That heaven within a heaven, destination of those beloved by the gods. A resting place for heroes, and she is his.
It is a photograph that brings them together, and that's as it should be.
Faded and delicate after fourteen years of sitting at the bottom of an old shoebox shoved into an older hidey-hole beneath the floorboards of a half-abandoned military barracks room, it barely catches his attention as he carefully peels back the layers of junk that fill the disintegrating cardboard box.
He noticed the crack between the floorboards a few moments before while moving the bed to draw a particularly large array, and curiosity took over as he stomped on the spot and heard a distinctly hollow thud.
Tracing it with his fingertips, he found the knothole and inserted his finger, prising the small section of board loose; and there it was, red cardboard gone dusty pink with time and covered in spider silk and mouse droppings, so that he took the handkerchief from his pocket and dusted it off gingerly before lifting it out.
The contents are miraculously untouched by vermin, and consist almost entirely of old papers. He begins lifting them out, examining pieces of his lost years like a geologist carefully excavating miniature strata; soft gray pencil-scribbled alchemy notes on paper from which the blue lines have mostly vanished with time, the invitation to a dinner to honor the promotion of one Elizabeth Hawkeye, a scattering of magazine and newspaper clippings regarding the exploits and misadventures of the infamous Elric brothers, a neatly folded and official-looking letter put away with great care despite the crumples smoothed neatly out as if it had been rescued from the dustbin. "We give unto thy Edward Elric the title 'Fullmetal'..." he reads, and wishes he could remember the row that would have resulted over his attempt to save it...or had Ed changed his mind and fished it out to give to him for safekeeping?
And then, the vein of gold among the dross; a tattered photograph, one bent corner peeping out from under a scrap of yellowed newsprint ("LITTLE ALCHEMIST MAKES BIG LEAP IN STATE QUALIFICATIONS", oh, how Brother must have railed at him for saving that). He lifts it free, cradling it in his fingers like a butterfly, and three smiling faces gaze up at him from its smudgy surface.
Grinning father with a smattering of dark beard, mother lovely in a soft blue dress, sweet-faced child so young her hair is still a pair of feathery tufts masquerading as pigtails.
They are as unfamiliar as the suit of armor pointed out to him in so many photographs, after he opened his eyes on a world that had skipped a beat and misplaced his brother in the process. Less familiar, because he'd seen that forbidding thing propped in the corner of his father's study, stared curiously at it while Brother traced whorls on the floor in softly luminescent white lines, as if a chalk diagram could become a map to lead them home again.
He has never been sure if he regrets losing his time as a shell. But there is an echo of rootless pain that comes with the realization that he knew this laughing family, once, and now knows nothing of them, not even their names.
Turning the fragile paper over in his hands, he looks carefully at the back. In the crabbed handwriting of someone who has written far too much too quickly with the wrong hand over the years, a name is scrawled.
It means nothing to him. And he's tired of lost meanings. But this is a name, at least, and that's a start.
They didn't want to tell him who the family was.
Even though their faces are as unfamiliar as foreign constellations, he has stumbled upon many names in old letters and archived media, and he has come to like some of their owners. Two of them have settled nearby, ex-military looking for their own small share of peace: the brooding man with the dry sense of humor and the rakish patch over one eye; the quiet and efficient blond woman who shadows his steps, one eye on him and one on the shaggy dog that shadows her in its turn.
When he asked them about the photograph, they looked at each other, and he saw the worry and pain hanging between them. He's seen that look far too often, nearly every time he asks for information about his missing past; he's dubbed it the "Should-We-Tell-Him?" Look, and by now it makes him want to break things.
They must have noticed the hint of a glower in those normally sweet slate-blue eyes, because this Look ends with her taking a deep breath and spilling out what he can tell is half a story, while her companion stares into the shadowed corners of the stall where they were buying apples a moment before, carefully smoothing the lines of pain out of his face and forcing a vague, lackluster smile instead.
Half a story is better than none, and he suspects he'll get the rest when he goes where he plans to go. After all, even though they wouldn't buckle far enough to let slip an address, they've given him first names to go with the simple "Hughes" scribbled on the photograph. Maes. Gracia. Elysia.
He can find them, now. He just has to start searching. Either they're only putting up a show of resistance, or they've underestimated the sheer stubborn pigheadedness that runs in the Elric line. Ed manifested it spectacularly, electricity sparking and spitting and letting off great arcs of light as it leaps from one conductor to the next and buries itself deep in its goal. Al's stubbornness flows like water, quiet and yielding but always moving inexorably forward, able to slide past or through nearly any barrier. Given time, he could wear away stone. A few names are child's play.
He bids them goodbye and walks away quickly, uncomfortable as always with the knowledge that like so many of his rediscovered acquaintances, their friendly gazes are forever trying to pick out a glimmer of familiar alchemized light in the depths of his pupils. He can't spend overmuch time in their presence without wondering what vital piece of them he's lost and found. He can't help wondering how much of their present friendship hinges on the favors they feel they owe the hulking armor he can't remember being, or worse, the brother whose ordeals he will never be able to fully share, despite having been at his side through them all.
A change of mental subject is welcome. He thinks over his clues, decides this Hughes family was somehow involved in the military—the bare-bones account she gave him amounted to names and that they'd been dear friends once, before the husband was killed, but gave little history beyond that—and shifts course toward the gleaming marble of the magnificent Central Library.
The little card, address scribbled on it with a stubby library pencil, remains clutched in his hand for the entire train ride. It is warm and creased, the graphite smearing but legible, when he uncurls his fingers to doublecheck the numbers over the ivy-grown gate in front of him. Bingo.
It's a small house, two-storied but narrow as a finger, tucked into a row of similar houses, like brick chimneys with roofs and windows. The small garden outside is neatly kept, as he sees when he lifts the wrought-iron gate latch and slips into the walled front yard.
The top of the wall comes barely to his eye level. What little he lacks in his brother's genius, Al makes up in height at the age of twenty-four. Or twenty-nine. After more than a decade, he has yet to decide that point. Did Rip Van Winkle consider himself a hundred-something upon awakening?
He is old enough to hunt up a family from his past with a few sweeps through a card catalog of newspapers, and young enough to feel shy about saying hello now that he's standing on their doorstep. Hesitantly, he raises a hand and presses the doorbell.
The upstairs window flies open with a bang, and a cheerful voice yells, "Hold your horses!" Al flinches, startled, and listens to the clatter of feet as whoever it is leaves the room.
A moment later, the door is thrown open just as suddenly, and he jumps back a step, then tries to cover his surprise, not doing an especially good job of it. The girl in the doorway is looking up at him in a puzzled sort of way, her eyes ranging over his unfamiliar features. She's tall enough to look him straight in the adam's apple, if not the eyes; barefoot, wearing a yellow shirt a size too large for her and battered cutoff jean shorts that unprepossessingly show off her long, slightly sunburned legs; but he recognizes her by the feathery brown hair and the wide green eyes.
"Elysia Hughes?" he asks, uncertainly fingering the strap of the duffel slung over his shoulder.
"Yeah," she says, still looking at him oddly. "And you are...?"
"An old friend," he says with the hint of a bow, still and always the gentleman. "I, um...I think I used to know your father."
That gets her attention, he sees, as her eyes light up.
"Really?" she exclaims, curiosity crackling in her voice as she draws him inside and shuts the door against the summer heat. "How?"
The inside of the house is dim, and his eyes take a minute to adjust. It gives him an excuse to look blank, but honesty prevails as usual.
"I...don't really know."
His vision has come clear in time to catch a glimpse of that sweet face narrowing into something surprisingly analytical. She opens a door and shouts up a flight of stairs, "MOM! VISITOR!", then turns back to him.
"This I've got to hear."
They've all gone into the living room to talk, at Gracia's request, and Elysia was just a step behind the other two as they entered the room. Something is going on here that she doesn't understand, and she doesn't especially appreciate the secret.
She's prepared to be mad at this young man for barging onto their doorstep, but as he seats himself politely in the guest armchair, she gives his face a long, searching look and finds him surprisingly difficult to dislike. It's a round, honest face, with a stubbornly pointed chin. He has tousled wheat-blond hair and expressive gray eyes that are currently aimed shyly at the floor. They flicker up toward her for a second, and Elysia chews on her thumbnail and looks away, embarrassed to be caught staring.
Elysia's mother has kept her looks well into her late forties, something Elysia hopes she'll inherit. She's smiling that gentle smile of hers that she saves for company as she takes the photograph the stranger hands her. She looks at it, and up to him, and the smile fades.
"I'm sorry," she says, "but...who are you? Why come looking for us now?" There's something guarded in the way her free hand closes in the folds of her skirt. The stranger shifts awkwardly in his chair. Elysia squirms slightly where she's settled crosslegged on the floor, and wraps a protective arm around her mother's legs.
"Erm," he says, scratching the back of his neck in a resigned way, like someone saddled with an old dilemma that never gets less awkward to explain. "This may be hard to believe, but...I'm Alphonse Elric."
The name is familiar to Elysia, but it's a schoolroom kind of familiar, something associated with the smell of chalkboards and pencil shavings and the nuisance of knowing you’ll probably have to repeat it on a test someday. Her mother's eyes go wide, though, and she stands and goes to him, taking his chin in her hands and staring into his eyes as if looking for the pieces of a puzzle. He looks back at her with a clear, steady gaze, and smiles sheepishly; and the light dawns on her face.
"Why, I do believe you are," she says, letting go of his face and smiling warmly. "Congratulations, dear heart! I heard something about you being restored, but you never came to call..."
"I’m sorry," he says contritely. "It was...kind of a tricky situation. The long and short is, I...well, I lost my memories of being armor. I don't remember you, Mrs. Hughes."
This conversation is taking a very interesting turn, Elysia decides, especially as he mentions armor and she remembers the photo on their mantelpiece. Papa and Mother cradling a pink bundle that's supposedly her, and two unfamiliar children in front of them, one a grinning boy with a stubby blond braid and unruly bangs, the other a little girl with wide bright eyes and brown plaits. And behind them all, like some kind of photographer's prop, a hulking suit of armor with twin points of light glowing in its eyes.
This is Alphonse Elric, the boy behind the armor. She stares unabashedly now as he talks to her mother in low, wistful tones. He's tall all right, probably four or five years her senior. She frowns at that; no five-year-old could wear that armor. He would have rattled around like a pea in a cup.
Her mother has gotten up and is bustling off somewhere; since the Elric boy hasn't followed her, Elysia presumes she's gone to fetch something. She hopes it's tea and biscuits; at nineteen she's leggy and perpetually starving, despite having stopped growing two years before. If she's lucky, maybe all those snacks will fill her out a little.
He's staring at his hands, with the oddest expression on his face. She scoots across the floor to sit by his feet, not quite willing to untangle her limbs and stand.
"Hi," she says, looking up at him.
"Hello again," he says, looking solemnly down at her.
"You were there when I was born," she says, throwing it like a curve ball without warning. He fumbles it, staring at her in confusion.
"Really? But, um, you're—oh," and his face clears, like something just fell into place and it all makes sense now. She wishes he would enlighten her.
"Oh, what?" she prompts.
"Well," he hedges, "I'm older than I look. Sort of. How old are you?"
"Nineteen," she says promptly. She's never seen the point of fussing about telling your age and weight and all that muck.
He nods. "Then I was probably ten or eleven when you were born."
She's staring again. "No way. Look!" Now she struggles to her feet, snatches the photo from over the mantelpiece and holds it out. "That baby's me, and you're way too big for a ten-year-old. Unless you're on stilts in there or something."
He bursts out laughing at that, a light, merry sound, and she stands with her free hand fisted on her hip, glaring at him.
"What's so funny?"
"Nothing...well, um," he amends as she narrows her eyes, "something, I suppose, but...um, I'm not in the armor."
"Have you ever heard of soul transmutation?"
She wrinkles her nose. "I've heard of transmutation. That's alchemy. I tried studying it when I was in high school."
"How'd you do?" he asks, curious. She makes a face.
"Awful," she says. "The most basic lesson in the book was turning sand into a stone, and it just sat there when I tried to transmute it. Didn't even spark. One of my friends, though, she gave it a shot and turned it into a little statue of a kitten. First try. She's off in another town now, studying for the State Exam." Her smile is fiercely proud. He suspects this friend was among her closest. The State Alchemist title is a source of pride these days, now that the program is only paramilitary and focuses more on general policing and civilian aid. It’s one of his brother’s more pleasant and enduring legacies.
"I'm an alchemist, too," he says, offering the information like a token of friendship. It seems to work, because she lets go of the photo frame and sits next to him again.
"Well, everybody knows that," she says offhandedly. "They taught us about you and your brother in school. The Elric brothers, famous genius alchemists, aids of the people, slayers of Homonculi and champions of the new government. Your brother vanished a while ago and you dropped out of the public eye. Hey, did you really blow up a whole city once?"
"Um." He looks uncomfortable, sort of pained. For the first time it dawns on her that blowing up a whole city probably wasn't the most pleasant of experiences, and she bites her tongue, feeling like the biggest of fools. Silence stretches between them.
Nikki chooses that moment to make her entrance, padding softfooted across the floor to butt her orange-striped head trustingly against his shins. Her half-grown kittens follow behind her like toy ducks on a string. One of them props its front paws on Alphonse’s shoe and mews at him, and to Elysia's surprise his face lights up like Christmas and he reaches down to gently chuck the tiny creature under its chin.
"Hello," he says softly. "What's your name?"
"Their mother is Nikki," Elysia says, finding her voice again after her shock fades a bit. She would never have pegged a fellow that big as a cat fancier, soft eyes or none, but he's already found the sweet spot behind Nikki's left ear and is scratching it companionably as she purrs and settles down to curl possessively on his shoe. "The kittens don't have names."
"That's no good," he says in dismay. "Kittens ought to have names. Is it all right if I hold one?"
"Sure," she says, picking up the smallest one—orange-striped like its mother—and setting it on his knee. It walks up his leg, bold as brass, and begins trying to crawl up into his shirt. He laughs and gently discourages it from that path of exploration, leaving off petting Nikki to do so. Nikki meows plaintively in protest.
"We haven't named them because my mother says we have to give them away when they're mostly grown," she says, gathering the other two kittens into her lap. They mew and nip lightly at her fingers, and she scratches behind their ears, one pair as dark as night and the other brown-and-white spotted. "Hush now," she scolds Nikki as the cat continues to voice her complaints, "you'll have your turn. Leave the nice man alone."
The orange kitten is small enough to nearly disappear in his large hands, but it purrs like a motor as he pets it. He's got a smile as pure and innocent as a child’s, she notices. It's an appealing expression.
"I...um...I don't suppose maybe I could have one?"
They already love him, she can tell, and after seeing his treatment of them, she has begun to trust him with that tiny ball of fur that she watched being born. "If you like."
If he was happy before, he's delighted now. "This one?" She nods, and he smiles with satisfaction and settles the kitten into the crook of his arm. "Tangerine," he announces fondly. "Definitely Tangerine."
"She's not old enough to leave her mom yet," Elysia feels pressed to point out.
He nods absently, still focused on the kitten. "I can wait."
Elysia’s lap is full of warm furry bodies now that Nikki has given up on their guest and nosed her way under her pet human's hands, and it's gotten just dark enough for the lamplight to turn her guest’s hair to shadows and gold. She suddenly feels ready to blurt out a hundred questions—who are you really, what business do you have with us now that my dad's gone, where's your brother gotten off to anyway and how long are you willing to wait for a half-grown cat and why even bother?—but then her mother comes in with tea and biscuits on a tray and she forgets her wonderings and surges to her feet to help with the heavy tray, scattering mewing cats in every direction.
Alphonse looks up in alarm, but laughs when he sees that they're not hurt, just a bit ruffled about their dignity. Gracia is laughing, letting her daughter take the tray from her.
"Sorry, but she looked ready to drop it," Elysia calls over her shoulder, an apology to cats and cat-lover alike, and Alphonse waves a hand amiably.
"It's okay. C'mere, you," he says to Nikki, who grumbles in the half-hearted manner of a jilted cat who still wants a good scratch and is fain to admit it, but ambles over to him anyway. "If there's anything I know about, it's salving wounded pride."
His face goes a bit wistful when he says that, and Elysia sits beside him again as her mother serves the tea, and wonders.
He does wait, after all. He finds a little empty hole-in-the-wall shop downtown, all cobwebs and faded peeling paint with a two-room apartment upstairs, and pays the rent for the next month. Her curiosity gets the better of her, and she goes to visit him with Tangerine and Smug in a basket, sitting on top of a packed lunch that her mother sends along when she mentions her plans for a visit.
Alphonse greets her at the door, surprised to see her, and is delighted when the two furry heads pop out from under the blue gingham cloth. When she calls them by name, he raises an eyebrow. As it turns out, she couldn't resist naming the other two; it didn't seem fair for one to be named and not the rest. Brown-spotted Scatter is a homebody and wouldn't get in the basket, but his sister has the dignity of a queen, even tucked between two waxed-paper packets of sandwiches.
They peel the damp wrappings away from boiled egg and chicken salad sandwiches and eat lunch sitting on the floor in the empty, freshly-scrubbed shop, exclaiming over the kittens and praising Smug when she brings them a huge hairy-legged spider she caught skittering across the floor.
When they finish eating, he stands and dusts off his hands and says he ought to get to work. She hasn't seen alchemy since her friend went off to military academy, and asks if she can stay and watch. He blushes, to her surprise, but nods. Over the course of the day, she’ll learn that a blush from him is an ordinary and frequent event.
There is a heap of junk in the corner, odd ends of wood and paper and cloth, and she assumed it was all the dross he'd had to clean out of the place, waiting to be thrown away. She's startled when he starts hauling the remains of a broken chair out of the pile.
Her childhood friend had been a proper dignified scientist of an alchemist, after all; she worked from raw-hewn lumps of stone, granulated minerals and bottles of jewel-bright chemical compounds. Trash was beneath her notice.
This young man sketches a quick array with his fingertip in the dust on the seat of the chair, claps his hands and presses them to the age-gray wood, and when the sunspots clear from her vision there's a whole, unbroken chair sitting there. He offers it to her with that bright, shy smile of his.
"Thank you," she says, and sits, though she really does prefer the floor. Over the next hour, Alphonse repairs himself half a dozen more chairs, makes a desk out of a heap of wood and scrap metal, and transmutes sunny curtains for the windows. The daisy pattern is Elysia’s suggestion. She's always loved daisies.
By the end of it, she's laughing and applauding as he uses up the last of the scrap metal to transmute a set of curtain rods directly into the wood over the windows.
He sits down heavily on one of the repaired chairs when that transmutation is done, and she leans forward for a better look at him, frowning.
"You...erm." It hits her that she doesn't know what to call him. "Are you all right?"
"I'm fine," he says, rubbing his temples sheepishly. "No problem. It's been a long day, that's all."
He's a lot like her mother, good-hearted and hard-working and loathe to admit when he's tired or in pain. She smiles at that realization, and hands him the last apple out of the abandoned lunch basket.
"Um. Mr. Elric?"
He stares at her, puzzled, and swallows his bite of apple to speak. "Hm? I'm not ‘Mr.’ anything. I'm just Alphonse, really."
Well, that's the question of what to call him answered, anyway. "And I'm just Elysia," she says, in case he’s been wondering too. "Um...I'd better take the kittens home. They're getting hungry."
Indeed, they're mewling in a grumpy fashion, curled in the basket like kids pointedly climbing into the car to leave. He sees them to the door and waves her off until she's out of sight.
After she's gone, he stares at the remains of the bitten apple, turning it over in his hands until the red skin is polished like lacquer, and thinks.
By the time Tangerine is eight weeks old and grown enough to leave home, Alphonse has gotten a thriving clientele of people coming to his door with small things to be fixed or improved upon. The hanging wooden sign with the simple alchemy array and the name Elric painted on it has become familiar. So has the presence of the brown-haired girl with the basket of kittens who sits in the corner of his shop and chats with him between customers.
By the time they've delayed Tangerine's move to the age of twelve weeks, as long as they conceivably can since Smug and Scatter have left home long since, he is Al and she is 'Lyss and there are smiles and raised eyebrows on the faces of the customers walking out the door.
By the time Tangerine is well settled in her new home and regularly bringing spiders and dismembered mice to the doorstep, he has begun to deliberately avoid thoughts of Risenbool and the military barracks, which are both starting to feel alarmingly less like home.
This all started over a wish to find a scrap of his past, and an impulsive decision to keep a kitten; but now suddenly he has a home in a community that likes and admires him; and a business that's oddly satisfying and certainly better than drifting aimlessly around Central puttering at research and waiting for his next visit to the Rockbells’; and a familiar knock on the door that he waits for with bated breath and answers with a leaping heart. It's a frightening and exhilarating realization.
They celebrate Elysia's twentieth birthday together at the shop, with the downstairs room decked out with ribbons at all the windows and a colorful cloth thrown over the battered and array-crisscrossed worktable. The three of them—Al and 'Lyss and Gracia—share a bottle of champagne, while Nikki and Tangerine wind their way among the table and chair legs begging for tidbits. The women ooh and aah when he transmutes a linen napkin into a bunch of daisies and hands them to the birthday girl with that endearing smile. She's gotten used to the blush that hovers around his face at the slightest provocation; she's gotten fond of provoking it.
They talk past midnight, after Gracia dozes off in the armchair by the door—a gift from a satisfied and wealthy client after Al repaired an heirloom lamp for her—and the whole saga of his journey comes out at last, or at least as much as he knows of it. She listens with wide eyes and giggles and gasps in all the right places, and for the first time he feels like he's got a real hero's story to tell, instead of a messy train wreck of tragedy and despair, or an odd historical footnote in the annals of alchemy.
When he finishes, they are silent for long moments, but it's an understanding sort of silence. Somehow they have ended up seated on the floor, their backs against the table legs. The cats are asleep in their laps, lulled off by too much absentminded petting. She leans her cheek against the warm wood of the table and just looks at him, drinking in the curves and lines of his face and trying to imagine him as a suit of empty armor and a few streaks of blood. She supposes it must have been a peculiarly expressive suit of armor. He is far too warm and open a person for his emotions to be obscured by a simple thing like a blank metal visor.
"He would be thirty today," Al murmurs, his loneliness making the words tragic.
"You'll find him someday," she says, and her voice is sturdy with conviction. When she says it, he can believe it again, even after years of fruitless trying. "Besides, wherever he is, he's probably raising havoc," she adds. "They'll be happy to give him back."
He laughs outright at that, relaxing slightly after the sorrows of the telling. "People like him in spite of himself," he says fondly. "He'll have found friends."
"And a home?"
"He was never much for homes," Al admits. "Not after we lost ours."
Her eyes are dark and liquid in the dimly lit room. "How about you?"
"I...I like homes," he manages, aware that the tone of conversation has changed.
"Are you going to go home soon?" she asks, twisting a strand of soft brown hair in her fingers. There's a lost note in her voice. Nikki shifts uncomfortably in her sleep.
He looks at the little room, lit in flickering yellow by the light from the lamp; at the orange-furred cat purring in his lap; at Gracia's sleeping silhouette by the door, the daisy-print curtains at the windows and the girl looking back at him.
"I think I am home," he whispers, and it’s only when he says it that he lets himself realize how very true it is.
It's a small table, and they're close enough that she could kiss him just by leaning a few inches closer. So she does.
Her father named her after Paradise, as if he knew that she would bring a little piece of heaven to those she loved. Hughes was a wiser man than anyone knew.
Time passes, and his daughter lets color and sound into the quiet corners of the little alchemy shop that will do a brisk business for years to come. She brings peace into the life of a tired and lonely man who has found a haven at last in her. At night, she lights up his room, and he basks in her glow.
Elysium was a resting place for heroes, and she is his.