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Paper in Fire

chapter 15.

Edward sat on a bench in Central Park, watching the world go by, trying to follow Maes Hughes advice. Well, actually, he was avoiding Winry, who he was still mad at, and Maes Hughes himself, who had been stopping by way too often trying to get Ed to talk. As well, Al didn't need the distraction of his big brother moping around the apartment when he was concentrating on his thesis. Trying to wrap his head around the future while relaxing on a sun warmed park bench was one way to pass the time. The young man stretched out his legs, leaned his head back, and closed his eyes.

A list of his options. OK, start with the military, much as he didn't think keeping his State Alchemist's certification was a good idea, but he knew next to nothing about how the private sector did things. He'd get his list rolling in familiar territory.

First off, if he was going to stay in the army, he'd have to put in for a transfer, regardless of what division he settled on. Staying in Mustang's command beyond the end of his contract was out of the question, though he'd miss the rest of the team. He liked the idea of moving to Central Headquarters, though, even if that was Mustang's destination too. He wouldn't work for the bastard, but Ed had no intention of rearrange his life just to avoid him. He wanted to be closer to Al. As for what divisions he should consider, he'd have to do some research to find out what was out there, but for now, he'd consider the ones he was familiar with.

So, option number one, Investigations. Sub option A, field operative. Been there, done that, had the scars to prove it. It wasn't the least attractive option, but it was close. He enjoyed the travel, and he really liked helping people, but he was sick and tired of all the shit he had to wade through to get the job done. As he'd said to Hughes, there had to be a better way to make a living.

Option number one, Investigations. Sub option B, desk jockey. The idea of sitting behind a desk, collating a bunch of field reports sounded very much like a death sentence. Might as well just shoot himself in the head right now and avoid the boredom killing him later. Probably have to wear a fucking uniform too. Shove that.

Option number two, Intelligence, with Maes Hughes as his commanding officer. Hughes made it sound very appealing, but the man was a certifiable nut job. Just look at how he was about his family. Aside from the constant onslaught of photographs and anecdotes though, it didn't sound like a bad deal. There was also a reasonable sub option here in terms of field work, although it would probably involve covert operations, and Ed figured he was too well know to get away with that kind of stuff. The problem solving aspect was still appealing though, even from behind a desk. He could easily see himself involved in formulating and breaking codes. Still, the nut job thing. More research needed on this one.

Option number three, Security. He'd seen Security in operation a couple of ways. One was setting up what amounted to glorified sentry duty around restricted areas. Ed could probably offer a lot of advice on tightening up those kinds of operations, given the number of times he'd breached them. The problem was that some of the stuff that got the heavy guard treatment was crap that should be exposed to public scrutiny just so it could be shut down. Ed didn't want to be the one helping to cover some jerkoff mad alchemist's ass.

The other type of Security he was familiar with was personal body guard duty. From his experience, mainly with Maria Ross and Denny Broch, Security watch dogs took a lot of crap from the people they were protecting, himself included embarrassingly enough. He certainly couldn't see himself happily protecting a bunch of high ranking assholes for any length of time. He'd likely end up killing some of them himself. Security was probably not a good fit, given his personality.

Option number four, Research and Development. On the surface, this seemed like the ideal job for him. Ed did in depth research for fun, and had always enjoyed playing with his theoretical findings, often coming up with practical applications in the process. His personal research currently fed his needs in that area, one of the few things he did for pleasure these days. It wouldn't be much fun career wisethough, knowing that the army expected the research that got developed to kill people.

With the sun warm on his face, the young man realized it was too nice a day to keep his mind on such tiresome crap. The problem was that he really had no idea what he wanted to do with his life now that Al was okay, and hadn't for quite some time. Focusing on the end of his military contract was really just a way of marking time. What he needed was a sense of direction. He opened his eyes to find Riza Hawkeye looking down at him with a small smile, Black Hayate by her side. The woman really needed to learn to make some noise.

"Hello Edward," she said, warm brown eyes twinkling. "Maes Hughes told me you were in town. I was planning to drop by to see you at the shop next week." The blonde woman sat down on the bench beside him. The dog sat obediently on the ground between them, tail thumping with pleasure to see Ed. Ed obliged him with a lengthy scratch behind the ears.

"It's nice to see you Hawkeye," Ed smiled at her. "It's just not the same in the office without you. Everything takes about ten times longer to get done."

"I rather miss all of you, too," she said fondly, "though I am thoroughly enjoying my new assignment."

Ed didn't think he had ever seen Hawkeye looking so relaxed. The tall blonde woman had her hair in a low ponytail, and it softened the severe look presented by the tight bun she'd usually worn at work. The sporty tan blouse and grey slacks she wore also made her look more approachable. But it was her face. Her eyes sparkled, and her easy smile was open and warm.

"I can see that," Ed grinned. "You look really good."

Her smile widened, and she draped her arm along the back of the bench, turning toward the young man. "You don't look so bad yourself, aside from the mementos from your last assignment," the woman returned, eyeing his injuries. "How have you been keeping?"

They spent the next while catching each other up on interesting news about mutual friends and acquaintances, Edward electing to accompany Hawkeye and her canine companion on their exploration of the park.

"You know, I was going to come talk to you about something," Edward said after a while. Colonel Hughes had suggested talking to people about his post—contract plans, and Riza Hawkeye was on the very short list of people Edward trusted. "My contract with the military is up in a few months, and I'm sort of looking for some advice."

Hawkeye quirked an eyebrow at the teen. "I'd be happy to help. Actually, I'm flattered you would come to me. Surprised too, really."

Edward turned to her, taken aback. "Why's that?"

"Well, there are other people you are closer to from whom you could seek advice," the woman said thoughtfully. "Maes Hughes, for example, or Roy Mustang. Are you and Roy still . . . getting along?"

Ed stopped. Was she asking what he thought she was asking? He looked closely at her face, noting the half smile, the knowing look in her eyes. She was. "So much for 'no one can know'." The teen said wryly.

"It was pretty much common knowledge in the office I think," Riza offered. "Though not outside of it, aside from the usual speculative gossip in and around the canteen."

"Huh. Well." Ed shrugged. "To answer your question, no, we actually aren't still 'getting along'." He tried to keep the bitterness out of his voice, and thought he did an admirable job.

"You lasted a lot longer than I thought you would," Riza confided. "I know how difficult it is to continue to care for someone who doesn't care for you."

"Everyone wondered why you accepted the transfer to Central Intelligence." Ed watched as Black Hayate investigated some intriguing smells by a lamp post. "I mean, we knew it was a great opportunity and everything, but we never thought you'd leave Mustang's side."

"I still support him. I believe in his vision of this country's future. I just had to distance myself from him on a personal level, and that was a daunting prospect having close daily contact in the office. He's uncomfortable with anything other than a completely superficial relationship, and I was looking for something more." The blonde woman glanced at her companion. "He wasn't like this when he was apprenticed to my father. Back then he was easy to get close to. I don't know what changed him. Maybe after Ishbal he decided he didn't deserve to be happy. Maybe he thinks a serious relationship will distract him from his goals. He just doesn't seem capable of letting himself get close to other people anymore. It's a very hollow existence he leads, thinking up reasons and excuses to keep people at a distance. I'm not sure he even realizes he's doing it. I took that transfer because I couldn't help him, and it was too hard to stand by and watch him isolate himself."

Edward was silent for a while, digesting this. Up until that moment, deep down, he had assumed that the problems leading up to his split from Roy were mainly due to Ed's own failings. He was, after all, really quite talented when it came to fucking things up. He was young and inexperienced, and knew he was a possible embarrassment to Mustang, but he still wanted more than Roy had offered, hoping for what he had no right to. The Rules were Roy's protection from unforgiving public opinion; Edward was at odds with aspects of that protection, and was consequently jeopardizing Roy's goals.

Now however, with this new perspective Hawkeye had given him, the Rules appeared to have a dual purpose. They served to misdirect public scrutiny from Roy's inappropriate relationship with Ed, yes, but they also prevented Ed from getting close to Roy. And according to Hawkeye, Ed wasn't the only one Roy was keeping at a distance. The Flame did this, or something like it, with everyone. Ed saw the many casual flirtations the man engaged in differently from this new angle. Ed had assumed that Roy continued to play because Ed just wasn't the special someone Roy was looking for, but now Ed realized Roy wasn't hunting for someone special. The older man's only goal seemed to be the avoidance of any personal involvement beyond the physical. Was that the reality of this? What could make a rational person shy away from meaningful relationships and want to settle for sex alone? He wondered . . .

. . . wrapped close in warm arms, soft even breaths ghosting against his chest, dark lashes shadowing his lover's cheek, moonlight polishing smooth, pale skin, sprinkling stars through jet black hair, the man's strong arms tightening gently, protectively, as he shifted closer with a contented sigh . . .

Ed shook himself out of his musings. That was just wishful thinking, and this new perspective didn't change a thing. In fact, this made it even more clear that Ed had to back away from Mustang if he wanted a relationship with someone who would return his feelings in kind. Hawkeye had known the man since they were kids, and she'd given up on him. What chance did Ed have? The young alchemist didn't have to know the reasons behind Mustang's actions. It wouldn't change them. The man didn't care, and he never would. The reasons why were irrelevant.

Hawkeye had been watching the emotions play across the teen's face as he thought over her words. "I know it hurts, Edward. It hurts because you care, and that's healthy. Just don't take his behavior to heart. Keep your distance and you'll feel better in time. Believe me, I know." Riza tugged on Hayate's leash, leading him away from the lamp post. "And about seeking my advice? I'm thinking a strategy session tomorrow evening over supper, then dancing at the Majestic, Mustang bashing optional. All on a completely platonic level of course. What do you say, Major?"

"Uh, I don't know how to dance, Major."

"Then it's high time you learned."