Setting: Fullmetal Alchemist, mangaverse, post-series, slight ending AU.
Characters: Roy/Ed, Havoc/Rebecca, Riza/Miles, Al, Winry, ensemble.
Rating: NC-17 overall, this chapter R-ish for swears and horror/violence on a par with the manga
Word count: 9712 this chapter
Summary: Two years on from the Promised Day. Amestris is without a Fuhrer, the military is teetering on the brink of civil war, and Team Mustang search urgently for the opposition's secret alchemical weapon. Any day now could be the first day of the war, and everyone is feeling the pressure. So is it any wonder that Ed and Roy's growing friendship just kindasorta combusted on them?
Notes: Direct sequel to No Small Injury. Illustrated by me, betaed and edited by enemytosleep.
Chapter One: Blue Monday | Chapter Two: Make Your Mind Up Time | Chapter Three: Something Stupid | Chapter Four: Two Plus Two
Chapter Five: Inbetween Days | Interlude: Test Drive | Chapter Six: Go the Distance
In Rose's little front room, perched on the edge of an upright old armchair, Al carefully set another log on the fire. The dry bark caught immediately: it curled up, crackling, and sent tiny bright sparks flying up the chimney. Al imagined the smell. Spicy. The scent of wood made you hungry. Sometimes he found that the recollection of a smell or a taste was gone from his mind and couldn’t be summoned; but tonight the sense-memory came to him cleanly and vividly.
Al's father held his hands out in front of the fire. Its reflection flickered over the lenses of his spectacles. Al thought about having cold hands, about feeling the harsh heat of an open fire upon them.
His father told him stories. Every night, that winter before the Promised Day in Lior, they would sit around the fire together, long after Winry and Rose had gone up to bed.
"... it's a drink made from mint leaves and flavoured with crushed cardamom seeds," his father said. Al had never tasted cardamom, but he nodded anyway. "They used to chill it with ice from the icehouses. It's the best thing of all for a hot day. I've never been able to make it, though. And I've never met anyone who could make it properly, not once since Xerxes." He paused, then blinked and nodded. "Ah, yes, yes," he said. "Ehsan the potter tells me that his wife used to keep it cold in the cellar. Icehouses were for rich people."
Al nodded, feeling thankful for his automatic poker face. He did a brief mental check of his body language: was his posture too obviously wigged out? Al’s father, like a lot of people, seemed to think of Al as unflappable. He suspected the armor played a part in this notion - but in truth, he couldn’t get used to the moments when his father was interrupted by the voices in his head.
Another night, another subject. "He used to draw my blood by cutting a vein, and then bind the wound with a transmutation," said Al's father. "But then, after he started to train me, feeding the Homunculus became my job. Every morning, first thing, I would draw some blood from my arm into a bowl, then I'd have to open the jar and feed it in, drop by drop." Al shifted in his seat. "It was talking by then, of course, and so when it had absorbed the blood, it used to be able to tell me if I was sick that day - even what I'd had for breakfast. I’ve never worked out how it managed that last one.” He sounded almost affectionate.
His father described it as a cloud in a jar, but Al somehow always pictured the Homunculus, back then, as a human baby the size of a thimble, with a mouse-squeak of a cry. Every time they touched upon this subject, the image would pop into his head, no less strong for its inaccuracy: his father's old master, an old man in sandy linen robes, cradling a tiny homunculus-baby in the palm of his hand and feeding it his father's blood, drop by drop.
"So, this pastry,” said Al, gesturing with it. "It really, really doesn't taste as good as it looks."
"It fills a hole," said Ed, shrugging. "What do you expect from a greasy mystery meat pastry thing an old lady sold you through the window at a train station?"
Al sighed and slumped in his seat a couple of inches. Some more of the western hills rolled by outside the window. "Remember when we were here five years ago? You got one then. I couldn’t stop thinking how good it looked. Life can be very disappointing sometimes.”
"I don't even remember it," said Ed, “which means it was crappy. The bad road food all blurs into one, but that - lucky for you - is to save brain space for my encyclopaedic knowledge of all of the greatest road food this country has to offer. Like, there’s a pretty kickass place near our hotel in Papenburg. Let’s go find that for dinner tonight.”
Al cycled through his memories, which tended towards the photographic when it came to meals he’d seen but hadn’t eaten. “The little place with the lace window things and the stew? Are you sure? I remember it looked kind of brown. The stew, I mean."
"Stew that looks brown is good stew,” said Ed in a definitive tone. “By the way: did you get a chance to make that call?” He jiggled his eyebrows, mock-stealthily. A couple days back, they’d decided that some alternate perspectives were needed on some of the blocks in their understanding of homunculi. Selim Bradley might have no memory of his past life, but Ed and Al just happened to personally know the only other living person with experience of being a homunculus: the Emperor of Xing. Al, meanwhile, was finding that speculations on Xerxean alchemy were stretching his apprentice knowledge of rentanjutsu to its limits; it was time to call an expert.
“Should we be -?” Al pulled a face.
Ed rolled his eyes and gestured at the empty carriage. “Who’s here? Bet I could even take this stupid hat off.” The hat apparently - and hilariously - had been a last minute loan from Mustang, to hide Ed’s ponytail. There wasn’t much point in further disguise: if Katzenklavier had his people looking out for two blond guys, they’d be on alert every ten minutes. “So,” Ed prompted, “did you call?”
“Yeah, but no luck,” said Al. “Mei’s not in the capital right now, she’s at Yulong Temple - training or something, I guess.”
“Does Yulong Temple have a phone?”
Al rolled his eyes. “It’s at the top of a mountain in the middle of one of the most remote provinces in Xing. What do you think? Anyway, did you get to call?”
“Yeah,” Ed said. “I did it from Mustang’s phone, his bill is going to be amazing. The number worked but then I just got some random guy on the end of the line, don’t even know who he was. He said he’d pass it on.” Ed rolled his eyes. “Bet Ling never even gets it.”
“Well, you know,” Al said. “It’s possible he’s busy? I hear he’s got a job.”
Ed narrowed his eyes and snorted. “Trust me, he’ll have found ways to slack. Does the Chang palace have a phone?”
“Yeah,” nodded Al, “That was my next idea. I had to go get our train, but they know me at the palace. I’m sure if I’m nice enough and I explain how important it is, they’ll send a messenger up to the temple.”
Ed nodded, then blew a harsh breath up into his bangs. He folded his arms on the table, then dropped his chin on them, facing the window. He always loathed waiting. And for all that Al had gotten good at it, he didn’t like it too much himself.
Al propped his head on his hand and looked out the window: it looked like rain. The train seat was getting uncomfortable. He’d have to get up and stretch his legs soon, or his ass would go to sleep. How come the crappy train seats had never used to bother Ed? The last time they were out this way … Al must have been what, thirteen? They'd been chasing some urban legend about a local alchemist who had his own Stone and never aged. And they'd never found the guy in the end, had they? They'd just gone around in circles, my pal Bill's buddy says that his cousin met him. They'd been young and dumb enough that it had taken them days to work out the story went nowhere. When they worked it out, Al had tried to make Ed feel better, saying it was a really interesting object lesson in how people tell stories.
With the benefit of hindsight, Al could see that he'd been kind of a weird thirteen year old. Well, he guessed he was a weird eighteen year old now.
And then, suddenly, that image popped into his head once more - his father's old master, feeding the tiny, monstrous baby. Selim Bradley had looked like that once. He was a fragment of that Homunculus. In a weird way, he was like Ed and Al's cousin, Al guessed. In an extremely weird way.
Their father ... looking back, it was so obvious that their father had known already, that winter, what he was going to do on the Promised Day: that he was going to die, so that Al was going to live. He, and Ehsan and Maryam and Dani and half a million more: the family Al and Ed would never meet, the aunts and uncles who had died, centuries ago, and taken their recipes and jokes, their books and their language, taken it all with them into silence.
Al felt the void they'd left once more and tried to remain grateful.
It was Saturday lunchtime, and most of the customers at the Little Cat Bar and Cabaret were out at the street benches. Deserted, the interior felt dusty and a little sad. Maria was used to seeing it heaving with people. She took a sip of her beer. Rebecca continued her work of pacing around the empty tables by the stage.
The bartender in the tank top looked at the gun on Rebecca’s hip, then looked back at Maria. Then he pretended he was looking somewhere else. Maria had never seen him here before, he must be new. Maria really wished they’d had time to change out of uniform. Somehow, being at work on a Saturday made you look even more military. He was giving Maria that look, too, the do-I-know-you look. After two years, people had mostly stopped recognising her from the papers. Even back after her name had been publicly cleared, most of the attention had been sympathetic - but the times when it hadn't been were memorable. The bartender went back to looking elsewhere, apparently without recognising her. It was so lovely to be getting her anonymity back.
Rebecca returned to the small step between the tables and the bar area. She put the heel of her boot against it, measured and evaluated. The bartender carried on staring. Maria carried on trying to look reassuring.
Apparently finished, Rebecca bounced back to the bar and hopped up on her stool. “Quick question,” she said to the bartender. Ignoring his frozen look, she continued, “Do you have table service on cabaret nights?”
Ah. So that was what this was about.
“Yes?” said the bartender.
“Excellent!” said Rebecca. “Could I get ten tickets for Friday night’s performance?”
They took the rest of their beers to the sunny benches outside.
“Don’t tell Jean, okay?” Rebecca said. “I mean, obviously I’m gonna tell him that he’s cool to get in here with the chair, but, I don’t want to make it a thing.”
Maria nodded. “Doesn’t he normally farm out these scouting jobs to his secretary?” Havoc’s secretary, Addison, seemed to have an expanding portfolio of tasks that were neither on his official job description (administrative support) nor his real job description (doing Havoc’s official job so Havoc could get on with his real job).
“This isn’t about a client,” Rebecca said. “And I know Jean hates being coddled, it’s just I got these tickets to cheer him up and I didn’t want to screw it up, is all.”
“You’re taking your boyfriend to a gay bar to cheer him up?”
“I’m cheering my boyfriend up by getting tickets to a hot cabaret revue that’s supposed to be amazing. Which happens to be in a gay bar, which is not a thing because he’s broad-minded and cosmopolitan and very secure about his sexuality.”
“Jean likes cabaret?”
“This is political satire cabaret.” Maria pulled a sceptical face. “No,” said Rebecca, “hold on a minute, give a second! This isn’t one of those veiled-reference, need-a-decoder-ring kind of satire! This is totally outrageous. My friend Max said no one can believe they’re getting away with it!”
“As in what?”
“As in, amongst other things, they have a hot lesbian Bradley impersonator.”
Maria raised her eyebrows. “Can they even do that?”
“Apparently they can. And there’s a whole number about Mustang versus Hakuro. And there’s this whole bit about the coup. And - wait - you have your shocked face on. Do you think this is in poor taste?”
Maria blew a breath out. “Probably? Mostly, I just really want to see this thing before they shut it down.”
“Who’s they?” said Rebecca. “Nobody’s been shutting anything down since the Promised Day. The Provisional Government can’t agree on anything long enough.” Maria chuckled. “So, how come you haven’t heard about this? I thought you went to the Little Cat all the time?”
“Used to,” corrected Maria. “I’ve hardly been getting out since everything started kicking off these last few months. By the time I get out of work, I’m wiped. Every time I go round to Julia’s, I just fall asleep on the couch right after dinner. It’s so embarrassing.”
“This is the exact thing!” said Rebecca, spiralling a finger in the air. “Jean’s wound up and wiped out, I’m wound up and wiped out. We’re all working too hard and we need to let off some steam. That’s why I snapped up ten tickets, the Friday show sells out quick. You and Julia in?”
“And, I’m gonna try to get Breda to bring his mystery girlfriend.”
“Yes, that’s so odd,” Maria said. “He normally tells us a bit too much about his encounters with the ladies. Why do you think he’s clammed up?”
“I dunno. I did wonder if she works for the other team, but Jean says there’s no way. Apparently Breda has this whole secret gentlemanly streak, it kicks in when he really likes someone.”
“Riza has to come along.”
“We’ll pry her away from the office with a shoehorn, if necessary.”
“Drag Bradley …” mused Maria. “Does he sing?”
“We are about to find out. Max didn’t say if Riza was in it, but dear god I hope so. And that she comes along to see it. I may have to bring a camera.”
Riza squinted down the sights of the gun, and lined up her target: the dead centre of Roy Mustang's chest. Her own chest panged briefly - but then she squeezed the trigger.
Just as she fired, Roy clapped and dropped to a crouch; she barely had time to compensate her aim. The defensive wall shot up from the ground - and the paint pellet splattered across the top as it did.
Riza took a quick, habitual glance around the deserted parade ground, then shouldered her paint gun. She strode up to the wall. From behind it, there was a slightly plaintive voice. "I got paint in my hair again."
"It washes out," Riza said, scraping at the alchemic wall with a finger. "This one's a bit crumbly. Weren't you trying to adjust the density?"
Roy's head poked around the wall. There was, indeed, a smear of blue paint in his bangs. "I was. It's not exactly easy to concentrate when you're on the hop." He sighed. "It's the whole-body-movement thing that gets me. I’m good with reflexes if I’m snapping, but if it's gymnastics ... the Elrics make this look too easy.”
"Mrs Curtis is just as fast as they are," Riza said, "and she's older than you, and she's got a medical condition. You should take her up on that offer of practice sessions."
Roy pulled a face, but he didn't argue. "You never cut me any slack," he said.
"If you wanted slack, you wouldn't be practicing defensive alchemy with me," Riza said. Then, because Roy was looking a little like a kicked puppy, "You are improving, you know."
"I know," said Roy. "You know, you should practice with me against Mrs Curtis. With your paint gun. For preparedness' sake: after all, when we fight together, we're on the same side. Usually.”
Riza let the corners of her mouth twitch up. Then she stepped back, and Roy nodded, and they went for another round.
This time Roy managed to get the wall up. The round after, the paint pellet struck him squarely in the chin.
“That’ll bruise," Roy commented. “I’ll have to meet Mr Hazare with a blue chin.”
“I’ll lend you make-up,” said Riza, cheerfully ignoring his raised eyebrow. “How’s that going, by the way?”
“Madeline got nothing out of his right-hand man - other than some baby photos and a story about Hazare’s crusade against crooked landlords in the East End.” Leon Hazare, they had heard a few days ago, had just announced his candidacy for the Progressive Democratic Party. Other than the fact that he represented a blue-collar district of Central, they knew remarkably little about him. The Prog Dems were Parliament’s only openly pro-democracy faction (and how peculiarly Amestrian it was to have a parliament who didn’t all favour democracy!). This made them opponents of the old guard, and therefore allies of Team Mustang. The fact that two months ago a small faction of them had plotted vigorously to screw over Team Mustang did nothing to change that they needed each other.
Riza tucked a stray strand of hair behind her ear. “A straight shooter?”
“Potentially, it seems.” Roy raised an eyebrow. “He’s agreed to meet me, that’s a start. But after the Flowers case, I’m assuming nothing.”
Riza conceded the point. She marched back to get into position again. Roy stood with one arm raised, the other hovering around his pocket. Riza gave him a moment to get tense - then squeezed off a couple of rounds, tracking him down as he clapped and dropped to a crouch. The first round went over his head - and the second detonated squarely in the middle of his new wall.
Roy stepped from behind his wall with showy deliberation. He leant against it, folded his arms, and smirked for all he was worth.
“Sure that will take your weight?” asked Riza, approaching. She poked at it, and found it solid and sandy this time.
Roy’s smirk dropped into a smaller, realer smile. “I believe I’m making actual progress.”
She nodded. It was true: that discomfort she’d noticed in Roy at first as he clapped had vanished now, was giving way to an easy competence. He was starting to seem more like his battlefield self, even down to the overconfidence. It was a good development, she told herself, overall. Roy had an advantage, they should make use of it. “You’re getting faster,” she said.
“I’m surprised you didn’t bug me more about this before,” Roy said.
Riza cocked her head. “I thought you might have been - well, blocked. Alphonse didn’t transmute without a circle for years, remember?”
Roy nodded and for a moment, he looked across the parade ground. “I suppose I was blocked,” he said slowly. “It’s funny, after all that, it didn’t take much to get through it.”
They went another two rounds, then packed it in for the day. They walked across the parade ground together, and Roy tried to pick the bits of paint from his hair.
"I don’t know how much I’ll be able to sound out Hazare in one meeting,” Roy said, "but perhaps it'd still be good to slot in a quick briefing at mine after -"
"I'm not coming over to clean out that cat’s litter tray," said Riza briskly. "Nice try, though."
"Damn," said Roy. “Ah well, give my regards to Major Miles.”
The moment his name was mentioned, Riza felt the usual push-pull of her feelings when it came to Duncan Miles: a dizzy little stomach-flip of affection, followed immediately by that automatic urge to hold herself back, hold herself in. “No, I’m just going to head home,” said Riza quickly. “I should get an early night.”
“Why not do both?” said Roy. He was smirking again, a bit. Riza mock-glowered and tutted at him; and ignored his point. In truth, Duncan had asked her over for the night, in that lovely, unpressured way of his. Come if you’d like.
Roy looked at her for a moment, as if he wanted to say something, but didn’t. They walked on towards the edge of the parade ground. Riza felt the edges of an old and nameless discomfort breaking in between them. Right, she thought, back to work -
“You’re so brutal with yourself over small indulgences.”
Riza whipped her head round. Where had that come from? She huffed in a breath, and felt a sharp rush of anger, felt bothered and intruded upon and needled. She didn’t say anything. She quickened her pace.
“I’m sorry,” said Roy, quickly, and he sounded it. “That was out of line, I shouldn’t have said it. Just -“ He cut himself off.
Riza looked at him. Roy’s bursts of truth-telling were almost never aimed at her, and he’d sounded so harsh and sad. And he was wrong, too. No, he didn’t get it, wasn’t it the comfort of her independence that made her ration her evenings with Duncan? Or - was it entirely that?
“No,” Riza found herself saying. “It’s all right. Really. I do do that, I know I do. But - I’ve got very used to being on my own, and - well, sometimes, being with someone can feel - well, a little like slacking off, and -“ Slacking off didn’t quite cover it, of course.
“I know,” said Roy, feelingly. Riza looked at him, and felt relief at being understood, and instantly scrubbed out most of her previous annoyance. Of course he knew. Wasn’t it the same for him, after all? He nodded, then quirked a half-grin. “You’re going to say that I love to slack. But, anyway. I know.”
They looked at each other for a moment, then looked back ahead. The silence between them turned easy again. Together they walked to the gates of Headquarters.
I’ll weigh it up on the way home, Riza thought. Perhaps I’ll call Duncan, perhaps I’ll just have some popcorn and read in my pyjamas. But by the time she’d walked two blocks, she’d given into herself, and knew already that she was going to call him.
The route that Roy - Mustang, whatever Ed was calling him these days - had sent them on was complicated indeed. Their final train of three was a creaky, slow local service which stopped at every single one-street village along the way. By the time it finally pulled into Papenburg Station, Ed and Al had numb butts, empty bellies and a silent mutual agreement to hit the restaurant quickly before they checked in at the hotel and picked up their orders.
The little restaurant with lace curtains was still there, the beef stew was still on the menu, and it was just as good as Ed remembered it. Watching Al devour his bowl, mopping it up with the dense, crusty local bread, Ed felt one of those occasional surges of utter relief. He made himself think about his father a moment. Much as he’d railed against it, much as he’d wanted to fix his own messes and make his own sacrifice, the old man had given them a gift. The right thing to do was remember, and do something good with it.
When they walked into the hotel’s chintzy little reception area (what was it with small towns and lace everywhere?), Ed was nursing the last remnants of his good mood. Before Ed could get there first, Al had his hand out for the room key and the envelope waiting for them. Ed narrowed his eyes, and Al smiled blandly. Of course he thought Ed would just open the orders right there in the foyer, and - well, he probably would. But, dammit, he was in suspense here! What had they been called out here for? It had to be big. Roy had refused to tell him, on the grounds that his public code-talk wasn’t always discreet enough - which was annoying, and persnickety, and probably kind of accurate.
Their room was up two flights of stairs. They took them briskly. Once inside the room, Ed threw his suitcase down on the lacy-pillowed bed, and went to grab the envelope from Al.
Inside the envelope was a short letter, and a series of sheets of mimeographed police reports. Ed and Al spread them out on the floor as they read. They were all missing persons reports.
The covering letter made the story unpleasantly clear. An address at the edge of town had been receiving regular couriered shipments marked as volatile substances. Captain Havoc must have had a contact at the courier company. The last shipment had been opened (the letter didn't say by whom) and had proved indeed to contain several substances on their alchemical red flag list. The next step was the nasty part: someone or other had managed to discover that the town in question had a sudden rise in the number of missing persons.
"Look at this," Ed said, jabbing a finger at the end of one report. "This old guy, he was like a tramp who'd been living under the bridge fifteen years. Sounds like the whole town knew him, but the police didn't lift a damn finger about it! Says here they're assuming he "moved on"'.
Al sighed. "These are the same." He pointed to a pile. "They're all seasonal farm workers. You think someone bribed the cops?"
"Or," Ed says, "the town police here are just assholes."
"So," said Al, "two things. I mean, apart from that. One, if this is what it looks like, they're picking on people with no family, no permanent home. I mean, if you wanted to get away with murder …”
"And you think this is what it looks like?" Ed asked. His stomach felt suddenly tight and sick. He was kind of regretting the stew.
Al nodded. His eyebrows creased together in a frown. "Two, if this is what it looks like, then - they're doing what we thought."
"So, they're feeding people to the Homunculus." Ed shoved a hand into his hair. "Fuck. Right. Is there anything else it could be? I mean, could they just be feeding it blood?"
"If they are, it's gotten hungry. I mean, the stories Dad told me about feeding the Homunculus were pretty much like the way it's described in The Perfection of Matter. Tiny amounts of blood, just a few spoonfuls. You wouldn’t need to be kidnapping people, you could draw your own blood, even.”
"But the Homunculus of Xerxes ... " Ed cycled his shoulders. "We think they deliberately kept it small so they could control it. If this one's gotten hungrier, then - fuck, no, that’s the same story. That means it'd be growing its own Philosopher's Stone. It's eating souls."
They both let that one sit for a moment.
“I hope the Homunculus is still small enough for us to take them down,” Al said slowly. “Because I really, really want to bust them.”
Ed sighed explosively. “Yeah. I know. Fuck.” Because here was the thing: they’d fought enough homunculi to know that if the thing had gotten powerful enough, it could take a crowd to take it down. A crowd, or Roy. But every spy in Hakuro’s faction would be on it if Roy left town. Besides, with Roy’s face in every newspaper in the country, getting him out West in secrecy would take a hell of a lot more than a hat.
“So,” said Al. “Sneaky, until we’ve seen enough to make the call on whether we can take it or not.”
And if they couldn’t? They’d better be able to get out of there discreet and quick enough to be able to call in the big guns. Fuck knows how the big guns were supposed to sneak their way over here. Ed supposed they’d have to think of something, if it came to it. He sincerely hoped it wouldn’t.
"So," said Al, "do we bust them now, or try surprising them at 4am?"
"I don't want to wait," said Ed. The thought of just sitting in their hotel room for all those hours, with a pile of papers bearing the names of people who'd likely died in pain and fear to make this thing a weapon ... it was intolerable.
"You never do," said Al. But Ed could see it in his eyes that he felt the same way.
He was dead.
The fact was solid as a brick: no matter how much, despite himself, Roy half-expected it to disintegrate under its own unbearable weight. Ed lay on an empty road with a red hole in his chest; he lay on a slab in a cold room, with a waxy face and a decorous sheet covering him to the shoulders. Roy searched for the culprits, he plotted and strategised and organised, and none of this endless slog got him an inch further to what he really wanted: to talk to Ed, to have just an hour, a moment in his company, hearing his low drawl, feeling the hot blast of his intelligence. It was unbearable, and -
He was awake. The comforting sounds of the city at night filtered through the open window. For a few groggy moments, Roy listened to passing cars and the echoing shouts of late-night drunks, while the knowledge gradually filled him that he was reprieved: Ed was not dead at all. The dream had tricked him, as dreams always do.
Roy's stomach rolled over slowly. The nameless cat padded on the bed, feeling his restlessness, then settled itself heavily on his legs. Already, the dream felt less solid. The sheets still smelled like Ed, and if Roy switched the light on, he knew he’d see the translucent marks of automail oil on the pillow. Roy rubbed a hand over his eyes. These dreams weren't uncommon. Perhaps everyone had them. Certainly, Roy had dreamed his friends dead long before he’d had reason to know how it really felt. These days, it was usually Riza dead in his dreams. Sometimes his mother, his sisters. A couple of times it had been Havoc. Never before Ed, though.
It could happen, his bastard brain pointed out to him. The dream is a lie, until the day it isn’t. It could happen very easily. To Ed, to any of his people.
They weren’t really his people, though, were they? They belonged to themselves. And no matter what he told them about dying, there was little enough he could do to stop them doing it.
Roy thought of Ed and his brother, all those miles out west, breaking into a house where terrible things were being done. He wished he could have gone himself. He wondered again whether there could have been a way to get a larger party there, without compromising the stealth needed to catch Chrysalis unawares. It had been a risk; but a risk that even Riza had approved. And there could have been no better choice for this mission than Fullmetal and Bridgewire. Every time he reconsidered it, he knew he’d made the right call. But still.
He put his hand into the cat's fur. It stretched, purred like an engine, and rubbed its head against his wrist. Roy scratched it behind the ear, and was glad it was there.
Ed reached the start of the steep bank leading up to the railway tracks, and just carried on running. He planted one foot after the other in the dry ground and hauled himself up. These were the times when the automail really pulled its weight. His left leg threw up his weight like a piston, and he was at the top even before Al.
The mission was going badly.
It seemed Chrysalis was already on the move, and they were only so sure of where he was heading. They'd know if their information was good once they found him, which wasn't exactly a comforting thought.
“So,” said Al, “you’re the expert at hopping trains.”
“We wait until it slows around the bend here,” Ed said, “then catch ahold of the ladder on the side of the carriage, and get your foot up quick.”
Al nodded, frowning. Ed decided not to share with him any of Darius’ and Heinkel’s stories about the nasty things that could happen to someone trying to hop a moving train.
“So,” Ed said, “we’re doing this, huh?”
“We’ve got to,” Al said. “It’s a risk, but, you know the alternative …”
Ed nodded firmly. The Homunculus was on that train, he was pretty confident about that. Chrysalis was definitely killing people for it: they couldn’t just let them escape. But there was a chance they could be jumping on that train to fight something they couldn’t beat. Which would be - well, a major fucking tactical error. And they had no way of telling if the creature was too strong until they got there.
The train whistle sounded. Al checked his watch, and nodded. This ought to be the 8:36, all right. They better just hope the trains ran on time around these parts.
The house, like all Katzenklavier’s hideouts so far, had been a perfect horror movie set: a tall old place with a neglected garden, two hundred years old at least. Inside, it had proved deserted apart from three guys hurriedly emptying any signs of occupation into canvas sacks. It had taken Ed and Al moments to take them down, and moments more to elicit information with little more than glares and cracking of knuckles. Apparently, you just couldn’t get the staff these days.
“It told him?” Ed had yelled as they ran for the station. “The fucking Homunculus told Dr. K we’re here?”
“It’s met you, remember?” Al had shouted back. “I guess it can recognise people’s qi! You know, like Gluttony!”
“That was smell!” Ed said. “He smelled things! Oh, and by the way, it’s fucking talking now!”
“We’re not gonna make the train!” Al shouted, brandishing his pocket watch.
That was when they’d had this dubious idea: intercept the train after it left. Preferably without smashing up either the train or themselves.
The whistle sounded again. The train, finally, rounded its bend. And just like Ed had feared, this was not the local service.
It was a big old engine, solid and hefty - and besides the Amestrian Railway logo on the tank, Ed could see the blue eagle of the Cretan flag. “I told you! The motherfucker’s trying to cross the border!”
“You think that’s why he-?“
“Hold that thought!” Ed yelled. The train was already upon them. Up close, it was moving faster than he thought. Damn, this was going to be tight. He stepped up close enough for the side-wind to buffet his face hard, bent his knees and leapt.
The automail saved him again. His right shoulder pulled like a bastard, but his right hand still kept a perfect grip on the ladder. He got his left foot on a rung, braced himself, then just about managed to get his right up too. His stupid disguise hat tumbled off and blew away, unmourned. As Ed started to climb for the train roof, he saw Al, clinging sideways to the next carriage.
They met on the roof. Al sprang lightly to Ed’s carriage and then crouched low as the train started to pick up speed again. “You think that’s why he was working near the border?” Al yelled.
“Fits the pattern,” Ed yelled back. “That last place he was at was right by the Aerugan border.”
Al nodded grimly, and Ed pulled a wry face. Amestris had centuries of bad blood and border disputes with every one of its immediate neighbours. If Dr. K was willing to cross national borders, it looked like he had rather more loyalty to his life’s work than he did to his State employers. Roy had been disquieted by the hideout on the Aerugan border. He had speculated that Katzenklavier’s fallback plan might even be a full-scale defection. It looked like he had been right to worry.
Ed jerked a thumb downwards. Al nodded. Together, they clapped.
They’d barely hit the floor of the train carriage before Ed knew, without a doubt, that the infant Homunculus was on his train. It was the same feeling he remembered from his encounter with the creature at the Ducal palace, from his meetings with another like it, years ago: that sensation of an off-key wrongness, like static in the air or the smell of an electrical fire.
Ed and Al barely had time to lock eyes and acknowledge what they knew before Ed saw a uniformed guard edging quickly away from them towards the end of the carriage, going for the exit. Shit, he must think they were robbers or terrorists or something.
“It’s cool!” Ed yelled, brandishing his pocket watch. “State Alchemists. I’m Fullmetal, he’s Bridgewire. This is government business.” Which it was, kind of. Ed swallowed hard and hoped this guy wasn't in Hakuro's pocket. That could really fuck with the whole stealth thing.
“There’s … is this …?” the guard managed, gawping at them. Then he seemed to recover himself. “Are you looking for your comrade up in the front carriage?”
“The Chrysalis Alchemist?” Al asked.
“Skinny old guy,” Ed added. Surely he couldn’t be travelling under his own name?
“Yes, sir,” said the guard. “He commandeered the front first class carriage.” Major inter-city trains often had these: a single, luxurious private carriage up front, for high-ranking officers, fat cats and aristocrats who wanted to travel in style.
“Thanks!” said Al brightly. “Listen, we need your help. There’s some dangerous, volatile material on this train, and it’s not safe for the passengers or crew to be here while we deal with it. We need to get as many of the people on this train to safety. If we got all the passengers back here and decoupled the carriages, do you think you’d be able to signal before there was a crash?”
The guard nodded. “There’s a signal box a couple hundred yards from here, and the next train isn’t due through for a good few minutes. We’d easily have enough time to raise the stop signal.”
“Good,” said Ed, “because that’s what you’re going to have to do.”
The silver watch’s power to persuade was a little unnerving sometimes: the guard seemed to trust Ed and Al implicitly, just like that. It gave Ed the same uncomfortable feeling that it did when people waved him ahead in a line because he was in uniform. Ed wasn’t a soldier. Except that he was.
It took a couple of minutes to get to the mostly-empty first class carriages. The guard and the colleagues he’d mustered dealt with it like pros, moving from one closed compartment to the next, murmuring discreetly to passengers, helping retrieve luggage and herding the passengers quietly through to the rear carriages. It was a little disquieting that nothing dramatic had happened yet; but at this point, he and Al could only press forward.
Ed and Al watched the last of them, a thin old lady, shuffle her way out of the carriage on the arm of the guard. She was talking to him firmly in a reedy, posh voice. Ed caught something about a strongly worded letter to Head Office. The guard turned back and nodded to them. A moment later, two other guards knelt at the doorway between the carriages, and busied themselves with the coupler.
The carriages unhooked and came free with a loud metallic screech. The guards, along with the rest of the train, started to rapidly recede down the track, framed in the open door. Dr. K must have heard that. Ed and Al looked at each other, and marched quickly down the carriage. The next car was the one. The feeling of the Homunuculus’ presence boiled stronger with every step. Ed remembered from the Ducal Palace too: back then, the infant creature’s presence had been so raw it was difficult to be around, let alone fight. Well, he was just going to have to suck it up. And hey - if it was raw, it wasn’t cooked. The feeling was definitely a lot less strong than before - but that it still felt bad at all could be good news if it meant it was small enough to take.
Al put his hand to Ed’s arm and said quietly, “You know, if I’m right and that’s how the Homunculus recognised us -“
Ed nodded. “Then it knows we’re here.”
Al put his hand to the door, and wrenched it open. Ed ducked under his arm and sprinted through. Another step into the carriage, and even as he looked around, he automatically clapped out a blade from his arm.
Katzenklavier was standing already, one hand gripping a table and the other fumbling in a leather box. He glanced up at Ed and Al for only a fractional moment. The creature didn't seem to be making him sick. Ed was on him in no time at all. His left arm went around Katzenklavier’s neck from behind. “Don’t struggle, it’s smarter,” he said. The guy felt bird-boned and frail. The Homunculus’ presence was a miasma around them.
“Get the box!” he shouted to Al. Katzenklavier’s hands were still fumbling in it, working - of course - at the edge of the seal on the glass jar within. Ed circled his skinny wrist with his right hand - Katzenklavier made a hissing noise - and Ed pulled as he stepped back -
Ed heard a loud, musical popping sound. The big, flat cork seal was loose in Katzenklavier’s hands. Ed’s insides jerked with shock, his eyes flicked to the jar in the box. A black cloud, shifting like an animal. The blue crackle of Al’s transmutation hit it in a moment, the jar curved to seal itself -
The creature went straight for Ed’s face.
Ed tried to cry out and choked. His nose and mouth were sealed, his eyes were covered. He staggered back and got his hands on it. The not-skin of the creature felt grating and weird, like cotton wool. He felt it pushing at his lips, so clamped his mouth shut. Distantly, he heard Al yelling “Brother! Brother!” Then, so suddenly, it seemed to let go, came away easily, two handfuls of grating static electricity in his hands. As Ed gasped in air and tried to confirm the fucker hadn’t bitten his nose off, an iron-hard tentacle wound around his upper arm. It pulled itself from his hands with utter ease - it must have let go of him deliberately - and flowed up to his left arm.
Another wave of nausea hit him. This one was so bad the room’s gravity seemed to shift and spin. A white slit opened in the prickling cloud. It was an eye. It slowly turned to look at him.
Ed tried to yell and managed a creak. His back hit the shuddering wall of the carriage. His arm felt leaden. Punch it with the automail, fucker, punch it in the kisser -
Something warned Ed to look up. Where was Katzenklavier? Ed managed to focus his eyes, to take a breath and look. The old man was over the other side of the room now, and Ed saw that he was reaching into his jacket -
“Al!” Ed yelled. Al clapped, he must have seen already, and the tabletop wrenched itself free and hardened to a shield on Al’s arm. The leather box fell to the floor, and Ed heard glass shatter - a shot went off half a moment later, but Al’s shield held, and he was moving forward in a crouch -
Ed’s elbow fucking hurt. He felt something sharp through the waves of nausea. He looked down. The thing was latched on to his arm. The little Homunculus was thick and dark. The parts making contact with Ed’s arm felt solid, but its edges looked crystalline-cloudy, like magnetised iron filings. Surviving out of its jar, Ed thought. Souls. Deep inside that thing, people were tormented and lost. Ed turned his arm. A black fang or spur or something was sunk into the inside of his elbow. Shit.
Ed shook his arm experimentally. He could barely lift it. The thing was heavy, and its grip was cutting off the flow of blood to his forearm. Ed heard gunshots, and his head jerked up to see Al still advancing on Dr. K under cover of his improvised shield. The old bastard looked terrified.
Al caught his eye. “I got it, I’m fine! Look after yourself first!”
Okay, Ed thought, on three. He counted in his head and hauled in a breath. Automail over, clap, a diamond-hard carbon shell on his arm, then a sharp chop right into the vile centre of the creature -
- An electric-shock feeling ran right into his right shoulder. Ed hissed and tried to pull his arm away. The creature stretched out thin paws and wound them around his wrist.
Suddenly, there was a grin above the eye. It opened wide. “You,” it said - fuck, it is talking - “your blood is full of meat.” Scratchy and polyphonic: like Pride, like Father.
“What?” said Ed. The eye was watchful. The mouth didn’t answer. He glanced over to Al - still advancing. Katzenklavier was an idiot when it came to combat, he realised. All he had to do was swing the gun to cover Ed, and they had a problem. But instead he was panicking.
The Homunculus might be strong, but they could win this.
Ed yanked hard, and there was more electric shock, and then suddenly he was on his knees, grappling with the creature.
The creature’s limbs lost hold. Its eye winked shut and tiny, impotent claws flexed as Ed managed finally to yank his automail arm away. A wave of dizziness hit. The nausea was getting worse. Ed’s heart hammered against his ribcage. He drew another breath, and slammed his left arm at the wall: a weak swing that did nothing.
Then, abruptly, he recognised what he was feeling: the dizziness, the rapid pulse, the fuzziness and slowness. Blood loss. It was sucking his fucking blood.
“No you fucking don’t!” he spat, calling up the energy of his anger. “I beat down your fuckin’ grandad, you little tadpole fucker bastard, you think you can vampire me to death?” He slapped his automail hand against his limp left palm, smacked it back into the wall, and let claws of metal spring out from the wall to hook the Homunculus. Amazingly, the suction on his elbow didn’t even let off. He dropped his knees and tried to roll. The creature made a scratchy noise, and wound possessive new arms around Ed’s elbow, and tightened hard until his shoulder pulled hard and the creature’s grip was the only thing holding Ed up.
Ed gritted his teeth - and then a metal fist popped out of the wall to slam the creature left, then another on the other side mashed it right.
He looked up. Al had Katzenklavier’s gun in one hand, thank fuck.
They could do this.
Ed felt the grip on his arm weaken a little. He felt the moment, kicked out his leg against the wall, and rolled sideways hard. The grip gave abruptly - blood sprayed - and he was free. He rolled a few feet, then tried to haul himself up. His head felt empty and buzzing. How much blood had he even lost?
Al’s heart drummed against his breastbone, painful and distracting. The creature crawled across the upholstery of a bench, its stubby, provisional limbs groping and retracting. Al kept his fighting stance, ignored the burning nausea in his throat. “Brother?” he said carefully.
“Gimme a minute,” said Ed, quiet and slurred. He was curled in on himself, his face colourless, automail hand pressed hard against the inside of his left elbow. Blood seeped between his fingers.
Al turned back to Katzenklavier. He clapped at his shield, and it flowed to shackle the old man’s wrists apart. He hissed.
Something screeched. At first, Al thought it was the train itself, but then he looked at Katzenklavier, and saw that he was smiling. The screech sounded again. It lowered itself into a many-voiced howl.
The Homunculus’ mouth was open. Its eye rolled like a panicked horse. Again, it cried. A dozen little limbs popped out, and beat upon the seat pathetically. “I’m hungry!” it said. “I’m hungry, I’m scared, I hate it, I want to go home.” It flailed new limbs, and opened another mouth, which howled too.
Al snorted. He tapped his fingers together and hit the wall, let the transmutation run down to the shattered glass jar, knit it whole.
The seat cushions were slashed from the little Homunculus’ flailing. Al crouched and concentrated on the jar, sized up the distance.
“I wouldn’t if I were you,” said Katzenklavier, still smiling.
“Shut up,” said Al, and clapped. The glass flowed over the creature into a dome. It raised stubby paws to tap at the glass, then flowed around it, butting up against each side. Al clapped again, and got a glass floor under it, sealing the creature in completely. The single eye rolled against the glass. It cried again, the inconsolable wail of a very young thing, dampened and muffled by the glass. Despite himself, Al’s heart was starting to soften. It pulled and pushed more paws against the glass, almost kneading -
The jar exploded, and suddenly the creature was everywhere, its scream was everywhere, the roof of the train slashed open, windows shattered. Al threw himself back against the weight of Ed and covered his eyes. The creature was huge now, like a fusion of spider and spiderweb that spread across the carriage. Scrabbling paws, grinding teeth and darting eyes scattered irregularly along it. The scream rose and fell, rose and fell.
“We won’t hurt you!” Al yelled without thinking. He immediately realised he’d just made a promise he might not be be able to keep.
“They’re liars!” Katzenklavier suddenly shouted. “They’re trying to kill us both. But you’re stronger than they are!”
A claw slashed out at Al from the centre of the room. He dodged it, throwing himself and Ed sideways. He clapped and pulled a curved, carbon-hardened shield out of the train’s wall, leaving a hole gaping and a sharp wind howling through the carriage. He braced his arms against it, moving it this way and that as the creature flailed at them.
Ed nudged him with a shoulder. “Try closing my arm,” Ed muttered. “Stop the blood, I can still fight. ”
“No way,” said Al. Last time he’d tried medical rentanjutsu, it had been on a chunk of pork belly. Which had promptly exploded and shot hot fat in his face.
“Fine,” said Ed. While Al continued to work the shield, he pulled his automail arm away and tapped his hands together. Ed’s sleeve tightened in a band. He hissed, then tried to get his feet under him. Al felt him stumble.
The claws struck again. Al’s mind worked as he wielded the shield and his shoulders jerked with impact after impact. Defeating the creature now would take the tactics needed for an adult homunculus. It would have to be worn down - to be blasted with lethal force, again and again and again. The driver and crew were still up front of the train. What must they be thinking right now? Could Al separate the carriage? Could he get to them and get them to cut it loose? No, he couldn’t leave Brother. Ed had seemingly given up trying to get his footing. Instead he knelt against Al, conserving his energy. Wait, could Al sever the connection with a transmutation?
It wasn’t going to be easy. The train was moving and it was off the ground, two things that made distance transmutation a lot tougher for a novice. And the Homunculus was everywhere … Al clapped. He tried to breathe easy, to let go of the effort let his mind fall along the line of the energy. A claw snaked around the shield and Al smashed it around. His concentration left him. The claw held. Ed hacked at it clumsily with the automail blade.
“Careful!” Al hissed. The little paw severed and crumbled. Al tried the transmutation again. This time the thing lifted the shield bodily into the air. Al saw another appendage trying to pass under it - and this one had a sharp-toothed mouth on it. Ed clapped, and a hand of carbon-shielded metal rose up from the floor to slap the limb back. Al’s legs swung in the air. He used the momentum, dropped back behind Ed, clapped as he fell and peeled the floor back to make another shield.
Ed was on his hands and knees, sweat broken out on his forehead. “Get back into the next carriage!” Al hissed.
Ed shook his head. “You can’t take it down by yourself, not like this.”
“You can’t help me take it down! Move! Come on, we need to get back behind the door!”
At that ‘we’, Ed consented. He staggered up and hauled himself into the other carriage. Al followed him in, wielding his shield. His arms were starting to shake with the effort of holding it up. As soon as they were both in, he clapped again, smoothing out the whole front of the carriage and wrapping it in carbon.
“Okay,” he said, dropping to the floor next to Ed. “Thinking space.”
“We can’t let it get to Creta,” said Ed.
On that, a thin tentacle lashed through the side of the carriage and receded, taking out a window with it. Then he spotted something. “Shit,” he said, sprinting down the carriage. He threw open the rear door and looked out. “That’s Mount Olias! Brother, we’re over the border.”
Ed groaned and shoved a hand through his hair. The carriage lashed from side to side again. “How is it this strong?” Ed said. “Fuck, no wonder the Xerxeans tried to keep it small.”
“Okay, now what?” said Al. He clenched his fists and tried to string together what they'd just learned. “Look - Brother. I don’t know if I can beat this thing solo. And look at this. He’s in Creta now. Cretan alchemy is a dying form. Katzenklavier’s not going to be able to get supplies. And more to the point” - the carriage veered to the right as the creature hit it again - “more to the point, he can’t control it anymore. Without the facilities to restrain it, I can’t see him feeding it more souls.”
Ed nodded. “Okay,” he said, “point taken. But let’s give this one last shot. How ‘bout we run over the top of the train, try to cut it off from the engine, and -“ The whole train screeched. It veered fast to the right, to the left - “Shit, it’s gonna go over -“ Ed yelled.
There was a horrible, metallic screech. Al and Ed braced themselves. The train rocked, and righted itself, and slowed, and - Al pulled himself up, retracted the carbon shield from part of the car door.
The half-wrecked front carriage was already a hundred yards up the track in front of them. Tendrils of Homunculus still flailed from the sides, the back, the roof. Cut off, their carriage was slowing.
They were not going to catch it up.
Ed got upright and stared. “You think it's skewered Dr. K?” he said weakly.
Al looked at the train. “But then - it’d be out there alone. That’s bad. We should -“
In the distance ahead, the train flashed with alchemic energy, and the hole in the roof was suddenly gone.
“Looks like he made it,” Ed said sourly. “Ugh. What a clusterfuck.”
“How are you doing?” Al looked at Ed, evaluating. He was pale and sweaty, breathing too fast.
Ed shrugged. “I’ve had worse.”
Al laughed shortly. “Me too. I’m taking you to the hospital, you know. Once we get over the border.”
Ed just nodded. “And we should … call in. As soon as we get to a phone.” He hauled himself up the wall, then leaned there looking ill for a few moments. Al offered him an arm and he took it silently, and together they managed to negotiate the steps down the carriage.
Once they were clear of the train, Ed nodded at it. “We need to get that off the track, before the next train crashes straight into it.”
“I got this one.” Al let go of Ed, clapped, dropped his hand to the ground - plenty of limestone, recrystallise it into marble - and sent up a big, deep spar jutting out the bank. When he rolled the train carriage onto it, the whole hillside reverberated.
They made their way slowly towards the village they could see further down the valley. With any luck, there’d be someone there with a car. Despite the horrible relations between Creta and Amestris, in Al’s experience people in Western border towns crossed the frontier daily and casually.
With the immediate danger gone, their energy levels slumped hard. Al felt aching and exhausted. Ed, on the other hand, sat to rest, and panted, and looked half-conscious. Al looked at him and knelt in front, pulling Ed’s arms around his neck. “Uh,” said Ed, but let him. Al grabbed his legs and hefted Ed into a piggyback, automail and all. He just about managed to stand. The village wasn’t far. It would be fine. Ed groaned against his shoulder, and shifted, reassuringly disgruntled and vital. "Fuck," he muttered, "Fuck. Sorry to …"
"It's okay," said Al. Then, truthfully, "I'm used to it. Only now you're heavier." Now Ed was a warm, awkward burden, and Al's muscles strained. Back then, he'd felt like nothing: just a push of resistance against the shells of Al's legs, a weight he'd felt only from how it rendered Al suddenly top-heavy, a smear of red on his chestplate that he'd spotted with a shock. Back then, Ed had bled, and Al had watched, and carried him.
"It was worse," muttered Ed; and then he passed out, head rolling against Al's , before he could clarify.
On to Chapter Eight!