Humankind cannot gain anything without first giving something in exchange. To obtain something of equal value must be lost. That is alchemy's first law of equivalent exchange. In those days we really believed that to be the world's one and only truth.
Click, clack, click, clack, click, clack…
The sound of the train's wheels going over the rails repeated endlessly. How many thousand s of miles had they already traveled in their search? How much closer were they to their goal? The Philosopher's stone; a legendary object that could permit you to cheat the laws of alchemy and allow you to gain without sacrifice.
Edward Elric glanced at the empty sleeve of his coat. His right arm was gone. Lost while he was fighting Scar. The man was a terrorist and a cold blooded killer, but while facing him he had brought up some unsettling questions.
Edward was a State Alchemist; his official designation Full Metal Alchemist. He was the youngest to ever successfully pass the state exam and be granted the title. As a result he and his brother were granted access to state libraries and research material off limits to ordinary civilians and given free rein to pursue their investigation of the Philosopher's Stone.
But there was a price.
In Central, where the Fuhrer King Lived and where the government was based, most people admired and respected State Alchemists. In a lot of other places though he and his brother were looked upon with fear and distrust and sometimes open hatred. They were the dogs of the military. And while he and his brother had never been told to do anything he had issue with he'd heard stories and rumors that were not pretty. That annoying Colonel Mustang seemed to enjoy sending them on wild goose chases rather than more unpleasant tasks.
Of course those wild goose chases had a way of turning unpleasant. He and his brother had already seen a lot of terrible things, and he didn't expect that to change any time soon.
Its equivalent exchange, Ed thought. It's all just a part of the price we have to pay to get back what we lost.
"What is it Al?" Edward looked to the aisle by his seat where his brother was in a wooden crate. Literally.
Just as Scar had shattered his arm he had smashed the suit of armor that was Alphonse's body. Mercifully the blood seal that attached Al's soul to the armor had not been scratched. Being broken did not cause Al any pain and was more of an inconvenience than anything else. All his parts had been gathered up and tossed into an open crate with his helmet resting on top. The other passengers looked somewhat disturbed to hear a voice coming from a helmet sitting in a crate; but Ed and Al had long since gotten used to drawing stares.
"You just keep staring out the window without smiling. Brother aren't you happy to be going back home?"
"Home? We don't have a home any more Al, remember?"
Even though it was coming from a helmet the exasperated sigh was utterly human. "You know what I mean big brother, aren't you happy that we're going back to Risembool to see Winry and Pinako again?"
"No," he said and turned back to the window again. "This is just an interruption. As soon as we're both fixed we need to get back to central to do some more research."
"Do we… do we have to leave right away? Couldn't we stay for just a little while?"
Ed glanced back over his shoulder with an unhappy grimace. "Come on Al, you know we can't afford to waste time."
"Brother," Al began hesitantly. "Do you ever…"
"Do you ever wonder if we'll actually find it? The Philosopher's Stone?"
"Of course we will!" Ed said sharply. "How can you even doubt it for a second? No one ever said it would be easy but we will absolutely find it and make it work!"
His head snapped back around and Al knew the conversation was definitely over.
Edward had his own doubts some times.
There were nights he would lie awake just staring at the ceiling wondering if all this was a fool's quest. The one time they'd ignored the laws of alchemy they'd paid a horrible price for it. Now they were on a journey searching for a magical key that would let them ignore those laws once more. What would the price ne this time? Would they spend their entire lives searching only to realize it never existed except in legends?
But what choice do we have? He wondered. Ordinary alchemy can never give us back what we've lost. Even if it ends up all this was impossible from the start I'd still rather be a fool and try than just passively give up!
At the tiny train station Winry and Pinako waited patiently.
"Do you suppose those two are all right granny?" Winry asked for the fiftieth time.
"I'm sure they are," Pinako said calmly.
"All their telegram said was that they'd be arriving today and for us to meet them. That is so typical of them! They never tell us what's going on!"
Pinako smiled at her granddaughter and exhaled a long soothing trail of smoke from her pipe. "I'm sure they're both fine dear."
"I bet he's broken it again," Winry muttered to herself. "The only time he even remembers I'm alive is when he needs me to fix his automail."
Pinako smiled at her. Poor thing, it's hard to be in love with someone who is always away.
Eventually they spotted a tail of black smoke. Not long after that the train puffed into sight and then into the local station. Being a very small stop the train only halted for five minutes before leaving to continue east. Only two passengers got off.
Winry was relieved to see Ed in his usual red long coat and was wondering where Al was. A couple train attendants were following behind him carrying a wooden crate. She had no idea what might be inside until she noticed the top of a familiar looking helmet.
"YOU DIDN'T!" She shouted and ran over.
The attendants put the crate down and hurried back to their train. Winry meanwhile was running around waving her arms about frantically.
"What happened? You're in pieces! You were in a fight weren't you? Tell me the truth! How could you end up like this?"
"Ah, hello Winry." Al said sounding embarrassed.
"Al just what happened? How did you end up like this?" Winry demanded.
"Oh knock it off Winry," Ed said. "It's not as bad as it looks. As soon as you fix my arm I'll make him as good as new with alchemy."
She had been so caught up with Al's catastrophic state that she hadn't really noticed Ed's appearance. Now though she noted that his right sleeve was empty and flapping in the breeze. "Ack! What did you do to my precious automail? Do you have any idea how many hours I spent designing and building and readjusting it for you? Where is your arm?"
"Heh." Ed produced a cloth sack that rattled. "I sort of had a little problem."
"MY PRECIOUS AUTOMAIL! I'LL KILL YOU!"
Pinako smiled as Winry produced a wrench and began chasing Edward around the station. It was so cute.
Pinako, Winry, and Ed were seated at the table having a quiet dinner.
Al's helmet was the centerpiece instead of the usual vase with flowers.
Since returning from the station Winry had refused to say a single word, preferring instead to glare at Ed and send him the occasional growl. Immediately upon returning she had gone to her workshop with the sack Ed had given her. She had only come out again when Pinako called her to dinner. They were now eating in an uncomfortable silence while Winry continued to send Ed murderous looks.
"Ah, isn't anyone going to talk?" Alphonse finally asked.
"You know Winry you're taking this way too seriously," Ed said. "I mean okay, so I broke your precious automail into a few pieces."
"Seventy nine pieces," Winry growled. "I counted. There's no way for me to repair it! The most I can do is salvage some spare parts. I'm going to have to build you a completely new arm!"
"Well an automail freak like you ought to enjoy that."
"What was that pipsqueak?"
"Hey! Don't call me a pipsqueak!"
"Well don't call me a freak!"
"You are a freak!"
"Well you're a pipsqueak AND a shrimp!"
"What was that?"
"Please don't fight!" Al wailed. "We're all friends aren't we?"
"Yes of course we are Alphonse," Pinako said sounding amused. "You two sit back down and try and enjoy your dinner."
Without even realizing it both of them had gotten on their feet to glare at each other.
"Fine," Ed said slumping back down into his seat. "Look Win I'm sorry I broke your automail okay? It's not like I did it on purpose, but could you please just hurry up and give me a new arm so I can fix Al and we can get going?"
"That is so typical of you," Winry said as she too sat down. "You come all this way just to get repairs without even thinking about anyone else."
"What is that supposed to mean?" Ed asked with a frown.
"Boys are so stupid," Winry muttered.
"I think what my granddaughter means is that we like to think that we are like family to you and Alphonse. It's a little rude of you Edward to just treat us as a free repair service."
"Hey, I'll pay for the parts just like always." Ed said.
"Just the parts? Winry asked. "What about the labor? What about all the hours and hours I have to spend fixing what you broke again?"
Ed frowned at her. "What are you talking about? You've always done that for free. I mean we're like family right?"
"Are we?" Winry demanded. "You two go off for months at a time doing who knows what getting into all sorts of danger and never even sending us a single word. You only show up when you need your automail fixed and then you're off again!"
"So? What, you want me to pay for your services?"
"Well that would be fair wouldn't it? You want something from me so I should get something from you right? Wouldn't that be 'equivalent exchange'?"
Sighing he pulled out his wallet with his left hand. Fortunately State Alchemists were well paid so money wasn't an issue. "Fine, how much?"
"I don't want money," Winry said. "I want you to take me on a date."
"Huh?" Ed said dumbfounded.
Pinako chuckled while Al's head shuffled from side to side.
"This is dumb," Ed complained.
It was the following day and he and Winry were in a quiet field enjoying a picnic lunch she had made. She was dressed in a plain white sundress with a couple flowers in her hair. She was looking much more 'girly' than he had ever remembered. For some odd reason it was making him a bit nervous.
"This is a waste of time. Al and I have important things to do."
"I'll start the work as soon as we get back I promise," Winry said.
"You should have already started on it before now."
Winry gave a frustrated sigh. "Why can't you just relax and enjoy the moment? A girl makes you a nice meal and wants to spend a little time with you, most guys would appreciate that."
"You know I don't think of you that way," Ed said.
"Oh?" Winry replied a bit frostily.
Ed saw her reaction and frowned. "You know what I mean."
"No I don't actually, we don't talk so how could I? Just how do you see me Ed?"
"I see you as a good friend and as someone I can trust and rely on when I need her."
"And is that all?" Winry asked quietly.
"What? That's not enough?" He asked sounding confused.
"You know I'll be sixteen soon," she said out of the blue.
Ed blinked, caught off guard by the sudden change of subject. "Yeah, I guess you will. What does that have to do with anything though? Is this some kind of a reminder to get you a birthday present?"
She looked at him with frustration though he could not guess why.
"Grandma says that's old enough for a girl to date. Joshua Redstone has been asking about me."
"Josh?" Ed spat. "The guy with the glasses and the huge neck? Him?"
"He's a nice guy." Winry said. "He likes me and wants me to go with him to the next Spring Festival."
"Since when do you like idiots with necks bigger than their heads?" Ed demanded.
"Maybe he's just my type," Winry said with a shrug.
"What's so great about him?"
"Well for one thing he actually wants to go out with me; I don't have to force him to spend time with me. For another he's actually here. I never have to wonder if he's safe or if he might be dead somewhere."
"In other words he's safe and ordinary, two things I'll never be."
Winry looked out into the clear blue sky and thought for a while.
"Is it so awful to want to have an ordinary life?" She asked quietly.
Leaning back in the tall grass Ed looked up into the sky as well. He could remember many afternoons when the three of them would just doze off under some tree looking up at the sky like this. Those had been good times, innocent times. If he could he would gladly go back to those days of drifting off to peaceful sleep beneath a clear blue sky.
"No Winry, it's not. If that's what you want you should go after it and be happy. But it's not something I can ever have."
"Because of what I did to Al," he answered quietly still looking up at the sky. "I can't rest and I can't be happy until I've made up for what I did. Honestly I don't know if I'll ever be able to, but I'll try for as long as I am alive no matter what that means. There is no ordinary life waiting for me Winry. I have no right to be happy after what I did and so I can't hope to make anyone else happy either. You're a kind girl and you should be happy."
There was a long silence.
They both listened to the wind blowing through the leaves and the grass.
Winry got up and came to lean over him. He looked up into her soft and caring face. She was very pretty.
"Kiss me," she said simply.
"Win, I don't…"
"It's a part of my price," she told him. Tears were slowly falling from her eyes.
"Why are you crying?"
"I'm crying for you and for Al because neither of you will ever cry for yourselves. Now please kiss me Ed."
Slowly sitting up he cupped her face with his left hand. She closed her eyes and pressed her cheek against his fingers.
"You sure?" He asked quietly.
"Yeah," she whispered.
Awkwardly he moved his face to hers careful to avoid bumping noses. His lips touched hers. They were soft and warm. When he kissed her he felt her press her lips back against his ever so softly.
Without a word he kissed her again.
He felt her arms wrap lightly about his shoulders and a low moan escaped her. Without knowing how exactly they soon wound up lying in the grass together innocently kissing and holding each other beneath a blue sky.
A few days later his automail was repaired and with both arms he was able to use alchemy to restore Al. As expected they were on the next train headed back to Central. As the train pulled into the station Ed and Winry were a bit apart from the other two.
"Please write and let us know what's going on with you two."
"I will Win, I definitely will." Ed promised.
Winry let out a sigh. "You say that but you never do. Maybe I'll come visit you in Central some time. There are a lot of automail shops there and I've always wanted to go shopping to see what was available."
"Okay sure, me and Al will show you around. Heck I'll even buy you some automail parts."
"Seriously?" She said sounding excited.
"Sure, why not? Central's really not that dangerous so there's no reason you can't visit."
The train stopped and blew its whistle.
"Brother we have to get on board, it won't be here long."
"I know Al!" He turned back to Winry. "I guess this is goodbye for now."
"Yes," she hugged him tight. "Take good care of yourself and of Al okay?"
"I will," he promised.
"Brother! Come on!"
"I really have to go Win."
Ed hurried and climbed onto the train as it slowly began to move again.
"Oh Ed! One last thing!" Win shouted.
"I was kidding before I would never go out with Joshua!"
"I knew it!" Ed shouted back as the train began to leave the station.
"Tommy Brooking is a way better choice!"
"HUH? The guy used to eat bugs! Are you KIDDING me? You're joking right Winry? Right?"
The train was picking up speed and there was nothing he could do but watch as she waved to him from the platform.