the indifference in which she regarded the increasing intensity of the rain falling on her forlorn form.
It was the very picture of doubt.
She persisted in disappointing him from the moment he met her sitting guilt-ridden and shell-shocked in the main square. The alchemist still could not understand how the soldier had yet to reconcile the brutality of her expertise with the reality of war – however fair or unfair its reason for being was to her. How could she not accept that her motivations for picking up a gun were directly proportional to choosing to pick it up in the first place?
Kimblee did not think he was unreasonable to attribute her folly to youthful naiveté and neither did he expect her to share his rather… unconventional views on human nature and its propensity for seeking conflict.
The young blonde intrigued him; that, possibly, a very small part of her could be as passionate about the business and beauty of death as he was.
He bit his bottom lip wistfully. And liked flirting with it even.
"Officer Cadet, I suggest you get out of the rain now," Kimblee gently called out. "You'll catch a cold if you stay there like that."
It took several seconds for Riza to acknowledge his beckon before slowly raising her head in his direction, rivulets of water cascading from the hood of her black camouflage cloak as she did.
"Come out of the rain, soldier." Repeated more forcefully this time, yet oh-so politely. "That was an order, not a request."
"Y-yes, sir!" Cut abruptly from her introspections, Riza slung her haversack and rifle over her shoulders and extracted herself from her location by crouching under the length of the roof's ledge and quickly ducking into the stairwell. To her surprise, arms caught her forward momentum and gracefully swung her to a side wall in one swift movement. Momentarily ensnared in Kimblee's loose grasp, Riza broke off the uneasy contact by attempting a cursory salute. "My apologies for not hearing you clearly the first time, sir."
He casually waved off the gesture. "No need, Miss Sniper. After all, we are supposed to maintain silence and you did seem quite focused on your mission. It is I who should apologize for apparently distracting you."
She had wanted to tell him that he started the distraction four days ago. "Major, you didn't… That's not – "
"Riza Hawkeye, is it not? Your name?" Kimblee saved her from explaining herself any further. His encircling arms had dropped to his sides but he persisted in asserting his proximity to her, close enough for droplets of water to drip from the hem of her cloak and onto the tips of his polished boots. "You don't mind if I took the liberty of finding out the name of the army's best sharpshooter, do you?"
"Of course not, sir," came her firm reply. Riza would have gapped their shared space if she had less wall to back into; instead, she held her ground against the tall, perfectly-postured officer. "And that is correct, Major Kimblee. Officer Cadet Hawkeye is my name."
"I've heard awe-inspired tales of the infamous 'Eye of the Hawk's' prowess, but, my, my, I didn't realize she took her duties so seriously to maintain her position even after completing a mission – in the rain, no less," he said, following it up with a hearty laugh. Suddenly and unexpectedly, Kimblee's right hand rose to Riza's face, flashing a brief glimpse of a transmutation circle arrayed with runes and the symbol of the sun before long fingers slid her hood down and nestled it neatly across her shoulders.
She barely suppressed a startled gasp but continued to stand fast. The reveal of flaxen hair was a welcome burst of luminosity in the cramped darkness, the sight of which coaxed an appreciative smirk from the Crimson Alchemist. Although, as his gaze slanted downwards, he saw the snapped-off thumb break of a holster against her hip and noticed how the sniper's elbow had cocked ever so slightly, bringing her dominant hand's curling fingers parallel to the grip of the sidearm it held.
Kimblee took a small step away, a calculated glint twinkling in his hypnotic stare. The heat of Riza's confusion radiated from her cheeks.
"Miss Hawkeye, I wonder how it is possible you could not have noticed the movements of one particular Ishvalan in your grid."
"Sir?" The sniper's large chestnut-colored eyes blinked. "Are you referring to the one lying in front of this building?"
"Tsk. How unfortunate that they've begun to send their children now to do such dirty work. The boy didn't even look fifteen… Fourteen, perhaps, or maybe even thirteen…" he continued mostly to himself with a dramatic cluck of his tongue.
Riza's arms stiffened against her sides, hands clenched into fists. Even though she had her head turned away from him she wished she didn't have such short hair as to make the officer notice a grimace marring her face. A child? That can't be. Her heart racing, she tried remembering the events of the past few hours.
23:05 hours – male, gunshot to the chest, incapacitated for several minutes, target eliminated. 22:00 hours – shadow lurking off an abandoned food stall in Sector 5A, later attributed to a stray dog. 20:50 hours – two male spies; one, a clean shot to the head, the other, near the heart; targets killed instantly.
Had the fourth victim masqueraded as a specter playing tricks on her mind? Surely, a child couldn't have escaped her view. And then, just when Riza thought she had logically accounted for her actions that night, there was another striking possibility that dawned on her:
Would she have missed a child?
The cadet stumbled back at the realization. Could she really have deliberately spared a young boy only to leave him in the lethal hands of a notoriously merciless State Alchemist?
Frantically, she fumbled around her memory for fading details – something, anything – a flutter of cloth disappearing behind a corner… a flash of silver-white hair perhaps? But her mind's eye blurred with a hazy montage of night, shadows, sand, rubble, and blood. And nothing the sniper came up with could prove, or disprove, a plea of ignorance.
"Oh, are you remembering something just now? Ah, right. I do remember telling a group of you to never forget those you killed, didn't I?" Kimblee delivered the remark as casually as one reminding another to buy milk from the store.
"I'm sure if an excellent sniper as yourself saw an Ishvalan…" He punch-lined the quip by extending his arm at Riza, gesturing his hand like a gun and mock-shooting her with it.
The woman choked back her reaction in silence while abstractedly boxing herself into the corner of the niche. She hated to acknowledge the simple wisdom – and the ironic dignity – of that lecture coming from someone like Kimblee; hated that it replayed in her thoughts non-stop. But what she hated more than anything was herself – that, indeed, her pride in her skill proved him right.
But unlike Kimblee, who claimed to remember each and every one of those he killed, she didn't even afford any of her targets the dignity of a human face. She merely ticked them off as a number tally in her body count, identified them only by their bullet entry wounds, buried them deep in the recesses of her subconscious, and then moved on to the next victim. After all, with her sniper's advantage of stealth, high ground, and high-powered weaponry, at the time of reckoning, both killer (no, coward) and killed were faceless to each other anyway.
And yet, here she was now justifying the morality of sparing a child to herself. The soldier wondered if her immorality compared to the alchemist's amorality made her any better – or worse – than he was.
"Major, I didn't see anyone else apart from the three targets I neutralized," Riza said, worrying if her voice faltered or if her gaze was shifty in its offering of a half-lie when the half-truth was, 'I don't know'.
The corners of Kimblee's mouth curved down. "Hmm. Even the best snipers have their off days, I suppose." He proceeded to reach inside his coat. "It was pure providence that I was at the right area at the right time. The boy was standing on a crate behind a blind corner of the storefront a few paces from here. He was fixing the trajectory angle on a crude slingshot aimed directly at this rooftop…"
The Crimson Alchemist produced a gleaming black egg-shaped hand grenade cradled gingerly in his right palm.
"It's really not my style to create explosions that don't sound like a symphony of rumbles and crashes – but I made an exception in this case. What an awful mess it made, though." He stooped and laid the grenade squarely in a corner of the stairwell opposite Riza, its conspicuous placement a subtle reminder of how this close she was to danger.
Wide eyes tracked the small ordnance as Kimblee put it down. Sensing knees, control, and wits failing her, Riza struck the rifle on the floor and leaned on it for support. For her sanity's sake, she desperately scanned his tone and expressions in the darkness for any indication of jest or deceit peeking behind the steadfast congeniality. But just as she had many reasons to doubt her own soldier's judgment, no matter how she tried, she could find no reason to doubt his.
The long-haired military officer stood up and slowly walked back to addressing the female soldier face-to-face. This time, however, he had closed more rank between them and she felt his warm breaths fan over her ear.
"I find it peculiar, and quite annoying, actually, how perfectly competent soldiers will at times lose… focus on the job at hand. Why, just recently, a fellow Major carelessly overlooked two Ishvalan women escaping from a gap in a wall. Had I not taken care of that little oversight, he would've been court-martialed rather than merely relieved of his duty."
Riza lowered her head, chin almost to her chest. She had since abandoned all pretense of standing at attention in front of an officer by instinctively fusing herself fully into the cold wall behind her and away from the imposing man entrapping her with his elegant figure, his clean heady scent and self-assured aura. A part of her ridiculously mused how Kimblee even had a right to look so refined in this bloody, dusty battlefield.
"I wonder what it is… Fear? Combat fatigue? Pity? Should that even matter when it's all really simple? You kill or be killed. Why should it even be possible to allow those factors to override basic survival instinct?"
Kimblee bent over to catch Riza's downcast eyes, amused she had been relegated from hardened soldier to confused teenager. "Miss Hawkeye," he reminded gently in an almost smoky whisper. "You can snipe from a high tower or you can conceal yourself under a blanket of darkness, but those who are a cause of death will always have death chase them in return. It's all just a cat and mouse game. Just stay one step ahead and death won't…" He leaned closer to the side of her face so that his lips feathered across her earlobe.
She shuddered – less at the barely there touch and more at the intent.
With a slight smile playing on his features, the State Alchemist retreated from the stunned young woman and peered out the doorway where, for a moment, he listened to the low frequency beats of distant thunder while watching the storm fall in ash-colored sheets. "It looks like it's not going to let up anytime soon." A glimmer of silver emerged from beneath the navy blue folds of his uniform and a 'click' exposed the intricate dragon crest engraved on a pocket watch lid. A studied glance from its owner, another 'click' and it buried into his clothes as quickly as it appeared. A soft chuckle escaped his throat at the notion of Mother Nature as war's greatest equalizer.
"For friend or foe, I think this rain has called for a brief ceasefire, don't you agree?"
Turning with a graceful swish of his black ponytail, Kimblee began to go down the stone stairs. He hesitated at the fifth step to offer the cadet a last piece of advice.
"You'd best dry off before heading to your next outpost. The army would hate to lose you to illness just when you'll be needed most."
He waited a few seconds for sounds of a response. Hearing nothing, he shrugged, continued on his way, and called out in passing, "If you'd like, there are rooms below where we can wait out the weather."
Each of his forward steps hovered on delectable suspense, the tug of an invisible chain getting tauter with every inch measured between him and the sniper. But with Kimblee's silhouette melding deeper into the shadows came the hesitant shuffle of boots and a rustling of wet cloth from above.
The man's slight smile grew wider.
(to be continued)