Part Six: Recurrence
Somewhere in his mind, Ed knew that happy memories existed – they were just difficult to recall when he was here, lying in a miserably empty tent, freezing, and aching from wounds all over his body. His eyes were focused dazedly on the tent flap, watching small breezes tug the corner open. He could see nothing but gray outside – a foggy, damp morning had closed in around the base camp.
Maybe he couldn't muster up any happy memories, but there was one memory – neither happy, nor sad, but terrifying instead – that Ed was fixated on, replaying the sounds and the sensations - the raw horror - of the moment over and over again.
He doubted Al shared this particular memory with him, even if his brother had been there the entire time. Now that Al was restored, his memories of their early childhood were fuzzy at best, leading Ed to wonder just how successful his soul-bonding had really been. That was beside the point. Al didn't need to remember this particular moment – and for that matter, it had completely slipped Ed's mind until now.
Al had been four, Ed five…
Risembool, caught in the grip of an early, rainy autumn, had experienced a violent thunderstorm the night before. But when the sun rose, the town and surrounding valley laid veiled by a heavy layer of fog that seeped out of the hills and came to rest over the valleys. Ed remembered crawling out from under his bed with Al – his younger brother almost always hid there during thunderstorms, and Ed obligingly joined him – and seeing what looked like a massive cloud just outside their window. Knowing that their mother might have disapproved, the two of them grabbed their jackets and tip-toed outside to explore the shrouded morning.
The fog-covered valley was ghostly – strange shapes and apparitions seemed to loom out at them at every turn, but neither of them had been scared. They'd ran through the mist, laughing and playing a game of tag with one another.
It did seem like a happy memory, but there was something else to it. At some point, Al and Ed had been separated, leaving Ed alone in the mist, confused and just beginning to notice how freezing cold the damp fog around him was. At first, he'd looked around, thinking that Al had found some clever way of hiding and was going to leap out of the thick fog at any minute. But Al hadn't emerged, and Ed could still remember what his own frightened voice had sounded like as he'd called his brother's name – first softly and hesitantly, and then growing louder and louder as an icy terror overwhelmed him.
And I could hear the river… and I realized…
A small stream ran through the midst of the farmlands just beyond Risembool, where Ed and Al usually played. It was gentle and shallow during the summer months… But as soon as the autumn rains came, it became deep and strong enough to pull even grown men under the surface. Ed, calling his brother's name in the foggy, shrouded morning, had heard the rushing water in his ears and had been immediately struck with a horrifying image…
Al… Running around and trying to hide… Totally caught up in the game… He wouldn't even be thinking about how fast the stream gets after it rains…
Somehow, his mind kept on showing him the image of his brother's face, twisting first in surprise and then in horror right before the vicious current pulled him under the surface. Ed, only five, had imagined all the horrible things that could happen in a morning like this to his happy little brother, who had been laughing just moments before and running in front of Ed -- and was now gone somewhere in the mist, not responding to his calls.
He could still remember the immediate terror and helplessness, so intense that he'd almost ran away – but he'd somehow managed to swallow his panic and search, until, finally, he had found Al. Sure enough, the younger boy had stubbed his toe on a rock and had fallen down in the mist, dangerously near to the banks of the stream. Ed remembered losing his temper out of anger and relief on that day, yelling at Al, asking him why in the hell he hadn't responded when Ed had called. The only answer he received from Al was indignant and tearful, angering Ed even further. He'd grabbed Al by the arm and dragged him back to the house without a word.
I was only angry at myself…
It was strange. The memory had nothing to do with alchemy and, in the grand scheme of things, it was only an insignificant part of his childhood – especially considering the events that later happened. But now he could recall it with absolute clarity, as if it had happened yesterday. The sensations – confusion, then discomfort, then utter horror – gripped him, and he forcibly buried his head in his shoddy, worn pillow.
A moment later, Ed almost laughed, thinking how ridiculously paranoid he was being. The memory was meaningless. Al was fine, still safe at home in Risembool. It had been well over a decade since then…
Dozens of foggy mornings had gone by on the battlefield, but for whatever reason, this seemed to be the only one capable of bringing ridiculous, previously half-forgotten memories back. Ed thought of Al, and then he thought of Mustang, and this time he couldn't keep from letting out a choking laugh.
Why am I even bothering to compare them? Al is my brother… And the Colonel…?
The Colonel was an idiot.
Ed slowly rose to his knees, shaking slightly and clutching his now empty automail socket almost compulsively. For a moment, he watched breezes tug at the tent flap, scowling and thinking about the older man, wondering how he could feel the same now as he did back when he was five and his brother had been lost in the mist, when Ed was so much older and smarter…
As if that's true. As if I've really changed at all since then…
He worked his way back to his feet, swaying unsteadily the entire time. Once there, Ed went to some effort to stifle laughter once more. It was inappropriate to laugh in a situation like this – his commanding officer was missing, he could sense death and suffering all around him, and he was missing a limb – but his mind was empty of everything but a kind of empty horror, and it was easy to laugh.
And what's funny? This whole situation is funny. I'm lying in here, thinking about something stupid and irrelevant, and outside? The whole world might have disappeared, for all I know…
Ed tottered forwards and slipped through the tent flap. Just like that morning in Risembool, his surroundings were alien – distant shapes that might have been other tents were eerily twisted and distorted by the flowing fog, and strange, unrecognizable apparitions loomed out of the gloominess around him. For a moment, he almost imagined that he could hear a running stream with a swift current. He scowled, bitterly.
Why am I thinking about that at a time like this, anyway?
On that morning, Al hadn't drowned. He'd only fallen and stubbed his toe. Ed had been mad, but no one had been hurt in the end. It was just a silly childhood memory about foolish childhood fears. Al had fallen close to the water, but he was capable of swimming… If he had fallen into the water, he might have been able to pull himself out…
All of Ed's fears had passed. Nothing had happened. Maybe he had sacrificed his brother's body to the gate only a few years after that morning, but that was something entirely different. Neither memories had anything to do with the situation at hand.
Maybe the feelings are the same…
Raw, empty horror was one thing that never changed.
Ed looked around, seeing a camp caught in a slow downwards spiral. Medics rushed about through the gloom, wounded soldiers moaned in pain, equipment and wreckage was strewn all around, and Ed realized that he had been deceiving himself all night.
...If Mustang was here, he would have come to the tent. That's the deal we always had.
Ed scowled and started on his way, limping towards the far end of camp. Among the tents, in the hospital beds, the mess hall, the armory… Mustang was not there. Ed didn't even bother looking. Instead, he tiredly dragged his battered frame towards the edge of camp and stepped over the barbed wire at the perimeter, leaving both safety and sanity behind.
He couldn't hear any rifle-fire or shell blasts, but Ed still knew how ridiculous it was to roam out here, between base camp and the rows of trenches that marked the battlefront. Still, he retraced his steps in peace.
Perhaps a sniper would emerge from the enemy trench, sneak across no man's land and take a lucky shot, but something told Ed it was all inconsequential. He was searching for something, and if he didn't find it…
I may as well take a bullet through the head. I can't last out here without…
Ed scowled, not wanting to finish the thought. It was giving the bastard too much credit, or maybe he wasn't giving himself enough. Maybe, more simply, he was already insane. The sights around him – corpses strewn across crater-pitted land, unrecognizable and bloated from lying in the cold and wet all night, feasted on by the rats and crows they inevitably attracted – no longer fazed him. That wasn't sanity. But it didn't matter, either.
It just doesn't make a difference any more. I'm not going to see anything surprising. I probably don't need any sanity out here anyway.
A more rational part of his mind fumed. Where the fuck are the medics?
And an even more rational leftover, just the tiny bit of his mind that was still sane enough to draw logical conclusions, told him that the medics had never had any chance of saving anyone left out here. The last battle had been cataclysmic for Amestris. When the bodies of the dead finally were recovered, they were probably going to burning funeral pyres for days on end.
There was a time when we used to bury our dead. Now we just burn them. It's funny… If Mustang is out here, He'll end up the same as all the people he's killed with his alchemy…
Ed let out a choking laugh. The irony was sickeningly funny to him, especially given the current state of his mind. It was the same as the day he had been left lying out in the battlefield. Ed realized he was retracing those steps, too, heading towards almost the exact spot where he had been left to die.
Where was Mustang then? Did he come out and search for me? No, he waited in the tent. Like he always tells me to do. I did last night, too, but the bastard didn't come.
"Fucking bastard," Ed swore aloud, no longer bothering to keep his thoughts to himself – there was no one living around to hear him, anyway. "…I came back to the tent, and you didn't. What the hell is your problem? Why do you always hold me to higher standards than you do yourself? I thought I was the little kid…"
The morning remained silent around him. Ed passed the twisted remains of a tank – or at least, it had been, until a shell had fallen and ripped it in half. The Drachman tanks could sometimes withstand a shell blast, but the ones built by Amestris could hardly withstand rifle fire. Ed didn't know which one it was, but either way, the tank was finished and its entrails were strewn amongst human remains over a radius of about fifty yards.
...Bodies all over the place. Some of them might still be alive, but they won't be for long…
Ed continued to retrace his steps, mostly letting his subconscious do the work. Eventually, he neared another blast area – a crater where a shell had exploded, unrecognizable bodies around the crater, and wreckage surrounding it in a wild circle. Ed briefly checked each dead body. He didn't find anyone living. He didn't recognize anyone, either. It was a step up from before – Ed remembered seeing Al's face on every dead soldier's body towards the beginning of the war, but now he had somehow managed to differentiate the two.
Maybe he had grown numb to the sight, and maybe he had grown stronger, somehow. But the most likely explanation occurred to him after a few moments longer, when he came to another horrifying conclusion.
He couldn't remember his brother's face.
The realization came with a few others – Ed hadn't noticed it before, but he was hyperventilating, while cold sweat ran down his back. He was in a strange state of panic, and probably had been since waking up and finding his tent unusually empty. Ed smiled crookedly.
How could I have missed that? I'm really slipping…
Ed stopped near the grisly remains of what of one of the trucks they'd used to ship supplies out to the trenches. Now it was upended, the tires were gone, and the entire side had been blown off. Ed walked around it, slowly; he was surprised to see that one Amestrian soldier remained upright and leaning against the side of the upturned vehicle.
Ed stared at the soldier's jacket for a moment, and then looked at his face for a very long time. Still breathing… Just barely… Still wheezing… Still tired and gaunt looking…
"…You look the same as you did yesterday, but I didn't even recognize you." Ed muttered.
It is the same. I thought I'd lost Al in the fog, but he was still there… I thought I'd lost this bastard, but he's here…
But there was a noticeable disparity between Al's stubbed toe and Roy Mustang's legs, which were both littered with shrapnel, and - in the case of the right one - most likely broken in several places.
The Colonel must have gone down in a shell blast, and despite being an officer – and a high-ranking one at that – he had been left behind in all the terror and the panic. Where the fuck was Hawkeye? None of the dead shapes he'd seen had been female, but it was impossible to know for sure.
The medics had clearly overlooked the fact that they'd left one of the most valuable alchemists lying sprawled against an upturned truck, unable to walk and probably half-dead from pneumonia or some other lung disease. But a look around confirmed that the medics were here, too – strewn about in increasingly smaller and more unrecognizable pieces.
Ed knelt, reaching out with one hand and giving Mustang a slight shake. The other man's features tightened; a fine trail of blood trickled from the side of his mouth, before his bleary dark eyes came open. They were no longer feverishly bright – instead, they seemed dull and listless. Mustang looked up at him for a long while, before frowning slightly.
"…Fullmetal?" Mustang's voice came out weak and cracking.
"…You fucking bastard. So this is where you were?" Ed asked, as soon as the Colonel's eyes fully focused on him. They stared at one another in silence, in a rather vicious competition of wills. Finally, Mustang's flat look became disapproving.
"Your mechanic is going to kill you."
"…Don't change the subject, bastard." Ed nearly shouted, stomping his foot on the ground and splashing the other man with mud.
"I am relaxed. I am really fucking relaxed right now," Ed said, panting as he slumped down next to Mustang and leaned back against the upturned vehicle. The Colonel closed his eyes again and lingered, shivering slightly, before drawing in his breath and preparing to say something.
Ed didn't want to hear it. Mustang had that stupidly caring look on his face again.
"…Listen, bastard… Do you always have to do things the hard way? You never, ever make it easy for me… I stay up half the night for you, and you don't even show up…" Ed paused. "What the hell are you laughing at?"
Mustang wasn't really laughing, Ed knew, but there was a slight twitch in his lip that he recognized – the beginnings of a smirk. The bastard's smirk was always the last thing that Ed wanted to see – it meant that, once again, Roy fucking Mustang was a step ahead of him.
"…You're being ridiculous…" Mustang said, making a shoddy, tired attempt at explaining it.
"You're being a bastard. But that's not any different from usual, I guess…" Ed admitted, his voice losing some of the strength behind it. "Colonel, why the hell didn't you go off and get sick leave?"
"…Why aren't you gone already?" Mustang asked, his voice low and hoarse. "…You could be halfway to Risembool right now…"
"I'm not going to become a deserter… They'd just hunt me down again. Hell, they'd probably assign you to do it."
"…You're missing an arm. Shouldn't your mechanic be the one to replace it?"
"…Don't argue, and stop fucking trying to change the subject," Ed hissed, and even for him, he realized that his temper was wearing unusually thin. Moving around, he faced Mustang, looking into his bleary eyes and wondering just what the older man was thinking. It was impossible to tell. Covered in dirt and blood, his legs nearly in pieces… and yet even now, Mustang was implacable. Difficult to read… and watching Ed with an expression that looked half-sad, half-smug.
Ed looked over the Colonel, assessing his injuries and scowling more darkly with each passing second. It was never, ever easy to deal with Roy Mustang. This was just the same as everything else. Getting missions from the man… Dealing with him on a day-to-day basis… Trying to pry information out of him… Just facing him and watching those idiotic smirks spread over his features…
"…How'd this happen, anyway, Colonel?" Ed asked, quietly.
"…I don't really remember… A shell exploded… You and Hawkeye disappeared somewhere in the smoke… And my legs…" He grimaced, slightly, before shaking his head and falling silent.
"Damn it, Colonel, you never tell me anything I need to know," Ed muttered, now studying the scraps of blue fabric and the real mess that the explosion had made of his Colonel. Ed didn't think anything below Mustang's mid-thighs were salvageable, under where bandages had been hastily and incorrectly applied and where most of the impact of the explosion had torn into him. Now Ed remembered; he'd seen Mustang go down with fragments of shrapnel imbedded in his leg, but after that, Ed's own mind had deserted and sent him senselessly running back towards camp.
"…There's something I should tell you, Fullmetal."
"…I have a name, you know."
"I'm sure you do," Mustang retorted, mostly without his usual sarcasm. "A while ago, the higher-ranking officers organized a list of all the soldiers they were going to send home… Your name was on it."
Ed opened his mouth, and closed it, deciding to see where Mustang was heading before interjecting.
"…The reasons were psychological… None of the higher officers thought you were handling this well, and they figured you'd probably lose your mind if you stayed out here any longer…"
Ed stared at Mustang, before hollowly shaking his head. "So… Did they decide I was sane enough to stay?"
"…Not really. I… had your name taken off the list."
Ed clenched his remaining fist so tightly his fingernails nearly drew blood, but even Mustang seemed surprised at how blank he kept his face. Hell… He was becoming an even better Roy Mustang than Roy Mustang himself. The bastard's expression was actually easy to read right now.
"…When was that?" Ed asked, in a forcibly calm voice.
"…About a year ago."
A number of insults came to Ed's mind, followed by a mental stream of vehement cursing, but neither rage nor hate took control of his actions. Instead, Ed let out another choking, sickly laugh.
"…That's… perfect, Colonel… So, is that why you stayed? Even though… Shit, you can barely breathe… You've been sick for weeks… You could have taken sick leave, but you didn't… You were guilty for being a fucking bastard and making me stay… Misery loves company, huh?" Ed asked, his voice oddly flat and deadly calm even to his own ears.
A long time ago, when there had been a desk separating them, Mustang had sometimes abruptly rose from his seat and turned towards the window, making some pretense of watching the goings on in Central, or East City… wherever they were. Ed always recognized those instances as moments when the older man didn't particularly feel like looking Ed in the eye, lest he reveal a little too much about his own feelings. Now the Colonel looked straight at him, his expression completely unveiled.
The bastard is being honest with me…?
"…Well, I almost slit your throat. Does that mean we're even?" Ed asked. "…Besides. You were sick, you bastard, and I never said anything."
"You could have gone home to Al."
"…I don't even remember what Al looks like."
"…He's probably changed… It's been a long time."
"He shouldn't have to deal with me… Not the way I am now."
"He's your brother. It won't matter."
"…You fucking idiot, shut up. I probably would have just stayed here anyway. You're a senile old bastard, and you probably would have shriveled up and died if I wasn't around to watch you smirk like a jackass and listen to your stupid short jokes…" Ed snapped, bitterly.
The words that came out were not the ones that he really meant or intended to say. In his head, anyway, there was something less argumentative and more to the point, maybe even pathetic… More pathetic than the Colonel, when he had gone to sleep holding Ed's red jacket and mourning for him, and probably more pathetic than Ed was right now… Shivering from the cold, his automail socket searing in pain, and covered in bruises, but still out here in the foggy morning trying to get a rise out of his bastard of a Colonel.
Still, Mustang looked at him with such a look of terribly sad understanding that Ed almost felt tempted to punch him, just to piss him off and make him look a little more like himself. Mustang was confident, sarcastic and smug, and it almost felt like yet another of Ed's innumerable sins to see him this way. And yet, at the same time?
He does understand. He understands everything. I don't need to say it…
Even though the Colonel was injured, just having him around started to draw things back into perspective. Mustang, after all, was alive, one of the only living things that could withstand both this war and Ed's moments of utter insanity. He might not have been Al, but the Colonel still understood.
I wonder if he called out for me, too… I doubt it. He's not like that. And even if he did, he'd never admit it…
Ed was the sort who lied in a smelly hospital bed and only called out for Mustang whenever he knew the man wasn't listening; Mustang was the kind who sprawled in a tent and clutched Ed's jacket at night. Ed understood, now.
Fuck, we are both hopeless, stupid bastards… I think we deserve one another.
Ed, still scowling, reached forth – and his fingers brushed across the Colonel's cheek, wiping some of the dirt away. Mustang lowered his head in shame, although he did not shove away… and for a moment, they lingered, Ed amazed by how feverish the other man's skin was to the touch, and Mustang seemingly torn between moving closer and moving further away. Just like before, the Colonel was real, and alive, and with Ed, the only tie to reality, sanity, and his past.
Even if we are both insane… We still understand everything about one another now, don't we?
...The fog was beginning to clear, and above, the sky was a fierce shade of orange – too harsh and frigid to be beautiful, but reassuring all the same. In the light, the Colonel looked even sicklier, and the full extent of his injuries made something cold and painful twist in Ed's stomach. His only consolation was that with the fog gone, he was sure that he wouldn't lose the bastard again.
Tanks were rolling towards them, across no-man's land. The Drachmans were preparing another assault, and this time, it was probably going to be the end. Ed briefly regretted not writing Al with the warning - get out of the country, the Drachmans will win and they have no mercy – but it was too late to worry, now. Ed could hear rifle fire and felt the ground beginning to vibrate… The flimsy Amestrian front-line, set up around the trenches, was going to be trampled, and then the Drachmans would be upon the Amestrian base camp. Amestris was not going to surrender until either the country was destroyed or everyone was dead, and right now, Ed knew the stubbornness and arrogance of Central would hold out even if the troops did not.
They were doomed, he knew. Perhaps reinforcements would arrive, in time, but the war was not going to end.
"…Colonel… C'mon. I'm going to have to drag your stupid ass back to camp," Ed said, trying to keep his voice even. Roy looked down towards his legs, ashamed, but Ed ignored the message that the older man was clearly trying to get across. Instead, he one-handedly pulled Mustang's arm over his shoulders and prepared to stand.
"…Do you think you can support just a little of your weight? I don't think your left leg is injured as badly…" Ed asked, wearily.
"…Maybe… But if I do, I doubt I'll ever be able to walk normally on it again…"
"…Stop trying to make things so hard," Ed replied, flatly, and with what little strength he had left – still more than the Colonel had, anyway – he lurched upwards, dragging the older man with him. Mustang uncaringly allowed his right leg to drag as they moved back towards camp, but he limped heavily on the left, while Ed bore the brunt of both their weight. Behind them, shells were tearing up the ground again. Tanks rolled across the mud. Automatic weapons fired heedlessly and destructively. Above, black smoke swiftly veiled the burning orange sky as the last of the fog dissipated.
Against him, Mustang was trembling slightly even despite his pathetic attempt at remaining calm. He must have been in pain.
"Ed…" He began. "Listen…"
Huh. So this is what he looks like when he's falling apart, Ed thought, a little surprised to hear the shaking in Mustang's voice. I'm glad he doesn't try to kill me, or something. He just starts using my real name. Which is even scarier, I think.
Ed tightened his grip around the Colonel. "…Shut up. Don't even start."
"…This will never end," Mustang murmured, looking as if he was close to falling into a nightmare even though he was wide awake. "They're coming, but our forces are still strong enough to push them back behind their lines… we'll have to do all of this again… even if they give us a break…"
"…C'mon. We have at least a few months of sick leave between us. I'm missing an arm, in case you didn't notice…" Ed pointed out. "And you've got a whole load of problems… Your lungs... Your legs..."
"…But… even if I can hardly walk… I can still use my alchemy… And as soon as your arm is replaced, you'll be able to use yours again… We'll have to come back here..."
"…Whatever, you bastard." Ed said, tiredly. "…We'll survive together."
... And next time, it'll be my turn to keep us alive and sane, Colonel.
THANKS FOR READING!