Chapter 16: Tone Deaf


Two weeks have passed since Ed's birthday and another weekend was upon them. Saturday morning came and it found Ed lying with his head on Jean's shoulder as Ed drew lazy circles on his lover's chest with his fingers. It was early and by all rights, Ed should be asleep. The sun's glow was little more than a faint presence in the pre-dawn sky and the stars were still staking their claim across most of the heavens. Yes, Edward Elric should be asleep, but he wasn't. He was far from it.

"What are you thinking about so hard Babe?" Jean asked. "I can almost feel the gears grinding in that super brain of yours."

"I'm trying to think of some way to get the City to listen to reason."

"The City?"

"About the orphanage."

"Ah," Jean said as he gave Ed's shoulder and arm a squeeze, "You do realize you don't have to save the world right?"

"What made you say that?"

"I'm just trying to get you to be okay with not making everything your responsibility."

"Ah," Ed said as he sat up and looked out the window, "But someone has to. It's not like those kids can stand up for themselves."

"True," Jean said as he rolled over onto his side to face Ed, "and I understand that. All I'm saying is that it doesn't have to be you."

"That's part of the problem. Not enough people care to speak up about it." Ed replied as he swung his legs over the side of the bed. Once on his feet, he crossed the room and focused his attention out the window. "Remember when Jouner Park became the place to walk and hang out? All of a sudden, people were paying attention to its shoddy upkeep and the fact that it lacked enough benches, fountains or trails. People got vocal about it and the City turned that rundown forgotten park into a little oasis. All it took was a good, loud vocal push."

"If you say so Ed," Jean said as pulled back the blankets and gave Ed a lazy smile. "Why don't you come back to bed?"

"I'm not tired."

"Who said anything about sleeping?"

Well that was another matter. Another matter altogether.


Ed didn't leave Jean's arms or home until Sunday a few hours before the band was scheduled to practice. When he walked in the door of the house he shared with Al, several voices drifted down the hallway and into the kitchen. When Ed went to see what all the commotion was about, he was surprised to find most of the band already in the music room discussing something.

"Hey guys. What has everyone so worked up?"

"Nothing Brother," Al said with a sigh, "just trying to work out this four part harmony."

"The one Zack was writing for the ladies night thing Fidel wanted to have?"

"The very same," Zack replied as he gave Al a look.

Once Ed paid attention, he noticed everyone was looking around at each other. Brows furrowed he asked, "What's the problem?"

Al swallowed nervously before saying, "We… Well we just can't seem to get the right voices with the right parts that's all."

Miles snickered at that just as Zack went over to Al and snatched a few pieces of paper from his hands. Al made a grab for it but Zack was already too far away. Handing the pieces of paper to Ed, Zack said, "This is the part that's been giving us the most trouble. It doesn't sound right with anyone's voice thus far so I was hoping you'd give it a try, Ed."

Ed scanned over the sheets in his hands and as he did so, Al was on pins and needles. What no one had mentioned was how racy the song lyrics were. Fidel had asked for romantic and spicy and thus far, Zack was the first to produce a complete song. Al knew his brother had been working on some things and they had worked on some of the instrumental stuff together but he hadn't seen any of the lyrics yet. Al doubted anything Ed had put together could hold a candle to what Zack had come up with for them.

Especially the part he wanted Ed to sing.

Al loved his brother and he knew Ed had come a long way with some of his hang-ups over the last few months but he didn't think he'd come as far along as those song lyrics would need him to be. Al had tried his best as they had practiced but the part screamed for a higher voice. He could go up in range with the best of them but he had his limits and try as he might it just didn't flow when he sang it.

As a gifted tenor, Ed had an exceptional range and he had a way of making the words fit with the music. With this in mind, Zack thought Ed could pull it off. Al did too, but he thought his brother would rather sit in boiling water than be on stage in front of a hundred people singing the lines Zack had written.

"Ok guys let's play the music all the way through one time so I can hear it, then we'll do it again with the lyrics and I'll see what I can do," Ed said as he sat down behind the piano.

Al gave Zack and Miles a worried look to which Miles just laughed and Zack rolled his eyes. As he walked by Al, Zack whispered, "I think you're selling Ed a little short."

"If he refuses to look us in the eye after this you owe me two rounds," Al replied.

Al strapped on his guitar, Zack did the same and Miles picked up his drumsticks. They played through the melody and once they were done, Ed jotted down a few things on the music sheets in front of him then asked them to do it again adding the vocals. The song kicked off with a short intro from Zack's strong low vocals that was followed by Al's part. Smooth and sensual was the name of the game and initially it stayed that way. Everything was going along swimmingly as it flowed into the part Miles sang. When it came to Ed's part, that smooth sensuality kicked up its game an erotic notch. Zack was sure he saw Al flinch when the chorus was over with the younger Elric looked like he was holding his breath as Ed leaned into the mic and let it flow.

I need to be with you

Let me lay beside you

Do what you want me to

All night

Zack thought Al's eyes were going to pop out of his head.

Wanna hold you, ooh, baby

Can I touch you there

Al's expression was so flabbergasted Miles was cramping up behind the drums as he tried not to laugh. It was only made worse once Ed started ad libbing as he sang the suggestive lyrics his brother had previously thought would scar him for life.

Come on, come on

Come on, come on

I can keep you satisfied, baby*

When Ed finished that last line, the music came to an abrupt halt.

Confused as to why and thinking his band mates thought his singing was off Ed said, "Hey I know it wasn't pitch perfect but it was my first shot at it so cut me some slack."

"No, that was great Ed," Miles said as he chuckled. "In fact I think you nailed it."

Ed looked around and Zack was nodding in agreement, as poor Al remained rooted to his spot with his mouth hanging open. Despite still being confused as to why they were all behaving so strange Ed shrugged it off. He knew they all had their quirks so he just chalked this up as another one of the many.

"Since we already broke the mould on the Ladies Night music anyone interested in running through some of the stuff I've been working on? I was going to save for the next time we practiced but that song put me in a spicy mood."

"So we see," Zack replied with a chuckle as he looked over at Al who had yet to recover.

They played through two of Ed's songs and the melody to one that had promise but Ed insisted the lyrics were not ready for human consumption before going back to Zack's four-part harmony. By that point, it was close to actual practice time. Ashley and Lena would be there soon and they thought they should start coming up with a setlist for their next night at Fidel's.

When the ladies arrived they brought with them food and beer. When they wandered into the music room Ashley sat the food down on a table as Lena crossed the room to kiss Al on the cheek. As the two carried on and dissolved into giggles, everyone else dug into the refreshments.

Rehearsal went off without a hitch and it was a little past ten that night before the brothers were alone.

"I love those guys I really do," Ed said as he stretched.

"I do too," Al replied as he started rifling through the mail.

"Anything good in there?"

"That depends," was Al's response as he tossed two envelopes at Ed.

One was a large envelope from Preston and the other was a letter from Winry.

When Ed didn't comment, his face becoming unreadable, Al broke the silence.

"How have you two been? I know you've been talking but… well I wasn't sure how it was going and to be honest I was afraid it was still too much of a sore spot for me to ask."

Ed walked over to the icebox and pulled out two beers. He didn't reply right away but his stern expression spoke volumes. After sitting one of the bottles on the table, he slid it over to Al before popping the one in his hand open and leaning on the counter. Ed could think of a hundred other things he'd rather talk about, but he knew he couldn't avoid this forever so he might as well suck it up.

"It's better than it was but it still needs work. We'd both like to think we've just fallen into being friends again, but it's not that simple. There's always this big white elephant in the room with us and no matter how many times we talk the bastard refuses to go away, it won't even shrink."

"I hate to say it but it may never be the same, Brother."

"I know that and that is what's killing me. I was thinking maybe we need to just sit face to face and talk this out. Phone calls and letters can only do so much."

"You might be on to something there," Al replied as he took a drink out of the bottle in his hand. "But are you really ready to have her here? Not only in front of you but here, in our home, for days on end?"

"No, I'm not, but it has to be done. I feel like this is separating us all. We haven't been back to Resembool, she hasn't been here, we hardly talk to Pinako and just… it's all just a big convoluted fucking mess."

"I wish I could help."

"I know you do Al but this is something she and I have to sort out and we need to do it sooner rather than later. I'm going to invite her here when I respond to this letter. We need to get past this."

"I'm game if you are Brother. If it will help I'll be at your disposal. I'm sure having me here instead of off with Lena will act as a bit of a buffer."

"Thanks Al," Ed said as he turned around and looked out the window over the sink just as a nighthawk landed on the porch railing. This mess with Winry felt so damn heavy. More than anything Ed wished he could hitch this damnable problem to the tail feathers of that bird and let it fly away. "I'll need everyone I know around me as a buffer if I decide to introduce her to Jean."

"Maybe save that for visit two, Brother. You guys haven't talked about him?"

"Not really, I don't feel as if I can say much considering the situation and that's what has me hating this. Of all the people I know, I've always felt I could talk to you and Winry. Not being able to talk to her, especially about something as everyday news as my relationship, is the thing that is making the damn elephant linger."

"If she comes here you two can kick off a frank discussion and get over the hump at least. Maybe push her a little so she can see you are both still hurting over this. You have to clean a wound before it will heal. Just slapping bandages on it won't work."

"You're right Al, besides what do I have to lose? If I don't do something soon it's lost anyway."

Al nodded as he let his attention fall back to the mail in front of him, "Did your friend Preston get the Führer's business?"

"That he did," Ed said as he finished off his beer. "That deal made him a happy man."

"I'm sure anything to do with you makes Preston a happy man," Al said with a smile.

Ed narrowed his eyes at his sibling, "What are you going on about now, Al?"

"Nothing Brother," he replied in a singsong voice.

"It's not like that, Al."

"According to you it never is," was the answer given in an exasperated tone. Al loved his brother, but Ed could be so damn dense at times.

"Just because you have half the City after you Al doesn't mean it's the same for me."

"You're right it's not, it's worse."

When Ed opened his mouth to refute that claim Al cut him off.

"Look Brother I know you have some weird ideals in your head when it comes to how people think of you but whether you believe what I have to say about it or not doesn't change the fact that you are a very sought after person."

"I just don't see how you could…"

"Wake up and smell the latest dozen roses or free tickets to something Brother."

"Al someone schmoozing the Peoples Alchemist isn't the same as what you go through."

"If that's all it was, it wouldn't be, but Brother it isn't. I know dating around isn't your thing but, if it was, you could go out every night for two months and not repeat a person."

"Al…"

"Look I know you don't believe me but humor me and consider this, you get a flood of correspondence here and at the office. I know for a fact you don't go around announcing who you are to people when you travel so what are they attracted to if not you?"

"I make friends easily Al, is that a crime?"

"No it's not, but you can't tell me out of the dozen letters you get each month every person behind them just thinks of you as a mere friend."

"You're making something out of nothing."

"Keep your head in the sand if you want too Brother but I'm telling you, you're missing the bigger picture here," Al said as he sat his empty bottle down before excusing himself to answer the call of nature.

While he was gone, Ed used the time to open the large envelope from Preston. The size of it had him curious. There was a letter in there but most of the package was pictures. Some of them were landscape shots and other ones were from Ed and Roy's last visit with the man.

Ed was still absorbed in the letter when Al came back into the kitchen and started sifting through the pictures on the table. He said nothing as he watched his brother's face morph through a multitude of expressions. All of them were some variation of happily amused and Al gave into the urge to roll his eyes. Ed just didn't get it. Al had never met Preston but even he could tell the man was infatuated with his Brother.

Al was working on a way to get this through Ed's thick skull when his eyes fell upon a picture that left him speechless. Twice in one day, something to do with his brother had Al feeling that way and he wasn't sure how he felt about that trend. It was a sobering occurrence and it made Pinako's words from a while ago echo in his mind. "A man with his looks should be downright vain, but not our Edward. He's not vain at all." So many things over the last year had made Al feel like he didn't know who his brother really was. Before that thought could sadden him, another one hit him. A thought that made even more sense.

Ed was evolving. Late but once started it was going full tilt as Ed always has. It was possible that maybe even Ed himself had no clue who he was because he was still figuring that out.

So much time spent with a single-minded goal had left him an overly driven person. When life calmed down, he funneled all of that energy into his career. Over the past few years, Ed has worked in three different branches of the military on top of spearheading the peace talks with Xing. Ed hadn't breathed a word but Al was certain something big is brewing with the military because the Führer himself seemed to need a lot of his Brother's time and Al had a nagging feeling that Maes was in on it too.

Not even all of that was enough: Ed started a band, he made the plight of the orphanage a personal project, every time he left town he came back with a new connection of some sort. Al wasn't the betting sort but now that he was thinking on it, he was willing to wager that the Ed everyone currently knew was just the bud seen before the bloom. His brother had always been a person larger than life and Al had a feeling life was about to find out just how large Ed could be.

Al couldn't wait. It promised to be one helluva a ride.

Turning his attention back to the photo in his hand Al tried to think of a way to awaken his dense sibling. Staring at the picture, then at his brother, then back to the photograph in his hand, Al continued his inner struggle for words. The image was one of Ed was standing somewhere surrounded by water in front of a waterfall, the sun was hitting him at an angle that made the unbound hair flowing around him look like tendrils of light and the expression on Ed's face was one that had Al wishing he knew what his sibling had been thinking. There were two versions of the picture; one was in color and the other in black and white.

Giving up on the right words Al tapped on the table. When Ed looked up, Al flipped the picture over and said, "Just a friend right?"

Ed's jaw dropped as he sat the letter down and leaned forward, "Is that seriously me?"

"The one and only," Al replied.

"I wonder what he did to that film to get me to look like that?"

"It's an old trick called putting it in the camera," Al replied sarcastically.

"What?"

"Never mind, Brother, enjoy your letters. I'm going to bed and if you ever want to pull your head out of the sand, I suggest you open your eyes and take a good look at that picture. You know where to find me if you need me."

Ed told Al goodnight but his eyes never left the photo.

That was him. It was really him.

Ed knew what he looked like but the captured image on the table was how people saw him and it was nothing close to how he saw himself. This wasn't a damaged incomplete being with too many secrets. The person standing in the middle of that river was a man just like any other. He didn't look haunted, he didn't look piecemeal and he wasn't wearing his past mistakes like a scarlet letter.

He wasn't a bad looking man either.

As Ed sifted through the other pictures of himself as well as those of him, Preston and Roy laughing, goofing off and wandering around the town of Hayden, Ed felt like he was seeing himself for the first time in a decade. Was this image in front of him the same person he walked around as every day? Is this what Edward Elric looked like to people?

Did he really blend in so well that he could pass as any other average Joe?

"Yes you do," replied a voice from across the room.

When Ed looked up Al was standing in the doorway in his pajamas and robe. He must have been lost in his own musings brought on by the pictures for a while. He had spoken his thoughts aloud.

"Average isn't the word I would use to describe you Brother, but you do blend in quite well."

"I feel like such a sore thumb."

"I do too at times."

"I feel like people can sense every fucked up mistake and bad decision I've ever made the moment they get close to me."

"Guilt does that to a person," Al said as he stepped back into the kitchen. "I think non-yielding guilt is part of the burden one must bear to be an Elric. It's included in the welcome package."

"It's definitely the gift that keeps on giving," Ed mumbled. "It's heavy."

"I know it is."

"It's all consuming some days."

"It has to be."

"I don't want to carry this and some days I feel like I can't."

"Throw it away. We don't need it."

"It's not that simple, Al."

"Let me help you and maybe it can be."

"I…"

"Don't shoulder it alone. You fought like hell to get me back and I'm here now so let me be here! Let me be your brother in more ways than just title alone."

Ed was looking at serious gray eyes and the fact that Al looked close to cracking was breaking down that unstable wall Ed had built around all the heavy shit that made up his so-called life. One more look at Al and that unstable wall crumbled to the ground and he felt lost. Lost, raw and overwhelmed.

"Al I don't want you to…"

"To what Brother? To feel as you have? You think I'd prefer skipping happily through life if it meant you had suffer? That's not fair. Let me in, let me help you. If I wasn't going to accept losing you to The Gate what makes you think I'm going to sit here and do nothing as I lose you to the past?"

"But it's my…"

"No it's our past, Brother. It's our past, our decisions and our mistakes. They always have been, even when you wanted all the sins we committed to be yours and yours alone."

Long, dense, oppressive silence filled the room settling over the brothers the way a winter's fog settled over a field. An eternity of minutes stretched out around them before Ed finally spoke.

"I've carried this so long it feels like a part of me. I don't know if I can let it go."

"I hear talking does wonders. If nothing else it's a damn fine place to start."

"It's almost midnight."

Al opened a cabinet, pulled out a bottle of wine and sat it on the table. Looking at his brother he said, "I haven't called in, in months. I think I'm overdue."

Ed gave him a watery smile, grabbed two glasses and tossed Al the corkscrew, "I think I feel a sick day coming on."


Dawn saw the brothers still talking but winding down. Before turning in to get a few hours of much needed sleep, Ed called Roy. He knew the man got up at the asscrack of dawn every workday morning so he didn't have to worry about waking him. Roy must have been standing in his kitchen because the phone only rang one time.

"Mustang residence."

"Morning, Roy."

"Ed?"

"Yup."

"You sound like hell, is everything okay?"

"I think it will be but I'm just now headed to bed. I was calling so you could let everyone know I was playing hooky today."

"Seems like you need to. You sound beat."

"I am, but it was a fair tradeoff for feeling lighter than I have in years."

"You'll have to tell me about when time allows."

"I will," Ed replied with a yawn. "Have a good day at work Roy."

"Thank you, Ed. Take care of yourself."

With that said, the line went quiet and Roy hung up the bell. A soft smile slid across his face at the thought of Ed feeling lighter. If anyone needed to shed some of the pounds of burden they carried, it was Ed. He was a regular pack mule when it came to emotions.

Ready to face the day, Roy had just finished his breakfast and washed the dishes when his doorbell rang. Curious as to whom it could be so early, Roy opened the door and was surprised to find a courier on his doorstep. He signed for the two rather flat packages marked fragile, tipped the young man and took the boxes back to the kitchen table.

They were labeled one of two and two of two. They were both from the same address but it wasn't an address he recognized and it bore no name. Curiosity won out and he grabbed a pair of scissors, slit open the one of two package and slid out the carefully wrapped and padded contents. A note was taped to the top and when he opened it, he saw it was written on the letterhead from Preston's print shop. Doubly curious because Roy couldn't think of a single thing the man would be shipping him, he opened the letter in haste.

Roy,

I hope this letter finds you well and please forgive me for weaseling your home address out of Ed. I hope the contents of these packages don't offend or sit ill with you. Never one to err on the side of caution, I couldn't resist making them then sending them to you once the idea crossed my mind. Please know I meant no harm when I put this together.

~Preston

Roy would have ripped the paper off the thing if it hadn't been marked fragile. Preston's words only served to increase the suspense he was feeling. Unwrapping layer upon layer he finally got to the mystery item and what he saw left him awestruck.

It was Ed.

Two pictures of Ed to be precise. They were both black and white and set in ornate pewter frames dotted with round ruby-like stones. It was two photos of Ed that Preston had taken when the three of them had gone to the park that had the river and waterfall running through it. The larger picture of Ed was of him standing on a rock, with the sun shining through the long blond hair flowing around him. The wistful lost in thought expression he was wearing was one Roy remembered well. The second smaller picture was of him laughing. He was wearing an eyes closed, face full of mirth, completely joyous expression.

When Roy could tear his eyes away from his unexpected gift, he opened the second package. In it, he found the reverse of the first package. Both photos were in color only the large frame held the picture of Ed laughing. The blue frames with golden accents were a perfect fit for the color photos.

As much as he'd love to display all four of the photos in the living room or den he didn't think it wise. It would raise a lot of questions with visitors that he didn't want to answer. They would have to find a home in his bedroom for now.

When he could finally stand to put Ed away, Roy jotted Preston's address down and headed for the door. He had work to do and staring at Ed all day wasn't going to get it done.

When he entered the office, Jean and Riza were already there. Jean gave his usual two finger salute as Riza greeted him with her usual 'good morning Sir' as he walked toward his office. Once everyone filed in and started working Ed's absence became the topic of conversation.

"Havoc, any clue where the Boss is today?" Breda asked.

"No, he's probably on his way in now," Jean replied just as Roy walked into his subordinates shared office space.

"He called in this morning," Roy said as he handed a stack of signed papers to Riza. "He won't be joining us today."

"I've been here since twenty till," Jean said as blue eyes narrowed at Roy. "I didn't hear any of the phones ring."

"He called me at home Lieutenant."

"Ah, I see," was Jean's only response as he shifted his focus back to the papers in front of him.

Inwardly that action made Roy cringe, he should really learn to think before he opened his mouth. Interactions between him and Jean turned awkward so easily Roy felt like there was a constant path of eggshells between them. One false step and everything that composed the fragile friendship they clung to could be damaged beyond repair or destroyed altogether. No matter how lightly Roy tread, he had a feeling he was going to fracture something despite his many efforts to the contrary. Like a man in the middle of the ocean, he could only tread water for so long… in the end he knew he'd fall victim to the sea.

As he returned to his office and sank back into his chair, Roy decided to quit beating himself up over it. He realized there wasn't any other way he could have handled that situation without making Riza the messenger. Even if he had, Jean would have probably had the same question and it still would have come back to her informing him that Ed had called Roy at home.

Life was a bitch sometimes and today it was barking.


Days and weeks pass as they are apt to do and before Winry knew it, more like before she was ready, the train she was on pulled into Central. Months had passed since she'd last seen Ed and while she missed him, she wasn't ready to face him either.

Their last meeting was far from her finest hour.

She didn't remember a lot from that night outside of crying herself to sleep but she didn't think she'd ever forget the look on his face when her open palm had connected with his cheek. Just thinking about it made her cringe. She has apologized many times but not one of them ever seemed good enough. None of them ever made the guilt and embarrassment she felt over her actions go away. Many nights when thinking about it she buried her face in her pillow in an effort to hide from her shame.

But she couldn't hide from it now.

He would be there waiting for her and there was no escaping it this time. She couldn't shake her head and shift her focus to that new tool shop in town. She couldn't hum long and loud until she could no longer hear her own thoughts. She couldn't rewrite history in her head so that she handled it in any other way than the way she had actually handled it.

Taking a deep breath, she stood up and filed in line with the other passengers exiting the train. As she tried to steel her nerves, she kept her eyes trained out the window. The moment she saw him she froze. All of the courage she'd gathered to face him left her in a moment's time. She stopped moving so suddenly the passenger behind her bumped into her. Mumbling apologies, she shifted to the side, into an empty row of seats.

Her eyes remained locked on the man she still loved as she thought, why did he have to be so perfect? So handsome? So brilliant? So very, very Ed? Here she was a bundle of nerves and he was standing out there on the platform, no doubt scanning the crowd for her, looking as exquisite as ever. His nearly waist length hair was down and free of its usual braid. He had on a teal colored tank top and for the first time ever she saw him standing in a crowded public place with his arm in full view. He didn't have on his usual black pants but the white ones in their place were a pleasant shift from the expected. He was everything she wanted to run away from yet toward at the same time.

As the last few people on the train shuffled by her, Winry realized she couldn't hide on the locomotive forever and merged back into the line. When she stepped off the train, he was looking away from her. The instant he turned around and saw her, his face melted into a smile. She'd been so afraid everything between them was broken forever that seeing that smile made her sinking heart soar.

Jumping off the train, she ran the length of the platform and flung herself at him. When he picked her up and twirled her around as he always did everything was all right with the world.

The only tears involved were tears of joy and they were both shedding them.


With the first night spent up all hours talking to both brothers, Winry slept most of the next day. After she woke, Ed took her by the Hughes residence to see them and as luck would have it Roy was there as well. When they left the house of a thousand pictures he took her out to lunch. They were both chattering on, talking back and forth like they always have. Everything was normal and fine and chill and… Still dancing around that elephant.

They were closing in on it but they hadn't touched it yet. When she asked him if there was anything new going on in Central, Ed took a drink of his tea and decided to go for it.

"A couple of things in the form of a new theater and a new museum. Jean and I went to the grand opening of the museum just last week."

As that elephant peaked around the corner and waved its trunk at them, he heard her swallow hard. When she took an extra-long and noticeably slow drink out of her lemonade, he made it a point not to stare. They could do this. Ed had faith in them both. As he waited for her to reply, his ham and pepper jack cheese sub became the most fascinating thing this side of Hayden.

"That sounds interesting," she finally said. "What kind of museum is it?"

"It's a world history museum. It even has some interesting facts about Xing. It was a shame that exhibit was incomplete."

"I… I didn't peg Jean as a history buff."

"He isn't but he likes it well enough to check out a grand opening but I don't see him going back anytime soon."

"What about the Xing exhibit? Don't you want to see it once it's finished?"

"I do," Ed replied and he polished off the second half of his sandwich. "but I'm a big boy I could just as easily go by myself. That or take Roy, he likes that sort of thing too."

When she chuckled, he asked her what was so funny.

"You and Roy. He was Colonel Bastard for so long it's weird to hear about you two getting along so well. If I hadn't realized you were purposefully leaving out your exploits with Jean when we talked, I'd think you were dating Roy instead."

...and there it was. One pale pachyderm front and center.

Golden eyes met blue eyes and the air was so tense they could feel the unspoken words scraping across their skin.

"I didn't do it to insult you. I did it because I thought that would be best," Ed replied honestly.

"It probably was," she admitted lowly. "So thank you."

"You're welcome," the relief in Ed's voice was tangible. "I hope you know I'd never do anything to hurt you on purpose."

"I know and for what it's worth I'm sorry for everything. More sorry than I have words for."

"It's okay and you have apologized a dozen times so make that the last one alright? You're forgiven."

She smiled, nodded and said, "So how has your relationship with Jean been?"

"It's ok Winry, you don't need to ask about that, it must be weird for you to hear about it"

"Yes, to be honest it is, but if we are going to get our friendship back on track I need to get over that, so spill it. How has it been? All roses?"

Ed wasn't feeling as confident as she was about this but he was willing to give it a try. After a deep breath he replied with an honest, "For the most part."

"Oh?"

"It's nothing really big but he seems to clam up at times. I feel like he doesn't really get what pushes me to do some of the things I do."

"Well that was loaded yet vague," she said as she gave him a skeptical look. "Want to try that again? Using actual useful information this time."

"Sometimes we talk for hours and everything is great then other times I'll kick off a conversation and it's almost as if he wants nothing to do with it. I get one word answers or nothing at all."

"You can be a little highbrow at times Ed. Maybe it's the topic."

"I wouldn't exactly call me discussing my road trip misadventures abstruse Win."

"Point taken," she said before taking another bite of the pickle on her plate. "I'm at a loss for ideas for that one. Any other examples come to mind?"

"The local orphanage."

"The one with the funding and space issues?"

Ed nodded and proceeded to tell her about Jean's reaction to him being so dedicated to helping them. It wasn't so much that he wanted Jean's assistance with the matter, it would be nice but it wasn't necessary, Ed merely wanted Jean to understand and respect why it was so important to him and Al.

"Your commitment to that particular cause shouldn't be a stretch for him to wrap his brain around. I'm sure he knows we were orphans once too."

"I know he knows that but I guess part of him only sees who I am now without realizing how easy it would have been for me and Al to end up in one of those places. Despite everything we've been through, we were lucky."

"Being a genius tends to have its perks," she replied with a wink.

Ed nodded but his smile was still thin and melancholy, "True but the oddest things leave me floundering."

"Like?"

"Like how to fix this so it feels comfortable. I don't feel right leaving this dangling between us. As I said before, it's not a huge deal and I don't expect him to be a clone of me but…"

"But it wouldn't hurt for him to be a little more interested in your world."

"Exactly."

"I say try working it strongly in reverse. Schedule some serious time, like a whole weekend or something, doing things that are all about his interests and see if it sparks him to do the same."

"That's actually a really good idea."

She smirked at him and said, "Thank you, if nothing else this will give you some time and material to figure things out."

"Things like?"

"Are you really sure Jean's the one for you?"

Ed's stomach dropped. He didn't know where that line of questioning was going but he didn't like it. He didn't know what he was going to do if she…

"Because you certainly seem to spend a lot of your time with Roy."

Left hook received.

"What?"

"I know you were omitting your interactions with Jean when we spoke but that does nothing to change the fact that you still did all of those things you would talk about, with Roy. The beauty pageant, that singing contest, all of those research projects, the cooking over the weekends, that wine tasting... it just seems like you two spend a lot of time together. A lot of fun times to be honest."

"Have you been talking to, Al?"

"Yes, but not about this."

"We're just friends Win. Nothing going on there."

"Would you like there to be?"

Ed nearly choked on his tea.

"What made you ask me that?"

"It was just a question. But I will say, you two disappeared together at Hughes' place almost the instant you saw each other and when I found you out on the porch, you two were standing shoulder to shoulder, leaning against the porch rail laughing over something."

"We are friends Winry. That's it."

"That isn't an answer to the question I asked you."

"I'm fine with us being friends."

"Still yet another excellent avoidance of answering my query."

"Winry," Ed growled.

"Fine, get in a huff about it but you know as well as I do that you're dodging my question."

"I've never looked at Roy like that," Ed replied as a litany of memories crossed his mind. Roy laughing at Hughes' jokes, Roy at the office picnic, Roy with him at the haunted house, Roy at the…

"If you did look, what would you see?"

She was staring at Ed so intently he couldn't blink. When Ed sat there unmoving and silent for several minutes Winry let him off the hook.

"Don't bust a gasket over there, okay? What are we doing next?"

"I… uh we… I think… shit!"

Seeing Ed so flustered made her giggle. He was pretty hard to rile up now that he wasn't so blasted short. She wasn't doing it to be mean but once she got over herself and was able to listen to him as her friend again she heard one thing over everything else… Roy. A lot of Roy to be frank. She was no expert in such things but the two of them seemed joined at the hip. Who would have ever thought that Roy Mustang would become Ed's new Achilles Heel?


Another day came and went and everyone was settled in for the night at the Elric household. Settled but not asleep. Ed was tossing and turning and after more than an hour of that fruitless endeavor he made his way outside. The moon was half-full, the breeze was just right and Ed let out a contented sound as he sat down on the porch swing. He wasn't out there long before he heard Al come outside as well.

"Everything okay Brother?"

"Actually all is fine. We had a good time today."

"From what I could see, it was just what you two needed. I'm glad."

"So am I," Ed replied as he watched a few wispy clouds drift across the night sky. If everything was well, why did he feel so on edge?

"What has you out here at this hour?"

"Not sure to be honest. For whatever reason I couldn't settle down and sleep."

"Something on your mind?"

"Isn't that always the case?"

Al chuckled, "Touché Brother. What I really meant was is there anything in particular?"

"No," Ed lied. "Not really."

"But kinda sort of?"

Ed shrugged.

"Would you like to talk about it?"

"Not even remotely."

Al gave him a warm smile in response to his honesty, "I'll be in my room if you change your mind."

"Thanks Al, sleep well."

"You do the same Brother."

Ed tipped his head skyward, looked up at the stars and thought, you bastards let me down again. You still don't have the answers do you? **


Outside of them putting the elephant to rest, Winry's visit was pleasant and uneventful. Ed took Al's advice and skipped introducing her to Jean. It wasn't that he thought she couldn't handle it but he knew salt could still aggravate a recently healed wound. When it was time for her to leave both brothers walked her to the train station to say their goodbyes. Once she was on her way back to Resembool Ed sighed and after seeing the aged look on his brother's face Al offered to buy him an extra-large slice of red velvet cake as a pick me up.

Food in the form of sugar always brought a smile to Ed's face.

Never one fond of excess emotion Ed was looking forward to returning to work. There was something beautifully mind numbing about routine. Sure paperwork was monotonous but sometimes that's just what the doctor ordered. Ed had had enough excitement over the last two weeks. He was ready for a good dose of monotony.

Ed was seated at his desk, about to pick up yet another stack of monotony, when the office door opened to reveal the General.

Not just any General; it was Olivier Armstrong.

Standing immediately along with everyone else Roy came into the outer office, greeted her with a salute and asked, "What brings you down from the Northern Wall General?"

"Not small talk, that I assure you."

"Of course not," Roy replied dryly. If anyone were to ask his opinion on the matter this woman had the social grace of a wounded barracuda. "How may I help you?"

"You can do nothing. I have come to retrieve Edward."

Ed swallowed hard as everyone turned to face him, curiosity and confusion clearly etched all over their faces. When she turned to leave the office, Ed fell in step behind her. She had stated her mission and he didn't need an engraved invitation to follow her. The woman was in a righteous mood and he wasn't stupid enough to do anything that would place him on her bad side.

"Will he be returning?" Roy asked and he immediately regretted asking the question the moment it was off his tongue.

The glare she tossed over her shoulder was all the response given.

It was more than he was expecting.


The silence was killing Ed as he walked behind the General but he didn't dare break it. Every set of eyes they passed stopped and stared but he paid them no mind. He knew when it came down to it, it was his head on the chopping block if he was stupid enough to do or say something she deemed unnecessary. The eldest Armstrong was not one for idle chitchat.

When they finally reached her auto she motioned for him to climb in and he did so just as silently as he had made the walk. Once inside the vehicle a set of beautiful ice blue eyes met his via the rearview mirror and the amusement in them was apparent. He had pleased her and now his own smile was breaking free.

"You can drop the scared rabbit routine now Edward. Well done as always."

Smile wide, Ed relaxed in his seat and said, "It would be a shame if your flawless reputation as the Ice Queen came under fire because of me. Besides I rather like honing my acting skills. Maes says it keeps me useful. Where is he by the way? I assume this is about the unrest near the border?"

"He is already in chambers with Cross. Things have come to a head quicker than we expected so I don't believe you'll have many more opportunities to hone those acting skills."

"That bad huh?"

"Yes, if our eyes and ears are correct."

"So plan B?"

"Might even have to be plan C Edward. We will probably have less than a year."

"Damn it all. Any concrete clue what they are building?"

"Somewhat," she replied as she steered the roadster into the Führer's complex on base. "Specialized tanks that run and operate without a pilot."

"Robots?"

"More deadly than any other attempts we've ever seen at this. They are massive, armed to the teeth and they are plentiful."

"Fuck!"

"Indeed," she replied as she parked the car. "Could I entertain you with a thought on lighter matters before we go in?"

"Sure," Ed said confused but willing to put the seriousness aside for a moment. "Go for it."

"When it comes time to let Mustang in on this…"

"But why would you think that we…"

"Please, despite my dislike of the man I cannot deny his talent and from what I have seen of these plans you and Hughes have made they stand little chance of being executed successfully without him."

"Understood," Ed replied as a smirk slid across his face. She was brisk but he liked that about her. No one ever said they didn't know where they stood with Olivier Mira Armstrong.

"As I was saying, when the time comes please do me one favor."

"Name it and it's yours."

"I'd love to be there when you make him aware of things. His face is bound to be priceless."

Ed's smirk melted into a genuine smile as he nodded. He could manage that.


When Friday rolled around Ed was more than ready to follow everyone as they filed out of the office and straight into the Tavern. It was the beginning of a three day weekend and Ed was willing to kick it off in style. Drinks were poured, billiards were shot, darts were thrown and fun was had by all. Just as everyone was tabbing out Ed plopped down beside Roy and said, "Just a heads up I'm skipping the cooking class with Gracia this Sunday."

"No worries Edo, I'll take notes on your behalf. Anything special going on?"

"Thanks and yes. I'm determined to get Jean to do something besides lounge around the house. He says he likes outdoorsy stuff, you know, hiking, boating, fishing, all that jazz so I'm taking him to Bear Mountain for a couple of nights," Ed said as he looked over at his boyfriend as he helped Fuery clear the pool tables. "I realize he's a homebody by nature these days but I'm going to get him up and doing something even if it kills me!"

"I wish you all the luck in Amestris."

"Thanks," Ed said as he dropped several cenz in the tip jar. "I haven't been outdoorsy in years so I'm going to need all that luck and then some."


He should have stayed in Central.

That is all Ed could think as he listened to Jean grumble and groan about the condition of the hiking trails. Hiking was Jean's idea mind you, but Ed wasn't stupid enough to mention that with Jean being in the mood he was in. A mile and a half up the mountain Ed called for a break, plopped down on a fallen log and decided maybe he should give his lover an out.

"We don't have to finish this hike. I saw tons of things to do at the base of the mountain."

"Ready to quit already?"

Ed wasn't sure how to answer that. With the way Jean was carrying on about the trails Ed figured Jean would be the one ready to quit.

"Not really, but I think I'm itching to get my hands on a bow and arrow. I've never tried it but it looked like fun!"

"Well you're in luck that happens to be one of my weapons of choice, Love."

"I'm game if you are," Ed said as he hopped to his feet feeling confident about everything working out just fine.

When they returned to the base of the mountain, people were milling about setting up targets and handing out papers for an archery competition that was just getting underway. Jean signed up with confidence and with a little prodding from his boyfriend; Ed did the same just for kicks. After taking a short lesson on how to operate the compound bow Ed fired two of his three practice arrows, both sank themselves into the blue area of the target.

"Seems like you're a natural young fellow," declared a friendly wide eyed old man that wore an angler's cap. He lit up his pipe and said, "Hope you are signed up for the contest. Mayumi needs some new competition."

"I did but I think that was beginners luck. I've never fired a bow before."

"You don't say?"

"I do say," Ed replied as he pulled the bow back for his final practice shot, a shot that sank itself in the red zone. "Who is this Mayumi?"

"A sassy little lady only a few years older than yourself that's won this contest for the last four years."

"I can't wait to meet her. She sounds like my kind of people."

"Oh you'll meet her alright," the man said as he looked at Ed's arrows in the target. "I have a feeling the two of you will come head to head."

The old pipe smoker's words were true to form. Four rounds later found Jean sitting on the sidelines with everyone else that had been ruled out of the competition and Ed up at the firing line with Mayumi and her cousin Emmerson.

Emmerson was to fire first and once he did his arrow sank into the blue area meaning Ed had to hit red or above to remain in the running. When he did Emerson bowed out gracefully, but not without some good natured ribbing first.

"Damn fine show of luck Ed. I'll see if I can redeem myself at the lodge later on."

"At the lodge?"

"The Maple Lodge sponsors this contest and they give all the food and spirits you can drink to first, second and third place. I'll see if you can match me pint for pint."

"You have yourself a drinking buddy," Ed said as he looked at the target. "Now let's see if I can relieve missus Mayumi of that title."

"That's miss Mayumi," She corrected with a wink. "I'm up for any game you'd like to play Edward."

Ed lined up what would be his final shot with a flush on his face. It would seem that Mayumi played for keeps no matter what she was shooting for. Both she and her cousin were outgoing, spirited and witty, it was something Ed found himself drawn to. He was looking forward to dinner already.

Ed managed to hit the gold area, a feat that earned him nine points, but Mayumi would have to get the blue area or less for him to outscore her.

With the grace, ease and skill of a predator that's cornered their prey, Mayumi drew back her bow and let her arrow fly. It too struck the gold area making her the reigning champion once again.

Mayumi stuck out her hand in a gesture of sportsmanship and Ed shook it with a smile. As soon as they lowered their weapons, two children raced up to them to pin on their ribbons. Blue for Mayumi, red for Ed and green for Emmerson.

"I still can't believe I made it to the final round," Ed said to Mayumi once the children scampered off, proud of themselves for completing their appointed tasks. There was muffled talk of rewards in the form of popcorn and lemonade.

"I can," she replied as she slung her bow over her shoulder. "You have an inborn talent when it comes to weapons. What do you usually wield?"

Thinking hard and quick on the best way to describe the blade he usually turned his automail hand into Ed settled on sword.

"A sword and a spear. I've occasionally thrown a few of my friend's knives but I've never used anything close to this bow in my hand."

"Talent is talent my friend. I'm looking forward to seeing you at the lodge in a few hours."

After she departed with Emmerson, Ed made his way over to Jean. He was surprised the man hadn't come up to congratulate him as others had.

"That was pretty cool wasn't it? It's a damn good thing we arrived when we did or we would have missed this."

"Glad you had fun, Ed."

Noting his flat tone and dour expression Ed said, "Oh come on Jean, don't be a spoilsport. You at least had fun shooting right? I know that isn't the same as placing, but me doing that was just dumb luck no matter what Mayumi says."

Jean shrugged, "She seemed rather fond of you."

"I'm fond of her too," Ed replied missing Jean's sarcasm. "I can't wait to have dinner with her and Emmerson at that Maple Lodge they were talking about. I bet a lot of the contestants and spectators will be there. I like this place, everyone is so laid back."

"Mind if we skip dinner at that place? I think I saw a steakhouse I'd rather eat at."

"Normally I wouldn't mind," Ed replied feeling more than a little disappointed Jean would even suggest it. The only thing that made sense to Ed was to think that Jean was unaware that the lodge feast was part of the contest. Going with that line of logic Ed continued with, "This whole lodge thing is a celebration and reward for the contestants. Second place has earned me all the food and spirits I can consume."

"I heard about that Ed. They told me when I turned in my bow as they wished me luck next year."

"Doesn't that sweeten the pot, even just a little?"

"Not really," Jean replied as he took the bow off Ed's shoulder and handed it to one of the attendants.

That wasn't the response Ed was expecting or hoping for but he didn't let that stop him. He was determined to cheer Jean up. He was convinced the man would have a good time at the Maple Lodge if he gave it a chance.

"How about I make you a deal. If you aren't having a decent time after we eat and mingle for a bit we'll take off and do something else. Deal?"

Jean agreed, even if it was reluctantly, and when Ed saw his long face he said, "We have two hours to kill and I could use a shower."

"Okay," Jean said as he gave Ed an odd look due the random statement.

"Wanna join me?"

At that invitation, Jean gave his first genuine smile of the day.


The next morning was a somber one and the tension was so high Ed was willing to peel off his own skin to rid himself of the sensation. Anything to keep from feeling it crawl every time Jean looked at him. He was hung over, Jean was still angry and this left Ed at a loss as to what to do. If he'd had any idea the night would have taken such an unforeseen turn he would have never set foot in that lodge. All the free ribs, fries, whiskey and ale in the world wasn't worth the night he'd had. There were not enough pigs, potatoes and spirits in Amestris to make amends for this.

"Are… Are you sure you want to go home?"

"Yes," was the clipped response that made Ed flinch.

"I know you don't want to stay here but it's still early and…"

"No. Home is fine."

"Jean, I am so sorry I…"

"It's fine Ed, it's fine, just drop it and let's go."

Ed flinched again but busied himself packing his bag as swiftly as he could manage as the events of the previous night played over in his head. Each memory just made him shove something in his duffel that much harder.

Everything was going fine, great even. Jean had actually enjoyed dinner and the music at the Lodge. Ed still had no luck getting him out on the dance floor but he was laughing, smiling, joking and that was good enough for Ed. The trouble began as the drinks started making rounds. Ed and Emmerson were going toe to toe and drink for drink. By the time Ed tapped out and declared Emmerson the undisputed winner, both of them were feeling no pain.

Ed wasn't sure when he got separated from Jean but he had a vague memory of his boyfriend playing darts or pool or both… hell something like that, with a few of the locals. During this time, Mayumi was sitting beside him and the two of them were talking about the recent publication of Noether's Theorem. During this discussion, Ed discovered that Mayumi was a promising mathematician with a few unique ideas of her own.

Ed couldn't tell anyone what prompted her to do it, but before his muddled brain could process it Mayumi was kissing him.

If he had been sober he would have reacted better. On this fact he is sure. However, in that moment, half a dozen pints and a few shots in, Ed had merely smiled at the dark eyed raven haired beauty when their lips finally parted. He grabbed her hand, and held it to his chest as he explained to her that he was in a serious relationship with his boyfriend Jean.

"I see," she said as a pout claimed her face. "My technique must be off."

"No, that was not it at all my dear."

"Oh?"

"No the kiss was fine."

"It sure looked like it was," Jean said and the glare he was giving Ed was a sobering one.

Reality came crashing into Ed's ale addled brain at a rate that rivaled the rockets on the other side of The Gate. He looked up at Jean and words failed him. Noting the tension, Mayumi apologized to them both before making herself scarce.

Her absence did not help.

No amount of apologizing as they returned to their cabin was helping Ed either.

"I… I'm sorry Jean but it all happened so fast and…"

"I'm sure it did."

"I told her that you and I were in a committed relationship."

"Your lips looked a little busy for talking."

Ed cringed, "No I'm serious. I told her we were a couple and I wasn't interested in her like that."

"Nice of you to come to that conclusion after twenty seconds of sucking face."

That situation was what brought them to being up just after dawn, packing their belongings to return to Central a full day ahead of schedule. As they loaded their things into the vehicle, Ed thought the silence alone was going to kill him. Ten miles down the road, Jean was still as quiet as an empty tomb and Ed thought he was going to crack.

"How many other ways can I say I'm sorry? What do I have to do to fix this?"

"Don't worry about it Ed."

"Don't worry about it? There are so many reasons why that isn't possible," Ed said as his grip on the steering wheel tightened.

Silence.

"Talk to me."

More silence.

"Please?"

Jean didn't answer and they spent the thirty-minute ride to Central in awkward heavy silence.

When they arrived at Jean's house, Ed moved to turn the car off but Jean stopped him. Ed's heart was trying to pound its way out of his chest, the very air in the vehicle was pressing down on him and he was certain his left hand was trembling. He hated this feeling, he really hated it.

"Just go on home Ed."

"But Jean I…"

"It's okay. I'll get over it."

"Could we please talk about this?"

"Not today. Go home and get some sleep, you still look like shit," Jean said as he stepped out of the vehicle and shut the door.

Ed watched Jean as he disappeared into his house and it took every ounce of restraint he had not to pound on the steering wheel in frustration. For the first time in years, he wanted to clap his hands together and start blowing shit up.


As he drove through the streets of Central Ed thought about going home but decided against it. He knew after taking one look at him, Al would corner him to talk and he wasn't in the mood for that. Ed knew he had to fix this with Jean but he didn't know how. He didn't have a clue and anything he could think of was going to be damn near impossible when he couldn't even get his lover to talk to him.

Ed had plans for them tonight since Monday was a holiday and they didn't have to rush back to Central. It was part of the reason he'd rented the cabin instead of just getting a room at an Inn. He was going to try his hand at romance in the form of making dinner, mood music, candles and every other cheesy cliché thing he could think of but before they could get close to that point one fluke undid it all.

Ed couldn't stop the bitter chuckle that passed his lips at the irony of it all. He has run around the countryside since he was twelve years old. He's been single most of his adult life. Fate chooses now to have someone randomly lip lock him in a bar. What were the fucking chances? Slim to none really, but that was Ed's specialty wasn't it? Making a two percent chance a sure bet?

Pulling himself together after letting out a string of curses Ed drove toward the edge of town until he reached Breda's apartment. If anyone stood a chance of helping him it was Jean's best friend. Looking at his watch, Ed noted it was just after 8am on a Sunday. He didn't want to wake the man up but he didn't want to waste time either.

Deciding that his day was fucked to shit already and a person yelling at him over the time of day or giving him dirty looks couldn't even begin to compare to what had already taken place Ed decided to go for it. He climbed out the vehicle, made his way to the man's door and buzzed the bell. Short of breaking a bone or being hit by a car he couldn't imagine his day getting any worse.

As Ed stood there in the warm breeze of the early morning, the beauty of it all was in direct conflict with what he was feeling. It was hard to appreciate the pristine blue sky, the wispy white clouds and the brilliant glow of the newly risen sun when a person felt as if they were coming apart on the inside. That's what Ed felt like. Like someone slid a cold stiff hand down into his gut, flexed the rigid fingers and pulled. Emotions could be as hard hitting as they were uplifting. He wasn't very fond of the flip side of this coin and if it never happened to him again it would be too soon.

Twelve hours ago he was eating with Jean and on cloud nine.

He now felt like something that had rode into town on the underside of a garbage truck.

When the door opened, Breda was all smiles but that quickly faded when he took a good look at Ed.

"Good morning Boss what brings you… oh fuck… you look like shit Ed."

"Tell me something I don't know."

Breda stepped aside and motioned Ed in, "Care to tell me what has you looking so haggard this morning?"

"No, but I'm going to anyway," Ed replied as he flopped down bonelessly onto Breda's couch. His shitty night was starting to catch up to him. He felt like crap.

As Breda walked across the room to join Ed a thought struck him, "Weren't you supposed to still be on the mountain?"

"Yes and I… Breda I so fucked up. I… I… Shit do you have any coffee made?"

"No, but I can fix that," he replied before moving to do so immediately. If anyone had ever looked like they needed a cup of coffee Ed did. To be honest he looked like a man that needed a shot of gin.

As the coffee did its thing Ed started recounting his sordid tale to Breda. When Ed he was done the other man was shaking his head. Yes, it was all hard to believe but Breda was also fighting not to laugh. Ed was upset, Jean was apparently just as upset if not more so, but that did nothing to erase the overall hilarity of the situation. There was a time and a place for everything but now was not either for Breda's unique brand of humor.

In his world Ed getting smooched by some bow wielding babe was funny. Funny hell, it was downright hilarious.

His mouthy, brash and confrontational coworker was painfully shy when it came to personal matters and thinking of him soused enough to be smooching with a woman five years his senior in the middle of a lodge full of people was great stuff in Breda's world; but then again he wasn't dating Ed either so he could kinda see Jean's plight even if he thought the silent treatment was overkill considering.

"So you are as hungover as you look?"

"Yes," Ed replied as he sank down into his seat a bit further.

"I'm just giving you a hard time Ed. No worries from me," Breda said as he added a few splashes of bourbon to Ed's coffee.

When Ed gave him a look Breda said, "It'll help take the edge off."

"If that's the case I won't turn it down," Ed said as he took a drink of his altered drink. "I'm feeling worse the longer I'm up."

"You need sleep and water my friend. Now let's look at this problem of yours," Breda said as he added a few splashes to his coffee as well just for the hell of it. "Sounds to me like it wasn't too big a deal. It wasn't like you were trying to go home with that woman."

"I know that, but that doesn't matter, what does matter and what is a big deal, is Jean's reaction to it. He won't even speak to me."

"Between the contest and the random kiss I think his pride was just wounded."

"That still doesn't fix this mess I've made," Ed said as he poured himself a second cup of coffee.

Breda put a hand on Ed's shoulder and said, "Look Ed I'm sure he'll get over this but if you want to take action why don't you just finish out your plan."

"I somehow doubt he'd answer my invite to a nice candlelit dinner at this point Heymans."

"Well don't give him a choice."

Ed gave the stocky man a confused look.

"You have keys to his place right?"

"Yes but…"

"Hear me out," Breda said as he moved to refresh his own cup of coffee. "I'm sure he wouldn't refuse going out and about with me for a couple of hours later today. I bet in two hours' time you could have everything set up and ready to rock if you had the place to yourself."

"You'd do that for me?"

"But of course. What are friends for, Ed. Besides, I'm sure once he's had time to sit alone in that house most of the day he will have realized how badly he's overreacting and how much he misses you being there."

"I'm not sure you're right about all of that but I'm willing to risk it."

"That's the spirit! Now just make sure you are there by three this afternoon. Leave the rest to me."


At two-thirty that day Heymans strode up onto his best friend's porch ready to take action. Knowing the man seldom locked his door during the day if he was home Heymans flung it open and shouted, "Come on soldier get your ass in gear let's…"

The rest of his sentence died in shock on his tongue.

Julia.

The infamous base lizard. She was propped up on Jean's couch, tea cup in hand, bosom thrust forward nearly spilling out of her dress and leer firmly in place. Jean was sitting close enough to kiss her exposed neck if he had wanted too and Bread was stunned. They weren't doing anything incriminating at the moment but if their proximity to each other said anything, it said that wasn't far off. It said if Breda had arrived fifteen minutes later he would be headed across town to tell Ed not to waste his time and energy.

As it was, Breda couldn't speak. With him standing there motionless in the doorway Jean excused himself from present company, stepped out on the porch and shut the door behind him.

"What the hell are you doing here?" Jean asked in a rushed whisper.

"I'd like to ask you the same thing about her," Breda fired back through gritted teeth.

"Look I ran into her at the market, she said something about liking tea and…"

"Save it Jean! Every soldier with more than a year in knows Julia, just like I know she isn't here to enjoy your off-brand tea!"

Jean looked away guiltily for a moment before turning back to stare his best friend down with narrowed blue eyes, "You don't know what kind of weekend I've had so back off!"

"See that's where you are wrong. I know exactly what kind of weekend you've had and that's why I'm here."

When Jean gave him a doubtful look Breda told him about Ed turning up on his doorstep at eight in the morning distraught and beating himself up over hurting Jean's feelings.

"Shit," was Jean's only response.

"Shit is right. Now either turn that lizard loose right now or I'm headed to the south side of the City to tell Ed not to waste his fucking time."

"You wouldn't dare we…"

"You're damn straight I'd dare," Breda replied cutting Jean off.

"You can't think what happened was supposed to be all fine and dandy with me."

"No, but at the end of the day it was just a kiss. Do you deny the fact the she started it? Do you deny the fact he turned her down?"

"No but…"

"But nothing. We've all had our judgment and reactions blurred by the bottle. If memory serves me correctly that's how you got to know Julia to begin with, right?"

It was Jean's turn to be the one flinching as he sighed in defeat.

"So what's it going to be?" Breda asked him when he didn't move.

Jean thought for a moment before saying, "Fine, I'll get rid of her."

"Hell, if it's that hard to decide maybe you shouldn't."

"Look Breda, the last few months haven't been easy. I have a lot of shit on my mind."

"Ed related shit I take it?"

"What do you think?"

"You two have been together for over a year now. You need to talk to him. He has to be the easiest person in our group to talk to. Hell, even perfect strangers love talking to Ed."

"And that fact is part of the problem."

"If that's the case then you really need to talk to him. Problems of this nature won't fix themselves and actions like this," Breda said as he pointed toward the house where Julia sat, "damn sure won't help matters either."

"It's not like Ed's going to be around forever Breda. People like him don't ride off into the sunset with people like me."

"I think the past year or so has proven that an untruth."

Jean snorted, "How much longer do you think that's going to last, Breda?"

"I can't see the future Jean but if you keep this shit up it'll end today. Is that what you want?"

"Better on my terms than his."

"Do you even hear yourself? You've been stupid in love lust with him for years. Now you have him, plus a damn fine shot at something real, and the first hitch in the road has you pulling out the lizard. What kind of shit is that?"

"I don't know it… The whole thing is making me crazy."

"Then talk about whatever's bothering you, with him. I'm not the closest person to Ed but the kid loves you. Half this city would sellout their mother to be in your shoes."

"Again this is an issue."

"What? Ed being popular? So what! Instead of being insecure about it how about considering yourself lucky?"

"Yeah, I'm the lucky bastard that gets to watch people throw themselves at their lover left and right. Half the time I feel like I should carry a cattle prod to fend them off."

Breda shook his head in disbelief. Of all Jean's traits this damn insecurity of his was the worst. Everyone had their bad side and this was most definitely his. It always led him down roads best left untraveled.

"What's really eating you?"

"Mustang."

"Not this shit again."

"Yes, this shit again. Tell me you haven't noticed he's stuck up Ed's ass and I'll eat today's newspaper."

Breda didn't know how to answer that because he had noticed but he didn't think Ed was interested in Roy like that and said as much.

"Yeah, but you saying that means you think the Chief has pies in his eyes when it comes to Ed too."

"I can't say for sure either way," Breda answered truthfully "but that doesn't matter if Ed's in love with you!"

"For now."

"See, that's the kind of attitude that's kept you single. You need to let this shit go, Jean. Do you actually doubt how Ed feels about you?"

Silence.

"Jean?"

"No, I don't."

"Then there shouldn't be a fucking problem then. Now go get rid of your tea time pal so we can go."

Jean went inside and fed Julia a line about a work related emergency. Once she left the house two men stood in Jean's foyer staring at each other.

"Jean you know I'm not the judgmental sort but… just fuck, don't make me regret keeping a lid on this okay?"

Jean said nothing, he merely nodded.

For Breda the gesture was not a comforting one. He didn't know if it was done in agreement or merely to pacify him.

Only time would tell.


Ed was able to blame his mood and appearance on being hungover which allowed him to skip the awkward conversation with Al. After sleeping for three hours, drinking half a gallon of water and taking a shower Ed headed out to the market to replace the food he'd left at the cabin. With that done he got Al to drop him off so Jean wouldn't see the car and headed straight into the kitchen to get the food going. He decided to make chicken with prosciutto and tomatoes over polenta. Jean like grilled polenta. Ed had fixed it as part of an appetizer a few weeks ago and Jean had talked about it for days.

As visions of happy Jean from that memory crossed his mind Ed couldn't mesh him with the silent brooding Jean from the car this morning. It was as if they were two different people altogether. The Jean that was happily munching his way through half a dozen polenta cakes didn't even look related to the Jean that had sat stone faced and unforgiving in the cabin after they left the lodge. Emotionally, the previous night had been one of the worst nights of Ed's adult life.

Once the food was underway Ed shook those thoughts from his mind as he ventured into the living room. He was going to transform the dining area into a romantic little nook. Table cloth on, lace placemats down and tulips in a vase. Candelabras on either end, tealights dotting the rest of the table and napkins folded in the shape of fans. Small plates to hold the sliced fruit. Vintage chiller that was a gift from Gracia sat on the corner. One glass, a rummer, and two flutes a piece for the water, mint limeade, champagne and wine. Ed had the table looking like a masterpiece.

Done with that, he immediately moved to tidy up the living room. Jackets on the rack. Mail stacked neatly on the table. Dishes picked up…

Ed froze.

Was that lipstick on the teacup in his hand?

It sure as hell looked like it.

Ed stared at the cup and stared at it until even he was surprised it didn't have a hole in it. How could… Why would there be…. Shrugging it off he reasoned that it probably belonged to Riza or Ross, maybe even Rebecca. Perhaps one of them had come by. It couldn't be… No! Ed decided that he wasn't going to make an already shitty day worse by entertaining such moralless notions. He was ashamed of his own thought process, one hitch in the road and he already had the man dipping out on him.

Emotions were horrible things.

Ed wasn't the least bit fond of them at the moment.

Shaking his head a few more times Ed put on music. He had to have something else to focus on besides his own thoughts.

The first batch of polentas were a gritty, crumbled bust but the second batch turned out perfect. When the food was ten minutes away from done Ed stepped into the bathroom, changed his clothes and combed out his hair. He started to braid it, but decided to leave it down. Everyone but Al seemed to prefer it down but then again Al had long hair as well and knew how much it got in the way.

With that done, all he had left to do was keep an eye the food and wait.

It was twenty-seven of the longest minutes of his life and once he heard Jean enter the house he suddenly wanted some of that time back. Sucking it up like the soldier he was Ed took a deep breath, put on a brave face and entered the living room.

Jean still looked shocked at what he was seeing and that reaction was a shit ton better than the anger Ed had expected. The man had made it clear that he didn't want Ed's company but Ed had decided to impose anyway.

When Jean looked at him Ed swallowed the lump in his throat, "Can I convince you to let me say that I'm sorry one more time?"

Jean smiled at him and the world took on a little bit of its former glory.

Dinner went great.

Dessert… well that was even better.

Later that night as moonlight spilled into the bedroom window like silver dust, Ed was lying awake beside Jean staring at the ceiling. Even though he was pleased to have his apology accepted and his life back to a semblance of normal, he couldn't shake one thought...

We spent the entire evening together and he never once mentioned who his earlier visitor was.


* Lyrics taken from "The Secret Garden (Sweet Seduction Suite)" a song by Quincy Jones with Al B. Sure, James Ingram, El DeBarge, and Barry White.

** Chapter 7 reference

Sorry this took forever but I hope the extra long chapter helps make up for it a little ^_^ Thanks again for reading all feed back welcome and appreciated as always! *hugs to you all*