Paper in Fire

chapter 13.

Sitting beside Winry's low worktable in his boxers, one armed, with the lower part of his still attached automail leg clamped between two vices, there was no possible escape for Edward Elric when Maes Hughes walked into the workshop brandishing a stack of photos. Winry had determined that Ed had grown another full inch, and was adjusting the length of his leg. Ed was grinning from ear to ear despite the pile of glossies being thrust into his hand.

"Look at him Mr. Hughes," Winry said around the small screwdriver clamped between her teeth. "You'd think he'd won the lottery or something."

"You all should come on over to the house this afternoon. Elicia hasn't seen you in ages, Ed, and she'd love to," Hughes beamed. "Gracia told me to invite you all for dinner and not to take no for an answer."

"Yeah, sure," Ed said, leafing through the photos on the table, and WInry nodded as well.

"I can't make it Mr. Hughes," Al piped up from the outer shop apologetically. "I have some new data to incorporate into my thesis, and I want to get started while everything is still fresh in my mind."

"No problem Al. I'm sure Gracia and Elicia will understand."

Winry stood and walked to her tool bench, scowling. "Where's that damn socket set?" she mumbled to herself, and left the room, tossing an "I'll be right back," over her shoulder.

"So, Ed, how are the arm repairs going?" Hughes leaned over and peered curiously at the inner workings of Ed's leg.

"OK I guess. The actual repairs are done, but Winry is modifying the damn thing again, so I won't have it back for a couple of days."

"The burn still looks painful." Ed shrugged. "How's the rest of you holding up?"

"I'm good."

"I heard that your target was accidentally killed by her own chimera." The older watched the younger's face.

"I'll tell you the same thing I told the bastard. I'm fine."

"We worry about you Ed, that's all."

"I'm sure you do." Ed's face darkened into a scowl.

Maes raised an eyebrow and changed the subject. "You haven't been spending much time in East City, so I guess you didn't hear the rumors about General Raven. Seems he's in a bit of trouble over his past treatment of some of his younger subordinates."

"Raven? Yeah. Some of the younger recruits warned me about that pervert." Ed smiled his dangerous smile. "Glad to hear the asshole's taking some heat."

"Did he ever approach you?"

"Yeah, he kept trying to corner me whenever I was around East Headquarters, finally caught me as I was walking out of the third floor men's room a few months ago." Ed laughed a dark laugh. "I guess he thought he was dealing with some green kid from the rough country that he could intimidate."


Ed leaned back, looking into the outer shop to make sure Winry and Al were out of ear shot, then continued more quietly. "He suggested a few things we could do together, I told him I wasn't interested, then he made some bullshit threats about 'my career'," Ed rolled his eyes, "Like I'd give a shit if my contract finished up early. He wouldn't let up, started to crowd me, so I clapped and grabbed him with my right hand."

"Grabbed . . ." Hughes' mouth went dry.

"I didn't hurt him much." Ed said, seeing the older man's reaction. "Just gave him a little squeeze, and transmuted the front of his pants into a big pink bow." The teen laughed. "You shoulda seen his face! Then I told him that if he bothered me again, or if I heard about him bothering anyone else, I'd transmute his dick into a —"

"What the hell are you two talking about?" Winry came breezing back into the workshop with the socket set.

"Ed was just outlining the reasons why we should never send him on diplomatic missions," Hughes told her.

As expected, dinner at the Hughes' made Edward wish he could visit more often. Sitting at the table soaking up the warm family atmosphere, he felt like a normal person, instead of a weird, half metal clockwork soldier. Afterwards, lounging on the back step watching Winry and Elicia pick dandelions for him, he felt more contented than he had in a long time. When Maes Hughes came out to join him he smiled a relaxed smile at the older man and sighed.

"This is the life," the young man said, turning his attention back to the girls prowling the yard.

"Nothing else like it in the world," agreed the older man. "We need to talk, Ed," he added apologetically.

Ed raised an eyebrow. "'bout what?"

"You'll be eighteen in five months. What are your plans?"

The blond scratched his head. "I don't have any, beyond getting the hell out of the army."

"That's what I want to talk to you about. Are you sure leaving the military is the best thing for you?"

"Take a good look at me, Colonel. You know on my last assignment I had to beat up a little old lady, right? And she did a damn good job of beating me up back. Do you think I like running around the country, hunting down chimerae, and screwed up alchemists, and psychos of every description? Getting beat up regularly? There has to be a better way to make a living."

"Take a good look at me, Major. I'm in the military, and I'm not getting beat up regularly, nor have I ever had to engage a little old lady in physical combat. Field investigations are just a part of the military picture Ed." The young alchemist looked skeptical, but Maes pressed on. "That was a pretty impressive investigation you conducted in Porter. As usual, your instincts were right on. You asked the right questions, put all the information together, came up with the right answers. It's what makes you an excellent field operative, but I think you're wasted in the field." The older man pushed his glasses up along his nose. "There are plenty of other divisions that would be a better fit for you. Take Intelligence, for example. Everything happens for a reason, Ed, and finding those reasons is what Intelligence is all about. It's like putting together an incredibly complex jigsaw puzzle, where each piece you add interacts with the others, changing the pattern, revealing even more complexity. It's challenging work. And I think that not only would you be good at it, you'd actually enjoy your job for a change."

"Intelligence, huh?" Edward thought it over. "Well, I guess it's an option. Still, I'd have to figure out how to get transferred, and I don't do people very well."

"Are you kidding?" the Colonel snorted. "You're a hot property Edward. Great field record, boy genius, Alchemist for the People. You're a national hero." Now it was Edward's turn to snort. "No, don't downplay yourself. Some of the senior staff are getting a little worried that we might lose you to the private sector. Don't be surprised if you're approached very aggressively in the next few months about a new contract. You could write your own ticket, get a post in Central if you wanted. I'd love to have you come work for me."

"You really think they want me that bad?"

"Edward, you have no idea. All I ask is that you keep an open mind. Don't reject any offers out of hand, but don't accept anything too quickly either. You should seriously start thinking about what you'd really like to do. Make a list of all possible options. Talk to Al. Talk to Winry. Talk to anyone else whose advice you value. That way you'll be ready when the offers start coming in." Maes leaned in a little closer, smiling conspiratorially. "And I guess you know that Roy will be transferring to Central sometime in the near future. Keep that in mind when you're making your decisions, too."

"Ed wouldn't care about that," Winry cut in as she settled on the step beside Edward, large bouquet of dandelions in hand. "He's dumping that creep."

"Winry!" Edward's blood pressure spiked up about twenty points.

"Well it's true, isn't it? You said you'd tell him as soon as you got back east."

"Yeah, but Colonel Hughes is his best friend! You shouldn't have said anything!" The blond ducked his head, glaring at the blonde mechanic. "And you wonder why I never want to tell you anything."

"This is for your own good Ed! Mr. Hughes is your friend too! It's better that he hears this from you! That way he gets both sides of the story!"

"There is no story! It's personal, Winry!"

Hughes eyebrows had shot up to his hairline. For once he was speechless.

"Edward?" the older man said finally.

"Don't ask me any questions. This is between him and me."

"Edward . . ."

"You can't tell him. That's for me to do."

"Edward . . ."

"I know he's your best friend, but don't worry, this won't bother him, believe me. He won't even care."

"Winry, will you excuse us for a moment?" Maes' look stopped any objection the girl might have made. She meekly took Elicia by the hand and went into the house. "Edward? Why do you think he won't care?"

"Because he won't! He said if I didn't like the way things were, I could leave. He said that because he knew I didn't like the way things were! He won't care when I tell him it's over. There isn't anything to actually be over, anyway." The boy hunched down and put his hand over his eyes. Could his life get any more fucking complicated? Couldn't he just have a little bit of time to relax and watch a little girl pick flowers?

"What's going on Ed? What's he doing to make you so unhappy?"

The boy sighed. "He's not doing anything he hasn't always done. It's me. I knew the rules. Anyway, it doesn't matter anymore."

"Talking about it might help."

"Talking about it won't help a damn thing. My mind is made up. This whole mess was just me being selfish. He's got stuff to do and I'm in the way." Ed saw again the beautiful blonde on Mustang's arm in the café, and his heart clenched. "I don't even know why he wanted me in the first place. He can have anybody. Maybe he felt sorry for me or something." Edward looked up, finally meeting the older man's distressed eyes. "I know I'm putting you on the spot, but I want you to promise you won't tell him. I have to do it. I need to."

It took a few moments, but finally Maes said, "I promise."