A.N. Yes, I'm alive! And I come bearing ParentalRoyEd! My parental fics have been well received, and I'm so grateful for all the feedback, but it hit me not long ago that both of those stories are from Mustang's point of view. Now it's Ed's turn.
Holy crap, this is as long as a novel! Over 20,000 words! That's twice as long as my other parental fics. I'd like to say it's because I'm making up for my lack of fics these past two months, but the truth is that I got a little carried away. I keep thinking I should cut this down or split it into chapters, but...I don't want to. There are probably mistakes and inconsistencies that I'm overlooking in my rush to get something published before you guys start thinking I'm dead, and I'd be grateful if my readers would point out any glaring mistakes so I can fix them.
So, warnings. There's blood and broken bones and violence, but I don't think it's anything too cringe-worthy. The manga and Brotherhood have buckets of blood in them, so anyone who's fine with those should be fine with this. Ed and Mustang might be a smidgeon OOC, but this is a desperate situation these two are in and the plot demands some vulnerability from them both.
Shadow Of A Doubt
Mustang was such a bastard.
"Something interesting about my face, Fullmetal?"
Ed jerked out of his daze. "What?"
"You're staring at me," Mustang informed him. "And I was under the impression that you have a very strong aversion to everything that looks like me."
Ed crossed his arms and redirected his attention to the window, cursing himself as he racked his brains for an excuse that wouldn't sound like an excuse. He hadn't meant to stare. In fact, he had told himself quite firmly when he woke up this morning that he would spend this whole damn mission ignoring Mustang. It shouldn't have been that hard. Mine inspections were easily the most tedious, mind-numbing tasks ever conceived by man. All Ed had to do was be a good little soldier, march along at Mustang's shoulder and keep the ass-kicking to a minimum.
Unfortunately, he hadn't accounted for the train they had to take to their destination, effectively trapping the two of them in close proximity for half a day. Ed thought he had been doing a marvelous job of pretending the man across from him didn't exist. But as the hours wore on and he ran out of alchemical equations to recite, he had gradually let his guard down and allowed his thoughts to drift back to last night. To that. And once Ed started thinking about it, there was no way to get it out of his head again.
Really, Mustang was such a bastard.
Ed tapped his automail foot on the floor rapidly to try and dispel some of the nervous energy. "Wasn't looking at you," he muttered. "You're imagining things."
But rather than let Ed off the hook, Mustang continued to watch him with a contemplative twist to his lips. It might have been intimidating had they been in the office with a desk between them, but Ed refused to be worn down. Like hell he was telling Mustang what had him so twitchy and out of sorts.
"Are you ill, Ed?"
"What?" Ed barked, caught off guard. He had been expecting something dismissive and condescending. This line of attack was a strange divergence from their usual banter, and Ed was instantly on his guard when Mustang leaned forward slightly and even had the gall to look mildly concerned.
"I thought you looked a little pale when we met at the station this morning," Mustang explained. "Al was practically carrying you. If you weren't feeling well, you should have told me before we left."
"I'm not sick!"
"So what is it? You've barely spoken a word, and you keep spacing out. Did you not get any sleep last night?"
Ed's eyes widened slightly at that last remark, and he cleared his throat quickly, suppressing a shiver with difficulty. "I...yeah, that's it. Not much sleep."
"Why's that? Bad dreams?"
Darkness. Rushing dirt and falling rock. Hostile, voracious eyes.
Ed slammed his fist down on the arm of his seat so hard that the wood cracked. "It's none of your damn business! Sometimes people can't sleep, Mustang! I don't have to explain myself to you!"
The other passengers turned their heads at his raised voice, but Ed treated both them and Mustang as statues, watching the horizon for the telltale columns of smoke that would tell him they were nearing their destination. They had to be getting close. He didn't know how much longer he could keep the memories at bay, not with him sitting right across the way reminding him of it every two seconds. He let his eyes slide over to the colonel and had to look away again, cheeks burning when he realized Mustang was still watching him.
This was so stupid. What was he getting so worked up for? Ed had been on plenty of mine inspections, and Mustang had doubtless done the same when he was only a major. The chances of anything going horribly wrong were slim to none.
But Ed had been screwed over far too many times in his life to put his faith in chance.
"You're staring again."
Ed snatched his coat up and moved to an empty seat on the other side of the car. "Bastard..."
He could tell that something was wrong, but if asked, he couldn't have said what. The entrance of the mine gaped open before them, jagged stalactites hanging mere inches above their heads. The darkness seemed to chase the sunlight back, spilling out of the entrance and lapping at their feet like a puddle of liquid shadow.
"Colonel," Ed breathed. "We shouldn't go in there."
But Mustang was already moving, striding straight into the shaft without a single word. The blackness swallowed up his blue uniform within seconds.
Rock scraped against rock, loud enough to make his bones vibrate and his teeth rattle in his head. Ed sprinted forward and ducked into the dark maw just as the entrance sagged and closed up completely.
That was when he heard them...
It was an incredible relief when they finally arrived and Ed got the distraction he had been hoping for. He and Mustang left the train late in the afternoon with hunched backs and sore butts to find a small procession waiting for them on the platform. It wasn't all that much, just the lieutenant overseeing the mine, the mayor and a few councilors, but Ed still scowled. He and Al would have never gotten this kind of attention by themselves. The only reason for all the pomp and circumstance was Mustang. It was rare for a colonel to be called out to deal with inspections like this when he could easily delegate it to his subordinates.
Ed shot the back of Mustang's head a dirty look. Really, he might as well have stayed in East City. This inspection had cropped up right in the middle of a month-long research cycle, a lead so promising that Al had elected to stay behind and see it through. Ed could just picture the armor hunched over piles of books and notes, and he ached to rejoin his brother.
But, no. Here he was, watching stupid Mustang exchange stupid salutes with Lieutenant What's-His-Name. Shawn? No, Shane. The moronic lieutenant had gotten wind early on that the Fullmetal Alchemist would be the one to come inspect his silver mines, and in his paranoia, he had 'requested' that an alchemist of a higher rank 'supervise' Ed so as to prevent him from taking any 'drastic measures' like those required in Youswell. Ed couldn't imagine why the man was so antsy. It wasn't like he walked into Youswell planning to organize a full-scale rebellion. It just kind of...happened.
"Welcome to Burough, Colonel Mustang," Lieutenant Shane proclaimed. "Welcome...er, Major Elric."
Ed smirked at the hesitation, not missing it when Shane glanced behind him in search of the real Fullmetal Alchemist. The poor man seemed even more confused when he waved away the salute. "Sorry, uniform's at the dry cleaners," he said cheerfully.
"Where it's been for the past three to four years," Mustang added. "Don't mind Fullmetal, Lieutenant. He won't bite."
Ed rolled his eyes as Shane glanced between them doubtfully. The mayor came forward then, beaming as he shook Mustang's hand vigorously and introduced the councilors. Ed only listened with half an ear and let his attention wander town square just beyond the train platform. This place reminded him strongly of Youswell, only much more prosperous. The streets bustled with men and women going about their business. These people even had the leisure to build a statue right outside the train station of a miner swinging his pick at a chunk of ore—real ore—bolted to the pedestal.
In fact, it took Ed a moment to figure out why this place was giving him such a strange feeling. No one was looking at him and Mustang. And that was something, considering they were being escorted by the mayor and the lieutenant overseeing their mine. Even if no one recognized Ed right away, Mustang's gloves and ranking pins should have garnered some stares. But every time Ed turned around, the citizens would look the other way, pretending they weren't there.
Innocent people didn't have a reason to hide their eyes.
"...and I would like to introduce my niece, Layla. Major, I believe the two of you are around the same age."
Ed jerked his attention back to the present situation when a young girl with deep brown hair jumped out from nowhere and smiled at him brilliantly. He looked over her in bewilderment. He could get why the others were here, but she seemed a bit out of place, considering this was supposed to be military business.
"Um...hi," Ed muttered, unnerved by the fact that the girl couldn't seem to take her eyes off him. He noticed the others moving off the platform and made to follow. At once, Layla fell into step and twined her arm around his. Ed held his arm as far away from him as possible when she crowded into his personal space, now thoroughly alarmed.
"I'm so pleased to meet you, Major Elric!" Layla chimed. "You're so much handsomer and taller than I imagined."
His lips quirked into a grin. Taller, eh? Maybe he'd let her cling to him for a bit longer. Though it was kind of annoying how she insisted on chattering away at the top of her lungs as they walked, like a shrill bird right in his ear. He tuned her out when the first few sentences began to grow repetitive and noticed Mustang watching them over his shoulder. His eyes flicked to Layla, and he cast Ed a knowing smirk and a very deliberate wink.
Ed flushed a bit and yanked his arm away from Layla. "What?"
"Nothing," Mustang said smoothly. "Layla, perhaps you'd like to show the major around your beautiful town while the councilors and I look over the ledgers?"
Ed's mouth dropped open in horror. A few minutes he could stand, but Mustang was suggesting he spend more time in this girl's company? He was a damn sadist!
"Oh, of course!" Layla exclaimed. "Would that be alright with you, Major Elric?"
"I'm sure Fullmetal would greatly appreciate it," Mustang said before Ed could come up with a plausible excuse. "He comes from a rural town similar to this one, though one considerably smaller..."
"Colonel!" Ed faltered. "I don't think..."
"That's a wonderful idea!" the mayor input eagerly. "Then we'll just go take a gander at the ledgers before we all turn in. I've arranged for our head miner, Gabriel, to escort you both to the mine tomorrow afternoon."
Ed snapped his head around at that. "We're not looking at the mine today? If we wait until tomorrow, we'll have to waste another night here!"
"Another night is no big deal," Mustang told him. "I'd rather we take the time to do a thorough inspection rather than cram it all in one afternoon."
"What's there to cram?" Ed griped, impatient. "The town looks good, the lieutenant looks somewhat competent. That just leaves the mine. I could get that done in twenty minutes."
Lieutenant Shane pulled a face, but refrained from commenting. One of the councilors coughed in disbelief. "Not to refute your abilities, Major, but our silver mines are quite extensive and complex..."
Mustang turned to give Ed another one of those penetrating looks, like he was trying to pick him apart piece by piece. "Is there a reason why you're in such a hurry?"
"No, not...really," Ed muttered, recoiling when Layla latched onto him again.
"Then you may as well take the time to enjoy yourself, Fullmetal," Mustang said, grinning at Ed's discomfiture. "Just have her back to her uncle by ten sharp."
Ed ground his teeth as Mustang vanished around the corner, already in deep discussion with the councilors. Oh, he was going to kill Mustang for this! Flat out kill him!
"Come on, I'll show you the silver shops!" Layla chirped happily, hauling him over to a large window with dozens of displays. "Right over here! Our mine yields some of the purest silver in the country. See, you can tell by the numbers stamped into the metal..."
Ed resisted the urge to roll his eyes. He was an alchemist. He didn't need some number to tell him those pieces were constructed from grade A metal. At ridiculously exorbitant prices, no less. And Layla didn't seem to understand that he had absolutely no interest in the jewelry because she pulled him right on down the street to look at more shops, prattling on about this and that and touching his bicep some more.
"So where are you from? The colonel didn't say..."
"And where is that? I've never heard of..."
"East and south a bit. Sheep country."
"Do you have any family there...?"
Ed flat-out ignored that question and hunched his shoulders when the bad feeling from earlier increased tenfold, like a knife pressed to the back of his neck. He shot a look over his shoulder just in time to see a couple of men turn away quickly. Miners, judging by the muscles bulging from their arms and splitting the seams of their shirts across their backs and shoulders. They talked loudly among themselves as they ducked into a bar, booming voices just a bit too boisterous to be casual.
Layla toyed with his braid a bit and that was the last straw. Ed snatched it out of reach and rounded on her. "Do you mind?"
She smiled coyly. "Mind what?"
Ed nodded at the hand on his arm. "Leeches release their prey sooner than you do."
The sounds they made as they crept up on him was the only warning he got, sounds that paralyzed his limbs and made his heart seize in his chest. The scrape of nails on rock, an odd squelching that made him think of tentacles crushing bone and blood vessel. And overlaying it all, the awful, rhythmic beat of a throbbing heart that couldn't have possibly belonged to anything human.
And all of a sudden he could see them. They were everywhere. Before him, behind him, above and below him. Thousands of white eyes with bottomless black pupils, peering at him, reminding him of the one place he would have done anything to forget about. No time to question the how or the why. Knowing wouldn't help him. Understanding wouldn't save him.
All he knew was that the Gate was here. The Gate was here.
Ed recoiled from the shifting, writhing walls and fled down the only path left, deeper into the mine.
The miners worked late, Ed noticed in annoyance. Even though the sun was drifting under the horizon, they were still hauling carts full of ore from the mine. There were three separate shafts, all at the bottom of a massive pit that must have taken weeks to dig out. A series of platforms and wooden stairs would take him to the bottom where most of the workers were.
Ed studied the whole setup with a faint frown. He was already in a bad mood. The mine had taken him nearly three hours to find since the only helpful directions he could pry out of the townspeople was a pointed finger at the surrounding hills and a vague 'that way', further reinforcing his gut feeling that these people were hiding something. Something specifically to do with the mine. And the sooner he figured it out, the sooner he and Mustang could get the hell out of here.
But he wasn't going to learn anything from this distance. He made his way down to the bottom of the pit, past miners who did double takes as he walked by. Ed ignored their looks and demands to stop, at least until one of them planted himself right in his path. "Only miners can go past this point, boy," he rumbled.
Ed drew himself up, seething at the dark-haired man's distinct height advantage. He yanked out his watch and held it up, slightly mollified by the surprised twitch he received. "I'm looking for Gabriel," he said. "He's the head miner, right?"
"You're Fullmetal?" the miner asked. At Ed's nod, he harrumphed and jerked a thumb at his chest. "I'm Gabriel. I have to admit, I'm surprised to see the State here this early. I was told the soonest we could expect you was tomorrow."
"Yeah well, I'm early," Ed said impatiently. "Deal with it."
Ed made to go around him, annoyed when Gabriel shifted to block his way. "Where's the other?" he barked. "Your superior. Shouldn't we wait for him?"
"Doesn't take two alchemists to inspect a mine," Ed scoffed. "You gonna let me by or what?"
"Now look here, boy," Gabriel said at once. "Those mines are dangerous. If you'll just wait here, we'll gladly bring you samples of the ore. Much better than letting a kid stumble around in the dark. Yes, much..."
Ed hardly listened to the words, recognizing a delay tactic when he saw one. That odd prickly feeling had returned to the back of his neck, thick with desperation and anxiety, and he had a feeling most of the miners around them were only pretending to work, hauling the carts as a snail's pace as they listened in.
"You know," Ed said quietly, halting Gabriel's rambling. "I've heard a lot of good things about this mine and how well it's operated. I would think you would be glad to get this inspection over with as soon as possible. So what's with all the secrecy and scare tactics? It's almost like you don't want me to see what's in there."
Gabriel abandoned all show of courtesy and crossed his arms, not budging an inch. "We'll bring you samples of the ore," he said sternly. "That's the best I can do, Major."
"And if I say that's not good enough?" Ed challenged, sensing the subtle threat growing all around him. Where was Al's calm, rational reasoning when he needed him? People were always more reluctant to cause trouble with his innocent voice pouring kind words and peace offerings in their ears.
The word was not shouted or anything, but somehow that one flat syllable made itself heard in every corner of the pit. Ed glanced over his shoulder and spotted Mustang standing up on the rim, looking down on all of them. There was nothing threatening about his stance or expression, but the men closest to Ed backed off anyway. Gabriel hovered a moment, locking gazes with Mustang briefly before he, too, moved away and called the miners back to their duties. Activity slowly resumed and, as Ed watched, Mustang half-turned in a silent order for him to come.
Ed automatically bristled at the implication that his obedience was a given. He was not a damn dog to heel on command! But Mustang wasn't taking no for an answer. So he ascended out of the pit while bright, glowing rebellion smoldered in his gut, fancying he could feel the military's collar tightening around his neck. Mustang waited for Ed to join him before he strode down the winding dirt path back in the direction of the town, moving so quickly that Ed had to lengthen his steps to keep up.
"Didn't I tell you we would look at the mine tomorrow?" Mustang said in a low voice.
"No, they said," Ed retorted. "And now I know why. They're hiding something!"
"Of course they are," Mustang said offhandedly. At Ed's incredulous look, he pursed his lips. "I'm not blind, Fullmetal. After you left with that girl, the mayor was oddly insistent that neither of us enter the mine on our own. It could be out of a genuine concern for our safety, but I can't quite make myself believe it. There's something in there they don't want us to see."
"So why are we walking away?" Ed demanded, pointing back up the path. "For God's sake, it's right there. If it was just me and Al here, we would have found a way inside by now!"
"If it was just you and Al," Mustang said drably, "you would be running for your lives from a mob armed with torches and shovels by now."
Ed snapped his mouth shut. It wasn't like he could deny it. He had been two seconds away from knocking Gabriel on his ass back there. "So what's your brilliant plan?" he muttered.
"First, we'll have to find out exactly what's going on and who is involved without arousing suspicion," Mustang said firmly. "I'm guessing it's nothing more than a few miners taking a little more than their paychecks warrant and bribing the mayor to keep quiet about it. Nothing to rile up a mob over."
That last was said with a stern look in his direction, which Ed pointedly ignored. "And what if it's not just a few miners in on it? Didn't you notice how no one in this town could quite look us in the eye when we first got here?"
"Actually, I did," Mustang replied. "But that's not unusual. The military isn't exactly popular."
"If they just didn't like us, they would have no reason to avoid us," Ed insisted. "We would have gotten trash thrown at us. Whatever's going on, the whole town's in on it in one way or another. Even if they're not directly involved, they would be affected if we messed anything up."
"Hm," Mustang mused on that for a moment. "In that case, I wonder if the lieutenant is aware of any of this. Though from what I've seen, he doesn't seem that knowledgeable about the mining operations. He leaves it to the civilian council to make sure the miners are doing their work and getting their wages."
"And that's just stupid," Ed snorted disdainfully. "These people have no loyalty to the military. They've got no reason to let him in on it. Whatever 'it' is."
They reached the outskirts of the town just as the sun set completely and twilight descended. There were less people out now as streetlamps flickered to life and the scent of roasting meat wafted from the nearest houses. Ed imagined wives laying out dinners for their husbands returning from the mine and sighed. Somehow, it bothered him that perfectly ordinary people could be criminals as well. It just didn't fit. Criminals were supposed to be nameless thugs with nothing and no one waiting for them at home. Not hard-working men who had probably never taken a wrong turn in their lives.
Mustang held out his arm to stop him from going farther, glancing up and down the streets. "The miners work long hours, but tomorrow's a rest day for them. Early tomorrow morning, we'll go see if we can find evidence of illicit activity. If we do, then..."
"Just a sec, Mustang!" Ed said quickly, heart thumping painfully at the 'we' in that sentence. "Don't you think those councilors will notice when neither of us is in town in the morning? It won't take a genius to work out where we've gone. One of us needs to stay here, and that should be you."
"You honestly think I'll let you go in there alone?" Mustang said in disbelief. "What happens if these people take it upon themselves to keep you from reporting back to me?"
"I can look after myself just fine!" Ed retorted. "Isn't that what I've been doing since day one?"
Mustang's eyes flashed. "Edward, my concern is valid. We still don't know what we're getting into—"
"That hasn't stopped you from sending me after a different loon every week! I can't believe what a hypocrite you are!"
Mustang sputtered. "Hypocrite?"
"Yes, hypocrite!" Ed snapped. "If you were here with Hawkeye or Havoc, you would be ordering them into that mine, and you would trust them to come back!"
They glared at each other, and Ed made every effort to make sure the only emotion on his face was anger. But yelling wasn't going to work this time, so he gave himself a minute to calm down and think before he spoke again. "Look, you're the one in the uniform, not me. My absence will be easier to explain. You can tell them I'm being lazy and sleeping in or something."
"And what am I supposed to do while you're in the mine?"
"Those miners offered to show us samples of ore, remember?" Ed said in sudden inspiration. "You can make a show of looking over the ore and keeping them relaxed so they don't suspect what we're really doing. You're better at that sort of thing than me anyway."
There. That was a valid excuse. Mustang couldn't accuse him of anything other than being a good soldier.
Who's the hypocrite now? Ed thought with an inward wince.
The tension left Mustang's shoulders, and he nodded. "I hate to admit it, but once in awhile you actually put that inflated head of yours to good use."
"I'll send you in tomorrow," Mustang agreed, expression stone cold. "But if you don't return after a reasonable amount of time, anyone who stands in my way will be a pile of charcoal."
Ed blinked several times as Mustang strode down the street and had to move quickly to catch up. The few people they passed barely spared them a glance, and he was grateful for the chance to nurse his resentment in silence. As if Mustang actually cared about what happened to him, he thought viciously. Ed had known from the moment the colonel sought him out in Resembool that there was no way Mustang was allowing him into the military out of the goodness of his heart. Mustang just needed a pet alchemist to flaunt to the higher-ups, and if something happened to Ed, there went his precious little genius to pave the way for his next promotion.
It was as simple as that.
"What happened to your face, by the way?"
Ed grimaced and touched the faint scratches on his cheek. "She slapped me. Freaking slapped me! And all because I told her to let go of my arm! Geez, and I thought Winry was moody."
Mustang, damn the man, smirked. "I thought so. That girl came back just a little while ago all in a huff about something you said to her. It wasn't hard to conclude that you'd chased her off with something tactless and gone off on your own."
"You would have chased her off too!" Ed exclaimed. "She was all over me!"
"And why, exactly, do you think her uncle permitted her to hang off your arm like that?" Mustang told him in no uncertain terms. "She was meant as a distraction. I suppose they expected you to be like the typical teenager and forget all about the inspection the moment you laid eyes on a pretty girl."
Ed looked back at the hills, chilled to the bone when he noticed the lengthening shadows stretched across the road and nipping at their feet as they walked by. "Fat chance of that..."
The earth itself seemed to come alive, the rock cracking open to let those things in. Black, grasping hands slithered through the earthen walls and reached for him, showering him with damp dirt and sharp pebbles. He slashed at the ones in his path with the blade on his automail and staggered onward. They wanted him, his blood and flesh, his arms and legs, they hungered for it, and there was no way out, no way out—
The tunnel shook violently and sent him crashing to his knees. Cold, slimy tentacles closed around his ankle and held him in place while even more twined around his limbs and slid questing fingers under his clothes, setting his skin on fire. Some of them even had teeth, sharp serrated things that latched on and cut him right to the bone.
And another scream answered his own.
Ed rolled over for the fifteenth time that night and fumbled blindly for his watch on the nightstand. Just a few minutes past one in the morning. He moaned into his pillow, frustrated. He couldn't sleep. The most he had gotten was brief snatches here and there as the night dragged out. Whenever he began to drift off, something would drag him back to wakefulness with his heart pounding. And it was always some small, inconsequential thing. The ticking of his watch, a howling coyote in the distance, Mustang's irritating snore...
He propped himself up on his elbow and shot the dark lump on the other bed an aggravated glare. Granted, Mustang wasn't technically snoring, but Ed couldn't fathom how anyone could breathe that loudly. And just how did he manage to sleep shirtless without even the blanket? It was getting on toward the late autumn, and this town was no Dublith, which stayed balmy all year round. Ed couldn't stop shivering in his blankets, tossing and turning.
He let his eyes wander over their shared room in the military barracks, searching for something to occupy him until he fell asleep. An inn would have been nicer, but the barracks were free, and apparently the military was too cheap to let its soldiers slumber in comfort. Ed shot a venomous look at the sluggish hands on his watch, but his attention almost soon shifted to the white gloves laid out on Mustang's side of the nightstand, one resting on top of the other.
Common sense made him hesitate—Mustang would kill him if he found out—but his own insatiable curiosity about everything alchemic held him captive. Slowly, he reached out and let his hand rest on the nightstand, fingers inching toward the white cloth. He paused, checked once more to make sure Mustang was really asleep...and tugged both gloves close to his chest. Ed picked at the rough, scratchy material, intrigued. They looked smaller up close, almost flimsy. He slid his left hand into one of the gloves, flexing his fingers as he pulled the ignition-cloth taut. On Mustang's hands they were neither too tight or too loose, the white cloth smooth with not a wrinkle to mar the array. His own hand wasn't quite big enough to fill it out. The tips of his fingers didn't reach the end and the cuff was loose around his wrist.
His heart beat with wild excitement as he lifted his arm above his head and pressed thumb and finger together. He wasn't stupid enough to think he could perform flame alchemy, but surely he could try making a couple of sparks? Just one little snap...
He let his hand fall to the quilt with a sigh of regret. Mustang may be sleeping like the dead now, but there was no way he could fail to recognize the sound of fingers snapping or the scent of sparks. It would be so deeply ingrained, just like the sound of a clap to Ed, that it was doubtful he would be able to sleep through it. But really, Mustang only had himself to blame. He should know better than to leave his gloves out in the open like that. Anyone coming after them would go for the arrays first, and Mustang didn't even carry a gun as a backup.
"Idiot," Ed muttered at the oblivious colonel. "See how easy it is to make you helpless?"
Bare, bloodied hands reaching out to him, clawing at the earth in desperation. A pair of dark, pleading eyes filled with pain.
Ed bolted upright and dug the heels of his palm into his eyes hard enough to see spots. "Don't think of it," he hissed under his breath. "Stop freaking out. Just stop it."
But it was too late. One palm clapped over his mouth as he fought back yet another wave of nausea and dread. One dream, one moment of weakness and uncertainty, and all of a sudden he couldn't see Mustang as anything other than someone who needed protecting. And the most maddening thing was that there was nothing to be afraid of. The colonel would never go down that easily, never let himself fall into a situation like that, never tell Ed to...
Another look at his watch. One-fifteen now. It was going to be a long, nerve-wracking night. If these thoughts didn't stop plaguing him, who knew what state he would be in by the time they actually got around to inspecting the mine tomorrow morning?
And by then, Mustang may have even changed his mind about not accompanying him...
In one smooth motion, Ed swung his legs to the floor and reached for his clothes. It was a matter of seconds to get dressed again, though he elected to carry his boots outside first so they wouldn't make noise clunking on the floor. The hinges didn't make a sound as he carefully nudged the door open, and he was halfway down the hallway by the time he realized he still had Mustang's gloves. Ed hurried back to the doorway and chucked them at the nightstand. One made it, but the second missed by a mile and fluttered against Mustang's cheek. Ed blanched when the colonel groaned sleepily and fled. It didn't matter. He planned to be back long before the bastard woke up.
The dream may have been unrealistic to the point of being ridiculous, but that didn't mean they were in any less danger. If he left now, he would have a solid six or seven hours to explore the mine before he crossed paths with any of the miners. Plenty of time to find out what they were hiding, grab Mustang and make a run for it long before anyone thought to look for them. They would report to East City by the next evening and let the military take care of it.
And Mustang wouldn't need to set foot in that damn mine. He would be safe.
Not that Ed cared or anything.
He had never heard Mustang sound like that before, not once. Sometimes he wondered if the man knew what fear was. But he was afraid now. It was all there in that wordless wail that reached him from somewhere in the mine.
Ed was sprinting now, heedless of the dark and the eyes and the things in the walls. They had all left him alone the moment Mustang started screaming, and now the walls pulsed with their passage as they zeroed in on their prey. Ed may have shouted something, told the colonel to hold on and that he was coming and that Mustang had better not let those things kill him, damn it, not when he was still needed by so many people.
He came upon the deepest part of the mine, turned a corner...and all he saw was red.
Twenty minutes later found Ed still trudging along the path to the mine, numb to the bone and cursing the paranoia that sent him out here in the first place. A cutting wind ripped between the rocky hills, and Ed held his fluttering coat closed with one hand as he tried to shield his lantern. This path had been a lot easier to traverse in the full light of day. He'd already gotten lost and been forced to backtrack at least two times, but he was definitely higher than before. He had to be getting close.
Or rather, he had better be getting close. Ed very much missed his bed in the barracks and was seriously contemplating just turning back. Just because the citizens were acting funny didn't mean it was anything the military should get involved in. For all he knew, the miners just had some weird cult thing going on where they sacrificed lambs and danced naked the moonlight, and that was not something Ed wanted to walk in on...
His foot slipped and the lantern clattered to the ground as he tumbled to his knees. Another string of curses flew from his lips. "Damn colonel better appreciate what I'm doing for him..."
Ed seized the lantern and held it high, searching for the owner of the voice. Further up the path was a burly man with a lantern of his own, frowning down at him. "Where do you think you're heading, kid? Are you lost?"
Ed carefully regained his feet, the light from his swinging lantern casting playful shadows over their surroundings. "Do I look lost to you? And I could as you the same thing. A little late to be out for a stroll, isn't it?"
The man drew himself up. "I'm guarding the mine."
Now that was an interesting development. "Guard, huh?" he said with a raised eyebrow. "Seems kind of pointless to me. No one in their right minds is going to walk up here in the middle of the night to dig up the ore with their bare hands."
The guard closed the distance and one beefy hand gripped Ed's upper arm. "It's to keep kids like you from sneaking in there on a dare! This isn't a playground! Let's go, I'm taking you back to your parents."
"I'm not a kid!" Ed said quickly as the man marched him down the path. He automatically reached for his pocket and cursed when he remembered that his watch was still on the nightstand. "I'm the Fullmetal Alchemist! Didn't they tell you about me? I'm here to inspect the mine!"
The guard snorted. "Right, sure you are. I'll need two hands to count the number of holes in that story."
"Oh, come on," Ed said with a grin, making a feeble stab at the charm Al claimed he lacked. "Is it really so hard to believe?"
"You're not wearing a uniform," the guard said dryly. "You came in the middle of the night, you don't have any way to prove your identity. And oh, did I mention you're a fucking midget...?"
Ed hissed and nursed his bruised knuckles as the guard slumped to the path. "Geez, pretty thick-skulled, aren't you?"
With that obstacle taken care of, he continued up the path. Soon enough it flattened out, and Ed increased his pace in anticipation. The pit was right where he left it, empty now. He made his careful way to the bottom and surveyed the three tunnels. They all seemed well-established with steel tracks for the ore carts and prints that suggested regular foot traffic in and out. Ed picked one at random and stepped inside without a backward glance, marching down a pitch black shaft until the entrance vanished and his entire world narrowed to his little bubble of light. There were electric lanterns strung up along the support beams, connected by long, sinuous strands of cable, but they were off now and the generator to turn them on was, no doubt, back outside. Ed held the lantern close to the ground so he could see the tracks. If he tripped and smashed the lantern, those tracks would be the only way for him to find his way out.
Time passed and the mine snaked onward, deeper and deeper into the earth. Aside from the occasional idle cart, the place was empty. The shadows and the silence pressed in on him from all sides, playing tricks with his eyes and making him see movement when there was none. With every step he took, the air grew colder and staler, like a wraith's breath caressing his skin. Not even the infrequent air shafts were enough to ease the feeling of being trapped since they only let in air, not light.
Were those footsteps behind him? Ed twisted around and the lantern flickered weakly. The flame had been growing steadily smaller as time went on until it was barely visible, casting an blood-red glow over everything. Ed pressed his back to the wall when the light shrank further and went out completely. It came back after a few seconds, but Ed had closed his eyes when it went out and now he was having a hard time opening them back up, thinking of dead hands and ravenous eyes...
He snapped his eyes open. Nothing jumped out at him. It was just his imagination trying to get the best of him. Ed pressed his free hand to his chest, willing his racing heart to calm down. Since when did he let his fear dictate what he did and did not do? Just think of how Al would laugh at him if he saw his big brother jumping at shadows.
Slowly, Ed knelt down to set the lantern on the ground and clapped, picturing the array on Mustang's gloves and taking comfort from the familiar cycle of alchemic energy. What little oxygen around him flowed closer and the flame roared back to life, nearly using up all the oil before settling down to a cheerful orange. The light played off the ore stacked up in one of the carts resting on the tracks nearby.
Ed almost walked right past it before he realized he wasn't looking at silver. He held the lantern close to the ore and picked up a small piece no bigger than his thumb and far too heavy and yellowish to be silver. He bit the edge, a tried and true method for testing for gold, but the ore came away without a dent.
Not gold, then. Could it be electrum, an alloy of silver and gold? Ed hadn't seen electrum except in a jewelry store where it was referred to as white gold, but this stuff matched the description. But this was supposedly an all-silver mine. Electrum by itself was worth nearly as much as gold, especially since the State made currency from it. Its discovery would have been made public knowledge in an instant and the State would have gotten involved in its distribution and...and...
"So that's what you're hiding," Ed muttered, hand forming a fist around the electrum. "Just how greedy can some people get?"
"You've figured it out, then?"
Ed nearly dropped his lantern when he realized he wasn't alone. There were people behind him, a lot of them, all miners armed with picks and hammers and shovels. They had kept their own lanterns covered so as not to alert Ed to their presence. He couldn't tell how many there were in the dimness, but it was way too many for him to take on in such close quarters. Gabriel was in the lead, watching Ed coldly.
"Knew I should have tied you up," Ed said dourly when he recognized the guard he had knocked out. "So, is this the part where you all gloat about how perfect your evil plans were until little old me came snooping along?"
"We're not the evil ones here," Gabriel said grimly.
"Right," Ed said skeptically. "That's why you're keeping the discovery of electrum from the State. The lieutenant's not very bright, is he? If you tell him this is what unrefined silver looks like, he'd probably believe you and never look further. And you take advantage of that to hoard it all to yourselves. That's not immoral at all."
"Have you ever tried making a living as a miner, boy?" one man exclaimed harshly. "We break our backs for this ore, and more than half of what we to dig up goes straight to taxes for the State and the town. We deserve more!"
"Believe it or not, there are a lot of people just like you who are forced to get by with even less," Ed countered, thinking of the coal miners in Youswell, those people who had truly needed his help. "You have councilors for a reason! And just because the lieutenant wears a uniform doesn't mean he won't make sure you have your fair share."
Gabriel snarled. "I always heard that you stood for the common man, Fullmetal. You, of all people, should understand...you should be on our side!"
"I don't side with thieves," Ed said quietly.
The standoff lasted for a good minute. Then Gabriel's face hardened and he took one step forward. Ed moved back a pace and slid the bit of electrum into his pocket. He had no clue what was behind him, but the only way out that he knew of was beyond these miners. This would be so much easier if there weren't so many of them.
"Gabriel!" one of the men in back hissed. "He's just a boy. I didn't come here to kill some kid!"
"You'd rather let this brat go tattle on us to his superior?" Gabriel said harshly. "Anyone here who can't stomach this can go ahead and walk out."
Ed leaned down to set his lantern on the ground so both hands were free, scanning the few faces he could see. A good half of the others looked just as uncertain as the one who had spoken up. They couldn't even look Ed in the eye and wielded their weapons without an ounce of resolve. Only Gabriel looked fully prepared to cut him down then and there.
He could use that, maybe...
"Thieves and murderers, huh?" Ed goaded, focusing on the indecisive ones. "I didn't think you had it in you. So how do you plan to hide the murder of a State Alchemist on top of your other crimes? Gonna bury me here or carve me up and use me for fertilizer in your gardens?"
Those who had been wavering actually flinched. They looked at one another, seeing their own doubts reflected in the ones around them. Gabriel looked back at them furiously. "This is for our families! Do you want your children to starve when the military takes all our ore and leaves us with pennies?"
"This setup you've got going won't last forever," Ed went on ruthlessly. "Even if it's not me, someone will expose what happened here. And when that day comes, how much harsher will your sentence be for killing me? Who will feed your families if you get thrown in front of a firing squad? Better to cut your losses now and kiss your money goodbye."
"That's easy for you to say!" someone called weakly. "You don't have a family to support!"
"I have a younger brother that I've been raising on my own since I was five!" Ed roared. "I joined the fucking military for him! Don't you dare pretend you've had it harder than me, because you haven't."
The seconds ticked by as the echoes of his voice died away. Then even more echoes chased them when several miners lowered their weapons and turned to go. Ed listened carefully as two pairs of footsteps faded down the tunnel. Then three more did the same, leaving him with only Gabriel and the guard from the path. Damn. He had been hoping the smart ones would at least make the effort to stop the bloodthirsty ones, but he was on his own.
"Fine," Gabriel hissed, knuckles growing white around the handle of his pick. "Fine. There's still no way you're getting away from the two of us. That ore is ours, and it's going to stay that way!"
He charged, one solid wall of muscle barreling toward him. Ed jumped back when he swung the pick so hard that the sharp end went straight through a vertical support beam and stuck there. His foot slipped on the loose rock, and the slip up cost him when Gabriel tackled him. Ed grunted when they hit the ground, all the air whooshing from his lungs. The miner weighed more than Armstrong! Gabriel pinned him in on his stomach, pressing his cheek to the gravel.
"Kill him!" Gabriel shouted. "Dorian, do it!"
Ed thrashed around wildly, trying to escape, but his arms were pinned to his sides. He twisted his head around when the second miner approached them armed with a shovel. Dorian raised the shovel...and he hesitated when he met Ed's eyes for a brief moment, visibly torn.
"What are you waiting for?"
But the shovel still didn't come down. And in the silence that followed, a distant babble of voices became discernible.
"—didn't do anything to the kid! I swear, we just—!"
"I've had it with the excuses! None of you are leaving until you tell me what you've done with my major!"
"Mustang?" Ed gasped, raising his head to try and hear those voices better.
Gabriel cursed hotly. "Go take care of that one! If you can't get him to leave, then just kill him too."
Now it was Ed's turn to curse when Dorian relaxed slightly and turned to go. Probably just grateful he was being asked to use that shovel on an adult rather than a child. Ed struggled to get free from Gabriel as the other miner vanished around the corner. "Mustang!" he shouted. "Mustang!"
Mustang's answer reached him, tight with stress and anger. "Fullmetal!"
"Get out of the mine!" Ed hollered. "They're coming after you! Get OUT!"
Gabriel gripped his hair and smashed his forehead into the ground and bright stars peppered Ed's vision. Behind him, he heard the pick being yanked from the support beam and the sharp end struck the tracks an inch in front of his nose. Ed twisted around onto his back and his foot accidentally kicked his lantern into the wall where it promptly shattered. It was like being plunged into a pool of black oil. The mine, the ore, Gabriel, all of it was gone. Ed couldn't see his own nose, let alone anything else. The smallest whisper of air was his only warning, and he threw up his automail up just in time to stop the pick from braining him. Sparks flew when the two metals collided, briefly illuminating Gabriel's harsh countenance.
Fighting in the dark, Ed decided bleakly, was not his favorite thing in the world. He could only make vague guesses at what his opponent would do, and he couldn't risk transmuting anything he couldn't see. Granted, Gabriel was just as blind as him, but the miner had probably spent most of his life poking around underground. In that, he had the advantage that Ed desperately lacked.
The mine rumbled with a distant explosion and a fleeting flash of orange light allowed him to see Gabriel seize a bit of jagged glass from the broken lantern. Ed pulled his head aside just in time to save his eyeball, wincing when the glass slashed his cheekbone. He flailed out with his left fist and socked the miner in the nose, pulling free at last. Ed was on his feet in an instant with both hands planted against the wall. He couldn't waste time here. He had to get to Mustang so they could make their escape.
The pick whistled through the air again, and Ed threw himself aside just in time, colliding with what felt like an empty cart. Another of Mustang's explosions made the mine shake again, and the cart Ed was leaning on toppled off the tracks and landed on its side. Ed tumbled to his knees, cringing when the structural beams above their heads groaned.
"Stupid bastard," Ed ground out. "He's gonna bring the whole place down!"
"Then at least you'll both go down with it!"
Just then, Mustang came around the corner behind Ed, armed with a lantern and his gloves. The sudden flood of light stung Ed's eyes and allowed him to see Gabriel lurching toward him with the pick raised high. In an instant, a torrent of fire blasted the miner off his feet and shook the mine to its foundations. The pick hurtled through the air and jammed into the weakened support beam, snapping it like a twig. And that was the last straw. The earth heaved one final time and, with a deafening roar, the mine shaft began to collapse.
It was like being caught in an avalanche. Ed could hear nothing but the roar of the earth coming down around him. Each time he tried to stand, another stomach-churning tremor would send him right back to his hands and knees. Dimly, he heard Mustang shouting at him to take cover. Take cover where?
One particularly powerful quake sent him careening into the cart. The cart! Ed wasn't quite sure how he did it while he was being pelted with rocks the size of his head, but he dragged himself around the empty cart and crawled into its dubious shelter. He pressed himself back as far as possible to make room for Mustang, shouting at the moron to get his ass in there, now!
Mustang was trying. Ed could see that he was. But within moments the weight of the falling debris had forced the colonel to his knees. The structural beams above them gave way and the entire roof came down on Mustang's head.
A storm of grit flooded his mouth and eyes, blinding him, and Ed was pitched to the ground when the cart tipped upside down completely. He curled up in a ball with his eyes squeezed shut as the racket outside his tiny refuge reached a crescendo, positive he was about to be crushed.
And then...silence. Ed spent a good half minute just trying to breathe again, coughing until he thought he would hack a lung out. Every movement brought pain. He wasn't sure if anything was broken and there wasn't time to check. Mustang. He had to help Mustang!
There was light, just the faintest bit of it. A corner of the cart was propped up on a small boulder, though the triangular gap was too small for even him to squeeze through. Ed squirmed closer and put his face to the fissure. His eyes were first drawn to Mustang's now-broken lantern, which lay sideways in the dirt and had somehow stayed lit. Beyond the lantern was Mustang, lying prone across the tracks with his eyes closed and his legs trapped under a mound of rubble. One arm was curled close to his side while the other was stretched out, as though he had made one last ditch effort to reach Ed before he was brought down.
"C-Colonel?" Ed wheezed. "You okay?"
No answer. Ed tried to move and winced when pain lanced up his flesh shoulder. His upper arm was pinned between the cart and the earth, so squashed that he couldn't feel the tips of his fingers. Ed gripped the edge of the cart and tried to lift it up off his arm, but it didn't move an inch. The damn thing was heavy to begin with, and there were probably rocks piled on top of it. He slipped his right arm through the gap and stretched as far as he could to try and press his hands together, but the angle was too awkward.
"Colonel!" Ed shouted, panic lending a frantic edge to his words. "Hey, say something! Mustang!"
Another wooden beam broke and crashed to the ground noisily, and even more dirt gushed through the new wound in the tunnel roof, dousing the lantern. The flame flickered and dimmed, allowing the shadows to steal upon that uniformed body unhindered.
The wick burned down further. Ed watched the unmoving colonel, willing him to move, to twitch a finger, something. But he didn't, and soon only his outstretched hand was visible, gloved fingers curled slightly in supplication. That was the image that burned itself into Ed's mind as, between one blink and the next, the light went out for good and he was left with nothing but the sound of his own labored breathing.
Trapped. He was injured and trapped in a collapsed mine with an equally injured and possibly dead Mustang not five feet away...
"Stop," Ed pleaded, throat tight. "Don't think like that, don't..."
It was too late. The damnable terror was taking over, blanking his mind of every rational thought. He couldn't think beyond that last image of Mustang's hand vanishing before his eyes. It made something raw and agonizing twist in his chest until he felt like he was being strangled with it. He felt sick at heart, feeble and powerless and lost, and Mustang wasn't even dead!
Then why isn't he moving?
"Colonel," Ed whispered. "Just wake up. I can't...I don't know what to..."
Ed flinched. That sound...was he imagining it?
He peered around with wide eyes, trying desperately to see something. Logically, he knew it was probably something innocent and harmless like pebbles falling from the ceiling, but without the comforting reassurance of sight, all he could think of was black hands and blood.
A shudder wracked through his body when the noises grew louder and more frequent, his skin already prickling with the imagined feel of those things creeping over his back and snaking around his limbs. Ed tugged on his pinned arm uselessly, the motion forcing the fractured bones to grate against one another. He choked back a cry that was equal parts pain and hysteria, his normally brilliant mind reduced to a babbling wreck. It was coming now, closing in on him while he was cornered and helpless, it was going to take him again and rip him apart from the inside out...
But then he heard something that was so out of place that it stopped his panic in its tracks.
"Brilliant move, Roy, just fucking brilliant..."
Maybe he was going out on a limb...but Ed was pretty sure half-imagined monsters didn't curse like that. Nor did they sound like a very hoarse, very irritated Colonel Mustang. Ed wanted to scream at the man and ask what had taken him so damn long to wake up, but all he managed was a faint moan of relief.
He was alive. His colonel was alive.
The sounds stopped. "Fullmetal?"
Ed opened his mouth to answer and couldn't. His eyes were suspiciously hot and moist, and his shoulders trembled from a wealth of emotions he couldn't name. Only one string of thought circled round and round in his head. He wasn't alone down here anymore. He wasn't going to die or be forced to see someone else die. Even now, banged up as they were, they might actually make it through this.
"Ed, was that you?" Mustang called more loudly. "Fullmetal!"
The word was hardly above a whisper. Ed couldn't believe that was really his voice. He sounded like a frightened child. A very faint snap reached him inside the cart, and a tiny burst of flame illuminated the mine. It lasted less than a second, but it was just enough for him to see Mustang's eyes open. That was all he had really needed to see. As long as the colonel was awake and fighting, he wouldn't give in to that awful fear again.
Mustang cursed again once the light faded. "Ed, stay where you are. I'll come to you, just don't move. That's an order!"
The temptation to laugh was overwhelming. Mustang was pulling rank now of all times? What was the point? And it wasn't like Ed could move anyway.
Minutes passed as he listened to Mustang try to get free. It wasn't long before he heard what sounded like a miniature landslide and a rough cry of pain. The tension didn't leave Ed's body until he heard him start to move again. Mustang was panting hard and fast as he dragged himself closer, fumbling in the blackness until he finally bumped into the cart. Ed gasped when the colonel clutched his arm and accidentally tugged.
"Sorry," Mustang muttered when he found the broken bone. He slid his hand under the edge of the cart and groped his way up Ed's shoulder, touching two fingers to the pulse in his neck. "Are you alright?"
Ed nodded weakly, forgetting there was no way for him to see it. He listened intently to Mustang's haggard breaths, trying to gauge how badly he was hurt. Just because Mustang was awake and talking now didn't mean he would stay that way. Things could change in an instant, unknown injuries could unexpectedly make themselves known. The colonel could still...
The hand on his shoulder skimmed up his neck and prodded gently at his skull. "Fullmetal, talk to me. You've got to tell me how bad it is. Are you hurt anywhere else?"
"No," Ed mumbled finally. "'S just...just the arm."
"Then why weren't you saying anything?" Mustang snapped. "Instead of scaring the hell out of me, you could have at least—!"
He stopped when his palm brushed against Ed's face. One coarse thumb swiped at a bit of wetness beneath his eyelid, and Ed stiffened. Mustang's hand was so warm compared to the icy air around them that he hadn't even thought to pull away and hide the presence of those incriminating tears until it was too late.
The hand hovered over his grimy cheek, hesitating. Then it drifted down to his back and stroked his spine in a way that left him horrified rather than consoled. Was the bastard actually trying to comfort him? God, this was worse than the judgment and ridicule he had expected. Were he capable, Ed would have gladly clapped his hands and collapsed the rest of the roof just to avoid the humiliation.
"Ed," Mustang said softly. And that just angered him more. The colonel never spoke to him in that timid, caring way, like he was afraid Ed would splinter into a million pieces if he didn't tiptoe around him and sugarcoat his words. "You...you've got to hold it together, okay? I know things look bad, but I can't have you falling apart on me..."
"I'm not falling apart!" Ed cried, smacking his hand away. "I'm not...not a child, damn it! So don't go treating me like one!"
It was a pathetic argument, one Ed was pretty sure he had used on many occasions before now. And it was usually followed by the standard jab at his height or his age or his stubborn nature. At least, that was what should have happened. But, oh no, Mustang decided to throw him off again with another bout of silence and, eventually, a muted sigh.
"I know that," Mustang said, sounding uncertain. "It's just...I don't think I've ever seen you cry."
"Yeah well, I kind of get this way when I think someone I know may have died!" Ed retorted, though the lump in his throat somewhat spoiled the sarcasm he was going for. "Forgive me for having a fucking heart, you bast—"
A crack like thunder resounded above them and even more debris came crashing down on the cart. The bones in Ed's arm audibly crunched with the extra load, dragging a tortured howl from him. Spots blotted out his vision, waxing and waning in time with the frantic beat of his heart.
Mustang's fingers fisted into his coat convulsively. "Ed!"
"Arm," Ed choked. "M-My arm! Oh God, it hurts..."
"Just breathe," Mustang said urgently. "Breathe, and try to stay conscious. Is there any way you can transmute this cart to get it off?"
"C-can't clap like this," Ed panted into the dirt. "You gotta do it. Somehow."
Mustang was silent for a moment.
"You...you can get it off, right? Colonel?"
"I'll...think of something."
Oh, that was reassuring. Ed let his cheek rest in the dirt, sweat beading at his hairline. His broken arm still hurt like a bitch, and the excruciating numbness from his fingers was slowly spreading up his wrist toward his elbow. That was a bad, bad sign. If he lost circulation for too long, he could lose function of his arm completely.
The very thought should have terrified him, but honestly he was more annoyed than anything. It certainly wouldn't be the first time he had lost a limb through sheer stupidity.
"Did you see what happened to that miner?" Mustang asked.
Ed shrugged weakly and winced. Movement of any kind was not a good idea right now. "Dunno. Does it matter?"
"Considering the fact that he seemed utterly bent on killing you, I'd say knowing his whereabouts is of some concern to us."
"He's probably trapped too," Ed growled vindictively. "Serves him right. He's a freaking psychopath, you know? He was the only one that didn't hesitate to come at me when they caught me in here."
"Caught you in here?" Mustang said in bewilderment. "But I thought...when I realized you were gone, I thought..."
Ed scowled. "You thought they kidnapped me?"
"Why would they t-take me and not you too?" Ed demanded, gritting his teeth against the itchy, tingling sensation shooting up his arm. "W-Why would they take me all the way up here when this was the one place they didn't want us to go?"
"...are you telling me you came up here of your own free will? What the hell were you thinking? It was the middle of the night, and you didn't even leave me any sign of where you'd gone!"
Ed swallowed, tasting bile with his throat. He did not have the energy for this right now. Anger and prickly defensiveness made his heart pump and his blood flow, made his arm hurt worse. Couldn't Mustang just let him float away on a nice fluffy cloud of fatalistic acceptance? "I was...was thinking I'd d-do the smart thing and s-see what they were up to without interference..."
"No, smart would have been listening to me!" Mustang shouted. "I'm sick of your reckless, do-or-die stunts! I swear, Fullmetal, if you don't start—!"
"...what did you say?"
"Had to...protect you," Ed breathed. The floating, multicolored spots were returning to screw with his vision, expanding to form images that made no sense and at the same time made so much sense. "Had to. The mine...was gonna kill you..."
The back of Mustang's hand brushed against his face. "You're too cold," he said worriedly. "I think you're going into shock."
Ed let out a sharp, barking laugh. "Course I am. Arm's practically cut in half. S-Same thing happened w-when I l-lost the other two. C-Cause, you know...bled all over the place..."
He was getting awfully dizzy for lying so still. And the ground seemed to be moving, undulating beneath him like ocean waves. Was Mustang saying something? His frantic words sounded so distant. Ed tried to listen, but it was impossible to hear anything over the roaring in his ears. Part of him wondered if Mustang had ever been there at all. Maybe he was dreaming this whole thing.
Or maybe the part that he thought had been a dream had actually happened and this whole thing was a hallucination to prevent himself from accepting the truth of the matter. That he was all alone and Mustang was gone...
"Ed, wake the hell up!"
Ed jerked back to reality when fingernails dug into his left wrist, hard. It was a dull, fleeting pain, but that scared him more than anything else. It was almost exactly like the pain he felt in his stumps whenever it rained. God, was his arm still there?
Mustang sighed, though it was hard to tell if it was from relief or exasperation. It could have been a little of both. Funny how much easier it was to tell what Mustang was feeling when his face was all but invisible. Ed had never noticed all the little nuances in the man's voice. Behind the desk he spoke so much more slowly and clearly with only the smallest changes of expression. Satisfaction was a smug tenor and anger a deep rumble in his chest that could reach booming levels at times.
"I'm going to try and get us some light," Mustang said tautly. "I won't go far, but you've got to keep talking, alright? I don't care about what, just talk so I know you're okay."
But now...now his words were anxious and curt. There was no guile or sarcasm. It was all raw emotion and stiff restraint, like he was keeping himself from panicking through sheer willpower. It should have made him sound weak and ineffectual, yet Ed thought he sounded stronger than ever.
"Ed, did you hear me?"
"Yeah," Ed whispered. It was so much effort to talk. "Yeah, I hear you."
Mustang moved off somewhere, and for several minutes Ed was left with a low string of small noises as his only connection to him. Cloth tearing, broken glass shifting. There was a second quiet snap and a sudden rush of light. It looked like Mustang had wrapped his jacket around a piece of wood and drizzled the lantern oil on it to create a makeshift torch. It was dim and gave off almost no warmth, but at least it was something to see by.
"Where's your shirt?" Ed slurred, blinking in confusion when he realized Mustang was bare-chested.
"I was in a hurry," Mustang answered tersely. He leaned the torch on the tracks close to Ed's trapped arm and paused, brushing a hand over the bits of ore scattered about. "Is this electrum?"
"Y-Yeah," Ed answered. "They w-were k-keeping it to themselves."
"We'll have to remember to bring some back with us as evidence."
"If we make it back at all..."
"Don't say that!" Mustang said fiercely. He crouched low so he could look Ed right in the eye under the edge of the cart. "Don't even think that way, Fullmetal. We have to keep trying, no matter what. Okay?"
Ed nodded stiffly under that unyielding gaze, unable to look away until Mustang moved out of sight. Then he was left with a rather pathetic view of the tracks, a wall and the pile of rubble the colonel had somehow clawed his way free from. Now Ed could see that their way out was completely blocked. They had come within yards of being crushed completely. Really, the both of them were lucky to have made it this far. He should be doing something to help Mustang. Just laying around wasn't going to cut it.
Except that there really wasn't much else he could do until Mustang got the cart off his arm. A part of Ed bristled at his own helplessness, but his pride was already in shreds as it was. Accepting that little bit of extra help wouldn't hurt. Much.
Mustang grunted and several large rocks rolled off the cart onto the tracks with sharp, ringing noises. "Ed, you're not talking. Are you still with me?"
"Uh huh," Ed groaned and forced himself to start taking deeper breaths. Stay awake, stay awake...
"Then talk. Tell me…tell me about what you said earlier. Something about the mine and me being in danger, right?"
Ed made a face. Crap, had he said that out loud? He hadn't meant to, it just kind of slipped. "It...was nothing."
"Don't give me that," Mustang said sharply. "You said you were protecting me. From what?"
Ed pressed his lips together stubbornly. "I don't have to tell you anything. It's stupid, anyway."
"A lot of things you say are stupid. That doesn't stop you from saying them. What's that sound?"
The noises Mustang was making ceased. "Just listen. Do you hear it?"
Now he did. Metal scraping over earth, creating a soft, steady ringing that was accompanied by ragged panting. Ed pressed his face to the gap beneath the cart and searched all around them for the source. To the right there was only Mustang and the blocked tunnel, but to the left...
Mustang swiped up the torch in his hand. The firelight glinted off a pick being dragged along the ground and the bloodied hand gripping it.
"Don't come any closer!" Mustang barked, holding the flimsy torch like a club. He leaned heavily on the cart as he pulled himself to his feet, planting himself between Ed and the tottering miner. Ed's eyes widened at the way his right ankle trembled under the weight, oddly twisted. Why hadn't he said he was hurt? He couldn't fight like that!
"You're not fool enough to use alchemy now, are you?" Gabriel rumbled. "Not with the boy trapped like that and the ceiling like that."
Ed craned his neck to peer at the ceiling just as Mustang raised the torch higher. Broad fractures cut across the roof right their heads, cracks that could easily widen and unleash another torrent of earth on them with the lightest disturbance.
"I told you to stay back!" Mustang shouted when Gabriel moved closer. "I'm warning you—!"
"You're not getting out of here alive," Gabriel said roughly. He took the pick in a two-handed grip, eyes wide and not quite sane. "Neither of you. You military dogs…you won't take what's ours!"
Ed's cry went unheeded when Gabriel rushed forward. The pick came down and was barely blocked by the torch before Mustang returned blow for blow. The firelight danced wildly off the walls, brightening and fading with every swing until Ed was dizzy with it, unable to tell up from down. Mustang and Gabriel's shadows were bulky, shapeless things that told him absolutely nothing.
He curved his fingers under the edge of the cart and heaved with all his might. Mustang's efforts had made a clear difference because this time he was able to lift it just a little bit. Adrenaline provided all the strength Ed needed to inch the cart up and slowly worm his body out. First his other arm, then a shoulder, his chest, his stomach...
With a colossal effort Ed pitched forward, snatching his feet free just as the cart came crashing down again. At once his hand shot to his crushed arm. Livid bruises stood out starkly against the paper-white skin, forming a mottled band all around his upper arm. Ed bit his lip against a shriek as blood flowed back into the lifeless limb unchecked, vital fluids pumping away from his heart and brain and creating the worst pins and needles sensation he had ever felt.
But then a scream did reach him, an agonized wail that Ed thought he would only ever hear in dreams. He staggered to his feet and his knees immediately buckled. He sagged against the wall, clutching his flaccid arm and wishing he could just leave it behind. The torch had been dropped some fifteen steps further into the tunnel, but it might as well have been miles for all the speed he was making. The scene slowly resolved itself as he lurched closer.
Mustang was on the ground, clutching his leg where the pick had scored a hit in the fleshy calf just above his injured ankle. Gabriel stood above the fallen colonel, nursing a burn on his cheek and the side of his neck. A swift kick sent the torch skittering across the floor, out of reach, and he took a step toward Mustang. That was one step too many as far as Ed was concerned. He touched his right hand to his limp left to transmute a blade on his automail, stepping between Gabriel and his commander just in time to stop the pick from coming down on Mustang's head.
A sharp intake behind him. "E-Ed..."
"Mustang, get up!" Ed roared. His knees buckled when Gabriel bore down on him, shoving his automail aside and seizing his throat with one hand. Ed's vision went completely white as he choked, dangling in the miner's grip and weakening by the second from lack of oxygen. He didn't have time to react, didn't have time to do anything. His vision was nothing more than brief snapshots. The rock ceiling above him. Gabriel's bared teeth. The pick rising.
Then a hand halted the pick midswing. Mustang seized Ed's automail wrist with his other hand and drove the blade straight through Gabriel's throat. The fingers on his neck vanished, and Ed gasped in horror when blood spurted from the wound and drenched his entire arm nearly to the shoulder. Flecks of it hit his face as Mustang twisted the blade ruthlessly.
The flash of the blade, a dying gasp in his ear...
The blade snapped off his arm and clattered to the ground along with the pick. Mustang kicked the dead miner squarely in the chest and let the body fall, yanking Ed away so forcefully that his head smacked into the wall. The impact split open the skin on his forehead and blood gushed into his eyes, blinding him.
There was so much of it. It was all over his hands, staining him, branding him, oh God, it was all his fault...
Ed didn't realize they were falling until his knees hit the ground, prevented from toppling over by the strong arms encircling him. His head lolled sideways, eyes refusing to focus as a beautiful kind of numbness stole over him. Someone called his name, shaking him when he failed to answer. The angle of the light shrouded more than half of Mustang's face in darkness, but the sick distress in his one visible eye was almost frightening to see.
"Oh God," Mustang breathed when he saw Ed's blood smeared on his palms. "Oh God...Ed, can you hear me?"
The fire was going out again as it gobbled up the last of its fuel, fading to the deepest crimson that gleamed brightly off Mustang's hair. Ed allowed his eyes to slip shut just as it died completely. There was no point in keeping them open when there was nothing to see.
"No, no! You've got to stay awake! Damn it Ed, don't do this to me! Ed! EDWARD!"
The soft, rasping words were so quiet that Ed doubted he'd heard them at all. He had given up on trying to cut away the things devouring Mustang and now simply clung to his superior, arms wrapped tight around his chest in a useless attempt to stop the Gate from taking him.
He shook his head frantically, face buried in Mustang's shoulder. "NO! I can save you! I can—!"
So much blood, so much agony in the older man's eyes. He couldn't bring himself to look beyond Mustang's face at his broken, mutilated body. He would never survive, not even if Ed managed by some miracle to free him. He was too late, always too late, too weak, too damn greedy for his own good. Even now, he couldn't bring himself to let Mustang go.
"I can't! I can't...Colonel, don't make me..."
The Gate's eyes were everywhere, intent, hungry. And Ed knew precisely what would await Mustang if he gave up and let it have him alive. A few fleeting seconds were an eternity in there as the All tore you apart bit by bit, cell by cell. It was torture of the most exquisite kind, Heaven and Hell rolled into one.
If Ed had been offered a choice between death and the Gate, he knew he would have uttered those exact same words.
"It's okay, Ed..."
Without looking up, he jerked his automail back and thrust the blade straight through Mustang's chest. Mustang convulsed once in his arms, choking...and he died. Ed released him and threw himself back just as dozens of black hands snaked around the body, towing it out of sight until all that remained was a bright crimson streak on the rocks.
And silence. The ever-present, pitiless silence pressing down on him.
He cradled his head in his hands and coiled into a tiny, quivering ball in the dirt. His voice was gone, but he was screaming all the same, howling his grief and guilt into the void. Even though there was no one left to hear it.
Tears slipped from beneath his closed eyelids and trickled over the bridge of his nose in searing rivers. Ed keened like a wounded animal and curled in on himself, seeking some modicum of shelter from the heartache that threatened to overwhelm him. "Colonel..."
A palm rested on the crown of his head, stroking through his matted hair. That didn't feel like Al's hand. The fingers were smaller and rougher, the knuckles scraped raw and bleeding. Ed opened his eyes and saw absolutely nothing, but his other senses had no trouble filling in the blanks. He ached, sore and bruised and bitterly cold from sleeping on a bed of sharp rocks for who knew how long. His left arm throbbed sullenly from where it was bound tightly to his chest. And his head...
Actually, his head felt rather warm, and not just because of the cloth swathing the wound on his forehead. He was resting against someone's leg. A thigh, to be precise. Ed's eyes widened, breath stuttering to a halt. There was only one other person who could possibly be with him down here.
"It's okay, Ed," Mustang murmured absently. It sounded like a familiar, well-practiced litany. "It's okay. You'll be okay."
Crap. As if the first time wasn't bad enough, but to break down in front of Mustang twice in the same day was a humiliation Ed didn't think he would ever overcome. If he'd had the energy, he would have pushed away both Mustang and his damn pity with harsh words and heated curses. But right now...he just hurt too much, both inside and out. Worse, he was grateful for the compassion Mustang was offering. He soaked it up pathetically, craving every little caress, every kind word. Even the embarrassment was nothing more than a feeble spark, stomped out by the black emotions that still clung to his frame.
Ed grunted as he shifted position to stretch out cramped muscles, turning over slowly until he was stretched out on his back. His coat had been taken off and was wrapped around him like a blanket, frayed where Mustang must have torn strips to bind up his arm and his head. The leg under him shifted a bit when Mustang started at his movement. "Are you awake?"
"Yeah," Ed muttered. He scrubbed at his damp cheeks furiously, mortified at the discovery that he was leaving snot all over his superior's pants. "Barely."
Mustang heaved an exhausted sigh, heavy with profound relief. "Thank God..I thought I'd killed you. You've been out for hours! How's your head, does it hurt?"
The words all came out in a rush as he traced the bandage over his forehead. Ed shuddered when Mustang's fingers brushed by his cheek. It was like being touched by automail dunked in ice water. "You're freezing!" he gasped, pushing himself upright. "You idiot, why didn't you light a fire?"
"We don't have any fuel," Mustang whispered. His teeth were audibly chattering. "Had to s-save the air..."
"And make me wake up to an ice block where Colonel Mustang used to be!" Ed snapped. "Did you even move these past few hours?"
No answer. Which gave him all the answer he needed. It was like looking after a child! Ed cursed under his breath as he wrestled his coat off one-handed and clumsily draped it over Mustang, but the colonel's shoulders were much broader than his own and the coat wouldn't cover him completely. Ed cast around for something else, but there was nothing in reach.
Which really left only one other option. In another time and place, Ed would have gladly told whoever suggested it that he would rather freeze his ass off than cuddle with Mustang. But this wasn't any other time. Mustang needed to warm up before he became hypothermic, if he wasn't already.
Ed shifted his weight a little and planted himself in Mustang's lap, ignoring the grunt of surprise above his head. He nestled closer to share as much body heat as possible, hiding his scowl against a collarbone. "Shut up, this is weird for me too. But Hawkeye will shoot me if I let you die here."
Mustang wrapped his arms around his ribs slowly. When he was met with no resistance, he embraced Ed more fully, resting his chin on the top of his head. "T-Thank you," he murmured.
Ed made a small noise of acknowledgement, resisting the urge to fidget as violent shivers wracked Mustang's body. "Just light a fire already. A small one. If we've lasted this long without suffocating, then I think we're safe enough."
He wasn't sure if Mustang would comply at first. Ed expected to have to talk him into it. But he must have needed it more than he thought because Mustang raised his hand and snapped. Ed squinted when the sparks grew to a blaze and stared open-mouthed as a bluish-white sphere of flame formed in midair. Lacking any other fuel, the fire burned the air itself in a reaction Ed had only ever read about. It gave off an amazing amount of heat for being so small, and Ed sighed as the warmth washed over him. The stark light threw their surroundings into sharp relief, rendering the rocks in shades of grayish silver and pale blue.
It made the blood on the tracks look black. A chill descended on Ed's heart when he saw a pair of feet a short distance away, just on the edge of the circle of light. Of course the dead miner was still there. Where would he have gone? Ed looked away quickly, but just the thought of the body lying so close scared him more than almost being killed. Especially with the memory so fresh and vivid in his mind, of his automail slicing neatly through skin and blood vessel...
Against his will, his eyes started brimming again. Ed bit his lip. Last time, Al had been right there to comfort and assure him, but the only one here now was Mustang. He was the last person Ed wanted to dump this on. But clamping it all down inside just wasn't going to work this time. Here, trapped in the cold and dark and surrounded by the scent of blood and damp earth, it was so, so hard to hold it together.
"Are you okay? You're shaking."
Ed shot another frightened look at the miner. "I..."
Mustang followed his line of sight. He squeezed Ed a little. "I'm the one who killed him, not you," he said quietly.
"I-I know," Ed whispered. "But it's...it's not just that..."
"It was a dream."
"...you mean just now?"
"No," Ed croaked, forcing the shameful confession out. "Before. When you asked me why I came here alone. I dreamed about the mine, and I…I dreamed that you died. Because of me. That's why. I just…didn't want it to become real."
Silence. And now that everything was out in the open, he couldn't work out what had possessed him to own up to such a childish whimsy the first place. His face must have been like a furnace to Mustang, and the embrace they had settled into so easily now felt awkward the longer they went without saying a word.
"Well, go ahead and laugh!" Ed barked when he couldn't take it anymore. "Let's get the insults over with where no one else can hear them. Bad enough I'm such a coward that I can't deal with a stupid nightmare..."
"No, that's not what I was going to say..."
"Then what? Wait, let me guess. Give it a couple years and maybe I'll growout of the night terrors stage, right? Right?"
"Fullmetal," Mustang cut in, "do you really think you're the only one to have dreams like that?"
Ed stopped short. "Huh?"
Mustang tipped his head back to contemplate the ceiling, eyes distant. "Everyone is scared of failing in some way and losing someone important to them. Everyone. Talk to any soldier and I guarantee they've had nightmares just like that. Someone is in danger and their gun jams or their alchemy doesn't work or they just can't move. Even the ones who have never been to war."
"Even you?" Ed faltered, wondering if he was overstepping his bounds.
"Yeah, even me," Mustang said after a moment, shutting his eyes briefly. "It's always the same. The dream goes away...but the fear doesn't. It clings to you, tightens its hold until it's all you can think about, and it's all you can do to hold it together when you want nothing more than to run and hide."
Ed dropped his gaze as the words struck a chord deep within him. He hadn't thought in a million years Mustang would actually understand what he was talking about, let alone sympathize. But then again, he thought as his eyes strayed to the body, Mustang was no civilian. He had been through a war, had seen and done things Ed couldn't even imagine. He was just as human as anyone else, even if he hid it well.
"What...what do you dream about?"
In an instant, his expression closed down. Mustang's cutting gaze snapped back to him. "It doesn't matter. What I want to know is why you allowed something as insignificant as that to frighten you into coming here and getting ambushed."
Ed cringed and shoved away from Mustang in a fit of anger. He should have known better than to think a disaster like this would save him from a lecture. "It wasn't like I planned this! You weren't supposed to wake up until I got back!"
"Oh, I wasn't supposed to wake up," Mustang mimicked. "How silly of me. Next time, I'll be sure to sleep through you getting murdered!"
"I had everything under control!" Ed snapped. "At least I did until you walked in!"
Mustang seized the front of his shirt. "You didn't have control from the start. If you did, you wouldn't have let your paranoia affect your judgment. It was a dream, Ed, not a premonition. And don't look away from me when I'm talking to you!"
The fingers clenched in his shirt gripped his jaw instead and forced his head around. Ed returned glare for glare, teeth gritted and hating that patronizing look with all his might, hating the fact that Mustang was right.
"Fine," Ed hissed, jerking the hand away from his chin. "I messed up. But I wasn't the only one. Who was it setting off explosions inside a freaking mine because he thought his subordinate got kidnapped?"
Mustang faltered. "That was different."
"Yeah, sure it was," Ed retorted. "Anyone who stands in my way will be a pile of charcoal. That's what you said, right? Even I didn't think you'd actually make good on your word. You didn't even try to plan things out, you just blew away everything in your path! And you get on my case about being reckless!"
Mustang was looking all kinds of pissed off now. He opened his mouth to say something...and the fire went out. Ed held his breath in the fleeting seconds they spent in the dark. And when the light returned, dimmer than before, he saw the same cocktail of apprehension and dread in the colonel's face. Mustang looked at the flame critically. "I have to let it go out. There's not enough oxygen to keep it going."
"Can't you just transmute more?" Ed asked nervously as the fire sputtered again.
"That's what I've been doing all this time," Mustang replied grimly. "But the air we breathe is more complex than just oxygen and carbon dioxide, and it's not going to last forever no matter how many times I transmute it."
Ed looked around them at the air he couldn't see, the only thing keeping them alive. "How long do you think we have?"
"Without the fire and if we stop yelling at each other? A few hours. Six, if we're lucky."
Without another word, Mustang raised his hand and quelled the fire with one quick transmutation. The silence stretched on long after the light vanished, a vicious, menacing thing. Ed knew it was ridiculous, but he thought he could almost feel the weight of the earth bearing down on them. Memories of Al and the sun and the clean, windswept air of Resembool taunted him. He could so easily lose himself in those imaginings. He could just lay down and fall back asleep, pretending not to notice as his and Mustang's time ran out...
Ed pressed a hand over his eyes, pushing those thoughts away ruthlessly. "We can't just sit around. We've got to do something!"
"The way out is blocked," Mustang said bleakly. "And looking for another entrance further in would just worsen the odds of someone finding us."
Ed snorted bitterly. "Do you really think anyone in that town is coming for us?"
"The lieutenant won't be able to stand idly by when he learns what happened," Mustang said with conviction. "Even if those miners keep quiet about what happened, he still needs to report us missing to East City. The military will investigate."
"And just how long will it take them to get us out of here?"
He felt Mustang shrug. "It depends on how much time it takes them to put the pieces together or to pry a confession out of one of those miners. And then there's the rescue itself...I suppose we can hope for anywhere between a few days and a few weeks."
"We don't have that kind of time!"
Ed couldn't believe what he was hearing. Was he really just going to sit back and hope they were rescued before it was too late? He skimmed his hand along the ground until his metal fingers bumped into Mustang's leg, and he pinched the skin, hard. Mustang let out a very undignified yelp and scrambled away from him. "What the hell, Fullmetal?"
"I'm waking you up!" Ed snapped. "You're the one who said we had to keep trying no matter what, remember? However you look at it, there's no way we'll be found in time. It's up to us."
"And what do you propose we do?"
"I can still use alchemy," Ed exclaimed. "Sort of. I could transmute a path through all that debris!"
"The mine is too unstable," Mustang said at once. "You could end up burying us alive."
"Or I could end up saving your lazy ass, couldn't I?" Ed retorted, clambering to his feet. He turned carefully in what he hoped was the right direction and took a few faltering steps, arm held out blindly. "That's a risk I'm willing to take!"
"What are you doing?" Mustang said sharply. "Ed, where are you going?"
"Out!" Ed informed him, undeterred. He hissed when he stubbed his toe on what felt like the cart and carefully eased around it. Behind him, he heard Mustang trying to follow, but he must have been hindered by his leg. Ed's knee banged into a rock, and he braced himself against the wall of rubble blocking their way out, swaying. He was starving and cold and addled from his head injury, none of which were conductive to performing alchemy. The transmutation would have to be as efficient as possible with none of his usual flair. Ed clumsily twisted his left hand free of the sling and brought his palms together.
"Wait!" Mustang yelled. "Don't—!"
Crackling blue lightning dazzled Ed, illuminating his obstacle. The rock morphed under his palms, splitting apart to form an archway. He pushed further, widening and lengthening the new tunnel. But all around him the mine shaft groaned as the stone was compressed, packed together so tight that new fractures were forming, new points of weakness.
Ed yanked his hands away from the transmutation and stumbled backward just as the arched tunnel he was creating caved in. He ducked sideways and huddled against the wall to avoid being crushed along with it, shielding his head as the mine shook itself to pieces again. Ed prayed for it to stop with his heart in his throat, certain that he had killed them both. Buckets of dirt showered him, and Ed flinched when a blast of cold air hit him. Fresh air.
"Are you okay?" Mustang called when the mine settled down again. "Ed!"
"That," Ed said shakily, "may not have been the best idea..."
"No, really?" Mustang said sardonically. "Are you trying to give me a heart attack?"
"You're just about due for one, old man..."
"What was that?"
"Quiet for a sec, Mustang!" Ed said quickly when he felt another gust of air brush by his skin, tugging at his hair. He got to his feet slowly, trying to pinpoint it. "Give me some light?"
A second sphere of white fire came into being. Ed looked back once to make sure Mustang was alright—though he could have done without the sullen glower—and turned his attention back to that faint wind. There was no such thing as wind in an airtight room. Something had changed. Ed searched all around, up and down, until he saw it. One of the fissures in the ceiling had widened, exposed by his meddling. That was where the air was coming from. Now that he was looking carefully, the crevice was oddly straight as though it had been chipped out by human hands.
"I uncovered one of the vents!" Ed exclaimed, pointing. "How do you like that, Mustang? We may be trapped, but at least now we've got plenty of air!"
Mustang heaved himself to his feet, using the wall for support as he limped closer to Ed. "More than that," he said reverently. "That's our way out of here."
"A way out?" Ed said dubiously, eyeing the gap. "There's no way we could fit in there. It's too small!"
Mustang coughed discreetly. "At least one of us could probably fit."
"I'm NOT small enough to squeeze into a mousehole!" Ed roared. Then the implication hit him fully. "Wait..."
"Yes," Mustang said firmly. "One of us. You're going to climb out of here through that vent and get help. Go straight to Lieutenant Shane and have him put in a call to East City. Tell Hawkeye what happened, she'll send help."
"Are you nuts?" Ed shouted. "There's no way I'm just going to abandon you here."
Mustang staggered a bit on his wounded leg, and Ed rushed forward to help support him. But the colonel stopped him with a hand on his shoulder, holding him at arm's length. "Yes, you are. Even if that vent was big enough, we both know I'm not going anywhere with this leg. Besides, you're probably concussed from that collision with the wall. You need a doctor to have a look at you as soon as possible. This is the only way to save us both."
"It's not," Ed insisted, nearly pleading as that awful fear tightened its hold, like a choke collar. "It can't be the only way! I-I'll think of something, if you just give me a minute—!"
Ed recoiled, stunned into silence by the unexpected outburst. The hand on his shoulder tightened. "Are you going to let fear control you again?" Mustang demanded. "Are you going to let the slightest insecurity kill us both? If so, then you really are a coward and a child."
The words were harsh and they hurt. Dark eyes glittered at him through the unearthly glow of the fire, hard with fury, until Ed had to look away first. That was the thing with Mustang. He never hesitated to call Ed out on his mistakes. He had always been that way, even going back to that day in Resembool when he first walked into the Rockbell home and laid eyes on Ed's maimed, defeated form. No polite salutations and introductions for them. Cripple or not, child or not, Mustang had hoisted him out of that wheelchair and bellowed right in his face, demanding him to take responsibility for his sin. There had been no sympathy, no understanding, not a trace of forgiveness.
For those first baffling seconds, Ed had almost believed he was looking into the eyes of his father. And how many years had it been since there was a man telling him right from wrong? Women were different. Teacher and Mother, Granny and Winry, they could yell and lecture all they wanted, they could dress him down with sharp tongues and hard eyes. But not one of them possessed Mustang's commanding presence, his authority and confidence, the unflinching promise of retribution delivered by a low, rumbling voice. Others could tell Ed that he was in the wrong, but no one else could make him feel it to the depths of his heart and soul.
And, whether he admitted it or not...Ed needed that. He needed this uptight, pretentious, self-assured bastard of a colonel to make him toe the line when he broke the rules, to cut his legs out from under him when he was being too arrogant. He just needed him.
That was why he couldn't leave, and also why he had to leave.
At last, Ed nodded feebly, stepping back when Mustang released him. He took another step and paused, not quite able to turn away just yet. Mustang looked...like hell. Like he had been through a war and won the whole damn thing all by himself. His leg was a complete wreck, dragging along the ground, and the normally pristine gloves were covered in brown and red blotches. Without meaning to, Ed found himself striving to memorize every little detail. Just in case.
Just in case this was the very last time.
Mustang scowled at his hesitation. "Fullmetal..."
That was what did it. The thought of never hearing that title spoken by that voice again. It was too much. Ed took two running steps forward and threw his arm around the colonel, hugging him tight. Mustang grunted with the impact and sagged against the wall, clinging to him to stay upright. "Ed...?"
"Shut up. Just shut up."
"I didn't say a word," Mustang said, a bit of that familiar smugness returning. But he also returned the embrace, squeezing Ed's shoulders tightly. And Ed could feel, in the strength of his grip, how much they both needed this. This reassurance that they were both still alive.
"You're not leaving me to die," Mustang said quietly. "You're saving my life."
Ed pulled away before he could get the chance to lose his nerve. "Just stay alive until I get back. And keep a fire going!"
Mustang jerked his head at the vent. "Get moving."
Ed spun on his heel marched up to the wall, back straight and arm held stiffly at his side, already charting a path up the rock wall that would allow him to reach the vent.
"Wait, your coat—"
"Keep it," Ed said curtly. He planted his foot in a groove and began scaling the wall, forced to move slowly since he only had one working arm. The exertion was more taxing than he anticipated, and Ed was already sweating by the time he was within reach of the vent. There were no handy ledges or anything else to work with, so he dangled from the ceiling one-handed and swung his legs up into the cleft, bracing his shoulder against the rock until he had a good hold.
He thought he wouldn't be able to bring himself to look back once he got to this point, but he wasn't quite that strong. Mustang had sunk back down against the wall with his leg stretched out before him awkwardly, the alchemic fire hovering nearby and Ed's coat pulled close around his shoulders. He was still looking far too composed about this whole thing. How could he so fearlessly condemn himself to this, trapped in the dark with only a corpse for company? Ed couldn't have dealt with a few minutes alone in this dark place, let alone hours or days. And Mustang must know full well there was a chance he would die long before Ed returned with help.
A lesser man would have been desperate, would have made Ed promise that he would return in time.
But that wasn't the kind of man Mustang was.
"I'll come back," Ed whispered.
Mustang cast him a frail smile, leaning his head back on the wall. "I know, kid. I know."
Ed turned his face upward into the blackness that awaited him and reached for the next handhold.
It was early morning by the time Ed clawed his way out of the mine and staggered back into town to Lieutenant Shane's front door. He just managed to gabber out a quick account about the mine and Mustang and to hand over the bit of electrum in his pocket before he passed out cold at the man's feet.
A great deal must have happened while he was unconscious because the next time Ed woke up his arm was in a cast, Hawkeye had arrived from East City with Al and several other State Alchemists in tow, and the mayor and his councilors had been taken away in handcuffs. The miners and their families readily confessed to helping them steal the electrum. Denial was useless in light of the evidence Ed had brought back. The miners got off with heavy fines instead of jailtime, even Dorian, due to their confessions and the fact that they had not actively taken part in trying to kill Ed and Mustang.
Mustang. The colonel was on Ed's mind from the moment he woke up. Because of his injuries, Ed wasn't permitted to take part in the rescue efforts made by the other alchemists, but he stubbornly refused any and all attempts to transport him to East City's hospital. He wouldn't leave until Mustang made it out. Two nerve-wracking days passed, and Ed counted every hour, doing little more than sleeping and pacing through the barracks while the military doctor who had come with Hawkeye scolded him for not resting.
Once the nightmares returned, the sleep grew less frequent. They were worse now as the imagined parts combined with his true memories, a montage of fear and pain and misery. And overlaying it all, the colonel's voice.
You're not leaving me to die...
Do you really think you're the only one to have dreams like that?
It's okay, Ed...
"Ed, wake up! Brother!"
Ed groaned and opened his eyes blearily, limbs stiff from the awkward sprawl of his body across the bed. His attention drifted from the morning light coming in the window to the candle on the nightstand. He couldn't sleep in complete darkness quite yet. Al dutifully kept the candle lit during the nights and woke him when the nightmares became too much. Ed rubbed his eyes turned over to look up at his hovering brother, the same question already on his lips. "Did they find—?"
"They found him!" Al said breathlessly. "They just brought him back here, he's—whoa!"
Ed was already moving on the fourth word, bounding out of bed only to end up in a heap on the floor. Al barely had time to get him untangled from the sheets before he was up again, sprinting out of the room so fast that he nearly collided with the opposite wall. The door directly to the left of his room was open halfway, and he darted inside.
Hawkeye looked up at his entrance, startled, but Ed had eyes only for the exhausted man lying in the bed. The thick wool blankets did little to hide the bones protruding sharply from pale, hollowed out cheeks, and the one hand lying on top of the blankets was thin beneath the bandages. An IV was already hooked to Mustang's vein to replace the precious fluids he had lost. The doctor pulled back the corner of the blanket and Ed could only spare the colonel's ankle a fleeting glance. It looked even worse in the light of day, swollen with infection as blood congealed in half-healed wounds.
"His leg," Ed said faintly. "Will he...lose it?"
"Not if I have anything to say about it," the doctor said firmly as he cut away the pantleg. "He's lucky his ankle is only twisted, not broken. I can tend to the wounds and the sprain, but he's going to need antibiotics. We don't have anything quite strong enough here."
"I'll arrange transport to East City this afternoon," Hawkeye said at once. "Alphonse, could you please get something for the colonel to eat when he wakes up? Something easy to digest, like broth."
"Of course," Al answered. "Brother, are you hungry?"
"Ah," Ed said absently, still watching Mustang. "I guess. Maybe."
Hawkeye paused beside him on the way to the door, touching his arm as she passed. "I think you should be here when he wakes up," she murmured. "The first thing he did when we found him was ask if you had made it out of the mine. I didn't get a chance to tell him you were safe before he lost consciousness again."
Ed nodded slowly. "Right. I'll stay."
"Thank you for saving him."
Ed looked up sharply at the quiet gratitude in her voice, but Hawkeye was already walking out the door with Al. The doctor soon had the ankle splinted, wrapping it up in so many bandages that the limb looked two times thicker than normal, and he left to get painkillers for when Mustang woke up. Ed dragged a chair over to the side of the bed, settling down in it backwards so he could rest his chin on the back, pillowed by his arm. Mustang seemed to be coming around, albeit slowly. Ed watched the dark lashes fluttering weakly, willing him to wake, but he didn't stir.
Something under the blanket caught his attention and he tugged the sheets back a little. Mustang was still hanging onto his coat with one hand, no longer quite so red with all the dirt smudged into the fabric. That was going to be hell to clean, unless he transmuted a new one altogether. He started to take the coat away, but Mustang's hand gripped it convulsively, thwarting him. Ed looked up. The man was still out, seemingly dead to the world. He tried again, but Mustang refused to release it, and the tug of war was slowly tearing new holes in the fabric.
"Come on, it's not your damn security blanket," Ed said crossly before changing tactics. He pried open the fingers clenched into the collar and finally jerked the coat out of reach. Mustang groped around, lines of distress marring his face as he awoke fully. Ed sank down on the edge of the mattress when dark eyes fixated on him, bleary with confusion and a painful kind of hope.
"Hey, Colonel," Ed said, unable to hold back a faint smile.
Mustang blinked, mouth dropping open slightly as his eyes roved over the room. He picked at the thick blankets covering him with such a baffled look that Ed was tempted to laugh. Mustang took a breath and looked at him again, taking in every inch of his appearance from the rumbled sleeping clothes to the cast on his arm to the tattered coat in his hand. "I'm...this is real? I'm not seeing things?"
Ed leaned over to pinch the inside of his wrist, eliciting a wince. "That real enough for you?"
"...yes," Mustang said, smiling lazily. He relaxed into the mattress with a groan of relief. "Just making sure. They got pretty bad for awhile there."
Mustang shook his head slowly from side to side, ignoring his question. His eyes wandered up to the ceiling dully. "Is my leg still there?" he asked with careful detachment, as though it didn't really matter. But the way he was carefully not looking down said it all.
"Yeah, it is," Ed assured him quickly. "And it's going to stay that way. Good thing, too. You're too much of a wuss to handle automail surgery."
Mustang smirked at the feeble stab at humor, even though there was really nothing funny about it. He considered Ed thoughtfully and finally cracked a crooked smile. "You made it out. I kept thinking you were going to get stubborn and turn back."
"Yeah, well," Ed muttered, shrugging. "I told you, I'm not a child."
"Sometimes, it's hard for me to see that," Mustang murmured, and it almost sounded like an apology. But that wasn't right. Ed should be the one apologizing to him. It was his fault they were both in such bad shape, his fault that a man was dead and that they had both nearly died along with him. It was funny. Hawkeye had thanked him earlier, but looking at the colonel now, Ed didn't feel like he had saved anyone. This never should have happened in the first place. If he had just been a little stronger, if he had just ignored that damn dream instead of letting his fear rule him...
"You shouldn't have come after me," Ed said rigidly. "How could you put yourself at risk like that? I didn't ask you to!"
Mustang adopted a look of blank surprise. "You're my subordinate. It's my duty to look out for you..."
"Don't give me that, Mustang," Ed retorted sharply. "Commanding officers call for backup when their subordinates are in trouble. They don't go charging into a mine and setting fire to everything they see. I mean, I get why you would do that for Hawkeye or Hughes, but why me? And don't say it's because I'm a kid!"
"Even if that is partly the reason?" Mustang asked dryly. He waved off Ed's infuriated look. "Is it so hard to believe that I genuinely care about what happens to you and Al?"
Mustang grimaced and looked away from him, gazing out the window. The hills where the mines resided were silhouetted against the bright morning sun, and Ed was tempted to call them beautiful. Except that he couldn't get rid of the desolate image in his head of the colonel sitting in that cold mine, holding a lonely vigil as he waited for a rescue that might not even come.
"Let me ask you this," Mustang said finally. "Why was it me you saw in your nightmare?"
Ed jerked in surprise at the loaded question. "H-How am I supposed to know? You said it yourself, it was just a dream..."
"Dreams like that don't just come out of nowhere," Mustang shot back. "Not without something real to back it up. You actively worked to protect me from Gabriel, you refused to leave me behind until I made you..."
"Because I'm not a soulless prick!"
Mustang turned to him with a look that said Ed was not fooling him one bit. "Tell me why you care so much, and I'll return the favor."
Ed's mind raced to come up with some meaningless platitude, but he knew that nothing less than the truth would satisfy the colonel. Of course he always had the option of getting up and walking out the door. Unfortunately, there was a very stubborn part of him that didn't want to leave it like this. He wanted to hear what Mustang had to say. He had to know for sure.
"It's not that I care...exactly," Ed mumbled awkwardly. "It's just, after everything you've done for me and for Al...I mean, you're the whole reason I was able to get into the military in the first place. You kept what we'd done a secret even when you didn't have to, and don't think I don't know how much you risk to keep everyone else from knowing too. After that dream...it just freaked me out, I guess. I don't know what we'd do if one day you just weren't there anymore."
Like Hohenheim wasn't there...
Mustang shut his eyes slowly. "I thought so."
Ed flushed hotly and turned his head to hide his expression, which he was sure was bordering on pathetically vulnerable. "That's all you have to say?"
"Well," Mustang said, shrugging, "it was kind of obvious."
"Great, just great," Ed muttered, wishing he'd just kept his big mouth shut. He pushed himself to his feet and stomped to the door. "Way to make me wish I hadn't saved you, asshole..."
"Back in the mine," Mustang said softly, in a way that made him pause in the doorway. "Back then, I told you that you're not the only one to have nightmares. Mine...are a little more real than most. You've probably heard the stories about Ishval, what the other soldiers say about me."
"Yeah, I have," Ed answered slowly, puzzled, "but stories about the war are always exaggerated. I mean, I get that you had to kill people on someone else's orders, but they talk like you were some kind of heartless killing machine..."
"I killed children, Fullmetal."
Had he been looking at his face when he said that, Ed wouldn't have believed it. But just as in the mine, his voice gave it all away. He turned around, but Mustang wouldn't look at him, head tilted down and his expression taut, a stone mask, and his shoulders slumped with an invisible weight.
"The Ishvalans were that desperate," Mustang went on in a hushed voice. "They weren't trying to win anymore, just to survive. And we were the monsters sent to make sure they didn't make it out alive. You don't know evil until you've seen what ordinary men are capable of in a war like that. I was no exception, I was one of them. That's what I see. Their eyes, their fear when they're about to die. It's all I can see. I spent a long time trying to deal with that. It hasn't been easy when your nights are haunted like that."
His hand closed into a fist, tendons pulled taut and knuckles white. Ed tried to imagine them gloved, being wielded as a weapon against the innocent, the defenseless...and couldn't. The only ones he had ever seen on the receiving end of Mustang's fire had been terrorists, criminals, traitors. Even Gabriel's death had been out of self-defense. Or rather, in his defense. Mustang was many things, but not a murderer, never a murderer.
The fingers of one hand uncurled and Mustang turned his hand up, staring at the palm dully. "Then I met you and Al," he murmured. "And I saw a chance to change what my alchemy had been used for. I thought, here are two young boys who have taken a wrong turn, and I have it in my power to give them their lives back. How could I pass it up?"
He looked up, swallowing tightly as he met Ed's gaze. "The truth is...you and Al are my redemption, the only two children I have ever saved. If something happened to either of you, if I slipped up even once and lost you two as a result, I'd..."
Shit, he looked like he was going to cry. For a moment, Ed almost wished he was back in the office facing the snarky, distant colonel behind the desk. Not this pensive, approachable man struggling with his own inner demons. Part of him was still waiting for some kind of rejoinder delivered by that supercilious voice he knew so well. If someone had told Ed that there really was a heart under that mask of ice, he would have laughed and told them to take a hike. But now, with the memories of the mine fresh and vivid in his head, there was no denying what he was seeing before his eyes.
It should have been uncomfortable, awkward, weird. Instead, it was...invigorating. Only that wasn't quite the right word. But Ed felt better, somehow, knowing that his presence meant something to Mustang, that he wasn't alone in his fear of losing the older man. It was something they shared, and if it hurt like hell then at least they were suffering together.
Ed smiled shakily and laughed a little, earning a baffled look from Mustang. "How're we ever gonna go back to insulting each other after this?" he wondered aloud.
Mustang's lips quirked up, and he regarded Ed almost fondly. "Oh, don't worry. I'm willing to bet we'll be back at each other's throats in a day or two. We always are."
Ed nodded and had to turn away quickly, clearing his throat. Damn his heart and its overemotional tendencies. "Get some rest, Colonel."
The colonel seemed to take him at his word, relaxing further under the covers as Ed stepped out. "You too, kid."
I'll come back.
I know, kid.
Ed shut the door slowly behind him and leaned against it, at once drained and renewed. And he was amazed to realize that he really didn't mind hearing Mustang call him that. Maybe because the colonel was the only one who didn't make it into some kind of insult. It was a statement of fact because, in many ways, he really was still a kid.
And Mustang, for all his brazen egotism, was doing a damn good job of showing him how to grow up.
...not that Ed would ever say it to his face.