"Brother?" Al called, pushing open the inn room door cautiously, in case his sibling was dressing. "Are you still up here? You missed dinner, you know, you—"
He stopped, aghast. The room looked as if a hurricane had gone through it. Hurricane Edward, to be more precise; his brother was sprawled on his back on the bed, arms outflung, eyes staring sightlessly at the ceiling. Ed's suitcase was open, and overturned on the floor; the books were all over the room, some lying open on their spines or lying open on bent pages as if they had been flung there.
"What happened?" Al said uneasily, looking around at the mess. He reached for one of the manhandled books, meaning to set it straight. "These books, you know you can't just set books down on their faces—"
"They're useless," Ed said without moving, voice strangely dead.
"Useless?" Al was shocked; this bordered on blasphemy. "How can you say that? We still need to study more, in order to understand alchemy better. How will we fix our bodies if we don't—"
"Al." Ed's flat, level tone cut across Al's protests. "We need to stop fooling ourselves. We're not little kids any more. There's nothing in these books that is going to get us our bodies back. There's nothing in the world that's going to get us our bodies back. You can't bring back the dead, you can't transmute human beings, and you can't get something back for nothing. It's over."
"But the Stone—" Al protested.
"There is no Stone," Ed said woodenly. "It's just a fairy tale. We've never seen one, never heard of a real one, never even met anyone who ever saw one. It doesn't exist, Al. There's no way back. There's no way out."
Ed rolled over on the bed, burying his face in the crook of his elbow.
"I'm sorry," Ed whispered, barely audible. "I'm so sorry, Al."
Silence fell between them, for a long time. With a soft clatter, Al knelt down on the floor, and began to reach for the books.
"You know, Brother," Al said softly, pulling the books across the floor towards him, "There was this story Master once told us, about a couple of frogs who got trapped in a butter churn."
No answer from the prone form on the bed. Al looked back at the pile of books.
"There was a smart frog and a dumb frog," Al went on. "The smart frog looked around, realized that he had no chance of getting out, and let himself drown."
"But the dumb frog was too stupid to realize he was doomed." Al neatened the edges of the stack. "He just stayed there, paddling and paddling, for hours on hours, because he just wasn't smart enough to know when to quit.
"And the next day, when the milkmaid came along and opened the churn, she found the frog in there, still alive and hopping. He'd kept paddling for so long that he'd churned the milk into a pat of butter to sit on."
Ed removed his face from the crook of his arm, and flopped over on the bed, turning to look at his sibling.
"Maybe there isn't any way to fix our bodies right now," Al said. "But we can't give up. Even if we don't find the Philosopher's Stone, maybe if we keep on walking, keep on searching, we'll find a solution that we never even knew was possible. We've got to keep on going."
Al looked up hopefully. "Yes, Brother?"
"That's a terrible story."
"Brother!" Al was more than a little put out.
Ed snorted. "According to that story, we're either stupid or drowned." The implicit insult to Ed's intelligence apparently stung. "No thanks, either way!"
But despite his harsh words, he was swinging his legs to the side of the bed, preparing to get up. "In the meantime, I'm hungry. Tell me there's some dinner left, Al."
If he could have, Al would have smiled. "You can make your own dinner. You'll need your strength if we're going to leave early tomorrow."
Ed groaned, and moved to help Al pick up all the books, and Al felt more at ease. Even if he didn't like to admit it, it seemed his brother had taken his words to heart. It was a big world out there, full of more possibilities than either of them could dream of. And if they could just keep paddling, he knew, then someday they'd reach their dream.
"...why does it have to be milk?"