chapter 12.

"Hands where I can see them," said a woman's voice, and Alphonse half-turned on instinct alone, twisting to get a look at the source. But the command came a moment later, crackling through the air like lightning and stopping him cold: "Don't move," she instructed. "And if you try to draw a circle, I'll kill you both."

For the space of several seconds, though, the threat didn't even process—because he was facing his brother, still, and even in the dim lighting, it was impossible to miss the stricken expression that had settled over the smaller boy's face.

This wasn't supposed to happen, Alphonse's thoughts insisted furiously, even as he lifted his hands. His brother was never supposed to have to go through this again—wasn't supposed to be breathing like that, shallow and fast and terrified.

"Good," said the voice, and Al began scanning with his eyes for something—anything—that he could use to turn the tide. "Now, I'm going to pick up the flashlight. If you turn around—or lower your hands, or twitch the wrong way—I shoot. Am I clear?"

Footsteps, then, coming closer, and the rustle of fabric as the woman presumably knelt to retrieve the light. The beam wavered, then—flickered to settle fully on the two of them, making the ground on either side of the brothers burningly bright.

If he wasn't sitting like this, Al thought desperately, he could have tried to scratch out a circle with his foot—but it was too obvious with him leaning forward on his knees, too easy for her to see. And Ed was tenser now, he noticed with alarm—actually cringing away from the dark silhouette of a figure that he must be able to discern.

"Excellent." There was satisfaction in that tone, and appreciation. "Listen carefully now, because I don't like to repeat myself." Another step, measured and light, and Al couldn't tell whether she was moving closer or further away. "Do you see that cage there?" And when he hesitated, uncertain of which: "The open one on the end."

The nod came cautiously, unsure what was expected, and it earned a low chuckle in response. "Put the chimera in."

He wasn't sure which came first—the heartbreaking little noise that wrested itself from Ed's throat, or the snarl of rage that came from his own. Regardless, he was halfway turned before the gun rang out, only his brother's harsh cry of terror snapping his attention back away from the monster that held both weapon and light.

There was no blood, his mind babbled in relief—no blood, and for a moment, that was all he could think.

"That's your only warning," came the voice again, unforgiving. "Now put him in."

Bronze eyes shifted with alarm to the trembling wreck that his brother had become, searched out the cage uncertainly. "He—he won't fit."

"He has before," the reply assured him smoothly. "Now move, and keep your hands in sight."

There had never been anything quite like the pain that had spiked through him when Ed began to cry.

And it hurt more, perhaps, to know that his brother was trying so hard not to—to have seen the mortification mixed with the fear on Ed's features as the younger boy had coaxed him to hunch his shoulders and duck awkwardly into the cage. But there was nothing to be done, nothing that could be done—not when a bullet would reach them before the glow of an alchemical reaction had even really begun
And so, chest an aching mess of guilt—he'd promised that things would be alright now, Al's thoughts whispered accusingly, that Ed wouldn't be hurt anymore—the younger of the boys had pressed the door closed and heard the finality of the lock clicking into place.

Even now, he couldn't keep himself from glancing back toward the darkened corner where he knew his brother was; it was just visible in the glow of the candles that the woman had instructed him to light since, and he could see, vaguely, the movement as Ed shifted in the too-tight confines of the metal bars. Alphonse bit his lip, felt a familiar surge of worry well up inside—forced it down as he returned his eyes to the task in front of him.

"Well?" the voice demanded again, impatient. "What's taking so long?"

"There are a lot of papers here," he protested, and scanned through another sheet, eyes straining to catch words in the dim lighting.

From his brother's corner of the room, there was a leathery rustle—the sound that the boy's wing made, Al knew from experience—and a quiet noise that was dangerously close to a whimper. It scared him that Ed hadn't spoken since the cage door had clicked shut behind him—scared him more than he could say that the older boy wasn't shouting insults or offering brash threats.

But the woman was speaking again, voice sharp in the way that made him suspect she'd be waving the gun threateningly if he turned to look, and Alphonse didn't dare risk another glance away. "Not that many," she was snapping, words thrumming with impatience.

"It's too dark to see them properly," Al objected, and leaned in closer to peer at the page before him; he made a show of squinting. "If you let me have a candle—"

"And sit back while you scratch a circle in the wax?" An amused snort followed, and the boy's stomach sunk, uneasy, as his plan was pointed out so casually. "Hardly. Keep going."

And so he did—page after page, shuffling through the documents without really seeing them. His mind was scrabbling for something to hold onto, anything that could get them out of this—because they knew not only what had been happening, but that she'd been involved. And there was no way, Al understood instinctively—no way that she could let them live, not without risking that they'd talk.

He found it some five minutes later, a document not so different than the others—and if Alphonse hadn't been so terrified for his brother's life, he might have wondered what was special about it.

Instead, he straightened, careful not to make another move. "I've got it."

The voice shook just slightly at the announcement, and it was impossible to tell whether it was from excitement or if the strain of the situation was finally beginning to take its toll. "Good. Set it on the table to your left and back off."

He'd taken two steps away from the flat metal of the surface before he got his first look at gun-wielder, caught himself thinking that she was small enough to wrestle to the ground without much trouble, if only he could get the weapon from her hand. If only he had something to write with. If only she wasn't so meticulously insistent that his hands be in view all the time.

"Further," she insisted. "In the center of the room, and keep your hands up. I don't want you touching anything." And he could see the outlines of an icy smile, then, a shadow-expression in the dim lighting, and felt the frustration threaten to choke him.

If only something.

It happened in the second that she turned away, back to the rest of the room as she lifted the paper and glanced to make sure it was, in fact, the one she needed.

The light came before the sound, a blue glow that told him without a fraction of a doubt why his brother had been so quiet. And then the crackling joined it, merged with the leaping, glowing strands that marked a transmutation—and by the time she whirled, gun in hand, to see what the sound was, the floor was rippling outward at a startling speed, racing along the earth and toward her feet.

Al was moving in the instant that it broke—barely had time for his mind to wonder whether Ed had meant for the spike to come up hard and fast enough to pierce the arm that had been holding the weapon. But their captor was crying out in agony, clutching the limb to herself; the flashlight hit the floor, spun, cast wild shadows dancing up against the walls; the gun flew up in an explosion of warm flesh, landed with an earthy thud on the dusty bottom of the mine shaft.

And Alphonse was there just seconds later, fingers groping desperately at the metal, closing over dirt and steel and the slickness of the woman's blood.

Pain exploded in his face as a boot connected with his jawbone, and he fell backward, reeling, even as a part of his mind screamed at him to move, that the pain would be nothing compared to what would happen if he didn't get the gun.

Distantly, he recognized that blue light was making strange shadows on the wall again—but he was too busy to wonder what Ed was doing, too wrapped up in throwing himself full-force into the woman's legs as she knelt to retrieve the weapon. She went down with a yelp, twisting immediately to fight her way up again—but Al's fist met her stomach, hard, and she doubled over, wheezing.

His attempt to reach for the gun was met with an indignant shriek, and the woman launched herself bodily, latching onto him with the arm that wasn't destroyed and attempting to pull him away. It wouldn't have worked—not if his wrist hadn't been at precisely that angle, or if she hadn't been yanking with such mindless determination. But it was, and she was—and the woman may have been small, but she was strong.

Alphonse felt his wrist crack, giving under the pressure, and a hoarse cry of agony wrested itself from him as she went for the gun.

A hand that wasn't really a hand got there first, and in the dim lighting, his brother's eyes flashed a menacing, glowing green: an animal's eyes, in darkness. And then the half-arm was knocking the gun away—barely a yard, Al's mind thought frantically, it's not enough, brother, get it farther.

But then he saw—saw through the panic and the pain to the circle that had been scratched into the ground below the place where the gun now rested.

And Ed was bearing his teeth in a maniac grin, all tiny, jagged points, was pressing his not-quite-an-arm to the edge of the array.

A moment later, the weapon had gone, a seamless sheet of steel all that remained in place of it. And in the heartbeat that she hesitated, the unexpected change stealing her momentum, Alphonse closed the distance with his good hand, clutched the block of metal tight, and brought it to bear—against the woman's temple, and hard.

"Are you ready to try again, brother?"

Hopefully, his mind added quietly, with no interruptions this time. Not that it was a likely possibility; the woman was unconscious still, secured with Ed's consent into one of the sets of shackles on the wall. With luck, she wouldn't wake until they were long gone.

"Yeah," his brother answered, voice only a little shaken. "C'mon, Al—get it over with already."

And quite suddenly, anxiety of a sort that had been washed away in the face of immediate danger returned full-force, reminded him that there had been something in particular that he wanted to do before the transmutation.

"Brother," he said, softly—and hesitated. But he had to get the rest out now, had to say it, and before he could think to second-guess himself, the rest followed in a rush. "I love you."

And he lifted his gaze to Ed's face, visible now with the flicker of candle light, watched as the expression struggled to settle on a single emotion. Embarrassment flickered past first, and then pleasure, a warm glow of happiness that the smaller boy struggled visibly not to show—but it was exasperation that he finally settled on, making a show of rolling his eyes. "Love you too, you sap—now come on, before you drive me crazy here."

Alphonse didn't respond—just crawled forward as he had before, motion made awkward this time by the injured wrist. And when he reached to trace a trembling finger softly over the line of his brother's jaw, it was his off-hand that was responsible for the gentle touch.

"No," Al said slowly, and the tone drew those eyes to his, startled gold that flickered to green again at just the right angle. "I love you, brother."

And before he could think about it, before he could stop to see whether understanding had dawned in that lovely, expressive face, Alphonse was leaning in to kiss lips that he'd dreamed about for far, far too long.

It was brief and chaste—a feather of a touch. And when he pulled back to find his brother's eyes wide and staring, an expression quite akin to shock printed clearly over his features, the boy felt the burn of shame along his cheeks.

"Sorry," he mumbled, and ducked his head, feeling quite suddenly as though the world had grown fragile round him. Because if Ed spoke, it would break; words to match that expression would be enough to bring his reality crumbling down. "Let's—let's go ahead and get you fixed."

He'd already started backing away when his brother's voice reached him.

"Al," the smaller boy said, softly.

And when bronze eyes lifted uncertainly, it was to the sight of a pale thumb trailing slowly over the place where his lips had been. Ed's face was a war of emotions too complex for the younger boy to even begin to decipher—and he was, Alphonse realized quite suddenly, terrified to try. Because every doubt he'd ever harbored was screaming at him full-force, and even Winry's words of advice so long ago seemed worthless in the face of the blank shock painted across his brother's face.

"Al," the boy said again, and the word was tight, this time, as though with tears. Guilt flared up to join regret—because his brother had been through so much, and how could he have been selfish enough to make it worse?

Thoughts crowded near the surface, roiling with shame—and just as he'd begun to form a second apology, just as he opened his mouth to speak, a single word brought everything crashing down.

"Again," Ed demanded—and the boy really had been about to cry, Al noted vaguely, because he was fairly certain that it was a suppressed sob that made his brother's voice so thick.

But noplace in his mind seemed prepared to deal with the fact that his brother wanted another kiss from him—and so Al moved forward on instinct alone, closing the distance between them without the aid of coherent thought. The world had narrowed to this one moment, to the feel of Ed's chin as he reached out with his good hand to tip it upward, to the softness of those lips as he leaned forward to bring their mouths together.

It was different this time.

There was uncertainty for the first few seconds, that same shock that had dawned so bright and heavy in the wake of their last contact—and then Ed was making a noise that he could feel vibrating against his mouth, a strange, keening, wanting sound that stole his breath away.

The smaller boy was pressing forward, then, all fumbling warmth and desperation—and when those lips parted against Al's own and their tongues came together, intimate and awkward, it was, Alphonse had time to think in a distant, wondering sort of way, perhaps the happiest he'd ever been.

"Yes," he said into the receiver of the phone, "General Hawkeye, please."

On one of the overstuffed chairs in the main room of the inn, Ed sat flexing his fingers, one at a time, and watching them move.

"Yes, that's right," he said again—but his attention wasn't on the conversation, not really. It was fixed upon the pale digits that his brother was so fascinated with, caught up in the exhausted delight that the smaller boy was all but radiating.

"Oh, General." And when golden eyes rose to look askance, he offered a warm smile and nodded.

"Thank you for the time," Al offered, "I know you're busy." A pause. "Yes, that's right." The boy shifted the phone against his ear, waited a moment longer. "Well, that's what I wanted to talk to you about."

"If you could just let the Fuhrer know I've found my brother—" And he broke off, laughing, at the exclamation on the other end, waited a moment until it had passed. "It's a little town called Rush." Another pause. "Just have Intelligence take a look at the old mine nearby."

On the chair, Ed had gone back to examining his hand, but he was grinning now, unabashedly, teeth quite human behind the smile. "That's very kind of you, thanks. I understand—goodbye, General."

Alphonse didn't blame him.