(NOTE: The following fanfic is an alternate timeline story that diverges from canon at the end of the Fullmetal Alchemist TV series. It was written at the time the first information about the movie was coming out and is, therefore, AU from the movie by necessity. In this story, Roy Mustang is still Edward Elric’s commanding officer.)

The younger brother pushed open the door of the lab and tiptoed into the semidarkness gingerly.

He didn’t need extra light to find his way around, because he knew this place very well -- he had spent innumerable hours here with his older brother. He navigated around a couple of the plants standing in huge pots on the floor and headed for the counter that was the centerpiece of the room, a couple of beakers and test tubes gleaming faintly in the low light from a single lamp.

Sure enough, his older brother was there, blond head bent over a pile of books, poring over pages he must have read a hundred times before.

Fletcher noted that Russell was still in his street clothes -- the button-down shirt and suspenders he always seemed to wear -- while he, himself was in his pajamas, robe and slippers.

His heart sank. He'd told him to go to bed hours ago, that they could resume their work in the morning, but he was still here.

"Brother," he said, "you don't have to keep doing this. You're going to make yourself sick. Why don't you get some rest, and . . ."

"I can't rest," Russell Tringham said, his indigo eyes not leaving the page. "I'm *this* close to the answer. Every time I try to go to sleep, I keep thinking about it."

"It's not going to do either one of us any good if you get sick," Fletcher said, moving closer to the counter. "I'll help you look for it -- you know I always have. But *in the morning.*"

"Look, I'll just be here a little while longer!" The older brother whirled around in his chair to face his sibling. "Just go to sleep, and I'll be up in a little while, okay?"

The younger boy sighed. Sometimes, there was no reasoning with his brother when he was like that.

"Just . . . don't let yourself get too tired, Brother," he said, before leaving the room.

A couple of hours later, Fletcher went downstairs again, to find Russell sound asleep, slumped over his research. He reached into the closet, got the biggest, warmest coat he could find, and wrapped it around the older boy's shoulders. Russell moved a tiny bit, but didn't awaken, or make a sound.

Fletcher touched his brother's forehead, brushing back one of the locks of hair that was perpetually falling over one eye, giving him something of a shaggy-dog appearance. He looked relaxed -- something that was very, very rare in his everyday life. Too rare for Fletcher's comfort.

"Good night, Brother," he said, softly, before heading back upstairs.

(A Union or Combination into One)
A Fullmetal Alchemist Fanfiction With Lemon
By Sailor Mac

Russell Tringham figured he was going to have an exhausting day.

Granted, his days usually started in the early morning, with his predawn chores on the lemon farm. The plant alchemy he had developed to keep the trees producing long after they should have been out of season needed to be carefully maintained -- all it would take was one bug or woodpecker damaging one of the arrays engraved into the bark, and the whole tree could go from thriving to dead in nothing flat.

It was doubly important he keep an eye on things right now. Their landlord and owner of the farm, Belsio, had taken his niece, Elisa, to visit his parents in another town. They'd been gone for a week and weren’t due back for several days more, so the farm was left entirely to himself and Fletcher.

This morning, something had taken an entire *chunk* out of one of the trees. The array had to be redrawn from scratch. He put his hands to it and there was a flash of green as alchemical energy was drawn into the trunk, and then focused his abilities on getting it to move up and down, encouraging it to start circulating, flowing from the roots to the tip, until the drooping fruit and brownish leaves had regained their vigor.

It was how he and his brother earned their room and board. They had definitely done well for their employer -- Belsio had been able to build a substantial addition to his farmhouse a year ago, adding the lab the boys now worked in. And it was certainly more pleasant than when they'd been under the thumb of Mugear. But Russell tried not to think about that time in their lives. It was two years ago, but it seemed like an eternity.

He was already late for breakfast when he walked into the house. Fletcher looked up from the table. "Brother! I just started eating . . ." He pushed a platter of toast toward his elder sibling.

"One of the trees needed fixing," Russell said, sitting down and picking up a slice. "Near the stream. Something got to it . . ."

"I saw," Fletcher said, quietly, picking up a knife and starting to spread butter. "I would have come out to help you, but a lady came to the door with a sick plant. She needed me to heal it."

"Another one?" Russell said, pouring himself a cup of coffee. "That's the third one this week."

Fletcher shrugged. "I guess a lot of people have heard about us."

*No, about *you*, Fletcher*, Russell thought. Fletcher was the one with the natural ability as a plant alchemist. Russell himself had never been much of a natural talent -- all his knowledge of alchemy had come from study, research and practical application. When he and Fletcher worked as a team, usually he was the one hitting the books and test tubes, doing the research, while Fletcher performed the alchemy.

He didn't have much time for general alchemy study nowadays. He had to devote himself to his life's work -- his *new* life's work.

"Oh, and Mr. Baddely was by," Fletcher said. "He wants you to come by his shop and fix something that someone knocked off the shelf and broke. I think it’s another dish of some sort, like the one you fixed last week."

Russell snorted. "Someone's *always* breaking something in that shop. Well, he's our best customer now. I'll go there, and then . . ."

Fletcher looked down into his milk. "You're going to bury yourself in the lab for the rest of the day again, aren't you, Brother?"

Russell sighed. Fletcher was worrying about him. Again. He should *know* by now what Russell's life was like, why what he was doing was so important . . .

"Fletcher, I *have* to. You know that." Russell busied himself with buttering another slice of toast, not wanting to see the downcast look on his brother's face. It was too reminiscent of that *other* time, back when they were little more than slaves to a greedy land baron.

"You said we weren't going to do that anymore," Fletcher said, putting his glass down with a loud *thunk*. "You said we were going to live our own lives, you weren't going to try to be a copy of Father . . ."

"I'm *not* trying to be a copy of Father, Fletcher!" Russell sat bolt upright, fixing the younger boy with a firm gaze. "I just need to pick up this one thread of his research, that's all. I'm doing it for *me.*"

"Are you?" Fletcher fixed him with wide eyes, filled with pleading and concern, but also an odd wisdom. There were times when Fletcher seemed to be able to look straight into Russell's soul and make the older boy feel like his younger sibling knew him better than he knew himself.

He broke the gaze, looking back down at his plate and picking up his toast, not so much to eat it as to have somewhere to put his hands and eyes. "You've seen the people in town," he said. "You know how sick they still are. You can't walk down the street without hearing people coughing."

Fletcher left his seat and ran around the table, putting his hand on Russell's shoulder. "Don't blame yourself, Brother," he said. "It was Mugear, not us. We just did what he wanted."

"And we didn't stop, did we?" Russell said, not taking his eyes off his plate. "We kept going, even though people were getting sick . . ."

"We *did* stop," Fletcher said, wrapping his arms around his brother's neck and hugging him.

Russell put one hand up to grasp the younger boy's arm. *Not of our own accord,* he thought. *If Mugear hadn't gotten killed, if we hadn't met the real Elric brothers, we'd still be there, poisoning everyone.*

And then, there was the thought that a lot of the people they’d poisoned had died already -- but that was one that Russell wanted to dwell on as little as possible.

He wasn't going to say any of that aloud. Not in front of Fletcher.

Instead, he said, quietly, "I can make it up to everyone. If I can find the answer . . . Father had started the research, he just didn't have a chance to complete it. He just didn't have enough of a chance to study the soil."

"Russell, you don't know for sure," Fletcher said. "I don't want to see you throw away years of your life. You're no closer than you were before, and you're so tired . . ."

"I'll be all right," Russell said. "And I *am* closer, Fletcher. A *lot* closer." He squeezed the boy's arm and eased away. "I have to go now before Baddely comes here, looking for me."

"Promise you won't spent *all* day in the lab when you get home?" Fletcher said, easing away from his brother.

Russell nodded. "I promise." (*I'll slip down to the lab when he makes his rounds of the orchard in the afternoon*, he thought. *I'll tell him I was out in town somewhere.*)

He gave Fletcher a hug and headed for the door, not noticing the retreating shadow at their living room window.

* * *

Xenotime always looked exactly like what it was -- a town that had glory in the past, but its glory days were far behind it.

Here and there were buildings that had obviously been constructed as flamboyant mansions, with grand columns holding up elaborately tiled roofs and huge picture windows looking out on the world. Except now, the columns were covered with cracked, peeling paint, the tiles were chipped and scuffed and the windows were dingy.

Instead of one family living there in grand style, there were now several families sharing cramped apartments within. Sometimes the residents could be seen outside on the porch, sitting in rockers, gazing out at the world.

And stifling coughs. Everywhere, people in Xenotime were coughing -- not constantly, not like they were in the days when the red stone was being produced up at Mugear's mansion and red water fountains were flowing freely.

But every once in awhile, one would be walking down the street, going about their daily business, and suddenly, the person walking toward them would burst out in a fit of explosive hacking, maybe reaching out to grab a lamppost with one hand, covering their mouth with the other.

Every time Russell saw that, it was like a punch to the gut. He didn't care what Fletcher said, he knew *they* were the ones who did this to these people. No, *he* had. He had made the decision to work on the red stone.

He would make amends to them. He *had* to.

He walked down the street looking straight forward, hands in his pockets. He knew exactly where he was going -- he was here at least once a week.

Repair jobs were a good thing. They funded his research.

A right turn brought him to a gray building, with a big, hand-painted sign over the door saying "BADDELY'S GENERAL STORE." An assortment of bric-a-brac was on display in the windows -- a sewing machine, a child's rocking horse, a set of garden tools.

A chubby man with a fringe of snow-white hair surrounding a bald pate stood in the doorway, anxiously fiddling with the front of the green apron he had tied over his clothes. "Mr. Tringham!" he said. "Come in . . . it's a set of dishes this time . . ."

"What happened?" Russell said, following the man into the store, which seemingly had merchandise crammed into every available space -- a bookcase right next to a stove next to a bin of pickles. *No wonder people keep bumping into things and breaking them here,* the boy thought.

"Back there," the man said, pointing toward a corner of the store. "Some kid knocked into it . . ."

This was easy enough. All of the pieces seemed to be there -- there hadn't been room for them to go very far. The only other customers in the shop -- two women in their mid-40s -- were far enough away so that they wouldn't be able to mess anything up.

The boy began picking up the pieces of shattered crockery, making a neat little pile of them. Absently, he could hear the conversation from across the room -- it was hard not to, the women both spoke in high, shrill voices better suited for trying to talk over the roar of a engine than having a quiet conversation in a store.

"Dogs of the military, I say," one of them said. "Saw 'em snooping around outside. Didn't have the uniforms, but they had those pocket watches -- I saw the chains."

"Well, for heaven's sake, what would they be doing around here?" the other said. "Nothing here the military would want."

*Dog of the military . . .* It was a phrase Russell hadn't heard in awhile, one that had fallen into disuse after the end of the police state in Amestris two years ago. He'd had someone say it to his face once, back when he was posing as someone else . . .

He remembered not being shocked or angered by that. In fact, he’d been proud -- because it had been a sign that his masquerade was working.

He pulled a piece of chalk out of his pocket and set about drawing an array around the broken pieces -- a very simple one would do.

"Don't trust 'em, I say," one woman was saying. "Never did and never will. Don't care that they're not running the country any more, I still think they're up to no good."

"I think I trusted them more when they *were* running the country," the other one replied, their voices getting fainter as they moved out the door. "Least you knew where you stood with ‘em then."

The store owner watched them go, and snorted. "All I hear about lately. These people are never satisfied."

Russell looked up from his work. "Excuse me?"

"When the military was in power, all people wanted was to get rid of ‘em," the older man said, walking around the circle, examining it. "Now that they're out of power, there's people who want to bring ‘em back. There's groups out there, I tell you -- they want to overthrow the government, and bring back the Fuhrer."

"Nobody knows what happened to the Fuhrer," Russell said, finishing the last few lines of his design.

"These people probably have him hidden away somewhere," Baddely said, reaching up to scratch his bulbous nose. "They're just waiting for the right time."

Russell shrugged. Politics was something he never cared about, despite the fact that he had once carried a State Alchemist's pocket watch -- or, rather, an illegal copy of one.

Leaning over, he touched his hands to the array, activating it. There was a flash of light, a crackle of electricity, and suddenly, the broken pieces were a complete set of dishes once more.

"There you go," he said, standing up.

The storekeeper clapped his hands together once, as if applauding the boy's work. "Marvelous! They're as good as new. Whatever would I do without you?"

*Probably go out of business*, Russell thought. "It's the usual fee."

There were times when he felt a stab of guilt about taking money from the citizens of this town after he’d made them sick. He just kept telling himself, over and over, that the money was going toward undoing his mistakes and making them well again.

"I'll have it for you right away," the man said, rushing off in the direction of his cash register.

Russell wandered over to the window, awaiting his payment. He'd go home now, and check on that soil sample he'd been treating. It had to be developing *something* by now. His father's notes had said that if the soil started changing color about now, then it would yield the properties necessary to alter the molecular structure of stone, turning it into gold.

*I *will* make it work,* he thought. *My father's theories about creating a stone from red water were correct . . . so his theories about the effects of long-term red water exposure on the soil *have* to be correct as well . . .*

His eyes idly scanned the street outside, looking at clumps of passerby here and there, trying not to notice the man who was walking past with a tissue over the lower part of his face as he hacked and wheezed.

And then, he saw something out of the corner of his eye that made him give a start. He whirled around, rushing to the window, pressing his palms against the glass.

*It can't be,* he thought. *That person I just saw . . . it just *can't* be!*

He looked this way and that, seeking the person he'd just seen walk past the window -- someone he thought he'd never see again. But all signs pointed to it being him. The blond hair was in a ponytail now, not a braid, but the red coat with the black symbol on the back was the same, and he was still short . . .

"How can you be here?" he said aloud. "You're dead! You've been dead for two years . . ."

"Excuse me?" the shopkeeper said, approaching him with a slim envelope of cash in his hand. "Did you say something?"

"No, just thinking out loud," Russell said, taking the money quickly -- too quickly. "Thank you very much."

"No, thank *you*," the man said. "I'll be sure to call you next time I need you!"

But before the words were out of his mouth, Russell was out of the store and into the street. He turned his head one way, and then the other . . .

There was no sign of the person he'd seen before.

He headed for home, scanning the street everywhere he went, peeking into storefronts. Nothing. It was as if he'd never been there.

*Was I seeing things?* Russell thought. *But if I was going to see things, why *him*?

When he arrived back at the farm, Fletcher was in the orchard, examining the array his brother had made before. He looked up when he saw Russell approach, a look of concern on his face.

"Brother? What's wrong?"

Russell sat down at the foot of the tree, realizing for the first time how shaken he felt.

"Fletcher . . . I think I just saw Edward Elric."

* * *

The soil sample under the microscope seemed virtually unchanged from the one he had looked at the day before. Still, he continued to scrutinize it, looking for even the tiniest change in pigmentation, the smallest alteration in texture, any sign at all that it was turning into the compound he was seeking.

The bin of soil at his elbow was like the most precious gold to him at the moment. He'd studied it, treated it with alchemy, studied it some more. It was going to be the key to reversing this town's fortunes -- and making him feel absolved for his past.

He lifted his head only long enough to record some notes, then looked back into the lens again, adjusting it this way, then that.

It was all so reminiscent of when he locked himself away for days on end in that *other* lab, the one in Mugear's mansion, back when he was calling himself Edward Elric.

As Russell looked into the lens again, a picture flashed in his mind of the person he'd seen in the street. It looked just like the boy who'd broken into his lab, then demanded that *he* beg forgiveness -- on his knees! -- who'd rescued himself and Fletcher from certain death at Mugear's hands, who he'd seen disappear into the underground city . . .

He remembered watching the boy retreat down a flight of stairs, down into the unknown, while he, himself shouted after him, "Come back alive!"

But he hadn't. He knew all too well that he and Fletcher had been the last people to see Edward Elric alive -- other than whoever he met up with underground. All kinds of wild stories had circulated after then among anyone who had ever heard of the Fullmetal Alchemist -- that he had attempted some kind of mass human transmutation and vanished, that he had died in battle against some sort of monster, that he had been assassinated by another alchemist . . .

Russell didn't know what to believe. All he knew was that after that day, there was never another trace of Edward Elric, anywhere.

When he'd told Fletcher, his brother suggested that Edward probably faked his own death -- he *had* been a wanted man in the end, after all. Russell knew that all too well, he'd almost died in his place.

But then there was the question of why he'd come back from the "dead," and what he was doing in Xenotime . . . was he the "dog of the military" the women in the store were talking about? No, they'd said "dogs" -- who was the other person, then? His brother?

He emphatically slammed his notebook shut. He didn't have time for this. He had a mission . . .

The door to the lab opened, and Fletcher peeked in. "Brother? There's a call for you."

"Who is it?"

"Mr. Baddely. Somebody broke something *else* in his store. I can go down there and take care of it if you're busy," the younger boy said, eyes sweeping around the lab.

"No, I'll do it," Russell said, putting the microscope back on the shelf. He need the break anyway, he'd be able to focus his thoughts better once he was out of the lab for awhile.

Fletcher stepped further into the room. "Brother, if you see Edward again -- let me know. Especially if he has Alphonse with him."

He couldn't miss the note of hope in the younger boy's voice. He knew that Fletcher and Al had gotten along very well -- Fletcher had even invited the Elrics to come stay with them because he had wanted to get to know Al better.

But Alphonse Elric had supposedly vanished into thin air along with his brother.

"Fletcher, I can't guarantee that it's him, you know."

"I know. Just . . . just in case, okay? If it *is* them . . . I want to see them again."

Russell put a hand on his shoulder. "They might not want to see us," he said, as gently as possible. "Or be able to."

Fletcher looked down. "Just mention me if you talk to them, okay?"

Russell sighed. His brother had so few friends, despite being a happy and outgoing boy. People in town were always slightly in awe of them -- they *were* the only alchemists around, and Russell sometimes got the impression that people thought of them as almighty miracle workers, not as *people.*

"All right," he said. "I will."

"Thank you, Brother." Fletcher gave him a small hug and rushed off.

He sighed as he started for the door. Fletcher wanted to see Alphonse and Edward, badly. If, indeed, that *was* Edward . . .

He shook his head as he left the house. He had other things to think about -- like his current job.

Twice in one day -- even for Baddely, that was a record.

* * *

He didn't think anything was unusual when he saw a small cluster of men -- one gruff-looking and middle-aged, one young and sharp-featured, one in his early 30s with a bristly red beard that matched his hair -- waiting at the front door of Baddely's store as he left. For all he knew, the shopkeeper had sold them broken merchandise, and he'd have *another* job today.

He *did* think it unusual when their eyes followed him as he started to walk out to the street. And then, Red Beard called out to him, "You that alchemist?"

Russell stopped and turned around, eyes narrowing. He knew enough than to trust people on first sight, especially ones who were looking for his services. "It depends," he said, coolly. "Why are you looking for one?"

Red Beard folded his arms across his chest. "Seems we have a proposition for you," he said. "A use for your talents."

"We know what you're capable of, boy," the older man said in a gravely voice. "We think you might be of help to . . . a worthy cause."

Russell frowned. These people sounded like they were looking for someone to get involved in a shady deal . . . probably wanted him to transmute counterfeit money for them or some such thing. "Sorry, I have to get back home to my brother," he said, starting to walk away.

Red Beard called after him, "I knew Nash Tringham. He was a brilliant man. Didn't deserve what life dealt him."

Now Russell stopped dead in his tracks, whirling around. "What do you know about my father?" He had no doubt that Mugear might have some minions still wandering around town, looking for some way to get him and his brother back under their thumbs. Well, he wasn't going to let that happen again.

"Only that he could have accomplished a lot if it weren't for Mugear holding him back. And I've no doubt his son is every bit as brilliant."

Russell looked from one man to the other. Red Beard was fixing him with a gaze that seemed designed to bore right through his body. The younger one was rocking back and forth on his feet, as if he could barely contain his excitement at something. The older one just stood stock still, an unreadable expression on his face.

There was no way to tell what it was they wanted from him. He decided he should play it as safely as possible.

"Tell me what it is you want from me," he said.

Red Beard jerked his thumb in the direction of a nearby tavern. "Why don't we sit down over there?"

The boy looked in the direction he was pointing -- it was definitely not a sleazy-looking place. It was well-kept, and the people going in and out seemed well-dressed, respectable.

"All right," he said. "I'll hear you out. But just for a few minutes. I wasn't lying about having to get back to my brother."

"I'd be surprised if you *didn't* have your father's strong sense of family," Red Beard said, leading the group across the street.

Russell frowned. He wondered how well this man *did* know his father -- if at all. If he was a genuine associate of Nash Tringham -- well, he almost *had* to hear him out. But if it were some kind of ruse . . .

They entered the building, and Red Beard led them to a table in the corner. Russell noticed that Red Beard seated himself with the grand gestures of one who considers himself a king in his own domain and demands respect at all times.

"Now, first things first," the boy said. "Would you mind telling me who you are?"

"Names Harold Sloane," Red Beard said. "I was a State Alchemist for awhile around the time your father was trying to get funding for his work. These are my associates, Max Hagen" -- he gestured to the older man -- "and Roderick Braun."

"My father never mentioned any of you," Russell said, his voice cool.

"He knew us only briefly," Hagen said as Braun got up to go get the group drinks. "But we saw enough of him to know we liked what we saw."

"It was the rebel elements in the old government that kept him from achieving the glory he deserved," Sloane said, leaning over toward the boy. "The ones who brought the old government down."

"Rebel elements?" Russell said. "I thought the government collapsed when the Fuhrer disappeared."

"And *why* do you think he disappeared?" Sloane said. "He was murdered! They covered it up! There were always people trying to topple him, and they're running the show now!"

Braun returned to the table, bearing three steins of beer and one of a brown, bubbling soft drink. He distributed the latter to Russell, the former to the other men. "Life was a hell of a lot better in Amestris before the current situation," he said as he plopped back down at the table.

"A lot more stable," Hagen rasped, pulling his own stein toward him. "Under the Fuhrer, we knew what our economy was going to be like from day to day."

"And we always knew what our government was going to be like," Sloane said. "Nowadays, there's so many factions jockeying for power, you don't know who's going to be running this place from one day to the next."

Russell stared down into the glass he'd been given. He knew better than to drink from it -- these people could have slipped anything in. Especially since he was beginning to suspect they were political extremists. He remembered what Baddely had been saying.

"What we want you to do, Mr. Tringham," Sloane said, "is a sort of continuation of your father's work."

Russell glared at him. "And what would *that* entail?"

"We have a project we're working on," Sloane replied, raising his glass, then taking a gulp that drained nearly half of it. With foam clinging to his mustache, he continued, "We want to help restore this country to what it once was, but we need a little help to do it. Alchemical help, shall we say."

The boy got to his feet. "In other words, you want me to build weapons for you. No thanks."

"We didn't say anything about weapons," Hagen said.

"Then what do you mean by *alchemical help*? You say you think I'm just like my father -- well, if there was anything my father hated, it was violence. He refused to become a State Alchemist because he didn't want to have to kill. And I am *definitely* not going to do anything he wouldn't do. Goodbye."

He turned and stormed out of the tavern, almost slamming the door behind him, and stalked into the street, nearly blinded with rage. How dare those people think that he would help them out in a *project* that probably involved a violent attempt to overthrow the government . . .

He didn't even see the other person until he had crashed into him, and the impact sent the other sprawling to the ground. Russell stumbled and regained his footing, then looked down to see a figure in red on his hands and knees. "I'm sorry," he said. "Are you . . ."

A golden head snapped up, gold eyes blazing, and the other youth said, "Why don't you look where you're going? You plowed into me like a --" The eyes widened. "Oh, it's *you*!" He scrambled to his feet, revealing that he wasn't much taller than the last time Russell had seen him.

*It's really him,* he thought. *It wasn't a mirage, or a figment of my imagination . . . he's really back . . .*

But instead of reacting with wonderment, or asking all the million questions that were in his mind -- where did he go, when did he get back, *why* did he come back, what the *heck* was he doing in Xenotime . . . Russell found himself reacting the way he always had to Edward Elric.

"Hello, Edward," he said, a smirk crossing his face. "Still short-tempered as always, I see. Not to mention just plain *short.*"

“I *have* grown since the last time you saw me,” the other boy snapped.

"Well, I thought you'd have grown *more*," Russell said, shoving his hands in his pockets and regarding the State Alchemist with a bemused gaze. "It *has* been two years, you know."

Edward looked away from him. "I was . . . away," he said, in a tone of voice that strongly implied that he was not open to discussing the matter.

"And what are you doing here now?"

"Nothing I can talk about, okay?" The shorter boy kicked absently at a leaf on the ground.

"Are you here for the military?" Russell said, looking at the front of Edward’s outfit -- yes, the telltale gleam of a silver pocket watch chain was still there.

"I *said* I couldn't talk about it," Ed said, turning around and starting to leave, his red coat bannering out around him like the cape of a king.

"Wait, Edward!" Russell started to run after him. "What happened that last day I saw you, when you were in the underground city . . ."

But the boy just continued to walk away from him. Russell saw someone else come out of one of the stores -- another blond boy, with an outfit identical to Ed's except his coat was blue instead of red.

*Who's that?* he thought. *Another State Alchemist?*

The two consulted briefly -- they turned and looked in Russell's direction -- and then they disappeared, around a corner.

Russell just stood, rooted to the spot. He couldn't believe it. He and Edward had never managed to become *friends* during the brief time they'd known each other two years ago -- he didn't expect Edward to exactly feel *warm* toward him after stealing and using his name -- but the tone of the whole encounter was strange.

*We always teased each other,* he thought, *but this seemed just .. . *hostile.*

He began to wonder who the other person was . . . what they were doing in Xenotime . . .

And then he remembered the political extremists. One had been a State Alchemist. They were looking to overthrow the government . . .

*Could it be,* he thought, *that Edward is involved with them?

* * *

He was surprised to see Fletcher sitting on the edge of the fountain in the center of town. He was more surprised to see the boy looking rather downcast, staring into the water and poking it with a stick.

His protective instinct kicked in. Something had happened while he was gone, something he hadn't been there to help Fletcher with. He knew he shouldn't get like this -- it was absurd to think he could protect the boy all the time -- but he couldn't help it.

He was, after all, the closest thing to a parent that Fletcher had.

Sitting next to his younger brother, he put a hand on his shoulder. "Fletcher? What happened?" *If anyone hurt him,* he thought, *I'll show no mercy.* He thought back to the men who were in the tavern . . .

Fletcher looked up. "Brother, you remember how you said you saw Edward Elric in town?"

Russell nodded, slowly. He didn't like where this was going already.

"Well, I came out here -- I wanted to look for him myself. I really wanted to see Ed and Al again . . . and then I saw him. He was coming down the street with another boy."

Russell remembered the boy he'd seen walking away with Ed. "Did he have the same outfit, except a different jacket?"

Fletcher nodded in the affirmative, poking at the water again. "I didn't know who it was at first, and then, when I heard him speak . . . it was Al. I recognized the voice, except it wasn't, you know . . . echoey. Like when he was wearing the armor."

Russell remembered the armor all too well -- it was one of the most baffling things about the Elric brothers. If Edward was the State Alchemist, the one supposedly in the line of danger, why was Alphonse the one who was never seen without a full suit of armor? And why no armor now?

"What were they doing?" he asked the younger boy, not taking his hand off his shoulder.

"Asking people questions, it looked like. Something about someone named Sloane."

Russell's blood turned to ice. His suspicions about the Elric brothers being in cahoots with the political extremists had just intensified. "Go on."

"Well, once I realized it was Al . . . I was so happy, I thought I'd never see him again. And I ran over to him and said hello, and . . ." The younger boy looked away. "He just looked right through me. He didn't recognize me at all. He just stood there blinking, and I asked him if he knew who I was, and he just said no . . ."

Now Russell felt a deep anger welling up inside him. Not only did it look like the Elrics might be involved in shady dealings, but Alphonse had hurt his brother with his little playing-dumb act. "What happened after that?"

"Ed turned around and saw him, and he just said, ‘Al, let's go' in a very sharp tone of voice, and they left." He looked up at Russell. "Why doesn't he remember me, Brother? I thought he liked us -- he said he was coming to visit us someday when he left here."

Russell looked away. He had no idea how he was going to break this to his younger brother. He didn't want to upset him too badly, but at the same time, he wanted him to be aware that something not exactly savory might be going on here.

"Fletcher, I want you to stay away from the Elrics if you see them again," he said.

"But, Brother . . ."

"We have no idea what they're doing in town, or even why they disappeared for so long," Russell said, a note of harshness creeping into his voice -- which he quickly caught. "Look, Fletcher, I just don't think it's a good idea right now. I'm going to do some asking around town, see what I can find out -- then, if I think it's safe, I'll let you know."

"All right." The younger boy got to his feet. "Brother, do you think it's really *them*? I mean, it might be someone pretending to be them . . ."

The irony of that almost made Russell laugh out loud. How long had *they* impersonated the Elrics, thinking they were trading on someone else's name and reputation for a chance at fulfilling their father's dream, when in reality, they were being used by a man who knew who they really were all along?

"It's them," he said. "I ran into Edward on the street. Literally." He paused. "He still blows his top if you call him short."

Fletcher sighed. "Brother, you didn't . . ."

"I couldn't help myself. With him, it's automatic."

As they headed back home, he decided that he'd make good on what he told Fletcher -- he'd ask around about the Elrics. He told himself it was because he wanted to set his brother's mind at ease.

But in reality, there was a part of him that wanted to believe, very badly, that he was wrong about what they were involved in.

* * *

When he opened the door of his lab, the first thing he noticed was things seemed out of place.

Nothing was ransacked, nothing moved around in a serious way -- it was just that a stack of books that he *knew* had been on the right counter had been moved to the left, and a clipboard of notes that had been next to his microscope was now on top of the stack of books, and a beaker of fluid that had been near the window had been shifted to the opposite end of the table.

He frowned. He knew he wasn't seeing things. And it had all been done so precisely, as if to deliberately not *muss* anything -- it's just that the perpetrator seemed to forget where everything had been . . .

Russell walked out into the kitchen, where Fletcher was putting a pot of water on as part of preparations for dinner. "Fletcher, were you in the lab at all?"

"No, Brother -- I haven't been there all day," he said, opening a cabinet and pulling out a can.

"What about any of the farmhands? Do you think they might have been in here?"

Fletcher shook his head as he reached in the drawer for a can opener. "They never come in the house unless they ask someone first."

"Someone got into there," Russell said. "Everything was moved around . . ."

"Are you sure?" Fletcher replied, turning the stove on.

"I know where I had everything," the older boy said, running a hand through the blond bangs that perpetually hung over one eye.

He turned and went back to the lab. There was no doubt about it. The differences were so subtle that someone who wasn't in this lab a lot wouldn't notice them.

Russell Tringham, however, just about lived in his lab.

Again, he thought about the men he'd seen in town. They'd wanted him to continue his father's work . . . when they failed to get it from him, had they come here looking for it?

He went to the shelves where he'd stored all the records of his father's research in carefully numbered and dated binders. One after the other, he glanced through them.

Everything seemed to be in place. Nothing had been stolen -- but then again, there was no saying that someone didn't copy from one of the books, either.

Had it been Sloane and his gang, or . . .

"No, they didn't do it," he said out loud. "Fletcher saw them in town, and so did I. They weren't here."

But there was still a nagging sense of doubt . . . they could have come here before, when he was at the store the second time and Fletcher was in the fields . . .

He knew he was going to have to talk to his brother about the extremists during the meal -- without mentioning the Elrics, of course -- just so he could be on his guard .

He picked up the piles of books and started to put them where they were before, as if to find something to occupy himself with. He didn't want to deal with the possibility that Edward and Alphonse might be guilty -- and the question of why it was so important to him that they were innocent.

* * *

For once, the person who had come to the door looking for him hadn't been Baddely.

Russell had been at the breakfast table along with Fletcher when the knock came. It was an older lady, Mrs. Fobit, who had a pottery shop. "Some kids raced through my store yesterday and broke two pots -- if you'd fix them, I'd be eternally grateful . . ."

So he was once again making his way home after performing another simple transmutation and collecting yet another small fee. Mrs. Fobit was just another one of their regulars -- the mechanic who wanted him to fix broken tools, the schoolteacher who wanted him to patch up problems with the building rather than go to the town for money for repairs, the candy shop owner who needed the jars that kids kept smashing put back together again . . .

None of them were as consistent as Baddely, though. As much as he welcomed the money, he thought he’d go nuts if *all* of them were on his doorstep every other day.

He was more anxious to get back to the lab than usual after the previous day's incident.

But something he heard from a passing pair of women made him stop in his tracks.

"Dogs of the military," one said. "I thought we were done with the military running the country and poking their nose into everyone's business!"

*Just like the ladies in the store yesterday,* Russell thought.

"Where did you see them?" the second woman asked.

"Coming down the street leading out of town -- looks like they were headed for that lemon farm."

Now Russell's heart seemed to seize in his chest. Lemon farm . . .

His worst suspicions were confirmed. He rushed home as fast as his feet could take him.

* * *

When he pushed open the door of the lab, the first thing he caught sight of was that blond ponytail.

They were sitting side-by-side at *his* counter -- where *he* worked -- with what had to be one of his father's notebooks open in front of them. They were studying it pretty intently, too, heads close together, seemingly oblivious to anything around them.

For some reason, that just made Russell all the angrier, but he forced himself to keep his cool. After all, he didn't *know* they were with the extremists yet . . .

"Do you have a *habit* of breaking into my labs?" he said, one hand gripping the doorway tightly.

Ed spun around on his stool, gold eyes flashing fire. "Well, you weren't exactly going to *invite* us in here, were you?"

"Put that down and get out of here," Russell said. "Now."

"Oh? What'll you do?" Ed hopped off the stool, drawing himself up to his full height -- such as it was. "Can't do much without that cheap piece of costume jewelry you were using, can you?"

Beside him, Al started to look decidedly nervous, eyes flicking from Russell to Ed and back again. "Brother . . ."

Russell was baffled. Edward hadn't been that hostile to him since they first met. Well, if he was going to be like *that* . . .

"Costume jewelry? Are you saying I'm not capable as an alchemist without a red stone?" He reached into his pocket for the chalk that was always there -- oh, yes, he was going to show him . . . There was a large potted plant on the shelf behind him, one with nice, long leaves that would do nicely . . . Reaching behind himself, he began to draw the array without turning around, without looking -- he'd mastered this through long hours of practice.

"Didn't get anybody to pay attention to you until you pretended to be *me*, did you?" The older boy folded his arms and screwed up his face in an expression that looked like he was going to break out into violence at any second.

"I don't need your name *or* a red stone anymore!" The last line of the array was in place, and Russell reached back, touching it. There was a flash of white light on the pot, and one of the plant leaves sprang forward, stretching, growing, turning into a whip which then streaked at the Elric brothers at frightening speed . . .

"Brother! Look out!" Al tackled Ed and sent them both sprawling to the floor just in time for the whip to pass right over them, missing them by centimeters.

Ed looked up. "HA! Is that all you've got?" He clapped his gloved hands together and grasped the leg of the stool he'd been sitting on. Purple lightning crackled, and it transmuted into a long, long spear, which he grabbed and shoved toward Russell, pointing it at his throat.

Fortunately, Russell's hand hadn't moved from the plant, and he was able to transmute another leaf whip. A streak of green knocked the weapon away.

"You have to aim a little higher next time," Russell said. "Of course, that might be hard for *you* . . ."

"WHO'S SO SMALL HE COULD BE TRAMPLED BY A MICROBE?" Ed leapt to his feet again, his face nearly as red as his coat. Russell had seen this before -- he knew the next thing Ed was probably going to do was transmute his automail into a sword. He didn't have time to transmute a weapon of his own, so he was going to have to go on the defensive . . .

There was a flash of white light from the plant just as Ed was clapping his hands together. Green leaves flew toward the smaller boy, wrapped around his legs and pulled. Ed fell, grabbing blindly for anything that would stop his fall . . .

His hand gripped the edge of the soil sample bin, and it clattered to the floor along with him.

Russell watched the whole thing happen as if in slow motion -- the container turning over, some of its contents spilling out on the floor as it landed next to Ed . . . and then Ed clapping his hands, touching the edge of the container and transmuting the whole thing into a stone fist that literally punched Russell in the gut.

He fell to the floor beside Ed, clutching his stomach, coughing. The physical pain didn't hurt as much as the knowledge that his research was ruined.

And then, he heard Fletcher's voice in the doorway, saying, "Brother . . . Brother! What happened?"

Russell couldn't even answer. He somehow managed to unfold himself and crawl over to the stone fist that had once been six months of research. He put a hand on it, examining it . . .

There was no use in trying to transmute it back. Its molecular structure had been altered enough so that it would never have *exactly* the same properties it had before.

He rested his arm on it and his forehead on his arm. Somewhere, a million miles away, he could hear the Elrics talking quietly to each other, he could feel Fletcher put a hand on his shoulder.

None of it mattered. Nothing mattered but the wreck in front of him.

"Six months," he said, quietly. "Six months of research . . ."

"Brother . . ." Fletcher said. "Isn't there *any* of it left?"

"None." Russell raised his head. "I was so close. . . I thought I'd be able to transmute gold in a month . . ."

He saw the Elrics exchange puzzled looks, and exchange them again when Fletcher said, "Brother, I told you that you don't have to worry about making it up to everyone! Nobody blames *you* for people being sick!"

Al put a hand on Ed's shoulder and said, softly, "I think we were wrong, Brother."

"They could still be covering up," Ed grumbled.

"This isn't a coverup," Al said. "Look at Russell. This experiment meant a lot to him. I don't think he'd be *sad* like this if it was an experiment for the rebels."

The words fell on Russell's head like another series of stone fists. The Elrics had thought that *he* was in bed with *Sloane* and his gang? "You . . . thought I was . . ." He pointed at the sculpture in front of him. "But that's still no excuse for *this*!"

"Hey, it's not like you had a *label* on it," Ed said.

"That's because I didn't expect anyone to burst into my lab like that!" Russell smacked the thing with the palm of his hand, as if the motion would get it to fall apart and take its original form. It didn't.

"Well, when you hang out with extremists . . ."

Russell sprang to his feet. "Hey, I thought *you* people were with them!"

"Us?" Ed laughed, a loud, almost barking sound.

"We got sent out here to check up on them," Al said. For the first time, Russell noticed that the younger boy had the silver chain of a State Alchemist's pocket watch on his pants, just like his brother. "We heard they were looking for something in the soil here, and when we got here . . . a couple of people said *you* had been experimenting with soil."

"Me? Who could have told you . . ."

And then, he remembered once telling Baddely about what he was doing when the man tried to call him out for a job just when Russell was in a delicate phase of the experiment. It would be *just* like him to blab.

"So if you're not with those people, what were you doing in a tavern with them?" Ed picked up the one non-transmuted stool and set it back on its legs.

"They tried to *force* him to join them!" said Fletcher, getting up to his own feet and picking up the spear, placing it on the counter.

"They were looking for my services," Russell said, sinking to the floor next to the stone fist again, touching it gingerly. "I turned them down."

"They didn't ask you about your experiments at all?" Ed wrapped his arms around the stone fist and started to lift it, as if to remove the reminder of his mistake from Russell's sight.

With a reluctant sigh, Russell got up and helped him. "No," he said. "I don't think they even knew."

Ed picked up the spear and set it on the floor. "They have to be after you for *something*. Obviously, they think it's in your father's notebooks." He clapped and there was a flash of purple lighting. The spear became a stool again.

"Where’s the container for that?" he said, pointing to the stone fist.

Russell shook his head. "I don't know if you'll be able to transmute it back to what it was."

Al put a hand on Ed's shoulder, narrowed his eyes and said, in a tone that carried a heavy weight, "Brother . . . I think you and I have to talk after we leave here."

Ed looked from Russell back to Al. "Al, I know what you're going to say . . . but we're up against time."

Russell sighed. Of course, their mission was going to have to come first before Edward would do anything to help him get back what he lost. Briefly, he wondered what Ed would be like if he *wasn't* a dog of the military.

"I know, Brother, but . . ." Al looked at the Tringhams. "We have to go follow another lead. We'll be back to talk to you again." He half-pulled Ed toward the door.

"Goodbye," Fletcher said, following them to the door, his eyes filled with a curious mixture of hope and sadness as he looked at Al.

Russell just stood, rooted to the spot, as he reached out and gingerly touched the stone fist.

*I should want to kill him right now*, he thought. *I should have punched his lights out on the spot. But . . . why didn't I?*

* * *
It was a bleary-eyed Russell who pushed open the door of the house the next day, shielding his eyes from the sun with one hand as he headed out to the lemon groves.

No sleep would do that to a person.

He'd tossed and turned all night, seeing the image of Edward Elric transmuting his precious bin of soil samples over and over again in his mind, like a movie stuck in an endless loop.

As he walked into the kitchen, Fletcher was pouring out coffee for him. "Are you all right, Brother?" he said. "After yesterday . . ."

"I don't want to talk about yesterday," Russell said, sitting down hard on his chair and burying his face in his crossed arms.

"He didn't *know* what it was, Brother," the younger boy said, putting a hand on Russell's shoulder. "If he had, he wouldn't have touched it."

"He thought we were working for Sloane!" Russell said, sitting back up.

"You thought *he* was, too," Fletcher reminded him, gently.

"I don't understand," Russell said, burying his head in his hands. "He disappeared . . . just vanished into thin air . . . for two years. And then, suddenly, he pops out of nowhere, starts thinking I'm a political extremist and wrecks six months of my research. It's like, every time he and I meet, something bad happens . . ."

"Maybe if you'd *talk* to him, you'd find out what happened," Fletcher said. "I want to find out what happened, too . . . especially to Al."

"I doubt he'd talk to me," Russell said, picking up his coffee cup.

"What makes you say that?" Fletcher said.

Russell just shook his head. It was just a feeling he had, an impression from Edward Elric's whole demeanor . . . the boy had lots of secrets, and they were buried deep. And he wasn't about to share them with just anyone.

A knock came on the door. He knew that knock all too well. It was like someone pounding on the door with a sledgehammer.

The last thing in the world he needed today was Baddely. He doubted at this point things could get worse.

* * *

The red-coated figure was waiting for him outside. He was standing with his hands in his pockets, just fixing Russell with a steady gaze which the boy couldn't quite read.

*Why is he here?* Russell thought. "Did you come to say you're sorry?" he said, nonchalantly.

Edward's gaze was unwavering. "I came to talk."

"Fine, talk." Russell said, starting to walk away from the building, Ed keeping up with him. There was a long, uncomfortable pause, during which Russell didn't look at the other boy.

Finally, Ed said, "Al and I spoke about what happened when we got back to the hotel."

"You mean, he gave you a talking-to?" Russell said, turning a rather bemused gaze on the shorter boy.

"That's not what I said!" Ed snapped, spinning around to face Russell.

"No, but that's what happened," Russell said. He knew this all too well, because the same thing happened frequently with Fletcher and himself.

"What makes you think you know everything about me, anyway?" Ed said, looking away.

*I wish I did,* Russell thought. *I know nothing. And that's the problem.*

The two had come upon the fountain where Russell had talked with Fletcher the day before. He sat down on the edge. "I don't know why you disappeared for two years," he said, trying to sound as casual as possible.

"That wasn't what we were talking about." Ed plunked down next to him. "We were talking about what *Al* said."

Russell considered pushing the issue, but figured that would be like trying to move a stone wall -- without alchemy. "All right. What did he say?"

"That I should help you get back whatever it was I transmuted last night. I told him again that we don't have time."

*Of course, Al would think of that,* Russell thought. *And I'm sure his brother put up a fight about it.*

"It was six months of research," he said. "I don't think it could be gotten back so easily, especially if you're on limited time."

"How do you know?" Ed said. "I might be able to see something you didn't."

"As I recall, you're more someone who jumps in with both feet and sees what happens than a careful researcher," Russell said.

"You think I have no *research* skills?" Ed said, leaping to his feet. "You sure thought enough of my abilities when you were *stealing my name* so people would take you seriously!"

"You have *no idea* why I did that!" Russell said, leaping to his feet as well. "I wasn't going to do it unless I was desperate!"

"Well, that says a lot about *your* skills, doesn't it, that you couldn't get anyone to take you seriously just being yourself?" Ed snapped. A couple of people passing on the street turned and looked at the two boys, whispering to themselves -- in a town as sleepy as Xenotime was most of the time, some good old-fashioned conflict in the streets was fodder for a hungry gossip mill.

"You saw firsthand what my skills were like back then!" Russell's hands balled into fists, as his muscles automatically tensed, prepared to fight physically at any moment.

"You relied completely on that stone!" Ed said, visibly tensing himself. Russell braced himself -- he knew that the last thing in the world he wanted was to get hit with that automail arm.

"I made that stone *myself*!" Russell said. "You have no idea what I went through when we were at Mugear's . . ."

"And you don't know what it's like to *really* sacrifice!" Ed shouted.

Russell froze. There was a strange, haunted look on Edward’s face.

*What is he referring to?* he thought. *Whatever made him get the automail arm? His disappearance? Both?*

He suddenly relaxed, and said, softly, "Edward . . . what happened? After you went down to that underground city . . ."

There was a long pause, during which they just looked into each other's eyes. Russell could see some kind of conflict going on there . . . he wondered if Edward was considering opening up to him, clearing up the mystery at long last . . .

But instead, the other boy turned and walked away, saying, "I don't have time now."

Russell just stood, blinking. He was confused. Then, angry. How dare Ed just stalk away from him like that . . .

He turned and rushed back toward the farm, wondering why the hell he'd expect *Edward Elric* to open up to him, anyway. It wasn't as if they were close. Hell, they'd only met up twice.

Of course, there *was* the small matter of him having impersonated the boy for a good year. In a way, that was a binding tie between them.

He shook his head. This wasn't worth worrying about. His first priority had to be restoring his research.

He went straight to the lab when he entered the house. Maybe if he worked hard enough on the damn stone fist, he'd get at least *some* of its original properties back . . .

When he opened the door, he froze in place. The room had been ransacked. Beakers were overturned, stools were lying on their sides, notebooks were open and scattered everywhere . . .

And he knew for sure Edward Elric wasn't responsible, since he'd been with the boy.

His first thought was for Fletcher's safety. He rushed out of the room, searching the house -- the living room, the bedrooms, the kitchen . . .

To his relief, he found a note on the table in Fletcher's handwriting saying the boy had gone grocery shopping and would be back around 1 p.m. It was now 12:30. That meant he wasn't here when this happened.

Slowly walking back to the lab, he dropped to his knees and picked up one of the notebooks. It didn't look like any pages had been torn out. The same was true of the one next to it, and the one beside that.

Methodically, he went about the task of picking them up, one by one, checking through them and then placing them on a growing stack on the counter.

*It had to be Sloane and his gang,* he thought. *They couldn't get what they wanted from me voluntarily, so they decided to take it.*

Except nothing was *taken*. Every one of his notebooks were there, and intact.

He heard a noise behind him in the doorway as he was picking up the stool. "Fletcher, we've had a problem here," he said.

"I see there's a problem," said an all-too-familiar voice. "But I'm not Fletcher."

He whirled around. "You! Who the hell said you could come in my house?"

"You didn't answer my knock, but I heard you moving around in here," Ed said, walking over and picking up one of the other stools. "We didn't finish our conversation."

"You were the one who walked away!" Russell said, picking up some of the upended containers and putting them back where they belonged.

"You changed the subject," Ed said, picking up another container.

"Changed the subject?" Russell banged a beaker into the rack a bit harder than he had to. "As I recall, we were *arguing.*" He sighed. "And we're about to do it again, aren't we?"

"You started it," Ed said, picking up another beaker and placing it beside Russell's.

"I didn't!" Russell banged another beaker into place. "Look I just came back here, found someone had torn my lab to shreds . . ."

"Did they take anything?"

Russell shook his head. "I just found the notebooks thrown all over the place."

"Can I take a look at them?" Ed pushed a chair back upright.

Russell whirled around and fixed him with a sharp gaze. "Why do *you* want to see them?"

"Well, maybe *I* can figure out why they did this. Oh, wait, you don't want my help. Never mind that I've been investigating this gang and I know things about them nobody else does . . ."

Russell gritted his teeth. Ed had a point, as much as he hated to admit it.

"They're on the counter," Russell said -- but he couldn't resist adding, "If you can reach it, that is."

Ed slammed the chair to the floor. "I *can* reach it, thank you,” he nearly snarled.

Russell chuckled to himself -- he couldn't understand why he always found Ed getting upset over short jokes so amusing. "Just look at them."

Edward grabbed one book and started flipping through it, his eyes scanning the pages rapidly, one hand pressing against his mouth thoughtfully from time to time. Russell went back to his cleanup work, occasionally glancing over at the other boy.

There was something rather striking about the way he looked, standing there in deep concentration, brow furrowed, body still except for the hand that flipped the pages. You could almost see the wheels turning in his head.

Russell looked away, quickly. If he was going to stare at anyone, it was *not* going to be *this* person. He went back to straightening a stack of papers.

Edward looked up from the book. "Is *all* this work about the effects of red water on the soil around here?"

"All the notebooks I have in here right now, yes," Russell said. "That's what I was researching."

"They were copying this stuff," Ed said. "There's smudges on some of the pages, fingerprints . . ."

"So why not just *take* the notebooks?" Russell said, putting the stack of papers back on the shelf.

"Probably wanted to put it into their own code," Ed said, putting down the notebook he was holding and picking up another. "These notebooks pretty much spell everything out in a way anyone could read. They're afraid of getting caught with the goods -- they know the military's after them." He put the book down. "Which means we have even less time than I originally thought."

Russell whirled around to face him. "What do you mean, *we*?"

"I mean, you're going to have to work with me on this," Edward said, "since *you* are so familiar with this soil, and *I* am familiar with this gang."

"Work with you on *what*?" Russell said, stalking over to him.

"Well, it seems that Sloane and his friends have found out the soil around here has special properties, too," Ed said. "They want to turn it into a bomb capable of destroying an entire town. They call it a megaweapon."

"So why do I have to help you?" Russell said.

"We're going to make the megaweapon before they do," Ed said, giving Russell a lopsided, sly grin that, under the current circumstances, just looked irritating.

"What?" Russell said, grabbing the back of a stool as if to keep himself from falling over. "That's insane!"

"Hey, if we make the megaweapon first, and put it in the military's hands, it'll keep the extremists from using it -- because why launch a strike against someone who can launch a megaweapon against you?"

Russell sank into the stool. "And if the military doesn't get the megaweapon first . . ."

"Then nothing's going to stop these people."

Russell just sat there, thinking. After a moment, he said, “So how come nobody’s tried making this megaweapon before?”

“They have tried,” Ed replied. “There just hasn’t been a suitable base material for it before. Not until the soil around here was discovered.”

Russell winced. As if having the red water sickness hanging around his neck wasn’t bad enough . . . now there was the possibility of his family’s experiments ultimately resulting in a weapon that could change the course of modern warfare, bring civilizations to their knees.

*Enough people were hurt when my father and I were looking for the Philosopher's Stone*, he thought. *I don't want a single person to be hurt by his work ever again.*

And there was also the possibility that he might discover the gold formula in the course of the explosives research.

He looked at Ed, took a deep breath, and said, "Fine, I'll do it."

Ed gave him that grin again, and said, "Just don't try to take *all* the credit for the results."

"Hey! Do you think I'd do that?"

"You'd use my name, wouldn't you?" Ed put the notebook down. "I'm going to find Al and tell him, then I'll be back."

Russell just watched the red coat retreat, trying to comprehend what had just happened. He was still just sitting there when Fletcher came in.

"Brother," he said, "was that . . ."

Russell took a deep breath. "It seems that Edward and I are now . . . research partners."

* * *
Fletcher finished putting the last few pieces that had been scattered by the invaders in place. "I'm really glad you're going to work together, Brother," he said.

Russell looked up from the notebook he was studying. Was it a good thing? Both of them had flashpoint tempers, could be very stubborn about their work . . . it was either a formula for success or a recipe for disaster. "Why is that?"

"I think you'll get a lot done very fast," his younger brother said, hopping up next to him. "You can do things he can't, and vice versa."

"*If* he doesn't go into smug, stuck-up know-it-all mode," Russell said, putting the book down.

"Brother . . ." Fletcher pulled one of the small plants growing down the counter close to him, and started to examine it. "You have your moments too, you know." He turned a leaf over and scrutinized a series of tiny spots there. "You really shouldn't make fun of his height."

"I can't help it," Russell replied, watching with interest as his younger brother took out a piece of chalk and started drawing an array on the plant's pot. Just with one small glance, he could tell what was wrong with it, what needed to be done . . .

Only the sheer depth of his love for his brother kept him from being madly jealous of his natural talent.

"Why not?" Fletcher tipped the plant over, concentrating and closing his eyes. He touched the array, and it flashed white, shooting energy up through the stalk and leaves.

"He's just *asking* for it sometimes," Russell said, peeking under to see the leaf Fletcher had just been examining -- sure enough, it was free of spots now. "With that kind of attitude . . ."

"Asking for *what*?" said a voice at the door. Russell didn't even have to look to know who it was.

He whirled around and said, "Haven't you ever heard of *knocking*?"

"What good does that do when nobody answers?" Edward walked into the room, Alphonse following.

"We saw the light on in the lab, so we figured you probably wouldn't hear us," Al said. Fletcher looked at him hopefully, as if he expected to see a glimmer of recognition in the other boy's eyes -- then seemed crestfallen when none came.

Russell felt a bit of relief at the younger Elric's presence -- he figured he'd have a calming effect on Ed, and be a detriment to any conflicts. Unfortunately, his hopes were dashed when Al added, "I'm going back into town, Brother. I'll be back in a couple of hours." To Russell, he said, "We got a tip on another possible member of the gang."

Ed frowned. "Al, it's dangerous for you to be doing that by yourself."

"I can handle it, Brother. Besides . . . we *don't have time* when it comes to the megaweapon." He narrowed his eyes. "And you *do* owe Russell some help . . ."

Ed leaned over toward his brother. "Hey, that was an *accident*! If I was going to do something to him, it would be something more *interesting* than messing with his daddy's experiments!"

"That was no *experiment*!" Russell said, stalking over toward Ed. "You have no idea what that was!"

"Hey, I *said* I was sorry!" Ed said, fixing Russell with an icy gaze.

"I seem to recall *you* telling me the proper way to apologize was *on my knees,*" Russell said, returning the gaze with one twice as glacial.

"I am NOT getting on my knees for YOU!" Ed snapped. Out of the corner of his eye, Russell could see Al and Fletcher both had decidedly worried expressions on their faces.

"Brother," Al said, steadily, "you two can fight all you want *after* you find the formula for the megaweapon."

Fletcher glanced over at Russell, nervously. "Should I help out, Brother?"

Russell considered taking him up on his offer. But he knew that there were chores to be done on the farm yet -- the last thing in the world they wanted was for Belsio to come home and find things neglected, after everything he'd done for them.

"You need to take care of the groves, Fletcher," he said.

The younger boy nodded and got off his stool. "You can come get me if you need me." He headed for the door, looked at Al for a moment as if he was considering what to say, then just left.

"I'm going too, Brother," Al said. "I'll be back in a couple of hours."

Ed walked him to the door. "Al . . . be careful. Please."

"You know I will," he said. There was a pause when the two brothers' eyes locked, and it was the oddest thing Russell had ever seen. This was *not* the way siblings were supposed to look at each other. It was as if they were communicating volumes in a single glance, conveying years upon years of shared experience . . .

It was incredibly *intimate*, and he felt a bit embarrassed to be witnessing it.

Finally, Al turned and headed out the door. Ed stretched out, walking back toward the table. "All right. What do you know about the soil so far?"

"Well, I'd show you a sample" -- Russell pointed to the stone fist that was still on the table -- "but *somebody* seems to have turned it into a weapon that was used against me."

"Look, didn't you take any *notes* while you were doing your research?" Ed hopped up on one of the stools.

Russell reached up on one of the shelves, pulled down a leather-covered notebook and handed it to Ed. The smaller boy opened it up and began flipping through. "You put *footnotes* in here?"

"I cross-check everything against books," Russell said, sitting on the other stool. "And some of them are references back to my father's work."

Edward pulled out a notebook of his own, flipped a few pages, checked something there, and looked back at Russell's notebook again. "This matches up with what we found in *their* notebooks, all right . . ."

"Their notebooks?"

"Sloane left something behind in that tavern he took you to," Ed said. "We found it under the table. There was only a page filled out in the notebook, but it looks like they'd started research similar to yours."

Russell pointed to an equation at the bottom of the page. "*That* is different."

Ed shook his head. "Probably a whim one of them had. Doesn't look like it would get them anywhere to me."

"I think it looks like it would work out very well," Russell said. "Maybe we should try it."

Ed looked up. "Are you nuts? This would set the entire process *back*!"

"Or speed it up." Russell grabbed a bin of fresh, untouched soil he had collected earlier. "We're going to try it."

"And waste a whole hour? No thanks, I have better things to do with my time." Ed went back to the notebook.

"What if it *works*?" Russell scooped out some of the dirt and put it in a beaker. "I wouldn't call that wasted."

"What if it *doesn't*? And I think it *won't*?" Ed glanced up.

"How are we going to know that unless we try it?" Russell was already beginning to sketch a possible transmutation circle out on a nearby pad of paper.

"Look, I can tell just by looking at the formula! It's uneven! It *won't work!" Ed slammed the notebook down to the table for emphasis.

"And just how must *agricultural* alchemy have you done that *you're* the expert?" Russell sketched faster, pressing hard on the pencil.

"This isn't agricultural alchemy, it's *mineral* alchemy.”

“Minerals are the very foundation of agricultural alchemy,” Russell said. “We have to be *very* familiar with the interaction of soil and plants.”

“Well, how much *non-agricultural* mineral alchemy have *you* done? Besides, you have no *idea* about . . ." Ed suddenly stopped. "We're wasting time now, aren't we?"

Russell put his pencil down. "Edward . . . maybe this is a bad idea, you and I working together."

"Look, we have no choice. Nobody else knows enough to be able to do this before these people do." Ed picked up the notebook again.

"But if we can't agree on what to do . . ."

Ed studied the equation in the notebook again. "Fine. We'll try it your way first. But if it doesn't work . . . I take over from here."

Russell was going to protest that, but he knew he'd scored one major victory -- Ed had agreed to do *his* equation first.

*And we're not even going to have to worry about doing yours, Edward,* he thought. *Because *mine* is going to be *right.*

* * *
An hour and a half and several equations later, they had gotten nowhere.

Russell had his heard buried in one of his father's notebooks, combing and re-combing familiar formulas and diagrams. Edward was looking back and forth between an alchemy text and Russell's own notebook.

"Your notes are confusing in a couple of places," Ed said. "I can't quite figure out what you mean."

"*I* know what it means," Russell said, simply.

"Well, would you mind explaining *this*?" Ed help up the book and pointed to the scribbled lines beneath a diagram.

Russell looked at it. He couldn't believe Ed couldn't read *that*. It was as plain as the nose on his face.

"It's a listing of mineral abbreviations." He shrugged. "Common ones."

"I've never seen *those* before. No wonder we're not getting anywhere -- are *all* your notes in code?"

Russell put down the book he had been studying. "That is *not* a code! And the reason we're not getting anywhere is because of *your* insistence that *this*" -- he pointed to the formula they had disagreed on before -- "was unworkable!"

"And we haven't been able to do anything with it yet, have we?" Ed said, pointing to the notes he himself had been making.

"If you just give me a bit more *time*. . ." Russell picked up the book again.

"We don't *have* time!" Ed jumped up and started to pace. "That's the problem! If you weren't so damn stubborn, you'd realize how *important* this is!"

"It was *always* important," Russell said, quietly.

Ed stopped in his tracks, blinking -- in surprise that Russell hadn't responded with a cutting remark of his own, he guessed. "What do you mean?"

"This research . . ." Russell pointed at the notebook Ed had been reading. "It was the most important thing to me in the world."

Ed sat back down, giving him a sardonic grin. "More of *Daddy's* projects?"

"That is *not* the reason I'm doing it!" Russell slammed his notebook to the counter with a *bang*. "It's based on my father's research, but I'm doing this for *me* this time. It's for . . ." He looked down. "It's to put something right."

That haunted look crossed Edward's face again. Russell wondered if he'd inadvertently hit a nerve of some sort. He just said, quietly, "The effects of the red water?"

"You *saw* it," Russell said, raking a hand through the fall of hair that perpetually covered one eye. "The sickness. It never went away. We've had people die from illnesses . . . the doctors keep saying it's not related to red water exposure, but . . . I don't believe them. Nobody does." He looked down at his notebook. "I have to live with the knowledge that my father and I did this to these people. I want to give something back . . ."

"Equivalent exchange," Edward said, looking thoughtful -- and still a bit haunted.

"Exactly," Russell said. "Fletcher keeps telling me we're not to blame, but . . . I know better." *And why am I opening up to *him*, after he refused to tell anything to me?* he thought. *I've never discussed this with anyone but Fletcher . . . * "I can't leave this town until I've restored the balance."

"And clearing your father's name doesn't hurt, either." Ed sat back down, picking up the notebook again.

"Wouldn't you do the same thing, if it were *your* father?" As soon as the words were out of Russell's mouth, he regretted them. It was a well-known fact that the Elrics had been abandoned by their father as children.

"*My* father?" Ed's eyes hardened. "I don't know if I'll ever understand him, or what he did. When I left him behind. . ." He broke off abruptly. "Forget it. We're wasting time." He picked up the notebook again, beginning to copy out the mineral list into his own notebook.

Russell frowned. This sounded strange -- there were as many rumors about Hoenheim Elric as there were about his son, and most of them were that he had just *vanished*, into thin air.

*Just like his son did,* Russell thought. *And Ed said *he* left his *father* behind, not the other way around . . .*

He knew he wasn't going to get any answers about that, or about what happened to Ed in the last two years -- the abrupt way he'd broken off the conversation was proof of that.

He busied himself with the notebooks again, trying to lose himself in numbers and figures, knowing that he *had* to apply himself to the task at hand -- after all, in helping Ed fulfill *his* mission, he could find the solution he was seeking to his own.

And it would keep questions that had nothing to do with what they were doing at bay, as well.

Another hour of work later, Russell felt they'd made minimal progress. They couldn't say they were completely stalled anymore -- but they were nowhere near a solution, either.

Ed put down his notebook, glancing at the clock on the wall. "Al should be here any minute," he said, a note of worry creeping into his voice.

"If he's not . . . do you want me to help you look for him?" Russell said, putting his own notebook down.

"He'll be here," Ed said, getting to his feet and stretching, his voice conveying that he wasn't even going to consider the possibility of Al not coming back.

Russell watched the boy raise his flesh-and-blood arm over his head, folding the one he knew was metal behind it. He knew all too well what that arm was capable of, he'd had it pointed at him in the form of a lethal blade.

And before he knew it, he was blurting out, "The automail arm . . . why do you have it?"

Ed frowned a little, then said, "A mistake. And like you said, things balance out."

*Just like him,* Russell thought as he watched the boy sit back down and glance nervously at the clock again. *He's telling me absolutely nothing again. And after I told him about what *I* was doing . . .*

The door to the lab burst open just then, and Alphonse Elric rushed in. "Sorry, Brother -- I was talking to Fletcher outside . . ."

"Al!" Ed leapt off his stool. "Did you find anything out?"

"A couple of leads, but not what I'd hoped." The younger boy smiled at Russell. "Hello, Russell -- did you get anything accomplished?"

"Same as you," Russell said.

Al looked back at Ed. “I *did* find something out about . . . what we talked about last night. And it seems . . . you may be right.”

They exchanged another of those long, peculiar glances in which they seemed to be looking straight into each other’s souls.

Then, Ed closed his notebook and said, "We'll talk back at the inn, Al.”

"Wait a minute!" Russell said. "You're leaving? You were the one who said we had no *time*!"

"We have something else we need to look into," Ed said. "I'll be back as soon as I can."

When they were gone, Russell banged the notebook to the counter in frustration. What was going *on* with them, with this case, with everything about them? The brothers obviously knew something about this case that they weren't willing to share with him, and that annoyed him a bit -- wasn't *he* part of their mission now, too?

He went back to the soil sample and reopened the book. It would be *very* satisfying to him if he could find the solution to the megaweapon before Edward Elric did.

But the cryptic words Ed had said before kept rolling around his head -- that his arm was a mistake, and it was the result of things balancing out . . .

The notebook hit the counter with a thud as the full realization hit him.

Losing body parts as a result of a mistake . . .

"Human transmutation," he said, aloud. "They must have attempted human transmutation!"

No wonder, he thought, they were so reluctant to share any information about their lives . .. .

He wondered if that were the reason Al had always been seen wearing armor when they first met . . . maybe he'd lost body parts as well, and was embarrassed to have people see it . . .

*But why does he seem intact now?* he thought. *And why the lost memories?*

He picked up the book, trying to force himself to work again, although it wasn't easy.

The brothers Elric were more mysterious than any alchemical formula or cryptic diagram.

* * *
It was only when he smelled food that Russell realized he'd left Fletcher to cook dinner -- *again*.

Almost every day since their host had been away, he'd be in the lab, or out in the field, and not realized what time it was until the younger boy had dinner well underway. He felt guilty about that -- he was supposed to be pulling his weight around the house as well.

Usually, it was because he was absorbed in his work. But today . . ..

*What difference does it make to me what happened to the Elrics?* he thought as he put the books away and headed out into the main part of the house. *All I'm supposed to be doing is helping them find their so-called megaweapon before Sloane does.*

As he went into the kitchen, he saw Fletcher ladling out two bowls of stew -- and he had a very downcast look on his face. Russell instantly felt even more guilty.

"Fletcher," he said, "I'm sorry. Look, I'll cook dinner every night until Belsio gets back . . ."

"It's okay, Brother," Fletcher said, carrying the bowls to the table. "You have work to do." He sat down in his space, picked up a fork and began to poke at the food.

Now Russell was worried. This wasn't like Fletcher -- the boy usually began eating right away, unless he wasn't feeling well. "Fletcher -- what's wrong?"

The younger boy looked up. "Brother, what do you think happened to Al?"

Russell put down his fork. Fletcher was as preoccupied with their visitors today as he had been. And he couldn't very well tell him what he had figured out before. He didn't want Fletcher's impressions of the Elrics colored by the knowledge that they had committed the worst crime against nature there was.

"I can't say, Fletcher," he said. "I don't know what happened to them over the last couple of years. Edward won't talk about it."

"It's like . . . he's there, but he's *not* there." Fletcher stared into his bowl. "I was talking to him before, and he was telling me about some people he'd met in town, and it was *him* -- his personality. He even sounds the same as he did before, but . . . he didn't remember *anything*. Not about us, or Mugear, or the red water, or . . ."

Russell leaned over and covered his brother's hand with his own. "It's possible he had some kind of accident -- a head injury. Sometimes, these things are temporary. He might be able to get his memories back in time."

"But would they let him be a *State Alchemist* if he had a head injury?"

That took Russell aback. He released the boy's hand, slowly. "I . . . don't know."

"And there's something else." Fletcher poked at his food again. "When we first met Al -- when *I* was supposed to be pretending that *I* was Al -- he was 14, wasn't he? I mean, we never saw him without his armor, so we don't know what his face looked like, but . . ." He looked Russell squarely in the eye. "Brother, he looks like he's about 12 now. And he *should* be 16."

Russell's fork stopped halfway to his mouth. He hadn't even considered that. Now that Fletcher mentioned it, Al *did* look younger than he was supposed to be . . .

"Lots of people look young for their age," he said. "You did, when you were younger."

Fletcher shook his head. "This seems different. It's as if he stopped growing, and maturing, altogether. It's almost like he . . . went backwards in time, and that's why he can't remember things."

Ordinarily, Russell would have dismissed that thought as absurd -- time travel was a completely unproved theory. But there *were* whispers about strange side effects when people attempted human transmutation . . .

"We may never know," he said, quietly, busying himself with his food so he wouldn't have to think of the possibilities.

* * *

As he headed for the stairs to go to his bedroom several hours later, he noticed something unusual about one of the plants in the living room window.

Fletcher's plants were everywhere in this house that there was sunlight -- placed on the table in the kitchen, running along the length of the path to the bedrooms, even in the bathroom. It would be easy to see the whole place as just a blur of green.

That is, unless you were an agricultural alchemist, and you noticed every detail of every plant.

Russell picked it up, frowning. It was a fern, with bright green stalks shooting out pointy little leaves. Except the leaves weren't very green. They had turned a very odd shade of brown -- not the mud-brown usually exhibited by dying plants, but a very light tan, almost the color of sand.

"Fletcher," he called, carrying it up the stairs, "what's wrong with this?"

His younger brother poked his head out of his own room -- he was already in his pajamas. "I'm not sure. I tried a simple transmutation on it before, just to stimulate its growth, and . . . this happened."

Russell gently pinched a leaf between his thumb and forefinger -- the most curious thing about this was that the plant didn't feel *dry*, like most plants that had turned brown. "I haven't seen anything like it before."

"Me, neither," Fletcher said. "I'm going to take it out to the barn lab tomorrow and find out what's going on."

"You can use the main lab, you know," Russell said, putting the plant down.

Fletcher shook his head. "You and Edward need that lab. You're working on something important. Good night, Brother." He ducked back into his room and shut the door.

Russell headed for his own room -- very basic, with a dresser, desk and chair, a couple of plants and his bed -- and began to get changed. Those nagging questions were rising in the back of his mind again -- why Al looked too young, what had happened to Ed when he disappeared, whether they *really* had attempted human transmutation . . .

He shook his head. If he kept letting that drive him nuts, he'd never get to sleep. He slid under the covers, turning on his side and closing his eyes.

Sure enough, sleep didn't come. But it wasn't because of the Elrics. Instead, he kept thinking about the plant he had just seen. The *odd* color, the lack of dryness . . .

He suddenly sat bolt upright. The plant had been brought in very recently, he knew, from an area not far from the farm. Fletcher hadn't taken any plants from there before.

Could the transmutation he had performed created some kind of reaction in the soil, caused it to mutate in an unexpected way? Could it yield clues to the composition of the earth, a shortcut to regaining the material he'd lost before?

Russell leapt from his bed, reaching for his robe and stepping into a pair of slippers. He was going to take that plant to the lab *now*, and find out what was going on with it.

* * *

He sensed that something was wrong as soon as he opened the door. There was a strange rustling in the corner, which might be a mouse, but . . .

He noticed the wide-open window -- which he had shut hours before.

"Who's there?" he called. The rustling stopped, the air went still . . .

And then, a figure bounded out of the shadows like a panther springing out of the brush, diving for the window and tumbling out of it. Russell dropped the plant to the floor, sprinted across the room and leapt after the person.

He lost his footing when he landed and ended up falling to his knees, scraping his hands on the ground trying to catch himself before he fell further. Scrambling to his feet, he looked around, seeing nothing unusual . . .

A tiny movement at the corner of his eye caught him. Whirling around, he saw the same person sprinting in the direction of town. Thinking fast, he ran over to one of the nearby trees, picking up a sharp stone. He scratched an array into the bark as quickly as he could, wishing like hell he still had his old red stone that let him do alchemy without a circle.

He put his hand to the inscription, and there was a flash of green light. The branches of the tree began to stretch, as if they were taffy pulled by a child's hands, then rushed off in the direction the intruder had fled. Two of the longest ones looped themselves into a snare, and started to drop toward the running man.

Russell's heart sank as his trap landed right *behind* the man. He rushed off into the distance, too far away for the boy to see him anymore.

The young alchemist sank to the ground, his hand coming off the array bit by bit. The branches recoiled, shrinking back to their natural size and position.

*They broke into our home*, he thought, *while we were there . . .*

He suddenly sprang to his feet and ran back to the house. If any of the others in the gang had come there, if they had gotten to Fletcher . . .

Rushing through the front door, he ran straight up the stairs, and burst into his younger brother's bedroom. To his relief, Fletcher was sleeping peacefully, and only stirred a little, letting out an "mmm" noise, oblivious to his entrance.

Letting out a sigh of relief, he closed the door and headed down to the lab. A quick inspection revealed that nothing had been taken, there were just a couple of notebooks out of place. He'd obviously interrupted the intruder in the early stages of the invasion.

He closed the window, then made his way back to his own room. His bathrobe was covered with mud now, and he noticed, to his surprise, there was a bit of blood at the end of one sleeve. He had scraped his hands worse than he thought.

Tossing the robe over a chair, he lay back in his bed, examining his hand. They were going to have to safeguard this house better. They could transmute plants to grow over the windows, sealing them off . . .

Intruders or no intruders, though, he wasn’t going to *leave* the house. This was home now -- well, as *home* as anything could be that wasn't their old house in Central.

And he couldn't go back there. Not until he'd paid his debt to the people of this town . . .

He fell quickly into a deep, exhausted sleep.

* * *

A noise downstairs woke him several hours later with a start.

He sat bolt upright, straining his ears. Yes, it seemed to be coming from the direction of the lab, someone was moving things around down there . . .

Grabbing his muddy robe, he threw it on as he ran down the stairs . . . someone was *definitely* in the lab, he could hear it, this time they weren't getting away . . .

He flung the door open to see Edward and Alphonse Elric standing at *his* lab table, looking at something with *his* microscope.

"What the hell are you doing here?" he shouted.

Ed looked up and smirked. "You always greet people like that? What were you doing, playing in the mud?"

"I was not *playing*. And you didn't answer my question."

"Your brother let us in," Al said. "We found something on our way over here and wanted to take a closer look at it."

Russell made a quick mental note to tell his brother to inform him of these things first. "So what was so important that . . ."

"Why don't you go up and get dressed," Ed said, "unless you *like* looking like a little kid who's been playing in a puddle."

This just set Russell off. "You have *no idea* what happened . . . oh, the hell with it." He spun around and stomped up the stairs, muttering to himself. It seemed that everyone was in his lab lately except *him*.

He'd wanted a shower this morning, too. Well, *that* was going to have to wait.

Once he was dressed, he headed back down to the lab, where the Elrics were still preoccupied with his microscope. "All right," he said. "What was so important that you had to take over *my* lab?"

Edward looked up. "Hey, I thought you and I were partners in this?"

"That doesn't mean you have the right to just *invite yourself . . .*"

"It was your *brother* who invited us in, remember?" Ed pushed the microscope toward Russell. "Take a look at this. We found it on the way here. That’s what we have a sample of on the slide." He handed over what looked at first glance like an ordinary clump of leaves.

And then, Russell looked closer. “Odd shape,” he said. “Very* odd.” He pulled the microscope over and looked into the eyepiece.

What he saw was not normal. The patterns of the veins were chaotic, the color was an odd, sickly green that no chlorophyl could have produced in its natural state.

"Definitely modified with some kind of agricultural alchemy," he said. "Only . . . this doesn't look like any typical mutation, either. There's another factor here . . ."

"The soil?" said Al.

"Wait a second . . ." Russell crossed the room to where he'd put the plant down the night before. Carefully, he removed a leaf, brought it back across the room, removed the slides with the sample and picked up two more, putting the new specimen between them.

"I thought so," he said. "Fletcher brought this plant in a few days ago -- it seems to be transmuted the same way."

"I'm wondering how many *other* plants are like this," Al said, getting off the stool he was sitting on. "Brother, I'm going out to look for more samples."

"Take Fletcher with you," Russell said, looking up from the microscope. "He'll be able to tell you where he found this plant -- there may be others like it in the area."

"We'll be back in a couple of hours," Al told Ed.

"Be *careful,* Al. You know these people . . ."

"I know, Brother."

Once Al was gone, Russell looked into the microscope again. "So where did you find the sample?"

"The back road that leads to your barn," Ed said, picking up the plant Russell had pulled the leaf off and inspecting it.

Russell looked up. "That's the same one that . . ."

"That what?" Ed put the plant on the table.

"This lab was broken into last night. *That's* why I looked like a kid who was rolling around in a mud puddle. I was chasing the guy, and I fell in the mud."

Ed whirled around to face him. "Why didn't you tell me this before?"

"You didn't give me a chance to! You were too busy making fun of the way I looked!"

"Oh, and *you* were too busy storming off in a huff to tell me something *important*! Ed stalked over to the shelves where the notebooks were. "Did they get anything?"

"I stopped them before they could," Russell said, beginning to take a soil sample from Fletcher's plant.

"They're on to something," Ed said. "This" -- he pointed to the transmuted leaf -- "proves it. Dammit, I should have stayed here last night . . ." He looked up at Russell. "We're going to have to work straight through now. We've got to get this done before . . ."

"So why *didn't* you stay here last night?" Russell said, putting the soil sample on a slide.

"Wild goose chase." Ed climbed up on the stool. "We keep thinking we have a lead on their lab, and I wasn't going to let Al out alone at night. But when we went there . . . nothing."

"Who sent you out here, anyway?" Russell pulled out his notes from the day before.

"Same guy we always worked for,” Ed said. “Colonel Roy Mustang. Or, as I used to call him, Colonel Bastard."

Russell looked amused. “Why Colonel Bastard?”

Ed pulled the microscope over and peered into it. "’Cause he was smug, arrogant, huge ego . . ."

"Gee, I don't know anyone else like that," Russell said with a smirk, looking up from his notebook.

Ed whirled toward him, scowling. "What the hell is *that* supposed to mean?"

"Oh, nothing." Russell went back to his notes, but was chuckling inside.

Ed thumped the counter. "Listen, it takes one to know one. *You* can be sarcastic and stuck up, you know."

"Sarcastic and stuck-up? Like you said, takes one to know one." Russell flipped a page of the notebook without looking up.

*Why does it give me such *pleasure* to tease him like this?* he thought again, his eyes sweeping over a diagram he'd done the day before. He wasn't like this with anyone else. Certainly not with Fletcher, and with adults, he was always perfectly respectful.

It suddenly hit him that he really didn't see any other people his own age that often. He was far too busy to socialize with any of the other teenagers in town, and he hadn't contacted any of his old schoolmates from Central in years. Not that he'd been particularly close to any of them. His world had been consumed by alchemy almost as long as he could remember, and he just couldn't relate to anyone who wasn't interested in it.

In fact, the only other person he knew that was as interested in the art as himself was sitting right next to him.

It was a strange thought, that Edward Elric was his one true peer. Frightening, really. After all, Edward *was* loudmouthed, short-tempered, arrogant . . wasn't he?

He peeked over the top of his notebook at the other boy frowning into the microscope, adjusting it a bit, writing something down in his own notebook, then looking again. He seemed so . . . *focused*, so completely serious about what he was doing.

Russell wondered if he, himself, looked like that in the middle of researching something. He doubted that he would radiate intensity like Edward was doing right now, though. There was just something about him that made it impossible to take your eyes off him.

The State Alchemist reached up with his flesh-and-blood hand, flicking a strand of the blond hair -- no, more like *gold* hair, same as his eyes -- away from his face. The gesture seemed almost childlike, compared to the absolute seriousness of his posture . . .

Russell suddenly snapped his eyes back to his notebook. What was he doing? They were racing against time, he had to get back to work! He *never* let anything distract him!

*Damn him for always making himself the center of attention, even when he isn’t trying,* he thought, going back to studying documents with a ferocious intensity.

* * *

Russell swished a compound around in the test tube, frowning at it. "The calculations were right, except . . ."

"Except . . . this." Ed put down the notebook he'd been looking at and clapped his hands together. He touched the tube with one finger -- and in a flash of light, the compound within turned to dust immediately.

Russell snapped his head toward him. "What did you do *that* for?"

"You didn't listen to me when I said that wasn't going to come out." Ed picked up his book again. "See, you rely too much on numbers, without thinking about how it's going to *work* . . ."

The words just seemed to irritate the younger boy. He *knew* he wasn't a natural talent like Fletcher -- or Edward himself, for that matter. Figures were all he had, and he prided himself on his ability with them.

"I don't see *you* coming up with anything," Russell said. "We've been at this for three hours . . ."

Just then, the door of the lab slammed open. Fletcher and Al were standing there, both breathless and flushed. Russell nearly dropped the tube in his haste to get to his brother. "Fletcher . . . what's wrong?"

"In the town center . . ." he said. "A bomb . . ."

"BOMB?" Ed leapt from his seat, grabbed Al by the hand and nearly dragged him out the door. "Al, this means they've got . . ."

Russell grabbed for a sample kit. "How bad was it?" he asked Fletcher, as the two boys followed the Elrics.

"I don't think it's the megaweapon," he said. "but . . . we were a couple of streets away, we were looking for more dropped leaves, and we heard it . . . there were people running everywhere, screaming . . ."

*And we've made no progress at all,* Russell thought. *If they're anywhere *near* to creating the megaweapon . . .*

He was trying to silence a taunting voice in the back of his head that was saying, *Maybe you'd have made more progress if you hadn't been *looking* at Edward before.*

The Elrics were already at the site of the explosion when Russell and Fletcher arrived. It had happened in the middle of a wide street, near the fountain, and it left behind a huge, ugly black scar, where the pavement had been blasted away as easily as the white fluff of a dandelion.

Edward was kneeling by the hole, looking at it intently, and Al was beside him, leaning over. Russell could tell by the way the smaller boy was trembling with emotion that it was *not* good.

"Is it the megaweapon?" Russell said, drawing even to them.

"No," Ed said in a shaky voice. "But it's close . . . very close . . ." He slammed his metal fist to the ground with an impact that would have broken bone. "Dammit! Why did we have to waste so much time on a wild goose chase?"

"We didn't *know*, Brother," Al said.

"I spent all my time barking up trees, trying to catch them in the act, when I could have been in the *lab*, figuring it out before they did. And we don't know where *their* lab is, even after all our work . . ."

Russell was rooted to the spot, not knowing what to say or do. Fortunately, Fletcher had grabbed the sample kit and started calmly collecting residue from the explosion.

"We'll figure it out, Brother," Al said. "Look, Fletcher and I found some more of those plants . . ."

"Edward, we have to go back to the lab," Russell said, trying to sound as calm as possible.

"Oh, a lot of help *you've* been," Ed said, scrambling to his feet. "If it wasn't for *your* methods, we'd be a lot closer now!"

"*My* methods?" Russell said. "Well, if *you* hadn't transmuted what I'd been working on, we'd probably be a hell of a lot closer!"

"Maybe if you'd been a *real* alchemist, and not somebody who falls back on *Daddy's* research all the time . . ." Ed folded his arms and scowled, flames nearly dancing in his eyes. Beside him, Al looked visibly tense.

Russell's blood boiled. After all this time, did Edward actually think he was still nothing but an extension of his *father*? And something within him snapped.

"Don't you say *I'm* not a real alchemist! At least I haven't had *my* soul sucked out by the military!"

"Brother, don't . . ." Fletcher said, grabbing Russell's arm.

But it was too late -- Ed had already been pushed over the edge. He was clapping his hands, even the lighting flashing from them seeming to be an especially vivid shade of purple, as if reflecting his anger. "You . . . have . . . no . . . IDEA!" he shouted, and slammed his hands to the ground.

There was a swelling beneath the pavement, as if a ball was rolling under the surface, and it rushed toward the Tringhams. Russell grabbed Fletcher and dove out of the way, the two of them rolling over the pavement until they stopped in front of a house.

A house that had several potted plants growing in front of it . . .

Russell reached into his pocket, yanked out his piece of chalk and started to draw an array on the nearest pot. He'd show him what a *real* alchemist was capable of. He'd turn this plant into a huge lasso, and make it bind that bastard head to toe so tightly he couldn't clap his hands together to get out . . .

"No, Brother, don't!" Fletcher said, trying to tug Russell away from the plant.

"He has it coming, Fletcher," Russell said. "He's had it coming from the moment he arrived back here." He finished the diagram, and put his fingers to it . . .

But when he activated the array, it didn't stretch out. Instead, the leaves twisted into strange shapes, the stems grew thicker, and the whole thing changed color -- from a bright, vivid green to a dark, dull, lifeless shade.

He pulled his hand away, surprised. This was the same array he always used -- what had gone wrong?

And then, he heard Edward Elric's voice saying, softly, "That's it!"

He looked up, blinking in confusion. Ed was running toward him, Al close at his heels. Ed grabbed the plant out of Russell's hands and examined it. "Watching the mutation actually happening, the way the color changed . . . I know where we went wrong now!"

Russell looked closer at the plant. Sure enough, the leaves resembled the ones that the Elrics had found on the ground before. Things were falling into place, like bits and pieces of a puzzle.

"We were looking too hard at the soil itself," Russell said. "It's not the soil they're getting the explosive from, it's the plants!"

"Al, Russell and I are going back to the lab," Ed told his brother.

"Don't you want Fletcher and I to help, Brother?" Al said.

"I need the two of you to find me as many transmuted plants as you can, note where they are and bring me back samples," Ed replied. "We're going to analyze this plant and the residue from the explosion."

Russell drew himself up with a sly smile. "You mean you can stand working with someone with my methods?"

Ed gave him one of his smirks. "Nah, your methods still suck. But hey, occasionally you get lucky." He held up the plant.

Russell was going to retort -- but Ed was right. It *was* lucky that he'd discovered the secret of the mutation.

"Well, I'll try to put up with *your* methods, then," he said.

The eyes of the two boys met. A silent communication passed between them, and they both smiled. The fight was over.

The four of them headed back toward the lemon farm, not noticing someone behind a building who had been watching them.

* * *

Russell put a jug of lemonade and two glasses on a tray to bring to the lab. It amazed him that he’d never gotten truly sick of the stuff, even though he and Fletcher practically lived on it.

He figured they'd be there a long, long time, and having liquid refreshment on hand would come in handy.

Alphonse Elric peeked into the door, carrying a sample kit similar to the one Russell had taken to the bomb scene. "Russell, can I talk to you for a moment?"

"Sure." Russell put his tray down, wondering what the boy could want. Could he possibly be remembering having known the brothers before?

"It's about Fletcher," he said. "When we were out before, I saw something odd -- he found this plant that had died, and it was lying on the ground . . . it was in such an advanced state of decomposition that I thought it was beyond alchemy, and . . . he just knelt down, drew an array in the dirt around it and brought it back." He looked straight at Russell. "Has he always been able to do that?"

Russell's heart sank. Any hope of the boy's memories coming back, of him remembering how Fletcher had utilized trees to soak up the red water, were dashed. "He's a natural talent," he said. "He's always been something of a prodigy."

"And you?" Al said.

Russell picked up the tray again. "I'm not a natural talent at all. Everything I know comes from books, and study, and practice."

"You studied very well, then," Al said as he walked out of the kitchen with Russell. "I saw what you were trying to do with the plant . . . you're very skilled."

"Thanks," Russell said. "Tell that to your brother."

Al had a soft smile on his face as he said, "Brother's behavior can be a little rough sometimes. But believe it or not, he does respect you."

That took Russell by surprise. "He does?"

"He said you had to have talent to create arrays like the ones in the books. He said he'd never seen anything so hard to read before."

Russell groaned. That kind of backhanded compliment was just like Edward.

But he couldn't help but notice as he looked at the other boy -- who *should* be his own age -- that Fletcher was right. Alphonse Elric appeared to have *lost* a couple of years of his life.

Again, he wondered what the full secret behind the other brothers was -- and what his odds were of ever finding it out.

* * *

They were back in the lab again, Edward peering at a sample of transmuted plant under the microscope, Russell mixing a compound in a test tube.

The air was eerily quiet. It felt like it had been quiet for hours, a reflection of the intensity of the work that was going on.

"I think I may have isolated it," Russell said. "We're one step closer, at least."

Ed looked up. "You think it's explosive?"

"Mildly so. We just need to find the other elements that would give it *power.*

Ed rubbed the back of his neck -- the leaning over all the time seemed to be having an effect on him. "I hope Mustang appreciates us bringing this stuff back," he grumbled.

Russell swirled the liquid in the beaker around -- very carefully, not wanting to set off an explosion. Blowing up the lab now would just be a sick irony. "May I ask why you became a dog of the military in the first place?"

The other boy shot him a sharp glance. "Why did you *impersonate* a dog of the military?"

"Because there was something I needed to do," Russell said, adding a bit of mineral to the mixture, "and that was the only way I could do it."

"Something you needed to do?" Ed began to scribble into his notebook. "What, turn into your father?"

Russell gritted his teeth. Ed brought that up over and over. Okay, it was only fair, since he teased the other boy over and over, but . . .

"Fletcher and I left Central and came to Xenotime after our mother died," he said, calmly, swirling the liquid again. "We had nothing left in the world then. We didn't have much money -- Mother had been working as a seamstress to support us after Father left." He put the test tube back in the rack to settle. "I decided we were going to go to Xenotime, find him and help him complete his work."

"So you convinced people you were me to do this?" Ed was peering into the microscope again.

"I had a teacher," Russell said, gazing at the test tube as if it were a scrying glass in which he could see his own past. "He was a neighbor of ours, a retired State Alchemist. He decided to teach me out of the kindness of his heart after Father went away -- he knew we couldn't pay him. I knew because of him that State Alchemists could find things out that regular people couldn't." He looked at Ed. "And I also heard from him that a boy a year younger than me had become a State Alchemist, and was getting very well-known."

He watched the other boy's face for a reaction. Ed just seemed quiet, intent on his microscope and notes, a thoughtful expression on his face. *Is he just thinking about what we're doing*, Russell thought, *or did I strike a nerve somewhere?*

"I went with him to the main library in Central one day," Russell said. "He was going to look something up for a project he was doing on his own. While he was doing that, I snuck away, found the registry of State Alchemists and copied down all the information I could about you and your brother. I had a plan . . ."

He gently turned the test tube around again. "If all else failed, I was going to pose as you. Only if we were *desperate.* And when we got back to his house, I snuck into a back room with a pile of tin junk and his State Alchemist pocket watch and transmuted a copy of it."

Ed sat back, leaning his head on his hand, his elbow on the table. "Guess you got desperate pretty quickly."

"We left a couple of days later," Russell said. "We came here, and nobody would listen to us, or talk to us, or give us information on where our father was. We'd used up all our money staying at the inn, we had nowhere else to go, and finally, I marched into the Town Hall with the pocket watch and told them I was you. There were a lot of people there that day who happened to have heard that."

"Including Mugear?"

"Exactly." A pained expression came over Russell's face as he remembered what that had led to. "He said another alchemist had started working on the red stone and disappeared. I knew that was Father. He hired us to complete the work. And because he'd hired *Edward Elric* -- and people *knew* he'd hired Edward Elric -- I was locked into using the name."

Ed narrowed his eyes. "And the lie got addictive, didn't it?"

"Well, I had respect," Russell said. "People asked me to do things for them, help them . . ."

"You could have gotten that respect on your own, you know," Ed said, getting up and walking over to check the test tube.

"I'm not a hero of the people, like you," Russell said, leaning over with his hands on the counter, giving the other boy a half-smile.

"You don't want to be," he said, simply. He clapped his hands together and touched a finger to the test tube. There was a flash of purple, and the liquid within changed color. "Okay, I think this is something we can *really* work with now."

Russell frowned. "How did you know . . ."

"I watched you when you were mixing it," he said. "I know what you put in there, and what proportions."

Yet another mystery -- why Ed seemed sometimes to be a walking encyclopedia of alchemy. Again, he wondered how much of the *truth* he was ever going to get close to.

"All right," he said, picking up the notebook Ed had been looking at and studying the notes. "Now we just need to find the right combination of elements for the booster . . ." He looked at Ed. "And while we're doing that, you can tell me why you joined the military. I gave you *my* story. It's equivalent exchange, after all."

"The same as you." Ed took a sample from another transmuted plant. "It was because of something I needed to do . . . a sacrifice I had to make for my brother."

"Sacrifice?" Russell looked up from the notebook with a frown.

"I had something I needed to put right, like you do."

He noticed that the boy wasn't going to say much more on the subject. *If he doesn't want to talk about it,* he thought, *I must be right. They must have attempted human transmutation, and went looking for the Philosopher's Stone in order to restore their bodies.*

A gentle prodding was in order if he was going to get any more information, he thought.

"Would you leave the military if you could?" he said.

"I'd be out of it now, except when I came back, I found out Al had become a State Alchemist," he said. "I wasn't going to let him go on missions for them by himself."

He was going to force the "came back" issue, but decided that was a bad thing to do -- he didn't want Ed suddenly turning hostile and quiet. Instead, he said, "Everything you've done . . . it's been for your brother, hasn't it?"

Ed gave him a small smile. "Isn't it the same thing for you?"

Russell put the notebook down. "Fletcher's all I have in this life. He's more than a brother to me now . . . it's almost like it's the two of us against the world. And if I lost him . . ." He looked away -- that had come out wrong. It sounded like their relationship was . . . something it definitely wasn't.

But to his surprise, Ed reached over, putting his flesh-and-blood hand on his arm, and said, simply, "I know."

There was a lot of *weight* to those words, a dark tone in the boy's voice that combined with the haunted look in his eyes seemed to speak volumes.

*He *does* know,* Russell thought. *He must have thought he was going to lose Al at one point . . . he *did* lose him, if they were separated . . .*

Russell's eyes locked with Ed's. There was such *depth* there, so many secrets he was dying to probe, to find out . . . and he realized it wasn't just about the boy's past, either, he wanted to find out who this person he'd once impersonated *was*, what drove him, what made him do the things he did . . .

There was a long silence, during which neither seemed to be able to think of anything else to say. Then, suddenly, Ed pulled away, saying, a bit too rapidly, "Okay, I think I might be able to get this plant into something we can work with. We just have to add it to what you've got quickly, or the molecular structure will revert . . ."

Russell just nodded, picking up another test tube. But his eyes were following the other boy as he made his way back to the microscope.

* * *

The compound in the beaker that was simmering away over a low flame had turned a deep red. They had decided several hours ago that they were going to have to do the last phase of production the old-fashioned way, rather than utilizing Ed's abilities -- the material had to transform *slowly*, or else the whole building could blow sky-high.

You took *no* chances when dealing with a megaweapon.

They had been working straight through for hours. Russell hadn't glanced at a clock in a seeming eternity. He was sure if he looked under the window shade, he'd see the first rays of dawn peeking over the horizon.

Ed was sitting on one of the stools on the counter, head leaning on hand, eyes drooping. A few stray locks -- not that the front of his hair was ever particularly neat, anyway -- were hanging in his eyes.

He looked endearing like that, Russell thought. Peaceful. . . not like the ball of constant energy he always was, seeming on the verge of exploding every single second -- just like the substance in that beaker.

Russell found himself fighting an urge to cross the room to the other boy and brush those locks back.

*What's happening here?* he thought. *Is it because we're under so much pressure? I'm starting to feel . . . *attached* to him.*

He forced himself to tear his eyes away and look at the beaker again. It stirred feelings of nostalgia in him, not altogether pleasant ones, because it looked like the red water he spent so many hours studying, analyzing, forcing into a stone . . .

*He was trying to find the Philosopher's Stone*, Russell thought. *Did he ever do it? No, he couldn't have -- if he did, he wouldn't still have the automail arm, would he?*

A yawn from the other side of the room made him look up. Edward seemed to have dozed off, golden lashes gently fringed on his cheeks.

Almost feeling like his body was moving of its own accord, he got up and slowly crossed the room, until he was standing over the shorter boy, looking down at him.

He really *was* handsome when his face wasn't wearing that damn, lopsided,

smirky grin, or twisted in rage. His hair was thick -- Russell began to wonder what it would look like unbound and hanging about the boy's shoulders.

Strangely, he figured it would make him look older.

Russell leaned over a bit, wanting a closer look, wondering again why he was suddenly so fascinated . . .

And then, Ed's eyes flew open. "What are you doing?" he mumbled.

Russell leapt away as if he'd been burned. "Nothing!" he said, in an uncharacteristically flustered tone of voice. "Just . . . trying to see if you were awake!"

"You coulda just asked." Ed climbed off the stool, still blinking, and crossed the room to the beaker. He looked at the substance within, and that curious, haunted look came over his face again.

Russell knew he couldn't have been thinking of Mugear and the red water. That had been merely one small stop in his search for the Stone, he was sure.

"What do you think?" he said to the smaller boy.

"I think," Ed said, quietly, "that I've seen something like this before."

"A Philosopher's Stone?"

The older boy closed his eyes for a moment, as if he were experiencing a particularly painful memory. He just said, "Not quite."

Russell was suddenly seized with an urge to grab the State Alchemist and shake him and force him to give up his secrets. He wanted to know the source of all this pain, what he had found along the journey that had taken him to that underground city, and beyond.

"It's just got to go a little while longer, I think," Ed yawned, again, crossing back over to the stool and re-seating himself in the same position as before.

Russell walked over to the window and peeked out. Sure enough, a growing daylight was spreading over the farm. He hoped that Fletcher would take over the morning rounds in the lemon grove -- he knew he wasn't going to be up to it.

Quietly, he left the lab and headed up the stairs. In the living room, he saw a pillow and blanket on the couch, a sign that Alphonse Elric had slept there. The younger brothers had come into the lab sometime around 10 in the evening, and had offered their help, but Ed and Russell had sent them away after a couple of hours.

*No use in *all* of us staying up all night to do this*, he thought. *I don't want Fletcher getting sick.*

A peek into his younger brother's room revealed that he was already awake and out. He was about to turn around and head back down the stairs when, on impulse, he opened his own bedroom door.

He walked to his chest of drawers, opened the top one and reached down to the bottom. His fingers closed around an object he hadn't touched in years.

He drew out the copy he'd made of his teacher's State Alchemist pocket watch. It definitely was not exactly the same as Edward's -- the color was a lot more dull, for one thing, and it was a bit smaller. But it was good enough to fool a layman when flashed quickly.

*Why did I do it?* he thought. *Why did I pretend to be Edward Elric? Why did I used to get a swelled head when people thought I was him? Was it because I *really* wanted to be him?*

He put the watch back in the drawer and shut it, then headed back down the stairs. Opening the door to the lab, he headed straight for the beaker -- the compound had changed color again.

He smiled to himself. They'd accomplished their goal.

Russell walked over to Ed and leaned over. The boy was definitely asleep this time. "Edward?" he said, softly.

When he got no response, he leaned over further, putting a hand on his shoulder to shake him awake -- and suddenly realized that the two of them were *close*, very close, so much that he could feel Edward Elric's breath.

Ed's eyes fluttered open. Russell wanted to pull away -- but he felt rooted to the spot. And after a moment that felt like an hour, he realized that Ed wasn't moving, either.

There was a feeling of the smaller boy's breath warming his face, and then Ed was leaning closer, and Russell closer still, closing the last few centimeters between them.

The first emotion he felt was surprise at how very soft Ed's lips were as they brushed against his own. He had never kissed anyone before, male or female, but he didn't think it would be like *this*.

A moment's hesitation, and then Ed was pressing harder against him, and they were *really* kissing now, their mouths moving on each other gently, then more firmly. Russell let his arms slide around the smaller boy's shoulders, pulling him closer, and he felt an arm wrap around his own back -- the left one, he noticed -- and then there was nothing but the sensation of *warmth* and the scent of the other boy, chemicals and wood smoke and an odd hint of raspberry . . .

When Ed's tongue pushed into his mouth, Russell's knees sagged and he nearly fell. Instead, he held on tighter, letting his own tongue stroke the very welcome invader . . .

And then, the door of the lab banged open, and the next thing they heard was a loud "EEP!" sound from Alphonse Elric.

The boys broke apart, quickly moving apart from each other as fast as they could. "Al! Fletcher! You're back!" Russell said a bit too quickly and loudly, rubbing the back of his head and feeling his cheeks flush. Over on the other side of the room, he could see Al standing in front of Fletcher, his arms pressed back against him -- as if blocking his view of what was going on.

Ed wheeled on his younger brother. "Haven't you heard of *knocking*?"

Al gave him a sly grin. "I didn't think we'd be *interrupting* anything, Brother."

"Interrupting?" Ed was turning crimson, the spiky front of his hair seeming to bristle even more. "You interrupted nothing!"

"Oh?" said Al, folding his arms and looking at Ed from half-lidded eyes, his smile growing more devilish. "So just *what* was it that you were doing, hmmm?"

"Nothing you need to know about!" Ed turned even more red, and stomped off for the corner of the lab, Al following.

Fletcher calmly walked over to Russell, tugged on his sleeve and said, "Brother, we came to tell you that we think we've found the lab." Russell couldn't help but notice that while his brother spoke normally, his cheeks were a bit pinker than usual.

"Where is it?"

Russell's eyes darted narrowly to the corner, where Ed was glaring daggers at his brother and shouting, "We were talking, okay! Just talking!"

"It's near where the Mugear mansion used to be," Fletcher said. "An old warehouse that was turned into a lab . . . it's kind of in bad shape, but when we peeked in the windows, we could see places where the dirt had been wiped away. And outside . . ."

He reached into his pockets and drew out a cluster of transmuted leaves, while in the background, Al said, "That was a *bit too close* just to be having a conversation, Brother. And why were his arms around you?"

Russell picked up the leaves and examined them closely. "They're the same as the others."

"There were a whole bunch of these around the building," Fletcher said.

"We're definitely going out there with you," Russell said, pocketing the leaves. "We finished the compound -- we'll hide it away in our vault."

He turned back toward the other set of brothers. Al still had a sly face, Ed was yelling something along the lines of "WHO TOLD YOU TO WATCH?" and was bright crimson.

"Ed!" he called, rushing over. "Hey, Ed!" He held up the leaves. "We have something!"

Ed saw what was in Russell's hand, and suddenly, yelling at Al didn't seem so important anymore. He snatched it away. "Where did this come from?"

"We found the lab, Brother," Al said. “That’s what we came here to tell you.

"Why didn't you?" Ed snatched his coat off the back of a chair and rushed for the door.

"We were going to, Brother, but . . ."

The Elrics headed for the front door. Russell removed the beaker of fluid, very carefully, and pressed on a slab set into the stone wall. A door popped open, and he put the beaker and holder inside, closing the door.

"We're going," he told Fletcher, heading for the door, the younger boy following.

"Brother .. ." Fletcher said, as they crossed the living room to the front door.

Russell turned and looked at his younger sibling, who was bright pink again. "Fletcher, I know you want to talk about what you saw, but . . ."

"No, it's not that." They were outside now, rushing in the direction Fletcher indicated. "It's just that you seem so, well . . . " He smiled up at Russell. "We'll talk later."

"I seem so *what*?" They were rounding the back of the farm, heading into the woods.

"Well, considering what's going on, you seem so . . . relaxed."

Now it was Russell's turn to become bright pink. He just said, quickly, "Let's just find this place, okay?"

But as he ran, one hand came up to lightly touch his mouth, remembering the feeling of warm lips pressed there.

* * *

The building was a nondescript, boxy structure that had once been white, but was now mostly a grayish color, with spots of yellowish brown here and there like bruises. A spider web of cracks ran through the paint, and the windows were cracked in places, broken out entirely in others.

The four alchemists huddled in a clump of bushes nearby, peering through one of the windows. At first, nothing seemed to be happening.

"I'm going in there," Ed said.

"No, Brother," Al replied, leaning a bit closer. "Give it a few more minutes, see if anyone comes . . ."

"You think I can't handle anyone who'll come along?" Ed said, starting to clap his hands together. At a warning look from Al, he stopped.

Fletcher leaned over and put his hand on Russell's arm. "Brother . . . I think I hear something . . ."

The four of them ducked further behind the bushes. Sure enough, two men, one older and burly, one young and painfully thin, were emerging from the woods and heading for the building, carrying some sort of wooden chest between them.

"Why do we have to drag this stuff back and forth?" said a raspy voice that Russell recognized immediately as Hagen, a member of Sloane's gang.

"You know why," said the other one -- Braun, Russell knew. "They've got dogs of the military looking for us all over the place. If we left anything behind . . ."

"You think they'd find this place?" Hagen said, putting his end of the case down long enough to open the door. "Hell, even *we* can't find this place most of the time!"

"Why do you think we're working *here*?" Braun said as they picked up the chest again and started to move it. "Nobody's used this place since Nash Tringham. . ."

Russell gave a start. He exchanged a look with his brother. Somehow, the fact that these extremists were using one of *their father's old labs* for their project just seemed like a personal insult.

The men disappeared inside -- and Ed snuck out from behind the bushes, motioning for the others to follow. They crept up to the window and peeked inside. Sure enough, Hagen and Braun were pulling the makings of a portable lab -- test tubes, burners, a mortar and pestle -- from the chest and setting them on a counter.

And over at the side of the room, they could spot several of the transmuted plants in pots.

"That's it," Ed whispered. "We've got them." He stood up to his full height and began to clap his hands together.

Hagen whirled and ran over to the window, shouting, "Who's there?"

"So you thought I wouldn't be able to find this place? Think again, pal!" Ed said, touching his hands to the windowsill. There was a flash of purple, and several pieces of glass flew away from the frame, becoming darts which flew at the older man, pinning him to the floor.

But as he was doing that, Braun grabbed what looked like a machine gun, pointed it at the window and fired. A red pellet flew toward Ed, passing just over his head, landing outside the window, behind the group . . .

It exploded, a blast which sent dirt and stone flying upward like a geyser and the four boys scattering to get out of the way. "Crap!" Ed shouted as he barrell-rolled across the ground -- and then shouted it again as he looked up and saw Braun standing outside, aiming the weapon.

He pulled the trigger, and this time it released a rapid-fire stream of little pellets, like bullets from a machine gun. Russell grabbed Fletcher in his arms to try to shield him, hitting the deck and rolling once more -- only to have one of the things explode just far enough away from him to do nothing but blow the two of them back, rolling over and over on the ground.

The pellets just kept coming, little explosions going off all over the place like a battlefield being shelled. Russell saw Ed dodging and rolling, same as he was, the rapid pace making it impossible for him to launch a counterattack . . .

Russell looked for something to hide behind. A tree, a rock, anything . . . He saw nothing but the building . . . And then another explosion went off, right next to him, and he was rolling away, feeling dirt and rocks and twigs scratch his face . . .

Twigs. He snatched one of them, scratched an array with his thumb . . . he had to be able to do *something* with it . . .

All that happened was it got a little longer and sprouted a couple of leaves.

He looked around frantically for the others .. . Ed had managed to transmute a clump of ground into a ball of stone that went rolling toward their opponent, but Braun blew it up before it could even get near him.

But that distracted their opponent long enough for Russell to get up and run toward where he saw his brother last. Sure enough, he and Al were huddling by the building.

"Fletcher!" he shouted, running toward him, the twig still in hand.

Fletcher's eyes locked on what his brother was holding. He nodded, as if he understood something instantly. He reached out to take it from Russell . . .

"Can you give me a boost, Brother?" he said, quickly scratching two more lines into Russell's array. And then he touched it . . .

The end of the twig suddenly shot out and away from him, the stick growing longer and thicker, turning into a branch. Russell reached out and put his hand over his brother's, concentrating on adding energy to what the younger boy already had circulating . . .

The branch grew longer still, and then the end of it suddenly pushed out, forming itself into a huge umbrella shape that shielded all four boys. A couple of the pellets hit it, but the explosions did nothing but chip the substance at the end -- which was as hard as redwood.

Ed whirled around, amazed. Fletcher was still concentrating, trying to hold the transmutation as long as possible . . .

He looked up. "Go get him, Ed!" Fletcher said. "Hurry!"

Ed clapped his hands together and slammed them to the ground, tunneling a hole allowing him to go under Fletcher's shield. He disappeared underground . . .

"Brother!" Al got up and started to follow him.

Russell wondered how longer Fletcher would be able to keep this up. The boy was already weakening, but he held onto his shield, gritting his teeth and visibly straining with the effort. Russell poured on as much of his own energy as he could, wondering how much good he was really doing.

Then, the Elrics came back up through the hole, first Al, then Ed, looking dirty and disappointed.

"They're gone," Ed said, brushing off his coat. "No sign where they got to."

"They left the lab stuff behind," Al said.

At those words, Fletcher dropped the transmutation and sagged to the ground. The wooden shield shrank into a twig again. Russell caught the younger boy in his arms. "Fletcher!"

"Al, you search this direction," Ed said. "I'll take over here. Russell . . . go take Fletcher home."

Fletcher sat up. "No, I'm okay, I want to help."

"You need to rest," Russell said. "I'll get you home, then *I'll* go with Edward."

"No. You're exhausted, too."

"I'm *fine*," Russell replied. "Look, you need me to help . . ."

"Dammit, I don't want either of you hurt!" Ed looked straight at Russell, and he could read the expression in his eyes -- he was dead serious.

Russell sighed, reluctantly. "All right, I'll take him home. But if you don't come back soon . . ."

"Hey, you think I can't take care of myself? Maybe *you* can't . . ."

Russell gave Ed a sly smile. "We'll see about that."

He walked back toward the farm with Fletcher, the younger boy leaning on him -- it was obvious that the effort to make and maintain the shield had taken a lot more out of him than he cared to admit.

* * *

Once they got home, Fletcher went straight to bed. Russell sat by his side as he slept, deep in thought.

What Fletcher had just done was extraordinary. Russell always knew he was talented, but to create a shield that big, that strong, from just a *twig* . . .

He remembered how his father had turned a wary eye on Fletcher's earliest experiments with alchemy, emulating his big brother, performing simple plant transmutations and then showing the results off with pride.

*Why didn't he want Fletcher to practice alchemy,* he thought, *when it's so obvious that he's a natural? You'd think Father would want to encourage his gifts as much as possible.*

Suddenly, the difference between Russell's own abilities and Fletcher's seemed wider than ever. And yet, he couldn't feel jealous. Not of Fletcher.

Besides, the few times he *had* compared his own skills to his brother’s, Fletcher had been quick to tell him, “But nobody can *research* like you, Brother. Nobody can analyze things, or find out obscure stuff . . .”

That still didn’t stop him from sometimes wishing he had more natural talent.

He reached over and lightly touched his brother's face, brushing his hair back. Fletcher was deep in sleep, he didn't stir.

Suddenly, Russell realized how tired he was himself. The all-nighter he and Ed had pulled was crashing in on him like lead weights.

He thought of the compound they had hidden away, and all the work that had gone into preparing it . . .

And then, he thought of the *end* of the night's work. Ed's lips on his, the warmth and wetness and sheer intoxication of their tongues stroking each other, the sensation of being held tight in two strong arms, one natural, one metal . . .

The kiss had come out of nowhere, but it had just felt so *right*.

*Why is that?* he thought. *Is it because I’ve come to appreciate him? Because I think he can *really* understand me?*

He knew, somewhere deep inside, it was both of these reasons -- and more that he just hadn’t sorted out yet.

Russell got up from Fletcher's bedside and made his way down the hall, slowly, thinking again of how eagerly the other boy had responded to him. *I must have done all right,* he thought, *even though I'm not exactly experienced in these things.*

Love was just not something he'd given much thought to. He'd devoted his entire life to the study and practice of his art, and later, to caring for his brother. Many alchemists were like that -- he knew more than a few, including his teacher, who had never married, had no long-term romantic partners.

His natural curiosity had led him to do some book research on human romantic and sexual habits, but it was something studied from afar, like a plant or a soil sample.

He entered his bedroom and started undressing for bed, pulling off his shirt and folding it over a chair, thinking that when he woke up, he was *finally* going to get that shower.

The cool air hit his skin as his pants and underwear joined the shirt, and he reached in the bureau drawer for his pajamas . . .

Suddenly, he felt *very aware* of his own nudity. A fantasy started to bubble up in the back of his head of being naked in front of someone else. A very *specific* someone else.

He imagined warm skin sliding over his, soft hair under his fingers, hot lips brushing his own, the coolness of automail against his heated flesh as body rubbed against body . . .

Russell suddenly froze in place. What the *hell* was he thinking? And *why* were his hands roaming over his own body? He couldn't think like that! He had a life's mission to fulfill, didn't he? He had to help the people of Xenotime, make up for what he did to them before . . .

He pulled on his pajamas as fast as he could, as if covering his body would seal away the thoughts he'd just been having. He jumped under the covers and allowed himself to fall into a deep, exhausted sleep.

* * *

He woke up slowly, still feeling a bit groggy. A glance around himself reassured him it was still night; a quick look at the pocket watch -- a standard one, not a State Alchemist one -- lying on his night table, by the light of the moon streaming through his window, assured him it was midnight.

He lay back on the pillow, trying to sleep again. Just then, a noise in the hall made him freeze, his eyes snapping open.

*Not again,* he thought. *If they're trying to get into the lab . . .*

Russell reached for one of the small potted plants on the windowsill, grabbing the chalk from his pocket and drawing a quick array on the pot. For him, it was the equivalent of carrying a loaded gun.

Plant in hand, he opened the door, steeling himself to activate the array if necessary, his eyes sweeping the hall for anything the least bit suspicious . . .

There *was* someone walking toward him. He leapt out of the door, his fingers touching the marks on the pot. The array flashed to life, the leaves elongated, shooting away from the plant, seeking their target . . .

Only to be sliced by a blade that came seemingly from nowhere.

"Hey!" said a familiar voice. "You always treat guests like that?"

Russell relaxed and dropped the plant. "Well, how was I to know it was you? I usually don't have people wandering around this place in the middle of the night."

"So you *attack* them when they do?" Ed retorted, clapping his hands together to make the blade disappear from his automail.

"How was I to know you weren't Sloane, or one of his people?" Russell said. "I don't think they'd exactly announce themselves."

"Yeah, well, I'm not about to go around the halls screaming my name when everyone else is trying to sleep."

"Why aren't *you* sleeping?" Russell opened the bedroom door again.

"I was just going to ask the same thing of you." Even though Russell couldn't see it, he could just *hear* the lopsided smile.

"Come in," Russell said, walking into his bedroom and putting the plant back where he found it -- and it was only after the door closed behind them that he realized he'd invited *Edward Elric* into his *room*. He remembered the kiss, the fantasies he'd been having earlier . . .

"So, you couldn't sleep," he said, quickly, perching on the very edge of the bed.

"Nope," Ed said, sitting in the desk chair. "And I didn't want to wake up Al. Something about those plants bugs me . . ."

"How so?" Russell said, leaning a bit toward him -- and feeling a bit irritated that Edward may have noticed something about a *plant* that had eluded him. Plants were *Russell's* specialty, after all.

"They're transmuted in a way I've never seen before," Ed said. "Most plant transmutations involve manipulating the base elements that make up the plant . . ."

"I'm well aware of how plant alchemy is done," Russell said, sharply. "I've been doing it all my life."

"But this . . . It's like they've found a way to change the very structure of the plants' cells from the most basic level.”

Russell nodded. “Transforming specific patterns of chemicals that affect the plants. Subtly altering them to produce mutations.”

“And if they’re doing that,” the smaller boy replied, crossing his arms over his chest and putting one hand to his chin thoughtfully, “I think they know a hell of a lot more about alchemy than we thought at first."

"Well, the one guy said he *was* a State Alchemist," Russell said.

"Probably one of . . . *those*." Even in the dim light, Russell could tell that Ed had that faraway look on his face again, as if he were looking into his own past . . .

Russell could also tell that Ed was wearing a tank top which left his entire automail arm on display . . . not to mention a fair amount of well-muscled flesh-and-blood arm and shoulder. He found himself quickly looking away.

"What do you mean, *those*?" he said. "Edward, were there people in the military under the old Fuhrer who . . ."

"Never mind," Ed said, quickly.

Russell frowned. This always happened whenever Ed got close to talking about his past. He'd change the subject or avoid it. And suddenly, he was starting to find this more than a bit annoying.

*Why doesn't he trust me?* he thought. *I'm willing to be his friend if he'll only *let* me.*

"At least we have something to hold over those bastards' heads," Ed said. "Won't do them any good to have a megaweapon, we had it first."

"You know," Russell said, slowly, "maybe we should make a public display out of the fact that we have it."

Ed frowned at him. "What are you talking about?"

"I mean, we use it as bait to draw them out!" Russell said. "I pretend to be on their side, ask to talk to them, show them a bit of the megaweapon, and when they show themselves . . ."

Ed leapt to his feet. "What the hell kind of a stupid idea is that?" he shouted. "You're just gonna get killed!"

"You think I'm not aware that there's risks?" Russell retorted.

"I know the risks!" Ed shouted. "You're putting yourself *and* Fletcher in the line of danger! And dammit, I do NOT want to see ANYTHING happen to you!"

Ed broke off suddenly, turning away . . .

*Almost,* Russell thought, *as if he'd blurted out something he didn't want heard.*

"What was that?" Russell said, turning toward him.

"Nothing," Ed grumbled. "I just think it's a bad idea, that's all."

There was a long, uncomfortable pause, during which both boys seemed uncertain what to say, what to do. Russell pushed the lock of hair off his forehead, only to have it flop back over his eye again almost instantly. Ed remained rooted to the spot, facing the window as if transfixed by the moon outside.

Finally, Russell said, "What happened when you were a State Alchemist before, Edward, with the other people in the military?"

Ed whirled around. "It's not important," he said, sharply.

"Yes, it *is* important!" Russell leapt to his feet. "Why won't you *talk* to me, Ed? Why won't you tell me anything that happened to you?"

"Why the hell should I?" Ed retorted. "Maybe it's none of your business!"

"Maybe you *want* someone to talk to about it, but you're afraid to trust me!" Russell retorted. "I see that look you get in your eyes sometimes. You look . . . haunted. Like whatever it is, it's eating you up inside."

"Yeah, well, that's *my* problem, isn't it? Not yours." Ed stalked toward the door, but Russell jumped in front of it, blocking his path.

"You were just saying you didn't want me to get hurt," Russell said. "Very forcefully."

"Out of my way," Ed said, trying to get around him -- but Russell blocked his path again.

"You *do* care for me," Russell said. "I can be your friend . . ."

"I SAID get out of my way!" Ed shouted. He swung at Russell with the automail arm -- only to have the younger boy put up a hand and catch it.

Russell silently thanked all that was holy that his teacher had instructed him in martial arts.

They just stood there like that for a moment, Russell gripping the metal hand that was one of the great mysteries about Ed, Ed just glaring, his teeth clamped together.

Then, Ed turned around, his head down, and mumbled, "There's no way *you* could understand."

"Try me," Russell said. "I may not have gone through the same things you did, Ed, but that doesn't mean I can't sympathize -- "

"I don't WANT sympathy!" Ed nearly shouted, whirling around again.

"Empathize, then," Russell said, sitting back down on the bed. "I'll listen to whatever it is you have to say, and I promise, I won't pass judgment, no matter what it is." He nearly said out loud he already suspected him of having attempted human transmutation, but thought better of it.

Ed stood silently, glaring at Russell, his arms crossed over his chest, as if considering. Then, he said, "Fine. I'll tell you how I got *this*" -- he held up his automail hand -- "and then we'll see if you still don't want to pass judgment."

Russell moved over on the bed. Ed sat next to him, seeming deep in thought for a moment, as if he were wondering where to begin.

Then, he said, "My father left us when I was small. Al was still just a baby, really. The bastard just walked out on us without a word."

Russell nodded, but didn't say a word. This he knew already -- and he knew all too well the pain of being left behind by a parent.

"Our mother was our whole world. We started learning alchemy from his old books, and she encouraged us -- mainly because what we were doing reminded her of *him*. And then, when I was 11, and Al was 10 . . ." He paused, looking up at the ceiling. "She was gone. She had been sick, we didn't know it. And at her funeral, I made a decision . . ."

Russell took a deep breath. He knew what was coming.

" . . . that we were going to use alchemy to bring her back."

His suspicions were confirmed. He saw Ed turn toward him, eyes burning, daring him to react with disgust, shock, hatred . . .

But Russell kept his expression as calm as he could and just said, "Go on."

He saw the other boy's whole body visibly relax. *I wonder how many people he's told this story to,* Russell thought. *I'll bet you could count them on the fingers of one hand -- and still have fingers left over.*

Ed continued to tell Russell how he and his brother had gone off to relearn alchemy from the ground floor up with Izumi Curtis, and then, on their return, they gathered the ingredients that made up the body of an adult human . . .

Russell braced himself. He knew what he was about to hear wasn't going to be pleasant -- but when Ed described how he watched helplessly while Al's body literally dissolved before his eyes, it still shook him to the very core.

"But . . . but Al is still here . . ."

"I bound his soul," Ed said. "There was a suit of armor in the room, and I used my own blood . . ."

"Your arm had been taken for the human transmutation?" Russell said.

Ed shook his head. "No. It was my leg."

"Your leg, also?"

Ed stuck out his left leg, as if inviting Russell to touch it. He put his hand on it, just below the knee . . .

Sure enough, what was beneath the fabric felt decidedly *not* like human flesh.

"Edward," Russell said, feeling tears pricking the corner of his eyes -- he never cried, dammit! He hadn't cried since the day their mother died, even with all the problems he and Fletcher had faced since then . . .

"I put a blood seal in the armor, and it cost me my arm to do it," Ed said, his voice steady -- too steady. "And I decided then and there that I was going to find a way to bring Al's body back."

"When we met you and Al," Russell said, quietly, "Fletcher and I had wondered why he always wore the armor. We thought it was odd that the brother who *wasn't* a State Alchemist would need to protect himself. If we had known it was empty . . ."

"I *told* you I didn't want you to feel sorry for us," Ed said, gruffly, moving away from Russell a bit.

"I don't," Russell said. "I admire you, for even having the courage to go on after that."

"I had no choice," Ed replied. "Once we found out about the Philosopher's Stone, I knew I had to find it . . . it was the only way to undo what I'd done."

"And you became a State Alchemist to do that?"

"I knew State Alchemists had access to information ordinary citizens didn't." He turned toward Russell, and a bit of the old lopsided grin was back. "But *you* knew that very well, didn't you?"

"Hey, you gave me a lot of material to work with when I was impersonating you," Russell said. "Except I wasn't able to make myself look as *short* as . . ."

Ed leapt off the bed. "HEY! Who are you calling small enough to hide in an anthill?"

But it wasn't as *violent* as his reactions to being called short normally were. Russell just laughed, rather than taking the teasing further. He opened his arms to Ed, and Ed sat back down on the bed next to him, wrapping his arms around the taller boy's shoulders and resting his head on his chest. Russell pulled Ed closer to him, settling his cheek against his hair.

It was a warm, pleasant feeling -- and, like the kiss, just plain *right.* It actually surprised him -- he wasn’t used to reaching out to someone, connecting with them physically, without alchemy being directly involved.

"You don't have to tell me any more tonight," Russell said. "We can talk some more another time."

Ed just responded with a contented "Mmmm." Russell figured that unburdening his tale had been emotionally exhausting.

"I'll tell you this, though," Russell said. "If I had known what that bastard Mugear did to my father earlier . . . I might have done the same thing you did."

"No, you wouldn't have," Ed said, not raising his head. "You have too much sense."

*I impersonated military personnel in a police state -- how is that *sense*?* Russell thought.

“Sense?” he said, aloud. “Nah. I’m just book-smart.”

Ed looked up. “You *are* one hell of a researcher, you know.”

That took Russell aback. Ed had been critical of his skills before. “I am?” he said, in surprise.

“Never saw anybody go through data like you can,” Ed said, snuggling against Russell a little more. “Couldn’t have done the megaweapon without you.”

Russell felt a bit of pride swelling inside him. He’d heard plenty about his skills before from his father, and his teacher, and Fletcher . . . but somehow, this meant more, as if he’d truly *earned* Ed’s respect.

But instead of replying, he remained quiet, nuzzling Ed's hair a bit more . . . it was soft, and thick, and just made him wonder what it would feel like if he pulled out the boy's ponytail holder and let all that gold spill down around his shoulders.

He was suddenly *very* aware of the smaller boy's warmth, of their chests pressed together, of his scent, even of the coolness of the automail fingers spread out over his back. And this felt *right*, also. In a strange way, it was as if Ed were *meant* to be touching him.

But then again, there was no guarantee at all that Ed was feeling the same way.

*Maybe I should pull away,* Russell thought, *before I do something I might regret later.*

But he had no desire to do so. Not at all. And when he felt Ed raise his head a bit, he knew exactly what his intentions were. They were thinking alike.

Slowly, the boys turned their faces toward each other, and it was Edward who closed in for the kiss, brushing his lips against Russell's softly, gently. Russell kissed back passionately, deepening it almost instantly, his mouth hungrily seeking the other again and again. When he opened his lips, flicking his tongue lightly against Ed's, he felt a shudder from the older boy, and a deep, tingling thrill ran through Russell's entire body.

Pulling Ed closer, he plundered the hot, wet velvet of his mouth, running his tongue along the inside of his lips, then plunging in again, stroking the other tongue. His fingers reached up and grabbed at the tie holding the ponytail up, and Ed raised his flesh-and-blood hand to help him.

The hair spilled down, and the boys broke apart, both of them breathing heavily, gazing into each other's eyes. Russell began to lay small kisses along Ed's jawline as he indulged in what he'd been thinking of before, his hands tangling in the thick golden strands, feeling like they'd get lost in the softness.

"Look at you," Russell said in a husky voice. "Just look at you. You're beautiful."

Ed looked away, flushing a bit. Russell was seized with a momentary panic -- did he do something wrong? Say something wrong? He didn’t lose control very often, but when he did, he felt like a deer facing down a hunter’s bow.

“I . . . could stop, if you want me to,” he said, uneasily.

Ed’s head snapped back around. “Who said I wanted to stop?” he said, quickly. “Sounds like *you’re* the one who wants to!”

“No,” Russell replied, reaching for him again. “I want to.”

“Now you’re saying that because you feel sorry for me!” Ed said, harshly, pulling away a bit.

Russell felt his heart sink to his stomach. Was that a reference to his “beautiful” comment before?

“Look, I *meant* what I said before, okay?” he said, the words coming out a bit harsher than he’d intended.

“Why are you *yelling*?” Ed snapped.

“I’m *not* yelling!” Russell yelled.

“You’re going to wake up our brothers,” Ed said, pulling away. “You wanna have them come in here and see us like this?”

Russell nearly smacked his forehead in exasperation. “Look, if I kiss you, will you shut up?”

“Maybe,” Ed replied in a cool tone.

Russell dove in for another kiss, and when their lips met, sure enough, Ed was instantly silenced. In fact, this kiss deepened quicker than the other one. Russell wasn't quite sure whose mouth opened first, or whose tongue probed for whose. But suddenly, he and Ed were exploring each other's mouths thoroughly, everything melting into a wet heat as his hands moved over the boy's chest, one hand encountering the cold hardness where the automail was set into the flesh, the other feeling the firm muscles of an athlete under heated skin.

All he wanted was to feel more. There were no questions as to what was happening to him now, no wondering why he was with *this* person, there was only the softness of Ed's unbound hair as he broke the kiss to rub his cheek against it, the saltiness of his skin as he ran his tongue along his neck, the sound of his ragged breathing as he nibbled at his throat . . .

“OW!” Ed shouted. “What are you, a damn vampire?”

Russell pulled away. “Hey! You were *liking* it!”

“I was liking it until you nearly took a chunk out of my throat!” Ed rubbed his neck at the sore spot.

“You think *you* know how to do this better?” Russell said. “How much experience have *you* had?”

“I *may* have had plenty!” Ed said, tossing his hair back.

Russell wasn’t buying his bravado for a minute. “Well, then let’s see *you* do something.”

“All right, I will.” Ed yanked his shirt off and tossed it on the floor, and Russell barely had time to catch his breath at the sight before the boy was *all over him,* unbuttoning his pajama top as he kissed along Russell’s neck, flicking his tongue here and there, making the younger boy let out a groan.

*Maybe he *does* have experience,* Russell thought. And that unnerved him a bit. He didn’t like the idea of being one-upped by Ed, even in the bedroom. He decided to take matters into his own hands.

When Ed brought their lips together for another kiss, Russell tumbled them both backwards -- and instead of tipping back gracefully, they both dropped like a stone, Ed landing on his back, Russell ending up crosswise across his chest with a *thud*.

Ed raised his head. “What the hell was *that* about?”

“Look, don’t ask questions like that until you know where I’m going with this!” Russell said, thinking this conversation sounded not unlike many they’d had in the lab.

“You plowed into me like a bull!” Ed snapped -- and Russell couldn’t help but notice how his golden hair was spread around him like a halo. Even with his golden eyes burning with anger, he still somehow managed to look . . .

*Irresistible,* Russell thought as he bent his head down for another kiss (the surefire way to keep him quiet!) Ed kissed him back, eagerly (to Russell’s relief), and their tongues came together again, Russell reaching down tentatively and beginning to stroke the other boy’s chest.

*I’ll show him where I was going with this,* he thought.

He began to kiss his way down Ed’s neck -- careful not to nip this time -- and down to his chest, moving upward to nuzzle his lips against the juncture of steel and flesh, feeling the combination of cold and hot, hard and soft . . . and all oddly fascinating. He began to lay a string of kisses along it, then along the scar leading away from the metal like a trail.

Almost by accident, his lips brushed a nipple, and the other boy gasped a bit and arched upward. This took Russell by surprise -- he hadn't thought much about whether that would feel good, whether men were sensitive there. . .

But now that he had this bit of information, he was going to run with it.

He nuzzled the little bud again, kissing it, and was rewarded with a deep, husky moan which just made a delicious thrill run through his whole body. Deciding to take it a step further, he let his tongue steal out, starting to lick at it, and suddenly there was a steel hand gripping his head, holding it in place as the smaller boy bucked upward, his whole body writhing.

The more Ed reacted, the more he moaned and wriggled, the harder Russell's heart beat. Every nerve in his body seemed to stand at attention as his lips closed around the nipple, fully sucking now. He had no idea if this was what he was *supposed* to be doing, but Ed certainly didn’t seem to mind.

Besides, *he* was enjoying this. The hardness of the nub felt so good against his lips, and then his tongue as he lapped at it, flicking around the pink surrounding before caressing the bud itself, swirling in circles. When he sucked again, Ed nearly arched off the bed.

His own hips were moving, rubbing the part of him that ached the most against his lover's body, wanting any kind of friction, wanting to make the heat inside him burn even more.

And then, he felt the cold hardness of the automail leg against the part where he was aching the most, and he stopped, suddenly. It was not unpleasant, just a bit odd . . .

Ed suddenly sat up. "Hey! It was just getting good!"

Russell sat up as well. “*Getting* good? It sounded like you were loving it before!”

“Well, if I was loving it so much, why did you *stop*?”

“Look, you’ve just been *lying* there!” Russell said, folding his arms over his bare chest. “Maybe I thought it was time for us to do something different.”

Ed suddenly reached over, putting both hands on Russell’s chest, and he didn’t have time to register the difference between cold steel and warm flesh before he was shoved backward. He hit the mattress with a thud.

“You think I can just *lie* there?” Ed said. “I don’t think so!”

Before he knew it, the older boy was ducking his head down, and Russell felt something hot and wet on his nipple, sucking on him, then brushing back and forth, like he was doing to Ed.

No wonder Ed had been moaning so much. This felt . . . unbelievable. Hot tingles were running from the place where Ed was pleasuring him to his manhood and then radiating all over his body.

“Don’t stop,” he found himself saying before he was even aware of it.

Ed moved over to the other nipple and began to suck that one as well, harder, and Russell nearly arched off the bed. Whether the boy really had done something before or he was just imitating what Russell had just done, it didn’t matter, because it felt *good*, very, very good.

He felt his lover’s fingers on his pajama bottoms, starting to tug at them, and a shiver ran through his body, knowing just what that meant. He raised his hips, wriggling them a bit, encouraging Ed to get his pants down.

Ed paused a moment, as if unsure of what to do, then he pulled away from Russell, yanking the pants down and off in one swift motion.

When the boy’s fingers closed around his erection and he began to stroke, Russell lifted his hips again, one hand grasping the pillow. Ed’s lips were on his, and Russell grew bolder with this kiss than any other, pulling his tongue out of Ed’s mouth and running it along his lower lip, then pushing it back in.

Ed’s hand was moving faster now, stroking him rapidly, and Russell felt a slow heat building in his belly as he started to writhe, moaning deep in his throat as he felt a fine sheen of sweat break out on his skin. It was torture, hanging here in the void between a normal state of mind and complete ecstasy . . .

But it was delicious torture.

When their lips separated, Russell gasped, “Not fair . . .”

Ed eased away from him. “What? You don’t like this?”

“You’re still wearing your pants,” Russell pointed out.

Ed hopped off the bed just long enough to rid himself of the garments, then hopped back on. “Happy now?”

Russell reached out and grasped Ed’s manhood the way Ed had done with him. “Now I am,” he said.

Ed groaned as Russell started to stroke him. “You’re just doing this because I did it to you,” he said in a husky tone.

“Maybe,” Russell said, his hand moving faster. He really *was* enjoying this, the way Ed’s eyes fluttered shut with ecstasy, the long, low sounds coming from him, the way his nipples were hard, standing out like little pebbles against his skin . . . Russell bent over to kiss one of them as he continued to caress the shaft, and Ed let out a little cry, just sending another delicious thrill through Russell’s body.

They shifted a bit, Russell momentarily letting go of Ed’s manhood, and suddenly, he found himself being rolled on his back again. Ed lay full-length on top of Russell, pressing their erections together, and both boys let out a groan. Russell grabbed Ed's bottom, squeezing it, as the older boy began to slowly move his hips in a circle, grinding them together, rubbing and brushing and making one slow, honeyed wave of feeling after another pour through Russell's body.

He moved against Ed, rotating his own hips, and the two let out long, low moans, their eyes squeezed shut, their breath coming in gasps and pants. Over and over their cocks came together, rubbing against each other, and Russell wondered if he was going to come like this . . . oh, he could, it felt so good, he didn't know anything could make him feel this way . . .

Ed was licking at his neck now as their hips did a slow bump-and-grind, and Russell thought he was going to burn up, might very well explode if they didn’t find fulfillment soon. He flipped them both over so that he was on top, leaning over and kissing Ed’s lips hard, then starting to rub against the other boy, hard and fast, and he felt a tightening in his own belly, and heard Ed’s breath coming in short, rapid pants, and he knew it wouldn’t be long now. . . .

Edward suddenly stiffened, then let out a deep, throaty groan before he called Russell’s name out and shuddered. Russell felt something wet against his own manhood as he continued to rub, he was almost there, almost there . . .

And then the tension inside him uncoiled like a whip, and he was flooded with one wave after another of white heat, letting out a loud groan as his body shivered again and again.

Finally, he collapsed on top of Ed, and the boys kissed, softly.

"Damn, that was good," Russell murmured in a weak voice. He was feeling a bit dizzy now, and warm, and completely relaxed.

"*Real* good," Ed said, rolling them over again and snuggling against the other boy with his head on his chest. Russell encircled him with his arms, as if he never wanted to let him go.

*I feel *happy* right now,* Russell thought. *Content . . . I never thought I'd feel this way again after father disappeared.*

But this was something completely different from what he'd felt before. It was sweeter, and heavier, and more intense . . .

And to his astonishment, he realized this might be love.

*No, it's just because we shared an intimate moment, when he confessed to me, and then we made love,* he thought. . . although he wasn't completely sure he believed himself.

"Ed?" he said, quietly.

"Mmmm?" The sleepy tone of his voice told him his lover was barely awake.

“We can’t let them know what we just did.”

Ed raised his head. “Who’s *them*?” he said, blinking sleepily. “Our brothers?”

“I don’t know how Fletcher would react,” Russell said, quietly. “He . . . might be afraid that he would lose me.”

There was a prolonged silence from the other boy. Russell figured Ed was thinking the same thing about Al.

*And given that they *did* lose each other at one point . . .* he thought.

“I think they both know they wouldn’t lose us,” Ed said.

“Are you going to tell Al?” Russell said.

Another silence, then Ed said, “I may not have to.”

Russell thought again of seeing Ed and Al seemingly communicating volumes with their eyes. He had no doubt Al *could* tell if there’d been a change in his brother’s life.

He caressed Ed’s hair and said, "How many other people have you told . . . what you told me before?"

"My teacher," he said, not moving his head. "Winry, my best friend, and her grandmother . . ." He yawned. "Mustang, but that's just ‘cause he was there after it happened."

*He told only the people he was very closest to,* he thought. *That means he *trusts* me. Maybe what happened between us just now *was* more than just casual sex . . .*

"The other things that happened after that . . ."

"Tell you later," Ed yawned.

Russell looked down at him. Ed had fallen fast asleep, very quickly. Russell hugged him closer, rested his cheek on his hair and drifted off to sleep as well.

* * *

A yell in the hall awakened Russell. He sprang from his bed, instantly grabbing for pants and yanking them on. He was still pulling up his zipper as he rushed into the hall . . .

He saw Alphonse Elric standing in front of Fletcher's bedroom door, white-faced and trembling.

"He's gone, Russell," Al said. "I heard something hit the wall, and I came out here, and saw the door open, and . . ."

"FLETCHER!" Russell charged past the younger Elric brother, rushing into the room . . . where he saw overturned plants, an incomplete array drawn on one pot, a chair on its side, a wide-open window . . .

"They got him," he said, in a barely audible voice. "The bastards got him!" *They came in here when I was with Ed*, he thought. *I was so caught up in my own pleasure that I failed to protect my brother.*

"Russell . . ." He heard Ed's voice behind him, and he whirled around to see both Elric brothers. Edward was still yanking his shirt down. Al still looked frantic.

"We have to go after them," Russell said. "This is all my fault, if I hadn't been distracted . . ."

"There's no way you could have known," Al said, reaching up to put a hand on Russell's shoulder -- still bare. He hadn't bothered to put on a shirt.

"I should have been more alert," Russell said. "I should have *known* they'd. . ."

"Russell, will you COOL IT?" Ed shouted. "You're not doing Fletcher any good going off on a guilt trip!"

"Brother's right," Al said. "Go get dressed and we'll find them."

Russell rushed back to his bedroom, grabbing for the shirt he'd discarded just before having his fantasy about Edward, his fingers feeling numb as he buttoned it up, snapped his suspenders in place and put on his shoes.

Dimly, across the hall, he could hear Al saying, "They know, Brother. They know we have the megaweapon, and they're holding Fletcher hostage for it."

*Why Fletcher?* Russell thought. *They know he's not defenseless, they saw what he's capable of . . .*

He thought again of Fletcher's display of his abilities in front of the goons, and the transmuted plants, and the extremist's failed attempt to recruit himself, and the full truth smacked him in the face with the unpleasant shock of a bucket of icy water.

Rushing back into the other room, he said, "We have to go, *now*. We can't wait a second longer." And he ran for the stairs, not even looking to see if the other two were following him.

*Forgive me, Fletcher*, he thought. *You're in even more danger than I thought you were.*

* * *
"Dammit, no sign of them at all!" Ed said, emerging from the hideout where they'd found the gang earlier that day.

"Not in the woods, either," Russell said. "Not even a single trace."

"Come on, let's catch up with Al," Ed said. "If we're lucky, he found something in town." They rushed up the pathway back into Xenotime, eyes darting this way and that, looking for any clue whatsoever that the extremists had been that way.

When they saw Ed's brother approach them, his downcast face told the story. "Nothing?" Ed said.

"I looked in that tavern," Al said, "and all the buildings around it, and . . . "

A sudden idea popped into Russell's head. He didn't want to think of it, but if it panned out . . .

"Al," he said, "did you look in a store called Baddely's?"

"No," Al said. "I didn't even see . . ."

Russell pushed past both Elrics and started running into town. *Nobody else knew more about Fletcher and I than Baddely,* he thought. *I was in there all the time, talking to him . . . casually telling him stories about Fletcher, mentioning his abilities . . .*

And if he was right, it was no coincidence that the extremists had contacted him after he'd been in there.

* * *

The store was dark and quiet. It was also locked tightly.

"Not a problem," Edward said, clapping his hands together. "Locks don't hold me." He pressed his hands to the door, there was a flash of purple, and a large, round portal appeared in the middle of it. The three boys scrambled in, and Ed resealed it behind them.

"All this stuff crammed into the store," Russell said. "All this junk . . . it's got to be hiding something."

"Ever see seams in the floor or unusual cracks in the wall?" Ed said.

"No," Russell said. "But I wasn't looking for any, either." His eyes scanned the familiar confines of the establishment, looking for something out-of-place that he might have missed.

And then, his vision fell on something directly across the room from him. "There," he said, pointing to a huge armoire. It was barely noticeable, hidden as it was among a couple of stoves, an end table and a large, freestanding, engraved globe. He was sure that was the idea.

Ed walked over to it, clapped his hands and created another hole in another door. The boys peered through . . . to see a flight of stairs leading downward. Russell started to rush in, but Ed held him back. "Careful," he hissed. "You don't want to give us away."

Cautiously, the three made their way down the steps, feeling their way for each one -- they didn't want to risk putting on a light and alerting the extremists to their presence. That is, if they *were* there . . .

But Russell knew with a heavy feeling in his heart that there was no *if*. He'd found their lair, and they definitely had his brother.

As they neared the bottom, they heard voices. One of them, distinctly Sloane, was saying, "Hasn't that kid woken up yet?"

"You don't know how much stuff we had to give him!" said another -- Braun, Russell knew. "He was still fighting us after we shot him up!"

"I told you that he was dangerous," said a third voice that made Russell's heart sink to the pit of his stomach. "He and his brother are *not* to be trifled with. They're both better alchemists than their father ever was."

"Baddely," Russell mumbled aloud, his hand clenched into a fist. "Dammit, you bastard, you betrayed us."

They were starting to see a pool of light now. Ed put his hand out again to hold the other two back. "I'm gong down there first," he whispered.

"Ed, I want to . . ." Russell replied.

"You wanna get yourself killed?" Ed hissed. "In case you don't remember, you have to draw an array to work alchemy. I can do it faster."

Without another word, he went down the remaining steps. Russell put his hand in his pocket, gripping the piece of chalk there, prepared to draw it like a gunslinger's pistol. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Al pull a pair of gloves with alchemical symbols embroidered on them from his pocket and slide them on.

And then, both of them started at the sound of alchemical energy crackling and zapping, followed by Ed's voice: "So, you've got something that belongs to us, don't you? How about you think about giving it back?"

"What the *hell* is he doing?" Russell whispered.

"You think we'd cooperate with a dog of the military?" Baddely said.

"Seems to me you *like* the military," Ed replied. "At least, the way it *was*."

"Get out of here," said Sloane in a sneer. Russell heard another zap of alchemical energy, followed by a thud . . .

"That's it," he said, rushing down the stairs. "I'm going down there." He blinked as he ran into the light, finding himself in a large, bare, stone-lined room . . .

Bare except for the plants placed everywhere, that was. And all of them were in various stages of mutation. Sloane was kneeling by the base of one, activating an array, and the plant was shooting its branches out toward a small figure at the other end of the room.

Ed was slicing at the branches as they came toward him with the blade on his automail arm, but they were coming too fast, too hard, and Russell saw that he was going to be in trouble very soon.

He leapt at the tree limb, chalk in hand, and managed to sketch a fast array, activating it and causing the branches to snap off and fall limply to the floor.

Behind him, he heard Baddely say, "Bravo, Russell. I'd expect nothing less from you."

Russell whirled around to face the shopkeeper, eyes burning. "Where's Fletcher?" he said in a near-growl.

"Oh, don't worry, your brother is quite safe," Baddely said. "We don't want anything to happen to our most valuable asset."

"You were after us all along, weren't you?" Russell said. He whirled around to face Sloane. "You tried to recruit me first, and when I wouldn't go . . ."

"You were bait, kid," Sloane said. "The kid's the one we wanted."

"I had always hoped you'd bring your little brother with you when you came to fix things in my store," Baddely said. "I wanted to see his talents firsthand. But I heard enough about him from you to know the stories I'd heard were true."

"You want Fletcher because you need a plant alchemist, don't you?" Ed said.

"Not just any plant alchemist," said Baddely. "A plant alchemist of extraordinary ability. Which this boy is. You see, we found out that the plants grown in this area -- the ones that were exposed to red water -- can yield a highly explosive substance -- much more powerful than one derived just from the soil would be."

Russell and Ed looked at each other. They’d been right about plants being the source of the megaweapon.

“We were working on our *megaweapon*, so to speak, when we found a *second* substance within the plant that was much stronger than the first, and could produce something more powerful than the megaweapon. An *ultraweapon*, if you will.”

*Then everything we did on the megaweapon was for nothing,* Russell thought, *if they’d abandoned that idea and were working on something worse.*

"The problem is," the shopkeeper continued, "that it takes an *unusually* strong plant alchemist to remove it in the quantities we needed. We had tried some experiments of our own, but . . ." He shook his head.

"And you kidnapped Fletcher to help you?" Russell said, pulling out his chalk again.

"It wouldn't have been necessary if you'd cooperated with us," Sloane said. Russell noticed he was drawing a new array on the pot of the plant, and he tensed.

"Russell, if you agree to cooperate with us now," Baddely said, "we can guarantee that neither you nor Fletcher will be hurt . . ."

"You're gonna hurt *either* of them over my dead body!" Ed shouted, clapping his hands together. But before he could touch them to anything, Baddely activated his array, and branches shot out from the tree again, wrapping around both Ed and Russell, binding their arms to their sides.

"Now," Sloane said, "are you going to work with us, Mr. Tringham, or are we going to have to . . ."

There was another crackle of alchemical energy behind them, and a huge stone fist emerged from the floor -- looking, to Russell, ironically like the one Ed transmuted from his soil sample -- and punched Sloane in the back, sending him sprawling. Al rushed into the room, clapping his hands together again -- Russell understood now that the gloves allowed him to do circle-less alchemy like his brother.

"I'll find Fletcher!" he said as he dove for the floor and slid gracefully over it, touching his hands to the pot, undoing Sloane's alchemy. Russell and Ed burst from their bindings. "You take care of . . ."

But he was interrupted as something else shot out of nowhere and wrapped around all three boys. Vines, as thick and strong as ropes, tightened around Russell's body like a snake wrapping around its prey.

*But how?* he thought. *Sloane is still down and out . . .*

He looked across the room and saw Baddely with his hand on an array drawn on the wall next to the source of the vines.

"Baddely," he said, "you're . . . an . . ."

"Studied it a long time ago," he said. "Never was very good at it, but . . . knew enough to pick up a few tricks from Sloane."

"Then why did you use me in the store all the time when . . ."

"Don't you get it, Russell?" Baddely said. "I was testing you all along! I figured since we were using your brother, we might as well see if *you* were a natural talent as well. We have uses for you, both of you. But if you don't cooperate . . ."

He touched the array again, and the vines tightened. Russell felt the very air being squeezed out of him . . . but worse yet, when he looked to either side of him, he saw the Elrics choking, Ed gasping for air, Al's face turning bright red.

"Let them go," Russell said in a hoarse voice. "I'll cooperate."

"Are you nuts?" Ed rasped back as he turned to and fro, trying vainly to free himself. "You're just selling your soul, like you did with Mugear!"

"I'd rather sell my soul than have anything happen to Fletcher *or* you!"

"Don't worry about us!" Ed said, his words sounding more and more strained. *Is his vine tightening more than mine?* Russell thought.

Out of the corner of his eye, he could see Al had managed to wiggle a finger free of the constricting plant and was attempting to scratch an array on a leaf, although with the glove, it was difficult.

*I have to keep distracting Baddely,* he thought. He said, as loudly as he could, "Edward, I have to do anything I can to help my brother! And if it means cooperating with these people, it's what I'll do!"

"What good is . . ." Ed choked, gasping for breath. Russell saw the vines tighten even more, and he struggled, trying to get free.

And then, there was a crackle of energy, and Russell saw Al leap down from the vine, clapping his gloved hands together and touching one each to Ed and Russell's bonds. Russell felt the vines snap, and he barely had time to draw a deep breath into his lungs -- he had to counteract Baddely, and fast. He flung himself to the floor, sliding over to another plant, chalk at the ready. Behind him, he could hear more energy crackling -- the Elrics must be fighting with him, he thought.

He drew a quick array and turned around to check out the situation -- Ed had managed to transmute a stone prison cell around Baddely, and Al was forming a similar one around the still-unconscious Sloane.

"Are you guys okay?" Russell said, getting up off the floor.

"Yeah," Ed said, wiping his sleeve across his forehead, "but there's something bugging me about all this."

"You mean -- where are the other two?" said Al.

"We *heard* Braun," said Ed, "but we didn't see . . ."

And then, there was a *booming* sound as a huge tree branch literally burst through the wall and headed toward the Elric brothers. Russell dove down again and touched the array he'd just drawn, shooting the limbs of the plant across the room so that they slammed into the branch, holding it back. Russell concentrated hard, but he knew that holding back Braun's alchemy was going to be a daunting task.

"I've got it," he called out to the others. "Find Fletcher! Hurry!"

"You can't handle that alone!" Ed shouted.

"You think I can't?" Russell said -- but his voice was getting increasingly strained.

Ed clapped his hands and slammed them to the floor. A stone wall sprang up, crushing through both tree branches and going all the way to the ceiling. If Russell wasn't so frantic about finding his brother, he'd be miffed at being shown up.

"*We're* going to find Fletcher," Ed said.

Al peered around the wall. "Brother . . . I know where he is."

"What about Braun?" Ed said.

"I was able to trap him," Al replied, leading the others across the room to the hole made by Braun's tree branch -- Braun himself was now imprisoned in a stone cell next to it. "He got a bit distracted when you made that wall."

"That means we've only got one thing to worry about," Ed said as the three of them slipped into the hole. They peered around in the darkness, looking for any sign of where Fletcher might be.

Suddenly, there was a whistling sound, and a large vine whip flew through the air toward them, forcing all three to duck.

"You're not getting back here," a voice rasped through the darkness.

"The hell we're not!" Ed yelled back. He clapped his hands and prepared to slam them to the floor.

"I'm surrounded with explosives," Hagen said. "A megaweapon. If you use your alchemy, you'll blow me *and* the boy sky-high."

"You think I'm going to fall for that?" Ed shouted. "Sorry, you seem to have mistaken me for an idiot."

"Brother, what if he's telling the truth?" Al said, quietly.

"No way! If he were telling the truth, then . . ."

There was a small explosion a few feet away from them, blowing all three of them back. Russell found himself tumbling to the floor, rolling over and over.

*I need to get back into the other room,* he thought. *I need to get to one of the plants and bring it back in here.*

"You see, I *do* have explosives,* Hagen rasped. "If you want this boy to live, you Elrics will leave here, and . . ." The voice was suddenly choked off, as if the speaker was being strangled. Russell struggled to his feet, peering into the darkness . . .

He saw someone moving toward them, an indistinct shape, but definitely smaller and slimmer than Hagen.

"Fletcher!" Russell shouted, running toward him, arms widespread. When he reached his brother, he drew him into a tight hug, not wanting to let him go, afraid he would vanish if he did.

"He had a leaf on his shoe," Fletcher said, weakly. "I was able to use that . . ."

And then, he sagged against Russell as he passed out again.

"Fletcher!" Russell cried, shaking his brother a bit -- but he remained unconscious.

"Get him back outside," Ed said. "We'll take care of Hagen."

Russell didn't think twice. He carried his brother through the stone chamber and up the stairs, barely noticing the weight.

"I'll get you straight to a doctor," he told the unconscious boy. "You'll be all right, Fletcher. You have to be all right."

* * *

Russell sat by Fletcher's bedside, holding his hand. The boy was sleeping peacefully -- the doctor had said it would take awhile to fully get rid of the effects of the drugs they'd shot his younger brother up with.

He'd gotten most of the story during one of the boy's periods of wakefulness. Hagen and Braun had snuck into his room -- probably using alchemy to turn one of the surrounding trees into an elevator of sorts to lift them to the second floor -- and plunged the needle into his arm while he slept. He had woken up and struggled against the drug and them -- he'd nearly completed an array when it finally overwhelmed him.

"And the explosion Hagen set off woke me up," he said. "And I found the leaf and transmuted it into a vine and trapped him."

"You did well, Fletcher," Russell told him. "You may have saved all of us, as well as yourself."

It was just the two of them in the house at the moment. The Elrics were still at the store, awaiting the arrival of military personnel and making sure the extremists didn't try to escape -- Ed had called him briefly from the store phone.

He still couldn't believe Baddely had betrayed them like that. He was the last person Russell had thought would be an extremist. He always seemed so mild-mannered and clueless, and hadn't he complained about political extremists the day that Russell had first spotted Edward Elric through the store window?

*All an act,* he thought. *A ruse to get me to trust him -- and what he said about the extremists was probably testing me, seeing how I'd reply.*

He felt heavily relieved to know that it was over, that there would be no more race to develop a megaweapon, no more people breaking into the lab, no more threats to himself or Fletcher. He wondered if he should tell Belsio about all this when he came home -- he was due back in two days -- and thought better of it. There was no need to upset the man unless it was necessary.

There was the sound of a door opening downstairs. Russell tensed out of habit, but relaxed when he heard the voices of the Elric brothers in the hall.

"Can you believe the nerve of that bastard?" Ed was saying. "Trying to get us to come back *today*?"

"Well, the assignment *is* over," Al said. "They took all four of them into custody."

"I *told* him there was something else I needed to check on!" Ed said, his voice much closer now.

"Oh?" Al replied in a teasing tone of voice. "And what are you *checking on*, Brother?"

"Look, I just want to make sure they're both all right, okay?" Ed spluttered. Russell could almost hear the blush in his voice.

"I'm *sure* that's it," Al said, the teasing tone getting even stronger.

"Al!" Ed said.

"Don't worry, Brother. I can stay with Fletcher tonight, and you . . ."

Ed just about barged into the bedroom. "How is he?"

"Sleeping it off," Russell said. "He'll be all right. Is everything taken care of?"

"All four of ‘em were dragged off," Ed said, pulling up a chair and sitting beside Russell. "And Mustang is insisting I go back tomorrow."

"My brother said he has some things he wanted to check on here first," Al said, in a very normal tone of voice. Ed shot him a sharp look.

"I see," Russell said, looking down at his brother again.

"Hey, I wasn't going to run out on you right away," Ed said. And he let his hand subtly brush the one that wasn't holding Fletcher's.

Russell turned and smiled at him a bit. Suddenly, it felt very warm and nice and beautiful, being here between Ed and Fletcher, and with Al in the room as well.

But there was also the sad, heavy feeling that Ed was going to be leaving, and soon.

* * *

Russell curled into the bed next to his brother after the Elrics went to catch a few hours' sleep. He didn't realize until he was under the covers how very exhausted he was, and his eyes shut right away.

It was Fletcher who woke him up, accidentally whacking him in the face while getting up to use the bathroom. That was fairly typical of when they'd shared a bed in the past -- it was with good reason that they had separate rooms.

*I wonder if that would happen all the time if I were to share a bed with Edward on a regular basis," Russell thought, and then immediately caught himself. What the heck was he thinking? They'd only been together near-constantly for a few days, and already he was thinking of *that* . . .

But he had to admit it was a very pleasant thought.

"I feel a lot better," Fletcher said when he returned. "I'm going to go out and check the groves."

"No, you stay where you are," Russell said. "I'll check the groves. And then I'll bring you some soup when I get back."

"And then . . . what are you going to do, Brother?"

Russell hopped out of the bed. "Excuse me?"

"They're going to be leaving tomorrow," Fletcher said, drawing his knees up and wrapping his arms around them. "You're going to want to spend time with Ed before they go."

Russell crossed his arms over his chest and frowned. "Fletcher Tringham, what is *that* supposed to mean?"

"It means that I have eyes, Brother," Fletcher said, simply.

Russell looked down, at a loss for words. Just *how much* had his younger brother figured out?

"I want you to be happy, Brother," Fletcher said. "You've been working so hard, spending every moment of your life in the lab . . . you haven't done anything *for yourself*. If you had someone . . . that would be a very good thing for you."

"I can't abandon you," Russell said. "Or turn my back on what I'm trying to do for this town."

"Brother, you could never abandon me," Fletcher said, leaning over and grasping Russell's hand. "I *want* you to have a relationship. And maybe Ed could *help* you find the solution you're looking for."

Russell had the feeling that Fletcher wasn't just talking about alchemy with that last line.

"All right," Russell said. "I'll go talk to Ed. But *only* once I've done my rounds, and I make *sure* you're okay."

"Al will come stay with me," Fletcher said. "We might even go out to the barn to spend the night."

Russell turned crimson. There was no longer any question of just *how much* Fletcher had figured out. His younger brother knew him all too well. In a desperate attempt to change the subject, and fast, he said, "Has Al remembered anything else about you yet?"

"No," Fletcher said, quietly. "But he will, someday. I'll help him remember."

Russell nodded. He was sure if anyone would be able to help Al, it would be his brother. Of course, he still didn't know the full story behind Al's memory loss, and he was sure it was connected *somehow* to the human transmutation attempt . . .

But he'd know later, when Ed was willing to talk.

"All right," Russell said. "I'll be back in a few minutes."

Fletcher threw his arms around his waist and hugged him tightly. "I'll be here, Brother," he said.

Russell headed out to the lemon groves, noticing that it was already well into the afternoon. This incident had played havoc with their sleep cycles. He imagined they'd be staying awake at night and staggering around bleary-eyed in the daytime for awhile.

*I'll make my rounds,* he thought, *and I'll check on Fletcher, and then . . .*

He knew all too well what was going to happen after that. And his heart was already speeding up in anticipation.

* * *

When he came back inside, the house was empty.

Fletcher had left a note on the table. Al had woken up and made soup for the two of them, there was some left in the pot on the stove for himself and Edward, Al and Fletcher were heading out to the barn now.

*I have to go out and check on him,* he thought. *He was supposed to stay here so I could make sure he was all right.*

A voice behind him said, "So, they ran out on both of us, didn't they?"

Russell turned around. Ed was leaning against the doorway, wearing just the sleeveless shirt and his leather pants again. He looked even more appealing than he did before, and suddenly, Russell was very, very nervous.

"They're just out at the barn," he said. "Fletcher likes to sleep out there sometimes, when the weather's nice. Um, do you want some soup? Al left some, and we haven't eaten in . . ."

Ed was already across the room, opening cabinets, looking for bowls. He found two, dished out one bowl of soup and handed it to Russell. The younger boy took it, eager for the distraction -- although he could not take his eyes off Edward for anything. He watched the boy scoop up his own soup and then seat himself at the table, picking up his spoon and eating rapidly.

Very rapidly. In fact, Russell had never seen anyone put away food so fast. It was a bit annoying, really -- especially when Ed finished his entire bowl before Russell had gotten a third through his, and went back for more.

"How is Fletcher doing?" Ed finally said after devouring half the second helping.

"A lot better," said Russell, stirring his own soup a bit. "I think the drug has worn off. He was talking to me before I went out to the groves, and . . ." He suddenly turned crimson, remembering just *what* he and Fletcher had been talking about.

"And?" Ed said, looking up from his bowl.

"Nothing," Russell said. "Just that he's glad. Um, that this is all over, I mean."

"Yeah," Ed said. "Al talked to me, too . . ."

"He did?" Russell said, rapidly, looking up. He wondered if the two conversations were similar.

"Same thing," Ed said, equally rapidly. "He's glad the two of you are safe now."

"Fletcher may not be," Russell said. "I know now why my father didn't want him practicing alchemy. He knew that Fletcher was *so* talented that the wrong people might try to get him on their side. And if it happened once . . ."

"It's not going to happen again," Ed said, sharply. "I won't allow it. *We* won't allow it."

Russell wondered if the *we* meant Ed and Al -- or Ed and himself. *Now look at what I'm doing,* he thought. *I'm imagining that Edward thinks of us as a full-fledged couple. One night spent together, and I’m thinking in terms of till-death-do-us-part.*

He busied himself with his soup, and by the time he finished his bowl, Ed was done with his second. Ed leaned back in his chair. "So, now . . ."

"Now . . ." Russell looked down into his empty bowl, as if searching for the words to say next. "You're going home tomorrow."

"That doesn't mean I can't come back," Ed said, leaning over and putting his left hand over Russell's right. "Mustang doesn't watch us like hawks every single minute. I'd kill him if he did."

"But . . . when will that be?" Russell said.

"Look, can we not think about that?" Ed got up and walked around the table to him. "We've still got . . . oh, hell . . ."

And he leaned over and kissed Russell, hard, and Russell felt like his entire body was turning to liquid. This is what he wanted, oh, yes, this is what he'd been thinking of in the back of his mind ever since the *last* time that it happened. He reached up and wrapped an arm around Ed, pulling him down, thinking how strange it felt to have Ed *above* him for once, not that it was something he exactly minded . . .

When their mouths opened, Russell pushed his tongue into Ed's mouth eagerly, hearing his lover groan deep in his throat and feeling a shudder run through his own body. They broke apart, breathing raggedly, and Russell began planting kisses along Ed's throat, sucking at the flesh a bit here and there, careful not to *bite* this time.

"Upstairs," Ed said in a ragged voice. "Now."

They nearly raced up the steps, and once they were in Russell's bedroom, their arms wrapped around each other and their lips came together again with a fierce hunger. They backed up until they were right next to the bed, just waiting for the right moment to drop to it.

Russell knew what he wanted this time, and it was *more* than what they experienced before. His arms tightened around the other boy, his mouth hungrily pressing on Edward's, his tongue probing.

He felt Edward's flesh-and-blood hand skimming down his back, to his waist, and *lower* . . . He groaned deep in his throat as the boy grasped his bottom, squeezing hard, almost hard enough to cause pain.

His lips eased from Edward's and his head leaned back, his breath coming heavily as the older alchemist started to rub his bottom in circles, pressing firmly, his fingers massaging here and there.

"Stop . . . teasing me," he groaned.

“Hey, you don’t seem to *mind*,” Ed replied.

“I’d mind a lot less if you let me take my pants off!”

Ed pulled away a bit. “I didn’t know I was supposed to be following a *script.*”

“There’s no *script*,” Russell said. “Look, just let me take my pants off!”

“I wasn’t getting in your way!” Ed crossed his arms over his chest and scowled.

“Fine!” Russell shed his shoes, socks and pants, tossing the garments aside.

“Oh, yeah?” Ed yanked at his own zipper, kicking his boots off. His own trousers were soon beside Russell’s, and he pulled the boy back into his arms, kissing him hotly again. Russell breathed hotly as he felt the boy’s lips caressing his earlobe.

“Now what?” Ed whispered.

Russell turned his head a bit. “What do you mean?”

“Well, you’re the one who seems to be following a *script.*”

“Oh, for . . .” Russell gave Ed a small push, causing his lover to tumble back to the bed. He grabbed his underwear and yanked it down, and . . .

*Now what do I do?* he thought. *I can’t stroke him, or rub against him . . . that’s what we did *last* time.

Ed raised his head. “Well?”

“I was waiting for you to take your shirt off,” Russell said in a cool tone of voice.

Ed groaned, reached for his shirt, yanked it off and threw it away. He sat up, kissed Russell again and grabbed onto the other boy’s suspenders.

Russell had to admit there was an erotic thrill in having Ed slowly undo the buttons of his shirt. When cool air hit his skin, followed by the warmth of Edward’s right hand stroking a nipple, he let out a gasp.

“That feels good,” Russell murmured.

Ed reached down with the automail hand and yanked at his boxers, and Russell pushed them the rest ot the way down. Carefully, he began to tip Edward backwards onto the bed, thinking again of what they could possibly do . . .

And then, he remembered how good it felt to have Ed kiss and suck his nipples, and wondered how that would feel somewhere *else*.

He moved down on Ed’s body, kissing along his stomach as he did so. When he reached his erection, he hesitated, then began planting a few slow kisses over the head.

Edward let out a gasp, and Russell grew bolder, starting to kiss along the length of his shaft, then licking at it with small sweeps of his tongue. This was different than he thought it was going to be. The taste wasn’t unpleasant, the heat under his tongue just made *him* feel hot . . .

He moved back to the head and, more confident now, began to lick at it over and over, and he heard his lover make a long, low, husky sound of pleasure. Encouraged, his opened his lips and started to slide it in, bit by bit . . .

This felt pleasant. Extremely so. Edward was *filling* his mouth, and there was something just so *intimate* about doing this, as if he was making the boy a part of him.

And the “Aaaah, aaahh, ahh, yes!” sounds Ed was making weren’t hurting, either.

He took it in a bit deeper and started to suck, and an automail hand gripped the top of his head, the cold metal an odd sensation, but not one that was going to dampen his enthusiasm. Quite the opposite.

Russell started to move his head back and forth, taking it in a bit deeper each time, sucking a bit harder . . . oh, he could *really* get used to doing this . . .

And then, he took it in *too* deep, and he choked, pulling away from Ed coughing and spluttering.

Ed sat up. “What the hell happened?”

Russell was face-down on the bed, still trying to catch his breath. This was *definitely* one hell of an embarrassing moment.

Raising his head, he said, “Nothing.” Then, sitting up, he added, trying to sound as calm as possible, “Well, I didn’t want you to . . . you know . . . from doing that, anyway.”

That brought a sly smile from Ed that was damn close to being that lopsided grin. Russell did *not* need to see that now. “Oh? What did you have in mind?”

Russell didn’t know how to state it without sounding either crass or clinical (*Why is describing alchemy so easy, but describing sex is so hard?* he thought), so he said, casually, “Oh, you know.”

Ed frowned. “Well, you’re not *telling* me anything. How am I supposed to know what you mean if you . . .”

“Dammit, Edward, you know what I’m talking about!” Russell said.

The other boy turned away for a moment, and Russell sat up -- to see Ed reaching for an aloe vera plant that grew near the bed, plucking off a leaf. "Hey! Who said you could do that?"

"We either use this or automail lubricant," Ed said, calmly, putting the leaf on the bedside table and clapping his hands together. There was a flash of purple, and the leaf had become a green gel.

"For what?" Russell said, lying down again.

“Well, if we *don’t* do something like this, you’re going to have one hell of a sore bottom!”

“ME?” Russell sat bolt upright. “Who said anything about *me* being on the bottom?”

Ed turned toward him. “I know what to do,” he said, with just a small edge of smugness in his voice. “Do you?”

“The hell you do!” Russell snapped. “What, do you have experience?”

“What do you think?” Ed casually stirred at the gel with his flesh-and-blood hand.

“I think you’re lying!” Russell said.

“Maybe,” Ed said, calmly.

“Maybe?” Russell repeated, leaning forward.

“Or maybe . . . I’ve just read up on it,” Ed said, scooping some of the gel onto his fingers.

Russell bristled. His own reading on he subject had been way in the past. Everything he’d done so far had been based more on instinct and figuring it out for himself.

*Well,* he thought, *if I bottom *this* time, I can top *next* time, and then I’ll know what to do. And I can completely blow him away.*

“Look, do we have to keep *talking*?” he said.

“You’re the one who’s doing that,” Ed replied.

Russell had had enough of the back-and-forth banter. He kissed Ed’s lips, hard, slipping his tongue quickly in and out of his mouth as he tumbled back on the bed, wrapping his arms around Ed and pulling his lover down with him.

Ed wasted no time in rolling Russell onto his back, then moving down to his nipples, flicking his tongue over the right one before starting to kiss it, hard. When he started to suck, Russell cried Edward’s name out, twining his fingers in the long strands of golden silk.

The older boy moved his head to the other bud, licking at it, then sucking hard on it as well, then taking it out and lapping at it with slow strokes.

While this was going on, he was dipping the fingers of his flesh-and-blood hand in the green gel again. Russell lay back, parting his legs up and out, wondering what was next . . .

Ed's mouth left his nipple, and Russell gasped at the softness of his hair sweeping down over his stomach. He moved lower, and lower still . . .

When the hair brushed over his hardness, Russell let out a loud cry. “Do that again!”

Ed raised his head. “Do what?”

“You know! What you just did!”

“I didn’t do anything,” Ed said, sounding genuinely baffled.

“The hair!” Russell said, almost ready to push the boy’s head down to his crotch to demonstrate.

He looked down, and saw that sly smile suddenly cross Ed’s face. The boy lowered his head, brushing his hair up and down Russell’s erection, and Russell began to writhe on the mattress, moaning.

It was so soft, so satiny, and rubbing on his most sensitive flesh it made him feel like every single nerve in his body was ignited and tingling. He clutched at the sheets as it swept up and down his length, Ed even swirling his head around a little, making Russell gasp and arch toward him.

The softness was soon replaced by hot wetness. Ed started to lick at him, first slowly and tentatively, lapping bit by bit at the head, moving up and down the shaft.

Then, his whole mouth was sliding over it, enveloping Russell in hot, wet velvet , and Russell nearly yelled -- no wonder Ed had gone nuts when he did this to him!

At the same time, his finger started to gently probe his entrance. Russell jumped -- the sensation from the back was just . . . odd. As he started to push in, there was pain, and he began to wonder whether the green gel was doing its job, if he should tell Ed to stop and forget it . . .

But then, there was the pleasure from Ed's mouth sucking on him, and that was making the pain not so bad at all, and then Ed was penetrating deeper, bit by bit, and the pain was going away, replaced by a deep sweetness that made Russell let out a low groan.

Ed's finger slid out, his mouth slid away, and Russell felt disappointed -- and tense with anticipation. If that was what *one finger* felt like, what would it be like when his *whole cock . . .*

Then, there was that pressure at his entrance again, and it was *two* fingers this time, the pain on initial entry much sharper than before. Russell gave a small cry of pain . . . until Ed's mouth was on him again, and the fingers gently thrust deeper until the pain lessened and the sweet pleasure came back again.

“Stop that,” Russell moaned.

Ed pulled away. “Hey! I was just trying to make it easier for you!”

“I mean, stop playing around!” Russell’s voice was husky, his breath heavy. “Just do it!”

“Okay, okay,” Ed said, pulling his fingers out. Russell saw the other boy wipe his hand on a handkerchief, then scoop up more of the gel, rubbing it on himself, then the remainder around Russell's entrance.

And then Ed was on top of him, and he was feeling the warmth of flesh and the coolness of metal against his own naked skin, the contrast of sensations only adding to the feverishness of his mood as the boy kissed him, hard. There was a *probing* at his entrance again, harder and deeper and stranger than before.

Russell nearly whimpered when the pain hit -- and it was *pain* this time, he thought he was going to be torn in two, but he'd be *damned* if he'd let Edward see that he was suffering . . . he clenched his teeth together, his fists clenching as well . . .

Ed raised his head and asked, "Are you all right?"

"Yes! I'm fine! Just . . . don't stop, okay?"

"You sure?"

"I'm sure!" Russell said, a bit too quickly and harshly.

Ed lowered his head to Russell's for a long, wet, tender kiss, and then kept pushing -- slower this time, and more gentle . . . Russell braced himself against the pain, telling himself it would go away soon, taking deep breaths, trying to relax as best as he could . . .

And the more relaxed he got, the less painful it was. In fact, it wasn't so bad, it was starting to feel kind of nice. Pleasurable, even, a bit, and . . .

Ed paused, kissing Russell's lips firmly again. Then, he began to pull back, slowly and very carefully, until he was almost out, then began to thrust forward, equally carefully.

Then the pain disappeared entirely, and there was nothing but pleasure. Russell's eyes flew open in surprise at how *good* it felt, unlike anything he'd experience before, a deep sweetness that started at his very core and radiated through his whole body.

"Ed," he moaned, "that's so nice . . ."

"It'll get better," Ed murmured. "You're so sexy right now . . . you have no idea how hot you look."

"Mmmm . . ." Russell reached around his lover's body, his hands finding and grabbing that fabulous bottom. He wished it was possible for them both to penetrate each other at the same time. He wanted Ed to feel the same thing he was feeling now.

"More," he moaned. "Give me more . . ."

Ed responded by beginning to thrust faster, harder, deeper, and Russell raised his hips to meet every stroke. Oh, yes, it felt *amazing*, the way the other boy was filling him.

Ed's left hand wrapped around his erection, starting a rapid stroke in time to his thrusting, and Russell cried out his lover's name. He was answered by a groan of pleasure from Ed, who buried his head in the juncture of Russell's neck and shoulder as his hips moved faster.

Russell was completely lost in a daze now, there was nothing but sensation, the deep probing inside him, the silken whisper of Ed's hair on his skin, the cold hardness of the automail pressing against him, the other boy's hot breath and moist skin as he pushed harder and faster into his lover . . .

A particularly deep thrust hit something buried within him, and suddenly Russell froze up, the entire world suspended in place, and then he was flooded with a tidal wave of heat, his body being wracked by shudder after shudder of electric sensation. He went limp, totally drained, feeling his lover still moving inside him. A few more thrusts, and then he heard Ed give out a loud, hoarse cry . . .

They collapsed to the bed together, panting, shuddering, before their lips met in a tender kiss.

"That . . . wasn’t bad, was it?" Ed murmured in a teasing tone.

"Mmmm," Russell said. "But next time we do that, *I'm* on top."

"Yeah, I know, equivalent exchange," Ed mumbled sleepily, nuzzling Russell's neck. "I think I want a nap, and then a bath."

"Want company for the bath?" Russell said, wrapping his arms around Ed to hold him closer.

"Yeah," Ed yawned. It was obvious their lovemaking had taken a lot out of him. It had taken a lot out of *both* of them. Russell wondered if they’d still feel as tired afterward when they’d had more practice.

Just before going to sleep, Russell leaned over to the alarm clock he had on the night table, made sure it was wound and set it to wake them up in a couple of hours. He was going to make *sure* they got the most of this night together.

* * *

Ed was still sleeping when Russell woke up. He slipped out of bed, walking out into the hall -- it felt funny to be walking around naked, since he was never home alone. Funny . . . and oddly delicious at the same time.

As he turned on the taps in the bathroom, he reflected that it was a good thing they had a large bathtub. He hadn't shared a bath with anyone since he and Fletcher were much younger.

This was going to be a *very* different experience from that.

Walking back into the bedroom, he leaned over and kissed Ed's forehead. "Bath's ready," he whispered.

Ed stretched like a cat and murmured something unintelligible. Finally, he opened his eyes, sitting up, slowly, and stretching again.

"What time is it?" he mumbled.

"Does it matter?" Russell said, standing up and offering his lover his hand.

"Lemme have a moment alone in the bathroom first," Ed mumbled sleepily as he took Russell's hand and got slowly to his feet.

Russell let Ed go ahead of him, absently brushing at a couple of long, blond hairs on the pillow. He didn't want to think about tomorrow night, when those hairs would be the only traces of Ed left behind.

When a voice from the bathroom called "Okay," Russell went in, to see Ed already settled in the water, his arms resting on the sides, the ends of his long hair damp and clinging to his skin. He also noticed he'd transmuted some kind of protective membrane over his automail that seemed to be made of plant material.

Ordinarily, he'd give him hell for plucking leaves off *their* plants without permission. Right now, for some reason, he didn't care.

"Hey," he said, "are you just going to stand there, or are you going to come in?"

"Oh, I'm coming in," Russell said, and quickly climbed into the water. He suddenly felt awkward -- now what? Did they start washing each other, did they wash themselves . . .

His answer came right away, when Ed just picked up the soap and started nonchalantly lathering a washcloth. Draping it over his automail hand, he began to wash his other arm, then pushed the soap over toward Russell.

"Nice size tub," Ed said. "We both fit easily."

"Well, that's because you don't take up much room," Russell said, casually -- and found himself splashed in the face, violently.

Russell spluttered, wiping the water from his face. He knew he was going to have to resist the urge to tease him further -- hard as it was -- if he wanted the rest of the evening to go the way he wanted.

Leaning over and putting his hands on the other boy's shoulders, he said, "Hey . . . want me to wash your back?"

Ed blinked, and turned around, so he was on his knees, his hands on the side of the tub. "Go ahead," he said.

Russell's eyes swept over the sight of the other boy, bent over, wet, his *very* alluring bottom sticking up, and suddenly he wanted to a lot more than wash his back.

But he decided to take it slowly and play it cool. He picked up the soap, lathered a rag and stroked it from his shoulders down to his hips, then up again, going no further. He felt Ed tense, and then relax -- disappointed, he was sure.

Before he could give himself a chance to wonder “Now what?” he stood up and started to wash himself, and he couldn’t help but notice the way Ed was *looking* at him, his eyes moving all over his body bit by bit . . . almost like a caress.

“Ed?” Russell said. “Are you . . .”

“What?” Ed said, suddenly looking flustered, grabbing the soap and starting to wash himself quickly. “Nothing, okay? It’s nothing!”

Russell knew he shouldn’t feel amused, but he did. Most definitely.

He continued to wash himself, looking over from time to time to watch the other boy, shuddering with desire a little as he saw Ed run his hands over his own torso, or along his own thighs. He began to wonder if the other boy ever touched himself. Then, he wondered what it would be like to *watch* him touching himself.

And *then*, he realized that his body was reacting to that thought, and in a big way. He turned away, flustered, wondering why it bothered him so much to have Ed see him this way -- hell, they were taking a bath together, weren’t they? And they’d just made love before . . .

When he was done, he rapidly sank down into the water, and Ed did the same. Their eyes met and held, and Russell suddenly felt for a moment that he’d never be able to look away.

Ed leaned back in the water, his long hair spread out behind him, and Russell could feel his eyes moving over his body again. "So . . . I don't think you asked me in here just to *wash*," he said, teasingly, the sly smile spreading across his face again.

Russell had an “oh, crap!” feeling deep inside, but acting casual, returned it with a wicked grin of his own. "Now, what makes you say that?"

"Oh, maybe . . ." The boy sat up, wrapping his fingers around Russell’s erection. “This?”

*So much for trying to hide it,* Russell thought. *Have to play it cool . . .*

“Are you going to do something with that?” he said, in what he hoped was his sultriest voice.

“What, you think I wouldn’t?”

“Well, right now, you’re just kind of sitting there *holding* it . . .”

Ed’s eyes flashed fire. “You think I don’t know what to do? You should know better by now!”

“I didn’t *say* that!” Russell said.

“I *do* know what I’m doing, you know!” Ed’s hand tightened a little, and Russell gasped -- the sensation was right on the border between pleasure and pain.

“Well, then why don’t you *do it*, and stop holding onto it like it was a rolling pin?” Russell said, a bit of a teasing tone creeping in.

“Fine!” Ed snapped. He lowered his head and began to lick at the tip of the erection, and Russell leaned back in the water, the tension instantly draining out of his body. When Ed leaned over to capture the whole tip in his mouth. Russell let out a hoarse cry, grabbing at his lover's head.

Suddenly, Ed's tongue was running *everywhere*, looping over the sensitive crown over and over, and Russell bit the back of his hand to keep himself from coming . . .

*Damn, he’s a fast learner,* he thought. He knew he was going to have to come up with something to top that. Couldn’t go down on him again, Ed would be *expecting* it, after what he had been doing . . .

When Ed released him, and moved back up, Russell grasped the flesh-and-blood hand, bringing it to his mouth, touching his lips to it. He heard Ed make a small “mmm” sound . . . and inspiration struck.

He gently kissed each of Edward’s fingertips, nipping at them a bit, letting his tongue lightly flick one or two. He looked at his lover's face, and saw that his eyes were getting heavy-lidded, his lips were moistly parted and slightly puckered . . .

*Good,* Russell thought. And he slid his mouth down over the index finger and began to suck, hard, starting to move it out, then back down again. He heard Ed let out a cry, and he felt a deep thrill down in his core.

Sliding the finger out of his mouth, he did the same to the middle finger, tracing its length lightly with his tongue before taking it in, sucking hard as he bobbed his head rapidly, and he heard Ed start to breathe heavily. "Keep going," he gasped. "Please . . ."

Russell loved the husky tone of the "Please." The more excited Ed got, the more excited it made *him*.

He turned Ed's hand over in his so it was palm-up, and leaned over, touching him with just the tip of his tongue, sweeping it from his wrist to the tip of his middle finger, then down, then back and forth. He slid the thumb in his mouth, sucked on it a bit, then started licking his way across the palm again, and Ed let out a full-blown moan this time.

*Someday,* Russell thought, *you'll have two flesh-and-blood arms again, and I'll make love to your new hand the way I'm doing now.*

He kissed the palm one last time, then brought his lips to Ed's again, and the boys pressed their wet, slick bodies together, Russell laying back so Ed could stretch out against him, their erections beginning to brush against each other. Ed started to thrust his hips, deepening the contact, the friction . . .

And there was a *splash* as some of the water went over the side and landed on the floor.

Ed pulled back. "Dammit!"

Russell sat up. "We can't do that . . . at least not here . . ."

"Yeah, I . . ." And then, suddenly, Ed stopped, the lopsided grin spreading over his face again. "Who says we can't? I can take care of the mess, easy!"

"Edward . . . it might go *out the door* and *flood the hall* . . ."

"You think I can't get all that to evaporate in two seconds?" He positioned himself so he was straddling his lover. "Sit up . . . I wanna do it like this."

When Russell did, Ed wrapped his arms and legs around him and pressed their erections together again, both boys letting out a gasp at the contact.

Ed leaned back a bit, so their chests were apart, and Russell glanced down. He saw his erection pressed against Edward's, two passion-swollen crowns rubbing and brushing. He noticed his own was slightly longer, but Ed's a bit thicker, that the tip of his was more rounded, and that Ed's curved toward the right a tad bit more.

The contrasts made the whole thing all the more erotic, a delicious reminder that the most intimate parts of their bodies were different, yet the same, and he started to pump his hips harder, feeling Ed's hardness rub on his, the friction sending tiny shockwaves of ecstasy through his body.

"You’re so hot," Ed murmured, his left hand finding and squeezing Russell's nipple as he moved in for a kiss, and Russell eagerly plundered his lover's mouth with his tongue as he felt their balls press together, sending another shudder running through the younger boy's body, and as their lips parted, Russell heard Ed call out his name in a deep, throaty voice.

Russell thrust harder, faster. "”Ed,” he panted, “this is so good . . . so good, I can’t believe it .. . “

Ed let out a choked sound, rubbing himself harder, faster against Russell, his fingers, metal and flesh, digging into his lover's back . . . and suddenly, he leaned backward, trembling, his eyes squeezed shut, and he let out a long, low, keening cry. Russell felt the warmth as the other boy's seed shot onto his own body.

Ed sagged against Russell, panting. His left hand reached down, grasping Russell's still-hard cock, and he began a rapid stroke, and Russell leaned back, luxuriating in the touch, the sensation . . . he was tensing up, he could feel it, he was close, so close . . .

The white-hot pleasure burst in him suddenly, unexpectedly, like a firework nobody had seen go up, and he nearly screamed Ed's name as his body arched upward, consumed with hot, honeyed sensation.

He fell back in the water and felt his lover's lips on his face, softly and gently.

"Wow," was all Russell could say.

"Mmm," Ed said in answer, leaning his head on Russell's chest, both of them holding each other.

"Ed? I think there isn't much water left in here . . ."

"I told you I could handle it," Ed said. He clapped his hands and leaned over the side of the tub. "It's going to get steamy in here."

"Like it wasn't before?" Russell said.

There was a crackle of energy, and the whole room filled with steam to the point where Russell choked. He quickly opened the window, and said, "I think we'd better go back to bed."

"Hey, I warned you," Ed said, hopping out of the tub and grabbing a towel.

"How can you do that, anyway?" Russell said, getting out next to him. "The no-circle thing, I mean . . ."

Ed leaned over and kissed him. "Look, I promise I'll tell you later, okay? Some other time . . ."

Russell only kissed him back. He knew now, Ed *meant* that.

*Maybe,* he thought, *I'll be able to find out all his secrets. Someday.*

* * *

He was awakened from a very comfortable slumber by a tapping at the door and a sweet voice saying, "Brother?"

Russell stirred, pulling Ed closer, rubbing his cheek against the satiny hair. He didn't want to get out of this bed, no matter what.

But the tapping came again, louder this time. "Brother? We made breakfast for you . . . ."

Ed opened his eyes, halfway, raising his head just a little bit. "In a minute, Al," he mumbled -- except it sounded more like, "Inaminital."

Russell kissed the top of Ed's head. "Looks like they want us to wake up," he said.

"I'm in no hurry," Ed murmured, dropping his head to Russell's chest again.

Another tapping, this time, a different voice. "Brother? Um, I don't want to rush you, but Ed and Al's train leaves at 10:30, and it's after 8:30 now . . ."

Russell's heart sank. He didn't want to see 10:30 come. He didn't want to let him go.

*It's not over until the moment he steps on that train,* he thought. *I'm going to hold onto every minute until then.*

"Looks like we have no choice," he said quietly to his lover, then called out, "We'll be there, Fletcher."

"Who booked such an early train?" Ed said, sitting up and stretching. Russell couldn't take his eyes off the athlete's torso, the spill of that fabulous hair over his shoulders, the glint of the early morning sun off the automail . . .

The temptation to yank him down to the bed and just forget about breakfast was nearly overwhelming. But he knew if they did that, neither of their little brothers would let them hear the end of it.

"Your Colonel Bastard, no doubt," Russell said, getting up and opening his bureau drawer to pull out underwear and socks. He gave Ed a small smile. "I'd like to meet him someday, to see if he's as bad as you say he is."

"Peh, I already told you," Ed said, reaching for his own clothing. "Arrogant, stuck-up, snarky . . ."

"And I don't know anyone else like that," Russell said in a teasing tone as he reached into the closet.

"Watch it," Ed said, fastening his pants. "Keep that up, and you're sleeping on the couch when you come to see me."

"You wouldn't do that," Russell said, walking over and running a finger along the other boy's still-bare back. "You wouldn't make it through the night without going out to the living room."

"You'd break before I did," Ed said, turning around and caressing Russell's chest. They leaned over and kissed, but kept it brief -- they knew they couldn't afford to be tempted right now.

Especially when another tapping came on the door.

"We're coming," Russell called, breaking away from Ed and going back to the closet.

When both were fully dressed, Russell stole one last kiss at the door. He knew it would be their last for awhile, until they were reunited again.

"Okay, okay . . . so I won’t make you sleep on the couch next time," Ed said.

"Hey, we have unfinished business for next time," Russell said. "I haven't topped yet, remember? Equivalent exchange?"

Ed gave him that sly, lopsided smile -- which didn't seem to irritate Russell as much as it used to. "We'll see about *that*."

And the two of them headed downstairs, where their younger brothers were waiting.

* * *

The last hour or so had gone way too fast. One moment, it seemed, they were sitting down at the breakfast table (to see Al and Fletcher grinning *way* too widely, making both Ed and Russell blush and stammer), the next, they were heading for the train station in a cab -- Russell noted with irony that it was the same driver who had taken the two sets of brothers to the station two years ago, when the Elrics left Xenotime after the defeat of Mugear.

They stood on the platform, the train slowly pulling into the station behind them, Russell not quite knowing what to say to the boy who was now . . . more than a friend to him. He certainly couldn't hug and kiss him, not out here in the open. Amestris was a society that took homosexuality between teenage boys in stride -- it was pretty much considered just another part of growing up -- but public displays of affection of any sort usually invited unwelcome stares.

"Take care," Fletcher said, hugging first Al, then Ed. "I'll miss you."

"We'll miss you, too," Al said. "A lot."

Russell clapped Al on the shoulder and grasped his hand briefly. "You make sure he doesn't get into any more trouble, okay?”

“I will,” Al said, with a bright smile -- and then quickly moved away, allowing Ed and Russell a private moment. Ed clasped Russell’s hand in his, more firmly than a friendly handshake.

"I'll be back here soon," he said.

"You'd better be," Russell replied, looking straight into Ed's eyes.

Not breaking the gaze, and with a hint of the lopsided grin, Ed said, "You know . . . I *may* miss you while we're apart."

Russell felt a tightening in his throat. He knew what those words really conveyed.

"Same here," he said.

The whistle blew, signaling the train's impending departure. Ed quickly dropped Russell's hand and grabbed for his suitcase, holding it up by his shoulder as he always did.

"Come on, Al," he said, deliberately not looking back at Russell. "We have to leave."

Al picked up his own suitcase, and waved at the other set of brothers as he followed Ed up the train steps. "I'll write as soon as we get back!" he called.

Russell watched the brothers settle down into their seats -- he noticed Ed looked uncharacteristically subdued. As it pulled away, Ed and Al leaned out the window to wave one last time, and the other brothers waved back.

Russell watched until it disappeared around the curve, and was gone.

Fletcher put an arm around his waist and hugged him. "Come on, Brother. Belsio is coming home tomorrow, we have a lot to do before then," he said, gently.

Russell swallowed hard, nodding. Yes, getting back to the farm, getting back to some kind of normal routine, would be good. Because right now, he felt more full, and yet, more strangely empty, than he ever had in his life.

* * *

The younger brother pushed open the door of the lab and tiptoed in gingerly. Sure enough, his older brother was there, blond head bent over a pile of books, poring over pages he must have read a hundred times before.

His heart sank. He'd told him to go to bed hours ago, that they could resume their work in the morning, but he was still here.

"Brother," he said, "go to bed. You can go back to working on it in the morning."

"I'll just be here a little while longer," the older boy said, not looking up.

"I know you're sad because he's gone," the younger brother said, softly, approaching the counter. "I miss them, too. But, please . . . don't completely bury yourself in work. Get some rest."

"I will," Russell said. "Don't worry, Fletcher . . . I'll be right up."

He gave one last glance to the notebook, marked his place in it with an index card, and shut it.

Analyzing the data that he and Ed had collected during their work on the megaweapon had proven quite interesting. Because he had discovered a certain side effect of the soil that he didn't know was there before.

*If whatever caused the plant mutations could be isolated, and controlled,* he thought, *it could be refined into a healing compound. A super medicine that would stimulate cell growth."

It could be turned into medicine to cure the red water sickness, to finally pay back his debt to this town. And moreso, if he really was able to refine it, and get it stronger, maybe, just maybe . . .

It could even cause limbs to regenerate.

Russell smiled to himself. He knew he was going to be able to keep the loneliness at bay until the Elrics came back again.

He had a new mission in life.


I have to give a *huge* thank-you to Steve Savage, who has done a marvelous job as my editor for years and did the honors again for this fic, and Aishuu, who contributed invaluable input while this fic was still in its early stages (it was her suggestion that I write the entire piece from Russell’s viewpoint). Thanks also to Sonya and everyone at Hellcon!

Yes, I got the term “megaweapon” from the Mystery Science Theater 3000 episode “Warrior of the Lost World.” Just my little tribute to the show that was indirectly responsible for me getting into anime.

The alchemy terminology used in titling this fic is courtesy of An Alchemists Glossary of Terms, Definitions, Formulas & Concoctions (

Fullmetal Alchemist is property of Hiromu Arakawa, Square Enix and Studio BONES. These characters ain’t mine, I’m just borrowing them for a little while.