This is a short follow-up tale to "Painted Truths"...
"Three of a kind!"
"Ha! Full house! Read 'em and weep!"
"Yes, way! Now, pay up!"
Waves of heat could be seen squiggling through the air, fueled by a bright, fiery sun that was as round and golden yellow as a simmering egg yolk in a frying pan. Fir trees and pine trees and other verdant plant life had long since given way to cacti and rocks and dusty, sandy plains. They were now on the very southern border of Amestris, close to the country of Aerugo, heading in the direction of a tiny village known as Medeira. A village far too small to be found on any map. In the distance, just barely visible over the wavering horizon, there could be seen a colorful collection of clay tiled roofs, their bright, candy-like hues of pink and blue and orange standing out starkly against a sky that had been completely sapped of its color, drained away by the smoldering heat. And as the wagon with its two wayward passengers drew closer, more and more of the town came into view: A church with a tall, vaulted bell tower that was surrounded by flat, low-crouching villas made of adobe bricks covered in white stucco and broader, taller, multi-level buildings with curved gables and pier arches that were painted in riotous shades of rainbow colors. So much vibrant color, its intensity was like an assault on the senses.
"It looks like a clown threw up."
"Ed! That's not nice!" chastised Alphonse. Then, lower: "You shouldn't insult the man's town when he's giving us a free ride."
"That still doesn't change the fact that it looks like someone detonated a paint store in here," observed Ed as the hay cart they were sitting in pulled up to stop before an orange painted stucco building with bright pink borders. "What's with the south and its love of ugly colored tiles anyway? This place looks like a cupcake topped with pink frosting." At this proclamation, Ed's stomach began to growl insistently.
"Mmm, cupcakes," said both Elric brothers as they climbed off the back of the wagon. As Ed hit the ground, a flutter of playing cards fell by his feet, revealing a monochrome of identical, black-outlined squares.
Black aces. At least a dozen of them. "Brother!" exclaimed Alphonse. "You cheated! Again! Geez—you haven't changed one bit since we were younger, have you, Ed?" Ed watched his brother puff up in parody of outrage in his white shirt sleeves and brown waistcoat. His younger brother who was, in fact, taller than himself. "Give me back the stuff you won from me, Ed. Now!" There was a stern expression on Alphonse's usually gentle face.
"Ha! You'll have to catch me first," grinned Ed, before taking off. Alphonse stood there, disbelief playing over his delicate, rounded features, before he began running after him.
"God! You're so childish, Ed! When are you going to grow up?"
"Hey! Cut the short talk, will ya!"
"What? I didn't say anything about you being short, brother. You're just sensitive!"
Ed ducked under the shaded awning of a small gabled building with a sign which read Sandstone Cafe swinging from its archway. The inside was shaded and cool, with a glittering star burst of mosaic tile covering its floor. Ed raced up to the counter and said to the lady with the apron standing behind it: "Please tell me you have cupcakes that look just like that orange and pink monstrosity next door."
Alphonse huffed to a stop behind his sibling. In a low voice, he whispered, "Ed, we can't. You know we don't have any money left. That's why Roy stayed behind in Xenotine, to try and settle the stupid bill for the room."
"You mean he stayed behind so he could shamelessly flirt with the innkeeper and charm her into giving us a significant discount."
"Brother, he's doing it for us."
"I know, Al. And I'm not mad."
Alphonse looked vaguely shocked at this pronouncement. If they had been faced with the same situation a few years earlier, his brother would have gone apoplectic at the very thought of Mustang flirting with someone else. Maybe Ed really had grown up. "So you're not mad about that?"
"Mad. Are you kidding me? What, you think Roy's going to suddenly dump me for some horse-faced innkeeper? C'mon Al, get real. I mean, did you see her ass? It was wider than the Eastern desert..."
Alphonse couldn't keep the snicker from escaping his lips, even though he made it his personal practice to always be nice and to chastise Ed for being mean to other people. "I guess you're right. Still, it's partly your own fault for losing your job at the book shop."
"Hey, that wasn't my fault!"
"Yes it was. I told you time and time again that Mr. Tattenborough was going to fire you for reading on the job all the time."
"And then the two of you got into that argument, and you called him a pompous ass and a xenophobe, and he finally told you to get out. Remember?"
"Well, he is a pompous ass and a xenophobe. Saying alchemy from Xing is the 'devil's work.' What an idiot."
"It is a prejudiced viewpoint," Al conceded.
"Damn right it is," said Ed. He turned and regarded the lady with the apron and muttered under his breath. "Bet I can show you that Roy isn't the only one who can charm shit out of people. Hey, Al. Watch this." Then, in a loud voice:
"Hey sweetheart! Do you have a radio or refrigerator that needs fixin'? Cause I'm willing to do it for some grub, and there obviously hasn't been a man around this place in years..."
Ed and Al were sitting together on a hay bale just outside the village's general store, their tummy's cacophonous grumblings playing an impromptu duet of hunger. Their mirroring expressions were glum as Ed continued to rant and rave about the woman in the cafe.
"I can't believe she just kicked us out! Gah! I don't get it! How come Roy can get away with calling people 'sweetheart' and shit and I can't?"
"Because," said Al flatly, "Roy is dark and handsome and—most importantly of all—charming. And you're short and blond and obnoxious."
"Jerk!" Ed punched Al in the arm, causing him to topple off the hay bale. "How can you say such a thing about your own brother?"
"Because it's true," muttered Al, rubbing his arm. Then, from around the shop corner, a young man in a broad-brimmed hat came running, shouting:
"The bandits have taken all the Aerugoan nuns at the mission hostage! They're threatening the orphans! Someone summon the sheriff! Quick! Before they hurt someone!"
The young man whizzed by them, his white linen shirt and trousers flapping in a makeshift breeze. Ed and Al turned and looked at each other. An unspoken argument flew back and forth between them. Finally, Al said:
"What should we do? I mean," and Al dropped his eyes to the ground, and said, almost guiltily, "Roy said it was my job to keep you out of trouble while he was gone."
A devilish look crossed Ed's face; he knew then that he had his brother backed into a moral corner. "Well, we can't just sit here and do nothing. I think we should do what any good alchemist in this situation would do..." There was a mischievous look in Ed's eye, a hunger of a different kind. Then, in silent agreement, both brothers stood up and said as one:
"Be thou for the people..."
Ed and Al followed the boy in the wide-brimmed hat up a rocky dirt path, to the front of a large multi-level building behind the church, a white stucco affair with a salmon tiled roof. Through a large open archway one could see an expansive brick courtyard that was lined by an open gallery of shady piazzas, seemingly empty of all human life. Outside the building, the town sheriff stood with a bull horn, imploring the bandits to give up and come out with their hands up. Ed smirked at this. The sheriff only had three officers with him, and if the group of border marauders was as large as the boy had said, then the village police were vastly outnumbered and out-gunned. They didn't stand a chance.
Which was where Ed and Al came in...
Al regarded the mission building with a stony expression. "So, what's the plan?"
Ed's eyes were narrowed into golden, cat-like slits. "We go in through the courtyard. I'll climb the balcony and go up top, and you'll go in through the ground level. See, it'll be just like that time with Maes and the train. Remember that?"
"That was a lot of fun."
"Fun? Are you kidding? You were cursing Roy's name from Central to Resembool for that, don't you remember?"
"I did? I don't remember that. C'mon, let's go." Ed's black clad form took off in a sprint toward the open archway, with Alphonse calling a warning of "Ed! Hey, wait!" as a hail of bullets ricocheted off the bricks of the courtyard around him. That didn't stop Ed from leaping the first piazza, from going after the assailant with the rifle head on. There was a clap and a flash of hazy blue light, and there blossomed across Ed's arm an ornate steel shield. Bullets pinged! and clanged! off the metal as Ed inched forward on the balcony, toward the man with the rifle who was hidden behind a column on the second level. Ed's eyes were ablaze with gold fire as they peered over the top of the shield, lit with the internal flames of an avenging angel.
Ed watched in disbelief as the man with the rifle suddenly dropped his gun and fell, unconscious, over the piazza's railing. A blurry ball of red and blue landed with a heavy thud at Ed's feet. A garden gnome. Ed turned and peered over the balcony to see Al standing by a large sling-shot that had suddenly appeared from out of the ground. Ed grinned in triumph. "Go Alphonse with the assist!"
Al just shook his head, reprimanding him. "You acted too hastily, brother. As usual."
"Nonsense. That worked out great, what are you—"
Fragments of glass rained down in a shimmering cascade of diamonds as Ed was tackled through a window by yet another bandit. He just barely had time to register the flash of a knife as he reached up and clubbed the man off of him with his shield. A kick from his automail foot sent the man careening over the balcony, landing with an abbreviated shriek.
"Hey, watch it! You almost hit me!" Al's annoyed voice called from below.
Ed, who was still lying on the floor, poked his head over the balcony's edge and said, "Sorry."
"It's okay," said Al, who was standing by the second bandit's now prone body. Ed watched Al's eyes widen with sudden fear, saw a darkened shadow fall across the bright white stucco beneath him, and he rolled away just in time to avoid the fatal swing of a curved blade. The scimar whizzed by him, neatly slicing off a piece of his braid. Gold hair fluttered like sunflower petals tossed onto the summer breeze, down to the bricks below.
"Hey pal, I'm not due for a haircut." Another clap, another flash, and there appeared Ed's own shining blade from his arm, its weight as familiar to him as an old friend, as familiar as his own flesh arm. He parried another swing from the sun-burnt, mustachioed man with the scimar, turning to leap through the now conveniently open window with the speed and agility of a black cat.
"Sister, look! It's the angel!"
The man with the sword followed Ed into what appeared to be a large banquet hall, complete with long dining table, velvet tablecloth, chairs, and wooden sideboard. Ed barely had time to register the people who were huddled in the corner; they were nothing more than a chaotic flash of black and white in the periphery of his vision. The Aerugoan nuns! There was the clank! and clash! of steel-on-steel as the fight waged on, as Ed continued to back his way further into the room.
"Angel, look out!" cried a little girl's voice.
Ed jumped onto the table as a second blade whizzed past him. There were two of them now. Seeing the large silver serving platter in the center of the table, Ed raced toward it, clapped, and—
—electric blue light filled the room like light from heaven, as Ed transmuted the platter into a second sword. He grinned a devil's grin as he casually flipped the blade in his hand, his feet dancing with the urge to fight. The two men separated, circled around the sides of the table. They wanted to hem him in. Ed's grin widened further. "C'mon assholes, bring it!"
The sound of repelling steel echoed through the room as Ed parried both blades on two different fronts. His face was flushed with the exertion, his eyes glowing with the energy of the fight. He kicked a vase of flowers into the face of one man, who screamed as it broke against his nose. There was a manic blur of black and white, a cry of "Sister Mary Matisse! Don't!" and a second shattering crash as one of the nuns broke another vase from the sideboard over the man's head. Ed watched him topple to the floor, unconscious.
Ed laughed with vengeful delight. The other man, the one with the mustache, glowered. He stepped on one of the chairs, climbed up on the table to face Ed. "You're gonna pay for that," he hissed.
"Why are you harassing some nuns and a bunch of orphans? That's go to be the lowest of the low..."
"These Aerugoan bitches are hoarding gold. Bars and bars of it! I know it! And for what use?"
"I told you, we have no gold here!" yelled the nun that the others had called Sister Mary. "We spent it all, on improvements for the church and on things for the orphans!"
"Liar!" The man with the blade lunged forward, and Ed, who was backed all the way to the table's edge, wobbled and fell. The children in the corner gasped in unison. One of the little boys in a straw hat said, "Sister Mary! The angel! He hurt the angel!"
The mustachioed man grinned a black-toothed grin of triumph. There was no movement from underneath the table. Then suddenly—
—a metal hand reached up and wrenched the velvet tablecloth forward, causing the man to lose his balance and fall, hitting his head on the edge of the table's surface as he went. He was lying flat on his back when Edward finally pounced, his automail foot landing squarely in the middle of his chest and the tip of his sword resting at his throat.
The man began laughing a wheezing laugh of derision. At that moment, a door on the opposite side of the room flew open, and in came Alphonse, his face the very picture of distress. Ed's blond brows knitted together in a frown. "Al, what's wrong? Look, I dropped two more of them—"
"—two is hardly enough, brother. I'm afraid we got company." At this, at least a dozen men, all armed with a various assortment of weapons, came streaming in through the doorway, like a swarm of rats from a sinking ship. Eleven, twelve, thirteen, fourteen. Eventually, Ed lost count. "Oh shit," he muttered under his breath. The Elric brothers stood back to back in the center of the room, poised to fight. Even though they were outnumbered. Even though they were probably going to lose.
Ed's eyes met the gaze of the first little girl who had, strangely, called him an angel. She smiled her own angelic smile and said, reassuringly, "Don't worry angel, I'm sure God will send a miracle."
"There is no God, sweetheart," insisted Ed through clenched teeth as he raised both blades, intent on the battle. The bandits began to slowly, ever so slowly, close in, and Ed whispered, "You ready, Al?"
All was dead silence, all was uneasy tension, until the quietude of the room was interrupted by a single, tiny, almost inaudible snap! At that sound, Ed grinned, the tenseness draining away from his body. There may not have been a God, but there certainly was—
—the woosh! of fiery flames as they blasted through the room, engulfing the border bandits where they stood. Inhuman shrieks and the scent of charred flesh filled the air as the well-aimed flames did their work. The nuns in the corner covered the eyes of the children as the blackened, scorched men flailed on the ground, as they threw themselves out the open window, over the balcony. Smoke and noise and chaos reigned, until the fires wooshed away into sudden nothingness, ceasing to exist almost as quickly as they had come into being.
"Hi honey, I'm home."
"Alphonse, I thought I told you to keep Ed out of trouble while I was gone." The deep, smoldering voice of Roy Mustang echoed through the dining hall, as he stepped through the doorway, over the burned bodies of still twitching men.
There was a loud gasp from the corner where the nuns stood. A child shot up and pointed. "Look! Look! It's the second angel!"
"The second angel!"
"It's a miracle!"
"Blessed by God!"
Roy's dark brows knitted in confusion at the orphans proclamations. Without stopping, he went directly to Ed and ran his hands possessively, almost covetously over his leather clad arms, surreptitiously checking for injuries. "Having a spot of bother, are we?"
"What? What are you talking about? Al and I coulda took 'em." Al looked incredulous, his mouth hanging open in disbelief.
"Oh, really?" There was a single raised eyebrow, the beginnings of the infamous Mustang smirk.
"Look, the angel really is made out of metal!" said the little boy in the straw hat, who had boldly come forward and was now examining Ed's automail arm. His expression was one of rapturous wonder as his eyes met Ed's. "Are you really from heaven?"
"Huh? What are you talking about?"
Sister Mary Matisse came forward and clasped Roy's arm. "You are truly our saviors, sir. A real miracle, as the children say! If it hadn't been for you, God knows what would have happened!" The nun bent to kiss Roy's hand in gratitude. As if that were a signal, the rest of the group began to crowd around both Roy and Ed, kissing their hands and touching them with reverence. Over and over, the children chanted:
"Angels! They're angels! Our own angels!"
"Whuff do you s'pose dat wah all 'bout?" Ed asked around a mouthful of the coveted cupcake, its pink icing as bright as the mission's rooftop.
"What do you mean?" asked Roy, walking along beside him. In the distance, Ed could see Al chatting with the young sister Mary Matisse, his gestures animated, enthusiastic even. A smirk formed on Ed's face at the sight. Then:
"Those kids. They kept calling me an angel."
"Because you look like an angel. Ow!"
Roy rubbed his arm where Ed had punched him. "Ha do nut," Ed exclaimed around another mouthful of cupcake. Despite the punch, Roy affectionately reached out to swipe some icing from the tip of his nose. "You're right. You're the devil in disguise." Ed smiled wickedly, an effect that was marred by pink-tinted teeth. "You know, I just thought of something fun we could do with this icing—"
"—Hey brother! Roy! Come here!" Ed turned to see Al running towards them, an excited expression on his face.
"Wow, Al. That sister Mary put quite a look on your face. You know, she is kind of cute beneath that wimple. I bet you could talk her out of her 'marriage' to God, if you really wanted—"
Al's face shifted into one of disgust. "Oh, gross. God, Ed. You're so vulgar. Yuck."
Ed shrugged. "I'm just saying," he mumbled. "I think she likes you."
Al just shook his head at his brother's misguided observation. "Anyway, I came over here to show you something. Something I think you'll find interesting. Follow me." Then he turned and made a dash for the church. He stopped when Ed and Roy failed to follow and turned and said: "Well? C'mon..."
"Why do I have to look at a stupid church? I don't even like churches," Ed complained loudly as they rounded the side of the building, heading for its front entrance. Stained glass windows glinted in rainbow hues in the late afternoon light, shining like bejeweled puzzle pieces made of liquid color. Ed, Al, and Roy turned the corner, walking the rocky pathway to the church's steep front staircase. At the top of this staircase, there stood a pair of massive double doors, twelve feet high and vaulted, the left side pulled closed against the glaring light of the unforgiving sun.
"Oh. My. God." said Al. "It's true. What the sister said is true!"
Silence. For once, Ed was struck speechless. Words that were miraculously swept away by the incredible sight in front of them.
The wooden panels of the door had been painted over with a stunning mural of dazzling color. Rich reds and glittering golds dominated, shimmering underneath the rays of the late afternoon sun. Colors so bold, you could almost hear the swish! of the painted fabric, could almost feel its velvety smoothness. It was the portrait of an angel. An angel with long golden hair and bright silvery wings, wrapped in the folds of a scarlet robe, its texture so real-looking, its rendering so true, that the ends of the cloth seemed to veritably swirl and sway with movement. The expression on the angel's face was stern, fierce: his intense, amber-colored eyes stared boldly over the gleam of a metal arm, an arm that was raised and carrying a bright, shining sword, lifted heavenward. Ed's face. There was no doubt. Edward had been turned into an avenging angel, rendered immortal in paint. The likeness was so true, so beautifully realized, that it could not be denied.
"Ed! It's really you!" cried Al.
The real Ed began to edge towards the mural, his eyes narrowing with a growing suspicion. He knelt down by the door to see the curling signature in the corner. There was only one man, one artist, who was capable of this:
"That bastard!" cursed Ed, rising from his squat. "I can't believe he did this!" Ed turned to find Roy snickering with barely contained laughter on the lower steps. Fuming, Ed whirled and grabbed the other door, pulled it shut and said:
"Laugh it up, pal! You're on the other door!"
The laughter suddenly died as Roy regarded his own image, rendered in vivid, icy shades of blue and black and white. Then he said:
Somewhere in a little town in the far east...
Glass jars filled with color crowded the sill before a large picture window. Yellow ochre, red madder, bone black, viridian, and ultramarine winked merrily beneath the sun, their shades as bright as wildflowers beneath its golden rays. The noxious sent of linseed oil wafted through the air, as two figures sat at a long wooden table before the window, seamlessly passing a beaker filled with the binder back and forth between them. Finally, one of the figures, a tall woman in a blue kimono, spoke:
"That wasn't right, what you did with that mural."
"Huh? What are you talking about? It was a gorgeous piece of work, probably one of my best—"
"—it's probably blasphemous, too."
The short man with the dark ponytail next to her grinned with satisfaction. "Probably. But it was a fine joke, was it not, putting Ed and Roy into that painting? Ed makes a particularly beautiful angel."
"You know Ed wouldn't approve," said the woman with a stern expression on her face. The two of them continued to pulverize various bits of rock into paint, their hands moving in identical, grinding movements. Then the man with the ponytail said:
"What does it matter? We needed the money, now that we're not employed at court. And those nuns paid in gold. Gold! I love gold, in my pocket, and on the canvas. It is the highest, finest of colors. And besides," the man paused, his hand stilling over a tantalizingly blue smattering of lapis lazuli, "those nuns obviously know fine art when they see it."
"Ed would kick your ass if he knew."
There was a sharp bark of laughter. "Ha! Ed'll never find out. He hates churches; won't go near them." The hand started back working the colors, the rock giving way to a fine blue powder. Then:
"There's no chance in hell he'll ever see it."