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(Chapter Seven, part one)



Katzenklavier is already sitting there, sipping his sherry, when Al opens the door to the private upstairs room at the pub he was instructed to find. Nobody told Al whom he was meeting here, but it was pretty damn obvious.

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.”

“Who?”

“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?”

“Yes.”

“Why?”

“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?”

***


Colonel Fraser folds his arms. “Is intelligence still certain Hakuro won’t put in a last-minute appearance at the joint training?” He pushes his chair back a little from the war room table and surveys it, as if he finds it lacking: the map of Central and the collection of wooden blocks and flags representing planes, troops, people. “I’ve said before; refusing to travel makes him look weak.”

“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.

Ed stops.

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.”

***


Al walks the streets.

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.

***


Mei takes the stick, taps a point on the map. “So if possible, Beta Team need to get the Homunculus out in front of the manor or at least into the quadrangle. In the open, it’s exposed. And there we won’t have to hold back. And it’s also where as alchemists we’re strongest and have most material to work with.” She smiles slightly. “Except for Brigadier General Mustang, of course, all you need is air.”

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.

***


To be continued!

Comments

( 2 comments — Leave a comment )
skelody
Aug. 18th, 2016 10:22 pm (UTC)
Oh my goodness, hi! You are alive! With three-year-old twins! And jumping right back into the fray! I don't think my circulatory system can handle this much excitement, excuse me while I go lie down...
pepper_jak
Sep. 3rd, 2016 06:52 pm (UTC)
This series is still so amazing. I'm so glad to see you're back!
( 2 comments — Leave a comment )