It was the sort of day, Ed thought, that he wanted to be curled up in the barracks with his brother, reading, with a cup of heated chocolate in his hands.

Instead, he was standing on a train platform, shoulders hunched and his hood turned up over his head, the windblown rain lashing at him, his brother beside him.

Ed hated himself for thinking it, but Al was lucky he couldn't feel this crappy weather. He stood next to his older brother like an unmoving rock, his faceplate turned towards Ed . "Brother, you'll be all right, won't you?" he said worriedly.

"Fine, fine," Ed grumped, looking up at the clock. "The damn train is late!"

"In this weather, it's not surprising," Al said mildly.

"Hmph." Al was right, he thought, but that didn't mean he couldn't be upset about it.

It was all the damn Colonel's fault, anyway; he'd come into the office to turn in his typed report from his last trip, and been handed another mission before he could even blink.

"I trust you'll be able to handle this, Fullmetal," Mustang had said as he held out the folder. "Please, keep the property damage to a minimum. Your train leaves in 45 minutes."

Ed had had a few choice words to say about then, but he held his tongue, bowed, and fumed at Al instead.

"Can't I get just one day's rest?" he demanded, crushing their tickets in his pocket without meaning to. "At this rate I'll never get a chance to research the Philosopher's Stone! No, instead I have to go all the way out to Illuti, on the damn northern border, to investigate alchemical anomalies! What kinda bullshit is that!?"

Al laughed, but it was a nervous, apologetic laugh – the way he laughed when he didn't want to set Ed off further. "Don't worry, brother," he said. "If we wait a few weeks longer it won't make much of a difference. Maybe the alchemical anomaly is something related to the Stone," he put in hopefully.

"I want to return you to normal as soon as possible," Ed huffed in reply, narrowing his eyes down the track. "Being a dog of the military is pointless if I can't have access to those libraries because I'm always off on some stupid mission." But he brightened slightly at the suggestion that maybe the mission would turn up information about the Stone. "Of course, if the Stone is involved, it'll be okay," he added.

Al laughed, the sound a little nervous as it echoed inside himself. "I'm more worried about you anyway," he said, then lifted his head at the sound of a distant train whistle.

"Finally!" Ed stormed, hunching his shoulders further against a particularly sharp gust of wind. He shook his fist down the track even though the train was hidden by the rain. "If you know the weather is going to delay you, you should leave early!"

"I don't think they can do that," Al laughed, rubbing the back of his head.

The train chugged into view and pulled to a stop, necessitating a run down the platform to the doorway where the trainman waved his arm at them; Ed shoved the tickets into the man's hand and stomped on board, tracking water all the way. Al followed him, and Ed could hear him apologizing for his rude older brother to the trainman and the few fellow passengers, carrying the suitcase that they – well, Ed – lived out of. Rain dripped off his shoulders and spikes.

"Damn it all," Ed snorted as he pulled down his hood; the wind had blown the rain into his hair, and he squeezed water out of his bangs as he attempted to shrug his coat off. "Soaked through." His shirt was, too, and his pants were plastered to his legs; his coat was good for keeping out the cold, but not the rain. He flung said coat over the arm of his seat and shook his arms. "I'm never going to get dry," he grumped, clapping his hands together and slamming them down on his coat.

Instantly steam rose from his coat as the water evaporated, leaving a damp smell in the train car and causing the few heads in the car to turn towards Ed. Al notified Ed of this in a tinny whisper. "Brother, they're staring."

"Let them stare," Ed snorted. He eyed his brother, and clapped his hands together again before pressing down on Al's breastplate. The thin sheen of water on Al's armor turned to steam, and Ed snatched his hands away with a yelp. "Ow! Hot hot hot—" He shook his gloved flesh hand, then snatched off his glove and pressed his hand against his own cold, soaked clothes with a sigh of relief.

Al sighed the sigh that Ed knew to mean 'Brother did something dumb again', and he narrowed his eyes at his younger brother. "Don't sigh at me like that."

But Al just handed Ed a towel from their suitcase. They'd learned the hard way that alchemy wasn't the best way to go about drying clothes if you were still in them, after all, when Ed had gone to dry his sleeve after thrusting it in a pond and ended up with a few blisters from steam burns. "Thank you," Al murmured. "Now you should get dry, too."

"Can't have you rusting," Ed snorted, taking the towel with surprising grace and laying it in his lap as the train started forward again. "… ugh." He peeled his jacket off next, and with a blush, pulled off his tank-top as well, before vigorously rubbing the towel against his damp skin. One more clap had both articles of clothing dried off, and he struggled back into them, growling his irritation when the tank-top caught on the joints of his arm. "This shit is such a pain," he grunted, smoothing the slightly damp shirt. "And my legs are still cold." His stomach growled, then, and Ed groaned. "And now I'm hungry! Why the hell couldn't the Colonel have given us enough time to go get something to eat!?"

Al made a soft noise somewhere between a laugh and something sympathetic, before he took the towel back from Ed and dropped in on his head. "Your hair is still wet," he pointed out.

"Mn." Ed tugged the tie out of his hair and let the water drip down his back for a moment, then shoved all of his hair back from his face and scrubbed at it with the towel. When the towel was soaked and his hair was relatively dry, he tossed the towel onto the opposite seat and used the hair tie to give himself a low ponytail.

Al carefully gathered up the towel as Ed flopped down on his side, cushioning his head on his coat; Ed watched Al deliberately fold up the towel and lay it aside, then sit, quiet, his armor expressionless. Ed hated it. Al never told anybody anything, and now, without even facial expressions to go by, Ed could almost never guess what was on Al's mind.

"What're you thinking about?" he asked, closing his eyes and rolling over to face the seat.

"Mm, I'm just worried about you getting sick. You didn't get any sleep last night," Al noted, his voice turning motherly, "And that on top of the last trip—"

"Well, I'm gonna get sleep now," Ed interrupted, somewhat exasperated. Truthfully, he'd been expecting to get some that night, but they'd probably arrive in Illuti at nearly midnight. He looked back over his shoulder at Al. "Don't worry about it, okay? You can't fix it."

He could hear the reluctance in Al's voice as he murmured, "Okay, brother," and it made him sigh a little as he began to drift off.

And in the end, as always, the train clacking it way down the tracks finally lulled him to sleep.

&

Illuti was a cold village, located in the mountains that provided a natural boundary between Amesteris and Drachma. Its primary export was coal; a limestone quarry was also still in active use, but the need for menial labor had recently increased as the alchemists that had formerly populated the remote town had moved a few miles south to Perth, where a steel refinery business boomed thanks to the local deposits of iron ore and coal.

This unto itself was nothing surprising or worrying; it was, rather, a sudden increase in the number of rough diamonds supposedly being mined. Naturally the government was suspicious of this and felt that it was best to have an alchemist investigate this possible alchemical crime.

Ed closed the report and looked up at the weathered sign over the train station exit: 'Welcome to Illuti'. In fact, nearly everything looked faded, as if it had once been painted brightly but not maintained. Al wandered a few steps ahead of his brother, the breeze tugging at his hair tassel. "Look, the lights are on over there," he said, pointing.

Ed squinted through the thin fog in that direction, unable to make out the sign swinging over the lit windows. "It's probably an inn. Let's go." He dropped the report back in his half-open suitcase, crouched to shut it, and swung it over his shoulder before starting off; Al clanged behind him, following.

The road was paved with limestone, likely from the quarry; there were no streetlights. A place like this probably didn't have a very extensive electric grid, after all, and Ed wondered how they generated electricity in the first place. Windmills? Maybe there was a waterfall around here ...

The sounds of carousing and a piano being played grew as they approached. Ed still had to squint to make out the sign, faded as it was: The Last Stop. "Encouraging," he grumbled, pushing the door open before Al could say anything.

If the noise had been notable outside the inn/tavern/barroom, it was a din inside. A bar was across the far back wall, alcohol of all sorts lining the shelves; almost all the tables were full up with men, young and old, singing a drinking tune to the song being banged out on the piano. It was loud enough and busy enough that Ed was able to enter without any apparent immediate attention, but when Al clanged through the door, a couple of the ones closer to the entrance turned their heads. "Hey, look, a guy in armor!"

"What're you wearing that heavy stuff for? Take it off, siddown, have a drink!" One of the men held up his beer glass, gesturing them over. "The short kid in the coat, too, you can both—"

Al drew his breath and glanced at his brother. A vein pulsed on Ed's forehead.

"WHO'RE YOU CALLING THE SIZE OF A PEA!?"

The piano music faltered at the scream, and quite suddenly they had everyone's attention. Ed, who had been about to attack his insulter bodily, stared up at the crowd of eyes blinking in his direction.

Al jumped in, taking a step forward to draw a little in front of his brother. "Ah, hello everyone," He bowed. "We're travelers from out of town, and we'd hoped you would have a place for us to stay the night?"

Ed relaxed marginally, nodding his head at the crowd just before the tall, rotund man behind the rail guffawed. "Hey, hey, come on in, then! We've got plenty of rooms, too many, really – siddown, get something to drink, I'll get you some keys! Kilik, give us some music again!" And with that, the young man at the piano began to bang out another tune and soon the Elric brothers were forgotten again in the crowd and noise.

Ed slithered through the crowd, elbowing people out of his way when they wouldn't let him slide by; Al picked along behind him, excusing himself every other step, until they finally squeezed themselves into a couple of seats at the bar. "Sure is lively," Ed observed the obvious over the din; the bartender (and evidently also the inn manager) slapped down a set of keys in front of them and grinned, nodding.

"We're busy just about every night – best beer in town, you know! – and today's payday for the miners," he answered, filling up two beers from the tap. "We've been doing pretty damn well lately – found some diamonds! Pay's up, spirits are up, hell, tourism's up, if you guys are any indication!" He laughed, shoving the beers towards the brothers.

Ed eyed the drink uncomfortably and pushed it back towards the bartender. "I'll just take juice if you have it," he said, glancing up at Al; Al cocked his head slightly at the drink as if unsure just how to approach the issue.

Ed could've sworn the bartender smirked at him then. "Still a kid, huh?" he remarked, taking the beer back. "Here, Tym, take this to Verdan!"

The elder Elric began a slow burn in his seat; again Al jumped to the rescue while the bartender poured Ed some cranberry juice. "Illuti was a tourist town?" he asked, evidently deciding to just ignore the beer at his elbow.

"Eh, that was years ago," the bartender nodded. "We got some beautiful caves around here – a carnival set up nearby, people'd bring their kids and look at the caves before riding the rides, and we'd get people staying up here a bit." He sighed. "That was before … eh, never mind, it's before your time," he shrugged and pushed the cranberry juice towards Ed. "Not many people remember it, I was just barely twenty myself …"

Ed dipped a straw into the cranberry juice and sipped a little. "This city was part of Drachma, then?" he asked, recalling the report in his suitcase.

The bartender stilled a moment, then laughed again, but not as cheerfully as before. "Hahaha, you do your research, don't you, kid!? Yeah, yeah, we were part of Drachma till we were annexed by Amestris – nearly went to war over it then, too," he seemed to think aloud.

"Too?" Ed asked, thinly. He wished the bartender would stop calling him 'kid'. He wondered if maybe he should call him 'big fat man' and see if he persisted, but Al would have scolded him and he didn't need that for his public image.

The man didn't seem to realize he'd spoken aloud, though, and he waved it off with a smile. "Eh, just muttering to myself," he dismissed it. Then he guffawed again, for no apparent reason. "The room'll be 20,000 a night, plus breakfast in the morning," he told them heartily.

"Kind of expensive," Ed grumbled, reaching for his pocketbook. "But everywhere else is about the same, isn't it?"

"We're the cheapest," the bartender announced. "Gotta make the ones that do come pay enough to keep this place up. It's not too bad. Just pay on a night-to-night basis, all right? And I'm not charging for the juice," he winked. Ed glared at him.

The bartender/manager took the money as Ed laid it out on the table. "Okay, then, I'll be right back with you folks – name's Hale. If you need my attention, just shout," he grinned, and then Hale was off to the other end of the bar, greeting other guests.

Ed watched him go, gulping down some more juice. The space between his shoulders ached, his spine ached, and his knee ached … he sat up and arched his back in an attempt to stretch the soreness out. "Well, that guy's kind of bitter," he observed.

"What do you mean, brother?" Al was gazing after the bartender as well.

"You heard him when he talked about Amestris and Drachma," Ed grunted, and relaxed again, leaning over the counter. It was marginally better. "The guy still thinks he's Drachminian. And he's probably not the only one," he added in a low voice.

"Mm," Al made a thoughtful noise of assent, and Ed sighed. There wasn't much in the file about the annexation – it was just the usual background information, what military force was available, that sort of thing. But it had been about twenty years ago … plenty of the guys here were over twenty. And if it had bred resentment that spanned that long …

"Anyway," he added, reaching back and rubbing his neck under his braid, "It's not really our business." He drained the last of the juice in one long pull on the straw and reached into his back pocket again. "What time is it …?" He pulled out his watch and flipped it open, turned away from Al. Almost one o'clock in the morning. "We should turn in," he started to tell Al, flipping the watch closed again.

"Nice watch," said the man next to Ed. Ed grunted his assent, not really paying attention. "Can I see it?" he added.

"No," Ed started to say, looking up at the man – and then he saw his expression.

"You're a National Alchemist?" the man asked, his tongue curling around the title as if it tasted bad, and it was as if he'd spoken the magic words; Hale turned to stare at him, and then other patrons did, the word 'National Alchemist' being whispered down the rows and ranks of drinking miners. The building went quiet again, but this time with hostile expectation.

"… You know," said Hale, sounding much less jovial than before, "you never did tell us why you're here."

There was no use lying; they would have found out the next day, anyway. "I'm here to examine the mines," Ed admitted coolly, getting to his feet. "There's some doubt the diamonds are genuine."

"So you're here to steal what our hard work brought us?" Kilik demanded from where he sat behind the piano, and there was a chorus of agreement. Ed opened his mouth to reply, but Hale was on him next.

"Leading us on like that, letting us think we'd finally struck it big," he spat. "Get out. I'll not have thieves staying in my inn!"

Immediately there were bellows of heckling. Ed pinched the bridge of his nose. At least they weren't throwing stuff. A couple of the men nearest him and Al stood up; Al stood with them, standing close to Ed. "Brother," he said urgently.

"I know," Ed sighed. He held out his hand to Hale. "At least give me back the money for the night," he demanded with a scowl.

Hale smiled crookedly and bitterly. "It's the least you can donate to us in light of everything you military types have taken," he said, and then the two men on either side of him were pushing him out the door.

"Al, grab the suitcase," Ed called – and then he was being shoved back out into the street. He stumbled a few steps and turned to see Al clanging out the door after him. "That money is mine, not the—" the door slammed. "—military's. Damn it," he snarled, kicking the side of the building viciously.

He glared at the door while there were curses and shouts and finally laughter before the music started up again, and his presence was evidently put from their minds. The anger subsided like a tide, still burning but overcome with weary resignation; this was his punishment, and a symptom of being a dog of the military, after all. He turned to see Al standing there silently, suitcase in hand, waiting for his older brother's tantrum to be over. "… come on," Ed sighed, gesturing for Al to follow him. "We're gonna go find someplace to get some sleep."

Al leaned forward as if he wanted to say something; Ed cocked an eyebrow at him. "What?"

"Nothing," Al shook his head, evidently changing his mind. "We should find someplace that's sheltered from the wind, though. And be careful not to sleep with your stomach exposed," he added in an exasperated tone.

Ed rolled his eyes; Al was always complaining about that, but it was the last thing on Ed's mind at the moment. In fact, what was on his mind was a small mining town called Youswell. Did the military go out of its way to antagonize miners regularly? "I'll try, okay? Let's go." He turned away, and they clanked off through the fog.

&

Ed woke up the next morning curled under a blanket, his head nestled between Al's thigh and the grassy knoll they had selected the night before. "… Al?" he asked, his voice scratchy. Damn it all, now his throat hurt. A drink of water would probably take care of that.

"I'm awake," Al said over Ed's head somewhere. Ed blinked slowly, and lifted an hand to rub his eyes, slowly sitting up. The blanket fell into his lap. "Ugh …"

It was morning; the sun beamed down on them both, warming Al's armor, but the air was still slightly chill. Al snickered. "There's grass in your hair," he explained at Ed's disgruntled look; Ed snorted, and finger-combed his hair, but Al shook his head. "Let me get it for you." He plucked at Ed's bangs, freeing pieces of grass.

Ed sat still for the treatment. "I didn't sleep with my stomach exposed," he pointed out, but Al shook his head again.

"You pushed your shirt up like always, brother, I pushed it back down for you," he explained. "Did you sleep well?"

"Well enough," Ed grunted, stretching; his chest ached, and his sides and back, straight through to his calf – possibly from sleeping on the ground, but it didn't really feel like that kind of ache. He cleared his throat.

He didn't bother to ask Al if he'd slept well; the answer was always the same – 'Fine, brother' – and Ed didn't know if he was lying or even if Al slept at all. It seemed unbearably horrible, to be bound to a suit of armor and unable to even dream some of that time away …

He couldn't think about this right now. Ed scrambled for a way to distract himself. "Gonna go find a stream," he remarked, tossing the blanket in the general direction of their suitcase and getting to his feet stiffly.

"What for?" Al started to stand with him, going over to the blanket and folding it.

"Water," Ed answered bluntly, clearing his throat again. Damn, his throat hurt! He skittered down the side of the hill and listened for a moment – he'd heard running water when they'd come this way the night before – and he followed the narrow road right a short ways before he found what amounted to a mountainside brook. Good enough. He scooped up the ice-cold water with his hands and drank; it didn't quite relieve his sore throat, but he felt better at least. He splashed the water on his face and neck, rubbing his eyes, and hoped he looked better than he felt.

"Here." Al had followed him; the towel they carried was held out to Ed. Ed took it gratefully and scrubbed his face and neck dry. "Feel better?"

"A little." Ed had no idea how Al had picked up on the fact he didn't feel well; Al was just observant like that, he supposed. He folded the towel in his hands and handed it back to Al thoughtfully.

That was when his stomach growled. Ed blushed; Al made a noise that told Ed he shared Ed's embarrassment. Ed growled. "Geez …" he stalked past Al and considered a patch of the wild grass they had slept in the night before; he clapped his hands together and pressed them to the stalks, and in the smoke of the aftermath of reaction, a loaf of bread sat. Ed picked it up, broke it open, found it satisfactory, and wolfed it down, starting down the street. "C'mn, Al, weff godda go do da menns," he mumbled through a mouthful of bread.

Al was either a good listener or altogether too familiar with Ed's full-mouth dialect – probably both – but he followed Ed, walking behind him at his shoulder. "Do you think the townsfolk will let you in to inspect the mines?" he asked worriedly. "If something happens …"

"Nothing's gonna happen," Ed swallowed before answering this time. "And they'll have to let me in. There's a military base only about a mile down the road, and I can call them out any time I need them. They know it, too," he observed grimly as they crossed back into town. The last three National Alchemists to be sent to the town had brought down the local authorities on the townsfolk, after all, according to the file.

"You don't really mean to …" Al's voice faltered; Ed hunched his shoulders slightly.

"It's a last resort," he confessed. Getting military members involved usually got messy; it was simply introducing too many hostile figures to one another, which inevitably ended in injuries and occasionally death. Ed considered himself lucky to not have yet been party to any fatalities, but both brothers had heard the horror stories.

They traversed most of the way to the mines, which were located about a quarter-mile from the main part of town and higher up the side of the mountain, in relative silence; Ed periodically cleared his throat and rubbed his flesh shoulder. The ache wasn't going away.

The noise of shouting men and winches was audible some distance away, but Al was the first one to spot the shaft tower. "Brother, it's just around the bend," he pointed out the visible point of the tower, and Ed grunted his acknowledgement. They came around the corner and found sooty-faced men hard at work lifting carts of coal out of vertical shafts, pushing carts out of a mining cave, others disappearing underground with pickaxes and torches and other mining equipment. Bells rang to call men to the winches to collect coal; a cage was filled with canaries, and a child was feeding them.

"Hey, look, it's the alchemist," someone said as Ed walked resolutely into the middle of the mining camp, his brother following behind him with some trepidation. Slowly, the busy camp ground to a halt, everyone stopping to look at Edward.

"We didn't think you'd have the guts to show up," a bearded man said contemptuously, his blue eyes dark with anger.

Ed pressed his lips together, and crossed his arms. "I'm here to do my job." Instantly there were jeers, snarls, shouts for him to go home; Ed waited for them to drop to a level he could shout over, going red in the face from frustration. Damn it; Ed was willing to bet that Mustang knew how bad public sentiment was when he'd sent Ed this way. The man was such a sadistic bastard—

He cleared his throat as the shouts died to expectant silence. "I haven't made any judgment yet as to whether the diamonds are transmuted or not," he said, and the bearded man retorted.

"You see any alchemists here? You think that's why we're working so damn hard to do this manually!? Of course they're genuine! You're just here to take them with whatever excuse you can come up with, you son of a—"

"Don't jump to conclusions!" Ed snapped. "I haven't seen anything yet, I can't just decide here and now because you say so. If you don't let me go I'll just presume they are manufactured, and then I'll take them as contraband. If you're right then you've got nothing to hide, do you?" he pressed.

There was some muttered curses as the miners shifted uneasily. Then another black-faced miner – Ed recognized him, after a moment, as the piano-player Kilik – shrugged, stepping forward. "What the hell, let him down into the mines," he said, and there was instantly a shift of disfavor towards him. "We know they're real, right? He's not gonna find anything out of the ordinary. We might as well let him down."

There was a pause, and the decision-making seemed to fall to the bearded man, who let out a heavy sigh. "Fine," he grunted. "Let him down the shaft for today. Kilik, get a canary, Tym, you take them down. Stop work on the shaft. How long're you gonna need, alchemist?" he asked, contempt dripping from his tone.

"Depends on how extensive the passages are," Ed shrugged. "Of course I won't dawdle, but it could be all day."

"Go as fast as you can. You're losing us money," the bearded man snapped. "Back to work, people! Get the men out of the shaft, give the alchemist his room!" And with that the chaos of the mine slowly resumed.

At least it was a step in the right direction. "Come on, Al," he said, brushing past the man and moving towards the canary cage, where Kilik was removing a canary and placing it gently in a small handheld cage.

"Here," Kilik shoved the cage into Ed's hands. "If the canary drops dead, you're on the right track." Ed shot him a glare.

Another young man – presumably Tym – was crossing the wary crowd; he exchanged a look with Kilik, then pointed away from the shaft Ed had expected, towards another nearby tower. "This is the shaft for people; it's a little lighter in design," he said. "It's winch-operated; Kilik and I are going to lower you down and you'll have the whole shaft to yourself. I hope you know what a normal diamond deposit looks like."

"I'm going with him," Al announced.

Kilik laughed. "You're not gonna fit in that armor," he smirked. "Take it off, and maybe you'll be light enough for us to lower you down."

Al shifted uneasily; Ed blanched. "I'll go as quickly as I can," Ed assured Al hastily. Al sighed; he didn't sound impressed.

Kilik didn't seem to be in a mood to wait. "Come on, we've both got better things to do," he pushed; Ed pursed his lips, and just to be contrary took his time walking to the shaft. Al followed gamely behind.

At the shaft, Tym called Ed's attention to the bell. "This is attached to a rope at the bottom of the shaft – just pull the rope and the bell will ring, and we'll come pull you back up. And here's a lantern, too." He pushed the heavy candle-based lantern into Ed's free hand; the canary twittered away in its cage in his other hand. "Step right in." He gestured to the wooden platform of the lift.

"Be careful," Al warned in his usual way; Ed sent him a fond grin of confidence and stepped into the lift, and braced himself when the platform shook slightly with the first moving of the winch. Then he was being carefully lowered, the platform sturdily held by the wooden frame of the shaft.

It wasn't long before he could only see by the light of the lantern, which was cleverly designed to amplify the light of the candle and give the user a useful radius of sight. It was still vaguely claustrophobic, but Edward was no stranger to this kind of thing; he'd been down in mines more than once.

He wandered forward; the silence would have been deafening, but the canary twittered away in its cage, reassuring Ed that he was still alive and kicking, and Ed followed the wall of the mine down to one narrow passage leading off the small 'room' created around the shaft.

Ed followed the passage down, and forward, until he was hunching just to keep following the passage. He put down the canary cage and ran his hand over the un-mined coal ore thoughtfully.

Rough diamond wouldn't glitter, of course – it was amazing to think, if one saw a rough diamond, that someone had seen the stone and thought it could be a precious item. If they had, in fact, come across a diamond deposit, the strains of it would come from downstream – that is, further down the mountain – than the main deposit, which meant that the coal mines themselves would probably be filled crossways with the occasional rough diamond ore. There was nothing down this passage, but it seemed like it was still being widened for proper mining. Edward carefully scooted out from his hunched place against the wall, picking the cage up again, and made his way back up the passage to look for another.

The second passage was wider, but didn't offer any evidence of a deposit; the third was wider still, and Edward had to hold his lantern high to see the upper corners of the wall and ceiling. The coal dust still floating in the air started to irritate Ed's already burning throat after a while. Edward coughed against it, more and more frequently, until he was holding his breath to keep from coughing. Still, nothing; but there were a couple more passages to examine, and the canary still cheerfully sang..

Edward was still looking for the end of the third passage when he noticed the lantern's candle was burning low. He sighed – how long had he been down there, anyway? – and turned to go back up the passage to the shaft.

Sure enough, there was the rope for the bell. Ed stepped onto the lift and yanked the rope, looking up the long passage to the light above.

There was no response.

Ed jerked the rope a couple more times and listened for the ring, holding his breath; he heard nothing, and he had to bend over for a short coughing fit. "Hey!" he shouted as soon as he'd caught his breath. "Hey, come and get me! Al!? Anyone up there!?"

There wasn't any response, but Ed wasn't sure he could be heard all the way up the shaft. Al, at least, would have responded, and he wouldn't have left … unless …

Damn it, was everything okay up there? "HEY!" he shouted again. If no one answered soon, he was going to transmute himself a tower all the way up the shaft and just ride the tower back to the surface.

He heard something rumble.

Something blocked the light at the top of the tower – Edward heard someone yelling, but he couldn't quite make out the words. "What!?" he screamed back, but the shouting continued as if he hadn't spoken, and then he heard the rumble again. Ed squinted at the figure.

One of the wooden supports of the lift cracked. Ed started, and stared at the splintering wood; he dropped the canary and the lantern both and clapped his hands together and pressed them to the wood, restoring it instantly, but something broke further up the same support, and wood splinters showered down on Ed. Then the support next to it cracked, and dirt and small rocks fell from higher up the shaft.

Edward didn't understand the workings of the shaft itself well enough to repair it. He scrambled off the lift, saving the lantern at the last second, as the platform and the canary were buried under a small pile of rubble, and then one of the supports folded outward before Ed's eyes with a loud crack. The rumble, much louder, started again, and the shafted folded in on itself in a roar of earth and stone and a rush of wind. Edward grimaced, clapping a hand over his mouth and shielding his head from the flying stone with his automail arm.

The lantern fell over, sputtered, and died, and the collapsed mine was silent.

to be continued