Had anyone troubled to take them, the minutes of the 24 December 1922 meeting of the Münchener Raketenklub would have declared the event memorable for two reasons. The first, a happy accident of the calendar, saw Christmas Eve coincide with the club's hundredth meeting. Thus it seemed fitting to solemnize the occasion with toasts and a brief speech from each of the three founding members (Alfons Heiderich, Ludwig Eberhardt, and Hans Unger) as well as celebrate the holiday with a potluck supper.
The second was purely an inside joke: Edward Elric returned home from the party too full to sleep.
He hadn't meant to eat until his waistband felt uncomfortably tight (and he'd been damned if he'd pop the button to ease the pressure, like some middle-aged burgher after a hearty feed), but he also hadn't expected the spread to be so lavish. He hadn't set out to make a pig of himself, either. He'd barely touched the anise-flavored Springerle and refrained altogether from cutting himself a slice of the Stollen their landlady had baked for him and Alfons to bring. (After all, an identical loaf was sitting wrapped in cloth on the kitchen counter for tomorrow's breakfast.) He'd nursed a single mug of Glühwein all evening despite Gottschalk's increasingly insistent offers to top him up; the stuff smelled better than it tasted, steaming in its pot on the gas ring, the sugar and cinnamon and cloves barely taking the edge off the cheap red wine that was all they could afford. All right, he had cut quite a swath through Klein's sister's Lebkuchen—and who'd have marked Eberhardt for such a dab hand at Reiberdatschi? He'd brought the potato-and-egg mixture ready-made in a big, covered bowl and fried up cake after golden cake over the fire in the yard—the perfect accompaniment to the inevitable Weisswurst.
And once those treats had been devoured, they still had nuts to roast and share with the neighborhood children (who'd popped up like so many wrens in search of breadcrumbs as soon as the party had begun), a tray of baked apples and a small box of chocolate-clawed Bärentatzen—not to mention that Ed had been called on to judge between Faber's marzipan and Unger's Quittenspeck, never having tasted either. It hadn't been a difficult decision. Ed had no objection to almonds, but his first bite of the marzipan's pale orange rival had roused a memory of the homemade quince jam his mother spread on warm muffins. (A marvel equivalent to cream stew, surely, that something so delicious could come from the sour fruit he and Al had dared each other, and sometimes Winry, to eat raw from the tree.) The taste of childhood was bittersweet, but he had ruled without hesitation in the Quittenspeck's favor ... and gone on to devour a good third of the roll.
In hindsight, that might not have been so smart. Ed wallowed from his back to his side, mattress springs squeaking beneath him, but staring at the window was no more soothing than staring at the ceiling or the wall. He simply couldn't relax with his digestive tract working overtime. All his mental tricks for courting sleep—reciting the periodic table or the Tabula Smaragdina, even counting sheep—had failed him. I quit. He sat up, wincing as the movement compressed his gut, and pulled his prosthetics from the box next to the bed.
His father had promised him an improved set come the new year; the old man's consultations with the neurologists in Berlin were going well, it seemed. Ed fought his way out of his nightshirt and began strapping the arm into place. It was too much to hope for automail in this world, but with luck Hohenheim could craft something more responsive than the largely inert contraptions Ed was currently saddled with. Give the bastard his due: he's only an amateur, but he outclasses every medical engineer in this backward place. At present Ed could just about grip things with his right hand, which meant that he could attach his leg and dress himself and put his blond hair in a ponytail, but not manipulate a slide rule or be assured that any glassware he handled wouldn't slip from his fingers or be crushed between them. What he couldn't manage left-handed he depended on others to do for him ... Alfons, primarily.
Never mind. A cup of tea to settle my stomach and a book to read while it settles—that's all I need right now.
He made his way down the hall as stealthily as possible. Alfons's door was closed, so as long as Ed didn't drop the teakettle, he shouldn't wake his flatmate. The other boy was as likely to sympathize as chuckle, but Ed didn't need to be mother-henned any more than he enjoyed being laughed at. He'd caught Alfons hiding a smile during the marzipan v. Quittenspeck contest and he wasn't sure that it was only Faber and Unger his friend had found amusing. I'll have to avoid Faber for a while now. Temperamental idiot. The Raketenklub was such an opinionated crew of eccentrics that Ed wondered sometimes how they managed to work together at all. Alfons's steady leadership played its part, he guessed, as did Eberhardt's genial willingness to walk a fulminating rocketeer into the yard and thump sense into him. And, in the end, they had to cooperate: they were obsessed with an enterprise that none could achieve on his own.
I'll take alchemy over engineering any day, Ed thought, not for the first time. Al and I didn't have to depend on anyone but ourselves.
He filled the kettle with water and set it to boil while he scrabbled in the cupboard for the tea canister. It felt depressingly light when he lifted it, only the faintest swish answering his shake. Didn't we just stock up? Ed popped the lid and tilted the container toward the window to make the most of the light from the street. A few pinches of dried leaves slid across the bottom of the tin, no more. Damn.
He shut off the stove—no sense wasting gas at its current price—and considered his options. They had coffee, but his stomach twisted at the mere thought. Cocoa? Warm milk was supposed to be soporific, wasn't it? And with enough chocolate and sugar in the mix, he'd hardly taste it. Ed opened the icebox, but as his fingers closed reluctantly on the milk bottle, the sound of a step in the hall caught his ear. He hastily shut the door and began formulating an excuse for being awake that didn't involve food. Or milk.
As he posed himself casually against the counter, Alfons tiptoed through the arch and headed straight for the front door without glancing into the kitchen. He was wearing his old brown overcoat and carrying his boots. Ed stared, unable to imagine what could be luring his flatmate out into such a frigid night—with all the furtiveness of a cat burglar, too. That one false step in the hall aside, his stocking feet whispered across the floor with barely an answering mutter from the boards. Neat trick, Ed thought enviously, and then: How many times has he done this before?
He waited until Alfons had his hand on the latch to ask, "Where are you going?"
Alfons startled, dropping his boots with a clatter. "Edward?" he gasped. "Why are you still up?"
"I asked first," Ed said, walking to the kitchen table and taking a seat.
Alfons hesitated, then switched on the overhead light. Both boys blinked in the brightness, but Alfons immediately ducked his head and squatted to retrieve his boots. His coat fell open as he did so, and Ed saw that he had his best suit on underneath. Well, well.
Had one of the giggling parade of girls angling for Alfons's attention finally succeeded in snaring it? He tried again to catch the other boy's eye as he rose, but Alfons avoided his gaze, hooking another kitchen chair with his right foot and settling into it. When he bent to tug on his boots, Ed saw the flush on the back of his neck. Aha! He wondered which girl it was—the curly-haired one who was always asking for help with her calculus exercises? or maybe the tall medical student who occasionally shared their bench in the chemistry lab? Ed hoped it was the medical student; curly-top was clingy and useless. "Well?" he asked, stifling a grin.
Alfons said nothing, making a great show of tightening his laces. Ed debated whether he owed the younger boy a lecture about his conduct, but quickly decided against it. Avuncular wasn't his style—and his own experience with girls being negligible, it was even odds that Alfons would laugh in his face if he tried. He let the silence stretch instead, mildly curious to see how long his nimble-fingered flatmate could pretend to fumble a simple butterfly knot.
Not long at all. His blush deepening, Alfons finished with his boots and sat up. "I'm going to St. Ludwig's," he blurted.
Ed's jaw hung loose for a few seconds before he was able to say, "What?"
"I'm going to midnight Mass at St. Ludwig's," Alfons said, his back very straight but his blue eyes focused somewhere past Ed's right ear. "I always used to go with—when I was a child. I like the singing and the Ludwigskirche has a good choir and—and I thought I'd go."
"Singing," Ed repeated to buy himself time to think.
He remembered Alfons singing at the party, but not whether he had done so with especial enthusiasm. Everyone seemed liable to burst into song at this time of year, whether they could carry a tune or not. One of the customs of the season, those Christmas—carols, they were called, weren't they? Ed recalled hearing them last year at Herr Oberth's, although he hadn't paid them much heed. Music had never interested him as it had Al, who'd hummed their mother's lullabies when he thought Ed was asleep and preferred to patronize cafÃ©s whose radios broadcast the hit parade rather than news or sports. Did his counterpart share that taste?
Alfons coughed and groped in his pockets for a handkerchief. Bronchitis had laid him out flat at the end of November; he was scarcely over the wan, hoarse and wobbly stage of convalescence even now. Ed frowned, rotated his chair ninety degrees, and leaned his left arm on the table. "It's a long, cold walk down to the University in this weather," he said.
Alfons shrugged. "I'm fine."
You'd say that if you were dying. Ed cocked a dubious brow at his friend but left it at that, asking instead, "So why all the sneaking around?"
Alfons finally met his gaze. "I didn't want to trouble you."
Ed felt his own face heat under the other boy's steady regard. He made no secret of his atheism—in fact, since arriving in Munich, he'd seldom missed an opportunity to proclaim it. The place was cleric-ridden to an extent that still astonished him. Throw a stone in any direction and you'd hit a church—or a church-run school or hospital or bakery or brewery or club, subsidized equally by the powerful and the gullible. He'd complained about it often enough to Alfons, taking his shrugs for assent. Only now did it occur to Ed that he might have been stomping all over his fellow-scientist's sensibilities when he disparaged believers as people too lazy to trouble themselves to think. He supposed (tardily) that faith and rationality didn't have to be mutually exclusive—Gottschalk and Unger were church-goers, after all.
Was Alfons one, as well? Ed thought not; surely he'd have noticed. Perhaps this sudden yen for hallelujahs was something the season called up—holidays could have strange effects on people. He himself found Heldengedenktag unpleasant, too similar to remembrance days in Amestris, the solemn homage to the fallen of the Great War calling up memories of his own failures in Lior ...
Ed yanked his thoughts back to the current problem. Unfortunately, he couldn't conceive of a way to phrase the question "Do you really believe in that stuff?" that wouldn't sound insulting. But die Tat wirkt mächtiger als das Wort, as they said here. What couldn't be learned through inquiry could usually be discovered by observation and experiment. Psychology's a science, too. "Um, then, do you mind if I come along?" he asked.
Alfons refolded his handkerchief and tucked it into the top pocket of his overcoat. "If you want to," he said.
"Sure," Ed replied quickly. "I've never been before, and if the music is as good as you say ... besides," he added, pleased to find he had a real excuse, "I need to walk off all those sweets or I'll never get to sleep. Can you wait five minutes?"
Alfons nodded. Ed couldn't read his expression—was he embarrassed, unhappy, indifferent? He didn't say no; leave it at that. Ed pushed himself to his feet and limped back to his bedroom.
He had no intention of donning his own best suit, dark broadcloth better fitted to a cozy Paris salon than a drafty Bavarian church. Instead, he found a clean shirt in his dresser and a perfectly respectable grey serge vest and trousers that would neither embarrass Alfons nor leave Ed prey to hypothermia. All those mines up in the Ruhr and they've still got a coal shortage. German efficiency, my ass. He pulled on his coat, checked the pockets for his mittens, and swiped his cap and scarf from the hook on the wall. "Ready!" he said as he stepped into the hall.
Alfons was waiting for him by the front door. They thumped softly down the stairs, through the foyer and out onto the sidewalk. Tilting his head back, Ed inhaled the crisp, dry air while Alfons locked up. The past week had been warm, a good eight degrees above freezing, but overcast and damp. Fog had curled through the streets every morning, lifting no earlier than noon, seeming to shorten the brief days even further. But yesterday the mercury had plummeted toward zero and a freshening west wind had blown away the clouds that hid the mountains ... and the stars.
Ed tallied the constellations he could see, familiar from countless journeys across Amestris and unchanged here: the Little Bear, with the Pole Star in his tail; Cassiopeia's chair and Auriga's chariot overhead; Orion down south, his dogs playing hide-and-seek behind the rooftops—names so old his father had learned them as a child, half a millennium ago. Only the newer objects, picked out with ever-stronger telescopes and numbered in long catalogs, had unfamiliar titles. Somewhere among them, waiting to be discovered, lay his way home, maybe. He turned to Alfons and saw that he, too, was stargazing. They grinned at each other, exchanging a wordless promise: Ad astra, frater!
Cheered, Ed set a brisk pace down Winzererstrasse, ignoring the slick footing. The neighborhood was busy for so late at night: pedestrians strolled blithely past the shuttered shops, whole families bundled up in layers of darned and threadbare wool as neat as poverty could manage. They can't all be going to church, can they? The boys' progress slowed considerably in response to the many greetings they received. Person after person hailed them with "Fröhliche Weihnachten!" and "Gott segne Sie beim Fest!" It would have been rude to hurry on in silence, so Ed shortened his stride and touched his cap when addressed, letting Alfons answer "Frohe Weihnachten!" for both of them.
Turning left onto Schellingstrasse put the breeze at their backs, but they kept their hats down and their collars up against the chill. What it lacked in warmth, however, the scene more than made up in light. Window after window cast lambent rectangles on the pavement to join the buzzing glare of the streetlamps. Ed spied shamelessly on anyone who'd neglected to draw their curtains, bemused by the dangerous custom of cutting a pine tree, hauling it indoors, and weighing down its branches with lit candles. The children enjoyed it, though: he saw more than one bouncing with impatience as the flames were kindled and clapping at the result. Adults, less volatile, talked and laughed with each other or clustered around pianos to sing. Ed smiled wryly. In spite of everything—galloping inflation, fuel and food shortages, the riots that marred every political event (and some that weren't so political)—people still found reasons to celebrate. It was almost heroic.
His attention shifted to Alfons as the other boy exchanged courtesies with a fat man swinging a cane. Ed knew his friend had relatives up in the Altmuhl Valley somewhere, but he'd decided not to go to them this Christmas, pleading his recent illness. Hohenheim had planned to be in Munich for the holiday too, but bad weather was delaying him in Berlin. At least, Ed thought that was what the old man had been trying to say when he telephoned last night. The line had crackled and spat so badly they'd been reduced to shouting at each other to communicate anything at all. The noise had drawn Alfons from his books, worried that Ed and his father were arguing again and relieved to find that they weren't. Not at Christmas, Edward.
Why not? Ed had asked as he cradled the receiver with a soft ting. It's just another day.
He winced at the recollection. Maybe Christmas involved some kind of sacred truce among warring relatives; given how they insisted on gathering together for the occasion, it seemed a logical precaution. He'd have to be careful not to let his father needle him until after the new year. Or at least not where Alfons could overhear.
As they approached the end of the street, they joined a small river of people crossing Ludwigstrasse to the precisely-porportioned church, the straight lines of its roof and slender bell-towers neatly balanced by the large rose window and arched front doors. Ed limped quickly up the low steps to the porch, caustically delighted at how easy they were to climb. Rarely did he meet with a piece of monumental architecture that neglected to try his patience and his prosthetics to the breaking point mountaineering from street level to the entrance. The current of the crowd drew them quickly through the vestibule; Ed managed to get his cap off just as they crossed the threshold into the narrow chasm of the nave. Organ music burst over them, a fantasia of brassy notes reflected off the gold-starred blue vaulting. Ed got only a glimpse of the garish fresco that dominated the other end of the building before he was shunted off to the right. The crush was tremendous, rivaling a West End theater lobby, and Ed was glad of Alfons's unobtrusive grip on his left arm.
They squeezed down the side aisle to a seat at the end of a row beneath one of the arches supporting the ceiling. The view directly ahead was blocked by a column, but for the moment Ed was content to shelter behind its pale bulk. He settled into the straight-backed pew, loosened his collar and caught his breath. The organ rumbled to a conclusion and Ed took advantage of the sudden quiet to mutter to Alfons, "Is it always this crowded?"
Alfons finished unwinding his scarf and laid it between them. "Not usually," he answered. "The holidays are always well-attended—Christmas and Easter, especially." His lips twitched and his voice dropped to a conspiratorial whisper. "Twice-a-year faithful, my mother used to say."
Ed was less interested in the demographics of Bavarian religious practice than in Alfons's mention of his mother. He almost never spoke of his immediate family; Ed had gathered that his parents were dead, but nothing else. "Just twice a year?" he asked at random, wondering if a more detailed anecdote might be forthcoming.
Alfons shook his head. "They come for weddings, too—" his brows pinched together and he seemed to retreat inside himself for an instant, but he finished the sentence with scarcely a hitch—"and funerals."
Ed was saved from having to reply by an outbreak of bells: first one, deep and strident, then another and another, responding and overlapping, a merry jangle without a tune. Then the organ thundered back to life and everyone rose with a spatter of leather and a groan of relieved wood. Ed stood on tiptoe, straining to see what was happening. A staff tipped with a large, metal cross reared itself above the heads of the crowd and moved slowly up the main aisle as a chorus of men's voices joined the organ. The service appeared to have begun.
It was quite a show, Ed conceded. The space itself was awe-inspiring, if you were impressed by height. The severity of the stone arches was softened by the jewel-bright decorations they framed: statues with hands outstretched in blessing or folded in prayer; paintings of angels hovering above solemn seated figures; banners embroidered with elaborate symbols and monograms; wreaths and swags of pine rope tied with red ribbon; and golden candelabra bearing tapers by the dozens. A procession of choristers, clerics and attendants bowed and peeled off in both directions before the altar, waving glittering thuribles, and the smells of melting beeswax and evergreen sap (and sweat and stale tobacco) were soon overwhelmed by the pungent sweetness of the incense. A thin fog hovered in the vaulting and drifted slowly through the nave. Alfons coughed, blew his nose and stifled another cough, but shrugged off Ed's inquiring touch on his shoulder. Ed watched him warily—Alfons tended to overestimate his stamina these days—and plotted the quickest route to the exit, just in case.
He found the service itself difficult to follow in any detail. It was performed primarily in slurred Latin, the lines declaimed or chanted without amplification. By the time they reached the rear of the church, the acoustic delay had reduced them to an all-but-indecipherable muddle. Ed would have wagered a great deal that the people around him were replying merely by rote. What he heard of the poems and stories read by men with sonorous voices from the pulpit was entertaining enough, but he could have done without the long-winded commentary that followed, delivered by a cleric in a nasal Bayrisch drone. Ed sympathized with the squirming children and the men whose heads lolled gently on their shoulders until their wives poked them back into wakefulness; his own eyelids felt perilously heavy by the time the sermon was done.
They had more singing afterward, thankfully—sometimes by the choir alone, sometimes with everyone joining in. Ed had to admit the music was a real selling point, by turns solemn and joyous, stentorian and tender. Perhaps it was all that enticed Alfons back. He made none of the spoken responses, but his voice rang out strong and sweet whenever it was time to sing. Heads swiveled to find him during the longer pieces; children gaped and grandmothers beamed, nodding encouragement whenever he attempted a harmony. Alfons smiled back, obviously gratified by the compliments.
Show-off, Ed thought fondly.
He himself had no desire to become part of the show. He stood and sat when everyone else did, letting the spectacle wash over him, and winked when Alfons checked on him between songs to indicate that he wasn't (too) bored.
A lull developed. Intermission? People were rising to their feet and moving into the aisles—but no, they were filing up to kneel before the altar, receive something from a passing cleric, and then return to their pews. Alfons remained seated, so Ed did, too. No sense getting himself in trouble by profaning a mystery, however specious. Avoiding the penalties would take too much time away from his research.
The organist began playing a simple melody that teased Ed with its familiarity. It must have been popular enough that he'd heard it more than once, unlike the rest of tonight's program. He puzzled over it until a single voice, a boy's soprano, intoned the opening words: "Stille Nacht ... heilige Nacht ... "
Ah, that one. Definitely popular, if sentimental rather than jolly. The soloist put it across well, his voice sweet, every note pure, the organ a murmur of sound underneath: the voice of an angel crooning a lullaby, because even the son of a god could wake lonely in the night and count himself lucky to feel his mother's arms about him. A telling illusion—particularly if a pillar occluded your view of the singer, Ed reflected cynically. The full choir entered on the second verse, the organ swelling into greater prominence to balance them. Ed began losing track of the words again as the people around him took them up in a blurred rumble. But above the confusion that one voice still soared, like something falling out of the sky, a gift from heaven to earth, beautiful even in its echoes—the hoarse croak behind Ed and the overwrought swoops three pews up and Alfons's improvised countermelody—in every voice raised to sing the god-child to sleep ...
Every voice but his.
Ed's throat tightened as if he had swallowed alum. He couldn't sing—he didn't believe in this crap, didn't have comforting childhood memories to indulge, and besides, his voice sucked. Yet as the organist added bell-notes to the accompaniment, he found himself struggling to clear his throat anyway. Alfons half-turned to him, but the last thing Ed wanted was attention. He lifted the hymnal he'd been consulting throughout the evening, as if to follow the music more closely. The notes jumped and wobbled on the page. Dammit, am I getting sick now? His eyes were burning; he squeezed them shut and opened them again. The staves sprang out sharp and clear as warmth trickled down his left cheek, blurring only beneath the salt drop that fell from his right eye onto the thin paper.
Ed stood up, dropping the hymnal, and blundered into the aisle. He shoved people aside without apology, trailed by indignant gasps and hisses that couldn't begin to drown out the singing. Tripping, he staggered sideways; a horrified and gleeful voice on his right stage-whispered, "Drunk!" Ed shook off the hands that clutched him, snarled at their owners, and ignored the sound of his own name, faint but persistent, in the growing babble. The crowd thinned out; his feet found a rhythm at last, propelling him past a blank-eyed statue, past a table covered with pamphlets, past a last knot of astonished faces and out of the nave. The choir had fallen silent but the organ still pursued him; he fled through the vestibule and vaulted down the steps, landing in an ungainly, sprawling crouch on the sidewalk.
The wind blew through his clothes in an icy wave and Ed realized that he'd left his coat behind. He hesitated, looking back, and saw people beginning to cluster in the porch. Springing to his feet, he bolted up the street, not caring where he went as long as it was away—away from the church, away from the music, away from that seductive mirage of fellowship.
This was what he hated about religion: it was so irrational. It bypassed thought and preyed on feelings; it found the empty places inside you and offered to fill them up with comforting illusions of direction and belonging, bright and warm and innocuous ... until they began demanding obedience and sacrifice. These people didn't even bother to hide the trap: that cute little baby in the manger grew up to be hideously executed, Ed knew, and they celebrated his death as fervently as they did his birth, the bloody sadists.
He realized abruptly that he was running through the familiar precincts of the University, and something inside him unwound with relief. There were the fountains, silent for the winter, and there the main building with its graceful arcade, and there, looming ahead in the middle of Ludwigstrasse, was the bombastic magnificence of the Siegestor, that relic of Bavarian military glory his fellow students either worshipped or disdained. Ed usually held with the latter, but now he greeted the pseudoclassical monument like an old friend for the shelter its triple arches provided from the wind.
He'd have to go back to the church eventually—to reclaim his overcoat and reassure Alfons that he hadn't gone crazy—but he wanted a little time to recover his breath and pull his thoughts into order first. What got into me? He shied from recalling too clearly what he had felt, but reason alone couldn't unriddle his reactions. Why music? Hearing Mom's lullabies used to make me sad, but that was because she died. I don't know any of these people; it's like they're just faded copies of the real thing half the time, anyway—-
He groaned, ducking deeper into the shadow of the eastern arch, but Alfons, his quarry sighted, brought him to bay as ruthlessly as any Junker's hunting dog. The younger boy was panting heavily, his coat hanging open and his arms full of Ed's abandoned outerwear. "What ... happened?" he asked between gasps. "Do you ... feel sick?"
Leave me be, can't you? "No," Ed answered flatly. "I'm fine."
"Then why did you—" Alfons stopped to clear his throat, took a deep breath and began again, "I know people feel faint sometimes, with all the incense—"
"I'm not sick, dammit!" Ed interrupted him. "I'm—" He searched futilely for a term that would both explain and dismiss his distress. "Hell!" he exclaimed, and could have bit his tongue in frustration. Even curses led back to religion; even when you thought yourself free of it, it snuck into your vocabulary ... "Fuck!" he yelled, loud enough to strike clanking echoes from the stonework around them.
"Edward!" Alfons freed a hand and grabbed Ed's left shoulder, shaking him. "Tell me what's wrong!"
Ed rounded on him, throwing off his grip and pointing back down Ludwigstrasse toward the bell-towers arrowing up into the sky. "Do you believe that?" he shouted.
Alfons went rigid. He was silent for so long that Ed's shoulder began to ache, but he refused to lower his hand until Alfons backed away, turning to look at the church. Ed's anger slowly died, leaving a colder feeling behind; he wrapped his arms around his ribs to keep from shivering. "Why did you go?" he asked. "Just for the music? Or because you really believe in that?" Please don't tell me you do. Please don't ...
Alfons faced him, his normally mild features set, but not angry. "No. I don't know. Not really. Not that—" he mimicked Ed's gesture—"but sometimes when I'm thinking about—when I'm working, sometimes I remember." He paused and then spoke softly, his words strangely formal and archaic—quoting someone, Ed guessed. "'I will behold thy heavens, the works of thy fingers: the moon and the stars which thou hast founded. What is man, that thou art mindful of him? or the son of man, that thou visitest him?' And I wonder sometimes if there isn't something behind all this—" his glance slid to the trees peeking out into the street from the grassy swards surrounding the still fountains—"or even someone who is mindful of m—of us ... "
The longing that roughened his voice hurt Ed worse than the singing had, like caustic soda on an acid burn. "No! There isn't! This is all we have—" his arms swept out, taking in the street and the buildings, the grass and the trees and the sky—"the world and our own minds to understand it! That's all!" Isn't that enough?
Alfons said nothing, his face unreadable for the second time that evening. Ed sagged against the Siegestor, closing his eyes, half-wishing he could call his words back—but they were true, and one cold truth was more precious than a thousand warm illusions.
The familiar weight of his coat dropped across his back to hang precariously from his right shoulder. Grabbing at the lapels automatically to prevent it from slipping, he blinked and found himself the object of his companion's unhappy scrutiny. "I'm sorry," Alfons said. "When you caught me, I was sure you'd laugh, and then, when you came along, I was afraid: afraid you'd spoil it. I didn't think ... " He trailed off, shrugging.
It was on the tip of Ed's tongue to shout I don't need your pity, dammit! but he managed to bite down on that impulse before the initial vowel was fully formed. Instead, he threaded first his prosthetic, then his arm into the sleeves of his coat and held out his hands for his scarf and cap. "Do you want to go back and see the end?" he asked levelly.
"No," said Alfons, the word muffled by the folds of knitted wool he was twisting around his own throat and chin. "They've probably finished. Let's go home."
He started across the pavement without checking behind him, as if he either trusted Ed to follow or didn't care if he didn't. He hadn't taken five steps, however, when his boots encountered a patch of black ice or a stone worn smoother than its companions and he slipped. Ed lunged forward, catching him by the elbow, and spent the next minute frantically trying to plant his good leg somewhere solid and keep Alfons from bringing them both down. "Watch it!" he advised belatedly.
"Thanks!" Alfons wheezed once he had gotten his feet back under him. Then he bent over, planted his hands on his thighs and coughed as if he intended to expel his larynx.
Not again! Convinced by now that these episodes really did sound worse than they were, Ed transferred his arm to Alfons's back and steadied him until the fit ceased. "Careful!" he said. "You could crack your head wide open on the ground here. You may think you've got brains to waste, but I know better."
"Thank you very much," Alfons replied, breathless but wry. He straightened, pulling his scarf back up to cover the lower part of his face. "Let's get home before we freeze."
Ed searched his coat for his mittens and found them crumpled together in the left-hand pocket. As he drew them on, he hoped his numb fingers were just that and not on their way to being frostbitten. "That's the best suggestion I've heard all—day," he said, and bowed with a flourish to cover the near-slip. "After you."
"Oh, no," Alfons demurred with a glint. "After you."
In the end they crossed Ludwigstrasse together and turned right onto Adalbertstrasse, passing the darkened north wing of the University's main building on their left. Nothing but streetlamps lit their way as they walked through the residential district west of campus; everyone appeared to have doused their trees and sought their beds. Ed relaxed. Singing and merrymaking were all very well, but they were no substitute for a well-constructed experiment or a productive evening of research. First thing tomorrow, I'm going over those solid fuel recipes again. There has to be a way to—-
"How much tea do we have left?" Alfons asked unexpectedly.
"What? Oh, um, none," Ed answered, shifting mental gears with an effort. Shit, I'm tired. "Add it to the shopping list. We've got plenty of coffee, though."
"Let's make some when we get back." The lines around Alfons's eyes deepened, hinting at the smile concealed by his scarf. "If we dose it with enough cognac, it won't keep us up all night, either."
Ed wasn't sure what had brought on this cheerful mood—in the shadow of the old Nördlicher Friedhof, no less!—but sharing a pot of coffee or tea while they burned the midnight oil studying was so normal, he didn't want to challenge it. "Sounds good to me, but I thought you were saving that bottle to celebrate with." If they ever had something to celebrate—although the way the current rocket designs were progressing, that day might not be far off.
Alfons looked down his nose. "It is Christmas, Edward," he explained.
And next year you're spending it at home, if I have to dose the coffee with chloryl hydrate. "Oh, right," Ed said, and dug through his memory for a recent quotation. "In terra pax hominibus bonae voluntatis?"
Alfons reached out and rattled his fingers along the high brick wall that bordered the cemetery. "We can hope."
As they neared the Franciscan church on the Josephplatz, they saw that its doors were propped wide in defiance of the cold, leaking gaslight and voices raised in song into the street. Alfons began to hum the jaunty melody—then stopped, glancing sidelong at Ed. Ed waved away the implied apology and gestured at him to continue. He shouldn't have to give up singing just because I got overwrought—and besides, some of the stuff is pretty. Alfons tucked his scarf under his chin and picked up the carol in what sounded like the middle of a verse, its lines alternating between German and Latin. Too weary to translate—don't they all say the same thing, anyway?—Ed adjusted his steps to the pace of the music and let the carol melt into the background of his thoughts, like rain against the window while he read. The other voices soon faded from hearing behind them, leaving Alfons to finish alone, a little hoarse from his earlier exertions but still tuneful.
"Ubi sunt gaudia?
Nirgend mehr denn da.
Da die Engel singen
Und die Schellen klingen
In regis curia.
Eia, wär'n wir da!
Eia, wär'n wir da!"