Ed was floating somewhere in endless cold darkness before something warm and wet on his face drew him back.
He opened his eyes. The sky above was a bizarre conflagration of black smoke and orange sunset that lit the edges of the horizon as if it was on fire. It filled his entire field of vision, and he wondered where he was until it occurred to him that he was sprawled on his back on the hard ground, arms and legs spread out and face covered in warmth. He reached up with his right hand first, the movement jerky and unsteady. Hard metal struck his face, and only when his vision cleared did he realize that he had smacked himself right across the cheek.
...Great. I can't even control my own automail.
There was either something wrong with the wiring or something wrong with his brain. He guessed the latter—a mass of flesh was more susceptible to weakness than a hard lump of metal, and this wasn't the first time he had misjudged his own movements and done more damage than he had intended. Thinking of an endless inventory of broken coffee cups, broken pens, broken bedposts, and broken bones that had came as a result of out-of-control metal limbs, he uncomfortably rolled into a sitting position and surveyed his surroundings for the first time.
A moment later, a soft, gurgling chuckle escaped from his sore, battered throat, and he spoke his thoughts aloud, knowing no one except the pack rats would hear him.
"...I must've missed the memo, huh?" He choked out. "...Everyone else died without me... I always get left out of these things..." He buried his face in his arm momentarily, still giggling with an almost psychotic abandon. The situation shouldn't have been funny. He was sitting in a battlefield, near to a crater where a shell had struck the ground and torn it open, and around him were corpses in blue and gray uniforms. Screaming or crying would have been appropriate.
Edward Elric didn't care about propriety. He was laughing.
A second later nausea welled up and he keeled over, clamping his automail hand over his mouth and groaning thickly. The situation grew even more sickly and humorous—everyone else around him had died in a shell blast, but he was suffering from no worse than an upset stomach.
Trying to gather his wits about him he rolled to his feet, stumbling slightly when he put his weight on his right leg and catching himself with his left before he toppled. The world tilted crazily before him and he nearly fell right back to the hard ground.
Ed's head ached with brutal intensity, and when he reached up with his automail and prodded more warmth began trickling down his forehead. He knew he was probably making it worse by jamming his metal fingers against it, but he didn't want to move his other arm. His wrist hurt too badly, and the rest of it felt strangely numb. He didn't feel like using his natural limbs, anyway—they both felt horrible. They weren't exactly trustworthy, either—bruising and breaking all the time... Bleeding...
If I rip them off and replace them with metal, at least they'd stop hurting. Ed thought, as he stood and poked stupidly at his head injury. Another strained chuckle escaped from his mouth, as he tried to figure out what had happened. He could guess that he was very near to the epicenter of a large shell blast, and had been lying on the battlefield, unconscious, for a long time.
It must have been an Amestris victory, but no land had been gained. They had retreated into the distance, where he could see the lights of the camp. The trenches were behind him—the Drachmans had broken through the Amestrian front line today—but something told him that the Drachmans probably weren't far away, either. He didn't want to get captured. Tales of Drachman brutality to Amestrian POWs spread rampantly throughout the camp, nauseating stories about decapitation, twisted experiments, and disgusting torture techniques.
Ed let out another choking laugh, grabbing at his throat almost compulsively (another wound there, too). What was humorous about those stories was the assumption that the Amestrians were any better. Looking about the battlefield and seeing the dead strewn in piles without regard to proper burial or any honor whatsoever, Ed doubted it, and thought of Mustang again.
Most of their dead were tossed in pits or simply left to the rats. Ed had long ago made a purposeful effort not to think about it, but Roy Mustang always protested, and always risked getting his own body thrown in a pit by going out of his way to retrieve dead bodies in order to give them a proper burial. Ed always watched, wanting to dissuade the older man and yet not really caring enough.
Mustang was delusional and it was best to just let him be.
Ed stumbled forwards a few paces, before missing the ground and somehow ending up flat on his face again. Not sure what else to do, he let out another short, gasping laugh and wiped dirt off his face with his right sleeve, which was mostly in ribbons. The situation grew funnier when he noticed more blood trickling down his cheek and looked at his automail arm, stupidly.
He had forgotten to transmute the blade over his hand back into a regular forearm. It was a shock he hadn't cut his own head off by now. Ed chuckled at his own expense, rolling half on his side and crookedly slapping his hands together. The transmutation took what seemed like an absolutely unproportional amount of energy, and he had the feeling that he had already messed up the subtle mix of metals in his automail. It was only a matter of time before he broke it again.
He could almost hear Winry yelling at him.
...But I don't see why she gets so mad. My automail holds up a lot better than the rest of me...
Ed worked himself back up to hands and knees, breathing heavily. He was hot and cold at once—heat blossomed out from his head as it throbbed with a fiery ache, but there was a coldness sinking in the pit of his stomach. He wondered why his own comrades had just left him here, lying in the battlefield—and he was a valuable alchemist, no less? Had they lost their minds? Or had they just assumed that the shell blast had blown him to pieces?
Ed vaguely remembered feeling the heat of the explosion and performing some kind of protective transmutation—a stone wall, maybe—just before it had vaporized him. The others around him hadn't been so lucky, and those far enough away to survive had probably assumed he was dead without even checking.
Ed stumbled back to his feet, shaking with more nervous laughter. He tried to hold it back, because the more he laughed, the more he realized how absolutely horrified he was. He didn't even have a good reason, either—Ed knew he wasn't in danger, and he knew the battle was over.
He knew he wasn't dying. His head injury ached, but the cut was superficial, and his limbs were sore but not broken. He had a mass of cuts and bruises, and was nauseated, but none of it was bad enough to kill someone who had blown off limbs and survived automail surgery. Maybe he was just being pathetic. He needed to get a grip on himself. He needed his senses in working order. He needed the tinny, metallic ringing in his ears to stop. He needed a drink. He needed dry underwear.
He needed Al.
The orange in the sky was fading, slowly disappearing into black indistinguishable from the smoke in the air. Ed pressed his automail hand to his face again, this time without poking a new hole in his skin, and lingered for a moment. His brief attempt at regaining composure succeeded, and he began walking back towards the camp. He must have looked like a drunk—limping heavily because his port was burning and his flesh leg was covered in bruises and cuts, and swaying whenever the aching in his head intensified.
It's probably a concussion.
Ed swore. His voice came out cracked and gravelly.
His feet sent little puffs of dust up in the cracked ground, and he took in the sights as if he was one some kind of vacation tour. On his right were burnt corpses—Mustang's handiwork, and he saw they were all in Drachman grays. On his left was a pile of rats, and they were having a feast.
Ed covered his mouth again, bending over. He couldn't remember eating anything in the last forty-eight hours, and didn't throw up, although the dry heaves were almost as bad. He straightened up after a few minutes and decided to ignore his surroundings and preserve his sanity, if only just for a few more minutes. Every burnt corpse he saw made him want to strangle Mustang out of misdirected anger and beat the man for even thinking of killing someone in such a gruesome way...
...Although the blood on his automail reminded him that impaling someone through the chest with automail wasn't much better—cleaner and quicker, but in the heat of the battle his aim was bad and it didn't always kill them right away.
...He really needed Al.
Ed smiled again in the darkness. It almost felt sinful to think of Al while he was walking through a deserted wasteland full of men that he and other alchemists had killed. He was unable to separate the war from thoughts of his beautiful, innocent little brother in his newly restored body. Thinking of Al always led to mental pictures of Al crumbled out in the battlefield, a bullet hole through his forehead, bayonet clutched in hands, and a helmet lopsidedly thrown over his bronze hair...
...No. Al might have been kind and gentle, but somehow Ed knew he would have been handling this better than he was. Ed wanted to be able to control his own mind. Once he pushed aside the images of Al dead among the others, and thrown in a muddy pit, he thought of Al impaled on the end of his automail, a look of horror on his pale features and his eyes wide and wounded.
Brother... how could you?
But Al wouldn't say that. Al wouldn't even blame him—he hadn't before, and why would he now? Al was the same as Mustang, who hadn't even been fazed by Ed's attempt at murdering him. The thought was haunting—what did he have to do to earn their hatred, anyway? He sacrificed his little brother's body to the gate, nearly sliced Mustang's throat open, and they kept on offering him sympathy and even love instead of hate or anger.
Armstrong, the only other witness to his breakdown, treated him like glass now and kept on giving him looks of pity and understanding. Mustang seemed even more fond of him than before. Al's letters, when they came—always in lumps of ten or more saved up from a month of no mail to the fronts—were full of concern and warmth. They were deluded, blind people...
They're idiots, especially Mustang. He'll break before I do. I'll probably outlast them all...
No. Al wasn't an idiot—he was Ed's wonderful little brother, who idolized and adored him because they were family, and because they had always been together. Mustang didn't have an excuse for being such a blind goddamned idiot.
A low noise interrupted Ed's reverie and he turned, looking for the source. A soldier was crumbled brokenly on the ground, shuddering and letting out choking, animal like moans of pain. As Ed neared, he saw that they were wearing the Drachman grays. Ed frowned and came to a stop over the man, assessing his injuries—he was a mass of burns, not from the explosion—this was too measured and precise.
Mustang always burned individual soldiers in the same manner—sending a bolt of fire into their chest and then filling the air around them with oxygen to create an explosion. Most of the time they blasted to pieces, but sometimes—when he was distracted, or moving swiftly—they ended up with third degrees burns starting somewhere around their torso and spreading outwards.
This man was clearly branded by Mustang. Ed knelt, suddenly, not knowing what he was doing.
This is an enemy soldier... We kill enemy soldiers, and don't feel any mercy for them.
Still, Ed was not thinking clearly.
"...Hey. Hey! Hold still, okay? I might be able to do something for you."
The man was thrashing and moaning beneath him, and Ed began fumbling with the pack he carried at his side, wondering if any of his first aid supplies were left—or even remotely usable. There were a few band aids, and Ed almost laughed at the audacity of the morons back in Central, who supplied their soldiers with first aid packs that contained little band-aids. Didn't they realize that there were men being blasted to pieces? Band aids were not going to cure missing limbs.
...But then, the tiniest of cuts in the wrong place and at the wrong time usually meant death by infection, even if it came on a little more slowly and a lot more subtly than death by missing limbs or shell blasts.
The man continued to noisily die underneath him as Ed gave up on fumbling through his pack and turned back to him, almost panicking.
"I'll go get help, okay? Just hold on!" Ed rose to his feet. The man let out another scream, and another... And another, full of agony and terror, before thrashing again as a strange look passed over his face.
Ed recognized that look, of course. Glassy eyes... Limp... A few last rattling breaths, before the life went out of him entirely... The Drachman soldier died and Ed stared down at him, eyes widening as he realized how stupid he was being.
Why the fuck didn't I just put him out of his misery? I can't save anyone. Even if I had, he'd just become a prisoner and some Amestrian bastard would probably shoot him.
Ed turned away abruptly, now shivering, trying to push the image from his mind. It was selfish, but watching them die in agony was easier than giving them a swift route to their inevitable death. But Ed really didn't just watch others die—he was actually stupid and childish enough to harbor the delusion of being able to save them.
Mustang sometimes yelled at him for stopping in the middle of battle and trying to save the hopelessly injured, and Ed always snapped back, pointing out Mustang's habit of going out of his way to save the ones that were already dead.
He saw the first living human beings after five minutes of stumbling towards camp—two Amestrian soldiers, and a third figure not in uniform. The closer he moved, the clearer it became—the two Amestrians were standing and poking at something with their bayonet while jeering. As Ed neared he heard soft, muffled screams and laughter.
Ed didn't recognize the men in uniform, but that meant nothing—he hardly paid attention to the rapidly changing cast of cannon fodder foot-soldiers around him. They were taunting a young girl in tattered clothes, who sobbed and pleaded with them even as they stabbed at her with the bayonet and grabbed at the bottom of her dress, trying to push it upwards in a teasing manner. Ed watched for a moment.
Her pleas were in the language of the people of Drachma—mostly unintelligible to Ed, but after fighting against Drachmans and killing them, he recognized words like "please" and "stop" and "don't hurt me" amongst her hysterical sobbing. Just a few days back they had flattened one of the Drachman border towns, and he imagined she was one of the civilians the Amestrian Army had imprisoned. Ed supposed most of them had been executed by now—there just weren't enough supplies to keep them alive—but there was a use for all the young women they had found.
The soldiers were enjoying their moment of power. The girl was helpless.
We really aren't any better than the Drachmans, I guess. They torture their prisoners, and we do things like this.
But what was there to stop them? Out here on the battlefield, they did not live with the law in mind. If murder was allowed, why not other crimes? No one was around to enforce it. The higher officers didn't care enough to prevent things like this from happening. Ed knew he shouldn't have cared, either—he should have already turned away.
Too late. As one of the men pounced, pushing the girl's dress up even as she struggled, Ed found that his feet were carrying him even before his mind consciously complied with what his body was doing. Neither of the men noticed, although Ed was almost certain that he was screaming some obscenity in their direction as he approached.
His metal fist collided squarely with the first man's jaw, and the resounding crack was one of the most pleasing sounds Ed had ever heard. The sight of him doing an almost graceful arc through the air before hitting the ground hard was pleasing, too, but Ed only marveled at it for a split second before turning to the second man. Still straddling the young woman, his pants were unbuttoned and his expression was utterly clueless as he stared up at Ed.
"GET THE FUCK OFF HER!" Ed screamed and kicked all at once, and the man was on his back in a moment. He made some pathetic attempt to fight back, thrusting forth his bayonet—but Ed caught the blade in his metal fist and crushed it simply by tightening his fingers. The look of shock on the man's face was greatly amusing, and Ed tossed away the bayonet and wrenched the soldier up by the hair.
"...You idiot, you're on our side!" The Soldier pointed out, needlessly, right before Ed silenced him with a punch in the jaw, sending him crumbling to the ground again. Once the man was down, Ed began to kick him in the back and sides.
"How do you like that, you fucking ANIMAL?! What in the hell is wrong with you? WHAT THE HELL IS WRONG WITH YOU?" Ed roared, and his voice cracked, as he listened to the soldier's pleas and realizing that they were filling him with a kind of savage glee. When he finally finished, his boot was red, and the soldier was sobbing and twitching. The other man was still unconscious, although it was plain at just a glance that his jaw was broken.
Ed turned to the young woman.
"Are you okay?" He asked her. She only stared, and didn't answer. Thinking perhaps she had gone into shock, Ed stepped a bit closer.
"...You'll be safe now. These bastards won't bother you any—" As he spoke, he held his hand forward.
Her high shriek of terror cut him off like a smack to his face. Ed froze, watching as she scrambled to her feet and turned, running as if demons were on her tail. Ed watched, surprised—she sounded even more terrified now than she had before.
Must have been shock, Ed concluded. I'm not really that frightening... But I guess one Amestrian soldier looks the same as the rest. She has a right to be scared.
And, maybe, reaching towards a girl who had nearly been raped and beaten with an automail hand covered in blood was not the most reassuring sight, either.
A second later he realized that she was running right towards the sentries, and they always on high alert after battles—
—A gunshot rang out. He could just barely see her tattered clothes doing a silly pirouette in the wind before she hit the ground, hard, several hundred yards away in the gloom of the night. It was amazing that the sentries hadn't come in the first place, but then he realized that they were probably well aware that two higher officers had brought out a young Drachman girl beyond the camp with plans of raping her without consequence. Ed wondered if Mustang knew that the men under his command were doing this. He doubted it.
Nonetheless, he came to a conclusion while trying to keep from screaming... or maybe just laughing again at the sickening irony of it all.
I can't save anything.
He amended the thought after a glance at the crumbled Amestrian soldiers.
I'm far better at killing things than I am at saving them.
Ed turned slightly and began moving towards the far end of camp, avoiding the sentries. He felt like he was wading through chest deep water—cold chills kept on converging and rising inside of him, too, and they worsened as the night around him deepened.
His journey was from the edge of camp—he avoided the sentries—and towards their tent. No one saw him, and if they did, they didn't recognize him. Ed was glad—he figured he was officially dead or MIA after the battle, and that was why he had been left in a pile of charred corpses. It was sort of insulting.
That stupid bastard Mustang didn't even risk his ass and come looking for me. Maybe he finally went out and grew himself a brain.
Ed pushed open the tent flap and stumbled inside, grimacing immediately. Mustang was sprawled across his bedroll and unconscious, although the insides of the tent looked like a train wreck. The Colonel's uniform jacket was thrown down near the entrance. His gloves were inside out and thrown in a corner. There was a canteen, too, open and with half its contents spilled out along the dusty ground—Ed plopped down, ran a finger through the substance, and gave it a sniff.
"...You're pathetic, Colonel," Ed growled, pulling up his knees and slinging his arms around them. For a while, he was silent.
Mustang was clutching something in his arms while he slept, and it took a moment for Ed to realize that it was his own red jacket. He scowled in exasperation and crawled towards the man on hands and knees, at first wanting to rip the jacket out of Mustang's grasp. Even if it was showing its age and too tight around his shoulders, it was warm. The bastard couldn't possibly be cold—he had Ed's blankets and his own pulled to his chest. But really? Ed didn't want the jacket, and Mustang seemed fairly adamant about holding it while he slept, anyway.
Closer now, he could feel heat emanating from the older man even without touching him. There were heavy lines under his eyes, almost like bruises, and his eyelids looked slightly puffy. Mustang needed a haircut, too.
Seeing the man reminded Ed of all those burnt corpses in the battlefield, and for another oddly intense moment he hated Mustang again.
Ed knew directing his hatred towards the Colonel was unfair—he had committed the same crimes as the bastard—but it was easier to chose a target that wasn't himself. Self-hatred was just too taxing, and it was oddly cathartic to blame the Colonel for everything.
While Mustang was lying in here, either sleeping or unconscious, his soldiers were out raping Drachman prisoners. Ed clenched his fist tightly, so tight that the joints creaked—but what stopped him from simply striking the man was another glance at Mustang's face... Puffy eyes, slightly reddened eyelids, and oh fuck, he was clutching Ed's jacket to him with a desperation that was almost pathetic.
He thinks I died in the shell blast. Stupid, stupid, stupid bastard.
Ed finally plopped down next to the Colonel, and the man shifted in the dark. A moment later his eyes opened—they were bright and feverish in the gloom—and he stared at Ed. It was too dark to see his expression.
"...Fullmetal?" Mustang asked, stupidly. "... I thought you were—"
"—You were wrong." Ed cut him off, turning to face the other direction. He didn't want to look at the man.
"No. While you were sitting in here drinking, I was lying out on there in a pile of corpses, you bastard. Someone should have noticed that I was alive before leaving me there..."
Mustang was quiet for a while longer. When he drew in his breath to speak, Ed cut him off.
"...Why don't you yell at me like you usually do? I didn't duck in time. I nearly ended up getting vaporized. I shouldn't have been in the range of the shells, anyway, but I was trying to get the other soldiers out of there. Aren't you mad?"
"...What the hell is wrong with you, anyway?" Ed asked calmly, turning back over. Mustang was staring at him with a clueless expression, and it only infuriated Ed more. "You still want to fuck me, and I almost killed you the other day? How fucked up is that, Colonel? Are you just stupid, or crazier than I am?"
Mustang didn't even have anything clever to say. Instead, he sidled closer and put his arms around Ed.
...You've got to be kidding me.
Ed almost laughed. The Colonel was insane. That was the only way to explain it. He wasn't sure if he minded it or not, but he realized he'd been relying on Roy Mustang to be the sane one for far too long. Ed thought maybe too many blows to the head from flailing automail at night had addled Mustang's brain. He hardly seemed to be fazed by much of anything, these days.
"...Colonel, are you totally—"
"I'll yell at you in the morning, Fullmetal," Mustang replied, finally. "...Be quiet."
Oh fuck, was his voice just shaking?
Ed didn't answer his own question, but he lingered miserably until Mustang's breathing deepened again and the older man fell back to sleep. With a scowl, Ed disentangled himself from the bastard's arms and sat up, fumbling around with Mustang's pack until he found the bandages and the canteen with water. He drank half greedily, and used the rest to clean dried blood away from the wound on his head, ignoring the lancing bolts of pain each time his clumsy automail fingers prodded the wound in the wrong way.
When he finished, he tossed himself back down, trying to move into a comfortable position up against the older man. He threw his limbs out and his automail arm accidentally smacked Mustang in the jaw—not hard enough to break the skin, but probably enough to leave a mark—and he froze, expecting the man to wake up and scowl at him like usual.
No. Ed was the one who scowled. Bastard's so lazy he could sleep through anything. Don't know why I worry.
But that wasn't true at all. On the nights when Ed slept, Mustang woke up constantly, sometimes drawing Ed out of his own sleep when he violently shifted or jerked into a sitting position. The slightest changes in the night—usually explosions in the far-off distance or gun-fire—woke the man up easily.
The bastard is so tired. So am I, but I don't think I can sleep.
A moment later a ridiculous thought came to him—had the Colonel died suddenly? Was that why getting accidentally smacked with a flailing automail limb hadn't woken him up? But Ed smiled in the dark, for once able to allay his own fears with logic. The Colonel still breathed raggedly, and he was still coughing.
...He's not dead. Dead men don't breathe, or cough, or wheeze, like he's doing...
But a second later, he came to an even more logical conclusion.
Yes they do. They cough and wheeze for a few days, and then they die. You can't save them. You can't stop it. That's how it is out here.
Ed couldn't save anyone, but not even the camp doctors could save a soldier when their health decided to turn on them.
I can't deal with this, you bastard... I can't. Not now...
He closed his eyes tightly and tried to banish the immediate feeling of terror that overcame him... And yet he had the feeling that the terror had been there all along, ever since he had woken up after the battle, and until now, he had just done a far better job of suppressing it.
Now he was choking back noises that were somewhere between hysterical laughs and horrified sobs.