Sailor Mac (sailormac) wrote in fm_alchemist,
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FANFIC: Aduration (Part 1, 1/2) (RussellXEd, Lemon in Future Chapters)

Title: Aduration (Part 1, 1/2)
Author: sailormac
Illustration:acexkeikai
Pairing: Edward ElricXRussell Tringham, eventually
Genre: Romance, lemon, drama, a bit of action/adventure
Rating: PG now, will rise to NC-17 in later chapters
Spoilers: Through end of series
Warnings: AU (diverges from canon at the end of the TV series). This fanfic was written when spoilers for the movie were starting to come out. I have made it AU from the movie out of necessity. In this fic, Roy Mustang is still Ed’s commanding officer. Lemon and yaoi down the road.
Beta: dragonscholar
Summary: Two years after the end of the series, Russell Tringham just wants to right his wrongs of the past. And then, his life is turned upside down when a group of political extremists takes an interest in him -- and Edward Elric suddenly reappears in town after having supposedly vanished into thin air.
Disclaimer: Fullmetal Alchemist is property of Hiromu Arakawa, Square Enix and Studio BONES. No profit is being made from this fanfic.

Crossposted to fma_yaoi

_____________________

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.
___________________

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

Part 1: Nigredo (The Base Materials)

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 . . .

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"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?*
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