Every limb ached. Every muscle trembled with pain and exhaustion. Even his bones seemed weaker. He was light headed and tired, hungry and trembling. Martin had fasted before, of course, for twenty-four hours at a time even, so normally a day without food or water wouldn't have such drastic effects – but Martin had never been tortured during his fasts before either.
And that was what had happened to him – he'd been tortured. Drugged, chained, and shocked with electricity in attempt to force him to give up the secrets of Firestorm: a nuclear-powered amalgam of him and a young man by the name of Ronnie Raymond, capable of calling forth nuclear fire, and even capable of flight.
"Are you alright?" Ronald asked worriedly, hovering at his side. He had a hand under Martin's elbow, holding him upright.
"I… it feels like nothing has changed," Martin said, and his own voice was worried as well. Worried and weak, cracking with exhaustion and thirst. He wet his lips, swallowed, and tried to stand straighter.
The problem was, it had already been three days since Ronald had rescued him from his imprisonment, three days of a new life on the run. In those three days, he should have healed somewhat, and in those three days he had most certainly eaten and slept.
"It's Firestorm, isn't it?"
Martin didn't need to say anything in response – they both knew it was. It might have been three days since he and Ronald had decided to run, agreeing that staying would have only put their loved ones (as well as themselves) in danger, but Martin had only existed as himself for less than an hour since they had entered into a hesitant agreement with each other in order to stay alive.
It had been easier that way, so far – Firestorm could fly. Firestorm could protect them. (Firestorm cost less money to feed, required only one bus ticket instead of two.) And with Martin as weak as he was, it too had been easier to simply let Firestorm's strength hold them up.
He met Ronald's gaze as firmly as he was able. "I will be fine," he said, "I simply require time."
"Time might be something we don't have," Ronald warned.
Martin nodded succinctly in agreement. "Perhaps not." There was no way for them to know how well their pursuers were tracking them. With the entire backing of the United States Army behind him, General Eiling's resources were essentially limitless.
Their own resources, on the other hand, were decidedly less so.
"Maybe we should…" Ronald started.
Martin found himself hesitating. He couldn't deny that over the last couple of days he had hated every moment he spent as himself, cursed the weakness of his limbs and the frailty of his body, but he needed to heal. He had to believe that he and Ronald would not spend the rest of their lives fused together.
"I appreciate your need to look after me," Martin said gently, meaning it whole-heartedly, "but I'm going to have to deal with the healing process eventually."
"I know," Ronald agreed unhappily, "it's just…" he glanced behind them, looking around as if to ensure they hadn't been followed, that no one was nearby, listening in.
"Yes," Martin agreed simply. Healing took time, and as Ronald had said earlier, time apart might not have been something they could afford to take. Time apart left them vulnerable. Firestorm was safer.
"You need a break too," Martin continued, looking over the exhausted younger man in front of him. "Sleep. I can keep watch for once." Ronald had spent the past three days keeping them safe, barely sleeping as Firestorm, and he'd suffered the same torture as Martin, even if his own pain had been slightly less intense.
As one person, sleep was a risk, even with Firestorm's ability to protect himself – they'd taken it in snatches and segments so far, never getting a full night's rest. As two, there remained someone to watch over the other, and to wake them if trouble came, even with the added vulnerability.
Ronald opened his mouth as if to argue, but Martin cut him off.
"I can remain awake for an hour or two," he said, despite the fact that he wasn't absolutely certain his words were true. He took a seat on a nearby park bench, grateful for the respite, and gestured toward the empty space next to him.
Yes, it was true that his limbs shook and his head was foggy with pain, but he could see the bags under Ronald's eyes, could feel his exhaustion mingling with Martin's own.
"Of the two of us," he continued, as Ronald still hesitated, "you are the one who needs to remain healthy in order for us both to be safe." He didn't know Ronald well – he'd only met the man for the first time about a week ago, no matter how closely their lives were entwined – but there was one thing he'd learned fairly quickly about the other man: Ronald's drive to help others.
The young man had run into the exploding STAR Labs particle accelerator that had given them their abilities, knowing that it would likely mean his death, and had probably saved hundreds as a result. He'd come to rescue Martin from the army base he'd been held at, despite almost insurmountable odds. And he'd chosen to leave his fiancée and his friends behind, to keep them safe.
Now he was putting that drive into use keeping Firestorm safe, and if a little bit of manipulation was what it took to keep Ronald healthy, Martin wouldn't back down. However much pain he was in at the moment was nothing, compared to what his life could have been had Ronald not come for him. He owed the man far more than he could ever repay.
Thankfully, his words worked. Ronald hesitated a moment longer, but exhaustion and common sense won out, and he curled up on the long bench next to Martin.
The older man knew the second his younger partner had drifted off, only a minute or two after he'd lain down, because even separated they were still linked. Martin was starting to become familiar with those emotions in the back of his mind that weren't his, as well as what if felt like when the person experiencing those emotions had drifted off into unconsciousness.
Blinking himself awake, and gazing around the park, Martin settled in to act as lookout for Ronald, and to keep him safe the way Ronald had protected him. It was the least he could do.
A hand on his shoulder was enough to wake him, and Ronnie blinked as he woke. The short nap had helped, no doubt, but he still felt exhausted and hungry. He sat up, straightening and stretching.
"Thanks," he said to Stein. "How long was I out?"
"Not even two hours, I'm afraid, but the park was starting to get busy."
Ronnie looked around, noting the few other people ambling around. He stood. "Right. Guess it's time to move on then."
Next to him, Stein struggled to stand as well, and Ronnie, still in the process of waking up, was hit with the realization that though he was hungry and exhausted, most of what he was feeling came from the other man.
"Whoa," he said in alarm, surging forward and catching Stein before he could fall. "When was the last time you ate something?" (Had Eiling fed him? Ronnie worried.)
"As myself, or as Firestorm?" Stein asked blearily, looking up at him.
Ronnie felt his stomach drop in alarm and concern. Right – apparently, the professor's body entered some sort of stasis when he was part of Firestorm, unchanging, not healing. "I…" he glanced around again, noting each person in their field of view. "Should we merge again then?" he asked. No one was looking their way. "At least until we find some food?"
Stein hesitated. "I will need to eat on my own eventually," he said, but Ronnie recognized the capitulation for what it was. Stein could barely stand, let alone walk.
Ronnie shifted his grip on Stein's elbow, holding out his hand hesitantly for the other man. With another moment's pause, Stein took it, and they became light and pure energy. They fused together once more, and Firestorm stood in Ronnie's place.
Firestorm – the cause of all their troubles, but also the only reason they had survived their ordeals so far, and likely their best hope to remain safe. Ronnie had conflicted feelings for the fire at his fingertips.
In Ronnie's mind once more, Stein became alert yet again, his aches and pains and hungers dissipating.
"How much money do we still have?"
Ronnie's hand moved to pat the wallet in his pocket, but he didn't pull it out. "We should save it if we can," he warned, but he also knew very well that Stein needed to eat, if he was ever going to remain separate for any length of time.
"It would not be wise for me to simply eat a meal after my time without any sustenance," Stein said. "If we simply find a public water fountain…"
Ronnie knew what Stein was doing, knew he was trying to save their money, trying to downplay his own weakness, but he also knew the other man was right. It would be an even bigger waste of money if Stein wasn't able to keep down whatever food they did manage to buy. Still, he hesitated.
"We have no idea how long this situation will last," Stein continued. "We must conserve what few resources we have until we have a more concrete plan."
It wasn't a long-term plan, not yet, but it would do for now.
Firestorm jolted awake with a start, fire flaring to life. Ronnie braced himself against the coming attack, breathing hard, before realizing that there was no danger.
There was no one in sight, no threat to defend against. And yet, Ronnie was still afraid. But he was getting used to it, adjusting to his connection with Stein, and starting to instinctively separate his emotions from the other man's.
"Professor?" he asked in concern, getting his breathing under control, separating his own mental state from Stein's fear.
"I… I'm sorry, dear boy," Stein managed to say, hesitant and muddled. He still hadn't quite emerged from his nightmare from what Ronnie could tell.
Another night interrupted, but it wasn't as if Stein was the only one with nightmares, even if his were more frequent. "We're fine," Ronnie said reassuringly, glancing around again to double check. "We're safe, and we're hundreds of miles from Eiling."
"Ri… right," Stein stammered out, and Ronnie could feel him awakening fully, mustering his strength. "I am sorry," he continued, more clearly, tone resigned and regretful. "Perhaps it is time we attempt to sleep separately."
But Ronnie hesitated.
"There is no point in my interrupting both of our rest."
True – they needed the all the sleep they could take, and it was better for one of them to be alert than both of them tired. But Firestorm was their safety net. If they were attacked while asleep and separate, then they stood no chance. If they were attacked while sleeping as Firestorm, at least they had a chance to defend themselves. A few days before, Stein had managed to stay awake and keep watch while Ronnie had caught a few hours, but they were both exhausted now, and one of them remaining awake to watch over the other wasn't always going to be an option.
They'd have to relax eventually, they couldn't keep up their constant vigilance forever, and there'd been no sign of Eiling in the week or so since they'd fled.
The debate was difficult, and there were so many arguments for each side, but in the end, it all boiled down to one thing: Ronnie didn't want to spend the rest of his life as Firestorm. He stood them up.
"Alright," he said, "shall we?"
Grabbing the first coat off the top of the bin, Ronnie hurried through the homeless shelter he'd made his way to. With winter not yet over, he and Stein had headed south, but that didn't mean the weather was always pleasant. Even with Firestorm's extra heat, nights could get mighty cold. They were lucky that this city had a clothing drive for the homeless, and was simply giving everything away.
He handed his ticket to the woman manning the booth.
Five clothing tickets, one healthcare ticket, and a meal ticket, that was what he'd been given at the door, to ensure that everyone who came left with something.
They could have entered as Ronnie and Martin, could have taken more, but in a public event such as this, Firestorm was safer, and Stein still lacked the energy for walking around all day.
"What else?" Ronnie asked, shrugging on the coat even though they were indoors. He was wearing sunglasses that hid Firestorm's eyes, but he didn't care anymore who overheard him.
"Socks," Stein suggested, "and perhaps, well… I suppose another outfit."
They had the backpack Cisco had given them, though there was nothing in it at the moment but a few water bottles, refilled – they'd already eaten and drank what Ronnie's friend had packed for their car ride. They had nothing but the clothes on their backs.
So Ronnie hurried around the large building, navigating the crowd of people even less fortunate than they were, gathering up what he could. An hour later he left the building, backpack now carrying another shirt, a pair of pants, two pairs of socks, and fresh underwear, his belly full, and a roll stuffed in his pocket.
He made his way to the bridge he and Stein had been sleeping under the past couple of nights and, once there, the two of them unfused.
"Here," Ronnie said, holding out the roll to the other man.
Stein gave him a grateful smile, taking it.
"Sorry it isn't more."
"Not to worry," Stein said easily, though Ronnie noticed the small tremor in his voice, the way his hand had shaken as he'd stretched it forward. "Some food and a couple hours as myself should do me some good."
But whatever his words, they both knew perfectly well that Stein was far from healthy. Ronnie took a seat on a nearby concrete ledge, the supports for the bridge, inviting Stein to do the same. Taking a bite of the roll, the other half of Firestorm followed his lead.
"I…" Ronnie hesitated. "If you don't want to talk about it, that's fine, but… what actually happened? At the army base?" Almost unconsciously, his hand moved toward his middle, remembering where the pain had originated from. He was still feeling Stein's pain, even though his own had long since healed. But however much it had hurt, he still had no idea of what had caused his agony.
Stein paused, lowering his hand to his lap. It took a moment, before he responded. "How much… how much of it did you experience?" he asked, equally hesitant.
He looked slightly queasy, and Ronnie mentally chastised himself for asking before Stein had finished eating. Still, the question had been asked now.
Ronnie shrugged. "Just a bit less then you did," he said, trying to keep his tone casual. "It was cold, and the pain came and went."
Stein frowned ever so slightly, almost a wince. "I… I supposed we should discuss exactly what happened." He didn't seem like he wanted to, but it had been well over a week already and any information about what they were running from would be helpful. Ronnie didn't interrupt, or stop him.
After a pensive moment, Stein finally spoke.
"It was the army who wanted Firestorm's power, as I'm sure you know, but it was really mostly one man. General Eiling. I… I'm not sure how he…he discovered what Firestorm is capable of, but he wanted to replicate it. Wanted to create soldiers who could blast through entire armies on their own." He paused, possibly to gather his thoughts and muster his strength, possibly because he'd felt Ronnie's shock and horror at the idea.
"He took some of my blood, and what little research I had on me at the time," Stein continued, "but I don't believe he has enough information to create his own Firestorm." He paused, swallowed. "I didn't tell him anything." He paused again.
A minute passed, then another, with Stein staring off into the distance, his fingers clenched around the half-eaten roll still in his hand.
Ronnie felt sick, with dread and horror and fear. He felt concern, some sort of after-the-fact sympathy for what Stein had gone through. Except no, it wasn't sympathy, it was empathy: Ronnie literally felt what the other man was feeling at all times. More nausea inducing feelings, echoing Ronnie's own: dread and terror and revulsion. (Or maybe it was Martin's feelings that Ronnie was echoing, and not the other way around.)
The idea of what had been done to Stein (to both of them) was wrong.
"You…" Ronnie wet his lips. "You don't have to say any more." He'd learned enough, about who was after them and what they wanted. Stein didn't need to describe how he'd been tortured as well.
Stein paused, looked for a moment as if he might argue, but then subsided. He glanced down at the roll in his hand, as though just remembering it was there.
"I…" he started to say. "If it were to happen again…"
Ronnie felt even worse (if that were at all possible) at the idea. He swallowed back his fear. He wanted to say it wouldn't, wanted to declare loudly that neither of them would ever let that happen, that Firestorm was powerful enough now, so long as they stuck together, to avoid it. But the words wouldn't come.
"I know," he said instead, somber and heavy. But he didn't urge Stein to speak, didn't ask any more questions about what had happened with Eiling in that freezing room. He couldn't stop picturing Stein the way he'd seen him before the rescue: slumped over, barely conscious in the chair he was chained to.
Silence fell between them.
"I've never been to Texas," Ronnie said absentmindedly. They'd been practicing their flying, and Firestorm now sat on the edge of an abandoned bridge, watching the sunset.
"I have," Stein told him. "A career as a professor does allow for a bit of travel on occasion."
"Any recommendations?" Ronnie asked, joking. He was feeling particularly melancholy just then, missing Central City, missing Caitlin and Cisco, missing the life he'd left behind, and his mood was wearing off on the professor as well.
Stein uttered a small sound of amusement. "At the moment? Anywhere warm," he said, slightly bitterly.
Ronnie snorted, and called on their fire as the sun sank below the horizon.
"Should we head back then?" Stein asked, but there was no motivation in his tone.
With a sigh, Ronnie stood. "Probably," he agreed.
"What'cha got there?" The voice was rough and crude, indignant and expecting, but fortunately it wasn't aimed at Martin. Unfortunately, that was because it was aimed at a young woman, back against the nearest wall.
This was the scene Martin had walked in on: the young woman, cowering against the wall; two thugs, angry and intimidating, towering over her. They'd boxed her in, willing to take what they wanted without permission, wanting to scare her, and there was nothing Martin could do about it.
Nothing he could do alone, anyway.
He turned. He'd only wandered a little way from Ronald, trying to keep his feet under him, testing his legs now that they were spending more and more time apart.
Ronald, whether worried about being apart, or picking up on his need to do something, was already quickly walking toward him.
"What's going on?" the younger man asked as they neared each other.
"A young woman is in trouble," Martin said quickly.
Ronald picked up on what he wanted to do instantly. "But, Firestorm…"
"We can't stay in this city forever."
Ronald paused for the briefest of moments, then nodded in agreement. He quickly continued in the direction Martin had come from.
"Hey!" he called out.
One of the thugs had grabbed the woman's arm, and she was cringing under his grip.
"Mind your own business," the leader sneered at Ronald.
"Why don't you do the same?" Martin suggested angrily, raising his voice as he stepped up next to Firestorm's other half.
The thug turned his sneer onto him. "You wanna be next old man?" he asked disdainfully.
"I suggest you leave. Now," Ronald said strongly.
"Oh yeah? What'cha gonna do about it?"
And Ronald grinned, pleased and expectant and, if Martin was being honest, a bit maliciously. One of the thugs looked around uncertainly, as if sensing that Martin and Ronald knew something that he didn't.
"Ready, Professor?" Ronald asked, moving his arm and twisting his wrist so his hand was palm up between the two of them.
"Of course," Martin agreed. He took the offered hand.
Becoming Firestorm was so natural now, so easy. It took no time at all, there was no more hesitation involved.
The backup thug's eyes widened as he cursed wildly, then bolted. The leader stuck around for a moment, until Firestorm threw a fireball from one hand to the other. Seeing that was enough to unfreeze him from his terror, and he scrambled away, stumbling and shrieking. The young woman wasn't far behind them. She threw a glance their way, half grateful, half scared, scooped her purse up off the pavement, and hurriedly walked away.
In the silence of the alley, they let their flames die. There was no need to discuss that they needed to leave now: they both knew it perfectly well.
"How about those recommendations, Professor?" Ronald asked, turning back towards where he'd stashed their backpack.
Martin snorted humorlessly. "I suppose we should leave the state entirely," he said. There was no regret in his tone over what they had done, just weariness.
Ronald clearly felt the same. He knelt down, shoving their blanket into the backpack. "Should we… leave the country?" he asked.
Martin paused. "I… would rather not," he admitted. "We would stick out, in a non-English speaking country. Perhaps Canada, in the summer, but…"
"Yeah," Ronald agreed. "I don't really want to either." He shouldered the backpack, standing. "East or west then?"
"Why don't you decide this time?" Martin offered.
Ronald hesitated, glancing upward. They called on their fire again, rising quickly above the city. Making a last-minute decision, the younger man turned them west, and flew toward the setting sun.
"I've been thinking," Stein said, "about how Eiling discovered that Firestorm even existed in the first place."
"Hmm?" Ronnie hummed half-heartedly, not really paying attention. He was flipping through a newspaper he'd found, searching for anything that mentioned the army, or a flying man on fire. "I thought you said the army had always been interested in your research?"
"In my research, yes," Stein agreed. "But Eiling knew that the FIRESTORM matrix had been infused in a living person – in me."
"Yeah?" Ronnie asked vaguely, flipping the page.
"Ronald," Stein said, softly but firmly.
Ronnie folded up the newspaper. In truth, he'd thought much more about how to handle Eiling than about how Eiling had discovered Firestorm. What did it matter? Eiling knew about them now, and they had to focus on that instead.
"There's no mention of anything weird in Dallas," he said, ignoring the odd look a woman walking by threw their way.
"That is good news," Stein allowed, "but what I'm saying, Ronald, is that excluding the two of us, there were only four people who knew about Firestorm."
That caught Ronnie's attention, and he sat up straighter, felt his stomach drop. "No," he responded immediately, shaking his head. "If you think Caitlin or Cisco…" It was unthinkable.
"There were only four people," Stein repeated firmly. "One of them–"
Ronnie shook his head again. "No. Eiling's with the military. He could've… could've seen something on camera, could have known what happened during our missing month. Maybe he knew all along and was just waiting for us to separate."
"Except if he had been watching us, surely he would have known better than to let you near me?" Stein countered. "Clearly he didn't have a clear view of what Firestorm is capable of. Which leaves…"
"None of my friends ratted us out to the military," Ronnie repeated strongly. "And I seriously doubt you're considering your wife would have done it either. End of story."
Stein subsided, but Ronnie could feel that he hadn't convinced the older man, not one bit. But he trusted Caitlin and Cisco and Dr. Wells. The conversation only served to remind him of how much he missed home, how much he missed them. The thought that any one of them could have been responsible for his current situation…
"We owe all four of them our lives," he reminded Stein. "All four of them came to rescue us."
Ronald flinched, glancing upward at the figure standing in the alley entrance. Instinctively, he reached for their flames, but Martin held him back.
"Not here," he reminded the other man.
Ronald didn't say anything, but he didn't need to. Martin could feel the change: he was no longer reaching for Firestorm's nuclear power. Instead, Ronald hastily placed a hand on the edge of the dumpster they were digging through, vaulting out of it and onto the alley floor below.
With the man behind them shouting curses, Ronald sprinted away, keeping careful hold of the bag in his hands. Only once they'd turned several times did he slow down.
"Don't know why he's so upset," Ronald muttered under his breath as he finally stopped. "He was throwing it away."
"Indeed," Martin murmured.
"Want some?" Ronald asked.
Martin hesitated. After three weeks, and careful time management, he'd probably spent around forty-eight hours as himself. He could eat solid food just fine now, and walk around for a couple hours without collapsing, but…
"There's gotta be like twenty bagels in here, Professor," Ronald said, countering the arguments that he hadn't yet voiced. "No way we're going to be able to eat them all before they spoil."
"Very well then," Martin agreed. They pulled apart without further conversation.
On his own two feet once more, Martin accepted the bagel Ronald had handed him, as the younger man grabbed one for himself as well.
Silently, they made their way back to where they had slept the past two nights, eating their (slightly stale) breakfast side by side.
In an abandoned junk yard, just far enough south from Roswell, New Mexico, that no one would notice them, Ronald aimed a fireball at a car in the distance. It missed entirely, flying above the car he'd been aiming for and hitting a bus in the distance.
"Where would we even find radioactive waste?" he asked.
They weren't just practicing Firestorm's abilities, but also discussing them, going into the science of what they were capable of.
"Well," Martin answered thoughtfully, "all high-level radioactive waste in the United States was supposed to be stored in one location."
"Yucca Mountain in Nevada," Ronald finished for him, readying another fireball.
"Yes. Except, ignoring the fact that it's not even operational, I believe the whole area is federal land. Belonging to the Air Force."
Ronald flinched ever so slightly at the words, and his next fireball missed as well. "So we're not going there then," he said, faux-casually.
"What about low-level waste?"
Martin had to think about that, but most of his career had been spent researching nuclear energy, in one form or another – he just had to remember all the information he'd absorbed over the years.
"I believe there are several sites in the States," he said. "There's a company called Energy Solutions – I believe it has two facilities, one in Utah, the other in South Carolina. US Ecology also handles radioactive waste, but the only facility I recall is one in Washington. Waste Control Specialists have the licenses to handle most types of low-level waste. They're back in Texas.
"All privately owned?" Ronald asked, thoughtfully.
"Does it matter?" Martin countered, pessimism rearing forward. "These sites will have high security – otherwise the government wouldn't allow them to operate in the first place. We're never getting close enough."
"I thought you wanted to test our ability to absorb radiation?"
"Yes, but I see no reason to risk our lives in the process!"
"What then, intercept a truck on its way in?" Ronald's tone was skeptical, and he lobbed another fireball that hit his target after he spoke.
Martin watched the sparks dissipate against the rusted metal, the car unable to tip over at the force of the blow because of the mountain of other scrap behind it.
"Perhaps we should focus on the source of the waste, rather than its end location," he suggested.
"Who generates radioactive waste besides nuclear power plants?" Ronald asked. He grabbed a scrap of metal off the ground, and they both turned up their power, attempting to melt it. "Hospitals?"
"If we found a hospital that practices radiation therapy, we wouldn't even need to deal with waste."
"Yeah, but hospitals are guarded too. Maybe we'd be able to sneak in, but I'm pretty sure someone would notice us using the equipment."
In their hand was a puddle of molten iron, rust and dirt – slag – floating on top of it. Ronald tilted his palm, and watched the bright orange stream of metal lose its color as it fell to the ground. "We could make a real killing as a metal worker," he said absentmindedly during Martin's silence.
"Universities occasionally have equipment capable of generating radiation."
"But the gist is, we're not going to get near anything anytime soon," Ronald said, as the metal solidified on the ground before them.
"No," Martin allowed. "I suppose not."
It was an unseasonably cold night in Albuquerque, though thankfully Firestorm's inner warmth and the coat they'd managed to get in Texas kept them relatively warm. The other homeless people gathered in the abandoned building with them weren't so lucky – Ronnie noticed one family (father, teenager, and younger child) huddling together for warmth.
He looked down as his hands, which weren't even numb in the below freezing temperatures, despite their lack of gloves. "We could help them," he said. He kept his voice low, but didn't whisper. He'd stopped hiding his conversations with Stein a while ago.
"If they don't run screaming," Martin replied pessimistically, but he didn't seem opposed to the idea. "It could only be the once, though."
"We'd leave tomorrow, I know," Ronnie said, "but…" he glanced up from his hands to look at the small family again, at the woman curled into her winter coat in a fortress of cardboard boxes, at the two men searching for scraps of trash to keep the measly fire they had going.
Inside, he felt Stein's skepticism melt away slightly at the sight. "Helping these people," he decided firmly, "would be worth it."
Ronnie agreed – it was just a matter of finding the right way to do so.
Approaching the men first, Ronnie walked slowly and carefully, keeping their hands where everyone could see them.
"I could help with that," he offered cautiously, nodding towards the fire, barely flickering.
The men looked him over, no doubt taking in the fact that he looked as homeless as the rest of them. "Sure, man," one of them said. "You got somethin' in tha' backpack a' yours?"
"Not… exactly," Ronnie said. He held out his hands in front of him, towards the two men. "It's a little… strange."
The men exchanged glances, but then looked back expectantly.
"Now or never, I suppose," Stein said.
They called on their nuclear fire, carefully, cautiously. While before they'd tried to make their flames as large as possible, tested their capabilities, now they tried to keep them small and faint. Hands and head became engulfed in gentle flames, licking softly at the cold winter air.
One man jumped back, swearing. The other flinched violently.
"It's…" Ronnie tried to think of something to say. "I just… want to help you stay warm," he ended up saying. He glanced around at the others in the warehouse with them, at the family (at the children). His little act had gotten everyone's attention, his light casting shadows through the open space. "Everyone."
The men followed his gaze. One looked like he was about to say something, but the other put a hand on his arm, holding him back.
"I can understand that," he said warily, studying Firestorm. "It's safe?"
"It's… it's fire," Ronnie said. "It can burn. But, yeah, it's safe."
"And warm," the man added. He himself seemed to be warming up to the idea of another human being on fire.
Ronnie flared his flames, raising the temperature. "I can make it warmer," he promised, projecting his voice to the others. Nobody came any closer, but nobody ran away either.
"You sure I'm not hallucinatin'?" the second man asked cautiously.
"I thought the same thing," Ronnie offered, remembering those first few confusing days, so long ago now it seemed, "but it's real."
"That's why you're here, isn't it?" the first man asked.
"There's no real harm in telling them," Stein said simply, though caution still underlay his tone.
He offered a grim smile. "Army thought I would make a great weapon. I disagreed."
His words actually got the second man to relax, and he nodded in agreement. "I can get on board with that."
The first man wandered away, crouching down to speak to the family first, then the woman on her own. The warehouse was already warmer from Firestorm's efforts, but the closer they were the better off they'd be. Ronnie stayed carefully still, trying not to spook anyone, and let the men do the convincing for him.
The two men with them had given their names as Peter and John. The woman was Wanda, the father Mike. The teenager was Troy, the younger kid Jordan. Fake names or not, Ronnie and Martin didn't much care – he'd given their name as Robbie, close enough to his own that he would turn at the sound of it.
They'd spent the night huddled in a circle around Ronnie, sometimes sleeping, sometimes not. It was weird, being the focal point of everyone's attention, the fire around which they gathered, especially after weeks of running and hiding and avoiding attention. But it was also nice, to talk to other people again besides just Stein.
Morning came slowly, but with it came the sun and its warmth. The few windows still with glass in them glinted brightly, and the warehouse looked different in the light. Mike shook his children awake. John roused Peter. Wanda stared silently out the window, watching the morning come.
"Hey now," Peter offered. "Why don't 'cha get some sleep? You've been up all night."
He shook his head. He was exhausted, but for the first time in a long time, it was mostly the good type of exhausted, after a night filled with pleasant conversation and good company. "I can't stay," he said simply.
But Peter shook his head too. "Stay," he countered.
"No one's gonna rat you out, kid," John added. "No one here at least."
Ronnie glanced around at Wanda, who gave him a solemn nod, at Mike, who smiled warmly. At Troy and Jordan – the older of whom had already adopted a skeptical outlook about life, but both of whom looked at him gratefully.
"Ronald…" Stein cautioned him, but Ronnie caught the exhaustion in the professor's words. Bone deep and weary, not just from one sleepless night, but from a tumultuous month. Even so, the idea of trusting someone again, of trusting these strangers, felt too good to be true.
"I…" he started hopelessly.
"Look, we gotta stick together, don't we?" John asked. "You're safe here, kid."
"Well, safe as the rest of us can be," Peter added.
"But you might not be," Ronnie countered. Conflicting emotions warred within him, but he just wanted to stop. Wanted to stop running, wanted to stop hiding, wanted to go home. That wasn't an option, but maybe staying here was.
"We don't tell anyone, no one will find out," Mike said simply.
Ronnie hesitated a moment longer, but… "Alright," he said tiredly, voicing a hesitant agreement. "Alright." He extinguished their flames, the professor reluctantly going along with him. "Just a couple nights," he said, sinking to the floor in exhaustion.
They fell asleep to the sight of someone else watching out for them, and a feeling of safety they hadn't had in far too long.
A couple of nights turned into a few days, which turned into a week, and before Martin knew it they'd spent ten days in one abandoned warehouse in Albuquerque, with a small community of the homeless of the city. Far too long for them to have remained in any one place, as he had mentioned several times now.
For the moment, it was midday, and they were alone in the warehouse – though there was no telling when one of their new acquaintances might return.
"It is time we move on, Ronald," he said firmly.
"Look, no one's gonna mention anything. No one knows we're here. We're safe, for once, can't you just… just…" Ronald's words died in his throat. "Don't you think you might just be… overreacting, a bit, because of what happened?"
Mentally, Martin gaped, temporarily lost for words.
"We haven't seen any evidence that Eiling's even looking for us, not since we left," Ronald continued.
"Just because we have managed to remain one step ahead of the man so far does not mean we should get complacent!" Martin said indignantly.
"But that's my point – we're several steps ahead of him. He probably doesn't even know we're in New Mexico, and there're only six people here who've even seen us."
"And how do we know that we do not give off some sort of energy Eiling can track?"
"You were pretty convinced that we weren't radioactive."
"I was convinced that we are not dangerous," Martin countered. "That does not mean that we do not give off an energy signature of some sort – even if it is only every time we merge and unmerge."
"However little we know about Firestorm, Eiling knows even less."
"Except that he has access to equipment that we don't. He has funds, and time."
Ronald shook his head. "You're worrying too much."
"You're not worrying enough," Martin interrupted before the young man could say any more.
A knock on one of the side doors stopped the argument in its tracks, and Wanda slipped inside with a grin.
"Brought lunch," she said easily.
Ronald turned to her. "I've told you, you don't have to share."
"Nah," she said dismissively. "It was easy pickings today. Don't want it to go to waste." She handed a bag to them.
The other temporary residents of their little area had decided that they would help keep Ronald (and, by extension, Martin) hidden by sharing their meals. Payment, they had all decided, for keeping them warm. None of them seemed to doubt that the military was looking for them and none, Martin had to admit, seemed inclined to help the military find them.
And it was hard to turn down that sort of generosity, so though Ronald had snuck out several times over the past week and a half, he had also largely accepted the help.
But they could not rely solely on the kindness of six random strangers wandering the streets of Albuquerque.
"No," Martin said firmly, as Ronald accepted the bag of food. "We're not doing this again." All too often over the past few days, whenever he'd tried to discuss something serious with Ronald, they had been interrupted and the conversation halted before they could come to any sort of agreement.
Martin was fed up with remaining as Firestorm, with being stuck where he was, unable to interact with the world. He was cooped up, confined, even if it was within Firestorm's safety, and his one outlet with the world had returned to ignoring him around other people once more.
They were having this discussion.
Ronald tensed, but still ignored him.
"They already know you can light on fire," Martin half snapped. "What's talking to yourself compared to that?"
"Thanks," Ronald said pointedly, grinning even though Martin could very well feel how forced the expression was.
"No problem," Wanda replied, settling down in her usual spot to eat her own lunch.
"I'm gonna head up to the roof," Ronald continued, and Martin could hear the tightness in his voice as the young man restrained his own irritation, though he doubted it would be noticeable to anyone else.
Wanda waved in acknowledgement, already eating, and without further hesitation Ronald took them to the top of the building. The stairs were rickety and unsteady, but the roof itself was solid, and they weren't exactly worried about falling.
"You're overreacting," Ronald stated firmly, clearly irritated, as the door shut behind them. Out of earshot from anyone else, he could finally let himself feel angry, and his emotions mingled with Martin's own.
"Am I?" he criticized harshly, not quite a yell. "Perhaps you are not reacting enough!"
There was a sudden tug, a slight disconnect as their anger swelled, the briefest sensation of pulling apart. Both of them fell silent instantly, mentally settling themselves. It was impossible to say who had initiated it – it very well could have been both of them, simultaneously and unconsciously reacting to their argument – but they'd almost unfused. Or rather, they'd almost started to unfuse.
It was the first time that had ever happened, that they'd gotten so irritated with the other, had felt the need to separate and walk away, and Firestorm had reacted to that.
He and Ronald didn't know each other. They'd been thrown together, had cooperated for mutual survival, but they weren't friends, and any fission between them, it seemed, would only make their combined form that much more unstable.
"This… partnership, for lack of a better term," Martin said, slowly and cautiously after a moment had passed, "clearly works better when we are not at odds."
"Yeah," Ronald agreed, glancing down at his hands. He sat them down against a wall, protected from the wind, and opened the bag Wanda had given them. She had an in with one of the employees of a McDonald's down the street, who gave her canceled and poorly made orders that would otherwise have been thrown away or eaten by another employee. This time it was a chicken sandwich and a large fry – still slightly warm.
Ronald pulled the sandwich from the bag.
"Look," he said, clearly trying to remain calm as well. "We've got a good thing here. This is as safe as we'll ever be – we're hidden, we've got company and food and a place to sleep every night."
And Martin could understand that. This sort of life was as settled as they were ever going to get, at least while Eiling was still looking for them.
"Alright," he said, thinking logically. "Say that we can trust these people, say that they do keep our secret, and word never gets out. How long can we stay here?"
Ronald didn't respond immediately, but Martin felt the instinctual surge of emotions that was his reaction to the idea – that sudden and uncontrollable split-second reaction that had nothing to do with your conscious mind and everything to do with your subconscious. It told him exactly how Ronald felt about that idea.
"Exactly," he continued. "We've been so focused on running, on making sure we eat, and sleep–"
"And heal," Ronald interjected, reminding Martin of his own, still less than stellar, condition.
"And heal," he agreed, "that we haven't considered our future. Are we going to hide forever?"
"You mean, are we going to fight back?"
There was a heavy silence at the question. Ronald set down the still wrapped sandwich on the roof next to them. Unlike their disagreement that had almost caused them to unfuse (but even then, they'd been in some sort of agreement, starting and stopping the process simultaneously and together), now Martin got an inkling of what Ronald was planning.
Together, they called on their flames.
They were quite good at modifying the intensity of it these days, controlling the height of the flames flickering over their fingers and the heat that flowed off of them. Ronald moved their hand over their lunch, warming it ever so slightly.
"We're going to need more than just heat, to go up against bullets and missiles," Ronald said somberly.
"And learning what exactly we're capable of might just entice Eiling even further," Martin admitted reluctantly. "But, given our options…"
"What choice do we have?" Ronald finished for him.
Given that one option meant staying away from their homes – their loved ones – for the rest of their lives, neither of them felt it was much of a choice.
"We'll find another junk yard," Martin suggested, "or somewhere isolated."
"And maybe a source of radioactivity," Ronald agreed. "We can set out in the morning."
They quenched their flames, and Ronald picked up the sandwich, beginning to unwrap it. Even as they spoke of their plans, Martin could tell there was an uneasy feeling in both of their guts. Firestorm was powerful, there was no doubt about that, but how many trained soldiers would Eiling have at his disposal, how many weapons?
And even if they could stand their ground against that, physically, could they mentally? Going up against the army, bullets flying through the air as they threw fireballs to defend themselves – the idea of it didn't even feel real, like something out of a science fiction novel. It was nothing Martin had ever prepared for, not how he'd pictured his life.
"Stop it," Ronald said, not harshly but firmly. "We can't think like that."
Martin hadn't said anything, but apparently, he hadn't needed to. Ronald had picked up on his doubts and anxieties, his fear.
"I know," he said, but the thought of coming face to face with Eiling again, even if it wasn't in that damp, dark room in which he'd been chained…
No, Martin told himself. Ronald was right, he couldn't let his thoughts go that way. He cast about mentally for a distraction.
"We know we can get hot enough to melt steel," he said, which was no small feat, "how do you think we'll fare against bullets?"
They woke slowly the next morning, moving carefully and cautiously around each other (so to speak). They both remembered their argument from the previous day, and how they'd almost unfused. Whether or not they wanted to unfuse wasn't an issue – it was whether or not they could risk it that was the problem.
Neither one of them was likely to raise their voices to the other anytime soon, Martin figured. It was another hurdle to overcome in their partnership, just another obstacle in their path. They'd managed so far by focusing only on the present and immediate future, living day to day however they could, but as they'd discussed yesterday, neither one of them wanted to turn that into their long-term plan.
They needed to start thinking about the future.
When Martin had told Ronald that they'd needed to leave, when he'd mentioned that Eiling wouldn't just target them, but also their loved ones, they hadn't stopped to think about it. They'd just left.
And Martin wasn't regretting that decision now – if they'd stayed, Eiling would have likely gotten his hands on them already – but at the time… At the time, he hadn't exactly been thinking straight. He and Ronald both had been tired, and hungry, and in pain. It'd been a hastily made decision, and they hadn't taken the time to think about what it meant.
Except now… Well, he and Ronald weren't at odds, exactly – they'd both agreed they wanted the same thing – but they'd also both been made aware of how much their survival depended on their cooperation, and perhaps for the first time, they were wondering how long they would be able to stay on the same page.
They'd argued before, quite a bit when they were still unaware they could unfuse, but while they'd gotten along thus far since escaping Eiling's grasp, that was no guarantee of future success.
"I'd be able to feel your doubt from a mile away," Ronald muttered under his breath, shoving their few belongings in Mr. Ramon's backpack.
Pardon me for worrying about our future, Martin almost said, but that… wouldn't exactly help things any.
"Apologies for being so morose," he said instead, though perhaps he didn't entirely manage to keep the sarcasm out of his tone. No, that wasn't helping either. He tried to calm himself. "Are we still agreed upon our immediate plans?" he asked.
Ronald, straightening as he threw on the backpack, nodded ever so slightly, and made his way to the others to say goodbye.
Martin tuned out as he did so. These people didn't even know he existed, however much Ronald and them had grown fond of each other, and he had no need to hear their farewells.
Outside, they ignited their flames, and pushed downward at the air around them as the others watched them go.
Together they flew, up, up, up. Higher and higher above the city as it shrank beneath them, until they were above the scant cloud layer, where the air was thinner but they were much less likely to be spotted. And Firestorm seemed much hardier, anyway, than the average person. They noticed the change in air quality, but it wasn't really detrimental. The temperature, of course, was not an issue either.
No, their biggest problem when flying lay in being spotted. A blazing fireball in the sky, flying at night was definitely not an option, but flying during the day wasn't much better. They had to be wary of people looking up (not that they could do anything about it), of birds in the sky, of helicopters and airplanes.
Like the one flying toward them right now.
"That's… not a passenger plane," Ronald said, horror dawning on the both of them as they took in the object moving through the sky towards them.
"No," Martin agreed, feeling the cold grip of fear in his gut. It was a fighter jet, a military aircraft. Whether or not Eiling was behind it didn't really matter in that moment – there was no way it hadn't spotted them.
There was no need for words. Ronald turned, oriented himself in the air, and they poured on every ounce of speed they could muster.
AN: Thanks to everyone who read the first fic - let me know what you think about its sequel!
Beta read by radpineapple.