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: 9790 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. Illustrated: chapters 3 onwards illustrated by me; chapters 1 and 2 illustrated by my talented Big Bang art team a_big_apple, alasse_mirimiel, scatter_muse and hikaru_9.
Chapter 1 | Chapter 2 | Chapter 3
Ran Fan seems taller than Ed remembers. She’s definitely a lot more friendly. But she remains a woman of few words. She only talks to them long enough to ascertain that Ed and Winry are well, that Ross and Al are not with them, and that they wouldn’t turn down a glass of water right now. Then she excuses herself, leaving them sitting on cushioned chairs in some kind of fancy reception room in some kind of fancy little palace building.
The guards bow low to Ran Fan as she goes, and she nods to them curtly, routinely.
The Ran Fan Ed knew would have blushed, tugged at her collar. People bow to her now, and she apparently takes it without embarrassment or deflection.
Looks like she must be pretty important these days.
This palace is ridiculously huge.
Ling’s running the biggest country in the world.
Suddenly, Ed feels so homesick he could puke. He misses Roy. He misses Al. Al was supposed to be here. He’s visited the palace. He loved it. He’d make all this make sense.
Of course they don’t get water. They get tea. A woman in ornate robes brings it in, brews it in a tiny pot, then pours it into thimble-sized cups with great ceremony. Ed takes a sip. It’s jasmine; always reminds him of Mr Garfiel.
“How about this place?” he says to Winry.
She looks up at the lacquer-painted ceiling, takes a sip of her tea. “It’s amazing,” she says. Then she lowers her voice. “I feel weird being here without anyone we know.”
Ed nods and frowns.
The tea is soon followed by food: a lot of it, mostly steamed things in little baskets, far more than they’re hungry for. They pick quietly at it. Little plates keep appearing, but all Ed wants is for Ling to arrive, so he can start talking.
“Is there a telegraph office?” he says, to the woman bringing the latest steamer of fancy dumplings. She blinks and says, “Excuse me,” in Amestrian. She talks to the guard in Xingese. The guard talks back. The conversation seems pretty involved. Ed guesses this isn’t going to be simple. He hates being cut out of the conversation like this. He’s going to learn some proper Xingese, first thing he can.
“Is it safe to telegraph?” says Winry. “I mean, I would’ve thought that the cable would go via the exchange in Central. Like an international phone call, right?”
“It’s safe. We planned for it. Well, I say we, but what I actually mean is —”
“General Armstrong fixed it like this?” Winry finishes. Her eyes widen. “Whoa.”
“Yep,” Ed says. “Years back. In case of civil war. Briggs’ telegraph exchange goes straight out to the, uh —”
“To an automatic concentrator unit?” Ed draws a blank. Winry says, “Like, a little automated exchange box that routes the telegrams between exchanges.” Ed nods. Winry whistles. “Nice. This one would be in the desert, right?”
Ed nods again, a little helplessly. Roy had told him all about it in bed one time, delighted with the ingenuity but hazy on the technical details.
“So do they —?” Winry stops.
Ran Fan is standing in the doorway, mask pushed back off her face. She smiles slightly. The expression looks unfamiliar on her, but Ed grins in relief. Ran Fan says, “Would you like to send a message to the rebels in Northern Amestris?”
“Yes,” Ed says, “please.”
“Write it here,” says Ran Fan, offering paper and pen. “I’ll have it sent immediately by his celestial majesty’s private telegraph office.”
Ed prints the letters carefully, then hands the paper over.
=TO WHOM IT MAY CONCERN, BRIGGS COMPANY, APO 653.
OUT OF THE NIGHT.
A scant, nervous hour and a lot of boredom-eating later, a young woman enters with a piece of paper on a lacquer tray. Ed jumps up and takes it. He manages a hasty “Thank you” in his crappy Xingese, and then tries to turn away before she sees that his hands are shaking.
He’s right: it’s a telegram.
AMESTRIS MILITARY CABLE AND TELEGRAPH SYSTEM
BRIGGS COMPANY, APO 653.
=ELRIC AND ASSOCIATES, C/O PRIVATE OFFICE OF THE CELESTIAL THRONE, ZHONGDU, XING.
18TH OCTOBER, 1918.
BLOODY BUT UNBOWED. PLEASE REPORT.
“Code, right?” says Winry. “What’s it mean?”
“Briggs is ours. Someone in the command chain made it.” Ed huffs. “Don’t know who. We’ve established that the lines are clear, why couldn’t they just tell me and get the fucking suspense over with?”
“They’re military and therefore they’re sticklers?”
“I guess,” Ed says. He scribbles a reply quickly.
=TO WHOM IT MAY CONCERN, BRIGGS COMPANY, APO 653.
MADE IT. BUT AL AND ROSS MISSING. KNOW ANYTHING? MUSTANG WITH YOU? WILL DO EVERYTHING WE CAN HERE =
FULLMETAL AND ROCKBELL
When someone again steps into the room not ten minutes later, Ed is on his feet immediately.
The guards move at the same time — but in the opposite direction. On either side of Ed, they’re suddenly kneeling, pressing their foreheads to the floor. Ed stares at them for a moment, but then Winry puts a hand to his arm and he turns back to see and — oh.
There he is. The man himself. In a long yellow robe, the front stiff with embroidered dragons and waves, hair scraped up into a topknot and garnished with a fancy headdress thing. Just like the picture.
“You’d better do what they’re doing,” Ling says in Amestrian. “It’s going to save an awful lot of talk.”
Ed snorts. Winry elbows him. And — well, Ling might not personally give a damn about form, but if Ed’s going to get what he came here for, he’s going to need to make nice with the court. So down he goes, until his nose touches the silk carpet.
Ling says something in Xingese. It sounds commanding, authoritative, not like him at all. A few seconds later, he stage-whispers in Amestrian, “You can get up. They’re gone.”
Ed sits up on his heels. The guards have silently withdrawn from the room. A moment later, a pile of robes is swooping down on him, and he’s being hugged.
"I'm so happy you're safe," says Ling from somewhere in all the clothes. Then he lets go and, opportunist that he is, moves straight along to hug Winry. Enfolded in all the robes, she practically disappears. "Miss Winry," Ling said. "I wish you were visiting my country under happier circumstances."
“That’s sweet of you,” Winry says, muffled through silk.
Ed punches the robes in the arm, gently. "Hey, I kind of missed you, jackass."
Ling turns around and beams at him. "I've missed the company of someone who'd actually dare to strike the Emperor."
Ed grins. “What about your little chick buddy with the whip?"
“Imperial Consort Sook Joo? Ah, she's very well. Thanks for asking!" Ling takes one of Ed’s hands and one of Winry’s, and then suddenly, most of the merriness drops from his face. "What's happened in Amestris is appalling for you, and very worrying for us. I’ve had quarters prepared for you; please bathe and take a rest. When I'm done with today's council, I will send for you and we will talk. Yes?"
Ed squeezes Ling's hand, then lets go and claps him on the back. "Thanks, Ling."
Winry taps Ed’s arm. "Your celestial majesty," she corrects.
Ling waves his hand. "Oh, no, just Ling in private. It's nice to hear my given name occasionally. I know it's hopelessly incorrect, but you're foreigners, everyone expects you to act like lunatics. Besides," he adds, "you're friends."
Then he turns and is gone in a flurry of silk and gold embroidery. Ed is fairly sure emperors aren’t supposed to jog everywhere. Two years and an empire later, Ling is still like himself, and still Ed’s friend. That’s something.
The quarters Ed and Winry are led to are predictably grand. When they’re led into the reception room, they both hardly glance at it, because on a lacquer tray in front of a low couch, there’s a new telegram.
Ed is over in three strides. He snatches it up and scans it, while his heart does its best to kick his chest in.
ARRIVED SAFELY, MAKING PLANS. BRIDGEWIRE DETAINED BUT HEALTHY. ROSS IN THE NETWORK. HAWKEYE AND MANY OTHERS HERE.
YOU ARE MISSED.
INSTRUCTIONS WILL BE RELAYED WITHIN 24 HOURS. UNTIL THEN, YOU HAVE YOUR ORDERS =
Ed sinks onto the couch, shielding his face with his hand for a few long moments. Al’s alive, Roy’s alive. For a moment, he’s too flooded by those two facts to process anything more.
When he swipes a hand over his eyes and nose and looks up, Winry is staring at him, her face drained of colour. “Ed?” she says.
His throat has closed up. It takes him a moment to push out the words. “They’re alive.”
Winry exhales and shuts her eyes. After a moment, she makes her way to the couch, drops on it next to Ed, and fumbles the telegram from his hand.
Roy made it to Briggs. Of course he did, of course, but still. Thank fuck. Ed looks at the telegram over Winry’s shoulder. He stares at the little printed letters of Roy’s name. For a moment, his mind goes crazy on him, and can imagine Roy right in front of him, his solid presence and the clean good smell of his skin. He wants to touch him so much that it’s like itching all over. Ed squeezes his eyes shut, huffs out a breath, tries to dismiss it all.
Now Ed’s brain starts to kick back in. Al. Detained but healthy, what’s that? Al’s captured, he must be — but healthy — Roy wouldn’t have said that if Al had disappeared. Roy knows what’s happening to Al. How does he know? Ed needs to know more. Why did Roy have to be so fucking cryptic? Of course Ed knows why. Intelligence. Wherever Al is, there’s someone on the inside. Information on a need to know basis, minimisation of risk, careless talk costs lives. Well, great. And “you have your orders”? That part’s easily understood. Just survive, Roy said, a world ago, before everything. If it all kicks off, your first duty is to stay alive. Worrying for his people tears into Roy so much. He must get what Ed’s feeling right now. Where is Al right now? What’s he thinking? What’s he doing? How does he feel? Does he even know that Roy’s people know where he is? Is he really okay, could Roy be shielding Ed from bad news? No, no, he wouldn’t fuck with Ed like that.
Ed presses a hand to his forehead and breathes. It doesn’t stop his mind spinning.
“How is Al even okay,” Winry says, “if Hakuro’s guys have him?”
“Al’s Al,” Ed says. “He’s the Bridgewire Alchemist. He’s the smartest alchemist in Amestris, he can do stuff no one else in the country knows how to do. They must be trying to make use of him. And he’s smart enough to let them think they can.”
The telegraph girl is still standing off to one side, waiting for an answer.
Ed grabs a pencil and a sheet of paper from a side table. On the paper, he prints carefully:
THANK YOU. ORDERS UNDERSTOOD =
He folds it. He thinks I love you Roy I love you I love you, as if he could pour his most private heart into the stiff and public words. He thinks, Al, where are you right now? Stay strong, keep going, I’ll find you, I swear I will find you. Then he holds the telegram out to the girl with both hands.
The girl bobs her head, says something else Ed doesn’t get, and she’s gone.
The IV line and the medicines are gone from Al’s room now. There’s no pretence that he’s anything other than a prisoner. He’s shackled to the bed, and now that his senses aren’t muffled with sedatives he realises how damn uncomfortable it is. He spends the evening fidgeting, aching, itching, headachey: overburdened with a surfeit of distracting sensations. He still gets overstimulated like this, when he’s on the edge with stress.
Al can guess where he is now: the manor house where Mrs Bradley and Selim were settled by the provisional government. Dr. Katzenklavier has evidently set up home here too; and from the armed guards Al saw behind Mrs Bradley, it looks like he wasn’t invited. This is worrying. Chrysalis is taking an interest in Selim; that’s bad enough in itself. But there’s more. If he’s here, then the Homunculus must be here. Al can’t feel the sick miasma that any alchemist could sense around the Homunculus. But Katzenklavier must surely be keeping it in this building. Is it ailing? Or is it too powerful?
Whatever it is, Chrysalis needs Al for it. Whatever crap Katzenklavier says about his admiration and his curiosity, he knows that Al is his enemy. He wouldn’t ask for Al’s help lightly.
Something must be going wrong.
The next morning, the nurse comes to feed Al oatmeal porridge and help him pee. Again, Al bears the humiliation and tells himself he’s biding his time. He’ll find out soon.
When the guards arrive after breakfast Al feels vindicated, mildly triumphant. Now Katzenklavier’s going to spread out his cards. Now Al can see what’s really going on, where he has leverage. He’s surprised, and alarmed, to find himself led down the back stairs to a plain room in the servants’ quarters. The chair he’s cuffed to is steel. They’re not taking chances with him.
A man he doesn’t know, in uniform, wearing major’s stripes, enters. Al looks up at him, trying to read him. The man stares at him coolly for a few seconds, then backhands him in the face.
The slap is so hard that the muscles of Al’s neck wrench. His lip throbs immediately. He tastes blood. The man hits him again, wrenching his neck back the other way. Al sucks a slow breath in and withdraws into his mind. He’s not going to let them get him off-balance this way, with shitty thug tactics like this.
“You’re under sentence of death,” the man says. “I don’t think you’re fully aware of that.”
You haven’t killed me, Al thinks. You would already if you were going to. You need me.
“We don’t need you,” the man says.
Despite himself, Al blinks.
“You think you’re clever. You think you’re indispensable. You’re not. You’re alive because we can use you. But we have alternatives. The second you make yourself more troublesome than them, you’re a dead man.”
Al looks at him evenly. It’s a play, of course. It’s a cheap psychological trick. Cheap, and insulting. Do they really think Al values his own life above everyone else’s? That to stay alive, he’d screw over everyone and everything he cares about?
The man punches him in the stomach. Al was ready for it: he tightens his abdominal muscles, exhales as he takes the blow, centres himself. After another moment, the guards un-cuff him from the chair. Al notices at least two moments where they leave him an opening. He doesn’t take it. He’s made a decision now: he needs to see how this plays out. He’s taken to his room, cuffed to his bed again. So, they’re trying to soften him up. So that he’ll be more receptive to … to what, exactly?
He’s woken by the guards hauling him off the bed again. Here it comes, then. He’s taken down a different set of stairs again: a purposeful attempt to disorient him, he supposes.
He’s right: the room he ends up in, cuffed to another unbreakable chair, is almost identical. The major from before walks in.
He’s holding a brown cardboard file. He says, “I’m going to show you how much trouble we’re prepared to go to, for your labour. This much, and no more.”
Al has an idea of what’s going to be in the folder; but the sight still shocks him.
It’s a dozen pictures of Granny Pinako. Weeding the garden, doing her Tuesday errands at the market, even a long lens picture of her clinic hours, viewed through a window. Al’s stomach twists. She looks so small and old. She must be so worried right now. And after all they’ve put her through before. Al swallows — and his mind starts working frantically.
How does he play this? Granny’s life is at stake, they mustn’t see anything calculated in Al’s response. He presses his lips together, sets his jaw, stares at the photographs. An honest young man trying to hold back the fear: that’s what he should show them. Of course, he really is afraid. That certainly helps with the act.
The major is silent, letting him take it in.
Thinking time: now what? Al is going to outwardly co-operate: that much he’d already decided. The stakes here are huge. A Homunculus is a threat to the whole country, the whole world even. He absolutely cannot back out because one person’s life is threatened — no matter how dear they are to him. But this changes things. Now, whatever he does, he’s going to have to be very, very careful.
“What do you want from me?” he says. Low, stoical: sounds about right.
“You’re a specialist, Elric,” says the major. “We’ll let you know in due course. But in case you feel like playing the hero — do I need to explain what the result would be if you did something so stupid?”
“No,” says Al, looking him in the eye. “You don’t.”
It might have been the good news, or maybe it’s just that he fucked up his back by sleeping on train seats, but Ed feels so beat right now. When he rolls his shoulders, his joints crackle. When he closes his eyes, he drifts.
Of course, the moment he’s picked out a bedroom for himself within their new quarters, and flopped face down on the bed in his sweaty travel clothes, another flurry of attendants enters without knocking.
Ed looks at them fuzzily. He sits up and rubs a hand over his eyes. They are all pretty young women. There are about ten of them. Ed bets that this is Ling’s idea of running a tight ship.
“Please come this way and bathe,” says one of them. They hustle him out of the building. Winry already seems to be gone. Presumably she’s been dragged off to another set of baths. The girls lead Ed through a gorgeous, baffling succession of grand courtyards and secluded gardens, and finally into a great hall containing the three biggest baths Ed has ever seen.
“Please strip,” says the attendant who spoke before. They are all looking at Ed and smiling brightly.
“Ah,” says Ed. “Uh.”
There’s a chorus of giggles, and then one of the girls steps forward and offers him a towel. Ed shucks his shirt, takes the towel. It dawns upon him that the girls are not going anywhere. So, slowly and awkwardly, somehow, he manages to inch off the rest of his clothes with the towel draped around his waist. Three days on a train: he must stink by now. Another of the girls swoops in to pick up his dirty clothes before he can even apologise.
“Please wash,” says the girl who spoke before. She offers him a washcloth, then waves her hand at a stool, a set of taps, and a block of soap. Ed sits. The chorus of girls still doesn’t move. He scrubs himself down while they watch him like cats, and by the time he’s awkwardly turned so he can wash his junk without them seeing too much, it feels like half the blood in his body has rushed to his face and ears.
After he’s reapplied the towel and crossed his right foot on his left knee to wash it, then without any visible warning, all the girls but two bow deeply in his direction, then leave. He waves at them, then feels like an idiot.
“Please bathe,” says the girl who does the talking. She’s evidently decided he’s clean enough. “This bath is very hot, that bath is normal heat, other bath is with sulphur for good health.”
The remaining two girls bow from the waist, then walk backwards out of the room, smiling smiles that suggest vaguely to Ed that, underneath the terrific manners, they think this is totally hilarious. Then they’re gone.
Ed turns in a cautious circle, but the room really does look empty. He’s alone. He finally shucks his towel, and pokes a cautious toe into the water of the allegedly normal bath. The water is cloudy. Minerals or something, maybe. Turns out, it’s the exact right temperature: warm in the cool evening, but not quite too hot for comfort. He sits on the edge, and then pushes off, lowering himself into the water until his butt finds an underwater bench, and he’s nearly up to the neck. The water laps around him, and the noise echoes loudly in the vaulted room.
He sighs, and closes his eyes. His limbs drift in the water, his aches come in and out. Al and Roy are alive, he thinks again, and gives himself permission to relax.
“I shouldn’t fall asleep if I were you, you might drown,” says a voice from next to his ear.
“Like you’ve never,” says Ed, without opening his eyes.
There’s splashing near him. Without surprise, Ed opens his eyes to see Ling, unselfconsciously naked, sliding into the water. Ed closes his eyes again, not before noticing how tall and broad in the shoulders Ling ended up. He has to be several inches taller than Roy, which is potentially hilarious — under other circumstances.
“Of course you showed up here,” Ed says.
“These are my own baths, to be fair.”
“Of course they are.”
“What do you think of them? Do they live up to the hype?”
Ed stretches out his arms. “Well, considering I hadn’t washed in three days and before that, I’ve been washing with rationed water for weeks …” He exhales and looks at the vaulted ceiling. Carvings, scarlet and gold leaf. It’s somehow overwhelming, being suddenly alone in this luxury, after weeks of hard travel. “Not bad,” he says with a grin.
“Alphonse is a survivor,” says Ling. “I’m certain you’ll see each other again.”
Ling has read him effortlessly, just like he used to. “I know,” said Ed. And he means it. He believes in Al. The worry gnaws at his stomach lining anyway.
“You know I’m going to do whatever can be done,” says Ling. “We have a bond of obligation, you and I. I’m always there.”
“I know,” says Ed. He looks at Ling and smiles. “Good to see you, mooch.” He taps a fist against Ling’s shoulder.
Ling grins at him delightedly, and pushes his shoulder at Ed’s fist a bit.
They hold each other’s gaze for a moment. Then Ling’s hand is on his waist under the water, and his other hand is in Ed’s hair, and Ling is kissing him.
The first moment, every inch of Ed’s skin sparks automatically to life — and then his body remembers the last person to touch him like this, and his mind catches up, and he jolts with shock. He puts a hand on Ling’s chest, extricates his mouth from Ling’s, turns his head. “I’m sorry!” he says, to Ling’s frown. “Look, sorry, I should have said something.”
“Wait,” says Ling slowly, “I understood that you and Winry weren’t together now?” He hasn’t moved away.
“We’re not. I’m with someone else.”
Ling looks at him sharply for a moment — then he pushes off Ed and flops beside him again. He works his jaw, runs a hand through his hair. Ed sees him working up to an apology, and failing. He looks back at Ed. “Your someone else is still in Amestris.”
Ed doesn’t get the words out for a moment. The lapping of water echoes loudly into the silence. “Yeah.”
Ling looks at him slowly, as if he’s sizing him up. Ed doesn’t look away. Then Ling says,“Ed.” He puts one hand on Ed’s shoulder and squeezes. “So, that was what all the business with the telegram was about.” There’s so much feeling in his voice, his eyes. Ed hasn’t talked about this to Winry, it wouldn’t be fair, so it’s just been rattling away inside him for weeks. His throat hurts.
Ed doesn’t even bother verifying that Ling’s guessed that Ed’s someone else is Roy. Of course he has. Yet again, he’s skipped a groove in the conversation and moved straight past what Ed says to what he means.
“It’s okay,” Ed manages, “you can give me some shit about it, everyone else has.”
Ling blinks. “Why would I? Although obviously we can see here that your tastes were formed —”
“Yeah, yeah, yeah.”
“What’s he like?”
“You met him.”
“What’s he like as a private man?”
“Yeah, well,” said Ed, “that’s the thing right there. Roy — he has this whole public thing going on where he acts like a big overconfident smart-ass, but — I dunno, I guess I knew already there was more to him than that, but then I started hanging out with him a few months back, after me and Win broke up. We were just talking work stuff at first, and then — I dunno — it was like I suddenly met him properly and he was so — he was this other person —” Ed doesn’t finish the sentence.
Ling shrugs. “Well, that’s why I asked. People have many sides to them, even more so public people.”
Ed nods. Suddenly he wonders how often it is that Ling gets to speak to someone, like this, as an equal? He’s Emperor even to Ran Fan — especially to her. What about his consorts? His family?
“So?” says Ling. “What did it take to bring down the great Fullmetal Alchemist?”
“What you mean, bring me down?”
Ling just looks at him sharply.
“So,” Ed says, “you’re like the first person I’ve spoken to who doesn’t think this is an idiot idea, me and Roy.”
“Why would it be an idiot idea?”
Ed counts the reasons off on his hands. “He’s thirty-three, he’s a politician, he’s my commanding officer, we used to give each other shit the whole time —”
Ling throws his head back and laughs. It echoes around the whole chamber. Ed scowls at him. “When have you ever gotten involved with someone you didn’t give shit to? It’s an unusual method of flirtation, I suppose, but I think we’re all used to it by now.”
Ed huffs. He wants to tell Ling about Roy, about how mind-blowingly smart he is, how dorkishly sincere. He wants to talk about Roy’s one-liners and how his hair sticks up in the morning, about the face he makes after his first sip of coffee. And more, about the stuff Ed can’t explain — how easy it is for Ed to just be with him, how every inch of Ed’s body misses him, about the way their minds just seem to slot together like they were made like that, like they’ve always been like this. The words just sit there inside of him. He can’t haul them out of his chest. He wants to tell Ling that Roy’s one of them, he’s a person who’s sewn a goal inside himself so tight it’s grown into his personality. He wants to tell Ling how scared he is sometimes to see in Roy what was in himself — that doing what he set out to do is a higher priority even than his own life, how this struggle for a whole country is so much bigger than Roy himself that he’s scared that Roy could just surrender his life to it with a shrug, and that neither Ed nor Hawkeye nor anyone else might be able to protect him. Roy won’t let himself have a goal beyond the goal, and so Ed tries to have it for him — a future where they can live for each other and for the people who love them, where they can work and do good and be good to each other —
Ed’s chest hurts. He hauls in a breath.
“How are you doing?” he asks. “Emperor, huh? You made out pretty good.”
Ling leans his head against the edge of the bath. “I did, didn’t I?”
“You like it?”
Ling doesn’t move for a moment. He stays where he is, head tipped back, breathing deep. Then he says, “That’s not exactly the right question.”
Ed bites back his response, and remembers for a moment. Ling isn’t Roy. Ling didn’t get up one morning and decide he wanted to change the world. He was born into this, with half a million members of the Yao clan depending on him to give it his best shot. “Is it tough?” Ed says.
“Sometimes,” Ling says. “It’s not exactly a terrible life, though, is it?”
How weird is it that becoming Emperor has apparently made Ling more modest? Or maybe, Ed thinks, it was everything else. That day, when so very much happened. “Tell me how you got there,” Ed says.
Ling smiles, and that vague whiff of humility dissipates. “I will,” he says. “It’s a stirring tale of bribery, corruption, and intrigue.”
The story is a good one. Ed relaxes into it, delighted with Ling’s delight in his own cunning. He’s missed this. Afterwards, Ling fills him in on Mei and Ran Fan’s news. As Ed guessed, they have both been substantially promoted.
“When I was crowned emperor, there were some vigorous attempts to sway me from keeping her on,” Ling says of Ran Fan. “Of course there have been many assassination attempts, so she’s proved herself many times. Now she leads the Inner Guard, and within two years I should be able to promote her to command the whole Palace Guard.”
“That’s awesome,” Ed says. “She seems like she’s kind of thriving on it.”
“Very much so,” Ling says. “How did Mustang lose?”
Ed stares for a moment. The lapping of water is loud in the room. He remembers this side of Ling, too: how suddenly he can shift gears, turn a conversation inside out.
Ling looks at him narrowly, sharply. He says, “I’ve seen that man fight. The scale of his power is astonishing. Moreover, he’s a fine general, a cunning strategist. His soldiers and his alchemists are superb. Hakuro, on the other hand, is what? A mediocre general who wasn’t considered fit to be included in Bradley’s conspiracy?”
Ed nods. “I know,” he says. There’s a sharp pang of worry in his chest about where Ling is headed with this. “It sucks, is what.”
“So,” Ling says. “I asked myself: what could Hakuro possibly have up his sleeve that might allow him to win against such formidable enemies?” He pauses. Ed doesn’t fill the pause. “What sort of weapon would it take to make a person like Mustang, a person like you, run for his life?”
Ed’s heart is in his mouth.
“Tell me I’m wrong,” Ling says. “I would like it a lot if my guess is somehow mistaken.”
The water still laps; a tap somewhere drips. Ed takes a breath.
“You’re not wrong,” Ed says, looking Ling in the eye. “They made something. Another one.” He puts his chin up. “Another Homunculus.”
Ling looks at him, shuttered, unreadable. “Are you certain?”
“I’ve seen the thing. It’s still pretty little, but.” Ed shakes his head. There’s no point in anything but honesty. “It’s bad enough already. That’s how we lost.”
“This situation is absolutely unacceptable.” Ling’s voice is suddenly flat and iron-firm. “Yet again. Amestris.” He shakes his head. “Your country. Its alchemy, its wars and its monsters.”
“That is ass-backwards and you know it!” Ed is arguing back before he’s even thought. “The last — the old Homunculus created Amestris, not the other way around! It was made in Xerxes!”
“And what became of Xerxes?” says Ling evenly.
With hindsight, this might not have been the best argument.
“We did everything we could,” Ed says. “Everything. We don’t like that Amestris is this way. That’s the whole reason Roy’s doing all this. So we can make things better, for everyone. So we stop being the country that pulls this shit the whole time.”
“I know,” Ling says. His voice is quiet.
Ed barrels on. He can’t help it, he has to get all this out, he has to explain himself. “And we still are doing everything we can! We’re still in the fight! That’s the reason I came to Xing. To talk to you. And not just because you’re emperor. Because you’re you. Because you know things about homunculi that no one else alive in the world knows.”
“Do I?” says Ling. “I suppose that I do. I know that —” He sighs explosively. “With the greatest respect to the dead, I know that they are bad news.”
Ed looks at him. Fuck. He thought Ling would come around. He should have realised. Ling can’t be on his side about this, can he? He’s got his own country to think about first. Ed’s throat closes up again. In this stupid luxury bathhouse, in this vast palace, in this foreign city where Ed doesn’t even know how to ask directions, he feels suddenly very, very alone. He sets his jaw.
Ling looks at Ed for a moment, eyes narrow and serious. Now what?
Then he turns in the water to face Ed, and wraps his arms around him, and he hugs Ed so tightly that he can barely breathe. “I’m going to help,” he says. “I’m not angry with you. I am angry, I am furious, with the idiot who had this monster made and set his boot on Amestris and sent my best friend running for his life. You’re my friend, and Mustang is my ally, and I want Mustang in charge of Amestris.” Ling’s words reverberate all the way through Ed’s chest. “You will see him again. And you’ll see your brother again. And I’m going to help.”
His hand rubs Ed’s back. And suddenly — that’s it. It’s like Ed’s body just can’t hold it all a second longer. His chest starts shaking and heaving, hard and painful. The sound of it is harsh and horrible and echoing in the big room. For the first moment, he tries to stop, but it’s so much damn effort — and here, now, really, he doesn’t have to stop. So he just hangs on and lets it all go its own way.
When he’s done, he pulls back and swipes the heels of his hands across his eyes. It’s just sweat and steam. He didn’t actually — Still, he feels pretty stupid, like a little kid or something.
But in the end, it doesn’t matter.
“You remember?” Ling says. “No matter how bad everything else might get: you can keep moving while you still have your friends.”
Roy gets Ed’s first telegram just before breakfast, three days after the first snowfall of winter.
Briggs in late autumn is grim: bare trees, dark hillsides, dwindling hours of light. The snow turns the lights back on. When it falls, it falls hard. The depressing view from Roy’s bedroom window in the freezing morning becomes, within the space of one day, a painting: charcoal mountains, bright new snow, even the sky a deeper blue.
Still, Roy could do without four hours of snow in his eyes to look forward to.
Every single soldier at Briggs, general or private, has their twice-weekly shift at the Wall. Including Roy. It was General Armstrong’s policy. They haven’t changed it. Like so much at Briggs, it remains marked with her characteristically brutal sense of fair play. It can’t be helped; and much as Roy would love to wriggle out of this morning’s shift, doing so would leave the soldiers of Briggs legitimately ticked off with him.
Roy flattens the two telegrams, Ed’s first and his second. As he demolishes his breakfast oatmeal in the mess hall, he strokes the paper absently with one hand.
He feels lit up inside, so relieved that it aches. Ed is supremely resourceful, Ed had already gotten out of Amestris: these things he knew. He convinced himself every day that Ed was fine, and he never knew the difference it would make until he learned he wasn’t lying to himself.
The telegrams sit on top of his morning pile of documents, which he really ought to have skimmed already. He hasn’t. All right, one more moment of self-indulgence and —
It’s too late. Riza is walking up to him, a mug of tea in one hand and a full clipboard in the other. Roy swallows his mouthful, holds the telegram out to her. “I haven’t gotten to my reading yet,” he says. “There was a distraction.”
She smiles. She says, “I heard. It’s a relief.”
“It is,” Roy says. He notices her letting him off the hook, and notices the third-person delicacy of her phrasing. It lets them both acknowledge what this news has done for Roy, while skirting around the subject of Roy and Ed. He knows she’s still wrapping her mind around it. Very possibly, she thinks he’s being an idiot. But she’s being kind.
“It’s funny,” Riza says, “but Fullmetal seems to be making a pretty good ambassador.”
“If the Emperor remembers his debts,” Roy says. “Which he ought to, because — what?” Riza’s mouth has that tension at the corners. Something isn’t all right.
“Do you know a woman called Ada Wray?” Riza says. Roy looks at her blankly. “I think you might have met her on the way North.”
“We didn’t do names, mostly,” Roy says. His stomach tightens; he can see already where this might be going. He rifles through his paperwork, and three sheets down, sure enough, finds a newspaper clipping from yesterday’s Central Times. He recognises the photograph immediately: the blonde woman who took him to Green Pike on a horse named Graham.
The headline says Third Traitor Executed.
The first line Roy picks out is The rebel conspirator Ada Wray, 46, a horse breeder, is believed to have dealt personally with Mustang. Then, After a short skirmish, military police were able to execute Wray under the 1908 Prevention of Terrorism Act.
There’s a pressure on Roy’s chest. He says, “Summary executions, now?”
Riza says, “‘Under the Prevention of Terrorism Act’ sounds a little more orderly than ‘we’ll shoot you on sight if we suspect you’re a rebel’. But the message is the same, isn’t it? ‘Obey, or else.’ Is it true that she helped you North?”
“Yes,” Roy says. “She took me to the peaks, told me my horsemanship was terrible. I liked her.” He rubs a hand over his face. This is appalling; but they still have work to do. “What do we need to get through before my shift on the Wall?”
Riza looks into his eyes for a moment; he looks back. “There’s a five page briefing on the refugee situation,” she says. “The Ishbalan camp in Deauville have a workable housing proposal, but now the snow’s started we’ll need to cut through the red tape fast or we’ll have an emergency on our hands. Also, the paperwork on the supply situation has come through. We should go over it before this afternoon’s council. The short version is, Colonel Fraser was right: the North is going to need to region-wide rationing of food and essentials to get through the winter.”
They’ve galloped through most of the essentials when the clock rings the hour. Roy stands, buttons up his overcoat, pulls on his gloves. Riza watches him carefully.
He arrives for his shift two minutes late. The sergeant he’s relieving salutes him, and the cold slaps him in the face, and the white of the snowfield is like staring into a lightbulb.
The Wall is long, so Roy has his fifty yard stretch all to himself. It’s an ideal venue for a long bout of self-reproach.
The only trouble is, he can’t let himself have it.
He didn’t really know Ada Wray; but he did pick up that she seemed bold, sensible and unsentimental. The sort of person who walks into danger with their eyes open. He can’t insult her by acting as though this was all a terrible mistake she made.
He’s angry with Hakuro, of course: angry with the tyrant and his pack of stooges responsible for this war and its growing list of atrocities. But they’re a long way south right now, and unavailable for roasting. Roy himself, on the other hand, is right here.
The part of his brain that can’t abandon magical thinking tells him: and here you let yourself relax for a moment, you let yourself rejoice because your beautiful Edward is safe, while ordinary people are suffering and dying for a cause you offered them. While half your soldiers are trapped behind enemy lines, while refugees could freeze and the North could starve and —
Stop it. Stop that, Mustang. Right now.
He looks out at the mountains of the Drachman frontier: another beautiful country with a beastly government. A skirmish would be nice right now; or a sneak attack; or any crisis; a burst pipe even, in a pinch. He’d dearly love that stack of reports up here with him: but if he can’t occupy himself with something useful, he needs a distraction. He can’t afford to fall into this self-flagellating crap. There is no earthly point in going over that day again, going over every second of the coup, every decision made in a pressured moment with gunfire echoing in their ears. It plays out in his head again anyway. It plays out every day. He’s sick of it.
He stares into the white.
“Here’s winter,” says a voice behind him. He turns, recognising it, unsure how long he’s been standing here already. “Good morning, sir,” says Colonel Fraser, current commander of Briggs.
“Good morning, Colonel,” Roy says. “The northern country is at its most beautiful in the winter, isn’t it?”
Fraser snorts softly. “Wait until it’s December and your piss freezes before it hits the snow, sir.”
“That’s hyperbole. Even at forty degrees below freezing, urine leaves the body at too high a temperature to freeze in mid-air. Cold water would freeze, but piss hits the ground or vaporises first, am I right?”
Fraser full-on grins at him. “You’re the scientist. I’d say test it out, but I try not to expose any bodily parts I’m fond of when it’s forty below freezing.”
“Did you want to talk about the rationing situation?”
“Yes,” Fraser says. “Let’s have a little heat,” Fraser says. He picks up a brazier from a few feet away, drags it over. Floury snow scatters from the top. He raises an eyebrow at Roy: here is the alchemist, and here is the wet and frozen fuel.
Roy resents being ordered to impress, but even in this bitter mood he still can’t turn down a challenge. His ignition gloves are inside his coat. They stay there, for now. He bows his head, presses his hands together. The snow melts to water, then evaporates as steam. The power crackles blue; the warmth blasts them in the face.
“For a moment then,” says Fraser, “I thought you were praying.”
After every drop of moisture has hissed from kindling and coal, he pulls off one sheepskin glove with his teeth, and reaches inside his coat for the glove that will let him make a spark.
“Someone let the fuel get wet last night,” Roy says. “What happened to survival of the fittest?”
Fraser just raises an eyebrow again. “No circle,” he says. “Like Elric and his brother. I saw them fight, three years back.”
Roy presses his hands together again. “This is the circle.”
Roy looks into the fire.
“Don’t want to talk about it?” says Fraser. “No worries. You’re not really a Briggs man unless there’s something you don’t want to talk about.”
Roy half-smiles. “I’m not really a Briggs man. You run a tight ship here. But I prefer a nice smoggy city.”
“Well,” Fraser says. “With luck on your side, you could have a whole country of them.”
“You’re in an optimistic mood for a man who’s just read that report.”
“Yes. That’s what brings me here, really. Sir, you’re right. You’re not a Briggs man.”
Roy looks him right in the eye.
“If you knew this place, that report wouldn’t look as bad as it might.”
“Before we tear into it at the meeting, I wanted you to know: the North isn’t going to starve. We know winter.”
“This isn’t just winter,” Roy says. “We’re cut off from the rest of Amestris. We have several thousand political refugees needing food and housing. And our neighbours aren’t about to risk war with Hakuro by trading with us.”
Fraser says, “Did you ever hear of the Winter Emergency Preparedness Initiative?”
“Government-funded municipal survival kits for the north, in case of a winter natural disaster? General Armstrong pushed it through at Central. But given the situation, would that really be enough —” Roy stops himself.
“Would you be shocked to hear,” Fraser says, “that the General slightly diverted a lot of the funds?”
Roy is not, in fact, entirely shocked. His grin gets sharper. Fraser returns it.
“The supplies we actually procured were designed to get the region through one self-sufficient winter. It took quite the effort for us to hide the paper trail for that, let me tell you. Every town north of the River Isar has a survival kit. I won’t lie; it’s still going to be a job of work to get everyone through the winter. But the North is ready to pull together. If we all put our backs into it, it’s my belief we can almost certainly manage it.”
Roy shakes his head, delighted. “I might not be shocked,” he says, “but even now, she keeps surprising me. The Queen of Briggs. Above and beyond.”
Of course Fraser is already reaching into his coat for a hip flask. Roy resists the urge to point out that before nine hundred hours is a little early for whisky. They pass the flask back and forth, and silently toast the Queen of Briggs, and look into the clean white and the blue sky.
“Also, about the radio transmitter at Baschool,” Fraser says. “You were asking on Wednesday. Yes, it seems it can transmit as far south as Central. There was some discussion with Radio North. But they’re signed up and on board now. We have a link up with them, so you can broadcast from Fort Briggs. When were you thinking to try this out?”
“After the meeting. Today,” Roy says, surprising himself. A moment later, and he’s realised why he said that: he realises what he’s going to say.
Eight hours later, he sits at a table in front of a radio mic, with a scribbled sheet of paper in front of him.
“Good afternoon, Amestris,” Roy says. “I am speaking to you today from Briggs Fortress. I will keep speaking to you, every week at this time.”
“The first thing I want to say, you know already: the war for Amestris is not over. We are still fighting. And we know you, the people, are still resisting, in whatever way you can. Winter has arrived, but we are ready for it. We will get through it and it will pass, and spring will come. With your faith and your courage and your resistance to tyranny, we can win. And so, with that in mind, today I want to tell you the truth about a woman called Ada Wray …”
The next morning, after a horribly early breakfast, Ed and Winry find themselves escorted out into the city by a single young guard, in simple black clothes and mask. He hails a bicycle rickshaw for them, speaks to the driver and hands him some cash, and sees them off.
The morning traffic of Zhongdu is something astonishing. In the hutongs there’s a bustle of bicycles, pedestrians, handcarts, stalls selling breakfast and blaring radio, shops opening up for business. Then the street opens up in front of them into a wide thoroughfare: thronging people, horse traffic, cars with designs Ed doesn’t recognise. The air has that ripe, lively mix of smells good and bad that tells you you’re in a great city. Ed and Winry stare at it all, and the cyclist’s lean tanned legs pedal relentlessly on, as if it’s no effort at all. How damn fit do you have to be to drive one of these things? Ed wonders how he’d hold up.
Their journey ends in a leafy, hilly district at the edge of the city. Their driver points them towards an ornate, three-storied wooden pavilion at the edge of a little lake.
At the entrance to the pavilion, Ed sees immediately that it’s some kind of restaurant. A few people are sitting out at tables on the porch of each floor. Before they can wonder how to announce themselves, a tiny old lady hurries out to them, and slowly pronounces, “E, do, wa, du?”
Ed blinks, then gets it. “Yeah!” he says, nodding. The old lady sweeps her hand towards the pavilion’s interior. They follow her in, and she leads them through dark corridors through to a paper-screened room with a view of the lake. It contains only one table; a pretty young woman in black is sitting at it.
“Hello!” the girl says, standing. She’s speaking Amestrian, hopping up and hurrying towards them already as she does so. “Ah, you made it! I’m so relieved!”
“Oh my god!” Winry says. Her voice has headed up about an octave.
The young woman beams and claps her hands. “Winry! Winry! I had no idea you were coming!” She wraps Winry in a hug. They bounce up and down, squealing happily at each other. Ed stares.
“You’ve gotten so tall!” Winry says.
“Of course I have, it’s been two and a half years!” says the girl.
What the hell is going on? Ed looks at the girl again, and — holy shit — it’s Mei Chang.
She’s about a foot taller, which is to say, still tiny, and her dress sense has certainly changed, and the hundred plaits have been replaced with two sleek knots of hair, and she — well, she’s hit puberty. But it’s her.
“Edward! You didn’t recognise me?” she says, breaking away from the endless Winry-hugging to look at Ed. “Of course, I’ve grown a great deal! Ah, and this decadent court has changed me so much, it’s robbed me of my unpolished peasant innocence.” She puts a hand to her forehead, and sighs dramatically. “Mother says I’m losing my accent.”
“How’s the kitty?” Ed says. Right on cue, claws scratch on the floor and Xiao Mei scampers in from the balcony. Unlike Mei, she hasn’t grown an inch. She sniffs the air, growls and then rushes to Mei’s side and peers at them from behind her ankles.
“Shh! I’m not sure animals are allowed in here,” Mei says, looking around as if the old lady is about to reappear.
“It’s great to see you,” Ed says. “Exemplar of the State, huh?”
“Oh,” Mei says, and goes pink. “There was a bit of bother about that, did his Celestial Majesty tell you?”
“Yeah. She got first place in the Xingese equivalent of the State Alchemist exam two years ago,” Ed says to Winry. “They had to lift the age restriction so she could sit it in the first place, and then she beat everyone else.”
“Younger than Ed!” says Winry, with some delight.
“It was worth all the fuss,” Mei says. “Now the honour of Yulong Temple is restored, and students are climbing the mountain every week to ask for instruction. My clan can farm with the latest equipment, and when they’ve finished building the railway through our province —” She stops abruptly and throws up her hands. “Oh my goodness,” she says, ducking her head. “I’m so sorry! Boasting about our prosperity, with Amestris in so much trouble, and you having to run for your lives, and Ed so worried for his paramour —”
“Paramour?” says Ed.
“Was that not the right word?” says Mei. “Beloved? Suitor? Sweetheart?”
Winry has one hand over her mouth, and she’s cackling into it. Ed glares at her.
“Brigadier General Mustang is fine,” Ed says, with as much dignity and composure as he can manage. “He’s at Briggs. I guess his Celestial Majesty gave you all the gossip but none of the news, huh?”
“Oh, that is good!” Mei says. “Have you heard anything about Alphonse’s journey? Is he out of Amestris yet?”
Ed cracks his knuckles reflexively. Great. Thanks, Ling. Now he has to do this.
“Uh,” says Winry. “Al’s being held by the enemy. But we think he’s okay.”
Mei’s eyes get very large. Her forehead crumples up. She takes a very large sniff.
Winry puts a hand on Mei’s shoulder. Ed pats Mei’s arm and feels pretty awkward. Then the paper screen slides back, and Mei instantly stops sniffing, stuffs Xiao Mei under the table and stands against it —
And then Ling Yao walks in. Just Ling. No yellow silk robes, no headdress, no regal poise: just Ling, in a simple dark tunic and trousers, with his hair worn the old way. The old lady nods at him casually and then walks out, as if Ling’s just some guy — and Ed realises abruptly what Ling has managed to pull. Every portrait of Ling Ed has seen has had him in the full Emperor get-up. When he dresses down, it amounts to a fucking disguise.
Still, as soon as the old lady shuts the screen door, Mei hits the deck, forehead first. Must be weird, having to bow down to your own brother. Xiao Mei just sits on her butt growling.
“Up, quick!” Ling says in Amestrian. “It’s a disguise! It doesn’t work if you do that. No bowing for anyone,” he says, with an air of great generosity.
“Damn,” Ed says, “that’s gonna be tough.”
It takes a few dozen of those tiny cups of tea for Ed to tell Ling and Mei the full story. He starts with a rundown of the messy state of Amestrian politics: Hakuro’s murder of Fuhrer Grumman, the prospect of war, Roy’s reluctant backroom deal with Hakuro, the many factions, two year struggle to get enough support that a coup would get Roy into power without civil war. Much good that it did them, in the end. Winry chips in to explain about the Rush Valley munitions industry and their attempts to throw a spanner in Hakuro’s works; Ed talks about the resistance network who helped them both get out to the desert.
Then Ed moves on to the Homunculus. He tells Ling and Mei how they found out about the creature, tells the stories of each of his three encounters with it. He tells them what sort of a man Henry Katzenklavier is, the kind of past form he’s got, the kind of power he’s got now. He tries to explain the science of the thing. Mei gets it all immediately; and perhaps it’s not so much of a surprise that Ling seems to understand a lot of it too.
And then he’s done. Mei pours the billionth round of tea. For a long moment, everyone is very, very silent.
“I wish I could send an army,” Ling says.
Meaning, he can’t.
“Imagine for a moment that I am not who I am,” Ling says. “I’m here as a private man. The clothes are symbolic!”
“Yeah,” Ed says. "We got that. Does the Amestrian Ambassador know we’re here?”
“No. Is he a very secret Mustang sympathiser?”
“No,” Ed says. “He’s old guard.”
“Then,” Ling says, “it’s imperative he continues not to know. Officially, to anyone who’s spotted you around the place, you’re scholars from Drachma. We’re endeavouring to have people not spot you around the palace. If Hakuro knows Xing is aiding the rebels in secret — well, you know your own country. That’s how your last couple of wars with Aerugo got started.”
Ed swallows. Winry shifts in her seat. Mei bites her lip.
“Last night,” Ling says, “I exchanged some telegraphs with Brigadier General Mustang. He was understandably indirect about his plans, but I believe he’s not planning on open warfare. Judging from his usual modus operandi, I’d say that means a secret strike and an assassination or two.”
“What do you mean, usual?” Ed says. “Roy isn’t —“ And then he stops, because actually, Roy is. “But he wouldn’t, not this time. The last coup, the plan was to arrest Hakuro, a fair trial, the works. Because we need to stay clean if we’re going to do this right. Because —“
“Ed,” Ling says. “If Mustang is such an idealist, then after everything that’s happened, why wouldn’t he assassinate Hakuro?”
“Because — because, because we need to stay clean. We can’t! Not unless we have to —”
“Ed,” Ling says, very quietly. Ed stops. “Ed, you’re the idealist here. You always believe you can find a morally impeccable path to your goal.” Ling leans forward and puts a hand on his, looks him right in the eye. “But there isn’t a clean path to this one, not any more. Mustang knows that already.”
“How do you know what he knows?” Ed says. He’s starting already to get that warning twist in his stomach that tells him the other person might have a point.
Ling smiles at him, but it’s not a very happy smile. “Because he’s clever. And because he knows how these things work. Ed, striking from the shadows is the best way to do this — and the cleanest that’s left. But it’s probably going to be a dirty job, one way or the other. If you’re going to fight this war, you should understand that. Please don’t go in expecting a clean fight.”
Something chimes inside Ed. Roy’s voice in his mind, rivers of mud. The perfect circle he’d scratched into the dirt, scuffed and broken by his father’s footprints.
Ling has been playing this game his whole life. And Ed always believed there was a way to do it clean. But he didn’t quite get there in the end, did he? It was someone else who took that final step for him, taken from him the final sacrifice to which he’d committed himself. And he’s never known, has he, how he can square that compromise, that sacrifice, and yet remain himself? Roy wanted a clean victory too. And Ed wanted it for him, wanted him to get there without more stains on his record. He was on board. And they didn’t get it. And now? Now they’re at war. Ed knows a little about war, and he’s learning more every day. He’s taken the first steps already. He’s in this.
Where is he headed? How far will he go?
On to Chapter Five!