?

Log in

No account? Create an account

Previous Entry | Next Entry

Fic: The Compass Rose, Chapter 3/9

Title: The Compass Rose: Chapter Three
Characters/Pairings: Roy/Ed, Riza/Miles, Havoc/Rebecca, Al, Winry, Team Mustang, Ling, Ran Fan, and more 
Rating: R for swears, violence and horror at about the same level as in the manga itself
Word Count: 6860 this chapter
Summary: An infant Homunculus under the command of an idiot ruler: this can't end well. Two and a half years after the Promised Day, the struggle for Amestris goes on. The military's old guard have seized power from Roy's band of reformers, aided by a horrifically dangerous experiment: they've been growing their own Homunculus. Now, separated to the four corners of the map, Team Mustang fight to evade their enemies and reach safety, to retreat and rally their forces - and to find a path to victory.
Notes:  Post-manga, slightly AU from Ch 105. Direct sequel to The Phoney War. Chapter 3 illustrated by me; Chapters 1 and 2 illustrated by my talented Big Bang art team a_big_applealasse_mirimielscatter_muse and hikaru_9. Betaed and edited by enemytosleep and a_big_apple. Thanks to sky_dark for cheerleading!

Chapter 1 | Chapter 2



It’s been three days. Al is almost certain of that.

The first day, Al experiences in hazy fragments. He is lying on his back, strapped down. He can’t move his hands. People touch his head. They ask him questions, shine lights in his eyes. Al’s mind moves slow as treacle. It takes him a while to realise that they’re doctors, not interrogators. In between their attentions, he sleeps. Later, a middle-aged woman visits the room once or twice. She gives him ice chips for his dry mouth. She puts a hand to his forehead and says “You have a concussion.” Then she gives him a look of terrible pity that doesn’t quite fit with her words. Then she leaves before he can stir himself to ask her why.

The second day, his awareness is more orderly. Al sleeps in fits and starts. In his intervals of wakefulness, he investigates his surroundings. Leather straps keep him flat on the bed; his wrists and ankles are tied down; his hands are heavily bandaged. Feeling the heft of rolled cloth in his palms, Al flexes his fingers, and confirms his own suspicions. His hands aren’t injured; his captors just don’t want him to use them. He spends a few minutes concentrating, and then trying to pull against the restraints with all his strength. He pulls a muscle in his abdomen, but otherwise gets nowhere.

The room is small and white-walled, just a bed and a door. There’s natural light; the window is probably behind him, where he can’t see it. By the bed, an IV bottle stands on a pole. A line leads to his bandaged left hand, and on the back of it he can feel the slight bite of the needle.

Who? The current government, most likely. They want him alive for something. Interrogation? A show trial? Or something more? He needs to stay focussed, to keep thinking. It’s not easy to think.

When the woman comes, he tells her he is hungry and thirsty, then he sleeps, and wakes again when she enters with a plate of rice and plain fish. Invalid food. She feeds him and gives him sips of water. It’s a little ridiculous, being spoon-fed like a toddler, and a little humiliating. But he’s hungry. Afterwards, he asks her, “Where am I?”

She just shakes her head.

“What are you allowed to tell me?” he asks.

“Not very much,” she says, adjusting his IV line.

“What, though?” His head thickens again. He doesn’t hear a reply.

By the third (he thinks) morning, he is almost certain that he’s being sedated. It outrages him, more than the humiliation of the spoon feeding or of the nurse helping him pee while she looks the other way. “How can you sedate someone with a head injury?” he asks the nurse. “It could mask other symptoms. Surely it’s dangerous?”

The nurse looks at him for a moment. She seems unsure. Then she says, “Do you have any other symptoms?”

“I feel fine,” Al says, “but then I don’t have a clue what drugs you’ve got me on. I hurt my leg while I was running away. I couldn’t stand on it at the time.”

The nurse examines his ankle, moves his foot for him. It hurts, but not so much. She puts two fingers between the leather cuff and his skin. “We’re not allowed to take them off,” she says. “Sorry. Looks like a sprain.”

Later, his ankle starts to hurt sharply. He feels more awake. The IV was replaced maybe an hour ago. Looks like they’ve changed his drug regimen.

Where is Brother, he wonders suddenly? Ed got out East, he knows that much. He must have missed him, at the rendezvous. Al imagines Ed and Ross pacing the ruins of Ishbal, arguing about how long they can afford to wait for Al: pragmatism versus loyalty. Mustang is somewhere “in the network”, that was the phrase the underground used. And everyone else? What has become of them? The newspapers, from what he’s seen, have snapped right back to the way they were in the Bradley days: propaganda sheets. Fear and loathing, the iniquities of traitors, defence of the motherland: all the stuff that used to make Granny Pinako grumble and suck on her pipe. Only now it’s Al’s friends who are the traitors, his commanding officer who is public enemy number one.

It makes Al feel sick. This cannot be how it ends. He thinks of his friends in the underground, their cleverness and the risks they took for him. He thinks of Louie’s bloodied head on the train carriage floor. He thinks of his brother’s determination, Mustang’s cunning, Hawkeye’s courage. They are not defeated yet. They are not.

The shadows in the room turn and lengthen, and it’s evening for sure when four uniformed men march into the room. Two of them unholster the guns and step forward. Al pulls frantically, uselessly at the restraints – they’ve changed their mind, his stay of execution is over –

“Behave yourself, Bridgewire,” says one of the men. What? Something in the casual tone makes Al stop, reassess. And in that moment’s pause, his arms have been unstrapped and shackled in front of him to a stock. They’re not executing him here, they’re moving him. The relief of it unbalances him for another moment, and then he’s being set on his feet – more shackles lock around his ankles – and then marched out of the room.

His mind starts turning again as they walk him down a long hall. Wood panelling, paintings, no windows visible: an old house, grand enough to have internal halls like this. His muscles start to warm up. His sprained ankle holds his weight, and the pain is pretty tolerable. He doesn’t feel in such bad shape, considering: even like this, he reckons he could take out two of these men in a couple of moves. He could fake a stumble, which would dislodge the gun barrel currently nudging him in the spine, and take down the two flanking him from a crouch. By then the other two will have time to react, and they, of course, have guns too. He could try. If he’s lucky, he can knock out all four without getting himself shot; then he just has to work out how to draw the simple formula that will let him break the shackles.

Or. He could play along for now, see where this is going. They want him for something. He’s not in a prison cell; he’s not on a morgue slab. He’s been nursed, cared for. Perhaps he should wait to find out a little more of what’s going on here?

His guards turn right and march him through a door, into a small sitting room. They lead him to a sofa and shove him seated, then they step back, guns pointed at his chest.

In retrospect, it’s all very obvious.

Sitting on the couch opposite him is Henry Katzenklavier.

***


The train is new, and it’s crowded, and Ed and Winry manage to ascertain that it goes directly to Zhongdu. What they don’t manage to ascertain is how long that’s going to take. The tickets cost them a hundred liang each, which cuts into their funds substantially. Throughout the journey, Winry feels constantly nervous that someone will ask them for their non-existent passports. “Act like you’re s’posed to be here,” Ed says. “It always seemed to work for Ling.” Winry has to remind him about the time Ling got busted and had to break out of a military police cell. Ed looks worryingly casual about the prospect of repeating that performance himself.

As it happens, the journey takes a day and a half. It’s not so bad. They befriend several bored children. They sleep curled up in their seats and wake up with stiff necks. They munch through nearly all their limited provisions, drink all of their water bottles, and accept numerous cups of tea from other travellers’ flasks. Then finally, the train passes through grand city walls, and past large and splendid buildings, and bustling lanes, and at last it pulls into a cavernous railway station. As they walk through the crowds on the concourse, Winry wonders at how familiar it looks, how exactly like the station of a big Amestrian city. Are all train stations the world over the same?

Outside the station, they find themselves in a huge square, heaving with city people going about their business. Now, surrounded by unfamiliar architecture and clothes and language and alphabet, Winry remembers again how far from home she is. She looks around, vainly attempting to get her bearings. It does, in an odd way, feel like the very first time she came to Central, back when she was a little girl: only now she can’t even read the street signs.

“So, the palace is right in the centre of town, right?” says Winry. Ed nods. “And do we know which way …?”

They do not, of course, know which way. Al has spent time in Zhongdu; navigating was going to be his job.

“We look for the big building with the yellow roof?” Ed tries.

“There are big buildings all over,” Winry says. They’re leaving the square by one of the largest streets, because they’ve got to leave one way or other. “I think this could potentially go wrong.”

“Seriously, I think I read it’s the only one with a yellow roof.” Ed says. “Yellow’s the Imperial colour, no one else is going to use it.”

Winry cocks an eyebrow at him. “The Emperor gets his own colour?”

Ed shrugs. “I think he gets his own everything.” They’ve found themselves in a narrow lane crowded with little shops. Al half-warned them, half-rhapsodised about this: the hutongs of Zhongdu, the maze of one-storey lanes and alleys at the heart of the old city. The hutongs spread right up to the palace; Ed and Winry are in the right part of the city. But how are they supposed to spot grand yellow roofs from dark little streets where they can’t see further than the next building over?

Among the shops, they pass making a man making noodles, and stop almost involuntarily. Winry’s seen noodles made like this in the Xingese quarter in Central: the man takes a lump of dough, stretches it and folds it, again and again until he has a hundred long, thin strings of noodles in his spread hands. “Noodles,” says Ed automatically.

"I dunno,” says Winry. “I’m starving, but maybe we should just get there."

"C'mon. There's going to be all kinds of bureaucratic crap, remember all the shit they gave Al when he arrived, and that was with a messenger! We should eat first. And we can ask the noodle guy directions!”

“Okay, I guess,” says Winry. The smell of the sauce bubbling in a pot is just too good. “You get cranky when you're hungry anyways.”

They order noodles by pointing and smiling a lot, and then they take a seat on stools at a little table. The noodles appear almost immediately, smothered in some kind of thick, tasty brown sauce. Ed takes two big slurps, then gives asking directions his best shot.

Qingwen,” Ed tries. The noodle guy gets that blank look Winry’s been seeing a lot the past few days when Ed tries out his very limited Xingese. She strongly suspects that he's wildly mispronouncing things. Still, the only words Winry knows are rentanjutsu and noodles, so. “We –“ he gestures at himself and Winry “– looking for the palace.” He pauses. “Palace. Crap. I knew that one, but I can’t remember it. Okay, uh – the Emperor’s house. Huangdi –“ he draws the outline of a house in the air with his fingers.

The noodle guy stares at Ed’s right hand. Lots of people have been doing that since they got to Xing. Winry wonders how much people have heard about Amestrian automail, or if they just assume Ed’s wearing body armour. Ed repeats himself. The noodle guy stares at Ed’s hand some more. Ed ignores him and draws a house in the air again.

The noodle guy looks at him with polite concern. “Huangdi!” Ed says again.

“Ah!” says the noodle guy. Then he points at a picture on the wall of his building, and inclines his head solemnly.

Ed and Winry get up and peer at the picture. It’s a print of a painting: a guy sitting on an ornate chair in a big hat and embroidered yellow robes. The yellow starts to clue Winry in. She looks more closely at the face –

“Oh my god,” Winry says. “That’s totally Ling.”

It is, in fact, totally Ling. Emperor Ling. Winry saw a picture of him in the papers once in an outfit like this – but still.

Ed shakes his head. “His ego’s going to be through the roof when we see him.”

The noodle guy seems mildly pleased at their interest in the Emperor. “Where?” Winry tries. He shrugs and smiles politely. This is so frustrating. Winry had no idea she was going to be here, but would it have killed Ed to memorise a few useful phrases? Never mind. They finish their noodles, pay up, and head on out.

The next hour is steadily more frustrating. They walk around the hutongs, repeatedly exhaust the limits of Ed’s Xingese, and fail to find anyone who speaks Amestrian. They try mime; they get laughed at. They try drawing an explanatory cartoon; the cartoon offends someone. Ed tries climbing on a roof; he gets mistaken for a burglar.

“All right, screw it,” Ed says, as they hide from some concerned citizens down an alley. He claps.

“We’re hiding,” Winry says, way too late already. The column raises Ed three stories high. He scans the skyline, turns cautiously on his heel, and –

“Yellow rooftops!” he shouts triumphantly to Winry, pointing at what she can’t see from the ground. He cocks his head, adds, “Found a route there!” Then he claps and sinks the column back into the street.

“Let’s go!” Winry high-fives him, and they set off at a trot.

Within five minutes, they’re hopelessly lost again. They scowl, and sigh, and attract stares, and then as they round a corner, bickering again –

“Yellow tiles!” cackles Ed. He points at the long wall of the dead end they just walked into: tall and old, and topped with a roof of yellow tiles.

Winry immediately checks behind them, around them. They’re alone, which is great, because Ed’s pointing and bouncing don’t strike her as particularly stealthy. "Well," says Winry, "So now what – ohno." But it’s too late.

Ed has already clapped a hole in the wall and now he’s stepping through it, beckoning and snickering to himself evilly.

"You'll get us shot!” she whispers forcefully. But – because, what other plan do they have? – she follows him through the hole anyway.

Winry is starting to get a very vivid sense of what it must feel like to walk a mile in Al’s shoes.

Ed closes up the wall behind them, and they find themselves – thank goodness – still alone. They’re in a tree-lined garden. There’s a moat directly ahead of them, and another, taller wall beyond it. They must be in some kind of outer area. Winry looks around some more. The garden is clearly deserted, but there’s a tower at the corner of the wall ahead. “Okay,” says Winry, “I know you’re going to make a bridge. We’re gonna get spotted, you know.”

“Don’t worry, I doubt they’d just shoot us,” says Ed cheerfully. “They’d want to interrogate us first.”

“I’m not scared,” says Winry. “Don’t assume I’m scared.” But as Ed claps again and puts his hands to the wall, she can see the nervousness in his too-wide eyes.

They’re lucky again. Through this hole they find themselves on a quiet, tree-lined path. Winry glances down the path as it winds around the inner edge of the wall. Still no people close by. Beyond the thin trees is a vast courtyard, and beyond it, grand buildings and people wandering around. Ed inclines his head towards the path. Winry nods. “I’m starting to wonder about the security round here,” Ed whispers. “They should be better prepared for an alchemical break-in! Ling better not be getting complacent.”

Together, they start down the path cautiously. "What now?" Winry whispers. "I mean, we do want to be noticed at some point. I say we try to find someone reasonably un-scary-looking and then just say –" And there’s already a knife at her throat.

Winry jolts with shock and tries to freeze herself still. Next to her, she hears Ed’s nervous little cackle, that noise he makes when he thinks he’s screwed up.

Winry raises her hands slowly. She can’t see anything of the person threatening her but the long knife and a black-clad arm. She doesn’t want to turn her head. Instead, she looks in Ed’s direction out of the corner of her eye. He has both hands in the air and a terrified grin on his face. Two men in padded, yellow-trimmed cloth armour and half-masks are pointing pole-arms at his throat and gut.

Well, that answers the question of how to make their presence known.

From the centre of the courtyard, Winry makes out three more masked figures in yellow jerkins, sprinting lightly towards them. The foremost of them, she sees as they near, is dressed differently – he wears a yellow jacket with a large embroidered symbol on the chest. Is this guy in charge? Ed shifts next to her, his breath catching – and then she realises why. The yellow–jacketed guard's left hand is steel.

"Hello," says Ran Fan in Amestrian, as she comes to a stop. Then she shakes her head and snorts. "I would say that I'm surprised, but honestly, I would have expected nothing less."

***




***


In the weeks that Roy has spent scrambling and crawling his way North, it seems that Riza and her comrades have been busy.

“Havoc and Catalina wired from Aerugo a day after we arrived,” she says, as their armoured car rattles up winding mountain roads towards Briggs Fortress.

Another wave of relief and triumph hits Roy. He grins broadly. “After everything we had to hear about that car,” he says. “Looks like it was more than flash.”

Riza smiles back. “They’ve reached their contact. I gather he’s a little difficult, but they’re working on him.” She takes a breath. “Fullmetal is still on the wanted list. They were looking for him in the east. I suppose you’d heard already …?”

“Yes,” Roy says. Ed is somewhere out there alive, evading all pursuers, doubtless in his own inimitable style. And on his way to Xing, hopefully. And Riza has not only worked out that he and Ed were sleeping together, but has also apparently deduced how deeply enmeshed in each other’s hearts they’ve become, and now is being far too nice to Roy about it. “What about Bridgewire?” he says, partly because he wants to know urgently – but also, if he’s honest, partly because he wants to shift the subject from the fact that he’s in love with a nineteen year old.

“We don’t know,” Miles says. “From public radio transmissions at least, it seems like they’ve stopped mentioning him on the broadcasts. It’s odd. Either they have him and they want to keep it quiet, or they know he got out of the country and they don’t want to share their embarrassment.”

“That’s a worry,” Roy says. “But it means he’s probably alive. If they’d killed him, the propaganda would be all over the papers.”

“You saw,” Riza says. Major Armstrong. Two weeks ago he was fighting his way across Headquarters at their side. Now he’s dead and disgraced and painted as a brutal traitor by every newspaper in the land. It’s absolutely insupportable. Her eyes are full of compassion and pain.

“I saw,” Roy says.

“I doubt anyone who met the man will believe a word of it,” Miles says. “He was so absolutely decent.”

Roy nods. It’s a small but definite comfort, imagining that at least some people who will see this injustice plain.

When they step out of the car, the wall of Briggs looming above them, the air is chilly but the ground is still bare. It’s strange to see the place without snow. It’s stranger still to see the place without Olivia Armstrong.

Colonel Fraser greets them at the gate. He salutes Roy and smiles broadly, but there’s a hint of something tense and guarded at the corners of his mouth. Territorial. Roy should let him know, he thinks, as soon as possible, that Roy will not be trying to take over the running of Briggs.

As he walks in, surrounded by soldiers snapping to attention, Roy feels, again, a small twinge of his former triumph. He’s here, he’s alive – and he’s in command.

Riza peels off from Miles and Fraser and the rest, and leads Roy through to the officers’ quarters. “I thought you might appreciate a shower and a shave first,” she says.

“Thanks for the hint,” says Roy. But really, he’s grateful. Here are his new quarters, plain but spacious. A study with a desk and a view of the mountains; a small bedroom, and – wonderfully – spare uniforms already hung in the closet for him. “You thought of everything,” he says.

“We knew you’d get here,” Riza says, with a tiny smile and a shrug.

“And I knew you’d be waiting for me to catch up,” Roy says. He left her in command, and he can see already she’s risen magnificently to the occasion, just as he knew she would. He squeezes her shoulder, and this time, her smile is warm with affection and relief.

Roy’s shower, on the other hand, turns out to be not so warm as it could be. This is Briggs, after all. He puzzles through formulae for heating water as he showers, then mentally test-runs the results. In his mind’s eye, he sees the molecules break down and recombine, simple and vivid as a breath of cold air. It’s dizzying: all this knowledge, the Gate’s dubious gift to him. He wonders if he will ever grow into it. He’d call it miraculous, but the Truth tells him plainly what he always supposed: that miracles are merely an effect of perspective. If you don’t know enough of the laws of the universe to trace them running through a thing, it doesn’t seem possible. That’s all.

After his shower, he wraps a towel around his waist and allows himself the pleasure of a careful shave. Clean and freshly shaved, in a new uniform, he feels more like himself than he has since the battle at headquarters. His hair is getting too long at the collar. He’ll have to find a few minutes for the fort’s barber today. He hopes the man doesn’t scalp him too badly.

He meets Riza back in the entrance hall, and she leads him to the office that’s been prepared for him, and shows him the fat dossier sitting on his desk. And most of his good mood flies straight out the open window with the chilly breeze.

“The first three weeks of Hakuro’s Fuhrership, digested,” she says. “It’s not very pleasant reading. The good news is, he’s making himself unpopular.”

The bad news, it turns out, is everything else.

***


“Hello, Bridgewire,” says Katzenklavier.

Al raises an eyebrow. “What do you want?”

“That’s very blunt.” Katzenklavier smiles warmly and leans forward. “Primarily, I want to talk to you. Let me flatter you for a moment: you’re an alchemical genius. You gained State Certification at a ridiculously young age; you invented your own field. I’ve wanted to meet you properly for years. I wouldn’t really count that fight on a train as a proper introduction, would you?”

“I haven’t been qualified for years,” Al says. “Just a few months.” Despite the plan of gaining information, he’s irritated with this already. Why do these creeps always want to buddy up with him?

“Oh yes,” says Katzenklavier. “That’s the other thing. I’ve hoped to talk with you in person some day, ever since I heard the rumours.” Al’s stomach tightens before his mind catches up. “Do you know, I've never in all these years been able to find a golem who could give me an articulate account of their condition? Not even the ones I made."

"What?" Al feels his eyebrows raising up into his hairline. Did Katzenklavier hear from the higher-ups, back when he was working for them? How far was Katzenklavier into that business? Did he know about the Immortal Army? About Bradley? And – golem, what the hell? He feels outraged on his younger self’s behalf.

Katzenklavier just carries on talking. "You’re brilliant, you know. Absolutely brilliant. To be able to do such a thing ..." Katzenklavier waves his hand illustratively, up and down at Al's body. "Tell me, is it the original, or did you synthesise this body, or did you find another young man to transplant yourself into?”

“Neither!” Al says, outraged again despite himself. He pulls in a breath. “It’s the original.”

Katzenklavier whistles, and looks him up and down again. “Really. And look at you, in the absolute pink of health. You'd need a phenomenal source of life energy to manage a human transmutation like that without a rebound. Did you drain the Homunculus’ Stone to do it?”

“No, we did not!” Al says – then checks himself. Katzenklavier has played him nicely – but now Al is on to him. He’s not going to be shocked into sharing any secrets.

Katzenklavier claps appreciatively. “Brilliant, brilliant.” Al feels bored and disgusted. Then Katzenklavier taps a single finger to the coffee table. A little question mark shoots up out of the wood. Al looks for a circle – and then he realises. Brother was right. He’s transmuting with no circle at all.

No wonder he was able to able to go so far: to comprehend that lost art of Xerxean alchemy, to reconstruct it from the fragments, to create a Homunculus. Of course.

He’s seen the Truth. He’s one of them.

“What did you lose?” Al says, before he can stop himself.

“Nothing,” says Katzenklavier. He smiles conversationally.

“That isn’t possible,” Al says.

“For goodness’ sake, Bridgewire.” Katzenklavier tuts. “You’re a better alchemist than that.”

Al looks inward for a moment, past the dizzy rush of the Gate’s compressed knowledge to the silent intuition beyond. He considers: what Katzenklavier did is a less dangerous topic of conversation than what Al and Ed did. He puts a hand in his hair. “To do it cleanly, you have to sacrifice another human being,” he says. “First. That’s the first part. You can call a dead soul, but a live subject would be cleaner, more predictable. You transmute them, and it opens the Gate.”

Katzenklavier leans forward. “Good,” he says. “Then?”

Al looks at his bound wrists for a moment. This is a tutorial. No, it’s worse than that. Katzenklavier is making him perform, seeing how far he can get on the spot. Should Al bluff, hold back? No. He’s being offered some kind of meeting of minds. Katzenklavier is sharing information too. Al makes his decision; he’ll play along. He wonders if Katzenklavier has guessed this part too.

“Then,” Al says, “the Gate offers you knowledge. The Truth and the Gate are really the same thing; they’re both yourself, but much more than yourself. They tempt you. You can say no, but then you pass through the Gate without gaining anything, and without losing anything.” As Ed and Al did once, together, because Ed had the sense and the courage to hold them both back.

Katzenklavier tilts his head. But?

“But you took the knowledge. If you didn’t pay the passage fee, then someone else –” He knew this part already. His father. His father and the lost souls of Xerxes, laying themselves down as the passage fee, gone in an instant, before he or Ed could lift a hand to stop them.

That moment, he will not share with this man. A painful tangle of feeling rises in Al. He lets a slow, slow breath out until the bottom of his chest hurts, and releases it. He inhales, and his mind clears. He meets Katzenklavier’s eyes. “Someone else pays the passage fee. Another sacrifice. And they’ve got to offer. They do it willingly – or, you trick them.” That must be it. He feels sick. This is worse than he’d thought, even. And to go there deliberately –– deliberately! Again, Al masters himself with an effort.

“It must have taken you a lot of planning,” he says, “to pull that off.”

“Not as much as you’d think,” Katzenklavier says. “My laboratory partner talked a lot. An alchemist who gossips is an insult to the art.” Al notices he doesn’t say science. He’s one of those: nostalgic for the alchemy of centuries past, for the days when you could style yourself a magician and be covered with money by some corrupt duke to do whatever you chose, free of scrutiny, paperwork, or ethics.

“When?”

“Only eight years ago.”

“An alchemist who talks,” says Al. He’s suddenly unable to hide his contempt.

“Yes, I made an exception for you,” says Katzenklavier, and his voice has the barest of edges. “Either I’m about to kill you, or I’m about to offer you a job. I wonder which.”

Katzenklavier’s eyes flick to the guards, and they step forward instantly. Al is on his feet and hauled out of the room before he’s even processed that last statement.

He’s frogmarched down the corridor, back towards his room. Al looks through open doorways as he goes, trying to pick up something, anything more about where he’s being kept.

The guards are keeping him moving fast. Through the doorways, he glimpses paintings, a piano, flowers under glass. Nothing helpful. Then he looks through an open door on his right – and blinks in shock, slows down automatically. But the hand on his arm and the gun between his shoulder blades, and the guard keeps walking him forward, and he has no choice. The rest of the way to his room, Al pores over the afterimage in his mind: Mrs Bradley and Selim, on a sofa with a book. Two men in suits – their bodyguards, or their prison guards? – standing at either end of the sofa, like very intimidating bookends. And Selim– just for a moment – meeting Al's eyes, recognising, and staring.

He’s thinking for the rest of the day about the look on Selim’s face.

***


Roy, glutton for punishment that he is, begins with the newspapers’ coverage of the coup. After only the first few paragraphs of spin, censorship and slander, he’s so angry that he has to take a few deep breaths and stick his head out the window.

Roy knew about most of their losses, but it’s somehow worse, seeing them set out in hostile newsprint. The list of their dead makes him angry and sad – but the fate of the living makes freezing cold fear coil in his belly. First Lieutenant Breda, Second Lieutenant Falman, and five more of Roy’s troopers. They’re going to be put on trial; that much the newspapers tell him. The rest he can guess. It will be a show trial, a propaganda exercise. And it will end in their deaths.

Unless, that is, Roy can – and somehow, somehow he must – find a way to win this first.

The rest of the news is barely more cheering. Fuhrer Hakuro – Roy hates reading those two words, but he’d better get used to it – Fuhrer Hakuro’s first act was to declare an official state of national emergency. This temporarily raises his status: from dictator supported by junta to total autocrat. Parliament has been suspended. The last time that happened was during the Ishbal War. The Progressive Party has been banned, its leader put under house arrest. Central has been sealed, curfewed. Mother Coburn’s daughter was right: there have been hundreds of arrests, at a conservative estimate. Hakuro is casting his net wide. He must know how much popular opposition he’s facing.

Roy reads, and reads, and shakes his head. Hakuro is treating the rebellion as though it were a city riot, the way he dealt with the troubles of East. Apply the bludgeon, parade the criminals, reassure the populace, repeat. He doesn’t seem to realise that you can’t govern a country the way you police a town, that maintaining a dictatorship in times of unrest might require more cunning and subtle applications of power than mere brute force. Bradley and his people knew how to apply propaganda, how to control information, how to manipulate people into fear and pride and loyalty and obedience. Roy should know: it worked on him, once upon a time. But Hakuro? Now he’s just a tyrant. A tyrant who, surely, everyone can see is frightened.

Roy knows his history; he knows what happens to weak tyrants facing a surge of popular rebellion. Hakuro’s days are numbered, one way or another. But what about Amestris?

The possibilities make Roy’s stomach clench and his head spin. Roy knows about civil wars. He could end up riding to victory across a wrecked country, over numberless dead. Or he might be taken out of the game. What would happen to the country if Roy and his people failed? If someone else – a year later, five, ten years – was the one to take down Hakuro? Roy imagines a faceless new hero of a new revolution: perhaps someone from the people, untainted by the military and therefore presumably loathed by the military? Perhaps they’d do as good a job as Roy, or better. Most undoubtedly, the country would face a bloody civil war first. Or, equally likely, at the end of that war Amestris would find itself with another dictator. Perhaps the hero would even become that dictator. It happens often enough. And then? The country could face an unending wave of coups and second-rate autocrats, economic ruin, bloodshed, misery. Or it could stabilise under the heel of another Bradley, human but no more pleasant for it.

Every alternative but one is horrible.

And then there’s the Homunculus. It isn’t mentioned once in Riza’s dossier. It seems that after its performance in the coup at Headquarters, Hakuro is keeping it very quiet somewhere. But it, too, is out there. Roy remembers his own words, only weeks ago. Chrysalis would be a kingmaker. Can you imagine what this country would look like? Hakuro’s got a monster in his hands, a monster under the sole control of Henry Katzenklavier: a man Roy knows to have a taste for power and a severe lack of conscience.

The precedents for this kind of power behind the throne are not written in the history books. They lie in the silences behind recorded history: in the wind-blown ruins of Xerxes, in the most secret files concerning the Promised Day.

Roy knows what’s being asked of him right now, in this office. Somehow, he has to peer into the murky depths of this mess and find his people an advantage, an avenue of attack, a road that could lead them to victory, that can save Amestris from the predations of a Homunculus and the bloody work of human war and tyranny.

He’s found it before. With Bradley’s unblinking eye on him, he and his people found a way. He can do it now.

The door of his office clicks open. Riza enters. She’s carrying one of the few objects in the world that can make this situation fractionally easier to deal with: a mug of black coffee.

She doesn’t say anything; she waits.

Roy puts his hand on the folder. He looks at Riza. He says, “This happened because I was too soft.”

Riza shakes her head.

He tuts at her. “I was. And this is the mess that I've caused. I’ve had enough time to think about it, you know.”

She shakes her head again: firmly, stubbornly. “I've been there. But we debriefed up here too: Briggs command, Miles and I gave the coup a thorough post-mortem. And the conclusion we came to was that we did all that we could. You’re having a bad day. That’s all.” She holds the mug out; Roy takes it with both hands, curls his fingers around it. He exhales. A tension headache is pressing into the back of his eyeballs.

Roy says, “The whole country’s having a bad day. I should have shot Hakuro on the spot.”

Riza is quiet for a moment. She says, “We didn’t want to do it like that.”

“But now people are dead. And suffering. And the whole country’s a mess. Because we failed.”

Riza looks him in the eye. “You don’t know what would have happened to the country if you walked into power having murdered your predecessor. You might have more blood on your hands.”

It’s a solid point. Roy is quiet.

Riza says, “You’re not that kind of leader. You don’t do that. That’s the path we’ve always walked down. That’s how we’re going to be different.”

“And what if to get there,” Roy says, “I have to step off the path?”

Riza doesn’t answer. She says, “Colonel Fraser wants to meet with you after this.” In other words, Roy needs to have a plan for him.

The sharp autumn breeze blows through the office. Riza looks at him, calm. Is it faith in him that’s keeping her from despair? Or, has she seen some possibility already that’s eluded him?

He should just ask her. He takes a long sip of the coffee, lukewarm already. He makes a face. It’s bad.

He takes another breath of cold air, and – then the idea lands in his head, as simply and completely as a formula; like a fragment of the Truth.

The adrenaline hits his system a moment later, a triumphant little shot of energy, coursing into his blood.

Roy swivels a little in the desk chair. “I have a question,” he says. “Why hasn’t Hakuro just fired up his Homunculus and thrown it straight at Briggs?”

Riza smiles, very slightly. “We were thinking,” she says, “that if he could have, he would have.”

“So his secret weapon’s off the table,” Roy says. He picks up a fountain pen from the desk, weighs it between finger and thumb. “How interesting. I’m curious as to why, aren’t you?”

“Yes,” Riza says. “I’m also interested to know where Bridgewire is right now.”

“Yes,” says Roy. “How interesting that they plainly have him in custody, yet there’s not a word about a show trial for him.” And he’s afraid for Alphonse, afraid and angry and protective. But still, there it is: the gleam of an advantage. “If you had problems controlling your secret weapon, and you had an alchemist in your custody who was a world expert in the matter of homunculi … what might you do?”

“I imagine … that in that case, they would want to keep him in good health, if possible.”

Roy nods. He hopes fervently that this is the right call. But it seems like it.

“I imagine that they might offer him threats, bribes,” Riza says. “And that they might think that an idealistic, upstanding young man like that would be easy to control.”

“In other words: they might underestimate Alphonse Elric.” Roy steeples his fingers and leans on them for a moment.

Then he smiles.

“Now,” he says, “we find out where the Homunculus is, and where Bridgewire is, and when we’ve verified that we’ve made the right call, we get a messenger on the inside.” He picks up his coffee mug and uses it to tap the dossier of bad news. ”I take it from the volume of detail in this that we still have informants inside of Headquarters.”

Riza nods. “Yes.” Her smile is a little wider now: sneaky and dangerous. It’s a rare sight, this particular expression of hers – and a terrible omen for whoever it is she’s outthought.

Hakuro is a weak tyrant. Roy should never forget that. And Roy, these past few weeks, has found that he has people fighting for him in places he never imagined. He takes Alice Coburn’s coin from his pocket. He places it on the desk, and it settles with a sharp rattle.

Riza picks it up, traces the rough triangle, the symbol that turns the falcon into a phoenix. She frowns at it for a moment, and he watches her face change as she works it out. A symbol of resistance, and of risks taken, of hope invested by ordinary people in Roy and in his people. Riza weighs the coin in her hand. She smiles.

They were in a tighter spot than this, once. But they had cunning and fortitude on their side, and brave and clever allies, some in places they’d never expected to find them.

Miracles only seem miraculous because of your own ignorance. Once you understand the laws that govern their operation, they become simply possibilities.

Roy stands. And he knows, knows it in his bones.

He can win.



Onward to Chapter Four!

Comments

bob_fish
Jan. 26th, 2013 09:41 am (UTC)
\o/ Thank you! That cityscape ended up taking me ages. XD

I love Ran Fan! (And still spell her name the way fandom spelled it in 2009, forgive me)
skelody
Jan. 26th, 2013 03:08 pm (UTC)
LOL, I still can't figure out the spelling of the Rockbells and Elrics' hometown >_>
bob_fish
Jan. 26th, 2013 08:48 pm (UTC)
Oh, I know! Resembool? Rizenbul? I've even seen Reisenburg. Who knows?

Nothing will better the Viz translators writing Xerxes as Selkcess, though. Crack a book, guys.
skelody
Jan. 26th, 2013 11:02 pm (UTC)
[ɾiˈzẽmbul]??

I remember one sub (or maybe translation?) that had Gracia rendered as "Glacier". Interesting mental image.
bob_fish
Jan. 26th, 2013 11:44 pm (UTC)
Well, in Japanese it's リゼんブル, Ri ze n/m bu ru. The fact that Japanese has far fewer sounds than most European languages makes for some fun transliterating Japanese made-up cod-European names back into something that still sounds plausible. It helps with the confusion that n/m and r/l aren't distinguished in Japanese. So you get fun variants like Glacier (I've seen that one too!).