Title: Acquainted with the Night
Prompt: “Ah, music," he said, wiping his eyes. "A magic beyond all we do here!” - J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone
Fandom/Series: Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood
Word Count: 7,283
Disclaimer: I do not, in any way, profit from the story and all creative rights to the characters belong to their original creator(s).
Summary: Deserting the military is a difficult feat even at the best of times. And the eve of the Promised Day is far from the best of times.
Acquainted With The Night
The Homunculi have marshalled their forces, and now it's up to the men under Colonel Mustang's command to make their stand. Stealing away from Central Headquarters in the dead of night, First Lieutenant Riza Hawkeye makes for the slums at the edge of the city, ready to make contact with her commanding officer and launch their final counteroffensive against Bradley's regime.
But Hawkeye is not alone in the sleeping city. Something is moving in the darkness, stalking the tunnels under the streets, blood pooling in every footstep. Crimson light bleeding in the cracks. Somewhere in the intestines of Central, an alchemist is stirring.
Deserting the military is a difficult feat.
And for Hawkeye, it's about to get a lot more difficult, and infinitely more dangerous.
I have been one acquainted with the night.
I have walked out in rain — and back in rain.
I have outwalked the furthest city light.
Riza Hawkeye had her reasons for hating the rain.
Amestris's inclement weather had been no small inconvenience serving under the Colonel. He relied on his flames so much that they had inadvertently become his crutch. The rain took away his alchemy, swiping the crutch out from under him, which more often than not ended with the Colonel quite literally falling flat on his backside in the mud.
Lieutenant Hawkeye disliked the rain because, at one point in her life, it made her already strenuous job ten times more so. She hated wet weather because she hated seeing the Colonel compromised. A useless Roy Mustang was too close to a dead Roy Mustang, so far as she was concerned.
Even after Bradley upset the proverbial applecart, and the Colonel's failings in damp weather were no longer her responsibility, Riza began to find her own reasons for hating the rain.
Perhaps cultivating that irrational enmity was an attempt to fill in the gaps where her comrades used to be, four people-shaped tears in the world. Maybe she hated the rain because the hatred was something tantalisingly familiar, so much so that she could almost fool herself into thinking nothing had changed. That there weren't sharp absences all over her life.
The heavens would open up, and the thick wool of her uniform would grow sodden and heavy on her shoulders, and she would miss him desperately.
She hated the rain because she hated knowing he was alone.
But that was going to change.
On that night, she had all new reasons for hating heavy rain. As Riza left Central Command — knowing her next return would be as prisoner of the state or as adjutant of a new führer — she noted how the rain inhibited her ability to sense proximity. The cadence of raindrops drowned out the background noise of the world. Anyone with half an inclination would have the advantage in taking her by surprise. Hawkeye scanned every passing face, searching for an eyepatch. She peered into every dim corner and dark door jamb.
Fortunately, the streets were empty. Most of the shops and restaurants were closed for the night. The few passerby kept their heads bowed against their chests and their hats tucked into the wind. They passed Lieutenant Hawkeye without sparing a glance, keen to get home.
The one benefit of living in a military state, Hawkeye admitted grudgingly, was the invisibility afforded by her uniform.
When she passed two military police on their rounds, they greeted her by rank, stepping to the side of the pavement to let her pass. To them, she was more than a first lieutenant. She was the attache to the leader of Amestris, the woman with the Führer's ear. His right-hand man.
The thought made Hawkeye grimace.
Bradley wore his face well; he was a ruthless commander — Ishval had left little doubt of that, even before Riza had known him by his true identity, the homunculus Wrath. But he tempered his pitilessness with a kind, jovial exterior. He commanded respect while exuding concern and compassion for his people. He was feared, but he was also loved. He was, in Hawkeye's reluctant opinion, the perfect leader.
But she had seen behind the face, in the quiet hours after the reporters had been dismissed, and all the military officials had taken their leave. When there was only Hawkeye and the Führer, when his single eye would track her slowly around the room when he thought she wasn't paying attention. Wrath’s presence had felt volatile, like something about to explode. She could sense the anger wafting from him, making the small hairs on the back of her neck stand on end. To Wrath, she was the Colonel's pet dog, Mustang's loyalist subordinate, the Flame Alchemist's weakness.
But Riza also prided herself on being disciplined and extremely composed under pressure. She was a model soldier, fiercely loyal to her commanding officer, and Bradley hated her for it.
No matter, Riza thought grimly. He wouldn't have to put up with it any longer.
Early the next morning, Führer King Bradley would arrive on a train from East City, returning from a training exercise proctored by General Grumman. And Lieutenant Hawkeye would not be at the station to receive him.
Deserting the military is no small matter even under the most favourable circumstances. Hawkeye wasn't the sort of person predisposed to deceiving herself with false optimism. In deserting, she had made herself a security breach. And the Homunculi were not known for their magnanimity in dealing with security breaches. Hawkeye felt a twinge of that old, biting grief as she remembered a phone-booth covered in blood…
She shook her head. She could not afford to get caught. For the Colonel's sake, she could not afford to die.
The slums were completely deserted. Most of the residents were Ishvalan, and there was no love lost between the desert-dwelling people and wet weather. Hawkeye relished the solitude, though cursed the rain. The streets had turned into sloppy currents of mud. The wet seeped into every surface, giving the slums a stooped, sagging appearance. The distant glow of the city centre was dim and deliquesced, the cracks in the buildings were filled with battered lamplight. The shadows were long and thick, pooling in the crags and crevices of the world like the rainwater. Like something you could drown in.
Hawkeye took an abrupt turn into a narrow alleyway. In the darkness, she stripped down to her turtleneck, quickly discarding her uniform jacket, the pips on her collar clinking against bottles and broken glass. The blue trousers and gold-trimmed train found similar resting places, twisted in the mud. She changed into black combat trousers and a coat pulled from her satchel. Then she threw the satchel away, along with any remnants of Bradley's paperwork.
She kept her government-issued sidearms, and the bolt-action rifle was a welcome, familiar weight slung across her back.
Locating the predetermined storm drain, Hawkeye climbed down a short ladder, the rungs leaving rusty stains on her palms. She took stock of her surroundings as she loaded her weapons, slipping the cylinders of her sidearms into place. The tunnel was lit intermittently by naked bulbs, dangling from alcoves above her head. She heard the electric hum, like fly wings, as she passed underneath them. The lights threw long shadows along the tunnel, the shapes rippling and distorted as they danced across the tepid water pooling between the bricks. Hawkeye bit down on the impulse to jump at every small movement.
The shadows were her enemies. The darkness had eyes.
It occurred to her then that the Homunculi wanted her to be afraid, to reduce her to some simpering prey animal, scuttling along the periphery of the lamplight, jumping at shadows. Held captive by some base, primordial fear of the dark.
Hawkeye almost smiled. She was a person well accustomed to living in the shadows. She had long been acquainted with the night; to pass unobserved was the hallmark of her duty as a sniper, to be ill at ease and alert essential in keeping the Colonel safe. The Homunculi wanted her to be afraid, and she was afraid. She had been afraid since Ishval, even before, cowering from her father as a fifteen year old girl, her back still stinging. Fear had kept her eyes sharp and her instincts keen. Fear had kept her alive, and had protected the people she loved.
She almost pitied Homunculi for making her afraid.
She rounded a bend in the tunnel, passing around the westernmost edge of the slums, drawing closer to a more louche part of town. Less than a mile away from a particular bar owned by a woman of questionable repute. A bar that was, so they said, the familiar haunt of a dark-haired, handsome military officer who was never without a beautiful woman on his arm.
At least, so the rumours went.
Hawkeye paused. Ahead of her, the tunnel cut at a right angle, moving around a blind corner. Above her at street level, the rain had stopped. The torrents pouring into the storm drains had quieted to a steady trickle. The world seemed stiller, quieter. She could hear the drip-drop of distant mildew pooling in crags on the floor, forcing her heart to follow the same rhythm.
The smell was stronger: less like rotten food and waste and more like oxidised iron, the rusty grit of old pipes. It was an older section of the sewers; the ceiling was lower. Lights were fewer and further between; most electrical systems hadn't been maintained that far outside the heart of Central. Such was Amestrian civic bureaucracy, but since Scar's convalescence in the sewers, no one had seemed especially keen on changing the existing state of affairs. Not that Hawkeye could blame them for it.
The Lieutenant felt her socks growing wet and she grimaced. The shallow water was thick and viscous, sloughing thickly around her ankles. The walls curved above her head, almost brushing her shoulders. Someone like Vato Falman would have had to crouch.
Riza stepped out of the runoff, her boots angled awkwardly along the base of the wall. She was careful to keep quiet, synchronising her steps with the trickle of the raindrops in the storm drains. She held one of her sidearms to her shoulder. She sidled, keeping her back to the curve of the tunnel. The smell grew worse as the light dimmed: rust and sewage and something vaguely metallic, coppery like burnt wire.
She could feel it on her tongue, settling on her skin, making her flesh itch. Riza almost gagged. She wondered if something had drowned further ahead in the sewers, if it had died--
Then she heard it.
The sound came from the far end of the tunnel, where the lights had gone out, leaving only a wall of soupy darkness so black even Pride would not have been able to cast his shadows.
The sound of humming.
Riza Hawkeye clapped a hand over her mouth and pressed herself hard against the wall, hiding behind one of the seams of the tunnel. Her heart was pounding hard enough for her head to throb. Her breath came in short, ragged gasps, which she tried to smother in the palm of her hand. She raised her pistol to the space near her ear. Her bolt-action rifle dug into her spine painfully, but she didn't care.
Suddenly, Riza realised the stench had resolved itself into something intimately familiar.
Blood. Blood and sewage. The smell of decay and despair and death.
The tunnel distorted the sound of the humming. Riza couldn't tell if it was getting closer or moving further away. The air was thick with the humid miasma of rot; the music sounded damp and distant in her ears.
Riza wanted to kick herself but she didn't dare move. He had perfect pitch; he would hear her.
She closed her eyes. Stupid, stupid, stupid. She had been careless. She hadn’t prepared, she hadn’t been ready, she hadn’t…
Riza saw the shadows stirring in the tepid water. The last lightbulb above her head flickered, and the sound of music suffused through the tunnel.
"I can hear you."
Hawkeye stifled a gasp.
She was facing away from the dark end of the sewers, her back pressed into the notch between the wall and the tunnel seam. Even so, she could see the sudden flash of red lightning, flickering in her peripheries, throwing terrifyingly vivid silhouettes across the brick. She heard a small, muffled scream that was quickly choked off. The noxious stink of ozone briefly overpowered the smell of blood.
“I wasn’t talking to you,” said the voice sniffily -- addressing the person who had screamed, Riza realised, a rod of ice driving through her chest.
The only people in the slums were displaced Ishvalan refugees, peaceful craftsmen and farmers living quiet lives in the fringes of Amestrian society. He must have been luring them into the sewers and murdering them, picking them off one by one. And he had been at it for hours, if the overwhelming smell of blood was anything indication.
There was no reason to it. There never had to be with him. There was no goal, no agenda. He hadn’t been ordered into the tunnels by the Homunculi. He just had to satisfy his sick, insatiable curiosity, like a child torturing small animals, plucking the wings off flies and skinning squirrels, just to see how long they could endure the pain before they died. He was systematic in his cruelty, as methodised and precise as a scientist and as sadistic as only he knew how to be. In truth, even if she had an imperfect insight into their methods –– the Colonel nonewithstanding –– Hawkeye mistrusted soldiers who were also assured, accomplished alchemists; it made her suspect they favoured the calculations and the equations and the system over the world they described, and the people’s lives they controlled. Such men were liable to romanticise the solecism of equating alchemical style with morality.
The man at the end of the tunnel knew no morality. The world existed solely as alchemical opposites, unified diametrics: construction and deconstruction, fire and water, life and death. Power, and those too weak to seek it.
There was a monster stalking the tunnels under Central City.
“There’s someone new.”
Hawkeye imagined her mind going blank. She focused on the uneven surface of the brick wall and thought not of the Colonel or deserting the military or the Promised Day; he always did have a way of pressing his fingers into her brain, assessing and inferring her thoughts from the tiniest inflections in her features. Even in the darkness, when he couldn’t see her, Riza was struck with the irrational fear that he could read her mind.
“I can hear your breath. It’s a little bit fast, have you noticed? I imagine you have. An increased respiratory rate. Rapid, shallow breathing, also called tachypnea, occurs when one takes more breaths than normal in a given minute. It's sometimes known as hyperventilation.”
He was drawing nearer. Hawkeye could hear his shoes sloughing through the muck at the bottom of the tunnel. She continued to stare ahead, breathing into the palm of her hand. Her heart thundered in her ears; she feared he could hear that, too, her pulse reverberating through the underground. But she couldn’t run. Her steel-toed combat boots would echo noisily against the brick. Then he would find her. Then he would hurt her.
“I always found it peculiar how humans never notice the cadence of their breathing… Of course, we notice when we are meditating, exercising, singing, perhaps while going to sleep… or hiding.”
Hawkeye forced herself to breathe. If she passed out, she was lost.
“But what if we noticed our breath at all times? Just to codify it consciously, not to change or perfect our way of breathing, per se, which is of course different for all of us at different times. Do you breathe in fully? I can hear that you do not. To your stomach or to your shoulders? Just to your shoulders. Is your in-breath or out-breath longer? Your in-breath, since you are afraid to let it back into the world lest I hear it. Too late for that, I’m afraid.
“How we breathe is how we handle situations and how we direct an outcome to a place we desire. Not breathing out completely, my dear, will get you to a place you will later wonder how you got to. Of course, your autonomic nervous system will get the job done, but autopilot can only get you to the destination it is instructed. You must be more versatile if you are to move tangentially. After all,” there was a soft chuckle; too close, thought Riza, “who has ever heard of running away in a straight line?”
He couldn’t have been more than a hundred feet behind the seam in the tunnel, moving towards Hawkeye’s hiding place.
Hawkeye prayed to a god she didn’t believe in that he would move on, return to whatever bloody slaughter he had been amusing himself with. Gunfire would draw unwanted attention, and there was no telling how much damage he could do with his alchemy, if he started collapsing the tunnels around them. He had never been known for his subtlety. Hawkeye did not want to jeopardise the Colonel’s position, or Breda and Fuery’s safety. She did not want to fight.
But she also did not want to die. Riza gripped her sidearm. Despite her spring-taut body, her hand stayed steady.
Suddenly, the footsteps stopped. She heard the rustle of fabric, dry skin against cloth. He had put his hands in his pockets.
“You’ve grown calmer,” he said quietly. “Your breathing is more disciplined. Have you overcome your fear, or merely governed it? I have a body count of ten individuals further along this tunnel, so I commend you for your composure.
“But you always were so composed, weren’t you, Miss Sniper?”
Hawkeye's heart nearly stopped.
“Sound carries well in these tunnels. Smell rather less so, for which the blame falls squarely on my shoulders. Corpses are such messy things. Even so, the polymerised natural oil of your rifle stock is unmistakable. A good marksmen looks after her weapons, and you, my dear, are the best there is.”
Her finger was on the trigger. He must have moved into the feeble circle of light by then. His voice was tantalisingly close; Hawkeye hated aiming over the shoulder, but if she was going to escape, she was going to have to move quickly.
“Out of the peak’s black angularity of shadow, riding the last tumultuous avalanche of light above pines and the guttural gorge,” sang Solf J. Kimblee, his words like honey-laced poison, “The Hawk comes…”
Riza exploded out of her hiding place. She saw a flash of white in the corner of her eye and then she was running, her sidearm slung over her shoulder, shooting blindly back into the tunnel. She heard the bullets ricochet off the walls; she didn’t give herself time to think about it. She had to reach the surface.
There was a cutting laugh like razorblades on stone. Riza fought the urge to vomit.
“She knows neither time nor error, and under whose Eye, unforgiving, the world, unforgiven, swings into shadow!”
The smell of ozone and fried circuitry flooded the tunnel before red forks of lightning overtook Riza along the walls. She skidded to a halt hairbreadths before the brick combusted and the ceiling collapsed in front of her, huge slabs of concrete blocking her way. Hawkeye waved away the dust, clambering over the lowermost stones, but the ceiling was sealed shut. There was no access to the street above; the Crimson Alchemist must have brought one of the tenements down along with most of the tunnel, plugging the hole like a cork. There was nowhere left to go…
Hawkeye drew her other sidearm, one gun in each hand, and pressed her back to the cave-in. She spotted him instantly, like a ghost haloed against the shadows: that strange white suit, marred from where the cuffs of his trousers had been stained by sewage and blood. Not a follicle of black hair out of place. He hadn’t even lost his hat. His pale, lupine eyes leered at her hungrily.
She didn’t hesitate. She fired one sidearm after the other, but Kimblee moved too quickly. Impossibly quickly, bouncing from the walls and evading her bullets with an alacrity Hawkeye had only ever seen before in the Homunculi. His bone-white smirk never left his face as he dodged, grinning at her from the darkness.
Her magazine soon clicked empty and Riza tossed her sidearms aside, pulling the bolt action rifle from her back. She fired indiscriminately. But the intervals unloading and reloading the chamber were too great, and Kimblee managed to get one of his tattooed palms on the wall. Riza felt the cement collapse at her back; as she tried to push away an amorphous arm of liquid rock elongated around her midsection, resolidifying almost instantly and holding her fast, securing her to the pile of debris. Kimblee wove between a few ill-aimed bullets and snatched Hawkeye’s wrists, forcing her finger away from the trigger, pinning her hands above her head.
“Drop it,” hissed Kimblee. His fingernails dug into the soft underside of her wrist and Riza’s arm spasmed, an electric jolt running down to her elbow. The transmutation arrays on his palms felt hot on her skin. “Drop it.”
Agonisingly slowly, Hawkeye’s fingers uncurled, and her rifle clattered to the ground.
Kimblee deftly moved her wrists to one hand and touched his palm to a concrete slab, alchemizing the broken cement and gravel into restraints. He fixed her arms above her head, until the joints in her shoulders began to ache. Hawkeye struggled, but the stone stayed fixed. The Crimson Alchemist stepped back to admire his handiwork.
“You didn’t touch your palms together,” said Riza through gritted teeth. She kept her expression schooled, not betraying her incredible fear; so long as she could keep him talking, he wouldn't hurt her. “Tell me, does that mean you’re alchemizing without completing your transmutation circle?”
“Perceptive of you, Lieutenant.”
“Are you in possession of a Philosopher’s Stone?”
If it was possible, Kimblee’s grin grew even wider, toothy and predatory. “Isn’t it marvellous? It enables me to bypass the absolute law of equivalent exchange, amplifying my alchemy well beyond the usual curtailments. My partners were so magnanimous in giving me one, wouldn’t you agree?”
“Your partners… you mean the ones who released you, your holders… the Homunculi.”
“Now, don’t be unkind, Lieutenant. Perhaps the estimable Pride -- already of your acquaintance, as I understand -- may require a bit of poking and prodding so far as his motivation is concerned, but I’m here on commission."
“You’re murdering your own kind. Murdering human beings.”
He tutted. “Hypocrisy never suited you in the past, Hawkeye, and it doesn’t suit you now. You are a soldier, my dear, and as such taking life is rather more than a small part of the job description.” He leaned in closer, until his rising and falling chest brushed against the concrete restraints. Hawkeye tried to gap the distance but there was nowhere for her to go. “Ishval stained our souls, Lieutenant. The blemishes don’t disappear just because you put on a different coat and go about your merry way.”
She glared at him. “After Ishval, I swore an oath to never take life unnecessarily, to follow a path where I would never have to obey such orders again.”
“I see. Well, I suppose such a conviction is just as valid as its opposite. As for me, I’m merely interested in watching how the axis of world tilts when two indomitable wills –– humans and homunculi –– are pitted against each other. Two alchemical diametrics, aligned oppositions, forced to clash. The greatest of combustions, Lieutenant, have always come from an intermingling of opposites. This is an impact event, and the sound and colour and spectacle ought to be glorious. After all,” if he were a less sensible, less refined person he would have winked at her, as though he was disclosing a deep secret, “my private lust has always ever been one for aesthetic gratification, wouldn’t you agree? The music, the symphony of destruction. Beautiful in its refinement, and beautiful in its fury.”
Hawkeye suppressed a shudder, but she bit out a bitter, “You’re betraying humanity, Kimblee.”
He gave a small shrug. “At the risk of sounding grossly cliché, it’s nothing personal. I have chosen the side of the Homunculi as opposed to the alternative simply because they allow me to use my rather unique talents to their fullest. I see it predominantly as an opportunity for aggressive personal expansion.”
“You’re insane,” she stated cooly. “You always were.”
"I've never denied it. But one could say a woman hovering in the shadow of the man who used her father's research to mutilate her body, subsequently choosing to serve as his second, to follow him in his mad scramble for the top, to love him, even, is rather insane as well. It's all a matter of perspective."
"We should have killed you years ago. We should never have forgotten about you."
He barked a laugh. "So much for your pontificating. You can't expect me to take your pacifistic convictions very seriously if they waver under the slightest opposing nudge. And for the record, I did warn you, Hawkeye. I warned you to never forget your enemies, because they certainly won’t forget you.” His bright eyes glittered. “And I can’t say I have. You’re rather memorable.”
She squirmed; he had drawn too close, she could smell the blood on his clothes, something spicy on his breath. He ran one long finger along her chin, near the junction of her neck, and Hawkeye recoiled so quickly she nearly hit her head on the stone.
“I rather like you trussed up there, Lieutenant,” he said softly.
“What are you going to do to me?”
He arched an eyebrow. "Now who's being cliché..."
"It's a reasonable question."
He withdrew, and Riza took a deep breath, no longer inhaling the scent of him. There was a small gagging sound before Kimblee hiccuped, regurgitating something small and round into his palm. He took the blood-red orb, the size and shape of a marble, between two fingers and held it up to her face.
“I trust you know what this is, Miss Hawkeye.”
Riza’s eyes widened. For as long as she had served under the Colonel, for as long as she had known the Elrics, she had always been curious about the exalted Philosopher’s Stone… and had hated herself for it. Hated herself for wishing she could get her hands on one, so Jean Havoc could use his legs again, so Edward and Alphonse could get their original bodies back. The stone was death incarnate, a culmination of suffering. A symbol of everything she despised about the country, the military… herself.
And Solf J. Kimblee was holding it mere inches in front of her face.
He explained, “The Stone given to me in Ishval was a crude simulacrum, satisfactory in serving its purpose as an accelerant but lacking any stylised design. This,” he held up the orb reverently, “was made by the Homunculi themselves, purified by the being they call Father. The power of the Philosopher's Stone allows one to perform feats greater than what one could do naturally, but the stone gets weaker every time it's used because that power comes from souls, which get consumed in these transmutations. When all the souls have been destroyed, the stone ceases to exist.”
“It’s abhorrent. So many lives…”
“And that is where you come in, Lieutenant.”
She shrunk back from Kimblee. “What are you––“
“The Stone is a receptacle. It stores a fragment of each soul’s essence, after a fashion. While I imagine it's quite difficult to anchor oneself to one's individuality amongst the maelstrom of other lives and other selves, there are the occasional murmurs wafting from the deep places. You see, I like to speak to them, sometimes, the souls inside my Stone.” His bright, insane eyes gripped her amber ones and froze her, holding her fixed to the spot. “I’d very much like you to join them, Riza.”
Blood pounded in Hawkeye's ears. A cold sweat broke out on her brow. “No…”
“Your soul would exist for an eternity inside my Stone. Never fading. Never dying. You needn’t worry; I would not exhaust you as I do the others. I may be a gluten for self-gratification in my alchemy, but I am not without discipline.”
“I would rather die,” she said simply. "I would rather you kill me."
“And I would rather not,” he countered. He stuck his Philosopher’s Stone in his breast pocket and rested his palms on either side of her neck, feathering his touch so he didn’t hurt her. His thumbs traced circles over throat. Hawkeye recoiled, revulsion churning her stomach. She could feel her pulse fluttering under his fingers and she cursed herself for feeling so incredibly frightened. “I confess to a twinge of jealousy towards the good and honourable Roy Mustang. In our world of push and pull, exchange and equivalency thereof, I never thought of him as deserving of as fine an officer as you. He has done little to earn your devotion. Circumstances being what they are, incarcerated alchemists don’t experience a great market demand for military adjutants, so I was denied any say in the matter. But if I had remained an officer, I would have had you by my side, and I suspect our Führer would have been more than willing to oblige. Consider this making up for lost time.”
She struggled to find the words. “Why…”
“Because I'm terribly fond of you, Riza Hawkeye.”
He kissed her then, with impossible gentleness, his eyes closed, cupping her face reverently in his hands. He tasted of good wine and thunderstorms.
Hawkeye butt her head forward and Kimblee backed away just in time, narrowly avoiding a broken nose.
“Touch me again and I’ll kill you.”
An indulgent smile. “I expect nothing less from a woman of your caliber. Though to kill me in your present state would be quite a feat.”
“I would not task you to try.”
“Was it so awful?”
Riza spit on him.
Kimblee stood stunned for a moment as the wet trickled down the side of his face. His pale skin sank into the hollow of his cheeks like ash pressed into the depressions of the world. Hawkeye stared at him, willing him to clap his hands together, daring him to end her like he’d ended the lives of so many other people. Death was infinitely preferable to spending an eternity as his possession, trapped in the screaming tumult of the Stone.
He thumbed the spittle away. His bright eyes flashed dangerously.
The Crimson Alchemist uncoiled like a snake, snatching her chin, forcing her to face him. His fingernails left red crescents in her skin. Hawkeye recognised none of his philosophising, gentlemanly mannerisms. The window of his eyes had splintered, and something wild and mad had begun to stir in the empty spaces behind the cracks. “You’re a stubborn one,” he whispered hoarsely.
Riza felt the corners of her mouth tug upward in what was almost an insolent smile. “That’s something you’ve always known, sir.”
Kimblee sneered. “Then this next part ought to be infinitely more gratifying.”
He took a stick of chalk from his pocket and began to etch a circle into the concrete slab, circumscribing Riza’s arms and legs within the array. A thrill of panic raced up her spine and Hawkeye began to thrash, trying to loose her wrists from the handholds. Kimblee continued as though she wasn’t there, chalking the Latin runes into the stone with a steady, practiced hand.
“I am partial to the beauty of transmutation arrays,” Kimblee murmured as he worked, speaking more to himself than to Hawkeye, “of circles and recurrence. If one turns right and keeps turning right, or if one turns left and keep turning left, one ends up back where one turned for the first time. As though a man has walked around the world, ending where he began, finishing where the story started. History as a convergence. I don’t believe in prescience, Lieutenant. I don’t believe in destiny. Fate is just a wheel, and us humans, just spokes, and we keep spinning, retracing the patterns of lives. And circles do not have a start or an end, though one always seems to have good expectancy to grope after one. They have closures, instead.”
Kimblee finished the array, completing the circle. The hexagram inscribed eight multi-directional triangles, representing all four classical elements. Riza had seen it twice before: in the White Room under the 3rd Laboratory; burned into the floorboards of a farmhouse in the countryside. Kimblee’s simulacrum was rougher, cruder, scratched into the collapsed detritus of the tunnel, but she recognised the same esoteric symbols.
It was the transmutation circle needed to turn human beings into Philosopher’s Stones.
As the Crimson Alchemist pocketed the chalk, trading it for his livid red Stone, Riza remembered her confrontation with Pride several months before…
“The Homunculi said they need me,” she intoned steadily, “to keep the Colonel in line… to make him behave. They will be angry when they discover you’ve turned their most valuable hostage into a Philosopher’s Stone.”
“I beg to differ, Lieutenant,” purred Kimblee. “All your precious superior requires is hope. Your physical wellbeing is neither here nor there; all Mustang needs is faith in the possibility of saving you. So long as the Homunculi are able to invoke your name, so long as the Flame Alchemist believes he can keep his subordinates safe, the possibility is as good as real, and our control of him is as good as absolute.”
"Your logic is misguided, Crimson Alchemist."
"Indeed? It so rarely is."
"If Roy Mustang must choose between saving the life of his subordinates, and saving this country, he will chose this country. Every time."
"Do you believe that, Lieutenant Hawkeye?"
"I have to. I swore to keep him on the righteous path. I will not tolerate any less."
Kimblee passed the Stone from finger to finger, twirling it between his knuckles. He stared into the opaque red surface as he confessed, "I am, as always, astounded by your loyalty... your love for your superior." He snapped his hand closed, palming the Stone, holding it close to his chest. "Such a shame I hold neither love nor loyalty in any particularly high regard."
"Nor life," she said quietly. "Nor mercy."
"Take my word, Miss Hawkeye, this is preferable to the alternative. You do not want to be here come the Promised Day. If this is all the mercy of which I am capable, then I am merciful."
He pressed a palm against her forehead. The transmutation circle felt like a brand on her skin, searing the pentacles and alchemic symbols into her flesh. She caught a whiff of burning hair. Her body shuddered with a sudden burst of static. The hairs on her arms stood on end.
For a moment, Hawkeye’s unflappable exterior cracked. She remembered the ruins of Ishval, the crimson lightning dancing in the peripheries of enormous explosions… a livid white scar bisecting the forehead of an Ishvalan alchemist killer and she felt a sudden blind, burning fear flaring into an inferno inside her chest, trapping her breath deep in her throat.
Kimblee tilted his head, like a curious child, his grin faltering. Then his grip on her skull tightened.
A sound like a freight train roared in Riza’s ears––
Something cut the air in front of the Lieutenant’s face. Kimblee leapt backward, muttering obscenities under his breath, barring his teeth in a snarl.
The attackers didn’t give the Crimson Alchemist time to recover. Emerging from the tunnel, Heymans Breda and Kain Fuery levelled their sidearms at Kimblee’s chest, releasing a barrage of bullets. Taken by surprise, Kimblee was not as nimble as before, even with the aid of his Stone. He swept awkwardly under their attacks, moving around the 2nd Lieutenant and the Sergeant as he retreated back into the shadows of the sewers. He vanished into the darkness, a deep, bestial growl hanging low over the ground. Breda and Fuery didn’t stop shooting until both of their magazines were empty. The empty clicks echoed in the tunnel, even as the sound of Kimblee’s footsteps faded into silence.
Hawkeye dug her fingernails into her palm, stifling her tremor. She didn’t hear what her subordinates said to her through the blood roaring in her head…
“What?” she asked blearily.
“Riza, did he hurt you?”
Breda had recovered first, holstering his weapon and going straight to work on her restraints. Kain Fuery continued to aim at the tunnel, sucking in desperate gulps of air, trying to reign in his own fear. His small frame trembled with adrenaline.
“Lieutenant?” prodded Breda.
Hawkeye shook her head and her vision slowly swam back into focus. Breda’s close-cropped copper hair and plain, unassuming face made Riza want to weep. He arched an eyebrow at her brittle, vacant expression but didn’t press further.
Using the butt of his rifle, the Second Lieutenant made quick work of the concrete holding Hawkeye to the stone, the material weakened from Kimblee’s transmutations. Breda kept a steady grip on her arm as feeling returned to her legs and the screaming pain in her back and shoulders subsided. Hawkeye rubbed her wrists, the skin tender.
Fuery hurried back to flank her. His left arm hovered uncertainly at his side, as though he couldn’t decide whether to lay a reassuring hand on her shoulder or give her a hug. Under different circumstances, Riza would have found it amusing.
“How did that sicko get all the way back here without no one noticing…” Breda wondered aloud. His words were clipped, tinged with malice. He knew Solf J. Kimblee well enough by reputation to know how dangerous he was.
Fuery pushed his glasses up the bridge of his nose. “If he’s working with the Führer, then there’s no telling the limit of his resources. Say, 2nd Lieutenant,” Kain looked up at his superior hesitantly, “we didn’t just chase Major Kimblee away from Hawkeye just to hurt someone else, did we?”
“Probably,” replied Breda bluntly. At Fuery's pursed, worried expression, Breda amended, “Doesn’t matter. We have the Lieutenant, and now we have to reach the Colonel.”
Breda and Fuery snapped to attention at the sound of Riza’s voice, a consequence of time and habit and more than a little fear. She cleared her throat, which had gone very dry, abrasive like sandpaper.
“The plan hasn’t changed, and we've lost enough time already. It's likely the destruction of the sewers will draw the authorities to this location. We have to move quickly.”
Fuery opened his mouth to say something, but Breda held up a placating hand. His eyes met Riza’s: “Yes, sir.”
Hawkeye nodded. She picked up her sidearms from the floor, holstering them at her waist. She reloaded her bolt-action rifle and slung it across her back. The movements felt strangely procedural, almost ceremonial, like the ritualistic worship of a long-forgotten god. Hawkeye felt detached from the actions, hovering above the slow, lethargic movements of her body, as though observing herself from a great distance. She chastised herself; she had to stay focused. She had to stay sharp, and alert, battle-ready…
Riza Hawkeye suppressed a sob. Neither Breda or Fuery noticed.
“We'll make towards Madame Christmas’s bar,” she said, her words level and evenly-spaced, ripples on calm water obscuring the murk under the surface, “if the Colonel is abiding by the timeline, he should meet us soon before daybreak.”
“You got it, boss.”
Fuery jogged ahead, his rifle barred across his chest, scouting ahead in the tunnels. Breda and Hawkeye walked together in silence. She could feel the broader man's stare on the side of her head. She also found that she was acutely aware of her subordinate’s breathing, the regular cadence of it, like music. Riza wasn’t surprised when the rhythm changed and he spoke:
“What did he mean, Hawkeye, when Kimblee said the Homunculi could control the Boss using his subordinates.”
Her brows disappeared under her hairline. “You heard that?”
“I scouted ahead of Fuery. Followed the echoes down the tunnel.”
She looked over at him. Breda was perceptive. Moreover, he was sharp. There wasn’t much that passed by him unnoticed. “I imagine he meant what he said. We’re just leverage to them, Heymans. We’re just pawns.”
“That wasn’t what I was asking.”
“Speak plainly, then.”
Breda grunted. “I mean, Hawkeye, what happens when the Homunculi try to use us to influence the Colonel’s decision-making? Our lives are on the line here.”
"Just as they have been for the past several months?"
"This is different, Riza, and you know it. Bradley didn't send you away like the rest of us. He kept you around for a reason. And now Major Kimblee––"
"––is no longer our concern."
"Maybe not, but his words sure as hell are. What do you reckon'll happen when the Colonel realises they plan to kill us if he doesn't do what the Homunculi ask of him?"
Riza sighed. “He will do what he always does: he will protect the people he cares about.”
“And by that you’re saying––“
“He’ll order us to stay behind. To stay hidden, and safe.”
Breda grunted again. "Perfect. He'll go careening in there alone with only a couple glorified parade gloves and an ego the size of a planet."
It wasn't quite in line with Hawkeye's assessment, but she conceded the point. "Essentially."
"So what do we do, Boss?"
“That’s simple,” she said softly; she stopped walking, forcing Breda to stop alongside her. “We’re not going to tell the Colonel. About Kimblee, or my capture, or anything disclosed in the tunnel this evening.”
Breda crossed his arms, hazel eyes narrowed. His mouth was pursed in a thin, grim line, but after a moment he gave a curt nod. His said more with his silence than he ever could with words. Riza knew his meaning well enough.
“He always feels the need to protect us, Heymans…” She smiled a small, sad smile. “But this is an alchemist’s world, a world of reciprocity. If he is to save the people he cares about, then we must be there to save him first.”
“Even if it means dyin’?”
“Even if it means dying.” She stared into the darkness at the end of the tunnel. “Sometimes, death is a mercy, when faced with the possible alternatives.”
The Second Lieutenant shrugged. “If that’s the word, Riza, I’ll follow it.”
Hawkeye nodded. There was nothing more to be said, and they had a job to do.
They ran to catch up to Fuery. As they navigated the darkness, the smell of blood grew thinner in the air, and the floor rose out of the sloughing runoff to level off into a narrow brick walkway. Through the cracks in the storm drains, dawn was fast approaching.
Riza thought of the shadow moving unseen through the intestines of the city, darker than the starless sky, an outline of the night dressed in a white suit. Moving in dimensions she could not perceive. She had lived these past months with the weak reassurance that the one place the Homunculi could not go, at least, was inside her mind.
But the Crimson Alchemist had burrowed there like an insect. An echo of him would always remain. A stain on her soul.
Hawkeye looked around. The passageways seemed to form the base of an oubliette, the walls curving over her head, capped by the ceiling and the streets and the city and the stars. Boundless space bound inside the tunnels. A universe inverted.
Caught in the liminal spaces of aligned oppositions, between the unbroken and the broken, the now and the then, the living and the dead, stretched out in its near infinite repetition.
Further still at an unearthly height,
One luminary clock against the sky
Proclaimed the time was neither wrong nor right.
I have been one.