Actions

Work Header

Stock Market Crash

Chapter Text



. . . . .


They enter the first house they come across only because Ed's feet give out immediately once they descend the hill. Mustang has to all but drag him inside the crumbling home once Ed begins tripping over his feet and slurring complaints.

The sun sets outside, but within the deserted home it is darkness that welcomes them. The stoned walls are painted black with ash, as are the abandoned furniture and the gritty ground. The windows are bare of glass and the mouth of the entrance is bare of a door. The house is but a charred corpse, Mustang thinks.

He settles Edward on the floor propped up against the scorched wall because none of the pieces of furniture look sturdy enough to hold up a grain of sand. Ed runs a finger along the ground distractingly, sweeping the black and leaving a trail of white stone. His face is flushed and his eyes glisten with delirium, and when Mustang tries to grab his attention the only response he elicits is a slow blink and an unintelligible murmur.

He's fading fast, Mustang notes grimly. Is he feverish? Is it the concussion? Is it a heat stroke? Doesn't matter what it is, there's nothing I can do. Exhaustion and thirst and heat and pain . . . God, the brat was right from the start; he won't last the night at this rate.

Mustang leaves Ed to his tracing and paces around, thinking. I can't let that happen, but what can I do? He needs water – at least, any sort of sustenance. Something to stave off the dehydration, something that can help him hold out a little longer . . . just until we're found. I'll be damned if I let him die here. I will not add another death to my hands. I will not.

He doesn't bother searching the round home; it's small enough to for him to see what it has and what it doesn't have. If there was anything worthwhile hidden in it, it had burned to a crisp years ago. The only thing it offers is a domed room to fend off the murderous glare of the sun. Shelter . . .

He stares outside the doorless entrance and an unnatural shiver rattles his spine. The scene reminds him of the old stories of his childhood, of how dragons the size of ships would lay waste to innocent villages with their ravenous flames, leaving nothing but a sea of smoke and ash and bereavement. Except now, I'm the dragon – the dragon that's come back to admire its handiwork.

There are only a handful of homes that remained standing, and they stand with a coat of soot. They can't even be called homes. They are black shells. What once housed families are nothing more than an empty crust. Some stand, while others have crumbled, grey stone atop grey stone atop grey stone.

I did this, he thinks. With nothing but two gloves – with two gloves, I did this. I destroyed this village – I destroyed village upon village upon village. I shouldn't be here. I don't belong here.

Mustang feels ill. He turns away from the sight of the village because he cannot bear looking at it anymore. Shelter, he thinks bitterly. He wants to laugh at the irony, but is afraid it might bubble into something manic. I shouldn't be here . . .

The silence that hangs over the dead village disturbs him to the very core. People used to live here. Families. An entire community of people; Neighbors and friends and lovers and peers. They had names, too. Names and hopes and dreams. They had a history; they were sons and daughters, descendants of a line, carrying their family's name onto the next generation . . .

(And now they are the generation of flames. Their legacy is their death. Descendants of the living, carrying nothing but the demise of their family's name. Their deaths are the only history that will be remembered, with a future only their ghosts will witness.)

His morose reveries break apart when he hears Ed take a sharp intake of breath. A small sound, but it's loudened in the silence and easily catches his attention. Ed is rigid, eyes wide, and his flustered face drains away leaving nothing but milky paleness. He lets out a low moan, whether from pain or horror, Mustang is not sure.

"Fullmetal?" He's at his side in two long strides. "What is it? What's wrong?"

Ed stares past his shoulder, his entire frame trembling. He lifts a hand and points, whispering frantically, "I – I messed up. It didn't work. Oh, God. I messed up."

Mustang follows his finger and turns his head. At first he hardly sees it because it's so well camouflaged against the black wall, but a blink later and it becomes unmistakable. Charred bones lay atop more charred bones like wood for a funeral pyre. The skull is missing its bottom jaw, and a long black bone that is – was – clearly an arm with missing fingers is stretched out, as if pointing to them.

"I messed up. I messed up. S'all wrong – wrong. Wrong. Wrong."

Mustang looks back at Ed, confusion knotting his brows. The boy hardly registers him, just stares at the corpse with a wild look in his eyes and continues muttering and shaking his head.

He's delirious . . . Mustang thinks, but his prognosis doesn't make it any less disturbing. Ed's entire frame is trembling uncontrollably, his breaths too shallow and too quick. He's seeing things. He's fading.

"Fullmetal," Mustang calls, and when Ed's frantic mutterings don't stop, when he doesn't acknowledge him, he says louder, "Edward."

Ed blinks, startled. His eyes find his after a beat. "C – Colonel?" He asks, his slur sticking the letters together. The haze doesn't clear from his golden eyes, and Ed looks around the room with a shaky frown. "W – What – What's . . . Where's . . . ?"

Confusion and delirium from a head wound do not bode well, Mustang thinks with a pang. "Ed, listen. We're in Ishval – in the desert. Do you remember?"

"Desert," Ed repeats quickly, nodding. His eyes dart around frantically, hands shaking. "Desert – yeah . . . right. In the – in the sand . . . right, I know – Desert."

Mustang isn't reassured. "Fullmetal, take a deep breathe. Try to relax, OK? You hit your head, so you might not remember things clearly."

"Hit my head?" He brings up a hand and touches the wound, wincing. "I – I remember. I just – I don't – I . . . "

"Easy . . . just stay calm."

"I'm calm. I'm calm." Confusion never leaves his expression. "Where's . . . Where's Al?"

"He's not here, remember?" Mustang kneels down to meet his eyes.

"No, that's not. . ." Ed shakes his head, blanching. He looks ill as his gaze wanders again. "He's not here? But I – I brought him back."

"What?

"Al?" Ed croaks, sitting up. He strains to look behind Mustang, as if he were hiding Alphonse behind him. "Where's Al? I brought him back – I did . . . Al!"

"Ed, stay still – "

"Please – " His breathing quickens into an irregular pace, his words grappling with each other as they try come out. "He's . . . He's all I got – He's all I got. I – I – need . . . my arm. No, no, no – Al!"

"Poor thing," a soft voice says behind him, a different voice, a feminine voice –

Mustang whips his head around. The woman with the burnt face sits comfortably atop the burnt corpse. Her expression is sympathetic and her eyes are soft with melancholy – noshe's not real. She's not real. She's not real. Snap out of it. Focus!

Ed moans pitifully and Mustang's attention is stolen again. "No . . . please – Don't take him. Please . . ."

Mustang shakes his shoulders and shouts, "Fullmetal! Fullmetal!"

"Poor thing," the woman with the burnt face says again. Her voice is like a snake hissing into his ear, its body coiled around his neck. Every word squeezes the breath out of him.

She's not real. She's not real. Get a grip. He shakes Edward even harder when the mumbling becomes incomprehensible. "Snap out of it, Edward!"

He stops shaking when Ed goes silent, his chin resting on his chest. He thinks for a one horrible second that Ed had passed out, that Ed had left him – alone – but his uneven breathing tells him otherwise. "Fullmetal . . . ?"

A sigh from behind him – "He's going to die."

"No he's not," Mustang growls, before pursing his lips so hard they ache. What are you doing – She's not real! Have you lost your mind! Who are you talking to?

The yellow, blood-coated head lolls a bit, and a low groan is emitted. "Colonel . . ." Ed says the word so quietly Mustang almost mistakes it for a rough breath.

"Yeah – Yeah, I'm here, Fullmetal. You with me?" He holds his chin up with a hand so he can study his face. The franticness is erased from Ed's expression, leaving a haggard and exhausted face to stare back at him. When Ed nods, his eyes droop slightly. "Hey, hey, hey – look at me, alright? Do you know where you are? Do you remember?"

Ed frowns. He tilts his head to one side and scans the room with tired eyes. When they glance behind his shoulders, Mustang holds his breath. Does he see her too? Can he see her? But Ed only takes a small stuttering breath and lets his eyes finish their round. "We still'n the desert?"

Mustang exhales shakily. Thank God. Some clarity has returned to those dull, golden eyes – awareness. He pushes bloody strands of hair away from Ed's face. "Yeah. Yeah, we're still here. Still in the desert."

Ed hums thoughtfully. "My head hurts."

"I bet." The blood has hardened into a deep maroon around his head, the bleeding staunched. Mustang isn't sure what that means – is he getting better or worse?

"He's dying," the woman with the burnt face says. He doesn't turn around. He doesn't want to see those gruesome burns, regardless of whether they are real or not. She's not real. "Poor thing. Have you brought us another one, Flame Alchemist?"

His teeth grind. Not real, he insists to himself, but her voice is so rich her words echo against the stoned walls. Flame Alchemist, Flame Alchemist, Flame Alchemist. He gives his head a small shake – get a grip, get a grip.

Ed's head is tipped back against the wall, his eyes closed. Mustang doesn't notice it at first, but once he does his insides seem to freeze. "No – no, no, no. Fullmetal, get up. Wake up. Open your eyes."

"Let him sleep," the woman with the burnt face purrs. "We'll take care of him."

He ignores her. He shakes Ed's shoulders. It takes more urging, but eventually Ed's eyes flutter open – albeit slowly and with furrowed brows and a displeased groan. "Stop shaking me," he mutters, trying to shrug off Mustang's hands.

That only makes him tighten his grip. "Don't fall asleep. You need to stay awake."

Another groan. "Why?"

That one word seems to intensify his despair. Why? Why? Why? His breath catches as he's abruptly confronted with the answers – because I'm losing my mind. I'm losing my fucking mind. Because if I'm alone, I'm going to go insane – I can't stay here alone. I can't – I can't – I can't – I can't. I need someone – anyone. I need someone to talk to, to distract myself. So I don't think about them. So I don't have to see her. I can't be here alone. I can't – I can't – I can't.

"Because – your head. You have a head wound. You can't sleep with a head wound. If you do, you might not wake up." Even to his own ears he sounds shaken.

"Let him sleep. He'll be with us," The woman with the burnt face says.

To his horror, Ed closes his eyes with a sigh. He murmurs, "Nah . . . that's just a misconception. Sleeping's actually good . . . for head. Does . . . healing n'stuff. S'alright . . . "

"No," He shakes those frail shoulders some more, nails digging into flesh and steel. "Fullmetal, don't sleep. Stay awake!"

The woman's voice – "We'll take care of him. It's better this way."

Ed's voice is so soft he hardly hears it over his harsh own breathing, "S'alright . . . I'll sleep . . . a bit. S'Ok, Col'nel. Just a bit. You go . . . get help, or somethin'. I'll sleep . . . for a bit."

"Fullmetal – Edward. Please. You have to stay awake. You have to." The eyes stay closed. Worry manifests itself into a suffocating desperation. "Wake up, Fullmetal! That's a goddamn order! Wake up!"

"Let him sleep," The woman murmurs.

A soft hand touches his shoulder and Mustang flinches away violently.

She is standing so close to him that he can smell the burnt flesh. She kneels down, her bare knees touching the grey stone. She cocks her head, asking, "When he dies, are you going to burn his body?"

Mustang is rigid on the ground, every part of him tense with horror. She's not real, he tells himself weakly, but God, she looks it. She looks so real.

Her dark skin is littered with detail, from the small hairs to the tiny pores to the dust stains and hardened scabs. Her dress is torn and burned at the shoulder, but still flows gracefully with her every motion. And her head . . . Mustang can't stare at it for too long without feeling queasy; it's as gruesome as it is realistic.

As though she can hear him, she touches the side of her head gently, her fingers centimeters away from her brain. The contact makes a soft, wet sound. Flakes of crusted blood and crisp skin flutter to the ground. She stares at him, her eyes red and full of expression. She's not real, he thinks again. She's not . . .

"Leave him," she says. She moves closer to him, her knees scraping against the ground. "It's OK. Look – look how peaceful he is."

Mustang looks. Edward is undeniably unconscious, his head against the wall, eyes closed, chest raising and falling slowly. He does look at peace, Mustang realizes. He looks so calm and serene, no trace of pain in his face, no hint of suffering or fear or panic . . .

But that realization only seems to make the worry more throttling. "He'll die," Mustang chokes out, more to himself. He might not wake up . . . I can't let him sleep – What if he never wakes up? What if he dies?

"He'll be with us," The woman with the burnt face says patiently. She's smiling, her smile so genuine it reaches her eyes. "And once he's with us, we'll take care of him."

I've completely lost my mind, Mustang realizes. Her hand finds his, her fingers lace around his. Warm. He's shaking – he's shaking so badly that he can't see straight, can't hear correctly because his heart is beating so loudly. The burnt walls of the home's carcass seem to be closing in on him.

He wants to shout at Edward to wake up. To talk to him. To prove to himself what a real voice sounds like. To show himself what a real person looks like, because she is not real. She's not. It's all in his head. None of this is real. She's not real.

"Come." The woman stands up, his hand firmly clutched in hers.

Mustang looks up helplessly, shaking his head. "I can't – I can't let him die."

"You already did." She turns her head and looks at Edward pensively. Mustang can clearly see the burned bone of her skull, where it cracked and where it opened, the pink of her brain sleeping within it. "It's alright. That's what you do, isn't it? Why else did you bring him here? Why else did you come here?"

("How many deaths sit on those hands, I wonder.")

He shakes his head more frantically. Another one – another death. I did this. I did this. I should have never let this happen. I was suppose to protect him. I was suppose to get us out of here. I killed us. I killed him. I let it happen.

She pulls him up to his feet gracefully, her smiling never wavering. "Come with me," she whispers, her breath hot, her voice thin as mist.

He leaves.


. . . . .


Click, click, click, click, click, click, click, click.

The redhead counts the money meticulously, one bill at a time. Ed is scratching at his bounds with renewed determination. Mustang sees none of it, only hears. His vision is blocked by the endless images of his thoughts as he tries to wrap his mind around the severity of his situation.

Click, click – the old man stops typing. He gently pries the sheet of paper from the typewriter and places it on the corner of the table, just within the redhead's grasp. He flips through the black book and begins writing something. Scratch, scratch, scratch.

The redheaded man takes the paper, reads it, and then shouts something, making Mustang tense and Ed start. In the far left corner, behind the desk, a door whines open and two men step out. Mustang recognizes one of them as the man he first encountered – the pale-eyed bastard that took his gloves.

"What's happening?" Ed asks cautiously.

Something bad, Mustang thinks.

The red headed man waves over to them, then to the boxes, and then let's out a string of foreign words. The two other men nod as one.

"What did he say?" Mustang asks immediately because it did not sound like a greeting to him.

"I think he said to take a box and the small one . . . – hey!"

Ed isn't given time to be angry. One man walks past them and grabs a box filled with weapons, while the other grabs Ed by the elbow and forces him to stand. "Get the hell off of me!"

"Fullmetal — !" Mustang shouts immediately. He goes to stand but the red headed man is suddenly in front of him, and a kick in the shoulder brings back down.

"Colonel!" Ed thrashes in the man's grasp. "Let go of me, asshole!"

His automail foot slams into his captor's knee and the man howls. His companion abandons the box, and together they wrangle Ed to the door while the boy shouts obscenities and lashes about violently.

"No! Stop! Fullmetal!" Mustang shouts again, but the door slams shut and Ed and the two men are gone.

Click, click, click, click, click, click, click, click, the old man types on, either undisturbed or uncaring of the incident that took place.

He can still hear Ed shouting from the other side of the door. "Where did you take him?" Mustang bellows. "Answer me! What do you want with — !"

The redheaded man pummels his knee into Mustang's stomach and the rest of his words choke him. He falls to his knees hard, and the other man grabs his hair and brings his fist back.

A word is barked out loudly and the redheaded man stops, releasing him, and steps back quickly. Mustang gasps loudly, his abdomen bursting with pain. He picks his head up, and sees that the old man has stopped his typing to glare at the redhead.

He rasps out a few short angry words and the redheaded man replies grudgingly with one word. He moves away and grabs the forgotten box, taking it to the other room. The door opens and Ed's angry shouts become louder – ". . . can kick all your asses, just watch!" – before it closes with a resounding slam.

The old man lets out a haggard sigh and runs a hand through his long, grey locks. Then he points to Mustang and says, "You. Quiet. Yes?"

Click, click, click, click, click, click, click, click.

"You speak Amestrian?" Mustang asks breathlessly. He winces as he tries to steady himself back on his knees.

"Quiet."

Click, click, click, click, click, click, click, click.

"Where did they take him?" Mustang shouts spitefully. "Answer me."

The old man stops typing and gives Mustang a withered look. His cheeks are thin and hollow, his forehead lined with wrinkles, his lips colorless. Old, Mustang thinks. He's nothing but old. There's nothing distinctive or characteristic about him. He's just an old man.

"Busy. I'm working, see? No talking." His Aerugonian tongue mutilates his Amestrian words. His s's are hard-pressed and sound like z's, and all his vowels seem be spoken from the base of his throat.

Click, click, click, click, click, click, click, click.

"You can damn well talk and work," he snarls back. "I want to know where you've taken my subordinate. Tell me!"

The door opens and the redheaded man emerges, swiftly taking his place behind the old man. The door swings shut on its own. Mustang can clearly hear every muffled curse that Ed shouts from the other side.

The old man types – click, click, click, click, click, click, click, click – and Mustang thinks for a moment that he is downright ignoring him. A few clicks later, he answers in a tired voice, "Why tell? Ren ma . . .You know this."

Mustang frowns. "Drachma."

The old man nods slowly, never picking his head up from his keyboard. Click, click, click, click, click, click, click, click. His eyes are magnified behind the thick glasses, and Mustang can see dark layers of skin sinking underneath them.

When the old man says nothing, Mustang continues. "Why there? What could Aerugo possibly want from Drachma?"

He clicks his tongue, shaking his head like Mustang was a child that misbehaved. "Nio. No. No politics."

Click, click, click, click, click, click, click, click.

Ed's shouting quiets, but Mustang can still make out his stifled voice. The walls that make up this place seem to be very thin and poorly made.

"Then what?" Mustang asks through gritted teeth when the silence drags far too long.

Another weary sigh. The man looks so frail that even the lightest touch could send him crumbling. "Ren ma . . . You know this. Why ask?"

Click, click, click, click, click, click, click, click.

His nose flares in irritation. He's answering my question with his own. "Because I want you to tell me."

The redheaded man is silent, but his glare is loud. Does he understand me? Mustang wonders. It doesn't matter. It's the old man that has the answers – he's the one behind all this . . . But why?

The old man looks up, the typing halts, and as if reading Mustang's thoughts, answers in a throaty rasp, "Ren ma. Why anyone do anything? Money." The foreign words flow out of his mouth smoothly, while the Amestrian words seem to claw their way out of his throat. "You see me, yes? Businessman. No politics . . . No countries . . . No personal . . . Only money."

Mustang shifts on the rough ground. Money, he repeats to himself. He replays the past view days in his head and tries to organize his thoughts. "So it was you, then? Who made the fake report? Who sent the soldier to take us?"

"Amet, nio, nio, nio," he takes off his glasses and rubs at his eyes wearily. Mustang can see the raised veins that snake their way around his hands like a blue labyrinth. The redheaded man stands unmoving and silent, eyes fixed on the wall behind Mustang.

The old man exhales deeply and puts his glasses back on. "You," he begins, then pauses. He looks down at his book and pronounces slowly, "Mustang, vua? Yes?"

His name sounds unfamiliar in the old man's mouth, but he nods nonetheless.

"You soldier, vua? Big rank?" He rolls his wrist while he talks, his fingers twitching. "You have this . . . subordinates, vua? You have many? You tell them . . . go, do this. And they do, vua? How they do it . . . no matter. Only matter . . . it is done. And you, you wait. See if they do or no. Vua?"

His accent is horribly thick, and his words tumble out of his mouth so slowly that Mustang has to strain his hearing to completely understand him. He answers carefully, as if waiting for a trap, "I have a team, yes."

"Me, the same. Little different, vua, vua. I tell them . . . go do this . . . but I pay them after they do, vua?" He waves absently to the redheaded man. "Him . . . I tell him, go, bring me Flame . . . and he go. How he do it? I don't know . . . Fake report, you say? Maybe. No matter to me how . . . only matter, he do it. When he do it . . . I give him money. Vua?"

Mustang's eyes narrow. "So, you pay people to kidnap other people, and then you sell them to other countries?"

"Little different." Speaking clearly tires him out, and he pauses to catch his breath. "I look at prices . . . and pick people."

"What prices?"

"Amet. Every person has price. You don't know price . . . I make price." He points to the black book. "I give price to person."

Mustang looks at the book, then remembers the roughly translated numbers that Edward recited to him earlier. Was that how much we were worth? Mustang thinks, his stomach sinking. Were we just sold? Like fucking livestock? "I don't understand. These prices . . . what are they based on? How are they determined?"

The old man shrugs, his thin shoulders shaking. "Many things. Too many things. Mostly . . . how much other people want him dead, vua. For politics, like for boy . . . price is higher, because country want him, not people. Risky to do . . . but if country will pay price . . . I send my people to get him, then give to country."

"You traffic people, then." Mustang's anger climbs, and he spits out, "You put a price on a person, and if someone is willing to pay that price, you kidnap them and sell them to the highest bidder."

"Vua ben. Exactly." He brings his hands together, rubbing his thumb against his pale palm. "Sometimes, weapons also. Guns, bombs . . . I sell together, with persons. But . . . not anyperson. Important person, vua? Like you and boy. Big names, you two. Very important in your country. In my business . . . more important you be, higher the price goes, vua? More problems you make for others . . . higher price goes. Like stocks, yes? You know stock market? Your country no have, but Aerugo do. Same thing, only not businesses – only people.'"

The economics of human trafficking, Mustang muses bitterly. "If that's the case, then what does Drachma want with Edward? He's never even been to the country – why would they go through the trouble to have him?"

"You very curious, vua? Ah, what can I tell you? Nio je dao. I don't know. Most time, just to kill. I don't ask . . . Maybe you know? This one all politics . . . I think, boy is very important to Amestris, vua? Drachma doesn't like your country, vua je dao. This I know. Maybe for war? I don't ask . . . I only get money . . . What they do with him, not my concern."

Mustang does know why Drachma would want him, but he doesn't want to think of what they would do if they got their hands on Ed. It goes beyond simple politics. If they take him, Amestris will have no choice but to declare war on Drachma, Mustang thinks. If they kill him – the Fullmetal Alchemist, the most gifted and adored State Alchemist, a damn child – it would smother the nation's morale and make us vulnerable to a direct attack. Or it'll make him a martyr, and Amestris would gladly use that as an excuse to take the offensive. And if they keep him alive . . . Well, the Drachmans were never known for their mercy . . .

The old man's long fingers return to the keyboard in the ensuing silence. Click, click, click, click, click, click, click, click they go. The small sounds create an endless echo.

"And me." Mustang keeps his voice leveled and impassive. "Ishval offered to buy me?"

"You?The old man makes a small noise, almost like a scoff. "Original, it was only you."

Dread creeps along his throat, but Mustang's curiosity is insatiable. "What do you mean?"

The old man points to the redhead, saying, "I send him . . . say, go get Flame, and I will pay. He go and do it . . . and come back with two . . . you and boy. He is greedy. Amet. Says . . . thought only you come to Cameron, but boy come too. I say . . . amet, Drachma want him anyway . . . we can make two sales."

He thinks about the fake report, and how it was intimately tailored to him. A rogue fire alchemist causing trouble in the east . . . who better to go and detain him than the Flame Alchemist? They knew. They knew everything. Fullmetal was right – this whole thing was set up to get one of us . . . and it was me.

And it worked. Mustang takes in the grey room, the boxes, the desk, the redheaded soldier, the old man and the typewriter. He takes in the sweat on his forehead, the restraints around his arms, the quick pacing of his heart. It worked.

But . . . why? What was so special about him? Mustang struggles for a few moments as he wills himself to seek the answer, because a part of him is screaming at him that he's better off not knowing. "What about Ishval. It's not a country anymore. How can it . . . buy me?"

Click, click, click, click, click, click, click, click.

"Ishval, vua." He mumbles quiet words to himself, like he's saying small prayer. His glasses slip to the bottom of his nose but he doesn't move it. "Everyone know about Ishval. I know a lot, vua. You know . . . they very poor. No more country . . . No more land . . . No more home. Poor, poor people."

Mustang swallows thickly but doesn't speak. The old man's tired voice grows more quiet, nothing but a few rasps of breathe, but they punctuate the large, empty room like a torrent of rain.

Click, click, click, click, click, click, click, click.

"Do you wonder, Mr. Mustang?" He asks, his tone genuinely curious. "How people with no money for themselves . . . no money to buy land . . . buy home. How they have money to buy your death?" The old man pushes his glasses up. "This is because they remember . . . they never forget . . . Do you think they forget? Do you forget?"

Click, click, click, click, click, click, click, click.

Mustang's throat tightens and he can only seem to breathe in thin, hot air. There is the faintest whisper of antipathy in the man's voice, and Mustang doesn't want to hear it. He doesn't want to hear any more words, any more answers.

The old man stops typing and laces his fingers together. He fixes Mustang with an unreadable expression that unnerves him."Nio. They remember. They give up everything . . . only so you can lose everything. Like them. You take their lives . . . they want to take yours. And me? I make it possible."

Mustang finds his voice only to hoarsely say, "I thought you didn't ask about your clients' motives."

The old man's mouth is a thin line, unwavering and betraying no emotions. "Vua, I do not . . . but this I know. Years before, when my business small . . . I get call. An Ishvalan, asks me . . . how much to kill you? I tell him price . . . Too much for him, I think. He hangs up. Next year, I get call again . . . different person. Says he has money for you. Me, I'm impressed. But I tell them . . . no, not enough . . . Price went up. You get promotion…Colonel rank, vua? Make you harder to get, so I had to raise price. Year later . . . another call, say they have money, I say, amet . . . price went up."

His head is pounding, but not in pain. A dull, white noise blares in his mind, drowning his thoughts. He sinks into it like quicksand. The old man's voice is so sharp it resonates in his head, and with every word Mustang can see the cuts it leaves. He realizes he yearns for the incessant clicking of the typewriter so that he can hear anything else.

"Every year they call . . . But this year they call . . . and say they have money. And they did . . . full amount. I say . . . yve ne! How can it be? Price is so high . . . and you all so poor. You can use money for anything! Why for a soldier?"

(He doesn't want to hear this. He doesn't want to hear this. He doesn't want to hear this. The white noise fades and makes room for other noises. He doesn't want to hear this. He doesn't want to hear this.)

"And they tell me . . . you know what they say, Mr. Mustang? They say . . . they never forget. They never forget man who burn their homes . . . their land . . . their country. They say they travel, walk all over . . . and find other Ishvalans who remember. Make group. They put all their money together . . . trying to reach price."

(The faintest sounds of a hundred screaming souls fills his ears.)

"But price is high . . . and they have so little. You know what they say, Mr. Mustang? You know what they tell me? They say . . . they had to do bad things for money . . . awful things . . . horrible things. All of them, the men, women, children. They do everything to make money . . . only because they want to kill you."

(The screaming gets louder, more piercing, more curdling, more real. His eyes are open but it's as if he's asleep – he hears screaming and sees fire and death and destruction. They scream and scream and burn and burn.)

"Revenge changes people. Evil, evil thing . . . to make someone want revenge. You change them . . . like you make brand new person. Ishvalans, in the past . . . people of peace. But . . . you burn that away . . . you burn them away. Your hands took them all away . . . how many deaths sit on those hands, I wonder."

Mustang grits his teeth because the screaming in his head is so loud. "I was under orders," he says. "I didn't have a choice."

The old man sighs deeply. "Vua, vua. Not me you tell this." He pushes his glasses up with a finger and begins typing anew. Click, click, click, click, click, click, click, click. Every click feels like a stab to his brain.

He continues without looking up, "Ishvalans, they wait now. Very excited to get you, I think. They tell me . . . make sure he alive. I wonder what they want to do . . . not my concern, of course . . . but . . . curious."

Click, click, click, click, click, click, click, click.

There's a cluster of muffled noises coming from the other room but Mustang barely hears it –

(Because the screaming is getting so much louder. He can distinguish each one; can hear the children screaming and the men screaming and the women screaming. So much pain and terror and torture in their voices.)

Click, click, click, click, click, click, click, click.

– And the red headed man turns his head to the door behind him in the back corner when the noises become louder, but Mustang hardly registers it –

(Because all he can see is an endless sea of fire, slashing at everything in its path, devouring everything it comes across. He watches them die, some slow, some quickly – but they all burn. None are left unscathed. They all burn and burn and burn and burn and burn.)

Click, click, click, click, click, click, click, click.

– Then the door is blown off its hinges in a fiery explosion.


. . . . .


He leaves the abandoned home and is bombarded with such a vibrant red that he flinches at the sight. The sun hides itself under the horizon, enflaming the sky with the bloodshot color. It colors the homes with a bright orange, and oversaturates the yellow of the sand.

Everything is red and orange and yellow, like he just walked out and into the heart of a flame. It startles Mustang badly, and for a few moments he can't move, can't blink, can't breathe, can only stare at the red, red, red, red, red, red, red.

The Ishvalan woman with the burnt face is beside him. Her head is a gruesome sight; the flesh had melted inward, creating a small crevice that reveals an ash covered skull and a lightly burned brain. "Does it look familiar?" she asks. Even her voice sounds burnt.

"You're not real."

She looks at him curiously. "I was."

The red scene before him changes. Suddenly, there are hundreds of people around him.

Hundreds of Ishvalan men, women, and children idly move from place to place, from house to house, chatting and conversing and laughing, holding hands and waving, smiling and frowning, running and walking. The village burst to life in a blink of an eye, and Mustang watches as the Ishvalans go about their daily lives.

His throat runs dry instantly at the sight. He's hit with such a ferocious wave of nausea that he has to cover his mouth to suppress the gag. It's not real. It's not real. It's not real.

"What's wrong?" The burnt woman asks. "Do we sicken you that much?"

Mustang pushes past her hastily. His feet struggle to keep him standing and mobile. It's not real, it's not real, he whispers frantically to his mind. He tries to not look, tries not stare, but his eyes can't look away from the sight before him.

The village is alive with the dead.

The corpses of the Ishvalans walk around the village as if nothing were amiss. A small Ishvalan boy runs across Mustang's path with his ribs poking through his scorched flesh. A woman walks cheerfully out of her home with both her arms missing, the stubs freshly cauterized and dripping. Two men chat animatedly with one another, one with his jaw missing and the other with a face melted so badly his eyes won't open.

The houses are all alit with a fearsome, roaring fire, but people are entering and exiting them nonetheless. All around them are fire and destruction and death, fire and destruction and death, fire and destruction and death and fire and destruction and death, but no one seems to be noticing it – No one but Mustang.

(It's not real. It's not real. It's not real. It's not real. It's not real.)

Mustang manages to walk four steps before he collapses to the ground, heaving and gasping. The corpses ignore him. A woman clothed in nothing but a dress of fire steps over him like he was nothing but a rock in her way.

Mustang's fist coils around the sand. I'm losing my mind. By God, I'm losing my fucking mind.

"You've already lost it," the woman with the burnt face says. The half of her face that wasn't mutilated is placid and serene, but her eyes burn like the fire around them. "Won't you at least admire your work, Flame Alchemist?"

Mustang shakes his head, staring at the sand. "I – I – this isn't real. This isn't real. None of this is happening."

"How would you know? Did you ever pay us a visit, after your last one?" She kneels besides him and rubs his back comfortingly. "If you get to continue your life after all this, why can't we?"

She holds his hand with a sickening gentleness and stands him up. "Look, Flame Alchemist. Look at the beautiful life you gave us."

He looks. The sand disappears, replaced by a sea of flames. Fire, fire, fire, fire, fire, and fire. The Ishvalans step on top of it with ease, their feet boiling and melting. The air is filled with the stench of burning flesh.

The woman latches onto his arm tenderly, her burnt skull rubbing against his shoulder. She's leading him deeper into the village, and Mustang doesn't have the strength to argue it. The fires lick his feet lovingly.

"You've blessed us with a new life," the woman breathes. She waves to a group of children. They wave back with grins and fleshless hands. "This is our life now."

"This isn't life," Mustang rasps. He doesn't hear the screaming anymore, but he would give up his beating heart to hear it once more – to hear anything, anything, other than the drone of a bustling village and the flapping of flames.

The woman eyes him, but he refuses to look at her. "Then what is it?"

He doesn't answer, so she squeezes his arm tighter. He feels the heat suddenly, and it's hot, it's hot, it's so hot. He stiffens at the intense temperature, but it only seems to get hotter and hotter and hotter and hotter.

"Then what is it?" The woman asks again. Her voice is wavering. "If it's not life, then what is it? What did you give us, Flame Alchemist?"

He tears away from her and stumbles through the flames alone. This isn't real. This isn't real. This isn't real. This isn't real. This isn't real. This isn't real. This isn't real.

The flames part for his every step, but consume everything this else ravenously. He tries to look without seeing, but every time an Ishvalan crosses his path, he can't help but stare at the burning corpse.

This is wrong, Mustang thinks with a rattling shudder. They're dead. They shouldn't be living like . . . like this . . .

"This is what you gave us," the woman with the burnt face says.

Mustang stares at a burning home, and at the family inside setting the table for dinner. "This – I – I didn't . . . " His words are lost to him.

They're dead, they're dead, they're dead, they're dead, they're dead, they're dead –

– Am I dead?

Mustang balks at the sudden thought. No, no, no. I'm losing my mind. I'm hallucinating. This isn't real. The burning bodies pay him no heed.

He stumbles forward, but the woman remains by his side. "This is what you gave us," she says again, this time more adamantly.

"This is wrong. I never gave you this." He looks around in despair. Voice heavy and broken, he gasps, "I didn't give you life. This is wrong."

The woman is in front of him instantly. She places the palm of her hand upon his cheek, her skin searing hot. He tries to flinch away, to not look at her, but she holds his head steadily. "Wrong . . . " she repeats, tasting the word. "But isn't this what you wanted?"

The other Ishvalans stop to stare at them, red eyes burning his soul. His breath catches at their patient gazes. "I didn't . . . this – this isn't . . . "

The woman stares into his eyes with a deep melancholy. She lets her hand fall gracefully, and then intertwines her fingers with his. She picks up his hand and strokes it. "This isn't what you wanted. I see now." She turns his hand over and bends his fingers like it were a toy. "So then, is this what you want?"

She makes him snap his fingers – he doesn't even remember putting on his gloves – and suddenly the world explodes in a hellish blaze. Mustang rips her hand away from her grip and staggers backwards.

The Ishvalans scream.

The fire comes to life and consumes them. The men and women and children scream as one as the flames devours their limbs, peels their skin, melts their insides, shatters their bones. The houses crumble to ground, turning to ash before it can touch the sand. The flames crack in the air like a million whips, and over it, screaming and crying and begging and howling of the burning Ishvalans.

"This is what you wanted." The woman breathes in understanding, her face breaking into a smile. Her skin burns a bright red from the close proximity of the heat, but she hardly seems to notice.

(Screaming – they're all screaming and screaming and screaming and screaming and dying and dying and dying and dying – )

"N – No . . . " Mustang chokes, eyes painfully wide. This isn't real, this isn't real, this isn't real. He watches people throw themselves onto the floor, rolling in the ground as they try to put out the fire that latches onto them.

(They scream as they die – some dead before they can even make a sound – but the screams . . . the screams tear through their throats, the noise inhumane and bloodcurdling.)

The woman with the burnt face watches along with him as her people suffer. "This is what you wanted."

Mustang shakes his head frantically. "No! This – I never . . . " He can't hear himself over the roar of fire, over the tortured screaming.

The Ishvalan corpses writhe and thrash from the searing pain, their backs twisting and their arms flaying and their entire bodies convulsing. Even those that lay on the floor, unmoving, scream with pure agony.

(Fire and death, fire and death, fire and death.)

"You didn't give us life," the woman states finally, disappointingly. There's a haunting finality in those deep, red eyes. Ash spills from her mouth when she whispers, "You gave us death."

"Please . . . I didn't . . . "

"No?" She cocks her head, curious. The firelight reflects off her scalp, and he can see every fold of melted flesh. "Well? What did you give us? Life or death?"

The screaming grows louder and more agonizing. The sound reverberates against his bones and echoes under his skin.

"Stop it. Stop it." He shuts his eyes and holds his head. This isn't real. This isn't real. This isn't real. He doesn't want to see this – not again. He doesn't want to see them die, doesn't want to see them burn, doesn't want to see them suffer.

(The screams are like a hymn to his ears, so familiar, every note itched into his brain – he knows it so intimately he would give up his ability to hear just so he can never listen to it again.)

She grabs his hands with her own and pulls it off him. "Look at it." She holds his chin up and stares into his tormented eyes. "If it's death you gave us, then look at it."

No, no, no – He doesn't want to see this, but he can't look away. It won't stop. The Ishvalans scream and burn but they don't die, and Mustang can do nothing but watch. I did this. I did this.

"But you can still give us life," She whispers, combing his hair back with gentle fingers. The screams stop suddenly, and everything is silent, but the flames live on. The red world around him mutes, but doesn't stop. "You can."

Her voice floats above the silent flames. The Ishvalans lay on the ground, deathly still, staring at him with unseeing eyes as vibrant as the sky. The woman with the burnt face speaks with a voice thick with hope, her eyes imploring, "Stay with us, Flame Alchemist."

Stay . . . Mustang looks at her with horrified confusion. She smiles back and turns her head so he can see. The corpses stand once more, the houses are composed once more, and the lives of the dead continue once more.

"Stay here . . . with us." The woman purrs. "Live our life with us, so that we can all be at peace." The flames part to make way for him. "Let us rest. Stay with us."

Peace . . . through the turmoil of his mind, he remembers the old man and his book. He remembers the old man's words with acute clarity.

("They give up everything, only so you can lose everything. Like them. You take their lives, they want to take yours.")

My life . . . Mustang feels a cold hand squeeze his heart. His mind races. Even the living suffer because I'm alive. He thinks about the book of prices, and the click, click, click, click, click, click, click, click, click of the typewriter.

("You know what they say, Mr. Mustang? You know what they tell me? They say they had to do bad things for money. Awful things. Disgusting things. All of them, the men, women, children. They do everything to make money. Only because they want to kill you.")

"I . . . " Mustang chokes out. He blinks wildly as he tries to sort through his thoughts and the voices that bombarded. Kill, kill, kill. Death, death, death. Life, life, life. Is that it? He thinks, will my death fix it all? Will my death let them rest? Will it let the living and the dead rest? Will it undo everything?

"Stay with us, Flame Alchemist."

He wants to undo it. More than anything in the world, he wants to take back what he's done. He wants to return the life he took from the Ishvalans. He wants to extinguish the fires that stole their homes. He wants to stop hearing their piercing screams in his dreams.

("How many deaths sit on those hands, I wonder.")

Too many. Far too many. He stares at those very deaths and wants nothing more than to atone for the sins he committed. He stares at his trembling hands with morbid fascination and thinks, I killed so many – all their deaths sit on my hands. I can't carry that. I can't keep carrying that. I can't.

"Stay with us, Flame Alchemist," the woman with the burnt face says and God, he wants to. He wants to so badly. If it could expunge the guilt, if it could erase the hate, if it could give them peace, if it could stop the feeling of emptiness, if it could stop haunting his dreams, if it could grant him forgiveness, he would.

He would, he would, he would, he would, he would, he would, he would, he would, he would, he would.

Mustang whispers, "I . . . can't."

("How many deaths sit on those hands, I wonder.")

He can't.

He can't, he can't, he can't, he can't, he can't, he can't, he can't.

He stares at his hands and thinks of all the deaths that sit on them – but mostly, he thinks about all the lives. He thinks of Hawkeye, of Falman, of Breda, of Havoc, of Fuery, of Hughes, of the Elric Brothers – they're all depending me, he realizes. I have so much to do, so much to change . . . and they're all depending on me. If I stay, I can get peace, but it won't give any of them peace. I can't afford to be selfish. I can't stay.

The woman with the burnt face stares at him and but he's looking everywhere but her eyes. He ignores all the tortured red eyes and looks past the flames. "I can't stay," he says again, louder.

"Please . . ." He can feel burnt woman moving closer to him. "If you stay, we can live."

Her broken voice sends a chill down his spine. "You're already dead," Mustang strains. He doesn't look at her; his eyes scan his surroundings with desperation. "And the living still need me."

Finally, he finds it. Behind a charred home, it sits, crumbles and blackened and untouched for many years, but it's there, just like he hoped it would be.

Through the flames of hell, he finds water.


. . . . .


Fire spews from the doorframe. The redheaded man's upright posture is disrupted as he whirls around, pulling out his firearm.

Mustang is already moving, taking advantage of the spontaneous distraction without hesitation. He brings his knees as close to his chest as he possibly can and brings his tied hands underneath him, pushing them until they round his body, then come under his knees, then finally over his heels so that his arms are back in front of him.

He hears gunfire and alchemy and the roar of fire. He stands quickly and darts toward the box of weapons, pulling out the first gun he can get his hands on. He holds the large automatic rifle awkwardly with both hands. A bullet whizzes past his ear and lodges onto the wall behind him. Three more follow it before Mustang throws himself onto the ground behind the box.

He checks the rifle's magazine and is dazed with relief when he sees it's full loaded. Finally, some damn luck. Bullets spray around him like rainfall. When it lessens, he brings the gun up and begins firing at random. The gun is unbelievably powerful; the ricochet threatens to break both his wrists.

Over the whirlwind of noises that fill the bare room, Mustang's ears pick up on a distinct noise and he stills.

Snap.

He freezes. A snap, Mustang thinks, his insides seizing. A snap – ! Immediately an explosion follows it, and a rush of hot air fills the room. The entire building shudders.

Fullmetal  !

Mustang leaps over the box without thinking, rushing towards the charred doorframe. His finger never leaves the trigger as he raises the gun above his head, pointed behind him.

He skids into the smoke filled room and shouts, "Fullmetal!"

A man who is definitely not Fullmetal rushes toward him and Mustang efficiently smashes his nose in with the butt of his rifle. The man crumbles to the ground and Mustang steps over him.

"Fullmetal!" He calls again. A shroud of black veils the room, and deep inside it he can see a warm glow. Fire. He hears groans and moans, of people and of the building. Cement falls from the ceiling and shatters onto the ground. Mustang abandons his gun when he realizes he's wasted all the bullets. The gun clatters to the ground and joins the collective disarray of noises.

The noises change. He hears footsteps, gunfire, a shrill yelp, a snap, and then an eruption. The room lights up, the black smog turning into a pastel brown. The ground shudders and fire scratches at the walls. A piece of the ceiling falls and smashes to the ground near Mustang's feet. He runs, his heart racing so quickly that it shook his entire frame.

Mustang rushes to the direction of the fire and collides with – "Fullmetal!"

Edward's eyes are wide and wild. "Shit – Colonel! The building!" He's breathing so quickly that his words come out in small gasps. Fire roars behind them like an enraged beast.

Windows shatter from the heat, the sound piercing his ear drums. Mustang grabs the boy's shoulders and shakes them urgently, "Are you alright? Edward, answer me? Are you hurt?"

Ed shakes his head fervently and flinches when another window shatter. He claps his hands touches the restraints around Mustang's wrists, blue static cracking.

The rope falls to the ground but Mustang is looking at something else. He stares at Ed wordlessly, his blood running ice cold – He stares at the boy's hands.

Ed follows his eyes and jolts, then quickly pulls off the gloves. "W–Wait, Colonel, just listen," he says instantly, his voice high and anxious. "I swear, I didn't want to, I just – there was so many of them and they kept shooting at me! And – and – it was just sitting there! I had to –"

The light bulb above them shatters and a wall crumbles. Mustang fiercely takes the gloves from Ed's hands, staring. The fire howls and screeches like a dying wolf, the noise overwhelmingly terrifying. The gloves are in his hand but he can't stop picturing them in Ed's.

"Colonel, I'm sorry – I didn't know what else to do! I was gonna take them for you, when I saw them, I swear! But – but – then, they all jumped on me – and they shot at me and . . . Colonel?"

"Never," Mustang starts to say, his voice horribly hoarse and deathly somber. "Never use these. No matter what – never use fire alchemy. Do you understand – do you understand, Fullmetal?"

Ed nods fervently, looking smaller than he ever has. He swallows and begins to say something when the wall above them collapses and falls.

Mustang pushes Ed harshly and the large cement block shatters in the very spot he had just been. Smoke rises to the floor above them, thinning the black veil. Men that were knocked away from the blasts Ed created seemed to be coming around, groaning and reaching for their guns.

"Let's go!" Mustang shouts. He grabs Fullmetal by the arm and pushes him in front of him. "The building is going to collapse – we need to get out!"

Ed heads towards the way they came from and Mustang follows, slipping on his gloves. Something else collapses from behind them, but they've already reached the other room and hardly pay it any mind.

The old man, the desk, the typewriter – they all had remained exactly where Mustang had left them. Click, click, click, click, click, click, click, click, the old man types on as stones fall from the ceiling around him, as fire roars from behind him.

Mustang is so focused on dodging the falling debris, on ducking from the torrent of gunfire, on running towards the exit, that he doesn't notice that the redheaded man was not standing behind the old man. He only does notice when he hears a surprised curse from Edward.

Click, click, click, click, click, click, click, click.

He turns around and sees the Aerugonian man wrench Fullmetal by the arm, swinging the boy to the ground, his head hitting the hard floor with a sickening crack that's louder than any falling rubble.

Mustang stumbles to a halt and reacts instantly, snapping his fingers before he can completely lift his arm. A red streak snakes its way towards the man instantaneously. The moment it touches him it shatters, wrapping him in a fiery blaze louder than his howls of pain.

Mustang doesn't bother to watch, instead making his way to Ed. His stomach lurches when he sees a pool of blood form underneath the mass of yellow hair. Oh God – no, no, no, no, no, no, he thinks in horror, his mind already assuming the worse.

Click, click, click, click, click, click, click, click.

But when he pulls Ed up, the boy's eyes are open and blinking. "Ahh, fucking . . ." Ed groans, his voice thick with pain. He hisses through bared teeth when he touches his head, and blanches at the sight of the blood that sticks to his fingers. "Wha . . . "

"Are you alright?" Mustang asks. So much blood covers Ed's head that he can't pinpoint where the wound is. Not good.

Ed grimaces and opens his mouth to answer, but then a large block of cement crashes to the ground beside him, making him swallow his reply.

We need to get out, Mustang realizes, glancing up at the collapsing ceiling. "Can you stand?"

"Yeah," he says, but doesn't refuse when Mustang helps him up. He groans once he's fully upright, and lists dangerously to one side. "Fuck."

There's a curious crack, crack, cracking noise coming from the other room. Mustang dismisses it for fire, but quickly the crack, crack, cracking becomes a furious pop- pop- pop- pop- poppping. At first Mustang thinks it's the Aerugonians that Ed had tangled with earlier, regaining consciousness and firing their weapons. But the popping is unnaturally rapid and loud, and there's nothing in there for anyone to shoot, and the room was ablaze in fire – and then Mustang's eyes land on the box of weapons lined up against the wall and he understands.

"Go, go, go," he gasps, pushing Ed frantically. He knows all too well what happens when fire meets gunpowder, and God only knows what else could be in those boxes. They run past the old man. He doesn't spare them a glance, eyes fixated on his typewriter. Click, click, click, click, click, click, click, click.

Ed fumbles with the door's locks until he claps his hands and gets rid of it altogether. They leave the grey room in a flurry of quick steps, and are greeted with yellow, yellow, yellow, yellow, yellow.

Mustang's breath catches. An endless desert surrounds him, the golden sands sparkling like diamonds. A shapeless sun stares back him, embracing him with a sweltering heat greater than any fire.

Ed flinches so harshly from the intense light that he staggers backwards. He shields his eyes with a bloody hand and turns away. Mustang breaks away from the mesmerizing landscape and pulls the boy's hand. "Fullmetal, we need to"

But the rest of his words are swallowed by a thundering explosion from behind them. The ground shudders and he nearly falls onto the sand.

Mustang watches as the building they were kept them lights up from inside, the windows all shattering at once. A gust of grey shoots out from every opening, and the walls crack like glass.

Another explosion follows it, louder and deeper. Fire shoots out of the windows. The walls fold and crumble and crash like they were made of mud. It's only as he watches the many floors collapse into each other that Mustang realizes that the building was large.

Another explosion – and then another and another and another, and when a wall slams to the sand besides them that Mustang finally snaps out of it and pulls Edward forward, running.

Ed's feet are shaky and unstable, but he runs nonetheless. They kick and slide and sink in the sand as they leave the exploding building behind them. The sun floats patiently in the horizon, like a large, white door.

"Where are we going?" Ed shouts over another thundering explosion.

"Away from here!" Mustang replies, giving Ed a shove. Far from here, he answers in his mind. Another explosion cracks in the air but he doesn't look back. He runs and runs and runs. As far as we can get from that wretched place. Far, far, far, far, far.


. . . . .


"Are you still mad?" Ed asks quietly, his voice coarse but noticeably stronger than it was before. "About the gloves?"

"What?"

They sit shoulder to shoulder against the cold wall, the mouth of the home revealing nothing but a smooth darkness. The moon perches somewhere behind them; the village's deserted homes cast long, looming shadows against the black sand. But inside, the home is flickering with orange. A small fire is burning over pieces of wood while the pail of water sits near empty besides their feet.

Mustang is still incredulous that he had managed to find the well, and that it had water within it. It was hardly recognizable at first. The well was simply a flat block of stone with a round covering, easily mistaken for a piece of debris. But once he saw the lightly singed pail lying beside it, he knew that had to be it.

He can still recall the feeling of horrible anticipation from when he threw the bucket down the well . . . and then the sweet sound it made when it landed on a watery surface way down below. He almost collapsed from relief. It took him four more tosses before he was able to scoop the water. He drank it so quickly that he made himself sick and ended up throwing it up, but the taste was so refreshing and so magnificent that he didn't care.

The red scene was gone then; it was like the water had cleared his mind and washed away the madness. The corpses vanished and the fires disappeared and the screams were completely muted. The blood sky had burnt out and became a deep, dispassionate purple. All he saw was a desolate village sitting on the flat yellow wasteland, lifeless and bare and barren like it should be. The dead had returned to their resting places, and their spirits had descended back into the depths of his mind.

It wasn't real, Mustang thinks. None if it was real. It was all in my head.

But even as he affirms it, he can still vividly remember the woman with the burnt face with acute clarity – he'll never forget how her face crumbled when Mustang drank the water, how she stared at the village with unfathomable sorrow, how she sank to the ground beside Mustang in grief. Everything about her was so genuinely real that it makes him shudder.

"It was never supposed to look like this," she had said sadly. Her red eyes glowed so brightly in the darkness, so full of fire.

"No," Mustang responded. He stared at the silent village with a thoughtful frown. "But this is how it is, now. We can't do anything about it. We can't change what happened."

"I suppose not." A breeze blew past and the patch of hair on her burnt scalp danced softly. "What are you thinking, Flame Alchemist?"

He was thinking too many things at once that he couldn't possibly articulate it. He was thinking that he didn't deserve this. He didn't deserve to be alive. He should have died there.

He was thinking that he deserved to be punished, that all this wasn't enough of a punishment. He should have suffered more – as he made them suffer.

He was thinking he should have burned there. He should have burned with them. He should have let the sand swallow him as it swallowed them.

"What are you thinking, Flame Alchemist?" The burnt woman asked again, pleadingly. When he looked at her he can taste ash and smell death.

He was thinking too many things, and he realized that was the problem. I wallow in self pity, and for what? What does that accomplish? My God, is this what my guilt has reduced me to? A blind man forever trapped in the past? I can't live like this . . .

"We can't change what happened," he answered her. "We can't. It's happened, and it's over. But . . ."

He was thinking of his goal, of his plans, of all the people that support and believe in him and are committed to his mission. He was thinking about that day in Ishval, so long ago, where he stared up at the Fuhrer and promised himself that he will be there one day, and that he will make a difference. "But . . . I think I can change what will happen."

Then the words of the old man echo loudly in his ear – How many deaths sit on those hands, I wonder – and he was reminded of Edward. "No one else will die here. No one. I will not add another death to my hands."

"You create a past of death and destruction, and now you plan to change the future . . . to change fate." She looked at him solemnly. "You truly are the devil, Flame Alchemist."

The small fire gives an especially large crack and the wood splinters, bringing Mustang back to the present.

Ed shifts in his seat and asks once more, "Are you mad at me for using your gloves?"

The question is so peculiar and unanticipated it gives Mustang pause. He glances at Edward with a slight tilt of his head. Small droplets of water still stick to Ed's hair, trickling to the ground every so often. Tap . . . tap . . . tap.

It had taken a very long time to rouse Ed from the depths of unconsciousness a few hours ago. In the end, when the dread became intolerable and the fear became something frantic, Mustang upturned the bucket over Ed's head and dowsed him with water. Ed's eyes shot open like he had just awoken from a terrible nightmare. Once Mustang managed to get him to drink the water, it was like he was revived, and slowly, coherency and awareness returned. For the both of them.

After a few moments, Mustang answers. "I'm not mad at you."

"But you are mad."

He presses his lips into a firm line. "Yes."

"Why?"

He glances at his gloved hands, eyes tracing the red insignia. Red string, that's all it is. Red string sewn onto a white glove. And yet, it has the capability to ruin lives, to erase futures, to exterminate souls.

"When I saw you wearing my gloves, it was as if all my worst fears came to life," he begins. The words taste awful saying them out loud, and he has to work his mouth a few times before he continues. "I made a promise to myself a long time ago . . . I promised myself that I would never let anyone learn the secrets of fire alchemy because . . . "

He trails off, because suddenly he's bombarded with images of Hawkeye's devastated face, of the small crude grave for the nameless Ishvalan child, of the smell of burning flesh and barely held in whimpers of pain. He shakes his head and says, "That kind of power, no matter whose hands it falls into, is deadly to wield."

As if to spite him, the makeshift fire gives a dull crack. Mustang stares at ruefully and continues, "Flames are like living things – they can grow and breathe, and they have a mind of their own. They do nothing but destroy. It destroys and devours and devastates."

"It saved my life."

Ed's voice cuts in like a flung knife. Mustang purses his lips, unable to think of a response. Ed continues, his voice casual, "Back there, in that building. You didn't see, but there was like half a dozen guys in that room they took me to, all armed to the teeth like they were going to war or something." He's looking at his flesh wrist; the skin is torn a bit and glowing with red. "When I got my hands undone, they all freaked out and jumped on me. I panicked, obviously. Half of them were shooting at me, while the other half were trying to keep my hands apart, and all I was thinking was that there's no way in hell I'm going Drachma."

He shakes his head, letting out a short, incredulous laugh. "Then – I swear, it was like some fucking miracle . . . Your gloves – they were right there, on the ground next to me. I think one of the guys had it in his pocket and must have dropped it during the fight, because all of a sudden, they fall to the ground right next to me. I couldn't believe it."

Miracle, Mustang repeats in his head. Even in his mind it sounds wrong. He looks at his gloved hands and tries to recall a time when his gloves had accomplished something miraculous. He can't.

He stares dubiously at Ed, his words struggling to express his thoughts. "That's not . . . you could have gotten hurt – God, Fullmetal, do you even understand how disastrous it could have gone?"

"Of course I do – you think I don't know the consequences of messing with alchemy?" There's a bit of an edge in his voice, and he shifts in his seat to stare at Mustang. Eyes full of life. "All alchemy has the potential to destroy, and all alchemy has the potential to create – to save. It all depends on how it's used, and who uses it."

Mustang stares out the entrance. "I used it to kill hundreds of people," he says before he can stop himself. Don't – don't go back there. Don't think about that again. Stop, stop, stop.

After a beat, Ed says quietly, "And I used it to resurrect my mom – almost killing Alphonse in the process." The words hang in the air for a few moments, then he continues, "But then I used it again to save his soul, and I'll keep using it until I get his body back."

Mustang's jaw sets as he remains quiet. He swallows Ed's words dryly and he tries to make sense of it all, but all he can see is his fire alchemy destroying village after village, life after life. It doesn't create anything – especially not something miraculous. It just creates more misery. "You don't understand. Fire alchemy is not like other alchemy; it's a weapon, meant to hurtand –"

"What about that fire?" Ed interrupts, his chin jerking towards the tiny flames in front of them. "Didn't your fire alchemy make it? Who's it hurting?"

"That's not the point—"

"There isn't a point. Like you said, you're scared. I get it — no, shut up and listen to me. I'm trying to be helpful." He shifts in his seat, sitting up straighter. "You've been scared ever since we got that report, right? You were scared, because you thought that this supposedly new fire alchemist would use the alchemy the same way you did — or probably use it for something worse."

I wasn't scared, Mustang wants to say. I was terrified.

Ed continues, "but he didn't – since, clearly, he doesn't exist."

"Clearly," Mustang agrees.

"Regardless, though. You were still scared of that hypothetical situation, right?" He doesn't wait for Mustang to answer, just continues, "And that fear messed you up; you were distracted, your head wasn't in the game, and you couldn't think rationally. I saw it. What I'm trying to tell you is, next time you get scared, just think about that fire. Because of that fire, we're warm, right? Your fire alchemy is making sure we don't freeze to death. That's something good, right?"

Mustang looks at the fire. He remembers sitting on the floor after he drenched Edward with the water to wake him up, and remembers a few minutes after that how he shivered so badly that water sprinkled off of him. Ironic, how hours before we were being burned alive by the day's heat and all we wanted was to feel a cold chill. And now that we have it, our bodies refuse to tolerate it. He knew they needed to make a fire to warm themselves, but he had hesitated at first.

I'm scared of my own weapon, Mustang thinks. I only ever think about the horrible things it can do, never about the good.

"Or you can just think of me," Ed continues, flashing him a devious smile, teeth and all. "I'm only alive cause of your fire alchemy, right? I think that fact alone should put your mind at ease – hopefully give you some pleasant dreams."

He knows Ed is teasing, but his words hold so much truth that Mustang feels heavy just hearing them. I'm only alive cause of your fire alchemy. That's true. His alchemy did that – my fire alchemy can save lives.

He stares at his gloves in awe, and looks at Edward. Edward, who's eyes are so full of life. Alive – He's alive because he used my gloves. He looks at the fire as it dances mirthfully.

("How many deaths sit on those hands, I wonder.")

No, Mustang thinks. Not deathsnot anymoreLivesLives sit on these hands, tooAnd only lives will sit here from now on.

"I'm sorry I used your gloves," Ed says quietly.

"No, you're not," Mustang replies, a ghost of a smile playing on his lips.

Ed grins. "You're right. I'm not."

Ed falls asleep a few minutes afterwards. Mustang isn't alarmed this time, able to recognize the difference between unconsciousness and rest. Ed's even breathes accompany the crackling fire as the only sounds in the stone home. Mustang revels in it.

He doesn't sleep, choosing instead to keep vigil. The hours trickle by until Mustang decides to revisit the well. He moves Ed's weight off of him and settles him on the ground, his jacket rolled up underneath his head. He grabs the pail and hesitates for a brief moment before he leaves.

He half expects to see the gruesome scene from before being played out in front of him, but all that's there is a quiet village in the dead of night. No fires, no corpses, no screaming. He takes a step and doesn't remember ever feeling this light before in his life.

His eyes have adjusted in the darkness and he maneuvers around the rubble with ease. When he reaches the well, he pauses. Something in the distance catches his eye and he squints to see it better.

The darkness makes it hard to distinguish the sky from the ground, so at first Mustang thinks it's a shooting star. The light moves slowly across the horizon, shining against the sand.

Mustang's heart is at his throat when he realizes what it actually is – a car.

He drops the pail and runs in its direction, blood hammering in his ears. He dashes past the homes until he's at the outskirt of the tiny village, until there is nothing standing between him and the moving car but a vast sea of sand.

He follows the car with his eyes. It is completely oblivious to his presence, and much too far to even see him. In a few minutes it would drive over the large hill, disappearing from sight.

I have to get their attention, Mustang realizes. He raises his hand quickly, but doubt swallows him whole like a starved python. A harsh voice whispers in his mind, that's not help.

He balks. He realizes he doesn't know who's in the car. It could be anyone . . . could be someone dangerous – hell, it could be people working for that old man. They could be looking for us, looking for their products. Looking to take us back – to sell us . . .

He lowers his hand cautiously. The car drives on. Another part of him bristles, and Mustang realizes he's breathing too quickly. It could be Hawkeye – that could be Hawkeye looking for us. Of course – what am I thinking? I need to get her attention – before she goes. Before we're trapped here. Before we die here. It's Hawkeye, it has to be!

But what if it's not. Wrapped in the coolness of the night, Mustang begins to sweat. His eyes never leave the car. Am I so paranoid that I would let this chance slip?

But he doesn't know – he doesn't know. The car drives on, and he doesn't know whether it's an ally or enemy. If that car comes, it could either be their demise or their salvation.

But – if he let's the car go . . . then they were doomed nonetheless.

Mustang squeezes his eyes shut. A part of him expects to hear a third voice – the voice of the woman with the burnt face. But when he opens his eyes, there's no one around him. He is alone, and only he can make the decision.

He stares at his gloved hands. Nothing but white gloves with red string. Just cloth. It's just cloth. But . . . I can make a fire . . . I can get their attention . . . if I snap my fingers, I can save us . . .

His hand twitches. – or I can kill us . . .

Before another thought can enter his brain, he raises his hand and snaps.

The flames erupt a few yards ahead of him. The explosion is large and ostentatious and stands out so starkly against the darkness. Mustang doesn't look at it. His eyes never leave the moving car.

He watches it as it drives on and on and on – then, stops. It makes a sharp turn, and the car starts driving in his direction. They saw the fire. The headlights are just two yellow orbs in the distance, but as they drive closer and closer, it becomes larger and larger.

The lights are like spotlights pointed at him when it reaches him, and for a moment he is blinded by it. He hears the tires growl to a halt in the sand. A door opens and feet land on the ground.

He is trembling with anticipation, he realizes. He recalls Ed's words, "All alchemy has the potential to destroy, and all alchemy has the potential to create – to save."

These gloves saved Ed before, he muses when the footsteps approach him. Will it do the same for me? Did my flames just seal my fate, or did it save me?

He finds out once his vision clears. He blinks the spots away and sees a person standing in front of him, the headlights from behind outlining them with yellow light

"I'll manage," Riza Hawkeye scoffs, echoing his words from a thousand years ago. She grabs his gloved hand, maneuvers his fingers so that it isn't in a snapping position, and lowers it for him gently. "This is not what I would call managing, Colonel."

Mustang closes his eyes and smiles.


. . . . .


End