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Whispers of Smoke

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All in all, the recovery period hadn’t been too bad, Ed supposed.

Immediately after the Promised Day and Al being released from the military hospital, they had gone back to Resembool to continue their recovery. Al’s muscles had been terribly atrophied from the lack of use and nutrition behind the gate. He’d had to relearn how to do basically everything.

Ed had been with Al through the six months of extended health leave he had applied for before leaving him behind to finish recovering while Ed went back to Central and bought a small apartment for the two of them to share.

He’d gone back to working with the military under Roy’s command (because there was no way he was leaving now. Especially after their continued contact via letters). Al had joined him in back in Central two months later and taken up studying alkehestry part-time at the university and working part-time in the Investigations department of the military.

All in all, it seemed that they were back to normal- or as normal as they had ever been. Though, now with Al back in his body and all the issues related to that, and Ed with insomnia.

 


 

Sleep hadn’t ever really been an issue for Ed while Al’s body had been bonded to his, but now the only thing that connected them were their gates, he never really felt the need to sleep much that anymore. Which in turn had led him to lose his appetite. Not that it affected him much- he wasn’t feeding Al anymore. So it didn’t really matter

To fill the empty void the loss of hunger had left him with, Ed had started burying himself in both work assignments as well as personal research. He’d also taken to wearing the actual military uniform now that he was no longer the stupid kid who defied everyone just because he could and that went around the entire country catching crooks every other day. He was a grown adult now with actual responsibilities that also required a fair bit of in-office time with the rest of the team.

He had explained to Roy, and to the personnel responsible for uniforms that the actual reason why he always wore black clothing before was because his automail had the unfortunate side effect of leaving oil stains on more or less everything that it came into contact with. Especially clothing. They hadn’t listened. Of course they hadn’t.

Which was the reason why Ed found himself transmuting stains away far more often that should be necessary.

 


 

“You’re free to use my library if you need somewhere private to work on your current research project.”

Roy had told him that a week ago when he handed Ed a file requesting him to do some clarification work some old state alchemist had done before deserting his work and becoming a criminal. It was tedious work, with no real substance to it, but in happened to be within a branch of alchemy that Ed wasn’t terribly familiar with. And since he didn’t really have anything better to do- well, the assignment could be done properly for once.

Now, however, standing ankle-deep in the snow on Roy’s doorstep with a hand held up to knock at the dark wood, Ed hesitated. He wasn’t sure how Roy would react to having his undoubtedly most annoying subordinate (even though they had grown considerably closer since Ed had gone home to Resembool, what, with their letter correspondence) showing up at his door at noon on a Saturday right before Winter Solstice- no matter how okay he had said it was.

Especially since Ed hadn’t presented yet, and that made everything dangerous.

You see, in this world, everyone presents with a second gender between the ages of of 12-15. 95% of people present within that time period, while the remaining 5% either presented before or after. Ed was sixteen now, just two months shy of turning seventeen, but had not yet presented as anything.

Both Winry and his brother had presented as betas- Winry at 13 and Al just when they had gone to Resembool. That made sense. Betas usually presented first, followed by (commonly) alphas and then omegas last. Usually.

Roy was an alpha, and Ed hadn’t presented yet. That made everything dangerous, because what if he suddenly presented as (God forbid) an omega around an alpha?

But still- when Roy opened the door to him, Ed had been met with a pleasant smile and a “would you like a cup of coffee before you start with your work, Edward?”

Ed had said yes, and that was how he had found himself sitting by Roy’s kitchen table with a (frankly) gigantic cup of coffee. With several tea spoons of sugar. It seemed that Roy knew Ed almost as well as Al did. Or he had watched how Ed prepared his coffee in the mess hall. That- was actually kind of concerning, while also being … calming? Reassuring? Ed wasn’t sure.

He had quickly finished the coffee and Roy had shown him to his library and told him roughly where the materials he would find necessary for his work were. After that, Roy had walked over to the corner table by the couch, where a stack of papers and forms lay and explained that he had some reports on the rebuilding of Ishval to read himself.

[So Ed had taken to occupying the (relatively) clean desk at one end of the library and started working out the specifics of his current project. Most of it was reading through journal after journal and noting down things that could be of interest to the military. Well, the very first one was to decipher the alchemic code (which had been ridiculously easy- the code had been poorly made. Honestly, didn’t state alchemists know how to make a good code?). And then note down anything of interest.

Several times throughout the afternoon, though, Ed was forced to leave the comfortable desk chair behind to go shuffling through Roy’s bookshelves for some clarification on certain points because just because he was the youngest certified state alchemist ever and a child prodigy, didn’t mean he had an amazing memory that served him only clear, true facts at all hours of the day.

It wasn’t before the darkness had long set in and they’d been forced to light the various lamps around the room when Ed felt the exhaustion and stress pulling him deep into his own thoughts. The caffeine had long ago left his body, but his focus had kept Ed working hard enough so that he hadn’t noticed the restlessness making his hands shake and his mind screaming for the nicotine to make everything okay again.]

Ed muttered out a small excuse somewhere along the lines of, “I need some fresh air”, to Roy, who let out a noncommittal hum without looking up from a report, before Ed escaped the tight confines of the library, down the stairs and out through the kitchen door to the backyard porch. Then, from one of his pockets, Ed pulled out a shabby, half-full pack of cigarettes and a matchbox with shaky fingers. He fixed one in between his teeth before lighting it up.

Then, while pocketing the remaining cigarettes and matches with one hand- a talent he had developed over the past few months -Ed inhaled the smoke before exhaling it a couple of seconds later. He had been smoking for a while now- for long enough that he didn’t feel the need to cough anymore on the first drag.

While he stood there, looking at the moon peeking through the clouds up in the dark December sky, Ed started thinking. Al didn’t know of his habit, nor did anyone else- Ed was pretty sure of that. Whenever he smelled like smoke, he could easily blame it on standing just a bit too close to Havoc during lunch break or from Havoc smoking in the car while driving him home after work.

“I never expected you to be a smoker,” A smooth, deep voice said from his left, and Ed turned to see Roy standing in the open kitchen door, looking at him with a casual sort of curiosity. “I thought you always knew too well of the consequences of such an act.”

Ed sighed before taking yet another deep drag while he thought about how to formulate a reply that would match up to Roy’s standards of conversational small-talk. “Shit happened. It’s a way to deal with it. Quick fix an’ all.”

He heard the quiet click of the closing kitchen door and the quiet rustling of a cardboard package being opened. That peaked Ed’s curiosity and he turned to look back at Roy- at how the moonlight reflected on his dark, inky hair: at how his eyes were looking straight back at him while his hands were fiddling with a pack of cigarettes identical to Ed’s. That, Ed could admit, surprised him.

But he didn’t question it, just like the way Roy hadn’t questioned how he looked, with dark under-eyebags and a steadily decreasing body weight. It was a mutual understanding between two friends who had seen too much and never learnt how to properly move on. Instead, Ed wordlessly handed him the matchbox.

Soon, there were two separate wisps of smoke floating upwards, tangling in each other before vanishing into the cold December night.

“The last eight months have been rough on you.”

It wasn’t a question.

Roy knew that he had slowly been falling further and further down, down, down. He’d seen it- once or twice, when Ed had fallen asleep on a couch in his office or the time when he hadn’t even touched the cake the team had shared a couple of weeks back for Hawkeye’s birthday, blaming it on that he’d had a ‘big lunch’. He hadn’t had a single bite of food that day.

“I guess they’ve been, yeah,” Ed said slowly. “Stuff’s been happening.”

He should have felt cold out here- it was snowing, and Ed was wearing little more than what would have kept him comfortable inside.

“You worry so much about Alphonse that you’re neglecting yourself without properly realising it. You’ve lost a scary amount of weight, Edward, and it concerns me. And both of us have enough knowledge of the human body that it takes more than a kilo or two before it’s visible, so it’s clear that it’s not just you skipping a meal every so often.”

Concerns me. If Roy had said that while they were exchanging letters during the time Ed was in Resembool, Ed would have gotten suspicious. But now- they’d gotten closer over the last couple weeks, even going as far as to meeting up outside of work, like this- but also going for coffee to discuss their latest research projects, or even just for the sake of getting out of their respective houses.

“He’s lost so much and it’s all my fault. It’s my responsibility to take care of him. That’s- that’s what mom told me to do- to take care of Al.”

Roy placed a hand on his shoulder while blowing smoke out through his nostrils. He was acting like how a caring alpha would for his omega, and while Ed kind of slightly hated that thought, he didn’t shrink away from the touch. “I don’t think your mother would have wanted for you to neglect yourself though, just for Alphonse’s sake. People care about you too, Edward. Ms Rockbell, your brother, the Hughes’, the team, and me, Edward. We’ve seen you gradually fall apart, and it’s worrying. It really is.”

“I’m not saying that the smoking is the worst part. It’s not the most horrible habit to pick up and it can be dealt with.” Roy wasn’t looking at him, but rather up at the moon illuminating the snow on the ground. It was getting cold, Ed realised with a small start.

He stared down at the ground. “It’s- it’s not as bad as it looks. I swear, I can deal with it. There’s just been a lot on my mind, s’all.”

“Would you be willing to talk about it with me?” Roy offered as he crushed his cigarette underneath the heel of his shoe. “Then, though, preferably inside, if you don’t mind.”

Ed stared at the ground, voicing one of his concerns. “Why would you care? You’re an alpha. You’re not supposed to be like this.”

Roy merely looked at him with one eyebrow raised. “Being an alpha doesn’t define every single trait of my personality, Edward, just how you- even though you haven’t presented yet -carry traits of both an alpha and an omega. Now let’s not stay out here any longer and risk aggravating your automail pain.”

Ed followed Roy inside, his mind flashing with memories from the last few months; the letters they had been exchanging, the excited ‘welcome’ he’d gotten from the team when he returned, the one time he and Roy had gone out to drink coffee after a stressful week. And he realised, that all along, Roy had really cared, really cared, even though he was an alpha.

They sat down by the kitchen table and Ed couldn’t bring himself to look up at Roy- his superior, his friend, his … Ed wasn’t quite sure what exactly Roy was to him. He definitely had some feelings for the general, those kinds of feelings that made his edges feel fuzzy and his mind relaxed, but they weren’t the same as what everyone had talked about when discussing love and relationships in the office.

“What’s been going on, Ed? You don’t have to tell me anything you would feel uncomfortable sharing, but some insight into what is causing this would be nice.”

… Roy hadn’t called him ‘Edward’ or ‘Fullmetal’ or ‘Major’, like how he usually did. That had to mean something, right? Besides, Roy did look genuinely worried, and Ed wanted to kick himself to the ruins of Xerxes for making Roy feel this way.

 “I guess I’d have to start at the beginning- the very beginning.”

Ed wasn’t sure how to continue, but he knew that a vital part of what had made him end up like this had happened years ago.

“When we attempted to bring Mom back, I managed to accidentally twist mine and Al’s souls, bodies and Gates- like Gates of Truth -together. So, while ...”

Ed stopped for a moment and stared at his hands. It was hard digging up these memories and actually talking about it, but he found that he didn’t really mind. He trusted Roy to not go running around the city with his deepest secrets. That was … odd. He didn’t usually trust anyone this much- barely even Al heard all of what was going on inside his head.

“It’s confusing. So, while Al’s body was stuck behind the Gate, I supplied all the sleep and food for it. Which was what made my appetite so freaky and which was why I slept a lot.”

Roy let out a small surprised noise, but overall didn’t seem to think that what had happened to Ed and Al was too freaky. The two of them, after all, were more of less the definition of freaky.

“When Al got his body back, something in that twist straightened out a bit- obviously, since Al can eat and sleep and do whatever he wants to now. He doesn’t depend on my body to stay alive anymore.”

Ed paused again. “Long story short, I forget to sleep, and I forget to eat because suddenly I’m not providing for two. I’m never hungry. And even when I try to sleep, I can’t.”

He was brought back to all the nights he’d spent moving from one side of the bed to the other, refusing to close his eyes because the pictures of Nina, of mom, of their failed transmutation were glued behind his eyelids and just waiting for him to close his eyes so they could attack. “I just end up laying in bed awake for hours until I give up and just go back to work or leave the house to go on a walk.”

While Ed talked, Roy placed one of his hands over Ed’s and squeezed gently. “I understand that that it has been tough, Ed, I really do. I don’t intend to sound belittling what you’re going through, but trust me, I understand.”

“It’s- it’s not all.”

“Feel free to continue, if you wish. Would you want me to make some tea while you talk? Would that make you feel like this is less of an interrogation and more like a normal conversation between friends?”

Ed nodded. “Yeah, that would be nice, I think.”

As Roy got up to fetch the tea from one of the cupboards and to put the kettle on the stove, Ed just looked at him, realising how the rustling and movement made his sleep-deprived, nicotine-sated brain feel calmer; more at ease. This isn’t a cold interview where everyone will judge you for your answers, Ed reminded himself. Roy is genuinely worried for you, and you care about him, and he cares about you, so just be honest and not mean.

“I haven’t presented yet.”

Roy turned back at him, expression neutral. “Your brother has, but not you? He’s a beta, is he not?”

“He is. So’s Winry. That’s why everyone-” Ed stopped himself and took a deep breath. “I’m not a beta. I would have known by now if I was. People are betting that I’m an alpha because of my temperament or that I’m an omega because of my size.”

Ed paused again. “Don’t let this escape this house.”

“Naturally. You’re confiding in me and trusting me to not spill your secrets,” Roy replied a matter-of-factly. “I’m merely doing my job as your friend to make sure that you feel okay.”

“Friends.”

Ed tried the word. He’d never actually considered Roy a friend aloud, because he had never thought they were that close. “We’re friends…?”

“With how we have been interacting the last few months, there are signs suggesting that, yes.”

A cup of tea was placed in front of him and Ed looked up at Roy, aiming a small smile in the older man’s direction. He grabbed the cup and took comfort in the heat that spread through his left hand. “Thank you.”

Roy joined him at the table again with a cup of his own. “There’s a lot of instances contributing to your current dilemma. Physiological reasons- your body still isn’t used to only eating for one and doesn’t send you signals for when you’re hungry or tired to the extent it should. Psychological reasons- your brain is not letting you sleep, probably because of the traumatic events you’ve faced in your life. And lastly- questions about yourself. You haven’t presented yet, which makes you feel insecure. Am I wrong in this conclusion?”

Ed didn’t look up from his tea- Earl Grey, his favourite. “No.”

“But there’s still a thing I’m missing,” Roy guessed. Ed looked up at Roy so fast it felt like he had gotten whiplash. “How’d-”

“I have years of experience reading people, Edward,” Roy explained calmly. “I know when something is bothering someone, and at the moment, you seem very bothered by multiple things. Am I a part of any of these worries of yours?”

Ed took a moment to think. “Yes. We’ve gone out for coffee- was that as friends? What are we, Roy? Are we just friends, or?”

It looked like Roy hadn’t quite expected that question, but at the same time, had seen it coming. “It depends. I would say we’ve developed quite a close relationship in these pasts months, and on my part, developed feelings that some would perhaps categorise as closer than what friendship is per definition.”

Ed didn’t want to reply to that; didn’t want to potentially mess it up. He could feel his heart speeding up consistently. “You mean the feelings Havoc keeps talking about. About how he finds girls attractive and sexy and whatnot? Because I don’t feel that- at all. Does that mean … I’m broken?”

This was getting deep; personal- right towards the topics Ed didn’t want to discuss but had to.

“There is a difference between romantic and sexual attraction, Edward, and whether or not you feel sexual attraction makes no difference to me.” Roy’s voice was honest, hiding nothing at all and Ed couldn’t help but feel relieved. “Yes, I am attracted to you, if that is what you’re wondering. Mainly in the sense that I would want to take you out for coffee more, to kiss you goodbye in the mornings- that kind of thing. Of course, I understand if you don’t return these feelings, and if so, I’ll keep my distance.”

“No! I mean- I…shit I’m bad at this.” Ed laughed quietly. “I like you, bastard. Happy?”

“Happy,” Roy agreed.

Ed managed a small smile, looking at the hand covering his. “I’m going to be bad at this. Probably horrible. You have a lot of experience- I don’t. You’re,” Ed waved noncommittally with his free hand. “You’re good at this people thing, I’m not. You’re not some fucked up, I dunno, asexual-something-whatever, like me. But … I’ll try. I really will. If you’ll let me.”

“Of course, we’ll take it at the speed you need to take it,” Roy said gently and Ed couldn’t help but letting his smile widen into a grin. “Always such a fucking gentleman, aren’t you, bastard?”

“Of course, it’s one of my biggest talents.”

Ed turned serious again. “Do- do we have to tell anyone? Like, I’d have to tell Al. Or. Y’know, he could probably see me walking in the door tonight and be like ‘oh hey Brother, how’s your boyfriend doing’ or some shit.” Ed couldn’t help but to flush at the word ‘boyfriend’. It still felt weird to him. “But do we have to tell anyone else?”

“Not if you’re not comfortable with it,” Roy said, removing his hand from Ed’s for a moment to assist with holding the teacup. When Ed shot him a small look as to why he needed two hands, Roy shrugged. “With weather like this, the old scars ache and I would prefer to be safe rather than sorry in the end.”

He put down the tea cup on the table and held his hands out so that Ed could look at the white traces going through the middle of both palms. Ed winced. “Ouch.”’

“Don’t worry about it. It hardly bothers me anymore,” Roy said as he repositioned his hand back over Ed’s. “Was there anything more you wanted to discuss about our current situation or relationship? We’re good?”

Ed thought for a moment before moving his other hand to rest atop Roy’s.

“Yeah. We are.”