chapter 1.

"Al, breakfast's ready. Lay the table for me."

Alphonse woke up with the sure and happy knowledge that it was a Friday and he didn't have to cook. He struggled momentarily with the bedcovers, finally wriggling free of them and sliding onto the floor, only to find himself staring at a metal foot right beside his head.

"Al-phonse. Stop messing around."

Al sat up, yawning, and stretched his arms over his head. "I'm not 'messing around'," he complained when he got his breath back, but before he could say anymore Edward's automail foot nudged him gently in the stomach. With a squeak, he curled back up again. Affecting a dramatic sigh, Ed ambled back into the kitchen, mumbling vague curses under his breath. Al watched him set the table with one eye slitted open, an affectionate grin on his face. Clad only in a pair of loose shorts, hair ruffled from sleep and slipping out of the braid to brush against his neck, this relaxed Edward was a far cry from the renowned Fullmetal Alchemist of barely two years ago, and all the better for it as far as Alphonse was concerned. Still muttering, Ed padded to the door and picked up the newspaper from the doormat. Something on the front page seemed to hold his attention, because he didn't come back to the table. Curious but not overly worried, Al stood up and began the search for his clothes.

Hmm... a shirt strewn across a lampshade, a pair of boxers on the windowsill — no, they were Ed's — a pair and a half of boots by the door, and — a-ha! — some jeans underneath the wardrobe. Al pulled them out and riffled through the chest of drawers for a new set of underpants, scowling slightly as he did so. "Brother! It's your turn to do the washing!" When there was no reply, Al headed into the kitchen to find his brother at the table, the newspaper spread out over the tabletop. Ed's expression was unreadable, and Al felt an icy hand grip his stomach. "What is it?"

Edward glanced up at him, his lips parting but no sound forthcoming. Still silent, Ed pushed the paper across the table and yanked back a chair, sitting down heavily. Al took the seat opposite him, reading carefully. "'Trouble in Yikatrinburg...military called in...' Yikatrinburg is still several miles away, brother. I know you don't want the military to find you, but..." Edward waved his human hand impatiently, his automail one curled around a cup of coffee. Alphonse kept reading. As his eyes scanned the page, he could feel his own despair grow. "They're using this city as a base," he whispered faintly, dropping the paper. "I liked it here, but if we have to leave?"

"No." Ed's voice was thick with anger. "I'm not being forced out of another home. They won't be here long, and it's not like they'll be looking for us." He gave a short ugly bark of laughter, and downed the remainder of his coffee in one gulp, setting the cup onto the table with a thump. "I mean, who'd expect the famous deceased Edward Elric in a dump like Rulingrad?" Al reached across the table, placing both his hands — his warm, pale, flesh-and-blood hands — on top of Ed's metal one. Ed visibly softened at the contact and covered his brother's hands with his left, trapping them there.

"It's okay," Al murmured. "We just have to stay out of sight. Let's finish breakfast, and then go shopping." Ed nodded, his shoulders slumping as his anger evaporated. When he opened his eyes, he flashed Al a genuine smile, the kind he seemed to wear more and more often these days but were still valued by his brother. "But first..." he mused, trailing off, and Ed tilted his head, narrowing his eyes in confusion at his brother's abruptly pensive tone. " might want to put on something besides your pants. Not that I'm complaining, but..."

Even after being around Edward for this long, he still didn't duck in time to avoid the cushion hurled at his head.

Ed loved watching his brother paint. Sometimes, he would sneak into the studio Al had made from the second bedroom of their flat and just sit behind Al as he worked, watching the way a bundle of disjointed lines and colours would become a bowl of fruit, or a bird in flight, or — and most often — a kitten. When Alphonse's soul was still bound to the suit of armour, his art had been done through Alchemy, sculptures transformed from compound ingredients. Even then, they had been beautiful, but making something artistic through alchemy was never as satisfying as creating something with your bare hands. Ed had asked Al, once, why he never tried painting. The metal clanking that accompanied every small movement Al made had stopped, and the armour-bound soul had turned, looking down at his older brother. Still with that unnerving silence, Al had simply held out the empty gauntlets that served as hands and said, in his quiet, hollow voice, "These are not an artist's hands, brother." That time, Ed had nodded and sat besides his brother, watching Al make his sculptures while internally kicking himself repeatedly in the head.

One of the first things Al had done when he got his body back — aside from running his hands over his brother's face, astounded by the softness of Ed's skin and the contrasting harshness of underlying bone, when had his brother's face become so sharp? — had been to buy a set of paintbrushes. The first thing he painted had been a watercolour of Ed and Al and Winry and Den, all sitting out in the sun. Al had loudly denounced it as a complete disaster and indeed, his work had vastly improved since then, but Ed had kept the watercolour. When they left the Rockbell's for their new life, the painting had gone with them every step of the way. It hung, now, in the hall, opposite the door, so that it was the first thing you would see when you opened it. Al smiled whenever he saw it, but never said anything about it to his brother.

Al had tried to combine his need for a model with Edward's strange hobby, but while Ed would sit perfectly still when he was behind the canvas, he fidgeted relentlessly in front of it. The last effort to paint the older Elric had ended with the younger throwing his paintbrush at him and refusing to talk to Edward for five hours, until he could be persuaded to forgive Ed by the promise of hot chocolate.

Today was different. Al sat in front of a blank canvas, his equipment scattered around him, and thought about a group of people he hadn't seen in a very long time. Sometimes he missed them, missed Fury and Farman and Breda and Havoc and Hawkeye and... and yes, even Mustang, a little. Ed was angry with Mustang. That's why they'd made this elaborate lie — hadn't written to them to let them know that yes, they were alive, that Al had his body back, that it was all okay. Al had wanted to, but Edward had glared into the distance and shook his head 'no'. He didn't want to be a dog of the military anymore, and he didn't want Al to be one either. Al could understand that, really, he could, but it didn't stop him from feeling sad.

When Edward entered the studio, a glass of apple juice in his hand, he found Al hard at work on a painting of a woman in a military uniform holding a black and white dog. Alphonse paused as he heard the footsteps and looked back at Ed over his shoulder, his face splitting into an easy grin. "What're you thinking?"

Ed didn't answer straight away. Instead, he took a sip of his juice and came to sit down next to Al, studying the portrait with the same intense care he would a textbook on clchemy. "I'm thinking...I'm thinking about how it would be nice to see Lieutenant Hawkeye again," he said, softly. Al slowly put down the paintbrush and began sealing the tops of his paints, waiting for Ed to continue. "Although she's probably still working for that smirking bastard of a Colonel."

Al thought very carefully about what to say next. "Do you think she would like to see us again?"

Ed grinned at him toothily, golden eyes narrowed into glimmers of wicked light. "Probably. But she's in Central and we're not, and we're dead and she's not." Ed stretched, languidly, lazily.

"We didn't have to do it this way, brother. The Colonel would probably have let us go, like he did with Dr Marcoh. We could have written to him, at least," Al said reproachfully, sliding off his chair to land in Ed's lap. His brother wrapped his arms around him and rested his chin on Al's shoulder, cheek pressed against cheek. It still thrilled Al, even three years later, to know that he could feel this, that the heat pooling all over his body at the feeling of warm skin against his own wasn't a fluke.

"I spent far too many years writing things for the military," Ed mumbled, his lips brushing softly against Al's neck. "I think we deserve some time for just us." His flesh palm slid against his brother's, their fingers twining together smoothly. For once, Al found himself unable to argue as Ed's other hand found its way underneath his shirt, sliding slowly downwards.

The military train rumbled into town at dawn a scant three days after the newspaper headlines. Their apartment overlooked the station approach, and Alphonse was awoken by the shrill whistle of the train as it came to a stop.

"'s odd," he mumbled against his brother's shoulder, "no trains on Sunday."

Ed made a noise that sounded suspiciously like a "murr" and yanked Al's pillow out from underneath him, placing it over his head to block out the outside racket. Al sighed, knowing that the pillow was beyond salvation now, and sat up, hooking his fingers together and forcing his arms above his head in an effort to ease the ache in his neck. He opened one eye mid-stretch to see a pair of golden ones watching him and smiled, relaxing and ripping the pillow away from Ed. "Brother. You're not fooling anyone. Come on, and I'll make some coffee."

They drank their coffee in the studio, watching the train unload through a pair of binoculars, looking for anyone they recognised. Ed wore only his faithful—and somewhat lucky, to have made it thus far—leather pants, and Al had a blanket thrown over his shoulders. The morning light shone almost painfully brightly through the huge windows, picking out the scattered remains of Al's latest project over the floor. ("What do you mean, 'modern art'? You just flicked a paintbrush all over it! Elysia could've done better, for God's sake—Al, why are you looking at me like that? Al?" and a few seconds later, "I've changed my mind, it's a... um... thingy—euphemism? No, metaphor? Whatever—about the human condition. Yeah, that's what it is. And, um, keep your mouth there, thanks.") There was still some of that blue paint left in Ed's hair, though Al had refrained from pointing it out.

Al blinked, realising he'd just missed something Ed had said, and asked him to repeat himself. Ed shot him a curious look and did so, one hand toying with the handle of his coffee mug as he spoke. "Winry was supposed to be here yesterday. Do you think she's been delayed by this screwing around with the schedule?"

Winry came by twice a year to check up on Ed's automail. She and Auntie Pinako were the only people who knew that the famous Elric brothers still lived, and though Winry jokingly threatened to spill their secret to the military—"So Ed can go back to damaging his automail and I can go back to making lots of money from him"—she would never carry it out.

"Probably. She'll call later on today and tell us when the next train from Central will be. And you know she'll bill us for the delay, too."

"Mmmm." Ed took another sip of his coffee and grimaced. "Al."


"...No milk, damnit."

"But black coffee's foul, brother," Al said innocently, and Ed scowled a reply. Al raised the binoculars again and stared back out the window, at the swarms of blue uniforms emerging from the train and descending on the just-awakening Rulingrad. "Hey, is that Sergeant Major Fury?"


"Getting out of the first carriage, second door. There's a blonde, but I can't see if it's Lieutenant Hawkeye or not." Al tossed the binoculars through the three feet of air separating them, and in a fluid motion Ed snatched them out of the air with his left hand. He gulped back the rest of his coffee, set the empty mug on the floor, and settled to playing with the magnification. Al spread his palms against the heavy glass window that covered two thirds of the studio wall, looking up at the sky. It was going to be a beautiful day today. Usually on days such as this, he'd drag Ed with him to go shopping for food. Somehow they'd end up in the local park, and then they'd go to a restaurant—or maybe visit a play, something with an intricate enough storyline to keep Edward happy and cleverly worded dialogue and deep characters to satisfy Alphonse.

"The blonde isn't Hawkeye, the face is too rounded. But I agree, that looks like Fury." Ed peered up to scrutinise the crowd quickly, then scowled. "I can't see anybody else we know. Here, you try," and with a flick of his wrist the binoculars were flying back towards Al.

"Brother," Al said, wrapping their leather strap around his wrist instead, "we can't spy on them all day. I have things to do, including a painting I was going to finish before you dragged your braid through it."

Ed blinked and raised a hand to his hair, feeling the hardness of dried paint. "Oh. Um. Sorry?"

Al smiled at him. "Go shower, lazy."