Title: Evening Falls (3/3)
Genre: sort-of horror, gen
Rating: PG-13 for blood
Sequel to Night at the Pound and Daybreak.
Summary: The only reason Ed succeeded in doing the impossible, was because Al believed he could, and the only reason he didn't die in the attempt was because Al believed he wouldn't.
Warnings/ Notes: General manga spoilers. Overall, I'm quite proud of this fic, mostly for being the most out-there thing I have ever written. Thanks to zarephathcs for the beta, and to Song for reading it over.
"Hey. How was your day?"
Ed followed her into the kitchen, where little Al sat at the table, doing his homework. "Hi, Dad."
"Hi Al." Ed tried to swipe some grated cheese, and Winry slapped his hand away. "Fucking annoying," he answered Winry's question.
"Ed!" she said reproachfully. "No cursing. Next thing you know the kids bring notes home from school about inappropriate language."
"Yeah, yeah…Al, don't curse at school. Anyway, Mustang sent me to check out some alchemy lab, and when I got there, everyone stared at me as if they'd seen a ghost. They thought I was dead, for some reason." Ed crossed his arms in exasperation. "I don't get it! Why do people keep telling me that I died? Don't you think I would've noticed if that sort of thing happened?"
Winry laughed uncertainly. It was a familiar occurrence, but disturbing nonetheless. Sometimes she wondered if she wasn't forgetting something important, as if there was knowledge lying just beyond the edges of her consciousness.
"Ah, whatever," Ed ran his fingers through his hair. "Screw 'em all, anyway. How was your day? That new palm design working out?"
Winry gave up on trying to correct Ed's language. "I think I'll be able to increase the range of movement a lot," she said happily. "I'll have you try it out once the prototype is ready."
"Your mom likes to experiment on me," Ed stage-whispered conspiratorially to Al, who giggled.
"I'm hungry!" Penny announced bouncing into the kitchen, forgetting politeness for the sake of the Greater Good – in this case, filling her stomach. The unconscious rudeness was just another trait she had inherited from her father, along with stunning gold eyes and a compact, athletic body.
A few minutes later Mark, the youngest, joined them for dinner. Custom – or superstition, as Ed said – dictated that a child should only be named after family members while they were still alive. Not wishing the kids to suffer from any sort of stigma because of their names, Ed and Winry had decided to conform, and thus regretfully did not name children after any of their parents. So Winry had gotten to name Penelope, a name which she had always secretly wished she had, and when Al came along, there was no question what to name him. Mark, at the youngest, had been a question, but when Roy had made jokes about little 'Ed Junior', Ed had promptly gotten annoyed and announced at the spur of the moment that the child's name was Mark. Winry saw no reason not to stick with it.
Life was wonderful, almost dreamlike in its sense of calm. Ed was ecstatic with his family, and enjoyed bitching good-naturedly about his work. Winry had grown famous in Central for her automail, which was in high demand.
Everything would have been perfect, if only Al had been able to share it with them.
The loneliness dogged Winry every step of every day. She had never thought she could possibly be lonely with three children at home, but she was. Raising them by herself was harder than she had ever thought possible.
When she looked in their faces she saw reflections of Ed. There was no question whose children they were; their parentage was written boldly into their features, which only made the nights more terrifying.
Why did she wake up some nights when Mark crawled into bed with her surprised, shocked, to find this child in her house?
Ed could not have possibly fathered him, she thought in terror in the dark. Ed had died years before Mark had even been born.
But in the morning she remembered everything, remembered their years of marriage, and wondered about this odd recurring dream where Ed had been murdered. The reality of what had happened had been horrible enough; why did her mind feel the need to conjure up visions of worse scenarios?
Maybe the hardest part of moving on was that it wasn't so hard, after all, at least in the technical sense. She wouldn't lack money; the automail business brought in plenty, certainly enough to raise three children on, and of course there was the money she had inherited from Ed.
Companionship was available whenever she needed it. There were professional colleagues for when she wanted them, other mothers from the kids' school to hang out with when she felt like it. She even maintained contact with Ed's former military unit, and Mustang's connections had proved useful on more than one occasion.
Sometimes Winry felt as if she was betraying Ed's memory by managing without him, as if he had contributed nothing necessary. Then she visited his grave, just to feel the yawning emptiness inside her again, to reassure herself that she could still remember his smile and laughter, and even the way his face twisted in pain every time she hooked up the automail. She hoped he wasn't lonely, wherever he was. Loneliness had been the one thing that could take him apart, leaving him small and empty.
His grave lay next to Al's, and Winry always spent time at his grave as well, trying to remember the bright, intelligent, happy young man he had been before everything had gone to hell. Before he had lost all contact with the outside world, for a reason nobody understood.
Winry knew that there was nothing left now but to move on, but still she sometimes felt as if they were caught in limbo, waiting for something.
The dream shattered all too soon, when the phone call about Al's illness arrived from the hospital. It wasn't serious, they promised. They just wanted Ed to know. All it was was a mild fever and vomiting, probably a stomach flu. Nothing to worry about.
Ed spent an hour interrogating them on the phone, until finally the nurse told him firmly that enough was enough, and that it was time to hang up.
"He's going to be okay," Winry reassured him, running her hands over his tense shoulders. "It's a good hospital. I'm sure they know what they're doing."
Bent over with his elbows on his knees and his hands clasped, Ed stared off into the distance. "I just…I have a bad feeling about this."
Mustang said there was a fine line between devotion and obsession, and that Ed was still walking it. Ed told Mustang to go screw himself.
So he visited the hospital every day now, which he didn't normally do. But right now Al was sick, he probably felt like crap and was bored to death, so the least Ed could do was drop in every so often and tell him how his day had been.
A smile was always on his face when he entered the room and sat down next to Al's bed, and asked him how he was feeling. He waited for a moment, just in case Al would answer him, but if he didn't, Ed just moved on.
"Mustang's been complaining about the paperwork, again," he said, slouching in the uncomfortable hospital chair and stretching his feet in front of him. Not for the first time, he considered transmuting it into something more comfortable, but the one time he had tried the staff had freaked and some nurse had lectured him extensively about using unapproved alchemy in a hospital environment. "He said that there's been some weird thing going on with my pay – somebody sent me double, by mistake!" Ed said gleefully. "Apparently they've been sending checks to Winry in addition to my salary, get that! Of course Mustang told me to give it back. Ah, well, it's not like we're lacking money."
He looked at Al for a reaction, but Al just lay there, staring quietly at the ceiling through half-lidded eyes. The smile slipped off his face for a moment, leaving Ed with a worried crease between his eyebrows, but he managed to push the melancholy away. He stood up.
"Well, I hope you don't hate the hospital too much. The doctors say you should be out of here, soon." Ed took a few steps towards the door, then paused again. "I wish I could stay, but you know Winry. She hates it when I'm late for dinner. And the kids need help with homework."
Ed watched his brother pleadingly for any sort of reaction, then sighed. "Well, bye Al. I love you."
There was no reason to get up. Penny promptly rolled over and tried to go back to sleep.
The crying continued, and Penny stared at the darkness, pouting a little. She didn't want to get up, but probably Mom didn't hear him. And she was the Big Sister, so she had a responsibility. If Mom was up all night with Mark, then she'd be cranky, and when Mom was cranky everybody was annoyed. Pissed off, she thought to herself, remembering one of Dad's favorite expressions, even though Mom didn't like it when they talked like Dad. But she was old enough, she was already ten and a half!
Heaving a sigh, Penny rolled tiredly out of bed and padded over to the room next door to hers, where her brothers slept.
As expected, Mark was sitting up in bed, sniffling, while Al sat glumly on his own bed.
"What's the matter?" she whispered loudly. "Is it another bad dream?"
Mark shook his head, rubbing his face, and Penny wanted to tell him that boys weren't supposed to cry. Instead, she went and sat next to him on the bed, and he hugged her tightly.
"I think Mom hates me," he whispered back.
"Don't be stupid," Penny said sharply. "Mom just misses Dad. Like we do."
Al scooted closer to them, the small glow from the nightlight making his movements cast crazy shadows over the walls.
"Dad promised he'd never leave us," Al said quietly. "Why did he have to go?"
Penny didn't know what to answer. She knew she was supposed to, because she was the eldest, but these were her questions too.
She had asked Elysia once why both of them didn’t have dads, and Elysia said it was because they were both in the army. Soldiers did lots of dangerous things, Elysia said. But that wasn’t right, Penny thought. Because Dad hadn't gone off to war or anything.
Suddenly, she had an idea. "He didn't go," she said firmly. Both Al and Mark looked up at her in surprise, and Penny continued excitedly, warming to her idea. "Let's pretend like he's here."
"But…" Al began, looking around in the dark.
"You mean, pretend like we came home from school now, and are telling him what happened?" Mark asked hopefully.
Penny nodded enthusiastically. "Dad would say that we should do homework even if it's stupid," she said, and Al interrupted: "He'd say it was crap."
They all giggled a little nervously at using the word out loud, and Penny continued weaving her story.
Three pairs of eyes with unnatural golden glints shone in the semi-darkness, as they built their father again from memory.
For a moment, it seemed almost as if he was really there.
Al wasn't getting any better, and Ed got more and more worried as the days went by. Winry was just as worried, but not nearly to the level of almost-panic that Ed was in.
It was their first real fight in a long time.
"I know you're worried about Al, I am too, but you can't forget everything else just because he's sick!" Winry hated fighting when the children were home. She knew that they were probably cowering somewhere behind a door, listening tensely, frightened, but she was so furious she couldn't stop herself.
"I'm not forgetting everything else! Don't you understand that Al is my only brother? He's all-"
Winry's slap cut him off, and he stared at her, shocked into silence.
"Don't you dare!" Winry snapped, tears starting in her eyes. "Don't you dare say that he's all the family you have!" She turned away, feeling sick inside, trying to hide her tears.
"I didn't mean it that way…" Ed said uncertainly, reaching for her. "Please, Winry, you know how I feel about you…" He could never bear watching her cry. "I just can't do anything for him anymore! This is all I have left of him!"
"Let's make a deal," Winry said. "Today we'll all go visit Al, and you'll make sure that you're available for the rest of the week. After all, it's hardly life-threatening!"
Ed smiled a bit, and nodded reluctantly.
Saying that Roy Mustang hated paperwork was not entirely true. Of course, he hated filling it in with a passion, and would do anything to escape from that dreaded chore. But in truth, he was a big believer in paperwork. No matter how you tried to bury something, if somebody had written it down at some point, it would turn up. All those files neatly shelved hid whole worlds of secrets waiting to be interpreted.
And now Mustang was contemplating one of these secrets. It had taken colossal effort to dig it up out of the graveyard of useless material, but he had struck gold, found the pebble on the proverbial tracks.
In his hands was what seemed utterly normal – a standard inter-office memo, concerning stopping the pay of one Fullmetal Alchemist, deceased. What made this memo so odd was the fact that it was dated ten years ago.
An analysis of the memo showed no results of alchemical tampering, and anyway, why would someone want to fake Fullmetal's death?
Mustang didn't like mysteries. Everything had a logical explanation, even this.
It was probably time for a talk with a certain Winry Elric.
"Don't you think you're a bit old to still be sleeping with a night light?" Winry asked, slightly playfully, when Mark refused to let her turn it off. Even more surprisingly, Al had made a similar complaint.
"No!" Mark said loudly, sitting bolt upright.
She supposed this might be considered some sort of reaction to losing Ed, so she didn't push the issue, but it still worried her. They had never seemed so nervous at night, before.
"You know there's no reason to be afraid of the dark, right?" Winry asked, nevertheless dropping her hand away from the switch of the small light.
"We're NOT afraid of the dark!" Al said belligerently. "But if you turn off the light, maybe Dad won't be able to find us to come visiting!"
A sort of icy fear trickled down Winry's spine, and she sat down on Mark's bed. "Al, Mark, Dad's not coming back," she said gently, trying to choke down her own emotions. "I miss him too, I miss him a lot, but he's-"
"He does visit us," Mark muttered sullenly. "Just like Penny said."
Penny was in on it too? What kind of terrible mother was she, not to even know what her children were doing?
"How does he visit you?" she tried, hoping she didn't sound as worried as she felt.
Al and Mark exchanged a look with each other, wondering whether to trust the Grownup with a divine childhood secret.
"…It's like playing pretend," Al finally said, while Mark looked on in concern. "Only if we play long enough, Dad sometimes comes to visit."
Winry exhaled in relief. It seemed that all they were doing was imagining Ed still alive. A mostly harmless, pastime, really. She leaned to kiss Mark on his forehead, and then gave the same treatment to Al, though he made a face.
"I'm glad Dad comes to visit you," she told them. "Next time, why don't you tell him that I miss him too, hmm?"
Leaving the night light on, she exited the room and closed the door silently, then leaned against it weakly. It might have only been pretend, but she couldn't help but remember two other children who hadn't been able to cope with the loss of a parent, and the tragedy it had led to.
She vowed that her children would never feel so alone.
"Bacterial meningitis?" Ed repeated dumbly, staring around at the nurses rushing around worriedly, and the harried doctors. "I don't understand, you said it was just a stomach flu!"
The doctor shook his head sadly, looking grim. "It's difficult to know, with these diseases, which is why meningitis is such a severe problem. But I'm afraid there's nothing we can do at this point."
A sort of panic threatened to overwhelm Ed, and he grabbed the front of the doctor's coat. "Don't tell me that! There has to be something!"
Seemingly unperturbed, the doctor managed to keep his calm in the fact of Ed's panic. "There's not much time left. We will do our best to try and save him, but the chances are very slim. I'm sorry."
The kids weren't home from school yet, so she asked the neighbors to take care of them, and rushed to the hospital.
In the room outside where Al was being treated, Ed looked up from his clenched hands when Winry walked in, and their eyes met in mutual fear. She ran to him, and he wrapped his arms around her, burying his nose in her hair, just trying to keep breathing.
He didn't know what was wrong with him, why he felt that there was something terrible just waiting to happen, far beyond his brother's death.
"Oh, Ed," Winry said, tears in her eyes. It helped that she felt his pain, that she ached over what seemed inevitable just as much as he did.
Unable to contain the nervous energy, Ed abruptly pulled away and started pacing, finally pausing to slam his fist against the wall.
It wasn't fair that things ended like this. It wasn't fair that Al had lost his mind, and not had any of the things Ed wanted for him: a family, a normal life. It wasn't fair that there was some block inside of him, preventing him from doing the necessary alchemy to fix the situation.
He knew that he shouldn't, he had sworn that his children would never be left alone like he and Al had. He had promised to be a better father, and hell, he intended to keep that promise.
But he would have given anything for Al. Another arm, another leg, those were small sacrifices…
Ed's breath hitched, and he hunched over, hardly hearing Winry's worried query as to whether he was alright.
He didn't know how he knew it, but he could feel that Al was dying, felt every slow breath as if it were his own. In one despairing moment he knew everything, knew that he was never supposed to have had a family, that he shouldn't have made promises he couldn't keep. He was never meant to belong to anybody but Al, and he knew that he simply wasn't capable of living without him.
The world blurred around him, and he felt strange, as if some part of him was pulling far away.
He hardly noticed the slight pain as his knees crashed against the floor, and Winry's agonized cry came from far away, faint and thin.
The truth was that he wished he could continue living; he had so much to live for, so much that Al had given him.
The truth was that he couldn't.
"How dare you!" Winry stood up, slamming both hands down on the table between them. She didn't care that the other patrons of the restaurant looked at her in startlement, or that she was making a scene.
"Winry, please sit down," Mustang said calmly.
"I was married to him for ten years," Winry hissed, her eyes shooting sparks, but returning to her seat nonetheless. "How can you possibly even insinuate that he was some sort of homunculus?"
Mustang clasped his hands, looking at her seriously. "I do not want to believe it either. Remember, he was my subordinate for even longer than you were married to him. But I can't disregard this document." He gestured at the memo sitting on the table.
"So some secretary made a stupid mistake. That's reason enough to think that Ed wasn't human?" Winry asked scornfully, dismissing the offending document with a wave of her hand. She refused to acknowledge the sudden memories rising, of all the times Ed had complained of being thought dead….
Shaking his head grimly, Mustang reached into his pocket and pulled out a newspaper clipping, old and rather yellowed.
"It took me quite a bit of effort to acquire this," he said, smoothing it out. "I ended up finding it at a small library north of East City."
Fullmetal Alchemist – Murdered, the article proclaimed in bold, black letters, and continued on with a sordid story of fratricide, giving a twisted, tragic ending to the story of the Elric brothers.
"It's a hoax," she finally said hoarsely, staring at the paper in shock. The words triggered half-formed memories of dreams, hallucinations – endless arguments with Al, Ed depressed, a terrible trial –
"I dream about it, sometimes," Mustang said contemplatively, staring off into the distance. He closed his eyes, then opened them, looking intently at the tabletop for a moment. "I will tell you honestly, Winry, I don't understand this. I respected Edward very much, and I liked him. I don't know what to believe."
With a sudden movement, Winry crumpled the offensive paper that cheapened her marriage of a decade. Mustang made no move to stop her, despite the rarity of the document.
"He was real," she said bleakly, eyes dry. "He loved me, and he loved the kids, and he loved Al. Whatever happened to him is over, and done with." She took a deep breath, almost forcing the thoughts of the double death from her mind. "These will not be the memories I keep of him."
It was enough that he was gone, collapsed in a freak heart attack the same instant Al died. She was left lonely, but she would keep the memory of ten wonderful years, and she would let nothing tarnish it.
"Goodbye," she told Mustang, and he nodded, looking suddenly old and worn.
Left alone, he contemplated the offensive scrap of paper for a moment, before snapping his fingers. The paper curled, charred instantly to a crisp, the words no longer legible, and then nothing left of it but ashes.
For once, he felt no urge to investigate any further.
Electricity rent the night. The world stood poised, waiting, but nobody was aware of why, and for what. People slept through that night, except for three children sitting awake in their room, their eyes bright gold in the small light, dreaming.
They wove a story born of longing, sewn of memories, and decorated with fantasy, and before their eyes, the memory took shape, given form, and speech, and life.
Truth laughed at the folly of humans, at the ignorance of children, at the irony of a repetitive, cyclic history.
But it was always willing to trade.
Screams jerked Winry out of a sound sleep, and she was on her feet and running even before she knew she was awake. It must be a nightmare, she thought frantically, because only in her nightmares did she hear terrified sobbing from her children's room, only then did she run in to find them curled up in miserable little heaps, and blood spreading everywhere –
But now she had no grandmother to take control of things, and there was no one besides her to stanch the bleeding and asses the damage.
Mark was all but unconscious, bleeding heavily from the stump of his right leg, truncated below the knee. Winry found some sort of strength to sit and deal with the technicalities of fixing him a tourniquet, to keep him from losing more blood until she could get him to a hospital, or at the very least, to the automail clinic attached to their house.
Penny sat sobbing quietly, hiding her face in blood-covered hands. Winry felt a moment of panic – her face, what had happened to her face? – but the damage was less than life threatening; nothing was missing but one gold-flecked eye.
Al's chest was bleeding slightly, the shape of the ribs oddly concave where it shouldn't have been, but his vital signs were stable, aside from hysterical, pained, breathing. Ribs, she thought, trying to figure out how many had been lost, but losing count every time. She drugged him for pain, putting him to sleep in the clinic with Mark, admonishing Penny to stay and watch her brothers.
The girl was oddly collected, and Winry was reminded forcibly of Ed – who, even while swamped with the pain of the loss of an arm, had the presence of mind to bind Al's soul to the armor in exchange for his leg, and still remain conscious.
The hospital, she had to call the hospital, call Gracia, or Sheska, she needed help NOW-
There was an uneven thudding at the door, a crash, and it swung open.
He stumbled down the path, only vaguely wondering why he was surrounded by all these squat little stones.
Al. He had to find Al. Al always knew to tell him what was wrong, what to do – but no, that didn't make sense.
Al was dead.
Ed sniffled a little, wiping his eyes on the tattered, dirty sleeve of his uniform. What was happening? Why did everything feel so…wrong?
Home, he thought suddenly. He had to get home, to Winry, and the kids. Oh, shit, he had missed dinner, right? Winry hated when he missed dinner.
…But why should Winry be angry? It wasn't like he really had to eat to survive. Even though eating was nice.
This had happened before, hadn't it? The memories were coming back, of things he didn't want to remember, things he shouldn't remember because oh God, how could he live knowing these things?
Almost without volition, his feet started running, the imperative to get home to where things made sense driving him onwards.
The pounding of his legs against the pavement seemed to mock him, jolting up through the soles of his feet. You aren't real, the footsteps said, laughing. You were never real.
Everything was coming together in his mind, no matter how Ed tried to deny it.
It made sense, suddenly, why he had succeeded where others failed. After all, Al had always believed his brother could do anything.
So he could.
Al knew that his brother would always survive, no matter what terrors life threw at him.
So he did.
Ed swiped a hand across his eyes again, remembering the thousands of times when by all rights he should have died, but hadn't, for no better reason than the fact that Al had firmly believed he couldn't.
Panic made him run faster, though he knew that the one he most wanted to escape from was himself.
He was nothing, nobody. His achievements were meaningless; he had done nothing in his life – no, his existence – under his own power.
His life was a lie, and finally, he knew it.
Before him stood the house that was his, or at least familiar to him, and he leapt at the door, pounding on it, before slamming the handle with all his might and breaking in.
He could do that sort of thing, because Al had given him the strength, the ability to.
Ed swayed, trying to steady himself with a hand on the wall, and felt a yawning hole open inside him.
If he was nothing but a construct, why did he feel love? Why was he ashamed at being what he was?
"Edward," Winry said hoarsely, staring at him as though she'd seen a ghost. And it was true, he was a ghost, a meaningless, empty creature.
"I'm sorry," he managed, wondering if it was enough, if anything he ever said could convey that as bad as she must be feeling right now, he felt worse. And no matter how much she hated him, he hated himself more. "It was a lie," he said emptily. "My life was nothing but a hoax. I'm not real. I was never real."
Winry sank to the floor, her legs seemingly losing their strength, staring ahead in shock. "This is a dream," she said, her voice oddly pitched. "It's just a nightmare, and when I wake up, everything will make sense again."
"I love you," Ed said, his breath hitching. "It doesn't matter that my feelings make no sense, or that I should'nt have feelings at all. I thought it was real."
He buried his face in his hands, wishing that he could just stop being, but not knowing how, as the knowledge of his own nothingness ate away at him.
Penny stood there, blood staining her clothes, her eye bandaged messily. Winry turned to look at her, eyes dead and listless.
Pain tore through Ed again, that he had, in his presumption, dared to father children, who would ultimately pay the price for his non-existence. "I'm not," he said hoarsely. "I'm not your father. I'm not anybody. I'm not real."
Her eye brimmed with tears, and Penny threw herself at him, burying her face in his legs.
"You are real, Dad!" she screamed. "You're my dad, and I say you're real!"
Ed's breath hitched, as dizziness swept through his mind.
You're my dad.
You're my big brother.
He was nothing.
Slowly his arms folded around her, and he looked down, his mind emptying like a sieve.
"Of course I'm real," he said, his voice oddly toneless for a moment, before he rallied. "I'm your father."