Title: Souls' Night
Author: Jordanna Morgan
Archive Rights: Please request the author's consent.
Characters: Edward, Alphonse, Mustang, Winry… and a few special guests.
Summary: After helping an old Ishbalan woman, the Elrics, Winry, and Mustang receive a special thank-you.
Disclaimer: They belong to Hiromu Arakawa. I'm just playing with them.
Notes: I first kicked this idea around five years ago, but I never pursued it due to lack of inspiration or interest in what would follow this initial part. However, the prompt of "One Night Only" at Fan Flashworks made me revisit the concept. I currently have no plans to continue the story in the foreseeable future, but I'm not opposed to doing so someday, if I had the right ideas and the necessary mood to write the drama it would call for.
Roy Mustang hated trips to Central from East City. Mostly because he had to return to East City at the end of them.
As the Flame Alchemist made his way through the busy train station, bearing an attaché case and a wearily flat expression, he was surprised to see the gleam of a familiar metal helmet looming over the heads of the crowd. Shifting his gaze lower, between the moving bodies of passersby, he caught an entirely predictable flash of scarlet; because of course, where there was one, there was the other.
The Elric brothers had arrived in town shortly before Mustang's departure, two days earlier. Having no immediate orders for Edward, he had dismissed them to pursue their own research until his return. The pair promptly went off to bury themselves in books at the library—which is where he fully expected he would still find them. Seeing them at the station, he had to wonder if they'd hit upon something Ed was in a hurry to go off and investigate.
Quickening his pace, Mustang wove through the crowd toward the brothers, and quickly realized they weren't heading for a train. In fact, they were leaving the station, just as he was… and when he broke through the last layer of passing travelers between himself and them, he realized they were not alone. A blonde-haired girl was with them.
Even from the back, Mustang had no doubt who the girl was—but her presence only raised more questions. Fullmetal couldn't have managed to bust his automail in two days, could he?
"Good afternoon," he said clearly as he closed in behind the Elrics and their friend. It caused the three teenagers to turn quickly, startled.
"Colonel," Ed returned blandly, his momentary surprise glossing over into cool disdain. "I thought you weren't due until the next train."
"I finished up my business in Central a few hours early." Mustang turned a guarded glance upon the girl. "Miss Rockbell. What occasion has brought you all the way to East City?"
Winry smiled politely. "It's sort of a working holiday. There's an automail trade show here that I've always wanted to go to. Since Ed and Al told me they're coming out here a lot now, I thought I'd see if I couldn't catch that and visit them too."
Mustang smiled thinly, but his eyes rolled toward his subordinate. "In that case, I suppose I'll refrain from sending you off to the other side of the country until you're finished entertaining your friend."
Ed looked as if he might have had a few choice words to say about that, but Alphonse piped up, his voice ringing with perfect earnestness from within his armor. "That's very nice of you, sir. Brother still needs some rest anyway, after—"
An automail elbow was suddenly shoved into Al's side, hard enough to sway his towering steel frame and silence him.
"Remember our talk about things not to say in front of Winry?" Ed ground out between his teeth.
"Oh, but you are going to tell me now!" Winry shot back, narrowing her eyes at him, her mettle obviously rising at the implication that Ed had meant to keep something from her.
"Ugh… Come on, Winry, it was nothing! Just a cracked rib from a little fall I—"
"A cracked rib? You call that nothing?"
As they left the station and began moving toward the middle of town, Mustang was quite content to follow the younger three—and listen with amusement to Winry's sharp dressing-down regarding Fullmetal's carelessness about his safety.
Eventually, when the girl seemed to feel she had made her point, she grew quieter and began paying more attention to the sights around them. To the Elrics as well as to Mustang, the dusty scenery of East City was familiar and uninteresting, but Winry took it in with wide eyes. She was there as a tourist, after all.
As they traveled in the direction of both the main hotel and the military headquarters, they passed an open-air market that sprawled for a block. The stalls of produce and other goods were doing brisk business, as was usual in the afternoons… but today, among the crowds of shoppers, Mustang caught an occasional glimpse of a wiry brown-skinned figure. They were mostly boys younger than the Elrics, and one or two ragged old women, each of them alone and wary as they purchased vegetables and herbs from scowling, grudging dealers.
"I haven't seen this many Ishbalans in the market here before," Al observed, innocently curious.
Mustang hunched his shoulders in a vaguely uncomfortable shrug. "They've come to buy special food and offerings for their families. Tonight is what they call Souls' Night."
"Souls' Night?" the boy repeated, and Mustang wondered if the tiny extra tremor in his metallic voice was due to interest or unease about the topic. After all, he was a soul without a body, save for the suit of armor he was tenuously attached to.
"It's some kind of holy day in the Ishbalan religion," Mustang elaborated. "I don't know too much about it, but apparently, they believe there's one night of the year when the boundary between our world and the 'spirit world' becomes thin. They think that allows them to commune with their dead ancestors, or something."
Winry dropped her gaze to her suddenly restless hands. "Well, it's… kind of a beautiful thought, anyway."
The response Fullmetal offered behind the girl was a muted harumph that sounded less than approving. Mustang could guess he was holding back some far more incisive opinions about the idea of contacting the dead.
For a moment, the silence as the four walked on could have grown awkward… until that budding mood was broken by a small commotion ahead of them.
"I told you to keep your dirty hands off my wares!"
A few more steps brought them in view of the activity—just in time to see a burly produce seller shoving a twig-thin old Ishbalan woman out of his stall. The woman fell onto her backside in the dirt, rubbing her arms where he had gripped her roughly enough to leave bruises.
"Some of these others might be happy to take you murdering desert rats' stolen money, but not me!" the merchant continued in a rage, his fists clenched, as he glared down at the huddled old woman. "Now you get away from my stall!"
Many other dealers and bystanders were watching now, but no one moved to interfere.
It was Winry Rockbell who did that. With a dark expression that was fixed upon the merchant, she approached the woman to kneel beside her. Only then did she turn her gaze to the Ishbalan's wrinkled face and crimson eyes, as she wrapped an arm around the shabby brown shawl that hung over bony shoulders. Her other hand took that of the woman, and she gently helped her to stand.
"Come on. You show me what you want—and I'll buy it." The last was spoken with yet another stare at the merchant, conveying a burning challenge.
The big man hesitated for a brief moment, but he was too thick to know what was in his own best interest. A scowl overcame his stunned gape, and as Winry boldly guided the woman back toward the stall, he moved to block their way. "You hold on just a—!"
He didn't get any further than that, because the Elric brothers stepped forward to join their friend. As they flanked the two women, Ed pulled off his gloves to casually flex the steel of his automail hand, and Alphonse…
Well. Alphonse didn't really need to do anything at all. He simply lowered his helmet and looked at the merchant, soul-eyes flaming scarlet.
In the deafening silence, the merchant gulped loudly.
Only an observer until this point, Mustang sighed heavily. Then he moved to stand at Ed's shoulder, reinforcing the boys' unspoken warning with the authority of his uniform.
It wasn't quite appropriate for a man of his position. It certainly wasn't what he wanted to do. But it was the right thing to do, and it made the old woman stare at him with eyes as wide as the merchant's. This was probably the first time she had ever seen a soldier do anything that in her eyes was good… or even just something less than evil.
Besides, Mustang simply wasn't in the mood to make apologies over Fullmetal destroying anything. It had been too long a day.
Wisely, the merchant stepped back. His jaw worked in silent anger, but he said nothing as Winry escorted the Ishbalan woman back through the stall, to pick out a few meager vegetables and spices. Winry encouraged her to take more if she wanted, but she only shook her head.
Once the old woman had her chosen goods, Winry counted out the price from her wallet. She extended the money to the merchant in her closed fist, her blue eyes still coldly furious.
As the man dumbly held out his palm, she dropped the coins onto it, pointedly not touching his hand.
"Keep the change," she said flatly, and turned on her heel, dismissing his very existence.
With the prospect of an entertaining fight negated, the gathered crowd of onlookers began to break up and return to their own business. Winry and the Elrics also looked as ready to be on their way as Mustang was; but before they could step away, they were halted by the reedy voice of the Ishbalan, speaking for the first time in the entire ordeal.
Along with the three teenagers, Mustang turned. He expected the woman to offer nothing more than a grudging murmur of thanks to the non-Ishbalans who had helped her… but her actions were far more peculiar than that. She immediately began mumbling words in her own language, only a few of which Mustang could decipher, as she made elaborate passes of her withered hands in front of the four. After a few moments, her movements progressed to bending down and drawing strange symbols in the dirt with her finger, as her mesmerizing half-chant continued. In a final flourish to the ritual, she raked her fingers violently through the writing to rub it out, gathering a layer of the dry dust in her hand as she did so.
Her rhythmic muttering reached a crescendo as she tossed the dust into the air over her four helpers—allowing the fine sandy motes to sprinkle down upon them.
If this was an expression of gratitude, it was the most bizarre and unsanitary one Mustang had encountered, and he was less than appreciative. Just living in East City, one always had enough sand and dust to clean up from as a matter of course. Still, he held his tongue as the old woman folded her hands, giving them the very slightest of bows.
"I have given you my blessing for Souls' Night," she said magnanimously, her eyes dark. "May you be visited by the spirits of those who you hold most dear."
Without another word, she quickly gathered the bundle of goods Winry had paid for, and hurried off in the direction of the city's outskirts.
The Colonel looked back at the teenagers, and Ed blinked at him, bemused.
"Well. That was different," the boy muttered, as he brushed some of the lingering dust from his coat.
Winry frowned at him, as if displeased by his indifference. "I thought it was really sweet," she retorted, and Alphonse nodded agreement.
"…I suppose she did mean well," Mustang sighed. "Those superstitions of theirs are important to them—but it's still bunk. Just forget about it and go on with your business here… and try to be careful, Miss Rockbell. Not every Ishbalan you might run into here is as appreciative of a kind deed as that one was."
He was the one who met the disapproval in her frown then. Looking at her reproachful face stung the soldier much more than he cared to admit, and he decided right then that he was going to need a good stiff drink when he got home.
Too soft-hearted for her own good… and far from the first Rockbell to be that way.
"Come on, guys," she said to Ed and Al, turning away from Mustang. "You can buy me dinner at my hotel!"
Winry kept the Elrics out later than Edward had intended that night. They were doomed when she caught sight of the local hardware store. She spent more than two hours browsing—and cheerfully piling up things for Ed to buy for her—before she dragged them off for a dinner that was also on Ed's tab. Not that he minded, because he could more than afford it on a State Alchemist's pay, and it was good to see Winry… but he felt a little restless and distracted throughout the evening.
It was the look in the old woman's eyes when she "blessed" them, he thought. Or maybe just her eyes themselves. He still couldn't quite look into the red gaze of an Ishbalan without seeing… that man's eyes. Crimson flames with an X-shaped scar between them, their stare merciless as Al lay in shattered pieces and pleaded for Ed's life.
He didn't want to think about the Ishbal rebellion, or anything that stemmed from it since. Even if he was part of the military, those things had nothing to do with him. All he wanted was to make his brother whole again.
After seeing Winry to her hotel room, the Elrics headed for the barracks at Eastern Command. Ed went to take a brief shower, while Al stayed in their small room and polished his armor. When the elder brother returned, he flopped down on the bunk and turned his face to the wall, leaving ever-wakeful Al to spend the night with a book.
Ed was tired, but it took a long time to quiet his mind and court sleep. In fact, he wasn't even completely sure he'd fallen asleep at all before he was stirred by a soft gasp from Al.
Only he must have slept. Because when he turned over, and saw what Al was staring at… it could have been nothing else but a dream.
There, across the room, sitting in the chair at the small writing table: a pale figure clothed in the simple housedress and apron she always used to wear. Her brown hair was working loose from its ponytail, the way it always had after a long day of chasing them around. Her hands were folded in her lap, her green eyes bright, her lips curved into a sad and gentle smile.
It was Alphonse whose trembling whisper broke the silence first.
In her hotel room a few blocks from Eastern Command, Winry found it hard to sleep. The mattress was stiff, and she felt too warm, although she hadn't been uncomfortable earlier in the day. She had kicked the covers to the end of the bed, and lay sprawled facedown on the sheets in only her nightgown, but the room still felt stuffy even with the window half-open.
She should have been thinking about all the shiny new tools and parts she had made Ed buy for her… but her thoughts only kept going back to their encounter with the old Ishbalan woman.
That woman was one of the people her parents tried to help. It had been important to Winry to do the same thing—for them just as much as for the woman herself. She didn't care what Colonel Mustang thought about that, or about the Ishbalans as a whole.
At least he had stepped up as well. Whatever he might have experienced in Ishbal, at least he could still show kindness to a helpless old lady, no matter what her race. For all Ed's mutterings about his superior, Winry had the sense that Mustang really was important to the brothers, and even cared about them. She wanted to appreciate that. The man hadn't made it easy in her few encounters with him, but maybe it would help to remember what he had done that day.
Winry was sure that sleep had just begun to tug her into its embrace when her eyes snapped open. Was that a breeze from the window, or…?
Then she felt it again, and she knew the gentle caress against her hair was more than the wind.
Her fingers stealthily slid beneath the pillow, to grasp the wrench she had habitually tucked under it. She jerked the tool out and flung herself upright, prepared to unleash fury on whatever local pervert had thought he could victimize a defenseless blonde tourist.
Instead, she found herself face to face with blue eyes that were bright even in the moonlight, and features that were so very much like a fully-grown vision of herself.
A man, as well, was standing behind that beautiful woman—and he too was every bit as familiar.
The wrench fell from Winry's numb fingers, and tears welled in her eyes.
"It can't be… Mom… Dad…?"
After parting ways with the Elrics and their friend, Roy Mustang went home to his apartment, and spent the rest of the evening on the couch with a bottle of something suitably aged and potent. He needed the anaesthetic, as surely as a wounded man.
It was going to be one of those nights. There was no getting around it. Not after that Ishbalan woman and… the Rockbell girl.
It was very much his intention to drink until he literally passed out, because then he just might be numb enough not to dream. Or at least, not to dream about that. However, unconsciousness proved to be elusive for some time, leaving him to flounder for the tiniest distraction from actual thoughts. Counting the nubs on the fabric of the couch cushions, picking out absurd imagined shapes in the pattern of the wallpaper.
He thought he had just faded out at last when his finely honed senses betrayed him, sending an alert through his nerves at the unmistakable feeling of a presence.
Immediately his well-trained mind focused on the tactical. His ignition-cloth gloves were in the pocket of his uniform jacket, slung over the back of the armchair across the room. The only gun he kept at home was in a lock box in the bedroom. All in all, if somebody was there to kill him, he would probably be at a slight disadvantage.
At the moment, he wasn't entirely sure if he cared.
Under the circumstances, there was nothing to do but appraise the situation more properly. He reluctantly lolled his head over… and his heart nearly stumbled to a halt when he met hazel eyes shielded by eyeglass lenses, calmly gazing back at him from the other end of the couch.
"I see you haven't changed a bit," Maes Hughes said lightly, propping his stubbled cheek on his hand.
…Well, this was a new kind of drunken hallucination. Mustang's mind had apparently decided to go to the one place it had always refrained from up to now. Either that, or the stuff he'd drunk that night was just that good.
"You're not here," he told Maes succinctly. It had worked before on a pink elephant or two, so why not?
Unlike those pink elephants, the not-Maes didn't have the decency to disappear. He only grinned a little bit wider, an expression that belied the solemn shake of his head.
"Now, that's not very nice. I mean, not that I can't think of a place or two I'd rather be." He sobered, with a sudden sense of regret that was so painfully real, it caused Mustang to sit up straighter with a fresh jolt of returning clarity. "If it was up to me, I'd be with Elicia and Gracia right now… but apparently, the one who needs to see me is you."
Roy swallowed slowly, and took a very long, deep breath.
"Are you trying to tell me you're a ghost?"
"Something like it, I guess." A trace of the grin crept back, still rueful, but tinged this time with earnest fondness. "I can't tell you about all that. In fact, I'm not sure I really know. The one thing I can tell you is that I've got until sunrise—so talk to me, Roy. It's what I'm here for."
Maybe this was a hallucination… but if it was, Mustang no longer cared.
© 2016 Jordanna Morgan