How often have I lain beneath rain on a strange roof, thinking of home.
William Faulkner, As I Lay Dying
They travel by night - but the nights are short.
After the sun goes down, the desert becomes shockingly cold. Ed remembers that much from his last journey here, years back. Back then, they rode in the daytime, and slept - or tried to - in the freezing night. When he told that to the desert traders he's travelling with now, they laughed their heads off.
Despite himself, he finds that he enjoys the cold, dry air; the strange, moonlit landscape of dunes and stubby trees; the conversations around him in a language he doesn't understand. Just two months ago, in another world, he and Al had planned to make this very trip, after everything was over. After the right people won and the two of them could get started on their new great project: finding the roots of alchemy, to rethink it from the start.
To think victory really could be that easily won: he was so naïve. They can still win, he tells himself. Even if you have to wade through rivers of mud. They'll keep fighting. Ed just has to keep up his end of the bargain. Right now, fighting on for Ed means getting to the capital of Xing to let the Emperor know what's really going on in Amestris, how it could endanger the whole world - and to ask for his help. Which means getting to Xing first. Which means getting up every day, and doing this.
Every night, in the last few hours of their nocturnal ride through the desert, the sun will creep into the sky and slowly get going on its daily task of roasting Ed from the shoulder down. Even with every scrap of his automail covered in loose cotton, and even with only a couple of hours in full sun a day, it's bad enough. In the couple of weeks they've been travelling, it's gone from unpleasant, to downright painful, to pain so exhaustingly bad Ed can't rouse himself to complain about it any more. He doesn’t even have enough energy to fret about the potential awkwardness of travelling in close quarters with his ex-girlfriend.
Ed thinks about Al and about Roy. Did they get away? He has a vague sick feeling, and he reaches for the energy to dispel it with a firm talking to (they're okay because they have to be, Al's a genius for surviving, Roy's a cunning bastard) - but he can't summon it up. Ed hates the heat, he hates feeling this shitty, he hates the way it sucks away his mind and his energy, the determination he needs. He tries to rally himself as they break camp, helps out as he can, and is shooed off when he stumbles. Then he lies under canvas and sleeps badly.
The days pass like a fever. Then it's evening. He wakes, takes some hard sheep’s cheese and bread for breakfast, and then they ride on.
Roy's horse has a low opinion of him.
It lets him know at the earliest possible opportunity. Five minutes into their ride, it slows to a stop, ignoring the nudges of Roy's heels, and starts to steadily chomp the grass at the side of the trail.
Roy's companion tuts. "Give him a little kick," she says. Roy still doesn't know her name, or what she does for a living; she wouldn't say. Something outdoors - a farmer? A horse breeder? - he guesses. She's a stocky blonde woman in her forties with a weathered face and an impish smile.
Roy tries a gentle kick. The horse ignores him.
The woman circles around, rides alongside Roy, leans over, and gives the horse a firm slap on its flank. "Go on, Graham!"
"The horse is called Graham?" says Roy. And as if offended, the horse takes off at a canter. Roy twitches the reins to slow it down, and it responds by attempting to upgrade the canter to a gallop.
Right, thinks Roy to himself, tightens the reins, and squeezes the horse's middle with his legs. After a moment, it slows its pace to a trot, then - when Roy doesn't let up - to a walk.
"He can be a bit of a naughty one," says the woman, riding alongside him again.
"Honestly, I'm really good with horses, normally," says Roy.
"Let me guess," says the woman, "you normally only ride in military processions, yes?" Roy raises his eyebrows and nods. "Those horses are handpicked, you know, and then trained until they move like clockwork. Graham's a farmhorse. A cheeky farmhorse."
They ride on in silence for a few minutes. Every so often, Graham spots some thin grass off to the edge of the trail and attempts to take a snack break, and Roy reins him back in. The sun is low now, nearly setting. The air is crisp and clear, and they've climbed high enough to have a fine view of the whole valley and the landscape beyond: stone crags and green fells, dark lakes far below them, little villages clustering along the sides of the valley. Far below them, the lakes are almost black.
"That's Green Pike," the woman says, pointing to a ridge ahead of them. "We're headed around behind it." It's the first that Roy's been told of his destination. The people helping him seem to operate on a constant need-to-know basis, even with each other.
"This is a beautiful part of the country," Roy says. "I always meant to visit."
"It's home," the woman says. She invests the word home with a great deal of feeling.
A few minutes later, as the sun is setting red and the air is growing chilly, they reach their destination: a cottage at the edge of a meadow that's cradled between two peaks. As they ride up, a man and a dog are herding sheep into a big enclosure. The woman halloas, and the man waves.
By the cottage, Roy dismounts and the woman takes Graham's reins. Roy gives him a pat on the side of the neck, and he makes a contemptuous-sounding, snuffly horse noise. "Thank you," he says to the woman. "I'll remember."
She just nods. "Good luck to you," she says, and then she's off.
The man welcomes him into the cottage. Inside, it's tiny, it's absolutely full of children, and it smells like cooking food. Roy suddenly realises he's ravenous.
As Roy eats the leftovers they ladle out for him, the shepherd and his wife tell Roy about the year the military requisitioned half their season's mutton, told them they'd be compensated, and never delivered. It took them years to recover from the loss. The shepherd's wife tells Roy her father died of a heart attack the day after Eclipse Day. He files it all in his memory. He has lists upon lists now: the people who've helped him, the troubles this state has given them, the shape of this new movement which has seemed to spring up so suddenly. A string of people he’s never met before are staking everything on the hope of a new Amestris, and it seems they’ve decided Roy and his people are their best bet for it. Roy had enough promises to keep before all this, yet here he is, accumulating debt after debt. He hopes he’ll be in a position to pay them.
Lying exhausted in the attic bedroom they've given him, Roy marks his progress on the imaginary map he carries in his head. So much further today towards the river Isar. Beyond the great river is Briggs territory: Fort Briggs, and with it the only part of the military Hakuro hasn't yet been able to subdue. The gathering place for Amestris' government in exile. He doesn't know how many of his people have made it there, are still making their way there. Roy just has to get to the river.
In his exhaustion, Roy drifts more easily to sleep than he should do. He refuses to let himself go though, any night, without thinking of each of them, in turn. Riza. His mother. His sisters. Havoc. Breda. Fuery. Ross. Miles. Alphonse. Ed. He can hear and see them all in his head, vital and strong. But it's Ed who's a sense-presence he can't shake, a ghost in his bed. He can remember exactly how Ed's hair smells, the cool heaviness of his automail leg, the warmth of his left hand on Roy's back.
Roy drifts to sleep and imagines Ed, whole and sweet, tangled there with him, his slow breaths ruffling Roy's hair.
Al loops the scarf tighter around his neck, tucks it into his work overalls, and pulls his cap down lower. It's getting colder at night.
"Postal special!" someone calls from the train platform. The creak of the brakes drowns out everything else for a few moments as the great steam train slows to a halt.
"Thirteen minutes, five hundred mailbags, Jim!" says one of his co-workers, clapping him on the shoulder. "You'd better look lively."
Al follows the surge of mail workers to the platform, and takes up a position by one of the many carts full of mailbags. He picks one up, throws it into the opened goods car; turns, picks another, does it again. His heart hammers for reasons that have nothing to do with the exertion. From the corners of his eyes, he tries to survey the platform. He sees railway officials, a couple of local civilian police officers. He can't see any military police; but then again, if he did, it would barely be suspicious. The country is in a state of emergency, after all.
When Al tried the roads east, to the desert and to Xing, he found them blocked. They're blocked because of Brother: Al knows this for sure, because he's seen the wanted posters. A powerful relief: if they're searching for him, they don't have him. If they don't have him, he must be fine. Brother is supremely resourceful, and he's been on the run before. Al trusts in his ability to survive.
But what about everyone else? Al tries not to think of everyone else for now. The roads east are blocked. So he's heading south. South to Aerugo, where Al will hopefully find Havoc and Catalina, if they succeeded; and where he can get a ship to Xing.
This particular strategy for getting south took a while to come together. When it became obvious his planned route was impossible, he lay low for a while, and his friends tried to come up with another way round. Annoyingly enough, they did this independently of him. Leave it to us, they'd say. Just stay safe while we work it out. Al hates being passive and he hates to see other people take risks for him - but his face, too, is on those posters. The army are everywhere. If he steps out into the street, he's a dead man. So he has to trust his new friends, in this new movement that doesn't yet have a name.
So now here he is. He's Jim. Jim has dark brown hair (dyed in a bathtub) and a strong Eastern accent (Al’s own childhood voice, exaggerated), and he works on the night mail - at least for the next two days. Only one person knows who he is here: Louie, his guide. Louie is somewhere in his thirties, his parents are Aerugan immigrants, and he likes to read history. That's nearly all Al knows about him. They’ve hardly had a chance to talk, and he’s rapidly getting the sense that this new resistance movement likes to do everything on a need-to-know basis.
This way, with luck and with help, Al can smuggle himself to the border. And then? Well, either his friends have thought of something - or Al will have to look after himself, and find a way.
Al turns and hefts another mailbag, throws it into the train carriage. Turn, lift, throw. Turn, lift, throw.
Roy is running. Head down, he sprints along the edge of a field. He glances up at the horizon occasionally, to see how close he's getting to what he's aiming for: a large wood which begins up a rise. He doesn't even know if he's still being followed. Looking around would just slow him down. So - head down, thigh muscles burning, eyes on the path ahead - he runs.
At first, he ran without aim, hoping only to shake his pursuers somehow. He'd waited half an hour for his contact, in the back room of the little village pub. She was supposed to be there when he took the back way in. That's all his previous guide had told him, when he dropped Roy off at the edge of the village just after dawn. Roy could hardly leave the room - so he just waited, an unpleasant tension brewing in his stomach. After half an hour and many debates with himself, he knew beyond doubt that something had gone wrong. So he did what his last guide had warned him so severely not to do. He pushed open the room's door, and slipped out into the corridor.
From the corridor, he listened for a moment to the hubbub in the pub's front parlour - and then he realised.
At seven o'clock in the morning, a pub should be empty.
It only took a few moments more to confirm his suspicions. A few snatched words of banter told him the voices were soldiers for sure. The noise, the laughter, the indefinable air of tension told him something else: these soldiers were waiting for the call to action. Roy's mind worked fast. They couldn't know he was in this building, or they wouldn't be waiting. Were they hunting for him? Was it coincidence? Had his contact been taken, or had she realised the pub was no longer safe? In the end, none of it mattered for the next few minutes. Now, he just had to get out.
So he ran. Careful steps out the back door of the pub. A crowd of military vehicles on the road in front of the pub. How could he not have heard their arrival? He hadn't slept the previous night. He couldn't possibly have dozed off, at a time like this? This is the sort of thing Riza (who must be, must be safe) would never let him hear the end of.
He stuck to the wall of the pub, noted the building was far from surrounded, that it looked on to the fields. He ran. And, some time in the first minute, someone noticed. Shouts. Warnings to halt, which of course he ignored. Then gunfire.
Roy hates to run. The temptation to break his cover, to turn and snap and fight back, is overwhelming. He's stood alone against far more soldiers than this in his time. However, breaking his cover, he repeats to himself, might let him win this battle, but it'll also call down the entire Amestrian army. He can't stand against an entire army; and even if he could win, the thing would be monstrous. His lizard brain wants so badly to fight; but Roy won’t let it rule him. If he can get away with it, Roy doesn't want to roast even one poor fucker of a conscript. He also doesn't want to destroy his chance of getting to the river, which so many people have risked so much to make possible now. So against all his instincts, Roy continues to run.
This countryside is hilly and well-wooded. It's easy for one man to lose himself. Roy can hear shouts echoing around the fields and hills now. They may have lost his trail, but they haven't given up. Somehow, though, he's managed to reach the edge of the smallish wood on the hill.
Inside the wood, his pace slows necessarily. The trail he follows is half-overgrown with nettles, which he displaces carefully, hoping not to leave marks of his passing. His jacket snags once on a bramble; he yanks it clear, but a patch of the lining remains tangled. After a few precious seconds trying to pull it off, he has to move on. Burning the scrap would leave a still more obvious mark of his presence. So he just keeps moving. He's heading into the heart of the woods, where the air darkens. It's quieter now. Roy is hyper-aware of his own noises: his crunching of twigs and leaves underfoot; the rustling as he pushes ferns and nettles aside; his own breaths, quickened and harsh.
Roy pauses for a moment, to listen and look around him. In the green light of the woods, he can't see any sign of another human being. He can hear stray birdsong; occasional forest sounds that could be anything. And -
There are voices. He listens again. The source of the voices is to his left, and now he can hear sounds too. People: quite a few of them.
As quickly and quietly as he can, Roy moves away from the voices, listening hard as he does so. He can't shake the feeling, though, that the voices aren't getting fainter - in fact, they sound closer than ever. He stops, momentarily. Then he realises. The voices aren't just coming from behind him. There are people ahead too. Then it hits him like a sledgehammer: they've surrounded the woods. Of course they have. It's what Roy himself would do, after all.
Now what? He's cornered. To go to this much trouble, whoever's in charge of the soldiers must know or suspect by now that they've netted Roy himself. So. If he's cornered, it could be that he has no option but to blow his cover. Roy takes a breath, reaches into his jacket, and snaps the threads that separate the lining from the cloth. From inside, he takes his gloves. They're on in a moment, and he scans the woods around him warily, his finger and right thumb pressed together.
No. He's an absolute idiot. He's standing in a forest. He's standing in a forest, about to start a fire.
Oh hell. Now he really is sunk.
Roy knows fire, knows it intimately. He can start an inferno and stop it dead, under the right conditions. These aren't the right conditions. It's been dry for days, and the dying leaves on the trees are like tinder. A forest fire would blaze uncontrollably. It would move horribly fast, faster than a man could run in these dense woods.
The voices are closer. Roy looks around for cover, not that cover will buy him anything more than a very little time.
He's standing right by a huge oak tree, he realises. It's broad, old and twisted. Perhaps there's a spot in the misshapen trunk that will give him a moment? Then he looks up.
For the second time in under a minute, Roy Mustang nearly laughs at his own thickheadedness. Then, quicker and surer than he thought he could, he has started to climb the tree.
Nothing happens. Nothing happens, and as Al clambers into the carriage with his workmates around him, his heart lifts. One stage down. The train is an express. It'll get him most of the way to Dublith tonight. Then the next night, the Southern Night Mail will do the rest and take him to the border. He hopes.
Mario, whom he's only known a couple hours, claps him on the back. There seems to be a lot of back-slapping in this job. "All right there, Jim?" Then he waves a cigarette packet and indicates the end of the train carriage by nodding at it.
Al doesn't smoke, but he joins them anyway. The cool night air and the darkened countryside rush past. With Mario there's an older guy Al’s met before - Phil - and a girl he hasn’t met. She’s very short and very young indeed. When she lights up her cigarette, Al can't help but raise a scandalised eyebrow - how the hell old is she, anyway, fourteen?
"I'm fifteen," she says, scowling at him. "What?"
Al briefly wants to say, you're too young to be working nights and working the railways and smoking! Go back to school and get your certificate! Then he blinks, and snorts with laughter at himself.
"What?" says the girl.
Great, now he just looks insane. Rather than explain to the girl what he himself was doing at fifteen years old, he just says, "It's just, I'm only three years older than you. I guess I'm turning into an old man now."
"Eighteen is finished," the girl says. "Nothing to do but get married and die."
"Thanks, Beth," says Mario. Then he goes back to enjoying his smoke quietly, staring at the tracks receding behind them.
The door clangs open. Louie joins them. "Hey," says Al.
"Hey, Jim," says Louie. He pulls a leather pouch from his top pocket, takes a hand-rolled cigarette out of it, and lights up.
"There you go again, Louie," says Beth. "Why do you smoke that crap?"
"Why do you smoke that crap?" Louie counters. "You don't wanna know all the nasty stuff they stick in commercial cigarettes. This is just pure old-fashioned tobacco." He waves his little cigarette expressively. It drops from his hand, and bounces straight off Al's shin.
"Ow!" Al squeaks. He bends instinctively to clap a hand over his shin. At the same time, Louie hollers "Shit! Sorry, Jim. You okay, man?" He bends to grab the cigarette from the ground.
"I'm fine, don't worry, I'm fine," Al says (although truthfully, it stings horribly). Louie finds the cigarette and straightens just before Al does, while Al is still babbling - and on the way up, he looks straight at Al, and mouths, problem.
Roy can't remember when he last climbed a tree; but it isn't hard at all to haul and step from foothold to handhold to foothold. It's surprisingly easy to do all kinds of things when they might help you avoid getting killed.
He finds a decent, well-covered perch after a few seconds. This tree was a stroke of luck. Its branches are broad - particularly the one Roy is sitting along, back to the trunk and one hand steadying himself. It's old. Roy can only see down to the ground if he leans forward. He hopes he's equally well-hidden up here.
It's not a moment too soon. The noises of the soldiers fill the woods, from here, and in moments more, footsteps and shouts sound from directly below Roy. He hears padding and animal panting: they must have dogs. Shit.
Roy has worked with tracker dogs; he has no illusions about what this development does to his chances. He holds himself utterly still. His body is alive with the threat of battle, singing with it; but for whatever it's worth right now, he knows how to stay calm. He breathes slow and deep, and listens.
"Spread out," he catches someone call. "We need these woods combed. Keep moving, keep moving!"
Someone else says, "Whatcha got there, girl? You got something?" Something sniffs and whines below him. Through the patchwork of leaves, Roy sees a dog at the base of the tree: pacing, agitated and confused.
Shitfuckshit, he thinks, then, his first impulse, I'm not going to do it. If they try to shoot me here I'll burn the place down, better that than dying like a rat in a trap - His impulse is stupid, he realises a moment later. That doesn’t help him either.
"She got something?" says someone.
"She didn't alert," says the dog handler. "Wait up." A moment later, he sees the handler crouching below the tree. She holds out a glass jar, and the dog sniffs at it with enthusiasm. It's a sample: something with Roy's scent on it, most likely taken from his flat.
Roy's heart attempts to jump out of his throat and make a break for it.
The dog snuffles and sniffs - but somehow, unbelievably, it doesn't bark.
The handler calls other handlers over, they bring other dogs. Roy sees the dogs pacing to and fro in the area around the tree, sniffing the ground, looking. "So, the dogs aren't finding anything," says the first handler, "and we got no visible trail. I don't think that guy was him."
Roy once saw a tracking dog follow a man's scent from the edge of the suburbs to a rush hour subway platform in the heart of Central. How the hell is this possible? How can the dogs not be barking their heads off, when Roy is mere feet away and they have a sample of his scent, some scrap of material full of sweat and dead skin cells, swiped from his laundry basket or -
Ed, spending nearly every night at Roy's apartment in Central. Ed, with his aggravating habit of pulling off his socks, dropping them on the floor, and leaving them there. Roy's pointed out the laundry basket a yard away a dozen times, and Ed's gone uh-huh, and carried right on dropping his socks on the floor.
Ed was expert at slipping past the obvious spies Hakuro liked to station outside Roy's building. Hakuro can't have known Ed was sleeping with him. And now, here, half a dozen tracker dogs are sniffing at Ed's discarded socks, trying to follow the scent of a man who must, Roy hopes, be halfway to Xing by now -
"You still makin' your mind up, girl?" says one of the soldiers, sing-song.
"Don't distract a working dog, Parker," the handler says.
"Don't get your panties in a bunch," says Parker. "Why are we stuck with this stupid job anyway? Can't Trebuchet just alchemy the fucker out of the woods? If he's here. Which I bet you anything he's not."
Ah, Trebuchet. Combat alchemist, second-rater, loyal servant to whoever happens to be running the country this week. Roy dearly hopes the troops are giving him a hard time.
"It doesn't work like that," the dog handler says. "You can't just alchemy stuff, dude."
"How should I know?" says Parker. "It's all just creepy lightning bullshit. Trebuchet can hunt out Mustang, fuck me if I want to get roasted -"
"Where now?" says a new voice.
"Comb the woods," says the first handler. "We got a perimeter, our runner's in here somewhere. Even if it's not Mustang, maybe a rebel, could know something useful -"
A whistle blasts through the woods.
"We got something! Move it!" bellows the first dog handler. "That way!" The air fills itself with the sounds of trampling feet, breaking vegetation, shouted banter and complaints. What can they have found? Could it be the scrap from his jacket? So much serendipity today. A minute more, and the sounds fade out. A minute, and Roy holds himself still, keeps on holding himself still.
And then: unbelievably, incredibly, they're gone.
Roy has gotten away with it. He has gotten away with it, out of all possible reasons in the world, because Edward Elric is incapable of picking a dirty sock up off the floor.
If, please, they meet again, share a house and a bed again, then he can never tell Ed about this astonishing stroke of luck: because then Ed will never, ever again pick up a sock from the floor.
Roy wants so badly to laugh; but he doesn't risk that. Instead, he lets himself exhale.
Somewhere in the endless Eastern desert, they've just pitched camp for the day. Ed is lying around in his usual sweaty, sickened stupor, hoping to drift off to sleep, when Winry marches into the tent they share carrying her knapsack, her water bottle, and a pile of cloths.
"How do you have this much energy?" Ed manages.
"Because two of my limbs aren't roasting me alive?" says Winry, pulling things from her knapsack.
"Have some sympathy," says Ed sourly.
Winry looks at him for a moment, then shakes her head. She lays a cloth by Ed's sleeping roll, and starts pulling tools from it.
Ed frowns at it all, trying to put it together.
Winry puts her hand to his forehead for a moment, and then undoes her flask and hands it to him. Ed sips carefully. He has to school himself pretty hard not to gulp the whole thing.
Winry says, "We're camped by a well today. Were you too out of it to even notice? So you can drink it all, just do it slowly, okay?"
Waterwaterwater, says Ed's brain, and despite what she says, he drains at least half of it in the next few seconds. Then he registers Winry's full array of automail tools, laid out next to him. He blinks.
"It's coming off, Ed," she says. "It's making you sick."
"Are you sure it's gonna make a difference?" Ed says. "The brace is the worst, not the arm."
"It's all coming off. The arm, the leg, both braces. Everything but the internal stuff."
Despite himself, Ed feels blearily panicked at the thought of losing his arm and leg, even temporarily. He hates being ill, how it makes you feel like a kid, like you're helpless and want to cry. "How'm I gonna ride?" he manages.
"Mish says he reckons you could still grip okay in the saddle with only one knee,"says Winry, "and I agree. You can do most of the work with your thighs." Mish is a trader about three years old than them. He speaks good Amestrian, and they - well, mostly Winry - chat with him sometimes while Ed zombies his way through another night's ride. "We can give you a hand getting on and off the camel if you need it. Okay?"
Ed knows that tone of Winry's well enough to recognise that, despite the question and the reassuring smile, he doesn't exactly have a choice about this. Ed notices that she's already laid his arm out and started on opening it up. He feels too ill to even grumble much: so he just lays back and lets her work.
The arm's off in only a couple of minutes. It's always slightly weird to see it lying there without him. Winry wraps it neatly in a roll of cloth and lays it to one side. Then she takes a small screwdriver and leans in to work on the brace.
"You're not yourself," she says softly as she loosens the first screws. "Mish thought you were depressed. He said to me you've got plenty to be upset about, but he doesn't know you like I do."
"I'm not depressed," Ed says. "I'm just boiled."
"I know," Winry says. She takes up her wrench, and unscrews the big bolt under Ed's collarbone with a few deft twists. "No matter how bad things get - you only ever get quiet and sad like this when you're really sick. Ah - there we go."
The brace lifts under her fingers, and then it's gone.
The relief of the pressure is sudden, and astonishingly acute. Ed exhales. Then he looks at his truncated shoulder. The scar tissue looks red, sweaty and swollen, and it smells like it needs a damn good wash. He wrinkles his nose and cycles his shoulder, experimentally. It's sore and tender, but it feels so light.
"Better?" He nods enthusiastically, and Winry smiles. She takes a wet washcloth to his shoulder for a few moments, and scrutinises it. "Okay," she says after a moment, "I was right. You have burned yourself, but it's actually not so bad. This could have gotten really nasty if I'd waited longer. But if we leave the brace off until we're out of the desert, it should heal up fine."
Ed sucks down some water and cycles his shoulder some more. "Is the well from, like, an underground river?" he asks. He's thinking about maybe plunging his whole head into a bucket of water. That could be good.
"I dunno," Winry says, "but whatever it is, it's pretty much unlimited." She jerks her thumb outside the tent. "It's like a water fight out there right now."She redirects the thumb at Ed, and stage-whispers, "You could do with a good wash."
"Well, ditto," says Ed. Winry flicks the washcloth at him, and they both snort.
"Right," she says, "now let's do your leg."
Winry works fast; when someone shouts "Hello!" in Amestrian from outside the tent, five minutes later, the leg and its brace are off, and Winry is packing everything up while Ed remembers how to sit up right with one leg. He feels oddly exposed. He’s not used to people seeing him like this.
"Come on in, Mish," says Winry.
"Ed!" says Mish. "You've lost weight!"
Ed narrows his eyes. "Shut up, smartass."
Winry and Mish both burst out laughing. Ed looks from one of them to the other. "What's so funny? Jeez, kick a guy when he's down."
Winry manages to school her giggles for long enough to give Ed a quick, fierce hug. "Welcome back, Ed," she says as she lets him go. "Mish, this is Ed's actual personality, I'm afraid. Don't let him give you any crap."
"That's okay," Mish says. "Now if he's an asshole, I only need one finger to push him over."
“Oho,” says Ed, “we’ll see about that.” And he gives Winry and Mish his biggest grin.
It's a horrible wait, the next five minutes: while Beth snarks and Mario smokes quietly and Al watches Louie for cues about what the hell's going on, and what he should do next. When had they got on the train? How hadn't he known? Fuck, it must have been that stop in the middle of nowhere. It was only a couple of minutes. Louie had said it was nothing. Eventually, Mario throws his cigarette stub onto the tracks and wanders back in.
"I need to take a leak," Al announces.
"Ew," says Beth, sounding way younger than fifteen, and then she disappears inside too with a casual wave of her hand.
"Okay," says Louie, once the door's closed, "there's military police on the train."
"Okay," says Al. "Right." He pulls in a breath. "It might be nothing to do with me, you know," he says. "What do you think, I could just keep a low profile? Could you find something for me to do where I'd be out of the way?"
"Maybe," says Louie, "but seriously - I reckon they’re probably after you. There's a State Alchemist on board, at least one. Alfred says he saw one of those pocket watches."
"Okay," says Al. "So. Okay. I wonder who the alchemist is? Because you know, I can probably actually -"
"I know who you are." Louie cuts him off. "But if you blow our cover -"
Al nods. "Okay," he says, mainly to buy himself thinking time.
"You keep saying okay," Louie says. "How about fucking hell?"
"Fucking hell," Al repeats. "Hey, you're right, that felt good! Also, I just had an idea."
“Neck and neck!” shouts Mish in Amestrian.
“No way!” yells Ed back - then, Winry’s camel kicks up a cloud, and she’s ahead of him. She punches the air.
Mish laughs, and shouts, “Again! I’m putting my money on Winry today.” He makes a noise at his camel, overtakes them both effortlessly, and half-turns in the saddle to observe their pace.
This is turning into a daily game. They compete and he referees. Once Ed got used to the oddly wobbly, lilting motion of the camel, it’s easier than he thought it would be to ride one-handed. This has got to be the longest Ed's spent with his arm off for years, and it’s oddly freeing, to have his shoulder so light. He hasn’t even fallen off that many times, considering. And hey, at least he’s learning a new skill.
And on that, his camel very nearly weaves right into another trader, a middle-aged woman with a heavily loaded camel. Ed’s own camel steers aside before he can correct its course. “Sorry!” he yells. “I mean, ushamisi!”
The woman tuts at him and shakes her head. Then she turns to Mish and yells to him, a long, angry-sounding stream of words. He calls back; then rides up alongside her, waving a hand. Ed and Winry drop back while they talk. The conversation is way longer than Ed would have expected from the thing itself. Ed and Winry exchange glances. Leave it, Winry mouths.
They hit their camp an hour later, in the middle of another glorious red desert sunrise. Ed’s getting to recognise what the camping spots will look like: a few scrubby trees, one of those unobtrusive desert wells.
As Ed’s camel kneels, he holds on hard to the saddle with his left hand. Mish, already dismounted, jogs over. He leans over to Ed on his right side, and slips an arm around Ed’s waist to support him as he slides down. Ed gets his balance on the right leg, then retrieves his home-made crutch from one of the camel’s side bags, tucks it under his left armpit and stands up straight.
Ed’s pretty pleased with the crutch. He’d wanted to transmute the automail, but Winry had actually stood between him and it with her arms folded, so that had been that. Mish’s cousin found him a broken tent roof pole, and the wood turned out to be hard enough and supple enough that he hardly had to mess with the molecular structure. From what he and Winry have picked up, those of the traders they’ve spoken with don’t seem too hard on alchemy. But still, he doesn’t know how much they know about him, and if this would be a bad time to mention who he is. In the end, Ed transmuted the crutch discreetly and guiltily in the quiet of their tent. After a couple of days of tinkering and redesigns, it was perfect. It even splays out at the base so as not to sink into the sand.
Getting his crutch skills back has been a longer process. But with some practice and some coaching from Winry, Ed’s getting pretty agile with it. It’s a challenge to weave his way through the hubbub of the camp, nodding to the cheeky kids who like to yell “hello” in Amestrian at him, stopping for the slow-moving old ladies to whom everyone gives way.
Mish crosses in front of them, carrying a roll of cloth on one shoulder. He turns back and waves, then points at the well where people are already lining up with pails and water bottles.
“Zanraki?” tries Ed.
“No, zahn-raki,” corrects Winry. They learnt the word for ‘well’ yesterday.
“Both wrong!” Mish shouts. “Zan-rahki!”
“Zanraki,” tries Ed, lowering his voice because he’s starting to feel like a doofus.
“Zanrahki,” says Winry.
“Better,” says Mish, and weaves off into the crowd, leaving them to it.
“So, what was up with that lady?” says Ed to Winry, a few minutes later, as he hops and kicks out the rug in their tent.
Winry shrugs and drops her bed roll onto the rug, following it up with Ed’s.
Ed nods. He’s currently biting on one end of the string tying up his bedroll so he can undo it one-handed. The knot gives; he spits out the string and starts fiddling it undone with his left hand. “I’m starting to think you’re right. Something’s up around here. Remember the railway?”
They’d passed it a couple of days ago, in the distance. Peering into the blinding glare of the sand, Ed had made out tiny figures standing on top of a bank of rocks, like a wall, a long line stretching above the dunes.
“What’s that?” Winry had called. “Is it another camp?” Ed had looked again, and saw carts on wheels on top of the line, and then, small but unmistakable, the outline of a locomotive engine.
“That’s the railway,” said Mish, and his voice was suddenly full of disgust. He leant to one side and spat. Then he urged his camel ahead in a gallop.
The next time they saw him, as they came into camp, he was laughing and joking again, as if it hadn’t happened. They didn’t mention the railway again.
And then there were incidents like today. It had taken them a while to notice: Ed longer, between his illness and the fact that these things sometimes sailed over his head. At first they’d thought it was just Mish’s fluent Amestrian that had led to him hanging out with them so much. But it was starting to seem sometimes like Mish was acting as a buffer between them and the rest of the traders.
Whatever’s going on, things around here are more complicated than they look.
He has been sitting on the same high branch of the old oak tree since before eight o' clock in the morning. It's probably unfortunate right now that his watch is still working, and so he knows just how long he's been here. After several hours of periodic experimenting, he found a position that didn't require too much effort to stay aloft. Even so, his muscles ache and his ass keeps getting numb. Staying here is no longer remotely comfortable.
He never intended to stay here so long. It seemed far more prudent to slip away from this spot as soon as the soldiers had relaxed their cordon on the woods. However, after he'd waited the two hours he judged sensible, he overheard the conversation of two men marching through the woods with a bag of rabbits. Did you see the goddamn army are still here, one hunter remarked to the other. How the hell many of them do they need anyway to hunt down one guy? They got the Stag and Horses closed, for the duration, one of them said. And I asked him, how long would that be, and he said, long as it takes, can you believe that? The men had walked on, with a few choice curses thrown at the military's closing of pubs and prevention of lunchtime beer.
For the duration. It seemed prudent to lay low a while longer. Roy couldn't leave the forest. And he couldn't hope for any better cover here than what he had right now. So here he'd stayed. All day, unfortunately, seemed like a minimum sensible period to keep himself hidden.
So here he waits. The combination of intense boredom and impending doom reminds him sharply of wartime. He supposes that it is wartime, now. Deprived of comrades, cards, and books, Roy attempts to fall back on his mind. He's run through his lists a dozen times. Every scenario he can think of, good and bad, which could be waiting for him beyond the river. Every person he loves and doesn't know the fate of: in other words, nearly all of them. Every person who's taken risks to help him in this journey. Roy's considered his plans, his debts and his options. He's thought about death; he's thought about life; he's tried to remember all the lyrics to "That's All, Brother" and only succeeded in getting the song stuck in his head.
He's watched, too. As he stays still and silent, the life of the woods began to go on around him, ignoring him. Birds of a dozen species he can't name, perching around him. Rabbits at the foot of the tree, scared away by a hunting fox. The last bees of summer buzzing in the air. Roy was quite enjoying it all. Then one of the birds shat on his jacket. Nature, Roy thinks. If we win, if it all works out, I'm going to enjoy nature from a safe distance in future. I'll take a couple of days off some time, spend them in a cottage up by the lakes. I'll watch the birds from the porch, with a cold glass of wine in my hand, and Ed sitting by me with his nose in a book. Maybe. If.
It's not until afternoon has given way to evening, the woods are darkening, and Roy's butt is numb beyond recovery, that he hears another human being.
He hears her from some distance away, because she's singing. She doesn't sound military; but still, he freezes. As she sounds closer, he leans out on his branch to peek through a small open patch. He sees a woman of at least fifty in a tweed cape, striding through the woods with a stout walking stick.
"The water is wide, I cannot get o'er," she sings. She's slightly off-key. "And neither have I wings to flyyy - But give me a booaaat, that can carry two -"
Roy realises very suddenly why she's singing. Wings to fly, that was the code phrase. It's his contact, here after all. And she's calling to him.
He doesn't call back out to her; he just takes a leap of faith, starts climbing down straight away. Twigs crack, leaves rustle. The woman looks up into the branches, her head tilted. Roy didn't realise until he started how tired his muscles are, from bracing himself so long. His legs shake as he reaches for a foothold - and then, so fast, down he goes.
He lands on his ass, in a huge drift of leaves. The woman stares at him, mouth open wide, for a moment. Then she sprints three paces to his side and kneels. "I say! Brigadier General, are you all right?"
Roy thinks to check. He shifts his butt. He's sore, but everything moves. "I - think I am," he says, looking back up at where he slipped. He looks up. It must have been at least twelve feet that he fell. "I must be peculiarly lucky today," he says, shaking his head.
"Luck!" says the woman, almost snorting. "Oh no. The good old man's looked after you, that's what!" She walks over to the old oak's thick trunk, and pats it affectionately while Roy attempts to pick himself up. "This is Old Barrowood. He's over a thousand years old, you know. These are his woods, nothing gets by him. I'm sure a thousand soldiers couldn't have found you once he'd decided to take care of you."
"Ah," Roy says, somewhat flummoxed. He picks himself up. His knees nearly buckle. Then he notices the little silver pentangle on the woman's tweed coat. Of course, she's the local priestess. "Mother?" he says. "I believe I was supposed to meet with you?"
"And so you did, after all," the woman says. "I'm Mother Olive Coburn." She drops her voice to a more discreet pitch. "How do you do, Brigadier General?" She shakes his hand vigorously. "And now, we should thank Old Barrowood and get on our way, sharp." She bows from the waist, and Roy copies her. He was raised without religion; he always gets the form wrong at times like these. "Lord Barrowood, thank you so very much for keeping the Brigadier General safe. And in turn we thank you, Great Mother, and you, Hornèd God, for watching over Old Barrowood and these woods today."
"Thank you," repeats Roy. He's thanking a tree. He feels like an idiot. But it's the right thing to do.
After nearly twelve hours up a tree, standing up straight is proving surprisingly difficult. When Mother Coburn realises he's having trouble standing upright, she hands him her stick. As soon as she seems satisfied he's not about to keel over, she sets off at a brisk trot.
Illustration by hikaru_9. Go leave her some love here.
"Yes," says Mother Coburn emphatically. "Shipped out a couple of hours ago. Still, we'd best be a little stealthy. Did they see your face?"
Roy shakes his head.
"Someone I know informed the authorities, somewhat inaccurately, that he spotted someone who looks like you hitching out of town. Nice lad, lot of nerve."
Roy nods. "And you saw the army were here and didn't meet me?"
"Yes, they were surrounding the Stag and Horses when I was walking up. I hoped at first you'd seen them too and cleared off." Roy smiles and shakes his head. "How long were you up there for?" she asks.
"Since morning," Roy says.
"Poor old you," she says. "Never fear, we've a nice fat beef and ale pie to look forward to at home."
Somehow, Roy manages to quicken his pace.
As the trees start to get more sparse at the woods' edge, they reach a broad stream boarded by stepping stones. Mother Olive stops before they cross and reaches into her cloak. She pulls out what look like a set of pyjamas and a pair of slippers, folded flat. "All right," she says, "strip off."
"You need to scrub yourself in the stream. If the army came back, I'd like a gap in the trail that would otherwise head straight to my house."
"It's all right, they had a false scent sample," Roy says. "No need."
Mother Olive gives Roy a look that reminds him vaguely of his mother. "Brigadier General," she says, "we don't take risks on supposition, do we?"
"I suppose not," Roy says.
"No need to worry," Mother Olive says. "I'm not embarrassed in the slightest!"
"That's not exactly -" Roy says, and stops. Mother Olive has already raised an eyebrow and turned her back.
The stream is, of course, freezing. Naked and mortified, Roy scrubs one limb at a time in the icy water. He thinks briefly of Ed's stories of washing in rivers in the dead of winter; at least he has the season on his side. Finished, he shakes himself like a dog, and pulls on the thin, overly large pyjamas. They're wet immediately. He feels as though he may as well be naked again.
"What about my old clothes?" Roy says, retrieving his gloves from the jacket. "It's open enough here that I could burn them. The fire would be a brief flash of light - would someone see that from here?"
"Only if we were very unfortunate," says Mother Olive. "Let's hope our good standing with Old Barrowood will help."
She gives him a reassuring smile, turns back to the wood and bows again. Roy ties his clothes and shoes into a bundle, concentrates, throws them into the air over the stream - and snaps. The blast of the heat slaps him in the face and half-dries him. The ashes wash away in the stream.
Then, very carefully, he negotiates wet stepping stones in slippers.
The village priests' house is everything Roy would have imagined from a detective novel. It's big and ramshackle, clearly built over several hundred years, and in severe need of some money spending on it. Mother Coburn hustles him in the back door, but still with far less stealth than she could have. Once inside, she toes off her walking shoes, steps into an old pair of slippers, and calls out. "William! William, is the pie in the oven yet?"
The scraping of a chair, and then a tall, gangly man in a cardigan appears from down the corridor. "Not yet, dear. I wasn't sure how long you were going to be. Alice is outraged that the revolution is delaying her supper - oh." He suddenly spies Roy, closes the gap between them in a few vigorous strides and is pumping his hand. "Brigadier General!" he says. "A real pleasure to meet you. I'm Father William Coburn. So good to see you safe, I must say -"
"Don't bother the man, William," says Mother Coburn. "He's been up a tree all day. Old Barrowood, in fact."
"Oh?" says Father Coburn. "Oh dear. I mean - how very fortunate." He chuckles. "He's a cunning old thing, isn't he?"
They're talking about the tree again. Roy tries to think of something appropriately respectful but not outrageously fake to say. He fails.
Then something occurs to him. "Listen, not to be rude, but I noticed you're sharing your names with me. I thought the protocol was that for your safety -"
"Oh, I know," says Father William. "Our feeling is that that's all rather silly. Not telling you our names might make us feel some vague sense of security, but we're still sheltering the most wanted man in Amestris. So why worry?"
"Besides," adds Mother Olive, "it seemed rude not to introduce ourselves properly. By the way, would you like a hot bath before dinner?"
Roy smiles hugely. "Yes, please. That would be marvellous." Safety, a hot bath and a hot meal. He has completely forgiven Mother Olive for the pyjamas. The Coburns are his favourite people today. They're wonderful. For them, he'll happily exchange pleasantries with a dozen trees.
He really, really hopes that helping him isn't going to be the death of them.
The hot bath is marvellous; the opportunity to shave off his scrappy and undignified two weeks' beard (attempted beard, Maes used to call it) is nearly as good. There are even clean clothes, an old shirt and pants of Father William's, rather too large for Roy but easily fixed with a clap.
The dinner table is rowdy. Along with the Coburns, there's their daughter Alice, their thirteen year old son Tom and an apprentice priest who's staying with them. Red wine is poured, beginning with a libation into a saucer. Then everyone chatters noisily and freely. Alice seems to have a lot of questions for Roy about Parliament and the Progressive Party. She tells him the party has been banned. Father William tells Roy about the hundreds of people who've been arrested at the universities. Roy thinks of his little sister Bao-Yu, a history grad student. He hopes she's managed to keep herself safe.
"I'm amazed at this business," Roy finds himself saying, as together they all clear the table and carry dishes and plates back to the kitchen. "I mean - all of you. We knew that so much of the country supported reform, but this - this movement - it's sprung up so very quickly. I wonder if you really need me at all?" says Roy with a grin. The moment after he's said it, he realises he was only half-joking.
Alice turns from the dishes, pulls something from her pocket, and puts it in his hand. It's a coin, a ten cen piece. Roy blinks, and turns it over. The stylised falcon on the back has had several crude lines chiselled on top of it: a triangle, the alchemical symbol for fire.
"A phoenix?" Roy says, at the almost the same time as Mother Olive says, "Just what do you think you're doing with that, young lady? No visible symbols, we made that rule for a reason."
Alice pouts. "Dave gave it to me," she says. Then, to Roy, "Yes, sir. It's a phoenix. People carry it, or, they graffiti it on walls and things."
"Over the last two weeks?" Roy is stunned.
He fingers the coin. "Because, alchemically speaking, it's a symbol of rebirth after destruction? Is this -"
"Of course it's a reference to you," says Father William. Roy looks down, then up. He didn't make this sign, he didn't know about it. For the last fortnight, Roy has had the impression that this movement for change he was attempting to spearhead has - not overtaken him, but that it's bearing him along, that it's at his back, the push of a vast wave. Sometimes he feels like a fragment, but he has talked enough to the people taking these risks to get him north to know that he's far more than that.
Father William says, "So, Brigadier General, we definitely need you. Is what you really mean, are you a leader to us, or just a symbol?"
"That wasn't the question I was asking -" Roy shakes his head, and laughs at himself. "But it's a good question."
"Symbols are interchangeable," Mother Olive says. "If I take Alice's coin, she can make herself another one. We can't make another you so easily."
"We went public with the plans for reform, us and our parliamentary allies. If we win, no more lifelong Fuhrers. Legislative power for parliament within two years, Presidential elections within five years. Reconstruction and home rule in Ishbal, peace talks in the East. So, 'leader' isn't really going to mean what it does now. If the people don't like me, they can kick me out without starting a revolution first."
"Well, exactly," Mother Olive says lightly.
Roy draws a breath. "I'll do my absolute best," he says, "I promise."
"You'd better," she says with a smile, "you're the first politician I've trusted in my life. Now, get some sleep. We're setting off at dawn tomorrow." Mother Olive's eyes crinkle up at the corners. "We're dropping off some gifts for a friend of ours, to use at Lady Isar's autumn equinox festival."
"Lady Isar?" Roy's ears prick up. "You mean -"
"Yes," says Mother Olive. "We're taking you to the river."
Illustration by alasse-mirimiel. Go leave her some love here.
"You okay?" he stage-whispers.
Louie just rolls his eyes and makes shoo-ing motions upwards. "Close it up already, man!" he whispers frantically.
Al nods and gives him the thumbs-up. The military have an alchemist on board. Al had better not leave a mark. He claps.
He goes a few miles in the dark like this, sitting cross-legged on the train roof, grabbing onto a couple of handholds he’s transmuted from the roof. The wind is cold, and the juddering of the train is hard on his butt, but he feels pleased with himself. They can search every corner of the mail train now, but they won't find Al - and Louie won't do anything to incriminate himself.
The train's an express. They'll go through the stations too fast for any night staff to spot Al, he decides, but he's pondering how he should get himself off the train - and abruptly he realises that ahead in the glare of the train's headlights, a hillside tunnel is rushing towards them.
"Fucking hell," Al says, because no one can hear, and because it made him feel better last time. Then he lays himself flat as he can, holds tight to his handholds, and screws his eyes shut.
“Madam Bibigul says, will you and your brother eat dinner with her tonight,” says the woman to Winry. It sounds like a statement, not a question. Madam Bibigul is Mish’s aunt, and she seems to be in charge around here. She always seems to be in her tent. Ed and Winry haven’t been invited before today.
“Thank you, we’d love to,” says Winry.
“Brother,” says Ed, after the woman is gone. Winry catches his eye and smiles wryly. Hearing brother still makes Ed feel kind of oogy. The traders had initially assumed he was Winry’s husband; Winry corrected them to ‘adopted brother’, and boy, was that weirder for being at least a quarter true.
Dinner (technically breakfast, Ed thinks, but actually dinner) begins and ends with tea - but then, what would you expect from a clan of tea traders? The woman who invited them pours black tea into little glasses on a tray from a great height, then offers it around to the room - first to Madam Bibigul, then to Winry, then Ed, then to everyone else. She crosses the room back and forth, delivering tea in some particular order that might be meaningful, but that Ed can’t work out.
The food turns out to be exactly the same as they usually eat in their own tent, sometimes alone and sometimes with Mish: sheep’s cheese, fried flat bread, sour pickled vegetables and chewy, savoury dried meat. It’s all pretty good stuff - although after weeks of the same meal twice a day, the sparkle is kind of wearing off for Ed.
Ed sits up cross-legged, or as near as you can get when one leg ends above the knee. The middle-aged guy sitting next to him keeps offering politely to tear Ed’s bread for him, and Ed keeps having to say no. He’s spent far more time with his arm off than the leg, over the years. He’s already mastered the one-handed bread tear: bottom two fingers hold the bread against the palm, index finger and thumb grab a chunk and pull.
“So,” says Ed to the guy next to him, “what’s up with that railway?”
Winry discreetly pinches him.
“The Xingese are building it,” the guy says. He doesn’t sound happy at all. Something is up with this railway, then. “It’s this new emperor, he has a thing for railways. I hear he’s building them all over Xing.”
“Like a little boy playing with trains,” says Mish. “Did you know he’s about fourteen?”
“He’s nineteen,” Ed says. “What’s the problem with it?” He can feel Winry’s disapproval radiating off her.
“We mean to say,” Winry cuts in, “we were wondering …”
From the other side of the tent, Madam Bibigul’s voice carries. Conversation in the room suddenly dies down. “The railway builders came out here from Xing, paid us to use our wells, said they were surveying, whatever that means. Now they’re building this thing. All the way to Amestris.”
“Oh,” says Ed, realising. “You think they’re going to use the railway to carry goods?”
“Of course they’ll use it to carry goods!” says Mish.
“We’re guessing,” Madam Bibigul says. “We don’t know anyone who’s managed to talk to them, but there have been a few fights. The Xingese have guards on it now. We’re not soldiers, we’re tea traders. And we’re not going to war with the biggest country in the world. But not every family agrees with us.”
Ed shuffles on his butt, starting to grasp it. The traders are nomads: the whole way they live is based around trading. The train route means the business selling tea or cinnamon or anything else to the traders could sell straight to Amestris and send their wares there by train. The traders would be cut right out.
Mish, sitting next to Winry, clears his throat. Around them, low conversation starts up again, just like that. “Look,” Mish says. “We’ve been shielding you from the worst of it, but the truth is, not everyone likes that you’re here. No offence, but you’re fugitives. We don’t want the Amestrian army on our backs as well as everything else.”
Ed says “Then why did you -“ Winry pinches him again.
Mish snorts. “No,” he says, “it’s fine. Why did we take a risk and help you?”
A lot of people in the tent are suddenly looking at Ed and Winry with interest.
“We thought you had a deal with Mr Han,” Ed says, feeling like an idiot. “I mean, I know he does this stuff, gets people in and out of the country -“
“We did have a deal with Mr Han,” Madam Bibigul says. Again, the remaining chatter dies down. “Apparently, his usual people were too nervous about the civil war in Amestris. When we return there next spring, maybe it’ll be fine. Or maybe the army will have taken Mr Han and he’ll have told them all about us. Or maybe,” she says, “there will be a new government by then.”
Everyone is still looking.
After another moment of silence, Madam Bibigul says, “You were working for Mustang. How?”
Ed says, “He’s my commanding officer. I’m in the army.” Then he thinks, screw it, be honest, and says, “I’m a State Alchemist.”
Mish says, “You’re the Fullmetal Alchemist, aren’t you?”
Winry’s breath hitches. Ed frowns. “You knew the whole time?”
Mish grins at him infuriatingly and taps his nose. “You’ve got a reputation. What about you, Winry?” he says. “How did you get into trouble?”
“Besides Ed?” she says. “I’m an automail engineer over in Rush Valley. Automail’s the fastest growing type of military tech in Amestris. Major General Hakuro tried to draft the whole industry. A lot of people I know wouldn’t work for him, so -“ She shrugs, and bites her lip for a moment. Ed squeezes her shoulder. “Some of them made it out to the mountains. They’re fighting him from there. I’m heading to Xing with Ed.”
“And what’s your business in Xing?” says Madam Bibigul.
“We’re heading to Zhongdu,” says Ed. “We’ve got contacts at the Imperial court. We’re going to do a little diplomacy.”
“You seem pretty well cut out for that,” says Mish. Madam Bibigul gives him a look, and he shuts up.
“The people we know there know we might be coming,” says Winry.
“And the people you know there, do you know that they have the Emperor’s ear?”
Winry and Ed look at each other. “Pretty much,” Ed says.
“And you’ve also got access to Mustang?”
“Pretty much,” Ed says.
“So,” says Winry, “do you want us to find out from the Palace what’s going on with the railway?”
“And have us put your case to - uh, people who can talk to the Emperor? And to Mustang?” adds Ed. “Maybe see if you can negotiate?”
“Pretty much,” says Madam Bibigul.
Ed kind of hopes Ling hasn’t changed too much.
That night, or rather, that morning, he doesn’t find it so easy to get to sleep. The sun is blazing now; the tent keeps most of the light out, but sunlight creeps in where the tent walls are hitched up a few inches from the ground, to let in the breeze. From the other side of the tent, he hears Winry sighing, shifting on her sleeping mat. He remembers how she used to wriggle around when she couldn’t sleep, back in the days they shared a bed.
“I can’t sleep,” he says quietly.
“Me either,” she says.
“Are you thinking about home?” he says.
“Yeah,” she says quietly.
“Rush Valley? And Al?” There’s no response. “Me too.”
Winry makes a very quiet sniffing sound. It tears at Ed’s chest. “I’m sorry!” he blurts. “I’m sorry we got you mixed up in this crap.”
“I’m already mixed up in this crap!” Ed startles: Winry’s voice is suddenly loud and angry. He hears her pull in a breath. “It’s my country too,” she says, more quietly. “Everyone’s mixed up in it.”
“Sorry,” Ed says. “I’m saying this wrong. What I mean is-“
She cuts him off. “Of course I’d rather be back in RV working with my patients. But -“
“I know, but -“ Ed tries.
“ - But RV is the front line, didn’t you see that?” Ed goes to open his mouth, then stops himself. When Winry needs to get something off her chest, it’s best to just let her. “Hakuro and his buddies are corrupting the whole automail industry. The scale of what they want to do with us - you know if we lose, it’s going to go the way alchemy ended up under Bradley. To have - to have something so good and so useful perverted like that, they want to turn this whole country into a war machine again. And they’re human! They’re people! That’s what gets me, there aren’t a bunch of monsters yanking their strings this time, but they’re every single bit as bad as Bradley. And my friends - ” Winry stops, suddenly, and her breathing gets loud.
That’s it for Ed. He goes over to her, strokes her back. It’s the worst thing, feeling her trying not to cry.
After a few moments, she raises her head from her bedroll. “Sorry I ranted,” she whispers.
“You don’t have to be,” he says.
“We still stop listening to each other when we get upset, huh?” she says.
“Yeah.” He chuckles wryly. After another pause, he ruffles her hair and drops his hand into his lap. “Thanks,” he says, “for being here.”
“It’s good to be doing something,” she says. “I just wish I knew what was going on back there. I hope they made it up to the mountains.” Much as Ed knows how tough they are, it’s still slightly surreal to him to imagine Winry’s crowd from Rush Valley - Mr Garfiel, Paninya, Simon, the Spitzer Clinic girls - as a bunch of guerillas hiding out in the caves. But that’s what their plan was: hide out in the mountains, sabotage the supply chain, try to stop Hakuro’s people being able to use Rush Valley’s industry.
“They’re good,” Ed says. “I’m sure they made out good.” He has no idea if they did.
“Ed?” says Winry. “I - you know I don’t regret it, right?”
He blinks in the darkness. “What do you mean?”
“Us.” Oh. “How I’d started thinking about it - I mean, before all this exploded - I’d started thinking to myself. It was lovely, and it ended, and - okay, the ending part was pretty bad, but the rest.”
Ed nods. “It was good. We had some really good times together,” he manages. They did.
Winry carries on. Apparently she’s in the mood for this. “At first,” she says, “I thought I fucked us up.”
Ed laughs. “I thought I fucked us up.”
“But now I think it’s more like - we tested it and it broke. But that’s okay, right?”
“I guess. You don’t know until you try, right? We would have been dumb not to try it out.”
“And we - I know this sounds so corny, but we’re always going to have those times, right? Like the summer before last? When we both had the month off, and we went hiking in the south?” That month is still golden in Ed’s memory. Al was better, finally well enough to go to Xing. They saw him off over the Aerugan border, on his way south to get the boat, and then spent weeks vacationing: hiking and getting brown and blowing their savings on good food and little guesthouses in the hills. And talking about a future that had never happened. But. Winry was right. That connection between them had broken, in the end, but they still had the good things they’d given each other.
“Yeah,” Ed says. “You’re right.” And - he can’t help it - thinking of love, and absence, his mind turns suddenly to Roy, and his absence, and where he is right now. His chest seizes and he clenches his hands into fists. He breathes in slow through his nose.
“He’ll make it up to Briggs, Ed.” says Winry, reading his silence. “You know he will. If anyone can, he can.”
Ed clamps a hand over his mouth, squeezes his eyes tight shut. She knows. He feels panicked, then relieved, then sad, then grateful. It’s too much. Here she is, one of his dearest people, offering him comfort about the dude he took up with after she left. Suddenly, he finds he wants to let it all pour out. But he can’t. Maybe it’s because he knows she’s trying to hold it together as bad as he is. Maybe it’s because it’s late, and they’re tired, and it’s been her night to let it out. Maybe he’s just bad at talking about this shit.
“Thanks,” he manages, when he’s breathing a bit better. “Are you doing okay now?”
“I will be,” she whispers. “We’ve just got to get there, huh?”
In the light that creeps under the tent door, Ed sees her stretch out her hand between the bedrolls. He takes it. He lies on his back, closes his eyes, breathes in. She squeezes his hand. He squeezes back. He hears her breaths slowing down, getting sleepy again; a comforting and familiar sound. He follows her under.
"Be safe," Roy says, thinking please, please get away safe.
“Lady watch and keep you,” says Mother Olive.
“Good luck!” adds Father William. Then they start the engine, and they're gone, and he and the old man hurry through the woods to the river.
He puts his gloves on as they hurry. The river is a war zone now, a frontier between two territories. He's amazed their car wasn't stopped. Well, Hakuro's an idiot. He's made a lot of mistakes: among them, allowing Roy to get this far.
The boat, when Roy finally sees it as they half-run down the bank, is a tiny motorboat, likely meant for fishing. He looks along the river: they have the cover of the woods along either side. He looks across the river, three miles wide at this point: on the other side, he can make out vehicles, gun placements. The soldiers of Briggs are guarding the frontier.
"They do know we're coming?" he says to the old man, pointing a thumb across. "They're not about to shoot us out of the water?"
The old man grunts and nods. It's the first thing he's said to Roy so far.
" And what about this lot?" Roy says. "How well guarded is it from this side?"
"Weel," the old man says slowly in a thick Northern accent, "there's a fair few of 'em."
"What's the plan, then?" says Roy. "Do I hide and you pretend to be fishing?"
"Nae, nae," says the old man. "There's nae boats allowed on the river."
"She's easy enough ta steer," the old man continues. "Pull the cord, turn the rudder." He seems confused by Roy's confusion. Then he says, "Ye'll have to fight yer way across, of course."
"All right, got it," says Roy. The old man gives him a thoughtful nod - then hikes away at an impressive pace. Roy makes his way to the little motorboat and sizes it up. He's operated one of these once or twice before. Admittedly, that was on vacation, but it’s better than nothing. He looks around, and gains no new information beyond what he was given. So, it’s likely he’s going to have to fight. Or, to put it another way, he can finally give himself permission to fight.
Well, no time like the present. He unties the boat from its mooring, pushes it into the water, and starts up the engine.
The first few moments are quiet. Roy notices that there are no military vessels beyond the water - he's presuming they must be too likely to get shot up by the opposing team. Comforting. Then the stretch of the southern bank becomes visible beyond the swell of woodland that had obscured it.
It's a wall of guns.
"Halt!" The command blares from a bullhorn somewhere on the bank. "Unauthorised vessel, turn back or we fire!"
Thanks for the warning, idiots, Roy thinks to himself. He steadies himself against the bench with his left hand, and shoves his right in his pocket to keep it dry. He has just enough time to draw a breath and to remind himself, minimal harm - then the first shell lands in the water. It misses Roy by a good distance, but the waves rock his boat hard. Roy raises one hand in the air, measures, and definitively blows his cover with a snap.
It’s as easy as it always is, like pointing a finger. The wet air yields its hydrogen easily, and Roy channels the path of the reaction straight as an arrow to the target. The relief of it, of finally, finally being able to turn and fight, is so intense, it’s almost like joy.
A second later, one of the gun placements is alight. Roy imagines the frantic response. With shells about to explode in the heat they'd have to run for their lives. Now, as whenever Roy announces himself, the ensuing panic could do half his job for him.
He's judged right: for a few moments, no one responds, and Roy ploughs through the water. The opposite bank draws closer. Then another shell hits the water, then another - Roy has to hang on hard to his boat - and then, from nowhere, one of those dizzying flashes of alchemical knowledge hits and Roy finds himself clapping, willing the formula, plunging one hand into the water -
The waves roll back and back, until they hit the southern bank in a towering wave.
Roy can't quite believe he's done that. He looks ahead again, to the northern shore, closer and closer. He's more than halfway there now. He looks back, and is too far from the southern shore to see what damage he's done. He risks another glance north.
There's someone in Briggs uniform standing on one of the tanks: slight, with a glint of blonde hair, directing the artillery with waves of her right arm.
For one hallucinatory moment Roy wonders if he's seeing ghosts, if he's truly lost it - then he realises the marvellous truth.
Hand raised and fingers poised to snap, Roy powers the little boat across the water. Let the fuckers try to hit him. He can stop them. Riza Hawkeye is on the other side of that river.
Roy's gloves are soaking wet, but it hardly matters now: he claps, and his gloves evaporate dry. The air's full of water-vapour. It takes moments to push it where he wants it.
The next heavy gun strikes its ignition in a cloud of highly flammable gas. The whole gun placement goes up, a fireball and a wave of heat. Roy keeps his fingers pressed together. The circle on his glove crackles with energy, the molecules in the air divide and push, divide and push. The next set of guns try to fire, go up in a blaze. Roy imagines the chaos - keep firing! no, cease all fire!
- there's a slight bump at his feet. Roy glances down - and sees that his boat has hit the sandy bank on the other side of the river.
Roy nearly ruins his performance with an undignified stumble as he tries to get out, but then three Briggs soldiers try to offer him a hand at once. He takes the first one he sees - and then he's on solid ground again.
They’re moving immediately, sprinting towards a low wall of sandbags that’s between them and the tanks. The guns don’t sound again.
Briggs was never exactly Roy's favourite place before, but right now he's resisting the urge to fall down and kiss the soil.
There's a sudden epidemic of saluting. There are at least forty soldiers in Briggs uniform here, and every one of the crowd is snapping a salute to Roy, standing there dazed and soaked with riverwater in Father William’s old fishing jacket. In two steps off a boat, he's gone from a hunted criminal to the leader of an army. It's dizzying.
He snaps a salute back, looking around as he does so - and there's Riza: straight-backed and saluting with the rest of them, with a smile of utter, guileless relief on her face. Next to her is Major Miles, smiling too and looking like a man in his element. They must have come up together. Thank goodness.
Roy ends his salute and strides towards them. "It's - good to see you," he manages.
"Glad you made it, sir," says Riza. "Only two weeks late."
"Who else is here?" Roy says, eager enough to let a quip go unanswered.
"Sir," Miles says, "the front line's not the safest place for a debriefing. I suggest we get moving to the Fort, we'll fill you in on the way."
"Miles, I could swear you've gotten blunter," Roy says as they hurry towards a waiting armoured car.
Miles grins. "It's the fresh air, sir."
"You call this fresh?" Roy says. "Birds drop dead in mid-flight around here."
Riza rolls their eyes at both of them as the car doors shut.
As they set off north, Roy allows himself one single moment of singing triumph and relief. He's made it to one goal, now for the next.
"Right," he says, "what's the situation?"
"Fuck," a woman's voice is saying, from outside the train. "Fuck."
"Easy," says a male voice. Al realises abruptly: it's Beth and Mario, standing on the little balcony outside the end of the train. Al's sitting on the last carriage.
Al leans closer, and through the wind he hears someone retching. "Fuck," Beth says again. "Ugh. They're going to arrest us too, they're gonna shoot us, they're gonna take us away … Did you know about this thing?"
"I swear I didn’t, I didn’t know anything!” Mario says. "Look, the best thing we can do is lay low. Just carry on doing your job, okay."
"How the fuck am I supposed to carry on doing my job?" Beth says.
Al wants to go to them, he wants to ask what the hell's going on. Something's gone wrong. Something's gone wrong - and although he knows Louie would tell him to stay on the roof, he knows the best thing he can do for everyone is to stay hidden, he knows he can't go down there - but then he doesn't have to make the decision. The roof suddenly, rapidly wrenches itself inwards, and before Al can catch himself, he falls.
He lands in an automatic crouch on the carriage floor. "Stay back!" someone shouts. He looks up and there are a half-dozen soldiers, and in front of them a uniformed man who Al doesn't know, with his hand still pressed to a chalked formula on the carriage wall. Okay, then. State Alchemist.
Al looks at him, waiting for him to make the first move. He's in his thirties, lean and fit-looking. He looks nervous. He should. The door of the carriage clangs open and shut behind them with the wind. Then he brings his hand down and moves, fast enough that he must be a fighter - he presses his gloves together. Al glimpses symbols on the palms. Then he shakes his wrists, with an odd motion - and Al gets a metal wall up so fast that the only thing he sees of the assault is the dents it leaves in his shield.
Someone shouts, a single painful cry, and the alchemist shouts, "I said stay back! The ricochet, idiots!"
Al grins wryly from behind his shield - then his shield is a flying metal fist, flinging itself forward and striking the alchemist squarely on the chin. He goes down beautifully, like something from a cartoon. Now, what to do about the soldiers? Al claps up his shield again for a moment's thinking time. He needs to get past them, get to wherever Louie is, and then - the germ of a plan starts forming - if he can separate the train in two, strand the soldiers where they are, then maybe he could get most of the way to the border and leave the train unseen. "Drop your weapons!" he yells, trying for an Ed-like growl. "You know I can kill you where you stand!" Actually, he thinks, he kind of could. He has no intention of doing so, though. Al taps the tiniest hold in his shield. Amazingly, the soldiers have put down their guns. They're infantry, he notices. There isn't an officer in this carriage apart from the alchemist groaning on the floor.
Al stands, slowly, eyeballing the soldiers and doing his best to look like a desperate man. He'll restrain them, he thinks, looking past them to the next carriage. And then he freezes for a moment, because there's blood on the floor, and a body half-hidden behind the troopers. It's Louie: Al recognises his hair. Most of his face is just blood and mess.
He's unmistakably dead.
Are his parents still alive?, Al thinks, dazedly, as his stomach scrunches itself up. Is he with someone, does he have kids, did they know he was doing this -
There's a click. Al turns. The alchemist is sitting up now, one hand holding his jaw and the other holding a pistol on Al. The alchemist jerks his head and winces and glares, and behind him the soldiers are scrambling for their weapons.
In half a second, Al's options have narrowed radically.
Well, he's not going to stay here with his firing squad. One leap backwards takes him out the open carriage door, then he vaults sideways over the railing - a brief glimpse of Beth and Mario's astonished faces - and dives straight off the train.
Illustration by a_big_apple. Go leave her some love here.
“Thank you for everything,” Winry says. “Seriously.”
“I hope we meet again,” Mish says, and he sounds like he means it. Then he hops up into his camel’s saddle. It grunts and stands up, and he waves and urges it onward, towards the departing caravan.
"Goodbye!" Ed yells after him. "Mahnak parov!"
"Mahnak parov!" shouts Winry, jumping up and down, waving an arm. "Take care!"
They watch the caravan moving away for a minute or so. It’s headed south, to a market town that deals in oolong tea.
Ed, still relishing the weight of the automail Winry reinstalled this morning, goes to stick his hands in his pockets. Then he remembers he has no pockets right now. Their old clothes had been completely impractical for the desert heat, and they’d hardly be much better for Xing. Mish’s aunt gave Ed and Winry practical travelling outfits, loose cotton pants and high-collared shirts. Ed needs to remember he owes her for those, too.
"Okay," Ed says, "where the hell are we?"
"Xing?" says Winry. "It's only the world's biggest country, how tough can it be to find our way around?"
They look around them. The caravan has dropped them at the edge of a small town. Their route to the capital from here is directly east. "Well," Ed says, "I know how to make a compass, we got that."
"I can make a compass," Winry says. "You don't need to do some big transmutation, you just need a magnet and a needle and some water." She puts her tongue out.
Ed chuckles. "Right," he says, "town."
They follow the road into town, past the fields. It’s a shock, seeing so much green after the desert. It’s noticeably cooler here, too: a balmy, comfortable warmth like a late spring day back home. Ed rolls his shoulders and wonders what the winters are like in this part of the world.
Soon, they pass the first houses: low buildings of one or two storeys, with tiled roofs that curl up at the corners. A woman washing clothes in front of her house stares at them as they pass. Ed smiles nervously.
“Wow,” Winry says. “We’re really, actually in Xing.”
Ed nods. He wants to say we made it - but they’ve a way to go yet.
There’s a hammering noise coming from the next building they pass, on the left.
Ed turns in the direction of the sound. By the side of the road, a number of men are standing under the porch of a building, operating some kind of wooden device. It’s a little like a seesaw: a man in a wide-brimmed hat pushes down one end with his foot, and the other end, which is topped off with something like a wooden hammer, rises. Then the man lets go and - smash! - the hammer end drops down hard onto a pile of white mulch. Ed and Winry stop for a moment.
“Hey, they’re making paper!” says Winry. She points: sure enough, in the courtyard in front of the roof, white sheets of paper hang drying from a lattice.
“Cool,” says Ed. “So that’s how it’s done.”
The paper-makers have started to stare back at them. One of them calls out something in a cheerful tone; the others laugh.
Winry waves; Ed just stands there feeling like a dork. After a moment, they walk on.
“Well,” says Winry, “that’s a nicer reception than a foreigner would get in Resembool. I think.”
They pass several more paper mills like this on the way in. It seems this town has a trade. Soon, they find themselves on what seems to be the town’s main drag. Shops bearing signs he can’t read line the street on either side, still busy even as the evening shadows are starting to lengthen. People give them curious looks, but no more. Winry’s got a point. This place isn’t far from the border; it clearly sees more foreigners than a place like Resembool would.
Ed sniffs the air. Something smells good.
Winry looks around. “Hey, food stands! They have fast food!”
Sure enough, ahead of them are a bunch of little stalls set up in front of the shops. Ed and Winry pass a stall with a man making noodles out of stretchy dough, the way they do at one of Roy’s favourite places in Central. There’s a place selling soup, with boiled chickens hanging from hooks out front. A couple of places are barbecuing some kind of meat on sticks. Yet another stall is stacked high with bamboo steamers, and a woman with a cloth on her head is assembling dumplings to one side.
“Holy shit,” Ed says, “I am so hungry.”
“So,” says Winry, “how’s your Xingese? Aside from a bunch of alchemical terms and some swears?”
“Don’t underestimate my skills,” Ed says. “I can also say hello, Happy New Year, and fuckin’ A. Plus, uh, a bunch of sex stuff. Which luckily includes please.”
“I can’t believe Ling didn’t teach you any food words.”
“Oh, wait! I got dumpling, noodle and bun.” Although to tell the truth, most of the food vocabulary came more recently from Roy and his show-off habit of placing take-out orders in Xingese.
“And,” says Winry, “we have the universal language here.” She pats her pocket. Another favour they owe the traders: they were happy to exchange their cens for Xingese liang.
Ed bounces up to the stall with the bamboo steamers. Some steamed buns would hit the spot right now. “Bao?" he tries.
The stallholder says something to him in Xingese and laughs in embarrassment.
Ed tries again. “Bao!” he says, pointing to the steamer. The stallholder holds his hands up, looking confused, and says something else. How is this not going well? “Bao!” Ed tries again. He points at his own mouth, tries to mime eating a bun.
“Aaaah,” says the stallholder, “bao." Ed can't even hear the difference in pronunciation. Shit, Al said this language was tough. He points at Ed and at Winry. Ed just nods enthusiastically, hoping he means buns for you two.
The stallholder checks one of the steamers, and unloads buns. Ed offers up a handful of coins, and, as the stallholder sorts through them, hopes vainly that he doesn’t feel like ripping off a couple of dumb foreigners.
Moments later, Ed and Winry have their bao: fluffy steamed buns filled with sticky, savoury meat. They eat with noisy appreciation as they walk further into town.
"So," Winry says. "Now we just gotta get to Zhongdu.”
“You know," Ed says, “when Ling, Ran Fan and Fuu came to Amestris, they rode through half of Xing first."
"Didn't they have to run away from Zhongdu in the night or something?" Winry says.
"Yeah," says Ed, "only it was the Yao clan’s palace, not the capital."
"At least we're quite far north," Winry says. "Should we let someone know we're here?"
Ed shrugs. "Maybe we should just get there first? Al was going to do the talking."
Al's name kills the mood for a moment. "I bet he's on his way here," Winry says.
"Of course he is!" Ed returns. "I bet we'll get to the palace and find him already there, kicking back and drinking fancy tea."
Winry nods firmly. "So, do you think there's somewhere round here we could hire horses?"
"There must be," Ed says. "We should get camping stuff too, if we can. If we go by the countryside, we might have to sleep outdoors. That's what Ling did. They used to sleep in shifts," Ed continues as they walk. "There were a whole bunch of people trying to assassinate them, ninja style. I guess we don't need to worry about assassins now, but Ling says there are bandits in the countryside. So, maybe we'll need to do that, one of us sleeps and the other one sits up by the fire."
"Okay," says Winry. "Or-"
"And Ling says they train the horses a different way here!" Ed continues. "You hold the reins all loose. We'll have to watch how other people do it."
"Or," Winry says. She takes Ed's shoulder and turns him to the side.
Right in front of them is a substantial, new-looking square modern building. People carrying travelling bags are rushing up and down its steps. Through its open, arched doorway, they can see right through to the other side: where a large and gleaming train stands waiting at a platform.
"Oh," Ed says. "Well. Somebody could have mentioned.”
Illustration by alasse-mirimiel. Go leave her some love here.
A splint first, to bind his foot and leg. There's iron in the earth, so he uses that, then just binds on the splint he's made by hand with his scarf. Up on the bank, in the middle distance, the train has stopped. He needs to get out of here fast. Now he makes a stick - a classic polearm, in fact. He can lean on it, and maybe fight with it if he has to. He uses it to haul himself upright, still a little hazy and shaken from his fall. Okay, he thinks, as he tries to put weight on his foot and realises he can't, maybe thinking he could fight was optimistic. Right now he needs to either go to ground or jump on the back of a moving vehicle. He'll work the rest out after.
By the time he starts limping off towards a copse of trees in the distance, small figures, more than he'd thought, are already swarming off the train. Flashlights skitter ahead of them in the dark.
This chase scene gets farcical quickly. Al is moving about as fast as a ninety year old, while the soldiers behind are sprinting at him. Al supposes they'll start shooting soon. Tunnel! he thinks abruptly. I can dig a tunnel. Bracing himself with the polearm, he drops to his knees. His head, very suddenly, is swimming. He sucks in air and tries to clear it. Patting his hair, his hand comes away a little bloody. He must have hit his head on the way down. Well -
And he's on his back and people are lifting him up. Wait. What? He seems to have lost a few seconds. His head is killing him. His hands are cuffed, with a bar between them, some kind -
When he comes back he's moving again. He's lying on the floor of a rattling vehicle. It hurts to move his head. It hurts to think. He can't figure out more than that. But before Al drifts out again, something occurs to him, a speck of clarity: they haven't shot him. They were prepared to kill, back on the train - but now they're happy to take him alive. Why?
It’s been three days. Al is almost certain of that.
The first day, Al experiences in hazy fragments. He is lying on his back, strapped down. He can’t move his hands. People touch his head. They ask him questions, shine lights in his eyes. Al’s mind moves slow as treacle. It takes him a while to realise that they’re doctors, not interrogators. In between their attentions, he sleeps. Later, a middle-aged woman visits the room once or twice. She gives him ice chips for his dry mouth. She puts a hand to his forehead and says “You have a concussion.” Then she gives him a look of terrible pity that doesn’t quite fit with her words. Then she leaves before he can stir himself to ask her why.
The second day, his awareness is more orderly. Al sleeps in fits and starts. In his intervals of wakefulness, he investigates his surroundings. Leather straps keep him flat on the bed; his wrists and ankles are tied down; his hands are heavily bandaged. Feeling the heft of rolled cloth in his palms, Al flexes his fingers, and confirms his own suspicions. His hands aren’t injured; his captors just don’t want him to use them. He spends a few minutes concentrating, and then trying to pull against the restraints with all his strength. He pulls a muscle in his abdomen, but otherwise gets nowhere.
The room is small and white-walled, just a bed and a door. There’s natural light; the window is probably behind him, where he can’t see it. By the bed, an IV bottle stands on a pole. A line leads to his bandaged left hand, and on the back of it he can feel the slight bite of the needle.
Who? The current government, most likely. They want him alive for something. Interrogation? A show trial? Or something more? He needs to stay focussed, to keep thinking. It’s not easy to think.
When the woman comes, he tells her he is hungry and thirsty, then he sleeps, and wakes again when she enters with a plate of rice and plain fish. Invalid food. She feeds him and gives him sips of water. It’s a little ridiculous, being spoon-fed like a toddler, and a little humiliating. But he’s hungry. Afterwards, he asks her, “Where am I?”
She just shakes her head.
“What are you allowed to tell me?” he asks.
“Not very much,” she says, adjusting his IV line.
“What, though?” His head thickens again. He doesn’t hear a reply.
By the third (he thinks) morning, he is almost certain that he’s being sedated. It outrages him, more than the humiliation of the spoon feeding or of the nurse helping him pee while she looks the other way. “How can you sedate someone with a head injury?” he asks the nurse. “It could mask other symptoms. Surely it’s dangerous?”
The nurse looks at him for a moment. She seems unsure. Then she says, “Do you have any other symptoms?”
“I feel fine,” Al says, “but then I don’t have a clue what drugs you’ve got me on. I hurt my leg while I was running away. I couldn’t stand on it at the time.”
The nurse examines his ankle, moves his foot for him. It hurts, but not so much. She puts two fingers between the leather cuff and his skin. “We’re not allowed to take them off,” she says. “Sorry. Looks like a sprain.”
Later, his ankle starts to hurt sharply. He feels more awake. The IV was replaced maybe an hour ago. Looks like they’ve changed his drug regimen.
Where is Brother, he wonders suddenly? Ed got out East, he knows that much. He must have missed him, at the rendezvous. Al imagines Ed and Ross pacing the ruins of Ishbal, arguing about how long they can afford to wait for Al: pragmatism versus loyalty. Mustang is somewhere “in the network”, that was the phrase the underground used. And everyone else? What has become of them? The newspapers, from what he’s seen, have snapped right back to the way they were in the Bradley days: propaganda sheets. Fear and loathing, the iniquities of traitors, defence of the motherland: all the stuff that used to make Granny Pinako grumble and suck on her pipe. Only now it’s Al’s friends who are the traitors, his commanding officer who is public enemy number one.
It makes Al feel sick. This cannot be how it ends. He thinks of his friends in the underground, their cleverness and the risks they took for him. He thinks of Louie’s bloodied head on the train carriage floor. He thinks of his brother’s determination, Mustang’s cunning, Hawkeye’s courage. They are not defeated yet. They are not.
The shadows in the room turn and lengthen, and it’s evening for sure when four uniformed men march into the room. Two of them unholster the guns and step forward. Al pulls frantically, uselessly at the restraints – they’ve changed their mind, his stay of execution is over –
“Behave yourself, Bridgewire,” says one of the men. What? Something in the casual tone makes Al stop, reassess. And in that moment’s pause, his arms have been unstrapped and shackled in front of him to a stock. They’re not executing him here, they’re moving him. The relief of it unbalances him for another moment, and then he’s being set on his feet – more shackles lock around his ankles – and then marched out of the room.
His mind starts turning again as they walk him down a long hall. Wood panelling, paintings, no windows visible: an old house, grand enough to have internal halls like this. His muscles start to warm up. His sprained ankle holds his weight, and the pain is pretty tolerable. He doesn’t feel in such bad shape, considering: even like this, he reckons he could take out two of these men in a couple of moves. He could fake a stumble, which would dislodge the gun barrel currently nudging him in the spine, and take down the two flanking him from a crouch. By then the other two will have time to react, and they, of course, have guns too. He could try. If he’s lucky, he can knock out all four without getting himself shot; then he just has to work out how to draw the simple formula that will let him break the shackles.
Or. He could play along for now, see where this is going. They want him for something. He’s not in a prison cell; he’s not on a morgue slab. He’s been nursed, cared for. Perhaps he should wait to find out a little more of what’s going on here?
His guards turn right and march him through a door, into a small sitting room. They lead him to a sofa and shove him seated, then they step back, guns pointed at his chest.
In retrospect, it’s all very obvious.
Sitting on the couch opposite him is Henry Katzenklavier.
As it happens, the journey takes a day and a half. It’s not so bad. They befriend several bored children. They sleep curled up in their seats and wake up with stiff necks. They munch through nearly all their limited provisions, drink all of their water bottles, and accept numerous cups of tea from other travellers’ flasks. Then finally, the train passes through grand city walls, and past large and splendid buildings, and bustling lanes, and at last it pulls into a cavernous railway station. As they walk through the crowds on the concourse, Winry wonders at how familiar it looks, how exactly like the station of a big Amestrian city. Are all train stations the world over the same?
Outside the station, they find themselves in a huge square, heaving with city people going about their business. Now, surrounded by unfamiliar architecture and clothes and language and alphabet, Winry remembers again how far from home she is. She looks around, vainly attempting to get her bearings. It does, in an odd way, feel like the very first time she came to Central, back when she was a little girl: only now she can’t even read the street signs.
“So, the palace is right in the centre of town, right?” says Winry. Ed nods. “And do we know which way …?”
They do not, of course, know which way. Al has spent time in Zhongdu; navigating was going to be his job.
“We look for the big building with the yellow roof?” Ed tries.
“There are big buildings all over,” Winry says. They’re leaving the square by one of the largest streets, because they’ve got to leave one way or other. “I think this could potentially go wrong.”
“Seriously, I think I read it’s the only one with a yellow roof.” Ed says. “Yellow’s the Imperial colour, no one else is going to use it.”
Winry cocks an eyebrow at him. “The Emperor gets his own colour?”
Ed shrugs. “I think he gets his own everything.” They’ve found themselves in a narrow lane crowded with little shops. Al half-warned them, half-rhapsodised about this: the hutongs of Zhongdu, the maze of one-storey lanes and alleys at the heart of the old city. The hutongs spread right up to the palace; Ed and Winry are in the right part of the city. But how are they supposed to spot grand yellow roofs from dark little streets where they can’t see further than the next building over?
Among the shops, they pass making a man making noodles, and stop almost involuntarily. Winry’s seen noodles made like this in the Xingese quarter in Central: the man takes a lump of dough, stretches it and folds it, again and again until he has a hundred long, thin strings of noodles in his spread hands. “Noodles,” says Ed automatically.
"I dunno,” says Winry. “I’m starving, but maybe we should just get there."
"C'mon. There's going to be all kinds of bureaucratic crap, remember all the shit they gave Al when he arrived, and that was with a messenger! We should eat first. And we can ask the noodle guy directions!”
“Okay, I guess,” says Winry. The smell of the sauce bubbling in a pot is just too good. “You get cranky when you're hungry anyways.”
They order noodles by pointing and smiling a lot, and then they take a seat on stools at a little table. The noodles appear almost immediately, smothered in some kind of thick, tasty brown sauce. Ed takes two big slurps, then gives asking directions his best shot.
“Qingwen,” Ed tries. The noodle guy gets that blank look Winry’s been seeing a lot the past few days when Ed tries out his very limited Xingese. She strongly suspects that he's wildly mispronouncing things. Still, the only words Winry knows are rentanjutsu and noodles, so. “We –“ he gestures at himself and Winry “– looking for the palace.” He pauses. “Palace. Crap. I knew that one, but I can’t remember it. Okay, uh – the Emperor’s house. Huangdi –“ he draws the outline of a house in the air with his fingers.
The noodle guy stares at Ed’s right hand. Lots of people have been doing that since they got to Xing. Winry wonders how much people have heard about Amestrian automail, or if they just assume Ed’s wearing body armour. Ed repeats himself. The noodle guy stares at Ed’s hand some more. Ed ignores him and draws a house in the air again.
The noodle guy looks at him with polite concern. “Huangdi!” Ed says again.
“Ah!” says the noodle guy. Then he points at a picture on the wall of his building, and inclines his head solemnly.
Ed and Winry get up and peer at the picture. It’s a print of a painting: a guy sitting on an ornate chair in a big hat and embroidered yellow robes. The yellow starts to clue Winry in. She looks more closely at the face –
“Oh my god,” Winry says. “That’s totally Ling.”
It is, in fact, totally Ling. Emperor Ling. Winry saw a picture of him in the papers once in an outfit like this – but still.
Ed shakes his head. “His ego’s going to be through the roof when we see him.”
The noodle guy seems mildly pleased at their interest in the Emperor. “Where?” Winry tries. He shrugs and smiles politely. This is so frustrating. Winry had no idea she was going to be here, but would it have killed Ed to memorise a few useful phrases? Never mind. They finish their noodles, pay up, and head on out.
The next hour is steadily more frustrating. They walk around the hutongs, repeatedly exhaust the limits of Ed’s Xingese, and fail to find anyone who speaks Amestrian. They try mime; they get laughed at. They try drawing an explanatory cartoon; the cartoon offends someone. Ed tries climbing on a roof; he gets mistaken for a burglar.
“All right, screw it,” Ed says, as they hide from some concerned citizens down an alley. He claps.
“We’re hiding,” Winry says, way too late already. The column raises Ed three stories high. He scans the skyline, turns cautiously on his heel, and –
“Yellow rooftops!” he shouts triumphantly to Winry, pointing at what she can’t see from the ground. He cocks his head, adds, “Found a route there!” Then he claps and sinks the column back into the street.
“Let’s go!” Winry high-fives him, and they set off at a trot.
Within five minutes, they’re hopelessly lost again. They scowl, and sigh, and attract stares, and then as they round a corner, bickering again –
“Yellow tiles!” cackles Ed. He points at the long wall of the dead end they just walked into: tall and old, and topped with a roof of yellow tiles.
Winry immediately checks behind them, around them. They’re alone, which is great, because Ed’s pointing and bouncing don’t strike her as particularly stealthy. "Well," says Winry, "So now what – ohno." But it’s too late.
Ed has already clapped a hole in the wall and now he’s stepping through it, beckoning and snickering to himself evilly.
"You'll get us shot!” she whispers forcefully. But – because, what other plan do they have? – she follows him through the hole anyway.
Winry is starting to get a very vivid sense of what it must feel like to walk a mile in Al’s shoes.
Ed closes up the wall behind them, and they find themselves – thank goodness – still alone. They’re in a tree-lined garden. There’s a moat directly ahead of them, and another, taller wall beyond it. They must be in some kind of outer area. Winry looks around some more. The garden is clearly deserted, but there’s a tower at the corner of the wall ahead. “Okay,” says Winry, “I know you’re going to make a bridge. We’re gonna get spotted, you know.”
“Don’t worry, I doubt they’d just shoot us,” says Ed cheerfully. “They’d want to interrogate us first.”
“I’m not scared,” says Winry. “Don’t assume I’m scared.” But as Ed claps again and puts his hands to the wall, she can see the nervousness in his too-wide eyes.
They’re lucky again. Through this hole they find themselves on a quiet, tree-lined path. Winry glances down the path as it winds around the inner edge of the wall. Still no people close by. Beyond the thin trees is a vast courtyard, and beyond it, grand buildings and people wandering around. Ed inclines his head towards the path. Winry nods. “I’m starting to wonder about the security round here,” Ed whispers. “They should be better prepared for an alchemical break-in! Ling better not be getting complacent.”
Together, they start down the path cautiously. "What now?" Winry whispers. "I mean, we do want to be noticed at some point. I say we try to find someone reasonably un-scary-looking and then just say –" And there’s already a knife at her throat.
Winry jolts with shock and tries to freeze herself still. Next to her, she hears Ed’s nervous little cackle, that noise he makes when he thinks he’s screwed up.
Winry raises her hands slowly. She can’t see anything of the person threatening her but the long knife and a black-clad arm. She doesn’t want to turn her head. Instead, she looks in Ed’s direction out of the corner of her eye. He has both hands in the air and a terrified grin on his face. Two men in padded, yellow-trimmed cloth armour and half-masks are pointing pole-arms at his throat and gut.
Well, that answers the question of how to make their presence known.
From the centre of the courtyard, Winry makes out three more masked figures in yellow jerkins, sprinting lightly towards them. The foremost of them, she sees as they near, is dressed differently – he wears a yellow jacket with a large embroidered symbol on the chest. Is this guy in charge? Ed shifts next to her, his breath catching – and then she realises why. The yellow–jacketed guard's left hand is steel.
"Hello," says Ran Fan in Amestrian, as she comes to a stop. Then she shakes her head and snorts. "I would say that I'm surprised, but honestly, I would have expected nothing less."
“Havoc and Catalina wired from Aerugo a day after we arrived,” she says, as their armoured car rattles up winding mountain roads towards Briggs Fortress.
Another wave of relief and triumph hits Roy. He grins broadly. “After everything we had to hear about that car,” he says. “Looks like it was more than flash.”
Riza smiles back. “They’ve reached their contact. I gather he’s a little difficult, but they’re working on him.” She takes a breath. “Fullmetal is still on the wanted list. They were looking for him in the east. I suppose you’d heard already …?”
“Yes,” Roy says. Ed is somewhere out there alive, evading all pursuers, doubtless in his own inimitable style. And on his way to Xing, hopefully. And Riza has not only worked out that he and Ed were sleeping together, but has also apparently deduced how deeply enmeshed in each other’s hearts they’ve become, and now is being far too nice to Roy about it. “What about Bridgewire?” he says, partly because he wants to know urgently – but also, if he’s honest, partly because he wants to shift the subject from the fact that he’s in love with a nineteen year old.
“We don’t know,” Miles says. “From public radio transmissions at least, it seems like they’ve stopped mentioning him on the broadcasts. It’s odd. Either they have him and they want to keep it quiet, or they know he got out of the country and they don’t want to share their embarrassment.”
“That’s a worry,” Roy says. “But it means he’s probably alive. If they’d killed him, the propaganda would be all over the papers.”
“You saw,” Riza says. Major Armstrong. Two weeks ago he was fighting his way across Headquarters at their side. Now he’s dead and disgraced and painted as a brutal traitor by every newspaper in the land. It’s absolutely insupportable. Her eyes are full of compassion and pain.
“I saw,” Roy says.
“I doubt anyone who met the man will believe a word of it,” Miles says. “He was so absolutely decent.”
Roy nods. It’s a small but definite comfort, imagining that at least some people who will see this injustice plain.
When they step out of the car, the wall of Briggs looming above them, the air is chilly but the ground is still bare. It’s strange to see the place without snow. It’s stranger still to see the place without Olivia Armstrong.
Colonel Fraser greets them at the gate. He salutes Roy and smiles broadly, but there’s a hint of something tense and guarded at the corners of his mouth. Territorial. Roy should let him know, he thinks, as soon as possible, that Roy will not be trying to take over the running of Briggs.
As he walks in, surrounded by soldiers snapping to attention, Roy feels, again, a small twinge of his former triumph. He’s here, he’s alive – and he’s in command.
Riza peels off from Miles and Fraser and the rest, and leads Roy through to the officers’ quarters. “I thought you might appreciate a shower and a shave first,” she says.
“Thanks for the hint,” says Roy. But really, he’s grateful. Here are his new quarters, plain but spacious. A study with a desk and a view of the mountains; a small bedroom, and – wonderfully – spare uniforms already hung in the closet for him. “You thought of everything,” he says.
“We knew you’d get here,” Riza says, with a tiny smile and a shrug.
“And I knew you’d be waiting for me to catch up,” Roy says. He left her in command, and he can see already she’s risen magnificently to the occasion, just as he knew she would. He squeezes her shoulder, and this time, her smile is warm with affection and relief.
Roy’s shower, on the other hand, turns out to be not so warm as it could be. This is Briggs, after all. He puzzles through formulae for heating water as he showers, then mentally test-runs the results. In his mind’s eye, he sees the molecules break down and recombine, simple and vivid as a breath of cold air. It’s dizzying: all this knowledge, the Gate’s dubious gift to him. He wonders if he will ever grow into it. He’d call it miraculous, but the Truth tells him plainly what he always supposed: that miracles are merely an effect of perspective. If you don’t know enough of the laws of the universe to trace them running through a thing, it doesn’t seem possible. That’s all.
After his shower, he wraps a towel around his waist and allows himself the pleasure of a careful shave. Clean and freshly shaved, in a new uniform, he feels more like himself than he has since the battle at headquarters. His hair is getting too long at the collar. He’ll have to find a few minutes for the fort’s barber today. He hopes the man doesn’t scalp him too badly.
He meets Riza back in the entrance hall, and she leads him to the office that’s been prepared for him, and shows him the fat dossier sitting on his desk. And most of his good mood flies straight out the open window with the chilly breeze.
“The first three weeks of Hakuro’s Fuhrership, digested,” she says. “It’s not very pleasant reading. The good news is, he’s making himself unpopular.”
The bad news, it turns out, is everything else.
Al raises an eyebrow. “What do you want?”
“That’s very blunt.” Katzenklavier smiles warmly and leans forward. “Primarily, I want to talk to you. Let me flatter you for a moment: you’re an alchemical genius. You gained State Certification at a ridiculously young age; you invented your own field. I’ve wanted to meet you properly for years. I wouldn’t really count that fight on a train as a proper introduction, would you?”
“I haven’t been qualified for years,” Al says. “Just a few months.” Despite the plan of gaining information, he’s irritated with this already. Why do these creeps always want to buddy up with him?
“Oh yes,” says Katzenklavier. “That’s the other thing. I’ve hoped to talk with you in person some day, ever since I heard the rumours.” Al’s stomach tightens before his mind catches up. “Do you know, I've never in all these years been able to find a golem who could give me an articulate account of their condition? Not even the ones I made."
"What?" Al feels his eyebrows raising up into his hairline. Did Katzenklavier hear from the higher-ups, back when he was working for them? How far was Katzenklavier into that business? Did he know about the Immortal Army? About Bradley? And – golem, what the hell? He feels outraged on his younger self’s behalf.
Katzenklavier just carries on talking. "You’re brilliant, you know. Absolutely brilliant. To be able to do such a thing ..." Katzenklavier waves his hand illustratively, up and down at Al's body. "Tell me, is it the original, or did you synthesise this body, or did you find another young man to transplant yourself into?”
“Neither!” Al says, outraged again despite himself. He pulls in a breath. “It’s the original.”
Katzenklavier whistles, and looks him up and down again. “Really. And look at you, in the absolute pink of health. You'd need a phenomenal source of life energy to manage a human transmutation like that without a rebound. Did you drain the Homunculus’ Stone to do it?”
“No, we did not!” Al says – then checks himself. Katzenklavier has played him nicely – but now Al is on to him. He’s not going to be shocked into sharing any secrets.
Katzenklavier claps appreciatively. “Brilliant, brilliant.” Al feels bored and disgusted. Then Katzenklavier taps a single finger to the coffee table. A little question mark shoots up out of the wood. Al looks for a circle – and then he realises. Brother was right. He’s transmuting with no circle at all.
No wonder he was able to able to go so far: to comprehend that lost art of Xerxean alchemy, to reconstruct it from the fragments, to create a Homunculus. Of course.
He’s seen the Truth. He’s one of them.
“What did you lose?” Al says, before he can stop himself.
“Nothing,” says Katzenklavier. He smiles conversationally.
“That isn’t possible,” Al says.
“For goodness’ sake, Bridgewire.” Katzenklavier tuts. “You’re a better alchemist than that.”
Al looks inward for a moment, past the dizzy rush of the Gate’s compressed knowledge to the silent intuition beyond. He considers: what Katzenklavier did is a less dangerous topic of conversation than what Al and Ed did. He puts a hand in his hair. “To do it cleanly, you have to sacrifice another human being,” he says. “First. That’s the first part. You can call a dead soul, but a live subject would be cleaner, more predictable. You transmute them, and it opens the Gate.”
Katzenklavier leans forward. “Good,” he says. “Then?”
Al looks at his bound wrists for a moment. This is a tutorial. No, it’s worse than that. Katzenklavier is making him perform, seeing how far he can get on the spot. Should Al bluff, hold back? No. He’s being offered some kind of meeting of minds. Katzenklavier is sharing information too. Al makes his decision; he’ll play along. He wonders if Katzenklavier has guessed this part too.
“Then,” Al says, “the Gate offers you knowledge. The Truth and the Gate are really the same thing; they’re both yourself, but much more than yourself. They tempt you. You can say no, but then you pass through the Gate without gaining anything, and without losing anything.” As Ed and Al did once, together, because Ed had the sense and the courage to hold them both back.
Katzenklavier tilts his head. But?
“But you took the knowledge. If you didn’t pay the passage fee, then someone else –” He knew this part already. His father. His father and the lost souls of Xerxes, laying themselves down as the passage fee, gone in an instant, before he or Ed could lift a hand to stop them.
That moment, he will not share with this man. A painful tangle of feeling rises in Al. He lets a slow, slow breath out until the bottom of his chest hurts, and releases it. He inhales, and his mind clears. He meets Katzenklavier’s eyes. “Someone else pays the passage fee. Another sacrifice. And they’ve got to offer. They do it willingly – or, you trick them.” That must be it. He feels sick. This is worse than he’d thought, even. And to go there deliberately –– deliberately! Again, Al masters himself with an effort.
“It must have taken you a lot of planning,” he says, “to pull that off.”
“Not as much as you’d think,” Katzenklavier says. “My laboratory partner talked a lot. An alchemist who gossips is an insult to the art.” Al notices he doesn’t say science. He’s one of those: nostalgic for the alchemy of centuries past, for the days when you could style yourself a magician and be covered with money by some corrupt duke to do whatever you chose, free of scrutiny, paperwork, or ethics.
“Only eight years ago.”
“An alchemist who talks,” says Al. He’s suddenly unable to hide his contempt.
“Yes, I made an exception for you,” says Katzenklavier, and his voice has the barest of edges. “Either I’m about to kill you, or I’m about to offer you a job. I wonder which.”
Katzenklavier’s eyes flick to the guards, and they step forward instantly. Al is on his feet and hauled out of the room before he’s even processed that last statement.
He’s frogmarched down the corridor, back towards his room. Al looks through open doorways as he goes, trying to pick up something, anything more about where he’s being kept.
The guards are keeping him moving fast. Through the doorways, he glimpses paintings, a piano, flowers under glass. Nothing helpful. Then he looks through an open door on his right – and blinks in shock, slows down automatically. But the hand on his arm and the gun between his shoulder blades, and the guard keeps walking him forward, and he has no choice. The rest of the way to his room, Al pores over the afterimage in his mind: Mrs Bradley and Selim, on a sofa with a book. Two men in suits – their bodyguards, or their prison guards? – standing at either end of the sofa, like very intimidating bookends. And Selim– just for a moment – meeting Al's eyes, recognising, and staring.
He’s thinking for the rest of the day about the look on Selim’s face.
Roy knew about most of their losses, but it’s somehow worse, seeing them set out in hostile newsprint. The list of their dead makes him angry and sad – but the fate of the living makes freezing cold fear coil in his belly. First Lieutenant Breda, Second Lieutenant Falman, and five more of Roy’s troopers. They’re going to be put on trial; that much the newspapers tell him. The rest he can guess. It will be a show trial, a propaganda exercise. And it will end in their deaths.
Unless, that is, Roy can – and somehow, somehow he must – find a way to win this first.
The rest of the news is barely more cheering. Fuhrer Hakuro – Roy hates reading those two words, but he’d better get used to it – Fuhrer Hakuro’s first act was to declare an official state of national emergency. This temporarily raises his status: from dictator supported by junta to total autocrat. Parliament has been suspended. The last time that happened was during the Ishbal War. The Progressive Party has been banned, its leader put under house arrest. Central has been sealed, curfewed. Mother Coburn’s daughter was right: there have been hundreds of arrests, at a conservative estimate. Hakuro is casting his net wide. He must know how much popular opposition he’s facing.
Roy reads, and reads, and shakes his head. Hakuro is treating the rebellion as though it were a city riot, the way he dealt with the troubles of East. Apply the bludgeon, parade the criminals, reassure the populace, repeat. He doesn’t seem to realise that you can’t govern a country the way you police a town, that maintaining a dictatorship in times of unrest might require more cunning and subtle applications of power than mere brute force. Bradley and his people knew how to apply propaganda, how to control information, how to manipulate people into fear and pride and loyalty and obedience. Roy should know: it worked on him, once upon a time. But Hakuro? Now he’s just a tyrant. A tyrant who, surely, everyone can see is frightened.
Roy knows his history; he knows what happens to weak tyrants facing a surge of popular rebellion. Hakuro’s days are numbered, one way or another. But what about Amestris?
The possibilities make Roy’s stomach clench and his head spin. Roy knows about civil wars. He could end up riding to victory across a wrecked country, over numberless dead. Or he might be taken out of the game. What would happen to the country if Roy and his people failed? If someone else – a year later, five, ten years – was the one to take down Hakuro? Roy imagines a faceless new hero of a new revolution: perhaps someone from the people, untainted by the military and therefore presumably loathed by the military? Perhaps they’d do as good a job as Roy, or better. Most undoubtedly, the country would face a bloody civil war first. Or, equally likely, at the end of that war Amestris would find itself with another dictator. Perhaps the hero would even become that dictator. It happens often enough. And then? The country could face an unending wave of coups and second-rate autocrats, economic ruin, bloodshed, misery. Or it could stabilise under the heel of another Bradley, human but no more pleasant for it.
Every alternative but one is horrible.
And then there’s the Homunculus. It isn’t mentioned once in Riza’s dossier. It seems that after its performance in the coup at Headquarters, Hakuro is keeping it very quiet somewhere. But it, too, is out there. Roy remembers his own words, only weeks ago. Chrysalis would be a kingmaker. Can you imagine what this country would look like? Hakuro’s got a monster in his hands, a monster under the sole control of Henry Katzenklavier: a man Roy knows to have a taste for power and a severe lack of conscience.
The precedents for this kind of power behind the throne are not written in the history books. They lie in the silences behind recorded history: in the wind-blown ruins of Xerxes, in the most secret files concerning the Promised Day.
Roy knows what’s being asked of him right now, in this office. Somehow, he has to peer into the murky depths of this mess and find his people an advantage, an avenue of attack, a road that could lead them to victory, that can save Amestris from the predations of a Homunculus and the bloody work of human war and tyranny.
He’s found it before. With Bradley’s unblinking eye on him, he and his people found a way. He can do it now.
The door of his office clicks open. Riza enters. She’s carrying one of the few objects in the world that can make this situation fractionally easier to deal with: a mug of black coffee.
She doesn’t say anything; she waits.
Roy puts his hand on the folder. He looks at Riza. He says, “This happened because I was too soft.”
Riza shakes her head.
He tuts at her. “I was. And this is the mess that I've caused. I’ve had enough time to think about it, you know.”
She shakes her head again: firmly, stubbornly. “I've been there. But we debriefed up here too: Briggs command, Miles and I gave the coup a thorough post-mortem. And the conclusion we came to was that we did all that we could. You’re having a bad day. That’s all.” She holds the mug out; Roy takes it with both hands, curls his fingers around it. He exhales. A tension headache is pressing into the back of his eyeballs.
Roy says, “The whole country’s having a bad day. I should have shot Hakuro on the spot.”
Riza is quiet for a moment. She says, “We didn’t want to do it like that.”
“But now people are dead. And suffering. And the whole country’s a mess. Because we failed.”
Riza looks him in the eye. “You don’t know what would have happened to the country if you walked into power having murdered your predecessor. You might have more blood on your hands.”
It’s a solid point. Roy is quiet.
Riza says, “You’re not that kind of leader. You don’t do that. That’s the path we’ve always walked down. That’s how we’re going to be different.”
“And what if to get there,” Roy says, “I have to step off the path?”
Riza doesn’t answer. She says, “Colonel Fraser wants to meet with you after this.” In other words, Roy needs to have a plan for him.
The sharp autumn breeze blows through the office. Riza looks at him, calm. Is it faith in him that’s keeping her from despair? Or, has she seen some possibility already that’s eluded him?
He should just ask her. He takes a long sip of the coffee, lukewarm already. He makes a face. It’s bad.
He takes another breath of cold air, and – then the idea lands in his head, as simply and completely as a formula; like a fragment of the Truth.
The adrenaline hits his system a moment later, a triumphant little shot of energy, coursing into his blood.
Roy swivels a little in the desk chair. “I have a question,” he says. “Why hasn’t Hakuro just fired up his Homunculus and thrown it straight at Briggs?”
Riza smiles, very slightly. “We were thinking,” she says, “that if he could have, he would have.”
“So his secret weapon’s off the table,” Roy says. He picks up a fountain pen from the desk, weighs it between finger and thumb. “How interesting. I’m curious as to why, aren’t you?”
“Yes,” Riza says. “I’m also interested to know where Bridgewire is right now.”
“Yes,” says Roy. “How interesting that they plainly have him in custody, yet there’s not a word about a show trial for him.” And he’s afraid for Alphonse, afraid and angry and protective. But still, there it is: the gleam of an advantage. “If you had problems controlling your secret weapon, and you had an alchemist in your custody who was a world expert in the matter of homunculi … what might you do?”
“I imagine … that in that case, they would want to keep him in good health, if possible.”
Roy nods. He hopes fervently that this is the right call. But it seems like it.
“I imagine that they might offer him threats, bribes,” Riza says. “And that they might think that an idealistic, upstanding young man like that would be easy to control.”
“In other words: they might underestimate Alphonse Elric.” Roy steeples his fingers and leans on them for a moment.
Then he smiles.
“Now,” he says, “we find out where the Homunculus is, and where Bridgewire is, and when we’ve verified that we’ve made the right call, we get a messenger on the inside.” He picks up his coffee mug and uses it to tap the dossier of bad news. ”I take it from the volume of detail in this that we still have informants inside of Headquarters.”
Riza nods. “Yes.” Her smile is a little wider now: sneaky and dangerous. It’s a rare sight, this particular expression of hers – and a terrible omen for whoever it is she’s outthought.
Hakuro is a weak tyrant. Roy should never forget that. And Roy, these past few weeks, has found that he has people fighting for him in places he never imagined. He takes Alice Coburn’s coin from his pocket. He places it on the desk, and it settles with a sharp rattle.
Riza picks it up, traces the rough triangle, the symbol that turns the falcon into a phoenix. She frowns at it for a moment, and he watches her face change as she works it out. A symbol of resistance, and of risks taken, of hope invested by ordinary people in Roy and in his people. Riza weighs the coin in her hand. She smiles.
They were in a tighter spot than this, once. But they had cunning and fortitude on their side, and brave and clever allies, some in places they’d never expected to find them.
Miracles only seem miraculous because of your own ignorance. Once you understand the laws that govern their operation, they become simply possibilities.
Roy stands. And he knows, knows it in his bones.
He can win.
Ran Fan seems taller than Ed remembers. She’s definitely a lot more friendly. But she remains a woman of few words. She only talks to them long enough to ascertain that Ed and Winry are well, that Ross and Al are not with them, and that they wouldn’t turn down a glass of water right now. Then she excuses herself, leaving them sitting on cushioned chairs in some kind of fancy reception room in some kind of fancy little palace building.
The guards bow low to Ran Fan as she goes, and she nods to them curtly, routinely.
The Ran Fan Ed knew would have blushed, tugged at her collar. People bow to her now, and she apparently takes it without embarrassment or deflection.
Looks like she must be pretty important these days.
This palace is ridiculously huge.
Ling’s running the biggest country in the world.
Suddenly, Ed feels so homesick he could puke. He misses Roy. He misses Al. Al was supposed to be here. He’s visited the palace. He loved it. He’d make all this make sense.
Of course they don’t get water. They get tea. A woman in ornate robes brings it in, brews it in a tiny pot, then pours it into thimble-sized cups with great ceremony. Ed takes a sip. It’s jasmine; always reminds him of Mr Garfiel.
“How about this place?” he says to Winry.
She looks up at the lacquer-painted ceiling, takes a sip of her tea. “It’s amazing,” she says. Then she lowers her voice. “I feel weird being here without anyone we know.”
Ed nods and frowns.
The tea is soon followed by food: a lot of it, mostly steamed things in little baskets, far more than they’re hungry for. They pick quietly at it. Little plates keep appearing, but all Ed wants is for Ling to arrive, so he can start talking.
“Is there a telegraph office?” he says, to the woman bringing the latest steamer of fancy dumplings. She blinks and says, “Excuse me,” in Amestrian. She talks to the guard in Xingese. The guard talks back. The conversation seems pretty involved. Ed guesses this isn’t going to be simple. He hates being cut out of the conversation like this. He’s going to learn some proper Xingese, first thing he can.
“Is it safe to telegraph?” says Winry. “I mean, I would’ve thought that the cable would go via the exchange in Central. Like an international phone call, right?”
“It’s safe. We planned for it. Well, I say we, but what I actually mean is —”
“General Armstrong fixed it like this?” Winry finishes. Her eyes widen. “Whoa.”
“Yep,” Ed says. “Years back. In case of civil war. Briggs’ telegraph exchange goes straight out to the, uh —”
“To an automatic concentrator unit?” Ed draws a blank. Winry says, “Like, a little automated exchange box that routes the telegrams between exchanges.” Ed nods. Winry whistles. “Nice. This one would be in the desert, right?”
Ed nods again, a little helplessly. Roy had told him all about it in bed one time, delighted with the ingenuity but hazy on the technical details.
“So do they —?” Winry stops.
Ran Fan is standing in the doorway, mask pushed back off her face. She smiles slightly. The expression looks unfamiliar on her, but Ed grins in relief. Ran Fan says, “Would you like to send a message to the rebels in Northern Amestris?”
“Yes,” Ed says, “please.”
“Write it here,” says Ran Fan, offering paper and pen. “I’ll have it sent immediately by his celestial majesty’s private telegraph office.”
Ed prints the letters carefully, then hands the paper over.
=TO WHOM IT MAY CONCERN, BRIGGS COMPANY, APO 653.
OUT OF THE NIGHT.
A scant, nervous hour and a lot of boredom-eating later, a young woman enters with a piece of paper on a lacquer tray. Ed jumps up and takes it. He manages a hasty “Thank you” in his crappy Xingese, and then tries to turn away before she sees that his hands are shaking.
He’s right: it’s a telegram.
AMESTRIS MILITARY CABLE AND TELEGRAPH SYSTEM
BRIGGS COMPANY, APO 653.
=ELRIC AND ASSOCIATES, C/O PRIVATE OFFICE OF THE CELESTIAL THRONE, ZHONGDU, XING.
18TH OCTOBER, 1918.
BLOODY BUT UNBOWED. PLEASE REPORT.
“Code, right?” says Winry. “What’s it mean?”
“Briggs is ours. Someone in the command chain made it.” Ed huffs. “Don’t know who. We’ve established that the lines are clear, why couldn’t they just tell me and get the fucking suspense over with?”
“They’re military and therefore they’re sticklers?”
“I guess,” Ed says. He scribbles a reply quickly.
=TO WHOM IT MAY CONCERN, BRIGGS COMPANY, APO 653.
MADE IT. BUT AL AND ROSS MISSING. KNOW ANYTHING? MUSTANG WITH YOU? WILL DO EVERYTHING WE CAN HERE =
FULLMETAL AND ROCKBELL
When someone again steps into the room not ten minutes later, Ed is on his feet immediately.
The guards move at the same time — but in the opposite direction. On either side of Ed, they’re suddenly kneeling, pressing their foreheads to the floor. Ed stares at them for a moment, but then Winry puts a hand to his arm and he turns back to see and — oh.
There he is. The man himself. In a long yellow robe, the front stiff with embroidered dragons and waves, hair scraped up into a topknot and garnished with a fancy headdress thing. Just like the picture.
“You’d better do what they’re doing,” Ling says in Amestrian. “It’s going to save an awful lot of talk.”
Ed snorts. Winry elbows him. And — well, Ling might not personally give a damn about form, but if Ed’s going to get what he came here for, he’s going to need to make nice with the court. So down he goes, until his nose touches the silk carpet.
Ling says something in Xingese. It sounds commanding, authoritative, not like him at all. A few seconds later, he stage-whispers in Amestrian, “You can get up. They’re gone.”
Ed sits up on his heels. The guards have silently withdrawn from the room. A moment later, a pile of robes is swooping down on him, and he’s being hugged.
"I'm so happy you're safe," says Ling from somewhere in all the clothes. Then he lets go and, opportunist that he is, moves straight along to hug Winry. Enfolded in all the robes, she practically disappears. "Miss Winry," Ling said. "I wish you were visiting my country under happier circumstances."
“That’s sweet of you,” Winry says, muffled through silk.
Ed punches the robes in the arm, gently. "Hey, I kind of missed you, jackass."
Ling turns around and beams at him. "I've missed the company of someone who'd actually dare to strike the Emperor."
Ed grins. “What about your little chick buddy with the whip?"
“Imperial Consort Sook Joo? Ah, she's very well. Thanks for asking!" Ling takes one of Ed’s hands and one of Winry’s, and then suddenly, most of the merriness drops from his face. "What's happened in Amestris is appalling for you, and very worrying for us. I’ve had quarters prepared for you; please bathe and take a rest. When I'm done with today's council, I will send for you and we will talk. Yes?"
Ed squeezes Ling's hand, then lets go and claps him on the back. "Thanks, Ling."
Winry taps Ed’s arm. "Your celestial majesty," she corrects.
Ling waves his hand. "Oh, no, just Ling in private. It's nice to hear my given name occasionally. I know it's hopelessly incorrect, but you're foreigners, everyone expects you to act like lunatics. Besides," he adds, "you're friends."
Then he turns and is gone in a flurry of silk and gold embroidery. Ed is fairly sure emperors aren’t supposed to jog everywhere. Two years and an empire later, Ling is still like himself, and still Ed’s friend. That’s something.
The quarters Ed and Winry are led to are predictably grand. When they’re led into the reception room, they both hardly glance at it, because on a lacquer tray in front of a low couch, there’s a new telegram.
Ed is over in three strides. He snatches it up and scans it, while his heart does its best to kick his chest in.
ARRIVED SAFELY, MAKING PLANS. BRIDGEWIRE DETAINED BUT HEALTHY. ROSS IN THE NETWORK. HAWKEYE AND MANY OTHERS HERE.
YOU ARE MISSED.
INSTRUCTIONS WILL BE RELAYED WITHIN 24 HOURS. UNTIL THEN, YOU HAVE YOUR ORDERS =
Ed sinks onto the couch, shielding his face with his hand for a few long moments. Al’s alive, Roy’s alive. For a moment, he’s too flooded by those two facts to process anything more.
When he swipes a hand over his eyes and nose and looks up, Winry is staring at him, her face drained of colour. “Ed?” she says.
His throat has closed up. It takes him a moment to push out the words. “They’re alive.”
Winry exhales and shuts her eyes. After a moment, she makes her way to the couch, drops on it next to Ed, and fumbles the telegram from his hand.
Roy made it to Briggs. Of course he did, of course, but still. Thank fuck. Ed looks at the telegram over Winry’s shoulder. He stares at the little printed letters of Roy’s name. For a moment, his mind goes crazy on him, and can imagine Roy right in front of him, his solid presence and the clean good smell of his skin. He wants to touch him so much that it’s like itching all over. Ed squeezes his eyes shut, huffs out a breath, tries to dismiss it all.
Now Ed’s brain starts to kick back in. Al. Detained but healthy, what’s that? Al’s captured, he must be — but healthy — Roy wouldn’t have said that if Al had disappeared. Roy knows what’s happening to Al. How does he know? Ed needs to know more. Why did Roy have to be so fucking cryptic? Of course Ed knows why. Intelligence. Wherever Al is, there’s someone on the inside. Information on a need to know basis, minimisation of risk, careless talk costs lives. Well, great. And “you have your orders”? That part’s easily understood. Just survive, Roy said, a world ago, before everything. If it all kicks off, your first duty is to stay alive. Worrying for his people tears into Roy so much. He must get what Ed’s feeling right now. Where is Al right now? What’s he thinking? What’s he doing? How does he feel? Does he even know that Roy’s people know where he is? Is he really okay, could Roy be shielding Ed from bad news? No, no, he wouldn’t fuck with Ed like that.
Ed presses a hand to his forehead and breathes. It doesn’t stop his mind spinning.
“How is Al even okay,” Winry says, “if Hakuro’s guys have him?”
“Al’s Al,” Ed says. “He’s the Bridgewire Alchemist. He’s the smartest alchemist in Amestris, he can do stuff no one else in the country knows how to do. They must be trying to make use of him. And he’s smart enough to let them think they can.”
The telegraph girl is still standing off to one side, waiting for an answer.
Ed grabs a pencil and a sheet of paper from a side table. On the paper, he prints carefully:
THANK YOU. ORDERS UNDERSTOOD =
He folds it. He thinks I love you Roy I love you I love you, as if he could pour his most private heart into the stiff and public words. He thinks, Al, where are you right now? Stay strong, keep going, I’ll find you, I swear I will find you. Then he holds the telegram out to the girl with both hands.
The girl bobs her head, says something else Ed doesn’t get, and she’s gone.
Al can guess where he is now: the manor house where Mrs Bradley and Selim were settled by the provisional government. Dr. Katzenklavier has evidently set up home here too; and from the armed guards Al saw behind Mrs Bradley, it looks like he wasn’t invited. This is worrying. Chrysalis is taking an interest in Selim; that’s bad enough in itself. But there’s more. If he’s here, then the Homunculus must be here. Al can’t feel the sick miasma that any alchemist could sense around the Homunculus. But Katzenklavier must surely be keeping it in this building. Is it ailing? Or is it too powerful?
Whatever it is, Chrysalis needs Al for it. Whatever crap Katzenklavier says about his admiration and his curiosity, he knows that Al is his enemy. He wouldn’t ask for Al’s help lightly.
Something must be going wrong.
The next morning, the nurse comes to feed Al oatmeal porridge and help him pee. Again, Al bears the humiliation and tells himself he’s biding his time. He’ll find out soon.
When the guards arrive after breakfast Al feels vindicated, mildly triumphant. Now Katzenklavier’s going to spread out his cards. Now Al can see what’s really going on, where he has leverage. He’s surprised, and alarmed, to find himself led down the back stairs to a plain room in the servants’ quarters. The chair he’s cuffed to is steel. They’re not taking chances with him.
A man he doesn’t know, in uniform, wearing major’s stripes, enters. Al looks up at him, trying to read him. The man stares at him coolly for a few seconds, then backhands him in the face.
The slap is so hard that the muscles of Al’s neck wrench. His lip throbs immediately. He tastes blood. The man hits him again, wrenching his neck back the other way. Al sucks a slow breath in and withdraws into his mind. He’s not going to let them get him off-balance this way, with shitty thug tactics like this.
“You’re under sentence of death,” the man says. “I don’t think you’re fully aware of that.”
You haven’t killed me, Al thinks. You would already if you were going to. You need me.
“We don’t need you,” the man says.
Despite himself, Al blinks.
“You think you’re clever. You think you’re indispensable. You’re not. You’re alive because we can use you. But we have alternatives. The second you make yourself more troublesome than them, you’re a dead man.”
Al looks at him evenly. It’s a play, of course. It’s a cheap psychological trick. Cheap, and insulting. Do they really think Al values his own life above everyone else’s? That to stay alive, he’d screw over everyone and everything he cares about?
The man punches him in the stomach. Al was ready for it: he tightens his abdominal muscles, exhales as he takes the blow, centres himself. After another moment, the guards un-cuff him from the chair. Al notices at least two moments where they leave him an opening. He doesn’t take it. He’s made a decision now: he needs to see how this plays out. He’s taken to his room, cuffed to his bed again. So, they’re trying to soften him up. So that he’ll be more receptive to … to what, exactly?
He’s woken by the guards hauling him off the bed again. Here it comes, then. He’s taken down a different set of stairs again: a purposeful attempt to disorient him, he supposes.
He’s right: the room he ends up in, cuffed to another unbreakable chair, is almost identical. The major from before walks in.
He’s holding a brown cardboard file. He says, “I’m going to show you how much trouble we’re prepared to go to, for your labour. This much, and no more.”
Al has an idea of what’s going to be in the folder; but the sight still shocks him.
It’s a dozen pictures of Granny Pinako. Weeding the garden, doing her Tuesday errands at the market, even a long lens picture of her clinic hours, viewed through a window. Al’s stomach twists. She looks so small and old. She must be so worried right now. And after all they’ve put her through before. Al swallows — and his mind starts working frantically.
How does he play this? Granny’s life is at stake, they mustn’t see anything calculated in Al’s response. He presses his lips together, sets his jaw, stares at the photographs. An honest young man trying to hold back the fear: that’s what he should show them. Of course, he really is afraid. That certainly helps with the act.
The major is silent, letting him take it in.
Thinking time: now what? Al is going to outwardly co-operate: that much he’d already decided. The stakes here are huge. A Homunculus is a threat to the whole country, the whole world even. He absolutely cannot back out because one person’s life is threatened — no matter how dear they are to him. But this changes things. Now, whatever he does, he’s going to have to be very, very careful.
“What do you want from me?” he says. Low, stoical: sounds about right.
“You’re a specialist, Elric,” says the major. “We’ll let you know in due course. But in case you feel like playing the hero — do I need to explain what the result would be if you did something so stupid?”
“No,” says Al, looking him in the eye. “You don’t.”
Of course, the moment he’s picked out a bedroom for himself within their new quarters, and flopped face down on the bed in his sweaty travel clothes, another flurry of attendants enters without knocking.
Ed looks at them fuzzily. He sits up and rubs a hand over his eyes. They are all pretty young women. There are about ten of them. Ed bets that this is Ling’s idea of running a tight ship.
“Please come this way and bathe,” says one of them. They hustle him out of the building. Winry already seems to be gone. Presumably she’s been dragged off to another set of baths. The girls lead Ed through a gorgeous, baffling succession of grand courtyards and secluded gardens, and finally into a great hall containing the three biggest baths Ed has ever seen.
“Please strip,” says the attendant who spoke before. They are all looking at Ed and smiling brightly.
“Ah,” says Ed. “Uh.”
There’s a chorus of giggles, and then one of the girls steps forward and offers him a towel. Ed shucks his shirt, takes the towel. It dawns upon him that the girls are not going anywhere. So, slowly and awkwardly, somehow, he manages to inch off the rest of his clothes with the towel draped around his waist. Three days on a train: he must stink by now. Another of the girls swoops in to pick up his dirty clothes before he can even apologise.
“Please wash,” says the girl who spoke before. She offers him a washcloth, then waves her hand at a stool, a set of taps, and a block of soap. Ed sits. The chorus of girls still doesn’t move. He scrubs himself down while they watch him like cats, and by the time he’s awkwardly turned so he can wash his junk without them seeing too much, it feels like half the blood in his body has rushed to his face and ears.
After he’s reapplied the towel and crossed his right foot on his left knee to wash it, then without any visible warning, all the girls but two bow deeply in his direction, then leave. He waves at them, then feels like an idiot.
“Please bathe,” says the girl who does the talking. She’s evidently decided he’s clean enough. “This bath is very hot, that bath is normal heat, other bath is with sulphur for good health.”
The remaining two girls bow from the waist, then walk backwards out of the room, smiling smiles that suggest vaguely to Ed that, underneath the terrific manners, they think this is totally hilarious. Then they’re gone.
Ed turns in a cautious circle, but the room really does look empty. He’s alone. He finally shucks his towel, and pokes a cautious toe into the water of the allegedly normal bath. The water is cloudy. Minerals or something, maybe. Turns out, it’s the exact right temperature: warm in the cool evening, but not quite too hot for comfort. He sits on the edge, and then pushes off, lowering himself into the water until his butt finds an underwater bench, and he’s nearly up to the neck. The water laps around him, and the noise echoes loudly in the vaulted room.
He sighs, and closes his eyes. His limbs drift in the water, his aches come in and out. Al and Roy are alive, he thinks again, and gives himself permission to relax.
“I shouldn’t fall asleep if I were you, you might drown,” says a voice from next to his ear.
“Like you’ve never,” says Ed, without opening his eyes.
There’s splashing near him. Without surprise, Ed opens his eyes to see Ling, unselfconsciously naked, sliding into the water. Ed closes his eyes again, not before noticing how tall and broad in the shoulders Ling ended up. He has to be several inches taller than Roy, which is potentially hilarious — under other circumstances.
“Of course you showed up here,” Ed says.
“These are my own baths, to be fair.”
“Of course they are.”
“What do you think of them? Do they live up to the hype?”
Ed stretches out his arms. “Well, considering I hadn’t washed in three days and before that, I’ve been washing with rationed water for weeks …” He exhales and looks at the vaulted ceiling. Carvings, scarlet and gold leaf. It’s somehow overwhelming, being suddenly alone in this luxury, after weeks of hard travel. “Not bad,” he says with a grin.
“Alphonse is a survivor,” says Ling. “I’m certain you’ll see each other again.”
Ling has read him effortlessly, just like he used to. “I know,” said Ed. And he means it. He believes in Al. The worry gnaws at his stomach lining anyway.
“You know I’m going to do whatever can be done,” says Ling. “We have a bond of obligation, you and I. I’m always there.”
“I know,” says Ed. He looks at Ling and smiles. “Good to see you, mooch.” He taps a fist against Ling’s shoulder.
Ling grins at him delightedly, and pushes his shoulder at Ed’s fist a bit.
They hold each other’s gaze for a moment. Then Ling’s hand is on his waist under the water, and his other hand is in Ed’s hair, and Ling is kissing him.
The first moment, every inch of Ed’s skin sparks automatically to life — and then his body remembers the last person to touch him like this, and his mind catches up, and he jolts with shock. He puts a hand on Ling’s chest, extricates his mouth from Ling’s, turns his head. “I’m sorry!” he says, to Ling’s frown. “Look, sorry, I should have said something.”
“Wait,” says Ling slowly, “I understood that you and Winry weren’t together now?” He hasn’t moved away.
“We’re not. I’m with someone else.”
Ling looks at him sharply for a moment — then he pushes off Ed and flops beside him again. He works his jaw, runs a hand through his hair. Ed sees him working up to an apology, and failing. He looks back at Ed. “Your someone else is still in Amestris.”
Ed doesn’t get the words out for a moment. The lapping of water echoes loudly into the silence. “Yeah.”
Ling looks at him slowly, as if he’s sizing him up. Ed doesn’t look away. Then Ling says,“Ed.” He puts one hand on Ed’s shoulder and squeezes. “So, that was what all the business with the telegram was about.” There’s so much feeling in his voice, his eyes. Ed hasn’t talked about this to Winry, it wouldn’t be fair, so it’s just been rattling away inside him for weeks. His throat hurts.
Ed doesn’t even bother verifying that Ling’s guessed that Ed’s someone else is Roy. Of course he has. Yet again, he’s skipped a groove in the conversation and moved straight past what Ed says to what he means.
“It’s okay,” Ed manages, “you can give me some shit about it, everyone else has.”
Ling blinks. “Why would I? Although obviously we can see here that your tastes were formed —”
“Yeah, yeah, yeah.”
“What’s he like?”
“You met him.”
“What’s he like as a private man?”
“Yeah, well,” said Ed, “that’s the thing right there. Roy — he has this whole public thing going on where he acts like a big overconfident smart-ass, but — I dunno, I guess I knew already there was more to him than that, but then I started hanging out with him a few months back, after me and Win broke up. We were just talking work stuff at first, and then — I dunno — it was like I suddenly met him properly and he was so — he was this other person —” Ed doesn’t finish the sentence.
Ling shrugs. “Well, that’s why I asked. People have many sides to them, even more so public people.”
Ed nods. Suddenly he wonders how often it is that Ling gets to speak to someone, like this, as an equal? He’s Emperor even to Ran Fan — especially to her. What about his consorts? His family?
“So?” says Ling. “What did it take to bring down the great Fullmetal Alchemist?”
“What you mean, bring me down?”
Ling just looks at him sharply.
“So,” Ed says, “you’re like the first person I’ve spoken to who doesn’t think this is an idiot idea, me and Roy.”
“Why would it be an idiot idea?”
Ed counts the reasons off on his hands. “He’s thirty-three, he’s a politician, he’s my commanding officer, we used to give each other shit the whole time —”
Ling throws his head back and laughs. It echoes around the whole chamber. Ed scowls at him. “When have you ever gotten involved with someone you didn’t give shit to? It’s an unusual method of flirtation, I suppose, but I think we’re all used to it by now.”
Ed huffs. He wants to tell Ling about Roy, about how mind-blowingly smart he is, how dorkishly sincere. He wants to talk about Roy’s one-liners and how his hair sticks up in the morning, about the face he makes after his first sip of coffee. And more, about the stuff Ed can’t explain — how easy it is for Ed to just be with him, how every inch of Ed’s body misses him, about the way their minds just seem to slot together like they were made like that, like they’ve always been like this. The words just sit there inside of him. He can’t haul them out of his chest. He wants to tell Ling that Roy’s one of them, he’s a person who’s sewn a goal inside himself so tight it’s grown into his personality. He wants to tell Ling how scared he is sometimes to see in Roy what was in himself — that doing what he set out to do is a higher priority even than his own life, how this struggle for a whole country is so much bigger than Roy himself that he’s scared that Roy could just surrender his life to it with a shrug, and that neither Ed nor Hawkeye nor anyone else might be able to protect him. Roy won’t let himself have a goal beyond the goal, and so Ed tries to have it for him — a future where they can live for each other and for the people who love them, where they can work and do good and be good to each other —
Ed’s chest hurts. He hauls in a breath.
“How are you doing?” he asks. “Emperor, huh? You made out pretty good.”
Ling leans his head against the edge of the bath. “I did, didn’t I?”
“You like it?”
Ling doesn’t move for a moment. He stays where he is, head tipped back, breathing deep. Then he says, “That’s not exactly the right question.”
Ed bites back his response, and remembers for a moment. Ling isn’t Roy. Ling didn’t get up one morning and decide he wanted to change the world. He was born into this, with half a million members of the Yao clan depending on him to give it his best shot. “Is it tough?” Ed says.
“Sometimes,” Ling says. “It’s not exactly a terrible life, though, is it?”
How weird is it that becoming Emperor has apparently made Ling more modest? Or maybe, Ed thinks, it was everything else. That day, when so very much happened. “Tell me how you got there,” Ed says.
Ling smiles, and that vague whiff of humility dissipates. “I will,” he says. “It’s a stirring tale of bribery, corruption, and intrigue.”
The story is a good one. Ed relaxes into it, delighted with Ling’s delight in his own cunning. He’s missed this. Afterwards, Ling fills him in on Mei and Ran Fan’s news. As Ed guessed, they have both been substantially promoted.
“When I was crowned emperor, there were some vigorous attempts to sway me from keeping her on,” Ling says of Ran Fan. “Of course there have been many assassination attempts, so she’s proved herself many times. Now she leads the Inner Guard, and within two years I should be able to promote her to command the whole Palace Guard.”
“That’s awesome,” Ed says. “She seems like she’s kind of thriving on it.”
“Very much so,” Ling says. “How did Mustang lose?”
Ed stares for a moment. The lapping of water is loud in the room. He remembers this side of Ling, too: how suddenly he can shift gears, turn a conversation inside out.
Ling looks at him narrowly, sharply. He says, “I’ve seen that man fight. The scale of his power is astonishing. Moreover, he’s a fine general, a cunning strategist. His soldiers and his alchemists are superb. Hakuro, on the other hand, is what? A mediocre general who wasn’t considered fit to be included in Bradley’s conspiracy?”
Ed nods. “I know,” he says. There’s a sharp pang of worry in his chest about where Ling is headed with this. “It sucks, is what.”
“So,” Ling says. “I asked myself: what could Hakuro possibly have up his sleeve that might allow him to win against such formidable enemies?” He pauses. Ed doesn’t fill the pause. “What sort of weapon would it take to make a person like Mustang, a person like you, run for his life?”
Ed’s heart is in his mouth.
“Tell me I’m wrong,” Ling says. “I would like it a lot if my guess is somehow mistaken.”
The water still laps; a tap somewhere drips. Ed takes a breath.
“You’re not wrong,” Ed says, looking Ling in the eye. “They made something. Another one.” He puts his chin up. “Another Homunculus.”
Ling looks at him, shuttered, unreadable. “Are you certain?”
“I’ve seen the thing. It’s still pretty little, but.” Ed shakes his head. There’s no point in anything but honesty. “It’s bad enough already. That’s how we lost.”
“This situation is absolutely unacceptable.” Ling’s voice is suddenly flat and iron-firm. “Yet again. Amestris.” He shakes his head. “Your country. Its alchemy, its wars and its monsters.”
“That is ass-backwards and you know it!” Ed is arguing back before he’s even thought. “The last — the old Homunculus created Amestris, not the other way around! It was made in Xerxes!”
“And what became of Xerxes?” says Ling evenly.
With hindsight, this might not have been the best argument.
“We did everything we could,” Ed says. “Everything. We don’t like that Amestris is this way. That’s the whole reason Roy’s doing all this. So we can make things better, for everyone. So we stop being the country that pulls this shit the whole time.”
“I know,” Ling says. His voice is quiet.
Ed barrels on. He can’t help it, he has to get all this out, he has to explain himself. “And we still are doing everything we can! We’re still in the fight! That’s the reason I came to Xing. To talk to you. And not just because you’re emperor. Because you’re you. Because you know things about homunculi that no one else alive in the world knows.”
“Do I?” says Ling. “I suppose that I do. I know that —” He sighs explosively. “With the greatest respect to the dead, I know that they are bad news.”
Ed looks at him. Fuck. He thought Ling would come around. He should have realised. Ling can’t be on his side about this, can he? He’s got his own country to think about first. Ed’s throat closes up again. In this stupid luxury bathhouse, in this vast palace, in this foreign city where Ed doesn’t even know how to ask directions, he feels suddenly very, very alone. He sets his jaw.
Ling looks at Ed for a moment, eyes narrow and serious. Now what?
Then he turns in the water to face Ed, and wraps his arms around him, and he hugs Ed so tightly that he can barely breathe. “I’m going to help,” he says. “I’m not angry with you. I am angry, I am furious, with the idiot who had this monster made and set his boot on Amestris and sent my best friend running for his life. You’re my friend, and Mustang is my ally, and I want Mustang in charge of Amestris.” Ling’s words reverberate all the way through Ed’s chest. “You will see him again. And you’ll see your brother again. And I’m going to help.”
His hand rubs Ed’s back. And suddenly — that’s it. It’s like Ed’s body just can’t hold it all a second longer. His chest starts shaking and heaving, hard and painful. The sound of it is harsh and horrible and echoing in the big room. For the first moment, he tries to stop, but it’s so much damn effort — and here, now, really, he doesn’t have to stop. So he just hangs on and lets it all go its own way.
When he’s done, he pulls back and swipes the heels of his hands across his eyes. It’s just sweat and steam. He didn’t actually — Still, he feels pretty stupid, like a little kid or something.
But in the end, it doesn’t matter.
“You remember?” Ling says. “No matter how bad everything else might get: you can keep moving while you still have your friends.”
Briggs in late autumn is grim: bare trees, dark hillsides, dwindling hours of light. The snow turns the lights back on. When it falls, it falls hard. The depressing view from Roy’s bedroom window in the freezing morning becomes, within the space of one day, a painting: charcoal mountains, bright new snow, even the sky a deeper blue.
Still, Roy could do without four hours of snow in his eyes to look forward to.
Every single soldier at Briggs, general or private, has their twice-weekly shift at the Wall. Including Roy. It was General Armstrong’s policy. They haven’t changed it. Like so much at Briggs, it remains marked with her characteristically brutal sense of fair play. It can’t be helped; and much as Roy would love to wriggle out of this morning’s shift, doing so would leave the soldiers of Briggs legitimately ticked off with him.
Roy flattens the two telegrams, Ed’s first and his second. As he demolishes his breakfast oatmeal in the mess hall, he strokes the paper absently with one hand.
He feels lit up inside, so relieved that it aches. Ed is supremely resourceful, Ed had already gotten out of Amestris: these things he knew. He convinced himself every day that Ed was fine, and he never knew the difference it would make until he learned he wasn’t lying to himself.
The telegrams sit on top of his morning pile of documents, which he really ought to have skimmed already. He hasn’t. All right, one more moment of self-indulgence and —
It’s too late. Riza is walking up to him, a mug of tea in one hand and a full clipboard in the other. Roy swallows his mouthful, holds the telegram out to her. “I haven’t gotten to my reading yet,” he says. “There was a distraction.”
She smiles. She says, “I heard. It’s a relief.”
“It is,” Roy says. He notices her letting him off the hook, and notices the third-person delicacy of her phrasing. It lets them both acknowledge what this news has done for Roy, while skirting around the subject of Roy and Ed. He knows she’s still wrapping her mind around it. Very possibly, she thinks he’s being an idiot. But she’s being kind.
“It’s funny,” Riza says, “but Fullmetal seems to be making a pretty good ambassador.”
“If the Emperor remembers his debts,” Roy says. “Which he ought to, because — what?” Riza’s mouth has that tension at the corners. Something isn’t all right.
“Do you know a woman called Ada Wray?” Riza says. Roy looks at her blankly. “I think you might have met her on the way North.”
“We didn’t do names, mostly,” Roy says. His stomach tightens; he can see already where this might be going. He rifles through his paperwork, and three sheets down, sure enough, finds a newspaper clipping from yesterday’s Central Times. He recognises the photograph immediately: the blonde woman who took him to Green Pike on a horse named Graham.
The headline says Third Traitor Executed.
The first line Roy picks out is The rebel conspirator Ada Wray, 46, a horse breeder, is believed to have dealt personally with Mustang. Then, After a short skirmish, military police were able to execute Wray under the 1908 Prevention of Terrorism Act.
There’s a pressure on Roy’s chest. He says, “Summary executions, now?”
Riza says, “‘Under the Prevention of Terrorism Act’ sounds a little more orderly than ‘we’ll shoot you on sight if we suspect you’re a rebel’. But the message is the same, isn’t it? ‘Obey, or else.’ Is it true that she helped you North?”
“Yes,” Roy says. “She took me to the peaks, told me my horsemanship was terrible. I liked her.” He rubs a hand over his face. This is appalling; but they still have work to do. “What do we need to get through before my shift on the Wall?”
Riza looks into his eyes for a moment; he looks back. “There’s a five page briefing on the refugee situation,” she says. “The Ishbalan camp in Deauville have a workable housing proposal, but now the snow’s started we’ll need to cut through the red tape fast or we’ll have an emergency on our hands. Also, the paperwork on the supply situation has come through. We should go over it before this afternoon’s council. The short version is, Colonel Fraser was right: the North is going to need to region-wide rationing of food and essentials to get through the winter.”
They’ve galloped through most of the essentials when the clock rings the hour. Roy stands, buttons up his overcoat, pulls on his gloves. Riza watches him carefully.
He arrives for his shift two minutes late. The sergeant he’s relieving salutes him, and the cold slaps him in the face, and the white of the snowfield is like staring into a lightbulb.
The only trouble is, he can’t let himself have it.
He didn’t really know Ada Wray; but he did pick up that she seemed bold, sensible and unsentimental. The sort of person who walks into danger with their eyes open. He can’t insult her by acting as though this was all a terrible mistake she made.
He’s angry with Hakuro, of course: angry with the tyrant and his pack of stooges responsible for this war and its growing list of atrocities. But they’re a long way south right now, and unavailable for roasting. Roy himself, on the other hand, is right here.
The part of his brain that can’t abandon magical thinking tells him: and here you let yourself relax for a moment, you let yourself rejoice because your beautiful Edward is safe, while ordinary people are suffering and dying for a cause you offered them. While half your soldiers are trapped behind enemy lines, while refugees could freeze and the North could starve and —
Stop it. Stop that, Mustang. Right now.
He looks out at the mountains of the Drachman frontier: another beautiful country with a beastly government. A skirmish would be nice right now; or a sneak attack; or any crisis; a burst pipe even, in a pinch. He’d dearly love that stack of reports up here with him: but if he can’t occupy himself with something useful, he needs a distraction. He can’t afford to fall into this self-flagellating crap. There is no earthly point in going over that day again, going over every second of the coup, every decision made in a pressured moment with gunfire echoing in their ears. It plays out in his head again anyway. It plays out every day. He’s sick of it.
He stares into the white.
“Here’s winter,” says a voice behind him. He turns, recognising it, unsure how long he’s been standing here already. “Good morning, sir,” says Colonel Fraser, current commander of Briggs.
“Good morning, Colonel,” Roy says. “The northern country is at its most beautiful in the winter, isn’t it?”
Fraser snorts softly. “Wait until it’s December and your piss freezes before it hits the snow, sir.”
“That’s hyperbole. Even at forty degrees below freezing, urine leaves the body at too high a temperature to freeze in mid-air. Cold water would freeze, but piss hits the ground or vaporises first, am I right?”
Fraser full-on grins at him. “You’re the scientist. I’d say test it out, but I try not to expose any bodily parts I’m fond of when it’s forty below freezing.”
“Did you want to talk about the rationing situation?”
“Yes,” Fraser says. “Let’s have a little heat,” Fraser says. He picks up a brazier from a few feet away, drags it over. Floury snow scatters from the top. He raises an eyebrow at Roy: here is the alchemist, and here is the wet and frozen fuel.
Roy resents being ordered to impress, but even in this bitter mood he still can’t turn down a challenge. His ignition gloves are inside his coat. They stay there, for now. He bows his head, presses his hands together. The snow melts to water, then evaporates as steam. The power crackles blue; the warmth blasts them in the face.
“For a moment then,” says Fraser, “I thought you were praying.”
After every drop of moisture has hissed from kindling and coal, he pulls off one sheepskin glove with his teeth, and reaches inside his coat for the glove that will let him make a spark.
“Someone let the fuel get wet last night,” Roy says. “What happened to survival of the fittest?”
Fraser just raises an eyebrow again. “No circle,” he says. “Like Elric and his brother. I saw them fight, three years back.”
Roy presses his hands together again. “This is the circle.”
Roy looks into the fire.
“Don’t want to talk about it?” says Fraser. “No worries. You’re not really a Briggs man unless there’s something you don’t want to talk about.”
Roy half-smiles. “I’m not really a Briggs man. You run a tight ship here. But I prefer a nice smoggy city.”
“Well,” Fraser says. “With luck on your side, you could have a whole country of them.”
“You’re in an optimistic mood for a man who’s just read that report.”
“Yes. That’s what brings me here, really. Sir, you’re right. You’re not a Briggs man.”
Roy looks him right in the eye.
“If you knew this place, that report wouldn’t look as bad as it might.”
“Before we tear into it at the meeting, I wanted you to know: the North isn’t going to starve. We know winter.”
“This isn’t just winter,” Roy says. “We’re cut off from the rest of Amestris. We have several thousand political refugees needing food and housing. And our neighbours aren’t about to risk war with Hakuro by trading with us.”
Fraser says, “Did you ever hear of the Winter Emergency Preparedness Initiative?”
“Government-funded municipal survival kits for the north, in case of a winter natural disaster? General Armstrong pushed it through at Central. But given the situation, would that really be enough —” Roy stops himself.
“Would you be shocked to hear,” Fraser says, “that the General slightly diverted a lot of the funds?”
Roy is not, in fact, entirely shocked. His grin gets sharper. Fraser returns it.
“The supplies we actually procured were designed to get the region through one self-sufficient winter. It took quite the effort for us to hide the paper trail for that, let me tell you. Every town north of the River Isar has a survival kit. I won’t lie; it’s still going to be a job of work to get everyone through the winter. But the North is ready to pull together. If we all put our backs into it, it’s my belief we can almost certainly manage it.”
Roy shakes his head, delighted. “I might not be shocked,” he says, “but even now, she keeps surprising me. The Queen of Briggs. Above and beyond.”
Of course Fraser is already reaching into his coat for a hip flask. Roy resists the urge to point out that before nine hundred hours is a little early for whisky. They pass the flask back and forth, and silently toast the Queen of Briggs, and look into the clean white and the blue sky.
“Also, about the radio transmitter at Baschool,” Fraser says. “You were asking on Wednesday. Yes, it seems it can transmit as far south as Central. There was some discussion with Radio North. But they’re signed up and on board now. We have a link up with them, so you can broadcast from Fort Briggs. When were you thinking to try this out?”
“After the meeting. Today,” Roy says, surprising himself. A moment later, and he’s realised why he said that: he realises what he’s going to say.
Eight hours later, he sits at a table in front of a radio mic, with a scribbled sheet of paper in front of him.
“Good afternoon, Amestris,” Roy says. “I am speaking to you today from Briggs Fortress. I will keep speaking to you, every week at this time.”
“The first thing I want to say, you know already: the war for Amestris is not over. We are still fighting. And we know you, the people, are still resisting, in whatever way you can. Winter has arrived, but we are ready for it. We will get through it and it will pass, and spring will come. With your faith and your courage and your resistance to tyranny, we can win. And so, with that in mind, today I want to tell you the truth about a woman called Ada Wray …”
The morning traffic of Zhongdu is something astonishing. In the hutongs there’s a bustle of bicycles, pedestrians, handcarts, stalls selling breakfast and blaring radio, shops opening up for business. Then the street opens up in front of them into a wide thoroughfare: thronging people, horse traffic, cars with designs Ed doesn’t recognise. The air has that ripe, lively mix of smells good and bad that tells you you’re in a great city. Ed and Winry stare at it all, and the cyclist’s lean tanned legs pedal relentlessly on, as if it’s no effort at all. How damn fit do you have to be to drive one of these things? Ed wonders how he’d hold up.
Their journey ends in a leafy, hilly district at the edge of the city. Their driver points them towards an ornate, three-storied wooden pavilion at the edge of a little lake.
At the entrance to the pavilion, Ed sees immediately that it’s some kind of restaurant. A few people are sitting out at tables on the porch of each floor. Before they can wonder how to announce themselves, a tiny old lady hurries out to them, and slowly pronounces, “E, do, wa, du?”
Ed blinks, then gets it. “Yeah!” he says, nodding. The old lady sweeps her hand towards the pavilion’s interior. They follow her in, and she leads them through dark corridors through to a paper-screened room with a view of the lake. It contains only one table; a pretty young woman in black is sitting at it.
“Hello!” the girl says, standing. She’s speaking Amestrian, hopping up and hurrying towards them already as she does so. “Ah, you made it! I’m so relieved!”
“Oh my god!” Winry says. Her voice has headed up about an octave.
The young woman beams and claps her hands. “Winry! Winry! I had no idea you were coming!” She wraps Winry in a hug. They bounce up and down, squealing happily at each other. Ed stares.
“You’ve gotten so tall!” Winry says.
“Of course I have, it’s been two and a half years!” says the girl.
What the hell is going on? Ed looks at the girl again, and — holy shit — it’s Mei Chang.
She’s about a foot taller, which is to say, still tiny, and her dress sense has certainly changed, and the hundred plaits have been replaced with two sleek knots of hair, and she — well, she’s hit puberty. But it’s her.
“Edward! You didn’t recognise me?” she says, breaking away from the endless Winry-hugging to look at Ed. “Of course, I’ve grown a great deal! Ah, and this decadent court has changed me so much, it’s robbed me of my unpolished peasant innocence.” She puts a hand to her forehead, and sighs dramatically. “Mother says I’m losing my accent.”
“How’s the kitty?” Ed says. Right on cue, claws scratch on the floor and Xiao Mei scampers in from the balcony. Unlike Mei, she hasn’t grown an inch. She sniffs the air, growls and then rushes to Mei’s side and peers at them from behind her ankles.
“Shh! I’m not sure animals are allowed in here,” Mei says, looking around as if the old lady is about to reappear.
“It’s great to see you,” Ed says. “Exemplar of the State, huh?”
“Oh,” Mei says, and goes pink. “There was a bit of bother about that, did his Celestial Majesty tell you?”
“Yeah. She got first place in the Xingese equivalent of the State Alchemist exam two years ago,” Ed says to Winry. “They had to lift the age restriction so she could sit it in the first place, and then she beat everyone else.”
“Younger than Ed!” says Winry, with some delight.
“It was worth all the fuss,” Mei says. “Now the honour of Yulong Temple is restored, and students are climbing the mountain every week to ask for instruction. My clan can farm with the latest equipment, and when they’ve finished building the railway through our province —” She stops abruptly and throws up her hands. “Oh my goodness,” she says, ducking her head. “I’m so sorry! Boasting about our prosperity, with Amestris in so much trouble, and you having to run for your lives, and Ed so worried for his paramour —”
“Paramour?” says Ed.
“Was that not the right word?” says Mei. “Beloved? Suitor? Sweetheart?”
Winry has one hand over her mouth, and she’s cackling into it. Ed glares at her.
“Brigadier General Mustang is fine,” Ed says, with as much dignity and composure as he can manage. “He’s at Briggs. I guess his Celestial Majesty gave you all the gossip but none of the news, huh?”
“Oh, that is good!” Mei says. “Have you heard anything about Alphonse’s journey? Is he out of Amestris yet?”
Ed cracks his knuckles reflexively. Great. Thanks, Ling. Now he has to do this.
“Uh,” says Winry. “Al’s being held by the enemy. But we think he’s okay.”
Mei’s eyes get very large. Her forehead crumples up. She takes a very large sniff.
Winry puts a hand on Mei’s shoulder. Ed pats Mei’s arm and feels pretty awkward. Then the paper screen slides back, and Mei instantly stops sniffing, stuffs Xiao Mei under the table and stands against it —
And then Ling Yao walks in. Just Ling. No yellow silk robes, no headdress, no regal poise: just Ling, in a simple dark tunic and trousers, with his hair worn the old way. The old lady nods at him casually and then walks out, as if Ling’s just some guy — and Ed realises abruptly what Ling has managed to pull. Every portrait of Ling Ed has seen has had him in the full Emperor get-up. When he dresses down, it amounts to a fucking disguise.
Still, as soon as the old lady shuts the screen door, Mei hits the deck, forehead first. Must be weird, having to bow down to your own brother. Xiao Mei just sits on her butt growling.
“Up, quick!” Ling says in Amestrian. “It’s a disguise! It doesn’t work if you do that. No bowing for anyone,” he says, with an air of great generosity.
“Damn,” Ed says, “that’s gonna be tough.”
It takes a few dozen of those tiny cups of tea for Ed to tell Ling and Mei the full story. He starts with a rundown of the messy state of Amestrian politics: Hakuro’s murder of Fuhrer Grumman, the prospect of war, Roy’s reluctant backroom deal with Hakuro, the many factions, two year struggle to get enough support that a coup would get Roy into power without civil war. Much good that it did them, in the end. Winry chips in to explain about the Rush Valley munitions industry and their attempts to throw a spanner in Hakuro’s works; Ed talks about the resistance network who helped them both get out to the desert.
Then Ed moves on to the Homunculus. He tells Ling and Mei how they found out about the creature, tells the stories of each of his three encounters with it. He tells them what sort of a man Henry Katzenklavier is, the kind of past form he’s got, the kind of power he’s got now. He tries to explain the science of the thing. Mei gets it all immediately; and perhaps it’s not so much of a surprise that Ling seems to understand a lot of it too.
And then he’s done. Mei pours the billionth round of tea. For a long moment, everyone is very, very silent.
“I wish I could send an army,” Ling says.
Meaning, he can’t.
“Imagine for a moment that I am not who I am,” Ling says. “I’m here as a private man. The clothes are symbolic!”
“Yeah,” Ed says. "We got that. Does the Amestrian Ambassador know we’re here?”
“No. Is he a very secret Mustang sympathiser?”
“No,” Ed says. “He’s old guard.”
“Then,” Ling says, “it’s imperative he continues not to know. Officially, to anyone who’s spotted you around the place, you’re scholars from Drachma. We’re endeavouring to have people not spot you around the palace. If Hakuro knows Xing is aiding the rebels in secret — well, you know your own country. That’s how your last couple of wars with Aerugo got started.”
Ed swallows. Winry shifts in her seat. Mei bites her lip.
“Last night,” Ling says, “I exchanged some telegraphs with Brigadier General Mustang. He was understandably indirect about his plans, but I believe he’s not planning on open warfare. Judging from his usual modus operandi, I’d say that means a secret strike and an assassination or two.”
“What do you mean, usual?” Ed says. “Roy isn’t —“ And then he stops, because actually, Roy is. “But he wouldn’t, not this time. The last coup, the plan was to arrest Hakuro, a fair trial, the works. Because we need to stay clean if we’re going to do this right. Because —“
“Ed,” Ling says. “If Mustang is such an idealist, then after everything that’s happened, why wouldn’t he assassinate Hakuro?”
“Because — because, because we need to stay clean. We can’t! Not unless we have to —”
“Ed,” Ling says, very quietly. Ed stops. “Ed, you’re the idealist here. You always believe you can find a morally impeccable path to your goal.” Ling leans forward and puts a hand on his, looks him right in the eye. “But there isn’t a clean path to this one, not any more. Mustang knows that already.”
“How do you know what he knows?” Ed says. He’s starting already to get that warning twist in his stomach that tells him the other person might have a point.
Ling smiles at him, but it’s not a very happy smile. “Because he’s clever. And because he knows how these things work. Ed, striking from the shadows is the best way to do this — and the cleanest that’s left. But it’s probably going to be a dirty job, one way or the other. If you’re going to fight this war, you should understand that. Please don’t go in expecting a clean fight.”
Something chimes inside Ed. Roy’s voice in his mind, rivers of mud. The perfect circle he’d scratched into the dirt, scuffed and broken by his father’s footprints.
Ling has been playing this game his whole life. And Ed always believed there was a way to do it clean. But he didn’t quite get there in the end, did he? It was someone else who took that final step for him, taken from him the final sacrifice to which he’d committed himself. And he’s never known, has he, how he can square that compromise, that sacrifice, and yet remain himself? Roy wanted a clean victory too. And Ed wanted it for him, wanted him to get there without more stains on his record. He was on board. And they didn’t get it. And now? Now they’re at war. Ed knows a little about war, and he’s learning more every day. He’s taken the first steps already. He’s in this.
Where is he headed? How far will he go?
It’s been another three days, and they still haven’t told Al what he’s here for. But day by day, he’s started to guess.
The day before yesterday, a note from Katzenklavier was placed in his bound left hand at breakfast. Beautiful copperplate handwriting, of course. Why do the worst alchemists always seem to have the best penmanship? Bridgewire, the note had read. Your first task is to give me your professional opinion on Selim Bradley.
That day, he sat for six hours in a room on a chair with his hands bound, watching Selim and Mrs Bradley from behind a smoked glass mirror. Selim played; Mrs Bradley read; they ate a meal. They were both quiet and subdued. Al looked, and looked, and looked. His butt got numb. His mouth got dry. He itched all over. Men with guns watched him, but no one brought him food or water.
It took him a long time to focus, embarrassingly long, but in the end, he could feel the two souls on the other side of the glass. Only two: one human, one not quite. Selim’s qi seemed to him unchanged. Selim himself seemed as he always did: nothing but a sturdy little boy with a mark on his forehead.
There was a mirror on the other side of Al’s room, too.
At the end of the day, Al turned and looked into it. He said, “What do you want me to see that you couldn’t see yourself?” His throat was dry; his voice came out scratchy and rough.
Behind the glass, he heard the scraping of a chair. There was no other reply.
The guards watched him like cats. Al made himself ignore them, walk up to the chair, pick up the tiny book. It was bound in plain brown leather, with no title. As he opened it with care, the binding shifted away from the stitching of the spine. When he turned over the marbled endpaper, already he knew what he was going to see.
The Perfection of Matter: of course. Illegal; taboo; badly translated from the Xerxean. A book whose theories once made a monster which, in one day, destroyed a whole country. Katzenklavier’s instruction manual for breeding a Homunculus.
The second book was one of the better commentaries on the text. Opening it, Al found it liberally annotated throughout in Katzenklavier’s beautiful handwriting.
On the other side of the mirror, Selim Bradley lay on the rug on his front, surrounded by paper and crayons. He kicked his feet as he drew. Al had no idea what the hell Katzenklavier wanted with the boy. Was there something more to him than Al could see? Or was Katzenklavier just hoping that Al could see more? Mrs Bradley was used to living under guard; did she know they were watched by alchemists? Did she have any idea how much danger they were in?
He turned back to the deathly little book, and started to read.
“It’s a little bit of a bore, not to be able to stroll the grounds,” she says. “Selim has so much energy. But under the circumstances, well.” She smiles brightly. “We certainly can’t complain. How are you?”
“I can’t complain,” Al says. It’s true enough: airing his troubles here would be highly unwise. His hands are still kept bound when he’s unattended. But now? How fast are those guards, really? Al could make a knife from the silver teaspoon or from the porcelain cup. He could pull a barricade from the floor. He could even try to escape this place, to take Mrs Bradley and Selim with him. He’s worried for Granny, it’s true. But do they really believe that threatening her is enough alone to render him totally docile and trustworthy? Are they that stupid? That would be pretty nice. Al suspects, though. What else are they banking on?
“Will you stay for lunch?” Mrs Bradley says. A guard nods to Al curtly; apparently he will.
“Sure,” he says, “thanks.”
Selim slurps his potato soup; it makes Al smile. “This stuff is Eastern-style,” he says. “With bacon and sage. The lady who brought me up makes it like this.”
“How nice,” Mrs Bradley says. “When my late husband was alive, I often used to accompany him East. It’s a beautiful part of the country.” She tilts her soup bowl away from her as she eats, impeccable. She pauses, dabs at her mouth with a napkin.
Al smiles blandly; he never knows quite what to say to her when she brings up Bradley.
And Mrs Bradley never seems to notice. “I remember the journey very vividly,” she says. “The Fuhrer’s train would usually depart for East City from Central Gatehouse Station, at twelve noon precisely.”
Wait up – Al remembers those words – at twelve noon precisely. That station is always –
“That station is always full of people,” she continues. “But every morning is a good morning at the station, because you’re going somewhere.”
Al’s heart is in his throat.
Mrs Bradley has just quoted from his brother’s code, verbatim.
For the first sentence, he thought it must be coincidence. But the time, the place, the phrasing - it’s all identical. It’s Ed’s standard beginning to an explanation of a complete formula. It means here follow full instructions. No way. No way.
“That’s a nice sentiment,” Al says. “I’ve always liked that station.” Carry on.
As far as Al knows, there are two people in the world apart from him who know this code. One is Ed; and the other is Roy Mustang.
“The journey followed a customary route,” Mrs Bradley continued. “I did enjoy seeing the train pass through the same little towns and villages, again and again. Let me see now, do I remember? We would pass through Tetherden, then the old station at Obenbeck. In my memory, the weather was always very fine. The train would stop outside Harburg sometimes; sheep on the tracks, I suppose. How I am going on! A fine lunch can be had from the stand at Kenningswood Station; I always made sure to ask for it. Did you ever pass through?”
Numb and automatic, Al translates: Observe and report. Use only this code. We are on the move.
“I remember it,” Al says. “Really well, actually.” He looks Mrs Bradley in the eye. So much code! It’s beyond doubt now. Yet absolutely nothing of it shows on her face. Al is astonished by her, and more than a little unnerved. He soldiers on. “I never ate there,” he says, “but my brother did a bunch of times. You know, actually—” he looks her in the eye and there is still nothing, nothing “— I still always keep a copy of the schedule book on me. I know the trains aren’t always on time, but — well — the more you know.”
I understand. I’m following the instructions. I’m ready.
Whatever else, right now, she’s showing herself to be, Mrs Bradley is not an alchemist. She must have been given these phrases to memorise. Who can Al be talking to? Whose message is Mrs Bradley passing to him? Can it be Brother? Ed got east, Ed is — surely, surely — in Xing by now, out of the country, out of reach. That leaves two options.
The first option is that the code is in enemy hands: that he’s being tested, played. But, cautious as Al is, this still seems to him next to impossible.
They left Ed’s coded notebooks in that sealed trunk in their apartment. They transmuted it into the wall cavity before the coup. Even so, it was probably long ago found and seized and opened by the enemy. But Al doubts even Katzenklavier could crack the code — and even should the worst have happened, Al can’t believe Ed would have relinquished it. There are terrible secrets in those notebooks, knowledge about the process of human transmutation that the pair of them should take to their graves.
The remaining possibility, then, is almost certainly the truth. Someone on Mustang’s side is undercover here, and has been given the code phrases to pass to Mrs Bradley. Mrs Bradley is the last link in a secret chain that leads all the way back to the only other person, besides Ed and Al, who understands this code. A person Al knows to be alive and free at the Northern frontier.
Roy Mustang is talking to Al. And Al can talk to him.
After his body was human once again, it took Al a long time and a lot of work to regain his poker face. Months of staring into the mirror: learning to control the muscles of his face, the set of his shoulders, those little tells, those unconscious and expressive twitches and shifts. Ed, to whom that degree of dedicated subterfuge is a foreign language, had argued with him at the time. What’s the point? Who do you ever need to lie to that bad? You never know, Al replied, when really he only wanted to be wholly human again, lying face and all.
Oh, but he’s glad now that he got it back. His face stays calm and blank; but his mind smiles and smiles and smiles.
Observe and report. This task is going to be far from easy to pull off; even giving it his all, Al might not get away with it. The order is simple, but the stakes are so high, and the risks are terrible. They’re being watched so carefully. Used too often, the code will start to sound suspicious. He’s confident that the code itself is safe from decipherment; but that they are using a code might be all too easy to discover.
But still, he’s so delighted he could damn well dance. He’s not just a prisoner any more. He’s a spy.
“Yes!” Ling says. “Exactly what you need, surely? You want to keep your valley’s arms manufacturing industry out of Hakuro’s hands. But your resistance movement is run by crafts-masters whose combat experience is limited to arm wrestling and football; plus one wounded soldier. You need a captain!”
“Okay,” says Winry, “thank you, that’s really kind of you to offer. But see, we’re not exactly planning on fighting fighting. We’re not an army, and you know, about a half of us are medical professionals. We were planning to do sabotage, disruption: you know, stopping the wheels turning. So I’m not sure what —”
“Ran Fan!” Ling yells. Winry and Ed jump. Mei sips her tea. And Ran Fan’s masked face appears, upside down, at the top of the window.
“Hey,” Ed says. Ling beckons.
Ran Fan’s face disappears for a moment, then she vaults gracefully through the window. “Yes,” she says. She pulls up her mask. “Miss Rockbell, your enemies are an army. They are trained and accomplished in war; their numbers and their firepower are vastly superior to yours. If you and your friends want to avoid a quick and bloody defeat, you’ll need help from an expert.”
“Ah?” Winry manages.
“I don’t know what sort of training they give Amestrian warriors,” Ran Fan says, “but in Xing an officer is trained thoroughly in the arts of stealth. I remember the debt we owe you; I apologise deeply that I can’t leave my post to help you myself.”
“You could leave it long enough to drink some tea,” Ling says. He pours a cup and holds it out to her with both hands.
Ran Fan blinks at him in a sort of resigned way, then she bows her head and says, “Yes, majesty.” She takes the cup and sits.
“So,” Ling says. “You can’t be spared, unfortunately. But who else would you recommend?”
Ed, Winry and Mei spend the rest of the morning deciding what they need and don’t have; negotiating what Ling can get for them; hearing Ran Fan’s advice on safe travel in secret. The mood starts to lift as the plan emerges. They’ll be leaving the capital before sunset, with Mei, two rentanjutsu masters, and the mentioned army captain. Ed and the rentanjutsu crew will make their way to Briggs, while Winry and the captain head for Rush Valley.
But what, says a little voice in Ed’s head, if we took a quick detour first? Found out where they’re holding Al, busted him out? Okay, so, it would be dangerous. Reckless; stupid even? Al would call it stupid, for sure. But how can Ed just leave him — wherever he is? Al might be detained but healthy, but he’s not invulnerable, not any more. He can feel hunger and thirst; exhaustion and pain. He can be damaged in ways that can’t be fixed. And he’s in the hands of people who’d be happy to do it. It hurts Ed’s heart to even let the idea near the surface of his mind.
He says nothing about this. Instead, Ed and Winry raise the question of the railway and the desert traders; Ling dodges the issue, but finally promises them that when the war is won, Mustang will be welcome to bring the traders to the negotiating table. A long conversation is had about Ling’s time with Greed; Ed and Mei ask a lot of technical questions, and Ling answers them as he can. He has difficulty, he says, in articulating the experience. There are, after all that, no true revelations. But what they learn does help. Food is brought in: steamed dumplings (delicious), chicken feet (surprisingly delicious) and cakes (predictably delicious).
“It’s a pity that you have to leave so soon!” Ling says, at length. “We’ve barely caught up. And Yin and my other consorts were dying to meet you.”
Winry grins. “Al says really nice things about your consorts.”
“They say nice things about him!”
Mei rolls her eyes. “Ah, Alphonse and his women,” she says, shaking her head. “Who would think that such a beautifully-mannered young man would turn out so lecherous?”
Ling simultaneously tries to catch Ed and Winry’s eyes. They both look in other directions. Mei doesn’t seem to notice. At the mention of Al, casual and jovial, Ed’s insides are again screwing into a ball. Again he is thinking, what if I …
“Still,” she says, with a bright little smile, “he’s a friend. And as they say, ‘even a flawless person has seven faults.’ You must forgive your friends their weak points!”
“I don’t have any faults,” says Ling. He raises an eyebrow. “Officially speaking, at least. It’s in the constitution!”
“Then it’s a good job you’ve got friends,” Ed says. “If you need your vices listing out, you always can ask us. By the way, these cakes look like butts.”
Winry gives him a narrow look.
“What? We’re all thinking it, I’m just getting it out there.”
“Actually, they’re in the shape of peaches,” Ling says, frowning deeply. Ed raises an eyebrow; Ling drops the frown and beams. “Peaches that look like butts! I like to have them served to foreign dignitaries sometimes, just to see what they’ll do.”
Mei looks a little mortified. She mouths at Winry and Ed, “No, he really does.”
The meeting ends merry and determined. Ling and Ran Fan slip away; the rest of them hail a bicycle rickshaw back to the palace. They’ve barely arrived in this city, and they’re already leaving. What if, tempts the voice in Ed’s mind. I can’t just leave Al. How can I know he’s okay? What if I ran it by Winry? What if I asked the captain and the rentanjutsu masters to help me bust him out. What if I just took off on my own?
When Ed and Winry get back, in the reception room of their quarters the enamelled tray is set out again; on it is a folded telegraph.
Ed’s stomach vaults from his throat to his pelvis and back. He and Winry reach the paper at the same time. They look at each other. Ed opens it.
=MJ EDWARD ELRIC, C/O PRIVATE OFFICE OF THE CELESTIAL THRONE, ZHONGDU, XING.
MESSAGE FOR YOU PERSONALLY FROM BRIDGEWIRE, RELAYED AT SOME RISK TO MULTIPLE PERSONS. AS FOLLOWS.
“DON’T DO ANYTHING RASH. TRUST ME.”
IT’S AN ORDER, BY THE WAY.
“Fuck you, you pair of psychic, telepathic bastards,” Ed says, and he sits on the floor.
“Not quite normal, though, is he?” Katzenklavier sips at his sherry. “From what I remember, Pride was a formidable creature.” Al’s chin jerks up before he can hide it. “Tell me how he comes to be like this.”
“You knew Pride?”
Katzenklavier shakes his head, waves a hand dismissively. “I only met him once or twice. I was involved, at one stage, in the Immortal Army project. I left it years before it was complete, though. Creative differences.”
“Ah,” Al says.
He wants to just ask Katzenklavier outright. What are you doing with Selim? Where is the Homunculus? What has gone so very wrong here that you’d resort to the advice of a dangerous traitor? He’s not certain enough yet of his ground. Observe and report.
Katzenklavier has a long, thin cut on his cheek, taped shut. Al wonders about that, too.
“My brother fought him,” Al said. “Pride had to jettison nearly everything but life itself. We thought he might regain some memories as he got older, but no. He’s not faking. He’s a little boy.”
“He’s not a human little boy,” Katzenklavier says. His nostrils arch and he looks at Al as if he’s vaguely disappointed. Al feels as though he’s in a tutorial. “Tomorrow I’ll take some samples, let you have a look at some blood and skin cells under the microscope.” He sounds jolly and generous, although he’s offering Al a treat.
Al reminds himself: just a pinprick and the scrape of a spatula inside Selim’s cheek. But his skin is crawling and prickling. He pictures Katzenklavier’s creations: skittering metal spiders and shambling wooden golems powered by maddened human souls.
“You must be wondering, of course,” Katzenklavier says, “about my artificial human.”
Al lifts his untouched sherry glass, sets it to his lips, downs the whole thing. It leaves a syrupy residue in his mouth. He runs his tongue over his teeth.
Katzenklavier says, “I’m afraid it’s unwell. Would you do me a favour and take a look?”
The back of Al’s mouth tastes like bile.
All right, so they’re in the Eastern countryside and four of their travelling party are Xingese. That’s gotten them a few covert stares from the other passengers on this train. But they’re all in Amestrian clothing now, and the bigger cities in the East have a Xingese population — and okay, people around here can be jerks about this stuff, but surely no one’s going to actually call the authorities just because they saw a couple of foreigners, right?
Then there are Winry and Ed. They might look local enough, but should anyone look closely enough, their faces can be recognised from wanted posters up and down the land. They’ve tried at least to make themselves as unremarkable as possible. Ed’s ponytail is hidden under a stupid tweed hat; his automail hand is gloved. At the Amestrian border, good old Mr Han gave them their documents, their cover story, their tickets, their warnings, their plan. They’re good; they’re golden.
So, why is the soldier who just checked their documents sweating so much?
They act casual. Winry feigns polite interest; Mei looks out the window, at the dim shapes of hills rushing past in the night. The six of them have the best poker faces in Amestris right now. The soldier – he’s a lieutenant, Ed notices his pips – reads over their documents a second time. His lips move as he does it. He sweats some more. This train’s mostly empty; they’re the only passengers in the carriage. Next to Ed, Mei shifts fractionally.
Then Lieutenant Whoever-he-is is holding out their documents, stone-faced. He hands them all back to Ed without another word, just a cursory nod. They all stay silent as he walks the length of the empty carriage, works the doors, and is gone to the next car along.
“Since when,” Ed says, after a cautious pause, “do they have the army just patrolling the trains now? We’re not even near the border any more!”
“We were near the border,” Winry says. “And Amestris has a really big army. And the Fuhrer’s an asshole.”
“That soldier,” says Captain Huang Xuanfeng. “Is that normal, how much he was sweating?”
“What?” says Ed, “you think Amestrians sweat more?”
“That’s a myth,” Mei says.
“He seemed really nervous,” Winry said. “Anyone else think —?”
The door at the end of the carriage groans. Everyone stills.
The lieutenant walks rapidly back through the carriage, barely glancing at them. He’s still sweating.
The door at the other end screeches as it’s closed. They’re alone again. They all glance at each other, checking in, checking that everyone is thinking the same thing.
“Shit,” Ed says.
He circles his right wrist, looks at it. The coat’s sleeves are long. There’s no way they could have glimpsed the automail.
“We should scout the train,” Captain Huang says.
Mei’s companions are on their feet before he’s even finished the sentence. Master Feng and Master Liu: one short and cheerful, the other tall and quiet; both somewhere in their forties; and both capable of stunning, terrifying rentanjutsu that Ed could watch all day long, with popcorn and a notebook. With a flick of Feng’s wrist, the feathered knives are in the train’s ceiling, and it peels itself open like a flower, utterly silent. One at a time, they spring from floor to table to roof. The roof closes itself without even a mark; with another transmutation, Mei pulls the knives down from the ceiling.
How many soldiers can there even be on this train? Surely their party has got to be more than a match for however many troopers?
Captain Huang says, “The real challenge isn’t the soldiers.” Ed turns. One step ahead, huh? Huang says, “It’s how we escape if they’ve sounded the alarm.”
“Yep. They’d have radioed already,” Ed says. He glances out the window: in the distance are the hills and crags and forest of Mossop National Park. It’s a great place to get lost: three winters back, he spent weeks hiding out there with Greed and Ling and their little gang. But the miles of countryside between the train track and the start of the forest are all open fields: hardly any cover. Dammit.
Xiao Mei has emerged from her hiding spot in Mei’s bag. She nuzzles Mei; Mei strokes her, frowning. “Well, even if they have spotted us, there’s got to be some way,” Mei says. “We didn’t come all the way from Xing to just get ourselves arrested.”
The roof peels open.
Ed’s on his feet, instantly; the others, too. Liu and Feng drop through the hole they’ve made, and as they silently land, the hole silently reseals. Ed so wants to know how to do that.
“There are fifteen soldiers advancing down the train,” Liu says. He sounds pretty calm about it.
“Advancing?” says Ed.
“Yes,” Feng says. “They identified you, Edward. The hat didn’t work.”
Ed throws off the stupid, itchy, non-disguising hat; he feels instantly five per cent better. “Okay,” he says, “so. Now what?”
“The troops are coming from the rear of the train,” says Captain Huang.
“Uncouple the train car,” says Ed without skipping a beat. He’s pulled this move before in a fight; he’s already out of his seat and jogging towards the carriage door.
He twists the handle, flings it open, and — looks straight into the eyes of a trooper. The barrel of the soldier’s rifle comes up fast, and before Ed has had time to think or move, the gun barrel crackles blue and twists itself into a knot, and a wall of steel slams sideways over the doorway.
“Nice!” Ed says. His heart is hammering. He turns. It was Mei; her hand is pressed to a knife-studded pentagon on the carriage wall. Then he remembers his manners, and adds, “Thanks!” After that, he remembers he has a job to do. He claps and shears through the coupler, before someone does that for him as well. The carriage behind parts from theirs, then drops further and further away down the track.
“Right!” says Mei. “So, we got away from the soldiers, but now they know we’re here.”
“You said they’d have used radios,” Huang says.
“Shit,” Ed says, realising. “They’ll call the next station ahead. The army’s going to be waiting for us when we get there.”
“When’s the next station?” says Huang.
“I don’t know!” says Ed. “Wait, was it Atherholt?”
“I think I heard that,” Winry says. “Should we uncouple this carriage from the train ahead too?”
“Then we’ll make ourselves a target,” says Huang. “The enemy can surround us and isolate us easily.”
Liu looks out of the window. “This terrain is exposed,” he says. “It would be hard to escape.”
“Could we take control of the engine car?” Winry says. “Then we could stop the train!”
“Then what?” Ed says. “You guys are right. We leave the train, we’re targets. We stay in the train, we’re targets. If we got ourselves as far as Mossop National Park, then it’s all wilderness: we could give them the slip.” He paces. “But how the fuck do we get there?”
“Can you turn the engine into a car?” Winry says. They all look at her. “I know, I know,” she says, “alchemy isn’t magic, blahblahblah. But there’s four of you guys! You’re only turning one machine into another. It’d have to be a weird steam-powered car; but still, getaway vehicle.”
“I know nothing about motor vehicles,” Liu says. “I can’t make it if I don’t know how it works.”
Feng nods. “I can drive a car, but I couldn’t transmute one.”
“I’m out too,” Ed says. “Nice idea, though.”
“Well, I could transmute an engine,” Winry says. “If I could transmute an anything. Which I can’t.”
Mei is staring out the window, with big worried eyes. “What’s the soil here made out of?” she says.
“The top soil’s got a lot of clay in it. Under that, sandstone and iron ore,” Ed says. She’s grasping at straws, he thinks. Sure, there’s enough iron that you could pull yourself some out of the earth, enough to make yourself a few rods. Maybe you could get a little more with distant transmutation but still, you couldn’t … you couldn’t …
He starts cackling. “Make our own rails?” he says.
“Why not?” says Mei.
“We’d have to be fast.”
“Well, there are four of us!”
“We need to take the engine room,” says Captain Huang.
They sprint through the mostly-empty carriages, their bags hoisted onto their backs. The passengers stare as they go; a kid sniffles. People must have heard the rear carriages detaching; they’re worried. Great.
“Okay, ” Ed says to the half-dozen people in the front first-class carriage. “Nobody panic! We’re just hijacking the train. Grab your stuff and get in the next carriage back, then call out for help. There are soldiers coming, tell ‘em we’re in the engine car. Tell ‘em we’re threatening you.”
The passengers still stare. They stare like Ed just walked in naked. They stay right where they are. “I’m the Fullmetal Alchemist!” he says. “I’m wanted for treason! We’re dangerous criminals!”
A couple of people gasp; one woman grips another’s sleeve. But the passengers still aren’t moving —
— And there’s flashing movement in Ed’s peripheral vision. He turns his head and sees that Captain Huang suddenly has a long, broad knife in each hand. How the hell was he hiding those in his suit?
Huang steps forward, whirling his arms in a flowing, flashy move, and stops in a combat stance, one arm extended. “We are threatening you,” he says. “Move, or be treated as the enemy!”
As one, the passengers sprint for the exit. Ed makes for the door, and they run to get away from him. After the last one passes through, he claps and shears the connection to the rear carriages.
“You were bluffing,” Ed says, turning to Huang. “Yeah?”
Huang shrugs. “If it came to blows, I’d hardly need to be armed.” He looks at the blank wall at the front end of the carriage, and blinks. “How do we reach the engine car?”
Ed points up; then Mei’s daggers are already marking a circle on the ceiling. Huang and the two rentanjutsu masters spring up to the seats, then up through the hole, backpacks and all. Winry’s the last; she throws her backpack up to Ed first, then, balancing on the top of a seat, manages to haul herself up with the help of his and Mei’s offered hands. For a tiny person, Mei’s surprisingly strong.
Huang, Liu and Feng have already made it to the engine room. Ed, Winry and Mei take the short jump across to the open tender car, then, in the moonlight, they pick their way across the shifting, crunching heaps of coal.
Ed can hear voices from the engine room already. He drops his backpack onto the coal, quickens his pace, sees the hole they’ve made in the top of the cab, vaults through it — and nearly kicks Feng in the face on his way down. The engine cab is tiny. Huang has one long dagger-sword pointed at the driver’s throat. Liu aims a fist full of rentanjutsu knives at the fireman, who, eyes wide, continues to shovel coal into the boiler, keeping the train pumping.
Ed feels instantly shitty. The driver and the fireman, they’re just regular guys. So many people are on Roy’s side, on their side, anyhow. Maybe if Ed explained —
“You’re the Fullmetal Alchemist,” says the driver. His jaw is shaking.
“Yeah,” Ed says. “Look, we don’t want to hurt —”
“Please,” the driver says. “Please. Don’t make me do this. Don’t make me do this, I’ve got a family.”
Shit. It hits Ed like a sock in the jaw: if they make the driver help, knifepoint or not, he’s aided and abetted a bunch of traitors. Hakuro’s guys aren’t going to be reasonable or understanding. He’s fucked.
“Get out!” he says. The driver and the fireman just look at him. He closes his steel right hand over Huang’s long knife, pushes it away from the driver’s throat. Huang jerks the blade back out of Ed’s hand; steel scrapes and rings against steel. The driver draws back against the cab wall, then jumps as Huang again levels a knife at his windpipe.
Ed eyeballs Huang, draws a deep breath in preparation for giving Huang his frank opinion on the subject —
“Captain Huang! Let him go.” It’s Mei, calling down from the roof of the cab.
Huang’s chin jerks down. He points his sword at the floor. “Yes, highness,” he says.
Well, that answers Ed’s lingering confusion about who the hell’s in charge around here.
Ed claps; he grows a ladder up the cab wall, out to the tender car. He turns to the driver. “Get out!” The driver starts scrambling up. Ed takes the shovel from the fireman. “Now!”
He starts shovelling. He has to, if he wants to keep them moving: a steam train eats coal by the ton. Ed digs his shovel into the hopper on the back wall where coal rolls down from the tender; then he turns and throws the coal through the hole inside which the furnace glows and blasts heat like a little sun. In his winter coat, he’s sweating in moments.
Huang grabs his shoulder. “That was naïve and stupid!”
“We didn’t have a right!” Ed says. He shrugs off Huang’s shoulder, thrusts his shovel into the hopper again, turns, throws. “We force those guys to help us, we might as well have killed them. Ask the princess.”
Huang leans into his space, drops his voice. “The seventeenth princess is a fourteen year old girl.”
“Yeah, and she’s your boss,” Ed says.
Huang snorts. He’s a full five inches taller than Ed, not counting the topknot, and a whole bunch broader. He’s using it. He glowers down at Ed; Ed scowls right on back. “Captain Yao was right; she warned me you did this sort of thing. Who’s going to drive this train now?”
From behind the cab, there’s a distant, metallic screech and a crunch. The cab shudders as their one remaining carriage detaches: carrying, Ed guesses, the driver and fireman.
Mei’s head appears in the hole in the roof. “Which way are we headed?”
Ed hands his shovel to Huang, and climbs the ladder far enough to stick his head and shoulders above the roof. “That way,” he says, pointing at the hills of Mossop. Mei nods at him, plants her feet, and slingshots a fist of knives.
“Edward,” Huang calls. “Know how to drive a train?”
“What, of course I don’t!” Ed yells back. “I dunno, how ‘bout we just keep it going then work out how to brake?”
“I can drive the train,” says Winry.
Ed looks round: she’s on her feet on top of the tender car, legs spread and arms out for balance. She’s got that look in her eye. “I could,” she says.
“Uh,” Ed says. “I know you had that train phase when we were kids,” Ed says, “but you didn’t actually learn how to drive —”
Winry is headed for the ladder already; he drops back into the cab to let her scramble down. “Reversing lever!” she says, pointing at the bank of instrumentation. “Throttle! See? Cylinder cocks — don’t you laugh — engine brakes! I had a book off by heart, I got the driver to let me see the cab every time we went to East!” She takes hold of the throttle. “Whistle cable!” She yanks on a cable above her head; the steam whistle blows two short blasts. Winry grins and fist-pumps the air. Huang shakes his head at her.
“Yeah, well,” Ed says, “That was a while back.”
“Too late!” Winry says. “I’m already driving it, smartypants.” And she sticks her tongue out at him.
That’s that; after a moment, Ed can’t help but shrug and grin. He claps Winry on the shoulder. Huang is still shovelling. He’s lost the shirt and jacket. Ed grins and jiggles his eyebrows at him, hoping to aggravate. Then — ha! — he heads up the ladder.
Up top, the chilly wind whips his hair as they plough through the countryside. The new rails have curved far away from the tracks. Ed turns; at the rear of the tender, Ed can see Feng and Liu’s figures and the flash of transmutations. He jumps onto the tender, runs its length. His boots crunch in the coal; the night air buffets his back. As he thought, they’re pulling up the transmuted track after them. Ed can just about make out the earth sinking, the grass stretching, so neatly, for yards and yards behind their train.
They’re pulling this off! They really are! Okay, so they’ve got to get to Mossop and then Winry has to brake and then they’ve got to hide a fifty foot long steam engine and cover their tracks and navigate themselves through the wilderness and out again. But they got this far! What a team! The audacity of their escape, the flash of it, the brilliant results of their shared efforts: it makes Ed want to crow.
He runs back up to the cab, and watches the dark hills of Mossop get steadily closer. He watches Mei transmuting for a moment. The ground in front of the train rises up to make them a platform, and then new iron curls up to meet them. Every so often, Mei will stop to transmute a new set of daggers out of the cab roof. There’s a little scoop of metal gone where she’s been plundering it. And Ed? It looks like, for once in his life, he can sit this one out. Or rather, he can head below and make Huang the generous offer of another pair of arms to shovel the coal.
Mei hasn’t even broken a sweat.
Rentanjutsu has never looked like such a tempting field of study as it does right now.
A glass tank, carpeted with sawdust, with a bell, wooden blocks, shredded newspaper, a chewed blanket. As if it were a rabbit.
A single tendril is poking out of the pile of shredded paper. The stubby digits at its end twitch and shift occasionally.
“You’re feeding it?” he says.
“Of course,” says Katzenklavier. “Just blood. But it’s not eating very well. What do you think?”
Of the creature’s qi, Al supposes that he means. Al folds his arms. “It’s not like I can see much.” It’s only half a lie.
“I believe it was …” Katzenklavier pauses, considers, blows a slow breath out through his teeth. “Disturbed is probably the word. By the situation at headquarters.”
The situation? “The coup? What happened?” Al still doesn’t know. Did it kill? Did it kill his friends?
“It was fired upon. The situation became chaotic, it got agitated. It attacked its handler.” Another whistling sigh. Al can only imagine what the creature did to the poor bastard. “I take some responsibility. I’m a little old for that sort of thing myself, but the handler was inexperienced and temperamentally unsuitable.” Katzenklavier looks at Al, sidelong. “Do you remember fighting it? On the train?”
“ Yes,” Al says. Deadly and uncontrolled. Powerful and chaotic. Flailing. Fearful. It had drained a couple of pints of blood from Brother in a couple of minutes; it had known instinctually how to do so. Or it had learnt. “Is it always this … sensitive in combat situations?”
“Yes,” says Katzenklavier. “You spoke with Father at some point, yes? The Xerxean Homunculus?”
Damn. How far was he in? “Yes,” Al says.
“A matured Homunculus is so different to this little thing.” Katzenklavier taps the glass. The single visible shadow-tendril pulls back into the newspaper nest like a snail’s eyestalk. “So powerful and so hardy. I imagine the difference is very much like that between an adult human being and an infant.”
Al can’t imagine what he’s supposed to say. He supposes his job is to nod. He nods.
“Homunculi, however, have advantages in this regard.” Katzenklavier turns from the tank, and looks Al in the eye. “We can mature this one faster, and we need to. We don’t want an adult, of course. We don’t want it any larger, but we do need it more stable. A question of balance, and the material’s volatile.”
“And it’s not eating?”
“Exactly.” Katzenklavier pats Al’s shoulder for a moment. Al’s skin nearly crackles with instinctive disgust. “I’ll leave you to examine it. I’d stay hands off if I were you.”
He goes out of the room and Al pulls himself up a chair. He sits. He thinks. He sees no mirror, but he doesn’t doubt for a second he’s being observed.
So. Even under threat of death, even with his family under threat of death, how far does Katzenklavier think Al will be willing to help? Al isn’t sure if there isn’t some further secret here. Perhaps he’s banking on Al’s scientific curiosity, his alchemist’s fascination with the taboo. Perhaps he thinks Al will find the creature safer stable. At any rate, at least Al’s course right now is straightforward. Discover the condition of the creature, get a message out to Mustang, and decide how honest to be with Katzenklavier about what he’s discovered.
Al has his books here; The Perfection of Matter and its commentary. He may as well start there. So he sits cross-legged on the floor, reads and thinks. He glances up occasionally at the tank, and notices no movement. It’s an odd respite, to be left almost alone with his books. The winter sun comes in at the tall old window. Through it, Al glimpses gardens, bare trees. They’re at Mrs Bradley’s manor house: he’s almost sure of it now.
After a couple of hours, Al calls for a glass of water and is allowed to drink it, under armed supervision.
An hour after that, he looks up and the creature is there. It’s pressed against the glass, half a dozen eyes watching him. Its limbs rake nervously through the sawdust.
“Hello,” Al says.
The creature watches him, unblinking.
“I won’t hurt you,” Al says. “I’m just reading.”
A few of the eyes blink slowly at him. Of course, Al fought this thing a few months ago. Does it remember?
Slowly, as if backing away from Al, it withdraws again into its shredded newspaper nest. Looks like it does remember.
Al’s lunch is delivered under the same supervision. He asks for a message to be passed to Katzenklavier that he’ll remain here for the rest of the day.
It takes two days of this routine for the creature to stop hiding from him. After it emerges, just after sunset on the second day, they watch each other for a while.
“How’s it going?” Al says.
A sharp mouth opens in the creature’s centre. It presses the lips together into a line, as if considering, then parts them. “I want to come out of the tank,” it says. A scraping, many-voiced sound, sad and strange. Al jolts a little; he hasn’t heard it speak since the train.
“You do, huh?” Al says.
“It’s boring and I’m on my own,” the creature says. It shifts over to the tank’s other side, presses eyes to the glass. Its bulk drags and undulates like a slug’s.
“What do you do when you’re out the tank?” Al says. It’s dangerous, he thinks. But Katzenklavier was in the habit of letting it out in the past. And he could gain its trust.
“Play,” says the creature, “talk. Look at things.”
This might not be such a good idea. It really might not. Al needs to make progress. Won’t he have to take this risk at some point? Should he wait.
It’s gathered itself up tall now, and is still and contained, watching him the way a stray cat watches you.
His nerves jangle. He questions his own good sense as he undoes the catches, swings back the lid of the tank. It feels like he's been holding out for so damn long, tired and hungry and powerless and chained, playing good, waiting. And here is a chance, here is an opportunity to get some real information for Mustang, to move them towards an advantage. He reaches his arms down slowly. That chain of people stretching down from Mustang in Briggs to Mrs Bradley here: they've taken such risks to pass him a message. Now he's taking a risk for them.
He doubts himself. The creature is calm. This is instinct. This is a hunch. This is ridiculous. Al may as well be opening the door to a tiger cage. If he misjudged, his death won't get anyone anywhere.
He reconsiders, and starts to straighten.
And — of course — tendrils rapidly coil around both his arms, prickling like wire wool, and the creature hoists itself up, and its weight is upon him. It’s heavy and amorphous, shifting on him like a bag of water. Al remembers the creature swarming Ed on the train, clinging, suffocating, trying to bleed him dry. This thing is stronger than Al. He goes to his knees, sits on the floor.
He looks at the creature. The eyes stare back into him. There is nothing like a human expression there, nothing like a face. Al cannot read it. The not-skin of the creature prickles Al’s arms, scratches through his shirt. Al concentrates and feels the souls within it shift and jerk, but it’s hard for him to focus like this, and too unnerving. Tendrils extend and stroke Al’s neck, pat curiously at his hair. Around him, Al’s body is going into full-on fight or flight mode. His heart is pistoning a cocktail of stress hormones round his system. He feels them kicking in, lets it all settle for a moment: stay focussed, stay calm. Should he speak? Should he try to lift it off?
“I miss Selim,” the creature says. Selim? “Do you know where Selim is?”
“Yes,” Al says. “Selim’s fine. You guys — know each other?”
“He used to come here and play,” the creature says. Its weight slumps into Al’s lap. The tendrils pull from his hair and tap at his chest. “All the time. But not any more.”
“You played together?” Al says. Sounds ominous.
“Snap,” says the creature.
Al boggles. “Snap?”
“It’s a game with cards,” says the creature. “And he tells stories, and we sit together. I like Selim.”
“Is that why you’re not eating?” Al says.
“No,” the creature says. “It’s because they’re putting water in it. There’s not enough. It tastes bad.”
Oh. They’re watering down the blood, to keep it small; hoping it won’t notice, maybe. Katzenklavier could have mentioned.
“I’m really hungry,” says the creature.
“I’m sorry,” says Al, “that sucks,” and his heart leaps into his gullet. He’s kicking himself so hard right now.
Stupid for doing this, stupid for telling himself he made the right call, stupid because he’s realised just what might be about to happen, and if he can’t get the creature off him in time, it’s going to be his own damn fault. Carefully, carefully, he puts a hand to the tendril around his left forearm. A stubby baby hand clings to his finger, and he unwinds one spool, two —
The bite into the soft flesh at his inner elbow is sharp and agonising and very unsurprising. Al hisses, and the pain recedes to a heavy throb, and then there’s suction.
Al breathes. After a moment, he tries to unwind the limb again. It tightens hard around his upper arm, the friction scrapes Al’s skin, and the suction gets greedier and it makes Al gasp. A paw bats at the side of his face, lightly, and the creature makes an unhappy noise. Al stills.
“Do you do this to the doctor?” Al says.
“No,” says a mouth opening in the cloudy mass over Al’s shoulder. “He doesn’t like it.”
“I don’t like it,” Al says. “It hurts. You don’t like it when things hurt, right?”
“It hurts when I’m hungry,” says the mouth. It sounds petulant.
“It’ll really hurt me if you take too much,” Al says. Why should it care? says a voice in his head. This isn’t Selim. This isn’t a nearly-human child. Then, inspired, “Would you like me to find out why Selim doesn’t come here any more?”
“Yes!” says the creature. It sucks emphatically, and Al can’t help but put a hand on it over his arm. His ears buzz. Either it’s bleeding him fast or he’s hyperventilating; he hopes so much it’s the latter. He draws in a slow, deep breath.
“I know you’re hungry, but it’s hurting me,” Al says. “Have you had enough? Can you stop? I can’t find out stuff for you if I’m —”
The tendril has uncurled from his arm. The release is sudden; Al brings his arm up, inspects the puncture mark. The wound is small, like he got jabbed with a scissor-prong. It bleeds sluggishly. Al presses a thumb over it. So the creature picked a vein, not an artery. Al isn’t going to bleed out. Oh good.
The creature sits in his lap, if you can call it sitting, looking at him with twice as many eyes as before and saying nothing. Against his better judgment, Al pats it gingerly. “Thanks for letting go,” he says.
The creature looks at him.
“Are you full now?” he says.
“Quite full,” the creature says. It slithers off his lap, spreads itself across the floor, and starts examining the curtains. The windows are sealed shut. Al wonders: it must have the strength to break glass, but they contain it in a tank. Does it know that it has that strength? Is it afraid? Habituated to captivity? Half-tamed things are often the most dangerous. Al probably should have remembered that before he tried this.
Al also notices that, despite the fact that someone must be watching all of this, no one showed up to help. He can’t decide if that’s a plus or a minus.
After a few more moments of worrying the curtains, the creature stretches and slinks all the way over and back in its tank. Al moves cautiously, cautiously over, and he puts a hand to the lid. The creature regards him with what Al interprets as mild interest. Its eyes close to slits, and it burrows into its paper nest.
Softly, Al closes the lid, locks it down, checks the locks, checks them again. Blood trickles down his arm and over his palm. He presses fingertips to the puncture wound.
He needs to speak to Selim about this, immediately. A conversation with Selim, and a message for his mother to pass north. In his head, Al begins to compose the code.
Al walks all the way over to the far wall, his legs suddenly unsteady and shaking. He sits on the floor, leans his back against the solid wall, watches the tank, and breathes.
Then there are three hours of hiking into the wilderness in the freezing night, mapless and with only the dim moonlight to guide them. Huang leads them up into the hills, along winding trails. Mei and the others march on, looking hardy, while Winry gradually feels the cold starting to coil into her bones. It’s deep winter now, and although there’s no snow here now, it must be near freezing. Ed’s had Northern automail for years now, but still, Winry watches his strides carefully. He’s always stubborn; and he’s apparently got some kind of competitive sexual tension thing happening with Huang, so if the cold’s getting to him, there’s no way he’ll admit it.
Surprisingly, it’s quiet Master Liu who’s the first one to say it. “That cave,” he says. “This is a good spot to rest. We can light a fire in the mouth.”
“Is this bear country?” says Feng.
“No,” Ed says. “Bears and wolves are only way up north. Worst you’ll get in these parts is a cranky badger.” His voice sounds scratchy and tired. It is getting to him.
They take an hour’s watch each. After her own stint, Winry can’t sleep. She curls next to Mei, but her eyes are half-open, watching the fire and Captain Huang’s back beyond it.
Rush Valley is south-east from here. Briggs is straight North. In the morning, they’re all going to have to part. And then?
How many times has she waved goodbye to Ed and Al, not knowing when or if there’ll be a hello? There’s been danger before. She’s been on the lam before. She spent a winter hiding out in a city she didn’t know, with Al, with the boys’ odd and lovely father, with strangers who became friends.
But this time is so very different.
They’re fifty miles from Granny’s house, but she can’t visit, can’t even risk a message. She’s a criminal, a saboteur, a traitor. Revolutionary, resistance fighter: those names sound kind of better. But this time is different, and not just because she got herself into more trouble.
She’s going to war. This isn’t how she pictured it. Her parents died by standing in the middle of a bloody and unconscionable war, trying to heal people. That’s her place — but it’s not the place that she’s headed right now.
The Rush Valley Network started out with aims and methods: sabotage and obstruction, keeping weapons out of the hands of the enemy. They were all so very keen never to get violent, never to pick up guns, in that meeting in the top room of the Bell Inn. Now she’s taking them a warrior.
They do need someone like Captain Huang, Ling and Ran Fan were right about that; and she trusts them to give her a trustworthy guy, the right guy for the job. But yesterday morning, he said to her, whatever they planned, whatever they promised — if your friends are still alive, they will all have picked up a rifle by now.
He might be right. She’s afraid.
What is happening to her friends, right now, up in the mountains? She nearly shot a man, once, and for all Ed told her she wasn’t capable of it, in truth, she thinks she might be. It’s funny: Rush Valley was always for her the place where she discovered what she could really do. Now she’s returning, and she knows it’s changed, and she’s going to discover once more what she’s capable of. And she’s afraid: fear is with her constantly, every day now, crouching at the back of her mind, twisting in her abdomen. Ed, Al, Granny, her friends, herself. What could be done to them. What could be done to her. What could be done to the country. But beyond everything, most of all: what she might do.
She’s going anyway, of course.
Ed’s awake soon after dawn. He watches her, sleepy-eyed and wryly smiling, as she checks her backpack.
Captain Huang stands by the mouth of the cave. In the early morning, the view is magnificent, the sky still pink, the wind like a face full of ice.
She leans over, kisses Mei on the cheek as she sleeps. She shoulders her pack.
Ed stands without a word, comes over, hugs her hard. “Good luck,” she whispers to him. “Thank you for everything.”
“Don’t say that stuff now,” Ed mutters. “Don’t say that stuff. We’re gonna see each other again, you and me and Al. We’ll meet you in Central, meet you for the inauguration.”
Winry shakes her head against Ed’s shoulder; nearly laughs, but her throat closes up on her. “You don’t say that stuff now,” she says, and her voice catches twice on six words. But Ed’s faith — absolute, ridiculous — it’s always been infectious.
Just before the track curves around the hill, she turns back. He’s standing just outside the mouth of the cave. When he sees her turn, he raises his fist in the air. This time she does laugh, just a little bit. She raises her fist in return, holds it high as they walk around the corner and out of sight.
She digs a hand under her jacket, pulls out from round her neck the little compass on a ribbon that Ran Fan gave her.
“South-east,” Captain Huang says.
“Rush Valley,” she says, and points. “Lot of people counting on us. Off we go.”
It’s going to be a long walk.
The sunshine warms the back of Ed’s neck; it makes the snow glare bright enough that Ed can’t keep his eyes on it. He looks higher instead: at the horizon, at the peaks of the great Northern mountains stretching on and on, fading all the way into Drachma.
In the snow, there are no trails to follow, but Liu has map and compass and is navigating them cross-country, winding around the sides of the peaks. A mountain rises in great white banks at Ed’s left side; on his right, it falls away in long slopes down to a pine forest half-buried in snow.
In front of him, Mei marches stolidly forward in her snow shoes. Hiking in these things is such a ball ache. But they don’t have far to go. Beyond the next ridge, or the ridge after that, is Briggs Fortress.
The march is a quiet one now. Ed ran out of conversation days ago; they all did. They’re all pretty tired. He just looks ahead. It’s funny, really. He could talk about rentanjutsu all day and night forever, and here he is in the wilderness with three rentanjutsu masters. But this journey, this long aching crappy journey, is getting to him. He's crossed two continents, months and months, on the run, with no Al and no Roy, feeding the little fire of hope inside of him, feeding it and shielding it and trying so fucking hard not to think about all the bad shit, the stuff that could snuff it to an ember.
He doesn’t remember being this tired the first time around, through the years of his quest with Al, counting down to the Promised Day. He was a kid. Maybe that made it easier. Somehow he can’t shake it off this time. Feeling old at twenty; Roy would laugh at him.
And so, here he is, with three of the most fascinating founts of fascinating knowledge of a fascinating discipline. Really, he should be fascinated. But right now, he just can’t get it up.
What can he get it up for? The sight of Briggs. Just the fortress, in the distance. And that’ll be enough to keep him going until he arrives, until, in his imagination, he sees Roy standing there, right in front of it, doing that dumbass pose he does when he’s trying to look badass but all casual with it, like he’s so cool he hasn’t even noticed how cool he is. That posture: feet planted, hands in his trouser pockets, coat tails pushed back to swing dramatically behind him.
Then maybe Ed will just grab his coat lapels and yank him forward and go ahead and kiss him in front of half the Northern army.
He could get it up for that.
He could get it up for a hot bath, although he knows in Briggs Fortress his chances are not so great. He’s reached a point in this trip where he’s stopped trying to manage his expectations and has started openly fantasising: hot baths, spicy stew and beer, some indeterminate kind of cloudy toasty-warm mega-bed. A few weeks ago he was in the Imperial Palace in Xing and he actually briefly had all this stuff. Under the circumstances, he’d felt obligated to resent it wildly, even as he stuffed his face and took three baths a day. Now it just seems like a waste of luxury not to actually luxuriate in it. He’s done feeling resentful of it because other people have it harder than him. Ed’s not dead and he’s not in prison, and some people are, but now it seems like it’s been forever he’s been cold and hungry and his back hurting and his automail ports aching deep with the cold. He’s just bone tired. So. Luxury. Bring it on.
Or, more realistically, bring on Briggs, which will not be luxurious, but will be vaguely like civilisation. Bring on a bed, of some description. Bring on fire. Bring on a hot mug of slightly crappy army cocoa. Bring on Roy, in all his shades and nuances: his careful intonations and his little frowns and his wry jokes and his broad shoulders. Bring on Roy, alive and warm and real, to trade stories and talk around worries and plan plans with him, to hold in his arms. Bring on Roy.
There’s so much further to struggle after he reaches Briggs, he knows. Al. Revolution. War. The little Homunculus. Right now, though, he can’t even look at it all. It’s like the glaring snow, like the mountains stretching ahead until they blend into the sky. Too much at once. He just needs to get to the next staging post. Just the next.
“I see it!” Liu yells. “Just round the corner!”
They all pick up the pace.
Ed rounds the corner, slowed by Mei’s little legs and trying not to resent it. Behind the mountain, it reveals itself gradually: the dark grey block of Briggs Fortress, nestled into the peaks.
“It’s very boxy,” Feng says. “I thought it was supposed to be a castle.”
“It’s modern,” Ed says. “Mid-nineteenth century or something.” They made him learn the date in school, a billion years ago, but he was busy doodling formulae into his desktop with the point of a compass.
“A few hours’ walk?” Mei asks.
“Perhaps two or three,” Liu says.
She sighs. “Further than it looks.”
Liu draws a breath. “Well,” he says, “to feel hunger and cold and exhaustion, in such a magnificent landscape, reminds one that one is —“
“— Nothing but a tiny human being,” Feng continues.
“— Caught up in Nature’s great indifferent flow,” Ed finishes. “Sorry, man, but I am so sick of that poem now.”
“It’s better in Xingese,” Liu says. He draws a breath and begins reciting, and then Feng and Mei cut him off by groaning theatrically.
“We should be nice,” Feng says. “It is his favourite poem.”
“Do you have a favourite poem, Ed?” says Mei.
Ed snorts. “Nope. But I can teach you the official song of Briggs if you like. If I had the wings of an eagle, if I had the ass of —“
Ed looks away from the fort on the horizon and back at her, and realises she’s clearing snow off her cheek. He follows her gaze up. A little flurry of snow is trickling down the mountainside above them.
“It’s the sunny weather, I think,” Feng says. “After the rain.” The snowslide has become a stream of powder over their boots.
“Listen to the big expert,” Liu says. “Feng, you’re from Longyamen. It’s the tropics, you’d never even seen snow until two weeks ago.”
“Yes, but he’s right,” says Mei. “In winter in my province, the rain —“
Ed doesn’t hear the rest, because a big spray of snow hits him in the face. It’s loud in his ears, aching-freezing, and he tries to slap it away, to shield his face. His feet slip. He plants his legs, trying to work out how he suddenly lost his footing, and he realises that the ground is moving under him, wait, now it is moving under him, far too fast, and he can’t look around him because fucking snow spray in his face and his foot or the ground or something abruptly slips again and now the ground is gone from under him, and his feet kick at nothing. He’s pulled under and the sunlight is gone.
The world goes blue and dark. It’s like he’s underwater. The world is light filtered through snow, roaring in his ears; he’s somewhere in the deep, and snow is pouring around him, throwing him around, spinning him. He is flying, he is drowning, a building is falling in on his head.
The impact is a hard slap at his back. He lands. He’s stopped. But the flood of snow never slows: as he tries to draw breath, it pours around him and crushes him in. He puts his hands up against it, then tries to bring his palms together, but the sheer force of it keeps them wrenched apart, and the snow just keeps on pouring and pressing around him so hard, so relentlessly.
And then, finally, finally, it is all done. And he is packed in on all sides by snow that is solid, immovable, impossibly hard; and he can see only faint blue light; and there is a long and ringing silence.
On the other side of it, the infant Homunculus sits in Selim’s lap, curled like a cat. One thin tentacle inspects the toy car Selim is holding in the air.
“This is the baby car,” Selim says to the creature. Next to it, he holds up a battered tin double-decker bus. “And this is the mommy car. They drive everywhere together.” He mimes the motion.
The creature extends stubby digits from the tentacle, wraps the little car. Selim relinquishes it calmly. They crash car and bus into each other a couple of times.
Al holds his breath. Dr. Katzenklavier turns his head. Al stares ahead, doesn’t make eye contact.
“What do they do when the baby car’s hungry?” says the creature. Its polyphonic voice is high and low at the same time, muffled through the glass.
“They eat grass,” Selim tells him, with a definitive air. “Mommy car cuts it up.”
“I’m hungry,” the creature adds.
Selim turns bus and car on their side, lays them on the floor. “Now they’re sleeping. You’re always hungry.”
Alarm jolts through Al’s system. Next to him, Katzenklavier has gone still. Al turns. Katzenklavier doesn’t look at him.
“I think I should go out there,” Al says.
Katzenklavier blinks, doesn’t look at him, and points a deliberate finger forward, to the other side of the glass.
One of the creature’s limbs nuzzles at the inside of Selim’s elbow. Al stares. He makes out the edges of a tiny mouth.
“This isn’t the first time,” Al says, realising. His stomach rolls over.
“No,” says Katzenklavier. He stares ahead, intent, extends his finger to a brass button on the wall. Selim is wincing but he doesn’t look afraid: more reluctantly tolerant, pouting slightly. As if he’s submitting to having his face washed, or his hair cut.
Katzenklavier’s lips are moving. He counts down: three, two, one.
He presses the button. Nothing sounds, but a moment later, a uniformed man and woman are in the room. A glass bell jar is clapped over the creature’s body. Selim shrieks and scrambles back. The creature lets go of his elbow, shoots its limbs back within itself, emits a panicky whine.
"Don't take him!" Selim yells. "Don't take him, don't take him! Don't don't, please, don't, please!" He yells again and again. His little face is red and scrunched; tears are starting in his eyes.
The bell jar sits on the floor. Al has risen to his feet. He watches, sucking in air, as one of the officers slips a lid under the bell jar, practiced and cautious. Al glimpses a pocket watch. State Alchemists.
In its glass case, the creature hunches into a miserable ball. Selim sits on the floor and bawls with the uninhibited abandon of small children everywhere. As the alchemists remove the glass jar to a corner, another soldier brushes past them, sets a field medical kit down on the floor. He takes Selim’s arm with no gentleness, dabs on iodine, slaps on a dressing. Selim’s sobs quieten a little as he does it, but when he lets go, he raises his voice to a wretched howl.
“You’ve done this before,” Al murmurs. “You starve it and then let it feed from Selim.”
“We have done,” Katzenklavier says. “We do limit the quantity.” He ushers Al from the room with a hand to his back. Al is guarded; he doesn’t dare shake it off. “And we were holding off recently, to observe the effects of deprivation.” He seems to catch Al’s look and he shrugs. “The experiment was something of a stab in the dark, so.”
Al can’t think of what to say to this man. He wants to say plenty of things. It’s just, he just can’t seem to locate the words.
Selim is a small, miserable ball, hugging his knees in the soldier’s shadow. The soldier bends down to speak to him, saying words Al can’t hear. Al registers more movement — the soldier’s arm reaching out — no, wait. It hasn’t moved. It takes him a moment to put it together. He saw — thinks he saw — the man’s shadow stretch its arm, and then he looks up, and the man’s arm was still.
He stares at Selim and the soldier. He stares at the shadows at their feet, stares himself blind as the soldier speaks to Selim and then picks him up, as Selim wraps his small arms around his shoulders and quietly sniffles, and their joined and perfectly ordinary shadow follows them as they walk out of the room.
Did Al see that? Did he?
He turns; Katzenklavier looks at him with his usual face on: civil, mild and unreadable, like a butler in a movie.
“All yours,” says Katzenklavier, opening the door with a smooth flourish. He sweeps off. Al rushes in.
The snow packs around Ed from every side, and it feels hard, solid. He can’t move his hands. He can’t turn his head. There’s snow between his lips and his teeth. He’s encased, tilted halfway on his back, his eyes open to slits, staring at sunlight filtered deep blue through the snow above him.
It’s like a coffin. It is a coffin.
His hands are raised in front of him: protecting himself reflexively, he guesses. He doesn’t remember doing that. He can’t see his hands, but he estimates they’re maybe ten inches or so apart. He can feel that the glove has been ripped from his left hand; his right too, he guesses. His fingers ache with the chill. All of him aches. And he cannot move an inch: not even to turn his head, or to wriggle a finger.
And to think that he’s within sight of Briggs; or at least, he would be if he wasn’t buried under a fucking avalanche.
What happened to the others? They’re probably in the same fix as him. He can’t bank on a rescue right now, at any rate.
He has the worst luck with the North, Ed thinks. Survival of the fittest. Asshole of a place, fucked if he’s ever coming here again. Weather, he thinks, weary. Two continents, an army after him, Roy two miles away and Al spying for them from prison, and he’s going to get himself killed by the goddamn weather. This is stupid. It’s ridiculous. He laughs; his mouth fills with snow.
So here he is. An odd, warm, quiet feeling settles somewhere deep within him. After a few moments he considers the feeling. It can’t be a good sign. Where is the fire he depends upon in these deadly moments, that thing inside him that makes him grit his teeth and say screw you, death, I’m getting out of this?
There can’t be that much air in here.
Well, there are pretty much two outcomes to this: either he somehow gets his hands together to clap, or he fails to manage it, and he probably suffocates to death before he freezes.
Well, that’s nice and straightforward. He has to try.
He drifts for a moment, considering the idea of trying.
No. Move. Just fucking do it, Elric.
No dice. Or rather, he realises after a few frustrating wriggles, nought point one percent dice. He has definitely enlarged the degree to which his fingers can move, just a little. He wants to stop. He doesn’t let himself; he continues. Wriggling his fingers, pushing back, slowly gaining a little ground. His left hand is rapidly and painfully going numb. The right, which was always numb, has the advantage. When shit goes down, it often does.
Slowly, slowly, Ed works his fingers towards one another. His left hand aches some more, numbs some more. He thinks again about stopping, just for a moment, stopping and letting himself drift for a moment or two. But no. If he stops, he won’t start again. He has found a tiny spark of stubborn energy within himself, and he uses it, fuels it with a stupid pep-talk litany in his head. Suck it up. Keep moving. He can just about feel how the space his fingers are moving in is larger now. His face aches, then numbs. He shivers. The blue underwater light starts to turn colours, brown and purple. So, he’s breathing deoxygenated air now, he thinks. He doesn’t have much time. He clenches his jaw and keeps up the steady working of his hands, fingers back and forth. Get there. Al. Winry. Granny. Ling. Roy. Your mission. Your job. Get there. The part of him that feels and cares about any of this is numbing out like he’s blind drunk. The colours in front of his eyes swirl and shift. His shivering has become convulsive, unstoppable. The weird warmth in his chest is spreading out. He keeps moving. Get there. Don’t stop. Don’t space out. Don’t go to sleep. Get there. Don’t sleep.
When his right middle finger reaches out and taps something solid, the hit of surprise feels small and distant.
He’s blank for a moment. Did he imagine this? He tries again. Right now his left hand is as numb as the automail. But still, he can tell as always that his right hand touches something: he feels the resistance running through to his shoulder. He tries to wiggle the fingers of his chilled left hand. Sure enough, the thing touching the tips of his automail fingers moves.
His ears ring; his head feels fizzy and light. No, not now. He bites his own frozen lip and the pain, for a moment, returns him to himself. His fingers connect again, and for an instant he has clarity and intent, becomes the circle, wills the formula —
Around his hands, the snow blasts up into the air. Suddenly there’s sunlight, blinding, and air, and he sucks in two full breaths before the snow rains back down around him.
There’s a moment of panic; another moment where he just holds the air in his lungs and tries to centre himself. Then singing relief. The snow that’s fallen now is loose and light, not packed in like concrete around him the way the avalanche was. He waves his arms, trying to clear it — and oh, man, he had no idea until now how cold he was. His movements are stiff and slow and useless. He aches. He shivers. He claps again; sprays snow up. He sucks in more air. This time, not quite as much of the snow rains down again. A little more of him is freed. He examines his formula, thoughts moving slow. He’s certain there must a better way to do this, a way he could see if only more of his brain were only in commission right now.
Five claps later, he’s achieved something. He is now lying at the bottom of a pit of snow, drained and dizzy. One leg is mostly dug out. He marvels at how long it has taken him to achieve only this much. Human weapon versus weather: who knew it’d go like this?
He has air, and theoretically, the ability to move, but he still has a problem. He’s shivering less now; that warm, sleepy, indifferent feeling is enveloping him. He has air now but it’s stronger than ever. Hypothermia. He realises, and sees: how it’s making him increasingly unable to think, increasingly unable to transmute his way out of a paper bag. Crap. Dig the damn leg out, he thinks vaguely.
“Help,” he says. It’s a croak, the volume barely conversational. That was supposed to be a full-throated yell. “Help.” He tries again. Wait, you’re not even supposed to yell in an avalanche. Fuck, his head.
— And out of nowhere, a miniature sun flashes into existence above him: a blazing steady fireball hanging over his pit.
A blast of heat in his face, and then it spreads, warms. He grins stupidly at it. He frowns at it. It baffles him. The sides of his pit trickle with moisture. The heat makes him ache. What the hell? He hears people talking. People? Someone in Briggs snow gear appears above him, and he blinks in slow surprise. People. Where did they come from?
The Briggs soldier hacks at the slushy sides of the pit. Ed moves his lips, but he can’t think of anything to say. Someone else hauls him up by the shoulders, lifts him. Raising his eyes, Ed glimpses a rope pulley.
Then he’s on the mountainside, held half-upright. The peaks stretch into the distance; below them the square grey mass of Briggs Fortress, set into the Wall. Someone is saying give him here, give him here.
“Give him here,” says Roy, right in front of his nose.
And then he is in Roy’s arms. Roy is a hallucination in a Northern army uniform: hair in his eyes, voice achingly familiar, arms gripping Ed under the armpits, lowering him to the ground. Ed stares at him and at the sky, and he tries to make it all make sense.
He’s on the ground. Roy has one glove off, in his teeth, and he’s taking Ed’s carotid pulse with two warm fingers, looking at Ed carefully. Ed looks at him, and then his eyes slide off to the side, to Roy’s boots and to the pair of skis laid next to him on the snow.
“You have skis,” Ed says. Roy wrinkles his nose. “You have skis.” He laughs. It makes his face ache and his head get dizzy.
Roy leans in, presses an ungloved, impossibly warm hand to the side of his face. “Shit,” Roy says.
“Well, good fucking afternoon to you too,” Ed says. He leans into the hand. Then his brain abruptly decides it’s clocking off for today; it gives him about a half-second of notice, and then he passes out cold.
“No, you’re not,” Al says. The thing in his lap looks nowhere near human — he knows this — but still he’s suddenly hotly angry at the idea. “You’re a child,” he says. “You can’t be a monster and a child, it’s impossible. It doesn’t matter what you look like to other people. You’re a child.” Just a scared little kid stuck in a strange and frightening body.
Well, now at least now he’s worked out why he’s so partial to the little creature.
“Selim is too,” says the creature.
“A monster,” the creature says. It sounds pouting, hurt, resentful.
“No, he isn’t,” Al says. Part of him thinks, wait, what? Selim remembers nothing. “He’s a child too. He’s a little boy.”
The creature looks up at Al with a dozen sad eyes. “He’s a monster who thinks he’s a little boy.”
Al’s stomach lurches. “No,” he says. “That’s not how it is.”
“You and him,” the creature says, deliberate, sulking, “had a fight.”
Al holds his breath.
“And he had a fight with your brother, and he had a fight with your brother’s friends, and he had a fight with Mustang.” The creature’s mouths pout, stubborn. “He killed lots of people too. He killed more people than me.”
“Who told you this?” Al’s breath is coming too fast. Selim remembers? Or?
“Nobody did,” says the creature. “I found it out for myself.”
“I looked in the blood.”
“And?” Al catches his breath, trying to think it out. “What can you tell from my blood? Can you tell me what I had for breakfast this morning?”
The creature sucks meditatively on Al’s finger. Then it says, “Lots of sugar. Chocolate and nuts.”
It’s right. Chocolate-hazelnut paste on a bread roll. So it can guess food from traces in the blood. But that’s not a memory. “What did I dream about?” Al says.
“I don’t know,” says the creature. “Selim has different blood. It’s noisy. It’s full of people.”
Al draws another breath. But Selim - on the Promised Day, Ed had stripped Pride of everything but life itself: infant life, desire, potential, need. A baby crying for its mother. The souls of the Philosopher’s Stone were gone. But what had they left behind?
“What’s the oldest thing?” Al says. “The very oldest thing you can remember, the furthest back?”
The creature rolls its tendrils along the floor, furls them, opens and closes a dozen eyes. It says, “There was an old lady, a long time ago.”
“Tell me about her,” Al says.
“She was a slave.” Al’s heart clatters. “And she swept the streets all day. Then one day a boy came and taught her to read.” This is starting – surely not? – to sound like one of his father’s stories. “He wrote the letters in the dirt with a stick. And she learned the whole alphabet. And now she could read all the words on the street signs, and the public notices, and the graffiti on the walls. And she was so happy. She felt clever and strong, and she kept it a secret. Because if the masters knew she’d learned, they’d get angry.”
Al stares, unable to take in everything that this means - for better and worse. “All that?”
The eyes look at him. “That’s the biggest bit of a story I know. All the old stuff I know, it’s just bits.”
Al doesn’t know what to think. He hardly knows where to put himself. This is incredible. But: something in Selim remembers. Al can’t bear to believe Selim has tricked him, that this kind, frightened little boy is just a fiction. But he can’t dismiss the possibility either. But there’s another possibility too: what if Selim is exactly what he seems, but he has the potential they feared he might, the potential to become something else?
“That picture on the wall,” Al says, thinking. “Can you tell me what the writing says?”
The creature extends a tendril, crawls it up the bureau that sits under the old print. The picture is an old lithograph: it shows a Xerxean alchemist in his workshop, and on a scroll under his feet, a motto written in a dead language. At its very tip, the tendril opens an eye.
Another mouth opens in the creature’s midsection. “Kao … berihet … ani … so.”
Al’s heart jolts. It’s right. “And can you tell me what that means in Amestrian?”
“The philosopher keeps searching.”
Ed wakes in the dead of night, in a bed in the infirmary, under a substantial pile of scratchy blankets.
They pulled Ed halfway to Briggs on a damn sled. If he hadn’t been half-frozen, he wouldn’t be able to get over it. Then there was a transfer to a stretcher, a truck, the infirmary. Thermometers, hot water bottles. That sarcastic doctor with the shock of ginger hair, raising her eyebrows, saying hello again. What is it with you and trying to turn yourself into an ice cube?
After some hours of this, they upgraded him from “mild hypothermia” to “really damn cold”. Then they packed him off to bed with heat compresses on his shoulder and knee, and a short but stirring lecture on how dead he would be if he hadn’t had the sense to keep using Northern automail.
Mei got lucky too, or smart; she ended up on the avalanche’s surface. Liu broke his collarbone but he’s walking. Feng’s in a bad way. The last Ed saw of him was a terrible glimpse of his face as they loaded him onto his own sled: blue-tinged and still, slack with a deathly serenity that made him look barely himself.
Ed throws off a blanket, hauls himself up and feels the deep ache in his shoulder. He turns his head in search of the nightstand and a drink of water —
— and finds someone holding out a glass right under his nose. He looks up. He looks at Roy.
He’s real. Right there. The outlines of his face are soft in the dark.
Ed says, “It’s the middle of the night.”
Roy says, very quietly, “It is.”
“Aren’t you supposed to be plotting revolution? Steepling your fingers and smirking? Moving little pieces around a big-ass map table with one of those long sticks with the thing on the end?”
“I did that earlier.” Still quiet. Still holding out the water. Ed takes it and sips at it.
“Do you actually have one of those things?”
“A sand table? A war room?”
“A stick thing.”
Roy makes a little huffing noise. “Yes. All of those. We even have tiny little houses and tanks. And colour-coded flags. We are incredibly well-equipped.”
Ed’s throat is aching hard around a non-existent solidness; it’s like he swallowed a billiard ball or something. He sips more water. He shakes his head. “So, you’re doing mountain rescue now? Isn’t that kind of below your pay grade?”
“Avalanches, specifically.” Roy does one of his little Roy shrugs, and Ed’s brain fills in what he can’t see in the dark room: Roy’s mouth turning down at the corners, his eyebrows lifting. “This is the third time I’ve been called out this winter. I might have other things to be doing, but there’s only one Flame Alchemist around here.”
“You saved my ass,” Ed says. Because he did.
Roy says nothing. Roy reaches a hand out, warm and broad, cups Ed’s cheek, strokes his stubble with a thumb. Ed has imagined his hands every day they have been apart, has imagined precisely the warmth and the weight of Roy’s body and how it fills the space next to his.
“Halfway round the world,” Roy says. “You brought me rentanjutsu masters. Information. The tacit support of the world’s largest state.”
“I am the best diplomat ever,” Ed says. He gives Roy a big smug grin and an eyebrow wiggle. Roy’s hand still cups his cheek. Ed thinks he sees the corners of Roy's mouth twitch up. He raises his own fingers, presses them lightly to the back of Roy's hand.
“I’m sure your negotiation was a work of art. Did it take a lot of tact and delicacy?” Ed can't see the eyebrow wiggle, but he can hear it in Roy's voice, that emphatic precision Roy gets when he thinks he's being hilarious.
“Fuckloads. You should be impressed with me, I was.”
In the next breath, they’re in each other’s arms. Leaning over him, Roy presses his forehead against Ed’s; Ed reaches a hand up to hold the back of Roy’s head. His uniform jacket is thick and scratchy against Ed’s skin. Roy’s skin smells so good, smells how he remembers it. It’s like breaking through that packed snow and taking a huge lungful of air; it’s like the aching hollow at Ed’s centre has been suddenly filled.
“Thank you,” Roy murmurs, “Thank you, thank you.”
Ed strokes his hair. Roy pulls back, cups his face and close up, in the soft darkness, Ed sees Roy look at him with such utter tenderness he feels in pain with it.
“Has it been tough?” Ed asks. He turns his head and his lips move against Roy's neck.
“It’s gotten a lot better just now.” Roy shakes his head. “That’s how selfish I am, apparently.” His arms tighten around Ed just a little; his nose presses into Ed's hair.
Ed shakes his head. “No, you’re not. I feel exactly like that.”
“Two days,” Roy says. “We agreed this thing was real, and we had two days together before the coup. And I have thought about you, I have thought you here with me every day and every night. Your breath in my ear and your hand on my chest. In the dark … I was on the run for weeks. I tried to hold onto you, to the memory of you.”
“Me too,” Ed says. “Every fucking day. More than that, like every fucking hour of every fucking day. I'm surprised I'm halfway functional.”
It's rough at first, a desperate, automatic thing; but then Roy's tongue in his mouth is eager and lovely, and they find their rhythm again, and it starts to feel real. Ed's heart feels as though it is involved in some kind of painful controlled detonation.
“They’re discharging you in the morning,” Roy murmurs into his mouth. “How would you feel if I steal you a few hours early? I could smuggle you out. I could hide you in a blanket and carry you out in my arms.” His voice is one big tease.
“Kind of damsel in distress,” Ed says. "Plus you'd throw your back out after five seconds. How ‘bout we say I make a sneaky badass escape and ninja my way to your quarters?”
“That,” Roy says, “would be absolutely fucking perfect.” And he leans back in to suck on Ed's tongue until Ed snorts and swats at him.
“Get going before you blow your cover, I need to get my ninja on,” Ed hisses. Roy sighs at him with great theatre, winks and removes himself from the infirmary.
The quarters you get as command element at Briggs are, of course, pretty frugal. The military cot is, of course, made for one. Roy says, "If it's too small in the end, you can —”
"It's cool, we'll spoon. Don't say you call dibs on being the big spoon, or I'm heading back to the infirmary," Ed rubs his arms. “Oh, shit, it's really freezing."
Roy gives him, for one moment, a slightly frantic assessing look. Then he shakes it off and goes for an eyebrow jiggle. “You've been away from me too long; you forgot I’d jump at any chance to be the little spoon with you.” He goes to a chest of drawers and pulls out a wool sweater, adds a rolled-up pair of socks, presents both to Ed.
Ed raises an eyebrow, then he shivers again, and puts on both with utmost haste. While he does so, Roy strips, moving with that economical, unconscious grace Ed remembers. He puts on pyjamas. His back looks too thin. They look at each other. In a lit room, Ed can see the tired smudges under Roy’s eyes, the pink around the rims, the weight lost from his face. Ed wonders how he looks himself: two weeks’ beard, hard marching for much longer than that, and he hasn’t had a full bath since Xing.
Roy smiles. Ed’s heart does that thing again that hurts his chest.
They climb into bed, and do their customary irritable shuffling about until they find the right position. Suddenly it's all so normal, Ed has to remind himself how long they've been apart, of everything that’s happened since they last fell asleep together in Roy’s apartment, the night before the coup. They tangle themselves in the right order, and then just lie sighing together for a few moments.
Ed says, sleepy and slow, "I'm so wiped. Sorry it went down like this. We should be having crazy reunion sex, or something …" A yawn shivers out of him.
"Tomorrow," says Roy. "I am absolutely creating a window in my revolution schedule which will be expressly for crazy reunion sex. Also, now I think about it, I bet we could alchemise a second bed to this one.”
"Quadripartite formula, do the iron bedframe first, molecular adhesion, plus with the mattress cover you'll want to invoke a limited kind of motion, so that … " And Ed's breath thickens right there, on the last word, and he's fast asleep.
Three days later, Al finds himself behind the familiar smoked glass, in the hidden room behind Mrs Bradley’s sitting room, with the familiar armed guard poking guns at him. He’s bound to his chair again. This hasn’t happened in a while.
More interestingly still, Mrs Bradley and Selim aren’t in the room.
He’s there about an hour before anything happens. His speculations all go nowhere, so he occupies himself in staring at Mrs Bradley’s chintzy nineteenth-century knick-knacks and composing his next bombshell of a message to Mustang. The good news is that the Homunculus trusts me; the bad news is that it’s been imbibing fragments of the Homunculus of Xerxes. The bad news is that it’s drinking Selim Bradley’s blood; the good news is that finally I have a reliable translator of colloquial Xerxean.
If he comes off as slightly hysterical, it seems only reasonable under the circumstances.
Then, accompanied by ten armed guards, with Katzenklavier strolling smoothly beside him, Fuhrer Laurence Hakuro walks into the room.
Al feels, if anything, even more nuts.
It takes three full seconds for him to remember.
The relief of it is a wholly satisfying ache, deep in his chest. He breathes in chilly air; breathes out a sharp pang. Here is Roy by his side, turned away from him in sleep. The single bed was ridiculous; they kicked each other half the night. Ed slept so badly. He will have to get something better fixed up today, while Roy’s plotting his plots. Ed shifts into Roy’s space, moulds his body to the delicious heated line of Roy’s back, pushes his nose into Roy's hair.
Ed nests a little, adjusts the blankets, tries to trap their body heat in with them and cocoon them away from the refrigerated Briggs air. He pushes his knee up against Roy's leg, then slings his right arm over too to scootch them together more efficiently. Roy’s hair smells so good. Roy’s hair always smells good. It’s a great mystery: why does human hair smell way better than shampoo, when it doesn't even really smell of anything? Is this some chemical signature pheromone sex hormone bonding thing? Ed should research that. He should start right now by smelling Roy’s hair some more.
Roy makes a little grunting noise. He makes the little grunting noise that Ed has remembered and missed and imagined next to him every night since the coup. Roy’s arm snakes around Ed’s, and he shuffles back against him, and his palm covers the back of Ed’s hand.
"Hey," says Ed.
"Mm," says Roy.
"You smell like ass," says Ed.
"Really? You smell like jasmine blossoms blowing on a spring breeze."
Ed loves this about Roy. From unconscious to coherently snarky in about five seconds. He stretches delightedly and make a little humping motion, pushing his hips into Roy's butt.
Roy tuts. "I could have slept for ages," he says. "You woke me up. You poked me."
"I'll poke you all right," says Ed salaciously. Mostly, he says it to be annoying, and he follows it up against another grind against Roy’s butt. Roy laughs and shoves his butt back into Ed’s morning semi-erection. Ed shoves back. They snicker at each other. The next moment, something has shifted and they’re still shoving and humping, but it’s no longer a joke. Roy turns in his arms and they slot together again face to face, flex and rub against each other. Their breathing is loud in the cold room.
“Right,” Roy says, lifts his hips and yanks Ed’s pyjama bottoms down. He shoves his own down too, and then he’s back on top of Ed. Roy’s dick is pressing into the crease between Ed’s thigh and hip. It’s awkward and delicious. Ed flexes his hips up. Roy shifts down. His hair is sticking up crazily on one side. Ed laughs, because he can’t not laugh, because delight is bubbling up out of him. He spits on his hand. He reaches down, and Roy moves to meet him, and he takes both their dicks in his hand.
Ed lasts a full forty-five seconds of frenetic jerking and thrusting before he goes off. Roy hardly manages longer.
“Mutual simultaneous hair-triggering,” Roy says, after they’ve both landed on planet earth again. “I can’t decide if that’s good or bad. Or if it just makes us both horny teenagers. No, wait —“
“I turned twenty two weeks ago,” says Ed.
“You did?” Roy extricates his face from Ed’s neck to look him in the eye. “I suddenly feel fifteen per cent less of a pervert.” Then, so sincerely it could break your heart, “Happy birthday. Where were you?”
“In a cave being damp,” Ed says.
“I’m sorry,” Roy says. “It’s a long road north, isn’t it, like this?”
“Yeah. Takes four times as long to get anywhere when you’re on the lam.”
“I’m forgetting how much experience you have.”
“Could have done without another winter of hiding out in the woods.”
“On my way here,” Roy says, “I spent a whole day up a tree. It was terrible. I’d love to complain about it at length. But good people died getting me North. So let’s just say it was an uncomfortable day.”
They’re silent for a while after that.
Ed nests the blankets around them again. The room smells like sex now. The scent is oddly comforting. Terrible things have happened, are happening, could happen. Feng’s in the infirmary, injured and maybe worse. Al is held prisoner and spying for them hundreds of miles south. Nearly everyone he loves is on the lam or in exile, from Winry to Roy. There’s another tyrant in the big chair in Central. There’s another monster in a flask, and even Ling’s scared. The whole world again hangs in the balance. And in this too-small bed, Roy’s body against his is so heavy, so shockingly warm, so unbelievably real.
Ed holds himself still for a moment. He feels it, that treacherous lump of volatile absence which has sat in his chest all these months. He’s handled it so carefully: this grief, this Roy-shaped void. He’s been so mindful to step around it and ignore it and shuffle it gingerly into the recesses of his brain so he can concentrate on what he needs to: surviving, reaching his goal, keeping it together. And now this unexploded bomb, this thing he feared, is simply dissolving, melting away under the relentless loving heat of Roy’s skin.
Roy can win this thing, he thinks abruptly, fiercely. Roy can win it and Ed will be right here at his side. He will not move for god or man. For a moment, he’s so happy he could goddamn puke.
“Stop fidgeting,” mutters Roy, “you’re letting the heat out.”
“It’s freezing,” says Ed.
“Firewood’s rationed,” says Roy. He takes Ed’s arm, tucks it against him, pushes back against Ed and tangles their legs together.
“This is fucking bliss,” Ed says. “I’m not even being sarcastic.”
“My back’s killing me.”
“My neck muscles are spasming. We should never try to sleep in a single bed again.”
“Can you score a spare so I can fix this one bigger?”
“Does that give us away to the peanut gallery?”
“The peanut gallery are just relieved you’re here so I’ll stop moping over you.”
“You moped? There was moping?”
“So I’m told. I’m informed by an unfailingly reliable source that there was moping, mooning, occasional woolgathering. There may have been a little bit of obsessing.”
“How do you obsess over something a little bit? It’s a contradiction in terms.”
“I know it is,” Roy says, and he turns in Ed’s arms, and wraps him up in a grip so tight that he could swear that the automail creaks.
But here and now, Hakuro perches in his chair instead of settling into it; his shoulders hunch and straighten. The tall semi-circle of guards standing behind him seem to cast him into shade.
“Your work,” says Hakuro. “I see from your report that things are … that matters continue to … that you have progress for me.” He slaps the manila folder in his lap with an emphatic hand. “Hard to make out from this thing what’s actually going on here. Pin it down for me, Chrysalis.”
“Would you like to see?” says Katzenklavier. He smiles, mild and innocuous, and Al has spent enough time with the man to recognise something sharp behind it.
“No,” says Hakuro, just a shade quickly. “No need for that today. Not if there’s no concrete change … as of yet.” He picks up his teacup, turns it in his hands, replaces it with an ostentatiously casual air.
“I’d better be taking my leave,” he says.
“Indeed,” says Katzenklavier. “The last lot of riots sound like they must have been very tedious to extinguish. Of course it goes without saying, you always restore calm to us. The people of Amestris are fortunate.”
Al sits forward so fast that the guard behind him claps a hand to his shoulder. But Hakuro himself doesn’t even seem to register the disrespect.
When Hakuro stands to leave, he hoists himself up slowly. It’s not even noon, but he looks as though this were the end of a very long day.
He looks tired.
The pompous kerfuffle of standing and saluting and leave-taking is completed, and the Fuhrer of Amestris and his guard depart. It isn’t until the room beyond the mirror is silent and empty that it finally occurs to Al: all through that conversation, Katzenklavier didn’t call him your excellency. Not even once.
Katzenklavier stands in the doorway to the hidden room, watches as Al is uncuffed. The guards file out. They are alone.
“Full disclosure,” Katzenklavier says. “After the coup, when I requested you brought here. Originally, after you advised me on the creature, I was going to let them take you outside and shoot you in the head.”
Al smiles with one side of his mouth, and doesn’t even pretend surprise. Helpful to have it confirmed. “What am I supposed to say to that?”
Katzenklavier shrugs. “It was always a dilemma. You’re supremely talented, but you’re also a very dangerous man. I was under a lot of pressure not to keep you around. You were so useful, though, that I decided to press the point with Hakuro.”
“Thanks,” says Al.
“I think it’s telling that I got my own way. Very telling. I find myself in a very politically interesting position, these days.” Katzenklavier pulls in a breath, as if he’s about to begin a story.
Here it comes, then, Al thinks. But Katzenklavier says nothing more after that. He bobs up and down on his heels, bright and alert like a skinny little bird, watching Al for a response.
Al considers. He goes for guarded honesty. “You wanted me to see this meeting,” he says.
Katzenklavier smiles his gentle, sharp smile.
Al’s pulse hammers in his throat, and his skin prickles, and his body tells him emphatically that he is in a fight. He has moments to make his decision. He glances internally at his hand of cards, and then — what can he do? — he plays.
“Hakuro doesn’t understand alchemy,” Al says. “He doesn’t trust it, or like it, and he’s afraid of it. But he knows how much power it’s worth. He didn’t understand what had happened on the Promised Day. He didn’t know before and he didn’t figure it out for himself. He was tricked like everyone else.” Katzenklavier is still, alert, watching. Al takes a breath and continues. “Then after the Promised Day, his rival for the Fuhrership was Brigadier General Mustang. A human weapon who knows alchemy inside out. That’s why Hakuro hired you.”
“Yes,” says Katzenklavier. The word drops into the room, and silence settles again. Katzenklavier watches Al.
Understanding what is expected of him, Al continues. “That’s why he let you make him a Homunculus, why you’ve got so much leverage. He’s so afraid of the power of alchemy he doesn’t understand that he’s let his fear control him and make his decisions for him. The rest of the brass know he has a Homunculus. He’s trying to bluff with it, right? He’s letting everyone know he has it, but he’s not trying to use it, not even letting people near it. He doesn’t even get what a Homunculus is. Or what it can do.” Al pauses for a moment, and then he plays his last card. “He doesn’t get what you or I can do. And that’s his weakness.”
“And here I am,” Katzenklavier says. “I can have whatever I want. I ask for whatever I choose, can pursue the Great Work to the fullest, even interfere with matters political: say, to save the head of a gifted young alchemist.” He tilts his head. “Until the day we both know is coming.”
The day when Mustang makes a stand. Nervous shock jolts through Al’s body, and he blanks his face instantly: give no emotion away, give him nothing to work with.
“No,” says Katzenklavier. His voice is gentle and low. “You poor silly boy. I don’t mean Mustang. Yes, until the day of the next coup. When one of Hakuro’s rivals in Central’s brass — there are several, you see — sweeps in and takes it all from him. That’s what we need to prepare for. Let me tell you something you don’t want to hear,” he says. “Mustang may be King of Briggs for now. But he isn’t going to win. It’s a pipe dream. His army is tiny. All the popular support in the world won’t help him when he’s this outgunned. They won’t last another winter up in the North. So what will happen is this: he’ll make his move by this summer. His forces will be crushed, Briggs will be conquered. Whoever’s in charge will doubtless be sensible enough to put a bullet through Mustang’s head on the spot. As to the rest: humiliation, show trials, tender and spontaneous public displays of national unity, tasteless newspaper photos of mangled corpses, all that PR nonsense. Mustang will take his place where he was always destined to, one of the charming heroic failures of history. You’re a smart lad,” Katzenklavier says. “No need to go down with that ship.”
Al says nothing. It’s possible; much as it was always unspoken, they’ve all always known it.
“And so I concern myself with Hakuro’s successor. You only have to look at the man to know that he’s not going to last the year either. I and my work am not a prize to be scooped up by the victor of the next political scuffle. You know how close we are to success now. Soon I’ll have a functioning, controllable Homunculus — two, maybe. We are the only people who can control this weapon, Bridgewire. And I will choose at whose service I will put it.”
“You’re asking me on board,” Al says. “You were going to have me shot. What changed?”
“Your motivation,” says Katzenklavier. “It’s hope that makes men dangerous. If we set aside those who are unavoidably going down in flames with Battleship Mustang, who does that leave for you to hope for? Your brother fled the country, you know. They think he took refuge in Xing.”
Al starts. He’d hoped that Ed —. Dammit. He knows that for a moment, his poker face slipped. He sees Katzenklavier’s lips twitch.
“Then there is your guardian Ms Rockbell Senior, who with your co-operation can continue in rude health, watched over by us. And her granddaughter, rising star of automail engineering. On which front I have bad news.”
Al takes a breath, masters himself.
“She’s apparently heavily involved with an insurgency in Rush Valley. It’s been kept very quiet. The newspapers don’t have much news in them these days. Sabotage, strikes. The industry there’s nearly paralysed. She’s apparently part of an inner circle, running it all from hiding. A gang of them disappeared into the mountains on the day of the coup. Almost as if they’d been tipped off in advance.” Katzenklavier’s eyes narrow at him. “So. When this little terrorist operation gets scotched, there’s a chance your friend might survive it. I have some leverage with the government, you could have some leverage with me. You might be able to do something for her.”
Al makes a show of considering. “I’m already working for you. So what else do you want from me?”
“I simply want you to consider what you want to happen to you when Mustang fails, and Hakuro falls, and I continue. I want you to consider what you might gain from taking a more active role in helping me to secure my position. From helping me perfect, control, render safe these weapons. Which I invite you to view as tools which can bring peace and stability to the country. And I want you to consider how very little you can achieve, how helpless you become, if you oppose me.”
Al says nothing.
“And so, you are lucky enough to have a choice to make. Fall prettily on your sword, or live a long and useful life. Sleep on it,” Katzenklavier says. That sharp and gentle smile again. “I’ll expect your answer tomorrow.”
Thanks to skydark for A+++ betaing this chapter. Sky, you make my stuff better!
It’s spring, and Ed is in love.
This machine is so amazing he’s halfway to writing it a freaking sonnet. This must be how people felt in the first motor cars as they hit the gas, only times about a hundred.
He is six thousand feet in the air. The white peaks of the Northern mountains, glowing pink from early morning sun, are at eye level. If he looks down, he sees rippling hills and valleys, specks of buildings and strings of road and railway, tiny scraps of fields. Through the morning mist clinging low to the contours of the mountains, he can just about make Briggs Fortress jutting out from the Wall. He sits in the passenger seat of a state-of-the-art Aerugan two-man military biplane. An aeroplane! In the air! Six thousand feet!
“You ready, Fullmetal?” The pilot’s voice comes through his ears, through the speaking tube running into the earpieces of his dumb, awesome leather flying helmet.
He grabs the cone of the passenger seat speaking tube and yells into it. “Do the thing first!”
“Always with the thing,” Rebecca yells back. But she’s gonna do it anyway. She loves the crap out of the thing, even more than he does, just like she loves this beautiful machine even more.
She tilts the nose of the plane up, and Ed double-checks his harness — because safety first, six thousand feet in the air and all — and up they go, all the way up to vertical, and on, and on … and they’re upside down. Ed’s stomach flips over — which must make it the right way up now. He yells and whoops and the wind drowns it out. He and Rebecca pump the air with upside down fists. Then she tilts up the nose and continues the loop until they’re right way up.
He wants to fist bump Havoc and Rebecca for sweet-talking Count Whatever-o in Aerugo into sending them these things. He wants to fist bump the count for building them. He wants to fist bump the damn sky, that’s how great this is.
And then, as always, he wants to turn to Al and say, did you see that? And he wants to watch Winry beg her way into a seat at the pilot’s controls. But Al is hundreds of miles away, spying for them from captivity next to a deadly Homunculus and a deadlier man. And Winry is running a sabotage operation from some cave up in the mountains behind Rush Valley.
He hasn’t had word from either of them in weeks; and Ed has seen too many people get bad news this winter not to be constantly wondering when it’s going to be his turn. He was in the room a month ago when Havoc, in exhausted triumph from that night flight that brought their small fleet from Aerugo to Briggs, got to hear that his best friend had just been court-martialled for treason and sentenced to hang.
Wow, does Ed ever know how to kill his own buzz.
Havoc’s plane comes up alongside them, and they get a disapproving tilt of the wings for their little stunt. Pay attention! Ha. If Hawkeye wasn’t his passenger, Havoc would be looping the loop right along with them, and everyone knows it.
“Now I’m ready,” Ed yells into the tube.
“Roger that,” yells Rebecca.
It’s easiest to get out to stand on the plane’s wing if you do it fast. At least, it’s easier if you’re Ed. He scootches his legs around, gets his boots over the side of the cockpit and then his butt up on the rim. Rebecca slows right down for him, and he launches himself forward, grabs a strut. His feet hit the wing and he straightens up, gets his balance. He runs his left hand over his pack, the cords. Okay now.
Over at three o’clock, Hawkeye is still inching onto the wing the sensible way, one leg at a time and no leaping. Ed gives her a big thumbs up and a grin, then swings round and lets himself drop forward into nothing but air.
He’s gone too quick to make out if she gives him the Hawkeye face or not, but it’s a safe bet.
And now, oh, now, all that misery and worry wipes itself from his mind, cleaner than a shot of morphine, and everything is fucking awesome. Those few seconds of glorious free fall, with the tearing wind and the mountains rushing up at him, the miniature world below zooming in: is this what it feels like to be a diving bird of prey? Then, always with a bit of resignation, it’s time to pull the ripcord.
The parachute canopy whips up, catches air, arches up above him. He’s pulled up short by its strings, and now, cradled by its harness, he drifts slowly to earth. The mountain tops become again nearly part of the sky. He drifts over the rippling foothills, down into the brown and white brindle of a thawing field.
He tucks his chin, bends his knees, and as the toes of his boots slap the ground, Ed throws himself sideways. Uninjured, grinning and exhilarated, he rolls on his back and looks up at the sky. He gives himself one more breath to delight in the experience.
Then he sits up, starts working on his harness. He steels himself, turns back to the real world: back to the war, in which he is a soldier, and plane and parachute are weapons in a desperate final strike.
“What have you got there?” Al says. “Show me.”
The creature opens a dozen curious eyes and turns them to Al. It grows a flattened palm, holds out one slightly battered fallen plum blossom.
Al smiles, crouches. “You know what that is?”
“Yeah,” says Al. He pats the creature on the spot that looks most vaguely like a head. “It’s the start of spring. Plum blossom at the start of spring, cherry blossom at the end.”
“Aren’t you a fount of knowledge?” says Mrs Bradley.
Al stands, brushes himself down, nods. She’s here.
“Hello!” yells Selim. He slips his hand from his mother’s, sprints down the path and tackles Al’s legs in a running hug.
Then he moves down. The creature wraps him in a flailing hug: its movements bouncy, clumsily joyful. “Selim!” it yells. Al and Mrs Bradley watch carefully, as they always do.
“We’re gonna feed the ducks!” Selim yells back.
“Ducks!” yells the creature with ten mouths at once.
Al goes to say something about inside voices, but — hey, he guesses they are outside. He looks at Mrs Bradley, gives an apologetic shrug.
Mrs Bradley eyes the creature and Selim, her face pale and wary. She presses her lips together.
“It’s really okay,” Al says, lowering his voice. “It’s been fine for months now.”
She nods. “I know,” she whispers. She sucks in a breath.
“I promise,” Al says. “We’re going to play nice and be careful, aren’t we, guys?” They’re rolling around on the floor.
“Yes!” they both yell.
Mrs Bradley holds herself still for a moment, then nods. He can’t blame her for being nervous of the creature. It’s taken a while for it to get this stable. Selim, thank goodness, is still as human a child as he ever was, with one small soul pulsing inside him. The moment he found out, Al stopped the creature feeding from Selim, and watched the boy carefully; but his shadow has stayed just where it should be for months.
To Al’s relief, as the creature stabilised, Katzenklavier seems to have turned his attention away from Selim. He commented some weeks ago, casually, that there was no point at present attempting to activate Selim; he was most useful as a good influence on the creature. He didn’t mean what Al or any reasonable person would mean by good influence, of course. He just means that as the Homunculus learns and grows, it becomes easier to control.
Even after working for Katzenklavier for a whole winter, playing the long game, passing information, Al still doesn’t know if Katzenklavier believes in his loyalty — or if he’s just playing along with Al, seeing how far he can push it.
A whole winter of waiting, of listening at night, under the blankets, to the precious crystal radio set he transmuted by night and keeps hidden in his mattress. The resistance public radio broadcasts fill his nights with familiar voices and unfamiliar ones. Roy Mustang: low, rich and precise, a voice for radio, as it turns out. His speeches are good enough to make you weep. Maria Ross, introduced only as codename Foxglove, a representative of Central’s resistance network, but plainly Ross, and plainly in charge. She’s informal, unassuming: delivering safety advice and reporting small and hard-won victories. Al is pretty sure one of the presenters is a Central Radio DJ, and that another is Harry Valentina, the club MC who put on that political satire revue, back in the real world a million years ago.
Once, and only once, he heard Ed. Ladies, gentlemen, and the rest of us, Harry Valentina had said, I give you the people’s alchemist. Five minutes of gravelly, sincere pep talk, laced with curse words and followed by the putting on of some weird shouty record. Ed claimed, of course, that it was badass and motivating and would get everyone’s collective engines revving. Five minutes of concentrated Ed, it felt like. Al muffled his laughter and he let all the relief and affection and strength flood into him. Then, when he switched the radio off, and the silence descended and the pipes of the old house creaked, Al felt the loneliest he had in his whole life, maybe. Locked behind iron again, watching the people he loved from far far away.
Then — he still doesn’t know what happened exactly, but three weeks ago, he tried to start his regular coded conversation with Mrs Bradley, and instead she just said, I can’t. Al wrote on a napkin — contact disappeared? They let him carry a pencil now. Perks of being a model prisoner. She made eye contact, pressed her lips together; gave him a tiny, incremental nod. For a moment, there was fear in her eyes: a great deal of it. Then, that was it. Back to tea, back to talking about trivia.
She must have been passing Al’s reports verbatim to the same person. Maid? Gardener? Guard, even? They let Mrs Bradley speak to a lot more people than they let Al. Whoever they were, they’re gone now. Al had used the code to pass messages so sparingly and carefully, and the news passed to him from Briggs had been equally minimal and terse. Al hopes whoever it was got out safe; the lack of severe consequences for himself or Mrs Bradley persuades him that they can’t have been discovered. Since then, though, it seems there has been no replacement contact, no opportunity. The chain is broken. It’s discomfiting: if he’s not a spy, what is he? Unpaid nanny to a weapon of mass destruction, his mind says. Then, collaborator. He shuts off his thoughts, just snaps them off like that. He doesn’t let his mind go where it’s going, he can’t. Stay here, stay in the moment. Keep your eyes open, be ready. One more step. One more day.
As Mrs Bradley and her guard walk away, Al tries to break up the rugrat party. “Ducks,” he says gamely. “We better get there before they go somewhere else for lunch.”
“Want to walk to the ducks!” says the creature. “I need legs!”
“Little Amy!” says Selim, patting the creature’s head full of eyes. “Be little Amy!”
“Okay!” says the creature. It stretches and shifts. The iron-filing skin of the shifting limbs flattens and turns solid. The eyes wink out. A new shape stretches out: gangly arms and legs with the last hints of toddler softness; a pinafore dress; pale skin, two dark eyes and wispy black hair in messy waves.
Al sucks in a discreet breath. Even for him, this takes some getting used to.
Amy looks slightly different every time. The first time she was a little girl from one of Selim’s picture books, with her hair in blue ribbons. The second time, Selim named her. He always wanted a baby sister, he said. Sometimes now, she looks somewhat like him. Al supposes the blood she took from Selim helps; he may have put a stop to that months ago, but it seems her Stone remembers.
If Al concentrates just a bit, he can feel how her qi stabilises when she takes human form. Katzenklavier has been crowing about it tediously; he thinks that her new capacity for holding human form is something to do with her activating: maturing enough to no longer need her jar. He thinks he’s one-upped the creators of the Homunculus of Xerxes: a creature matured and hardy enough to be a devastating weapon, yet restricted enough in its growth not to be a threat to its creators. How idiotic of him. How arrogant.
And yet Al cannot help but welcome this. It strikes so joyfully at Al’s gut and his heart, somehow, to feel Amy shifting from a noisy mass of souls to this small human form, the voices of the Stone quieted and softened within her. His father told him once, that winter in Lior, how the creature in the flask had longed to leave its prison and set bare feet upon the earth. For one horrible moment, Al had understood its motivations entirely.
“Little Amy!” Selim says. “Hello!”
The new Amy juts out her chin proudly, puts her chubby toddler hand in Selim’s and trots next to him. The shape is near-perfect. “Little Amy,” she says with satisfaction. She swings her arm in his, then manages a clumsy skip. “Feet!” she mutters. She grins, and stomps each foot on the ground, first slowly then quicker. “Feet!” She nearly trips, then rights herself and grins.
“So, what are we going to feed the ducks?” Al asks.
“Chocolate cakes!” says Selim. “I’m going to feed them chocolate cakes!”
Al pretends to peer into his bag. “I don’t think I’ve got any of those here. How about some oats?”
“I’m going to feed your bag to the ducks!” Selim yells.
“I’m going to feed your bag to the ducks,” Amy yells at Selim.
Selim doesn’t have a bag. He doesn’t seem to care. They stare at each other, delighted. “I’m going to feed your shoe to the ducks!”
“I’m going to feed your coat to the ducks!”
“I’m going to feed my house to the ducks!” Selim snorts.
Amy grins big. She giggles: a bubbling noise that rises from her throat like a hiccup. “I’m going to feed your house to the ducks!”
“No!” says Selim, throwing his arms out. “It’s my house!” Then, inspired, “I’m gonna feed the ducks to my house!” Amy’s giggles increase; she throws back her head. Selim is starting to shake with laughter too. “We’re gonna feed the ducks to Al! The ducks are gonna feed Al’s bag to me! You’re —”
If he’s got more material for this routine, it’s sadly lost to posterity, because now Selim and Amy are both on the floor in utter hysterics. Amy waves her limbs in the air like a bug; Selim holds his tummy as if to stop the laughter bubbling out. It goes on for ages. The moment one of them seems to be calming down, the other starts up again.
Recovering from a joke this good apparently takes a while, but afterwards, Selim and Amy walk to the duck pond ahead of Al, hand in hand.
Al’s actually about to comment on how nicely and sensibly they’re walking there. Then, of course, Selim points ahead and, without warning, yells “I can see all of the ducks!”
“The ducks!” Amy yells.
“Don’t yell, guys,” Al says. “You’ll startle—”
But they’re already off and sprinting, hiccuping giggles, shouting hello, yelling “quack, quack, quack!”
The ducks are scattering already. Al jogs after them, shaking his head.
He’s nearly caught up, Selim and Amy are nearly at the pond — and Selim trips right over and plants his face on the gravel.
After a moment of shocked silence, Selim lets out a howl. As Al sprints to catch up, Selim lies on his face, crying with utter abandon, while Amy stands stock still next to him, with big shocked eyes.
When Al puts a hand on his back, Selim scrambles up to sitting and hugs his legs in. His face is red and streaked with tears. “My knee”, he says, in a miserable whine.
Al checks him over. He didn’t hit his head — just skinned his left knee. “Ouch,” said Al. “Did you fall down?”
“My knee hurts,” says Selim, and sobs again.
Amy is standing over Selim now, and as she stares at his knee, her face crinkles up. “Blood!” she says. Then, turning to Al with a wretched face, “Stays inside!”
She’s watching Selim intently, then in almost perfect imitation her lip starts to tremble and Al sees her tense a moment and tears form. She shrieks, again, echoing Selim.
For just one moment, Al lets himself feel overwhelmed by the wailing in stereo.
“Selim is broken,” she says. Then, looking at Al, “Fix Selim! Fix Selim! Please!”
“It’s just a scrape,” Al says. “I’ve got a flask of clean water here, let’s just wash it.”
Tears roll down Amy’s cheeks. She cradles Selim as if she’s nursing a dying soldier in a movie. Selim himself has gone quiet and sniffly now, comforted by all the attention. Amy looks at Al. Al thinks, she instinctively adapts. She’s always been emotional with no real idea of what emotional is, so she watches Selim and she takes her cues from him on how to process her feelings. She learns tears; she processes compassion; she acts out her distress.
Looking at them, it’s easy to set aside the memory of a whirling, hysterical mass of razor sharp limbs. Surely, others will see this, too? But Al’s stomach twists. How much does Amy remember? She remembered fighting Ed and Al on the train. Does she remember the people she killed on the day of the coup, when they forced her into a panicking rage? She remembered that old lady from Xerxes: a fragment of memory from Selim’s blood, from Pride’s stone, and through him from the first Homunculus. How far back, how many terrible things done by her progenitors, does she remember? Katzenklavier made her to be a source of secret knowledge as much as raw destructive power. He thinks of The Perfection of Matter, that horrible little book, the work of his father’s master. He knows it backwards now. The absence of Truth.
But that small girl isn’t that, is she? It’s clear to him that something in this creature wishes so very deeply to be Amy. This being chose a child’s form; chooses to be curious, playful, greedy for love. Souls with stories, blood with memories … Amy, he thinks, is something more profound than a disguise.
“Okay,” Al says. Teacher would roast him for using alchemy for something so small as this. “I’m gonna fix it up. But let’s all take five big slow breaths first. We’ll blow our lungs up big like balloons and see how good we feel after. Ready, guys?”
Selim breathes deep, and Amy immediately follows suit.
“Hold still,” Al says to Selim. Then he claps. Real medical rentanjutsu is beyond him, but, training at Yulong Temple with Mei, he just about mastered first aid. The formula burrows through earth, calls upon the tiniest fragment of that deep flow of energy, the ever-running source. Then it pops up through the ground. The air crackles, and Selim and Amy watch with wide eyes as the gravel vibrates away and the skin of Selim’s knee blooms over the scrape. “All done!” Al says.
Selim runs a finger over the pink new skin. “Wow,” he says.
Amy crouches. “Wow,” she says. The tears vanish as if they’d never been there, and she grins. Al thinks of the infant Homunculus in its jar and its tank, so deadly and so lonely. No wonder she wants what Selim has of life.
From his bag, Al dispenses packets of oats for them to scatter. The cakes, for Selim and Amy, he holds back for later. The duck pond is safely fenced off behind railings, so he thinks he can permit himself to sit down. What a lot of drama, what a great event that scraped knee was.
It makes sense, he supposes. Selim, all the homunculi, even Father, were artificial humans, grown from humanity and growing towards humanity. And that was what was left of Selim, wasn’t it, when all the power and malice and memory burned away? A tiny baby, calling for its mother.
Selim stands watching with delight as the ducks snatch oats from the water’s surface. Amy swings her hand in his. Being human makes her so happy.
Something crunches under Al’s hand on the bench. He looks down: a folded piece of paper, and on it is written, Bridgewire.
It’s Katzenklavier’s handwriting, of course. Al snorts with sudden disgust, his good mood chased away. He snatches up the note and opens it, feeling bored and angry as he usually does where this man is concerned. Al swears half his cloak and dagger crap is just for funsies. Ugh.
The note says, meet the car at the south entrance at two o’clock, alone. I thought you might enjoy an afternoon in town.
They rope off the nearest six foot of pavement to any building with melting ice on its roof: a recent concession to safety that apparently got Colonel Fraser roundly mocked. Streams of meltwater cascade down any outdoor path or road with the slightest of inclines. Spring is a violent business around here.
Ed ambushes him outside the west entrance to the fortress, but unlike the ice, Roy always sees him coming. Ed tugs him round the side of a truck for privacy, presses hands to his shoulders and kisses him. Roy focusses in, tries to commit every detail to memory: the little catch in Ed’s breath when Roy’s mouth opens; the way Ed presses into him when he takes a discreet half step back to lean against the truck; the way Ed’s hands grasp his shoulders. When Ed pulls back, his eyes are wide and sparkling.
“You look high,” Roy says. “You did a jump this morning?”
“Yeah! I told you at 0500 hours.”
“I was asleep. It was fantastic. It was even better than jumping from a suicidal height at a hideous hour of the morning. How did it go for you?”
“It was awesome.”
“I told you, the thing about parachuting, is you gotta just go with it. All you can do is be there, enjoy the experience. Live in the moment!”
“The moment when I’m plummeting in free fall from six thousand feet in the air to my very possible death? That moment?”
“That moment!” Ed says.
“No.” Roy puts a hand to Ed’s warm shoulder, feels the edge of the automail brace brush his fingertips. “I’d rather live in the moment when … we’re on the couch at my apartment in Central … I’ve mixed us both a whiskey sour, and you’ve had two sips before you just climb on top of me and start yanking at buttons.”
“Past,” Ed says. They have a rule about that now, about talking about the past.
He’s right. “Right. All right … I’m in the slightly nicer apartment that I’ll occupy as Fuhrer, and the Ishbal Home Rule Bill just passed its third reading in Parliament, and everyone I care for is safe. And you have two sips of whiskey sour and climb on top of me on the couch and yank buttons.” Ed rolls his eyes. “I remind you that it’s a tailored shirt, but you’re so desperate to have your way with me right that second that you don’t even hear. Then, I don’t know, the shirt probably gets ripped or something, and then you do really debauched things to me and now I’m mostly just embellishing this story because I want to see you go all pink in the cheeks.”
“You know, I actually used to think you were sophisticated.”
“The word you generally used was pervert.”
“If I’d known you better, I would have gone with nerd.” Then Ed looks down. Chews his lip a moment. Roy knows what’s coming. “Hear anything yet from Al?”
Roy shakes his head. Ed presses his lips together and nods firmly. He’s looking inward, not at Roy. He’s worrying. Roy can’t blame him.
They walk separately to their duties; everyone knows about them, and in true Briggs style no questions are asked. Still, Roy grasps at whatever modicum of professionalism he can manage.
Roy can’t help but smile, though, this time and every time, when he rounds the corner and he sees the airstrip, the hangar, the nine planes. He might hate parachute jumps; but he can’t lose that visceral sense of awe at the sight of these grand, half-miraculous machines. Even Colonel Fraser can drop the Briggs stoicism for the marvel of air travel. Perhaps this is how people of other nations feel when they see alchemy done?
He meets Captain Rebecca Catalina as she strides through the hangar, still in her flying gear, goggles pushed up on her head.
“Captain!” Roy says. “You’ve saved me tracking you down for an update on our secret weapon.”
“Secret weapon’s peachy, sir,” says Catalina, coming up alongside him. “Training manoeuvres and jumps went off great this morning. Everyone on target. I’d say we’re close to ready for action.”
Roy nods. One of the Aerugan pilots passes, saluting Roy and Rebecca as she goes. Lieutenant Abbaticchio, Roy registers, scruffy as usual with her parachute pack slung from one shoulder and her flying jacket undone. He sees Catalina and Havoc finally got them to start wearing an Amestrian lion on their lapels. Good. The Aerugan flying corps are a cocky bunch, insubordinate even, and the engineers are nearly as bad as the pilots. Fraser has been giving Roy endless grief about them. Roy guesses this may be partly because Fraser’s noticed how a little impertinence from his officers makes Roy feel right at home.
“And I’ll need a technical update on the plane fleet from Major Havoc. Is he in the hangar?”
Catalina shifts on her feet. “Clocked off, sir. He just logged three hours in the air, and you know he’s got special dispensation for a rest break after a flying time of —“
Roy holds up a hand, feeling instantly awkward. “Of course. When does he come back on duty?”
“Eleven hundred, sir. He said he wants to go over the latest report for Aerugo before he wires it to Conte Ludovico.”
“And how is Ludovico Folgore, Conte di Collineverdi?” Roy always delights in saying his entire excessive name out loud. It gets everyone confused about how to shorten it correctly, and he’s sure that would annoy the man.
Catalina wrinkles her nose. “The usual, sir. Antsy about his investment. Antsy about what we’re doing with his flying mercenaries. Antsy about his political frenemies getting on his case. And he asked me again when we strike and what all the top secret details are. And I didn’t tell him. Sir.”
Roy shrugs. “He made his bet and he’s got to live with it. He wants regime change in Amestris, and so he let the enemy of Aerugo’s enemy get our sticky fingers on aeronautical technology. Either we win the day and three days from now, he gets to be the great statesman who opened diplomatic relations and trade with Amestris. Or.”
Roy stops himself. Catalina’s eyes widen fractionally. Or. It slipped out. He’s an idiot.
Or, the possibility he cannot voice here, not in public, not in front of troops.
He sees in Catalina’s eyes that she’s thinking the same thing.
Or, in three days’ time they fail. Failure without escape. Death. Death for them, death for their revolution, and death for too many people to bear thinking of it.
Just outside the hangar, another block of melting ice crashes to the ground. This time, Roy manages not to jump.
So why is seeing the city like this such a shock to him?
The car glides through streets that seem to have lost their colour. Here and there, in places he knows, he glimpses boarded-up shop windows, barricades and checkpoints, casually parked tanks, groups of soldiers patrolling like cops. The city goes about its everyday business, but as it does so, it looks unmistakably shabby, bedraggled, bullied. It looks like the friend you haven’t seen in months and find sick and sad. It looks like occupied territory.
The car pulls up on a side-street just outside the old city district, and the driver turns to Al for the first time. “You’ll be back here in four hours. Your appointment is at 3pm upstairs at the Duke’s Head on Garrison Street. Knock yourself out.”
Al gets out the car, walks slowly and carefully to the junction without looking back. Part of him is waiting for the punchline, and it plays out scenarios in his head as he walks: the yell to halt, the punch to the stomach, even the sound of gunfire. Of course it’s just his imagination. He has a good idea of why he’s being allowed onto the streets of Central City after a winter in civilised captivity.
This is a test, he supposes. If you can let your dog off the leash and it still returns to you, it’s tame. They’ll be having him followed, of course. The worst of it is that if he gains anything useful from his appointment, he has no idea how he will pass on the information.
He walks down the street, his back prickling with alarm. He is outside now, with his information. Escape is out of reach, he knows: it must be, for Katzenklavier to have arranged this little experiment. The man never seems to underestimate. Hakuro might be incompetent, but Katzenklavier’s way too smart. Ugh. Terrible combination.
Here is opportunity, somewhere, nevertheless. Al has four hours to find it.
He reaches the junction unmolested — and then, even the drab and saddened streets cannot dampen the thrill that goes through him. He is off the leash. For the first time in six months, he is walking the streets, sniffing the city air, hearing traffic and conversation and white noise and snatches of music.
This is a brief and illusory freedom, but screw it, he’ll take it right now. And whatever happens, he can see what’s actually happening out here, maybe learn something useful even. Something he can use. And he smells — what is that? — croissants!
How can he help it? He follows his nose.
“For the school roof?” Roy asks.
Miles nods. “Yes. And if they don’t hurry it up down there, the snow will have melted. Then we can just take the gear to the school by truck, and they’ll have a nice new lake in the middle of the gymnasium.”
“Still,” Roy says, “co-operation. Heartwarming, community-building, morale-boosting stuff.”
“And wildly overrated when you need things actually done,” Miles says. He exhales, then half-smiles, shrugs.
Roy smiles in return. “Briggs survived the winter. The North has accommodated thousands of refugees, coped under virtual siege from south of the river, kept warm and alive.”
“Discovered that there is absolutely no way of cooking bear meat that stops it tasting awful.”
“I was going to say, the North should be proud. But yes. Bear stew is disgusting and hot sauce doesn’t help.”
“To keep you in the loop, Mayor Donaldson’s stirring the pot again. With apologies for the mixed metaphor, sir.”
“Yes, but just to keep us on our toes, he’s stopped carping about the Ishbalans. Now he’s claiming the toffs from Central use too much soap.”
“According to rationing figures, not to any significant degree, but.” Miles shrugs again. “There isn’t enough of anything to go around. People are sniping at each other. You know how it goes.”
Against all apparent odds, the little group below them have reached a consensus and got the job done. One of the priests is driving the first of the three sleds out into the slushy snow.
“I’d suggest calling the newspaper and making public morale hay of this effort here,” Roy says. “But.”
“But the timing?” Miles grins crookedly. “Yes. No more worries about community relations and siege cuisine for us. In three days, either the siege of the North will be over, or you and I will be dead as doornails and Hakuro will be razing Briggs to the ground with a giant monster.”
Roy winces. He looks around reflexively, but of course no one else is within earshot. “I come here for the unvarnished honesty,” he says.
“Happy to oblige, sir.”
“Fortress evacuation plan?”
“On your desk as of this morning. As watertight as we can make it. However —“
“I know. It’s academic. Dead. Giant monster. I appreciate your humouring me, Lieutenant Colonel.”
Al stands in the deep silence of an abandoned building.
He shouldn’t have snuck in here; he doesn’t quite know why he did. He knew they shut the university back in November, and he wasn’t surprised to find it hadn’t been reopened. Overwhelming evidence of criminal activity … threat to public safety and national security … sedition … emergency … temporary closure. These days, the evidence is always overwhelming, everything is always temporary, and the nationwide state of emergency officially justifies pretty much anything. Being allowed to read Katzenklavier’s daily copy of the Central Times is a pretty mixed blessing.
The entrance gates of the university were padlocked and chained. A sign said: closed by order of the Amestrian military, do not trespass. In the last few hours, Al has seen at least a dozen of such signs: on bars, theatres, schools. There was a sign like this on the door of his favourite bookshop, the one which had tempted him daily from his bedroom window. The guy who ran it padded about in bare feet and offered you coffee if you stayed too long. What happened to him? How many people Al knows have disappeared? He feels sick. He feels the force of that writhing thing: the fear that coils and tenses somewhere in his abdominal cavity, that never rests completely these days, even when he sleeps.
His security detail followed him in here, but they’re keeping their distance; when he concentrates, Al can sense their qi. He’s heard nothing; they’re worryingly good at their jobs.
Ah, dammit. Why is he even torturing himself with this? This is self-indulgent. He’s only got four hours in the city, and the clock is running out. There’s nothing he can find out here that he doesn’t already know.
Al turns on his heel, leaves the stuffed squirrels and the scattered papers and the long, deep silence. He walks back out the way he came, out the broken swing doors of the department entrance, over the brown winter lawn, through the open quadrangle and the enclosed courtyard, back to the gates.
He claps, discreetly slices open the lock of the side gate, then seals it shut after him. His invisible security detail can have fun with that. He glances at the lock to check his work, then turns to cross the street — and stops.
The blank wall opposite the university gates, to which the scraps of old gig posters still cling, is covered in a yard-high piece of fresh graffiti. It’s been daubed in white paint, with rough bright strokes. He’s sure it wasn’t there when he went in. He would have noticed.
RESIST, it says. Just that.
And there’s a picture above the word, a symbol daubed in a few strokes of a brush. A bird with its wings outstretched; a triangle, point up, the alchemical symbol for fire. A phoenix.
His mind automatically reads the symbology: through suffering to transformation, death and rebirth. And, of course, Mustang. So that’s why they called it Radio Phoenix, then. The corners of his mouth are twitching up: he still blames Brother for the name.
He’s passed the messages, listened at night to the radio in the dark, but somehow, these few strokes of paint on the wall of a city street make it suddenly real to him. Just now, at the same moment he was wandering the university in self-indulgent gloom, someone took a paintbrush and a pot and did this. In broad daylight! What a risk to take! Did passers-by see them do it? Did they rush to report it, or did they wink, or did they stare and hurry by, feeling shock or fear or a thrill of hope?
There’s a resistance. They’re here, not just in Briggs: around him, unseen. His chest tightens, then swells. Resist. Al’s mind says the word to him and it’s balm, it’s comfort. How odd that it feels like this to him, when he guesses it’s supposed to be a call to arms. I’m not alone. We’re all in this together, he thinks. I’ll find a way. Then it occurs to him, perhaps that’s what the graffiti’s for after all. To encourage people on, to help them find a drop more strength.
With a little more vigour in his step, he goes to keep his appointment.
“I’m going to be working late now,” Riza says. “I still have the dispatches from Rush Valley and South City to go through. It’ll take at least an hour and a half, which was all we had anyway before he goes back on shift. So.”
“Reading very very subtly between the lines, I think he’d like the time with you.”
“Stop pestering me. I’d love to. I want to. You know that everyone needs to be ready for the signal. There’s no room for error.” She looks up, and for a moment, most of the briskness, the drive and the stress, drops off her face. Without it all she looks younger, scared. “I wish there were more time. I really do.”
Roy touches her sleeve. “So tell him.”
She looks down. “I’m going to. I am.” Her smile is small and real. Roy worries. He worries about pretty much everything at the moment, so it’s permissible. And — he knows, oh how he knows — there is never enough time.
Roy looks around the communications room. A dozen operators sit at their radio sets, some speaking, some typing, some waiting. He always feels slightly tense, slightly reverent, in this room. At the other end of those radio sets is the resistance movement: that great courageous wave which has gathered itself at his back. In his mind, he sees the people who died and risked death to bring him safely North, and he knows how many like them are out there now.
These days, they are no longer an informal collection of little groups, but an organised force — thanks to Riza and to Radio Phoenix and to their own talent and audacity and perseverance. They’re able to help one another and to strategise; to pass intelligence, receive information, take orders. They’re practically an army: an army of ordinary people, most of whom never should have had to pick up a gun or look down the end of one. They have put his symbol — this phoenix they’re painting onto walls in the night and carving into coins — upon their rebellion. So many people have entrusted him with their hopes of liberation, and in this trust they are dying and suffering daily.
Roy shifts in his seat. “Nothing through from Foxglove Network yet about Bridgewire?”
Riza raises an eyebrow. “Is this you or Edward asking?”
“Me. So how many times has he been in this morning to check?”
“At least four.”
“You know, he knows full well you’ll tell him when we’ve made contact with Alphonse. He’s antsy. He’s waiting for someone to tell him to buzz off.”
“I did.” She smiles. “Nicely.”
The radio set nearest Riza’s desk splutters, and a woman’s voice crackles through the speakers. “Aster Network reporting in.” The voice rattles off a string of numbers and letters: the verification code.
The radio operator checks his notebook, then picks up the mic to recite the return code. “This is Briggs. Is that Peacock? Good to hear your voice.”
“No, sir. They shot her last week, I’m her replacement. Call me Crow. Reporting in regarding last night’s sabotage op on the main railway junction east of New Optain.”
She said it so quickly and casually: a comrade’s death is just an everyday matter. Her voice sounds young. The radio operator tenses his shoulders and looks down, but he gives away no more emotion than that.
Roy has sat in on far too many conversations like this. Every resistance circuit in the country seems to have a rotating cast of the tenacious, the brave, the ruthless and the very short-lived. And damn it, the stories Roy has heard in this room: the things Hakuro’s lot do to these people, when they catch them.
Riza is watching the radio operator too. After a moment, she turns, flicks her eyes to the doors of her private office. Roy follows her in.
“Peacock didn’t last long,” Roy says, flopping in a chair.
“Six weeks is actually very good for a radio operator in the resistance.” Riza leans against the wall. “But we got so used to having Fuery operating for Aster network … we forgot. Their luck always runs out.”
Six weeks ago, Fuery’s luck ran out. They’d thought he was dead at first; but the trial and the death sentence and the propaganda sheet gloating had corrected them on that score.
“Hakuro gets more brutal the more he’s losing his grip,” Roy says. “He always did.”
“But the worse he gets, the more they fight him,” Riza says. She’s quiet, contained. “I know it’s hard for you.”
“For me?” Roy raises his eyebrows. “In this nice warm office?” Of course, she’s got his number.
He serves these people, that’s what he tells himself when he feels his endurance falter, when he’s exhausted, when it seems too hard and too long to keep putting one foot in front of the other.
Riza seems to lean more heavily into the wall. “These have been a hard few weeks. The trials. Hakuro cancelling his visit east.”
“Yes,” Roy says. “Of course he’s paranoid about trains; he has half an ear to remind him every time he looks in the mirror to shave.” It was a significant blow, though. They had been aiming hopefully for Hakuro to travel to East City for the joint North-East training. It wasn’t surprising that he decided against it; isolated on a train, he’d be ideally situated for an assassination or a coup, and he has both his own misfortune and Bradley’s to remember. Now, with Hakuro holed up in Central, Roy’s coup becomes a much dicier endeavour.
Keeping the state of emergency for this long has been an utterly predictable catastrophe. Bradley did it once, for two weeks, just before the Ishbal War. Used like that, it was a perfect tool: show command in a crisis, exploit peoples' fear, gain the populace’s support for unprecedented acts of state violence. Like this, though, it’s a disaster. Hakuro is showing the whole country that he isn’t up to the job of maintaining order. Total autocracy demotes the military council and robs the rest of the brass of power and influence. Hakuro loses the chance to get cool-headed advice from people who aren’t just his yes-men, and who could probably tell him how his brutal policing is having the exact opposite effect to what he wants. It’s a recipe for pissing off his rivals, it’s screwing the economy, and it advertises that the system has broken down and the people should no longer put their faith in it. He’s practically forcing the brass’s hands.
“We have what we have,” Riza says. “We can’t justify a delay now. The Homunculus has been active and ready for a month now. It’s fortune enough that Hakuro was persuaded to delay the Briggs strike until the snow melted.”
“Yes,” Roy says. “The odds could be better, but they’re still looking far healthier than they were on the Promised Day. And — I’m glad we’re moving now.” To Riza, in privacy, he can admit it. “We have people under sentence of death who were with us from the beginning. Right now, they’ve still got a chance. Either we’ll come through this, or — at least they’ll know we did our all. Either way, we went the whole way together.”
The mugshots on the cover are the worst of it: faces he saw every day, staring out at him bruised and beaten, defiant or fearful or glazed with exhaustion. First Lieutenant Heymans Breda: his jaw is horribly swollen on one side, and Roy suspects it’s broken. Warrant Officer Julia Sullivan: Captain Ross’s girlfriend. Roy cannot forget the horrible tremor in Ross’ voice when she radioed in the list of the arrested. Second Lieutenant Vato Falman, glaring at the camera with a black eye and more anger than Roy has ever seen on the man’s face. Second Lieutenant Adil Dino, looking ten years older, all the spark and good humour lost from his face. Corporal Lucas Fieseler, trying for a defiant glare but still looking wretched. Private Caroline Bell: nineteen years old, staring ahead with unfiltered animal terror. Sergeant Hannah Westland, who’d actually cornered Hawkeye in the canteen to beg for a transfer to their department. Second Lieutenant Kain Fuery — Roy barely recognised him without his glasses — looking small and shut down, his shoulders slumped.
If you don’t give the bastards anything to work with, they can’t have their public show trial. So the trials were, in the end, private and military. They didn’t crack. Not a single one of them gave the bastards a shred of intelligence. The dreadful thing about that is that it actually means this: they’ve resisted every bit of torture that’s been thrown at them. Even now, they’re giving everything for Roy. He has seen what Hakuro did in the war, seen what he did to bombing suspects in East when he could get away with it. Sometimes he wishes he knew a little less.
The juicy details published in the papers are of course bullshit, bullshit upon bullshit, in every detail but the flat fact that these people took part in Roy’s coup. Since the crime is high treason, they’ll be hanged, not put in front of a firing squad. Roy is sure that’s another squalid bit of spin: a barbaric and humiliating death to provide ineffective propaganda for a dying regime.
There’s a throbbing headache just behind Roy’s eyeballs, right where Marcoh grew back the optic nerve the Gate took from him. He remembers Fuery spilling a full mug of coffee in the middle of the office on his first day, and everyone giving him a standing ovation. He remembers Breda sneaking in a crate of beer late at night, after they all finished unpacking the office in Central. He remembers greeting them with Riza, down in the sewers on the day of the Eclipse. I’ve got one order for you. Don’t die. Everyone got the joke, and everyone knew that he meant it.
How do six months of torture and captivity go by, with only death ahead of you? What can that even feel like, to wake up in the morning to that? What comfort is there for you? How do you keep yourself sane?
Roy’s hand is clenched in a fist, and as he opens it, his fingers tremble incrementally. He recognises that boiling, sparking feeling in his chest. He has a meeting in an hour, and he needs to be calm for it, not an inch from rage. Three days, he has to wait. Just three days before they give their all to stop this unspeakable thing and every other unspeakable thing happening in the country.
There’s a bottle of Al’s preferred beer on the table. Katzenklavier gets it in occasionally at the manor house, to let Al know he’s been a good boy. Al is so damn tired of all this.
Al sits. “Hi,” he says. “So, you let me off the leash and I came back.”
“Didn’t you just,” Katzenklavier says evenly. “What do you make of Central these days?”
Al looks around the room.
“We’re unobserved,” Katzenklavier says.
Al draws a breath. “The university’s still shut down.”
“I know.” Katzenklavier shakes his head. “Disastrous, unnecessary and shameful. There are ways to conduct an ideological purge without wanton destruction of this country’s greatest seat of learning.”
“Were there many arrests?”
“Two hundred. Most of them released now. I exerted some pressure over this one. You don’t apply a blunt instrument to something so precious as knowledge.” It’s the closest Al has ever seen Katzenklavier come to moral disgust. It’s kind of surreal. “So,” he continues. “You’ve seen what a wreck Hakuro’s made here trying to keep order and cling to power. And you have been as good as your word these last few months. You promised to devote yourself to my work and you have done so.”
Al keeps his poker face, inclines his head. “Thanks.” He’s done nothing of the kind. He’s taken care of the little Homunculus, helped keep Amy stable and happy and not blasting holes in things unless specifically thus ordered, and he’s managed to keep Selim safe from Katzenklavier’s experimental mind. And he’s stayed alive.
Al sees the words coming.
“In ten days’ time, there’s going to be a new Fuhrer.”
“General Acker.” Katzenklavier shrugs. “He made me an excellent offer two months ago, and I accepted.”
Al freezes. He’s been speculating. This is the worst answer he could possibly get. Acker was an ally of Hakuro’s back in the days when he and Mustang were civilised rivals. Acker’s got a nasty reputation, but more to the point — he’s a lot smarter than Hakuro.
Al says, “This is why I got a day out? So you could tell me this in private?”
“Because it’s going to require your co-operation. And — allow me to be plain — if you have any hope left of Mustang rallying, I can’t rely on you.”
“I don’t,” Al says. It’s happening. Do Mustang’s people know about this? He makes his voice and his face as blank as he can. His heart is hammering at his sternum and his hairline feels like it’s sweating. Adrenaline and cortisol are chasing around his bloodstream.
“I’ll put this simply. The Fuhrer has been persuaded it’s politically expedient for him to attend the closing ceremonies of the North-East joint training. The old worrywart wouldn’t leave the capital without his secret weapon. He seems to think the Homunculus is a very expensive guard dog. Taking the Homunculus means adequate handlers, of course. We’ve had a job of work stabilising it. So you and I will attend too.”
“And that’s where it’s happening?”
“No. The Fuhrer’s private train will leave Central on the evening of the twenty-ninth. We will be on it. It will travel in a loop, heading north and then changing track at a few key points. At an unscheduled stop in the small hours of the morning, a small contingent will board to relieve Hakuro of command and arrest him. Afterwards Acker and his troops will meet us at Central Terminal Station, to transfer custody of our former leader, and to take formal possession of lock, stock and barrel.”
Katzenklavier isn’t lying. Al is sure of it. No: he is actually asking Al, politely, for his co-operation.
“Don’t worry, it should be a nice smooth little coup. Nothing like the extended and bloody disasters you’ve been witness to.” Katzenklavier sips at his sherry and Al feels a surge of bilious disgust rise from stomach to throat.
“And what’s my job? Keep the Homunculus in check? Don’t yell fire?”
Katzenklavier raises a forefinger. “Yes, but I’m not finished yet. I’d like you to understand what is going to happen, thoroughly and completely. The entirety of the Northern and Eastern troops, officers, and combat alchemists in our territory south of the River Isar, along with the Homunculus, will then be immediately deployed upon the Briggs frontier. Central command will lead the operation. Mutinous and uncooperative elements in our own forces will be executed on the spot. Any of the enemy who do not surrender will be executed on the spot. We expect the whole thing to take about a day or so.”
Al’s mind freezes solid. “No,” he hears himself say. No. I won’t do that.
“Of course not,” says Katzenklavier. “Your job in this is not to kill your brother, or indeed any of them. I’m not a brute. We’ll hold you securely until it’s all done. Your job is, simply, to remain. To prevent disaster and unneeded civilian deaths by calming and securing the Homunculus after it does its work.” He pauses, and looks Al right in the eye. “And to be sensible enough to relinquish hope.”
Al is silent. There is so much hope, though, hope and terror and rage hammering away at the walls of his skull. He thinks, poker face, poker face, like a mantra. Give nothing away. Let him see what he wants to see. Oh god, what if Mustang doesn’t know? How do I get the message north?
“I know you’ve given up a great deal already. I know this will be very hard on you.” Katzenklavier’s tone has become gentle, feeling. “After this is done, we can look at getting you more freedom. A safer position. Central University will be reopened. Perhaps we could find you a research post?”
Al leans back and takes half a moment to think of a response that’s plausible but not defiant. “Is that supposed to sound like a great offer?” His voice sounds shaky, and he didn’t even have to fake it.
Katzenklavier leans forward and puts a hand on his wrist. He looks Al in the eye. His eyes are bright and blue and Al doesn’t want to be touched, doesn’t want to be this close to him. “You have a future, Alphonse,” he says. “Mustang doesn’t. His people don’t. As for your brother — who knows? He has a great mind. One of the finest of his generation, like you. You know me, I don’t say this lightly. Arguments could be made for conserving such a rare and precious resource as genius. And if Edward survives the assault, he will have no one left in the world but you.”
Al’s thoughts freeze again. The words ring in his mind. The terror in his belly thrashes and wrings and coils.
“Wouldn’t you give everything to save your brother?” Katzenklavier says. “Didn’t he give everything for you?”
“He’s a marked man, sir,” Riza says. “There’s no point in PR now. The only thing left that can save him from an internal coup is if he takes Briggs and destroys us. So if the Homunculus is ready, we need to act as soon as possible —”
“Yeah, about that. Did they make contact with Al yet?” It’s Ed. Of course. Riza gives him a sharp look, and to his credit, Ed ducks his chin.
“Fullmetal,” Roy says, warning. He has to say something. Yes, everyone knows he and Ed are sleeping together, but that’s all the more reason he can’t allow Ed more rope than anyone else.
“Sorry, sir.” Ed looks down at the table as he mumbles.
“You’ll know as soon as we do, Major.” Riza’s tone softens barely, incrementally. Roy sees Ed’s shoulders soften; he’s picked up on it.
So, apparently, has Fraser. His lips press together. Roy can see him thinking, nearly: sentimental pantywaist southerners. Mollycoddling each other’s feelings. Even Miles has gone soft. I blame that dog. Hayate is currently under the table, draping his chin adoringly over Miles’ boots.
“Lieutenant Colonel Hawkeye, please continue.”
Riza draws a breath, takes a croupier stick and taps it on the plan of Central Headquarters at the centre of the map. “Both parachute drops at 2200 hours. Beta Team lands in the manor grounds to make contact with Bridgewire and neutralise the Homunculus. We’ve still settled on alchemists only: Fullmetal, Princess Mei, and Masters Liu and Feng. Meanwhile, Alpha Team parachutes onto the flat of Central HQ roof here. The Brigadier General drops us into the room directly below this skylight, the private bathroom of Hakuro’s office. We arrest Hakuro, we send the signal up straight after—”
“Arrest?” Fraser taps a fingertip on the table.
“We’ve been through this,” Roy says. He’s tired of arguing this point with Fraser. “It’s not up for discussion any more. No assassination. If it comes to a firefight, we don’t hold back. But if we get a choice, then I want him to stand trial for his crimes against the Amestrian people. Beginning with the Homunculus.”
Havoc and Ed nod with undisguised approval. Riza’s chin is lowered slightly, and Roy sees the twitch of a smile. Miles is looking with great concentration at the map table, and Roy has known him long enough to see that he’s cultivating that neutral expression. Fraser is looking Roy in the eye. Roy looks calmly back, and continues.
“We arrest Hakuro, we send the signal up straight after, and our allies inside HQ take command —”
“Our alleged allies,” Fraser mutters.
Roy continues, as if he’d heard nothing. “Then we move to the second phase immediately and start locking down internal targets.”
Roy feels bristling, uneasy. Is Fraser planning to point out uncomfortable truths at every damn stage of the strategy meeting? Yes, by striking on Central Headquarters with a small team, they make themselves at every moment vulnerable and exposed. The parachute strike team can’t be more than nine people; one for each two-seater biplane. Nearly all Roy’s command are on the team. There’s no point in holding back any more; this is their last shot. Only the air command and their passengers are likely to survive an attack on Briggs. If the worst happens, Major Havoc will lead the survivors into exile, this time for years, decades, perhaps a lifetime. He was not delighted with the order.
No matter how much firepower Roy can give his strike team, they remain vastly outnumbered. Their few active double agents are nowhere near enough. They can’t win this without tacit support from the rank and file and key positions (which they have reason to hope for), without turncoats who are looking out for themselves (who are always likely), without — frankly — a lot of good luck. Roy doesn’t need Fraser to tell him the weaknesses of this plan, or the risks. He ruminates over every one of them as he stares into the whiteout on long weekly shifts at the Wall. They rattle through his brain unbidden when he wakes in the deep hours of the night, when the darkness is hardest to shake off and he finds himself unbearably grateful for Ed sleeping heavy and warm at his side.
“Okay, so it’s risky.” Ed spreads his hands, leans forward and looks Colonel Fraser in the eye, eyes bright and voice a few decibels too loud. “So our odds aren’t great. But we’ve beaten way worse odds than that.”
“You lost last time.” Fraser raises an eyebrow.
Ed visibly puffs up. As he draws breath to say some things Roy can see coming, Roy looks him right in the eye.
He closes his mouth, exhales, folds his arms. His mouth is flattened into a line, with his lower lip pouting out a tiny bit.
Roy is proud of Ed and he wants to laugh at him, and part of him wants Ed to just flip the table over and say whatever dreadful thing he was going to say to Fraser next, and another part is very, very relieved.
The room has gone quiet. The air feels heavy.
“Thank you for the summary, Lieutenant Colonel Hawkeye,” Roy says. “Right. Air command. How’s the Count, Major Havoc?”
Havoc gets the point instantly. “Still flirting with my wife,” he says, and gets a chuckle out of the room. “Even via telegram.” More smiles, and Rebecca Catalina flicks her eyes upwards just a shade more than military etiquette would permit. “Via telegram to me.”
Everyone laughs. The tension in the room has dissipated. Roy throws Havoc a discreet look of gratitude.
“And the air crew?”
“Briefed and a hundred per cent ready, sir,” says Catalina. “The parachute drop over HQ is still —“ she pauses, and obviously represses a grimace. “It is what it is. I’ll go over it when we hit that agenda point, and then there are a couple strategy decisions to make.”
“A hundred per cent ready or ninety per cent ready?” It’s Fraser.
Catalina frowns. “I’m sorry, sir?”
“Captain, you sat in that seat three weeks ago and said the air strategy could be ninety per cent ready by now.”
Havoc cuts in. “We pushed it up, sir.”
Fraser nods. “Oh. All right, you pushed it up, so that must be fine. Major Havoc, Captain Catalina, are you able to give us a guarantee?”
Catalina leans forward. “Sir. We’re ready. Like I said. Is there something else you want to raise, sir?” And the tension is back.
Ed is frowning determinedly at the table. He’s taken two unused model tanks from the edge of the war table and is making them knock barrels.
“Well,” says Fraser. “Since you asked. I was just wondering if the shift of timing and the guarantees that this dicey plan will be perfectly ready sooner than you told us was humanly possible — I was just questioning to myself, whether this might possibly have anything to do with the government scheduling the execution of your POWs?”
Roy reacts before he’s even gauged the shock that goes round the table. “Colonel Fraser!” His voice is raised. He drops some of the volume, retains the tone of hostility. “Are you questioning my air command’s objectivity, or questioning my objectivity?”
Colonel Fraser gives him a cool look. He planned to stir up this pot, then. “No one’s infallible, Brigadier General Mustang. General Armstrong never had a problem being told she was wrong.”
Miles snorts. “Sir, the General loved an honest answer, but I wouldn’t go that far.”
Roy shifts, feels again that deep unease at the back of his mind. He sets it aside. This plan is what they have. Anything less than total commitment, total determination, and their odds will worsen. That much he knows.
Roy takes a breath. “We’ve discussed the timing of this operation extensively. Hakuro has several underlings manoeuvring to replace him, and they’re all more dangerous than him. The ice is melting, and we know they’ll move on Briggs. We’re out of time.” He spreads his hands. “This is what we have. And we need to move. And move forward with this meeting.”
Fraser nods. “I was. I think an honest assessment of the air crew’s capabilities is extremely relevant.”
“I surveyed them this morning. I trust Havoc and Catalina’s assessment. We’re moving on.”
There’s a fluttering feeling behind his breastbone, as if his heart has grown wings and is trying to make a break for it. It’s nauseating. His eyes pass over these sad ordinary streets, and it seems unreal: it’s all finally ending. They have only nine days left. Here is opportunity, he says to himself. It doesn’t feel convincing. But no: he knows just enough from the messages to know that although he’s up in Briggs, Mustang is able to strike upon Central fast. Al has his suspicions as to the means. If Al could only pass the message!
He shoves away fear and despair. This is his mission, then. He’s worked out he can keep his tail about a block away at most. The resistance are out there somewhere in this city. He has Ed’s code. He has just over two hours left. What could he do, in that time? Where could he go? What does he need?
He barely realises he’s walked into his second-favourite bookstore until the doorbell rings. It looks just the same as ever. It’s the first place he’s seen that looks unchanged. As he fake-browses, Al mentally flits through desperate, terrible ideas. Make a break for it. Take down his security stalkers and run. Graffiti a coded message onto a wall in foot-high letters. While he fails to think up a workable idea, Al amuses himself by annoying his stalker security detail. He knows this bookstore well; it’s large and rambling, spread over five cluttered rooms and with a dozen obscure corners to hide in.
He’s in Historical Biography, flipping through the memoirs of an eighteenth-century cook while he quietly panics, when a man bumps against his shoulder.
Al looks up, expecting to see one of his guards. Instead, he sees a man: tall, dark-skinned, dapper in a studenty sort of way, and not much older than Al himself. He’s reaching for a book.
Al opens his mouth to apologise; the man shakes his head, smiles, raises a finger to his lips. Then he winks.
Al sucks in a breath.
He winks at Al, then lifts his lapel and something flashes under it: a silver button, no, a ten cenz piece, Al recognises the eagle on the back. This one’s scratched up. As soon as Al has noticed, the man has broken eye contact. He brushes past Al in the narrow space between the bookcases. Al gives him space as he can, but as he moves back, the man’s hand finds his and squeezes. Something is pressed into Al’s hand, crackle of crumpled paper, and then the man is turning the corner and gone.
Al goes in the opposite direction. He takes one turn, then another, and then finally he hunkers down behind an armchair and, behind the cover of The Compleat Housekeeper’s Companion, he flattens out the paper and sneaks a look.
The note says: Jordan Boulevard, Gentlemen, furthest stall.
For a moment, Al thinks, oh, I got cruised. It’s cute for half a moment, then crushingly disappointing. For a whole second there he thought, just maybe here was that opportunity—
Then he thinks of the coin under the man’s lapel. The eagle, the scratches — oh! The phoenix symbol.
Al was right the first time. This is a totally different kind of assignation. The resistance must have somehow found out Al would be coming to Central today, and they managed to find him. They’ve risked alerting his tail to give Al the chance to pass on his intelligence.
In the stall of the public bathroom, Al leans on his thigh, scribbles frantic phrases of alchemical code, sucks in deliberately steady breaths. He covers the two sheets of paper so fast his hand aches. Here it is: everything he knows, all the information he’s been saving since Mrs Bradley’s contact disappeared, and everything he learned today. Then he rolls up the paper, pops it back with the pencil stub in the jam jar they left for him in the toilet tank, seals it up tight. He replaces the jar in the tank, pulls the toilet handle and closes the top of the tank while the flushing noise covers the sound.
As he climbs the steps from the public bathroom to the street, heart hammering, he passes the first of his security detail on the stairs. He doesn’t react to the man at all; he’s not supposed to know they’re there, right? He controls his breath, lets it empty slowly and gradually from his lungs. He walks down the street, feeling suddenly lighter and more spacious, less alone.
Al turns a corner, his security detail now a few paces behind him, and finds himself again back by the university gates. He’s walked in a circle.
The wall still says resist. Al’s poker face is still perfect.
Roy tilts his head. “I won’t be there.” He regrets it, horribly. They’re dividing their forces, and that means — his stomach twists — that Beta Team, taking down the Homunculus at the manor house, won’t have his firepower. “But open is best for me too. By the way, if it comes to an open fight at HQ, we’re making for the courtyard or the roof.”
Feng raises his cane and uses it to tap the position of a small wood behind the manor house. “This is still the best spot for us, I think. We can draw it out easily.”
Ed leans forward. “And they’ll send Al with it for sure. So—”
Liu shakes his head. “We should not rely on that.”
“No,” says Ed, “he’ll be there. Everything he was saying before we lost contact — look, the minute we get his message today, I know he’ll—“
Riza smiles at Ed, and he stops. “Master Feng, have the medics signed you off for the mission?” Feng spent much of the winter in the infirmary, recovering from a nasty compound fracture to his right leg. He’s still walking with a cane, which is perhaps in some ways not totally ideal for a parachute jump by night, followed by a fight with a giant monster.
Feng shrugs. “Doctor McIlhare said, knock myself out. In the idiomatic sense.” He grins, self-consciously charming. “Yes?”
“If —” Roy stops. Ed is staring at the doorway, lips parted. Roy follows his gaze: it’s First Lieutenant Sharma, one of Riza’s subordinates in the comms room. She’s holding a folded sheet of paper.
“Sir,” says Lieutenant Sharma. “Contact with Bridgewire. Foxglove Network just radioed in the message.”
Roy stands. He nods fractionally to Riza, but to no one else. As he steps out of the room, he catches Ed’s eye. Ed is pressing his lips together, clearly exerting every sinew to stick to military discipline rather than sprint out the door with them.
Riza closes the door behind them, takes the paper from Sharma and scans it. The corridor is empty.
Well, this is one thing that has gone well. Now they have confirmation that Alphonse is safe and hopefully ready for action. And with reliable intelligence on the state of the Homunculus, they will stand a better chance of being able to stop it being deployed.
Riza hands Roy the paper. “Fullmetal’s code. I think.”
Roy translates as he reads out loud to Riza. “First: Selim confirmed human. Homunculus ready for action, but believe I can keep her stable, stop her attacking.” Her? “Second: March twenty-ninth —” He stops.
Roy reads, and he reads again. He sucks in a breath. Did he translate this right? Yes. He did. There is no room for doubt here. His mind and body skip a groove, straight into battle mode, as if there were something right in front of him now that he could burn or shoot.
“What?” Riza looks alarmed, ready. As ever, she’s here with him, even before she knows what is written here.
“Twenty-ninth March, evening, planned coup by General Acker.” Roy continues. Ten days from today. “Fuhrer’s personal train to East City overnight, to observe the closing ceremony of the North/East joint training.” Riza exhales explosively. “Train diverts to travel in a loop, Acker plans to board and remove Hakuro from power at 4am, with backing of Chrysalis. Then to move upon Briggs immediately and deploy Homunculus.”
“He’s going after all.” Riza says. “So … Plan A is in play again.”
“Yes,” says Roy. And now he makes himself continue. “Plan A. This is where he’ll be most vulnerable. Hakuro knows it, hence the secrecy and the Homunculus escort. His rival knows it, hence the planned coup. And now we know it.”
“You’ve got him now!” says Colonel Fraser.
Roy jumps. He didn’t even hear the meeting room door open or shut.
Fraser grins at them, not a whiff of apology about him. “So. Push back the strike to March twenty-ninth. We can get Hakuro on the train before Acker does, get the Homunculus, get Chrysalis. The old bastard’s so paranoid he’s put all his eggs in one basket. It’s perfect.”
Riza’s lips compress a little, and she sucks in a slow breath the way she does when she’s discreetly holding herself together. Roy looks Riza in the eye. They delay for this opportunity, and by the time they mount their coup, Breda will be dead, Fuery will be dead, another half-dozen of Roy’s people.
Here is sharp opportunity, at terrible cost. They’ve fought for him since the very beginning. Now his best chance of victory may well lie in letting them die for him.
His ears are ringing.
Thanks to skydark for badass beta magic. And mega-thanks to all the readers who stuck with this fic through the epic hiatus! Especially those of you who took the trouble to leave lovely comments. I've been bowled over. You guys rock! <3
Some time in the late afternoon, the clouds part. As Al strolls to the clearing, the air feels distinctly milder and warmer than it did yesterday. Or maybe that’s just him. He’s still full of unsteady triumph from this afternoon. He thinks of his message on its precarious journey north: passed from hand to hand, spoken in the dark by radio operators.
He sees her before she sees him, because she’s so utterly absorbed in what she’s doing. Amy is sitting near Selim, perched on a log with her bare feet on the bark. She’s dipping something into a pot and sucking on it. As Al gets closer, he sees what it is: it’s a stick of spring rhubarb, and she’s dipping it in sugar the way he used to when he was a kid.
“Wow!” he calls. “What have you got there?”
Amy looks up, creases her face into a grin, yells. “Al! Hello!” Her human shape is flawless, just the way it was this morning. The barrette is coming out of her hair.
Selim waves and goes back to his picture book. Al drops a kiss on top of Amy’s head, only half-surprised at himself, and sits next to her.
“Rhubarb!” Al says. “Is it good?”
Amy nods. “Selim gave it.”
“Rhubarb’s yucky,” Selim says. “I don’t like it.”
“It’s yummy,” Al says.
Amy holds out her wet and well-chewed stick of rhubarb in Al’s direction. She looks at him solemnly. “It’s yummy. You try it.”
“You go ahead,” Al says, trying not to wrinkle his nose.
“Good afternoon,” says Dr Katzenklavier, strolling towards them. “Are we ready to begin?”
“Selim,” says Mrs Bradley, from her lawn chair. “Come to me.”
Selim trots over to her and holds out his arms to be hugged.
“Amy?” Al says. He hates this part, hates having to be the one to start it.
“No,” Amy says. “I’m eatin’ rhubarb.” She curls the bowl of sugar against her tightly.
“Now now,” says Dr Katzenklavier. “Good children do as they’re told.” He locks eyes with Al as he says it, mouth twitching up at the corners. Al can feel the amused quotation marks around the word “children.” The anger rises up and he locks it right down again.
“Amy,” Al says quietly. “Rhubarb after.”
“No!” She pouts, bites into her stick, shoves it in the sugar again. She’s never refused before. Katzenklavier’s eyes are on the back of Al’s neck.
“More rhubarb after. Really good rhubarb!”
“I want it now!”
“How ‘bout a square of chocolate?”
Amy relaxes, cocks her head. “Can I have chocolate now?”
“After training,” Al says.
“Okay.” She sets her bowl down, trots to the centre of the clearing, stands there alone. “Chocolate after training,” Al hears her mutter.
Al watches her shift on the balls of her feet. Her shoulders hunch up. His stomach clenches. He’s got to do this, he tells himself. They’ve got to.
“Come on,” he calls. “Let’s get it done quick so we can go and eat chocolate. Reach for the sky, Amy.”
Amy looks at Selim. He’s hopped into his mother’s lap, and Mrs Bradley’s arms are wrapped around his waist, like she’s anchoring him.
Amy shakes her head.
“Amy,” Al says. “It’s okay. It’s okay.” He doesn’t convince himself.
Katzenklavier tuts. He’s holding up his stopwatch, thumb to the button.
Amy sniffs. Then, from the shadow at her feet, a long skein of darkness rises up into the trees. Another follows after it, and another, winding around each other. In the tentacles, eyes slit open and dart around. Fanged mouths snap at the end. Amy, the small human shape of her, stands at the root of it all, with her fists clenched.
“Faster,” says Katzenklavier. “You can do a lot more than this. This session goes on until you beat your previous times. Understood?”
More tendrils are winding slowly up from Amy’s back, spreading out wide in the trees. A host of eyes open in the shadows, all at once, and they turn to look at Katzenklavier. Al feels a jolt of fear. Katzenklavier doesn’t even flinch.
“You’re holding on to that human form,” he says. “That’s why you’re slow. Drop it!” Amy’s human eyes are screwed tight shut. “Now!” She doesn’t respond.
Selim is watching, hands on his mother’s arms, frowning, worried. There isn’t a flicker of recognition in his eyes. There never is. Al wonders at how entirely Selim seems to have forgotten his old self.
“Stop!” Katzenklavier steps forward, raises his voice. I’ve had quite enough of this. No more of this Amy nonsense! You are at work now! You can play at being human later.”
The tendrils stop moving. They mass themselves. Al sucks in a breath. Then they start to shrink back, withdrawing like the eyes of a snail.
Katzenklavier snorts, and reaches into his jacket. Then there’s a revolver in his hand and he aims into the air, fires one, two, three shots.
Mrs Bradley hides Selim’s face against her chest, covers his eyes and ears.
Amy’s tentacles jerk and expand, so fast that they slice tree branches.
“Good!” Katzenklavier shouts. “Now drop the human form, stop wasting your energy! Now! Get rid of it or I will!”
He aims his gun at Amy’s head.
Al gasps. His fingers twitch by his sides, and everything he is wants to clap and put a wall between that man and this child. He can’t kill her with a bullet, he reminds himself. Her body isn’t human, I can’t blow my cover, Mustang needs me here, Amy needs me here. His fingernails dig into the palms of his hands.
Amy’s face parts in the middle, ripples outward as if it’s liquid. Katzenklavier’s bullet never touches it. Her human limbs swirl away into the shadows, and in one more moment there is only the Homunculus. Its mass spreads across half the clearing. Tentacles lance up into the air past the tree tops.
The Homunculus is bigger than last session, bigger than Al has ever seen it. Its mass of limbs towers above them, and Al strains to see tentacles extending above the tree line. Shredded leaves and twigs are starting to drift to the ground, cut cleanly, as if by a razor.
“Chocolate after,” the Homunculus mutters, with a hundred scratchy voices. “I get chocolate after.”
“This is fantastic,” says Colonel Fraser. “Right, so we can postpone the strike for six days, get Hakuro when he’s on the train. We parachute the whole drop team in, divert the train, take down Hakuro, subdue the Homunculus. Then we send out the go signal nationwide.”
They are back in the meeting room. Roy relayed the news, then opened the floor for five minutes’ free debate. They need to get every possible angle out on the table. He feels suddenly and wildly off his stride, like he’s a child pretending to be an adult. He sets his face in a hard look, props his chin on his hands, concentrates on his performance as a ruthless leader, assessing counsel with cool head and cooler blood.
“Hey,” says Havoc, putting a hand up. “Wait up, wait up. We already have a plan in place.”
“Indeed,” says Fraser, “and now your commander found a chance to send our odds of success from dodgy to decent, Major, so —”
“It’s not that straightforward a choice,” Riza cuts in. “If we wait, we need to weigh the risk of Hakuro striking on Briggs before we strike on him. The snow will be melted well before the twenty-ninth. If I were Hakuro, I’d set the Homunculus on Briggs the first moment I could.”
“Acker will put him off,” says Ed. “He’s a posturing ass, he wants the glory for himself.”
“Is that intel or an educated guess?” Fraser again.
“The second one,” says Ed, skipping the sir.
“Colonel.” Havoc leans forward. “With respect, it’s not just that. You said it. We got people down there —”
“Indeed we do, we have an entire country of people counting on us —”
“With respect, sir, you don’t know the Brigadier General.” It’s rare to see Havoc this riled, this confrontational. “He doesn’t — we don’t —”
“So it is about that. The POW issue. Really? Every soldier in Briggs dies if we fail, try weighing that in the scales.”
The room has turned still. Roy notices Fraser measuring the silence before he continues.
“Then there are the refugees, political and otherwise. Hakuro’s been very frank about how thoroughly he wishes to crush the terrifying national security threat of Ishbal, from old ladies to two year olds.” Fraser casts a sharp look to Miles. “And the people of the North, the resistance, the fifty million souls of this country left to the tender mercies of tyrants and monsters.” Fraser turns to look at Roy. “Brigadier General Mustang, is Major Havoc mistaken? Or are we debating whether to nobly throw away our best shot at victory over the deaths of eight of your people?”
Havoc looks Roy in the eye. He’s breathing a shade fast. Roy knows what he’s waiting for, knows what he’s asking. It’s all an act, isn’t it? I know you. You play the asshole so no one sees what an idiot idealist you are. You never give up on any of us. Not even when it’s the smart thing to do, not even in the face of the impossible. Say something clever. Work out a way round. Say something.
Roy says nothing. He cannot. He hates himself in this moment, and he hates this moment itself even more. He doesn’t look away. He can at least do that much.
“Brigadier General,” Havoc says. “Permission to recuse myself from the discussion.”
Havoc salutes Roy. His face is tight and his eyes are angry and miserable. Roy suspects he’s devoting some energy to restraining himself from throwing a punch. He pushes back from the table and wheels out; the motions of his hands on the push rims are short and aggressive. He doesn’t look back.
Roy sees his wife watch him go. Catalina has always been easy to read; her face says she’s worried, and she wants to go to him, but she has to be here right now. Roy watches her school herself, put her air command game face back on.
“Okay,” says Catalina, “I’m just gonna say it. Setting aside my major bias about our people in Central under a death sentence, and whether or not we on Team Mustang just throw people away, which incidentally we do not …” She draws breath. “Setting aside all that, which I actually can — this is not an open and shut case. We’ve gotta ask ourselves, is the delay worth the risk? Our plan’s been ready for months. The Homunculus is ready, whatever that freaking means. Now the snow’s melting, Hakuro’s troops are just waiting on the order to sic it on us.”
“Agreed,” says Miles. “But defeat is defeat and dead is dead, whether it’s shredded by a Homunculus or shot in the head by Hakuro’s snipers. We need to factor in our chances of a successful coup either way. And the fact is, the train is close to an ideal scenario for a coup.”
Catalina shifts in her seat. “Can we push the decision back twenty-four hours, get some intel from our guys inside Central HQ?”
Riza shakes her head. “Not since the lockdown and the round of arrests a few weeks back. Lieutenant Sciezka and her cell need a few days’ notice now to root out specific intelligence.”
“Can’t she speed it up?” Ed says. “I mean, she’s awesome. And we’re in the endgame, life or death, is it really caution time?”
“When it comes to the Central HQ network? Yes. Absolutely. Even now. If it’s compromised and discovered, we not only reveal our plans to Hakuro, but we lose half our supporters in Central’s military, and let the other half know that disowning us is their only chance of saving their own skins.”
Mei raises a finger. “Excuse me … This is an Amestrian military decision. We’re neither, and we follow your orders, whatever they might be, on his Celestial Majesty’s express command. So … with your permission, we’ll retire.”
“Of course. Thank you, Princess. Masters.” Roy nods, and Mei bows, and Feng and Lui bow deeply and as usual Roy finds himself, despite everything, anxious about if he’s got the nodding and bowing the wrong way round, and if he should have stood up, and how painfully obvious it is that nearly all his Xingese cultural knowledge is from Saturday school.
As they turn to go, the tiny panda pops out the back of Mei’s jacket and gives the room a frankly disapproving look. Its gaze settles on Roy, and it huffs. Terrific.
After the rentanjutsu masters leave, the room is silent. Roy really does have to say something now. He folds his arms, takes a breath. “I need to hear a solid case that waiting six more days doesn’t constitute the greater risk. If the case isn’t proven, we don’t wait. Speculation isn’t enough; I’m not going to sacrifice the lives of my people — and by that I mean everyone — on a roll of the dice.”
“Not going to sacrifice?” Fraser shakes his head. “You know, this whole hand-wringing debate baffles me. Briggs people don’t have the leisure to care about not getting our hands bloody. Up here, we can’t afford to set much store by pretty speeches or principled stands or striking a nice pose in our uniforms. This is the edge of the world. Survival, survival is the goal!” He’s raised his voice. “And it should be the goal of everyone in this room! Not easy, stupid choices that make everyone feel good about themselves, not sugar-coating your plans for a suicide run until your people think they might actually win. Not choosing being righteous and dead over—”
“Fraser!” Roy is on his feet instantly. There’s a flash fire of rage in his chest. He presses together the bare fingers of his right hand, subsumes it all into a hard stare.
Fraser flinches; Roy is marginally gratified to see it.
“Dismissed.” Roy jerks his head at the door.
Fraser stands, holds his gaze a moment longer. “I put my faith in you, Mustang,” he says, and his voice is not the way it was. It is low and forceful, a slow and deliberate spitting out of words, and Roy thinks for a moment that he might actually have heard a tremor in it. “I put the lives of my people in your hands. Don’t make me curse my stupidity. Sir.”
He gives a perceptibly cursory salute, turns on his heel, and leaves the room.
Roy sits. He exhales.
A chair scrapes, and Catalina stands. “Sir … guys … I’m gonna go too. I said my piece. In the end, I’m only command when it comes to air power. This isn’t my call.”
Roy half-smiles at her. “Go get Major Havoc a drink, Catalina. And get yourself one.”
She nods. She looks around at the remaining people in the room: Riza, Miles, Ed, and finally Roy. “Sir,” she says. “You know he’s going to fly you there anyway, right?”
“I haven’t made a decision.”
“Yeah, but … either way. Jean’s with you ’til the end. We both are.”
Ed’s chair scrapes and he’s on his feet. He meets Roy’s eyes briefly, and then he fixes his gaze on the tabletop, and he says, “Me too. I’m heading out, and, uh.”
“Fullmetal.” Roy knows he should say nothing, should simply let him leave. “The five minutes aren’t up. The floor is still open. If you have anything to add.”
“Yeah, well,” Ed says quietly. “I don’t. Have anything right now.” The corners of his mouth are turned down; he is staring intensely, anywhere but at Roy. Then he’s turned his back and he leaves with a cursory backward wave. Half of Roy wants to yell at him you’ve never been in my shoes, you don’t understand a thing. The other half is willing Ed to spin around and tell them all, with flashing eyes and wicked grin, the audacious and brilliant scheme that has just occurred to him which will let them have it all.
Neither of these things happen. The door closes behind Ed quietly, a sign in itself.
Now only Hawkeye, Miles and Roy are left in the room. For a long moment more, the three of them sit in silence around the war room table.
Roy draws another breath. He looks to Riza, finds another moment’s strength in her steady gaze and her fractional smile. He turns to Miles, and sees, not for the first time, something of the same look about him.
“Call a command meeting for an hour from now,” Roy says to Miles. “I’ll give my decision then. And then we will plan … whatever needs to be planned.”
Riza doesn’t look up immediately. “I think,” she says. Then she stops. “I think it’s necessary to do as we always do. Weigh the odds, avoid bloodshed where we can, make the move that’s strategically best.”
“And you think that’s to wait?”
“I don’t know.” She presses her lips together. “I don’t want to be right about that. I don’t want people I care for to die. But then, nobody else in this country does either.”
“Don’t make this about self-denial.”
“I’m making this about logic! And you asked. Sir.”
“You’re right. I apologise.”
There’s another silence.
“It seems so …” Roy doesn’t finish. It seems so insubstantial. It seems so risky. Yes, they’re supposed to be ready to sacrifice, yes, this cause is so much bigger than any of them. But to sacrifice the lives of his people, to throw them aside based upon mere speculation, with so many unknowns in the calculation: it seems so … arbitrary. Cruel.
Riza nods. “I know.” She tucks a stray strand of hair behind her ear.
“But you think it’s the right call?”
“You want me to tell you which call to make.”
Roy laughs very shortly. His hand shades his eyes. “Yes, please.”
“Roy … you know why I can’t.” He can hear the smile in her voice.
“I know.” He takes his hand from his eyes, scrubs it through his hair. “It’s my call.” He exhales. “The buck, as they say, stops here.”
“That’s what happens when you’re at the top.”
“Indeed. Major disadvantage of the job.” Roy sits up. He spreads his hands. “But the risks of waiting are very real, though. Any day now, Hakuro could strike with the Homunculus.”
“You’re completely right.”
“But?” Riza doesn’t respond. “But, you don’t know if your heart is ruling your head? Is that it?” She looks down, draws herself inward. “If you were sure, I know you’d tell me.”
“I’m not. It’s — we have no time, that’s the problem. No time to gather information or analyse what we have or wait for our minds to settle.”
Roy laughs, shortly. “Yes. And I thought we were good at this. How embarrassing.”
“I am completely sure of one thing, though.” Roy looks at her. She looks him in the eye. Her voice has warmth in it. “That you can make this call.”
“Frankly … Riza … I’m not.” He draws breath. “I’ll make a choice, of course. One hour. I set that deadline. But I can’t get my head straight. I feel as though … as though my choice is going to end up about as intelligent and considered as flipping a coin. And that isn’t right. Fraser had a point. Fifty million people are depending on me choosing wisely. I have to make a choice worthy of that.”
“Frankly,” Riza says. “I think that may be making it worse.” She looks at him. “You know, Duncan told me an interesting story. About General Armstrong.”
Roy tilts his head.
“He says that when she needed to think, she used to go and sit up on the Northern edge of the Wall. That she always said the view is good for clearing one’s mind.”
Roy half-grins, shakes his head. “The Wall of Briggs having trouble making her mind up about something?”
“Apparently it occasionally happened. Even to her.” Riza half-smiles again. “Between the two of us, I think she may have been human.”
“This, though. She would have decided in thirty seconds flat. I’m sure of it. Riza?” He takes a breath. “Can I ask you a question?”
“No.” She shakes her head. “The answer is no. I don’t see you stepping off the path. Whatever you decide. If you were, you would have made the call. In thirty seconds flat.”
“Do you think that’s it, then? That I’ve been deluding myself, and it’s what Fraser says it is? A simple choice between head and heart?”
“I think that you still have a beating heart. And that makes it so much harder. And that’s why you need to win.” She smiles at him, stands and squeezes his shoulder for a moment. Then she, too, leaves the room.
“Thirty degrees left!” Katzenklavier calls. “Extend twenty metres. Now bite down!”
The fattest tentacle swings round, and a mouth of sharky white teeth opens in it. On command, it flashes forward, bites down. The top third of a pine tree vanishes into it, carved neatly away in a scoop. Al sees. Greed’s smile; Gluttony’s maw. And that strike, impossibly fast and accurate … like the flash of a sabre … Al realises he has his hand flat on his chest.
“We’ll run out of woods at this rate,” Al says.
Katzenklavier shrugs. “The time for training is nearly over.”
Katzenklavier made the megaphone on the spot, after Al rose them up on the platform: a gentle clap, then carbon and iron from the earth into steel. Showy, Al thinks. A deliberate reminder to Al, he guesses, that Katzenklavier has seen the Truth too, that he’s not to be underestimated. Al is getting so tired of wearing this poker face.
Again and again, the Homunculus is ordered to turn, bite, drop, rise, slice. The tree line is wrecked. As it rises, Al notes a distinct bump over the front of the shoulders, like a head set on a hunched back. Noting and observing, the scientific brain kicking in: it’s automatic, but here, with Amy, he likes it less and less. Al suddenly wonders: what is the Homunculus to Mustang, even to Ed? This is a living being, they know that much, but: do they imagine a monster, a weapon, a dangerous animal? An originating Homunculus already fattened with blood and souls, a threat to be eliminated before it grows as great as Father? A miserable creature beyond their help? Certainly not a kind and curious child. Al will show them, though, he’ll tell them. Surely he can keep her safe? They know enough about Homunculi not to just blow up the train. Mustang needs to win; and that’s as true for Amy as it is for the rest of the country, because she has no chance here, as a weapon under the command of this man. Al can spy for Mustang, fight if it comes to that, and he can protect Amy too. He can choose that.
“Satisfactory,” says Katzenklavier, eyes still on his pocket watch. “It’s broken every one of its previous records.”
“See how stable she is, even given how strong she’s gotten?” Al says. “She’s really maturing. You were right about her learning to hold a human form. It’s good for her.”
“Mmm,” says Katzenklavier. “Just in time.” He glances up, and for a moment his face betrays a wariness, and Al notes that too. The Homunculus towers above them, still slowly stretching upwards. “Let’s review the feeding regimen tonight. We won’t need it any larger than this.”
Al looks up. No, Katzenklavier has that wrong, he thinks, with a slow pang of concern. Al draws only his own blood for her, and so he knows precisely how much she takes: barely more than a teaspoon at once, these days. When she’s human, she can put away enough lunch to rival Ed, but she’s not growing tall as a cliff on sandwiches and apples.
He looks again through his binoculars. The creature is muttering to itself, breathy and pained, its limbs stretching spasmodically and batting at branches. Al focuses on the longest tendril wave in the air — and through the lenses, he sees it starting to crumble and flake.
It’s stretching itself too far. It doesn’t know when to stop.
“We’re done for tonight,” Katzenklavier says. He takes the whistle on a cord from round his neck, and blows into it. The call sounds out high and grating into the evening air.
The Homunculus ignores it. Its eyes are all half-closed, the mouths still muttering. “No,” Al hears. “Nono. No.”
Katzenklavier blows the whistle again. Again, there is no response. “Enough!” he says. “Come down!” He blows a third time.
The Homunculus’ upper limbs stretch still thinner, slash sullenly at the tree tops. One of them breaks at the end, and the broken fragment flakes into ash.
Katzenklavier tuts, proffers the megaphone. “Call it down, Bridgewire.”
“Amy!” Al calls. “Come down! Time to come down!”
“No!” it yells, from a hundred small mouths and one huge one. Its limbs thrash harder at the tree line, pruning it down in jagged lines.
“We’re done,” Al calls. Then, optimistic, “Time for chocolate!” The movements are only getting faster. “Come down, Amy!”
He’s worried now. This is the largest he’s ever seen it by some way, and its longer limbs, even its trunk look stretched, the shadows transparent.
“Instability or tantrum?” says Katzenklavier. His mouth is tight.
“The first one, I think,” Al says.
“Oh dear. Just when we thought we’d cracked it.”
“Let me try again. Amy!” Al calls. “Amy! Are you okay?”
Katzenklavier turns his head sharply towards Al. Al keeps looking up.
“No!” the Homunculus says after a moment. “It hurts. It hurts.” It draws the word out long, punctuates it with a many-limbed flail. Another limb breaks off, this one part way down. Its mouths sob, and it flails again.
“Can you stop it? Amy, can you stop?”
“No,” it calls. “No, no, no.” It sobs again. One of its limbs whips close to them; a huge branch drops and barely misses them. When it hits the ground, the impact shakes the platform.
“Bridgewire,” says Katzenklavier. The tone is warning, but Al hears, with distanced interest, an undertone of fear.
“Hang on,” Al says. “Let me try.” He claps up a shield, big enough that hauling enough carbon and iron from the packed earth drops their platform a couple of inches. He holds it above them.
It occurs to him to look down. The roots of the creature are a squat, dark mass on the forest floor. A few smaller tentacles extend across the ground, gesturing and swaying. He glimpses something small and pale and still at the centre. With a thrill of hope and terror, he guesses what it is. He makes his bet.
Al hands the shield to Katzenklavier, and stands exposed as he claps up a new one. Without a word, he claps again, drops their platform, all the way to the ground.
“Get back,” he says to Katzenklavier. He notes Katzenklavier seems to be struggling to hold up the shield over himself. Al lets him struggle.
Al drops low, shield over his head, and runs straight towards it. A tentacle slashes at his shield; another dents it. He keeps going.
And here it is: at the very root of the creature is a tiny figure: curled up like a hedgehog with her legs tucked under her and her forehead on the ground, fists balled, trying to hold herself together. She reformed herself, even in the midst of all that.
He stretches out a hand, strokes her head, fine dark hair under his hand. She’s shaking.
“Amy,” he says. He strokes her back. “Amy. I know it hurts.” He feels her sob under his hand, and knows she’s heard him. “Come back. Amy.” More shaky sobs. He strokes her cheek. “Try for me. Amy. Come home.”
She looks up. Her human face is pink and puffy, wet with tears, dirt on her forehead and nose.
Al catches sight of a different movement above him; he looks up and sees that Amy’s shadow limbs and trunk, high in the sky, are shrinking, slowly retracting down.
“Come home,” Al says, and holds out his hand.
Amy lifts up onto hands and knees, then sits up in a flat-footed squat. She sniffs. She holds out her arms to him.
Then, in one motion, she stands and leans forward and jumps. She lands hard in Al’s arms, a solid compact weight against his chest — and the limbs are suddenly shooting down, down, pouring into her long evening shadow, too fast to see. Branches and twigs shower down on them and crunch against Al’s shield. The tentacles crack like whips, razor sharp and flailing as they retract into the shadows at Amy’s feet.
Crap, he thinks. This is more dangerous than he thought. He moves back, gingerly. Amy’s feet trail the ground and her shadow stretches a little further from him. It’s the best he can do. He holds his breath, wraps his free arm tighter around her. Waits.
Finally, there’s silence. The shadows are gone. Amy is contained entirely within the limits of this human form. She brought herself back. Amy curls her legs onto Al’s lap, presses her cheek against his chest. She sighs. Her breaths heave and slow. Leaves drift down onto both of them.
Slowly, Al lowers his shield and sets it on the ground.
“Blood,” Amy mutters.
What? Al looks down. Big droplets of blood are splashing on the ground. His arm is wet. Blood is drizzling down his arm, dropping rapidly from his fingertips. A broken branch must have caught — no, there’s a slash through the steel shield. It could only do so much, he guesses. He drops it, turns his arm.
His shirtsleeve is sliced neatly open, and under it is a diagonal cut across the back of his forearm, easily six inches long, and clean and sharp as a scalpel incision. Now that he sees it, it throbs.
He didn’t even feel the cut.
“Blood,” Amy says wonderingly. She traces her fingertips through the wetness of it on Al’s palm. Not now, Al thinks automatically, then he remembers she’s never taken blood in this human form. Then she looks up at him, eyes wide and frightened and worried. “You’re hurt,” she says. “Make it better! You’re hurt, Al!”
“I can’t do medical rentanjutsu on myself,” Al says. He grins for her. “I’m not that good. But don’t worry! I’m fine. The nurse will fix me up.”
“Fix it!” Amy says. She pats at his hair, makes soothing shushing noises. She’s copying him.
He manages a clap, slices his sweater vest off his chest and into strips of something vaguely like a bandage. He holds it awkwardly in place with fingertips while he wraps the wound to staunch the bleeding. Ah, damn, now it really hurts.
“She’s fine!” he calls out. “Amy’s down, I’m okay!”
The two of them stay just as they are while footsteps crunch across the carpet of fallen leaves and branches.
“Just needs stitches,” Al says, as Katzenklavier’s shoes enter his field of vision.
“I’ll have the nurse called,” Katzenklavier says.
Al looks up, and tries for a calm smile.
Katzenklavier returns the smile, the bastard, serene and unreadable once more. And behind him, Selim Bradley stands, holding his mother’s hand, and he stares and stares.
Then he does what he came here to do. To think, but to think by doing a thing he’s done before; a thing he tells nobody about. Not Riza, not Ed, not his mother.
Roy turns his head to the right, and in his mind, Roy imagines him: lounging with his butt on the parapet, with his back to the Drachman border and far too casual about that, infuriating grin.
It’s a thought experiment, not a delusion. Roy speaks in his own mind, and his own mind speaks back to him. People dear to you leave their mark, he tells himself. It’s right and human to imagine them, to try to reconstruct what they’d say or do. It’s normal to talk to the dead.
Hughes, in his mind, says, “Not to beat you with a two by four of obvious, but he’s way, way too young for you.”
“As usual, you’re wildly off-topic,” Roy says.
“Also, I always told you that you shouldn’t date alchemists. They just make you more nuts.”
“Still off-topic. And actually, he makes me less nuts. And he’s twenty, which ought to be far too young, I agree. But — yes, I know how this sounds — it somehow doesn’t seem to make a great deal of difference. Unless we’re talking about music. By the way, you know I’m more than five years older than you now. And I’ll only get more so the longer I survive. I should overrule you.”
“You won’t. You need me. This is a cry for help —”
“Not for help with my love life, it isn’t. Not ever for help with my love life, in fact, thank you—”
“It’s a minor miracle you had the sense to let yourself love him.”
“You’re breaking character.”
“No, I’m not. I’m a shameless romantic.”
“Point. But we’re still off topic.”
“Yes, because I’m you, and you don’t want to be on topic.”
“Of course I damn well don’t! This is impossible! How dare I, how dare I, take either course? How can I possibly take chances with victory, after everything so many people have sacrificed to get there, just to save my people? But how dare I stand by calmly and let my people be slandered and executed, after all I owe them, how dare I hang on and risk us all being slaughtered day by day, just so I can speculatively up my odds of victory?”
“You’ve got to pick one, buddy,” Hughes says. “That’s why it sucks to be in charge.”
“Thanks.” Roy sits, scowls, folds his arms. “That’s what everyone else said, and guess how much it helps.”
“Why’d you want to talk to me, anyway?”
“Because I can’t decide. Because you’re my best friend.”
“I’m dead. You don’t believe in ghosts. And you’ve got a lot of good friends.”
“You’re supposed to clear my mind! Tell me what I’m supposed to do!”
Roy rolls his eyes. “Just spill it, and stop being smug.”
“You called me here because you know what you need to do. And really, so does everyone else you asked. You just need to deal with it.”
Roy’s shoulders tense. His throat closes. He wonders at his ability to shock himself; but yes. It is this, here, looming over him; and the jangling alarm and utter disbelief and insupportable horror crash into him again, old and unwelcome and intimately familiar.
Roy looks at the clean blue sky, and again he sees Armstrong on his back, staring unblinkingly up at nothing, with a dozen bullet holes in his chest. He sees Riza slumped and small on the ground, her feet twitching, with a bloodied hand over her throat, but still glaring at him, no human transmutation. He hears that empty rustling sound at the end of the phone, and knows already there will be no reply no matter how much he shouts. Still, his lungs burn from shouting, and he runs again and again through every room of his house, four years old, looking for his parents. Because they will return, because at any moment a key will jangle in the front door and it will open and they will call his name, as they always do, and he will run into their arms, because they cannot be dead, because everyone is lying to him, because he will once again lie snugged against his mother on the couch, fiddling with her buttons while she reads to him, because his father will lift him on his shoulders and spin around and make him laugh, because this must be so because not an atom of himself can comprehend otherwise.
Death is an impossible thing.
“Fraser knew he’d lose the argument,” says a voice that lives in Roy’s memory, a voice he will never hear again. “He knew that as long as every scenario was that uncertain, you and your people could reason your way around to doing the thing you were planning on anyway.”
“We can’t afford to be sentimental and loyal,” Roy says very quietly. “This isn’t a football tournament, it’s war.”
“But Fraser doesn’t know what you know,” says Hughes. “Nobody does. Maybe Mei suspects it. Maybe Ed’s going to corner you about it. But they’re both young and full of hope, they’ve both won impossible victories before, they can talk themselves out of it. But you, Roy. You know. Don’t you?”
“We can’t subdue the Homunculus without my fire,” Roy says. “Yes. I know. Any plan that meant we had to split the teams can succeed only if we don’t have to take that thing down. And we probably will have to take it down. The odds were far worse than I told anyone.” He closes his eyes a moment. “Far worse than I admitted to myself.”
Roy draws breath.
“I would have, in any other circumstance, but we had no choice about our plan, before this happened. It was our best shot. It was our only real option. Everyone knew the risk was bad. Knowing it was worse wouldn’t change anything, it’d just throw morale off a cliff.” Roy looks up. “I think Ed does suspect, you know. He’s being so brutally positive about it all, that’s not a good sign, not for him. The last time I saw him like this, there was an apocalypse on.”
“It was your only option,” Hughes says. He shakes his head. “Ah, Roy, what are we going to do with you? War, conspiracies, murders, monsters, revolutions, apocalypse. And yet you’re still as green as grass.”
Five minutes on the phone to nothing. Five minutes of static, of noises that could have been breathing, or leaves rustling, or crackling down the line. Five minutes of straining to listen while he barked orders into another phone, trace this call, send a team to the telephone booth. Five minutes before Armstrong called him back, and he'd known what was coming the moment the man had creaked out sir.
“Your people in prison. You can’t protect them, Roy,” Hughes says. “They’re executed while you wait to strike, or they’re executed after you strike too early and fail. Either way …”
“They’re going to die.”
“And there it is. So look at it.”
Sometimes Roy feels like he’s treading on a staircase made of corpses. Hughes, General Armstrong, Van Hohenheim, Grumman, the soldiers from Briggs and from the East who'd died for their cause in the coup. Katie Flowers, Major Armstrong, Ada Wray, Peacock. And far too many more.
He’s heard people voice the opinion that you get used to this, get better at it. No. Never.
“I told you, you’re a psychoanalyst’s dream,” says Hughes.
“Shut up,” Roy says, but he has no energy left to fight any of it any more.
He puts his chin up, and looks south, to the hills, to Amestris. He says, “This cause doesn’t belong to me any more. If it ever did. It belongs to everyone. To the people of this country. Everyone who has sacrificed for it, taken risks, suffered. That woman who lent me her horse, Ada Wray; she died for me and I didn’t even know her name until I read it in the papers. Her life was as precious as yours.”
“I know,” says Hughes.
“I wanted you to talk me out of this. So much.”
“I know,” says Hughes.
“I want everybody to live. I ordered them — I order them — it’s a story I tell myself.”
“I know,” says Hughes.
“Your daughter is turning out terrifyingly clever, by the way.”
“I know,” says Hughes.
“And Gracia’s running a resistance communication circuit out of Mercer Hospital emergency room. Why the hell did you marry someone as insane as you were?”
And suddenly, as if Roy’s imagination has stalled like an engine, as if a phone line had gone dead, there is only silence.
Roy is alone. For a few moments, he is quiet. Then he forces himself, step by steady step, to walk back inside and to tell his people what he has decided must be done.
“But why does he have to be here for the tests now? Why?” Mrs Bradley’s voice is raised louder than Al has ever heard it.
“It’s helpful,” Dr Katzenklavier says. “Selim’s presence helps to stabilise the creature. You’ve no doubt noticed it can have issues with calming itself.”
“Exactly, sir! Look, I know Selim’s fond of it.” She shakes her head. “That boy is fond of every creature that swims, crawls or flies. But what happened this evening. It’s simply too much! I can’t allow it.”
Katzenklavier raises an eyebrow and gives her a cool look. Mrs Bradley shrinks visibly.
“What I mean to say is, it’s too dangerous for a child to be here. Look at poor Alphonse’s arm!”
“It’s fine,” Al says, waving his injured arm and smiling through it. It stings and throbs like crazy. “It’s just a cut, please don’t worry. I’ve had worse.”
Mrs Bradley takes a breath, and now she looks Al in the eye. “Alphonse, I’m glad to hear it’s not serious, but please. What if it had been Selim standing there? He’s not an alchemist, or a grown man. He can’t protect himself. He could have been —” She shakes her head.
Selim himself is silent. He stands pressing himself against Mrs Bradley, his face half-hidden in her skirt. Amy mirrors his pose, fists balled in the cloth of Al’s pants, hiding behind his leg.
Al can see something coming here, a dangerous shift in the conversation. “Selim’s been so good for Amy,” he says. “He named her. She took this form from him. She cares about him.”
Mrs Bradley smiles, but there’s no happiness in it. “But it isn’t good for Selim,” she says. “It’s bad for him. Please understand.” Her hand strokes Selim’s hair. “Quite apart from the danger — it’s frightening him. He’s having the most terrible nightmares.”
Katzenklavier chuckles derisively. “Nightmares?”
“Do you see something to laugh about?”
“Really, madam? Yes. Selim is a nightmare. That being you call your son is centuries old. He has devoured and destroyed far beyond anything my creature has done.”
“Selim is a child!” Mrs Bradley’s voice is raised again, and now there’s steel in it. “He doesn’t remember anything or know anything! He can’t do anything like that! For goodness’ sake, he won’t even hurt an ant!” She flaps a hand at Katzenklavier. “Yes, yes, he isn’t human, I know that full well! But he is still a little boy! Just a little boy, and he is my little boy! And I am his mother, the only mother he has. Nothing about it matters but that. Nothing.”
Selim has started to cry, noisily. She kneels instantly, wraps him in her arms, glares up at Katzenklavier.
Al is poised, alert, alive with tension. They are surrounded by guards. Mrs Bradley has pushed this so far. Katzenklavier could have her killed in a moment, so easily. She must know it, too.
“Selim,” Amy says. She looks up at Al. “Selim’s crying.”
“Yeah,” Al says. “The grown-ups are yelling too much.” She’s so naive like this, so truly like a child. He wonders how much of her knowledge she can even access in this form.
“I’m sorry, Selim,” Al says. He steps forward, reaches out to stroke Selim’s head. Amy stays hanging onto his leg; he has to shuffle as he moves, and she shuffles with him.
“I’m sorry, Selim,” Amy says. She reaches out a hand —
“No!” Mrs Bradley turns her whole body, sharply. Amy’s human hand touches the cloth of her hip instead. Selim is behind her now. “Stop it,” she says, looking between Al and Katzenklavier. “Please, get hold of it. He’s had enough for tonight.”
Selim hides behind her. Katzenklavier watches. Mrs Bradley stands frozen.
“Selim?” Amy says. “Selim? It’s me. Are you crying, Selim? Don’t cry.” She stretches out her hand again, tries to step forward.
Al kneels quickly, catches Amy in his arms. She lets him.
She peeks over his shoulder, frowning. Then she looks up at Mrs Bradley. She smiles. And she stretches out a hand, curls it around the first two fingers of Mrs Bradley’s free hand.
For a tiny moment, Al has never been so proud of her.
Then he notices Mrs Bradley’s hand is shaking. She locks eyes with Al, and Al sees the horrified curl and twitch of her lip, an abject terror unpleasantly familiar to him. No one’s looked at him with that expression in years.
Of course, now, it’s not meant for him.
“Get that thing off me,” she whispers. “Please. Please.”
Amy lets go, sits on the ground abruptly. She stares at Mrs Bradley in silence for a moment, pulling in a long breath and holding it. For a moment, Al thinks she’s going to bust out crying like Selim. But she just crumples up, silently curls herself into a ball, forehead on the ground.
Mrs Bradley takes slow steps back. “You’ve got your weapon now,” she says very quietly. “Please let us be.”
Katzenklavier looks from the Homunculus to Selim. He shrugs and smiles. “Mm. You can go.” The smile drops away. “For tonight. Please don’t do anything foolish, like trying to leave this house.”
“Of course not,” she mutters. She’s already walking, with rapid steps, hustling Selim along. He unsticks himself long enough to stare at Al and Amy as she leads him off. He’s still sniffling.
“This stabilised form has its disadvantages,” Katzenklavier says, looking down at the creature in Al’s arms.
Al strokes Amy’s back, doesn’t reply.
“Holding the shape of the child’s brain clearly impedes the Homunculus’ incredible cognitive faculties. After the political situation is stabilised,” — a quick, hideous wink — “then I’d like to run some tests on reasoning, memory and so forth. Perhaps there’s work to be done encouraging it to take a more mature human form.”
“Another time,” Al says, as calmly as he can.
“Of course. When your hands are less full.” With that, Katzenklavier saunters off.
After a minute or two, Amy turns her head to one side. She sits up, rubbing her eyes, shoulders hunched. “Selim?” she says, looking round. “Doctor?”
“They’ve gone in for the night,” Al says, hoping to spare her.
She doesn't say anything. She pulls her knees up to her body, curls her arms around them, drops her head.
“Amy.” Al puts a hand on her back and rubs it.
“‘m not Amy,” she says, so quietly.
“No! That’s not true. Amy—”
“I’m a thing.”
“You’re a person,” Al says. “It doesn’t matter about your body.”
“No.” She’s mumbling into her knees. “I’m a thing.”
She looks up. “I hurt people. I hurt you.”
Al puts a hand on her head. “That was an accident. It's okay, I’ll be fine. You're still learning —”
“I can’t,” she says. “Selim learnt how to be human,” she says. Al's stomach drops. She somehow doesn't sound like a little kid any more. “But I can't. I've got too much stuff in me.”
“I remember things. I know things. I can do things. I hate it! I hate it!” Her voice sobs on the last word.
“When I'm small like this, I don't remember. I don't want to —”
“Listen, Amy. People did this to you. People treated you like a thing, but none of that was your—“
“I did things!” Her voice is raising in pitch, her breath coming hitching and convulsive. “I killed people! Selim killed people and he ate them up, and I did too!”
Al’s mouth opens. His breath catches.
“There's an old man in my head who lived under the bridge, and they gave him to the jar to make me get bigger, and they made the jar eat him and the jar was me. And he's in my head and he's screaming. They're all screaming, all the time. I’m that! That’s me! I hate it. And Selim — I remember the people in his blood, they were screaming and screaming, in the old city, in the desert … and everyone fell down and died! The lady died, the old man died, the baby died. It hurt. The thing didn’t care. Your father wanted to kill the thing. Selim used to kill, he killed like the thing. Selim’s a person now. I hate it, I hate being a thing. I don't want to be a thing! I can't stop being a thing!”
Poor creature. All that time she was being a child, did she know?
No: she’s sitting in a puddle of deep black shadow. She isn't just Amy right now, the child she wants to be, loves to be. Al looks at the eyes opening in the pool of shadow and he thinks of that razor intelligence, that flailing infant ego. He thinks of Amy pressing her cheek against his chest. He remembers Greed slinging an arm around Roa, go a little easier next time, ya great heifer. He remembers seeing Ling in the early morning, bowing his head at the shrine and offering a stick of incense for a being with no grave and no family. He remembers the Homunculus of Xerxes, golden and arrogant and empty, drawing down the moon.
“Amy,” he says, and he's never been more certain of anything, “you are real. Look at me. I see you. You're real. You’re a real person.”
“No,” she says. She doesn't look up. “No, I'm not.” Her breath is coming in short, sobbing bursts now. “And Selim’s gone, he’s gone.”
“I know,” Al says. “I know it hurts. Slow down. C’mon, slow down with me, Amy. Breathe.” He takes a big, huffing breath, trying to show her. Then he leans over, folds his arms around her, breathes slow and loud.
She hiccups, pauses — then, abruptly, bursts into loud and abandoned tears.
It’s a strange and saddening relief. “You see?” Al says. “You’re crying. That’s human. Pain is part of it. You’re being human right now. You see?”
He feels something shatter. He looks down, alarmed, and he feels the toddler limbs melting away under his hands. Amy’s poor miserable tear-streaked face, turned up towards him, is receding into shapeless darkness. Al watches, and he feels, viscerally, physically, something crack painful and sharp inside his chest. Oh, he thinks. That’s what people mean when they say heartbreak.
The creature is still crying. Shapeless in his arms, it opens a dozen tiny mouths to cry, leaks liquid from a dozen eyes.
Al pulls it further onto his lap, leans forward, wraps it tight in a hug. The shifting, metallic skin bristles against him.
He wants to soothe this small being: somehow, he wants it so much that he feels that he’s never needed to do anything more. His chest is on fire with the unbearable hurt of this creature, this child. He remembers a consuming numbness, a ravenous loneliness, that wore away at the edges of him for years. The fear and the sadness soaked in so far that they have never fully left him. He remembers punching a mirror and not feeling it, remembers so many long hours in the night alone with the hollow terror of himself.
“You’re real,” he says. “You’re a person. It doesn’t matter about your body. Amy, I love you. Selim loves you.”
The hand that reaches from the black cloud to pluck at his sleeve looks so much like Amy’s. The weight in his arms is the same. The same child is crying. He means every word.
“I hurt people,” she says, a crackly whisper. “They make me. I hate it.”
“They were wrong,” Al says. “You never have to hurt anyone ever again. You can say no. I’ll help you.”
“The doctor says I’ll never be a person. He says I’m strong.”
Al sucks in air. “When did he say that? He’s wrong.”
“I don’t want to be strong, I want to be a person.”
“I see you, Amy,” he says, again and again. “I love you. I’m here, I’m not going anywhere. I’ve got you. You’re okay.”
Minutes later, Amy has quieted in his arms, the weight of her settled dark and heavy in his lap. All her mouths breathe deep and slow. The sun has set, and the sky is rapidly darkening; he couldn’t even say when it happened. He feels so grateful, so utterly grateful, to have been able to comfort her.
“Shh,” Al says, and he rocks her. He drops a kiss to Amy’s iron-filing skin. “I’m here. Shh.”
She turns in his arms. Her mouths sigh, all her limbs draw slowly inward to her core, as a spider’s might. Then she turns again, and unfurls human arms and legs.
At first it feels like passing a stranger in the street, and recognising someone you used to know. This isn’t the pale, dark-haired little girl cribbed from Selim’s blood, he sees that immediately. it’s someone else’s shape. Amy’s hair is blond now, her skin a deep, golden tan, like Al and Ed’s used to be after a summer playing outside, back when they were kids. She’s still tiny. She doesn’t look more than three — and with a thrill, Al realises that that’s how old she truly is, how long ago she came into existence.
She opens her eyes and looks at Al.
Her eyes are the same golden amber as his, as Ed’s, as their father’s. Al’s heart stutters. The straight arch of her eyebrows, that’s Al. The slight outward puff of her cheeks, that’s his mother. The golden brown of her arms, that’s his father and Ed. He feels as though he is looking into his own face. He sees his blood, suckled and drawn from him; he sees her trust, a gift given slowly and incrementally; he sees the labour of it all.
She reaches for him. He takes her hands.
At the meeting, Riza is expecting it. It’s a small but significant comfort to find their minds moving in sync. Miles nods firmly. Fraser is aggressively jubilant. Mei and her alchemists are quiet, accepting. Oh, but Ed: Ed watches Roy for the whole meeting, utterly silent, with a tight mouth and burning eyes. His arms are folded and they stay like that.
The strategy planning meeting is long and draining. They game out the best spot for an ambush, how to parachute in a crew and how to stop the train. Layout of the Fuhrer’s train, likely placement and number of troops, the further intelligence they should seek. At some point, food is brought in and they all pick at it while they talk. Catalina and Abbaticchio represent air command; Havoc’s absence is excused and understood and it twists at Roy’s stomach. The alchemists are absent for the latter half; they’ll do their part in another planning meeting first thing tomorrow.
Roy walks the corridors of Briggs Fortress at midnight. It’s a bright night, the moon large above the mountains, the outlines of the peaks visible. Roy feels a certainty in this plan now, a painful rightness. This can work.
He imagines Breda, Fuery, Falman, Sullivan, the rest: caged and alone and waiting to die. He cannot imagine their feelings; he guesses at loneliness, at the constant labour of pushing down one’s animal terror, at the careful nurturing of hope for a better future beyond their deaths. They will never know if Roy succeeds. And Hughes will never know, nor will General Armstrong, nor will Grumman.
As he turns the door handle to step into his quarters, his throat tightens. For so many years, Roy could depend on the sanctuary of living alone. In the worst of times, after the strain of holding himself upright all day long, he could step into his apartment, close the door and let go. He remembers the sheer relief of it: finally unobserved, now he could unlock his grief and exhaustion and weakness. Now he could sink a painkiller for the burns and the gut full of stitches and the breathtaking pain that had ambushed him in the middle of a three hour meeting with the brass. Now he could throw a hand over his eyes and pass out on the couch.
No sanctuary here: now Roy has to face Ed. No self-pity either, he tells himself: it’s going to be ugly, but Roy made this mess himself. This is his reward for stupidity and self-indulgence and irresponsibility, for letting himself fall in love in the middle of a civil war.
What an idiot he has been, he thinks with a painful stab of insight, to let a twenty year old convince him he can have this. After a day like today, a call like the one he just made, how could Roy possibly expect to be welcomed home into someone’s arms?
Still, now that they’re in private, better they get this out the way.
But his quarters are dark and silent, undisturbed. Roy glances around the moonlit room, but he finds nothing, not even an angry note on the desk. It’s far too late for Ed to be drowning his sorrows at the village pub. He’s probably gone elsewhere, then.
But when Roy steps through to the bedroom, there’s a shape in the bed. And as Roy watches, Ed turns in his sleep, flops onto his back. Roy looks at the beautiful curve of his mouth in the moonlight, at the line of his jaw, at the steel hand resting loosely over his stomach. The beauty and wholeness of him are like a blow to the chest.
Roy turns away and, as quietly as he can, starts undressing. This, at least, can be avoided for tonight.
As he folds his uniform trousers to hang them up, there’s a rustling. He turns to see Ed sitting up in bed, rubbing the back of his hand over his eyes.
“Hey,” Ed says. It’s a rough, warm whisper. And Ed meets Roy’s eyes, and, impossibly, he smiles.
“Hey,” Roy says, and he pads to the bed in his boxers. Roy emphatically doesn’t deserve this: not the warmth in his bed, not the tender upward curve of Ed’s lips, certainly not that look in Ed’s eyes. Ed holds out a hand. As Roy leans forward, he curves it around the back of Roy’s shoulder.
Roy doesn’t intend to end up with his forehead bowed on Ed’s chest, not remotely. He has no intention of letting himself just collapse. Yet his knees sink onto the edge of the bed anyway, and Ed’s arms are open for him, and here he is.
Ed holds him close, rubs his back, holds his head. “Shh,” Ed whispers, over and over. “Hey. Shh.”
“Sympathy?” Roy mutters. “I just murdered half my team. Why on earth aren’t you giving me hell over this?”
“You know,” Ed says, “I was mad as hell. For like an hour. I kept thinking, there’s gotta be another way. But then I asked myself, so what is it, huh? What is it, Elric?” He laughs shortly. “And then I got it. I wasn’t even angry with you at all. I’m angry at the world. I’m angry with that piece of shit Hakuro. I’m angry at myself. So, I think to myself, splitting the teams. It was always probably going to screw us, because we need your firepower to take down the Homunculus. Right?”
“Right,” Roy says. He feels again, marvels again, at how in the worst moments, Ed can steady him.
“This is the only way we win. Isn’t it?”
“Yes,” Roy says.
“Yeah.” Very quietly. “How shitty is that, huh? Then I thought, wow, if I feel like this, then how’s Roy feeling right now?”
“Like shit. Funnily enough.”
“You’re the chessmaster,” Ed says. His hand still rubs Roy’s back. “And it’s the worst, huh? You get to fix everything, protect everyone, make it so no one ever gets hurt, ever … You’re not God. I can’t put that on you. You can’t put that on you.”
“I want to. I want to fix it all. I want to protect … not even everyone. Look at me, I don’t even have the power to protect the people right under me. Look where their trust and loyalty has gotten them.”
“But can’t we try and spring them? Breda and Fuery and everyone? Get the resistance on it while we’re waiting?”
“Yes,” Roy says. “Riza’s already contacted Foxglove Network. There’ll be an operation. So we can tell ourselves we did what we could.” He hears the bitterness in his own voice; draws a breath. “It won’t work, Ed. The level of security we’d be facing — it’s not like it was when we sprung Ross, it’s nothing like that.”
“We’ve got to at least try.”
“We will try.” Roy shrugs, closes his eyes for a moment.
“You know what else I think?” Ed says. “You know, Hakuro’s doing this at least fifty per cent to fuck you up. He knows you enough to know what gets to you, and he’s trying to get you broken and stupid and making dumb moves in a fight. Because even when he’s about to sic a Homunculus on you, you still scare the shit out of him.”
Roy doesn’t say anything. He puts a hand on Ed’s shoulder, draws himself up, kisses Ed gently on the lips.
Ed pulls back the covers, lets Roy climb into the bed. They lie in each others’ arms in silence.
What a gift, what an undeserved gift, to be permitted here to feel like a small and insignificant human being: neither great nor damned, just tired and sad and worried like all the rest.
"I love you." Roy kisses Ed’s chest. There's nothing else to say. Once he loved Ed and couldn't say so; now there's no point in saying anything else. "You're twenty and you're so sharp, so right. When I was twenty I knew fuck all."
"Well," says Ed. "Try detonating your whole life when you're eleven. I recommend it for growing up fast, except from the part where I really don't." Ed settles his chin over Roy’s head, and after a moment, the grip of his hug tightens. Ed’s breathing is suddenly forced; he’s hanging onto something. Roy rubs at his back.
They need to sleep.
Their breaths slow and lengthen together. Roy is drifting off when he hears Ed’s whisper in the dark.
“Roy? You awake?”
Roy nods against his chest.
“I can’t sleep.”
“Mm.” Roy reaches up, strokes Ed’s hair.
“Can I tell you something?”
“Don’t mm me, jerk. I’ve never told anyone this. I never even said it to Al.”
“All right,” Roy says. He reaches for Ed’s left hand, finds it, squeezes gently.
Roy feels Ed suck in a long, unsteady breath. “Sometimes I feel like it’s coming for me,” Ed says. “It’s gonna catch up.”
“Everything I’ve gotten away with.”
“Superstitious. That’s not like you.”
“It’s not superstition. It’s basic statistics. As the number of times I push my luck increases, the probability that one day my shit is going to catch up to me approaches a value of one.”
Roy huffs out a laugh. “In that case, I have good news.” His free hand taps Ed’s steel shoulder. “It caught up with you when you were eleven, Ed. Stop worrying.”
Ed shakes his head in the dark. Roy feels the movement against the top of his head. “I told you. I don’t care about the automail. What I mean is, I got my brother back and I wasn’t the one who sacrificed something. My old man offered me his Stone, and I said no, and then he fucking did it anyway.” Ed’s voice has gone thin and painful. Roy knows this part, and sees how Ed needs to say it anyway. “He stood there and the doors banged open and it came right at him, and he just — stood there and crumbled away in the fucking wind. It looked just like Al did. You know, when we … did the thing. When we summoned the Gate. He just looked at me and … blew away.”
“Yeah.” Then, very quietly. “About Al.”
“That’s not a confession, Ed. He’s your family.”
“No. Specifically! It’s freaking eating my head.”
“We all noticed.”
“I know, I know, there’s so much other bad shit to be scared of … the Homunculus … The country. Are we all gonna die like rats in a trap in this coup? That’s another one. Granny Pinako, we must be worrying her to death. Breda and everyone, that’s just fucking awful. And damn, I’m so scared about Winry right now, I feel like any moment I’m gonna get tapped on the shoulder and hear they got her.” He draws breath. There’s a pause. “But …”
“But, that’s the shit that you worry is going, in purely statistical terms, to catch you up? Al.”
Roy tilts his chin up, kisses Ed’s neck, strokes his back. They’ve run out of things to say. But still, they breathe together; their bodies warm and comfort and steady one another. Together, they help each other slide down, into the necessary silence of sleep.
“And now,” says the voice of Harry Valentina, “a few artistic statements.”
Al can’t keep his breath from coming short. Here come the resistance communiques: code phrases mixed with mere nonsense. He usually understands little or nothing of it. It’s comforting anyway.
“Keep the wasps out of your jam with doorknobs. My streetlamp can’t stop talking about apples. Ten priests on a noodle bicycle. The trains are running late” — wait! Could this be it? — “but I always keep a railway schedule in my pocket.”
This is, indeed, it. Al lets out a long breath, feels the fearful triumph inside him begin to steady. This is Ed’s code: a marvellously familiar phrase of it, words they’d passed to each other so many times in moments of crisis. Got it. Will do.
This message is for Al alone. From Brother — and from Mustang too, he expects. Got it. Will do.
The thrilling joy of it all jangles his nerves for a full minute. The presenter reads some more of those musically surreal messages; there’s nothing else there that makes sense to him. Then her voice gives way to a slow, mournful jazz saxophone. Al feels relief weigh him down, suddenly, like stones in his pockets. He drifts with exhaustion a moment. He shakes himself just awake enough to transmute his radio set back into the mattress, then he lets himself go.
Al sleeps. He dreams.
From under his hands, Amy dances out of the radio: first as a stream of music, then as a girl. On the platform of Resembool Station, she dances upon the shoulders of his father. The train is a monster. Winry is hiding from it in the waiting room. They need to get in there, the terror in him is electric, but Amy won’t stop dancing. He is being lifted up under the shoulders, his feet drag against the ground and he looks around, frantic, to see who is doing this to him. It’s suddenly dark.
It’s dark. Ahead in the corridor, soldiers are carrying flashlights. He stumbles, and jars his ankle. Arms hold him upright. As he tries to put hands out to break his fall, he realises his hands are cuffed in front of him, with a long bar keeping them apart.
He’s had this dream so many times. The dream where he’s taken from his bed, or as he steps out of a room, or as he bends to pick up a child, and then … and then his feet drag on the floor, and then he is held and rushed along by hard hands, by an iron machine, and his hands are locked in iron, and then … Only when he feels the slap of cold night air on his cheeks, and they shove him down, and his knees hit gravel, does he realise that this is his death. They will shoot him in one more moment. The terror catches light in him and blazes up and he thinks no no, what about Brother what about Mustang and the fight what about Amy and in the middle of his thought, the pistol fires at the back of his head —
He blinks, gasps, jolts. He’s wide awake.
He is being dragged down a corridor in the dead of night. Arms hold him and push him on. His hands are cuffed and barred. Ahead of him, soldiers shine flashlights. His heart thuds and he’s flooded with alarm, on high alert.
“What is this?” he says.
“Quiet,” says the soldier to his right.
“Does Dr Katzenklavier know about this? Who ordered this?”
“Shut up.” His head snaps to the side and his ears ring. Someone gave him a little punch, just to show they mean business. He’s rushed down the back stairs, feet stumbling and dragging, then down another darkened corridor.
He hears an echoing childish cry, at first faint but still knifing through him, then louder and louder. Amy.
Outside, on the gravel driveway and illuminated by moonlight, is the Homunculus. It’s sealed in its glass tank, doubtless for the safety of others. The guards surrounding the tank are edging further away with each moment. It’s shapeless in its hysteria: an amorphous messy cloud sprouting angry fists which clench and hammer on the floor of the tank. The eyes opening in its limbs are wet and miserable.
“Don’t,” it mutters. “No, no. I hate it, I hate it. Go away. I want Al. Where’s Al?”
“Calm it, Bridgewire,” says Dr Katzenklavier.
Al turns and stares at him. Katzenklavier is standing by a small military truck, dressed in a crisp suit with an overcoat slung over his arm.
“This isn’t as bad as it looks,” Katzenklavier says. “Trust me. They’ve gone a bit overboard with security. Help me out and calm it, could you?”
Al breathes deep. He crouches. “Amy,” he says.
The creature stops for a moment, and all its eyes go wide. “Al!” it yells. Then it hunches, withdraws. “I told you. I told you. They’re going to make me, they’re going to make me.” Its tendrils are starting to lose cohesion, melting into its core and then stretching out again, tentative, like the eyes of a snail.
“I’m here,” says Al, daring no more. “Remember? Breathe like we practiced. C’mon, give it a try. Big, slow breaths.” He takes a long, slow, noisy breath in. The Homunculus screams all the way through it. Three breaths later, it stills itself for a moment, sobs in a breath with one tentative mouth, then starts screaming through all the others. “Shh,” Al says. “Breathe, Amy.” He puts one hand against the glass. After a moment, on the other side, the fingers of a hand spread out to meet him.
Crouched into a heap, Amy breathes, and Al watches. Then, after a long minute, she slowly unfurls, perfectly human. Her golden eyes are rimmed red as if from crying. Her nose is running. She sniffles.
One of the guards gasps.
“Hello, Amy,” Al says, smiling, proud even through his terror and alarm. “Good job. Well done!” He claps his hands on his knees.
“Out,” Amy says, lower lip wobbling. “Out, Al! Please!” She presses a hand against the glass.
“Let her out,” Al says, turning to the guards. Katzenklavier makes a gesture. A soldier steps out, unfolds a sheet of paper, and for a moment Al glimpses an array written on it — then another soldier claps a hand over his eyes.
A moment later, his arms are full of Amy. “Al!” she yells. She clambers over the bar between his hands and snugs up against him. She winds her arms around his neck, sets her feet on the bar, lays her cheek against his chest. She huffs out a quiet, satisfied sigh. She’s jarring Al’s injured arm; it’s highly uncomfortable, but he can’t bring himself to tell her.
What is this, though? It’s bad. Al knows that much.
As they lead him into the back of the truck, he can’t hold Amy properly, but she sits on his hip, clinging to him with her legs and arms like a monkey. How well she’s holding her human form; he can’t help but notice.
Two soldiers sit opposite them, sidearms casually pointed at Al’s head. Another two carry Amy’s tank in on a stretcher, then start buckling it to the truck floor. One of them holds their arms out for Amy. She tightens her grip on Al; Al eyes the pistols pointed at his face.
“It’s okay,” Al says, “it’s just your tank. I’m here.”
She looks around, quiet and wide-eyed — then the soldier reaches for her with shaking hands and, amazingly, she lets him.
“Good job, Amy,” Al says as she’s lowered into her tank. Then the guards either side of him shove him down onto the bench and hold him there. Katzenklavier walks past them, brushes down the bench, and takes a seat.
The truck starts up, and as it hauls itself down the gravel driveway, Katzenklavier just sits there, smiling mildly and waiting — the bastard — to be asked.
Stomach churning, Al obliges him. “Where are we going?”
“The train. For Fuhrer Hakuro’s ill-fated journey north. It’s not happening in two weeks; it’s happening tonight.”
“What?” Al’s whole body jolts. Amy stares at him with wide golden eyes. “Amy, it’s okay, really,” he says again, despite everything in him that knows it’s anything but.
“Today was a test; you were right. And you did pass, in every way but one. You still hope. You’re still holding on to Mustang.”
“You set me up,” Al says, and it sounds so dumb. He feels ridiculous. Hakuro’s been persuaded to attend the opening ceremony of the joint north-east training, not the closing ceremony. It makes so much more sense. How could he not have realised? “You knew. The message. All of it.”
“We leaked your presence in Central to one of Mustang’s spies, yes. I fed you inaccurate information and made sure you had the opportunity to pass it north in alchemical code, with the stamp of your authenticity upon it. The only inaccuracy is the timing. Apologies for tooting my own horn, but a neat and audacious bit of counter-espionage, and entirely my idea.”
“How long have you known I was spying?”
Katzenklavier shrugs. “Exactly as long as you might guess. Since a few weeks ago, when one of the guards caught that chambermaid smuggling a message out in her boot. Silly mistake, especially since I’ve been watching for something like this all winter. Your code still eludes me, but I can guess you were informing Briggs that the Homunculus is active. Now that the Northern snows are thawing, Mustang is plainly going to move any day now. Therefore, Acker and I needed to throw him some bait good enough to guarantee he was off the board until we’ve moved on Briggs. Which should be just after sunrise tomorrow.”
Al wants to break Katzenklavier’s nose. He wants to scream. He wants to put his head in his hands and weep.
“By noon tomorrow,” Katzenklavier continues, “we sweep Briggs.” He waves a hand. “You know what will happen. I will make best efforts to take your brother alive, and to argue for lifelong imprisonment — if possible, his mind is too valuable to lose — but I can promise nothing. I want you to understand that clearly. ”
“Fuck you,” Al says. He’s shaking with the effort of doing no more. “Fuck you, Chrysalis.”
Katzenklavier just shrugs. “Fair enough. You’re upset.”
“Upset?” Katzenklavier’s shoulders actually jump, and it just stokes Al’s fury. “I am so damn sick of hearing you talk! If—” Al’s head snaps back against the wall of the truck. The guards are upon him, all of them at once. His shoulders and arms are pressed back against the wall; a painful grip just above his elbow, another soldier holding down his legs.
“Al!” he hears Amy yelling. “Al, Al! Stop it! Stop hurting Al!”
Al hisses with pain at the bite, sudden and sharp, to the flesh of his inner elbow. “Amy?” he says. “Stay calm, don’t bite, Amy. I’m okay. I’m okay.”
Hold up. Amy’s in her tank. Of course she didn’t. The pressure on his upper arm releases, and Al looks down. His pyjama sleeve has been pushed up, and a soldier is pulling a leather strap from Al’s arm. In the crease of his elbow, a single drop of blood is welling up. He turns his head, realising, and sees the same guard setting the hypodermic aside. His mouth tastes weird. His face is going numb. His ears buzz and the truck swings around him crazily. It feels just like the first days of his captivity, the sedative, and Katzenklavier smiles and he wants to murder him, and what about Amy, and his head rings, no, no, don’t go to sleep, don’t sleep —
Al widens his eyes and tries to sit up straight. His neck aches. His wounded arm throbs. His head is appallingly fuzzy. The truck — no. Wait. He’s no longer in the truck.
He’s sitting on the bench of a plush train carriage, between two armed guards, and through the window, as he blinks and clears his vision, he sees the night rushing past.