“But why does he have to be here for the tests now? Why?” Mrs Bradley’s voice is raised louder than Al has ever heard it.
“It’s helpful,” Dr Katzenklavier says. “Selim’s presence helps to stabilise the creature. You’ve no doubt noticed it can have issues with calming itself.”
“Exactly, sir! Look, I know Selim’s fond of it.” She shakes her head. “That boy is fond of every creature that swims, crawls or flies. But what happened this evening. It’s simply too much! I can’t allow it.”
Katzenklavier raises an eyebrow and gives her a cool look. Mrs Bradley shrinks visibly.
“What I mean to say is, it’s too dangerous for a child to be here. Look at poor Alphonse’s arm!”
“It’s fine,” Al says, waving his injured arm and smiling through it. It stings and throbs like crazy. “It’s just a cut, please don’t worry. I’ve had worse.”
Mrs Bradley takes a breath, and now she looks Al in the eye. “Alphonse, I’m glad to hear it’s not serious, but please. What if it had been Selim standing there? He’s not an alchemist, or a grown man. He can’t protect himself. He could have been —” She shakes her head.
Selim himself is silent. He stands pressing himself against Mrs Bradley, his face half-hidden in her skirt. Amy mirrors his pose, fists balled in the cloth of Al’s pants, hiding behind his leg.
Al can see something coming here, a dangerous shift in the conversation. “Selim’s been so good for Amy,” he says. “He named her. She took this form from him. She cares about him.”
Mrs Bradley smiles, but there’s no happiness in it. “But it isn’t good for Selim,” she says. “It’s bad for him. Please understand.” Her hand strokes Selim’s hair. “Quite apart from the danger — it’s frightening him. He’s having the most terrible nightmares.”
Katzenklavier chuckles derisively. “Nightmares?”
“Do you see something to laugh about?”
“Really, madam? Yes. Selim is a nightmare. That being you call your son is centuries old. He has devoured and destroyed far beyond anything my creature has done.”
“Selim is a child!” Mrs Bradley’s voice is raised again, and now there’s steel in it. “He doesn’t remember anything or know anything! He can’t do anything like that! For goodness’ sake, he won’t even hurt an ant!” She flaps a hand at Katzenklavier. “Yes, yes, he isn’t human, I know that full well! But he is still a little boy! Just a little boy, and he is my little boy! And I am his mother, the only mother he has. Nothing about it matters but that. Nothing.”
Selim has started to cry, noisily. She kneels instantly, wraps him in her arms, glares up at Katzenklavier.
Al is poised, alert, alive with tension. They are surrounded by guards. Mrs Bradley has pushed this so far. Katzenklavier could have her killed in a moment, so easily. She must know it, too.
“Selim,” Amy says. She looks up at Al. “Selim’s crying.”
“Yeah,” Al says. “The grown-ups are yelling too much.” She’s so naive like this, so truly like a child. He wonders how much of her knowledge she can even access in this form.
“I’m sorry, Selim,” Al says. He steps forward, reaches out to stroke Selim’s head. Amy stays hanging onto his leg; he has to shuffle as he moves, and she shuffles with him.
“I’m sorry, Selim,” Amy says. She reaches out a hand —
“No!” Mrs Bradley turns her whole body, sharply. Amy’s human hand touches the cloth of her hip instead. Selim is behind her now. “Stop it,” she says, looking between Al and Katzenklavier. “Please, get hold of it. He’s had enough for tonight.”
Selim hides behind her. Katzenklavier watches. Mrs Bradley stands frozen.
“Selim?” Amy says. “Selim? It’s me. Are you crying, Selim? Don’t cry.” She stretches out her hand again, tries to step forward.
Al kneels quickly, catches Amy in his arms. She lets him.
She peeks over his shoulder, frowning. Then she looks up at Mrs Bradley. She smiles. And she stretches out a hand, curls it around the first two fingers of Mrs Bradley’s free hand.
For a tiny moment, Al has never been so proud of her.
Then he notices Mrs Bradley’s hand is shaking. She locks eyes with Al, and Al sees the horrified curl and twitch of her lip, an abject terror unpleasantly familiar to him. No one’s looked at him with that expression in years.
Of course, now, it’s not meant for him.
“Get that thing off me,” she whispers. “Please. Please.”
Amy lets go, sits on the ground abruptly. She stares at Mrs Bradley in silence for a moment, pulling in a long breath and holding it. For a moment, Al thinks she’s going to bust out crying like Selim. But she just crumples up, silently curls herself into a ball, forehead on the ground.
Mrs Bradley takes slow steps back. “You’ve got your weapon now,” she says very quietly. “Please let us be.”
Katzenklavier looks from the Homunculus to Selim. He shrugs and smiles. “Mm. You can go.” The smile drops away. “For tonight. Please don’t do anything foolish, like trying to leave this house.”
“Of course not,” she mutters. She’s already walking, with rapid steps, hustling Selim along. He unsticks himself long enough to stare at Al and Amy as she leads him off. He’s still sniffling.
“This stabilised form has its disadvantages,” Katzenklavier says, looking down at the creature in Al’s arms.
Al strokes Amy’s back, doesn’t reply.
“Holding the shape of the child’s brain clearly impedes the Homunculus’ incredible cognitive faculties. After the political situation is stabilised,” — a quick, hideous wink — “then I’d like to run some tests on reasoning, memory and so forth. Perhaps there’s work to be done encouraging it to take a more mature human form.”
“Another time,” Al says, as calmly as he can.
“Of course. When your hands are less full.” With that, Katzenklavier saunters off.
After a minute or two, Amy turns her head to one side. She sits up, rubbing her eyes, shoulders hunched. “Selim?” she says, looking round. “Doctor?”
“They’ve gone in for the night,” Al says, hoping to spare her.
She doesn't say anything. She pulls her knees up to her body, curls her arms around them, drops her head.
“Amy.” Al puts a hand on her back and rubs it.
“‘m not Amy,” she says, so quietly.
“No! That’s not true. Amy—”
“I’m a thing.”
“You’re a person,” Al says. “It doesn’t matter about your body.”
“No.” She’s mumbling into her knees. “I’m a thing.”
She looks up. “I hurt people. I hurt you.”
Al puts a hand on her head. “That was an accident. It's okay, I’ll be fine. You're still learning —”
“I can’t,” she says. “Selim learnt how to be human,” she says. Al's stomach drops. She somehow doesn't sound like a little kid any more. “But I can't. I've got too much stuff in me.”
“I remember things. I know things. I can do things. I hate it! I hate it!” Her voice sobs on the last word.
“When I'm small like this, I don't remember. I don't want to —”
“Listen, Amy. People did this to you. People treated you like a thing, but none of that was your—“
“I did things!” Her voice is raising in pitch, her breath coming hitching and convulsive. “I killed people! Selim killed people and he ate them up, and I did too!”
Al’s mouth opens. His breath catches.
“There's an old man in my head who lived under the bridge, and they gave him to the jar to make me get bigger, and they made the jar eat him and the jar was me. And he's in my head and he's screaming. They're all screaming, all the time. I’m that! That’s me! I hate it. And Selim — I remember the people in his blood, they were screaming and screaming, in the old city, in the desert … and everyone fell down and died! The lady died, the old man died, the baby died. It hurt. The thing didn’t care. Your father wanted to kill the thing. Selim used to kill, he killed like the thing. Selim’s a person now. I hate it, I hate being a thing. I don't want to be a thing! I can't stop being a thing!”
Poor creature. All that time she was being a child, did she know?
No: she’s sitting in a puddle of deep black shadow. She isn't just Amy right now, the child she wants to be, loves to be. Al looks at the eyes opening in the pool of shadow and he thinks of that razor intelligence, that flailing infant ego. He thinks of Amy pressing her cheek against his chest. He remembers Greed slinging an arm around Roa, go a little easier next time, ya great heifer. He remembers seeing Ling in the early morning, bowing his head at the shrine and offering a stick of incense for a being with no grave and no family. He remembers the Homunculus of Xerxes, golden and arrogant and empty, drawing down the moon.
“Amy,” he says, and he's never been more certain of anything, “you are real. Look at me. I see you. You're real. You’re a real person.”
“No,” she says. She doesn't look up. “No, I'm not.” Her breath is coming in short, sobbing bursts now. “And Selim’s gone, he’s gone.”
“I know,” Al says. “I know it hurts. Slow down. C’mon, slow down with me, Amy. Breathe.” He takes a big, huffing breath, trying to show her. Then he leans over, folds his arms around her, breathes slow and loud.
She hiccups, pauses — then, abruptly, bursts into loud and abandoned tears.
It’s a strange and saddening relief. “You see?” Al says. “You’re crying. That’s human. Pain is part of it. You’re being human right now. You see?”
He feels something shatter. He looks down, alarmed, and he feels the toddler limbs melting away under his hands. Amy’s poor miserable tear-streaked face, turned up towards him, is receding into shapeless darkness. Al watches, and he feels, viscerally, physically, something crack painful and sharp inside his chest. Oh, he thinks. That’s what people mean when they say heartbreak.
The creature is still crying. Shapeless in his arms, it opens a dozen tiny mouths to cry, leaks liquid from a dozen eyes.
Al pulls it further onto his lap, leans forward, wraps it tight in a hug. The shifting, metallic skin bristles against him.
He wants to soothe this small being: somehow, he wants it so much that he feels that he’s never needed to do anything more. His chest is on fire with the unbearable hurt of this creature, this child. He remembers a consuming numbness, a ravenous loneliness, that wore away at the edges of him for years. The fear and the sadness soaked in so far that they have never fully left him. He remembers punching a mirror and not feeling it, remembers so many long hours in the night alone with the hollow terror of himself.
“You’re real,” he says. “You’re a person. It doesn’t matter about your body. Amy, I love you. Selim loves you.”
The hand that reaches from the black cloud to pluck at his sleeve looks so much like Amy’s. The weight in his arms is the same. The same child is crying. He means every word.
“I hurt people,” she says, a crackly whisper. “They make me. I hate it.”
“They were wrong,” Al says. “You never have to hurt anyone ever again. You can say no. I’ll help you.”
“The doctor says I’ll never be a person. He says I’m strong.”
Al sucks in air. “When did he say that? He’s wrong.”
“I don’t want to be strong, I want to be a person.”
“I see you, Amy,” he says, again and again. “I love you. I’m here, I’m not going anywhere. I’ve got you. You’re okay.”
Minutes later, Amy has quieted in his arms, the weight of her settled dark and heavy in his lap. All her mouths breathe deep and slow. The sun has set, and the sky is rapidly darkening; he couldn’t even say when it happened. He feels so grateful, so utterly grateful, to have been able to comfort her.
“Shh,” Al says, and he rocks her. He drops a kiss to Amy’s iron-filing skin. “I’m here. Shh.”
She turns in his arms. Her mouths sigh, all her limbs draw slowly inward to her core, as a spider’s might. Then she turns again, and unfurls human arms and legs.
At first it feels like passing a stranger in the street, and recognising someone you used to know. This isn’t the pale, dark-haired little girl cribbed from Selim’s blood, he sees that immediately. it’s someone else’s shape. Amy’s hair is blond now, her skin a deep, golden tan, like Al and Ed’s used to be after a summer playing outside, back when they were kids. She’s still tiny. She doesn’t look more than three — and with a thrill, Al realises that that’s how old she truly is, how long ago she came into existence.
She opens her eyes and looks at Al.
Her eyes are the same golden amber as his, as Ed’s, as their father’s. Al’s heart stutters. The straight arch of her eyebrows, that’s Al. The slight outward puff of her cheeks, that’s his mother. The golden brown of her arms, that’s his father and Ed. He feels as though he is looking into his own face. He sees his blood, suckled and drawn from him; he sees her trust, a gift given slowly and incrementally; he sees the labour of it all.
She reaches for him. He takes her hands.
Roy tells Havoc first, before the meeting. Havoc takes the news silently, lips compressed. He shows no shock, barely says a word, salutes at the end. He’ll never forgive Roy for this. He probably shouldn’t.
At the meeting, Riza is expecting it. It’s a small but significant comfort to find their minds moving in sync. Miles nods firmly. Fraser is aggressively jubilant. Mei and her alchemists are quiet, accepting. Oh, but Ed: Ed watches Roy for the whole meeting, utterly silent, with a tight mouth and burning eyes. His arms are folded and they stay like that.
The strategy planning meeting is long and draining. They game out the best spot for an ambush, how to parachute in a crew and how to stop the train. Layout of the Fuhrer’s train, likely placement and number of troops, the further intelligence they should seek. At some point, food is brought in and they all pick at it while they talk. Catalina and Abbaticchio represent air command; Havoc’s absence is excused and understood and it twists at Roy’s stomach. The alchemists are absent for the latter half; they’ll do their part in another planning meeting first thing tomorrow.
Roy walks the corridors of Briggs Fortress at midnight. It’s a bright night, the moon large above the mountains, the outlines of the peaks visible. Roy feels a certainty in this plan now, a painful rightness. This can work.
He imagines Breda, Fuery, Falman, Sullivan, the rest: caged and alone and waiting to die. He cannot imagine their feelings; he guesses at loneliness, at the constant labour of pushing down one’s animal terror, at the careful nurturing of hope for a better future beyond their deaths. They will never know if Roy succeeds. And Hughes will never know, nor will General Armstrong, nor will Grumman.
As he turns the door handle to step into his quarters, his throat tightens. For so many years, Roy could depend on the sanctuary of living alone. In the worst of times, after the strain of holding himself upright all day long, he could step into his apartment, close the door and let go. He remembers the sheer relief of it: finally unobserved, now he could unlock his grief and exhaustion and weakness. Now he could sink a painkiller for the burns and the gut full of stitches and the breathtaking pain that had ambushed him in the middle of a three hour meeting with the brass. Now he could throw a hand over his eyes and pass out on the couch.
No sanctuary here: now Roy has to face Ed. No self-pity either, he tells himself: it’s going to be ugly, but Roy made this mess himself. This is his reward for stupidity and self-indulgence and irresponsibility, for letting himself fall in love in the middle of a civil war.
What an idiot he has been, he thinks with a painful stab of insight, to let a twenty year old convince him he can have this. After a day like today, a call like the one he just made, how could Roy possibly expect to be welcomed home into someone’s arms?
Still, now that they’re in private, better they get this out the way.
But his quarters are dark and silent, undisturbed. Roy glances around the moonlit room, but he finds nothing, not even an angry note on the desk. It’s far too late for Ed to be drowning his sorrows at the village pub. He’s probably gone elsewhere, then.
But when Roy steps through to the bedroom, there’s a shape in the bed. And as Roy watches, Ed turns in his sleep, flops onto his back. Roy looks at the beautiful curve of his mouth in the moonlight, at the line of his jaw, at the steel hand resting loosely over his stomach. The beauty and wholeness of him are like a blow to the chest.
Roy turns away and, as quietly as he can, starts undressing. This, at least, can be avoided for tonight.
As he folds his uniform trousers to hang them up, there’s a rustling. He turns to see Ed sitting up in bed, rubbing the back of his hand over his eyes.
“Hey,” Ed says. It’s a rough, warm whisper. And Ed meets Roy’s eyes, and, impossibly, he smiles.
“Hey,” Roy says, and he pads to the bed in his boxers. Roy emphatically doesn’t deserve this: not the warmth in his bed, not the tender upward curve of Ed’s lips, certainly not that look in Ed’s eyes. Ed holds out a hand. As Roy leans forward, he curves it around the back of Roy’s shoulder.
Roy doesn’t intend to end up with his forehead bowed on Ed’s chest, not remotely. He has no intention of letting himself just collapse. Yet his knees sink onto the edge of the bed anyway, and Ed’s arms are open for him, and here he is.
Ed holds him close, rubs his back, holds his head. “Shh,” Ed whispers, over and over. “Hey. Shh.”
“Sympathy?” Roy mutters. “I just murdered half my team. Why on earth aren’t you giving me hell over this?”
“You know,” Ed says, “I was mad as hell. For like an hour. I kept thinking, there’s gotta be another way. But then I asked myself, so what is it, huh? What is it, Elric?” He laughs shortly. “And then I got it. I wasn’t even angry with you at all. I’m angry at the world. I’m angry with that piece of shit Hakuro. I’m angry at myself. So, I think to myself, splitting the teams. It was always probably going to screw us, because we need your firepower to take down the Homunculus. Right?”
“Right,” Roy says. He feels again, marvels again, at how in the worst moments, Ed can steady him.
“This is the only way we win. Isn’t it?”
“Yes,” Roy says.
“Yeah.” Very quietly. “How shitty is that, huh? Then I thought, wow, if I feel like this, then how’s Roy feeling right now?”
“Like shit. Funnily enough.”
“You’re the chessmaster,” Ed says. His hand still rubs Roy’s back. “And it’s the worst, huh? You get to fix everything, protect everyone, make it so no one ever gets hurt, ever … You’re not God. I can’t put that on you. You can’t put that on you.”
“I want to. I want to fix it all. I want to protect … not even everyone. Look at me, I don’t even have the power to protect the people right under me. Look where their trust and loyalty has gotten them.”
“But can’t we try and spring them? Breda and Fuery and everyone? Get the resistance on it while we’re waiting?”
“Yes,” Roy says. “Riza’s already contacted Foxglove Network. There’ll be an operation. So we can tell ourselves we did what we could.” He hears the bitterness in his own voice; draws a breath. “It won’t work, Ed. The level of security we’d be facing — it’s not like it was when we sprung Ross, it’s nothing like that.”
“We’ve got to at least try.”
“We will try.” Roy shrugs, closes his eyes for a moment.
“You know what else I think?” Ed says. “You know, Hakuro’s doing this at least fifty per cent to fuck you up. He knows you enough to know what gets to you, and he’s trying to get you broken and stupid and making dumb moves in a fight. Because even when he’s about to sic a Homunculus on you, you still scare the shit out of him.”
Roy doesn’t say anything. He puts a hand on Ed’s shoulder, draws himself up, kisses Ed gently on the lips.
Ed pulls back the covers, lets Roy climb into the bed. They lie in each others’ arms in silence.
What a gift, what an undeserved gift, to be permitted here to feel like a small and insignificant human being: neither great nor damned, just tired and sad and worried like all the rest.
"I love you." Roy kisses Ed’s chest. There's nothing else to say. Once he loved Ed and couldn't say so; now there's no point in saying anything else. "You're twenty and you're so sharp, so right. When I was twenty I knew fuck all."
"Well," says Ed. "Try detonating your whole life when you're eleven. I recommend it for growing up fast, except from the part where I really don't." Ed settles his chin over Roy’s head, and after a moment, the grip of his hug tightens. Ed’s breathing is suddenly forced; he’s hanging onto something. Roy rubs at his back.
They need to sleep.
Their breaths slow and lengthen together. Roy is drifting off when he hears Ed’s whisper in the dark.
“Roy? You awake?”
Roy nods against his chest.
“I can’t sleep.”
“Mm.” Roy reaches up, strokes Ed’s hair.
“Can I tell you something?”
“Don’t mm me, jerk. I’ve never told anyone this. I never even said it to Al.”
“All right,” Roy says. He reaches for Ed’s left hand, finds it, squeezes gently.
Roy feels Ed suck in a long, unsteady breath. “Sometimes I feel like it’s coming for me,” Ed says. “It’s gonna catch up.”
“Everything I’ve gotten away with.”
“Superstitious. That’s not like you.”
“It’s not superstition. It’s basic statistics. As the number of times I push my luck increases, the probability that one day my shit is going to catch up to me approaches a value of one.”
Roy huffs out a laugh. “In that case, I have good news.” His free hand taps Ed’s steel shoulder. “It caught up with you when you were eleven, Ed. Stop worrying.”
Ed shakes his head in the dark. Roy feels the movement against the top of his head. “I told you. I don’t care about the automail. What I mean is, I got my brother back and I wasn’t the one who sacrificed something. My old man offered me his Stone, and I said no, and then he fucking did it anyway.” Ed’s voice has gone thin and painful. Roy knows this part, and sees how Ed needs to say it anyway. “He stood there and the doors banged open and it came right at him, and he just — stood there and crumbled away in the fucking wind. It looked just like Al did. You know, when we … did the thing. When we summoned the Gate. He just looked at me and … blew away.”
“Yeah.” Then, very quietly. “About Al.”
“That’s not a confession, Ed. He’s your family.”
“No. Specifically! It’s freaking eating my head.”
“We all noticed.”
“I know, I know, there’s so much other bad shit to be scared of … the Homunculus … The country. Are we all gonna die like rats in a trap in this coup? That’s another one. Granny Pinako, we must be worrying her to death. Breda and everyone, that’s just fucking awful. And damn, I’m so scared about Winry right now, I feel like any moment I’m gonna get tapped on the shoulder and hear they got her.” He draws breath. There’s a pause. “But …”
“But, that’s the shit that you worry is going, in purely statistical terms, to catch you up? Al.”
Roy tilts his chin up, kisses Ed’s neck, strokes his back. They’ve run out of things to say. But still, they breathe together; their bodies warm and comfort and steady one another. Together, they help each other slide down, into the necessary silence of sleep.
That night, under the thick blankets of his bed, the new stitches in his arm throbbing a pulse, Al presses his ear to his radio set. It’s tuned to the latest wavelength of Radio Phoenix.
“And now,” says the voice of Harry Valentina, “a few artistic statements.”
Al can’t keep his breath from coming short. Here come the resistance communiques: code phrases mixed with mere nonsense. He usually understands little or nothing of it. It’s comforting anyway.
“Keep the wasps out of your jam with doorknobs. My streetlamp can’t stop talking about apples. Ten priests on a noodle bicycle. The trains are running late” — wait! Could this be it? — “but I always keep a railway schedule in my pocket.”
This is, indeed, it. Al lets out a long breath, feels the fearful triumph inside him begin to steady. This is Ed’s code: a marvellously familiar phrase of it, words they’d passed to each other so many times in moments of crisis. Got it. Will do.
This message is for Al alone. From Brother — and from Mustang too, he expects. Got it. Will do.
The thrilling joy of it all jangles his nerves for a full minute. The presenter reads some more of those musically surreal messages; there’s nothing else there that makes sense to him. Then her voice gives way to a slow, mournful jazz saxophone. Al feels relief weigh him down, suddenly, like stones in his pockets. He drifts with exhaustion a moment. He shakes himself just awake enough to transmute his radio set back into the mattress, then he lets himself go.
Al sleeps. He dreams.
From under his hands, Amy dances out of the radio: first as a stream of music, then as a girl. On the platform of Resembool Station, she dances upon the shoulders of his father. The train is a monster. Winry is hiding from it in the waiting room. They need to get in there, the terror in him is electric, but Amy won’t stop dancing. He is being lifted up under the shoulders, his feet drag against the ground and he looks around, frantic, to see who is doing this to him. It’s suddenly dark.
It’s dark. Ahead in the corridor, soldiers are carrying flashlights. He stumbles, and jars his ankle. Arms hold him upright. As he tries to put hands out to break his fall, he realises his hands are cuffed in front of him, with a long bar keeping them apart.
He’s had this dream so many times. The dream where he’s taken from his bed, or as he steps out of a room, or as he bends to pick up a child, and then … and then his feet drag on the floor, and then he is held and rushed along by hard hands, by an iron machine, and his hands are locked in iron, and then … Only when he feels the slap of cold night air on his cheeks, and they shove him down, and his knees hit gravel, does he realise that this is his death. They will shoot him in one more moment. The terror catches light in him and blazes up and he thinks no no, what about Brother what about Mustang and the fight what about Amy and in the middle of his thought, the pistol fires at the back of his head —
He blinks, gasps, jolts. He’s wide awake.
He is being dragged down a corridor in the dead of night. Arms hold him and push him on. His hands are cuffed and barred. Ahead of him, soldiers shine flashlights. His heart thuds and he’s flooded with alarm, on high alert.
“What is this?” he says.
“Quiet,” says the soldier to his right.
“Does Dr Katzenklavier know about this? Who ordered this?”
“Shut up.” His head snaps to the side and his ears ring. Someone gave him a little punch, just to show they mean business. He’s rushed down the back stairs, feet stumbling and dragging, then down another darkened corridor.
He hears an echoing childish cry, at first faint but still knifing through him, then louder and louder. Amy.
Outside, on the gravel driveway and illuminated by moonlight, is the Homunculus. It’s sealed in its glass tank, doubtless for the safety of others. The guards surrounding the tank are edging further away with each moment. It’s shapeless in its hysteria: an amorphous messy cloud sprouting angry fists which clench and hammer on the floor of the tank. The eyes opening in its limbs are wet and miserable.
“Don’t,” it mutters. “No, no. I hate it, I hate it. Go away. I want Al. Where’s Al?”
“Calm it, Bridgewire,” says Dr Katzenklavier.
Al turns and stares at him. Katzenklavier is standing by a small military truck, dressed in a crisp suit with an overcoat slung over his arm.
“This isn’t as bad as it looks,” Katzenklavier says. “Trust me. They’ve gone a bit overboard with security. Help me out and calm it, could you?”
Al breathes deep. He crouches. “Amy,” he says.
The creature stops for a moment, and all its eyes go wide. “Al!” it yells. Then it hunches, withdraws. “I told you. I told you. They’re going to make me, they’re going to make me.” Its tendrils are starting to lose cohesion, melting into its core and then stretching out again, tentative, like the eyes of a snail.
“I’m here,” says Al, daring no more. “Remember? Breathe like we practiced. C’mon, give it a try. Big, slow breaths.” He takes a long, slow, noisy breath in. The Homunculus screams all the way through it. Three breaths later, it stills itself for a moment, sobs in a breath with one tentative mouth, then starts screaming through all the others. “Shh,” Al says. “Breathe, Amy.” He puts one hand against the glass. After a moment, on the other side, the fingers of a hand spread out to meet him.
Crouched into a heap, Amy breathes, and Al watches. Then, after a long minute, she slowly unfurls, perfectly human. Her golden eyes are rimmed red as if from crying. Her nose is running. She sniffles.
One of the guards gasps.
“Hello, Amy,” Al says, smiling, proud even through his terror and alarm. “Good job. Well done!” He claps his hands on his knees.
“Out,” Amy says, lower lip wobbling. “Out, Al! Please!” She presses a hand against the glass.
“Let her out,” Al says, turning to the guards. Katzenklavier makes a gesture. A soldier steps out, unfolds a sheet of paper, and for a moment Al glimpses an array written on it — then another soldier claps a hand over his eyes.
A moment later, his arms are full of Amy. “Al!” she yells. She clambers over the bar between his hands and snugs up against him. She winds her arms around his neck, sets her feet on the bar, lays her cheek against his chest. She huffs out a quiet, satisfied sigh. She’s jarring Al’s injured arm; it’s highly uncomfortable, but he can’t bring himself to tell her.
What is this, though? It’s bad. Al knows that much.
As they lead him into the back of the truck, he can’t hold Amy properly, but she sits on his hip, clinging to him with her legs and arms like a monkey. How well she’s holding her human form; he can’t help but notice.
Two soldiers sit opposite them, sidearms casually pointed at Al’s head. Another two carry Amy’s tank in on a stretcher, then start buckling it to the truck floor. One of them holds their arms out for Amy. She tightens her grip on Al; Al eyes the pistols pointed at his face.
“It’s okay,” Al says, “it’s just your tank. I’m here.”
She looks around, quiet and wide-eyed — then the soldier reaches for her with shaking hands and, amazingly, she lets him.
“Good job, Amy,” Al says as she’s lowered into her tank. Then the guards either side of him shove him down onto the bench and hold him there. Katzenklavier walks past them, brushes down the bench, and takes a seat.
The truck starts up, and as it hauls itself down the gravel driveway, Katzenklavier just sits there, smiling mildly and waiting — the bastard — to be asked.
Stomach churning, Al obliges him. “Where are we going?”
“The train. For Fuhrer Hakuro’s ill-fated journey north. It’s not happening in two weeks; it’s happening tonight.”
“What?” Al’s whole body jolts. Amy stares at him with wide golden eyes. “Amy, it’s okay, really,” he says again, despite everything in him that knows it’s anything but.
“Today was a test; you were right. And you did pass, in every way but one. You still hope. You’re still holding on to Mustang.”
“You set me up,” Al says, and it sounds so dumb. He feels ridiculous. Hakuro’s been persuaded to attend the opening ceremony of the joint north-east training, not the closing ceremony. It makes so much more sense. How could he not have realised? “You knew. The message. All of it.”
“We leaked your presence in Central to one of Mustang’s spies, yes. I fed you inaccurate information and made sure you had the opportunity to pass it north in alchemical code, with the stamp of your authenticity upon it. The only inaccuracy is the timing. Apologies for tooting my own horn, but a neat and audacious bit of counter-espionage, and entirely my idea.”
“How long have you known I was spying?”
Katzenklavier shrugs. “Exactly as long as you might guess. Since a few weeks ago, when one of the guards caught that chambermaid smuggling a message out in her boot. Silly mistake, especially since I’ve been watching for something like this all winter. Your code still eludes me, but I can guess you were informing Briggs that the Homunculus is active. Now that the Northern snows are thawing, Mustang is plainly going to move any day now. Therefore, Acker and I needed to throw him some bait good enough to guarantee he was off the board until we’ve moved on Briggs. Which should be just after sunrise tomorrow.”
Al wants to break Katzenklavier’s nose. He wants to scream. He wants to put his head in his hands and weep.
“By noon tomorrow,” Katzenklavier continues, “we sweep Briggs.” He waves a hand. “You know what will happen. I will make best efforts to take your brother alive, and to argue for lifelong imprisonment — if possible, his mind is too valuable to lose — but I can promise nothing. I want you to understand that clearly. ”
“Fuck you,” Al says. He’s shaking with the effort of doing no more. “Fuck you, Chrysalis.”
Katzenklavier just shrugs. “Fair enough. You’re upset.”
“Upset?” Katzenklavier’s shoulders actually jump, and it just stokes Al’s fury. “I am so damn sick of hearing you talk! If—” Al’s head snaps back against the wall of the truck. The guards are upon him, all of them at once. His shoulders and arms are pressed back against the wall; a painful grip just above his elbow, another soldier holding down his legs.
“Al!” he hears Amy yelling. “Al, Al! Stop it! Stop hurting Al!”
Al hisses with pain at the bite, sudden and sharp, to the flesh of his inner elbow. “Amy?” he says. “Stay calm, don’t bite, Amy. I’m okay. I’m okay.”
Hold up. Amy’s in her tank. Of course she didn’t. The pressure on his upper arm releases, and Al looks down. His pyjama sleeve has been pushed up, and a soldier is pulling a leather strap from Al’s arm. In the crease of his elbow, a single drop of blood is welling up. He turns his head, realising, and sees the same guard setting the hypodermic aside. His mouth tastes weird. His face is going numb. His ears buzz and the truck swings around him crazily. It feels just like the first days of his captivity, the sedative, and Katzenklavier smiles and he wants to murder him, and what about Amy, and his head rings, no, no, don’t go to sleep, don’t sleep —
Al widens his eyes and tries to sit up straight. His neck aches. His wounded arm throbs. His head is appallingly fuzzy. The truck — no. Wait. He’s no longer in the truck.
He’s sitting on the bench of a plush train carriage, between two armed guards, and through the window, as he blinks and clears his vision, he sees the night rushing past.
To be concluded!