Once upon a time.
There were two brothers. Neither without the other did they go and never would they think that it was only one, alone, that would be there when they got to where they were going. Inseparable as the ocean was to the tide and constant as the changing of the seasons. That was the brothers they were.
When one of them found opportunity in a far off land that would have to be traversed by ship, they both worked tirelessly to afford passage and never once was it considered one would go ahead and one would come behind. It was together or it was never. It had always been that way.
But the time that once had been upon wasn't he same for them as it was for those around them, because these brothers were magical and their very beings filled the brim with the impossibility that they were. And here, in this place where once upon a time was often told, it didn't ring true in the ears of those who's time upon once had been in another place all together.
But such were speculations.
They set foot on the shore of the land far away that was even farther away than anyone could imagine from where they had been. It was a the almost the middle of the year, a little past the middle of the decade, and it was a place they'd heard many things about. And while there were more or less resigned to being in this place that was not the place that upon a time it once was, they had never given up hope that perhaps, some day, they might go happen back to where they had been, time upon once, long ago.
Stranger things had happened. Stranger things were yet to happen.
And that is how Edward and Alphonse found themselves in New York.
They were here to meet a man named Dewey. Dewey was a professor at a influential college and he had many ideas that appealed to both logic and aesthetics, things with which Edward held dear, even if the concept of the truth had become muddled for him. For Alphonse, along for the ride, it wasn't a total waste, because mixed up in all this budding functional psychology was a smattering of epistemology, and he couldn't help but be intrigued.
It didn't hurt that Dewey was hopelessly mired in philosophy, in fact he was the very head of the department at Columbia (and the Teachers College, which was attached), because as Edward himself put it, in the paper he had submitted for speculation, alchemy at it's very core had been a search for philosophical discipline. He'd also gone on to say many other lofty things that the teachers in this great country called America had show interest in, and thus, had summoned him across an ocean.
"See? They have alchemy, only not as we know it," Ed told his younger brother and he looked smug while doing it, like he was revealing some great mystery.
And perhaps he was.
Only he wasn't, really, for at the time Jung was already on the scene, calling alchemical symbolism into play, and it was alien as it was familiar to two people who had lived it in their reality in what seemed a lifetime away.
They went to the University first, because all arrangements had been made this way, and they were to be housed as guests for the time being. It was here Edward would either sink or swim and find a permanent position or set the brothers adrift once more. It wasn't that Alphonse was a non-contributor, but his apparent youth lent itself more to studentry, so if Ed could find a spot, then Alphonse could very well be placed in this academic environment.
They were shown into a small room to wait. There were some chairs against the wall, a faded sort of settee on the opposite wall and not much else to hold anyones interest. Ed and Al too up positions on two of the chairs. Ed took off his great coat and held it in his lap; Al took a small novel out of his pocket and opened it up to read. They sat in companionable silence for a little while. Occasionally one or the other of them would look up, around the room, toward the doorway and then back down. The both looked up abruptly when a figure entered.
The young man entering paused to take in the two brothers. He looked back at the open doorway, then at the brothers, then around the room as well. He made his way to the settee and sat on it, placing his hands on his knees, and for lack of better words, he then began to stare at Ed and Alphonse in a rather frank way.
Many things were quickly noted about the new addition to the room. First, he was xingian. No, that wasn't right, he was Chinese, and he looked to be Ed's age or perhaps younger, maybe between Ed and Al. Next was he wore the long over tunic and blousy pants in silk with the slippers, like many xingian, (Chinese!) often did. But here, the Chinese were under the direct rule of the Manchu, (when in Xing, no, wait, China), and had to follow the doctorate set down there. This fellow did not. He had a que, a long thin braid that he wore almost like a scarf. It was over his shoulder, under his neck and over his other shoulder, but he wasn't shaved up front and hand thick bangs that hung in his eyes. He was also without a hat. Ed and Al looked at each other, then Ed smoothed on his coat some and Al cleared his throat a little and continued to read his book.
Every time either Elric took a peek at the young man, he was staring. Being on Ed's left meant that Al could not nudge his foot and get a proper response, because he knew that Ed was working up a careful resentment at the scrutiny; so he had to bump thighs with his brother, which made Ed jump and the Chinese man raise his eyebrows. Ed looked at Alphonse and Alphonse looked at Ed and gave him a slight frown and shake of his head and Ed subsided with a sigh and leaned back into his chair. This caused the man on the settee to shift about a moment, tap his knee, then go right back to his previous activity.
Al had to admit it was a little unnerving and he checked his shirt front in a bit of mild paranoia, to see if he'd accidentally left some of his breakfast there. Ed caught Al's movement, then he too, looked at Al's shirt front, then his own, then his shoes. Nothing. Ed shifted then in a way that made Al shoved the novel he'd been reading into his face. Ed reached up to snatch it down and Al insistently shoved it into his hands and tapped it. He gave the Chinese man a bit of an affronted look then, having to give up his good novel to insure his brother's continued manners. It just wouldn't do for Ed to pick a fight while they sat here waiting to see the man they'd traveled so far to see. The Chinese man looked a bit baffled, but unrepentant, then he smiled at Al.
Well, maybe this was some unwritten rule that the Elrics didn't know of, this rule where Chinese people just stared at you. Maybe he didn't know that it was considered unnerving and impolite to people from another plane of existence.
Ed tried very hard to concentrate on the book and Al just clasped his hands between his knees and leaned a bit closer to his brother to share the book. The activity seemed to make the Chinese man slide down the settee closer to them, then he too, leaned over as if to look at the book.
"That's IT," Ed said, straighting up and snatching the book up out of view. "Look, I don't know what your deal is here, but why are you staring at us? Huh? What is it you're looking to see?"
"Brother," Al said, "don't be rude, or hasty! He might not even speak the same language."
"I speak English," the Chinese man said with a wide grin.
"SEE?" Ed said, turning to Al in vindication, then he whipped back to their sitting room companion. "So, out with it, what do you want? You don't just sit in close quarters and stare at people. It makes them jumpy."
"I see that," the Chinese man said, still grinning.
Ed made a move to get up, but it got aborted when Al grabbed his arm and yanked him back down. The Chinese man seemed unconcerned with the implied violence and continued to study the brothers, even though the situation was now out in the open.
"I've never seen anything like you," the Chinese man volunteered. "You're not from around here."
"Like you are," Ed snapped back, and he would have said more if not for the appearance of yet another person in the doorway of the sitting room.
This man was also Chinese, but unlike the younger man on the settee, he was older, looked authoritative and perhaps a bit intimidating. He looked at Ed and Al for a moment, then his eyes settled on the other Chinese man and he began to speak in a language neither Ed nor Al could understand.
The young Chinese man who occupied the room with them, however, jumped to his feet and bowed deeply. The older Chinese man turned and went out the doorway and the younger one rushed to follow, he paused once there and looked back at the Elrics, who were now staring after him.
"Bye," he said with the infectious grin and vanished out the door.
"What a fruitcake," Ed muttered, sitting back now, crossing his legs and opening Al's book.
"I don't know," Al said slowly. "I get the feeling he meant it when he said he didn't think we were from around here."
Ed started to speculate on that when another man leaned in the door.
"Mr. Elric?" he said, "Sorry to keep you waiting, I'm John Dewey, would you follow me to my office?"
Ed tossed the novel at Al, jumped to his own feet, surged forward to shake hands and then he, too, disappeared down the hall.
In the end, Ed was offered a position to start in the Teacher's College, working as an assistant for Professor Dewey there. There was a little bit of fortuitous looking the other way in regards to Ed's credentials and for which Ed himself was profoundly grateful. He knew this stuff, he did, and he was brighter on average than any other college student. It seemed Professor Dewey knew how to pull strings. Alphonse was quickly enrolled and a suitable apartment residence was quickly found. They weren't kidding when they called America the 'land of opportunity' because it was certainly being opportunistic for the Elrics.
Ed found out, on his first week there, that he would take part in helping to prepare and exhibition for the Sesqui-Centennial International Exposition in Philadelphia. And despite knowing next to nothing about China or the Chinese, John Dewey, a very busy man, felt that Ed could handle this task, to promote China's culture, and it's headway into modern education.
"I'm assigning you an assistant," he told Ed. "He is a relation of Pingwen, who's the head of our pet project, the China Institute. He's about your age and he speaks flawless English. I'm sure he'll be good to have on board."
To this end, Ed once again found himself face to face with a man who'd made an afternoon of staring at him from a settee.
"This is Ling Yao," John Dewey told him, then slapped Ed on the arm. "I'm sure you two will get along fine." Then Professor Dewey abandoned him there, and Ling rocked back and forth on the balls of his feet and clasped his hands behind his back.
"I think I'll hate you," Ed said, before he realized he was saying it. "Not that you should let that put you off this project in any way, it's just the way I am. I don't know anything about your culture, so I thought I would be upfront about that. So you need to show me what I need to know to pull this off without a hitch so I can impress my boss and if we manage this together then maybe I'll hate you less in the end. I don't know, is that the kind of offer that seems reasonable to you?"
Ling seemed to purse his lips and tilted his head as if thinking it over.
"I accept," he said. "I don't think you should hate me and I don't think you will by the time this is through. In fact, I know so much about China you should be a bit more solicitous to me, seeing as how I'm in the position to make you or break you."
"Wow, you really do know flawless English," Ed said, impressed.
"I'm a scoundrel, didn't you know?" Ling grinned.
It was the 22nd. It was 9 days until the opening of the Exposition. He was following Ling through the streets, (and being lost but not willing to admit it), on a 'fact finding jaunt', well, those were Ling's words and not his own. So far, the facts Ed was finding were the fact that people like to stare as Chinese men wearing Chinese clothes walking on the streets of New York. It made him a little self conscious and he hung back, allowing Ling to get ahead. Why Ling chose to wear the high necked dress like tunic and blousy pants out in public was beyond Edward. Back at the University no one seemed to care; it was like an entirely different world. Of all the Chinese that Ed has made acquaintance of, (inevitably since being in the employee of Dewey), Ling was the only one consistently dressed and mostly styled like an actual china man. The others tended to wear western suits within the University walls and seem to have an abundance of tolerance for Ling's lack of following...well 'suit' for lack of a better word. Still, when Ling stopped to inspect a car parked at the curb, and clasped his hands behind his back and leaned forward almost as to sniff at it, he got a lot of attention.
"A Chrysler Club Coupe!" he told Ed merrily when Ed caught up. "It seems to be a late model as well," Ling straightened up and rubbed at his chin. He turned to watch Ed who walked on by, then hastened to follow him.
"Where are we anyways?" Ed groused, trying to look like he wasn't speaking to Ling at all and Ling swung his head back and forth for a moment.
"You don't know where we are?" Ed said, trying his best to glare at Ling and yet still look like someone that was merely walking the same way. "How can you bring us over here and not know where we are?"
"I know where we are," Ling said, smiling, "we are nearing River Avenue, we will follow along until East 161st street, we're in the Bronx," Ling nodded. "I like it here, I come here often."
"To do what?" Ed said, glancing up at the sign on the corner and confirming that Ling did seem to know what he was talking about. He turned the corner in the same direction as Ling and came to a confused stop when Ling did, looking up to see what Ling saw.
"There," Ling said reverently, pointing up the road, "is Yankee Stadium. The House that Ruth Built. The first three-tiered sports facility in all of the United States. It can seat sixty-thousand, much bigger and better than the polo grounds across the river."
"And we are here...why?" Ed said, edging away a little to preserve his random person just happening to be standing near a china man image.
"To see baseball of course," Ling said and headed off in that direction. "Today the Yankees play the Saint Louis Browns, who would want to miss that?"
"Well, me frankly, because you do realize that we only have a week left until the Exposition, right?" Ed said, forgetting, in his momentarily flabbergastaion, that he wasn't suppose to actually be in the company of Ling.
"I realize a lot of things," Ling said, heading steadily toward the stadium, "and I'll continue to realize them after the Yankees defeat the Browns, now let's hurry so we can sit in the upper tiers!"
In the end, Ed was forced to sit next to Ling, but he noticed no one sat on Ling's opposite side. In fact, the crowd was must sparser here then on the lower levels. Ling put his feet on the bench before them, because no one was sitting there, either.
"So, you do this a lot?" Ed asked, looking down at the sea of humanity seated below them. "Come all the way out here to watch baseball? Who usually comes with you? You know you don't have to make an exception for me."
"I'm not," Ling told him cheerfully. "Usually I come alone. I meditate on who should be the starting pitcher, I prefer Hoyt but usually it's Pennock. I wonder if Babe Ruth will hit a home run. I often speculate if he would be a better infielder than an outfielder. I wonder where they'll play the world series? I think the Yankees are a sure thing this year." He turned to look at Ed, perpetual smile, perpetual closed eyed countenance.
"Oh," Ed said. "Well I guess if you're really into it. Seems sort of funny for you to be such a fan though."
Ling's eyebrows rose, but his eyes didn't open any further. He clasped his hands in front of them, arms along his knees.
"Why is that funny?" he asked. "Baseball is an exhilarating thing. It promotes teamwork and camaraderie. It requires strategy and stamina. It's very interesting to look at the statistics as well. I think baseball is a lot like Confucianism. It stresses ethics, morals and social views. You don't cheat, you play your best and you work with your teammates. Just because it's been rejected in my country doesn't make it any less true."
"Well that's not what I mean," Ed hedged. "I meant that this is an American thing and well, you're not American I'm not American, either. This is like the rite of Americans or something. You're a visitor from another place, so why do you like something so very rooted in a foreign culture? I mean, I see you comparing it to an eastern philosophy, but doesn't that seem sort of profane? Confucianism is a like a religion...this is just a game."
"Not really," Ling said with a grin. "That is a popular misconception. I think what you are trying to say here is that by being Chinese I should be Chinese and not really open myself to new experiences. There is a saying for that, let me think," Ling tapped his chin. " 'Men's natures are alike, it's their habits that carry them far apart.' I really think that is what makes people think because they are not from a culture they should not let themselves experience a culture. Is that what you mean?"
"I didn't think so," Ed murmured, "but when you put it that way, maybe I did. Ok, let me ask you this, because you can't not notice this," Ed spread his arms. "No one sits near you. You know why, right? It's that Chinese thing we just brought up. So you are going out of your way to integrate yourself and no one here wants to integrate along with you. I mean, doesn't that make you uncomfortable? Look, I really am not one to let a little thing like ostracization get to me, fuck knows I've lived it enough. But what about you? You're really far away from the safety net of Columbia here. That doesn't bother you?"
"Oh, oh I have two for this," Ling said merrily. "When we see men of a contrary character we must turn inwards and examine ourselves; also, wheresoever you go, go with all your heart," Ling nodded then, looking satisfied with himself.
"You're not just reciting this stuff to me," Ed said quietly, "you really believe it."
"Well I am a student of philosophy," Ling said. "It wouldn't do me much good to think otherwise. Is any of this helping you? I think I would be a good role model," he leaned toward Ed then, wiggled his eyebrows up and down.
"Not sure what you mean?" Ed said, leaning back a little.
"You say you're not American, and that is fact enough; but it's what you don't say that interests me more," Ling stage whispered. "You're waiting on something. You're looking around the next corner, always, never content with what you have. You are from somewhere far away, but not in a sense of miles."
He couldn't know. How could he know? There was no way for him to know.
"You're game is starting," Ed said, turning away from the smile and the never really opened eyes. "I thought you wanted to see this game."
"I do," Ling said simply. "I just thought you might be thinking we were kindred in some way. Since we are in some ways of the same nature I thought you might like to know you're not alone. I'm seeking something, too. I just thought, as we are teammates, we might be able to help one another."
"It's not like I don't appreciate it," Ed said. "You know in some ways you are right; I'm not really trying to make this work. I mean, I'm here but I'm not here. I get it. So thanks for that; you've given me something to think about. If I could learn to just accept it that might be better. Better for me, better for Al, just better. So yeah, thanks."
"If you really want to thank me wave at that peanut vendor," Ling said. "They tend to ignore me, but I bet your dashing European good looks could lure him over."
Ed looked at him for a moment, then turned his head and waved his hand.
"I would be helpful if you could pay as well," Ling continued on, "since the tickets were a gift from Professor Dewey and I don't happen to have any American currency on me."
Ed turned to retort but the loud speaker blared a blast of static that drown out what shouldn't be said in public and by the time it cleared the vendor was right there. After that, getting Ling's attention over the game and the bag of peanuts was next to impossible. In fact, not that he would admit it, he kind of liked the game, too.
As it turned out, the Yankees won with a score of 7 to 6.
The Exposition was dull.
It had started out with a bang. There was a giant representation of the Liberty Bell with thousands of light bulbs at the gate of the fair, but once he'd seen it a dozen times, it became old hat. The city had even gone so far as to build a bridge spanning the Delaware River (the first bridge of it's kind) to make it easier for people to come over from New Jersey.
But still, all in all, the days of standing around listening to people babble in both English and Chinese were wearing thin. Al had even stopped attending after the first week, preferring to stay home and catch up on his studies. Ed was vaguely jealous. The only break in his activities were frequent visits from Ling at cleverly staged intervals. The china man seemed to know just when Ed was going to snap from bordem before he put in an appearance. It was on one such day he appeared with one of his fellow countrymen and stood around smiling at Ed until Ed gave in and wandered over. Ling was eager to be very introductory and he indicated the gentleman with him with a great flourish.
"Edward, this is Hu Shih, he is one of the founders of the Institute you are I are working very hard to promote here," Ling said. "He's heard of your dedication and I have very graciously brought him to make you acquaintance," and Ling did that eyebrow wiggle thing again, like he was doing Ed a big favor.
Ed, of course, was at once flustered because damn it all, Ling liked to pull these sorts of stunts all the time. In fact, he excelled in the art of catching Ed very off guard and flat footed. It was almost as if he made it a mission. Not sure what to do, Ed started off with bowing. Bowing seemed to be the thing and when he bowed both Ling and Hu Shih bowed along with him. Well he wasn't sure who was suppose to bow first and who was suppose to bow last and was he suppose to bow to their bow so that he was bowing out of respect to the fact that he was being bowed in the first place. So he bowed again, and Ling bowed again and Hu Shih looked a little confused, but then he bowed again and Ed wondered now, if the rule was third bow out. So, out of nervousness at not knowing the bowing rule and just to be extra safe, he bowed a third time. Ling bowed along with him, grinning hugely, Hu Shih didn't bow so Ed figured that he must have figured out bowing etiquette on his own because after all, he was a genius.
"Ed likes to bow," Ling said to his companion. "I think he's trying to perfect the bow. I think it would take a lot of practice however to out bow someone from China, after all, that's what the Chinese do," and Ling whipped out another bow and Ed almost bowed but caught himself at the last moment because he was pretty sure by this point that the bowing was over and Ling was just trying to trick him into some how triggering another bowing session.
"I think you're friend is onto you Yao Ling," the other man said amicably enough. "I have heard many good things about your work with Professor Dewey," Hu Shih said, addressing Ed himself, "and I wanted to thank you for your hard work."
"Edward is most honored," Ling supplied handily. "I'm sure he's very well versed with your contributions to this event and to the promotion of the Chinese culture in general to this great land of America. The simplifying of the classics of Chinese literature alone should be enough to assure our very place in the hearts of the learned of the country, now that they can read and perhaps understand the Chinese mind."
"It seems that Yao Ling has it in his mind to tease you through this meeting," Hu Shih said, because Edward was flapping his lips but nothing was coming forth. "You shouldn't let him get to you so, I will tell you now it's not the intellectual things that Yao Ling likes to soak up as if they were the rays of the sun, but more the supernatural things that he things vernacular Chinese will also bring to these shores. Yao Ling is a proponent of the more you read about something the more true it will become. Think on that Edward Elric, that could give you some ammunition."
Ling grinned sheepishly and Hu Shih turned his attention to Pingwen who had approached during their conversation. The two of them left the younger men standing there.
"You bastard," Ed hissed. "What is this sadistic need you have to trick and humiliate me at every turn? How was I suppose to know that was one of the founders? I've never met him, it's not like Dewey shows me pictures," Ed shook his head. "Why the fuck do I put up with you?" And then Ed looked around cautiously to make sure no one was standing close enough to hear him swear, particularly if they were female. That always got him into trouble.
"Don't be that way, I'm entertaining you through you drudgery," Ling said, then shrugged. The two of them retreated to some chairs near the tables and sat. They both looked around, but they'd seen it all before so it seemed like the only thing they had left to do was talk to one another.
"So you like fairy tales," Ed said, folding his arms and crossing his legs. "You like to read the pulp fiction of the ancients. Here you are a student of philosophy and you like to read about ghosts and ghouls. So go on, spout some Confucius about how that makes you wise and insightful and all that. You can do it with baseball, I'm sure you can do it with spooky stories."
"I am a diligent student," Ling said loftily. "It doesn't matter if I study the human mind or the minds of things other than humans. We have a great deal to learn from the non-waking world and the places outside the human keen. When you give thought to a concept you give it power. If I were to be some ancient creature of myth looking to live in this man's modern age I would be very grateful if some powerful Chinese scholar came along and made my heretofore complicated language more accessible to a much larger audience. After all, it was the pulp fiction of the ancients that got us to where we are today," Ling thumped the table with his fingers.
"You feel really strongly about this," Ed said with a grin, kicking his foot and enjoying Ling's scowl.
"You have your own fairy tales if all those notes you keep locked in your desk hold any merit with you," Ling huffed.
"Any culture has it's share of fairy...wait a minute, what notes locked in my desk are you referring to," Ed said, leaning forward with an angry hiss. "What the fuck are you doing going into my locked desk to read private notes?"
"How could I help it," Ling said spreading his arms. "You're all glazed over them, naturally I'm curious, and you keep it locked, how else was I suppose to read them?"
"What part of locked do you not understand?" Ed snarled. "Locked is locked for a reason, as in private, oh wait, is that not a Chinese practice?" Ed waved his own arms around now. "I can't believe you would go into someones LOCKED desk and read their private notes! Explain to me what Confucius would say about that? Come on, give me a quote that makes this ok!"
"I'm sure Confucius wouldn't think to highly of it," Ling said calmly, "but I'm not Confucius"
"Well, at least we're clear on that!" Ed leaned back in his chair, glancing around to make sure his outburst stayed just his outburst and he wasn't getting any scolding looks from learned men. "You got a hell of a lot of nerve," he informed his table companion.
"What I have is a burning curiosity about your complete and utter fascination with alchemy," Ling said with a strangely bright glint in his eyes. "If my hypothesis about the more people know a mythical creature the more power it gains to become a reality could work for your pet project, too."
Ed shifted uncomfortable. Truth be told he was dying to discuss his theroms with someone, and not really with Al. Al was settling in, Al was practicing all of Ling's favorite philosopher's sayings. Al was becoming one of them, and Ed, to his mortification hadn't made that concession yet. He was still living in a place that had little sentimental meaning and he was still looking for a way to get home.
It wasn't a crime.
Ling cocked his head and grinned and he did that thing with his eyebrows that made Ed want to rip them off his face just to watch them fly away on their own.
"So, it's a fairy tale," Ed said grudgingly, because no one here believed in 'magic'.
"All this distance you try to put between us and really, we are just alike," Ling said. "Do you really believe yourself from another world? A place where alchemy is science and run rampant with transmutation? Is that all true, Edward? You can tell me, I will believe you and I will tell you with all sincerity I want to know. More than that, I want to help you find a way back, because you see, I'd want to go with you."
And for the life of him, Ed really didn't know what to say.
He was finally restored to more normal duties, the fair behind him and his budding career in front of him. It was a relief and a disappointment in a way that Ling's visits were no longer daily. He could focus on the things he needed to focus on now, like Al's education, perhaps finding a house to buy and making a go of living out the rest of his days in this place called New York.
But because Ed's mind was such fertile ground, the seeds that Ling planted had taken firm hold and were sprouting even in the drought of speculation Ed withheld from them. They would not wither or die, instead they branched out to the fringes of his every day thoughts, leaving the bed of incredulity he tried to contain them in.
Ling wanted to go with him? Back through the gate, back to his own world, back to his life that once was upon a time?
And how could Ling just accept this as the truth so easily? Of course, Ed knew it was the truth, but what reason did Ling have to trust him? Was it really so hard to believe there was another person out there just waiting; always looking around the corner; never satisfied? But this was Ling's home, how could he just leave it? How could he just take for granted everything Ed had lost? This shouldn't make him angry. Ling shouldn't be so ungrateful. He shouldn't be having this conversation with himself. This should be the end of it.
But of course, it wasn't.
Ed found himself lingering in the stacks at the library, looking for what he wasn't sure. He couldn't read Chinese unaided and he didn't want Ling to know he was even attempting to read Chinese pulp fiction. He couldn't go to Pingwen and Hu Shih had returned to China for a time.
Well...there was Dewey.
But Dewey was his boss. How would that look professionally? He could go under the pretext of wanting to find out more about Chinese literature. Dewey would probably then refer him to the classics that Hu Shih had made easier to read. In that list of Chinese works there probably wouldn't be the big Chinese book of ghosts and ghouls. And then there was always this thing of he was working in the philosophy department under the Professor of philosophy so why wasn't he more interested in accessible Chinese philosophy. Circle and circles, his life was circles, whether he clapped them or thought them, circles would rule him forever.
In the end he decided to approach a Chinese student, (other than Ling) and hope for the best. The best netted him a book called Notebook of the Thatched Cottage of Close Scrutiny, or something Chinese-ish like that. It wasn't translated, naturally. And it was of course older than dirt and was in that fancy Chinese that the new Chinese was making accessible. Well, wasn't that peachy? So he went back to the student and confessed his complete and utter lacking in the Chinese language, (and OH that burned. He could learn it, he could, he just felt well, he didn't have time, what with being so philosophical and all) and arranged a couple of nights, (with a small fee for the trouble), where he could sit and listen to fairy tales read aloud.
From this he made copious notes; especially when the student, not knowing what he was doing, read this aloud: Those hujing, (read like that because he found out hu li jing was not polite), who seek alchemical transformations and try to gather spiritual essences are like scholars who attain fame by studying diligently. Those who entice men and deplete them of their sexual energies for their own benefit are taking short-cuts to achieve their goal quickly. But only (the former) can roam the islands of the immortals and ascend to the celestial realms; (the latter), by bringing harm to too many lives, often violate the code of Heaven.
So, did Ling think his world was Heaven?
Because he certainly thought so; and was this what Ling was referring to, the more that people knew, the more power the supernatural gained and the more they were real?
Was this the way home?
He thought of the locked desk and his notes full of alchemical symbols interwoven in the philosophy of this place. Of the work of Jung and the writings of Ji Yun, who penned the Notebook of the Thatched Cottage.
And he though of alchemy and what it would mean to a hujing.
But such things didn't exist. It was all ancient Chinese pulp fiction. They couldn't exist.
Like bumblebees couldn't fly; like inter dimensional travel was a myth; like homunculus weren't real.
Like alchemy and magic.
So what did Ling have in mind? He said he studied diligently. Did he really want to roam the island of the immortals?
Did this mean that his long denied celestial realm could burst into existence like a moth burst into flames from a candle?
Or was Ed presenting a temptation to violate the code of Heaven?
The only certainly Ed had at this point was that Ling knew the answers to these questions. That Ling had bought into a legend that was once upon a time a reality.
That Ling might be the way home.
Ed wasn't surprised to see Ling waiting for him in his office the next morning. Ling had a way of knowing when his presence was called for; he demonstrated it time and time again in the short time Ed had known him. There seemed to be no need for words at this moment. Ed had class to attend to and Ling has Ed's notes, all conveniently spread out on his desk and other accessible areas; the locked drawer hanging open. There seemed to be an unspoken understanding; an even unthought of understanding, and Ed left him there to read and familiarize himself with the world he thought he wanted.
There was lunch with Al, and Ed made the decision to leave Al in the dark for the time being. If this wasn't just speculation, if this was what he thought, (hoped, prayed), it might be, there was time enough to bring Al into the equation before the end.
There was an afternoon meeting in Dewey's office and assignments he might never complete if everything he thought, (and hoped and dreamed), might happen happened. But just in case he took them anyways. And finally it was after class and Ling was where he left him, only repositioned on the floor and he shut his office door behind himself and clicked the lock.
And there they just looked at each other, and then Ling said: "Do you believe enough to make it real?"
"Humans and beasts are different species, but foxes are between humans and beasts. The dead and the living walk different roads, but foxes are between the dead and the living. Transcendent and monsters travel different paths, but foxes are between transcendent and monsters. Therefore one could say to meet a fox is strange; one could also say it is ordinary," Ed returned.
"Now it's my turn to quote at you," Ed continued. "Human beings and physical objects belong to two different categories; fox-spirits stand somewhere between the two. The paths of light and darkness never converge: fox-spirits stand somewhere between the two. Immortals and demons go different ways; fox-spirits stand somewhere between the two."
"Ah," Ling said, "so it is with the Hujing."
"In my mythology there is a gate. The gate stands between this world and my world," Ed said. "But my world isn't the heaven you are looking for, it's just another world with another culture. It's just another America to another China."
"So you say, but seeing is believing and that holds true in any language," Ling said from his cross-legged seat on the floor. "Do you want it bad enough to make it happen?"
"The price is very high, and I would have to talk to my brother," Ed said slowly. "I think about what I think I miss, and yeah, there are people I miss, that's true. But I risked all of that to get to this, so what right do I have to undo everything that was done for me? Al and I, we aren't the only people who made sacrifices. What if they haven't gotten comfortable with the fact that we are gone? What if the price is too high and the burden on them is too much? What right do I have to put Al into jeopardy again? None, I have none. You know, you're affected me more than I let on. I've been reading your favorite philosopher. I can quote him at you now, so I will. Things that are done, it is needless to speak about...things that are past it is needless to blame. I like to think he wrote that knowing I'd come along and meet someone someday who would interest me enough to read his work. I don't know what you hope to gain, but I do know what I stand to lose. Believe me, this isn't easy."
"But you believe anyways, even as you tell yourself to turn away from the truth," Ling said.
"Oh yeah," Ed said. "I believe. I believe in it all. If I didn't have that, I would have nothing. In the end, everything I thought I wanted...turns out I have. I don't need this anymore. I'm home."
Ling looked at the papers, the circles, the arrays scattered around him.
"I want to go where I'm no longer hungry to simply be," he said. "Even if it's not to your world, to a place between where the new way of learning doesn't eat me away, piece by piece."
"I understand," Ed said. "I'll help you."
"You already have," Ling said, laying his hand on the notes, the circles, the portals, the myths, the impossible made possible by the mere belief it could be.
Ed backed across the room to avoid the flare, he willed his mind blank to avoid the temptation, and he watched the fox with many tails run through the gate to find his place where there could still be once upon a time.