Every now and then, since he had been in this world, his view shifted precipitously, creating a sensation like vertigo, things became in turns insubstantial and unbearably intense. Light, sound, feeling, his heartbeat would quicken and his pulse would pound in his ears, and he would have to convince himself that this was not the moment of his death. He would usually have to stop, if he were moving, or start to walk, if he were standing still, if only to prove to himself that he maintained control over the flesh and blood shell that housed his worn soul.
Whenever he thought his grip on his sanity was about to slip, he would seek out people. He had begun to do this in London after determining that being solitary was undermining his sanity. He found himself questioning whether the entire world around him was fictitious, created for him by the Gate, where perhaps he was still imprisoned, or that it was possibly a creation of his own mind, degraded and ancient as it was, and he was in fact in his own world, but living in some cave or maybe even in a madhouse.
But socializing with people helped immensely, made him feel that everything was real, and, he reasoned, even if it wasn't real, having company helped to pass the time.
On Saturdays he haunted Munich's art galleries. The works of Kandinsky and Klee in particular, made his old heart skip beats. He flirted with the owner of a prominent gallery, whose husband was a patron of the Bauhaus, and wangled an invitation to a party. And another and another. He traveled to Weimar to view a show at the Bauhaus and ended up sharing a late-night bottle of wine with Walter Gropius. Industrial design was a fascinating topic, and most certainly had a strong connection with physics, not to mention aesthetics, which was a new subject for him. He and Gropius talked long into the night. He purchased a Kandinsky painting several weeks later—something he could ill afford but it enhanced his status greatly, and he was attracted to it—he hung that over the mantle. It was called "Composition I." Its association with alchemy called to him. He often sat in the chair and looked at the painting. He hadn't purchased any art for what seemed like a hundred years.
It had been his intention to live out the rest of his life as a bachelor. When he had first arrived in this world, Hohenheim had resolved that he was through with women. He had convinced himself that Trisha was the last woman he would ever love. It seemed fitting, and romantic, to declare that he would live out the rest of his life, on real-person time, dedicated to the memory of his adored wife. He didn't have too much trouble, those first few years, staying away from love. He made friends with powerful women, the wives of his friends, and took a fatherly interest in their daughters, even cultivated the friendship of a brilliant young woman, a graduate student in the Physics Department at the university in Munich. He took Liesl out to lunch now and then, and watched her turn pink over a glass of wine. But he was ever the gentleman, he would not get involved in a foolish romance. Besides, love had the capacity to unbalance a person, and he felt himself already so precariously balanced in this strange world.
Still, sometimes he found himself comparing a woman's face or body to hers. There were faces more beautiful, and figures more perfect—he saw them all the time. But none had whatever it was that made him ache for her. Occasionally he met or passed by a woman who reminded him of her—he had already encountered people who were strong copies of people he had known in his own world, and he wondered if it were possible, if Trisha's doppelganger lived anywhere in his proximity, and what would happen if he saw her.
He paid little attention to the theatre, and he barely glanced at marquees or posters or looked at arts magazines. It was on an errand that he happened to take a different route home through the theatre district, between Hofgartenstrasse and Maximillianstrasse, and he found himself passing by the Cuvillies, the Residenz and the Nationaltheather, and there was a billboard in front advertising the play Scheherezade. It featured a gigantic likeness, an embellished photograph, of its star, Lili Christine.
He would barely have glanced at the billboard, he never knew what made him do so. He usually walked about in a fog of his own thoughts and memories and theories and ideas and things he had read and things he was working out and people he was trying to work with, and rarely could these pressing thoughts be pushed aside to register things like who was acting in Scheherezade.
But it was her.
How odd to see that face surrounded by that ridiculous costume, the slender neck wrapped in long strands of beads, false gaudy jewels in her ears and hanging from a feathered headress, the bared belly, the lips dark and painted, lurid brash colors painted over the black and white photograph. She looked exotic, and she looked cheap. But it was, undeniably, her.
Now that it was right in front of him, he realized that he had expected it to happen, wished for it even.
He went to see Scheherezade. In his opinion, she was not a particularly good actress, unnatural and showy, and she tended to shout some of her lines, but the crowd seemed to adore her. At the end of the show she received a standing ovation and flowers were thrown at her feet.
He felt rather foolish; he hadn't thought to bring any.
He told himself to forget about her. She wasn't Trisha, she only looked like her. There was nothing about her bearing that reminded him of his wife. His wife could never have been an actress; she was rather shy, and would blush even when reading aloud.
Still, he saw her in Scheherezade four times more, and then attended two performances of Hedda Gabler. He resisted the impulse to try to meet her after the performances. She would think him a mad stalker; besides, he didn't have anything to say to her, aside from You look just like my dead wife from another world. It wouldn't sound right.
At an art gallery opening in April he wandered with his hands behind his back, rocking on his heels studying the pictures, and quietly greeting acquaintances. Galleries were a gentle occupation for his overexercised mind, and he was enjoying himself alone when a woman walked right into him, not seeing him looming above her with her silly bucket hat that fell over her eyes. She had spilled red wine on his vest, and had gone into a fit of embarrassment and apology. Hohenheim good-naturedly assured her that his vest would forgive her, and earn a few marks for his cleaner, and that she really should not be concerned. Then her heart-shaped little face tipped upwards, and bright green eyes, the brows plucked away in the latest style, and lips rouged as a ripe cherry, a sweet blush spread across cheeks and nose, all made his stomach twist.
What alarmed him most was that the look in the eyes was entirely different. He was certain he gaped at her.
Then she laughed, not a girlish giggle—as she would have done—but a rather sharp, jarring, sawing sound. She called him a "sport" and snaked her arm through his.
"Well, then, this drink needs replacing, don't you think, sir?" she said.
What was so special about her, aside from the fact that she inhabited the body of Trisha, he couldn't really say. Perhaps it was just that he was lonely, and tired of spending evenings sitting in alone in his flat trying not to think about people he used to love. It had been so long, and he was, after all, only human. Her brown hair—in color it was just like Trisha's—was gathered at the nape of her neck, tresses pressed in soft waves against her cheeks. (He had never seen Trisha with her hair deliberately styled.) Her body was soft and her skin pearly, incandescent, peachy. (In this it was the same.) He courted her as he had his last wife; he could not transmute flowers into crowns and necklaces, but he could buy her books and bouquets and things she fancied in shop windows.
Her real name was not Lili Christine, but Krisztina Schaum, and she was a farmgirl from Kasubia. (This he could imagine, her with her hair in braids, as Trisha had worn it when they had first met. A plain dress, an apron, a tan on her skin.) She had run away to Berlin as a teenager, and found a permanent home in Munich's dramatic theater. Her name was known about town, but probably not across the country. She was a local star, but she was ambitious, anxious to get into the moving pictures.
"That's the future," she said. "The theatre is dying. It's dead to me already—" she said—"but a girl's got to eat."
It seemed to Hohenheim that she spoke all of her thoughts just as they entered her head.
"I'm a feminist," she told him over their first dinner together. "I don't ever want to be married."
"I wasn't aware that I had proposed," he had said drily. He had a chuckle at his own little joke—he amused himself sometimes, he really did—but she gave him a cold, offended look. He found that she required him to take her hand and to kiss it. Then she smiled.
Anyway, he didn't want to get married either. He had already had two wives, he told her.
And it was just as well he not get married again, but he couldn't very well say, that he already had children, and that they looked very much like what children would look like if the two of them combined...all he could say was that he certainly didn't need any more children.
"So where are they, your children?" she asked him.
He ached to tell her the truth. His track record as a father was appalling. None of his sons had reached adulthood in one piece. He didn't know where any of them were at this moment, and was fairly certain he would never see any of them ever again.
"At this point in time, I don't actually know," he admitted.
"Here's to you, father of the year," she said. "You complete and utter bastard," she added, smiling, and raising her glass, she winked at him.
"I'm not going to ‘belong' to you," she warned him on their third or fourth date. "I'm telling you that now. No man will own me."
He couldn't say to that, I've already had you, I owned you, I owned someone just like you, she was mine entirely. And I abandoned her.
"I'll let you take me out," she told him on their sixth date. "But I can't fall in love with you. You're too old for me."
That had hurt. She had allowed him to give her a couple of chaste kisses, but had kept him at arm's length. It was in fact how things must stay, as he knew he could never let her see his degrading body. Still, it had hurt to be told that he was too old for her. That had never happened before.
"Perhaps you find me tiresome," he said, annoyed, though still letting her loop her arm through his. She pouted and scowled, expressions that had never crossed Trisha's face. Still, it was familiar. They were walking away from the theatre district after a late dinner, toward the river. The moon shimmered in the Isar. It would have been nice, he thought, to be in love and to be loved, what contentedness there was in that. He would never have it again. "Perhaps you'd prefer it if I left you alone."
But she had pouted and protested, No no no!
"That's not what I meant," she said, by way of apology. "I'm only saying, a girl's got to keep her options open."
Hohenheim thought she wasn't much of a girl, she was pushing thirty at least.
"You can still buy me things, though, if you want," she offered, looking up at him appealingly.
"How kind of you," Hohenheim said. She laughed—he always seemed to amuse her, anyway—and pulled on his arm, urging him toward the rail of the promenade.
"I do like you," she said, looking out over the river. He only stared at her profile, against the dark water. "I think you're handsome and smart, and interesting...I don't know how you put up with me. I know I'm a difficult girl to hold on to." She squeezed his hand.
After a moment of quiet, after he had soaked up this concession to affection and even felt rather flattered, she broke the silence: "I nearly forgot to ask...could you lend me a little money again? Just a little, to get me through the week."
If she hadn't looked like Trisha, Hohenheim would have been more than happy to let her slip through his fingers. Perhaps Lili sensed in him some attachment deeper than mere attraction and interest, because she didn't do much to keep in his favor. He felt like a fool, but he could justify it to himself.
As long as he had her face to gaze at, it helped him to stay balanced in this world.
For a while they had a routine together: Friday nights were reserved for her theatre friends, but on Saturday afternoons he took her to gallery showings, then went to see her plays on Saturday nights. At her flat, he sat on her sofa while she walked the floor and smoked, rehearsing her lines. She let him hold her hand and sometimes they would kiss, but he was hesitant to go any further, and she gave no signal that she wanted him to. She had called him too old for her, and she had already told him that she kept other lovers.
"I'm all for free love," she said. "Free spirit, free love! I am a communist, I think, yes, I think I'm a communist, I love the idea of free love and economic equality, and I hate seeing poor people, really it depresses me. "
"I hear that the Russians are forcing the collectivization of farms," he remarked by way of conversation. It was much in the news these days. "There are stories that they are seizing peoples' lands and coercing them, under penalty of death, into communal farms. The White Army is still fighting it out with the Communists over control of the country, and this coercion is only serving to feed the fire of the counter-revolutionaries' cause. I understand the impulse toward universal equality, but I wonder if it is actually practicable, if coercion needs to be used to achieve it."
"Uch, shut up. Stop lecturing me," she complained. "Who cares about all that?"
"You just expressed a political view," he reminded her gently.
"Stop patronizing me. I know what those Communists do. When they were in control here during that so-called Bavarian Soviet, right after the war, it was horrid," she said.
"But you just said you were a Communist," he said. "Was there not enough free love?"
He laughed at his own joke but she was frowning, annoyed at being teased.
"I guess I meant I was a Socialist," she said, defensive. "Never mind."
She wasn't a deep thinker, but she had her opinions.
She had Trisha's face, her body, but not her soul. Trisha's sweet soul, compliant, giving—perhaps by now he even idealized her as martyred—now he could only see her in his mind as pregnant, a fertile, compliant domestic goddess. She had been strong in her own quiet way, but she had kept her secrets deep, and if she had had profound or curious thoughts she had kept them buried, her outward shell, soft as it was, entirely pliant, loving, giving, nurturing, trusting. Still, her eyes had always held a deep sadness, as if she secretly knew that her heart would be broken some day.
In retrospect, he saw that he had probably underestimated her.
The idea that he might somehow atone for his failures with Trisha by being attentive to this inferior simulacrum was so appealing. If he convinced himself hard enough, here was his chance to get things right.
And she—Lili—was appealing, in her way. The way she curled up next to him, on top of him, purring like a sleeping kitten, kneading his shirt with her little fingers. She was not afraid to seem lustful, to seem strong, and once in a while, she would bare her soul to him. She would speak of an early broken love affair, a humiliating indiscretion with a cousin, a predation from a family friend. She didn't fully trust men, but she could give her heart, and just as easily, take it away. Hohenheim wished he could tell her the truth. He had to admit, sometimes, it seemed too fantastic, even to him, and he wondered if he were living in a dream. Especially on nights in her bedroom, with red light filtering through her scarves thrown over lamps, with strange music from the street, with a strange language on his tongue, and his arm around his love.
It sometimes seemed too good to be true, and often it felt like it was only a dream, and he would soon wake up to some nightmare, or even worse, to complete loneliness, in a world without this reminder of love.
It was a cool autumn day, the sun was a yellow smear behind grey-white clouds, and Hohenheim could smell burning leaves and impending snow. His mood was fragile: he was looking forward to seeing Lili Christine tonight, but he was annoyed by an encounter he had just had with a couple of insistent members of the Thule Society, who had been pestering him to return to their meetings. Haushofer had been to his office again, begging him to come to tonight's meeting. He had told him maybe, and made his way home to put away his case and decide what to do. Have a sit in his favorite chair, look at the Kandinsky and its chaos of colors and lines, and have a cigarette.
He was looking forward to that as he approached his building. Letting himself into the vestibule, he saw a scribbled note from Frau Beck, his landlady.
HOHENHEIM—KNOCK ON MY DOOR! the note commanded, relaying her usual sense of urgency—everything was an emergency with her. What could it be? He had paid the rent on time. He knocked on the door of the first-floor flat.
"Professor!" she said, opening the door immediately, knowing it was him, because she had no doubt spied him approaching from her window. "I've accepted a telegram on your behalf! It must be urgent!" She held it out to him, her skinny hand shaking with excitement. Telegrams were the sort of thing that needled her enthusiasm for all things dire.
Hohenheim took it and folded it into the inner pocket of his coat, saying thank you, he turned to leave.
"How can you not read it NOW?" she marveled aloud. "It's a TELEGRAM! From ENGLAND!"
Hohenheim turned to her and gave his most placid smile in response to her having produced evidence that she had read it. "I have acquaintances in London. I get telegrams from them now and then, announcing visits and so on. I'm sure it's nothing, Frau Beck."
"I didn't know you even had a son!" she shouted up the stairs.
It was then that his heart nearly stopped.
In retrospect he didn't understand why he had been so surprised that Edward had come through the Gate again, as he had already done so once, but the fact of it seemed utterly shocking and turned the world upside down. But here he was, looking positively bloodless and unconscious, behind a screen in a hospital ward in London. The screens were up so that everyone didn't have to see what Hohenheim had pretty much expected; two of his limbs were gone, but they were fresh wounds, and the boy had nearly bled to death.
"We transfused him," the attending physician explained. "Twice. For some reason, we can't type his blood properly, so we had to guess. It was that or lose him. The blood didn't agree with him and his blood pressure went right down, but he's recovering all right now."
"He doesn't look very well," the father observed from his place several feet away. The boy was asleep, or unconscious—whatever he was, he looked rather dead.
"He's improved a lot, we're hopeful about him. You should be too," the physician went on. "I'm very relieved your friends tracked you down. He seems disoriented, he needs to see someone he knows. You can sit with him now, go ahead. He'll be so glad to see you when he wakes up."
He doubted that. Relieved, probably. But not happy. A black mood descended upon him as he pulled up a heavy, metal chair and sat, feeling the cold seep into his bones.
In the long hours sitting in the hospital, his mind wandered into the shadowy territories that he tried to avoid treading into—but he couldn't help it when unexpected things like this happened—and he found himself victim to that horribly disorienting speculation—whether this or that scenario felt real, whether it was possible that he was inventing this or that person—he clung to little things to convince himself that things were genuine, such as, he would never have dreamt up the idea of typing blood, or the notion that blood loss can cause kidney dysfunction, or that he would invent a discussion with a physician on the necessary frequency of passing urine and the monitoring of such things with the patient—his estranged child. He hadn't studied medicine in two hundred years, really, he wouldn't be able to make up such things, would he?
Edward's transition into this world was not pleasant—not that his own had been, but he hadn't been injured, and he was a man of experience. For all the bravado he had seen Edward show that last time in Resembool, he was in the scheme of things an infant. Right now he was terribly temperamental. He was the same, Hohenheim observed, as he had been as a colicky baby—that he remembered. That and Trisha's boundless patience with the infant, even mother's milk disagreed with him and she was feeding him pureed fruit and pap before he could even sit up. That was all just yesterday in his timeline—the birth of his first child in four hundred years. How it had surprised him, in its primitiveness and violence, so that he felt certain that Trisha would die while those Rockbells had just laughed at him. They had laughed at him even more when he had marveled at the size of the baby. It had been so small on the day it was born that the head had fit entirely into his hand.
But how he had loved the baby, and the next one too. He remembered having wished, at the twilight of his idyll with Trisha and the little boys, that there was some way he could keep them in his pockets so that he would never be parted from them, and that no harm would ever come to them. But as babies grow, one doesn't hold them quite so much, and one loses the addiction to the smell of their bodies and to the softness of their skin, and one can discount that if one leaves them, how much it will hurt. But like most pain, it faded.
For better or worse, this child, at least, was back with him.
He itched to go see Lili, but Edward slept on, and he dared not disturb him. Though exhausted from traveling himself, he was too agitated to sleep. He had to see Lili Christine. It was eight-thirty in the evening, she would be doing her performance right now, and at eleven o'clock, if she didn't go out to supper, she would be home, and he could see her. Hohenheim passed the time cleaning out the icebox; in his three-week absence, the ice had melted and not been replaced. There was a large puddle on the floor and a box full of rotted food. Then he changed the sheets on his bed, preparing it for Edward. Though the sofa was small, he couldn't let him sleep there. Thinking of the communal water closet on the ground floor, Hohenheim dusted off the chamber pot at the bottom of the wardrobe.
At ten o'clock, Edward was still sleeping, snoring away on his back, but Hohenheim could take it no longer. What if he slept till morning? Surely, he could slip away and see Lili, come back before Edward even noticed he had been gone? Hohenheim washed, changed his shirt and tie, put on more cologne—now that Edward was here, he was more self-conscious of that again—changed his stockings, brushed his hair, scrubbed his teeth with tooth powder, ate a bowl of soup. He heated some for Edward and convinced himself that he had to wake him up and make him eat.
Lili would be on her way home now...but it was Trisha his thoughts suddenly turned to as he gently woke the sleeping boy. The precise curve of his nose, his eyelashes against his cheeks, the shape of his mouth. He slapped his cheeks gently, brushed his hair from his pale face.
"Wake up, hmm? Wake up now, Edward," he coaxed. Eyes flickered open, dark and bleary.
"Listen, if you want to keep sleeping...are you listening to me?...you can keep sleeping, I have to go out for a little while...don't try to get up by yourself, all right? Wait for me, I'll be back in an hour or so, all right?"
Edward said, "Mmmmm," and turned his head.
Hohenheim removed his shoe and covered him with a blanket. Heart pounding, he left.
The door opened a crack.
"Oh, it's you," said Lili Christine, her voice teasingly cool. She regarded him with a single eye, then pulled the door open. He went to kiss her but she stepped back. "Where the hell have you been?"
"London..." he felt immediately disarmed and befuddled. She seemed relieved, but so cold. He wanted to hold her, to be held by her, to pretend she was Trisha.
"You told me London almost three weeks ago. So you couldn't drop me a line after that and tell me that you were all right?" She marched away from him, left him standing in his overcoat, while she went to get a cigarette. He followed her like a dog. She turned to smile at him, blew smoke in his face. "You beast. You'd better have a damn good reason for doing that to me. I thought you'd run away." She walked away from him again, toward the window, swaying her hips in her dressing gown, swaggering. "I thought perhaps you'd found another girl. Not that I care."
"Lili..." he said. She turned to look at him, and realizing, perhaps, that he was speechless, her expression changed.
"What is it? What happened?"
After he had told her as much of the truth as he could, and padded the story with whatever lies were required to make the thing cogent, they were sitting on the sofa, both silent. They both smoked, she, relentlessly, she was even spitting out shreds of tobacco onto her finger and flicking them from her. Her legs crossed, arms crossed, she seemed at a loss at how to respond.
He was thinking that an hour had easily passed, that he was on the second, and Edward was alone. He didn't want to leave Lili. He would have liked for her to try to cuddle him, because he had just admitted to her that he felt nervous and bereft.
But, "Hmm," she finally said. "What an awful turnout. Terrible."
He had hoped for some Trisha-like comfort, but she seemed more put out than sympathetic to his situation.
"I'm about to be awfully generous," she said. "I don't have much free time, but if you need help with anything...I can come by your flat during the day, keep your boy company, you know, if you need to go out." Now she turned to look at him and her eyes were widened, almost as if in surprise that she had made the offer. It was indeed kind of her.
Moved, he put his hand behind her neck. "Thank you, but I don't know if that's a good idea. Charming as you are... but his mother...you know...'
She frowned and pulled away. "We'll tell him we're just friends, if you think that's best."
"You're so kind to offer, but I don't think..."
"Huh. All right then." Lili huffed, her voice tight and clipped. She pulled farther away and sat up straight, rigid. Hohenheim could see she was offended; not allowing her to meet his son implied that he didn't think her good enough, implied she was only his whore.
He finally broke the silence. "Please don't be angry, Lili..." He reached for her hand.
She looked down and then met his eyes. "Don't worry about me. You go take care of your son."
She let him take her hand. He held it to his cheek and closed his eyes. It felt like hers, like Trisha's, the mother of his children. If only he could make her real, take her home with him, let her be his son's mother. He didn't want to leave her, ever again.
But he had been gone nearly two hours. Lili's other hand was on his thigh, and he wanted to hold her more than anything in the world.
"Uh-uh," she teased. "You said you have to go."
Another thing he had to do. Another thing to keep him away from Lili Christine. This was so different from his life before that damned Gate opened again. On his way to her flat, he went shopping in the market, stopping to buy bread, milk, eggs, sausages, vegetables. He had to remember to buy for two, now. Things in the market were annoyingly expensive; inflation was beginning to beat the mark down. Hohenheim rarely fretted over money—he always managed to get some, somehow, that was just his way—but now that he had Edward here...
Lili was already in her hat and coat, about to leave, when he got to her building. She let him kiss her but she was already distant, she was distracted, he could tell. He insisted on walking her to the theater, all the while carrying his string bag of produce and his briefcase, unhappy that he hadn't a free arm to put around Lili Christine. They walked quickly as they chatted about surface matters—her new rehearsal schedule, when they might manage to have dinner again.
"Saturday night," he promised her. "Saturday night, I'll come to the show, and I'll take you for dinner afterwards."
It seemed a bit sad and desperate, to promise something that had once been an unspoken ritual, a given, between them.
She let him kiss her at the theater's back door, then he hurried off home with his vegetables.
He was sorry he had stayed out all night; he hadn't meant to. He returned home in the morning to find that Edward had fallen asleep, more or less fully dressed, on the sofa, next to a full chamberpot. A plate with food on it had fallen and smashed on the kitchen floor, another lay on the floor next to the sofa, also as if dropped, and had been swarmed by ants. This was just the kind of thing he had wanted to avoid. He had been neglectful. No, he did not hold himself in high regard today. He had to do better.
Hohenheim was cautiously optimistic with Edward these days. Cautious, because Edward was an extraordinarily mercurial person, and optimistic, because, well, he had to be. He watched him as carefully as he could, but he couldn't be with the boy all the time. He couldn't know whether Edward talked to strangers in the libraries after he left him there, or what he did when he was alone in the flat. He had found pages of notes, arrays and unfinished letters to all sorts of people, some of them in this world, some in the other.
He did not like for his son to go out alone; he walked with no confidence whatsoever on the prosthetic leg Hohenheim had gotten for him, completely lacking balance without his right arm. The father had to follow his son around lest he should fall—and he did—even with his cane. But he went about recklessly, tripping on cobblestones and forgetting how to maneuver at practically every curb, as if he couldn't concentrate on anything but his destination—library. Once inside, he would pester librarians with bizarre questions in his barely comprehensible German. Then he would sit down on the floor in the stacks and read for hours, leaving Hohenheim with nothing to do but watch, or join in, and then they would be drawn into long, convoluted discussions about how alchemy could be made to work in this world, how to summon a Gate, how to convert this world's sciences—chemistry, physics—into workable alchemy. At first Edward was adamant that there had to be a way to make alchemy work, and would not hear otherwise. He would get so worked up about it that Hohenheim found himself falsely agreeing, because it seemed to give the boy hope. But he knew there wasn't any. Hadn't he spent the first year of his time on this side of the Gate trying to find a way to use alchemy? And he was far more adept than Edward had ever been, and they both knew it.
This was all very frustrating, but Hohenheim was obliged to follow him. So this was his final incarnation? As he pursued his child around town, he realized that it was, after all, a fitting punishment for himself. He had bought this, with years of cheating life and cheating death, and for payment for the lives he had stolen, the lives he had ruined, and the love he had abandoned. What better way to pay for abandoning Trisha than to be sentenced to chaperon her unhappy child through this strange world?
It seemed harsh, to him, that Edward should be exiled in this world. For himself, he didn't mind. He had made a life for himself. It had been easy enough, until the boy showed up. Now he was responsible for him, and the implicit pressure was sometimes too much to bear; he had failed so miserably the first time. But here they were, and now it felt not like an escape or even an adventure—as it had before—but a punishment. The boy seemed so displaced and sad, every day seemed a trial.
And if he dared to think back to more remote crimes—to pay for transmuting his dead firstborn into a monster that he had rejected—it seemed to him that he deserved this fate even more.
He hadn't been a good person. He had been arrogant and he had fucked with fate. And now it had come back to bite him in the ass.
Late in the year, nearing the Christmas—about which the local people enthused to a high degree—Hohenheim had begun to drag Edward to parties. But Edward begged off this time, curled up in bed with his books, and asked to be left alone. Hohenheim dressed to go out but when it came time to leave, he felt a pang of guilt.
He went back to the bedroom; Edward was surrounded by books, chewing on a pencil, not reading but staring into space. He was half-dressed, hair untied and knotted, not wearing his leg, clearly holed up as if he would never go out again. Worse, he looked sad.
"Won't you change your mind?"
It took him a moment to respond.
"Aren't you feeling well?"
"I'm fine. I just...I'm not in the mood."
Hohenheim had no desire to push him to come. Frankly, he would probably enjoy a party more without worrying about whether Edward was having a good time. Still, something bothered him. He went to the bed and sat down. Edward shifted so that they wouldn't be touching.
"Is anything bothering you?"
The answer to this would usually be no, but this time Edward blinked and said, "I think this may all be a dream, or I'm dead, or hallucinating, or stuck in the Gate or something like that. Something's not right here, and it's driving me crazy."
Uh-oh. Bad thoughts to have, and steps on the road to hell.
He went on, pressing the chewed-up pencil to the side of his mouth. "I feel like, nothing I do has an impact here. It's why I can hardly talk to people. The whole time I'm just thinking, is this conversation even really happening? Have I invented this person in my mind? Is the Gate messing with me? At any moment, could I just get pulled into another world, or wake up in the Gate, being torn to pieces? Or wake up at home, and see Al's face..." Suddenly he covered his eyes with his hand. "Is this stupid language I'm learning even real or is it just gibberish I've made up? When I eat anything am I just chewing on air? It makes me feel..."
"Yeah." He let his hand drop. His eyes were feverish and exhausted. Hohenheim looked intently at him and touched the back of his hand to his brow. "I'm sick, maybe, I don't know. This world makes me feel weak, I'm afraid I'm going to die here. If I'm not already dead."
Hohenheim's stomach twisted to hear him say something so desperate. It certainly wasn't anything he hadn't thought himself, from time to time. But he was able to push those thoughts away, to socialize with people, to engage himself, and to expose himself to strange things that convinced himself that this was all real.
Enthusiastically, he fired off his useful suggestions for warding off insanity:
"Read a book on this world's history! Study architecture or industrial design. Learn about this world's folklore. Teach yourself Latin! It worked for me."
The encouragement—well, he thought it was very practical, himself—did not appear to be working. He wanted so badly to help his son be happy here, but what more could he possibly do for him?
This was bad. Today, the boy looked dissolute and fading, unraveled, as if he were already on the way to bedlam.
He couldn't leave him, obviously. Instead, he took Edward for a bath downstairs. He sat outside the door, on the floor, while Edward bathed, and was subjected to having a shot of Kirsch with Frau Beck and her son, who was visiting for the holiday. Back upstairs, he helped Edward to comb his hair and dress.
"You're not making me go to that stupid party, are you?" Edward asked. He feigned annoyance but Hohenheim noticed that his face looked a bit brighter.
He needed to show him how it went, how much easier it was to live, to accept his position, if he would just interact with people, start to feel at home here. Make friends, pursue interests—"...aside from how to get out of here, Edward..."—collect things, read history and magazines, see the moving pictures, come to understand this world. How much better he would feel if he took care of himself properly. He tried to make the point—"...if you let yourself go, if you slip and let yourself be isolated and don't care for yourself, you really will get ill, and you will go mad, Edward." Did he understand this? Hohenheim hoped so. It was imperative that he understand these things.
These were basic things that were obvious to a person of his own experience, but perhaps not to someone just leaving childhood. Hohenheim was not naturally paternal with Edward—he had missed his childhood and Edward would never let him forget it, not so much with words, but with that lake of resentment between them that they both tacitly acknowledged.
He forced Edward to go to the party, and made a point of asking him every few days to recount who he had met, talked to, what he had thought about, kept on hounding him about eating and keeping himself clean and dressing properly. This wasn't idle parental coddling, this was serious business. This was how he had kept himself from going mad, and he would make sure that his son would not slip into the abyss.
He swore to himself: he would not abandon this child again.
Edward insisted on being taken to see Kristof Bauer. He had read his book on the physics of time through several times, and he had questions for the author. The problem was, the author was no longer a lecturer at the University of Gottingen but was in fact a patient at Placid Field, a rather ironically named madhouse in Oberammergau.
"He is a madman, he's insane," Hohenheim tried to dissuade him. "I don't know what you expect to hear from him."
Edward's eyes, usually dull as of late, burned again like they had when Hohenheim had last seen him, worlds ago, in Resembool. "Don't you get it? He's figured out the physical properties of time, he's posited the basis of travel in other planes, he understands how time and space work—"
"It's a theory," interrupted Hohenheim. He too had read Bauer, and his ideas about parallel universes and existence on other planes of reality had intrigued him as well. It had occurred to him too, if he were being honest, that some of these things held relevance to their situation. But the fact was, Bauer's science was not particularly sound, and he had been shunned by the scientific community, and eventually he had gone mad. Probably, he had already been mad when he wrote that book that Edward was so obsessed with.
But he was not always honest with his son, he seemed so fragile a thing, and his enthusiasm seemed to make him hopeful.
"You should put that book out of your mind and get back to more practical things," Hohenheim advised. But Edward remained attached to this idea. He dreaded the visit, but he felt he had no choice; Edward would go, and he couldn't let him go alone.
They set off for Gottingen on a snappishly cold late January day. The sky was pearly white, threatening snow. Hohenheim grumbled about a possible snowstorm impeding their return to Munich. Edward ignored him. When concentrating on walking, Edward had the habit of biting his lower lip and staring ahead of him in fierce concentration. Whenever these signs slipped, so would he. If the look in his eyes softened, he would stop and stare about him, seemingly lost.
Hohenheim found it necessary therefore to try to slow his pace enough to walk beside his son, although it was maddeningly slow, with his great stride. Walking with Edward, he always found himself stopping, stepping backwards, so that he felt that his life was now one step forward, two steps back.
"The train is about to leave," he reminded, as they finally entered the station.
Edward was already huffing, but found enough breath to swear at him.
It was their first train trip together since Hohenheim had brought him from London three months before. It hadn't been particularly pleasant then—Edward had still been sick, and Hohenheim had been entirely insecure about what he was going to do with him.
Now their relationship had found its uncomfortable but undeniably natural rhythm, they were far more relaxed than they had been on that journey. Hohenheim bought food, and Edward ate it, Hohenheim mused happily on the recent heartiness of Edward's appetite, Edward told him to shut up. Hohenheim smiled.
The sun was already nearly down by the time they arrived in Gottingen. Edward wanted to go straight to the asylum, but it was outside town and by the time they got there it would be too late for a visit. It was no fault of Hohenheim's, but Edward seemed to blame him for the very passing of a day's hours. They had supper at a café and retired to a hotel where they could acquire a room with only one bed. This had never happened before.
"You and I haven't slept in the same bed since you were very small, still a baby, really," Hohenheim reminisced, and his mind took on that glowing warmth, that pleasurable feeling he consistently derived from memories relating to Trisha and Resembool and their children being young. "You and Alphonse used to fall asleep in the bed between your mother and me," he told him. Edward was sitting on the other side of the bed, pointedly not looking at him and patiently struggling with unbuttoning his vest. Understanding that his son may not really appreciate it, Hohenheim recalled to himself the soft, tiny hands of a former incarnation of Edward, and how he would play with them while the child was asleep. His mind fixed on the miniscule fingernails of the infant hand. Here was something worth sharing, however: "Your mother used to trim your fingernails with her teeth."
Edward, in the middle of shrugging off his vest, looked up.
"You're going soft in the head, old man," he said.
Ready for sleep, Edward was reading Bauer's book again, and Hohenheim rolled and smoked a cigarette at the open window.
"See, this is what's frustrating me," Edward said suddenly. Hohenheim turned to look, Edward had the book open on his lap, pointing at a paragraph and a series of formulae. "Look at this."
Hohenheim flicked his cigarette out the window and went to take up the book.
"You see? All that about time being inconstant? That's what I can't get my mind around. It's driving me crazy."
Hohenheim looked away from the book and back to the upturned face with the wide, bright eyes. His brow was furrowed but he looked sharp and clever and Hohenheim's heart swelled.
"If you did understand, perhaps that would mean you were insane," Hohenheim said, drily. He didn't mean to be funny, however. He believed it.
Edward chewed his lip. "But it just seems like something's there, you know? Like, he got it...but I don't get it." He looked down at his hand, idle in his lap against the linen of his nightshirt. "I'm not used to not getting things. It's really goddamn annoying."
Hohenheim snapped the book shut. "You know how I feel about Bauer's work. In my opinion he was making inquiry into a speculative field that cannot be mastered. It's interesting but it's not something you are going to be able to apply. Nobody uses this book for instruction or study, because it's not entirely coherent. I can't imagine how he even got it published. It was the last thing he published before he went mad."
Edward was still looking at his hand, which had now taken the form of a fist. Hohenheim could sense his spine curling, and his mood tightening, dangerous before bedtime. He would never sleep. How he hated to see him agitated, especially in the evening, and with a long, dark night ahead, he couldn't bear it if the boy were awake in the night.
"If I could go back in time...." Edward began saying.
"—but you can't—"
"I'd correct my stupid mistakes..." The fist tightened. Hohenheim went back to the window to roll another cigarette.
"We've all made mistakes, son," Hohenheim said calmly. He'd said it before.
"—I'd go back, at least, to when I let my guard down with that fucking homunculus..."
Hohenheim cringed inwardly, knowing he was speaking of his homunculus, his other child.
"Dammit!" Edward slammed his fist into the bed, producing a muffled sound.
Hohenheim's heart began to pound but he maintained composure.
"You mustn't be agitated when you visit Bauer," he said, trying to keep his tone light, "or they might want to keep you there, too."
"I won't be fucking agitated," Edward said. "Anyway, they won't want my sorry ass there, if they want to lock me away they would send me to some cripple asylum, like they were going to do in London until you finally showed up." His tone was bitter now.
"Well, I did show up, so you should stop thinking about that," Hohenheim said. More seemed needed: "I wouldn't let that happen to you."
Edward shuddered. "Yeah, right."
Hohenheim finished rolling the cigarette but just held it, by the window, occasionally glancing at Edward, who had leaned back against the bedroll, and was drumming his fingers on his chest, jiggling his foot under the blanket, restless, restless.
Hohenheim was not looking forward to the next day, at all. In his dreams, he had been an inmate, chained to a wall or held in a straitjacket, in a white, featureless room. It was a pitfall of moving between worlds, and never feeling entirely secure, or sure, of anything around one. In his youth, he had taken some alchemic training at an asylum, where patients were used, unapologetically, as subjects for alchemic experiments. That had been centuries ago, however.
Life had not been gentle with Edward, but if he could protect him from some things, he would try. He hated the idea that his son was tormented with the same terrible thoughts.
"I want you to be happy," he said, simply and suddenly, impulsive with feeling.
Edward rolled his eyes.
"Don't be so cynical, it isn't becoming in the young," Hohenheim said.
They took a local train out to Obergammerau early in the morning. The asylum was a two-mile walk from the center of town, so Hohenheim hired a horse-drawn cab. At the asylum, a rambling brick building fronted by a huge circular driveway and surrounded by a depressingly derelict garden, their desire to meet with Bauer was treated with surprise and suspicion. When Hohenheim showed the desk attendant Bauer's book, the man snorted.
"Yes, we've seen that before. Bauer has a copy that he never lets go of. The old man babbles constantly—you're not going to get much sense out of him...but, it's your choice." The attendant rang a bell.
"Does anyone else come and visit him?" Hohenheim asked.
The man snorted again. "Now and then, once a year or so, someone like you shows up. Konrad, take them to the sun room and bring Bauer down."
A young male attendant waved his hand, beckoning them to follow. He led them out the back of the building into a large, dusty room surrounded on three sides by dirty windows. The "garden" was dead all around them. It was January, but still, it didn't seem that this garden would be alive even in May, it was so gray and brittle looking. The dead branches of mummified rosebushes scraped against the large windows. The attendant left them to retrieve Bauer.
He returned some time later with a tall, reedy, transparent old man attached to him with a short length of rope. The man's hands were bound together as well, and he had a worn book tucked under one armpit as he shuffled in. Kristof Bauer was an old man now—he was well into his sixties and fifteen years in a lunatic asylum certainly hadn't had a salutary effect upon him, he looked to be a hundred. Hohenheim stood as he entered—he was a colleague, after all, and it would be rude to greet him any other way. Edward started to push himself up from the table. Hohenheim reached under his arm to help him.
The attendant looked heavenward before pulling an empty chair away from the table and rather roughly shoving Bauer down onto it. Then he stood by him, still attached to him by the length of rope. Bauer was like a dog on a leash.
Hohenheim found this unbearably depressing. As Edward launched into a game attempt to engage the madman, all Hohenheim could think about was what it would be like to be a patient in this place, the chilly, white room with its fine rime of chalky dust, the mummified rosebush branches with their age-old thorns scraping on the filthy windows.
"—right Dad?" he heard a voice chirp and stop, and he was drawn back into the present, relieved. Just a visitor, yes.
"I'm sorry—?" he said, turning up his palm to indicate just how much of the conversation he had so far absorbed.
Edward hissed in annoyance. "I was asking Professor Bauer about the inconsistencies in the formulae proving the inconstancy of time."
Bauer was still clutching his book, unopened, beneath his right arm. He sat, rocking back and forth slightly, staring at Edward. He did not appear to be about to speak. He looked, he rocked, he knitted his wild, white eyebrows. Ancient, rheumy blue eyes leaked tears, or what looked like tears, but otherwise his face showed no emotion.
"Professor Bauer," Edward pressed on, but Hohenheim could sense his body curling in frustration. "Please...I think I've found an error in the formulas, and if we correct it, if you—if you agree, if we correct it, I believe they may be practically applied to—"
"ERROR?" Bauer suddenly roared. His body quivered and he tried to stand, but the attendant clamped a hand on his shoulder, pressing him back down. To his credit, Edward did not cringe, Hohenheim noticed. In fact, he leaned forward as if looking for a fight.
"Yes, an error," he said, starting to open his own copy of the book on the table before him. He had marked the page, and flipped it open, pointed. "Here, page one fifteen. Look, your variables—"
Bauer's hand lashed out and swept the book off the table. Hohenheim immediately interposed his arm between Bauer and Edward, ready to strike Bauer if he did anything more aggressive.
"That's not my book!" the man raved. "You have a counterfeit copy! There is only one true copy left in the world, and it's mine!" He pressed the book he held closer to his body as if he wanted to absorb it.
Edward snarled, annoyed, but not shocked. Hohenheim's heart was beating too fast, however. The madman was looking right at him with those streaming, clouded eyes.
"You're not fooling me," said Bauer in a low, brittle voice. "I know who you are and where you came from."
Edward turned and looked up at Hohenheim, eyebrows raised.
"Have you met him before?"
"No," Hohenheim responded quickly. "The man is unhinged, can't you see that?"
"What does he mean, then?"
"What does it matter?" Hohenheim said. "He's insane, Edward, that means what he does and says is not rational."
Edward leaned across the table toward Bauer. "What do you know?" he asked earnestly. "Please, I have to know. Do you know that he's from another world? Can you tell? How do you know?"
Bauer continued to ignore Edward as if he weren't there at all, instead keeping his gaze trained on Hohenheim. It was unnerving, and it took all he possessed for Hohenheim to retain his customary composure. Bauer raised the hand that wasn't clutching the book and leveled his finger at him.
"You know what I'm talking about!" Bauer declared. "You can pretend you're a stranger, but you know what I'm talking about! You know everything, don't you? Only you're not saying, because if you admit it, they'll lock you up in here too!"
Edward hissed in frustration, and despite the chill in the room, Hohenheim was beginning to feel hot under the collar.
"Come on, old man, you talk to him, he's totally ignoring me!" his son pleaded.
Bauer dropped his hand and his gaze, still trained on Hohenheim, softened. "They torture me here," he said. "They tie me up, they throw cold water on me, they keep me in an empty room, they drug me so I can't think clearly. I'll never get out of here...they want me to be quiet...they think what I know is dangerous...please, get me out of here..." He pressed both his hands on top of his worn book, pleading.
"Goddammit, what do you know?" Edward asked again, desperately grasping at any information he might get, but Hohenheim could tell by the tone of his voice—strained and cracking—he was losing faith in this mission.
The attendant decided now would be a good time to be smug: "You were told you'd be wasting your time here. These are the same things he says all day, to everyone."
"He says he knows my father!" Edward said.
The attendant held his eyes at half-mast, unimpressed. "He says that to everyone new. He's crazy, kid. He doesn't know anything worth knowing, not anymore."
Hohenheim felt relief that the interview was nearing its end. He wanted to leave this place as soon as possible. He couldn't take his eyes off the rope wound around Bauer's wrists. The shiny red chafe marks suggested that his hands were tied all the time. He pitied Bauer...a great mind gone to waste. But this was an object lesson—this is what came from thinking too much about things that humans were not meant to understand, by trying to crack an impossible code. Time and space and parallel universes were beyond human comprehension. It was best that they remain there.
At the same time, he was annoyed with himself for letting himself be so unnerved by the interview with the madman. It was clear to him that, although disappointed, Edward had not been particularly rattled. Why had it bothered him so much?
Edward slept on the train back to Munich, but Hohenheim stayed awake and alert, trying to ease the Bauer experience from his mind. He tried instead to think of Lili Christine. He hadn't been able to see much of her since Edward had been here, but still, once a week or so, he managed to see her shows or take her to a late supper. He still craved her, still wanted to be near her, even if she had clearly begun to lose interest, and had other boyfriends, he knew. It didn't matter. As long as he could see her face. Her face, and even a brief kiss, would help improve his mood.
It was pressing on him, however, this secret of Lili Christine. He felt guilty all the time, hiding this secret from Edward. He had no idea that his father was seeing his mother's face on a regular basis, was hearing her voice—albeit with different tones, and in a different language, different, different, and yet maddeningly, achingly familiar. Sometimes Hohenheim thought that maybe it would be a good thing for Edward to meet her, maybe it would help him, maybe he would love her as he did. But the thing nagged at him, the problem at the center of this—perhaps that would be something that would push him further toward the fear of being insane, of living in a dream. No, best to protect him from it.
What was it about the madhouse? Was it that he could picture himself there, that there was such a thin line between reality and madness, because he had passed through the Gate, that this mirror-world, with its mirror-people, and its mirror-souls, might not be real, as Edward suggested? It had occurred to him, again and again, and he pushed the thought away. It was real, he was real. There was no way he could have invented that Bauer book (or was that why the formulas didn't really make sense?) or made up this language, German, that he had had to master...Edward had put voice to that same fear. And Edward, was he even real? Was he just a projection of what Hohenheim imagined of his son, a simulacrum in this fake world?
He looked at Edward, asleep in the seat across from him, his head bouncing gently against the vibrating window as the train sped along. But if this world is real, and I am real, then perhaps I am going mad...and perhaps Edward will, too. The boy was singularly ill equipped to survive in this plane of existence, stripped of all his powers, he was a small, defenseless creature, and Hohenheim knew he was the only thing that stood between his son and a life like Bauer's, if not in a madhouse, in one of those institutions where the people of this reality, in their desperation and lack of imagination, dispensed of people like Edward, starved and neglected them like useless parasites until they departed from this world.
My poor child,
he thought grimly. What will become of you here, after I am gone?
On another gray day, Hohenheim trailed Edward down Sendlingerstrasse, marking their slow progress. It was cold, and the boy shuddered with cold when they stopped walking. Their breath made small, ephemeral clouds in the air.
"It's not here...the bookplate said it came from a shop on Sendlingerstrasse, right here," he said, gesturing to a boarded-up storefront.
"It's closed down, son," Hohenheim gently stated the obvious. "These are difficult economic times and—"
"I know that! Will you shut up?" Edward leaned on his cane, looking aggrieved. "It's like I was set up to discover it, and then I come here, and it's gone. Some joke," he said, and gave a bitter little laugh.
It seemed to Hohenheim his son's face was looking rather more pinched and pale and cross than usual. He frowned.
"There's no point in getting upset over it," he said. "Let's go get a cup of coffee and warm up. You look frozen."
"I'm fine! Let's go to the library at the Science Society, I haven't been there for weeks and some of the books I wanted to see may have come back."
"That's on the other side of the city. You've done enough traveling for today." Hohenheim believed this to be true, but also, he had a date with Lili Christine.
"I said I'm fine, let's go."
Hohenheim sighed. "And I have an appointment this evening. It's getting late."
"Fine, I'll go alone. See ya." Edward spun around and began to limp away. As it was impossible for him to make a quick, dramatic exit, Hohenheim had the luxury of watching him move away for about two or three full minutes, before he had to stride ahead to catch him.
"Please, let's just go home," he said to his son.
Edward stopped. He didn't look up, or around, just kept looking forward.
"No," he said. "No."
"Edward I have to go—"
"Get going, then. Don't let me stop you." Edward starting moving again.
Hohenheim let him go this time, watching him make his way to the corner. The boy had to wait nearly five minutes for the traffic to clear enough for him to be able to cross the wide street. It seemed to take forever for him to leave Hohenheim's view. How would he even carry books home with him? Hohenheim wondered. He fretted at how the boy would fare, getting home alone in the dark.
He reminded himself, he's been a soldier, he's tougher than he looks. But also, He's so far from home.
It was then that Hohenheim realized that in his heart of hearts he wished that Edward had never come here. He didn't think he could stand this for much longer.
"Blah blah blah blah, blah blah blah," said Lili Christine over dinner at the best restaurant Hohenheim could afford—quite nice but he shouldn't be spending this kind of cash on one dinner. He mentally berated himself; the bottle of wine was extravagant, how could he enjoy it? He had other things he needed to save his money for. But he worried that Lili wouldn't want to see him anymore, if he didn't take her out and treat her to things, give her a little money now and then. What else, really, did he have to give her? Nothing that she wanted, or needed. Nothing.
"Blah blah blah," Lili went on. Hohenheim turned his attention to her again. Well, the woman could talk. He concentrated. "And all over five hundred worthless marks, can you believe it?" Obviously this was the punchline to some story. He tried to smile.
"Well can you?" she pressed for his reaction.
"Can I what?"
"Believe what that bastard did?"
"Oh, certainly not," he said. "What a foolish person he must be."
"Foolish? He's a monster!" she said, her eyes open wide.
"Hmm, yes," Hohenheim said. He tried to focus on his plate of food. The small round potatoes were difficult to capture with his fork, as were the rather wild peas. He chased the food around his dish, trying to enjoy the warm meal. He had already eaten the slice of ham, slathered in mustard, and rather missed it. The ham here was very nice, one of the few things in this world much nicer than at home, perhaps it was the mustard, he thought to himself, or the way it was roasted here, in molasses and treacle. His mind wandered to what he had in the flat, and if Edward would bother to cook himself a meal when he returned home, probably not...he was usually so tired when he came home that he fell asleep on the sofa. Lately, his wooden leg had become painful to walk on, whether from wear, or perhaps a growth spurt, or something else, Hohenheim didn't know and reminded himself that they would have to visit the prosthetist tomorrow, if he could manage it with that visit he had promised to the University physics lab, and Haushofer had been after him lately about the Thule Society ...
"You're not listening to me, are you?" asked Lili. He looked up and she was squinting at him, suspicious and annoyed. "You know what? I'm getting tired of you. You're no fun anymore, since that kid of yours turned up."
"I have less free time," he said, blinking at the obviousness. "It doesn't mean I like you any less. I miss spending time with you." He leaned forward and took her little white hand between his. "I enjoy your company so much, Lili."
She pulled her hand away. "Well, I'm not enjoying yours so much," she said coldly. "You've become so boring."
He knew what she meant was, he was less attentive to her than she liked, and wasn't fully engaged in her talking about herself. Her drawn-on arched eyebrows suddenly seemed very unappealing to him, so glaringly false, and falsely dramatic. How wrong they made her face look. So fake.
"I'm sorry," he said. "I am trying. I have a lot of things on my mind."
"You think I'm not busy? I have a new show going up in two days, I can hardly think about anything else..."
"I understand," he said pointlessly, because she had already launched into a soliloquy about her new role. She went on and on and on.
He walked her to her flat and, expecting to come in, started to pass through the door of the building with her. But she held up her hand and pressed it to his chest.
"No, not tonight," she said. "I'm tired."
He took her hand and kissed it, mechanically. Automaton! he chided himself. She deserves the cold shoulder, but he could be nothing less than a gentleman.
She withdrew her hand. He saw her try to muster an affectionate, teasing smile, but she couldn't quite pull it off, not tonight. "Do you have any money? Just to get me through the week..."
"Not after that meal...next time," he said, bowing his head.
"Yeah, next time," she said flatly, before turning to enter the building. Her heels clicked on the tile floor.
The last he saw of her was her hair peeking out from underneath her cloche hat. Trisha's hair, his love's hair.
He would touch it again.
"Bauer's book," Edward said, holding it up. "I spent all day studying it again. You're right, it's worthless." He was standing near the stove and precipitously tossed the book into the flame. "That's where it belongs," he said. "It's rubbish." He swayed on his feet as he watched it burn.
"You're tired," Hohenheim said, placing his hands on the boy's shoulders. "Go get into bed, I'll make you something to eat and you can go to sleep."
"Stop telling me what to do," Edward said irritably. "I'm so sick of this shit," he said, and he pulled away and wandered off, swaying through the flat's two rooms, toward the bedroom, walking unsteadily.
Coming into the room, Hohenheim found his son face down on the bed, quiet. He prodded him gently.
"Come on now."
When Edward lifted his face from the pillow, he could see his eyes were unfocused and empty, distance-gazing, as they had been when he had first seen him in the hospital in London, but then he had been so ill. Today it was only grief and loneliness that emptied his eyes. Hohenheim's hand shook as he reached out to touch Edward's hair.
"You're so up-and-down," he observed, gently pushing the hair away from his face. Edward let his face fall down on the pillow, but to the side. "It hurts me to see it," he said, very honestly. The truth.
"I don't get it. Why is this so easy for you?" Edward asked him, an edge of hostility, and, if he wasn't mistaken, jealousy to his voice.
"It's not," he replied. Then he amended: "It wasn't, when I first arrived here. But I've gotten used to it. You will too."
"No I won't," Edward said. "I don't think I ever will. And I don't want to. It would feel like giving up."
Hohenheim was moved to squeeze his shoulder. Edward flinched—he hated that, but he deserved it. Still, he didn't push him away.
"It's not getting any easier," Edward said. "I don't feel any different. I still want to go home as much as ever." He looked up. "Don't you?"
"I don't know," Hohenheim answered. He thought of Lili Christine. In their world, Trisha was dead. Here at least, he could see her face, touch her even, a living ghost. He sat down on the bed; Edward moved away ever so slightly so that their bodies would not touch. "I think it's harder for you, because you're young...I've already lived my life, this is just the end-game. For you, it's just beginning, and it's looking hard, I know."
Edward sighed. Hohenheim knew he had struck a chord. He wasn't usually so honest, he was usually encouraging and cheerful. But sometimes the truth was necessary.
His hand hovered above Edward's back.
"Don't," said Edward, as the heat of his hand barely touched his shirt. "Don't try to comfort me. It doesn't help."
He was not in the humor for this type of meeting, and so he was less than his usual charming self when he met Haushofer at a café, upon the man's urgent request. The man was shifty and always slightly nervous, which was disconcerting, as if he were up to something. He always wanted something, Hohenheim knew.
Haushofer immediately began to blather. Another annoying thing about the man—he dispensed with preliminaries and pleasantries, not allowing one to either beg off or take
measure, he just launched into pursuing his aim. It was nothing new: Hohenheim was urgently wanted at a meeting of the Thule Society. There was an important meeting tomorrow night, utmost urgency, new developments, he must come, etc etc.
Haushofer began to gesticulate, as he often did when approaching the more substantive aspects of his subject. Hohenheim had absolutely no tolerance for the nonsense that served as the core of the Society's philosophy, a pastiche of racialist-superiority and mystical trash, predicated on an absolutely specious and mistaken perception of the basics of alchemy...it was irritating to listen to and, frankly, sometimes difficult to keep a straight face during these meetings. The members treated their silly cult with the utmost solemnity, it was almost comical. Their pursuit of him was the opposite of flattering...and yet, the members of this Society were educated, powerful men. It was how he had been introduced to them in the first place. He had foolishly exposed his expertise in alchemy—although he presented it as a study of an antiquated phenomenon—and they had persisted in annoying him ever since.
But today, Haushofer said something that actually penetrated Hohenheim's usual half-listening stupor:
"There's been a new discovery: we've reason to believe we can open some sort of Gate," the man babbled. "If we can only figure out how to do this...Solten has found an extraordinary book, you must see it...It's fourteenth century, and we need all the help we can get to decipher...please, you must see it."
The word "Gate" of course nearly made his heart stop. He looked up.
"All right. I'll come."
Haushofer smiled, and his eyes flashed. "Everyone will be so pleased," he said.
He was in a rush, preparing the supper, hurrying to get to the Thule Society meeting. Edward followed him into the kitchen.
"I need to do something," he said. "I'll help you cook." He stood by the stove and stirred the pot. "I read something interesting today..." His spirits seemed to have soared over the arc of the day, left alone to think. Hohenheim was partly pleased, partly disconcerted. The boy's mood vacillated so frequently, he worried for him.
"Where are you running off to?" Edward asked, as Hohenheim tried to eat quickly.
Hohenheim hadn't told Edward much about the Thule Society, thinking it was a dangerous distraction in his own life, and certainly nothing that held any importance in Edward's. However, he was bursting with the news of this book, and their claim to have knowledge of a Gate. Edward listened, fascinated, his face lit up. He was engaged, and getting excited. When Hohenheim rose to get his coat, Edward followed.
"Can I come with you?" he asked, looking up like an eager puppy. He'd never seemed so enthusiastic before, and Hohenheim's heart swelled.
"How I'd like that," he said. "But it's a closed circle and I'm only there by invitation. I'd rather not get you involved." He observed the way his son's face darkened. "Yet. But maybe some time." He forced a laugh. "I'd better introduce the idea first, before daring to bring you along."
Edward watched him leave and shut the door behind him. How he wished he could bring him along, that they would have something to do together. Most fathers and sons did simple things to spend time with one another, like go fishing together; but if he had to bring his son to participate in the arcane rituals of a demented bunch of sociopaths to gain his favor, so be it.
He was busy these days, too busy, almost, to dwell on the unsatisfactory relationship with Lili Christine. She was being cold to him, had told him she was seeing other men now, that she hadn't the time for him. She was cruel and called him "old" and "boring" and even "impotent." She was mean. Still, he could not break it off entirely with her, and every couple of weeks still found time for a performance, dropped off a bouquet of flowers at her dressing room, brought a bottle of champagne acquired from his Thule Society colleagues to her flat, so that she would let him in. She wouldn't let him kiss her anymore, but that was all right. He only wanted, only needed, to look at her.
Which was why, when she announced that she was moving to Berlin to try her hand at acting in moving pictures, his heart nearly stopped, and he nearly choked.
"If you really loved me, you'd move to Berlin," she said.
"I..I can't," he stammered, at first flattered by the suggestion. "My son, my work, I have so many responsibilities in Munich..."
And she had thrown back her head and laughed at him. "I was just teasing, silly! Why would I want an old man like you hovering around me anyway?"
Even if she hadn't been teasing, he was distracted by work, and plans and projects. He was working with the Thule Society members to translate the fourteenth century book to Latin, and researching at the physics department at the University. At home, he and Edward had thrown themselves into attempts to design automail, a project that had served to improve Edward's outlook so much that despite their many frustrated attempts to create working models and find a prosthetist and surgeon to help them, Hohenheim could not dream of abandoning the project. This way, if something happened—if say, he happened to leave Munich for a while, to go visit Lili Christine—then he could do so knowing that Edward could take care of himself. For himself, he wanted to be free again.
The Book was leading them into a maze—it did contain real alchemic formulas, the arrays it pictured, many of them were functional, at least in his world. Edward asked about the project often, and Hohenheim showed him the translations from the Latin, and the arrays. Over one, the two of them both lingered, their fingers pressed reverently to the design drawn on the page. Human transmutation. They both shivered, remembering.
"We've both used it," Hohenheim whispered. He recalled the homunculus of Trisha he had met, a cruel shadow of his wife. It was perhaps the most painful thing, of all the thoughts he could have, worse than even his own sins: his children, in their distress and loneliness, had created it. It was no stretch at all to claim the blame as his own. He abhorred the idea that his children had seen the awful Gate, that it had stolen Alphonse's childhood, and crippled Edward. The merciless entity that ruined lives and devoured souls had somehow decided to spare him; he had never understood why.
His son's head was so close to his own, he could hear his breath, and he stifled an urge to grab him and press his cheek to his. He felt overwhelmed with emotion. In a moment, he felt a tear squeeze from his eye, then another and another. He saw Edward turn to examine him, twisting his mouth.
"What's the matter with you?" Edward said, annoyed.
Hohenheim declined to answer.
They were on their way to the University library, yet again, although today Hohenheim was more than happy to stay with Edward as they were going to dive into some texts on this world's Middle Ages and alchemic science, and he was not only excited about this new intellectual alley, but also that they were going to go down it together.
In fact, they had been getting along really well these days. So well, in fact, that he had been able to push aside his anxiety about the imminent departure of Lili Christine for Berlin. He could live without her, he told himself, he could, now he had his real family here with him, he didn't need her.
So he was striding happily beside his son, and enjoying the weather because it was late March and there were suggestions of spring in the air. The wind was strong but had lost its sharp edge, and the sun was higher and brighter in the sky than it had been for months. Edward was walking purposefully, if a bit more quickly than was safe for him, but so far, he had managed not to fall and when they stopped at corners to wait for traffic, he looked about him and the expression on his face was, for once, not one of total, detached misery. Today he seemed interested in his surroundings, finally beginning to absorb and drink them in, to memorize streets and distances and landmarks, beginning to integrate himself into this world.
"That's an interesting building," he remarked.
Their long winter was coming to an end.
They were waiting to cross the street to the gate of the University when a voice carried along the air and insinuated itself into Hohenheim's mind.
"Well, hello there, stranger," it said. He froze, then turned. Edward turned too. Though holding onto his calm exterior, as ever, as he had somehow managed to do throughout all the madnesses that had come at him through all his lifetimes, and especially here, Hohenheim panicked inwardly. What disaster, what horrid drama, was about to unfold here, on this streetcorner, in public, when Edward saw her face, he could not imagine. He only knew it was coming.
"I said hello," said Lili Christine, her voice edgy and piqued. "I thought I might run into you here. I'm almost never in this neighborhood." She rose upon her toes and leaned forward, delivering a mechanical double-kiss-kiss. "Though I don't know why you seem so utterly shocked to see me. I do live in this city, you know. So," she went on, and Hohenheim followed her gaze as it fell on Edward's face. "So this must be the prodigal son. He's so like you, is this what you looked like when you were young? Although surely you were much taller." She extended her right hand, encased in brown velvet glove. Edward's only hand was already holding the handle of his cane. Realizing her mistake, she withdrew her hand and laughed nervously. "Never mind!" she said. "It's nice to finally meet you. Are you quite well now? You look all right, don't you? Look at you! You're quite the young man, handsome too, I'll say." She winked at him, and smiled nervously.
Edward just looked at her.
"Oh, how stupid of me! I forgot to introduce myself but I'm sure that by now you've figured out that I'm Lili Christine, your father's friend. He must have mentioned me...he didn't want us to meet, but that was months ago, and I'm sure you've come along now. I'm an actress, and I'm about to move to Berlin, be in the moving pictures, you know, that's me, the German Mary Pickford, that'll be me!"
Hohenheim held his breath before looking at Edward's face. He couldn't imagine what he must be experiencing, having his mother's replica speaking to him in that ridiculous, nattering, unfamiliar way. But what Hohenheim observed was that Edward just looked at her, quite without expression, neutral. He cocked his head toward his shoulder, shifted a bit, leaned on his cane while she spoke at him. At the end of her nonsensical blather he blinked in her face and said, "Umm, nice to meet you."
"Oh! You're darling, aren't you? I'd love to stay but I'm in a rush—Hohenheim, dear, do come by and see me before I leave, next Friday I'm off, but do come by...I'm sorry I've been such a pill these past few weeks, this move has gotten me all—" she gesticulated wildly in the air, laughed and screeched—"—my goodness, I'm a mess! Do come see me, darling, and say goodbye. You will, won't you?"
"Of course I will, Lili," he said.
"Right then!" she laughed into the air, her face all rosy, her smile wide. She looked embarrassed, disarmed; he realized she hadn't known how she should behave with his son, and felt bad for not trying to make things go more smoothly. She had no idea how awkward this meeting was. His face burned and his heart beat hard in his chest. "So, I'm off! See you soon, please come by, soon, please!" she said, her voice carrying in the breeze as she walked away quickly, backwards, waving, and then she turned and hurried off, her coat flying behind her.
He put his hand on Edward's shoulder, looked down and fixed his eyes on Edward's face, trying to read him, afraid of what he would find there.
"What?" Edward asked sharply.
"I'm so sorry, son," he said.
"For keeping her a secret from you."
Edward gave a short, sharp little laugh. "You think I hadn't figured out that you have a girlfriend? I know the signs, I'm not a little kid."
Of course, this wasn't the reaction Hohenheim had been expecting at all.
"I know you must be in shock...but...you understand why I kept her from you, don't you?" Hohenheim's grip tightened on his son's shoulder. Edward pushed forward slightly, enough to register that he was annoyed, but not enough to reject his touch.
"Because....she's an idiot?" Edward said. The corner of his mouth turned up.
"No, you stupid boy!" Hohenheim lashed out, causing Edward's eyes to widen. He had never allowed himself to behave like that, to allow a crack in that armor of self-possession, the sane, wise man. "Because she looks exactly like your mother!"
Edward drew back a little more and then his eyes, which Hohenheim had expected to brighten and flare in anger, shock, pain, confusion, whatever, did something rather unexpected. They softened and even became sad and, if Hohenheim wasn't mistaken, a little damp.
"Dammit, Dad," said his child. "You're scaring me."
The unexpected event put a damper on a day that had started so promisingly. Entirely disconcerted, Hohenheim insisted that they return to their flat immediately. He had been expecting an argument from Edward, but, instead, Edward solicitously agreed with him, and on their way home on the tram, he kept glancing over at him anxiously. Hohenheim was rather flattered that his son was worrying about him. This turning of the tables would almost be amusing, if its cause weren't making him feel sick.
Even when they arrived at their home, Edward made tea as Hohenheim sat staring at his Kandinsky. Now he was the one who was confused. Could Edward really not see....? How could that possibly be?
A hot glass mug was thrust into his hands. Edward stood in front of him; standing he was only slightly taller than Hohenheim was sitting. He searched his face. Edward's brows were knitted, that little worry line carved between them was deepened.
"Are you all right now?" his son asked him.
"I'm fine. I've been all right all day, I don't know what you mean."
Edward sighed, went to the sofa and sat down heavily. Hohenheim watched as he avoided his gaze and absently massaged his left thigh. He was bothered, that was certain.
"I'm sure seeing her was a shock to you, son, but denying what you saw isn't healthy."
Edward placed his hand over his eyes. "Don't fall apart on me," he said.
Hohenheim took another tack. He calmly took a sip of his tea. "I apologize for the way I spoke to you earlier. I don't know what got into me."
The hand came away from his son's eyes, which were now shaded with a touch of anger and anxiety. "You weren't serious, were you? About what you said. About her, that woman, looking like my mother. Because she didn't," he insisted.
Ah, here was a decisive moment. He could use this moment, this teachable moment, to drag Edward fully into this new world, kicking and screaming and in denial, maybe, but he could now force him, force him to accept the fact of living here on the mirror-plane. You will see the faces of those you love the most, of those you miss the most, you will see them and it will break your heart. It will make you see and make you know, that this world is the real one and ours is just a dream.
But he didn't say all that. Instead he said,
"No, of course she doesn't. I made a fuss over nothing. Please forgive me."
When he went to see Lili Christine later that week, before her departure for Berlin, he told Edward where he was going. On his way he bought her a book of Heine's poetry, which he himself favored, and a bouquet of flowers—the same kind that Trisha had used to like, and which, by some coincidence, Lili liked as well.
A strange woman opened the door. A woman of about thirty years, with a pretty, round face, deep dimples in her full cheeks and a small but sensual mouth. She smiled revealing an appealing gap between her teeth and her bright blue eyes made him smile back. She welcomed him inside and nervously tucked her hair, which was blond and unpinned and fell to her shoulders in thick waves, behind her ears.
"Darling," she said. "It's so sweet of you to come. I'm in the middle of packing and things are such a mess, maybe you can help me? I'm exhausted, I really am, I have a million things to do..."
As she nattered on, he put down the gifts and looked about the place. He had the strange feeling that a spell had just been broken, or a glass wall shattered, or some illusion dispersed.
"...and you couldn't lend me a few marks, could you? Just until I get settled in Berlin..."
Perhaps he had walked into the wrong flat, but then again, he thought not.