Fulton looked like he was already falling asleep when Alex came out of the modest shower their modest lodgings provided them. It was fine. The cheap inn and the sleeping man on the (again modest) bed. Better to lay low and get some rest for now. And it wasn't so bad that they couldn't get a fresh set of clothes each from the hospitality, including a comfortable night slip that was suitable for a grandmother (but Alex was in no particular mood to care). Fulton had apparently decided he needed no such thing as clean clothes and was lying on the bed still in his muddy, torn duster and the few scraps of heel and sole remaining of his shoes.
Alex groaned and strode to the foot of the bed, giving Fulton's legs a good whack with her damp towel. He grunted, snorted, and sat up all in one motion, looking very confused.
"Not me, gov, swears it, didn't steal nothin-"
"I doubt that," Alex chimed lazily. "Get those nasty clothes off the bed. I have to sleep there too, y'know."
"Th' bed?" he said with a bit of a hiccup. His eyes wandered off of Alex's face and toward the worn out sofa across the room. "Oh no, Miss Alex, I can sleep on th' couch, you can 'ave th' bed. Sorry, sorry, I only meant to just close m' eyes for a bit, while you were in the – in the – not in th' room."
He kicked his shoe scraps off and some of the dirt on his trousers flew off with them. There was dirt on his face, in his hair, and powdered all over his clothes. Alex shook her head, pulling him up by his scarf and onto his feet.
"Don't be ridiculous. We haven't been able to sleep in a bed in weeks, and after camping that long with next to no equipment I wouldn't dream of making you take the couch. Even if it is a pretty small bed, and...," she paused, scrunching up her face a bit wryly, "You're a pretty big guy."
"You mean like I'm tall or what?"
Instead of letting another innuendo slip off her tongue without even realizing it, Alex just moved past him and started brushing the dirt off the sheets where he'd been laying. Fulton sucked his lower lip up under his teeth for a second while looking at her for a short but noticeable time, then turned to yawn deeply and noisily while stretching.
Knowing Fulton, it probably didn't mean anything at all. It probably just meant that he honestly didn't know she was poking fun at his weight again. A cursory glance at him from across the room while he started to take off his dirty accessories revealed to her, though, that two weeks lost in the woods had quite literally taken a lot out of him. Naturally. Alex herself was definitely looking leaner; actually she was downright malnourished at this point. Her wrists were knobbly and her hips looked like spikes under her skin. She felt like her knees would give out with every light step she took toward the fireplace. At least Fulton still had fat on his body. She was freezing!
She still felt like she'd been lost in the woods and pursued by all manner of nasty things the whole time, meaning she felt weak and tired and terrible, but the shower had been a huge relief, as was the strew, wine, and bread the inn had fed them and the fire Fulton had built before passing out on the bed. He made all the fires out in the woods, too. He pretty much did everything, Alex had to admit now that she wasn't thinking about how they were going to die out there. She frowned to herself as she looked toward the fireplace. Fulton made all their shelters, and found what little food was out there and wasn't either dead or poisonous.
"These're the worst woods we coulda pos'bly gotten stranded in, you know, Miss Alex," she suddenly remembered him saying to her with a sad smile lit up by the small fire he had been sparking at the time, on the first night they spent in the forest. "Th' Pale Wood used t'be a beautiful place, and some of it still is, but we mus' still be pretty close to th' city, cuz the industrial waste coming out of there is causing these woods t'disappear. You end up with places like this, and..."
He'd dug his fingers into the black soil beneath them and came up holding nothing but ash. It had turned to a milky cloud of dust when he crushed it in his hand and then sprung his palm open. "Nothin' can survive."
At the time, Alex had barely been paying any attention to him at all. In fact she had been laying on the bed of pine boughs and dead leaves with Fulton's large green duster thrown over them, that he had made for her, and blaming him for everything that had gone wrong recently, when he told her that.
Laying on the bed.
That he made for her.
Alex could have slapped herself as hard as she could if she'd felt she had the strength to make it as good as she felt she deserved right now. That was so stupid and unfair and disgraceful. After all, Fulton never asked to be where he was now, she asked him, he said yes. And he wasn't giving up on her yet it seemed, even though it would have been better and safer for him if he'd left weeks before things started to get bad. Alex was so glad she had Fulton, now more than ever. Because if she hadn't, she would probably be dead.
Actually, he pretty much took over her safety the instant they watched her house explode into flames. All the way up to that point, he'd been a clumsy, oafish fool and was almost always drunk. But he apparently had good instincts for bad situations and getting out of them. Something must have switched on in him. And it happened when the house fire went up – with several Elmrism agents outside of it. Was Fulton just especially anxious to help Alex, or was there something more he knew that he wasn't telling her?
Alex turned toward Fulton once again wondering what the hell to think or make of him. Just when she thought she had him figured out, he went and turned up completely unlike that.
He was unbuttoning his vest now, which used to look like it could barely hold around his belly, and now hung over him a good few sizes too big. She hadn't noticed that at some point he must have lost or gotten rid of his old leather belt and his pants were now tied around his waist with a bit of rope and even some vines from the woods.
Everything he owned was shit, especially his shoes, Alex saw when she suddenly realized she was watching Fulton undress and turned her head away and saw the things on the floor. Had he really just spent all that time hiking in those woods in those shoes? The mere thought of it made her twitch. That would hurt. No wonder he'd wanted to lay down. His feet should be broken, by all rights.
"It's a wonder you're even able to stand right now, you know."
Fulton was just undoing the last few buttons from his shirt when he looked up at her, blinking. "Hm?"
"Just, your shoes – you've been wearing those out there for that long – I mean, your feet must be a mess."
"Mmm, naw, not too bad," Fulton grinned stupidly, pulling the shirt off and dropping it next to him. It had enough dirt in it to make a small cloud when it hit the floor. "An' I could say th' same of you. You look like a mummy."
Alex was aware of the bags under her eyes and the emaciated frame and all that, but she still pouted a bit at Fulton calling it out. He noticed and gave her an incredulous smirk.
"Oh, sorry sorry, I jus', you know, I thought you could take anythin' you dish out, so..."
"So you did catch that," Alex admitted.
"So you did mean that."
"I didn't – didn't mean it, not like you're saying I-" Alex sputtered suddenly. "I mean, I didn't mean it...uh...meanly. Okay. I coulda said that whole thing better."
Fulton was chuckling softly while Alex struggled to decide what she actually did mean. He picked up the clothes the house keeper had brought him, a simple white peasant shirt with a draw string collar and brown cotton slacks. There was a pair of wool socks too. He practically squealed when he discovered them.
"Anyway, we really should get you some good shoes before we get lost in the woods again," Alex concluded with a cough and a sideways glance. Changing the subject was always a better course than offering an apology for an awkward conversation. "In fact, it looks like you could use a whole new...well, everything."
"Mm-hm," was his half-listening response, as he began to attack his tangled mane of red hair with a comb. More clouds of dirt began to rise off him as he did.
Alex curled her lips in for a second. "Aren't you going to take a shower?"
"Huh?" he did that blinking-at-her-like-a-clueless-git thing again, the comb stuck in his hair mid-brush.
"You're filthy all over, go rinse yourself off at least."
Fulton just stared at her for a good ten seconds looking somewhat exhausted all of the sudden, and Alex mentally admitted that now she was just nagging him like a fish wife. She didn't want to tell him what to do. She just thought...well, the hot shower had definitely helped her feel a lot better after the hell they'd just hiked through. Why the hell wouldn't anyone want to take a shower after that?
"Or, yeah. Whatever. I'll quit pecking at you. I'm just..."
"You worry about me too much."
It was Alex's turn to stare at him and blink. "Hwah?"
"Well, 'at's why you do this sorta thing, innit? Cuz you worry about your friends and all. You badgered your brother all th' time, for instance. And Mr. Tremaine, too."
Alex blinked again, but this time something else was snapping in her. Two names she didn't really want to bring up right now, and he had to lay them both down in front of her at once. Whether or not Isaac was even still alive was all very much up in the air at this point, with Alex leaning towards no while Fulton insisted every time that, yes, he definitely was. As for Tremaine, the last time she'd seen him he was watching her escape the city of Rosencrantz on the back of a train to escape that nonsense Elmrism was stirring up about her being her brother's murderer and the arsonist behind the house fire.
"Tremaine, for one," Alex said a bit sternly, causing Fulton's shoulders to sag, "is not my friend. He was chasing us along with the city guard that night we escaped, remember? He wanted to arrest us both. So I'm not really worried at all about what could happen to him, and that's the truth!"
Fulton frowned, looking suddenly nervous. "I-I'm sure that don't mean he believes what they're sayin' about you..."
"I don't really care what he thinks! And my brother – you know what, I don't even want to talk about my brother right now. Just shut up about things you don't understand, Fulton."
"...s-sorry," he stammered, pulling the comb once more through his hair. "All I was tryin' t' say was, you know...it's nice, knowin' at least someone worries about me now an' then. 'S been a while since anyone did."
Alex looked like she'd been ready to respond with more defensive outbursts, but that train derailed the moment Fulton finished his sentence. Now she was just looking at him like he was some kind of strange stain on the wall, which wasn't exactly telling Fulton if he was helping the situation, but at least she wasn't yelling at him.
"....uh," he decided he should say something after a while of Alex staring at him. "It's just – that's really sweet of you, and it's – I know it pro'bly don't seem like much to you, but..."
"Mmmmmfgh...," she sighed through a tightly closed mouth, still giving Fulton the strangest, slightly constipated look. He really wished he knew why she was looking at him like that.
He didn't know what else he was supposed to say or what she was waiting to hear or what. "I-had-nothing-to-live-for-until-you-showed-up-so-I-guess-thanks-cuz-I-haven't-been-this-happy-in-"
"Okay, whoa!" Alex snapped back into reality and held her hands up in a halt. "That was – sorry. I was just thinking that I'm the one that should be thanking you, but more than that I really ought to be the one swallowing my pride and giving you the apology you deserve and that I've owed you for a while now."
Even though there was the whole room between them right now, it sure seemed like the temperature had just spiked another twenty degrees up. Fulton grabbed his collar and started fanning his face with it while looking like an embarrassed school boy and Alex undid some buttons from her night gown.
No, no, no. They were both adults and ought to be able to say things like "thank you" and "I'm sorry" without winding up on the playground in the process. Alex groaned and pushed her hands through her hair. "You know what – we're both way too exhausted and way too out of it to really keep attempting this. I've cleaned and fed myself properly for the first time in weeks, and right now I want to lay down in a bed and sleep in it more than anything in the world. And you should do the same, and you don't have to sleep on the couch. I really don't mind sharing the bed with you. If I were feeling more generous in my thanks, I'd say I ought to be letting you take the bed, but I really want to sleep on it so I'm not going to. But, you know one more thing, Fulton?"
He shook his head with a furrowed brow, looking like he had just walked in one someone else's conversation because there was no way anyone would ever say something nice to him.
"You're...," Alex started, stopping to smile warmly and look him up and down before finishing. "...an amazing friend. I mean that. Since everything literally went up in flames in Rosencrantz, you've been the only reason I've been this far ahead of my enemies this long. I was absolutely useless in the woods, and you were the one who made sure we survived out there at all. And I'm sorry if I seemed cold or angry toward you the whole time -"
Alex stopped and shook her head.
"Not if – I totally did. I was blaming you for my life falling to shit all while you were the one that was holding the scraps left of it together enough to get me away from Elmrism and the police and out of the city. And that – that was really stupid of me Fulton, and you should be offended that I treated you like that but you're not! And that's – crap. I'm repeating myself. But you take so much shit from me and I don't even know why, because I haven't been very nice to you and I've gotten you dragged into one hell of a mess. But you're still here, telling me it's gonna be okay, and other trite, silly, but nonetheless nice little things. But you're also jumping onto moving trains and walking through walls and crazy things like that, so I don't really know who you are."
Fulton was looking at her with wide eyes. "Who I am?" he grimaced. "Are's not much t'say about it. I told you I was an orphan, an' then I ran away an' joined a circus. When it disbanded, I had no where else t'go, couldn't find any good work, and just kinda ended up on th' streets. I dunno what else ya'd wanna know."
"Yeah, well," Alex bit her lip hard, wishing she hadn't just lost control of her brain and said all that. "You seem to know everything about me, so..."
"'At's because you tell me, though. Or I jus' seen it for m'self while I was livin' with you at your home. It's hard not to learn 'bout sum'un when yer entirely in their element. Now yer in my world; homeless, without friends or family, but a whole world o' enemies. Whaddya suppose yer gonna learn about me, hm?"
Alex opened her mouth, then closed it again. He looked so...serious. He'd never given her a look like this before. What did she even say to that?
"I thought you wanted to sleep." Fulton continued to look at her.
"I do. I'm going to bed."
"I suppose I'll have time to find out all about you then, won't I?" she sighed. "That's all. I'm too tired to keep going. I'm sorry I said anything."
"...you sure you don't want me to sleep on the couch?"
Alex walked toward the bed and grabbed his arm on the way to it, pulling him along with her. As she pushed him down onto it, turned off the lamp, and laid down beside him she heard a voice from the corner near the fireplace which was unmistakably Deke angrily hiss the word "finally...!"