Title: Stock Market Crash
Word Count: 27K+
Warnings: cursing, some gore. No pairings.
Author's note: This was supposed to be short and quick; let this story be proof that I cannot for the life of me write something short and quick. Please enjoy this angsty story that somehow expanded beyond what I had originally intended it to be about. All parts are written, and should be posted by the end of week. Please review with feedback!
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 – focus. Focus, 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. Dozens, Colonel! Probably more – actually, most likely more. All without help! I don't get why I need one now."
Ed groans loudly, and he drags that obnoxious noise out for two more seconds. "Can't someone else come with me? Anyone else?"
Another obnoxious groan. "Can't I not go?"
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.
A 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 I 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."
"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 . . .