Alfons was always good at structure, at composition, at understanding the way things are. That meant that he was good at fixing things, and he was good at designing things—at creating. When the wheel broke on another child’s wagon, he could visualize balance and pressure and force; he could reassemble hinge and axle and lynchpin; he could reconstruct. Soon he would learn that the interactions he understood at a basic level had names to them—inertia, momentum, torque. The praise he received for fixing things was encouraging, but it puzzled him; other people just didn’t seem to see the world the way that he did.
He’s learned, over the years, that the world is much bigger and more complex than a crooked wheel, but the principles are still the same. And he has so many more names now; he can sink into a sea of names; he can drift, float, dive, drown in velocities and resistances and relativities. People are madly unpredictable, but physics and mathematics will never betray him. They are based in numbers; they are built on rules; with facts as a foundation, you can shore towers upwards to the sky. Who needs a God who never listens when you can understand the clouds, analyze the stars, challenge gravity, fight the laws and fly—?
And then there is Edward.
Alfons knows, of course, that his body is made of cooperating machines. But he only ever utilizes his brain, which has suddenly begun to spit sparks; and his hands, which are—shaking?
He doesn’t have a name for this. It is partly kinetic and partly thermodynamic and partly awful and partly wild.
Edward Elric is the first thing Alfons has ever seen that makes no sense at all. And Edward Elric is beautiful.
Alfons wants him.
Alfons has never wanted anything like this.
Edward goes very still the first time that they meet—and then he unfreezes, and he cracks a smile that slants sideways; he rattles off a greeting in passable German, and Alfons can’t quite place his accent.
Days go by. Professor Oberth has a thousand revelations to relate. Ed’s bright-gold ponytail flicks back and forth, and his left hand ranges across the page as he scrapes out notes in blocky penmanship.
Alfons tries not to be so heart-quickeningly, blood-rushingly, cheeks-darkeningly enthralled. He tries not to notice. He tries not to stare.
There’s something wrong with Ed’s right arm. That shoulder slumps, just a little; the hand doesn’t move right; the fingers have a tendency to stay stiffly half-curled. Everything else about him is so fluid—molten, flowing, free.
No, not everything. His left foot falls differently. Subtly, so subtly, he limps.
Alfons has never known until now what it is to want. He has no idea how to get something he wants.
He takes up watching people. He’s never paid much attention to the physicality of human relationships before. There’s so much—touching. It’s just strange, at first, the idea of applying hands to shoulders and elbows and the small of the back; it’s strange to think of hips bumping, arms looping, curves and angles aligned. It’s strange to think of faces meeting at the mouth.
And then he stops thinking of it in the abstract, starts thinking of his hands, his hips, his mouth; his, and Ed’s, and oh—
Oh, that’s different. Oh, that’s stranger than anything before. It’s strange, and it’s—wonderful; it stutters down his spine and worms its way beneath his skin; it makes him feel bewildered and bemused, powerless and possessed, incoherent and imminent. It makes him feel like there is an entirely new world of names and possibilities just beyond his tingling fingertips.
Intent observation has not yet served him wrong, and he realizes quickly that it is very easy to earn Ed’s friendship and very difficult to gain his trust. Ed is unusual in that way; Ed is unusual in all ways; Ed does not accept people in delineated stages, from acquaintance to friend to good friend to confidant; Ed has constructed walls from some material Alfons doesn’t recognize, which ordinary people cannot penetrate.
At first, Alfons thinks, There must be a gate. (Strangely—everything is strange with Ed—the thought makes him shiver alone in his room, sitting at his desk with his neck cricked and his eyes burning and the pale flare of dawn cresting the skyline.)
But then he thinks, Castles are beautiful even from the outside, and he thinks that running his hand along that wall, all the way around, might be enough. It might almost be better than scaling the stones; who knows what’s inside? Who knows what dragons Ed’s protecting?
And so he sets out not to conquer, but to explore—to understand the one thing in his world that defies understanding.
The world seems so much larger when time is short—it feels intimidatingly, indescribably vast, full of places he’ll never see and people he’ll never meet and wonders he’ll never experience because there simply isn’t time.
But it’s smaller, too. It shrinks in so close around him that it buzzes in his ears, coils around his ankles, chafes at his elbows and creeps up over his aching back. You will be dead soon. You will disappear. You have to finish this.
It’s maddening, this trajectory—it is sheer momentum; he has seen and understood momentum since before he knew his own name. Faster and faster towards the black span of oblivion. Is it solid? Will it hurt? Perhaps it’s just like sleeping. Perhaps it’s just like sleeping, knowing nothing else but sleep, a million lightyears from a moment of control. Perhaps it’s just a soft obliteration; would that be so bad?
He erases an errant line too fast, and the paper crinkles up beneath his hand. Gray streaks smear everywhere. It would be bad. It would be. It’s not like he’ll know any different once it’s happened, but he doesn’t want to die—
He makes an effort to pretend when he’s around the people who will care. That’s a nice thought: there are people who will miss him. He will be cherished, for a while. And then he’ll fade. And then they’ll die. And then the planet will keep on rotating slowly through an indifferent universe of silence and blackness and hot-burning stars.
But there are so many things that are worth it. There are so many things to find, to see, to try, to fix—why does his allotment have to be so tiny? Why does his scrap of thread have to be cut so short?
“Hey,” Ed whispers. The cool-hard right hand weighs on Alfons’s shoulder, and the warm-soft left one pries the pencil from his fingers. “Stop.”
The numbers are blurring; the graphite scratches have begun to undulate.
“I have to finish this,” Alfons says.
Ed puts the pencil down and plants his hand on top of Alfons’s, pinning his palm to the desktop. “Not tonight, you don’t.”
“I—” Can’t die meaningless. Do you understand that? You look at the world like everything bores you, like it’s all distractions, like there’s something else behind it if you just keep staring—
But there isn’t, Ed. This is all we’ve got.
“Come to bed,” Ed says. “C’mon. It’s fuckin’ freezing; I need your body heat.”
Maybe that’s all he’ll ever be—a body. A corpse that’s been going cold since the first day it was formed.
Maybe he could do with some sleep after all.
Small flat, small bed, small life. With his spine to Ed’s and the blankets bunched around his hands and feet to warm them, he says, “What do you think dying’s like?”
Ed is quiet for a long, long time.
“Pretty shitty,” he says.
“I’d say it’s not the end of the world, but…” He pauses. “Wow. I’m a dick.”
Alfons presses his eyes shut and digs his knuckles in against them. Eyeballs are really rather extraordinary, aren’t they? Everything is when this might be your last chance to appreciate it. “You’re not.”
“Yeah, I am,” Ed says. “It’s okay. One of the best guys I ever knew was a dick. My dad’s a dick, but in the end he came through for me—in a typical weird, fucked-up, Hohenheim kind of way. So being a dick’s not all bad.” He clears his throat and nudges his armless shoulder back at Alfons. “As long as I’m not too much of a dick to you.”
“Just the right amount,” Alfons says.
Ed exhales half a laugh.
They haven’t bothered with proper goodnights in ages, so Alfons thinks that’s the end of it until Ed swallows audibly.
Ed shifts awkwardly, unbalanced without the prosthetics, and rolls over. Automatically Alfons mirrors the motion to face him; in the silvery light, Ed’s ghostly-pale, and his eyes are like mercury.
“Are you—” Ed begins, and then he hesitates. “You’ve just been… kinda… different. Is all. Lately, I mean.”
“Oh,” Alfons says. Time moves in spirals in Ed’s eyes; Alfons could spin forever; he could never— “Have I?”
“Yeah,” Ed says, and his smile tilts rueful, wistful, slight. “I mean, I—I know I mostly worry about me, and my shit, and—stuff you don’t even believe in, and why would you believe it? I wouldn’t, but… I know I’m selfish a hell of a lot of the time, but I do—care about you. Okay? So if there’s anything you need, just… we’ll work it out, all right?”
“All right,” Alfons says.
Ed nudges a warm knuckle at his cheek and then settles down to sleep.
The miracle of how fine things taste when it might be the last time you savor them does not quite extend to Ed’s cooking, so Alfons creeps out of the bed to make breakfast. Ed staggers in before too long, equipped with all four limbs again, rubbing at his eyes and looking dazed. He always seems disoriented for the first half-hour of the morning. Alfons always holds his tongue.
“I dunno how you do it without ever burning ’em,” Ed says when Alfons sets a plate of weisswurst before him.
“It’s called ‘paying attention’,” Alfons says.
“I pay attention to stuff,” Ed says. “Like… science.”
It seems funny now that Alfons used to think that was enough—that science, that rationality, that the facts and figures and universal laws could somehow band together and save him from the return to dust.
“I thought about what you said last night,” he says, choosing a rare moment when Ed’s mouth is not full. “What I need is… to feel important.”
Ed puts his fork down, blinking. “You are important.”
Alfons looks at him.
Ed stares back. “You are,” he says. “Everybody is—do you have any idea how much a human soul is worth, and how much it’s capable of?—and you’re… you’re special, Alfons. I know you don’t think so, but you are.”
Alfons pushes his chair back, flattens his hands on the table, and stands, looking at the wall. “I won’t subscribe to your hypothesis until you’ve presented experimental evidence.”
“Knock it off,” Ed says; dishes clatter as he gets to his feet. “You really don’t—Alfons, c’mon.”
“I need proof,” Alfons says, and his voice stays mostly steady, though his stomach does not. “You ought to understand that.”
“How’m I supposed to prove a philosophical point?” Ed asks. Alfons tries to slip into the hall, but Ed gets to the doorway before him; he’s so fast for a—
Say it, Alfons’s brain whispers. For a cripple. You’re so broken you couldn’t even fall in love with someone whole.
“Never mind,” Alfons says. Ed’s right hand fixes on the doorframe just beside his head, boxing him in. “I shouldn’t have said anything; it was stupid.”
“It wasn’t,” Ed says. “Look at me.”
Alfons could spend a long time looking, if he had a long time. For the moment he meets Ed’s caged-tiger eyes.
“You’re important to this world,” Ed says. “You’re important to this country. And you’re important to me.”
Alfons starts to smile, but then Ed’s eyes drop shut, and he leans in, and their mouths brush and slide and then catch, and—
And Alfons wishes he had eternity, although it would probably be a bit too brief.
Alfons doesn’t have names for the things that follow. He can find words when he scrounges through his vocabulary, but they’re not the right ones; this is perhaps the only facet of the world that he has never understood.
He thinks it’s likely that Ed has done this before—he spares a thought for who might have taken that warm, searching left hand and inducted the brilliant, beautiful Edward Elric into this hushed universe of mouths and teeth and heat and skin; when he touches his own curiosity he finds no jealousy. It’s convenient that one of them knows what he’s doing, really; and Ed feels everything so completely that each time is the first time, is the only time, is new. It’s strange, perhaps, that the boy with cat’s eyes—the boy who can’t or won’t make them focus on what’s actually in front of him—is now, for the first time since Alfons has known him, absolutely here. Ed is present; Ed is conscious; Ed is real.
Ed is… magnificent.
Alfons tries to find the right names, the right words, the labels to quantify this experience—his spine is a wire, a whip, a suspension bridge, a bow arching hard and tight as Ed draws all the right strings—
Whatever’s in his body can’t be normal, can it? Human beings can’t have been designed to contain so much, to strain with heat and light and electricity as Ed’s so-softly-calloused fingertips drag down his chest. There is something in him, a potent animal need that is scrabbling to get out—where does it come from, and how does he free it, and why—?
This can’t be right. This defeats the entire purpose of science, doesn’t it? Everything that humanity has built… you’re meant to want to keep the clothing on; that’s what the cities and the economies and the civilization are all about—about leashing the animal, chaining it up, dressing it, sedating it, setting a fountain pen into its paw and teaching it how to calculate and how to rhyme until it doesn’t even want to feel the press of flaming skin—
This is a world wholly foreign from the one he’s used to—he’s only ever skirted the edges before, head down and heart shamed; he’s only ever burned the maps and dismissed direction, because his mind is more important; that’s the point—
He didn’t know—
Ed’s wet mouth trails up his throat, and his helpless gasp drives their bodies closer still; Ed’s right hand is curled so firmly around his hipbone that he’s pinned here, and all the writhing he has strength for can’t displace the weight of Ed’s perfect body over his.
He didn’t know that it could be like… this.
It’s not that science doesn’t want this, not really; science wants everything; science doesn’t levy judgment; science watches and watches and wonders. Alfons is an adventurer as much as he’s an analyst; that’s what science is, and he has stumbled into something uncharted and exquisite, and all he wants is to understand. He wants to learn this world’s rules; he wants the numbers; he wants to time the tempo of his blood and annotate the prismatic spray of the light from the window that filters through Ed’s hair. He wants the chemical formulae of the fluids rushing giddily to his sputtering brain; he wants to know the exact degree of the angle where too-tight pain shifts into indescribable bliss. He wants the numbers; the equations; the facts; he wants to know; he wants everything—
He’s mumbling something about unlikely hormonal synergies and chemical equilibrium as he resurfaces. Ed smiles in that odd, fractionally-off-kilter way and strokes Alfons’s damp hair back from his forehead.
“Why am I so tired?” Alfons asks.
Ed grins. “I’ll take that as a compliment.”
“Can’t be tired,” Alfons says, trying to flail his way out of bed and somehow ending up nestled closer to Ed. “Only just got up, and there’s so much to do…”
Ed’s warm fingers card through his hair and track slowly down his spine. “All that crap can wait.”
“There isn’t time,” Alfons mutters into the soft skin at the hollow of Ed’s throat.
“Sure there is,” Ed says, with such calm assurance that Alfons has no choice but to believe it.
Ed sees the world a lot like Alfons does—as pieces, and as mathematics in motion, and as lines of logic that intersect. Maybe he understands this. Maybe he’s right. Alfons hasn’t breathed this easily in a long while now, and maybe…
Maybe two broken boys together are greater than the sum of their parts. Maybe this is the way to fix it.
Maybe there’s time enough for this.