Author: Jordanna Morgan
Archive Rights: Please request the author's consent.
Characters: Edward, Alphonse, original characters (Lucy Gregor, Jonas Gregor).
Setting: First anime. Set two years after my story "Blood Ties".
Summary: Ed takes a hand in Al's choice between a promise and an opportunity.
Disclaimer: They belong to Hiromu Arakawa. I'm just playing with them.
Notes: Sort of a Christmas present for Kristen Sharpe (because, after all, I wanted to introduce her to Lucy). This takes place two years after my COS-alternative story "Blood Ties", but if anyone prefers to read it as a post-COS story in which the Elrics have returned home, that will mostly work as well. It did become much longer and more involved than I intended, so I hope it's reasonably coherent.
For the few who have shown an interest in following my Tiesverse, I will add that a very complicated full-scale sequel is in the planning stages. I still have a few wrongs to right and loose ends to tie up. *g* In the meantime, this fic does establish certain characters and situations that will figure in the sequel itself.
"So where's your girlfriend?" Edward asked deviously, and took vast enjoyment in the way Alphonse's cheeks turned beet-red.
"She's not my girlfriend!"
The Elric brothers were attending the Christmas party of Doctor Jonas Gregor, a highly distinguished alchemist and professor of medicine at Central University. The elegant affair sprawled through several rooms of the Gregor family's large home, which sparkled with lights and smelled of cinnamon cider. Dozens of people were there, from University colleagues and students to complete strangers, equally welcomed in from the cold by the kindly host and his wife.
Al had been a student of Gregor's for more than a year now, attending classes as steadily as he could between his duties as a State Alchemist. He was still in search of a way to restore Ed's limbs without the consequences of human transmutation, and to that end, he had decided medical studies might offer the best hope. His older brother felt rather torn about his motivations, but couldn't help taking pride in the fact that Al was making a name for himself as a young prodigy.
Though of course, it would never have been otherwise, given Al's own natural genius... not to mention the awkward truth that there was a painfully mature nineteen-year-old soul inside his fourteen-year-old body.
By all accounts, Al was a particular favorite student of Gregor's, and he in turn spoke of the Doctor with tremendous admiration. Or at least, he did when he wasn't singing the praises of a different member of the Gregor family - which, these days, seemed to be most of the time.
Her name was Lucy. She was Gregor's daughter, a young lady of nineteen who was likewise studying medicine. Ed had never actually met her, but according to Al, she was brilliant, kind, charming, sweet, funny, and on occasion adorable.
It was as plain as day to Ed that Al was completely smitten.
Al staunchly refused to admit to such a sentiment. He insisted she was just a fellow student and a friend. And that flustered look he sometimes got when he was chattering on about her? That was most certainly not a complicated variety of teenage angst due to the fact that she was five years older than him physically but not mentally, oh no. He wasn't afraid that she only saw him as a kid, or that some other guy would win her over before his body matured enough to let her take him seriously. Of course not.
Ed didn't know whether to feel amusement or pity. He didn't know what to say, really. This obvious crush made Al seem so much more like the boy he looked than the young man he truly was - and after so many experiences had prematurely aged and hardened their spirits, Ed had never quite figured on having to help his little brother work through these kinds of growing pains.
Besides, he was the last person to turn to for advice when it came to affairs of the heart. He wasn't even sure how to remedy the quiet ache he still felt in his own heart: his wistful sadness when he thought back to the dark world beyond the Gate, and the one light he had found in gentle eyes he was sure he would never see again.
Shaking off the memory, Ed sighed and glanced around, to take stock of the other guests. Gregor was a beloved and gregarious man to whom no one was a stranger, and it was evident in the way he had opened his home for this party. The University crowd dominated the scene... but there were certain other figures who stood out, however much they tried not to.
"Is that...?" Ed murmured, and Al nodded gravely.
The young man Ed was furtively looking at stood alone in a far corner. Even in the crowded warmth of the room, he still wore a hooded jacket - but the garment did not quite conceal a faint pattern of scales on his face. And there was another one, an older fellow across the room, whose thick and oddly brushed-up hair was not enough to disguise a small pair of twisted goat-horns.
Doctor Jonas Gregor specialized in treating human chimeras, and these men were his patients.
On occasion, a rogue alchemist would still commit the atrocity of combining a human with an animal, but these two were not the sort of pathetic beasts that usually resulted from those experiments. Most likely, they were rare survivors of the more advanced horrors that had been carried out in places like Lab Five, under Dante's puppet regime. Fuehrer Armstrong's government was doing all it could now to make amends, to see that people like them were looked after, but much of society still shunned them.
Gregor, on the other hand, was the best friend and advocate his patients could have. Even apart from Al's glowing reports, Ed had heard much about the man's work. He treated chimeras with humanity and compassion - and he was the most skilled specialist in Amestris. Using various combinations of alchemy, conventional medicine, and psychological care, he was more accomplished than anyone else in treating their physical and mental afflictions. He might even have been on the right track in the search for a way to reverse their transmutations.
Al was clearly drawn to Gregor's field of study, and his brother couldn't blame him. First and foremost, Ed had devoted himself to preventing the human transmutation attempts from which homunculi were created... but he wished just as much to see that no more Ninas and Martas ever suffered due to alchemy.
The truth was that in the last two years, as State Alchemists, the Elrics had done their share of stopping such madmen as would make human chimeras. Even so, knowing they had spared some innocents was often little consolation, when other victims were still not found until it was far too late. They both longed to do more for the ones they couldn't save. It was Gregor's work that offered the greatest hope for those unfortunates, and for that, he earned Ed's respect as well as Al's.
"That's Kiel, and Ricter," Al said quietly, nodding toward the younger chimera, and then the older one. "They're two of the better cases Doctor Gregor has handled. I've talked to them before."
Ed raised an eyebrow. "They must have a lot of trust in him. Just to come to this party, and be around all these so-called 'normal' people."
"Well, sometimes the Doctor works with them at his lab at the University, so they already know a lot of the teachers and students here. They know these are people who care about what they've been through, and want to learn how to help them. Besides, he's been trying to get them to socialize more. I guess this is a good start."
A bright feminine voice cut through the crowd then. "Hey, Al!"
Both brothers turned toward the call - and Ed was amusedly aware that Al took a deep breath and straightened his posture, almost rising onto tiptoe. How well the older Elric knew about subconscious efforts to make one's self look taller...
The young woman coming toward them was a little thing herself, petite and unpretentiously pretty. Her somewhat pixie-ish features showed off to good effect the dusting of light freckles on her cheeks. Her hair was the dark, tawny gold of honey, worn at shoulder-length and very simply drawn back from her face with gold barrettes, while a sweep of unruly bangs slanted across her left brow. She wore a high-collared green dress that was oddly old-fashioned, but not unattractive.
She smiled as she approached them. She had a very nice smile, warm as a sunny spring day, with a genuine innocence about it.
"Good evening, Lucy," Al greeted her, with a slightly shy formality and an awkward grin. His cheeks were becoming pink again as he turned to his brother, and proceeded to make introductions. "Lucy Gregor - Colonel Edward Elric."
Ed hesitated on the question of whether to offer his flesh or automail hand; but Lucy's right hand was reaching out, so he gave a mental shrug and met the handshake with his gloved steel. He could tell she gripped firmly enough to feel what was under the glove, but she gave no sign of surprise or curiosity, and merely smiled at him.
"I'm happy to meet you! Al has told me so much about you."
"Likewise..." Ed trailed off, blinking, as he looked into Lucy's face. For a moment, taking in the pleasant entirety of her features, he only sensed that something was different - and then he focused in on precisely what it was.
Lucy's eyes were dichromatic: the right eye was blue, the left eye green. The difference between the shades of color was just subtle enough not to be startling, or even noticeable from a distance. However, it was quite distinct close up, and it made her gaze just a little bit disconcerting.
Although Ed had heard of this rare and harmless physical anomaly, he had never seen someone who manifested it. He was amazed that Al, who must have told him virtually everything else about Lucy in his dreamy ramblings, had failed to mention such a striking detail. His natural human curiosity tempted him to stare a bit longer, but he resisted the urge, casually turning his head to glance over the crowd of partygoers instead.
"Thanks for inviting us. It's about time I got around to meeting some more of Al's classmates."
"Dad would invite half the people in Central if we could fit them in the house," Lucy laughed. Then she grinned down at Al - who, in spite of her diminutive figure, was still two inches shorter than her. "Anyway, he certainly wouldn't leave out the star of his class!"
Al blushed darkly, rubbing the back of his neck. "It's not like that."
"Oh, don't be modest. You know it is. You think Dad goes around offering an internship to just anybody?"
Ed's eyes widened, and he glanced at Al just in time to see the younger Elric give an odd twitch. An invitation to be Doctor Gregor's intern was not something Al had mentioned to him, and it was rather a shock to find that his brother hadn't shared something so significant.
Before Ed could marshal the wits to ask any questions about that surprise, Al shot him a firm, meaningful glance. Then he quickly changed the subject. "We saw Kiel and Ricter. How are they doing?"
Judging by the expression that briefly crossed Lucy's face, she realized the topic was being averted, but she didn't miss a beat.
"Dad's happy with the progress they're making. Ricter's doing best at opening up and being comfortable around people... but then, it's harder for Kiel at this time of year, with the cold weather and all." She turned to Ed. "Since he was combined with a reptile, his physiology is kind of on the cold-blooded side. Dad's working on a treatment to help his body self-regulate its temperature better."
"I admire your father's work," Ed answered, judiciously avoiding a perplexed glance at Al, while still trying to keep his gaze from lingering too long on the girl's peculiar eyes.
Lucy shrugged. "It's hard sometimes - but it's such important work, and there just aren't enough doctors who want to commit to it. That's why Dad is also a teacher. He wants to see more of his students choose to specialize in chimeras. Especially ones who are alchemists too." On that note, she seemed unable to resist a quick glance at Al, but he studiously avoided the look.
Edward was intrigued.
"Well, how are you young people getting along?" a robust male voice interjected, and the three turned to see a man approaching them. He was middle-aged and rather tall, with sharp, distinguished features: a lean sinewy build, steel-gray hair, hawkish nose, chiseled cheeks. Had he been a more stern-tempered man, he may have looked a little intimidating, but his face was softened a great deal by the seemingly natural broad smile that extended to his blue-gray eyes.
"Dad," Lucy chirped happily, and moved to slip an affectionate arm around his ribs. "Look who Al finally brought around!"
"Edward Elric," the older brother introduced himself, extending his automail hand. After all, Lucy hadn't minded it, and it seemed as if the apple hadn't fallen far from the tree.
"The Fullmetal Alchemist." Gregor pumped Ed's prosthetic hand assertively, but genially. "I've been looking forward to a chance to meet you. I haven't heard any of your lectures to alchemy students, but I certainly respect your courage in coming forward with your experience in human transmutation. Standing up against alchemy that does people harm is something near and dear to me."
"I can understand that. I appreciate your work too, Doctor." Ed shrugged ruefully. "We... I've had some tough experiences with chimeras, too."
"Well. We all do what we can," Gregor murmured. The subject of chimeras' suffering was clearly emotional for him, because he paused slightly, glossed over it, and moved on.
"As for Al here... you've got plenty of reason to be proud. I've never seen the like of him. It wouldn't surprise me if he could teach my classes pretty soon. He's never said exactly what field of medicine he plans to go into - but whatever work he decides to do, he's going to accomplish great things. No doubts there."
Ed smiled, resting his flesh hand on the shoulder of his intensely blushing little brother. "Yes sir. I've always known that."
"And that reminds me. Al." Gregor turned to the younger Elric. "I was just talking to Doctor Lino, and your theories from the other day came up. He'd like to hear more about them. Mind if I borrow you from my daughter's charming company for a few minutes?"
He said that with a knowing twinkle in his eye, and Ed fought back the urge to laugh. Gregor knew, too.
"Uh... no, not at all," Al murmured awkwardly, his face still burning.
"Fine." Gregor hooked a hand around Al's upper arm, and began to tow him away. "Lucy, be a sweetheart and keep the Colonel entertained for a little bit, will you? We won't be long..."
The two disappeared among the revelers, and Lucy turned to Ed with a chuckle and a shake of her head. "That's what he thinks. When he and Doctor Lino get going, they can talk shop for hours - and as amazing as Al's ideas are, I'm afraid they're not going to let go of him for a while."
"I don't mind," Ed replied, tantalized by the possibility of learning more things about Al's student life that his brother hadn't told him. "So Al's really making an impression, huh?"
Lucy's eyes brightened, and she nodded. "He's... well, he's just something else. Really. I mean, I'm sure I don't have to tell you that - but it's not only how smart he is, or the way he has of just figuring out things he's never even learned yet." She smiled. "The best thing about him is how much he cares for people. Even Dad's patients. He's the only other person I've met who treats chimeras like normal human beings from the moment he meets them... no matter how bad off they are."
"There's nothing that matters more to Al than helping people." Ed smiled with a sad reminiscence, thinking back on the long years of the quest they had shared, and the countless times he would have died without his brother. Even within the prison of armor Ed had condemned him to, Al had been his sheltering rock: protecting him from accidents, from enemies, from his own despair.
Al was still his rock, and that would never change.
"Dad's patients really take to him, too. I guess they can sense things like that." Lucy chuckled. "Or maybe he's just that unthreatening to them. Either way, I think he's made a big difference to the patients he's met in Dad's lab. They respond to him so well. Sometimes even the ones Dad couldn't seem to get anywhere with."
"In that case, I guess I can see why Doctor Gregor offered him an internship," Ed remarked cannily.
"Oh, yes. Al could do so much to help, and it'd be such a perfect opportunity for him. We both really want him to say yes." The girl frowned thoughtfully. "He said he'd give Dad his answer after the Christmas break, but... I don't know. As interested as he seems in the work, I feel like he has something else on his mind - something else he's working for."
Ed's heart twisted a little, and it took an effort to keep his left hand from moving to clutch his automail arm.
"So what about you?" he asked, changing the subject in his sudden discomfort. "I know you're a medical student, but do you study alchemy too?"
"Oh, not really. Dad taught me some basics a few years ago, when I first started assisting him, but I never picked up on it well." Lucy pinkened a little. "It would probably help with the work we do, but I'm better at using my hands than my head."
"I doubt that," Ed replied honestly, doing his best to look Lucy in the eye - but with their mismatched colors, he couldn't quite settle on which eye to look at, and feared he overcompensated in the end by not directly meeting her gaze at all.
Lucy must have noticed, because she smiled a little and put her hands on her hips. "You can look at my eyes all you want, you know. I realize it's a little strange at first."
Having been called on his awkwardness, Ed flushed with hot embarrassment and ducked his head. "Oh - sorry. I didn't want to seem like I was staring..."
"It's alright," she said kindly, and dropped her hands with a shrug. "It's just a quirk I was born with. It doesn't hurt me, and I don't mind that it takes people a while to get used to it. At least it makes me a little more interesting!"
Smiling wanly, Ed lifted his averted gaze. He found Lucy looking up at him in such a patient, expectant way that he relaxed, and finally permitted himself to study her eyes at length. Apart from their colors, they seemed perfectly normal, and even the difference of hues was not so hard to overlook once he had spent a few moments fully taking it in.
"That's better." She grinned, but then her expression grew a little more somber. "After all, you must know how it is. I guess you also get a lot of attention you don't really want, for..." She glanced at his arm, even though his automail was hidden by his glove and long sleeve.
"Yeah. Sometimes." Ed raised his hand, flexing it. "It's hardest when I give lectures warning alchemy students about human transmutation. But it's important. I have to show them... this is what happens."
He shook off the heaviness of the moment, and forced a grin. "Anyway, I've been stared at for my eyes, too - and I didn't take it nearly as well as you do. I... did some traveling, a couple of years ago, in a place where nobody had eyes the color of mine."
That statement was entirely true. In this world, the bright gold of his eyes was uncommon, but hardly unique; but on the other side of the Gate, it had been an unheard-of peculiarity. Although he spent most of his time alone, studying fervently in search of a way home, he had learned to expect the unnaturally lingering and curious looks from the few people he did have to face.
"Really?" Lucy chirped interestedly. "I'd love to hear more about that!"
Time slipped by as Edward and Lucy talked - and as he learned more about her, Ed found himself growing ever more fond of the girl his brother had a crush on. Apart from her unusual eyes, she wasn't the sort of young woman who would draw attention when she entered a room, but she was as intelligent and unaffectedly sweet as Al had represented her to be.
In turn, Ed sensed a great warmth from her when they talked about Al. Perhaps it couldn't be called attraction, but she respected his brilliance and his caring nature, and had a tremendous fondness for him as a person. She certainly didn't regard him as the mere child he feared she did. In spite of the disparity between their physical ages, Ed felt their relationship still had the chance to grow with time - and he found he rather liked that thought.
Lucy could be the best thing in the world for Al. She could be just what Ed would have wished for his little brother... and that was why, in the course of their conversation, he told her a lie.
Maybe it was wrong of him, but in his heart, he felt it was right.
Nearly two hours after they had gone off to mingle with the intelligentsia, Al and Doctor Gregor reappeared. Lucy rushed up to Al then, seizing him by the shoulders, almost hugging him in excitement; and Ed's lie was the reason for it.
"Oh, Al, I'm thrilled!" she gushed. "Edward told me - oh, please don't be upset with him, Al, but he spilled the secret. He said you told him you were going to say yes to the internship." She beamed up at her father, oblivious to Al's suddenly poleaxed expression. "Isn't it wonderful news, Dad?"
Breaking into a smile of his own, Gregor clapped Al on the shoulder. "Why, fantastic! You don't know how much I've been hoping to hear this. You're going to be invaluable to me, young man... and I can promise you, it'll be worth your while."
"Uhm," Al murmured awkwardly, looking slow daggers at his brother, who had contrived an impossibly innocent expression.
The party continued well into the night. Ed met still more of Al's teachers and classmates, as well as Gregor's wife Emma, an elegant and kindly woman. He was even introduced to Gregor's chimera patients, and witnessed firsthand the way they opened up more when they interacted with Al. Through it all, everything he saw and heard further convinced him this opportunity was right for his brother: that Al should be involved in this work, learning from these people, doing amazing things.
As for Alphonse, he had quickly masked his astonishment and recovered a friendly demeanor. He was all smiles and charm toward the Gregors and the other guests... but Ed was acutely aware of the chilliness Al directed at him for the rest of the evening.
Still, he never said a word to contradict the lie - and that in itself spoke volumes to Ed.
It was long after midnight when the Elrics finally said their farewells and departed. They would walk home to the house they shared; it wasn't far, just on the other side of the upscale neighborhood. With their busy lives that still involved frequent travels, they didn't see all that much of the place, but it allowed Al to keep the cats he had always wanted. Ed had even begun to take a certain comfort in it, himself.
He couldn't bring himself to say it felt like home. Something still felt missing... perhaps only inside him, rather than within the house itself. Even so, it was nice to have someplace to come back to again.
For a while, the brothers traversed the suburban streets in total silence. Around them, houses were lit with Christmas lights, and a gentle snow was falling over white-frosted yards and roofs. The night was beautiful and peaceful - but the one discordant note was the tension Al radiated, walking stiff-shouldered a few paces in front of Ed.
"I... think that went very well," Edward ventured at last, a trifle awkwardly.
Al paused in his steps, prompting Ed to do the same. The younger brother's small fists clenched at his sides, but he didn't turn.
"You told them I said yes," he ground out.
So, the reckoning had arrived... Ed heaved a sigh and smiled thinly at Al's back. "Come on, how could I not? This is the chance of a lifetime for you, Al. Besides, Lucy's as nice a girl as you said she was - and I think you oughta see more of her."
"None of that matters!" Al turned to face Ed, his eyes heated with anger. "The whole reason I never told you - the reason I put off giving them my answer - was because I've been trying to figure out the best way to say no. Sure, I care about the work they do with chimeras, and I know how much the offer means from a man like Doctor Gregor... but all of that isn't what I'm studying medicine for. It's not... the work I promised to do."
Al's gaze fell to Ed's right arm then, with a look of guilty responsibility and yearning pain that made Ed want to bury his face in his hands and weep for love of his brother.
He didn't, though. He only took a deep breath of the bracing winter air, and clasped his flesh hand over his automail shoulder, blinking back the mist in his eyes as he searched Al's troubled face.
"Al, stop. You told me what you cared about most is what's important to me - and it's not this." His fingers clenched on the hard steel under his sleeve. Then his hand dropped to his side, and his eyes became harder. "You said it was going to be about the future this time... but you're the one who hasn't let go."
Sudden moisture rose in Al's eyes. He closed them tight, and tears spilled over.
"I just want you to be happy - just once in your whole life..." He looked up at Ed, with a broken helplessness that was only made keener by his too-young face. "And if I could find some way to get your arm and leg back, it would be the only thing I can do to make you happier. Because I can't give you what you really want most. Even if I have thought about trying... I know I can't bring her back to you."
That was too much for Ed. His heart lurched sickly, and he closed the few steps of distance between them in a rush, wrapping his arms tightly around Al's thin shoulders.
"Please, Al," he whispered urgently. "Don't ever scare me like that again. This was the choice she made - to give me back to you. Don't let it all be for nothing. Don't let anything ever take you away from me now. Not human transmutation... and not your spending your life chasing a promise I don't need. Because I am happy, right here and now. I'm happy just as long as you're close to me."
With his face pressed against Ed's flesh shoulder, Al sniffled. "Brother..."
"Make me proud, Al. Use your skills for others instead. Help people like Kiel and Ricter... and Nina and Marta. Do the incredible things I know you can do." Ed squeezed Al a little harder. "That will make me happier than anything else in the world."
A small shudder passed through Al's body. Then he was perfectly still, his fingers fisted tight into the fabric of Ed's coat. His brother clung to him like a lifeline, and they stood holding each other for a long time in the silent falling snow.
Finally, after what felt to Ed like a very pleasant little piece of forever, Al straightened and pushed away slightly. He looked up, and while his cheeks were still damp, he wasn't crying anymore. Instead, there was a faint smile playing over his lips.
"Merry Christmas, Brother."
It was the way he said it that puzzled and interested Ed. There was a twinkle in his eye, and he delivered the words in a tone of wry, affectionate magnanimity, the way he would if he had just set a wrapped gift in Ed's lap.
"Huh?" Ed murmured, blinking. "You mean you...?"
"If it matters this much to you, I'll take the internship. I'll work with Doctor Gregor and his patients - but when I finish what he asks me to do, I'm still going to look for a way to give you a real arm and leg again." Al shrugged ruefully. "After all, who knows? Maybe in studying how to heal chimeras' bodies, I'll figure out how to fix you, too."
It was a perfectly typical Elric answer: when confronted with a choice, insist on having it both ways, no matter how difficult the tasks ahead or how improbable the odds. Ed had done the same, time and again. He knew he couldn't have asked for any more or any less from his brother... and just this once, maybe it was alright.
"...Okay." He sighed and smiled, giving Al's shoulders a squeeze. "You've got a deal - but I'm warning you right now. You'd better not work yourself too hard."
"You mean like you do?"
Al merely laughed at that, and it was a wonderful sound to hear.
"Come on, Brother," he said brightly, and turned to set off down the sidewalk. "I have to get home and feed the cats."
© 2011 Jordanna Morgan