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It had been a long day, and the last thing Edward Elric needed was to deal with was other people. Unfortunately for him, he was given little choice in the matter. Colonel Roy Mustang had been quite insistent about reporting to him immediately, and Ed knew this almost certainly concerned his actions on his last assignment - even Roy, the Flame Alchemist himself, thought his tactics were heavy-handed, unsubtle, and usually more flashy than they truly need to be, and this wouldn't be the first time that the colonel inquired (with that silky smug smile of his) whether this truly was military professionalism. It was enough to drive Ed to distraction.

Then, much of Colonel Mustang drove Ed to distraction. This, in turn, drove Ed into a helpless fury; he hated the arrogant bastard and his cool calmness, his skillful, subtle manipulations, his utter untouchablity. Roy put considerable effort into maintaining his fašade, and though it didn't seem it, Ed appreciated it.

There were few times in three years of serving under Mustang that Ed had seen a different, more human and approachable expression crack the surface, breaking through the colonel's steely mask of control and leaving it in jagged broken pieces. It satisfied Ed like nothing else could, but simultaneously, it was too intimate a glimpse usually allowed in a working relationship—it forced Ed to see his colonel as just a man; sometimes tired, forced into a corner, struggling not to break under the strain. There was a terrible vulnerability to Roy when his cover slipped, and it made Ed uncomfortable.

It was better - easier - to hate him for the costume that he wore than to empathize with the man beneath.

And it was infinitely better than feeling admiration for his talents and skills: his ability to rally the troops to his side even in the worst situations, his memory for details, and his preternatural cleverness in dealing with people and predicting their actions in difficult situations—There seemed to be little anyone could do that would surprise Roy.

Ed sometimes wondered if the damned man had learned to read minds. It wouldn't surprise him if he could. Worry, yes; surprise, no.

So Ed waited for his colonel, booted foot tapping impatiently against the tile floor. He swung his pocket watch absently, occasionally stopping to check the time and scowl, wondering what was taking so long. He had better things he could be doing, and he knew Roy was only making him wait to annoy him. It was working.

It was the game that they played; two brilliant minds seeking a diversion from reality in each other. Roy would request his report in unseemly haste, though everyone knew that he already knew what the report would contain; then, to add insult to injury, he would keep Ed waiting in the outer office for as long as Hawkeye could tolerate his presence. Only then would he invite Ed in, and they would begin to play in earnest, sniping back and forth various insults and rude comments. This would last until Ed stalked out, slamming the door behind him, red-faced with what others thought was a mix of anger and shame.

A diversion, a sport.

Ed almost invariably lost, breaking for escape first. It was hard; the first few times he had walked to a secluded hallway and pressed his face to the cool walls, vertigo shaking his knees, and it had only gotten worse as he grew older. The turbulence churning in his mind and belly was stronger with each confrontation, and the door-slamming exit became a habitual, physical way of cutting himself off from the source of his confusion and anxiety. There seemed to not be enough air in Roy's office when the two of them were there, and each breath burned as he sucked it in, ragged with humiliation as Roy put him down again, telling him in no uncertain terms that he was just another subordinate—and an unruly, undisciplined one at that. The game was beginning to hurt more than it should, and Ed wasn't interested in playing anymore. Not after their last meeting—Ed cringed to think of it, his stomach rolling over painfully. He had let himself be baited to his feet, and had slammed his hands down on the desk, leaning over varnished wood surface to shout into Roy's complacently placid face,—and he had suddenly realized how close he'd gotten, practically crawling up onto the furniture to close the distance between them, and he had realized how badly he had wanted an excuse to be there, that close. His concentration had wavered, and a visceral understanding choked the words off in his throat. He had left quickly, and had snatched up the first assignment he could, not caring if he seemed too eager to be away again. Anything was better than staying.

Ed was intellectual, not emotional, and his jumbled feelings and the physical desires unnerved him. Further, they conflicted directly with what he knew - everyone knew - was normal and right, and Ed had spent sleepless nights guiltily wondering what had happened to him to make him different—wrong—sick and wrong—perverse. Eventually, it didn't matter. He'd learned long ago to accept unhappy situations, and that either way, he still had to face Roy Mustang in the end. He'd find some way to deal with it later; right now, he'd just try not to think about it.

Ed raked his gloved fingers through his hair, pushing it out of his eyes, and snapped open the watch again, impatient. Sighing angrily, he got to his feet and walked to the door; Hawkeye watched but said nothing as he threw it open without knocking or invitation, then slammed it behind him, stepping into Roy's office.

Roy leaned against the front of his desk as though he'd anticipated this, his lips curved into a smile, his arms and booted feet crossed negligently. The sight was infuriating, and Ed covered the room in five quick steps—then stopped, sketching a salute for the first time since his inital six months.

"Colonel," he said, pulling the papers from his coat and trying to ignore every impulse wracking his body - to go, to stay, to get angry, to be honest, to—- A blush crept across his face and he held the report out, doggedly holding on to some semblance of a blank, passive expression. "Here is my report from—"

"It's interesting to watch you do this, Fullmetal," Roy cut him off, his smile deepening, and Ed's composure wavered.

"What do you mean, Colonel?" The sheaf of paper in his hand trembled slightly as Roy uncrossed his limbs and took a step closer, not even glancing at the report. Damn you, just take it and let me go! The deep blue eyes sparkled with mischievous glee as they regarded Ed, and he forced himself to take a breath.

"You must want something and want it badly enough to put on a quite a show—" Roy raised one hand to his face, stroking along his jaw thoughtfully, and Ed stared at this motion, not quite daring to raise his eyes higher.

Or I might do something we'll both regret.

He decided to try once more. "Colonel Mustang—" Keep it impersonal; remind us both of the gravity of the situation, "—here is my report from the latest incident in Rizenbul. I have outlined the nature of the conflict and the steps?" Roy leaned in, sweeping the report away with one hand to toss it on his desk. Ed blinked and bared his teeth, struggling to continue though the older man's breath warmed his hair. "—the steps which I have taken to assure that this will not happen again. I have also written—Roy! Knock it off!" He broke off, irritated with the colonel's teasing and feeling his control slipping from him; he jerked his head up, staring directly into his commander's face.

"I knew you couldn't keep that up forever," Roy murmured, satisfaction dripping from his voice.

Ed stood his ground, desperately wanting to take a step back—Too close, too close—get away from me! "Colonel, I have given you my report. May I please be dismissed?" The question came out as more of a challenge than he had intended, and he knew as soon as they left his mouth that they were the wrong words to say.

"Not yet."

Roy's smirk faded at he studied the blond before him quietly seething, his eyes flicking over him in a manner that brought another blush to Ed's face, forcing him to turn away and stare at the wall. He shifted from one foot to the other, ignoring Roy, and concentrated on breathing normally. The colonel smelled of smoke and gunoil. He was determined not to speak first; he wasn't sure his voice would hold up.

"Edward." He startled at the sound of his name falling into the silence, and bit down on his lip, peering at the colonel from the corner of his eyes; he had set his mask aside, for a moment unveiling his human weakness. Ed's face twisted with miserable unhappiness: No, don't do this, don't—just say something clever and witty and insulting, and let me go. Just be the smug bastard colonel and I'll be your indignant, put-upon subordinate, and that's it, that's all—-

Roy's gloved fingers cupped the far side of his face, turning him to face him, and he closed the little distance between them before Ed could react. Warm lips grazed over each other, and Ed's eyes widened in shock; almost instinctively he pressed into the kiss, affirming the reality of the situation, the clean press of teeth and exploratory sweep of a tongue. He thought he tasted aftershave, and the odor of smoke was overwhelming.

It was over quickly, and Ed reeled, trying to figure out where that had come from and why and did the colonel know and did it matter if he knew now; a thousand half-finished questions collided in his head and he stared, simply stared, at the older man who was once more leaning against the front of his desk. His lips tingled and he licked them, catching the flavor lingering there and savoring it. He drew in an unsteady breath and spoke the first coherent thing that he could manage: "What in the hell was that?"

Roy shrugged, his trademark smirk once more firmly in place. "You looked like you needed it." The words were weighted for effect and Ed didn't even try to deny Roy the satisfaction of the desired reaction.

"You knew!" he accused, jamming a cloth-covered automail finger into Roy's chest, scowling ferociously. "You knew that I—" He bit the rest off, too embarrassed to continue. The colonel no doubt understood what he meant already anyway.

Roy nodded, looking too pleased with himself. "I had my suspicions for a while," he admitted almost cheerfully. "Don't worry about it, though; I doubt anyone else has noticed."

Ed sputtered, wanting to protest but at a loss of what exactly to complain about, then scrubbed his burning face with his hand. "I—I never—" Admissions had never come easy to Ed. "I mean, I hadn't ever—" He looked around the room, helplessly searching for some inspiration or rescue. "That was unprofessional!" he yelled finally, waving his arms in an exaggerated display.

Roy hid his grin behind his hand, and nodded. "Yes, well—" he sighed heavily, rolling his eyes in mock exasperation. He turned away, walking around the edge of the desk to sit in his chair, a more serious expression slipping across his face. "And—I've never either." He leaned back in his seat, watching Ed. "Not with a subordinate, not with a—" His lips quirked in amusement. "Well, you aren't quite a man yet."

Ed flushed at the insult, opening his mouth to respond, but exhaled the held breath at Roy's silencing gesture.

"I'm sure your report is fine, though I will look at it later. You can pick up your next assignment in a few days." Roy was firmly back in his military commander role, his eyes skimming a piece of paper on his blotter. "You are dismissed, Fullmetal."

Ed gaped, bewildered. "What?"

Roy looked up, frowning. "Are you confused by simple orders now, Edward? I said that you were dismissed."

"But—wait! You can't just—" Ed stepped forward and leaned over the desk, feeling deja vu. Didn't we just go through something like this last time? "You—I—what in the hell do you think you're doing?"

" I'm doing," Roy said patiently, "what is necessary for both of us. Humor me, Fullmetal, and just walk away." His pen scratched across the surface of the paper, signing off on something. Was that wistfulness with which he spoke? "You're young. Too young, some would say. They don't understand, wouldn't try, and these people can close doors you need open - that we both need open. We can't afford this—for now, we both need to play every card available to us."

He looked up into the dawning comprehension on Ed's face. "You are dismissed."

We can't afford this—for now—-

Ed nodded and stepped back, hoping that the colonel meant the words in the same way that he understood them. "Yes, sir." He turned and walked out, for once shutting the door quietly. He avoided Hawkeye's raised brow and rounded the corner into the hallway

Ed began to whistle, light-hearted for the first time in weeks and already planning the next encounter. He had inklings now of how to play more skillfully. He'd be back in a few days, ostensibly to collect his new assignment, but also to play a new type of game.

The colonel might have changed the rules, but the eventual outcome was assured.