He did not dress like a professor, did not speak like a professor, gave tougher homework and harsher grades than any other professor, and was undoubtedly the meanest professor in the entire Alchemy department. And yet, his classes grew waiting lists every single term.
It usually took a few weeks to get a good read on a new class. Would they be rowdy? Attentive? Sleepy? How many would drop out? How many would sleep their way to a C? Who would sit in the front row with their notebooks out? Who would sit in the back where he thought he couldn't see? Who would set fire to their desk in a failed transmutation? Who would - and god, he always hoped it wouldn't happen, but inevitably, it did - start flirting with him?
Edward Elric squinted at the at the new faces as the students filed into his classroom. Some he recognized from previous classes, but most were a mystery. Mystery was one of the fun parts of his job. Long retired from his youthful days of world-saving, the puzzle of new college students was a delectable treat, and the first few weeks of class were a thrill that he savored every term. So, when students made it easy for him, it pissed him off.
On day two, one hour and twenty-six minutes into a three hour discussion about transmutation circle geometry, a blond-haired, green-eyed pest raised his hand. Edward finished drawing his circle on the blackboard and paused.
"Yes - um, it's Michael, right?"
"Yes sir, it's 'mik-KEL', actually," the boy gave a tight grin.
"Oh, right, sorry, Michael," Ed filed the pronunciation away in his brain.
"Yes sir, I wanted to know how to get my circles to look at perfect as the ones you're drawing."
It was an honest, good question, and made Ed chuckle along with some of his students. "Practice, I'm afraid. I make it look easy, but there's no trick to it. I've drawn hundreds of these things, you just have to practice at it."
Michael was unmoved, and did not laugh. He looked pensive. "I wouldn't think you'd need hundreds of transmutation circles if you can't perform alchemy." The room fell utterly silent. "...sir," Michael tacked on, remorseless.
Edward stared at him, completely nonplussed. "The transmutation circle is the foundation for all alchemical operations," Edward said, choosing to ignore the slight and continue on with class, "whether you're performing a transmutation or composing a circle for future or theoretical use, the circle is a language all its own, and does not need to be executed in order to understand its meaning..." as he spoke, the class collectively relaxed, but Michael continued watching him, eyebrows drawn, green eyes flashing between Edward and every syllable he wrote on the board, looking for a gap in his armor.
Oh, Edward thought, seeing in an afternoon what would've normally taken him weeks to map out, so it's going to be like that.
Every time Michael raised his hand, Edward bit down hard enough that he could hear his own jaw muscles straining to keep his tongue locked behind his teeth.
"Yes, Michael?" he dutifully answered in time, annoyance only barely veiled by the reprimands he received form his superiors every year.
"Can you give us a demonstration, sir?" the student asked, in reference to the simple transmutation up for their consideration, a metal-and-clay child's toy. Edward leaned back against his desk, crossed his arms, and glared. Most of the other students, now accustomed to this uncomfortable tete-a-tete, looked pointedly down at their notes.
"No, Michael, I can't, but why don't you give it a shot?"
When Michael performed it perfectly and the class clapped, Edward cursed the boy's success and realized he was a horrible teacher for thinking it.
Halfway through autumn, Michael started sitting with a girl. For the first few infatuated days, Edward had hoped she'd draw his attentions away from being horrible with her wily charms, but before long, he'd begun trying to impress her.
Despite the fact that the damn runt was at least fifteen years his junior, Michael's voice actually made Edward feel afraid. And that, in turn, made him angry. He stopped mid-sentence and turned on his heel to face the kid - young man, Edward conceded, and stared. He did not say anything to invite comment, but Michael didn't need one.
"Are you sure that's the right rune for that, professor?"
"Yes, Michael," he said, speaking slowly to keep himself from screaming, "I think I know the difference between transmuting lead and transmuting copper." For the benefit of the class, he added, "If it's a complex circle, you can get lost in the runes and may attempt to transmute one element when you wrote the rune for a different one, but you should be able to tell right away. Lead and copper have entirely different densities, and the energy feels different when you're transmuting them. You'd have to start over, but it's an easy fix."
"Feels different, sir?" Michael asked, and Edward turned slowly, hating how trapped he felt, hating how small he felt, standing alone in the front of the room.
"Yes, Michael," he said, and felt as if he were baring his neck. He knew the dance by now.
"How would you know, sir?"
"How do you not?" he heard himself snap back. "As I was saying..." He turned away and continued on with his lecture, but didn't stop sweating until he returned home that evening.
Things came to a head when Edward was reviewing the ingredients to transmute a cotton waistcoat. "Except for a few bits and buttons, it's mostly cotton, but that doesn't make it simple. Can anyone tell me why cotton is so tricky?"
A bookish female student who almost never raised her hand did, and Edward leaped at the opportunity. "Yes, miss Trellan."
"Because cotton is an organic substance, and organic matrices are incredibly hard to reconstruct, sir."
"Excellent! Did everyone here what she said? Good. All cotton fabric is, at the base, an organic material, though it's been processed and spun and woven and so forth. Deconstruction is a cinch, but reconstruction can be hard to get right. Cotton fabric isn't alive like cotton the plant, of course, but if you want to end up with a decent piece of clothing, you have be aware of the residual cellular makeup of the fiber, so that you don't accidentally..."
"Michael, don't," Edward heard The Girlfriend whisper, and his neck and armpits broke into a sweat. Michael's hand shot up, and his jaw clenched.
"Yes, Michael," He said, wishing he could fade away.
"Could you transmute a piece of clothing from organic cotton? Right off the plant, I mean, instead of woven?"
Oh. That... was a good question, actually. "Yes, you can," Ed told him. "It takes quite a bit more research to set up an array, but yes, you can, I know a few tailors who've made a fortune doing something like it."
"But could you transmute a cotton plant into, say... a flax plant?"
Edward's relief dissolved. "What, a living flax plant?"
"Yeah," Michael said, and crossed his arms, waiting to hear what Professor Elric would say.
Edward blinked. "I'm... I'm not really sure. I don't see why you'd want to. Cotton and flax are both pretty useless unless they're spun," that drew a few chuckles, at least.
"What about other organic material? Like... animals." The chuckles stopped abruptly. Michael's unmoving expression was making Edward sweat for different reasons, older reasons, reasons that happened right here in Central, decades ago.
"You're talking about chimeras," Edward said. "That is highly illegal, for one thing."
"Medical alchemist use biological alchemy all the time," Michael defended. "If they can reconstruct organic tissue-"
"Human tissue is fairly different than cotton," Edward pointed out.
"Yes, but if human transmutation is possible, then why can't-"
"Human transmutation is not possible," Edward snapped, louder than he'd meant to. The room fell silent, and two dozen students stared back in frightened silence, eyes alternating between Edward and Michael.
"If it were impossible," Michael said in the tone of someone who'd given it more than enough thought, "medical alchemy wouldn't exist. If it weren't possible, it wouldn't be illegal."
Edward shared in the stunned silence that followed. All around Michael, the entire front row was shrinking into their seats, as if they could melt past their desks and through the floor to escape.
"Human transmutation," Professor Elric repeated in a firm, deliberate order, "is impossible."
"How do you know?" Michael said, and for the first time there was evidence of real condescension in his expression. "You always say we can't learn something until we try it. Exactly how many times have you tried it, professor?"
Michael's girlfriend, who'd been sitting shoulder to shoulder with him for weeks, was leaning away with saucer-wide eyes, and the rest of the class were shooting each other worried looks, knowing that the subject their classmate had decided to poke with a stick was not merely a taboo in Central University, or in Amestris, but in the world of Alchemy as a whole.
Edward locked eyes with Michael, gold to green. He stared, and stared, and found that he was no longer sweating. He shoved his hands into his trouser pockets and gripped his alchemist's watch so hard he could feel the dragon imprinted on his palm. The classroom was silent, but he spoke with the overdrawn confidence he'd learned as a boy.
"Five," he said.
Silence was no longer an adequate word. It was so quiet, he heard his own saliva as he prepared to speak again:
"The first time when I was eleven, the second immediately after that, twice while I was fifteen, and the last time when I was sixteen."
Edward wished he freeze time, harvest the concentrated horror on Michael's face and distill it into a stiff drink, just so he could knock it back and toss the glass at the stupid little punk's dumbass face.
But then, he realized, everyone else was staring at him too. He'd never entered into this territory with any other class. But now he had, and he'd probably face more reprimands. He might even get fired. Right hand playing idly with the chain on his watch, Edward sat on the edge of his desk.
"The first time was when I was eleven and my brother was ten, we tried to raise our mother - may she rest in peace - from the grave. It did not work, but for my trouble I lost my right arm and my left leg, and my brother lost his entire body. He lost his soul, too, which brought me to my second attempt at human transmutation: I called by brother's soul back from wherever it'd been taken and bound it to a suit of armor in a circle drawn in my own blood - the only vaguely stable material I had on hand." The classroom was a hall of statues, and Edward felt as though he were not speaking to people at all, but an empty room - empty rooms, he had found, were always more receptive to dark conversation. He looked up, remembering.
"Let's see... the third time was when I was trapped in another dimension. I transmuted myself to get myself back in the real world. Not ideal, by any stretch of the imagination." He sounded like a madman. "The fourth time, I used human transmutation on myself to heal a wound that should've been fatal. And the fifth time..." even as he spoke, they weren't too far away from the very spot. Sometimes, Edward walked by Central Command and could almost feel the crackle of energy over his hands again. It made him shiver. "The last time I transmuted a person, the last time I transmuted anything at all, was when I transmuted my own ability to perform alchemy to provide equivalent exchange to bring my brother's body back to the real world."
The silence had coalesced into an atmosphere thick as tar. The student statues slowly began to move. Michael's mouth began to twitch, as if he was trying to find something to say.
"Medical transmutation is possible," Edward told his students, "and incredibly helpful, if you have enough training. The transmutation of an entire living person is even possible, though it almost always results in a rebound or death. But the transmutation of a deceased person is not possible, it never has been, never will be, and was not worth the cost to investigate." As he spoke, Edward quietly lifted his left pant leg to show his automail leg, and then pulled the collar of his shirt and waistcoat aside to show the garish scar left from his transmuted right arm. "So before you do anything stupid, I suggest you learn from people like me and spare yourselves the grief."
The room remained silent. In the dearth of comment and questions, Edward turned back to his notes, retracing the steps of their conversation. "Now," he said, "Cotton."
Somehow, he got the lecture back on track, but let the class go early anyway. Michael skittered away with a haunted, contrite expression and Edward knew he was going straight to the archives to investigate his claims. He closed his eyes and rubbed at them, feeling a headache coming on. No doubt the Dean would be in contact with about the incident shortly.
He looked up to find an empty classroom and Michael's girlfriend - ex girlfriend by now, if he were to hazard a guess - looking up at him nervously, tucking her hair behind her ear.
"Hmm?" he grunted, and she seemed to shrink.
"Is... I mean, after all you said about, um... about humantransmutation," she said it as one word, as if saying it faster would keep her from reproach, "is... um, is, uh,"
"Spit it out," he demanded, crossing his arms and bracing for impact.
"Is your brother okay?" She blurted.
It was not what he was expecting. "Who, Alphonse?" Edward found himself saying in an incredulous tone. He snorted a laugh. "Yeah, he's still kicking, annoying as little brothers are. Last I heard he was mucking around in some desert ruins."
"Oh," the girl, given a happy answer to her question, seemed uncertain of what to say next. "Oh, that's good. Just. What you said... I mean, I just... well, I'm glad." She stood awkwardly for a moment, turned, and left without a farewell. Then, she stopped at the door and turned back around.
"Does Central offer any classes on medical transmutation?" She asked. "I'd never heard about it. And if it's that useful..." she hesitated. Edward didn't look at her as he stuffed papers into his briefcase.
"They're really hard, you know. As hard as any medical degree."
"How hard is that?" she asked.
Despite himself, Edward found himself smiling. He looked back up at her. He remembered being this ignorant, studying human transmutation as a child, not knowing how difficult it was supposed to be and not knowing any better. This, he could tell from her face, was a different thing altogether.
"Dr. Barrow offers the second half of his unit in the spring. Talk with him and he might be able to catch you up before then. It'll be a lot of work."
"Oh, okay," she seemed more lively, more confident than she had before. "Thank you, Dr. Elric!" she smiled. "And... and thank you for, uh..."
"I'll see you on Tuesday," Edward waved her away, grabbing his things and turning out the lights.
He was gratified when, on Tuesday, the girl was sitting across the hall from Michael, and Michael remained silent. The thrill of the mystery was back on, and notwithstanding the angry letter he got from the Dean about "illicit topical discussion", Edward Elric saw autumn turn to spring in the normal ebb and flow of class.
In the spring, he received a note from a student requesting his reference so that she could receive permission to test out of Medical Alchemy I to go straight into Medical Alchemy II.
I realize you are not a medical specialist, but as a member of the permanent faculty, your vote would forward my request to the Dean's office, and allow me to...
Blah, blah, blah. Students got wordier and wordier every year. His eyes skimmed down the page, but when he saw the signature, he froze.
...appreciate your help with this.
Edward Elric stared at the letter for a full minute in silence before breaking into a laugh that sent him to tears. His mother would've relished such irony. The circle was the foundation of all alchemy, so it was only right that that name had come 'round again. Even Van Hohenheim, Ed was was sure, wouldn't have an explanation for this twist of fate.
"Going to be a doctor, huh?" he said to the letter in the quiet of his office. "Alright, doc, learn from my mistakes." He signed the letter, sealed it, and sent it back on its way.
That night, as he drifted to sleep beside his wife, the thought of human transmutation crossed his mind, and for the first time since he was eleven years old, Edward Elric did not think of the Thing he'd created with his brother. Instead, he thought of their mother, and of a young, unafraid college student who shared her name.