sky dark

Better Living Through Alchemy

chapter 11.

It was high noon and the party was less than three hours away. In the kitchen, the women consulted with the head caterer while outside, the General lined his men up for inspection. He had on his uniform with his great coat draped dramatically over his shoulder and at his heel, trotted a smart little terrier as he marched slowly up and down the row of black and white-clad recruits. They mimicked attention in a way that seemed not quite right, (at least on a few of them), and the General even received a wink or two that he dismissed offhandedly.

Civilians, the lot of them, but he would have to make do with what he had. His two subordinates, (one ex-military, one about to be ex-military), stood back with their hands clasped behind their backs, the blondr of the two turned to his younger brother.

"It's all gone to his head," Ed said. "There will be no living with him now. I thought it was a mistake to let him wear the uniform to the party, but oh no, you said all the other Generals would be doing it, so I had to let him do it too."

"What are you blaming me for?" Al snorted. "You can take the man away from the job, but you obviously can't take the job away from the man. He's enjoying himself, what's the harm?"

Ed gave his little brother a droll look and one of his eyebrows inched up to a disdaining angle.

"You have no idea," Al's elder brother said. "This is a monster you've unleashed. You haven't had to attend state dinners with him."

"Yes I have," Al countered. "He's perfectly amicable."

"Ha, ha, ha," Ed said. "He's never been in the position to show you off before. It wasn't you he was promoting at those functions."

"Promoting?" Al said, looking confused. "What do you mean?"

"I have learned," Ed said, bouncing once on the balls of his feet, "that if the General has the need to swagger like a peacock, he will. I go to state functions on his arm now, well figuratively, not as his subordinate. I'm at his mercy... all... evening... long. It's exhilarating at first, being whisked from clique to clique, but after a while you just want to get away." Ed leaned in close, pinning his younger brother eye to eye. "But you're doomed to a never ending cycle of hand shakes and small talk enough to make your ear drums bleed for mercy. Not once can you get anywhere near the buffet, at least until all the good things are picked over. You carry the same drink around for hours, because every time you go to take a sip to relieve your dry, aching, parched throat, you're forced right into another introduction. So you go without, languishing there on expensive tiles of a banquet room of infamy."

Al backed away a little, swallowed and glanced toward the house.

"That won't save you," Ed laughed. "You can run, but you cannot hide."

"Alphonse," the General called right on cue. "Come over here would you please, I'd like to introduce you to the waiters."

Al's fingers twitched and he gave Ed one forlorn, sidelong glance as he forced himself to place foot before foot on his way to hospitality enslavement.

"Doomed," Ed whispered behind his back, "doomed."

The General grinned and waved Al to come along faster.

Ed laughed before turning and going back into the house where the women promptly gave him coffee and had him sit at the table with Elysia to finish off the muffins left over from breakfast.

At one, the doorbell rang and a young girl and young terrier raced frantically through the house to answer it, because as far as they were concerned, the tension was already mounting. Elysia had the presence of mind to dart quickly into the den and R.D. followed her, but she doubled back and shut the door, trapping him inside. She now noticed that her mother had made the trek behind her at a slower pace and was going for the doorknob. Elysia wailed in denial and her mother looked back at her in surprise, but then stood back to let her panting daughter hang off the doorknob for a moment.

The bell rang again and Elysia popped upright, turning the knob.

"Elysia! Gracia!" The voice vibrated over their very bones and Elysia's feet left the floor. She almost clocked her head on the ceiling as Alex Armstrong hefted her onto his shoulder, but as he'd done the same thing last time, she was prepared and ducked.

"Alex," Gracia said warmly and stepped into his one armed embrace, safe from the usual savaging he gave his former colleagues.

"I have brought with me the gentlemen who will be setting up the sound stage and equipment for the band," Alex informed her. "Shall I direct them through the side gate?"

"Yes," Gracia smiled. "Roy and Al are in the back as well, they can show them where they'd like the stage set up."

"Very good, very good," Alex nodded and then gently set Elysia on her feet. "When the band members begin to arrive, would you be so kind as to direct them through the side gate? They've no need to be carrying instrument cases through the General's house. There will also be a young lady, a singer I have engaged to accompany tonight's performance."

"We'd be delighted," Gracia informed him.

"I'll show them the gate," Elysia grinned up at him. His hand dropped fondly on the top of her head, palming the circumference easily.

"Such a fine young lady," he rumbled, then took himself out the door and Gracia shut it.

"Okay young lady, you man the front window. Whenever you see anyone carrying an instrument case coming up the walk, you run out and direct them around."

Elysia saluted her mother.

"General Mustang! Alphonse!" The gravel on the ground at their feet jumped, as did they when they saw the man-mountain come toward them.

"Alex," Roy called cheerfully, then saw the set up crew carrying poles and boxes in through the side gate. "Is that the band?" Roy's nostrils flared and Al groaned inwardly.

"This is their stage crew, they are going to set up a platform," Alex got within range and Al winced at the hard clap on his shoulder. "A man already, Alphonse, so hard to believe. I can still remember those earnest young eyes, the way you searched for your missing brother," Alex patted around his upper jacket pocket and pulled out a large, red, silk handkerchief. "Please forgive my seeming melancholic reaction, but such nobility both this lad and his brother possess quite moves me to tears."

Al patted the large man's arm and then got crushed in his embrace. The General stood by unaffected as he usually did while Al's vision swam before his eyes and Alex expounded on his undying Elric admiration. Al's survival came in the form of a small, black and white terrier who noticed that possibly his favorite person in the world next to his other favorite person in the world (these rankings changed at any given moment because R.D. found he was rather fickle and if they didn't offer him food, they could at least smell like food. That person wasn't out here right now, so he'd settle for this one. He might not smell like food, but R.D. knew what he liked) was being menaced and he bounded with a yappy charge to the rescue.

The General pointed across the yard at the stage crew and huffed, looking over at Alex and Al.

"Do they truly know what they are doing?" he asked. "It's best I go and supervise."

"I'll help," Al yelped and gave Alex an apologetic smile, trotting after the General, (in much the same way R.D. was doing, now having fended off the bad! mans!) but he slowed a moment and cast a rather mischievous looking smile over his shoulder in Alex's direction.

"Ed's in the kitchen," Al called cheerfully and pointed toward the house. Alex seemed to brighten up considerably and strode toward his next victim.

"I'll show you whose ass is doomed," Al muttered as he hurried to catch up to the General.

At two-thirty, the terminally early began to show up. It was fortunate Ed had time to have a little lie down on the couch to recover from having the muffins he'd eaten earlier squeezed out of his nose in Alex's enthusiasm. Elysia was the self appointed greeter and told people to ignore Ed as they passed the arch entrance of the living room on their way through the decorated main hall toward the kitchen back door. That was unless they wanted to dump their coats on him, which was perfectly all right.

After hanging a few coats in the coat closet and hollering down the hall for R.D., confined to the bedroom, to 'put a sock in it', (because Elysia was there tripping up his tongue. He certainly didn't want any sort of Hughesian hex to befall him for cursing in front of his daughter), he decided to head back outside and have Roy run interference in case Alex felt need the need to have his sternum touch his spine again.

The first of his students arrived at two fifty-two, with parents and elder sibling in tow.

"Professor Elric," Seth called the moment he cleared the back door. Ed smiled and waved at him as the boy turned to tug on the taller boy behind him and they both trotted over the lawn to his side.

"I'm glad you could make it, Seth," the Professor said. "You're the first one to arrive."

"Oh, that's just because Mom is anal," Seth reassured him. "She's early to everything. My Dad said she'll be in her coffin tapping her heel before the pearly gates get open."

Such interesting imagery. The other part of the imagery was Seth, out of uniform. He was still Seth, but his sweater, boy's slacks and loafers softened him; his hair wasn't slicked or oiled and it ruffled slightly in the mid-afternoon breeze. He looked so very young. Of course he looked young in his uniform, but there he blended in with his pack; here he was almost unguarded and the Professor shook himself, wondering why the hell his sentimentality was trying to send him into sugar shock.

"Hey, you remember all those articles I brought to the club meeting?" Seth asked and grabbed the older boy's shirtsleeve. "They were my brother's, this is Stephen," Seth introduced. "He's a big fan of yours. I told him it was okay to talk to you."

Ed smiled at the older boy and extended his hand, watching Seth bounce excitedly in his peripheral vision.

"Edward Elric," Ed said. "It's a pleasure to meet you, Stephen."

The boy took his offered hand and shook, but he didn't let go. In fact, he held it much longer than propriety allows a normal handshake and looked down at its white, gloved outline, palm to palm with his own hand.

"Is this," Stephen said worshipfully, "your automail hand?" He seemed to tremble all over and Seth snorted.

"It is," Ed said, wondering where this was leading. "I'm not holding on too tight, am I?" he joked a little and tried to extract his hand.

"Stephen, quite being a spaz and let him go!" Seth reached up to separate them, grabbing a flesh and steel wrist in each of his hands. "Sheesh, it's only automail," Seth said.

Ed felt the corner of his mouth quirk up.

"I feel like I should have my hand enshrined," Stephen whispered reverently.

"It's okay Professor, I won't let him tackle you or anything freaky like that," Seth assured him. "He'll get over his weirdness, I'll just take him over to the punch bowl; can we have some?"

Seth out of uniform was a new discovery indeed. It was if he somehow managed to cage all his exuberance behind gray cloth and only let it out when he could breathe properly under the sun.

"You help yourselves," Ed told him. "I'm really glad you came."

Seth grinned and tugged on his brother who followed like a zombie, staring at the palm of his hand.

"General Charles 'MadCap' Stanton," the man with the heavy beard boomed as he offered his hand. "You must be this 'Professor' Danny goes on and on about." Beside the uniformed man, Daniel squirmed like a worm on a hook. He was dressed in a suit with knee shorts and his hair was parted down the middle and slicked down at the sides; he barely met Ed's eyes even once.

"Edward Elric," Ed returned, trying not to look at Daniel much because it seemed to make the boy uncomfortable.

"Yes, he goes on and on about that alchemy class like it's the only thing in the world," General Stanton said, pumping his hand. "But he's bound for service like his old man, I don't see where it will serve him in the..." General Stanton trailed off, looking over Ed's shoulder. He released his hand abruptly and moved around him.

"Roy!" the man boomed behind him, leaving Ed there with his hand in the air and his surly, silent son.

Ed looked at Daniel as the boy squared his jaw, reached up, ruffled his hair violently and jerked his necktie loose. He then took Ed's hand and shook it.

"There," Daniel said, "that finishes it off. You look dorky standing there with your hand out and nothing holding it."

Edward raised his eyebrows, put his hands on his hips and wrinkled his nose.

"Is that so, short pants?" he asked and Daniel groaned.

"Take advantage of a guy's weakness," the boy complained.

Ed reached back and flipped his ponytail.

"Mock a man's ponytail," he retaliated.

"Okay fine," Daniel said. "Truce."

"Go get some punch," the Professor told him. "You seem like a man in need of a drink."

Daniel glanced toward his father once; the older man was now standing with other blue clad military sorts.

"You have no idea," Daniel said and stalked off.

With a father like that, maybe Ed did.

"This is one fancy place," Sarah said, looking around as she moved out into the backyard, holding Havoc's arm.

"I guess the General does alright," Havoc said, eyes already roving for spots he could slip away to and not get harangued about making someone's dress smell like smoke.

"There's Breda and Cain," Sarah said, pointing across the yard. In the months she'd been dating Havoc, she'd managed to become one of the group. Breda and Cain often lamented after their lost earnings in poker, but Havoc had little sympathy and some steak dinners for their pain.

He looked back as Falman and Abby followed them out and caught Falman's attention, nodding at the usual suspects.

"So who's who here," Sarah asked as Havoc led her across the lawn. Havoc nodded in the direction they were going; Alphonse had moved over to Cain and Breda. Breda slapped him on the back and Cain shook his hand.

"Right off the bat you're going to meet the birthday boy," Jean told her. "His name is Alphonse Elric, but we call him Al."

"Is he ever cute," Sarah said. Ed picked this time to also join the group and Sarah elbowed Jean and looked up at him.

"That's Edward Elric. Do you remember the FullMetal Alchemist? He was big back in East City," Havoc said.

"I think I heard a story or two, is that him?" she asked.

"In the flesh and steel," Havoc replied.

"Oh ho, here comes trouble," Breda chuckled and shook his head.

"Never play this woman at cards," Cain warned Al as Sarah and Havoc reached them, with Falman and another girl on their heels. Havoc slung his arm over Al's shoulder and grinned.

"A free man," he said. "Takes bravery these days. Happy birthday, this is some shindig."

Al grinned and Ed put his hands behind his back, appearing smug.

"Thanks Jean," Al said and looked at the girl standing next to him, smiling.

"I'm Sarah Mahoney," she said, extending her hand, "Happy birthday, sorry soldier boy here is skipping the introductions."

Al took it, shaking it and continuing his grin while Havoc snorted.

"As if anyone needs to introduce the female tornado," Havoc said. "I'm surprised she didn't run over here and tackle you," he told Al.

"I don't tackle people the first time I meet them," Sarah said, "that's the second."

"I'm glad you guys could make it," Al beamed.

"Congratulations, Alphonse," Falman said. "I'm sure you have a promising civilian career ahead of you. This is Abigail Crammer."

"Hello," the brunette hanging on Falman's arm said, giving a little wave, "Happy birthday, and congratulations are in order I'm told."

"Thanks Vato," Al said. "Pleased to meet you Miss Crammer, and thank you," he smiled.

Sarah had saved the tackle for Ed. He looked like he could take it.

"Hey, I hear you're famous," she said, moving right to his side. He turned his head and blinked at her as she grinned. "Show us what you're famous for," she said. Havoc shook his head, releasing Al's shoulders.

"Depends on what you've heard I'm famous for," Ed replied with a smirk of his own. "I was unaware my efforts to foist my world views on the next generation had reached the levels of infamy so quickly."

"No, do the alchemy boy thing," she said. "Jean says you were the man back in the day. I read an article about you once I think, and OH, I saw a newsreel in the theatre!"

"I bet it was the one about the dam," Fuery said. "They showed that one a lot."

"I think it was, it was great," Sarah said. "Come on, show us what you got," she clapped her hands a few times.

Ed blinked and waved his hand, shaking his head and scowling at them both.

"Clap my hands indeed. It's not magic, you know. Besides, I've given that up, Jean knows that," he shot a glance over her shoulder at the man in question, who shrugged and grinned, toothpick hanging out of his mouth.

The General chose this moment to intercede. He leaned into the circle between Ed and Al, smiling.

"I'm terribly sorry lovely young lady, but we'd rather not have any practical demonstrations, as Edward tends to get carried away," he smiled at Sarah in the way he smiled at all beautiful women of his acquaintance and Ed turned to glower at him. Sarah smiled back slowly and Havoc suddenly grabbed her hand.

"I'm here to confiscate Alphonse," the General continued. "His brother is a dreadful bore to hog him so, there are people to meet and mingle with and this party is in his honor. Alphonse?" The General looked at the young man who smile and nodded.

"All yours Pirate," he said with a grin. Ed huffed as the General led his younger brother away and Al gave him an apologetic wave over his shoulder.

"Always running off to do what Roy wants him to do, I wasn't hogging him," Ed said. "But so what if I was, he's my little brother. You'd think if anyone had the right to hog him, it would be me."

"Don't worry," Sarah said, watching them go before swinging her eyes back to Ed. "We won't let you get lonely." She gave Havoc's hand a little squeeze.

"That's what I'm afraid of," Ed snorted.

"Winry Rockbell," she said, offering her hand. "I don't believe we've met."

"Sarah Mahoney," she replied back, taking the offered hand and giving it a shake. "I saw you when we came in."

"Who are you here with?" Winry asked, handing her a cup of punch and turning to get her own.

"Jean Havoc," Sarah replied, "you?"

"Extended family," Winry said. "I know Ed and Al."

"You're related to blondie?" Sarah asked, sipping her punch. "I bet that's a fun pastime."

"Accident of location," Winry said. "We grew up together as kids."

"The birthday boy seems nice, didn't get a chance to talk to him before sex in the uniform made off with him," Sarah said casually.

Winry's eyebrows rose and she turned her head to and looked in the direction of the cluster of uniforms gathered around Alphonse.

"Al is a sweetheart, not like Ed at all." She looked hard at the man standing beside Al. "You think he's sexy?" Winry asked. Of the many things she'd thought in her lifetime about Roy Mustang, (most very uncomplimentary), that was the one thing she'd never associated with him.

"Are you blind? That eye patch is twitch material," Sarah laughed. "Blondie isn't too bad either, but I think I'm hooked up with the good one of the bunch," she was watching Havoc and Breda pound Fuery on the back and push him at the bar. "Poor Cain, I might have to go rescue him... again."

Winry shook her head and shrugged.

"There are a lot of kids here," Sarah observed. "They're everywhere and all boys except for this one little girl and she's like, trying to run rough shod over them."

"Ed's class, he invited them," Winry said. "Elysia is the tyrant's name, she is a budding photo-journalist."

"Amazing, I never wanted to go near my teacher with a ten foot pole," Sarah said and got more punch. "They all came because he invited them?"

"I think it's amazing too as I never thought of Ed as the tolerant type," Winry said. "But he seems to do well with them; I guess you never really know a person like you think you do. They really seem to like him, but he's changed a lot too."

They both watched Ed get mobbed by the kids they were just discussing. He was being maneuvered across the yard to a group of what could only be their parents and he stood and smiled and shook hands a lot as each kid pointed him out to their respective guardian. A blanket introduction would not do, Ed had to be introduced multiple times in multiples ways.

"I almost feel sorry for him," Sarah said. "He's got this cute little twitch going on with his left eye and his smile is looking kind of forced."

"Don't be," Winry snorted. "He's always been a first class attention whore. He's eating it up under the pretence of annoyance, he's such glass."

"Pretty to look at though," Sarah said.

"I'll agree to that," Winry said and freshened her punch.

"I heard a dog barking in the house when I went in to pee," Duffy said.

"Why didn't you just go pee behind those bushes?" Daniel asked. "That's what I did."

"I was gonna," Duffy said. "But Ma caught me undoing my belt, she made me go in and use the bathroom. It's a big house, all the doors in the hall were closed, but I could hear the dog."

"The Professor has a dog?" Eric said, which caught the attention of the others.

Ed was besieged again and a ring of boys enclosed him before he could make a break for it.

"Professor, can we see your dog?" Gavin asked.

"It's not my dog, it's the General's," Ed informed them. "You'll have to ask him." That should take care of that.

He left the boys looking across the yard at where Roy stood with the other uniform-clad, intimidating adults.

"C'mon," Daniel said. "My dad is over there too!" He mustered his troops and across the yard they went. Alphonse saw them coming.

"We have impending visitors," he told the General who turned to look at the group of boys. They got within a few feet and the head of the pack, who could only be Charles Stanton's son, (they had the same look in their eye, the look that could spell disaster or overwhelming victory if pushed in the right direction), stopped and put his hands on his hips.

"General Mustang, can we see your dog?" he asked and his classmates shuffled behind him, studying Roy's boots.

"I suppose so," the General drawled. "But you'll have to put him back when dinner is served and you're charged with making sure he doesn't get anything off the snack table."

"So you're the Professor's Dad?" Daniel pressed. "Did he get in a lot of trouble when he was a kid?"

"Why didn't you make him go to school," Gavin whined.

"What was his favorite kind of ice cream?" Richard contemplated.

The other boys looked at him and he shrugged.

"Sorry," Richard said, "you guys took the good questions, I couldn't think of anything else."

"Amateurs," Seth mumbled. "Has he been graded on the Alchemic scale? Does he have a worldwide ranking? What can you tell us about his career without revealing classified information?"

The General looked slowly at Al who was grinning and obviously enjoying himself; several of the other military personnel present were also sporting wide grins.

"Is his Professorship honorary?" Boyd asked. "Professor Taylor says honorary titles aren't as good as the real ones."

"His Professorship is honorary," the General said with a snort, "but that doesn't make it any less valid than anyone else's. Edward Elric accomplished more things by the time he was fifteen than most people will accomplish in their lifetimes. Alphonse here has similar credentials and many universities would kiss his feet to get him on their teaching staff. Not as good as a real one, indeed. Honorary is higher in my opinion, because it is presented by your peers."

The boys all stood with their eyebrows raised.

"I was his sponsor, I'm not his parent," the General said loftily. "He was massive trouble as a boy, nothing but one blond bundle of trouble. If not for Alphonse here to watch over, he might not even be alive. He didn't go to school, but he received schooling on his job. I'm not quite sure about the ice cream; my hazard guess would be chocolate. He's never taken the official Alchemic scale test so he has no worldwide ranking, but he loves to brag about his own exploits, so you should ask him personally to expound upon his many achievements. They are, after all, his own and he can give you first hand accountancies of the facts, where I would only be second hand and technically inclined at best."

The boys all looked at each other, then clapped politely.

"Let's go let the dog out!" Duffy said.

They ran off in a huddle and Elysia finally ran out of film and noticed them, so she ran after them.

The General looked at Al, and Al looked back, raising his eyebrow.

"Did you enjoy that?" the General asked drolly.

"I love seeing you pinned down and worming your way out," Al grinned.

They were interrupted by R.D.'s release into the backyard, followed by a herd of boys and one girl who seemed to be yelling directions. R.D. made a mad dash for the nearest familiar object, which happened to be Ed. The boys noticed a bit too late and plowed into him as well. There was a lot of flailing on the ground and loud apologies as the young lady Havoc was dating helped Ed to his feet. She laughed as Ed stood and brushed himself off, snorting at the shuffling boys with hung heads. The young lady, (Sarah. When Havoc had finally decreed it safe to introduce her to the General, he believed the name was Sarah.), elbowed Ed in the ribs and gave him a look, to which he sighed and told the boys it was all right, that these things happen. Winry went over then and began fussing with Ed's collar and Ed pushed away, retreating. He didn't care to be treated in the manner of one of his students.

"Look, Al. We need to go talk with Pickering and his crew," the General grabbed his elbow and pulled him away.

"I'm never going to get the chance to finish a drink because I'm never going to get one," Al complained as his captor led him away.

Alphonse devised a clever escape plan. The first thing he would need would be a distraction, not much of one, but just enough for the General to look the other way, just for a moment. The second part of the plan involved running like hell, and that was the clever part. He fidgeted around, waiting for his opening. It almost seemed as if the Pirate was onto him, no matter how sweetly he smiled and nodded his head in their direction, (he could almost swear the man COULD see through the eye patch).

Diversion came from unexpected visitors. He watched Roy glance up and away, then double take and break into a smile. The General left the group without so much as a goodbye or backward glance. Here Alphonse was trying to be clever and sneak away, and the Pirate just walked out and left the door right open. It hardly seemed fitting at that point, but freedom was his, (he took it begrudgingly because he hadn't really earned it), and he made his way back over toward Ed and the others.

Ed's radar went off. He whirled around and watched Roy hug a woman near the back porch. When she hugged him back, Ed straightened his shoulders and stalked out of the group.

"Odds," Havoc said quickly.

"I ain't taking that bet," Breda said. "All the money is on Ed and we all know it."

"What are you guys talking about?" Sarah asked. She and Winry rejoined them, handing out punch to the guys and watching Ed's retreating back.

"The General is hugging a girl," Breda snickered. "We can't have that."

Al and Winry exchanged a look and a sigh.

Sarah cocked her eyebrow at him and looked at Havoc, who in turn was giving Breda an exasperated look. Breda shrugged.

"She'd find out soon or later," he said, chugging the punch and then grimacing. "Too many damn kids running around, nobody has spiked the punch yet."

"What is it I'm supposed to be finding out later?" Sarah asked them, hand going to her hip.

Breda gave Havoc a grin while Fuery shifted uncomfortably and found the scenery fascinating. Falman decided he and Abigail should go and inspect the snack table, and Havoc just sighed while Al rubbed the side of his nose and hmm'd a little.

"Ed's gay," Winry said. "The General is his boyfriend."

Everyone in the group exchanged glances, (except for Falman, he had made good his escape), and shifted a little.

"No shit," Sarah said. "Blondie and Eye Patch Sex are a couple?"

"They've been a couple for a long time," Al said, leaning into the group and lowering his voice. "But they are very discreet, I'm sure you can understand why."

"Oh hey," Sarah said. "I'm good with it, don't worry."

Al relaxed a bit and smiled, nodding to her.

"Ed on the final approach," Breda said. "Here we go."

Everyone turned to watch.

Just as Ed got within striking distance, a man joined them. Ed staggered to a stop and almost turned around to flee, but he realized the Xingian man was not the same Xingian man he'd grown accustomed to avoiding. Where the hell was 'The Mooch Who Would Be King' anyway? He hadn't shown up yet and Ed let himself have a sliver of hope that he wouldn't show up at all.

Roy and the woman pushed back from each other and dropped the hug to holding hands and Ed scowled until he saw the woman's face, then Roy could hug her all he liked. When she saw him, her eyes widened as she dropped Roy's hands and closed the distance between them quickly, her arms going around Ed's shoulders.

"Ed! It's so good to see you, you don't know how worried I was for your sorry butt and Hot Stuff," Anna hugged him tightly. "I can't believe it, you look great. You've gotten so tall."

Ed was flushed and patting her back awkwardly; he met Roy's grin over Anna's shoulder.

"I'm keeping her," he informed the General. She thought he was tall.

Anna drew Ed over to where Roy and the Xingian man stood, releasing Ed's hand and taking the Xingian man's arm.

"Okay you guys, I want you to meet my husband. This is Shen Xu," she said with a smile.

Roy blinked, Ed blinked. They looked at each other and blinked, then looked back at the Xingian who smiled and bowed formally. Ed and Roy hastily did the same.

He was a tall man with a thick, black braid hanging over one shoulder. He wore a xingian style silk shirt under a western style blazer, with western slacks and shoes as well.

"I'm very pleased to meet you," Shen said in his heavily accented amestrian, "Anna speaks highly of you both, it is a great honor."

"The honor is all mine," Roy said. "You'll forgive my astonishment, Anna didn't tell me she was married in her letters." He shot Anna a look.

"I knew I'd be heading back to Amestris soon," Anna said. "I wanted to ambush you in person. We both know it was Ed I really wanted to see anyway."

"Not everyday somebody comes back from the dead," Roy agreed, giving Ed a sidelong look and smirk.

"You must be a very patient man," Ed said, looking up at Shen Xu, "or a glutton for punishment. Anna has never led me to believe she'd be a wife someday."

"I take that back, Hot Stuff," Anna said. "He could have stayed dead, you know."

"My wife is very wise," Shen said with a smile. "She has great determination and spirit, and many, many opinions she is not afraid to share. I look on it as my penance on the journey to heaven."

"Wow," Ed said. "You insult really elegantly, I should take lessons."

Anna elbowed Shen in the side and yanked Ed's ponytail.

Al spotted the Colonel standing just under the tent talking to one of the Generals that Al recognized as General Fane. He headed over slowly, intending to keep a polite distance until they'd come to a break in their conversation, to ask the Colonel if she was having a good time. Her profile was drawn and serious, and Al inched a bit closer, concerned. She must have caught the movement out of the corner of her eye, because she turned to look at him, then back at Fane. She excused herself and the General glanced at Alphonse once before nodding and walking away.

"I'm sorry," Al said immediately, coming forward. "I didn't mean to eavesdrop, Colonel," although he hadn't really heard anything.

"It's all right, Alphonse. I'd rather you hear such rumors from me, than to hear them just drifted about," she said.

He had an immediate dilemma. This sounded serious, but the reality was he hadn't heard anything. His curiosity was piqued, however, and he wanted to know. He struggled with his own guilt of not telling her, and instead walked up to be quite conversationally close.

"The General, our General, Mustang," she clarified, "has been doing some unusual things lately. It's received the attention of the higher ups here; they've been discussing it. He might be considering a bid for Parliament after all."

"You mean as Prime Minister?" Al said, eyes widening. "But I haven't seen any overt moves in that direction at all," the young man folded his arms. "He's seemed quite normal, content even."

Riza studied him for a long moment then sighed.

"This really isn't anything to be brought up at your birthday party," she said.

"But it affects me and it will definitely affect brother, please," he appealed, "can you tell me what you've heard?"

She hesitated a moment more, as if weighing options in her head. She was so damn unreadable, and Al wasn't sure why. Every human emoted, even if they held their expressions in check. Their body language was a good indicator of their feelings, but the Colonel had learned to check that too and it was frustrating to Alphonse, who was used to being able to feel his way through situations, as well as articulate them.

"Very well," she said. "You'll notice that the General is playing host to a certain Xingian ambassador. It's rather unusual for diplomatic assignments to be passed through the military these days; that has become the call of the House of Representatives. I've learned that the Xingian court sent their representative at the General's invitation, not Parliament's. That's not to say he didn't go through the proper channels," the Colonel continued, "he did in fact lobby the invitation himself and received the go ahead from the council."

"All right," Al said. "So he's decided to get into the diplomatic end of politics, how is that related to running for Prime Minister?"

"The General has access to intelligence many in the House do not," the Colonel explained. "It seems recently there have been some disturbances on the border of Xing to the south. It could be that Xing is hoping to make militaristic, as well as political, allies. I myself don't have access to the exact nature of the disturbances or their severity, but I do know that many of the Generals feel that Parliament is letting some of our truce bearers run over us. You'll remember the land dispute on the borders of Drachma and how it was redistributed into Drachman rule despite the Amestrian farmers that had been settled there for generations?"

"But it was territory that had been claimed from Drachma in the first place," Al said. "Part of the truce was handing it back over, the Generals knew that. If the General were to make a successful bid for Prime Minister and win, wouldn't he have to resign his commission to serve?"

"Not necessarily," the Colonel said. "He would be allowed to keep his rank as a reserve, with an advisory capacity."

"But why would the General want to be Prime Minister and put a military hold back on the Parliament? " Al said. "Isn't that what he fought against? I don't understand."

"Perhaps it's the lesser of two evils in his mind," the Colonel said quietly. "He wanted control of the country to make it a better place."

"But it is, we've been at peace for a few years now," Al said. "If he wants to take control for that reason, it seems moot. He's happy now, he and brother are together and things are quiet."

"It could be he feels something is brewing that he doesn't think the current administration can handle," the Colonel conjectured. "He has his fingers in many pies, even though he doesn't necessarily show it. Maybe Ed brought more than himself back to the General, perhaps he gave the General his ambitions again."

"Brother wouldn't press the General to run for Prime Minister," Al said. "That's insane; it would certainly take away from their time together, not to mention... you say he's got his fingers in many pies?" Al trailed off. His brain was geared to theory and speculation, it had trained itself over long nights of emptiness when he had no one but himself to talk to. By running theories and observations through those long nights in cold steel, he'd been able to piece together a great many things, to see what wasn't seen by the simple regard or eye.

"I've heard more about him in these last few months than in the six years you were out looking for your brother," the Colonel said. "He's been very active recently."

"Alchemy has never been offered as an academic course before," Al said slowly. "Alchemic study was to be done alone, finding a mentor as a rite of passage, but now it's being taught. Just one new class... in the military academy."

"I don't understand your correlation," Hawkeye said.

Al hugged his elbows tighter and didn't quite meet her eyes.

"It wouldn't be such a forerunner in my mind had I not just had the chance to think of it moments ago," he glanced across the yard where the group still stood; Ed, the General, Anna and the man with her had joined them now. "My brother and the General have an unconventional relationship."

"Yes," Hawkeye said, "that is true."

"If the General were to run for Prime Minister, it could be brought to light as something to use against him in a campaign. It's not a very widely accepted notion, two men together." Al turned back to the Colonel. "Alchemy isn't taught in academies, but suddenly the military academy decided to form a department and they asked my brother, a very famous alchemist, to take the open position."

"You think the General had something to do with it," the Colonel said, her tone soft and speculative.

"Credibility," Al said. "The General needed brother to have credibility. That way, if his relationship did come to light during the course of a campaign, it could be shown that brother is a scholar. What's more, he's doing his part for the country by teaching alchemy to the next generation of researchers... of State Alchemists, and he's doing it at a very prestigious school. It's like he's given their relationship government approval." Al unfolded his arms and then refolded them.

The Colonel furrowed her brow and frowned a bit.

"Brother wasn't offered that position," Al went on, "the General created it. He somehow leaned on the board of directors of the Academy and created it."

"But it's not a bad thing," the Colonel said. "Ed seems to enjoy it; you see how he interacts with his students."

"That's not my point," Al said. "What I'm saying is, he's falling back into past patterns: manipulation and control," Al shook his head, "I don't know, maybe I'm reading too much into this, but I know brother wouldn't like to know the position was created for him, not as something the academy was actually considering doing."

The Colonel sighed heavily and met Al's eyes.

"This is something that we don't have concrete facts for," she said. "So it's not something that needs to be dwelt upon today. I regret bringing this up, Alphonse; I certainly didn't intend to bring such heavy discussion to your birthday party. You should be having fun, not worrying for the General or your brother."

"No," Alphonse said, "it's alright. Believe me Colonel, there has been no one in my life as forthcoming with me as you, and I treasure that. I want to know these things; they affect the people around me that I care about. Parties are rumor mills and we both know it, my day wouldn't be complete without a little speculative conjecture," he smiled.

"Well then," the Colonel said and smiled, "happy birthday."

Alphonse smiled back and gave her a half bow.

"Thank you very much, food for thought is the best present of all," he said.

Once Al had left, Winry had been claimed by Elysia and the General and Ed had taken Anna and Shen to introduce around, Havoc, Breda and Fuery all edged closer to huddle around Sarah. With the polite company out of the way, they could get her real opinion of the Ed and General as a couple situation.

She looked at them, arched an eyebrow and put her hand on her hip, but she said nothing, merely casting her gaze at one, then the other, waiting for one of them to break and ask.

Breda broke first.

"What do you think of that, you know, the General and Ed..." He gestured with his drink because he couldn't bring himself to say the words.

"I think it makes them hotter," Sarah said and grinned as she took a sip of her punch.

"You have sick taste in women," Breda said, leveling a look at Havoc, but Havoc just grinned and shrugged. He liked bad girl heaven.

"Why is that sick?" Sarah said with glee. "Come on Breda, I know you think two chicks going at it are hot, I've seen your magazine."

"Only because you were snooping," Breda said. "But that's different, I mean, you don't see chick couples."

"I think it's only different for you because you know the participants personally," Sarah chuckled. "Men and their double standards, it will never cease to amaze me. What's wrong Breda, feel threatened?" she teased. "I don't think you have anything to worry about," her grin turned wicked.

"Screw you," he snorted. "She's a real piece of work," he said to Havoc. "You have my sympathies, man."

"I don't want your sympathies," Havoc grinned and slipped his arm around Sarah's waist. "I know it's your code word for jealous."

"Do you think it's because Ed looks like a girl?" Fuery suddenly burst out and turned beet red, but he couldn't seem to hold it in now that he voiced it.

They all turned their head to look at him and he squirmed.

"The General always liked girls, do you think Ed looks like a girl with his long hair?" It was obviously something he'd been dyingto ask someone.

"Blondie is hot," Sarah said, "but he doesn't look like girl, he's all boy."

"That he is," a smooth voice said behind them. The General moved around and took his position in the huddle, folding his arms and smirking. Havoc snorted at him and grinned, Breda shook his head and Fuery looked on the verge of fainting.

"Well, you'd be the one to know," Sarah said, grinning wide. "But were you attracted to him because he looks like a girl, that's Cain's question."

The General looked thoughtful for a moment and tapped his chin.

"No, I was attracted to him because he's good in bed," the General said. "I would know that, too. I taught him all he knows; plus some other sentimental things I don't feel the need to share."

"Man, it's still weird. I think I could live to be a thousand and it would still be weird," Breda shook his head and tugged at his collar. "I mean, it's you and Ed's lives and it's okay if that is you know, good for you and all. You were such a lady killer though, I mean Havoc used to live in fear and awe of your conquests, hell we all did... I don't get it. I mean it's Ed." Breda shrugged.

"Everyone one knows love is deaf, dumb, blind and stupid," Sarah laughed. "Live and let live."

"When are you going to let them break out the real booze," Havoc asked. "Don't tell me you're going to stiff us and just give us wine."

"When it gets dark, the parents will be taking the kids home," the General said, "you can wait a while."

"So it's going to be a real party after all," Sarah said, "I look forward to it. Does blondie drink?"

"Yeah, but he's not any fun," Breda said. "He's easy to get riled up, then he comes after you with the weaponry," Breda slapped his right arm. "If Ed's drinking, you got to wait until he's practically on his face before you start picking on him."

"What's more," Havoc added, "if he does get drunk and chases you, the General here gets all protective and won't let you clock the little shit with anything."

"It was a steel pipe," the General snorted. "You could have killed him!"

"Oh," Havoc said, "never mind that mighty mite wanted to shove his steel arm down my throat."

"What are you complaining for," the General snorted. "You got away."

"Let's make a bet on who gets shit-faced first," Havoc grinned, "I'm running low on spending money and my girl here needs to be treated right."

"Once again, you make these damn things too obvious," Breda said. "It will be Ed, naturally followed by Fuery here because one drink does him in and he has to see someone else go balls up before he'll take a sip. Then you, and the General is going to be all reserved because the other Generals are here and he has to be a suck up."

"That's so unfair," the General said. "I have to follow the rules, how would it look at the next Generals fan club meeting if I got shit faced with all the peons?"

"Yeah," Sarah said. "Eye Patch Sex can't break the General's code; he's a man with morals."

"Morals?" Havoc snorted hard and rolled his eyes. "When they were handing out morals, the General cut line to take a leak and chat up some chick at the water fountain. Morals and the General are only passing acquaintances."

"I'm not going to argue," the General said, "but do you think I should, for appearances sake? I think I like Eye Patch Sex, I'd like my desk plaque to say that."

Ed came trotting up then, eyed them all and looked at Roy.

"I thought you were coming to get Havoc and bring him over," he said. "I'm not playing hostess to your gaggle of military morons, so get him over there. What are you guys talking about anyway?"

"The General was telling us he taught you everything you know," Sarah said with an evil tainted grin.

"Oh really, well I can do whatever that bastard can do," Ed snorted. "Not only that, I can do it better, faster and blindfolded with my hands tied behind my back."

Ed blinked in confusion as Havoc and Sarah howled with laugher, then everyone jumped when Fuery fainted.

Al was suddenly surrounded and grinning.

"Congratulations! Congratulations! Congratulations!" Elysia and Winry chorused. Al threw his arms around Elysia, lifted her, spun her and set her before Winry to ruffle her hair.

"I know that one," he said, "it's what you tell a person to bring them good luck!"

"Tomorrow, Elysia and I are going to bake you a cake," Winry said. "a birthday after your birthday."

"I hope it's that cake you always used to make me when I lived in Risembool," Al said. "There can never be enough of that cake."

"That's my mom's cake," Elysia said excited. "Winry told me! My mom makes the best cake in the world!"

"The best pies too," Winry grinned.

"I know," Al said, "that's why there can never be enough."

He'd never gotten to taste a cake Gracia had made herself, or a pie, but they were fond sentimental memories of train rides and dinner with Lieutenant Colonel Hughes that Al was glad to have back.

"Your present table is huge," Elysia told him. "You're really lucky so many people like you and came to your party, you're going to get lots of presents," she grinned.

"I am lucky," Al said. "But I'm luckier I have you and everyone else, that's the best present."

Elysia threw her arms around his waist again and Winry kissed his cheek.

They may not be blood, but they were family.

The troop of caterers double timed it into the backyard and began readying the tables for use. Flowers and candles were carted in, and people began to make an eager ring around the tent. Ed, on the other hand, was chasing a black and white terrier that had to go back into the house and knew it. He was finally cornered with Elysia's help, and Ed tucked him under his arm, waved at Roy, pointed at R.D. and then the house. The General nodded.

"I'll save you a seat," he called as Ed headed for the porch.

Ed went in, picked up R.D.'s water bowl from beside the ice box and headed for the bedrooms.

"Good try little guy, but nothing escapes an Elric," Ed told the dog as he pushed the bedroom door open with his foot and set the water bowl inside. He then put R.D. down and jumped out of the door quickly, pulling it shut.

When he turned to go back down the hall, he ran into a silk covered chest.

"Hello," the Prince said, "sorry to be late. Did you miss me?"

Ed felt crowded. He took a step back and ended up against the door of the bedroom. He could hear R.D. scrabbling at the other side and snuffling.

"I missed you the same way I'd miss a toothache," Ed snorted.

"You like pain," the Prince blinked. "I hadn't taken your for the masochistic type, but then again you have automail. I suppose that must be interesting, do you remove it and reattach it during sex?"

Ed's eyes widened and it took him a moment before he could speak.

"No, you mooching fuckhead," he yelled. "I don't like pain, I meant it like I wouldn't miss a toothache... what the fuck, get back and let me by!" Ed put his hands flat on Ling's chest and made to shove him away.

The Prince leaned into them at first, then brought his hands up, grabbing Ed's forearms. He took a hard step back, jerking Ed forward and off balance, when the Prince's back hit the opposite wall, he still had a grip on Ed's forearms and he swung them wide causing Ed's chest to come up against his own. As the startled Alchemist looked up at him, he bent his head and claimed the parted lips of the man.

Ed was too stunned to react at first, but then he exploded, screeching his protest directly into Ling's mouth and wrenching his automail arm from Ling's grip. He went up with a knee, but he only hit the wall and snarled savagely at the Prince who was smirking from him a few feet away.

"What's wrong?" the Prince asked. "It's a custom in my country to kiss your host in thanks for an invitation to a party."

Ed scrubbed at his lips with the back of his sleeve and made a threatening step in the Prince's direction.

"I didn't fucking invite you," Ed screeched, "the General did," he panted.

"So this is true," the Prince said, rubbing his chin.

"If you fucking try to kiss him, I'll kill you," Ed bellowed and launched down the hall, but the Prince was already moving.

"You're beautiful when you're jealous," the Xingian teased and ducked through the kitchen door before death by automail could get his hands on him.

Once out the backdoor, the Prince made a beeline for the General and his group as Ed charged after him, trying to ignore the stares. The General saw him coming, turned to greet him and bowed; the Prince stopped, templed his hands and also bowed. Shen Xu, standing with the General's group, went to his knees and Anna bowed deeply, which only incensed Ed more. Roy looked up and over the Prince's shoulder in Ed's direction; his expression became a little alarmed and he quickly stepped around the Prince to put himself between Ed and Ling.

"Ed, is something wrong?" he asked and made a subtle patting motion with his hand. Ed knew this gesture, it was one of Roy's 'calm down' or 'quiet down' motions he'd used on Ed in meetings Ed had to attend when he was still enlisted and looking for the stone.

Ed made the obvious and physical effort to control himself, he fisted his hands, he took long deep breaths and he kept his eyes on Roy's. The General seemed satisfied and waited for Ed to join them before turning back to the group.

"We should get a table," the General said. "Where's Alphonse? I'd like to introduce him to the Prince."

Everyone turned expectant eyes on Ed, who he raised his eyebrow and then scowled.

"I'm not the Al sitter, you know. He's out enjoying his party... fine, I'll go find him," with that, Ed marched away.

The group moved under the tent. It was then the General found out Gracia had arranged a large circular table to be placed in the middle which was to house the birthday boy and his entourage.

"The woman thinks of everything," the General said smiling. Of course the other Generals would be seated here as well, but the lower officers were shunted off to the table to the right. When Ed and Al returned, an elaborate game of duck-duck-goose ensued as everyone decided where everyone else was going to sit.

Roy watched for a moment before just pulling out a chair and inviting Alphonse to sit. Al smiled and sat, Roy sat to his left and Ed sat to Roy's left. Ling sat to Ed's left, so Ed jumped up, ran to Al's right, and sat.

"Brother, let the Colonel sit there," Al whispered, elbowing Ed a little.

"I don't want to sit by Prince Pain In The Ass," Ed whispered back. "I'm your brother I should sit by you on your birthday."

Al gave him his pitiful look and Ed worried his bottom lip, but sighed, got up and waved to Riza. He started back to his original spot, but stopped and leaned down to whisper in Roy's ear. Roy quirked an eyebrow and looked back at him, but it was Ed's turn to use a pitiful look. Roy sighed, got up and moved one seat over, and Ed grinned as he sat in Roy's abandoned seat. Now the General sat between Ed and the kiss-happy, royal mook.

As soon as everyone was more or less settled, the General stood and held up his water glass, striking it with his spoon to get everyone's attention. He waited just long enough for people to get a little fidgety over whether he was actually going to speak or not and straightened his collar.

"I would like to thank you all for coming, this is a very important day to us, and it is only heightened by the presence of our friends," he said. "Today is Lieutenant Colonel Alphonse Elric's eighteenth birthday. Lieutenant Colonel Elric earned his State Alchemist Certification at the age of twelve, an amazing accomplishment for such a young man, and has been steadily rising in the ranks ever since. He is without doubt, a valued and honored member of this great country's military force, and an alchemist without equal in his field. He has been written and quoted in many leading alchemic texts used by the leading authorities of this country for the last five years and we would like to honor this happy occasion with a toast."

Immediately, the waiters sprang to life and champagne glasses were distributed as the tent filled with the sound of popping corks. The General waited patiently as each adult was given a toast maker and each child's complaint was shushed. With this accomplished, he lifted his own glass high.

"I would like to offer this toast to Alphonse Elric, philosopher, theorist, alchemist and friend. May he have a long and fruitful life and career. We are all richer from his intelligence, we learn from his humility and we strive to be worthy of his friendship," he said and smiled down at Al. Al grinned and blushed deeply.

There were cheers from around the tent and the clinking of stem wear. The General clinked glasses with everyone at the table, sometimes having to lean over very far to do so, and Al also stood and stretched, even leaving the table a few times before he was able to drink his champagne.

The General patted the air for silence once the chorus of 'speech' had taken up, and waited until he had everyone's attention again.

"Let's eat first, I'm starved!" he called jovially and there was more cheering as he sat and Ed bumped shoulders with him, grinning.

"Well," the General said. "If I get you fed, you won't fidget through Al's speech," his smiled turned smirky.

Ed pinched his thigh under the table.

Whenever Ed's eyes strayed anywhere near the Prince during dinner, the Prince was looking at him, or wiggling his fingers at him or smirking at him. It was annoying and Ed kept leaning back and forth to use Roy as a shield. What was his royal asswipe's problem? What the hell was that little speech in hall about sex? Why the fuck had he kissed him? Ed leaned back to look behind Roy, and as predicted, the Prince leaned back too.

"Knock it off," Ed hissed. "Just eat as much as you can stomach and leave already, your royal presence is noted."

"What shall I knock off," the Prince grinned and shrugged. "I think your slang is very interesting, it's so literal and provocative. I think you should accompany me to many events so that I may observe social interaction more thoroughly."

Roy turned and looked over his shoulder at Ed and Ed sat forward again, frowning. It didn't help that Ling also sat forward and wiggled an eyebrow at Ed, but then the Prince seemed to school his expression a bit and look up. In fact, the Prince looked rather sheepish and straightened up altogether. Ed puzzled over that a moment until he glanced up and saw the General looking at the Prince. The General must have finally noticed the exchange going on between his right and left hand sides.

He did not look pleased.

After the dishes had been whisked away, a very large cake was carefully carted in and set in the middle of the large round table. Ed felt a pang that the candles were lit by matches and not a dashing man in white gloves, and Al was prodded to stand and make a wish.

"I really don't have a wish," Al said. "I have everything I want, but if I'm pressed, I guess my wish is for peace among nations, understanding among people and... a pony!"

Everyone burst into laughter and applause, and Al almost burst a lung trying to blow out the candles.

Ed wanted to feed Roy cake. He wanted to feed Roy cake so badly, he almost couldn't taste the cake he was eating. He wanted Roy to suck frosting off of his fingers and lick his lips and open his mouth for more. He wanted to lean forward and lick off that white speck of frosting dotting the General's chin, he wanted the General to deliberately smear frosting over his lips and look at him with that one eye half lidded.

He just wanted.

Of course he couldn't do it here, but a chunk of that birthday cake was being saved, yes it was, and stuck in the ice box until the guest were gone. Then that chunk of cake would be savored all... night... long. Ed squirmed in his seat a little and tried to concentrate on other things. When the General stood beside him again, he looked up at him, almost half hopping he was going to announce to the gathering that he and the Professor had a sudden and pressing engagement. Then he was going to take Ed by the hand and they were going to leave and find a nice closet somewhere with a lock on it. The cake would be there, naturally. The dark, the lock, the cake and Roy. Yes, that was definitely a plan.

"Okay, NOW we can have the birthday boy make his speech," the General announced and he nodded to Al, who stood up and smiled. Al looked down at Ed for reassurance and his big brother grinned and winked at him.

"I'm really bad at this," Al said. "So please excuse me while I stumble through this speech. I know that I'm just repeating things the General has already said, but I am very moved by all the people who have taken time out of their lives to make this day special for me. In order for a celebration to be a celebration, people who are our loved ones and friends need to be close. Some of you I have just met today, but that doesn't make you any less important in what this day means to me, both now and in the future."

Al stopped a moment and glanced down at the Colonel then over at his brother and the General, took a deep breath and continued on. "Please bear with me while I thank a few people in particular who have made it possible for me to be here and have these wonderful memories to begin with. General Roy Mustang has been my guardian and inspiration for many years. The first time I came to Central, he was there to welcome me. Perhaps not in such a manner as either of us might have liked, but from that moment on, he has been a significant part of my life. He made it possible for me to achieve goals, impossible goals; without his support and guidance, I don't know what I would have done or where I might have ended up. I owe him more than simple thanks for everything he has done, but 'thanks' is the word that is deemed appropriate for moments like these. Thank you, General Mustang."

There was a round of applause as Roy and Al looked at each other a long moment and Ed rubbed his foot on Roy's leg under the table.

"In that same light is Colonel Riza Hawkeye," Al said. "Also one of the first people I ever met on my journey to who I am today. I credit her with my strength, my insight and my ability to let reason lead me in things that my heart would be overwhelmed by. She is true a inspiration, incredibly intelligent and a very good friend. She was there through the dark times and I'm grateful she's here for the good times."

Again there was some applause.

"Pinako and Winry Rockbell are more a part of my family than anyone else. Their love and kindness has not only fostered me, but my brother as well. As children, when we were lost with nothing left in this world, they took us in and not only gave us a home, but gave us hope and courage. They showed us the best of humanity and we learned from their lessons to trust people and have faith in ourselves again.

"My fellow collegues: Jean Havoc, Himance Breda, Vato Falman and Cain Fuery were also there, by our sides though thick and thin, and I've learned true friendship from their words and actions. Gracia and Elysia Hughes, who helped make this day a reality, have always been the most kind and generous of people, and I even would like to remember Gracia's husband and Elysia's father, Maes Hughes. He was a man of incredible courage and compassion, who took it upon himself to aid and protect two boys floundering in spirit; he taught us what caring for others was really about. Also, Izumi Curtis taught us to fight, use Alchemy and showed us the path to better ourselves and make the world safe for those around us. This list goes on and on, and since I don't want to keep you here all night, there is just one more person I wish to speak about."

Al gathered himself again and he looked down at Ed, who was looking up at him, and indicated him with his hand.

"This is my elder brother, Edward Elric," he said. "This is one of the most amazing people you will ever have the honor of meeting in your life. He is the embodiment of devotion, determination and love. The sacrifices he has made for me and others in this world will never be repaid in full; if there were a monument to the giving nature, his name would be the first listed there. He has inspired me, insulted me, enlightened me and bullied me through the darkest of roads. And together, we have seen hell and conquered it. Together we have fought and struggled and won against impossible odds, and I know, without a single doubt in my mind, that I would be dead if not for him. There is nothing in this world, in this lifetime, that will ever compare to my big brother. He will forever and always be the one I turn to in times of sorrow and joy. I am a better person because the creator saw fit to place me in his shadow, and that is not something to be upset about, that is something I embrace. I live my life everyday because he is here and because he has taught me the most important lesson in life, and that is life itself. I guess my true wish is this: no matter what comes, no matter where life leads me, I always want to know my big brother is there and I want him to know I'm always there for him."

This time, the applause was a standing ovation. Al looked down at Ed, who had a peculiar look on his face, and leaned over and hugged him hard. Ed ground his forehead into Al's shoulder.

"Wipe your eyes on my shirt," Al whispered in his ear.

Ed nodded hard and did so, sniffling once and taking a few deep breaths.

Finally, Al straightened back up and took a deep breath himself. He reached into his inner jacket pocket and took out an envelope. The General then stood himself.

"In summation," Al said, "I hereby tender my resignation to General Roy Mustang and thank him for the many opportunities my years of service have given me."

The General smiled and took the envelope, tucking it into his uniform and nodding to Al.

"Hey Havoc," Al called out over the tables, "I'm a FREE MAN!" he threw his hands into the air and whooped and the crowd jumped to its feet again.

Darkness began to fall, the cater staff began setting up large yard torches, and as predicted, the parents of the children present began making their goodbyes. Ed and Al stood as an impromptu hand shaking line as they all filed out through the side gate of the back yard.

The General gave the nod for the good stuff to come out and the band began to tune up their instruments. The mounds of gifts were transferred into Al's bedroom and R.D. was allowed back out on his leash as long as Elysia agreed to keep charge of him.

"Finally," Breda said, accepting a beer mug from one of the cater staff, "I thought I was going to die of thirst."

"I know what you mean," Havoc said. "But I knew the General wouldn't hold out on us all night." Havoc passed a martini glass to Sarah and took his own mug.

The Prince excused himself from the gathering of Generals and started through the yard to where Al and Ed still stood, talking. He turned his head as a hand landed on his elbow and he found himself pressed in the direction of the bar instead.

"Let me get you a drink, Your Highness," the General said smoothly. "Have you had Amestris lager? Here is your chance to broaden your culinary observations as well as your social ones."

"I have not had the pleasure," the Prince replied back evenly. "How kind of you to offer, perhaps we should get one for the Professor as well?"

"The Professor needs no encouragement to get his own drink," the General said as they came up to the bar. "In fact, we often encourage the Professor not to drink."

"I see, would that be because of his age or his temperament," the Prince questioned. "He does seem a bit young in comparison to many of his associates."

The General smiled stiffly. He was right, the Prince had his eyes where they shouldn't be, had his goals set on claimed property.

"It would be because his friends are foolhardy enough to taunt him into a drunken rage that could land him a murder conviction," the General said and nodded to the man behind the bar. "He's not one to hold his tongue or anger when liquor is available."

"He becomes quite uninhibited?" the Prince said, "but I fail to see how that is a change from his sober self. He has a very sharp wit and tongue to match. Perhaps you're underestimating him."

"Not at all," the General said. "I am in a position to see his every mood, good or bad, and know when he is affected. He looks to me on many matters, you see. We are very close."

"As well as mentor and student should be," the Prince said as the General put a mug into his hands. "The older among us have much wisdom we can share with the next generation. It is written that the wiser a man is, the grayer he becomes," the Prince glanced up at the General's bangs.

Roy took a long draw on his beer and checked his temper. He needed this bastard, he needed him. But at what price? No, he trusted Ed. Ed could handle himself. Of course he could, how could someone live through all that he has lived through and not be able to handle any situation? The Prince was a consummate flirt and his buffoonery was set cleverly in place to throw people off track of his very sharp mind, but Ed was used to dealing with such individuals.

"I'll take that more as a compliment instead of a slight about my age," the General said, regaining his composure without the slightest hint it had slipped even a bit.

"I didn't mean it as a slight," the Prince said. "In fact, it's quite impressive for a man of your years to have such a position of power. General Fane had several interesting conjectures about your current ambitions as well. You certainly left an impression on my father, enough that he decided I should come here and see all you had to offer." The Prince's eyes trailed back across the yard where Ed and Al were still talking, but had moved over to a table where Winry, Pinkao and Gracia sat.

The General drained his mug, sat it back on the bar and nodded for a refill.

"I'm glad to know I left the Emperor with such an impression," the General said. "Power is what most men respect, and it takes power in this world to keep what is yours. But, it's also bad manners, as well as bad karma, to use it inappropriately. This is a lesson a wise man knows and a younger man has to learn the hard way. The only true lessons are painful ones; they tend to stick with you throughout your life."

"I agree," the Prince said. "But as it is said, nothing ventured, nothing gained. In some instances, the pain might be worth it."

The Prince and the General regarded each other for a very long moment, then the Prince broke into his customary grin and bowed deeply.

"Thank you, General, for your wisdom and your lager," he said when he straightened back up. "Both were very heavy and thought provoking, things I might think to avoid in the future," he turned then and walked away as the General squared his jaw and turned away as well.

The tables were moved to the fringes of the tent and out into the yard. Candlelight set their table clothes aglow as several large tiles where laid where the tables had been and the band began to play.

The singer, a slender, lovely woman in a deep, red, shoulderless dress called for the birthday boy to lead the first dance. Al swallowed and looked at Ed who winked at him and for a moment his eyes strayed to a group of uniformed individuals where a blond Colonel stood deep in conversation, but then he turned to Winry and smiled as he held out his hand. She grinned, took it and they went to the improvised dance floor where the woman in the red dress began to sing.

He wanted to dance with Ed so badly, he almost couldn't keep his mind on his current partner. Gracia was a lovely dancer and he smiled down at her, remembering the many times he'd watched her and Maes dance, but Roy was more a listener than a dancer and as the singer sang to him, (for in his mind, all the lovely torch singers sang to him alone), he really wanted to feel a different body curved against his. He wanted the inevitable snort, the missed step or two, the scent of the shampoo he'd used this morning and the subtle press of square hips against his own.

Roy just wanted.

His mind shouldn't have been straying to one of the few times he'd coaxed his lover to dance, naked in the confines of their bedroom, to a phonograph playing on the dresser. The feel of that heavy blond hair against the back of his hand, as it swayed, unbounded, in time to their steps; the flash in his golden eyes that said he was enjoying the closeness even as his mouth protested...

When the dance ended, he and Gracia parted, nodding to each other and clapping in polite cadence to show their appreciation of the woman in the red dress's singing talents. The General retired from the dance floor, having passed Gracia off to another General of her acquaintance, and hadn't gotten more than a few steps when he recognized the first notes of a certain song.

"Ed," he said, walking up behind the young man still standing at the table, speaking with Pinako, "could you accompany me into the house for a moment, there's something I need you to help me with," he said.

Ed looked surprised, but nodded and smiled at Pinako before turning to follow the General across the yard toward the house. The General opened the door, let Ed precede him in, then closed it and pressed his thumb over the lock.

"What are you doing, I though..." but Ed broke off with a half yelp as he was dragged against the General's chest.

"Listen to the song," the General whispered, catching a gloved hand, wrapping his arm around the small of Ed's back, forcing the younger man into a slight arch against his body as he began to move.

At last, my love has come along...

Ed's eyes went half-mast and he turned his head to the side. The General took the invitation, the jaw, the ear, the slope of his neck.

Yes, yes, this is what he wanted. The General turned them, reached out, hit the light switch and the kitchen went dark.

My lonely days are over, and life is like a song...

Ed's hand slipped to his waist, his fingers pressed, his hips arched and the General's lips found the pulse of his throat as the hand around his back slid lower to the crest of his buttocks.

At last, the skies above are blue...

Ed's mouth found the side of Roy's jaw as they turned again, and the General tightened his hold once more, finally claiming his lover's mouth. It was a slow battle of tongues, a grind of hips and they shared the very air around them for many moments.

My heart was wrapped up in clover, the night I looked at you...

They parted lips and Roy's eye traced the contours of the face tilted up to his in the darkness.

"Everything Al said is true," he whispered. "But I have my own list to add. Edward Elric is heat and desire and lust," the General whispered in a gravely tone. "He fills me and makes me whole; there is nothing in my life that will ever compare to the life he has also given to me."

"Love you," Ed managed to get out, "love you, love yo..."

The General's mouth swallowed the rest of the words, but Ed continued to move his lips even as their dance slowed to the point of almost stopping while they stood kissing each other in the middle of the kitchen floor.

He was going to ask her, he was, he really was. He paced the edge of the tent for a few moments and came to a stop when an arm landed over his shoulders.

"I know what you're contemplating, my friend," Havoc whispered in his ear. "I'm here for you. I have your back and if she starts firing, I'll try to distract her."

"You're very reassuring," Al grated out and sighed.

"Just go on and ask her, the worst she can do is say no," Havoc said. "Believe me, I'm an old veteran. It might feel like a knife in the chest, but it won't kill you."

Sarah walked up to join them and took Havoc's arm that wasn't over Al's shoulders.

"Look like it's gonna be slow dances all night, babydoll," Havoc told her. "The singer is really fine, but it's a shame I won't be able to sling you all over the dance floor; I'm sure Breda wanted to see your panties."

"Oh I'll show him my panties if he asks," Sarah said. "It's not like they're special."

Al coughed and rubbed his nose, and Havoc grinned and shook him by his shoulder.

"Al's the shy type," Havoc said. "We're embarrassing him. He won't even ask the Colonel to dance."

"I don't blame him," Sarah said. "Who'd want to dance with one of those bozos, they've been standing around like blue clad marionettes all night, yapping their jaws and making us work twice as hard to keep this party hopping."

"No, no," Havoc said. "See the blond woman standing with him? That's Colonel Hawkeye. Sheesh, you should have paid attention, I told you there would be a test."

Al laughed despite himself and Sarah gave Havoc a little shove, but then she looked over at Al and grinned.

"Go ask her, how can she say no?" Sarah said. "You're so cute, don't be shy."

"Thank you," Al mumbled, then squared his shoulders. "Okay," he said, "I'm going to do this."

"That's my boy," Havoc slapped him on the back. "Remember, if she starts to reach behind her back casually, make a break for the tables, that should be plenty of cover."

Al groaned and rolled his eyes and stood still until Havoc gave him a little push.

Roy grabbed Ed's elbow as he put his hand on the doorknob, and Ed looked over his shoulder at him.

"We have to go back out," Ed said. "Al will be looking for us and a lot of people saw us come into together. I want to go to the bedroom as bad as you do, but priorities man, priorities," he grinned.

Roy laughed and pulled him back for one more quick kiss.

"Ed," he said, with an unreadable look on his face, "you're mine, you know that, right?"

Ed blinked in confusion for a moment then grinned and shook his head.

"Yeah," he drawled. "I may have gotten out of the army, but I never managed to get this damn collar off."

Roy kept hold of him for a moment longer and just when Ed furrowed his brow, he released him.

"I like giving you a long leash," the General said. "But that doesn't mean I want you to run away."

"You're in a weird mood," Ed laughed. "I didn't realize you'd already had that much to drink," he opened the door and stepped outside. "You usually don't get overly protective unless you're drunk."

"I wouldn't call this protective," the General said lowly behind him. "More like possessive."

Ed would have turned to question him further, but once the General was out in the yard again, one of the other Generals called out to him. Roy walked past Ed, but gave him a sidelong smile as he did so and Ed shook his head, wondering where Al had gotten off to.

Al cleared his throat and Riza turned her head to him as the band began to play and the woman in the red dressed caressed the microphone stand, leaning her lips in close.

You give your hand to me, and then you say hello...

"Colonel," Al said, "might I have the pleasure of a dance?"

And I can hardly speak, my heart is beating so...

The Colonel's lips parted and she actually looked surprised for a moment; it was a wealth of expression for the woman and Al felt his heart flutter.

And anyone can tell, you think you know me well, but you don't know me...

"I'm not much of a dancer, Alphonse," she said and took step toward him, almost involuntarily.

No you don't know the one, who dreams of you at night...

"Neither am I," he said bravely. "But that's never stopped me before. I would really like to show you that as much as you don't think you can dance, you really can in comparison to me," he smiled and tried to joke.

Who longs to kiss your lips, and longs to hold you tight...

"How can I say no then," she said, and when Al held out his hand, she took it. He walked them slowly to the dance floor and turned to face her, lacing fingers with her and settling his hand on her hip. He thought in that moment he might die, but that was alright, he would be dying happy.

To you I'm just a friend, that's all I've ever been, 'cause you don't know me...

"This singer is marvelous," she said, letting him take the lead. She moved with him; close, but not too close; touching, but dancing was touch as a necessitation and not an optional thing.

For I never knew the art of making love, though my heart aches with love for you...

"I'm really grateful to Alex; this is my birthday present from him," Al said. "He hired the band and the singer; he's very good to me."

Afraid and shy, I let my chance go by, the chance that you might love me too...

They missed a step together and became briefly closer than they were before, her chest to his and Al struggled to keep his breathing normal as they both looked at their feet and tried to reason out where they should go.

You give your hand to me, and then you say goodbye...

"It is nice to know another bad dancer," she joked softly. "At the very least, we'll be the laughing stock together. When you're embarrassed with a friend, it's not as bad."

I watched you walk away, beside the lucky guy...

"Not as bad at all," Al said, raising his eyes to hers. "In fact, I think I rather like it."

Oh you'll never know, the one who loved you so...

General Fane appeared beside them, grinning as he tapped Al on the shoulder.

"Come on, let me show you two how it's done. Pity on the poor Colonel's feet, Alphonse," the man laughed.

Al looked at Riza for a long moment, then stepped back politely and gave her a little half bow.

"Thank you for the attempt at dancing," he tried to joke. The Colonel smiled and looked like she might have said something, but General Fane moved in on her then and they turned away.

No you'll never know, the one who loved you so...well you don't know me.

Al turned and left the dance floor, avoiding his brother's concerned gaze as he headed for the bar.

Ed joined him there after a few moments and Al quietly handed over his drink and ordered another. Ed looked at a loss for words, which was exceedingly rare, and Al felt that somehow he should take advantage of it, but it just wasn't in him. After a few moments of silence, in which Al finished his drink and ordered another, Ed's vocabulary found it's way back to his larynx.

"Hey," Ed offered. "I saw you dancing and talking. Uh, how did that go?" he asked.

"It went fine, we tried to break each others feet while talking inanely of being embarrassed," Al said. "It's my usual grace and style under pressure, I seem to think I'm seven feet of amour around the woman, it's a wonder she agreed to dance with me at all."

"It wasn't that bad," Ed said, "you actually danced, Roy just drags me around where he wants me to go," Ed sighed. "Come on Al, she likes you, I know she does."

"I know she likes me too," Al said. "She just doesn't like me the way I want her to like me, and quite frankly I'm at a loss on how to accomplish that. Having all that great insight when I was thirteen sucked. At that time, I could have cared less about getting girls to like me, so I didn't put any thought into it."

It was then both brothers noticed another figure had joined them. Ed looked up and scowled, and Al looked a bit startled.

"Your Highness," Al said. "I'm sorry I didn't see you standing there, can I get you a drink?"

The Prince didn't reply. He smiled enigmatically and raised a single finger then he jabbed it right onto the brace that was bolted to Ed's collar bone. Ed snarled and raised his hand to bat the Prince's away, but then the Prince spoke and both the brothers stopped.

"In Xing, your vaunted Alchemy is called Pharmacy, and it is used to treat sickness and injury," he said low as if it was conspiracy to speak it. "I've never known of a lost limb being replaced," the Prince continued, "but then, I've never known such powerful alchemists either."

It was Al who grabbed the Prince's hand and the man actually blinked in surprise, opening his eyes wider than Ed had ever seen him do before.

"Pharmacy? Alchemy to treat wounds?" Al said eagerly. "I would love to hear more, are you a Pharmacist? Can you introduce me to one?"

The Prince studied Al for a long moment, then his grin returned and he turned his hand in Al's and gripped it.

"I can help you," the Prince said. "for the nobility of your cause and because you are the brother of my friend."

"I'm not your friend and what nobility?" Ed said. "Al's just a knowledge sponge."

Ling frowned and turned to look at Ed, who frowned back and glanced at Al.

"Do you really not see the possibilities in this? I suppose I should be grateful that there is an Elric among you who isn't so literal," the Prince said. "Is it not beyond your vision to realize it might be a chance to regain your missing limbs?"

Ed visibly started as Al reached up and clasped the Prince's hand between his own and shook.

"This is excellent news; I'm preparing a proposal for a grant from the military! Your Highness, if you could arrange for me to meet with a skilled Pharmacist, or an introduction letter to one in Xing, I would be in your debt."

"Wait a minute Al," Ed said. "This is crazy, you don't want to associate with this guy, he's a mooch and a con artist, I don't care how royal he may be. Besides, I'm fine! Things are fine just like they are, we're lucky to get this far, I don't want to do anything to mess this up."

"Brother, I haven't upheld my end of the deal," Al said.

"Al, there was no deal," Ed stressed. "What happened wasn't any obligation on you; can't we just forget this, forget the past and keep going on like we're doing now? I don't want to risk you, hell I CAN'T risk you. No, Al, forget it. Even if you go to Xing, I won't cooperate."

Al just stared at him for a long time, dropped the Prince's hand, mumbled an apology and walked away. Ed gaped after him and made to follow him, but the Prince caught his elbow and Ed whirled on him, drawing his fist back only to have that arm caught as well. He jerked his head around, but wasn't surprised to see Ran Fan, though she'd been unseen the whole of the night. He relaxed his shoulders and threw his hands up in surrender. He wouldn't physically beat the Prince, he'd do it verbally.

"You fucking asshole," Ed snarled. "Look what you've done; I can't believe you'd open your fat mouth like that, who asked you?"

The Prince clasped his hands behind his back and looked at Ed with a thoughtful expression, sighing.

"You are a very selfish individual," the Prince said. "Although I do not know the circumstances behind your automail, and I do not think you would tell me, it seems to affect your younger brother deeply."

"It shouldn't, it's not Al's responsibility," Ed cried. "I got myself into this mess, I got him into... an even worse mess and we finally straightened it out. What the hell do you know about it? You should keep your nose out of my damn business, and keep your lips to yourself while you're at it," Ed hissed.

Ling looked at Ran Fan and Ran Fan bowed her head a bit.

"It's disappointing that you would have so little regard for your brother's wishes," Ling said.

"Human transmutation is illegal," Ed ground out. "If the military knew what he was up to, he could be arrested and imprisoned."

"We are not talking about transmuting a human," the Prince said. "Unless an arm has sentience? I have not heard of this," he looked again at Ran Fan and she shook her head back and forth slowly.

"You are missing the point," Ed said. "It would be a transmutation preformed on a human and therefore it would be human transmutation and that is illegal."

"We don't have such restriction in Xing," the Prince said and Ran Fan nodded agreement.

"You just stay away from my brother," Ed said. "He's got enough complications in his life and doesn't need a two-bit swindler like you adding to his baggage. You mess with him and Prince or not, I will personally kick your ass from here to Xing, got it?"

"I would not presume to think for your brother," the Prince said. "I can see you have that taken care of."

Ed balled his fists and threw himself forward, stalking away. The Prince looked at Ran Fan and she bowed again, but when the Prince turned to look at Ed's retreating back, she was gone.

Roy rubbed Elysia's back and she rubbed her face sleepily against his side. In his other hand, he held R.D.'s leash who he seemed sleepy too, sitting placidly by the General's feet. He'd watched the entire exchange and now watched as Ed followed Al doggedly around the tent until Al finally turned around, folded his arms and listened.

The party had begun to wind down and that was just as well; he was relieved to see Al unfold his arms and Ed's posture relax. Gracia was saying her goodnights and she went to Roy, smiling and taking her sleepy daughter's hand before heading for the house. The Rockbell women stood and joined her, and Roy began to walk slowly over to where Ed and Al stood.

He got waylaid briefly by some departing guests, thanking them for coming, and saluting to a few others who were on their way to the gate as well; he noted the caterers were also starting to pack things up. As he approached the brothers, they both turned to him, Ed with relief and Al with concern.

"General," Al said when he got in earshot. "If there was a chance to restore brother, would you take it?"

"Al," Ed said, "don't drag him into this. Roy, don't listen to him, that damn Prince has pumped his head full of strange ideas."

"You would, wouldn't you?" Al pressed.

"I suppose it would depend on the circumstances," the General said slowly, "and the risks."

"That's just it, there are too many risks," Ed said. "We were lucky the first time around, tell him Roy! Tell him what a bad idea this is," Ed pleaded.

"The Xingian method of alchemy is used for medicinal purposes," Al said.

"I know that," the General said. "I see the Prince has mentioned it to you, he's discussed it with me before, in my office."

Both brothers looked taken aback for a moment, then Al charged forward again.

"Then you know about it, about the possibilities," Al said.

"I'm not above speculating on the possibilities, but there are no known successful cases of limb regeneration, Alphonse," the General said. "The basic principle is still in effect, you can't make something out of nothing."

"You both have such limited vision," Al said. "It makes me want to scream."

"Al, please, it's your birthday," Ed pleaded. "Can't we just agree to disagree, just for tonight?"

Al sighed and ran a hand through his bangs. He nodded and shook his head.

"Okay, you win," Al said. "But only because it's my birthday. You always manage to wheedle presents for yourself," he younger brother suddenly grinned. "One day you have to tell me how you do that."

"It's purely unintentional," Ed snorted. "So I don't know how to instruct you."

Roy smiled then turned his head with an arch to his eyebrow.

The two brothers noticed and turned to see what he was looking at. Al laughed and Ed gaped.

"How the hell did they get Fuery on the roof?" Ed said and he and Al ran toward the scene.

Roy walked Anna and Shen to their car and stood with them on the front walk for a moment.

"If you don't mind me asking," Roy said, "what do you know about Prince Ling? I mean, is there anything I should know when dealing with him?"

Anna and Shen looked at each other for a moment, then back to Roy.

"There isn't much I can tell you," she said. "Other than he's a member of the royal court. I didn't even know he was a Prince until you introduced him."

"I'm also unfamiliar, other than the fact he is my countryman and a Prince," Shen said. "Although, he is one of the lower sons."

"Lower?" Roy asked.

"The Emperor has many sons," Shen said. "Prince Ling is one of the last born; Prince Wu Yao is the heir apparent to the throne."

"Is that helpful?" Anna said. "I thought you would know that, seeing as you're his diplomatic contact here."

"It's interesting," Roy said. "I suppose it could be helpful. Well, I thank you for that much, and I also thank you for coming. Are you going to be heading out to visit Harry?"

"We're going to stay with him for a few days," Anna said. "I'll tell him you're still as big a jerk as ever, eye patch not withstanding."

"He won't be surprised," Roy grinned. "You know, you really should think about settling down in civilization soon, especially know that you've got a husband."

"What fun would that be?" Anna said. "Besides, Shen would get bored with domesticity; he's a real outdoorsy type."

"I prefer the moon to street lamps, if that is what you mean," Shen said.

"Be careful, write me when you get somewhere with a post box and let me know the next time you plan to surprise me, I think I might keel over if you show up with a kid."

Anna laughed and hugged him, then Shen and Roy shook hands and bowed heads to each other.

He stood on the walk, waving as they drove away, then turned and went up the walk into the house, pulling the door shut behind him.

Al and Ed stood looking at the mounds of packages in his bedroom. R.D. sat on Al's bed and kept getting up, turning circles and laying back down.

"R.D. has the right idea," Al said quietly. "We'll take care of this in the morning."

Ed patted his brother on the back and turned to leave.

"Happy birthday, Al," he said with a smile.

"Thanks, Brother. This has been the best one ever," Al hugged him before he got out the door and R.D. gave a plaintive sigh.

"All right, all right," Al said, "I'm coming." Ed chuckled as he made his way down the hall to his own bedroom, going in and shutting his door as well.

"I fucked it up," Ed whined into Roy's throat as Roy stroked his back and kissed his head.

"You didn't fuck it up," Roy said. "What's with this need to slam yourself every time you think you've had a good time? Really Ed, it's getting a little old."

"You are just Mr. Sympathy tonight," Ed growled tiredly. "I had a fight with him, on his birthday," Ed moaned.

"Al didn't seem too upset," Roy said. "You agreed to disagree, are you ever going to take people at their word?"

"Probably not," Ed said. "Most people are full of shit, yourself included."

Roy turned the stroking into patting and ground his chin into the top of Ed's head. Ed grunted and squirmed in complaint.

"You really are such a joy," Roy said. "I'm not sure what I would do without you."

"Quit trying to dig a hole in my head with your chin," Ed snorted. "It hurts, bastard, and why didn't you tell me about that Xing bastard's pharmacy thing?"

"Well, for one thing, I don't have to discuss everything with you," Roy said. "For another thing, I figured something like this might come up. Unlike you, I pay attention. Every time Al's hedged around about looking for a way to get your arm and leg back, you abruptly change the subject."

"Is it wrong to want to protect him," Ed said quietly. "Is it wrong to be terrified of what might happen? We've lived through it before, how could he have forgotten?"

"It's not wrong," the chin moved, the lips returned. "I don't think he's forgotten, but I do think he made you that promise. It's a sticky situation, Ed. I'm not sure what to tell you."

"Don't tell me anything," Ed said. "Tell him. Roy, you have to tell him not to pursue it, he doesn't listen to me like he listens to you." Ed sat up on his elbow and looked down into his lovers face, who reached up to stroke over his forehead and down his cheek.

"Ed," Roy sighed. "I can advise him, but telling him a definitive no... you tell me, did that ever work on you?"

"We're not talking about me," Ed said. "This is Al, he's different."

"I'll grant you that," Roy said. "But in a lot of ways, he's exactly like you. This blinding devotion and loyalty he demonstrates is one of them."

Ed flopped back down again and sighed, pushing hard up against Roy's side and slinging his arm across him.

"It's a bitch when your good qualities come back and bite you on the ass, isn't it?" Roy snickered.

"Bastard," Ed said. "Only you can make that sound like a bad thing. Look who's criticizing me, the King of Morally Bankrupt."

"Guilty as charged," Roy sighed. "I've already had this conversation once today."

"Oh really?" Ed grinned. "Starting to slip, old man, when complete strangers can see right through you."

"It was lumped into the discussion about how you looked like a girl, and if I wanted to fuck you because you looked like a girl," Roy said.

Ed was up on his elbow again, scowling down into Roy's smirking eye.

"Who said I looked like a girl?" he demanded.

"Who started the V.D. rumor?" Roy returned.


Ed flopped down yet again and went through the same settling motions.

"One day," the General said into the darkness of the room, "someone will slip up and tell me."

"Then I'll be visiting you in prison and you'll be someone else's girlfriend," Ed yawned.

"Hell, I'm pretty enough to own the cell block," Roy said. "The warden too, so I'm not afraid to serve. Come on, you can tell me," Roy gave Ed a little shake.

"Stoppit," Ed mumbled. "I'll put it in my will and when they read it to you, then you'll know, but by then, you'll be a little gray haired old raisin and you'll forget it as soon as you know it."

"Your will isn't going to do me any good," the General snorted. "You'll be around far longer than I will; I've already decided you're not allowed to leave my side ever again. Dying is leaving, so that's strictly forbidden."

"Well we better go together, then," Ed murmured and yawned. "Because I'm useless without you and don't want to be left behind."

The General rolled onto his side then and tugged Ed against his chest; Ed sighed and yawned again.

"Like it when you get me to say mushy stuff," Ed said sleepily with his lips against Roy's collarbone. "Because then you want to climb all over me and keep me warm," he sighed.

"You don't have to say mushy stuff to get me to do that," the General said softly, kissing along Ed's forehead.

"S'okay," Ed sighed, "maybe I like the mushy stuff a little. Don't get used to it."

"I won't," the General grinned and watched his lover drift to sleep.