Author's Notes: Hi everyone. This piece was created for the winning bidder of the HelpJapan auction. My prompt was medieval AU with Roy in armour. This open-ended one-shot is the result. I enjoyed writing in this universe, and if you like it too then I'll probably be returning with sequels to explore the whole story once my other FMA commitments (No Smoke Without Fire) are complete!
Hope you enjoy it!
Mail: This is the correct term for chainmail, which is a Victorianisation of the flexible link armour.
Plate: Plate armour is comprised of solid metal sheets shaped to a knight's body and normally attached with leather.
Akiton: A padded tunic, normally of linen, which can be worn underneath plate and mail
Greaves: The leg or foot coverings of a suit or armour.
Cup: Pretty much what it sounds like. A formed piece of metal to protect the genitals from a cunning blow or a quick knee. Usage varied from one decade to the next. Sometimes confused with a codpiece, which was normally made of cloth and worn by the nobleman to appear virile (or at least large).
Cold seeped from the stone walls of the castle, turning the air to ice as Sir Roy Mustang's boot steps echoed down the corridor. The setting sun shone through low arrow slits in the ancient masonry, striping the passageway with golden light and darker shadow. The braziers would be lit soon, and the oil soaked reeds lent a heavy scent to every breath. The familiar perfume made him feel at home. After all, the castle had been the roof over his head for more years than he cared to count — a far cry from the squalid streets on which he had lived as a bastard child.
The manner of his birth was not so easily shed as his humble beginnings. The old King, Bradley, had taken him in, and even now Roy did not understand why he had shown generosity to a peasant boy. Yet Roy had taken to knight training naturally, first as a page, squire and then, finally, a defender of the realm and the throne.
Normally, such duties were charged to the titled, those who had proven their pedigree on the battlefield. Unlike them, he had no noble parentage, and most of Mustang's fellow knights made sure he did not forget his place. He might have been a favourite once, but the old King had met his match, and Roy had found himself in the troubled waters of dangerous times.
There were those he would call friends: intelligent men who knew that lineage made no difference in a fight, but to everyone else he was simply The Bastard. If he were a weaker man, he would have succumbed to the strength of the opposition. It was easy enough to kill off those knights who were less desirable to the regime. They were sent on dangerous mission from which they never returned, or caught pissing their drink against the wall and killed for their trouble.
Roy was still alive for one simple reason: he was the best. A fact he had to prove repeatedly to those who challenged him and his honour. Today it had been the joust. Some cocky and confident newly titled young man had decided to rid his lord and master of the inconvenient burden of a shameful champion. Roy had stripped him of his pride, his lance and, thanks to a well-placed hoof from his gelding when the man was down, probably his ability to father children.
'That smile is going to get you into trouble.'
Roy's hand was on his sword before his brain had a chance to process the words, and he only relaxed a fraction as Sir Hughes stepped forward. As a nobleman, Hughes did his best not to look the part. His mail was slightly too big and his sword was unpolished. His knuckles were scraped, and his beard was only a thin smattering of unruly stubble: highly unfashionable in court.
Of course, those knights with any sense scorned the current trend for thick beards. Why give your enemy something else to grab in battle?
'There's been little else to make me smile today. Besides, it took Sir Havoc ages to teach Bane that trick.' He grinned as Hughes rolled his eyes, falling into step. His mail made soft, metallic whispers compared to the clumsy percussion of Roy's heavy plate. If he were merely on guard duty, he would be wearing the same, light-weight armour, but that kind of risk in the joust was suicide. As it was he would have to ask the blacksmith, a sharp man by the name of Breda, to beat out a few new dents thanks to the afternoon's excursion.
'I mean it, Roy. Kingsley will take issue with the court: unbecoming conduct, apparently.' Hughes smothered a grin at Roy's snort, knowing as well as he did that no one could prove anything. Roy would claim it was an accident and perhaps have to offer an apology, but the damage to his pride would be far less than that caused to Kingsley. 'In fact, I'm afraid your trouble might begin sooner than you think. I've been asked to tell you you're to head to the vault.'
The grimace spasmed across Roy's face, his top lip curling in disgust. Guarding the vault was a brainless activity — one that all the knights hated in equal measure. King Hakuro was a collector of riches, but unlike the old King, he did not share his wealth around the castle. There were no tapestries on the walls of the keep, nor any warm furs by the fires. Instead, they were locked up in the vault and had to be constantly protected from imagined thieves.
As if anyone was insane enough to try and steal anything from this place. It was built to keep people out, and in all its history the castle had never fallen. The vault was at the top of a cold and inhospitable tower, accessed only by a single stairway or the glass-less windows that ancient astronomers had once used to view the stars. Perhaps a person could slip through there, but only if they could fly...
'I've only just finished tending to Bane and put him in his stable,' Roy grouched, but quietly. Any kind of disobedience was met by ruthlessness from any knight who was truly loyal to Hakuro. 'Give me an hour to get out of this damn armour and bathe. I stink of horse.'
'Sorry, Roy.' Hughes shrugged, reaching out to pat Roy's shoulder with a gauntleted fist. 'I've been told to take you there myself. The King is waiting, and he has never been a patient man.'
Biting back a curse, Roy followed. He hated the fact that he had ended up in this situation, but Hakuro was a cunning man. He knew Roy and several of his friends had been loyal to the old King. Most in that position had found themselves on the executioner's block when the crown changed bloody hands during the war, but a few of them had been allowed to live. It gave credibility to Hakuro's claim to rule, and kept those who may oppose him close enough to watch.
Roy clenched his jaw, his teeth grinding together as he marched. That was how his life had come to this: petty jousts and pointless guard duty. He may still be the champion of the throne, but the rules had changed, and the honour of that title meant nothing when it came to trust. Hakuro had him on a leash, and all Roy could do was follow.
'You wished to see me, sire?' He came to a halt by the tower door, bowing as low as his armour would allow and thumping his fist to his chest in salute before glancing up and taking in the new King's face. He had only been on the throne a year, but the hard, military frame had given way to fat. Too much wine and meat had given his face an unhealthy, ruddy complexion, and the iron grey hair and beard were slowly succumbing to paler tones of white. If Hakuro had to fight for his crown now, he would lose it.
Of course, the man would never lift the sword himself. Not these days. He would hide away in his rooms and throw his knights into the jaws of death instead.
'You're late, Sir Mustang,' the King snarled, his lips trembling around a sneer. 'I believe I have given you too much freedom — too much leniency amidst my court. I will not have fighting among my knights, and your behaviour only encourages such feuds.' He flicked his hands towards the door behind him. 'Perhaps a return to more standard duties will remind you of your place: servant to the throne.'
He said "servant" like "slave", and Roy fought to keep his face impassive as he bowed again. 'As your majesty desires.'
King Hakuro's eyes narrowed, as if he were trying to read the truth off the blank canvas of Roy's expression. Several seconds past before he finally gave up, unable to discern anything but patient obedience from Roy's carefully controlled expression.
A more stupid man would have turned and walked away, but Hakuro was not a fool. He was afraid of Roy — of the brute strength and power he represented — and Roy noticed that the King waited, pressing his back to the wall as he motioned for Roy to go about his duties.
Roy hid his smirk as he pushed through the door, closing and locking the thick oak behind him before he set off up the tight spiral staircase. At least the King still viewed him as a threat and an enemy worth holding close, but as much as it soothed Roy's bruised esteem to know that, he was aware of the danger it posed.
A paranoid monarch was a treacherous leader. They focussed inwards on the intrigue of their own court and left their kingdom defenceless. More to the point, they obsessed over their foes, and it seemed Hakuro was well aware of Roy's potential as an enemy.
Roy was pleased to know he inspired fear in the arrogant old man. However, there was a delicate equilibrium of his usefulness as the old champion versus the threat he posed, and Roy could not afford to tilt the balance too far. A King would not hesitate to kill off his rivals if they outlived their usefulness, nor would he be questioned in doing so. If Roy displeased him too greatly, then his head would swiftly depart company with the rest of him.
Of course, the King may be more subtle. The people trusted Roy as the old ruler's champion, and saw him as a symbol of continuity amidst the bloody feudal wars. An execution could lead to public outcry. However, if Roy died behind closed doors in the quiet seclusion of the vault, no one would be able to give voice to the accusation of murder.
Treasure was not the only thing he would be guarding tonight. His life, as far as he was concerned, was more precious than the trinkets the King kept under lock and key, and more at risk. He would not let his guard down. All it took was one disgruntled knight hiding in the shadows with a knife and Roy's game of survival could be over.
The long climb up the narrow staircase was a wearisome chore, but even as his armour dragged at his body, Roy kept his hand on the hilt of his sword and his eyes alert. Torches had been lit here, and their glow leant texture to the darkness before thickening to a suitable level of illumination at the summit of the stairs. Another door blocked his way, and he unlocked it smoothly, closing it in his wake as he surveyed the large, circular tower room.
Brass bound chests were stacked three deep, their locks tied fast to the world. Furs and silks had been piled haphazardly amidst the old thrones and regal armour that spoke more of wealth than protection. All of it was kept away from the windows, where the elements were at their worst. Some of those gaping holes had once been shuttered in a futile effort to keep out the weather, but now rot had set in, and the wood was disintegrating from its hinges, leaving the bare, baleful holes in the walls to stare out into the night.
Some relics, the King's favourites, were on display, resting on cloth covered pedestals, and Roy cast his eye over the cacophony of spilt gold and gems. There was enough in here to buy half of Amestris, and yet the King starved his people and worked his men into the ground with a frugal fist.
Roy's fingers itched, and he wondered, not for the first time, if anyone ever counted it. He had survived the streets by stealing, and old habits died hard. Would anyone really miss a handful?
'Don't even think about it, Sir.' The point of a sword kissed the nape of his neck, and Roy forced down the defensive fury of his body, holding his muscles stationary as he longed to lash out. Normally, anyone threatening him would have been lying on their back by now, but he recognised the voice. Despite all evidence to the contrary, it belonged to a friend, and one who was in his debt thanks to a secret.
'Sir Hawkeye,' he murmured, allowing a dip of mirth into his voice at the title. The pressure of the sword tip increased a fraction before falling away, and he turned to face the knight. Smooth faced and diminutive, most people looked at Hawkeye and thought "boy". It was an easy enough mistake to make. They saw the armour, the sword and the unrelenting expression and filled in the rest themselves. However, some people looked deeper, and Roy had been one of them. She may have bound her breasts and cut her hair to serve the old King, but Hawkeye was still a woman: strong, determined, and a fiercer fighter than most men Roy could name.
Now she was watching him with an unforgiving expression, one eyebrow raised as she glanced back towards the stairs. 'You're here to relieve me, Sir Mustang?' She sounded like she did not believe it for a minute, and her gaze fell on the dented plate armour as her frown deepened. 'Are you expecting a war?'
'King's orders, Hawkeye. I'm fresh from a joust with Kingsley, where it seems I won a lance and lost my freedom. This is my punishment.' As if to emphasise his words, the cooling wind of the night whistled through the empty eyes of windows. Glass was too splendid for such out-of-the-way places, and Roy gritted his teeth as the jaws of the cold slammed shut around him.
Hawkeye sniffed, indicating without words that his undoubtedly reckless behaviour probably deserved his punishment. However, something softened in the set of her eyes, and she gestured to his armour. 'Take that off, or you'll be fit for the grave by morning. There's some spare mail in that chest, not in the best of repair, but I doubt it'll be put to the test up here.' She cast her eye around the large circular room, taking in the glowing braziers suspended from the ceiling by chains and the thick, gloomy forest of pillars that supported the roof.
With a grateful sigh, Roy did as she asked, wrestling the leather straps with clumsy fingers and peeling off greaves, breastplate and the other assorted heavy metal that made up his full armour. His muscles twanged with relief from the weight, and he dreaded to think how his horse must have felt after the duel.
The mail Hawkeye had mentioned was beginning to rust in places, and Roy dragged it on over his akiton, feeling it fall halfway down his thighs. The leather breeches he had worn beneath his plate armour would suffice, and he left the boots on. The metal might be cold, but the sturdy footwear was as good as a sword in a fight, and he would take any advantage he could. Hawkeye was probably right; the night ahead was likely to be long and boring, but he was not about to take any chances.
'Goodnight, Sir Mustang,' Hawkeye said as she collected together the pieces and shouldered the burden. 'I'll make sure these return to your chambers.'
'Thank you. I'm sure I'll find myself needing them again before the sun sets tomorrow.'
Roy sighed, fastening his sword belt around his waist before making himself comfortable. Chivalry dictated he remain alert and at attention during his vigil, but he doubted that anyone would be along to check. At the very least he could allow his mind to work on the problems before him while he stood guard.
A broad pillar offered firm support as he leaned back against it, his body falling easily into a position of alert repose. Should he need to, he could launch himself forward at the first sign of a threat, but in the meantime weary muscles could acquire a fraction of the rest they needed.
Roy knew he could not go on like this. Constant challenges to his name and his life had been entertaining to begin with — an enjoyable spice in the chaos of his time in the new court — but now the game was growing old. His opponents only needed to be lucky once to bring his existence to a premature end, but Roy needed all his skills and constant good fortune to stay alive.
Yet as long as King Hakuro was on the throne, that is how his life would stay. The monarch would keep Roy busy with trifling errands and pointless plots, biding his time until an accident or duel gone wrong removed him from the King's path.
Back in the early days, when King Bradley was still warm in his grave, Roy had entertained the thought of overthrowing Hakuro's presumptuous claims to the throne. However, the opportunity had never arisen. Anyone who did not proclaim their allegiance to the new ruler, from the highest duke to the lowest servant, met a bloody end. There were too few allies to raise an army, and that is what it would take. For centuries, Amestris' rulers had to fight for the privilege, and that had not changed. To remove Hakuro from the throne, he would have to be slain in battle, or old age and illness would have to take its course.
Roy sighed, considering that option. There was no heir, yet, and nor was there likely to be, but the King could always bestow his title upon a man of his court: a trusted, titled knight of noble lineage. Either way, the situation did not look likely to improve. The kingdom would starve while the King grew fat on its produce, and Roy would be lucky to live another year.
Hughes knew that, and Roy had no doubt that he had started asking quiet questions and discovering how strongly people placed themselves on the King's side. No one particularly approved of Hakuro, apart from those who had fought beside him in the battle for the throne, but the answer was always the same. He had too many knights and too large an army to challenge. Until there was an answer to that, then there would be no revolution, no civil war and no new head bearing the crown.
Above his head, the candles in the large, wrought iron chandelier guttered in the wind, and Roy clenched his jaw, fighting back a shudder as he turned his eyes to the dark world beyond the castle's walls. Night had fallen, and tattered clouds skated across the moon's pale face while the stars were mere suggestions behind those obscuring veils. The castle and its battlements crowned the hill, while the town and its people skulked in the shadow of the keep. They toiled through every day, being bled dry by the monarch's taxes and the church's tithes, and all for the promise of sanctuary. The King and his castle would keep them safe from invaders — at least, that was the idea.
In truth, Roy had seen it in action, and townspeople and soldiers died in the streets. When war came to the heart of the kingdom, it showed no mercy. Look at Hakuro: once loyal, he had declared war on Bradley, and there were enough people behind him to allow it to happen. There was no need to batter the walls or maim the people, but he had caused damage anyway. He had enjoyed his tour of force, and the people had suffered for it.
Sometimes, Roy wondered why they did not rise up. Just because the commoners were uneducated, it did not make them stupid. They had to realise that they outnumbered the King and his knights at more than five hundred to one. Hakuro would never survive that, but perhaps Amestris would suffer in the uncertain aftermath. Would they really replace one King with another, and who would it be? If the people ever took up arms, would they transfer rule, or would they simple tear down the castle of civilisation and struggle for survival amidst the ruins.
He sighed, shaking his head. In the end, the people may be hungry and taxed half to death, but they were alive and relatively safe. If they turned against the King, then that would be gone, and there were plenty of bandit tribes and unfriendly neighbours waiting to swoop on the carcass of the Kingdom.
A soft sound stirred the darkness, and Roy froze, his thoughts scattering like leaves before the wind as his hand flew to the pommel of the sword. Crying out a warning was the chivalrous thing to do, but Roy was not about to let good manners be the death of him. Instead he drew back deeper into the shadows, his body pressed tight to the pillar as he surveyed the circular room, ignoring the dazzle of wealth and the tempting bower of furs as he looked for anything out of place.
Yet there was nothing to cause alarm. Outside, the wind continued to howl, cutting through the bare window frames like a lance through flesh. Within, the only sound was the gutter of the torches, struggling to stay lit against the onslaught of the elements. Around him the stone remained silent and sure, showing no sign of weakness nor strain. The door was still shut fast in its frame, and Roy ghosted towards it before easing the bar down across the wood. It was a strong piece, as thick at his thigh and perfectly shaped for the socket. The door could be locked from both sides, and he and Hawkeye had the keys, but with the bar in place, then there was no way for anyone to get through it, not without Roy letting them in.
He froze as a disturbance in the air caught his ear again, straining his hearing as he tried to pick it out. It had been a suggestion of sound, like a lover's gasp amidst a tempest, and Roy turned his eyes towards the empty windows, staring at their blind arches. It was tempting to approach them, to lean out and check that there was no one out there, but common sense over-ruled him. The tower was impossible to climb: sheer all the way up, and even if someone had managed it, then taking a look would only make himself a target; better to watch and wait.
The minutes slipped by, and Roy eased himself back to the cloaking gloom of the pillar's shadow. A dozen or so held up the large roof, and though they were not densely packed, Roy still found himself twitching at imagined shapes. It was too easy to sink into paranoia — too simple to believe that someone was on the other side of one of the strong columns, hiding just out of sight — but gradually the tension began to fade. No threat made itself known, and nothing more disturbed the silence. Perhaps it had been a rat, or a bird looking for somewhere to weather the growing storm.
Just as he had begun to relax again, the scrape of metal on stone sparked every sense into thrumming life. He should have known better than to write off the previous warnings, and now he blinked as a dusky figure eased itself gracefully through one of the windows and slipped down to the floor, falling in to a half crouch. The uncertain light of the braziers granted them some shadows in which to hide, but it was sparse shelter, and they knew it.
Whoever it was looked young, but the way they moved suggested years of practise. Roy was used to the thudding, thumping march of knights and the braying bravado of his comrades, but the intruder moved more like an assassin, quiet, but twice as deadly. His gaze fell to the gleam of a knife, trying to work out what he was seeing. It was not a sword, though it did look wide enough. Worse, it did not seem to be in the intruder's fist, but protruded over his knuckles. Roy had never seen anything like it before, and his nerves shrieked a silent warning. Knights, he could fight, and soldiers were no different — but something warned him that whoever this was did not fit into either of those categories.
One of the torch flames flickered wildly, and Roy felt his breath slam to a halt in his throat as the intruder's features were cast into brief illumination. He wore light leathers, not nearly as good as armour, but better than nothing at protecting the skin. It had to be supple, too, because Roy could not hear a single creak coming from the hide. Bright gold hair was pulled back in a ponytail, and a pair of aureate eyes, like those of the wild wolves in the mountains, were focussed solely on one of the treasures Roy was supposed to be guarding.
Roy was almost certain he had never set eyes on the young man before, and yet he looked frighteningly familiar.
The wind shrieked again, and this time the candles in the chandelier went out, leaving a few torches to dance madly in their brackets on the walls. The night folded inwards, and Roy eased his sword free from its scabbard, knowing what he would have to do even as his stomach clenched. It was probably better if he killed the kid rather than let the executioner do it. Besides, he had heard the rumours about the fun some of the knights had with prisoners, male and female, before they went to their deaths. At least this way it would be merciful.
Slipping around the pillar, he braced himself against the stonework, hoping the blade did not catch the light as he shifted his weight forward: one quick hack, it would be enough.
He pounced towards the gloomy silhouette, barely making a sound beyond the whistle of the air parting around his sweeping sword. His arm was braced, waiting for the meaty give of flesh and the brief crunch of bone, but all his blade met was empty air. He was not prepared for the intruder's speed, and a sharp shower of blue sparks erupted as the strange knife caught his sword, hissing down its length in a lethal scrape and locking them together.
Roy grunted in surprise. The kid had not looked that strong, but now he could feel the power in those lithe muscles. Perhaps he was not a bulky knight, but he was no street rat, either, and to Roy's surprise he found himself struggling. He had the height advantage, a better weapon, more weight and superior armour, but somehow the brat was pushing him back. Roy could just make out the gleam of his snarl and the burn of those eyes before a strong hand landed on his chest and shoved.
It happened too quickly to see. The sharp sound of a clap rang in his ears. Blue light blazed, coating the blade of his sword for a moment before the metal disintegrated, hissing to the floor like sand. Before Roy could do more than drag in an alarmed breath, he felt two palms on his chest and heard the links of armour give way like parting water, cascading into nothingness.
His voice was choked, but more by surprise than panic. One of the first things Hakuro had done when he took the throne was order the execution of people who possessed what he called "unnatural talent". Roy himself had never believed the stories of magecraft: men and women who controlled the elements, but Hakuro had been certain of their existence, and he pursued them without mercy. Roy could still remember the fear of the people and the smell of the smoke. The King had burned them out like rats, purging the city. Roy had always thought, in the sick depths of his heart, that Hakuro had simply been culling the population and using any excuse to make it acceptable. Hundreds had died, but until now, Roy had never seen so much as a spark of magic.
'There's no such thing as a fucking mage,' his opponent snarled. It was a feral sound, harsh and hard in his throat, and Roy tipped his head back as the wicked point of the boy's knife pressed to the tender skin beneath Roy's jaw.
'Then how did you get in here, if not by magic?' Roy asked, flicking his eyes towards the window as his mind whirled with plans of retaliation.
'Alchemy, but I wouldn't expect The Bastard to know what that is.' Those eyes narrowed, sweeping briefly down to Roy's feet and back up again. For a moment he recognised the brief flash of something like appreciation before it was gone, replace only with a mocking expression. 'Thought you'd be taller.'
'This coming from someone as short as you?' The words were out of Roy's mouth before his mind had a chance to think about them, and he winced as the knife bit in, feeling a warm trickle of blood trail down his skin and beneath the collar of his akiton. Yet he did not reach up to wipe it away. Instead he watched that young face, searching for any sign of mercy or uncertainty, but there was none. Whoever this youth was, he was no stranger to a fight.
It was not only his determination that gave Roy that conclusion, but the way he held himself and the untrembling confidence of his body. However, there was something in his eyes that went beyond wild anger, an intelligence that Roy suspected was greater than his own, and that discovery brought with it a new realisation.
He would kill Roy without blinking, but only if he had no other choice — Roy could read that much in his face. The youth was prepared to do what had to be done, but only if there was no other way. His weight was carefully balanced to leap forward or back, and every breath was steady and deep, as if he had mastered the surge of fear and power and tamed it for his own uses.
If Roy had met this boy in the joust and faced this level of self-assurance, he would have lost before he had even got up on his horse. Roy swallowed, cursing that thought as it swept across his mind, taking every certainty in his own abilities with it. This was ridiculous. He was not about to be beaten by a — a thief!
Knowing when you met your match was part of being a knight, and knowing how to win against a superior enemy was what made the difference between a hero and a corpse. Roy had to distract all that fierce attention and give himself a chance to move. There were plenty of ornamental weapons he could put to good use, as long as the brat kept his hands off them.
'Can I at least know the name of the man who's going to kill me?'
The youth lifted an eyebrow, his face pinched in honest bafflement. 'What difference would it make? You'll still be dead.' When Roy did not answer, he breathed a sigh of irritation and rolled his left shoulder in something like a shrug. 'My name's Ed. What are you even doing up here? I thought you were too good for this kind of duty.'
'You were expecting to face someone else?' Roy asked, shifting his weight ever-so-slightly to the left and smothering a smirk as Ed mirrored him. If he could just keep him talking, perhaps he could buy himself a moment. A heartbeat would be enough.
'I was expecting a knight on vigil, not someone hiding in the shadows.' It was a grudging admission, and Roy felt a flicker of satisfaction to know that his dereliction of etiquette had been enough to briefly give him the upper hand; not that it had done him much good. 'One whack to the head and I'd be gone before you even woke up.' He shrugged again, and Roy's heart sank as he saw those eyes harden. 'Guess I don't have much choice now.'
As quick as he could, Roy slammed his arms up, feeling the blade nick his chin as he shoved Ed out of the way and lunged for a nearby quarterstaff. The wood was heavy and sure in his hand, and Roy whipped it around quickly, whacking Ed's legs out from under him and hearing him slam into the ground.
Yet this was no tavern brawl, and he spat a quick curse as Ed simply rolled with the motion, bringing himself back to his feet. His hands were already pressed together, and Roy staggered as his next swipe soared over Ed's ducked head.
The floor of the tower heaved, rolling and groaning in fury. It was like having the rug pulled out from under his feet. Coins rained down from their piles, and armour clattered to the floor. Dust shimmered down from the rafters, coating Roy in a fine powder and stinging at his eyes.
In the second it took him to blink, something slammed around his waist, bearing him to the ground. His wrist smacked hard into the flagstones, and the quarterstaff skittered away out of reach. Roy tried to kick with his heavy boots, but Ed was sitting on his stomach, his thighs snugly pressed to Roy's sides, and no matter how much Roy wished otherwise, his leg would not bend the right way for him to kick the smug brat in the back of the head.
'I thought you were meant to be the best?' Ed asked, leaning closer as if Roy was a curious specimen to be examined. His fingers were wrapped firmly around Roy's wrists — ten points of heat and pressure on Roy's skin — and his weight was balanced just so to keep Roy in place. For the first time he noticed the leather of the strange, finger-less gauntlets, metal plated on the back of the hand, as well as the absence of the blade. Ed had dropped his weapon, and now all he had was his hands with which to wring the life from Roy's frame
Yet he made no move to do so. He was leaning closer now, so near that a strand of long hair was tickling Roy's cheek, and he could smell the musky scent of leather and sweat. His pulse was hammering too fast in his veins, and his voice seemed to have vanished, chased away by the endless burning gold of Ed's gaze.
The light from one of the torches flickered uncertainly, but it was enough to break the strange spell. Realisation burst through Roy's mind, and memory stirred, bringing with it a name that he had not spoken for years.
'Hohenheim. You look like Hohenheim.'
It was like flicking a switch. Ed's animal grace vanished, as did that rock-solid confidence. He went from looking predatory to something flinching and hunted: just as dangerous in its own way, but Roy was too busy staring to think of the fight that lingered in the air.
Hohenheim had been the old King's seer and one of his closest advisers. Everyone knew it as fact, yet the man himself was rarely seen. Roy had only lain eyes on him twice.
The first was more than a decade ago, when he had been guarding the King's personal safety. He had stayed at the monarch's side as he travelled through the city to a strange building. Mostly it was a workshop, full of books and images that Roy could not begin to understand. He had been expecting some old, wizened hack, but instead had found himself face to face with a middle-aged man, quiet, well-spoken, and clearly educated. He was not telling the King what he wanted to hear, but informing him of the science of the mind and the world around them.
The King had stayed in frequent, written communication with Hohenheim until the day he was slain and the throne stolen from beneath him. It was only a couple of days later that Roy had seen Hohenheim and his pretty, brown-haired wife being dragged to the torture chambers. He did not know how long they had lasted or what they had said, but it was shortly after that the purge had begun.
'You don't know what you're talking about,' Ed spat. The anger was returning. Roy could see it rising in his eyes like a hot tide, but Ed was still off-balance enough for him to move, and he acted quickly. His right hand ripped free of Ed's grasp, and his fingers wrapped around the smooth column of Ed's neck. They did not meet, but Roy had a good enough grip to push him back, and the moment he was able, he made sure he had both hands around Ed's throat, squeezing hard. Breaking a human neck took more than just pressure, but this way at least he could ensure he had the brat's full attention.
Gracelessly, Roy struggled to get to his feet, fighting Ed every second. It was like trying to hold on to an angry cat: all claws and twisting fury, but this time he had the advantage. No matter how hard Ed fought, he could not escape, and he was using up his precious, snatched breaths too quickly.
'Leave now, and I'll let you go,' Roy promised, wincing as more armour clattered down to the floor. Distantly, he though he could hear shouting voices, and he swore to himself as he realised someone must have heard the din. There was no way of knowing whether friend or foe was charging up the stairs; he had to act fast. At least he had barred the door from the inside. 'If they catch you here, they'll kill you. I should be doing the same.'
'Then why don't you?' Ed demanded, his fingernails digging into Roy's wrists hard enough to draw blood.
Ideas flashed through Roy's mind, all revolving around the amount of power Ed had already shown he held in the palm of his hand. That was something any knight would struggle to overcome, and what hope would Hakuro have against any army with an alchemist on their side?
'Because I can use you...'
The boot connected hard with his crotch, and Roy's breath left him in one go. His grip loosened, the sensation in his fingers fading to nothing beneath the hot, dull pressure of the pain between his legs, and he was dimly aware of Ed tearing himself away, graceful despite his gasping breaths.
Roy's body bent double reflexively, and before he could so much as lift his head, something connected hard with the back of his skull. Stars exploded across his vision as the room swum in a sick spin. Someone was hammering on the door, and Roy had a fleeting impression of quick, soft footsteps racing across the floor before they vanished, leaving him to brace himself against a pillar as he waited for the pain to ease.
His clenched teeth ground together in a mixture of frustration and discomfort. He was not sure what hurt more, his body or his pride. Knights and lords alike had fallen to him in the duel, but now he had been bested by nothing more than a common thief.
The strange word whispered in the caverns of his mind, interrupted only by the feverish pounding at the door coupled by Hughes' voice. 'Roy, are you all right? What's going on in there?' His friend sounded like he was trying to shout without alerting the rest of the castle to anything unusual, and Roy squared his shoulders, limping over to the door and cautiously shifting the bar.
Hughes was waiting on the other side of the threshold with Hawkeye and Havoc at his side. The three of them stared at him, swords in hand and their jaws slack, no doubt taking in his bloodied neck and chin, as well as his absence of mail.
Hughes' lips moved around silent words, but his common sense stepped in before the questions, and he eased Roy aside, striding in and surveying the room. Havoc closed the door after him, shutting out the rest of the world as he stood with his back to it, his sword at the ready.
'He's already long gone,' Roy said quietly, running a hand through his hair as he scanned the scattered loot, trying to work out what was missing, if anything. At last, his eyes fell on one of the pedestals, bare now, and a vile litany of curses welled up in his throat. He managed to bite them back, but only just, and when Hughes followed his gaze he saw his friend's face pale to ghastly white.
'The Empress' tiara,' Hughes murmured, shaking his head in disbelief. 'Of all the things to take, it would be Hakuro's favourite piece.' He rolled his shoulders, sweeping up one of the torches and stretching upwards to light the extinguished candles of the chandelier. Immediately the shadows retreated and Roy was left facing three of his closest friends amidst a treacherous court, their eyes full of questions.
'Start at the beginning,' Hughes said softly. 'Leave nothing out.'
Roy bowed his head, trying to sort out the scatter of his thoughts from the dull fog of pain that still flickered up from between his legs and thudded in his skull. It had all happened so fast, and now he struggled to sort out the sequence of events from the conflicting emotions that rioted through his body.
'He climbed through the window.' He held up a hand to silence Havoc's exclamation and met Hawkeye's disbelieving gaze. 'I know. This room should be unreachable, but he was using something — some power I didn't understand.' He pointed to a glistening, glittery slick on the floor. 'That's all that's left of my armour and sword. He touched them, and they just...' He rolled his eyes, realising how ridiculous it sounded. 'You have to believe me! Hughes, remember Hohenheim?'
He saw the shadow of doubt flicker on Hughes' face, and where there had been uncertainty, curiosity gleamed bright. 'Of course. I probably only saw him once, but he was the kind of person you remember. I've never seen anyone with eyes that colour.'
'The thief looked just like him, but younger. He reacted to Hohenheim's name.'
'He was a mage?' Havoc asked quietly, glancing over his shoulder at the closed door as if he was afraid someone might be listening. 'A real one?'
'He called himself an alchemist. He made the tower shake by pressing his hands to the floor.' Roy held up his own palms, staring at their familiar lines as he tried to imagine what that must feel like — to control so much with so little effort.
'Is that how he took you down?' Hughes asked, raising an eyebrow as Roy's cheeks darkened with shame. 'You're telling me a thief laid you low where the knights of the realm could not? Did he have a weapon?'
'A knife,' Roy admitted. 'It stuck out over the back of his hand, but he must have lost it. It wasn't there later.' He took a deep breath, but somehow he could not quite bring himself to look up into anyone's eyes. 'We fought briefly, and I had him by the throat, but he made very good use of a boot in the right place. Hawkeye is probably the only one of us who would not have suffered so greatly from the blow.'
The woman made a doubtful sound and gave a sniff. If they had been among strangers, Roy would never have brought her into it, but both Hughes and Havoc knew the truth of her gender.
'Perhaps you should have left your plate armour on after all, Sir Mustang. At least that has a cup,' she murmured.
'I'm not sure what good it would have done. He finished me off with a blow to the head while I was trying to recover,' Roy replied, pressing his fingers to his temples before looking back at the empty pedestal. 'By the time the fog cleared, he was gone, and so was the tiara.'
Hughes leaned back against one of the pillars, pinching the bridge of his nose between thumb and forefinger as he tried to think. 'I believe you. As far-fetched as it sounds, I've been hearing rumours around the city.' He gave a weak smile. 'Whispers, really, but they're there if you know where to listen. However, Hakuro will be another matter. Roy, he's not going to buy your story. He'll think you took it.'
It felt like someone had poured ice-water down Roy's spine, and even as a dozen excuses clamoured in his mind, he knew Hughes was right. Hakuro had purged the city of mages, and he would never admit that any might have slipped through his net. The more Roy looked at it, the more this theft looked like just the excuse Hakuro had been looking for. He would have Roy executed as a criminal, and no one would be able to prove otherwise.
'Maybe all this was planned?' Hawkeye suggested, her relaxed stance stiffening as she scowled down at the flagstones. 'For all we know the King paid to have this done, and once you're gone the tiara will mysteriously return.'
Roy tried to picture it, but it was too easy to remember Ed's wildness and independence. He did not look like the kind of person who took orders from anyone, and besides, Roy knew Hakuro better than that. He would only use those he trusted — those close to him at court — for something so clandestine.
'No, I think Ed had a more personal reason for coming here, and one that did not have much to do with wealth. There are easier riches here to steal,' He waved his hand around the vault, 'but he took that in particular. Why?' He rubbed a hand over the rough stubble shadowing his chin, sinking into the depths of his thoughts as he baffled through the mystery. Only Hughes' hand on his arm shook him out of it, and he blinked up into his friend's sorrowful face.
'The reasons don't matter. We have to get you out of here before this is discovered. If you ride Bane hard and fast, you can be well beyond the reach of the city by daybreak.'
'But I'm innocent!' Roy exclaimed, his voice growling in his throat as his stomach sank. 'If I leave now, everyone will assume I'm guilty.'
'You stay, and you'll be dead by sunset.' Hughes shook him, but gently. 'Don't you understand? Run now, and you'll be alive. Run now, and we might still have a chance to make the changes we long for. If you don't go, then Hakuro wins. Without you, Roy, there's no one for any other opponents to the throne to follow.'
'How can anyone follow me anywhere if I'm in hiding? You think he won't hunt me? You think he won't track me down?'
Outside, the wind threw itself against the tower, roaring through the windows and smashing the few remaining shutters against the wall. The flames of the candle chandelier and the rush torches all fluttered wildly, and the metallic grit on the floor whipped upwards, biting at Roy's eyes. Quickly, he threw an arm over his face, shielding himself from the harsh rasp of the dust, and only once the gust had died away did he lower it again.
Havoc and Hawkeye were both wiping at their eyes, cursing and muttering to themselves. Only Hughes seemed unaffected. He had been somewhat sheltered by the pillar, and now he was staring in amazement at the tiara, sparkling on its cushion in the firelight. It looked like it had never moved from its resting place. The rubies and diamonds still shone brightly, and the metal shone amidst the first patina of tarnish from being kept in such an exposed vault.
Ed had put it back.
Roy's head shot up, searching the beams of the roof before turning to the windows. He thought Ed had left, slipping away like the thief he was, but he must have been here all along. Where the hell was he hiding?
He had reached for one of the swords lying on the ground before his mind caught up with his instincts, and the rough rasp of the hilt in his palm was almost shocking. He could sense the others watching him, waiting to see what he would do, and Roy took a deep breath, letting go of his injured pride and bruised honour as he allowed himself to think.
'Hawkeye, Havoc, order a change of the guard.'
'Sir? If we want to catch the thief...'
Roy smirked, catching Hughes' eye before giving a shrug. 'What thief? I don't see anything missing, do you?'
Havoc looked pointedly at the bloody mess of Roy's chin and neck: shallow wounds, but messy all the same.
With barely a blink, Roy gave a shrug, wiping at the sticky gloss with his fingers as he said, 'I really must be more careful shaving in the future.'
Hawkeye sighed, her shoulder drooping as she nodded her obedience, and Roy felt a bloom of gratitude. Those who trusted him never felt it necessary to demand the full details of his plans before carrying out his wishes. They put their faith in him, and even as his head thrilled with ideas, his heart hoped he was not making a mistake.
'You're letting him go?' Hughes asked as the two other knights set off down the stairs. 'If you change the guards now, he'll slip out easily.'
'Exactly,' Roy walked over to the windows, lifting his voice a little in case anyone happened to be listening on the narrow ledge outside. 'He got in by himself, and maybe he could get out, too, but I'll give him the best chance I can.'
Hughes approached his side, folding his arms and looking out into the thick night, pocked only by the distant blaze of torches in the streets, fighting to survive the wrath of the storm. 'Can I ask why you're doing this? Is it because he gave the tiara back?'
Roy paused, turning the question over in his mind. There was no easy answer, nothing he could really pinpoint as the one, definitive reason he was choosing this course of action. Ed intrigued him. He could have fled with the tiara and left Roy to take the fall. He could have killed him here in the tower and vanished into the night, but he had not.
Anyone else might take those actions and see a weakness of will, but Roy knew it was nothing like that. He had seen the gleam in Ed's eyes. He was here for a purpose, and just because he had given the tiara back that did not mean that he had failed. Ed had got what he came for, but he had made the right choices along the way.
'I think we might need him.' Roy sighed, looking up as the first legion of rain began to pour from the heavy clouds, streaking the night with flashes of silver. 'Hohenheim had a wife. Find out if there were children. Follow those whispers you said you had heard around the city. Hakuro can deal with knights and war lords, but the purge happened for a reason. He fears mages, alchemists, whatever they are. Perhaps because he knows they could be his downfall.'
Hughes blinked, rubbing a finger along the bridge of his nose before giving a nod. 'If you say so, Roy. I'll do what I can, but be careful. He's a stranger and a thief, not a friend. Even if he gets out of here in one piece, why would he help us?'
'I don't know, but we can't carry on like this,' Roy replied. 'I've been waiting for something we can use to our advantage, and now maybe we've finally found the key. I can't let that go.'
'You know how it could end?' Hughes asked. There was no fear in his voice, just the calm certainty of someone who wanted to remind him of all possible outcomes. 'You could be signing his death warrant, as well as your own and that of anyone who helps you. You could be bringing war back to Amestris.'
'I know, but if I don't get rid of Hakuro, who will?'
Roy looked over his shoulder, knowing his friend had no answer for him. Instead, Hughes smiled and bid him a quiet good night.
Only once the door had shut behind Hughes' back did Roy turn to the tiara, reaching out cautiously to pluck it from its resting place. He had half-expected the lightness of metal and glass: a cheap fake, but the reassuring weight of gold and gemstones dragged at his hands. It had been a prize from one of Hakuro's more difficult conquests to the east, and Roy could remember the rumours of the beautiful Empress he had slaughtered, decked in jewels as she met her death.
He had no idea why Ed had taken it, nor why he had returned it so readily, but somehow Roy knew this was not over.
One day, Ed would be back, and Roy would have his answers.
ANII: Just so you know, I am working on No Smoke Without Fire, but I want to get a good number of chapters written before I start posting again. The best way to keep in touch with anything I update is by using the author alert function ^^ Thanks for reading!