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Paper in Fire

chapter 18.

Sitting on the train later that day, Edward knew he wasn't being very good company for his colleague. Kain Furey was excited to be going out on an assignment. It wasn't often that he left the confines of Headquarters on military business, and Ed supposed the man felt like he was going on some kind of adventure. Well, maybe he was. Kain would find out soon enough, however, that the definition of adventure included a lot of boring train travel, crude accommodations, infrequent meals, and a whole bunch of people who appeared to have nothing better to do than to make things as miserable as possible for the people sent to help them. It was two days by rail to Youswell where they were to meet their contact, a Colonel Brand from New Optian, and while Ed was happy to have company on the road for a change, he was more accustomed to being alone with his thoughts on assignments.

The young alchemist Edward was making an effort to hold up his end of their conversations, but it was proving to be difficult. Fuery definitely knew Ed was distracted, because the younger man kept zoning out, and while Kain appeared concerned, he wasn't one to pry. The Sergeant had been in the office yesterday, a witness to Ed's stormy exit from Mustang's inner sanctum, so he probably knew that Roy had something to do with this pensive mood, but Edward wasn't free to talk about what had happened even if he felt like it, which he didn't.

Actually, Ed couldn't imagine better company than Kain Fuery to provide a distraction from his failed love affair. Even Al would likely have been too much to take, trying to get Ed to talk out his feelings when all he really wanted to think about was absolutely anything else. Kain was a gentle soul, very easy on the nerves, but his timid nature concealed a very sharp mind. Kain's passion for electronics rivaled Edward's passion for alchemy, and they'd often bounced ideas off each other, once they'd discovered the two fields had a lot of overlap at the molecular level. Where Edward used arrays to store, focus, boost, limit, and direct energy to generate a transmutation, Kain used vacuum tubes, capacitors, transformers, diodes, and resistors for the same purposes to generate electromagnetic transmissions. Wireless communication was still a young science, but Kain was on top of all the latest developments. If not for his timid nature, he'd certainly have made a name for himself in the industry long ago.

But even with the distraction of an interesting travel companion, Edward's mind kept drifting back to Mustang's office. Yesterday in anger the young alchemist had said a lot more than he'd intended, even admitting that he'd loved the older man. Today the bastard had thrown it all back in his face, saying that Edward was too young to know what love was. Fuck him. Edward had plenty of experience where love was concerned. All he had to do was close his eyes, and there; his mother stood by the kitchen window, gazing up the road into the distance, quietly waiting for someone who would never return. He could see her lying in her bed, desperately ill, glazed eyes hopeful as he and Al walked into the room, and Ed had known who it was she longed to see in the doorway. Her last thoughts had been of Hohenheim Ed was sure. Trisha Elric had loved that son of a bitch to the bitter fucking end. While Edward no longer hated his father for abandoning his family, he would never forgive him for the pain he'd caused his mother.

Even from personal experience, Ed knew the difference between a juvenile crush and love. When Mustang had shown up at Rockbell Automail the day after he'd lost his limbs and Al's body, the officer had looked like walking salvation. If he hadn't been there to offer the Elrics that glimmer of hope in the form of a possible military contract, Ed knew it wasn't likely that he would have survived for very long. The crush came on full blown the day he and Al had arrived in East City for the first time. Izumi Curtis' alchemy was amazing, but Mustang roasting the train highjacker with a snap of his fingers right there on the platform was the most bad ass thing Ed had ever seen anyone do with alchemy. Mustang had been stunning, all confident poise and arrogant smirk, dark eyes alight with lethal intent, amused as he raised his right hand and snapped. It had made Edward's heart leap into his throat just to watch.

The crush continued and got stronger as the years went on, though Ed never let on that he felt anything other than contempt for his commanding officer. When the hormones kicked in, it got even more intense. After his quest was completed and the homunculi and their master were defeated, Ed had been high on having his brother back in the flesh, believing that maybe, just maybe, he was allowed to be happy now. And there was Mustang, newly promoted, strong and sure and sexy as ever, looking Edward's way. He'd seemed somewhat surprised at Ed's enthusiasm for his advances. Really, he should have known better than to expect the Fullmetal Alchemist to play coy.

At what point the crush turned into love, Edward wasn't exactly sure. It was a gradual change. He thought it was probably already happening before he and Roy started their relationship, but the physical intimacy sped the process along. The difference wasn't so much in the intensity, as in the focus. The sex was amazing, whether it was frantic and wild or slow and tender, but only part of the picture. Waking up next to the other man, warm and comfortable, gave him a sense of peace he had never known before. In quiet conversation he was contented and relaxed. Mustang knew all about the things he had done, what the automail meant, the why of his brother's armour and lack of it now, was aware of all his sins. And Edward knew about his commander's tour of duty in Ishbal, what had happened to the Rockbells, the why of his drive for political power. They understood each other. It was easy to be with Mustang. And being away from the man made him feel strangely incomplete. It hadn't become painful until Ed finally accepted that he was alone in this, and that these feelings would never be mutual.

This whole thing was his own fault. He should have backed off as soon as the rules came out. Mustang had always been up front about his feelings, or lack of them. The man had a dream, and couldn't afford to have Ed fuck it up for him. Why he was dragging this out Ed had no idea. He couldn't even realistically see them being friends after this, at least not in the foreseeable future. But what the hell, bring it on. Let the man have his say. Mustang could talk all he wanted, about crushes and hormones and whatever the fuck. As far as Ed was concerned, it was a done deal, and there was no looking back. Starting right now what he had to do was get his shit together and flush all thoughts of the bastard and his bullshit games out of his mind, because he was finished with that crap, and his stupid, fucked up heart was just going to have to deal with it.

"Ed?"

"Huh? Oh, sorry Kain. What was that again?"

"I was just wondering if maybe the problem in the Eastern Townships could be caused by some sort of naturally occurring electromagnetic field. There's extensive mining in the region. Do you know anything about the iron content of the bedrock?"

"Hmm, no, but the local miners will. We'll need some sort of EM field detector to rule out or confirm natural interference."

"I think I could rig up something serviceable."

"I don't doubt it." The blond grinned. "It's bothering me that this problem is recent, though. If it's natural, why wasn't it a problem before?"

"Maybe something's changed."

"Pass over the case file and let's have a look at the timeline."

The two officers paged through the file, making note of where and when each disruption was reported. Each time communication went down, it always came back up on its own, usually before investigators got to the scene, but not always. There was no trace of any damage to the broadcast equipment, intentional or otherwise. There also didn't seem to be any particular pattern to the events. The most recent one had been two days ago in the vicinity of Youswell, which reported the majority of the disruptions.

"This whole thing just doesn't add up," Ed chewed on a fingernail, scowling.

"I don't see anything either." Kain took off his glasses to clean them with his handkerchief. "What do you usually do when you're on an assignment and nothing makes sense?"

"I usually look around, get some firsthand information, feel out the situation, maybe shake things up a bit, then go with my gut." Ed grinned as Kain put his glasses back on and gave him a skeptical look. "Sometimes it's all you got."

"Okay, then I guess we'll have to wait and see what we can find on site." Kain shifted his gaze to the swiftly passing scenery. "So what do you usually do when you're stuck on a train for two days?"

"Well, when I'm alone I usually pick apart my research notes, looking for theoretical holes, but since you're here. . . " Ed reached into his jacket pocket with a grin and pulled out a well used deck of cards tied with a piece of string.

Kain reached for them and started shuffling. "You bring your research notes with you?"

"Yeah, in my head. Takes up less space."

"Five card stud. No wild cards." Kain dealt them each one card down, then one card up. "Penny ante okay with you?"

"For now." Ed checked his hole card. "Okay. I'm in for five."

Kain pulled out a sheet of paper and pencil to keep track of the betting. "Is this what you and Al used to do to pass the time when you guys were working together?"

"Yeah, among other things," Ed said. "It's nice to have someone along for a change. Traveling alone is boring."

"You have no idea how glad I am that you're here," Kain returned. "I always get nervous in new situations. The Brigadier General had to agree to this assignment to keep me from being transferred to New Optian, and I really want to do this, but I'm glad he assigned us together."

"You're an important member of his team Kain. Of course he'd look out for you."

It must have been something in his voice, because the dark haired man stopped examining his cards and looked up. "You're important to our team too, Ed."

"Sure I am." Ed smiled like he meant it. "Come on, ante up. You're not folding on the burn, are you?"

"See your five, raise you five. How do you like me now?"