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Paper in Fire

chapter 17.

In the beginning, when Edward first got his State Alchemist certification, he had absolutely hated coming into Mustang's office. The bastard used to drive him bug shit crazy, picking on his height, his age, his methods, his mistakes, even his damn spelling and handwriting — anything to purposely drive him into a blind rage. Then later, when he and Roy were seeing each other, Edward started to look forward to coming to the office. He so enjoyed spending time with the older man, even mission reports and the associated verbal sparring were a pleasure. But that gradually gave way to frustration. He'd do the mission report routine and hope that Mustang had some spare time for him, but Roy apparently didn't value their time together as much as Edward did, and more often than not the younger man found himself brushed aside in favor of a more enticing someone. Finally, all that was left was shame and regret.

Right now though, what he was feeling was dread. Mustang's reaction to Ed leaving hadn't been the indifferent, possibly amused brush off Ed had expected. The young alchemist hadn't thought to factor the older man's pride into the break up equation, and that had been a major oversight. The bastard had seemed stunned, obviously not used to people breaking it off with him. Ed had clearly dealt the man's pride a severe blow. The older man had been caught by surprise yesterday, but he'd had last night to prepare a response, and was sure to have some serious payback planned. Mustang knew exactly how to hit Ed where it would hurt the most, and was almost guaranteed to take advantage of that now. It wasn't going to be pretty.

To be honest, though, Ed was sorry he'd lost his temper the day before, so he was prepared to suffer the consequences. It wasn't Mustang's fault that Edward was unhappy with the situation. The older man had always been completely up front with the younger. He'd laid it out as bluntly as possible. No commitment. Just sex and nothing more. He'd made it as clear as possible that he felt nothing beyond a physical attraction for the young alchemist. How could Ed expect him to return feelings he didn't have? Ed thought he'd had himself tightly under control when he'd walked into Mustang's office yesterday, planning to calmly tell the man that he was no longer interested in being his dirty little secret, but when he'd finally told the bastard that it was over, he'd felt an overwhelming sense of loss. And as a purely reflexive response, Ed had fallen back into an old habit. Fear, grief, loss, shame, guilt — they simmered inside and made you feel helpless. Anger was easier, a familiar old friend. You could direct it, out and away. So fair or not, angry was what he became.

The whole damn confrontation had just been shit, start to finish. Ed had thought he would find comfort in knowing that it was finally done. He had been expecting to at least feel some relief after taking that final step away from Mustang, but he hadn't. Instead he felt shell shocked, lost and lonely, heart aching. It was hard to believe that he would never again know the older man's touch, or hear his quiet whispers in the dark, or enjoy his teasing smile. Edward had thought about calling Kelly, maybe going out with the girl to take his mind off his now officially ex—lover, but rejected the idea immediately. He didn't know where the young librarian expected their friendship to go, but Ed knew that right now friendship was all he could offer. Before he could realistically offer more, he had to get over Mustang, because he still cared for the smug fucker, and Ed understood now that it was going to take some time before he didn't anymore. In the mean time, he wasn't going to string anyone along, giving them the impression that he was interested in anything beyond friendship, when his mind was still on what he had lost. That wouldn't be fair. So for now, he was on his own.

Havoc, Breda, and Fuery were in the outer office when the Major arrived, all three gathered around Breda's desk. They looked up as he entered.

"The Chief's in General Clayton's office," Havoc told him. "Said he wouldn't be long, and that you should wait."

"Whatever. What are you guys looking at?" Ed made himself comfortable at Havoc's desk.

"It's like a questionnaire," Furey said, eyes still on the magazine on Breda's desk. "It's a list of things you should know how to do, if you're, like, a man."

"So, Havoc, right now you're zero for four. Let's try number five. Can you put up a tent?" Breda asked.

Havoc thought for a moment. "Does it come with instructions?"

Furey and Breda looked at each other. "That's a 'no'." Furey interpreted.

"Give me a break," Havoc groused. "How about you, Breda, can you pitch a tent?"

"Depends on what I'm looking at." The heavy set man leered, and Havoc rolled his eyes. "How about you Fuery? Could you put up a tent?"

"Can you be more specific? I'd have no problems with a pyramid or traditional A—frame, but the modified A is really a two man job."

"Can't you just say 'yes' and be done with it?" Havoc muttered.

"How about you, Ed?" Fuery asked. "Can you pitch a tent?"

"Real men don't use tents, Kain," Ed said, yawning.

"Good answer," Breda nodded his approval at the young Major. "OK, number six. Havoc, can you make a martini?"

"Real men don't drink martinis, Heymans," Havoc said loftily, waving his hand in dismissal.

"No, but their dates might, which, come to think of it, makes it a nonessential skill for you."

The door burst open and Mustang stalked into the office, looking bleary eyed and very rough around the edges, carrying a thin case file. "First Lieutenant, arrange for two rail tickets to Youswell, earliest possible departure," he snapped.

"Sir!" Edward vacated Havoc's space so the older blond could get busy.

"Sergeant Fuery, familiarize yourself with the particulars of this case. I'll be speaking with you in a moment." The Brigadier General passed his subordinate the file he held.

"Sir!"

"Second Lieutenant, that magazine had better not be pornographic." Dark eyes bore into Breda's.

"Sir! No Sir!" The magazine disappeared into the desk.

"Fullmetal. My office." The older man strode ahead, and Edward followed, closing the door behind him as Mustang took his seat.

"This is a simple, and hopefully short technical assignment in the Eastern Townships. Actually, as requested by New Optain's Base Commander, the assignment is Sergeant Fuery's, but he has very little field experience, so you'll be escorting him. He has the case file. In short, the area has recently been experiencing intermittent communication disruptions between the outer townships and New Optain. They have ruled out sabotage, and now believe it's a hardware problem, hence the request for our expert to personally assess the situation in an attempt to resolve it. You are going along to make sure he doesn't get bullied. As you know, the locals in that region are not fond of the military." Roy steepled his fingers under his chin. "We need to talk."

"Unless it's business related, I'm done talking."

"Then it's my turn. Edward, I don't want to break up with you."

"No, why would you? With no investment on your part, you get a cheap fuck toy at your convenience. There when you need it, gone when you don't."

"You're being much too harsh."

"You are, of course, entitled to your opinion. Sir."

"Your anger is way out of proportion for the situation. What you were feeling wasn't love. It was a crush. Hormones, Fullmetal. It's perfectly natural for teenagers to go through a good number of them before they experience actual love."

"Whatever."

"Our arrangement was mutually beneficial. Unless you're going to try to tell me that you didn't enjoy the physical aspects of our get—togethers?"

The younger man glared.

"I thought not. The whole point of the 'no commitment' rule was so that when the time came, you would be free to pursue a relationship with someone with whom you had more in common, perhaps someone your own age."

Ed stared at his commander, incredulous. "Someone my own age? You complete moron! Do you know any other seventeen year old State Alchemists with five years field experience? What the hell could I possibly have in common with anyone my age? Your rules were always for your benefit, not mine."

"The fact remains that what you may have felt for me couldn't have been love, Edward. It was a crush. Nothing more. You've blown this whole thing out of proportion. You are too young to know what love is."

"No, actually, I think you're the one who doesn't know what love is. You don't seem to have any personal experience with it at all. You do a lot of superficial fucking around, but that's about it. When was the last time you actually cared about anyone Mustang? Or better still, when was the first time, if ever?"

Roy gritted his teeth. "Any intimate personal relationships I may or may not have had are not open for discussion. I'm trying to put this into perspective for you."

"This conversation is pointless. I don't understand why we're even having it. Wait," Edward's eyes narrowed. "This is really about you getting dumped, isn't it? Well if it makes this easier for you to deal with, let's just say that you dumped me. It's not like I give a —"

Mustang slammed both fists down on his desk and stood, causing the teen to jump. "I'm not breaking up with you, and you're not breaking up with me," he hissed.

"W—what?" The Major's amber eyes were wide with surprise.

"I screwed up yesterday. I should have known better than to try maneuvering my way around your feelings. That wasn't fair. This is important and we really do need to talk. Then, afterward, if you still want to walk away, fine."

"That's . . . that's. . ." Edward's shoulders slumped. "Okay. But I'm not going to change my mind."

"We both need time to cool off. You'll be on assignment with Kain. We'll talk when you get back. Dismissed."