This was originally a single oneshot, but due to database limitations, the story has been divided into chapters that reflect the original sections. -- editor
There are two types of happiness.
The first derives from material possessions, like the receiving of a brand new top of the line hinge-joint set in the mail. The second is regarded as the more profound; stemming from intimacy, love and other such things—the kind that inspires the best of novels. Though the former was often (and quite unfortunately) associated with gluttonous materialism, Winry was of the mind that it could be just as profound.
And these were certainly profound. Winry looked on, eyes dancing amongst the flurries of snowfall as she took in the spread of metal-hinged splendor. The creations stood twice her height at their largest, though the smaller models reached only to her waist.
Upon closer inspection, she saw that a complicated array of wiring and support cables was strung within the skeleton of hard steel. Gears whirred and fans rattled in a raucous symphony that few people could truly understand. "Ball bearings, perfect tension, stainless steel and—oh my. Are those differential gears down there?" Mirrors, glass and countless other brilliant—and expensive—mechanic parts completed the ensemble.
"This is..." Winry sucked in the cool air with exhilaration as she searched for a word to do the treasures justice. Finding none, she simply exclaimed, "This is amazing! You can't imagine how much this... Thank you so much for showing me!" Despite her gratitude, she could not bring herself to look at her companion—she had eyes only for his mechanic endeavors.
The man chuckled. "You are too kind. I am currently at work on a lighter model, to ease the strain of transportation. But I didn't bring you here merely to sightsee. Hmm... You did agree to work with me until the next model is complete, yes?" He turned towards a cave-like building on the left, motioning for her to follow.
"Yes! Yes I did! This is going to sound stupid, but your 'robots' are like a dream come true. I'm really glad that you, uh, picked me for your assistant, uh..." She was on the verge of squealing out a thousand different questions, but with a blockade of strained 'uh's, she managed to restrain herself.
"Come, before we become food for the ice, hm? I've been hearing reports of loosed chimeras, vanished patrols from that confounded military outpost and who knows what else! We will have time for words and graces inside."
Winry finally tore her eyes from the lines of machinery and hurried after the man, who was clothed in fur so thick he resembled the husks of the coconuts she'd supped on in Rush Valley.
Once her mind had made that connection, the first thing that came to mind was: Ed and Al would—
Then she stopped. Her brow furrowed, inviting the brim of her hood to slip down further over her eyes. No, Ed just wouldn't care, would he? He would be too busy running in circles to be bothered to hear her out.
It was ironic, really. Though the sweltering heat of the south was all too noticeable, her last days in Rush Valley had never made her feel so cold.
She had gone in search for an engineer willing to enter her into an apprenticeship, only to find the Elric brothers looking for her. She admitted that the meeting hadn't been completely unfortunate, as by that time she had already run out of money—and still no job. Edward had looked at her strangely when she demanded payment up front for his automail tune-up, but couldn't be bothered to ask why. That was fine, as far as Winry was concerned, because she didn't think she could admit to him that she wasn't able to secure a job—even a temporary one—based on her skill with automail alone.
"Is there anything you could do to make it more... waterproof? Or less heat reductive? No, that's not the right word..." Edward asked as he sat down at one of the tables in the inn's commons. The table was made of wires and steel; apparently, the inn worked hard to remind its customers that they were in Rush Valley.
Unfortunately, it also reminded them that metal conducted heat very well, Winry thought warily, careful not to touch the shining tabletop to her bare skin when she sat her work case down.
Winry eyed Edward suspiciously and took the seat adjacent to him for herself. "I suppose," she answered cautiously. "Why? Are you planning on going for a swim?"
Ed shot an 'and why the hell would I do that?' type of glare in her general direction, though she was already lining up his arm for inspection. "Obviously not. Al and I were just planning on going up north, and I figured it'd spare me your wrath if just asked now, instead of coming back with it waterlogged from all that snow!"
"In the north?" Winry inquired incredulously. "But there's not even anything there. You guys better be on the trail of a really promising lead before heading out into the middle of nowhere. I don't even think there are people living all the way north. But anyway, my automail is already water resistant—enough for snow and rain, anyway. What you're going to need is a way to keep it from getting too cold and stealing body heat from you. Otherwise you're going to freeze to death. So, there are these new things Grandma special-ordered—silicon sleeves. I think that'll—"
"We don't have any," Ed cut in suddenly.
"Any what? Sleeves?"
"Leads; we don't have any leads. We're going north because that's the only place we haven't searched for the philosopher's stone." Ed explained matter-of-factly. Winry, however, was not so calm.
Ramblings of automail forgotten, she objected, "What! No way. Just... no! You can't just go wandering around the fringes of society shooting in the dark—it doesn't work that way! Are you delirious 'cause of the heat or something, or are you just being idiotic? If there's no reason for the stupid philosopher's stone to be hiding in a snowdrift, then why would it?"
"Because that's the only place we haven't looked! It's not. Anywhere. Else," Ed retorted before he dropped his voice to a hushed whisper; for all the volume it lacked, it compensated in intensity.
"And could we please not shout when we're mentioning the you-know-what? I think we'll get enough stares as it is." Rush Valley was used to strange, however, and no one graced them so much as a second glance. For instance, there was a man across the room in 'a full suit of automail' trying to choose between reading 'The History of the Growth and Crash of Economy in Xenotime' or 'Armadillo, Defender of the Southern Plant Population'.
"So that's it, then. You're not even going to really try anymore. Just wander around in the dark, and hope you bump into a pot of gold, is that it? You could just investigate around here a little more; something is sure to turn up. What lead were you following last? Maybe there's something you missed the first time. Backtrack a little—at least you know that you were onto something before. Anything is better than just straying from the path all together."
"The last 'lead' we tracked," Ed snapped, "Involved a hell of a lot of stray cats—and no useful information at all! You were there, remember?"
"Oh. Right. Nothing since then, huh? Well, who said the 'you-know-what' is out there? You'd be better off starting from scratch and trying to make your own, wouldn't you? Check into the Central Library, do some research. There's hundreds of years worth of findings, I'll bet. And there's no way you and Al could possibly have read them all," Winry persisted.
"It's not that simple! This is getting stupid. Al and I are going north to look around, try and dig up some clues there, okay?"
"No, it's not okay! What does Al think about this 'plan'?"
Ed stiffened visibly. "It's not like he isn't going to come. He's not rabidly against our going like you are, if that's what you mean."
"That's not what I asked. What does Al think?"
The look in Ed's eyes as he tried to appear immersed in the folds of the table steel told her all she needed to know.
"We're going, Winry. End of story."
End of story, huh? Winry's expression darkened. And here I am improving his automail for him. So he can do exactly what I don't want him to. Then why am I even doing this? She thrust down harder than she meant to as she snipped the end off part of the sleeve she was implementing.
Because he'd go anyway, no matter what I do.
Ed yowled in pain and jerked away instinctively, nearly unseating himself in the process. "What the hell are you doing?"
Her voice wavered, caught in a storm of mixed disappointment, realization and fear. "Why do you always go on like that, like you have something to prove?"
When Ed didn't respond, she yanked him around, forcing him to face her. "Why?"
"I have to. There isn't any other way—do you honestly think that if we hang around familiar places the answer is going to just fall out of the sky? You know it doesn't work that way, I know you do.
"Amestris' northern patrols have met with several Drachman scouting parties under hostile circumstances." Ed took a deep breath. "The last place there were any big rumours about the philosopher's stone was in Ishval seven years ago. In the middle of a war. If war is what the north is headed towards, that doubles the chances of any new leads coming up. And before you say anything about it being 'too dangerous' or whatever, the rest of the world is going to hell, so it's not like Central or East or anywhere like that isn't going down with it."
"Is that it, then? You're going to sit back and wait for war to break out, because it's most convenient that way. Why don't you stop it? Or are you going to start the war yourself, just to speed things up?" Winry was trembling violently, not sure whether she wanted to cry or hit something. All of her best wrenches were there, sitting in their neat, organized rows, but her throat felt so constricted she didn't know whether she could keep the tears back any longer.
Ultimately, she ended up both crying and hitting something. But first, she ran. Not affording her companion a second glance, Winry unsettled her chair with a rattle-clang on the cobbled ground and darted towards the back door. Safe outside, she pressed her back to the plaster wall—parts were uneven where the plaster had cracked and showed the underlying bricks—and buried her face in her hands. Outside where no one could hear, her constitution crumbled. Her tears came hot and salty, coupled by short, gasping breaths and shuddering exhalations. Vaguely, she wondered how picture stars could make tears seem so graceful, because she didn't feel particularly pretty at all, and she cried often enough so that she might as well be considered a damn professional.
Without warning, she whirled around and slapped her palm against the plaster. It stung and reddened, but she took no notice. How can I be so pathetic? She bumped her forehead against the wall, a welcoming store of warmth, even though the immense heat made her tear-streaked cheeks feel sweaty and swollen. Every time, all I ever do is cry. She was strong. She was capable.
And right now, she was completely alone.
She never meant to cry—all it did was make her feel worse, and she knew Ed hated upsetting her to the point of tears—but regardless of whether she wanted to it or not, she the tears always came. It was like an autonomic reflex, uncontrollable and fiercely wild. And it makes me feel so weak
After a few minutes, Winry had progressed from uncontrollable sobs to hiccupping sniffs. She wiped her face on the straps of her cotton smock. She probably still looked terrible, but it made her feel better, all the same.
She stared out at the main street and watched the people go past, never stopping. Always laughing. Brushing small wet angel hairs back behind her ears, she took a long, halting breath. "Al said that he and Ed were going to stay in the city until tomorrow, at least," she said, testing her voice. It wavered only at its extremes, which meant she had calmed down to the point that she could go back inside. And do what? Apologize, perhaps. But for what?
Her hand grasped the damp brass doorknob, beads of condensation giving a clear gauge of the stifling humidity. It's hot, touching the sun, Winry thought abstractly. But then why did she feel so cold?
The bustle and hum of the commons caught her in a welcoming embrace, though she had to admit she was more grateful for the breeze of the ceiling fans than anything else at that moment. She found Ed where she had left him, though he had the courtesy to re-pack all of her instruments into their immaculate casings. When she came nearer, he looked up.
Fishing in the depths of what Winry had always thought to be three times the amount of red cloth Ed would ever need, he extracted a coin purse and set an inordinate sum of money on the table. "Thanks for your time. Is that enough to tide you over until your next job?"
"What do you mean? I'm going—"
"I've known you for a very long time, Winry. And you're here because you're looking for a job. It only makes it more obvious when you demand that kind of money right now, since you'd have no choice but to use it quickly if you didn't want it stolen." Ed cleared his throat meaningfully.
Winry took it as a vague allusion to a previous excursion to Rush Valley. The thieves weren't all that bad.
"Besides, why else would you want to visit this hellhole? It's hot, dammit," he added, seemingly as an afterthought.
Winry gave him an amused 'hm'. His words made her feel warmer inside, negating the effects of the discomfort in their earlier conversation. She flashed him a sunny smile. There was still broken ground between them, she could feel, but Ed was being far more civil than he had before, so perhaps there was still a chance at dissuading him from his northern escapade. "Okay, you got me. But now that that's out in the open, I was thinking we could go and see—"
"No," Ed cut in, pushing in his chair at the same time. "I think it would be better if we started for the northern border as soon as possible. Al and I have a lot of track to cover." He laughed then, but it was hollow and only served to make her feel worse.
Winry knew now that the tears she had shed before came out of the slightest breeze of an upset. She could feel the tears running down her cheeks, but this time there were no regrets.
What she felt now was ice.