Paper in Fire

chapter 27.

Edward woke up around noon the next day, judging from the shadows he could see outside of the tent flap, alone in the hospital tent. He could hear the sound of people going about their business, and realized his estimation of the time was probably correct when he smelled something cooking. Something rich and savory. Suddenly he was ravenous. He was just about to whip off his sheet. roll out of the cot, and go searching for food when Rowan ducked into the tent with a covered tray.

"Ah! You're awake then," she said. "Just in time for lunch."

Ed grinned hugely, eyes fixed on the tray. "You are a dream come true," he breathed as the fragrant aroma of the food assailed his nostrils.

The woman dragged over a chair and set the tray down on it. "Your boss told me to make sure you came to get lunch for yourself, but he's not my boss," Rowan said with a smirk. "So I thought I'd trot this over here just for you."

"Thanks!" Ed sat up and swung his legs over the side of the bed, reaching for the tray. Removing the draped cloth, he found heaven: a steaming bowl of soup choked full of tender beef, barley and vegetables, two thick slices of sourdough bread, toasted and topped with melted cheese, a piece of apple pie fresh from the oven, and a tall glass of cold apple juice. "All I had yesterday was a bowl of chicken broth so weak I couldn't tell it from a glass of warm water. I'm starving!"

The young man dove into the food as Rowan settled into another chair, watching fondly. Edward forced himself to slow his pace, but still ended up virtually inhaling his lunch. In no time he had finished everything, barely restraining himself from licking the soup bowl. He smiled at the twinkle in Rowan's eyes. She knew exactly what he'd been tempted to do.

"That was great," Ed told her. "Thanks again."

"My pleasure," she returned. "That's what fellow former prisoners are for."

"Did everyone make it out okay? I heard shooting."

"That was me. We were careful when we got near the tunnel mouth because we expected more soldiers outside, and we moved up as close as we could to see out without being seen ourselves. That Colonel Brand was out there with a bunch of his soldiers, pointing guns at our men. We were trying to come up with a plan when I saw Halling jump one of them, and I just reacted when he got knocked down."

"You shot someone?"

"He was pointing a gun at my husband. Yes, I shot someone." Rowan reached over to pat Edward's hand. "I would have shot a lot of someones to protect my family. I didn't have to, though, because of what you did."

"I screwed up. The mine caved in just like you warned me."

"I'm glad you made it out alright."

"I'm glad you and your neighbors did too. And I'm really glad it's over." Ed leaned over to look under his cot, locating his boots.

"We were pretty surprised to hear that you came to town without your brother," Rowan said as the alchemist pulled on his boots. "Aren't you two working together anymore?"

"No, Al's staying in Central with a friend of ours now. When my contract with the military is up in a few months, I'm going to join him there."

"You must be lonely traveling without him. How's Alphonse doing?"

"He's doing great! He's going to the University in Central." Ed glowed with pride. "He's almost got his PhD, and he's going after his medical degree next. I need to call and let him know I'm okay," the young man realized, frowning. His head must have really been screwed up yesterday not to have thought of that until now.

"You can come along to the Inn with me, then. Your friend Kain is there, messing with that wireless contraption," Rowan said, getting to her feet and reaching for the tray of now empty dishes.

The older woman left the tent, Edward trotting after her, and the pair headed for the Inn. Ed pushed open one of the batwing door and held it for Rowan as she entered with the tray. Dim light filtered into the bar through windows grimed with dust. A few townsfolk and soldiers occupied the room, talking quietly as they lunched. Rowan made her way behind the bar and headed towards the propped open door to the kitchen.

"Which way to the phone?" Ed asked before she could move out of sight.
The woman cocked her thumb towards a closed door at the far end of the bar, and Edward made his way through the tightly spaced tables toward it. It opened as he reached for the knob, and once again he was nearly steamrolled by his commanding officer.

"Edward. How nice to see you upright. Have you eaten?" The bastard looked genuinely glad to see him, eyes soft and happy. He had never looked at Edward like that in public before.

Ed blushed, and was immediately furious with himself. "Hey Mustang. Yeah, I had lunch. I need to call Al and Winry."

"Ah. I had Sergeant Fuery call Ms. Rockbell yesterday. Your brother is actually on his way here. He left East City about three hours ago."

"Oh. Okay." Ed shoved his hands in his pockets and glanced around the taproom. "So, is the mine operation finished, or should I go down there?"

"You're not going down there," Mustang stated in his end—of—discussion tone of voice. "You're having lunch with me."

"I just told you I already had lunch."

"Oh, come now, Fullmetal. Surely you have room for a bit more dessert?"

Against his better judgment, Edward soon found himself seated at a small table, watching the Brigadier General tuck in to a lunch very similar to the one he had just finished, a second piece of pie he didn't really want in front of him. He wondered why he felt so distinctly uncomfortable. If Mustang started flirting with him he was going to kick the bastard's ass. The older man soon finished his soup, and leaned back with a cup of tea, eyeing his companion's unusually slow progress with the pie. Edward braced for a continuation of the previous night's conversation, but it didn't come.

"I should mention that General Clayton has recommended you for a promotion." Mustang said, and smirked at Edward's eye roll.

"Tell him to shove it. You know a promotion will put me behind a desk somewhere. I'd rather stick needles in my eyes."

"It would only be until your contract runs out. Then you'll resign with a substantially larger severance and benefits package than you are currently entitled to."

"And if I stay in the army I'll eventually get so bored that I snap and level whatever building I am stuck behind a desk in."

Mustang looked at him like he'd grown a second head. "If you stay in the army?"

"I really don't want to talk about this right now. I want to eat my pie in peace." Ed acted as if the pastry in front of him held vastly more appeal than it in fact did.

"Since when has staying in the military become one of the options you've been considering?" Mustang wasn't put off by Edward's noncommittal shrug. "You've been looking forward to getting out since the day you got in."

"Eating," Ed mumbled, taking a large forkful.

"While the Brass would like nothing better than to keep you in the ranks, do you really think it would be in your best interests?"

"I don't think they'd be too upset if I left. Colonel Hughes said I should expect to get pressured to renew my contract, but that hasn't happened."

"That's because I have been putting them off," the older man said, taking a sip of his tea.

"You've been . . . what?" The young alchemist sputtered, fork halfway to his mouth.

"Putting them off. For quite some time."


"Did you really want the high pressure sales pitch to stay in the military? To say that you hate this job with a passion would be a huge understatement."

"Colonel Hughes suggested that maybe I should renew my contract, but push for a different assignment."

"Let me guess. Intelligence." Roy snorted at Ed's nod. "Maes is almost as obsessive about his job as he is about his family."

"Major Hawkeye suggested the military as an option too," Ed said defensively, fork still poised halfway to his chin. "She pointed out that the money's better than an entry level contract in the private sector, and Al's tuition isn't peanuts."

"If anyone ever offers you an entry level contract, be sure to laugh in their face just before you tell them to shove it up their ass," Roy said, smirking. He leaned back and slung an arm over the back of his chair. "And why Alphonse is even paying tuition is beyond me. Tell him to casually mention to one of his professors that he's thinking of switching to McMaster University for his MD. He'll have a full scholarship so fast it will make his head spin. Honestly, Edward. For geniuses, you Elrics certainly have great difficulty seeing the obvious."

"Which is?" Edward asked, testily.

"You and Alphonse are two of the most talented alchemists alive today. And you're just getting started. People would kill to have you attached to their agenda. Right now the military is using you at bargain basement prices, and would like that trend to continue. I have convinced them that using high pressure tactics on someone with your volatile disposition would likely result not only in your leaving the military, but cutting all ties with us as well. The last thing the Brass wants is for the People's Alchemist to appear to lose faith in them. "

"Like I ever had any in the first place," the young alchemist muttered quietly.

Mustang frowned slightly. "You weren't seriously thinking about renewing your contract, were you Edward?"

"Yes. No. Maybe. I don't know. I don't really have any idea what the hell I'm going to do anymore." Edward dropped his fork, never really interested in finishing his pie. "I can do anything I want, but I don't know what I want to do. It's a crazy feeling." Ed smiled wryly. "Maybe I'll travel for a while. I've heard some interesting shit about Xingese alchemy , but there aren't a lot of reference materials available. I might head east and see for myself. Al's doing really well in Central with Winry. The Hughes are keeping an eye on both of them. The last thing Al needs is his big brother hanging around, getting in the way."

"Alphonse wouldn't see it that way. I have no doubt that he and Winry can hardly wait for you to get out of the military and settle down with them in Central."

"Yeah, and I guess I could do that for a little while. But it's the same problem I'd have doing a desk job. After a while, I'd be so bored I'd go completely insane." Ed frowned. "And no cracks, Mustang," he added as the older man's smirk widened. "I feel like I'm missing something important. When I try to think about doing what I want to do, I draw a blank. Does it all really boil down to that simple choice? Who's dog I want to be: the military's, or someone else's?"

"Why do you have to be anyone's dog? Work for yourself. You have so many options. Alchemical contractor. Freelance consultant. You could take on projects you actually want to do, public and private, and charge what your time is really worth. You'll have a line up outside your door the minute you hang out a shingle, whatever you decide to do. It likely wouldn't be long before you had to take on an apprentice to keep up with the jobs, and you'd have people lining up for that position as well. Let's face it Edward. You've always been a lousy subordinate, questioning every order, refusing to follow the ones you don't agree with, headstrong, argumentative, disrespectful. I think you'd be much happier with no boss at all."

And that was one of the reasons why Ed loved the bastard, really. And why it was going to be so hard for the younger man to stick to his resolve and reject Mustang's pitch for reconciliation. Yes, he could bullshit like there was no tomorrow, but he also had a marvelous talent for sweeping it aside. With a few simple words the older man had opened the door on a brand new range of very attractive options.

The older man misjudged his subordinate's considering gaze. "Relax. There's no rush to make the big decisions right now. You really just need to sit down and talk it out with someone you trust."

Edward looked at the older man thoughtfully. "I guess I just did."