Paper in Fire

chapter 26.

"You miss me."

The blond frowned down at his boots, and Roy wondered if he'd misjudged the younger man's mental state. He'd seemed his normal, ornery self a few minutes ago, but now he looked confused again. Biting back the urge to use this to his advantage, the older man answered.

"Yes. But if you don't feel up to it, we don't have to talk about this right now."

"I'm fine," Edward said automatically, still frowning. "Say what you need to say."

That was easier said than done. Talking with Maes the night Ed and Kain had left town may have forced Roy to realize his true feelings, but there were a few things about Roy that even Maes didn't know. Maes' advice had been simple: if Roy really wanted to keep Edward in his life, he had to come clean to his young lover, regardless of how vulnerable that left him, and hope it wasn't too late. Roy had agreed, but old habits die hard. Keeping himself to himself was what he did best, and what he had to do went against his nature. Coming clean involved admitting something that the older alchemist had never trusted to anyone else, Maes included. Edward watched him with a guarded expression, prepared for either a pat or a punch. Yes. This was a matter of trust. Roy took the plunge.

"When I left my apprenticeship with Riza's father, I took the entrance exam for Central Military Academy. Most alchemists don't. Getting certified as a State Alchemist is a shortcut to becoming an officer, but the competition is, as you know, extreme. I still planned to take the State Alchemist exam and believed I would pass, as I eventually did, but I wanted to climb the ranks, and didn't want to take shortcuts. I wanted to be the best." Roy glanced at his companion and quirked a small smile, receiving a guarded one in return. "I met Maes at the Academy. We hit it off right away, even though he was a couple of years ahead of me. Most of the other students were from more affluent families, and Maes and I were just a couple of country boys there on merit. It was only natural. "

It was dark, so Roy couldn't gauge the effect his story was having on the younger man, but Edward appeared to be content to hear him out, so Roy continued.

"Maes was my hero back then. Still is, actually. He helped me stay sane through all the rules and regulations, social and otherwise, that made life miserable at the academy. He taught me the value of controlling my temper, and the satisfaction of unleashing it in productive ways. He showed me how to stay under the radar until it was of benefit not to. Our strengths and talents complimented each other. We made a very efficient team.

"Even back then, Maes was a shutter bug. He always had pictures to flash around, usually of his family or Gracia. She was the love of his life from the day he met her, sometime before he met me. He was always gushing about her and how they were going to get married as soon as he was out of the academy with a permanent post somewhere. He could go on endlessly about their plans, and what it would be like when they would finally be together. I knew he was very definitely taken. I fell in love with him anyway. "

Roy knew that admission had caught Edward by surprise when the blond suddenly turned to face him, gold eyes wide in the moonlight. The younger alchemist kept silent however, and after a moment to collect his thoughts, Roy continued once again.

"I was just a little older than you are now when I realized that I wanted more than friendship from Maes. At first it was just a crush, and I expected to eventually get over it, but I didn't. As time went on and our friendship got stronger, my feelings for him only got deeper. I considered telling him how I felt, but knew it was a bad idea. He's the best friend I ever had, but he doesn't love me, not like that anyway. If I'd told him how I felt, I risked losing that friendship. So I kept quiet and hid the true extent of my feelings. I was Best Man at his wedding, and honestly, I was happy to see his dream come true.

"I had many affairs, trying to find someone to replace him in my affections. Then, just after graduating from the Academy, with the ink on my State certification barely dry, I suddenly found myself in the midst of the Ishbalan conflict. My tour of duty on the front lines left me a changed man. The things I had seen and done should have destroyed me, but Maes was there for me as he always was, pulling me back from the edge, giving me a reason to go on. He was the only person I'd ever known who was always there when I needed him. He never let me down. I finally decided that I would never find another person I could love the way I loved Maes. In all my searching I had never found anyone who could measure up. I stopped searching. "

The dark eyed man scrubbed his hands over his face, then ran a shaky hand through his hair. He'd known this was going to be difficult, but the reality of admitting his true feelings out loud was much harder than he'd expected. It went against his nature to leave himself this vulnerable, but this old wound had to be cleansed if he wanted an honest chance to have a meaningful relationship with Edward. No more secrets, no more games. Taking a deep breath, Roy turned his gaze on the moon and forced himself to go on.

"I had been pushing my feelings down for so long it was actually quite easy to close down completely. I threw all of myself into my political aspirations, driven to be in a position to prevent a nightmare like Ishbal from ever happening again. I convinced myself that I didn't have the time or the inclination to find someone to share my life with; that was a luxury I could no longer afford. I had Maes' friendship, which is of immense value to me, and if that was as much as I could expect to have, that would do just fine. I discovered that I still needed the sexual aspects of a relationship however, and I concluded that even though I couldn't have love, I could still indulge myself physically. Of course I didn't want any misunderstandings, so I made a rule for myself: only take lovers that, like me, were interested in a strictly physical relationship and nothing more, because that was all I could realistically offer.

"You are the first person I have ever broken that rule with."

Roy glanced at his companion. The younger man was frowning down at his boots, and Roy was just about to continue when he spoke.

"You still love him." Edward said.

"I always will," Roy nodded, his heart suddenly pounding. "And I thought that I would never love anyone else. But I was wrong. I've been doing a lot of thinking over the past week, about the time you and I have spent together, and how much I miss you, and I can find no other explanation for it. I miss talking with you, and teasing you, and being pissed off by you, and just sitting quietly in your company. I miss you in my bed. I miss sleeping with you, and watching you sleep, and waking up with you there. I miss the way you look at me, and the sound of your voice, and the feel of you in my arms, and the way you taste. I could go on endlessly, because I miss everything about you, and the reason is obvious. I love you Edward.

"I've even realized that my love for Maes could never compare to what I feel for you. The feelings I have for Maes are bred from years of friendship, familiarity, and trust. The feelings I have for you are also bred from these things, but tempered to a fine edge by the intimacy we have shared, and tested now by the realization that I may have lost you. So I tell you this in all honesty Edward. I love you much more that I have ever loved Maes. I want you back."

The younger man stared blankly at the ground, and then looked up to meet Roy's eyes. "I want you to transfer me," he said, voice shaking.

The words hit him like a punch. Blinking the sting out of his eyes, Roy nodded, swallowing around the lump in his throat. "If that's what you really want. I don't want to cause you any more pain than I already have. But I had hoped . . . I don't know," he forced himself to go on. "That maybe we could start over."

The unhappiness in Edward's eyes mirrored Roy's own, and when the young man spoke, his voice was rough. "We both know that would be a bad idea. The last thing you need is people finding out about us, and it's only a matter of time if we keep this up. I don't want to be the reason why you can't have your dreams. You have to transfer me."

"You don't understand. I don't want to go back to the way things were. Hiding our relationship was a mistake from the start. If we were discovered, the fact that I hid it would do more to raise suspicions of my possible inappropriate behavior with a minor than the relationship itself. But worst of all, I made you think that you were an embarrassment to me, which I deeply regret. I was so busy worrying about how I would look that I didn't realize you thought I was ashamed of you."

Edward didn't look convinced. "You'd still look bad. I'm your subordinate. Something like this could seriously screw up your chances for promotion."

"Actually, you and Kain just handed me my next promotion. And yes, fraternizing is generally frowned on, but just as generally ignored. Take General Raven's . . . behavior . . . as a case in point. If the Brass can turn a blind eye to that, it's pretty obvious that they don't care who does what with whom. Ours is a consensual relationship, so there's no cause for concern.

"Believe me, Edward. There is no way that a relationship with you would hold me back from my ambitions." Ed regarded him skeptically, and Roy resisted the urge to take the young man's hands. "Even if we go our separate ways, I need you to know that I was never ashamed of you. I was ashamed of what people would think of me, taking a lover so much younger. I realize now that I was being foolish. A person would have to be blind not to understand the attraction. Anyone who knows you even casually could easily see that you are so much more than I deserve. I love you Edward. I'm hoping that you still love me, that it's not too late for us, but if it is, it's my own fault."

It was too dark for Roy to study the play of emotion on Edward's face as the young man thought this over, so there was no way to gauge his thoughts. Roy took a chance and edged closer, reaching to cover Ed's left hand lightly with his right, feeling a twinge of guilt when the young alchemist automatically glanced in both directions down the platform to check for the sentry. If Edward agreed to take another chance with him — and the older man was nowhere near to giving up — Roy was going to have his work cut out for him just breaking that habit.

Edward stretched his legs out and eased down on the bench until he could rest his head on top of the backrest, but didn't pull his hand from Roy's. Face tilted up, Ed closed his eyes and sighed. "This is . . . crazy. I can't wrap my head around it," he said. "I keep wondering if I'm still in the mine and this is some kind of hallucination brought on by sensory deprivation or something."

Roy squeezed the hand under his. "This is real. I should have waited to talk to you, but I am, as you know, a selfish bastard."

"I'm tired," Edward murmured. "I'm really tired, Roy."

"Let's go back to the med tent then," Roy said, pulling the younger man to his feet. "Come on."

"That asshole medic keeps waking me up," Edward complained as Roy steered him off the platform with an arm around the young man's shoulders.

"Just bear with it for a bit longer Edward."

Roy tugged his companion along until they had returned to the hospital tent. He maneuvered Edward inside and pushed him gently down on a cot. After the younger man kicked off his boots, Roy pulled the sheet up over him and then took a seat beside him. Edward lay there just looking at him for a while, then finally took a deep, relaxing breath and gave Roy a tired smile. Weak as it was, it was the first real smile Roy had seen in weeks, and it gave him hope.

"If this is a dream, it's probably the nicest one I've ever had," the blond said. Then his smile faded. "And if it's not a dream . . ."

Roy waited when the words trailed off, watching the young man's face for clues to what he was thinking. Edward looked conflicted, struggling with the choice between doing what he wanted to do, and doing what he thought was right. Roy hoped the balance swung to rest on the side where he sat so hopefully.

"I have to think about this," the young man finally said. "I'm finished with jumping into and out of things without considering the consequences. There's too much on the line here. For you especially, but for me too."

"Relax, Edward," the older man whispered. "You don't have to make up your mind tonight. I'm willing to wait for your answer for as long as it takes."

And Roy meant it. But never one to sit idly by, he also planned to do whatever it took to convince Edward that giving Roy another chance was that answer.