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Pawns

chapter 36. Four Years

Al touched the pages, he could see the words,
he could even read the words, but he couldn't quite wrap his mind
around them.

"There has to be a loophole," he said. He
looked up at Lt. Colonel Avery Dunn.

The older man looked sympathetic, but shook his
head. "If you were let out of your contract, there would be THOUSANDS
of recruits wanting to be let out of theirs."

"Four years?" said Al, feeling the words in his
mouth. "I signed on for FOUR YEARS?"

"That's your signature. I even recall you doing
it."

"Four years," muttered Al. "I was under DURESS
when I signed this!" He stood and slapped the contract against Avery's
desk. "That is... that's... That's UNFAIR. It shouldn't count."

Avery smiled sympathetically. "Well, yes. But
when has the Military ever been fair?" Avery sighed. "I did get a note
from the Fuhrer about your case though. You must have impressed him on
his visit."

Al felt his heart pound with sudden hope. Yes.
Roy. Roy will get me out of this. "What does it say?"

"Hmmmm," He pulled the letter from the rather
large file (I should find out what's
in that file some time, is there really that much to know about me?)

and then passed it over to Al. "It's says that the National Alchemist
Exams are coming up in 3 weeks, and that you really should consider
signing up for it."

Al snatched the note and looked it over.
"Apparently the Fuhrer thinks you are a shoo in for passing. "

Al read the note over.

As it is in
the best interests of the State that Specialist Elric passes the exam,
he is to be given the time and resources to create a practical
demonstration of his skills.

"Not exactly vacation," said Dunn. "But close
enough, considering we are at war. Good luck on the practicum. I don't
suppose you can just hand in what you've been doing at the lab."

Offer up to
the military the slavery array as my practicum?
Al couldn't help
but laugh. "No. That wouldn't work."

Dunn shrugged. "Well then I suggest you start
hitting the library and studying up."

Appeasement

"He owes me," said Al. "I don't see how he can
say no."

Ed felt Al's pain. He'd felt the same thing
when he'd discovered his retirement retroactively denied. But if
anything Al had even less reason to think that the Military was just
going to let him go. They were in the middle of war and Al had
volunteered as regular military, not as a civilian adjunct.

But there really wasn't much to do about it.
"He said no to me too, and I'm sleeping with him. I don't see how you
think you can do me better."

Al put a hand to his face. Ed laughed. It still
made Al a bit twitchy when he mentioned his relationship with Roy, but
Al was getting used to it.

"Listen, I risked my butt for him. I arrayed
people for him. I sold my soul and self-respect to get him out of
prison. I deserve SOMETHING in return."

Roy emerged from the bathroom, patting his
hands on his slacks. "What exactly do you think I can do, Al?" He
raised an eyebrow. "I can't array people anymore. It will look very
suspicious if I order the Fuhrer to do something so uncharacteristic.
So," he shrugged his shoulders and raised his hands, "How can I make it
up to you."

Al opened his mouth and shut it.

"Unless," said Roy, "That is you ARE willing to
use the array again. If that's the case..."

Al raised his hand. "NO!" he said. "That's ok."

Roy nodded.

"I think both of you need to rethink your
situation a bit. Ed, what in the world were you wandering around the
countryside for when you got called back up? Surely raising rabbits
wasn't your ultimate goal?"

Ed automatically closed his automail fist. "We
were going to... never mind, it's not important."

But Roy seemed to already know the answer. "Get
your arm and leg back. Or at least an
arm and leg, if not the originals. Medical Alchemy. I can see that as a
Military-worthy project for the two of you. And I believe you would
probably need to be stationed near a good sized hospital for
convenience. A hospital that I imagine would have an automail clinic
attached. I can see that happening, if, that is, you can pass that
exam."

Al began to perk up. Roy continued. "And as
State Alchemist, you would of course be able to get a stipend for an
apartment. I imagine Winry would like that."

"Yeah, we both would."

Roy sat down on the couch next to Ed and
wrapped an arm over his shoulders. "Would that make you happy?"

Al was grinning. "I can live with that. Oh, my
fiancée says you owe her a coat."

"I haven't forgotten," said Roy.

"Going to tell Winry," said Al, grabbing his
jacket. "I think she'll be happy, too." Ed watched Al leave, smiling.
Roy really did have a talent for getting his way, didn't he.

"Well, I guess you got us both in your camp
now," said Ed. "That was pretty clever."

Roy smirked.

Ed mused over the plan. Even though Roy had
directed it at Al, it was as much a promise and an appeasement for him.
It had made his heart hammer at the thought. Perhaps there was no need
to split up the team after all. Perhaps, with some time, this rift that
had grown up between them could be healed, and the camaraderie and
closeness that had made up most of his life could be recaptured.

Continuing to work at the 5th Lab wouldn't be
that hard. He was used to it already. Ed would miss the excitement of
going to new places and getting into trouble, but now that he was
attached to someone, the idea of settling down wasn't that bad. Besides
there was no way Al would be joining him on long missions anymore.
There were too many marriage plans that required him to stay home.

Maybe he didn't have to choose between Al and
Roy after all. Yes. If Roy could arrange that, it would more than make
up for not being let out of his contract. It would indeed.

Ed snuggled into Roy's arms. He could have it
all. Living in an apartment rather than a jail cell, working with his
brother on a project to get back his limbs. Winry's company. Roy. It
was almost too good to be true.

There had to be a catch somewhere.

Ed felt Roy's arms tighten around him, and then
he was released. "I got a letter today. I was expecting it. I thought
I'd share it with you."

He reached into his pocket and pulled it out.
Ed took it from his fingers and unfolded it.

"They found you not guilty," said Ed. "They
expunged your record and have returned you to the rank of Brigadier
General, hey you WERE promoted. And..." Ed's mouth went dry. His heart
skipped a beat. "So they want you on the Advisory board for War
Affairs."

"The panel meets in Dunsk."

Ed felt his body tighten up. "How far away is
that?"

"About a days travel north west of Central."

"How long will that board be meeting?"

"I imagine until the war is over, and perhaps a
while after for the reconstruction."

Ed's heart sank. "Ah. I suppose you'd have to
live there wouldn't you."

"Yes. I will." Roy stroked Ed's hair. "It would
be a really hard commute from here."

"I guess."

Of course it was too good to be true. But at
least, as a way of parting, it wasn't as painful as it could be. It was
nice of Roy to see that he'd be with Al, and the work would probably
keep him too busy to think about romance anyway. And really, he'd
rather suspected this would happen at some point anyway. The job was a
good way to save face for both of them. There would be no need for
words about it, or to turn it into a scene. They could pretend a while
that they could hold a long distance relationship.

Then Roy would go back to what he truly wanted.
And Ed, well there was a chance he'd find someone else, too. Ed could
accept that. He really could. But he didn't feel much like cuddling
anymore. It just felt too false.

Ed pulled himself free of Roy, only to find
Roy's hands drawing him firmly back.

Roy suddenly seemed to catch Ed's thoughts. "Oh
for heaven's sake, man, there is more than one lab in the country, and
large hospitals are fairly common. You didn't think I'd leave you here
did you?"

Ed didn't move. All his presumptions fell apart.

Roy laughed. "There's a hospital and a lab in
Dunsk. I would hardly offer Al that proposition if I didn't have a way
it could work out for the two of us."

He pulled Ed into a kiss and then whispered in
his ear "You don't get rid of me that easy."

Ed melted, but a piece of his heart still
waited for the axe to fall.

Acceptance

Well, thought Winry, this sure wasn't Rush
Valley. The house wasn't terra cotta, and it had no archways, nor a
yard, nor a pool—in fact strictly speaking it was a one bedroom
apartment in a four story walk up. But the curtains WERE blue, just
like her eyes, and the view onto the park was worth the extra money
they paid for it.

Winry liked to sit in the window, afternoons
after her shift at the hospital, and watch the sun go down over her new
home town. The dogwoods were in full bloom. And above those were the
tops of charming old style buildings, dating back a century or more.

While Dunsk was neither a sleepy quiet burg
like Rizembul, nor a bustling center of action like Rush Valley, it did
have a certain charm. It had history and an intellectual flare that she
really could get used to fast. She could like it here... which was
good, because it looked like this is where they would stay for the
foreseeable future.

So long as Ed lived here, Al would be here,
too. And as long as Al was by her side, she was content. She didn't
need to compete for Al's affections. He had enough love for both of
them.

"After dinner, do you want to take a walk in
the park?" she asked.

"Sure," said Al. She looked over to see him
lying on the couch, idly teasing the kitten with his alchemist's pocket
watch.

She noticed the letter next to his other hand.
"Who was that from?"

Al put down the watch and sat up. He looked
down at the letter. "Midnight. I don't know if I should answer it or
not. He was just writing to say 'hi.'"

"What's up with him?"

"He's in Xing right now, as some sort of
alchemical exchange thing. He's sharing our alchemical tricks with them
in return for learning their alchemical medicine. It's going well. He
spends half the time teaching half the time learning. He says he has a
student that reminds him of Ed. I'm not sure if that's good or not."

Winry considered. "The array is off of him. You
might as well write back. Maybe that Xing medicine will be useful to
you."

Al stood up joined her on the window seat. His
arms were warm around her, but his embrace was a bit jerky. "I'm afraid
I might hurt him," said Al. "I've already hurt him so badly."

"And maybe you won't." Winry eased herself into
a more comfortable position against his chest. She reached up and
brushed away the bangs from his eyes "Maybe if get to know him, you
will be able to see you didn't ruin his life." She kissed him. "And
then maybe you will be able to let the guilt go."

Al still seemed uncertain. Winry continued,
speaking into the curve of Al's shoulder. "You don't have to burn EVERY
bridge you cross you know. Some things you are allowed to keep. In the
end, he was your friend, wasn't he?"

"Yeah," Al rewarded her with a laugh. "I guess
he was."

"Well then, perhaps he can be again."

Winry enjoyed the way his arms felt around her
shoulders, and the feel of his pulse against her cheek. She took in the
small apartment and the things they'd chosen to furnish it with. Yes, I
can definitely live here, she thought. This may not be our dream, but
so long as Al's happy, it's just as good.

Settling Out

The papers never ceased to be upbeat, no matter
what they covered, but in this case the news was good:

DRACHMA ENTERS NEW DIPLOMATIC TALKS. WILL THE
WAR END SOON?

The papers didn't cover the other noteworthy
news, but word of it spread like wildfire anyway: The Fuhrer was to put
a temporary halt to the conscription gangs. The fronts had grown
quieter. People were returning from their rotations alive and unharmed.

Still other news only traveled as far as the
break rooms in military headquarters around the country. There was a
new voice in the Fuhrer's ear, and these days it was speaking reason.

While many in the Military wondered at
Mustang's spectacular comeback, it was dangerous to question it too
closely. He was untouchable again, one of the Fuhrer's inner circle,
and the Fuhrer was still quite ruthless when it came to those who
threatened him or his favorites. While there was quite a bit of
resentment, there was grudging respect as well. Mustang was able to do
what none of the other brass had the courage to—give the Fuhrer much
needed strategic advice. The fact that the Fuhrer TOOK the advice just
heightened Mustang's reputation more.

Mustang himself was a fairly private man,
surrounding himself with a clique of soldiers from his days as a
Colonel. He rarely attended the parties and functions that he was
invited to. When he did he was usually in the company of an attractive
and brilliant young research Alchemist. Although the two rarely showed
affection towards each other in public, and though Mustang was quite
handsome, the regulars learned quickly that flirting with him would
earn a hard glare (and occasional clenched fist) from the smaller
blond.

Flirting with the blond was an even greater
faux pas.

Healing

The arm was not the one Ed had lost. Without a
Stone there was simply no way to get that back. But it looked like his,
and felt like his, and it functioned flawlessly. There was faint line
of scar where it attached at the shoulder—far less of a mark than the
automail had left.

He showed it off at the weekly poker game. Al
and Roy, who had both seen it before, only gave it the briefest
glances, but Hawkeye and Havoc examined it with great attention.

"We ended up on using Tucker's old chimera
research. I thought, well, if you can combine different animals, why
not two humans, they are closer. From there we refined it with some
Xing healing techniques. Then Al cooked up this amazing cosmetic array
to smooth out the looks. Finally I came up with array on my shoulder."

Hawkeye put a tentative finger on the design.
To a layman's eye it could have been a decorative tattoo, but of
course, anything even vaguely shaped like a circle was apt to be an
array of some sort. "What does it do?"

"Prevents rejection," said Ed. "The hard part
was finding a donor arm the right size. We ended up having to... and
don't tease me... use the arm from a woman. Not that you can tell after
Al's array."

Hawkeye brought Ed's two hands together. They
matched perfectly. "The woman was dead?"

"Yeah, that part's a bit sad, but we didn't
kill her. She'd been hit by a car. Anyway, it may take a little while
before we get a good enough match on the leg, but I'm patient. So my
sister-in-law still has a job for now. And honestly, for as much work
as this is, and the time, luck, and skill involved, I suspect that the
automail business won't be too badly impacted by this."

"Do you think you'll miss the automail?" asked
Havoc. "I mean, it was pretty nifty in a fight."

Ed closed his fist. "Yeah, well, these days the
most action I see is when one of my student's arrays blows up. I miss
the missions some times, but... I have too much going on here to want
to be away. Besides they wouldn't be any fun without Al."

"As fetching as you are without your shirt,"
called Roy. "I'm afraid you are being a distraction. These cards won't
play themselves."

Ed laughed and the game resumed.

Letting Go

Roy ran finger over Ed's right hand, feeling
the way the skin moved, its warmth. He traced the small veins with the
light touch of his finger. You can't undo the past, but sometimes
with enough work and a little luck, you can make up for it.
Ed
continued to read his book, as though he didn't notice.

"Remember Midnight," said Ed out of the blue.

Roy raised his brows. "Of course."

"Apparently he and Al have been mailing each
other long arguments over theology. Midnight actually wrote he thought
Al was full of crap. Al was so excited about that you'd think that he'd
just adopted a new kitten or something."

Roy snorted.

"Anyway, Al seemed to think you'd want to know."

"The mind has an amazing ability to heal." He
traced the veins again. "He's no longer Al's slave."

Ed pulled his right arm away, and pulled
himself up to kiss Roy. "So when are you going to make your move?"

Roy blinked, caught off guard again by the
abrupt question.

"Make my move towards what?"

"Fuhrer."

Roy shook his head and laughed. "My love,
haven't you noticed? I already AM Fuhrer. I've BEEN Fuhrer for quite
some time. At least in every way that counts."

Ed smiled. "You... I thought you..."

Roy continued. "We'll I seem to recall you
having serious doubts about being the spouse of a Fuhrer. You were
afraid you would come under too much scrutiny. So, here you are. I have
what I want, and you have what you want. Everyone is happy." He went
back to playing with Ed's arm while he waited.

Ed relaxed. Then his eyes widened. He stared
straight at Roy. Roy didn't suppress the smile. Sometimes the kid was
just a little slow on the uptake.

"Did you say 'spouse?'" For a second Ed seemed
happy, but then that damnable doubt crept into his eyes.

There was nothing, Roy realized, he could do
about that. The only one who could comfort those demons away was Ed.
Still, Roy had to make one more try.

"It's been almost 18 months since that day in
jail when I smashed the microphones and we had our first true kiss.
I've been around women on a regular basis for 16 months. Tell me, do
you believe me when I say I love you and I'm not going to dump you for
the next girl?"

Ed slouched in his arms. "There is really no
way to prove you won't, is there." He sighed.

"No. You'll just have to trust me."

And then it seemed as if Ed let something go,
and his face grew soft and placid and a smile formed across his lips.
"Then, " he breathed. "I trust you."