Title: The Compass Rose: Chapter Nine
Characters/Pairings: Roy/Ed, Riza/Miles, Havoc/Rebecca, Al, Winry, Team Mustang, Ling, Ran Fan, and more
Rating: R for swears, violence and horror at about the same level as in the manga itself
Word Count: 8032 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. Thanks to skydark for epic plot wrangling and beta magic, and to enemytosleep for cheerleading and jumping back on board as co-beta. Chapter 10 will now be the final chapter, and it's half-done, and I am committed to finishing! I love these characters as much as I ever did.
Chapter 1 | Chapter 2 | Chapter 3 | Chapter 4 | Chapter 5 | Chapter 6 | Chapter 7 | Chapter 8
In the deep of the night, Miles finds himself awake. Something familiar and unwelcome is here, lingering. The old dream, where he is trapped powerless behind glass, watching the unspeakable happen.
He shakes it off. He understood himself long ago. Of course the dream would come to him tonight, after today: Mustang’s people, his comrades. All of it always comes back. Buccaneer, General Armstrong, the telegram in his hand and her face as she lay in state in her coffin, sunken and quiet and nothing like herself. Grandfather, always. Cousin Reda, Elias. The long hot summers of his childhood, the train ride down from the North to his grandfather’s house, echoing narrow streets that smelled of frying food, soccer in the square with his cousins. A whole world extinguished so quickly and utterly, over and done while he was still reeling from it. He’s still catching his breath, part of him will always be still catching his breath.
Riza is turned away from him in sleep: curled on her side, emanating warmth, snuffling softly. Hayate’s whistling breaths sound from his blanket in the corner. Miles turns, moulds to Riza’s back, breathes in the clean comforting smell of her hair. She sighs and her arm shifts on top of his. She doesn’t wake. He slows his breaths, deliberately. The night is for sleep and for rest, for comfort; the morning is for action.
He’s still seeking out sleep when the door clicks open.
He’s bolt upright, instantly, the pistol under his pillow out and covering the door. The figure in the doorway slowly raises its hands. He blinks, and realises that Riza, too, is awake, sitting up, her sidearm levelled at the same poor unfortunate.
“Lieutenant Sharma,” Riza says. She lowers her gun. Miles follows. She clicks on the desk lamp by the bed.
Sharma looks legitimately terrified. One of her raised hands holds a piece of paper.
“Sorry, Lieutenant,” Riza says.
“Yes, apologies.” Miles says. “Vigilance, you know. What’s all this?”
Sharma steps in. She holds out the paper. And right away, something inside him knows.
Al feels sick. His mouth is dry and sticky. He cracks his eyes open, and then straight away shuts them against the light.
“Was that Bridgewire stirring?” A pang of groggy alarm fires in him. A voice, he guesses female, close by. He doesn’t recognise it.
Al holds himself still and quiet. He keeps his breaths even and slow.
“Wait up.” A pause. The second voice is deeper, further away. “I dunno, he still looks out cold to me. He shouldn’t be with us for a few minutes. It’s his usual dose.” A sigh. “But these things are never a hundred per cent.”
Al’s so nauseous. His head throbs, and the rattle and roll of the train makes it worse. His stomach clenches up hard, and he breathes through the urge to double over and heave. He keeps his eyes closed. He focuses himself entirely on not moving a muscle.
“His head moved just now. Check him over.” Crap.
A pointed laugh. “I’m not going near him. Hey, you there—Corporal—check Bridgewire’s restraints, and let me know if he so much as twitches.”
A laugh from the first speaker. “So is discretion the better part of valour, Sandglass?”
“I don’t see you volunteering. Frankly, I’d rather be guarding the monster.”
Something blocks the light behind Al’s eyelids: a person leaning over him. Hands shake the wooden stocks, still on Al’s wrists. Something hard and cold nudges his left ankle, his right, and he realises he’s shackled at the ankles too. Al tries to stay limp. It doesn’t take much effort: he feels pretty limp.
It hasn’t happened yet. This is the first proper thought Al manages, and it feels like all he has going for him. Acker has not yet deposed Hakuro. Amy has not yet been set upon Briggs to destroy Mustang and Ed and countless others. The hopes of the country haven’t yet been murdered. His mind moves slow and heavy. His body feels like another set of shackles, always like this, when his flesh lets him down, when he feels the weakness of a human body. And if it has not happened yet, then he can … But how long has Al been out? No. But it could have been days, his mind whispers to him. It could already be over.
No. In his mind, he looks at himself, and he draws himself up, and he yells. Get it together! Come on. Think! Move! Alphonse Elric, it’s all on you. You can’t give up on them, you can’t let them be lost! They need you: Brother, Winry, Mustang, Hawkeye, think of all our people up in Briggs and all the ordinary people who’ve helped us. Think of everyone in the country who’s hoping, and frightened, and steeling themselves. Think of Amy.
He has to get out. He has to find out. If he can get out of these restraints, he can fight. He can escape. He can find out where he is and when, if he’s travelling to Central or Briggs, if he’s right that Acker’s coup hasn’t happened yet.
That’s good. That’s something he can hold onto: a goal. Don’t think about the rest yet.
“He’s out, sir. Restraints are secure.” A voice on his right side; one of the guards. He sounds young.
“Check him again.” She sounds irritable. “He’s not sleeping, Corporal, he’s sedated. If he’s coming round, I want to know about it so we can dose him up.”
If they don’t have Amy, he thinks, whether it’s Acker or Hakuro, whichever asshole it is doesn’t have the keys to victory any more. If he can save Amy, if he can get her off the train, he can save Briggs too. He can give the revolution their chance back. He can save Ed. Everything at once: the thought makes him breathless.
There’s a tentative hand on Al’s shoulder. The corporal grasps more firmly, then shakes him, perfunctory. Al stays limp even as his head and stomach lurch. He lets his head roll freely.
“Properly, Corporal. Do you—oh, hell. Let me.” The hand on his shoulder is batted away, and hard fingers dig in and shake him. Someone — the woman — grasps his chin, then—oh shit—she’s lifting his right eyelid to check. Al concentrates on keeping his eyes rolled up in his head, hoping to manage semi-convincing. He really hopes she doesn’t know what she’s doing.
The woman lets Al’s eyelid drop. “Hmm.”
“What?” Sandglass, sounding jittery.
“Not sure.” Then, suddenly, hard fingers are digging into his right forearm, pressing the bandages right into his wound and the stab of pain is like a lightning bolt.
Al’s shoulders twitch hard. Shit.
“Shit,” says Sandglass.
“Don’t panic,” says the woman. She digs in again, harder, and it pangs horribly, all along the long slice of the cut. The stitches must have bust at some point, because now—don’t react, don’t react—Al can feel the skin parting, can feel fingertips pushing into the wound, raw and nasty. Al improvises through the pain: just a little twitch, trying to make it look reflexive. Hopefully.
“He’s waking up, Hammerstrike.”
“Yes, but not yet. We give him the next dose in fifteen, all right? If the doses aren’t properly spaced, we risk him being awake at the rendezvous point—”
“Hammerstrike, please! Discretion. The other kind.”
Hammerstrike snorts. Al hears her stand up. “I remember. Pain in the ass. Five more hours of discretion, and then we enter alchemy’s new golden age.”
Discretion … alchemy’s new golden age … rendezvous point … Al represses an actual sigh of relief. It’s still the same night. He was right: Acker’s coup hasn’t happened yet. So, they want him unconscious at Hakuro’s arrest. The small doses must be so he’s still awake for the assault on Briggs.
So: he’s got to get out of the restraints. How? Deep, slow breaths. Keep that oxygen coming. Work, brain, work.
There are armed guards on either side of him. Sandglass is a combat alchemist; Al met him once or twice. He hasn’t heard of Hammerstrike, but from the name, she probably is too. Are there more in this carriage? He reaches out in his mind, tries to make out individuals and distance in the vague mass of qi around him. His head throbs sharply. His stomach rolls again.
This is the part where he’s supposed to tune out the distractions of the body and the senses and the chatter of the brain, the part where he’s supposed to simply breathe and observe the flow of the world’s energy in the space around him. This is the part Al sucks at. When he was training at Yulong Temple, three separate masters told him he was the most distractible student they’d ever had. He wishes he’d mastered this while he was in the armour, it would have been so much easier. Damn, his arm hurts.
Al cracks his eyes open: slowly, barely. He can make out two figures in the seats opposite him, and legs in military police uniform to his left. There are three guards surrounding him, then. The carriage is quiet now. There can’t be many more.
His arm is wet. It must have been bleeding already, and now blood is dripping down to his wrist and wetting the inside of the stock. The pain is helping, he supposes, because now he’s no longer groggy. He still feels jittery, sick—but awake.
The right leg of his pants is wet with blood too. Hammerstrike really opened up that wound. It seeps toward his knee. The middle fingertip of his right hand, hanging down from the stocks, barely touches wet cloth.
He lowers his gaze. He sees blood—enough? Could it be enough? Enough to scrawl a circle, one-handed, on the cloth of his pants, because these stocks, they’re not quite big enough, and his fingertips can touch the cloth, and the blood drips fast and he can do this. He just has to lift his knee, and be fast, so fast, because the moment he moves, they’ll be on him. Just a circle and three lines: the first formula he ever learned.
He does it in three movements—stroke, dip, stroke, dip, stroke—barely looking, and he knows there was enough blood for a circle even as he flicks out the last cross-stroke. He lifts his fingers barely, then he taps his raised knee.
The circle lights—the stocks crack in two, yes!—and he’s made the push good and strong, enough that he can use the momentum to get his arms out. Out!
He backhands the guard to his left without looking, feels the man’s head snap to one side, dives forward. The soldiers opposite aren’t fast enough. He grasps one of them by the back of the head, he’s got his hand twisted in the other’s hair, and he drops his knees and brings them both down to the floor hard. Sandglass is yelling. The guard to Al’s left is stumbling, reaching for his gun, and Al has clapped and the seats flow into a thick spar of wood and metal, flying up from the floor. The left hand guard is struck, falls over the barricade.
One of the guards opposite is out; the other is moving. Al grabs the remaining guard by the hair and slams his head into the ground again. His arm goes limp and Al gets the gun that’s still in his holster, lets the cartridge drop out.
Sandglass is shouting. “Shit! Shit!” Yeah. Panic, you asshole, some combat alchemist you are.
Al claps, frees his feet from the shackles.
“Sandglass!” Hammerstrike yells. “Call for back up! I’ve got this.”
Al hears running footsteps—and he claps almost before the idea has formed itself in his head.
Fingers to the ground, kneeling, and the slice is clean, powerful. The lights go out. There’s a rending, screeching, buzzing, unbearably loud, as metal slices.
Al looks up and sees, with gratification, the roof of the carriage cleave away, along with half his barrier, the opposite wall, the floor. He sees Sandglass, in the moonlight, lose his footing as the floor tilts up and up. He sees Hammerstrike grabbing frantically onto a seat. Then a three-quarter slice of the carriage just tumbles away, into the darkness and down the bank by the rail tracks, out of view.
Al stands, grabs onto the intact windowsill and looks. He’s left the wheels of this carriage intact. It’s not his best work, but considering he was unconscious a minute ago, not so bad.
The guard at his feet is out cold. Al picks his way rapidly along the remaining edge of the carriage, feeling seats give as he grabs them for support.
Everyone on the train will have heard and felt this impact. He’s expecting the door of the next carriage up to fling open at any moment.
He can’t see anyone through the lit window. Here is the ladder, and he gets one hand on it, one foot, and his legs shake as he climbs. The drugs are going to take a while to get out his system. Well, he’s not one hundred per cent, but it’s going to have to do.
Al crouches on the roof. Behind him are the wrecked carriage and two more. The rearmost one houses a nasty looking gun turret. Ahead of him he counts six carriages, what looks like another gun car at the front, then the tender and the locomotive puffing out steam into the moonlit sky.
Right. Now what?
Ahead seems the best bet. Get to Amy; get her off the train, Al thinks as he scrambles along the train carriages. Save Amy, and he saves Briggs, Ed, Mustang, the revolution. Save Amy and he saves everyone. The relief of that thought is sweet, utterly overwhelming. He tries to hold himself back from it.
The dining car Al was perched on before was empty. This carriage, however, is full of soldiers and folding bunks. They’re on edge; of course they are, they must have heard that. Are they waiting on orders? He won’t give them a chance to wait. He springs onto the next car—a wave of dizziness hits as he lands and he nearly plants his face straight into the roof. Al rights himself in a crouch. He takes a deep breath, lets it out, wills himself steadier. He claps, and with one slice he uncouples the five carriages behind him. They recede rapidly into the night.
He’s got to keep moving. Speed is the key: it’s like a one-man coup, he tells himself. The thought is the absolute opposite of reassuring.
He inches over to the edge of the carriage, claps up some handholds and footholds. Then he lowers himself down to the window, upside down. The wind buffets him and he locks his muscles, holds on hard. He looks. He sees four, five, six officers, a meeting table. Yelling and agitation. He was right, they’re trying to decide what to do. There’s no sign of Hakuro, no sign of Katzenklavier or of Amy. There are only two carriages up in front, then another gun turret and an engine. So they must all be in Hakuro’s personal carriage, and how rightly paranoid of Hakuro to be holed up there with his secret weapons, unless he’s already dead or at gunpoint and—
There is a radio transmission booth at the front of the carriage. Have they called for help yet? It’s empty.
Wait up. Shortwave radio. Shortwave radio!
Al learned a lot about shortwave radio, this past winter. As soon as he got access to the library, he was trying to build his own radio. He’d cursed when he realised he couldn’t build himself a radio transmitter, but found solace in the little crystal set on which at least he could listen.
Al could try to get a message out. Right now.
Now he has a choice, and no time to make it in. He can try one thing or the other: get straight to Amy before he loses more precious time—or try for the radio booth. Mind numb, Al sprints towards the front of the carriage.
He honestly doesn’t know what he’s going to do until he’s clapped a hole in the floor, landed in a crouch in the booth, barely missing equipment and chair—until on the other side of the glass, he’s clapped up a steel shell that might hold a few minutes, between him and the rest of the command car. Until gunshots are rattling and denting the wall he made seconds ago.
Al pats himself down, then examines the booth. The glass is cracked, but the wall holds and the transmitter is spared.
Now Al is alone in the radio booth, and the shouting on the other side of the barrier is, for the moment, muffled and low; and, with shaking fingers, Al dials up the latest frequency for Radio Phoenix.
Ed’s dream, too, is dark and constricting; it thrums a low chord of panic through him. The voices bring him up to the surface: it’s Roy, and someone else, murmured and serious. He shifts, and with some relief he finds himself half-awake in his own bed. Ed, reassured, rolls into Roy’s side and snugs against his body, wishes the person away, for sleep to return—
Roy is shaking his shoulder, patting his cheek. “Wake up,” Ed hears vaguely, “wake up.” Roy’s arm is round his shoulder, pulling him up, and he swats at it. “Wake up, we’re moving.” Ed’s feet hit the floor. He rubs his face, looks up.
Hawkeye is standing by the bedside, hair half-down and uniform jacket thrown over her shoulders. Ed looks from her to Roy, rubs his eyes, trying to put it together. Roy is buttoning his shirt, swings on his uniform jacket. He looks at Ed, takes some clothes from a chair, lobs them at Ed’s chest.
“I’ll wait outside,” Hawkeye says.
“Thirty seconds,” Roy says.
Like that, the stress hormones hit Ed in a wave —shitshitshit— and he’s wide awake. He blinks down at the bundle of cloth in his arms. Black, not uniform. Stealth gear. Roy is already dressed, uniform of course, always, and Ed is moving automatically, and as Ed picks up his sidearm and holster from the chair, then tucks in his shirt, Roy is already steering Ed out the door, walking them.
“Duncan’s already gone to wake everyone up,” Hawkeye says, falling into step. “When the message came through I wasn’t sure at first, but he just went into full Briggs mode and—”
The air howls, sudden and deafening. The soldier in Ed jerks to attention —siren! Delta alert!— and whoa, who even knew he had an inner soldier, Briggs got him after all. Miles’ voice crackles over the tannoy. “Delta alert situation, repeat, Delta alert. Every soldier report to their stations immediately. To your stations, people! Get moving!”
Hawkeye tilts her head.
“What message?” Ed says, and a piece of paper, typewritten, is shoved into his hands as they walk. He blinks and looks: travel notes, train times—his code! Al! The Fuhrer’s private train, Acker coup tonight, misinformation, Briggs targeted tomorrow. A train route. Question marks.
“Al,” he breathes. Then, “we gotta go! We don’t have time to sit in the fucking war room arguing with Fraser for two hours, we—”
Roy just flicks a look at him as they go. But it’s not triumph in his eyes and the lines of his mouth. It’s—
“Is there enough time?” Ed says. “How is there enough time to get there?”
They’re outside. The cold slaps him in the face. In front of them, the plane hangar is lit up: people, motion, noise. Planes are being hauled along onto the airfield outside, people are fuelling, checking, yelling.
Roy puts a hand to Ed’s shoulder. Hawkeye gives Roy the telepathy look, then she nods and jogs ahead as Roy steers Ed into the shadow of a truck.
“Roy—Al—” Ed says, not knowing how to haul it all up into words.
Roy looks at Ed, and the soldierly mask drops right off, and Roy looks young and open and he says, “Everyone, Ed. Breda, Fuery—the whole damn country, if we could—”
“We’re gonna win, we’re gonna kick these fuckers in the bones of their asses and get our people and we’re—”
Ed’s cut off there. Roy cups Ed’s face in his hands, roughly, leans in and he kisses him. It’s messy and breathless and full of tongue, and for a moment Ed could swear he hears the soaring string section kick in on the movie soundtrack.
And then he pulls back, and Ed sees in Roy’s eyes what he knows himself already: that this is the end. This is the end of their war. They win this or they die, right now, that fucking simple. His stomach drops. He wants more time, more grace, more of Roy. Al, Winry, Granny, everyone, fuck, everyone, everything burnt. This is why—doesn’t Roy see it?—this is why they have to say they’re going to win, like him and Al, every day for all those long years, fuck the odds, we will—
“Y’know, I punched a god in the face one time,” Ed says. “Laid him right out, the dick. You missed how cool it was because of having no eyeballs at the time.”
“No optic nerve,” says Roy.
“Yeah,” says Ed, “and you still fried Mr Fake Ass God up like a side of bacon. You saw the Truth like thirty seconds before and there you were throwing up walls, fighting blind, being a fucking forest fire. What’s Hakuro? What’s Katzendouche? What’s a creepy little baby Homunculus? We’ve taken down like thirty of those between us.”
“Four and a half. Gluttony only counts as a partial win.”
“It’s a pep talk, Roy. You’re supposed to get fired up. Ha, fired, see what I did—”
Roy smiles and his mouth thins and his eyes get a little tense. Ed just stops. He realises. Roy doesn’t do it like this, this isn’t how he gets himself in the zone.
He puts a hand on Roy’s cheek.
“You’re going to save them,” he says. “You are a fucking thunderstorm and you’re going to win, you’re going to save everybody. I believe in you, we all do. And we got your back. You’ve got Hawkeye, she’s going to be right there like always. You’ve got me. You’ve got Al. Miles. You’ve got a posse of rentanjutsu masters, you’re welcome. Air crew are tight, Havoc and Catalina are gonna get us there, they got us fucking aeroplanes. You’ve got the greatest crew in history, Roy. You’ve got us because you earned us. We believe in you and we’re right to. We are going to get shit done today. We are going to win.”
Roy’s lips are slightly parted. His eyes are wide. He’s holding himself together. He puts a hand to Ed’s cheek. Ed wants to kiss him again. Again and again; for hours; always. Ed wants to talk to him about everything under the sun, as long as they live.
“Gear up, Fullmetal,” says Roy: voice calm, eyes burning. “Take off in five.”
Al has barely finished speaking into the microphone when the wall behind him wrenches itself down.
He spins on one heel, hands raised, and sees a line of raised guns. Distant transmutation: a stupid risk, he tells himself, too slow, even as he’s done it anyway, as he’s clapped and sent out a long streak of power through the ground, as the command table slides across the room and soldiers are knocked aside, and now the table’s his shield. There were at least half a dozen gunshots. Behind his shield, he pats himself down, but finds no wounds other than the old one on his arm. It’s still slick with blood from his opened stitches, and on the floor of the little radio booth, the droplets are forming a puddle. Yeah, he’s got to patch that up.
No time; not yet.
Keep moving forward: to the roof, then to the next carriage. There’s just enough material, screw the floor, and he claps himself a hollow pillar, crouches dizzily upon it as it zips upwards and more shots fire.
Feet on the roof, and he stumbles the jump to the next carriage, skids along the roof for heart-stopping moments before the friction halts him. His head is ringing. Every time he clears a hurdle, the sickness seems to return, to hit him harder. He sucks in one deep breath.
He feels, rather than hears, the running feet below him. Cut it off, he thinks, full of alarm, why didn’t I cut it off already? Too late now. Amy is below him, and Katzenklavier, and Hakuro. Could he take them hostage, could he subdue them, should he just take Amy and run?
There’s a horrible screeching sound; Al’s feet tilt. He looks down. The whole carriage roof is peeling away, rolling itself up like the lid of a sardine tin. He springs back—his head aches—his back foot slips and then he’s in free fall. He rolls as he lands, hauls himself up into a crouch, hands out to clap—dizzy, all he sees for a moment are gun barrels trained on him, a full carriage of them, as he brings his hands together—and his bad arm is wrenched to the side. Something slams into his stomach and he crumples onto his side, winded and agonised. Hands grab his other arm, someone’s knee is on his shoulder, a hand in his hair, a pistol nudging his temple.
Above him, Al watches the air crackle. The roll of metal that used to be the carriage roof uncoils and resets itself, beautifully neat. Sardines back in tin.
Every animal stab of stress hormones tells him to freeze where he lies. But the wretched nausea doesn’t listen. His stomach heaves, and, even with a gun to his head, Al rolls on his side and retches helplessly. How the body betrays the body. And in this instant, despite it all, he desperately wishes to be steel: to be a wall, to be a shield, a shelter.
Roy is halfway into his parachute gear when Colonel Fraser brings in the coffee.
Fraser strides briskly into the aerodrome. He’s steady, chipper, smiling like he didn’t just get woken in the dead of night for an unscheduled revolution. Three staff officers behind him bear laden trays: paper packets, foil-wrapped candy, pots of coffee. Roy can tell just from the smell that it’s the good stuff. He had no idea there was any left. A mug is thrust into his hand by one of the ground crew. He nods his thanks. As he breathes it in—real coffee, and strong, not that crap cut with chicory they’ve been drinking—he sees chocolate bars, packets of nuts, being handed around: things rationed and scant, luxuries not even Roy has seen since the Aerugans’ supply ran out.
Fraser catches Roy’s eye. Roy grants him a nod and half a grin, raises his mug, then sets it down to finish getting his gear on. Fraser can make his own way over here.
The coffee and food gets a round of cheering. Roy watches them all: jubilance, the burst of humour, the general lift of spirits and energy that was the obvious point of this eleventh-hour morale exercise. Roy spots Catalina pitching a bag of sugared almonds at one of the ground crew, cursing cheerfully in Aerugan. She and her target laugh together. He sees the rentanjutsu master Feng biting theatrically into a square of chocolate, making a comical rhapsody of his expression. He sees Ed clink coffee mugs with Princess Mei, then with Lieutenant Sharma. Ed says something Roy can’t catch, and they laugh and shake their heads.
Roy’s grateful to Fraser, truly. But despite himself, the abundance alarms him, he thinks, as he straps on his parachute backpack. It’s too much of a last hoorah; it makes him think of funerals, wakes. He almost finds himself regretting the gesture. Everyone on this mission should be looking to tomorrow, everyone must cling hard as they can to life, if they want to live, to succeed. Roy’s being morbid. It’s his own fault if he sees a gruesome farewell hidden in a prudently-timed boosting of morale.
Roy catches someone standing next to him, turns to see them. It’s Colonel Fraser. He is holding out a foil-wrapped chocolate bar.
Roy takes it, raises an eyebrow, makes a solid try for a smirk. “I plan to win,” he says. His voice sounds almost petulant in his own ears.
Fraser holds his gaze. But it’s nothing like the look Roy was expecting from him: there’s no shrewd assessment, no judgment. Just—
“And I’m betting on you,” Fraser says. He claps a hand to Roy’s shoulder. His eyes are blazing. “Sir.”
Just—faith. In Roy. Roy is stopped in his tracks, for a moment. Fraser hid that well. But of course he did, Roy realises: the Briggs way, the Olivia Armstrong way. She regaled him with his weaknesses every time they met, then she died and left him her sabre wrapped in velvet, and the country, and a written warning. Succeed, or else. He’s paraphrasing; there was more cursing than that, and some surprisingly specific anatomical threats given they came from a dead woman.
“Appreciated,” Roy says to Fraser. Then, because he’s him, “you haven’t misplaced your trust in me. I promise you.”
Fraser shrugs. “If I took a poor bet, that’s on me.” He grins, quirkily, one side of his mouth. “But I didn’t.”
Roy tucks the chocolate into the breast pocket of his parachute suit. Fraser strides on.
Roy glances over, sees Ed again. Now he’s checking the gear of his pilot, Abbaticchio. Ed moves on the balls of his feet, fizzing with energy. Of course: Ed thrives on the unknown. Ignoring dreadful odds was his m.o. for so long. If you quote probability of outcomes at him, he just pulls a face and forgets everything you said. He sees one target, one shot, one goal delivering all: his brother, his nation’s freedom, a monster defeated, life itself. Of course he sees it like that. Roy sees a marble maze of fears, hopes, obstacles, costs so unbearable he holds himself back from ennumerating them. Of course he sees it like that.
Abbaticchio spins Ed round by the shoulders, and her hands move efficiently over his parachute pack, checking and approving. Roy is buddy-less for this exercise, he realises: Havoc’s already in his bird. Havoc loathes the song and dance it takes to get him on board and off, and goes to every length possible to avoid his pilots, let alone his CO, seeing him princess-carried into his own cockpit.
There’s a tug at his back; Roy turns and sees Riza, checking him over. He meets her eyes; they share half a look and half a smile. Roy turns, opens his mouth, cannot for the life of him come up with the right words for the moment, for everything he owes her and everything they know of each other, for every step of this path they’ve walked together. His mouth is hanging open, he thinks. She smiles, pats his shoulder, relieves him of the burden of trying. He nods. She nods.
The scramble to the planes is beginning. and knows that if he’s going to say anything to all of them, it’s now.
“Everybody,” he calls out. Gratifyingly, despite the buzz of activity, they all spin to look at him. Roy looks at them. He sees the dazzling, horrible weight of their faith in him. He lifts his chin, pulls in a breath. “Win.”
“Not good enough!” Hakuro spits out the words and sends his glare around the train carriage. Officers shuffle their stance, look twitchily at each other out of the corners of their eyes. Troopers stare stoically ahead. Hakuro’s gaze settles, furious, on Katzenklavier.
Katzenklavier sighs, then adjusts the cross of his legs on the bench seat to straighten the crease of his trousers.
“There is no possible scientific need,” Hakuro says,” that justifies the danger of keeping Bridgewire alive.” And yet he hasn’t had Al shot.
Al is on his knees. One soldier holds a gun to his head; two more wrench out his arms and grip them, one either side. A fourth soldier is pushing down Al’s shoulders. At least now they’re taking him seriously.
“I told you,” Katzenklavier says. “Bridgewire remains, in the short term, a useful asset. I prefer to continue to make use of him. As a prisoner, of course.”
Al got the warning out, but the train rolls on.
“I’m ordering you to do without him as of now,” Hakuro says. “Are you telling me you can't?”
They’re arguing over Al’s death. Now what? He can’t break free, not right now. What can he do, what can he say? There must be something.
“This little asshole—” Hakuro gestures at Al with a sweep of the arm “—just put half the presidential train in a bloody ditch!”
“It was more like forty per cent, sir.” Colonel Wells tilts her hand. “Five carriages, two alchemists, thirty-eight per cent of our troops.”
“And the cannon, Wells. Don’t forget that.”
“And you—” Hakuro points an arm at Katzenklavier “—you swore blind to me he wasn’t a physical threat!”
“No, I told you he’s no longer a seven foot suit of armour who can pick up a grown man in each hand—”
“No, Chrysalis, you told me he had a head injury and muscle wastage!” Hakuro snorts. “Looks like he’s made a very full recovery, doesn’t it?”
For a moment, Katzenklavier has no answer.
Hakuro presses on. “This is a major security breach! He was in that radio booth for a full ten minutes!”
“Rather less than that—” Katzenklavier chips in.
“Clearly communicating with his paymasters up in Briggs—”
“How are they paying me?” says Al.
Al’s head snaps to the side and his ears ring. He’s an idiot. There’s a gun to his head, it slipped out, why didn’t he stop himself? He looks up, catches Katzenklavier’s look—
Another hard slap wrenches his head back the other way. “Shut up!” Al recognises Colonel Wells’ voice. “Speak when you’re spoken to, you little shit.”
Al catches his breath. He looks up again at Katzenklavier. There was something about his face, just then—no, it’s gone now. He’s calm. But there was something in Katzenklavier’s eyes, when Al started to speak, just for a moment. Alarm? Fear?
Yes. Al knows, he knows about Acker’s coup. Is he the only one here; did Katzenklavier and Acker plant troops on this train? Do they have co-conspirators among Hakuro’s staff? Probably. That’d be the smart move.
“He does have a point.” Katzenklavier tilts a hand. “Aside from the practical improbability of pay, Bridgewire’s loyalties are far more naïve.”
“Chrysalis. You’re not running this meeting.”
“Don’t push me.”
“Sir.” Wells, again. “Moving on,” she says. “Do we divert and return to Central, or continue to the joint training opening ceremony?”
“Yes, sir. A suggestion. Security-wise. Give me thirty minutes to interrogate Elric. Just half an hour, I’ll get some basics, I can shoot him for you when I’m done.”
“Can you do it in fifteen?”
“Two days,” Katzenklavier cuts in. “That’s all I’m asking. To minimise our risk, to optimise the Homunculus’s efficiency while we’re neutralising the Mustang insurgency. I would like to continue to make use of Bridgewire until we’ve taken Briggs. Only until then. If I might plagiarise Colonel Wells’ charming suggestion: the moment we’re done, I'll shoot him in the head myself.”
“I’m preferring the fifteen minutes suggestion, funnily enough.”
“May I remind you,” Katzenklavier says, “that ignoring all other enemy firepower, the Flame Alchemist himself alone presents a quite significant military problem. A problem which, as you saw before, becomes eminently manageable with the use of the Homunculus you commissioned me to grow and maintain.”
“Who’s planning this operation, you or the commander of the fucking army?” Hakuro glares. “Stick to alchemy.”
“This is alchemy.” Katzenklavier’s voice calms; he smiles. “That’s your problem. Remember. ”
They share a long look. Al sees the shift coming: Hakuro exhales, seems to sag a little. “Make the risk acceptable. You don’t need him fighting fit, do you?”
“Well.” Katzenklavier rakes his eyes over Al, and Al’s stomach turns over. “He’ll need his hands. But he certainly won't need his tongue.” Katzenklavier turns to the soldiers holding Al. “Let’s start there. Hold his mouth open, please.”
The soldier behind Al yanks his head back by the roots of his hair, pulls down his jaw. A high note of pure panic hums through Al.
Katzenklavier steps forward, palms out, measuring the distance. He looks Al in the eye: calm, smug, victorious.
“Acker!” Al yells it. His jaw’s wrenched open; the ‘k’ is garbled. “Acker!”
Katzenklavier’s eyes widen, and he opens his mouth to speak, and Al—
“Soldier, let go of his head.” Hakuro’s voice rings out strong and hard. The hands release Al’s hair and jaw. Hakuro looks Al in the eye now, and Al can see the uncertainty in him. “What did you say? Repeat it.”
“Oh, please,” says Katzenklavier, “he’s stalling you with nonsense, I wouldn’t have thought you’d fall for such a—”
“Be quiet,” Hakuro says. “Bridgewire?”
“Acker,” Al says. “Acker’s planning a coup. Tonight.”
Hakuro frowns. He doesn’t look at Al. He looks at Katzenklavier. Al can see the tension around his mouth, the slips of the mask. Hakuro sees it too. A sliver of opportunity, for Al to wedge open.
Al looks Hakuro in the eye. He speaks simply, voice as calm and even as he can make it. “The train’s going to circle round south when you’re sleeping. There’s a squad at Allenbeck Station. You get there just after four in the morning, they pull the train into a siding and arrest you.”
“Oh,” says Hakuro. “Won't be needing his tongue, will he?”
“I wasn’t radioing Briggs,” Al says. “I couldn’t if I wanted to, the transmitter doesn’t get that far.” Never mind that he was transmitting on Radio Phoenix’s frequency to the entire resistance. Never mind that this lie won’t hold long. “I was trying to call Central. I didn’t know who was on the train, who I could trust …”
Wells, Al notices, is suddenly looking very tense—and she’s not the only one. He was right. There are conspirators among the staff.
Katzenklavier snorts. “That’s not even a decent lie. Not remotely plausible. He’s panicking.”
“No,” Hakuro says. His voice is slow, considering. “Acker. It’s plausible all right. Smarmy ginger bastard. He’s been looking at me for weeks like I’m roast with an apple in my mouth.”
“How would Bridgewire even know about a coup?” says Katzenklavier. He’s speaking too quickly. “He’s manipulating you, trying to gain your trust. Classic psychopath.”
Hakuro eyeballs Al. “Well? Speak up, then. How do you know?”
Al takes a breath. “Yesterday—”
Wells gets over in one stride, and kicks Al in the stomach. It’s brutally hard; Al sags in the soldiers’ grip, the breath knocked out of him, and registers that Wells is drawing her sidearm, bringing it up quick and smooth to point at his face and he looks his own death in the eye and feels so strange, like it’s still a dream—
Wells’ head snaps to one side. The shot punches a hole in the floor next to Al’s left knee.
There’s a red hole in her cheek; Wells drops to her knees, then slumps sideways onto the floor. There’s blood pooling under her head, blood in a fine spray on her jacket, the floor, the carriage wall.
The carriage is silent; just the rattle and chug of the train itself. Al’s ears ring.
Al looks up, his nerves crackling, his pulse hammering hard in his throat.
Hakuro’s sidearm is in his hand, tilted up. The smoke is still dispersing.
“Well,” Hakuro says. “That’s that confirmed. Anyone else?”
No one speaks. No one moves.
“Good,” Hakuro says. “Find a siding, stop the train,” His voice booms. His back is ramrod straight. “I’m going to stop this bullshit before it starts.”
“Chief,” Havoc says, as they taxi out onto the airfield. “You’re running late. Drying your hair?”
“Screw you, Havoc,” Roy says, grinning. He tosses a chocolate bar into Havoc’s lap.
“Holy shit, chief,” Havoc says, “Peppermint cream. I knew they were holding out on us.”
“Don’t look at me,” Roy says. Damn, he’s grateful for this, the banter. “If I’d known Briggs had a candy stash, I’d have been throwing chocolate into the aerodrome by the basketload the day you all arrived.”
Take-off is what it always is, a rattling run down the air strip—then that pure moment when you are suddenly without weight and friction, pointed upwards, flying up into the night. Havoc is—of course he is—a gifted pilot. Roy can pick his flying style out from the ground: like his driving and his soldiering, it’s confident without bravado, bold, sharp, athletic. He was made for flying. As the story goes, this plane they’re in, the Passero, was Count Ludovico’s personal favourite: an experimental model designed for speed and smart handling. Then Ludovico made the mistake of letting slip to Havoc over after-dinner drinks that he’d tried replacing the foot rudder controls with a push-pull shaft on the steering wheel. One short but relentless charm campaign later, Havoc flew off to war in the Count’s bird. He was made for the air, but he got there—Roy remembers how he used to be self-effacing, the human embodiment of imposter syndrome—he got there under his own steam.
The flight is moonlit, clear and bright: a beautiful night for navigation. Roy shines a flashlight on the map in his lap, keeps a hold of the speaking tube. But their fleet stays in formation, and the flight is mostly silent. Roy occupies himself by adjusting his silk scarf to let the minimum of chilly wind through his flight suit.
Silence and idleness are not Roy’s friends before a battle; he is thoroughly grateful to have a simple job to keep his mind upon. Navigation is pleasing work on a night like this: to match the lazy curves of rivers far beneath them, the dark ripples of mountains and hills, the clustered lights of cities, to the neat lines of the map.
It goes quicker than he thinks. Now they pass the landmarks that let them pick out the circuit of the presidential train, and the planes descend. This part has to be fast. It’s night, and they extinguish their lamps, but what would anyone think, if they looked up into the night sky and saw the dark shapes of descending aeroplanes? An Aerugan invasion is one of the great public bogeymen of Amestrian culture.
One of the fleet peels off ahead, tilts its wings. It’s F-61: Miles and Gallo. They have eyeballs on the presidential train. That was fast; but he trusts their eyes. Havoc and the fleet follow F-61 now, as it surges ahead of the train, descends, seeks out a spot by the railway for the jump. If all goes to plan, they’re in good time to intercept the train. Time to get ready.
“What’s that they say about revolutions? Third time’s the charm,” says Havoc, through the speaking tube. Roy turns round, makes a show of pressing his thumb and middle finger together. Havoc looks entirely unrepentant. He pulls an unlit cigarette from behind his ear and pops it into his mouth. “Break a leg, chief.”
Roy grins, tries to make a good show of it as he swings one leg out of the cockpit, grabs one of the biplane struts. He loathes this part at the best of times: inching awkwardly out to the tip of the plane’s wing, clinging onto the wire bracing in between struts. He reaches the tip, wraps both arms around the strut there, facing inwards towards Havoc.
They lock eyes for a moment. Roy pulls the worst face he can, then he lets go with his left hand, hangs onto the strut with his right and leans his whole body backwards off the plane’s wing—and the wind takes him, so fast, it sears through him and down he goes, down and down into freezing moonlit night.
Freefall always feels far too much like the Gate for Roy. Velocity, astonishment, more than the eyes and mind can take in. Vertigo and biting wind.
There is no surviving failure this time, says Roy’s mind. Then, if you die tonight, Havoc will always remember his last sight of you, pulling that face like a constipated cat. Thank you, brain. His index finger hooks into the ring of the parachute cord and he pulls; his mind vividly imagines the string snapping off, yes, brain, thank you again.
Then his harness jerks hard and his legs kick out and there it is: absolute relief, that great white sail rising and pulling taut above him. The wind pulls up. Havoc will probably remember the face anyway, he’s like that, years of that anecdote Roy will have to face. If they win. Good god, he’ll take it, take it. All the irritations, all the ordinary difficulties, all the warm clutter of a life lived with purpose among good people. How lucky, how lucky he was all those years. To be climbing slowly, death an abstract, failure an abstract. Focus. Breathe. And how lucky Roy was last night, with Ed’s warm skin against his cheek, steady heartbeat, and for a moment, they were perfectly safe, perfectly contained. Focus. Back to the present. Breathe. God he hates parachuting. He can’t stop thinking about that time on a practice jump that a bug flew up his nose; he had to snort it out with one nostril shut after he landed, so far up it took three goes, ugh. No, no, he should go with that, actually, it’s better than the other current anxiety brain theatre options: failed parachute, his corpse splattering across a four mile radius; or failed coup, shot in the head, or perhaps kept warm for a nice show trial and an execution with the press invited.
Roy could save them the trouble, he thinks, pre-write his own obituary.
“Brigadier General Roy Mustang, thirty-four, aka “the Flame Alchemist” (attrib. King Bradley), aka “the man from nowhere” (attrib. Laurence Hakuro), aka “still nowhere near ready” (attrib. Berthold Hawkeye), aka “smug bastard” (attrib. Edward Elric), aka “kid” (attrib. Chris Mustang). Good at people, ceiling darts, and manipulating gaseous substances; bad at loss, chess, appropriate romantic choices and moral hygiene. War crimes record as long as your arm, acquired in four months flat before the age of twenty-three. Jumped out of a plane and landed five thousand feet down like a dropped ice cream cone; screwed up three coups in succession; said no decent last words to anyone he loved. He leaves a disappointed mother, a fucked country and a large adolescent Homunculus.”
Bee up the nose seems quite minor really; perspective is a marvellous thing.
There’s another white sail! In the distance, another tiny drifting figure below it. A jolt of relief. Who? Could be anyone at this range. Roy turns his head, strains to see, finds two more parachutes, searches for more, spots them.
So many sails. He counts six, at least, but keeps losing track of those above him when the wind shifts and his parachute canopy obscures them. Did they all open? Surely they did. He looks below himself: still on target. He’s not drifting off course.
He thinks again of Ed’s soft breaths in the night, and the warm rhythmic shifts of his skin against Roy’s cheek. At this second he wants, more than anything, to be back in the peace of that moment, to be small and stupid and understood.
Roy breathes. He watches the sails in the night and the dark hills rising to meet him. He lets the moments pass. Now he is close enough to smell the chilly green of the field in the night. He draws in a breath, and finds himself quiet, alert and ready.
Below him, Roy sees a parachute sail land and capsize, a figure struggling up from the field. Roy braces, bends his knees—a gust of wind knocks him sideways. Great, he thinks, with irritation, and then very abruptly, tree tops are looming up below at his right, and he sails towards them, too fast—oh shit—he is crashing, his boots brush the tree tops and he looks for a branch to grab. The canopy of his parachute catches in the treetop and now he’s falling for real, branches are thumping him and he’s thrown to the side, his parachute cords thrash, he covers his face and braces as he’s knocked forward and scratched, a tree branch punches him in the midsection. Winded, he grabs it but it’s ripped from him—his cords pull tight and the harness catches him—ah—and then something’s round his throat, caught under his jaw, pulling tight, cutting in. He slaps a hand up—it’s his chest harness, that’s it, it’s pulled up—he gasps, wheezes in a breath, good, okay—and—
The dizziness comes out of nowhere, sudden and overwhelming. Flashing patches of nothing bloom in front of his eyes. He’s passing out. No no, not now—he—