bob fish

The Riderless Horse

chapter 5.

The bell on the front door of Bar Christmas jingles when it opens. Maurice the cat, in his usual spot on the bar with all paws tucked under him, barely cracks his eyes open. Roy ignores it too; he has been hearing that sound since he was too small to climb a barstool. Roy spares the cat a glance, but not the customer. He tickles Maurice behind one velvety ear, then goes straight back to his algebra homework, before his train of thought is lost. Quadratic equations are maddening, but if he can't defeat them, he's never going to be able to work out his own arrays. The very thought of ending up as a third-rate alchemist, fixing peoples' broken ornaments at a shop in the suburbs, is appalling. So on he goes.

The beaded curtain behind the bar rustles. Then his mother's gravelly voice calls, "Hello, stranger," with that warmth in her tone that tells Roy it's probably someone interesting who's come in.

Roy looks up. It's Colonel Grumman, strolling in with his cap doffed and his usual waggish grin. "Afternoon, sir," Roy says.

"Madam," says the colonel. He takes the hand Roy's mother offers, bringing it up to kiss her knuckles. Then he turns to Roy and ruffles his hair. "Hello, lad. Hard at work?"

Roy tries to flatten down the front of his hair. "Algebra. It's incredibly boring, sir."

"That's life," his mother says. "You don't get to skip the boring parts." She turns to the colonel. "You'll stay for dinner?"

"Alas," the colonel says, "I am summoned to some wretched function this evening. A quick gin and tonic, an hour of your delightful company, and perhaps a little discussion of our mutual business interests?"

Roy's mother winks, and turns to pour out a measure of gin for her guest. They'll be talking about work, then. Roy pricks up his ears, but only a bit. He's been living with the spying game since he was four; long enough to know that it, too, has its boring bits. The interesting bits, though, look like terrific fun: a bit like working out an array, only with people. You pop all the pieces in order, and then at the end, if you're clever enough, you get what you want.

The colonel's eyes drift down to Roy's homework.

"Goodness," he says, "look at all those equations. Darn sight more advanced than what they were teaching ten year olds in my day."

"It's not schoolwork," says Roy, "it's homework from my alchemy tutor. Mrs Pettifer says algebra is the weight and measure of a good array."

"Not still thinking of going in for alchemy, are we?" asks the colonel.

"What's wrong with alchemists?" Roy feels personally affronted, and that short-circuits his usual politeness to grown-ups; after all, isn't he an alchemist already? Didn't he mend a broken gramophone for his mother only this afternoon?

"Sneakiness, I'm afraid." The rueful tone in the colonel's voice is a little confusing; sneakiness has always been sold to Roy as a virtue.

"Pots and kettles," smirks Roy's mother, leaning a hip on the bar. Roy's mother places the colonel's drink in front of him. He takes a seat next to Roy at the bar. Maurice the cat untucks his legs, stretches, and then ambles towards the colonel in hopes of a head scratch.

The first thing Roy's aware of is, of course, his headache. It's back and hard at work, hammering his temples from the insides with such force that it takes him a good few moments of slowly rising consciousness to realise that something else is wrong too. He becomes aware that he's stiff and uncomfortable. Eyes still scrunched shut, he tries to stretch his legs, but pinching metal bands stop them after just a couple of inches. He's cuffed to the chair he's sitting in.

After that, it all begins to fall into place.

Over the next few minutes, Roy explores his position. He's still wearing the canvas bag that was shoved over his head in the street. A few cursory shakes of his head confirm that something is loosely tying it in place under his chin. It's a little airless, like breathing under bedclothes, and it still smells somewhat nauseatingly of the chloroform he was drugged with. He can see nothing but vague fragments of light.

His wrists are being held a foot apart by what Roy guesses are wooden shackles. Standard procedure for restraining alchemists. His hands themselves are bandaged into fists. He can feel some kind of padding under his fingertips.

It occurs to Roy that he's being kept alive. If they were going to kill him, he'd have been dead right there in the car. What's the meaning of this? Has Riza — please, dammit — been kept alive too? That would make sense, he tells himself desperately. What about the rest of his team? Are they still free? Are they aware of his absence yet?

He can't hear a thing in the room. "Hey," he calls out. "Hey!" His voice sounds rough. "I want to know who's holding me, and why." There's no answer, no sound. The room sounds small. Where are they holding Roy? In Headquarters itself, a private house, a military lock-up? Roy considers shouting his questions again, but what's it going to achieve, other than make him sound impotent? Besides, he likely knows the answers already.

The minutes pass slowly. Roy tries and fails to get his fingertips together, to pull a wrist from the shackles, to break a chair leg by kicking his foot out. His struggles don't even seem to draw the attention of a guard. His nausea and headache ebb and flow.

His mouth feels dry and sticky. He rolls his own spittle around his mouth, and despite himself imagines water.

He's still alive. He's going to assume Hakuro was responsible for this, not some splinter group. The timing of their abduction is almost conclusive: only an hour or two after Roy's people arrested the pharmacist who made the pills that killed Grumman. What kind of plan for a coup requires Roy to be kept alive? The only thing that occurs is a court-martial: a show trial, public humiliation, death by rule of law, all of it spun to make him look less of a martyr and more of an incompetent traitor. Both Roy and Hakuro have seen, these past few days, how easy it can be to feed a new version of the truth to the people of Amestris. The deck is stacked, and Hakuro knows the dealer. Roy wonders if they've decided what they're going to try him for yet. Then the answer flashes into his brain, along with a head-clearing jolt of adrenaline.

Hakuro is going to pin Grumman's assassination on Roy.

What about everyone else? Riza will likely face the same fate. Breda, Fuery, Falman. Second Lieutenant Ross, who walked back into danger for him. Would they trace the arms supply back to Havoc in the East? With a cry of rage, Roy kicks his foot out again. He only succeeds in jarring the bones of his ankle. His whole body buzzes with frustrated energy and horror.

They've always faced the possibility that something like this might be the end of it all. Now that it's here, he finds that he can't face it at all.

After an unquantifiable stretch of hours or minutes, there is sound. Marching footsteps, several pairs, keys rattling in the door. Closer footsteps, then Roy's chin is forced up in the crook of someone's arm, half-choking him, as his ankles are unlocked from the chair. Then there are arms either side of him, lifting him with ease and force, and starting to march him along. Roy struggles to even keep his feet on the floor. He pulls against his captors' grip, experimentally, but it's rock solid. Are these the same gorillas as last time, or does Hakuro have a whole supply of them? Are they transporting him somewhere else? Are they taking him for interrogation, for a torture session?

A corridor, Roy thinks, disoriented. A corridor, and then — in another room? — he's forced down onto a chair again, and his ankles are secured.

Then — there's a pull at his neck and for a moment Roy almost panics. Then he realises — they're removing the hood.

Roy mentally prepares himself. He is a human weapon, after all. Even physically powerless as he is, he can be intimidating. Any slight advantage he can gain, he needs to press.

When the bag comes off, the glare is blinding for a second. Roy squints automatically, trying to get his bearings. It looks like an interrogation room; he could be in the lockup at Headquarters, or a police station, or half a dozen other places. Through the small window running high along one wall, Roy can't make out any surroundings, but he can see that it's still light outside.

And sitting in front of Roy, on the other side of a plain table, is Major General Hakuro.

Roy wants to ask for water. He's parched, nauseous, and in pain. He's not going to ask for water, he's not going to abase himself like that. He's not going to let himself be distracted by his body. He fails to stop himself wetting his lips.

Hakuro's face is set, in that solid, wall-like way that only big men seem to be able to manage. Still, Roy notices, he doesn't quite look like a man in command of a nation. He's breathing a little too fast, and there are beads of sweat on his forehead. His hands are clasped on the table tightly, twitchily.

The man is nervous. Why? Roy grabs hold of the idea, focuses upon it. Try to work out why he's so rattled.

Neither of them speaks for a good few seconds.

It's Hakuro who breaks the silence. "How long have you known?" he asks.

"Known what?" says Roy, keeping his face blank. It seems he instinctively decided to test Hakuro, to see what he knows or guesses about Grumman.

"Months?" Hakuro spits. "Years?"

Roy blinks. What?

"Bradley," says Hakuro. "The country. The eclipse. How long were you sitting on that?"

It takes Roy a moment to gather his thoughts. "l want," he says carefully, "to know Captain Hawkeye's condition."

"In custody," says Hakuro. Nothing worse — for now, Roy guesses. A pang of relief with an edge of fear. "How long?" Hakuro repeats. His voice is louder.

"My men?"

"How long?" They're not in custody yet, then.

Roy withholds his reply, just for a moment, to savour the small shift of power towards himself. "Months," he says. "Months of planning, not of sitting on it. What the hell else did you think I was going to do but plan in secret? Bradley knew I was onto him, anyway. You know that."

"Oh, so this was all deeply unselfish, was it? For the sake of Amestris?"

"Yes, for the sake of Amestris!" Roy's voice cracks as he shouts. His throat's too dry.

"You smug little bastard." Hakuro shakes his head. "You risked the lives of the whole country hanging onto this information. You waited until Eclipse Day for your coup, you used that alchemical — thing — what it tried to do to us all — as a distraction. I'm probably wasting my breath here, but if the people of this nation mean so much to you, how can you even justify that?"

For a moment, Roy can't come up with a response, as he struggles to process the accusation. "You think that — the reason Armstrong and I planned the coup for the Promised Day was so I could just take over while everyone was dealing with the Homunculus?"

"Yes, that's exactly what I think. Going to try to talk your way out of it?"

"You know now that Eclipse Day was the only day we could act against the Homunculus. Protecting the people of this country was our highest aim. As for the coup, I'm not denying my goals. You think after all the trouble we had saving this country, I'm going to hand it to just anyone?"

Hakuro snorts at him, and then laughs — a proper, deep belly laugh. Roy's muscles clench. He'd forgotten for a moment that here he is, shackled and in charge of nothing at all.

"I didn't come here to hear your pompous self-justifications," Hakuro spits.

"What's the point of this, then?" It's a genuine enough question.

"What other secrets are you sitting on, Mustang? How many of those alchemy-creatures are there out there?"

"The homunculi?" Is that it, then? He has information — or Hakuro thinks he does. He has a bargaining chip, something his opponent wants from him. "None. One. The infant you saw, the one in Mrs Bradley's care."

"Tell me what it does. Tell me how it works." Hakuro lowers his voice. He sounds almost horrified.

"You've got alchemists of your own, surely?"

"You know these creatures. It's not going to do you any good to keep your secrets. Tell me. Tell me how to destroy it, tell me how to control it. Do a bit of real good for once in your life. Don't leave Amestris at the mercy of another goddamn monster."

"Why?" Roy asks. "Out of sheer altruism? I don't believe this crap about appealing to my better nature."

Hakuro tuts. "I need this information for Amestris' security. If you're not going to tell me, then my next port of call is the Elric brothers."

Roy starts forward before he can help himself. Fuck. On the Promised Day, they fought a god, but now — Alphonse was as thin as paper and tiny in his hospital bed. Fullmetal, with his right arm missing, is currently unable to clap. They're so vulnerable, and so close to completing their impossible journey, getting out of this mess and back to the village in the rolling hills, their old guardian with her pipe and wiry hair, their pretty friend whose mention makes Edward pout out his lower lip -

"You utter fucking bastard. It's a baby," Roy spits, "it doesn't do anything, it's a goddamn baby. It's an artificial human, it's nothing. Now if that's all you came for, get out of my sight." Hakuro doesn't move. Roy can't stop himself, now he's started. "Don't flaunt your morality in front of me and then threaten to torture a couple of teenagers."

"You're a traitor," Hakuro says simply. "Whatever Bradley was, this nation's grown strong under him. You betrayed your country and your people."

"You don't get to call me a traitor," Roy says. "You had the standing Fuhrer murdered."

"Grumman collaborated with you and Armstrong! He was as much a traitor as the pair of you. I'm rooting this poison out, all of it. I'll bury as many of you people as I need to to make this country safe."

"You can try. This isn't over. You're planning to try me for this assassination?" Hakuro doesn't bother to reply. Roy knows the answer anyway. "Well, good luck with that. My people aren't going to stop, you know. They've got the truth and they'll fight for me."

Hakuro nods, his lips set.

Roy blinks.

"You're right," says Hakuro. "Making a trial of this is going to be an endless damn pain in the ass. Better to just cut off the head of the operation."

He pulls his sidearm, clicks off the safety, and levels it at Roy's face.

By the time Roy has registered it all and his system has jolted with the shock of his impending death, he realises — Hakuro still hasn't fired.

Roy doesn't look at the gun barrel. He looks past it, into the eyes of the man holding the gun. They're wide. His forehead is dark. Apparently Hakuro's one of those men who goes red in the face when they're angry. Roy suddenly realises: Hakuro keeps changing his mind because he must have come here to decide what to do. He doesn't know what course to take.

Then Hakuro's own gaze shifts fractionally upward. He meets Roy's eyes, and Roy sees so clearly that the man is afraid. A frightened, confused man is aiming a gun into his face: not good.

Roy looks at him calmly. He doesn't know what might set off Hakuro's panic, so he makes his face as blank as possible. Let him see what he wants to see. That gun-waving is starting to look undignified, an unhelpful part of his brain chimes in.

After another moment, Roy speaks quietly. "Grumman's death has torn the military in two," he says. He pauses. Hakuro's eyes are still on him. He's listening. Roy takes a breath. "The old guard trusted Grumman. My people liked him. Briggs supported him. There isn't anyone who can do that, who can take his place. After Bradley — it's more of a mess than either of us anticipated, isn't it?"

Hakuro huffs out a little breath through his nostrils. The ghost of a laugh. Roy's pulse is thudding fast in his throat.

Roy continues. "You've seen how much struggle it's been taking to hold this government together, neither of us can take power right now without risking plunging Amestris into a civil war —"

Something shifts in Hakuro's face. Roy holds his breath.

Then he realises something really, really awful. He's just accidentally spoken the truth.

Neither of them can take power safely yet — and neither of them is ready to start that war tomorrow, which means ...

Hakuro flicks on the safety catch. He holsters his gun, without ceremony.

After a moment, he shakes his head. "We may as well talk here," he says, voice heavy with disgust. "I'll call someone about those," he says, nodding his head at the shackles. "And get a pot of coffee sent in."

"Get Captain Hawkeye sent in," says Roy. So, now they bargain. He feels simultaneously jubilant and deeply, utterly pissed off. He keeps his face hard. "I'll talk terms with you after I see she's safe —"

- and then the door flies across the room. Just like that, it's off its hinges and already sailing through the air. Roy scoots clumsily sideways and very nearly topples backwards with his chair, just before the door crashes into the side of the table. When Roy's righted himself, he sees that Hakuro's right hand is frozen in the act of drawing his sidearm.

Framed in the doorway is Major Armstrong, fist still extended from his iron-knuckled punch — and tucked against him, her pistol gripped in both hands, is Riza Hawkeye.

Roy grins. He grins at her like a madman, and is rewarded with a tiny, irritable little huff. Riza springs into the room, all business. She motions for Hakuro to get his hands in the air. As he does so, looking furious as a B-movie villain in the final reel, other people pour in behind her: Lieutenant Catalina, Breda, Fuery, Ross.

It's a good moment. A triumphant moment, even. It's a shame Roy's going to have to piss all over it.

Breda crouches by Roy, pulls a set of keys from his pocket, and starts trying them on the lock of Roy's shackles, one by one, while Fuery cuts through the binding on his hands with a penknife. As Roy painfully stretches his cramped hands, he sees Riza brandishing a pair of handcuffs at Hakuro.


"Men," Roy calls out, "lower your weapons. Everyone stand down, now."

Everybody stands down. Everybody stares.

Roy takes a deep breath, and starts talking.

"Our Nation Thanks Him for a Lifetime of Service," Breda calls as Roy enters the hotel bar. He holds up the newspaper. Roy pulls a face. He takes off his cap, unbuckles Olivia Armstrong's sword, and rests it on a table. Armstrong's funeral had made him uneasy, but Bradley's made his skin crawl.

"I thought it went off well," Riza says. "By the way, Mrs Bradley thanks you for looking after her. She says she's settling in nicely at the manor house, and Selim's still feeding well."

"That's nice," says Roy, ruffling the slick out of his hair. He's only half-sarcastic. Somehow, despite everything, he likes Bradley's widow — and more than that, he trusts Fullmetal's word about the baby. Like any child, he deserves a chance.

Breda has bought extra copies of the Central Times. The three of them sit at a table and comb through the paper in silence. On page eleven, a newspaper editorial combed and approved by the provisional government writes tactfully of the tragedy of Bradley's final breakdown, sets it against his long and noble career. Roy can almost feel the journalists' fingers itching to write freely. Surely they can see that the state's control of the press is slackening?

"How was Hakuro's big eulogy?" Breda breaks the silence.

"As expected," says Riza from behind her newspaper.

"Fuhrer Bradley's legacy is a safe and prosperous Amestris sustained by military strength," Roy quotes sourly. "The thing is, I think he actually believes it."

Breda's face has gone dark. "Asshole," he mutters.

Madam Christmas, of course, chooses this moment to emerge from the beaded curtain behind the bar. "How did it go over with the crowd?" Her voice has that taut note that conveys maternal disapproval.

"Mixed reception," says Roy.

"I thought," Riza chips in, "that he struck rather an unfortunate note with all that business about Bradley's sword guarding the people from those who would harm them. There were definitely a few raised eyebrows in the brass then."

"Yes," says Roy, grateful that she's helping him out here. "I was actually hoping that he was going to say something about keeping body and soul together, that would have been perfect. How's the mood around here?"

"Distinctly disgruntled," Madam Christmas says. She leans an arm against the bar. "Last couple of days, this bar has seen a lot of mutterings about your new deal, kid."

Roy shoves a hand into his hair. "I know." He shrugs. "I can hardly blame them. I would complain about me, if I were them."

"You change your mind about General Hakuro, there are a lot of people out there who'd volunteer to fix him a digitalis martini. Hell, I'd do it this evening if it wasn't going to start a war."

Roy closes his eyes for a moment. He thinks of another bar, long ago, of Grumman and his mother chuckling and plotting together, planning their next moves in a game that seemed to Roy, aged ten, to be harmless and fascinating as a chess match — and hardly more likely to hurt anyone he loved. Roy's right hand, resting on the table, nudges the hilt of Olivia Armstrong's sabre.

"Call everyone in," says Roy. "It's about time I explained."

Roy's fingers curl around a lukewarm coffee cup. "This can never be permanent," he says. "It's best that we're both honest about how it's going to end."

Hakuro huffs and takes a drag on his third cigarette. "In bloodshed," he says. "But not for the whole country."

"Co-operation up until the point where one of us has enough support to take power," Roy continues. It's so nice how they're finishing off each other's sentences already. "And then —"

"There's no such thing as a bloodless coup," says Hakuro. "I'm pointing this out to you because you're apparently green as grass."

Roy can immediately name at least three bloodless coups — Creta 1878, Paol 1816, Duchy of Cairus 1484. He resists the urge to rattle them off, it will just make him look as if he's in an undergraduate common room. "This one," he acknowledges, "won't be bloodless. Whichever of us carries it out."

"We govern together and keep the fight peaceful," Roy finishes, "for as long as it lasts." There's complete silence in the bar. Everyone listens. "No more political murders. And when the day of reckoning comes — whether it's in one year or three — we've agreed to only target each other and our direct subordinates. I'll keep to my end of the bargain. As for Hakuro, I can't guarantee he keeps his promises. All I can tell you is that everyone who comes to work for me now is putting their neck on the line."

Roy looks around the room — and notices how very full it is. A few days ago, he sat at a desk in an empty office. When his chair scraped, the whole room echoed. Now, as he looks around the crowded bar, he realises how many new faces there are here. His old Ishbal comrades, who'd claimed they were going to head home long before now. Lieutenant Catalina — he finally understands now what Riza sees in her. Maria Ross — has she even had a chance to see her own family yet? Major Armstrong, who should be dealing with his sister's estate right now.

"That means," Roy says, "that I can cut any of you loose, right now. A lot of you have families, other commitments. You've all already done so much for me. I can get you an assignment elsewhere, or your discharge papers. I don't want anyone to come back on board unless they're certain." He looks around. "Please think about it."

Major Armstrong, wedged in by the bar, takes a step forward. "Brigadier General," he says. "You have my complete support, sir." And he snaps a salute, his heels clicking together. The drama of it makes him look more like his old self than Roy has seen him since the Promised Day.

Almost immediately, Maria Ross pulls back her chair and stands too. "Reporting for duty, sir," she says.

Roy returns the salutes. "Thank you, both," he says. "The rest of you, please think this through overnight. I don't expect you to answer right now —" Three more people have already stepped forward and saluted him. Brosch, Catalina, Dino. Roy salutes back. Then, before he has time to call a halt, the momentum of the thing is out of control. The whole room seems to be stepping forward and saluting him. Charlie, Dino. Fieseler and Lamacq, and Falman standing behind them, one eye still on them. Fuery, grinning his head off. Major Miles, snow goggles off for once, looking him right in the eye in a way that reminds Roy oddly of Olivia Armstrong herself.

Next to him at the table, Breda's chair scrapes, and he stands with two fingers tapping the side of his head. "Might as well keep backing the same pony, sir," he says.

And when he turns to his other side, Riza is facing him, saluting, back straight and face absolutely serious. Their eyes meet. He salutes back and clicks his heels together. She smiles so discreetly that it's just the tiniest upward twitch of her lips.

Roy turns to the rest of the room, salutes them. "At ease," he calls. The room unfreezes itself, everyone relaxes. As Roy takes in the hubbub, his eyes fall on his mother, still standing behind the bar. She taps a finger to the side of her forehead and winks at him.

"Thank you, everyone," says Roy. It's inadequate — but what else can he say? Then he grins. "Please take the rest of the evening off, everyone. Get some sleep. Tomorrow we're going to be busy."

Over the next few weeks, things begin to return to something bizarrely like normality. Roy gives the eulogy at Fuhrer Grumman's funeral, and returns to the news that Marcoh has paid his hotel bill in cash and slipped into the shadows once more. Madam Christmas' girls return safely from Aerugo, and Roy enjoys and endures another boisterous family dinner. Fullmetal visits the office, with his right sleeve pinned up but glowing with good spirits, to update everyone on his brother's recovery and to pass snide comments about how, with all these new minions, Roy will never do a scrap of work.

Roy's work of gathering support begins in earnest. One morning a weapons manufacturer who helped supply the coup surprises Roy by refusing a meeting in favour of dealing directly with his existing contact, whom he irritatingly describes as a "good ol' boy." So Roy finds himself putting a call through to Havoc General Stores. His former subordinate agrees, with only a little smugness, to straighten things out — after he's dealt with his morning customers. Roy suspects that the future holds many more such irritating phone calls for him. Next time, he should at least be ready with a good quip.

Some weeks later, Roy finds himself attending yet another memorial: a private re-interment for Olivia Armstrong in the family tomb, at which he finds himself strangely jealous of her family's unrestrained and unembarrassed weeping.

And of course, once again, Roy is plotting his way to the top.

As April moves on, the weather takes a definitive upward turn. The last of the chill in the air has vanished. Roy starts leaving his coat off when he goes out to lunch.

"I've been thinking," he says to Riza. They're halfway through a planning meeting in his study. They sit cross-legged on the rug, which is covered in paper, take-out cartons, mugs. There were a lot of these meetings, a few years back, when Roy first hammered out his plan to get to the top. Back then, though, it hadn't usually been Riza sitting next to him. In those early days, she'd been so quiet and full of grief. Their bargain had added such a strange weight to their conversations, in the beginning.

"I was wondering — I wanted to ask you something."

Riza looks at him, waiting.

"When the time comes — well, when we hope it comes — I'd very much like you to be my vice-president."

Riza blinks. For a moment, it hangs between them in the air. Hughes was always going to be vice-president, from that very first conversation, on the first day after the war. They'd made a joke of it.

Then she cocks her head. "Amestris doesn't have a vice-president."

Roy arches an eyebrow. "If the supreme commander of the military says he wants a vice-president, he can have one."

"We're not there yet."

"I'm planning. Planning isn't presumptuous."

"Just don't get too ahead of yourself. You do that."

"You haven't answered my question. Will you? Would you?"

Riza meets his eyes. Her lips press together. Then she bursts out laughing. It isn't her usual contained, teasing little noise. No, she smiles at him and chuckles deeply and shakes her head, the way she used to when they were teenagers.

Roy blinks in confusion for a moment — then he joins in with her. "Does shaking your head mean 'no'? Or does it mean 'yes, but you're ridiculous'?"

"What do you think, Mr Mustang?" Her voice is mock-solemn, cheeky.

"I think when I do this I'm going to need you next to me, telling me when I'm being an idiot."

"To continue with my current duties, then?" She smiles again. "I think I can do that."

She sticks her hand out, and they shake on their new bargain, the latest in so many. About this one, though, Roy has no doubts.