The grand banquet hall of the Armstrong estate was vast, crowded, and elegantly festive. Garlands of white roses and ivy festooned the walls. Half a dozen airy, gilded archways looked out over sun-drenched gardens and sparkling fountains. A table almost bowed under the weight of a beautifully-sculpted white cake the size of a small skyscraper, and an orchestra played a waltz for a horde of distinguished guests—half of them wearing military dress uniform, and many of those sporting the silver chains of State Alchemist pocketwatches.
“D’you see them yet?” Fletcher Tringham asked, looking up at his brother, whose height he had never grown to equal.
Russell Tringham frowned, scanning the room. “Not yet. I don’t know if we’ll even recognize them. I mean, we don’t really have any idea what Al looks like outside of that old suit of armor, do we? And Ed…” The older brother couldn’t resist a smirk. “If he didn’t get much taller since the last time we saw him, we’ll never spot him in this crowd.”
Fletcher sighed. “Be nice, Russell. You know they both went through a lot.”
“Not that they’ve ever talked much about it, apparently…”
The voice was rather subdued, but surprisingly penetrating through the hum of convivial conversations and music. The brothers turned to see a figure in dress uniform lounging at an unobtrusive table near one of the archways, his cheek resting on his left hand, a champagne glass held lightly in the white-gloved automail fingers of his right.
Edward Elric certainly had grown—although not by all that much in vertical terms, evidently. Still, the lean teenager the Tringhams once knew had become a handsome, almost elegant young man in his mid-twenties. He had traded his blond braid for a ponytail, and the lines of his face were a bit deeper and more mature… but the shadowed fire in those topaz eyes was still the same.
“Ed! It’s good to see you again after all this time!” Russell exclaimed, striding forward. The sentiment was genuine; but even so, when Ed made no move to rise in greeting, the younger man couldn’t resist a bit of the old devilry. Stretching to his full height, he said magnanimously, “No, don’t get up. I’m sure you don’t need the comparison to remind you of how much you didn’t grow in the last ten years.”
Fletcher discreetly kicked him in the calf.
For his part, Ed ignored the tease. He was motionless, almost expressionless. In fact, his demeanor seemed to be one of resigned glumness.
“It’s been a long time… How are you guys?”
“Oh, we’re doing great,” Fletcher answered as the brothers sat down. “We’ve really turned Xenotime around—the region’s producing the best fruit in the country. You’ll have to come visit us, and see it for yourself. After all, it never would’ve happened without you and Al.”
Russell leaned forward earnestly. “Listen, we’re really sorry we missed the actual ceremony. There was trouble with the trains, but we got here as fast as we could.” He tilted his head. “I’ve got to admit, after all the time that’s passed since we saw either of you… I was pretty surprised to be invited to Al’s wedding.”
“Oh, don’t be. You know how much Al always liked both of you. He doesn’t forget things like that.” Ed smiled thinly, but there was still a trace of weary stress under the surface of his expression and tone.
It was strange, and rather concerning, to see such a dull edge to his mood on the occasion of his brother’s wedding. This was supposed to be a joyous event, wasn’t it?
“So… what have you two been doing all these years?” Russell asked tentatively, deciding for once to be tactful with Ed, and to leave alone the question of his gloom. “In Xenotime, we don’t get to hear much news from Central. A few years after… well, whatever it was that happened after we last saw you—and by the way, I won’t ask if you don’t want to talk about it—I heard you’d rejoined the military as a State Alchemist. Did Al join up too?”
“Nah. Let’s just say that after we… finished our journey… Al and I both decided to recommit ourselves to pure research. I felt I could still work best with the military under General Mustang, but Al went the civilian route. He spent a quick couple years earning himself a wall full of degrees, and became a doctor.”
Ed smiled with genuine pride, but after a moment, the expression turned rueful. “He was still bent on getting my arm and leg back at first. After I finally convinced him to let that burden go, to move on with our lives and try to do what good we can for other people instead… he decided to specialize in the care of human chimeras.”
Russell blinked in surprise. “Oh, man. I heard the old regime had done some nasty things in that field, but I didn’t know there were any subjects that had survived.”
“Yeah, well, there are a few of them still around—and every now and then, some rogue nutjob still decides to play mad scientist.” Ed grimaced, taking a hearty swig of his champagne. “We had some, uh… emotional experiences with human chimeras in the old days, so it wasn’t much of a surprise that Al wanted to help them. He hasn’t figured out how to reverse that kind of transmutation, but he’s developed a lot of treatments to help their conditions. And he’s better than anybody at taking care of them psychologically.”
“That sounds like great work he’s doing,” Fletcher offered admiringly.
“Yeah. Something to be proud of. I can just imagine how hard he works at it, too.” Russell raised an eyebrow, and ventured, “With all of that on his plate, how’d he find the time to get himself a wife?”
Ed blanched visibly, and set his glass down on the table with meticulous care. He cleared his throat.
He was interrupted by a burst of applause from across the room. The three young men looked up, and saw that the guests of honor had arrived at the reception. The newlyweds stood framed attractively in the huge double doorway, resplendent in black tuxedo and white wedding dress, gracefully accepting the flurry of congratulations being showered upon them.
An astonished grin crossed Fletcher’s face. “You mean that guy is Al without the armor?”
Alphonse Elric must have been almost twenty-five by this time, but he might have passed for twenty… if you squinted, and if you had imbibed a goodly quantity of the Armstrongs’ champagne first. He looked very much as if he was still little more than a boy. However youthful he might have appeared for his age, though, he was handsome like his brother: a slim, smiling young man with dark gold hair and luminous, happy eyes. At the moment his arm was tightly entwined with that of his blushing bride, a pretty girl with a petite figure and waves of tawny hair.
As the couple began to make their way across the room—a slow process, as they were stopped at each table for salutations—Russell peered at them intently. The revelation of Al’s improbable true figure was the first thing that caught his attention, but upon further study, there was also something vaguely peculiar about the new Mrs. Elric. He finally traced it to what seemed to be an… odd hairstyle, sporting two small, perfectly triangular protrusions that poked up through the crown of her veil.
In fact, they almost looked like…
“Waaait a minute,” Fletcher breathed, the first to voice the same stunned idea that had just leaped into Russell’s mind. “Are those—?”
“That’s what I was starting to tell you,” Edward interrupted quietly, in a tight voice. “Al first met her as a… a patient.”
Russell’s eyes bulged as his gaze shot back to the lovely young bride.
“You don’t mean…”
The words died in his throat as the girl laughed brightly at something Al had said, turning to kiss her husband’s cheek. It was a charming little scene; but what dumbfounded Russell was the fact that, when she presented herself in profile, the view erased all doubt.
His reactions to Ed notwithstanding, it must be said that Russell Tringham prided himself on being a gentleman. As such, he made it a particular point not to stare at the backsides of other men’s women. But just this once, he honestly couldn’t help it, and not for the conventional reasons either—because the most striking feature of Mrs. Elric’s posterior was a very distinctive appendage.
A long, sinuous… fluffy appendage.
At Russell’s shoulder, Ed sighed defeatedly, and dropped his forehead onto the tabletop with a loud thump.
“This is Al’s revenge for all those years he wasn’t allowed to have a cat.”
© 2010 Jordanna Morgan