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Absolute Zero

chapter 3.

Oberth was a tall man close to thirty, thin and naturally laconic. He was not excitable, so his haste and anxiety to get them out of the gallery alarmed Alfons. He walked quickly with his long strides, they followed, Edward practically jogging to keep up. Oberth didn’t even look back to see if they were following as he made a bee-line to a restaurant several blocks down Ludwigstrasse toward the Hofgarten. Ensconced in a high-backed oak banquette, Oberth distractedly ordered some food without asking them what they wanted, and leaned toward them across the table, his voice low"Strauss and Ostermann, you saw them yesterday, no?" They both nodded. "They work for a secret organization. Nobody knows for sure who their boss is, but there are rumors.""Like what?" Alfons asked, intrigued. It was exciting to be even peripherally associated with something so mysterious.Oberth drew back, beginning to relax a bit. "A cabal of insurgents who want to overthrow this government…a secret arm of the German government itself…the Russians or the Americans, depending on who you ask, trying to steal the brightest of German minds…an international league of elite scientists. Freemasons. Nobody I’ve spoken to really knows, or isn’t admitting it."After digesting this non-information for a moment, Edward said, "What did they say when they asked you to join them?"Oberth waved his hand. "They were maddeningly vague, promised me this and that…unlimited resources to develop my projects, a laboratory of my own…but they were evasive about their purpose. I don’t suppose you got any farther than I did?"Edward shook his head. "They weren’t even that interested in me," he said. "They were after my father."Oberth sucked in his cheeks. "Hmm," he said. "That’s interesting. Considering your father is known for being an expert in an arcane branch of science history.""Yeah, well." Edward looked down at the table. Mentions of Hohenheim, ever since he had gone missing, were unexpectedly upsetting, it seemed."But listen." Oberth leaned forward again. "I’ve heard things…they’ve been looking for uranium, plutonium, unstable elements. I know they’ve approached chemists and geologists…they don’t really want to build rockets for travel; they’re developing weaponry, that’s what I believe. That’s why I wouldn’t touch their organization. Not for all the money…and they own what you develop, boys, don’t forget that. Take a job like that, and your overlords own you. That’s not what being a scientist is about." He rapped his hand on the table for emphasis. His tone had taken on the feel of a lecture. Alfons looked at Edward. He didn’t know what to think of all this himself. He thought of the graduate students back at the lab, how disappointed they had felt at being cut by Ostermann and Strauss. He fully intended to tell them that they weren’t missing out on anything."We already told you," said Edward. "We have no intention of taking them up on their offer. If it helps any, I got a similar feeling…I could tell they were up to something. Promising things we never dreamed of. What did they take us for, kids?"Alfons felt himself blush. He had always looked up to Oberth so much. The man was brilliant, a real genius, even if the University didn’t recognize that. An independent thinker, innovative, everything he aspired to be. Barely thirty years old and Oberth was already making a name for himself in the field. Alfons wondered for a moment where he would be when he was thirty, and then he remembered: he wouldn’t be anywhere. He felt his spirits sag, and suddenly he felt his exhaustion again, and a driving desire to go home and go to sleep for a long, long time.He must have looked as weary as he felt because Edward was now asking him if he needed to go home, and was he all right, glancing at him with concern. But the food had just arrived at the table, and since Oberth was clearly sporting, they just had to eat. Ed tucked into his plate with his usual enthusiasm, as did Oberth, while Alfons struggled to chew and swallow. His throat felt sore, his body too tired to digest food. Still, he knew he needed the nourishment."I just wanted to make sure you boys don’t make a grave mistake. And that’s what it would be, going to work for them.""Yes, we understand, thank you," Alfons said, pushing his plate away. He had managed to finish nearly everything. Edward used his bread to scoop the remnants of potatoes and gravy off his plate."I know I’ve been away a lot, not there to give you much oversight anymore…but when I heard those two were going to be coming to the lab, I got worried…""You rushed all the way here from Heidelberg?" Alfons asked, flattered at his concern.Oberth nodded, pressing the cloth napkin to his mouth. "You two know a lot that I wouldn’t want to see fall into the wrong hands. Of course."Edward nodded. "We get it.""Good!" Oberth tossed his napkin onto the table. "Better to be a struggling scientist, than someone’s lapdog."Alfons had stopped caring about this conversation. He had never been seduced by the idea to begin with. He liked the university, wanted to matriculate soon…and none of this mattered anyway. His throat ached. He leaned against the wall to his right and closed his eyes."Looks like Heiderich wants to call it a night," he heard Oberth say."Yeah, he was dancing with a girl for hours," Edward said, but under the table, Edward’s hand had reached across the small space between them on the bench, and wandered to squeeze his leg, just above the knee. "You can’t keep Heiderich away from the ladies.""I never knew that about him," said Oberth. "Good for him.""Yeah," said Edward, giving Alfons’s leg another squeeze. "Good for him."Before taking his leave in front of the restaurant, Oberth shook both their hands."Listen…some things might happen, at the lab, over the next few days, and I may be going back to Transylvania. I just want to make it clear that it has nothing to do with you." Before they could respond, he bowed his head quickly and then walked swiftly away.Edward looked up at Alfons with raised eyebrows. "That doesn’t sound good," he said, expelling a puff of air."No, it doesn’t," Alfons agreed. The looked down the street but Oberth had already disappeared from view.The next morning Edward woke up to find Alfons already out of the bed. It was early and it was Sunday, and there was no reason for Alfons to be up so soon. Sometimes, Ed would find him sitting at the kitchen table, going over plans, taking notes, writing formulae. Heiderich was more likely to get up early and work alone, while Ed was more inclined to stay up late and sleep late. It fit better, he felt, with his natural rhythm. He had never been great at being an early riser. Usually, Ed would have just turned over in the bed and gone back to sleep, but something prodded him to get up and see what Heiderich was up to.He was at the kitchen table, sitting still as a statue in his nightshirt, with his head in his hands, fingers dug into his hair, eyes covered by his palms."Hey," Ed said quietly. "Are you okay?"Alfons removed his hands from his face, raised his head. His eyes were red and puffy. Not sleeping? Crying? Ed felt his stomach twist."What’s wrong?"Heiderich didn’t seem to want to speak. He hesitated, avoided his eyes. Finally he said, "Nothing. Just not feeling well. I’d better go to bed.""You haven’t been up all night, have you?""I don’t know. Have I? What time is it?""Shit." Ed came close, grabbed Alfons’s arm and pulled him up from the chair. He led him through to the bedroom and pushed him down onto the bed. Alfons didn’t resist, lay down obediently."That was something," said Alfons. "Wasn’t it?""What was?" Ed narrowed his eyes."That party last night. It was fun. Come on, admit it, you had a good time.""Not really," said Ed.Alfons frowned."But I guess it wasn’t so bad," Ed found himself amending. He passed his hand over Alfons’s brow. He wasn’t hot, in fact he was kind of cold and clammy, a bit damp. And so pale. "You’re right, it was fine. Even if we didn’t get drunk.""I want to do that again," Alfons said, almost distractedly. "I want to go to that party all over again.""Why? To dance with Maria?" Ed found that he wasn’t even jealous right now, only puzzled at the abstractions. What was Alfons doing? This wasn’t like him. He seemed almost to be raving, although there was nothing but calm about him."No. To see you lick that painting again," said Alfons. He started laughing, alone, a kind of desolate cackle.Ed stood over Alfons, stretched out on the bed, squinted down at him. Was he drunk? Unsettled, he wondered what to do next. Get back into bed again?Alfons answered that question by extending his arm, his hand grabbing at the waist of Edward’s shorts."Come lie down with me. Come on."Ed climbed into the bed, trying to be careful of Alfons. He seemed breakable, so white and clammy, in a strange mood, so distant and serene."You’re acting weird," Ed observed, lying down next to Alfons and pulling the blanket over the both of them. The bed had lost that seductive softness and warmness that was there when he awoke. He would have to work to get it back."I took some medicine, it makes me a bit….""Idiotic?"Alfons laughed quietly. He was staring up at the ceiling. "I was going to say loopy."They were both quiet for a while.The heart beats in the chest. Fragile ribs curve around it, protecting it, and the lungs. Pink shiny masses of tissue. They take in and expel air without thought, just like the heart beats, inside the cage of the body. Some bodies, Alfons thought, seemed fragile, like his. His very bones felt brittle now, thinner, and his skin more translucent. He was sure he could see his veins more easily under his skin now, more bright, more blue, more suspect. Edward had fallen back to sleep, breathing deep and steady, eyes flitting under eyelids, dreaming away in the late morning.It was getting hard to sleep. At least, it was getting hard to sleep in the night, which wasn’t fair because then he would find himself wanting to sleep during the day, and then he would be lying awake all night, staring at the ceiling, listening to Edward breathe, tormenting himself with thoughts. Edward snored. He snorted in his sleep, he lay on his back with his arm draped over his stomach. His mouth was always open, and Alfons could see the tip of his tongue at the corner of his mouth. His hair splayed out around his head, in the daylight his skin looked warm and yellow. If Alfons stared at him long enough, as he often did during a long night of wakefulness, he started to get strange, panicky thoughts.Who is this person?This liar from another planet. That is what he had said, a few times. Another world, but he had always been drunk. Still, Alfons knew he was only half joking. Was he insane? Possibly. But Alfons thought not. He knew better. Edward Elric wasn’t insane.It was he, himself, who was going mad. Secretly, of course. It would be shameful to make a spectacle of himself. He was certain his mind and reason were going the way of his lungs, rotting from the inside out, a little germ, a spot of corruption in his brain. The medicine made him stupid, his mind was going. How sad to have peaked at eighteen.Edward slept peacefully while Alfons lay there, medicine wearing off, needled with incipient pain, his fingertips tingling. When this happened, when his body ached and he couldn’t move for the knife that was embedded in his lungs—knife, shattered glass, needles—he longed for the end of the world. He was selfish: why should everyone else just jolly along while he was headed for the grave? No one else shall be allowed to live.Mad, selfish thoughts. He was too ashamed even to speak them.Edward stirred from sleep again just before noon, and Alfons was quick to lay his head on his chest. Edward dug his fingers into his hair and Alfons closed his eyes, ready now for sleep. It would be all right if one of them was awake, always, to watch.He couldn’t get out of bed on Monday morning and Edward left him, promising to come back early. When he got up coughing around eleven, there was blood on his hand, from someplace deep inside him, and he washed it off in the kitchen while a horrid chill coursed through his body. Then he went back to bed in the middle of the day and lay there wondering, Will the end of my life just sneak up on me? Or will it come in stages?He had no idea. After lying under the covers for a while, he became tired of feeling sorry for himself and got up to collect some books and papers, then got back into bed and arranged the things about himself. Pencils and cheap notepaper and books smelling of laboratories and libraries and things he liked, familiar. He wasn’t going to take this lying down, he wasn’t going to be beaten. He was going to make something of himself, and it was very likely going to be the last thing he did.Edward’s copy of Goddard’s landmark paper was already well-worn and dog-eared by now, Edward’s pencil-marks in the margins and swept under lines, smudged charcoal and graphite and some blotchy inked markings. Edward’s handwriting was dreadful. Alfons liked having this with him, though, while Edward was out in the world. It kept him company. He had also several books given to them both by Oberth. He wondered if they would ever see him again; his time at the University had already been getting less and less frequent before last night’s ominous statement, he was clearly phasing himself out of there and thinking about going back to Transylvania, and the idea of losing his mentor stung a bit. Who, now, would give him a chance to work? And Edward for that matter.Deep into the day he read and took notes, plans formulating in his head. Taking off from their last prototype, which had ended in disaster, Alfons pursued their new direction, a rocket with an internal combustion engine. But how to continue the reaction long enough for a rocket to break through the earth’s atmosphere? This was, he knew, Edward’s chief interest, and he wasn’t patient about it. Alfons had been more patient in the past, but that time was over now, too. He didn’t have the time to wait it out.He called upon all his knowledge of chemistry and physics, but hit upon the same stumbling blocks they all had, again and again. A rocket carrying enough fuel to sustain it over such a vast distance would have to be enormous, and yet, they had only succeeded in launching miniature prototypes with primitive fuses. Right now Edward would be at the University rigging up a few of them with the graduate students, preparing them for testing. But it seemed like child’s play, the rockets only mere toys. To build something of substantial size would cost more money than he could possibly fathom.Finally exhausted, he leaned back on the pillows and looked at the cracked ceiling. The words of Ostermann and Strauss came back to him. Things they couldn’t imagine, huh? It was tempting after all, he had to admit. He understood Oberth’s point about independence, but there came a point where he might be willing to risk some of that, to get at what he wanted.It wasn’t until he tried to stand up that he realized how ill he felt. Dizziness smacked him upside the head and he had to sit back down on the edge of the bed and wait for it to subside. Bringing the back of his hand to his brow he felt how damp and clammy he was, and suddenly his head felt stuffed with cotton, and his throat too. He hadn’t eaten anything all day, and he was now conscious of a hunger and thirst gnawing away at him. He pushed himself off the bed and made for the kitchen, determined that he would eat something fortifying and feel better immediately. The cupboard was, as usual, empty. They had a pint bottle of milk on the window sill, slightly chilled in the April air but on the edge of going off. He thought he had better drink it all now and pulled off the cap. There was a dry heel of bread, and that was it. He ate that and washed it down with the milk, feeling sated but not really better. He began to cough in the kitchen, and though he didn’t expectorate any blood this time, he felt things—liquid, needles—moving about in his chest and the prospect of this made his heart beat with something less than regularity.Still dizzy, he retreated to bed and gathered the books around him. He was all right as long as he was sitting down, had the weight of the blankets anchoring him to the earth. He held onto the books as if they were life preservers and he was afloat in the ocean, now too tired to read, and fell asleep with the smell of them, the taste of them, in his mouth.Alfons noticed that a day in bed could get boring once he started feeling better. He had opened his eyes to the church bells at five p.m. and his head felt a little clearer. He sat up, not so dizzy now, and waited for Edward to come home. He was trimming his toenails when Edward arrived, and was still bent over with his right foot pulled into his lap when Edward entered the room. He came straight to the bed and sat down heavily on the edge, silently and with apparent interest watching Alfons pick at his toenails."So, you’re feeling better," he finally said. When Alfons met his eyes, he saw that he looked anxious."Yeah." Alfons stretched out his legs and looked at his feet. "I just needed some more sleep, I guess."Edward sighed. He looked as if he were gathering himself up to say something, took in some breath, released it, looked around the room."Listen, if something’s wrong, you have to tell me," Edward finally said."And be honest, you mean?" Alfons said, a little challengingly, he knew. What secrets Edward withheld from him, he could only imagine. They were intimate, and yet almost strangers, in so many ways. Spending a day apart only made it more plain. He wanted to be around him, and yet, when he was, the secrets sat like a wall between them.Edward nodded. "Uh huh. Even if it’s something bad."Alfons drew his knees up to his chest. "And what about you? Don’t you have things you want to tell me, but thought you couldn’t?""Is that why you’re hiding something, to get back at me?" Edward didn’t seem angry, only surprised, as if he didn’t realize that these things worked both ways.Alfons let his right hand fall next to where Edward was sitting, palm up, fingers slightly curled, relaxed, the hand in its natural state. Empty."I guess so," he admitted, and Edward reached over his own lap, awkwardly, to put the fingers of his left hand on Alfons’s palm. Alfons closed his own fingers around his. "I get tired of being grown up all the time."Edward turned and faced him, not impressed. Unlike himself, Edward had not been a child for a long time, that much he knew. A silly thing to be sad about."So tell me. What’ve you been doing here all day? Is there a reason you want to work by yourself?" He nodded at all the books and papers in the bed. "Or…is there something else?" He closed his eyes then, slightly longer than a blink, as if he knew there was something he didn’t want to hear.There was a moment, there, where Alfons Heiderich was about to say it. He was going to confide his worst secret, and then be free. Free from having to hide it, anyway. But it wasn’t necessary yet, not entirely, was it? The moment hung there, so solid in the air that he could have plucked it from the space between them and held it. Instead, he shook his head to clear it."I’m just…a little more worn out than I thought, that’s all. I don’t take it easy enough.""No, you don’t," Ed readily agreed. "Staying up all night like an idiot. You need to rest up, that’s what you need. Isn’t that what the doctor told you?""Yes, right." Alfons tried to smile. This lying thing was a lot easier than telling the truth, actually. It even made him feel like it was true. Still, he thought he should advance his cause just a little bit, laying the ground for the future. "I guess I’m not as strong as I like to pretend." Ed was looking down again. "We all lie to ourselves sometimes, right?"He was poking at the hornet’s nest now. In a moment it might come spilling out. Still, would Edward cry? Put his arms around him? Or would he run the other way? Not knowing, he couldn’t speak."Did you hear me?" Alfons asked, unable to control the trembling in his voice.There was another pause. Here was the part where Edward was supposed to volunteer to trade his truth, to give lie to his lies."I heard you," said Edward, his voice a bit hard around the edges. "I just don’t know what you’re trying to say."Alfons drew his knees closer to his chest, his arms squeezing himself tight. Edward shifted in the silence and they both looked out the window as night fell, first grey, then black."Are you hungry?" Edward finally broke the silence that had been ringing in Alfons’s ears. He could not imagine what had been going through Edward’s mind, and now he knew that it was food."A little."Edward stirred, changed positions. "I’ll go out and get us something. I thought we might go out and I was too lazy to bring something back. I promise not to do that from now on, since you don’t really seem up to going out lately."Thus promised, Alfons relaxed a bit and smiled. He stretched out again as Edward climbed off the bed and stood beside it, hesitating about leaving the room."I still don’t know what to say…I feel like you wanted me to say something…I’m an idiot," he said. "Tell me what you want me to say."Alfons didn’t need to think, or didn’t want to. He blurted out: "Say you won’t leave."Edward hesitated, looking stricken. The one thing, he knew, he shouldn’t have asked of him. Wheels were turning, clocks ticking, the earth orbited the sun several times in the stretch of silence that followed."But Alfons…our plans…""For the love of God, Edward," Alfons said, exasperated. "Please tell me where the hell you want to go that’s so much better than this.""It’s so much better than this," Edward said. "You have no idea."Alfons was partly offended on behalf of his civilization, partly amazed at the look in Edward’s eyes. Alfons laughed a little."If it’s so great, can I come with you?"Edward smiled, but he looked sad, and doubtful. It wasn’t a promise of any kind."Sure you can," he said.Alfons was out of commission for over a week. Ed nervously left him at home, feeling torn. He hadn’t felt responsible for anyone since his brother…and it was both a relief and a burden to realize that he now had to think about someone else all the time. It wasn’t just himself anymore. They were two, in it together.He missed being with him today. Was it really true, that he liked him so much? Sometimes he wondered whether anything was true, the way this world messed with his head. Without Alfons with him, he walked more slowly. It was like it had used to be when he was separated from Al; alone, he was much, much less.He crossed the University campus, making a bee-line for the laboratories. He’d spend hours working on the models with Bergmann and Kanter and Peters; Hohenheim, missing. Oberth, disengaged. Heiderich, the last rope holding him here, and it was fraying. He knew something bad was going on with him."Edward!" He heard his name through his thoughts, but didn’t turn around. It was a popular enough name around here. But it came again and again, a woman’s voice, and it came closer until it was right beside him.It was Maria, grabbing his arm. She had a purple ribbon around her hair."I’m so glad I ran into you!" she said, breathless as always. She fell into step beside him. "I’ve been wanting to see you and Alfons again.""Nice to see you again too," he said. He stopped walking and so did she."I wanted to invite you and Alfons to a soiree, at Otto’s flat on Saturday. Please come.""Soiree?""A get-together. A party. We thought of both of you, please come.""Thanks for the invitation, but we can’t. Alfons has been in bed all week.""Oh!—I hope he’s all right." Maria seemed genuinely concerned."He’s getting better." He stood now, stuck for further conversation. He hadn’t really enjoyed the party at the art gallery, and he was ashamed for the reason why."I’d like to drop by and visit with him," said Maria. "Do you think that would that be all right? Is he up to having visitors?"Ed studied her face, embarrassed again. Jealousy needled him for a moment, but his higher feelings won out."Sure, I bet Alfons would like some company," he said.Maria took a notebook and pencil out of her bag and asked for the address.When he entered the lab he found Bergmann and Kanter, standing close together, both rolling cigarettes and speaking in low voices like they were conspiring about something, which struck Ed as odd because the two of them weren’t really the best of friends. They had been endlessly competitive for the attention of Oberth and the other faculty, like kids trying to win their father’s favor. Today proved to be no different, Ed saw. Their knitted eyebrows and shadowed faces suggested the usual."What’s going on?" he asked, unbuttoning his jacket.Kanter turned to him, and he could see that he was practically in tears."Peters! He took a job with that organization," he said. "He just swanned in here this morning, gathered up his stuff and took off.""He was so damn pleased with himself," added Bergmann bitterly. "They’ve offered to pay him in francs."Ed hung his jacket on the coatrack by the door. "You don’t even know what kind of work they do," he said. "Too bad about the money, but you’re probably not missing anything.""I’m missing money for my family, that’s what I’m missing," growled Kanter. Bergmann pounded the counter with his fist."Why don’t we get to work?" said Ed. "It’ll take your mind off it.""What’s the point? They don’t pay us shit." Bergmann tossed his cigarette into a basin."Meanwhile," chimed in Kanter, "Oberth was in here yesterday and he took all his notebooks, the plans, everything. Said he was off to Gottingen but he’d check in."Ed went to the worktable that he and Alfons shared and stared at the empty spaces where scrolls of plans and several notebooks had previously lain. Oberth had left only one plan, the replacement for the prototype rocket they had destroyed in testing several weeks before."What the fuck are we supposed to do now?" Kanter’s lamentations rolled on. "I’ll have beg to get back on Hausmann’s team, he hates me, I’m completely screwed."Ed sat down at the worktable and picked up a pencil with his left hand. He stared at the plans for the failed rocket. "Why are we even bothering?" echoed in his mind over and over."And where’s Heiderich anyway?" demanded Bergmann, banging around across the room. "Skiving off again because he’s not the teacher’s pet anymore?"That was it. Ed whipped his head around, holding up his right fist."Shut the fuck up, Bergmann," he snarled."I’m just—""Don’t say another word about Heiderich if you know what’s good for you!"Bergmann backed away even though he was still across the room, waving his palms in surrender. "Okay, okay, calm down, kid." He didn’t miss the raised eyebrows that were passed between Bergmann and Kanter.Ed turned once again toward the table, but all he could see were lines and words and the stupid design for a piece of shit that wouldn’t work anyway. Everything had fallen apart, and they had been going nowhere fast.He tossed the pencil down on the worktable, a dark, heavy feeling descending from his brow to his neck and shoulders, slithering through his chest and settling in his stomach like a stone."I don’t give up," he whispered under his breath. He could hardly say it out loud; he knew Peters and Bergmann would laugh at him, and maybe he hardly believed it himself anymore.——When Ed returned to the flat around five o’clock, he wasn’t surprised to find that someone besides Alfons was there. Well, she didn’t take her time, did she? He heard Maria’s high, sharpish laugh bouncing off the walls the moment he pushed the door open. He didn’t announce himself but took his time taking off his coat in the outer room so he could listen in.Her voice, being higher, was easier to make out from the next room. Alfons spoke in a low, quiet voice.Mrmrmrmrmmr.I know! It’s so funny, don’t you think?Mrmrmrmrmrmr.I think so. I think he really believes it. But don’t you…Mrmrmr.Really?Mrmrmrmr.I don’t know.Mrmrmrmrm.Do you believe in…Mrmrmrmr. Mrmrmrmrm. Mrmrmr?Never.Ed couldn’t take it anymore. He coughed and moved a chair, then said, "Hello?" in a loud voice. Breaking into their intimate conversation, he felt like an interloper."Edward!" Alfons, at least, looked happy to see him when Ed stood in the doorway. He was still in bed but sitting up and wearing his sweater over his underwear, the blue one that was frayed at the neck and the sleeves, the one that smelled like sweat, so much so that Ed involuntarily wrinkled his nose as he drew closer. Maria must have already become used to the smell—or she had a cold. How dramatic he looked though, all pale but with high color on his cheeks, lock of hair fallen between his eyes, and he was laughing and smiling, leaning forward to be closer to Maria, altogether enjoying himself by the look of it, playing the invalid and getting all this attention. Maria was sitting on the edge of the bed but leaning on her arm, very close to Alfons."Hi Maria," Ed said, leaning in the doorway. "Nice of you to visit.""I’m glad she came, I was getting bored," said Alfons. "Look, she brought pears!" He gestured to three plump green pairs sitting on the chair they kept by the bed as a night table."Nice," Ed said, glancing at the fruit. At that moment he realized that he’d forgotten to pick up food for supper again."Anything interesting happen at the lab today?" Alfons asked."Yeah, actually, something interesting did happen." Ed advanced into the room but realized, again, that now was not the time to discuss it. Maria had straightened up and had moved further down the edge of the bed, crossing her legs and putting her hands in her lap."I should get going," she said, standing up and smoothing her skirt. "It was nice to see you, Alfons. I hope you feel better soon. If you do feel up to it, I know Otto would love to have you on Saturday. I’ve left the address there, on the chair.""Thanks for coming!" Alfons waved as she backed out of the room. Ed followed.In the hallway, Maria’s bright expression darkened."He’s really sick, isn’t he?" she said.Ed’s heartbeat quickened. Why did everyone seem to know things he didn’t? "What did he say?""Nothing. I can just tell. My father’s a doctor, I do reception in his office sometimes, I’ve seen patients all my life. I’ve heard that cough, and he has the look about him." She looked down at her hands as she pulled on her frayed lavender gloves."Anyway, I’m sorry for him. I didn’t realize before.""It’s not your fault, is it?" Ed hadn’t meant to sound so hostile."No," she said sharply. "But that’s what people say when they’re, you know, sorry. For someone, I mean." She picked up a small, black straw hat that had been lying on the small table in the hallway and placed it on her head, her eyes avoiding Ed’s. "I’ll come again, if that’s okay with you.""Why wouldn’t it be? You don’t have to ask my permission."She smiled then, showing her small, even teeth. She cocked her head toward her shoulder."I’m sure I don’t," she said. Ed held the door open for her as she left.Later, after going out to hunt and gather food, Edward returned with some potatoes, a tin of soup, milk, half a loaf of bread, the remainders at the last of the merchants shutting down at the market. He peeled and sliced the pears, heated the soup, toasted the bread and brought it all into the bedroom where the two of them ate in bed, not caring about crumbs and dripping soup."This is the nice part about being grown up," remarked Alfons, tipping the last of his soup into his mouth. "My mother would never let me eat in bed, unless I was literally too sick to get out of it.""Mine wouldn’t either." Edward licked his bowl before discarding it on the chair next to the bed."So," said Alfons. "They have mothers and beds where you come from?""Of course. They have most of the same stuff." Edward chewed vigorously on a crust of rough brown bread, his mouth wide open, as he willfully ignored Alfons’s sarcasm. "Even cheap bread that you can’t chew through for shit."Edward shut his mouth and swallowed. Alfons saw the knot of bread travel down his throat. The mouth stayed closed; there would be no more chatter about his erstwhile home."So, tell me about what happened at the lab today."Edward recounted the story: Oberth clearing out his things, and anything related to his work, and Peters gone to that organization. Alfons was as surprised as Edward that they had been serious enough about recruiting people to go back for Peters."Still, it’d be nice to be paid in francs.""What the hell do you need francs for?" Edward was suddenly animated again. "Saving up to buy a house?""N-no…""I don’t know what difference it makes. Yeah it’s nice to be paid, but you heard what Oberth said. You want to be their dog?""Hell no, but I want to work! I want to do what we’ve always said we were going to do. We need money and materials for that.""I’m not anybody’s lapdog," Edward said stubbornly."I get it already. Let’s not have a fight about it," Alfons snapped. He felt his chest growing tight and fought to stop an onslaught of coughing. He tried to be still and breathe through his nose."And anyway," Ed went on, "it’s all fucking shot to shit. It’s just a matter of days before we get kicked out of the lab with Oberth gone like that. We need to get new jobs."Alfons coughed into his hand, once, relieved that it didn’t seem it would go any further just now. He pulled his knees to his chest and wrapped his arms around them. New jobs were a tall order and they both knew it. There were scarcely any jobs as it was, in any field. There was casual physical labor around the city, digging ditches, the coalyards, construction; they were repairing roads all over town, but neither of them were up to that kind of thing."We’ll starve if we don’t do something," Edward continued. Why couldn’t he just shut his mouth already? Alfons wondered at how Edward became more talkative the more angry he was. Alfons himself tended to shut down. Going on about it just made things worse.An idea occurred to him. "Hey…remember that guy who knew Oberth? What was his name, Ehrlinger or something? The one who had us do that demonstration in the park? I bet we could get some work off him…at least a little. It’s almost summer, there’s got to be more exhibitions, right?""Yeah, I guess we can look him up." Edward sat down heavily on the edge of the bed and looked at his hands sitting idly in his lap.Now that they had at least something to be hopeful about—and it was pretty meager but it would have to suffice—Alfons felt a bit more relaxed. He leaned back against the headboard, wincing at the creak it made. The whole bedstead was loose, it practically swayed if they moved around on it too much. Which they often did.Edward glanced at him over his shoulder. The look on his face was a new one, recent at least. Edward’s eyes had always had a touch of sadness in their depths, but this was something else."What?"Edward shook his head as if to clear it and applied himself to removing his boots, then his trousers, before climbing into bed. They both smiled as it creaked and swayed before settling again."I think you have the right idea," he said, pulling the quilt over himself. "Let’s just stay here from now on." He moved his legs, shifting stray books and crusts of bread about. "Everything we need is right here. Books and food…"Alfons smiled and turned on his side to face Edward. They just looked at each other for a moment, trying to overcome the shyness that still seemed to dog them even in their intimacy. Would they ever get over it? It was such strange territory, and yet Alfons felt like this is what he had been waiting for all his life."Say fuck," said Edward. He was lying on his side resting his cheek on his hand. Alfons noticed the short, bitten fingernails, dirt and oil etched around them."What?" Alfons smiled."I want to hear you say dirty words. You never do, hardly ever." He bit his lower lip and smiled wickedly. "Say it."Alfons huffed. "Fine. Fuck."Edward’s lips parted and he smiled. "What’s the worst swear word in German? Tell me….you’re blushing! You can’t even say it."Edward’s mouth twisted before he pitched forward, laughing.Alfons pushed Edward with his hand. "God, you’re blushing yourself, this is so stupid! My father’s brother was a sailor, he knew curses in twenty languages. It’s not like I’ve never heard them. My mother used to smack me if I used them, that’s all. Weren’t you brought up right?"Edward raised his chin. "I’ll have you know I was raised by the toughest women ever known, and any one of them would belt me for swearing, even my mother. Never could break the habit, though. Anyway, once I was in the military…but I’ve already told you that." He looked down again. "You didn’t believe me, of course.""It doesn’t make sense.""Yeah, well, lots of things don’t make sense." Edward chewed his lip again. "I’m not lying."Alfons couldn’t help but reach out and touch Edward’s cheek, stroked it then quickly snapped his fingernail against his skin."Hey! What was that for?"There was now a bright red mark on Edward’s cheek. Alfons leaned forward to kiss it. As always, Edward blushed like he didn’t deserve to be treated nicely. This always got to Alfons, every time, that look of pure surprise, every time. He moved closer and pressed his mouth to Edward’s.Pulling away from the kiss he said, "Suck me?""Nah, you suck me."Alfons sat up and made a show of crossing his arms."I believe it’s my turn."Edward rolled his eyes and blew a lock of hair from his face. "Fine," he gave in. He began to settle himself on the edge of the bed. He applied himself to removing his arm and leg, carefully placing them on the floor next to the bed and then sliding them under with his right heel. As he curled back into the bed, he snuggled next to Alfons and Alfons couldn’t help but pull his arm around him protectively. They sat like that for a little while until Edward’s hand began to creep under his sweater, palm ghosting across the fabric covering Alfons’s nipple and he shuddered.Edward raised his head and pressed his mouth forward now, his hand moving to grab at his hair, his neck. He was still a bit clumsy, Edward, it was so endearing the way he settled into a kiss, a stroke, as if for a while, and then suddenly jerked into another position, looking for the next thing to kiss.There was never enough to kiss, Alfons realized, as he searched for new places on Edward’s body, places he’d never touched before. There were only a few that seemed verboten…that sensitive place beneath his balls, which made him squirm so much that it made Alfons nervous to breach it. Also, the scarred skin around where his prosthetic limbs were attached seemed off-limits, although Edward had never said so. It just seemed that those places would be too sensitive, or painful, he wasn’t sure. But everything else was fair game. Tonight he worked on his earlobes, alternately sucking and chewing, and drawing his tongue around the edges of Edward’s ear until he heard his breath catch.Balancing over him on his hands and knees, Alfons outlined Edward’s ear with the tip of his tongue, then, as Edward arced his back and moaned, proceeded to draw it slowly, slowly down his jawline and neck until he reached his collarbone. There he planted a number of kisses and took small, restrained nips with his teeth while Edward writhed beneath him. It was so much fun to tease him, to go slowly with him, that he couldn’t help smiling even as he felt himself reach full hardness, he began pressing himself against Edward’s bent knee.Edward’s hand began pulling at his sweater, signalling that he should take it off. Underneath were his long underwear, another bane of Edward’s existence, buttons from neck to crotch. It didn’t seem fair, while Edward was already naked under him. Alfons straightened his back and began to unbutton, while Edward reached up wildly with his hand, grabbing at his chest as it became increasingly exposed. Edward’s face was red and sweaty, his eyes closed and lips parted. Alfons could see his Adam’s apple as his neck arced, saw it working up and down as he breathed. His skin was warm and salty as Alfons bent to kiss his chest, his underwear flung across the room.Edward was gone, already lost in the moment, clawing and squeezing at Alfons, pressing his crotch into Alfons’s hip, at the ready. But Alfons wasn’t quite able to move into that realm of total abandon. A few weeks ago he could have, but not anymore. Now there was another layer of consciousness over everything he did: eat, rest, read, work, look at the sky, and even making love. Each time was padded with the question, "Is this the last time? How many more times will I do this? Is this as good as it gets? Do I deserve this?"Even now, harder questions lurked at the corners of his mind as he rolled onto his back and Edward threw his left arm across his hips and took his cock in his hand, before gently bringing it to his mouth.Edward began to suck and tease with his tongue, letting the tips of his teeth touch the head of his penis, removing them just before pain. He was getting good at this, Alfons had to acknowledge. Only a couple of months ago this had been an exciting but decidedly dicey activity to engage in, with much ows and yelping involved. But now, Edward was learning to be patient and gentle, and, by the sounds he was making, enjoying it himself now. He was making content, carnal sounds while moving his mouth up and down Alfons’s length, his hand now gently stroking the inside of his thigh.This should have been all he wanted in the world, to be loved by this extraordinary person, but Alfons Heiderich knew himself to be vain, and greedy. As Edward pleasured him he leaned back, arms flung out, quickly forgetting to reciprocate or even pretend to touch Edward. He threw his head back and thought of the sky and the world and the dream that he would not be forgotten. He would make his mark on this world before he left it. He pictured himself having his hand shaken by great men; standing in front of a lecture hall, showing off a formula on a black board, unscrolling a brilliant blueprint, taking a bow while receiving his medal of commendation.As he came closer to climaxing he raked his fingers into Edward’s hair, dug his bitten fingertips into Edward’s scalp and he screamed between lips clenched together. The rhythm of Edward’s mouth on his cock, Edward’s hand gripping the inside of his thigh, served to fuel the fantasy that he was now inside a rocket of his own creation. He would be the first human to travel beyond the earth’s atmosphere. It wouldn’t matter, of course, that he couldn’t come back alive. No one would know it, that he wasn’t sacrificing a lifetime. He’d be an eternal hero, written about in history books forever.Edward had withdrawn his mouth, was now working his hand; he was tired and suddenly lay his head against Alfons’s stomach, but he kept going as constellations and plans and promises spun in Alfons’s head. But Alfons remembered him now, hurried to squeeze Edward’s warm neck with his hand, before he came.The rhythm now inspired a mantra he repeated in his mind, Don’t forget me don’t forget me don’t forget me, over and over again. When he was spent, Edward was still lying against his stomach, and Alfons rose up on his elbows to see the top of his head, the parting of his hair, that little cowlick fallen damp against his forehead. He bent his head back, raised his eyes."I wouldn’t forget you," Edward said. He sounded slightly affronted."Did I say that out loud?" Alfons was still propped on his elbows, and didn’t even wonder if he was blushing, he was already entirely red in the face, he knew."Yeah, you did." Edward hitched himself up the mattress until he was lying next to him. Almost agressively, he pressed the top of his head under Alfons’s chin. "But don’t worry…it looks like I’ll be sticking around, at least for a little while." He added a little laugh, to show that he was kidding, whatever he thought he meant. Alfons wasn’t sure; all he could think was, Edward doesn’t know who will be leaving first. Because it might be me.Alfons let Edward fall asleep on his chest, and wondered if this was the last time that would happen.It was a gray morning, as per usual in this rainy month. Ed splashed cold water from the kitchen basin onto his face, then huffed against the chill as he rubbed soap into his armpit, then awkwardly reached to rinse it out, splashing himself all over with the icy water in the process. He grit his teeth. Why hadn’t they managed to fucking develop showers in this place?Ed couldn’t remember the last time he had seen a glorious morning. Maybe there were a few passably pleasant ones last summer in Transylvania, but in Munich they were mostly cold and grey, or too hot. He steeled himself for more cold as he passed his hand over the rough bar of soap, cupped it under the tap, and then rubbed it into his crotch. His teeth chattered, and water pooled around his feet. This was very unpleasant, but their neighbor was hogging the shared bathroom down the hall, and he was in a hurry. He would have dispensed with washing altogether but for the fact that he and Alfons had…messed eachother up the night before. Shuddering in the cold kitchen washing himself down with one cupped hand, he was beginning to think it hadn’t been worth it. What he wouldn’t give for a lovely hot high-pressure shower…Seriously, this was getting old. This place…if it weren’t for Alfons, he couldn’t imagine where he’d be. If he hadn’t taken him in after Hohenheim had disappeared…if he didn’t have someone, just this one person, that he cared about here, where would he be? He dried himself with a small square of worn flannel, then quickly returned to the bedroom to get dressed. Alfons was still lying in bed, but his eyes were open and his head was turned toward the window. The sky was brightening."So, are you getting up?" Ed asked, hopeful. "Aren’t we going to see that guy?"Alfons turned to face him. He smiled and stretched, and Ed was relieved to see that he looked better than he had in at least a week. He sat up and stretched again, then swung his legs off the bed."Sure. It’ll definitely brighten things up to have another job lined up," Alfons said brightly. He stood up and seemed to wobble for just a moment before he stood up straight. "I should have a quick bath first though. Is there any hot water?"Ed shook his head with exaggerated grief. "And Gunther seems to have locked himself in the bathroom, so the kitchen sink’s all yours."Ed looked around for a clean shirt, finding a not-so-dirty one, while he listened to Alfons splash around in the kitchen. Then he made tea and toast while Alfons dressed, feeling strangely optimistic, given that he was fairly certain they were both about to be out of a job, and out of supplies for their research. As he was setting the plates on the table, he heard a knock at the door.He was expecting the landlady when he opened the door, but there was no one there. He heard the front door creak shut a floor below, but still paused to look around the narrow hallway and to peer down the dark staircase. Nothing. He drew back to close the door when his eyes fell on the large square parcel, wrapped in brown paper, at his feet.Bringing it inside and to the table, Ed felt a bit unsettled by how light the package was despite its size. It felt like it contained nothing. He shook it a little, gingerly at first, then a bit harder, until he could detect that there did seem to be a small something inside. He set it down and tore it open in an instant.Alfons finished dressing, taking a little more care than usual. He felt unusually well today, and had already begun to slide back into that place where nothing was really that bad, and that doctor was surely mistaken, and everything was going to be all right, and he and Edward had had such a nice time last night. He even considered putting on a collar and tie for a moment, before abandoning the idea as silly. He only had one collar; maybe he’d save it for that party this weekend. The piece of paper with Otto’s address had fallen on the floor next to the bed, and he picked it up and put it in his pocket.He left the bedroom purposefully, feeling the spring in his step."Thanks for making breakfast," he said, smelling the burning toast as he entered the kitchen.Edward was standing over the table. Something new and unexpected was here, a cardboard box, its lid standing open, and wadded up sheets of brown wrapping paper at Edward’s feet."What’s this? Something came in the post?"Edward didn’t turn around, only held up his left hand, where something small and dark and shiny sat. Alfons took a step closer."What is that? It looks like a rock.""It’s not a rock," said Edward in a strangely thin voice. Alfons reached for it but Edward closed his hand around it and then pressed it tightly to his chest.