Roy snapped, and a burst of flame flooded the corridor. As he dispersed it, he glimpsed the wall of enemy troops falling back, then turning tail. Roy was holding back less and less now. In these tight spaces, it was risky; he must be leaving fires behind him.
They’d lost the element of surprise as soon as they hit the corridor: not a surprise, but not good news either. Still, they were close to their original target. Before Roy had barricaded the window onto the courtyard, he’d glimpsed the creature again. It seemed smaller and calmer; inasmuch as that was something you could judge easily about a faceless, tentacled monstrosity. He must be right about it. They were holding it back, scared of it too. Sensible of them.
“What now?” Armstrong said. “Should we still proceed as planned?” Hakuro had taken evidently taken Communications. Now Roy’s team had lost both their military targets, and likely the people guarding them. Hakuro had them on the run.
The strategy hit Roy suddenly, with the chiming clarity of his better ideas. “Right,” he said. “We go straight across the courtyard. We stay in the open where I don’t have to hold back, defensive alchemy when necessary but don’t box ourselves in. We hit the Homunculus hard. If we damage it quickly, then with any luck that will draw Hakuro out. He was in Comms a minute ago, but I doubt he’ll stay put. He wants to bring us down and I expect he’ll want to direct the action personally. As soon as we’ve an idea of his location, while he’s still expecting us to be looking elsewhere, we divert all our fire on my mark, and don’t hold back. And once he’s down, we’re back in business. We deal with the Homunculus after.”
Armstrong nodded firmly. “Now?” he said.
“We move on my mark,” Roy said. “See the central path across the courtyard? I want you to -”
- there was a hammering sound, incredibly loud, and the barricade behind Roy was shattering under a spray of machine gun fire. Where? Here was a blue uniform, an open door, and Roy snapped a flash of fire at it; the gunfire cut off instantly. Roy clapped, dropped hands to the floor; a wall shot up between the soldier and them.
From outside it, there were wounded howls. The soldier was down. Where had he come from? He must have ducked behind a door instead of retreating with the rest. Roy breathed, patted himself down rapidly. He wasn’t hit. Amazing.
And in front of him, Major Armstrong began to topple like a felled tree.
The walls of the new barricade shook with gunfire. Reinforcements: Roy clapped again and threw as much density as he could manage into the walls. At the same moment, Armstrong hit the floor hard.
Roy dropped to a crouch. He realised he was shouting. Multiple entry wounds: a dozen little red holes dotting Armstrong’s bare chest. He lay on his back. His face was slack and blank. Roy gripped Armstrong’s shoulder, yelled in his ear. “Major! Major! Look at me!” Armstrong stared at the ceiling.
They were sitting ducks here. Roy needed to return fire.
Quite suddenly there was blood everywhere, pooling so rapidly under Armstrong's huge body. The exit wounds must be on his back. Roy should turn him, try to slow the bleeding. The barriers shook again on either side. Roy clapped and strengthened them again. Armstrong didn’t even blink.
Roy looked for another moment. He pulled off a glove. He put fingertips to Armstrong's neck, half-expecting to be surprised.
But there was nothing, absolutely nothing.
Another barrage of gunfire hit the barrier. They would hit it with something heavier in a second, if they had any sense.
He could lower the barrier, attack, go all out. How many were there? It didn’t matter. He could take down most of them, let Headquarters burn around them. He wanted to.
And after that?
Making his way straight through a crowd of enemies, with no backup and nothing to shield him? In the end, he probably wouldn’t make it. His weakness had always been the same: however much of a human weapon he was, he was one man. It would only take one shot.
They thought they had him cornered.
His ears rang. He was kneeling in blood.
They thought they had him cornered, but a good man had just stood between him and a clip of bullets. Roy would not give into them.
A hole in the floor. There was no time: he just threw himself down it, knees braced. He landed hard, jarred his shoulder, rolled. He was in the basement: the regular basement, not the tunnels beneath. It seemed deserted. Lucky. His mind reeled away from what he’d just seen - death was still an impossible, insupportable thing - but he forced it into focussing. He clapped himself walls around him - no chances - and sprinted in roughly the right direction: headed towards the Homunculus, counting his steps as he ran.
This had to be it. Now or fucking never. Roy was a human weapon. He was a one man army, an act of god. He could do this.
Keep going -
The last time Al had glanced out the window, the out-of-uniform soldiers tailing him were still casually circling the building. It was infuriating, but there was nothing to be done about it; his time to break cover was agreed, and it was nearly here. Al kept his mind on the theory, on his worries about teaching. The youngest student in the room was his own age, but they still all looked at him like he was forty: it was so weird.
“Lungmei means literally, Dragon Paths. The first mistake a lot of Amestrian alchemists make about rentanjutsu - and there’s a reason I prefer that term to alkahestry, I’ll get to that in a minute, is -”
In seven minutes’ time, the agreed time would come. He could set his students free, knock down the men following him and tell them what a crappy job they’d done of it. Then he could call Radio Capital to get his directions: join his team or head to Headquarters. The second hand crawled obnoxiously slow around the classroom clock. Al hated this.
“- It might help you here to start thinking of the Dragon less as a myth or a metaphor, more in terms of concrete alchemical symbology, like for instance the pelican or the phoenix -“
He wished there was even a radio here. If things had gone well, they would have most of Headquarters locked down by now. He really couldn’t concentrate.
“- Good question,” he was replying automatically. He turned to the chalkboard, wrote three Xingese characters. “The word and the concept actually breaks down like this - ren, tan, jutsu. Jutsu is straightforward, that means ‘art’, and just like older Amestrian uses of the word ‘art’, it can also imply ‘science’ -”
The door crashed open. Al spun automatically, telling himself it could still be a late student.
But of course not. A dozen military police. He didn’t recognise any of them. His students openly gawped. Were the police on his side, or not?
"Can I help -"
"Alphonse Elric, the Bridgewire Alchemist?" said the officer in front.
Al frowned. He took in the guns trained not upon him but on the whole room. He took in the positions of his students, too scattered for him to be able to get a wall up quick enough.
"Yes?" he said.
"You're under arrest." Ugh. This was going to be a pain. The officer took a step forward. "By the authority of the Amestris Military, you have been charged with human transmutation."
One of Al’s students actually gasped.
“Oh,” said Al. “That.”
The officer barrelled on in a monotone. "It is my duty to inform you the court has found you guilty.” Al didn’t believe for a moment that there had been a court involved. Hakuro was trying to clear him off the board. And if he had the authority still to give an order like that - how badly were things going over there?
“Right,” Al said. His hand was still raised to the board, and the soldiers had him covered. His eyes flicked to his students, terrified and confused.
“You stand under sentence of death,” the officer continued.
“Wait a minute!” Al said. “My students, they haven't done anything. Give me a guarantee they won't be harmed, and I'll come quietly."
“You’re not going anywhere,” the officer said.
Al looked at the guns again, and realised.
“Let my students leave,” he said. “Please.”
The officer didn’t take his eyes off Al’s face. “The rest of you, move it!” The guns swung around to cover the students. “Come on, out!”
None of the students moved for a moment. Then all six of them got up at once, gathering their bags, stumbling over each other, panicky. As they left, a few glanced at Al, frightened and guilty.
As the last student filed out the door, the officer made a sharp, silent signal with his index finger - Al saw it coming - the guns swung around as he clapped. A moment before everything shattered around him, he thought, this'll be close.
She didn’t know what had prompted him to strike. Perhaps some coded signal in the radio broadcast. It didn’t matter; the man tailing her gave away his intentions as his posture shifted. Izumi finished her sip of coffee. Then as he reached into his jacket, she was up and moving. Her kick broke his wrist. The gun was on the floor, and now here were two more men she hadn’t spotted, rising with guns from the table by the coffee shop's door. She’d hardly realised they were taking her so seriously.
She launched herself at them. Mustang had apparently failed, this other fellow’s breeding of pet monsters could only end in grief, and the boys had doubtless gotten themselves in the soup again too. And on top of it all, it seemed she’d be going on the lam again, and right before the harvest festival rush at the shop.
What a day.
“Fall back!” Riza yelled, hearing the whistle. They stepped back as far as they could get and shielded their faces as the rocket's impact shattered their barrier. Riza curled her body around Hayate. Dust and rubble rained down for a long moment.
In the silence afterwards, her ears rang painfully. She registered the ozone smell of alchemy, then that Ed was crouched low, good hand pressed to the floor. The last electric crackles of the transmutation faded towards his work: a giant hand that extended from the floor, catching rubble in its palm. Ed clapped again, his injured right arm jerking, and the hand became a plough that became a wall. Another shell hit the wall. It cracked. Ed grunted.
They couldn’t keep this up indefinitely.
“We need to change tack,” Riza said. “Opinions?”
“We’re getting low on ammo,” Breda said. “And they just keep hitting us harder.”
On his words, the barrier cracked harder under another impact. Ed growled and slapped it repaired.
“They’ve got us boxed in,” said Miles. “We can still move at the moment, but there aren’t enough of us to hold any territory we gain.”
“But our main purpose right now,” Breda said, “is distracting the enemy and diverting fire from Major Armstrong and the Chief. I say we sit tight and keep on keeping on.”
“What if, instead of leaving them to the enemy, we just wreck the parts of HQ we leave behind us?” Ed said. “I can knock the floor out, take the walls down.”
“That just exposes us further,” Miles said. “I’d say that right now, our best defence is to go on the offensive. That way we keep the enemy on the hop; we can pick up more ammo from the enemy fallen as we move; and we buy ourselves some time.”
“Right,” said Riza. “On my mark, Fullmetal makes us windows and we start to snipe the enemy.” She counted them down from three, and on zero she came up, rifle to her shoulder and -
The corridor in front of their barricade was completely empty.
“That’s either very good,” said Miles, “or very bad.”
“Everyone, maintain positions,” Riza said. Could the enemy be trying to draw them out?
Ed had quietly disobeyed her, coming up on one side to check out the corridor through a new slit in the wall. She turned to say something sharp to him -
- Two officers had appeared, entering from a side corridor. They were carrying something on a stretcher between them, something in a glass fishtank. Something writhing and curling like smoke. There were sounds, too - scratchy, echoing. Riza recognised them.
Riza took a step back. She kept her rifle aimed.
“Huh,” Ed said. “So that’s where they’ve been keeping the combat alchemists.”
“Is that—” Breda said, and stopped. “Oh shit.”
“Don’t panic,” Ed said. “I can fight this thing.”
“No,” Breda said. “The Chief. He’s been going the wrong way.”
Riza stiffened, blinked, tried to collect herself. Roy and Major Armstrong: were they there yet? Did they realise? Would they return? Could they?
This development was very bad. Riza scanned the faces of the alchemists, trying to place them. “Is that Trebuchet?” she said.
“Yep,” Ed said. “The other guy’s Electron.” Riza raised an eyebrow. “How come you’re surprised I actually do my actual office job?”
“How dangerous are they?” Riza said.
“It’s not them we need to worry about.”
The alchemists laid down the stretcher in the centre of the corridor.
“Everybody back,” Ed said. “This thing’s fucking deadly.”
Riza nodded, and the rest of their little squad retreated. Riza and Ed stayed by the barricade, watching.
One of the alchemists - Electron - drew a sidearm. He pointed it at the tank.
“You fucker,” Ed breathed.
Two rapid shots, and the glass shattered. The thing inside howled; thready arms whipped out and flailed. The alchemists had seen this coming; they were off and running already. A dozen arms slapped against the floor and walls, leaving razor cuts behind them. A dozen eyes opened and squeezed miserably half-shut.
“What are our chances?” she muttered to Ed.
Ed looked at her out of the corner of his eye. “Against this thing?” He paused, looked intently.
It wasn’t attacking. After its initial outburst, the creature had drawn in on itself again. Now it was curling into its shattered tank, wrapping protective limbs around it and keening. Against herself, Riza felt a sudden burst of pity.
“Stop pitching a fit!” One of the alchemists called. “Do your job.”
“I want the doctor,” the creature called. Riza held her breath; she’d known it could speak, but it was still a shock. “I want the doctor back.”
“Do your job, then,” called Electron. “There’s a threat in front of you. Deal with it, and you can go back to him.”
“No,” said the creature, elongating the word. It curled smaller. This was completely surreal. “I want the doctor back!”
Riza held up a hand to their squad. To Ed, she mouthed, hold your fire. He nodded, evidently there already.
“For god’s sake,” said Electron. “Stop sulking. You’re only making this worse.”
The creature was silent.
Electron raised his sidearm, aimed it, and fired six times in succession at the ruined tank.
The scream was high and strange and so loud it hurt Riza’s ears. The limbs were yards long, flashing in her vision, too fast to see, making the air rush past -
The window cracked shut. Ed had his hand to the wall. He clapped again and breathed hard. They both waited. At the back of the barricade, the rest of their group stared and listened and waited too.
After a minute or two, the creature had quietened. By that time, Riza was beginning to formulate a plan.
“Fullmetal,” she muttered. “Could you restore its container? Or make it a stronger one?”
“Right with you,” said Ed. “It doesn’t want to fight. We make a bulletproof container, get it to hide in there, seal it up and grab it. Advantage us.”
He clapped and slapped the wall again. Riza peered through the new pinhole in front of her eye.
The corridor was a wreck. The creature’s fit of pain had left deep score marks on the walls and floor, and in places, holes. Doors were splintered. The glass tank was in shards on the floor. For a moment, although she could hear its moans, Riza couldn’t find the creature itself. Then a movement drew her eye. It was huddling on the floor, wrapped in its own limbs, half hidden under a chunk of drywall.
Electron, on the other hand, was kneeling unmoving just where he’d been standing, halfway down the corridor. His hands seemed to be gone. Had he raised them to protect himself? As Riza watched, the man’s torso slid sideways, then simply toppled off him. The rest of his body fell to the floor.
Ed hissed, one hand over his mouth. “Okay,” he said quietly. “I’m going for it.”
He knelt and opened a low hole in the wall, then clapped again - and as he did so, Riza saw the other alchemist, Trebuchet, edging in from the side corridor where he’d evidently fled. She popped a couple of shots off and he edged back. The glass container knit itself back together, and a blackened coating - hardened carbon, she guessed - crept across it. From the side corridor, a couple of shots hit the floor around it. Ed tutted, and grew little hands from the floor, pushing the container towards the creature. It huddled smaller.
Riza raised her voice. “Here,” she said. Hayate trotted to her side and sat. “Here you go. Come on, come on boy.” She didn’t look down at her poor puzzled dog. Trebuchet didn’t have a clear shot at the container now. Riza kept crooning to the creature.
Experimentally, it reached out a limb to touch the container. “C’mon,” Ed said, joining in. “That’s a good monster, c’mon. There’s your house, nice and safe.”
Trebuchet’s hand reached around the corner, slapping a piece of paper to the wall. Riza had popped off a couple of shots before she even registered what he was doing. The circle on the paper lit and crackled - and the hand sprayed blood and vanished behind the corner with a howl. At nearly the same time Ed snapped out a missile from their barricade to try and skewer the paper - but it was too late. The blue crackles had already rippled out towards their wall. Riza and Ed jumped back at the same time - the wall shuddered - but nothing happened.
At least on their side.
“Fall back!” Riza yelled.
From the other side of the barricade, the howl rose again.
As her back hit the wall, the front barricade fell, cut in a dozen slices, and the whirlwind of cutting limbs was right there, throwing itself at them -
The wall at her back vanished and surged past her. “Keep running!” Ed yelled.
Riza put her head down and sprinted. She saw new barriers ahead of her, shooting up to block off doors. She turned and saw the walls folding and reforming and shattering. Behind and above them, she caught glimpses of the creature, of the floors above. The building was being sliced open. The floor under them shook hard as falling masonry hit it. Ed’s damaged right arm swung at his side as he jumped this way and that, transmuting again and again. There were screams from above.
“What the hell set it off?” Breda shouted as they ran.
“Missiles,” Ed yelled back. “That son of a bitch got just close enough to transmute a bunch at it - right out of our wall.”
“It thinks we’re attacking it,” Riza said.
The creature’s screams were still audible through the barricade.
“Is it still trying to break through?” Riza said.
“Yup,” Ed said. “Stay there, gimme a sec.” He jogged backwards, slapped his left hand to the ground. With a deafening series of screeches and crashes, the corridor in front of him, above him, around him, folded in on itself.
When the dust cleared a few moments later, a curved dome of packed rubble extended over them in all directions. Ed turned, clapped, and slapped barriers across a couple of doors in their new foxhole.
“There,” he said. He sagged against a wall, face taut, then swiped his left hand across his sweaty forehead. “Twelve feet thick. I trashed a whole bunch of offices to make it. That thing’ll chew its way through pretty fast, though. Whatever we’re doing, we need to do it quick.”
“Are you sure it’s still attacking?” Miles said.
Ed shrugged with his left shoulder. “Pretty much. I could still feel that asshole firing missiles out of our barricade a second ago.” Ed’s voice sounded pained. His left hand rubbed at his damaged shoulder. “Why stop? He’s got the perfect way of siccing it on us.”
“So,” said Breda, “now what?”
“Realistically?” Miles said. “We’ve lost most of our people and all of our territorial gains. We’re low on ammo, getting low on energy. We’ve got a weapon out there that can only be fought by State-class alchemy, and our only alchemist is injured.”
“I’m fine,” Ed said. “This is nothing, it’s just the automail, I can –”
“Shut up, Fullmetal,” Miles said. “You’re tired and in pain. And you’re getting slower.”
Ed glared at him for a moment - then he sighed explosively and looked down. “Right,” he muttered.
“Let’s face facts,” Miles said. “Functionally, we’re already in retreat.” Everyone in their little squad seemed to exhale. He had said it, and now it was real. “We’re not going to win this, not today.”
“What about the Chief?” Breda said.
“The brigadier general’s headed to the courtyard,” Ed said. “He and Armstrong might be out in the open by now.”
“Even if they’re not,” Riza said, “The brigadier general will have sized up the situation. He’ll be looking out for the retreat flare.”
“And,” Ed said, “he and Armstrong know how to get out the same way we’re going to have to - straight down.”
“All right,” Riza said. It was almost a relief. She could feel their squad’s energy levels rising. Now they had a new goal - retreat and survive - suddenly, they had a chance again. “Now. Fullmetal, can you make me a hole all the way through to the roof?”
Ed pulled a face, scrubbed a hand through his hair. The gesture was funnily like something Roy would do. “That’s a tough call,” he said. “Because of the way the dome’s packed. I don’t want to destabilise it. But if I …” He trailed off for a moment, frowning in concentration, then nodded firmly. “Yup. Got it.” He clapped, put his good hand to the wall, and frowned again hard as he leaned into it. The transmutation rippled cleanly, peeling a hole in the dome's ceiling, then the next floor up, then the floor after that.
Riza pulled the flare gun from its holster at her back. She braced her legs, raised her right arm. When she saw sky, she shot at it.
A moment later, she saw the red streamers of the signal flare, high above the building, spreading like a net across the sky. Then it winked out of existence as Ed closed up the gap.
“Hey,” Breda said. “Wait. Sir - what about the creature?” Riza cocked her head at him. “We go down, they’ll send it straight after us. They’re not going to call it off now. Unless someone surrenders.”
“What’s your suggestion, First Lieutenant?” Riza asked. She was realising already.
“Let me surrender,” Breda said. “You need to get away, you’re in charge of this thing. Hakuro’s still hoping that the troops are going to mutiny. How about we make out it happened? We’ve still got a radio. We get one of the men to use it, make out the troops turned on me. Hakuro’s guys could buy it, we know I’m near the top of his shit list after the last coup. But it could save them. And in the meantime, the Boss can get you and Major Miles out of here before they spot you.”
Riza held Breda’s gaze for a long moment. He meant it. It was awful. He knew what he was offering to do, and he meant it. And it could work. And they had no time.
She nodded. She put a hand on his arm, squeezed it. Then she stepped back.
“Come on, arrest me!” said Breda. He threw his hands in the air.
“Sir?” said a soldier.
“You’ll get your chance to repay them, Fieseler,” Miles barked. “Obey your orders.”
The soldiers’ guns came up. Riza and Miles stepped back, Hayate at her heels. Ed crouched next to them, clapped and put his hands to the floor. A metal pole shot up past Riza’s nose. “Hang on to that, guys,” Ed said. “This is going to get rough.”
As Fieseler took the radio handpiece and began calling out to the enemy, Ed clapped again. The floor tilted and shook, and the room shot past them with a rush of wind as their patch of floor fell down, and down, and down.
Roy clapped, grew himself a platform, again, slapped hands against the ceiling and melted it away. Earth and foundations receded and grew up with him, and he was at the courtyard’s edge. Instantly, gunfire at the walls. He might as well have painted a bullseye on them. A slit to see out of one side, and -
The wrecked portion of Headquarters, which five minutes ago had been covered with the creature’s tentacles - was empty.
Before he could process it, some warning sense sounded within Roy and he clapped, dropped his barricade, saw the rocket’s trajectory, snapped at it -
It burst in midair like a firework. The blast of heat hit him a moment later. That had been close. He clapped again, hardly thinking, and this time an open barrier rose like a fan from the cobbles. Rifle shots struck against it on the way up. Shit. He was too exposed here, no backup, no time to think.
He turned in a circle in the courtyard, dropping and raising barricades, searching. He saw smoke from half a dozen windows - he’d been right, he did leave fires - he saw that some windows were broken, others had snipers taking aim at him - but no creature. Where was the damn thing?
They must be targeting it at Riza and Ed’s group.
The enemy sniping him were protected, hidden inside the building. Roy snapped off a few warning shots that stopped just short of the windows. Their panicked retreats could buy him a moment’s thinking time. Hakuro seemed to have practically the whole of headquarters: he could move his pieces freely, while Roy and his men had to fight their way from one place to another. Roy couldn’t get there in time. He couldn’t target Hakuro effectively either - perhaps not even if he somehow discovered where he was.
Of course, Roy still had his power. It was nearly all he had. If he went all out, he could burn Headquarters to a cinder. They would die in seconds, in minutes: Hakuro and his people, Roy’s own people, all the soldiers who’d accepted Hakuro's authority and let him do this; perhaps even the Homunculus.
It was unthinkable. The only way he could see to a victory now, and it led nowhere but hell. And where did that leave Roy?
This was not going to work.
And then, as if, even from so far away she could read his mind, he saw it. A firework in daylight: a spark rising into the sky, then blooming huge and high over headquarters. The signal flare.
The worst of the thing was: it was a goddamn relief.
They’re alive, Roy thought, they’re surviving, they can get out of this - and as he heard the whistle of another rocket, he was already clapping, slapping pavement and dropping down into darkness.
He covered his head with one arm and kept the other pressed to the floor, transmuting and transmuting, as rubble from the explosion pitched down around him. He didn’t stop at the basement. He kept going down.
After a long moments of sweating effort, his improvised elevator landed. The air around him was cold now, with a familiar smell: faint ozone, old death.
Earth under his feet. From this and the air around him, a stick of compressed cellulose. The compound’s molecular strings knitted together sweetly, as if nothing in the universe was wrong. Roy lit it with a snap, and raised the torch.
First task: close up that hole in the ceiling. Conceal his entry here. Next: get himself beyond the enemy’s reach. He pulled the little compass from his pocket. The first Homunculus’ network ringed the city. He could use it to get to the northern edge. Then, north, in secrecy and disguise, as fast as he could. He trusted Briggs could lock down as far south as the river Isar. On the other side of the river, he and his people could meet again. His people: he forced himself not to imagine what could have happened by now to Riza, to Havoc, to Ed. Instead he found himself chanting their names under his breath as he jogged.
Were they down here already? He hoped so. The enemy would be down here soon too, most likely. He hadn’t hidden the direction he left. And if Chrysalis had been able to sneak the creature into Headquarters the way Roy thought, then the enemy must know ways down here too. He should keep moving north, just as Riza and Ed’s group would. With luck they would meet each other again in the tunnels north. If not: the smaller their groups were, the safer the journey north would be. Roy would just have to follow the plan and trust them to make it.
His hands hurt. Funny: they hadn’t bothered him for years. Defensive alchemy, he supposed. More draining than he remembered. He was getting tired. He couldn’t get tired yet. He had a long way to travel.
A good man had just died for him. And how many more? How many of his people were dead back there, how many would die now and in the days to come? For them, for everyone, he could not let himself be beaten.
Roy was alive, and running. He would not let them down.
They’d made good time.
If there was anything good to be said about today, perhaps that was it. The actual coup might not have gone so smoothly, but the running for their lives part was so far very successful.
Riza’s guess had been right: the machinery of the Amestrian state turned too slowly, even in a crisis, and the goods train they had chosen to hide on had left before the station could be blockaded. With any luck, Fullmetal, resourceful young man that he was, had found himself an eastbound train and was halfway to the desert by now.
Their own train was still moving, and the last time Miles had checked one of the goods car’s high windows, he’d seen, with some relief, the rolling purple hills of the North. If Miles had been in charge of hunting down the conspirators, he thought, he would have had his men stop and search every train headed to North City; or at the very least had the railway company order its guards to search the train. Perhaps the train guards had considered that task above their pay grade; or perhaps Hakuro’s people really were as third-rate as they seemed. Which made it all the more humiliating to be running away from them.
“Still,” Miles said aloud, “better running for one’s life than dead in a ditch.”
Riza looked up at him, twitched a smile. “That’s certainly something,” she said. “We knew things might end like this. We planned for it. And you know,” she hugged her knees and shrugged, “we’ve all been separated by the enemy before.”
This was better. She’d been silent and distant for hours now. Miles didn’t feel so great himself.
“And I’ve been in hiding from my own comrades before.” Miles put an arm around Riza. She put a hand on his knee. “We’re in a rough spot. But while you survive, you can still move.”
They rearranged themselves in the little foxhole they’d made themselves, in between the sacks of flour stacked high in their car. Hayate turned in a circle, then lay over their feet.
“We stick to the plan,” Riza had said to Fullmetal, after they’d finally climbed out of the tunnels in an alley near the train depot. “We stick to the plan, stick to the rendezvous points.” Miles hadn’t been entirely sure if she’d been talking about Alphonse or about Mustang; or for that matter, persuading Ed or herself. They had expected to find the Brigadier General in the tunnels, at first. But the place was a labyrinth. Hayate hadn’t scented him. He had left them none of his signs. When they’d heard the racket of troopers’ footsteps, when they knew beyond doubt that the enemy were coming for them, the choice was made for them. As for Alphonse, they could only assume that he had seen the signal and was making his way East as planned.
“Got it,” Ed had said. “I hate the part where you get separated. But it won’t be forever.”
On the evening of Eclipse Day, Miles had been dealing with the chaotic aftermath when someone had stuffed the telegram into his hands. He hadn’t even looked at it for five minutes. Then he’d glanced down in between arguing crowd control strategy and trying to commandeer use of a train, and that had been that: four lines of text on a page, and Major General Armstrong and Captain Buccaneer were gone from the world, forever. And years before that, after the war, there had been that thorough, desperate search for his grandfather, his aunt, his cousins. From that he’d learnt another thing: that hope wasn’t always a gift. Life could slowly erode it to a painful shred. There was something to be said for a clean blow.
For that moment, he’d seen Fullmetal as Riza must see him. All that conviction that they could beat impossible odds: how appalling it would be if the world slowly wore it down.
Neither he nor Riza had had the heart to answer Ed with doubt. Uniform transmuted into scruffy black, he’d clapped them on the shoulders and disappeared into the shadows, in search of his eastbound train.
In the quiet of the evening, as their train sped north, Riza said, “We did the right thing.” There was a tense little waver in her voice. Of course she still felt terrible. General Armstrong had always insisted on the very same tactic: withdraw and survive if you have to, nobody’s going to write a poem about you for dying pointlessly because you went back for me. The order had always been good sense, but still, the thought of carrying it out had always made Miles feel sick at heart.
In the quiet evening, as they sped north, Miles said, “There are things that we can forget, when we’re trying to be realists. We’ve seen the worst of humanity, we know how bad things can get. But.”
“You’re right,” said Riza, picking up the thread. “That’s not all we’ve seen. I’ve seen people do - remarkable things. Impossible things.”
“We fought a god,” Miles said. “All of us. And we won. We’re not going to surrender to some shoddy human beings.”
“We lost a battle,” Riza said, “not the war.”
“Yes,” said Miles. “And think of all the odds we’ve beaten. Think how many times you’ve looked death in the eye but lived to eat your breakfast the next day. General Armstrong used to say that scars are a badge that say, I survived it.”
There was an uncertain silence. Miles could feel Riza weighing some difficult thought within her.
“Do you think,” she said, “do you think Roy made it out?”
“He’s a hard fighter,” Miles said. “Like us, he’s good at surviving. What are you thinking?”
Riza twitched a smile. “I’m afraid I’m thinking that I’m glad, about the circle-less alchemy. Roy’s without peer on an open battlefield, but his weak points have always been obvious. Now they’re less so. He’s versatile. His defence is improving. And he’s always been creative.” She took a breath, looked Miles in the eye. “But there’s always that risk. Always.”
Her voice was so even and controlled. Miles could see her throat working. He resisted the urge to wrap her in his arms. Instead, he just looked her in the eye, and said, "Well, what then? You tell me. You two planned for this possibility, too."
Riza said, "Then, I'd inherit it all. I'd have to get to the top, I'd have to change things." She smiled tightly. "I'm not Roy. I'm not a dreamer. Even if we manage to win - " She shrugged.
Miles paused, and watched for a moment. He thought he understood. "You're saying all this now, to get it off your chest in case you really have to step up and do it, yes?"
Riza's laugh was a short violent, little bark, but her eyes were grateful.
"If it comes to that, you'll do it well. I know you will. But you know what? My money’s on Mustang walking into Briggs with hardly a hair out of place.”
Riza’s laugh was real this time, and when she looked up at Miles, her smile was real too. “I’ll take that bet too.” She bumped shoulders with Miles and sighed. Now he did wrap her in his arms. She was warm, and her lovely, compact body vibrated with tension. “Thank you for surviving,” she said. “I didn’t say that yet, did I?”
“It was my pleasure.”
“I can’t tell you how I felt when you came through that barricade.”
He put his nose in her hair. He was never good at expressing these things in words. But she so often understood nevertheless. She relaxed into him, put an arm around his waist. Hayate curled around her knees, and they both fussed with his ears.
"Tonight, we stay alive,” he said.
“And tomorrow, we get ourselves to Briggs,” she said. “And we get to work.”
The sun was sinking behind the mountains, and the air was cooling - but Winry was still sweating. Hakuro’s pompous radio voice rang in her head. Failed coup … goddammit! … taboo alchemy … hypocrite! … I have agreed to assume the Fuhrership in order to better restore rule of law … how very modest of him. Do not approach the criminals … anyone giving comfort to the traitors will be subject to treason charges … Roy Mustang; Riza Hawkeye; Duncan Miles; Jean Havoc; Edward Elric, also known as the Fullmetal Alchemist; Alphonse Elric, otherwise known as the Bridgewire Alchemist.
Granny must be beside herself right now. As if she hadn’t been through enough with Winry’s parents, with what Ed and Al had done to themselves, with the Promised Day. And now here was Winry, giving her one more person to worry about.
She set aside the big socket wrench, bent over the railway track and unscrewed the big nut the rest of the way with her fingers. She breathed slow, trying to stop her heart from crawling up her throat and making a break for it.
“Okay?” said Paninya. She hefted the prying bar in both hands.
Winry looked around. The track was empty, the mountains silent except for the buzzing of cicadas. Just them here. Just them, the railway, the beautiful mountain sunset, a pile of sabotage equipment and a felony that got you ten years’ hard labour. Unless, of course, the authorities just skipped the sabotage charge and hauled them up for treason.
Paninya, nevertheless, seemed pretty sanguine about returning to a life of crime. She grinned, jammed the prying bar under the rail, and bashed it into place with a good kick. She grabbed the ends with both hands, put her shoulder to it, and grunted. The rail only budged a few inches.
“You want me to have a go?” Winry asked.
“No! I can do this!” Paninya gave the crowbar another hefty shove. Back when they were planning this, Warrant Officer Brosch had gently suggested that Winry take someone a bit bigger than Paninya to do this part. Paninya had not taken it well. Paninya stepped back, took a short run up, and snapped out a kick at the top of the crowbar.
The rail shifted a full foot from the track, and Winry stepped out of the way as the crowbar went flying. Paninya crowed.
“Right,” said Winry, taking up the socket wrench, “Let’s get the other rail done.”
She was halfway through unscrewing the second nut when the train whistle sounded.
“What?” Paninya stepped back, jittering. “It’s not supposed to be here for an hour and a half!”
“Well, it’s here now!” Winry took a deep breath, grabbed the rolled banner from the side of the track, and climbed onto her motorbike. “We’ve got to get this up now.”
Paninya blinked at her for a moment, then hopped on behind her and took the banner. Winry kicked the starter, and the bike roared up the tracks.
There was no way they had time to get to the spot they had originally planned. They’d just have to hope the driver took the banner’s word for it and hit the brakes in time. Winry hopped off the bike, unrolled the banner, and drove one end of the spiked pole into the loose desert earth at the side of the track. Paninya grabbed another end and unrolled, walking to the other side of the tracks.
The banner said THIS TRACK HAS BEEN SABOTAGED. PLEASE BRAKE NOW! SO SORRY FOR THE INCONVENIENCE. LOVE, THE RUSH VALLEY NETWORK. It was a good job Mr Garfiel was going to be hiding out in a cave in the mountains, because he might as well have signed the thing.
The train was visible now, curving around the track and moving towards them at an alarming rate. Paninya hovered by the bike.
The train rushed past them, brakes screeching. The banner caught the engine’s front and then sailed off on the wind. Winry looked ahead, calculating. It hadn’t had enough warning.
“Shit,” said Paninya. “It’s gonna crash.”
Winry stared. This was awful. How had this seemed like a good -
The train was stopping. Something weird was happening to it, upfront. She peered closer - and then, clear as day, stone hands were shooting up from the ground to grab at the engine, the goods carriages. And it was working. The train screeched, slowed, and finally stopped entirely.
Winry’s eyebrows raised into her hairline.
“You guys!” yelled a gravelly, familiar voice from the train. “What the actual fuck were you trying to do?”
“Non-violent disruption!” yelled Winry. Of course. Of course it would be this exact moment he showed up.
“Non-violent?” Ed’s head appeared at the side of one of the cars. “You just nearly crashed the train!”
“It wasn’t on schedule!” said Paninya. “We were gonna hang up that banner a mile back. We’re keeping Hakuro’s sweaty mitts off Rush Valley’s munitions industry. There’s a whole plan.”
“Oh,” said Ed. “In that case, good idea.”
Ed’s legs swung from the carriage, and then he dropped down to the tracks. Winry waited, still half-hoping to see Al follow him - but nothing. Ed jogged towards them. He was holding his right arm awkwardly tucked against him, Winry noticed.
“Hi,” said Ed. “I broke it again. What is this, are you guys like the resistance now?”
“Yes,” said Paninya. “Are you on the lam again?”
Ed rolled his eyes. “Yes.”
“Did you know we just committed treason by talking to you?”
“No. Wait, for real?”
“Paninya -” Winry cut in.
“The train driver turns out to be on our side, by the way,” Ed said. “But we should still probably get out of here before someone else gets a clue and calls up the guys with guns. You think that bike can fit three people?”
“If they’re all small enough,” said Winry without drawing breath. “What’s the plan? You guys had to have one, right?”
“I’m going East,” Ed said. “The plan is, I meet Al and Captain Ross in Ishbal. Then we’re going to Xing. Hopefully.”
“Al’s on the wanted list,” Winry said. “It was on the radio.”
Ed sagged. “So they don’t have him. Or at least they didn’t this afternoon.” Then he tensed right up again. “Who else are they looking for?”
“You. Brigadier General Mustang, Major Miles, Major Hawkeye and Captain Havoc.”
Ed exhaled shakily. “Thank fuck. Thank fuck. I didn’t know. Who’d gotten out. That’s - that’s more than I was expecting.” He ran his left hand over his face, closed his eyes for a moment. Whatever had happened, it had scared the hell out of him.
“Was it bad?” It felt like a stupid question.
Ed just nodded.
Winry straddled the bike, and kicked the starter. Paninya hopped up behind her, and after a judicious clap that did something to the seat she didn’t want to speculate on, Ed hopped on too. She was carrying two passengers and four automail limbs. Well, at least Ed’s were built light.
Winry opened the throttle, and just about kept her balance, and the bike roared off.
You only really discover how big your city is when you try to walk across it.
The journey out through the tunnels to the city’s northern edge had taken Roy hours. He was sure he’d been pursued for some of it. The troopers’ echoing shouts had been unmistakeable; the urge to stand and fight rather than to run for his goal had nearly overwhelmed his good sense.
He came up at the spot they’d decided upon, back when their plan of retreat was first composed. Was it really only a few weeks ago? It already seemed like a lost world. This was the most secluded exit point they could find on the northern edge of the tunnels. If Roy had calculated right, he should be in a large patch of trees, right in the middle of the deer park on Roxbourne Heath.
It seemed he was right. Right, and lucky: the place was deserted. Roy and his people had been right to calculate that nobody would want to picnic on the Heath in the middle of an insurrection.
Roy had transmuted his uniform. The result was terrible, but badly dressed was at least an improvement on shoot on sight. He’d made a low-fitting cap from his jacket, but there wasn’t much to be done about the fact that his face was so well-known. He wondered what tomorrow’s newspaper headlines would say? Whatever Hakuro wanted them to, he supposed.
His hands were stuffed into his pockets; he should probably take the gloves off, but he felt so exposed. He hadn’t seen a single human being since he surfaced. He wanted to sprint, but if he did that he’d arouse attention from half a mile away.
Here was his target: the back gardens of a row of grand old terraced houses, overlooking the park. And here was the reason the park was empty even of wardens: the small gate leading out was locked. They must have shut the place. Roy considered for a second, and decided that fence-climbing was less of a dead giveaway than alchemy. He took another look around, got a foothold on the curlicues of the wrought-iron fence, and started hauling himself up.
His landing sounded incredibly loud. The narrow path behind the gardens was also empty. Roy counted back gates and pushed his way through stinging nettles. Here was the fourth house: there were the blue curtains in the kitchen window.
And - ah - there was a woman in the garden, hanging out a basket of washing. She was pink-cheeked, middle-aged, motherly looking. Roy stood at the garden gate. This had to be the right place.
The woman turned, spotting him. She took another, longer look. “Oh,” she said. “Oh.”
She looked utterly alarmed. Oh hell. Could Roy have just made a very costly mistake?
The woman looked around her, then back at Roy. Then she took two deliberate steps back, and jerked her thumb at the house’s open back door. Quick, she mouthed.
Roy did not need telling twice.
They took the back roads, all the way south. Incredibly, nobody stopped them.
Their fuel caches had all been where they were supposed to be; they could only hope that the same would be said for the border guards. The sun was nearly up when Rebecca and Jean reached the border: just a roadside checkpoint in a tiny southern hill town. Their performance was planned and rehearsed. They claimed to be holidaymakers; they'd been driving all day, they hadn't heard about Mustang's attempt at a coup. If it had failed, why couldn't they just cross the border?
It had been tricky enough to arrange this for one tiny checkpoint. If this failed, they were going to have to improvise.
A military police officer inspected their fake passports. Rebecca kept the engine ticking over and her hand on the throttle; Jean sat quietly, eyes half-closed, right hand clasping the pistol on his lap, under the blanket.
The policeman waved them through.
Rebecca gunned the motor. Five minutes later, Jean handed a fat wad of notes to an Aerugan border guard, and it was all over.
They'd made it. And now, they had a job to do.
In the absolute darkness of the attic, with his fate in the hands of a network of allies and strangers, Roy listened. He heard the breeze whistling through the rafters, the creaks and dripping taps of the old house, the faint chirping of crickets in the garden. And that was all.
Riza. Havoc. Breda. Miles. Ed. His people. He couldn’t see them, or hear them, or touch them, but he had to believe they were out there.
They were waiting for him to catch them up.
He would not let them down.
In the night, alone, Roy stretched out his hand.
- but the story will be concluded in The Compass Rose!
Afterword: Thank you so, so much for reading. All the lovely, thoughtful reader comments have kept me writing when RL ate my brains. <3 This fic was always intended to end on a cliffhanger and to have a sequel. The Compass Rose will run six chapters; Chapters 1 and 2 are up, and 3 and 4 are very nearly ready to post. I'm determined to bring this story to a prompt and hopefully satisfying conclusion.