It wasn't until he'd faced the Gate for the first time that he realized that faith was not what he'd railed so furiously against for years, proclaiming over and over again that there was no place for such drivel in a scientist's unclouded mind—distracting and misleading from the quest to discover the pure empirical truth of the cosmos.
Faith, he'd thought, was something he'd learned as a child, squirming on the hard wooden pews, listening to the black-robed sophist drone on endlessly in both Latin and German—attempting more often than not to beat his education into him through the seat of his pants and through hard manual labor—It was the virtue of loving the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church more than anything else in the world and deliberately looking away from anything that contradicts that love...though the Church herself did not phrase it that way, of course, saying instead that it was by faith that we understand that the world was framed by the word of God; it was proof of things not seen, and a true believer walks by faith, not by sight.
But Hohenheim was not willing to blind himself for the Church and the ideas she forced upon the ignorant population. He had eyes; he could see; he could make observations about the world around him; he could base logical deductions about the way the universe worked off of those observations.
The world, he assured himself, was framed not by some old man in the sky who somehow separated the day from the night before He created the sun and moon, but rather, by elementary logic, and faith was a crutch for those too weak or foolish to open their eyes to the light of the truth and accept that they could walk on their own.
That faith could be—that it was—more than simple acceptance of whatever nonsense spewed from the lips of hypocritical priests—men who spoke of a corrupted world though they themselves had retreated from it in loathing and distaste, counted out and weighed the sins of others as though it was blood-money treasure... Well, that was an idea that Hohenheim had never once considered, for all his cleverness.
Never... until he confronted the Gate creaking slowly open, the thousand eyes blazing hungrily at the fresh offering of flesh, the hands that snared his limbs and tangled in his hair like the fingers of a brutal lover that took and took and took...
Suddenly the alchemist realized that his close-minded self-definition had led him astray; he'd had faith in abundance, but only in himself, his abilities, his knowledge. His faith had corrupted into pride, and led to his downfall.
The righteous are delivered from trouble, but the wicked fall into it instead.
It was said that blasphemy was the only unforgivable sin—the one sin which offended the very nature and station of God and for which there was no salvation, no redemptive grace. It was the sin from which the deity turned from in utter disgust... A little taste of hell on earth, perhaps, where the greatest pain of all came not from the physical tortures described in the leather-bound, gold-leaf edged book so often gripped in the hands of the parish priest, but rather from the absence of God's protection and love.
The real punishment for sinners was the total absence of the thing they'd arrogantly turned away from...the one thing that could save them, forever out of reach.
It had been the ultimate sin to stand in the place of Creator in an attempt to reverse the decree of death, forcing his way and will against the universal pattern to attempt something that had only been done once before and that once by God Himself—He who raised Himself from the dead and rolled back the stone to reveal Himself in all his glory, defeating, the Christians said, death now and forever and returning immortality to humanity.
Oh, death, where is thy victory? Oh, grave, where is thy sting?
The thing arched back against the array-spangled floor, its ruined vocal chords grating in a rusty scream, the thing he knew he could not destroy now—not again, he couldn't kill the boy again, not after dragging him back like this, not after paying the devil's own price in trade—and Hohenheim looked directly into the eyes of blasphemy embodied.
Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices instead in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.
He should have known when he saw the boy again...which was, regretfully, the first time he'd laid eyes on his youngest son in over a decade; he should have known.
In a perverse way, he did know. How could he not know what they must have done, having spent those cold nights sitting by Trisha's grave, mourning the loss of her gentle light in a world that had seen far too much darkness, and then realizing what had become of their bodies—the hollow ring of Alphonse's metal shell when each empty foot hit the ground, the smell of oil lingering in blond hair and the noise of ball bearings in Edward's shoulder?
But he'd pushed that thought aside with a cold shudder. He didn't want to believe it. It... scared him, though he was loath to admit it and shoved that away just as quickly...
...that his children would walk so completely in their father's erring footsteps...
Seeing the ugly truth led only to despair, though, and that was not a path Hohenheim was willing to tread. Not now, coming home after so many years, having finally worked up the courage to face his wife and children again and tell them the truth. Not now, when it meant that all those years wandering the wide world and wondering when he'd be able to come home with his heart at peace were wasted, the time sifted away, gone and lost like last autumn's leaves. Not when it meant that he'd missed the last trembling flickers of his beloved's candle guttering down, not even there for her in her last hour to hold her hand, to press one last kiss to her smooth temple, to be a witness to her strength and courage even when facing the end; or when it meant that he hadn't been there to teach his sons the most important lesson of all... one he himself had learned harshly, too late, and at too great a price.
Despair was the end result, and it was too bitter to swallow. It made him turn away, his chest tight and cold. All those centuries... all that time learning again what it was to be truly human, finding his heart again...and it came down to this...
"Despair" was not a word in Alphonse's vocabulary, it seemed.
Hohenheim hadn't known what kind of person his youngest son had grown into in the intervening years; he had only the dogeared memories of the child cradled so gently in Trisha's arms, the wisps of dark gold hair smoothed by her breath as he nursed, small pudgy hands gripping his fingers; he found now that for all his youth, the boy hid unexpected depths in what appeared to be shallow waters; there were profound pools in what seemed on first glance to be nothing more than a bubbling silver stream, laughing as it wound through the eternally spring wood.
He'd lived for hundreds of years. He'd lived on and on and on, taking bodies when he needed them. Though the guilt and shame of hanging on to existence this way increased with every switch, he found some reason, some excuse, every time to justify his actions—the actions of a monster who stole people's lives away by taking over their bodies.
Every fifty or so years, he had to find another justification for parasitism that bordered on cannibalism, telling himself that this might be the last time, he might have a break-through, find another way to use the Stone to prolong his life...and besides, his life and his accumulated knowledge was worth more than any one average person's existence.
He'd already been seriously questioning that concept for decades, and then when he'd meet her... seen the light in her eyes and the grace of her smile. A simple country girl and nothing more complicated than that, and utterly charming because of it, catching his imagination like no one else had in centuries and weaving a spell of sweet home and rest for the weary around him, welcoming him in her arms and heart and smoothing away the bone-crushing exhaustion of stretched-out life.
If his life brought her pleasure, then...
Alphonse, in many ways, embodied both of his parents, even without being embodied at all. In the state he was in—a soul bound to a metal body that could not age, could not bleed, could not become ill—he could live forever... if one chose to call that existence "living." The price of true immortality was high...too high, and Hohenheim felt the metallic taste of unshed tears in the back of his tight throat, flavoring his words as he spoke to the boy late into the starry Rizenbool night. It wasn't fair.
He was the first to reach for that which God had forbidden. It had been his mistake, and it was madness, sheer madness, for the sins of the father to be visited upon the second generation... even if the fruit hadn't fallen far from the tree.
But Al had inherited both his mother's gentle sweetness and her determined optimism: optimism that wasn't blind—Tri had passed on to her youngest the ability to look at the world, see both the good and the bad aspects of it and accept both equally... and then still have hope that everything would be alright in the end...
...and if it wasn't alright, then it wasn't the end.
Oh, Tri had shaken her head with a smile when he'd raised a brow at her once, questioning the seemingly childish simplicity of that, but she hadn't defended it at all—something he'd found peculiar at the time, but then later he came to see that she hadn't needed to; he hadn't been able to understand then that choosing to have hope and faith even after looking at the world clearly took more courage and strength than giving up and seeing through a cynical gaze, and he hadn't realized until he'd spent the first long, lonely night leaned against the cold marble etched with her name that it was precisely this stubborn cheerfulness of hers that had enabled her to see him as more than who he was... but as the man he could grow into, and that it was her strength that had made him have faith in himself for the first time in centuries and grow into that ideal... for her.
And Alphonse had those same eyes, eyes that enabled him to find ways to cope with his situation, a predicament that would drive many to complete despair.
He did not expect easy answers. He was not blind to pain and suffering. He was not stupid or ignorant.
But Al was still able to smile, because he knew how to find hope under every rock, in every piece of wood, everywhere and all around him.
Love never ends. But as for the prophesies, they will come to an end; as for tongues, they will stop their babbling; as for knowledge, it, too, will cease. We know in part, and prophecy in part... for now we see through a mirror dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I only know in part, but then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known.
It was somewhat of a relief to escape the world he'd walked for ages past; even if his resolve had wavered for a moment, even if he was willing to reconsider—for any reason—his decision to finally accept death, it wouldn't matter... the Stone was beyond his reach and alchemy itself had been merely a futile struggle against the physics of this world centuries ago.
His journey through the Gate had given him the answers to questions he'd sought his whole life, and when he emerged at last on the other side, he was resigned to that knowledge and to an understanding of his own life in perspective. Things had had to be the way they had been. All along, there'd been no choice at all.
He would finish dying in a place that held no lingering memories, and that was a sweetness he hadn't even realized he craved until he'd been in London for a few weeks.
Hohenheim hadn't been looking for forgiveness, not now, not after all this time. There was nothing left in him but a soft-edged melancholy that muted his smile and blunted all other feelings like a blanket of cold, fresh-fallen snow covering over the beginning sprouts of early spring blooms. In four hundred years, he'd learned nothing at all, losing lovers and children all over again, alone with only the burden of time and sorrow.
He hadn't expected a second chance.
The boy's eyes were the same hawk-feral color, a strange gold-amber without a trace of green or brown in them, though his gaze lacked the intensity of his mirror in Amestris. His hair was almost the same shade of brassy blond, though cropped short, as was expected of a young man in this place.
His name was Edward, but he was not Edward.
This boy was not his son, despite the superficial similarities of physical appearance, despite the brilliant smile they shared and the keen mind they both possessed. This Edward was still all flesh and blood, even if he wasn't Hohenheim's flesh and blood; his body was unmarked by the stain of sin, his heart still light and playful with youth, thoughtful but inexperienced... still so pure.
And though Hohenheim had been almost grateful to die alone and anonymously in this world, looking forward to the end as only one who had earned it so completely could, he couldn't walk away from this boy.
For a little longer, he'd live for Edward's sake, making up for all the time lost and all their misunderstandings here with this orphaned child that both was and was not his son, as through fatherhood was reckoned up on some cosmic karmic scale and he could belatedly correct some of the endless, unforgivable errors he'd blindly made.
If love could reach beyond worlds and across time...
He couldn't leave him again. He couldn't walk away from this last opportunity to do what he knew was right—perhaps the last right he could do in his life.
Edward, his Edward, asked him about it once, one long, cold German winter night, and though he did not lift his eyes from the book open in front of him, Hohenheim could see that he had stopped reading, his eyes stopped at one point and no longer flicking across the lines of text. A muscle jumped in the back of his organic hand, making the pencil in his grip twitch slightly.
Hohenheim paused for a moment over his coffee, and silence fell between them for a long moment, the hiss of the gas lamps painfully loud suddenly. Could he really explain that to the boy in terms he'd understand? Or would he see it as one more affront, one more insult, that his father could play father to another young man despite having abandoned his own sons for so many years? He drew in a deep breath...
...and Ed cut him off. "Ah, never mind. Forget it." His tone was surly, but there was something else underneath that, and his movements lacked their usual brusque quality; he seemed almost embarrassed that he'd asked. He shut his book with a snap and gathered up his paperwork, not raising his eyes to his father's face. "I'm turning in for the night. These calculations were a complete waste of time. Start again in the morning on something that might actually get me somewhere."
Hohenheim stared at the frost-clouded window, lost in his own tangle of thoughts, quiet until he heard Ed's uneven footsteps on the stairs. "There might be Alphonse in this world, too...you know."
The steps paused, and for the first time since the conversation began, gold eyes met deep bronze, and the pair solemnly regarded each other, deep emotions roiling like sea serpents deep beneath the choppy waves of their awkward and sometimes antagonistic relationship.
"He wouldn't be your brother... but he'd be..."
"Good night, old man."
Ed vanished up the stairs, and Hohenheim knew that was likely the last time he'd speak of that subject—it hit to close to the heart.
He sometimes wondered if he'd done this world's Edward as grave a crime by taking him in as he had his own by walking away...but that was regret whispering down his spine again, regret and that was all. If he hadn't, then his own child would have been lost when he first arrived in this world, and they'd have wandered for years, torn asunder from everything familiar and lacking any comfort at all. It had been good and right to be there for Ed when he unexpectedly found himself looking through another's eyes and hearing a voice in the head that was not actually his; he'd saved his life at least once that night, and given him all the information he'd needed to get back home... and then he walked away.
Walking away was sometimes the only strength he had, the only way he knew to save his heart from being broken one last time. After all this time, it was still the surest indication that he loved too much, too deeply, and that this, this more than anything else, was killing him.
But in the end, when he'd lost his faith and all hope, it was love that remained. It was love that stayed with him and kept him company through the nights; love that accompanied him, a stranger in a strange land, and gave him back his will to live.
In the end, it was love that would not let him turn away, and claimed the last frayed and tattered scraps of his ancient soul.
Hohenheim shut his own book, turned down the gas lamps, blew out the guttering candles, and, smiling faintly, he, too, headed up the creaking stairs.
And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three... and the greatest of these is love.