Winry was acting strange. Most people would say that was nothing new, but Ed knew better. There was a difference between this new level of distraction and her usual inattention to anything not welded together or in need of an oil change, and he wasn't sure he liked it. For one thing, she never used to fumble her tools like this.
"Oh!" as she juggled a screwdriver and a spanner, both of them clattering to the floor a moment later. She swooped down on them and popped back up with a nervous grin, and then she started babbling at him before he could tease her. "Oops, sorry! Guess I'm a little clumsy today--good thing this isn't a hospital, huh? I mean, you'd hate to have a doctor drop a scalpel and grab it off the...um...maybe I should...I'll be right back!"
She was gone before Ed could get a word in, escaping to the back room to tear through her toolboxes, and he frowned after her as he shifted on the worktable where he sat. Metal grated against metal as his heel scraped the tabletop, and he thought again about transmuting himself a pillow before his ass went completely to sleep. Also, sitting here in his boxers with his shirt off was starting to get chilly.
Glancing over at the towering shape in the corner, he whispered, "Hey, Al...is it just me, or is Winry acting weird?"
Al stammered and coughed, an odd sound coming from the depths of an animated suit of armor, and Ed narrowed his eyes. For a moment there, Al sounded suspiciously like Winry. "Um...you...I mean, she...er...."
Ed scowled, though one of his brows arched helplessly at his brother's display. "What is with you people lately?" he demanded, not really expecting an answer. He hadn't gotten one yet, though he'd taken to asking more often recently. Loudly, and with twice as much arm-waving as the question had ever merited before.
"It's nothing!" Al squeaked, one huge hand lifting to rasp sheepishly over the back of his head. "Really!"
Ed sighed. That was what they all said.
It was strange to be in Winry's workshop and not back in their old village, to see how easily their friend had adapted to life in Central City. She'd been so awed by it all five years ago, staring at the tall buildings and the newest machines like a kid in a candy store. She was casual about life in the city now, confident in her skills and sure of her place. Winry's grandmother was still around, as tough and no-nonsense as ever, though Winry herself dealt more and more with the bulk of their trade. They were easily the best auto-mail technicians in the region, and Ed had no qualms about trusting Winry with his own metal limbs if she said it was time for a tune-up.
Through the open windows, the rumble of a passing convoy truck grew louder and then faded away in a flash of blue, reminding him of the other reason he was here: delaying his report to the Colonel. It was so firmly a tradition, Ed toyed now and then with the idea of marching straight to headquarters the moment he got off the train, just to catch Mustang unprepared.
Next time, he promised himself with a shark's grin, already anticipating the look of shock that would cross those usually-serene features, that split-second when Ed, not the Colonel, would have unquestionable control of the situation. It would have been a wonderful birthday present to himself if he'd only thought of it a few months earlier, but winter had come and gone on yet another mission and he'd forgotten the date entirely.
Definitely next time.
The breeze that fluttered the curtains smelled of spring, cool and still heavy with the morning's dew, summer no more than a hint in the air. It eddied thickly through the room, ruffling papers and diagrams before curling around him where he sat, the sharp, clean smell reminding him of home. Shivering, he reached up with his good hand and clasped his metal shoulder, rubbing at the spot where auto-mail met flesh. It didn't hurt, really, but it often ached until he sometimes thought it'd never go away. Even the Colonel had noticed, hinting broadly that Ed might want to visit Central's newest auto-mail specialists before that hint became an order.
Stupid Colonel. Like he needed an order to look after himself. He wasn't a kid, after all.
"All right! Nurse Winry, back with a new--Ed? Are you all right?"
He blinked and found Winry hovering in the doorway, a gleaming new screwdriver brandished forgotten in one hand as she fixed a concerned look on him. Shaking himself, he grinned and shrugged, letting his hand fall into his lap.
"Of course. You didn't really just sterilize that screwdriver, did you?"
Winry blushed. Again.
"C'mon, Ed--my parents were doctors," she protested, aggrieved. "Do you know what my mother would've said if she caught me using a dirty screwdriver on a human being?"
"To wash your hands while you were at it?"
Wide-eyed, she glanced down at her oil-smeared hands for a long moment before she looked up, glared, and planted them stubbornly on her hips, ignoring the stains they left behind. "You're impossible!"
"You shouldn't tease her so much, brother," Al agreed, his voice shyer than usual.
"I know, I know...never make fun of a girl with a wrench."
"Hmph! I should say not," Winry said with a sniff, but at least she was over her blushing fit. This time when she stalked over to him, she was the same old Winry he'd always known--smart, competent, and grounded.
Watching her poke and prod at his metal arm and leg was morbidly fascinating. He'd been congratulating himself on having a good grasp of how they worked--he'd had five years to get used to them, after all--but Winry just hummed and frowned, making tiny adjustments that made them somehow...better. When he flexed his arm as she bent over his ankle, the fluidity of motion made his brows climb in silent respect.
"How does that feel?" she asked distractedly, mumbling around the handle of a second, smaller screwdriver stuck in her mouth.
"Looser, but not too loose. It's like it has more give, but it feels as strong as before."
"Mm." She rotated his foot, left and then right, watching the shift of his ankle joints as they slid. "We designed your limbs to self-correct for some of the ordinary wear and tear on the gears, but there's always fine-tuning that has to be done by a technician. We even experimented on some new modifications for when you outgrew this set, but you didn't...erm...."
Ed scowled. "Didn't what?"
"Nothing!" Winry squeaked, carefully not looking at anything but the ankle she was tinkering with, and Ed suppressed a sigh. It was always 'nothing.'
And he was always going to be short. Damn it.
"Anyway," Winry added quickly, "let's take a look at your knee."
He was patient with all the fussing as she had him swing his legs over the side of the worktable, straightening his leg out in front of him and bending it again as she switched screwdrivers and poked around some more. Sometimes it hurt, but he was careful never to flinch, not where Al might see. His brother felt guilty enough as it was over Ed's missing limbs, and Ed wasn't about to add to that.
"Got it!" Winry crowed suddenly, flashing a triumphant smile as she dropped to one knee. "Here, just--"
Her hand was warm as she shoved at his thigh, undamaged flesh above the metal--and then she almost dropped her screwdriver again as she snatched her hand away. "Um...hold still," she muttered, long blond hair sweeping forward to curtain her face as she dipped her head quickly to the task, but not so quickly that he missed her blush.
Which soured Ed's mood entirely. Lately people had been acting weird everywhere he went, but he'd hoped Winry at least would be normal around him. It wasn't like he was universally loved or anything, but at least he'd been able to hold an actual conversation with a girl six months ago. Even the guys his age were acting funny, either spoiling for a fight or stammering almost as badly as the girls. It was enough to make anyone paranoid, and he meant to corner Hughes as soon as possible and find out what weird rumors were circulating about him this time.
"There, that should do it!" Winry said lightly, scrambling to her feet and backing off a quick two paces, her cheeks still pink. "You should go easy on yourself for the rest of the day, try the changes out first, but you should be fine. Just come back in immediately if your auto-mail starts to feel uncomfortable in any way!"
"Great," he said, wincing a little at his flat tone of voice. "I mean, thanks."
"Anytime!" Her smile didn't fade, but her determined cheer lost a little of its force.
Al just looked back and forth between them and sighed.
"I don't get it--has everybody lost their minds? I wish we could've found Psiren--if this is what it's like to be famous, she could've told us. Okay, maybe not--she is a masked criminal, after all, so I don't suppose she gets a chance to talk with many of her fans. Damn it. Why don't we know anyone famous?"
Al would've bitten his tongue if he still had one, but he settled for trudging along silently in his brother's wake. He even took back all the unkind thoughts he'd had at the beginning of this mess. Ed wasn't being purposefully oblivious--he was just plain clueless. And Al wasn't about to explain the birds and the bees to his older brother.
"Or maybe it's a plot. Somebody's put something in the water, or maybe it's subliminal messages...and we wouldn't be affected, because we move around so much. Which means there's probably a mission waiting for us the minute I report. Hmph."
He supposed Ed had always been a cute kid, although using that word in Ed's hearing was as good a way to commit suicide as any. It was just that Ed had grown up--even if the 'up' was rather lacking--into a...a...what had that girl in YousWell called him? Oh yes. A knockout. Which on some levels just wasn't fair. Ed was the older one, the genius, the famous National Alchemist--did he have to be the good-looking one too? But this was Ed, after all, so of course his looks were causing him more grief than anyone else's plainness ever could.
"Not that it'll sound like a mission to stop a mind-control plot. Not while Colonel Mustang's giving the orders. 'There's a chicken farm in Dublith I want you to investigate. Please give it your full attention, Edward-kun.' Because of course that's supposed to suggest to me that dastardly works are afoot and that we'll probably be fighting for our lives the minute we step off the train. Chickens are deadly weapons in the right hands, after all."
It was just...hard, seeing Winry blush over Ed like the rest of them. The three of them had always been friends, but he'd always thought Ed liked Winry because she didn't act like a girl, and Winry had always wanted a big brother to boss around. It was a little different between the two of them. Al had never minded that Winry was a girl, and he was the one Winry told her secrets to, even when she and Ed were bickering. He'd even asked her to marry him once, and she'd said yes. Okay, so they were six at the time...but that counted, didn't it?
"Just once, I'd like to get the better of that smirking bastard...just once! If he tries it again, I'll transmute his chair. Only sneaky-like, so he can't prove it's me. Hey, maybe I am learning something from him!"
It didn't matter, though. Ed could...Ed was still normal, after all. A few limbs were nothing, really. Ed was still human--he still had a body, and he could.... What girl wanted a boyfriend who couldn't even kiss her? It seemed strange to him sometimes, that he couldn't remember what it felt like to touch another person but never forgot that he wanted to, fiercely. The only thing that made it bearable was knowing that his brother didn't want Winry back. Admittedly, Ed just hadn't figured it out yet, but....
"Bam, right on his ass! In front of the Fuhrer, maybe.... Wait, is a Colonel allowed to sit in front of the Fuhrer? Maybe I should transmute his uniform instead. Heh. I wonder how our Colonel would look in a dress...."
Ed would, eventually. Probably. And now Al felt bad about hoping he wouldn't, because Ed was so consumed by his search for the Philosopher's Stone it even scared Al sometimes. Not because he ever worried about what Ed might do to get the Stone, but because he was afraid the search itself would become Ed's entire life. Al had the terrible feeling that he could stop Ed right now and tell him point-blank that Winry had a crush on him, and it wouldn't matter.
"Roy Mustang in a dress. Heh-heh."
Love ought to matter. He knew his brother loved him, purely and unconditionally, but there ought to be someone special. Someone who made Ed feel things just by being there, who could distract him from their search and the countless failures. Someone who could be his brother's equal.
Alphonse smiled inwardly at that and looked down to gaze fondly at his brother--and froze, realizing Ed was inexplicably missing. "Brother?" he called, twisting around with a thread of worry spiking in his mind. Maybe something had gone wrong with the auto-mail, or maybe Ed had been attacked--
Or maybe he was bent over in the middle of the street, hands braced on his knees, howling with laughter. Al sighed and went back to collect his mad relation, nodding sheepishly at the people staring at them. As if Ed didn't draw enough attention when he was quiet....
"I shouldn't ask, should I?"
Al sighed again. "I didn't think so."
Oh well. The Colonel could straighten him out. By one means or another, the man always did.
Not that he didn't like to see Edward in a good mood, but a snickering Edward was often a good reason to send his staff home early for the day. Chances were they'd need it.
So he watched very closely, if covertly, as Ed made the rounds, saying hello to Hawkeye--who had his old office and post but who graciously came to visit when time allowed--and nodding to Bruder and Farman, eyeing Havoc suspiciously and cornering Huey to ask in a roundabout fashion where Hughes might be found. Ignoring Al, who was playing with the dog Roy himself ignored and therefore allowed. Business as usual.
So he wasn't too worried as he signed off on the last of the emergency requests Huey had readied for him and stood to return to his office. It was understood that Ed would slouch in on his own if Roy didn't make an issue of his presence, though Roy occasionally did it anyway to keep the chain of command clear in both their minds.
And so it was quite a surprise when Ed patted Huey on the shoulder in thanks and turned immediately to face him with a wide and wicked grin. "Excuse me, but do you have time to hear my report, Colonel?"
If there was such a place as Hell, then all the alchemists that must surely reside there had just transmuted it into a solid block of ice.
"Of course, Edward-kun. Step into my office."
This promised to be an interesting encounter, at least. As if they were ever anything but.
Ed was the very model of the polite subordinate as he jerked an exact bow before Roy's desk and slid a sheaf of papers across...but the wicked gleam never left his eyes, and for some reason, he seemed to be staring at Roy's chest. Odd. He should probably make sure none of his insignias had been transmuted into anything inappropriate before he left his office again, just in case.
Ed's eyes narrowed suddenly, pausing as Roy reached for the report--and yes, a slight smirk at the thought of revenge must have escaped after all, because the mischief in Ed's stare went suddenly cagey.
Which made him smirk all the more. If Edward thought he had what it took....
"Please, have a seat," he invited suddenly, and Ed jumped a fraction before stalking over to the couch and flopping gracelessly down. The younger man arranged himself in his usual sprawl in seconds, legs crossed with one foot kicking air, one arm draped over the couch back with the other fist propping up his chin, the picture of bored insouciance. While Ed wasn't looking, Roy's smirk morphed briefly into an honest grin, but he had his detached commander's face back on before Ed's glare slid his way again.
"Hmm." He flipped through pages and made a pretense of reading them, though he'd already heard about most of the brothers' exploits weeks ago. He could simply say so, ask the few questions that needed asking and file the mission away as a success, but it was far more entertaining to watch Ed squirm from over the top of a grudgingly-completed report. For someone who could spend hours all but motionless in the National Library's notoriously uncomfortable chairs, Ed had remarkably little patience for cozy offices and leather couches.
"I see," he murmured after a long pause and turned another page. Ed shifted again, now playing with his braid, drumming the fingers of his outstretched arm.
There was something about the twitchings of a small animal that made it absolutely irresistible to a cat.
"So. I see you left the city standing, at least. This time."
"We shored it back up," Ed protested through gritted teeth, determinedly not looking his way.
"Ah, yes. The heroes of Aquroya. It's a pity Psiren wasn't there to congratulate you, but I believe she's moved on to South City these days."
Ah, and there was one of his favorite expressions as Ed's head came up and whipped towards him, chagrined disbelief branded across his face before it went sullen again. Ed never bothered asking how Roy kept track of their movements, though he did occasionally ask why send them at all if Roy had so many spies already in place. Once Ed figured it out for himself--or, more likely, admitted to himself what he already knew--Roy might possibly find it in him to be a bit more forthcoming.
Possibly. But only if Ed stopped fidgeting in such an amusing fashion when teased.
"Really?" Ed asked, badly faking a disinterested air for the sake of form. "I hadn't noticed."
"Mm. You did complete the mission, although I'd be curious to know why you left a librarian in charge of a sensitive military project."
"She has a knack for research?"
"In charge of five National Alchemists determined to transmute each other into lead?"
"She was the only one they were all afraid of," Ed muttered, hunching his shoulders as if trying to draw into his shell. Roy managed not to laugh, but the effort cost dearly.
"Hmm. And the side trip to YousWell was...?"
"A waste of time and funding, I know, I know. No one transmuted anything, against the Laws or otherwise--they just hit a rich vein; it happens. Yes, they've agreed to offer the military first options to buy the rare elements they mine, and no, they won't object to having a National Alchemist present to leach the ores out faster. Okay?"
"Wonderful," Roy said, allowing himself a smile. "But I was going to ask if it was more pleasant than your last visit. Of course, since you've done all the preliminary work for us, you can write up a report for our liaison to the commercial sector."
Ed groaned loudly and slumped down further, legs stuck out straight before him now. He looked in imminent danger of sliding right off the couch, but he also looked...relieved? About writing extra reports? Something odd was going on, then, and it would probably be worth the effort to get to the bottom of it.
"All right, then. I'll want the report on the mining project within the next two days. Now, unless you have anything to add...?"
Ed sat up straight with a start, eyeing him suspiciously as he arched a brow in the younger man's direction. "That's it? No chicken--um...never mind," Ed interrupted himself hastily, flushing a little as he slapped on a strained smile.
Hmm. "You're right, I'd almost forgotten," he said, rising from his chair as Ed stared at him in shock. Oh, this was going to be good. Ed was still frozen on the couch by the time Roy reached the door, and he paused with his hand on the knob, smirking over his shoulder. "Well? Come on. I don't have all day."
Sheer confusion got Ed up and on his feet, and dread kept him quiet as he followed Roy through the staff office, waving Al off distractedly. It was only when they reached the empty hallway outside that Ed found his voice.
"Where exactly are we going, Colonel?"
He considered not answering, but an inner devil urged otherwise.
"As you just reminded me, it is noon, isn't it?" He glanced down at Ed, who still hadn't gotten it, and put on his absolute best you-do-not-argue-with-the-Colonel face. "We're having lunch," he informed his captive, and barely cracked a smile when Ed began to sputter.
Life was good.
"Life sucks!" Winry shouted, clenching her fists as she sat hunched beside Al on his bed. Non-relatives weren't ordinarily allowed in the dorms the military provided, but Winry had always been an exception--or maybe Al was the exception, since no one could imagine him sneaking a girlfriend back to the room he shared with his brother.
No one could imagine him with a girlfriend, period.
He was heartened, at least, to know that Winry still considered him a confidant, even if this was a secret he'd rather not hear. He knew all the sayings about nice guys finishing last, but he couldn't help what he was, could he? And anyway, if he really wanted Winry to be happy....
"It's not that bad," he offered gamely, forging onward in the face of her incredulous glare. "I mean, he hasn't actually turned you down or anything, right? He just...."
"He just ignores me completely," she finished glumly, knotting her fingers together in her lap. "He probably thinks of me as a sister, huh? The girl he got into mud fights with when he was three. It's hopeless, isn't it?"
"Um...." Yes, he wanted to shout, but he just couldn't. It wouldn't be right. "Actually, I don't think he really, um, notices anybody. He's too...."
Al winced. "I was going to say 'driven,' but...."
"Clueless and driven," Winry allowed, nodding sharply with a frown. "I know why he wants the Philosopher's Stone, and I hope he gets it, too--for your sake, not his," she added quickly, her cheeks pinking as she looked up at him through her lashes. "I mean, the auto-mail doesn't bother me, though of course if he does find the Stone...oh, you know what I mean. I just wish there was something I could do to help."
"I know," Al said, hanging his head with a sigh. "Looking for the Stone is eating his life, and...I just wish someone could distract him from it sometimes. Even if I have to stay like this longer, I don't mind. He deserves to be happy. You both do."
It was Winry who sighed this time, but her eyes were as soft as her smile. "You're the best, you know that, Al?"
And then she hugged him, her lips pressed briefly to his metal cheek.
He would have given anything to be able to feel it.
He'd expected to be dragged off to the cafeteria, the officers' mess if the Colonel was in a generous mood, but Roy marched for the lobby and out the doors, where a car was magically waiting at the bottom of the steps. Ed half thought he'd see Havoc standing at attention beside the rear door, waiting for the Colonel to climb in, but this was some faceless subordinate from the motor pool who likely had nothing better to do than wait for the brass to decide on an afternoon spin.
Ed glanced over at the Colonel as he slid in beside the man, but Mustang was being inscrutable again, a faint smile curving his lips as he waited for the driver to settle behind the wheel. "Green Lion," Roy said shortly, which could have been military code-babble or the name of a restaurant. Ed wished he could ask which it was, but then he'd have to put up with the Colonel's superior smirk and a reminder that the time to have asked was before he climbed into a car with someone he apparently didn't trust.
Crossing his arms over his chest, Ed glared out the side window and prepared to ignore the Colonel for the next hour at the very least.
Apparently the driver was better informed than Ed, as the man nodded once and put the car in gear, glancing silently in the mirrors before pulling away from the curb. From the corner of his eye, Ed could see Mustang staring straight ahead, hands folded neatly in his lap, though some of the ingrained stiffness had left him now that they were away from headquarters. He wasn't quite slouched, not like Ed was, but he looked comfortable, not at all bothered at being ostentatiously ignored.
Typical. And then the Colonel looked over at him and smiled--not smirked--which wasn't typical at all, but maybe it had something to do with having caught Ed staring.
"I see you're moving better today, Fullmetal. Your checkup went well?"
"Yeah," he said, turning his face toward the window with a scowl. He hated giving the Colonel ammunition...but the sullen act just made him feel like one of the dumb teenagers in the towns he and Al passed through, and he knew he ought to be better than that, more mature. He could make conversation if it killed somebody. Preferably Roy Mustang. "Winry's a genius, but she basically said it was normal. I didn't really think about it, because it usually gets busted up before it becomes a problem," he added sheepishly, "but auto-mail takes a lot of use in a lot of different ways. It's a lot more advanced than just clockwork."
"That makes sense. So, what exactly was the problem?"
"Just a matter of fine-tuning," Ed replied automatically, hunching one shoulder and glancing over at his audience. Roy actually had his politely interested face on for once, the faintest hint of a smile still curving his lips. Ed stared hard at the man for a long moment, but he didn't get the feeling the Colonel was waiting for him to blunder into saying something stupid, so he shrugged again, dropping his gaze to his gloved hand. "It was probably tightening up gradually for a while, but it happened so slowly, I didn't notice at the time. I'm back in top shape, now."
And don't you forget it, his glare said as he flicked his eyes back up to Roy's. That mild expression from the Colonel was putting him on edge, but it looked like one of their temporary truces had been declared yet again without anyone warning him. As usual. At least it was better than all the blushing and staring.
He's making me write reports, Ed reminded himself, but far from being outraged, he was secretly rather relieved. Whatever was wrong with the rest of the world, Colonel Mustang was just as manipulative as ever. It was good to know that there were actual constants in life, even if one of them had to be his irritating commanding officer.
He was so busy scowling at the Colonel he didn't even notice the driver pulling in and slowing to a stop, not until the motor was killed with a faint cough and rattle. Peering past Roy and out the window, he found a sidewalk lined by maple saplings with leaves newly unfurled, pale green and white against the deep forest shingles of a rather upscale restaurant. At least he knew what the Green Lion was now.
People stared when they walked in, though he suspected it had more to do with the fact that he was underdressed...at least at first. He saw a few other uniforms here and there, the place obviously popular with the upper ranks at headquarters, but there were many more suits and women overdressed for lunch. At least the crowd was mostly the young professional set--many of them were only a few years older than he was, so he didn't feel too out of place.
But a few people were still staring even after they were shown to a table, and it made him jittery. What was the matter with these people? He knew he hadn't sprouted horns from a rebound or anything, because the Colonel would never have let him live it down. He'd even looked himself over in the mirror once or twice, hoping for an explanation, but he just saw the same old face every time.
He flicked a quick glance over the dining room again and suppressed a groan. Now there were old people staring at him. One of them was even in uniform.
Roy's hand on his wrist startled him, and he realized the Colonel had probably said his name a few more times than he could reasonably explain away. He also realized Roy's fingers were even warmer than Winry's, blunt and strong. He stared down at his arm with a blank frown, struck by the contrast of the Colonel's pale skin and the narrow band of tanned flesh left bare between Ed's coat sleeve and his glove, surprised by how light Roy's touch was. Almost diffident, unconsciously respectful.
Then he shook himself and looked up, his frown deepening as he met Roy's wary stare.
"Are you all right, Edward-kun?"
Why did everybody keep asking him that?
"Fine," he said, self-consciously sliding his left arm out of reach. Roy let him go without even a token protest, and Ed was disturbed to find some part of him was disappointed by that. The arrival of the waiter saved him from having to think about it too closely, but he could tell from the stubborn set of the Colonel's mouth that the other thing wasn't going to be ignored so easily.
In fact, Roy pounced the minute the waiter was out of earshot.
"If you're not comfortable here, we can go somewhere else," Roy offered, and there wasn't a hint of condescension in his serious tone. Ed considered dying theatrically, just so it wouldn't be a wasted effort--when Colonel Mustang was worried about you, something must be terribly wrong.
"I'm fine," he repeated, feeling the oddest urge to blush as he held the Colonel's dark eyes and refused to back down. Roy didn't look like he believed it, but he sat back after a moment with a sober nod, agreeing to let it go. It was a victory, of sorts, but Ed felt like he owed the man something instead. "Have you ever felt like...." Like people are watching you, he wanted to ask, but somehow couldn't. It wasn't even distrust; it was embarrassment that sealed his lips in the end.
Roy waited patiently for him to continue, but he shrugged it off with a nervous laugh. "Never mind. Just one of those weird thoughts...."
"Hmm." Not convinced in the slightest, the Colonel watched him sharply for a few moments before transferring his glare to the people around them. And then he very casually reached into the pocket of his highly-decorated jacket and pulled out his gloves, laying them deliberately on the table in easy reach.
Suddenly no one was looking their way at all.
Ed didn't know whether to sink under the table or put his head down and laugh himself sick.
"No one's about to attack me," he groused, though his lips kept twitching despite his best efforts at a disgusted glare.
"You? I'm not worth attacking, then?"
Damn it, how did he always end up giving away more than he meant to? "You? You're just a Flame Alchemist, old man," he said lightly, grinning at Roy's insulted sniff. "Whereas I'm the famous Edward Elric, friend of the common man, the Fullmetal Alchemist!"
Roy propped his elbow on the table and his chin on his fist, giving Ed the dreamy feline smile that boded no good for anyone. "The friend of the common man can always go eat with them if he doesn't like the company," the Colonel suggested in his most provocative purr.
Ed just snorted, curling his lip as he sat back and folded his arms over his stomach. "No, I'd better stay here and keep an eye on you. I wouldn't want to be held responsible if you snapped because you missed me."
Either he was in excellent form today or Roy was off his game--his comment won a surprised chuckle from his opponent and Mustang conceded the field with a wry nod and a grin that promised swift retribution. The shock of realizing he was looking forward to it almost drowned the realization that he'd been bantering with the Colonel, not sniping at him...and it had been fun.
Was this how Roy saw their bickering all the time?
Saved again by the waiter bringing their meal, he had time to mull that over as he dug into surprisingly hearty fare. So much for his theory that high-class food had to be either dainty or inedible. No wonder the military sort liked this place.
And since when did he relax enough around the Colonel to...to tease the man? He'd been comfortable with their odd power struggle, Mustang holding all the cards, Ed furiously adding new ones to the deck in hopes he could one day stack it in his favor. It was habit as much as honest irritation that kept the battle alive, habit and stubborn pride. It was the principle of the matter. Even when he wanted to beat Roy's head in, he knew the man was their ally, not their enemy. And damn it, it was just like Mustang to change the rules on him without even firing a warning shot.
Looking up with a suspicious glare, he stabbed his chopsticks in Roy's direction and growled. "You can predict what I'll do on a mission even without Hughes' reports, can't you?"
"You're...very straightforward, Fullmetal," Roy admitted tactfully, lapsing into formality in recognition of the hit. "Your honesty makes you easier to anticipate than most."
"And you're counting on that when you send me places."
Ed's stare ought to be burning holes in the Colonel's head, but Roy met his look without flinching, waiting as patiently as ever for Ed to make up his mind which way to jump. Knowing, probably, exactly which way that would be. Ed ought to walk out and never look back, just to put a crack in that cool armor.
He put his chopsticks quietly down without looking, leaning forward with a fierce snarl. "If you know me that well, then why the hell do you keep things from me when you know it'll just piss me off?"
One dark brow arched, amused, and the Colonel had the audacity to smile. "Because you're cute when you're angry?"
Ed muttered curses as he flopped back in his chair, ignoring the scandalized cough of the waiter entirely. And then he threw a chopstick at the Colonel, who laughed, just because.
Armor was there for a reason, after all, and cracks were damnably hard to fix.
Roy made his way back to the office with a lighter step than he remembered having since his return to Central. Matching wills with Edward was always a pleasure, not least of which because he had no real guarantee of winning, not what he considered a victory. Even so, open warfare wasn't how he wanted things to remain between them. It had seemed wiser at first not to get too close, to distance himself from a boy determined to repeat his father's mistakes, but Ed had swiftly grown beyond Hoenhime and then some. Edward was his own person, and that person was someone Roy quite admired.
And now--after a mere five years, he chuckled to himself--he was finally making real progress with Ed. The only thing that troubled him was that he didn't know why. Why now.
"Mustang, you utter bastard!"
His easy stride hitched, slowed and then stopped, and though he didn't turn to meet the owner of that voice, he angled his head slightly, enough that his smile could be seen over his shoulder. By the rate at which the hallway cleared, he suspected it bore no resemblance to the ones he'd offered Edward earlier in the hour. "That's not a very polite hello."
"Well, you're not a very polite man," his hailer muttered, and he recognized the voice at last. Colonel Dover, who he only saw in staff meetings, and then rarely. The man was fifteen years his senior, a career officer of no real talent, stuck at Colonel over some scandal no one really remembered. Something about a fox terrier, or maybe a prostitute--or both.
Turning at last, Roy tipped his head to one side and stared down his nose at the other man, who wasn't looking quite as blustery as his initial roar seemed to suggest. "I thought that was common knowledge--or was this something specific?"
"Specific? I should say so! Look here," Dover added as he stepped closer, his voice dropping to an almost conspiratorial level. "It was one thing when you cut a swath through the ladies, Mustang--more power to you, eh? But must you branch out so? It's not sporting to lull a man into a sense of security and then go and change your mind like that."
Roy stared, his ears insisting the man was speaking plain language while his brain refused point-blank to make sense of it. "I'm sorry...I have no idea what you're on about."
For some reason, that made Dover grin. "Oh, well, I'd keep him a secret too, if I were you. Positively delightful creature; quite a handful, I should say. If there's any more like that where you found him, you'd drop us a hint, eh?"
Though he fought it mightily, a glimmer of understanding was beginning to make itself known. "You mean the young man I had lunch with," he stated, torn between informing the fool exactly who that was and wanting to see exactly how far it would go. It was rather like watching a train wreck, true....
"You've excellent taste, I'll give you that, Mustang. Brought him there to show him off, did you?"
"Mm. Not exactly the sort of place he's used to," he offered noncommittally, shading the truth a fraction. The Green Lion wasn't Edward's usual fare, no, but that was by preference, not because there was anything keeping him out. But now he wondered--had Ed been uncomfortable at first because people like Dover were leering at him? If that turned out to be the case, Dover was about to discover that Roy Mustang took very good care of his own.
"Ah, you sly devil, you. A beauty like him you'll want to keep happy. I don't suppose it's serious...?" he added, his hopeful tone and belated flush contrasting oddly with his salacious manner.
"Very serious," Roy assured the man, deciding to bring the game to an early close. "In fact, you could say I'm committed to keeping Fullmetal happy."
"F-Fullmetal?" Dover stammered, paling as the name struck a bell in what passed for his memory.
"Yes. I believe you've heard of Edward Elric...the Fullmetal Alchemist?" Roy was smiling again, and this time he was the one to shorten the distance between them, his voice dropping almost to a murmur as he managed to loom over a man half a head taller than him. "And as his happiness is my responsibility, I'm sure you'll understand that I'd have to take very seriously anything that might put it in jeopardy. Just a friendly hint, hmm?"
Dover nodded anxiously, but Roy didn't stick around to see whether he'd freeze or run. Pivoting on his heel, he stalked down the corridor towards his own office, feeling only mildly guilty for losing his temper in such a way. He didn't like threatening non-alchemists, and he certainly didn't like the way people were flattening themselves to the walls to get out of his path. A snap of his fingers, a clean lick of fire--a brief explosion that didn't harm anybody--that was one thing.
Sitting there unable to do anything as Edward's expression turned briefly hunted for no reason...that was another entirely.
He was calmer by the time he reached his own area, calm enough to laugh at Dover's misinterpretation of a simple meal. It was all the more amusing because the man hadn't actually been wrong--Roy would and could "change his mind" if the right incentive came along, but then it became far too difficult to separate his career from his relationships. Most of the men he was willing to consider were enlisted, after all, but Hawkeye's extensive combat experience was something of an exception when it came to women in the military. The general's secretary was much less likely to get shot at or resent an order from her lover.
Edward, though...all right, granted, Ed wasn't a kid anymore. There were some who'd claim he'd never been a kid, but Roy wasn't one of them. He remembered all too well seeing what was left of the boy after that failed attempt at human transmutation, the frail remains battered and bandaged and paler than the sheets beneath him. He'd taken the risk that the guts and genius behind such a mad attempt could be molded not into a weapon but a tool, a balance, but he never forgot that he was molding a child.
And suddenly the child had grown up, not just in body but in spirit and mind, sometime when he wasn't looking. If that brief challenge over lunch was any indication, his days of shaping Edward were past. Ed was more than ready to stand on his own two feet, to hear the reasoning behind the plans and make his own judgments. In a sense, Roy had been trusting him to do just that for the past five years.
So. Fine--Edward wasn't a kid.
Well, if he looked at it from Dover's point of view...Roy Mustang, conqueror of the typing pool--which was no mean feat--having a cozy lunch with someone young, out of uniform, and blindingly attractive--
Edward? Fullmetal? Blindingly attractive?
Something uncomfortably close to panic stirred in the pit of his stomach as he thought back to lunch, to the twenty minutes before in his office, a new awareness of Edward Elric beginning to grow in his mind. Taller--well, yes, Ed had managed to put on a few more inches in the last six months, though he would probably never top even Roy's shoulder. His face had turned sharper as it matured, all strength and sinew now, but still fine-boned and elegant for all that. His shoulders had filled out nicely, though his hips were still impossibly trim--but it was the way he held himself, the undisciplined flailing of youth refined to a competent grace, that struck Roy the most.
And gold eyes that fixed on him without backing down, occasionally without anger. Sometimes they even laughed, just for him.
He walked through the staff office without saying a word, and after one look at his stunned face, no one said a word to him.
Dear God, he thought as he closed his own door behind him. He couldn't even complete the thought until he sat down, and then it came quiet, subdued.
I just went on a date with Edward Elric.
Oddly, his first thought was that Alphonse was going to kill him.
"I'm going to kill him," Al muttered to himself, but he didn't exactly sound married to the idea, even to himself. Maybe if he could make up his mind which one of them he wanted to kill....
He'd been relieved at first that the Colonel had dragged Ed out of the office before Winry showed up looking for him, because if Ed had been there she would have ducked out again, and that would have been bad. Winry had never been much for bottling things up, her tendency to speak her own mind nearly a match for Ed's, but Al had gradually realized that to some degree, timing was everything.
Ed for instance tended to soliloquize whenever the mood took him, even hours after the fact, but girls seemed to have certain peak times for venting. Mostly it occurred the precise minute they got everything they wanted to vent about arranged in their heads according to patterns more mystical than the most obscure alchemical Array. If the prime moment passed, it might come back and it might not, but it wouldn't be the same.
Sometimes it really worried him that he understood that, but he tried not to let it bother him. Much.
So, for the space of about an hour, it was a good thing that Ed was safely occupied elsewhere. At least until Winry decided she should try again, this time without making a fool of herself, and take them all out to dinner. And so naturally she'd wanted to know where Ed was. And of course he'd told her.
"Colonel Mustang?" she'd repeated, an odd flicker of doubt crossing her face. "I thought they didn't like each other."
"It looks that way sometimes," he'd agreed, "but the Colonel has always sort of...looked out for us. I think he even likes Ed, though it's hard to say. And I know he drives Ed crazy, but I think Ed respects him. Most of the time. They don't fight nearly as much anymore, at least, and who knows? In another five years, they might even get along."
"Oh," Winry said, and though the troubled look was smoothed away, her eyes remained thoughtful until she finally had to leave to meet her last patient of the day. All without seeing Ed.
Who still wasn't to be found, though Al had seen him briefly. If a rushed babble of: "Al! I'm back, can't stay--gotta find Hughes, so don't wait up for me, okay? Library. Bye!" counted as having seen him.
And the Colonel wasn't answering his door. Well, to be totally honest, Havoc wasn't letting anyone near the Colonel's door, and Huey was backing him up. Which meant that either something very important was going on inside or the Colonel was hiding.
Al wasn't entirely sure why, but instinct was pushing him towards the latter.
And now he had to find Winry and explain to her that the boy of her dreams had hared off to parts unknown with barely a word of warning, and that she might want to get used to it.
"I am definitely going to kill him."
"What do you mean he's not here?" Ed demanded, foot tapping as he folded his arms across his chest. "He was here ten minutes ago, wasn't he?" The bastard was hiding from him, he just knew it.
"He was called out on a Code Red," Major Armstrong explained, the hint of apology sounding odd in his deep, rumbling voice. "I'm afraid I can't give you any details, but it was important. He did say to tell you he should be back by tomorrow morning, though, if that helps...."
"All right," Ed muttered, sighing loudly though his nose. "Tell Hughes I'll be by first thing, and that he'd better have decent coffee this time."
"Of course, Edward-kun," Armstrong said, his indulgent smile fraying Ed's temper even further. And to think he'd been in a good mood after lunch with the Colonel.
That was before he found out Hughes had ducked out on him, of course, just when he needed the man the most. He'd even been prepared to sit through all the pictures of Hughes' daughter that he'd missed seeing while out on mission, just so he could get a few simple answers. He supposed he could ask Major Armstrong instead, but Hughes was the real genius in Intelligence and still owed him a favor, besides.
Fine, he could wait. It wasn't like he was going anywhere--he still had a report to write.
Though he might want to see the staff psychologist first, since that actually made him grin.
It had faded somewhat by the time he got to the National Library--the eyes were starting to get to him--but it was easy to disappear into the stacks and try to gather the remains of his earlier contentment. A small table in an out-of-the-way spot, a fresh notebook, and a pile of books between him and the world were all he needed.
Opening a book was usually a calming thing, requiring all of his attention as he sorted through the facts and theories of the past and tried to parse it with what he knew. Some of the tomes here were positively ancient, the information vastly outdated, but there were occasionally gems amongst the dross. There was always the possibility that some random note in the unlikeliest of places would be all he needed to fit together a puzzle that had consumed him for the last five years, a way to make the Philosopher's Stone without resorting to methods no sane person would stomach.
Today he was distracted, words jumbling on the page as he tried to read them, his eyes lifting again and again to stare at the wall of books before him. Something was bothering him, something about the way Al had stammered that morning, the shy way his brother didn't quite look at Winry. It was almost like--
He frowned, glancing down at his wrist, and realized he was doing it again.
At the time...well, at the time he'd hated that he'd been caught blanking out, that Roy made it obvious to everybody by that touch on his arm. It was embarrassing, so he'd pulled away and taken himself out of range. But now he kept touching that same spot, gloved right fingers brushing his wrist as lightly as Roy had...but it wasn't the same. His right hand was metal and never warm, never so....
Blowing his long bangs out of his face on an aggravated sigh, he sat briefly back in his chair and then leaned forward again, hunching determinedly over his book. He wasn't going to think about the Colonel or waste his time trying to figure out what game the man was playing now. So they could have a civil conversation. So what? And anyway, he'd known that already.
He hadn't known Roy's laugh could sound like that without its constant sardonic edge....
"Oh, shut up," he muttered at himself, scowling again. He was here to read, not to think about the Colonel.
Okay, so he was here to think about the Colonel, but only in the sense that he'd expected it to mess with his head more. He'd actually gotten a straight answer from the man without having to blow up a parade ground in the process, and while it might not technically be a first, it definitely felt like a sign of things to come. Roy had been...different at lunch, and not because of that odd moment of urbane threat with the gloves. He'd seemed more open, and though the challenge was still there in everything he said or did, it was like...like he'd finally realized that Ed wasn't a kid anymore. Like he was finally being looked at as an equal.
It's about time, he grumbled with a hint of smugness, triumph stretching his smirk into a grin. Of course, for all he knew, this might mean the kid gloves were finally coming off--
Propping his elbow on the table, he buried his face in his hand and tried to stifle his snickers before a librarian came to glare murder at him. He couldn't help it, though--that thing with the gloves had been funny, now that he had a little distance to appreciate it. Roy might as well have drawn his gun and laid it on the table. The way everyone around them suddenly found other places to stare...the clink of glass on china as a waiter fumbled his tray...the utterly serious look in Roy's dark eyes, as good as a promise that Roy would back him up against an unknown threat. It lit something warm inside him that embarrassed him and buoyed him up at the same time.
Hand now trapping a smile, his eyes fell to the page before him and started scanning automatically, a welcome distraction from all this goopy emotional crap. He had better things to do, surely.
'Therefore have I briefly enumerated some of the qualities of this Spirit, to the Honour of God, that the pious may reverently praise Him in His gifts (which gift of God shall afterwards come to them), and I will herewith shew what powers and virtues it possesses in each thing, also its outward appearance, that it may be more readily recognised.'
He blinked, snorting in disbelief. Okay...so maybe it wasn't his lack of attention that was making this book so hard to read. Shaking his head, he flipped a few pages back and tried again, slowly, lifting his head and folding his arms on the table. His fingers played with the seams of his coat sleeves, pleating the material and smoothing it flat, drifting down to tug at his gloves.
Touching, just there, like when he looked up and found Roy watching him, quiet and contained but no longer aloof. And he liked that--wouldn't mind seeing that look more often--because one unguarded look from Roy had to be ten times sexier than Psiren in her catsuit.
He squeaked aloud as he sat bolt upright in his chair, but the sound was so strangled--it was supposed to have been a shouted curse--it slipped under the librarians' radar.
Sexy? Sexy? Did he just think Roy Mustang was sexy?
No, no, no...there had to be some mistake. Roy wasn't sexy, he was a smirking manipulative bastard. Although actually, when that smirk wasn't being directed at him, he could almost see why people forgave the man for it. And Roy was...well, all right, he was good-looking. Pretty much everyone agreed on that. Always so deliberate about everything he did, but graceful, almost languid, absolute confidence and control. It was that control that did it, Ed thought sourly. You couldn't watch that buttoned-up statue of a man without wanting to see him flushed and panting and completely at your mercy.
This time the shouted curse came out just fine. Grabbing books at random, he snatched up his notebook as well and beat a hasty retreat, escaping to another part of the library before the librarians could kick him out, not entirely sure this was really where he wanted to be anymore, but completely certain he couldn't face the rest of the world just now.
Huddled into a new chair, he stared blankly at the book shielding his face, his heart beating double-time. The skin of his face felt tight, but he wasn't sure if he was blushing or white as a sheet. He couldn't...he couldn't possibly want...this was Roy Mustang. Bane of his existence.
Unexpected ally from day one.
Ed ducked his head as a librarian went stalking past, praying for once that he could make himself small and unassuming enough to go unseen. When she didn't even look in his direction, he breathed a shaky sigh of relief.
Which only dealt with one of his problems. The other was clamoring now for attention and utterly refusing to go away.
At least Al wasn't going to be waiting up for him back at the dorms. He had the feeling this was going to be a long night.
Al suppressed a sigh as his brother came creeping in just past midnight, shutting the door with a whispered click. It wasn't like he minded Ed's late hours--Al did sleep in a way, but it wasn't something he actually needed--but Ed always tiptoed in and got undressed in the dark, careful to make no noise at all. Which was nice of him, but totally unnecessary for Al's sake. Mostly, he figured Ed wanted the quiet so his brother could finish processing what he'd learned that day.
Only tonight Ed was silent for longer than usual.
"Brother?" Al whispered at last, vaguely pleased that his voice was deepening, that his spirit wasn't going to stay a little boy forever. "Are you asleep?"
"No," Ed said, shifting aimlessly and still again.
Al waited, but Ed didn't seem inclined to add to that--and he knew he should just shut up and let his brother think, but.... "Winry came by today. I think she wants to take us out sometime."
Another silence. Al was starting to get worried, but he was also starting to get--just the littlest bit--angry. Didn't Ed even care?
"Brother? Don't you like spending time with Winry anymore?"
"Huh?" Ed shifted again, and Al could see the glint of his eyes by the faint light from under the door as Ed's face turned towards him. "Oh. No, it's not that. Sorry, I'm just...a little distracted tonight. Winry's great. Don't worry."
Which was a stupid thing to say in Al's opinion--what was he going to do but worry with his brother acting so weird?--but he didn't know quite what to do next. He didn't have a clue what the problem was, which hurt, so he didn't know how to pry it out of Ed, who sometimes clammed up if pressed the wrong way. All he knew for certain was that Ed didn't start acting weird until Colonel Mustang took him to lunch, and then the Colonel had started acting weird, too.
"Brother? Is this about the Colonel?"
This time the silence was followed by a sigh, and Ed's face turned back up to stare into the darkness above. "Al...let me ask you something."
Oh. That sounded serious.
"If I was...different."
He waited a beat, but Ed seemed to have gotten stuck. "You mean...like if you were somebody else?"
"No, I mean...if I was...weird."
Al snorted. "You're already weird."
Which made Ed laugh, as it was supposed to, but there was an element of hysteria in his snickers that Al didn't like at all. Something was really, really wrong, and he'd been so caught up in his own troubles, he hadn't even noticed it.
"Al," Ed gasped, dissolving into muffled snickers again. "No, I...."
"Whatever it is, it's okay," Al promised, meaning it.
"Right. Well. I...I think I like guys."
"Guys?" Al repeated in a small voice, trying to decide if this was better or worse than the horrors he'd been imagining. Better, because Ed hadn't sacrificed anybody under the full moon or killed the Colonel yet. Worse, because...how on earth was he going to explain this to Winry?
And speaking of the Colonel....
"Is there...some guy in particular?"
He might not have noticed the hesitation if he hadn't been listening for it. "Yeah." Another long moment passed, and Ed swallowed hard, gathering his courage for one last confession. "Colonel Mustang."
Al nodded once, armor grating quietly in the silence. "Right." Then he sat up.
"I'll kill him."
Ed didn't plan on making a career of stalking people, but he was waiting outside Hughes' office practically at the crack of dawn, determined not to let the man duck out on him again. Besides, it was too weird in the dorms right now, anyway. People had actually complained about the noise, and he had no idea how much they'd heard before he got Al calmed down.
Leaning back against the wall with a sigh, he crossed his arms over his chest and one ankle over the other, letting his chin drop as his hair curtained his suddenly-warm face. At least Al wasn't freaked out about him, though keeping his brother from killing the Colonel had been quite a feat. He didn't know where Al got the idea that Roy had seduced him or something--sure, the guy could be charming when he chose, but Ed had been so busy wanting to kick his head in, when would the man have had time?
He'd had to explain everything after that--why the Colonel, why now--but at least it had helped him straighten things out in his own mind. It wasn't just Roy--he simply didn't care that much for girls, not like that--but it was just Roy, because no one else was nearly so...interesting. Roy was a constant challenge and a good friend, though it had taken Ed a while to see that. It didn't hurt that he was also a...what had that girl in YousWell been babbling about? Oh yeah--a knockout.
He was still grinning when a photograph was thrust under his nose. "Isn't she adorable?" Hughes crowed as Ed's eyes crossed in a vain attempt to focus. "This one was taken at her fifth birthday party--just look at that smile! My daughter's going to be breaking hearts soon...bringing boys home to meet her daddy...." And then the picture was gone, because Hughes needed both hands to crack his knuckles properly. Staring up at the demon looming over him, Ed pasted on a nervous smile.
"Then it's a good thing she's still your little girl, huh?"
"Too true!" Hughes agreed, euphoric again. "She's already reading up a storm--she says she wants to be an alchemist like her Uncle Roy. Isn't that sweet?"
Hughes shrugged with a philosophical grin. "What can you do? Women adore him."
The deadly glint returned suddenly to green eyes, and Hughes bared his teeth in something not really kin to a smile at all. Sensing that distraction was the better part of valor, Ed cleared his throat loudly and ratcheted his own smile wider. "Right, well...look, I really need your help. There's something weird going on, and I need to get to the bottom of it. Can I talk to you alone for a minute?"
"Huh? Oh, sure--step right in," Hughes invited, his grin returning to normal. "I have more pictures you'll want to see--she built a snowman all by herself this year and dressed it up in her daddy's uniform. And her mother's gloves."
"Uh, that's great, Hughes, really...."
The things he put up with for a little information.
"Oh. I see."
Al hated seeing Winry's face fall like that, the way she got all quiet and...small. It was funny--Winry and Ed were the same height, but in his thoughts, Winry always seemed taller than she was, like a giant or a force of nature. He didn't like the idea of her being diminished, liked even less actually witnessing it.
"I'm really sorry," he said, hesitantly taking one of her hands as he knelt before her chair. The workroom was silent but for the faint drone of machinery, the windows closed on the street sounds outside. He heard her swallow a faint sound that should have been a laugh and wondered if it was possible to break a heart he didn't technically have.
"It's okay," she said, braving a smile. Her eyes had been liquid a moment before, but they were clear and strong now, determined. "I sort of wondered, but I wasn't sure how to ask. And then, when you said he was out with Colonel Mustang...."
"What does the Colonel have to do with it?" Al asked, momentarily distracted. He'd believed his brother when Ed said the Colonel hadn't done anything, but.... "I thought...he likes women?"
Winry giggled wickedly, a sound he hadn't heard in far too long. "Does he ever. But he likes men, too. Just not as much, I guess, or maybe not as often--some of my patients were talking about it. I thought everybody knew."
Al's mind was an absolute blank. Except for one thing. "I'll kill him."
"Come on, Al!" Winry laughed, tugging on the hand clasped with hers when he made to jump up and storm out. "Ed is perfectly capable of looking out for himself, you know that."
"Yeah. I know," he admitted grudgingly, though that didn't entirely erase the need to pound something right into the ground with his bare--sort of--fists.
Winry patted his hand with a tolerant grin, her eyes fond. "But you're really sweet to always be looking out for us, you know?"
"Um, well, I'm the sidekick. It's my job," he joked, proud when it didn't come out bitter. He didn't actually mind that his brother had the spotlight. It was just this one thing....
"Well, that's rotten," Winry said suddenly, surprising him with her vehement tone and--oh, dear--a look that said she was sizing him up as something to be fixed. "You can't spend the rest of your life in Ed's shadow, you know. And anyway, think about it--the sidekick never gets the girl!"
"I know," he said, and--had he put too much feeling in that? Because Winry was staring at him wide-eyed, her lips parted in a soundless 'O' of surprise, and she had an absolute death grip on his hand.
He'd done it now. "I'm sorry," he choked out as he tried to stand, but there were small hands on his shoulders pushing him back down, and they had no right to be that strong. As long as she wanted him there, even if it was the last place he wanted to be, he couldn't move.
"Don't be," she said, and God, she sounded serious. It just wasn't fair.
"Winry...look at me," he said, hanging his head. He wanted to keep going, tell her how very much he didn't want her pity, but the words wouldn't come.
"I am," she said....and then she laughed. "Do you remember when you asked me to marry you?"
"Yes," he said--he never could lie to her.
"That's what I said."
He looked up at last, sure that meant something vastly important, though he couldn't get it to mean anything but....
"You idiot," she said, and banged on his head with her small fist for good measure. "I said yes. Now sit there and don't even think about trying to run away, because we're going to have a nice long talk. Understand?"
All he could do was nod, but the hollow places inside him were filling up with something warm and light. He wished he could give her a real smile, because it felt an awful lot like hope.
"Let me get this straight," Hughes began as Ed rolled his eyes. "People have started staring at you, and when you try to talk to them, they either clam up or babble like idiots. This happens everywhere you go, and now...ahem, 'old people' are doing it too. And you can't figure out why."
"That sounds about right," Ed allowed, eyeing Hughes warily. Was it natural for the man to turn that color if he was excited about a lead?
"HA ha ha-ha...!"
Ed scowled. Well, apparently it was if Hughes was about to laugh himself sick over someone's pain.
"Would you stop? Look, if it's some kind of plot, just tell me about it, please! The Colonel won't even give me the mission, and it's driving me crazy!"
"Oh, Ed, Ed," Hughes sighed, pinching the bridge of his nose between finger and thumb as he tried to stop snickering. He was in danger of tipping his chair over if he leaned back any further, and his shoulders wouldn't stop shaking even when he got his face under control. "Edward-kun. It's not a plot. There's no rumor. You just grew up, is all."
"What the hell are you talking about? Of course I grew up! Did you think I was going to stay short forever?" he growled, lurching to his feet and slamming his palms down on the desk, leaning menacingly towards Hughes.
Hughes' snickers redoubled for a moment before he choked them off, shaking his head swiftly. "No, no. I mean you grew up. Older. Matured," he added when Ed's eyes flashed at the emphasis. "Look, you were a cu--uh, good-looking boy, right? Well, now you're a really good-looking young man. People noticed, that's all."
"Huh?" Edward asked faintly, anger washed away by confusion.
Hughes grinned and sat forward, lacing his fingers together as he looked Ed right in the eye. "It's like this. My own wife, who obviously has excellent taste, has informed me that you, Edward Elric, are a knockout."
Edward sat down hard, narrowly missing the floor by the barest of margins. The chair squeaked, but he stayed up. "I...you mean they...Winry?"
"Has a crush on you, probably," Hughes agreed, giving him an encouraging smile. "Cheer up, Ed! It's not the end of the world."
Ed's glazed eyes sharpened abruptly, his scowl returning with interest. "Are you kidding?" he snapped, on his feet a moment later. He had to get out of here. This was just too much.
"Ed? Hey, Ed!" Hughes called, but Ed ignored the concern in the man's voice. "Aw, come back here! Seriously!"
No. Absolutely not. There had to be some mistake...and why did he keep thinking that lately? First Roy, and now this. Only this wasn't really happening, because that would mean...all this time. And he hadn't gotten it. Where the hell was his brain, anyway? Of all the simplest, most basic answers--
It was this job, that's what it was. It was enough to make anyone paranoid, especially with that idiot giving orders. When nothing was what it seemed, you started looking past the obvious, and when the obvious became invisible, well, hell, then you were really in trouble. And damn it, he was in trouble. And when he was really, really in trouble--
"Wait up, boss! The Colonel's not seeing any--"
Ducking under Havoc's arm, Ed slipped inside Roy's door and kicked it shut behind him, staring at the man behind the desk with a mixture of desperation and fury that made him feel like he was about to explode. It was only mildly satisfying to notice that the Colonel wasn't in the best of moods himself, already rubbing the bridge of his nose where a headache must be gathering.
"Everybody's insane!" Ed announced, deciding that was not only the perfect preface to everything that needed to be said but was sure to make him feel better, as well. And it did, but not nearly enough. "Everywhere I go, people keep staring at me, and I've been wracking my brains trying to figure out what they have to be staring about--and do you know why? Because anytime something bizarre or generally inexplicable happens around me, it's probably because you didn't tell me what was going on!"
He got a raised brow for that, but he wasn't done yet. Not by a long shot.
"I thought it was some rumor at first, because I don't know where half of them come from unless Hughes plants them for fun--and if he does, I'm going to kill him! But if it wasn't rumors, then maybe it was some kind of a plot--only you weren't in any hurry to send us out on some wild goose chase, so maybe it wasn't a plot, either. So I went to Hughes, and you know what he said? He said...he said...."
Ed froze, realizing exactly what Hughes had said, his face going blank with shock. "Oh, fuck...Winry has a crush on me!"
Roy sighed testily, drumming his fingers on the desk. "Is that what you came to tell me?"
"You knew?" Ed accused, fixing the Colonel with a hurt glare. "Who else knew? Oh, God...Al. Al knew. Al likes Winry...."
It was too much to take. Tottering away from the door, he made his way to the couch and collapsed, guilt rising up strong enough to choke him. He'd always known--intellectually, at least--that his brother liked Winry, but before their transformation, he'd just assumed those two would get on with it in the background, as it were. They'd all grow up, Al and Winry would get married, and nothing would change--he and Al would study alchemy and Winry would work with her grandmother in the auto-mail business, and...it hadn't really occurred to them they'd even be living in different houses, if he was being honest, but kids were self-centered like that.
And then after...he'd been so distracted by trying to restore their old bodies, to get through to the next day, he just hadn't thought....
There were a few constants in life you decided on when you were young enough to believe in such things, like the fact that your parents would always be around and you'd always have somewhere to come home to. When one of those things changed, it felt like all of the other expectations shattered with it, but they didn't. They were still there, and if you didn't look at those assumptions once in a while, you'd never realize how fragile they were.
It hadn't occurred to him that something might change Winry's mind, that she and Al might not get together after all. It certainly hadn't occurred to him that he might be the threat to his brother's happiness.
Closing his eyes tightly, he buried his face in his hands. He didn't know how to fix this. At all.
"Edward. Edward-kun. Ed."
Fingers on his bare skin again, and this time they wrapped around his wrist and tugged, gently. Roy was sitting on the edge of the table in front of the couch, peering into his face, and looking up into Roy's concerned gaze, Ed let his hands drop with a weak laugh.
"He's going to kill me."
"Me first," Roy muttered, but Ed decided to let that one go. Roy couldn't possibly know...but then again, he and Al had gotten rather loud last night, and maybe somebody said something....
"I already told him it's not your fault," Ed muttered, hunching his shoulders nervously. The Colonel didn't usually bother to dress him down, but everyone knew Roy had a tongue like a viper when he was really angry, and that it was ten times worse because he never raised his voice. So if Roy was going to blow up over a guy having a crush on him, Ed had just opened the door for a good, long rant. Hell, he'd practically sent a written invitation.
Roy was silent, though, and it belatedly occurred to Ed that the man was still holding on to his wrist, thumb stroking absently over his skin in soothing circles. The Colonel arched a brow at him when Ed didn't elaborate, saying only, "Oh?"
"I guess I kind of surprised him," Ed admitted grudgingly, finding it hard to meet Roy's gaze but determined he wouldn't look away. He might as well tell the whole truth while he was at it--maybe the Colonel could learn by example if he had it shoved down his throat often enough. "I mean, I didn't even know I liked guys myself...but where he got the idea you seduced me, I have no idea," he added with a scowl, insulted all over again. And then he blushed, realizing how bad that sounded, as if they'd actually done something. Which of course they hadn't, and wouldn't, because Roy was--
Grinning, damn him. And looking far too smug. "Perhaps because I have more experience?"
And he still hadn't let go of Ed's arm. But then, Ed wasn't exactly asking for it back.
"Good for you, the army's gift to women," Ed sneered with narrowed eyes, warning and demanding at once. "Of course, if someone didn't want to be another notch on your belt, you'd be in real trouble, wouldn't you?"
"I don't collect notches," Roy protested mildly, though he seemed...daunted. Or--no, just serious again, the teasing smirk ebbing from his face as something far more compelling took its place. "I've never been unfaithful. I've just never been...sure."
Ed considered this, wary and a little disbelieving that he was considering it at all, but he was supposed to be the impulsive one, damn it. What good was that if it never got him anything he wanted?
"Just how sure do you have to be?"
Roy's laugh was soft and not mocking at all, maybe even a little admiring. "I guess I'll know when it happens," he said, not promising anything, leaving it for Edward to decide.
Ed stared at him for a moment longer and nodded once. He could understand that. And realizing it was all up to him, he was the one that leaned forward and brushed their lips together in a kiss, chaste at first and then....
He didn't know when his eyes closed, but anything they could have told him would only have been a distraction. Roy's lips were soft, his mouth warm, and he tasted like coffee and cinnamon--and his tongue caressed Ed's like fire, sinuous and teasing. There was a hand cupping his cheek, and his own were fisted in the Colonel's uniform, keeping the man here. Ed made a fierce sound of protest when Roy pulled gently away, and he answered the question in the Colonel's eyes with a growl. "Yes, I'm fine. Do you mind?"
Which made Roy laugh, but--
"Al," Ed groaned, his initial remorse flowing back into him again without the distraction of Roy's mouth. "What am I going to do?"
"Nothing," Roy said, and cocked a patient brow when Ed sputtered in protest. "You're not thinking things through," Roy continued when Ed quieted enough to simply glare, demanding answers. "If I know Alphonse-kun, he'll feel he should tell Winry himself that you're not interested and let her down easy. She'll get over her crush on you, and nothing will come of it. Al will stand by her no matter what, she'll realize how much she values that, and they'll live happily ever after. Or...."
"Or?" Ed prompted when Roy fell silent, feeling oddly guilty that Roy's manipulative bastard-ness was actually making him feel better.
"Or she won't be able to see past the armor," Roy said flatly, "and isn't worth him."
"No," Ed said slowly, almost as sure of Winry's heart as he was of Al's. "I think she is."
"Then everything will be fine."
Strangely enough, he actually believed that. And if Al was okay....
"Then what the hell are you waiting for? An order from the Fuhrer?"
As gratifying as it was to know that Roy could, in fact, follow directions with the proper motivation, there was something oddly satisfying about being here at all. He'd thought about getting under Roy's defenses, getting the man to loosen up and just feel, but...when was the last time he'd allowed himself the same luxury? He got angry all the time and there was always something to vent it at, and it kept him going when even guilt and determination failed him.
Feeling wanted, though...feeling like he had someplace to come home to...maybe that was the real pull between them.
That and the sound Roy made when Ed scraped his teeth down the line of his throat, hungry and wanton and just maybe all his.
He'd been sure of less, but it'd never been half this much fun.
End Notes: Believe it or not, the inspiration for Ed's total cluelessness was his answer to Psiren in the anime when she offers to thank him as one adult to another. Quote was random Paracelsus.