Title: Learning Curves
Author: Jordanna Morgan (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Archive Rights: Please request the author’s consent.
Rating/Warnings: Maybe just a tiny bit PG.
Characters: Edward and Noa.
Setting: First anime, post-Conqueror of Shamballa.
Summary: While giving Noa a lesson in alchemy, Edward learns a few things himself.
Disclaimer: They belong to Hiromu Arakawa. I’m just playing with them.
Notes: For the 2011 FMA Gift Exchange, I submitted a prompt that involved the Elrics returning to Amestris with Noa, and Ed then teaching her alchemy. Kristen Sharpe responded with an absolutely adorable Ed/Noa sketch called “Instruction”—which gave me immediate inspiration for this companion ficlet. It is not connected with my Tiesverse stories, but instead follows the events of CoS.
Edward and Alphonse found their way back to Amestris eventually… but they didn’t return alone.
When the Thule Society came after them once again as the key to further experiments in alchemy, Noa had helped the brothers, at the risk of her life. Ultimately, the crisis led to their chance to return home—and at that point, there was every reason to take Noa with them. Having used her perceptive powers on Ed, she retained a small but potentially dangerous amount of alchemic knowledge herself, and the Thule Society knew that. Removing her forever from their reach was the only way to protect her, and perhaps both worlds as well. Besides, when the brothers owed their homecoming to her in no small part, sharing their world with her was the least they could do in return.
For Ed, though, there was more to it than that. Much more.
Al knew it. He had probably known it even before Ed himself was sure; certainly before their return to Amestris. It was all in the particular little twist that came into his smile when he watched Ed and Noa together. He never said anything, but he was obviously getting a kick out of what he saw—or didn’t see yet, but merely sensed and anticipated with a very adolescent glee. (Al might have been five years older than he looked, but Ed was convinced his underaged body let him get away with an undue immaturity sometimes.)
Of course, for a time, the adjustments of homecoming took precedence over the things that remained unspoken. The first week was a whirlwind of reunions, debriefings… and the inevitable automail repairs.
Winry came to Central herself, to Gracia Hughes’ house where the Elrics and Noa were temporarily staying, to hug Ed and then hit him. To fuss and scold and practically rebuild his prosthetics that had been ungently used in that last battle with the Thule Society, vowing to send him her biggest bill yet as soon as he began earning a paycheck again.
Noa was shy in meeting everyone Ed and Al introduced her to, as if she didn’t yet feel she belonged in their world; and toward Winry she was shyest of all, for what reason Ed couldn’t quite figure out. But Winry, as always, was shy toward no one. After hearing the tale of how Noa had been instrumental in bringing her best friends home, she looked at Ed and then Noa, with the same expression Al kept using on them. Then she simply hugged the other girl, without a word.
Then she dragged Noa off on a shopping spree without the boys, insistent on buying her much-needed new clothes—and when they returned to unload boxes and bags, Ed saw and heard just enough to make him raise his eyebrows at the wardrobe choices Winry made for Noa.
Yes, at first, everything about being home again seemed strange… but gradually, life began to settle down.
After completing her work on Ed’s automail, Winry went back to Rush Valley. She was still apprenticed to Dominic, and now dating Mason of all people, and she was making plans to open her own automail shop. She seemed happy, and Ed was glad for her.
With his steel limbs fully repaired, Ed agreed to resume his duties as a State Alchemist under General Mustang, but with greater emphasis on research than field work—at least for the present, until he fully readjusted to using the alchemy that had been lost to him in the other world. Al resolved to join up himself, and began to study in preparation for the parts of the State Alchemy Exam he had not already passed years earlier. The brothers moved into a house in Central, close to Gracia and Elicia’s home, and Al promptly started acquiring a collection of cats.
A part of Ed would have liked very much to have Noa move in with them; after all her time spent traveling with the brothers in her world, he had grown used to having her near. However, he understood how that might be looked upon rather strangely now. Instead, she continued to stay with Gracia, who helped her find work in a friend’s shop.
At least it was only a few minutes’ walk to where she was. Ed and Al still spent as much time at the Hughes house as their own, eating delicious meals Gracia and Noa cooked for them, playing with Elicia (she had grown so big now!), or respectively working on research and homework. It was an astonishingly peaceful, pleasant interlude in lives that had long been so tumultuous… and it only became more pleasant for Ed when, after hardly a month, Noa made a startling declaration.
She wanted to learn alchemy.
She wanted to be useful to her adopted people, she said, and truly earn her place in her new world. Perhaps, if she could become good enough, she might even like to become a State Alchemist herself one day. The little she already knew of alchemy fascinated her, and she wanted to learn so much more.
And Edward, to his surprise, quickly found he was delighted to teach her.
“Like this?” Noa asked Ed, as her slim, steady brown hand drew the lines his flesh fingers had traced for her over the paper.
Today’s lessons were taking place at the Elrics’ house. Ed and Noa were standing at the dining room table—standing because the tabletop was completely covered by papers on which notes and transmutation circles were scrawled, and one or the other of them frequently needed to reach out and refer to another scattered sheet. Besides, standing made it easier for Ed to lean in close beside Noa.
Just to guide her hand, of course. Not for any other reason. Not because he liked the sweet, unfamiliar spiciness of that scent she was wearing. Not because he liked it even more when she happened to brush against him.
After all, it wasn’t his fault if she couldn’t keep still.
“That’s right… Slow down a little, though. You can draw faster once it gets to be second nature to you. Precision is a lot more important than speed for a beginning alchemist.”
Obediently Noa slowed her hand, drawing the lines of the simple array more carefully.
Ed could admit to himself that he was a little surprised by how quickly Noa was learning. Not as fast as he and Al had when they were little, of course; but they had been nothing less than freaks of nature in that regard. He would never expect anyone else to match their standard. It was impressive enough that Noa, in spite of her nomadic and patchily-educated past, was clearly above average as a student.
She was helped considerably by the knowledge she had borrowed from his mind back in her world. It gave her an instinctive grasp of what she was learning, and there were many alchemic equations she could recall in their entirety. Still, that knowledge was only fragmentary. It was to her own credit that she was able to put it all together so well, to draw so much from his lessons. Especially because he was certain he was anything but skilled at teaching.
Especially with a student who made it so hard to keep his mind on what he was trying to put into her mind.
Noa leaned down, intently appraising the lines she had drawn. The ends of her braids teased the edges of the papers on the table, and the rest of her hair that was worn loose tumbled forward over her shoulders. One soft brown lock fell across the silver of Ed’s automail wrist. It did not and could not tickle, but it caught his eye, and he reached over to brush it gently aside with his flesh hand.
He didn’t want her hair to get caught in the joints of his metal limb. There, you see? That certainly wasn’t just an excuse to touch it… even if his fingertips did caress it once first, very lightly.
“And this inner circle contains the reaction?” she asked, frowning.
Ed enjoyed that thoughtful little frown: the way it pursed her rosy lips, the way it made a small crease in her brow. The way long lashes dipped slightly over dark eyes that glittered with such determined focus.
“Yeah,” he murmured, in a lower voice than he intended, and was forced to clear his throat. “That’s good… You’ve almost got it now.”
She straightened to reach for her pencil, and Ed was perfectly content not to move as her elbow brushed against the plating of his automail arm, just below the edge of his rolled-up sleeve. Of course he couldn’t feel it there, but he liked it anyway, because even such indirect contact held meaning for him. (He must have picked that up from Al, in the old days, when his brother had similarly treasured every unfelt hug or tap on his armor shell.) Besides, with Noa’s sixth sense that could at times respond strongly and unexpectedly to touch, she might have shied away from the living flesh of his left arm. Quite literally on the other hand, the cool, inert steel of his automail was unresponsive to her gift—and she was too preoccupied to remember self-consciously that it was also a part of him.
In fact, Ed wasn’t entirely sure whether Noa still possessed that gift. Perhaps she had lost her perceptive powers in this world, just as he and Al were denied their innate alchemic abilities in hers. Since their arrival in Amestris, she hadn’t spoken of it either way, and he was hesitant to ask. She never seemed to consider it a terribly private or personal matter, but somehow he felt that it was, or at least that it should be.
Blinking himself out of his musings, he spared a glance at her transmutation circle, and saw that it was nearly finished. He made himself watch the smooth strokes of her pencil for a moment, but his gaze eventually and inevitably wandered back up to her beside him.
On occasion, he had seen her wear the more expressive—or to put it another way, the rather more revealing—clothes Winry had outfitted her with. Today, however, Gracia’s fashion sense showed through in her conservative attire: light blue blouse, dark blue skirt, matching jacket that laced up in the front. It almost echoed the prim dresses he used to see her wearing in her native world, but this had a softer, less formal, entirely Amestrian flair. Not that Ed would ever complain about the showier casual garments, but he liked this, too. It was more natural on Noa, at least right now.
“I think it’s done,” she said pensively, leaning back from her painstakingly drawn array.
Ed’s gaze flickered back down to the paper in front of Noa, and he studied her handiwork carefully. It was a little rough, but that was only to be expected from a novice alchemist. The aesthetics of the array weren’t what mattered, but the mathematics of it, and her equations were correct.
He glanced up, meeting her anxious expression with a grin. “It looks just fine,” he pronounced, and enjoyed watching her uncertainty melt into a smile… but only for a moment. Then she looked back down at the circle, much as a child just learning to swim would stare into the deep end of a pool.
“I’m nervous,” she admitted, her cheeks darkening in a blush.
In turn, and for a different reason, a little bit of heat rose in Ed’s face. From his own most intense memories, and from the few terrible, unnatural manifestations of alchemy she had witnessed in her own world, all Noa really knew was the frightening side of it. He had tried to explain to her the joy of creation, the thrilling rush of alchemic energy, as it surged through alchemist and array to perform its work like pure magic. However, words had never especially been a strength of his—and even if they had been, there were no words that could do justice to what it felt like. He could only teach Noa to feel it for herself.
“There’s nothing to be scared of,” he said gently, and then hesitated. “If you want to take a break…”
“No. I’m alright.” She smiled again, rather awkwardly this time. “I want to do this.”
Unable to keep a hint of pride from creeping into his answering smile, Ed squeezed her shoulder with his automail hand. Then he reached for a dustpan that sat on the other side of the table. Within it lay the half-dozen pieces of a plate he had broken the evening before.
(Well, it wasn’t technically Ed who broke it, but one of the several assorted armor constructs Al had created since their return. With his ability to control them, the younger Elric found them quite useful for mundane chores—but since they bore little resemblance to his old armor, Ed was still unused to their appearances, and tended to be spooked every time he walked in on one of them in the kitchen. Hence the dish dropped and shattered by Al’s hapless proxy… when a very startled Ed more or less knocked the confounded thing into the next room. Anyway, at least the plate would make good practice for Noa.)
With his automail hand, Ed picked the broken fragments out of the dustpan, arranging them on top of the circle Noa had drawn. It would make no difference in the transmutation if he simply dumped them in a pile, but he knew Noa would feel more confident if they were set in their proper configuration—and confidence was an important key to alchemy, especially for a beginner.
“Ready?” he asked brightly, looking up at Noa.
Her expression was still painfully uncertain, but she swallowed hard and nodded. Slowly she lifted her hands, only to pause with her fingertips hovering just above the paper. “Where exactly do I…?”
Ed raised his eyes from Noa’s hands to her face. She looked back at him, so uneasy, but so inquisitive and trusting and willing; and a pleasant little sensation of warmth melted through his insides. He couldn’t have asked for more than this.
Fighting back a grin, he shifted his stance to place himself halfway behind her. She clearly understood, because she kept still as he slipped his automail arm between her right elbow and her ribs, his steel fingers coming to rest over hers on the tabletop. His left hand likewise reached out, but he managed the presence of mind to pause for a moment before touching her. “May I?”
She nodded again, and he gently cupped his flesh hand over her slender fingers. If the contact did anything to set off her sixth sense, she gave no sign of a reaction, but continued to stand patiently motionless.
“Okay… Like this.” Lightly holding her hands from behind, he guided them to the correct positions over the array. “Just focus on what the end product of the transmutation is supposed to be. When you feel the pull of the energy, don’t be afraid. Let it flow. The circle will do all the work. All you have to do… is focus.”
With that, he nudged her hands downward just a little, and she responded by lowering them slowly to the array. As her fingers spread over the edge of the circle, there was a fierce concentration in her face and eyes.
At her touch, the lines of the array sparked with blue light, building into a soft glow that flowed over the broken pieces of china at the center. It was no surprise at all to Ed—but Noa gasped and flinched.
She reflexively pulled back a bit, only to find herself gently but firmly hemmed in by his body behind her and his arms at her sides. He tightened his fingers on her hands, refusing to let her withdraw; and after a single moment of fearful tension, he felt her relax under his light, encouraging pressure. As she recovered her focus, the waning alchemic glow responded, becoming brighter once more.
At the center of the array, the shards of the broken plate joined and melded. Cracks narrowed into hairline seams, and then disappeared entirely, leaving the dish as whole and flawless as the day it was made.
Finally, with the task complete, the light of the alchemic energy subsided.
Noa’s hands slipped away somewhat jerkily from the circle, clutching the edge of the table as if to hold herself upright. Edward unconsciously followed them down, his own hands resting on hers in reassurance. He felt her fingers trembling, heard her breaths coming in short, tight rasps. Not from exertion, but from sheer surprise and breathless wonder, as she stared down at the restored plate.
Such a simple transmutation, but it was miraculous to her… and watching her reaction brought back to Ed all the awe and excitement he had felt in the beginning, when he and Al were small boys tracing the arrays in their father’s books. Even after their time spent without alchemy in the world beyond the Gate, it was all too easy to fall back into taking his abilities for granted: the power to transmute without circles, to command forces that could practically move mountains. But now, seeing even the simplest of alchemy through Noa’s eyes, he was reminded of just what an extraordinary gift it really was.
“I…” she stammered, staring down at the plate, as her hands clenched tighter under his fingers. “I did that? I mean, you weren’t… It was really me?”
Ed laughed in both amusement and proud pleasure, squeezing her hands. “Of course it was. I didn’t do a thing to help you, Noa. It was all you.”
She slid her hands from beneath his, abruptly turning to him—which incidentally left his hands braced at either side of her on the tabletop, but if she wasn’t going to object, he certainly wasn’t about to move. Because they were face to face then, and he was looking straight into her wide bright eyes, and her cheeks were flushed and her delicate crimson lips were parted in a beaming smile of delight.
It was the smile that almost did him in. He gripped the edge of the table a bit harder himself, just as she had done, as he gulped in a deep breath and willed his fleshly right knee not to buckle underneath him.
Ed had wanted many things in his life, so powerfully and for so many complex, often intertwining reasons. To bring his mother back. To restore Al’s body and reclaim his own lost limbs. To become a State Alchemist. To find the Philosopher’s Stone. To find a way home. For nearly all his life, he had carried the weight of want at its most desperate and soul-possessing; want so crushing that it nearly killed him, even as it gave him his reasons to survive. He thought he knew everything want could ever possibly make him feel.
And yet, the want he felt at this moment was something else entirely.
It wasn’t a new want. He could trace back the beginnings of this feeling over many months, when Noa was the only warmth in a cold gray world he thought he and Al were resigned to forever—but at that time, he had been somehow afraid to reveal what was stirring in his heart. Perhaps afraid that if he spoke it, gave it reality, the fates that had a personal grudge against the Elric brothers would mark Noa as one more thing to take away from them.
He had almost lost her anyway. A single second or a single step could have meant all the difference for her, between life in his world or death in her own…
But that was over. They were in his world now, and it had become hers too, and he was never going to let anything be taken from him again.
Heated with the glow of Noa’s innocent joy, Ed felt his want demand to be expressed as it never had before. And as he gazed into her eyes—as he watched her eager excitement slowly change to something soft and vulnerable and wondering—he let himself submit to that need at last, in the simplest way he could.
His hands slipped from the edge of the table, settling lightly and tentatively on her waist. With an indrawn breath that shuddered just a little, he bent forward. Resisting the temptation of her mouth as it quirked in surprise, he leaned his forehead gently against hers… and when she let out a faint, startled gasp, he knew her second sight was still with her.
To awaken it, to open himself to it, was precisely his intent. All or nothing was the only way he had ever known how to live, and this moment was no different. Whatever her perceptions could take from him, he let her have: his want, his fears, his hopes. He placed them in her hands, to do with as she wished.
There could have been no better way to say I love you.
He felt her shocked tension at the unexpected contact, at the things she sensed from him, and he wondered for an endless, agonizing moment if she would push him away… but then she melted against him, reaching up to wrap her arms around his neck, and he knew.
“Ed,” she breathed against his chest, pressing her cheek to his heartbeat. “Oh, Ed.”
It sent a shiver down his spine to hear her whisper his name like that, and with a breathless half-laugh, he hugged her tightly against him. The tone of her voice and the yearning gladness of her embrace told him his want was not only accepted, but shared, and joy flooded into his soul at the confirmation. Great joy—but maybe not so much relief as he might have expected, and he thought perhaps a part of him had known this after all, or at least was fairly sure.
She was his. She had been for a long time. All he had to do was ask… and even if he wasn’t very good with words, he always knew how to say what he wanted in other ways.
Eventually, at any rate.
For a long time, they both remained still, blissfully wrapped up in each other while the rest of the world was forgotten. It was Noa who finally moved first. Her bangs tickled Ed’s cheek as she straightened just enough to roll one eye upward and look at him.
“This equation wasn’t part of your lesson plan for today, was it?” she asked with a sweet wryness, her voice muffled just a little against the fabric of his shirt.
Laughing again, Ed gave her ribs a gentle squeeze.
“A good alchemist knows how to adapt,” he murmured with a smile—as his flesh hand slipped under her cheek, and he leaned in for a kiss.
© 2012 Jordanna Morgan