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Absolute Zero

chapter 4.

With the philosopher’s stone in his hand, to Ed it seemed as if the world had stopped turning. He might have been back home. The smooth, irregularly shaped stone, barely four centimeters long and maybe two wide, was clenched in his fist. He thought that he felt it almost vibrating, like it was a piece of his own world, calling him home.He hardly dared to breathe. In fact, his chest hurt with some kind of pain he couldn’t assign a cause to, other than shock. He stood motionless for a few moments, minutes, hours, he couldn’t tell. He had forgotten that there was someone else in the room with him until Heiderich gave a little cough.He opened his eyes and turned to him. Alfons was staring at him curiously, his blue eyes wide and shining with curiosity."So, are you going to tell me what that is?" he asked.Ed took a deep breath, held it, expelled it."It’s a philosopher’s stone. I can tell just by looking at, how it feels…it’s a powerful amplifier for the practice of alchemy."Alfons narrowed his eyes. He seemed to be thinking, but said nothing, just looked at the stone Ed held toward him on his outstretched palm."In other words," Ed ventured, "It’s my ticket home."Their plans for the day sidelined, Ed and Alfons sat down at the kitchen table, the stone sitting innocently on a tea-stained saucer. Shining a bit sinisterly, Alfons thought, as he continually eyed the thing, while Edward explained the philosopher’s stone. Now that this material object had shown up, at this strange time, in an unmarked package, left by a mysterious stranger, his mind was considerably more open to the possibility that at least some of what Edward was saying was actually true. What was even more convincing, however, was how sober Edward was about the whole thing. A madman would be jumping around or frothing at the mouth, or something, wouldn’t he? Edward seemed lightning-struck, blindsided, like a longed-for hope was unexpectedly returning to him."So," Alfons said carefully. "If it actually is what you say it is, what do you do now?"Edward didn’t immediately respond, only kept staring at the rock, until he suddenly rose from his chair, pushed it back almost violently, and leaned over the table, rummaging around until he found a steak knife. Without speaking, Edward seized it like a weapon in his left hand, looked wildly about the room, then back at the table, before snatching the stone with his right hand, then pushing everything on top of the table onto the floor with one fluid sweep of his right arm.Alfons felt himself jump in his seat, but he was too interested to run for cover. Edward was suddenly like a man possessed: gripping the knife, he began to draw on the square table top, viciously gouging the surface of the table with the knife even after the tip had broken off. He was frantically embossing something onto the table’s surface, a pattern, with circles and lines and points within it, all obviously not random, and yet, making no apparent sense. It just seemed to be some kind of design. Edward worked feverishly on this project for ten or fifteen minutes, and he was so intent that Alfons did not dare disturb him. He tried to enjoy, for the moment, the sight of Edward concentrating so hard, perspiring with inspiration, the muscles in his back and jaw working as he focused.Finally, Edward stepped back, biting his lower lip, and surveyed his work."What is it?" Alfons asked, rather timidly, he thought. For Edward seemed to be possessed of some energy that he hadn’t yet perceived in him."It’s an alchemical array," Edward said, still looking at it. He leaned forward and perfected a small notch in the outermost circle. Then he picked up that rock from where he had placed it on the table, and put it in the middle of the design. He looked so solemn, as if he were praying, his hands pressed together, his eyes squeezed tightly shut."Here goes nothing," he then said, but Alfons could readily see that Edward was now panting with excitement, his breath coming short and sharp, his skin pale. He placed his hands at three o’clock and nine o’clock on the drawing and seemed to hold his breath waiting for some result.Alfons surprised himself by being disappointed when nothing happened. Edward had seemed so serious, the rock and this design so mysterious, that he realized that he had totally bought into the idea that whatever Edward was trying to do was going to work. But Edward’s spine collapsed, he fell into the chair, slammed his hands against the table,—"Dammit!"—and then let his head fall onto the table too."Shit shit shit," he said quietly. "Shit."He kept his head down, and Alfons could see his back rising and fall with shuddering breaths. Surprised again—was Edward crying? He leaned over and put his hand on Edward’s back."Hey…are you all right?"Edward raised his head. He wasn’t crying, exactly, but he looked like he was about to either rage or break down. His eyes were damp, rimmed red, staring, almost dead."No, I’m not," Edward said, rather unnecessarily. That much was clear. He picked up the stone from the center of the design and hurled it across the room. Alfons heard it clatter against the window and then fall into the sink. "I’m never going to fucking get out of here!" He stood up, deliberately upsetting his chair and then throwing it over, he kicked it and stalked to the basin, crossed his arms and stared defiantly at the small crack he had made in the windowpane, mouth tense as if he wanted to scream again, so wound up he looked like he was about to leap through the glass and take flight. Alfons imagined that was probably what he wanted to do.Alfons sat for a moment, his stomach prickling with anxiety. He’d never seen Edward act quite like this. He rose and went to stand next to his friend at the sink, carefully taking up the rock and sliding it into his pocket. It wouldn’t do for it to go down the drain. He knew Edward well enough to know that he would want it again soon enough."I’m sorry for…whatever it was that just happened," Alfons said. "Whatever you were trying to do, I see that you knew what you were doing. If it’s any help, I believed in it too."He thought that was a nice thing to say. He had believed in it for a while there, but even now, with just a few minutes having passed, gouging that crazy design into the table seemed like something a madman would do. He felt a rush of pity for Edward, and reached out to pat his back."You want to know what I was doing?" Edward continued to stare at the bright window. "I drew a simple array, the very simplest, just to transmute the shape of the table top. The kind of thing I could do when I was eight years old.""All right," Alfons said, careful not to sound patronizing. "So it didn’t work.""It never fucking works here, that’s the point," said Edward. "But I thought, with the stone, maybe, just maybe, it would. Otherwise what the hell is the purpose of it? Why would someone give it to me? Just to fucking taunt me?"Alfons reached into his pocket and withdrew the rock. He held it between his fingers, examined it. It was crimson in color, almost black, and it was a crystal, mostly smooth with some edges poking out, irregular in shape. It did not feel or look particularly special. Although he hadn’t seen another one like it, it most certainly did not seem otherworldly. But his scientific curiosity was kicking in."What is it made of, then? What are its properties?""It consists of some elements familiar to this world, mercury and sulfides, mainly," Edward said. "But what makes it a genuine philosopher’s stone in my world…" His voiced trailed off."What?" Alfons couldn’t help but cross his arms.Edward shook his head."Tell me." Alfons sidled close to Edward, until their shoulders were touching, and leaned into him. "If you tell me, maybe we can work on this together…please."Edward sighed."I’ll believe whatever you say," Alfons heard himself promise.Edward stepped to the side and turned to look up at him. "Why?" Edward asked, narrowing his eyes. "Why now? Why after all this time? Just because this stupid pebble shows up, all of a sudden you’re all ready to be convinced?"Alfons insisted on holding Edward’s gaze. This was it, he realized, the tipping point. If he refused to accept this now, to genuinely trust Edward, he would never confide in him again. He had to believe in him. There had to be more than this, he realized. He wanted there to be more."Because…now I want to, all right? I want to be convinced. I want you to convince me."Edward’s skepticism seemed to give a little, but not completely. Still meeting the challenge of Alfons’s gaze, he crossed his arms this time and drew himself up to his full height, perhaps gaining a couple of centimeters in the process."Why?" Edward asked again.This time Alfons was either going to have to back down or tell the truth. Not feeling quite so brave as he would have liked, he dropped Edward’s gaze and decided to look at his feet. His heart beat slowed with disappointment in himself. Was he really such a coward?"What can you do with that?" Alfons asked. "Here, I mean.""I don’t fucking know," Edward said, clearly agitated, his eyes looked almost frantic, and his voice was cracking with frustrated emotion. "Whoever sent that to me…they’re testing me, or something, I don’t know." He shook his head, seemingly lost. Alfons couldn’t help himself, stepping forward again, he reached for Edward’s shoulders with his hands, then pulled him close. He laid his cheek against Edward’s hair."We’ll find them, and we’ll make that thing work."Edward sighed against him. "What makes you so sure about this all of a sudden?"Alfons just squeezed him tighter, so that Edward struggled against him and pulled away slightly so that he could look up at his face."This could be really, really important. For me, maybe for us. You understand that?"Alfons was almost mesmerized by how sure Edward seemed about this. He nodded.Edward stepped back now and held open his hand again to gaze at the crimson crystal on his palm. "Now who the hell—""It was Strauss and Ostermann, those guys, I’m sure of it," Alfons said, suddenly animated again. "It makes sense, just think about it. They clearly know something about you…I’m assuming they know something about your father…they couldn’t get at you the direct way, so…" He looked at Edward, excited now and full of hope that his guess was correct.Edward clenched the thing in his fist again. "You may be right. Who else would it be? Those things they said, "things you can’t imagine"….but how, how would they know how to make one of these?"Alfons reached for Edward’s fist, his flesh hand, warm and tightly clenched around the little stone. He held his fist between his hands, then gently began to pry it open. Once in his own hand again—why did it feel like he was constantly wanting to hold this thing, and taking it back, and giving it back, and wanting it again?—-he looked at it closely, then held it up to the light at the window. He put it to his eye and squinted into the stone, for a moment getting lost in the clear, crimson sea."Hey, Edward," he said, swallowing before voicing his next thought. "You say that this magnified alchemic reactions where you’re from?’"Uh huh," Edward confirmed."Well, what if…what if it magnifies chemical reactions here?" His heart beating fast, he turned to look at Edward, lips parted in excitement. "I mean, what if it—""—-can enhance the power of fuel in the combustion engine?" Edward finished his thought. Alfons could see Edward’s face flush with excitement and imagined that his own looked the same."Then we’d have a way to propel a rocket out of the atmosphere," Alfons said, barely believing it himself. His voice fell to a hoarse whisper, thick with emotion, and hope. "Do you think it could work?"Edward glanced at the stone in Alfons’s hand."If we knew how to activate it here," he said. "Maybe…"Alfons felt a wave of exhaustion after that sudden wave of excitement. His knees began to shake and he found himself plunging toward the table and scrambling for a seat before he fell down. Edward caught his arm as he fell into the chair."Shit!" he said. "You almost wiped out. I thought you said you were better!""I am better," Alfons said, struggling to catch his breath and regulate his heartbeat. He felt the familiar prickling beginning in his lungs and throat and struggled to master it. He took a shallow breath but the pain had already started. He began to cough, covering his mouth with his arm to stifle the sharpness of the sound. He began to gasp for breath and his eyes teared up, long before he noticed that Edward was shoving a glass of water at him. He drank some and it helped, his heartbeat calming as he took air slowly through his nose."That’s it, I’m taking you back to that doctor you saw at the hospital before we do anything," Edward said sternly.Alfons shook his head and swiped at his tearing eyes with the back of his hand. When he tried to speak, his voice came out hoarse and ragged, like an old man’s."No, I’m fine."Edward sat down heavily in the chair next to him."Just for the record," he said, placing his hand on Alfons’s knee. "I don’t believe you."Alfons looked down at the hand on his knee for a moment, waging war with himself. If he could just get himself to admit it…he just wasn’t sure about what would happen next. He swallowed and put his hand over Edward’s, closed his eyes."Listen," Edward said softly. "Where I come from, that stone…it can help heal people…if we can figure out how to—what’s the matter? Is it that bad?"Alfons couldn’t open his eyes, he only knew that tears—real ones—were beginning to leak out of the corners. He wanted to say everything, and to say that he loved Edward, that he didn’t want him to leave him, that he didn’t know how much time he had left, that he’d do anything, anything to launch a real rocket, to make his name, and to do it with Edward."I don’t want to die," was all he managed to say. And before he knew it, Edward’s arms were around him."I won’t let you," said Edward, with surprising conviction. And for now, Alfons chose to believe him.They sat in the kitchen for a while. The embrace melted away, but they still linked fingers—carelessly, Alfons thought, excited by how easy and natural it was—while they discussed their plan. It was clear that Edward had to go see Ostermann and Strauss and the shadowy organization. The question was, should they go together? How safe was it? They were both uneasy about it, Edward even more so than Alfons."For once I wish my father was around," Edward said. He had gotten up to retrieve the business card Strauss had given him from the small table in the entranceway. There was only the phone number. "I want to show it to him, the stone." Edward glanced at where it lay on the table. Now that the kitchen had lost the sunlight and the illumination was dim, it looked opaque and obsidian, and not very special, Alfons thought. Just a stupid black rock. It was decided—Edward would call Strauss and say that both of them wanted to meet with him.Edward finished dressing and went into the downstairs hallway to use the telephone. In the mean time, Alfons remained at the table, still reeling a bit at having told Edward his secret. So, that was it? And nothing changed. Edward hadn’t backed away from him, and they had gone on with planning, as before. It was both comforting and unsettling. In a way, he had expected everything to change with his admission, and yet, what did he expect Edward would do, really? How would the world be altered?He received his answer the moment Edward returned from making the phone call."He says he’ll meet us at a coffee shop by the Hauptbahnhof at six o’clock." Without giving Alfons a chance to react, he came over, pulled Alfons out of his chair and led him to the bedroom. He brought Alfons to the edge of the bed, then pushed him a little less than gently down onto the mattress. "Until then, you lie down and stay there."Alfons laughed. "I don’t need to stay in bed, I’m fine."Edward crossed his arms and looked down at him. "Bullshit. I don’t believe you, after what you just said to me in the kitchen. Until I hear a doctor say you’re better, you’re taking it easy.""Because you say so?" Alfons mockingly challenged him, but secretly he was very pleased that Edward was taking command of the situation. He realized that that was what he had wanted, to have him share this, so he wouldn’t be alone, so they’d be in it together. His smiled disappeared immediately upon realizing that wanting this was also very selfish; he was going to die, and Edward was going to be left alone, and hurt…if he flattered himself. But when he looked up at Edward again, those golden eyes were blazing and he was still in that bossy stance, feeling dominant because he was standing up while Alfons was sitting down. Alfons was moved to put his arms around Edward’s waist, and, pulling him closer, pressed the side of his face to his stomach, squeezing hard. Edward’s flesh hand came to first stroke his hair and then gently rubbed his back.They stayed that way for quite a while, until the sun left the window and traveled Westwards, and the air in the room grew cooler and still. Alfons could have fallen asleep like that, but he felt Edward shift his weight from his bad leg and back again, and knew that he was getting uncomfortable. Alfons pulled away and lay down without a word, letting Edward pull the tattered quilt over him."I’ll get you up in a couple of hours," Edward said.It was the first time in a long, long time that Alfons fell asleep easily. The last thought he had before dropping off was of holding the stone, warm in his hand.Ed sat in the kitchen with the stone in his hand. It heated up as he held it, got almost burning hot, or so he thought, as he rubbed it briskly. Philosopher’s Stones were like that, and he was led to wonder if not the slightest remnant of his alchemical power were exciting the stone. He tried to eat some toast, but ended up just staring at the transmutation circle on the table, at the stone, contemplating nonsense space while he kept exhorting himself to turn his attention to Strauss and Ostermann and the upcoming meeting. The business at hand. But still, he could not focus, all he could think about was Alfons saying "I don’t want to die."Oh, this is going to hurt. That was his first thought. Not until he was bounding down the stairs to the telephone did it cross his mind, a split second temptation—run away, get away from here. Heiderich will only drag you down, hold you back…you got too attached to him. And now look what’s happened…why had he said what he did, that he wouldn’t let him? Who was he to say that? Besides, it was bullshit.Their first kiss had been on a cold November evening, in a barely-heated room with a weak fire hissing and sparking and struggling away in the grate, the smell of damp coal, the whistle of the wind shaking the glass of the windows in Heiderich’s flat. They had both been drinking, a bit, not a lot, they were still, as Hohenheim would have said, showing off his Latin, compos mentis. Edward hadn’t been two nights in the flat, and he wouldn’t go back to Hohenheim’s even after he drifted back into town again, because after that kiss, Ed had changed.He had changed in an interesting way, when he dared to think about it, which he mostly avoided. It wasn’t something he had gone looking for or anticipated. In fact, before, he had half convinced himself that the kind of desires that getting close to Alfons had ignited were going to be satisfied, for the rest of his life, at least in this world, by his own hand. Before coming to this world, he had spent his adolescence dreaming of nobody in particular, but using the faces and imagined bodies—under all that clothing—of people he knew. He hadn’t ever confronted to himself who those people actually were, but they were people like Colonel Mustang and Lieutenant Havoc and that fucking Russell Tringham and other male acquaintances.He also remembered the sharp, strange sense of embarrassment he would always get when Winry touched his hair or his cheek, getting the distinct impression, at least as they got older, that he was supposed to feel more excited than ashamed. In those days he had been too busy to think about what that meant, but when he had crossed the Gate and his father had begun gently needling him about "meeting girls" and getting married some day, he had always shut him down.He hadn’t expected anything, anything, of what came at him on this side of the Gate. He had been so disoriented and dispirited that for months he could barely attend to his own momentary happinesses. He was disassociated from his body, hating it more than ever without the automail. Then, thinking of people like Mustang and Havoc and Tringham reminded him sharply of home, and how he missed them, and the hideous ache he felt for his brother—which he tried to squash and ignore—was too, too painful. But one thing was the same on both sides of the Gate: it wasn’t until he had met Alfons Heiderich that he had begun pleasuring himself again.Sitting alone in the kitchen, he thought of Alfons, the way his skin felt against his own the first time they really touched, the softness of his lips and the surprising thickness of his hair. The pure, unadulterated astonishment and wonder that he felt when his desires were reciprocated.Thinking about the taste of Heiderich’s skin brought stinging tears to Ed’s eyes, and he was so shocked by this that, even though he was alone in the room, he cleared his throat, stood up and busied himself with picking up off the floor the things he had swept off the table an hour before. That closeness…he’d never had that with anybody, not that kind, and not even with Al. Could he have…? Ed shook his head to banish the thought. That wasn’t allowed, not here, maybe not anywhere, ever. Not only was this relationship illicit, it was also ultimately pointless. Or, more accurately, its point was that it was going to end badly.

He sat down again, exhausted by the thoughts plaguing him. Only a few days ago, he had felt stuck and going in circles, and now everything, everything was suddenly fraught with terrible purpose. It reminded him of another time.Ed traced his flesh finger along the edge of the transmutation circle he had gouged into the table. Although this circle was dead and useless, he knew that somehow he and Alchemy were about to become reacquainted.