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Fic: The Compass Rose, Chapter 8/9

Title: The Compass Rose: Chapter Eight
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 the same level as in the manga itself, mistreatment of a child.
Word Count: 13,361
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 | Chapter 7



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. “<I>Al</i>! 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 <i>feel<i> 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. <I>He can’t kill her with a bullet</i>, he reminds himself. <I>Her body isn’t human, I can’t blow my cover, Mustang needs me here, Amy needs me here.</i> His fingernails dig into the palms of his hands.

Katzenklavier fires.

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.”

<Center>***</center>


Roy’s first thought is very small and selfish. <i>I can’t. Don’t ask me to do this.</i> He’s always suddenly four years old, when it’s like this. Psychoanalyst’s dream.

“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 <i>sir</i>.

“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 —”

“<i>With respect</i>, 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 <i>is</i> 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. <i>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.</i>

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.”

“Granted.”

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 <i>everyone</i> — 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.

“<I>Dismissed</i>.” 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.”

“Thank you.”

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 <i>you’ve never been in my shoes, you don’t understand a thing</i>. 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.”

<Center>***</center>


“What do you really think?” Roy says. It’s the first time he’s spoken in five minutes. He and Riza are sunk into chairs in his office, each staring at their own chosen spot on the far wall.

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.

<Center>***</center>


The Homunculus rises high above the tree line. Its shadow-tentacles sway in the breeze. Looking through binoculars, standing on a high platform of packed earth, Al notes a discernible structure, just as before: like a tree trunk, or a spine, keeping it stable.

“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 <i>hurts</i>.” 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 <i>hurt</i>,” 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.

<Center>***</center>


Up on the Wall of Briggs, alone with the melting snow and the glory of the mountains and the crisp and perfect blue sky, Roy closes his eyes. He inhales deeply. The freezing air burns inside his nose, makes his lungs ache. He puffs it out warm through his mouth, opens his eyes, sees the little cloud of water vapour. Hydrogen dioxide molecules, contracting together in cold air.

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.

Hughes.

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!”

“Am I?”

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, <I>no human transmutation.</i> 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 <i>was</i> 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, <i>trace this call, send a team to the telephone booth</i>. Five minutes before Armstrong called him back, and he'd known what was coming the moment the man had creaked out <i>sir</i>.

“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 leant 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?”

“Because—”

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.





On to part two!