A/N: Part of Project Pull- 1000 words, Friday fortnight, Bookaholic711- you know the drill :) Dedicated to qwertyuiopas, Kateyx, KissMyEyesAndLayMeToSleep, Angelmail, Mbali97 and GreatWolf Fanatic for their wonderful reviews :) Thanks, guys! :D
The fire behind the mottled cast-iron grate spat out flames of tongues merrily, bathing the room in a warm, easy glow of light and warmth. The scent of a traditional full cooked breakfast, with slight undertones of burnt slipper, filled the air.
Martha Masterson, a plump, motherly woman with a sweet smile and a soft voice, was bustling around the kitchen, adjusting place settings, stirring the pot of thick porridge that bubbled on the range, and keeping a watchful eye over her son. He was eyeing the spread of food on the table, a mutinous look on his face- although he had turned the grand age of six recently, it did not prevent his mother from giving him a sharp clout on the backside with a wooden spoon whenever his fingers strayed too close.
The blue-and-white spode clock that hung above the dresser read half past ten. Nobody had gotten much sleep the previous night- insomnia had plagued the house for several past nights, as the date of departure for many companions drew closer and closer, like a lion stalking towards its prey. Slowly but surely, the days did pass, and all they could do to prolong their time together was grasp those last few evening hours of company.
Sleep eluded them until far past the midnight hour- it wasn't uncommon to come down the stairs at three in the morning to find that somebody had beaten you to the kettle. The pleasantly over-stuffed couch in the informal parlour had accommodated many nocturnal visitors, who sat in silence, nursing cups of tea until the spirals of steam evaporated, transforming their comforting beverage into a bland, lukewarm concoction of milk, water and soggy teabag. Martha always made sure that everyone knew where the cocoa was left.
The pot of porridge made a loud hissing noise as a drop of condensation fell onto the cooker, announcing the arrival of a bleary-eyed Sybil, who shuffled into the room clothed in an oversized robe, obviously George's, and bare feet tinged with blue due to the impact of the cold linoleum. Martha turned to the hook above the range where she had left a pair of slippers, and made a quiet sound of dismay. One of the slippers had fallen off the hook, and was lying on its side, curling plumes of smoke rising above it. She knocked it off hastily with a poker, where it landed into a bucket of potato peelings.
Martha picked it up, and sniffed it cautiously- the damage didn't seem to be too extensive. The cloth underneath was slightly singed, but otherwise, fairly wearable. Satisfied that it had passed inspection, she tossed both slippers, damaged and undamaged, to Sybil.
"There you are, dear- we don't want you to catch chilblains, now, do we?"
"Thank you, Martha," Sybil said, her head bent as she slipped her feet into the slippers and gave her toes a wiggle to regain feeling in them. Straightening up the dressing gown self-consciously, she took a seat at the table. "George will be down in a moment, too- he's getting dressed first." Martha nodded.
"Ah, well, I can see that you had no such qualms," she teased. Sybil blushed, falling silent, and buried her face in the thick towelling. Martha immediately wished that she hadn't said anything.
"I'm just teasing you," she reassured the young woman. "I'm sorry, dear- I should have been more considerate. I know it's hard on you." Sybil gave a sad, half-hearted chuckle, but lifted her head from where she had taken refuge. Martha inwardly noted her resemblance to a shy field mouse that she had come across a few days previously, emerging from its nest in her broom.
"I feel so silly. I know that I'm over-reacting; he's not even gone yet- why should I miss him already?" Martha dropped her wooden spoon into the porridge, where it sank slowly into the gelatinous substance, before becoming obscured completely. She pulled the younger woman into a comforting hug, and let her sob into her cardigan. Her words, slurred by her tears and further garbled by her face buried into her shoulder, the words were difficult to make out. Gently, Mrs. Masterson pushed her back into a seating position, and handed her a handkerchief.
"Now. Start from the beginning," Martha said kindly. Sybil dabbed at her eyes with the hankie, and blew her nose.
"I'm sorry, Martha. It's nothing, really- just the pregnancy hormones are getting to me. I'll be fine." Martha shook her head firmly.
"No, it's not just the pregnancy. You haven't looked yourself lately- all this week, you've been wandering around the house with a pale face and matted hair, like one of my mother's dratted banshees, God rest her soul. You can't blame that on your baby. Now, what's the matter?" Sybil choked back another sob.
"Goodness, I seem to be doing nothing but crying nowadays. I know I'm not usually like this, but…"
"But?" Martha prompted. Sybil took a deep breath, and blew her nose again.
"Sorry. It's just… well, George has been acting very… coldly, as of late. He never has any time for me- he's always finalizing the details of the route they'll take, or revising over strategies in the boardroom, or going over their plan of attack, and sometimes… well, Martha, do you ever feel like your husband just doesn't love you any more?" With that, she burst into a fresh onslaught of tears. Martha said nothing, just let her cry it out. When her subs began to subside, Martha began to speak again.
"Several times." Sybil looked up, her mismatched eyes reddened around the edges.
"I've felt that he doesn't love me several times. Oh, it's always over silly things, little fights like whose turn it is to put the cat out, that escalate into full-scale battle. But, once we make up, I know that he loves me more than anything else in the world- well, combined with his companion. And his mother, maybe." Sybil giggled, and Martha felt heartened, relieved that she had finally managed to put the bright smile back on the young woman's face.
"Well, Sybil, I know that George loves you more than anything in the world too. He's just trying to protect you." A loud clatter in the hall caused both of them to turn their heads towards the door guiltily, but upon no further noise following the sound, Martha continued. "He's going off to fight in… well, it's our equivalent of the war, dear. It's a natural instinct of men; they distance themselves from those they love the most… just in case, God forbid, worst comes to worst." Sybil flinched, but said nothing. Catching her expression, Martha rubbed her arm reassuringly. "But it's not going to happen- George is too clever, and too strong, and-"
"And too brave," Sybil added.
"And too brave," Martha conceded, "for anything like that to happen. It's an absurd way to treat your loved ones, I know, but he just doesn't want you to get hurt." Sybil smiled again- albeit a weak one, it was still a smile.
Unbeknownst to the pair, George had been standing by the crack in the door, and had overheard their entire conversation. Now that Martha had pinpointed his actions, he was able to fully realize the extent of them- and he had never felt more stupid. Distancing himself from his beloved wife was exactly what he had been doing- but he wasn't going to make the same mistake again.
They had far too few days left together to waste any of them.