She watched his back as he walked away, and thought, He will not return.
There were still dishes from their shared lunch stacked on the counter, and the smell of his pipesmoke still hung heavily in the air. One pair of his shoes remained by the doorway, flanked on either side by Edward and Alphonse’s sandals.
His departure had not been any different than the others he’d taken, from time to time–he had still kissed her cheek and ruffled Edward’s hair, and then had paused to peek at the napping Alphonse. There had been a solemn line to his mouth and a distant reluctance to his movements, as though he did not want to leave, even as he stood in the doorway and said Good-bye. But she saw the door close behind him, then turned to the window to watch him leave, and she knew–He will not return.
She did not know how long she would have stood there, staring at his disappearing form, if not for the insistent tug on her skirt, and the wide golden eyes peering up from the level of her knees. Instantly she pulled away from the window and knelt down, smiling quickly. “Edward, what’s wrong?”
Her oldest son poked a finger in his mouth and regarded her uncertainly. Once, Pinako Rockbell had commented that the boy occasionally seemed too old for his age, already with the threads of adult confidence and anger in his moods.
Right now, though, he was entirely three years old, confused by the feeling of change in his small world. “Mama, why are you sad?” Then he looked to the window, though he was too small to watch his father leave. “Where is Papa going?”
For a moment, she found herself caught, then gathered herself and told him the truth: “Papa is going on another one of his trips, Edward. I’m sad because I don’t like to see him go–do you?”
Edward shook his head, his finger still stuck in his mouth. When he said nothing, she reached out and impulsively swept him into her arms, tucking his small golden head under her chin. He tolerated this for a moment: sometimes she felt the maturity Pinako saw in him stemmed from his independence more than his intelligence. Usually, she would squeeze him extra-hard, kiss his cheek, then release him as his little face scrunched up in disgust.
This time, though, she did not let go when he started to squirm. And then, a moment later, he stopped and threw his small arms around her neck, clinging with desperate strength.
“Mama,” he said, his voice muffled, “you won’t go away too, right?” There was a distinct waver in his voice, and once again he was nothing more than her child, afraid of something he didn’t yet understand.
She stroked his hair, clean for the moment, and thought of the ache in her bones, and the tightness in her chest whenever she pushed herself too long.
“Of course I won’t,” she said.
She took the doll from Pinako’s hand and turned it over slowly, half-afraid to breathe. The doll was cute and smiling, entirely appropriate for a little girl–Al’s doing, her mind suggested in a daze, because he was the one who always brought her flowers, when Ed dragged home whatever wildlife he could find. For a moment, its weight burned in her hands, and she wanted to fling it away and cry with the same terror that blotched young Winry’s face.
Pinako’s son said something to her, an invitation to tea, which she turned down without really being aware of what she did. For just a split second, his broad-shouldered frame against the window made her think of another man, years gone. She excused herself fully, and as she walked out, she saw her two sons huddled against the side of the house, bent together and tense as anxious puppies.
On the stairs, she stopped and looked at them. Ed was drawing small circles in the dirt, and she could see enough of his face to see the fierce, disappointed slash of his mouth; briefly he dashed the back of his hand across his eyes, then stabbed his stick hard into the grass. Al pressed his clasped fists down atop his head, shivering a little in the warm summer day. Neither of them had noticed her yet, and she had to breathe deeply before she could descend the stairs and walk to them.
Sooner or later, they will come after you, she thought, and bit the inside of her cheek. Would I ever be allowed to follow?
The pain came and went in red spurts, and there were moments where she thought she could get up and cook something. Al caught her at today, and it was, perhaps, the first time she’d seen her gentle younger son angry. He’d bullied her back to bed with a finesse that had Ed’s particular sharp style to it, capping with a threat to tell his brother when Ed returned from market.
She went meekly, and covered her mouth with one hand to hide her smile. Al sat in the chair by her bed, a book of fairytales in hand–the same one she remembered reading to him (and to Ed, who listened though he’d previous declared himself too old for fairytales). The cover was battered and the spine worn; when he opened it on his lap, she saw scrawling little doodles in the margins. Ed’s work, she thought; he loved books as well as his brother and father, but had a tendency towards a wandering pen.
“I’ll read to you until Brother comes back,” he said. “Which one would you like?”
She leaned back and folded her hands over her stomach. To her relief, the pain remained at bay, and she was able to speak in a perfectly normal voice. “Read me your favorite, Al,” she said. “The one you both always liked, about the princess who wore the cloak of a thousand furs.”
Al pursed his lips and frowned at her. Occasionally, there was a quiet stillness to him that reminded her of his father with acute strength–and it was never stronger than when he was trying to make a point. “But, Mom, that’s our favorite. What about yours?”
“It’s my favorite, too,” she said. When he continued to frown at her, she smiled at him, without the breath to laugh. “It always made you happy that the king found the princess in the end, and your brother, well–”
“Brother just likes it because the princess’ father was a bad man, who lost her,” Al said, with a dryness that did not quite match his age. After a moment, he paused, then flipped to the correct place in the book. “He said he’d go to the post office again,” he said quietly. “To see if–maybe–”
She closed her eyes. Her sickbed felt impossibly wide beneath her, as though countless miles separated her from the uncertain sound of her son’s voice. There were still times she awoke and stretched her arm out, just to feel the empty cool places where no one else slept.
“Read for me, Al,” she said. “Until your brother comes home–and then you can read to us both.”
He paused, and then pages rustle again. “‘Once upon a time there was a king who had a wife, and she was so beautiful …'”
Even when the pain started to rise again, she said nothing. Al’s voice, hesitating every now and then over longer sentences, soothed better than the physician’s prescribed medicines.
Her chest hurt so very badly. Every breath felt rough and sharp in her chest, and it had taken monumental just to form the words properly. She thought of that day years ago, when she stood at the window and knew her husband would never return. For a moment, she looked at Ed, and thought about the heavy question of a three-year-old, so long ago. Now, she thought, seeing the way his eyes darkened, he understood too well what had frightened him, that sunny day. She also remembered his anger, and the way he screamed on the other side of the house, where neither he nor Al thought she could hear.
“Why doesn’t he come?! Mom’s sick–she’s DYING, and we haven’t heard a thing!”
“Brother, stop it, you’ll wake her up–”
“Isn’t his own wife important to him?! Where IS he?!”
“Brother, stop it–Brother!”
“Ah, Ed,” she croaked, and both he and Al immediately leaned forward, crowding each other to hear her words. “Would you make a corsage for me?”
Ed blinked. “Eh?”
She smiled, watching the room darken as she sucked in the breath for the end of her request. I do not regret, however much I’ve missed him. Your father loved us all, once.
“That person … always made them for me …”
The smell of flowers rushed past her and soothed the tightness in her chest. She felt a brief flare of surprise, because neither of the boys were that fast with their alchemy, but–
In the distance, she heard Edward and Alphonse calling to her, but she could not understand them: their voices faded, dropping away until they were less than whispers, and then gone.