Title: Chasm (1/4)
Author: Jordanna Morgan
Archive Rights: Please request the author's consent.
Rating/Warnings: Mild PG for fantasy violence and desperate situations.
Characters: Hughes, Alphonse, Edward, Mustang, Scar.
Setting: First anime. These events take place sometime after my story "Roughing It", in which Hughes learned the truth about the Elrics' past. In terms of where it fits within canon events, I leave that up to the reader.
Summary: During a manhunt for Scar, Hughes and Alphonse become trapped and endangered, leading Al to make a grave request.
Disclaimer: They belong to Hiromu Arakawa. I'm just playing with them.
Notes: Some time ago, I decided that I would challenge myself to write a hurt/comfort story in which Al is the "hurt" one. I was interested in the unusual approach this would require, because although Al feels no pain, he can be damaged and is by no means immune to fear. I also wanted the comforter to be someone other than the obvious choice of Edward—and as it turned out, a non-alchemist was necessary for the situation I came up with. In the end, Hughes got the role, which had a nice bonus of allowing for two different paternal dynamics in the story: Hughes to Al, and Mustang to Ed.
The coal mine was vast, a sprawling complex located several miles outside of East City. From the access road at the top of an overlooking ridge, nearly all of it could be seen: tunnel mouths yawning open among machine-scarred hills, metal outbuildings clustered around massive pieces of equipment, railway tracks winding in and out of it all. In the distance, the hilltops were still forested with towering pines that had not yet fallen to the ravages of industry.
Roy Mustang surveyed the landscape keenly as he stepped out of the staff car. His appraisal was not optimistic—a thought that was suddenly materialized out loud by a muttering voice behind him.
"Geeze, it'd be easier to find somebody hiding in Central than down there in that overgrown antpile!"
"Relax, Fullmetal," Mustang replied unamusedly, as he turned to face the red-coated teenager who had jumped down from the back of a military truck. "The terrain may be challenging, but it has its advantages. With the miners evacuated, there's no risk of civilian casualties here, and the local police have been able to set up a perimeter. Our alchemist-killer is cornered this time."
"Yeah, well, somebody better tell him that." Edward Elric folded his arms over his chest and glared down into the tunnel-pocked valley below. Behind him, his brother Alphonse clambered down from the truck bed, armor limbs clattering noisily.
Mustang ignored the grumbles of his young protégé. Gesturing a signal to the detachment of soldiers who had also spilled out of the truck, he started toward a makeshift table that was set up beside the road a dozen yards away. Several military officers and police stood examining maps and diagrams, but Mustang moved straight to the dark-haired major who broke off from the group to meet him.
"Hughes," he greeted his friend, with a subdued trace of warmth. "We've got to stop meeting like this."
"Trouble does seem to be the only thing that gets us together these days." Maes Hughes half-smiled for only a moment. "This time we've got a real shot at nailing him, though."
"You're sure it's Scar?"
"About as sure as we can be. His latest State Alchemist kill was definitely about a mile from here… One look at the body was enough to tell us who did it. But apparently the victim got off a shot first. His sidearm had been fired, and we found blood at the scene that wasn't his. Then the mine foreman reported someone fitting Scar's description was seen going into an unused shaft—and it looked like he was injured." Hughes shrugged. "The local law moved in fast to evacuate the miners and surround the area. Now it's just a matter of combing through all the tunnels in these hills. He has to still be there somewhere, if he was here at all."
"That could be a big if."
"Not too big to justify calling in all the cops and military within fifty miles. You've seen what this guy does to people like you." Hughes' voice lowered. "I don't have a good feeling about this, Roy. You and the Elric boys be careful, okay?"
"I intend to… but Ed doesn't know the meaning of the word. I would have kept them out of this, but it's just my bad luck he was in my office when the report came in, and he insisted on coming." Mustang scowled. "Don't worry, Maes. I'll keep him close."
Hughes nodded, and together the two men approached the plotting table, where the local police chief and Hughes' aides were gathered. Ed had already interjected himself among them, to study the map with amber-eyed intensity. More discreet in spite of his conspicuous size, Al stood at a slight remove, a few steps behind his brother.
"Colonel, this is the search grid we mapped out with Major Hughes." The police chief, a burly man named Grogan, thumped his hand heavily on the map. "Between my men and the soldiers the Major brought with him, we've already worked our way out to about… here. That still leaves us roughly three-quarters of the ground within the cordon to search. It's slow going with the mine shafts. The surface area we have to cover isn't so big, but those tunnels can stretch a whole lot farther under the ground."
"What about safety?" Mustang asked. "Any risk of cave-ins?"
"Well, officially, the mine company's inspection papers are in order—but that doesn't mean these people don't find ways to cut corners. There are also a few shafts that have been abandoned and sealed up. You can see them marked on the map."
"And if Scar decides to go out on his own terms, by bringing down a tunnel on himself and anyone who goes in after him…" Hughes did not complete the thought. There was no need to.
Uninvited, Ed spoke up. "You already searched the tunnel he was supposedly seen going into?"
"That was the first thing we did. Nobody was there." Chief Grogan eyed Ed skeptically—no doubt wondering what a mere boy was doing in the middle of such dangerous affairs, regardless of the State Alchemist watch chain on his belt. "We found a few spots that looked like blood, but there hasn't been time to test it for sure."
Hughes offered, "Scar was probably just looking for a place to rest a minute and take care of his wound. If he did lose the amount of blood we found at the murder scene, he can't move too fast right now. He must not have known he was spotted until he came out and realized the police were moving in. Then he didn't have any choice but to find somewhere else to hide—even though he knows he's trapped."
"Cornered animals are the most dangerous," Mustang murmured. "Alright. I'll start deploying my men along the search grid—and you're with me, Edward," he added peremptorily, as Ed confidently opened his mouth to claim a search area for himself.
Ed's face immediately reddened with vexation. "Colonel—"
"That's an order."
Mustang's tone was enough to settle the matter. Fullmetal snapped his mouth shut and glared sulkingly at his superior, but he made no further objection.
Hughes studied the map, rubbing the back of his neck. "I think I'll head the search in this section here. It was one of the less active areas before the miners were evacuated, and Scar would've been trying to avoid running into anyone. One of the abandoned shafts is there, too."
"Be careful, Hughes," Mustang said firmly.
"The same goes for yourself."
Edward looked back and forth between the two men. Then he spoke up, glancing over his shoulder at his steel-bodied sibling.
"Hey, Al? I think you should go with Major Hughes, instead of with Mustang and me."
Alphonse flinched and stepped forward. "But Brother…"
"Look, you just heard I'm on Mustang's leash—but it'd be kind of a waste for all three of us alchemists to be in the same group. You might be able to help Hughes. Even if he doesn't need your alchemy, your strength might come in handy, if there are any problems with that abandoned tunnel." Ed grinned, bright and reassuring. "Don't worry about me. I'll just hide behind the Colonel if things get too scary."
For a moment, Mustang distinctly sensed that Al wanted to roll the eyes he didn't have. He felt a very similar sensation himself.
"Fine," Al conceded at last, in a strained tone. "Just don't do anything stupid."
Mustang interrupted before Ed could argue the point. "Alright. Hughes, you and Al meet us back here in two hours. Hopefully we'll have news by then that Scar has been captured in a different search area—but if you do spot him, don't take any chances. Call for more backup before you make another move."
"Will do." With a confident salute, Hughes moved off to speak to his own subordinates who were on hand. After a slight hesitation, Alphonse followed… and as they watched him go, the shadowed expression that flitted across Ed's face was not lost upon Mustang.
For the next few minutes, Mustang was taken up with the task of assigning his men to their search areas and giving them instructions. Ed stood apart, arms folded, waiting, with a preoccupied thoughtfulness that was nothing like his earlier display of arrogant confidence. Although Al and Hughes had disappeared among the hills below, his gaze remained turned in the direction they had gone.
"You want to tell me the real reason you sent Al with Hughes?" the Colonel asked, when he finally strode back to where Fullmetal stood.
Ed's face screwed up in a surprised scowl, but only for a moment. Then he looked away, shifting his weight uncomfortably.
"You and I are State Alchemists, but Al isn't. I just think—he'll be safer with Hughes instead of us. Because we're the ones Scar wants to kill."
"If Hughes' search party runs into Scar first, it won't matter if they're State Alchemists or not. To escape, Scar would fight them just as hard as he'd fight us." Mustang shrugged. "Assuming he's able to put up much of a fight at all. If we're lucky, he may have been injured so badly that he's already dead."
"And we've been lucky when, exactly?"
"Then look at it this way. If we're so unlucky, you and I will be the ones who find Scar and have to take him down." Mustang gave the boy a slap on his steel shoulder. It was outwardly an admonishment; but somewhere underneath, there was encouragement in the gesture as well. "Come on. The sooner he is found, the sooner you can stop worrying about your brother."
With a noncommittal grunt, Ed unfolded his arms and followed Mustang. The Colonel signaled to the men who would accompany them to their search area, and they set off.
On the orders of Chief Grogan, Maes Hughes was accompanied by a local policeman: a fresh-faced, flaxen-haired young man by the name of Dyson. Also with him was one of his own officers, a middle-aged and sour-tempered but highly proficient lieutenant named Voss.
And Alphonse Elric, of course. It surprised Maes a little—and not in an especially good way—that Edward had sent his brother along with a different search party. Not that he minded Al's company or failed to respect his very real abilities, but it was simply… uncharacteristic of Ed to let Al out of his sight.
Together the four made their way out to their section of the search grid, along the western side of the mine's lands. It was an unremarkable part of the property, containing little more than some rusting outbuildings and a few still-standing scraggly pines. As they moved slowly across the open ground toward the structures, no signs of life were to be seen.
Maes turned to Al, who had spoken. The armor-bodied boy had stopped and squatted, examining the ground in front of him. Although lacking any sense of touch, he reached down to rake his leather fingertips through the loose, dry soil. "This dirt isn't right."
The statement prompted the three men of the search party to bend down and study the ground as well. As far as Maes could see, it looked like perfectly ordinary earth: dark, dry, and rather sandy.
It was Voss who verbalized that sentiment. He shrugged and stated flatly, "Just looks like dirt to me."
"That's because you're not an alchemist." Al scooped up a handful of the soil in his palm, raising it close to the level of his eye slits. "Someone used alchemy on the soil here, but their equations for the minerals in it were just a tiny bit off. I can see the way it caused some crystallization. It also made the color a little different from what we saw farther back." He tilted his helmet in the direction they had come from.
Dyson's eyebrows arched. "You know, I think he's right. I was going to comment on that, but I figured the ground had just been stirred up by passing machinery or something."
"So what was someone trying to do with the dirt here?" Maes asked.
Al looked up at him, and then stood. "Just what Officer Dyson said. I think they were trying to turn the soil over—to cover up footprints."
"Scar," Voss growled immediately, clenching his fists.
Maes' heart skipped a beat, but he couldn't help staring up at Al in a brief moment of admiration. With his gentle, optimistic way of looking at the world, the younger Elric could sometimes seem unduly simple, and he appeared content to live in his brother's intellectual shadow; but in fact, he was at least very close to Ed's equal for brilliance. His patience and common sense might even have helped him to apply his intelligence better. Yet it startled Maes a little to be reminded that Al, too, was a genius—and he was sorry for that.
"Good work," he said sincerely, giving the metal boy a light tap on the vambrace. "If nothing else, we know he was around here at some point. Do these signs in the dirt give us any kind of trail we can follow?"
"Not an exact one, but maybe it's something we can go by." Al moved forward a few paces, continuing to examine the soil. "It looks like Scar's transmutation affected a lot of ground—either to make sure his tracks were covered really well, or because he wasn't very good at calculating the size and power of it. But that helps us, because the crystallization pattern shows which way the alchemic energy radiated from. It was… that way." He straightened, pointing roughly twenty degrees to their left with a leather digit. In the distance stood a few small, run-down buildings made of wood and sheet metal, and beyond those lay an expanse of scrub pines tangled with undergrowth.
As the three adult men exchanged glances, Maes knew Voss and Dyson had sized up the area with much the same view as his own. Between the neglected outbuildings and the undeveloped land, this little-trafficked corner of the property would be as attractive as any to their fugitive. Furthermore, the thick screen of trees would conceal the fact that police forces were waiting in the hills beyond. If Scar was not too weak, and if he had not realized he would only run straight into captors on the other side, he may have set out to flee through the woods… or he might have taken refuge in one of the shacks, to nurse his wound and gather the strength for such an attempt.
"Let's go," Maes said in a hard tone, drawing his gun from the holster at his hip. "Be ready for anything. Al, you stay behind me. I mean it," he added before Al could make a sound, anticipating the boy's protest that he was less vulnerable than his fleshly comrades.
A faintly disapproving sound vibrated through Al's chestplate, but he half-bowed obediently. "Yes sir."
Cautiously and quietly, the four searchers advanced toward the buildings. The sliding metal doors of the largest one stood half-open, but only darkness was visible inside.
"Wait." Voss narrowed his eyes and stepped to the fore, with his gun clenched in a ready grip. "I think I see something."
As the lieutenant approached the threshold with wary steps, a sudden sense of foreboding blossomed inside Maes. He drew a breath to order Voss back, to say they would send Al to report the evidence of the transmuted soil and bring reinforcements; but his words evaporated when he saw what had caught the other man's eye. He saw the reddish markings on the edge of the door, and realized they were not simply more rust, but faint streaks of blood left by grasping fingers.
A tall figure suddenly loomed out of the shadows inside the metal building. One hand reached out, meeting Voss' temple before he could pull the trigger of his gun.
There was no scream. There was only a vivid scarlet flash, a spurt of darker red that sprayed out across the dry ground… and Voss fell, absent a large piece of the side of his skull.
Like something seen in a lightning flash, Maes' mind captured a single frozen snapshot of the man in the doorway. Eyes burning a crimson hue beneath a scarred brow. A jacket hanging loosely over a bare and muscular brown-skinned chest. A left arm wrapped in bloodstained tatters of white cloth that may once have been his shirt.
For an instant, their gazes met electrically over the barrel of Maes' gun—and then Maes fired.
The alchemist-killer did not react by ducking behind the shelter of the outbuilding's steel siding. Instead he dropped flat on his stomach in the open doorway. His lethal right hand slammed down on the ground, just beyond the threshold.
Scarlet spiderwebs of blinding-bright energy surged from the point of Scar's touch, racing over and through the soil. There was a sound like rolling thunder, not from the sky above, but from below… and suddenly, the world fell out from underneath Maes' feet.
© 2013 Jordanna Morgan