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sisyphean effort

Painted Truths

chapter 9. Chiaroscuro

chiaroscuro, n., definition: 1. The technique of using light and shade in pictorial representation. 2. The arrangement of light and dark contrast, esp. to enhance the delineation of character and for general dramatic effect.

Chiaro stood before Edward's portrait, his sure, practiced hand deftly filling in the inky, oily blackness of the darkened background. The artist had managed to reproduce the high, light-reflecting sheen of his automail arm to perfection, and above that, his face appeared to be imbued with an ethereal, inner light. His hair made for him a suitable halo ("Only God, my dear, could love you for yourself alone and not your yellow hair") and his eyes shone with an incandescent fire: a fierce, intense look that he took on whenever he was made to talk about a certain arrogant commanding officer. . .

Chiaro held up his sketch pad, "How's this?"

Edward leaned forward, squinting (a side effect, Chiaro was sure, of the bottle of whisky that they had been sharing, now sitting conspicuously empty on the table between them). "The eyes aren't quite right," said Edward, shaking his head. "More. . . almond-shaped?"

Chiaro nodded drunkenly and took up his charcoal, revising the sketch. He held it up again, "And now?"

Edward squinted again. "Getting closer. I don't know, can you make the smirk. . . smirkier?"

Chiaro snickered and again drew on the sketchpad with his charcoal. After a moment of silence, the painter said, "Why don't you ask him for help? It's possible you could get a message to him somehow."

A sad look crossed Edward's face and he shook his head. "No. I haven't seen Roy Mustang in over ten years and. . . I just can't see myself suddenly asking him for favors, not after so long. He did enough stuff for me, back in the day. I don't want to owe him anything else."

"But. . .I thought perhaps the relationship went. . .deeper than that?"

A wan smile decorated Edward's face. "No. . . it was all one-sided. I was sixteen and had a stupid crush. I'm pretty sure he never even knew I existed, except as another one of his 'dogs'."

Chiaro's hand abruptly stopped.

"What?" said Edward.

"I think you're wrong."

Now Edward snickered. "How can you say that? You've never even met the man. He was a pompous prick with a lot of ambition. His grand plans included the creation of his own 'mini-skirt army'."

"That sounds like a melodramatic evasion," said Chiaro seriously. "You said that he always knew where you were and what you were doing. Maybe that was his way of looking out for you—also, it seems a little obsessive."

Edward waved his hand dismissively. "He just liked to control everybody and everything around him."

Chiaro smiled. "You say such bad things about him and yet—"

"He just makes me crazy, that's all," said Edward, squirming, his face a mask of conflicting emotions. So much feeling. Chiaro watched, fascinated. It was like watching a prism—shards of beautiful crystal spinning, turning colors under the light.

So much emotion frightened the painter.

Chiaro lowered his paint brush. The portrait was finished. Swirls of black, crimson, and gold swam across his vision. He couldn't believe he was tearing up at his own work. Or maybe it wasn't the picture, but the woeful, unseemly predicament which surrounded it. Maybe it was the boy himself. No, he wouldn't allow himself to think about it. He hadn't seen Edward in three days and he forced himself to not linger on what any of it might mean. It was not his place, and he needed to divorce himself from thinking that it was.

"Such feelings should be cut away, amputated," thought the painter. "Better to feel nothing at all."

A heavy, forceful knock sounded at the door, and Chiaro's head jerked up—he knew the sound too well, metal on wood. "Enter," he called. He did not move to cover the painting, but instead stood stock still in front of it, listening as heavy footsteps made their way towards him.

"Holy shit." came Edward's voice from just over his shoulder. Utter silence. Then:

"Is that really me?"

Chiaro turned around slowly, taking in the expression on the boy's face. Edward was studying his own portrait, his look an odd marriage of fascination and complete bewilderment. Truly, he does not see himself, thought Chiaro. Then the painter said, "I still think you are wrong about Roy Mustang, and I will wager an entire crate of that Amestrian whisky on it." Edward's eyes flicked toward the painter; there was something haunted in them, something that had been temporarily pushed back by the colorful distraction of his portrait.

"What's wrong?" said Chiaro, alarmed.

Edward opened his mouth to speak, closed it, then began again: "I had dinner with the emperor tonight. Alone. In his private study."

Chiaro remained silent, his responding nod urging him to continue. . .

Wall sconces covered in amber mica cast the room in a glowing, golden haze—lighting that was all too soft, and too intimate. Edward sat, alone, on an antique carved chair at a small table in the emperor's private study. The chair was turned away from the table—it faced, instead, the wall of paintings known to one and all as the emperor's "private cabinet." In the midst of all the paintings, in the third spot from the left, was a large, empty space. Edward knew that his own portrait would be hung there. In his mind's eye, the image of a monarch butterfly appeared, and was promptly speared by a needle and impaled on a piece of faded parchment. . .

A door creaked open to his left, and Edward did not need to turn his head to know that Emperor Lee was there. The whisper of the man's dark, luxurious robes on the plush carpet was far too loud—deafening within the still, anticipatory silence of the small room. Eventually, Edward was forced to acknowledge the man's presence. "Good evening, emperor," he said, his voice inflectionless as he turned to greet him.

"And to you, Edward," The emperor stopped before the empty space on the wall, a serene and deceptively gentle smile adorning his heavily scarred face. "Chiaro is to deliver your portrait here tomorrow." His hand reached out and touched the blank wall. "I will most likely hang it here, myself. For I do not care to have too many hands touch my most precious possessions." His hand fell away from the wall.

"Which possession are you referring to?"

"Why, whatever do you mean, Edward?" The emperor spun away from the wall and walked over to stand by his chair. Edward dropped his shaking hands into his lap. He was no good at word games—not the kind the emperor seemed to take so much pleasure in, anyhow—that was more Mustang's style, not his. He could feel the emperor's eager eyes watching him, and it took everything he had to not just simply jump up and run from the room.

Luckily, posing for Chiaro's portrait had made him a lot better at remaining still.

"I'm talking about myself." Edward was pleased to hear the force of anger in his voice—better that than fear. He glared at the emperor, his golden eyes daring him to deny it. His hands, no longer shaking, clenched into fists.

The emperor took the seat to Edward's right and his eyes regarded him coolly. Edward watched—with apprehension—as that coolness began to slowly melt away, turning the emperor's look into something warmer, more complex. Something that was even harder for Edward to comprehend.

The emperor's eyes were begging.

Edward would have liked to believe that he was mistaken, but he knew he was not. This was not the face he'd been expecting—he'd expected the face of a tyrant, of an appallingly violent man, an egotistical maniac hell-bent on getting whatever it was he wanted. He'd seen and faced any number of those faces, over the years, again and again, many times over. No, what he saw in the emperor's eyes was a single phrase, telegraphed to him over and over, as clear and bright as a sunny day:

Love me, love me, love me. . .

The emperor reached out suddenly, grabbing hold of Edward's left hand. It might as well been a cobra, for all the response that Edward showed it. He could not keep the pity, and its companion, revulsion, from showing raw and true on his own face. He hated this! He actually felt himself pitying this man and he hated it! Better to be forced into a corner and made to fight than face down this unwanted parody of a. . .What? Courtship? A juvenile crush? Lover's confession? The soft pleading in the emperor's eyes was too much to bear; he could not be the focus of so much devotion, anticipation. He couldn't. . .

"Edward. . ."

"No!" and he was up and out of the chair before he knew it, his body language screaming with all its silent might the things it did not want. He was sorry this man had probably always been this unlovely, this unloved, but he would not yield to another's delusional wishes. Capitulation was not an option.

"Edward. . ."

That pleading tone had all the force of a knife, making him wince as if under a blow. "Your highness," he began, his voice cold, probably cruel, "I don't know what it is you think is happening here, but what I want—I want—is to go home to Amestris and my brother. Please?" Now it was his turn to plead, to beg.

He watched the emperor's expression fall, collapse in on itself, then rise, becoming cross and aloof, his old mask firmly in place. "I do not give you leave to pass over the border," he stated coldly, his eyes cutting away, shining with a definite wetness. Then:

"Get out!"

Edward backed away, toward the door. He felt sick to his stomach, worse for wear in spirit, perhaps more so than after any physical battle. He was glad he was told to go. And yet the coldness of the tone in which the order was delivered made him fear something more. . .

"You can't stay here!" Chiaro said. "Something must be done. . .anything."

"You think I don't know that?" replied Edward, "But what am I supposed to do? I still have half the emperor's private guard following me." He dropped heavily onto a stool in front of his portrait. In the full length mirror across the way, Chiaro watched the doubled images of both Edwards: the one in the portrait fiery and sure, the other defeated and hopeless. Then he saw his own hand reach out, lightly touching the real Edward's shoulder. He watched the image in the mirror and then—

An idea began to take shape in his head, congealing and coming together in a sudden mad spurt of inspiration. Chiaro froze, thinking. Then he said: "Do you remember that story you told me, about how you disguised you and your brother, and you took a train into the desert?"

"Yey, what about it?"

"You said you changed your hair color with alchemy?"

Edward said nothing, merely looked at the painter with questioning eyes. Chiaro wasn't looking at him. He was looking at the mirror, and he watched as the artist raised a hand to his pointed goatee, touching it with paint-splattered fingers, contemplating.

"It's going to have to come off," Chiaro murmured.

"What are you talking about?" said Edward, frowning.

A determined look had come over the artist's face. "We switch. You use your alchemy and switch our hair colors, I shave off this beard, we switch clothes—"

"Are you crazy?!"

"No, I'm not!" Chiaro grabbed Edward's arm, an intensity overtaking his features that the alchemist had never seen on the man before, save before the challenge of a half-finished canvas. "We are about the same height and build, we both have long hair; if you switch us, and we make the illusion real enough—"

Edward was shaking his head, "This is crazy talk!"

"No, it's not," countered Chiaro. "It will work! From as far off as the granary, they'll never be able to tell. I've done nothing but study you for weeks, Edward. I can move like you, make it real enough. If I head off in one direction, and you, dressed as me, head off in another direction. It will buy you enough time to escape."

Chiaro was in a frenzy of movement: he darted away to a large corner closet and started pulling out various articles of clothing. Then he stood inside it, on tip-toe, reaching into the very back. When he pulled out his hand, it was filled with a stack of Xingian bills (the first half of his commission for the portrait). He brought the lot back to Edward.

"Here, take this," said the painter, forcing the money into Edward's flesh hand. Go down past the farmer's market to a stone building with a thatched roof—there is a red sign outside—and ask for Jing. He supplies me with various things that are. . .hard to come by. Give him this money and ask him to provide you with papers for the border. . ."

Edward was shaking his head violently. "No, no, no. . .I can't. . .I can't let you do this." Gold eyes bore into black ones. "Eventually, they will catch you and. . .and. . ."

"Edward let me do this for you."

"No!"

"Edward, where is your 'I'?"

"What?"

"You always fight and struggle and sacrifice for everyone else—your brother especially—yet what about yourself? What has Edward Elric ever done for Edward Elric? Nothing, as far as I can tell. Now, I want to do this, and we're going to do it—now—tonight. Unlike you, I am a very selfish man: I live alone, and care for no one, and spend all my time on my own petty vices. Let me do this one generous thing—just the one. And let me deal with the repercussions."

Chiaro knelt before him, eyes imploring. Edward's shoulders sagged, the beginning of his defeat. "Alright. . ." he said, taking the proffered robes and money. "I'll do it, but. . ."

Chiaro smiled reassuringly. There was nothing to say after that 'but'—because the cross of remorse, he knew, was a hard and heavy burden to bear. He knew this, as surely as he knew he would be feeling it himself, soon enough. He knew there would be nothing but pain waiting for him on the other side of this night.

He knew he was going to regret this.