He cut a swath through the hearts of women in the marketplace, young and old alike. Teenage girls cooed and giggled. Married mothers sighed in envy. He was cute, he really was unbearably cute; the artfully tousled dark blond hair, the luminous hazel eyes, the smile so sweet it would turn your stomach into mush.
Of course, the fact that he was only four years old put a damper on things.
But then, there was his father, trailing along behind, with a gentle smile and soft eyes that roused an entirely different flavor of adoration from the female population. The familial resemblance between the two was unmistakable—the father's oddly golden eyes were hidden behind glasses, and his hair, tied back in a ponytail, was several shades fairer, but those were almost minor details.
Sasha brightened as the pair approached her shop. She might be happily married these last seventeen years, but that didn't mean she couldn't look. Besides, family men tended to be the best customers; they were polite and usually, had the money to pay, and willing to do whatever work they had to for their children.
The pair had stopped, now, outside the window of her store. The little boy—and oh, he reminded her of her own son at that age, except that Andr—had the temper of a wildcat—was pulling at his father's sleeve, pointing and saying something with a determined expression. The father had tilted his head downwards, serious and attentive to his son's concerns. Unobtrusively, Sasha stepped forward until she could eavesdrop on their conversation.
"She's crying," the little boy was saying. "I can't bear it. I want to buy some crepes and take her one. Is that all right?"
"Of course," his father answered, and fished inside the lining of his dun-colored trenchcoat to fetch out a wallet. "You'll bring me back one, right?"
The boy grinned cheekily. "I'll make sure to bring back several," he promised. His father chuckled, and pulled out several bills—far more than Sasha would have trusted to a child that age, but the boy only tucked them safely inside his own small shirt and smiled. The father raised his empty hand again, but instead of tousling the boy's honey-colored hair (as Sasha's own hands were itching to do,) he only touched the side of his face, gently.
The little boy ducked his head, rocking on his heels. "We can share them," he said, softly enough that Sasha could barely hear him, and then took off into the crowd. The father watched after him for several moments, a faint frown on his face, before shaking himself and turning to the dry-goods store.
Sasha stepped forward, clearing her throat to catch his attention. "Welcome to my shop," she said. "Is there something I can help you with, sir...?"
"Ah," the man said. "Yes. The two of us are traveling at the moment, and we're running low on some supplies. Do you have all these?" He produced a list from another pocket.
Sasha scanned through it quickly. "Yes, this should be no problem. Rina!" Her daughter set down the crate she'd been carrying and came over, eyeing the blond man hopefully. Sasha glared at her and tapped the list meaningfully, and the girl departed to fill the order with a sigh. She was still the owner of this shop, whether her daughter liked it or not, and if anyone was going to be allowed to wait on beautiful men, it would be her.
Order dispatched, she turned back to the stranger, and found him looking out over the plaza. Sasha followed the direction of his golden eyes easily, and saw the man's son across the way. He had met up with the Durem children, and the four of them were engaged in some business that involved a lot of running around and shouting. Sasha smiled nostalgically. The man did not.
"So, you and your child are traveling?" She opened the conversation. The man blinked, as though coming out of a reverie, and turned back to see her. "Mister...?" She left the word to trail off invitingly.
"Elric," he answered, and glanced back to look after his son. "Yes, we've been on this road for a while. We're headed for Central, on our way to Oldenborg next, I think."
"That far away?" Sasha was startled. "But that's all the way in the South. Isn't that an awfully long way to go, with such a young boy?"
"We're used to it." Mr. Elric smiled—sadly, it seemed—and placed one hand against the glass windowfront. Sasha thought about this, and tried to imagine some series of events that would put a man and his young son out in the mercy of the road this late in the season. The several she could think of were all dismayingly tragic.
"What about... his mother?" she asked, hesitantly. It was no huge surprise when Mr. Elric's smile faded some, the sadness in his eyes deepening.
"Oh," he said. "His mother... died."
"I'm sorry," she said humbly, and looked out to see the child again. At least he wasn't an orphan, she thought, but it was always hard to lose a parent.
"Thank you," he said. "But it was... a long time ago."
It couldn't have been too long, really, but didn't see any reason to reopen that kind of old pain. "You must be so proud," she said instead, changing the subject. "For such a young boy, he's wonderful. I've never met a child with such polite manners, or such self-possession. You truly are blessed."
"Yes." As expected, his expression eased back to happiness when the subject changed to his son. But there was still an underlying edge of sorrow to his voice, in his eyes. "Blessed."
"And so responsible. Children, they grow up so fast these days, don't they?" she continued. When sad, Sasha noticed privately, he had a quiet serene attractiveness. But when he smiled like that—Ah. Married, married, even if widowed, she reminded herself. And with children.
He sighed. "Not growing up fast enough."
"I don't know about that." Sasha glanced over her shoulder to see Rina, haranguing her brother into getting all the goods assembled. "Isn't it a shame when kids aren't even allowed to enjoy being young? At that age you can still enjoy the delights of life, the simplicity of the world. What kind of a world would it be where children can't even be children?"
"A stupid one," Mr. Elric agreed, sounding wistful. He turned his head slightly, and the light caught on the rims of his glasses. His eyes looked far away. "But maybe the one we live in."
"Oh no," Sasha said firmly, leaning closer to him. He didn't seem to notice, particularly, being focused on his child. "He's a wonderful child. And I can see you're being a wonderful parent to him. So long as you have each other, and love each other the way you do, then you'll do right by him. Take it from a mother twice over." She smiled, and held up her hand in solemn promise.
"Mother!" Rina stomped over and slammed the basket down on the counter. Sasha gave her an angry scowl, and glared at her with the promise of a lecture coming later that night. Rina shrugged it off, tossing her hair back. "I'm finished with this... order," she said, and the well-trained mother's ear heard the barely edited 'stupid' in that pause. "Can I go yet?"
"Yes, because you'll be useless here if you insist on stomping around like that," Sasha said severely. "Go on, then. I'll finish things with Mr. Elric."
Rina pouted, but after the scene she'd caused, that was just too bad. She escaped with alacrity, heading off to intercept a knot of her friends, and Sasha sighed, loading the packages into a bag to carry. "As you can see," she said to Mr. Elric, wryly, "Appreciate them while they're at this age, because they turn into teenagers in the blink of an eye."
"Oh," Mr. Elric sighed, "I wish he would." He glanced down into the bag Sasha was ruffling through. "Is this everything?" he asked.
Sasha nodded, and Mr. Elric stepped towards the door, leaning out so that he could raise his voice above the babble of the crowd. "Alphonse!" he called. "Al, come on back. Everything is ready."
The little boy detached himself from the crowd, and came running over. Sasha's heart melted as he came near; the boy was like a teddy bear, really, and her arms hungered to pick him up and cuddle him. She restrained herself, however, as she counted up the bill of sale.
"We shouldn't wait," she heard the small piping voice behind her. "It's four-fifty, and our train leaves at a quarter after. If you delay like you always do, we'll miss the train."
"It's to Central," Mr. Elric sighed. "Al, you know perfectly well why—"
"I know," the child said. "But they'll be waiting for us at the station. I don't want to worry them."
"Yes, I know." Another sigh. Sasha handed the receipt to Mr. Elric, who glanced out it before counting out the money. As Sasha put it away in the till, she heard Mr. Elric lower her voice behind her.
"If we're in a hurry," he said, as though not wanting to be overheard. "It will be quickest if I carry you. All right?"
"You know I don't mind," Al replied. "It's okay. Really, it is." He reached out, and wrapped his small hand around his father's large glove, meeting his eyes with a smile. "I like it when you hold me."
His father didn't answer, which puzzled Sasha. She looked at the two of them sideways, with a critical eye. Mr. Elric was hunkering down next to his small son, golden eyes strangely downcast. Al put his arms around the bag—it was nearly as large as he was—and his father picked him up and stood, easily settling both boy and bag against his chest. Al glanced over his father's shoulder, his huge bronze eyes meeting hers, and smiled another one of those heart-rending smiles.
"Thank you for your hard work," he told her.
"Oh, it was no problem, darling, none at all!" She heard her voice getting silly, and blushed slightly. Mr. Elric turned around, steadying his balance, and gave her a stern look. Her blush increased, and then she raised her chin defensively.
"He truly is a fine son," she said firmly. "You should be proud to call yourself his father."
"I'm not his father," he said, and that inexplicable pain was back in his gaze. "I'm his brother."
He turned and left, before Sasha could get over her surprise enough to stammer an apology. The child, Al, watched from over his—brother's?—shoulder for a moment, those eyes seeming much too strange, much too wise for his age. Then he sighed, and laid his head on his father's—his brother's shoulder, and the two of them vanished into the crowd again.