Paper in Fire

chapter 29.

When the train pulled into Youswell Station, Edward was waiting on the platform grinning from ear to ear. Alphonse was off the train well before it had come to a full stop, rushing to pull his brother into a bone crushing hug which Edward was only too happy to return. Maes Hughes sauntered up and put his and Alphonse' suitcases down. Hands in his pockets, he rocked back on his heels, waiting for the Elric hugfest to end. It took a while.

"I'm so happy you're okay brother!" Al managed finally to break free, eyes sparkling suspiciously. "We were so worried!"

"I'm fine Al," Ed grinned. "I'm always fine. Hey, Colonel Hughes. Thanks for looking out for my little brother."

"My pleasure Edward," the Colonel found the young men's grins highly contagious. "I needed a break from the office anyway."

Ed collected up the suitcases and the trio walked off the platform, headed for the grouping of military tents at the opposite end of the main street. The late afternoon sun made their shadows very long.

"Mustang should be in the command tent if you want to check in with him, Colonel," Ed said as they walked.

"I want to head over to the Inn and phone Gracia first," the Colonel returned. "Do you want me to have her call Winry, Alphonse? Or do you want to do that yourself?"

"I'll do it Mr. Hughes," Alphonse said. "She'll want to talk to brother, too."

"I talked to her yesterday," Ed groused. "She had me catalogue every new scratch and dent on the automail, and threatened to kick my ass for not looking after it. I really don't need a replay of that."

The Inn was quiet at that time of day. The miners were either working the mine, or home with their families, depending on their shift, and the soldiers were wrapping up their operation in Youswell. Everyone was looking forward to things getting back to normal.

Ed led the way to the communications room at the back of the bar, where they found Kain Fuery, Heymans Breda, and Roy Mustang. Alphonse exchanged warm greetings with Fuery and Breda, a curt hello with Mustang, then hurried to the phone to make his call. Colonel Hughes stood by, waiting patiently for his turn, all five bystanders pointedly not listening to Al's side of the phone conversation. They exchanged pleasantries with the newly arrived Colonel, inquiring after the trip out from Central while they waited.

Alphonse impatiently drummed his fingers on the desk as he waited for his call to weave through the maze of phone lines, making its way to Central. The clicks and buzzes finally gave way to the sound of Rockbell Automail's line ringing. It only had a chance to do so once.

"Al?" Winry's breathless voice was music to his ears.

"That's not a very professional greeting, Winry," he admonished her.

"Are you in Youswell? Was the trip out okay? Have you seen Ed? Is he really fine like he says? Is the automail in one piece?" the young mechanic rushed out in one breath.

"Yes, yes, yes, yes, and yes," Al couldn't have kept the smile off his face if he tried. "I'll put him on in a minute."

"He called me yesterday," the scowl was very evident in the girl's voice. "Got all grumpy when I asked him about the automail. I really don't need a replay of that."

"Oh, that's okay Win, I just wanted to let you know we got here and everything is fine. I was kind of hoping you could have a little talk with him though," Al said, voice low. "On the trip out, Mr. Hughes mentioned that Ed might be getting back together with Mustang. But don't worry, I'll handle it. And I'll tell brother you said 'hi'. " The younger Elric was having second thoughts about staying neutral regarding Edward's love life, and reasoned that his own noninterference didn't technically include Winry.

"What!" the young man had to pull the phone away from his ear at her outraged cry. "That idiot! Is he a glutton for punishment of something? Hasn't that creep given him enough grief? I changed my mind! Hand that damn fool brother of yours the phone right now!"

"Winry wants to talk to you brother," Al called out, and passed the handset over to his reluctant older sibling with a grin.

"Hey Win," Ed said as Alphonse prudently moved out of reach. "I can't talk long. Colonel Hughes wants to call Mrs. Hughes, so . . ." The half smile on Edward's face dropped into a grimace as he cringed, and after a moment he shot a glare of pure venom at his little brother who stood looking on, all innocence.

Al strolled over to the other men and inquired after their health and wellbeing as he waited for Edward to be off the phone. He didn't have long to wait. Edward was acting as if the handset was dynamite and his ear was a flame. The elder Elric finally ended the call and settled his narrowed eyes on his conniving little brother.

Ed passed the phone to an eager Colonel Hughes, and before too long everyone had to leave the communications office. When the Colonel was missing his girls, the incessant gushing could quickly rise to an unbearable level. The two Elrics slipped out of the Inn at Edward's urging, and the pair wandered down to the far end of the main street, finding a private place to sit on the edge of the boardwalk.

"So, Winry's got this weird idea that I'm not breaking up with Mustang," Edward said brightly with a big, shit eating grin and a deadly sparkle in his eyes. "I would certainly like to know who put that bug up her ass. Got any ideas about that Al?"

"That was the impression I got from Colonel Hughes, brother, and I knew Winry would be interested. You didn't want me to hide that from her, did you?" Al asked innocently.

"Well he got it wrong, and so did you," Ed said with a scowl. "There's nothing to hide. Don't do stuff like that, Al. Win's already pissed off at me often enough for shit I actually do. She doesn't need any more reasons to crawl up my ass."

"So it's not true then?" Al asked hopefully. "Mustang is not trying to talk you out of leaving? Or he is, but you're not buying it?" Edward looked uncomfortable, and Alphonse felt his hopes evaporate. "Brother?"

"He said he loves me, Al," Ed said very quietly. "He said he wants to start over, but this time for real."

"And you said no?"

"I didn't say anything yet."

"Why not? You aren't seriously considering this are you?"

"I don't know. Maybe. It's just . . . not easy to say no when I want to say yes." Ed took in his brother's concerned expression. "Don't worry Al. I know I can't really have this. I'm going to tell him I'm not interested tonight, after lights out."

The younger boy was flailing on the inside. "Okay, just to clarify, you should say no because you don't believe him, but you want to say yes because . . . ?"

"I should say no because it would be bad for his career, but I want to say yes because . . . I believe him, and . . . and . . ."

"You still love him," Al finished, resignedly. Shit, he knew it. Alphonse couldn't stand it any longer. Screw this noninterference crap! Al snapped. "Ed you idiot! This is what you hoped for the whole time you were with him! You don't mean to tell me that you plan to just drop it when this might be your chance to have it all!"

Edward started at his brother's unexpected outburst, but quickly recovered. "I've fucked up too many people's lives as it is! I'm not fucking up anybody else's!"

"Don't be stupid! That was his old excuse, and from the sound of it, even he doesn't believe it anymore! How can you fuck up his life?"

"I'm his subordinate! I'm a lot younger than him! He wants to take over the fucking world, and he can't do it if he comes off looking like a pervert!"

"He is a pervert! So what? Everybody already knows it! He's done more screwing around than any ten normal people!" Edward's jaw dropped and he made a strangled sort of noise, but Alphonse was on a rant, and wouldn't be deterred. "He still gets promoted! He's still on the A list for every social and political function you could name, and plenty you couldn't! People are going to cry when you take him off the market, brother!" Alphonse scrubbed his hands over his face and groaned. "I can't believe I'm encouraging this." And he really couldn't. But he just couldn't bear to see his brother resigned to doing without something else he wanted. It wasn't fair, damn it!

Edward just stared, mouth gaping.

"You are your own worst enemy, brother," Alphonse said as he reeled his older sibling in for a one armed hug around the shoulders, butting their heads together. "You're always putting yourself last. Fuck the moral high ground. I think it's about time you did something that makes you happy for a change." And if Mustang screwed this up, he was deader than dog shit.

". . . Fuck the moral high ground?" Ed finally managed to choke out. "What the hell are they teaching you at that University Al? Who would have guessed those fucking eggheads could have such a colorful impact on your vocabulary?"

Alphonse slapped his brother across the back of his head, earning an irritated growl. "Come on, brother. Let's go back to the Inn. I'm hungry, and my ass hurts."

After getting off the phone with is lovely wife and perfect daughter, Maes went in search of his friend. Roy had been in the communications room at the start of the call, but he'd left, along with everyone else, during the call. Maes knew he sometimes went overboard talking to his girls, but so what? He'd like to see anyone else try and maintain a cool fašade while exposed to the unrelenting cuteness of his daughter. Pictures didn't lie, and he had plenty on him to prove it.

Mustang hadn't gone far. He was waiting in the taproom, grinning. Maes walked up and clapped a hand on his friend's shoulder. "So, details Roy. Details. What the hell happened, and how come I didn't hear about it before hand?"

"I was wondering the same thing. I thought you had your nose in everybody's business."

Maes grimaced. "Disturbing mental picture there, Roy. I guess this is one pile of 'business' that managed to slip under the radar. Tell me what you know. I want to interview Kain, Ed, the townspeople, and your prisoners. Hell, I'll even question the local wildlife if it helps me figure out how we missed something this big."

The Brigadier General acquainted his friend with everything he knew, punctuated with everything he also suspected, while the pair walked casually through Youswell. They spotted Edward and Alphonse sitting on the boardwalk near the train station, deep in conversation, but Roy turned aside before the two young men could catch sight of them. Maes was amused.

"Have you had a chance to talk to him?" Maes said quietly.

"Yes, as a matter of fact," Roy said.

Maes waited. And waited. "And?" he finally prompted.

"Why did you suggest that he renew his contract?"

Maes' eyebrows shot up to his hairline at his friend's irritated tone. "It's a viable option for him, particularly if he gets out of Investigations."

"It's not. He's not cut out for a career in the military, even in peaceful times," Roy said, clearly annoyed. "When an assignment takes a bad turn, he beats himself up about things that he has no control over, particularly if someone gets hurt, and even if that someone is the enemy. Take what happened here. As an experienced field operative, he must have realized that his best course of action would be to leave the mine with the other prisoners and collapse it from the outside, eliminating the potential threat of both weapons and enemy soldiers at once. Instead he put himself in danger in a futile effort to avoid taking lives. Can you imagine him as a human weapon on the battlefield? If he survived the war, he wouldn't survive the aftermath." The Brigadier General turned a no nonsense gaze on the Colonel. "Do him the favor of not suggesting it again."

"True, he doesn't have the killer instinct, which is why Investigations is not his ideal placement," Maes said, defending his position. "I still think he'd be great in Intelligence though, and I think he'd like the work. As my subordinate I could keep him out of trouble. My assignment to that division is what kept me away from the front during the Rebellion, if you'll remember."

"You aren't a State Alchemist."

"Alright. Point taken. I won't mention it again," Maes conceded.

"Thank you."

"And since the two of you seem to be on speaking terms now, I take it you have confessed your feelings, and he has decided to give you another chance?"

"I'm working on it," Roy gritted his teeth. "I did too good a job convincing him that we should keep it quiet for the good of my career, and it's come back to bite me in the nuts."

"Payback's a bitch, huh?" Maes smirked.

"You don't have to enjoy my distress quite so much." The Flame cast a disgruntled sideward glance at his companion.

"I've been waiting a long time for this. Do me the small courtesy of indulging my enjoyment of every angst filled moment." Maes took in his friend's unease. "Don't worry Roy. Just keep talking to him. You can convince him. Believe me, he wants to be convinced."

Roy ran a hand through his hair, a gesture that Maes recognized as an indication of his friend's apprehension. "My main concern right now is Alphonse," Roy said quietly. "He has never approved of our relationship, and he is bound to advise Edward against this."

"Actually, on the way here I persuaded Alphonse not to interfere."

Roy's brows rose in surprise. "Really? That's a relief. How did you manage to pull that off?"

"It was the combined effect of my superior skills as a negotiator and my natural charm, with a subtle hint of emotional blackmail thrown in for good measure."

"Good man. I'm proud of you," Roy murmured.

Maes strolled along side his old friend, thinking about the conversation he'd had with Alphonse on the train. He hoped the youngster could hold up his end of the bargain and refrain from trying to sabotage Roy's campaign against Edward's reticence. All the younger Elric had to do was stay neutral. If Al raised no objection to Ed's relationship with Roy, it would go a long way towards their getting back together. And if the opposite were true, it would be very difficult for Roy to convince Ed otherwise.

Edward might be a military dog, but Alphonse' happiness had always been Ed's real master.

It was late that evening when Roy went in to the command tent to check on the duty schedule and put some time in on paperwork. His team was leaving Youswell early the next morning, much to everyone's relief, and the Brigadier General wanted to make sure the case file was complete and well organized. This operation was earning him his promotion after all, and he wanted it wrapped up as neatly as possible. He was surprised to discover Edward sitting in the tent alone.

"Fullmetal? Where is your brother? You didn't have an argument, did you?" And I wasn't the cause of it, was I?

"We're not three years old," Ed said testily. "And we're not joined at the hip. Al's sleeping. It's a rough trip, Central to Youswell nonstop."

Mustang nodded, and then decided to continue to go about his business. He got the feeling that Ed wanted to talk, but he would let the younger man do it at this own pace.

"Al and I did have a talk earlier," Ed finally said, eyes fixed on the toes of his boots. "I told him what you said, you know, about . . . starting over, and . . ."

"That I love you? I'll say it as many times as it takes to convince you Edward."

"You don't have to convince me. I believe you. Do you want to know what Al said?"

"To be honest, I'm afraid to ask."

"He called me an idiot. Said I was my own worst enemy."

"For believing me?"

"For not just going for this, like I really want to."

Roy waited, daring to hope.

"I'm . . . scared I guess," Edward said, finally meeting Roy's eyes. "I meant what I said before, about not wanting to be the reason you can't reach your goals. I'm scared I'll fuck up your life, because, you know, I'm the king of fucking things up."

Roy quirked a wry grin. "With all due respect, your Highness, I have a fair amount of expertise in that department myself. Just look at what my rules have accomplished. I'm prepared to learn from my mistakes however. If it makes this more acceptable to you, keep in mind that you won't be my subordinate for much longer. If you want to be discrete about us while you are, that's fine. I don't mind either way. I just want you back."

Edward frowned. "You don't have to apologize for the rules. You had good reasons for making them. I'm kind of nervous now because I'm still not sure I can have this." Amber eyes searched onyx. "You've had so many lovers. You can have anyone you want. I wonder if you might get bored after a while, and then I'd be right back where all this started, in line waiting for my turn to be close to you. That's not good enough for me anymore."

Roy's heart raced. This was it. No games. He had to lay everything on the line. "I've had many physical relationships, yes. But will you believe me when I tell you that you are actually the first lover that I have ever had? With everyone else I was perfecting the mechanics of sex. With you, I was making love. I realized that when I realized how much I missed you. All the people I have been with over the years, and that has never happened before. They were there for a while, and then they weren't, and I have never missed the presence of a single one, because they were only physical presences. We gave nothing of ourselves. But it's different with you. You gave me everything of yourself. It's a level of intimacy that I have never known before, and have come to crave. No one else has ever come close to inspiring the intensity of feeling you inspire in me. How could I possibly get bored?

Edward kept his silence, thinking this over, and Roy decided to voice a concern of his own. "I've considered how this could work the other way as well. You have only ever had one lover. I've wonder if, at some point, you might become bored too, or perhaps curious about what it would be like with someone else. It's a risk, but one I'm willing to take, because I know I can trust you. Let me prove that you can trust me too."

"I want to trust you," Ed said, eyes still searching Roy's face. "But I'm serious Roy. I want you, but not if it means being taken for granted. I love you, but I still have my pride. I've rolled with the punches for long enough, and I won't anymore. It would be painful for me to walk away from you now, but it would hurt me a lot more not to, if you're just playing some new game. "

Edward had never been one to keep his emotional state from his face. Roy read his feelings there now as always. Sincerity, of course. Determination, as always. And so hopeful. The young man was facing this with the same strength he depended on to face all the trials in his life, unflinchingly.

Roy kept his gaze steady, and offered a small smile. "Considering the way I have treated you, I realize that this must seem like a risky proposition, and all my reassurances are really just so much smoke. The only way I can prove myself to you will be if you decided to give me this second chance. I think what we could have together would be well worth the risk. I love you. I don't want to be without you. You took a chance with me once, when I offered next to nothing. This time I'm offering everything."

Ed frowned. "I feel strange, hearing you say these things that I always hoped to hear, but never thought I would. I want to accept what you are offering. I want to see where this could go."

"So do I Edward. You have no idea how much. Please give us a chance."

"Alright." The teen said, eyes flashing golden fire. "Maybe I'm being selfish, but I really want this. Want you. Let's find out if we can be good together, for real."

Roy' heart leaped, and he crossed the space between them to fold the boy into his arms, familiar strong arms encircling him in return. Edward lay his head against Roy's shoulder, looked up, and the older man lost himself in clear amber eclipsed by widening pupils. "He loves me, too," he thought, marveling at the idea. Roy lifted one hand to cup Edward's cheek, tilting his lover's face gently up, brushing his lips lightly against the other's, asking permission. Hot breath through parted lips granted it, and Roy's tongue dipped in to taste. Edward responded in kind, as the two melded together in each other's arms. They reluctantly ended the kiss before it could become more heated, mindful of the public setting they were in, but did not pull away from their embrace.

"I promise you won't regret this," Roy leaned in to whispered, and grinned at Edward's shiver and relieved sigh.

Roy knew it probably wasn't going to be easy, but this was their new start, and this time he wasn't going to screw up. In his arrogance he'd been close to foolishly throwing away what he had always wanted and thought he would never have, simply because he hadn't recognized what it was. After Maes he'd given up, never expecting to find someone to love like that again, and he hadn't. This time it was better. This time he wouldn't have to hide his feelings from the one he loved. This time he would be loved the same way in return. Roy was damned lucky and he knew it, so he was going to do whatever it took to make sure Edward knew he was appreciated.

Jean Havoc stepped out of the tent he shared with Heymans Breda and lit up a smoke. He cast his eyes along the main street, wondering where his bunk mate had disappeared to. The portly redhead had gone to the mess tent in search of a midnight snack, but that had been nearly an hour ago, and he should have long since returned. The tall blond finally spotted his colleague up the road, standing about twenty five feet in front of the command tent, hands in pockets, looking smug. Curiosity urged Jean to join him.

As he neared his friend, Breda motioned for him to be quiet, waving him in close.

"What's up?" Jean asked quietly.

"Ed and Mustang," Heymans whispered with a smirk, bobbing his head toward the command tent. "Sounds like they're settling their differences. It appears our esteemed commander has finally got his head out of his ass."

"Really?" The Blond smiled and took a long drag on his cigarette. "About time. Damn. Guess I owe Kain twenty cens. Never thought that bet would pay off for him. Odds were too long."

"You and me both, though this is one bet I'm happy to lose."

"So what are you doing, standing way over here? You can't be eavesdropping; you're too far away to hear anything."

"Just making sure they aren't interrupted. Discretion and all that shit, you know."

"Why Heymans. I do believe you are a closet romantic," Jean smirked.

"Fuck off," the redhead casually advised his friend. "And don't spread it around."

"Like anyone would believe me anyway." Jean muttered as he crushed out his smoke.