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Better Living Through Alchemy

chapter 10.

He saw their baggage checked and made his way onto the
passenger car. There was no way to hide the broad grin that split his face when
she waved her hand to him, indicating she'd secured them a booth and was saving
his seat. He shrugged off the strap of his shoulder bag and put it on the rack
above them before taking the bench opposite her, sliding down to sit directly
across from her.

"I'm becoming a regular visitor to the General's house,"
the Colonel said with her slight smile. "Not that I'm complaining, the occasions
have been very pleasant."

Al squirmed a bit in delight that the Colonel was counting
his pending birthday party as a 'pleasant occasion'. Not that the two-day trip
to Central with her wasn't present enough, but he rather wished such an elaborate
party hadn't been planned, that it would just be he, the Colonel, his brother
and the Pirate, like it had been during the holidays. There was something satisfying
about the arrangement that he couldn't quite put his finger on, those days they
spent together in the General's house, like a family.

But Edward's excitement at his departure from 'military
servitude' was cause for this celebration and Al would never begrudge his brother
the delight of it. It was warming in all the right ways that Ed wanted to do
this for him, and he was guaranteed to have a good time with everyone being
there. Plus, there was to be a Prince and several high-ranking military officials.
It was rather prestigious and Alphonse found himself rather flattered, but most
importantly, it would all look good in the eyes of the Colonel and that was
whom he was really out to impress.

As if reading his very thoughts, the Colonel spoke up.

"I understand the Xingian Prince and Ambassador is to
be attending your party," she said. "That is a great honor. It also means I
will have to work extra hard to make sure the drunken revelry is kept to a low
roar."

They both laughed then, although Alphonse had no memory
of the evening at the holiday office party and often wondered just what he had
done. He'd often thought of asking her, but was terrified it would be embarrassing
beyond all compare. But still, he would really like to know.

"Colonel," he said bravely, "about the office party. I
remember some of it, but past a certain point everything is fuzzy." He was willing
his cheeks not to redden, fighting the growing heat in his chest so it didn't
travel to his face.

"I'm not surprised," she answered smoothly. "You were
very..." she waved her hand and her smile grew a little broader, "uninhibited
by the end of the evening."

The heat in his chest made a mad dash for his cheeks and
he almost groaned because he could feel them reddening. He forced his
hands to stay at his sides and he tried to give a carefree smile, but felt it
was more aghast than anything else.

"I hope I didn't do anything untoward," he managed. "Or
embarrassing, I'm sorry if I caused you any trouble."

"It wasn't you," the Colonel said. "Everyone was having
a good time, it's alright Alphonse."

She let if go at that and he was so grateful he wanted
to thank her, but in the end he didn't, turning to look out the train window
as the car lurched slightly and they began to depart.


The boys watched the Professor plow through the paperwork
on his desk with a crazed look around him. He'd pick up a paper, study it and
then look at the several messy stacks he already had on his desk before holding
it over one and then another, his face perplexed.

Earlier, the Professor had stood in the hall with one
of the other teachers for a while and ran back in for his notebook, pen and
to give them all a scathing 'behave you' look.

He glanced up to see several of the students looking at
him. Gavin had been running a secret betting pool about which stack a particular
paper would go in and how many times it would change stacks before the next
paper was contemplated. So far the house bets were doing well.

The Professor had a slight stare off with them and many
of them wondered if the Professor was seeing them at all, but he blinked and
spoke.

"You lot don't have anything to do?" he said, low and
menacing.

Several sets of eyes dropped to their notebooks and pencils
took up moving. The Professor sighed and rubbed the bridge of his nose.

"No, look," he said, "I'm sorry I've been so busy this
week, I just keep giving you textbook assignments. I promise after this event
is out of the way, we'll get back into more hands-on work."

Seth raised his hand tentatively.

Ed nodded to him and leaned forward on his desk a little
to let the boy know he really was interested and not just humoring him.

"What alchemists are coming to the exhibition?" Seth asked
with a shy smile.

"Oh well, do you want me to ruin the surprise?" the Professor
asked.

Because so far it's just me.

Seth squirmed around in his seat, obviously not wanting
to be surprised, but too polite to press the issue.

Alex will say yes, PLEASE let Alex say yes.

"The Strong-Arm Alchemist mostly likely will be there,"
the Professor sort of mumbled off at the end. "I'm going to have to find time
to contact a few others."

"The Blade Alchemist?" Gavin said excitedly from the back.

"Um, I haven't really spoken to him," the Professor said.

Whoever he is.

Daniel's hand shot into the air. Now that the Professor
was chatting, he could no longer sit on his own surprise, (and OH how he
wanted the envy directed at him)
.

"Daniel?" the Professor said.

"My father got an invitation to your brother's birthday
party," Daniel said, puffing out his chest. "He's General Stanton you know,
he said I could come too."

The class let out a collective gasp of jealousy and awe.

Daniel, Daniel, DANIEL. Why did you feel the need to
do this? Well because you are thirteen and a bit of a braggart... just like
I was at that age...

The rest of the class swung pleading eyes in Ed's direction
and it was his turn to squirm in his seat.

Al... will you forgive me?

"You're all invited... of course," the Professor managed
to smile. "You can extend the invitation to your parents. Let me know tomorrow
who is coming and who needs directions?" his smile was becoming a bit strained.

He then had to wave his hands and hiss loudly at the whoop
that sounded around the room.

Insanity... it's just insanity. Roy is going to kill
me.

"Will that funny Xing guy be there?" Richard asked.

"Yes," Edward drawled, "and he's a Prince. I know he doesn't
act it; in fact he acts barely older than you lot, but he is a Prince. I would
appreciate it that if you come to the party, you make sure to call him Prince.
Although, he didn't seem to mind being called 'Xing Guy' and... what was it
you called him Duffy?"

"Percy," Duffy said with a grin.

"Right. But still, it would look back on General Mustang
if you were to behave badly at this party," Ed said. "So everyone needs to be
polite."

"Why General Mustang?" Daniel asked.

"Because it is his house," Ed said.

"I thought it was your house, why are you having your
brother's birthday party at General Mustang's house?" Daniel pressed.

oh...

"Well," the Professor said, "I live there too and so does
Al when he's in town."

"Why don't you have your own house?" Daniel said.

"I've known General Mustang since I was 11. He was my
sponsor when I became a State Alchemist and my brother and I were orphans, so
he took us in," Ed said.

Well, that's partially true.

"Oh," Daniel said, "so he's like your dad."

The Professor made a very visible wince and then forced
an overly bright smile.

"Yeah," he gritted out, "I guess you could say that."

The boys sort of shrugged at each other.


Ed ran up the last flight of steps to the administration
offices and down the hall with his head down, furious in thought.

When he walked into the office he lifted his head and
stopped just inside the doorway.

The General looked up at him and smiled. A Xingian Prince,
seated in front of the General's desk, turned in his chair and grinned.

"Hello," Ling said with his closed eyes amusement, "we
are discussing policy, come and have a seat." He graciously indicated the chair
to his left.

"It's the General's call who he invites in on his conversations,"
Ed said with a growl and caught Roy's eye.

Roy smiled, shook his head and nodded at the chair, so
Ed stalked over and slouched down into it, dropping his briefcase. He really
needed to tell Roy about the extra 100 or so people he just inadvertently invited
to the party, and he wanted to be chewed out in private, not in front of this
insufferable Prince.

"How was class today?" the General asked when Ed was more
or less settled.

"I really have something to tell you," and Ed glanced
at Ling, "in private."

"You can be assured whatever you have to say goes no further
than this desk," the Prince said cheerfully. "As royalty, I am well versed in
the art of discretion."

"Blackmail, most likely," Ed snorted.

"Is something wrong, Edward?" Roy asked. Ed turned to
him, sighed and shrugged. It wasn't like it was a state secret.

"I think I accidentally invited a lot more people. One
of the boys in my class' father is a General. They got an invitation and he
had to brag about it..." Ed sighed.

Roy hid a smile behind his hand and feigned a cough. It
was rather touching to him how Ed was attached to his students. Of course if
one came, Ed would invite them all, and that meant parents and siblings and...
who knew? Ed was famous; Al's party was getting to the verge of infamy already
and the guest of honor hadn't even arrived yet.

"I'll notify the caterer," Roy said. "Gracia will have
to be told; you might get a scolding from her," the General gave a smile. "But
the tent shouldn't be a problem. We'll just have them bring more chairs."

Ed seemed to wilt in relief, then remembered the Prince
was there and straightened back up.

"In the palace, many lavish ceremonies are held," the
Prince said. "Perhaps I can return the favor of your invitation someday and
have you attend a royal banquet. The guest list is extensive and the celebration
can last for many days."

It was unexpectedly nice of him and Ed was caught flatfooted,
but the General smiled.

"We're honored, Your Highness. Perhaps someday we can
attend," he said.

Ling only smiled his enigmatic smile and inclined his
head a bit, and then he shattered the moment.

"Where are you taking me for lunch?" the Prince asked
the Alchemist.


"Help me get more alchemists for the exhibition," Ed pleaded
in the car on the way home. "You should know the Prince isn't looking for a
cultural liaison, he's looking for free lunch!"

The General grinned.

"How can you be so calm?" Ed said. "We have a major
party in just four days, I have an exhibition no one is participating
in, I have to coordinate this whole affair on TOP of having to escort his royal
pain-in-the-ass to lunch every day and all you can do is sit there and grin
at me?! We have caterers and waiters and bartenders! We have a band that Alex
is supplying and a tent to go in the backyard and chairs..." Ed panted slightly.

"Everything will be fine," the General soothed. "Gracia
and Elysia will be here tomorrow and they are going to handle the finer details.
I've two more bedsteads being delivered so that Riza, Gracia and the Rockbells
can stay at the house. They'll all help. You used to get this frantic on missions,"
the General chuckled, "and you always pulled through."

Edward was good for working himself into a froth and it
often bothered the General, but now the froth was over good things. Edward's
life was now good things and a little frothing wouldn't hurt him; it was kind
of cute.

"All five bedrooms are going to be furnished now?" Edward
seemed to let himself be distracted. "I never thought I'd see the day we didn't
have empty rooms in the house."

"We've yet to break them in properly however," the General
wiggled his eyebrow.

Edward looked askance at that.

"I could never do that in a bed Gracia has slept in,"
he said, scandalized.

The General laughed and shook his head.

"This is like R.D. watching, isn't it?" he teased.

Edward hunched down and pushed his shoulders up.

"Shuddup," he offered in his usual elegant way.


Falman stopped him on the way out the door.

"Lieutenant Colonel," he said and Havoc looked at him,
"I am under the impression that you and Miss Sarah will be attending Alphonse's
birthday party this coming Saturday?"

"Yes, of course we are," Havoc returned. "Are you and
Abby going?"

"Yes, we were wondering if perhaps we might all share
a vehicle," Falman asked.

"Sure," Havoc said. "I've been out to the General's house
before, I know the way, I can drive."

Falman seemed to mull this over and finally nodded once.

"You're going to pull my files and check my driving record,
aren't you?" Havoc said, hands on hips.

"Never hurts to be well informed," Falman replied.


Alphonse shifted, smoothing his jacket tail over his legs
and lacing his fingers in his lap, trying in vain to come up with a conversation
topic that didn't pertain to the office. This was his chance to establish a
bond outside their professional relationship and he was wasting it!

Think, think, think! What does she like? Dogs... she
likes dogs. Guns... she likes guns. Which do I know more about?

"So Clayton is taking care of Hayate while we're away?"
Al asked, even though he knew the answer.

She glanced over at him from where she'd been watching
the scenery pass by the train window.

"Yes," she said. "You were in the office when the arrangement
was made."

"Oh, right," Al said and offered a weak smile, then sighed
inwardly.

"I hear your party is going to be quite large, there is
even the inclusion of an ambassador?" She smiled at him, offering conversation
in his desert of small talk.

"Yes," he latched onto the oasis, "Brother met him through
the General. It seems they are friends, or at least as much of friends as Brother
allows people to be. Brother says he invited himself, but that hardly matters.
I can't wait to tell Clayton."

"Anyone else of note going to be attending?" she asked.

"Well, of note to me at least," Al said and shrugged,
smiling. "Granny and Winry, Gracia and Elysia."

You.

"It will be good to see Gracia, I haven't seen her in
a while," Hawkeye crossed her legs and leaned back on the seat. "It's hard to
believe that Elysia is twelve already, how times fly."

Al nodded mute agreement.

"Colonel," he said quietly. "With my memories back, it
makes this my twenty-second birthday... not my eighteenth." He played with the
hem of his coat for a moment. "Everyone seems to have forgotten that."

The Colonel herself widened her eyes just slightly, but
then calmed the expression.

"You're right Alphonse," she said. "I must apologize as
well. For those of us who watched you grow up for the second time, it's a bit
hard to think that way. You'll forgive me, won't you?"

"Of course!" Al said hastily. "I didn't mean it like that.
I completely understand why everyone thinks that way. Not everyone gets a second
time around; I don't mean to make it sound like a compliant."

"It must be hard, I can't even begin to imagine," the
Colonel said quietly. "All those lifetimes... but you handle it with remarkable
strength. You're truly an example, Alphonse, of what is best in humanity."

Al felt his cheeks heat to the point of frying eggs and
he ducked his head to hide it.

"I didn't mean to embarrass you," the Colonel said to
the top of a bowed, dark blond head, feeling her smile get away from her a
bit.

"It's okay," Al said, studying the floor. "Better a compliment
than a criticism, wouldn't you think?"

"Better all around," the Colonel agreed.


Ed was tired. The boys took deadly advantage of the fact
that their Professor had been up half the night transmuting a deck and grill
in his backyard in preparation for his brother's birthday. Short of snarling
at them (or turning them all into fish), he decided the best way to tame
them was with a pop quiz. It had terrified them into angels by the end of the
period and he was glad to see them go, (but felt guilty about that afterwards).

Two more meetings and he could go nap on Roy's couch until
five, when the General could leave and they could go home, but something else
was nagging at him that he couldn't quite put his finger on. He chewed the end
of his pen while Dr. Thaxton went on and on about the band's itinerary for the
exhibition and their plan to sell lemonade and cookies. Ed made tired notes
in his notebook and nodded at the appropriate times. He didn't notice the door
of his classroom open, but Dr. Thaxton did and gave Ed a prompt.

"You have a visitor, Professor Elric," he said.

Ed looked over, (PLEASE, not the Prince), then
blinked in surprise to see Roy standing there in his long coat.

"I'm terribly sorry to interrupt, might I borrow Professor
Elric for a moment?" he asked with a smile.

Ed stood and nodded to Thaxton, then crossed to Roy and
let the General usher him into the hall.

"Is something wrong?" Ed asked anxiously. Since he'd been
teaching, Roy had never ventured into the Academy or his classroom.

"No, I'm coming to see that you have sufficient pocket
money for a cab home," the General smiled. "I wasn't sure you had your wallet
with you this morning."

"I've been leaving it at home so I can't take Ling to
lunch," Ed said and stretched. "But why do I need a cab?" he asked.

"I'm going to meet Gracia and Elysia's train," Roy said.
"I'm driving them home after, can you leave now?"

"No," Ed whimpered and reached out to grip Roy's sleeves.
He would have walked into his chest had he not suddenly remembered where they
were. "I have another meeting after this one."

The General didn't seem concerned of their location, because
Ed was suddenly pulled against his chest briefly and his head was stroked once
before the General stepped back.

"Finish it quickly and then come straight home," Roy said.
"You look exhausted." He reached into his inner jacket pocket, produced his
own wallet and shoved money into Ed's hand. He then looked up and down the hall
once and gave Ed a quick and light kiss on the cheek.

"Gracia and Elyisa will be excited to see you. Then you
can have dinner and go to bed," the General promised.

Ed almost wanted to whine and tell the General not to
leave him, but instead he pocketed the money and gave a brave smile, nodding.

"See you at home," Ed said.

The General smiled, turned and as he walked away, he gave
his usual wave over his shoulder.

Ed shook his head, turned to go back into the classroom
and ran into a chest.

"I see you have money now," the Prince said. "I forgive
you for not taking me to lunch, we can have dinner instead."

Ed's jaw dropped.


She was running down the platform, arms outstretched and
quite literally fell into the waiting arms, fingers digging into the sleeves
of a great coat, going up on tiptoes.

He smelled like sandalwood, his laugh was deep and nice
and he hugged her once she'd found her way into his arms, kissing the top of
her head.

"Uncle Roy," she said, burrowing into his chest. "Will
you still marry me?" she teased.

"Yes," he answered with a laugh. "We said we'd marry when
pigs could fly!"

"I'm working on that!" Elysia Hughes said, grinning up
at him with her father's grin. The General hugged her again against his chest
and was glad he at least had this to remember him by.

Gracia tucked her arm into his when he offered and they
trailed Elysia down the platform to the baggage car.

"Was the trip alright?" he asked her.

"It was lovely," Gracia said. "Elysia was so excited to
come and see everyone. I was too, it's been a while."

Gracia had naturally wished to relocated closer to family
after Hughes' death, she and Elysia now lived in Abington, it was only a few
hours by train.

Elysia had stopped to wait on them and ducked under Roy's
other arm when they came close.

"Everyone is going to be jealous of my beautiful escorts,"
the General said, smiling down at her.

Elysia wrinkled her nose and grinned.

"Where's Ed?" she demanded. "Didn't he come too?"

"Ed is still at work," the General said. "He wanted to
come, but he couldn't. You'll see him at the house tonight," he promised.

"That's funny that Ed has a job," Elysia laughed. "What
does he do?"

"He's a teacher," Roy said and squeezed her shoulder.

"Oh," Elysia said and wrinkled her nose again.

Gracia laughed and gave Roy's arm a little squeeze.

"How is that going for him," she asked. "Alphonse is much
more informative, we're lucky to get a half page letter from Edward."

"He sucks at letters, Al is much better," Elysia agreed.

"It's going very well," Roy told Gracia. "He's in the
middle of planning a school exhibition. That and the party and his impromptu
cultural liaison duties keep him quite busy."

Gracia lifted her eyebrows in question and Elysia voiced
it.

"What's a cultural liaison?" the little girl asked.

"Well there is a Prince from Xing staying in Amestris
and Ed helps show him around, introducing him to our culture," the General explained.
"You'll get to meet him; he'll be at the party. His name is Prince Ling."

"Really?" Elysia said excitedly. "A real Prince?" her
eyes lit up.

"A real Prince," the General assured her.

"Very fancy guest list," Gracia said with a small smile.

"Don't be too impressed," the General said with a twinkle
in his eye. "It seems the Prince's true objective is to sample every restaurant
in Central, at least that is how Ed will tell it."

Gracia laughed.

"I might also mention Ed has inadvertently invited his
entire class?" he furthered.

"I'm going to have a talk with him," Gracia said.


"I'm not taking you to dinner," Ed whispered heatedly.
"Now beat it, I'm busy! I need that money for a cab home tonight."

"You live with the General," the Prince stated.

Ed drew himself up. He was not ashamed and was ready to
defend his lover.

"I do," he said and looked Ling in the eye as if daring
him to make a disparaging comment about it.

"You've done very well for yourself," the Prince said
and clasped his hands behind his back. "General Mustang is an important man."

Ed blinked, then nodded and smiled a little.

"Thank you and I know he is," he told the Prince. "I really
can't take you to dinner tonight; we have out of town guests arriving for the
party. Does Ran Fan know you're here?"

Ling just smiled and tilted his head.

"I guess that's a dumb question," Ed said. "Okay, I have
to go now. You go back to your... wherever it is you go when you're not here
pestering me. I'm working," Ed emphasized.

Ed put his hand on the doorknob.

"I think he's a bit old for you," the Prince said behind
him.

When Ed turned to retaliate, the Prince was gone.


That evening they disembarked and checked into the small
hotel near the depot. Al nervously suggested they eat dinner together and floated
to his room to freshen up after she agreed.

It wasn't fancy, simple hotel fare, but he was sitting across
the table from her and she was telling him about a theatre production that she
might like to see when they return to East City.

Ask her out! Ask her to go with you!

"Colonel," he managed to get out before having to take
a drink of water because his mouth had become suddenly dry. She waited patiently
for him to continue after he put a firm clamp on his blush and sat up a bit
straighter.

I'm twenty-two, I'm not eighteen. I shouldn't blush
every time I speak to her!

"I would like to see that play too. Perhaps... we could
go together?" he says, trying not to sound eager and trying not to lean forward
onto the table. He held his breath and waited expectantly; there was something
unreadable in her expression for a few moments, but then she smiled again.

"I was thinking of taking everyone in the office, as a
thank you for all of their hard work," she said smoothly.

Al was not sure if this is true or not, she was so damn
hard to read. He was glad he had never faced her in a poker game, but she wouldn't
lie to him. He always gives of the benefit of the doubt, because Ed never
did.

"You are, of course, more than welcome to come with us,"
she continued. "You are still very much a part of us even though you will be
'unleashed', as Clayton puts it."

They both had a moment to smile over First Lieutenant
Pharr's wit, and then they went back to their meals. He was at a loss for a
topic as his gut churned like it shouldn't, and when the meal was over, they
said goodnight and he returned to his room, sitting on the side of his bed.

Inspiration struck out of nowhere as it usually does,
and Al blinked at the obvious fount of advice that'd been under his nose all
along.

The Pirate even dated her years ago. Resignation be damned,
he knew what he truly wanted for his birthday: the Pirate's advice on
how to maraud and pillage and conquer.

In the ways of women, the General was a legend. It must
be that way with men too, because Al had never once considered his brother...
gay.


Ed was mugged on his way in the door.

A terrier bounced excitedly at his feet, and he would
think it over stimulated, but it was always like that. A girl child wrapped
her arms around his waist and became boneless as he dragged her down the hall.

"Ed, guess what?!" Elysia yelled. "I brought all my pictures
to show you and Uncle Roy stopped on the way to the house and got me film for
my brownie camera! He says you're going to transmute a fence around the backyard
tomorrow night and I want to chronicle it!"

Chronicle was her new word.

"That's what journalists do," she continued as Ed, grunting,
dragged her into the den to deposit his briefcase, "They make chronicles!"

Elysia already had her future career mapped out.

"That's great," Ed said and gave her head a fond rub while
R.D. literally did cartwheels around the den in happiness. Elysia noticed this
and released Ed, (to his secret relief), and made a grab for the terrier,
but he darted out of reach and she ran into the hall, chasing him. Ed followed
behind slowly.

The house smelled divine and he let his nose lead
him toward the kitchen, where he got another greeting when he entered. The hug
wasn't as enthusiastic, but it was warm and welcome.

"Edward," Gracia said as she released him. "It's so good
to see you."

Roy was seated at the kitchen table with a cup of coffee
and a smile of his own.

Elysia reappeared and grabbed Ed around the waist from
behind and R.D. darted under the kitchen table and panted. It seemed like she
might be a little too much even for him.

"You know what else?!" she cried. "We are going to stay
all weekend and until Tuesday! When is Al going to get here?! Is Riza coming?!
Uncle Roy says you know a Prince!"

"Elysia, let Edward sit down," her mother laughed. "She's
into interrogation, as you can guess," Gracia returned to the stove where she
had dinner cooking.

Elysia obediently released Ed's waist and waited for him
to sit down, climbing into the chair beside him and looking at him expectantly.

Roy gave him a sympathetic look, but he'd already endured
the grilling and wasn't about to get back into the line of fire.

"Okay," Ed said. "First, I want to say I'm glad you're
here," and he grinned at her and she grinned back. "To answer your questions:
Al will be here tomorrow, Riza is coming with him and yes I do know a real Prince,
so does your Uncle Roy."

"Same Prince?" Elysia asked, looking over at Roy. Roy
nodded and her attention turned back to Edward. "Uncle Roy says you know him
better."

"I know what he likes to eat," Ed said drolly. Gracia
laughed from across the kitchen and Roy winked at him.

"Huh," Elysia said. "What does he look like?"

"A mooch in a fancy robe," Ed supplied and Elysia looked
puzzled when her mother and Uncle Roy both laughed.


The next day was a blur of motion. Gracia was at the house
now to welcome the men bringing the furniture, tent and rented chairs. Somehow,
they'd gotten their time tables turned around and weren't sure which train Al
and Riza were arriving on, but that wasn't a major concern as they would be
able to get to the house on their own. Ed's entire class told him happily that
they would be attending, then Ling showed up promptly at noon and hovered over
his shoulder as he tried to get some grading done as not to fall behind, because
his weekend was going to be hectic. He turned and looked at the Xingian and
then pointed toward the classroom.

"Pull up a desk Your Highness, time for you to earn your
keep," he said with a wicked grin.

The Prince grinned back, pulled one of the students' desks
up to Ed's and sat down in it. Ed divided up his stack of papers, fished in
his desk for another red pen, hastily scribbled down the correct answers on
a sheet from his notebook, tore it out and then handed the stack to the startled
Prince.

Ed demonstrated how to grade then.

"If the answer is different than the one I wrote down
for you, then just make an 'X' through it," he said.

The Prince looked bemused, but when Ed began to ignore
him for his chore, he followed suit.

"This is most..." the Prince started.

"No talking while grading," Ed interrupted.

"Not even a little?" the Prince asked.

"Not a word," Ed replied.

"But we've already said several words," Ling offered.

"You need to be quiet now and work," Ed informed him.

"I'm working," Ling said after a few moments.

"It's probably good for your pampered ass," Ed told him.

"So this is what teaching is about?" Ling asked.

Ed looked up at him and snorted, then tapped his pen against
the paper he was grading.

"No, this is just something that comes along with it.
The more you talk, the longer this will take," Ed said.

"Why do you teach?" the Prince asked, only glancing up
from the paper he was on.

Ed opened his mouth for a smarmy retort about paying bills,
only he didn't pay the bills, Roy did. Well, Ed did pay the bills as well, he
always handed over his paycheck and Roy always gave him pocket money. He was
fine with the arrangement, but as far as sitting down at the desk and figuring
out the house budget and who they owed what to, Roy took care of all that.

He really shouldn't belittle his chosen career at the
cost of a good barb at the Prince, either. The mooch was actually helping
grade papers and it was the most Ed had seen him do other than shovel food into
this mouth.

"I like to share what I know with people," Ed said and
shrugged. "They can learn from my experiences, (and mistakes), and go
out and apply them to their own benefit."

"A very noble profession," the Prince said and flipped
to the next paper. "Seems befitting of such a famous alchemist."

"Well... thanks," Ed mumbled. He was never quite sure
what to do with Ling when the asshole was being nice.

They both worked in silence for a bit longer, Ed coming
to the end of his stack before Ling.

"You can give some of them back to me," Ed said. "I'm
done with the ones I have."

"No," the Prince said. "It is my honor to be at your assistance
for once."

Ed fidgeted in his chair, not sure what to do with that.

"What's for lunch?" the Prince asked.

He could almost kiss the jerk for that.


Al and Riza were already at the house by the time they
got home. The General stood back smiling next to the Colonel as the two brothers
hugged each other, and then squished Elysia between them. Ed, Al and Elysia
were all trying to talk at the same time and they ended up in the living room
on the sofa with Elysia sitting in Al's lap and R.D. trying to get into Edward's.
The Colonel helped the General off with his coat and they repaired to the kitchen
where, once again, Gracia was holding court. The three of them sat to have coffee
at the table.

"I hope Elysia isn't a bother," Gracia said. "She's just
so happy to see them both."

"They love it," Roy assured her. "Ed is used to kids now."
He smiled and sipped his coffee.

"What can I help you with tomorrow?" Riza asked. "The
last day before the party, I expect the other house guests will be arriving?"

The General nodded and confirmed that the Rockbells would
be on the morning train and would be taking a cab to the house. He also confirmed
they were willing to help in any way possible.

"I have to come up with a lot of extra party favors,"
Gracia said. "We could go into town tomorrow if you don't mind."

"I'd love to," the Colonel said. "I haven't had a chance
to shop since the holidays."

The trio then burst into the kitchen, Ed having finally
shed his coat. Elysia had Ed by his automail hand and her other hand tangled
in Al's. They lifted and swung her in the kitchen door before setting her on
her feet; she was laughing and flushed and R.D. danced frantic circles around
her ankles.

"Dinner?" Ed said breathlessly, grinning.

"It smells wonderful in here!" Al added.

"Chicken!" Elysia said and then went and got in the chair
next to Roy, grabbing his arm and leaning her head on it.

Look at this, the General thought. The boys
have their family and when the Rockbells arrive tomorrow, it will be complete.

He watched Ed and Al trail Gracia to the stove where the
three of them peered in at the roasting chicken. The boys moaned with pleasure.

He kissed the top of Elysia's head.


Elysia held R.D.'s leash and watched Ed and Al lay out
wooden planks all along where the perimeter of the fence to be. She fiddled
with her brownie camera and rechecked her settings, (even though the camera
only had one real setting)
, and tried to get R.D. to be still. She finally
foisted the dogs leash off onto Roy who was standing next to her and ran into
the yard, taking a picture of Ed and Al as they got the last plank into position.
Al grinned and waved for the camera, and Ed put his hands on his hips, snorting.
Then Ed strode to the middle of the yard and called out to her.

"Are you ready?" he asked.

Elysia nodded and poised with her camera.

Edward clapped his hands together.

Snap.

Edward knelt and slapped his hands on the ground.

Snap.

Blinding light radiated from the circle and Elysia snapped
the camera as hard and as fast as she could, trying to follow the circle around
the back yard as the planks suddenly stood up on their own, slammed into the
ground and melded together. R.D. took it upon himself to yap himself shrill
and run back and forth over Roy's feet.

Ed stood up and dusted off his hands as Al nodded approval.
Roy leaned down and released R.D. from his leash, and the small dog immediately
took off, lapping the enclosure once before stopping and tilting his head back
and forth. Al and Ed walked over to Elysia and together they all started for
the deck where Roy still stood.

R.D. darted over to the fence and squeezed through the
solitary hole there left by one lone rock that wedged between the wood planks
while they were being transmuted. Ed and Al and Elysia all squawked and took
off after him.

"Where's the gate?!" Elysia cried.

Ed stopped in his tracks and then slowly put his hand
over his face.

Al bit his lip and looked at Ed sidelong for a moment.
His elder brother cursed rather loudly, (and Al slapped his hands over Elysia's
ears)
, before slapping his hands together and forming a gate into the fence.

"So escape proof meant the exclusion of a gate?" Al said
with an overly bright smile.

"Shuddup you," his brother growled.

"It needs to lead out the back," Roy called helpfully.
"Not into the neighbor's yard."

"Tell that to your damn dog," Ed shouted back before swinging
the gate open and running through with Al and Elysia following.


The next day brought the Rockbells when Ed and Roy arrived
home from work. It was Friday, the last day before the party. They were assaulted
by laughter and music and the smells permeating the house from the kitchen.
Winry and Pinako and Elysia greeted them in the hallway, (along with R.D.),
where Ed endured bone crushing hugs from his almost-sister, a pat from his 'granny',
Elysia hanging off his waist and R.D. dancing at his feet.

Roy was almost blinded by the grin on his lover's face.

Al called down the hall to them from the kitchen, promising
warm cider (cider!) before dinner. More hugs followed in the kitchen
and Roy threw his arm over Al's shoulder as they stood looking at the large
tent that had been erected in the back yard that afternoon. Neat rows of chairs
sat within its canvas walls and a series of tables were next to the brick grill.

Roy gave Al a little shake and the boy grinned at him.

"This is great," Al said to his Pirate. "Everyone is here;
it's everything I could have wanted for my birthday."

Roy pulled the boy over for a brief squeeze.

"Everything you deserve Al," he said.

For a long moment Al just leaned into him, his fingers
dug into the back of Roy's shirt.

"There are so many things that are left unsaid," Al spoke
softly. "We just assume people know what we mean and that we don't have to voice
them, and maybe that's true. I have my memories back now and I remember him...
my father. He was not as bad as brother wanted him to be, I think. It's best
to let Ed have that though, because he needs it, I know why he needs it. But
because I had more than one lifetime, I can have more than one father, can't
I?"

Roy buried his nose in the boy's hair for a long moment.

"Yeah," Al said, not moving away. "That's what I thought,
too."


At dinner, Winry noticed the scratches on Ed's automail
hand, but he snatched it back and put it in his lap before she could grab it.
She didn't want to start a scene at the table, but her eyes told the horrific
tale of what was waiting for him when she could get him alone.

This being the case, Ed stuck as close to Al as he could
manage after dinner, to the point where Elysia was giving him funny looks. He
made faces at her and Al gave his long suffering sigh before Winry finally just
threw propriety out the window, grabbed Ed by an ear and marched him away.

"Al," Ed cried as he was hauled to his doom by his earlobe,
"you get all my stuff!"

Al looked pointedly up at Roy who seemed unconcerned that
Winry had made off with his...(his what? Were they husbands now? They'd been
together forever; it seemed rude to think of them as mere 'boyfriends'. That
didn't infer anything lasting in Al's mind...)
as he tried to stumble on
the right phrase, he remembered his brother's kind offer.

"No thanks!" Al yelled down the hall.


She sat seething silently, an automail hand clutched in
her own and its owner trying to lean as far away from her as possible.

"How did it happen, Ed," she rasped out.

"Exploding eraser," Ed whimpered, "wasn't my fault."

"I can't believe you, why would you be making erasers
explode?" She released his hand with one of her own and fished a slim tool wallet
out of her back pocket. Ed wasn't surprised, he was just glad the large wrench
was too obvious and clashed with her ensemble.

"Wasn't my..." Ed started but she cut him off with a look
and he sucked in his bottom lip.

"You got something jammed in it," she growled. "You been
having trouble bending its entire rotation?"

"A little," he admitted and braced himself.

She laid his hand on her knee, pulled a pick out of the
tool wallet and set it aside, then she picked the hand back up and probed gingerly
between the joints of his wrist. She was bent over his hand, intent on her work
and Ed just watched her. Despite her irritation, she was gentle, as if it were
flesh instead of unfeeling steel. But she knew all too well that it wasn't totally
unfeeling, not with all the nerve endings packed into it, supplying the electricity
from Ed's own body needed to give it motion.

"How are things in Risembool," he asked. "Are you still
planning on going back to Rush Valley?"

"Things are fine, Granny still has some regular customers
and I'm doing more mail order now," she said. "You remember Nancy and Zach?
They got married."

"Yeah?" Ed said and 'hmphed'. "They were always together
when we were kids."

Winry nodded.

"They were, a lot like me and you and Al," she said, laying
his hand on her knee again and going for the hook tool.

"Did you go to the wedding?" Ed asked.

"Of course, Risembool is so small, everyone was
there. I got asked about you and Al a lot," Winry brushed the filings away and
sighed at the ruined finish. "I need my big buffer; you've really scratched
this up."

"I wear gloves all the time, no one sees it," Ed complained.
"The Rockbell name is safe," he assured her.

Winry rubbed her thumb over the back of one of the automail
fingers and clasped the others loosely, laying the hook down beside her.

"I know when we were kids there was this big thing that
I would marry Al, because he won the fight," she said.

"I remember that," Ed said, watching her hold his hand
and not moving to pull it from her grasp.

"It wasn't Al I thought I'd marry," she said softly.

Ed shifted then, careful not to tug his hand away, but
obviously uncomfortable.

"I never thought that when you left you'd never come back,
that I'd never have a chance," she continued, not looking up at him. "I guess
when you're young you don't think about things like that. You always think people
are invincible and you'll see them again someday. Death doesn't really matter
to you, but it wasn't death that took you away. For a while it seemed like it
was, and then you came back... but you still didn't come back."

"Winry," Ed said thickly, "I'm..."

"No, it's okay," she interrupted him. "I got used to the
idea; I didn't say this to make you sorry or uncomfortable. I just wanted some...
closure. You're happy, and I'm happy that you are, even if the circumstances
aren't what I'd imagined."

"I don't think anyone would have imagined them," Ed said
quietly.

She clasped two of his automail fingers, one in each hand
and wiggled them up and down, smiling a little as she did.

"Besides, we both know this is my true love, and
maybe in the end, it might have been my only love. I don't know," She reached
up and tucked some hair behind her ear, releasing one of his fingers.

The automail finger curled around hers, gently. Precision
control from him, she would expect no less.

"I would have driven you insane and you'd be in jail for
death by wrench," he said with a soft laugh. "We both know it."

Winry released his hand and put her tools away, reaching
behind her to tuck them in her back pocket.

"You're right," she said. "You do drive me insane and
only being far away from me has saved us both, I think." She smiled. "I just
never thought of you as gay," she said dropping her voice.

Ed reeled his jaw back in.

"I'm not gay," he hissed.

She arched an eyebrow.


Winry returned to the living room and met the looks of
the assembled audience.

"He's as fixed as he's going to get," she said. "He lives
to tell the tale."

"Only just barely," Ed snorted and pushed by her, forcing
his way onto the couch between Al and the armrest. R.D. decided he was a good
place to sit and he grumbled but allowed the little dog to get comfortable on
his lap.

Roy occupied one armchair and Pinako the other. Gracia
and Riza were sitting on chairs appropriated from the den and Elysia was on
the other side of Al on the couch.

"I think everyone might think of turning in early," the
General said. "Tomorrow is going to be a big day."

There was general agreement from around the room. As if
on cue, Elysia yawned, so everyone got up and said their goodnights. Ed watched
Al linger over his goodnight to Riza and chewed the inside of his cheek, trying
to think of what it was he could actually do, coming to the realization
it wouldn't be much.


R.D. had a spasm in the hallway as everyone went to their
rooms. He darted between Elysia and Al frantically, and looked to be loosing
what sanity he actually possessed, (Ed exclaimed surprise that any of them
actually thought he had sanity)
. He hovered by Roy's feet in distress for
a few moments.

However, when Roy reached down to offer a comforting pat,
he zoomed away and whisked between Al's feet, into his bedroom and on top of
his bed. He bounced there frantically and Al laughed before going in pulling
the door shut behind him.

Ed got undressed distractedly, into his pajamas distractedly
and into bed distractedly. After waiting several minutes for Ed to actually
lay down, Roy chuckled and ran his hand up under Ed's pajama top, stroking his
back.

"Trust me, it's going to be fine," he soothed. "Lay down
already so I can turn off the light."

Ed looked over his shoulder at him and sighed, waiting
for Roy to extract his hand before doing a fine imitation of R.D. getting comfortable
for the night, with a lot of shuffling and rearranging of his pillows.

"I just want it to be perfect, it's important for Al,"
Ed sighed as Roy turned off the light.

"I think it's more important that you have a good time,"
Roy said. "It won't be much fun for Al if his big brother is a stress-beast
the entire time." There was amusement in his voice.

"Bastard," Ed said softly, tilting his neck in Roy's direction
when Roy draped an arm across him and moved closer. Roy's lips found the target
easily enough and Ed closed his eyes. For a while, there was nothing but the
sound of breathing and an occasional shift in the sheets before Roy's hand wandered
innocently down Ed's chest, over his stomach and beneath the waistband of his
pajama bottoms. Ed caught his hand for a moment, took a deep breath and released
it. It always tickled Roy's fancy that Ed was such an almost prude. He
knew what the whole hand holding episode was about: the other people in the
house. Actually, Ed was such a prude, he couldn't even let a dog watch. Roy
stifled a snicker on Ed's shoulder and wrapped fingers around his erection.

"What's so funny?" Ed whispered breathlessly.

Instead of answering, Roy curled his fingers and Ed's
cock, thus tunneled, got a stroke and a tug. After that, Ed didn't care what
was funny, he just arched his hips. Roy swallowed all of Ed's delicious sounds
by covering Ed's mouth with his own; especially the half shout that accompanied
Ed's jerk and climax into his hand.

He watched Ed's eyes drift slowly closed and then went
to wash his hand. He went back and slipped into bed again, pulling up the covers.
Sex was always a surefire method of getting Edward to sleep.

Now he could sit up and worry without looking like a hypocrite.