Length: 12 pages, but a quick read
Warnings: Angst, mildly graphic sex, whole series & movie spoilers, and, um, magical realism?
Summary: Just two normal people on a train to a funeral.
A/N: Perhaps it is the onset of autumn that just puts me in the mood for Tennyson. Story set after the movie. Posted on ff.net and cross-posted every which way. Thanks, y'all.
The Lotus Eaters
“Let us alone. What is it that will last?
All things are taken from us, and become
Portions and parcels of the dreadful past.”
-Alfred, Lord Tennyson, The Lotos-Eaters
The military had commissioned a train—an entire train—to convey the bereaved out to Resembool. It was the sort of generosity Mustang had learned never to accept as sincere: it was a gesture from the fledgling Parliament. Perhaps more telling than the convoy were the three cars designated for press. At least, Mustang thought, they had been cordoned off. They leaned out their windows, though, when he passed, and he could hear the flashbulbs bursting as newspaper after newspaper snapped photos of him, a newly reinstated Brigadier General, boarding a train for a long ride to a funeral.
Fullmetal had, apparently, left a will. Mustang was not surprised—only Edward would compose a will at sixteen. Still, he had made very clear that he wished to be buried by his mother, and because Alphonse had not been the manner of child to write a will, it was decided that Alphonse would be buried in Resembool as well.
It felt odd for him to consider. This idea of burying an idea. Neither Alphonse nor Edward had left any remains to be buried.
As he passed through the first class car, Mustang glanced through the open passages of the cabins. The cabins looked as though they could comfortably sit, perhaps, six people, but Mustang was looking for the particular cabin designed for one. Most of them had three or four occupants in them; he saw Lieutenant Hawkeye in her civvies leaning against a window, Jean Havoc slumped at her side. Mustang caught her eye for only a moment, and he feared she would wave him in. The look on her face, though, let him know that she understood why he kept walking.
He passed another cabin and another before the train lurched forward. With a wince, Mustang lost his footing and bumped his shoulder hard into the exterior wall of the passage. He was alone in the corridor, thankfully, and he righted himself.
The door of the second to last cabin stood ajar, and as Mustang came up to it, he saw that it was vacant. He had meant to step in, but a poorly timed jolt from the ground beneath him sent him swinging through the door. His suitcase in his right hand hit the bench in the cabin with a crack as he stumbled in.
Immediately, Mustang knew this was not the cabin for him. Curled up on the left bench, tucked into the corner against the interior wall where she was invisible from the hall, was a bundled down young woman, a tight knot of limbs, thin blanket, and long cornsilk hair. He small, white shoes sat in a neat pair on the floor before her, and her single, small suitcase nestled in the luggage rack above.
Winry jumped awake, the blanket falling away from her shoulders and one of her feet slipping off the bench.
She seemed disoriented for a moment before blinking up at Mustang. “Oh, General,” she stammered.
He knew she would understand if he turned and left. Her face told him that much. And why he stayed, he was not entirely sure. Perhaps because she was red-eyed and tearstained. Perhaps because she looked desperately alone—and not the kind of alone that Mustang wanted to wallow in. Perhaps it was because he knew she was grieving harder than he had any right to imagine. Whatever the reason, Mustang found himself putting his suitcase on the rack next to hers and settling on the opposite bench, his shoulder to the window.
“Miss Rockbell,” he said. His voice sounded particularly flat in his ears that morning. He had not used it much in the last few days. “May I join you?” He asked it after he was already seated catty-cornered to her.
She opened her a mouth a moment and then closed it. She nodded. “I can't promise I'll be very good company,” she said as she pulled her foot back under her blanket.
Mustang adjusted his overcoat around him—it was quite chilly in their cabin—and propped his feet up on the opposite bench. “If I were looking for conversation, I could have found it.”
Winry forgave him that. She appreciated his honesty. She watched him slouch back against his bench, pinch the front of his fedora, and resettle it so that it lay over his eyes. And that was just fine, Winry thought as she pulled her blanket snug around her and leaned her head against the wall. Sharing a room with Mustang was almost like being alone.
Winry couldn't deny her anger. She wouldn't try. Those boys had a horrible habit of giving themselves away for the things they did not have and overlooking the things they did, of doing painfully selfish things for selfless, sacrosanct reasons. And she would not attempt to stop them, to even touch their logic because she imagined nothing in the world made sense to the Elrics except themselves.
Winry smiled sadly. She always felt that just about everything in the world made sense except for them.
She did not know what would hurt worse: having them home finally, for good, never to leave, and thoroughly dead or having him adrift somewhere between the folds of worlds, supposedly alive, and potentially returning any day now. And because she could not seem to choose, Winry found herself somehow having both: she was going to witness the funeral rites of two boys who were alive yet ever-unreachable.
Mustang looked like a jumble of pieces of a man, Winry thought, as she peeked over the edge of her blanket. Like a machine made of salvage. Where the parts didn't nest right so they were jammed together and welded. But she could see all the seams.
Perhaps that was too harsh, Winry thought. He looked like a man who had just lost a friend and had then stumbled upon a woman whose parents he had murdered in his youth. No room for subjectivity, there.
He wasn't asleep yet. He adjusted his feet and his arms crossed over his chest.
“They're not dead,” Winry said. She knew he knew that.
Without moving his hat, Mustang replied, “I know. I saw them leave.”
“Did you try to stop them?”
Mustang extended his index finger and nudged up the brim of his hat. He looked at her with a slightly arched brow. “I never offered to be good company, either, Miss Rockbell.”
Winry blushed and looked down. Mustang felt a twinge of guilt but let it pass. He dropped his hat once more.
She had many things that she wanted to say—perhaps to hear herself say them—and not just to herself but to someone else. But the wall between her and the man across from her stood sturdy and, in Winry’s opinion, quite unfairly. If Edward and Alphonse deserved anything, it was for their friends and family to have the decency to push away the petty complications and grieve as their solidarity dictated.
Or perhaps she had had enough grieving alone for one week.
Her head buzzed, and Winry wanted to let some of it out. If only someone else had walked into her cabin.
“Do you think,” Winry began and immediately regretted it. Mustang lifted his hat again and looked at her, and she knew it was her fault for starting, not his, so she might as well finish. “For today, we could just be normal people?”
Mustang snorted. It was not meant to be an insult, and Winry knew that. He removed his fedora entirely and set it on his knees.
“It just seems pretty stupid to me,” she said. For a moment, she felt all her muscles coil and her chest collapse, and for no particular reason, she began crying. Just a few tears. Just the drips leaking through a crack in a dam. She resolved to keep her voice bright, and it sounded absurd through the wetness. “I mean, what’s the point of having two people comforting themselves?” She laughed as though it were silly, like the train wasn't filled with people attempting to comfort themselves.
“I doubt I could comfort you,” he said, meaning I doubt you want me to comfort you.
She dropped the cheer from her tone. “So you’re not even going to try?” Winry asked, her voice high and sad. Where she sat, curled tightly, she looked so small.
Mustang looked at her as though she had just asked something unconscionable of him, which she had. She looked away.
She did not want to apologize, so she justified. “There’s just too much going on in my head right now for me to waste any space on unimportant things.” Like hating you. Winry remembered the look on Mustang’s face during the press release, when he, as Edward's commanding officer, stood at a podium in front of a sea of photographers and journalists. When he took on the responsibility of telling Central just what the hell had happened—they fabricated a story about alchemic homeland terrorism. When he had to be the face of the tragedy.
He looked like he'd never stopped.
“How long is this trip? Two days?” she asked, suddenly uncomfortable with the silence. When Mustang did not reply, Winry grew frustrated. She turned toward him. “Buy me lunch,” she said.
The change of expression on Mustang’s face, nothing more than a slight deepening on the line between his brows, let Winry know that she was punishing him: either answer would be just as hard.
It felt empowering and painful to hurt him like that, and just as she was about to rescind her demand, Mustang replied, “All right.”
The dining car was plush and clean with red leather booths around dark wood tables mounted down one wall. The opposite wall was a long bar, behind which the only other occupant polished glasses and bundled silverware in napkins. Winry and Mustang took a booth in the middle of the row, sitting on opposite sides of the tables.
Winry leaned her temple against the window and watched the raindrops pelting the glass. The sky and landscape were a series of long, grey streaks across the window with the outskirts of Central crawling away to the west. The glass felt cold, and as her breath condensed below her nose, drops of dew began to run crooked rivulets toward the sill.
“What do you want?” Mustang asked as the man from behind the bar approached them.
What did she want? The question became a world for a moment.
“A grilled cheese,” Winry said, watching a distant billboard pass.
“Make it two,” Mustang said. “And a couple of gins.”
“Sir?” the server asked. Winry glanced down at her wrist watch. It was two in the afternoon.
Mustang leveled a hard gaze on the man. “Yes?”
“Uh, nothing,” the server said and hurried back to the bar.
The rain sounded like a chorus of fingers drumming on a desk, and the arrhythmic drone of it seemed to ease some of frayed tensions between them. Mustang leaned forward and folded his arms on the table. They watched the rain together.
“I've never had gin before,” Winry said, switching her eyes to Mustang.
“You're gonna love it,” he answered flatly. A thought occurred to Mustang, and he turned to the server on the opposite side of the car. “Make hers a Tom Collins.” Then as an afterthought, “On the rocks.” And finally, “Heavy on the rocks.”
When Mustang turned back to the table, the beginnings of a smile tugged at Winry's lips. It was a sweet, sad benediction that just touched her swollen eyes. She watched him for a long moment before shifting her eyes back toward the window.
The gentle rocking of the train was enough to upset Winry's feet beneath her, and Mustang walked a few steps behind her, watching her bump off one wall of the passage, overcorrect, and bump into the other wall. When she timed her swaying poorly and almost tossed herself into an open doorway, Mustang seized her shoulders from behind.
“Um, General?” Winry said, her head still swaying back and forth. “In retrospect...”
It felt so easy just to stand there motionless when she had his grip steadying her. So easy, in fact, that Winry thought she could keep it up until they got back to their cabin.
Just as she started to pitch forward, Mustang lunged and snatched up the back of her coat.
“I don't think I should drink gin anymore,” Winry said thoughtfully.
Mustang snorted. Her Tom Collins had been more lemon juice and melted ice than gin. And she had only had half of it before he took it and finished it for her.
“It takes practice,” he said. He was having no trouble at all.
This time, he tugged her back to their cabin and dropped her unceremoniously on the bench where her blanket lay rumpled. Once more, Mustang sank to the other bench and dropped his heels on the seat across from him.
Winry blew out a long sigh and tilted her head back. There was so much static between her synapses; she could hear it crackling around her thoughts. Her blood was watery, and she felt her pulse reverberating in the shells of her ears, the tips of her fingers. She tilted her head just slightly to the left and looked at Mustang. This might have been the first time she had seen him in his civvies, and he looked, to her shock, like just a man. Like she could pass him on the street without a thought. What an odd notion that was. He had shed his overcoat and set it on the seat next to him, and beneath that he wore a simple grey suit. No tie. The top two buttons of his shirt undone.
Mustang felt her watching him and looked over. She furrowed her brow just slightly. Not a look of anger. Perhaps of concern? Or curiosity.
“You loved them, didn't you?” she asked. She did not slur, but the corners had been rounded from her words.
Mustang rather wished he were as drunk as she. He looked out the window and replied, “I would not presume to call it love. Not with you sitting there.”
Winry did not understand. Was he afraid she would judge him? For growing so attached? Or... no, she thought. Not with you sitting there. Should he call it love, he would, in some way, be holding it up it to her love for them. And there was no comparison. They both knew that.
Then she was looking down at her hands, at her fingers knotted together. She rubbed her eyes with the back of her hand. Then a quiet, gasped sob.
It was a short breath from high in her throat that she cut off as soon as it burst out. What a small, feminine sounding thing, Mustang thought. He watched her face crumple, her lips trembling. And he thought about her request to be normal people for a day. A normal person would see a pretty, young woman weeping as silently as she could. A normal person would see what could have been the universal symbol of grief. And she sat so straight on the bench now, her face titled down, her tears falling like dew to her thighs.
She was trying so hard.
Mustang resolved to think nothing of it when he rose and moved to the window seat on the bench next to her. He sat, allowing quite some distance between them, and he watched Winry, her face still down, her eyes still squeezed shut, immediately cross the space. He hardily had time to prepare as she tucked herself up against him, and for that reason, he only tensed for a moment. One of her pale, shaking hands gripped his lapel as she sobbed in his right shoulder.
A normal person would put a hand on her wrist. So he did. A normal person would extricate the arm she had pinned to his side and drape it over her shoulder. So he did. Now, curled against his side, she clung to him because Winry never did anything halfheartedly.
He considered telling her of Edward's last words before getting on that monstrosity and disappearing. But looking down at the top of her head, at her jumping shoulders, at her small hand curled against his chest, he knew that was a cruelty she didn't deserve.
And in that moment, he felt truly angry with Edward. Until then, Edward's choice had been a sad one, a tragic one, even, but a rational sacrifice. Now, with her hair spilling over his hands, it seemed selfish. Short-sighted. Mustang should have been the one to disappear into the sky.
“I'm sorry,” Winry sobbed. He felt her shaking her head against his side. “I'm so sorry.”
Mustang wondered if he were filling the role Edward had filled when Winry learned of her parents' execution.
He had always appreciated irony. He rather thought it tasted like gin.
The storm had extinguishing the sun early that evening, and night settled around the train like a shroud. The window had become a black mirror, obscuring the passing countryside. Still, he looked at the window, watched his own half-hidden face. Mustang heard a stirring at the open door to the cabin and looked up to see Hawkeye's reflection in the glass. He turned toward her.
She lingered in the hallway, framed by the door. Her hand rested on the wall panel.
He sat, slumped down, his legs stretched to the other seat. His right arm rested across his solar plexus, his hand holding the opposite elbow. His left hand was curled thoughtfully over his mouth, and he easily turned his hand so that he pressed the last knuckle of his index finger to his mouth for a moment. He watched Hawkeye's expression, her eyes as they fell from his face to Winry's, where she rested her cheek against Mustang's thigh. She had stretched out on the bench almost an hour before, and when Mustang had noticed her shivering through the material of her blanket, he had reached for his coat and draped it over her.
The sensation of Winry sitting up woke Mustang the following morning. He heard the rustling of his coat and her blanket, her soft groans as she reached her hands over her head.
Mustang cracked an eye, saw the long, curved line of her back. She arched one way and then the next, and he quickly redirected his gaze elsewhere. He didn't have to seek distraction for long, though. As Mustang roused and sat up, he felt tight soreness shoot from the base of his skull to his tailbone. Then he bent up his legs and set his feet on the floor, his knees making a series of pops at varying volumes.
“Damn,” he muttered and sat forward to rub his lower back.
Winry jumped and turned toward him, hugging his coat to her chest as though she were naked beneath it.
Mustang watched out the side of his eye as blood rushed to Winry's face. A succession of different breeds of mortification raced across her face. First, embarrassment that she had fallen asleep on him, a man; then horror that she had fallen asleep on him of all people; then back to embarrassment. He let out a dry chuckle that came from deep in his chest. There was no one else in the world, he thought, who could look at him like that.
“I'm feeling all right, actually,” Winry said as she brought another forkful of scrambled eggs to her mouth. “Nothing a little coffee won't fix.”
Mustang rolled his neck to the right. He felt something pop at the base of his skull. “Next time, we're trading places.”
He didn't mean anything by it, but when he looked up, Winry was flushed and focusing hard on her grits.
Mustang had found an abandoned deck of cards in one of the adjacent cabins, and the second night on the train, he and Winry sat facing each other on the same bench. He dealt a game of five card stud. The opening bid was pocket change, a quarter from Mustang's coat and another from Winry's purse.
The folding money came out by the fourth round.
Then Winry won his coat, and Mustang won her shoes.
And when Mustang put his pocket watch down on the bench with a loud clap, Winry went and fished her favorite wrench out of her luggage.
But then Mustang got “gin-thirsty,” and they left the game unfinished to hit the dining car. Once there, Mustang ordered a Tom Collins for himself, and this time, he thought, the sweetness of it, the touch of something light as lemon, dulled the knife-like edges of the irony. It tasted, instead, like wit, like Winry's sense of humor when she wore his heavy black overcoat and padded barefoot to a booth.
That night, they slept on opposite benches, Mustang on his back with one knee bent up and one foot on the floor. He pillowed his head with his right forearm. His fedora rested on his chest, and in the milky moonlight, Winry could see the little movements of his fingers worrying the band.
She lay on her stomach, her chin resting on her wrists, and watched him, watched his features turn from pale, tired skin to a marble study of what shadow and loss do to a man. His left side faced her, and the light reflected steadily off the white of his eye.
“I know the truth,” Winry said, feeling her jaw working against her hands.
Mustang turned his face toward her, and in the darkness, his eyepatch was like night, like the shadow that shaped a waning moon.
“You saved my parents,” she said. When Winry had finally worked up the nerve to ask so many months before, Hawkeye had concealed nothing, had made no attempt to palliate the trespass: Mustang's orders had never been to execute them. He was to apprehend them and deliver them to a power to whom execution was a generosity.
And in the those moments before sleep, when a man is most vulnerable, Winry thought she could tell him. A knot of so many things had been collecting in her, a snarl of angers and griefs and resolutions, but when it came out, it was soft and simple: “I'm sorry.” For so many things. “And thank you.”
Mustang turned his face back toward the ceiling. “That changes nothing.” Now, she knew that he chose to murder them.
Winry reached over her shoulder and pulled Mustang's coat up to her ears. “It changes everything.”
When Winry realized that she was still on a train, she could remember having slept on that bench for four nights. She counted them on her fingers.
She found Mustang standing on the rear platform of the caboose, leaning his elbows against the railing and watching one world slip back, back, back as they sped forward into another. But in that odd in between place, it felt rather like they were standing still.
“Why aren't we there yet?” Winry called over the wind. She stepped up to the railing and mimicked Mustang's stance, hands dangling over the edge, one ankle crossed behind the other, shoulders hunched forward.
“We've a lot of ground left to cover.”
At breakfast on the sixth day on the train, Winry slid into their booth. Mustang sank into the seat next to her. He ordered them waffles and coffee. And as Winry carefully dropped a dollop of syrup into every other square, she said, “This is nice. I could stay like this.”
Winry grinned over the edge of her pair of kings. “I'll see your dignity, and raise you my forgiveness.”
Mustang gave her a crooked sort of smirk and lay his cards on the floor between them. He had a full house.
Winry looked from her hand to his and back again. Her shoulders slumped dejectedly as she dropped her cards, revealing her losing hand. “I thought for sure...” she muttered.
Reaching forward and collecting the cards, Mustang said, “A word of friendly advice, Winry. Most gamblers who choose to use the Martingale end up bankrupt.” He shuffled the cards. “I think you've exceeded the maximum bet for this table.”
Perhaps, Winry thought, it was time to cash out her chips. Or rather, perhaps it was time to cut her losses. She looked down at her hands. What would a normal person do?
As she rose up onto her hands and knees and cautiously covered the few feet between Mustang and her, as she rested her palms on his knees, and as she leaned forward and brushed her lips across his, it did not feel like much of a loss at all.
Sometimes, looking at her face was like opening his eye underwater. Sometimes, he imagined he could see the silhouettes of terns passing through her irises. Sometimes, watching her hair flowing down her back as she stretched her arms toward the ceiling was like staring into the sun, a sunrise after a very long night.
Mustang knit his brow at his reflection, narrowed his eye at Winry's face in the mirror, hovering over his shoulder.
“This would be easier without an audience,” he said, trying to move as little as possible to keep suds from leaking in through the corners of his mouth.
He felt the palm of one of her hands and the knuckles of the other against his back, and he knew she was wrinkling his starched eyepatch in her closed fist. The train pitched, and Mustang's knuckles paled on the edge of the sink.
The train bathroom was tiny, but he knew that Winry was pressed up against him for other reasons. It was unselfconscious, he knew, but it was undeniably distracting. The way she rocked against him in time with the train, the way her chest leaned forward into him and back.
“I've never seen anyone shave before,” Winry said, watching the straight razor in his hand.
“It's not that life changing,” he said, tiling his chin up and to the right before painstakingly dragging the blade up his throat.
“Unless you slip,” Winry countered.
She dropped her chin on his shoulder and thought that, really, he shouldn't be so nervous. The worst he could do is give himself a scar, and after the sessions of reconstructive surgery he had endured to put his shattered zygoma back together, the pale slivers of skin the razor would leave behind would be nothing. The web of scars across the right side of his face, the loose, lifeless eyelid, the uneven surface of his cheekbone, she watched them and wondered. It must make such a mundane task as shaving quite challenging.
But then, wait.
There was something, teething at the edge of her mind. Winry looked away, resting her cheek against the soft material of Mustang's shirt. It was a memory of a memory. A challenge. A hurdle. A wall that should be keeping her from this easy comfort with him.
And then it was gone, and Winry was leaning against a hard, swaying back, smelling the soap on his face and his skin and hair.
“This is nice,” she said.
“Maybe for you,” Mustang muttered and glanced at her reflection. She was smiling at him.
He pinned her to the door of their cabin. She craned her neck and kissed him fiercely over her shoulder. Winry could feel the bite of her clavicles pressing hard into the wood, the uncomfortable pressure of her breasts being crushed.
“Please,” she breathed across his mouth. Her hand cupped his neck. Her other hand curled around his belt and pulled him hard against her.
They made love desperately, gnashing teeth and bruising grips and frenzied motions. As though time was short, as though they had not been on that train for over a week. As though they were not traveling toward forever. That's what it felt like when Winry came, Mustang soon after her.
Forever was a sun rising along a horizon. It was a place where the inconsequential—he killed my parents, I've survived my own martyrdom, the boys we loved left us—fell away, and beneath that was the only skeleton that would not one day crumble to dust:
Forgiveness may be something you can seek in another, but only you can redeem yourself.
Mustang sat with his shoulder to the window, one foot resting on the bench, the other on the floor. Winry rested against him, her shoulder to his chest, her bent knees cradled in his arm to keep her tucked close.
She held his right hand in both of hers, pressed his palm open wide with her thumbs.
“You saved a lot of people with these hands,” she said and traced a smooth, pale burn scar with her fingernails.
He chuckled, and Winry could feel it through her back. “Killed many, too.”
She sighed. “Never could save yourself, could you?”
“I wasn't out for salvation,” Mustang replied. “Just reprieve.”
Winry noticed that there was no one else on the train first. She didn't mention it to Mustang in case she was just imagining it, but by the fourteenth night that they went to the dining car and helped themselves to ice box behind the bar, Winry was pretty sure they were alone.
Mustang poured himself a gin and tonic while Winry turned squeaky half-circles on her barstool. He faced away from her for a moment, and when he turned back, he placed a tumbler full of an amber liquid in front of Winry.
“What's this?” she asked, lifting it to her nose. It was fruity.
“Apple juice,” he said. “Someone's got to look out for you.”
Winry grudgingly accepted. She had always loved apple juice. She remembered, in fact, her mother pouring her tall glasses of it to accompany her breakfast. She watched her hands reach out and cup the glass. With the nail of her index finger, she drew a small horse, rearing back, in the condensation.
There was a crackling noise for a moment followed by a long, low, mournful note in a smoky female voice. Winry looked up, and Mustang was furrowing his brow at something below the counter. The static returned and then faded as he tuned a radio behind the bar to whatever station he could get.
They danced one, two, three dances, all of them low, slow exchanges, Mustang humming a baritone harmony in her ear. He had a mediocre voice at best, perhaps every third note hitting just right, but when he struck that right one and held it with the woman on the radio, it raised goosebumps on Winry's skin.
He spun her leisurely until she felt a table pushing into the backs of her thighs. Then he was leaning her back. Then he was hooking his hands behind her knees and pulling her toward him until her front was flush with his. And in this solitude, with only the company of the other, they had slow, easy sex on the table in the dining car, mixing fast bursts of motion with sighs and long moments of hushed languor. They clung tight, Mustang feeling Winry's heels digging gently into his lower back and Winry feeling the soft insistence of his fingertips against her hips. And after their came simultaneously, they stared at one another. Neither had ever experienced such a phenomenon, such a wonder.
“You know what's really sexy?” Winry asked, a glint in her eye. She leaned forward and rested her hands on his chest, her fingers just peeking out of the cuffs of his dress shirt, which she had taken to wearing when he was not.
She sat astride Mustang's hips as he reclined on one of the benches in their apartment. He looked remarkably casual—a sort of physical candor Winry had never thought him capable of before then—with his arms folded behind his head, supporting his neck as he propped himself up against the window. Winry could feel his half-hearted, spent erection slipping out of her with the passing minutes.
Mustang smirked. “Hmm?”
She dropped the seduction when she intoned, “Just about anything when you compare it to a train.”
Mustang tossed his head back and laughed and laughed.
Sometimes, he thought he might be in love with her. But he was not sure. Can love exist in a vacuum? He had no touchstone here, on this train for the next thousand lifetimes. Perhaps if he had a backdrop for comparison. Perhaps if he could remember anything other than her—not that he struggled very hard to recall: it was not that he had lost his memories; he had simply lost his will to remember. Perhaps if he could picture a world without her in it, flouncing around in one of his shirts and uniform hat, putting her skin to his so much, speaking his name more frequently than anyone ever had.
Mustang looked out the window at the landscape, the same landscape. It was like looking at a painting, a snapshot of life but not life.
But then, wait.
He furrowed his brow and looked down at Winry, her head resting against his thigh.
Why hadn't the landscape changed at all? When he stood on the rear platform of the caboose, why was Central still creeping out of sight but never gone? Wasn't there something more once? Or had it always been he and this young woman and a train to nowhere?
She stirred a little, and Mustang found his fingers slipping quietly, unobtrusively through her hair. She stunned him still sometimes. She was effulgent. She could be the thousand essential things that were missing from his life, things that he knew were missing but could never quite identify from the outline of their absence.
And she might fit so beautifully. If she would let him keep her.
She shifted again, turning her face towards him. A lock of her bangs fell across her eyes and tickled her nose. She scrunched her face up and rubbed at her nose.
Winry cracked her eyes and looked up at him with that luminous smile that he was beginning to suspect she only shone on him.
He brushed her bangs back from her forehead. “God, you look just like your mother sometimes.”
Her mother. Winry's mother. Sara Rockbell. Dr. Sara Rockbell. But who... and why...
Winry's eyes grew wide as she stared up at him, and Mustang was only a beat behind her.
The Rockbell doctors. The couple he had executed in that bloody war. And their daughter, Winry. The first time he had met her, she was nine or ten years old. Then he met her again when she was eleven. Then again when she was sixteen. She hung around those Elric boys like a sibling. And the Elric brothers were gone now. And he and Winry were on a train to a funeral in Resembool.
The whistle blew, and the train jerked as the brakes engaged in spurts. Mustang heard the shuffling of feet in the hallway and looked up to see other passengers in the corridor. Bodies blinked in and out of the doorway, some glancing in to see the General slumped down, a girl draped over him.
Winry bolted up off the bench and scooted a few feet away. When Mustang looked at her, she was sitting very straight and blushing. He could see the blush all the way down her sternum through the partially unbuttoned front of his dress shirt.
Footfalls thundered outside their cabin. The train jerked again and again before stopping.
She hazarded a glance at him. Her mouth hung open, trembling. She looked as though she were trying to say something, and when nothing came out, she turned and looked at her knees, her long, naked thighs. With a shaking hand, Winry reached up and clutched the front of her shirt closed.
Mustang leapt to his feet and left the cabin. He stepped into the corridor and slid the door closed behind him, and only once he was watching his subordinates edging past him to exit the train did he remember he was in an undershirt, his suspenders hanging around his legs.
“Sir,” a familiar voice said to his left. Mustang looked up.
It was Hawkeye, her head bowed just slightly and her brow furrowed.
“Are you all right, sir?” she asked.
He watched her face for a moment, and when that produced no answers, he looked at the door he had just shut. But nothing was fitting. There was the space shaped by the question, and there was the answer, and it just wasn't fitting.
“How long have we been on this train?” he managed, his voice sounding strangled in his ears.
“We left Central at one in the afternoon yesterday, sir.” Anticipating his next question, Hawkeye looked at her wrist watch and said, “It's eleven in the morning right now. Sir, are you all right?” There was a weight to that. Mustang could hear it. Her concern surrounded that fact that he had just spent almost twenty-four hours in a small space with the daughter of his victims, with a woman grieving harder than he ever could. Any other man would be, understandably, shaken up after such a trial.
But was it possible... had he dreamt it?
The door to the cabin opened, revealing Winry in a blue traveling dress that hung around her knees. She held the doorframe in one hand, her luggage in the other. At first, she averted her eyes to the floor.
Mustang was unsure if he were grateful for this or not.
But then she looked up at him, right at him. He couldn't quite bring himself to know, but he believed very strongly that he could see the same marquee of questions mirrored in the girl's eyes. Just as he believed he might be hearing the crashing waves of an ebbing tide when he watched her eyes, he believed this joint hallucination.
And then she slipped past them and was gone, taking that belief with her.
Mustang felt eyes on him. “I'm fine,” he said hoarsely without looking at Hawkeye and went to retrieve his luggage. The cabin smelled musty and lived-in, like sex and time. Winry had left his shirt and coat balled up on the bench.
Mustang gave the eulogy for Edward and Alphonse, stood over their empty graves, his hat in his hand. Before marching up the hill to the Elrics' plot, Mustang had picked three long blonde hairs out of his hat. Three filament anchors. He, Winry, and a very lifelike dream. Or was it a dreamlike life?
Still, he avoided her eyes during his speech, focused instead on keeping his voice decidedly rooted in his lowest register, where it wavered less, threatened to crack less. When he did meet her eyes, she was clutching her chest, the black of her dress reflecting off her pale skin, making her look more grey.
Her face, so open and lonely, and her eyes, stormy and ubiquitous: she could have been a sea cave, tired and worn, promising shelter, perhaps, or the cold, jagged embrace of briny stone, perhaps. In that long, telescoping moment, Mustang's mind went blank of the words he had practiced. And he remembered, instead, what it had felt like to love her, to step into her borderless world of clemency.
And her face, staring and vulnerable, her eyes consuming his, unconcerned for the surrounding mourners who were beginning to wonder at Mustang's long pause, her face was a memory from a dream.
She told him then. If he had dreamed it, they had dreamed it together.
Winry saw Mustang hesitate at the door to the cabin she occupied, leaning against Jean Havoc's right side, his arm a heavy mantle around her shoulders. Across from them, Riza Hawkeye folded her hands in her lap and looked out the window.
Winry's eyes hurt to open, to look at anything, and looking at him was certainly no easier.
He lingered in the door for only a moment. Long enough to meet her eyes. And then he moved on, and Winry knew that by sitting in there with his subordinates, she was denying him the comfort of their company.
Before dawn, she found him in the cabin they had shared for almost a month. Sleeping lightly, he sat with his hands folded over his stomach, his heels propped up on the opposite seat, and his fedora tilted low over his face.
She slid the door open quietly, but not so quietly as she would have liked. She saw him start just slightly and sweep his hat off his head. No symptoms of surprise crossed his shadowed face, and Winry hadn't expected there to be any. She closed the door and locked it behind her. Looking away, Winry folded her hands behind her and leaned back against the door.
“I've tried so hard,” she murmured. “I've tried so hard to understand.” When that did not seem to be explaining what she wanted to explain, Winry pushed off from the door and very cautiously approached the General. “I have bruises. It wasn't imaginary.”
“I bruised you?” Mustang asked, inching forward in his seat, craning his neck to look up at her.
Winry nodded. She turned her right side to him and lifted her skirt, revealing the pale curve of her hip and a narrow, white band of her underwear. Even in the powdery moonlight, Mustang could see the dark spots, spaced to correspond with his grip. He resisted the urge to rest his fingertips on those spots, to conjure a sensory memory, one that he couldn't quite grasp otherwise.
But then she was too close. Mustang stood abruptly, pushing Winry back. He strode to the other side of the cabin.
“I apologize, Miss Rockbell.”
No, no, goddammit, that's not what he meant to say.
He forced himself to turn back toward her. She crossed the space between them in a sweep of motion, and before Mustang could jump back, could brace himself or put his up his hands to deflect her, Winry was standing on her toes and pressing her lips to his.
Ah. Yes. That's what he had meant to say. He heard the crashing waves again, one rolling in after another, the sound of the horizon-colored mercy that she and only she could demonstrate. And there was that list again, the list of questions he suspected she might be the answer to. It manifested in his mind, and it illuminated so much. He thought he ought to commit it all to memory while she was here. But then she was sinking back onto her heels, pulling away from him, and scrabble as he might, the list faded. Like a dream that explained how easy it is to fly, all her beautiful remedies slipped back, back, back until Mustang was left knowing that he was missing something.
He was certain, though, as she sank onto the bench, leaving plenty of space for him next to her, that she was the first and last thing he had to remember to need, that, no matter what train he took to which eternity, she might just be the answer to every question he had left to ask.
“O, rest ye, brother mariners, we will not wander more.”
-Alfred, Lord Tennyson, The Lotos-Eaters