Illustration: acexkeikai NOTE: Illustration for this part is non-explicit, but distinctly shonen ai.
Pairing: Edward ElricXRussell Tringham
Genre: Romance, lemon, drama, a bit of action/adventure
Spoilers: Through end of series
Warnings: Lemon, yaoi, AU (diverges from canon at the end of the TV series)
Summary: Ed and Russell are working together, racing against time to develop a weapon before a dangerous group of extremists does. But are their conflicting styles of work a formula for success, or a recipe for disaster? And why does Russell suddenly find Ed so fascinating?
Disclaimer: Fullmetal Alchemist is property of Hiromu Arakawa, Square Enix and Studio BONES. No profit is being made from this fanfic.
Part 2 -- Albedo (Purification)
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."
"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.