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. Mistreatment of a child.
Word Count: 8960
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. Special thanks to sky_dark this chapter for wrangling the feels.
Chapter 1 | Chapter 2 | Chapter 3 | Chapter 4 | Chapter 5
The sunshine warms the back of Ed’s neck; it makes the snow glare bright enough that Ed can’t keep his eyes on it. He looks higher instead: at the horizon, at the peaks of the great Northern mountains stretching on and on, fading all the way into Drachma.
In the snow, there are no trails to follow, but Liu has map and compass and is navigating them cross-country, winding around the sides of the peaks. A mountain rises in great white banks at Ed’s left side; on his right, it falls away in long slopes down to a pine forest half-buried in snow.
In front of him, Mei marches stolidly forward in her snow shoes. Hiking in these things is such a ball ache. But they don’t have far to go. Beyond the next ridge, or the ridge after that, is Briggs Fortress.
The march is a quiet one now. Ed ran out of conversation days ago; they all did. They’re all pretty tired. He just looks ahead. It’s funny, really. He could talk about rentanjutsu all day and night forever, and here he is in the wilderness with three rentanjutsu masters. But this journey, this long aching crappy journey, is getting to him. He's crossed two continents, months and months, on the run, with no Al and no Roy, feeding the little fire of hope inside of him, feeding it and shielding it and trying so fucking hard not to think about all the bad shit, the stuff that could snuff it to an ember.
He doesn’t remember being this tired the first time around, through the years of his quest with Al, counting down to the Promised Day. He was a kid. Maybe that made it easier. Somehow he can’t shake it off this time. Feeling old at twenty; Roy would laugh at him.
And so, here he is, with three of the most fascinating founts of fascinating knowledge of a fascinating discipline. Really, he should be fascinated. But right now, he just can’t get it up.
What can he get it up for? The sight of Briggs. Just the fortress, in the distance. And that’ll be enough to keep him going until he arrives, until, in his imagination, he sees Roy standing there, right in front of it, doing that dumbass pose he does when he’s trying to look badass but all casual with it, like he’s so cool hasn’t even noticed how cool he is. That posture: feet planted, hands in his trouser pockets, coat tails pushed back to swing dramatically behind him.
Then maybe Ed will just grab his coat lapels and yank him forward and go ahead and kiss him in front of half the Northern army.
He could get it up for that.
He could get it up for a hot bath, although he knows in Briggs Fortress his chances are not so great. He’s reached a point in this trip where he’s stopped trying to manage his expectations and has started openly fantasising: hot baths, spicy stew and beer, some indeterminate kind of cloudy toasty-warm mega-bed. A few weeks ago he was in the Imperial Palace in Xing and he actually briefly had all this stuff. Under the circumstances, he’d felt obligated to resent it wildly, even as he stuffed his face and took three baths a day. Now it just seems like a waste of luxury not to actually luxuriate in it. He’s done feeling resentful of it because other people have it harder than him. Ed’s not dead and he’s not in prison, and some people are, but now it seems like it’s been forever he’s been cold and hungry and his back hurting and his automail ports aching deep with the cold. He’s just bone tired. So. Luxury. Bring it on.
Or, more realistically, bring on Briggs, which will not be luxurious, but will be vaguely like civilisation. Bring on a bed, of some description. Bring on fire. Bring on a hot mug of slightly crappy army cocoa. Bring on Roy, in all his shades and nuances: his careful intonations and his little frowns and his wry jokes and his broad shoulders. Bring on Roy, alive and warm and real, to trade stories and talk around worries and plan plans with him, to hold in his arms. Bring on Roy.
There’s so much further to struggle after he reaches Briggs, he knows. Al. Revolution. War. The little Homunculus. Right now, though, he can’t even look at it all. It’s like the glaring snow, like the mountains stretching ahead until they blend into the sky. Too much at once. He just needs to get to the next staging post. Just the next.
“I see it!” Liu yells. “Just round the corner!”
They all pick up the pace.
Ed rounds the corner, slowed by Mei’s little legs and trying not to resent it. Behind the mountain, it reveals itself gradually: the dark grey block of Briggs Fortress, nestled into the peaks.
“It’s very boxy,” Feng says. “I thought it was supposed to be a castle.”
“It’s modern,” Ed says. “Mid-nineteenth century or something.” They made him learn the date in school, a billion years ago, but he was busy doodling formulae into his desktop with the point of a compass.
“A few hours’ walk?” Mei asks.
“Perhaps two or three,” Liu says.
She sighs. “Further than it looks.”
Liu draws a breath. “Well,” he says, “to feel hunger and cold and exhaustion, in such a magnificent landscape, reminds one that one is —“
“— Nothing but a tiny human being,” Feng continues.
“— Caught up in Nature’s great indifferent flow,” Ed finishes. “Sorry, man, but I am so sick of that poem now.”
“It’s better in Xingese,” Liu says. He draws a breath and begins reciting, and then Feng and Mei cut him off by groaning theatrically.
“We should be nice,” Feng says. “It is his favourite poem.”
“Do you have a favourite poem, Ed?” says Mei.
Ed snorts. “Nope. But I can teach you the official song of Briggs if you like. If I had the wings of an eagle, if I had the ass of —“
Ed looks away from the fort on the horizon and back at her, and realises she’s clearing snow off her cheek. He follows her gaze up. A little flurry of snow is trickling down the mountainside above them.
“It’s the sunny weather, I think,” Feng says. “After the rain.” The snowslide has become a stream of powder over their boots.
“Listen to the big expert,” Liu says. “Feng, you’re from Longyamen. It’s the tropics, you’d never even seen snow until two weeks ago.”
“Yes, but he’s right,” says Mei. “In winter in my province, the rain —“
Ed doesn’t hear the rest, because a big spray of snow hits him in the face. It’s loud in his ears, aching-freezing, and he tries to slap it away, to shield his face. His feet slip. He plants his legs, trying to work out how he suddenly lost his footing, and he realises that the ground is moving under him, wait, now it is moving under him, far too fast, and he can’t look around him because fucking snow spray in his face and his foot or the ground or something abruptly slips again and now the ground is gone from under him, and his feet kick at nothing. He’s pulled under and the sunlight is gone.
The world goes blue and dark. It’s like he’s underwater. The world is light filtered through snow, roaring in his ears; he’s somewhere in the deep, and snow is pouring around him, throwing him around, spinning him. He is flying, he is drowning, a building is falling in on his head.
The impact is a hard slap at his back. He lands. He’s stopped. But the flood of snow never slows: as he tries to draw breath, it pours around him and crushes him in. He puts his hands up against it, then tries to bring his palms together, but the sheer force of it keeps them wrenched apart, and the snow just keeps on pouring and pressing around him so hard, so relentlessly.
And then, finally, finally, it is all done. And he is packed in on all sides by snow that is solid, immovable, impossibly hard; and he can see only faint blue light; and there is a long and ringing silence.
Al and Dr. Katzenklavier sit together behind the one-way mirror.
On the other side of it, the infant Homunculus sits in Selim’s lap, curled like a cat. One thin tentacle inspects the toy car Selim is holding in the air.
“This is the baby car,” Selim says to the creature. Next to it, he holds up a battered tin double-decker bus. “And this is the mommy car. They drive everywhere together.” He mimes the motion.
The creature extends stubby digits from the tentacle, wraps the little car. Selim relinquishes it calmly. They crash car and bus into each other a couple of times.
Al holds his breath. Dr. Katzenklavier turns his head. Al stares ahead, doesn’t make eye contact.
“What do they do when the baby car’s hungry?” says the creature. Its polyphonic voice is high and low at the same time, muffled through the glass.
“They eat grass,” Selim tells him, with a definitive air. “Mommy car cuts it up.”
“I’m hungry,” the creature adds.
Selim turns bus and car on their side, lays them on the floor. “Now they’re sleeping. You’re always hungry.”
Alarm jolts through Al’s system. Next to him, Katzenklavier has gone still. Al turns. Katzenklavier doesn’t look at him.
“I think I should go out there,” Al says.
Katzenklavier blinks, doesn’t look at him, and points a deliberate finger forward, to the other side of the glass.
One of the creature’s limbs nuzzles at the inside of Selim’s elbow. Al stares. He makes out the edges of a tiny mouth.
“This isn’t the first time,” Al says, realising. His stomach rolls over.
“No,” says Katzenklavier. He stares ahead, intent, extends his finger to a brass button on the wall. Selim is wincing but he doesn’t look afraid: more reluctantly tolerant, pouting slightly. As if he’s submitting to having his face washed, or his hair cut.
Katzenklavier’s lips are moving. He counts down: three, two, one.
He presses the button. Nothing sounds, but a moment later, a uniformed man and woman are in the room. A glass bell jar is clapped over the creature’s body. Selim shrieks and scrambles back. The creature lets go of his elbow, shoots its limbs back within itself, emits a panicky whine.
"Don't take him!" Selim yells. "Don't take him, don't take him! Don't don't, please, don't, please!" He yells again and again. His little face is red and scrunched; tears are starting in his eyes.
The bell jar sits on the floor. Al has risen to his feet. He watches, sucking in air, as one of the officers slips a lid under the bell jar, practiced and cautious. Al glimpses a pocket watch. State Alchemists.
In its glass case, the creature hunches into a miserable ball. Selim sits on the floor and bawls with the uninhibited abandon of small children everywhere. As the alchemists remove the glass jar to a corner, another soldier brushes past them, sets a field medical kit down on the floor. He takes Selim’s arm with no gentleness, dabs on iodine, slaps on a dressing. Selim’s sobs quieten a little as he does it, but when he lets go, he raises his voice to a wretched howl.
“You’ve done this before,” Al murmurs. “You starve it and then let it feed from Selim.”
“We have done,” Katzenklavier says. “We do limit the quantity.” He ushers Al from the room with a hand to his back. Al is guarded; he doesn’t dare shake it off. “And we were holding off recently, to observe the effects of deprivation.” He seems to catch Al’s look and he shrugs. “The experiment was something of a stab in the dark, so.”
Al can’t think of what to say to this man. He wants to say plenty of things. It’s just, he just can’t seem to locate the words.
Selim is a small, miserable ball, hugging his knees in the soldier’s shadow. The soldier bends down to speak to him, saying words Al can’t hear. Al registers more movement — the soldier’s arm reaching out — no, wait. It hasn’t moved. It takes him a moment to put it together. He saw — thinks he saw — the man’s shadow stretch its arm, and then he looks up, and the man’s arm was still.
He stares at Selim and the soldier. He stares at the shadows at their feet, stares himself blind as the soldier speaks to Selim and then picks him up, as Selim wraps his small arms around his shoulders and quietly sniffles, and their joined and perfectly ordinary shadow follows them as they walk out of the room.
Did Al see that? Did he?
He turns; Katzenklavier looks at him with his usual face on: civil, mild and unreadable, like a butler in a movie.
“All yours,” says Katzenklavier, opening the door with a smooth flourish. He sweeps off. Al rushes in.
The snow packs around Ed from every side, and it feels hard, solid. He can’t move his hands. He can’t turn his head. There’s snow between his lips and his teeth. He’s encased, tilted halfway on his back, his eyes open to slits, staring at sunlight filtered deep blue through the snow above him.
It’s like a coffin. It is a coffin.
His hands are raised in front of him: protecting himself reflexively, he guesses. He doesn’t remember doing that. He can’t see his hands, but he estimates they’re maybe ten inches or so apart. He can feel that the glove has been ripped from his left hand; his right too, he guesses. His fingers ache with the chill. All of him aches. And he cannot move an inch: not even to turn his head, or to wriggle a finger.
And to think that he’s within sight of Briggs; or at least, he would be if he wasn’t buried under a fucking avalanche.
What happened to the others? They’re probably in the same fix as him. He can’t bank on a rescue right now, at any rate.
He has the worst luck with the North, Ed thinks. Survival of the fittest. Asshole of a place, fucked if he’s ever coming here again. Weather, he thinks, weary. Two continents, an army after him, Roy two miles away and Al spying for them from prison, and he’s going to get himself killed by the goddamn weather. This is stupid. It’s ridiculous. He laughs; his mouth fills with snow.
So here he is. An odd, warm, quiet feeling settles somewhere deep within him. After a few moments he considers the feeling. It can’t be a good sign. Where is the fire he depends upon in these deadly moments, that thing inside him that makes him grit his teeth and say screw you, death, I’m getting out of this?
There can’t be that much air in here.
Well, there are pretty much two outcomes to this: either he somehow gets his hands together to clap, or he fails to manage it, and he probably suffocates to death before he freezes.
Well, that’s nice and straightforward. He has to try.
He drifts for a moment, considering the idea of trying.
No. Move. Just fucking do it, Elric.
No dice. Or rather, he realises after a few frustrating wriggles, nought point one percent dice. He has definitely enlarged the degree to which his fingers can move, just a little. He wants to stop. He doesn’t let himself; he continues. Wriggling his fingers, pushing back, slowly gaining a little ground. His left hand is rapidly and painfully going numb. The right, which was always numb, has the advantage. When shit goes down, it often does.
Slowly, slowly, Ed works his fingers towards one another. His left hand aches some more, numbs some more. He thinks again about stopping, just for a moment, stopping and letting himself drift for a moment or two. But no. If he stops, he won’t start again. He has found a tiny spark of stubborn energy within himself, and he uses it, fuels it with a stupid pep-talk litany in his head. Suck it up. Keep moving. He can just about feel how the space his fingers are moving in is larger now. His face aches, then numbs. He shivers. The blue underwater light starts to turn colours, brown and purple. So, he’s breathing deoxygenated air now, he thinks. He doesn’t have much time. He clenches his jaw and keeps up the steady working of his hands, fingers back and forth. Get there. Al. Winry. Granny. Ling. Roy. Your mission. Your job. Get there. The part of him that feels and cares about any of this is numbing out like he’s blind drunk. The colours in front of his eyes swirl and shift. His shivering has become convulsive, unstoppable. The weird warmth in his chest is spreading out. He keeps moving. Get there. Don’t stop. Don’t space out. Don’t go to sleep. Get there. Don’t sleep.
When his right middle finger reaches out and taps something solid, the hit of surprise feels small and distant.
He’s blank for a moment. Did he imagine this? He tries again. Right now his left hand is as numb as the automail. But still, he can tell as always that his right hand touches something: he feels the resistance running through to his shoulder. He tries to wiggle the fingers of his chilled left hand. Sure enough, the thing touching the tips of his automail fingers moves.
His ears ring; his head feels fizzy and light. No, not now. He bites his own frozen lip and the pain, for a moment, returns him to himself. His fingers connect again, and for an instant he has clarity and intent, becomes the circle, wills the formula —
Around his hands, the snow blasts up into the air. Suddenly there’s sunlight, blinding, and air, and he sucks in two full breaths before the snow rains back down around him.
There’s a moment of panic; another moment where he just holds the air in his lungs and tries to centre himself. Then singing relief. The snow that’s fallen now is loose and light, not packed in like concrete around him the way the avalanche was. He waves his arms, trying to clear it — and oh, man, he had no idea until now how cold he was. His movements are stiff and slow and useless. He aches. He shivers. He claps again; sprays snow up. He sucks in more air. This time, not quite as much of the snow rains down again. A little more of him is freed. He examines his formula, thoughts moving slow. He’s certain there must a better way to do this, a way he could see if only more of his brain were only in commission right now.
Five claps later, he’s achieved something. He is now lying at the bottom of a pit of snow, drained and dizzy. One leg is mostly dug out. He marvels at how long it has taken him to achieve only this much. Human weapon versus weather: who knew it’d go like this?
He has air, and theoretically, the ability to move, but he still has a problem. He’s shivering less now; that warm, sleepy, indifferent feeling is enveloping him. He has air now but it’s stronger than ever. Hypothermia. He realises, and sees: how it’s making him increasingly unable to think, increasingly unable to transmute his way out of a paper bag. Crap. Dig the damn leg out, he thinks vaguely.
“Help,” he says. It’s a croak, the volume barely conversational. That was supposed to be a full-throated yell. “Help.” He tries again. Wait, you’re not even supposed to yell in an avalanche. Fuck, his head.
— And out of nowhere, a miniature sun flashes into existence above him: a blazing steady fireball hanging over his pit.
A blast of heat in his face, and then it spreads, warms. He grins stupidly at it. He frowns at it. It baffles him. The sides of his pit trickle with moisture. The heat makes him ache. What the hell? He hears people talking. People? Someone in Briggs snow gear appears above him, and he blinks in slow surprise. People. Where did they come from?
The Briggs soldier hacks at the slushy sides of the pit. Ed moves his lips, but he can’t think of anything to say. Someone else hauls him up by the shoulders, lifts him. Raising his eyes, Ed glimpses a rope pulley.
Then he’s on the mountainside, held half-upright. The peaks stretch into the distance; below them the square grey mass of Briggs Fortress, set into the Wall. Someone is saying give him here, give him here.
“Give him here,” says Roy, right in front of his nose.
And then he is in Roy’s arms. Roy is a hallucination in a Northern army uniform: hair in his eyes, voice achingly familiar, arms gripping Ed under the armpits, lowering him to the ground. Ed stares at him and at the sky, and he tries to make it all make sense.
He’s on the ground. Roy has one glove off, in his teeth, and he’s taking Ed’s carotid pulse with two warm fingers, looking at Ed carefully. Ed looks at him, and then his eyes slide off to the side, to Roy’s boots and to the pair of skis laid next to him on the snow.
“You have skis,” Ed says. Roy wrinkles his nose. “You have skis.” He laughs. It makes his face ache and his head get dizzy.
Roy leans in, presses an ungloved, impossibly warm hand to the side of his face. “Shit,” Roy says.
“Well, good fucking afternoon to you too,” Ed says. He leans into the hand. Then his brain abruptly decides it’s clocking off for today; it gives him about a half-second of notice, and then he passes out cold.
“They took Selim away again,” says the creature. It curls itself into Al’s lap miserably. He offers it a tentative, comforting hand, and submits with resignation when it bites a pinprick fang into the pad of his index finger, and starts to suck. “They took him away because I’m a monster,” says the creature.
“No, you’re not,” Al says. The thing in his lap looks nowhere near human — he knows this — but still he’s suddenly hotly angry at the idea. “You’re a child,” he says. “You can’t be a monster and a child, it’s impossible. It doesn’t matter what you look like to other people. You’re a child.” Just a scared little kid stuck in a strange and frightening body.
Well, now at least now he’s worked out why he’s so partial to the little creature.
“Selim is too,” says the creature.
“A monster,” the creature says. It sounds pouting, hurt, resentful.
“No, he isn’t,” Al says. Part of him thinks, wait, what? Selim remembers nothing. “He’s a child too. He’s a little boy.”
The creature looks up at Al with a dozen sad eyes. “He’s a monster who thinks he’s a little boy.”
Al’s stomach lurches. “No,” he says. “That’s not how it is.”
“You and him,” the creature says, deliberate, sulking, “had a fight.”
Al holds his breath.
“And he had a fight with your brother, and he had a fight with your brother’s friends, and he had a fight with Mustang.” The creature’s mouths pout, stubborn. “He killed lots of people too. He killed more people than me.”
“Who told you this?” Al’s breath is coming too fast. Selim remembers? Or?
“Nobody did,” says the creature. “I found it out for myself.”
“I looked in the blood.”
“And?” Al catches his breath, trying to think it out. “What can you tell from my blood? Can you tell me what I had for breakfast this morning?”
The creature sucks meditatively on Al’s finger. Then it says, “Lots of sugar. Chocolate and nuts.”
It’s right. Chocolate-hazelnut paste on a bread roll. So it can guess food from traces in the blood. But that’s not a memory. “What did I dream about?” Al says.
“I don’t know,” says the creature. “Selim has different blood. It’s noisy. It’s full of people.”
Al draws another breath. But Selim - on the Promised Day, Ed had stripped Pride of everything but life itself: infant life, desire, potential, need. A baby crying for its mother. The souls of the Philosopher’s Stone were gone. But what had they left behind?
“What’s the oldest thing?” Al says. “The very oldest thing you can remember, the furthest back?”
The creature rolls its tendrils along the floor, furls them, opens and closes a dozen eyes. It says, “There was an old lady, a long time ago.”
“Tell me about her,” Al says.
“She was a slave.” Al’s heart clatters. “And she swept the streets all day. Then one day a boy came and taught her to read.” This is starting – surely not? – to sound like one of his father’s stories. “He wrote the letters in the dirt with a stick. And she learned the whole alphabet. And now she could read all the words on the street signs, and the public notices, and the graffiti on the walls. And she was so happy. She felt clever and strong, and she kept it a secret. Because if the masters knew she’d learned, they’d get angry.”
Al stares, unable to take in everything that this means - for better and worse. “All that?”
The eyes look at him. “That’s the biggest bit of a story I know. All the old stuff I know, it’s just bits.”
Al doesn’t know what to think. He hardly knows where to put himself. This is incredible. But: something in Selim remembers. Al can’t bear to believe Selim has tricked him, that this kind, frightened little boy is just a fiction. But he can’t dismiss the possibility either. But there’s another possibility too: what if Selim is exactly what he seems, but he has the potential they feared he might, the potential to become something else?
“That picture on the wall,” Al says, thinking. “Can you tell me what the writing says?”
The creature extends a tendril, crawls it up the bureau that sits under the old print. The picture is an old lithograph: it shows a Xerxean alchemist in his workshop, and on a scroll under his feet, a motto written in a dead language. At its very tip, the tendril opens an eye.
Another mouth opens in the creature’s midsection. “Kao … berihet … ani … so.”
Al’s heart jolts. It’s right. “And can you tell me what that means in Amestrian?”
“The philosopher keeps searching.”
Ed wakes in the dead of night, in a bed in the infirmary, under a substantial pile of scratchy blankets.
They pulled Ed halfway to Briggs on a damn sled. If he hadn’t been half-frozen, he wouldn’t be able to get over it. Then there was a transfer to a stretcher, a truck, the infirmary. Thermometers, hot water bottles. That sarcastic doctor with the shock of ginger hair, raising her eyebrows, saying hello again. What is it with you and trying to turn yourself into an ice cube?
After some hours of this, they upgraded him from “mild hypothermia” to “really damn cold”. Then they packed him off to bed with heat compresses on his shoulder and knee, and a short but stirring lecture on how dead he would be if he hadn’t had the sense to keep using Northern automail.
Mei got lucky too, or smart; she ended up on the avalanche’s surface. Liu broke his collarbone but he’s walking. Feng’s in a bad way. The last Ed saw of him was a terrible glimpse of his face as they loaded him onto his own sled: blue-tinged and still, slack with a deathly serenity that made him look barely himself.
Ed throws off a blanket, hauls himself up and feels the deep ache in his shoulder. He turns his head in search of the nightstand and a drink of water —
— and finds someone holding out a glass right under his nose. He looks up. He looks at Roy.
He’s real. Right there. The outlines of his face are soft in the dark.
Ed says, “It’s the middle of the night.”
Roy says, very quietly, “It is.”
“Aren’t you supposed to be plotting revolution? Steepling your fingers and smirking? Moving little pieces around a big-ass map table with one of those long sticks with the thing on the end?”
“I did that earlier.” Still quiet. Still holding out the water. Ed takes it and sips at it.
“Do you actually have one of those things?”
“A sand table? A war room?”
“A stick thing.”
Roy makes a little huffing noise. “Yes. All of those. We even have tiny little houses and tanks. And colour-coded flags. We are incredibly well-equipped.”
Ed’s throat is aching hard around a non-existent solidness; it’s like he swallowed a billiard ball or something. He sips more water. He shakes his head. “So, you’re doing mountain rescue now? Isn’t that kind of below your pay grade?”
“Avalanches, specifically.” Roy does one of his little Roy shrugs, and Ed’s brain fills in what he can’t see in the dark room: Roy’s mouth turning down at the corners, his eyebrows lifting. “This is the third time I’ve been called out this winter. I might have other things to be doing, but there’s only one Flame Alchemist around here.”
“You saved my ass,” Ed says. Because he did.
Roy says nothing. Roy reaches a hand out, warm and broad, cups Ed’s cheek, strokes his stubble with a thumb. Ed has imagined his hands every day they have been apart, has imagined precisely the warmth and the weight of Roy’s body and how it fills the space next to his.
“Halfway round the world,” Roy says. “You brought me rentanjutsu masters. Information. The tacit support of the world’s largest state.”
“I am the best diplomat ever,” Ed says. He gives Roy a big smug grin and an eyebrow wiggle. Roy’s hand still cups his cheek. Ed thinks he sees the corners of Roy's mouth twitch up. He raises his own fingers, presses them lightly to the back of Roy's hand.
“I’m sure your negotiation was a work of art. Did it take a lot of tact and delicacy?” Ed can't see the eyebrow wiggle, but he can hear it in Roy's voice, that emphatic precision Roy gets when he thinks he's being hilarious.
“Fuckloads. You should be impressed with me, I was.”
In the next breath, they’re in each other’s arms. Leaning over him, Roy presses his forehead against Ed’s; Ed reaches a hand up to hold the back of Roy’s head. His uniform jacket is thick and scratchy against Ed’s skin. Roy’s skin smells so good, smells how he remembers it. It’s like breaking through that packed snow and taking a huge lungful of air; it’s like the aching hollow at Ed’s centre has been suddenly filled.
“Thank you,” Roy murmurs, “Thank you, thank you.”
Ed strokes his hair. Roy pulls back, cups his face and close up, in the soft darkness, Ed sees Roy look at him with such utter tenderness he feels in pain with it.
“Has it been tough?” Ed asks. He turns his head and his lips move against Roy's neck.
“It’s gotten a lot better just now.” Roy shakes his head. “That’s how selfish I am, apparently.” His arms tighten around Ed just a little; his nose presses into Ed's hair.
Ed shakes his head. “No, you’re not. I feel exactly like that.”
“Two days,” Roy says. “We agreed this thing was real, and we had two days together before the coup. And I have thought about you, I have thought you here with me every day and every night. Your breath in my ear and your hand on my chest. In the dark … I was on the run for weeks. I tried to hold onto you, to the memory of you.”
“Me too,” Ed says. “Every fucking day. More than that, like every fucking hour of every fucking day. I'm surprised I'm halfway functional.”
It's rough at first, a desperate, automatic thing; but then Roy's tongue in his mouth is eager and lovely, and they find their rhythm again, and it starts to feel real. Ed's heart feels as though it is involved in some kind of painful controlled detonation.
“They’re discharging you in the morning,” Roy murmurs into his mouth. “How would you feel if I steal you a few hours early? I could smuggle you out. I could hide you in a blanket and carry you out in my arms.” His voice is one big tease.
“Kind of damsel in distress,” Ed says. Plus you'd throw your back out after five seconds. How ‘bout we say I make a sneaky badass escape and ninja my way to your quarters?”
“That,” Roy says, “would be absolutely fucking perfect.” And he leans back in to suck on Ed's tongue until Ed snorts and swats at him.
“Get going before you blow your cover, I need to get my ninja on,” Ed hisses. Roy sighs at him with great theatre, winks and removes himself from the infirmary.
The quarters you get as command element at Briggs are, of course, pretty frugal. The military cot is, of course, made for one. Roy says, "If it's too small in the end, you can —”
"It's cool, we'll spoon. Don't say you call dibs on being the big spoon, or I'm heading back to the infirmary," Ed rubs his arms. “Oh, shit, it's really freezing."
Roy gives him, for one moment, a slightly frantic assessing look. Then he shakes it off and goes for an eyebrow jiggle. “You've been away from me too long; you forgot I’d jump at any chance to be the little spoon with you.” He goes to a chest of drawers and pulls out a wool sweater, adds a rolled-up pair of socks, presents both to Ed.
Ed raises an eyebrow, then he shivers again, and puts on both with utmost haste. While he does so, Roy strips, moving with that economical, unconscious grace Ed remembers. He puts on pyjamas. His back looks too thin.
They look at each other. In a lit room, Ed can see the tired smudges under Roy’s eyes, the pink around the rims, the weight lost from his face. Ed wonders how he looks himself: two weeks’ beard, hard marching for much longer than that, and he hasn’t had a full bath since Xing.
Roy smiles. Ed’s heart does that thing again that hurts his chest.
They climb into bed, and do their customary irritable shuffling about until they find the right position. Suddenly it's all so normal, Ed has to remind himself how long they've been apart, of everything that’s happened since they last fell asleep together in Roy’s apartment, the night before the coup. They tangle themselves in the right order, and then just lie sighing together for a few moments.
Ed says, sleepy and slow, "I'm so wiped. Sorry it went down like this. We should be having crazy reunion sex, or something …" A yawn shivers out of him.
"Tomorrow," says Roy. "I am absolutely creating a window in my revolution schedule which will be expressly for crazy reunion sex. Also, now I think about it, I bet we could alchemise a second bed to this one.”
"Quadripartite formula, do the iron bedframe first, molecular adhesion, plus with the mattress cover you'll want to invoke a limited kind of motion, so that … " And Ed's breath thickens right there, on the last word, and he's fast asleep.
Three days later, Al finds himself behind the familiar smoked glass, in the hidden room behind Mrs Bradley’s sitting room, with the familiar armed guard poking guns at him. He’s bound to his chair again. This hasn’t happened in a while.
More interestingly still, Mrs Bradley and Selim aren’t in the room.
He’s there about an hour before anything happens. His speculations all go nowhere, so he occupies himself in staring at Mrs Bradley’s chintzy nineteenth-century knick-knacks and composing his next bombshell of a message to Mustang. The good news is that the Homunculus trusts me; the bad news is that it’s been imbibing fragments of the Homunculus of Xerxes. The bad news is that it’s drinking Selim Bradley’s blood; the good news is that finally I have a reliable translator of colloquial Xerxean.
If he comes off as slightly hysterical, it seems only reasonable under the circumstances.
Then, accompanied by ten armed guards, with Katzenklavier strolling smoothly beside him, Fuhrer Laurence Hakuro walks into the room.
Al feels, if anything, even more nuts.
The air above the duvet is freezing cold; his back aches; a body shifts next to his. For the first moment of consciousness, Ed only registers the physical sensations. He tries to recall where he is again this morning.
It takes three full seconds for him to remember.
The relief of it is a wholly satisfying ache, deep in his chest. He breathes in chilly air; breathes out a sharp pang. Here is Roy by his side, turned away from him in sleep. The single bed was ridiculous; they kicked each other half the night. Ed slept so badly. He will have to get something better fixed up today, while Roy’s plotting his plots. Ed shifts into Roy’s space, moulds his body to the delicious heated line of Roy’s back, pushes his nose into Roy's hair.
Ed nests a little, adjusts the blankets, tries to trap their body heat in with them and cocoon them away from the refrigerated Briggs air. He pushes his knee up against Roy's leg, then slings his right arm over too to scootch them together more efficiently. Roy’s hair smells so good. Roy’s hair always smells good. It’s a great mystery: why does human hair smell way better than shampoo, when it doesn't even really smell of anything? Is this some chemical signature pheromone sex hormone bonding thing? Ed should research that. He should start right now by smelling Roy’s hair some more.
Roy makes a little grunting noise. He makes the little grunting noise that Ed has remembered and missed and imagined next to him every night since the coup. Roy’s arm snakes around Ed’s, and he shuffles back against him, and his palm covers the back of Ed’s hand.
"Hey," says Ed.
"Mm," says Roy.
"You smell like ass," says Ed.
"Really? You smell like jasmine blossoms blowing on a spring breeze."
Ed loves this about Roy. From unconscious to coherently snarky in about five seconds. He stretches delightedly and make a little humping motion, pushing his hips into Roy's butt.
Roy tuts. "I could have slept for ages," he says. "You woke me up. You poked me."
"I'll poke you all right," says Ed salaciously. Mostly, he says it to be annoying, and he follows it up against another grind against Roy’s butt. Roy laughs and shoves his butt back into Ed’s morning semi-erection. Ed shoves back. They snicker at each other. The next moment, something has shifted and they’re still shoving and humping, but it’s no longer a joke. Roy turns in his arms and they slot together again face to face, flex and rub against each other. Their breathing is loud in the cold room.
“Right,” Roy says, lifts his hips and yanks Ed’s pyjama bottoms down. He shoves his own down too, and then he’s back on top of Ed. Roy’s dick is pressing into the crease between Ed’s thigh and hip. It’s awkward and delicious. Ed flexes his hips up. Roy shifts down. His hair is sticking up crazily on one side. Ed laughs, because he can’t not laugh, because delight is bubbling up out of him. He spits on his hand. He reaches down, and Roy moves to meet him, and he takes both their dicks in his hand.
Ed lasts a full forty-five seconds of frenetic jerking and thrusting before he goes off. Roy hardly manages longer.
“Mutual simultaneous hair-triggering,” Roy says, after they’ve both landed on planet earth again. “I can’t decide if that’s good or bad. Or if it just makes us both horny teenagers. No, wait —“
“I turned twenty two weeks ago,” says Ed.
“You did?” Roy extricates his face from Ed’s neck to look him in the eye. “I suddenly feel fifteen per cent less of a pervert.” Then, so sincerely it could break your heart, “Happy birthday. Where were you?”
“In a cave being damp,” Ed says.
“I’m sorry,” Roy says. “It’s a long road north, isn’t it, like this?”
“Yeah. Takes four times as long to get anywhere when you’re on the lam.”
“I’m forgetting how much experience you have.”
“Could have done without another winter of hiding out in the woods.”
“On my way here,” Roy says, “I spent a whole day up a tree. It was terrible. I’d love to complain about it at length. But good people died getting me North. So let’s just say it was an uncomfortable day.”
They’re silent for a while after that.
Ed nests the blankets around them again. The room smells like sex now. The scent is oddly comforting. Terrible things have happened, are happening, could happen. Feng’s in the infirmary, injured and maybe worse. Al is held prisoner and spying for them hundreds of miles south. Nearly everyone he loves is on the lam or in exile, from Winry to Roy. There’s another tyrant in the big chair in Central. There’s another monster in a flask, and even Ling’s scared. The whole world again hangs in the balance. And in this too-small bed, Roy’s body against his is so heavy, so shockingly warm, so unbelievably real.
Ed holds himself still for a moment. He feels it, that treacherous lump of volatile absence which has sat in his chest all these months. He’s handled it so carefully: this grief, this Roy-shaped void. He’s been so mindful to step around it and ignore it and shuffle it gingerly into the recesses of his brain so he can concentrate on what he needs to: surviving, reaching his goal, keeping it together. And now this unexploded bomb, this thing he feared, is simply dissolving, melting away under the relentless loving heat of Roy’s skin.
Roy can win this thing, he thinks abruptly, fiercely. Roy can win it and Ed will be right here at his side. He will not move for god or man. For a moment, he’s so happy he could goddamn puke.
“Stop fidgeting,” mutters Roy, “you’re letting the heat out.”
“It’s freezing,” says Ed.
“Firewood’s rationed,” says Roy. He takes Ed’s arm, tucks it against him, pushes back against Ed and tangles their legs together.
“This is fucking bliss,” Ed says. “I’m not even being sarcastic.”
“My back’s killing me.”
“My neck muscles are spasming. We should never try to sleep in a single bed again.”
“Can you score a spare so I can fix this one bigger?”
“Does that give us away to the peanut gallery?”
“The peanut gallery are just relieved you’re here so I’ll stop moping over you.”
“You moped? There was moping?”
“So I’m told. I’m informed by an unfailingly reliable source that there was moping, mooning, occasional woolgathering. There may have been a little bit of obsessing.”
“How do you obsess over something a little bit? It’s a contradiction in terms.”
“I know it is,” Roy says, and he turns in Ed’s arms, and wraps him up in a grip so tight that he could swear that the automail creaks.
Al has met Hakuro in person only a handful of times. The most vivid thing about the man Al remembers is that bullish, solid physical confidence which Al associates with a certain kind of powerful man: an air of occupying any space as though it had always belonged to him, and now he’d simply chosen to move in. Al had always found that attitude strange, in those days, when he himself was continually trying to seem smaller than he was.
But here and now, Hakuro perches in his chair instead of settling into it; his shoulders hunch and straighten. The tall semi-circle of guards standing behind him seem to cast him into shade.
“Your work,” says Hakuro. “I see from your report that things are … that matters continue to … that you have progress for me.” He slaps the manila folder in his lap with an emphatic hand. “Hard to make out from this thing what’s actually going on here. Pin it down for me, Chrysalis.”
“Would you like to see?” says Katzenklavier. He smiles, mild and innocuous, and Al has spent enough time with the man to recognise something sharp behind it.
“No,” says Hakuro, just a shade quickly. “No need for that today. Not if there’s no concrete change … as of yet.” He picks up his teacup, turns it in his hands, replaces it with an ostentatiously casual air.
“I’d better be taking my leave,” he says.
“Indeed,” says Katzenklavier. “The last lot of riots sound like they must have been very tedious to extinguish. Of course it goes without saying, you always restore calm to us. The people of Amestris are fortunate.”
Al sits forward so fast that the guard behind him claps a hand to his shoulder. But Hakuro himself doesn’t even seem to register the disrespect.
When Hakuro stands to leave, he hoists himself up slowly. It’s not even noon, but he looks as though this were the end of a very long day.
He looks tired.
The pompous kerfuffle of standing and saluting and leave-taking is completed, and the Fuhrer of Amestris and his guard depart. It isn’t until the room beyond the mirror is silent and empty that it finally occurs to Al: all through that conversation, Katzenklavier didn’t call him your excellency. Not even once.
Katzenklavier stands in the doorway to the hidden room, watches as Al is uncuffed. The guards file out. They are alone.
“Full disclosure,” Katzenklavier says. “After the coup, when I requested you brought here. Originally, after you advised me on the creature, I was going to let them take you outside and shoot you in the head.”
Al smiles with one side of his mouth, and doesn’t even pretend surprise. Helpful to have it confirmed. “What am I supposed to say to that?”
Katzenklavier shrugs. “It was always a dilemma. You’re supremely talented, but you’re also a very dangerous man. I was under a lot of pressure not to keep you around. You were so useful, though, that I decided to press the point with Hakuro.”
“Thanks,” says Al.
“I think it’s telling that I got my own way. Very telling. I find myself in a very politically interesting position, these days.” Katzenklavier pulls in a breath, as if he’s about to begin a story.
Here it comes, then, Al thinks. But Katzenklavier says nothing more after that. He bobs up and down on his heels, bright and alert like a skinny little bird, watching Al for a response.
Al considers. He goes for guarded honesty. “You wanted me to see this meeting,” he says.
Katzenklavier smiles his gentle, sharp smile.
Al’s pulse hammers in his throat, and his skin prickles, and his body tells him emphatically that he is in a fight. He has moments to make his decision. He glances internally at his hand of cards, and then — what can he do? — he plays.
“Hakuro doesn’t understand alchemy,” Al says. “He doesn’t trust it, or like it, and he’s afraid of it. But he knows how much power it’s worth. He didn’t understand what had happened on the Promised Day. He didn’t know before and he didn’t figure it out for himself. He was tricked like everyone else.” Katzenklavier is still, alert, watching. Al takes a breath and continues. “Then after the Promised Day, his rival for the Fuhrership was Brigadier General Mustang. A human weapon who knows alchemy inside out. That’s why Hakuro hired you.”
“Yes,” says Katzenklavier. The word drops into the room, and silence settles again. Katzenklavier watches Al.
Understanding what is expected of him, Al continues. “That’s why he let you make him a Homunculus, why you’ve got so much leverage. He’s so afraid of the power of alchemy he doesn’t understand that he’s let his fear control him and make his decisions for him. The rest of the brass know he has a Homunculus. He’s trying to bluff with it, right? He’s letting everyone know he has it, but he’s not trying to use it, not even letting people near it. He doesn’t even get what a Homunculus is. Or what it can do.” Al pauses for a moment, and then he plays his last card. “He doesn’t get what you or I can do. And that’s his weakness.”
“And here I am,” Katzenklavier says. “I can have whatever I want. I ask for whatever I choose, can pursue the Great Work to the fullest, even interfere with matters political: say, to save the head of a gifted young alchemist.” He tilts his head. “Until the day we both know is coming.”
The day when Mustang makes a stand. Nervous shock jolts through Al’s body, and he blanks his face instantly: give no emotion away, give him nothing to work with.
“No,” says Katzenklavier. His voice is gentle and low. “You poor silly boy. I don’t mean Mustang. Yes, until the day of the next coup. When one of Hakuro’s rivals in Central’s brass — there are several, you see — sweeps in and takes it all from him. That’s what we need to prepare for. Let me tell you something you don’t want to hear,” he says. “Mustang may be King of Briggs for now. But he isn’t going to win. It’s a pipe dream. His army is tiny. All the popular support in the world won’t help him when he’s this outgunned. They won’t last another winter up in the North. So what will happen is this: he’ll make his move by this summer. His forces will be crushed, Briggs will be conquered. Whoever’s in charge will doubtless be sensible enough to put a bullet through Mustang’s head on the spot. As to the rest: humiliation, show trials, tender and spontaneous public displays of national unity, tasteless newspaper photos of mangled corpses, all that PR nonsense. Mustang will take his place where he was always destined to, one of the charming heroic failures of history. You’re a smart lad,” Katzenklavier says. “No need to go down with that ship.”
Al says nothing. It’s possible; much as it was always unspoken, they’ve all always known it.
“And so I concern myself with Hakuro’s successor. You only have to look at the man to know that he’s not going to last the year either. I and my work am not a prize to be scooped up by the victor of the next political scuffle. You know how close we are to success now. Soon I’ll have a functioning, controllable Homunculus — two, maybe. We are the only people who can control this weapon, Bridgewire. And I will choose at whose service I will put it.”
“You’re asking me on board,” Al says. “You were going to have me shot. What changed?”
“Your motivation,” says Katzenklavier. “It’s hope that makes men dangerous. If we set aside those who are unavoidably going down in flames with Battleship Mustang, who does that leave for you to hope for? Your brother fled the country, you know. They think he took refuge in Xing.”
Al starts. He’d hoped that Ed —. Dammit. He knows that for a moment, his poker face slipped. He sees Katzenklavier’s lips twitch.
“Then there is your guardian Ms Rockbell Senior, who with your co-operation can continue in rude health, watched over by us. And her granddaughter, rising star of automail engineering. On which front I have bad news.”
Al takes a breath, masters himself.
“She’s apparently heavily involved with an insurgency in Rush Valley. It’s been kept very quiet. The newspapers don’t have much news in them these days. Sabotage, strikes. The industry there’s nearly paralysed. She’s apparently part of an inner circle, running it all from hiding. A gang of them disappeared into the mountains on the day of the coup. Almost as if they’d been tipped off in advance.” Katzenklavier’s eyes narrow at him. “So. When this little terrorist operation gets scotched, there’s a chance your friend might survive it. I have some leverage with the government, you could have some leverage with me. You might be able to do something for her.”
Al makes a show of considering. “I’m already working for you. So what else do you want from me?”
“I simply want you to consider what you want to happen to you when Mustang fails, and Hakuro falls, and I continue. I want you to consider what you might gain from taking a more active role in helping me to secure my position. From helping me perfect, control, render safe these weapons. Which I invite you to view as tools which can bring peace and stability to the country. And I want you to consider how very little you can achieve, how helpless you become, if you oppose me.”
Al says nothing.
“And so, you are lucky enough to have a choice to make. Fall prettily on your sword, or live a long and useful life. Sleep on it,” Katzenklavier says. That sharp and gentle smile again. “I’ll expect your answer tomorrow.”
On to Chapter 7!