Paper in Fire

chapter 16.

One week later in the early afternoon, sitting in his office, Roy Mustang was once again awaiting the arrival of his youngest subordinate. Roy's sources had informed him that Edward had arrived in Central early that morning, and had already picked up his dorm assignment. If the teen had kept to his usual routine, his next stop would have been the lab to update his notes with any inspirations that he'd had while away, then he would have made for the base cafeteria for lunch. That would exhaust his options for delaying his check in with Roy, which meant that he would be showing up at the office very shortly. Good. Roy wanted to play the kid's little game and get it over with so he could move on to more pressing matters. Even though it had been quiet in the East of late, the Brigadier General had been kept very busy.

The road to Roy's promotion was still very much under construction, and though their conversations were stilted by virtue of the issue both men were skirting around, Maes had continued to keep Roy informed and advised on the political front. Mustang had not been the only officer approached about possible advisory positions on soon—to—be Defense Minister Thurman Grumman's personal staff. The heads up had gone out to several other suitable candidates, and the competition was fierce. Maes and Roy were both of the opinion that what the Flame Alchemist really needed at this point was something to make a good impression on the brass. That meant Roy had to keep his eyes and ears open for a suitable something in which he could involve himself, and ironically, scouring the numerous field reports that crossed his desk on a daily basis was his best bet at finding one.

Then out of the blue had come General Barkley, looking to co—opt Kain Fuery away from East Headquarters and Roy's squad. The man had heard about Fuery's electronic expertise, and had decided that the timid young Sergeant should be transferred to his command in New Optain. The General had been very aggressive, unwilling to consider alternatives or respond to compromises. Roy had to call in quite a few favors in order to stonewall Barkley and keep the Sergeant on his team, but his efforts had been successful, for which Kain was extremely grateful. The Sergeant would have to take an assignment for Barkley in the very near future, but remained in Mustang's command.

All this hadn't kept Roy's mind off the situation with Edward however. In fact, his mind kept wandering back to the boy at odd moments, turning what little he knew of the situation over and over again in his mind. As far as Roy could tell, the kid's feelings were hurt, and he was probably psyching himself up to give Roy some sort of ultimatum, which the older man would likely have to reject. In that case, it was obviously over between them, but if he was honest with himself, Roy didn't in fact want it to be. That in itself surprised the man when he realized it, and lead him to some other surprising realizations.

He missed the kid, for one. It had been well over two months since they had spent any time together, and it wasn't just the sex that Roy missed. It was the companionship. Because of rule number one, Edward always got together with Roy at the older man's home, unlike Roy's other lovers. Everyone else he took out, wined and dined, and ended the evening either at their home or a nice hotel. Never his place. On the other hand, Edward always came to him, and the evening's entertainment generally included takeout from somewhere close by, talking shop around playful banter, perhaps a game of chess. Edward often spent the night as well, something else Roy avoided with his other lovers, and Roy found his sleep undisturbed by nightmares with the boy wrapped protectively in his arms. It was a whole different level of intimacy. Strangely enough, the volatile young man was comfortable to be with. Ed understood him in ways few people ever could, understood Roy's demons and how he faced them, because Ed had his own demons to face. The older man didn't have to hide that side of himself from the boy. It was the closest Roy ever came to just being himself. In fact, the only other person he'd ever felt that way with was Maes Hughes.

He'd been taking the boy for granted, and that had been a mistake. There had to be a way to continue this, at least for a while. With the additional stress of driving his political ambitions to fruition, the Brigadier General felt he needed the comfortable respite that spending time with Edward presented. Roy was fairly certain that blonde was still crushing on him, otherwise he wouldn't be so upset over whatever wrong he perceived Roy had done him. He briefly considered telling the blond how much he valued his company, but rejected that idea immediately. That admission would put him at a disadvantage, make him too vulnerable. He didn't want to take the chance of having the kid throw it back in his face. No, a better strategy would be to exploit Ed's soft—heartedness. The first step would be to get Edward to drop the shield of cool indifference he was currently putting up to keep Roy at a distance, sweet talk him a little, then hint at the pressure he was under right now and hope the kid backed down. Later he would get the kid to spit out what was bothering him, and hopefully patch things up between them, but that was better left for when he could get the teen alone.

Voices raised in greeting outside his office alerted the Brigadier General to a visitor, and he finally heard the voice he had been waiting to hear. Moments later his door was opened and the Fullmetal Alchemist once again made an uncharacteristically quiet entrance. The boy looked much better than the last time he had stood there, sling absent, burn healing nicely, exhaustion replaced with the set of determination on his features.

The blond stepped up to the Brigadier General's desk, face neutral. "Reporting back for active duty, bastard."

Now, how to crack that mask. Edward's favorite subject was his little brother. "Welcome back, Fullmetal, you're looking well rested. I trust you enjoyed yourself in Central. How are Alphonse and Ms. Rockbell?"

"They're fine. What have you got for me?"

"Patience, Edward. We are firming up the details on something at the moment. Everything should be organized by early tomorrow. Tell me, how is Alphonse' thesis progressing?"

"It's fine."

This was going to require a little more effort. The older man leaned forward, resting his chin on one hand. Try a different approach. "I was surprised to see you on the Strand the other night Edward. Your young lady friend certainly seemed to be enjoying your company." No response, but this approach wasn't mined out yet. "I suppose it's only natural that some of my charm would have rubbed off on you."

"I have no idea what you're talking about."

Ah, finally. A nibble. "I'm talking about keeping your date happy and entertained, Edward."

"How could I have learned any of that shit from you? I've never been your 'date'. Rule number one."

Oh, wrong move. Should have anticipated that. Try a different track, offer a small concession. "True, and that, perhaps, has been an oversight on my part. We wouldn't be violating the rules by having lunch together once in a while, would we?"

"Not interested."

"You'll have dinner with Ms. Connor, but won't have lunch with me? Fullmetal, I'm hurt." Roy teased.

"I prefer to spend my time with people who are not ashamed to be seen with me in public."

"Ashamed? What?" Oh shit! Where the hell did that come from? With a sinking feeling, Roy felt control of this exchange slip from his grasp. "Edward, I'm not . . .! I don't know where you got that impression, but it's totally false!"

"Yeah, whatever. Doesn't matter anymore anyway." The younger man took a deep breath, and looked him straight in the eye. "It's over. We're done."

The quietly spoken words hung in the silence of the room. Roy was utterly floored. How the hell could he have misread the situation so completely? This was supposed to be about soothing an angry teen's bruised ego and moving on from there. Not . . . not . . . this! Edward stood his ground, waiting for some response, golden eyes still locked to Roy's.

Roy finally spoke, voice strangely distant to his ears, wondering at the pounding of his heart, the painful twist in his gut. "Edward. I . . . I don't . . . How can you . . . Don't I get any say in this matter?"

"You've had your say. 'If you don't like it, you can leave at any time.' My 'choice', remember?" Edward's teeth suddenly clenched so hard Roy wondered why they didn't crack. "Well, I don't like rule number one, but I didn't want to be an embarrassment to you, so I went along. I don't like rule number two, because I don't like waiting in line, hoping you might find some time for me in your busy schedule. And I don't like rule number three, because while I may be a half metal freak, I'm not a machine. I have feelings for you, and I can never expect those feelings to be returned. So it's time to leave." The boy never raised his voice, but as he spoke, the cold rage built until his body shook with it.

"I, I don't understand, Edward," Roy finally found a way to respond, a feeling very much like panic scrambling his thoughts. "If you were so unhappy, why did you put up with it for so long?"

"Because I loved you, you stupid asshole. I know that doesn't mean anything to you, but it's true. Are you happy? Now you have something else to rub my nose in." The younger alchemist's quiet laugh was bitter. "You'd better have your fucking fun quick though, because in a few months, I'm out of here. And if I never see you again? It'll be too fucking soon."

This was an utter disaster. What he'd convinced himself was a sulky teenager with an adolescent crush, was turning out to be . . . what? He'd managed to crack the kid's mask all right, but wasn't finding what he'd expected underneath it. Roy realized he was twisting in the wind, entirely out of his element, and completely at a loss for the words he needed to just fix this. "Edward, I don't . . . I don't. . . "

"Forget it Mustang. No more bullshit. No more games. I've had it." The kid was pale with fury now, fists clenched, but still his voice was quiet. "If you don't have an assignment ready, dismiss me. From now on we're strictly business."

And because he couldn't think of anything else to say, Roy whispered, "Dismissed."

Then he watched the kid turn on his heel and stride out of the room. Heard Havoc call after him, concerned. Noted how Havoc's apprehensive expression change to relief when he poked his head into Roy's office.

"Wow, I never saw the Boss come out of here looking like that before. I thought he might have finally murdered you." The First Lieutenant worriedly took in his superior's stunned expression. "Sir? Are you alright?"

When the phone rang for the tenth time in three hours, Roy knew he should have continued to ignore it, but by then he was too far gone to have any common sense left. He staggered up off the floor wondering how he'd ended up sitting there, and stumbled unsteadily toward the telephone, accidently kicking over the bottle on his way. Good thing it was nearly empty.

"Hello?" He concentrated on trying not to sound as drunk as he felt, and hoped that he had at least managed not to screw that up.

"Drinking on a week night Roy?" Maes voice was gentle. "I take it Edward said what he had to say. He thought you wouldn't care. Guess he was wrong, huh?"

"I screwed up, Maes." It was alright to admit this to his best friend. Oh, wait. "You're still my friend, right?"

"Wow, you're really out of it. We'll always be friends, Roy. You should know that."

"M'kay." The room seemed to be slowly tilting over on its side. "I don't feel so good."

"Wait 'till tomorrow. This is nothing."

"He called himself 'a half metal freak' Maes. Why would he say that?"

"That must be what he sees when he looks in the mirror."

"Tha's crazy though. Kid's smart. How come he doesn't know he's beautiful?"

"I guess nobody he trusts ever told him. Where are you right now?"

Roy laughed. "I'm home. You called me, 'member?"

"Where in the house are you?"

"Oh. Living room."

"OK. I need you to do something for me Roy. I need you to go lie down on the couch, on your side. Not your back. Can you do that?"

"Not an idiot," Roy mumbled as he did as he was told.

"That's a matter of opinion."

Mustang dropped onto his couch and rolled clumsily onto his side, pulling at the phone by its cord until it fell off the side table. Then he pulled it along the floor to rest beside him. "Kid's got more balls than I ever had. Said he loved me Maes."

"That's nice. Are you on your side?"

"Loved. Pas' tense."

"Ah. I'm sorry. Are you lying on your side?

Roy nodded.



"Hang up the phone and close your eyes, OK?"

"He couldn't a loved me. He's just a kid. It was just a crush. Right?"

"Don't think about it now. You need to sleep, Roy. Just hang up the phone and close your eyes."

"Do you still love me Maes?"

"Yeah. Idiot."

Mustang smiled, hung up the phone, and fell asleep.