"Isn't this a nice storybook boys?" The black text seemed to blur together in the table-lamp's green-tinted light. Little Edward reached a hand out to touch the glass shade, weak fingers trying to grasp before he even reached it. Trisha snatched his hand away from it, settling his arm back onto his belly. "You don't want to touch that, honey. It's really hot." He wasn't old enough to speak very well yet, so he just said 'okay' and let his mother adjust him.
Alphonse was already asleep on Trisha's breast, his small body curled in her arm. With one hand, she placed the alchemy tome was reading to them on the table, the page dog-eared for tomorrow night.
"He's so cute..." murmured Trisha. Ed pouted, but he brightened with a kiss on the cheek. "Don't worry honey, you're cute too."
"You mean thanks?" Edward nodded and copied his baby brother's position in Trisha's lap.
It was so warm – not just because of the heat from their small bodies or the fire kindling under the mantle, but because she got to have this. She got to start a family with the man she loved and be a mother – Trisha had always loved children and was a talent at homesteading, considering it was how her family lived for quite a while – so why not both? A house, some kids, some sheep and crops... All that was missing was Van.
As much as Trisha missed her husband, it was hard not to be elated every time she saw her boys. Sara would often come over with her own daughter for tea, so it definitely wasn't out of the question for the boys to make fast friends with Winry in the future.
"I can't wait for you both to see the world," she whispered to her son, who was still too young to form many sentences or even walk reliably. "The grass, the sheep... Green, rolling hills as far as the mountains... You'd love it. But you've got to take care of Alphonse, okay Ed?"
"That's my little man," she said, kissing his forehead again. "As long as you're there for each other every step of the way, I'm satisfied."
Everyone's first concern about Trisha was how she was feeling, now that her husband was "off gallivanting about the country doing who knows what," as a few gossipy childhood friends liked to say in hushed voices whenever she came around.
"They never had a wedding you know," Mrs. Alison would hiss to Baby Jane, who would giggle and then give a scandalized look to Phoebe, who looked to Mrs. Alison for more. "They had not just one, but two boys! And without a marriage, what's keeping Van in town?"After a while, you just get used to it – both the gossip and a lovers' absence. It broke Trisha's heart when Van left, but she knew, and knows, that he will return eventually.
What really got to her was the money – an obvious concern, but one that tended to slip people's minds as soon as it seemed that Trisha was doing alright. Money, after all, is something you only talk about to your closest friends. It would be inappropriate otherwise. It wasn't as much of a problem in a place like Resembool, where you only used your coins at the market the next town over for home wares that you couldn't get from the carpenter or potter on the other side of the hill.
Usually you could get away with a "I'll scratch your back if you scratch mine," mentality. You got your meals by sharing them with other people – potlucks, dinner parties, and fresh-out-of-the-oven casseroles as gifts. Trisha got the family clothes by making them herself – she was a spinner, weaver, and tailor with her own pen of sheep and goats. Houses were mostly warmed and lit by gas lamps, fireplaces, and candles – the only electricity the Elric's had was the metal torch that Trisha used to call the boys back home from the Rockbell home.
But one thing that Tirsha needed her coins for was medicine – one that the Rockbell's couldn't provide.
"I'm sorry Trisha," said Sara, her husband Urey still searching their stores even though they had turned it inside out three times already. "But there's no cure for tuberculosis – all we can do is give you some supplies."
She felt haggard, like a wisp in the wind with dark shadows for eyes. The Rockbells helped her all that they could by giving her what they could – medical masks, suits, a clinic curtain, fever reducers, anti-emetics, painkillers, and antitussitives – far more than they should have, really, for the small coin bag and cuts of lamb that she could spare them as a trade.
Urey sectioned her boys room off for her, attaching the sanitary curtains to the metal rods and pulling them around the boys' – but now just Alphonse's – bed. The man's white cover-up and mask would have scared Edward if he wasn't already shaken by his baby brother's sweaty forehead and shivering breaths.
"I advise that you keep Alphonse from others as much as possible – it's highly infectious," he told Trisha, careful to lower his voice when he saw the wide, golden eyes of her other son. Keep the boys away from each other, his eyes seemed to plead. You don't want to lose both of them.
He taught both her and Edward how to suit up properly in the med-suit, and how to clean them without spreading the germs. He taught them what to feed Alphonse. How often to administer treatment – one pill for the fever every six hours, one for the vomiting every day, and one for the coughing every eight hours. Sara and Pinako would take turns taking Trisha's textiles to the market to sell them for her when needed. Make sure he rests. There will be a check-in every week. Good luck.
"Thank you Urey," she said politely, but her voice was as gaunt as weak as her soul that evening.
Don't thank me, his eyes seemed to say, although his mouth only thinned into a restrained frown. Don't thank me.
The gossip changed very quickly, only this time people would avoid talking with her entirely, lest they contract the disease that might have attached itself to her presence.
"That poor woman," Mrs. Alison would frown, wiping at an eye that was sad, but shed no tears. "Her youngest boy getting the consumption, hopefully her other son stays as healthy as her!" Baby Jane nodded forlornly, and then turned to the sniffling Phoebe, who looked to Mrs. Alison for more. "Van Hohenheim – that dastardly man, leaving Trisha all alone like that! What's she supposed to do for her boys?"
"We're so sorry to hear about Alphonse," said the carpenter and his wife, as if her boy was already dead. Trisha kept a graceful smile on her face anyways, even though it didn't quite reach her eyes. The wife held out a basket of root vegetables and squash. "From our garden. It's important to eat well when you're ill." She accepted the basket with thanks, putting away the bag of wool she was going to trade for groceries.
After the carpentry couple left, she idly dragged her gaze over the two shelves of books sitting outside by the second-hand salesmen. A green, faded book stood out to her, the second half of the word "Alchemy" scratched on the front cover.
She put the book back in it's place, far more harshly than she intended, to wipe at a tear threatening to cut across her face. Still, it was such a painful reminder of Van's absence. Would it all have gone differently if he stayed? Could he have synthesized a cure with his vast swathes of knowledge?
The question cut through her foggy thoughts like a knife.
Now... Alchemy was an idea. She smiled for real this time, cautiously, but full of hope and imagination. To the side sat a box of stuffed bears, their plastic and metal eye pieces sewed or glued on carefully to be as cute as possible.
"Excuse me sir, but could I have these two bears?" Trisha held up two brown teddy-bears, one with a yellow bow-tie around it's neck and the other with with a green hat and suit like a banker.
"Mom. What's that?" Edward asked, crawling to sit on her leg as she pored over the minuscule black text, his bear clutched in one hand. The yellow ribbon had long fallen off, leaving the toy much more plain than it was intended to look, but he would still carry it around. His golden eyes were wide and his hair soft against her chest – so much like Van. "What are you doing?"
"I... Mommy's studying, honey," she explained, turning to the front cover to show him Van's least dusty textbook. "Did you want to read it too?" Edward made a face and stuck his tongue out.
"I don't wanna study like he did," he muttered, but remained in her lap, staring at words too long for him to sound out.
"Your father was really very smart, you know," she smiled into her son's hair, dropping a kiss onto his crown. "You could study with me, and we'll be super cool scientists together." He giggled, but then hopped off her leg and back to the floor.
"I don't wanna be an alchemist," he admitted, looking towards the staircase the lead to his father's study and the bedrooms. "I want to be a doctor."
Trisha frowned for half a second, careful to smile once more when her son looked back at her. She pat his head, soft and kind.
"That's a good goal, Ed," she encouraged him. "So make sure to study hard in school."
It was only a matter of time until things took a turn for the worse, and turn they did.
Trisha was sweating, her nerves frazzled after watching her oldest son collapse just before dinner, his bear immobile, abandoned on the floor where he dropped it. The stew ended up boiling over while she carried him to the bed they shared ever since Alphonse fell sick, the soft carrot-y water soaking into the grain of the floorboards below.
Edward's breaths were small and hurried, his forehead burning up like the wood stove whose fire she had to quickly stamp out.
"Mom..." he cried, sniffling as he rolled his head around, delirious. "It really hurts. Everything hurts!"
"It's okay baby, it's – You'll be okay," Trisha mouthed through her flu mask. "I'll get the Rockbells, okay? I'll be right back."
Winry had accidentally knocked the plate of green beans off the table when Trisha burst in, asking for Sara and Urey to come quickly. To their credit, they suited up immediately, throwing on their coats against the late Autumn evening to race to Trisha's home. It didn't take long for them to give her a diagnosis.
"Tuberculosis. Probably got it from Alphonse," Urey grimaced, his emotions threatening to break his 'doctor face.' A sob echoed in the quiet bedroom, the only other sound being the panting and semi-conscious whines of Edward. Was that her? Was she crying? "I'm so sorry, Trisha."
It's okay, she tried to say. It's not your fault. But she couldn't. Her voice could only release a shaky breath, accented by her wobbly sobs breaking out from the corners of her lips. What was she supposed to do now? What was she going to do about her children? Were they going to die? Was she going to lose them to death, worse than how she'd lost Van to his past life?
The Rockbells helped her set up a cot in Alphonse's room so that the boys could at least see each other when Trisha couldn't be there. They burned her sheets and helped scrub her floors and bed frame. Gave her more pills, more medicine at their own expense.
It was all she could do to avoid collapsing until they left, but once they did, Trisha's knees gave out from under her. Openly crying, her tears marked salty tracks down her face, her upper lip and cheeks swollen from the moisture.
"What am I supposed to do, Van?" she lightly smacked at her side of the front door with a thud, resting her head on the painted wood. Thud. Her hand hit the door again, as if she could make her once-husband open the door if it was loud enough. "Come back home, please." Thud. Thud. I need you here Van... Please come back." Thud.
Trisha didn't hear the gossip anymore. But that was mostly because she no longer went to the market. She couldn't. Besides the necessary everyday things, like cooking, cleaning, eating and sleeping, she only did two things. Take care of her sick children, and study. Study, study, study.
When her boys were awake, she'd read them stories, and teach them what they were missing at school. Math, history, and especially science, since she was brushing up on that herself. When they slept, she'd seclude herself in Van's study, smelling his coat in a desperate attempt to stave off the fading scent of his hair and skin when she didn't have her nose buried in a research journal or textbook from the shelf.
Sometimes she'd fall asleep on the floor, surrounded by the messy piles of books she had finished and took notes in while she used Van's coat like a blanket. Her only company were the two suits of armor that stood to the side, imposing, but ever so empty.
The tome she was currently reading detailed cell death – how bacterial and viral diseases affected the state of the cells they attached to, and what how the immune system fights off intruders to the body like tuberculosis. But none of it had ever come to use. Not for her.
The more she researched, the more it seemed like the deaths of her children loomed over her, an end unavoidable and unchangeable.
Her sobbed quietly, unable to shed tears after weeks of crying alone. Edward and Alphonse couldn't go outside anymore. They couldn't go to school, or see Winry or their other friends. They couldn't run around until early evening like they used to, they couldn't do chores. They couldn't pretend to shear the sheep while she held the shearing scissors because they were too small to hold them. They couldn't fetch the water from the well for the home. They couldn't find dry sticks for the stove fire or help her pick some pretty, scarlet apples from the orchard on the other side of town.
She was so scared that, despite her best efforts, that they'd never be able to do any of this ever again. They will never see the world, or leave their mark. As much as it kept her boys safe, the house would be their lifelong cage.
"Time of death, seven AM," Sara's voice was quiet, professional but breathless, if her red eyes were anything to go by. It was a long night, with Alphonse going in and out of consciousness. His fever had come back with a vengeance, spiking in the wee hours of morning while Trisha slept, slowly climbing higher until Alphonse and Edward had finally been able to awaken her with their crying.
"Trisha, I..." She stopped Sara. She didn't have to say thing. Trisha didn't want her to say anything. Her mind could barely comprehend the breathless body of her youngest son, his green-suited teddy bear long forgotten under his bed. "I'll make arrangements in your place." Trisha mouthed a silent 'thank you,' her brows furrowed in frustration and her lip nearly bitten through.
How could she let this happen? She should have slept in the same room as her boys, her own health be damned. Nothing mattered if she couldn't even take care of her own children like a mother should. She was supposed to keep them safe and healthy, not to lose them.
"Mom...?" asked Edward from the other side of the room. His voice broke is a hiccup. "Mom..." His mouth moved like he wanted to ask what happened to his little brother, even though he already knew. He couldn't say anything but ask for her presence by name.
"I know, baby... I'm sorry," she cried into his small shoulder. "I'm so sorry. I'm so, so sorry."
Curiously enough, Edward was declared more or less cured a few days after. His own case of the consumption wasn't as severe as his little brother's, although it was still worrying, what with the weight loss and the on-again off-again fevers and coughing.
Urey had said the coughing left some severe coughing on his lungs, so it would be difficult to breathe properly for the rest of his life. His immune system may be permanently compromised, and it would be a long time before he could do much by himself again, if at all.
Trisha was still reeling from Alphonse's death. The funeral was that morning, attended by a handful of Trisha's closest, and a few friends from the town's only schoolhouse. He was buried in a plain coffin under the boughs of the tree, the pale gray gravestone shaded in speckles by the stiff brown leaves still clinging to otherwise naked branches.
Edward may have been able to beat off the sickness, but she was still a failure. Alphonse died under her watch, and her other son would never be able to see the world like she had promised him. Neither of them would ever be able to sit in the tree or run across the hills. All Ed had now was a small window and the icy winter air if it was open.
Suddenly, her tears stopped. Trisha looked at the teddy-bear sitting on the dresser by her last son's bedside. Her face was cold, still spasming from her sobbing over the past few days. She stared into the bear's fake eyes, as if waiting for it to stare back.
Soon, it would.
It had been a long time since Trisha walked into town, and she hadn't returned since. Every so often, she'd wonder about what Mrs. Alison, Baby Jane, and Phoebe would say behind her back now – would they wonder about the bear? Or maybe they were already talking about her solitude, about the funeral held for her held for her boy a few months back, about how she still had a hint of a smile and no tears left, or maybe about how she could no longer see.
Trisha would hold plain teddy-bear to the sky, turning slowly so that it could see how the clouds moved slowly across the blue spring sky, and how the breeze ruffled it's fuzzy ears. She'd sit with it for hours, just watching the children in the schoolhouse yard play from far, far away, their gaze going uninterrupted since they lived on the tallest hill in Resembool.
She couldn't see any of this anymore, but she would specifically ask the bear to look at the evergreen trees to see how much taller they were than last year. Were they greener? Were they skinnier or fluffier?
After a while, she would go back inside, carefully preparing supper after she'd washed her hands several times, both before, during, and after cooking just to make sure they were clean. She was much more tactile than before, but she'd learned by now how to not cut herself with the knife, and how to know when the food was ready nearly just by smell.
In the mid-evening, she'd bring supper to Edward, carefully placing the tray over his lap on the bed, and then gently pushing the teddy-bear without a yellow ribbon into his awaiting hands. He'd tell all about the things he learned from Van's textbooks today, and how well his daily exercises were going. He'd tell her about all the pictures he drew today, describing them in detail so that Trisha could see the crayon-etched scenes with his words.
"That sounds wonderful," she said, similar what she'd say every evening now. "I'm so proud of how smart and artistic you are, Ed. I love you."
Once he'd eaten his food, Trisha would gather up the dishes and go back downstairs to clean them, always remembering to say "good night" when she left, and "don't stay up too late with your stories." She'd blow out the candle, and close the door, careful to be quiet so that her footsteps didn't interrupt.
Under the covers, while Trisha was cleaning up downstairs, Edward would hold his teddy-bear close turning his mouth to one fuzzy ear to whisper:
"What did you see today, Al?"
And then the teddy-bear would shift in Ed's arms, turning his little snout to one fleshy ear, much like Edward would, and whisper: