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Paper in Fire

chapter 11.

It had been quite a while since Edward had been to Central, and his screwed up automail wasn't making the two days of train travel any more comfortable. Still, he was almost there. In just a few more minutes he would see Al and Winry. I felt like a great weight was being lifted off his chest, and he was allowed to breath freely. There was nothing like being with people who knew him, who he didn't have to hide anything from. He could just be himself with his brother and his best friend.

Not that he was completely isolated in East City. He had friends. Havoc, Breda, and Fuery were good company when he was in the mood for social interaction. Nothing could cheer him up faster than the antics of those good natured clowns. They usually made a point of getting together for lunch when Ed was in town, and Ed suspected it was because they knew he was lonely now that Alphonse was living in Central. Of course they were older than Edward, so they didn't generally invite him along if they were going anywhere that restricted minors — not that it mattered to Ed. He didn't see the point of getting shitfaced on cheep booze anyway. Mustang's 'no one can know' rule made it difficult for Ed to relax around his comrades as well, having to watch what he might accidently say when he let his guard down.

Kelly was proving to be good company as well. He'd called her up when he'd returned to East City, and met her the next evening for a quick dinner, wanting company but not feeling up to anything complicated. She'd been pretty upset when she'd seen the sling and the burn on his face though. Ed had joked that she seemed more upset about it than he was, but she hadn't laughed. There were no questions about his mission, which suited Ed just fine. He had no inclination to talk about his job with anyone outside the office anyway, but he sensed that details would make the librarian even more uncomfortable than she already was. That was one of the drawbacks to socializing with someone on the outside, Ed guessed, but he decided it wasn't a big deal. There were plenty of other things about his life that he had to keep to himself. The specifics of his assignments were small potatoes compared to that. The girl had settled down by the time they'd finished dinner, and they were having a nice time — until the bastard had shown up.

Ed couldn't recall ever having seen Mustang in anything but his uniform, or casually dressed around the house. Last night his commander had been dressed in a charcoal grey suit cut perfectly to his broad shoulders and narrow hips. A mauve waistcoat and matching tie over a high collared white dress shirt completed the look. He'd had his jet black hair slicked back, a few locks artfully arranged on his forehead, impossibly dark eyes sparkling over his grin. In short, the man had looked like a million bucks. When he'd caught sight of the older man approaching their table with the stunning blond on his arm, it took all the self control Ed had to blank his face so his feelings couldn't show. That familiar ache had started in his chest, and he'd found it difficult to speak. Fuck, it was way worse than standing in the bastard's office. At least there he could set his mind on whatever business he was about, and get the hell out when he was done. There in the café, the prospect of having to make polite conversation staring him in the face, he'd felt trapped. Looking at Mustang's beautiful date, all he could feel was a deep envy for this person his commanding officer wasn't ashamed to be out with in public. Ed would be eternally grateful to Kelly for noticing how uncomfortable he was, and making up the excuse of being late for a show to get them out of there.

Afterward, the girl had attempted to lighten the mood as Edward walked her home.

"Your boss seems nice," she'd ventured.

"I guess, if by 'nice' you mean smug, annoying, and egotistical," Ed had growled, and Kelly had burst out laughing.

"I feel the same way about my boss," she'd confided.

Ed roused himself from his thoughts to notice that the train was slowing. It wasn't long before he was scanning Central Station's busy platform for his brother and his friend.

"Brother! Over here!"

Ed finally spotted the pair of blondes as they rushed towards him, dodging their way down the crowded platform. Alphonse grabbed him in a tight hug that Ed was only too happy to return, noticing that his much younger brother was catching up to him height wise, damn it. When they broke apart, Winry took her turn.

"Hell, Ed," Winry took in the sling holding her handiwork. "You wrecked it again."

"I told you it was broken!" Ed said, outraged. "That's why I'm here!"

"I know," Winry glowered at the damaged limb. "But it's always worse than you say it is."

"It's not like I break it on purpose," he muttered. "It was either the automail, or my ass."

"Let's get your ass home so I can look it over. The automail, I mean." The irate mechanic grimaced as she took hold of his left arm and proceeded to haul him through the crowd. Alphonse trailed behind, grinning.

"So brother, what have you been doing besides smashing up Winry's automail?" The street outside the station wasn't quite as crowded or noisy, but busier than Ed was used to. "You haven't written in a while."

"I was out of town for most of the last two months on a couple of bullshit assignments," Ed defended himself. "It's hard to keep in touch without the down time. I got your letters, though."

"So how are you and that miserable excuse for a boyfriend getting along?" Winry cut in, yanking Ed into traffic for a quick dash across a street. "I swear, that slave driver should cut you a little slack time. If it weren't for the fact that you keep damaging my automail, we'd never get to see you." It took her a few moments to realize that Ed wasn't answering with his usual defense of the older man.

Ed finally spoke. "I . . . I guess . . . we're broke up. It's over."

Neither Al nor Winry said anything for a moment, just stopped and looked at him. It was Winry who finally broke the silence.

"Well, it about time!" she said, smiling hugely. "What a relief! He was a big mistake, Ed. You deserve so much better!"

"What happened brother?" Al asked softly.

"Nothing, really." Ed met his brother's hazel eyes. "I just got tired of all the bullshit I guess."

"What did he say when you told him?" Winry wanted to know.

"Well, I haven't come out and actually told him yet, but I keep turning him down when he invites me over, so he's probably guessed."

"You have to tell him, brother."

"I know." Ed said quietly. "I will. As soon as I get back east. It's not like he'll give much of a shit."

"Well we do! This calls for a celebration!" the blonde mechanic declared. "How about we order Xingese tonight?"

"Sounds great Winry," Ed returned her grin.

The small automail shop wasn't far from Central Station, and the trio made it there safely despite Winry's tendency to randomly dodge into traffic to cross streets, risking life and, ironically, limb. The girl insisted on examining Ed's damaged arm immediately, and both boys knew better than to argue. After tsking and humphing over her abused handiwork for the better part of an hour, the blonde girl finally pronounced it fixable, then grabbed up the phone to order the proposed celebratory Xingese feast.

The three youngsters retired to the small apartment above the shop to eat and catch up on each other's lives. Edward kept the conversation strictly away from Mustang, difficult as the other two blondes made it. They badgered Edward relentlessly for details of his impending break up with the older man, and while they made a very effective interrogation team, it was to no avail. Ed had no intention of coughing up any details, and resorted to his favorite tactic to redirect the conversation — using his brother and friend's differing views of their own relationship to tease them.

Winry and Alphonse had always been close, and since they had been living together it had evolved into a deep attachment that amused Edward to no end. But while Alphonse wished for that attachment to be more than friendship, Winry seemed oblivious to the youngster's longing glances, content with the status quo. Ed enjoyed teasing the two about it to the point where Al was ready to kill him, and Winry was ready to help.

"Come on, Ed," Winry wheedled, "He must have done something to finally get you to see the light. Some sort of, of . . ."

"Revelation," Al supplied. "What was it, Brother?"

"Honestly, the two of you sound like an old married couple," Ed smirked. "You're finishing each other's sentences and everything."

Alphonse just leaned back in his chair looking wistful while Winry looked daggers in Ed's direction.

"Don't be an ass," Winry snarled. "Al's like a little brother. Don't change the subject." She was looking at Edward as she spoke, so she missed Alphonse' pained expression. Ed, however, didn't.

"He's my little brother, Win, not yours." Edward peered into a greasy cardboard carton, looking for anything leftover at the bottom. "You'll have to redefine your relationship. Something more romantic would suit Al, you know. 'Boyfriend' sounds appropriate. It doesn't have the smutty overtones of a term like 'lover'. What do you think?"

"Brother!" Al's face phased through the entire spectrum, finally settling on beet red. "You . . . I . . . she . . ."

"What, are we playing some kind of pronoun game Al?" Ed asked innocently.

"He's eleven, Ed," Winry snatched the takeout box out of Ed's hand while he was gleefully distracted by his little brother's distress and attacked it skillfully with her chopsticks over Edward's outraged protests. "He won't be anyone's 'boyfriend' for quite a while."

"He's only eleven on the outside Win," Ed eyed the half empty container in the younger Elric's hands, but Al was well aware of his brother's intentions, and turned away to shield it with his body before Ed could make a move on him. The older boy grimaced, poking resignedly at the thoroughly emptied boxes discarded on the kitchen table. "You know he's actually a fully mature, sophisticated sixteen year old on the inside, right?"

"Yeah, well he's always acted more mature than you do most of the time." Winry sneered. "Pretty soon he'll be taller, too."

"Yeah, keep rubbing it in. That shit doesn't bother me anymore." Ed smiled sweetly to prove it.

"Besides," Winry continued, "When Al's ready to find a girlfriend, he's going to do it the way it should be done. Nice and slow —"

"Should I be advising him to take notes right now?" Ed cut in.

"Brother, please!"

"— instead of jumping over the important, romantic stuff —"

Ed made gagging noises as Alphonse tried to shush him.

"—like you did, Ed! And look where that got you! You cut out all the getting—to—know—each—other stuff and jumped straight to the sex —"

"You say that like it's a bad thing, Win." Ed grinned. "Poor Al." Ed laughed as Al covered his face with his hands, then snatched up the food carton his little brother had been holding and attacked it with gusto.

"—and you're paying for it now!" Winry glared at her friend. "Al's not going to make that mistake! He's going to do it right!"

"I'd really appreciate it if you two would stop talking about me as if I wasn't here," Al grumbled.

"Do you want to outline the 'right' way for us then Win? I'm sure Al would be interested to know your preferences. Just out of curiosity, will he get to, shall we say, take it out for a test drive before the honeymoon?"

Al lunged, face flaming. He could still kick Ed's ass any time he felt like it. And right now he felt like it, broken automail or not.


Much later, after the automail was looked at, the catching up was done, the food was eaten, and the asses were kicked, Al and Ed made their way to the room they shared whenever Ed visited. Once the door was closed, Al sat down on his bed and motioned for Ed to sit next to him.

"So how's the thesis going Al?"

The youngster smiled. "I'm just about done. I want to present it before Winter Solstice, but there are a couple of points that are bothering me."

"Could I take a look at it?"

"I was kinda hoping you'd ask. Two heads are better than one." Al looked at Edward, fidgeting a little. "There's something else I wanted to talk to you about, brother."

Ed waited.

"Once I have this degree, I want to stay on at the University." The younger Elric started. "I want to go to medical school. Winry and I work really well together, and if I get my MD, we'd make a really good team in the shop."

"That's a great idea Al!" Ed's eyes lit up. "What does Winry think?"

"I haven't said anything to her yet, but I'm sure she'll like the idea. I wanted to see what you thought first. You're the one footing the bill after all."

"Well, I think you should do what makes you happy. Forget the money. You know we can afford it."

"I feel funny about it sometimes. You're doing all the work, and I'm reaping all the benefits."

"Shit Al, not this again," Ed sighed. "You got your life back. Don't waste it worrying about me. If it makes you feel any better, remember that I'll be turning up on your doorstep in a few months, fresh out of the army, looking for a place to stay. Then you can look after me for a while."

"It's not my door step, brother. It's our door step. How many times do Winry and I have to tell you that this is your home too?" Alphonse glared at his older sibling, exasperated.

"Okay, Al, calm down." Ed patted his little brother's knee. "But you know what I mean. And you really should stop worrying about Winry, too. Your body is growing up fast," Ed gave him a mock glare. "Maybe too fast. You and Winry will be a couple before you know it."

"It's like she's forgotten that I'm really sixteen, not eleven." Al sighed. "All she sees is a little kid."

"She won't forever. Be patient, Al."

Al snorted. "Look who's counseling patience, mister rush headlong into everything and smash up his automail."

Ed smacked his brother on the arm. "I'm not that bad!" he mumbled. "It's this damn job. I can't wait to get away from him."

"Him?"

"Huh? It! I mean it! The military!"

"What happened, brother?" Al asked again.

Ed opened his mouth to tell Alphonse once again that nothing had happened, that it was just the right time to end it, and everything just spilled out. His telephone prank, what the bastard had said afterward, what Ed had decided that day on the train — everything including what he'd thought and felt in the café the night before he'd left for Central. Al listened quietly through it. When he was done, Ed felt completely exhausted.

"I had a feeling something like this would happen eventually," Al's comforting hand rubbed small circles on his big brother's slumped shoulder. "It's not like you didn't know what to expect from him though. He made it pretty clear. I wish there was something I could do to make you feel better."

"Just being here with you is enough," Ed slung his left arm around his little brother's waist and tugged him in for a hug. "I feel a lot better just getting all that off my chest."

"You're so far away, brother. I worry about you. And I miss you."

"I know. I miss you too." Ed returned. "But I'll be eighteen in a few months. Then, when I'm finally out of the fucking army, I can put all this behind me. I'll come spend some time with you and Winry while I decide what I want to do. Everything is going to work out just fine. You'll see."

Ed smiled into the saddened eyes of his little brother to prove that he believed what he was saying, wishing he'd just kept his mouth shut. Al had enough to worry about without his big brother heaping more crap on his plate. Mustang was Ed's problem, and when he got back to East City, he was going to man up and end it. Then everyone could carry on with their lives, himself included.

He just wondered how long it would take before he stopped missing the bastard.