Disclaimer: I do not own Fullmetal Alchemist or any related characters.
Chapter 19: Mew ( / myo͞o / )
1. noun - a secret place or hideaway
2. verb - to confine or tether
3. noun - a high-pitched cry
4. noun - a cage for hawks
It was impossible.
She imagined this moment for so long that now it seemed impossible. Mustang, her enemy - the man she hated for so long - lay before her, still as death. At first, she could do nothing but stare at him: The way his body hung loosely from the bindings she created. How his lax face was creased with worry. Even while unconscious she felt his draw - that intangible magnetism others found so irresistible. But there was a defeat in his shoulders she knew he did not have before. She had broken him.
Ashika felt awake for the first time in years. Her body was alive, filled with energy. Sensations - scents, colors, sounds - felt astounding and fresh, as though this was her first day in the living world. The scars on her face and hands burned like they had when they were new. This was her time. After so many years, she achieved the what she set out to accomplish.
She could not help but notice that he had not escaped life unscathed, either. He was as scarred and worn as she - perhaps more so. His hands were close to ruined: pierced through by blades, scabs still thick and healing. His face was haggard, older than it had right to be. There were lines on his brow and dark circles under his eyes. He was thin, drowning in his uniform. All this was her doing, the sole purpose of every drop of blood and sweat she spilled on her journey here. She had no regrets. She was only giving back what was given.
Ashika considered waking him - ripping him from naive unconsciousness. But instead she turned away. It would be better if he awoke alone, blind. Besides, she needed time to prepare. Tight anticipation shivered down her arms and into her core. She was too excited - prone to hasty decisions. She wanted to enjoy this. Her path took her past the body of the blond lieutenant. Having served his purpose, Havoc was nothing to her now. It was a simple matter to disable him once he brought Mustang to the cave, like turning a switch off. He was at her disposal should she need him, ready and willing for her command.
She settled on the floor of the southmost tunnel. The cave stretched from the main cavern and lead to a stagnant pool of water at its end. It was difficult to force herself into a calm state of mind, but she managed it after a time. Jiao taught her how to do it long ago. She was never good at it, slipping and sliding instead of floating in a sea of calm as her teacher described, but it was enough to keep her occupied while she waited. It was less than an hour later when she felt a tiny flutter at the edge of her consciousness: Mustang stirring. She drew a deep breath and rose from where she knelt.
He was calling out to his lieutenant as she approached, his face twisted into a mask of fear. Little did he know Havoc lay at his feet only a few paces away. She smiled. The general's blindness was almost too perfect: an opportune disability. He seemed to have lost all ability to access the power he had in the desert the day he attacked the Resistence, and for that she was grateful. She was still unsure what to make of the way he seemed to see without seeing.
"I have taken care of him," she said, and the words felt like velvet in her mouth. "You needn't worry about the lieutenant."
Mustang growled and struggled against the stone bindings that held his arms out to either side. A thrill traveled through her chest to see how small and weak he looked, seemingly swallowed by his coat. "Who are you?" he demanded.
"You don't remember me?" she said. She licked her lips and watched the way the sinew popped in his neck. "That hurts, Mustang. I could never forget you. Not after all these years." She stepped closer - near enough to inhale his smoky scent. "Murderer."
"...It was you, wasn't it?"
"Yes..." Ashika drawled.
"You're responsible," he continued. "Hawkeye, the trucks... everything. You were the one inside Havoc..."
"Very good, Mustang," she sighed. "You're just as smart as they say. And yet you fail to See." Pulled by a sudden need, she reached out and brushed her fingers over his cheek. Mustang jerked away, a look of revulsion on his face. Blood roared through Ashika's ears. "But before this night ends, you will. You will learn to fear my name."
A look of contemplation crossed his face. "Are you... an Ishvalan?"
"Correct again, general." The word came out a curse. "As was my mother and brother, people whose lives you destroyed." She reached into a pocket and dug out a piece of chalk. "Tell me," she said, leaning down to draw a wide circle on the floor. "Did you enjoy it? You must have, or you wouldn't have done it again and again. So many people, Mustang. Are you proud of it? Do you boast about it to your men?"
Mustang let out a long breath. "You have it wrong." The general seemed to wilt in his bindings, pressed down by a heavy load. "There isn't a day that goes by that I don't regret what happened. What... I did."
Ashika sneered at him from over her sketch. "How convenient for you."
"I was idealistic then," he said. "I did not see the war for what it was." He shook his head. "I don't follow those kind of orders anymore. I haven't for a long time."
"What's done is done, general." Her hand paused, halfway through drawing a straight line. "Funny how our past comes back to haunt us, isn't it? Your... regret does not change that my family is dead. It doesn't change how I was robbed of my childhood. It doesn't change the fact that I suffered - tossed away like a piece of shit wherever I went."
Mustang's brows furrowed. He lifted his head, somehow managing to stare straight into Ashika's eyes. Startled, she took an involuntary step back. There was a nobility to him, an incredible power that had nothing to do with Alchemy. The type of man with a destiny. "I don't enjoy killing," Mustang said, some strength returning to his voice. "I never have. I made a mistake."
The Ishvalan girl snarled as her thoughts strayed unbidden to Devon: her mistake. She was the one who drove him over the edge of insanity. Ashika could never undo what she did to him, and the regret of it tore at her every day. It stung to think she had something in common with a monster.
"I can't change the past," Mustang continued, "but I can try to rectify it."
"Oh?" Ashika said. "Is that what you were thinking when you attacked that Resistance rabble?" She coughed out a laugh. "How could you be so hasty, Mustang?"
Mustang's brows furrowed. "That was your plan, wasn't it? You wanted us at odds. You planted that symbol on Hawkeye's back."
"How could I resist?" Ashika paused and tapped her chin with one finger. "What is that saying? 'Love makes fools of us all'? I'd have never thought it was true until I saw you with her. You performed beautifully, by the way. It was such a treat to see you destroy everything you worked for." She brushed her hands on her thighs and chalk dust billowed in the air between them. "How did it feel, Mustang? To watch the world crumble around you and know it was all your fault?"
She hit all the right spots. Ashika watched with glee as his hands clenched and unclenched, testing the boundaries of his restraints. The air seemed to snap between their bodies, filled with electricity. Mustang's chest heaved and his lips were ice white. He was furious.
"She was the perfect target." Ashika said, watching his face closely. "I have you to thank for that, of course. I would have never thought to use the captain had it not been for you." The array complete, she glanced up at Mustang and smiled. "You may be blind, but your eyes give away more than you think. You were a fool to think no one would notice your stupid little infatuation."
Mustang strained at his bindings, his face twisted in fury. "Don't you -"
"Silence," Ashika hissed. "I dare because I can. You have no idea how powerful I've become, Mustang. You have no idea. But I shall rectify that soon enough. I have a little surprise waiting in your precious camps"
The general stilled. "What... do you mean?"
"I mean you to watch as I destroy everything you worked for." She paused, chuckling at her own joke. "Ah. How could I forget? You can't see!" Ashika reached up and wiped her chalk stained hands roughly over the general's eyes, hard enough to hurt. "Perhaps you can close your eyes and imagine it.." The smile on her face felt wide and wicked and perfect.
With a hooting laugh, Ashika leaned forward to activate the array.
The explosions were as shocking as they were violent. The ground vibrated beneath the truck wheels, rattling the windows. For an instant they swayed in their seats as the vehicle teetered from one side to the other, nearly capsizing before falling to the sand with a concussive jolt. Riza twisted in her seat to see a column of fire climb to the sky from the very heart of the Amestrian camp. An instant later, she saw an identical one lift from the Ishvalan side: Twin pillars of light, stark against the night sky.
"Stop the truck!" Riza shouted. She could not remember opening the door, let alone stepping out of the vehicle, but the next thing she knew she was standing ankle-deep in red-painted sand. Though the fire was hundreds of meters away, she could feel the heat of it on her face.
"So," Suyin said, appearing to her right. "She has made her move."
"No shit," Rebecca said, jogging to join her. "The hell is this, Ri?"
The engine cut behind them, and Falman and Marcoh stumbled out of the truck. Both seemed too shocked for words.
Riza watched the rising smoke in the distance, dread growing in her heart. The explosion was more than devastating: it meant they had to abandon their mission. "We have to go back." She felt something pull in her chest, as though the words had ripped the last remnant of hope. Her voice died to a half-hearted whisper. "We have to go back."
"This is what we feared would happen," Marcoh muttered. "The girl attacked the camps after all. She might even be using the Philosopher's stone to -"
"No," Suyin said, frowning. "This is alkahestry." She shifted and tipped her head up as though to sniff the air. "There will be more arrays triggered. Soon."
"More?" Falman said. "Captain, we have to go back! They'll need help! The troops - !"
Rebecca nodded. "We can rescue Mustang later." she agreed. Her eyes darted over to her friend. "Sorry, Ri."
Hawkeye shook her head. She felt empty and alone, torn between choices she did not want to make. She usually knew her duty; what her role dictated. But all that seemed clouded now. All she knew was that something throbbed at the base of her skull like a faraway heartbeat. "You're right."
"No," said Suyin. "You must continue, Captain."
"Are you crazy?" Rebecca shouted, sweeping her arm toward the pillars of fire. "Perhaps you missed the exploding buildings!"
"I missed nothing," replied Suyin cooly.
Rebecca simply growled and and directed her attention back to Riza. "We're going back, right Ri? I mean... it's pretty clear this girl is going for the camps. Maybe we can catch her and squeeze information from her. Find Mustang that way... not with all this -" She waggled her fingers in the air." "- voodoo."
"Both camps at once, though?" said Falman. "It doesn't seem right. Why would she do that?"
"A distraction?" Marcoh offered.
"Perhaps." Riza turned away to gather her thoughts. Their shadows danced over the sand like red-rimmed phantoms. In the distance, she could still feel a pull, like the draw of a lodestone. Mustang was there, waiting for her. "Perhaps," she whispered again.
"You journey on. I will return to your camp."
The four Amestrians turned to face the Xingese woman, who stared back with ever-present calm.
"No." Riza shook her head. "I can't let you do that."
"The doctor is correct," said Suyin. "This is a distraction. We must not allow ourselves to be fooled."
"We're soldiers. It's our responsibility to protect the camps," Rebecca said. She glanced at Riza for affirmation, but only received a rueful frown.
"Send me," Suyin said. "This is alkahestry. I can stop it." She met Riza's eyes, black on brown. "You must go on."
Rebecca snorted. "Both camps? You think you can make it to both camps in time? What, can your alka-whatever help you teleport? They're nearly two miles apart!
Suyin sent the bushy-haired woman a sidelong glance. It was not kind. "You are right," she said. Her eyes slid past Catalina to rest on Falman. "I'll take that one."
"C-Captain?" Falman stuttered.
It was strange - how quickly the decision came. It was simple and easy and right - the same as her decision to follow Mustang after the war. It almost felt... outside of her, ordained by some higher power. The orders spilled from her lips before they fully formed in her mind, and with them came a feeling of intense relief. "Yes. She's right. Go back to base camp, Falman. Someone needs to calm the troops. Marcoh, Catalina and I will continue the rescue. Do whatever Suyin asks you to do, Falman. Treat her orders as though they come from me."
Rebecca took hold of her arm. "Riza, are you sure that's -"
"Yes," Hawkeye said, pulling free without looking at her friend. Her eyes were locked with Suyin's. The Xingese woman nodded encouragingly and Riza pressed on. "Go back to the truck with Marcoh, Rebecca. I'll be there in a moment." She nodded at the grey-haired man. "Falman, grab whatever gear you need. Quickly." As they turned away to complete their tasks, Riza ignored the hurt and confusion in their eyes. There was no time for them. She had no space left in her heart.
Suyin waited for the others to shuffle towards the truck before she stepped close, her voice nothing more than a murmur. "This will not be an easy task."
"And yet you volunteer," Riza said. She placed her hand on the other woman's arm. "Thank you, Suyin... for going back."
Suyin gave her a wry look. "I do this to pay back a debt. It was a large debt, Captain, but not so big as this. When I am through, it is I who will be owed a favor." She smiled and it touched her eyes for the first time. "You see? I am selfish."
"I already owe you a lot," Hawkeye murmured. "It feels wrong to ask for more."
"That is true," Suyin agreed. "You owe much." Yet the smile fell from her face, replaced with guilt. "But I fear I leave you alone to face your greatest challenge yet."
The truck engine roared to life. Falman was on his way; she could hear his footsteps draw near. Their time was drawing to a close more quickly than she could have hoped. Riza squeezed her eyes shut and took a great breath. "I'm... lost, Suyin. I usually know my role - what I'm meant to do, but... the game is different this time."
"It is only natural." She brought her hand up to rest on top of Riza's. "You are right to fear. She will try to use her power against you." She squeezed, a gentle and reassuring pressure - a gesture of support. "But you have the means to fight."
"And what's that?" Riza opened her eyes and looked to the other woman, unsure of what she hoped to find there.
"It is a pure and simple thing," Suyin said, her face calm as an undisturbed pond. "Most good things are." She nodded to Falman and released Riza's hand. "You must only remember the part of you that helps him See." Suyin turned away and started up at a jog, gliding over the sand as the lieutenant slogged after her. Her last words came trailing behind her, like a whispered secret in the night.
"Good luck, Riza."
Roy strained against the bindings until his shoulders popped. He hardly felt the pain. Something had rippled through the ground a moment ago: a power that was both strange and familiar. He knew alkahestry when he felt it. "What did you do?!" he snarled.
Cloth rustled in the space before him; the girl had risen and was now likely standing. "I triggered an array," she said. "You must know by now that alkahestry can act at a distance. There are identical arrays in your camps." She laughed. "I will let you put together the rest."
"Why?" he struggled again but only managed to rip something in his back. "Haven't your people suffered enough? Why would you attack them too?"
"You're one to talk about my people's suffering," Ashika said. There was the sound of metal on cloth. "Seeing as you killed them in droves without so much as a second thought."
"You -" Mustang sucked in a breath as a cool blade sliced through his uniform and into the skin of one shoulder. Blood soaked through the wool and down his chest.
"Hurt?" the girl whispered. Alchemy sparked in the air between them, rock flowed like a river and something struck him sharply on the side of his face. "Imagine your skin burning. Imagine your flesh melting from your bones."
Mustang hung from his bindings, desperately trying to gather his thoughts. The knife darted out again, this time catching him below the ribs. Startled, he stifled a cry behind pursed lips. The pain came after, and he let out a soft moan from the back of his throat. Mustang trembled, unsure of where the next blow would fall.
"I expected you to fight more," the girl teased. "Where was that fire I saw that day you burned that fat Lieutenant?"
Mustang slowly pulled himself up so he was sitting upright again. Sweat dripped into his wounds and they burned, just as Ashika wanted. "I'm tired of fighting."
"She fought," Ashika replied. "She fought me when I cut her." The flat of her blade came to rest of Mustang's cheek. "You should have seen the way she looked that night. All that blood..."
"Don't." His hands slowly curled into fists. The scars in his palms stretched; he felt cracks form in the hardened skin where the swords pierced him. Had that truly happened? It seemed so long ago.
"I was shocked, Mustang," Ashika said. "The scars on her back." She turned the knife slightly, putting more weight behind it, and the blade bit into his skin. "You burned her. I know because I live with the same scars. I thought such a punishment was only reserved for Ishvalans... but you burned her."
"Your most trusted subordinate?" The knife traveled upwards and the tip teased the outer flesh of his ear. "You mutilated her, as you did me. Tell me -" Her wrist flicked and the edge caught in the cartilage, cleaving it in two. Mustang shuddered, managing to suppress a scream by biting his tongue. His mouth filled with blood. "Are you even capable of touching something without destroying it?"
Mustang spat out a mouthful and rubbed his lips on one shoulder. Blood streamed down the side of his face and bubbled into his ear. This girl intended to kill him slowly. He leaned back on the cool stone and closed his eyes, readying himself for the next blow, but something stirred on the edge of his consciousness. Roy lifted his head, called by a sound, simple and pure as a bell.
"Pay attention," Ashika snarled. Her fist cracked against his temple - once, twice. "I want you to experience this, Mustang. I want you to feel every cut." Her fingers clasped over the front of Roy's throat like tiny claws.
Roy shook his head, an impossible smile blooming on his lips. He should have known. He should have trusted in her. But things had grown so strained between them; he began to doubt. Warmth spread into his deadened limbs and his heart jolted, sluggishly awakening in his chest. She was like a campfire - comforting and familiar. She had always been that way.
"What is it?" the girl growled. Her fingers tightened over Mustang's neck. "Why are you smiling?"
Mustang shook his head, listening for a voice only he could hear.
Their destination was startlingly easy to find: a simple hole in the ground at the base of a ruined building, open for all to see. It was a different location from the one that led to the hidden reservoir Riza and Suyin found earlier, and she knew by the scent of stagnant water emanating from the opening that it led to one of the pools of undrinkable water. Nothing stirred in the rubble. Everything was still in the abandoned city. The world was holding its breath.
Her companions were largely silent and had been for the majority of the trip, though Rebecca's eyes were large and anxious in the rearview mirror. Riza knew her best friend was itching to talk to her, to ask her why - what the hell she was doing. Riza was not sure she could tell her. At this point she was acting on instinct alone. Fueled by fear. Driven by something she did not understand.
They left the truck without bothering to hide it, gathering what supplies they could carry without weighing them down too much. There was a distinct possibility they would need to make a quick getaway, and it would be good to have the car on hand. Riza armed herself methodically, avoiding Rebecca's eyes, while Marcoh awkwardly strapped a single gun to his belt.
"Not even sure if I know how to work this damn thing," he grumbled, fingers fumbling over the leather straps.
"We'll cover you," Hawkeye reassured. "Just focus on the Philosopher's stone. Is there anything you can do to get it out of her hands?"
"If I could, I would have used it on Crimson when I had the chance," said Marcoh. He sent Riza an apologetic look. "I'll do my best. I might be able to try a few tricks."
"I've got some, too," Rebecca grinned. She motioned to a line of cylindrical rods strapped to her belt. "Flash bombs."
"Do what you can." Hawkeye said. She looked at her friend meaningfully. "Stay with Marcoh. No matter what."
"Just do what I say," she snapped before she managed regain her composure. Her nerves were completely frayed. She had not slept in over forty-eight hours. Riza sighed and reached out to briefly squeeze her the other woman's shoulder. "... Please, Rebecca."
"Of course." Catalina said. A strange expression stole over her face and she hesitated, biting her lip. "Riza -"
"We'll talk after, okay?" Riza said with a watery smile. She turned away before Rebecca could see her expression crack. She was not sure if there would be an after, but that was not something Catalina needed to know.
A wall of heat hit her face the instant she stepped inside the dark opening: retained heat from the day. She could smell moisture; it mixed with the sweat that already dampened her temples and neck. Marcoh shuffled behind her, muttering softly under his breath. She could tell he was nervous. He had witnessed what the girl was capable of, and he knew better than she how a Philosopher's stone could amplify her power. Worse, Marcoh was not trained to fight like many alchemists. Rebecca trailed the group, uncharacteristically silent.
The journey to the base of the cavern was more difficult than the one that led to the hidden reservoir. There were no torches to guide the way, nor were there convenient alchemically-carved stairs. Before long the trio was stumbling blindly in the dark. Marcoh had a near-devastating fall before they had to concede: They needed light if they were to go any further. The doctor fashioned something with alchemy from a few supplies in his pockets: a small phosphorus light, easily doused.
Sweat was streaming down Hawkeye's back by the time the path leveled off. A light flickered ahead and she could hear the sound of distant, echoing voices. They were nearing their target. Riza crouched, signaling Marcoh to dim his light. Her stomach churned. The odds were not in her favor. Their enemy wielded a Stone - an enemy who Suyin claimed had planted something insider her. As usual, the Xingese woman was more cryptic than she was reassuring, and something told Riza this battle could well be her last. She swallowed her fear and began to slowly crawl forward. The others followed.
It seemed to take forever, but the group finally made their way to the edge of the cavern. It was a wide open space, not dissimilar to the one she and Suyin found not one day before. A few ever-burning torches dotted the stone walls, casting an eerie purple glow on the cave floor. The mouths of several tunnels emptied into the space, but all were too dark to see where they led. Riza could see no water but she could smell it: sulfurous, like rotting eggs. At the very center of the space was a rock formation that sprang from the earth, unnaturally smooth and perfectly square. Havoc lay several paces from the spot; she was relieved to see his chest rise and fall in even breaths. He seemed to be asleep. Not far away, a hooded figure crouched near the rocks, and below her lay -
"Roy," she whispered. Riza felt a sudden urge to draw her weapon, to run out to the center of the cave and act. But it was too dangerous - she was too dangerous. She had a Philosopher's stone, after all. Riza turned to face the others. "I'll go first," she whispered. "And try to distract her. You two circle around as best you can, out of sight if possible. When I give the signal, take her from behind. Rebecca..." Riza paused as she worked around the tight feeling in her throat. "If Havoc's still... if you think there's a chance... I want you to get him out of here."
Rebecca's eyes were large and luminous, like two lanterns in the darkness. "Are you sure -?"
Riza nodded. "Yes. I'm sure."
"Captain," Marcoh whispered. "I see something moving at the other side of the cave."
Riza spun around, squinting into the flickering darkness. The doctor was right. A tiny figure - no more than a child - slowly skirted around the edge of the cave. She could just make out a mess of tangled hair trailing down his back...
"Devon," she whispered. Her heart nearly broke. What was he doing here? Go back, she silently urged. It's not safe.
"Who?" Rebecca said. She crawled to Hawkeye's side.
Riza shook her head. "One of the lost children of Ishval. Suyin and I found him in the ruins."
"What should we do about him?"
"I don't know," Riza sighed. "Just... try your best to stay out of sight. Things aren't going to go smoothly as it is."
Rebecca's lips twisted into a wry grin and she patted Hawkeye on the shoulder. "Good luck, Ri."
Hawkeye watched the pair make their way to the opposite side of the tunnel, towards a series of rock formations that might provide some cover. Seeing they were finally in place, she reached for her gun.
The pistol was heavy in her hand - heavier than she ever remembered it. It was the one Roy had given her after Grumman's party, what seemed like ages ago. It was the same one he had given her to end his life. It was made for her, perfect in every way. Such a thing could only be made with love - an understanding of the person who would wield it. The metal felt warm beneath her fingers as she remembered the weight of his hands on hers. It reminded her of who she was - how she came to be - and for the first time in weeks she found focus. She stopped trembling.
Calm. The voice sounded strangely familiar. Breathe.
Riza exhaled and smoothly rose from her hiding place, gun pointed directly at the girl's head.
Ashika froze. Mustang's eyes had jumped to the space above her shoulder. He had been acting strangely for the last quarter hour, as though he knew something she did not. Her knife cuts hardly seemed to touch him anymore. It was not until she directed her attention away from him that she sensed it: there were several other people in the cave. She had been found. Ashika spun to see Captain Hawkeye standing at the opening to one of the tunnels.
"You," she sneered.
Hawkeye merely frowned and walked smoothly forward, gun at the ready. "Sir?" she called.
"Captain," Mustang said. His voice was an odd mixture of relief and pride.
"Not another step," Ashika said. She brought the knife up to press the tip against Mustang's cheek. "Or you will not be happy with the result." She dug it into his skin. He sucked a breath through his teeth and tried to pull away, but the back of his head butted against the stone wall.
Hawkeye paused. She seemed to be studying Ashika, learning how she moved. Her hands were perfectly steady; her gun never wavered. "What do you want?"
"Him." Ashika waved the knife in Mustang's direction. A bead of blood flicked from the edge and spattered on the floor below. "Dead."
"That's not going to happen."
"Oh?" she said. "I think you're mistaken, Captain. I tell you what's going to happen." She reached into her pocket and palmed the Philosopher's stone. "First, your little friends are going to come out of their hiding places." She channeled a bit of alchemy and the earth opened like a split melon. The crack raced to the other end of the cave, growing larger as it traveled. There was a series of shouts, then two Amestrians stumbled into the open. She recognized both: the fool doctor who lost the stone and the bushy-haired Amestrian from the caravan. She, too, had a gun in her hands.
"Riza?" the woman called, stepping in front of the Marcoh.
"Stay put," said Hawkeye. Her eyes never left Mustang, her goal.
Ashika sneered. "I'm not finished. I need to tell you what's going to happen next." She reached out with alkahestry - not towards her adversaries, but to the blond soldier who lay at her feet. Lieutenant Havoc opened his eyes as though woken by a shock. Without a moment's hesitaiton, he stood without and pulled out his gun, pointing it directly at the doctor and the bushy haired soldier.
"H- Havoc?" the brunette gasped as the barrel of his weapon came to rest on her. She just managed to push the doctor out of the way and duck for cover before he fired; a bullet hole marred the wall where they once stood. Havoc frowned and strode toward where the pair hid, gun at the ready
"Now for you," Ashika said, glancing back at the captain. "Such a pleasure getting to do this a second time."
"No -" Mustang grunted, trying again to break free. "Hawkeye, stay back! She has a Philosopher's stone!"
"Wait your turn," Ashika said. She reached out to stroke him gently on the throat. Her fingers wiped the blood away, leaving white streaks like claw marks. She smiled and lazily turned to face Hawkeye... only to freeze. Her breath caught in her throat. She could not believe what she was seeing. "...Devon?"
Her brother stood before the captain with arms outstretched, his eyes wide and more sane than they had been in years. Ashika eyed him with a strange mixture of relief and fury. Devon was alive. He was alive and found his way back to her. But what was he doing? Was he protecting this woman?
"Devon!" she called, her voice more shrill than she intended. "Get away from her!"
Her brother murmured something under his breath and took a step backwards, so his tangled hair brushed against Hawkeye's belly. The soldier seemed as surprised as Ashika, staring down at him with a mixture of shock and wonder. She slowly reached down and placed her free hand on Devon's shoulder, and the boy pressed into her, seemingly comforted by her touch.
"Devon!" Ashika screeched. "It's not safe. Come to me! Now!"
Hawkeye looked up; her hand slid over the boy's shoulder and onto his chest. "He is telling you to stop. Please. You can stop this."
"Shut the hell up!" Ashika shouted. She reached into the Stone and alchemy sparked from her shoulders and into to the tips of her fingers. "You don't know anything about us! You don't know him!" At the other end of the cave there were more gunshots; the brunette peaked from behind a pile of rubble, holding Havoc off by firing at the ground just beneath his was clear she was intentionally missing, but it worked: Havoc dashed to the side and ducked behind a pile of low-lying stone. "Get them, you idiot!" Ashika screamed. "Kill them!"
To her right, Hawkeye stood fast, her gun hand steady. A strange look passed over the female soldier's face and her fingers spread over Devon's chest to pull him closer. "He's your brother, isn't he?" the captain said quietly. "He survived the war with you."
"Shut up!" Ashika screamed. Red leaked into the edges of her vision and the ground at her feet vibrated with the energy of the Philosopher's stone. "Come, Devon," she cried, desperately. She felt something wet on her cheeks. She knew they were tears and she was ashamed of how weak she had become.
Devon shook his head and leaned closer into the woman's side. "Mother," he said in Ishvalan.
Pain rammed into her heart like a spear. This was the first word Ashika hear her brother utter since she performed alkahestry on him, and the hurt of it drove through her. Devon left her. He betrayed her. After all these years of protecting him, keeping him safe from the cruelty of strangers, he sided with their enemy. She had never felt such fury, such unbridled hatred, such unrelenting betrayal. A transmutation circle coalesced in her mind and before she knew it the earth parted at her feet. It ripped open like a curtain towards the captain and her brother. Hawkeye cried out in alarm and gathered the boy in her arms, but it was too late. The cave shook and rocks fell from the ceiling like rain. Dust billowed up in a blinding cloud, and in seconds Ashika saw nothing.
"Captain!" Mustang shouted. "Captain!" He was close to her and relatively protected, but even blind he could not miss the chaos that rumbled through the cavern.
Ashika squinted into the gloom. Torchlight played over the dust, casting odd shadows everywhere. A strange silence fell, and even Havoc - still in her thrall - stopped to watch what would happen next. After a few breathless moments, Ashika saw movement through the cloud. She stepped forward, hesitant. "Devon...?"
Captain Hawkeye crouched over a tiny form curled on the floor . Devon was utterly still, a deathly pallor showing through his tan. His eyes were closed and he did not stir. The woman reached forward to brush a few strands of hair out of the boy's face.
"No," Ashika whispered. She stumbled back and choked on her own horror. "No." The word slowly curled into a moan. What had she done? What had she done?
Hawkeye looked up at her sadly. She opened her mouth to speak, but stopped when she saw the look on Ashika's face.
"You made me do this," Ashika said. Spit flew from between her lips and dribbled down her chin. "It's your fault!"
The captain retrieved her weapon and stood. Though she was not visibly injured, she was unsteady, and nearly stumbled as she found her feet. But her lips were pressed into a determined line. She carefully stepped around the boy, placing her body between her and her brother.
Ashika let out a strangled sob and stumbled back a few paces. "It's your fault," she said, half dazed. Devon was dead. He was dead and nothing could take it back. "You made me do this. You didn't understand." Ashika stopped and stared across the cavern. A raw need to hurt burned in her breast. "But I'll make you," she growled. Called by her unspoken command, Lieutenant Havoc broke away from the brunette and began to stride towards her. The gun fell from his hand, forgotten. "I'll make you understand."
Mustang lifted his head, seeming to sense Ashika's intent. "Riza...?" he said.
"I'll show you," Ashika whispered, reaching to her belt. "I'll show you what it is to lose a brother." Havoc stood before her, open and willing. His eyes gazed at something over her head, as blind and empty as the general's. He did nothing to defend himself, even as Ashika plunged her knife into his belly. She pushed the blade further, up to the hilt, and he did not so much as grunt. Ashika placed her hand on his chest and pushed. Havoc let out a soft sigh as he slid backwards and off the blade.
"Havoc!" Rebecca screamed. She dashed toward the lieutenant, managing to ease his back to the floor before his skull hit stone. She cradled Havoc's head on her lap and glared up at the Ishvalan girl, completely unafraid. Ashika coolly wiped her knife over her thigh and watched the spreading stain on the lieutenant's midsection with disinterest.
After a moment, the dullness left Havoc's eyes. He blinked, confused. "Where...?" His meandering gaze fell on the wound in his stomach, to the red that marred the blue wool. "Oh," he whispered. His eyes rolled to the back of his head and he slumped in Rebecca's arms.
"Havoc," she sobbed, clutching his head between her two dirtied hands. Her thumbs stroked his cheeks, leaving sweat-stained smears.
Ashika turned away. She did not regret what she did and would do it again in a heartbeat. Devon was dead; she had nothing left to lose. Mustang was next, and this time she was not interesting in playing. The general was only a few dozen feet away, and it was clear he knew what had happened. A strange, growling whimper emanated from the back of his throat and he strained against the stone bindings with all his remaining strength.
"Rebecca!" Captain Hawkeye's voice was clear, sharp and forceful. "Now would be a good time."
Ashika turned to look at the brunette. She saw something silent pass between the two women and she froze, unsure. Rebecca nodded and suddenly Hawkeye was running - sprinting across the cave, straight for Mustang. Ashika cried out and gathered her power to lash out, but a flash in the corner of her vision stopped her before she could act. The brunette had thrown something in the air - a cylindrical rod that spun end over end for what seemed an eternity. Ashika paused, eyes caught by the movement. She did not notice the lieutenant press her face into Havoc's coat, nor how the captain shielded her eyes.
The spinning rod exploded, and light flooded the cavern like a dawning star.
Riza watched with satisfaction as Ashika shrieked and sunk to the ground. Without lids to protect her eyes, she received the full brunt of the flash bomb. Catalina popped up immediately, and with a small grunt pulled Havoc's much larger body up and over her shoulders. Marcoh emerged from his hiding place and hovered behind her, studying his wound with worried eyes.
"Get him out of here!" Riza called. "Take the doctor with you!"
"What about you?" Rebecca called. She wobbled slightly; Havoc was no easy burden.
"I'll be right behind you." She watched Catalina turn away before returning to her task. "Sir." Riza sank to her knees in front of Mustang, scanning his body for injuries. Spots flew in her eyes from the brightness of the flash bomb, but not so much that she could not see how badly the girl had hurt him. His uniform was darkened with patches of blood. A nasty bruise colored the space above one eye and there was a cut across his cheek and through his ear. He hung loose from his bindings, exhausted.
"Hello, captain," Roy said softly, managing a weak smile.
"You okay, sir?" She hesitated as she reached out to pry at the bindings, almost afraid to touch him. But her fingers brushed against his skin as they dug at the stone, and it was reassuring to know he was there, still alive.
"I'll be better when we get out of here," Mustang said. He paused "Havoc...?"
Riza's heart clenched. "Later."
"Mustang!" the shriek was otherworldly, echoing weirdly off the stone walls. Ashika would not be incapacitated for long. If anything, she was more of a threat now, furious and willing to lash out even if it meant bringing the cave down on top of them.
"Captain..." Roy's voice had a defeated tone to it, the same as the day she slapped him. Riza was still tugging on the bindings and it was quickly becoming clear it was useless. "Go."
"Not without you." She pulled out a gun and drove it against the bindings, not caring how it might break. It did not so much as chip the surface. There were no cracks, nothing - the stone was perfectly smooth. Riza's heart thundered in her chest. She had to get them out.
Ashika had stumbled to her feet, one hand clasped over her lidless eyes. The other gripped the Philosopher's stone.
"Riza," Mustang said, staring at her sadly with those damn sightless eyes. "Please go."
"No," she near-sobbed, throwing all her weight behind the gun now. She didn't come all this way to leave him behind - couldn't he see? "Don't you dare ask me that. Not now!"
"I'll kill you!" Ashika shrieked. The air crackled with red light and suddenly the ground pitched from under her knees. Something solid hit Riza's side and she flew through the air like a broken doll. The last thing she remembered was Mustang's face, shocked and horrified, lips forming her name in a silent scream.
Her body impacted the stone wall with a sickening crunch and she fell to the floor in a heap.
Ashika was livid. Hate boiled in her like a hot poison. She should have suspected the women planned something, but she did not expect the blinding light. They moved so quickly; she was still reeling from the remnants of the flash bomb. Then she realized the doctor and two lieutenants were missing. They slipped through her fingers, and would likely return with reinforcements.
The captain stirred, still stunned from her crushing impact against the wall. She was bleeding from a deep cut above one eye and winced as she pushed herself to her feet. But even in her state she managed to pull a gun and aim at Ashika with fairly steady hands.
"How dare you?" Ashika whispered. Red lightning wreathed her like a cape and the cave floor shifted under her feet. A solid barrier - three feet thick - rose from the floor and blocked the entrance to the tunnel where Rebecca and the doctor had disappeared.
"Hawkeye?" Mustang called, craning his neck toward the place where the captain fell.
"I'm okay, sir."
"No," Ashika said. "That's not true. You might as well put that thing away, Captain. Your stupid weapon isn't going to do you any good."
"Oh?" Riza said. Her hands were sure, even as blood dripped into her eye and down her chin. "Shall we test that?"
"Careful," Mustang said with a shadow of his old, confident grin. "She doesn't miss."
"You're right sir," the captain said grimly. "I don't."
Ashika growled. It was strange, watching the two at work. There was an easy grace to it: two soldiers cut from the same fabric. Two halves of a whole. It made her sick.
"Hawkeye," Mustang said. "Take care of her."
The words rang in Ashika's head like a bell. They sounded so familiar, like some half-remembered dream. She heard him say those words before. Ashika froze, feeling the terrible pull of memory once again. "No," she groaned, pounding at her temples with two tiny fists. "Not now."
Take care of her, Hawkeye.
"No!" Ashika shrieked. The captain was staring at her over the barrel of her gun with focused intent. But that was wrong. That was not how she remembered it.
Take care of her.
"Captain?" Mustang called out uncertainly. The smile fell from his face and suddenly it seemed much younger than it had a moment before, but still haggard from dozens of sleepless nights.
Can you... take her? The voice was so sad, aged from years locked in the recesses of Ashika's mind. She sunk to her knees, curling like a child. Something ached inside her chest, and Ashika gasped as memory flooded her like a storm, like a raging fire. She felt the Ishvalan sun on her raw, burned skin. And suddenly she was there, reliving her worst memories..
Everything seemed to happen at once. Mother lumbered forward, her arms open to the soldiers waiting on the streets below. Agne screamed and stumbled towards the door. She tripped and fell against her mother's side. Through the corner of her vision, Agne could see an indistinct blue shape. She turned her head. A man stood just outside, one gloved hand held aloft before him. His eyes widened slightly at her sudden appearance in the doorway. His fingers jerked in surprise.
They made a tiny snick.
"No," Ashika groaned, clutching her head and pressing her palms into it with all her might. "Not this. Anything but this."
It burned. It burned. Ishvara take her, it burned.
Agne shrieked as the flames enveloped her. Shouts sounded from the soldiers outside, and their forms blurred in a flurry of movement. Agne thrashed in a vain attempt to escape the merciless inferno. Her fire-stung eyes swung up to her mother, who stood utterly still, arms open. Her beautiful hair was aflame; the burnished gold now transformed to fiery red.
The memory was familiar - how could she forget? She spent years trying to escape it. But there was a new component to it now: a moment in time, awoken by the sound of Mustang's voice. She saw. She remembered.
"She's just a kid..." The voice was young but broken. Something rustled over the crackle of the flame. "A fucking child -!"
A thick, tan cloth fell over Agne, followed by the heavy weight of hands, patting her furiously to put out the fire. Arms eased her to the ground. She tried to scream, to shriek, to do anything, but all breath had left her. Her body hurt everywhere. It was unbearable. Beside her, she could hear her mother's last, agonal breaths.
"What the hell do you think you're doing? I gave you an order, Major!"
The cloth flew away and suddenly there was blinding light. "You did."
Agne tried to move, but the pain was too all-encompassing. From the corner of her vision, she could see her mother's hand, the flesh melted off like candle wax. Over the crest of Mother's burned hip she spied Devon, still hiding where she left him, his eyes opened far, far too wide. All the color had left his face. She silently begged him to stay where he was - to hide and not be seen.
"I'm tired of your attitude, Flame. You're an Amestrian soldier. Your job is to follow orders."
"She was a child, Colonel." The alchemist's voice was tight. "I didn't come here to kill children."
"This is war -"
"My God," murmured a third voice. "The kid's still alive."
There was a long pause. Agne tried to reach out, but only managed a whimpering plea, unable to even form words. Help, she wanted to cry. Help me.
"This is your fault, Mustang," the colonel clipped. "Finish what you started."
"You heard me, coward."
There was a tense pause. "Yes, sir. But if it'd be alright, I want to do this... alone."
"I should have known," the colonel scoffed. "It was just like the general said: You alchemists are too soft for war."
"Respectfully, sir, I -"
"I don't really give a shit, Mustang," said the colonel. "You're a burden and a little weasel to boot. You wouldn't be part of my troop if you weren't for what you are. Just do your fucking job. That's all I ask." Boots shuffled over sand for a moment. "C'mon. Let's give the princess some privacy." The group shuffled away, leaving Mustang alone.
Mustang waited a long time before he moved. He sighed deeply, then rounded Agne's burned body and crouched near her head, just inside her field of view. His eyes were dark - blacker than the little beetles that crawled out of the ground after the rains fell.
"I'm sorry," he whispered. He reached out to brush back the few remaining strands of her hair.
Agne gulped in a breath and tried to speak, but only managed a long wheezing noise. She wondered, briefly, what it would feel like to die. Surely it could not hurt more than she did already. His brows were furrowed in concentration and she thought perhaps he was thinking the same thing. The two - man and girl - stared at each other for a long, endless moment. The sound of approaching footsteps pulled them from their silent reverie. Mustang looked up, relief apparent on his face.
"You signaled for me, sir?" It was a woman's voice - slightly out of breath, as though she had recently jogged a distance.
"You... saw what happened?"
"Yes," she said. "From my hide."
"I..." he paused and swallowed. "Can... you take her?"
"To the doctors from Risembool?"
"Alright." Her voice was like his: bereft of all life. There was a long pause. "What about him?"
"Who -?" Mustang looked up to meet the eyes of his companion, then swiveled to follow the line of her gaze. Devon shrunk back like a cornered animal, pinned by the eyes of two Amestrian soldiers. "Oh."
The woman rounded Agne's body and crouched in front of her brother, hand outstretched. "Hello," she murmured. "What's your name?" The soldier's hair was shorn short - blond, like their mother's.
"You'll have to take him, too," Mustang said. "He won't survive out here alone."
"I'll try," she said. "But you know their supplies are limited..."
"I'll take care of that." A shadow darkened Mustang's face. "Hawkeye..."
She glanced at him over her shoulder. Her eyes were so sad. Sad but determined - driven by something much greater than she. "Later, sir."
He pursed his lips, but nodded. "Okay."
The blond woman reached out to Devon again, this time taking hold of his hand. She pulled him out of his hiding place gently, her face calm and patient.
Mustang pushed up to stand. "I have to join up with the others."
"I know," she said, turning to face the major again. The two stared at one another for a long time. Something passed between them, spoken in a language only they knew.
"Thank you," he said at last. He turned to go, but stopped and looked at her again. "Please," he said. "Take care of her, Hawkeye."
Riza knew an opportunity when she saw one. The girl had slumped into a ball, moaning in apparent agony. She did not know what was wrong with Ashika, but she did not have time to care. She had to act while she had the chance.
She could not recall sprinting so fast in all her life. Gun clutched in two bloody hands, she fell on the girl with all the fury and desperation she felt for the past few days. A single kick to the wrist was all that was necessary to knock the Philosopher's stone from the Ashika's hand. Another to the chest laid her out on the floor. The girl blinked stupidly for a moment, as though awoken from some unpleasant dream. It took a long time for her to focus on the captain standing above her. When she did, her lips thinned into a silent snarl.
"You're done," Riza said between gasps. Her side felt like fire and blood dripped into one eye, but her hands were steady. "You're beaten."
"Bitch," the girl hissed, spit flying from between her teeth. "I'm never done. I won't be done until both of you are dead." She said the words, but there was little power to them. She appeared frightened and bewildered, her eyes wide and unfocused.
"Hawkeye...?" Mustang called from several feet away.
"I'm fine, sir. I've got her." Hawkeye's breathing was already slowing, more steady and even with each passing second. She knew her business, and Ashika was in her sights. "I'm not one to pay attention to empty threats," she said to the girl at her feet.
"Empty?" the girl laughed through bloodstained lips. "I will show you emptiness. You think you won? You think I didn't have a plan? You're nothing to me - nothing more than a pawn waiting to be used."
"I'm no pawn." Riza said, fingers firm around the grip of her gun. "My piece has always been the queen."
"The queen?" Ashika wheezed. "A delusion. You're a pawn. You've always been a pawn. You're mine."
Riza nudged the girl in the side with her boot. "This is a delusion?"
Ashika laughed - a crazed, horrible, ugly thing that started out low and ended in a high, keening wail. For a moment, Hawkeye was convinced the girl was crying, but her face was contorted into what looked like a smile. "There is no such thing as reality," Ashika wheezed. "Life is just one unending nightmare."
Riza shook her head. "It... doesn't have to be."
Ashika's lip curled. "It does have to be. I have decided it will be this way. And I will decide how it will end." The girl's voice became sickly sweet but her eyes darkened. They seemed to pierce right through to Riza's brain. "I have you, Captain."
"You...?" Something throbbed at the base of Riza's skull. She took an involuntary step back. Something was wrong.
"Head feel... full of late?" The girl lifted herself to her elbows, her eyes glowing and vicious. "Occupied, perhaps?"
"Hawkeye?" Mustang said, worry coloring his voice.
"What...?" Riza whispered. A wave of dizziness spilled over her. Through the swirling waves of confusion that suddenly clouded her head, she heard Suyin's voice, so clear the woman might as well have been standing beside her. 'She planted a part of herself... in you.'
Riza gasped. It could not be true. Such a thing was not possible. Ashika was trying to throw her off balance - frighten her. Hawkeye regripped her gun and reaffirmed her aim. "You're trying to trick me. It won't work."
"Oh," Ashika said. "I can assure you what you feel is quite real, Captain." The girl sat up further, eyes boring into Riza's. "Don't try to fight. It's useless."
"You -" Riza cried out as a white-hot needle pierced the place between her eyes. Her skull throbbed more violently now, beating in time with Ashika's heart. Her vision swam and blackness crept into its edges. Riza stumbled backwards, so dizzy now it was difficult to keep her balance.
"Riza?" Roy's voice was far away. "Riza!"
She will try to use her power against you.
Ashika was standing in front of Hawkeye now, her scarred face hovering in a sea of mottled grey. Riza tried to lift her gun, but the Ishvalan girl batted it away like a plaything.
"Riza!" Roy was screaming but it sounded so dim.
But you have a weapon.
Her head hurt horribly. Ashika was prying it open and Riza was helpless to stop her.
You must only remember the part of you that helps him See.
She felt hardened fingers press against her forehead.
And saw nothing but black.
A/N: Apologies for the long wait between chapters. You guys have been really great - always patient and ever supportive. Thank ya!
Also sorry for the cliffhanger(s). I really, really can't help it.
Thanks to the awesome Disastergirl for the beta! Read her fic, Phoenix!
Next Chapter: Bang (!)