Al-che-my n. 1 the study of the decomposition and reconstruction of matter. 2 the practice of decomposing and reconstructing matter.

al-che-mist n. 1 one who studies Alchemy. 2 one who practices Alchemy.

al-chem-o-lo-gy n. the study of alchemists.

I. Shibboleth

They sat with their backs to the wall, sacrificing the luxury of chairs for the luxury of hush, the draw of calm, the siren's song of a little peace to help them process the alcohol his superiors had spirited away for them. Somewhere across the building, the ballroom was pulsing softly with the morose rhythms of a wilting band and the ebbing and flowing of conversational tides.

He was holding her shoes. He was not exactly sure why, but there they were in his hands, in his lap. His money had bought those shoes, and he took a gently inebriated moment to enjoy the fact that he could afford such things. They were rather small and narrow, creamy white satin. The right shoes had a small, gray scuff on the toe.

Winry burped quietly. "'Scuse me," she muttered into the back of her fingers.

"Sure," he replied. "You want your shoes back?"

She shook her head slowly. "I don't think I should be walking anywhere right now."

Edward chuckled. "Can't hold your liquor?"

Winry turned a rather pouty frown on him. "I'd like to see you up and walking around right now." She belched again and put a hand to her stomach. Edward opted not to answer; she had a point.

A single, flesh thumb rubbed the satiny flank of the shoes in his lap. Experimentally, he stroked the other shoe with his metal thumb. As always, he felt nothing more than the muted sensation of pressure. He knew Winry was working on that. She had promised him greater sensitivity in the next model. It entailed another bout of neurosurgery to rewire him, but it was one step closer to normalcy.

Edward, when Winry had explained to him the basics of artificial sensory receptors, had been tempted to tell her that it did not matter. She could try all she wanted to make him feel real and whole, and she very well might achieve it. But it would never be the same.

She had seemed so enthusiastic about it, so he let her. It would be more money, but he had that in abundance. Of all the things that mattered to him, money was very low ranking.

Stealing a glance at her, Edward noted that she looked nice in her dress. Technically, it was his dress, having come from his wallet. But the thought of giving her gifts—dresses, shoes, wrenches, motor oil—made his heart fluttered momentarily in the strangest way. He liked it. A little. Not a lot. Not enough to tell her.

He thought about complimenting her. So he did. Awkwardly. Winry, already a shade rosier than usual from the champagne, blushed darker. She muttered succinctly her gratitude and looked down at her feet, bound in flesh colored stockings.

Winry rubbed her eye before she remembered that she was wearing make-up. She looked down at her fist now with black smudges across her knuckle. She almost laughed. If she had not seemed like a yokel before, she certainly must seem like one now.

Edward had introduced her to his comrades with something that Winry later recognized as reluctance. He would carry on with them, laughing and cracking jokes in jargon that Winry did not understand. He would discuss politics and matters that had nothing to do with her. Then he would turn around like he had just noticed her and grin toothily. With his metal arm, he would gesture to her and introduce her with her first name. He never uttered her last name even though his comrades often looked a little awkward when shaking her hand and welcoming her so informally. He did not tell her their names.

They had left the ballroom upon her request. The music was too loud. The conversation was making her head hurt. She could tell Edward did not really need an excuse even though he asked for one.

Then, she had fallen down. Like a drunk, she had stumbled as they left the ballroom in search of quieter company. Thankfully, they were already in the hall and out of view when she fell. Though she did not mention it, Winry had been grateful that no one else had seen, for Edward's sake.

Edward had picked her up off the floor, assuring her that he would have her dress cleaned if it needed it. She then gave him her shoes and swayed down the hall.

"I thought you were going to get the black one you were looking at," Edward commented. He slouched a little and crossed his ankles. Winry noted that his feet seemed further away than they used to. She was tempted to comment on his height before she remembered that he had said something.

"It wouldn't have matched your uniform."

He shrugged. "No one else was matching."

"Well, I didn't know that when I bought the dress. I don't know if I'm going to keep it anyway."

"Why not?" Edward asked, sitting forward slightly. He looked her in the eyes for what felt like the first time that entire night. Perhaps it was because he was not grinning at her. "It looks nice on you… I mean, you look nice in it. That is… it's a nice dress." He suddenly sat back and appeared very interested in his hands.

Winry smiled at him. "You already said that."

"So why don't you want to keep it?" he asked her shoes. "Don't you like it?"

"It's not that," she said. How, she wondered, would she explain this sensation, like the dress was a circular hole and she was a square peg? "I don't think it fits right."

Edward looked toward her again. He thought she filled the dress very well. In fact, he had been making a conscious effort not to appreciate too conspicuously how well she filled it. At least, he had made an effort not to let her notice him appreciating her. He opened his mouth to comment, but she continued.

"I mean, it fits fine… it just doesn't fit me."

Edward did not understand. Winry considered explaining it further, but she knew he could not see, he would not see. So she let him wonder.

"Anyway… I think I'm ready to leave. You can stay if you want to. I'm going back to the hotel."

She left without her shoes.