Absolute Zero

chapter 2.

The scientists found themselves at a rambling art gallery one Saturday evening in April, staring at sculptures, collages and paintings that defied all their expectations. Ed acknowledged how utterly simple he was when it came to art: he only knew the "regular" stuff: pictures and sculptures that looked like the things they were supposed to be. He acknowledged that some of these things vaguely approximated the things they purported to be about—a portrait of a woman, for example, with everything sketchy and out of proportion—but some of the more abstract things mystified him, like the bits of wire hanging overhead with twisted, burnt paper suspended from strings spinning around them idly in the mostly-still air.

"Mobile sculpture," Alfons supplied helpfully.

"How do you know that?" Ed asked, impressed.

"It says, here." Alfons extended a slender finger toward the explanatory miniature rectangle.

"Ah," Edward said, trying to sound serious.

"These are... interesting," said Alfons, stopping to pay homage to a collection of bright paintings depicting women with bare breasts lolling about with sedate tigers.

"There are some who cling to the Fauvists," scoffed the approaching Otto. "This is absolutely retrogressive and incorrect. You two shouldn't even be looking at these abominations. Come, see my work."

"It's gouache, gouache!" he said, waving his hands in excitement. "My new favorite medium. So versatile," he said, and he pointed at some strokes and swirls in the brightly colored form, this is supposed to be a person thought Ed, knowing that he was squinting and looking both doubtful and ignorant.

After Otto moved away Alfons gave him a look—eyebrows raised—and they both doubled over in silent laughter.

"It's gouache, gouache!" said Alfons, waving his arms.

"What the holy hell is gwastsch?" Ed wondered, staring at the picture.

"It sounds like some kind of tropical fruit," Alfons suggested. "Maybe the color is derived from the flesh of the fruit."

"Or even the seeds," Ed speculated, his eye caught particularly by the bright shades of orange in the painting. He pinched his chin between the thumb and forefinger of his left hand as he examined the visual properties of the paint. They both leaned in to examine it more closely. Ed sniffed. "It has a chalky smell, I think there may be magnesium in it."

Alfons leaned even closer to the painting, nearly touching it with the tip of his nose and inhaled. That was stupid: it threatened to make him cough so he had to stop and take a breath, his eyes watered and his throat burned, while Ed stared at him with a concerned expression. Alfons had to wave him away and gasp out, I'm fine I'm fine before he raised his hand and scratched ever so gently at the picture's surface with the tip of his finger, obtaining a sliver of orange paint under his fingernail. He pulled away and presented his fingernail to Ed for examination.

Ed frowned. "It's too small a sample." They both looked back at the picture.

"It's weird because the paint seems so much thicker in those two areas," Ed said, trying to vocalize what was bothering him. "And then there are the lines that seem to be absorbed into that canvas, while those parts just sit there... "

"I know." Alfons studied the picture some more. It was Ed who stepped forward this time, and Alfons watched with the faint hope that they could move on from this piece of art, his interest in the magnesium-like scent waning. Then he saw Edward lean forward, and quickly his little tongue flicked out and he—

"God in Heaven did you just LICK my painting?" screamed Otto, descending upon them. They should have known he would be watching for their reactions to his work. Otto stood, staring at them with his mouth open. People in the immediate vicinity stopped to watch, forming a semi-circle around them. Ed reddened and spluttered, at a loss at how to explain.

"I like the texture," said Alfons brightly.

Otto shook his head slowly, then broke into a wide smile, brown, broken teeth everywhere. "I am honored that you have licked my painting. The highest compliment for an artist." He bowed theatrically, but all Ed could do was blush.

Maria's high pitched laugh hovered over the crowd.

The crowd around them dispersed, and Ed and Alfons stood facing each other, both supressing laughter. After a moment they could take it no longer: simultaneously they burst out in guffaws.

"Fuck this," said Ed. "There's no point in pretending that we're enjoying this shit. Let's get out of here."

Alfons followed as Ed began to weave his way through the gallery. They were waylaid twice by large clusters of people gathered in front of displays, but the crowds were too thick to view the work. Ed's curiosity about the artwork had faded, but Alfons—perhaps because he was tall enough to peer over people's heads—still tried to catch of glimpse of some of the attractions as they passed by.

When they reached the front entrance of the gallery, they were annoyed to find yet another large crowd, this time watching the same performance they had seen at the University a few days before; the two guys tied together by ropes, the bourgeois patron, the untamed artist, blah blah.

Ed rolled his eyes at Alfons. "I'm not watching this again," he said.

"We can't walk right through it!" Alfons protested, still clinging to his sense of propriety.

Maria suddenly grabbed each of their shoulders.

"You can't leave yet!" she said. "The party hasn't even started!"

Ed stopped and scoped the large room. The windows and any other doors were shielded from view by the many interior walls put up for displaying the art. The place was like a maze.

"Trapped," Alfons conceded. Edward crossed his arms and slammed his back into a wall, leaned into it and impatiently blew a lock of hair out of his eyes.

"Dammit," said Ed.

They loitered there for a while, making each other laugh by recounting the scene by the picture Ed had licked; there was enough mileage there for a few rounds of repetition, and they were enjoying having a joke between themselves while completely locked out of the rest of the culture of the place. They were an island of sanity in a sea of art freaks.

They hadn't been expecting to hear music, but suddenly a piano, an accordion, a violin, a clarinet began to play. Curious, they left their corner and followed the sound: people were dancing in the atrium. The sun had just gone down and a chandelier replete with dripping candles lit the space.

Someone ran up to them. Maria again.

"Dance with me!" she said, holding out her hands. They both stood there, embarrassed, both staring at the outstretched hands. "Come on, Heiderich, you must!" she insisted. She was wearing black, lacey fingerless gloves, tattered and full of holes. They matched her worn black shawl, which she had tucked into the belt of her grey skirt. Though her clothes looked shabby and her hair was cut short and unevenly, she still looked bright and young and pretty—and hopeful. Alfons finally caved to her invitation. He tossed Edward an aplogetic glance, eyebrows raised, amused helplessness. Ed rolled his eyes and moved to the edge of the room, making way for the increasing number of couples drawn to the makeshift dancefloor.

Dancing, thought Edward, was one of those things that he would never do. But there was Heiderich, swanning around with Maria, tall and graceful, and Ed was a bit jealous. It would be nice, wouldn't it, to be tall and slender and have four limbs, wouldn't it? And it might be nice to dance with a girl now and then, just for the hell of it. Wouldn't it.

From what he could tell, Alfons Heiderich just might have danced with a girl or two before. He wasn't brilliant or anything, but he wasn't making an ass of himself either, Ed noticed, not entirely approvingly. Maria had her head thrown back and she was smiling and seemed to be enjoying herself. Alfons gave Ed another raised-eyebrow look when their eyes met again, but this time Ed didn't acknowledge it.

The song went on a long time, and the dancefloor became more crowded, as Ed found himself feeling increasingly irritated. When the musicians finally stopped, everyone applauded and Ed readied himself to receive Heiderich from the crowd. Here he came, wending through the couples gathered, readying to start up as the next song began. Maria was behind him, and Ed realized that they were holding hands.

He was not quite prepared for the feeling that this elicited. His entire head became hot in an instant and his stomach felt as if held inside a tight fist. Jealousy? He hated himself for even thinking it. And yet, as Heiderich approached his first thought was that he was going to deck him one. Maria was laughing and saying something as they drew close.

"I hope you don't mind," she said, and looking suspiciously radiant she leaned toward Edward and spoke in his ear as the music swelled around them. "But I'm going to steal him for a bit longer. He's a marvelous dancer!"

Ed's mouth was dry. He croaked out something that tried to be "all right" but he realized that all that came out was just some sort of distorted sound. Ed looked at Alfons then, and Alfons reddened.

"We should be going, though," Alfons said. "It's getting late."

"Late for what?" demanded Maria. "Do you have someplace else to be?" She turned toward the dancefloor and pulled at his arm. "Come on, one more song." Then she turned back to Ed. "And you—don't be such a wallflower! Find someone to dance with, there are girls standing around all over the place!"

Alfons shrugged as if helpless and allowed himself to be pulled away, giving Ed an imploring look that Ed wasn't buying for a second. Feeling helpless himself he continued to stand where he was, but looking around he began to notice that yes, there were young women, and some men, standing all around the edges of the rotunda, watching the dancefloor, talking to each other in small groups, or even standing alone as if waiting to be asked to dance. He noticed that some of the girls were looking at him; a group of three caught his eyes, then immediately smashed together in a huddle, to discuss him, he thought in his paranoia.

He felt himself weird and out of place but this was nothing new. He was a foreigner, more foreign than they could possibly know.

Feeling almost panicked, he sought to escape from the rotunda. There were several archways, most of them, he knew, leading to the galleries. He took the nearest one, which led, predictably, right back to the galleries that held the students' work. He saw familiar faces loitering around the artworks, and wanted more than anything to avoid being pinned down by Otto or any of his friends.

At the end of the gallery there was a quiet corner that turned into a narrow hallway that was obviously not for public use. Dusty, dark and quiet, doors with peeling paint and an unpolished floor. There wouldn't be anyone here. Ed leaned against a wall and slid down, happy to be off his feet. He pulled his knee up to his chin. He wouldn't cry, he didn't think, but his cheeks and eyes burned for the first time in ages. He smashed a fist against his shin.

Dammit, dammit.

Maria was wearing him out, damn hard. She held his hands tightly, kept one of his held close to her chest, hard, she was strong for such a slender girl. The music was upbeat, requiring quite a lot of moving around, and Alfons could feel himself becoming fatigued. The dancing crowd, mostly students, were full of energy and some kind of liquor that was being passed around the edges of the dancefloor. Maria pulled him toward the edges more than once or twice to grab a bottle and take a swig, offering it to him afterwards, but he always demurred.

How unsanitary, he thought, in his mother's voice.

When he looked down at Maria he could see her fringe beginning to get damp and stick to her face; she was getting sweaty but seeming to enjoy it. He on the other hand was getting increasingly agitated, although of course he kept smiling at her whenever she caught his eyes. As they moved around the dancefloor he kept searching for Edward, but he had long since lost sight of him.

Not that he was in any way required to chaperon Edward all evening. After all, they had come to a party and now he was dancing, with a girl. And that was something that he was supposed to be doing, wasn't it? Still, it didn't feel quite right. He liked Maria all right, and she seemed to be liking him, for whatever reason, and he was flattered. For a moment he condescended to pity Edward; too short and clumsy to dance with a girl, and Alfons knew he wouldn't want anyone to hold his hand. Then he felt guilty for that, too.

But there was more. Even in his inexperience he was aware of the fact that Maria was getting drunk, that she was furthermore dizzy with dancing, and that he could easily take her off somewhere and kiss her in some corner, maybe feel her breasts, if he wanted. But the fact was, as nice as Maria was, it was Edward he wanted to be groping in a corner.

Yet something in him was saying stay stay, keep dancing with this girl. Remember what happened yesterday? Remember that there may not be many more—any more—chances for you to dance with inebriated pretty art students on an April evening...

A song must have ended, because they were suddenly standing still, and Maria was looking up at him, her eyes half-open and her mouth quirked to the side.

"I think I must have worn you out," she said, her speech already a little slurred. "You look like you've had enough. Care to take a break?"

He nodded gratefully, noticing that his throat was so dry that he could hardly swallow. She was still holding his wrist as she dragged him to the edge of the rotunda. He could see her looking around for one of those passing bottles of liquor.

"Excuse me," Alfons finally managed to get out. "But I think I need the washroom."

At that moment Maria's eyes must have locked onto her target because she began to list eastward, arm outstretched.

"All right then, meet you back here?" she said, moving away.

He didn't bother to say anything, just took the nearest archway and found himself in a gallery now nearly clear of patrons. Everyone else seemed to have gravitated toward the party in the rotunda at this point. He glanced back at the milling crowd and despaired of finding Edward any time soon.

He didn't really need the toilet. He needed... Edward. Alfons began to walk quickly through the gallery, while his legs began to turn to jelly from all that dancing. His heart beat quickly and he pressed a hand to his chest in a futile effort to still it. Was that fatigue, or nerves? Where the fuck was Edward? Was he angry with him? Did he leave entirely, abandon him here? Had he been wrong to dance so long with Maria? He was confused as to why that made him feel so bad. Outside their flat, it was as if they didn't, and couldn't exist, and that made him feel worse.

"Sorry!" He heard the voice before he even felt his body collide with another. Shocked and slightly winded from the impact, he stepped back, now with both hands over his chest. "Ah, it's you, scientist," said Otto, peering at him over the tops of the lenses of his tiny spectacles. "I hope you and your accomplice haven't eaten up all the artwork while everyone's been at the dancing?"

Was he joking? Alfons tried to smile, feeling nervous, he put his hand behind his neck and squeezed himself into focus. "Oh, ha, no... .sorry about that, before... we were just-"

Otto clamped a friendly hand on his shoulder. "Don't worry about it. It was shocking but everyone's talking about it, it was really very funny, ha ha a bit of performance art, we can say. No harm done." Otto removed his hand, crossed his arms and assumed a concerned expression. "Are you all right?"

"Yes, I'm fine," Alfons said quickly. "I'm just... looking for Edward. Have you seen him?"

"Sorry, I haven't," said Otto. "Good luck finding him," he added, before hurrying off toward the rotunda.

Alfons stood a moment longer before deciding to continue down this particular gallery.

Twice in the past twenty minutes or so—Ed now sat with his battered second-hand pocket watch, a gift from Hohenheim, open in his right hand, which lay slack-fingered on the floor beside him as he sat, knee still to his chest, other leg outstretched, watching the minutes tick by—twice in the past twenty, no, twenty-one minutes did someone poke their head down this murky corridor, looking for someone. Some woman ran past, gave him a disapproving look, and took off. Then some drunk guy had turned up and said, "Johannes?" about seventeen times, squinting at Ed through narrowed eyes, trying to make sense of the dim light, refusing for some reason to come any closer. "Johannes? Johannes? Johannes?"

Oh for fuck's sake, Ed thought. He finally barked, "I'm not fucking Johannes. Get out of here." The guy blinked again and left.

Leaving Ed to wonder, when was Heiderich going to come down here, bleating Edward Edward Edward?

He closed the watch with a snap and pushed it into the pocket of his waistcoat. His skin prickled: footsteps again. Long stride, a little tentative, like he didn't want to make too much noise wherever he went. It pleased him, in a funny little way, that Alfons was a bit of a gentleman like that. It pleased him too to note that there was only one set of footsteps.

From here, the music from the rotunda could still be heard, although it was muted and sounded far away. The piano, violin, accordion, and the sweetish sound of a clarinet, like a woman's voice, floated above it all.

Then he heard his favorite voice speak: "There you are." Heiderich turned the corner. He came over, looked down, offered his hand to pull Edward up.

"What are you doing all the way over here?" Alfons asked. "I thought I'd never find you. I don't know what made me look over here... I thought you might have left."

"I should have," Edward said, without thinking. He narrowed his eyes, embarrassed. "Never mind. I hope you had a good time dancing with Maria."

"It was all right," Alfons said. It was his turn to be embarrassed. The yellow gaslight shooting down the dim corridor lit one side of Edward's face while the other was in almost darkness. In this non-light, Edward's lips parted slightly as he looked up at him.

They smashed together so quickly, Ed didn't even know what was happening. He had just felt a rush, an urgency to push himself into Alfons, and had him up against the wall in the moment it took for Alfons to press his mouth onto his. Heiderich kissed his mouth then urgently kissed his cheek, then his neck, and lingered there to suck the skin beneath Ed's collar. Immediately Ed felt a rush of adrenaline that almost panicked him.

"We're in public!" Ed managed to rasp into Heiderich's ear. "We're in public... " he repeated. "What if—"

"I don't give a damn. Do you?" Alfons said into his ear, breath hot and sending immense shivers through Ed's body, he didn't care to respond. No, he didn't really give a damn. No he did not.

Ed's left hand fumbled to get itself close to Heiderich's skin, pushing up beneath his shirt and onto his chest, resting his palm on Heiderich's nipple he pressed and rubbed until Heiderich gasped, throwing his head back so hard it made an audible bump on the wall behind him. Ed pushed up Heiderich's shirt and—thinking even as he did it, that he had nearly done the same to Otto's painting a couple of hours before—pressed his mouth to his nipple and sucked. Alfons made a sound that approximated a chirp, so that Ed had to stop for a moment, catch his breath and laugh. Alfons's hands came behind Ed's head and clutched at his hair, his fingertips digging into his scalp.

"If you stop now," he breathed, "I'll kill you."

Their mouths found eachother's again and Ed found himself nearly lost in the moment. In moments like these he forgot everything: where he was, who he was, Al, the Gate, everything, everything telescoped into this, being with Alfons.

The music played on behind them. Maybe footsteps approached and scampered away. It didn't matter, when Alfons Heiderich began to unbutton his waistcoat and then his shirt, and to kiss the bottom of his throat. Edward found himself making those silly chirping sounds too, and gasping, and otherwise making a fool of himself, and he did not care. He didn't care if anyone found them there, with their hands on each other and their shirts open, and he cared even less when he finally plucked up the nerve to unbutton Heiderich's flies, and even less than that when Heiderich did the same, when that slender, long-fingered hand made its way down and grabbed him there, fumblingly, but gently, as Alfons Heiderich tended to do things.

They kissed, a lot. Ed liked the kissing. They kissed drunkenly, tentatively, aggressively, gently, sometimes like experimenting schoolboys, sometimes like they'd been doing it all their lives and not just a few weeks... on their sofa, on the bed, in the kitchen, in the washroom, but never, ever before in a public place. But they had never gone from zero to a hundred this quickly either: this was something else, like energy that had finally been set free. Ed likened it to alchemic energy, pent up and undisclosed, waiting to be released on the right array. This here, this was the right array.

The best night he had had since he had come to this forsaken world. Ed was ecstastic when they had both come together, their hands on each other, Ed's head on Heiderich's shoulder, Heiderich against the wall, holding the both of them up. Ed held up his left hand, laced the fingers through Heiderich's right, pressed their hands against the wall behind Heiderich's shoulder.

Another kiss.

"Let's get out of here," Ed said.

They straightened themselves up as best they could, tucking in their shirts and straightening their collars, Ed fumbling to smooth his hair. Making their way back through the galleries, they tried to avoid catching the eye of anyone else who might try to make them stay. Ed had firmly established that they had had enough. What was more, he could see that Alfons was tired, even if he wouldn't say so. Pushing through the knot of people in the rotunda, they had the twenty-foot high doors to the outside within their sights when Ed felt a hand on his shoulder. For a fleeting moment he considering ignoring it and running, but the hand pressed down and forced him to stop.

He turned to see Hermann Oberth, his erstwhile mentor and the former head of the rocketry project.

"I've been looking everywhere for you two. Your landlady said you'd be here." It was unlike him to seem so excitable. Oberth was panting as if he had run there. The fact that he had been frantically looking for them was surprising—and serious.

"I heard that Ostermann and Strauss have been trying to recruit you, and I'm telling you, you have to stay away from those two, and their organization—"

Ed held up his hand. "Don't worry. We're not interested. We already told them no."

Oberth glanced at Alfons, who nodded in assent.

"We wouldn't leave your team," Alfons said earnestly.

Oberth rolled his eyes. "That's not what I'm worried about. Just promise me, whatever you do, don't go to them."

Now Ed's interest was piqued. True to his nature, tell him not to do something, and suddenly it becomes mighty appealing.

"Why?" he asked.

Oberth stepped between Ed and Alfons, and grabbed each of their elbows with his hands, pulling them forward.

"Let's go have a drink. I'll tell you what I know."