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Paper in Fire

chapter 19.

Roy Mustang sat in the darkened living room of his quiet, empty home, wishing that the evening was cool enough for him to light his fireplace. Watching the flames' flickering dance always settled his mind.

Having a drink had been a mistake last night. He had only planned on having one or two to take the edge off. The next thing he knew he was waking up on his couch with a skull crushing, gut churning hangover, edgier than ever. So tonight he was going to leave the bottle alone and think this through like he should have done long ago.

In spite of all the excellent reasons why he should just let Edward go, one fact remained. He didn't want to break up with the kid. And he didn't want the kid to break up with him. At least not like this. This was ugly and painful, and causing the boy pain had never been Roy's intention. All he'd really wanted was a mutually satisfying sexual relationship with Edward. Over the years, Roy had had many such relationships, and he couldn't think of a single one that had ended with hard feelings.

Maes was right though. Edward was not like his other lovers. He was much younger for one thing. Roy was also Ed's first lover, which would hold special meaning for someone young and idealistic, as Roy well knew. And Roy had not treated Edward as he treated his other lovers either. He'd turned the affair into something sordid without really meaning to. No wonder the kid thought the older man was ashamed to be seen in his company. He'd had to suffer the indignity of sneaking around to be allowed time with him because Roy believed other people would find his choice of lovers inappropriate. In the name of image management he'd made the boy feel worthless, and Roy regretted that most of all. It was bad enough Edward had to walk around with the metal reminders of his mistakes attached to his body, was locked into a military contract when most people his age were planning what to wear to their high school graduation, and was isolated from his military peers by the uniqueness of his age and ability. On top of all that he shouldn't have had to put up with Roy's insecurities too.

But the kid had put up with it, because he was confusing lust with love. And that was the root of the problem, Roy believed. It was an honest mistake for someone Ed's age to make. Both were intense emotional responses that would be difficult to distinguish in the absence of experience. In fact, even some of Roy's more experienced lovers fell into that trap occasionally. There had to be some way to help Edward see the difference. It was going to be difficult. The kid was stubborn as hell — probably wouldn't have survived if he weren't — but he was also very intelligent. Lay it out logically for him, and he was bound to see reason. Roy hoped it would cool some of the anger and hurt Edward felt, understanding that this was just a phase, and he could move on to something genuine and lasting when he was older.

The hitch was that Roy was out of his element here. He was used to using manipulation and misdirection to twist situations to his advantage, and that wouldn't work this time. He'd tried that yesterday because he'd been too proud to admit to the kid that he liked having him around, and Ed had responded by blowing him right out of the water. Roy wouldn't do that again. He had to be as above board as possible, and present his case as clearly as he could, because he'd made the kid miserable enough, and had to put it right. Roy needed advice. He picked up the phone.

"Hello?"

"Maes, I need your help."

"This is news?" Roy could hear his friend' smile as he settled down on his couch, Gracia's and Elicia's voices humming quietly in the background. "What's up?"

"Ed's on assignment with Fuery. When he gets back, we need to have a talk. He wants to break up with me, but I don't want him to leave. The main problem is that he thinks he's in love with me. I have to calm him down and convince him that he's not in love, get him to realize that he's just going through a crush, so he can put this whole thing into the proper perspective and get over all this misplaced hurt and anger."

"Why?"

Roy frowned. "What do you mean, 'why'?"

"Maybe it's better to just let him go." Maes said quietly.

Roy thought about this for a few moments. "If he still wants to go after we've spoken, then I can't stop him, but I have to at least try."

"You haven't answered my question. Why?"

"I don't understand. What do you mean?"

"Before I answer that, Edward mentioned something about 'knowing the rules'. Any idea what he meant by that?"

Roy felt himself blush. "Rule number one: no one can know about us. Rule number two: I will continue to take other lovers to keep up appearances. Rule number three: no commitment. I thought it would be best to keep this quiet so I wouldn't look like some damn pedophile."

"The age of consent is sixteen Roy. Ed's nearly eighteen, and he's been an emancipated minor since he was twelve."

"Exactly my point. There would have been speculation about when the relationship started, and I didn't want the negative impact on my reputation. I still have goals to reach, and promises to keep . . . "

"Then my question is, why bother keeping him around? He's an inconvenience. Better to just let him go. Better for both of you." Maes voice was gentle.

"I can't. He's hurting, Maes, and it's my fault. I don't want him to leave like this."

"That still doesn't answer my question. Why?"

The Brigadier General was rapidly losing patience with his friend. "And I still don't understand what the hell you're asking!"

"Okay, I'll spell it out for you as bluntly as possible." Maes sighed. "You were afraid of what other people would think about your relationship with your sixteen year old lover, so you played on his trust and used his feelings for you to convince him to keep it quiet. You openly took other lovers that are more socially acceptable to you, rubbing his nose in it by treating them with far more respect than you've ever shown him. Now he's finally realized that he doesn't deserve to be treated like an embarrassment and wants to leave, maybe find someone who will actually give a shit about him, but you don't want to let him go. Why? Is it just your pride talking here?"

"What the hell?" Roy snarled. "Is that how this looks to you? Do you really believe that I don't give a shit about him? You of all people should know that's crap! Why the hell do you think I'm always calling you for information when he goes on missions? He never checks in and I need to at least try to find out what he's up to in case he runs into trouble! Do you have any idea how often I steer him away from the particularly nasty assignments, and the heat I take for doing that? Would I even be calling you right now if I didn't give a shit?"

"Why so angry Roy? It's a legitimate question." Maes voice was still calm, soothing. "I can't see this from your perspective, because I've always preferred to be with one lover at a time, and of course since I met Gracia, I've never had the slightest inclination to even look at anyone else, so I really can't know what it's like for you. Can you explain how it's possible to really give a shit about one person in a continuous stream of anonymous warm bodies? For me, sex is a way to express love. What is it for you? Exercise? Stress relief? I've always wondered."

Roy was very glad Maes was out of ignition range. He would have hated to be responsible for his best friend's brutal murder. By sheer effort of will, he pushed the snarl out of his tone. "You're one of the lucky few that have what you want, Maes. The rest of us have to settle for what we can get. For me, it's sex. And right now, at his age, it's the same for Edward. But it won't be like this for him forever. He'll find someone to love for real one day." And suddenly there was a painful lump in his throat. Roy continued, voice rough. "I told him he couldn't expect a commitment from me, that all I could offer was a physical relationship. I'm really not capable of anything more, Maes."

"And yet you seem to have gone out of your way to offer him what you could, even though you thought it was dangerous for your career. Do you know he thinks that you only took up with him because you felt sorry for him?"

"Do you enjoy making me feel like dirt?"

"Did you ever give any of your other lovers a list of rules so that you could hide your relationship?"

"No, but he's not like my other lovers, you said so yourself. And although I admit it was all unintentional, the rules worked to both our advantage in a way. He's the only one I've ever welcomed into my home. None of my other lovers has ever had that privilege." Roy was suddenly pensive. "It wasn't even an inconvenience for me, though I thought it would be at first. You know how he is. Like a devastating force of nature. I thought he'd trample all over my personal space, but he didn't. In fact, I find it more comfortable with him in it. It's lonely now that he doesn't come over any more." Roy stopped, deep sadness surprising him.

"Go on Roy, explain it to me. I want to understand," Maes urged him gently.

"Do you know, I was even comfortable with him in my bed. The last thing I expected was to enjoy waking up in the morning to find him there, but I did." Roy was no longer sure whether he was explaining this to Maes, or thinking out loud. "It's just . . . easy to relax around him. I can let my guard down and be myself. He knows about the mistakes I've made and doesn't hold them against me. He accepts me for who I am. He. . . he just. . ." Roy voice faded, and his eyes widened in sudden understanding.

"The problem, Roy, is that you're been considering what Edward could or could not be feeling for you. After what he went through in the name of love for his brother, I think he may have a better grasp of the concept than a lot of people. What you should really be considering are your feelings for him."

"Oh shit. I'm in love with the little bastard, aren't I. That's the answer to your question." Odd details were suddenly dropping into place, a picture going from narrow focus to wide angle. The many excuses not to let Edward go. The blind rage at Raven's proposal. The panic he'd felt when Edward told him it was over. Right down to how quiet and empty his home felt right now . . .

He was such an idiot! How could he have fooled himself into thinking that what he felt for Ed was simply lust? Had he become so good at hiding his feelings from others that he'd actually begun to hide them from himself? It had been staring him in the face the whole time. He loved Edward. Every time he was with the kid, he felt a tenderness he never felt with anyone else. Not the usual, meaningless flirtation, not the carefully orchestrated courtship and seduction routine. Just comfortable companionship. He never felt so calmly contented in the company of anyone else. Then he thought of Edward feeling the same way about him, and saw the rules in a painfully bright new light.

What the hell was he going to do now? Roy felt like bashing his head against the coffee table. It was hard to concentrate while this new understanding restructured the world. He felt like he was drowning. Clamping down hard on the confused race of feeling, Roy forced himself to calm, taking a deep breath. He had to break it down and think it through.

There were a number of things to consider here. First off, his career. Did he really want to risk everything he had worked so hard for, and was so close to accomplishing, to pursue a relationship with a seventeen year old smart ass with anger management issues? The reasons Roy had fought to rise through the ranks were no less valid now than when Bradley had been in power. In fact, nearly two years post Bradley, the country was still suffering from political, social, and economic instability. What Amestris needed was a leader with a clear vision of the future, a future of peaceful prosperity, and a plan of action to make it a reality. Roy had made a promise, to those both living and departed, that he would someday be that leader, and that was a promise he intended to keep.

Would having Edward in his life really pose a threat to his political aspirations though? Was his concern legitimate, or was it just his insecurities whispering dark nothings into his ear? When he got right down to it, he'd taken much bigger chances with his career, as well as his life. Just keeping quiet about how Edward had lost his limbs and what was really inside Alphonse' armor had been a huge risk. At the very least, discovery would have earned him a court—martial. Hell, he'd stood toe to toe with the inhuman puppet purposely steering the country toward ruin, and he'd come out of that alive, with his rank and reputation intact as well. By comparison, the risk associated with discovery of his consensual relationship with a much younger subordinate was negligible. Exposure might earn him a paragraph or two in the gossip column of the Central Chronicle, and so what? Wasn't the chance at a meaningful relationship with someone who loved him worth that minor inconvenience? Ed wasn't going to be his subordinate for much longer either, which was also something to consider. Did he really have to make a choice between having Ed and realizing his political dreams?

Then there was Ed. The kid had been putting up with Roy's shit for a long time. He'd made up his mind that he was going to walk, and trying to change an Elric's made up mind was going to be very much like trying to teach a tiger to tango — complicated, frustrating, and likely painful. Was it perhaps too late for Roy to tell Ed that he loved him? After all the bullshit, would Ed even believed him?

"Still there Roy?" Maes' voice jerked Roy out of his thoughts.

"I don't know. Maes, I need your help."

While it might be for the best to let Edward break up with him, Roy was going to do his damndest to convince him otherwise. Roy wanted Edward to stay in his life, and now he knew exactly why he'd been aiming for this all along. Clearly they couldn't continue as they had been. He had to fix this, and things had to change. He'd thought he would never feel this way about anyone ever again, and wasn't about to waste this second chance. He was much too selfish to just let the young alchemist go. Besides, he at least wanted to tell Edward that he wasn't ashamed of him. He was ashamed of himself.