A/N: I could not let Christmas and New Year pass without posting something. I sincerely hope this is up to snuff. Oh, and to those who contacted me asking what I wanted for Christmas (Thank you for thinking of me!) The link in my profile will take you to an info page about donations. I'm saving up for pretty huge house renovations and repairs, and every addition dime helps ;) No expectations of anything from me, I swear, but the information is there fore those who want it! And from me, a very Happy New Year. May your 2012 be happy, healthy and prosperous 3
And from me, a very Happy New Year. May your 2012 be happy, healthy and prosperous 3
Ed winced as the cold air struck his cheeks, nipping at his flesh with Arctic teeth. The thin veneer of warmth he had managed to gather around himself in the train carriage was ripped away, and he shivered beneath the onslaught. He could almost imagine that he had never left the Drachman frontier. Two months shivering behind a desk had left him feeling a decade older than his twenty years. He expected to find Amestris sulking beneath the grey skies of a mild winter; instead there was this: icicles hanging from the roofs and air almost too cold to breathe.
The ground was sugared with thick frost, and ice crystals grew from every surface. Wires drooped threateningly overhead, chiming softly in the wind, and the ground beneath his boots crunched as if he were walking over desert sands rather than the city streets.
Ed sighed, forcing his weary, aching body to move forwards. Winter always made his automail feel like stone, dragging him down, and this time was no different. The air seeped through his clothes, ravaging his bones and leaving him hunched and miserable, shuffling onwards into the darkness of the night.
Of course, if he had waited a couple more days and come home when he was supposed to, there would have been someone here to pick him up, and Al would be waiting with hot food and warm concern. Now, there was nothing, not even a free cab cruising the streets, and Ed scowled as he shifted his suitcase to his metal fingers and buried the hand that was still flesh and bone deep into his pocket. Served him right for being impatient to get home.
Now it seemed that a warm bed was as far away as it had been in Drachma...
Narrowing his eyes he peered across the street, feeling his sluggish, tired mind steadily pick up speed. He always felt thick after a long journey, as if the miles sprinting beneath the train's wheels somehow turned his brain to sludge, but now back on familiar territory, his thoughts were slowly making themselves heard.
The flat he shared with Al was on the other side of the city, nearly an hour's walk at a quick pace. In his current state, he would freeze before he ever got there. Military headquarters was closer. If all that awaited him there was a rickety bunk in a dormitory, he would have turned his nose up at the idea, but Ed had something better in mind.
Most officers above a major got a suite to put to use when long office hours kept them at their desks. It was almost a year ago that Ed realised Mustang was one of the privileged. He had a double bed, a private bathroom and a kitchen he could use. He got solid wood furniture, rather than scraps held together with weak glue and hope.
As far as Ed knew, the bastard never used it; not when he had a nice town house to sleep in, so what did it matter if Ed slept there sometimes? It was better than letting the room go to waste. Besides, what Roy didn't know couldn't hurt him.
A distant clock tower struck nine, its chimes ringing out through the crystalline air, and Ed grimaced as he turned right onto the main road. Here the crowd was no longer passengers from the trains; instead there were women dressed up in satin and silks and men in suits, all with added coats and hats to bar the chill. Their raucous voices mingled with one another, and peals of laughter made Ed wince. They sounded as if they had been drinking already, and a quick count in his head made him blink in surprise.
He had spent so long away he had lost track of time. New Year's Eve had crept up on him, and now it was only three hours until the turn of the year. With a quiet grunt, Ed dodged his way past the revellers, nudging them aside with his elbows when he had to. At least that meant Mustang definitely wouldn't still be at work. He would be out somewhere, getting drunk or laid or both.
Something hot and angry twisted in Ed's stomach, burning with a sullen, jealous flame, but he shoved the familiar sensation down, letting its embers warm him as he marched towards the perimeter. The sentries there gave him a blank, disinterested look as he flashed his watch, not even raising an eyebrow or parting their lips to question him as he passed.
Finally, he nudged his way into Central command, feeling the icy bands around his ribs relax as the warm air swept away the lingering grasp of the cold. Here the corridors were calm and empty, punctuated only by the clanking, cast iron radiators that made the building habitable and baked the air with summer's memory.
It was eerie, seeing the halls so empty, but Ed was well-aware that anyone who didn't have duties would be out, getting ready to welcome in the New Year in an alcoholic haze. Briefly, he considered walking back out into the city in search of some good company, but the thought, as brief as it was, left him feeling dead inside. Whoever he chose would only be temporary; a brief flash of heat in the heart of the night. What was the point?
Besides, he had nothing to celebrate. Another year in the army lay ahead of him — another year before he was free. Al was different, of course. A whole new world had opened up for him now he was out of armour and had recovered his strength. He would be starting his studies, untethered by the military's leash, but Ed did not have that freedom. He might have got Al's body back, but there was still a debt to pay; a contract to honour... Next year would be different, but for now all he wanted to do was bury himself somewhere warm and sleep.
Turning the corner, he checked the corridor, making sure no one was watching before he nudged the door of the room where they kept the keys. It swung open obligingly, and Ed rolled his eyes in disbelief. The higher-ups were always going on about security, but they hardly ever remembered to keep the door locked. Not that he was complaining. Having the key to Mustang's suite was good, but not essential. He was an alchemist after all.
Quickly, he tweaked the key free from its peg in the gleaming rank and file, jingling it thoughtfully in his hand as he glanced around. Most hooks had two keys on, but Roy's had only ever had one. In the early days of doing this, Ed had been paranoid that Roy had the other and would come marching in at any moment, but it never happened. The bastard probably lost it. Ed had to admit, the thought of locking Roy out of his own rooms was vaguely satisfying. Served him right for all those short jokes.
Ghosting along another interminable hallway, the familiar scenery began to change. It was subtle, but Ed was used to looking at the details. Institutional paintwork gave way to elegant, creamy walls, and the squeaky linoleum was covered by tough but serviceable carpet. It was not exactly the height of luxury in this part of the building, but the distinction from the rooms that held the common masses was obvious.
Finally, he reached a solid wooden door. The handle was polished brass, and the name plate was a pointed reminder of his trespassing. He should have felt guilt, but instead he pulled a face at the familiar name emblazoned on the door before pressing his ear to the wood, straining to hear any sounds from within. After a few seconds, nothing but silence met his efforts, and he breathed a tired sigh of relief before slipping the key into the lock, checking the corridor before pushing his way inside.
As soon as he was over the threshold, his tense muscles began to relax; knots that had taken up residence beneath his flesh back in Drachma easily unravelled, and the unnamed burden that had bowed his back for so long seemed to disintegrate. For the first time in months he felt like more than a toy soldier going through the motions. It was as if something had breathed life back into his frame, and though he was still tired and the cold lingered like an ice sheet beneath his skin, Ed could not stop the honest, grateful smile that curved his lips.
He dragged a deep breath in through his nose, trying to ignore the thrill in the pit of his stomach at the familiar spice and wood-smoke scent that lingered in the air. It was odd that Mustang's office, which Roy practically lived in half the time, should always smell of the army: paper, ink and stress. Yet here, where Roy hardly ever set foot through the door, it was as if the rooms clung to the scent that Ed forever associated with his commanding officer. He would never, ever tell the bastard to his face, but over the years, Ed had begun to associate that fragrance with safety. Whatever else he might think of Roy, one way or another, there was no denying that the git could normally see a way out of trouble. When times got tough, Ed never had to ask Roy for help. It was there without question.
Roy made him feel safe. Perhaps that was why stepping into this place felt like coming home.
Reaching up, Ed pulled the band free from his hair, letting his ponytail free from its restraints as walked towards the fireplace. With barely more than the brush of his palms against the hearth, he lit the wood that had been laid out in the grate. Golden light chased away the soft twilight of the room, and Ed scrubbed at his eyes, lingering in the new-born heat like a lizard trying to gain enough energy to take the next step.
Looking around the room, Ed felt the first stirrings of guilt. In his less exhausted moments, he knew that sleeping in Mustang's suite — in his bed, for fuck's sake — was more than insubordination; it was creepy. He was invading one of Roy's sanctuaries with his presence, and if Mustang ever found out...
A shiver worked its way down Ed's spine. If he was lucky, Roy would simply be a git about it. He would tease and joke and never let it go, and Ed would gladly take that reaction over the alternatives. Anger, horror, repulsion, and no one would think he was over-reacting. People would understand the way Roy felt, and they would look at Ed even more strangely than they already did.
That was why Ed took great care to remove all trace of his presence. He replaced the logs in the grate with ones taken from stores, and let the quick crackle of alchemy stir up the dust, removing any hints of fingerprints or disturbances as the thin layer settled back on the furniture. Smoothing out creases from the sheets was just as simple, as was drying lingering traces of water from the bath. A single clap was all it took. If Mustang ever did come in here, he would never know it had been briefly occupied in his absence.
More than once, Ed asked himself why he kept coming back to these rooms. Sometimes he believed his own lies about convenience and comfort, but the truth was small, sad and shameful. It was only when he was at his most tired that he acknowledged it. He came here because it was as close to Roy as he would ever get. He could not be near the man himself, but at least here there was the ghost of him: a faint, formless phantom that somehow still made Ed feel human again.
With a rough grunt of annoyance, Ed forced himself away from the fire and strode towards the bathroom. Wasn't it bad enough that he had to be stuck in the military through his entire adolescence. Why did he have to develop a crush on his male superior officer as well?
Not that crush was the right word for it, not any more. Infatuation was loud and brash; it consumed a person's thoughts and made them next to useless. The boundary between that tangle of thought and emotion and the chilling focus of obsession was a narrow one, but Ed's feelings had evolved in a different direction. They no longer intruded on every moment. He could go days, sometimes, with nothing more than a passing thought about the soft way Roy smiled, or the way those dark eyes could glow with enthusiasm for a challenge. What he felt was not a demanding, all-or-nothing emotion. It was calm and peaceful, and at some point it had become a fact of his life.
Opening the bathroom door, he turned on the light and padded over to the shower, flicking on the taps and watching the crystal water cascade down. It had been another long day in months of hard work. All this stupid thinking wasn't doing him any good. He'd just wash the smell of Drachma and train carriage from his skin, and then he'd crawl into bed. Everything would look better in the morning. Everything would be the way it had always been, and he could stand in front of Mustang's desk and carry on the charade that he couldn't care less.
What other choice did he have?
Roy considered whether banging his head against the desk would improve matters. His office was silent but for the crackle of the fire and the tick of the clock on the mantelpiece, and he could almost pretend he was snug and warm in his own home, rather than working to ungodly hours on New Year's Eve.
It was this Drachman thing; that was the problem. He had sent Ed up there in the desperate hopes that he'd accidentally-on-purpose destroy the whole mess and they could forget about it. Instead Ed had been steady and responsible and ripped the shroud of mystery off a whole load of embarrassing corruption. The army could deal with it, of course. They always did — normally in a very final and fatal manner, but the shame lingered. There came a time when people forgot the heroes and the valour and remembered only crooks in a blue and gold uniform.
Right now, Roy was trying to work his way through a military police report, but he kept losing track of where he was as his thoughts scurried around in circles. He had sent his men home hours ago. Just because he couldn't enjoy New Year didn't mean they had to suffer. Besides, if he was honest with himself, he was not in the mood to go out. He would only regret it tomorrow, waking up in a stranger's bed and realising that, after years of living, he was still making the same old mistakes.
Perhaps he was getting old. There was a time where "mistake" was the last label he would apply to a one night stand, but where, once, they had left him feeling smug and satisfied, they now brought with them the burden of guilt and the lingering feeling that it was all he could ever expect from his life.
What a depressing thought.
'Scowling at it isn't going to make it better.'
Roy looked up at the doorway, smiling faintly at Hughes. His best friend leant comfortably against the threshold, totally at ease. He could remember, once, when Maes had been as ungainly and uncomfortable with the world as the rest of them. Gracia had changed that. Love had changed that. He would never admit it out loud, but he was almost jealous of the path that Hughes' life had taken: settling down relatively early and starting a family. Now his friend had security and comfort, and Roy had... nothing.
'I thought you'd gone home hours ago. I'm sure your wife is expecting a midnight kiss.' Roy reached for his pen, rolling his eyes at Hughes' laugh.
'Rather more than that actually. I was just heading home when I saw the light on in your office. It's not like you to still be here, Roy. The Drachman mess isn't that urgent. It could wait until the morning.' Hughes walked across the floor, propping his hip on the corner of Roy's desk. For his part, Roy continued to study the report, mostly to avoid his friend's thoughtful, all-too-knowing look.
It seemed they had this conversation a hundred times over the past ten years. Roy was braced for it – the "you should find a wife and settle down" speech, but the words that slipped past his best friend's lips were enough to make him jerk his head up in surprise.
'Ambition won't keep your bed warm at night, Roy,' Hughes said softly, reaching out and plucking something from amidst the mess of pens and papers on the desk's surface. 'It's not going to help you through the dark times, and neither are any of the lovers who flit through your life like clouds in the sky.'
Roy frowned, wondering if his friend had already been drinking. This lacked the light-hearted urging he was used to. This sounded deeper, and was that genuine concern in Hughes' voice?
'What are you getting at?'
Bright green eyes met his gaze. There was a hardness there, but it was determination and certainty, not anger. 'You need to start sharing your life, or its going to grind you down,' he said matter-of-factly. 'You can't go on alone forever. Do you really think you can be Fuhrer without someone there to hold you up when you're beaten down, or challenge you when you want to give up?' Hughes waved a hand dismissively, meeting Roy's gaze head-on. 'I'm not talking about some docile little woman, Roy. I mean someone — anyone — who can bring out the best in you, no matter what it takes, and no matter how much it might hurt.'
'Love's not about pain, Maes.'
'Yes it is, sometimes.' Hughes sighed, cuffing a hand through his hair. 'At least when you're doing it right.'
Roy shook his head to himself, picking up his pen again and scribbling a note in the margin of the paper. 'I don't think such a person exists.'
Hughes got to his feet, pitching something back on the desk. It whispered across the page, sliding to a stop in front of Roy's gaze, and he felt his entire body freeze.
'Of course they do, and I expect you'll find they're right under your nose.'
Roy picked up the hair band Hughes had been playing with. It was nothing but a ragged bit of elastic, with one tell-tale gold hair caught in its grasp.
'That's been sitting on your desk for months,' Hughes murmured, and he did not need to add another word. It was all carried in his tone: suspicion, but not disapproval. In fact, there was something almost like hope there. Roy quickly opened his mouth to voice some kind of denial, but Hughes waved hand stilled his uncertain words in his throat . 'Go to bed, and get some sleep. Maybe tomorrow everything will make a lot more sense.' He grinned, his teeth gleaming as he cast a quick wave over his shoulder. 'Happy new year, Roy!'
The door closed softly in its frame, penning Roy in with his thoughts. Of course Maes would have noticed the hair band. The man was obsessed with detail, and he had a terrible tendency to give unwelcome significance to the mundane. The elastic was not a treasure, it was evidence! Something for Roy to puzzle over in the trivial moments of his day. Maes was right in saying it had been on Roy's desk for a while, half-hidden amidst all the clutter, but that was only because Roy had not discovered an answer to the mystery.
He had found it a few months ago. If it had been in the office, or simply lying in the corridor, he would have either thrown it away or flicked it at Fullmetal, hopefully hitting the brat between the eyes. Yet instead he had found it in his suite here in Central Command, half under the bed and collecting dust, as if it had lain forgotten there for a while.
And therein lay the question. The band's presence suggested that Ed had also been in his rooms, but when, and why?
At first, Roy had looked for alternatives. He had slept with plenty of blondes, but never here. Lovers were taken home, away from the brooding and benevolent pressure of the military. Roy's suite was his alone, or so he had thought.
The hair was the wrong shade of blonde for Hawkeye, who could conceivably have entered his rooms to pick up some files he had left behind, and Roy had seen the cleaning staff. There was no one under fifty among them, and any golden hair had faded to drab tones of ash. No, the hair was Ed's, Roy knew it with the kind of certainty that came from the soul. He had spent long enough in Fullmetal's presence to recognise the gleam of it — unusually rich and yellow in the pale blonde norm of Amestrians — and now it was here, winking at him mockingly in the firelight.
It had been back in the summer that he had found the hair band, and while his mind had dwelt on the confused tangle of his own thoughts, his eyes had remained sharp. Every time he used his suite, which was more often than he would have liked, considering how late he worked, he checked the rooms that made up his dominion. He searched for any little hint of habitation, but all he found were the most minuscule traces, inconsequential and highly doubtful.
In the end, all he had were vague suspicions. Ed had been making use of his suite, and probably more than once. Considering the quality of alternative accommodation available in Central Command, Roy could not really blame him for using his brain and finding an alternative, but Roy struggled to believe that Ed was purely thinking of his own comfort. He couldn't quite put his finger on it, but there was a shade of something more... personal.
After all, there were plenty of other suites, better ones, if Ed was daring enough. Was he simply hoping that Roy would not court martial him for insubordination if he was discovered? Yet Ed had never truly been concerned by the military's discipline, and he didn't care if his discharge was honourable or not. All Ed wanted was to get out of his interminable contract, so why play it safe?
Shaking his head, Roy curled his hand into a fist around the scrap of elastic, propping his chin on his knuckles as he stared blankly at the door to his office. He had considered asking Ed about it, but that was a path filled with thorns. There was no telling how Ed might react from a confrontation, and to be honest, Roy was not quite sure what outcome he desired — the truth, obviously — but the one thought that kept coming back again and again was that he did not want to drive Ed away. If he demanded to know what was going on, the illusion would be shattered, and Roy had no doubt that Ed would never set foot inside his suite again.
Oddly, that was not what Roy wanted.
If someone had asked him a couple of years ago how he would react to anyone sleeping, uninvited, in his bed, the response would have been one of chilly fury. Roy was a private man; even here, in the office, it was rare that he let his true depths show. The thought of someone in his space, his territory, would have disturbed him to some deep level. It was not just the obvious intimacy of the invasion that would have bothered him, but the fact that it was being done behind his back.
Yet there was something about Ed... Didn't it always come back to that? Ed could change Roy's point of view so easily — could tilt his whole view of the world to a completely new perspective with only a few well placed words and a snap of temper — and so, because it was Ed, somehow the anger never appeared. Instead there was curiosity, confusion, concern and, under all that, something like pleasure.
Ed asked for help rarely, and relied on others even less. To know that in some small, insignificant way, Roy was somehow making Ed's life a little better was enough to put a frail smile on Roy's lips. He should not care about Fullmetal's welfare beyond that of a subordinate. Alive he should be useful, dead, an inconvenience, but Roy had never viewed his men that way.
Besides, to think of Ed as just a young man under his command was impossible. He was fascinating, intriguing, troublesome and, often, annoying. He got under Roy's skin and twisted his thoughts into knots and made his blood simmer in a low, hot way that Roy knew all too well. Ed captivated him, and all Roy could do was watch from a distance as Ed blazed a trail through his life.
One more year and he would be gone. Roy had no illusions on that score. As soon as Ed's time in the military was done, he would leave. Somehow Roy doubted he would ever look back. There was something wild about Ed, like a stallion straining at the reins. Al was more stable and settled, but Roy somehow doubted Ed would ever manage to stay still for long.
Ed would vanish, and what could Roy do but watch him walk away?
With a sigh, Roy shook his head, flicking the pages of the report away as he got to his feet. The hair band found its way into his pocket, and he cast one last glance around the office before smothering the fire and extinguishing the lamps. Hughes wanted him to think, but his mind took him down painful paths he would rather not consider. If he were a brave man, he would talk to Ed about it, would find some way to say — what? "Sleep in my bed, I don't mind?"
Share it with me, please?
'No.' Roy closed his office door with a click as the word swirled around him, low and sullen. Better to hold his silence than risk pushing Ed further away. Better to content himself with peaceful co-existence in the office than risk it all for the fleeting hope of more. He was letting hope blind him to the truth. All he knew were his own thoughts, and Ed had never given him any sign that he thought of Roy as anything more than a pain in the arse commanding officer.
Except for using Roy's suite, and Roy suspected he was reading far too much in to that.
'It's all Hughes' fault,' he mumbled to himself. 'Telling me to think. What sort of advice is that?' He dug through his pocket for his keys, walking along the familiar corridors of the command building. He was too tired to go all the way home now — too weary to pick his way through cold streets and the dark night. No, he'd make use of the bed he had here. Maybe everything would look less hopeless in the morning.
The twisting corridors gradually changed, becoming slightly more luxurious, and Roy found himself standing in front of the impassive oak door. His name gleamed in brass letters on the surface, and he stared at them unseeingly as he sorted through his keys until he found the one that would let him in to his suite.
Shouldering the door aside, he paused on the threshold, blinking in confusion. A fire was already burning in the grate, unreasonably bright and cheerful considering his mood, and one of the lamps was lit. A familiar suitcase stood by the door as if it had simply been abandoned, and there, looking insignificant against the carpet, was a bright red hair band.
Before there was a moment for even one thought to flicker to life in his stunned mind, the bathroom door swung open. Roy was not certain what reaction he was expecting, but he should have been prepared. Ed had a finely tuned sense of danger, and he was used to listening to his instincts. Alchemy crackled, and before Roy could even squeak, the cool kiss of the Automail blade was against his jugular, the point just whispering against rapid beat of his pulse.
'What the fuck are you doing here?'
Ed sounded so genuinely affronted that Roy could have laughed, but several salient points were boring into Roy's mind like hot knives in butter. Firstly was that, although Ed had pulled the blow and not actually slit Roy's throat, the weapon was still there, and Ed's mercy probably had its limits. Just because Roy's face was a friendly one, it didn't mean Ed wouldn't resort to violence.
Secondly, Ed had just got out of the shower, and the only thing blocking Roy from the best view in the world was a small white towel that clung lovingly, though not very securely, around Ed's waist. Most men would have already been scrambling for some kind of clothes, but Ed stood there bold as brass, waiting for an answer.
'One could ask you the same question, Fullmetal. It's my name on the door.' The words were out before Roy could stop them, and he promptly stepped back out of harm's way, his hands held apart in the international sign of surrender as he tried to read Ed's expression. Even now, the last thing he wanted was to drive Ed away, but if he wasn't careful, Ed would notice that Roy's reaction was far from instinctive. He'd ask questions, and Roy was not sure he had any answers.
Ed's shoulders slumped a little, and the snarl on his lips became something like a grimace as he tapped his palms together, banishing the Automail blade from existence. Traceries of blue light briefly twined themselves across his bare skin, still dewy from the shower, and Roy watched them, fascinated.
'I didn't think you'd be here,' he muttered at last, folding his arms across his chest and lifting his chin. As apologies went it barely counted, but Roy was too busy watching Ed to notice. He could remember when Ed was like a puppy, stumbling over his own feet and unsure of his own strength. Now there was not a dog, but a lone wolf, certain of his abilities and power, but never something as common as part of a pack.
Roy took a deep breath, shutting his eyes for a moment as he tried to get his mind in order. He should be good at this — getting people to open up to him — he always had been in the past, but Ed was not just anybody. He lived by a different set of rules sometimes, and everything Roy could think of to say would be met with an unfavourable response: a curse, a punch, or a hasty departure.
Opening his eyes again, he swallowed tightly, abruptly aware that Ed was watching him. It was not the blank eyed stare of a subordinate facing a superior, but something far too intelligent and knowing. Roy knew he was not just being seen, he was being read, and suddenly he felt terrified that every scattered, confused emotion was scrawled across his face.
'You're not angry.' It wasn't a question, and Ed said it like he barely dared to believe it, or as if he expected the words themselves to stir up the tempest of Roy's horror and fury. The wing of an eyebrow lifted in question, and Roy's thoughts derailed themselves once more as a droplet of water escaped from Ed's hair and carved a clear path across his shoulder and down his collarbone.
Dragging his eyes away, he stared fixedly at the fireplace, trying to remember how to sound commanding and indifferent. Finally, he managed to speak, but to his own ears it sounded strained. 'No, I'm not, but perhaps we can finish this discussion once you're dressed again?'
God, there had to be more artful ways of saying that; he was practically begging, but his whole body was twanging with awareness of Ed, almost entirely naked in the firelight and the heavy, looming presence of a warm, tempting bed lay just a few feet away. He needed his wits about him, and instead all he could think about was how much he wanted to reach out and touch...
And now the expression on Ed's face was penetrating, as if he was picking out every little betrayal of Roy's body. It made him long for the time when Ed was oblivious about sex beyond the pure science of it, but clearly those days were gone.
A spark of jealousy grew into a nauseating flame, and Roy concentrated on the feeling. It was better than looking at Ed's face. Even now, out of the corner of his eye, he could see the thoughtful frown cleaving Ed's brow and the faint grimace of uncertainty on those lips. For a minute he thought Ed was going to say something — challenge or argue or swear — but instead he turned around and walked away, closing the bathroom door firmly behind him and leaving Roy fighting back the urge to simply bolt while he had the chance.
He clenched his hands into fists, looking down at the white of his gloves before tugging them off his hands and placing them on the table by the small but serviceable couch. Whether he liked it or not, this had to be faced now, tonight. If he took the coward's way out, he would still have to see Ed tomorrow, and the next day, and the day after that.
Roy knew that if he did not get some answers to why Ed had used his rooms in the first place — if he could not find the guts to have this conversation — then he would be haunted by the prospect of what could have been long after Ed walked out of his life.
Yet even as he stood there, he felt the same question race around his mind. After all their years of antagonism and minimal respect, what could he possibly say to encourage Ed to tell him the truth?
He needed a lie, and a good one at that. All he had to do was say something to appease Mustang and get the hell out. Ed glared at his reflection, chewing on his lip as he tried to think. He should never have come here in the first place — should never have given in to the temptation to curl up in the comfortable bed that smelled like Roy and started treating this place as his own. Now Roy knew, and all Ed could think of was escape.
Except that he would never, in a million years, have expected Roy to react like this.
His gaze slid back to the bathroom door, and he drummed his fingers on the sink in an idle tattoo. When it came down to it, all the horror that Ed had expected never materialised. Yeah, Roy looked surprised, but not exactly shocked. Now he did not want to rant or rage or cast Ed out, he wanted to talk.
Somehow, that seemed worse.
Straightening his shoulders, Ed scooped his black vest off the floor. The layers he had worn on top were dusty from the journey, and he'd rather sit and shiver than put them on again. His leather pants were slightly better, and the dust wiped off any way. He'd also thought to get clean underwear out of his suitcase before finally jumping in the shower, and now he discarded the towel and donned the clothing like a knight might put on his armour. Absently, he looked around for his hair band, but there was no sight of it, and an irritable sigh escaped Ed's lips as he dragged his still damp hair back over his shoulders.
Scooping up what was left of his clothes, he hesitated with his hand on the door handle, listening to the chatter of a dozen half-formed plans, from knocking Roy out and pretending it had all been a dream to simply leaving the country. They were fantasies, of course, but they did have some appeal. More than anything, he did not want to have to stand opposite Roy and explain this, and even if he started out with a lie, Roy would get the truth out of him eventually. He always did, the fucker.
With a yank, he pulled the door open, the words already tumbling out of his lips as he headed for his suitcase. 'I'm in your way. It's better if I just get out of here.'
From guilt and shame to anger in one split second. Roy always could flick his buttons, and Ed glared over his shoulder at his commanding officer, who had just snapped an order at him if he was a wayward dog. As a kid, he thought it was just the way Mustang was, but as he got older he realised it was Roy's way of getting Ed to do what he wanted. It was manipulation, and Ed fell for it every time.
Roy's face flickered with a hint of an apology, and he added a rather pathetic 'Please?' that only took the sharpest edge off Ed's annoyance.
'I don't want to order you not to leave, Ed, but I will if I have to.'
'Sounds like you just did,' Ed snarled, chucking his clothes into the suitcase and slamming it shut before turning to face Roy fully. His arms folded themselves across his chest, and there was nothing he could do to remove the scowl from his face. Not all of it was aimed at Roy. A good half of it was at himself. Roy had wanted Ed to engage in the conversation, by any means necessary, and the smirking git had managed it in a heartbeat. If Ed walked away now, it would not be self preservation; it would be defeat, and every fibre of his being rebelled against the prospect.
'You can't be warm enough,' Roy said, and this time there was no hint of the Brigadier-General. It was just Roy again, looking like a frightened man facing a tiger and trying to invite it to dinner. 'Why don't you move closer to the fire?'
The dancing light surged a little higher, allowing one or two fingers of warmth to spread their way across his skin. Part of him was loathe to move away from the door that led to freedom, but the chilly winter air still lived and breathed within the shelter of Central Command, and goosebumps were already dancing their way across his flesh. Besides, the shower had not completely dispelled the ache in his Automail, and the heat of the flames was too much of a temptation.
Grudgingly, he settled on the hearth, just to one side of the grate. He kept his back to the wall as he watched Roy perch on the low coffee table that lay between the flames and the couch, his hands outstretched to capture the heat as he stared into the grate.
Roy had taken off his jacket and his gloves. His shirt collar was undone, and so were his cuffs, pushed clumsily out of the way, rather than neatly rolled. He looked scruffy, in a comfortable, casual way, so completely at odds with the image Roy normally presented that Ed found himself second guessing the man's motives. Had he done it deliberately in an effort to put Ed at ease, or had Roy been thinking of his own comfort? If he asked, would Roy even know, or where the habits of a lifetime so deeply rooted that Roy did not even realise what he was doing?
'This isn't the first time you've used my room, is it?'
Ed narrowed his eyes, trying to read the meaning under the words, searching for any hint of a trap, but Roy seemed, for once, open and curious, nothing more.
'What makes you say that?' A dark eyebrow lifted at his evasive answer, but Ed just raised his chin in unconscious defiance. Roy was the one who wanted to have this conversation, so he could fucking work for it.
Wordlessly, Roy dug in his trouser pocket and pulled out something familiar. The dark band looked tattered in the firelight — one short stretch from snapping entirely, and Ed inwardly cursed himself. So much for removing all traces. He thought it was back In the flat somewhere. He had so many of the fucking things that he rarely kept track.
It was tempting to splutter some kind of denial, to say it could belong to anyone, but the words clogged in his throat. It would be an unwise choice anyway. Roy never went in to anything unprepared. The bastard probably already had all the answers.
With as much dignity as Ed could muster, he tweaked the band from Roy's fingers, putting his hair up in quick, simple movements. He could feel the elastic, weak and feeble as it was, struggling to keep the ponytail in place, but it managed the task, and at least now he felt slightly less exposed.
'What do you want, an apology?' he demanded. 'It's a warm bed that no one ever uses. Why would I sleep in a rickety dorm bunk when this is here?'
'Because it's kept behind a locked door, and it's got my name on it?' Roy murmured, rubbing his hand across his mouth briefly. He probably thought it was enough to hide the fleeting smile, but Ed had seen it in his eyes. That quick, intelligent glimmer of amusement that tended to show up when Ed flouted authority in a way that didn't cause Roy too much paperwork. He wasn't sure what to make of it, and besides, the excuses on his tongue were desperate to be said. Mustang might know that Ed spent time here, but he never had to know the real reason why.
'It's a long walk back to my flat, especially when I've got off a train from fuck knows where. Besides, it's not like you sleep here often. You've got a house a couple of streets away. And it's not like I trash the place, it's —'
'Ed!' Roy's fingertips hovered a fraction from his lips, begging his silence, and Ed fought back the dire temptation to bite. Roy seemed to realise the risk, or perhaps the intimate invasion of personal space, because he snatched his hand back, running his fingers through his hair before shaking his head. His next words sounded a little choked, as if he were afraid to give them voice, or they were dragged out of him by force.
'I don't mind you being here.'
Ed blinked at the quiet confession, more hushed than any kind of prayer. It seemed to him that, whether Roy wanted them to or not, those simple words said far more than the sentence might suggest. Now it was Roy that looked like a cornered rabbit, watching Ed with worried eyes and waiting to see how he would react.
This was nothing like Ed expected, and for the first time in what felt years, a warm, hopeful, frightened sensation stirred in his chest.
Abruptly, the full impact of his surroundings seemed to strike him as if he were seeing them for the first time. He could count on the fingers of one hand the number of times he and Roy had been utterly alone in a room that wasn't his office, and then it had been workshops or cold, dank tunnels, surrounded by alchemy and death.
Here was peaceful; an oasis of calm in the torrent of their lives. It was secluded, intimate and personal, and rather than chucking him out Roy had asked him to stay.
Ed clenched his jaw, trying to slow the sudden whirlwind of his thoughts. He had too many questions and not enough answers to read this situation right. Roy had wanted to talk, well now he was going to get his chance. There was too much left unsaid, and Ed would drag the words out of him one way or another.
'What?' Roy looked baffled by the question, and Ed saw the tension in those broad shoulders increase as he clarified.
'Why don't you mind me being in your suite?' Ed shrugged, shifting his weight on the stone hearth. 'You spend your whole life living behind a mask and keeping people at a distance. This should piss you off.'
Roy moved suddenly, pushing himself off of the coffee table and striding across to one of the mahogany cabinets pushed against the wall. Ed rolled his eyes at the chink of crystal glass and slosh of liquid, but he knew Roy well enough to see the brandy for what it was: a shield of sorts. He watched Roy's back, allowing him one brief moment to admire the muscles hinted at beneath white cotton and the taper of Roy's waist before dragging his gaze away.
He barely noticed Roy settle himself on the couch. The distance was not huge, but it was noticeable, and Ed waited impatiently for some kind of answer.
'Do you need a reason?'
'What do you think?' Ed growled back at Roy's pathetic attempt at evasion. 'You find me in your rooms, you don't freak out, then when I try and leave you want me to stay.'
'I just wanted some answers,' Roy replied grudgingly.
'Equivalent Exchange. I answered one of your questions, now you answer one of mine.' Ed licked his lips briefly, wondering if he was standing on some kind of precipice. He had pushed Roy to the brink, but was it really a good idea to force him to jump? Wouldn't it be better to carry on as always?
No, he couldn't do that. He needed to know if all those little hints Roy had been giving him since he walked out of the bathroom actually meant what he thought, because if they did, then he had to see it through to the end. 'Why doesn't it bother you that I've been sleeping in your bed?'
Roy finally leaned back, as if in some kind of surrender, speaking to the ceiling rather than meeting Ed's eyes. 'You're not a stranger, Ed. I know you. I know how you struggle to ask for help, even when you're up to your neck in blood and misery. Do you have any idea what it's like watching you struggle?'
He did not seem to need an answer for that, and Ed watched in silence as Roy put the now empty glass aside, leaning forward again and scrubbing at his eyes with the heel of his hand. 'Knowing that I was helping you in some small way, even if it was just giving you somewhere quiet and comfortable to sleep — it felt right. You need to be safe and happy, and maybe I can't give you that all the time, but at least I could give you this.' Roy waved a hand vaguely around the room, as if he could somehow make everything make sense with a simple gesture.
'I care about you, Ed. Far more than I should.'
Roy's head was still down-bent, his hair turned to gloss by the firelight, and all Ed could do was stare, hardly daring to believe his ears. Roy's stumbling explanation still hovered in the air, giving its price and asking something in return. He had hoped for some kind of answer, but he'd never expected this.
He had asked for equivalent exchange, but now the scales were tipped in Roy's favour. He had answered Ed's demands, and now Ed owed it to them both to tell the truth, no matter what the outcome.
Roy sensed Ed move, and for a fleeting second he thought Ed was heading for the door. His body reacted on instinct, his head jerking up and his hand reaching out as panic surged through his veins. However, he had not moved more than an inch or two when he realised that Ed was sitting next to him on the couch, his back leaning against the opposite arm and one leg pulled up under him.
His expression was impossible to read, and Roy found himself scavenging desperately for any scrap of encouragement. He wanted to know he had not said too much, had not damaged the tenuous respect they held and alienated Ed forever, but there was no solace to be found in Ed's face. Instead he just looked grimly determined to see this through. It was not a deeply comforting sight.
'There are plenty of other rooms I could have slept in,' Ed managed to say, speaking as if every word was an effort. 'But it had to be yours. I chose it deliberately, not because I thought I'd get into less trouble if you found out but —' Ed stopped, glancing back towards the door out to the corridor as if he longed to make a break for it. Within a heartbeat though, he turned back, closing his eyes briefly before he carried on.
'You said you care for me. You meant – you meant as more than a friend, right?'
For the first time in years, Roy could see the bare uncertainty in Ed's eyes. It was enough to send a bolt of shock down Roy's spine. His logic was screaming at him not to answer, to leave some face-saving ambiguity, in case Ed did not share any such emotion, but this had gone too far now. He had started this conversation searching for answers and ended up confessing himself. There was no point in stopping now.
'Yes, Ed. As more than a friend.'
It was like watching a veil come away from Ed's face. The tension abandoned him, leaving his shoulders relaxed and the faintest hint of a smile quirking the corners of his lips, like he almost couldn't believe what was happening. Yet there was still a seriousness about his eyes, as if there was something left unsaid, and Roy's stomach clenched with nerves as Ed shifted forward a little, tendrils escaping his ponytail to tickle his neck as he spoke.
'This place feels more like home than my flat ever does. Not because I spend much time here or anything. I've slept here about four times. It's just — I — it's because it's yours. It made me feel better, just by being here. '
Roy's heart thudded hard in his chest, staggering on the full implication of what Ed was telling him. Back in his office, he had decided he was reading too much in to the situation, and now Ed sat there, a bare arm's length away, confirming all those unspoken hopes. He had put his heart on the line almost certain that Ed would turn away from him, but now he could see that, sometimes, risking everything could be more than worth it.
'I make you feel safe?' he asked, unable to keep the disbelief out of his voice.
Ed's frown was back in an instant, but Roy shifted closer, trying to see past the scowl to the truth underneath. 'I can look after myself,' Ed growled, his lips twisting in a grimace before his shoulders dropped and he managed one, small nod. 'But here it feels like I don't have to.'
To anyone else, the admission would have seemed like a minor one, but Roy knew how hard it was for Ed to admit he needed anything beyond what he could provide himself, and some part of him was deeply pleased to know that, despite everything, Ed felt that way about him.
Except that this was not just about security. Ed did not come here when he was looking for somewhere to hide. "Home" implied more than just a shelter from life's hardships, and Roy's breath caught in his throat when Ed leaned forward a little more, his voice a low, husky whisper as he spoke.
'When you said you cared for me, how much did you mean, exactly?'
Roy swallowed tightly, sensing all his logical thoughts falling apart beneath the burden of something darker and more sensual. He could feel the tickle of Ed's breath on his cheek, and see, beneath the glimmering uncertainty that still lingered in those irises, the first hot wave of passion's heat. His pupils dilated slightly, utterly focussed on Roy, and tentatively, as if moving on its own accord, Roy's hand reached out to cup Ed's chin, tilting his head upwards and brushing those tempting lips with his own.
It was a questioning kiss, as soft and tender as the brush of a feather, requesting permission for so much more. Ed could still have pulled back and walked away, but instead steel fingers wrapped around Roy's wrist: a cherishing imprisonment, and Roy moaned as the flicker of Ed's tongue swiped along his lip, opening the way for something deeper and full of longing.
Dimly, Roy became aware that the ringing he could hear weren't just in his head. Out there, in the dark night stretching beyond the window, Central's church bells and clocks rose in chorus, marking the hour that turned one year in another. The boom and scatter of fireworks was a distant thing, happening to other people as, in their tiny sanctuary, the mantelpiece clock elegantly chimed out the midnight hour.
'Happy new year,' Ed whispered, his lips brushing against Roy's again as his hand shifted to Roy's collar, tangling in the cotton and holding on tight in a silent promise never to let him go again. It was an oath that Roy took and answered in turn, his heart full to bursting point with the sheer joy of the changes a couple of hours could bring.
Earlier that evening, he had despaired of his own bleak future. Now, Ed was the light in his darkness, and whether they lasted a month or a lifetime, Roy knew it was not an opportunity he could ever allow to pass him by.
He bit Ed's lip gently, savouring the excited little gasp that caught in Ed's throat before pulling back enough to breathe, 'Happy new year, Ed.'
Out there, in the wide sprawl of the city, the people celebrated the end of the year, but as Roy relished the first, shy bloom of romance that grew between them, he knew the truth:
This was just the beginning.