Wary of flying, Firestorm hitchhiked out of New Mexico, heading north on US Highway 64 until they hit Interstate 25, which they followed even further north into Colorado. From there, a truck driver took them all the way up to Denver, and they hid around the city for a few days, trying to get their bearings.
Though the nightmarish events from the mountains of New Mexico were behind them, with no trace that Eiling knew where they had gone, they were not so easily forgotten. Neither one of them seemed to be able to sleep without waking suddenly from a jolt to the heart and the fear of a gun in their face.
Ronnie had found himself puking after one such nightmare, and the next day, when Martin had slept as Ronnie kept watch, the older man had jolted upright, grabbed at Ronnie, and started to fuse without further thought. Ronnie, aware of the fear racing through the other man, had let him use Firestorm as a crutch.
They weren't running scared – during their waking hours they were more focused than they'd ever been, working on discovering Firestorm's abilities in the small ways they could in such a crowded city, discussing their plans for the future – but the experience had changed them. They were more alert, warier. They moved quicker, and lingered less.
Ronnie's resentment of being on the run, his anger toward Eiling for forcing them into such a life, hadn't evaporated, but it no longer manifested in the form of him dragging his feet. He'd stayed in Albuquerque as long as they had because he'd been longing for some form of normalcy, some sort of home, a way to stop running. He knew he wouldn't let himself relax in such a way again. Not for a long time.
Now, they avoided other people as best they could. There was no telling how close Eiling was behind them, and no point in endangering others. Though Carolyn had given them some money as well ("I'm living on my own in a nice house in the middle of nowhere – you think I'm strapped for cash?"), they saved it, sticking with soup kitchens and dumpsters for the time being.
Each night they slept somewhere different, either as Firestorm or in shifts. Maybe they'd thrown Eiling off their trail, maybe they hadn't.
Their longing for home increased with their nightmares, and it didn't help that Central City was almost perfectly due east of Denver, almost a straight shot down I-70.
"Maybe we could just… write a letter," Ronnie suggested one day. Firestorm was sitting under an overpass as the rain poured down around them, a late March storm that heralded the coming of spring.
"We could," Martin conceded wistfully, his longing clear, "but what we really wish is to talk to them, and that will not help us in that regard."
Ronnie sighed. He leaded back against the hard concrete behind him, knowing he couldn't stick around too long in their current location before someone came to tell him off for loitering.
"Prepaid phone?" he suggested.
He could feel Martin's exhaustion and weariness just as well as he could his own.
"And if Eiling is tapping their phones?"
It wasn't like they hadn't gone through all this before. Now, they were saying it just to say it, not because they actually believed it could be done. He looked out at the pouring rain, just for once the weather going along with their mood, and climbed to his feet, wincing at the lingering pain in his arm.
Though Ronnie couldn't have cared less about getting wet, their few belongings were going to get soaked if he stayed out in the rain too long, so he wandered in the direction of the poorer part of town, searching for an abandoned building to sneak into.
And then there was a crackle of light across the sky, and thunder rumbled loudly as it faded. Ronnie flinched, and Martin flinched inside him, and they both called on their fire without thinking, without worrying, only reacting.
Firestorm stood there in the pouring rain, hot enough that the water evaporated before ever touching them – hotter than they usually were – ready for a fight that wasn't coming. Across the street someone let out a shout. A car stopped in alarm, the one behind it crashing into its bumper. It wasn't exactly a busy street, but there were plenty of witnesses.
With the dawning realization of where they were and what they'd done, Firestorm extinguished their flames, and Ronnie ran.
Running, running, running. It seemed that all they did these days was run. They fled city after city, traveled down road after road. They avoided eye contact, hid from cops, kept away from anywhere with too many cameras.
Never still, rarely resting. They slept somewhere different each night, ate somewhere different each meal.
Two months away from home. Two months where they were the only constants in each other's lives. Two months of running.
Two months of ducking and dodging, evading and escaping, laying low, steering clear of and sneaking away.
Two months of exhaustion and hunger, of sleeplessness and thirst, of weariness and fatigue, of fear and anxiety, dismay and doubt, unease and dread.
Two months of pain. Two months of suffering.
Two months of running.
They were tired of running.
Ronald handed over the money quickly, tugged the (stolen) baseball cap down tighter on Firestorm's head, and then quickly left the store with their purchases.
"Really think this is gonna work?" he mumbled under his breath as they fled, quick steps purposeful and sure of their direction.
"Do you have any reason why it might not?" Martin asked. "Eiling may be tapping their phones, but if all goes well he won't even know these devices exist."
Uncertainty, but mellowed, overridden by a hopeful sort of anticipation. Ronald glanced down at the bag in their hands. "God, I hope you're right," he said fervently.
They were hitchhiking their way to Pittsburgh, traveling to see an old colleague and friend of Martin's. John Byerly was close enough to him, a good enough friend, that Martin trusted him to keep their arrival in town a secret, but it'd been some time since they'd last spoken. Regardless, the man had access to just the sort of equipment they needed if they wanted to figure out Firestorm's secrets. They could only hope that Eiling wasn't aware of their connection.
But they'd stopped in St. Louis, however far from their destination they might have been. Driving across Kansas, passing just south of Central City on I-70 as they'd crossed the border into Missouri, seeing the signs for their hometown – it had caused a swell of emotions in the both of them, sitting in the passenger's seat of a Penske truck as Firestorm at the time.
They hadn't talked with those they loved since they'd fled, that early morning back in early February. It was over a week into April now, and they were missing home.
Calling might have altered Eiling to their position, or maybe he would even have been able to listen in. Letters were one way to communicate, but what they really wanted was to have a conversation. So far, they hadn't managed to find a way around that.
Maybe now they had.
Life had changed for Clarissa Stein, in ways she never could have conceived of before it had actually happened. So much was different, and so much was uncertain now.
The house was so empty, without Martin there. But, it wasn't as empty as it had been that first month he'd been missing. Martin's life had become entwined with the life of a young man by the name of Ronnie Raymond, and, subsequently, Clarissa's life had become entangled with the lives of Ronnie's friends.
It had been three months since her life had been irreversibly turned upside down. Two months since Martin had barely escaped imprisonment with his life, all thanks to Ronnie.
Clarissa shook such morbid thoughts from her head as the doorbell rang, knowing that she couldn't let herself get lost in them.
"Caitlin, Cisco," she said warmly, greeting the younger people with a smile. "Come in, come in." She ushered them inside, throwing a curious glance at the box in Cisco's hands.
They'd been hesitant to connect, in the beginning. None of them knew each other, and Martin and Ronnie were their only commonality. What if General Eiling was watching them, using them to gain information about the combined form of her husband and Caitlin's fiancé, about Firestorm?
But Clarissa wanted to know about Ronnie, about the man who'd saved her husband's life, and Caitlin had felt similarly. They'd connected, and they'd bonded from their shared experience – Cisco too. They refrained from discussing Firestorm over the phone, keeping their conversations vague, but met up fairly often these days.
It was Monday evening though, and Clarissa had just had her new acquaintances over for dinner the previous night. And Cisco had been frustratingly vague on the phone – as they had to be these days – when he'd called.
"Is everything alright?" Clarissa found herself asking as Ronnie's friends slipped off their shoes and removed their windbreakers.
Cisco hefted the package he held, displaying it. "We think so," he said. "It's got my address, but the name…"
Clarissa took a closer look at the label.
"We think it's from…" Caitlin started hesitantly.
"Martin and Ronnie," Clarissa interrupted, finishing for the other woman with a smile on her face. Where they label should have said Cisco Ramon, it said Cisco Stein instead.
For the first time in a while, hope fluttered in her chest. They were alive. They were safe.
"Have you opened it?" she asked quickly, though another quick glance at the box showed her that they hadn't.
Cisco shook his head anyway. "I just got it about an hour ago. We came straight here."
Clarissa hurried eagerly into the kitchen to retrieve her scissors. The three of them tore into the box eagerly, throwing aside the scissors, the tape they peeled from the top.
"It's a phone," Cisco said, pulling the device out.
"And a letter," Caitlin added quickly, reaching inside to grab at it as if it would disappear if she didn't move fast enough.
Cisco put aside the phone in his hand, the two of them crowding around the younger woman.
"Dear Caitlin, Clarissa, Cisco, and Dr. Wells," Caitlin read. "Sorry we haven't managed to get in touch earlier. We're trying to lay low, but we won't pretend like there haven't been a few close calls already. We're both fine though, both as safe as we can be."
Caitlin paused for a moment to catch her breath, swallowed, then continued:
"We don't want to say where we are, or where we're going right now, in case Eiling manages to read this, but we think we have a way around that. There should be a prepaid phone with this letter, unopened. We have another one. Even if Eiling has your phones tapped, there's no way he can bug this. Call us as soon as you can – we'll talk more then. We love you. Ronnie and Martin."
The silence as Caitlin finished speaking was the best silence that had filled Clarissa's life since her husband had left. It was warm and hopeful, filled with barely contained joy, eager anticipation.
"The packaging's intact," Cisco said quickly, scooping up the phone he'd set aside earlier.
Clarissa quickly grabbed the discarded scissors as well, handing them to the young man. As he dug into the plastic around the phone, she and Caitlin exchanged glances, eyes meeting, smiles spreading. Clarissa reached out a hand, entwining her fingers with the other woman's.
"They're safe," she said strongly, firmly, pleased beyond all rational thought.
Caitlin squeezed back, water shimmering in her eyes, smile as wide as Clarissa had ever seen it on her
Cisco held up the phone, having successfully extracted it from its packaging. He held it up between the two of them. "Who's first?"
"Ronnie?" Uncertain. Unsteady. Hopeful.
"Caitlin." Deep. Full of promise and love.
A desperate, joyful sob. A wide smile, tears falling freely.
"…actually got to see a bit of Texas and New Mexico, and Denver… man – I wish we'd traveled when we had the chance."
A breathless laugh, slightly disbelieving but bubbling with happiness. "When did we ever have the chance?" She knew he was just distracting her, downplaying his troubles – they weren't just traveling – but she didn't care. He was safe.
Laughter. "Guess you're right about that."
"…dinner every Sunday, both Cisco and me. Dr. Wells is invited too, but he's never taken her up on it."
"That's good. Martin'll be happy to hear that Clarissa's keeping herself busy. Speaking of the professor…"
"I know. How much time do we have?"
"We should probably keep it short – save some time for later. Is Cisco there?"
"He's right here. I… I love you so much Ronnie."
"I love you too. Forever and always."
"Cisco. How's that firefighter suit coming along?"
An echo of Caitlin's laughter from before, breathless and pleased. "Man it is so good to hear your voice."
"Guess we'll find out. The professor certainly thinks so, and I'm inclined to agree with him."
"Right, speaking of…" A glance over at Clarissa, a small smile.
"It was good talking to you, to both of you."
"Stay safe, Ronnie. I mean it."
"We'll do our best."
"Clarissa. My love."
A gasp, tears shimmering as they formed, swelling and falling. A hand, covering a mouth with joy. "Oh Martin."
"…keeping us safe."
"And… you don't… mind?"
"It's… it's indescribable, really. Existing but not, there but not me. And the power at our fingertips, what Firestorm is capable of… It's astonishing really." A pause. "I think I minded, in the beginning, not being me, but… not so much anymore. As I said, Ronald really is a remarkable young man. Together we are quite…"
"Once we know more about what we're capable of, we may even be able to come home."
"That…" More tears. More smiles. More indescribable joy, bursting at the seams, a fluttering hope in her chest, the trails of water along her cheeks, the ache from the grin that stretched across her face, wide and bright. "That would be wonderful."
"I miss you so much."
"I love you. Stay safe, please stay safe."
Clarissa hung up the phone with a wide grin, exchanging astonished smiles with Caitlin and Cisco, the three of them still standing in her kitchen, empty box in front of them, letter laying on the counter.
They'd used up thirty of the precious one hundred and twenty minutes already on the phone, but that didn't really register.
Martin was alive and well. Ronnie was alive. She'd spoken with her husband, heard his voice again, made him laugh. And the awe in his tone when he'd spoken about Firestorm, talked about Ronnie, assured her that they were both safe. She didn't doubt that he had suffered – there'd been weariness in his tone too, and a desperation when he'd first heard her voice, a longing for things he no longer had – but he was safe. It was enough. It would have to be enough.
She glanced over at Caitlin and Cisco.
"Stay for dinner?" she asked impulsively, still grinning, still crying.
"Of course," Caitlin said warmly, with a matching grin and matching tears.
"I'll set the table," Cisco offered, and his hand wiped at his own eyes, and his grin lit up the room.
Six days in St. Louis, finding the best place to lay low while they were separate, and anticipating a phone call. A four-hour drive to Indianapolis, and then only a couple hours there before they ran into another trucker willing to take them the three hours to Columbus. There they lingered for three days, getting some rest. Firestorm slid seamlessly into the flocks of students panicking about their upcoming finals near the Ohio State University campus, his sunglasses and backpack not remotely out of place.
Then they caught another ride, staying on I-70 for the last three hours of the trip, and got dropped off on the outskirts of Pittsburgh. From there, it took them another four days to get themselves cleaned up as best they could, and make their way on foot to Dr. Byerly's office at the university where he taught.
Two more weeks of travel, and May was almost upon them, but it didn't matter.
They weren't running scared anymore. This time, they had a plan. And once they figured out exactly what Firestorm was capable of, they wouldn't have to run any longer.
John wasn't in his office when Martin and Ronald finally arrived, so they loitered in the hall outside it, and Martin shared some of what he knew about his friend with the younger man. An hour passed, then two. They used the building's restrooms, refilled their water bottles from its fountains, and ignored the others moving about, the classes that started and ended as they waited.
Eventually, when Martin and Ronald glanced up as yet another set of footsteps approached, they laid eyes on the face they had been waiting for.
John stopped, staring at them, taking a moment to realize what he was seeing.
"Martin?" he asked in astonishment. (They'd come separately, not as Firestorm, just this once.)
Martin smiled warmly. "John," he said, "it's good to see you."
John shook his head. "I thought… your wife called, a few months ago…"
"It's a long story," Martin admitted. He gestured toward the man's office. Do you have time?"
John's gaze flickered from Martin to Ronald and back again. He blinked, then finally moved. "Of course, of course," he said, hurrying forward to unlock his door. "Come in."
"…achieve nuclear transmutation of living matter."
"What you're describing isn't possible."
"Would you like a demonstration?"
"His name is General Eiling."
"I always knew the military was after your research Martin, or, er…?"
"Martin's still here, but you can call us Firestorm if you want."
"… Firestorm, then. This is… it's…"
"A lot to take in, we know. But Martin trusts you."
"You want to expose yourself to radiation? There are safety protocols in place, I can't just…"
"You run the lab John, it's your call."
"We came here for your help, but we know it's a lot to ask. We can leave."
"No, no, I won't… I'm not going to turn you out on the street again, either of you. Why don't you… I'll call my wife, you can stay with us tonight while I give it some thought."
Ronnie couldn't sleep. That wasn't so unusual, these days, but more often he had trouble staying asleep, and no trouble falling asleep. Except this time, he knew it wasn't nightmares that were keeping him awake, or the weather or the hard ground beneath his back.
He was safer and warmer than he'd been in some time, with a soft pillow beneath his head and a warm blanket over his body. Dr. Byerly had been as kind and generous as the professor had described him, and after a long discussion (and a demonstration) of what Firestorm was capable of, as well as what they were running from, he'd offered them his home. They'd eaten dinner with him and his wife, showered – the man had even lent them some of his clothes, so their own could be washed.
Their hosts had retired to their room, Ronnie had insisted Martin take the guest bedroom, and he himself had gotten comfortable on the couch.
He was pretty sure that was the problem.
After months on the street, the couch was heaven – he would have slept on the floor if he could have kept the blanket and pillow, the clean sleepwear he'd been given – but it was also down the hall and down the stairs from the guest bedroom. He and the professor barely left each other's sights these days, and they were certainly never more than a few feet from each other when they slept, if they slept separately at all. Now they were practically on opposite sides of the house.
Worst case scenario: if Eiling knew where they were and stormed the house, Ronnie would never get to Martin in time. It didn't matter how comfortable, how clean and warm and well-fed he was – Ronnie couldn't sleep with that thought in his brain.
He stood, gathered up the blanket, grabbed the pillow, and made his way upstairs. He hesitated outside the closed bedroom door, but ultimately grabbed the doorknob and silently made his way inside.
He needn't have bothered with the stealth. Martin was still awake, and shifted as Ronnie shut the door behind him, switching on the lamp that sat on the bedside table. For a moment, they just looked at each other.
"I'll take the floor," Ronnie said. They both knew what had kept the other awake, for it was the same thing keeping them from sleeping. There was no need to discuss it, and no attempt was made to console the other, or talk them out of their mutual decision.
"Nonsense," Martin said. "This is a large bed, and after all we've shared the past few months I think we can share this."
Ronnie eyed the queen-sized mattress. The professor was right. Maybe it was strange that they couldn't sleep without the other nearby. Maybe it was strange for them to share a bed. But it didn't feel strange. Not after all they had been through together.
Life shifted to some sort of mutated form of normalcy, after that, though there was no going back to the sort of life Martin had had before Firestorm.
He slept in a bed and ate at a table, headed down to the kitchen in the morning still half asleep, in search of a cup of tea or coffee. He showered regularly, had a bathroom available at all times. His clothes were clean, his teeth brushed. No longer did he have to deal with the changing weather. Instead, he stayed indoors when he wanted to, and sank his toes into bright green spring grass when he didn't.
They settled into a routine, complete with alarm clocks in the morning and chores around the house (the least they could do was help their hosts).
In the mornings, Martin and Ronald brainstormed and studied in John's home office. Martin taught his new friend nuclear physics, and shared his life's work with him. Ronald was a quick study, and they didn't have to go too far into the basics, given his background.
After lunch, they'd leave the house together, and walk to the closest neighborhood that was less well off than John's area, find an abandoned building, and merge. As Firestorm, they worked more on controlling their heat, the size of the fire they gave off. They couldn't fly, couldn't let out large blasts without being noticed, but they worked on letting out steady streams, shaping their flames.
They'd melted small amounts of steel before, and they managed to get hot enough again to liquefy a handful of paperclips, a quarter, and an aluminum can, but John had gotten them a sizable piece of tungsten that they hadn't been able to do anything with except make it glow slightly. Still, melting steel was no small feat.
In the evenings, they had dinner with John and his wife, and then Martin sat down with John afterwards to go over some of the more technical aspects of the FIRESTORM matrix that Ronald couldn't understand just yet.
All the while, John debated with them exactly which laboratory equipment they wanted to use, the best time to use it, and the safety precautions necessary. Despite what he'd seen, he was still leery of letting them expose themselves to radiation, and that aside, he could lose his job for letting unauthorized personnel into the labs, around such dangerous and regulated equipment.
It wasn't really a normal life, by anyone's reckoning, but it was something resembling normalcy – if you didn't look at it too closely.
Martin and Ronald still slept in the same bed each night, side by side, watching out for each other. They still had nightmares that sometimes woke the other. Awake they could separate, but never far, and never for long. They did most things together, these days.
Loud noises made them jump, and reach for each other if they weren't already Firestorm. Once, a dropped pot in the kitchen had almost had them forming Firestorm in the Byerly's living room. They looked at knives differently, as if seeing for the first time the dangers the utensils presented, and tensed every time the house phone rang.
Sirens in the distance – while they'd been avoided before, on the streets – became threatening, and they always drifted closer to each other whenever the sound neared.
They began to notice other things too, now that they were often separate – things they hadn't picked up on when they'd spent most of their time as Firestorm. Martin, who had hated pizza before, found it delightful. Ronald started reaching for the bridge of his nose when he got lost in thought, moving to adjust glasses he didn't wear. Martin added a bit more milk to his coffee in the mornings, when he drank it; Ronald asked for tea, once or twice. Little things, but they added up.
It was a type of normalcy, the steadiness of living live day to day without worrying where your next meal was coming from, or where you would sleep. But it wasn't normal. Not really.
Surprisingly, Martin didn't mind that so much.
Eventually, Dr. Byerly – please, call me John – managed to get them into the lab. It took time, careful planning, and meticulous scheduling, but he managed it nevertheless. They went as Firestorm, not because they were uninterested in the science of them merging, but because it was safer.
Safer to be Firestorm, and safer not to merge in a relatively public area, where anyone could come across the resulting flames.
They waited until May, until after their finals had finished and most of the students had gone home. It meant more time imposing on the Byerly's hospitality, but neither Ronnie nor Martin were complaining and the Byerly's had insisted on it, pointing out that they weren't about to throw them out on the streets.
So the campus was relatively empty, and the building fairly vacant, by the time they did make their way into the lab. The electronic lock recorded all comings and goings (the equipment was both expensive and dangerous), so John also made sure he had a real reason for entering the lab, but there was no camera, so Ronnie was able to walk in right behind the man.
After all the effort and subterfuge, actually using the equipment ended up being rather anticlimactic.
May turned to June, and all the while Firestorm trained.
They were immune to radiation, but they weren't just immune – they absorbed it too, sucking in the energy it provided and using it as fuel. Ronnie and Martin both felt energized, standing in the lab as Firestorm, drinking it in.
The second time they went separately, unmerged, and while they couldn't actively focus on absorbing the radiation the way they did as Firestorm, it didn't affect them either, and steadily declined as they soaked it in.
Research and radiation and fire and flames. They studied the physics and practiced their powers.
John didn't just manage to grant them access to his labs a few times – he threw himself into the equations of it all, trying to figure out how it all worked.
Ronnie got to see Martin actively engaged in the science, drawn out of his shell, smiling and energetic as he explained the principals of the FIRESTORM matrix. And Ronnie learned a lot in the meantime too, listening to the two older men. He'd known Martin was a scientist and a professor – now he knew that he was very well known, at least in his field, and that all his talk wasn't just talk: he had the accolades and awards to back it up.
And while Ronnie and Martin had come up with plenty of ways to test their flames (temperature and size and direction and so on), an outside perspective helped.
"What happens to your clothes, when you merge?" John asked thoughtfully, near the end of May. It was Memorial Day weekend and the four of them – Firestorm and the Byerly's – were having a picnic in the park. (And by park, Ronnie meant an isolated area in the middle of the woods where no one would walk in on them.)
Martin frowned at his friend. "Excuse me?" he asked.
"Well, the FIRESTORM matrix fused with you, right? Not your clothes – your DNA. But every time I see the two of you merge and separate again, you come out of it wearing exactly what you started with. Both of you."
Ronnie and Martin exchanged glances, mutual curiosity flickering across their bond.
"I… I hadn't ever considered it," Martin admitted.
"Nuclear transmutation?" Ronnie offered as an explanation. He'd learned a lot the past few weeks.
John pursed his lips. "I don't know…" he said thoughtfully, slightly doubtful.
His wife – Katherine – let out a laugh. "Oh, why not?" she asked. Like her husband, she'd studied physics too, but she taught at the local high school, not the university. "I might not know as much as you three, but I've seen you fuse too. Matter to energy and then back again – except they're missing some of the matter."
"She's right," Martin pointed out.
"Could we control it then?" Ronnie asked. "The matter that reforms when we fuse?"
He and Martin locked eyes again, curiosity, wonder, anticipation, all surging forward.
After that, they started practicing their fusion too.
Now it was early June, and for the first time in too long, Ronnie was feeling good. Firestorm walked down the streets of Pittsburgh, strong and steady. They had complete control over the flames flickering under their skin.
They still saw machine guns and soldiers in their nightmares, but in his waking hours, Ronnie was no longer so scared of facing down Eiling's men. They'd held their own once before, and he had every confidence that they could do it again, if it came down to that.
A shout distracted him from his thoughts, a cry of alarm from a nearby alley. Ronnie froze instinctually, tensing, then forced himself to relax. He glanced down at their fist, flexing it, feeling the fire just under the surface.
"We've scared away thugs with Firestorm before," he said.
"Indeed we have," Martin agreed, solid and firm and unyielding.
They were in agreement then.
Fire roared to life around them, and with a quick controlled burst downward, Ronnie launched them into the air and into the direction the scream had come from. He landed in the mouth of the alley, staring at the five thugs crowded around a young man, scared and trembling.
One man dropped his knife at the sight of them, the metal clattering to the asphalt, and took a few steps back. Most of the others froze.
A fireball at their feet had them running, and Ronnie turned to the young man, frozen against the wall, gaping and speechless.
"Are you hurt?" he asked.
The man shook his head frantically, eyes wide.
Ronnie gave him a gentle smile. "Get home safe," he said, and then took to the skies.
They left, of course, after that – however prepared they were to face Eiling now, there was no reason to seek out such a fight, and no need to put the Byerlys in harm's way. Besides, there was more practicing to be done.
Away from anyone they cared for, they could act in the open – fly – without fear of repercussions.
So they left, but they didn't return to the way they'd lived before.
They still slept under bridges and in abandoned buildings, still scrounged through the garbage for something to eat on occasion, but they knew what they were doing now, and they weren't hiding, however much they didn't stay in any one city for too long.
They moved south from Pittsburgh, over the mountains of West Virginia, spending up to a week or two in Roanoke, Greensboro, Charlotte, and Columbia each, before taking a break near the ocean in Charleston, South Carolina, as June turned to July, which gave way to August.
They spent most of their time as Firestorm, but made sure to unfuse every now and again, so as not to keep Martin trapped for too long. They practiced their flying and fireballs, and worked on controlling their merges.
In West Virginia, Firestorm wove their way through the trees, carefully avoiding setting anything on fire, and picking up speed as Ronnie gained more agility.
In Roanoke, Ronnie managed to keep Martin's glasses when they merged – the first time they'd managed to control the energy to matter conversion. Firestorm stopped two muggings and a carjacking.
In Greensboro, Martin had the idea that he could wear their backpack before merging, and it, like his clothes, would only reappear when he did, safely hidden. They tried it first empty, unwilling to lose any of their few possessions – or the phone and food they had stashed inside – and it worked like a charm.
In Charlotte, they were recognized for the first time when they stopped an attempted robbery, and after that, the news that did talk about them called them by their name: Firestorm.
In Columbia, they managed to switch clothes entirely during the merge, Firestorm wearing what Martin had had on, and Ronnie's clothes only reappearing once they'd unfused. They stopped a few more attempted assaults there as well.
Fighting crime… It hadn't been what they'd set out to do. The first few times, they'd happened upon unpleasant events by chance, and simply hadn't been able to just stand by and watch. The next few times they'd had the idea to seek it out, because what better way to practice their skills then in a real situation?
Now it just felt good to help people. It made it feel less like they were running, and more like they had a purpose. If only they could go home to Central City…
"Soon," Ronnie said into the phone, eagerly. They'd used twenty more precious minutes of the prepaid phone back in July, but hadn't called since then. "Within a month or two, hopefully."
"That's not soon," Cisco chided him.
Ronnie couldn't keep the smile off his face at the sound of his friend's voice, despite the topic of conversation.
"I know, but… we'll still be in danger, even when we come back. We want to be certain."
"I know." Caitlin's tone was resigned, and full of love. "We miss you."
Ronnie glanced over at Martin. "And we you," he returned.
They stayed in Charleston a while. Managed to merge with a full backpack on, disappearing into Firestorm – though they kept the electronics and food out, still not willing to risk it. They'd tried materializing things they hadn't been wearing when they unmerged, but that hadn't worked out yet. Flying came naturally now, and evaluating their surroundings in three dimensions had become part of their routine. They'd even stood in the ocean as Firestorm, and watched the water boil and turn to steam around them – though no flames had flickered under the water, just heat.
When August ended and September began, they caught the first sight of Eiling's men they'd had since April.
"Don't stop walking," Martin said suddenly, and though they'd been walking in silence up to that point, Ronnie had long since gotten used to the other man in his head. The professor's words didn't startle him.
His stride didn't falter. "What is it?" Martin used his eyes as Firestorm, yes, but he didn't necessarily look at the same thing Ronnie did.
Ronnie's heart skipped a beat, his breath hitched. However well prepared they felt, however much they'd learned to control their abilities in the last four months, they both still had nightmares of guns, of faceless men in black surrounding them.
"Might not be army," he muttered. They were in a crowd at the moment, simply strolling through a farmer's market in the middle of the day, looking for free samples or discarded food. It was loud enough that no one noticed his words, and there were enough people around that he'd put on their sunglasses and baseball cap. His gaze flickered over the milling people, searching for what Martin had seen. "Which way?"
"Head to our left, but casually. If they follow…"
"Then we'll know," Ronnie agreed, subtly adjusting his course but not his pace. Martin had told him to head to the left, so his eyes flickered to his right. Everyone was dressed in everyday clothing, but his mind focused in on a particular group of men: their haircuts, their sturdy boots, the jackets they wore that could easily conceal weapons, and the fact that they were studying the crowd rather than the market booths all pointed towards one thing. Soldiers.
Maybe it was paranoia, maybe it was just a large group of men relaxing on their day off. Together. At the farmer's market, without a purchase between them.
Either way, Ronnie and Martin hadn't been training because they wanted a fight – especially not in such crowded conditions – but because they wanted to be able to win the fights that did occur. Both of them knew that they could never bring the fight to Eiling. He had too many men, too many resources for that. But they could maybe try to prove to him that they weren't worth the fight, that he would never get his hands on them.
Already the man had spent months and who knew how much money in pursuit of them – surely he had other things that required his attention?
"Where do you think you're going?" The question was quietly and confidently spoken, with a calm assurance that told them the speaker didn't actually intend to be answered, but worse than that, it came from in front of them.
They'd been paying too much attention to the group of soldiers now behind them that they hadn't focused on the people ahead.
Ronnie's gaze shot forward as he tensed, Martin helping him to control the urge to burst into flames then and there. There were two men in front of them, both his height, with broad shoulders and crew cuts. They both met his gaze head on. One of them was smirking.
He didn't bother responding, glancing behind him and to the side, noticing the men closing in on them.
"Probably best if you come with us, unless you intend on making a scene," the man spoke again, hand drifting into his jacket.
"Shoulder holster," Martin said, and Ronnie agreed.
His heart started trying to break out of his chest with how fast it was beating, his limbs felt stiff and frozen. He hadn't even noticed his hands had clenched at his sides, but he noticed it now, his fingers digging into his palms. He was strangely panicked and oddly calm. Angry.
These men were the reason why he hadn't seen Caitlin since February – over six months now, and most of it on the streets.
Martin could feel his anger, even if he didn't echo it, and he had his own strange combination of determination and fear that gave way to a deadly calm. Ronnie took refuge in that, ignoring his own panic, his racing heart and sweating palms.
"Alright," he told the soldier, and his voice didn't even shake. "Lead the way."
Firestorm followed the two men through the crowd, gaining more people as they went. Two men came to flank either side of them, three more remained at their back. Nine total, and that was just what Ronnie could see.
But… the men created a sort of buffer, almost. With them surrounding him, Ronnie felt he could safely call forth their flames without hurting any of the innocents in the crowd they were now separated from.
Just as he tensed to do so, prepared to leap into the sky, the man to their right reached for them, his hand tightly encircling their wrist.
"Don't think we won't shoot," he muttered, low and menacing. "Can't imagine you'll get far with serious blood loss."
It wasn't a threat to kill them, but that didn't make it any less serious.
Ronnie gritted his teeth, wrenching their wrist free, but made no further move. The soldier was right. The chances of all nine of the men missing if Ronnie leapt into the air in front of them were too small to risk it. Ronnie (and, from the feel of it, Martin as well) didn't intend to go without a fight, but that fight would have to wait, at least a little while longer.
They traveled through the rest of the market in silence, and Ronnie didn't think he was imagining the few odd looks they gathered. A group of ten men traveling together without a purchase between them did create quite a sight, but nobody else around them was looking for danger. The few that paid them any notice quickly moved on, and Ronnie knew better than to draw attention to their situation.
Eiling had learned from his mistakes, but he still underestimated them. The men herded them to an unmarked van, the back empty but for two benches that faced each other. Two men took the front seats, two got in the back before Firestorm. A fifth sat across from them, and two more filed in after that, sandwiching them between the soldiers. The remaining two got in a car, which was all Ronnie saw before the doors were slammed shut, and the van started.
They'd cut off all possible flight options, after what had happened in New Mexico: at the farmer's market they would have been nothing more than a giant target. Now, as the van lurched and moved beneath them, they were boxed in, and cut off from the sky.
But Eiling and his men didn't know everything they were capable of. In New Mexico, panicked and lashing out, Ronnie had focused on the size and power of his blasts – not the heat. None of the men currently watching them had any idea that Firestorm was capable of melting his way through the metal around them. The trap wasn't as tight as they thought it was, and Ronnie took refuge in that thought.
It was just a matter of where and when, Ronnie mused to himself. They couldn't wait too long, as they had no idea of where they were going, but he didn't want to act before thinking through the possibilities.
Worse, he couldn't discuss things with Martin, not without being overheard at least. He glanced up pointedly at the roof, staring at it, hoping the other man would get the message.
After a moment: "The metal isn't really that thick," Martin said thoughtfully, "but the heat required to weaken it enough to punch through it…"
Ronnie moved his gaze away from the ceiling, flickering over the soldiers in the van. There was no love lost between them, but they were still people. They'd never gotten so hot in such close quarters before.
He'd have to move quickly, with a focused and precise flame.
He tensed, readying himself. The presence of the soldiers didn't petrify him the way it might have once, but Ronnie still felt nervous despite his anger. His limbs were shaky, his mind uncertain. They'd melted plenty of things, but they'd never tried to fly through a sheet of metal after melting it.
At least he knew he couldn't be burnt as Firestorm, not by their own flames.
A moment passed in silence, then another. Despite how much he'd felt prepared for this moment, actually facing it down was something else entirely.
Martin didn't say anything, perhaps knowing by now that it wouldn't help Ronnie any, but Ronnie could still feel his partner's anticipation.
He could do this. He had to do this.
Ronnie focused on the anger he'd felt towards Eiling. It was his fault he'd had to go on the run. He'd caused the pain that had started this whole thing. He'd kidnapped Martin, he'd sent men after them in New Mexico, he was the reason they'd been sleeping under bridges and searching for food in garbage cans.
Gritting his teeth and clenching his fists, Ronnie focused all his rage and resentment on creating the perfect flame: it couldn't flare outward, and it had to be hot enough, but not too hot – while it wouldn't hurt them, Ronnie had no desire to hurt any of the soldiers any more than he had to to escape.
In one quick movement he thrust his hands upward, and the unique nature of Firestorm's physiology meant that he didn't even need to avert his gaze from the bright flames that followed. Just as quickly, he moved one hand downward, urging the fire to push them upward, covered his head with his other arm, and broke through the softened and molten metal.
In a matter of seconds it was over, and done with, and Ronnie was soaring through the air above the traffic, getting farther and farther from the city. Eiling's men had never even seen it coming.
It had been done so quickly, over so soon, that Ronnie truly had no idea of how the men had reacted – or how badly they might have been injured by his actions. Their cries of alarm rang in his ears, but he had no idea if they had had the time to pull their guns, if they'd made any move to stop him or only shied away from the heat he'd produced.
His heart still pounded furiously, and he didn't dare to lower his speed until they had left the city far behind them. The one soldier's threat to shoot him out of the sky still rang in his ears with the echoes of the men's cries, and his arm twinged with remembered pain, no matter that his gunshot would had long since healed.
When he did land, in a field far from any buildings or roads, he fell to his hands and knees, stomach clenching as sour bile made its way up to the ground in front of him. He told himself he was just imagining the scent of burned flesh.
Martin tugged at him from within, and Ronnie gave in, separating. After a moment, he felt a hand on his shoulder and under his elbow, helping him stand.
"I am no fan of violence either," Martin said, calm and firm, "but we did what had to be done."
"I know that," Ronnie responded half-heartedly, his mind going back to the two other times he'd faced Eiling's men as Firestorm, wondering how badly he'd hurt the people he'd blasted from his path. "I want to go home," he continued without thinking.
Martin put what he thought was a comforting hand on Ronnie's shoulder. "As do I," he admitted wistfully, "but do you not think that it is the first place Eiling will look?"
Ronnie spun, dislodging Martin's hand as his anger resurged. "Why should we care?" he half-shouted. "I thought the whole point of this was to make sure that he couldn't touch us – to make sure we could go home."
"Well… yes… I, I suppose…" Martin spluttered for a moment, taken aback (probably by Ronnie's changing moods). "But…"
"We could have killed those men," Ronnie said, and his anger evaporated again, voice lowering as he sunk to the ground once more. "I could have killed them."
Martin was silent for a moment. Ronnie could feel his emotions fluctuating, searching for something to say. He shook his head, and turned from his partner.
"We can't take the fight to Eiling, and we can't wander around the rest of our lives waiting for him to give up," Ronnie reminded him. He was tired, and his arm hurt from bursting through the van roof. The sour taste in his mouth had nothing to do with the unpleasant feeling in his gut, and everything to do with him wondering if he'd killed anyone since that night he'd infiltrated a military base to save the professor.
After the first time they'd been attacked, their reaction had been fear and panic, but also a determination to stop running. They'd gotten jumpier, more paranoid, but they'd stopped wandering aimlessly and had started trying to figure out what they were capable of, what they could do next time Eiling had caught up with them.
And now he had, and however prepared they'd been, fear and panic were still Ronnie's first reactions. The need to stop running. A desire for his old life.
Nothing had changed, despite the months and the cities and the new skills.
"I want to go home," he repeated out loud. This time though, his tone was resigned. He knew Martin was right – if they returned to Central City as distracted and vulnerable as they were just then, Eiling would grab them in a heartbeat.
"I know," Martin agreed, just as resigned, just as longing. "But…"
They couldn't take the fight to Eiling, and they couldn't run forever, but if they were going to go home, they couldn't afford to be distracted.
Determination surged through Martin suddenly. "Let's plan," he said.
Ronnie shot him a look. "What do you think we've been doing?"
Martin shook his head. "No, I meant for… for after we get to Central City. Our lives cannot simply return to what they were before. With Eiling chasing us, we cannot travel too far from the other. So, let us… plan for that. Let us decide how we can live our lives both as… as Firestorm, and as Ronnie Raymond and Martin Stein."
Ronnie nodded absently as the professor spoke, feeling a renewal of hope. He didn't even care about the fact that even in Central City they would have to stay close. After all their time on the street together, he wouldn't have felt safer any other way. There was a definite bond between them now, both literally – the empathic connection that lingered even when Firestorm wasn't around – and figuratively, after the months they'd spent at each other's sides, relying on each other.
"And then we can go home," he agreed.
"And then we can go home," Martin echoed, smiling faintly.
Their phone rang in early October, when they were still debating the best time to return home. They'd worked out most of the logistics, made plans for most scenarios, and both agreed they'd be home by November, but they hadn't set a date yet. There'd been no sign of Eiling since his attempt at kidnapping them a month ago, and they'd lain low and stayed on the move.
Ronald answered the ringing device, putting it on speaker. "What's up?"
"Hey guys," Mr. Ramon's voice came through.
"We were thinking it might be time for you guys to come back to Central City," Dr. Snow's voice followed.
Ronald and Martin exchanged glances, concern and curiosity flowing between them.
"We were still trying to plan out exactly how we'd handle things, coming home," Ronald told them.
They were able to handle things as Firestorm now, but that was the point: only as Firestorm could they fight back. Going home to Central City didn't mean returning to their old lives. They'd have to remain close to each other, capable of merging at any time, until they could be sure that the threat Eiling presented was gone. Working out those logistics were the only reason they hadn't returned yet.
"Yeah, we know," Dr. Snow started, "it's just…"
Mr. Ramon took over. "It turns out," he stated simply, a small tinge of excitement in his tone, "that you weren't the only ones affected by the particle accelerator."