“The sun is out today,” said Henry, sitting on the edge of his chair, his back as straight as a rod, and adjusting his napkin until it was perpendicular to the edge of the table.
His young son, Eric, nodded his head while staring out the bay window. The city outside seemed lethargic compared to the hustle and bustle that went on in the restaurant. Outside a lone horse drawn carriage ambled by while the occasional business man in top hat or finely dressed lady walked towards the market on the shore. From their seats, they could just see the tips of the sails and the seagulls floating overhead.
Eric shook his head. Oh, yes, this was an enlightening conversation. Why, oh, why had Mira sent him out with Eric? If she was so worried about the young boy, why wasn’t she sitting here having a natural conversation with him? Henry was convinced she would have been able to pry more out of him than a simple head nod.
“He respects you,” she whispered as they left the house, “He’ll open up to you. You are his father.”
Another quick jab from an increasingly dissatisfied wife. A minor problem compared to everything on his plate, but a painful thorn. Potentially fatal?
“Not too cold either.”
Eric nodded his head and Henry sighed. The two males were spitting images of each other-the only difference being that Eric, at the tender age of nine, was still growing and he had not yet adopted his father’s severe grimace or his rigid, boxer build. But they had the same brunette hair (Henry’s trained to stay out of his face while Eric’s hair did as it pleased), same hard and iron face, and the same hawklike eyes (Henry’s cold brown embers; Eric’s bright blue flames struggling against the frost). Hopefully not the same taste in women or occupation.
“Thank you,” said Henry, briefly made aware of the chaos that was going on around them as the waitress brought them their clam chowders.
The restaurant was all laughter and gaffs as waitresses struggled to hand out meals in a timely manner and seasoned sailors and rambunctious young boys vainly attempted to distract them. He sneered at the manner less patrons and wondered, not for the first time, what he and his men had sacrificed themselves for.
“Thank you,” muttered Eric, his eyes flashing with excitement despite himself.
“I knew it was your favorite,” lied Henry, pulling himself away from the distasteful scene.
The boy haltingly picked up his spoon and carefully scooped some soup before blowing on it, and taking a tentative taste.
Eric nodded his head. Henry sniffed in approved before taking a bite of soup himself. It had been a long time since he had taken the time to have a proper meal. He would need a better staff. His was too ineffective. He would have to start with a good chief of staff. Once he had that in place, he would be able to mold the other positions into shape. Mira was right of course. He couldn’t do everything on his own, no matter how much he disagreed. Yes, find a good chief of staff, fix the others, and then make time for his boys. Oh! Henry looked up in surprised as Eric continued to fixate on his soup. The general wiped his lips with a napkin and struggled for a conversation starter, a simple statement that could not be answered with an infernal head nod.
“Eric, what were you reading to James before I interrupted?”
“Just a book,” shrugged his son, staring intently into his bowl.
“I figured that much. What was it about?”
“Very enlightening,” sighed Henry.
The boy flinched as if he had been whipped. Henry swallowed another spoonful.
“Do you read to James often?”
Eric nodded his head. Again with the nodding. Maybe Mira was right. Maybe something was wrong with him.
“It’s nice that you do that.”
Eric nodded his head before taking another sip of soup. Henry frowned and watched his son’s jittery movements.
He looked up, wide-eyed and fearful.
“I’m fine,” he said before quickly returning to his soup.
Henry’s eyes sharpened as his son tried to hide from him and there was a crash as a frisky sailor overreached.
“Your mother thinks otherwise.”
Eric flinched again and a shadow flashed across his face.
“Is that why you took me out today? Because Mom thinks there’s something wrong with me?”
Henry paused and carefully thought about how to phrase his next sentence.
“There is nothing wrong with you, but she is concerned about you. She feels you are too quiet for a boy your age.”
Eric frowned and ran his spoon across the bottom of his bowl, “Is there anything wrong with being quiet?”
“No, I don’t think so.”
Eric looked up at his father.
“But withdrawing from the world can be dangerous and hurtful to yourself and those around you.”
“You do it.”
Henry’s face softened and Eric’s eyes widened before he ducked towards the soup bowl again.
“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean…I understand. We understand.”
His son bit his lip and wrung his hands under the table.
“Nothing. Forget it,” he said, vigorously shaking his head.
“Eric,” said Henry, his voice hardened.
The young boy flinched and muttered, “Us, boys. We understand you’re busy and you don’t have time for us.”
Henry jumped as the restaurant exploded in laughter and he shot a dangerous glare towards the commotion. Eric shifted in his seat and vainly tried to scoop up what little remained of his meal. The general took a second before returning to his son.
“Is that what you all think?”
Eric glanced up and nodded his head, before sputtering “It’s ok. You’re a very busy and important man. We understand.”
Henry’s eyes hardened as he withdrew into himself, Mira’s angry words echoing in his ears.
“It’s why Hermes and I made the deal.”
“What deal?” asked the general, furrowing his eyebrows.
Eric’s face flushed and he rubbed the back of his neck.
“It’s not important.”
“I would like to know.”
The boy shook his head and went back to staring at his soup bowl.
“It’s stupid, but we made a deal that we would help Mom for you. It’s been hard for her and she needs help,” said Eric, blinking incessantly and jerkily nodding his head as he continued to stare at his soup bowl, “It’s just hard, I guess. Four boys and you’re always gone.”
He looked up briefly before frowning and looking down again.
“I didn’t mean it like that.”
“Go on,” said Henry, withdrawing more and more.
“Well, we thought we could help. Hermes is fourteen and I’m nine, but people say I act like I’m fifteen,” said Eric, swirling his spoon around in his empty bowl, “We decided that it would be Hermes’ job to watch over Mercury and it would be my job to watch over James, that way Mom wouldn’t have to deal with all of their problems.”
Henry’s face softened and he forced himself to come back. Couldn’t retreat, not from this. Not from his own son. Strange how simple it was to die on the battlefield, to expect it and not flinch, but now, now he could not even talk to his own son. Just like he couldn’t talk to his own wife. Eric, taking his silence for rage, pulled into himself and visibly shook in his chair, his hair flopping over his eyes as he stared at his shoes.
“And who looks after you two?” Henry asked, his voice distant and strange.
“We don’t need anyone to look after us,” Eric muttered to his low quarters, “We can take care of ourselves, like you.”
“Like me?” asked Henry, raising an eyebrow.
“Yeah,” said the young boy, slowly raising his head, “You’re busy protecting our country, but you don’t let anyone look after you.”
Henry’s face fell as he met Eric’s wide and brilliant blue eyes and for the first time he understood.
“That’s not true, you know.”
“That no one looks after me. I may not be home often, but the very fact that I know you and your mother are safe…it allows me to do what needs to be done. By looking after each other, you’re looking after me.”
“Really?” said Eric, his face softening as he fully faced his father.
His son furrowed his eyebrows as if something didn’t make sense before they both jumped.
“Eric, just the little sailor I wanted to see.”
Henry and Eric turned their heads and saw a smoking golem stumbling towards them. Henry tightened and instinctively reached for the revolver that wasn’t there, but Eric brightened and grinned, “Strata!”
“How’s it going?” he asked, tussling Eric’s hair, “Good afternoon, general.”
‘Mr. Maryland,” said Henry, nodding his head tightly, his eyes flashing.
Strata Maryland was a walking smoke cloud. His wispy grey hair was in a permanent state of blowing in the wind and his electric blue eyes were never quite in focus. His face looked like someone took a meat cleaver to it and attempted to carve a human face before giving up halfway through and his clothes looked like they hadn’t been changed since 1814.
“I didn’t mean to interrupt,” said Strata, taking something out of his pocket, “But I wanted to give you a little something before I ship out tomorrow.”
Eric gasped as Strata handed him a sailor’s hat.
“Thank you,” said Eric, placing it on his head, beaming.
Henry barely smiled before facing Strata.
“Thank you,” he said stiffly.
“Ah, it’s my pleasure. I thought about getting him his own whittling knife, but I didn’t think the General’s wife would appreciate that too much.”
“No, definitely not,” said Henry, “She’s placed a ban on all weapons after last year’s squirrel incident.”
Eric blushed and returned to his soup.
“It’s a long story,” sighed Henry.
Strata shook his head with a grin before patting Eric on the shoulder.
“Now you stay out of trouble while I’m gone, you hear?”
“I’ll be fine as long as you’re gone” grinned Eric, “You’re the one who always gets me into trouble.”
Strata laughed, “I’ll hold my tongue just because your father is here.”
Fear flashed across Eric’s eyes as he turned to face Henry.
“You’ve got a good boy here,” said Strata, “Useful and efficient and he has a good heart.”
Strata, catching Henry’s tone of voice, lovingly looked Eric over before nodding his head towards the general and stumbling out of the restaurant. The young boy watched him leave before turning to face a less than amused Henry.
“He’s a good man,” said Eric, staring at his father sternly.
“He seems very fond of you.”
Eric shifted, but stayed strong.
“He’s been very nice to me. He’s taught me how to sail and whittle and he looks after me, even though he is very busy.”
Henry frowned and for a second thought Mira was here as well, continuing their endless fight.
“He makes times for you.”
Eric’s face fell, but he didn’t look down. He simply stared at his father, threatening him to contradict any of his previous statements.
“It’s good,” said Henry, stiffly refolding his napkin so it hardly appeared to be used, “It’s good you had a father figure.”
“I have a father,” said Eric, “Strata’s just a friend. You are my father.”
“I am aware.”
Henry took a deep breath and tried to untighten as his son stared at him, shaking, but ready to spar. No, that was not why he was here. Eric was not Mira and the issues of the parents should not affect the children.
“Is sailing something you would like to do?”
Eric’s eyes widened and for a second the extreme change of pace threw him for a loop. Henry briskly nodded his head as the waitress checked up on them and resisted the urge to punch the idiot in the corner who was singing.
“I-I-I don’t I don’t know,” his young son finally spluttered, before staring at his sailing hat, “Maybe.”
Henry nodded his head and forced his mouth to open, “Eric, you know that I love you, don’t you?”
Eric looked up and nodded his head furiously.
“And it’s not that I don’t have time for you or the others, it’s just-”
“We understand,” interjected Eric as his father tripped over his own tongue.
“I know, but…if you ever needed me, truly needed me, Eric, I would be there.”
Eric’s face softened and he rubbed the back of his neck.
“I would never bother you. What you do is too important.”
“Nothing is more important than my sons,” said Henry, leaning forward to look Eric in the eyes.
“I guess….sometimes it feels like…we all hear you and Mom, the few times you’re home. We all know…”
Henry frowned and his eyes softened as he thought back to the fights he had had with Mira since returning from the front. Of course the boys had heard them. Stupid.
“I am afraid that…The country needs you, but we need you too. I need you.”
Henry’s face fell and it seemed that even the restaurant knew to remain still. Eric ran his hand through his hair and growled as he pushed himself to continue, unable to look at his white and tremblingly father, afraid of what he would see in those cold, demanding eyes.
“I want you around more. You were gone for so long, and I know why. I understand. You were fighting a war, but you’re home now and, yet, it feels like we see even less of you.”
“Eric, I am sorry-”
“I don’t want to lose you!” snapped the boy, panting as if he had just run a marathon.
His eyes widened and he gasped.
“Eric,” said Henry, reaching over the table and grabbing his son’s small, but rough hand, “You’re never going to lose me.”
“I’m just afraid…I don’t want the family to break.”
Henry watched his son’s soft and gentle face, his blue eyes fighting back tears, and sighed deeply.
“It won’t. I will not allow that to happen.”
Eric using his sleeve to wipe his nose and stared at Henry questioningly.
“You are right. I am home now and I should start acting like it,” he said, the sounds of the battlefield faintly echoing in his ears, “I will make things up with your mother. I have been absent lately and it’s not right, but things will be better.”
“You promise?” Eric sniffed.
Henry smiled, “I promise nothing will ever tear this family apart.”
“And you’ll be around more?”
“And I’ll be around more.”
Eric grinned faintly as his father ruffled his hair.
“You are a good boy, Eric. I am lucky to have you as a son.”
“No, Hermes is the good one. I’m just…Eric.”
“Don’t say that. You’re more than just Eric and you’re just as important to our family as Hermes is. You all are.”
“Even Mercury?” Eric faintly smirked.
“Even Mercury has a purpose in our family. He keeps us on our toes.”
Eric quietly chuckled before taking off his sailor hat and running it through his fingers.
“Maybe later, when you’re not busy, maybe Strata and I can take you out on his boat?”
Henry’s skin turn a shade of green and he nearly vomited from the mere thought of being on a ship.
“It won’t be far,” said Eric quickly, catching his father’s expression, “Just around the shore? I really like it.”
Henry softened at the excitement in Eric’s bright eyes and sighed, “Sure, as long as your friend doesn’t mind a little vomit.”
“Oh, no, he’s used to it. Just try to aim for the ocean. When we took Mercury, he didn’t even try. He just threw up right then and there on the deck!”
“I’ll do a little better than that.”
Eric smiled the first full blown smile that Henry had seen in a long time.
“Are you about ready? We still need to run those errands for your mother.”
Eric placed the hat on his head and hopped out of his seat before hugging a surprised Henry.
“I love you, Father.”
Henry gently patted Eric’s head.
“I love you too.”
“And you promise things will get better?” asked his son, a shadow of fear flashing across his face.
Henry bent down, rested his hands on Eric’s shoulder, and looked the young boy in the eyes.
“Eric, nothing is more to me than you boys and your mother and I would not trade you five for the world. I swear that I will never ever allow the family to break.”
“Never ever,” pressed Eric.
His son smiled and pulled Henry into another hug, which he returned with a tight squeeze, almost afraid of letting the boy go.