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 the manga itself
Word Count: 9451 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. Betaed and edited by enemytosleep and a_big_apple. Thanks to sky_dark for advices and bunnying; most of the plot of the train scene was her idea! <3
Chapter 1 | Chapter 2 | Chapter 3 | Chapter 4
It’s been another three days, and they still haven’t told Al what he’s here for. But day by day, he’s started to guess.
The day before yesterday, a note from Katzenklavier was placed in his bound left hand at breakfast. Beautiful copperplate handwriting, of course. Why do the worst alchemists always seem to have the best penmanship? Bridgewire, the note had read. Your first task is to give me your professional opinion on Selim Bradley.
That day, he sat for six hours in a room on a chair with his hands bound, watching Selim and Mrs Bradley from behind a smoked glass mirror. Selim played; Mrs Bradley read; they ate a meal. They were both quiet and subdued. Al looked, and looked, and looked. His butt got numb. His mouth got dry. He itched all over. Men with guns watched him, but no one brought him food or water.
It took him a long time to focus, embarrassingly long, but in the end, he could feel the two souls on the other side of the glass. Only two: one human, one not quite. Selim’s qi seemed to him unchanged. Selim himself seemed as he always did: nothing but a sturdy little boy with a mark on his forehead.
There was a mirror on the other side of Al’s room, too.
At the end of the day, Al turned and looked into it. He said, “What do you want me to see that you couldn’t see yourself?” His throat was dry; his voice came out scratchy and rough.
Behind the glass, he heard the scraping of a chair. There was no other reply.
Yesterday, they brought him to the same room, but his hands were unbound. There were two books on the chair. The lower of the two was a solid nineteenth century volume in red leather. The upper volume was tiny, fragile, ancient.
The guards watched him like cats. Al made himself ignore them, walk up to the chair, pick up the tiny book. It was bound in plain brown leather, with no title. As he opened it with care, the binding shifted away from the stitching of the spine. When he turned over the marbled endpaper, already he knew what he was going to see.
The Perfection of Matter: of course. Illegal; taboo; badly translated from the Xerxean. A book whose theories once made a monster which, in one day, destroyed a whole country. Katzenklavier’s instruction manual for breeding a Homunculus.
The second book was one of the better commentaries on the text. Opening it, Al found it liberally annotated throughout in Katzenklavier’s beautiful handwriting.
On the other side of the mirror, Selim Bradley lay on the rug on his front, surrounded by paper and crayons. He kicked his feet as he drew. Al had no idea what the hell Katzenklavier wanted with the boy. Was there something more to him than Al could see? Or was Katzenklavier just hoping that Al could see more? Mrs Bradley was used to living under guard; did she know they were watched by alchemists? Did she have any idea how much danger they were in?
He turned back to the deathly little book, and started to read.
Today, he was brought instead to the Bradleys’ sitting room. He has still had no further message from Katzenklavier. Now he sits in an armchair with Mrs Bradley, and sips tea.
“It’s a little bit of a bore, not to be able to stroll the grounds,” she says. “Selim has so much energy. But under the circumstances, well.” She smiles brightly. “We certainly can’t complain. How are you?”
“I can’t complain,” Al says. It’s true enough: airing his troubles here would be highly unwise. His hands are still kept bound when he’s unattended. But now? How fast are those guards, really? Al could make a knife from the silver teaspoon or from the porcelain cup. He could pull a barricade from the floor. He could even try to escape this place, to take Mrs Bradley and Selim with him. He’s worried for Granny, it’s true. But do they really believe that threatening her is enough alone to render him totally docile and trustworthy? Are they that stupid? That would be pretty nice. Al suspects, though. What else are they banking on?
“Will you stay for lunch?” Mrs Bradley says. A guard nods to Al curtly; apparently he will.
“Sure,” he says, “thanks.”
Selim slurps his potato soup; it makes Al smile. “This stuff is Eastern-style,” he says. “With bacon and sage. The lady who brought me up makes it like this.”
“How nice,” Mrs Bradley says. “When my late husband was alive, I often used to accompany him East. It’s a beautiful part of the country.” She tilts her soup bowl away from her as she eats, impeccable. She pauses, dabs at her mouth with a napkin.
Al smiles blandly; he never knows quite what to say to her when she brings up Bradley.
And Mrs Bradley never seems to notice. “I remember the journey very vividly,” she says. “The Fuhrer’s train would usually depart for East City from Central Gatehouse Station, at twelve noon precisely.”
Wait up – Al remembers those words – at twelve noon precisely. That station is always –
“That station is always full of people,” she continues. “But every morning is a good morning at the station, because you’re going somewhere.”
Al’s heart is in his throat.
Mrs Bradley has just quoted from his brother’s code, verbatim.
For the first sentence, he thought it must be coincidence. But the time, the place, the phrasing - it’s all identical. It’s Ed’s standard beginning to an explanation of a complete formula. It means here follow full instructions. No way. No way.
“That’s a nice sentiment,” Al says. “I’ve always liked that station.” Carry on.
As far as Al knows, there are two people in the world apart from him who know this code. One is Ed; and the other is Roy Mustang.
“The journey followed a customary route,” Mrs Bradley continued. “I did enjoy seeing the train pass through the same little towns and villages, again and again. Let me see now, do I remember? We would pass through Tetherden, then the old station at Obenbeck. In my memory, the weather was always very fine. The train would stop outside Harburg sometimes; sheep on the tracks, I suppose. How I am going on! A fine lunch can be had from the stand at Kenningswood Station; I always made sure to ask for it. Did you ever pass through?”
Numb and automatic, Al translates: Observe and report. Use only this code. We are on the move.
“I remember it,” Al says. “Really well, actually.” He looks Mrs Bradley in the eye. So much code! It’s beyond doubt now. Yet absolutely nothing of it shows on her face. Al is astonished by her, and more than a little unnerved. He soldiers on. “I never ate there,” he says, “but my brother did a bunch of times. You know, actually—” he looks her in the eye and there is still nothing, nothing “— I still always keep a copy of the schedule book on me. I know the trains aren’t always on time, but — well — the more you know.”
I understand. I’m following the instructions. I’m ready.
Whatever else, right now, she’s showing herself to be, Mrs Bradley is not an alchemist. She must have been given these phrases to memorise. Who can Al be talking to? Whose message is Mrs Bradley passing to him? Can it be Brother? Ed got east, Ed is — surely, surely — in Xing by now, out of the country, out of reach. That leaves two options.
The first option is that the code is in enemy hands: that he’s being tested, played. But, cautious as Al is, this still seems to him next to impossible.
They left Ed’s coded notebooks in that sealed trunk in their apartment. They transmuted it into the wall cavity before the coup. Even so, it was probably long ago found and seized and opened by the enemy. But Al doubts even Katzenklavier could crack the code — and even should the worst have happened, Al can’t believe Ed would have relinquished it. There are terrible secrets in those notebooks, knowledge about the process of human transmutation that the pair of them should take to their graves.
The remaining possibility, then, is almost certainly the truth. Someone on Mustang’s side is undercover here, and has been given the code phrases to pass to Mrs Bradley. Mrs Bradley is the last link in a secret chain that leads all the way back to the only other person, besides Ed and Al, who understands this code. A person Al knows to be alive and free at the Northern frontier.
Roy Mustang is talking to Al. And Al can talk to him.
After his body was human once again, it took Al a long time and a lot of work to regain his poker face. Months of staring into the mirror: learning to control the muscles of his face, the set of his shoulders, those little tells, those unconscious and expressive twitches and shifts. Ed, to whom that degree of dedicated subterfuge is a foreign language, had argued with him at the time. What’s the point? Who do you ever need to lie to that bad? You never know, Al replied, when really he only wanted to be wholly human again, lying face and all.
Oh, but he’s glad now that he got it back. His face stays calm and blank; but his mind smiles and smiles and smiles.
Observe and report. This task is going to be far from easy to pull off; even giving it his all, Al might not get away with it. The order is simple, but the stakes are so high, and the risks are terrible. They’re being watched so carefully. Used too often, the code will start to sound suspicious. He’s confident that the code itself is safe from decipherment; but that they are using a code might be all too easy to discover.
But still, he’s so delighted he could damn well dance. He’s not just a prisoner any more. He’s a spy.
“An army captain?” Winry says.
“Yes!” Ling says. “Exactly what you need, surely? You want to keep your valley’s arms manufacturing industry out of Hakuro’s hands. But your resistance movement is run by crafts-masters whose combat experience is limited to arm wrestling and football; plus one wounded soldier. You need a captain!”
“Okay,” says Winry, “thank you, that’s really kind of you to offer. But see, we’re not exactly planning on fighting fighting. We’re not an army, and you know, about a half of us are medical professionals. We were planning to do sabotage, disruption: you know, stopping the wheels turning. So I’m not sure what —”
“Ran Fan!” Ling yells. Winry and Ed jump. Mei sips her tea. And Ran Fan’s masked face appears, upside down, at the top of the window.
“Hey,” Ed says. Ling beckons.
Ran Fan’s face disappears for a moment, then she vaults gracefully through the window. “Yes,” she says. She pulls up her mask. “Miss Rockbell, your enemies are an army. They are trained and accomplished in war; their numbers and their firepower are vastly superior to yours. If you and your friends want to avoid a quick and bloody defeat, you’ll need help from an expert.”
“Ah?” Winry manages.
“I don’t know what sort of training they give Amestrian warriors,” Ran Fan says, “but in Xing an officer is trained thoroughly in the arts of stealth. I remember the debt we owe you; I apologise deeply that I can’t leave my post to help you myself.”
“You could leave it long enough to drink some tea,” Ling says. He pours a cup and holds it out to her with both hands.
Ran Fan blinks at him in a sort of resigned way, then she bows her head and says, “Yes, majesty.” She takes the cup and sits.
“So,” Ling says. “You can’t be spared, unfortunately. But who else would you recommend?”
Ed, Winry and Mei spend the rest of the morning deciding what they need and don’t have; negotiating what Ling can get for them; hearing Ran Fan’s advice on safe travel in secret. The mood starts to lift as the plan emerges. They’ll be leaving the capital before sunset, with Mei, two rentanjutsu masters, and the mentioned army captain. Ed and the rentanjutsu crew will make their way to Briggs, while Winry and the captain head for Rush Valley.
But what, says a little voice in Ed’s head, if we took a quick detour first? Found out where they’re holding Al, busted him out? Okay, so, it would be dangerous. Reckless; stupid even? Al would call it stupid, for sure. But how can Ed just leave him — wherever he is? Al might be detained but healthy, but he’s not invulnerable, not any more. He can feel hunger and thirst; exhaustion and pain. He can be damaged in ways that can’t be fixed. And he’s in the hands of people who’d be happy to do it. It hurts Ed’s heart to even let the idea near the surface of his mind.
He says nothing about this. Instead, Ed and Winry raise the question of the railway and the desert traders; Ling dodges the issue, but finally promises them that when the war is won, Mustang will be welcome to bring the traders to the negotiating table. A long conversation is had about Ling’s time with Greed; Ed and Mei ask a lot of technical questions, and Ling answers them as he can. He has difficulty, he says, in articulating the experience. There are, after all that, no true revelations. But what they learn does help. Food is brought in: steamed dumplings (delicious), chicken feet (surprisingly delicious) and cakes (predictably delicious).
“It’s a pity that you have to leave so soon!” Ling says, at length. “We’ve barely caught up. And Yin and my other consorts were dying to meet you.”
Winry grins. “Al says really nice things about your consorts.”
“They say nice things about him!”
Mei rolls her eyes. “Ah, Alphonse and his women,” she says, shaking her head. “Who would think that such a beautifully-mannered young man would turn out so lecherous?”
Ling simultaneously tries to catch Ed and Winry’s eyes. They both look in other directions. Mei doesn’t seem to notice. At the mention of Al, casual and jovial, Ed’s insides are again screwing into a ball. Again he is thinking, what if I …
“Still,” she says, with a bright little smile, “he’s a friend. And as they say, ‘even a flawless person has seven faults.’ You must forgive your friends their weak points!”
“I don’t have any faults,” says Ling. He raises an eyebrow. “Officially speaking, at least. It’s in the constitution!”
“Then it’s a good job you’ve got friends,” Ed says. “If you need your vices listing out, you always can ask us. By the way, these cakes look like butts.”
Winry gives him a narrow look.
“What? We’re all thinking it, I’m just getting it out there.”
“Actually, they’re in the shape of peaches,” Ling says, frowning deeply. Ed raises an eyebrow; Ling drops the frown and beams. “Peaches that look like butts! I like to have them served to foreign dignitaries sometimes, just to see what they’ll do.”
Mei looks a little mortified. She mouths at Winry and Ed, “No, he really does.”
The meeting ends merry and determined. Ling and Ran Fan slip away; the rest of them hail a bicycle rickshaw back to the palace. They’ve barely arrived in this city, and they’re already leaving. What if, tempts the voice in Ed’s mind. I can’t just leave Al. How can I know he’s okay? What if I ran it by Winry? What if I asked the captain and the rentanjutsu masters to help me bust him out. What if I just took off on my own?
When Ed and Winry get back, in the reception room of their quarters the enamelled tray is set out again; on it is a folded telegraph.
Ed’s stomach vaults from his throat to his pelvis and back. He and Winry reach the paper at the same time. They look at each other. Ed opens it.
=MJ EDWARD ELRIC, C/O PRIVATE OFFICE OF THE CELESTIAL THRONE, ZHONGDU, XING.
MESSAGE FOR YOU PERSONALLY FROM BRIDGEWIRE, RELAYED AT SOME RISK TO MULTIPLE PERSONS. AS FOLLOWS.
“DON’T DO ANYTHING RASH. TRUST ME.”
IT’S AN ORDER, BY THE WAY.
“Fuck you, you pair of psychic, telepathic bastards,” Ed says, and he sits on the floor.
“He’s normal,” Al says. “One soul. There isn’t any more to tell.”
“Not quite normal, though, is he?” Katzenklavier sips at his sherry. “From what I remember, Pride was a formidable creature.” Al’s chin jerks up before he can hide it. “Tell me how he comes to be like this.”
“You knew Pride?”
Katzenklavier shakes his head, waves a hand dismissively. “I only met him once or twice. I was involved, at one stage, in the Immortal Army project. I left it years before it was complete, though. Creative differences.”
“Ah,” Al says.
He wants to just ask Katzenklavier outright. What are you doing with Selim? Where is the Homunculus? What has gone so very wrong here that you’d resort to the advice of a dangerous traitor? He’s not certain enough yet of his ground. Observe and report.
Katzenklavier has a long, thin cut on his cheek, taped shut. Al wonders about that, too.
“My brother fought him,” Al said. “Pride had to jettison nearly everything but life itself. We thought he might regain some memories as he got older, but no. He’s not faking. He’s a little boy.”
“He’s not a human little boy,” Katzenklavier says. His nostrils arch and he looks at Al as if he’s vaguely disappointed. Al feels as though he’s in a tutorial. “Tomorrow I’ll take some samples, let you have a look at some blood and skin cells under the microscope.” He sounds jolly and generous, although he’s offering Al a treat.
Al reminds himself: just a pinprick and the scrape of a spatula inside Selim’s cheek. But his skin is crawling and prickling. He pictures Katzenklavier’s creations: skittering metal spiders and shambling wooden golems powered by maddened human souls.
“You must be wondering, of course,” Katzenklavier says, “about my artificial human.”
Al lifts his untouched sherry glass, sets it to his lips, downs the whole thing. It leaves a syrupy residue in his mouth. He runs his tongue over his teeth.
Katzenklavier says, “I’m afraid it’s unwell. Would you do me a favour and take a look?”
The back of Al’s mouth tastes like bile.
They look inconspicuous enough, don’t they?
All right, so they’re in the Eastern countryside and four of their travelling party are Xingese. That’s gotten them a few covert stares from the other passengers on this train. But they’re all in Amestrian clothing now, and the bigger cities in the East have a Xingese population — and okay, people around here can be jerks about this stuff, but surely no one’s going to actually call the authorities just because they saw a couple of foreigners, right?
Then there are Winry and Ed. They might look local enough, but should anyone look closely enough, their faces can be recognised from wanted posters up and down the land. They’ve tried at least to make themselves as unremarkable as possible. Ed’s ponytail is hidden under a stupid tweed hat; his automail hand is gloved. At the Amestrian border, good old Mr Han gave them their documents, their cover story, their tickets, their warnings, their plan. They’re good; they’re golden.
So, why is the soldier who just checked their documents sweating so much?
They act casual. Winry feigns polite interest; Mei looks out the window, at the dim shapes of hills rushing past in the night. The six of them have the best poker faces in Amestris right now. The soldier – he’s a lieutenant, Ed notices his pips – reads over their documents a second time. His lips move as he does it. He sweats some more. This train’s mostly empty; they’re the only passengers in the carriage. Next to Ed, Mei shifts fractionally.
Then Lieutenant Whoever-he-is is holding out their documents, stone-faced. He hands them all back to Ed without another word, just a cursory nod. They all stay silent as he walks the length of the empty carriage, works the doors, and is gone to the next car along.
“Since when,” Ed says, after a cautious pause, “do they have the army just patrolling the trains now? We’re not even near the border any more!”
“We were near the border,” Winry says. “And Amestris has a really big army. And the Fuhrer’s an asshole.”
“That soldier,” says Captain Huang Xuanfeng. “Is that normal, how much he was sweating?”
“What?” says Ed, “you think Amestrians sweat more?”
“That’s a myth,” Mei says.
“He seemed really nervous,” Winry said. “Anyone else think —?”
The door at the end of the carriage groans. Everyone stills.
The lieutenant walks rapidly back through the carriage, barely glancing at them. He’s still sweating.
The door at the other end screeches as it’s closed. They’re alone again. They all glance at each other, checking in, checking that everyone is thinking the same thing.
“Shit,” Ed says.
He circles his right wrist, looks at it. The coat’s sleeves are long. There’s no way they could have glimpsed the automail.
“We should scout the train,” Captain Huang says.
Mei’s companions are on their feet before he’s even finished the sentence. Master Feng and Master Liu: one short and cheerful, the other tall and quiet; both somewhere in their forties; and both capable of stunning, terrifying rentanjutsu that Ed could watch all day long, with popcorn and a notebook. With a flick of Feng’s wrist, the feathered knives are in the train’s ceiling, and it peels itself open like a flower, utterly silent. One at a time, they spring from floor to table to roof. The roof closes itself without even a mark; with another transmutation, Mei pulls the knives down from the ceiling.
How many soldiers can there even be on this train? Surely their party has got to be more than a match for however many troopers?
Captain Huang says, “The real challenge isn’t the soldiers.” Ed turns. One step ahead, huh? Huang says, “It’s how we escape if they’ve sounded the alarm.”
“Yep. They’d have radioed already,” Ed says. He glances out the window: in the distance are the hills and crags and forest of Mossop National Park. It’s a great place to get lost: three winters back, he spent weeks hiding out there with Greed and Ling and their little gang. But the miles of countryside between the train track and the start of the forest are all open fields: hardly any cover. Dammit.
Xiao Mei has emerged from her hiding spot in Mei’s bag. She nuzzles Mei; Mei strokes her, frowning. “Well, even if they have spotted us, there’s got to be some way,” Mei says. “We didn’t come all the way from Xing to just get ourselves arrested.”
The roof peels open.
Ed’s on his feet, instantly; the others, too. Liu and Feng drop through the hole they’ve made, and as they silently land, the hole silently reseals. Ed so wants to know how to do that.
“There are fifteen soldiers advancing down the train,” Liu says. He sounds pretty calm about it.
“Advancing?” says Ed.
“Yes,” Feng says. “They identified you, Edward. The hat didn’t work.”
Ed throws off the stupid, itchy, non-disguising hat; he feels instantly five per cent better. “Okay,” he says, “so. Now what?”
“The troops are coming from the rear of the train,” says Captain Huang.
“Uncouple the train car,” says Ed without skipping a beat. He’s pulled this move before in a fight; he’s already out of his seat and jogging towards the carriage door.
He twists the handle, flings it open, and — looks straight into the eyes of a trooper. The barrel of the soldier’s rifle comes up fast, and before Ed has had time to think or move, the gun barrel crackles blue and twists itself into a knot, and a wall of steel slams sideways over the doorway.
“Nice!” Ed says. His heart is hammering. He turns. It was Mei; her hand is pressed to a knife-studded pentagon on the carriage wall. Then he remembers his manners, and adds, “Thanks!” After that, he remembers he has a job to do. He claps and shears through the coupler, before someone does that for him as well. The carriage behind parts from theirs, then drops further and further away down the track.
“Right!” says Mei. “So, we got away from the soldiers, but now they know we’re here.”
“You said they’d have used radios,” Huang says.
“Shit,” Ed says, realising. “They’ll call the next station ahead. The army’s going to be waiting for us when we get there.”
“When’s the next station?” says Huang.
“I don’t know!” says Ed. “Wait, was it Atherholt?”
“I think I heard that,” Winry says. “Should we uncouple this carriage from the train ahead too?”
“Then we’ll make ourselves a target,” says Huang. “The enemy can surround us and isolate us easily.”
Liu looks out of the window. “This terrain is exposed,” he says. “It would be hard to escape.”
“Could we take control of the engine car?” Winry says. “Then we could stop the train!”
“Then what?” Ed says. “You guys are right. We leave the train, we’re targets. We stay in the train, we’re targets. If we got ourselves as far as Mossop National Park, then it’s all wilderness: we could give them the slip.” He paces. “But how the fuck do we get there?”
“Can you turn the engine into a car?” Winry says. They all look at her. “I know, I know,” she says, “alchemy isn’t magic, blahblahblah. But there’s four of you guys! You’re only turning one machine into another. It’d have to be a weird steam-powered car; but still, getaway vehicle.”
“I know nothing about motor vehicles,” Liu says. “I can’t make it if I don’t know how it works.”
Feng nods. “I can drive a car, but I couldn’t transmute one.”
“I’m out too,” Ed says. “Nice idea, though.”
“Well, I could transmute an engine,” Winry says. “If I could transmute an anything. Which I can’t.”
Mei is staring out the window, with big worried eyes. “What’s the soil here made out of?” she says.
“The top soil’s got a lot of clay in it. Under that, sandstone and iron ore,” Ed says. She’s grasping at straws, he thinks. Sure, there’s enough iron that you could pull yourself some out of the earth, enough to make yourself a few rods. Maybe you could get a little more with distant transmutation but still, you couldn’t … you couldn’t …
He starts cackling. “Make our own rails?” he says.
“Why not?” says Mei.
“We’d have to be fast.”
“Well, there are four of us!”
“We need to take the engine room,” says Captain Huang.
They sprint through the mostly-empty carriages, their bags hoisted onto their backs. The passengers stare as they go; a kid sniffles. People must have heard the rear carriages detaching; they’re worried. Great.
“Okay, ” Ed says to the half-dozen people in the front first-class carriage. “Nobody panic! We’re just hijacking the train. Grab your stuff and get in the next carriage back, then call out for help. There are soldiers coming, tell ‘em we’re in the engine car. Tell ‘em we’re threatening you.”
The passengers still stare. They stare like Ed just walked in naked. They stay right where they are. “I’m the Fullmetal Alchemist!” he says. “I’m wanted for treason! We’re dangerous criminals!”
A couple of people gasp; one woman grips another’s sleeve. But the passengers still aren’t moving —
— And there’s flashing movement in Ed’s peripheral vision. He turns his head and sees that Captain Huang suddenly has a long, broad knife in each hand. How the hell was he hiding those in his suit?
Huang steps forward, whirling his arms in a flowing, flashy move, and stops in a combat stance, one arm extended. “We are threatening you,” he says. “Move, or be treated as the enemy!”
As one, the passengers sprint for the exit. Ed makes for the door, and they run to get away from him. After the last one passes through, he claps and shears the connection to the rear carriages.
“You were bluffing,” Ed says, turning to Huang. “Yeah?”
Huang shrugs. “If it came to blows, I’d hardly need to be armed.” He looks at the blank wall at the front end of the carriage, and blinks. “How do we reach the engine car?”
Ed points up; then Mei’s daggers are already marking a circle on the ceiling. Huang and the two rentanjutsu masters spring up to the seats, then up through the hole, backpacks and all. Winry’s the last; she throws her backpack up to Ed first, then, balancing on the top of a seat, manages to haul herself up with the help of his and Mei’s offered hands. For a tiny person, Mei’s surprisingly strong.
Huang, Liu and Feng have already made it to the engine room. Ed, Winry and Mei take the short jump across to the open tender car, then, in the moonlight, they pick their way across the shifting, crunching heaps of coal.
Ed can hear voices from the engine room already. He drops his backpack onto the coal, quickens his pace, sees the hole they’ve made in the top of the cab, vaults through it — and nearly kicks Feng in the face on his way down. The engine cab is tiny. Huang has one long dagger-sword pointed at the driver’s throat. Liu aims a fist full of rentanjutsu knives at the fireman, who, eyes wide, continues to shovel coal into the boiler, keeping the train pumping.
Ed feels instantly shitty. The driver and the fireman, they’re just regular guys. So many people are on Roy’s side, on their side, anyhow. Maybe if Ed explained —
“You’re the Fullmetal Alchemist,” says the driver. His jaw is shaking.
“Yeah,” Ed says. “Look, we don’t want to hurt —”
“Please,” the driver says. “Please. Don’t make me do this. Don’t make me do this, I’ve got a family.”
Shit. It hits Ed like a sock in the jaw: if they make the driver help, knifepoint or not, he’s aided and abetted a bunch of traitors. Hakuro’s guys aren’t going to be reasonable or understanding. He’s fucked.
“Get out!” he says. The driver and the fireman just look at him. He closes his steel right hand over Huang’s long knife, pushes it away from the driver’s throat. Huang jerks the blade back out of Ed’s hand; steel scrapes and rings against steel. The driver draws back against the cab wall, then jumps as Huang again levels a knife at his windpipe.
Ed eyeballs Huang, draws a deep breath in preparation for giving Huang his frank opinion on the subject —
“Captain Huang! Let him go.” It’s Mei, calling down from the roof of the cab.
Huang’s chin jerks down. He points his sword at the floor. “Yes, highness,” he says.
Well, that answers Ed’s lingering confusion about who the hell’s in charge around here.
Ed claps; he grows a ladder up the cab wall, out to the tender car. He turns to the driver. “Get out!” The driver starts scrambling up. Ed takes the shovel from the fireman. “Now!”
He starts shovelling. He has to, if he wants to keep them moving: a steam train eats coal by the ton. Ed digs his shovel into the hopper on the back wall where coal rolls down from the tender; then he turns and throws the coal through the hole inside which the furnace glows and blasts heat like a little sun. In his winter coat, he’s sweating in moments.
Huang grabs his shoulder. “That was naïve and stupid!”
“We didn’t have a right!” Ed says. He shrugs off Huang’s shoulder, thrusts his shovel into the hopper again, turns, throws. “We force those guys to help us, we might as well have killed them. Ask the princess.”
Huang leans into his space, drops his voice. “The seventeenth princess is a fourteen year old girl.”
“Yeah, and she’s your boss,” Ed says.
Huang snorts. He’s a full five inches taller than Ed, not counting the topknot, and a whole bunch broader. He’s using it. He glowers down at Ed; Ed scowls right on back. “Captain Yao was right; she warned me you did this sort of thing. Who’s going to drive this train now?”
From behind the cab, there’s a distant, metallic screech and a crunch. The cab shudders as their one remaining carriage detaches: carrying, Ed guesses, the driver and fireman.
Mei’s head appears in the hole in the roof. “Which way are we headed?”
Ed hands his shovel to Huang, and climbs the ladder far enough to stick his head and shoulders above the roof. “That way,” he says, pointing at the hills of Mossop. Mei nods at him, plants her feet, and slingshots a fist of knives.
“Edward,” Huang calls. “Know how to drive a train?”
“What, of course I don’t!” Ed yells back. “I dunno, how ‘bout we just keep it going then work out how to brake?”
“I can drive the train,” says Winry.
Ed looks round: she’s on her feet on top of the tender car, legs spread and arms out for balance. She’s got that look in her eye. “I could,” she says.
“Uh,” Ed says. “I know you had that train phase when we were kids,” Ed says, “but you didn’t actually learn how to drive —”
Winry is headed for the ladder already; he drops back into the cab to let her scramble down. “Reversing lever!” she says, pointing at the bank of instrumentation. “Throttle! See? Cylinder cocks — don’t you laugh — engine brakes! I had a book off by heart, I got the driver to let me see the cab every time we went to East!” She takes hold of the throttle. “Whistle cable!” She yanks on a cable above her head; the steam whistle blows two short blasts. Winry grins and fist-pumps the air. Huang shakes his head at her.
“Yeah, well,” Ed says, “That was a while back.”
“Too late!” Winry says. “I’m already driving it, smartypants.” And she sticks her tongue out at him.
That’s that; after a moment, Ed can’t help but shrug and grin. He claps Winry on the shoulder. Huang is still shovelling. He’s lost the shirt and jacket. Ed grins and jiggles his eyebrows at him, hoping to aggravate. Then — ha! — he heads up the ladder.
Up top, the chilly wind whips his hair as they plough through the countryside. The new rails have curved far away from the tracks. Ed turns; at the rear of the tender, Ed can see Feng and Liu’s figures and the flash of transmutations. He jumps onto the tender, runs its length. His boots crunch in the coal; the night air buffets his back. As he thought, they’re pulling up the transmuted track after them. Ed can just about make out the earth sinking, the grass stretching, so neatly, for yards and yards behind their train.
They’re pulling this off! They really are! Okay, so they’ve got to get to Mossop and then Winry has to brake and then they’ve got to hide a fifty foot long steam engine and cover their tracks and navigate themselves through the wilderness and out again. But they got this far! What a team! The audacity of their escape, the flash of it, the brilliant results of their shared efforts: it makes Ed want to crow.
He runs back up to the cab, and watches the dark hills of Mossop get steadily closer. He watches Mei transmuting for a moment. The ground in front of the train rises up to make them a platform, and then new iron curls up to meet them. Every so often, Mei will stop to transmute a new set of daggers out of the cab roof. There’s a little scoop of metal gone where she’s been plundering it. And Ed? It looks like, for once in his life, he can sit this one out. Or rather, he can head below and make Huang the generous offer of another pair of arms to shovel the coal.
Mei hasn’t even broken a sweat.
Rentanjutsu has never looked like such a tempting field of study as it does right now.
It’s in a glass tank.
A glass tank, carpeted with sawdust, with a bell, wooden blocks, shredded newspaper, a chewed blanket. As if it were a rabbit.
A single tendril is poking out of the pile of shredded paper. The stubby digits at its end twitch and shift occasionally.
“You’re feeding it?” he says.
“Of course,” says Katzenklavier. “Just blood. But it’s not eating very well. What do you think?”
Of the creature’s qi, Al supposes that he means. Al folds his arms. “It’s not like I can see much.” It’s only half a lie.
“I believe it was …” Katzenklavier pauses, considers, blows a slow breath out through his teeth. “Disturbed is probably the word. By the situation at headquarters.”
The situation? “The coup? What happened?” Al still doesn’t know. Did it kill? Did it kill his friends?
“It was fired upon. The situation became chaotic, it got agitated. It attacked its handler.” Another whistling sigh. Al can only imagine what the creature did to the poor bastard. “I take some responsibility. I’m a little old for that sort of thing myself, but the handler was inexperienced and temperamentally unsuitable.” Katzenklavier looks at Al, sidelong. “Do you remember fighting it? On the train?”
“ Yes,” Al says. Deadly and uncontrolled. Powerful and chaotic. Flailing. Fearful. It had drained a couple of pints of blood from Brother in a couple of minutes; it had known instinctually how to do so. Or it had learnt. “Is it always this … sensitive in combat situations?”
“Yes,” says Katzenklavier. “You spoke with Father at some point, yes? The Xerxean Homunculus?”
Damn. How far was he in? “Yes,” Al says.
“A matured Homunculus is so different to this little thing.” Katzenklavier taps the glass. The single visible shadow-tendril pulls back into the newspaper nest like a snail’s eyestalk. “So powerful and so hardy. I imagine the difference is very much like that between an adult human being and an infant.”
Al can’t imagine what he’s supposed to say. He supposes his job is to nod. He nods.
“Homunculi, however, have advantages in this regard.” Katzenklavier turns from the tank, and looks Al in the eye. “We can mature this one faster, and we need to. We don’t want an adult, of course. We don’t want it any larger, but we do need it more stable. A question of balance, and the material’s volatile.”
“And it’s not eating?”
“Exactly.” Katzenklavier pats Al’s shoulder for a moment. Al’s skin nearly crackles with instinctive disgust. “I’ll leave you to examine it. I’d stay hands off if I were you.”
He goes out of the room and Al pulls himself up a chair. He sits. He thinks. He sees no mirror, but he doesn’t doubt for a second he’s being observed.
So. Even under threat of death, even with his family under threat of death, how far does Katzenklavier think Al will be willing to help? Al isn’t sure if there isn’t some further secret here. Perhaps he’s banking on Al’s scientific curiosity, his alchemist’s fascination with the taboo. Perhaps he thinks Al will find the creature safer stable. At any rate, at least Al’s course right now is straightforward. Discover the condition of the creature, get a message out to Mustang, and decide how honest to be with Katzenklavier about what he’s discovered.
Al has his books here; The Perfection of Matter and its commentary. He may as well start there. So he sits cross-legged on the floor, reads and thinks. He glances up occasionally at the tank, and notices no movement. It’s an odd respite, to be left almost alone with his books. The winter sun comes in at the tall old window. Through it, Al glimpses gardens, bare trees. They’re at Mrs Bradley’s manor house: he’s almost sure of it now.
After a couple of hours, Al calls for a glass of water and is allowed to drink it, under armed supervision.
An hour after that, he looks up and the creature is there. It’s pressed against the glass, half a dozen eyes watching him. Its limbs rake nervously through the sawdust.
“Hello,” Al says.
The creature watches him, unblinking.
“I won’t hurt you,” Al says. “I’m just reading.”
A few of the eyes blink slowly at him. Of course, Al fought this thing a few months ago. Does it remember?
Slowly, as if backing away from Al, it withdraws again into its shredded newspaper nest. Looks like it does remember.
Al’s lunch is delivered under the same supervision. He asks for a message to be passed to Katzenklavier that he’ll remain here for the rest of the day.
It takes two days of this routine for the creature to stop hiding from him. After it emerges, just after sunset on the second day, they watch each other for a while.
“How’s it going?” Al says.
A sharp mouth opens in the creature’s centre. It presses the lips together into a line, as if considering, then parts them. “I want to come out of the tank,” it says. A scraping, many-voiced sound, sad and strange. Al jolts a little; he hasn’t heard it speak since the train.
“You do, huh?” Al says.
“It’s boring and I’m on my own,” the creature says. It shifts over to the tank’s other side, presses eyes to the glass. Its bulk drags and undulates like a slug’s.
“What do you do when you’re out the tank?” Al says. It’s dangerous, he thinks. But Katzenklavier was in the habit of letting it out in the past. And he could gain its trust.
“Play,” says the creature, “talk. Look at things.”
This might not be such a good idea. It really might not. Al needs to make progress. Won’t he have to take this risk at some point? Should he wait.
It’s gathered itself up tall now, and is still and contained, watching him the way a stray cat watches you.
His nerves jangle. He questions his own good sense as he undoes the catches, swings back the lid of the tank. It feels like he's been holding out for so damn long, tired and hungry and powerless and chained, playing good, waiting. And here is a chance, here is an opportunity to get some real information for Mustang, to move them towards an advantage. He reaches his arms down slowly. That chain of people stretching down from Mustang in Briggs to Mrs Bradley here: they've taken such risks to pass him a message. Now he's taking a risk for them.
He doubts himself. The creature is calm. This is instinct. This is a hunch. This is ridiculous. Al may as well be opening the door to a tiger cage. If he misjudged, his death won't get anyone anywhere.
He reconsiders, and starts to straighten.
And — of course — tendrils rapidly coil around both his arms, prickling like wire wool, and the creature hoists itself up, and its weight is upon him. It’s heavy and amorphous, shifting on him like a bag of water. Al remembers the creature swarming Ed on the train, clinging, suffocating, trying to bleed him dry. This thing is stronger than Al. He goes to his knees, sits on the floor.
He looks at the creature. The eyes stare back into him. There is nothing like a human expression there, nothing like a face. Al cannot read it. The not-skin of the creature prickles Al’s arms, scratches through his shirt. Al concentrates and feels the souls within it shift and jerk, but it’s hard for him to focus like this, and too unnerving. Tendrils extend and stroke Al’s neck, pat curiously at his hair. Around him, Al’s body is going into full-on fight or flight mode. His heart is pistoning a cocktail of stress hormones round his system. He feels them kicking in, lets it all settle for a moment: stay focussed, stay calm. Should he speak? Should he try to lift it off?
“I miss Selim,” the creature says. Selim? “Do you know where Selim is?”
“Yes,” Al says. “Selim’s fine. You guys — know each other?”
“He used to come here and play,” the creature says. Its weight slumps into Al’s lap. The tendrils pull from his hair and tap at his chest. “All the time. But not any more.”
“You played together?” Al says. Sounds ominous.
“Snap,” says the creature.
Al boggles. “Snap?”
“It’s a game with cards,” says the creature. “And he tells stories, and we sit together. I like Selim.”
“Is that why you’re not eating?” Al says.
“No,” the creature says. “It’s because they’re putting water in it. There’s not enough. It tastes bad.”
Oh. They’re watering down the blood, to keep it small; hoping it won’t notice, maybe. Katzenklavier could have mentioned.
“I’m really hungry,” says the creature.
“I’m sorry,” says Al, “that sucks,” and his heart leaps into his gullet. He’s kicking himself so hard right now.
Stupid for doing this, stupid for telling himself he made the right call, stupid because he’s realised just what might be about to happen, and if he can’t get the creature off him in time, it’s going to be his own damn fault. Carefully, carefully, he puts a hand to the tendril around his left forearm. A stubby baby hand clings to his finger, and he unwinds one spool, two —
The bite into the soft flesh at his inner elbow is sharp and agonising and very unsurprising. Al hisses, and the pain recedes to a heavy throb, and then there’s suction.
Al breathes. After a moment, he tries to unwind the limb again. It tightens hard around his upper arm, the friction scrapes Al’s skin, and the suction gets greedier and it makes Al gasp. A paw bats at the side of his face, lightly, and the creature makes an unhappy noise. Al stills.
“Do you do this to the doctor?” Al says.
“No,” says a mouth opening in the cloudy mass over Al’s shoulder. “He doesn’t like it.”
“I don’t like it,” Al says. “It hurts. You don’t like it when things hurt, right?”
“It hurts when I’m hungry,” says the mouth. It sounds petulant.
“It’ll really hurt me if you take too much,” Al says. Why should it care? says a voice in his head. This isn’t Selim. This isn’t a nearly-human child. Then, inspired, “Would you like me to find out why Selim doesn’t come here any more?”
“Yes!” says the creature. It sucks emphatically, and Al can’t help but put a hand on it over his arm. His ears buzz. Either it’s bleeding him fast or he’s hyperventilating; he hopes so much it’s the latter. He draws in a slow, deep breath.
“I know you’re hungry, but it’s hurting me,” Al says. “Have you had enough? Can you stop? I can’t find out stuff for you if I’m —”
The tendril has uncurled from his arm. The release is sudden; Al brings his arm up, inspects the puncture mark. The wound is small, like he got jabbed with a scissor-prong. It bleeds sluggishly. Al presses a thumb over it. So the creature picked a vein, not an artery. Al isn’t going to bleed out. Oh good.
The creature sits in his lap, if you can call it sitting, looking at him with twice as many eyes as before and saying nothing. Against his better judgment, Al pats it gingerly. “Thanks for letting go,” he says.
The creature looks at him.
“Are you full now?” he says.
“Quite full,” the creature says. It slithers off his lap, spreads itself across the floor, and starts examining the curtains. The windows are sealed shut. Al wonders: it must have the strength to break glass, but they contain it in a tank. Does it know that it has that strength? Is it afraid? Habituated to captivity? Half-tamed things are often the most dangerous. Al probably should have remembered that before he tried this.
Al also notices that, despite the fact that someone must be watching all of this, no one showed up to help. He can’t decide if that’s a plus or a minus.
After a few more moments of worrying the curtains, the creature stretches and slinks all the way over and back in its tank. Al moves cautiously, cautiously over, and he puts a hand to the lid. The creature regards him with what Al interprets as mild interest. Its eyes close to slits, and it burrows into its paper nest.
Softly, Al closes the lid, locks it down, checks the locks, checks them again. Blood trickles down his arm and over his palm. He presses fingertips to the puncture wound.
He needs to speak to Selim about this, immediately. A conversation with Selim, and a message for his mother to pass north. In his head, Al begins to compose the code.
Al walks all the way over to the far wall, his legs suddenly unsteady and shaking. He sits on the floor, leans his back against the solid wall, watches the tank, and breathes.
Between them, the four alchemists bury that huge and magnificent engine in thirty seconds flat, without a drop of sweat. Winry and Captain Huang watch from a safe distance as the earth scoops out from under it in a great wave. The sound of the train toppling into its grave seems to reverberate for miles around. But they’re deep in the national park; hopefully, hopefully, there is no one around to hear.
Then there are three hours of hiking into the wilderness in the freezing night, mapless and with only the dim moonlight to guide them. Huang leads them up into the hills, along winding trails. Mei and the others march on, looking hardy, while Winry gradually feels the cold starting to coil into her bones. It’s deep winter now, and although there’s no snow here now, it must be near freezing. Ed’s had Northern automail for years now, but still, Winry watches his strides carefully. He’s always stubborn; and he’s apparently got some kind of competitive sexual tension thing happening with Huang, so if the cold’s getting to him, there’s no way he’ll admit it.
Surprisingly, it’s quiet Master Liu who’s the first one to say it. “That cave,” he says. “This is a good spot to rest. We can light a fire in the mouth.”
“Is this bear country?” says Feng.
“No,” Ed says. “Bears and wolves are only way up north. Worst you’ll get in these parts is a cranky badger.” His voice sounds scratchy and tired. It is getting to him.
They take an hour’s watch each. After her own stint, Winry can’t sleep. She curls next to Mei, but her eyes are half-open, watching the fire and Captain Huang’s back beyond it.
Rush Valley is south-east from here. Briggs is straight North. In the morning, they’re all going to have to part. And then?
How many times has she waved goodbye to Ed and Al, not knowing when or if there’ll be a hello? There’s been danger before. She’s been on the lam before. She spent a winter hiding out in a city she didn’t know, with Al, with the boys’ odd and lovely father, with strangers who became friends.
But this time is so very different.
They’re fifty miles from Granny’s house, but she can’t visit, can’t even risk a message. She’s a criminal, a saboteur, a traitor. Revolutionary, resistance fighter: those names sound kind of better. But this time is different, and not just because she got herself into more trouble.
She’s going to war. This isn’t how she pictured it. Her parents died by standing in the middle of a bloody and unconscionable war, trying to heal people. That’s her place — but it’s not the place that she’s headed right now.
The Rush Valley Network started out with aims and methods: sabotage and obstruction, keeping weapons out of the hands of the enemy. They were all so very keen never to get violent, never to pick up guns, in that meeting in the top room of the Bell Inn. Now she’s taking them a warrior.
They do need someone like Captain Huang, Ling and Ran Fan were right about that; and she trusts them to give her a trustworthy guy, the right guy for the job. But yesterday morning, he said to her, whatever they planned, whatever they promised — if your friends are still alive, they will all have picked up a rifle by now.
He might be right. She’s afraid.
What is happening to her friends, right now, up in the mountains? She nearly shot a man, once, and for all Ed told her she wasn’t capable of it, in truth, she thinks she might be. It’s funny: Rush Valley was always for her the place where she discovered what she could really do. Now she’s returning, and she knows it’s changed, and she’s going to discover once more what she’s capable of. And she’s afraid: fear is with her constantly, every day now, crouching at the back of her mind, twisting in her abdomen. Ed, Al, Granny, her friends, herself. What could be done to them. What could be done to her. What could be done to the country. But beyond everything, most of all: what she might do.
She’s going anyway, of course.
Ed’s awake soon after dawn. He watches her, sleepy-eyed and wryly smiling, as she checks her backpack.
Captain Huang stands by the mouth of the cave. In the early morning, the view is magnificent, the sky still pink, the wind like a face full of ice.
She leans over, kisses Mei on the cheek as she sleeps. She shoulders her pack.
Ed stands without a word, comes over, hugs her hard. “Good luck,” she whispers to him. “Thank you for everything.”
“Don’t say that stuff now,” Ed mutters. “Don’t say that stuff. We’re gonna see each other again, you and me and Al. We’ll meet you in Central, meet you for the inauguration.”
Winry shakes her head against Ed’s shoulder; nearly laughs, but her throat closes up on her. “You don’t say that stuff now,” she says, and her voice catches twice on six words. But Ed’s faith — absolute, ridiculous — it’s always been infectious.
Just before the track curves around the hill, she turns back. He’s standing just outside the mouth of the cave. When he sees her turn, he raises his fist in the air. This time she does laugh, just a little bit. She raises her fist in return, holds it high as they walk around the corner and out of sight.
She digs a hand under her jacket, pulls out from round her neck the little compass on a ribbon that Ran Fan gave her.
“South-east,” Captain Huang says.
“Rush Valley,” she says, and points. “Lot of people counting on us. Off we go.”
It’s going to be a long walk.
On to Chapter 6!