There was a knock on the door to the Elrics' apartment. Edward Elric looked up from his book, and sighed. "Al, could you get the door?"
"Sorry, Brother," the suit of armor called out from the kitchen, "I can't leave the stew right now, or it'll burn. You'll have to get it yourself."
With another sigh, Edward hauled himself out of his chair, and walked over to the door. "All right, I'm coming!" He opened the door... to reveal Russell Tringham. A very calm, sedate Russell Tringham.
The older blond grimaced. "I thought I told you that I didn't want to—"
Edward didn't see the right hook coming. He honestly didn't. Which was why he went flying when Russell decked him. He jumped up to his feet, and screeched, "What the heck was that—"
He didn't get to finish his question. Instantly, Russell was on him again, lashing out with a spin-kick. Just in time, Edward ducked underneath, now very glad that he had restored his auto-mail arm. He tried to clap, to start a transmutation reaction to stop Russell's attack...
...but the younger boy was faster. He lashed out again, and it took all of Edward's strength to block the blow. All the while, the blue eyes were icily staring at Edward, in a cold rage that wouldn't allow argument or reason.
Easily, Russell grabbed Edward's blocking arm, flung it to the side, and struck with a kick, sending Edward flying onto one of the beds. The older boy groaned, but the wind was knocked out of him; he was starting to see stars, and he could barely struggle to his feet as Russell strode towards him, murder in his glare.
"Brother? What's going on?" Alphonse appeared in the other doorway, glancing from his fallen brother to the obviously-enraged Russell. "Russell! What are you doing?" He reached out with a leather gauntlet and grabbed the blond by his shoulder...
It was, perhaps, a testament to Russell's single-minded nature that he didn't register who had touched him. Despite that, he threw Al's hand aside, and spun around with a punch. He hit Alphonse directly in the center of his chest plate, and the steel was actually dented by the sheer force of the blow.
For a moment, Russell stared directly into the soulless eyes of Alphonse's armor, as though he couldn't comprehend the notion that his blow had no effect.
Then he screamed in pain, clutching his hand and falling to his knees. Alphonse sighed. "I didn't mean to hurt you, Russell..."
"Don't apologize to him, Al!" Edward shook his head, trying to clear it, and frowned. "He's the one that burst into our house, and tried to—"
It was as though Edward's voice was a catalyst. Russell's right arm hung uselessly by his side, but he got back up to his feet anyway, and leapt towards Edward, using his good hand to strike like lightning.
The older boy just barely managed to get his arms up to block. Instantly, Russell grabbed Edward's flesh arm, and yanked him forward, burying a knee into the elder Elric's gut. Edward sank to his knees, desperately trying to draw breath or to get out of Russell's range or... anything.
He didn't need to. Before Russell could do anything else, Alphonse grabbed him by the shoulders and pinned him against the cold armor. Russell squirmed and struggled, but didn't make a sound until he realized that he couldn't escape from Alphonse's grip.
"I'll kill him! Let me go so I can kill him for what he did!"
"What did he do?" Alphonse's voice was calm and reasonable, the exact opposite of Russell's.
"He destroyed my Stone!" Russell gave another futile effort to escape.
By this time, Edward had finally gotten back up to his feet. Staggering, yes, but back up to his feet. "Is... is that all that this is about?"
Russell shot him a look of mixed disdain and frustrated anger. "Of course! Do you have any idea of what you've done!?"
"I'm guessing that I broke your Stone." Edward grimaced, and softly shook his head. "Am I wrong?"
"Let me go, Alphonse! Please! If you knew what he did, you'd do the same thing!" Russell started kicking at the metallic shell, earning nothing more than a few bruises for his trouble. "Just him and me! Isn't that fair?"
"I can't let you do that, Russell." Alphonse tightened his grip. "I can't lose my brother."
Instantly, Russell's body tensed. "No... that would be a real tragedy, wouldn't it?"
Al asked, "What is that supposed to... oh. Brother?"
"When you destroyed the Stone... did you stop to think about why Russell had one? The one that he did have was destroyed."
"Well..." Edward gave a nervous laugh. "I thought that he just had it to bother me, really. Trying to counter my strengths, and all that. I really didn't... think about it at all, really."
Russell bristled at this, and it took all of Al's strength to hold him back. "You didn't even think of the consequences of your actions? Weren't you the one that told me to think for myself!?"
"Russell, please! You're not making this any easier!" Alphonse sighed. "This is... about Fletcher, isn't it?"
The tall blond gave one last struggle, then collapsed. "Yes. It is."
Edward looked confused. "He looked healthy the last time I saw him."
Russell gave a bitter laugh. "After he knocked you out of the way of the Red Water flow, Fletcher got a lethal dose of Red Water poisoning. A dose that should have been yours!"
"Maybe, but that's in the past. Like I said, he seemed healthy enough to me when I last saw him."
"I used the Red Stone to put the poison in remission. But... by itself, the Stone isn't enough to cure it."
Alphonse sighed. "So that means... you need to be constantly making more Red Stone in order to keep Fletcher healthy. Right?"
A very slight tremor went through Russell's body. "I... I lost a lot of time. I thought that the Stone could cure it, so I didn't think anything was wrong until he collapsed the first time. After that... it took me some time to find another Red Water fountain, and even longer to distill a large enough Stone to put the disease back into remission."
Edward finished the train of thought, slowly sinking in on himself. "And now that I've broken the stone you did have... it's going to take you months in order to make another one. And by that time, the disease will have gone past the point of being curable with just the Red Stone."
"You... can put me down now, Alphonse. I won't hurt Edward. I promise." Russell seemed so defeated, so entirely without energy or hope, that Alphonse complied. "When I told him what happened... Fletcher wasn't angry at you, you know. He... he just said that he wanted to live a little bit longer."
Softly, Alphonse put an armored gauntlet on Russell's shoulders. "Russell... would you stay here with Brother for a bit? I need to talk with Fletcher. Alone."
"Sure. It's not like it will really matter in the end." Russell slowly sank to his feet, and leaned up against the wall, hugging his knees to his chest. "He'll be happy to see you, at least."
"Brother, would you come here for a minute?" Alphonse's voice was sweet and yet, carried that subtle sound of command.
Which Edward instantly obeyed. "Yeah? What is it, Al?"
The giant suit of armor yanked Edward into the kitchen, and hurriedly whispered, "I'm going to see if Fletcher's all right, Brother. You can comfort Russell."
"What? Why do I—"
"Because you were the one to cause this mess, Brother." Alphonse sighed. "Besides... if someone were to hurt me, wouldn't you want some sort of apology? Even if it was an accident?"
"But..." Edward frowned, "It wasn't an accident. I... I broke the Stone on purpose, and I should have known better. What kind of alchemist am I, if I can't even notice a little detail like that?"
"Brother... It doesn't matter whether you should or shouldn't have known. What matters now is that Fletcher doesn't blame you at all, and that Russell needs someone who knows what he's going through."
"I don't get it, Al." Edward shook his head. "I've got you. I've always got you. There's nothing in the world that... that could take you from me."
"I know, Brother." Alphonse rested his hand on his brother's metal shoulder. "But something almost did, and if you hadn't done anything, then I would have died. You did, and I'm still here. Kind of." He offered a brief laugh. "Russell just needs some sort of reassurance. You'll think of something."
"But, Al... I don't know what to say. I mean, I'm the one that caused all of this, so..."
"Just let him talk first, Brother. Like I said, you'll think of something." And with that, Alphonse shoved him out, and offered a brief bow to Russell. "I'll have Fletcher call you when we're done talking, Russell. All right?"
"Mm." His blue eyes were glazed over, and he barely responded when Edward sat down next to him.
As Edward had said, he didn't know what to say or do. So he just sat there, fidgeting every so often. But, for some time, Russell just sat there, staring blankly. Several times, Edward started to say something, or tried to reach over to touch the other boy... but stopped short, too uncertain to commit himself.
Finally, Russell spoke. "I hate you, you know."
"Yeah." Edward forced a smile on his face. "I know."
"I... should probably try killing you anyway. Without your brother here, I don't think you'd be able to stop me."
Another pause. "But that really wouldn't help anything, would it? Fletcher would still be dying, and there would still be nothing to do about it. And Alphonse would get mad at me, too. I wouldn't want Fletcher's best friend... to end up hating him because of what I did."
Edward choked out a laugh. "Those two couldn't hate each other."
"Yeah..." Russell ran a hand through his blond hair. "Unlike us, they're even-headed and not half as idiotic. I don't think Fletcher would get caught up in something like this. Not on purpose, anyway."
"Nor would Al." Edward frowned. There was a different reason why his little brother wouldn't be involved in something like the games he played with Russell... but that was another mistake to be corrected.
Russell slowly massaged his right hand, wincing at the pain. "And I don't think he'd break his hand against steel armor, either."
"Here." Edward gestured with his left hand, and gently closed around Russell's wrist. "Tell me if this—" Russell hissed in pain when the older boy cautiously pressed against the bone, and Edward frowned. "Hurts. But it's not broken. Sprained, definitely, but not broken. You must have iron bones or something."
The feeble attempt at humor fell flat. "Fletcher, he... he... he's already decided on where he wants to be buried. We just imported a series of cherry trees from Xing... and he wants to be buried among them, so that his body can become a part of them." Russell gave a bitter laugh. "Even when he's dying, he's still thinking about how to help everyone else. Why... why couldn't I be like that? Instead of being so selfish?"
Edward didn't respond. He couldn't, really; what could he have said in response to that? Finally, Russell brokenly muttered, "He asked me if he'll cold, when he's buried. He... he wants Elisa to make a quilt for him, just for that. And... and he's planning on being buried in one of Dad's coats, just to be sure he doesn't get cold. He's always been afraid of the dark, though..." Russell slowly curled up. "What am I saying? None of that really matters anymore, does it?"
Once again, Edward remained silent. Russell punched his left fist against the floor, barely even feeling the impact. "I'm a failure as an older brother. First I fail in my father's research... then I agree to a plan that he'd hate me for just to move it along. Then, I get so caught up in my fight with you that I nearly kill him with the Red Water. And I try to make it right... only to get the both of us thrown into a dungeon. I don't even realize that I've failed to cure him until he collapses from the poison running through him... and he tries to apologize to me for hiding it! And... and then I break all of his dreams by fighting with you. How could I have been so stupid?"
Russell glared at Edward, but couldn't keep the rage going. "And during all of this... he's never blamed me for it. Not once. When we found out that there was still Red Water in his system... he comforted me. He said that he knew that I'd find a way to help him. And now that I betrayed his trust... he just said that he was glad to have had a brother like me!" A derogatory chuckle. "Pathetic, isn't it? Why couldn't he have a brother like you? Someone that his faith wouldn't be misplaced in."
"Idiot." Edward shook his head. "You think that I'd be any better?"
"Of course! Look at what you've done for Alphonse!"
Edward had to keep himself from hitting the taller blond. "I put him in a suit of armor! That's a great example of brotherly responsibility, huh?"
Slowly, Russell turned to face the older blond. "You... put him in there?"
A bitter laugh. "Yeah. He was dying, and that's the best I could come up with at the time."
Russell ran his hand through his hair. "You mean... you were the one who..."
"You got it. And he's never blamed me for it. Just like you and Fletcher."
Bursting out laughing, Russell slumped down and rested his head on Edward's real shoulder. "We're a mess. Not worthy of our little brothers at all, are we?"
"But that doesn't matter at all." Slowly, hesitantly, Edward wrapped his arm around Russell, and smiled. "They love us anyway. No matter what."
"Yeah..." Russell sobered. "But what am I supposed to do now? I can't make a Red Stone in time, and Fletcher wouldn't want to be like Alphonse; even if I had the alchemy to start it. And... I don't want to lose him. I just don't have the alchemic knowledge to make it right, and there's nothing else I can do. I'm so useless..."
It was Edward's turn to laugh. "Why didn't I think of this before?"
"Hm?" Russell straightened up, a quizzical look on his face. "What are you talking about?"
"There was a person who cured the Red Water poisoning in Xenotime awhile back. I know how he did it, and I bet I know how I can get what you need."
Russell's frown returned. "But I can't—"
Edward gave a confident smile. "You may not be able to do something, but I can. Just leave everything to me."