Chapter Seventeen: Passing It On
“Breathe, Gil. Just relax your muscles and breathe when you can.”
Gilbert slumped over as his body spasmed from his violent coughing. _____ spoke soothingly to him while she rubbed his back. She managed to lay him on his side on the bed, and she grabbed the wet washcloth from the nightstand and wiped his face. Although he was still coughing heavily, the relief on his face became visible as the cloth made contact with his cheeks. He reached out to something that wasn’t on the bed, which _____ had figured by now was his signal to get the trash can. She picked up the receptacle and held it near Gilbert’s face, gently massaging his back and shoulders as he vomited for the third time that day.
After he finished, _____ put the trash can back on the floor by the bed and wiped Gilbert’s mouth. She helped him lay down, rewetting the washcloth and running it across his face and neck. He looked paler than usual, and his breathing was wheezy and erratic. She could tell by the way he furrowed his brows and tightly shut his eyes that he was dizzy, and he lay on his back now only moving his head from side to side every so often.
_____ glanced at the clock and placed the washcloth on Gilbert’s forehead, standing up. “Time for supper,” she said quietly, turning to leave. “I’ll be right back with your food.”
Gilbert’s breathing slowed soon after she left, and he opened his eyes to see that the dizziness had gone away. He turned his head to look at the doorway, not saying anything, just staring at it. He thought of _____ coming in and lecturing him like she had earlier that day. It reminded him so much of his brother that he couldn’t help but laugh. His laughter, however, was interrupted by another heavy coughing fit.
Downstairs, _____ was preparing Gilbert’s dinner, pouring hot chicken-noodle soup into a bowl, saltine crackers on a plate beside it, and a glass of water to wash it down. She placed them on a tray and carried it up to the albino’s room. She stopped in the doorway when she saw him leaning off the bed and vomiting into the trash can.
“Gil!” She quickly put the tray down on the nightstand and picked up the trash can by the rim. She held it closer to his face as he continued to heave violently. She rubbed his back calmly as she sat him back up on the bed. He gagged a few more times before finally pulling his head away from the trash can, panting. _____ put the trash can back down.
“C’mere.” She pulled his weak frame into her smaller one and held him gently. After a moment, Gilbert did the last thing _____ expected him to do: He began to cry. He rested his head on her shoulder and wept hoarsely, tears staining her shirt. He had a white-knuckle grip on _____’s shirt as she rocked him back and forth. She instantly thought of what had happened early that morning, and she smiled sadly. He was tired, and it didn’t take a genius to figure that out.
“It’s okay, Gil,” _____ cooed softly. “You’ll be okay.”
Gilbert sniffled as he nuzzled her neck. “How do you know, Fräu?” he said, his voice beginning to fail him.
She smiled at him. “You’re just gonna have to trust me.” She patted his back a few more times before slowly laying him back down on the bed and standing up. “Your food’s on the nightstand if you want it, and there’s a bell right by the tray in case you need anything.” She examined his tired features, then stroked his silver hair. “Let me know if you need anything,” she said, kissing his sweaty forehead and heading for the door. She looked back at him, saying, “I mean it,” and walking out.
As _____ made her way down the stairs, she met two men on their way up. They were practically running, leaping two to three steps at a time. She blinked at them, but went on her way. Then she stopped and turned back around, darting for Gilbert’s room. She was able to pass the two men and stand between them and the doorway. “Not right now, guys,” she said to them.
Francis groaned. “Why not, ma chère?! He is our best friend, and he’s sick! We must see him!”
_____ held up her index finger as she carefully leaned her ear on the closed door, listening for any movement. When she heard none, she looked back at the men and shook her head. “He’s sleeping.”
“Well, he can do that on his own time, chica!” said Antonio. “But right now, we’re here, and we wanna see him!” He and Francis began walking toward the door, but _____ pushed them back.
“Look, dammit,” she growled, a razor-sharp edge clear in her voice. “Gil is tired. He wakes up every five minutes to cough, puke, or both. He does not have time to sleep. Hell, he barely has time to breathe with all the coughing he’s been doing! Whatever time he spends sleeping is relief from all the crap he’s had to put up with. So I’m not gonna make him stay awake just so you two can be happy. Got it?”
The two men relaxed their features and looked away from her, embarrassed. “Lo siento, mi amiga,” said Antonio quietly. “We didn’t know. . .”
“Oui,” agreed Francis. “It’s just that. . .we thought that, even though he was sick, he could still be, you know, active. . .”
_____ sighed. “Pertussis is one a-hole of a disease. It won’t cut you a break until it dies. Now,”––she turned the two around toward the staircase––“what do you say we just hang out downstairs and have some supper, huh?”
Antonio smiled. “That would be wonderful, chica!”
“That was good, Feli,” said _____ as she rinsed off her plate and put it in the dishwasher.
Feliciano beamed at her. “Grazie, sorella!”
“I helped make it, too,” huffed Lovino quietly from his spot at the sink.
_____ smiled at him. “It was really good, Lovino.” She gave him a peck on the cheek, causing his eyes to widen and his face to go red.
“Ah-ha!” shouted Antonio. “Lovi, your face is as red as a little tomato!”
Lovino glared at him. “Shut your face, stronzo!”
The Spaniard laughed. “No reason to get so mad about it! It’s perfectly normal to act that way when a pretty girl kisses you!”
Now it was _____’s turn to blush. She curtly whirled around and scrubbed the dish in her hand.
“Aw, Toni,” said Francis, “I don’t think _____ thinks she is pretty.”
“Now why would she think that?” Antonio stood up and walked over to _____. He leaned closer to her face, using his index finger to keep her facing him. “Now why would you think that?” he repeated softly, looking into her eyes.
After a moment, _____ yanked herself away and continued working on the dishes. “‘Cause, I’m not!”
“Oh, sorella.” Feliciano placed a hand on her shoulder, making her stop. “You are pretty. You’re beautiful!”
She sighed. “Stop trying to make me feel better.”
“But you are! Everyone thinks you are!”
“Sì, everyone! Even fratello and Ludwig!”
Ludwig and Lovino immediately began shouting at the small Italian about how that was private and that he talks too much. Feliciano shrank back and hid behind _____, which caused her to giggle.
“Thank you, guys.” She kissed Feliciano on the top of the head, and he smiled at her. “I’m gonna go check on Gil now.”
Francis stood up. “I’ll go with you.”
“Me, too,” said Antonio as he and Francis followed _____ upstairs to Gilbert’s room.
When they reached the door, _____ turned around to them. “Okay, you have to be really quiet just in case he’s still sleeping.” They nodded in agreement.
She turned back to the door and slowly and quietly opened it. She blinked in slight surprise when she saw Gilbert sitting up against the headboard of his bed, watching TV. He turned his head to look at the three, a smirk playing on his lips. “Hey,” he said hoarsely.
“‘Hey’?!” said Antonio as he walked into the room. “You’ve been dead to the world––and us––for a whole week, and all you have to say is ‘hey’?!” He plopped onto the bed, shaking his head. “Tsk, tsk. Some friend you are.” He smiled at the albino, then took him up in a hug. “Maldito, mi amigo. You scared us to death. We were so worried about you.”
“Oui, Toni is right,” agreed Francis. “When we first heard that you were sick, we just thought that it was a simple cold and it would pass.”
“So did I,” the albino commented.
“But then, five days went by without any word from you. And we began to get worried.” He sighed. “We didn’t know what to think, mon ami.”
Gilbert gave a tired smirk. “Well, I’m fine. Fine enough right now, that is. Who knows? I might be throwing up in a minute.”
_____ smiled and patted his head. “I’m going downstairs now. Ring if you need anything.” She picked up the tray from the nightstand, satisfied to see that most of the food was eaten, and left the room. She went down to the kitchen, stepping beside Feliciano and handing him the tray. She turned her head to look at the only other person in the kitchen. “Ludwig.”
The German looked up from his book.
“Can I talk to you?”
Ludwig nodded, getting up from his seat and following _____ through the living room and out the front door. They stood, saying nothing, on the front porch for a moment, then Ludwig cleared his throat. “What did you want to talk to me about?”
_____ pursed her lips, a bit uncertain how to put her thoughts into words. “You. . .haven’t talked to Gil since he got sick, have you?”
Ludwig was quiet for a split-second, the furrowed his brows. “Und? What concern is it of yours?”
“He’s your brother, Lud, not some acquaintance you knew from so-and-so. He’s your own flesh and blood! You can’t just talk to him and see him only when it’s convenient for you. You need to be there for him because. . .because he won’t always be there!” She sighed slowly. “You need to go up and see him.”
The two were silent now; the only noises to be heard were the crickets and Lovino’s muffled shouting. After a moment, Ludwig sighed softly, a hint of conviction striking him for a moment. “You’re right.”
_____ crossed her arms. “Promise me you’ll go talk to him when Toni and Francis leave, if he’s not sleeping.”
She nodded. “Good.” She glanced to her side out into the front lawn, half-smiling whenever she spotted the faint glow of a firefly.
“They’re lovely, ja?”
Ludwig’s sudden speech made _____ jump. She looked up at him, surprised to see a full-on smile on his face.
She smirked, an eyebrow raised. “What’s this? The almighty and ever-so-uptight Ludwig Beilschmidt showing pleasure?”
He glared slightly at her, making her grin. She patted his arm. “C’mon, Lud. Let’s get back inside before the other boys wreck the place.” She opened the door and walked back inside, smiling warmly when she heard him chuckle.
Around half an hour later, Antonio and Francis decided to leave. They said their goodbyes and left, and _____ immediately took Ludwig’s hand and practically dragged him upstairs to Gilbert’s room. She stopped right by the door, mouthing to the German, “Be nice,” and going back downstairs.
Ludwig sighed and knocked on the door. Assuming that he wouldn’t get a reply, he opened the door. His eyes instantly locked onto his brother, who was lying on his bed with an arm covering his eyes. He didn’t make any noises, his breathing the only proof that he was still functioning.
“Bruder?” said Ludwig softly.
Very slowly, Gilbert moved his arm down and looked at his little brother. He smirked. “Well, well. Look who finally stopped by to see me.”
Ludwig glared at him.
The albino chuckled. “C’mon, West. Don’t be so pissy.” He wiped his smile from his face. “Why are you here, bruder? It’s obvious you’re mad about something.”
Ludwig didn’t answer, only looking down at the floor.
“Is it because I didn’t get a vaccine? Well spare me und yourself, because _____ already gave me that talk––”
“It’s not about that,” he interrupted.
Gilbert blinked, sitting up and leaning on the headboard. “Then what is it?”
Ludwig clenched his fists. “I. . .” He sat down on the bed. “Bruder, I––”
He looked at his sickly brother, his eyes widening slightly at the warm, apologetic smile he wore. He sighed heavily, putting his elbows on his knees and rubbing his forehead. “Verdammt, bruder. I thought you were. . .I-I was so worried about you. . .”
Gilbert carefully turned his brother to see small tears falling from the German’s eyes. He pursed his lips a moment, then gently pulled him into his arms. Gilbert patted his back and rocked him back and forth like he did when Ludwig was very young, and he smiled.
“Y’know,” he said in his little brother’s ear, “_____ did this to me this morning.” He chuckled. “I guess I’m passing on her kindness, ja?”
Ludwig’s crying subsided, and he sat up straight, sniffling a few times. “Ja,” he said as he cleared his throat. Then he glared at his brother. “Don’t you dare tell a soul about what just happened.”
Gilbert laughed. “Don’t worry. What happens in this room stays in this room!”