sisyphean effort

Painted Truths

chapter 11. Promises on the Water

Aquroya. The city of water. It nestled like a bright, shining jewel on a softly shimmering palette of blue velvet. Aquroya was the Lady of the Water: a city of numerous, unfathomable charms which lured and bedazzled tourists from all over Amestris. She reigned, gaudy yet stubbornly beautiful, tenacious, like a woman past her prime, but who refused to quit. Even as she slipped, slowly, on the landscape of decay and steadily creeping ruin that infected the very calli and canals of her own well-trod streets. Aquroya was sinking, both literally and figuratively. The water, the thing that Aquroya was most obviously known for, was dragging her, like the slow, insidious press of disease, to the bottom of the lake.

Aquroya was known as the Sinking City.

Roy Mustang came to Aquroya, only accompanied by two lieutenants, to the fuhrer's residence on the main piazza near the offices of state. The fuhrer's house in Aquroya was a grand, three story palazzo: a dazzling structure, large, but like the rest of the city, worn under the foundations and infiltrated with a stealthy, creeping decay. It did not matter, though. The luxuries of home and hearth—glittering chandeliers, elaborate candelabra, sumptuous well-laid tables, were not the reason for the fuhrer's visit. He had but one objective in mind: to find the Fullmetal Alchemist.

As it happened—for good or ill—Aquroya was currently in the throes of high carnivale. Mustang had arrived during the Feast of Ascension: an elaborate, drawn-out festival that took place every year. Every year, on the same day, the mayor of the city and his council members would take their lavishly painted and decorated barges to the deepest, center part of the lake and there, in grand ceremony, the mayor would cast a gold ring into its depths: a symbolic union of marriage between the city and the water. It did not matter that the union was a treacherous one—the water a murderous, slowly poisoning fiend. The ceremony and the festival still continued on, unchanged, year after year, its frenzy and blazing spectacles attracting Amestrian tourists from all over.

For two days now, Roy Mustang had waited patiently within the corroded walls of his residence, meeting with and talking with—albeit discreetly—a whole host of various contacts, from high officials on down to the Sinking City's shadier and more questionable inhabitants. On the third day, he slipped away from his house, a lone, unnoticed shadow in the early in the evening, the sun at his back turning a blurry, tangy orange as it sunk closer to the horizon line of the water. He was in street clothes; dark-colored slacks paired with a white button down shirt and his great black overcoat. He did not wish to be recognized. And as revelers passed by him in the cobbled stone piazza—faces covered with plumed, glittering masks, wild, like fantastical animals, their shrieks of laughter trailing behind them, a simple thought occurred to him. He walked through the piazza and over to the many vendor's stalls, and there he purchased a simple black mask etched in silver, and slipped it over his face. Ah, blessed anonymity.

He continued on, away from the towering buildings of the broglio, drifting down by the canals, walking in the vague direction of the great Arch Bridge and under it, the Grand Canal. People flooded the streets everywhere: musicians, street performers, vendors, clusters upon clusters of people. Mustang swore under his breath. How was he to find Edward in the midst of such an ungodly crush of people? He didn't even know where to start. He didn't even know if Edward was still—or had been—in the city. This was complete and utter madness. And yet, here he was, and here he pressed on.

As the sun sank further below the horizon, gas lamps lining the streets were brought to life with a hazy, haloed glow and torches were set alight down by the canals. Everywhere there was a sense of frivolity, of rash, barely contained frenzy. The air was alive with a low, simmering seduction. Men and women alike, masked or unmasked, smiled salaciously at Roy in frank, open invitation. He ignored them all and continued on, his own masked face searching, searching, looking for Edward. Edward, who was not lost, not gone, not beyond reach—not yet, he reminded himself. He would tear this whole city apart with his bare hands if it meant reaching his goal.

Mustang walked along the banks of the Grand Canal, the water alive, shimmering and swaying under the flickering light cast by the torches. Gondolas of various shapes and sizes flooded the waters, and sounds of tinkling laughter and string music carried across the canal depths all way to the shore. Somewhere in the distance a woman was singing, a sweet soprano sound that bounced and echoed in the close confines of the water. Mustang started up the slope that lead to the Great Arch Bridge, his eyes sweeping over boat after boat, gliding or docked, that swayed into his view. And then something particular caught his eye—a flash of brilliance, a shine of hope—and he found himself hurrying back down to the docks by the base of the bridge.

He was moving against a throng of people, and he had to push his way through into the other direction. That gondola just under the bridge there, he thought, roped and swaying near the shore—something: a familiar, reflective light, last seen by him only through the illusion, the alchemy of paint. He felt his pulse quicken as he moved nearer. That light beckoned him, leading him to the water.

Around him was a cacophony of sound: musical instruments and shouting and the pounding of hurried feet. And yet, as he approached the gondola, it was as if everything went dead silent. Hanging over the side of the boat, almost unnoticeable, was the limp curve of an automail hand. He would have known it anywhere: it was so completely his, so much a part of Edward; it was undeniable and unignorable. Mustang slowed, softening his approach, and then—

And then. . .

Mustang saw, lying in the bottom of the boat, Edward, sprawled, fast asleep, a book folded over his face, just like that moment in his office so very long ago. If it had not been for the automail hand hanging carelessly over the side, he would have missed him completely. Mustang thought suddenly that he'd never loved anything more at this moment—had in fact never been so grateful for—than the glorious perfection of that light-reflecting steel.

Mustang smiled in relief and crept closer to the side of the gondola. The past be damned, he thought, remembering that tortured moment from long ago. This time it was different. He was different. It was going to be different. By God, nothing would stay his hand this time! So he reached for the book, his mind ignoring the internal clang of a different kind of warning bell.

There was the clap and flash of alchemy and suddenly—too suddenly—Mustang found himself slammed into the bottom of the boat, a wire noose wrapped around his neck, choking. A hard, metal knee dug into his spine. His face scrapped the wooden flooring; his fingers clawed at the wire. Edward gave the noose another vicious yank and Mustang's vision blazed into black dots. Everything had happened differently alright, but it was not what he had foreseen.

"Edward. . ."

His voice came out in a guttural rasp, nearly inaudible. Above him there was a sudden stillness; and yet the noose remained painfully taught. "Ed. . ." he managed to choke out, his fingers digging, seeking purchase.

As suddenly as it had appeared, the noose was loosened and slipped away. The weight on his back lifted. He coughed, sputtered, turning. Then he reached up, and tore away the mask he'd been wearing, its presence long since forgotten.

Edward's eyes were wide with shock, "Mustang?!"

Mustang struggled up into a sitting position, face blotched red and throat retching. Edward stumbled back a pace, the gondola rocking wildly under both of their movements. "What the hell are you doing here?" Edward demanded, his voice laced with obvious confusion.

Mustang sucked in air in great, heaving gulps. "I've been. . .looking. . .for you."

Edward's look was incredulous. Then Mustang stammered out, "In Xing. . .I saw. . .your painting."

"What?" A look of complete disbelief covered his features. Mustang stood up, swaying along with the slowly settling boat, staring hard at the young man in front of him. And Edward, as usual, looked angry.

The silence stretched, sliding into the quicksand of discomfort. Edward turned and hopped out of the gondola, and Mustang followed, the words pouring out of him at a breakneck pace:

"I went to Xing, to the emperor's palace, and I saw your portrait there. Then I went to the house of the artist, Chiaro Scuro, and he told me. . . he told me. . . everything."

Without noticing, Mustang had followed Edward into one of the long, narrow calli, a small alleyway that was lined on either side by the tall, imposing white-washed walls of the more richer palazzos. Edward came to a sudden halt and whirled, getting into Roy's face. "That was really fucking stupid what you did back there! You know I could've killed you right?" His gold eyes blazed, crackling, with a barely contained rage. Mustang thought it was the most beautiful sight he'd seen in years. . .

They glared at one another—the moment lengthening, strained, protracted—until Edward turned and abruptly started off again, with Roy following close behind.

"Edward, stop."

"Why are you here?"

"Don't you know?"

"Do I?"

"Edward, I said that Chiaro told me everything. . . everything." The word crashed and hung in the air with its all-encompassing and implied meaning. Edward slid to a stop, turned, angry again, explosive. "Why, that officious little prick—"

The words were never finished. Mustang had grabbed him, with both hands, and their lips met in deep, hungry impact. Edward staggered back under the force of it, his back hitting the alley wall, the air sucked out of his lungs. Mustang was rewarded with a low, heady moan: it was primal, it was animal, it was heaven. It was the shattering of years. The kiss went on, and Mustang's hands tore at Edward's hair, holding him in place, an act from a residual fear that fate—with its all too cruel and capricious sense of whimsy— would try, with its crafty hands, to take what was rightfully his away from him again.

Edward's hands were shoving at him, pushing, the kiss suddenly broken. Mistaking his meaning, Mustang clung on, not realizing the gravity of the moment until Edward himself yelled, "Look out!" and there was a pinging sound next to his ear: the ominous clattering of a knife that had just missed its mark. Mustang was dumbfounded, frozen into place. He watched, still wide-eyed and disbelieving as Edward, swearing, was off and running after a black-clad, masked assailant who was swiftly retreating down the narrow calle.

Mustang quickly returned to his senses, and he ran after Edward, who had already caught up with the assassin. Mustang sucked in his breath as he realized that the mask was not Aquroyan, but painted in the black and red design of Xing. An ugly realization began to dawn, landing with the light and subtle shape of black-winged butteries: he had read the situation wrong. He had miscalculated. In his mad, down hill rush to find Edward he had not stopped to think about the fact that he was not the only one looking for him. And he had inadvertently lead that other person here, right to him.

There was a clap and the accompanying blue shimmering light of alchemy being performed as Edward—lethally enraged, but completely and dangerously in control—went in for a low sweep, taking out the assassin's legs. There was a scream and spurt of blood as Edward used his alchemy to transmute the metal harnesses on his boots into a razor sharp pair of spurs, effectively ham-stringing the attacker. A second transmutation and his automail was transformed into a knife, metal flashing as it arced downward towards the assassin with deadly intent.

Mustang came to a halt by the now still body of their attacker. Edward turned to face him, the wildness not quite gone from his expression, and their eyes met in a silent, desperate understanding. Mustang opened his mouth to speak, but was cut off by Edward, who grabbed his arm and said, "Come on." His eyes were trained on the high walls of the surrounding palazzos and his body language telegraphed danger. Mustang allowed himself to be pulled along by the younger man, a growing guilt taking up root and choking him into an obedient, silent acquiescence. So stupid, he mentally berated himself, to not have considered every possibility, every foreseeable outcome, every trap and hitch. He had obviously gone soft, had been thrown off his mental game ever since returning from Xing. And now, here with Edward, they were both caught up in the middle of a dangerous situation.

They exited the mouth of the calle, with Edward stopping just long enough to transmute the cobblestones from the street into a suitable barrier to cover the entrance. Then Edward broke into a sprint and Mustang was forced to keep pace with him; the exertion reminding him, with its own wry sense of irony, the gulf of their age difference. Edward reached the canal and he leapt into the waiting gondola, landing, hardly swaying, with an unearthly animal grace. Mustang clambered in after him and Edward cut the line and shoved them away from the dock, setting them adrift on the water. Edward walked to the head of the boat and took up the gondolier's pole, pushing them farther down the waterway. All around them, torches danced, and music played, and laughter rang out, while Mustang, silent and still, flailed around in a conflicting quagmire of misery and elation.

Mustang's mind was racing. He was the master strategist; he was the one who had gotten Edward into this mess, so—how to fix it? His brain ran through various options, considering and discarding, racing, thrashing through a labyrinth of infinite possibilities. Mustang paused and raised his eyes to the young man standing—so strong, determined, so sure—at the head of the boat. The torchlight played lovingly over the gold of Edward's hair, the flickering brightness cast swaying, shifting shadows over the grim, set look of his face. Like an avenging angel, he thought. Mustang was certain of one thing, however: that he would not be parted from Edward again, assassins or no assassins, crazed emperors or no crazed emperors. The guilt and misery that had begun to take root so recently in his heart was effectively cut away, slashed to ribbons by the memory of one long, drawn out kiss. Mustang felt a smile slide over his face, both warm and sad, and as it did, a strange idea began to take shape in his consciousness, an idea that pulled on him, with both equal amounts of triumph and defeat. Defeat, he pushed away into the distance, and he lingered, like a starving man being given his first good dinner, on the parts that would mean triumph. Suddenly he said:

"I'm sorry."

Edward turned to look at him, silent, the wind from the water whipping the loosed strands from his braid into a halo of gold. He shrugged. "Don't worry about; we'll think of something."

"I have thought of something," said Mustang and he moved, settling himself just inside the darkened mouth of the gondola's covering felze. He steepled his fingers together and looked pointedly at Edward. His expression was determined.

A half-smile covered Edward's face. "Let me guess. This 'something' is dangerous and stupid and will probably get us both killed?"

"Maybe." No laughter, no creeping smirk—Mustang's response was final, flat, serious.

Edward froze, then nodded once, in silent agreement. Their gondola drifted by a fantastically decorated barge, and the silence was suddenly filled with shrieks of echoing laughter and the sounds of light, tinkling music. Somewhere on board, someone was giving a serenade. The water erupted with sounds of splashing, as revelers threw their cups overboard, into the depths. Mustang watched Edward's face break into the beginnings of a smile. "They're happy," he commented.

"I'm happy, too," responded Mustang. Across the short distance, their eyes met. Mustang was suddenly made hyper-aware of their small, enclosed space, the surrounding darkness, the distant sounds of celebration that now seemed so very far, far away. All thoughts of his plans, of possible failure, seemed far flung as well, and all he could think of now was that he was here, alone with Edward—after such an intractable period of longing and mourning— he was here, and heaven was just as close as his arms. He could also see those same thoughts mirrored within gilded eyes, eyes that were darkening, narrowing with a responding hunger, and in an instant, the pole was flung to the bottom of the boat with a loud clatter and Edward was on him, like an assassin, but with a different intent, backing him into the darkened felze of the gondola. . .