A/N: Everything is Arakawa's; I simply borrow her strings and move her characters in a moderately different (not too OOC, I hope) direction. Warning: Chapter rated for strong sexual situations, including slight non-con. Thanks for reading. I hope this was as good a read as it was a guilty pleasure for me to write. ^^

Act IV: Requiem in Brimstone and Fire

Kimblee was a man of many heresies. But never before was he a heretic to his own beloved alchemy.

Yet as he continued prodding furiously at young Riza Hawkeye's comely depths, here he was – however briefly - daring to consider this to be a more pleasurable act than his transmutations. In terms of permanence and sheer spectacle, this indeed made a very pale comparison. But the more he regarded the broken blonde woman prostrated wantonly before him holding on desperately to the bed rails yet undulating so smoothly to his sexual symphony, the more his mind debated.

Maybe he had just been without a woman for too long, longer still without a woman of this … this caliber and pedigree. Or perhaps she presented him some sort of challenge. No doubt, making women scream in terror required far less effort from him than making them scream in ecstasy, relatively speaking. And this one – ugh – was being mighty stubborn about lending her voice to music he composed specifically for her.

He rode on that last idea even as it drifted as a foggy afterthought in his mind. Animal grunts of pleasure unlocked deep from Kimblee's throat when her rippling wet warmth swaddled tighter around his length and he attempted fiercely to stave off release. Damn that vixen for tormenting him with the exquisite pain of having to sing to his own composition before she – the diva – could reach her chorus. Their tactile duet made such an obscene melody that, once or twice, she had made him skip his place in his flawlessly arranged rhythm. But heavens help him if he could ignore the sight and feel of her – all quiet desperation and damage … such a flimsily held together body of damage whose seams he was testing relentlessly to its limits and which he wanted to rip so badly to make her cry out.

She asked for penitence, of which he would dole out heavily. But he certainly wasn't out to actually fix her.

Fuck. How he wanted this. And with her. Only her, an oasis, in this infernal desert. Desire had breached his dam of control, overtaken it … he didn't realize he could actually miss that feeling of freefall.

Kimblee pressed further forward, slithering his chest to-and-fro across Riza's back like the serpents that adorned it. With one hand jamming her shoulder firmly into the mattress and the other clamped to her thigh, angling her plumb with his every thrust; he hazarded a quick brush of his lips on her wet cheek. His breathless voice ghosted, "Come, my dear. Give in to your penance. I won't stop until you accept what you want …

"over … " Faster.

"and over ..." Harder.

"again." Deeper. Liquid heat engulfed him and he never knew such a satisfying burn.

Under the rising whimpers, he could finally hear the agonized music of her heart, mind, and soul crumbling. It was just as loud as any of the physical explosions his hands could transmute because, inside, she was screaming ... screaming with an angry fire that was a slow burn rather than a conflagration. He knew those fires blazed hotter than a thousand suns and he was only too happy to kindle it so they could dance to her cathartic cries.

And then her voice broke through; the wonderful keening notes surging straight from her soul, out her throat, into his ears, and down his spine. The wails sent him plunging after her – fully, unequivocally – and his voice melded with hers in a joyful ode to suffering and her temporal freedom from it.

Kimblee huffed a deep, painfully relieved sigh and closed his eyes. With enthralled expectation, the rattle in his bones told him he would be hearing much more thunderous music before the day was through. Note after note. Soundwave after soundwave. This interlude teased his palate for feasts that were to come.

Wordlessly, the pair caught their breaths and wallowed in the pleasant warmth of their mingled releases before Riza slid off and curled fetally on her side into the sheets. No applause came for their passionate duet in the quietude of that cold, dark chamber save for the heavy pattering of the rain outside. The alchemist knelt before her mildly perturbed. For someone with the gift of flawless memory, how could he have forgotten that this kind of explosion could be just as fulfilling as the real thing?

Or maybe he never had that particular memory with someone in the first place.

This woman … She was just like his unique quantum-based alchemy, requiring the perfect combination of opposing elements and forces to create the right volatility. It was no wonder he'd been so – attracted.

Kimblee chuckled quietly to himself. Maybe ... he wasn't being such a heretic after all.

Wanting to take a good look at the aftermath of the sniper's chosen chastisement, he shifted her on the bed so that she was on her back. Riza posed limply under his gaze, her nude form a seductive statue of guilty pleasure. Her head was turned away from him – teeth lightly biting on a corner of her lip sheepishly yet endearingly, and the lovely round swell of her breasts quivering with each struggling gasp. It was arousing how hard she tried to regain control of her body even as she fought to extend her completion.

He smirked at her.

She slanted her eyes in open contempt and a raised hand slapped hard across his cheek.

"You didn't have to bring my father into this … Major," Riza angrily decried. She fought to twist back on her side but Kimblee swiftly manacled errant fists to each side of her head on impulse, latching her in position.

He stared at her incredulously for a while even as he felt a trickle of blood form at the corner of his mouth.

Volatility, indeed.

Seconds dragged by so very slowly in the frozen sphere of the unimaginable as her insolence deteriorated into bug-eyed terror. "Sir, I'm s-sorry. I – I don't know what came over me. " The woman's eyes deflected in frightened self-recrimination as she noticed the bleeding. He could tell she expected to be enveloped in the familiar blue haze of alchemic activation; instead, he let her tremble beneath his torturous stillness and patiently watched her dilated eyes track the slow creep of his blood until a drop of it fell tantalizingly on a heaving breast. Smiling darkly, the man bent over, lashed out his tongue and lapped up the crimson trail staining her alabaster flesh before circling back to suckle on its haughty, erect tip. She let loose a shocked squeal.

A back of a hand wiping at his cut mouth and a booming laugh later, he had shut her up further with a forceful kiss and palms roaming punishingly across her body. Feeling him intrude searchingly, she tilted her head back with a guilty moan, jaw slacking and tongue tangling with his in a conciliatory offer.

"I wonder what I would've done if I actually didn't find feisty women entertaining," he said, breaking off the kiss and threading his hand into her damp hair. He made sure she was aware how the tattooed circle on it was in direct contact with her head (should she try anything less amusing).

"And here I thought you weren't going to make this difficult."

"You said my father was harsh for what he'd done. I'd say you're doing a pretty good job of it yourself," Riza riposted caustically, pacing her breaths.

The alchemist darted an indulgent glance down at the apex of her sticky, glossed thighs. "Oh, so this is what people call being 'harsh' nowadays?"

Blushing furiously, she turned over to her side and furled into a ball under him.

"I wondered if you'd be peeved about something else; such as the fact I didn't use a prophylactic on you."

"Oh. Oh, that … I haven't had my cycle in months since I entered the fray. Due to stress and improper nutrition according to the doctor," the soldier sighed sullenly. "So, I'll be just fine on that front. I think." She cast a cagey sideways look bordering on mild panic. "That is unless you were referring to –"

Kimblee arched a high, perfectly groomed eyebrow and countered with a scoff. "If you're implying I was somehow ... rabid; of course, you have nothing to worry about there."

Her soft exhale of air hinted at relief. "I would have expected nothing of the sort from someone like you, sir."

The statement evoked a charmed snort from him. Pushing back stray wisps of hair that had plastered to his face, the alchemist rolled to Riza's side, scooping her up as he leaned back into the headboard so that she was partially on top of him. He cradled her chin and gently moved her head from where it was resting on his chest to look at her. Bathed as they were in the muted ochre and sienna patina cast by the flickering lamplight, he supposed a less jaded man than he might have even seen this post-coital cuddle as romantic.

Instead, his rapt attention was on the deep shade of rose dusting across her pale cheeks, something which he remembered seeing exactly some ten years before when she was just a shy, sad little girl in a cage peeking a glimpse at the cocky seventeen-year-old alchemy student on the doorstep of her father's shabby manor.

Kimblee chuckled at the perverse payback he had just given the old flame master. One, for dousing his hopes that day and, two, for not seeing how much his daughter could burn – in so many ways he never would have expected.

That man's now-grown daughter stared up at him curiously.

"It's nothing. I was just thinking back to when I first saw you and how you've grown up nicely despite your rather ... strange circumstances." His arm rested casually on her magnificent back, a fingertip idly drawing ouroborous circles on it. The canary may have long been freed from her father's cage but she had certainly flown into another.

"We - I – managed. " Riza muttered vaguely. She nestled her head back into Kimblee's chest, allowing herself to be lulled into a numbing trance by his strong, even heartbeats.

"But nicely?" she derided. "The choices I've made – even up till now – haven't always been kind to me. And no matter how many times I ask to forget the fact that I made them, it will never be more than the times I'll ask to be forgiven …

"I deserve each and every punishment those choices bring me."

"Deserve, you say? Deserve what punishment?" Kimblee retorted, his words sternly edged. "Are you referring to the foolish amounts of pain and guilt you're forcing yourself to feel for simply doing your job well?"

"I'm not forcing those feelings, sir!"

"Ah, then tell me this; do you not feel you deserve the rewards, pride, and enjoyment which also come with that exact same job well done?"

Riza looked up from under the unruly sunshine gold of her hair, a stark contrast to widened eyes whose pupils had sunken into fathomless tar pits.

"Take this little furlough of ours," he hypothesized. "How is this much different from, say, the Amestrian Army awarding you with medals for excellence in sharpshooting and distinguished service in this war – which, I have no doubt, you will be receiving upon your graduation?

"Would you seriously refuse the pleasure of receiving them?"

Her gaze shied away. She mumbled, "I never joined the army seeking medals or glory, sir."

"You've certainly earned them, though. And why strive to earn them if there's no intent to appreciate?" The officer sighed at her attempt to be ambiguous with a non-sequitur. They swam deep in their own thoughts for a moment until a brisk breeze blew in from the open window and Riza instinctively tucked closer to him for warmth, her legs sliding up and entwining in his loose embrace. Feeling his groin stir restlessly, he decided to fiddle with the fine lines of her morality again. Mischievously, his hand delved between her thighs where he busily coated his fingers in the mixed essences that had jelled there.

"So, what if I did this?" he asked in a trifling tone as he parted her silky thatch and plundered the inner folds of supple flesh for the swollen pink nub it sought to hide from his touch. Finding it, the pads of his wet fingertips gently lathered it up in slow, concentric circles. "Your mind is in misery telling you that you do not deserve the pleasure this is giving, and yet your body excitedly proves that it does."

Riza drew in a sharp hiss. "It just proves the body is weak," she argued, the pitch of her voice starting to crack. Her hips bucked slightly, breaths quickened. He saw surrender beginning to rear its pretty little head again.

"No. It just proves you are human. Why not accept this indulgence you have every right to feel?"

She moaned huskily, fingertips clawing into his shoulders, thighs ensnaring his wandering hand. "No, no more … please … not … not yet ..."

The pleas fell deaf to his ears, but the tiny rude noises made by his digits working on her succulent skin drove him utterly mad. Soon, her voice went small and withered. "Don't … stop."

"I'll take that as a request for an encore then." Kimblee withdrew his hand, took her face and traced his thumb across her ravaged lips, parting them with suggestive intent. She blinked. Neither did she recoil. By no means was her absolution complete. Not if he could help it.

"You may forever scourge yourself for committing what you consider sins. But you need not reject the simple joys that are of no consequence to them," he challenged.

"Now do you understand how you can have it both ways?"

"Yes," Riza drawled weakly. Slowly removing his fingers from her lips, she began a timorous, deliberate slide down his reclining form with hands traversing his swathes of lean muscle. Defiance diluted in her eyes. Reluctance devolved into greed.

He smiled in giddy anticipation. "Then don't deny what you need. Go ahead and take all that you deserve

"Sing more for me please, Miss Hawkeye."

Riza awoke to soft humming drifting from the man next to her. The song was dissonant in its randomness yet passionate and strangely attuned to the imaginary music they had made love to all night.

Made love. Was that what they did? She hardly thought so while wincing off the dull aches that pulsed in places where her body attempted to move. If spent muscles were any indication, their act was all raw sex – beyond bestial, an unfeeling mating of monsters caught in a hedonistic whirlpool of mindless desire.

Outside, it seemed the storm had waned at the same time her strength did, having settled into a steady shower that brought in a stream of fresh, clean air charged with ozone and free of the blood-misted dust that was the stifling atmosphere of Ishval. Riza filled her lungs to the brim with its purity, disappointed at how ephemeral it was especially since she also caught whiffs of her humiliation and his heresy – their debauchery – hanging oppressively around them.

The scents uncomfortably took her back to the previous events that sleep had failed to wipe away. In a blur of hands and mouths and limbs and shadows dancing the long hours away, she remembered Kimblee taking her many times in as many ways as he wanted. This she willingly let him if only to prolong the memory gaps where she remembered nothing. The young woman admitted guiltily that he had indeed been too good – a virtuoso, in fact – at accomplishing what he had intended for her. Nary an elegy for the dead crossed her mind in those lost hours.

Rousing herself out of liminality, Riza schooled herself to withdraw from this experience carefully, knowing how such anesthetic yet stimulating feelings could easily become addictive, like a drug so difficult to quit. Ironically, however; she had felt safe beneath his feverish, hard, yet graceful body, holding on to him tightly even as he filled her repeatedly. As time wound down, they had gradually settled into a leisurely tangle. She knew it was a very, very false sense of security coming from a man who could end her life in a second. And yet, she openly submitted – believed – in the soothing coos ("Don't be scared when I touch you there ...") and compliments ("you should grow out your hair; it reminds me of the lovely corn silk strands fluttering in the southern fields where I practiced my alchemy ...") and melting embraces she had never received before from anyone else.

But Riza thought she had him all figured out by now, and the sadistic cruelty of his unbearable tenderness in the end was so unfair she almost wanted to cry.

Gingerly, she turned to her humming bedside companion who laid on his side watching her with head propped on a hand. With wild raven hair falling rakishly over his eyes, he greeted her with a devilish smile slashing across his features.

"Welcome back to the world of the living," he announced, interrupting his tune.

Riza silently berated herself for finding the man undeniably attractive, more so for prickling with goosebumps as she recalled the maddening things with which he had taunted her. "Sir, how long have I been asleep?" she asked raspily, throat parched and mouth cottony with his and her mingled aftertastes. To her abject shame, it wasn't … unpleasant. She drew the blankets closer to her body, realizing belatedly how absurd the effort was after all of his senses had already acquainted with it so thoroughly.

"Not long. About half an hour." Kimblee teasingly ruched down the sheet covering her breasts where fingertips played connect-the-dots on the livid bite marks he had voraciously left. "Don't worry. You have more than enough time to make it to your next outpost at 0400 hours. I'd have made sure of that."

The sniper gently brushed his hand off by pulling up the cover over her chest and groggily sitting up. She was shaken back into full alertness by the far-off staccato of gunfire that had pierced the mercurial ceasefire and, shifting on the bed to look up through the window, saw a green flare shooting up into the sky signaling the resumption of hostilities. Soon, the pleasing petrichor-scented air would be overwhelmed by the pervasive smell of diesel exhaust, sulfur – and the acrid stench of burnt flesh.

Frowning, Riza pressed a palm to her forehead as if to push back a chronic pounding headache. Had she really sold herself cheaply for an exquisite yet fleeting salve only to wake up to a harsh – and more permanent – reality?

A small part of her wished she hadn't woken up at all.

"I figured they wouldn't wait until the crack of dawn." Kimblee held out a canteen of water to her with a smile. "You don't mind if I rummaged through your pack for a drink, do you?"

The cadet shook her head and took the canteen from him. Popping off the cap, she took a long, grateful swig. She surveyed the nest of disarray around her … scrunched up pillows, rumpled blankets, linens loose off the mattress … yet, oddly, she noticed her undergarments had been folded neatly and placed at the foot of the bed. She drew her legs to her chest, the sticky friction of her thighs reminding her of just how much of a mess she got herself into.

Having drunk her fill of water, Riza set the flask on the dresser next to her handgun and Kimblee's State Alchemist pocket watch and chain. She admired how he had managed to keep the burnished silver impossibly gleaming through all the blood and grit it was exposed to. It was like he was operating in a time vacuum of his own, conducting business not as though he was in war but as though breezing dandily through an upper-crust social calendar. A meticulously planned one.

Eyes narrowing, she warily looked askance at the lounging officer. "I'm not sure I mentioned the time of my next shift to you, Major. Permission to ask how you knew I had to be at my next post by 0400 hours?"

He hardly shirked under the gauzy modesty of the soiled blankets. "It's no mystery at all. You're the only female soldier assigned to the vanguard and a capable, high-profile, and very attractive one at that. Why, of course, the high command has a vested …" he paused, "strategic interest in keeping an eye on you."

Kimblee slowly sat up and began to flex the cricks out of his sore tendons and muscles. "Information concerning you is openly available should a man of my particular rank see fit to ask."

Riza's lower lip trembled at the shadowy revelation unraveling for her. The good ole' boy nature of the Amestrian Army was a culture she knew herself capable of adjusting to when she first joined, but finding herself smack dab in it began to creep her out. "And as for you, sir?" she asked, treading her words carefully. "Was your interest just as strategic?"

"My interest in your well-being is just as consistent as any other officer's, I suppose." He shrugged casually, but the reply seemed genuine. "After all, the army certainly doesn't want to lose its best sniper. Although – " He took a turn for the cryptic.

"A while ago, we talked about the wartime rewards we deserve, did we not?"

She started to cower. "Yes, sir. But I don't understand how that has anything to do with my shift."

"It's simple. Because unlike you, young lady, I'm not shy about asking for, receiving, or taking – rewards and incentives when offered."

"Offered? Incentives? What do you mean by – " Oh god. She let the sentence sink in for some seconds before her hands knotted to her chest in distress and, feeling faint, she slumped awkwardly away from him to a far corner of the bed.

"I'll tell you a secret," Kimblee drew up a knee and rested a forearm on it. He leaned toward the swooning girl with gold eyes sparkling. "If there's one small weakness I have that the army high command has on me, it's that I don't attempt to hide the way I look at a beautiful, intriguing woman."

Riza whipped her face away, moisture welling under her batting lashes. By now, the reasons why being too many and too conflicting to count off.

"How … why is this even allowed? Are all officers privy to this … this – ?" She couldn't find the right, horrifying, words. Please no, he ... he couldn't possibly be one of them.

"Fewer than you think, mostly upper echelon."

"And the women?"

"And some men, actually. Anyone's fair game in this insufferably barren place. But ... I can only speak for myself." The glint in Kimblee's eyes softened at her. "My sights had always been set on only one."

Despite all she heard, his admission was flattering. "Was I even afforded a choice in this at all?" she ventured timidly ... tiredly. The room ... the bed once so sultry with their sex was now cold as ice.

"Of course. Do I need to replay the events of the past three hours for you?"

"But what if … what if I happened to make the other choice?"

The alchemist gave a thin, enigmatic smile. "One of us would have still collected on the promised rewards ...

"And I, for one, never fail to collect on mine."

Riza blinked rapidly and the tears spilled over onto her cheeks in silence. She waited for him to scold her once again for such an emotional response to her naiveté . Yet to her surprise, none came.

"Looking back and asking 'what-ifs' are irrelevant. Simply said, the way things have turned out has made everything much easier on both of us." His declaration was as direct and hard as his conscience was clear. "In time, you may allow yourself to see the wisdom of your choice, appreciate it even.

"By the way, don't be surprised if you happen to find one of those new .338 caliber sniper rifles on your cot soon. The army is nothing if not generous to its stellar, cooperative soldiers."

Never did such a diplomatic reply sound as infuriating – and true – to her ears as this.

"I see," she replied plainly, finally staring back at him without an ounce of surprise and too numb to even register resignation or dejection – only acceptance. With nuanced movements, Riza collected her lingerie and wrapped the bedcovers (the color of scarlet, how fitting) around herself as she dragged out of the bed. Heading towards the scullery, she limped off her first steps. She realized how this had looked and seethed quietly as she forced herself to walk evenly to the sink pulling the sheet behind her like a gown's train made of blood. Too late. The young woman could already feel the Crimson Alchemist's possession of her branded into her back, proud of how he had broken and pleasured her so much. The intensity of his gaze stripped her bare and spread-eagled all over again.

Riza bent over the sink resisting the urge to retch violently. She turned on the faucet and splashed its weak stream onto her face. She could laugh bitterly at how Ishval was so unfortunately tainted by such redness and blood that even the scarce, brackish water was tinged by the iron taste and smell of it. Still, she rinsed herself in the meager purity it offered, took a corner of the sheet, soaked it, and scrubbed herself vigorously of the evidence left by her mistake … choice … fate … bad luck. Whatever. It didn't matter anymore. No amount of scrubbing would wash away the indelible mark it left in her mind anyway.

"Now, now. Was I really that bad?" Kimblee's lips puckered into a pout as he watched her impetuously remove traces of him on her. There was a faux wounded lilt to his rich voice.

She glanced back at him over her shoulder, water dripping from the blonde fringes of her hair. She cursed at the surrealism of it all, at how she and so many others had aged whole lifetimes in this war; yet, Kimblee, that devil, there he sat so hale, handsome, and carefree, daring to look younger than his twenty-seven odd years … daring to look so – happy.

After drying herself as much as she could, Riza walked to her things on the table and dropped the cover onto the floor. Briefly displaying the full pillar of her nakedness to the officer's prying, delighted eyes (partly in dignified anger and partly in lofty pride), she proceeded to put on her clothes as perfunctorily as she had removed them for him. She wondered if she could ever suffer a penitence that wouldn't leave her feeling battered, used, and unclean. Her penance seemed to parallel her path, a path which started from her choice to disrobe a deadly secret to one man, and now she made her bed with another – laid in it, cried in it, fucked in it.

No. There would be no clean forgiveness for one already damned, only – endurance.

The sniper dressed slowly, aimlessly. Turning to the bureau, there she found her gun and his silver pocket watch side-by-side, mocking her. Without the humans wielding them, they made a fine, handsome picture. With them, they painted a canvas spattered with blood. She took the pistol and placed it on the dining table next to her rifle before belting on her hip holster. What more was there to endure – and what more desperate lengths was she willing to go to endure them? Arms and alchemy. They were the easiest things to rely on when solving the world's problems, but the most difficult to consider using when trying to solve your own.

She tried to imagine an Amestris without all the uniformed pieces on the Führer's chessboard; wondered if they all just turned their weapons and alchemy on themselves and each other whether that would solve anything. And she knew that, no, it would not. There would just be another ambitious boot-licker, another itchy-fingered shooter, another deadly alchemist …

Riza paused abruptly in the middle of securing her gun to its holster. Perhaps … perhaps she could afford herself a small token of redemption after all by deciding to finish what her father – and his cowardly pride – couldn't.

Then and there, Riza decided nevermore would the Hawkeye name be a seductive lure to the brilliant, bold moths desiring the flame.

"Miss Hawkeye."

She turned slowly, with a newfound albeit tiny resolve. "Yes, Major?"

Kimblee swung his legs over the edge of the bed and patted the space next to him. "Come sit beside me for a while, if you please."

Cautiously, she obeyed, perching precariously on the bedside with her stoic gaze focused straight at his afterglow flushed face.

"Your uniform is crooked." He reached out and, like a loving father preparing his child for the first day of school, tenderly straightened Riza's jacket collar, slightly pulling up the black turtleneck shirt underneath to hide a berry-colored bruise that peered over it. Sheepishly, she tilted her neck upwards to allow him better access. Afterwards, his hands settled on her tense shoulders and, without skipping a beat, dryly blurted, "If I ended your life right now, I wonder how many Ishvalans I'd end up sparing?"

Finding even her sense of panic anaesthetized, she calmly took his rhetorically quirky bait knowing that if he had really wanted to kill her he would have done so on countless opportunities. "I cannot say, Major; however, I am quite sure that if I shot you right now I think I'd be saving more people than I would kill."

"I bet you would like to prove that theorem."

For a few fraught seconds, the soldier deliberated his parlay. "Not at all, sir," she answered with a soft shake of her head. "It is as you say, I suppose. You're doing your job just as I have been doing mine. You simply do yours far better than I ever will."

He exhibited much approval for her reply with a grin.

"But how is any of what we do fair?" Riza leaned into him, wide hazel eyes beseeching. "How is any of what's happening considered equivalent exchange?"

Kimblee laughed, putting his hands up in jest. "Oh, but it is, my dear. Humans concoct moral and religious concepts to justify their labeling of things that don't go the way they want as evil or wrong or unfair. But in reality, cause-and-effect doesn't look at things as right and wrong, it only concerns itself with balance. It is only under moral precepts that humans complain that ...

"equivalent doesn't always mean fair."

His hands floated back down on her, ending in a curve into her head and cheek. "But this exchange between us … you'd agree was both equivalent and fair, don't you?"

The alchemist pressed forward into an unexpected kiss. But unlike the crushing urgency of the night's previous seductions, this chaste contact blanketed her lips in a delectable down of warm caresses – like a longtime lover's. Blinking back her surprise, she almost responded … almost … remembering just in time how she still remained a pawn – and only a pawn – in his – and the whole damn military's – elaborate game.

Or was she? It suddenly occurred to Riza that she might have stopped playing the game at some point and became his willing trophy. A trophy – his reward – he carefully set on winning and (dare she fancy?) cherishing. The insane thought made her head spin, that this man was capable of applying such alien and abstract concepts of caring and love with anyone ... someone ...

With her.

Tentatively, she closed her eyes and let her lips seal very delicately into his. Despite everything, Crimson Alchemist Solf J. Kimblee would never seem as human to her as he did right now.

She ended the kiss to a shiver and a quick gulp of breath. "I beg to disagree, sir." Riza murmured flatly, tempering the sadness that threatened to tinge her words. "Our exchange was fair, true, but not equivalent. I … I truly wanted to like you, sir, but I find that I … don't."

His steady expression maintained an unaffected, yet oddly knowing, air. "Don't or can't?" he intimated with an affectionate squeeze to her cheek. He clicked his tongue and gave a slight shrug. "Ah, well, 'tis a rare thing for me to be proven wrong in this case. A pity about that, though, because I happen to like you very much."

Her half-lidded eyes averted. She wondered why the lump she forced herself to swallow hurt as bad as it did.

Kimblee's face closed in to her ear for a whisper. "For the record, if you had made the other, more unfortunate choice, I still would've done my utmost to make things pleasantly tolerable. I genuinely do not want to lay waste to someone like you."

"That's very … kind of you, sir," Riza's voice droned sedately across his hair as she carefully removed his hand from her clammy cheek. Why, oh why, was his touch so warm to make her reluctant about letting it go?

He shrunk away yet clutched back at her hand, bringing the fingertips to his lips. "Take care of these beautiful, brutal weapons, my dear. And I don't think I need to remind you again; our motives in this war – and in life – may be different, but like me, you chose to administer death as your occupation. There's no turning back – not now, not ever.

"Do your job and do it well."

The soldier bobbed her head weakly and licked her stinging lips. She permitted herself a taste of him – and her sin – one last time. "I should take my leave now, sir."

"That you should," he agreed, withdrawing his hand with a neutral smile.

In the dim glow of the shadow-cast room, Riza thought she saw the smile's corners downturn slightly. But before she risked thinking more of it, she bolted off the bed to the table where she hurriedly fastened her cloak and collected her things. She had already turned the doorknob to make a quick exit when she suddenly hesitated.

Doing an about-face, she spoke up; her tone clipped, but strong. "Major Kimblee, What we … what I did ... No, I think what happened was a mistake, even … even though we both got what we deserved out of this ..." she stalled, mind dithering at what she said next.

"But, thank you."

The State Alchemist started binding his hair back into its usual coifed ponytail. "Oh? For what exactly?" he asked, humoring her with an interested cock of his head.

"I may be a broken mess right now, but because of this, somehow … I think I now know how to fix myself." Because of you, was what she wanted, but refused, to say.

He nodded. "Well done, Miss … or shall I say, Lieutenant Hawkeye. Do whatever is absolutely necessary to make you feel alive; absolutely anything that helps you move forward and survive. Do that and I assure you, death will cease to be a stranger."

Riza acknowledged his words with a click of her heels and a cursory salute. "Major Kimblee, sir." And with that, she opened the door and disappeared into the hallway.

Kimblee postured his back regally as agile fingers made neat, quick work of winding and knotting the white tie around his cord of black hair. He closed his eyes, concentrating sharp ears to the sniper's retreat across the hallways where he could catch the clumsy scurrying in her footsteps and the soft sniffling and hiccups that were on the verge of erupting into sobs.

Her sounds brought a thin veil of regret clouding over the alchemist, puzzling him briefly. It was such a pity that Berthold Hawkeye had been so skeptical of his daughter's ability to birth and nurture fire. She certainly proved she had the skill to handle it. Under extremely different circumstances and with a slight adjustment in her temperament, he could very well envision himself making much magnificent music with her on – and off – the field. That if he weren't a lone wolf on his exploits by choice, she could've made an excellent partner.

Partner. Kimblee was taken slightly aback by that quaint notion. His fingers drummed thoughtfully on his lips, her delicious memory still lingering on them. He burst into chortles, almost feeling foolish for imagining the sort. Hawkeye was the odd, discordant – but not at all sour – note in this ode to war he was composing, yet somehow, he liked hearing it play over and over in his mind.

His hand aimlessly grabbed at a corner of the rumpled bedsheet beside him and held it to his nose, breathing in the musky scent of her … of them … and remembering how they alternated between wrestling and slow-dancing on its fabric.

But just as easily as Kimblee had smiled at the reminiscence, so too easily had he stopped. Eyes snapping open and then narrowing ruthlessly, he crushed the sheet in his fist and threw it back as though some higher authority within had admonished him for even considering such a sentimental act.

Admittedly, he welcomed the respite, liking nothing more than to shack up all day in this foxhole with her, picking at her body and soul like a vulture to a prized carcass. After all, his superiors (how he sneered at calling them such, maybe he would remedy that soon enough) had practically thrown the woman at him, a perk in exchange for his special … cooperation. It wasn't as if he actually needed an incentive to play with their little experiments; then again, she was much too tasty an apéritif to refuse and that if there was possibly more reason for him to want the war to go on, it was for another chance to seek her out and play the perverse priest to her penitent yet again.

The alchemist allowed a shiver to spiral down his spine at that divine fantasy. Alas, there was too much work to be done, work he would enjoy just as much, if not more so. Sighing melodramatically yet contentedly, he stretched out, stood up, and gathered all of his clothes that he had piled neatly onto a chair. He brought them back bedside and immediately noticed an item that had fallen out of a trouser pocket to the floor.

"Ah, so silly of me," Kimblee chuckled to himself as he picked up the sliver of red stone and sat down on the bed to admire her angry facets. She glowed petulantly as though to remind him of who owned his soul. Almost apologetically, he cradled her in the berth of the solar sigil crested on his right palm.

Darling, sorrowful Riza Hawkeye. He would miss her fondly, he supposed, and her ghost would make such good company in the long, lonely nights he was sure were to come. His memory had been burned explicitly with the feel of her ample curves ... the smoke-tinged candied nectar of her drenched skin … the vision of her misery and ecstasy … the sound of her guilt-ridden pain and pleasure. They would all come together in a beautiful nocturne he could replay and make love to again and again during the quieter, more reflective movements of his never-ending symphony.

But for now, she would lie in slumber in the little music box of his mind because what was one anguished voice – no matter how sweet – compared to the thundering chorus of thousands?

Outside, in the distance of the northern boundaries of Kanda, a whooshing sound sped through the oxygen-replenished air followed by the sonic shock of an explosion. As the pressure waves rattled the furniture around him, a sardonic grin marred Kimblee's placid expression. Flame had risen early for the race, so it seemed. Soon, a vivid palette of red-orange filtered in from the window above, blotting out the pure white moonlight that had dared to rear itself through clearing skies.

The Crimson Alchemist plopped back into the mattress where he held up the blood jewel, angling it just so for its prism to catch the rays of fiery light. In the gleam that reflected back at his equally bright eyes, he could hear the howls beckoning his body and soul ... calling to him, urging him to unleash the hell-bound choir to sing along with his haunting symphony … waiting for him to bring brimstone to join the inferno already being spread by flame.

"Patience," Kimblee whispered to her. "His is but a mere overture to our grand finalé." Slowly, he brought the stone to his lips where he brushed it with a most delicate kiss before consuming her as a part of him. As she momentarily suffocated him, trapped him, exhilarated him in that frightening realm between life and death; a jolt slashed through his nerves like a scythe, filling him with so much ethereal energy to make him feel so alive as he had never felt before. He felt immortal, god-like even, being this close and partnered with death.

Yes ... yes ... this combined orchestra would make music so loud to pierce the sky and bring the sounds of hell to the heavens.

He coasted on the paroxysms brought on by the sensual strangle, with the stone finally settling in the pit of his stomach. Breathing easily now, Kimblee laughed. Laughed at how inexplicably generous the army had been to him. Laughed at how the woman he had intended as a plaything in an age-old game unwittingly made him play the game himself. And laughed like there was no tomorrow because there was only today ...

The day he would complete his finest masterpiece of music and mass destruction.

She couldn't run out of the room and building fast enough, making haste down the stairwell steps the way she knew she should have instead of taking that pivotal turn into the landing and following Kimblee into that foxhole he had set up and lured her into.

Riza knew there would be no erasure of that experience from her being – he made sure of that. Even as she ran, her body shamelessly erupted in involuntary shudders as it could still feel the full battery of his sexual and psychological arsenal, awakening fears and depravities that only he had the temerity – and charm – to show her.

And yet, as she dashed out of the building and back into the all-too-real, all-too-harsh landscape of war before her, she stopped dead in her tracks. All around her was hell, in this sacred land Ishvala had proclaimed closest to heaven. There were no solemn calls for morning prayers, no red eyes seeking guidance from the stars. The voice and presence of Ishval's almighty god was now buried under rubbles of adobe, where sounds of gunshots and mortar bounced endlessly off the jagged stone and dust devils whipped up the remnants of his land and people in its cruel vortices.

The soldier could almost see the stunning beauty in the stark irony, of being in a place so near yet so far from heaven. And also, that it took a man like Kimblee to make her see the parallels between this and her need to forget. That in war, the idea of a heaven was just a temporary reprieve and hell would always, always follow.

The promise of hell was made all too good as Riza squinted against the windblown spikes of sand scouring upon her face and billowing cloak. A few feet ahead of her lay a solitary corpse staring up to the very heavens that had forsaken him.

She trudged slowly across the lane to where he fell among stacked crates leaning against the wall of a store. With every plodding, dreading step, her boots crunched over wet, rocky dirt. The large puddles left by the storm each reflected a piece of the moon and rippled with every echo of gunfire. The scene made such an eerie, open graveyard for one waiting hopelessly to be buried in it.

In its midst, Riza thus came before him. Once so gruesome and striking in his lotus-like pose, the corpse had since been washed off of its artful arterial patterns and brilliant reds by the rain, leaving in its wake just wet lumps of livid flesh and stained fabric around bleached bones.

He who was now a wilted flower was once an Ishvalan child; the one Kimblee had killed for her.

Swaying, she speared her rifle to the ground and collapsed onto one knee. It was one thing seeing – or not seeing – the child through a rifle scope; another to see the frail body so destroyed, his young life so interrupted, up close. Feeling as though her insides were burning and hacking at her from inside out, Riza half-staggered, half-crawled as far as her wobbly legs could take her. Reaching a corner of the building, she then crumpled on all fours and threw up into a gutter. Alone and with only herself to blame and pity, she allowed her last reservoir of tears to break through, sobbing silently and vomiting again until there was nothing left to empty but bitter bile.

Shivering and with her guts twisting in pain, Riza curled against the building wall, wiping herself off with her sleeve. Off in the distance, she heard the familiar hiss of oxygen being consumed followed by the pressurized boom of exploding gas mains. She didn't have to look up and behind her to figure out its origin. Instead, she covered her ears and smothered her crying face into bent knees.

Stop … stop your part in this madness now … you're not like Kimblee … you're not like … me. The burden of fire was mine from birth – and it is mine to extinguish.

For long minutes, the soldier wept until there were no more tears and words of apology to spare. When she finally lifted her head, the sky in the southern horizon had been suffused with plumes of smoke and was lit up in red. She winced, sadly knowing her words would not reach him; after all, he was – like her – just doing his job.

She wearily got up on her feet and returned to grieve momentarily for the Ishvalan boy. Her gaze mapped his olive-skinned features now paled and she etched his face into her memory. He seemed at peace, almost asleep, as if cradled in the bosom of his strange god. A part of her was glad that death for him was apparently quick. Kimblee could be curiously kind in that way when he chose to be.

Crouching over him, Riza gently brushed wisps of platinum hair out of his face. His was innocent but resolute; she knew he wouldn't have hesitated to kill her given every chance, unlike herself. It took Kimblee of all people to do the deed on her behalf and to remind her of that awful truth. Numbly, she removed her black cloak and draped it carefully over the body, arranging the crates afterwards to hide him from view. She promised to come back and give the boy the burial he needed, if not exactly the one he deserved. Nevertheless, it was more than any other Ishvalan would be afforded in this hell. She owed him that at least as part of her never-ending requiem and atonement.

Ishval's sombre bell tolled the time. 0400 hours. The woman turned, squared her shoulders and marched dutifully to her next outpost under the light of the crimson fire. Her tears had already started evaporating in the morning chill. As long as there was still one good man with a lofty dream to follow – and to protect – in all of this, she would stay the course no matter how scorched and corpse-littered it would become. As long as the sun kept rising, she would walk toward it. Each dawn would be bleeding red, that much was true, but it was still a dawn, nonetheless.

She realized, however, that the cruel cycle of grief and duty would continue for as long as the war would last. She now understood his parting words and what they meant - death will cease to be a stranger when you become death itself. Already ahead of her was another round of madness, and this early, she could already feel the next cycle's gears in motion; and already –

She was yearning for yet another chance to forget.

With this, Riza hoped and prayed to a god, any god, who would listen to the pleas of one who was damned; that – war or no war – she would never have to encounter Solf J. Kimblee ever again. She was afraid of what hell he would take her if there was a next time; feared seeing hell and death through his apathetic eyes. And it scared her even more that she would willingly go to him ... with him … to live dangerously through hell and death. Again.

And, this time, choose to never go back.