Al wishes he were a little clearer on how all this started. Maybe then he could backtrack and put a stop to it, because it's making him nervous.

It went something like this. The General, in his chilly, straightfaced way, made some sort of comment about Ed's "stature." When Ed got done screeching something about pipsqueaks and ants and getting lost in the carpet, which the General did not say but that's never stopped Ed before, they… well, that's the part Al's a bit unclear on, but now here they are, in front of the fire, the one clearly-lit thing in a room full of shadows, doing things Al thinks they probably shouldn't be doing because Ed feels like he has something to prove.

A droplet of sweat slides down from under Ed's plait, tracks down his neck, and disappears under the automail bolted to his shoulder.

"Er," Al starts to say, but a sharp look from Hawkeye stops him. She's standing behind the General's chair, arms folded, with a look on her face that suggests that she's thinking many things about men and none of them are flattering.

Not that Ed and the General would have heard him anyway. They're too busy throwing something invisible against each other, elbows planted on the small table between them, hands clasped and straining against each other with every ounce of strength in their bodies. Ed's lower lip is clamped hard between his teeth, a look of bloody-minded determination on his face that Al is more used to seeing in the middle of battle; General Mustang, who is often quiet but rarely at rest, is struggling to keep his face impassive and hide something fierce and dangerous that shows in his dark eyes anyway. A few years ago this would have been no contest, but Ed is all lean, wiry muscle now, even if he's not much taller, and neither of them has gained the advantage for long.

The air around them is crackling. Ed's right arm ripples and shudders, trying to transform, blade edges surfacing from the metal and melting back in. Al can't see the glove on the General's right hand, but the air shimmers as if it were thick and heavy with oxygen, and the fire roars like a chimera.

The quick rasp of Ed's breath gives a split-second's warning before his arm starts to lean precariously, hand forced slowly and surely to the side and downward, shaking and fighting for every inch. The tendons in his arm cast harsh shadow-slices onto his skin, shifting as his hand falls, shifting again as he slowly begins to push the General's hand back up. Al's seen men arm-wrestle before, and sometimes they lock their free hands together too, on the table between their elbows. He's glad that Ed and the General haven't done that, haven't closed that circle, because he finally has his own body back and he doesn't want it ruined, and Hawkeye has even less protection than Al does from whatever explosive alchemic reaction would result. For a moment Al ponders the problem, tilting his head and envisioning the consequences of the alteration to the half-formed Array that would result if Ed shifted his legs just so; one thought follows another, and Al wonders uneasily if he should move Hawkeye out of the way just in case the General's braced thighs should happen to accidentally close around Ed's knee, or Ed's around the General's.

Then there's another droplet of sweat, sliding out from between their clasped hands, tracking down Ed's wrist to forearm to elbow and leaving a trail behind it that glitters in the firelight, and the array in Al's head shivers and disintegrates like shattering ice.

He can hear their strained breathing but that's all, and he's never liked the General's silence and he likes Ed's even less. This is such a stupid contest, such a stupid, trivial thing, such a ridiculous moment to pull four people into and imprison them there as if something incredibly important was riding on whose hand would be underneath whose when they finally crashed to the table, and Al thinks that if Hawkeye weren't here he might say something, do something, to get them to stop. But she is, and when one has been superstitiously terrified of a woman since one was eleven years old it's hard to make a decisive move in her presence, so Al only watches, chewing his lip.

The General is bending Ed's arm back again, slowly but surely, and the fury in Ed's face is an unspoken promise that Al will be hearing about every one of the General's faults at great length and in excruciating detail for weeks to come.

Ed rallies and pushes back, gaining just a little ground, holding it, losing it again. He's tiring now, they both are, which means they should stop and just call it a draw, and maybe Black Hayate will also stop chewing up Havoc's pens while Al's wishing for the improbable. They're shaking now, both of them, bodies taut with effort and strain. It's too hot in this room, and Al can't breathe very well.

When the General's hand slams Ed's down onto the table, even Hawkeye sucks in a sharp breath, and Al nearly jumps out of his skin.

For a long moment there's silence. Then Ed says, voice unsteady and hoarse: "It doesn't prove anything, you bastard."

The General doesn't move, only watches him. "Then what would it have proved if you'd won?" he asks reasonably.

Al winces—if there's one thing Ed hates when he's in a temper, it's cold logic. Ed yanks his hand away and shoves back away from the table, stalking toward the door. It's going to be one of those nights, Al thinks, when he wishes his brother were a kitten so that Al could soothe him with a nice scratch behind the ears. "Am I dismissed, sir?" he tosses back over his shoulder, scaldingly sarcastic.

"Fullmetal," the General says.

Ed pauses, and for a moment Al doesn't think he's going to turn around; that this has finally made something snap, that Ed was willing to be a dog of the military only as long as Roy Mustang never actually, unequivocally beat him at anything. Then he turns back, and Al thinks he sees relief in the line of Hawkeye's posture as well. Ed and the General watch each other in the firelight as if there were something in the air between them that either one of them could break with a word; as if they can't quite figure out if they want it to break or not. The silence stretches until Al becomes afraid of what will happen if someone speaks.

"We should go, brother. It's late," Al says, because whatever is in the air is fragile and newborn, because he doesn't want either of them to decide tonight.