Chapter Twenty-Three: Clinging to You
“We’re really going to miss you, _____,” said Raivis, sitting down on the couch.
_____ smiled at him, her smile widening as she noticed how he was no longer shaking. “I’m gonna miss you guys, too.”
There was a feverish knocking at the front door, and _____ and Toris both stood up and said simultaneously, “I’ll get it.” The two looked at each other for a moment, then laughed.
“It’s probably for me, anyway,” said _____.
“Yes, but still,”––Toris headed for the front foyer––“you are still our guest. I’ll be right back.” He walked into the foyer and opened the door, walking back into the living room with Alfred behind him.
_____ laughed. “You’re actually wearing it!”
Alfred looked up in a failed attempt to look at the lion hat perched on his head. He grinned. “Why wouldn’t I?” He glanced down at her suitcase on the floor. “All set?”
“Yeah.” She turned to Raivis and Eduard and gave each another hug. Then looked at Feliks, who was reclined on one of the two couches. “See you, Feliks.”
“Wait a sec!” He scrambled up into a sitting position and onto his feet, heading toward _____. When he was right in front of her, he wrapped his arms around her neck and looked her in the eyes. “Now listen here, _____!” he said stubbornly. “You, like, totally need to take care of yourself, ‘kay? ‘Cause if you don’t,”––a smile crossed his lips––“I’ll have to get you.”
_____ smiled, giving him a quick peck on the cheek and gently pulling his arms away. She then turned to Toris and wrapped her arms around him, pulling him into a hug. “Bye, Toris.”
He smiled warmly and returned the hug. “Viso gero, _____. Take care.”
She released him, grabbing her suitcase and following Alfred out the door. She glanced over at him, giggling at the winter hat on her best friend’s head. “Oh, my gosh, Alfie,” she said.
“What?” He looked at her, a bit confused.
She waved her hand in dismissal. “Nothing, nothing. So, whose lovely house am I going to next?”
He smirked. “Mine.”
_____ grinned. “‘Bout time I went to your place again.”
After that, the two walked in a comfortable silence until they reached a familiar dorm house. Alfred knocked on the door to the old “Shave and a Haircut” tune like he always did, _____ observed, when he came to the house, ringing the doorbell for the last two beats. A moment later, the door opened, revealing a very stressed Chinese man in the doorway.
“What’s the matter, Yao?” said _____.
Yao huffed. “That crazy Arthur’s been chasing me around the house trying to make me eat his food!”
_____’s eyes widened, and she shrunk behind Alfred. “Alfie, I don’t wanna go in there.”
Alfred put an arm around her. “Don’t worry. Me and Mr. Lion will protect you.” He pulled his hat further down on his head and cautiously stepped into the house. “Where is he?”
“Where do you think?” said Yao, closing the door behind them. “He’s in the kitchen.”
When they reached the living room, Alfred pushed _____ onto the couch and tossed her his hat. “If I don’t make it,” he said with hilariously believable seriousness, “take care of Mr. Lion.” He slowly made his way out of the living room and into the kitchen. There was silence for a moment, then bumping and clanking sounds echoed through the house, ending with a loud crash and Alfred shouting, “PUT. THE. LADLE. DOWN!!!”
Compelled, _____ got up from the couch, put the lion hat on her head, and stalked into the kitchen. She had to contain her laughter when she saw the two brothers on the floor. Alfred was sitting up, straddling Arthur, who was pinned to the floor on his back. A cooking ladle sat just out of reach of the Brit’s hand. He looked at her, irritated.
She smirked. “Got it covered?”
Alfred snatched up the ladle and released his brother, clearing his throat. “I had everything under control.”
“Great.” He threw the ladle into the sink and stepped over to the stove, glaring at the burnt food sitting on it. “Just great! Now we have to recook dinner!”
“Don’t worry, mes chéris~!” called a voice as its owner strode into the kitchen. “I will make something for us~!” Francis eyed _____, at first with surprise which soon turned into a type of hunger. “Oh, ma chére~! It’s so good to see you again~!”
She nodded. “Good to see you again, Francis.” She tilted her body to the side and smiled. “You too, Ivan.”
Ivan flashed his usual smile. “Privet, devushka.”
Francis nodded and put his hands together. “Alright. Now that that is done”––he began to push Alfred and Arthur toward the doorway––“all of you out!”
_____ scoffed as the Frenchman shoved her out the door. “Francis!”
“Pardon, ma chére, but I don’t want anymore outside influence on this food! Now out! Out!”
Ivan sighed softly as he sat down at the empty dining table. He looked down at the small glass of vodka in his hands, seeing his reflection in the dim light. He took a sip, exhaling slowly so it cooled his throat as it went down. He wiped his forehead with his scarf, and he frowned slightly at the tiny sweat spot it left on the piece of fabric. He lifted the glass to sip again, then stopped when he heard footsteps coming from the other room. He stood up quietly and peeked into the hallway, spotting _____ sneaking past the living room into the foyer. She carefully creaked the front door open and stepped out into the night.
The Russian blinked, glancing at the vodka bottle on the dining table before stepping toward the window. He looked out to see _____ walk down the front sidewalk to the house next door.
Knowing that it was unlocked, _____ silently opened the front door and made her way through the house. She softly hopped up each step, fixing the backpack straps on her shoulders, and tip-toed past the bedrooms until she reached the one she was looking for. Very slowly, she turned the knob and pushed the door open, seeing her friend lying uncomfortably in his bed. She pursed her lips, but decided that it was best to break the silence.
“Gil,” she whispered.
The albino tiredly rolled over and peered through the darkness to look at her. He smirked. “Well hey there, Fräu.”
_____ smiled and stepped into the room, closing the door behind her. She sat down next to him on the bed. “How’ve you been?”
Gilbert pushed himself into a sitting position, the covers falling off his bare torso. He cleared his throat gently to prevent himself from going into a coughing fit. “Okay, I guess. My coughing und vomiting have gone down a little.”
“That’s good. . .” She dug through her backpack and pulled out a plastic bottle. “I got you some water.”
“Why are you doing this?”
_____ looked at Gilbert, his blood-red eyes peering into hers. “What do you mean?”
Gilbert sighed, lifting his hand and pushing her hair back behind her ear. He leaned forward and rested his head on her shoulder. “You’re making me feel bad––spending all your time worrying about me when you should be out enjoying yourself.”
She sighed, patting his silver hair. “Now, Gil. It’s no big deal. I still get to go and mess around. But I gotta clean up the mess I made, too.”
Gilbert paused, not knowing how to respond, then smiled and nuzzled her neck. “You’re so kind, Fräu. I’m sorry.”
He pursed his lips. “That there are people like me. Kind people like you are always clung to und taken advantage of. . .by people like me.” He wrapped his arms around her waist in a weak attempt to pull her closer. “I’m sorry I’m clinging to you, Fräu.”
_____ slowly returned his embrace, one hand resting on his bony shoulder blade and the other on the back of his head. “It’s okay, Gil. You’re not taking advantage of me. And you’re not one of. . .those people.”
She would have said more, but she stopped herself when Gilbert began to cough heavily. She rubbed his back as his body spasmed under her arms. His grip around her waist tightened, and he lifted his head above her shoulder as he gasped for breath. _____ shuddered slightly at the wheezing sound he made and held him tighter, rocking him slightly. Tears pricked her eyes. “It’s okay, baby,” she said, her voice cracking. “It’s okay. . .”
Gilbert pushed her off and leaned off the bed to grab the trash can. He hung his head over the mouth of the can and vomited. He coughed a few more times, then pushed himself back up on the bed, grabbing the damp washcloth from the nightstand and wiping his mouth. He tossed the washcloth back onto the nightstand and looked at _____, his eyes widening when he saw tears falling from her eyes. He moved toward her and pressed his hand to her cheek, wiping the tears away.
“Hey,” he said softly. “What is it, Fräu? What’s wrong?”
She sniffled, furiously wiping her eyes. “D-Dammit, I don’t know. . . !”
Gilbert smiled warmly, then took her in his arms again. “Thank you, Fräu, for worrying about me.”
_____ gently closed the front door and quietly walked through the house to her room. She passed the doorway to the kitchen and was on her way up the stairs when––
“What are you doing up so late, devushka?”
She was barely able to contain her scream. She whirled around and glared at the Russian, who was clothed in sweatpants, a long-sleeved shirt, and his pinkish-beige scarf. “Ivan!” she whispered loudly. “What are you doing?!”
Ivan smiled. “I am asking you the same thing.”
_____ blinked, then her expression softened after a moment. “Why do you always smile like that?”
He tilted his head. “Like what?”
“You always smile like you’re really happy, but. . .” She pursed her lips. “But I know when someone is unhappy.”
“You’re smile––at first glance it’s happy, but if you look deeper,”––she stepped closer to him, examining his features––“it’s such an empty smile.”
Ivan blinked at her, then curtly turned around and walked into the kitchen.
_____ frowned and followed him. “Ivan,” she said harshly, then sighed and said in a softer tone, “Ivan?”
The Russian turned his head slightly in his seat at the dining table. He returned to his original position and poured himself a glass of vodka from the bottle on the table. He downed the whole glass in one large gulp, then looked back at _____ and said, “Would you like some, devushka?”
_____ eyed the bottle for a moment. “Um, no thanks.” She pulled up a chair and sat down beside him. “Ivan, what’s the matter?”
Ivan looked away and frowned slightly. “You wouldn’t understand, devushka.”
She let out a humorless laugh. “Try me.”
He blinked, his expression softening as he remembered what Alfred had told him about her brother. He sighed. “When I was six years old, my mama passed away of cancer. Then, soon after she died. . .my papa began to hit me. A lot. He hit my sisters, too, but he liked to hit me more because I was a boy.” He paused. “Before my mama died, she would always get into arguments with him, and he would hit her. I didn’t know why he would do that, but now I realize that she was trying to protect me and my sisters. . .”
“You loved your momma, didn’t you?” _____ asked slowly.
Ivan nodded, smiling sadly. “Da. I loved my mama. She was the one who gave me this.” He took a piece of his scarf in his fingers. “She used to have a sunflower garden, too, and I would always help her tend to it. After she passed away, I tried to take care of the garden by myself, but. . .I couldn’t do it alone. . .”
_____ lifted her hand and rested it gently on the Russian’s arm. “I’m sorry. . .”
He shook his head, the sad smile still on his face. “Net. It’s alright.”
“No, it’s not alright!” she snapped. “It’s never gonna be ‘alright’!”
Ivan stared at her, a bit dumfounded.
_____ sighed and stood up, calming herself down. “I’m going to bed now,” she said, making her way to the door. “Oh, Ivan?”
“How about we go shopping for flowers tomorrow, huh?”
He blinked, then smiled an unusually warm smile. “Da.”