Chapter 31: In Which Ward Still Lacks Social Skills
A/N: (Wait, what? It hasn't been six months?)
Guys, thank you so much for sticking around and reviewing last chapter. That was... really motivating, actually, I don't know how I wrote this chapter so quickly. I hope everyone enjoys it!
Also, has fanfiction been weird for anyone else lately? I'm not getting alerts or ANYTHING and it is bothering me something major.
It was stupid to think it would last.
Not even a half-blind old man, however cheerfully oblivious, could fail to notice when his companion didn't eat, didn't sleep, never touched or felt pain. When he wouldn't make a sound when he walked, or sit down or even start a fire.
Yes, it was easy to pretend with someone there. And he tried, for Welkins' sake; went around trees, rather than through them; walked in strange, roundabout paths instead of plodding straight on, as if the obstacles in the merchant's way could hinder him just as they did the old man; pretended like he could feel fear, cold, heat, loneliness. Privacy. Welkins was incredibly talkative, and had a very forgiving, easygoing temperament, which made him easy to fool.
There was no reason for him not to tell Welkins what he was, although in truth he didn't know what he could have said in any case. But he did not want to risk losing the man's company – anxiety grabbed hold of him whenever the man was away from his sight, and he had the irrational (or perhaps all too rational) fear that if he lost his companion, his newfound awareness would leave with him. And so he followed the man like a shadow, doing his best to keep him safe by scouting ahead and telling him where edible food was, what bridges to pass, which strangers to avoid. It was beyond wonderful to be with someone else. Every day they would talk, exchange ideas, learn, and one topic would trigger one piece of knowledge and then that would lead to another, and another, and he would remember. At night, when he'd keep watch while Welkins slept, he hoped (deep, deep inside) that eventually, given enough time, he would at last remember everything he had to remember.
And for a time – he didn't know how much, it felt like nothing and forever, all at once – for a time, it worked.
But not for long.
"What – what in the devil's name –"
"Welkins – Welkins, I can explain –"
The merchant scrambled back, one hand on his chest and the other held out shakily in front of him. "Stay back! Stay back, you, you..." he faltered, face draining of blood. "What on Earth – Jesus and Mary, you're, you're not human!"
He wished he could feel something physical – anything but this numb, sinking emotion he couldn't name. He hadn't understood what was happening at the time, but he would be familiar with it later.
Ending. It was ending.
"I… am not," he agreed quietly, feeling empty. It would be foolish to deny.
Welkins made an odd gesture over his chest, sweat bright on his forehead and glistening in the sunlight. "You – abomination - what did I – didn't think I deserved –" he folded in two, gasping heavily, left hand clasping his right shoulder, right arm curling limply at his side. "Hell – not hell – God, God, what did I – what did I do –"
He was at once at Welkins' side, because even despite everything, something was wrong and this man was – was something. To him. He didn't know what, save for that he couldn't bear to lose it. "Welkins, Welkins, please - I'm sorry, please, I'm sorry, talk to me – "
It was funny, in retrospect, just how much he didn't know back then.
"No stop this, come on, what are you doing – "
The familiar brown eyes rolled up in their sockets, eyelids fluttering closed. Blood frothed from the thin blue lips.
His hands reached out clumsily, uncertainly. Tried to wipe off the red, tried to cause the eyes to open, tried to cradle the balding head and comfort the only person he had in the world.
"No – no, Welkins - Welkins, you need to – you're supposed to breathe, please, you need to breathe -"
They always went through. No matter how hard he tried, they always went through.
"Please! Please, you – you rotten old bastard! Breathe!"
"Welkins, breathe!" he cried.
...But Welkins didn't.
People laughed and sold, talked and bought, called out, walked, each face lighting up with countless emotions one by one, second by second, whether it was seeking shade or just carelessly painted by sunlight. The elm trees intermittently lining the road shimmered a little in the afternoon sun, tiny leaf buds only just beginning to unfurl. Beyond them and the taller gray buildings was a deep cerulean sky, with patches of clouds at times shielding the brightness from Ward's eyes, which would hurt if he stared up for too long.
Not that he really noticed, but it was something to think about.
…The world was so pretty.
But then, it always had been. Even when things weren't good, or happy. It had still been beautiful. Always, always beautiful.
Yet it couldn't compare. Not really. This time – ever since – everything was different now. Not like before. He could finally reach, touch. Even after all these months, he couldn't help but still, still…
The sun could burn. Hurt. Why did no one ever appreciate that? Why did they take it for granted? Why did it always take for everything to be taken – stolen – before –
He blinked at Breda dazedly, bright spots of color winking in and out in front of his eyes.
The lieutenant frowned at him before turning back to the road. It was taking them awhile because of traffic, Ward knew. And the traffic was because of the train that didn't crash. "You okay? You shouldn't stare at the sun like that, it's bad for your eyes."
Breda nodded offhandedly. "Yeah, you could go blind if you're not careful."
Blind, he repeated in his head. Being unable to see. "I should be careful." Nothing could be worse than not seeing.
…Except for before. Before was worse.
"Yeah you should," Breda replied, and glanced at him. "So Ward."
He was supposed to reply to that. "Yes?"
"You seemed pretty… upset, earlier."
Upset? When had he been upset?
"Everything all right now?"
"Everything's always all right," he answered, puzzled. Because it was always all right, now that nothing was like before, now that forever didn't seem to exist anymore. Well, other than the times when –
Gently. "Who's Isabelle?"
"She wasn't Isabelle," he replied, because that was true, and he should have realized it from the first. It was stupid to fall for it. Isabelle had never worn her hair in braids, after the first time - she had had long, wavy black hair that she used to blow out of her face while she was working or kneading dough with her hands, but she never put it up. Just because they looked alike didn't mean... didn't mean anything.
You couldn't change the past.
A sigh. "I know. That was Izumi Curtis, Ed and Al's teacher." His companion tried again. "That's not what I'm asking. Who's Isabelle, Ward?"
Ward stopped looking at Breda and instead stared straight ahead. There had only ever been one Isabelle, for him, only one Isabelle for Breda to ask about. "Isabelle is – "
He stopped. He didn't know what to say.
"Is she your sister?"
Ward couldn't help a snicker. "No," he laughed at the ridiculous idea, startling Breda a little. "No, no, Isabelle isn't my sister." He thought a bit, wondering how to put it. "Isabelle just…" His eyes slid to the side, and a crooked smile climbed up his face. "Isabelle was. Important."
Breda stole a glance at him, heart clenching a little. There was no doubting what Ward meant. "I'm sorry," he said quietly.
Ward shrugged almost carelessly.
"It's okay. People die."
His voice was soft, a sad sort of amused.
"It's what they do."
Al hugged his knees in the waiting room and stared at the double doors.
Teacher was fine. She'd survived a couple of hours already – she must have, they would have told him otherwise – and that was a good indication. It was. No news was good news, wasn't that what everyone always said?
And this was Teacher he was thinking about. No matter how much blood she could vomit on a weekly basis – Teacher had a knack for overexerting herself – she would always get back up, light on her feet and ready to fight. He was worrying for nothing.
"Alphonse," someone huffed, and he saw Lieutenant Breda suddenly come next to him, hands braced against Al's chair as he gasped in quick, shallow breaths.
"Lieu- Breda," he said quietly, remembering.
Breda straightened, though his hand remained on the chair. "Sorry – sorry you had to wait here by yourself," the man breathed, still a bit winded.
"It's okay," he said, releasing his legs and letting them hang from the chair, kicking aimlessly for a moment before he stilled them, hands clenched tight on his knees. It was okay. After a year traveling on his own, he thought he should be able to handle anything on his own pretty well.
And it wasn't like Breda owed him anything in the first place, anyway.
"No, it's isn't," the man returned firmly, surprising Al into meeting his sincere eyes. "I had to notify the General, but that's still no excuse. I apologize, Alphonse."
He stared, then dropped his gaze uncomfortably. "It's… I'm all right. Dr. Gold stayed with me for a while."
"Good." Hesitation. "How… how is she?"
Al's eyes wavered to the closed double doors. "I don't – they didn't tell me. I don't know. I think she's fine, but I don't, for sure –" he breathed in, let it out. Calm, he had to be calm. "I don't know."
"That's…" the lieutenant seemed at a loss. "That's… something," he muttered awkwardly. He cleared his throat. "So, about – ah, there you are," Breda said upon catching sight of the same odd man Al encountered at the station, who was at the moment calmly walking across the room in their direction, hands loose at his side.
"I am here," the man confirmed, eyes glancing over Al.
"Did you call like Mustang asked?"
"Yes, and she says it's fine." He paused. "She's angry he hadn't told her before."
"Let the General worry about that." Breda glanced back at Al. "Oh, right, haven't introduced you two, have I? Alphonse, this is Mr. Ward Enkelbert, our secretary. Ward, this is Alphonse Elric."
"I knew that," the other man answered irritably, before sticking out his hand in front of him.
Al stared down at it, uncomprehending. His head hurt.
"You're supposed to shake it, you know," he was told helpfully. Frown. "I thought Mustang said you were smart."
"Ward," Breda snapped.
Ward froze. His hand fell slowly. "Sor- sorry," he said after a moment. He glanced hesitantly at Breda, then back at Al. "I… I'm sure you're very smart?" he tried.
"Ward," the lieutenant repeated in exasperation, though Al could tell there was amusement underlying the reprimand.
"What?" the secretary frowned, and Al found he had to stifle a smile at the guileless expression. "I apologized."
Breda rolled his eyes. "Sorry," he told Al. "He can be kind of an idiot."
"You're the idiot," Ward muttered audibly under his breath, while Al assured Breda that no, he wasn't offended.
The doors opened. "Alphonse Elric?"
Al instantly forgot what he had been saying and practically leaped across the room. "How is she?"
The nurse was a shorter woman who reminded Al of what a real grandmother probably looked like, with fine wispy gray hair that is wrapped in a frazzled bun and cheeks lined like they pull back for smiles often. Not that Pinako wasn't exactly a real grandmother – Winry's real grandmother, anyway, but Pinako didn't look anything like someone who would spend most of her time baking and knitting.
She looked patient and kind and lovable, but at the moment Al only cared that she wasn't frowning.
"Mrs. Curtis will be fine, dear," she told him gently, steering him to a chair. "She had us worried for a bit there, but she pulled through very well. In the end the absence of her organs was a stroke of fortune – organs couldn't have withstood the pressure her body went through. So don't worry, she will be just fine."
He slumped down, taking his face in his hands. "That's – that's great," he said tightly, finally looking up. "Can I – can I see her?"
She bent a bit to be at his level, hiding the wince when her back feebly protested the movement. "I'm afraid not at the moment. She still needs to be carefully monitored."
"It would only be for a minute," Breda said, hand on her arm.
She met his eyes. "I wouldn't advise it," she said, a hint of steel under her tone.
Breda buried a grimace and didn't say another word. He took back his hand.
She looked back at Alphonse and straightened, fingers lingering lightly on Al's shoulder. "You can come in the morning, dear. Visiting hours start at eight."
Al swallowed. "She'll – she will be better tomorrow, won't she?"
The nurse seemed to lose her footing - under the horribly sad and earnest bronze gaze, the nurse seemed like she was only a breath away from taking Al home and feeding him cookies until he felt better.
"Of - of course," she managed almost vehemently, attempting a smile. "Of course."
At that, Ward looked away and tuned out of the conversation.
…It sounded too much like wishing for his liking.
He waited. He stayed there through darkness, through light and snow and sun and rain. The world stayed the same, changing in its increasingly predictable way, but somehow the colors almost looked faded, without anyone else to share them, and it simply felt different, although he couldn't feel and he knew it, he knew it so very well.
Welkins stayed too, changing from blue to gray to black and then bone, little pieces of him carried away by scavengers and torn by the elements. He couldn't stop it so he watched, just stayed and watched and wondered about Welkins' family, his friends, his ward who would never know. Finally the bones yellowed and even he knew Welkins wasn't really Welkins anymore, but he still didn't want to leave, because if he left he would never know how to come back - he couldn't mark the place, he couldn't bury the skeleton, he couldn't even write a name so someone else would see, and remember. He couldn't do anything, and it rankled and rankled and tore at him just like vultures, just as if he had something to lose, just as if he was real.
And one day, the skeleton was just a skeleton, just a pile of bones under layers of leaves and soil that he couldn't dig past and see. He stood vigil for a long time.
And then, finally, he forgot.
He woke up - or was 'became aware' a better way to put it? - in a forest just beginning to redden its leaves.
He looked around. It was very beautiful, but he had a feeling that something was off. Something was missing.
...Puzzling. He stood there and wondered for a while, questions like why was he here, when did he get here and how?
Nothing came to him. Slowly, instead of why he was here, he began to wonder why he wasn't somewhere else.
So he started walking.
A/N: My my my, Ward has a bit of a past... and he finally met Al! I wonder what Al thinks of him...
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