Where He Stays

His shoulder aches if he leans on it too long; when he moves, he can feel the cloth sticking to the rotten patches beneath. It makes him uncomfortable, so he sits very straight and tries not to touch anything. He’s heard people whispering about him since he came, and they call it proper posture and befitting a gentleman.

Dante knows better; she laughs and kisses that spot, stroking it with soft pale hands. He doesn’t like the way it feels, when she touches it, because the feeling reminds him of dying. He can hear the whispering from behind the Gate, and the jealous hunger of those many, many eyes and plucking fingers, and Dante only laughs and caresses it again.

Breathing the same air she does is like slow suffocation. When he leaves, he makes vague excuses — I need to get away; I need to see if I can find a way to reverse what’s happening to us — and Dante lets him leave, waving a handkerchief at him from the doorway. Envy is not around, and that is a relief; he does not need another round of yelling and accusations as his farewell.

Risenbul is a lucky find, he thinks: a tiny little village set near a thick heavy forest and a winding river, and sets himself up there, the village hermit. Of course, now the term is outdated, but he likes to think of himself as a wise man of sorts, the handyman alchemist. And if they notice he does not age over the years, and that his hair and beard remain free of gray, they are loyal enough not to comment.

The day a new family comes to the village — a farmer, come here to escape from the madness of East City’s explosive expansion, he is at the bar with Pinako Rockbell, drinking. And he’s an alchemist, and so he does not believe in God, but he knows something prompted him to look up at the exact moment a young girl walks into his line of vision, with a white dress that reaches to her ankles, and a wide-brimmed sunhat. She holds a suitcase in both hands, and at that moment he leans forward to get a better look, she glances up, sees him, and smiles.

Pinako later calls him an idiot for not saying anything, and then laughs at how he has finally found someone who leaves him unable to say his own name. When he comes to the Rockbell’s automail shop to give Pinako’s son and daughter-in-law lessons, he finds the girl in the kitchen, drinking tea. She looks up at his entrance, and her smile widens, and he thinks it’s strange, how she cannot be more than sixteen years old, and he is reaching his four hundredth year, and her smile makes his face hot.

He learns later she is actually seventeen, and that her name is Trisha, after her mother, Patricia. He learns that she likes to go down to the river and walk into the water barefoot, and that boat rides delight her. She tells him how, in her childhood, she used to have a swing set that she loved, and he offers to transmute her one on the spot. When she expresses dubious amusement, he rolls up his sleeves to his forearms and claps his hands, setting them against a tree, smiling at her shock when the swing grows from the branch itself.

Once that surprise passes, though, her smile is brilliant. She insists he try the swing, but he is too awkward, too heavy, and so they switch, and he watches as the wind catches in her hair, letting it flare out so that the sun catches in its length.

It’s so easy to forget, he thinks. He gives her a gentle push, and does his best to ignore the wet brush of cloth on his shoulder.

She is a farmer’s daughter, but she’s not stupid; he teaches her to read, and to write at least her name, and his. Trisha’s intelligence lies in her hands, which are slender and soft, but hide calluses on the fingers, strong for all their delicacy. He finds his shirts and coat mended quickly and efficiently, and his small larder is stocked with her cooking. He dreams of her, draped in shining silver, with a crown of wheat and cradling a bow and arrow in her hands, and wakes shaking.

At first, he keeps his shoulder hidden from Trisha, wearing long-sleeved shirts even in the hottest part of summer, when even a modest young lady like her wears her dresses cut both low and high. If she finds this strange, she says nothing, and continues to breaks his heart when she smiles. He thinks he could be happy staying by her side, but Dante is waiting, Envy is waiting, and he knows soon he will have to leave this place that has loved him so long.

Leaving Trisha is the harder thing, he thinks one night, and puts his hand over the mark.

He tells her on a summer evening, when the moon is a heavy sickle in the violet sky. I am old, and my flesh is already rotting. Trisha doesn’t believe at first, staring at him, and he finally unbuttons his shirt, sliding down one sleeve, so she can see the places where his skin blackens and curls. When she tries to reach out, he catches her wrist and pulls it roughly away.

“Don’t,” he says. She looks surprised, then hurt, and he steps back, takes a deep breath to calm himself. “I’m sorry,” he says, and isn’t sure for what, exactly — there are so many things, really, for her to be angry about, so many things to apologize for. He wants to hold her, wants to take back what he cannot help, and instead leaves her staring after him, pale in the growing dusk.

The next day she finds him as he is leaving. He dwarfs her, and she can barely close her fingers halfway around his wrist, but he stops at the sight of her, framed in his bedroom doorway, and stares at him.

“Ah,” he says, blankly. “Trisha, I –”

“I want to talk to you,” she says, and the sharpness in her voice is so uncharacteristic that it surprises him into silence. Outside, the sunlight is bright enough to make him squint, but he says nothing, following her meekly to the large oak tree that stands behind his small house.

There, she whirls on him, and jabs him hard in the chest with what finger. “Where do you think you’re going?” she asks, and he is taken aback.

“I,” he begins, then gives her a wry smile, the one that has always won a smile back — but not today, no, not with her eyes snapping and her pretty mouth turned into a near-scowl. “Away?”

“Without saying good bye?” She is hurt under her anger, a fragility to her that lures him in, even when he wants to stop, and turn away. Dante would destroy her, he thinks; Dante would see a rival and tear her to shreds without every changing expression. “How can you do that? I thought — I thought you –”

It’s not safe for her, he thinks again. She’s only human, and Envy is waiting, as well. She seems to have forgotten about his arm, the dark places where his soul and body have eroded. But she doesn’t falter; it costs her, he sees, but she only glares, defiant somehow, and anger makes her almost as lovely as happiness. Here, she is strong and steadfast; he looks at her and thinks that she will not falter or break, even if he walks away from her, and that is what roots him in place.

“I care,” he says finally. The confession is almost painful, and she knows better than to give in, glaring until he rubs the back of his head, trying not to wince as his shirt chafes his shoulder. “Trisha, it’s dangerous. I’m not — well. You –”

“I’m not afraid,” she says, a little too loudly, a little too quickly. “I’m not.” And now she softens a little, stepping forward to lay both of her hands upon his forearm, well away from his shoulder. “Stay. Please.”

No, he wants to tell her. No, you silly girl, I’m not —

“Fine,” he says, and sees her relax at last. Her smile makes his chest tighten, and he thinks bitterly that he is tying the last satin ribbon before he hands her to Dante on a platter. “But, Trisha, I’m not — I can’t stay forever.”

Her smile is knowing and old, and though she is only a fraction of Dante’s age, she seems so much the wiser. She curls her fingers around his wrist, holding loosely; all he has to do is give a single twist, and that would break her grasp. “You have to find out how to fix your arm,” she says gently. “When you find that out, you’ll come back.”

There is such absolute confidence in her voice, such conviction, that he thinks she may be right. When he draws her into his arms, and kisses her for the first time, she tilts her face to his, like she has been expecting this since their first meeting.

For a mad moment, he is tempted to have her here, in the open, under the tree — to take what she offers and take it with him, to remember her warmth when he finally returns to Dante — and then she sighs, and lifts her hands to his shoulders. Briefly, her fingers brush the edges of the mark on his shoulder and he freezes, waiting.

Nothing happens. Nothing happens.

She looks up at him quizzically, tilts her head to one side. “Hoenheim?”

He shakes his head, stunned by the sound of her voice, by the way that she is still touching his arm there, and nothing is happening. Elated, he kisses her again, sweeps her into his arms and spins her once, then sets her down as she laughs, leaning against him. Keeping one arm tight around her waist, he touches the back of her head with broad fingers and thinks, I will keep this one.

+++

The graveyard is larger than he remembers it, but still full of unearthly silence. He walks slowly among the graves, and feels like he can sense the eyes of the dead, watchful on him, as he searches.

The stone has no dates carved on it. He sits down slowly and takes a deep breath, reaching out to trace the name carved there, on the small elegy chipped in beneath it. She never remarried, he sees with relief and regret both; he kept her, he kept her until the end.

He closes his eyes and leans his head, briefly, against the stone.

“Trisha,” he says. “I didn’t find out how to fix my arm, but … I wanted to see you.”

Silence answers him, and he passes his hand across her name again. He sighs and leans back, smiling wryly at the headstone, and can almost imagine her arms around his shoulders, her cheek soft against his.

For a moment, he thinks of the house as it was, standing tall, of Edward and Alphonse playing together in the garden under her watchful eye (but they are too old for playing now, they must be too old for playing now), and he thinks of walking up, and seeing the surprise and the pleasure that lights the faces of his family, of a homecoming that tastes bittersweet.

“Well,” he says, his voice quiet in the graveyard, bright in his dreams. “I’m home.”

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