chapter 2.

Alphonse awoke to the patter of rain on the evening of the Tuesday of the third week, only partially sheltered by the canopy above the doorstep he'd fallen asleep on. He raised his head from his suitcase and blinked up at the grey sky, managed a jaw-cracking yawn, and struggled into a sitting position. He hated mornings, especially since his money had run out and he'd become unable to afford to stay at inns and hotels. Ed made sure he was fed, at least, and he had his coat for warmth, but it had been too long since he'd had a bath.

"Oh, you're up. Morning, sleepyhead."

"I guess it is, brother. Any startling overnight revelations?" He ran his tongue over his teeth and resisted the urge to shudder. "Or any toothpaste?"

Ed slid off the roof, where he had spent the day crouched in silent vigil over his younger brother's sleep, and landed in a puddle a few feet away, stumbling but then somersaulting neatly until he had his balance again. "No, to both questions. Sorry."

"It's all right," Al said with a sigh. "We should get moving." Ed tossed him something, and Al merely raised an eyebrow at the sandwich when he caught it. It had probably been stolen, but the ache in his stomach reminded him of the last time he'd d something to eat, two days ago; he settled for tearing into it anyway and adding it to the ever-growing pile of things he had to feel guilty about. "So, what today?"

"I think we're close to something with the human-homunculus link," Ed said thoughtfully. "Some of the older books can't really tell the difference between homunculi and golems, so we should probably keep an eye out for both terms."

"I found something that might be the first recorded homunculus in one of them," Al said, standing and stretching. "It mentioned a creature 'most man-like', which could change its shape into a human-shaped bonfire. Or 'liquid fire', as the book said."

"Sounds like the opposite of Sloth," Ed replied with a small frown, and a tiny wince. Al looked away sharply, at the mention of the thing that had been their mother. "Homunculi alter the structures of their bodies—Sloth turned herself into water, Greed turned his skin into diamond, Envy re-aligned his DNA to change shapes, and Lust altered the composition of her fingers... That thing probably found some way to turn its skin into some sort of flammable compound."

"We've already decided that if we find out what it is that makes them able to do that, we'd be a long way towards making you human again," Al said, pinching the bridge of his nose as he tried to think. "You mentioned going into some sort of parallel universe when Dante tried to put you beyond the gate, and your soul being drawn to your alter-self. Might it be that the homunculus came from that world?"

"Maybe," Ed said with a small frown, wincing as a drop of rain splashed between his eyes. "But—"


Both of them turned sharply to glare at the figures running towards them. Al bought his hands up, fingertips touching and ready to clap, but Edward imposed himself between the two, body tense. The lead figure pulled to a halt a few feet away, drawing her hood back to reveal her face, and Ed's muscles relaxed and Al's hands drifted back to his sides. "Second Lieutenant Ross," Edward said, more relieved than anything else. "What are you doing here?"

"Alphonse?" Ross managed at his words, eyes wide and one hand going to cover her mouth. Almost immediately she drew it back again, features split into a huge grin. "You succeeded," she said, warmly, as Denny Broche caught up with her. He blinked at the pair of them, raking his eyes over Ed and then back down to Al, and a slow congratulatory smile worked its way across his face.

"Not exactly." Edward admitted, and Al stepped out of his brother's shadow and offered her a smile.

"How so?" Maria asked, worry and concern flashing across her face, and Alphonse took pity on her.

"It's a long story," he said quietly. "I'd offer to tell you over dinner, but I can't really afford it right now."

"Come back to my house," Maria volunteered almost before he'd finished speaking. "You look awful, Edward. The pair of you can have a shower and something to eat before you do anything else."

Alphonse glanced up at his older brother, who simply shrugged. Al ran his tongue over his teeth again, shot Ed in his new-old body another glance, and shifted the suitcase. It would only be for one night, he told himself, and he felt as terrible as he obviously looked.

"Thank you," he said, with a small, wistful smile, "I'd like that very much." If Maria found his behaviour odd, she didn't say anything; instead she grabbed Al's suitcase and began walking, talking over her shoulder as she did so, telling them about the changes in both the government and the military since the Fuhrer's death.

"How did the Fuhrer die?" Al asked, and Ed shifted uneasily besides him.

"Odd thing is, nobody 'knows'," Broche answered with a small wink. "His house caught fire and any evidence was destroyed by the flames. Only thing they found was Archer's corpse and that of the Fuhrer's son—poor kid had a broken neck. They settled the matter by blaming Archer, especially since Amestris is much closer to democracy with Bradley's death."

"Strangely enough," Maria added, "Lieutenant Hawkeye bought a badly injured Brigadier General Mustang into hospital not long after the fire, even though he was supposed to have been with Colonel Armstrong. Parliament absolved him of blame when they settled the matter, though. They've both since resigned from the military, Haw—Riza and Roy."

"I see," Ed said quietly, and Al glanced up at him. Ed's expression was withdrawn, gaze pensive, and Al knew better than to interrupt.

"And they've taken the penalty off your head, Edward," Maria said. "They're blaming the Fuhrer and Archer for Lior, too. Only condition is that you have to hand in your silver pocket watch, because you're officially discharged." Al smiled, because it didn't really matter to him any more. He hadn't been planning to stay in Central anyway after he'd done what he'd set out to do.

But then... what had he been planning to do?

"How about the rest of Mustang's staff?" Ed asked, though Al thought they both already knew that they were fine. Ross would've said something otherwise.

"Doing well," Broche replied, cheerfully. "Colonel Armstrong's still... training... the new troops. Scieszka's doing fine, too, came back to Central last week only to discover Farman's as scary a boss as Brigadier General Hughes ever was, and speaking of which, Scieszka assures me Gracia and Elysia are doing okay by themselves."

Ed finally smiled at that last bit of news, and Al, aware a similar expression must be painted on his own face, let his automail settle on his brother's wrist as they walked.

"So," Broche asked after a few minutes of awkward silence, "what happened to you, Ed? Last we saw of you, Archer had just turned up and your teacher told you to go."

Ed and Al looked at each other, wondering whether it was safe to talk in this place. "Do you know about the homunculus?" Ed asked, eventually.

"Mrs Curtis told me, afterwards, that you had gone to face the person controlling them," Ross replied, squaring her shoulders. "Scieszka told us about the Fuhrer and Ms. Douglas, too."

"Her name was Dante, and she was four hundred years old. At least." Ross froze in the middle of the street and turned back to them, her eyes wide. Broche's mouth hung open. The street was damp and abruptly too small, and Al felt a shiver creeping through his spine. He tightened his grip on his brother's arm, watching Ed continue speaking in that calm, oddly neutral voice. "She lived that long by forcing her soul into other people's bodies. When we caught up with her, she had just switched bodies from that of an elderly lady to that of a young woman named Lyra."

"Alchemy can do that?" Broche asked, horror ringing through his voice, and Al laughed bitterly.

"Of course. You saw the armour. Same thing, different host," Ed said flatly.

Ross frowned, an expression of maternal worry on her face, and Al felt his gut clench. It had been far too long since he'd had a mother figure, he thought. "What happened, you two? And don't try to withhold any information from me, not this time. Remember—"

"A little more faith in adults," Ed said, with a wry grin, and she diverted her gaze from Alphonse back to Ed in his new body, puzzled at the unusual source. "I did, though, and look where it got Hughes—"

He froze, eyes widening as something—possibly Envy's memories—kicked in. Al blinked at him, then watched him raise his hands and stare down at them, an expression of horror dawning across Ed's face. And he remembered Envy leaping around the array, wearing Hughes' features, and felt the cold certainty creep upon him, too. "Oh God," he breathed, eyes as wide as Ed's. "He did it, didn't he? He searched too deeply—found out about the Fuhrer or Sloth—"

"-And Dante sent Envy to kill him," Ed whispered bleakly, still staring down at his hands and still with that expression of tortured horror.

"Fuck," Al said weakly, head dropping and eyes burning. He rubbed at them with the palms of his hands, and was unsurprised when he felt tears on his cheeks. "I'm so sorry, brother. I'm so, so sorry."

"What? What are you sorry about?" Maria Ross demanded, sounding both scared and worried as she reached out to grab Al's shoulder. "Edward? Alphonse? Tell me, please!"

Alphonse didn't answer, pressing his hands against his face and giving in to his guilt. He was unsurprised when Ross' hand was batted away and Edward pressed him into a tight hug instead, reserving his shock for when he felt the first sign of wetness on the side of his neck. Startled out of his own grief and guilt, he could do no more than stay, lips parting wordlessly, as Ed clutched him. Broche and Ross were still watching, and he knew Ed would be surly and embarrassed when he stopped, but for now he let Ed cry himself out. This pain wasn't just grief for Hughes or anger at Envy, but of everything, all the people hurt during their quest, all the suffering Ed had endured without complaint. It was five years overdue, something festering inside Ed for far too long, and Alphonse was in no hurry to force his brother to stop.

When Edward did finally break away, eyes reddened and—yes, that embarrassed scowl on his face—Alphonse said nothing, offered no gestures of comfort. That wasn't what Ed needed right now. Instead he said, "I'm sorry," and turned back to Maria, smiling innocently as he asked, "Can we go back to your house? We'll tell you everything, we promise." Ross scowled at him, but glanced at Ed's somewhat sulky expression and flushed cheeks, and the way he refused to meet anybody's eyes, and nodded. "Thank you," Al said quietly, as Maria began walking again.

He decided to pretend not to notice the way Ed's hand tucked itself in his on the way there, instead attempting to draw Denny Broche out in casual conversation.

Ross' apartment was tiny; a kitchen, bedroom, small bathroom and living room. She ushered them in, but informed Denny he'd have to go, and she'd fill him in on the details tomorrow. He looked rather petulant, but nodded. Ed flung himself onto the sofa, chin resting on the arm. Alphonse made straight for the suitcase and by extension, his toothbrush, then vanished into the bathroom. Ross chose to feed them before demanding any information, and by the time Al emerged, she had started dinner. She told them to go shower now, as there was still three quarters of an hour left, and Ed slunk off the couch, grabbed a surprised Al by the ear, and hauled him into the bathroom.

"What's that for?" Al complained as Ed shut the door.

"I wanted to talk," Ed said quietly, stepping into the shower. The odd sound that accompanied a change in shape rang loudly in the small enclosed space, and Al knew Ed had gotten rid of his clothes. A moment later the faucet turned and the shower came on, Ed sighing softly as the hot water hit his upturned face. Al perched on the rim of the sink, determined not to peek. They may be brothers, but some things just should not be done... not even if he was wearing your body and you wanted to see all of it. No. He should have self-control.

"So. Envy murdered Hughes—in Gracia's body, no less, the fucking creep," Ed said bitterly, as he located the military-issue shampoo and squeezed it out onto his palm.

"I'm sorry, brother—"

"Don't start that again, Al, you didn't know," Ed said, a trace of exhaustion in his voice.

"That doesn't mean I can't feel bad about it, brother," Al protested, tilting his head and snapping it back as he caught a glimpse of a tall, slim body, its back to him as it washed the soap out of its hair.

"No, but I don't want you to do so," Ed said, and Al frowned. "Look. We can hate that fucking bastard's guts forever, the two of us. We were going to kill him anyway, but now?"

"We've got another motive," Al said, sneaking another glance. Ed was turned towards him now, eyes closed as he leaned back into the spray, and Al bit his lip at the sight of the well defined chest, the flat plane of the stomach and the lean hips, feeling something unfamiliar stir inside him that had nothing to do with Envy. The feeling only intensified when his gaze slipped, inevitably, downwards, so he squeezed his eyes shut and shot back into his position, teeth gritted and cheeks burning bright red.

"Yeah," Ed said, turning the shower off. "Can you pass me a towel, Al? Thanks." Ed rubbed his face and hair dry and wrapped the towel tightly around his waist as he stepped out, looking calmer than he had in weeks. "You all right?" Ed asked, and Al was aware he must still be flushed.

"Fine," he replied, and repeated it when his voice came out a squeak. Ed raised an eyebrow and grinned fondly at what he probably saw as a younger sibling's foolishness.

"Your turn," he said.

"Um. Could you look away?" Al asked, still blushing fiercely. "I have to get undressed, not being able to do the clothes-melting thing and—"

"Al. You're babbling. Look, don't worry, I was in that body for sixteen years, and I don't think it's gained anything new since you got it. Can I borrow your toothbrush?"

"... Go ahead," Al mumbled, discarding first his coat, then his under jacket, then the black shirt underneath. He yelped with surprise when Ed's hand flashed up, suddenly, but with a sharp yank the hair tie had been pulled from the braid, and Ed was looking at him with an expression of cute bewilderment as he slipped it around his left wrist. Al glared at him as he undid his boots and kicked them into a corner, then the belt, and his hands wavered over the hem of Ed's black leather pants. Ed brushed past him on his way to the sink, humming as he squeezed the toothpaste onto the brush, and Al carefully undid the fly, dropping his pants to his ankles. This should not be so humiliating, he thought, just before Ed appeared in front of him again, scrubbing with the toothbrush with one hand and the other sliding under his chin.

"You all right?" he asked, tilting Al's jaw up to better peer at his face.

"No," Al growled, choosing to cover his embarrassment with anger. "I'm trying to get my clothes off and you keep interrupting—"

"I told you, don't be so worried," Ed said with a grin. "Even if it wasn't my old body, we're still brothers, right? We used to bathe together, Al, so don't be so weird." As he spoke, his hand dropped to curl around the hem of Al's boxers, and with a sharp yank he pulled them down. "Oh," he said, staring.

Al stuck his jaw out and looked away, aware the blush had spread from his cheeks up to his ears and back down to his neck and shoulders. "Yeah," he said, still not looking back. "I don't know why it's doing that, but it's really disturbing."

"I see," Ed said, thoughtfully. He tossed the toothbrush over Al's head into the sink, where it landed with a clatter. "Don't worry about it, Al. It's natural. In fact..."

"Brother, what are you doing? Brother? Brother—" Al demanded, snapping his gaze back to Edward just as Ed's hand closed around his erection. He yelped, jumping back against the sink, hands going to cover himself as he blinked up at Edward in shock.

"What? Did I do something wrong?" Ed asked, worried.

"What the hell was that all about?" Al managed to splutter, feeling the blush increase at the same time as his anger at being humiliated like that, and his desire for the contact to continue. It had been weird and unexpected, but not... not bad.

"Sometimes, if you touch it when it's like that, it feels good," Ed replied with a small frown. "Let me try again."

"The devil I will," Al snarled as he reached for his boxers, still pooled around his ankles.

"Al," Ed said, reaching for his hands. "It will feel good. Please, trust me." Al blinked at him again, struck by the mute pleading in Edward's voice, and nodded slowly. He reached behind him, resting his hands on the rim of the sink, and whimpered as Edward touched him again.

Ed's fingers were sure and knowing, running lightly up and down his length. And he was right, Al realized; it did feel good. Ed gripped the shaft just right, using his left hand and gripping Al's shoulder with the other. His face was a mask of concentration as he pumped, Al's heady, breathless whimpers seeming only to encourage him. The pleasure washed through him, almost like being immersed in a warm bath. Pretty soon his hands were gripping the sink tighter as he thrust into Ed's touch, his unbraided hair flying loose around his shoulders as he rocked his hips up into the strokes of his brother's hand. Ed gritted his teeth against his own lust as his grip on Al increased and his fingers moved harder and faster, and then Al fell back against the cold porcelain surface as his hands grabbed at Ed's shoulders and he came with a soft, drawn-out sigh, into Ed's palm.

Ed wrapped his right arm around him as he slumped, sweaty and spent, languid and pliable, tingling with the after-effects of that mind-numbing pleasure. After Ed had licked his hand clean, he ran his fingers through Al's hair, smiling as Al's breathing slowed and his eyelids drooped. After a few minutes had passed, however, he nudged his younger brother sharply. "Al."

"Mmm?" Alphonse managed, pressing his cheek into Ed's collarbone. He felt so good, better than he had in a long time, and he wondered if they could do this again sometime. Sometime soon, preferably.

"You need to have your shower before dinner," Ed said, making no effort to release him despite his words.

"I guess I do," Al said, closing his eyes and practically purring with contentment into the warmth of Edward's shoulder.

"Have it tomorrow morning?" Ed suggested, and the only reply he got was Al's light, even breathing. "Lazy," he said fondly into Al's bright gold hair.

"'M not lazy," Al replied after a few seconds, still not opening his eyes. "'M hungry."

"Get dressed first," his brother instructed. "Come on, Al. Try to focus."

"Do I have to?" Al asked, nevertheless raising his head from Ed's shoulder to cast a longing glance at the shower. "Oh, why not," he muttered, peeling himself away from his brother and stepped into the empty cubicle. He was too short to reach the shower head, so Ed grabbed it for him, lowering it so that he could reach it himself, and he tossed his brother unthinking thanks as he turned the spray on.

Ed had fled the bathroom before Al even discovered he'd used all the hot water.