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. . . . . . . . . .


He only stops running after his legs begin to ache in distress, after his face is drenched in sweat that he can't see clearly, and after his lungs wheeze in agony with every exhale.

He can't seem to stop immediately, so Mustang has to slow his pace carefully, his feet weak and all but dragging onto the sand. A clumsy step, then another, and another, and finally he comes to a complete stop. He hears Ed do the same from behind him, the sand rolling and folding as it parts.

"This," he starts to say, but the rest of his words are trapped in his throat. He wheezes loudly, the noise painful to hear and even more so to expel. He bends down, hands on his knees, and pants loudly and dryly. Each breath sends a stabbing pain to his side, as if he had just ran a marathon underwater.

He swallows thickly and tries once more. "This should be far enough." His voice sounds unfamiliar to his ears; It's dry and weak and barely an octave above a whisper.

His knees shake from the exertion that they were forced to labor. The sun blares down on them with acute enthusiasm; Its rays feel physical, a force of hot gravity weighing down on him.

(The air is fire. It burns and blinds and is so hot – so unbelievably hot and bright and yellow and red and blue.)

The sand swallows his feet like a yellow ocean. His mind is buzzing, and for a moment he thinks that it's literally sizzling from the heat. The ringing hasn't stopped, and the throbbing only seems to get heavier. An orchestra of noises plays in his head, unorganized and in complete disarray.

And the voices...

(He can still hear the screaming.)

Focus, he tells himself, but he hardly hears the word in his head. He makes his mind's voice louder and says again – focusFocus, focus, focus. Don't get sucked in. Not now.

Mustang straightens himself to his full height. He takes off his military coat in three swift motions and tosses it aside. The heavy garment hardly makes a sound when it lands on the soft ground, the sand absorbing the impact. The heat immediately licks his bare arms like an inflamed tongue.

Ed follows suite with his red coat, but is slow and sluggish. He's quiet when he does it, but the frustration is clear on his face. Mustang moves to help him, and is silently troubled when the boy makes no move to object.

Then again, Mustang doubts either one of them even has the energy to squabble. Energy and strength seem to have dissipated the moment they stopped running – the moment they got here – the moment they knew it was over for them.

"Sit down," Mustang says. Is that really his voice? He swallows again but his mouth is dry. He tries not to think about how badly his legs are shaking when he folds them underneath him. The sand feels like a warm wool rug, every grain pressing into him sharply.

Ed sits down like a man five times his age. His hands spread out a bit, as if he's afraid he might fall over. He kneels on the ground first, then sits back and crosses his legs. The entirety of it takes about less than a minute, but Ed looks utterly spent once he settles.

Mustang takes off his gloves and pockets them. He won't need them now…or at least, he hopes not. He looks back toward the way they came, the sand disturbed and messy. They covered a lot of ground, but a part of Mustang thinks its not enough.

They might be behind them, Mustang knows, and if they are then there's no doubt that they would be exceedingly angry. If they didn't kill them before, they're definitely out for blood now. They need to cover more ground, create more distance.

Mustang wipes the sweat off his brow with his bare forearm. He doesn't want to think about that ordeal right now. He's got another one that needs dealing with right in front of him.

He gets to work. Mustang gingerly places a hand on each side of Ed's temple, tilting it this way and that, examining the wound on his head. Blood covers half of the boy's face, and the jagged cut is sluggishly producing more. Mustang grimaces at its severity.

He tilts the boy's head down and stares into his eyes. Unfocused and dull golden eyes stare back at him, as expected. His bruised eye already shows signs of swelling. He places two fingers on Ed's neck and frowns at the quick heartbeat that he feels, but that may just as well be from all the running they endured.

"Bad, huh?" Ed mumbles. His golden bangs are smeared with red and are pasted on his forehead. The contrast of it against his pale face makes him look sickly.

Terrible, Mustang wants to tell him. It's unbelievably awful. You couldn't have saved me some trouble and gotten a a small, superficial cut – no, you just had to crack your head open, didn't you, Fullmetal? The boy is definitely concussed, and considering the large bump, Mustang knows it's a severe one. He wonders how the boy is even still conscious.

"Could be worse," he says instead.

Ed snorts. "Yeah. 'Cause nothing's worse than being stranded in a desert with you."

In the distance, the intense heat blurs the desert hills. Behind him, he can see a small speck of a silhouette that outlines the wreckage. Smoke lingers into the air as if the debris were a candle that had just been snuffed.

"I disagree," Mustang says. "Try being stranded in a desert with you."


. . . . . . . . . .


The report has left him with a bad taste in his mouth. He's on his third glass of water now, and yet Mustang still can't seem to wash out the bitter tang.

The office feels small and uncomfortable and all too bright. He wants to pull the curtains shut, but knows that will only make the room unnecessarily dark, and he needs all the air he can get to come into the room. The summer heat wave is exceptionally adamant in making itself known, especially in Eastern Headquarters.

Ed is exceptionally adamant in making his displeasure known. His scowl is exaggerated and drawn even after Mustang made it perfectly clear that there was no more room for argument. Yet, even after the fighting and shouting, Fullmetal sulks like the child he is, slouched into the couch with his arms crossed and his chin down, no doubt with more on his mind to say.

It's just the three of them in the office – himself, Fullmetal, and Hawkeye – and yet, he can feel strokes of claustrophobia tickling his throat. His day has not been going well so far. Well, in truth he says that about everyday, but he knows that this day is particularly awful in a league of its own. Nothing seems to be agreeing with him. It's not even afternoon yet and all he wants to do is go home and drink himself straight into the warm embrace of oblivion.

He blames it on the report.

He wishes he never read the report. He wishes he never picked it up, never opened it, never leafed through it. He wishes he could unread it and go on without ever having to. More fiercely, he wishes it never set foot in his office to begin with.

No – that's not true. It had to come to his office. He knows he would be even angrier if it hadn't been given to him. He knows why it had to be him . . . but he still wishes it could have been someone else.

He mentally snorts at that. As if there's someone else.

Fullmetal is tapping his foot noisily and incessantly. Mustang ignores him easily, almost like second nature. He lifts his fountain pen, allowing Hawkeye to slide the second approval form under his poised hand. He can feel Ed's glare boring into him like he always does when he doesn't get his way. Mustang wishes for once, for once, that the brat would just accept his decision without questioning it, like a proper subordinate. For once. Just to make his life a little bit easier.

He brings his pen down, ready to sign the form and be done with it all, and of course that's when Ed chooses to speak up.

"Seriously, Colonel. This is ridiculous – I don't need a babysitter. What happened in Oldtown was not my fault. You can't do this to me!"

Mustang frowns because he's had this argument only moments ago and he is not in the mood for a second round. His patience is running very thin, but he manages to keep his voice leveled through clenched teeth. "What happened in Oldtown, was, without a doubt, your fault."

He takes a small breath to reign in his temper. He's yelled enough for one day. That was his limit. If he starts another screaming match with Fullmetal, he'll be left in foul mood all day, which would leave Hawkeye in a foul mood all day, and then nothing productive will happen all day, which would mean he would have to be stuck in here longer.

The tip of his pen rests atop the paper, but it doesn't move. He adds, "And this has nothing to do with that. It's an assignment, simple as that – and for God's sake, it's not babysitting."

God knows you need one, he wants to say, but then that would definitely make the shouting start again.

A breeze trickles into the room and Mustang savors it. After this, he decides vehemently, I'm going outside, everything be damned. He's been cooped up inside this office all day like a prisoner, reading over reports about missing soldiers that has nothing to do with him. He desperately needs some fresh air. He desperately needs to not think.

He signs the approval form in one long stroke. Fullmetal looks like he's in physical pain when he finishes looping the 'g'. He deflates on the couch, almost sinks into the cushions, and his scowl deepens. "This is so stupid. I can't believe you're doing this to me. You know I can do this assignment all on my own, no problem!"

"I'm sure you can." He puts away his pen and hands the form to Hawkeye.

"I never needed anyone else before, either. I've caught rogue alchemists dozens of times without help. DozensColonel! Probably more – actually, most likely more. All without help! I don't get why I need one now."

"Mhm."

Ed groans loudly, and he drags that obnoxious noise out for two more seconds. "Can't someone else come with me? Anyone else?"

"No."

Another obnoxious groan. "Can't I not go?"

"No."

His scowl turns into an angry pout. Hawkeye hands back Mustang the approval form, only now it's in a large yellow envelope that houses the first form as well. Mustang takes it, signs him name on it, and places it on his desk. He looks at Fullmetal, then back at the envelope, then back at Fullmetal again.

Ed rolls his eyes and stands up, saying, "You're such a petty bastard, you know that? One small problem in one small rundown village, and all of a sudden I need to have a babysitter on my next mission." He spits out the word as if it burns his mouth to hold in.

"This is not about Oldtown," Mustang growls, again. "And I hardly call losing a man's business a small thing."

Ed bristles at that. "They're just sheep! And I didn't lose anything – that fence was already broken when I got there!"

"Which you broke even further with your needless showing-off."

"I was in the middle of a fight!"

"You could have moved, or better yet, could have gone back and retrieved the man's only source of income."

"Do I look like a shepherd to you? I don't know how catch sheep!"

"You could have at least tried. There's over a hundred sheep roaming that town because of you."

"I'm sure they'll come back!"

"Enough." Mustang stands up, two fingers pinching the bridge of his nose. There's that wonderful headache he always gets when Fullmetal starts shouting. There it goes, bang bang banging against his skull.

Mustang grabs the envelope and tosses to Edward. The boy clumsily catches it with one hand, two hands, and looks down at it with disgust.

Mustang points to the door. "Go. Take that to the fourth floor – no, I am not discussing this with you anymore. You are going on this mission, I am coming with you, and you will do exactly as I tell you, when I tell you. Do I make myself clear?"

The response he gets is the thundering slam of his office door closing behind a flurry of red and yellow.


. . . . . . . . . .


He tears apart Ed's coat to make makeshift bandages, the noise filling the silence. He doesn't ask or even announce that he plans on mutilating the garment, just does so all the while ignoring Ed's frown. It's not an easy task, and requires more strength than he originally thought.

(Strength he doesn't have. He's tired and thirsty and weak and his limbs feel heavier than they ought to be.)

He laces a few around Ed's head and ensures that they're tight and secure. The boy winces and hisses at every application of pressure, but Mustang tells him to suck it up because he needs to stop the bleeding. The red ribbons of cloth and the bloody face and the black eye make Edward look more wild than usual.

Mustang's hands are glistening with blood when he finishes. He grabs for the torn coat again, and sand sticks to his fingers. He wraps the remainder of the coat around Ed's automail shoulder, ensuring that the sun's glare won't reach it.

Good, he thinks. He's finished one task. He wastes no time and assesses himself quickly and finds what he already knows; he is unscathed, unharmed, and intact. Little bruises here and there, but overall he came out lucky, or at least luckier than Ed.

Ed falls into another quite trance. Mustang tries not to think about how much that bothers him. Instead, he reaches for his own discarded coat and wraps the sleeves around his own head to make a crude turban to shade his forehead and eyes. The sun is cruel and merciless, and he needs to shield himself from it as best he can.

(Because he knows – He knows all too well how the sun is in this part of the world. He knows that, here, the sun changes. It becomes something else. It becomes a hellish heretic, over exceeding its purpose and striking down anyone in its path.)

( – He thought he would never find himself in its path again.)

The desert is as lifeless as it is infinite. He sees nothing but yellow and blue, and the grey that their shadows cast. The air is barren, pregnant with nothing but heat. Every direction he turns his head he is rewarded with the same sight – a horizon of wavy caravans with no clear outline.

(A realm of desolation and death.)

Behind him is what worries him the most. Now, it's simply a charred pile of debris and rubble, but before . . . before it was something dangerous. Something Mustang would not want to revisit. It holds the answer to the question he never asked, but always dreaded.

("Do you wonder, Mr. Mustang?" The insignificant man with the thick accent and the book asks. He is frail and powerless, but he has the answers. The man is absolutely nothing, old and withering and near blind, but he knows. "Do you think they forget? Do you forget?")

Mustang wipes his hands on his pants, staining them with blood and red sand. He forces himself to quiet the voices of his memories. He can't dwell on that now. He doesn't have the luxury. He waves a hand in front of Ed's line of vision. "Hey. You with me?"

Ed swats the hand away clumsily. "I'm concussed, not brain dead."

Mustang hums skeptically, which makes Ed roll his eyes. He says, "Small mercies. Let's go, then."

Ed's blood caked brow furrows. "Go? Go where?" His eyes are wide and dubious. "In case you haven't noticed, we're in the middle of nowhere. There isn't anywhere to go."

"We need to keep going." Mustang says it easily and obviously enough. Sweat trickles down the back of his neck and he is reminded of how absolutely thirsty he is. "It's too dangerous to stay here."

"And you think wandering around in a fucking desert isn't?"

"Fullmetal," He starts, matching his tone, then pauses to level his voice with a breath. He needs to be calm – or at least the calm one of the two of them. If they start arguing, they'd just waste all the energy they could be using to get as far away from here as humanly possible –

(Because, God, he can't stay here. He knows he can't stay here. He's remembering things he doesn't want to, and he knows it's only going to get worse. It's going to get worse and worse and worse and worse and worse and worse.)

– so he takes another steady breathe and says, "If we stay here, out in the open and in clear sight, it makes it all the more easier for them to find us. Just because we got out does not mean we're safe. Not yet."

Fullmetal looks at him doubtfully. His dry and cracked lips form a sinking frown. "You make it sound like they could be following us or something."

"It's a possibility."

"It's paranoia," Ed snaps back, his voice scratching the air. "Colonel, we dropped a building on their heads. You get that, right? Don't you think they have more important things to deal with besides trekking through a desert for some petty revenge?"

("Revenge changes people," the old man rasps. He has made it his life work to know things. He knows so much of what Mustang doesn't want to know. "Evil, evil thing, to make someone want revenge. You change them.")

Mustang stills. The memories breeze past his eyes like a flapping curtain. Don't think about that, he tell himself. It's over. He doesn't want to think about it. Doesn't want to think about the old man, or the empty room, or the words spoken.

"This isn't up for debate," Mustang says, standing. "We're leaving, and I won't hear another word about it. Do I make myself clear?"

"Isn't up for debate," Ed mocks with a scoff. "Yeah, because that worked so well for us the last time."

Ed is still muttering when he goes to stand, sand slipping from the sleeves of his pants. Mustang offers him a hand to help, but the boy slaps it away. He is unsteady as he untangles his limbs, and when he stands, he lists dangerously to one side.

Mustang catches his elbow before he could fall. Ed blinks rapidly, frowning. He shakes his head a bit, and takes a hesitant step forward, then another, then shrugs off Mustang's hand altogether.

"Are you alright?" Mustang asks unnecessarily. He knows the answer to that – of course he's not alright. He looks like he's completely forgotten how to walk, and his face has paled considerably since he got on his feet; He looks like he's about to fall over again.

"Fine," Ed mumbles. He catches Mustang looking at him and adds, "just dizzy. I'm fine."

Mustang isn't comforted. He waits until Edward starts walking and maintains his step beside him. There's so much sand in his shoes he may as well be walking barefoot. Their feet drag across the sand, leaving a messy trail in their wake.

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


. . . . . . . . . .


It's a fire alchemist.

According to the reports and the numerous eyewitness accounts, a fire alchemist was seen setting fires in random buildings throughout the small eastern city of Cameron. One witness states that she saw a man paint "strange marks" on the walls of the building, before suddenly, the structure burst into wild flames.

A fire alchemist.

The train rattles like a nervous horse underneath him. Mustang's nose wrinkles and he puts the paper in his hand down on the small table between the seats. There's no way he can read with all this arbitrary movement, so he waits for the train to settle by watching the bland scenery fly past his window. The train continues to buck and jostle for a few more impatient seconds, before finally relaxing onto undisturbed tracks.

He picks up his paper and reads it once more. There are a dozen more papers scattered on the table, all coffee stained and wrinkled, all holding information that he has read countless times over. Hawkeye sits across from him, eyes skimming through a file in her steady hands.

fire alchemist.

The idea of it makes his stomach churn and his teeth grind. It shouldn't be possible, but the facts were right in front of him.

No one should be able to have that knowledge, Mustang thinks angrily as he spares a glance over to Hawkeye. Fire alchemy's secrets have never been disclosed to anyone in a very long time – no one should be able to suddenly know how to perform it.

Especially not an unknown rogue alchemist in the rural eastern city of Cameron.

Mustang finishes reading the report in his possession and lifts up his hand over his head. From the seat behind him, Fullmetal reaches over and takes the offered paper, swapping it out for the one he previously had. Mustang takes the paper and places it on the pile that he mentally labeled as read. Hawkeye hands him the file that was in her hand and takes the new one from the pile of unread documents.

It is an orderly and quiet system, and seems to be the only thing that provides Mustang with some semblance of respite. Repetitiveness and uniformity relaxes him. It ensures him that nothing unexpected will occur. The silence is also a welcome reprieve; he hears nothing but the sound of the train moving, of the rattle Alphonse's armor, and the murmuring of the passengers' lulled conversations.

The sky takes on a deep purple color, the sun peeking through the high mountains. They boarded the train midday, and it's beginning to appear that they will arrive in Cameron early evening. Mustang knows he shouldn't be annoyed by that since purchasing train tickets last minute has a high risk of leaving at unfavorable times, but every little thing seems to be irritating him nowadays.

A fucking fire alchemist.

"Stop it," Hawkeye says suddenly, her voice penetrating the silence like a bullet.

Mustang looks up at her and frowns. She's glaring at him, and he wonders what he had done to annoy her. She doesn't say anything, only darts her eyes towards his bouncing knee. Mustang blinks. He didn't even realize he was tapping his foot, nor did he hear it.

"Sorry," he says, crossing his legs.

"You should eat something," Hawkeye says after a few minutes. She looks at him without raising her head from the report in her hand and adds, knowingly, "You look unwell."

He wonders if his frustration is that evident that she could clearly notice it. He quickly doubts that thought – no, of course not. Hawkeye simply has a superior aptitude in observation. Nothing slips that woman. "The heat bothers me," he replies casually.

Nothing about her expression changes. She doesn't even twitch. And yet, the atmosphere around her alters, and it's strikingly clear that she doesn't believe him. "We are travelling east," she says, putting a subtle emphasis on her words. "It's only bound to get hotter."

Mustang looks at the paper in his hands but doesn't read it. "I'll manage," he replies after a moment. He glances at her and adds, "I've managed before."

"That was a long time ago." The train enters a tunnel and their cart darkens. The lights inside are dim and weak, but Hawkeye's brown eyes are vivid and clear. "Will you be alright? This far east?" He knows she's not talking about the heat anymore.

A beat passes. The train rocks about inside the tunnel. Its wheels thunder atop the metal railway, crunching on small rocks in its path. Mustang does not take his eyes off his Lieutenant. "Will you?"

A small smile, and the slight cock of her head, before she says, "I'll manage."

Mustang smirks. The train exits the tunnel and they are bombarded with light. The green and blue and brown and grey of the scenery mesh together as they dash forward.

"Hey – Colonel." Edward is leaning over from the back seat, shoving a paper in his face as Alphonse chastises, "Brother, don't stand on the seats – you're getting mud all over them!"

His blonde head pokes over the headrest of Mustang's seat as his automail arm dangles near his ear. "Look at this one. This witness says he saw our guy drawing 'squiggly lines and shapes' on the walls. Look. Right there."

He takes the paper from his hand just so that it could stop blocking his view. "I know. I just read that report. What's your point?"

Edward's voice takes on an impatient tone. "So, every alchemist knows that the salamander is the main symbol of fire alchemy, right? Obviously if this guy is drawing fire alchemy transmutation circles, he had to squeeze in a salamander or two. This witness never mentions seeing it. I mean, he can see lines and shapes but he can't make out a drawing of a lizard? And it's not just him, too. The other witnesses don't even mention it – don't you think it's weird?"

"No." Mustang pushes the paper over his head and onto Edward's face. "Read it over. All the arsons were committed at night, and the witnesses all state that they saw the culprit from a distance. There's no way they can accurately make out any of the symbols with detail."

Ed takes the report and looks it over begrudgingly. "…Still. If I saw some guy drawing a salamander on a wall, I'm pretty sure would think it's worth mentioning."

Mustang doesn't doubt that sentiment. Fullmetal's findings don't come as a surprise to him. The first time he read the report, he immediately noted the lack of detail the witnesses provided when describing the transmutation circles. It seems none of them could accurately identify one symbol on the alleged fire alchemy transmutations – yet they were all able to recognize them as transmutation circles.

It was mysterious, but not suspicious. Mustang brushes off Ed's reservations and says, "Don't lose focus on our goal. We're here to catch this person, not analyze their handiwork."

"No, we're here – " he jerks a thumb back to Alphonse " – to catch the guy. You're just here to boss us around and steal all the credit and glory like the narcissistic bastard that you are," Fullmetal says loudly and childishly, throwing himself back in his seat heavily enough to make Mustang's seat bump. He hears armor creak, and a disapproving sigh. "That wasn't very nice, Brother."

Mustang puts down the report in his hand with a sigh. His concentration has escaped him, and he doubts he'll be able to get it back anytime soon. It would be futile to try and read the reports now. He feels uncomfortably warm and unbuttons his military coat. He wants to open the window, but last time he did that, the wind sent his papers scattering all over the cart. "How much further?"

"Half an hour," Hawkeye answers automatically. She also puts her respective report down. The table between them is littered with papers upon papers upon papers. He doesn't recall how long they've been at it, pouring over the documents and attempting to retain all the information, but he thinks it's about time to call it a day.

"Accommodations?" He asks, because he is desperately craving a bed and a hot meal. Anything to relax. He feels so wound up and tense that the slightest of touches could break him down.

"An inn just outside of Cameron, three rooms. I recommend we go straight there when we arrive, and begin our investigation in the morning." She looks at him knowingly, "I'm sure we're all tired."

He wonders to himself, as he stares into those placid brown eyes, if this mission is tormenting her as much it is tormenting him. He wonders if she too couldn't sleep last night after reading the report, if she was also plagued with nightmares of fire and death and screaming. He wonders if the memories she had buried so deeply in her mind have risen, angrier and clearer than ever. He wonders if she can hear the faintest sound of screaming, even now, as they stare at each other.

Mustang looks away from those magnetic eyes and suppresses a shudder. He notices that he's clenched his fists so tightly that his hands have paled. He wants to reach into his pockets and put on his gloves, just so he can feel the comfort of the cloth around his skin, but squashes that urge. He uncurls his hands slowly, staring at his fingers.

"Agreed," he finally says. "We can't get anything done during the night. Hopefully, this assignment won't drag on . . . or result in any unnecessary property damage."

"Oh, ha ha," Ed says sarcastically from behind. "Aren't you just so funny." Mustang's seat jolts and Ed is once again standing over him. An exasperated sigh is heard. "Brother, just go around if you want to talk to him. You don't have to stand on the seat."

Ed ignores his brother and tells Mustang, "For your information, we probably won't even break a sweat trying to get this guy. Look –" A sheet of paper is shoved into Mustang's face as Ed continues talking, "Says here our criminal mastermind only burns down empty buildings in the middle of the night, so all we gotta do is stake out an empty building. Easy, right? Cameron is small, so I doubt we'll have any trouble finding one. No sweat."

The train jumps and Ed yelps. Mustang takes the paper from his hand just before Ed falls in his seat. Alphonse is snickering and an indignant, "Oh, shut up, Al," is muttered.

"A pattern, then," Mustang says quietly, reading the report.

Ed is back over him, his arms on top of the headrest while his chin rests on his crossed forearms. "Yup. He thinks he's being clever or something. Wants to be like one of those criminals that leaves a signature at the crime scene so everyone can know he did it. But the moron doesn't know that repetitiveness just means he's lazy and boring and can't think of anything original."

Mustang frowns at Ed's suggestive tone and glares at him, ignoring the small smirk that plays on Hawkeye's lips. "Repetition guarantees control and balance," he says, much too loudly and a little too defensively.

Ed smiles slyly. "Yeah, it's also the first sign of insanity."

Mustang glares at him and Ed smirks back. He rolls the paper and swats him over the head with it. "Smartass."

"Bastard."

"Behave yourselves," says Hawkeye.

Mustang shifts in his seat to a more comfortable position, his knee hitting the bottom of the table. He skims the report over to confirm Ed's findings. "We'll conduct the stakeout tomorrow night, then. If you're right, then this assignment should be completed as early as tomorrow evening."

"Of course I'm right. It'll be a breeze. Don't even worry about it."

"Who said I was worried?"

"Don't play dumb with me, Colonel. I see it," He leans in, his expression sleazy. "You're worried about the competition, aren't ya? Afraid this guy is going to replace you as Amestris' favorite pyromaniac?" He laughs obnoxiously. "Who knows, maybe he's a better fire alchemist than you – probably doesn't even have to do any snapping. Maybe he's got transmutation circles tattooed in his eyelids and just blinks to make fire. Or maybe he's your long lost love child, hoping to follow in his daddy's footsteps. I doubt there's just one of them out there."

"Brother!" Alphonse gasps, mortified. He yanks Edward back by the collar of his coat. "I'm so sorry, Colonel – Brother! That was very inappropriate! Apologize to the Colonel!"

Ed snickers loudly while his brother chastises him, but Mustang vaguely hears them.

A fire alchemist.

All he hears is the roar of fire and the screaming. He thinks about his fire alchemy – thinks about how it was used – thinks about how he used it. He sees the fire and hears the screaming and sees the death and hears the pleading and feels the warmth and tastes the ash –

"Fire alchemy does nothing but destroy," Mustang says lowly. His voice rasps as he pushes the words out. His knee is bouncing again and his fists clench. "No one will ever know its accursed secrets. As long as I'm still breathing, I will make damn well sure it's never used again."


. . . . . . . . . .


He doesn't know how many hours they've been walking, but he does know that there were many and that they were all excruciating. What he does know with absolute certainty is how many steps he has walked – Eight thousand, four hundred and two.

It's a tedious method of distraction, but it has successfully preoccupied his mind thus far. Before, he had reached about seventeen thousand steps, but had lost count when Edward collapsed to the ground, dry heaving and retching. Mustang was by his side immediately, rubbing at his back while Ed's body tried to expel the nonexistent contents of his stomach. It stretched on for a few minutes before they were both back on their feet, and Mustang went back to counting anew. One, two, three . . .

Mustang stares at his feet as he trudges forward. The sand is like a yellow cream, spilling over with every lift of his boot. He doesn't want to look away from it because he knows what he'll see –

(Gold and sapphire, so sharp is burns his eyes to see. The world is flipped. The endless sea is above him, and the burning inferno of the setting sun is burying him.)

– so stares it at his feet.

They are climbing a large inclination of dry sand. The hill is tall, but not steep, which is the only silver lining Mustang can find. The sun looms behind them, closer to the ground but still high enough to color the sky blue. In a few hours, it will set and they'll be engulfed in darkness.

Left foot, right foot. Mustang repeats it over in his mind. Left foot, right foot. He repeats it over and over like a religious mantra, and counts. Eight thousand, four hundred and four. Eight thousand, four hundred and five. Even in his head, he sounds out of breathe.

He realizes hasn't stopped panting and that his lungs haven't stopped quaking since they set out. He sounds like an elderly dog. It's like he's walking through an invisible flame, slowly burning every layer of him until he's nothing but charred bones. The heat presses down on him heartlessly and he longs for any type of shade. He longs for water, for cold air, for sleep.

(He thinks, there's no way he can last out here. Perhaps a day or two before he collapses to the ground, before the sand takes him and buries him. That's all. If the desert heat doesn't dry him out, then the night's cold will surely smother him.)

Left foot, right foot, he tells himself, trying to drown out the other voice in his head. The voice that is not breathless. The voice that is so damn sure of itself.

His eyes trail briefly towards Ed. The blood on his head has dried, turning it into a decaying red color. Mustang doesn't like the way he carries himself, how he drags his feet, how his shoulders slump, how his eyes droop.

(And how long does Ed have, he worries most of all. An untreated concussion is fatal, and he's already showing the obvious symptoms. How long does he have? Probably not even a day, hours at least.)

Eight thousand, four hundred and ten. Eight thousand, four hundred and eleven. Mustang ignores his undesirable thoughts. Thinking like that won't get him anywhere. As long as they keep going, and get as far away from the wreckage as they can, they'll be fine. We'll be fine. They just need to keep going.

(And how far can they walk? How far, before the thirst becomes unbearable, before the heat becomes unendurable, before the exhaustion becomes intolerable?)

No, Mustang thinks. Sand rolls as he trudges forward. He can see the top of the inclination now, but it's still so far. His feet dig into the sand with each long stride. They can make it, Mustang assures himself. They will endure as much as they can. They've survived worse. Nobody is dying today.

("How many deaths sit on those hands, I wonder," the old man asks.)

Nobody is dying today, Mustang insists to himself. He squeezes his eyes tightly, forcing the memories to disperse from his mind. Left foot, right foot. But closing his eyes only makes the memories vivid and lifelike, and he sees fire, and the old the man's face, and bodies burning, and a desert of graves.

He opens his eyes immediately. The sun pierces his vision like a sword, sending him a nauseating headache. He stares ahead at the top of the sandy hill, knowing precisely what lays on the other side, and the voice in his head changes. It becomes many voices now, and even though they are faint, he can hear them clearly.

(He hears the screaming.)

Eight thousand, four hundred and f-fifteen.

His vision blurs and his two feet become four, then six. He blinks rapidly, and tries to look elsewhere. His eyes lands on Edward, who hardly bends his knees as he walks. So pale and sluggish and bloody, he looks inches away from death –

"If he dies, are you going to burn his body?" A woman in a scorched dress asks, the side of her head burned off so neatly that the white of her skull and the pink of her brain are visible.

Mustang startles so badly when he sees her that he knocks into Edward and they both fall to the ground. Ed cries out, but Mustang doesn't hear him. He twists and kicks as he tries to stand back up as quickly as he possibly can.

His heart is slamming against his chest and it's the only sound he can hear. He whips his head around wildly, but the woman is gone. His blood pumps loudly in his ears.

But she was just here. He saw here – he heard her.

He keeps turning his head in every direction, thinking that he may have missed her, but all he sees is an endless plane of yellow. There's nothing. There's no one here.

Mustang shakily pushes his hair back. Fuck, he thinks. Fuck, Fuck, Fuck, Fuck, Fuck! He's losing his mind. He's losing his goddamn mind – no, no, no. It's the desert. It's the heat. The exhaustion, the thirst – it's all playing with his mind. He's tired, that's all. His mind wandered, and he's simply imagining things.

It's the heat, Mustang tells himself, over and over and over again, but he can't seem to calm his racing heart. His ribs threaten to break with every fervent beat, but Mustang just repeats it some more. It's the heat. It's the heat. It's just the heat.

Ed groans from the ground, and Mustang realizes he hasn't gotten back up. He kneels down and him sit up. Edward groans louder and cradles his head. "What the fuck, Colonel. Ow…"

Mustang opens his mouth to answer, then turns his head around quickly. When he sees nothing, he shifts his attention back to Edward. It's just the heat. "Sorry, I . . . lost my footing." He can't stop the tremor from leaking into his voice. It's just the heat, it's just the heat, it's just the heat.

("If he dies, are you going to burn his body?" It's a whisper now, like the wind is speaking to him in confinement. "If he dies, are you going to burn his body?")

"Fuck," Ed says, squeezing his eyes shut. "Everything's spinning…"

Mustang's hands won't stop shaking. He puts one on Ed's shoulder and says, "Come on. We need to keep going."

Ed shakes his head. "No way. I can't."

"Yes, you can. Get up."

"Hold on! Just give me a minute."

"We need to go now, Fullmetal." Mustang says urgently. He grabs him firmly from under the arm and hoists him back onto his feet in one swift pull. Ed's knees buckle immediately once he's on his feet, but Mustang's vice grip keeps him standing.

("How many deaths sit on those hands, I wonder," the old man asks.)

"We need to keep going," Mustang says loudly, but the noise in his head is deafly louder. He pulls and pushes at Ed to make him walk, walk, walk, left foot, right foot, left foot, right foot –

(The fire cracks like lightning and all he can hear is the screaming – everyone is screaming and crying and burning and dying and there he stands, watching it and hearing it and smelling it and causing it.)

– but Ed is too heavy and uncooperative and he can't seem to walk correctly even with Mustang's forceful guidance. "Colonel," he gasps out, his face pinched and ghostly. "Colonel, stop – stop, please, I can't –"

"We need to keep going," Mustang says, but then he catches sight of Ed – his eyes glassy and his face flushed – then catches sight of himself . . . What am I doing?

He stops instantly, and a majority of Ed's weight falls onto him as the boy moans and grips at his head.

Get a hold of yourself, he tells himself, but the command is half hearted and even in his mind his voice shakes. Get a hold of yourself, get a hold of yourself, get a hold of yourself.

He tries to focus elsewhere; tries to calm himself, but the fear still pumps through his veins. "Fullmetal – I'm sorry . . . but we can't stop. We can't. We need to go, need to keep going. We're almost there."

Ed looks up at him. Sweat drenches his forehead, leaving faded lines of blood as it streams down his face. "There?" He repeats in a dry pant rougher than the sand. "Where's there?"

The hurricane of noise that swept his mind seems to be calming as he looks at Ed. Get a hold of yourself. How could he not see it? He's been so caught up with his self-pity that he hardly noticed that Fullmetal was falling apart at the seams. He needs me – he needs me and I can't even concentrate on that.

For a brief second he is absolutely terrified that he could be so preoccupied with his own tormented thoughts that he could be blind to everything around him.

I have to focus, he tells himself fiercely. I'm the only thing standing between us and a sandy grave – between Fullmetal and a sandy grave. I have to concentrate. Fullmetal needs me. I have to be the strong one . . . I have to do my fucking job and get us out of here – alive.

"Shelter," Mustang finally answers. He grabs Fullmetal by the shoulders and looks into his bleary eyes, "Not too far from here. Just on the other side of the hill. There's shelter there . . . we can take cover, get out of the sun, maybe even find some water . . ."

Ed perks up at that. "Water? Really?"

"Maybe. There's a chance we might find some . . . a chance. But there's definitely shelter. We just . . . we just need to keep going. Just a little further. Do you think you can make it?"

Ed's gaze lingers at the hilltop, and Mustang can tell that he's trying to determine precisely how much distance he would have to travel. Mustang doesn't know the exact number to that, but he estimates that it would probably take an hour to scale the mound of sand, perhaps two if they start to lose momentum. They would have to tough it out, regardless of how long it would take, if they wanted to reach shelter.

("Shelter", a voice hoots in his mind, the laughter loud and mocking. "Shelter!" It says again, incredulously.)

"I don't know…" Ed murmurs. "Can't we just…stop here? For a bit?"

Mustang squeezes his shoulders sympathetically because he knows Ed is suffering and he knows that he's exhausted and he knows he must be hurting something fierce. He understands that, especially now as he realizes that his hands are literally the only things keeping the boy standing, but . . . "We can't stay out in the sun, Fullmetal. It's not doing either of us any good. We just can't."

Ed bites down on his dry lips. "I can't . . . it's so far, and I'm . . . I don't think I can . . . "

Mustang swallows and tries not to sound too impatient. "I know, I know. But we have to keep going. We need to."

Another glance at the slope. It looms over them like a frozen tsunami wave. Ed shakes his head, "I can't . . . I can't walk it. I just . . . We should stay. I think we should stay. I can't keep going. Not at this rate."

Mustang's nails dig into flesh and metal shoulders. "Yes, you can," he says, but Ed seems to have already made up his mind. He's not wrong, either, Mustang admits to himself. Fullmetal is resilient, but surely he knows his own limits. If he says he can't do something, then he clearly has exhausted every option available to him.

Mustang switches tactics. "Are you going to give up? That quickly?"

That earns him a glare, although its not as heated as Edward's usual ones. "My head hurts," he says with a scowl, as if that should explain it all and end the discussion entirely.

"And it'll only get worse if we stay out in the sun." He turns the boy around, facing him toward the slope. His hands never leave Fullmetal's trembling shoulders, and he gently pushes him forward, saying, "Come on, you can do this. Just one step at a time, alright? Left foot, right foot. That's it."

He's quite surprised that Edward actually complies, and their feet step onto the sand in harmony. Left foot, right foot. Left foot, right foot . . .

One, two, three, four . . .


. . . . . . . . . .


(1/3)

Chapter Text

 

Part II


. . . . . . .


 

He wakes up slowly and involuntarily, like his dreams had spit him out in disgust. He feels awful and sick and irate and lethargic all at the same time. He wants to fall back into unconsciousness, but a nagging in the back of his mind refuses him. At first he thinks he's actually still dreaming, or at least still asleep because of the endless darkness he sees.

No, not sees . . . he's not looking at anything.

His eyes won't open.

Mustang shifts. His consciousness seems to be still swimming in a thick fog of sleep, and his body is slow to cooperate. His senses wake up one by one and he discovers that he's not in his bed – where he should be. His back is upright, pressing against something soft and firm. His knees are bent, and his feet pressed flatly against a hard surface. He's sitting.

He feels the world spin but can't see it do so, and nausea creeps along his throat. He swallows it down forcibly. His mouth is dry and bitter and his nose burns, as if he inhaled something unpleasant. His mind is fuzzy and his vision is blocked and he feels sick and he can't form a definitive thought.

Focus, he tells himself when he feels the panic rise. Focus, focus. Assess the situation. Where are you? What are you doing?

He tries again. He opens his eyes, but a strange pressure around his head prevents his lids from moving. A rougher type of pressure presses his wrists together behind his back. He's sitting on something soft – a cushioned seat, perhaps. He's inside something that's moving as well, his upright body jostling and rocking with every motion.

He can't make sense of any of his blind observations. Focus, he says, his voice blowing away the shroud that covers his mind.

He tries once more. He strains to open his eyes and realizes he's been blindfolded. His hands are bound together with rough rope that digs into his skin. He's sitting in a seat of a vehicle – a moving vehicle.

The car jostles, and Mustang's body sways with its every motion. The vehicle begins making sharp turns every few seconds, as if twisting around an obstacle course. He tries to ground himself in the seat as the momentum attempts to throw him against the door. Turns . . . turns can only mean we're driving through a city or a town, or some place with a structured roadway, he considers.

The vehicle seems to be driving over some smooth surface with slight inclinations every now and then. It doesn't seem to have the same jagged feel as driving on a cement road, which only seems to confuse him more. He can hear the sound of a person breathing from next to him, and there is a low conversation taking place directly in front of him – presumably the front seats.

A spasm of alarm courses through his body and he sits up straighter. He tenses so tightly that he hardly breathes. So he's been kidnapped.

That's new.

His fingers fiddle with the rope around his wrists. A manic laugh threatens to bubble in the base of his throat but he suppresses it. It's as absurd as it is humiliating; Him, an Amestrian State Alchemist, kidnapped. This isn't the sort of thing that should happen to him. This never happens to him. This is the sort of thing that should happen to Fullmetal, not him. How could this happen – why is this happening?

The vehicle lurches, and Mustang is pressed forcefully back into the seat. Climbing, Mustang thinks as he tries to push off the invisible force that sticks him to the seat. We must be driving up something . . . a hill? Where on earth am I being taken?

Mustang tries not to give any indication that he has been roused. There hasn't been any commotion since he regained consciousness, so he assumes that no one has noticed. That's good, at least. Think, think, think, think.

He begins to concentrate, pushing through the haze that shrouds his mind. What was the last thing he remembered . . . ? He pushes all unnecessary thoughts away and fixates on the cluttered memories. They had arrived at Cameron in the early hours of the evening, right when the sun had begun its early descent. He remembers the sky was a morbid shade of red and blue, like the Heavens were bleeding out.

Who's we? Mustang thinks harder. Right – Hawkeye was with him, as were the Elric brothers. It was just the four of them. Something about a mission . . . right, yes. The rogue fire alchemist that was destroying buildings. They had gone to apprehend him.

Gravity shifts as they drive downwards. OK . . . Cameron. The Elric Brothers. Rogue fire alchemist. It's all coming back to Mustang . . . So, how did he get here?

The very last thing he recalls was checking in to the inn. The innkeeper was a young man who was bouncing a child on his hip. Irrelevant. The inn was pleasant, homey even. Had a fireplace that didn't work, and windows that only opened halfway. Not important. He had made sure the boys had settled into their rooms, then Hawkeye, before he went to see if his room was worth the fraction of the budget he spent for it. And then . . . ?

He had put his things down, closed the shades in the room, inspected all the drawers and cabinets, when suddenly he had heard a curt knock at the door. Three knocks. Knock, knock, knock. He went to open it, wondering what Hawkeye could want, when . . .

The car jolts to a halt and Mustang is pushed forward. Someone grabs his shoulder so that he doesn't fall over. He hears the engine's rumble fade into nothing, then doors opening. A hand curls underneath his shoulder and he is pulled to his feet. His head hits the hood of the car and someone laughs.

It's increasingly difficult to move around without his vision, Mustang discovers, and even more so when no one forewarns him of any upcoming obstructions. He is pushed out of the car and loses his footing when he steps onto the ground.

The ground hisses and crunches underneath his foot, absorbing the small impact. Sand, Mustang knows. The feel and texture of it is undeniable. He expects fresh air when he exits the car, but all he gets is a splash of dry heat so intense it seeps through his clothes and warms his skin. Underneath the cloth of his blindfold, his vision changes from an endless black to a warm orange.

He is pushed forward some more, his feet hesitant with every step as if expecting to be pushed off a cliff. After a few moments, he hears a door screech open, and then the ground becomes smooth and hard. His heels click loudly against the floor, and the sound makes his teeth jar.

The door slams shut behind him but he can still feel the dry heat inside. He's shoved forward again when he starts slowing down, and after a few echoing steps he finally finds his voice, "What's the meaning of this? What do you want?"

His voice is thick with sleep, and lacks the ferocity he wishes to convey. His assailant doesn't respond. The hand that grips him is tight and impassive, pushing him forward with uncaring force. Another door opens in front of him and five steps later it closes behind him. Large, is Mustang's first thought of his new location. Some place large with plenty of rooms to spare – one of the empty buildings in Cameron? No . . . Cameron was all gravel, no sand, and far from the desert. I'm not in the city, that's a definite.

His captive suddenly stops his incessant pushing. Mustang stops walking. The blindfold is roughly tugged off from behind and the cloth falls from his eyes, granting him vision.

Mustang blinks at his dull settings. He's inside a room – a very characterless room. The only light that holds it is the one that seeps through the dust covered windows. The numbed brightness introduces him to an uninteresting, wide, grey room with few doors and even fewer pieces of furniture. Nothing about his surroundings gives anything away; Mustang could not discern where he is.

He asks with a stronger voice, "Where am I? What is this?" but he is deafly ignored.

A man rounds him, standing inches away from his face. His mouth is pressed in a firm line and his eyes are a bright hazel color that they almost seem grey. He looks past Mustang and raises his brows, and Mustang thinks that he must be communicating with the person behind him. A look crosses his features and the man rolls his pale eyes, pats Mustang down, then pulls out his gloves from the pockets of his jacket – both pockets.

Mustang's breath catches when he sees his gloves and makes a move to take them back, but the person behind him pulls him back just as quickly, his grip iron tight on his shoulder. The pale-eyed man finds Mustang's reaction amusing and smiles. He jerks his head to the side as he pockets the gloves, and the man behind Mustang forcibly leads him towards a door.

A blinding rage like no other injects itself into Mustang's system. My gloves – they took my fucking gloves. His blood feels hot and angry as it pumps loudly in his ears. He feels frail and vulnerable without the security of his weapons and he does not want to deal with those feelings right now.

He's led down a dark staircase that visibly doesn't seem to have an end. Mustang struggles down each step as he tries to calm his rage. He wants to fight – he wants to hit something, preferably someone. But he's been stripped of his alchemy, he's been bound, and he's been thrown into unfamiliar territory. He's severely outmatched. Completely apprehended.

How could I let this happen? He fumes to himself.

The stairs end and a door stands in their way, along with two other men standing guard on each side. Mustang notices that their attire is devoid of anything that could give them away. He also takes note of the military grade weapons in their hands. Who's behind all this? Who the hell organized all this? And what the hell do they want from me?

One man steps forward and unlocks the door by twisting multiple knobs. The noise sounds like the crash of a guillotine blade. He pulls it open while the other man pushes Mustang inside roughly. He stumbles forward and the door slams behind him with a resounding BANG.

At the end of the small room, Fullmetal sits with his legs crossed on the tiled floor. "Hey Colonel."

"Don't 'Hey Colonel' me!" Mustang snaps immediately, unable to stop himself. "What – why are you here – What the hell have you done, Fullmetal?"

"I didn't do anything!" Ed bristles just as quickly. "God, you could at least say hi back."

"What the hell are you doing here?" He demands again. "What is this about?"

He walks around the room, inspecting it, but just one glance shows that there's nothing to inspect. The room is uncomfortably small and horribly warm. A lone light hangs from the chipped ceiling, brightening the bare room. His footsteps resonate as he makes his way around. No windows, one door, and scarce of any miscellaneous items. His heart races and he paces angrily. They put us in a fucking box.

"You think I want to be here?" Ed snaps, rolling his shoulders distinctively so that Mustang notices that his hands are also tied behind his back. "I'm here same reason you are, dumbass."

"Which is?"

"I don't know," Ed answers. Mustang gives him a hard look. "Really! I swear, I have no idea what's going on. I just woke up in this room, like, five minutes ago. You're the first person to come in here – though I was hoping it would be someone else. Preferably, someone with food. I'm starving. Did they give you any food? Do you think they'll give us?"

Mustang snarls, pacing distractingly. Both of us, he fumes silently. How could they have gotten the both of us? What could they want? Information? A ransom? Political gain? His mind races as he circles the room, and he feels himself begin to break out into sweat. This is not good – this is not fucking good.

They need to get out – immediately. He didn't want to see what their assailants had in store for them. The fact that they were able to successfully apprehend both of them means these criminals were dangerously cunning. We need to get out.

He moves and faces the door and examines it critically. There has to be a loose nail, or a faulty hinge, or something that could open it from the inside. If the room's this unappealing and rudimentary, then the door must be just as poor . . .

Ed speaks up, breaking his train of thought. "Tried it." Mustang turns and Ed clarifies, nodding toward the door, "The door. I tried it already. It's locked up tight. Bolted shut from the other side. And thick. Can't hear a thing from the other side. You'll just waste your time trying to figure out how to open it."

Mustang frowns and gives the door another look. He steps away from it, frustration nibbling at him. Fine, he thinks. Damn the door. His fingers move like spider's feet, grabbing and tugging at the ropes that bound his hands together. If he just had the use of his hands, then at least they could have some advantage, some leverage . . .

Ed speaks up again. "Don't bother with the ropes. There's probably, like, thirteen different knots on these things. And it's some good quality rope, too. Trust me, I tried."

Mustang glares at the boy and doesn't stop his tugging, even after he realizes that Ed is right and that the knots are tight. His blood pumps loudly in his ears. He gives up on the ropes after a few seconds and scans the ground for anything. A small rock, a piece of wood, a damn feather, anything that could help cut this insufferable rope –

"I've already looked. The room is spotless, like they swept the room clean before they brought us in. Not even a crumb is on the floor –"

"For God's sake!" Mustang shouts suddenly, whirling around. "Don't you have anything helpful to say?"

Ed narrows his eyes. "Fuck you. Is that helpful?"

"I'm serious, Fullmetal –"

"So am I! This is me being helpful, you ungrateful, moody son of a bitch!" Ed shouts back. He leans against the wall and pushes himself up onto his feet, saying, "I told you, I've been awake for five minutes. The hell do you think I was doing all that time? Definitely not throwing a pissy fit like some people. I checked everything, OK? I checked the door – every last nail of it. I checked the floors, spotless. Checked the walls, not a crack. Checked the ropes, fucking skintight. Tried yelling, nothing. Tried scratching a transmutation circle with my teeth – nothing! I did all I could, all right? Everything. And that's more than I could say about you, you tantrum-throwing asshole."

Ed is standing and breathing loudly when he finishes. Mustang stares at him. He's right, says a voice so deeply within his mind that he barely hears it, a voice that has been blocked and muffled and silenced since he awoke, a voice that held all his cool rationale and logic. Then it's Mustang's own voice in his mind, saying – Damn it, he's right.

A beat passes, and with reluctance thick in his voice Mustang says, "You're right. I'm sorry."

Ed falters hard. "I – What?"

A weary sigh escapes him as he rolls his eyes. Mentally, he tries to compose himself. Relax, he tells himself. Clear your head. He feels ten years older when his heart settles and his brain defogs. He says gruffly, "My temper got the best of me, and I shouldn't be taking it out on you, so I apologize for that." He leans against the closest wall and slides down, sitting. "Your annoyingly loud voice snapped me out of it, it seems."

Ed looks at him skeptically. "Huh. Alright, I guess . . . But can you say the first part again? The one where you said I was right?"

"No."

"Ah, doesn't matter. I've already internalized it."

He sighs again, this one longer and more haggard. I'm becoming unstable, he realizes morbidly. Ever since that damn report came in, I've not been myself . . . the memories are coming back . . . and the dreams . . . and now this . . . Is this my breaking point? Am I losing control over myself?

Ed takes a seat next to him wordlessly. The silence is so loud Mustang wonders if Ed could hear his troubled thoughts. He recalls the sand and the dry heat from outside and suddenly he's thinking of fire. In the back of his mind, so far down, he can hear the flames cackling and snapping, and in between it all he can hear the faint sound of screaming . . .

He hits the back of his head against the wall. Stop it, stop it, stop it. Don't fall apart. Not now. Don't think about it – it's over. It's in the past. Don't think about it. Not now.

"Are you alright?" Edward asks carefully.

Mustang responds with a grunt. He glances at Ed and notices that the boy is sporting a nasty black eye. "What happened there?"

"Hm? Oh." He scratches his eye with his shoulder, wincing. "I don't know, guess I got in a fight. I'd say you should see the other guy, but I don't remember what happened to him. Think I bit him or something. It's all a blur."

Typical, Mustang thinks with a roll of his eyes. "Was this now?"

Ed shakes his head. "Nah. I told you, no one's come in here since I woke up. Think it happened when they took me."

Mustang perks at that last sentence. His memory was also a blur, faces and events distorted in his mind. Maybe recalling what had happened could help them figure out who took them, and more importantly, why. "What's the last thing you remember, before you woke up here?"

Ed's frowns and scrunches his face. "Last thing? Hm . . . let's see. I remember I was in a room with Al. The room in that tiny inn. Yeah, we had just gotten off the train and went to the inn, and you told us to put our stuff away, so we were doing that and then someone knocked on our door."

Knock, knock, knock. Three curt nods. Mustang remembers that as well. He was in his own room, it was dark, and he was putting his belongings way, when suddenly someone knocked on his door.

"I think I answered door, or maybe it was Al? I dunno for sure, but I remember thinking that it was you knocking, so we opened it. Only it wasn't you. It was some soldier, and he gave his name and rank and everything, but I didn't recognize him."

Mustang had opened his door, thinking it to be Hawkeye. He had planned to conduct some reconnaissance in the city with her after midnight, so it couldn't possibly be anyone else but her. He pulled the door open, ready to tell her that she was a bit early – only it wasn't Hawkeye. It was a tense looking man in military blue.

"I can't remember what he said, cause he was saying a bunch of things in military jargon and I was really, really tired, but I do know he said he was here to escort me to some meeting, and that you were there waiting for me."

What was it that soldier said? "General Athel would like an audience with you to discuss the situation at hand." Something along those lines. Mustang recalls seeing that name pop up in the reports – the General was the superior of the residing military division of Cameron. The soldier at the door said he was there to escort him, and when Mustang asked him to state his name and rank, the soldier did so with acute professionalism. It was strange, but nothing about the soldier was suspicious. Nothing outwardly.

"I thought it was pretty weird at first. I mean, who has a meeting in the middle of the night? Masochists, that's who. But the soldier was pretty adamant, and he mentioned some General, and something about the assignment . . ."

Mustang doesn't need to hear the rest. He finishes Edward's sentence for him, "And so you went with him?"

"Well, yeah . . ." Ed slowly says, sheepishly.

"Let me guess. He told you that Alphonse couldn't come along."

Ed reddens. "He said it was military personnel only! And that it would only take a minute! He was really persuasive."

"That he was," Mustang murmurs. So they spewed the same nonsense for the both of us, he thinks grimly. The memories are clearer now, and he recalls telling the soldier to wait while he went to fetch the Lieutenant. The solider objected, saying only he was needed, and that it wouldn't do him any good to keep the General waiting.

In hindsight, that wasn't one of his better moments. But, in his defense, he was tired, and in a terribly foul mood, and just wanted to get the supposed meeting done and over with. He knows now that he shouldn't have left without Hawkeye . . . he knows he should have been suspicious the minute they tried to separate him from her. But I was careless.

"You don't think they went after Al, do you?" Ed asks suddenly. "I mean, I was the one that left with the guy . . . what if he went back for Al? What if they took him, too? Did you see him when they brought you in, Colonel?"

Mustang shakes his head. "I doubt it. They wouldn't have gone out of their way to separate the two of you if they wanted him as well." Which means that they didn't go after Hawkeye, either. For their sake, they had better not.

Ed looks visibly relieved. "Yeah . . . yeah, that makes sense. I'm sure he's fine. He's fine." Then he blanches. "Oh, shit – he's going to freak out when he realizes I'm gone. He doesn't know how long I'd be gone. He's probably still in the room, waiting for me to get back!"

"Ed, relax." Mustang explains, "I was supposed to meet with Hawkeye last night; She'll notice that I'm not there and immediately check on you two – and when she notices that we're both gone, she'll know that something's off and call it in. She'll be with Alphonse the whole time. Don't worry."

Ed still looks uneasy, but he nods distractingly and says, "That's . . . that's good. Good to know."

They'll find us, Mustang tells himself. It's been half a day already; Hawkeye should have searched the entire city by now. Once she realizes we're not there, she'll know that the only other place they could have taken us is deeper into the desert . . . hopefully.

A silence hangs over them before Ed breaks it. "So, who do you think took us?"

The million dollar question, Mustang thinks. "Someone smart," he answers automatically. Smart and efficient and ruthless.

"What makes you think that?"

"Whoever is behind it knew that we would be coming to Cameron. They knew which inn we would be staying in, and they knew about the assignment. The whole act with the soldier and the meeting and the General was extremely believable, and they knew that. They made it all up just to get us out of the inn, and it worked." Damn them, it worked.

Ed hums thoughtfully. "Well, think it was someone smarter."

Mustang raises an eyebrow, beckoning him to continue.

Ed says, "I think they made up the whole assignment – all of it. The fire alchemist, the burned buildings, the witnesses; It was all made up, just to get us here."

"You're saying someone deliberately created a fake military report?" Mustang asks skeptically, but once he hears himself say it, it dawns on him.

"Exactly! Think about it, Colonel. Another fire alchemist – really? It's not possible, and you of all people should know that. I've read just about every text on alchemy there is, and I still don't know the secrets of fire alchemy, so how could some nobody from some backwoods city suddenly know it? And the reports – the eyewitness accounts. All the witnesses said the same thing, and none of them were specific. Plus, burning empty buildings? Really? That's the first thing someone would do when they learn the secrets of fire alchemy? Burn buildings?" Ed scoffs loudly. "I'm telling you, it's all a sham."

"And they knew anything concerning fire alchemy would be directed to me," Mustang finishes slowly. "They knew that report would land on my desk . . ."

His stills. Or was that also their doing, too? He wonders in trepidation. Was there a compromised soldier in Eastern Command that deliberately made the report and had it assigned to my department? Was the soldier at Cameron a fake, or was he actually a real Amestrian soldier working for someone else? Is the General compromised, too?

"So the question becomes," Ed says. "Which one of us was their real target?"

"What?"

"Come on, Colonel. There's no way they planned this all for the both of us. That would be a little too smart. So they must have originally planned to take one of us – but which one? Did they want you, knowing that you would come running to see who this new fire alchemist was? Or did they want me, knowing that you always send me on crappy missions to catch rogue alchemists because you can't be bothered to do it yourself? It all comes down to who pissed off more people."

"That's irrelevant," Mustang replies. "They got both us. It's done. We shouldn't worry about that."

We should worry about what they plan to do with us now, Mustang thinks. His mind whirrs like an engine as he tries to swallow all this information. It's absurd, to think that someone would go to all this length just to capture them. And the fact that they're both still alive makes it even more peculiar. What could they want? What's their endgame?

"Come on," Ed continues, a smirk playing on his lips. "Don't you want to know?"

"Not particularly," Mustang mutters. He leans his head against the wall and closes his eyes, organizing his thoughts.

"Yes, you do. Don't lie. Well, I think it's me they wanted. I mean, it's common knowledge that you're the laziest colonel in the entire army. Everyone knows that. And everyone knows that you just love sending me on pointless missions. I'm sure these guys picked up on that and said to themselves, 'Hey, you know how we'll get the Fullmetal Alchemist? Just make up a shitty assignment and I guarantee that he'll be sent on it. It's not like Mustang ever leaves his office, or his chair for that matter.' Sounds about right, doesn't it, Colonel?"

Mustang opens one eye. "Fullmetal."

"Yeah?"

"Stop talking."


. . . . . . .


"Ed," Mustang says. "Talk to me."

"Hm?"

Almost all of the boy's weight is propped against him at this point. They make their way slowly and painfully, Mustang all but dragging Ed. They hardly lift their legs when they walk, their feet plowing into the sand with each step.

It's not possible, but Mustang thinks it's gotten hotter. It's gotten hotter and the sand's gotten heavier and hilltop's gotten further and his willpower's gotten weaker. He wants to stop – he wants to stop so badly. His exhaustion has become dizzying, and if he were to fall right now, he doubts he would be able to get back up. He wouldn't want to get back up.

("If he dies, are you going to burn his body?")

Mustang shudders at the voice that isn't there. He has to keep going. He has to get out of the sun. He has to get out of here. His brain feels like it's literally disintegrating from within his skull, seeping out of his ears, falling onto the sand.

("If he dies, are you going to burn his body?")

Mustang forces himself not to turn around. There's no one there, he tells himself, for the tenth time. There's no one there. There's no one there. There's no one there. But it doesn't feel as much – he feels like he's being watched, being followed. He can feel eyes boring into his back. The sensation is nauseating, but Mustang knows that there's no one here, but he feels it.

It's just the heat, he tells himself. There's no one there. It's just the heat. My mind is playing tricks on me. There's no one in this godforsaken desert but Fullmetal and me. There's no one here.

He doesn't turn around, he never does, but even that doesn't bring him any comfort. He stares forward, and from the corner of his eye he swears he can see something. When he glances towards it with his eyes, it's gone, but it always returns when he looks away. Something – someone – is there –

(– Someone's following us…)

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

– No, Mustang hisses mentally. There's no one. There's no one here. There's no one. It's just the heat. My mind is playing tricks on me.

There's no one . . .

("If he dies, are you going to burn his body?")

(A world burning to the song of a hundred screams. Screaming and dying – they're all screaming and dying and screaming and dying and their flesh burns and melts and floods the ground with blood and flesh and ash – )

Mustang gives Ed's shoulder a shake. "Talk to me. Say something. Anything."

Ed's head lolls onto Mustang's shoulder, blood smearing. He walks like a blind person, stumbling about and clutching onto Mustang like a cane. He squints when he looks up, "Why?"

So I have a distraction, Mustang answers silently, pleadingly. So that I don't have to listen to my thoughtsSo my mind doesn't wander and I don't have to think. "Because I need you awake. You need to stay awake."

It's not the truth, but it's not necessarily a lie. Since they set out, Edward's condition has progressively gotten worse. It's evident in the way he walks, the way he breathes, the way his eyes droop, the way he winces when he glances at the sun, the way he mutters incoherently to himself, the way his knees buckle every so often. And he's only going to get worse.

"I'm not gonna fall 'sleep standing," Ed murmurs.

He lists to the side a bit and Mustang hoists him up. "Just talk to me. Say something."

"Like what?"

"Anything. I don't care – Just . . . tell me how you're feeling. How's your head?"

Ed snorts. "Hurts."

(The silence fills with faint screams.)

"What else? Keep going. Keep talking, Fullmetal."

"What else is there? My head hurts and s'really painful. That's all I got."

"And?"

Ed scowls. "And what? Do y'want the whole diagnosis?"

"I want you to talk."

"Fine. My head hurts, and I'm hot, and my automail burns and m'tired. Like . . . really tired. Maybe I could sleep standing . . ." He slurs his words, making them stick together. He gives up looking up and concentrates on his tangled legs. His golden hair swings above the equally golden sand. As an afterthought, he adds "Oh. And thirsty."

Mustang hangs on to every word, blocking out everything else just to focus on the words and not on anything else. "Thirsty. Yeah, me too. I'm definitely thirsty." Thirsty doesn't even begin to describe it – Mustang is sure that if a breeze would flow by, he would wither and flutter away in a wind of dust.

"Y'know . . . they say the human body's made up of sixty percent water. I'm like, at five percent right now. I think. Could really use that five percent . . ."

"Yeah. Me, too." The hilltop is closer now, but the distance still seems infinite. Mustang sucks in hot air as he pants, his body vibrating from the exertion. He's never felt so utterly spent before, his body begging him to quit and rest, to just stop. Soon, he tells himself, moving his feet with absolute willpower. Soon . . . Shelter. Shade. Rest – Soon.

"It's gonna suck," Ed mutters, the words tumbling out of his mouth like rocks.

"What is?"

Ed sighs, the noise sharp. "Dying from dehydration. Never thought that's how I was gonna go . . . pretty embarrassing."

Mustang looks at him. "You're not going to die."

"Brain damage, maybe. Fall into a coma, never waking up. Happens a lot from really bad head wounds . . . and mine feels really bad . . . maybe I'm in a coma right now."

"Ed, stop it. Nothing's going to happen to you – you're not going to die, OK? Just stop talking."

"You told me to talk."

Mustang rolls his eyes and stares at the blue sky. "Talk about something else, then."

Ed is quiet for a moment, the only sound being the sand parting for them. Then, "I've never been in the middle of a desert before."

"Yeah?"

"Never thought I'd die in one either –"

"For God's sake, Fullmetal!"

The boy jumps like he's just been hit. "Don't shout – fuck, are you trying to speed up the process?" He hisses, holding his head.

Mustang stops walking entirely and glares at the boy. "What's gotten into you? Since when do you give up so easily?"

Now it's Ed who rolls his eyes. "Don't be so dramatic. It's not 'giving up'. I'm just considering the most likely outcome. Excuse me for being realistic . . ."

"It's not the most likely outcome, Fullmetal – There's still a chance we can make it. There is. You just have to keep going and not give up." The frustration is vibrant in his voice only because the words are directed to himself as well. To give his words some merit, he begins walking again, and pulls Ed along with him. Keep going, keep going, keep going.

"Chance he says," Ed scoffs. His feet trample the sand noisily. "Wanna know our chance, Colonel? I'll tell you; Do y'know how long the human body can last without water? I do – Three days. Minus one for us if you count the night we were taken and this shitty day. So, two days. And then half of that for me since I've basically got half a human body and two metal limbs that need additional amounts of energy to function. So – one day. At least. That's our chance."

He speaks as articulately as a drunkard, but the intellect behind it holds Mustang's attention.

Ed continues, his slur heavier. "Then there's the whole bleeding in the brain thing, which will cut out some more time . . . so, considerin' there's a thirty percent chance that a mild head injury can be fatal when left untreated, that means I've got about . . . 7.2 hours. Yup. So, by the middle of t'night, I'll probably either die from dehydration or slip into a coma or have a stroke or something. Take your pick."

Mustang dismisses it all with a shake of his head. "The others will find us before that."

"Doubt it. Cameron was in the east, right? And it took us a full night's ride to get here . . . so that means we're in the Eastern desert . . . That desert's, like, six hundred kilometers wide. It'll take them around . . . seven hours just to drive across it at, like, sixty miles per hour. Three days to search the whole thing, double that if they stop during the nights. We'll be long dead before they find us."

Mustang glares at him. "Did anyone ever tell you it's annoying to be a know it all?"

Ed snorts. "You're only annoyed cause I'm right – and cause I'm smarter than you."

"There's a difference between being smart and retaining useless information."

"It's not useless information if they put it in books. Useless information would be knowin' how to say 'go fuck yourself' in four different languages." He looks at Mustang with a sloppy smile. "Do you want to hear the Xingese translation, or the Aerugonian one?"

"Good to know you're not brain damaged yet."

"Yet."

"Are you always this optimistic when shit hits the fan?"

Ed laughs, the noise breathless and weak. "Not really. Only when I'm with you, since you're the one usually throwing the shit."

"And you're the fan in this analogy?"

"Nah. I'm the walls that get splattered with all your shit. I'm also the rag that has to clean it up since you always blame me for all your problems."

"How poetic." He hoists Ed up when he trips over himself. "You have such a way with words."

"I know. You say that every time you read my reports."

"Reports. As if they could be called that." Their feet are in sync now. The hilltop nears with each step. As they climb up, the sun begins its leisurely descent. Mustang greedily awaits its complete plunge; his arms and neck are glowing a pulsating red, and he knows that any more exposure from the sun's rays would melt the skin off. "Elysia writes more legibly than you."

"She's a pretty smart kid, so I'm gonna take that as a compliment."

"She's four, Fullmetal."

"Cut me some slack, I'm right handed. It's hard writing with an automail hand."

"It's not hard with a flesh hand, though. I know you've taught yourself how to write with your left hand, Fullmetal. I'm not daft."

"Could've fooled me."

Another bout of silence hangs over them, but Mustang doesn't contest it this time. The last few steps are the steepest, and require the most strength, and so he uses every ounce of concentration he has left to get himself and Edward to the very top.

Mustang's feet shake so terribly when they stand over the desert. They threaten to buckle right underneath him, but the adrenaline of the climb and the relief of finally making it hold him up. They stand there, gasping for breath, sweating their body weight, and trembling with exhaustion – but they're standing.

Finally. Mustang thinks as he stares down. Shelter.

The climb down will hardly be as excruciating as the climb up, Mustang figures, and since it's much steeper, they'll hardly need to exert much energy. Afterwards, all they need to do campout in one of the homes, just until they regain their strength so they can set out again. Hopefully, some rest would snap Edward out of his bleak mindset; who knew a concussed Fullmetal would be so terrible morbid?

Shelter, Mustang thinks as he looks at the cemetery of a village, the burnt homes protruding like scorched gravestones along the desert sand.

Shelter.

"That's shelter?" Ed says dubiously. He looks at Mustang as if the man had grown two heads all of a sudden. "Isn't that Ishval?"


. . . . . . .


The door to their hold screeches open and two men brusquely walk in. A third man is left standing by the door with a rifle strapped around his chest, his arms crossed.

The two men are silent and hard-faced, their expressions revealing nothing. One approaches him, and the other goes for Edward. With utter detachment, the silent men pull them to their feet and push them towards the door.

"Where're we going?" Ed asks loudly when they begin climbing the metal staircase. Their steps echo against the walls, ascending along with them. No one answers Ed's question. "Hey assholes! Where are you taking us?"

The man with the gun pushes Mustang forward with the butt of his rifle when they reach the top floor. He does the same for Ed, but must have done so pretty harshly, because suddenly he's crashing to the ground with a loud 'oof'.

He rolls over instantly and glares at the man with the rifle, "Watch where you're walking, moron."

The man's glare is far more heated as he snarls. He roughly picks Ed up by the elbow and practically throws him forward. "Ow – OK! OK! I'm going, I'm going! Jeez, you don't have to be an ass about it."

Their march continues as if nothing had happened. Mustang is tempted to ask him what that act was for, because knowing him Ed definitely fell on purpose . . . when he notices the boy's bulkily tightened automail fist.

He's holding something, Mustang realizes in quiet reverence.

Ed catches Mustang's eye, his expression betraying nothing. He subtly unclenches his fist slightly to show . . . well, Mustang doesn't know what it is. It looks like a piece of metal scrap, dull and broken, perfectly camouflaging against the automail. But it was the end that really catches Mustang's attention, and must have caught Ed's attention, as well; the piece of metal was small, but its end was pointed and jagged.

I'll be damned, Mustang thinks with admiration. Fullmetal must have seen the piece of scrap on the ground and seized the opportunity without hesitation. Maybe there's a chance for us yet.

The room they are shown into is identical to the one they were kept in, only wider and with one grime-covered window. The soft sunlight that seeps from it barely illuminates the grey room, but sheds a light on the floating particles of dust.

An old man is sitting in the center of the room with a metal table in front of him. The table is long, and holds a large typewriter, a small book, and a cardboard box. A second box sits near his feet on the ground.

The old man does not acknowledge them as the silent men force Mustang and Ed to sit on the ground in his line of vision.

The old man's fingers are long and thin like a bird's claws, Mustang notices. He hasn't stopped typing since they entered. His fingers are dancing on top the keys, click, click, click, click, click. He is slow and meticulous as he does so, only stopping to push his glasses back to the bridge of his crooked nose.

A man with slick red hair and a sharp chin is standing behind the typing old man. Click, click, click, click, click. His posture is painfully tense and upright, his eyes hard and his expression callous. He stands with his arms behind his back and his heels close together. Mustang's eyes never leave the rifle that is slung over his chest.

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

The three men that escorted them upstairs have gone, disappearing behind a closed door, leaving them in the presence of the old man and the red headed man. Neither is willing to acknowledge them, which is more than bothersome. Mustang frowns as he tries to make sense of his predicament.

"What the hell is going on?" Ed whispers over the click, click, click, click, click, click, click, click. He subtly pushes himself over to sit closer to Mustang, but none of their captors seem to notice, or care. He can hear Ed working on his bound hands, the small metal piece rubbing against the rope, like a dulled knife trying to slice through wood.

"I don't know," Mustang murmurs back. His eyes scan the room deftly. Click, click, click, click, click, click, click, click. He sees two doorways – the one they came from, and the one the three silent man exited from. The room is scarce of furniture, but is littered with boxes, large and small. They are all sealed closed, but one of the larger ones is open, and Mustang can see the muzzle of guns sticking out of it.

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

The old man types with one hand for a moment when he pushes his glasses with a finger. He flips a page from the small book, looks at it, rolls the platen knob of the typewriter, and begins typing once more.

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

"Don't let your guard down," Mustang says lowly. There's something else going on here, he knows it. If this was all a set up to get them here, then there had to be more to it than sitting in room. Click, click, click, click, click, click, click, click. All the planning and scheming that went into creating a faux report and a non-existent fire alchemist had to have some grand ulterior motive . . .

Click, click, click – the typing stops.

The silence is horribly loud without the rhythmic noise. The old man pulls the paper from the feed roller and sets it aside. From the box on the floor near his feet, he retrieves a blank sheet of paper and loads it onto the typewriter. While he does so, he begins to speak.

Only . . . Mustang can't understand what he's saying. Dread thick in his chest, Mustang realizes that the old man is speaking in a language he doesn't understand. His words are heavy and guttural, but his voice is as frail as he is.

He speaks indolently, as if he were asking for the time. He says a few short words, then fiddles with the lever on the typewriter.

The redheaded man behind him pulls his shoulders back and takes a small step forward to stand directly beside the old man. He responds in the same foreign language, his words sharp and quick, punctuating the air.

"Aerugonian," Ed breathes.

Mustang looks at him. "What did you say?"

"Them. They're from Aerugo– they're speaking Aerugonian."

Mustang frowns and looks at the pair behind the desk. The redheaded man continues speaking while the old man begins typing anew. Click, click, click, click, click, click, click, click.

"Are you sure?" Mustang whispers back, because if it were true, what would Aerugo want with him and Fullmetal? Amestris and Aerugo hold no ill feeling toward one another, so it doesn't make sense to think that there was any political gain behind this. But what else could it be? What could they want?

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

Edward nods distractingly, his shoulders jostling and his wrists grating against the metal scrap. "Positive. I had to learn some Aerugonian so I could translate a bunch of alchemy texts I found a while back. I only know a little, but I recognize some of the words. It's definitely Aerugonian."

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

The old man is speaking again. Each sentence leaves him like a tired sigh. His last word is a tone different than the others, almost like a question.

"Do you know what he said?" Mustang asks.

"Not a lot. I'm pretty sure he said 'who', though."

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

The redhead answers swiftly. He jerks his head towards Ed, says a few strange words, then says in horribly thick accent, "Edward Elric. Fullmetal Alchemist," then rattles on other words.

Mustang and Ed share a look. The old man stops typing. He looks at the redhead and lowly says a few short words. The wrinkles on his face are more defined as he frowns. The redheaded man visibly swallows and quietly replies with a single word. The old man pushes his glasses up and looks over to his black book.

He flips a dozen pages over, each one lightly pinched and turned over with delicacy. He reaches his intended page, reads it over, mouths the words in silence, then speaks up. Of the words spoken, Mustang is able to grasp one of them clearly – "Drachma".

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

Mustang looks at Edward. "What else did he say?"

"A number . . . A price," Ed says, his voice slight. His mouth is pressed into a firm line, his eyes sharp with nervousness. He grinds the metal harder. "I think – it may have been five million, or fifty million . . ."

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

The redheaded man shifts in his stance. The old man reaches into the box on the desk with one hand, and pulls out a thick stack of bills. Amestrian cenz, Mustang notices with furrowed brows, at least ten thousand, maybe . . . Is this a business transaction? The old man places the stack onto the table. The redheaded man eyes it, his mouth twitching slightly.

The typing resumes. Click, click, click, click, click, click, click, click.

Mustang's stomach enfolds when the realization hits him. He looks over to Ed, who stares back at him with alarm in his expression, his body rigid with tension.

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

"Colonel . . ." he begins to say, but the old man is speaking again. He asks a question in his native tongue and the red haired man beside him answers dutifully.

He says a few terse words in one fluid motion, but Mustang is deaf to them all. All he can hear is when the red headed man says, "Roy Mustang. Flame Alchemist," in his terrible accent.

Mustang closes his eyes because he knows where this is going. He hears the pages of the small black book flip three times, four times, five times, six times, seven times over. There's a pause, the sound of the old man reading the words over to himself, then the rasping of Aerugonian words. Only one word holds any meaning to him.

"Ishval."


. . . . . . .


(2/3)

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