chapter 8.

The morning dawned bright and crisp, and Al was up to greet the sun.

Pulling himself from the warmth of his brother's body proved difficult, though—especially when Edward made a small noise in his sleep and snuggled in closer as he began to shift away—but ultimately, responsibility had raised its voice loudly enough to coax him from the bed.

He was uncharacteristically groggy as he stumbled over the freezing floor and toward the bathroom; Ed's sleep had been particularly riddled with nightmares the previous night, and Alphonse had stayed up with him, holding him and petting his hair, reassuring by touch in the way that the smaller boy seemed to need so badly. And when his brother had confided that he didn't want to try and get to sleep again, they'd simply talked, neutral topics designed to lead thoughts away from whatever terrible dreams had been and gone.

It had been comfortable—cozy, even. But by the time Alphonse was peering blearily into his suitcase to fish out something to wear, he'd begun to wish quite fervently for a means of obtaining coffee that didn't involve leaving the sanctity of their room.

The boy was stumbling from the bathroom again, fully dressed and more aware for having washed his face with the frigid tap water, by the time he realized he was being watched.

At some point, his brother had awakened.

Half-lidded golden eyes tracked him idly as he crossed the room, Ed's lips curving slowly into a smile as he realized he'd been noticed. The covers were askew still in the spot where the younger boy had fought his way free of their seductive embrace, but Edward seemed unconcerned, for the moment, about the chill of the early morning air. It was a testament to the power of the sight that Al forgot to scold him for not keeping warm.

Because the blankets swooped nearly to Ed's waist on one side, exposing the too-long-from-the-sun pale of his brother's chest and the soft sheen of metal around the place where his arm should have been. The sharp angle of the boy's collarbone had softened with diligent care, alarming prominence of his ribs fading to something that spoke of a situation not quite so urgent. Even the deepest of the bruises that had marred the flesh of chest and stomach had lightened to a sickly green, and once-dire wounds had scabbed over, begun to heal.

Had Alphonse's mind managed to put a word to the sight before him, Ďamazing' is what it would have picked.

But it couldn't seem to settle on a sentiment that language could express, and for an endless moment, all that the younger boy could manage was to wonder. Wonder at the fact that he'd forgotten this feeling—this rush of emotion, sharp and tight and utterly inappropriate. Alphonse was lost in the face of it, swept up in the fall of his brother's hair and in the soft fabric of borrowed pants that clung loosely to slender hips.

And then the word did come, echoed in his thoughts and left him with no choice but to agree: amazing.

Because his brother was—was brave and strong and brilliant and lovely and amazing. And the feeling that the boy evoked, that slow, deep affection mingled with a fluttery, hard-to-breathe jump in his heart—that feeling that he'd wanted so badly to try and explain nearly two years ago—was quite possibly, Al thought, the best feeling in the world.

When the corners of his mouth quirked up into a return smile, when it spread to touch bronze eyes and color his cheeks, the expression fairly glowed.

"Morning," Ed mumbled, shifting to stretch. "You're up early." Those stunning golden eyes stayed trained on him as he bent to retrieve the flashlight from the floor, and there was something cautious in the tone, as though testing unsure footing. It reminded the younger boy that there were more important things to consider than ill-timed confessions. "You going today?"

"I thought it'd be better to get it over with," Alphonse agreed, and knelt beside the suitcase. Unsnapping the clasp, he lifted it open, considering only briefly before he selected two books from within and set them on the floor. Two more followed, but they failed to join the first; instead, he returned them to the suitcase, settling the thick volumes over a sheaf of documents bound by a paperclip.

"Maybe," his brother conceded unwillingly, and Al snapped the suitcase shut and rose, offering him a reassuring smile.

"Everything will be fine." The younger boy crossed the length of the room in four steps, set the books carefully on the edge of the bedside table. "You'll see," he soothed, and absently pulled the covers up to protect Edward from the chill of the morning. "I'll be back this afternoon."

"Well." Golden eyes lifted to meet his gaze, full of challenge. "You'd better be careful."

"Don't worry, brother," Al answered gently. When he smiled again, it was with the pleasure of knowing that the concern in the smaller boy's eyes was for him. "I will be."

The lab was a crude affair, long metal tables sandwiched between walls of earth, the notes that lay spread across the surfaces coated with a thin sheen of grime. As he tracked the flashlight's beam slowly over the equipment, the beakers shone dully in the light, thick with filth. And a moment later, what he'd been searching for sprang into view: a half-melted stump of wax topped with a blackened nub of wick.

According to his brother, there was no electricity in the mine—either there hadn't been any to begin with or they'd shut it down when the mine was abandoned. In any case, the reason didn't much matter so much as the implication: he'd have to light the lab the way Ed's torturers had if he wanted to search the place thoroughly.

Alphonse crossed the room warily, flashlight tracking from side to side and back again, steps steady but cautious. In all probability, there was nothing to worry about here—not yet, at least. But there was a niggling doubt that had begun to insist it was very possible indeed, a doubt that he'd immediately decided against telling his brother.

Because, a small voice in the back of his mind had pointed out, the correspondences had been reaching Central with no more than a day's lag. The first had been received the morning after his brother failed to report for duty, and there had been one every day, consistently, for the next eight months.

But to reach the city from here, Alphonse had realized with a growing sense of unease, the train ride would be almost a day and a half, assuming that the transfer could be made smoothly. It would have been impossible for someone to get the status updates to Central and still manage to maintain the lab—to say nothing about the time that had so obviously been spent with his brother.

Which really left only one possibility. The man must have been in contact with someone in Central, someone who'd known enough about what was going on not to mind typing up accounts of torture. Someone who could make sure the correspondences arrived on time.

But presumably, Alphonse reassured himself as he reached to light the candle, they hadn't been in daily contact since the delivery of the notes had stopped. And hopefully—his brother was alone in town right now, the part of his mind that wouldn't stop worrying insisted, oh please hopefully—communication lapses like the one since the cave-in had become fairly common.

A second candle lent its light to the first, and the darkness of the room faded a bit more, served to remind Al of another problem still.

Because if the mine had no electricity, there was really only one way the boy could think to be in fast contact with Central. Quite simply, the man must've been able to either telegraph or call—and if not from the mine, Rush was the only other option. Which raised a whole new set of troubling questions.

Did that mean, Al couldn't help but wonder, that someone in town had been lying to him all along—been lying as he showed the picture of Ed grinning wildly and asked whether anyone had seen his brother? Or had the man concocted a believable story, convinced one of the townsfolk that he had a valid reason for needing to be in touch with Central on a daily basis? Or—and this was the one that made Alphonse cringe to think it—had he been a resident of Rush himself, owned his own phone, returned home at night and left Edward alone in the mine, hurt and bound and hungry?

Just the thought was enough to tense Alphonse's grip on the flashlight, bring his teeth tight closed against the mix of disgust and fury that rose up inside him. As he tipped the wick to another candle, this one yet unlit, it was anger that made his hand shake, and as the room crept a bit further from darkness, he cast a bronze gaze across the room to placate the emotion.

There it was. The place where the lab gave way to rubble, tables and beakers and low metal cages half-swallowed by the fallen dirt and rock.

It had been a rebound of some sort, his brother had said; prepared for an experiment himself, the boy had been lying drugged near the entryway, had watched without really understanding as the light changed color and the wall had cracked. By the time things had settled, more than half the lab was gone—and Ed's torturer with it.

The thought brought a flood of relief in its wake, overriding even anger as a new candle's light joined the others. Because as bad as things had been, Ed was lucky. Lucky that he hadn't been bound when the accident took place, lucky that he hadn't been in the collapsed section of the lab, lucky that the rebound hadn't taken the whole mine down.

Lucky that he was alive at least, Alphonse thought grimly, and set fire to the tip of the last candle.

It was late afternoon when he returned, arms full of several thick volumes and no closer to answers than he had been. The lab had been curiously devoid of personal information; the closest that Alphonse had uncovered were the man's alchemical notes, encoded fairly simplistically in the guise of a series of treatises on natural history.

In fact, Al admitted reluctantly as he twisted the key in the lock of their room's door, there was really only one thing that he'd managed to settle. With the presence of a large number of caged and presumably ill-tempered animals, it wasn't at all hard to imagine that their echoing cries had given birth to the ghost rumors that had drawn him to Rush for a second time. He'd yet to uncover who'd been among the group of children that had ventured into the old mine on a play-exploring expedition, but the boy fully intended to thank them if he ever did.

For now, though, he had more important things that required his attention. Namely, demanding that his brother explain what the hell he'd been intending to do with notes on chimerical transmutation and anatomy.

"I'm back, brother," Alphonse announced, pushing the door open; the tone was just shy of reproving. "And I got those books for you." He set the flashlight down carefully, lay the books beside it.

There was no response though, and Al frowned just slightly, turning for the first time. "Brother?"

The bed was empty—and for the space of several seconds, Alphonse had to fight down the panic that welled up inside him, that dizzying, urgent voice that screamed what a bad idea it had been to leave the boy alone.

And then Ed answered, the sound shaky and thin, and bronze eyes followed the sound to find that his brother was crouched on the ground above his suitcase.

For a moment, the relief was so profound that he didn't realize. Didn't register the fact that there were tears running down his brother's face, slow and quiet, from fragile golden eyes. Didn't look down to see what lay spread before him.

"Al," his brother gasped then, and even before his mind had fully understood, he knew by the tone that something was terribly wrong. Alphonse was moving forward in the next heartbeat, was closing the distance between them in a few hurried steps, gathering the smaller boy close in a protective embrace.

"Shh," he murmured, tone low and reassuring. And when Edward responded to the touch with a desperation that he hadn't displayed since that first day in the mine shaft, burying his face in the crook of Al's neck and pressing nearer, the younger boy barely managed to keep the resulting alarm from his voice. "Everything's fine, brother. Shh. You're okay."

But bronze eyes were busy searching amid the scattered contents of his suitcase to see what, precisely, had upset the boy so badly—and a moment later, he got his answer.

The Fullmetal Alchemist has been taken into custody, it read, peering up at him from where his brother had left it. A list of our demands is attached. To encourage cooperation, a daily status report.

In his arms, Ed made noise caught somewhere between a sob and a whimper—and quite suddenly, it was all Alphonse could do to close his eyes against the burning sting of tears.