For the good folk of rec.arts.anime.misc, especially Laurie and Dave,
in gratitude for many engrossing hours of discussion
(not to mention the advice that allowed me to purchase and watch
an R2 copy of Fullmetal Alchemist: Conqueror of Shamballa six months before the R1 version was released).
* * *
"Stranger, dreams are very curious and unaccountable things,
and they do not by any means invariably come true."
-- The Odyssey 19.26-28 (tr. Butler)
Edward Elric stood at the window of his bedroom and stared down at the silent street. The lamps were lit, brightening the sidewalk with interlocking circles of safe passage, but no one walked beneath them. All but one of the windows of the Miethaus opposite were dark; he had been watching the lights go out, flat by flat, for the past half hour. This was a working-class district: people rose early and did their business while the sun shone. Only cats and students, Alfons Heiderich had often remarked, were awake past nine in this neighborhood.
Not for the same reasons, Ed had argued once, looking up from his notes to accept the mug of coffee his flatmate had pushed across the kitchen table during some all-night cram session, back when they were both still enrolled at the university.
Alfons had given him a lopsided grin over the rim of his own mug. No? Oh, that's right: you've never been out on the town with Fiedler or Buettel or Steinmetz -- or, God help us, Edelmann ...
Of course not! Ed had protested, pulling a book out of the stack beside him and paging randomly through it. He ducked such invitations easily, but the boastful post-mortems were impossible to ignore. They're chemists. And Fiedler's in the philosophy department.
His disdain had provoked a gust of laughter from the other, whoops tailing off into a coughing fit excused by a wave of the mug. Down the wrong pipe. Alfons had always been ready with excuses: chalk-dust in lecture halls, chemicals in laboratories, pollen in spring, wood-smoke in autumn -- always some pretext that turned aside concern.
Until today, when the effort to clear his lungs had brought up blood, bright red and inexcusable.
I don't have much time, he had said.
How much time, dammit?
Ed looked up: the waning moon had just ridden over the roof of the Miethaus, still round and bright enough to compete with the artificial lighting below. The evening was growing old. He laid his left hand against the windowpane and felt the glass immediately begin to leach the warmth from his skin. The year itself was grown old, waning toward winter; the last mild days of autumn had burned away with the piles of leaves in the Englischer Garten. The city was celebrating some kind of feast of the dead, too; Ed hoped like hell that was nothing more than another strange coincidence in a week over-full of them. He shivered, shrugging deeper into his coat, and winced as the movement pulled at sore muscles. By the feel of it, he had new bruises on his back and hips to add to his burgeoning collection. All his weight had been on his artificial leg when Alfons had shoved him away on the stairs; he hadn't even had enough control to land on his ass. Ed's lips twitched in an expression too brittle and bitter to be a smile. I just can't win against anyone named Al.
The emphatic thud of bootheels on cement called his attention back to the sidewalk; the night patrolman -- not Hughes, what's-his-name ... Metzger -- was proceeding up Winzererstrasse, checking the shop doors as he went. Then for a good two minutes all other sound gave way to the bells of the Josephskirche tolling out according to their own incomprehensible schedule. By the time the echoes faded Metzger had ambled out of sight and the last waking householder across the street had snuffed his lamp. All was still, outside and in. Noa had finished washing up in the kitchen some time ago; Ed supposed she had gone to bed. He was glad she had left him alone. She had held him back from pursuing Alfons after their quarrel, and Ed wasn't sure whether to thank her for that or not. Now he had no one to argue with and nothing to listen to except an occasional ping from the radiator ... and Alfons's parting words, repeating themselves in his head like a stuck phonograph.
This is my world; I want to leave some proof that I lived!
Ed turned away from the window and frowned at the scarred oak table that served as his desk. The scatter of papers that usually covered it was piled neatly in a corner: thrust/mass ratios had been the last thing on his mind since the carnival. No, even before that. He hadn't formally dropped out of the Raketenklub yet, but his enthusiasm had been ebbing as his understanding grew. Physics is a closed circle; there's no escape that way. Only a lingering sense of obligation had kept him engaged with the club's projects -- he couldn't deny Alfons the help he needed to fulfill his dream, not after two years of collaboration. Not when the dream is so important to him. For all his gentle manner, the Bavarian teenager was fiercely ambitious. He and Ed might never have crossed paths if Alfons hadn't spent nearly every inflation-depleted Papiermark he possessed to travel to Romania and study with Hermann Oberth. I want to be the first to send a rocket to the moon, he had confided to Ed soon after they had met, adding with a self-deprecating smile, So does everyone else.
But Ed hadn't been fooled: "everyone else" didn't have Alfons Heiderich's genius or tenacity ... or generosity. He had welcomed Ed's help, cheerfully tutored him in subjects where he was weak and covered for him when Ed's unfamiliarity with student life led to missteps. They had agreed so well that Ed had found it difficult, in those early days, to treat Alfons like a new acquaintance and not the younger brother he so closely resembled. He remembered storming out of their rooms in Hermannstadt once in a fit of frustration over his inability to numerically integrate a differential equation -- and slinking back again ten minutes later, having forgotten both his coat and the fact that it was freezing outside, to find Alfons sitting on the floor by the wastebasket, extracting the crumpled papers Ed had thrown into it. It's not all rubbish, he had said, and for a moment Ed had been reminded so vividly of Al (in a dorm in Central, in their bedroom at Izumi's, in the old man's study) that he had grinned back with a younger self's cockiness. Of course not, he had replied. It's my work, after all -- and Alfons had shaken his head and chuckled and Ed had settled down to try again.
The wasp-sting of memory was seldom so benign. Ever since childhood, science had been Ed's passion, but his father was right: he had taken up physics to palliate the choking fear that his brother was dead and both their sacrifices wasted. He had envied Alfons the purity of his motives; his friend had no sins to atone for, no mistakes to correct -- only the desire to do something no one else had ever done. If that desire had become tinged with patriotism since they'd returned to Munich, well, there were worse outlets for national pride. They'd seen a few, these past two years. And though he'd never told him so, Ed had fully expected that Alfons would land that rocket on the moon before any but the already space-obsessed among his fellow citizens favored him with more than an indulgent smile or a yowl of "Pass auf!" when a test model careered off the range.
Yet this week had turned all of Ed's expectations upside-down. He reached past the glass and liquor bottle Noa had left on the desk to lay a hand on the helmet from which his younger brother's soul had so recently looked out at him. He had never imagined that Al would find him before he discovered a way home, much less that the occult mumbo-jumbo his old man had been investigating would prove the solution rather than the engineering Ed himself had trusted. He threw a sour glance at his papers and books -- all that work, all those hours of planning and experiment and analysis, all for nothing, while a clique of would-be wizards held the key to his heart's desire. Not that he intended to negotiate passage back to Amestris with the Thulegesellschaft. Five minutes' conversation with Dietlinde Eckart and her minions had been enough to convince him that they were hopelessly irrational; he'd never persuade them that their fabled Shambhala didn't lie on the other side of the Gate. Ed's fingers tapped out a martial rhythm on the helmet's crown. And if the filmmaker Mabuse's information about the Gesellschaft's connection with the Nazis was accurate, Eckart was not only delusional but dangerous. Ed had rushed back from Berlin with that thought foremost in his mind -- to warn Alfons that his sponsors were not to be trusted, that he was being used, his grand project co-opted by bigoted war-mongering fanatics ...
.... only to learn that his friend's motives weren't so disinterested, after all. And that his reasoning no longer carried any weight with his fellow-scientist.
You have no say in the matter!
Don't I? he argued back, as if Alfons were still present. It's my world they're planning to invade ... He broke off, blowing out a frustrated breath. All right, you don't accept that. Ed knew he shouldn't blame the other boy for his incredulity. Mabuse had said it yesterday: parallel worlds were the stuff of science fiction -- but dammit, so were spaceships, and Alfons believed in those with a conviction that was turning what-if into Q.E.D. So why don't you believe me? Haven't I earned your trust? Ed paced a few steps back and forth, automatically avoiding the creaky floorboard by his bed. It had always rankled him that Alfons received his confidences with amusement (You and your stories, Edward!) or veiled concern, as if Ed's claim of exile merely cloaked the isolation of an amputee among the able-bodied. But to be so comprehensively dismissed -- that was ...
( ... terrifying ... )
.... infuriating. A betrayal as complete as it was unexpected. How can you shut me out? I told you everything -- well, almost everything: all those stories about me and Al, all the things we did with alchemy back home. Ed stopped in front of the desk, staring out the window at the moon's sarcastic face. Do you think I'm crazy? Is that why you never said -- ? He pushed the memory of blood away, briefly kneading his forehead. No, you didn't trust me. The only thing between us was that damned rocket you dreamed up. You wouldn't -- you wouldn't --
The accusation turned in his mind, striking back at him.
-- wouldn't live ... in my dream?
He shied from the thought, but it completed itself in spite of him. Or maybe to spite him -- the voice in his head now might have been Mustang's, or his father's.
Why should he? In your dream, he doesn't exist.
Ed rammed the heels of both hands into the desk hard enough to jar his shoulders and rattle the helmet and overturn the glass on the tray. He set it upright again, resisting the urge to throw it against the wall. You'll never know what it's like to spend your whole life in a dream, he had told Mabuse as they walked among his studio's fanciful sets. Now he wondered whether he knew, either. The bruises on his back were real. The blood in Alfons's mouth was real.
You're pretending to live in a dream when you're actually afraid reality will invade it!
How could he have flung those words so self-righteously at the director?
Ed's eyes stung; he blinked, refusing to rub them. Instead he laid a hand on top of the bottle of cognac and tilted it back. It belonged to Alfons -- he used it to toast their successes. (Once he had even poured some over the nose cone of a particularly ambitious rocket; its spectacular failure to launch had dissuaded him from christening any of the club's other efforts.) Ed wondered why Noa had brought it -- in honor of his reunion with Al, maybe? Or his return from Berlin? Not that it mattered. Just now the liquor's brain-numbing effects were its chief attraction. He poured himself a generous glassful and tossed it back in two gulps. To Edward Elric, hypocrite.
Now, if his eyes watered, he had an excuse.
He poured a second glass and sipped it more slowly -- had it always tasted this vile or was it going off somehow? Giving up, he put the cognac aside and sat down on the bed. What do I do next? The Thulegesellschaft's plans were the least of his worries; as Noa had reminded him, they couldn't open the Gate themselves. He had some little time to figure out how to hamstring them and winkle the Raketenklub out from under their influence. But Alfons ... did the others know how ill he was? Was anyone taking care of him? Last winter he had all but collapsed before admitting that bronchitis had gotten the better of him. Even then he had kept working, propped up in bed with a lap desk, covering sheet after sheet of graph paper with diagrams and equations in handwriting of wildly varying legibility. Look, Edward, I think we may be able to correct for -- hey, give that back!
Not till you've had some of Gracia's soup and taken another dose of codeine and gotten some rest.
Jawohl, Mütterchen. Just don't forget and throw it out; I need to make a fair copy when I'm not having a chill ...
The weight of his own head dropping toward his chest woke Ed from the beginning of a doze. He lay back on the bed, the sluggishness of his body bringing home to him how very tired he was. The better part of the past two days had been nothing but a series of train and taxi rides; the catnaps he had snatched in Bahnhoefe and crowded second-class carriages had not rested him. Better get the arm and leg off before I really nod off -- he knew that if he didn't, he'd smart for it in the morning. Primitive damn things. But to remove them, he'd have to undress, and to do that, he had to get up and shut the door. Because I wasn't born in a barn. And he would get up, in a minute. Just one more minute ...
He closed his eyes and sank into sleep like a stone into water.
* * *
Noa sat in the kitchen and waited for silence to fill the flat.
If you were Roma, you learned one lesson early: never trust the gadje; they're only looking for a chance to kick you. With all she had seen of their hearts, she could not deny this -- only add that a Roma's heart was no truer. Her own people had cheerfully sold her to the gadje for a handful of francs. Trust no one; betrayal is certain. How quickly living here had worn away that belief, until she had even been willing to come at the call of Gracia's officious policeman. Someone to see you, he had said, and she had only wondered who it might be. Fool. By the time she spotted the snare it had already closed around her.. The policeman had stood aside, not even watching, as she was bundled into the car to sit beside the broad-shouldered lieutenant who claimed to have something to say to her advantage.
She had tested those words before and they never rang true. Gadje or Roma, men sought only their own advantage. This one was no different. He smiled at her and introduced himself as a member of the Thulegesellschaft, a student of ancient arts and talents only the ignorant called witchcraft. Like her gift. Such things, under the direction of the wise, could heal this wrecked world. The Thulegesellschaft was at this very moment on the verge of a great discovery, of opening the Gate to mystic Shambhala, the land of knowledge, peace and power. They lacked but one thing -- the key, as it were, to unlock the Gate. Only those who came from that other place possessed such a key; only a traveler between worlds like Edward Elric could enable the Gesellschaft to achieve its goal. But he had refused his aid. Time was short. Germany was in chaos, slipping toward destruction. If the power of Shambhala did not come swiftly to its rescue, there would shortly be nothing left worth rescuing. Surely she could see that. (She could not, but when he placed his hand upon hers where they clung to each other in her lap, she saw that he did.) Surely she was willing to perform one simple task for the sake of peace and order -- to use her gift to pluck from Elric's mind the key to opening the Gate.
Noa might have laughed at him had she been less afraid. How simple it always seemed to those who knew nothing of their own hearts. She tried to explain. Whatever the lieutenant had been told, she could not open a mind like a box, only overhear what it shouted at her or read its dreams. (The armor walking beside him, the voices calling farewell as he ran down the hill ... ) To ransack the whole for one idea -- had the lieutenant ever tried to follow the flight of a single bird when the entire flock took to the air? She could skim the surface of a dreamer's thoughts without rousing him, but she could not dive into them and fish for hidden knowledge. Even asleep, the mind would resist so pointed a trespass, struggling to wake, leaving no time for a search. It could not be done, not against Edward's will. Es tut mir leid, mein Herr, aber es geht nicht.
The lieutenant listened with what seemed genuine attention and then waved her objections away. Keine Sorge, he said, pulling a small brown bottle from one of his top pockets. Mix this into some strongly-flavored liquid, alcohol by preference, so many drops per ounce, and the one who drank it would not be wakened even by an artillery barrage. He pressed the bottle into her left palm. If all she required was that Elric remain asleep while she worked, this would answer admirably.
She closed her fingers around his before he could withdraw them. "Sleep -- and wake again?" she asked.
"Of course," he replied.
And so he believed, as he believed in Germany's danger and in Shambhala. He did not mean to make her a murderer. He retrieved his hand; she held the bottle loosely in her fist and wondered which he would offer first: threat or bribe? What price the key to another world? The friendship and protection of the Thulegesellschaft. Training for her gift, if she wished it, oder ... He reached inside his coat and withdrew a thick leather wallet.
"No!" she said.
He frowned, but tucked the wallet away again. Noa murmured an apology, though she would have preferred to curse. Why didn't he just threaten? Why did he have to pretend to bargain, to lure her with petty rewards, as if she had a choice? She wanted nothing he could give, nothing -- except ...
"This -- other world," she said. "Who will you send there?"
The lieutenant hesitated. "Picked men," he replied, "well-trained in the mystic arts. The road to Shambhala is not ... without danger -- "
"I want to go," she said.
The first shock of desire had flowered in her belly like frost; now it ran hectic through her veins. Shambhala was nothing to her, but Edward's world, the country of his dreams, a land that had not learned to hate the Roma -- that she craved. To walk through the green fields and climb the hill to the house where welcome was sure: they would receive her gladly, wouldn't they, if she came with him? The lieutenant was staring at her; she held his gaze.. "I want to go," she repeated.
"Bring us the key and you shall go," he said. "Ich geb' Dir mein Wort darauf."
Noa blinked. She had expected to bargain hard; had she sold herself too cheaply? Or was the prize the lieutenant sought so dear that it was worth any price? He was already outlining conditions: her assessment must be both thorough and accurate -- the least misunderstanding could vitiate their next attempt to reach Shambhala. She was to notify Herr Hughes when the task was complete and, above all, she was not to delay. The Thulegesellschaft must have Edward Elric's knowledge of the Gate before the week was out, without fail. Did she understand?
"Edward is away," she said. "He did not say when he would return."
Again, the lieutenant dismissed her words. "We know. If necessary, we will arrange to have him recalled from Berlin."
Noa did not doubt it. She bowed her head and allowed herself to be helped out of the car. The lieutenant had pressed her hand in farewell, thanking her for her aid, promising her the gratitude of an entire nation. Empty words. Does the carver thank his chisel or the smith his hammer?
She needed no gift to tell her what he saw when he looked at her.
All the long hours from then until now she had waited, and for most of them the secret had weighed on her heart no more than the vial dragged at her pocket. It surprised her that it should be so. Perhaps they were right, those who believed that Gypsies were treacherous by nature; even the Roma had a saying: tshatshimo Romani -- the truth is spoken only in Romany, to the kindred, not to the gadje. Or perhaps, like a good tool, she knew no will but the craftsman's hand, and if no will, then no guilt. Or perhaps she had simply been too busy with small tasks to give the greater any thought. Once the household chores were done Gracia had begged her help in the shop: everyone in the neighborhood was preparing for the Allerheiligen holiday, buying spices for cooking and flowers to lay upon the graves of their dead. Late in the afternoon she had helped Gracia tie up her own bouquets for a father and brother fallen in the war and a mother lost to the 'flu. I'll be spending the day with my sister and her family, Noa -- would you like to join us? The boys have been so busy lately; I doubt they have any plans that don't include rockets.
The unexpected kindness had neither pleased nor discomfited her. No, thank you, she had replied, wondering if all other feeling had burned away in the previous night's flash-fire of want. Gracia had not pressed her further.. Noa had shuttered the shop windows while the other woman counted the day's earnings in the till; afterward they had bade each other good night and Noa had retreated upstairs to a solitary supper and then to her bed on the couch. She had awakened once after midnight when Alfons let himself in, carrying his shoes but unable to stifle a volley of coughing. She had said nothing to him; when she rose the next morning he had already departed, leaving a pot of coffee warming on the stove and a sepia-stained mug in the sink. She had made her own breakfast and washed up and waited -- eaten her luncheon and dusted and swept. And waited.
She was preparing another meal from what she could find in the cupboards when Edward stumbled in, drawn and hungry and full of news. He told it in snatches between mugs of tea (I've been drinking railway coffee for two days; I don't think I ever want to look at another cup), while she added butter and brown sugar to the extra helping of sauerkraut and sliced another potato to fry with the sausages and onions. She was glad to have something to do with her hands, to bend over the stove and warm her face as his tale feathered a chill across her skin. Her kin had avoided Munich during the Raeterepublik, but even Gracia had stories to tell of the bloody street fighting that had toppled it. For those days to return ... but Edward was adamant that they should not. Now that he knew their aim, he intended to spike the Thulegesellschaft's guns and prevent them from exploiting his friend and his homeland ....
.... even at the cost of his own continued exile.
Self-disgust, so curiously absent before, roiled up in Noa like marsh-gas in dead water. She rose from the table and carried her half-empty plate to the counter, blindly spooning more sauerkraut onto it. Fool. She had been hoping all along, she realized, simply to ask him what she needed to know. He had understood when she told him that "Roma" meant "human"; she had expected him to understand this, too, to see in her dream the mirror of his own. That he might forswear homecoming was unimaginable, yet there he sat, all but doing so. Of course: he could never combine with his enemy. She had fallen into the snare twice over; she could no longer delude herself that she had the words to turn bad faith into good. Her gift was the hawk's eye, not the lark's tongue. It was the naked truth of her readings that persuaded her hearers, not the patter in which she clumsily clothed it. (Hell's teeth, girl, have you no sense of drama? Spin it out! Play them! Give them a taste for free and let them beg to pay you for the rest of the meal ... )
Still, she tried, following him into his room after supper to say, "If the Gate opens, you can go home."
He was lying at his ease on the bed, or as much at ease as his prosthetics allowed. "Along with those fools who want to draw my world into their war," he answered.
I don't want that! I only want to go there! "But ... " she ventured, with nothing else to add, and he smiled, shrugging back into his pillows.
"I found out that Al's still alive over there," he said softly. "I'd been worried that maybe I'd failed him. So it doesn't matter now."
Her eyes had filled at that, both for herself and for him. A false peace, rotten at the roots: he would dream for the rest of his life of the brother he could not touch and think those dreams his due. Maybe this is the hell I deserve, he had told her.
How could anyone choose to live in hell?
It was inevitable. She had taken the bottle of cognac from the cupboard, and a glass, and then ... and then she had balked at pouring the treacherous cup herself. Instead she had dosed the bottle, so many drops per ounce, and left it on the desk in his room for Edward to drink or not as chance or fate or God willed.
If I am only a tool, then I do not choose.
But Edward had chosen: the glass stood half-full beside the bottle. Had he taken enough? She hesitated in the doorway, studying him. Light from the hall behind her seeped into the room and ran across the bed where he lay on his back, still fully clothed, unnaturally relaxed. With the lines of strain and humor alike erased from his face, he might indeed have been a corpse. (But you cannot rob the dead, for they own nothing.) Only the slight rise and fall of his chest broke the illusion. She crossed the floor, stepping lightly where it creaked, and settled onto the mattress beside him. He did not stir.
Trust no one, gadjo; betrayal is certain.
She bent down, closing her eyes, and laid her forehead against his.