The birth came early in the spring.
Winter was difficult, miserable. Winter was shadows and fumes and dead leaves rotting in the dead soil; snow laid across the blackened ground like a thick cotton blanket pulled over a burnt, fetid corpse. Trees shed their leaves, leaving only gnarly, spotted remnants of their former selves. The woods became lands populated by waving skeletons, grinning skinless shapes to which frost and freezing rain clung like icy tears.
Souls left bodies. Townsfolk met at church, sang hymns, recited prayers. Stiff, blue-tinged bodies were lowered into the ground.
Reverend Theobald presided over each rite and ritual with his usual aplomb, rhetoric, and occasional pleasantries, and Paracelsus grew quieter. Throughout the shortening days and the long nights, he grew to wonder if anyone on Earth recalled or missed him.
On some nights, after Mary was asleep and bundled tightly in her bed, the alchemist stirred throughout the house like a discontented spectre, plodding along in thick shoes with heavy soles. Progress, progress, progress. He had taken to idiosyncrasies that Mary never forgot to remind him of—snapping his fingers, humming, muttering flakes of everything and nothing.
The basement had grown darker, warmer, more personal. Mary stayed above the worm-filled turf, cooking and cleaning and biding her time as her tiny body distended and swelled with child.
When the two of them got rich, she insisted, they would hire a servant or two. Hohenheim laughed good-naturedly and humoured her; why not, really? Business was going well. Steadily, but well. Hohenheim saw his science taking hold, receiving approval where it never had in Earth, and in each success, he felt one handful of joy and one handful of grief. Each achievement seen in Amestris was one achievement not seen on Earth, but such was the price of alchemy. Equivalent exchange.
Hohenheim did not feel unhappy. Not specifically. Not acutely.
Agitated—yes. Just as Mary did, he hungered after more, and he pursued life with a dogged, fevered determination.
Winter transmuted the both of them, somehow.
Paracelsus fell out of his friendship with sleep. He was forever studying, brooding, thinking, toying and tinkering, keeping his mind fixated and his hands busy. He travelled, healed, mended bodies, and then he returned to his sanctuary of silence and drew chalk circles. Again and again, array after array. He dispensed chemicals; he created just as he destroyed. So many gifts he erected for his wife, a small doll's house among them. Upon seeing it, Mary had given a tight-lipped smile of approval, but throughout the winter, her eyes were furtive and distant, and throughout the winter, Hohenheim had been unable to console her.
Humour vanished. Smiles were fewer. Hohenheim became withdrawn, mechanical even when he interacted with others.
The only warmth to be found came from evenings after dinner, when the man sat with his wife and watched the embers in the fireplace, listening all the while to the crack of kindling and smelling the drifting scent of wood splitting between orange teeth. Mary remained silent as Hohenheim plucked a tome from his private library and read to her, telling facts with clinical detachment, then altering his cadence so that it was booming and resonant when he spun tales of wonder and woe. Intermittently he sipped from his flask of water as he went over The Divine Comedy, enlightening Mary as to the journey of Dante Alighieri, Virgil, and Beatrice.
Mary listened intently as the fire died in strength and produced a thin fuzz of white noise in the background, allowing Hohenheim's voice to have centre stage as his tapestry of words unfolded, and his wife sighed and commented gently on what beautiful images these stories gave unto her mind. Her husband could not help but notice that she seemed to prefer the fictional accounts over the genuine science, but he did not begrudge her too greatly. She was still a child, indeed.
They spent little time together, and neither seemed to mind.
Mary complained of other things, at times. She cried, on some days. In other instances, she wailed—briefly, but loudly. Hohenheim attributed her ill moods to erratic hormonal imbalances brought about by the pregnancy; her abdomen protruded seemingly more and more by the day, and her hands took to shaking here and there, so much so that she broke two glasses. Either she began pacing the length of the house like an eager bird fluttering around its cage, or she refused to leave the bed.
"Sometimes I feel I'm Dante caught in the Inferno," she confessed one night when Hohenheim came upstairs to visit with her.
Nearby, a war had begun—one which would inevitably spread to Reuestadt—and even though Mary was not currently treating any of the wounded soldiers, the nurse in her nature seemed to have come forth again, and she could not cease prattling on about what the carnage might be like. Hohenheim coaxed her, tried to tell her not to worry, but she had grown anxious and obsessive, though he thought it was little more than the hormones and the touch of fever she had inherited from the winter chills.
Hohenheim patted her hand and wiped her sweaty forehead and assured her that everything would be all right; he conversed with her, tried to keep company with her as best as his schedule allowed, and he asked her about the progress of the pregnancy and how it felt and whether she experienced any kicking. He contributed in the only manner he knew how, and that was by monitoring her body's progress from the view of what—in terms of science—she was currently undergoing.
Physically, Mary remained all right for the most part. She took sick once, but recovered, yet something in her demeanor was not as it had been. In public, she smiled her proud smiles, and her eyes still glinted in that I-know-something-you-don't way that Hohenheim had always found fascinating; among friends and peers in the pews, she was haughty and spoke long and often of her marriage, her esteemed husband, and the expected child to come, but at home...
Well, Hohenheim reasoned that it might've been his fault.
He had gotten busier and more aloof, and naturally, the number of his patients had increased drastically as soon as the first cold winds had struck Reuestadt. Breezes harassed the household, forcing Hohenheim to seek insulation, and the little family became greedy in protecting their food storage.
Day in and day out, Hohenheim worked alchemy, and day in and day out, Mary did her chores, read, roamed the house, and mumbled to herself. She rubbed her abdomen frantically and whispered soothing words, and the baby became a frequent topic of discussion between husband and wife; Mary had turned obsessive, though not necessarily obsessed with life. For whatever reason—certainly the war must have been a catalyst—the young woman suddenly seemed quite incapable of keeping her lips closed against mentioning death, the cycle of life, birth and the aging process.
She worried over every little pain; she mused over what the child might be doing to her, and how long would it live? Would it die as an infant? Would she die in childbirth? Would her body wither soon and perish? Winter was a bad time to be pregnant, she insisted. A dangerous time. These were dangerous times.
Hohenheim reminded her of his own pragmatic outlook on life and death, but when he did so, Mary sometimes snapped at him, arguing fiercely that even if he claimed to accept death, he was a physician, a man trained to prolong life and do battle with the grave. How could he discourage her from dwelling on death? she asked. How could he say anything? How dare he presume that he had the right to chastise!
"You're the one obsessed with science and mysticism, the Gate and the Philosopher's Stone," she contended, bitterly, and eventually Hohenheim had no choice but to tell the girl that she was free to believe whatever she wished.
The man had never taken his young wife for a superstitious girl. She had always seemed so much more practical than that, but alas. Youth, war, pregnancy, and winter. Any and all of those factors might have contributed to bursts of immaturity; Hohenheim merely found himself hoping that such occurrences would be limited to seasonal discomfort.
If anything, he thought maybe he had read her one too many gloomy tales.
"The doctor says the baby is healthy, and so are you," Hohenheim countered.
"And you'll soon see to it that both of our necks are in nooses," Mary retorted. "Then what of the baby? You still haven't taken me to Earth."
She was in no condition to travel, but Hohenheim refrained from bringing that fact to her attention. Fighting with Mary was pointless; when she had it in her head to become truly obstinate, then he simply took to ignoring her and letting her walk around fuming and thinking whatever contemptuous thoughts she wished to hold. More than once, he caught sight of her flipping through his more religiously-themed novels, licking her fingertips and flipping the pages in some zealous quest—for what, Hohenheim knew not. Religion. She was all about religion during the winter, her father's or otherwise. Religion and heaven and hell, every circle beheld by Dante in his voyage throughout the many celestial spheres.
Hohenheim immersed himself in potions, symbols and numbers and foreign words, and Mary immersed herself in eschatology and worrying. War, she said. She feared war. She feared fires and destruction and the discovery of all the illegal activities her husband was participating in, and she feared her parents dying; she collected religious paraphernalia and shuddered hard when winter's solstice arrived.
"Timid," Hohenheim deemed her, and "far too imaginative."
He tried his best to make the latter description sound affectionate.
He mended bodies constantly; he vowed he would mend his wife's mind and give her solace, come spring. But not yet. Not yet. He was too preoccupied already. Paracelsus vowed that when the days began to stretch, then heat would enter his body once more, and once more, the edifice of his rigid persona would soften, melting away. Then he could drop his heavy cloaks and thick coats and take his willowy wife into his arms. Never again could they make their relationship as it had been in the first year, with all the innocent flirting and banter, but they were a family now—a true family, with love and viciousness and even a child. A baby.
And yet, no matter the number of times Hohenheim patted the often-active bulge Mary now carried, he found it difficult—even impossible—to reconcile the tiny beats his knuckles received with an actual person, a human being yet to talk or laugh or walk the world in a shell of flesh inhabited by an animus and a soul.
He wasn't excited. He was too practical to be excited. And in a way, that saddened him slightly, although he was even too practical to be troubled too much by grief over what he might be costing himself. Equivalent exchange. The world was governed by equivalent exchange.
And soon, if everything went well, there would be another human being. A person. Oxygen, carbon, hydrogen, and various other elements. Surely he would appreciate the child when it was freed from the confines of its mother's body, when it ran and played and developed a personality of its own, but as of now, he had no special glee reserved for the mound of extra weight. As of now, the unborn was an expectation, but come spring, it would be a son or a daughter. Then...then, of course, he would be happy...
They would all be happy. All three of them.
Thus spring arrived like a heavenly host, with chariots of sunshine and spears of tall grass, and Hohenheim could feel Amestris coming to life just as it had done upon his initial arrival, and he was pleased to see that the world travailed to bring a fresh new year into existence. Spring was buds on trees, babes dropped from between women's thighs, new mouths ready to suckle teats. Spring was a new chance for old exiles, and such was Amestris itself.
Spring had barely lifted one foot over the threshold of the empyrean when Mary came to her husband, wringing her hands and fretting and informing him that her water had broken and would he please alert a midwife already?
"l sol tace," she had commented, even though the sun had been shining brightly.
Hohenheim stood up, pushed his chair in, led Mary to the bedroom, and departed to find a midwife. Mentally, he asked of himself: should he continue to give the girl so many inventive novels? He condoned a healthy imagination, but this was ridiculous; Mary did not need to be haunted by demons which inhabited naught more than the rafters within her mind.
The birth, he thought wryly, would not be easy on a girl with hips as slender as Mary's were.
Although her name matched the mother of Christ, there had been nothing immaculate about any part of this conception, pregnancy, or labour.
Mary survived her first round on the "bloody bed", enduring the entire process with the dignity of a woman who had often assisted in delivering the babes of others. She lay in the bed, blonde hair tangled on the pillow and sticking to the sides of her face, blue eyes faded with fatigue. In her arms, she cradled a bundle of baby—rosy, powdery, pink baby, as wrinkled, creased, and wet as the bed his mother rested upon.
A son. Male. Boy. Heir to the name Hohenheim.
"Beautiful," the midwife had said; she left shortly thereafter to put away the filthiest of the sheets. The woman had acquired no love for Hohenheim, who had insisted upon commenting on every facet of the delivery, never mind that he himself admitted that his skills as a physician were woefully deficient in the avenue of childbirth. He had stayed with his wife throughout the entire ordeal, leaving only here and there when she had needed to nap.
The entire room had taken on the feel of illness, with the odor of fluids and medicine, and the tinge of metal brought about by a tray of pointy, foreboding medical equipment—tongs and the like. Upon regaining her full consciousness, Mary requested that the window please be opened so the sunshine could come in and bathe her golden child in light and warmth.
"Please," she asked, hoarsely. "And bring me some water, as well."
"The sun won't be out for another hour, wife," Hohenheim informed her. "You've been in labour for twelve hours, afternoon into morning. Can you stay awake until the sun comes out, do you suppose?"
But his spouse did not seem to hear him, so hypnotized was she by the bleating mass of newborn that she currently held against her chest. Unfocused golden eyes opened a little as the baby drank eagerly. Golden eyes, golden hair. The child was truly the son of his father, albeit small and pudgy, with wide, puffy cheeks and downy fine curls adorning his head like a thread crown. Roland Armonde Theobald von Hohenheim, as Mary and Hohenheim had agreed to name him, was the absolute definition of cherubic, swaddled in white blankets up to his neck. Ruddy ears and apple-tinted cheeks completed the image of innocence.
"All'alta fantasia qui mancÚ possa," Mary said, smiling tiredly. "'At this high moment, ability failed my capacity to describe.' So said Dante when he beheld heaven."
"Indeed," Hohenheim agreed. "And now you're out of Purgatorio at long last, aren't you, Dante my dear?"
She said nothing, although she did regard him with a curious, distant kind of gaze; for an instant, her eyes simple glazed over, and there was a long silence save for the minute sounds of the nursing child. That vague, faraway look was so queer upon Mary's visage, yet she wore it with a greater frequency these days; it could not be called scared, specifically, nor pensive, wholly; the emotion was some nameless thing, something whose definition one couldn't exactly look up in a book because it was probably a mixture of other feelings, and seeing it on his wife's face unsettled Hohenheim immensely. He needed to understand her, just as he needed to understand everything. These days, she was becoming more and more of an enigma.
Where once she had been lustrous, she was now wan and ashen from winter. Her bright blue eyes had faded, and the searching, questing look had changed somehow. Everything about her was different, yet she held her son close and exuded nothing short of adoration towards the child. Watching them, Hohenheim wondered if he was the one who had changed, or if his old idiosyncrasies had simply resurfaced to plague the family he had always felt unsure of creating.
"...Something like that," she admitted, although she sounded faintly rueful. One hand rested upon their son's head as she eased him upwards, lifting her eyes to link her gaze with that of her husband's. She was sitting upright, though slouching slightly, and she looked ready to collapse into slumber. Labour had taken all of her energy; she would rest long and hard, Hohenheim imagined. "I think you're the one who needs to emerge from the darkness and see the light once in a while, Mister Paracelsus, but—" she glanced at the lulled baby. "—today is a happy day. The happiest day. I'll not spoil it by criticizing you."
"I've been working. You've been depressed. There is a significant difference between the two." When the words earned him a baleful glare, Hohenheim added, "I'm not insulting you, but as a physician, it's my medical opinion that something has been wrong with you. But I've been thinking the pregnancy might have been the catalyst, somehow."
She responded with what, under ordinary circumstances, would have been a scornful laugh. In her current condition, it was scarcely more than air. "Don't presume to diagnose me," she said, smoothly. "We've not been in contact with one another enough for your opinion on my medical health to hold very much water, if I do say so myself."
This he had not expected. She had been a comfort to him, and he had hoped—in some way—to have reciprocated, but he knew he was poor with emotions, and he failed to gauge whether he had actually improved the quality of his wife's life at all. Purely in terms of lust, he had wanted her, and in terms of marriage, she had been so eager to have him, yet now she seemed bitter, resentful...unhappy, in short.
Yet in the end, even her reply only served to make him feel justified in believing that she had entered a depression, a state of unnatural and dangerous emotions, and he wished he understood why exactly this had happened. He hated being unable to comprehend anything.
Mercury, he found himself thinking. Maybe she could stand a dose of mercury, or a trace of some other element. It could be that the pregnancy has given her an imbalance.
Toxicology. The girl could be saved, surely.
He watched mother and son in their picture of serene domesticity—filial adoration and pure, simple need—and he felt at once both close to them and far away. The baby, the son, was enchanting, what with his wet lips, his golden radiance, and his peculiar gurgling noises, and now that he was finally out, Hohenheim felt as magnetized towards him as he had always felt towards other children; a fascinating infant, a smaller version of himself, a spark of energy—light, life, enthusiasm, intellect and promise. It was hard not to feel overly excited by the prospect of playing with the child, reading to him, prizing laughs and smiles from his face just as he had once received them from Mary (and just as he would hopefully someday have them again).
Though the son was the miniature mirror of the father, something in his eyes (a glint of light, real or imagined) reminded the man of his wife and how she had been not long before. Looking upon him, Hohenheim had an easy time remembering why he had been so entranced by Mary to begin with, and as happy as it made him to feel that level of closeness with the both of them once more, it saddened him to know that his current relationship with the child's mother had—at least for the time being—withered into a mere echo of its former vibrance.
He wanted to be with them, both of them, and yet another emotion within him contradicted this desire. Watching the two of them interact, listening to them speak their language of bleats and "shhh"s, Hohenheim felt tenderness, but there was...something else. Through a looking glass, darkly, he had once thought of his wife, and he thought it again now, but for a different reason. They seemed so very together, unified in their mutual needs, and Hohenheim already suspected that his wife would cling to their son as an anchor to keep her from drowning entirely. Even then, even before anything had yet to transpire, he saw the hint of desperation within her eyes, and he knew. She was taken. Obsessed.
On that day, he admitted to himself that he resented his spouse.
He had taken an interest in her, and to repay him for ever having fawned over her, she had demanded and demanded and demanded...and she was still demanding; still unsatisfied. Ingrate, he wanted to say, but of course he held his tongue. I wanted to give you everything. I've given and given, and I'll give more...but that's not enough for you, is it? Nothing is enough for you. It would cost an entire world to light your eyes with glee.
She had dug the gulf which separated them, he decided.
"I need to sleep," Mary said after a few more minutes of relative quietness. "Hold Roland for me. Really, you haven't shown either of us the least amount of happiness; is it so hard for you to even smile and talk and laugh?" She sighed. "Well, I don't know what I was expecting. Enthusiasm, maybe, but I suppose that's too much to hope for."
"And whatever happened to not criticizing?" he asked with a touch of whimsy. "It's not every wife who asks her husband for another world."
When the weight of the child was removed from her chest, Mary slumped against the pillow, fretting visibly. Surrounded by white and wearing only a white nightgown, she herself looked like a heavenly vision, though she looked as though she felt like anything but.
"You've never even said I love you, husband," she said, quietly. "Every wife wants a world from her husband, but most demand three simple words, and I haven't. So don't..." The words became a sleep-strangled whine, mostly swallowed by a stretching yawn. "...don't make me...feel...don't act like I'm overbearing. All right?"
"I'm sure I have uttered the phrase before."
"You can 'utter the phrase' all you want...but you've never said it." She rolled over onto her side, then reached a hand out to clutch her son's chubby fingers, and she was rewarded with light gurgle. "Dreams..." she murmured, already losing herself to the respite of sleep. "...I've had such beautiful dreams, you know...beatific visions..."
I should think all the literature helps with that, Hohenheim thought, but did not say.
Wetness clumped in her heavy lashes. "I dreamt that the Gate opened and beyond it, beyond all the gold, I saw heaven. It was so beautiful. So beautiful. I felt like I really was Dante, escorted from the Inferno to Paradiso, and you..." By this point, he wondered if she was even addressing him, specifically. "...you would be my Beatrice, wouldn't you?"
"Gender notwithstanding, yes," he managed, smiling a tight, sad smile.
"...I felt...as though I really understood...as though I knew everything about everything. Dante spoke with God...Bythos or whatever you wish to call him...and he was granted understanding of the Divine..." Her words sounded half like sobs and half like a rhythmic, fanatical prayer. "My husband, my love...you...you won't let me die, will you?"
Hohenheim sucked his breath in. Clearly, the depression was worse than he had imagined. "Death is the cost of living. As I've said so often before...don't be silly, Mary."
She closed her eyes. "Don't let me die. Don't let us die. Don't let our son die. You...you have alchemy. Science. Magic. The ticket through the golden doors of Truth. Please, please...I don't want to die, to rot...why do we have to, my love, my darling? It's not fair..."
"Equivalent exchange," he answered, reaching his free hand out to stroke her hair.
"...just gave birth...but he's dying...we're all dying, even the child I just had...and I don't like it; you're a man of science. Why can't you save us?" Whether from the stress of childbirth and physical pain or whether from her strained emotions, the tears at last began to descend down her cheek; with her head turned at such an angle, they all ran in one direction, trekking slowly towards the pillows. "You have to help me get strong enough to leave the darkness for good. We can beat...we can beat death together, you and I...for our family, ourselves and our son...right?"
"We'll see," Hohenheim replied, and Mary smiled through her tears.
Moments later, she was fast asleep...dreaming of Earth or Elysium, for all Hohenheim knew, and the man was left alone with his tawny child. Non-commital though his final offering to Mary had sounded, he did intend to do whatever he could to research death and life; all life was science, so why should death be any different? Even if books currently held no answers, there was alchemy, the Gate—Truth—the fabled Crimson Elixir, panacea, and with all that, and with his vast medical knowledge, why shouldn't he be able to best death?
He should try, he knew. If not for his sake, his wife's, or their child's, then for humanity itself. From the view of a physician, there was no greater achievement than overcoming death, and there was no greater method for healing than keeping one's soul firmly entrenched in one's body. If his science could make progress toward "curing" death, then all the scholars in both worlds would respect him, he would respect himself, Mary would finally be satisfied, and they would be happy...
...or maybe, if he happened upon the secret to immortality, it would be best not to share it with Amestris at large. Too dangerous, after all. Physicians always tended to think on the large scale, for humanity and for life, but why not take up this study for himself and his family alone?
"We may not change the world. But we can try. And in the trying, we may make something excellent," Hohenheim mused fondly, recalling his own words. "Yes, I did tell your mother that, didn't I? Not 'lasciate ogne speranza, voi ch'intrate.'"
He held the infant high, infected with a sudden surge of Mary's epic dreams; if science deigned to give him the answer, then science would, and the proportions with which his wife's imagination extended itself had little meaning against the magnificence of what they might create together...and if nothing else...if nothing else...then perhaps the pursuit would bring them closer, lighting the embers of their shared curiosity and fascination with the workings of the universe.
"Just think..." He smiled, then even allowed himself a laugh. The child stared at him, uncomprehending. "Wouldn't it be something, my son, if centuries from now, we both still lived, still knew one another?"
The boy, naturally, had nothing to say to that, leaving the alchemist to return to his natural state of quiet thoughtfulness.
He was a busy man. Always busy. Always ignited by the fire of passion, the need for discovery, for science. His own mind would burn him to death quicker than a stake, and he knew it.
But it didn't matter. It didn't matter at all.
He was a busy man, and he had work to do.