chapter 2.

One year later.

He'd passed through this town once, sometime during early summer.

The heat then had been enough to make him miserable, hitting him full in the face as he stepped off the train and onto the aging platform. Not even a bench had been set out for the convenience of travelers—just a small, wooden sign that looked as though it had been carved by someone with a pocket knife and too much spare time.

"Welcome to Rush," it had said—and beyond it, Alphonse had been able to see the whole town, a clustered handful of houses that lined the dusty main street. He recalled having been disappointed—remembered thinking that none of the buildings here were big enough to conceal an experimental facility.

Regardless, he'd showed the picture to anyone that would look, repeated the words that he'd learned by heart: "That's right, Edward Elric. He's my brother." The next part had changed since the last time Ed's birthday came and went, but Alphonse was familiar with it, too, now. "He's seventeen—bright blonde hair, gold eyes. Unusually short."

At first, the boy had hesitated to add the last words of the description—thought that, when his brother found out about it, he'd never hear the end. That was before he'd decided that, much as Ed hated the fact, it was true. And if height was what people noticed when they met his brother, maybe they'd recall it well enough to be able to give him information.

But no one had seen the Fullmetal Alchemist—not here, and not in any of the other dozens of cities that he'd visited.

Every time he showed the picture, though, a part of him still expected to see Ed pushing through a crowd of people, demanding to know who had dared call him so short that it was unusual. And for all the countless times he'd been disappointed over the course of the past year, he still felt the sting when the description failed to yield his brother, eyes flashing and ready to make Al regret the unfortunate choice of words.

Today was different. The picture of Ed stayed tucked into the inner pocket of his coat; he didn't stop passers-by to show it, didn't ask about a young man with striking eyes and a sharp temper. Today, he had a purpose.

He'd returned on a snatch of a rumor that he'd caught changing trains at a station near Central.

The woman had been middle aged, born and raised in Rush, and if she'd thought it odd that the intent, polite boy had approached her to interrupt the conversation, she hadn't mentioned it. She'd answered his questions kindly—"Some folks at home're just spreading stories about the old mine outside town being haunted. Imagine that—silly things, believing in ghosts."—and wished him luck. It wasn't until he'd thanked her and turned to go that he wondered whether she remembered him passing through the little town on a search for his missing brother.

Regardless, though, the woman's words had set Alphonse's thoughts to turning—because when he'd passed through Rush that summer, no one had mentioned a mine. And even if the town didn't have any buildings big enough to hold an experimental facility... well. Maybe there was someplace else, after all.

And so he'd bought a new ticket, let his next train leave without him. Ignored the part of his mind that pointed out quite rationally how unlikely he was to find anything. That using a mine—abandoned or otherwise—as a laboratory would be difficult and unsanitary, the kind of plan that only some sort of lunatic could conceive.

Exactly the sort of lunatic, he'd assured himself as he boarded the train to Rush, that would spend eight months torturing a teenaged boy.

And besides, Alphonse reflected grimly—he was running out of places to look.

The sole inn of the little town was as quiet as the rest of it, the main room crowded with squat, comfortable-looking furniture. And the heating, Alphonse reflected to himself, was broken—assuming that the building had any to begin with. Since the moment he'd stepped off the train, he'd been wondering how this could possibly be the same place he recalled from summer; the heat had been sweltering then, but now he was shivering through his jacket.

It wasn't even late autumn.

The innkeep had been half asleep when he arrived, roused when the boy coughed discreetly to attract his attention. It was hard to blame him for dozing, though; Alphonse's train had run late, so he wasn't certain what time it was, but the air was still and quiet with the dark of early morning.

"Here you go, son," the man told him, sliding the key across the counter with a scrape of metal on wood. He reached to take it absently, pausing only briefly to glance at the number two painted onto the flat surface of its head before mumbling his thanks and heading for the hallway.

Room two was at the far end of the building, nestled by a back exit whose door's wood had warped so badly that it refused to close all the way. Alphonse found it easily—it was one of only ten numbered rooms, after all—letting himself in and setting his suitcase in the entryway.

He refused to consider what he may or may not find tomorrow as he lay his coat down on the small table beside the window, refused to let his mind wander as stripped to shower, shivering with the cold of the night. But when he settled himself into the room's tiny, shabby bed for what he hoped would be a few hours' sleep and a chance to get warm, the thoughts rose up to drag him under.

The worry came first, as it had every day since the Fuhrer had told him the whole truth behind his brother's kidnapping—great, dark claws that ate away at his chest until it hurt to breathe. He tried not to wonder why the correspondences had stopped coming, tried not to think that his brother was still in pain somewhere, was suffering as he made his clumsy way from city to city, trying in vain to reach him. Or worse: that he'd died waiting for Al to get there, died before Mustang had even told him, alone and terrified and hurting.

Squeezing his eyes closed and willing himself to sleep, Alphonse mouthed words of comfort to himself like a charm to ward against fear, pulling the blankets in tighter.

They were Winry's words, bizarrely enough; after he'd brought the news to Rizenpool, she'd cried as hard as he had, clung to his neck and sobbed like he'd not seen since her parents died. And then, when the fit had passed and he'd said that he was going to find Ed, she'd fixed him with a blue-eyed stare that was equal parts grief and determination. "You'd better," she'd told him, wiping the tears away roughly. "Cause wherever he is, your brother's too damn stubborn to give up waiting for you."

Alphonse hadn't had the heart to show her the papers.

As always, though, the remembered reassurance helped; sleep began to creep in at the edges slowly, the burning sensation at the corners of his eyes fading as his mind clutched that hope desperately near. Ed was too brave to give up, too strong to let himself get killed. Too stubborn to go without seeing his little brother one more time.

And gradually, the more painful thoughts were leeched away, leaving his mind to wander without the sting of regret that came with full waking, leaving him free to remember for memory's sake.

It had been Winry, he recalled with a distant, edge-of-sleep detachment, that had convinced him to talk to Ed in the first place.

In that long-ago time when the most he'd needed to worry was that his growing interest wasn't entirely proper, he'd spent weeks determining whether he should mention it at all. When he'd finally caved in, it had been their childhood friend that he'd turned to for advice.

Winry had been both straightforward and utterly unsurprised by his confession—a fact that had led Alphonse to the unsettling conclusion that perhaps he hadn't been so subtle as he'd intended. Her advice had been simple: if he didn't spell it out plainly, Ed would never catch on. After all, the girl had pointed out, he might be a genius at alchemy, but Edward Elric certainly was slow when it came to other things.

And so he'd spent the day cooking, more to keep his mind off what he planned to do than from any real hunger; the nervous fluttering in his stomach had precluded any thoughts of food, and by the time he'd finished, Al realized that he hadn't been cooking for himself, after all. Because the meal had ended up being all of his brother's favorites, whether he'd planned it consciously or not.

He'd been setting the first bowl out on the table as Ed had walked in the door.

"You cooked?" he asked, and from the depths of somewhere, Alphonse realized that at some point he'd stopped remembering and drifted off to begin dreaming. He couldn't feel the bed beneath him any more, didn't know anything but the hard curve of the dish in his hand and the plush of their carpet under bare feet.

Grinning nervously, Al nodded as the older boy took off his coat, dropped it in a pile by the door. "I made stew," he agreed, distracted enough to forget to scold about leaving a mess.

"Great," Ed answered fervently. "I'm starved." He'd deposited himself at the table and was helping himself before Alphonse had a chance to bring out the rest of the dishes; by the time he'd settled himself across from his brother, the boy was already reaching for his second helping.

"Today set some kinda record for crappy days," the dream-Ed told him, mumbling around a mouthful of stew. "I made the mistake of stopping in to get those files Havoc dug up, and Mustang spotted me. Asshole's shipping me out east tomorrow on some mission he couldn't blackmail anyone else into taking."

Al stared, thoughts of what he'd meant to say fleeing as his brother's words sank in. "Tomorrow? But he promised you'd be able to stay close to Central from now on!"

"Yeah," the older boy agreed, reaching for a roll. "What a bitch, huh?" And he grinned, lop-sided and a bit sad.

The memory faded there, but the dream went on, shadowed images in which his brother returned from the mission bleeding and sobbing, broken.

And when Al woke shuddering two hours before dawn, he waited up for the sun; perched on one of the low stools by the room's small table, he hunched himself low against the chill of the early morning hours, fighting to bury himself in a text that proved no distraction at all.