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Fic: The Compass Rose, Chapter 7/9

Sooo … I'm not on LJ much these days. Quick life update: the twins are three, life is busy but fun, and I'm writing fic again! I think most of my readers are on Ao3 these days, but posting here for completeness and in case anyone wanted to say HI. HI! (I'm on Tumblr btw, come see me!)

Title: The Compass Rose: Chapter Seven
Characters/Pairings: Roy/Ed, Riza/Miles, Havoc/Rebecca, Al, Winry, Team Mustang, Ling, Ran Fan, and more 
Rating: R for swears, violence and horror at about canon levels.
Word Count: 13042
Summary: An infant Homunculus under the command of an idiot ruler: this can't end well. Two and a half years after the Promised Day, the struggle for Amestris goes on. The military's old guard have seized power from Roy's band of reformers, aided by a horrifically dangerous experiment: they've been growing their own Homunculus. Now, separated to the four corners of the map, Team Mustang fight to evade their enemies and reach safety, to retreat and rally their forces - and to find a path to victory.
Notes:  Post-manga, slightly AU from Ch 105. Direct sequel to The Phoney War. Illustrated: chapters 3 onwards illustrated by me; chapters 1 and 2 illustrated by my talented Big Bang art team a_big_applealasse_mirimielscatter_muse and hikaru_9.

Chapter 1 | Chapter 2 | Chapter 3 | Chapter 4 | Chapter 5 | Chapter 6



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.

***




***


Al stands under the plum tree in the walled garden, waiting. At his feet, the creature sits: a fat black cloud curled over his feet like a dog. Two tendrils, extended, poke at something. A mouth mutters.

“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?”

“A flower.”

“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.

Al sighs.

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.

***


There’s never a warning sound; usually it’s the motion of the fall, glimpsed out of the corner of Roy’s eye, which alerts him. He turns just in time to see the square foot chunk of melting ice plummeting from the edge of the roof. Five stories down, it shatters itself on the icy ground. Roy’s shoulders jump, just as they do every time. The Briggs natives, of course, never bat an eyelid.

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.”

“Of course.”

“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.

***


Al’s seen towns under siege, towns full of soldiers, towns under lockdown. The last Resembool bombing is a vivid memory of his childhood: the wreck of the train station roped off, soldiers everywhere, the public garbage cans afterwards closed off with covers that looked like little metal hats, because that’s where the bomb had been. He remembers Central City under Bradley, Central City streets a battleground on Eclipse Day. He remembers Central City silent and fearful on the day of Roy’s failed coup, with packs of Hakuro’s soldiers roaming the empty streets like foxhounds, searching for Roy’s people. Searching for Al.

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.

***


Roy finds Lieutenant Colonel Miles standing on the gantry of Warehouse B, clipboard in hand and snow goggles pushed up on his forehead, supervising organised chaos. Below him, a mixed group of citizenry are securing a great quantity of tarps and boxes onto three sleds pulled by very patient carthorses. Roy counts four Briggs troopers, several local civilians, a refugee poet, two Ishbalan priests, and a teacher from the village school. The poet and one of the priests seem to be in lively dispute with the locals about the best way to stack and tie down the boxes.

“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.”

“Refugees again?”

“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.”

“Do they?”

“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.”

***


The papers on the noticeboard of Al’s university department are fading, going yellow already. Half the professors’ offices seem to have been ransacked. He finds books, papers and furniture scattered and overturned. Just as often, though, everything is still in its place: as if their owners expected to return and mark that paper, finish that letter, write up those results. The office of his old tutor, Professor Macintosh, is particularly and eerily undisturbed. The horrible diorama of stuffed squirrels playing cards sits where it always did, a fine layer of dust coating the dome. There are dust motes in the air, dust on every surface. The corridor smells of damp, neglect and rotting paper.

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 bring a message,” Roy says, leaning against the edge of Riza’s desk. “Miles is going to be done at 1900 now. So, he says, your off times line up again, he’s checked the ration coupons and also your skis are fixed so do you still want to go down to the village pub for bear stew or whatever they serve on date night. Really, you could pass notes like normal people.”

“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.”

***


Back, finally, in his own office, alone for the moment, Roy unfolds the copy of yesterday’s Central Times on his desk. He smooths out the cover. He regards it carefully. He briefly considers burning it to ash.

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.

Roy breathes.

On to part two (oh hai post limit)!

Comments

( 3 comments — Leave a comment )
cornerofmadness
Aug. 19th, 2016 03:24 am (UTC)
waves. Can't believe the twins are that old already. Glad everyone is doing well.
bob_fish
Aug. 27th, 2016 09:13 pm (UTC)
Hi! Yes, they're huge and very busy! They start school in a year, unbelievably.
cornerofmadness
Aug. 27th, 2016 09:40 pm (UTC)
That truly is unbelievable. I'm so glad you're all doing well!
( 3 comments — Leave a comment )