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Paper in Fire

chapter 28.

Four straight days of train travel, with only a brief stop in East City, was extremely hard on the ass, Maes Hughes was discovering. He made a mental note to add more comfortable train seats to Roy's list of eventual campaign promises. Given the amount of rail travel the people of Amestris did, he could probably pull off a landslide victory in any election based on that alone. Glancing at the youth seated opposite him, Maes noted that Alphonse was either unaffected by the hardness of the bench, or too preoccupied to notice it. The boy had been brooding since they had left East City. Maes had expected relief and high spirits after Edward's well being had been confirmed, as had initially been the case, but that had soon faded away leaving Alphonse in this serious mood. Maes wondered what was going on in the young man's head.

Roy's quick phone call informing him that Alphonse was ready to jump on a train east had sent Maes scrambling for Central Station to tell the young alchemist that Kain had contacted Headquarters from Youswell. When the boy had been resolute about going east anyway, Maes' only alternative was to accompany the youngster himself. There was no way he'd have let the eleven year old head out on his own, genius alchemist or not. As it was, he'd barely managed to convince Alphonse to take a later train so the older man could let his wife know what was up. Maes left it to his lovely Gracia to take care of informing the military of his whereabouts, and trusted that she would come up with a suitable cover story if necessary. He hadn't married her just for her amazing good looks after all. They made a very efficient team.

Getting more details about the preempted coup during their brief stop in East City and confirmation that both Edward and Kain were safe and sound still hadn't stopped Alphonse from wanting to continue on to Youswell. They were already half way there after all, and Al claimed that he wanted to see for himself that Edward was alright. Not that the Colonel had tried to discourage him. The older man had every intention of continuing east himself. He wanted to question the rebels personally, amazed that he hadn't heard even a hint about their activities right up until their exposure. He also wanted to get first hand details about the situation from Mustang, amusingly enough. Usually the information flowed the other way.

"You're awfully quiet, Al," Maes said, unable to curb his curiosity about the boy's pensive mood any longer. "Is something wrong?"

Al shook his head, eyes still watching the passing countryside. "I was just thinking about equivalent exchange, and how I haven't been paying the toll."

"How so?"

The boy shrugged. "I don't know. It's just . . . something that's been bothering me for a while."

"It might help to talk about it. Get it off your chest. I have a feeling this is something you can't talk about with your brother."

"Your right. I can't. He doesn't understand."

Al glanced up at his companion and sighed.

"I let Brother and Teacher use the Stone to get my natural body back. I argued with them, but they convinced me that a dual purpose transmutation was too risky, given that the Stone was also my soul's container. As a result, I was returned to my body, but Brother is still stuck with the automail," Al's eyes turned back to the world passing by the window. "After all we both went through, that wasn't equivalent."

"I think Edward would disagree," Maes said softly.

Alphonse continued as if the other had not spoken. "I have a normal life now. I'm doing what I want to do. Granted that part of what I want to do is find a way to get brother his arm and leg back, but I'm getting to do things that I enjoy. It's my choice. I get to live with Winry, and go to school, and have friends. Brother is stuck in his military contract, doing a job he hates. I have nightmares that a war will break out and he'll be sent to the front. Or that he'll get killed while out on an assignment."

Maes wondered how he could reassure the boy when the concerns he voiced were his and Gracia's as well. If Alphonse thought he and Winry were the only ones worried about his older brother, he was very much mistaken. Was it an Elric trait to be blind to the lives they had touched, to be unable to see how other people cared about their wellbeing? The Colonel clasped his hands in his lap, and wished there was something he could say to lessen Alphonse' disquiet.

"Ed's contract with the military has just about run out," he said, because it was what they all looked forward to. "That means he'll be his own man soon too. "

"He's all alone, Mr. Hughes," Alphonse finally looked at him, hazel eyes solemn. "I have Winry, and you, and Mrs. Hughes and Elicia. People who care about me, who are right there whenever I need them. I have people at the University that I can talk to about my research, or just hang around with. Friends. Brother is stuck way out in East City, far away from everyone who cares about him."

"There are people who care about your brother in East City, too." Maes reminded his young companion. "Havoc, Breda, and Fuery for example. And Roy. He has friends. He's not as alone as you may think, Alphonse."

"Would we be sitting on this train right now if that were true?" The youngster shook his head. "I think not. Who's looking out for him? He goes out on assignments for weeks at a time. All by himself. No one's there for him if he needs help. And that's my fault more than anyone else's." Al paused and turned shamed eyes on Maes. "We used to be a team, " he said, deep regret in his tone.

"Edward goes out on assignments alone because that's his preference. Roy tried to send him out with other field operatives a few times, but the people he was teamed up with had a tendency to patronize him because of his age, and you know he has no patience for that kind of treatment." The older man pushed his glasses up along his nose, holding back a sigh. "He doesn't have your talent for giving people the benefit of the doubt, allowing time to teach them that your age has nothing to do with your ability."

"I feel guilty. That's the problem," Al said, finally getting to the root of his dilemma. "I'm where I am today because of what he sacrificed. And he's still sacrificing. When I heard that he'd gone missing, the thing that surprised me the most was that I wasn't surprised. I realized that I've been expecting something like this to happen ever since I started living with Winry and left him on his own. I was selfish to let him convince me to stay in Central while he worked out the rest of his contract, but the truth is I was tired. I wanted to stop, and I let myself believe Ed would be better off not having to worry about me."

"You and your brother went to a lot of trouble to see to it that you got your life back, and I think Edward would take it as a personal insult if you didn't take full advantage of it," Maes leaned in to lock eyes with his young companion. "He loves you, and he's so proud of you. If anything happened to you, it would literally kill him. It is for the best that he knows you're safe. You were virtually invincible in the armour, but now . . . On assignments he'd be so intent on protecting you that he could very well end up injured himself."

"Yes, that was his argument. So he ends up doing this all on his own."

"Not exactly. Just because he doesn't ask for help doesn't mean it's not there for him." Maes leaned back, shifting on the uncomfortable seat. "It's only for a little while longer Alphonse. He'll be finished roaming the country and safely back in Central where you and Winry can keep an eye on him in no time."

"I don't think it will ever be that simple. I know my brother, and he knows how I feel about Winry. No matter how often we tell him our home is his home too, he thinks he's in our way somehow. He'll go off on his own eventually. I don't want him to be lonely."

"He won't be, Alphonse," the Colonel said gently. "You and Winry aren't the only ones who care about him."

"I know you're including yourself and Mrs. Hughes when you say that, but I get the feeling that you're counting Roy Mustang in as well. Please don't," Al glared at his older companion, who raised an eyebrow. "If he really cared about brother, he'd let him go so he could find someone to have a real relationship with."

Maes met Alphonse angry glare with a slow smile. "I happen to think that your brother and my friend could have a very good relationship, given half a chance."

Al snorted with disgust. "Your friend wouldn't know a good relationship if it jumped up and bit him on the ass. He's sleeping around with who knows how many other people, just burning up his days with meaningless flirtations. Ed wants to get away from him and find someone to care about who isn't ashamed of him, but Mustang doesn't want to let him go. He told me as much on the phone."

"Doesn't that suggest something Alphonse?" Maes smile never faltered.

"It 'suggests' that your friend was using my brother's feelings to keep him in line," the youngster snapped. "He's been taking advantage of him, and now that brother's coming to his senses, Mustang doesn't want to lose control of him."

"I don't see it that way," Maes said thoughtfully. "While I admit that Roy tends to be a bit manipulative, you have to admit that he always did what he could to help you and Edward in your search for the Stone, even though he was putting himself at risk to do it. He kept your secrets and protected you as best he could under the circumstances. Roy is your friend too, just as much as I am."

Maes continued over another incredulous snort from Alphonse. "Granted that up until now Roy's had a pretty messed up view of personal relationships. I have my suspicions as to why, but I really don't want them confirmed. That's changing though, thanks to Ed. Roy's been closed off emotionally for a very long time. What he's needed all along was someone strong enough to break through his defenses and make it worth the effort to change. Someone to love him even when he's being selfish, but tough enough to not let him get away with it. The closer Roy gets to reaching his goals, the more he's going to need somebody close to remind him of all the reasons why he has those goals in the first place. I think Ed's that someone."

Maes knew it was with great effort that Alphonse kept his tone civil when he replied. "I'm sorry, but Ed's put up with enough. My brother deserves better than to be used when it's convenient and discarded when it's not."

"I'm not suggesting that he doesn't. I am suggesting that Roy and Edward can have what they both deserve. With each other. They just need to work it out."

"I can see how your friend would benefit from being close to my brother, but I don't believe that the reverse is true," Alphonse retorted, crossing his arms.

"I do. Edward needs someone strong too. Someone who can love him for himself, regardless of his past. Someone who can help him accept his mistakes and move on, because I don't believe he has yet. Someone who can make him feel good about himself. His drive just shut down once you were safe. He's drifting along with no clear idea of what he wants to do, as if he didn't expect to survive the experience, and still isn't sure that he has. He needs someone he can trust to help him find the direction he wants his life to take. I think Roy is that someone."

"I don't agree. Mustang doesn't love my brother. He even flat out told Ed that he never would. I realize you want what's best for your friend, but I want what's best for Ed. Mustang has used Edward enough. He should just let him move on." Alphonse' tone was adamant.

"You're wrong about Roy's feelings. He does love Edward. It just took him a while to realize it."

"Well it's too late," the young alchemist's glare was back. "Any feelings Ed may have had for your friend have likely been smothered underneath all the crap he's had to put up with."

"I think you're wrong about that too."

Alphonse hazel eyes narrowed. "Wrong or not, Ed's better off away from Mustang. When they started their relationship I didn't think it was a good idea, but I really didn't think it would last very long so I didn't make an effort to talk Ed out of it. It didn't fizzle out like I expected but brother seemed really happy for a while, so I just let it be. Then when it started to go bad, it was far too late for me to object. I'm not making that mistake this time. Mustang is no good for Ed, and when brother talks to me about this, that's what I'll tell him."

Maes frowned, taking in the set of Alphonse' jaw, the challenge in his eyes, arms crossed defensively. Classic Elric intractability. New tactic. "You and Winry are pretty close, aren't you Alphonse?"

The youngster frowned, wary at the odd turn in the conversation. "Yes. When my body grows up, I'm going to ask her to marry me, and I'm pretty sure she'll say yes."

"How would you feel if Edward told you he thought it would be best if you and Winry weren't together?"

"Don't be ridiculous!" Al barked, causing other passengers in the car to scowl in his direction. The young man lowered his voice. "My relationship with Winry is nothing like what is going on between Ed and Mustang. She would never treat me the way Mustang treats my brother. Winry's been our friend since forever! Ed knows how I feel about her. He'd never try to break us up. There's no reason for him to."

"Just for the sake of argument, suppose he had some objection. How would it make you feel to know that the person you loved was not acceptable to your brother?"

"I understand the point you're trying to make, but this is a lousy example."

"Humor me Alphonse. Hypothetically speaking, knowing he thought it was for your own good, how would you feel if he tried to influence your decision to stay with Winry?"

"Edward would never do that," the boy insisted. "He's always telling me to do what makes me happy, and being with Winry makes me happy."

"That's sound advice. Don't you think Edward deserves to decide for himself what would make him happy?" Maes leaned in again, playing his trump card. "You were just telling me how you wished Ed was free to make his own choices. Are you going to rob him of one of the few decisions he's free to make right now? I have always believed that Roy and Ed would be good for each other. Think about it Alphonse. Each of their strengths is a foil for the other's weakness. Roy often loses himself in his games and needs someone to ground him and keep him honest. Ed is always putting himself last and needs someone to show him how to be a bit more selfish and give himself a break. I believe that they would bring out the best in each other. But it's up to them to decide. We have to give them a chance to figure this out for themselves."

Alphonse glowered, teeth grinding in frustration. "This is absurd."

"I'm not asking you to do anything beyond letting them work this out, without interference."

The young alchemist mulled this over, clearly not pleased with the prospect of passively watching the train wreck that he believed Edward's continued relationship with Mustang would be. Maes kept quiet, letting the boy work it out.

"Alright." Alphonse finally spoke. "I don't like it, but alright. I won't interfere."

"That's all I ask," Maes said, smiling.