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An Ocean on their Shoulders

Chapter Text

1958

Somewhere Beneath the Atlantic Ocean


"Fuck this," snarled Peach, spitting phlegm onto the dock. "And fuck Fontaine."

Peach Wilkins was a pudgy, rattish man with nicotine-stained teeth and fish-stained overalls and a scowl that could stop a clock. He had a permanent five o'clock shadow and his breath smelled potently of tuna. Which wasn't so unusual in of itself, when one made a living out of the fishing industries of Port Neptune, but Wilkins had a tendency to breath out every time he opened his mouth, his words piggybacking on his halitosis.

"You don't fuck Fontaine," groused Heymans Breda, picking through the Fisheries's customs manifest and trying not to think about Peach's breath slithering over him like a glutinous gray eel, making the small hairs on his neck curl. "Fontaine fucks you."

Wilkins grunted in noncommittal agreement. The two men departed the Fontaine Fisheries for Pier Four, ignoring the narrow eyes of the Port Authority at every junction. Heymans tucked the clipboard a little closer to his chest, occasionally flashing his teeth in a disingenuous smile whenever one of the constables gave them the stink eye. For all their rubbernecking, however, Andrew Ryan's goons didn't bother Peach and Heymans. Breda knew his associate kept a gutting knife squirreled away somewhere under the heavy rubber of his apron, in case one of the Port Authority spooks ever pressed their luck.

"He's putting the screws on us, and double," muttered Peach, once the two of them were well out of earshot, emerging from Pier Four onto the Lower Wharf of Neptune's Bounty. Split into three parts, the Wharf was a hub of activity during working hours, with the fishing subs of Rapture going in and out to deliver their catch. That late in the evening, empty save for the shadows and the smell of fish, Breda thought it was just plain creepy. They splashed through frigid pools of stagnant seawater. The small, wet pebbles that lined the piers sparkled in the mildew-green light of the ocean. The water was almost still, small waves occasionally hitting the tanks. The fish stared at them with unblinking, unknowing eyes, silent witnesses on their insubordinate little chin-wag.

"Fontaine's squeezing us out of eighty percent our cut with the threat of turning us in to Ryan if we don't stomach it," Wilkins went on, nattering. "Son of a bitch."

"You're telling me," muttered Breda, humoring the sod. "Fontaine can sell this shit at a far higher margin than he's paying us to smuggle it in here."

Peach worried at a hangnail, continuing to fidget and mutter as though Breda hadn't spoken: "This started out as simple. Take Fontaine's bathysphere back topside twice a week, pick up beef, real tobacco, you know. But now, Ryan's chief, Bradley, the bastard's up and called smuggling a hanging crime. Hanging? Says any connection to the surface could destroy the city." Peach snorted. "Before long, only difference between this place and topside is whether or not you can open up the damn windows!"

Breda sighed. Peach struck him as being one bad day short of a proper episode, but the fishy little git had a point. 

Living in a city a thousand-odd fathoms below the ocean's surface came with certain restrictions, not least of which being the limitations of manufacturing and the lack of raw materials. But where Rapture's walls ended, Fontaine's ventures began.

While the likes of Peach had been bulldozed into doing Fontaine's dirty work, Breda had served as Frank's chief broker for the past several years. Sure, Fontaine had Heymans by the short hairs just like the rest of them, but the price disparity due to the cost of supply was so incentivizing, Breda couldn't help but admit how lucrative the enterprise was. Rather than encourage local producers to get creative, to supply at a lower cost through competition, Rapture's isolation meant certain goods could only be obtained through smuggling. Not just meat and baccy and booze, but more incriminating wares... Bibles. News reels. Trotzky, Mandel, Marx. The sort of Red stuff that made Old Man Ryan sweat.

Breda took another look at the list in his hand: bills of lading, specifications regarding the nature and quantity of the cargo. He even kept the goddamn receipts, scribbled in incomprehensible Icelandic. Breda checked over his arithmetic as he and Peach came to the junction between the Jet Postal and the Fighting McDonagh's pub.

"I need a drink," decided Peach, wiping his mouth with the back of his filthy rubber glove. "You comin'?"

"Bill working tonight?"

"It's Tuesday, ain't it?"

Breda shook his head, eyebrows furrowing. "I'm not keen on crossing paths with Andrew Ryan's general contractor right after a haul. Bill McDonagh's a straight arrow, but he's Ryan's man. Don't need him having one too many and saying the wrong thing to the Rapture Council."

Peach shrugged, eyes glazing over, not able to see further than his next bottle. "Suit yourself."

Breda watched him stagger down the corridor and around the corner, towards the warmth and light and noise spilling from the doors of the Fighting McDonagh's. Heymans swallowed down the acidic bite of envy, thinking of an Old Harbinger ale and one of McDonagh's, frankly, amazing cornbeef sandwiches, served warm with chips. Then he shook his head, pivoted on his heel, and went back the way he'd come, stomping through the viaduct walkway, clutching Fontaine's cargo manifest in one white-knuckled fist.

Back on the empty Wharf, Heymans paused before the big window looking out onto the seafloor. He saw the gleaming, almost metallic flanks of fish wheel in schools through the opaque water, glowing under the neon-blue illumination of the Fontaine Fisheries sign. Breda moved closer. The fixed flood of the Pier Four lights enveloped the small fish. They came sliding, drifting, mouths aperturing in motion, gills rippling against the glass. Their senseless round eyes stared at him. 

Seeing so many of them, so eager and attentive, Breda felt an unexpected compunction. He took the last page of the manifest, crumpled it, and tossed it over the lip of the tank, watching it disintegrate into pulp amidst the brine.

The crates of expensive Scotch whiskey the manifest recounted had already met a similar fate somewhere near Surtsey, off the coast of Iceland. An entire portion of Fontaine's smuggled goods, lost to the sea.

"Run out of fish food, Breda?"

"Jay-sus Christ––"

Heymans's heart leapt into his throat as he whirled around, his pulse sounding so loud in his ears he almost didn't hear the dark, smoky chuckle sound from the shadows. Once the figure emerged into the buzzing blue light, thrown into a dizzying strobe by the Fisheries marquee, Breda really really wished he had Peach and his gutting knife back with him.

You gotta be fucking kidding me, thought Breda, despairingly.

The figure was tall, dark, unfairly handsome, dressed immaculately in a double-breasted blue suit jacket. The lenses of his glasses glinted neon, like a light on an anglerfish. Folks often talked about the color of eyes, blacker than volcanic obsidian and far sharper. From them came an intensity of conviction, an honesty, a peculiar sort of gentleness. Breda reckoned the man knew right proper what was meant by being a gentleman... not a bearing of trite politeness, but one of great spirit, an honor so antiquated and idealistic it was almost laughable.

Ideals... in a place like Rapture. The man had to be stir crazy.

"Where is she?" asked Breda gruffly, trying to move the remainder of the manifest into the lining of his coat, failing when the newcomer's eyes tracked Breda's every movement.

"She?" The visitor flashed his teeth, much in the same way Breda had done to the Port Authority. "I can think of half a dozen places off the top of my head more pleasant than a fish processing facility for a first date." 

"Don't take the piss with me, Mustang. Neptune's Bounty is Fontaine's turf, and you're one of Andrew Ryan's guys. Aside from Bradley, you're the most hated sonuvabitch this side of Pauper's Drop. You wouldn't risk coming down here without some sort of protection. So..." Breda crossed his arms, scowling. "Where's your lady friend?"

Former army officer, Rapture Council member, renowned biochemist, and all-around philandering scoundrel Roy Mustang raised his hands in mock surrender. His white gloves were spotless, unlike just about everything else in Rapture. "I'm alone," he said calmly.

”I have your word on that?"

"For whatever it's worth to you."

Heymans snorted. "Less than the fish guts on my boots." Then, before Mustang could go for any hidden weapon of his own –– or snap his fingers and activate that bizarre plasmid of his –– Breda drew a dummy pistol from a holster at his back. He leveled it at Mustang's sternum and moved to take a step forward––

"Drop it."

Heymans hadn't heard her approach, but he felt the barrel of her handgun tickling his hair well enough. He tossed his dummy gun aside, heard the faint plop as it hit the water under the pier. He peered at the figure out of the corner of his eye.

"Alone, huh?" muttered Breda scathingly, glowering at Mustang's hired muscle. She gazed sedately back... and did not lower her firearm. "Hawkeye."

"Breda."

Riza Hawkeye, Mustang's inscrutable bodyguard, stood adjacent to Breda, leveling her pistol at his head in a staunch two-handed grip. She stood with her feet shoulder width apart and her knees slightly bent, bringing her head-height with Heymans. Though she left her finger off the trigger, resting it along the frame of the gun, she kept the sights fixed on Breda even as he jammed his hands into his trouser pockets.

In the dappled light of the tanks, her tightly-bunned blonde hair was the color of an acorn cap, yet her eyes were bright like the acorns themselves. Though he knew her well-enough by reputation, Breda had never seen Hawkeye in person, before –– she was slight in a stringy, athletic sort of way, not weak, just lean and muscular. She stood there with her gun extended, waiting for her boss to make the first move.

"At ease, Lieutenant."

Liutenant... another vet, then, thought Heymans. Breda felt a twang in his chest when he realized she couldn't have been any older than he was, but while he was getting wasted at graduation, she was overseas slogging through the mud of Chambois in the Orne and blowing Jerries to kingdom come. The thought made his head hurt.

True to form, Hawkeye murmured a calm "Yes, sir," and lowered her gun to her thigh, letting out a tight breath as she eyed Breda skeptically.

"You shouldn't be hangin' around here," said Breda coolly, eyes narrowing as Mustang swaggered closer. "You're lucky it's me you ran in to, not Peach."

"It's almost as though I managed that on purpose," said Roy slyly, a ruthlessly intelligent glint in his black eyes. "Besides, we're all civil here, aren't we?"

"Get stuffed. You've got too many fingers in too many pies, Mustang."

The man mirrored Breda by sticking his hands in the pockets of a sleek black greatcoat. Heymans thought the jacket made Mustang look smooth and glossy, like an orca.

"Are you a gambling man, Breda?" queried Roy, seemingly nonplussed by his own non-sequitur.

"Depends on the stakes," replied Heymans, cautiously.

"Say... Frank Fontaine's smuggled goods?"

"You gotta be going soft in the head."

"Then why did you jettison twenty percent of the smuggled cargo off Iceland? Why feed your manifest to the tuna?"

Breda rooted his jaw, acutely aware of the metaphorical thin ice under his boots. "I don't see what you're implying, Mustang," he muttered, trying to play dumb.

"You. Fontaine. The Fisheries. It's a smuggling front, yes? You use the mini subs to bring contraband down from the surface in addition to netting fish. Am I correct, or should I have the Lieutenant bring crayons next time to explain it to you?"

"That kinda talk's just Ryan blowing smoke. Ain't nothing to find down here."

"Don't lie to me, Breda. I'm too smart for that, and I know for a fact that you're too smart for that."

Heymans growled, "You don't know anything about me."

"Heymans Breda," intoned Mustang, steely-eyed. "Westpoint, Class of '45. Graduated top of your class. Airborne trained and Ranger qualified, but the War ended before you saw any action. You designed a new math and computation-based strategy system for your honors project, one of the military's most accurate digital combat simulations––"

"Shut up!" Breda felt the blood rising to his face. "What the hell do you want, Mustang?"

Roy held his hands out in a gesture almost conciliatory. "Your help."

He blinked. "You're kidding."

"Not about this," murmured Hawkeye, startling him. She hadn't so much as twitched since lowering her firearm.

"I asked if you gambled, Breda," continued Mustang, smooth as plate glass. "And the chips you cashed in at Sir Prize last week leads me to believe that you do. But not craps or baccarat or the slots... they're too juvenile, too random, for a Westpoint number cruncher. You're a poker man, I suspect."

Breda felt as though he was being deconstructed, the many layers and masks he'd donned over the years stripped away, like Steinman unwrapping one of his plastic surgery patients.

"In table poker," Roy went on: "the rake is a fraction of each bet placed into the pot. The dealer removes the rake from the pot after each betting round, making change if necessary. The winner of the hand gets the money that remains in the pot after the rake has been removed. Most casinos take around ten percent of the pot, though I think Cohen and his lot down in Fort Frolic take twenty. In any case, after every round, it caps at a little under fifty dollars. Not a whole lot compared to the pot over the course of a busy evening... but not table scraps, either. Especially not in a town like Rapture."

"What are you––"

"You're taking the rake on Fontaine's pot, Breda."

Heymans swallowed. Nausea churned his insides. The neon-blue Fontaine Fisheries sign buzzed over Roy Mustang's head, like the ribband from the Book of Numbers.

"Bearding the lion in his den." Mustang whistled. "You've got some daring."

Heyman's first thought was separate from the feelings in his chest and stomach; it was the observation that Mustang didn't strike him as acting smugly complacent or excessively and unwarrantedly satisfied with himself. The cocksure swagger he'd exuded when he revealed himself had waned to a quiet, considered thoughtfulness, like someone musing and mumbling over a piece of art.

"If you expect some kinda reward from Fontaine for turning me over, you're gonna be sorely disappointed," spat Breda, stabbing a finger at Mustang. "He'll string me up by my toes in the Upper Wharf, kill her," he nodded at Hawkeye, "then take whatever's left of you. You and your weird plasmid power."

"You sound a little on-edge."

"I'm hanging over the fucking cliff, Mustang. Anyone with half a brain rattling around in their skulls knows to be right proper scared of Fontaine."

"Then why cut into his profit?" queried Roy, raising an eyebrow in question. "If he's as terrifying as you say –– and I suspect you've got a valid point there –– why welsh the man?"

"Special compensation. Fontaine don't pay us enough. I'm just looking out for me. That's the Rapture way, innit?"

"I don't buy it. The risk is too high."

Breda leveled on Mustang with crushing intensity, searching his boyish face for some deception. As Roy stared back, his eyes seemed to draw color from the shadows of the wharf and the opaque green of the seabed, to darken with them. Heymans couldn't tell what he was thinking. Granted, Peach was usually the cat on hot bricks when Ryan's goons or the Port Authority managed to corner them, but even Breda had to admit he was nursing a distinct feeling of unease, an almost physical sickness like acid reflux. Mustang made him nervous... but, strangely, unlike Fontaine, he didn't make Heymans feel as though he was being had.

Besides, they had him found out. If Breda refused to play ball, Roy and his guard dog could always go to Ryan with their findings. Like the fish in the tanks, he wasn't exactly swimming in alternatives.

"Few months back," muttered Breda, his gaze dropping to the pier planks, "kid named Timmy got captured and interrogated by Bradley, Ryan's Chief. When Tim wouldn't drag Fontaine, Bradley killed him... electrocuted him using a large battery connected to cables while pouring salt water all over his body."

Mustang's dark eyes also lowered. "I see."

"His corpse is still trussed up where Bradley left it... Frank forbade us from movin' him. Called it a reminder." Breda's hands fisted. "I've been welshing on my agreement with Fontaine 'cause I'm sick to the teeth of him hauling us over the coals. I'm sick to the teeth of Bradley screaming blue murder every time one of us so much as looks at Ryan sideways. Peach and the others reckon Fontaine is cuttin' 'em out of a profit, but a good chunk of the cargo don't even make it into Frank's books. I should know... I keep 'em. And I'm tryin' to hit him where it hurts."

"Money is a language Frank Fontaine speaks with eloquent fluency," murmured Hawkeye, startling Heymans; he had forgotten she was there. "He is far more likely to take note of a decline in gross profit margins than the mewling of a few dissatisfied underlings."

"Timothy Hallahan was confirmed dead two months ago," said Roy, brow creasing in thought, "and you've been raking the pot since then, I take it."

"Yeah, that's right."

Mustang shook his head. "It won't last. Fontaine's a crook, but he's clever. If the disparities become too consistent, then he's liable to sniff out the culprit. Since you're the one doing his books, you'd be the first head he'd bump." The man's severe expression softened. "I think you're a man of conviction, Heymans. I think you're becoming increasingly aware of the danger Fontaine –– and Andrew Ryan –– pose to Rapture. You're trying to do right by yourself and your friends, by Timmy H., by knocking Fontaine down a few pegs with your, ahem... scaled commission fees, but I suspect you're fast approaching a point where the benefits gained will be less than the risk invested."

"You're talkin' about the Law of Diminishing Returns."

Mustang smiled crookedly. "This is Rapture, Breda. This is a world founded upon the concept of no returns."

There was a certain amount of dizziness as Heymans tried to rationalize what Mustang was suggesting. "I'm in too deep," he breathed hoarsely. "I can't quit the Fisheries, now. I wouldn't last a day. Fontaine can't risk his top men getting snatched by Bradley."

"You could stop the rake."

"No."

"Tell me why."

"I didn't know Timmy H. all that well, but a friend of mine did. My best friend. And I had to tell Jean what happened to him. I... I can't do that again, Mustang. I won't."

Roy's eyes glittered in a way that made Breda's neck prickle. "If I could offer a suggestion?"

"Huh?"

"Work for me."

Heymans felt as though his stomach had dropped out. "Come again?"

"Work for me. You can stop welshing Fontaine and keep your cozy position in the Fisheries... but you report to me."

The man was scheming, thought Breda furiously, somehow involved in making secret and underhanded plans behind both Fontaine and Ryan's bent old backs. Breda knew Mustang was the cunning and unscrupulous sort, especially insofar as his career was concerned, but this was an entirely different kettle of fish, and it stank worse than Peach Wilkins's breath.

"What is it you're planning, exactly?"

"Is that a yes?"

Arrogant sod. "I'll decide that when you answer my question."

Roy Mustang worked out a crick in his neck when he confessed, "I am going to get the drop on Frank Fontaine and Andrew Ryan. I am going to rise to the top and run Rapture myself. And I need the help of people like you to do it."

Son of a bitch. It wasn't just Fontaine... Mustang had designs for the whole goddamn city!

Hawkeye was scowling at him, as though silently chastising her boss for letting his schemes slip so casually. Heymans had to admit he couldn't blame her. He wasn't stupid, Roy Mustang, but he trusted a bit too easily.

"And what do I get outta it?" asked Breda before he could stop himself.

"A commission from me, some peace and quiet from the Port Authority –– I can speak to Hughes about keeping them off your tail –– and most importantly... protection, should anything nasty come to a head."

"This whole thing is already nasty."

Hawkeye made a small grunt of acknowledgement. At least she had an ounce of common sense about her, unlike her brown-nosing boss.

"If there's trouble, I assure you I'll keep you from catching the brunt of it. That's more than Fontaine ever did, surely."

“You can’t protect everyone.”

“I don’t need to protect everyone. I can protect the ones I love, and in turn they can protect the ones they love.” Mustang let out a gruff, mirthless laugh. “It seems the least we puny humans can do for each other.”

“That sounds almost altruistic, Mustang.”

“I prefer reciprocity. I merely expect renumeration for services rendered. I defend you, you defend my interests, you defend others, they defend your interests. Quid pro quo.”

“You’re gonna need a goddamn miracle to make this work.”

“Alas, divine providence is in short order in Rapture." He chuckled to himself. "Unless you're contracting to Fontaine for some contraband Bibles, of course."

Hawkeye did not look in the least bit amused, and Roy's laughter died on his lips with a nervous snicker.

"You're askin' me to gamble everything, Mustang," growled Breda, "on your little dog and pony show. You're askin' me to risk my life."

"Well," Roy gave a little turn about the dock, musing over his words like he was sampling one of Fontaine's smuggled vintages, not that diluted shit from Worley Winery, "the way I see it, when we're a couple thousand fathoms under the freezing Atlantic Ocean, risking our lives is stitched into our residency contracts. There are times you can sit and watch from the safety of a porthole and there are moments you need to grit your teeth and take on the ocean pressure.

"And I think, for all his sins, Andrew Ryan is right on one account... crisis creates the opportunity to dip deep into the reservoirs of our very being, to rise to levels of confidence, strength, and resolve that otherwise we didn't think we possessed. We can change this city, Heymans. We can make it better for the rank and file, for those of us who aren't fossilized like Ryan or bent crookeder than a corkscrew like Fontaine.

"But I can't do it alone."

Breda had worked around monetary accounts long enough to recognize a pyramid scheme when he saw one... each paying participant recruiting two further participants, with returns being given to early participants using money contributed by the later ones. A revolution hinging on participation, and promises compounding promises.

And all the way at the top of the pile, Roy Mustang in his sleek black coat, with Miss Hawkeye two steps behind him.

Hell... the prospect was a sight better than Ryan or Fontaine.

"All right." Breda breathed out through his nose. "All right. I'll help you get to the top, Mustang."

He smiled. In Breda's peripheries, Hawkeye held her head a little higher. "Call me Colonel. It was my rank during the war."

"Fine... Colonel Mustang. You might just be crazy enough to pull this off...

Chapter Text

"A penny for them, Lieutenant?"

She glanced up at the back of his head; she thought she caught a glimpse of a few stray gray hairs, but it could just as well have been the dim lighting on the viaduct walkway. In any case, she suspected Roy would not thank her for pointing them out. “Sir?"

"You've gone very quiet since we left Port Neptune. Well," he considered, pretending to think very hard about it, "quieter, at any rate."

Riza did not rise to the bait. "I have nothing to say, Colonel."

"I think we both know that's not quite true." He paused midstride and turned to face her. Riza was forced to stop herself or risk bumping into him. "I value your council, Hawkeye."

Her brows knitted critically, a crease erupting between her eyes. "You may not like what I have to say, sir."

He smiled, a wry curve of the corner of his mouth. "It wouldn't be the first time. But if I surrounded myself solely with sycophants and lickspittles, I wouldn't be any better than Andrew Ryan."

Riza's eyes widened, her gaze darting around the corridor. "Watch what you say aloud, sir," she urged him, not for the first time. "Carelessness like that could land you in Persephone." She sighed. "You can't run Rapture from one of Augustus Sinclair's cells."

"True." Roy's dark eyes turned hooded and thoughtful as he looked down at her. "I'm sensing a consistent pattern, Lieutenant. You didn't seem entirely pleased with me back on Pier Four."

"Making contact with Breda was reckless."

"It was a calculated decision."

"Then I would suggest checking your sums," she paused, then added, "sir," purely as an afterthought.

He shot her a quick, open-mouthed stare, his lips parted. "I don't seem to recall you having these anxieties when I recruited the others."

"There is a difference between anxiety and warranted caution, Colonel," she shot back, irritated. "The Elric boys work under Bill McDonagh, and Fuery is a tech for Rapture Radio. They elected to ally themselves with you of their own volition but like us, they side with Ryan and his constituents. Our making contact with them does not constitute an exceptional risk."

"And Vato?" he asked with mock innocence, feigning confusion and uncertainty in a way that made Riza's teeth grind together. There was nothing candid or sincere in the slight cock of his head and his arched eyebrows, smirking in his little parody of resigned reasonableness. His attempts to air his curiosity without significance may have been enough to fool Ryan and his followers, but he couldn't fool Riza.

Her eyes closed for a moment as she tried to muster the reserves of her patience. Roy had a habit of testing it to its limit. Sometimes, Riza was tempted to throw temperance and composure to the metaphorical wind and allow their conversations to erupt into unholy bickering, where they charged from opposite ends of an open field, determined not to meet in the middle but to rip pieces out of each other on the drive by. Such a confrontational approach was more in line with Rapture philosophy, anyway.

But Riza cared about Roy Mustang too much to follow the thought to its inevitable conclusion. Protecting him was a craft, painstaking and precise. Experience had taught her not to try to impose Roy's goals for order and control over the indelible chaos of Rapture, but to resurrect those goals from the very same chaos.  While her exertions generally found no enduring physical correlatives –– she was content with her place in Roy's shadow, unseen in the corners of the room, a silent guardian in the peripheries –– the very fact of his living constituted a stable repository of her skills and an accurate record of her efforts. Therefore, Riza Hawkeye felt satisfied, secure, in Roy's company. His presence assured her own sense of duty and purpose, where before Riza had been strung out across dreams and fantasies which had long ago evaporated into things she could no longer hold or see.

Thus collected, she intoned: "Falman's position in the Mendel Memorial Library is not liable to turn any heads. The facility is located within Fontaine's facilities at Port Prometheus, true, but the building is neutral ground, with scientists of all stripes making use of its resources.

"Conversely," she added, sternly, "Heymans Breda is one of Fontaine's top brokers. This move is brazen, even for you."

The look Roy gave her was almost imploring, a desperate earnestness in the tight line of his mouth; she knew no one else had ever seen — or likely ever would see — him look so vulnerable. "I need someone close to Fontaine," he said, firmly.

She sighed. "There is close enough to watch a shark, sir, and then there is close enough to see back to the second row of its teeth. Overconfidence precedes disaster. You're not likely to escape scrutiny for long if you take an active interest in Fontaine's smuggling."

"I don't need long," he murmured. Then, he took a cue from her caution and peered over each shoulder. He marked the whirring security cameras and a single automated turret guarding the airlock, but aside from a few curious cods and the barnacles crusted on the windows, they were alone. Even so, Roy lowered his voice...

"I need until September. After that... well, I suspect Fontaine will have a much bigger problem on his hands."

Riza felt her abdomen tighten. "You think Ryan will make a move so soon?"

"He has to." Roy's demeanor turned ruminative, his gaze directed somewhere temporal rather than spatial. "While there was once a time when Andrew Ryan observed Fontaine's rise to power as proof of Rapture's opportunistic potential, he's come to realize that the criminal arm of Fontaine's enterprises runs the risk of exposing the city to surface-dwellers. That... and Fontaine Futuristics is close to pushing Ryan Industries out of a profit. Ryan needs dirt on Fontaine to shutter the bastard for good."

"And he always manages to be where the evidence isn't, Fontaine," said Riza quietly. "As Ryan always says, he's the most dangerous type of criminal… the kind with vision."

Frank Fontaine had taken full advantage of Rapture's virtually non-existant police force and Laissez-faire economic environment. And it didn't take someone within the man's inner circle to deduce that he was a ruthless, exploitative, and manipulative sociopath. Much of Rapture's criminal underworld was terrified of Fontaine, and he controlled his smugglers and gang members through fear and coercion. The mere thought of the bald, sneering son of a bitch made Riza's lip curl.

Rapture was built on foundations of promise and potential, but the city had deteriorated into labyrinths of deception and death. Every morally-questionable scientific breakthrough, every horrific act of creative invention, every shoot-out or splicer attack told Riza that in trying to reach some so-called exaltation of man, Rapture had only managed to descend further into the primeval abyss. Creation at the cost of destruction. The ouroboros, eating itself in order to survive. When God introduced the serpent to the Garden of Eden, Riza couldn't help but wondr if the snake already had half its tail down its throat.

"Will Ryan order a raid, sir?"

"On the Fisheries? I suspect he might."

A raid, thought Riza in astonishment, without a warrant, with only the thinnest of circumstantial evidence. It was almost fascist. How far Ryan had fallen...

"You suspect? Colonel, Ryan is proceeding according to your intel. If you advise him to arrest Fontaine tomorrow, he may very well take your counsel as gospel. Ryan trusts you."

"Bully for him." Roy shook his head, threatening to dislodge his glasses. "But it's too soon. The timing must be perfect, Lieutenant, in order for this to work to our advantage."

"Aside from taking the taint out of Fontaine, I don't see how strengthening Ryan's stranglehold over the city will in any way help you achieve your goals, sir."

In the green-tinged light, his sudden smile looked almost feral. The viaduct was quiet, but it has its own soft pulse, the hiss and sigh of the ventilation systems, as though the entire city was drawing a deep, dark breath. As she waited for Roy to give her his answer, she looked out the window of translucent aluminum, across the seafloor. Even in the evening, it wasn't all gloom. There were lights and colors, both from the distant districts of Rapture and the sea life that haloed the art deco buildings, shining in the dark, blazing beneath the sea. There were sinuous ribbons of luminscence coiling in bright patterns, and schools of tiny fish flashing by like sparks. If it hadn't been for the fronds of seaweed and pink corrals pushing against the portholes, Riza might have imagined herself up in the sky topside, with meteors and comets blazing past.

She looked past the edge of Arcadia and the Medical Pavilion into the chasm yawning beneath the Persephone Penal Colony. She thought she saw a tiny twinkling speck, like a star, shining in that immense, featureless void, with its faint hint of green. It would grow larger as she drew closer. It would turn into a radiant sun of purple or crimson or orange and come rushing at her, and swerve aside at the last moment. Down below, in the deeper abyss, the colors were darker, and she imagined an enormous shape blundering past down there, like the sea-bottom itself, the bedrock of the city, shifting itself from its slumber. 

"The people are unhappy, Lieutenant," said Roy grimly, breaking her from her ruminations, "and Rapture is unstable. We seem bound for detonation."

"You sound like Kimblee."

He frowned, bridling at the comparison. "That was uncalled for, Hawkeye."

"Then perhaps you ought to tell me what you're really thinking, sir."

His breathing seemed measured by the stroke of the ventilation. He confessed, "It's becoming increasingly evident in the public debates between Ryan and that Lamb woman that the rank and file of Rapture are dissatisfied with their lot. Take Breda, for example. A man like him came to Rapture to make something of himself, but while the likes of Ryan are tossing back gin slings in Fort Frolic, Heymans is down in the belly of Port Neptune cutting guts out of fish. Even in utopia," Roy looked at her meaningfully, "someone has to clean to toilets. Coupled with the ever expanding wage gap and growing frequency of splicer attacks... as well as the..." he hesitated, swallowing thickly, his face turning the same color green as the sea-floor, "well... those girls... I suspect enough will soon be enough. The simmer will come to a boil." Roy adjusted his gloves, his thumb and forefinger rubbing together conspicuously. "I merely intend to turn up the temperature."

"By pressing Ryan into making a move against Fontaine."

"In time."

Riza inclined her head in consideration. "So while a raid on Fontaine Fisheries might jeopardize Fontaine's physical assets––"

"Infringing on the man's private business holdings will almost certainly jeopardize Ryan's doctrinal assets," he finished.

"A zero-sum game."

"We are fighting a war on two fronts, Lieutenant, both material and ideological. In order for me to take control of this city, we must break Andrew Ryan's Great Chain of Industry... the links themselves, and the philosophy those same links represent."

Riza understood the strategy well enough: one of the cornerstones of Rapture was the sanctity of private property. If Andrew Ryan confiscated Fontaine's capital or nationalized his shareholdings –– the fisheries as well as the juggernaut behind ADAM production, Fontaine Futuristics –– then Ryan would forfeit his credibility. The move would expose him for the hypocrite he was, a plaster saint who made a grand show of being above the collectivism and communism he preached against and yet partook in those same practices as soon as they became convenient to him.

It would destablize Andrew Ryan's power base. It might even turn the people of Rapture against him entirely.

And Riza suspected her boss would be right there amongst the masses, leading the charge.

She straightened her shoulders; ochre-colored eyes found charcoal black, and she held his gaze like an owl, body still, lit from beneath by the lights running along the floor, the shadow of the viaduct walkway immense behind her.

"What will you do, sir?"

Roy adjusted his glasses, releasing his breath in a chest-deep sigh. "We have some preparations to make. According to Kain, Sander Cohen," Roy's lip twisted in repugnance, as though the name itself left a bad taste in his mouth, "is hosting a gala to commemorate some new musical release or another. The reasons hardly matter. What does matter is that the party is being held in the Manta Ray Lounge."

Riza's eyes widened. "Right below Frank Fontaine's department store office..."

"A perfect opportunity to get Andrew his evidence, wouldn't you agree?"

"I would, sir... except Cohen is none-too-fond of you, and even if he was, the man gives out precious few invitations. We're not likely to get in."

"I have some ideas about that," he said; the tightening of the muscles in his jaw gave Riza an uneasy sense of foreboding. "But not tonight. It's late, and I'd rather not run into any splicers on my way home."

She nodded dutifully. "I agree, sir. Would you like me to escort you to Olympus Heights?"

The corners of Roy's lips fought a smirk, his eyebrows slightly raised. "Why, Lieutenant Hawkeye, people are liable to talk."

Riza wanted to be annoyed with him. Her customary frown wasn't quite a smile, but it turned upward to one cheek. "People already talk, sir."

"Oh? What do they say?"

"Use your imagination, Colonel."

"Ah, I don't know about that, Lieutenant. I have a very vivid imagination."

"Are you flirting with me, sir?"

He hummed in a low dulcet. "Is it working?"

Courting was to Roy Mustang second nature. But he had honed it into an important mechanism of research, a means of gathering information. By making the process important and serious, he deprived it of its lightness. He disturbed the balance between promise and lack of guarantee. He made assurances to his potential conquests too ardently, intentionally failing to make it clear that their bond involved no guarantee of reciprocity on his part. He gave the impression of being there for the taking. But when women –– and a few men –– responded by asking for what they felt they were owed, they were met with strong resistance. Their only explanation for it was that Roy Mustang was a sworn bachelor, decetiful in his propositions and cruel in his rejections.

Riza knew the real reason. Though she elected, for the time being, to keep it to herself.

She opened her mouth to respond, when, without preamble, a blur of gray uniform and dark hair crashed between them, nearly knocking Riza off-balance.

"Roy! Hawkeye! There you are!"

The man was tall, broad, a mite softer than he had been when they fought together during the Battle of the Falaise Pocket. Like Roy, he wore spectacles. Unlike Roy, he had square frames, not circular tortoiseshells. His dark hair stuck up in clumps, as though crusted with salt. His pleasant green eyes were alert to everything that was going on around him, their keenness making up for whatever polish was lacking in the rest of his general appearance. He had a rather large and definite nose which drew close to Roy's face as he enthused: "Fancy meeting you during my rounds! I thought the pair of you would be halfway to Mercury Suites by now!"

"I don't live in Mercury Suites, Detective Inspector Hughes," countered Riza with a practiced ease.

Maes Hughes was one of a rare breed in Rapture... namely, an officer of the law. He served directly under Ryan's Chief, King Bradley, and his primary duties involved investigating alegations of truly notable rule-breaking. Which, as the current circumstances would have it, meant Hughes was more often than not sniffing around in Fontaine's affairs. Riza didn't envy Maes.

"You could always bunk with someone, Hawkeye," mused Hughes, the corners of his eyes crinkling. Riza scowled at him, not entirely impressed with what he was implying.

The flirtatious grin Roy had worn for Riza's sake twisted into a moue of annoyance. "Hughes," he managed, irritated, "aren't you supposed to be patrolling the area around Fontaine Futuristics?"

"You know, I was," he said –– too loudly, Riza thought. "But I heard from Tasha Denu over at the Silverwing Apiary who caught it from Professor Langford who chatted with Jean Havoc who told her that the two of you were milling around the Fighting McDonagh's this evening. My crusitority was piqued. After all..." In an instant, Hughes's green eyes turned flinty, as sharp as cut jade, "it's not like you to hang around Port Neptune, is it, Roy?"

"I had to see a man about returning a chess piece," said Roy smoothly. The code flowed from his tongue like honey. Riza said nothing.

Maes crossed his arms, creasing his gray Rapture security uniform. "Oh? What piece?"

"A rook."

A nod. "A good, stolid piece."

"I agree."

Seemingly satisfied with the answer –– and, Riza knew, provided with ample information to deduce the true nature of their errand –– Hughes switched tact. "Well, perhaps this is serendipity at work. We've had a lot of trouble with those Saturnine splicers up by the Rolling Hills in Arcadia, and I'd be more than happy to walk you both home."

"We live in two different parts of the city, Detective Inspector," Riza reminded him patiently. He had a tendency to forget that small detail...

"Oh!" Maes looked slightly put-out. "Well then––"

"Escort Hawkeye home, Hughes," said Roy. "I can take the bathysphere from Medical."

Riza's eyebrows furrowed, thoroughly nettled. "I don't require a minder, sir," she said, irritated.

Hughes waved a hand. "Phooey, Hawkeye. I could do with the company! 'Sides, there's always something interesting going on in Pauper's Drop."

Hughes was being delicate. The Drop was originally the maintenance junction of the Atlantic Express railroad, and became ad hoc housing for workers and their families after the construction of the train network ended. When the workers learned the hard way that they could not afford to live anywhere else, they found themselves stuck in the ramshackle neighborhood. Riza could afford the Sinclair Deluxe, which by Drop standards, was positively luxurious. It was a dangerous area; needles littered the streets, splicers maundered nonsense from the shadows, and a disproportionately large number of young girls had gone missing in recent months...

"I wouldn't want to keep you from Gracia and your little one, Chief Inspector," insisted Riza.

"You won't be keeping me from them, Riza." Grinning like Lewis Carrol's cheshire cat, Hughes procured a ream of photographs from his pocket. "Because I brought them with me!"

Roy turned to leave, walking a tad too quickly in the opposite direction. "I'm sure Hawkeye would love to see them, Hughes."

If Fontaine or Ryan didn't strangle Roy Mustang one of those bright days, Riza Hawkeye almost certainly would.

The last she saw of her boss was his deeply apologetic face, mouthing a hasty sorry before Hughes threw his arm across her shoulders, half a dozen snapshots in his fist, directing her towards the near-defunct Atlantic Express train station. Maes continued to gush about his wife and child for a while longer, until he was sure Roy was well out of earshot, and then he lowered his voice, his demeanor sobering.

"The Drop, Hawkeye?"

"I can't afford anything better, Chief Inspector. Not in Andrew Ryan's Rapture."

"I'm sure Roy could work something out with the old man. With all the deaths lately, there are few places in Artemis Suites––"

"And what would people say to that, Maes?" she demanded, her voice strained. "I know what the Council whispers about me. And I know how this city treats working women in positions of power. While the arrangement may work for Ms. Jolene, as is her prerogative, I have no intention of becoming Roy Mustang's lady of the evening."

Hughes looked pained. "You know he doesn't see you that way."

"He doesn't see me in any way, Detective Inspector. I'm his subordinate, his bodyguard, not his friend, and certainly not his lover."

The creases on Hughes's high forehead had grown deeper and deeper with Riza's every word. He was a bit forward, Hughes, a little intrusive, but it was clear even to complete strangers that his mannerisms were due to concern and compassion and not to any intent to be objectionable. Although Riza knew he meant well, sometimes his stubborn consideration for her and Roy's well-being exasperated her almost as much as Roy's disingenuous little smirks. Such altruism put Hughes at risk in a place like Rapture; moreover, Riza didn't believe she was worth the effort.

She had done very little to warrant Hughes's kindness.

"You haven't told him yet, have you?" queried Maes quietly, as they approached the station. His green eyes seemed enormous in the gloom, amplified by his spectacles. Like the globes of a deep-sea fish.

Riza looked in her friend's face and sighed, so deep and resigned it must have been terrible to hear. She wondered if, perhaps, Maes Hughes was too intuitive for his own good.

"No, I haven't."

"Riza––"

"He can't know, Maes."

The Detective Inspector's words turned icy; Riza imagined she felt the chill, and she shivered. "He deserves to know. The Incinerate plasmid, it's..."

"Dangerous. Destructive. Indescribably powerful," finished Riza wearily. "And secret."

"Not for long, if Frank Fontaine gets his way."

Riza knew the truth of it. Plasmids were special serums made from processed ADAM that introduced modified stem cells into the body, allowing for genetic modification and mutation, giving the user what some might call super powers. There were plasmids that electrocuted, froze, and even mind-controlled. All had been invented by Frank Fontaine and his team of scientists at Fontaine Futuristics.

All... except one.

Incinerate was an active plasmid that instantly ignited a target, engulfing them in flames.

Only one man in Rapture possessed the Incinerate plasmid. And he had not obtained it from Frank Fontaine.

"Roy's ability is an incredibly valuable commodity," murmured Hughes. "Fontaine wants that plasmid. Roy must know that."

"He does."

"So why not tell him the truth––?!"

"Because he would panic!" snapped Riza. "Restrict my movements. Order a guard to watch me around the clock. How can I be expected to do my job protecting him when he insists on protecting me?"

"But Riza..." Maes's expression fell in anguish. "Fontaine's target isn't Roy Mustang.

"Fontaine's target is you."

Chapter Text

There were times, thought Edward Elric, blinking sweat from his eyes, that the warmth of Rapture's Hephaestus Core seemed enough to suck the soul from one's body. 

Ed and his little brother, Alphonse, sat alone at their workbench at the base of Harmonic Core Number Three, in the geothermal control section of Hephaestus. Aside from Al, pottering away in silence beside him, Ed worked alone and undisturbed. Without a compelling project demanding his attention, he allowed his mind to wander. Looking over a table of blueprints, surrounded by engines and turbines, he couldn't help but think of Rapture less as a city and more as a system of concepts, an idea worked out in fire and glass and steel. 

Ed had noticed that people often had trouble seeing past Rapture's brilliant neon and cracked crystal down into the foundations –– that the city was, for all its magnificent inner workings, primarily a mental construct. Folks who had never touched a lathe in their lives associated metal with given shapes –– pipes, rods, girders –– all of them fixed and inviolable. It was, to them, primarily physical. But a person who did machining or foundry work or forging or welding for a living, someone like Ed, saw steel as something soft and transmutable, as having every shape and no shape at all. The final form ––  the tappets and massive geared machines turning in the water and large pipes pumping fluids around the facility –– were what Ed arrived at, what he imbued into the metal. Steel held no more intrinsic, innate shape than water in a puddle; there was no part in it that was not drawn from someone's mind, whether it was Ryan's, McDonagh's, Supervisor Kyburz's, Ed and Al's. Hell, even the steel itself came from someone's mind. There is no steel in nature: even people from the Bronze Age knew that.

Rapture was the product of human endeavor, human effort. It stood as a testament to man's ingenuity and idealism. Before, there had existed only potential, like steel, ready for the casting.

In some regard, Rapture represented what Ed believed in more than anything: that if a man was filled with high ambition and if he pursued his goals with audacity and strength of will, he would reach them in spite of all obstacles. It was as Ovid said, affirmed Ed: God helps those who dare.

But in many other ways, he thought grimly –– peering with narrow, butterscotch eyes around the catwalk girdling the Harmonic Core  –– Rapture represented a world Edward Elric hated more than anything else in creation. For all its magnificent inceptions, the city had grown evil, a wound allowed to fester. And the worst feeling Ed knew was the warm, anxious burning that portended another splicer attack, another ADAM addict... another missing girl, followed by the wave of numbness and helpless fury that seemed to asphyxiate his very soul.

If Rapture was an apotheosis of ideas, transmutable like steel, then it had become a city of possession and greed. Its base nature was all-consuming, cruel,  vainglorious. When ambition was allowed to grow unchecked, it became twisted and corrupt; it settled deep in the heart and metastasized, sending its dark roots through the body to raze all that stood in its way.

"You seem a million miles away, Brother."

Ed jerked on his stool, nearly falling over backwards. Beside him, Alphonse beamed –– Ed didn't really remember what the sunlight had been like on the surface, but he figured Al's smile gave him a pretty good idea of what he was missing.

"Just thinking," muttered Ed, dragging his attention back to his sketches, pushing a pencil up the incline of his desk and watching it roll back down.

"Do you want to talk about it?"

Ed glanced sidelong at Al. His younger brother was tall, rather ungainly, with a thatch of straw-blonde hair matted with sweat. Accustomed to his braces and crutches after five years, Al carried his height with easy self assurance. His golden eyes held little more than a basic wariness behind such genuine warmth Ed reckoned they radiated heat just like the Harmonic Core. Al peered at Ed expectantly, waiting for an answer.

"Nah," decided Ed, putting more maudlin thoughts to the back of his mind, managing a wan smile. "Nah, Al, I'm just falling asleep at the wheel."

Al swung over and loomed at his older brother's shoulder. "Your sketches look good," he said, impressed. "Supervisor Kyburz is gonna be really pleased."

"He'd better be," grumbled Ed. "He's been working us like a pair of pack mules."

"But with this new pump design, we'll be able to transfer energy from the water to heat the core more efficiently!"

Alphonse's enthusiasm was infectious. "Yeah... I plan on it enhancing the natural flow of heat. The core of the pump will be a loop of refrigerant pumped through a vapor-compression refrigeration cycle. Air-source pumps are typically more efficient at heating than pure electric heaters, even when extracting warmth from cold winter air... I'm just trying to tweak the topside design for underwater––"

"Si tienen tiempo para hablar," came a voice from along the catwalk, interrupting Ed's explanation, "tienen tiempo para trabajar, Elrics..."

Ed snorted to himself, looking up towards Pablo Navarro, one of the maintenance engineers. His overalls were black with soot and grease. Heavy bags pulled at his eyes. He carried a massive basin wrench in one hand and a hack tool in the other, his palms and fingertips studded with calloused nodes like tiny barnacles. Pablo had a good ten years on the Elrics, but he was still younger than most of the senior engineers. Watching the young man bent with burnout and face near-gray with exhaustion made Ed's stomach twist into knots; 

The foundries of the Hephaestus Core were vast, dark warrens built for efficiency, not comfort . The stagnant heat from the geothermal pumps came in unrelenting waves. At least Ed and Al had their own station, somewhere far away from the exposed viaducts filled with molten magma. Aside from a few of the top brass, most of the other engineers were condemned to bending over open flames in the huge melting rooms where the foundations were cast . After all, it wasn't as though there were any building or safety regulations in place. Not in facilities owned and operated by Andrew Ryan.

Ed and Al were restricted to Harmonic Core Number Three and the workshops, but Pablo gave them word of what life was like in heat loss monitoring. The work was difficult, noisy, exhausting, sometimes mind-numbing and often dangerous. Bathroom and lunch breaks were scheduled down to the second. Chief Bradley's muscle, dressed in drab uniforms that looked better suited for a prison than Rapture's engineering section, weren’t there to guard company property. They were there to keep an eye on the workers.

Pablo and his peers were grim reminders that Ed's world wasn't all enterprise and pulling yourself up by your bootstraps. Sometimes, Ed thought bitterly, the boots had chains with big metal balls tethered to the ankle.

Pablo met the elder Elric's downcast, worried expression and cracked a crooked grin, weathered features creasing in good-humor as he regarded the two brothers. For all his toiling, he put on a brave face for Ed and Al's sakes.

The effort was intended to reassure. Somehow, it just made Ed angrier.

"Estamos trabajando más duro que tú, Pablo," Ed shot back. Alphonse chuckled.

"Be nice, Brother," he chastised.

Pablo gave as good as he got. He crossed his arms, pitched forward on his toes, and made a concerted effort to emphasize his looking down. "Palabras grandes desde de una persona..." Pablo brought his bladed hand level with Ed's head... "pequeña."

Ed's nostrils flared, all mirth vanishing in an instant. He drew himself up to his full height... which still didn't quite reach Alphonse's shoulder. "A quién llamas pequeña?" Ed seethed: "Voy a romper tus piernas y pegarlas en tu cabeza!"

"Mr. Navarro, I wonder if I could have a word with Edward for a moment?"

He had been so distracted by Pablo poking fun at his height -- rather, his distinct lack of it -- that Ed hadn't noticed the tall, dark figure draw up behind the engineer. When Ed recognized the newcomer, his expression soured.

A gust of steam from the pumps picked up as though to punctuate the bastard's arrival. It twisted his dark greatcoat so that for a moment it resembled a saw-toothed cape flying out behind him. All he needed was some fangs and a bad case of chronic anemia and he would have made a good Count Dracula. Blood-sucking and all.

"How'd you get down here?" asked Pablo, crossing his arms and glowering. "This ain't no place for rich college yobs looking to slum it up with the working stiffs, Caballo."

Roy Mustang frowned at the nickname, opened his mouth as though trying to decide whether or not he'd been insulted, then closed it again.

Tough biscuits, thought Ed. Everyone called him that down in Hephaestus.

"I had a quiet word with Bill McDonagh," said Mustang smoothly, glossing over his momentary discomposure like ocean water over a shark. "I needed to speak with Edward."

"Like I want to talk to you, Bastard," snapped Ed, pushing his pencil into the drafting paper until the point splintered. "Go away; I'm busy."

Alphonse knocked his brother's flesh arm none-too-gently with one of his a metal crutches. Ed yelped, rubbing his elbow and pouting.

"I'm sorry about Brother, Mr. Mustang," said Al in conciliation, frowning disapprovingly when Ed rounded on him, glaring. "He's just being difficult."

"I am not!"

"And he's not busy."

"No worries, Al." Mustang's severe expression softened considerably as the younger Elric swung over to shake his hand. "How are your legs holding up? Last we spoke you mentioned the stairs from the Harmonic Core to the workshops were giving you some trouble..."

Al rubbed the back of his neck. His cheeks grew hot. "Yeah... I've had to ask people to carry me up here since our new posting," Al corrected himself quickly, as though afraid of voicing the slightest complaint... "but Brother is working on a pulley system!"

"How enterprising of him," said Mustang, giving Ed a pointed look, which the latter made an effort to ignore.

Pablo's eyes narrowed on Mustang before he turned to Ed. "I'll come back later to get Al down to lunch, yeah?" Then, lowering his voice, he murmured: "Oye, Alquimista... saca a este idiota de aquí, claro?"

"Me gusta a él menos que tú," muttered Ed under his breath. Then, louder, he said: "Don't worry about us." He favored Mustang with a look that could strip paint from a wall. "We won't be long."

Pablo snorted an acknowledgement and turned on his heel, disappearing around the curve of the catwalk, the clang of his boots on the metal grates drowned out by the sound of the machinery. Mustang waited for a beat and then arched an inquisitive eyebrow.

"What did he call you just then?" he asked thoughtfully. "Alquimista...

Ed rolled his eyes. "It's a cognate, moron."

"Brother!" scolded Alphonse. He told Mustang: "It means Alchemist."

"I wasn't aware you both spoke Spanish."

"Our Father spoke it to us," said Al out of the corner of his mouth, suddenly circumspect. Roy, thankfully, dropped the subject.

"An alchemist, eh? One who transforms or creates something through a seemingly magical process," intoned Mustang, as though reciting from a dictionary. "Surprisingly apt for you, Ed."

"Hey," The sixteen-year-old stabbed a finger in Mustang's face, nearly hitting his glasses, "unlike you, we actually have work to do down here. So what gives, Caballo?"

Roy's eyes betrayed nothing of umbrage or upset. The flat, black color reminded Ed of unrefined steel, molten before the press. "A little project for you boys," he said quietly... too quiet to be heard over the Harmonic Core. 

Ed frowned deeply, interpreting Mustang's meaning from his hushed tone of voice. He scooted a little closer on his stool. "What kinda project?"

"One Bill McDonagh need not know about."

"Mr. McDonagh, huh..." Ed's eyes narrowed shrewdly, "you don't give a toss about Ryan's contractor, Mustang, but I take it you don't want Mr. Ryan himself finding out about this little job, do you?"

Roy's mouth twisted into a scowl. "In so many words, kid."

It wasn't the first time Mustang had asked the Elrics for a favor, and Edward doubted it would be the last. Still, there was something about Roy's posture that made the boy uneasy. Mustang seemed wound-up, stiff, a man for all seasons suddenly shivering in the cold. It was obvious to Ed that Mustang disliked his own deception as much as the deceptions of Ryan and Fontaine and others of their ilk, but the former Colonel still continued to lie –– boldly and cunningly. He did it primarily out of need, in an effort to keep his intentions veiled, but also for the pathological pleasure he took in the prospect of one day securing Rapture for himself. Mustang's syrupy, vacuous words were coercing, enticing and grasping with exposed sharpened claws, scratching at his prey's skin with the bullet-precision of his bodyguard's renowned aim, inserting the mercurial poison of manipulation straight into their veins.

Mustang made Ed sick.

Alphonse interjected, preventing Ed from voicing aloud thoughts he may have later regretted: "What sort of project did you have in mind, Mr. Mustang?"

The man remained stubbornly inscrutable. It rattled Ed: trying to decipher Roy Mustang was about as useful as trying to hold a conversation with Andrew Ryan's portrait when it blazed across the Rapture PA systems.

"What do you boys know of EMP bombs?"

Ed made a harsh choking sound, gasping on his own saliva; Al pounded his back. When Ed had recovered, he lowered his voice to a whisper, the words harsh and throaty: "An electromagnetic pulse bomb? The fuck you want one of those for?"

Mustang's black eyes reflected light like fluorescent quartz under an ultraviolet lamp, but they did not glow in the dark, as some of the more imaginative Rapture ink slingers claimed. "That's not something you need to know."

"Bullshit," he snarled. "If we're gonna do your dirty work, Mustang, you could at least give us the courtesy of a straight answer for once."

"Mr. Mustang, I agree with Brother," affirmed Al, his voice calm and rational where Ed's was brash and brazen. "A build like this won't be easy. Because Mr. Ryan is afraid of splicers getting their hands on serious firepower, Superivisor Kyburz keeps one of Rapture's only nitroglycerin charges under heavy lock and key in his office. Ionic gel is easy to come by, but we can only acquire R-34 wire clusters from the Big Daddy suits."

"So unless you're willing to toe it with one of those big metal monsters, Mustang," finished Ed, abject loathing carving harsh lines into his young face, "then you're shit out of luck."

"Mr. Navarro does Big Daddy maintenance, doesn't he?" said Mustang, allowing a bit of irritation to color his words. "Ask him to pull a few strings. If he doesn't follow proper maintenance on the Big Daddies, they burn through those R-34s like the Eve's Apple prostitutes go through penicillin."

"You would know, wouldn't you?"

"Edward––"

"I'm not dragging Pablo into this. Hell, I'm not even sure we're--"

"The guarantee of safety in this city can never be based upon a promise from its ruler," said Mustang firmly, "no matter how heartfelt. Rather, it must be based upon the self-protective capability of the people. Until we have developed a detailed and realistic contingency plan, we remain in danger of repeated abuses by Ryan and his inner circle."

"We're not building you a bomb, Mustang!"

"Keep your voice down, Ed," urged Alphonse, his eyes going wide. Ed's mouth snapped shut. "Besides... I don't think Mr. Mustang intends to use it to hurt people." Al looked critically at the older man, his round, open face creasing in scrutiny. "It's insurance, isn't it?"

Mustang inclined his head. "The EMP will provide me with a certain protection against a possible eventuality. If the time ever comes where I need to breach Ryan's defenses and gain access to the man's office in Rapture Central Control, an EMP bomb is the only thing capable of bypassing the magnetic lock."

"It will be terribly risky, sir," murmured Al.

"You're telling me," groused Edward. "If McDonagh ever found out about this, nevermind Ryan..."

Mustang's eyebrow quirked. "Are you afraid, Edward?"

"I'm not an idiot. 'Course I am."

Roy crossed his arms. He closed his eyes and breathed a deep sigh, seemingly immune to the stale, sooty, hot air of Hephaestus. "I'm asking a lot," he ackowledged, dropping the arrogant and domineering facade. "I'm asking you both to be strong... to remember the conviction that took hold when you allied yourselves with me five years ago."

The painful recollection was evidenced by the faraway expression in Ed and Al's eyes, the shadows on their faces, not from fear, but from sorrow and regret. Because they understood; they had lived through Rapture's absolute worst atrocities. Ed looked down at his limbs –– an artificial right arm and a transtibial prosthesis below the knee of his left leg. And Al, paralyzed below the waist, with only his crutches and an orthotronic mobility brace of Ed's own design keeping him mobile and upright. The Elrics, unlike so many others, had survived the splicer attack that took their mother's life, but they had left in the deep, dark, dripping corridors of Rapture a part of themselves that they could never hope to recover. Ed and Al surrendered to moments, periodically, in which their eyes filmed and their lips whitened, and their minds gave over to sights and sounds they wouldn't share but couldn't entirely shake.

The Elrics' broken, battered bodies were the city's doing. And each time Roy Mustang promised change, Ed, despite himself, was desperate to believe him.

"Real strength isn't about hiding yourselves down here in the foundries," continued Mustang gently, with concern rather than chastisement. "Real strength is about staying resilient. And resilience isn't hard, impenetrable. It's flexible, soft, warm... like steel. You must stay strong, both of you. Don't let your automatic reflexes make you jump away from danger, Edward. Make smart choices. See clearly. And never, ever, stop feeling. Don't go numb. The world, even with all its horror, is too beautiful to miss, and its potential too piquant for you to let it slip by..."

"Okay, okay, we get it," snapped Ed, his eyes blazing, cutting through whatever Roy was about to say. "This job won't come cheap."

"Name your price."

"You know what we want."

Mustang dropped his hands to his side. "I promise to keep them housed in Artemis for the next six months," he assured the Elrics. "Until after the New Year. The Rockbells won't want for rent for a long while, Edward."

Ed nodded curtly. "Fine." He slammed his fist down on the drafting table. "You'll get your EMP, Mustang."

Roy released a breath. Even Al sagged on his crutches, some of the tension dissipating. "Thank you."

"Don't thank us yet. And ruminate on this, you bastard, while you're up there scheming..." Ed felt as angry as he had ever done, the blood vessels pulsing over his forehead. "If Ryan starts sniffing around the Rockbells looking for rent, I'll have your master plan written out in a report worthy of the Federal Register, ready for Chief Bradley's eyes by Monday."

"I swear to keep all interested parties away from Miss Rockbell, Edward. You have my word on that."

"Then get the hell out of here... 'fore Pablo comes back and gets all three of us put in Persephone."

Mustang considered Ed for a moment, dark eyes narrowing. Until, finally, he shrugged, and the glower seemed to subside behind his black eyes. He began to walk away, a silhouette against the red light of the Harmonic Core.

"Wait, Mr. Mustang!" called Alphonse, waving a hand. Roy froze. "Could you give a message to Miss Hawkeye?"

Roy's eyebrow raised in curiosity. "Yes?"

"Her pistol polish worked very well in cleaning the gears of my braces. The friction is a lot less noticeable now."

Mustang smiled his first genuine smile since he'd showed up. "I'll be sure to give her your message, Alphonse."

Ed frowned. "Where is Hawkeye, anyway? She usually follows you around like a second shadow."

Mustang's foreboding presence and the crimson Hephaestus chamber with its hissing and sighing machinery would have made Ed discomfited enough, but he also had to sit through Roy's expression turning alarmingly grave.

"She's on an errand," he muttered, almost too quietly to be heard above the machines.

Then, with quick, light strides, Roy Mustang went on his way.


Elsewhere

This was a bad idea.

She thought back to their conversation early that same morning, upon meeting at the Rapture Metro Station near Hephaestus Core...

"This is a bad idea, Hawkeye," he repeated for at least the third time in as many minutes.

"I remind you, sir, that it was your idea. Confronting him directly seemed the most efficient and fruitful course of action."

"But that was when it was me doing the confronting, Lieutenant. Going by yourself––"

"Increases our chances of success," she interjected; he may have been her superior, but her tone of voice brooked no argument. "He's never been partial to your disingenuousness, sir. He's likely to think ill of your intentions." She breathed out through her nose, trying to tame the sudden stutter of her heart. "Such subterfuge is vulgar to him."

"Thank you for that kind assessment of my character, Hawkeye."

"I'm being serious, sir. While he's leery of you, he's never made a notable objection to my presence."

"That's what worries me."

"Sir..." she searched for some forbearance in trying to understand his concern; but for all her efforts, she still felt as though he was being paradoxically overprotective. It not only insulted her station as his bodyguard –– it insulted her history and experience as a soldier and officer. "I am more than capable of handling one skinny eccentric. Please... let me do my job."

"He's not eccentric, Lieutenant. He's insane. He's dangerous."

"Then I would recommend you take in the scenery more often, sir," she retorted, her words scathing, "because everyone in this city is dangerous. Going mad is the only thing sane left to do." Riza looked at Roy sharply, riveting her eyes to his. "Ghosts are the only ones in Rapture who never have to feel scared, Colonel. Because the worst thing in the world has already happened to them."

In the end, he had relented. The stakes were too high, the prospect of getting into Sander Cohen's gala too enticing. While neither God nor government nor Andrew Ryan could tempt Cohen into parting with one of his coveted invitations. Riza knew there was one man in Rapture who was never without a velvet-lined package courtesy of the maestro himself...

Riza stood in front of the shop, her back to the balcony overlooking High Street. The storefront was wedged between two taller buildings. It looked squeezed, as though the neighbours were slowly but inexorably closing in. The windows were clean and the artifacts on display –– Riza spied a cello, a massive grand piano, even a Stradivarius viola –– were clearly and expensively antique. Aside from their being musical instruments, there was no obvious theme to them, no size or color coordination. They were crammed together rather than artistically arranged, and yet there was a method to the exhibition Riza couldn't hope to decipher. The inside of the shop was far longer than it was wide, almost a corridor with shelving spanning both sides. The white walls and tiled floors were pristine, spotless, so bright they made Riza's eyes sting.

The five-foot tall Rapture Records sign buzzed in blue neon above her head.

This was a bad idea.

Sighing, Riza pushed open the door, and stepped inside.

Chapter Text

Andrew Ryan stepped from an inconspicuous position off to one side of his desk. He stood perfectly equidistant between Maes and Security Chief Bradley. He didn’t look up at his two subordinates save for a quick glance, just long enough to ensure he was pointed in the right direction. He spoke in a quiet, carefully-modulated monotone, his hand knuckled on the top of a pile of books:

"Around Port Neptune you say, Chief?"

Bradley's neck twitched as he gave a barely perceptible nod. The man had the bearing of someone Maes was hesitant to lock eyes with, let alone cross. His close-cripped hair was midnight black and his single eye –– the other hidden behind a patch, an injury Maes knew well not to mention –– was a metallic green, like oxidized copper. His skin was still tanned even after living in Rapture for the better part of a decade. He had prominent cheekbones and a well-defined chin and nose. Muscle rippled across every part of his body, evident even under his gray uniform. As Ryan's chief of security, Bradley was serious in the assertion of authority and unrelenting in the exercise of discipline. All of Rapture despised him, but the aura of fear Bradley cultivated was adept at keeping mutinous grumblings to a minimum.

"Several officers of the Port Authority reported seeing Mustang and his... staff, loitering near Pier Four quite late last night," reported Bradley, his hands clasped neatly behind his back. "Mustang made contact with a young man dressed in fishery accoutrements. They spoke for some time."

Bradley delivered the news concisely and without preamble, but the mere mention of Fontaine Fisheries made Ryan stiffen. His knuckles, Maes noted, had gone bone-white. 

"Some of my other associates have shown great concern over that young pup's clandestine dealings... it seems I must keep an eye on Mustang and his little... gang," muttered Ryan, the words soft, as though he was only half-aware of the other men in the room. "There's more than one way to muscle out a rival, and I suspect Fontaine is vying for market dominance in those blasted plasmids of his. Each hour Suchong and Tenenbaum spend crunching genetic code for that parasite brings my city one step closer to dissolution. And if Mustang should begin dancing to Fontaine's tune... well, Roy's fire plasmid is a marvel. Invaluable. The man, however... may prove obsolete."

Bradley's malign presence, Ryan's gloomy inner office with the hissing and sighing machinery of Hephaestus all around it, would have made Hughes uneasy enough. Ryan's paranoid musings, however, were icing on the cake.

Unlike Bradley, Andrew Ryan was a difficult man to read, even for someone of Maes Hughes's insight and perspicuity. Ryan wasn't exceptionally tall, though his air of authority more than made up for what he lacked in inches. He wasn't a young man, either, but he did well to keep up appearances. Even sequestered in his office in the belly of Hephaestus, Ryan presented a lean, inquisitive figure, sharp and snappy and perfectly groomed in his dark silk suit, a small mustache under an aquiline nose and eyes as blue as the ocean at his back. Slightly surreal, diligently private, almost obscure. There weren't words for it, Hughes supposed. There was a reclusive intensity to Andrew Ryan, and Maes's attempts at his character's deconstruction oftentimes could only be met with a shrug.

In any case, Maes was wary of Ryan's newfound doubts regarding one Roy Mustang. Hughes figured Chief Bradley had been the one to put the idea of a double-cross into Ryan's head, but Andrew's paranoia was a beast with an insatiable appetite. It only took a rumor or a whisper for the suspicions to drip into Ryan's subconscious like seawater into one of Rapture's many leaky corridors.

But Maes had to acknowledge a certain logic behind Ryan's perennial persecution complex –– not least of which because Bradley's misgivings, for all intents and purposes, were not unfounded. Roy was quietly plotting a coup behind their backs. And even if that weren't the case, all Roy had to do was trade a few genetic samples with Fontaine in exchange for a hefty sum of cash, surrendering the fire plasmid to Futuristics, to finally nudge Ryan Industries out of a profit. 

Ryan could ill-afford to lose Roy.

Bradley murmured, the words measured, jarring Hughes from his thoughts: "Mustang is ruthless, self-obsessed, and ambitious beyond his means. He is the epitome of greed and overindulgence. This is a man who keeps handsome young women as pets, and a staff of venom-addicted employees to do his every bidding."

Maes had to suppress a wince. There was no love lost between Bradley and Roy, but he sometimes forgot just how acutely the former despised the latter  .

"Roy Mustang has never given us a reason to doubt his loyalty," countered Maes, attempting to salvage the situation. He turned to Ryan: "The Chief is right in saying Mustang keeps his allies close, but Roy's network has been diligently collecting and reporting information on the activities, movements, and plans of Frank Fontaine for the past few years. It's likely his contact in Port Neptune was just another rat."

Bradley's thick eyebrows pinched together. "I assume you have evidence or some means of validating Mustang's intentions, Detective Inspector."

Hughes swallowed. "No," he admitted –– he couldn't risk revealing Breda's identity, yet, not without compromising Heymans's safety or Roy's plans. "But I trust Roy's instincts, Chief. If we intend to stopper Fontaine's smuggling in some timely fashion, then circumstances necessitate our having eyes and ears within Fontaine's provinces."

Ryan's scowl could curdle new milk. "Rapture is on the brink of war, Detective Inspector... so many in my city have cast their lot with the enemy. Every day, I come across recordings of rubes swearing loyalty to Fontaine and his gangsters –– evidence of treason. There may come a time, should Mustang's loyalties gravitate towards betrayal –– that we will no longer need him."

"He ought to take some pride in that," agreed Bradley, a touch of a sardonic smile beneath his moustache. "We are qualified to ensure that Mustang's plasmid is used in the city's best interests. Eventually, a man's dream exceeds him, and his work becomes his legacy."

"Mustang will not side with Frank Fontaine," insisted Hughes; the statement was entirely truthful.

"I suspect," mused Bradley, not taken in my Maes's earnestness, "your service with Mustang and that Hawkeye woman in Normandy is clouding your judgement, Detective Inspector Hughes"

The hair on the back of Maes's neck bristled. He snapped, "My service with Mustang is informing my judgment, Chief." Then he ignored Bradley entirely and urged Ryan: "Sir, we have been through hell together. I trust Roy Mustang with my life. When the international army boundary arbitrarily divided the British and American battlefields just beyond Argentan, on the Falaise side, troops under Colonel Mustang's command took the mission of closing the gap and crossing the international boundary. That decision helped our battalions win the Battle of Normandy, effectively ensuring the retreat of the German Army all the way back to Paris."

What Hughes did not mention was that the battlefield at Falaise was unquestionably one of the greatest killing fields of any during the War. Forty-eight hours after Roy Mustang closed the gap, and Hughes was conducted through the battefield on foot, he had encountered scenes that could only be described by Dante in his Inferno. It was possible to walk for hundreds of yards at a time, stepping on nothing but dead and decaying flesh. More than forty German divisions were destroyed. Estimates placed the casualties at 450,000 men, of whom 240,000 were killed or wounded.

"I've misplaced a lot of things, Mr. Ryan," said Maes quietly, smiling a small, sad smile, "but I just can't seem to misplace my friend. It's a priceless gift –– to have his trust, and him mine, during a time of War when neither one of us has done anything to earn it. I will stake my career... hell, my life, on Roy Mustang's strength of character."

"His ambition––"

Maes rounded on Bradley. "This is Rapture! If people aren't ambitious, they don't deserve to be here in the first place!"

To Hughes's immense relief, Ryan inclined his head in agreement. "The Great Chain only grows stronger with each pair of hands laid upon it. If what you say is true, Chief Inspector, and considering your record of service, I am inclined to believe that is the case... perhaps Mustang and I will choose to pull Rapture in the same direction." His sharp blue eyes narrowed in consideration. "The man's ultimate motive, as yet, eludes me. But Fontaine approaches… and come what may, I will not be made a slave. We need evidence to conduct a raid on the Fisheries, gentlemen."

"Roy will get it," assured Maes. "He has Hawkeye sniffing out a lead at this very moment."

"There is another way."

Both Ryan and Hughes looked to Bradley. Taking their silence as a cue to continue, he intoned: "Because he has capitalized on the intrigue surrounding plasmid and ADAM research, Fontaine Futuristics is open to paying visitors as a tourist destination. Perhaps the Chief Inspector can be enticed to spending an afternoon there with his wife and child?"

Hughes felt his heart skip and red pulse at the edges of his vision. "Whatever you're up to, Bradley, if you dare bring Gracia and Elysia..."

"I understand your concern for your family's safety, Hughes." Despite his reassurances, the distracted glint in Ryan's eye suggested Maes's wife and child were not at the forefront of his thoughts. "However, having one of Fontaine's major centers of business open to paying customers presents us with an opportunity."

Maes inferred the nature of Bradley's suggestion. Ryan wanted Hughes to gain access to the inner workings of Fontaine Futuristics surreptitiously, swiping secret information that would otherwise take Roy and his chess pieces months to cobble together.

"Why me?" asked Hughes. "It was your suggestion, Chief Bradley."

Ryan looked irritated. "Bradley is too recognizable, Detective Inspector. Provided you were... creative in crafting your appearance, you could infiltrate Fontaine Futuristics and get us the information we need to exterminate this parasite once and for all."

Infiltration, espionage, seizure of private assets... Hughes thought Andrew Ryan was beginning to sound and operate more and more like the topside police states he so despised.

"Bradley... Hughes, I don't care how you accomplish Fontaine's removal from the public eye," Ryan reiterated, "But allow me to make one thing plain. In a month's time, I don't want to see Fontaine on the streets again, peddling his trafficked trash to my people. I want his image scrubbed. I want you to bury his memory. Bury it, and salt the earth."

Maes took a deep breath, equal parts relieved and exhausted. Roy was out of the hot seat for the time being, but Bradley seemed keen for Hughes to take his best friend's place. The Chief's plan had merit, and indeed, poking around a glorified office complex like Fontaine Futuristics was a sight easier than cutting through fish guts and dodging splicer hooks down at Port Neptune.

Hughes decided, resolutely, that he would get Andrew Ryan his evidence, shutter Fontaine, close the book on the smuggling ring, and hope their collective fever dream would finally begin to cool off.

After that, it was back to pushing Roy Mustang one step closer to the top...


 Elsewhere

The music broke against her, like a wave upon a jetty.

It was arresting and fierce, beckoning gently as each note unwound, rising and tensing. It spiraled upward, growing more abandoned, wilder, with each refrain. The violinist's eyes remained closed as his fingers flew over the strings, spilling forth more notes than seemed possible from a single instrument. For one mad moment, Riza actually thought there were more of him, an entire string section pouring forth from one man. She had never heard anything like it –– it was poetry and power and seduction and shadow and every other contradiction she could imagine, like dappled sea-green light on the dark corridors of Rapture. 

Riza realized before long that it was intended to be a hurting tune, a resigned cry of heartache for the world and all its falling apart. The violin cried out for the dead, and for the living who stayed behind to say goodbye.

"Boy knows his way around a fiddle, huh, kid?"

Riza jerked in surprise; she had been so engrossed in the music, she hadn't noticed the man standing beside her, enjoying his own personal concert. His hands rested in his trouser pockets, and he flashed her a rakish grin that didn't quite reach his eyes.

Once over her initial surprise, it didn't take Riza long to recognize her company. He had the kind of wavy brown hair that was the current fad in Rapture, a nondescript face just shy of being handsome. He wasn't particularly tall or short; he ate well, but he wasn't rotund. In fact, Riza pondered, barring the man's rather grating Southern drawl, and the reach of his infamous reputation, she imagined she could walk away at that very moment and his face would slide back into the hinterlands of her memory.

And for someone like Augustus Sinclair, a unmemorable, unremarkable face was a very good feature to have. He combined a willingness to play his confidences close to the chest and an anxious energy in his reluctance to be identified. In Riza's experience, especially on the battlefield, the desire to remain invisible was a principle feature of spies and assassins, and Augustus Sinclair oozed deceit like one of Brigid Tenenbaum's sea slugs oozed ADAM.

"That he does, Mr. Sinclair," said Riza coolly, keeping her eyes fixed on the man playing the violin and not on her disingenuous landlord. "Is it yours?"

"Hmm? Oh, the fiddle!" he chuckled, producing seemingly from thin air a bakelite cigarette holder. Sinclair took an appreciative puff and admitted, "It is at that. Couldn't tune the thing worth a damn so I brought her down here for a fix-up." He gestured in the direction of the violinist: "Fella was near about champing at the bit to have a go at her."

"I wasn't aware you played."

Sinclair lowered his voice conspiratorially. "I don't," he confided, winking.

Riza suppressed the urge to look skyward; she was accustomed to Augustus's flirting, having rented a room in the Sinclair Deluxe in Pauper's Drop only last year. Though Sinclair fancied himself a gentleman and maintained a certain decorum in matters of social graces, Riza still saw far more of him than she would have otherwise preferred.

She only counted herself fortunate Roy wasn't with her; he would have set Sinclair's coattails on fire for making a pass at her.

The men in her life, Riza Hawkeye decided, were all morons.

"Then why pay to have it repaired?" she asked mildly, not really interested in his answer. The violinist had reached the final bars of his song... "Why go through the trouble and cost?"

"Does good to be on friendly terms with these artists types, Miss Hawkeye."

The way Sinclair said it gave Riza pause. When she tilted her head to peer over at him, there was a knowing shine in his eye that made her hackles stand on end.

Riza didn't trust Augustus Sinclair, and she was hardly alone in that respect. When Ryan and the City Council wanted to imprison people considered a danger to Rapture, those unfortunates were oftentimes held in the Persephone Penal Colony –– run by none other than Sinclair. Many were subsequently scrubbed from public records. According to certain rumors, to make Persephone pay for itself, Sinclair rented out inmates for Plasmid and ADAM testing at Fontaine Futuristics.

At the very thought, Riza's heart and spirits started sinking. Suddenly the fear of being alone, a castaway amongst dangerous company, took on a mass as substantial and overbearing as the weight of the ocean around her.

"Makes me wonder why a businessman like you would care for the opinions of a couple musicians, Mr. Sinclair," ventured Riza, aware, suddenly, of the mass of the pistols on her person –– one on her thigh and one at her back.

"Well, I have my fine and dandy reputation to uphold."

"I doubt many would agree with you in that assessment."

"Don't you trust me, Miss Hawkeye?" asked Sinclair. With the question, Riza sensed his true mind, prehensile and deep-sleeved, different from the flirty and rakish demeanor he used around her.

The music had stopped, and Riza was cognizant of the violinist moving towards them.

"Augustus may garner trust issues," said the musician, his voice deep and rough, like rocks grinding against each other, "but some people seem to have an issue with the responsibility of being trusted. Am I right, Miss Bodyguard?"

Riza considered him. He was tall, thin, dressed in shirtsleeves and simple black trousers. His narrow jaw lifted with a pleasant-enough smile that managed to be just a touch too wide to affect innocence convincingly. His eyes were a strange purple-blue, and he kept his long, feathery black hair brushed away from his brow and tied back with a ribbon. The man, she knew from experience, was charming and staggeringly intelligent, his voice honeyed and proud. Every word he said sounded beautiful, but Riza harbored no compassion or trust for the speaker. If Sinclair set her ill at ease, the violinist made her positively nauseous.

Augustus took the offered violin, his expression perfectly placid –– almost too much so, thought Riza. It reminded her of an empty beach with the tide out... right before the tsunami hit.

"That was a lovely tune you had there, Solf," said Sinclair. "Sounded as good as the day I bought her."

Solf Kimblee, the proprietor of the High Street branch of Rapture Records and a master restorationist, flashed Sinclair a narrow, pale smile. "Did you recognize the tune?" he asked.

"Can't say I did, son."

"And you, Miss Bodyguard?" His indigo eyes rooted Riza to the floor.

"'Aase's Death'," said Hawkeye, crossing her arms to hide the sudden gooseflesh rising on her skin. "Ibsen."

"Grieg, actually," Kimblee corrected her, but looked nevertheless very pleased. "Although the playwright was, originally, Ibsen. After Henrik penned his five-act allegorical drama 'Peer Gynt' he asked an associate, Edvard Grieg, to compose the music for a staged production of the play. You would like the story, Miss Hawkeye... it follows the exploits of an ambitious roustabout with a penchant for telling tall tales and getting into trouble, sticking his nose into business that doesn't concern him."

And Aase, the song's namesake, and the dearly departed, had been Peer Gynt's most trusted confidant and friend, thought Riza.

She saw Kimblee's point well enough.

"I will send you an invoice with the sum due, Augustus," said Kimblee, not unkindly. "In the interim, I would suggest taking better care of your belongings. Neglected goods become damaged goods, no?"

Sinclair's beady stare was difficult to place, but something told Riza the man harbored as much affection for Kimblee as Andrew Ryan did for Karl Marx. "I will be sure to bear that in mind, Solf. Good morning." Two hazel eyes swung towards Riza's. The smile he shot her was almost sympathetic. "Good morning, Riza. Take care of yourself, kid."

Riza watched him through the glass display cases, and was nearly disappointed when Sinclair's bespoke suit disappeared around the curve of the corridor.

Leaving her alone with...

"He seems uncommonly fond of you."

Riza took a deep breath. "The feeling isn't mutual."

"Have you told him that?"

"I need a favor," she said stonily, interrupting the maundering train of thought before he could ride it to its destination.

Kimblee gave her a quizzical expression... at least, so far as he could feign amused puzzlement. He had a tendency to affect appearances purely for the sake of his own sense of control, allowing his body to mimic and mime the reactions expected of him while his mind picked through his prey like a lamprey on a whale carcass.

The mere thought made Riza's throat tighten and her stomach clench.

"Oh? What manner of favor did you have in mind?"

Riza forced her hands down to her sides. "Next week, Sander Cohen will be hosting a gala at the Manta Ray Lounge to commemorate the release of his new album."

"How egotistical of him."

"I need an invitation."

Kimblee began to unbutton his cufflinks, rolling the shirtsleeves back down to his corded wrists. "At the risk of splitting hairs, Miss Hawkeye, perhaps you should direct your inquiries to Sander himself? As you may recall, aside from working for his record label, I hold no official affiliation with the man."

Riza took a gamble. "That's not what Cohen seems to think."

He made an amused sound. "Sander Cohen's erotic interest in himself is matched only by his erotic interest in his potential disciples." Kimblee's lip curled, revealing a row of unnaturally straight, unnaturally white teeth; it was almost a snarl. "I have little interest in his attentions, and less in the abominations he passes for artistic pursuits."

Riza was tenacious. "Reaffirming your lack of interest tells me you did receive an invitation but have no intention of accepting. Am I correct?"

Rather than answer her, Kimblee uncoiled like a spring, going for one of Hawkeye's wrists before she could think to pull them out of reach. Humming Grieg's melancholy tune to himself, Kimblee turned Riza's hand over, seemingly oblivious to the way her entire body went as taut as a violin bowstring or how her free hand rested on the gun holster just under her skirt. 

“What are these?" asked Kimblee, brushing across the tips of Riza fingers.

"Calluses," she managed. Riza felt sweat trickle down her back beneath her shirt, though she was aware her skin had gone cold. Kimblee's touch burned like a hot poker. "From my guns."

"I've never noticed them before."

"Do they bother you?"

"On the contrary. I find them rather beautiful. My own are from pressing down on violin strings six hours a day."

Riza wrenched her hand free, trying to tame the hammer-blows of her heart. "Will you help me, or not?" she asked thickly.

Kimblee's strange eyes glittered, as though they were made of glass. Moving towards her, sliding his feet so he would not have to look where he was going, Kimblee used the extreme articulation of his long neck to turn his face to her, as a hyena would shuffle at the fringe of a herd, peering in at a candidate. In a split second, mixed hungers crossed his face, too quickly for anyone without Riza's instincts to notice it. She supposed it was Kimblee’s nature to appreciate the curve of her leg... while looking for her achilles tendon. 

"The business of Rapture is business, Miss Hawkeye," he dallied with the polemic, enjoying the taste of it. "And favors, suffice it to say, are commodities with an exceedingly high rate of interest. I am more than willing to provide a service if you have the means to pay for it."

"I already know what it is you want."

He hummed. "I thought you might."

"Do you have one of Cohen's invitations?"

"I do."

"Then don't waste my time any more than you already have."

Kimblee's lids lowered, eyes narrowing. "I wouldn't dream of it," he murmured, the pitch low and dangerous. When Riza didn't budge, he gestured towards the workshop at the back of the studio, a small, wood-paneled room where he did the vast majority of his restoration work. The shop smelled of mahogany and polish, Riza remembered, and the wood shavings carpeting the floor...

"In there, Miss Hawkeye.

"And please... remove your clothes."

Chapter Text

The pump in the fish tank burbled, almost as though the aquarium was muttering to him.

The green-gold light threw spectral impressions on the wall opposite, bright in the dingy ambience of the dining area. The owner of the restaurant had at some point decorated the tank with a china mermaid and a scale replica of one of the Big Daddies –– strangely, their coupling reminded Roy Mustang of the figures on Keat's Grecian urn, two leaf fringed legends... except the leaves were fronds of fake seaweed and the Big Daddy retained all the antique glory of a rusty anchor.

Roy decided that maintaining a saltwater fish tank in a seafood restaurant at the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean, in what was essentially the world’s largest inverted aquarium, ran counter to his sense of expectation. Even to someone as well acquainted with life’s cruel ironies as Roy Mustang, the tank unnerved him.

He figured he knew how the whales and squid felt, peering in at the people of Rapture.

Roy stopped watching the angel fish and chromis and dottybacks and turned instead to the restaurant’s interior. There had been a time when Le Temps Perdu on High Street was the sort of place where one couldn't snag a table on impulse. In its heyday, bookings had been something of a premium. After the recent troubles in Rapture, however, Roy found patronage had taken a blow. The restaurant was mostly empty. Smoke from a patron's seashell cigarette formed curls in the gloom, the haze illuminated only by the age-speckled bar lights and the natural luminescence of the sea. Long, embroidered curtains framed the windows looking out onto the ocean, and dark walnut tables with splendidly proportioned cabriole legs lined the periphery of the room.

It was his favorite restaurant in Rapture, in equal parts classy and discrete, the food good and the drinks stiff.

And Roy was absolutely miserable. Miserable, and impatient.

He checked his pocket watch for the umpteenth time, scowled fiercely at the face, then snapped it shut. Punctuality was a point of pride for Riza Hawkeye, so much so that Roy often teased her for waiting outside his office door until the exact time of her appointments. It was unlike her to be tardy... it was downright unheard of her to be and hour and a half late.

It could be difficult in a place like Rapture to differentiate paranoia from legitimate concern. Recent circumstances, however, had made doing so increasingly necessary. Regardless of how earnestly or often Roy tried to convince himself he was worrying over nothing, he felt Riza's absence like a seam split down the back of his shirt –– leaving him chilled and exposed.

Two bartenders were on shift... one old man and another several decades his junior. Roy turned his head to watch the former scrubbing the glass of the chiller cabinet, the latter darting to fill a order of the patron sitting down the far end of the bar. The former Colonel's finger drummed a beat on the countertop for want of something to occupy his thoughts, sick to the teeth of waiting around like a spare lemon, and, he admitted to himself, sunk in worry over the wellbeing his body guard.

Roy had learned quickly that people with manias to mask or money to hide or secrets to squirrel away tended to cultivate the power necessary to do so, and powerful people, both in Rapture and on the surface, were often violent. It was reliable math: as the degradation and degeneration increased, so too did the level of madness; the psychotic behavior of Rapture's elite –– people like Fontaine and Cohen... people like Kimblee –– seemed to compound with every proverbial figure added to the sum. And Roy's arithmetic was telling him he was well within a healthy scene of mind to be concerned for Riza's safety.

Roy leaned on the countertop, his black hair falling in a fringe over his eyes. He inclined his head to one side, his lips pouting. He wasn't drunk –– yet –– but he liked to give the impression that he was. 

The older bartender –– as gray-haired and shaggy-faced as an unshorn sheep, cords of muscle knotting his neck and straining the shoulders of his shirt –– eyed Roy vaguely, his gaze unfocused.

"Can I 'elp you?" he murmured, voice pitched high despite the size of him.

Roy noted a minute tremble in the old goat's hands, the way he continued to wipe the chiller cabinet even though the glass sparkled, as if not entirely aware of the action. The man's angry, shingled-red and rashy skin gave Roy pause. Mustang recognized the symptoms instantly: the bartender was suffering from ADAM addiction. Over-splicing.

"My apologies." Roy managed a forlorn smile; he figured the man was too far-gone to notice the half-assed attempt. "I've been stood up by a beautiful woman."

"That does tend to happen, sir," chimed a softer, more youthful voice... the second bartender. "You look like you might need this..."

The young man approached Roy with a whiskey on the rocks in hand, ice clinking against the crystal. He rested the drink on the countertop as Roy looked up in bemusement.

"From the gent down the counter," offered the bartender as a means of explanation, jerking a thumb over his shoulder.

Roy frowned. Where the bartender had indicated, a twenty-something blonde raised his own glass in a mock toast, grinning crookedly.

"Hiya, handsome," he crowed, slurring his words in a poor impression of inebriation.

Roy furrowed his brow, attempting to radiate a look of intense disapproval, which the other patron brushed aside with an impertinent snort.

The man was good-looking in a lanky, ungainly sort of way. He wore his blonde hair short and choppy, as though he'd hacked at it with a pair of garden shears. His upturned nose hinted at some dangerous interrogative streak and his eyes were a light, bright blue, glittering with playful misbehavior. A cigarette hung from the corner of his mouth.

Roy picked up his glass and walked over to join Jean Havoc at the far end of the bar. As he plopped down on the barstool, Jean chuckled.

"What's a nice guy like you doing in a place like this?"

"Keep that up, Havoc, and we can take a trip to Medical, instead. I'm sure Dr. Steinman would love the pleasure of your company."

"Spoilsport."

Roy couldn't resist a jab. "What... you frighten away your date?"

It was as though a raincloud had strayed over Jean's sunny expression. He scowled and muttered into his martini: "I don't see you faring any better, Mustang."

Roy grunted a noncommittal acknowledgement, thinking of Riza –– rather, her absence. Both men sipped their drinks, their heads bowed, all pretenses of good cheer evaporating, looking suddenly sad and abandoned. Pitifully lonely. Roy's eyes drifted to the great glass aperture dominating High Street. Moray eels coiled by, opening and closing their wolfish mouths. Crabs scuttled sidewise over the rocks and sandy plateaus where the foundations of Rapture met the seafloor. Groves of seaweed and great fans of colored sponges swung in hypnotic motion; schools of tiny striped minnows moved together as though with a single mind.

Suddenly on the subject of fish, Roy turned again to Jean and said, quietly, "I went to see a man about a new rook; visited that atelier you suggested, down near Port Neptune."

Havoc schooled his expression. He pretended to eyeball the speared olive in his glass. "Got ya. Any luck?"

"A good bit of workmanship, actually. Solid. Stalwart. A rook's a principled little piece, and this one ought to come in handy. I'll remember to take your recommendations under serious consideration in the future, Havoc."

"I'll hold you to that, Boss."

Roy acknowledged him with a deep swallow of whiskey.

It was Jean who had directed Roy and Riza to one Heymans Breda in Fontaine Fisheries. The two men knew each other from West Point. Classmates, Breda had been the shining star of their year while Jean Havoc had barely managed to scrape by with passing marks. The friends, two soldiers lacking in general aim or purpose after the War, had followed each other to Rapture –– Jean to expand his commercial interests and Heymans to put his experience with battle simulation and strategy to good use. While the growing tensions between Andrew Ryan and Frank Fontaine had set the two young men on opposite sides of an increasinly vast divide, from what Roy understood, their stubborn friendship endured by virtue of more than just their past history. While Jean, for the most part, stuck to the straight and narrow, Roy suspected the blonde man's lucrative commercial ventures –– mostly in goods and services, including the Rapture vending machines and ammo stations –– provided a means of concealing illegal activity, namely the retail of Fontaine's smuggled contraband.

Evidently, Jean and Heymans kept in touch, and when Fontaine's numbers were running a bit low for the month, Havoc had a quiet word with a few potential buyers...

Roy had known for several weeks that he needed eyes and ears inside Fontaine Fisheries, and Jean had put forward Breda's candidacy without Mustang's prompting.

And, Roy had to admit... what he lacked in academic merit, Jean more than made up for in his being an excellent judge of character.

On the other side of the window, a hungry octopus oozed towards the oblivious crabs. Roy resisted the urge to tap the glass to warn them off.

"Speaking of chess pieces," said Jean, drawing Roy's attention away from the assorted underwater biota. "Where'd your queen disappear off to?"

The octopus's legs turned in endless figure eights, their cast shadows moving like ribbons over the room.

"She's on an errand," said Roy, more stiffly than he'd intended, like tongue suddenly dry and cracked.

Jean grunted. "Work stuff?"

"I asked her to pick up my viola. I sent it in for a repair and find I need it back something desperately."

Havoc coughed, his drink nearly coming back up. While Jean didn't have the trappings of a philosophical thinker or brilliant tactician, his visual memory remained excellent. Havoc had trained as a sniper, like Riza, and like Riza, whose primary sense was her sight, Jean thought of revelation as the development of images, first blurred and then becoming clear. As he interpreted Roy's meaning, his cornflower blue eyes widened in understanding, and then, in alarm.

"Are you sure..." he swallowed, "you sure that's safe?"

"She probably wouldn't thank you for asking that," muttered Roy, throwing back the dregs of his whiskey and wincing when the ice cubes crashed against his teeth. "Besides, she's the most competent person I know."

"Competent in knowing when to get the fuck out, I hope."

"It was her idea, Jean."

Havoc's brows knitted. "What are you up to, Mustang? First B–– your rook, now this?"

Roy knew all the elements of epiphany were present in the other man's head, bouncing at random with the million other thoughts. But Roy elected, for the time being, to keep the key to the puzzle about his person.

But before he could offer Jean a satisfactory explanation or, more likely, a conciliatory excuse, there was a crash from the far end of the bar, near the saltwater aquarium where Roy had been sitting before. The bartender yelped as the shot glasses his older counterpart had been carrying shattered against the floor.

"Ike, what the hell..."

"More... I need more..."

The younger man's carrot-red hair flew about like a fiery halo as he shook his head. "No, you don't, mate. Look, come on, we'll close early and go see Steinman––"

"No!" snarled the grizzled, florid-faced man. One paw fisted in his coworker's collar and tugged, hard. The young man's eyes bulged in terror, his face reddening as his windpipe caved. "I need it. I need it I need it I need it... you need to be rewired, start over! The guts gotta go!"

Before Jean or Roy could intervene, the overwhelming stench of burning solder and white-hot tin radiated from Ike's body. Roy heard a loud bang and threw up a hand against a blinding flash of blue light; he felt a tremendous static shock, as though he'd stuck his fingers into an electrical terminal. Smoke rose from the young bartender's clothes; he shrieked as his skin burnt and blackened. Roy couldn't suppress a bone-rattling shudder from wracking his body at the –– familiar –– smell. The entire interior of the restaurant lit up from the bartender –– no, the splicer's –– plasmid ability, which sent the victim into violent convulsions.

Roy didn't dare draw closer, and he kept balanced on the rubber soles of his shoes as the young man disintegrated into a pile of ash, even his bones reduced to charcoal by the violence of the electrocution and the power of the voltage.

"Shit!" snarled Havoc, going for a pistol at his belt. "Splicer!"

"Electro-bolt," agreed Roy grimly, flexing his gloved hands. Fortunately, there was no one else in the bar area of Le Temps Perdu, and thus no need to worry about involuntarily cooking someone...

... the thick scent of melted paint and scorched wood entered his nose. His vision blurred. Black smoke filled the canyon of the gutted buildings, filled his mouth, filled his lungs. The haze was thick, but not so thick that he couldn't see the flames, burning with the fury of a refinery fire. With each flare he knew another bit of the town had been reduced to ash and cinder. He was the first to get to the rendezvous point, wheezing and desperate for air, sucking in oxygen like a beached fish. He couldn’t see where he was going, and he collapsed to the floor before he could cross the threshold as he felt a pain that wasn't sharp like a needle or a knife, more of a burning in his insides as though he was taking a shower in boiling hot water...

"Hey, Ike was it? Come on, man... you don't wanna do this."

Jean Havoc's voice wrenched Roy back to the present with the vicious jolt with which one wrenches oneself from a nightmare. The splicer, Ike, wasn't paying Havoc any notice, riffling through the chiller cabinet for his coveted ADAM fix. Glass exploded as bottles and decanters were swept onto the floor.

"I need it!" Ike howled, raking his fingernails over his scalp, drawing blood and tearing out his hair in chunks. "Oh... oh God... I shouldna come here, I shouldna come..."

The man's fists seemed to swing in slow motion. Then, like an old film reel, there was no sound of impact or shattering, only a shower of fragments sharp enough to cut as a bolt of electricity snapped through the stemware. Havoc and Roy scattered, shielding their eyes from the shards in their explosive arcs.

After he rolled out of his defensive crouch, Jean raised his pistol to eye-height and took a series of careful, well-aimed shot. But the splicer was already moving, darting behind the restaurant tables for cover as Havoc peppered the plaster in bullet holes.

"Dammit, there's SportBoost in there somewhere," shouted Havoc to Roy. "He's moving too fast!"

"Jean, get back!"

Havoc only had to be asked once, diving behind the bar.

Roy took a deep breath. There was silence... broken by the small click of his fingers.

It was ridiculous, perhaps irrational, of him, but for a moment, Roy imagined he could feel the ADAM coursing through his veins as the flames erupted from his fingertips, and acrid-tasting smoke coated his mouth. The wooden tables and chairs recoiled from him, almost as though they could feel the heat, the paintwork wrinkling into a ruche around the burning. Roy watched with dark, dark eyes as the fire chased after the splicer. Roy concentrated on mainting the inferno until the black smoke eddied in the stagnant Rapture air like the brushstrokes from one of Cohen's abominations. In seconds, the yellow and red flame had consumed the far side of the room entirely, the walls and floor and furniture burning black even as the splicer ran for his life. He flew against the ocean window as the fumes made him hack a wretched cough.

"You're cornered, Ike," called Roy, waving away the smoke. "We don't want to hurt you––"

The splicer fixed Roy with a look of absolute loathing. Then, before Mustang could snap again, Ike vanished in a waft of red smoke.

"Houdini splicer!"

"Yes, thanks Jean," grumbled Roy, his eyes darting all over the restaurant as he tried to anticipate where the monster would next reappear.

Houdini splicers were one of the few ADAM addicts known to be capable of using offensive plasmids while possessing the ability to transport themselves –– turning into an invisible cloud of molecules before reforming elsewhere. They were extremely difficult to fight, and nigh-on impossible to imprison. Coupled with Ike's Electro-Bolt ability, he could prove difficult to take alive...

Too late, Roy caught a brief flash of red light and the vague outline of a man flickering in his peripheries. He brought his fingers around to snap and activate his fire plasmid, but he knew his movements were too slow, his reaction too late...

The bullet spat from over Roy's shoulder, the handgun's discharge a bright flash in the near-darkness. The shot rang out like a small explosion so close to his ears. The bullet hit the splicer square in the chest, propelling him backward in an awkward cartwheel. The man hit the window with a solid whump before sliding to the floor, his head lolling onto his chest. He did not move again. ADAM oozed from his wound, a viscous, crimson-colored liquid so bright it seemed to glow. The window panes were daubed with the stuff. Unless someone cordoned off the restaurant, some distant part of Roy knew more splicers would come crawling to lap up the dregs.

Senses sharpened with adrenaline, he held his breath, straining to hear with every ounce of his concentration. Under the ringing in his ears, cool air whispered through the ventilation systems. The chiller, still functioning, sent out the occasional ambient pop. The refrigerator’s compressor hummed as it switched on inside the nearby kitchen. Roy's raised hackles slowly drooped.

"Are you all right, sir?"

Roy's eyes began to sting –– from the smoke, he reasoned. "Lieutenant," he said hoarsely, throat raw. "I am now."

"And Havoc?"

Jean's head popped up from behind the bar. "Not a handsome hair out of place, Hawkeye."

Riza rolled her eyes. Despite having just killed a man, she remained calm, cold, austere, of a singularly serious and self-contained demeanor. Equal parts relief and pride clung to Roy's chest with a singularly resolute tenacity.

Hawkeye walked to stand at his side. Roy immediately noted a strain and listlessness in her gait, as though Riza was struggling to take each of her steps, the effort causing her physical pain. The creases of Roy's forehead grew deeper and deeper as he inspected her general appearance, struck by how weary his bodyguard looked. Her face had grown wan and pale. Her skin glistened with sweat. She seemed feverish; Roy's eyes flicked down to her midsection –– through the tight fit of her shirt, he could see her abdomen contracting, as though Riza was on the verge of vomiting.

Roy wondered if the meeting with Kimblee had gone according to plan, if negotiations had turned sour. The man was a died-in-the-wool psychopath and notoriously volatile; Roy trusted Hawkeye to be able to handle herself in most situations, but Cohen's little fetish figure was a horse of an entirely different color...

Before Roy could ask her, however, a slow, deliberate clap rang out from the entrance of the now-scorched restaurant.

"Quite the little barbecue you got here, Mustang."

Despite the heat radiating from the charred floor and walls, the warmth tingling in his fingers, Roy's blood ran ice cold.

He and Hawkeye turned in tandem. On the other side of the room, lounging against the doorframe, a fat cigar hanging out of the corner of his mouth, was a veritable shark of a man: tall, sleek, dangerous, perfectly at home at the bottom of the ocean.

He was completely bald, clean-shaven –– save for a small black mustache –– and dressed in an immaculate suit jacket and waistcoat. A silver pocket watch stuck out of his breast pocket. He would have been handsome if it weren't for the malicious curve of his mouth and his flinty eyes, like two vitreous chunks of garnet.

Frank Fontaine. Roy cursed his shit luck for at least the fifth time that hour.

Fontaine stood flanked by his hired muscle. They were dangerous-looking men, six of them in all, armed to the teeth. Roy knew some of them had records, and yet they had served Frank faithfully in guarding him against those who woud try to wrest his business interests from him. If Fontaine decided to put the bump on them, there wasn't a great deal Roy and his friends could do to defend themselves. Sensing Hawkeye stiffen beside him, Roy inferred she had reached a similar conclusion.

When Fontaine spoke, it was with his usual coarse Bronx accent: "You might be all sizzle and no steak, kid, but that plasmid of yours is really somethin' else."

Roy's expression fought a sneer. "It does the job," he admitted, his voice a little low.

Fontaine stabbed his cigar against the wall, ash piling in soft mounds on the floor. He threw Roy a mocking smile. "A prize stud and his bitch. Ryan's been keepin' his two puppy dogs busy."

Roy's molars rasped against each other. "What do you want, Fontaine?" he asked coldly, which only caused Fontaine's toothy grin to widen. He seemed as content as a lazy cat bathing in the sun.

"Ain't I allowed to go for a walk? Or is Ryan lookin' to criminalize that, as well?"

"This may come as a surprise to someone with your questionable immunities, Mr. Fontaine," said Riza, speaking up as she made to wedge herself discretely between Roy and Fontaine, "but Mr. Ryan doesn't take too kindly to crooks of a certain stripe causing trouble in Rapture."

The look Fontaine gave Riza reminded Roy of the light in the eyes of a snarling bull terrier –– a vicious, predatory glower, as though he would like nothing more than to rip her to pieces. His brows drew low over his eyes as he growled, his tone taking on a contemptuous edge, "Ryan ain't got nothin' but deuces and threes, kid. Every time that bastard lights up his little matchstick, I know I'm a little bit closer to beatin' him at his own game."

"You're free to think whatever you like, Mr. Fontaine." Roy crossed his arms. "Although, in the wild, the atavistic certainty that there is nothing more lethal than itself is oftentimes the apex predator’s greatest weakness."

Fontaine laughed –– which wasn't quite the reaction Roy had been intending to provoke. He loomed above Mustang, throwing a shadow over the former Colonel and his bodyguard. "All right, all right. You lookin' to slug it out, firebug? I'm game. But I got all the ADAM in the city, pal, and I ain't shy about usin' it. And I'm always jake to pick up some new accessories when they catch my eye."

Fontaine raked his gaze over Riza with deliberate, molten leisure. Hawkeye threw her head back in contempt, eyes flashing a warning. Roy's fingernails dug into his palm, hard enough to leave marks. Fontaine just snickered.

Frank Fontaine was a killer, a thing that hunted. A stalker of stalkers. A predator preying on predators. He existed unaided, alone, by virtue of his own resilience and prowess, continuing to live, to thrive, in a hostile environment where the strong ground the weak into the dirt.

Roy hated him as much as it was possible to hate another living creature.

"Be seein' you around, kid."

With that, Rapture's requisite conman and criminal mastermind, the arch-enemy of Andrew Ryan, turned on his heel and waltzed back onto High Street, his armored toughs trailing after him. Fontaine stepped over crushed glass and melted beads of cheap plastic scattered in one corner of the room, all that remained of Le Temps Perdu's saltwater aquarium.

"What the fuck was that bastard doing here?" murmured Jean from behind the bar once Fontaine rounded the corner, his blue eyes dark with unease. His lips worried at the end of his cigarette, which hadn't left Havoc's mouth even during the firefight. Jean may have done business with Fontaine out of financial necessity –– and to get Roy an in –– but Havoc was just as pissed scared of the man as everyone else in the Rapture.

"There’s less need to acclimate us to the tank," said Roy softly, the words pensive. "Fontaine figures we'll all be fish food pretty soon, so our false sense of contentment is less important than the shark's immediate need to feed..."

Mustang released a long, slow breath, still tasting smoke on his tongue, his hands shaking slightly from ADAM use. He felt Riza's shoulder press against his own, his own silent stanchion. 

He had been mistaken before, he decided.

Riza Hawkeye's timing was perfect.

Chapter Text

From the other side of the soundproof glass, radio engineer Kain Fuery held up a hand. Mouthing the numbers to the reporter and lowering his fingers emphatically, Kain counted down from five. At zero, the red recording light flashed on, and Kain's nimble hands danced over the sliders on the soundboard.

"This is Rapture Radio Headline Edition," intoned the reporter into the microphone. "Chester Grant speaking. The date is September 1st, Nineteen Fifty-Eight. In news today, Chief of Rapture Security Bradley's address in Apollo Square was one of several interesting new developments in the ongoing investigation into the secret and illicit movement of contraband goods into and out of Rapture. The speech by Chief Bradley concerned the legal authorization of capital punishment by members of the Rapture Council in cases of smuggling. The Chief spoke out against the principle of proportionality as socialist paraphernalia touted by the topside parasites, and applauded Andrew Ryan's superior means of deterrence over the alternative of life imprisonment with hard labor. The wisdom of Bradley's speech––"

Kain sighed, allowing Grant's grainy monotone to wash over him like ocean water over a dolphin's back. The report was much the same as it was on every evening, a careful recitation of Andrew Ryan's responses to the smuggling crisis and his wisdom in enforcing capital punishment –– death by hanging, if the bodies dangling from the scaffolds in Apollo Square were any indication. Faced again with the usual dram of biased and misleading information, Kain grew more sure that the entire thing was just a propoganda engine... and not even a subtle one, at that. If Chester recited the words Great Chain one more time, Kain had half a mind to lower the volume on the microphone feed.

"Now then, to Rapture's sports fans... the biggest showdown in quite a while is building tonight in Fort Frolic, where the city's heavyweight champion Rocky Marciano is about to meet that challenge from ex-champ Jersey Joe Walcott."

Nothing about the missing girls, noted Kain, an uneasy fluttering in his gut. Nothing about Augustus Sinclair's penal colony. Nothing about the rise in recent splicer attacks and the unprecedented surge of plasmid sales. Unpopular ideas silenced, inconvenient facts kept dark. It was censorship without the need for any official ban. Ryan's way, thought Kain ruefully, was to say the very simplest and most obvious things, say them as often as possible, and put into the saying all the fervent passion of which the man was capable. Chester Grant's droning didn't hold a candle to Ryan's eloquence and zeal, but in many ways, the ambient nature of Rapture Radio was more insidious. It rendered propaganda down to an environmental background hum equal to the rattle of the ventilation systems or the hiss of the pneumo line.

Noise pollution.

"And now, a word from our sponsors..."

That was Kain's cue. He switched on microphone two and muted Chester's feed. A prerecorded message began to play over the PA system.

"The Little Sister's Orphanage: in troubled times, give your little girl the life that she deserves. Boarding and education free of charge. After all, children are the future of Rapture."

The Orphanages were Frank Fontaine's outfit, a pair of ramshackle tenements in Hestia Chambers and Plaza Hedone –– awful places where as many as twenty girls shared a room and the kitchen and toilet facilities were often located alongside each other, exposing the kids to cross-contamination and sickness. Kain grimaced at the memory, and bemoaned his having to advertise the godforsaken place.

A self-supporting city like Rapture had no government-sponsored charities or welfare networks set in place, so children who lost their guardians –– to splicer attacks, to ADAM addiction, or, for an increasing number of Rapture citizens, to exposure and starvation –– found themselves in dire straits. No one was permitted to leave Rapture, so it wasn't as though they could reach out to other relatives on the surface. More and more, the poorer citizens were putting their kids in the care of Fontaine's Orphanages.

It was a sight better than starving, Kain supposed... but not by very much.

If the Rapture Radio advert reel wasn't already bad enough, the next broadcast made Kain's skin pimple.

"Can anyone ever make you feel like Sander Cohen can? Rapture's most beloved musical artist returns with "Why Even Ask?", his greatest album yet. Songs of love, songs of joy, songs of passion. Buy "Why Even Ask?" and invite Sander Cohen into your home, today."

No thanks, thought Kain, suppressing a shudder. For a moment, he imagined he felt his stomach trying to propel itself out of his throat. His mouth hinged open of its own volition, but Kain swallowed down the bile, keen to avoid being sick all over his soundboard.

Sander Cohen was a leading figure in the artistic community and social scene of Rapture. He ran the nightclubs down in Fort Frolic and owned most of the art galleries throughout the city. He had also produced several records during his tenure in Andrew Ryan's underwater fishbowl. One such album had been recorded in Kain's studio. It was an occasion young Fuery didn't like to think about at great length, lest he lose his meagre lunch.

Even from the brief encounter, Cohen had left a vivid impression in Kain's memories, like a brand burned onto the inside of his skull. Fuery remembered Cohen's pale, watery-blue eyes, like a creature who spent its life in perpetual darkness. He had favored an immaculate dress jacket and winged-collar shirt, as though he was preparing for an evening at the opera. His jet-black hair had been slicked back, greased and gleaming. His skin was powdered white, his cheeks daubed in rouge and his mustache waxed.

The man had slithered and oozed around Kain, his head bobbing erratically as though it was too heavy for his thin neck. His voice had been smooth and oily, sliding in viscous filaments over the skin...

After the session, everyone at the radio station had resented Fuery for something he'd apparently done. Kain had no way of knowing what it might be. Or rather, he feared what he suspected it might be, but he had no way of asking.

Cohen had said something to Kain about secrets. The man was uncommonly intuitive, instinctive in the way only artists knew how to be. Kain could count the words exchanged on one hand, and in that time Cohen had sifted through fragments of Kain's mind that he would scarcely ever allow himself to see, let alone expose to the scrutiny of others, even the most trusted of friends. All his regrets, all his remorse, the fractures in the window of Kain Fuery's soul. Although irreparable, they were intended to remain invisible as he pressed on with his life. But in piecing him back together, Sander Cohen could not help but see the secret cracks. Until they got to be so secret that Kain knew the composer wouldn't ever acknowledge them. Or acknowledge him, for that matter, not that Kain minded that particular aspect of it. Anonymity was a blessing. It was the fact that Cohen went about his life like nothing had happened, like he had no memory of what he'd done, no guilt, no shame, that made Kain's chest feel as though it had been woven in a mesh of piano wire.

So the memory belonged Fuery alone. He was left with the quiet of Rapture's elective ignorance, a radio silence so deep it almost drowned out the roar of humiliation and indignity that pounded away at his secret self.

Surreptitiously, Kain turned his headphones off. The adverts would continue, as would the broadcast... but at least Fuery didn't have to listen to it.

Kain allowed his eyes to close, the muffled quiet of the booth like a wet washcloth over his ears... 

"Are you all right?" came a voice of quiet, carefully-modulated concern.

Kain let out an involuntary yelp, his chair teetering. He glared at the newcomer, although Fuery was well aware he looked about as threatening as a doused puppy –– Jean Havoc had told him as much on a number of occasions.

"I'm sorry to startle you," said Vato Falman, one of the librarians at Point Prometheus. He thrust an innocuous-looking thermos towards Kain. "I brought you coffee."

Fuery sighed; he knew Falman meant well, even if his disposition gave the impression that he was perpetually on the verge of some unforeseen, calamitous blunder.

In the well-lit recording booth, Falman threw a long shadow over the floor, like a scarecrow presiding over the barley fields Kain remembered from Silesia. Like his mama's tatty scarecrow, Vato was a tall, thin man, not unattractive if one took the time to peel away the layers of acute awkwardness. He was a little under two decades Kain's senior, but his premature gray hair, lean features and grim appearance leant him the bearing of a much older man. 

Fuery was begrudgingly fond of him. Falman was earnest in a stubborn, bookish way. At the heart of Vato’s work lay an optimism in his thinking that the knowledge he gathered from his everyday experiences, if given proper form, could become valuable intelligences about reality.

"Thanks," murmured Fuery, taking the proferred thermos. Like most things in Rapture, the coffee tasted vaguely briny.

"You seem anxious," said Falman. He took the empty chair beside Fuery at the soundboard. "I had intended to drop by anyway. The coffee was serendipitous, I suppose."

Reluctantly, Fuery struck a slightly sour note. "Anxious?"

"It's not like you to remove your headgear during a live broadcast."

Kain shrugged. "Chester has an almost prodigious monotone. I haven't changed his audio presets in two months, so there's not a whole lot of need to monitor the feed."

Falman pursed his lips in a narrow, bloodless line before venturing: "In that two month span, Kain, you've elected to wear your headset by a fourteen to one margin. The only notable exceptions were when you contracted an ear infection on August 12th and, before that, on July 2nd, when Jean Havoc attempted to snatch them from you as a prank. Which, incidentally, you did not find funny."

Vato Falman's eidetic memory made him great at gathering intel. It made him terrible at being personable.

"I guess I'm just sick to the teeth of listening to these people lie all the time," Fuery admitted, cheeks coloring. He sounded like a whingy little kid. 

Falman, to his credit, tried to look sympathetic, but his face wasn't made for softness. "I assure you, you're not alone in that regard. Perhaps it would do you some good to talk about it more?"

"You sound like Dr. Lamb."

"I hope not. She ended up in Persephone." Falman shrugged, a bob of his narrow shoulders. "In any case, cataloguing my own anxieties renders them intelligible upon a later inspection."

"Before you talk you have to arrange all your thoughts in order," said Kain, his beetle-black eyes meeting Falman's narrow gray ones, "and I'd rather just let them swirl around until I'm too tired to think about them any more. Just let the motion in my head wear me out."

"That seems exhausting."

"It is... but at least it helps me sleep." Kain could just make out a few faint ripples of daylight writhing like ghostly snakes from the ocean's surface. "You said you'd dropped by for something?" he queried in an inelegant effort to change the subject.

Falman, for all his social ineptitude, didn't comment on the shift. He still wore a look of unwieldy concern, noted Kain, as though he wasn't quite sure what to do with it. "Yes, well..." Vato struggled to cross his arms in his chunky wool sweater. "After Bradley's vainglorious speech in Apollo Square this morning, I wondered if anything had turned up regarding this smuggling operation Mr. Fontaine is allegedly running under his hat."

Fuery understood their conversation was made in the strictest confidence, and he had the added benefit of working from within the soundproof recording booth. "It's a hanging crime now," said Kain, surprised and disturbed by how glib he sounded. "The public forum in Apollo Square has been trussed up with a set of gallows."

Falman's eyes, narrowed to a slit-thin squint, widened. "The death penalty in Rapture," he murmured. "For bootlegged goods? That seems excessive to me."

"You're not the only one," agreed Fuery, chin falling to a fist in dejection. "According to Roy, the Council's in an uproar about it, too. Not that the Rapture Radio broadcasts will ever say so. Evidently, Ryan's arguing that any contact with the surface –– any contact –– exposes Rapture to the very parasites we fled from. "A few stretched necks are a small price to pay for our ideals." That's straight from the horse's mouth."

Falman pinched the bridge of his nose. "What a mess. It's not enough that we must contend with the splicer attacks and the missing girls. Although..." he frowned in consideration. "If the report of capital punishment holds any water, it would explain the strange behavior of Fontaine's scientists, as of late."

If Falman had made note of an anomaly in another person's emotional state, then it must have been quite significant. "What's up with them?"

"Restless, I suppose you might say. Impatient. Tense. I find Dr. Tenenbaum sequestered in the Mendel Memorial Library at strange hours... I suspect she isn't sleeping. Dr. Suchong has lost weight. The latter shouts at me quite a lot... at least, more than usual."

Fuery nodded, pushing his spectacles up his nose as he mused, "If Frank Fontaine is behind the smuggling, the prospect of death by hanging might be enough to give his underlings pause for thought."

"Or, like so many in this city, they're simply crippled by their paranoia, and in their fear they've swept away any and all incidental subtetles part and parcel of working with a man like Frank Fontaine."

Kain was surprised: for Falman, it was an unusually intuitive analysis of another person's behavior. "Sometimes paranoia and reality overlap, Vato."

"In this case, I suspect a certain Roy Mustang would hope it does."

"His guilt in recent illegal transactions, concomitant with the new laws regarding smuggling and capital punishment, would account for Fontaine's putting the fear of god into his employees," began Fuery.

"Which would in turn provide a context for Tenenbaum and Suchong's upset," finished Falman. 

"Was there anything else?" Kain knew what Roy was really after... their Boss harbored no true loyalty to Andrew Ryan, but before Roy could hope to challenge the leader of Rapture, he had to edge out the competition: Roy needed to secure some legal means of bringing the law down on Frank Fontaine. "Any hard evidence?"

"Perhaps. A conversation I caught between Tenenbaum and Suchong late last night in the library. Do you have a blank tape log?"

Fuery's full face ruptured in a grin. "This is a recording booth, Vato!" His hand flew under his desk, producing a blank audio diary in a number of seconds. "Let's have it."

"Very well." Falman took a breath, straightening his back. Then, he recited, verbatim: "I haven't any other option, Suchong. As the respectable labs have all turned us away, we have to rely on the men in Port Neptune for supplies. Yes, Fontaine's lackeys are pigs. They spit, they stink. But they deliver and they don't ask questions. They're all terrified of Fontaine... he reminds me a bit of the Germans, you know –– so efficient." Falman's Adam's apple bobbed up and down, pausing as he repeated the conversation aloud from memory, before he murmured, "It wouldn't surprise me if he were soon running things down here..."

Fuery hit the stop switch, heart hammering against his ribcage. "Woah."

"In so many words."

"Supplies, she said..."

"Smuggled contraband?"

Fuery furrowed his eyebrows, slapping the audio log against his thigh as he wondered aloud: "What would a pair of geneticists want with Bibles and beer?"

Falman reframed the question. "Is there a possibility of Fontaine marketing his plasmids to surface dwellers? Perhaps Dr. Tenenbaum's interest in the smuggling concerns goods going out of the city rather more so than goods coming in."

"No..." Fuery shook his head emphatically, making his glasses slip down his nose. "I tap the topside transmissions for Roy when he needs me to, and I think we would've heard something by now if surface dwellers were shooting lightning bolts from their hands. And it's not as though Tenenbaum is relying on Fontaine's toughs to bring her scientific equipment –– instrumentation isn't regulated down here, and Rapture's uptick in technological development means they won't ever want for anything."

"Then what, Kain, are these supplies she's referring to?"

"I don't know," Fuery's dark eyes looked somewhere past Falman, as though attempting to sort the pieces out in midair, "but I'd bet my glasses that it has something to do with ADAM and Fontaine's plasmids. After all, Tenenbaum is the one who discovered the stuff, and Suchong developed it."

"Fontaine's ADAM stock... the Fisheries... I wonder..."

Before Falman could finish the thought, there was a furious knocking on the studio door. Kain leveled a scowl at Vato.

"At least some people don't just let themselves in."

Falman blinked, muttering, "But I brought you coffee," as though it made everything better.

Rolling his eyes, Kain pushed up from his chair and made for the door. He opened to find, breathing laboriously, as though he'd sprinted the distance from Hepheastus Control to the radio station, Detective Inspector Hughes.

Kain opened his mouth to say some words of welcome, expecting Maes's greeting smile or several water-stained polaroids shoved under his nose, but none came. Instead, Hughes's mouth was fixed in a grim line beneath his stubble. Almost robotically, his hand rose upward and passed Kain a folded piece of paper, his gaze as level and still as an advert on a billboard.

"Kain, who's there...? Oh." Vato rose to his feet stiffly; he moved like a tripod getting its legs extended. "Detective Inspector Hughes."

"There's been a bit of an incident on High Street," said Hughes solemnly, ignoring Falman completely. "Mr. Ryan needs this to be broadcast immediately, Kain."

Fuery swallowed, but he knew better than to ignore a direct order from Andrew Ryan. He turned quickly and signaled Chester in the booth. Kain handed the reporter Hughes's note when Chester cracked open the door to see what was the matter. 

"Oh, uh..." to his credit, Chester recovered from his surprise quickly, scanning the transcript with a practiced eye... "I'm sorry to interrupt our regularly scheduled broadcast, folks, but I've just been handed some breaking news from here in the booth. Right now, we are following reports of an attack unfolding at Le Temps Perdu restaurant on High Street. Gunfire and explosions have been heard inside the establishment. Ryan Security is on the scene right now, and efforts are being made to secure the area. At this stage, we have confirmation of two deaths, both restaurant staff."

Kain turned to Hughes; the sclerae of his green eyes were bright and glistening. Splicers? Fuery mouthed to the older man.

Maes gave a tiny dip of his head.

"We also have reports of six, perhaps seven men, equipped with firearms and offensive plasmid capabilities, leaving the scene."

Firearms and plasmids.

Fontaine. It had to be.

Falman and Fuery exchanged a glance, and for a moment, Kain believed in fate. Everything correlated. Everything connected. Every detail bearing consequence. 

Chester had set aside Hughes's note, falling back into his role as Ryan's spokesperson with practied ease. "Let me give you the backdrop of this, folks. There has been a recent insurgence of attacks of this nature in Rapture as the smuggers and parasites attempt to secure their first significant footholds in the city..."

"He doesn't know that!" murmured Hughes, balling his fists. "Nowhere in my report did it say anything about smugglers––!"

"Chester isn't saying the name," murmured Fuery, mostly to himself, "but he doesn't have to..."

Falman frowned. "Splicers attacking a popular restaurant in broad daylight, witnesses confirming the presence of several armed assailants, and marked plasmid damage... who else could it be but Frank Fontaine?"

Maes's face, already flushed and florid from his dash to the radio station, seemed to turn even redder in irritation. "One of the restaurant staffers overdosed! There's no sign at this stage that it was a premeditated attack..."

"I don't think that matters, sir," said Kain, upset in the words. "It's Chester's job to package the situation in a way that makes Ryan look competent."

Andrew Ryan's core philosophy hinged on the belief that decisions of character came from an understanding that one is accountable to himself only, not to family, spouses, religious leaders, corporations, public opinion, or one's own ego.

Kain couldn't help but think Ryan had lost sight of his own ideal, somewhere along the way.

"There's something you two ought to know," said Maes, far more quietly, mindful of the risk of being overhead. "Roy and Riza were there, in the middle of the attack."

Kain felt his stomach drop. "At the restaurant!"

"Jean Havoc, too."

"Are they all right?" asked Falman timidly, picking at his fingers as his nerves got the better of him.

Hughes nodded. "They're fine. Riza took the Houdini splicer down after the lunatic killed his coworker with an electro-bolt plasmid."

"How awful," said Fuery, meaning it.

"At least it would have been quick," said Falman, perhaps in an attempt to make everyone feel better, to bleed some of the terrible worry from the cramped space of the booth.

It didn't work.

"And... well, there's one other matter..." began Hughes, removing his glasses and wiping them on his collar, which gave him an excuse to avoid eye-contact.

"Your visits are rarely contingent upon singular reasons, Detective Inspector," noted Falman wryly.

Maes neither confirmed nor denied the observation. "There's been a change of plans regarding the masquerade preparations down at the Manta Ray Lounge."

The mention of Cohen's forthcoming party, his masquerade, filled Fuery with dread.

In a moment, he was back on that day in the recording studio, remembering suddenly how Sander stood erect, his eyes touching on Kain's dimunitive height, his face, his glasses, his hair, as though everything about him were a curiosity. A taunting smile had curved Cohen's mouth. The composer's attentions had centered on Kain's clothes, and the latter could almost see the questions churning in the former's head. The rapt inquisitiveness in his expression had filled Fuery with foreboding.

Kain felt a similar fearful apprehension waiting for Maes's report, a constriction in his chest like the ocean pressing at the Rapture airlocks.

"Riza was able to secure an invite, as someone's plus-one," Hughes went on, his voice level and gentle despite the anxiety in his gaze, "but... Roy was not. She'll be going in alone."

Vato's thin face creased in concern. "Are you sure that's wise, sir?"

"Probably not, Falman, no."

"You received an invite, though, didn't you sir?" ventured Fuery. "As part of the security team working the event!"

Hughes hesitated for only a moment. "I've been given a new assignment by Chief Bradley. Since the Manta Ray Lounge lies within Fontaine's department store, Frank himself will be otherwise occupied making sure Cohen's guests behave themselves. I've been ordered to canvas Fontaine Futuristics during the event to see if I can turn up anything regarding Fontaine's criminal enterprises."

There was a darkness attached to Maes's words, an apprehension, an unease. It didn't make Fuery worry about the prospect of personal failure and defeat –– on the contrary, Hawkeye and Hughes were two of the most efficient and capable people Kain knew –– but of something more general, something large in scope and content he couldn't pin down, couldn't name. 

"What does Roy need us to do in the meantime, sir?" asked Falman quietly, his usual diligent, dutiful self. Kain couldn't help but admire him for it.

Hughes's hands, so light despite their size, held the taller's man's shoulder, catching all their thoughts and imprisoning them there, in the space that no longer existed between the three of them.

"This changes nothing," said Maes, firmly. "Riza can handle herself. We just need to make sure she doesn't have to."

Fuery blinked owl-like behind his glasses. "And you, sir?"

Hughes cracked a small grin. "This badge of mine can mask a multitude of sins, Kain. Besides, if anything catches me, I can always tell them I got lost looking for the loo!"

Or show them pictures of your family until they let you go, thought Fuery to himself, lips curving into a tiny smile.

"Falman," Hughes turned to Vato, "do you know the layout of the Fontaine Futuristics facility?"

"I do, sir."

"The blueprints aren't a matter of public record, so your memory will have to do. Do you think you could sketch a floor plan?"

"To the best of my ability."

"That's all I ask for." Maes blew a breath through his mouth, resting his hands on his hips. On the other side of the soundproof glass, Chester was finishing his broadcast.

"Well," murmured Maes. "This little party is in two days time.

"We had better get to work..."

Chapter Text

The train station did not offer most auspicious of welcomes, thought Edward Elric grimly, grimacing as a drop of seawater slithered under his collar. Although, he supposed the mildew and molder, decay and destitution, set the mood for the rest of Pauper's Drop.

Above the leaky glass ceiling, the lights of the city loomed overhead like the eyes of a great sea monster, while outside the windows, old rail lines and small buildings decayed on the ocean floor. Red starfish lay limp on the rocks, surrounded by bouquets of stinging anemones and purple bursts of spiny sea urchins.

The corridor leading into the district was in a horrendous state, the support beams holding up the roof rusting, old appliances piled in parapets along the walls. Maintenance Junction 17 was completely boarded up, with the bulkhead beside it serving instead as the main entrance to the Drop. Ed stepped over an abandoned Big Daddy suit –– what had happened to the occupant, Ed didn't really want to think about for any great length of time –– before pushing past the dividing wall between the compartments.

Before the bathysphere metro became the primary means of transportation in Rapture, back when the Atlantic Express was manufacturing their luxury passenger line, Pauper's Drop had been hollowed out beneath the rails as flophouses for the maintenance and construction crew. Nobody was supposed to reside down there long-term –– but, Ed admitted, when a person went broke in Rapture, they weren't exactly swimming in alternatives.

Even with its miserable appearance, the Drop was organized like a small town, a city within the city. As Ed rounded the corner, he saw light and heard chatter emanating from the Fishbowl Diner. The diner mostly served transit customers going to local joints like the Limbo Room or maintenance workers looking for a cheap cup of coffee or an ADAM fix from the dispensary. The eatery had expanded since Ed and Al had lived in the Drop with their mother... due to the population increase faciliatd by the Sinclair Deluxe, Ed supposed, along with Rapture's poverty problem forcing more and more people to seek lodging in the squalid and overcrowded district. 

Over the years, the cars from the defunct Atlantic Express had fallen from their rails above the Drop –– Ed could spy splicers crawling through their innards, making their nests in the rusty skeletons, muttering nonsense to themselves as they raked their nails across their inflamed, shingled skin and tore strips from their clothes, their drug-addled bodies as thin as pins, their cheekbones jutting out through pallid skin. Butterscotch eyes fixed firmly ahead, Ed steered well clear of them, thankful he didn't inject plasmids himself. Rumor was the splicers could smell it, the ADAM in the bloodstream. 

As he meandered through the empty viaducts, feeling almost in physical contact with the contiguous stretches of the district, Ed was struck with the vague sense of indecent exposure. The only splashes of color in the grime came from the lurid graffiti on the walls and the injection paraphernalia littered across the walkways, the faded blue and red of syringes left over from the splicers. He heard the familiar sound of water gushing from leaky pipes and burst rivets, the dropping of a pail, the clink of a shovel, the banging of a door, the sound of voices. So many squirming lives, so many dank, dripping corridors, back alleys opening on to the darkness. It was horrifying, that such a place could exist inside Andrew Ryan's great city.

Ed and Al had once called the Drop home... before the run-in with the rogue splicers that had cost the former his limbs and the latter his spine... and their mother, her life. The Elric brothers had escaped the Drop by virtue of their engineering prowess –– Ed's development of a computer-controlled, orthotronic mobility system for Al having caught the attention of Bill McDonagh, Ryan's general contractor –– but Edward's being had never felt entirely severed from the Drop. The district had soiled his soul, like the stench of litter and the perpetual damp from dripping seawater.

A buzzing sounded over Ed's head; he realized he had crashed against his destination quite without his noticing it. Careless really, he admonished himself. He ought to pay better attention. The Drop afforded little compassion and less forgiveness for mindless wandering...

The reflection of the neon Sinclair Deluxe on the wet cement reminded Ed of the plasmid syringes... a vivid, electric blue. The tenement had been built by Augustus Sinclair to cater to the working poor left behind in Rapture's competitive society, though it was barely better than the rest of Pauper's Drop. Ed proceeded past the front desk towards a large, open atrium. Shattered glass cracked under his boots, his prostheses creaking rustily in the damp. The mortar and the stone of the building's bowels were crumbling, the invasive surge of the ocean glistening on the walls. Ed passed black and empty doorways, trudged through garbage and skirted around piles of used ADAM syringes. The elevator and corridors stank of urine and sweat and salt water. On his destined floor, Ed came across another Big Daddy carcass, a burned-out shell with a half-melted helmet and charred guts, the metal of its frame exposed, its back blown out where the drill's fuel tank had exploded.

Her apartment was just past the corpse. Ed knocked, and wrinkled his nose, trying to ignore the stench of petroleum and scorched floorboards.

She answered the door in her nightclothes... with a pistol pointed at his head, her arm extended adjacent to her body. She didn't blink as she sized him up.

"Edward..." said Riza Hawkeye quietly, releasing an unsteady breath and lowering her sidearm.

Ed swallowed. "I'm sorry to drop by like this, but––"

"Get inside. Quickly."

Ed didn't argue. He was unaccustomed to being the focus of Hawkeye's ire, but his inexperience didn't elleviate the sting. He hopped across the threshold and stood still as Hawkeye engaged the safety on her handgun and removed the magazine.

Her studio was prodigiously spartan, arranged neatly and in perfect order, furnished with little more than a bed, a couch, a table, a single chair, and a kitchenette. Ed took in his surroundings in a matter of moments, eye crawling over the scaffolding and screed: he noted the lack of creased blankets on Hawkeye's bed, a still-steaming cup of coffee on the small table beside the couch. The upholstered piece of furniture faced a large porthole at the back of the apartment, where Ed could see the swells of the Atlantic currents, like great lungs tasked to power the surging and receding of the foamy waves, washing against a shoreline far above and far away from them.

Ed wondered if Riza had been looking out her window, unable to sleep. There was something about sitting alone in the dark that reminded Ed how big the world –– rather, the ocean –– really was, and how far apart everyone in it was. The blinking bioluminescence of the bottom feeders, the dim moonlight glinting off the scales of the albacore and hake, the distant city with its neon signs flashing advertisements in actinic bursts of green and pink... all of it looked suddenly so close, as though Ed could reach out and touch them.

Looking through the porthole, Ed watched the enormity of Rapture for several long moments, wondered at the ways in which the life of the reef and of the city were layered and intertwined. He thought about the classifications of the sea life, the structure, properties, and composition of the salt water, the complex mathematical systems conditional on the flow of the currents...

"Edward," began Riza, her words quiet but stern, catching Ed's attention; she crossed her arms imperiously, "what are you doing in the Drop at this hour?"

There was no chastisement for waking her, or for showing up on her doorstep unannounced, thought Ed. Hawkeye's primary concern seemed to be his safety in navigating the Drop. Ed decided it was an apprehension well-meaning... but unwarranted.

The Drop was once his home, too.

"I got wind of the incident at the restaurant... overheard Navarro and Kyburz talking during lunch."

"All the more reason for you and Alphonse to remain in Artemis Suites. The recent surge in splicer attacks has made the city unspeakably dangerous, after hours even more so."

It was Ed's turn to be irritated. "I'm capable of looking after myself, Hawkeye."

"I am aware of that. However, your status as an employee of Ryan Industries and a valued apprentice of Bill McDonagh makes you a target. What would become of Alphonse and Winry if something were to happen to you?"

"Especially if I've been seen hanging around Mustang recently, right?" retorted Ed, the words tasting like vinegar in his mouth. A part of him felt bad for laying his annoyance on Hawkeye's shoulders. Another part of him was glad he was having the conversation with her and not her brown-nosing boss.  

Hawkeye bit her lip; Ed could sense her getting angry with herself and with him and then grabbing hold of that anger to see if she could make any use of it. "What does he––"

Ed kept his shoulders straight and back erect as he attemped to affect a defiant bearing. "Mustang payed us a visit in Hephaestus today."

"That doesn't answer my original query regarding your being here."

"He wanted Al and me to build him an electromagnetic pulse bomb."

His words gave Hawkeye pause, but only long enough for her to shift her weight to the other foot. "Did he?"

"Said something about an insurance policy." Ed narrowed his eyes shrewdly. "Seems to me as though that bastard is getting ready to make a move."

"I'd thank you to use his proper name, Edward. And I'm sure the Colonel has his reasons."

"You mean, you don't know?"

"I'm his bodyguard; he'll share only what he feels is relevant to my station."

"Respectfully, Hawkeye, that's bullshit. That idiot trusts you implicitly." Ed huffed a breath, speaking before Riza could contradict him. "Look, I get what he's going for... an EMP would send Hephaestus Core into compensation mode, push power through the system and trigger the circuit breaker on Ryan's gate."

"Should the need to breach his office arise at some future juncture, I imagine," provided Hawkeye. "A reasonable possibility, during which time an EMP would provide us with a means of overcoming Ryan's defenses."

Ed crossed his arms, mirroring Hawkeye. "I don't like it. Mustang waltzes into Hephaestus demanding Al and I build him a weapon capable of taking down Ryan, and then you guys are attacked at that restaurant less than two hours later."

"Is that why you're here... to test your suspicion?"

"You tell me," countered Ed, with far more bravado than he felt. Hawkeye's amber glare had a way of sucking cocksure boldness right out of the room.

"Very well, then. The restaurant was not attacked, Edward. One of the employees overdosed on a pair of unstable gene tonics. Unfortunately, we did not act in time to save the splicer's coworker." Her expression soured, eyebrows furrowing. "The situation was made slightly more complicated when Frank Fontaine arrived on the scene to assess the damage. I had a quiet word with Vato Falman on his way back from the radio station, and apparently Le Temps Perdu is one of Fontaine's restaurants. It fell well within his purview to check up on things."

Ed fiddled with something in his voluminous coat pocket as he ventured: "The Manta Ray Lounge is also one of Fontaine's, isn't it? Same place that creepy Cohen guy is holding his party."

Riza sighed again. "I'm not sure it's worth the trouble of asking how you know that, Edward."

He grinned impishly. "Hey, we wrench jockeys are always talkin'. Sometimes, someone even says something interesting!" Pressing his advantage, Ed asked, "You goin'?"

"Why do you want to know?"

"Because it's the reason I'm here. And if Mustang's strategic ability is as good as the gutter press says it is, then I reckon the sneaky bastard will use Cohen's bash as a cover to get the dirt on Fontaine."

"You're intuitive to a fault sometimes, Edward."

"Intuitive.. and right."

"You said the reason you're here...?"

"Fancy digs like the Manta Ray Lounge, and what with it being Fontaine's territory n'all, they're gonna have frisks, right?"

"We're proceeding under that assumption, yes. Neither Cohen's people nor Fontaine's... nor my date for the night, I suppose, will allow weapons."

"Visible weapons." Ed removed his hand from his pocket and lay a contraption on Riza's bare table –– a telescoping rail with a length of elastic stretching between a lanyard-hole and an elbow brace. "I designed this myself." 

Hawkeye eyed the holster on the end of the rail opposite the brace. "That looks as though it will fit a derringer pistol."

"That's the idea. So," Ed's launched into an explanation, "the gun is released from the retracted position by the brass bar here." He gestured to a length of metal parallel to the rail. "You press your arm against your side which depresses the bar and releases the catch that normally keeps the gun in the retracted position."

Hawkeye nodded. "The catch attached to the lanyard hole."

"Yeah, exactly. The bar functions as a release lever but once released, the mechanism must be manually reset. You retract the extender and set the retaining catch, and the gun goes back up your sleeve."

"Have ya considered hypodermics instead?"

Before Ed could turn his head in the direction of the new voice, he was being shoved behind Hawkeye's back, her hand as solid and tight as one of his prostheses on his shoulder. She leveled her pistol at the man standing in her doorway –– the man just smiled back affably, tapping the end of his bakelite cigarette holder.

Ed recognized the uninspired combover and suspenders from the posters plastered around the tenement.

Sinclair's tenement.

"What do you want?" demanded Hawkeye, her pistol pointed squarely at her landlord's chest. "Why are you in my apartment?"

Augustus Sinclair affected bemusement well. "The door was wide open, kid. "

Ed squirmed, suddenly sheepish. Oops.

Hawkeye tried to expel some of her irritation discreetly under a sigh. With reluctance, she lowered her weapon. "Please leave, Mr. Sinclair. This is a private conversation that doesn't concern you." She considered for a moment, and then added: "And please be sure to shut the door on your way out."

To Sinclair's credit, he did turn and make to head down the corridor, back the way he came. "It's your call, kid. But I'd wager a syringe'd be a mite easier to squirrel away on one's person than a gun..."

"Wait!" called Ed, before Hawkeye could stop him. "A small pistol won't be that conspicuous... will it?"

Taking Edward's query as permission to enter, Sinclair strode into Hawkeye's apartment like he owned the place... which he did, Ed admitted grudgingly. Sinclair made the obvious motion of closing the door behind him. The corner of Riza's eye twitched.

"For starters," said Sinclair, taking a puff of his cigarette, "stronger gates are being built around the department store and metal detectors are installed at the entrance to the Ray's dining room up yonder, where the guests'll be located. Revelers must also go through megatometers... and every lady's purse is subject to inspection. Food brought into the venue will be scanned, the same for Sander's equipment. Your passes and your persons are gonna be scrutinized with extra care. Fontaine's boudoir can't be called a fortress, my girl, but there is no question your activities are gonna be severely curtailed by increasing security needs.

"In other words, Miss Hawkeye, for all the kid's fancy flim-flam –– and mind you, it is awful clever –– you ain't gonna get a gun in past the front door."

"And you think a hypodermic might pass unnoticed, do you?"

"Of course. After all..." Sinclair flashed his perfect Steinman teeth. "Sinclair Solutions was contracted to oversee security!"

Ed could tell Hawkeye had a nagging suspicion as to Sinclair's true intentions, and an unnerving, despairing conviction that his apparent show of good faith was a front for some darker, undisclosed agenda.

Ed didn't blame her: he felt exactly the same way.

"Why would you want to help me?" asked Riza quietly.

"Well," Sinclair mulled over the word, the corner of his mouth twitching in a smirk, "because I'm awful fond of you, kid."

"Try again."

He chuckled. "Nothing ventured. Anyway, I suppose it's partly because my piecemeal needle scam's an outright masterpiece. Some slob shacked up here buys a box of syringe parts from me for twice what it's worth. He assembles 'em in his rathole, and I buy back the finished product for a dime against the dollar that I'll get from Andy Ryan. Slap some sodium thiopental in 'em and you have a tidy little knock-out dart... unconsciousness in 45 seconds."

"Sodium thiopental decreases higher cortical brain functioning," said Ed venomously, glaring up at Sinclair. "And too much of it can lead to respiratory arrest and cardiopulmonary distress."

Sinclair arched an eyebrow. "They told me you didn't miss a trick, son." Sinclair did not, despite his placating tone, attempt to assuage Ed's concerns. "McDonagh's little genius..."

"Don't call me small, you bastard...!" 

Riza, like Edward, rankled at Sinclair's choice of words, but Hawkeye elected to keep her thoughts to herself, and her glare in Ed's direction advised him to do the same. Ed's flare of aggression subsided as Riza muttered darkly: "Do you have a reason that doesn't involve conning people out of their livelihoods?"

"Why, that's an easy one, Miss Hawkeye. Things aren't so rosy for Fontaine down here, no matter how much favor he's curryin' with the hard-luck crowd. Ryan's putting the squeeze on 'em all, Fontaine and his band, and I reckon the latter's gettin' desperate. Now, Ryan ain't exactly the rock of Gibraltar these days, but he's managed to get Fontaine way back on his heels. What's going to be left of this town when the fur stops flying, I wonder?"

Edward looked between the pair, Hawkeye and Sinclair. The former acknowledged the latter's point with a contemptuous turn of her head. "Ryan and Fontaine, Rapture... this is all a table tennis match to you isn't it, Mr. Sinclair? You have no bearing in any of this, no true loyalties."

He shrugged. "I just learn to pick a brand name from the writin' on the wall, kid."

"Knowing which side your bread is buttered," muttered Ed, glowering.

Sinclair's smile was oddly affectionate as he regarded the oldest Elric brother, face crinkling with genuine fondness. "Right you are, sport. Loyalties are like anchors... the things keepin' you fixed in place are just as likely to make you sink."

Hawkeye's amber eyes seemed to shimmer in the dim light streaming through her porthole. "And if the writing on the wall no longer speaks in my favor, Mr. Sinclair?"

"Well, then... all the more reason to be thankful for young Edward's little gadget and my syringes, wouldn't you say?"

She stared at Sinclair, narrowing her eyes. "That’s the best you can come up with? What kind of platitude is that?"

Sinclair met Hawkeye's gaze and matched her frown with a small, self-assured smile. "A mite better one than you'll get from your escort tomorrow night, Miss Hawkeye."

Riza paused to reconsider Sinclair's words... and her own response. Ed nervously met their collective gazes, running rapidly through Hawkeye's options. Very rapidly: he soon realized that hers was a very short list.

Finally, she said in a hesitating voice, "All right, Mr. Sinclair... Edward...

"Grab the telescoping holster. I need to find a suitable outfit.”

Chapter Text

"This is a terrible idea."

"Blame Bradley. If it were up to me, I'd be at home enjoying an early dinner with my wife and little girl. Speaking of––!"

"Don't you dare, Detective Inspector. Mustang warned me about you when he contacted me last night."

"Did he extol my devilish charm and quick wit?"

"He told me you can be a royal pain in the ass, when the mood suites you."

Maes Hughes grumbled, "He's such a wet blanket, these days," before tugging his hat lower on his face. Camouflage wasn't his forte, but he had to admit, Roy Mustang knew his way around a grift. Disguised in a handlebar mustache with a cap hanging low against his brow, Hughes attempted to affect a moseying, unconcerned gait, masking his nervousness behind a slouch and a shuffle. Being dressed like James Moriarty in a city full of people in pinstripe suits and fedoras would usually to call attention to oneself –– but Fontaine Futuristics tended to attract the eccentric, the unconventional and slightly strange.

Hughes's companion, one Heymans Breda, fidgeted like he had ants in his knickers. "When Flame Boy said he wanted me to work for him, knocking on the front door of Fontaine Futuristics wasn't exactly the arrangement I had in mind..."

"Roy's not known for meeting people's expectations, least of which those of the people closest to him."

"Be that as it may, Hughes, Fontaine's not gonna just let you waltz in there like you own the place!"

"The only one doin' any waltzing today is Riza down at the Ray. Besides, Fontaine Futuristics is open to the public. Frankie boy is always keen to show off those plasmids of his."

Maes could feel Breda scowling fiercely at his back, could hear the derision and disbelief in his words. "You're nuts. You and Mustang both."

"Come on, Breda... where's your sense of adventure?"

"Back in the Fisheries, in a box marked Sense of Adventure."

"You know what I mean," Maes insisted tightly, teeth seeming to chew at his own nerves. 

Behind the film of ash and oil on the plate-glass windows, Fontaine Futuristics loomed huge, an immense shadow eclipsing the murky undercurrents. The buildings surrounding Frank Fontaine's headquarters were dilapidated messes, abandoned and falling into disrepair; Ryan had long ago stopped investing in renovations, the official statement being that he was letting them fall apart so the land could be sold for construction... but rumor had it that Ryan was trying to gouge the worth of Fontaine's properties, lower the land valuation should some brave soul dare to give Futuristics a real estate appraisal. As it stood, Maes thought the dingy art deco looked out of place against the glass and steel monolith that seemed to grow right out of the bedrock of the ocean floor.

The central building of Fontaine headquarters, according to Falman, contained offices and departments for most of the Fontaine Futuristics administration. The only entrances besides the front doors of the lobby were the airlock systems in place for Big Daddies and divers. Without deep-sea equipment, Maes knew their routes of escape were limited.

As Hughes and Breda proceeded through the tunnel connecting the train station to the central building on the campus, Maes murmured: "Falman gave me the run-down on the schematics of the place, but you're the one who's actually been here before. What can you tell me?"

Breda needed only a moment to consider before he relayed: "The lobby contains a small lounge for visitors, nothing flashy. But up the central stairs lies a secured, barred door with a bio-scan camera confirming employee authorization. Past the bio-scan doors is the office complex, which is equipped with an automated security system, including cameras and turrets."

Maes snorted. "If I didn't know better, I'd say Fontaine was a private sort."

"Private... paranoid... certifiable. Don't matter how you slice it, Hughes, the fact remains we gotta snowflake's chance in hell or a Red's chance in Rapture of sneaking into Fontaine's office unnoticed."

Maes dismissed Breda's concerns with surly, wordless wave of his hand. Heymans furrowed his brow, sullen.

"For a family man, Hughes, your capacity for self-preservation has yet to impress me."

"But as a detective inspector, Breda, my capacity for investigation is unmatched."

"Investigation?" Breda snorted a laugh. "Now we're detectives? Maybe we should have code names."

"Good idea," said Maes brightly. "I shall be Clam Chowder, and you can be Burnt Potato."

Breda bristled. "What the hell is that supposed to mean?"

"Ah, nevermind. Bad joke."

"Yeah. That's what I thought."

Hughes peered over his shoulder, favoring Breda with a bemused quirking of the eyebrows. "You could have refused, you know. Roy may be a bastard, at times, but he's not going to force you into anything at gunpoint."

Heymans mirrored Hughes's slow shuffle to the front lobby of Fontaine Futuristics. The two men eyed each other curiously as Breda mused over his answer.

"I get a little obsessive, I guess," he admitted gruffly, hands in his pockets. His tone was sour. "I'm more effective when things get personal... and I tend to stick with a thing until it gets personal. I haven't been doing this for long but so far, knock on wood, I've never had to give anything up. There's something rewarding about it –– grabbing that first slender thread that unravels the whole web. Even with Fontaine... scratch that, especially with Fontaine. I just can't stand seeing the bastard get away with what he does, and I hate having to walk away from a case knowing Fontaine did it and why, but aware that there's nothing I can do about it."

Maes nodded his understanding. "I have to admit, when Roy said he'd nabbed a mole from the Fisheries, I didn't expect someone of your convictions. You're a far more principled person than I'd associate with Fontaine's crowd."

"This may come as a surprise to you, Detective Inspector, but part and parcel of working under Fontaine is having some convictions. The man's belief is not a belief. His own principles are not a faith. He ain't relying solely on his own power, because it's a necessary rather than a sufficient factor, but he distrusts anything that upsets the apple cart, you know? We may differ on many things, but what he respects is the ability, and the willingness, to act according to a certain fundamental ideal." Breda grunted. "Bit like Mustang, if you ask me."

Maes shivered suddenly and his eyes turned to stone, even though he tried hard to match Breda's ironic little smile. "Yes," he murmured. "But... there's a fine line between standing behind a principle and hiding behind one."

Without looking at Hughes, Breda waved a small plastic badge –– uplifted from one Brigid Tenenbaum, courtesy of Falman –– at the proximity sensor, and stepped into the revolving door. "My point stands, Detective Inspector."

The two men entered the Fontaine Futuristics atrium. Right in the center, surrounded by tropical foliage and the pellucid plumes of a fountain, was a bronze globe, the continents of the worlds sculpted in sharp relief. Above the globe, set at a jaunty angle, was a neon blue Fontaine Futuristics logo: retro, squared-off, streamlined script superimposed over an image of the atom. The decor struck Hughes as a bit hokey, too mawkishly sentimental for the likes of Fontaine, but he supposed the lobby was not designed with Fontaine in mind.

"Come on, Mr. Malc," muttered Heymans, steering Maes around the fountain. "Lots to see."

Malc... Clam. Breda had a strange sense of humor.

Assured that none of the maundering tourists were paying them any mind, Heymans and Hughes started up the stairway towards the first floor offices.

"Step into the security scanner," ordered Breda, gesturing to a booth inlaid in the wall, adjacent to the entrance. "You got the tape?"

Hughes held aloft one of Yi Suchong's audio diaries. "Yeesss..." he mulled the word over in consideration, "but Dr. Suchong and I look about as much alike as, well, Frank Fontaine and Andrew Ryan."

"It don't matter much... so long as your biometrics come back human and unspliced, and you play the tape at the prompt, it should be enough to fool the scanner."

"Should?"

Breda grimaced. "Best I could come up with on short notice."

Cocking an eyebrow in doubt, Hughes stepped into the narrow compartment, about the size and shape of an old phone box. He pressed play on the tape, and one of Dr. Suchong's vapid, heavily-accented reports –– something about nucleotide sequences –– played aloud into the microphone near Maes's mouth. 

"Welcome, Suchong, Yi."

"Oh shit." Breda's eyebrows disappeared under his hairline. "It actually worked."

A stuttering of nervous laughter broke through Maes's annoyance. "Don't sound surprised or anything."

"Whine about it later, Detec–– Mr. Malc. We gotta move."

The central area of the Fontaine Futuristics building had all the corporate taste for opulence without the slightest touch of personality. The deep brown floor shone like polished glass. There were Arcadia-grown flowers and deepsea corals in large vases flanking a wide staircase, the plants the perfect shade of green to compliment the woody hues of the chamber and the viridescence of the ocean.

Upon closer inspection, however, Maes noticed that the stamens of the flowers had been pulled to keep the pollen from disturbing the perfect sheen on the mahogany pedestal tables, and the corals, as dry and brittle as bone, were already long dead.

Hughes's thoughts were heavy with the sepulchral cleanliness of the place, much more so than he would have expected, as though the collective asceticism and austerity of the complex had somehow burrowed deep inside him. Fontaine Futuristics was less an administrative center and more a monument, cut in rock and built of stone, somewhere dead people were buried.

Maes looked around, every muscle in his body stretched rigid. "Where," he asked, whispering despite himself, "is everyone?"

The silence was eerie, like the early mornings he'd spent bivouacked on the shores of the Orne, the dawns devoid of birdsong. For what seemed like a long while, Hughes stood in front of the stone staircase, not moving, hardly daring the breathe. The pulse of his heartbeat sounded obscenely loud. He strained his ear, listening closely to the silence as though the sounds just beneath the surface were hesitating to trumpet their significance; the longer Maes waited, the more the ominous quiet stretched thinner and thinner, like a balloon blown big, until the temptation to rupture it was almost too great to resist.

Then, a long, agonized lowing –– almost bovine in nature –– sounded from the corridor behind the staircase. Maes heard the steady thud of footsteps, trudging sedately towards their position.

Next to him, Heymans froze.

"Just what we needed," he muttered angrily, eyes dark, "one of those hulking brutes traipsing about."

A Big Daddy lurched out of the shadows, its enormous drill knocking the wall and dislodging a chunk of plaster. Hughes understood, suddenly, why Fontaine Futuristics seemed deserted –– it was likely that Fontaine's employees were giving the creature a wide berth.

The Big Daddy seemed more machine than man –– the massive anthropomorphic diving suit, so nimble in the water, lumbered like an elephant across the floor. Its large and unwieldy body appeared, at least superficially, plodding, but Maes knew from personal experience that it could move quickly if it felt so inclined. Its globe-like helmet was studded with glass viewing ports spaced equidistant to each other; like Argus, the many-eyed giant from Greek Myth, the Big Daddy was never blind to anything likely to spell danger or cause damage.

"You're a slowpoke, Mr. B... won't get any angels like that!"

A premonitory chill trickled down Maes's backbone, like slime on an anchor chain, and he shuddered; when he swallowed his stomach churned. He tried to ignore the terrible loosening of his bowels, the need to vomit.

A light clink of metal on metal began to sound from Maes's right, and it took him a moment to realize it was the sharp ringing sound of Heymans's wristwatch against his cufflink, knocking together as he trembled violently.

"What... the hell..." he hissed, pointing a finger towards a figure half-obscured in the Big Daddy's shadow, "is that..."

It was a little girl.

A little girl... the same age as Elysia.

She was singing... a strange ditty to the tune of Frere Jacques: "Mr. Bubbles, Mr. Bubbles, are you there? Are you there?"

The girl was so small standing beside the Big Daddy, Hughes hadn't noticed her at first. Her hair had been roughly trimmed as though with a child's blunt scissors, giving her an irregular thatch of toffee brown, what looked like the sad attempt at two pigtails. Her pale skin was so dry it appeared almost cracked, like an old porcelain doll, broken from a lack of care. 

"Come and give me lollies, come and bring me toffees..."

The girl's white pinafore was more a dirty gray, stained with yellow in patches. Her dress was tattered, tarnished with rot and filth. Polka-dots pockmarked with holes, blue wellies worn and the blue itself peeling off. 

Fontaine Futuristic's dim lighting slathered the girl's face as she teetered in front of the staircase. Hughes swallowed, hard. The girl's eyes were glistening yellow, without white or pupil, smooth as amber glass. Staring out at the world endlessly, bottomlessly.

"Teddy bears… teddy bears."

"Oh, Christ..." groaned Heymans, clutching at his gut. "What the hell..."

"I know her..." murmured Hughes, horror burning like acid reflux in his throat. He took a step –– his legs trembling like a newborn colt's –– towards the little girl and the Big Daddy. "Breda, I know her."

"Hughes, get back here; you don't––"

"She's one of them... one of the missing girls." Maes began to shake his head as what had before been a suspicion crystallized into a certainty. "She's one of the missing children!"

"She looks more like a monster to me," muttered Breda, eyeballing the pair warily as they proceeded down a corridor adjacent to the staircase, vanishing into the gloom.

"I would recognize that face anywhere... I'm the one who verified the missing person's report filed by her father!" Maes's breath quivered in his chest. "That's... that girl is Nina Tucker."

"The novelist's kid?" A nervous tremor shook the side of Breda's face, and he rode it out with a fragile grimace, pretending that it was nothing. "But she disappeared months ago. Her dad was devastated."

Something monstrous began to stir in the hinterlands of Hughes's mind. "And immediately thereafter, her starving writer of a father, who habitually did little or no work to improve himself or his craft, gets grossly wealthy on a dime western."

"Hughes..." The Detective Inspector's real name slipped out without prior thought, and curiosity and alarm resolved into a sort of self-righteous, silent mumble: "what exactly are you implying?"

"One girl's better than a thousand. You ever hear that, Heymans?"

"Ever hear what?"

"Human interest. You pick up the Rapture Tribune, you read about twenty missing girls or a thousand, or a million, like a famine. You read it, but it doesn't stay with you. One person is different... you want to know all about her. That's human interest.

"I suspect Fontaine is vying for market dominance..." murmured Maes, echoing Andrew Ryan's words from the day before, no longer paying his companion any mind. "It's this ADAM stuff... Fontaine is sinking his profits back into bigger and better plasmids, but he's also building up his Home for the Poor... and the Fontaine education centers... the Little Sisters Orphanages..."

Hughes knew he had a tendency to allow his mind to wander. One thought led to another, one memory triggered its predecessor. In his mind he traced the lines between moments and events distant from one another, establishing convergences and divergences. Ryan. Fontaine. ADAM. Plasmids. The Big Daddies. The missing children... Fontaine's orphanages...

The little girl in her dirty smock, with her vacant eyes...

Maes shook his head and turned to face Breda: "Heymans," he said with resolute determination, "you need to get back to Roy. Tell him we found Nina Tucker, and that she's been... changed. I don't know how," Hughes held up a hand to silence any forthcoming interruption, "and I don't know why, yet, but I reckon it has something to do with ADAM, the raw ingredient in plasmid development. Somehow... it all comes back to Frank Fontaine."

"And what're you gonna do? You're Bradley's narc! You get caught snoopin' around on your own, you'll be put out an airlock and told to walk home!"

Hughes had neither the persistence nor the patience to argue. It was evident in his suddenly hunched walk and in his tired eyes. In his warm grin, too, even though it flashed across his face like a nervous thing. "Roy needs to know," he reiterated firmly. "If something happens to the both of us, word'll never get out."

The redhead crossed his arms and scowled. "Then why's it you're stayin' and I gotta go?"

"Because," Maes spun the word out, stretching it to make room for his thoughts: "Chief Bradley can't know I'm working with one of Fontaine's top lieutenants. Infiltrating Futuristics was my assignment... if Bradley discovers me gone and you in my place, we'll have more to worry about than a few trumped-up trespassing charges."

Breda leveled on Maes with crushing intensity, green eyes as sharp as a flake of cut jade. He ground his knuckles into his open palm. "Damn you, Hughes," he muttered, rasping his molars. "You had better know what the hell you're doing."

Maes didn't have an answer for him that didn't sound forcibly candid and insincere, and he figured Heymans Breda could recognize a deception as quickly as Hughes could craft one. Without another word, Breda spun on his heel and pounded through the security gate and down into the lobby. Maes went in the other direction, up the staircase and towards Fontaine Futuristics central administration. 

A mess of thoughts floated up like trash jettisoned from a submarine, unbidden but prompted by a sudden nausea tightening his stomach. Maes approached the first of the two offices on the landing, his hands in his pockets, affecting a lack of concern or interest, as though his surveillance was part and parcel of standard procedure and his presence as lacking in excitement as the color of the wallpaper. Adjacent to the double-doors of the corner room –– with massive block lettering declaring the space the office of Frank Fontaine –– a public service announcement played over a small television screen, advising employees to steer clear of central administration for Protector Trials. Maes thought of the Big Daddy –– and his ghoulish charge –– trundling around downstairs, and he quickly put two and two together. The turret guarding the office had likewise been placed in suspension... possibly, Hughes supposed, to keep the automated security systems from interferring with the odd pair.

The offer of the unguarded sanctum winked at Maes, like a tease of light through the office's barely open doorway.

He took a breath. And stepped inside.

Fontaine's private office was huge, occupying the whole corner and several floors of the building. Rearing from a dais in the center of the room was a massive granite statue: a grizzly bear, with an impressive musculature and sharp teeth gleaming in the moist cave of his mouth. He held his head as if he faced a challenge and found joy in his capacity to meet it. Behind him, a massive floor-to-ceiling window presented views in two directions: the remnants of the defunct Dionysus Park to the east, Siren Alley a few klicks north. Delicate fronds of kelp wreathed the glass, glowing lambently in the murk. One of the two remaining walls contained a single oil painting –– a family portrait of a woman, a boy, and a balding man who, save the moustache, looked suspiciously like Fontaine himself.

The black glass surface of Fontaine's desk, much like the rest of the office, was uncluttered: a bakelite telephone, a leather notebook, a clock. No photographs. No mementos. No tells. No insight into the enigma of Frank Fontaine.

Maes abandoned the desk, turning left at the bear statue towards a small recess in the wall. The alcove contained a few shelves and, above a chilled cabinet filled with liquor that collectively cost the equivalent of Hughes's annual salary, a boar's head. The beast's marble eyes glared out at Maes, and even in the still air, the hair on the taxidermy's snout seemed to bristle. 

Two audio diaries hung from hooks beneath the boar's head.

The fretting just under the surface of Maes's skin gave rise to something close to panicked anxiety. His hands trembled as he pressed play on the first log, and the tape began to roll...

"Suchong!" Hughes jumped as Frank Fontaine's coarse Bronx accent bellowed over the recording; "I'm gonna make this clear as can be, so we don't have any miscommunications. Where... the hell... is the ace... in the hole? You think you can stiff Frank Fontaine? I paid good money for state of the art weaponry. I ain't losin' this war just because you found yourself a higher bidder. I can promise you... I ain't never been one to lose with dignity."

The tape spun into silence, and Maes made a frown of his whole face, puzzling over the bizarre log –– not quite the confession Bradley and Ryan had been fishing for, since he was fairly sure the matter was internal, and Suchong absconding with research was old news. Despite the fact that the man had managed to haul his disingenuous behind into Fontaine's favor for the past several years, it seemed as though Frankie boy had begun doubt the geneticist's loyalties, on top of his other obvious defects.

"So," assessed the Detective Inspector at length, keeping his voice down but unmindful of speaking to himself: "A civil dispute?" His eyes clouded over in thought. "Guess Suchong's getting greedy for this ace-in-the-hole... whatever that is..."

State of the art weaponry...

Hughes turned and sorted the possibilities in his mind, tapping his finger against his chin. He admitted to himself that though not everything that happened in Rapture portended a good or evil development in the future, everything, everything had meaning, had significance, to one degree or another. It was the nature of the city, the Great Chain of Industry: their world was an ever-lengthening course from which no link could be removed without destroying the integrity of the chain. 

An ace-in-the-hole... a plan, a piece of information kept secret until it becomes necessary to use it. 

State of the art weaponry, Maes affirmed to himself.

What the hell was Fontaine up to?

"A contingency plan..." breathed Maes, realizing he was clutching the log so tightly his fingernails had scored the plastic.

Then... from behind him, came the intonation of a Dublin brogue Hughes didn't recognize, the words tearing the scabs off Maes's unspeakable nightmares, racing his heart ahead of his breath...

"Nice work, boyo."

Chapter Text

Ridiculous

She looked absolutely absurd.

The only condition had been for the sleeves to be long and bunched, to conceal Edward's telescoping rail where it lay strapped to her arm. Otherwise, her close friend, Rebecca, and her partner, Anya Andersdotter, had had Riza's blessing –– rather, her grudging permission –– to clothe her in whatever they liked. 

It had escaped Riza's memory at the time that, while Anya had an eye for fashion, Rebecca was partial to bright colors and loud declarations of sartorial panache.

The end product being a dress of a very thin, silken weave Becca had called charmeuse. Though the collar was high at the back, to Riza's bemusement –– for it served no practical purpose –– the neckline plunged to a thin but deep décolleté, revealing nothing but suggesting everything. The bodice was ADAM-red and edged in gold, the garment full skirted at her feet and gathered into an elaborate, foaming bustle of gauzy satin at the back, like smoke blowing from a fire. Adhering to Cohen's dress code, a mask covered the top half of her face, the visor of ornate black and crimson leather, fashioned into a bird's beak. 

Ridiculous, Riza affirmed to herself.

"You look lovely, Miss Hawkeye."

She stared resolutely ahead, trying to ignore the occasional brush of his dinner jacket against her shoulder –– the material seemed to prick her through the sheer of her dress like a thousand tiny barbs. 

She murmured a polite "Thank you" without looking at him. She remembered his appearing lean and sinewy in his dark silk suit, a sinister predator lurking amongst the derelicts –– not unlike the creatures that prowled the currents, hiding under the sea bed and going bump in the ocean night. A secret, inexplicable thing, like the man's own past... like her own. Something that threatened to catch up to her when she least expected it.

A part of her was thankful for the party mask –– at the very least, it enabled her scrutiny of Solf J. Kimblee without causing offense or divulging her private anxieties.

"You live alone, do you not, Miss Hawkeye?"

The brevity of the words belayed any real interest; nevertheless, something furious or fearful –– Riza couldn’t be sure which –– made her jaw root and her stomach tighten. In a small moment, her senses jarred and merged in a confused intuitive kaleidoscope, trying to parse the reasons behind the query. Her eyelids lowered a fraction and her lips pursed slightly, as they sometimes tended to do when she found herself at Fort Frolic's firing range, peering at a target.

"Is there a point to your asking?" she replied, in a manner that, unlike him, was not in the least bit relaxed or friendly.

Kimblee's chuckle was an acidic sort of sound –– it resonated as a whiskey sour might taste, tart on her tongue.

"I meant no indiscretion," he explained; his mask –– a Venetian volto mask trimmed in gold leaf –– did nothing to hide his amusement. "I merely noticed your dress was unzipped beneath your collar. I inferred your being unable to reach the space behind your shoulders, and had none to turn to for assistance." Riza took half a step more before she realized her partner had paused midstride, a patient expectancy in his posture. "May I?"

Riza's fingers fought the urge to work across each other like little crabs, crawling around herself to hug her shoulders and shield herself from his attentions.

"You may," she said instead, forcing her hands down to her sides, palms flat against her legs.

Despite the pervading chill and damp of Rapture's leaky corridors, Kimblee radiated warmth like heat from a kiln. Riza nearly jolted away from the shock of it.

"I will endeavor to be careful."

There was a weight behind the words that pressed down upon her back, as though someone had forced her into a sitting position. Riza managed a tight bob of her head.

Kimblee's hands were quick, efficient, almost kind in their quickness. He had to lower the zipper first, disentangling a thread of red fabric from the teeth. The chill air touched Riza's shoulders around Kimblee's molten fingertips and she couldn't suppress a shiver. Nor, she found, could she smother the wince as the zipper dragged over a sensitive patch of skin parallel to the narrow stalk of her spine.

"My apologies."

She could feel Kimblee staring at the back of her head for a short while after the collar was zipped. His eyes bore into her as though seeing her for the first time; for a brief moment, his breath hesitated in his throat. His hands stopped too, still spread above her back. Sound did not carry well in the smooth, plate-glass corridors around the Manta Ray Lounge, and in the sudden quiet, they both heard Kimblee take his next breath –– slow, methodical. The sigh seemed in some way systemic, as though he'd rendered even his body functions down to an established form of procedure.

It occurred to Riza then that his face was far too close to her head. His teeth were far too near to her throat. 

"I'll confess it is not unpleasant to look at you." His breath raised goosebumps on the back of her neck. "You're quite beautiful, Riza."

To her disgust, she trembled, convulsively, on the unexpected, unwanted memories the words dredged up from the depths of her soul. "The looks are an accident, Kimblee. Blame the dress."

"Dresses are not beautiful on their hangers. And even if comeliness were a thing obtained like any other commodity in this city, you'd still be beautiful."

"Thank you," she said again.

"Why do you feel the need to thank me?"

A fractional turn of her head, and a sharp flash of her eyes, was enough to crush his curiosity like a decanter swept onto the floor. He brought his face close to hers, taking some reading in her sudden anger. The monster in his gaze was lost behind, Riza guessed, a self-congratulation at his own exquisite taste and cunning, maneuvering her into his tight little corner.

"I say what I mean," said Riza stoically. "And I won't give you what you want."

"Which is what, exactly?"

"For me to admit that... I'm pleased you find me so. Beautiful, I mean. That would delight you to no end, wouldn't it?"

"Would it be true?"

"No."

"Then I shan't expect it of you." He smiled, then –– a tight, thin parting of his lips like a knife through pale butter. He made a loop of his arm, eyes flicking down to her hand, quirking his eyebrows with the enthusiasm with one who knew something tremendously interesting was about to happen. "Shall we?"

With glacial slowness, her unwillingness written plain in the downcurve of her mouth, Riza threaded her arm with his.


Earlier

"You get lost lookin' for the crapper?"

Maes tasted salt as a drop of sweat roved slowly down his face. He made to turn his head, but he felt the gun barrel digging a mite more forcefully into his back and he froze. Maes could smell the man's spicy cologne, and underneath, something fouler… like dead fish and brine and motor oil. It reminded him of the Big Daddies, of mechanical, lifeless things.

"Well," said Hughes, "this place can be a tad difficult to navigate, you know."

A snort of derision. "'Specially for eejits like you, eh Detective Inspector? That's a fine lookin' mustache you've got there, by the by."

The observation gave Maes moderate pause for thought. "What gave it away?"

"Bradley hasn't got the bollocks to run an op himself, and word on the street is old man Ryan's not the full shilling, these days. But the bloody King of Rapture's been waitin' donkey’s years for a taste o'Fontaine's little fiefdom, and I reckon the man's grown mighty impatient in the meanwhile. 'Sides," Maes could hear the smile in the stranger's words, "I overhead the ginger porkpie talkin' to ye outside the office."

"He's got nothing to do with this."

"Best not make a holy show of yer dignity as well as yer little earwiggin', Detective Inspector. Fontaine's little pal'll have what's comin' to him."

"Then I take it you're not one of Fontaine's?"

"You're not the one who outta be askin' questions, boyo." 

Hughes smiled broadly, mouth open, showing his teeth. "How terribly stagy of you. Just like that fake Irish accent."

Maes heard the stranger take a sharp breath, like he didn't know whether to be amused or angry.

But then he launched into doubled-over laughter. "Oh, Detective Inspector… you're so full o'chicken shit yer eyes are turnin' brown!" He laughed again. "But we best crack on, and believe me when I say it pains me mightily that you won't be leavin' this place alive." 

There was a jeweled movement in his mind, a turning of a mobile of broken glass... its shards cut through Maes's confusion: for an instant, the many windows in his intuition and instinct aligned and he saw far across his own experiences, his own suspicions.

"Sorry," said Maes, frost coating the words, "but I got a wife and little girl waiting for me back home. The last thing I'm gonna do––" a push-blade slid into his hand from a holster on his wrist–– "is die on 'em!"

Then the throwing knife was between Maes's fingers, and he was twisting it in the dim ocean light as though the blade could slice up the water's reflection. Though rust had set in on the handle and blade, it was strong and jagged –– and the stranger made a strangled grunt as the knife buried in the fatty tissue of his thigh.

Just as the gun went off near Maes's shoulder.


Later

Riza looked over the balcony rail, down into the massive dining room. The scene in the Manta Ray Lounge below them was a raucous one, a colorful mélange of Rapture's eccentric upper-crusters, all set to leave their inhibitions, and their sobriety, behind: socialites and artists and musicians and debutantes, engaging in inconsequent polite conversation, singing, laughing shrilly, responding to cries for alcohol, snapping at the stewards for more canapés. The crowd flowed between the open bars and the performance stage like a swollen river between its banks. The mood of the people swirled in unseen currents beneath the dark surface of their faces. In a thousand leather and papier-mâché masks there wasn't a single grimace or expression of doubt. Rictus smiles all around, like the world's happiest crowd of corpses. 

"Ah, there you are, Solf. So delighted you could join us."

Riza had not expected the host to greet them in person; judging by the rigid line of Kimblee's suddenly taut shoulders, he hadn't either.

Sander Cohen was an oozing slug of a man poured neatly into a three-piece tuxedo. He wore an ankle-length opera cloak of black brocade, lending a slight shadow to his pancake-white face. His age was difficult for Riza to place, somewhere between forty to forty-five years of age, with a pale complexion, a strongly marked nose, and greasy hair combed over to counteract its retreat from the top of his head. A waxed mustache rested above a lip whose one side was lifted slightly higher than the other, lending the man a look of perpetual sneering contempt. His eyes were cold, dark, and as dangerous as black ice.

"Who is this lovely creature on your arm?"

The sentence had started sweetly enough, but there was a snarl in the kindness that Riza didn’t miss and, she suspected, wasn’t supposed to miss. Cohen's smile pinched the bags under his eyes with the unnatural spread of his lips.

Kimblee's eyes slinked to the side, to Riza, the flash of his teeth suddenly rapacious. His hand caressed the nape of her neck and her hands knuckled in indignation. "A friend," he said softly, his words polite, but his fingers on Riza's skin had grown insistent and sharp, as though talons had sprouted from the nail beds.

The innocuous answer sent Cohen into a fit of rickety cackling. Riza eyed the composer warily. He was mirthful in the way only unhinged people tended to be, like a glimmer of light over fragments of broken glass –– dangerous if not treaded around with careful feet.

Caught between two madmen, thought Riza, despairingly.

"Miss Hawkeye is my guest," said Kimblee; if Cohen recognized her name, he gave no indication of the fact. "She has kindly indulged my old-fashioned sensibilities for the evening."

Kimblee had tossed his head back, regarding Cohen with the scorn one would save for those beneath one's consideration. Riza frowned; she didn't know Kimblee to conduct himself with such smug self-satisfaction. She couldn't help but suspect some unspoken reality was being dangled in front of Cohen's face like a dead, rotting fish. Sander's nose wanted to crinkle, as though he could smell the foulness.

"Does the young lady have nothing to say?" queried Cohen; his eyes, she noted through the slits in his rabbit mask, were red-rimmed and wild. The dark irises glittered like spheres of boulder opal. Riza didn't think she had ever seen such dark eyes with so much light in them.

"This is a delightful venue and a beautiful party," said Riza dutifully, without consequence. "I'm grateful for the host's hospitality."

Cohen heaved a deep sigh, nearly spilling his flute of champagne. "Why, my dear, it is the duty of the artist to capture life in all its sensual intimacies, its delicate and subtle nuances, the little tastes, the gentle touches…"

"Yes, Mr. Cohen."

He stared at Riza, unblinking. His ash-pale forehead was flecked with color –– paint perhaps, or glitter. Cohen grinned hugely, lips quivering like the dances of his guests up and down the dining room.

"Run along now, little bird," he cooed, his charged, insane gaze snapping like static along her skin. His red and pointed tongue appeared for an instant before he bent over Riza's hand, his lips perhaps closer to the skin than was customary, certainly close enough for her to feel his breath and the stickiness of his makeup. His eyes rose to her before his sleek head lifted.

After Cohen had kissed her hand, Riza found herself glancing up at her date, and came upon a tableaux of pitiless brightness –– a potent, limbic anger flashing through Kimblee's eyes like lightning in a thunderhead. Fortunately for Cohen, Kimblee merely took a deep bow, and, with a firm hand on Riza's slippery-silk back, steered her towards the staircase.

"Ironic," mused Kimblee, more to himself than to Hawkeye, as they descended towards the crowd: "I’m here because he is attracted to my inherent potential, but it's my inherent politeness that makes me put up with this. With him." Even behind the volo mask, Riza could hear his frown. "Sander Cohen is like an outmoded mathematics... that is to say, the mathematics of Euclid or Newton. His conduct and manner run counter to the non-Euclidian geometries necessitated by a certain deference to discipline. He is a product of the obsolete. I find myself tiring of him."

I, too, know something of what it's like to be the focus of unwanted attentions, thought Riza, glaring daggers at the side of Kimblee's head.

"If you find him so distasteful, perhaps it might be prudent to avoid his company altogether," she suggested quietly.

"Necessity often forces unpleasant encounters, Miss Hawkeye."

"Yes... I am aware."

One narrow fingertip tapped out a tune on her spine. "That sounded almost accusatory."

"I commend the efficacy of your insight."

"And that almost contemptuous."

"That was the intent, yes."

When she tried to turn away from him, he pressed his hand to Riza’s cheek, cold and strong, and tilted her head up so she was forced to look up at him. His eyes glinted, and even peeking out from behind his inscrutable mask, they burned her like a molten collar around her throat.

"Stand still for a moment, Miss Hawkeye," he murmured. It sounded more like an order. "Listen to the music."

Riza poised, a touch of nervous sweat drying on her skin. Finding her balance, she stood amidst the wheeling, masked dancers. Her strange partner circled around her, pale and cool as ivory in the press of the crowd.

The notes of the ensemble warbled and fell, haphazard, chaotic, settling without flight. Riza's forehead creased as she chased the fleeting song... something wild, untamable, a thing sprung whole and flawless from the instant of its creation like Athene from Zeus's forehead.

She became aware of Kimblee's voice passing slowly behind her.

"Feel the melody of it," he said, "against your skin. You’re so light, if I lifted you just a touch, the music could carry you away..."

His words formed a ring around her as he paced. "There’s a rhythm to it. A tempo. Swelling and fading. A slow, endless beat, slower even than your heart. It’s the longest sound in the world.

And Riza felt it, spreading across her: individual points of gooseflesh on her arms and chest, the ever-so-slight change in the pressure of the air, the caress of her dress against her legs. She fought the urge to relax into it, just let herself feel the music blowing through her, as if emptying her mind would make her as light as Kimblee said.

Then he was right by her ear, but softer, quieter. "You can feel it quickening now..."

Riza shivered for a moment, Kimblee's breath sighing against the sounds of the party. She shifted her balance, raising herself up, light on her toes, ready to take the first step.

Kimblee's movement through the small allotment of dark between them was as smooth as a black carp against a streambed, the water parting before him as he slithered into Riza’s space without a sigh or ripple. The touch of their mouths was equally supple, equally sudden, equally silent.


Earlier

Maes clutched his wounded shoulder, staggering through the empty lobby of Fontaine Futuristics. Instead of a neat, round hole, the bullet has entered at an angle; the ragged wound oozed with steadily congealing blood. The putrid smell was strong enough to initiate a gag reflex. Red soaked into Hughes's sleeve, radiating outward, dripping between his fingers. Hugging the wall for support, he'd graffitied the building in his blood, smearing the plaster in crimson.

There had been a telephone on Frank Fontaine's desk. Maes had ignored it.

He didn't know the state he'd left the fake Irishman in –– he'd not stuck around long enough to find out. He needed to get out of the building, back to the train station...

Time dragged and blurred, the uninspired browns and grays of Rapture's interior decor stretching out endlessly ahead of him, but he felt sure he must have covered a good distance. He could feel it in his burning muscles, and the exertion was almost enough to fool him into believing in a heedless confidence. But he knew that his reserves were limited, the wound in his shoulder sapping the strength from his limbs. Maes tried hard not to think about how heavy and strained his breathing sounded; tried harder not to think about the fire in his lungs and in his arms and legs.

Moving unsteadily through the corridors, a memory surfaced unbidden. Maes was struck suddenly with the graven image of a man, clad in the remnants of combat fatigues, huddled against the side of a blasted building, head pressed into the brick, like a frightened child hugging his pillow deep in the shadow of a lingering nightmare. His gaze was a blank wall on which the outside world was projected. Of the images playing on the other side, there was not even so much as a silhouette. 

Stupid. Maes was losing his marbles… and a fair bit of blood, besides. 

The ripples of the Irishman's laughter returned, coursing through him, bringing with them the inevitable flood of tears. Tears of thought. 

Gracia… Elicia...

A silent cry echoed through his mind, rippled through the ocean. But the ocean was too vast and the cry dissipated all too soon. He couldn’t reach them. Could never reach them, wherever they were; could never catch up with them now... 

No matter, Maes affirmed to himself; he felt the click and tear of shredded deltoid muscle, grit his teeth as pain pulsed from shoulder to sternum, nearly knocking the wind out of him. He needed to contact Roy... 

Maes heard a low, pitiful groan, an inarticulate sound of abject despair, and it took him a moment to realize it wasn't coming from him.

"He'll be an angel soon, Mister B. Not long now..."

Hughes turned, wide-eyed, to young Nina Tucker and her hulking companion. The girl was bent over a corpse, drawing blood from its belly with a long, thin needle. The bottle at the end of the syringe glowed with extracted ADAM, and a single liquid bead the color of pomegranate snaked down Nina's chin. When she smiled, her teeth dripped red, like a wolf's canines stained with blood.

Maes shivered.


Later

Riza clenched her hand, angry, hot-eyed, ready to throw her knuckles into Kimblee's mouth, imagining her fist flashing in the air and the meaty crunch of bone on teeth.

"Enough of that," said Kimblee sternly, close to her ear, maneuvering her into a dancing position while managing to hold her wrist well away from his face. "I thought I recognized one of Fontaine's men. I imagine you're keen to avoid his attention, no?"

A distraction, then. She couldn't gauge to what extent Kimblee was aware of her true errand, but she was certain it was far enough to make any denial a waste of time.

Still, Riza's eyes blazed in defiance. "Try that again, Kimblee," she hissed, "and I'll cripple you."

Kimblee pulled her into an abrazo as the music swelled, his hand splayed across her rib cage. "That shall make dancing rather difficult."

"Your problem, not mine."

He snickered. "Was it so awful?"

She answered by stepping, purposefully, on his foot. Kimblee's expression soured.

"Do you know what you remind me of?" he began, guiding Riza in a circular side step.

"No, but I'm sure you're going to tell me."

"Atlantic tuna... the creatures from whom Andrew Ryan leased this land when he built his great city. Hunting tuna requires an oblique approach. If one charges them directly, they flit away, mapping an elusive path until they disappear from sight with a final flap of silvery fins."

Riza took three turns in a circular pattern around Kimblee, while he shifted his weight slightly forward over the pads of his feet and then rotated his steps to match Riza's own.

"But if one is cunning and careful," he went on, with nary a change in pace, "it is possible to approach them so subtly they do not realize you are upon them until the net descends. The trick is move with them, parallel but not intersecting, guiding them gently to a suitable spawning spot where they can be captured without injury."

Kimblee drew her across his body's longitudinal meridian.

"The timing is everything." A spin. "Hurry them and they will bolt." A molinete. "Dawdle and they will dart away." A close embrace. "It requires patience, skill, and resolve..."

"Qualities which you have in abundance," said Riza, breathless from the dance.

"And which Rapture gives me ample opportunity to exercise."

Kimblee danced in the same way he played the violin, with passion and tenderness and spirit, communicating with his hands the most subtle of messages, the most valuable of lessons. He danced as though his gestures were shorthand for a much larger, fuller movement, one that held the whole world together, kept it from extinction.

Then, without warning, Riza felt herself being pulled from Kimblee grasp, spinning through the crowd until the restorationist disappeared from view. It was only when she was at the edge of the dance floor, staring at a man puffing laconically on a cigarette, martini in hand, wearing a lounge suit and an understated silk tie with a discreet Solutions insignia woven into the fabric, that she understood what had happened.

"Sinclair," she greeted him coolly, still dizzy from her turn around the dance floor.

"Miss Hawkeye." He lifted his blue domino mask slightly, as though tipping a hat.

"Kimblee won't be happy you've snagged his waltz partner. I think he had another monologue prepared."

"Fortunately for me, darling, I don't give a damn." Sinclair spoke purely from his own curiosity when he asked, "Have you ever thought that he might fancy you, Miss Hawkeye?”

"I amuse him. Things either amuse him or they don’t.” Riza paused for a moment. “I don’t like to think about the latter option at any great length.”

"Ever felt that he liked you?" Sinclair insisted on the distinction between thought and feeling with the same urgency Andrew Ryan insisted on total isolationism.

"I think it's easy to mistake understanding for empathy." She switched tact: "What I'd like to know is what you're doing here."

"Why, I was invited."

"Really."

"Really really. Sander and I have worked together on occasion, being that we have a shared interest in Gil Alexander's protector program..." Sinclair was wise to Riza's critical observation, however, and elected to change the subject. "Ah, never you mind about that. How you likin' the party?"

"I'm not."

Sinclair didn’t seem too concerned with retrieving whatever defense Riza had tried to conjure, for he had taken to staring at her with a dreamy look. "Be that as it may, you look strikin' tonight, kid."

Riza huffed a little, but there was a pink tinge beneath her eyes. "And you’re drunk."

"True. But not blind."

"Is there a reason you dragged me away from my date, Mr. Sinclair?"

"Aside from the fact that you seemed about as nervous as a long-tailed cat in a room full of rockin' chairs, because Kimblee's madder than a wet hen."

"He will be when he susses out your interference."

Sinclair waggled his eyebrows. "Don't get your feathers ruffled on my account, darling."

Riza crossed her arms. "You needn't worry about that."

"No?"

"No."

"Shame."

She heaved a long-suffering sigh; the man was worse than Jean Havoc. "If you go on flirting with every girl using those sickly little smiles, Mr. Sinclair, one of them is liable to scratch your eyes out."

"That's why I prefer a happy helpin' of fellas as well as ladies like yourself." Sinclair gestured to his hands. "Shorter fingernails, you see."

The statement resonated with Riza less like an intimate revelation of Sinclair's private life and more like another attempt at trifling with her.

Ignoring her frown of irritation, Sinclair took a measured sip of his martini and asked, after a swallow: "Is the dress custom-made? Trumpet necked numbers don't usually have sleeves..."

Riza felt the weight of Edward's telescoping rail on her arm, and inferred Sinclair's true meaning. "Yes. It's a bit tight, but it serves its purpose."

"Dandy. Take a gander behind us, Miss Hawkeye..."

She did. Huge windows looked out onto the seafloor. The sand brimmed with iridescent plants and warped, fluted columns of coral. In the distance, the lights of Rapture rippled in the darkness. A large squid drifted past the windows before chasing a school of minnows through the kelp.

And, a few feet behind Riza and Sinclair's spot at the edge of the crowd, was the executive suite elevator. Augustus removed a key ring from his waist and, his hands juggling his martini, unlocked the controls.

Riza stared at Sinclair quizzically. "Why––"

"Help you?" Sinclair shrugged. "I don’t got a dog in this fight, Miss Hawkeye, and I ain't gonna pretend to know what your boss is fixin' to do. But Roy Mustang is that odd combination of talented and noble. The former is useful, but I've a mind to think the latter makes it so incredibly easy to poke him with a metaphorical stick."

He reached for her, but seemed to realize what he was doing and dropped his arms to his sides.

"I want to help you 'cause I like you. But if I were you, kid, I'd head for the hills while the going was good."

"I'm not afraid of Andrew Ryan... or Frank Fontaine."

"You right well outta be."

"You're a coward, Mr. Sinclair. Even Andrew Ryan called you spineless… a man adapting depravity into a business ethic. I'm inclined to think he was right."

Rather than take offense, Sinclair seemed almost charmed. "Strange bedfellows and all that, my girl. Oh, Andy Ryan despises me, but that doesn't stop the ornery old goat from giving me a ring when he needs someone to make a discreet but hasty exit from the Rapture public eye."

"You're no better than Fontaine."

"Well, now, that does sting a bit." Sinclair looked genuinely hurt. "Survival ain't always pretty, but it's the only game in this town."

"Then I will play it my way," said Riza, stepping into the elevator. "And you play yours."

Riza surprised Sinclair into silence. He nodded, his smile wry and sad.

The elevator doors closed.


Earlier

A single, steady beam of light filtered in from the roof over the Atlantic Express train station. The once beautiful, arched brick walls were covered in graffiti. The floor was littered with hypodermic needles from splicers, broken bottles from drunks, and raw sewage from both. The still air smelled stale and sour, like urine, and on the dilapidated track, an old train sat with its doors open.

Maes clutched the moist metal bar running along the wall, forcing his feet towards an operator's compartment, wherein sat a control panel for the now-defunct railway, an empty supply closet, and a black bakelite telephone.

The light above Hughes's head flickered as fish swam above the arched roof, casting shadows through the tunnel like tiny black rats skittering between Maes's feet. He dragged his hand across the door of the control booth, picking up dust and grime. Wind streamed through the station, clutching scattered pieces of newspaper and old advertisements, twisting them in the air.

His blood looked like drops of dry coffee on the brick floor.

Maes lunged for the phone. His hands were shaking so badly, his palms were so slippery, the headset very nearly slipped right out of them.

Hughes almost wept when the line connected: "To speak with the operator, please dial 0."

He did as he was told, and an overly-friendly female voice grated in his ear: "Hello, how may I help you?"

"I need you to connect me to Roy Mustang immediately."

"Hold please." Then, after a moment: "I'm sorry, I don't have a number for that name."

God dammit, Roy –– of course he wouldn't be on the grid; Frank Fontaine owned the phone company. "Try the Fighting McDonagh's pub... this is a matter of life and death!"

"Just a moment... please hold while I connect you..."

"Hurry... this is an an emergency!"

Maes heard a click as a gun's safety was disengaged. 

"Now then, I'm only gonna ask you this once, boyo... put the receiver down. Quiet-like, now."

Maes clutched the phone in his hand, his palm tacking to the surface. His blood has collected in the folds of his knuckles, making the usually pale creases dark. The congealed red-brown webbed in his fingers, the rest having been washed clean by the pervading damp of the Atlantic Express maintenance junction. Fever set his skin burning and crawling with sweat.

With agonizing slowness, Maes looked over his shoulder.

The Irishman –– rather, the stranger affecting a poor Dublin accent –– held a small pistol to Hughes's head. He was a broad-shouldered, muscular man, with precise features, a lot of feathery black hair, and pale blue eyes –– too blue, like contact lenses. He wore the suspenders and tattered, dirty shirtsleeves of the Rapture working class. As he regarded Hughes, his handsome face twisted into a contemptuous, mocking smile, the corners of his mouth turned up and his front teeth exposed, like a vampire. His leg weeped red, but he hadn't removed Hughes's push-blade from his thigh.

"You really are a clever clogs, Detective Inspector," drawled the Irishman, cocking the hammer on his revolver. "Ever think it'd kill ye one day?"

Maes grimaced, grasping the edge of the table and the receiver to keep himself upright. "Who the hell are you?"

"I'd tend to yer own knittin', if I were you––"

"Drop the act, already," snapped Hughes, cutting across whatever the other man was about to say. "You're about as Irish as a brewfurd three sheets to the wind on Saint Patrick's Day..."

"It’s nothin' for you to get scundered about, Detective Inspector...

"'Sides... you won't be around long enough for it to matter none, anyway."


Later

The corporate office of Fontaine's Department Store, directly above the Manta Ray Lounge, was every shade of gray, from washed out concrete to almost steel-blue. Every line was straight, every corner sharp, and the chairs looked about as comfortable as a train station bench. A curved window dominated the back wall, boasting a stunning view of Rapture. Soft moonlight suffused the deep. A rocky wall, not twenty feet from the building, reared from the shadows like a sky-scraper, straight and tall. Here and there it was broken by fissures and caves. The crevices were festooned with sea vegetation –– seaweed, kelp, anemones. The tall, slender towers of coral soared like Gothic minarets.

Someone had erected a scale model of the department store in the center of the room. On the other side of the model was Frank Fontaine's massive oakwood desk. Riza moved forward, her mind on keeping her gait natural and her palms dry.

She took a breath, and began her search when she sat in Fontaine's chair, sweeping her dress out from under her.

The working surface of the desk was surprisingly cluttered, littered with invoices and dogeared documents and audio diaries with their reels half-unspooled. She thumbed through a pile of trust receipts, all notices of release regarding the sale of merchandise to citizen buyers, various Rapture investors... and a few people from the Seðlabanki.

"The Icelandic Central Bank," murmured Riza. "Interesting."

Another of Fontaine's loose bills of sale documented a transaction between Dr. Brigid Tenenbaum and man named Gilbert Alexander; the name remained nebulous for a few moments until Riza remembered the conversation she'd had with Augustus Sinclair, just ten minutes previously, down in the Manta Ray Lounge...

We have a shared interest in Gil Alexander's protector program.

Hawkeye memorized the details of the written statement of charge and turned towards the desk's cabinets, which were filled with Fontaine's audio diaries. The logs were labeled with sticky tape... the words Sad Saps were scrawled across the recorder at the top of the pile.

Riza hit the play button; she struggled to make out the words through a crackle of static from the damaged reel.

"...What an angle they gave me..." came Fontaine's rough Bronx accent, full of self-congratulatory pride. "I hand these mugs a cot and a bowl of soup, and they give me their lives. Who needs an army when I got Fontaine's Home for the Poor?"

Riza fought to tame a thrill in her chest, equal parts elation and alarm. Though she didn't have the strength to shake off the spell that bound her to the desk, she seemed in a moment to lose all spontaneity of feeling, passively awaiting a fate she could not escape. Dim revelations gathered at the edge of her consciousness; she could not see them, but she knew that they were there, gathering their forces toward a kind of palpability she could neither see nor hear.

She unspooled the tape from the recording device and slipped it into the bodice of her dress.

The proof of sedition Andrew Ryan so desperately wanted... the evidence Roy had been searching for...

Frank Fontaine was building an army.

"Well, don't you look a treat, sweetheart."

Riza's body stiffened and her face froze, her eyes widening in horror.

She looked up from the desktop, towards the elevator...


Earlier

Maes Hughes stared hard at the face of the Irishman... the nose, the cleft chin, the cold gaze a touch too flinty, too pitiless, to affect any semblance of kindness.

Suddenly, Maes Hughes's eyes bugged wide and he breathed in a quick intake of air.

In an instant, he deciphered the game, the long con. The body of disparate facts and figures had erupted into an avalanche of clarity, a sheet of snow shearing off the mountainside and thundering to the ground, leaving the gray cliffs exposed, knowledge issuing a messenger to announce its arrival in Maes's mind.

He hissed: "You're... you're.."


Later

"Frank Fontaine," breathed Riza Hawkeye.


Earlier

The shot sounded as though it was traveling through the water. Aside from the stuttering beat of Hughes’s heart, none of his muscles moved. The bullet cut through him with frightening efficacy –– he was just meat, just blood and bones. The shot blasted a cavity in his back as it burst crimson into the fading light. Maes felt himself propelled backward, though he had no sensation of his landing. 

As time stretched to apparent eternity, light faded from his world and consciousness finally abandoned him. 

When Maes Hughes died, he was blissfully, mercifully unaware of the fact. 

Chapter Text

"I gotta admit, sweetheart, you ain't an easy broad to pin down."

Fontaine took his time approaching her –– not quite a saunter, but without any immediate hurry or effort. When he slipped his suspenders off his shoulders, Riza noticed for the first time how strangely he was dressed. Unlike just about everyone else in the Manta Ray Lounge, Fontaine was not cutting a dash in a dinner jacket and vaudeville mask. He wore neoprene wadders and a work shirt, his face scruffy, his appearance shabby and unkempt. The part of Riza's mind not immediately preoccupied with formulating a means of escape wondered if Fontaine had come directly from the Fisheries or Futuristics, and why, exactly, he was dressed like a working stiff.

Kimblee had mentioned seeing a Fisheries employee in the dining room –– he had kissed her to shield her from detection. Riza knew, then, that the nameless desk jockey had likely been Fontaine himself, clothed in civvies, looking in on her from the edge of the crowd.

"You don't seem all that surprised to see me here," said Riza, not taking her eyes from Fontaine but keeping her hands below the surface of the desk, his incriminating audio diary already halfway under her skirts.

Fontaine moved very slowly, like a lizard who had spent too long in the shade. Instead of acknowledging her observation, he nodded towards the mess of documents and receipts on his desk.

"Like those?" His smirk was irritatingly smug –– like Roy's, if Roy were in the habit of filing his canines to a point. "Turned half my books inside out settin' it up. Figured you'd take the bait."

He had been expecting her. Riza's discontent threatened to balloon into dread, and she found she had to fight the impulse to bolt from the room... or use Edward's hidden weapon on her arm. Fontaine was eight meters away, but closing. While he was still out of range for a sodium thiopental injection, Riza suspected their proximity to each other was liable to change in the very near future, one way or another. She would wait, and in the meantime, try to find some answers.

"I hope you didn't go through all this trouble on my account."

"Trust me, girlie... this ain't for you." Fontaine's smile curled into a sneer. "See anything you like?"

If Fontaine had left evidence of his smuggling laying around for her perusal, then Riza suspected the documents of being little more than chicken feed in the context of the greater enterprise... or, more likely, Fontaine didn't anticipate her making an escape with the evidence in hand.

She swallowed.

"Don't expect me to dance attendance on you, Mr. Fontaine," managed Riza, her cool, clipped tone of voice revealing nothing of the trepidation stewing directly below the surface. She was thankful her mask shielded her expression from Fontaine's critical observation. "What is it that you want?"

He snorted. "Proper little battle-ax, ain't you?"

Riza attempted to steer his attention to the subject of her investigation, hopeful, despite herself, that she could salvage the situation, for Roy's sake if not her own: "Some say you've been providing for the destitute in Rapture's free market society," said Riza, all care and caution, knuckles bone-white around the purloined audio log. "But it seems to me as though you're using these charity scams to boost your public image in opposition to Andrew Ryan's... and to fashion yourself an army against him."

Fontaine barked a laugh. "Solidarity angle's smart, ain't it? Poorhouses and breadlines? High-grade bunko. And they really buy into the whole song and dance. They're so desperate for an ounce of kindness, it don't even occur to 'em that Rapture just ain't their town anymore. Though your boss," he spat the word, as though he would have liked to call Roy something far fouler, "going after Ryan all cockeyed like he is, seems to labor under this... misimpression that Rapture's his for the takin'." 

Riza's ribs ached, fear suddenly pressing down on her like a stone, leaving her breathless. She could feel Fontaine's malevolence in the turgid air all around her, swelling under the derma of his friendliness.

Suddenly, Fontaine raised his shoulders. “But I ain't got time for men like Mustang beatin' swords into plowshares. You, on the other hand... you're far more interestin'."

Several scenarios had raced through Riza’s mind over the course of the last few minutes, none of them pleasant. What she had not anticipated, however, was Fontaine parking himself on the corner of his desk, rolling up his shirtsleeves, and looking as though he was ready to talk business.

Riza blinked only intermittently, a part of her fearful Fontaine would vanish like a Houdini splicer and reappear behind her with a knife between her shoulder blades. Her every instinct screamed at her to withdraw to the relative safety of Cohen’s party. Immediate concerns, however, kept her planted firmly behind Fontaine’s desk. “I’m listening.”

“Riza... can I call you Riza?”

“No.”

“You see, Riza, this leaky bucket of a city is yolked to the free market, same beast that’s got Ryan prostratin’ himself like some dumb dora catchin' religion –– any one mook's ties to his pals are always a means to an end but never an end in itself. Now, plasmids got me rakin’ the kinda scratch that makes Ryan look like he's runnin' a paper route, but it ain’t a one-man show. Frau Kraut, for example, over at Point Prometheus? She ain’t no crackpot. I got the best workin’ for me.”

Her ability to read other people may not have been as efficacious as Roy's own, but Frank Fontaine had never struck Riza as the sort to dance around a direct point. He had cultivated a reputation for being ruthlessly efficient, a businessman for whom achieving maximum productivity with minimum wasted effort was the ideal. As she considered his words, Riza cast about for a suitable expression, but finding nothing adequate for her impatience, settled on a tight frown. "If I didn't know any better, Mr. Fontaine, I'd say this sounded like a job proposal."

He inclined his head, almost conspiratorially. "Ryan's might be gettin' a little long in the tooth, but he's gotta point with that Great Chain swindle of his. We all got our hands on the links... even if Fontaine Futuristics... and our work with ADAM, is meanin' to nudge it in some new direction."

"You have the plasmids, Mr. Fontaine. It seems to me as though your influence on the Chain is less of a nudge and more of a yank."

The smile Fontaine forced at the sound of Riza's declaration was splintery, his folded hands tightening almost imperceptibly around each other. "Not all the plasmids, sweetheart."

The silence that fell was thick enough to carve. As Fontaine held her gaze, Riza could see the tautness of his neck muscles and the arch of his clavicle. But underneath his expression, she glimpsed a second face, barely more than a few jagged, suggestive lines, but arranged with a surprising energy and violence: his head turned the other way, his mouth open in a kind of snarl. The two heads pointing in opposite directions gave Fontaine a disturbing sense of movement, and Riza a distinct awareness of the imminent danger the businessman presented.

"At present," Fontaine went on, "while these sad saps might have a slight preference for Ryan's promises of prosperity over my business interests, they ain't arguin' the toss. But I figure that firebug's plasmid would change all that. It's the lynchpin, the means by which this city's stubborn fondness for Ryan's burners and big talk would be cast off, and the rubes raked in as fodder for long cons yet to come..."

Riza glared. "Perhaps you ought to be having this discussion with Roy Mustang, Mr. Fontaine. If it's market competition you're worried about, then––"

Before Riza could finish, Fontaine's hand flew across the desk, snatching a sheet of paper and making Riza flinch. Snickering quietly at her reaction, Fontaine unfolded the document.

"You weren't lookin' hard enough, sweetheart," he confided, flashing her what appeared to be a handwritten transcript, the movement too quick for her to make out the contents. "See, I got it on good authority that if I'm keen to acquire Roy Mustang's plasmid, you're the broad to see."

"Your information was incorrect. I––"

"Berthold Hawkeye. Ring any bells?"

Riza's placid expression fractured, falling and shattering into a thousand pieces, some of them with marks on their empty husks as though Fontaine had torn them from her with his teeth. Riza felt a stirring coming from deep within her belly, voices of caution murmuring against the inside of her head.

"Shortly before dinner on the 17th of February, I informed Professor Hawkeye that an announcement had been made by the BBC... an Allied firebombing had occured in the city of Dresden."

Riza's blood ran cold when she realized Fontaine was reading directly from the memo in his hand, affecting an accent so distinct from the one tilled from the boroughs of New York that it could have very well been an entirely different person speaking:

"Hawkeye was completely shattered by the news and said that he felt personally responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people, as it was his original discovery which had made the "weapon" possible. He told me that he had originally contemplated suicide when he realized the terrible potentialities of his discovery; I suspect he feels his fears have been realized, and believes he alone is to blame. With the help of considerable alcoholic stimulant, I managed to calm him and we went down to dinner."

Riza Hawkeye tried to fix the warmth inside her, but it was neither embarrassment, nor understanding, nor fear, so remained nameless.

"Accordin' to the ink slingers, 'em eggheads over in New Mexico were buildin' atom bombs," reiterated Fontaine, his uncannily chameleonic voice back to normal; he folded the transcript and slid it into the pocket of his waders, "but what Tom, Dick, and 'Arry don't know is behind closed doors, one of their number was doin' secret work on genetic mutations an' nucleotide sequences."

It was true, affirmed Riza to herself: the primary objective of the Manhattan Project had been the development of atomic weaponry, but well before World War II, her father had been commissioned by the United States government to use the Project Y resources to further his own research. While Fermi was splitting atoms, Berthold Hawkeye was mapping the human genome, studying the role that genetic variations played in disease, physical appearance, athletic ability. Her father had been researching variants of a special protein called alpha-actinin-3, which controlled fast-twitch muscle fibres, the cells responsible for the speedy tensing and flexing of the tissues involved in sprinting or weight-lifting... the heat kinetics of movement, and later, the friction of surface contact... 

Riza tried to edge her way around the desk; Fontaine matched her movement for movement. "My compliments to your sniffer dogs, Mr. Fontaine. Most of that information is classified at the highest level."

"Like I said... I got the best. Now then, bein' as you're old man Hawkeye's kid n'all, I figure you're the right person to see about acquirin' that research."

"The last I saw of my father was before my deployment... when he publicly disowned me. He was dead when I returned home from the war." Riza shook her head. "And in any case, he occupied a world all his own... one that held no place for me."

"Don't mistake me, sweetheart, this ain't no five finger discount. I know you're livin' on the breadline. I know that fat fuck Sinclair is featherin' his nest while you're fightin' to keep your head above water." His vitreous eyes flashed as he shifted into and out of the dim light cast by the ocean. "You hand over the genetic code for that plasmid of Mustang's, and I'll make sure you'll never want for nothin' ever again."

"I don't have what you're looking for," Riza ground out.

"You don't, huh?"

"No."

Fontaine's features were like granite. "Say... I were to introduce those two Elric brats to a couple live jumper cables... wouldn't jog your memory none?"

Riza swallowed again. "You'd be wasting your time."

"So that's a no? That's really too bad." Fontaine threw his hands up, shrugging. "Well, sweetheart... can't say I didn't try Ryan's way.

"Now... it's my turn."

Fontaine was big, but he moved like a mako shark through the water, nimble and quick. Riza grunted as he grabbed the strap of her dress, tearing the sleeve seam from the collar, and attempted to wrestle her flat to the desk. Riza bladed her hand and used it to strike Fontaine in the ribs –– he sucked in a breath as Riza tore his intercostal muscles. She heard the click of fractured bone and cartilage grinding against each other. She threw a punch as Fontaine doubled over, leaning into it with the full force of the wind left from his movement. Her fist swept past his head, Fontaine dodging just under the wire; twisting her abdomen, Riza piked her legs to pull them clear, whipping around to face him again.

But Fontaine released her clothes only long enough for his hand to fist in her hair, before bringing her face down sharply to the side of his desk and onto his bent knee. Blood exploded from Riza's nose and her vision shattered. Riza had little more than a split second to spit blood before she was roughly pushed forward on to the desk, her forehead smacking against the wooden surface. Fontaine's hand forced back the surprised yelp from her as it covered her mouth. She felt him pressing himself behind her, his weight holding her down, stopping her from struggling against him. Her muffled cries of protest couldn't escape from behind his palm.

When Riza rolled her eyes up, there was a hint of shadow under Fontaine's cheekbones, a sketch of crows-feet around his eyes, a look of hostility too fierce to be simple anger. "What you makin' so much fuss about?" Fontaine grabbed her lower jaw and shook it gently. He flashed his teeth with every exaggerated word: "Remember, sweetheart... I gave you a chance..."

Riza turned her gaze from the table under her cheek, to Fontaine, back to the table. She was aware of the sleeve of her dress sliding free, a tear in the slippery fabric from the shoulder to the middle of her back...

Charmeuse. Too thin... too fragile...

Riza could feel Fontaine's chest heaving over her. He suddenly grabbed both of her hands with one of his own, pinning them down on the back of her own head, which in turn pressed her face down into the hard, unyielding surface of the desk.

"What the fuck is this...?!"

Riza found, in that moment, she didn't know which was worse: the agony of Fontaine's physical assault or the realization of her utter hatred, of her moral certainty that the man had stepped so beyond the bounds of what she could accept that she felt he deserved not just pain, but pain of such brutality, such inhumanity, that it would make Roy Mustang turn from her in shame. She learned, in an instant, the full capacity of her hatred, in a lesson hammered home with her face ground into the wood and her back exposed to the chill evening air.

And, laid bare for Fontaine's scrutiny, a tattoo... her father's research inked on the skin above her cervical and thoracic vertebrae.

Purines and pyrimidines. Pentose sugars. Phosphate groups. The precise mathematical calculations for the insertion or deletion of bases in the genome coding for the alpha-actinin-3 protein.

The genetic cipher for Roy Mustang's flame plasmid.

"The fuck is this, you little bitch!"

Fontaine grabbed her shoulder and flipped her over, until her back was against the desk. Riza's heart pulsed in the pit at the base of her throat as though she was swallowing rocks. Blood filled her mouth from her injured nose, the taste sharp and metallic, like sucking on an old coin. Her skin was ashen and her lips were fixed open in a perpetual yet silent scream. Disorientated from the blow to the nose, more than likely concussed, she wasn’t able to roll herself over, to sit up, to push him off. So she kicked her legs against Fontaine’s shins and barred her teeth in a snarl, like a trapped animal calling for its mate. For food. For flesh.

Fontaine's blazing amber eyes pulled into a squint when he glared down at her, reminding Riza of the pit vipers from the deserts of New Mexico, around the government compound where she’d grown up.

"Who burnt the damn thing off?"


Several Days Previously

Kimblee gestured towards the workshop at the back of the studio, a small, wood-paneled room where he did the vast majority of his restoration work.

"In there, Miss Hawkeye. And please... remove your clothes."

Kimblee's tone was strange, a mixture of restraint and subtle conviction. He did not make light of the request, nor did he attempt to couch his words in chivalrous courtesy. He wouldn't treat her with disrespect or scorn her dignity by pretending this was to be anything other than what she expected.

In the dark back room of the shop, even the ticking of the clock on the mantlepiece seemed calmer, more measured, like a heartbeat at rest. There must have been a vent in the wall, for Riza felt the air move like cool water; the aromas of cromonese polish and rosewood and poplar, the aromatic smell of the curled wood shavings, suffused the room. A part of her took some small comfort in the scents. Another part of her knew the odors came from natural volatile chemicals in the wood called phenols.

There was an irony there, she supposed.

Riza unbuttoned her shirt, allowing the starchy fabric to slip from her shoulders and gather at her feet in an off-white puddle. She kicked the cloth loose, struggled to turn her gaze down to look at the straps of her undergarments. She touched, in the hollow of two vertebrae, the catch fastening the back of her bra, and quickly slipped the clasp. She extended her arm, turned it back and forth: light jumped and twitched across the glisten of sweat on her skin, and the garment dropped to join her shirt on the floor. The motions were all surreal, vaguely abstract, figurative and byzantine.

"The previous burn injuries are more discolored than I anticipated," murmured Kimblee from directly behind her, his eyes drilling holes into the inked crests of her back until her spine wanted to cave in a recoil. "It seems I have some adjustments to make."

Suddenly, Riza felt the full magnitude of her nakedness, her tattooed back no longer shielded from his scrutiny, from his gaze as it sapped the warmth from the air.

When she chanced a glance over one shoulder, Kimblee's expression was too calm to communicate the gravity of what she asked of him –– it seemed unlikely that he was making the connections she wanted him to make, to adopt the grace necessary to release her from the anger and pain she had carried and suffered for so long. Still... even if Riza knew she would find no gentleness or kindness in his provisions of care, she could not imagine Kimblee's quicksilver mind not making at least some note of her anguish, of her silent plea to get the entire ordeal over with as quickly as possible.

Thirty seconds elapsed. Forty. A minute. The time somehow felt longer in her mind, with the distorting effects of the silence and the heady smell of poplar shavings. Even the pendulum in the belly of the clock seemed to slow in its arc, until Riza was struck with the sudden, irrational fear that this was going to last forever.

Maybe, deep down, Kimblee was bobbing serenely in the warm pool of his own thoughts as the moments fell away, as though expecting her, in a sudden fit of panic or fear, to snatch him from his intended actions at the last moment. To save herself.

Which meant he still didn't seem to understand –– or, rather, understood perfectly well, and just didn't care about –– what their dark, silent ceremony portended for her and the legacy of her father's research.

The sudden fury at the thought tightened her chest, stiffening every muscle in her body.

"You're trembling," said Kimblee, with a half-curled smile.   His words were soft and honeyed, too sweet for kindness . "Nothing is going to happen to you... nothing you have not already anticipated."

"Don't humor me with your false concern," snapped Riza, crossing her arms in front of her chest. "I'm little more than meat to you."

In her peripheries, Kimblee had made to hand her a block of leather, something to clutch between her teeth. But he paused, then, to slide his gaze in a deliberate, self-indulgent sweep over the curve of her stomach, her breasts, her collar bones, before reconnecting with her now-widened eyes.

"I wasn't aware you wanted to be anything more to me, Miss Hawkeye."

"Don't patronize me. All you need from me is human flesh, a willing test subject."

"And from me, an invitation to Sander's little soirée, as well as this unsightly thing," he traced a curve of her tattoo –– a benzene ring inscribed in red ink, "scrubbed from your skin, no?"

"Is there a problem?"

"No..." he mused, his tone turning wistful: "The last time I burned you, it was with the understanding that I would ask Cohen to leave young Kain Fuery alone. The time before, in exchange for my assistance in getting the Elric brothers apprenticed to Bill McDonagh. Tell me, my dear, when there is nothing left of your back save scars, how do you intend to compensate me for my services?" He lay his hand, palm done, on her spine. "What price are you willing to pay to save Roy Mustang's soul?"

"This is my father's research... my burden to bear, not his." She glared daggers at him. "The business of Rapture is business, Kimblee. This thing between us... it's just another transaction."

"A sort of equivalent exchange, eh? How trite."

"Just get on with it."

"Very well." He handed her the leather block. Riza was forced to remove her arm to place it between her teeth. Unlike before, however, Kimblee had slipped back into the role of objective observor, the most serious and the most hilarious things, the most beautiful and the most abhorent, to him equally considered, calculated, and reconciled. He regarded her with no more yearning than she would a straw mannequin on the firing range.

"Think of your skin as food, Miss Hawkeye," he commanded: Riza's muscles stretched tight with apprehension. "You are little more than a complex assemblage of proteins, fats, carbohydrates. These compounds react differently to the presence of kinetic fiction. The carbohydrates are just sugars, which undergo complete combustion into carbon dioxide and water, releasing energy. The fats burn completely, too, but they have a tendency to melt first. The proteins unravel and get quite sticky when heated..."

Riza felt his open palm grow hot on her skin for only a second. Then Kimblee sighed as the ADAM churned in his bloodstream... before the pain hit her, hard enough to drive the air from her lungs.

An inferno blazed from beneath Riza's shoulder blade, as though Kimblee had set a firecracker beneath her skin. She bit hard into the leather block until her teeth ached and her jaw cramped, though there were no screams. The pain shot through her abdomen, and without her realizing it her body folded, curling into something fetal. Kimblee kept his hand over the tattoo, his plasmid –– a combustive combination of electro-bolt, SportsBoost, and some genetic material of his own mysterious fashioning –– making her flesh bubble.

The agony felt endless, though the burning could not have lasted more than ten seconds –– stretching beyond the horizon and spreading around Riza like an oil slick on the ocean's surface. She heaved and moaned as wave after wave of pain frothed over each other, cresting and falling. The pure depth and vastness of it was beyond comprehension, her eyes unable to focus on anything in the room... on the instruments, on the walls or the floor, on Kimblee. Space and time seemed to ripple and swell, her body black and broken like the ocean. Like the dead-tossed waves.

He stopped as suddenly as he began. Riza hadn’t eaten for hours and her body had nothing to eject, but that didn’t stop it trying. After a few moments, her spasms passed, and she found herself clutching the edge of Kimblee's work table. When his hands found her again, his fingertips were cold with silver sulfadiazine cream, rubbing small circles into the shiny white burn beneath her shoulder blade.

"The chemical products themselves are not promoting at a rate I find sufficient," said Kimblee, clinical and calm –– as cold as the North Atlantic –– in his ministrations. He didn't seem to care about her injuries so much as the results of his experiment. "The self-sustaining fission reaction necessitates further... tweaking."

Riza's words tripped over themselves, tiny and weak, her teeth chattering: "You're a monster, K-Kimblee."

She felt his smile against the back of her neck. "And yet you're the one who asked me to deface your back in the first place. To save yourself from your father's burden... but more importantly, I suspect, to save your beloved superior from having to do this himself." His breath was warm in her ear, lowering to a dulcet murmur. "Throwing stones and all that, Miss Hawkeye. And I have to say...

"There is a lot of glass in Rapture."


 "It's gone, Fontaine," snarled Riza. She peered up at him, unblinking, from where he held her down. "The research is useless to you now."

The manic tightness around Fontaine's eyes and his mouth made him look like one of the splicers, like someone in possession of precious few of their wits. Before Riza could muster the strength to wiggle free, however, his hands found her throat.

As his grip tightened, Riza could gasp, but barely. Her heart faltered inside her chest, her body in a panic. Fontaine's face was cold, flat –– a raw, hollow fury quite beyond any anger Riza had known before; he was almost a completely separate creature from the businessman with the greasy smile.

"I'll wring your neck for that, you little bitch," he growled.

Riza thrashed, but her fingernails couldn't reach him. She felt as though she couldn't turn her neck without it snapping in Fontaine's grip. Her eyes were blurring, a wash of red closing in. And Fontaine's words bounded inside her skull, carrying her nearly helpless in their wake.

Nearly helpless.

Riza crumpled, trying to force a sob through a blocked throat, fooling Fontaine into thinking she was losing consciousness. With the last reserves of her strength, Riza pushed the elbow of her right arm close to her ribs, and felt the elastic on the telescoping rail release a small hypodermic filled with sodium thiopental... right into the fatty tissue of Fontaine's arm.

Edward's invention worked perfectly.

Fontaine froze, his face fixed in momentary astonishment, his hands still around her neck, before his legs buckled and he collapsed in a crumpled heap to his office floor.

Riza stood slowly, allowing herself a moment to suck lungfuls of blessed air, her hands brushing the bruising around her neck. Despite the ache in her chest and the hammer blows of her heart, the briny mustiness of Rapture had never tasted so sweet.

Then, with Fontaine's audio log still hidden inside her dress, Riza Hawkeye brushed dust from the desk off her dress, straightened her mask, and made for the elevator.

For Roy.

Chapter Text

Roy swirled his drink in his hand, looking down into the whiskey with flat indifference. He probably should not have been drinking while his men were on a job, but despite himself, the wooden bitterness of the drink was a luxury he couldn’t quite deny himself. 

"Well, I'm officially bored."

Roy set his whiskey down hard on the countertop and glared sidelong at Havoc. "We've only been here an hour."

"Fifty eight minutes precisely, sir."

Roy rolled his eyes in the other direction. "Thank you, Falman."

"You're welcome, sir."

He fought the urge to pinch his nose. Rather than assuage his anxiety, the whiskey only managed to make his headache worse.

"Hey Falman, why don'tcha ask that chick at the end of the bar to come have a drink with us?"

Vato looked scandalized. "Absolutely not!"

Jean grinned impishly. "Don't tell me you're piss-scared of a bit of flirting."

"I don't flirt," huffed Falman. Then, after a pause, he muttered: "I talk at people in the hope that at least one of them finds it endearing..."

Havoc snorted. Roy threw back another swallow of whiskey, wishing he was somewhere else. Anywhere else. 

"Okay, then, wanna see how many oyster crackers I can fit in my mouth?"

"Not particularly, Jean, n––"

"Ten Ryan dollars I can fit twenty."

Roy emitted a long, deep breath as Havoc lunged across the countertop for a packet of crackers. Jean Havoc and Vato Falman were good men and informants of the highest distinction, but their personalities necessitated some kind of mitigating presence –– to lesson the gravity of their strange characters, if nothing else. Heymans Breda kept Jean from acting stupid –– at least, stupider than was expected –– and Kain Fuery had a way of grounding Falman when the latter threatened to disappear into his own thoughts.

Unfortunately, both men were at present conspicuously absent. Kain Fuery's work with Rapture Radio made him too easily identifiable and would attract the wrong sort of attention in a place like the Fighting McDonagh's in Port Neptune, and Breda was currently playing the shamus with Hughes over at Fontaine Futuristics. 

Roy listened to Havoc and Falman spill cracker crumbs on the bar floor and took another sip of whiskey. He looked around the pub –– at the scrawny bartender with droopy eyelids picking his teeth with a swizzle stick, chatting quietly with a woman seated at the bar. Her flushed, shingled cheeks suggested plasmid use, but her coherent speech told Roy she had not yet succumbed to full-blown ADAM addiction. Otherwise, the Fighting McDonagh's was empty. The proprietor himself was otherwise holed-up  in the foundries of Hephaestus Core. Evidently, something had gone wrong with a new cold water pump that required Bill's immediate attention.

It was perhaps more than mere coincidence that the designer of the pump was Edward Elric –– Roy had promised the boy lunch for a week in return for keeping McDonagh distracted.

Roy turned to his left, looking over his shoulder to grumble something uncomplimentary about Short Stack to Riza... only to be reminded, not for the first time, that his guardian was not standing two steps behind him. 

He knew Hawkeye would have very little patience for his pity and less for his concern for her safety, but he couldn't stop the summersault of his stomach at the thought of her in Sander Cohen's company... in Solf J. Kimblee's. As the evening progressed, it had reached the point where Roy couldn't ascertain whether it was alcohol or bile making his throat burn.

"That's seventeen."

"Now-ish no..." gargled Jean, which Roy took to be a contradiction of Falman's assessment. "There'sh twenny won..."

"Havoc, there are not twenty one oyster crackers in your mouth."

"Yesh thar ish."

In an effort to ignore his associates' antics, Roy's attention drifted again to his surroundings: the dim bulbs behind red-tasseled lamp shades illuminated each of a dozen maroon booths, which marched along one wall toward a murky porthole. Chipped formica tables anchored the booths in place. Behind the bar, sitting on glass shelves in front of a cloudy mirror, were rows of bottles –– Chechnya vodka and Old Harbinger beer and Lacas scotch –– each looking as forlorn as the people for whom they waited.

The crash of the Fighting McDonagh's front doors broke Roy from his quiet observation. Footsteps pounding heavily on the floorboards, breaths coming in labored, panting gasps, Heymans Breda crashed against the bar at Roy's side. To Mustang's alarm, the gingery man looked about as green as the Moonbeam absinthe behind the counter.

"The missing girls..." he puffed, hands on his knees, bent over at the waist as he fought to catch his breath. "Over... at Fontaine's. The Tucker kid..."

"Woah, ease up there, big guy." Havoc, bar snacks forgotten, rubbed small circles into Heymans's back. "What's the matter?"

For the first time since Roy had met him, Breda sounded truly frightened, a glisten of sweat shining on his upper lip. "It's Fontaine..." he croaked. "Somethin'... somethin' to do with the Big Daddies and... and the orphaned girls... with ADAM..."

Nameless worry pounded in Roy's head like the dull drumbeat of drunkenness. The details of the Fighting McDonagh's resolved themselves slowly: a flash-lag effect of Breda's obvious fear and the apocalyptic aftershocks it portended.

"Heymans," asked Roy, slowly.

"Where's Hughes?"


Two Days Later

Andrew Ryan was in a foul mood.

The only thing that moved was his masticating jaw, as though tonguing food from his small, gray teeth. His eyes were hard-rimmed and fixed, so much so that it was as though he was no longer able to move his eyeballs, like they'd rusted in their sockets. His long-boned expression, tapering to a pointed chin, was stern, even a little agitated, his gaze steady but impatient.

"The children, you say..." muttered Ryan, brow furrowed as he considered Sinclair.

Augustus inhaled slowly, his innards unfurling in the smoke. Taking a small, slow draw of his cigarette, he said: "Sure seems that way, Chief. Rapture's a high-stakes town, and Frankie Fontaine's Lil' Dimples are the jackpot. Once Futuristics bought a stake in the plasmid business, turning a profit was gravy."

Sinclair affirmed to himself what little information he'd scrounged from Roy Mustang's intel and Riza's infiltration of the Manta Ray executive office: Fontaine and his eggheads were using the Little Sisters Orphanages to kidnap young girls, before genetically altering and mentally conditioning them to reclaim ADAM from corpses around Rapture. According to additional statistics collected by a skinny Mendel Memorial librarian named Fenric or Fallow or something, the mollusks endemic to the sea floor did not naturally produce enough ADAM for serious research and commercial exploitation. Dr. Brigid Tenenbaum, under Fontaine's superivison, had developed a procedure whereby an ADAM slug was implanted in a human host's stomach, and the symbiotic interaction between host and slug produced up to thirty times the yield of usable ADAM. Young girls, apparently, were the only viable hosts. 

In a subconscious gesture of disgust, Augustus's nose wrinkled and he drew his head backwards. "From what I've been able to gather, most of the girls in Fontaine's keep are orphans from the poorhouses. Accordin' to his ledger, a vast majority of the missin' tykes get turned into these gatherers."

"It's astonishingly efficient," conceded Ryan resentfully, his mustache twitching. "Fontaine floods the market with newer and better plasmids, a vast majority of which are highly addictive, thereby aggravating the opiate crisis, resulting in more deaths, more orphans––"

"And more waifs to use as his little ADAM factories," finished Sinclair, grimly. "More plasmids, more orphans, more ADAM, et cetera and so forth."

Augustus had to admit to a certain grudging respect for the brute: Fontaine had flipped Rapture on its dome. Topside, the type of efficiency and sustainability Fontaine favored tended to be enemies of a competitive economic structure, since they ran counter to the mechanics required to perpetuate consumption. But, what with the growing number of splicers and the dark underbelly of the entire plasmid market, coupled with Rapture's isolationist policies, the entire system, in an economic sense, was based on restriction. Scarcity and desperation had become the movers of money. The more problems there were, the more secure Fontaine's seat on the gravy train became. The smuggling was incidental, an opportunistic exploitation of the social unrest Fontaine had helped to sow.

"So you figure you outta have the scoundrel trussed up before the Council?" asked Augustus benignly.

"Raise your sights, Sinclair," grumbled Ryan, picking up a pen and paper. "We drew a line in the sand, and that hoodlum elected to scuff it out with the heel of his shoe. Fontaine is finished."

"Oh?"

"We have more than enough evidence to launch a raid on the Fisheries," decided Ryan, his tone brooking no argument –– not that Sinclair had any to give. "Aside from the intelligences obtained by young Miss Hawkeye, the murder of the detective inspector near the Futuristics campus gives the Council the necessary authority to waive certain... provisos regarding Fontaine's private shareholdings. The circumstances warrant a strong response, Sinclair."

Augustus quirked an eyebrow. "So what are we arrestin' Fontaine for, Chief? Kidnappin', smugglin', or murder?"

Ryan rasped his back molars in irritation; Sinclair tried not to look too pleased with himself. "All of them. None of them. It doesn't matter. But Hughes's death was the final straw. Fontaine's only leverage is a whisper among the weak. For him, there is a fate worse than death. Do you know its name, Sinclair?" Andrew's blue eyes turned flinty, almost vicious. "Silence."

The mention of the detective inspector evoked a sentiment within Augustus he had not entirely anticipated. Maes Hughes had not been a friend, but he had not been an enemy, either. In Rapture's world of ever-increasing division, neutrality was a rare thing, indeed. Sinclair had little doubt that the city had lost a good man, Bradley and Ryan a good investigator, and Riza... 

She had lost a good friend.

Just what the poor girl needed.

The sight of Riza's stumbling from the Manta Ray Lounge elevator, her dress in tatters, her face busted, was one Augustus knew he would not soon scrub from his memories. Riza had not deigned to divulge the details of what had happened to her, and he had known better than to ask. After giving her his coat and escorting her from the party –– the pair of them thankful their masks obscured their identities from curious onlookers –– Riza had demanded an immediate audience with Ryan, and Sinclair, with some reluctance, had obliged.

Not long afterwards, word reached Bradley's desk that a Rapture citizen had entered the Atlantic Express train station at Fontaine Futuristics, and had stumbled across a body.

Maes Hughes was confirmed dead less than a day later.

"In the meantime," Ryan went on, breaking Sinclair from more maudlin thoughts, "Miss Hawkeye may be needed to provide testimony should Fontaine put up a fight and this business in the Fisheries turn ugly. The parasite's hanger-ons could very well do her an injury before she is able to give a spoken statement before the Council. I want her protected, Sinclair."

Augustus's mouth twisted into a wry smile. He tapped ash from the end of his cigarette holder, ignoring Andy Ryan's scowl as the ash piled on the man's plush carpet. "Never you mind about that, Chief.

"I sent her to the safest place in the city."


Elsewhere

Roy sat sprawled out on his couch, half asleep but entirely drunk, torturing himself by tearing memories out of his mind at random like matches from a matchbook, striking them one at a time and systematically setting himself on fire.

He had taken to staring out the window, at the anemones unfurling like soft and brilliant flowers. The sharp smell of iodine from the algae, the lime of calcareous proteans, coalescing with the bitterness of whiskey, was strong enough to make Roy want to retch.

He pressed his sweating hands to his face, ground the heels of his palms into his eye sockets. His skin felt cold to the touch. His whole room was like an ice box. A damp and tangible chill wrapped itself around him; Roy breathed out slowly, trying to recover his composure. His breath was visible, like a thick cloud of fog shrouding him as he sat there, stricken, his mind anesthetized by the alcohol. 

Drink and grief braided together. Intoxication, he concluded, was a swift and effective catalyst for heartbreak. Roy caught a glimpse of himself in the reflective surface of his coffee table; he had a deranged look about him, a glimmer and a glint over his eyes, as though, in a moment of divine revelation, he knew how the world worked, and scoffed at its moral repugnance.

Each time Roy closed his eyes, his thoughts showed him variations on the same view, the same vision, but from thousands upon thousands of marginally different perspectives. A ticket booth. A bullet wound. A body. They came to him simultaneously and he had bite back the urge to cry out, the pain was so great. Reality seemed shattered, and Roy was caged, imprisoned behind the impenetrable barrier of his own helplessness, his inability to change what had happened. He felt crushed and broken as multiple regrets, a myriad griefs, all trapped under glass, merged together inside of him. The fractured, mutated shades of light, streaming through from the ocean, were warped, bent out of shape.

And his own grief was thick and small and shatter-proof. He felt the airlessness, the claustrophobia, the hurt borne of it, saturating the air around him.

Roy decided, then, that his sorrow had had a strange way of reuniting him with Maes. It was a merging; he felt as though a part of him was trying desperately to disappear right alongside his best friend. To follow Hughes as far as the living were permitted to go... and considering, at times, going even further than that...

But Roy knew, eventually, the mourning would pass and he would phase back into the world. Without Maes.

A fragment had broken from Roy's heart. A cut that would never heal, and an empty space where before there had been something bright and warm and without name. A vicious, screaming grief had burrowed into the hollow, and all it seemed to want to hear was its own echo.

Along the back of Roy's kitchen counter were several gallons of wine, white and red, and a dozen bottles of whiskeys, liqueurs, and brandies. He had lost track of how much he had consumed over the course of the evening. But when Roy heard a knock on his door –– a distant, plummy sound, as though trapped in bubbles –– and lurched to his feet, he knocked over two empty bottles of wine and a carafe of expensive whiskey, of which only the dregs remained. The taste of burning at the back of Roy’s throat flooded forward; he swallowed down the bile, grimacing. He stalked towards the door, feeling for the wall as though it might escape him unless he kept in touch with it.

Roy eventually found the doorknob, not before giving himself a splinter and bruising his knuckles, muttering venomously about Ryan's bastards disturbing him at some ungodly hour of the night. He opened his front door...

And saw the shock register on Riza Hawkeye's face before she could hide it. Her hand was still poised to knock, hanging suspended in midair. They stared at each other –– Roy in the doorway, Riza in the hall –– for a few long seconds before Hawkeye lowered her hand and bore her expression in a scowl.

"Damn Sinclair," she breathed. 

"Sinclair..." slurred Roy, not quite able to put two and two together, and not convinced he wasn't hallucinating Riza entirely. Her face was indistinct and vague behind the brume of his inebriation, her blonde hair like a fan of coral. A hazy nimbus radiated from her clothes, making her look airy, almost ethereal, against the dark and damp corridor.

“I was ordered by Ryan to go into witness protection,” she explained gently, her soft-spoken words still enough to make Roy's head throb. “He didn’t say where I was supposed to go. Sinclair gave me an address.”

My address,” Roy finished, the realization crystallizing slowly, like calcium salts dripping into a stalagmite. Of course, Riza knew he lived in Mercury Suites, but she had staunchly refused Roy’s every invitation to visit –– most made in jest, but a few, Roy admitted to himself, cast with the narrowest line of yearning.

“Sir…” Riza looked him up and down, her expression creasing in concern, in pain. She stared at him as though seeing him for the first time. Roy became acutely aware of the state he was in. His white shirt mis-buttoned and stained, his breath reeking of alcohol, his eyes red-rimmed and swollen. His face wet from tears.

Riza’s anguish surged with her every breath. Roy could almost measure the swell between each peak. It never seemed sufficiently soothed by her long intakes of air, the heat of their shared proximity. Roy felt around inside himself for grief, or horror, or rage at the sight of her. But all he could feel was the dulled tension in his muscles as he held himself in the doorway –– in his drunkenness neither moving nor at rest.

The currents of silence and sorrow buoyed Roy, the wounds of the city falling away. The moments seemed to drag their heels as the slowed-down world flickered past. Riza’s eyes were unguarded, burdened with a grief that took his breath away. And Roy realized, then, that he couldn't bear it. He wanted to slam the door in her face, to kiss her, to throw back his head and howl.

“Riza,” he gasped, the sound almost a sob. His eyes stung, and he blinked. “He’s gone… Riza.”

“Roy…”

“He’s gone… and I… I can’t bring him back.”

Something tore inside of him. Roy’s legs began to tremble, violently. He stumbled from the doorway and Riza took a step inside, shutting them in the apartment. Roy arched his back, chest to the ceiling, driving out a cry that pulled from far deeper than the bottom of his lungs. 

“What have I done,” he whispered hoarsely, the words weak and watery. “Riza, what have I done?”

“You are not the one who murdered him, Roy,” she said slowly, with impossible gentleness. Though she did not touch him, his proximity to her was like being inside her consciousness, a closeness that real life with its real bodies could never hope to imitate. “You have done nothing.”

“If I hadn’t…” Roy swallowed. “If I hadn’t challenged Ryan… Fontaine…”

“Maes’s sacrifice was done for you… not committed by you. This is not your fault.”

Roy’s lip quivered. “Would it have been better…” He spoke so indistinctly his words seemed to blur together like paint in rainwater. “Would it have been better if it had been…”

Her grip on his arms, when it came, felt like drowning in the half-empty carafe of whiskey all over again, except this time, he was drunk on Riza’s eyes, her smell, the luster of her hair. She seemed to encompass multitudes: flexible and soft. Subtly powerful and open. Wild and serene.

“How dare you,” she said quietly, but with absolutely frigid clarity.

Roy found himself folding to the authority in her voice, too tired and sad and drunk to protest.

“I just told you a man died so that your life could become something new and worthwhile. I just told you a good man died. Your friend. He sacrificed himself so that you could live, Roy Mustang. And you immediately want to throw that gift away? How dare you. You wouldn’t deserve to look Maes in the eye, in the afterlife.”

“Riza––“

“You can be so damnably selfish, to think all of this is about you.” She pulled in a shuddering breath. “And you can be so cruel, to think we would not feel your absence.”

She was not angry, realized Roy. Just frightened.

We…”

“I can’t afford to lose you, Roy Mustang.”

His own grief seemed suddenly rootless, his moorings poised to blow away. Roy did not respond, only clung harder to her, holding her with all the desperation of a man for whom letting go would mean losing himself forever.

What a miracle she was, Roy marveled. What a truly exquisite paragon of beauty and virtue. Roy wanted her. Needed her. As simply and clearly as one needed food and oxygen and light.

“Will you continue to follow me, Riza?” he managed, still slurring his speech. “No matter what?”

“... What do you mean?”

“Through Rapture, through life, through… through whatever we may come across.”

The anticipation clung to his chest as Riza took her time in answering.

“I don’t want to make it sound like a desperate thing, Riza.” Though it was, he knew, exactly that.

“— Sir... Roy...”

“But I need you more than I first realized. You…" he swallowed, his expression twisting at the fuzzy dryness of his tongue, the disjunction between his mind and his mouth, "you know the dangers I pose to myself and others. You and only you.” Their glances exchanged and there was a hint of vulnerability in his own, a hint of himself that was still strong but unsure of what direction to take. “I need… you. More than I thought before.”

Riza said, quietly, “No. You don’t.”

The charge between them became a spark, pulling at the edges of the air. Burning his breath away. How much he wanted to touch her, then... how intensely he wanted to hold her. In an instant, Roy felt both numb and excessively sensitive, overwhelmed by the need, the raw and desperate need to show her just how important she was, just how valuable her presence was... her companionship, her life...

Her love...

Night had fallen on the surface. The ocean was green-tinged and murky, but the little light it cast, the parts that outlined the angles and curves of her body... it seemed in some ways sufficient.

“But you have my support," Riza said finally, as though to assure herself as much as him. All she could do was meet his gaze and gently touch his cheek, not knowing whether that would be of any help, either. ”You have my partnership. You have everything I have to give, Roy. This I promise you.”

She looked across at him. Riza Hawkeye, a creature of infinite compassion and singular mercy. And she stopped his heart.

Were he in any coherent frame of mind, Roy would imagine assigning a moment to decision, to dignify the process as a timely result of rational and conscious thought.

Were he in any coherent frame of mind…

He probably would not have kissed her.

It was infatuation, and it was hunger, and it was a longing to be loved, and it was an all-consuming fire so hot it devoured worry and loneliness and fear and time and being. For a hundred heartbeats, there was no Rapture, no death, no pain, nothing hard, nothing terrible, nothing but warmth, and the taste of her.

“Roy,” said Riza, breathless, her mouth brushing his as he surfaced for air, “Roy, you’re drunk.”

“I don’t care.”

“But I do.”

It was as though someone had snapped a rubber band near Roy’s ear. He flinched back from her, horrified with himself, the separation sucking the last of her heat away.

“I’m sorry… I’m so sorry, Riza, that was––“

“It’s all right.”

He peered at her, uncomprehendingly, black eyes awash.

“Roy,” she said, again, her voice brittle, “it’s all right.”

Roy stared ahead of himself for a long moment, then gradually lowered his head into his left hand and began to cry. The sniffles became sobs, the tears running sideways across his cheeks. Roy cried until there was nothing left inside but a raw hurt that nibbled at his insides like a hungry rat.

Slowly, Riza walked across to him.

Softly, again: “It’s all right."

Riza tentatively raised her arms, hesitating for only a moment, then slowly put her left hand onto Roy’s arm and her right hand onto his back before sliding it upwards to cradle his neck. Riza moved closer, holding Roy’s shoulder, pulling his head to her chest. Embracing him fully.

“It’s not all right,” wept Roy into her shirt, clutching at her desperately.

“No.” She lowered her cheek to the top of Roy’s head. He felt tears wet his scalp, her own sob break against his hair. Felt for himself the sublime pain that throbbed inside of her as it did inside of him.

 

"No... it's not."

 

Chapter Text

"Who hurt you?"

Riza froze, her skin pimpling.

She hadn’t heard him get up, hadn't seen him come in from his bedroom. Sleep had sobered him –– when she glanced at him, his stance was steady, his face grave, even if the tightness in the corners of his eyes betrayed a bastard hangover, the inner surface of his skull pulsing like a single, giant nerve being gnawed by some ruminant animal. Riza was almost disappointed: if he were still drunk, she could have put him back to bed, and she doubted he would have remembered much by morning.

But Roy wore his glasses, and behind the lenses his dark eyes were clear and focused, weighing on her with the laborious intensity of an appraiser over a cut gemstone.

Peering intently at the bandages wrapped around her upper back and breasts.

Riza's dressings pulled painfully as she twisted around, reaching for her shirt and trying not to look excessively frantic in her efforts.

“It’s nothing, sir,” she muttered, not looking at him. She sat up and tried to arrange herself, blushing slightly. Her skin was so pale, Riza lamented that it showed her every humor.

Roy cleared his throat, catching her attention. His expression was bleak, his gaze cold and miserable. "You're lying," he said quietly. 

Riza was so dumbfounded that for a moment she stood stock still. A vast silence –– long and heart-freezing –– lay over the whole world for the space of twenty seconds, thought it felt far longer. Too long.

Riza had put Roy to sleep late last night, near-dragging him to the back of the apartment and depositing him unceremoniously in his bed, hardly daring to do more than remove his shoes and socks before he had dozed off into a dreamless oblivion, snoring. She had attempted to rest herself, crashing on the couch, but the stench of sour wine, the irregular drip of a leaky pipe beneath the sink, and her own thoughts kept her awake long into the wee hours of the morning –– even if the pea-green sea revealed little of the differences between night and day. The ocean floor below Roy's window was a hostile country, a haunted forest of torn and twisted sedimentary deposits, shrouded by the aquatic night sky. The lights of Olympus Heights and Mercury Suites picked out the hard lines and edges of sea cliffs and corals, many with ragged, gaping mouths in their sides as though they were screaming into the darkness. Kelp and anemones had moved in en masse to colonise the graveyard, and schools of fish meandered in and out and between the stony outcrops, like faintly shimmering clouds rolling silently over the forbidding landscape.

Throughout the night, the couch springs had suffered under the weight of Riza's tossing and turning, twisting her clothes into knots and her hair into tangles and doing little to alleviate the profound tiredness in her bones and the aching grief in her chest. Far in the back of her mind, Riza was lost in despondency, sunk in a litany of meaningless reminiscences. Of the War, the smoke-choked sun spitting yellow venom over the battlefield, once busy streets stripped clean and scavenged until only their skeletons remained.

Of Maes.

Of Roy, and the things they could never, despite Rapture's promises of commerce, bargain or buy or threaten their way into getting back.

But Riza found she could not dredge up the half-formed feelings, the obscure bits of ideas, into clear, definite convictions or actions. Her memories ticked away, singing a song she could not decipher. She had created blanks in her past to repel even her own investigation. From the tattered edges of an exhausted mind, the tide surged... mental filters disintegrating and walls crumbling, the waves washing everything out to sea, leaving her battered and barren.

At some point in the night, her restlessness had caused her shirt to ride up around her torso, revealing a layer of gauze she hadn't yet changed, the wounds beneath just beginning to weep onto the couch cushions. Riza had picked her sweat-soaked shirt from her frame, the clothing clinging to her arms and torso like a second skin before it fell loosely to the rug.

There was a vanity in the corner of the apartment; despite having to reach over her shoulders to pull the tacking material from her back, Riza didn’t have the nerve to look at herself the mirror.

So she hadn't seen Roy enter the room, emerging from the bedroom at her back.

"Was it Fontaine?" There was an unspoken urgency in the query, and a danger in what it portended.

"It doesn't matter, Colonel," said Riza, casting about for her shirt. "You ought to be resting," she added, with light disapproval.

Roy's breath caught, the sound harsh enough that Riza looked over at him in alarm. But his eyes weren't on her face. They were fixed resolutely on her back. Curled as she was against her knees on the couch, he could see the whole expanse of the bandages, the remnants of her father's tattoo, a few old scars from previous burnings.

"Riza... who did that to you?"

It would have been easy to lie, but she was so tired, and while Roy's probing may not have warranted the whole truth, he certainly didn't deserve her deception. Riza admitted, carefully, "Someone to whom discretion is of the utmost significance and value. You needn't worry about the... the secret getting out."

Roy was so still that she wondered if he'd stopped breathing entirely. "How long?" he asked after a moment. She braced herself for pity, for anger.

"Half a year. Three burnings." Riza tried not to sound as though she was anticipating further questioning, and was actively attempting to curtail it; to gauge from Roy's wounded expression, she had failed miserably. But she was too exhausted, her throat too raw, her eyes stinging from a lack of sleep and an excess of tears to tell him outright to cease his inquiries.

"Why, Riza?" His voice was hard, but not unkind. His face was pale and there were bruised patches under his eyes.

She gave him a measured look, meeting Roy's stern glare. "You know the answer to that already, sir."

He opened his mouth, but shut it as he swallowed, any forthcoming conciliation or condemnation winking out.

He turned on his heel, stomped down the short corridor, and shut the bedroom door behind him. Riza had almost wished he'd slammed it –– wished he'd shattered it. But he closed it with barely more than a click, leaving her alone.

Riza had never been one for nostalgia ––  memories she wanted to dwell on were few and far between. The War had made a pariah of her, but her father had made her a martyr. But, despite her better sense, Riza often wondered if there had been more she could have done to fix what Berthold Hawkeye had ruined, the destruction his genetic abomination had wrought. Instead, Riza ran away. To Rapture.

But... she hadn't been running at all, Hawkeye thought ruefully. She had been following.

Left alone in the dim predawn light, Riza found herself remembering that, indeed, the only times she had felt in any way worthy of redemption –– of having the grace necessary to merit freedom from her sins –– had been in the presence of the one man who had made those sins manifest. It was beyond belief, how Roy Mustang, an engine of destruction, impressed upon her the importance of cultivating the conviction that such destruction could never happen again. Not in Dresden, not in Normandy, not in Nagasaki or Hiroshima... and not in Rapture.  

Always, Roy's designs for a more prosperous future, his aspirations and ambitions, made her able to leave, for a moment or two at a time, the horrors she had perpetrated in her past –– even if she no longer afforded herself the comfort of forgetting them entirely. Roy had never judged her for the lives she took, Riza realized, neither the ones ended at the end of her crosshairs nor the ones snuffed out by the knowledge she'd given her commanding officer. His mercy was not born from any hypocritical prerogative, but because he had known her as the rest of the world had not, and her image presided in his mind as a sort of measure and standard of brightness and repose in his dark, guilt-ridden world –– for reasons she knew, even if she didn't dare give them voice.

As Riza released a long, deep breath, reaching for the second time for her neglected shirt, she understand that while the promise of forgiveness remained untenable, her loyalty to Roy Mustang assured her that the prospect of redemption was not entirely lost. That through supreme humility, charity, and self-sacrifice, she could not undo the past, but she could keep it from repeating itself.

She started at the sound of Roy's bedroom door reopening. Her eyes went wide when he skittered towards her, a roll of bandages in one hand, a steaming bowl of water in the other, and damp washcloths draped over both arms.

"Sir!" Riza blinked in bemusement. "I thought––"

"I'm sorry. I had to give the water time to warm."

The two of them considered each other for a moment, each waiting for the other to make a move. Water from the basin sloshed onto the floor from the momentum of Roy's hurried steps. In the silence, the drops pattered the hardwood like a stream of small pebbles.

Roy coughed conspicuously. "It might easier, Hawkeye," he began, sounding low-pitched and slightly hoarse, "if you were to lay on your stomach."

They exchanged another glance, but with no further instruction forthcoming, Riza swung herself around and pressed the side of her face to the couch cushion. The battered floral design was worn thin in places, almost but not quite to the point of ripping. The soft green piping around the pillows betrayed neglect. The upholstery had the odor of Roy's cheap gin. A light dusting of black hair near her eye told her where he'd rested his head during his own somnambulist introspections.

The thought of him laying on his back, an arm drapped over his eyes, crying, silently, into the darkness of his empty apartment, made Riza desperately, desperately sad.

Hawkeye hunched her shoulders against the sudden exposure, a chill raising the small hairs on the back of her neck. Bleary-eyed from lack of sleep, stripped of the armaments –– both of the figurative and literal varieties –– of her station, she was aware of how lean and hungry and wounded she must have looked, swathed shoulder to armpit in bandages. Her whiskey-colored eyes must have seemed so dull and listless, shadowed by the dirty, dim little corner of the apartment, her expression smothered in the couch.

"Roll towards me,” directed Roy, leaning close to reach around her as she complied.

Easing the bandages away from the wounds on her back, Roy pushed the wrappings as far beneath her as he could manage, taking infinite care not to touch her, before sponging the dried blood and discharge from the burns, the week-old patches still as white and shiny as sunlight glinting off a handful of coins. The sting of the washcloth drew forth a slow, deliberate hiss. The basin of tepid water had been placed on the couch beside her, and as Riza lay flat Roy stretched out an arm to wring the cloth out.

Riza remembered, suddenly, a soldier in Dresden who had failed to retreat when the conflagration order was issued. Roy had unleashed his power, and the soldier had been burned on over eighty percent of his body. The field medics had been forced to wash all the dead skin off. They wrapped him in bandages, kept him drugged, and waited for compatible grafts. They sewed him into a new skin.

When he died, he hadn't even been in his own body.

“Could you tuck this under yourself when I pass it to you?” asked Roy, handing her the roll of crisp white bandages.

"Yes."

Reaching across each other like two weavers at a table loom, they finished binding Riza's wounds with the sterile adhesive. Hawkeye could feel Roy glaring down at her with glassy belligerence, examining her burns critically.

"You know..." he muttered, "this is liable to become infected if you don't look after it."

"My resources are limited."

"You could have asked for help."

Oh... I did, she thought, mirthlessly.

But not from you.

But something told Riza that Roy was not referring to her changing the bandages. "This was my burden," she said, with as much forbearance as she could muster. "Not yours."

"It's not your place to decide that for me."

"With respect, sir, that's exactly what it is." Her eyes flashed a warning, her brows furrowing at his audacity, his impudence. "This body is my own."

"But mutilation, Riza..."

"Release," she barked a rebuttal, arresting him with her gaze. "Freedom. A means by which I can finally be free of my father's research... and from the sharks who covet your power."

"Riza––"

"I will not be made a commodity, Roy, to be bartered and traded and preyed upon just like every other godforsaken thing in this city." She took a breath. "This world has tried to wrest everything away from me... at least allow me my dignity in reclaiming my humanity."

"You say that as though it was lost to begin with..." He sighed –– a tired, chest-deep sound that seemed to saturate the very air. "To me, you have never been anything less than your own person."

The way he said it spoke of an ache Riza recognized; she felt his sadness as her own.

"To you, Roy," murmured Riza, parroting him. "I needed to become that to me." She put her hand on his, pushed it from her shoulder. "I'm fine, sir."  Her voice held just a touch of reproach.

"I want to make sure you're all right."

"You have our stations confused, sir."

He pulled back slightly to look at her, though his face was still only inches from hers. In the dim light, she could see that his eyes were black and only black. There were no flecks of blue or brown, just one single, deep shade of obsidian. The sad, dark irises were galaxies in which the stars were fading.

He studied her intensely for a few moments before craning his head towards her again. “You don’t think Riza Hawkeye deserves that same kind of respect?”

“She’s a bodyguard... a piece of the decor. She's supposed to be invisible.”

“She’s not invisible to me.”

Roy smiled, a bloodless tug of his lips a touch too wide to be a grimace. It was a disarming smile, thought Riza –– the expression he always assumed when he was about to take an impossible risk.

"Lean closer," he said. "A little closer than that. Tilt your head."

She obliged him.

And he kissed her gently beneath her jaw, at the junction of her neck. His hand caressed the sensitive spot below her chin, and the contact jolted her, like touching a live wire.

"What are you doing..." managed Riza, starved, suddenly, of ample oxygen.

All throughout the night, she had felt a lonely separation from everyone and everything but the anglerfish and the ghost crabs, never imagining the legion of kindred souls scattered in the darkness, who stared at ceilings and paced floors and looked out windows and coveted and worried and mourned and loved.

Never imagining this.

"I want to make sure you're all right," he murmured again, kissing her throat.

"Roy––"

"I assure you..." his breath was warm when he raised his head to face her, "before you ask, I have never been more sober."

"I think you’d better think about this a little more, sir," she murmured. Her eyes were suddenly very serious, even as Roy ghosted over her cheek with his fingertips. "Roy... I was your subordinate, your employee..."

"You don’t have to play the deferential with me," he said. "Not with me."

"But that's what I am."

"You are more than your station, Riza Hawkeye. More than your father's marks, more than these scars, more––"

"Than your weakness?" said Riza, pained. She tried to sever her emotional cord, to escape the grief and shame that silently slithered through her head, tried to disconnect herself from the prospective stares and whispers that would no doubt follow them both down the viaducts of Rapture –– her Jasmine Jolene to his Andrew Ryan.

But... it was as though her night spent alone had shredded her damask of doubt and caution to ribbons. "Do you really not care about what this could do to you? You should be afraid." Riza took hold of Roy's wandering hand. "You should be afraid of what might happen because... because of this. This is... if the wrong people were to find out, to exploit it, even––"

"You are no weakness of mine, or anyone's," said Roy, sternly, but gently, without reproach. "You are all the strength I will ever draw from this world. And even if that weren't the case, it’s my experience that a weakness understood is no weakness. Even if you can’t control it, you can make allowances for it. It is those who ignore or don’t understand their weaknesses who are wasted by them."

There rose a bad taste in the back of Riza's throat –– Roy sounded so much like Kimblee, then. She despised the strange, seductive, sinister Restorationist for it, and hated herself for it, too, in equal measure, because there was a small part of her vanity tickled, to be so scrutinized, so regarded.

"Tell me to stop," said Roy suddenly.

"What?"

"Hawkeye, tell me to stop. And I will," he promised. "I will never touch you again."

Roy stood, pensive, still watching her intently, looking pained and picturesque. His eyes were bloodshot and dilated and his pale skin flushed with yearning and Riza, in defiance of all choruses of her better judgement, really couldn’t bring herself to regret having been hedged into her current predicament.

It was a tempest of a single moment, she marveled. They were just two lost souls swimming in a fish bowl. Trapped by glass and doomed to circle each other endlessly. Riza felt tossed about, like waves driven by contrary winds, caught in some primordial torrent of impulse and feeling. She swayed as she was swept on to a precipitate action made without thought, without considered cause, explanation, or justification.

Riza gave a tiny nod.

With martial resolve, Roy bowed his head and joined his mouth to hers. Unlike a few hours before, there was no sloppiness, no inebriated fumbling. It was real; it was purposeful.

Riza had always imagined there would be roughness, urgency, impassioned persistence. But his lips were soft, grazing over hers with the heat of sunshine, the sweetness of summer rain, the relics of a topside world she had almost completely forgotten. She opened to him in wonder, reveling in the solid weight of him in her arms. Forgetting everything in the passionate tumult of discovery, Roy reached around her shoulders, clutching Riza to him until she winced and she felt his body pressing into the crumpled layers of her bandages.

“Roy,” she protested breathlessly.

“I’m so sorry, I… no, no, Riza, don’t move. Please. Rest.”

She curled her arms loosely around his head, shivering as he kissed her throat, his nose tickling her pulse. He nuzzled against the gentle rise of her breast, pressed his cheek against her chest, and sighed. After a long, motionless minute, while her sternum rose and fell beneath his heavy head, Riza closed her eyes, surrendering herself to him, body and mind, conscious of nothing in the world but the dark pressure of his softly parting lips on her skin. The motion pressed upon her brain as though they were the vehicles of some strange, alien language, a curious lassitude; and between them she felt an unknown and timid pressure, darker than the swoon of sin, softer than any sound or color. But the shame of it never seemed as substantial as the pleasure, even if the former, she knew, would last far longer, would linger in the hinterlands of her memories.

The doorbell, when it rang, had a strangled sound, as though its battery was somewhat drained.

Roy's head snapped up, almost cracking against her chin.

"Ah," he said, the sound coming out as a croak. His hands had drifted down to Riza's hipbones, and the heat of his palms seemed to singe her through the fabric of her trousers. Their hair fell around their faces like a curtain.

Another ring. It was ridiculous, but it seemed to Riza that even the doorbell had a weariness, an embarrassment, to it, as though concerned it had rung one too many times.

"You should get that, sir," said Riza, against Roy's temple, kissing him chastely.

"I ought to, oughtn't I?"

"Yes."

"I don't want to."

She smiled a small, sad smile. "The world doesn't stop just because it stops for us."

Roy propped himself up on his elbows, rising to his feet. "Doesn't it?" he muttered.

The door was scratched and dented with chipped brown varnish. Roy didn't bother to straighten his clothes as he rested his hand on the doorknob, while Riza dressed herself hastily, turning and sitting on the sofa to consider their visitor, hoping it was no one of immense consequence.

As the third ring echoed through the apartment, Roy opened the door...

To reveal a pale, sweating Jean Havoc, who almost toppled across the threshold.

"Roy!" he gasped, his blue eyes wide with agitation, bracing himself on the frame of the doorway, as Roy himself had done several hours before in his drunken stupor.

Roy's expression dropped. "Havoc, what the hell––"

"Ryan," Jean gulped; Riza could hear his breath struggling to whistle through his nose. "Ryan's... Ryan's makin' a move on Fontaine Fisheries. Later this mornin'."

Riza swallowed. So soon.

"And sir..." Jean looked near inconsolable, knuckled hands bone-white against the wall. "It's Heymans..."

Roy grasped the other man's upper arms, stopping just short of shaking him. "What happened?" he demanded.

"Heymans... Heymans was arrested. By Bradley.

"Roy... they're sayin' he killed Maes Hughes."

Chapter Text

"What is the meaning of this, Bradley?"

Jean Havoc couldn't suppress a shudder, utter loathing radiating from Roy like heat from a pottery kiln. In spite of Mustang's anger, however, Bradley looked as calm and unconcerned as he usually did, a single green eye blinking languidly as it jumped from Roy, to Jean, to Riza, then back to Roy again.

"I must ask you to be more specific, Mustang," rumbled Bradley, his tone civil, though Jean knew from experience the friendliness could turn to fury at a moment's notice. "I'm not a mind-reader."

Roy's simmering temper threatened to come to a boil, thought Jean uneasily, surveying his friend's flushed cheeks and indignant eyes. Mustang seemed in tenuous possession of his self control, his thumb and forefinger rubbing together conspicuously until tiny embers fizzed from his fingertips.

Close to Jean left stood a man with massive muttonchops, cheeks well-hollowed, and kind, careworn eyes who looked about ready to sink through the floorboards. Jean couldn't blame him: why Bill McDonagh, an engineer, had been dragged to a raid on Fontaine Fisheries, he'd never know.

Jean and Bill's gazes crossed briefly and the former gave the latter a little nod of encouragement. Bill sighed, holding his shotgun as though it weighed a ton.

"Lot of buggers here for a raid, innit?" muttered McDonagh.

Havoc nodded, lowering his voice as he sidled closer to the Chief Engineer. "Inside skinny says there are more ready to make a move on Fontaine Futuristics."

"Flamin' Nora... this ain't a raid, Jean... this is an assault... an all-out military assault on Frank Fontaine."

Jean didn't disagree with him.

Along with McDonagh and Bradley, Havoc recognized a number of Andrew Ryan's cronies, all armed to the teeth or otherwise spitting and hissing as their plasmids flared bright in their hands. Bradley looked as though he'd deputized every Port Authority spook from Neptune's Bounty to Dionysus Park, as well as half the sane plasmid users in the city. They had gathered at the t-junction between the Fighting McDonagh's and the Jet Postal, just shy of the Upper Wharf of Neptune's Bounty. The area was typically used as a cutting, packaging, and distribution area for the docks, with most of the fish going to Fontaine Fisheries for freezing. Now, Jean noted uneasily, it was deserted, not a single wrench jockey or fisherman to be found. The problem was, like Ryan and Bradley, Fontaine kept a fair number of splicers on his pay, cutting them free plasmids and ADAM in return for doing the sonuvabitch's dirty work. But of them, there was no sign.

Whether by intuition or paranoia, Jean couldn't tell, but the presence of so many toughs –– and so little else –– troubled him. A cold thrill snapped along his spine, and he couldn't shake the feeling that something terrible about to happen.

Roy, meanwhile, looked fit to be tied. Even behind his spectacles, foggy from the humidity and the press of so many bodies, his black eyes were as sharp as shrapnel. Not trusting her superior to keep his temper, Riza spoke up on Roy's behalf: "The Council agreed on a week's grace period following the gala at the Manta Ray Lounge," she said cooly, but with enough of a bite to snag Bradley's full attention. "Mr. Ryan agreed to allot us ample time to collate the evidence. We need to put together an airtight legal and disciplinary case against Fontaine or this raid will be seen as an utter betrayal of the very ideals Rapture purports to defend."

Bradley's lip curled, his mustache bristling. "I fail to see how perception has anything to do with the matter, Miss Hawkeye. Regarding the change in the timeline, the Council agreed the recent murder of Detective Inspector Hughes, and the arrest of a suspect, necessitated a hasty response, to prevent any further loss of life." Bradley considered the shorter woman, along with Roy. "I would have thought you'd be pleased... I understand you and Hughes were close."

Roy rankled at the mention of the Detective Inspector, but to his credit, managed to sand the sharper edges of his anger. "When was that Council meeting?" he demanded.

"Late last night."

"I wasn't told."

"We didn't want to disturb you from your..." Bradley's eye rolled slowly towards Riza, lingering on her and making Havoc's hackles stand on end, "other distractions."

Jean pressed his shoulder to Roy's in some vain attempt to keep his friend from going apoplectic. "You mentioned you had a suspect in custody?" Roy ground out, with effort, rasping his teeth.

"Heymans Breda. Several eyewitness accounts report a large, red-haired man fleeing Fontaine Futuristics not long before Hughes's body was discovered in the adjacent Atlantic Express train station."

Bradley crossed his massive arms. The man was built like someone who pulled freight cars for a living, his chest muscles bulging and his biceps balls of strength. He'd discarded his security uniform for combat fatigues, two gleaming silver sabres strapped to his hips. Jean didn't know what was more disconcerting: the fact that Bradley hadn't bothered to arm himself with a gun, or the sneaking suspcision that he absolutely didn't require one.

"Breda has been on Mr. Ryan's watchlist for some time," continued the Chief of Security smoothly. "We have it on good authority that he has been serving as one of Fontaine's top lieutenants for the past several years, overseeing smuggling operations so as best to keep the head man's hands clean. Breda's capture alone ties Fontaine to the Hughes murder."

Jean fought hard to keep his expression schooled, though it was a struggle. Breda was his classmate, a fellow soldier, his business partner... his best friend. Heymans was a quiet, meticulous, principled person, the kind of man who preferred to keep his own company. To put a finer point on it, Breda didn't find it painful to be alone. In some ways, he courted solitude: Breda tended to make it obvious he didn't care whether people liked him or not... which usually drove folks away from him. It had been necessity –– that desperate need to simply keep one's head above water –– that had kept him in Fontaine's employ, but Breda had never cultivated any fierce allegiance to the smuggler. Jean couldn't accept –– refused to accept –– that Heymans would kill for Fontaine. Of Fontaine's involvement in Hughes's murder, Havoc had little doubt, but he believed with every atom of his being that it hadn't been Breda to pull the trigger.

Jean just hoped Roy believed it, too. But Havoc's hopes seemed to pale in comparison to the smolder of Roy's anger. While Mustang's voice had managed to remain ostensibly calm, Jean knew the man was like a grenade with the pin out –– he could explode any minute. Even Riza seemed ill at ease; she kept glancing at the back of her boss's head as though her reassurances rested in his thick head of hair.

Bradley peered at his watch, frowning slightly, no longer paying Mustang any mind. Roy, still seething, took a position beside Riza. Unlike Mustang –– who poised his fingers, ready to snap –– Riza had her pistols unholstered and loaded, as well as a carbine rifle slung across her back. Together with the rest of Bradley's forces, they stalked up to the Securis door of the Upper Wharf. Bradley hesitated for a mere moment, raising his hand. As his fingers closed into a fist, one of the Port Authority constables turned the wheel on the bulkhead, and the officers shuffled into Port Neptune.

Someone had left the fish freezers open. It was so cold, the air seemed to burn. The sound of their heavy footfalls were brittle. Every breath hovered in a strange slow-motion cloud, adding to the mist of ice that pervaded the wharf and blurred the buzzing neon lights. Jean's nostrils flared at the smell of the sea –– which was more of a taste than a smell, dissolving like brine on his tongue.

They stomped down the viaduct walkways towards the water-flanked wooden peninsula. A blanket of fear and freezing air settled over Jean, and he readjusted his grip on his sawed-off shotgun.

"Fan out," barked Bradley. "Canvas the Lower Wharf. Fontaine ought to be inside the Fisheries, but he may have holed himself within the Wharfmaster's Office."

Jean grunted an acknowledgement, hefting his shotgun to his shoulder. Riza a few steps behind him, Havoc followed the posted signs and headed towards the Lower Wharf. The split-level chamber served as the primary drainage basin for Pier 4; the sump pump in the adjoining chamber, the gutters around the port, and other drains waterfalled into the area below the dock. A makeshift barricade had been erected between the drainage basin and a window looking out into one of the fishery's holding pens –– which told Jean that someone, likely one of Fontaine's spooks, had thought to put up defensive barriers in anticipation of Bradley's raid. The door to Fontaine Fisheries, Jean noted uneasily, was shut tight. The customary blue and yellow neon sign had gone dark.

Suddenly, feedback crackled over the Port Neptune loudspeakers, a high-pitched whine that made Jean wince. He and Riza exchanged a worried glance but stood their ground.

"Brought your pea-shooters, have ya? They must make you feel like big men."

Havoc cocked his shotgun. He'd recognize the voice of that rattish, sniveling little git anywhere: Peach Wilkins.

Riza went rigid beside him. Jean thought it was the voice over the speakers setting her on edge, but then:

"Jean... where's the Colonel?"

Seconds later, they heard glass smashing and two tommy guns firing from the adjacent chamber. Jean threw himself to the pier, rolled on the ground and came up with his finger on the trigger.

Then the splicers were everywhere.

Clambering over the lip of the dock, bursting through doorways, dripping from the tangle of pipes on the ceiling –– spider splicers with their curved fish-gutting knives slicing the air as they scuttled towards Bradley's men. Three Port Authority constables fell within seconds, scarlet fountaining from great rends in their throats, their bodies lurching over their decapidated heads. Jean had to leap over a man's still-twitching face, smothering a scream in the crook of his elbow.

"Fire at will!" came Bradley's bellow from the Wharf proper.

"We need to get to higher ground," shouted Riza at his back, firing her pistols in rapid succession as a ball of ice hurtled towards her, streaming freezing crystals like a comet. Havoc managed a quick bob of his head before he was trailing after her, squeezing off a quick, angled-up burst, blowing the top of the frosty splicer's head clean off.

They fell back to the central quay, regrouping with the surviors of the intial attack. The northern and southern boardwalks were cluttered with shipping crates and separated by a stretch of muddy seabed littered with drums of oil. A stream of water cascaded from the ceiling, forming a small, tepid pool in the center of the chamber; a pipe and sump pump kept the room from filling with water. The space was faintly illuminated by a wall of towering windows which opened up onto the ocean.

To Jean, it was like looking at a vision of Hell.

Before he had time to aim, a nitro splicer lobbed a grenade from the Upper Wharf. As Riza took a shot at the mad bomber, two leadhead splicers joined in the ambush from the southern pier. A prolonged burst of machine gun fire, and the leadheads along with several spider splicers screamed and toppled from the rafters. The blue smoke reflected red muzzle flashes and bomb blasts, explosives chucked from behind pylons and under the wharfs, blowing both Fontaine's mob and Bradley's men to bits.

They'd been expecting us, thought Jean in despair. We've been done over.

The constable in front of Jean went rigid and jerked about like a marionette dangled by a palsied hand, electrocuted by a plasmid. As the splicer turned towards Jean, its head vanished in a cloud of pink and gray from McDonagh's shotgun blast.

"Give 'em both barrels, lads!" affirmed Bill, his voice quaking, his face blanched to the color of new milk. "It's the only way to keep the plods down!"

Some distance away, Bradley was a dizzying dance of death, lashing out with his swords, slicing the heads clean from the shoulders of several splicers. Two more flashes of the blade severed their arms. They lay twitching on the pier, grasping and grabbing at anything within reach with their barred teeth, sobbing like infants.

Christ Almighty, thought Jean, unloading his shotgun into the chest of an incoming nitro splicer –– but the monster's drug-addled body kept lumbering towards him. Havoc tried to slot new cartridges into the shotgun but the splicer was on him before he could snap it shut again. Jean lashed out with the heavy butt, knocking the zombified madman sideways, its tinderbox erupting when it hit the pier. The sound of the explosion echoing around the broad, steel-walled quay made Jean's ears ring.

The others were faring just as badly if not worse. Two men to Jean's left had been overrun by Fontaine's band, others were blasting away with their guns but making no impression on the slow advance. Bradley's men turned their guns fully on the splicers. The shotguns and rifles blew holes through the walking corpses. But several of Ryan's forces were too slow to react. They fell beneath the feet of the splicers. The screams of the dying chilled Jean's heart.

They had to find Fontaine, and fast... or they had to get away from this relentless enemy.

"Fall back! Everybody, retreat to Pier Four!" someone shouted from behind Jean. Havoc didn't argue; he turned and began running towards the bulkhead separating Neptune's Bounty from Medical.

But someone was coming out of the smoke towards him... another splicer, armed with a basin wrench, angry hornets picking over his honeycombed skin, its face oozing with blisters. The sight turned Jean's stomach.

Fontaine and his men had them outflanked.

"They must have come along the Upper Wharf, got in behind us," muttered Jean. But no-one was listening. Bradley's men were caught between two advancing lines of spitting and snarling splicers, with no side street to escape into.

"Shit," hissed Havoc, accidentally spitting out his unlit cigarette in the process. "Shit."

"Jean," came a calm, steady voice at his elbow.

Riza.

"Take the ones in the front," she ordered him crisply. "I'll cover your six."

"Roger that, Hawkeye."

Riza regarded her two pistols with bleak whiskey eyes, the eyes of a sniper framed in the passionless face of an executioner. Her calloused hands were steady as they lifted the guns and let off a series of quick shots, the noise reverberating painfully in Jean's ears and ringing out far over Port Neptune. Her bullets buried in the splicer's groin and abdomen, its basin wrench falling into the water as her third shot took it in the head. The sound of Jean ejecting his spent cartridges and firing point-blank drowned out the splicer's scream. Hawkeye pressed her back to Havoc's, using him as a stanchion to anchor her aim.

Soon out of shells, Jean ran forward and punched the closest splicer in the face. The hissing monstrosity staggered before the blow but then scuttled towards Jean again. Havoc smashed it over the head with the butt of his shotgun, then drove his knee into the crumpled splicer's stomach. Still, the monster tried to lurch onwards.

All around them, the same scene was being played out as Ryan's men attacked Fontaine's. One of Bradley's constables, a massive brute named Alex, smashed the heads of two splicers together, knocking them unconscious.

A shot rang out as Riza blew a hole through the head of a splicer in front of Jean. The corpse-like figure, blood pouring from a hole in the middle of his skull, lunged at Riza and locked its hands around her throat, choking off her cry. Havoc shouted a curse, tearing the fingers away from her neck. He cracked his gun down on the back of the splicer's legs, breaking its knee joints. It fell with a yelp, and Riza gasped, massaging her throat.

"Roy... the Colonel," she croaked. "Jean, we have to find him..."

"What!? Riza, we can barely defend––"

"Jean..." the look in her eyes was as close to hysteria as Havoc had ever seen. "He's going after Fontaine!"

"We're all going after Fontaine!" he argued frantically. "What makes––"

"Because he thinks Fontaine did it," she insisted. Jean didn't know what Hawkeye was talking about, but the pure, uncut anguish in her gaze froze any further protests deep in his throat. "Roy's going to kill him for it!"

Havoc clenched his fists so tight his fingernails left red crescents in his palms. He felt a surge, a heat roar up inside him. Flames of frustration and reprisal growing unmitigated by training, logic or reason. Fontaine... what had that bastard done?

"Where, Riza?" Havoc demanded.

Her russet eyes flashed. "Bradley said Fontaine Fisheries."

"Come on, then!" Using the pile of splicer bodies like a springboard, Jean leapt on a collapsed pylon and vaulted towards the low corrugated rooftops of the pierfront shops. He sensed Riza close at his heels, leaving the bulk of the fighting on the quay below them.

Hearts pounding, throats rasping in the cold air, sweating despite the chill, the two circumnavigated the wharf. Jean remembered the routes Breda had once showed him, and together he and Riza wound through the hidden antechambers surrounding Fontaine Fisheries. At one point, a rogue splicer leapt from behind a stack of crates, the bullet from its pistol nearly grazing Jean's ribs, before Riza fired through its right eye and it collapsed, howling. Its blood glowed red, pulsing with ADAM.

Riza pressed onward, paying the dying body no mind. What she was feeling at that moment, Jean could only speculate. Dread. Fear. Uncertainty. A combination of all three, most likely.

"The Detective Inspector goes without saying," noted Havoc, hedging his bets; Jean was afraid to mention Breda by name in light of the grim possibility of both Roy and Riza suspecting his guilt along with Bradley, "but what is it Fontaine's meant to have done?"

The question sounded ridiculous –– Fontaine had a finger in each and every pie, so it seemed –– but Jean knew Riza was trying to cheat him out of something, some nugget of understanding the bodyguard, despite her apprehension and their immediate danger, thought best to play close to the chest.

"Riza," murmured Jean, cocking his shotgun, "what aren't you telling me?"

She didn't have an answer for him.

They reached the bulkhead to Fontaine Fisheries and, finding the Securis door rusted shut, began to descend the clanking metal steps towards the drainage basin. Collapsed grating led to the spillway beneath the docks. Bobbing sedately on the still water was a rusty towboat, the portholes dark, seemingly abandoned.

"Fontaine! Face me, you coward!"

Every hair on the back of Jean's neck stood on end.

A ball of flame meteored towards the towboat, the fire so hot it turned the water in the spillway to steam. Riza's pistol was immediately in her hand as she jumped the steps two at a time towards the vessel.

"Colonel!" she called.

They was a flurry of color and violent motion as a great gout of flame burst from a figure at the end of the pier, the fire igniting his silhouette, raining ash down on Jean's head. He raised his hand, acting instinctively, saving himself from a few scalding flakes in the process. The wharf trembled like a man in a fit under the devastating power of Roy Mustang's assault.

"That mouth of yours must have a lot of oil in it, Fontaine," growled Roy, the words guttural and furious. "I reckon it'll burn rather nicely…"

Jean gripped his heart tight in his chest, trying to keep it from pounding out of control. In an instant, he took in their surroundings: the quays and ramshackle shacks that served as the Port Neptune fish processing plants had been reduced to sticks of charcoal. The light from the sea floor illuminated the scorched ground, the smell of burning lingering despite the briny damp.

Roy's fury gave him the strength to snap his fingers again. A ghastly orange grin sliced through the wharf, nearly driving Jean to his knees. Unfettered flames, devouring hungrily, licking and lapping at the pillars and the girders, twisting and swaying in a dance without rhythm. Blackened splicers, charred bones, unsettled souls, snatched before their time.

Roy bared his teeth in a snarl. "Have you ever imagined what it's like for the fluid in your eyeballs to boil, Fontaine? I hear the pain's indescribable."

The air was almost too smoky to breathe, hot enough to scorch the skin. In the middle of the motion Jean felt eerily still. And as Riza maneuvered through the conflagration, dodging the fire by virtue of reflex and familiarity, Jean swore he could feel a disturbance in the air that he'd never noticed before: a wind that pulled him, rather than pushed him, into the inferno. As though there was a whirlwind confined inside Roy Mustang's body.

"Where are you, Fontaine!" he demanded, fingers poised for a third snap. "If you keep hiding, I'll blow this whole place sky-high!"

At that moment, a large figure stepped from the cabin of the towboat, a revolver clutched in each hand, grimacing and wild-eyed as he took pot shots at Roy and then at Riza, which they dodged easily. Bullets straffed just over Jean's head.

Fontaine.

"I'll take you down with me!" the bald mogul shouted, rushing through a cloud of gunsmoke. "You'll never take Frank Fontaine alive!"

Jean noticed Riza slipping through the water, wading, head low, towards the boat. Jean suddenly raised his shotgun and fired a round at Fontaine to distract him from Riza, and to catch Roy's attention.

"Mustang, calm the fuck down!" bellowed Havoc, his shotgun blast peppering the mast in small black holes as Fontaine slipped around to the back of the cabin. "We're supposed to take him alive, dammit!"

"I don't care," sneered Roy, his eyes burning, flecks of light in the orange-black of his vision. "He's going to drown in his agony before I let him die!"

"You ain't gonna kill him!"

"If I'm a killer, let me be a killer. Let me be the one to put an end to this!" As he drew nearer to the Colonel, Havoc could see Roy's hand beginning to tremble, the awful paleness of his face, the distant stare in his eyes, a vein in his forehead pulsing with the fast shivering rhythm of his heartbeat. "Let it end. Let it all end…"

What the hell is the matter with him...

It was more than revenge for the Detective Inspector. Jean knew a little of shell shock –– battle fatigue, the eggheads called it. And he knew there were days when Roy or Riza's head just didn't seem to work properly. They tried so hard to focus, but the space behind their eyes was fogged up, their thoughts sluggish, their speech slow. Sometimes Jean wondered if it was nature's anesthesia, some way of numbing the pain, wiping out the trauma.

It was as though some old, primordial part of themselves woke up in them, terrified, while the people they had become were only thin shells wilting and shriveling in sadness or despair. The strongest, the least digested parts of their wartime experiences just rose up and washed the rest of them away.

To have been possessed by something so awful and so destructive, and then to have to wake up from it, remember what had happened, and slowly come to terms with the horrors they had wrought, the magnitude of what they had done, with a clear mind and all their essential moral and ethical feelings intact in any present moment, Jean couldn't imagine it.

But for all the moments of profound sadness, there were the times of clarity, sudden instants where Roy was able to see every detail and feel every feeling... the times Roy used his fire plasmid sprang immediately to Jean's mind. The strident flashes of rage provided some protection, as though his memories were fighting for their lives, doing whatever they could not to wither away.

In his anger, Roy Mustang seemed hell-bent on revenge... but, at the same time, desperate for forgetfulness.

Jean found he was terrified of all those sensations and emotions streaming out of Roy like fire streaming from his fingertips –– but he suspected he was even more terrified of finding out why.

Jean wondered if Roy had, in some way, conflated Fontaine with his own inescapable, shameful past, the thing that would forever hound his conscience. As though in killing Fontaine, Roy could also kill the little evil inside of himself.

Selfish bastard, thought Jean darkly.

"Colonel!"

Roy's hand froze in midair as Fontaine shuffled back onto the deck of the towboat... Riza shoving him from behind, her pistol pointed at the back of his skull. Fontaine's face was twisted in a snarl, but Havoc caught the bob of the man's Adam's apple as he swallowed nervously.

Despite the bravado and bold manner of show, a most uncharacteristic type of fear was evident on Fontaine's face.

It was as though a black cloud had passed over Roy's features. "What's the meaning of this, Lieutenant?"

"That's enough, sir." Riza's finger was steady on the trigger, her voice level with a glacial, almost chilling calm. "I'll clean this up."

"He's one flame away from being gone forever. I don't need your help and I don't want it. Lower your gun."

Fontaine's pale eyes darted from Roy to Riza, swallowing again. Riza took a deep breath. "I'm afraid I can't do that, sir. Please... lower your hand."

"No, goddamn you!" Roy's voice cracked, spilling out all the anger and ugliness Jean always knew was in there, somewhere, buried deep. "Lower. Your. Gun!"

"I can't let you kill Fontaine, Colonel Mustang!" shouted Riza, the barrel of her gun pressing far more insistently into Fontaine's head. "Please, sir..." she blinked rapidly a few times. "You're looking for absolution, but he can't give it. You're looking for revenge, but this won't achieve it."

"He murdered Hughes," hissed Roy with devastating fury. "He burned you."

"It wasn't him, Roy."

"What..."

Though half-obscured by Fontaine's massive frame, the resignation on Riza's face before she bowed her head and turned away lacerated Jean's heart. "It wasn't him," she managed, pained. "And... and we know Heymans didn't murder poor Maes. We don't know who did, we don't. Fontaine must face the Council. He must be cross-examined, brought to justice."

Roy had to brace himself against the rail. "Your... your back..."

"I'm not the one who suffered, Roy. I can give you an ear, a word, a shoulder, sympathy, my loyalty, my companionship... but if you go through with this, I can't be the one to forgive you."

The look on Roy's face was horrifically alien –– the grief and devastation fissured there was so strident, so unexpected in its intensity, that fear surged in Jean's chest.

Then Roy laughed, the sound a choked sob. "If not you, who's left to forgive me, Riza? The children who'll never be born? The survivors who watched their friends and their cities burn to the ground?

Havoc was suddenly terrified his friend and commander was going to do something stupid. Fury invaded where fear dare not. The thirst for revenge still burned his throat and coated his tongue. Roy had visited violence on the wharf because he could, because the city would take it, because, in the end, Rapture was the same as him.

Monsters all.

"Let me go, you little bitch," growled Fontaine, chancing a wiggle in Riza's grip, which she answered with a purposeful press of her pistol.

Hawkeye's expression turned cautious, but not hesitant. Wary, but not afraid. "Do me a favor, Fontaine," she muttered, "and kindly shut up."

"I ain't never seen you before in me life!"

Jean heard a harsh intake of air he hesitated to call a gasp. To his equal puzzlement and dread, Mustang took a heavy step forward.

"Shut your mouth, you bastard..."

It was strange, seeing such an innocently bemused expression on Riza's cool, aloof features. "Hold, Colonel," she said quickly. She regarded Fontaine like someone would regard week-old trash, her nose curling. "Fontaine, if you knew Bradley's forces were set to raid the Fisheries, why would you pursue my father's research?"

"What the fuck're you on about?"

Despite himself, Jean had to admit he'd like to know quite the same thing. What research? And what did it have to do with Riza's old man?

Riza breathed. she blinked. "Let me see your face."

Pistol still pointed at Fontaine's head, Riza shuffled until she was standing in front instead of behind.

Along with Hawkeye, Havoc took a good, long look at their catch...

And the realization seemed to burn Jean as intensely at Roy's flames, tearing into the soft underside of his body. In an instant, the true, savage, snarling truth of it all was clear to him.

At the same time, understanding slammed into Roy with enough force to leave him breathless. He had to quell a shudder as his hackles twitched and jumped under his shirt. His right hand fell slack.

"You're not––"

Suddenly, without warning, there was the rasping scrape of steel meeting bone. In an instant, Fontaine's forehead was stained with blood, a saber piercing straight through his head, in between his eyes and out near the junction of his skull and spine; the sword was then driven into his chest by a downward blow, the gleaming silver blade pinning him to the floor like a specimen on a naturalist's card. Blood sprayed across Riza's face and clothes.

It didn't register straight away that Fontaine had been stabbed, not until he dropped to his knees and toppled forward. His head swung to the side as he fell onto the deck and Jean could see the gaping hole in the back of his head where his brains were slowly oozing out. As the gore dripped into the shallow water under the towboat, dozens of tiny fish swarmed to lap up the bleeding.

"Good work, men," murmured Chief Bradley, removing his blade from the body and cleaning it with a small, rusty rag. He sliced the air with the saber, dislodging the last of the blood. "It seems we've dispatched the brute."

The blood flowed thickly over Riza's hands. Every time Fontaine's corpse twitched, more of the dark scarlet fluid ran down her shoes until they looked like those of some abattoir worker. Under the vivid red of Fontaine's blood, Hawkeye was as white as chalk. Her eyes and her mouth were frozen wide open in an expression of stunned surprise, and although she was staring straight at Bradley she appeared not to notice him at all.

Jean swallowed down his fury like bile. "Chief!" he snapped. "What happened to takin' Fontaine alive?"

Bradley arched a lazy eyebrow, saying: "The man was a criminal," as though that made everything perfectly acceptable.

"We aren't murderers!"

"No... but Fontaine is. Rather," Bradley considered for a moment. "Was."

Jean heard Roy crunch his knuckles; like Havoc, Mustang's tingling numbness was replaced by the slow burn of anger. His black eyes blazed as they swung slowly towards Bradley.

Bradley, meanwhile, sheathed his sword and took a turn about the deck of the towboat. "That's that, then...

"Frank Fontaine is dead."

Chapter Text

While he waited for his opponent to make a move, Heymans Breda read the newspaper headline for the umpteenth time:

" Ryan takes down smuggling operation… Fontaine and thugs killed in fiery shootout!"

Augustus Sinclair, a trim, darkly-handsome Panamanian man in his thirties, with a faint line of mustache –– and Breda's jailer –– let out a long, low whistle. Propped up in a winged arm chair he'd dragged into the cell, half moon spectacles on, he gave the Rapture Standard a shake after each page turn, but he seemed unable to keep himself from returning to the headline blazing across the cover in block capitals.

Meanwhile, Breda's hand hovered over a white pawn, biding his time. Underneath the table, his feet shuffled impatiently, but his expression remained cold and stoic. 

His prison cell in Persephone Penal Colony was barely ten feet by six. The walls were the same thick gray steel as most of the rest of Rapture, but instead of a wide window with a view of the seafloor, there was a mean arch in the door, partitioned by thick metal bars. The tiny opening let in a damp draft and reduced the temperature to near freezing. It was no brighter inside than the gathering gloom of dusk, even in the middle of the day. The bed was a plank of wood on legs: no mattress, no cushioning, and only one thin blanket. On any given day, it was either suffocatingly quiet or pierced with the screams of spliced inmates.

Sinclair didn't look up from his newspaper as he staked his claim to the center squares of the chess board with a pawn, making ready to deploy his own queen and bishop.

The prison's only redeeming quality, thought Heymans gloomily, finally deciding to rest his pawn on e4 and liberate the white queen and king's bishop, was that Sinclair wasn't half-bad at chess. Why the owner of the penal colony condescended to slumming it up with the prisoners, Breda couldn't say, but he was bored out of his head, and as much as Sinclair's oily personality rubbed him the wrong way, Heymans had to admit he was grateful for the company.

At least chess got his mind off... other things.

"Seems Andy Ryan finally brought that bald buck to heel," muttered Sinclair, his tone wholly ambiguous, part wonder and part worry. He raised his hazel eyes to Breda. "I reckon condolences are in order, kid."

"Don't bother," grumbled Breda, refusing to look up from the chess board as he brought his knight to challenge the black pawn. Sinclair may have acted the gentleman with his genteel Southern propriety –– but he had all the morals of a lamprey. The former masked the latter, like leaves covering a snare. Folks didn't notice the steel jaws until they were impaled in their flesh, and by then it was already far too late to run.

Breda reckoned the best way to evade a trap was to know where to find one. So, he said nothing and hooked his knight towards f3, sitting it on the white square with enough force to rattle the pieces. 

If Sinclair noticed Breda's black mood, he didn't comment on it. Instead, he licked his thumb and forefinger and flipped through the newspaper. "Accordin' to this here fried fish wrapper," he smacked the open page, "Fontaine'd been splicin' up most of his little posse, many of 'em working scrubs and pencil pushers from the poorhouses. Fightin' got so violent, Bradley and the others weren't able to take Frankie boy alive. Breathin' fire, spittin' ice... less like men and more like demons cast into hell, huh kid?"

"Your move, Sinclair."

"Hmm? Oh, yes..." Sinclair's knight advanced on the two central squares to defend his pawn. Breda's frown deepened as the influence of his own knight was counteracted.

"Ain't no such thing as hellfire in Rapture," huffed Heymans, considering his bishop.

Sinclair laughed. "Ah, that's old Andy Ryan talking. God and judgement ain't so hard a sell down here in this little fishbowl. There's no better bluff with the hard-luck crowd than naming the prime mover as your silent partner, now is there?"

"I suppose not."

"'Sides, Rapture's a high-stakes town, full of gods wearing suits and dinner jackets, kid. And Andy Ryan, I figure he considers the free market to be some kind of holy spirit in of itself."

"Do you believe that, Mr. Sinclair?" Heymans hurried his bishop to b5, preparing to castle.

Sinclair rubbed his clean-shaven chin, as if he wasn't sure of the answer. "I reckon that if you do business as long as I have, you learn to pick a brand name from the writin' on the wall. Bettin' against a vision of harmony don't mean you don't believe in it."

Breda grunted. "Oh? Here I was under the impression that the only thing you gave a damn about was your own bastard self."

He chuckled. "That's the way of things down here, sport. Look where bein' selfless landed you."

"Don't patronize me –– I'm here 'cause Ryan wants me here. Two-bit heroics don't count for a fig in this pit. We’re all staring down the puke stain of Ryan's busted dream. You think there's something worth savin' in this city? Then you deserve to gargle right along with Fontaine."

Sinclair took the opportunity to counterattack. He deployed the king's knight, placing Breda's white pawn under siege. "I don't think Rapture's worth savin' kid," he admitted, a touch guardedly. "I do think it's worth scavengin', however. Got to know when to be take the money and run. Adaptability is what you need to get by in Rapture, and it's the one thing Andy Ryan's always been lackin'. It's why Fontaine had the jump on him for so damn long." 

Loathe as he was to admit it aloud, Breda conceded the point by going on the defensive, castling his pieces, tucking his king in the corner and bringing his rook towards the top of the board. It was true: Rapture had been a candy store for a man like Fontaine; the city was full of guys who thought they knew it all, dames who thought they'd seen it all. Breda's dearly departed boss had favored a smart mark over a dumb one any time. 

"Speakin' of Divine Providence or a lack thereof," mused Sinclair, raising his eyebrows and adjusting the knot of his tie; he pointed at Breda with the rolled-up newspaper. "Strikes me someone may well be watchin' out for you."

Breda's scowl was scathing. Eyes still on the chessboard, he began to plan the development of his queenside pieces while hampering Sinclair's forward march. Witheringly scornful, Heymans muttered: "Yeah, found guilty on the charge of murder without so much as a trial by jury or an opportunity to appeal. I really got some leprechauns lookin' after me."

"Think of it this way, son: if you weren't locked away in the stoney lonesome during the shoot-out, you'd have been up at Port Neptune comin' to grief right alongside Frankie boy and the rest of his little monsters."

"If you're casting around for gratitude, Sinclair, that fish ain't bitin'."

"Gratitude smacks of altruism to me."

"And you smack of bullshit." Breda crossed his arms, glaring. "You gonna play the game, or not?"

Sinclair's good-natured grin seemed suddenly brittle. His charm was enough to get him into most any situation he desired but his mind –– prehensile and venomous –– was enough to get him out again. He paused, returning Breda's icy glare with an added air of pomposity: "Oh, I've been playin' the game a lot longer than you have, son. And I know that sometimes, being smart as a whip includes knowin' when not to crack it."

Augustus Sinclair was far too keen. He reminded Breda of a dog... and unsettled Breda like dogs did. Sinclair always seemed to sense when anything was out of the ordinary; he had a kind of second sight that made him peer into people's minds, a peculiar empathy that alerted him to when something unusual was going on.

Breda looked between his queen and the a4 square and tried not to imagine clubbing Sinclair's king across the cell. "You think I outta count my blessings, but you wanna know what think?"

"Shoot."

The harsh industrial light from the lanterns along the cellblock glared in through the window.

"I think," said Breda, "that somethin' screwy's goin' on."

Sinclair snickered. "Says the murder suspect."

Breda's hand knuckled beside the chessboard. "I've been identified as Hughes's killer, publicly arrested, and interrogated by Chief Bradley in less time it took for the Port Authority to find the Detective Inspector's body! It's been made clear to me that my guilt is based on the fact that Hughes was killed near Fontaine Futuristics, and Ryan reckons I'm one of Fontaine's spooks."

"Nothing you've said is false," agreed Sinclair, something akin to sympathy in the words. "The truth has sharp teeth... you shouldn't expect to see anythin' pleasant when it smiles at you. And all you've given us in the interim is cake."

"I've given you an alibi."

"Six of one, half dozen of the other. To Bradley, at any rate. A witness alleges to havin' seen you near the crime scene that night despite your claim that you were at the Fightin' McDonagh's with that Mustang boy. Now then..." Sinclair spread his hands, "if you were willin' to share, say, why a man on Fontaine's payroll was gettin' cozy with Roy Mustang, you might have a way of contestin' the charge."

Breda's jaw rooted. "You askin' me to pony up information that ain't there, Sinclair?"

"I am asking you to be selfish, sport. Surely, amidst the infinite gradations of human vice, that particular sin ranks low." The man kneaded the folds of his throat. Breda recognized the tic from being around Jean Havoc –– Sinclair was desperate for a cigarette. "What happened out there belongs out there. The city has it; let the city keep it..." 

He'd be the first to admit that Mustang's well-being wasn't exactly his primary concern, but Heymans couldn't sing without implicating Jean. He couldn't very well tell Sinclair that the reason he'd been spotted around Fontaine Futuristics that night was because he'd been assisting Hughes in investigating Fontaine. And of course, that he was working as a double agent for Roy Mustang, and helping the former Colonel rise up the social ladder until he was in a position to challenge Andrew Ryan. Roy had designs for the city, for Ryan, and Ryan was one of Sinclair Solution's top clients. Breda may have been up shit creek without a paddle, but that didn't mean he was about to drown the rest of Mustang's men right along with him.

"I gave Bradley my testimony. I got nothin' more to say."

Sinclair raised an eyebrow. "Not even in your defense, kid?"

"I didn't murder Maes Hughes."

Casting a cursory glance over the motley collection of chess pieces, Sinclair reached down and picked up the white rook from Breda's side of the board, the former's thumb brushing over the tip of the latter's fingers before he withdrew his hand. Breda felt the rasp of a callus on Sinclair's thumb, the sensation not unlike the tingling scrape of a cat’s tongue. Sinclair, meanwhile, turned the rook thoughtfully between his fingers. 

Heymans huffed a breath, the game forgotten –– it was either man's match, anyway. Changing the subject, he ventured: "You say Bradley and his mooks got Fontaine, down in Port Neptune?"

"Yessir. Accordin' to the Tribune, Bradley skewered him. Stuck the sonuvabitch like a roast pig."

"All the better for Ryan, then," snapped Breda. "Fontaine was a threat, and it's an open secret that Ryan wanted him gone... by any means necessary. So he had Bradley make sure Frank was killed in the crossfire during the raid. It's tidier in the long run, ain't it? Gets Fontaine out of the picture without the three ring circus bullshit of a proper trial. Meanwhile, Bradley has me arrested and arraigned without an inquiry, makin' the Chief look effective in crackin' down on the Hughes case." Breda absently flicked his king, causing it to wobble. "Bradley gets his murderer, the City Council gets Fontaine. And Ryan comes up roses. You may as well tie a goddamn bow on my head."  

Sinclair furrowed his eyebrows; he was thinking of his newspaper again –– Heymans could sense it in the fretting of the briny air, in the agitated rolling and unrolling on the Tribune in Sinclair fist. The man's face clouded, like a motor transport operator in unfamiliar backcountry, as though he was thinking about roads. Roads taken and roads ignored.

Suddenly, he tossed Breda the newspaper, knocking over a few chess pieces in the process. "Page seven," said the businessman.

Frowning, Breda flipped through the headlines detailing the shoot-out at Port Neptune, puff pieces praising Bradley's handling of the raid, obituaries for the men killed in action –– not a single one for Fontaine's men, Breda noted –– before he came upon a tiny column shafted to the margins of page seven...

At Sinclair's expectant look, Breda read aloud: "Ryan Industries reports that the city's share of business assets has not increased following the death of Frank Fontaine.

"However," he went on, "evidence has surfaced of Ryan Industries taking over and closing private subsidiary companies associated with Fontaine Futuristics in the aftermath of the raid on Neptune's Bounty. This reportor suggests that Ryan Industries is on a path towards almost total nationalization, with Andrew Ryan himself pushing it along."

Breda drew a deep breath, trying to think of something to say, then settled on a tight, bloodless pursing of his mouth.

"You understand where this is headed, don't you son?"

Breda's lips twitched a little. "Yeah... that reporter's gettin' dumped in the cell next to mine."

Sinclair at least had the grace to look a touch shamefaced. "That's not my call, kid. More to the point, Fontaine's death is shapin' up to be a prime cash cow for our friend Andy Ryan."

Breda breathed out harshly through his nose. The column in the Tribune was talking about the transfer of a major source of commerce –– Fontaine Futuristics –– from private hands to the state: nationalization, plain and simple. Although Andrew Ryan insisted he built Rapture to escape the sort of big government that could take over private industry, Ryan seemed more than willing to engage in precisely the same behavior the moment he'd managed to nudge his rival out of the running.

Sinclair sighed. "Accordin' to my new expense reports, Andy did, in fact, nationalize Fontaine Futuristics. He owns it now, lock, stock and leaky barrels. For the good of the city, he says. He'll break it up in due time, he says. I got my doubts."

"And what of the assets?" demanded Breda, thinking of little Nina Tucker scuttling through the innards of Rapture with her hulking companion, sticking needles into corpses. "Fontaine was kidnappin' children and turnin' 'em into... into..."

"Resources worth their weight in gold," finished Sinclair, his expression carefully schooled.

Breda shook his head, his face fixed in an expression of stunned disbelief. "If Ryan has 'em now, there must be a way to turn the girls back to normal..."

"We've all placed our hand on the Great Chain of endeavor." Sinclair considered for a moment. "Well, so says Andy Ryan. He insists my hand's on it, yours, Fontaine's, his... that we all pull it and are pulled by it."

"What are you saying, Sinclair? They're kids!"

"Weren't it you who said somethin' about two-bit heroics? Yes, son, the children –– the eggheads in marketing are callin' 'em Little Sisters now –– are abominations. But Andy insists it's not his hand alone on the chain that created 'em... that their little fingers were right there, next to his."

"They're little girls, Sinclair!" snarled Breda, standing abruptly and causing the chessboard to fall to the floor, pieces going everywhere. "Ryan can't possibly be thinkin' of keepin' them like they are!"

Sinclair frowned. "You were one of Fontaine's top men, a number cruncher he kept in his strictest confidences. Surely, the Little Sisters don't come as that much of a surprise..."

"Unlike Ryan, Fontaine knew how to compartmentalize," said Breda. "He took each isolated, barricaded piece of his business ventures and tied 'em together at the bottom, twisted 'em together and told 'em all to act in tandem but not to question what the other was doin' at any given time. So no, Augustus, I didn't know about the girls. The ADAM production was all Tenenbaum and Suchong."

"Yes, well..." Sinclair dragged the word out like a long sigh, "Fontaine snatchin' children in the night like the Pied Piper... say you did find out, it's almost enough to make a fellow consider turnin' tail and workin' for the other side, ain't it?"

Breda, wise to Sinclair's insinuation, and wary of implicating Mustang and the others, said nothing.

Sinclair shrugged. "Never mind that now. The fact is, Fontaine created his Orphanages as a front to exploit the lil' dimples as his supply of hosts for ADAM production. Now, Andy can't stand the little things, but he has to accept the necessity of their existence to generate the quantity of ADAM Rapture now requires. While he'd been nationalizing Fontaine's assets, Andy's been shuttin' down those false orphanages, and is turning to usin' the Little Wonders Educational Facility on High Street to house the other ADAM hosts."  

Breda squeezed his eyes shut. "Because with the city's ADAM addiction becomin' endemic," he muttered, "shortages can't be allowed to become critical. Damn."

It was not a difficult cognitive leap to make, the realization that Ryan was no better than Fontaine. The behaviors of the splicers, the ADAM addicts, were as easy to control as those of any other junkie. All a manipulator like Fontaine, like Ryan, needed was a simple two-step process: give the addict what they craved, and then threaten to take it away if they didn't play ball. The relative normalization of ADAM use in Rapture had been productive of, and fused with, the relatively normalized and commercial supply of ADAM. Topside, it was nose-candy and floor polish, but ADAM was more than just dope –– it was Rapture's lifeblood. Without it, the city would stumble around like a decapitated chicken until it bled out and collapsed.

Plasmids were far too lucrative an enterprise for Ryan to ax. ADAM collection would continue, and the girls, the Little Sisters, would never be free of the horrors Fontaine had inflicted on them.

Despite what Sinclair had said about faith, about belief, Andrew Ryan’s Great Chain, thought Breda bitterly, was not a matter of belief in industry, but a belief in delusion. That somehow, truth could be a thing manufactured.

ADAM was not the articulation of some evolutionary advancement, or a reference to the ideal of the superhuman. It was a disguising of the fact of the city’s irredeemable soul and the sorry state of their world. ADAM was a complete, twisted denial of the very despair it created: it was a cure that did not work, a barbiturate that functioned as an opiate.

Breda wanted to be sick, and as he swallowed the acidic burn in the back of his throat, his gaze brushed over the chessboard, the pieces scattered across the floor. The game abandoned, the ways in which each soldier and sovereign contributed its individual power, disregarded and cast aside. Chess was simple. It was complex. It was savage; it was elegant. It was a dance; it was a war.

The game Augustus Sinclair played –– the game of Ryan and Fontaine –– lacked the subtle shades of meaning and expression. Their game was less like the interplay of individual pieces and more like the board itself, checkered in black and white. A game of oppositions, of conflict, and conquest.

And, for all his cleverness, Breda came to the crushing realization that Rapture was not a game he knew how to play.

Heymans opened his mouth to speak again, to decry his involvement in the whole goddamn mess, but Sinclair held up a hand. Heymans suspected he was not long for losing his temper, but the frown fissured on Sinclair's expression was so uncharacteristically grim, Breda's protest died on his lips.

Then he saw it: the surface of Sinclair's coffee rippling slowly outward, the liquid disturbed, as though its owner had set the cup down too clumsily.

But the coffee was long cold –– Sinclair hadn't touched it for hours.

All at once, the cell heaved with such force Sinclair and Breda fell sprawling onto the floor, landing heavily to the stone and crushing the chess pieces under their bodies. The ground shook as the sound of a distant explosion resounded with more noise than a quarry detonation, the sudden burst of light blotting out the electrical grid of the cellblock.

"Jesus, Mary, and Joseph..." breathed Sinclair, his face going pea green.

"What the fuck was that, Sinclair?!"

Sinclair opened his mouth to answer, but then chomped down roughly on his tongue as another enormous eruption punched through the side of their cellblock like a great orange fist. Windows shattered. Stone exploded. Smoke and fire saturated the air, making Breda's eyes stream. Thousands of pieces of glass and steel showered down. Alarms –– shrill and deafening –– erupted throughout the facility. A huge bite had been taken out of the side and the roof of the building, the blast close enough to reduce the door of Breda's cell to kindling. 

Heymans trembled with the shock of it all: the fearful blow of the explosion, the sound of shattered glass, the hoarse howl of people –– splicers and non-splicers –– the rush of men, the awful whirlpool of fear churning in his guts.

Sinclair was out cold –– a piece of shrapnel had taken him in the back of the head. His shallow breath fogged the chilled surface of the floor, so he was still alive, but Breda wagered he'd have a nasty concussion when he woke up.

From the end of the cellblock came a peculiar, blood-chilling sound. It was like the low snarling of many voices, and it grew louder and louder until it became a sullen, muttering roar. Breda's heart stuttered and his blood turned to ice as a figure, silhouetted by the smoke, moved in front of the gaping hole where the door to his cell used to be...

But the figure was not a splicer or a deranged bomber. The figure was a man –– a very ordinary, working-class man. Nature hadn't been a miser with him –– he had bold features, a hard, chiselled face, and eyes as blue and bright as deep-sea ocean fauna, sort of bioluminescent in the smoke. The pragmatic glint in his eyes was an intriguing contrast to the touch of humor that lurked at the corners of his wide mouth, in the gleam of his slightly pointed teeth.

He looked strong, sure, trustworthy... and perhaps a bit familiar, if only because Breda was, in that moment, desperate to believe he was a friendly face.

"You all right there, boyo?" asked the man, anxiety muddling the Irish accent.

Breda swallowed, his throat suddenly dry. "Yeah..." he coughed. "Yeah, I'm fine."

He nodded solemnly. "Get a move-on, then... best foot forward now. The Lord hates a quitter..."

Breda didn't need to be told twice; leaving his jailer snoring on the floor, Heymans plunged straight through the cellblock, like a fullback headed for a try. The southern quadrant of the cellblocks had five cells, all of them blasted wide open by the force of the Irishman's explosives. From the tower, the security staff ought to have been keeping an eye on the prisoners. From the ground level, however, Breda could see the windows caked in blood, the smell of cordite hanging low and noxious in the air. The main console controlled major functions of the detention center such as instituting and overriding lockdowns, and it appeared as though the stranger's men had it under their control.

Breda slapped the door to the Persephone cellblock out of his way without slowing and skittered out along the holding area, head and shoulders defensively lowered, towards freedom…

The tall, handsome man with the piercing blue eyes close at his heels.

"I won't leave ye twistin' in the wind," he affirmed.

"I'm Atlas... an' I aim to keep ye alive."

Chapter Text

Who is Atlas?

It was the third such poster Riza had seen in as many days... a sheet of grimy stockboard featuring a square-jawed man in profile, gazing confidently into the middle distance.

Who is Atlas?

Riza took a deep breath. There was a mustiness in the dimly-lit corridor, a slimy chill, the green of the seafloor choked up behind her like ale beneath a cork. A storm raged across the surface of the North Atlantic, and Rapture felt it as acutely as the fishing vessels and survey buoys topside. The wind above was blowing so strong it sent the currents below ceaselessly moiling like water in a simmering pot. The leaks had returned in earnest, the mildewy leprosy of the walls slick with the press of seawater, Riza tasted the ocean on her tongue constantly, a strange, salted vegetable tang. A headache sat over her right eye as though it had been nailed there, just like Atlas's poster. Its inscrutable question penetrated, echoed, demanded an answer. It nipped at her in ways she wasn't prepared for, pinched in places she didn't entirely like. She found her discomfort no less frustrating for its disheartening familiarity over recent weeks.

Who is Atlas?

Atlas, Riza Hawkeye decided, was dangerous.

After the nationalization of Fontaine Futuristics, the man who called himself Atlas –– a working class Irishman with a compelling attractiveness and charisma that inspired complete devotion in his followers –– spoke out against Andrew Ryan in front of the entire city. With Fontaine declared dead by the Rapture Council, Atlas took to using the old poor houses to recruit Rapture's disillusioned citizens and build up supporters against Ryan. Atlas had made Hestia Chambers in Apollo Square his headquarters, where, according to Chief Bradley, he and his followers were stockpiling weapons: firearms, ammunition, plasmids, gene tonics. 

The violence had begun in earnest not long after the assault on Port Neptune, in retaliation to Ryan's taking control of Fontaine Futuristics. Most recently, Atlas had claimed responsibility for a prison break at Persephone Penal Colony, leaving a number of people dead and many more missing. And Riza suspected the bloodshed was only to get worse in the months to come.

The edge of the poster had curled in the damp –– without really thinking about it, Riza unfurled the corner of the paper, as though an answer to the Atlas enigma lay hidden in the margins.

"I don't expect you'll find what you're looking for in this propaganda, Miss Hawkeye."

She recognized the voice at her side immediately. His presence was unwelcome, but it was, in some way, inevitable. She turned slightly away, sensible of his gaze on the side of her head. She took her time flattening the edge of the poster against the wall, smoothing it over the exhausted adhesive. "Perhaps the question invites us to provide our own answers, Mr. Ryan," she said quietly.

When she finally turned to face him, Andrew Ryan's expression was almost as guarded as Riza's own, the only allowances being a few creases in the corners of his deep blue eyes and a tightening of the edges of his mouth. Parentheses carved deep furrows into his face. His skin looked almost as gray as his double-breasted suit, the pouches beneath his eyes like little bags for holding all the sorrows and frustrations his mind couldn't manage anymore. His hair, once dark, was constellated with silver. He had taken to carrying a walking stick –– while the pomposity and self-importance communicated by the accessory added to the man's aesthetic, Riza though it made him look battered and broken. Andrew Ryan seemed, in that moment, incredibly old.

"Tell me, Miss Hawkeye," he mused, forcing her gaze from the walking stick back to his face, "what is it you are hoping to find?"

Riza indulged a tiny smile, though there was little humor in the gesture. "Nothing Atlas can provide, sir."

"I should hope not. The man is a criminal, and a parasite. I doubt if there is a grain of wisdom in his soapbox caterwauling."

Riza decided, then, not to begrudge Andrew Ryan for lacking a sense of irony. "Is there something I can help you with, Mr. Ryan?"

Rather than answer her query, however, Ryan made an exaggerated motion of looking over his shoulder and hers. She would have mistaken his expression for genuine curiosity if not for the glint in his glacier-colored eyes, serrated like the tooth of a shark. “Where has Mustang scampered off to?” he asked. “You two are so often attached at the hip... I’m surprised he's not around...”

"Our proximity is consequent of my job as his bodyguard," offered Riza, diplomatically. “As to your question, he is with Mrs. Hughes and the executor of the late Detective Inspector’s estate. They are reading his Last Will and Testament today."

Ryan’s icy gaze defrosted a fraction of a degree –– Riza hesitated to call him sympathetic, but he was, at the very least, solemn, the expression blunting the harsh contours of his face. "Upsetting business, that," he said gravely. "Detective Inspector Hughes was a valued member of my staff. It’s a shame we were unable to muzzle Fontaine before his parasitism transmuted into tragedy.” Ryan sighed. "I suppose it is only small conciliation," he admitted, "but I like to think his widow has found some peace, now that the mastermind is dead and the perpetrator, apprehended."

Small conciliation, indeed, thought Riza bitterly. 

"At the risk of changing the subject, my dear, I believe some words of gratitude are in order."

Riza furrowed her brow. Her bemusement stuttered the long-ago memorised pattern of her breathing, Ryan's words entirely unexpected. “Gratitude, sir?”

"I spoke with Augustus Sinclair shortly before the raid," he explained. "He made it abundantly clear that the operation would not have been possible without your assistance in collecting intelligence. Ryan Industries is in your debt. It's largely thanks to you that Fontaine is dead." 

Riza considered Ryan with a carefully neutral expression, even as the memories took root behind her eyes. Thinking back to the shoot-out at Port Neptune was like mishandling a kitchen knife; over the past few days, the blade had dulled, and the cuts were not quite as sharp. But it was always there, resting in the cabinet, drawing blood whenever Riza ran an errant finger along its edge.

Above Ryan's head, the red neon from the Kashmir Restaurant scissored through a kelp bed, reminding Riza too much of the crimson stain on the blade of Bradley's saber, flashing through the darkness.

It's largely thanks to you that Fontaine is dead.

Riza looked at the ground, masking the anguish that lived just under the surface of her face. Thinking of the Fisheries –– remembering the warm stickiness of blood spraying across her face, the smells of iron and cordite, the dull thud of decapitated heads rolling across hardwood –– drove a rod of ice through her chest, the raw chill of it making it suddenly difficult to breath. 

Through the brume of her revulsion, Riza was certain of one thing: the man Chief Bradley had killed in Port Neptune was not Frank Fontaine.

The fact of Fontaine’s survival was one she knew as surely as she knew the truth about her father’s research, and like her father’s research, was one she would never dare speak aloud. In some ways, the implications of the deception outweighed the enormity, the audacity, of the deception itself. The apocalyptic, unspoken thing was round and hard and heavy and cold, like a lodestone hung around her neck, her back bent under the weight of the secret. Riza had little doubt that Bradley had recognized the imposter for what he was, but if Riza dared to breathe a word of the truth, she had no doubt Bradley wouldn’t hesitate to do to her –– or worse, to Roy –– what he had done to Fontaine’s duplicate. 

It seemed illogical and duplicitous of her to buy into the deception, but her place at Roy's side, her sworn duty to protect him, necessitated it. Secrets arrested aggressive motion, seized voices from accusatory throats. The city rarely shrieked its mysteries at anyone. Like Riza and Roy, it whispered, in private languages and obscure modalities, through symbol systems in which every element had multiple meanings determined only through parataxes and parallels. Secrets were dark things, and Rapture was a dark city. Light and revelation threw into sharp relief dangers best left hidden in the shadows.

One had to feign willful ignorance in order to survive. Knowledge was a treacherous thing. That simple fact seemed to stand in opposition to everything Riza had once held true about her own manner of understanding and feeling. It was as though Rapture's decay had begun to take root even in her. Even Roy's flames of vengeance, the conflagration of his rage, had in some way oxidized her insides, turned her heart rusty. The loss, the despair, the fury in his black eyes had been like planets taking turns in orbit around a dying sun, each containing their own unique gravities that drew her near and held her fast, burning her upon reentry and ultimately casting her to ash.

Roy may as well have been burning her right along with the splicers.

Riza's next breath was a shuddering, desperate thing, as though her lungs had forgotten their function, and she had to concentrate on forcing the air through her body.

"I was just doing my job, sir," she managed, with effort, a few seconds later that somehow felt like hours.

Ryan seemed not to notice her discomfort. "Nonetheless, you performed beyond the purview of your station, and favors owed, I find, are commodities with exceeding high rates of interest. I intend to repay mine."

What Ryan didn't say, and what Riza inferred, was that if life in Rapture was indicative of anything, it was that there was often no better way of justifying relations founded upon violence, to make such relations seem moral, than by reframing them in the language of debt. Andrew Ryan's conception of human nature was codified in the vocabulary of cost-benefit analysis.

"The repayment is not large insofar as status goes, and my need is not critical, however, I find I would value your council in certain matters. It seems in light of the recent uptick in plasmid development, citizens are expressing a more vociferous interest in acquiring firearms. For self protection, as I understand it."

"If safety is the concern, sir, would it not be more prudent to regulate plasmid production?"

Riza regretted the words as soon as she'd uttered them: Ryan's scowl was withering, and his glare baleful. "Regulate..." he sniffed. "I confess I'm disappointed to hear such talk from you, Miss Hawkeye. Granted, there have been side effects of plasmid use: blindness, insanity... death. But what use is our ideology if it is not tested? The market does not respond like an infant, shrieking at the first sign of displeasure. The market is patient, and we must be too."

Riza suspected she would not soon win this particular argument, so conceded the point. "You said something about weapons, sir?"

"Yes..." A shadow of disquiet passed over Ryan's face. "As it happens, a close advisor of mine recently tendered his letter of resignation."

Bill McDonagh, affirmed Riza. The chief engineer was far too principled to remain in Ryan's confidences following the nationalization of Fontaine Futuristics and, by extension, the subversion of the very laissez-faire ideology Rapture was founded upon. Ryan did not have to spell it out, and Riza thought it safest to avoid raising the subject with him. But where Riza felt her losses as absence, Ryan felt his as disloyalty. Infidelity. Betrayal.

Ryan's suspicious mind tended to conjure its own demons. His worldview was a deeply paranoid one in which everything of importance could be traced back to vindictiveness or personal attacks against his own self. Andrew Ryan did not believe in God, an afterlife, paranormal powers: all such things were the purely physical and totally illusory effects of the parasites gnawing on the undersides of his city, weakening the foundations. But Riza suspected the collapse of Rapture's infrastructure would not have been quite the problem it was had it not meant the simultaneous dismantlement of Ryan's own pedestal.

"And in light of McDonagh's... perfidiousness…" Ryan decided on the tactful term, "I am eager not only to fill his seat on the Council, but to have in my confidences someone well-read on the manufacture, distribution, and operation of firearms."

He was so like Frank Fontaine in that moment, it was almost amusing. "Are you offering me a job, Mr. Ryan?"

"I repaying a debt, Miss Hawkeye."

"I'm already employed, sir. Your offer is tempting," –– It wasn't –– "but I must respectfully decline."

Ryan sucked on his teeth. He turned his head to her fully and in the dim light his features looked ghastly, his lips twitching, his dark eyes almost bloodshot when they caught the glow of the red neon.

Roy Mustang, Riza affirmed, was a patient man.

Frank Fontaine, for all his sins, was a patient man.

Andrew Ryan was not an patient man, and as the tapping on the head of his walking stick increased in pace, Riza realized he had neither allowed for the possibility of her refusal nor prepared himself for the process of further persuasion. He was a man accustomed to getting what he wanted when he wanted it, or buying that which was denied to him.

But loyalties and allegiances were languages he spoke, and faced with Riza’s refusal, Ryan seemed distinctly displeased with what the translation portended: that she would not leave Roy Mustang... not for any price or any promise. And Riza knew that Ryan, for perhaps the first time in his life, found himself in the midst of a negotiation with no bargaining chip.

"There is business we can do together, Miss Hawkeye. Money, I think you'll find, is no object. I am willing to discuss terms."

"I won’t accept payment for anything more than what my station warrants, sir."

"An admirable sentiment, if an immature one. You betray your lack of judgement with your naivety, Miss Hawkeye: the people of this city are not in the habit of refusing an offer from Andrew Ryan."

Riza bristled as his apparent show of kindness betrayed his own sense of superiority. "And is Andrew Ryan in the habit of hiring those already gainfully employed? I understand my position would be contingent upon my resignation as Roy Mustang’s attaché, correct?"

“Naturally. I have neither the time nor the interest in accommodating divided loyalties."

"And neither do I, sir,” affirmed Riza. Then, a touch impertinently, "Now that we understand each other, Mr. Ryan, I am expected at the Hughes residence shortly. If you would excuse me...”

“Come now, my dear,” he said as she turned to go; Riza let out a burning ball of air that seemed to sear the walls of her lungs, “we shouldn’t let petty personal disinclinations stand in the way of commerce."

Riza frowned deeply. Personal disinclinations...? A sudden surety of danger sat fiercely upon her shoulders: a hungry, goading beast gnawing at the back of her neck...

"Unless, of course," Ryan’s gaze glittered cruelly, "Mustang keeps you on his payroll for reasons that would not cater to filing on one’s tax returns..."

She felt an uncharacteristic convulsion of anger that made heat roll up towards her head. "I resent that accusation, Mr. Ryan."

"As I resent the parasite, Miss Hawkeye, and its poison seeping into my inner circle.” His eyes took on an adamantine fortitude, as tough and inflexible as the foundations of the city itself. "Right before his arrest, the man who killed the late Detective Inspector was seen skulking around Port Neptune. In Fontaine’s jurisdiction. Chatting rather amiably with your estimable patron at the Fighting McDonagh's tavern. I have sent men to the gallows for less."

Riza's face blanched –– Bradley had planted the seed of doubt in Ryan's mind, and the man's tendency towards mistrust had festooned into a snarled tangle of suspicion in the interim. "If you mean to accuse Colonel Mustang of something, Mr. Ryan––"

"Oh, my dear, I’m far beyond accusation where that upstart pup is concerned. His goose, suffice it to say, is cooked. I had hoped, however, to spare you a similar fate. I see no reason to destroy the man’s assets along with the man himself."

"A philosophy you took to heart regarding the nationalization of Fontaine Futuristics, as I understand it."

Andrew Ryan's expression was inscrutable. "It is unfortunate that such measures had to be taken… unfortunate, but necessary. Fontaine's enterprises were endangering the city. His plasmids are on the market now. I cannot pull the Great Chain from its appointed course. But I can bring it under the purview of the city, for the good of Rapture."

"You think Roy Mustang intends to betray you." Riza swallowed, downing Ryan's bitter tonic –– but she did not deny the suspicion outright. "You fear him... just as you feared Fontaine. You don't trust the Colonel."

"I don't trust the ocean, either, because it would destroy me as soon as not. But that does not mean I am afraid of it."

"If it is the prospect of destruction that worries you, sir, then you shouldn't be looking into Roy Mustang." Riza considered. "A mirror, perhaps."

Ryan drew himself up, hackles standing on end. "That man is a parasite," he seethed. "A leech polluting my city by sowing his discontent everywhere he goes, glutting himself on the spoils of his so-called altruism." Ryan spat the word like a curse. "They are a disease, all of them!... Mustang, Atlas, Fontaine..."

"Rapture was sick long before we arrived here. Perhaps a sick society gets so used to its illness that it can't remember ever being well."

For a moment it seemed as though he was going to lose his temper. His deep blue eyes glared daggers at Riza. But he controlled himself and, feigning politeness, said, "All it takes, Miss Hawkeye, is ample time to find the proper pharmaceutical."

"And what if the cure is too dangerous for the people who like things the way they are?"

He chuckled without mirth and brought his face closer to hers, close enough that it became difficult to focus on any one of his features –– the smell of his cologne was something predictably expensive. "I don't know what you hope to accomplish by staying loyal to that man," admitted Ryan, "but I know I don't like it." There was an edge to his voice that promised damage. "If Roy Mustang has put you on a demon's tracks, you had better make certain the demon doesn't find you first."

"You needn't worry about that, Mr. Ryan," said Riza, her back molars rasping together, "I found him already. He wears a nice suit and carries a cane and visits the Eve's Garden prostitutes when his secretary doesn't quite turn the trick."

Ryan's face contorted in a paroxysm of rage, and he raised his hand as though to strike her. Riza unholstered her pistol in the time it took Ryan to open his palm and level it above his head. She fixed the barrel of her sidearm at his forehead, and the two stared at each other in silence for nearly a full minute before Ryan slowly lowered his flat palm into his pocket. Rather than the disquieted look Riza had expected, Andrew Ryan's brow creased and his eyes twitched feverishly from detail to detail, puzzling out her movements and her proximity.

"Behind every hand stained with blood there's another, the one that stays clean." Ryan leaned in even closer, lowering his voice to a whisper. "Behind a monster, my dear, there's always someone holding the creature on a leash.”

“Are you implying that I am Roy Mustang’s… handler, Mr. Ryan?”

“I’m implying nothing… I am stating a fact." His eyes flicked from her face to her throat, lingered in the hollow between her collarbones. Riza, unsettled by the sudden fixation, followed his gaze...

And in her lowermost peripheries, caught the glint of the saber held across her throat, the edge of the blade mere hairbreadths from her glistening skin. Riza felt the presence at her back, a pressure building between her shoulder blades as Security Chief Bradley made himself known, stepping from the shadows.

Riza lowered her gun from Ryan's head and flicked the safety back on. Bradley, after a moment's pause, sheathed his saber. 

Ryan let out a tinny chuckle. "Chief Bradley told me what happened in Port Neptune, my dear. I expect we should all count ourselves fortunate for your timely intervention. Roy Mustang is a rabid dog. He is the most dangerous of animals. He possesses, in equal quantities, unhealthy doses of charm and ambition. A driven opportunist with the fury of a beast.”

Riza glowered, as though the mere prospect of further conversation filled her with the utmost revulsion; she had never detested a person so much, not even Kimblee: “Being called "dangerous" by a man like you could mean a great many things, but it is generally received as something of a compliment.”

“That’s well as may be, but even if Roy Mustang were, as you say, a good man, misguided good men are far more dangerous than honest bad men. It is because they are seen as good that, in and by good conscience, the mob will always, stubbornly back them without question.” He sneered. “The mob... and people like you, for instance.”

“I follow him because I am his employee, Mr. Ryan.”

“Do you honestly expect me to believe that to be the only reason?” he asked, ice in the words. “Do not take me for a fool. No one is so valuable that they are worth the investment of one's entire future. And mark my words, girl, at some juncture, this pollution you call loyalty will blight you." He inclined his head towards his security chief; Bradley remained impassive, but his single green eye roved languidly towards Riza.

"A word of caution, my dear," said Ryan: "people have expiration dates. Yours –– and Roy Mustang’s –– is drawing closer… and let me assure you, the number in question isn’t even in the double digits.”

“Is this a warning?”

“Consider it an advance notice. Before things turn… ugly.”

Riza reared her head defiantly. "You're the last person I expected altruism from.”

“Don’t insult me," he snarled. "I am paying down my account... you gave me Fontaine, and now, I give you the chance to save your own life. If I am performing any favors today, then they are merely out of my own self-interest.”

“Or greed and a perverse need for gain.”

In the dim crimson light, his cheekbones jutted with shadowy sharpness –– and Riza saw, clearly enough, the expression that flickered across his face. It was a look of hatred.

“Which is not, in of itself, myopic selfishness, Miss Hawkeye. Nobody does anything for the good of others, but as he pursues his own interests, he is brought to work unwittingly for the benefit of the many.”

Riza decided Rapture's founder was either mad or just alarmingly and uncompromisingly capable of self-delusion. 

“You,” she said, quietly, but with an utter loathing the rivaled even Ryan’s, “believe exclusively in yourself; you subordinate everything to the incessant aggrandizement of your own ego.”

He sneered. “And you know nothing of this world, and yet you mean to go out and die in it, right alongside your beloved superior.” Ryan shook his head. "Remember, my dear... I gave you a chance."

Ryan nodded to Bradley, who looped his hands behind his back and fell into step beside his boss. Hawkeye didn’t move as they swept past her. Even as Ryan's eyes raked appreciatively and sedately over her body, she fixed her gaze ahead of her, expressionless even as the hammer blows of her heart thundered beneath her shirt.

She thought Ryan and Bradley were gone, but then she heard a hum of consideration from close behind her... “At the Hughes residence, was it?”

A deep, nauseating dread gripped at Riza's lungs, her limbs. Her teeth ached and her chest burned. Ryan's face, straining after hers, triggered a sudden terror inside her so intensely it took her an instant longer to see that Ryan's expression had changed from anger to something like rumination.

“The Detective Inspector has a young daughter, does he not? Delightful girl. Unfortunately, so many little moppets have found themselves cast off in recent days... consequent of their parent’s carelessness in oversplicing, their unwillingness to work, their incessant bleating for hand-outs...”

“Ryan––" whispered Riza hoarsely, all pretenses of politeness gone.

“It is difficult enough for a family to raise a child in Rapture, but a widowed mother? I'm sure Gracia Hughes could be persuaded to allow Ryan Industries to take the girl off her hands. We are always looking for new pupils at the Little Wonders Educational Facility. After all...” His smug amusement registered to Riza as ugly, perverse; he quoted ironically: "Children are the future of Rapture."

Riza Hawkeye's blood congealed. Something hot and heavy pulsed behind her eyes. "Ryan, if you touch that child..."

He snarled a grin that lasted just long enough to show a mouthful of small gray teeth, then turned suddenly serious. "Then think of the girl," he growled, "and other things, if you or Mustang dare to raise a hand to me again."

Then Andrew Ryan and Chief Bradley were gone.

A shroud of darkness seemed to press itself against the porthole glass, threatening to push its way into the room and suffocate all those it touched. Riza found that she had begun to shiver beneath the shadow. She felt the twin thump of her nervous heart, saddened and petrified, and the light-headedness of a breath being caught and then not released nearly soon enough. It felt strange and uncomfortable, irritating like a wind catching a loose filling on a cold winter’s day.

The city lights jumped and twitched across the puddles beneath her shoes. There was no peaceful cadence to be found in the steady drip of the leaking viaduct… it was less like a metronome and more like sand falling through an hourglass glued to a table, strictly unidirectional. Riza thought of the city and its people, bound by contracts both financial and social and by their mutual selfish need. The veneer of civilization falling away to reveal desperate animals, humanity at their worst. Everyone working in their own greedy interests and huddling alone within their hovels, at war with all those outside who they regarded as barely human, misshapen either by splicing or by other, less tangible sins. In that moment, Rapture seemed caught in a constant withering of potential and possibility, so like the surface world during the War...

Riza froze.

The surface...

The impulse came to Hawkeye suddenly, almost clairvoyantly, and she obeyed without a sign of hesitation. She felt as though she had been living underground, and for a moment, was given a brief but breathless glimpse of the sky. Deeper comprehension, as well as a fully-realized plan, would come to her soon, she expected, but for the time being, she set her jaw and pressed on through the corridor.

Escape. She thought back to the War, the millions taking flight from disasters, fleeing tyrannical despots, making an exodus from pogroms and genocides, escaping waring soldiers and pouring out of bombed cities. What had kept them going was the promise of safe haven. Riza knew she could never erase the horrors of that past. She couldn't change them. But she understood, then, she had been offered the opportunity to put at least something right. 

She remembered: there was a bathysphere docked directly under the Rapture lighthouse, one that would take its occupants directly to the surface. Elicia and Gracia. The Elrics and their young friend, the Rockbell girl. As many people as she could manage. Riza would free them. The tears she didn't realize were in her eyes splintered into a thousand crystals of every conceivable color. Like stained-glass windows, like something blessed. In the midst of Rapture’s torment of unachieved longings, its torture of unfulfilled dreams, Riza dared to kindle a tiny flicker of hope.

Then...

"Lass," came a low, jaunty voice, hot breath on the back of her neck, "I thought Ryan'd never leave."

Hawkeye drew her firearm, but voice's owner caught her wrist before she could get off a shot and yanked her hand, hard, behind her head. The force of the grip seemed to grind her bones together. The pistol clattered to the floor. Gasping, Riza tried to twist herself free, pulling her ulnar tendon out of alignment in the process. She felt calloused fingers dig into her cheek. Her scream was stifled. She could hear the stranger, a man, panting, the pleasure in his breath, like an animal in heat. His hand crushed her mouth, threatening to unhinge her jaw if a sound were to leave her lips.

"Give 'er the jab, lads."

A hypodermic swam into her peripheries, the glass bulb filled with pellucid brown liquid. Riza bucked against her captor but a long hand closed on her wrist, twisting it up into the middle of her back while the other arm wrapped around her throat, pulling her flush against a broad, muscular torso. As the needle sunk into the side of her neck, and the plunger descended, Riza saw a wicked grin spread over her captor's face, so enormous that his canines shone in the dim light and she thought she could see back to the second molars.

As the sedative took hold, Riza gasped without air. The corridor seemed to sway. A coldness drove into her belly. She felt as though her lungs were filling with water, as though she was drowning in the middle of the dry room. Her tongue began to tingle and with a sickening lurch, she felt herself pitch forward, collapsing into her captor's arms.

"There, now," murmured a voice... a familiar voice; a hand spread itself on Riza's cheek, stroked her with rough, thick fingernails. The last thing she remembered was a laugh like razorblades on stone, and a grating accent murmur: 

"We never finished our little chat, sweetheart."

Chapter Text

"Where the hell is she, Sinclair?"

The boy's intrusion startled him so much he near about choked on his cigarette smoke. The door to Augustus's office banged shut behind the furious blur of Roy Mustang, who rushed Sinclair's desk and planted his palms on its surface, fire-spitting fingers dangerously close to a pile of Sinclair's personal effects. The look in his eyes, thought Sinclair, suddenly uneasy, seemed sharp enough to skin a man alive.

"Woah there, sport..." Sinclair held up his hands in what he hoped was a placating gesture; unfortunately, it didn't appear to smooth Mustang's ruffled feathers to any noticeable degree. "What's the matter?"

Usually, Sinclair didn't take too kindly to people barging into his office unannounced and uninvited, but his every instinct was screaming at him to indulge Mustang for the time being. The kid looked fit to go postal on someone, and Augustus had no intention of that someone being himself.

"You have eyes everywhere and a hand in everything," snarled Mustang, lip curled and eyes dark –– he reminded Sinclair of one of the splicers, a man turned maniac. "You always seem to know what's going on in this godforsaken city, legal or otherwise. So tell me... where is Riza Hawkeye?"

Sinclair had been prepared to be angry with Mustang, or at the very least, highly irritated. But knowing the object of the disruption sucked the wind right out of his proverbial sails. For several long moments, as he processed Mustang's words, he felt uncharacteristically bereft of intelligent anything to say.

"Riza's gone missin'?"

"It's Miss Hawkeye to you, bastard." Mustang leaned over the top of the desk, until he was nose-to-nose with Augustus. "I won't ask you a third time, Sinclair... where is she?"

"I'm sure I don't know, kid. In case it's escaped your notice, I've been put away for the past week or so with a nasty knock on the head."

"And you've heard nothing in all that time..." Mustang sneered –– Sinclair didn't think the boy wore cruelty well. It turned him into something ugly. Vicious. "You're her landlord!"

"I'm many people's landlord."

"Forgive me if I find your ignorance hard to believe."

"Believe whatever you like, sport, it don't change a damn thing. And anyhow…" Sinclair thought back to the assault on Persephone, how half of his inmates had been either killed or kidnapped. Not to mention the rash of disappearances plaguing Rapture as the Atlas and Ryan nonsense reached a fever pitch. "Riza ain't the only one to go missin' recently."

"She's the only one I care about, Sinclair."

"And why is that, I wonder?" he muttered, half rhetorically, though Mustang seemed to take the question as the genuine article.

"She's my bodyguard, a valued employee... I can't afford––"

"I didn’t just fall off the turnip truck, Mustang," retorted Sinclair tartly, his usual reserve of patience nearly depleted. "You care about that girl a sight more than what's good for you, I reckon."

"You don't know what you're talking about."

"Don't be obtuse, son. I ain't faultin' you for it, but when you come stormin' into a man's office throwin' a proper fit, don't insult me by pretendin' it's because of a little work domestic."

There it was –– a flash of warning in Roy's black eyes that revealed a depth of feeling he would never admit to. Augustus had never seen anything like the mute longing that Mustang felt for his own subordinate. No one could fail to observe –– and yet, people invariably did –– that whenever Riza Hawkeye entered the room, Roy Mustang practically vibrated like a tuning fork.

Sinclair tried to affect an expression that didn't reflect the pity he felt inside. "That girl is as tough as a pine knot, Mustang. I'm sure you're fussin' over nothing."

Augustus hated the fact that he sounded as though he was trying to put his own mind at ease more so than Mustang's. Hell, Sinclair was worried, too. Riza was a smart kid who had her head on straight. She was sensible to the point of excessively pragmatic, minding not only her own business but the business of her boss, managing his safety with a singular drive and purpose. Sinclair couldn't help but admire her for it.

If she had up and vanished without even telling Mustang, Sinclair had a terrible suspicion that the disappearance had not been Riza's own doing.

And he had little doubt Roy had reached a similar conclusion. All things considered, Augustus was half-surprised the entirety of Sinclair Solutions hadn't been torched.

As the idea of it settled over him, Sinclair realized again how entwined the pair of them were. They were like two trees whose branches had grown together. Even if one pulled them out by the trunks, they were still going to be twisted and tangled and nearly impossible to separate at the roots.

Augustus had grown up on peach farms. He knew tangled trees tended to end up dead trees.

And with a quiet consternation and dismay, Sinclair realized that Mustang's nerves, for all his shouting, were beginning to unravel. He was breaking, slowly, and those unbearably bright black eyes stayed fixed on Sinclair continuously throughout.

"I can't find her," he managed, his voice a touch raspy. Sinclair realized, abruptly, that Roy's purpose in coming hadn't been looking for revenge –– the boy had near about donned sackcloth and ashes looking for help. "I don't know where she is."

Sinclair knew he ought not to get involved –– Mustang and his people attracted trouble like briars on a bob-wire fence attracted mules. By virtue of pressing his ear to the ground and cultivating a healthy habit of wining and dining the right people, Sinclair had maintained a steady surveillance of Mustang's subordinates… as well as the problems they had a propensity to court.

Riza and Roy had been none too popular from the start, but while Sinclair Solutions's client, Ryan Industries, had contracted Augustus to keep an eye on Mustang's doings, the rest of the boy's underlings were not immune to scrutiny –– not to mention a certain infamy –– of their own.

Sander Cohen had, for a time, shadowed young Kain Fuery during the period following his transition, tormenting the poor kid to the point of near-hysteria.

Yi Suchong, one of Frank Fontaine's scientists, had tried to get Vato Falman dismissed after the geneticist learned the librarian had an eidetic memory and the ability to recall entire conversations verbatim.

It was only Dr. Steinman's timely intervention that had kept Jean Havoc from being paralyzed in the aftermath of an attack orchestrated by a rival businessman… whom Sinclair believed to be on commission with Ryan Industries.

And of course there was the newest addition, Heymans Breda… arraigned and charged with the murder of Detective Inspector Hughes on evidence that made even someone like Sinclair –– who was certainly no saint –– turn a frown.

Though the sentiment was concerned chiefly with his own personal interests, Sinclair hoped that wherever he was, Heymans was safe, that he'd survived the attack on Persephone. Despite the circumstances of their meeting, the ginger fella had been good company. During their short acquaintance, Sinclair had grown rather fond of the man: intuitive, pragmatic, not half-bad looking, and a damn fine chess player. It was a shame Breda's disappearance had cut their association short, that Atlas's raid had axed any chance Sinclair may have had of clearing Heymans's name…

Sinclair let a breath out slowly, deliberately, smoke rising to his ceiling in a lazy helix; he could feel his frowning all the way down in his chest.

Atlas.

Sinclair rested his head on a fist, considering Mustang over the top of the desk, the attack on his prison playing out in his mind's eye even as the other man whittled at the inside of his cheek, his composure beginning to crack. Augustus had started to nurse a particularly nasty hunch, and the more he considered its possibility, the more the damn thing seemed to snowball into something almost like a certainty.

Heymans going missing… then Riza. The attack on the penal colony.

Atlas.

Sinclair grimaced at the cigarette between his fingers. It was almost short enough to scorch him, and he realized his mouth was suddenly bereft of anything to keep himself from musing aloud. What was worse, he couldn't seem to shake Mustang's despairing little face from his peripheries, nor the awful feeling that the boy was about to drag him into something that would invariably prove poor for Sinclair's health.

Oh, to hell with it.

"Mustang," said Sinclair, stabbing his cigarette in the ashtray before picking up a pen and paper, "you know those two little blonde prodigies up yonder? Brothers?" Sinclair gave the appearance of ignorance: no reason for Mustang to know just how versatile his connections were…

Roy's expression turned guarded, his knitted brows betraying his reservations. "The Elrics?"

"Grab one of 'em… preferably the older one." Edward, his name was. His quick and inquiring mind tended towards the irksome because it was coupled with an uncertain temper and a youthful, edgy pride, but the kid was from the Drop, and he'd suffered enough hard knocks to turn him strong and smart. Sinclair began to scribble instructions. "Make sure he comes armed."

"What the hell––"

"You're headed to Hestia Chambers, son. I've written a note ya'll can give to the constable Ryan has guardin' the Square."

"Sinclair! Why Hestia Chambers?"

"Because… I know who took Miss Hawkeye."


Elsewhere

He had been in better moods, he decided. His instructions –– which had been painstakingly described –– had not been followed.

He was too sensible for frustration. Annoyance, he decided, felt far more befitting.

He thought the ropes were entirely unnecessary, for a start. Prisoner or no, Riza Hawkeye, deprived of her firearms, was fully capable of carrying on a civil conversation –– unfortunately, he failed to see how he could ever expect it of her when she lay bound and gagged on the floor. He consigned himself to having a quiet word with Atlas's men at some future juncture. 

And made a mental note to bring a clean change of clothes... blood was difficult to scrub from fine linen.

Atlas tried his patience. The man himself was, he admitted, a prime specimen in a case study concerning the nature of idealogical conviction, and indeed, he respected Atlas for his diligence, his patience, his surety of purpose, even if his ambitions tended towards the pedestrian and his crafted persona lacked any meaningful inspiration. Demagogues were a dime a dozen, and the practice of catering to popular desires rather than acting in accordance with reason or logic or truth seemed to him lacking in sophistication and good taste.

He affirmed his judgement as he considered the slumbering form of Riza Hawkeye. When he had provided Atlas with a means of locating and retrieving Mustang’s bodyguard, it had been with the expectation of his affecting some small manner of subtlety. A drop of sedative in her coffee. A prick of the hypodermic from behind on the bathysphere. He had not, suffice it to say, expected Atlas's men to return hefting the girl in a sloppy fireman’s carry.

He had never been a man to eschew the shifting sands of philosophic extrapolations, but insofar as specific instructions were concerned, he believed there was little room for subjective interpretation. He held in high regard neither attempts to pick and choose which orders to obey… nor trussing unconscious women up like so many rodeo steers.

Suddenly agitated, he paced around their small room; aside from Miss Hawkeye and himself, the space was littered with an ugly hodgepodge of cannibalized equipment, machines half built or half broken, their ribs cracked open and their innards spilling out. A room of relics. He paused when he reached the porthole, leaning against the spongy damp of the wall, peering with hooded eyes through the glass and into the ocean.

Dull, shifting light flecked the subnautical darkness. Shapeless, formless, he longed to see some defined edge, some substance beyond the marine snow falling from the upper layers of the water column. A molten simmer was rising in him –– he felt the drop in his blood pressure, and he thought the heat in his stomach was in some ways mirrored in the whorls of bioluminescent light from the comb jellies and dinoflagellates drifting past the porthole. The glowing biota, like newborn stars, illuminated the motes of biological detritus in crimsons and blues. 

There was something about the thousands of glittering lights, the veil of nighttime, that made Rapture beautiful, especially in the reflection of the water. It made everything askew, disoriented –– fractured like sunlight through glass. There was more truth in the ripples than in any clear day topside.

It was a world filled with metaphor, rhyme, recurrence. A song. Saint-Saëns’s Danse Macabre, the personification of death summoning the deceased to dance along to the grave. Will-o-the-whisps bobbing in the backdraft. Memento mori, a reminder of the fragility of life and the vanity of mortal glory. He looked forward to his own death. But dying was quite a lot like losing one’s virginity –– it could only happen once. He was saving his for the right moment.

Still, the sense impression stimulated his ears as well as his sight, and the aria the city and the sea performed was one to break the heart, full of tragic dissonance and deferred hope, and yet somewhere beneath it all, a piercing refrain of splendor. And he sensed that not only the grand movements of the ocean, but everything that had happened in his life, was a part of the song.

For a moment, he was dust himself, a solitary speck amidst the infinite. He took in the scale of the vision, the colors, the exquisite, exquisite sound. In some vague, mysterious, subconscious way, he had been driven by a taut inner spring which had propelled him to reach compulsively for perfection in this music. 

Music... anticipation lifted within him like the fragrance of gutted fish in the heat. He knew it was pointless to try and dance the tango solo –– but there was something intimate about playing a duet. It was touching the soul of another person without ever touching the flesh.

His interest aroused, his eyes roved from the porthole towards his –– apparently unconscious –– companion. Her stillness was unusual enough for him to find it slightly perturbing: he was not accustomed to seeing Riza Hawkeye so obviously vulnerable. She was so still as to appear lifeless. In profile, her face looked drawn and brittle, the skin almost as pale as the hair that, loosed from her clip, reached easily down past her collar. 

He had been inspecting the knots around her wrists and ankles as he hugged the periphery of the room, falling into a steady pace that managed to match the music playing inside his head. When he circled back to standing in front of her, however, he was a mite surprised to see two amber eyes boring into him, wide and unblinking… though not, he noted, in any anxious awareness of danger. Behind the cloth drawn across her mouth she drew tiny gasps, controlled, nothing revealed of panic or trepidation. Her fortitude really was a marvelous thing.

“Hello,” he said quietly, bending at the knees in an effort to meet her eyes. “I would take my time rousing myself, if I were you. Sodium thiopental is not the kindest of sedatives.”

The gag shifted and bulged as Riza worked her mouth behind the cloth. She exhaled sharply through her nose in frustration. He hummed, inferring the nature of her inquiry.

“Yes, Miss Hawkeye, the same sodium thiopental Augustus had you use during Cohen's little soirée. You know, I’m still not entirely pleased with him for depriving me of your company for the majority of the evening.”

Her arms strained against the bindings. He appreciated the sharp outline of her collar bones beneath her shirt.

“Oh, don't blame Augustus. He was not to know. Under a pseudonym, I sold the sodium thiopental formula to Sinclair Solutions under the expectation that Sinclair would want to help you infiltrate Fontaine’s office. I needed a field test, you see, Miss Hawkeye, and your using it on Fontaine served my purposes perfectly. I knew then that the dosage you administered at the Manta Ray Lounge would be sufficient to subdue you at some future juncture. In a way," he chuckled, "you conducted your own clinical trial."

She put her tongue out and felt the edges of the cloth, drawing it into her teeth, pulling her jaw down in a grimace –– it looked, in some way, as though she was eating the very skin off her face. But the silk shifted, until she was able to open her mouth fully.

Rather than shout for help, her sniper's sight roamed over room and the clutter on the floor. Aside from the slow roll of her eyes, she was motionless, silent, as if nothing was untoward. He allowed her her questing without comment. Nor did he make to replace the gag.

He doubted she would glean anything from their surroundings. It could be anywhere. She craned her neck for a window, but the porthole revealed nothing of their location relative to the rest of Rapture. For all Riza knew, they could have been deep under the sea floor, in some random room in an isolated prison, in someone's personal cell. The only source of light was an old fashioned bulb on a bare white wire, its switch nowhere to be seen. The angles of the concrete walls were askew, and there was a roughness to the texture, allowing damp to gather in the cracks.

"Where is he?"

She had taken stock of her surroundings quickly, he noted. "You're going to have to be more specific."

"Cut the bullshit, Kimblee," she growled.

"Temper, temper." Solf J. Kimblee tamed a snicker. "Do you kiss Mustang with that mouth, Miss Hawkeye?"

"Where is Atlas?"

Well, now, that was fast. "Were you expecting him?"

"The man who gave me the injection had a working-class Dublin accent."

"Many people in this city do."

"But it slipped."

Ah.

"Right before I lost consciousness, the man who attacked me sounded as though he was from New York." Her eyes, the color of amber glass, narrowed. "Brooklyn."

Kimblee slid himself slightly closer, his legs crossed and his wrists resting on his knees. "How terribly interesting."

"I have to admire the lilt in his brogue."

"Well," he smirked, "I suppose I ought to commend this recent effort of yours to find the good in people, my dear."

"A pity it's all a lie."

"The effort?"

"No... the accent. But then again... I don't suppose there's much about Atlas that's authentic, is there?"

Kimblee's smirk lengthened into a leering smile. "You tell me."

Her gaze was drawn back to the walls of the room, as though willing herself to peer through them. "The man they call Atlas," she said quietly, hushed under the weight of consequence, "is Frank Fontaine."

"Quite the requisite master of disguise, is he not?"

"Did you know?"

"Naturally." Kimblee spread his hands, his palms facing outward. The skin there had blistered slightly from his plasmid use. "The likeness is evident to anyone with an eye for detail. Which, incidentally, I possess in abundance. I am a restorationist, after all."

Riza tongue stumbled over the words in her dry mouth: "This entire time... you were one of Fontaine's operatives."

"Frank and I have an understanding, though it is true that I have been most charitable in lending him my counsel."

"Fontaine covets money and fame and power. And here I thought you scorned such things, Kimblee. Evidently, I was mistaken. You're no better than a common criminal."

The music, for a moment, caught on its track. Her nauseating odor of sanctity made Kimblee's nose crinkle. He dared say he could hurt her for the insult... but he supposed she was already too familiar with the pain promised by his touch. And in any case, one could only threaten violence so many times before repetition rendered it something of an endearment.

Though, he thought with some petulance, he would bet his endearment and Riza both that Atlas would not count Kimblee's fondness sufficient to alter the Irishman’s plans for the girl.

More was the pity.

"A criminal, am I? Tell me, Miss Hawkeye, whose employer it is who intends to supplant Andrew Ryan as the leader of Rapture? The last I checked, my ambitions were not quite so lofty... or so unlawful."

Kimblee slid his finger under the neck of her shirt, gently eased the collar aside with the pad of his thumb. Riza tried to squirm out from under his touch without much avail. A benzene ring rested just over her spine.

Berthold Hawkeye’s research... the exquisite expanse of her back, marred by his hand. Kimblee had been callow indeed to think that all that fire and passion and skin and blood could be contained in ink, no matter how red. Still, rumor of its existence had ensnared Frank Fontaine easily enough.

"You could have given it to him yourself," muttered Riza through gritted teeth, one side of her face pressed into the floor. It seemed she could match him for his powers of intuition, as she inferred what he had been thinking. "You've seen it often enough. You must have it memorized by now."

"Memorized, Miss Hawkeye? There was no need... I was present in Los Alamos for its development."

She blinked at him uncomprehendingly. The bemusement was so innocent and honest, he wanted to laugh. "You were there..." she murmured.

"You seem surprised."

"I don't remember you."

"It was a large facility."

"Your age..."

"At the risk of sounding vulgar, I suppose I might have been called something of a prodigy." Kimblee nursed a deep satisfaction at recounting the memory, his diaphragm vibrating in concert with a low, pleasant hum: "I studied physics at the Eidgenössische Polytechnische Schule at a young age. When my family grew wise to certain troubling trends on the European continent, we emigrated to the United States, and I was quickly snatched up by Lieutenant General Groves on account of my work in fissile material science. A fellow researcher, I knew your father in a very humble capacity."

Horror was writ large on her face. Unlike before, her eyes were panicked and wide, her mouth hanging open.

He gave a small facial shrug. "I can't seem to account for your astonishment, Miss Hawkeye. Frank Fontaine even read you one of my diary entries." Kimblee closed his eyes, referencing the indexes of his vast memory, and then recited: "Shortly before dinner on the 17th of February, I informed Professor Hawkeye that an announcement had been made by the BBC... an Allied firebombing had occured in the city of Dresden."

There was a flash of sudden realization, a bounced-back memory, a waking-up. Her expression dropped into outrage. "You gave Fontaine that memo!"

"Your father began to panic that night,” Kimblee elaborated, “because he realized that we are creatures possessed by the urge to fill the world with legacies that will outlive us, and in his desperation, he glimpsed the primordial fires burning below human despair. And rather than smother the kindling, his own work merely stoked the flames. Let the dead bury the dead, I told him. Well," Kimblee met Riza's eyes levelly, "it seems he took my counsel perhaps too much to heart, no?"

Her jaw-line distended as she glared at him, but she said nothing. Not willing to give him the satisfaction, he reasoned. No matter: there were other ways of securing his redress...

Before she could rear her head away from him, his arm hinged out and he held her jaw tightly between the tips of his fingers, forcing her face towards him. She tried again to wiggle free but his other hand on her shoulder kept her anchored to the floor.

"But I suppose it's not all heavy crosses and your having to bear them, is it? Where your father saw flame feeding flame, you saw combustion as a means of release. A ring of fire in the quite literal sense, and in your search to close it, you came to me. You were consumed by that which you were nourished by. Shakespeare wrote that, I believe.

"And oh, how you’d wanted that nourishment when you came to this city, Riza, but you hadn’t known how to get it, and hadn’t wanted it badly enough to find out. I’d made you want it. I’d made you want me."

"Let me go."

“Or, at least, if you didn’t, or not in the way I wanted you, then I’d made you feel something for me. Even if it wasn’t love, it was, perhaps pity... of a kind strong enough to bring you back to me, to strike a similar chord, even if the timbre was slightly different. It’s no matter: the ear can learn to accommodate many types of music, Miss Hawkeye.”

"Why are you doing this?" she hissed, as Kimblee turned her head to admire the curve of her long throat, like a tube of pale, pliable coral. Her face caught in his fingers, she was forced to follow his motion. "If Fontaine coveted my father's fire plasmid so desperately, why deny it him by burning my back? Why are you really in Rapture––"

"To answer to your first question," he interrupted smoothly, "I sought to leverage an advantage over Fontaine. In regards your second, well... I suppose I came here because I wanted to see the way the world would turn."

On the surface, Kimblee confirmed to himself, warring nations had, for a time, neared a state of having the perfect means to ensure mutual annihilation. Rather than conform to his imagined experimental parameters, however, the world rejected the standardizing potential the Bomb presented. Faced with the lack of harmony topside, Kimblee desired a closed system, a benchmark from which to determine the behaviorial patterns of human nature.

To Riza, he said: "Rapture is, to me, an investigational apparatus, Miss Hawkeye."

"An experiment."

"Succinctly put. I want to see who will win the battle of resolve versus resolve, will versus will, life versus life, and in the case of Atlas and Ryan, belief versus belief." His storm-colored eyes glittered where he saw them reflected in Riza's own. "Which side is right? Which will the world choose? Rapture lives by the maxim of free enterprise, of competition. And indeed, our history on this planet is the result of the survival of the fittest. If either Ryan or Atlas forces the other into extinction, it would just make the loser another in a long line of competitors who proved through their defeat that they weren't fit to endure. That's all there is to it."

"But you've sided with Fo–– with Atlas. You can't claim impartiality in this, Kimblee."

"I don't believe I've ever done so. The reason I allied myself with Atlas is because he has allowed me to..." his gaze drifted again to Riza's back, "express myself."

She swallowed hard, her dry throat resisting the motion. Kimblee felt the bob of her neck under his hand. "Your plasmid ability..."

"A product of my own design. Derived in part from my past life's work in nuclear physics, it enables me to catalyze atomic fission in anything I touch. Including your magnificent back."

"So that attack on Persephone, the explosions... that was you."

"A trial by fire in several respects, eh? And with Atlas, I can use this plasmid for my own pleasure, without restraint. Who amongst Andrew Ryan's hypocritical oafs can offer me that?"

She struggled to rise to her knees, hands scrabbling ineffectually at her bonds. "You're insane..."

He chuckled at that. "Of all the individuals in this city, my dear, the strange and the peculiar are arguably the most themselves, the most honest. Unlike that philistine Sander Cohen, they wear no masks whatsoever. Compared to the populace, I am positively naked. Perhaps you are right in accrediting my character to madness, and indeed, we live in a world of appearances, where people are judged by what they seem to be. If the mind can't read the predictable features, it reacts with alarm or revulsion. An ugly countenance, a hideous outlook can be counted as a crime, as parasitism, even, and of course the parasites must be inexorably cast from Ryan's society."

"You're not denying it," she noted shrewdly. "Being insane."

The benzene ring flashed briefly in his peripheries. Her tattoo, grounded on living skin, emoted a paradoxical permanence unique to a mortal human condition.

It also fanned a heat in his innards to a degree he might have found alarming if the warmth were not so pleasant.

"I'm not in the habit of lying to myself, Riza. But you..." He sighed as his nose tickled her scalp, breathing in the scent on her. His grasp was almost an embrace. "All that blind, infantile hunger to save and be saved, to relive the past and yet make it different, has attached itself, ravenously, to you by means your loyalty to him. You have cast your pearls before a swine, Miss Hawkeye... and now..." 

His hand burned on her throat as though his palm had been soldered there. Perhaps it had... the urge to destroy her and the urge to delight her were so often snarled lusts. She was, he thought, the most exquisite thing in the city. He couldn’t decide whether to pluck her out of the air and cage her, or simply break her wings. Perhaps both, in no particular order.

"Your purse is empty."

She tried to bite his fingers. The motion charmed rather than intimidated, but as he did not doubt Riza's determination in the effort, and as he had no immediate desire to lose the digits, he retracted his hands.

She was Atlas's plaything, now. It wouldn't do to antagonize his patron by damaging the wares.

Her face had gone white, her voice strained. "Where you are going?" she demanded.

Kimblee's creased eyes smoothed over as his smile faded. "I intend to tell Atlas you've woken up.

"After all... I expect your precious Colonel will be here before long. We had best prepare ourselves."

Chapter Text

"Masha? The Lutz girl?"

Edward Elric bobbed his head, long blonde tail smacking against the back of his neck. He seemed genuinely worried, almost frightened. The fraught emotion was so out-of-character for Ed that Roy wasn't entirely sure what to do with it: commiserate and the kid might lose his temper... ignore it and risk turning a deaf ear to an important piece of intelligence.

Fortunately for Roy, Jean Havoc padded forward, inserting himself deftly between the Colonel and the small engineer. "I know Sammy Lutz, Masha's old man. He moved his family to a room in the Fighting McDonagh's after a splicer fight in suite six of Artemis ended with two people dead."

"I'm telling you guys, Masha Lutz has gone missing," insisted Ed. "And she's not the only one."

Roy's eyebrows vaulted with a suspicion he tried to mask as surprise. The space beneath his jaw began to twitch, as though an insect had burrowed into the skin of his neck.

Jean gnawed at his unlit cigarette. "Not to sound like Grumpy Gus here, Chief, but them missing kids are kinda old news, you know? Fontaine was spiritin' 'em away for months, accordin' to the papers."

"Using the orphaned girls as his ADAM distilleries," agreed Roy, rancor in the words.

Ed's fingers tangled in his grease-streaked hair. "No seas gilipollas, Mustang! Listen to me, dammit! Fontaine used the girls from the Orphanages, but these girls are being snatched right from their families! Masha Lutz, Adelaide Tobet, Sally Marcello, Susie Johnson, Tina Hakuro... all the kids from this one corner of Artemis Suites, they're all gone!"

As he processed what Edward was trying to tell him, Roy looked around the central concourse of Apollo Square –– the trash piled up to shoulder-height, the billboards laden with missing persons posters, the metro system trolley derailed, the entire residential area in ruins. Most notable, however, were the scaffolds: raised wooden platforms used for the execution of Rapture's law breakers. The bodies had been left to dangle; the cloying, organic loam of necrotic flesh permeated the entire district.

Fontaine's defunct orphanages were somewhere near Apollo Square, Roy remembered suddenly. Andrew Ryan had shut the places down immediately after the September 12th raid on Port Neptune, but according to Falman, even in light of the nationalization efforts, the manufacture and distribution of plasmids and gene tonics hadn't suffered any significant decreases. The ADAM was still being produced, somehow... and if not from Fontaine's orphanages...

In an instant, the true, savage, snarling tragedy of it all was clear to him.

"It's Ryan," Roy breathed. His heart plummeted from his chest to land at his feet, where it dragged anchor as he trudged from the foyer of Apollo Square towards the slums of the adjacent Hestia Chambers. Though his heart pounded in an erratic rhythm of anxiety and anger, he willed his voice to remain even: "Ryan Industries still needs young girls to produce the ADAM necessary to sustain the plasmid industry. With no more orphanages to plunder, Ryan has turned his sights to Rapture's poorer families..."

Jean's face flickered through several emotions in rapid succession, finally settling on anguish, his expression pinched and pained. "Boss, the Hakuros... they live right around the block from the Hughes family, don't they?"

Ed swiped the back of his hand across his mouth. "They're gonna come after Elicia next, Mustang. Rapture Security and Port Authority spooks have been hangin' around there for the past week."

A cold, hard knot formed in Roy's stomach. He felt horror, revulsion... but not surprise. Roy knew Ryan and Bradley were fully capable of snatching children from their front porches, if it meant turning a profit and keeping Rapture afloat. Self-serving biases and self-centered agendas were cotton jammed in the ears of their consciences. Even if the city shouted, Andrew Ryan wouldn't be able to hear it. Fontaine had built his empire on the backs of innocent girls, but rather than dismantling the foundations, Ryan had set to reworking and reinforcing the architecture.

And Roy suspected Elicia Hughes –– beloved child of a murdered father and daughter to a widowed mother –– was slated next for Little Sister conversion.

His chest felt narrower, his lungs suddenly unable to move against the heaviness of his ribs. He took a few deep breaths, willing his thoughts to sort into some logical alignment. After a moment, like a scattering of stars resolving themselves into a constellation, a newfound determination sprouted and took shape from the muddy furrows of his fears. Roy set aside his foreboding with a calm, mild remonstrance.

Not Elicia.

He would never be able to forgive himself. Maes's ghost would haunt him to the grave.

"Havoc," Roy spun towards the much taller of his two subordinates, "hoof it over to Artemis Suites. Tell Gracia and Elicia to pack their belongings. Grab Edward's brother and young Miss Rockbell, as well. If they're not in their apartments, get Fuery on the horn and have him contact Gracia on a closed frequency. You and Falman go door-to-door if necessary. Head for the lighthouse bathysphere near the Kashmir."

Jean set his jaw and gave a stiff nod. His look of anger became grimly determined. "You got it, Boss."

Roy jerked his head back towards the Rapture Metro. "Make sure the Hugheses, Alphonse and Miss Rockbell are ready to depart in two hours time. Edward," his black eyes flicked down to his companion, "will be joining them."

"After we get Hawkeye," grumbled Ed.

Roy cleared his salt-lined throat. A fleeting look of pain crossed his face before he retreated behind his mask of steely resolve. "After we get Hawkeye," he affirmed.

Havoc turned to go, and Roy and Ed headed towards the inoperative cable car rail connecting the main square and the Rapture Metro to the tenements of Hestia Chambers. The dirty street was littered with rotting vegetables, burning rubbish, battered bins, offal –– from both pests and people. Listless eyes tracked them from the dark entrances of the tram stations. Working stiffs staggered down the viaduct walkways, muttering curses, hating to return to their hovels but having nowhere else to go.

Roy and Ed walked up a flight of steps upholstered in broken glass and stained with spilled liquids and urine. The shadows of the corridor bobbed against the wall, the faint reflection of the water undulating and ridged with ripples upon the screed. For a minute or two, Roy could make out nothing save the dark lumps of doors and shattered furniture and the mass of the occasional rubbish tip. He rubbed the cold sweat from his palms against his trousers and touched his thumb to his forefinger, desperate for a light––

"I wouldn't do that if I were you."

Roy tutted loudly, his scowling face turned away from Edward. "Forgive me, Elric, but I wasn't aware you could see in total darkness."

"Didn't you notice that Havoc wasn't lighting his cigarette?"

Roy frowned. Now that he thought about it, the smell of nicotine hadn't been quite so strong on the former Second Lieutenant's clothes.

The Colonel couldn't see Edward rolling his eyes, but he could hear the boy's derision through his gritted teeth. "Al and I used to do maintenace around these parts, and this entire district is located near a set of hydrothermal vents. There's an insane amount of methane hydrate in the sedimentary deposits along the oceanic ridge just south of Apollo Square. Now that the pressure pumps in this part of Rapture are failing, the entire district is prone to methane gas leaks. One spark could blow us all sky-high."

"In case it's slipped your memory, our primary means of offense is my fire plasmid. Do you expect me to waltz into Hestia Chambers unarmed and with my thumb up my rear?"

"Would probably brighten your personality."

"Edward..."

"Quit quaking in your boots, Colonel Candyass. You're not unarmed. You have me."

"Wonderful. That makes me feel so much better, Short Stack."

"Shuddup."

The prospect of gas leaks complicated matters. The difficulty, Roy knew, would lie in differentiating the symptoms of methane poisoning from splicing. Both resulted in paleness, rashes, mental deterioration, blisters –– particularly if the skin came into contact with compressed or liquid methane. And being as a vast majority of the inhabitants of Apollo Square were splicers, Roy had no express way of gauging the quality of the air. The ambiguity, he knew, would keep him from using his plasmid. 

"I hate this place," said Edward, bad tempered and sulky, hunching his shoulders against the chill of the ocean water, both the steady stream of it from the ceiling and the pools submerging his ankles. He kept turning his head, searching for live wires that may have fallen into the sloughs of stagnant sea water.

Roy barked a joyless laugh, making Ed's head jerk in his direction. "It's like what Ryan always says," he mused bitterly, "about his building Rapture. It was the same for Fontaine... it wasn't impossible for Frank to cultivate dissidents in Apollo Square. It was impossible to cultivate them anywhere else. Andrew Ryan may as well have handed Hestia Chambers to Atlas wrapped in a red ribbon."

"Look, Mustang, these guys aren’t exactly bloodthirsty nutjobs we’re dealing with. They're regular people like me and Al, people who’ve been on the receiving end of the short stick for as long as they’ve been down here. They’re desperate.”

“Atlas is different,” growled Roy. "He’s praying on these people as surely as Ryan is."

"A wolf in the sheepfold."

"In so many words, Edward." He sighed. "When you have half of Rapture in slums, and when they don't have clean water, when they don't have a sewer system, when they don't have electricity, and on top of that they live under a regime whose oppression rivals that of the topside police states, well... all put together, it's a ticking bomb. It's not a question of whether or not these people believe in Atlas's cause. It all comes down to looking around at the present environment and making a rational prognosis."

Roy's words quieted Edward, a sullenness hanging over them both.

They passed a porthole, the window murky and the green light dimmed by a fringe of kelp. The fronds drew back across the aperture at a prone, despondent angle, as though mysteriously arrested in their fall towards the building. As Roy and Ed reached the end of the tram track, a five-story tenement house built of freestone, but repulsively decrepit and filthy, loomed out of the shadows, commanding the entrance to Hestia Chambers.

Therein, according to Augustus Sinclair, lived Atlas, like a vigilant proprietor, ever on the watch, exploiting in person his little population of starving tenants.  

Roy and Ed exchanged a glance.

"This is probably a trap, you know."

"It's too sloppy to be anything else."

"And you're still gonna go in?"

Roy closed his eyes and crossed his arms, huffing, "You're more than welcome to turn back, Elric."

Rather than argue, Ed bobbed his shoulders in a shrug –– with his prosthetic arm, the motion looked stilted, one side hanging heavier than the other. "The Lieutenant was always very kind to Al and me," he said quietly, suddenly looking everywhere but Mustang's face. "And I'm the one who gave her a means of infiltrating Fontaine's office in the Manta Ray Lounge. I can't shake the feeling that some of this is my fault."

Roy didn't have an answer to that. Edward was wise to the world’s grim arsenal of possibilities –– he knew the stakes, and Mustang wasn't prepared to insult the boy by questioning his motivations. Roy dipped his head in a solemn nod, which the young engineer returned.

Then they stepped across the threshold.

The ground floor of the tenement was bare of furniture but littered with rubble and piles of burning trash. Every footfall crunched from discarded syringes and bottles. The central atrium looked all the way up the five floors towards a glass ceiling. Stairs ascended the rim of the chamber, hugging the walls like a girdle. It resembled the slums Roy knew from New York City: tall, close walls with clothes lines draped between them like threads in an abandoned spider web. Some of the windows were boarded up while others had Atlas propaganda plastered over them. Cracks ran across their surfaces and little slivers of material dropped like shattered eggshell.

Pauper's Drop was squalid and overcrowded, but it at least had apartments and businesses and shops, even if they were of a questionable integrity.

Hestia Chambers wasn't cheap housing, affirmed Roy: it was internment, a prison where the barriers were not iron bars and padlocks but hunger and drug addiction and despair. With the severity of desperation came fatigue and hopelessness, a weakness that transcended tiredness and permeated one's sinews and bones.

Roy glanced around the building, his expression impassive, his eyes sharp, before stepping from the corridor into the light of the open atrium.

The seams in the walls were hidden amongst a mass of pipes, water tanks, and air conditioning ducts, inconspicuous to the point of invisibility. The tenement's structure, despite its age, was solid and impenetrable and its glass ceiling too high to reach, leaving a single point of entry –– directly at Roy and Edward's backs. Fires in steel canisters constituted the only meagre sources of warmth, where Roy imagined people huddled over the flames like arthritic crows, hopping from foot to foot, tucked into their tatty coats. 

"Ah, there ye are, Mustang! 

The strident timbre of the voice reverberated around the atrium. Roy flinched at the sudden, startling challenge of whoops and hollers. From the shadows of the gutted building came a horde of blistered and bleeding splicers. The mob of lunatics kicked, gouged, and bit at each other in an effort to reach the railing of the staircase. An upstairs window shattered and a stream of people fell twenty feet to the hard stone of the ground floor. The crowd around Roy and Ed dropped into the atrium in tangles of masks and smeared makeup and naked limbs, armed with clubs, wrenches, lengths of rusty pipe. A few flourished frost-bitten hands or fingers twitching with lightning bolts.

Ed swallowed, hard, his lips quivering. His hand strayed to his coat pocket...

Roy's eyes lifted to the stoop directly across from him, upon which stood a man, one arm propped against the jamb of the open doorway. Most of his body was shadowed by the apartment's interior, making him look mutated, half-formed. What little Roy could see of him was tall and lean but solid, with a broad nose and a ruggedly handsome face framed by a thick crop of jet-black hair. Though his mouth curved in a narrow sneer, his pale, flinty eyes glowered.

Roy's innards coiled. 

Atlas.

No... not Atlas.

In a moment, Roy Mustang knew.

Looking up at Atlas's carved features and the arrogant set of his mouth, Roy longed for the strength to jerk the man off his perch. He wasn’t just taunting Roy with his easy posture and malicious sneer –– he was challenging him, mocking him, just as a certain businessman had done in the entryway of the scorched Le Temps Perdu restaurant, so many weeks ago. Roy recognized the arrogance, the callous indifference, the cruelty. Atlas really was, in that moment, the embodiment of the ancient titan whose shoulders supported the world and all its many agonies, as though the thousands, lost in the same maze, did not endure the very same agonies.

The man called himself Atlas.

And the man was Frank Fontaine. 

It was obvious, thought Roy, to anyone who knew Fontaine well enough. Atlas had the same restrained ferocity about him, a viciousness that could prove potentially devastating when unleashed.

Before Roy could say a word, however, Atlas stepped out from the shadows of the doorway...

Pulling Riza Hawkeye along with him.

Atlas's –– Fontaine's –– hand tangled in her copse of honey-colored hair; her eyes, when they met her captor's, were flat and angry. She was not bound, but the skin of her wrists had been rubbed red raw. Her expression, when she finally turned to face Roy, did not shift. Still and calm. She was a fixed point, a pivot around which the world whorled in turmoil.

Roy felt as though his blood had been replaced with liquid nitrogen. Every breath seemed to shatter ice across his sternum. He was desperate to hear her voice, for one ray of light in the darkness, even though he was afraid of what she might tell him, afraid of what he might say in response, afraid of himself and the inner deadening that pointed to a danger far more lethal than any rage he felt.

Edward bristled like a dog with its hackles raised. "Hijo de puta.."

Roy's words, when they came, were low and dark, full of quiet fury; they slithered across his tongue, like a cold wind. "You had better hope she's not hurt, Atlas," he said.

"Let her go, you bastard!" snarled Ed –– Roy envied the kid his nerve.

Atlas smirked at the engineer. "You're the Elric brat then, are ye? I gotta say, Mustang, I expected ye to pack the heat, but I had in mind a few wee sacs at least big enough to sit in a carny ride."

Edward fumed. "Make a pass at my height again, pal. I dare you."

"Itchin' to toe it with Atlas, boyo?"

"Like I need an excuse to hand you your ass!"

Before Atlas could reply, Riza squirmed in his grasp, causing Roy's breathing to falter, until his diaphragm spasmed in a painful hiccough.

"I’m so sorry about this, Lieutenant," he said, but he stared across at her with such rigid determination that he obviously wasn't sorry in the slightest. “I didn’t have a choice.”

“You had every choice, Colonel," managed Riza, her forehead unlined and taut from the pull on her hair. "You made the only wrong one...”

"None of that now, lass," said Atlas, raising an eyebrow. He clucked his tongue and brought Riza's hand up to his mouth, kissing her knuckles in a gesture so overly saccharine that even an idiot would have picked up on the latent threat. "He's here for you, you know. Show the lad a little gratitude."

The wolf whistles from the splicers lining the rail threatened to drown out everything else. It was a mass psychosis, a mob panic. Roy answered Atlas with a growl of anger and a slight twitch of his hand. His skin smoldered, his thumb and forefinger itching to make their connection, but he remembered Edward's warning about the methane gas and bit down on his temper.

"What do you want?" Roy demanded instead, barring his teeth.

Atlas's expression soured, his pale eyes glittering. Fontaine's eyes had been vitreous amber, the color of petrified wood, but Roy had been on the receiving end of the glare before, and behind the contact lenses, Atlas's anger was no less potent, nor less savage, than Fontaine's.

"I want the chemical formula for the Incinerate plasmid, Mustang."

"He doesn't have it," hissed Riza, grimacing from Atlas's white-knuckled grip on her hair. "You know that."

"Aye, I do, lass." His smile was irritatingly smug, and when he pulled Riza's face close to his, Roy saw red. "Shame I couldn't have seen more of ye on that night... you're a far sight better than this lot, looking like a blind cobbler’s thumb." Atlas turned to Roy, raising his voice: "Ye could have ruled the world, boyo, with that wee trick of her old da’s. Why didn’t you? I know it weren’t for wantin’ in ambition."

“Because I’m frightened,” admitted Mustang, his tongue thick and fuzzy in his mouth. "I was frightened of the world... just as it was frightened of me."

Pulling some of her hair from its roots, Riza almost managed to scramble out of Atlas’s grasp, but he was on her again immediately. He shoved her down, her elbows and palms slamming painfully into the ground. She had time only to roll onto her back before he was straddling her, his enormous hands on her shoulders and a knife appearing at her neck. After a moment's consideration, he looped his arm across her throat and forced her to stand, her back flush against his torso.

Atlas grinned. Addressing Riza, he chewed over his words: "Ye could've at least given the secret to someone with a pair of clackers on him, lass."

The flash of the knife at Riza's throat triggered in Roy a wartime urgency, a sudden uncontrollable fear that threatened to steal the oxygen from his lungs, leaving them wilted and withered.

“Atlas, you get nothing from me if you harm her!”

“You say that like you’re the one holdin’ the ace in the hole, Mustang. You got it all bent crookeder than a dog’s hind leg. Right now, you’re bargainin' for her right to live. So far as I’m concerned, as of now, she’s already dead. Now, whether she dies in 30 years or 30 seconds, well... whether you like it or not, her fate is up to you now, Colonel. You want her blood forever on yer hands?”

“You’re gonna use it to hurt people!” hissed Edward, his words furious but his face ashen with worry. His bared teeth were savage things, grim and frightening. "Mustang's fire."

Atlas snorted. “Aye, just like the good Colonel used it to turn half the goosestepping bastards in Europe to charcoal, and some innocent civilians besides. That plasmid is a weapon, and I intend to use it. You see," he chuckled, "this war ain't about me and Ryan… it's about ADAM: those who gots it and those who don't. Everyone in this city's as mad as a box of frogs, and they're all dyin' for a suckle at the tasty tit of their plasmids.

"Though as much as I'd like to have a wee chinwag about past glories, Mustang, I'm afraid I'm pressed for time. Do you have it, or don't you?"

The dread rose higher in Roy's throat as though by capillary action. "I have it."

"Sir!"

The blade of Atlas's ugly little fish-gutting knife glinted; Riza went rigid. "Easy now. I'm cut to the onions of all this chatter, and I could do without your addin' a voice to the mix, lass."

"The only man talking is you, Atlas!" snarled Roy. "I have the formula. Let her go."

"Am I meant to trust ye on account of your good looks, boyo? Formula first, then the girl."

"Colonel, please, you don't have to do this..."

"Well, Mustang?"

"You made a promise, sir. Don't sacrifice everything for my sake."

"I ain't got a month o'Sundays, kid." Atlas moved very fast, like a spider after an aphid, an unexpected speed from a man so languid and large. He clapped Riza’s throat in his hand, squeezing until she couldn’t breathe. Hawkeye whistled and wheezed, beating at his chest. "Incinerate. Now."

Roy registered, glacially, that Riza was crying. She didn’t make a sound, she probably didn't even realize she was doing it, but tears were running down her cheeks, carving tracks in the grease.

He couldn't help himself. "Riza..." he called. He wasn't embarrassed or guilty of how utterly impotent and weak his voice sounded.

Don't go.

"I'm sorry." He took another step towards her and Atlas. "I'm so sorry."

You have to survive.

"It began with "gain of function" experiments," said Roy, his voice strained, broken on a dry throat. "Embryonic stem cells incorporating an altered gene were injected into blastocysts. By experimenting with mammalian blastula, Professor Hawkeye was able to observe and later induce the synthesis of a certain protein..."

I can't afford to lose you.

He found each word harder and heavier to utter, even as Atlas gradually moved the knife from Riza's throat and loosened his grip across her chest. In Roy's confession, he dragged Berthold Hawkeye's corpse on his back, and even though he was speaking about gene sequences and nitrogenous bases, all Roy heard were his teacher's whispers of guilt, the old man's reminders, his murmured regrets, a note burnt at the edges and fastened at a loop in a noose...

And Riza...

You have my support, she had told him once. You have my partnership. You have everything I have to give.

Everything.

In an instant, Riza Hawkeye became the rock Roy wanted to break himself against. A swift blow to the front of his skull and the short drop into the darkness.

"I'm sorry,” he whispered again. There was a shift, deep and permanent, like the hand of a monstrous clock ticking to each in an infinite number of adjacent moments, and then getting caught between seconds, between now and next, teeth broken and gears stilled.

Eventually, Roy's voice faded and he squinted across at Riza. Her face was so bright he could hardly believe it was merely reflecting the neon from the water-soaked city and was not a powerful living light all its own. Like the moon, Riza Hawkeye revealed herself in pieces.

As her eyes met his, and he was assailed all at once with the magnitude of her grief, Roy felt his hands slicing on every shard.

A thread had been severed, leaving too much unsaid and unfinished. Only gray sorrow and regret were left. It was almost ironic, though Roy despairingly: in his recollection, in his remembrance, a massive, unspoken thing had been lost forever.

Atlas’s smile would have gone on for a mile if it could. He considered them with such unrestrained delight, his eyes cold and glittering with malice, that Roy’s stomach threatened to bottom out.

“Nice work, boyo.”

Riza inhaled sharply before uttering a wisp of a word on an outward breath: "Roy..."

Then Atlas swung the knife up and into the side of Riza Hawkeye’s throat.

Instead of falling to the ground like a heavy doll, she shrank into herself, a reverse blossoming, coming to rest in a sitting position, like a ruminative monk. In a matter of seconds, she had collapsed onto the floor, her eyes open but fading as blood soaked her shirt and her hair and her skin and pooled on the ground in thick, viscous puddles.

Roy could hear crying, high and scared from someone close by, with the occasional deeper sob.

Edward.

In his panic, time stopped: past, present and future existed as a single, overwhelming force. He was subsumed, buried by the weight of simultaneous events.

The desire to see Riza's face –– the desperate need for her to be able to see his face –– was the only motive of human action urging him blindly on, and the very vehemence of the desire seemed to rob him of all sensation, all feeling. Roy felt as though he was transparent to light, like glass or air. Relieved of the need to see, relieved of the need to breathe, he belonged to the darkness completely. It possessed him, moved through him unresisted, as though he was made of nothing more than water and shadow, a current turning on itself endlessly.

Roy forced his feet to move –– a massive, overbalanced step. Some distant part of him found the silence in the atrium vaguely alarming. It was as though the prospect of death –– the spilling of blood untainted by ADAM –– terrified the splicers, robbed them of the power of speech so that the shrieks in their hearts died at their throats. Their eyes were haggard and grim; beneath the ADAM sickness that disfigured them, and the lean hunger of their faces, there was anguish in their fixed stares.

Blood roared in Roy's ears, a rush beneath the surface of the world as he surged forward to catch Riza. She slumped against his chest as he bundled her into his arms.

He was more afraid in that moment than he had ever been. The strain of Riza's whole weight on his outstretched arms hurt too much. The pain filled him up, displaced all rational thought. 

The emotions welled sticky and suffocating in his throat, the same texture and temperature as Riza's blood as it tacked his fingers together. Sorrow, suffering, guilt, despair, horror –– everything he could not escape, Roy Mustang turned to meet it, and claim it as his own. He embraced Riza –– and he embraced each dripping memory –– as if they were the most precious things in the world.

Which, of course, they were.

But there were so many of them. So many innocents injured; so many locked rooms; so much lonely anger; so many bombs in public places; so much ruining greed; so much sick ingenuity; so much burned skin. The world he claimed, claimed him.

Roy cried, then, his tears scalding on his cold skin. The sound of his sobs echoed around the rotunda and reverberated against Roy’s own eardrums until he thought his mind would fracture.

“Lieutenant!” The word left his throat as a sob, bile burning in his mouth. “Lieutenant!

"RIZA."

She pawed at her neck. The knife had remained in place, holding back the torrent. Her lips were thin and white, her face blanched. She clamped the long fingers of her right hand about his wrist, holding tight. So tight that Roy suspected she was using him as an anchor to consciousness, to the world. He already had his coat off, pressing the fabric to her throat until the wool turned stiff and sticky with blood.

But it just kept coming, there was so much of it... it wouldn't stop... it wouldn't––

"NOW, ED!"

A new voice echoed around the atrium, snapping Roy's attention like a chord at the base of his skull. His first instinct was to clutch Riza to him, feeling her seize in his arms, as a dozen pinpoints of fierce white light expanded into ripples and shock waves, the jagged arcs of lightning radiating from a small device in Edward's hand...

The electromagnetic pulse bomb. The one Roy had commissioned from the Elrics.

Through the panic humming inside his head, Roy distinguished a sort of electronic motor, which created as it spun a train of pulses, the internal electrical contacts making and breaking connections as the armature rotated in Ed's palm. A brilliant shock of white flickered against the graphite-colored interior, and several splicers cried out as their metal butcher gaffs and basin wrenches electrocuted them. 

Somewhere in the innards of Hestia, the fuses blew, and the atrium was plunged into darkness. An eternal and impenetrable, endless, unbroken, rolling blanket of nothing. No light, no form, no substance, no colors, no meaning. Only screams and shrieks, and somewhere, Atlas barking orders, the cacophony punctuated by the sounds of Roy's own body, his heart beating out an unnatural, jagged, and erratic rhythm.

Suddenly, Roy felt someone taking Riza from him, scooping her up into his arms. Mustang prepared to snap his fingers, methane be damned, before he felt a grip like a steel trap around his hand.

Edward's prosthetic hand, holding Roy back.

"I've got her, Colonel! Come on, they won't stay distracted for long, and we need to get her to a doctor!"

As Roy's eyes adjusted to the light, he made out the vague outline of a tall, rotund man dressed in prison fatigues with a military-style buzz –– the hair recognizable as red even in the near darkness. The man kept one arm under Riza's legs and the other supporting her back, like a groom carrying his bride.

"I've got her, sir," affirmed Heymans Breda, even as Ed ensnared Roy's wrist and steered him towards the exit.

"Let's get the fuck outta here."

Chapter Text

The creases on Gracia Hughes's forehead had grown deeper and more numerous since last Jean saw her, though he supposed it shouldn't have come as much of a surprise. Considering the magnitude of her loss and the pressure and tension of having to raise a child in a soggy rathole like Rapture, Jean was astonished she looked as calm and collected as she did.

She stood in the doorway of her tiny apartment, the edge of the door jamb grasped in one hand, Elicia's little fist in the other. Her features as she considered Jean were small and pinched. Her brows, partially hidden under the fringe of her tawny hair, gave her expression an interrogative cleverness that rivaled the late Detective Inspector's own. 

Little Elicia blinked up at Jean with massive green eyes, misty and distant, as though she'd been roused from sleep. The girl looked so much like her father. Havoc's heart hurt at the thought.

He wasn't cut out for this sort of thing...

Gracia lowered her voice: "Come in, boys... I think it's best we talked somewhere private."

To Jean's right, Vato Falman expelled air from his lungs with a sudden, sharp puff. "I suspect that's probably wise, ma'am."

To Jean's left, from under a massive rucksack filled with radio and communications equipment, Kain Fuery bobbed his head in a resolute nod.

Despite the circumstances, Jean counted himself strangely fortunate that both Vato and Kain –– and Gracia, for that matter –– resided in Artemis Suites, the district directly adjacent to Apollo Square. Artemis, while not plagued with the death and destitution of Hestia Chambers or the crushing poverty of Pauper's Drop, was a molecular oasis of misery in the midst of the splendor and plenty of Olympus Heights. The Rapture Security and Port Authority presences were heavy, trying to quell the rampant drug trafficking and splicer scuffles. They were losing the battle. Despite their best efforts, crime, negligence, fear, all the horrors of life in Rapture invariably managed to seep through the cracks in the apartment doors like water in porous wainscot. Justice, if it came at all, was meted out behind tram stations and in dirty alleyways, business conducted under broken street lamps and in fetid, leaky living rooms.

The one benefit, thought Jean gloomily, was that it had not been difficult to rouse his two subordinates, locate the Hughes residence, and inform Gracia of the danger Andrew Ryan posed to her and her child.

While Kain scurried after Gracia like an excessively enthusiastic puppy, Jean and Vato had to crouch to fit under the lintel. Gracia's apartment was no bigger than Havoc's shop in the Arcadia farmer's market. What they gained in privacy –– unlike so many cramped hovels in Rapture, the Hughes's residence was their own –– they sacrificed in size. Space was at a premium. The gloomy, poky living-room was also the dining room and the kitchen, a bedroom in the wing adjoining. A meagre fire flickered behind the fire-irons in the hearth, an easy chair and patched setee sitting impassively, watching the flames. A bucket in one corner caught a steady leak, and tins of beans sat in neat, regimented lines along the kitchen countertop, the shelves having come loose from their moorings on the damp wall.

Gracia took a seat on the settee, Elicia curling next to her on the worn cushion and resting her head on her mother's lap, immediately dozing off.

"I think a part of me knew what was going on," murmured Gracia, so quietly Jean almost missed it. She was almost mouthing the words: "After the other little girls started going missing..."

Havoc's head dipped in a solemn acknowledgement. "The Boss... Roy, I mean, reckons Ryan is using the kids to mass-produce the ADAM stuff needed to keep the plasmid industry afloat."

"Mr. Ryan has done a complete about face," added Fuery, eyes wide behind his spectacles. "He always talked about free enterprise and self-governance, but after Fontaine died..."

Falman's eyes pinched as he frowned. "Ryan Industries has long had an interest in advancing its profit growth. With Frank Fontaine out of the picture, all the evidence would seem to suggest that Mr. Ryan decided to build an economy of scale in an existing product and service line –– namely plasmids. He essentially pre-empted any competitors who may have been eyeing the same asset by nationaizing Fontaine's private shareholdings. Since any good businesses's objective is to benefit from synergies that accrue on the revenue side and more so than on the cost side, it would make sense for Ryan to continue mass-producing ADAM using the young girls."

Jean glared sidelong at Falman, blue eyes cold. Sometimes the tall, gray-haired man didn't know when to shut up; he probably didn't speak with the aim of being insensitive, but Vato was so wrapped up in his facts and figures he tended to lose sight of the human element.

"That's why he killed my husband, isn't it?"

Gracia bandied with the ends of Elicia's hair, curling an errant lock around her finger. The widow's eyes were dry, her gaze downcast, a tiny smile pulling at the corners of her mouth. Jean decided he would have preferred tears: at least tears were familiar things. Gracia's dignified endurance, composed and serious, presented Jean Havoc with a measure of grief that ran too deep for sobs and shaking. A hurt stitched into every fibre of Gracia's being.

Still, irrespective of her self-possession, Jean knew maintaining one's dignity in a dog-eat-dog world like Rapture was a battle that encouraged surrender.

"You said Frank Fontaine had been using the girls for some time without the city knowing about it... if he pulled the wool over Ryan's eyes in one respect, who knew what else Fontaine might have been doing." Gracia dragged her gaze away from her daughter and leveled on Jean, Vato, and Kain with a keenness that made Havoc squirm. "My husband discovered something, didn't he? Security Chief Bradley wouldn't tell me what, exactly; no one would... but..." She sighed a deep, long sigh, letting the air out slowly. "He found out something Fontaine didn't want him to find out, so Fontaine had him killed."

Jean fought the urge to pick his shirt from his torso. The shame in his chest was a hole –– a deep, black hole filled with despair and humiliation and self-hatred. A disgrace that made his head slump, his hair hanging in a curtain around his face and his eyes stinging.

"That would be just like him... dying while trying to help somebody else."

The three men looked at Gracia in bewilderment, astonished as her mouth crinkled, the corners of her eyes creased.

"My husband... he always was a busybody and a meddler, and it did tend to get him into trouble more often than  not. But you know... I don't think he ever had regrets. Not any... not even in his dying moments, Jean."

With those few words, accompanied by a glance that seemed to measure the dimensions of Jean's meager existence, Gracia made Havoc see Maes not as a sacrifice on the altar of truth and justice, but a hero. A man who had been trying his damnedest to do the right thing. There was still some last invisible, unbroken strand connecting them, Gracia and Maes, something deeper than mourning. The wound had healed, to some extent, but Jean doubted the scar would ever fade.

"Gracia," he said, expression grim, tactfully steering the subject to more immediate concerns, "Roy means to send you and Elicia to the surface."

Her composure changed to alarm. "Leave Rapture! But I thought––"

"Yeah... even our housing contract specifies our living here "in perpetuity." But Ryan and his dogs are gonna come after your kid, sooner or later, and my gut is tellin' me the former. We gotta get you outta here."

"But where will we go! Rapture is in the middle of the North Atlantic!"

"All the bathysphere models come equipped with a distress beacon and basic navigational apparatuses, as well as survival provisions," piped Fuery, from where he was unloading his equipment in Gracia's kitchen. "The one to the Lighthouse can be launched from its rail into open sea, and there's a shipping lane not far from our coordinates."

"You need to pack some belongings," urged Jean. "Nothing much, just enough to get by. We're gonna send Ed and Al Elric and their Rockbell friend up with you."

Even the effort of putting her feelings into coherent words seemed too much, Gracia's mouth slightly parted in a single sustained note of emotion. She was only faintly conscious of her hands tightening convulsively around the edge of the cushion and the hem of her daughter's dress. Jean imagined any reason or rational thought were lost under waves of panic, desperation, then despair, and finally the crushing realization of just how little choice Gracia really had.

She closed her eyes and set her jaw, as though somehow aware that if she to rationalize what was happening, it would convince her that their escape attempt was impossible, and in that moment she desperately needed it to be possible.

"How much time do I have?"

"Five minutes, ma'am. We gotta get movin' before Ryan and his goons get wise to the fact we mean to leave."

"All right... Elicia, come on, sweetie, we need to back a bag..."

The tiny girl rubbed sleep from her eyes, blinking blearily up at Gracia. "Mommy?"

"Yes, darling?"

"Is Daddy coming, too?"

Christ...

Oh, Jean recognized that look: Gracia's eyes flicking from the floor to Gracia to the three men in her house. Her fight-or-flight reflex welling up when flight wasn't an option.

No... decided Jean resolutely.

He really wasn't cut out for this sort of thing.

Gracia muttered some nonsense response and bundled her girl into her arms, disappearing into the next room. Jean turned to Falman.

"Kain and I can look after Gracia and Elicia," he affirmed, "but you gotta retrieve the Elric kid and his friend. We'll all rendezvous at the bathysphere station near the transit hub, just under the Lighthouse."

He heard a sudden intake of breath, then what sounded like a rather embarrassed cough, just behind him. Before Vato could acknowledge the order, Kain piped up from the kitchen:

"I've already made plans for contacting Alphonse, sir!"

Fuery had covered the cabinets and countertops in wires and bakelite plastic. Jean couldn't make hide nor hair of it, but Kain was near-twitching with nervous anticipation. Mindful of their time constraint, Havoc decided to humor the kid:

"What d'ya mean, plans?"

Fuery gestured to his lash-up, which included what looked suspiciously like a nail and paperclip wrapped in a solenoid. Havoc may not have been a radio engineer like Fuery or a dab hand in technical wizardry like Bill McDonagh, but he'd been in the army long enough to recognize a makeshift telegraph when he saw one.

"Uh... what exactly are you––"

"Alphonse and I started doing some projects together," explained Fuery breathlessly, unwinding enamel coated magnet wire from a coil on his hand; "I thought it'd be a good way to boost his spirits after his mom died. Anyway, we did some builds a few years back, and Al constructed a nifty little foxhole radio set using little more than a safety razor blade as the wave detector. He still has it, and it's still capable of receiving rudimentary signals! Morse ought to do it..."

"So you're just gonna radio Al and Winry to meet us at the bathysphere?"

"Yes sir!"

"You don't have a receiver, Fuery."

Caught up in his excitement, Kain grinned, and so did Falman –– insofar as he was capable of grinning –– but Jean's surly expression didn't soften. "I'm building one, sir!" He gestured to the cannibalized parts on the countertop. "This will use a wire aerial, a coil as inductor, and my own improvised diode to rectify the signal. I'll tap out a message to Al in Morse, which should go undetected by anyone monitoring the radio waves. I've tuned this little crystal model to a frequency we don't tend to use at the station."

Jean didn’t try to mask his impatient sigh, but he trailed behind Fuery with all the perseverance he could muster. The explanation was a little heavy on the technical details for Havoc's taste, but he got the marrow of it. "Right... you get on that, Fuery. Falman, you and I get ready to leg it over to the Lighthouse bathysphere station with Gracia's belongings."

"Understood, sir."

After a few minutes during which time Havoc –– bereft of a cigarette –– managed to whittle his nails down to the quick, Fuery wound a coil of wire around a rudimentary battery, slapped some adhesive onto the underside of it, and attached it to the rest of his machine. Falman watched the proceedings with half-lidded interest, but Jean –– not being able to keep pace with the engineering aspect of it anyway –– couldn't help but wonder if their efforts could have been better spent retrieving Alphonse and Winry in person.

"Al knows Morse Code?" asked Jean as Fuery's finger hovered over the makeshift knob and contact strap.

"Evidently, him and Ed thought it was a fun game when they were little." Fuery rubbed his eyes. "All right, sirs, here goes nothing..."

As Gracia and Elicia reemerged from the bedroom, a carpetbag in hand, Fuery began to tap out a message in a rapid, intricate sequence of dots and dashes. Jean knew enough to understand that the space was the absence of an electric current, the dot an electric current of short duration, and the dash, longer duration, even if Fuery's fingers moved too quickly to follow the exact phrasing of the message.

Jean's whole body itched, anxious to be shut of Artemis Suites and on their way to the bathysphere station under the Lighthouse.

"There..." murmured Kain after what felt like a long while, nimble hands immediately going to his solenoid coils as though to make adjustments. "I told Al to meet us at the transit hub immediately, and to bring Winry."

"Is there a chance he might not come?" queried Falman.

Fuery nodded. "Of course... but Alphonse is very intuitive... far more so than Edward. I think he'll listen."

"He's a smart kid... he probably figured out long ago that the city's going to hell in a handbasket." Havoc paused, his hand fisted in his trousers. "Although, Kain––"

He was cut off by the report of a pistol, the bullet blazing straight through the window, shattering the glass.

More gunshots rang out, blasting holes in the door and making Gracia scream and Elicia choke out a tiny, breathless whimper, burying her head into her mother's throat; Falman's hand descended on the back of Gracia's neck and he pulled her behind the settee. She clutched Elicia to her until Jean was half-worried the blood would be cut off from the girl's brain. As Falman continued to bundle the two towards the back entrance, using the couch as cover, a shutgun blast peppered the door in holes. Even a goddamn crossbow quarrel zinged through the gaps and stuck quivering into the mantlepiece. Jean heard the steel-capped boots clattering in the alleyway outside the apartment, the twang of bowstrings, and the overlapping beat of several other projectiles thudding against the door. 

"Fuck!" he swore, going for his handgun. "How the hell did they know we were here?!"

Fuery clutched the edge of the formica countertop until his knuckles blanched. "They didn't, sir!" he cried, his glasses crooked on his nose. "They must have come for Elicia only to find us here!"

"Well, good to know it ain't only Mustang with the shit timing!"

The sound of Jean's pistol in the narrow apartment was like pressing his ear to a thunderclap. He was struck by the sensation of tunnel vision: he felt himself shrinking, like the world was growing larger and he was getting smaller, Falman and Gracia moving farther away while Havoc and Fuery telescoped closer to the front door. He heard a few squeals as his bullets took down a fair number of their aggressors, but Havoc had only brought the one pistol.

It wasn't long before the cartridge clicked empty.

"Damnation..." he growled, crouching beside Fuery in the relative safety of the kitchen. When Jean turned to consider Kain, the latter's eyes were black and wide, pupils flecked with gold like beach pebbles. Fuery continued to fiddle with the radio, the parts heaped in a pile on his lap.

"Fuery, what the fuck are you doing?! We gotta got outta here!"

"You go!" he said, not looking away from his tinkering. "Escort Gracia, Elicia, and Falman to the bathysphere station."

"What, what the hell are you––"

"Those bullets are from submachine tommy guns right, sir? Those are only issued to Port Authority and Rapture Security personnel.  So if they break in here and find us all gone, they'll immediately radio Hephaestus Core for reinforcements, or have the turrets and security bots reprogrammed to track our movements. There won't be anywhere safe for us."

"You can't stay here, you little idiot... they'll mow you down!"

"It's okay, sir." Fuery still wouldn't look up from his contraption. "Don't worry about me––"

"Like hell it's okay!"

Jean's voice filled the room, too loud, too angry, the words scrapping against each other like razorblades on stone: “All that time you've spent insisting that you're a little nobody, Fuery, and now, when your life is on the line, you gotta go be a hero? What’s wrong with you?”

“Lieutenant––"

"Don't Lieutenant me, you little bastard!"

"Jean!" Fuery's dark eyes sparkled like polished boulder opal, impossibly wide and deep. "Bradley's men all carry portable two-way radio transceivers... using my equipment, I can jam any UHF or VHF walkie-talkie signals, or overload any audio bugs or security bots within a ten meter radius! I can completely sever their means of communication."

"If you stay, they'll kill you! You’re too important to just..." Havoc shook his head. He couldn't bring himself to look at Fuery –– his eyes kept shifting across the boy's face, to the wall behind him or the ceiling above.

“I’m not important," said Kain with a small, sad smile, his words leaden with fatigue. "Everyone will do just fine without me."

Jean's face had flushed a furious red. He sprang to his feet, keeping the refrigerator between him and the door, and paced even harder, spoke even louder: "Who cares about everyone else! What about me?" Jean tasted salt on his lip and smacked at his face, appalled to realize that he was crying.

"I'm sorry, Jean." Fuery's chest rose and fell sharply. He swallowed. "But if I don't stay, Gracia and Elicia won't ever leave Rapture. Give me thirty seconds, Jean. Thirty seconds, and I'll join you and Vato."

Each word ripped through Havoc, and although he could stow himself against the urge to shake Fuery by the shoulders, he couldn't prevent the pain that accompanied his helplessness. Pain for a comrade left behind, pain for the prospect of a friendship never fully acknowledged. 

Pain for the awful, gut-wrenching suspicion that the darkness and despair he'd suffered after hearing of Heymans's capture and, later, disappearance, was doomed to repeat itself endlessly, one loved one after another.

Despite the mob assembling outside, a stillness hung between Kain and Jean, a period of restlessness that tied Havoc's stomach into a knot.

"Thirty seconds," snarled Havoc, gritting his teeth. "Thirty seconds or I'm comin' back in here and draggin' your ass out myself!"

"I'll be right behind you, sir!" 

Jean's heart quickened with apprehension, and he wished something desperately that the fear of death was more like the fear of spiders or lightning bolts or love –– something a person could outgrow with understanding.

For Fuery, Jean supposed it already was.

"God dammit..."

Havoc turned towards the back of the apartment, where a door opened up onto the landing of a rusty staircase, like a fire escape, curving behind the tenements like a spine with scoliosis. He felt a kaleidoscope of conflicting emotions, his mood ranging from apprehension to anger, from indignation to sheer misery. Time and again he replayed the scene with Fuery, sometimes feeling his decision-making –– and himself –– level-headed and self-justified, but more often repentant. From around the front of the apartment, Jean heard a running battle taking place, the air loud with the staccato strum of gunfire and the sharp crack of plasmids. Gracia's door would not hold for long.

"Ten," he muttered aloud.

Falman and Gracia were already down the single flight of steps –– Falman with the carpet bag in hand, Gracia with a wide-eyed, shell-shocked Elicia clutched to her chest. Jean hopped the steps three at a time, rust raining beneath his heavy footfalls, and ducked through a small alleyway between the tenements. 

"Seventeen."

The route was abundantly full of refuse bins, forgotten crates, and lines of laundry hanging from back windows. He passed through a slender passage, which lead him out onto the main concourse and its adjoining district in a matter of seconds. Jean still heard gunfire from the Hughes residence, but it sounded wrong, distorted. Too deep, too loud, almost as though it was coming from right behind him. Jean swung around. His heart was beating so hard it felt like it should hurt.

"Twenty five..."

Jean was scundered in an instant of scattering, like embers and ash blown from a fire. He felt more alone in that moment then he ever had before in his life, the seconds swallowing him, his world compressed to a small, frantic, and companionless space, punctuated by the disorienting roars and blasts of incoming and outgoing fire.

The air rushed past Jean, like a wind, out through the wounds in the side of the tenements. He took a breath that burned his lungs.

"Twenty seven..."

The explosion, when it came, was strong enough to shatter the windows in their frames; for an instant, bleaching Artemis Suites white. The sound of the detonation drowned out everything save a single, ear-splitting scream.

It took Jean a moment to realize that the one screaming was him.

The blast of hot air lifted Havoc from his feet and threw him onto his back in the alleyway. He blinked up at the distant ceiling of Artemis; cinders glowed orange as they fell towards the ground, peppering his face and burning his suddenly clammy, feverish cheeks.

The pillar of fiery smoke and dust boiled up from where the bombs had gone off –– near a methane vent, insisted a vague, far-flung part of Jean's mind. The fire lifted and spread the incandescent gasses in a great lateral sheet, changing from red to violet and black, pillowing up against the ceiling. It rose like a mutilated finger from among the fists of knuckled and scorched masonry and timber.

A shaft of green sea light illuminated what remained of the Hughes apartment in phosphorescent glow, appearing almost ethereal in the relative surrounding gloom. The Rapture Security forces were stark black silhouettes against the background of the inferno.

Thirty seconds.

"Kain..."

The tears returned before Jean could stop them, boiling hot then instantly freezing on his face. His eyes awash, the district lights smeared like shooting stars. Lying before the rippling green ocean , above the slurred neon of the city below, Jean truly felt as though he was underwater, as though he was drowning. Pain flowed out of every pore. Jean lurched to his feet and immediately went to steady himself against a wall so his violent shaking wouldn't send him stumbling. Jean cried as though the ferocity of it might bring Kain back, as if by the sheer force of his grief the reality of it would be undone, the bomb disarmed, the fires snuffed out.

Then, a part of Jean was aware of people drawing beside him... a woman and a tall, thin man. Gracia and Vato. He watched the latter sway over the surface of the road, his pinched eyes, suddenly wide, slowly but surely growing glassy. Tears streamed down his cheeks, his whole face red. His upper body and shoulders were wracked with every sob that forced its way out, his chest rising and falling unevenly as he gasped for breath. But Vato pulled Jean forward, and the warm pinch in Havoc's hand shot through his entire body –– like a million fire ants burrowing and biting their way back up through his skin.

"We have to run, Jean," mouthed Falman, lips trembling. "He's gone, Jean... he's gone..."

They killed him.

Bradley and his men killed him.

Fuery was dead.

The words hovered over his tongue and lingered there like poison. A slow burn hanging from his lips. He tired to swallow but he could still taste the remnants in the back of his throat, sour and stinging. Jean felt his diaphragm spasming and didn’t realize his hiccoughs until his chest began to hurt. 

But...

"Gracia," murmured Havoc.

Vato took a shaky breath. The words came like a string of gunshots, rapid-fire, as though he resented the very act of speaking them: "We have to save them, Jean."

"Yeah... yeah, I know."

"Come on... Fuery would..." Vato swallowed, his Adam's apple juddering in his skinny neck. "He would..." Falman couldn't finish the thought.

But... he didn't have to.

So Jean Havoc ran. He ran for his life, for Vato and Gracia and Elicia's lives, so the ghosts couldn't catch them. He would outrun fear and sadness and guilt and grief and all those losses that had lined up against his head like a column of soldiers with their guns shouldered and ready to fire.

He would keep on running until he dropped, exhausted. Run like the devil with a bigger devil on his back.

They left the residential district of Olympus Heights, moving through the viaducts running under the foundations of Rapture –– a shortcut from Artemis Suites to the transmit hub near the Kashmir restaraunt. They neared a runoff channel, and up ahead of them, Gracia hugged Elicia closer to her chest, tucking the girl's head under her chin. She eyed the gap in the walkway for only a moment before she launched into the  jump. The instant her feet touched ground Jean raced and sprang with all the energy in his adrenalin-fueled body. He landed on a floor that mercifully didn’t give way under his feet, then set off in Gracia’s wake, flicking a glance over his shoulder at Falman as he soared in a mighty jump that almost skinned the back of Jean’s shins.

Moments later, Jean and Falman took to Gracia's heels. Running along the corridor connecting the transit hub to the bathysphere station, Jean tried to ignore the many security cameras, the whirring of the turrets who had not yet recieved their automated orders to fire. Havoc zeroed his attention on Vato's narrow back instead and willed his own legs to move. The meters flashed by and Jean forced himself to forget about his thumping heart and strained limbs.

His gaze still focused on Falman, he gave an extra push to draw alongside. Vato wheezed like a rusty piston, pale skin flushed and steps stumbling. Heat radiated off his face. Salty snot ran down his upper lip. Falman had never been much of an athlete: Jean knew he wasn't long for running out of steam.

The station, when they arrived, was very dark. Abandoned suitcases and protest signs lay scattered around the place, a sad reminder of the others who had desperately wanted to leave the dying city. Some of the protests that took place at the station must have turned violent, thought Jean: the connecting bridge to the second bathysphere dock had been destroyed, and a pillar had collapsed near the exit.

A window at Jean's back opened out onto the ocean, and he peered at it as they maneuvered through the debris. The sea was full of luminescent plankton, purling in the wakes of the bathyspheres and tossed in the canyons between the buildings, a phosphorescent line of green and yellow bees, as if the city were setting a hive alight beneath them.

They were at the convergence of many paths of light, which flexed and moved around them.

"Jean!"

Havoc's head snapped up, not quite trusting his own ears. That voice...

Three people emerged from the shadows at the far end of the station, having concealed their whereabouts from snooping security personnel. The little Elric kid, sweaty and nervous, the Boss, as white as a sheet. And another man, who strode forward to meet Havoc.

His ratty prison fatigues, bathed in the rays of the sea, were stippled with color like a stained glass saint. He had a thin strap of a mouth and rust-red hair, buzzed close to his skull save a single furrow running from forehead to nape. He was a tall, heavyset man, a perpetual air of sadness about him...

Heymans Breda.

Christ, thought Jean, nerves frayed and heart aching, hardly daring to believe it. He was alive.

And then Jean's eyes shifted down...

In Heymans's arms, covered in blood, hung a pale, unmoving Riza Hawkeye.

Chapter Text

"No fucking way, you bastard!"

The anger in Roy’s expression grew, his black eyes flashing dangerously, forcing Ed, in an uncharacteristic show of concession, to retract the outburst. The boy sighed, rubbing a hand across his brow. “Look, I'm sorry... but we can’t just leave you and the others behind. Not after everything you've risked, the sacrifices you've made. Hawkeye..."

Roy barely registered her name; he felt his heart thudding, a manic, percussive rhythm he could almost hear. He grew dizzy and slightly faint, a vertiginous lurch in his head as though he was standing on the edge of a cliff and peering into its deep and seemingly bottomless chasm. He forced down the surge of sick. 

He fell into reflection between one breath and the next. A stray dog ravenous for food and affection, Roy hungered for some bullshit reassurances, for someone to remove his doubt and fear, even if they had to cut it out like a surgeon slicing a carcinoma, agonizing and without anesthetic. Roy felt some profound shift in control, a sudden, humiliating, eye-watering helplessness.

His gaze drifted towards Heymans, who held her in his arms, her head tucked against his chest, her hair scratching his chin.

As though spying the glitter of Roy's uncontrollable dread overlying his dull mask of composure, Edward took a deep breath. The sound of the boy's pity –– as close as sympathy as he could muster –– scoured the murk from Roy's mind and allowed him to think more clearly.

"You have to look after your brother and young Miss Rockbell," said Roy quietly. He reached out and gripped Edward's shoulder, hard. "You have to guard Gracia and Elicia. All of you deserve better than this city."

Roy felt Edward trembling with the sudden shock of understanding, with the fear of what he now knew would be asked of him. "Mustang, Hawkeye's injuries––"

"You have to take her," he managed, trying and failing to swallow past the catch in his throat. "The bathysphere has emergency medical supplies onboard. Gracia was a nurse stationed in the Hotel des Etrangers in Dieppe. Your friend Miss Rockbell's parents were surgeons, correct? You can––" Roy shook his head: "you must stabilize her and get her help when you reach Reykjavik."

At the urgency, the desperation, in Roy's tone, a terrible sadness passed over Edward's features. As they regarded each other, it seemed as though an understanding passed between them, the stakes redefined and brought into focus by that long, agonizing moment. 

Havoc had told Roy what had happened in Artemis Suites... the raid, the intentional ignition of the methane gas, poor, poor Kain... they scarcely had time to mourn before Alphonse Elric and Winry Rockbell had arrived in the bathysphere bay, panic in their eyes and testimonies to the city-wide manhunt on their tongues. The organized search parties had spread from Olympus Heights to Pauper's Drop, Riza's old haunt, and the Fighting McDonagh's in Port Neptune, Roy's own. It would not be long before eye witnesses directed the constables towards the transit hub, and the Lighthouse bathysphere station.

There was no time to hurry Hawkeye to a doctor in Rapture. None would see her, and even if they did, it would be so easy for Ryan and his men to find her, to finish what Atlas started.

"You have to do what I wasn't able to, Edward," murmured Roy. "You have to protect her."

Ed looked at him, right in Roy's misty, anguished eyes, and the small engineer didn’t flinch at all. "I want you to understand something, Mustang," he said, and his voice didn’t shake and his hands didn't tremble and he remained coolly, clinically calm: "that whatever you do, whatever you try, whatever little plan you have in mind, there is not the slightest chance of you ever being forgiven by the Lieutenant. You get that? If you put her in that 'sphere, she'll hate you for the rest of her life."

"I..." Roy looked up, a profound grief in his eyes. He was reluctant to speak, but knew that he had to... 

But the word goodbye stuck on his tongue. He wasn’t ready to say it. Because goodbye weighed more when the prospect of forever hung off the end of it. And Roy wasn’t sure about forever. He wasn’t sure about anything. Except that, at that moment, he wanted to believe that Edward and Alphonse, Gracia and Elicia.... that Riza, his precious, beloved Riza, would always be there, somewhere. Even if it meant her existing at a distance too vast for him to navigate.

He wanted... no, he needed to have something to hold onto.

But he could not bring himself to say the words.

They hurt too much.

Instead, Roy turned to his two subordinates, to Vato and Jean. The former stared forlornly at some nondescript patch of planking near his feet, and the latter had an arm thrown across his eyes, his gaunt face pinched in the pain of regret, for which there was no lasting relief and no remedy. 

"Vato," said Roy quietly, but with resolute determination, "stand guard outside the Securis door. If you see or hear anything suspect, sound the alarm... the viaduct walkway ought to serve as a choke point, which will keep any aggressors from attacking us en masse. But don't be a hero. Don't be stupid. Don't try to handle it on your own. Call for backup."

"But sir––"

"Go, Falman."

Vato nodded, suddenly looking the age his countenance suggested. "Y-yes, sir."

Jean's head lifted lazily, blue eyes flat and dull as they regarded Roy in doubt. He looked tired and drawn, his short, honey-colored hair unkempt, his long face in desperate need of a shave. 

"Havoc," said Mustang, "there ought to be a flight of steps behind the launch controls, where the wharf-master’s mate would release the rigging on the bathyspheres. I need you to go up there and pull the line to anchor point, and disengage the hook and shackle. You'll need to unlock the clutch so the cable doesn't snap under the tension. We can't risk damaging the bathysphere's hull and depressurizing the cabin. And Jean... don't stop winching. Not for anything. No matter what might happen to the rest of us. That bathysphere has to launch... that's the only thing that matters.

"That being said... I have only one order for the both of you," said Roy, steeling himself. Then, glaring daggers, he barked: "Don't die."

Vato snapped a salute –– his sincerity would have been comical under vastly different circumstances –– before trotting down the deck towards the Securis door. Jean nodded, resolute despite his reticence, and headed for the catwalk above the launch controls. An ache, hot and pulsing like steam from boiling water, throbbed through Roy's head and behind his eyeballs as Havoc grasped the struts. Determined and unwavering, Jean climbed. There was a ringing in Roy's ears, a metallic taste in his mouth and nostrils as he watched the former Lieutenant reach the top of the catwalk, indistinguishable as just another shadow in the spindly gallery.

Roy sprinted for the launch controls. The bathyspheres were all diesel-electric, but the Lighthouse taxi had to be operated by the wharf-master from within Rapture itself –– intended as a deterrent against topside wanderers. The panel held the two clutches, on the same shaft driving the propeller by means of a thick cable and rail running under the deck and all the way up to the Lighthouse. Roy would manually disengage the clutch between the motor and the engine when the bathysphere dived, so that the motor could drive the propeller. 

"Hey, Roy!"

It was Heymans. Roy grasped the edge of the console until his hands turned white, his knuckles crunching. He couldn't... he couldn't look at her. He couldn't bear it...

It was as though an acid balance in his brain had shifted and leached the life out of him in ways impossible to repair, or reverse, like coral hardened and bleached to bone. He didn't know how to say goodbye. He was afraid the words would open up a pit he would fall into and never climb out of again.

"Heymans, put her in the bathysphere––"

"Roy! She..." the redhead swallowed thickly, which forced Roy's attention away from the controls. "She ain't breathin'..."

Roy Mustang's stomach bottomed out. He wasn't ready. Oh Christ, he wasn't ready...

No.

No no no no no no...

Then, methodically, Breda lowered his head to Riza's, pinched her nose with one hand, and began to blow air into her lungs...


Elsewhere

Altruism is the Root of All Evil...

The banner hung slack above the bulkhead, the red fabric faded, the gold lettering closer to gunmetal gray. 

Vato Falman knew someone was headed towards the bathysphere station when he caught the propaganda banner flapping in his peripheries –– someone had passed through the Securis door in the arrival lounge, the pressure gate shifting the stale, stagnant air until it was almost perceptible as a breeze.

Falman drew his pistol. He aimed down the narrow corridor.

The Securis door at his back –– the only thing separating Ryan's men from his friends –– was the gray of unburnished silver, dull and dotted with years of water damage. Where there should have been a submarine hatch wheel, there was only a square shaft of dark cold metal. He closed his fingers around it, as though to anchor himself to its surface, but his hands, slippery with sweat, skated over the coarse edges and came away blackened.

A shadow emerged from the viaduct walkway, a man tall and solidly built. His face was granite-rough and chiseled, his heavy lidded eye –– the one not concealed by a patch –– blinking in slow, sedate contemplation. His mustache twitched as he murmured, his voice reverberating around the curved, metallic walls:

"We found human remains in the Hughes apartment in Artemis Suites. As the bones have not yet been identified, I was tasked with guarding the bathysphere station, to ward away anyone who might be cogitating on the possibility of escape. So tell me, Mr. Falman..." Bradley regarded Vato with the apathetic disinterest of a python. He unsheathed his sword, green sea-light staining the blade like poison.

"The charred corpse we found... was he a friend of yours?"

The corridor –– quiet before –– seemed like a vacuum in which Falman's nervous wheeze was suddenly deafeningly loud.

"Step aside, boy."

Don't be a hero.

Vato kept the pistol drawn, one hand bracing the stock and the other around the trigger. He raised it to Bradley's good eye. "I... I can't do that, sir."

Bradley's jaw clicked as he worked it in silence. He held the edge of his saber even, a perfect, undaunted horizon, leveled at Falman's nose. A pained, muffled cry escaped Vato at the sight of his reflection in the blade. 

"You're a librarian; your place is among your books," growled Bradley, taking a step closer, until Falman was backed against the Securis door. "You're a smart man, Falman. This is not a fight you are going to win."

Falman blinked, his eyes smarting. He tasted the damp from his runny nose on his upper lip. His hands began to shake involuntarily, the barrel of the pistol moving in little erratic zig-zags from Bradley's forehead, to his chest, to his throat, and back again. No matter how dispassionate a vision of the world Falman managed to formulate in that moment, because it included his own emotions, the telescope seemed continually turned back on himself. Because he was so scared. He was terrified, and his mind refused to comprehend that Bradley –– that Bradley's sword, that Fuery's death, that the prospect of his own –– could be pursued as a discipline, and understood as a theory.

Falman's hands trembled, so he took a deep breath in an effort to calm himself and forced his aim to remain steady. An empty, sick feeling came over him. He wanted to vomit, but with nothing in his stomach to void, he began to hiccough violently, until his chest ached. He was so scared... so scared...

Oh Kain, he lamented.

Show me how to be brave.

Kain had loved them. He had fought for them. He had defied them and in doing so, had saved them, even though it meant his own destruction. He was worthy of the world and all its beauty in a way the rest of them were not.

Was it, Vato wondered, possible to love so desperately that it became in some ways unbearable? Unbearable because he knew it would end, because everything ends. Powers decay. Time leaches the colors from the best of visions. The world becomes smaller, dimmer. Entropy beats them all down. Everything fades. Everything grays. Everyone dies.

And was there any sense at all in his knowing that they would lose everything that mattered in the end –– and yet hold on to the hope that, in spite of the cruelty in which the game was stacked, it was possible to play with a kind of joy? As Kain had done...

To try to make some meaning out of it all seemed unbelievably quaint, thought Falman. Maybe he only saw a pattern because he had been staring for too long.

But then again, perhaps he saw a pattern because the pattern existed.

Don't be stupid.

Vato felt a new attitude of detachment descend on him. His crushing fear and grief crystalized to a protective coating, a hard, transparent lacquer of uncaring. He felt, in an instant, infinitely safer in his numbness. 

Would he feel anything, he wondered.

Would it hurt.

"You forget, Chief," muttered Falman, planting himself to attention. The wobble had diffused from his hands right down to his knees; still, Falman’s legs seemed to protract as he stood taller, until he had a few weak inches on Bradley. "I'm not just a-a... l-librarian. I was a Warrant Officer. I was... I am... a soldier."

Don't try to handle it on your own.

"And Kain Fuery, the man you murdered... he was my best friend."

Call for backup.

"I'm sorry, Colonel..." murmured Vato, through his snot and tears. "That I... that I disobeyed... disobeyed your orders..."

Chief Bradley's saber flashed in the darkness.

Vato Falman pulled the trigger.

There was a very long moment during which he did nothing but breathe.

And then he found he could no longer do even that.

The shadows shifted. They were at their deepest in the far corners of the corridor, and up in the dim recesses of the ceiling. Falman could see them gathering... above him, the blackness was somehow thicker, almost mouldering, percolating in slow, viscous strands. It was too black for this universe.

Vato stared over the blurry edge of Bradley's security tunic at a single ray of sunlight streaming through the sea.

And he imagined he felt the warmth of it...


Elsewhere

Someone was kissing Riza on the lips. If she didn't feel quite so tired and sick, it would have been nice. As it was, she just wanted them to go away.

She became aware of something entirely unexpected: she was breathing. Her lungs hurt, her throat hurt, and there was a line of excruciating pain across her neck and midriff and more running along her shoulders. But she was breathing, and she was fairly sure that the last time she'd thought about it, she hadn't expected to do so ever again. 

“She’s awake!” came a voice from above her. She felt someone slapping her cheek none-too-gently. “Stay with us, kid. Don’t go dyin’ on us.”

Not a kiss, then. Resuscitation, perhaps. She felt an arm behind her back and the other around the bend in her knees. Her vision blurred and twitched, but she recognized the smudge of rust-red hair easily enough. “Heymans…”

“Shush, you. Don’t overexert yourself.”

“Where…”

She heard the smile on Breda’s lips, even if she couldn’t make it out behind the fog in her eyes –– she was thankful she didn’t have to pour her energy, such as it was, into being more specific. “He’s at the control panel, Riza. Jean brought Gracia and Elicia over from Artemis Suites. They’re already loaded in the bathysphere along with Alphonse and Ed and their friend Winry. Soon as you're aboard, we're gonna get the sub launched.”

Riza's nostrils flared, the air heavy with the rusty smell of blood. Her own, if her stiff and sticky clothing was any indication. Someone had knotted their coat around her throat, until it resembled a massive knit scarf, the gray color stained closer to black and wrapped so tightly her head could barely move. With every breath, she tasted the slow, steady trickle of blood into her throat, making breathing difficult, like she was swallowing salt water. She was struck, strangely, with the impression of lying on a wave-washed beach, the ground shifting beneath her as the sand was dragged back to the swathes of a great gray ocean. It was oddly comforting, the sensation of slipping away.

Despite her restlessness, her incoherence of thought and speech, Riza became aware of Breda walking her towards the edge of the deck, where the hollow clatter of chain on metal, the slap of the water against a spherical hull, told Riza they were approaching one of the docked bathyspheres.

She forced her eyes open, concentrating on the drawn, wan oval of Breda’s face. He caught her staring, and he brushed a fringe of hair back from her clammy forehead.

“You’re gonna be all right, Riza. We’re gettin’ you outta here.”

He spoke quietly… the only man in the room who felt certain of his own words. The lines around his mouth looked deep and heavy in the silvery-green light, and his eyes were bloodshot. Riza knew he must have been on the brink of utter exhaustion. 

She felt suddenly very cold. The tears slipped out before she could blink them away. She felt a plunge in her gut encompassing sorrow and revulsion far beyond any she had felt before: a sick, drenching nausea. And although Riza had been too well-trained to allow her emotions to take control of her, the feelings were too strong to quietly recede into a regimen of critical thought. Deep inside her they stewed, logic and reason slowly boiling off. Reduced to their essence, her feelings became more potent, condensed into an emotional, crushing certainty.

She was dying. 

“Hey…” Breda traced his fingers along the bridge of her nose, the rucks in the corners of her eyes, as though trying to smooth the pain away. “None of that now. You’re gonna be all right.”

Riza was engulfed by a nameless panic. She dragged herself into full consciousness, fingernails digging into Breda’s shoulder as though impelled by some strange power within her. "Set me down, Heymans," she wheezed into Breda's chest.

“Riza, I can't––"

"Please. Do this one thing. I beg you."

"You've lost so much blood, kid, we gotta get you outta here––" She slumped in his arms, hitting a trough in her adrenaline, and Heymans made an exasperated sound. "Look at you... you can barely keep your head up!"

"I don't need my head... just my legs, Heymans. Just my legs..."

“No.” His words were calm, but firm. “We’re putting you in the bathysphere with the Elrics and the others. You’re goin’ topside.”

“I won’t…” the simple act of swallowing was excruciating, “I won’t make it to the surface, Heymans. You know that.”

“Riza…” The words forced themselves from his lips and opened a pathway for other things, despite his resolve. "You can't."

“Please,” her fingers knotted in his shirt, her knuckles blanched to the color of pewter, “let me go to him."

Riza was dwarfed by the sudden vastness that existed between them, an impassable distance from her to Heymans despite the fact that they were within an arm's reach of each other, regardless of her being able to hear the stutter of his heart through his shirt or the minute tremble of his arms, exhausted from carrying her weight.

"Christ, Roy... forgive me..."

His hug, when it came, was strong and brotherly, and so fierce it made her cry even harder. Then his hand was on her shoulder, and her feet were being lowered to the deck.

"I'm so sorry, Riza."

"Don't be..." she managed a wan, strained smile, and though the motion was agony, she did well to hide it. "I'm not."

She swung herself carefully onto the ladder behind the bathysphere and began to make her one-handed descent, the other unfurling the coat from around her neck. Sweat sprang onto her forehead as the tendons pulled painfully in her throat, the moist innards shifting and clicking in ways that sounded distinctly unhealthy. She crouched in a stagnant pool of water, ice-cold to force her into alertness –– though her posture was more of a slump against a pylon, the beam taking most of her weight. She hid herself behind a parapet of crates some previous would-be-escapees had disturbed. She remained there as still as a corpse; holding her breath was not so much the issue as the high-pitched whistle of the air over her exposed vocal chords.

"She's aboard, Boss!" lied Heymans with ease, coming back around from the bathysphere's hatch.

Riza knew Breda's words had caused a sharp pain in Roy's chest, choked him like a fist around his throat, for his Adam's apple began to bob erratically as he muttered a broken, plaintive: "Thank you. Thank you..."

"Thank him for what, Mustang? For taxiing a corpse?"

Roy and Heymans –– and Riza, too, hidden behind the crates –– raised their heads towards the Securis door, which, to their shared horror and dismay, hung open on its hinges.

And framed by the circumference of the airlock, green eye glaring out at them, was the tenebristic countenance of King Bradley.

"You've become the girl's Tartarean ferryman," he said gruffly, musing over the allusion like a fine vintage. "Punting her body across the infernal river."

Riza's nostrils flared, smelling something coppery on the air but hotter, fresher, than her own blood –– if she was the crimson silt on the abattoir floor, then Bradley was the pig strung from the butcher's gaff. Against the damp, honey-colored deck, his blood trail was stark. Small droplets tumbled and spread into the wood, making arcs of scarlet. Bradley's shoulder wept freely; the man stood with his shoulders hunched, face in his customary, concentrated scowl, blood soaking his sleeve and radiating slowly outwards, but otherwise he gave no indication of any discomfort. The bullet wound on his deltoid was so small... somewhat ragged around the edges. The exit wound must have been on his back somewhere; the magazine from a .32 caliber Smith & Wesson, or a Colt pistol. The same model that...

"What have you done with Falman?" snarled Roy.

"What I anticipate doing to you and the Detective Inspector's killer in about two minutes time, Mustang," said Bradley, regarding Breda coolly. "If it's any consolation, he did manage to land a hit."

Heymans's face was webbed with a violent, near-uncontrollable anger. His wrath peeled from him like a bad smell. "You son of a bitch..." he breathed. He shook his head, his florid face trembling, and dragged his breath back in. "You didn't... you didn't..."

"I have a proposition for you, Mustang," said Chief Bradley, ignoring Breda completely, which only incensed the latter more. "A deal, if you will."

As he swept over them, Bradley's thoughts remained inscrutable, somewhere lead-lined and dark, far away from prying eyes. Roy managed to mask his own discomfort, but Breda, beset with anguish and misery, was not so disciplined. He let out his breaths in short, explosive bursts, as though at any moment he would throw caution to the wind and charge Bradley himself.

Riza prayed he wouldn't... she couldn't bear the thought of losing someone else. She struggled to explain or justify the image Bradley had stirred in her mind, of Falman's long, lanky body propped against the Securis door, lying still on the soiled and bloodied stones. Red pulsed in the edges of her vision and she teetered precariously, struggling to regain her balance...

"If you surrender the bathysphere and its occupants to me, now," intoned Bradley; Riza noticed his hand drifting down to the hilt of his saber, "then I have Mr. Ryan's express permission to escort Miss Hawkeye to a doctor."

"Get fucked," growled Breda, his tone like ice, making Riza shiver.

"She's dying. Nothing you do will change that."

Riza could sense Roy's love, his obsessive devotion, coupled with a hate fanned by a barely controlled fury. "Go to hell, Bradley."

From her vantage, she watched the Security Chief fold his arms and rear his head back appraisingly. “You have taught me something of strength of spirit, Mustang. Though, I expected your irritating tendency towards compassion, your love for the girl, would make you that much more receptive to my offer. Regretfully, your refusal has instead made matters considerably more complicated.”

“You’re a fool if you expect me to believe you wouldn’t dispose of her the moment I canceled the launch sequence,” called Roy. “I may not presume her to forgive me for any of this, but I trust her to survive. To endure, for both of us.” 

Bradley barked a mirthless laugh. “And you’re a fool to think your trust will save her or yourself, Mustang. You don’t draw strength from your faith in Miss Hawkeye. She is the weak link in your life.”

“You’re wrong.” Roy’s voice was steady, calm, but his fists had clenched again. “You know nothing.”

“I know that girl the same way you do,” said Bradley without agitation. “And it is that knowledge that will be your undoing. She’s just another casualty in your crusade, Roy Mustang. Just like the Detective Inspector. Just like the boy you left behind in Artemis Suites. Just like the sniveling lickspittle I pinned to the Securis door right outside."

“You bastard…” snarled Roy.

“They ought not hope for any better. What else do they really expect? What could any pawn of Roy Mustang expect? The nagging knowledge that they lead cast-off and preloved lives, shadowed by someone else’s needs and desires. Just another hovel of parasites, grasping at anything which might fill the emptiness of their own paltry existences. And after all that, no gratitude. No glory, save yours. No reward. No acknowledgement except maybe an unheroic farewell, or a grave far from the places they once called home.

“But if you’re unwilling to make a deal, Mustang…” Bradley unsheathed his saber, sliced it through the air, “then I’m under orders to cut you down.”

“Breda,” breathed Roy, not taking his eyes off Bradley for a second, “don’t you dare leave that console.”

“But Roy––!”

“Stay put! You and Jean are their only chance of reaching the surface!”

Before Roy finished the sentence, Bradley had launched himself into the bathysphere bay... rocketing directly towards Breda at the bathysphere controls.

"Get away from him, you bastard!" bellowed Roy, snapping his fingers.

He split the air with crimson light, a fiery tongue hissing and crashing, howling across the station towards the security chief, fumes bellying out in the excruciating heat.

"A duel? Are you challenging me to a duel, Mustang?" Chief Bradley's green eye gleamed excitedly, though his tone was scathing. "Warrior to warrior? Two men enter, one man leaves? I never knew you had such a poetic soul!" Snarling the last word, Bradley carved his blade through the air, missing Roy's hair by centimeters.

Riza was aware of the sudden warmth emanating from Roy's flames, but she felt no pain as the first few embers alighted on her hair. She had time to consider Roy as he blazed past her, a comet trailing anger and grief in a long band behind him, his eyes the color of a sky at midnight with all the stars obscured. He burned, bleaching bright all other lights. Perhaps, at the core of it, that was what his life amounted to, what all the world amounted to, a collision of vast conflagrations, each sparked from nothing. And indeed, in Riza's delirium, she couldn't help but remember him in his youth, the memory suddenly far clearer to her than the firefight in the station; to see him laughing with an ease and freedom he would never find again in the long life which stretched out for him beyond hers, and it was his laughter she took with her as she inched herself along the railing, her footsteps braiding together, making slow progress towards her commanding officer.

"Get the bathysphere in the water!" bellowed Roy. 

Off to her side, at the ship launch panel, Heymans's hands flew over the yokes for control surfaces –– the planes and rudder of the bathysphere –– before adjusting the ballast to equalize the water in the tanks and the sub's trim.

Suddenly, without the slightest warning, the bolt was disengaged from the cable tethering the bathysphere to the ceiling. The brass hook hurtled into the steel winch thirty feet away, gouging a half-inch notch in the harder metal. A solid cylinder of mist and steam shot from the water as the sub fell from its launch, the ocean boiling and gurgling as it sank slowly into the depths.

Across the station, Bradley hinged out, using the smoke from Roy's flames as a cover. The flickering shadow of his movements alerted Roy just in time, and he ducked under the sinanju strike that had been aimed at his head. Roy turned on the balls of his feet, snapping again –– a high, resounding click, and the Chief sliced through the flames with his saber, the fast moving-blade dragging the air in its arc, creating a tiny low pressure region that extinguished the fire.

She released the rail. She raised her head and felt a sharp pull below her chin, the wind from Roy's flames stinging parts of her throat the air was never meant to touch. She tried not to examine the sensation too closely or lose it with any sudden movement, as though it were an egg on a spoon. She felt empty, drained dry. Devoid of everything save the locomotive impetus that kept her legs moving. There was something about the movement, something undefinable, that gave a singular glow and radiance to the whole sensation, and suggested the burning of a light through Riza's alabaster outsides –– a creeping of a subtle fire all her own through her veins. 

Roy snapped a third time. The heat lunged out at them like a famished beast. The conflagration was enormous, labyrinthine. It branched and flamed, glowed and increased, before it was suddenly extinguished in little puffs of smoke by Bradley's sword. Patinas of red and orange flashed in his blade. He hefted his saber and lunged at Roy's head, almost too quickly to track the motion. Roy dodged, diving low; he struggled to regain his balance. Bradley pressed his advantage, feinting towards Roy's neck before ducking low and swinging at his knees. Roy leapt clear mere moments before the sword sliced through his kneecaps. 

Roy held himself bent at the midriff, trying to lock Bradley's blade away from his legs. Roy glanced up; their noses were close enough to touch.

Then Bradley head-butted him. Riza heard a crack even at a distance and blood exploded from Roy's nose. The Colonel staggered backwards, chest heaving as he tried to keep from choking. Then Bradley kicked Roy's leg. He screamed, his knee caving, his back smacking against the wood planking. Roy gasped as the wind was knocked out of him. Summoning the last of his strength, he tried to drag himself to the edge of the deck, hoping to swing his body over and escape. But he couldn’t keep from sliding back into the well created by the combined weight of his body and Bradley’s. 

An emotion strong and strident flared in Riza’s chest, a simmering indignation and nascent rage. She grasped it with her teeth, reveling in the feeling of something other than the emptiness. She focused on the anger, let it animate her blood, let it slowly fill the hollow within her chest. The feeble double-beat of her heart in her ears, the aching pulse in her throat, lifted itself to a high drone above the confusion of thoughts inside her mind. Willing her legs to move faster, Riza began to run.

The seconds stilled, a beam of coherent time stretching from the very beginning to the very end of the world. Even as Bradley lifted his saber above Roy’s chest, Riza moved by the look of tragedy and loss stamped on Roy’s face, whatever beauty and hope now lost beneath the gray patina of too much terror. Roy, in an instant, appeared to be reaching out through twisted distances towards her. His eyes held a look of fear she had never seen in them before.

Contact. A growing heat, like a million blazing suns all focused on a point opposite her sternum, ignited Riza's insides. For a brief moment, she swelled with a horrible, billowing fire.

Then the heat blazed out, doused like candlelight.

Riza let herself fall forwards into him, crashing against Roy's chest. It was like falling in a dream, without fear.

A raindrop upon a limitless ocean. Her ripple radiating continuously outward.

She felt Bradley's sword twisted in her stomach. Her chest contracted, her breathing a wet, clicking sound. She shuddered.

“Riza… no. No no, Riza, what have you done… what have you––“

She inhaled deeply. She stared up at his face. Sombre, subdued. And under that, so, so angry. At her… at himself. “I’m sorry,” she said, her voice calmer, less strained.

Roy smoothed a hand over her brow. "Shhh… I’ve got you… I’ve got you.”

“Roy,” she whispered, her hand twitching toward the back of his neck with little jerks.

Breathing was extraordinarily painful, the rise and fall of her chest spasmodic. Riza's suffering, which seemed to her to be a strict consequence of having guarded herself for so long against the manner of self-sacrifice concomitant with pain and vulnerability, appeared to her as a kind of punishment, something which she suspected had been delayed for half a lifetime, ever since she surrendered the secret of her father's research. She became, in that moment, excessively tender to the frailness of existence. Regret, grief, pain, in inexhaustible doses, lay close to her broken surface. 

She tangled her fingers in his hair, smiling thinly at the way the tips curled in the humidity, the shape and fractal geometry there, the self-similarity and infinity of scale. She breathed in at his scalp; Roy smelled a little strange, sweet and bitter at the same time, the way grief might have smelled if it were a physical thing. Then she pressed her ear to his chest, listening for the engine of his heart, his body a seashell within which percussed an ocean. 

When her mouth found his she disassembled. She floated away, went into a kind of orbit. A splintering galaxy. An exquisite, slow burning annihilation. A deconstruction around the core of him.

And for a moment, for her benefit alone, Roy's rare, bright smile shined out of his face, softening his features, until the severity resolved itself into serenity, the look of a man ready to do and dare anything… everything. His eyes flashed with light, caught by the peculiar greenness of the early morning sea and the strobe effect of the water’s undulating reflection, the dimensionless points at which parallel lines met and whirled.

She felt herself rising... through the ocean, above the surf, into the infinite sky. Above her, the velvet tapestry of the night curved from horizon to horizon, flecked with thousands of tiny stars. They shimmered in an elegant ballet on the waves, the sea itself giving them life.

"It’s all right, Roy…" she whispered into his mouth. "I’m not…"

Her head tipped sideways, and the breath went out of her. 


He sat rapt, holding in his arms a still, silent thing through which he stared like a window onto eternity. His arm stretched through the depths to clasp at what was lost. He felt trapped in some closed nightmare prison beyond the bounds of reality.

Bradley removed the sword.

"I thought she was on the bathysphere," Roy heard him say. "My mistake."

In the darkness, the fine spray of dried blood freckled her face, making her look as though someone had blown cinnamon across her nose.

But he could not keep her death in his head –– it was like trying to imagine the infiniteness of the universe. He nearly swooned at the vastness of the thought. He remembered her living but the taste and the touch of her no longer stirred in him the same seismic powers of recall: he didn't feel hate, or distance, or love, or passion.

Just grief. Its constancy, its immediacy, its unrelenting physical pain.

Roy thought of Orpheus and Eurydice, and it occurred to him, then, that the story was not just about the desire of the living to resuscitate the dead but about the ways in which the dead drag the living along into their shadowy realm because the living could not bear let them go.

So he would follow her into the Underworld, descending, descending, until he went too far to turn and make his way back.

Roy wore the memory of her embrace like armor, and though he knew it would not save his life, it was all he had left to ease his passage into whatever lay beyond.

And it was enough.

Roy closed his eyes. He folded himself around Riza.

He waited.

But then Bradley stiffened. 

With a sudden blur of motion, the splinter and spray of blood and bone, something plunged through the security chief's body –– a brass winching hook, the one that had held the bathysphere.

A corolla of something dark, lotus petals of mucilage, bloomed from the front of Bradley's coat, the hook driven into his back and out through his sternum by a vicious upward thrust. His face was a grimace of surprised pain as he slid to his knees, unconscious, before keeling over the side of the deck and hitting the water with a jarring splash. Slowly, King Bradley descended into the murk, the silver-sided menhaden and tarpon nearly indistinguishable from the bubbles that spiraled up from his dive. He sank slow and sideways, abandoned by the city and the sea, into the half-forsaken chasm of the deep.  

Roy watched, deprived of power or sensation, as the water went pink, then red, and finally crimson with blood. Complete, uncanny silence fell over them, more frightening than the most threatening noise or violence could have been. A silence that had death in it.

And there, in the middle of the deck, stood Jean Havoc, covered with grease and blood, pink and blue eyed. After a moment, he staggered back, the hook slipping from his palsied hands, before he froze, blinking. Then his legs seemed to lose their cohesion and he crashed, limp and listless, to his knees.

The Lieutenant's expression spasmed as the nausea surged up from his stomach, filling his mouth with sick. His knees quivered and, losing control, he began to wail, his mouth full of saltwater sobs, grinding the heels of his palms into his eyes like a child. After a moment, Jean turned to the side and retched, frothy yellow bile spilling out into the water beneath the deck, filling the station chamber with sour, putrid stench of vomit.

Havoc was still staring at the steam rising from his evacuated stomach contents, still sobbing, as Breda crouched beside him and pulled him into a fierce embrace. As Jean wept, Heymans held him, the latter's hand tangled in the former's thatch of blonde hair, rocking Havoc gently back and forth. Two boys, their arms around each other.

"Bring them back..." Jean sobbed. "B-bring them back."

Breda was staring at his best friend's stricken, crumpled face, the rippling light from the water reflecting in the tears that ran down his cheeks. He gave Jean a quick kiss on his forehead.

"Not this time, Jean," said Heymans hoarsely. "Not this time."

Each word dropped like a stone. They could all feel the implications radiating outward, the ripples washing over them. Bouncing against the shores of the world and becoming waves, eroding the brittle sandstone skeletons of their lives.

A yowl rose from Jean's gut, as raw as a birth cry but with no hope in it, the water slapping against the pylons a wailing wall shattering around them. Incoherent, thoughtless, the cry rose from the oldest parts of Jean's body. 

Roy had never known grief so primal. The violence of it shook him to his core.

The gear teeth of Roy's mind, the pistons that propelled his thoughts, came grinding to a halt, too long forced to fight against the friction of agony and burning out with the effort. He realized, so suddenly that it hurt, just how empty a creature could become, all while still filled to the brim with drowning agony.

Roy did not cry out his grief like Jean, but clung to it, as he clung to Riza's body, dead in his arms. He would shelter them both –– Hawkeye and his heartache –– deep inside himself where the silence would shroud them in saudade layers like some malignant pearl. Roy was tempted to simply let himself drift away, the shell of his body cracking open and surrendering the pearl to the depths. No longer anchored by Riza's love, he would be reabsorbed by sea. His grief was the antithesis of music, the antithesis of noise. Her death seemed to demand silence of all the world.

Her presence in his life had been so deep and absolute that he half believed they had known one another for eternities, and that their paths crossed with the perfection of fulfilling a purpose that spanned lifetimes. Two people who had loved each other however imperfectly, who had tried to make a life together, however imperfectly, who had lived side by side and watched the wrinkles slowly form at the corner of the other's eyes, and watched a little drop of gray, as if poured from a jug, stain the other’s hair, listening to the other's gripes and grumbles and little collected mumblings. He imagined over and over the single brief moments they had had together until those moments congealed to a single kiss, a single touch: a mote of infinite mass.

Roy grasped it, took it into himself. He held it and did not let go.

Riza's skin was dry, the last of her life dampening the deck underneath. Roy rested a hand on her cool cheek, brushed the pad of his thumb over her closed eyes.

Never, ever  stop feeling.

"Maes," he murmured, "look after her for me."

Don't go numb.

"Look after them all."

The world, even with all its horror, is too beautiful to miss, and its potential too piquant for you to let it slip by..."

Roy's words came out low and steadfast: "They are all the strength I will ever draw from this world."

It seemed as though, in that moment, the city was not girded by shattered cliff faces and tangled beds of kelp, growing on the surrounding reefs and facing away from the horizon of the seafloor. 

Roy looked at the window, into the dark waters where the small flowers crept towards the daylight. His gaze roved skyward, turning to the weak, watery sun hanging in the zenith of Rapture's sunken firmament. He was struck with the sensation of crouching in the basin of a vast oubliette, the walls of the world curving over his head, capped by a sun he would never see, that would nonetheless burn forever.

Boundless space bound inside the City. A universe inverted.

For a moment, floating untethered above the damp, drowning streets, Roy Mustang almost expected to see the stars again. Caught in the liminal space, between the unbroken and the broken, the now and the then, the living and the dead, stretched out in its infinite repetition.

And perhaps, on that ever-shifting, recurrent horizon, Riza would one day sail back into view, a ship coming neither toward him nor away, only riding that perfect line between sea and sky, long enough for him to know that she had loved him, that what they had was real, before slipping out of sight.

Until the next time around, beyond the edge of eternity.

So Roy Mustang let her sleep, and said no more, but sat and pressed her cold hand to his lips.

And then, unfurling his fingers, he released her.

 

 

Over a sea of iron-dark water, stretching to some distant, hidden horizon, her little light twinkled into the high firmament, and was lost among the stars.

Chapter Text

Three Months Later

31st December, 1958

As he walked, he could not help but be moved by the devastation all around him, the bones of the bellicose city –– an eerie calm suffused the fallen grave markers and overgrown plant life. Too far removed from the rest of the city for external sounds to penetrate the thick walls, and within, no slamming doors, no babbling splicers, no wandering feet, no sacrilegious voices breaking in upon the stillness. Even the press of ivy under his shoes struck his ear with a jarring distinctness. But though he stepped quickly, his easy efficiency of movement gave an impression of repose that was at once static and evocative. 

In the center of the garden rested a small mausoleum, the structure lying in partial ruin. Headstones littered the hills. Space was at such a premium and real estate had become so valuable that even the dead could not remain in Rapture without the money necessary to rent a spot in the crowded cemetery. Only the wealthy could afford a traditional burial and even then, their corpse only remained undisturbed for as many weeks as they had paid for in their will. Then they were dug up and cremated the same as the paupers, scattered in the gray estuaries and washed out into the sea. The dark, archetypal nightmares of wooden boxes and six-foot-deep holes, the objective correlatives that haunted the minds of all men, held no meaning in Rapture. As though death was not, in of itself, an end.

He reached beside one of the gravestones and uprooted a green vine, a few feet long, with several bell-shaped flowers. A vindictive look in his pale indigo eyes, he tossed the invasive plant aside. Unkempt ivy cascaded over the crypts and catacombs, growing tendrils in every direction. The path was punctuated with weeds after every stone. The dishevelled, unmanicured lawn was more moss and lichen than grass. Clusters of defiant daffodils reared their golden heads amidst the gloom and there were smatters of fuchsia alongside the scarlet and saffron hued primroses.

The air, despite the angiosperms, still smelled of salt.

An industrial-grade window arched over the Arcadia cemetery. The neon and cold-cathode fluorescence speckled the sea of darkness; like millions of stars, they burned with a steady light in the serene ocean night. There was no breath of wind to make them flicker as they hung there in space. They made the city seem as vast as the sky, reaching out into infinity. The view communicated beauty and strangeness and a hint of terror that sent pleasurable excitement thrilling through his blood.

Even inside the walls of Arcadia, motes of phosphorescence danced over the gravestones –– ignes fatui like the expiring gleams of thousands of vanished lives.

He followed the smell of Miltoniopsis santanaei through the plots –– he could picture in his mind a vein of anise and nasturtium suspended amidst the pervading brine, the odor the texture of petals, soft and supple.

There was only one man in all of Rapture who had the resources and capital necessary to cultivate orchid flowers fifty fathoms below the ocean's surface –– not to mention, the horticultural expertise. Well, Augustus had grown up on a peach farm.

And Sinclair's twice-monthly offering of small, white flowers meant Solf J. Kimblee had no issue in locating her gravesite.

A subsidiary requirement to his sense of direction, perhaps, for indeed his memory had yet to lead him astray. Still, Kimblee welcomed the smell of orchids amidst so much rot and decay and death.

The marker was small, gray, undecorated. It was, he thought, ever-so-slightly cleaner than many of the others, that stone upon which someone had attempted to etch her history, a paltry, final testimony after a lifetime of scratching out divisions upon the ground, over ephemeral time itself, as though to give her short, sad life its final punctuation. Kimblee brushed the moss from the headstone and found there an inscription he knew very well…

Riza Hawkeye: 1926-1958
No more let life divide what death can join together.

"The cemetery," recited Kimblee quietly, "is an open space among the ruins, covered in winter with violets and daisies. It might make one in love with death, to think that one should be buried in so sweet a place..."

It was not long before a voice interrupted his vigil.

"I reckoned I might find ye here. Down on your knees before her, no less."

If Kimblee were a less prudent, practical person, the newcomer's deliberate and obstinate desire to behave in ways that flew in the face of consequence would begin to irritate. 

Kimblee's expression grew graver, and he weighed on his company with a solemn scowl. In the pool of light shed onto his lap, his hands, long and white and slender, picked at a speck of dirt on his trousers.

The man who called himself Atlas had a strong, high-cheeked face, with a vertical wrinkle erupting between his eyes as he glowered, black, unruly dark hair falling over his forehead. He hadn't shaved. Stubble the color of cigarette ash clung to his jaw. Kimblee appraised him at his own molten leisure, noted the eyes that gleamed like polished larimar, the expression pinched and cruel. Nature, Kimblee decided, had squandered an unreasonable quantity of beauty on this undeserving creature.

Given the intricacy of pattern and design an artist of Atlas's preoccupations produced, his disguises tended to lack any initial force of appearance. He was a construct of the civilization in which he lived, an amalgam of vague ideologies and ethics. It was as though Atlas –– Fontaine, Kimblee affirmed to himself with a self-satisfied smirk –– had spent his life standing very close to a window in the ocean's perpetual twilight, trapped between his mirror-image's own transmission and reflection, the city forever superimposed over his countenance. Atlas was parasitic, saprophytic, like the moss on the grave markers. His was an identity that infected, deadening all impulses towards a truth of conviction.

Atlas had incited a conspiracy –– had brought himself to within teetering distance of civil war. Something was going to change in Rapture... something beyond reckoning.

Kimblee smiled, then, his mouth a gash of red, thin and oracular, before rising to his feet in one fluid motion. He allowed his thumb and forefinger to brush Riza's gravestone as he stood.

"I am merely paying my respects," murmured Kimblee, stepping up to Atlas, enmity radiating between two pairs of blue eyes.

Atlas arched a shiftless eyebrow. "Yeah, boyo? Didn't think the lass was your..." a thin, bloodless smirk, "type."

His tone of voice reminded Kimblee of the slow stretch of honey from a silver spoon... but honey made from rhododendrons, pure poison.

"I fail to see the relevance," said Kimblee coldly. "She was a creature of integrity and duty. I am honoring her memory."

Atlas sneered at the gravestone. "She was Mustang's mott. I expect the bastard kept her around for one reason and one reason alone." He peered sidelong at Solf, eyes narrowing in consideration. “I know you're not out here doin' your keenin', Kimblee. What could ye possibly hope to find here? The dead tell no secrets.”

"There is no one here left to talk,” said Kimblee quietly. “Most of the boxes beneath this earth are empty."

"Aye... burial at sea. All this," he gestured to the Arcadia cemetery, "is just smokescreens, innit?"

"Putting a body in a box as a keepsake so that mortals might cling to their dearly departed even after everything that made the person who they were has rotted away –– it retains little sense to me. I have always been of the mind that graveyards are for the living, not the dead.”

"You're a real ray of sunshine, Kimblee. A right Section-Eight."

"Tell me," said Kimblee, picking idly at a perfect fingernail, "why did you kill her?"

Atlas hooked his thumbs in his braces. "Care to repeat that, my son?"

"Gladly... I was laboring under the impression that you intended to use Miss Hawkeye's life to negotiate for Mustang’s plasmid. And yet here you are... you have what you wanted, and Miss Hawkeye is still dead."

"Problem with that?" Kimblee sensed in Frank Fontaine a distrust, an uneasiness. An antagonism, which, because it was instinctive –– and, admittedly, warranted –– was irremediable.

Kimblee's lip curled, exposing his very white teeth. "For a businessman reportedly of some repute, you seem to have a worryingly tenuous grasp of the concept of compacts.”

Atlas, patience wearing thin, rounded on Kimblee, stabbing a finger in his narrow face. "You listen to me, you little shit," he hissed, in an accent that was very much not working-class Irish, “I didn’t give a damn about that little whore. I didn’t give a damn about Mustang. The pair of ‘em signed their own death warrants the day they decided to fuck with Frank Fontaine."

"Then tell me... where is Roy Mustang now?"

Atlas crossed his arms, snorting in disdain. His brogue back, he muttered: "Slant-eyed wonder is probably swingin' from a scaffold somewhere."

The bravado left Kimblee unconvinced. Mustang's absence made Atlas squirm and Ryan sweat, but they had all heard the rumors... about Mustang, about his two missing men.

And about the former Fontaine Futuristics scientist, Brigid Tenenbaum

Ryan Industries, her employer after Fontaine's alleged death, had tried to cover up her strange behavior, but after her renunciation of the Little Sister Program became public, she was labeled a madwoman in the city papers. Tenenbaum soon disappeared from the public eye all together. 

Perhaps of a more principle concern, the Little Sisters themselves were vanishing in droves, squirreled out from under Ryan's nose. The remarkable concurrence of disappearances –– Mustang and his surviving subordinates as well as Tenenbaum and the Little Sisters –– communicated to Kimblee that some force was working to fight the turgid slick of conformity Rapture had become. It seemed as though the rebels found the chaos of transition, the vacuum of their souls left in the wake of young Miss Hawkeye's death, more difficult to accept than the tyranny they had known before under the thumb of Andrew Ryan. They would joyfully welcome chaos –– for it was less painful for them than numb indifference. Kimblee found himself searching for contempt and finding only grudging admiration. And he supposed a rebel was not in of himself a miserable or contemptible person... provided they believed in and followed the practices of the principles that presided over their insurrection. Kimblee maintained that there was nothing inherently contemptible in the act of revolution as such –– to wear the mantle of iconoclast in view of the ruling society did not in of itself lower the value of a person. In the diametrics of a mathematical system, it was not a direct correlation.

Conversely, there were two things Solf J. Kimblee had always observed to be in singular accord: aberration... and hypocrisy.

He chuckled, then... a quiet laugh that didn't quite leave his chest. "The power of choice is the result and sum of a person’s most fundamental convictions, wouldn't you agree? Tell me what a man intends to do, provided he finds himself caught between the storms of Ryan’s hypocrisy and Atlas's fanaticism, and I will tell you his entire philosophy of life.

“And in a way, those decisions in turn become reciprocal and self-determining, no? Acting upon one’s ideals is the ultimate trial by fire. I suspect Andrew Ryan has it right on certain accounts –– that it is well and good when our convictions are not based upon the “Thou shalts” and the “Thou shalt nots” of Scripture and instead on our own philosophies. We do not merely make choices...” Kimblee’s gaze finally flicked to Frank’s face, where impatience warred with barely restrained frustration and fury. Kimblee leered at him once again, but the smile failed to reach his storm-colored eyes...

“In the end, our choices make us.”

Atlas’s jaw hardened, and there was a low rumble in the back of his throat, almost a growl. “What the fuck are you on about, you spastic little headcase?”

Kimblee began to pace, slow and sedate, the grass susurrusing underfoot. He dragged his long, narrow shadow behind him like a man winding back the hands of a clock. Atlas, a shark bellying at the scent of blood, tracked Kimblee in his orbit.

“I don’t like to discredit my own experiences to any considerable degree, but I’ve found that people almost invariably arrive at their beliefs not on the basis of proof but on the basis of what they find attractive.

“Take you, for example, my delightful little ideologue... I imagine carving a crest of Riza Hawkeye’s blood was a very attractive prospect indeed. A sublime despair coupled with an almost divine audacity. You had the opportunity to sink your teeth into the throat of the woman who denied you her life. How could you resist?”

Atlas’s eyes searched Kimblee’s face with an intensity some would find disquieting, and Kimblee understood then that the man was systematically mapping out in his head every possible path forward and its resulting outcome.

He couldn’t help but admire Fontaine for it.

“Do you know what that decision to kill her made you?”

“I don’t give a rat’s ass, Kimblee,” he hissed, with a reflexive, regressive contempt.

But admiration would not save him.

“A hypocrite.” Kimblee’s lips elongated into a thin rictus grin. His long fingers tapped a tune against his trouser leg. He stalked closer, his movements feline, his violet eyes turning subdued ––lethal.

“And I do so despise hypocrites.”

Kimblee sprang from his slouch, his muscles snapping forward like elastic. He grabbed Frank Fontaine around the back of the head, the former's pale fingers splayed across the latter's scalp like a bleached starfish, and pulled him forward onto his outstretched palm, until he held Atlas's entire head between his hands. Kimblee's skin simmered like the coils of a hot plate and Fontaine froze.

"What the fuck are you doing?!"

Kimblee leaned closer, until his words feathered over the shell of Fontaine's ear, causing the flesh there to erupt in goosebumps. "Atlas," Kimblee murmured, "is not a person. Atlas is an idea."

"What––"

"The people believe in a cause... and the cause tells them what to believe. It's a cycle, you see... water flowing into the ocean, then up to the skies, and into rain, which falls and flows into the ocean again. Ideas have weight. They have momentum. Once an idea starts, it spreads and grows and gets heavier and heavier until it cannot be resisted.

"You, on the other hand, are but a man, Frank Fontaine. And Atlas has outlived you..."

Red lightning flashed from Kimblee's palms, pushing its inverted limbs down into Fontaine's flesh, his atoms fissioning into new unstable isotopes, the reaction releasing neutrons and an immense proliferation of binding energy...

There was a ripping, popping sound as the ligaments tore and the muscles shredded, and a soft, limpid crunch like a branch breaking under the weight of snow as Fontaine's skull shattered. Kimblee caught a flash of white, before the heavy spray of crimson and gray billowed up from under his deadly hands. The chain reaction of volatile molecules manifested as a red fountain from the serrated stump of Fontaine's throat, every plume and projection showing the thready struggle of the man's heart.

Kimblee grinned broadly, the motion catching as the thick clots of blood and brain matter cracked and creased the furrows of his face. He allowed Fontaine's body to fall, the hollow pipe of his spinal column cracking when it hit the ground. The meat landed with a wet, heavy sound –– a sound of finality. That son et lumière having sated Kimblee's immediate itch, he turned instead to more pressing concerns…

"Atlas is dead," intoned Solf J. Kimblee, to no one in particular. Then, he pitched his voice higher, wet his mouth and throat to lubricate its roughness, added a smokey lilt to his natural cadence, and, the words whisper quiet, recited in an immaculate Dublin brogue:

"Long live Atlas."

Kneeling, he removed a shortwave radio from the holster at the corpse's hip. He adjusted the frequency, settling on the dearly-departed Fontaine’s private channel, and held down the talk button...

"This is Atlas," he relayed, pressing the receiver close to his lips. "Would you kindly meet me at the Kashmir Restaurant?

 

 

"We're gonna give Rapture a New Year's Eve she'll not soon forget."

 

 

 

The End