The Faint Lumens of Counterglow

"I'm sorry it got so late," Alfons says again, for the hundredth time, maybe thousandth. "I didn't mean to keep you out for so long."

Edward grunts and says nothing else, breath hissing out in front of him in a long white curleque, like dragon's breath. It is cold as a witch's tit out tonight, and the stars are clear but their allure does fade after an hour in the frost. The metal handle of Alfons's telescope case bites into his hand, almost hot with how cold it is.

He switches it over to his prosthetic hand, which is equally as cold but luckily cannot feel it.

The taller man is silent now, blessedly no longer apologizing for something Edward isn't mad at him about anyway, and they trudge back to the car with him still staring upwards, off to the right.

"The Gegenschein is sure brilliant tonight," he whispers reverently, and Edward pauses with his hand on the freezing door handle, dutifully looks up at the patch of nothingness Alfons is staring at.

"I still can't see it," he says patiently, and Alfons swings around behind him, stretches a long, gangly arm out over his shoulder.

"Up a few degrees," Alfons says. "Along the ecliptic, see? Should be an elliptical glowing patch a couple degrees wide. It's relatively faint, but it's there."

"Maybe," Edward hedges, turning a few inches away from the heat-sucking sheet of ice that is his car's door. He has learned not to lie, because Alfons can always tell and he looks so disappointed; but really, he can see nothing. It frustrates him, as usual. If this were alchemy, he could pick it up so easily. Adrift in the world of the sky, there is nothing so concrete as reagents and atomic bonding. Just lovely, glowing things millions of miles away.

He wonders again which one is his own, if his own sun is even out there.

"That's okay," Alfons says, and drops his hand down. Edward looks back and the taller man is smiling down at him, pale skin even ghostlier than usual in the moonless, starlit night. "

Not everyone can see it with the naked eye." Alfons's eyes seem strangely naked themselves though, because they are wide and he has that look again, and Edward feels strange and embarrassed to be on the receiving end of that soft scrutiny, and in the end he flees into his car.

This he knows at least. He is not the most experienced of drivers, but he knows how to get the thing started in cold weather, and if there is nothing else his father taught him (besides fear and abandonment and perhaps just occasionally kindness) it's how to work the gear shift. He is still kind of mad at his father for leaving his Audi to him, for leaving him in general. Is somewhat sad to recognize that this time, almost certainly, the reason is probably because the man is dead.

He pilots the car in silence down the patchy dirt and grass road, and Alfons is still watching him, but sometimes the man does know how to watch and not ask questions, and for that more than anything else, Edward thinks he can live with him. Just for a while. Just until he gets back on his feet. He can keep the rest of it together until then, and then if he still needs to he can think about his stupid father in private.

It takes nearly a full tank of petrol to get them all the way back to the boarding house they're staying at, nestled further down in the foothills. Alfons says sometime soon they'll settle down, but so far Edward has yet to see any evidence of that. They have a small suitcase each right now, and it's odd for him to come into the room and see the two lined up neatly, side by side. Somewhere in the southern hill-lands of Germany, where they can make these periodic journeys up into the lower mountains; Alfons says they're headed eventually for Bavaria, or Munich, where there are conservatories, but right now it feels like they're on some aimless adventure, like one of Mustang's "investigations" that never ends up taking you where it's supposed to.

When he traveled with Al, he only had one suitcase. One suitcase, one toothbrush, and two beds, because Al was cold. Now there are two of everything, except for the bed, and sometimes Ed feels like there are two of himself here, or that maybe he is like Al here, tagging after a crazy, driven companion. He feels as if when he does get his brother back, he really ought to apologize for putting him through this.

"Hey, the brown one's mine," he calls out as Alfons goes for his toothbrush yet again, a common mistake. Alfons swears he doesn't need glasses—and maybe he doesn't, if he can see such nebulous phenomena as the Gegenschein light—but up close he has trouble like this.

"They're both brown," Alfons pouts.

"The one with the thicker bristles," Edward sighs. He goes over to the room's little basin and helps sort things out, places his things on the left and Alfons's on the right again. "Sorry, I left it on the edge of the sink again, didn't I?"

Alfons blinks at him owlishly, pulls his head back to look at him.

"It's okay," he says warmly, then gropes about for the right brush, finds it. "Thanks."

He gives Edward that one look again, and for the life of him he can't tell if that's because Alfons can't see him, or because he does.

Edward stares back, strangely captivated, and they are at an impass for a second; Alfons with one hand on the sink behind him and the other holding his toothbrush midair uselessly.

"Um, excuse me?" Alfons asks finally, and Edward steps back as the man reaches forward matter-of-factly for the tap.

"Sure, sorry," Edward musters, and slinks over to the bed to curl up on his side, feeling confused and somehow defeated. He never knows exactly what he expects in those moments, but it is something that never comes.

He lies there and listens to the sounds of Alfons getting ready; gets up when he is done and takes his turn at the wash basin. Makes sure to put his brush away properly so Alfons won't get confused. Left and right, their things laid out neatly; white and brown, two contrasting towels hanging by the sink. All the little vagaries of life with someone, and they are so coordinated it often makes him think. He was coordinated with Al, but Al had his own distinct system. Heiderich is much more like himself, and sometimes Edward can't tell if that's a good thing or not.

He goes back to the bed but finds that unsurprisingly, Alfons is not actually in it. He is over at the window and has the panes wide open, probably ready to catch his death of cold again. Alfons is surprisingly prone to illness.

"You could try looking through the glass sometime," he grouses, and other man just shakes his head, edges aside a bit to let Edward come look.

"This glass is too cloudy; it diffuses the light," Alfons says.

"Looking for your Gegenschein again?"

Alfons shakes his head again.

"No, there's too much light to see it here," he says sadly, flicking a hand out toward the tiny town. "I was looking at the M31 nebula. Andromeda," he translates needlessly; Edward is not quite that far behind.

"Okay?" Edward says.

"Did you know," he says in a tone that reminds Edward so painfully of himself when he was younger and working on an array, "it is theorized it might not even be a nebula at all? There's a school that thinks it is its own distinct collection of stars," Alfons says, eyes shining. "Its own island universe."

The possibility hits Edward like a knife in the gut, and something inside him twists. He has heard so many theories before, and so far none of them have remotely panned out; sometimes he wishes he could just give up hoping already.

"You don't say," he says, mouth dry.

"Yes," the other man prattles on, oblivious. "Can you imagine it, Edward? A whole separate galaxy, with all its own novae, perhaps even, planets..."

His eyes are ablaze, and his words puff out amidst more clouds of dragonsbreath, so hot Edward can see them—or perhaps it is just the night, stealing in from outside.

"If we exceed the speed of light someday," Alfons continues on, conversationally. "That's what I'd like to do. See if there are other planets. Can't you picture it? A whole other world somewhere."

"Yes," Edward says, a familiar lump in his throat. "I can."

Something in his tone must have tipped Alfons off, because he comes back to earth suddenly, tilts his head down at him, looking concerned.

"Are you all right, Edward?"

He takes a step backward, probably to see better; goddammit, he needs glasses, why won't he just get some; and Edward is aware that he is just seeing himself in a mirror yet one more time and so, he shakes his head. He has thought about telling Alfons the truth many, many times now, but he knows that if he were to hear such a crazy story, he certainly wouldn't believe it.

"It's just cold," he says, and goes over to the bed. "You can stay there if you want, but I'm calling dibs on the covers."

"Hey, no fair!" Alfons pouts, but he dutifully closes the window and pads over to the bed. When they have to split a bed it is always ten kinds of hell, because they've long since proved neither of them is capable of sharing the covers. They always start out with everything partitioned neatly down the center, the way they do everything, and somehow it always gets muddled up.

"I do have a paper on the M31 theory," Alfons says once he's settled in. "Maybe I can get them out of the trunk for you tomorrow, if you're interested."

He momentarily falters, trying to find the tiny knob to turn off the bedside light; again, too close to see it easily.

"Maybe," Edward hedges. "Though I don't understand how you can read them," he complains. "You need glasses."

"Maybe," Alfons hedges back, and even in the darkness that now percolates the room, Edward can tell his friend's eyes are now focused a million miles away. And he knows Alfons will continue to not get glasses; the same way he'll continue to not read that paper that he's sure will only disappoint, because they are really so alike in so many ways. Alfons's heat seeps out through the sheets toward him, intermingles with his own, and it is both maddening and strangely comforting, but neither of them can bring themselves to act on it.

They are very, very good at focusing on things out of reach; but poor at reading the writing on the wall in front of their faces.

::i don't mind if you don't mind / cause i don't shine if you don't shine::