sisyphean effort

Painted Truths

chapter 2. Secrets within Secrets

Elysia stood before the painting, contemplating the boy in the picture even as he seemed to peer back at her, his expression holding. . .What? A hint of mischief? A dare? A look of. . .life? But no, it wasn't life, it was just paint. Unbidden, a memory surfaced, arcing from the depths of her childhood, of a boy with golden blond hair and a red coat. A loud, boisterous storm of sound and color. Edward! Elysia could remember sitting on the floor of her room as Edward used his alchemy—or magic, as Elysia had then thought of it, something that only came from angels or fairies—her own childish laughter ringing as he created for her a miniature zoo of clay animals, all for her new play barn. Edward, the bright eyed fairy child who knew magic, who could create things out of what seemed like nothing, who would then wink at her afterward as if it were their own special secret, just for the two of them. That was how her younger self remembered Edward Elric.

And then. . .

The day soon came when Elysia, so young and small and lacking in adult understanding, had asked her mother innocently, after she had plucked one of the little zoo animals from the floor, "Mama, when is Edward coming back to play with me?" And Elysia's mother, her expression sad, closing, had merely replied:

"He's gone beyond the Gate."

Elysia did not quite know what that meant, but even then, she intuitively understood her mother's expression and tone. It was the same as when she had been told that her father had gone to Heaven, and he would not be coming back. There was a finality to that statement, a shutting of a door, and with it, hope. Edward was gone.

"Ms. Hughes, your hand!"

Elysia started as Hodge walked toward her, with tea tray in hand, which he then set on the grand oak desk. He whipped out a white handkerchief from his pocket and held it out to her. She had forgotten about the cut. She had been so wrapped up in the painting and the memories that it brought forth that she hadn't bothered to take notice of the inky trail of red running down her arm. She took the cloth with a quiet, "Thank you," and turned back to the picture.

"You're very welcome," replied Hodge with a smile. Elysia watched as his face changed as his eyes alighted on the picture. "Oh my," was the only thing Hodge said at first. Elysia watched carefully as he reacted to the image of Edward in the painting—and there was a definite reaction—Elysia could see it and she knew then that it was not just her. This Edward, the one presented by the artist, was a fierce and beautiful thing. Angel, all fire. Elysia was sure she had never seen a more effective rendering.

Hodge pushed nervously at his glasses. He drew closer to the painting, struggling with his thoughts. "Hey, isn't this. . ."

"The Fullmetal Alchemist," Elysia finished for him.

"Yes, yes!" nodded Hodge excitedly, suddenly remembering. "He was the youngest state alchemist ever, qualifying for the post at age twelve." Hodge recited this mechanically, as if it were something he had learned from a textbook. And he probably had learned it from a book, thought Elysia, for how could someone like Hodge know about Edward any other way? It had been how long now? Eleven? Twelve years since the Fullmetal Alchemist and his brother had disappeared from their world? Elysia had been a little girl then, and even now her memories of Edward were clouded and obscured by the persistent, unforgiving march of time. It had been so very long ago. . .

Meanwhile, Hodge was studying the painting up close in detail, squinting as Elysia murmured behind him, "It's beautiful, isn't it?" She then saw that Hodge had become suddenly still.

"Well now that's interesting," said Hodge softly. He motioned Elysia closer and his gloved hand pointed to the signature in the corner. "Do you see this name?"

Elysia peered at the ornate, flowing script: Chiaro Scuro.

Elysia shook her head, not recognizing the artist. But as she turned to watch Hodge's profile in the crouching gloom, she could see that he did. And he was perplexed by it. He was completely frozen.

"Hodge, I want you to find the address of this man for me."

"Of course, Fuhrer," replied Hodge, taking the folded note from Roy Mustang's hand. On it was written a single name: Chiaro Scuro. Hodge's eyes were lowered toward the fuhrer's fingers. They were shaking. . .

Hodge straightened, snapping instantly out of his reverie. Then: "A few months before the fuhrer's death, I accompanied him on a diplomatic mission to Xing. You remember the one, I'm sure; it was in all the papers at the time. Well, while we were there, the fuhrer asked me to find out the address of a particular artist," Hodge motioned again toward the signature in the corner. "The name he gave me was Chiaro Scuro; he was the official portrait painter to the Emperor of Xing."

Elysia's eyes widened, "The Emperor of Xing? Then no wonder this painting was done with such skill—

"Ms. Hughes, that's not the point"—

"but Hodge, Xingian artists are world renowned"—

"Ms. Hughes, people actually sit for Chiaro Scuro's portraits"—

"But Hodge!"—

Elysia abruptly stopped speaking and a creeping stillness overtook the room. She stared at Hodge, a question in her eyes, a question that was answered by him with a small, eloquent nod toward the corner of the painting. Beside the signature in the corner was a date.

And it was dated last year.