Disclaimer: I do not own Hetalia. Girl With The Dragon Tattoo. Or the Newark Liberty International Airport. Or Harry Potter. Or Aqua Globe. Or Pinterest. Or Facebook.
Warning: Profanity. Some stereotypes. Some OCs for sake of plot. Some inevitable inaccuracies (historically, culturally, and grammatically).
AN: : DDD Welcome Back Friends! And Hellooo Newcomers! This is the THIRD installment of my Kith and Kin Series, and while it would probably behoove you to read my other two fics before this one...if you're willing to run with the bulls, who am I to dissuade you? Hope you all enjoy! : D
Chapter 1: Emotional Baggage
England leaned against the stone balcony—breathing in sea mist and longing to feel the swaying of a timber hull. The soothing feeling of waves beneath his feet.
He fidgeted with the stiff doublet and the laced sleeves connected to it.
He'd been guilted into wearing pluderhose...pansy looking garment that it was. It cost a fortune to import silk from Asia and if he didn't wear it at least once (and prove in public how absurd he looked in it), she'd be upset.
Pity that current fashion dictated boots as strictly for riding and he was forced to wear flat shoes instead. From knee to ankle he felt exposed—the hose simply wasn't thick enough to deflect the dropping temperature.
He was starting to ponder what the central topic of tonight's long, dull dinner would be. Anecdotes of a fox that was nearly caught? Of the latest French styles? Or perhaps Arthur's private belief that the elite of his land were determined to create the silliest, ugliest, most difficult hat to wear of all hats in the world?
All the world...even...even...the New One…
He was terribly curious about that distant shore. Though Spain boasted of the gold there, England had caught wind of horrific tales of savagery; men drowned in squalls, captured and sacrificed, and sometimes even eaten.
To modern ears of the 1580s, it sounded fantastical. To Albion who's watched humans ritually strangled and offered to bogs it sounds-
He straightened certain he'd heard…
No...he slouched...no...it couldn't be...
He tugged at the uncomfortable ruff on his throat. It was over starched and rubbing his adam's apple raw.
But wait…there it came again.
Here he was at Scarborough Castle staring out at the sea with the niggling feeling he was facing the wrong way...admiring the light glimmering on the wrong sea.
He strained his ears to catch it and resisted the heaviness that came with giving his word.
He'd been told he needed a rest...
A queen's ringed hand had rested on his shoulder weeks earlier insisting he needed rest after so much trouble and intrigue.
He'd been resistant to leave her side considering all the plots involving her as of late.
And bizarrely jealous...that human explorers had been chosen over him to survey the colony.
Still, there was supposed to be an artist among them who'd pledged to bring back detailed sketches of what they found.
It was small comfort, but comfort nonetheless.
If only it lessened the dreams...
Of Mother combing his hair as they sat on the shore. From his messy mane, she plucked what seemed to be a tiny black bead. She held it before him and he'd taken it, shrugged, and flung it. It skipped liked a stone across the water. West.
A daffodil seed, you fool.
Arthur sighed. His retreat here was supposed to be relaxing. So why did wrongness coil in his gut?
Because you're a fool, but even then you knew something was off.
There it came again; a high pitched keening so similar to the sound he woke up to each morning after violent dreams that he couldn't decipher. There it was now: faint and ringing and urgent in his ears, but so far away...
You're a goddamned fool.
And Arthur watched himself like a detached, sullen observer. His body deluded into accepting that the crying he sensed coming from the shore of his dreams and in the quiet void of lonely moments was a flock of hungry birds and not a helpless child wailing.
Arthur woke with a start. He ran a hand through his hair and desperately tried to calm himself down.
He looked around and groaned; he'd fallen asleep in his office again while trying to get caught up before his flight later on.
Still, the dull light gray walls did settle him down somewhat.
He wiped away crusts of sleep and lingering tears and finished up filing, stamping, and sending off his paperwork. It seemed like every interaction with the EU was leaving him irritable and exhausted.
His impromptu nap had moved his keyboard and he noticed the corner of a yellow Post-It Note. It had a sloppily drawn Shield Knot in black pen ink scrawled over it.
Last December, Alfred had plastered the area with them when he'd instinctively sensed UnSeelies stalking him.
Arthur had kept this one out of sentimentality for the child's wavering hand and as a sharp rebuke to himself for being so clueless.
He righted the keyboard back over it and looked over at the rosebush perched on his desk. It had grown unsettlingly since Alfred's insistence that it become strong.
In fact, in January when he'd returned, he'd found that the damn thing had taken over the office altogether. He'd choked when he saw its vines creeping out from under the door!
The janitor apologized but he hadn't been able to enter the room, and every time he tried cutting the vines that were growing out of it, they grew stronger and more resistant.
When England finally managed to unlock his office door and force his way in, he'd gaped at a sprawling amount of plant life.
Thankfully, he'd still had Alfred over and the boy was able to tame it. The child had negotiated as he trimmed it down to a suitable size. It was nuisance replacing all the machinery, though Alfred's knowledge of restoring and transferring hard drive information proved helpful. The printer was beyond saving; the poor thing had been pulled apart.) The plant itself now needed a larger pot (as its roots had grown and it had shattered its previous one).
Still, Alfred also demanded an apology on its behalf—citing multiple times the plant had felt abused (physically and verbally) and unappreciated under Arthur's care.
At the time he had felt rather humiliated talking to a plant that way during business hours, but Alfred had seemed so vested in it, he played along...said his sorries...and now...well, he couldn't argue with results.
Being nursed up on Alfred's land magic had made the quietly spiteful thing into a hearty, boasting, vicious thing. But Alfred brokered a mighty truce and it hadn't pricked Arthur since his foray into the office.
Now its sharp, sticking thorns clawed at people Arthur didn't like or did him wrong.
Yes; they were getting along splendidly now.
Considering how deeply it had scratched Carl when he tried to pilfer one of Arthur's fountain pens from his desk, Arthur might go so far as to admit he was fond of it.
Arthur had gone ahead and bought a higher grade glass Aqua Globe which dispersed water at suitable times. He also let it listen to Radiohead on Wednesdays...because Alfred insisted Prickly the Plant enjoyed it.
And if Prickly kept up the good work, Prickly got rewarded.
With bleary eyes he read his watch and stiffened.
Blast! He had to hurry, if he was going to grab his suitcase and catch his flight.
Arthur sighed as he drummed his fingers on the chair arm. He gripped it tightly as the plane entered turbulence.
"Should I just surrender the arm of my chair to you?" Rhys asked from his spot, in the dreaded middle seat of their aisle. He was already seated beside a large woman whose... bulk...floweth over onto his right chair arm...and Arthur had seized the left.
Arthur pried his hand away and Rhys rested his elbow again.
If it hadn't been bad enough to enter his house and find his brother there washing dishes and sporting a grim, displeased expression as he stated: "You didn't come home last night, brawd bach."
It was worse to hear afterward, "I'm coming with you to the meeting."
When he tried to argue that he'd already booked his flight and all was set in stone (so sorry, not really), his brother remarked that he'd changed it and that Arthur shouldn't use Harry Potter references for so many of his passwords.
Arthur then endured a frightfully awkward Uber ride over to the airport where Rhys...
Rhys...Rhys of all people...asked if he'd consider seeing a therapist.
"You're having nightmares. Your aura is clouded. You look awful. Alfred needs you at your strongest...this isn't it."
Arthur did NOT need counseling. That was ridiculous. Granted, he was having some difficulties yes...lately...but...that was perfectly normal.
Considering everything he'd been through, he'd have to be sociopathic not to have some emotional baggage as a result.
Wendigo...Osha...Yamasee...bloody UnSeelies...that awful car accident...Alfred's poor eye...Eliza-everything!
He just needed time to decompress.
He'd be alright. He had to be.
And now they were seated in Coach because Rhys was too thrifty for First Class (Arthur blamed Alistair's influence on that) and they were an hour behind, which made Arthur nervous. He'd sent texts about the change, but hadn't received a reply.
He relaxed once he was off the bloody plane and pushing past people on the escalator. He ignored the squawks and curses. As he rolled his luggage across the polished ground floor of the Newark Liberty International Airport, he hunted for his child.
Missed him with an aching intensity that should've been embarrassing considering they'd barely spent two weeks apart.
But after everything...after that estrangement...after finally having Alfred back post-spellbreak! He was truly back!
There was a warmth now present in him that had been long absent. The winter in him was thawing. There was a tenderness unfurling like fresh new leaves; life after a long hibernation.
It felt good to hold him, and play with him, and care for him. When Arthur's arms were full, his mind was focused, and he could ignore all else.
He frowned when he didn't see a small blond and a spar spangled suitcase. His son was supposed to be waiting for him here. They'd get a bite to eat (likely at the onsite steakhouse) and then wait an hour or two to board their flight to Toronto for Mathieu's informal Valentine's Day themed meeting.
"I don't sense him," Rhys frowned when he caught up.
Arthur swallowed down anxiety and turned his phone back on. A whoosh of air left him as he immediately received a pending text from Alfred from several hours earlier.
Sorry Dad. I had a change of plans 2. Sorry. Talk more l8r.
For a full beat, Arthur stared at it and then abruptly dialed his son's number. He knew Alfred was still self-conscious about his eye, but he wasn't going to let the boy wallow.
He was a handsome child inside and out, and dammit Arthur wasn't going to let him think otherwise! If Russia did say something disparaging, so help him...
"H-hi..." Alfred answered after two rings. "I'm real sorr-"
"Where are you?" It came out harsher than he intended and he winced.
Rhys raised an unimpressed eyebrow.
Arthur sighed; an eight-hour flight with ill behaved children, negligent parents, and a sugary insincere flight attendant who labeled him a 'child-hater' to the crew and passengers after making a complaint, made his fuse terribly short.
Plus, there was Rhys. Arthur was simply doomed.
There was a shaky breath on the other end. Damnation, Alfred was more sensitive now and he needed to attune himself to it.
Before he could apologize, Alfred replied: "I...decided...not to go...for personal reasons. I...I have other stuff- important stuff! I gotta put in order."
"Are you in Virginia?" He demanded.
"N-no, I'm still in New York, right now."
"In your flat?"
"I'm coming, if we hurry we can still catch the flight to Toronto."
"This is bigger than that-"
"We're going!" He hung up.
These boys and their feud was getting completely out of hand. First, Mathieu was making wild insinuations that Arthur and Alfred had...crowded him out. The last few emails Arthur had received were less than positive. Goodness, what a time for teenage angst to set in.
Meanwhile, Alfred was upset that his brother didn't comment on their Pirate Party, his missing eye, or his 'kicking ass at UnSeelie obstacles.' Alfred labeled it passive-aggressive-pervasive-Canadian-grouchiness.
Though Alfred's manner of revenge...
"I'm not Liking his Maple posts til he fixes it!"
...wasn't awfully concerning….
But it did signify that Alfred was aware that he was involved in a conflict. Which was something, considering how oblivious the child could be to reading the atmosphere.
Still, given their own reconciliation recently, Arthur was confident that, given the proper time and place and encouragement, Alfred would make amends...if he wasn't allowed to distance himself. He had an uncanny habit of wandering away from what he couldn't deal with.
But Mathieu had to be equally willing for them to make progress.
Arthur needed it to unfold in a safe space; one where he could intervene if necessary.
Mathieu wasn't usually a loose cannon; he likely had a good reason to be upset, but until Arthur learned what it was precisely…and how to engage it without escalating it…
He couldn't leave them to solve it themselves. He had to be present. To shield Alfred. Alfred wasn't emotionally mature enough to handle a teenager's wrath, especially when he'd done so little to invite it on himself.
God, just thinking of him dealing with Arthur's own intense feelings, spanning from the 1770s until recently, made him feel sick.
Alfred had said it clearly back in December: "I just thought you didn't love me anymore."
All of Arthur's complicated, grudge-holding, affection-resistant behavior wasn't interpreted as deep-seated hurt, a sense of being betrayed, and a desire for Alfred's remorse for his part in their estrangement.
Instead, to a childish mind, raised on Silly Infant Rhymes, Arthurian Legend, the Enlightenment, and his founding fathers' philosophies and ensuing legal documents…it was black and white.
One minute he was loved, and the next...he wasn't.
And he'd had to write off Arthur and all his love, and all his support, and all their memories in one fell swoop.
Which had done...damaging things to him, the extent of which Arthur was still discovering through off-hand comments and blank stares when they tripped over certain topics.
At least Alfred's concept of love being a lasting thing was taking root, Arthur wasn't convinced it was well-settled, but he was leaps and bounds from where he had been.
Arthur was hesitantly hopeful that the Valentine's Holiday would open them up. Arthur had two identical boxes of sweets being delivered since Mathieu seemed to feel that Arthur wasn't treating the two boys equally. Whatever the hell that meant.
It had angered him reading that on a glowing computer screen at 2am, because how could he? When he'd cared for them at very different times, with very different resources, and different parenting skills in place.
Trust me, Mathieu, he'd thought bitterly. The caregiver I was from the 1760s on, was far superior to the 1650s version that Alfred got. He'd actually suffered a lot of guilt over that—pinning it as one of the grand reasons why they clashed so much. England had been immature, self-centered, arrogant, and dismissive. He'd gravely underestimated the child's intelligence, resourcefulness, determination, and stubborn pride. And how closely America observed him...goodness...he knew how Arthur folded laundry, arranged his night stand before bed, organized his pantry…
He was now rather suspicious that a 1700s Alfred, had read through Arthur's paperwork and raided his office library on a regular basis. He'd occasionally catch him as a child with huge tomes and assume he was "pretending" to impress Arthur or tease Canada. If Arthur had just asked him to discuss the passage on legal statutes, he'd have known then.
Even with Arthur's parenting taken out of the equation, they were very different boys with differing attitudes and values. Not to mention they were now twelve bloody years apart!
But by God, if Mathieu wanted to share his bed, play dolls with him, and have bubblegum blowing contests. By all means, be his guest!
He probably shouldn't have sent that, but he'd had one whiskey too many that night and his temper snapped.
There'd been cyber silence from the Canadian since. Arthur's nextday apology email hadn't garnered a response.
"So we're going to fetch Alfred and then return to the airport, correct?" Rhys inquired.
Arthur nodded tiredly.
Following a taxi ride that smelled of greasy three-day-old fast food casings, he arrived at the high rise flat.
Only the elevator was being serviced, so they had to walk a ridiculous amount of stairs. By the time Arthur reached Alfred's floor his poor mood had devolved into downright foul.
Especially when he remembered that he didn't have a key there.
He gave a hard knock and was surprised when Alfred immediately opened it—face pale and withdrawn. His recovering eye was a stark white while the other was bloodshot.
"Are you ill?" Arthur asked in concern. Was it a sudden onset of flu? Or food poisoning? Or worse?
Alfred wiped his runny nose on his sleeve.
Arthur fished out a handkerchief for him.
"T-thanks," his little voice cracked. "H-hey Rhys."
"Hello," Rhys greeted as he hastily shut the door behind them and set his and Arthur's luggage hard against the wall. Arthur had forgotten all about it when the door had opened. Alfred's suitcase was standing at the ready just several feet over.
So he was packed for the trip.
Alfred sniffled again.
What in the world was going on?
Arthur rushed the child over to the leather sofa, "Did something bad happen? Did Americat get diabetes? Did you get a fine of some sort? Is it a national issue? Local? Did you witness something unsavory? My dear boy, what's wrong?"
Besides the room's decorations.
Again Arthur noticed dysfunction; modern art on the walls, sleek furniture pieces, discordant Old World touches here and there, more books on the ground instead of bookcases, and a pile of old cartridge style video game systems piled high beside the entertainment center.
While they sat together, Arthur patted the child's hand gently—discouraging the fingers from picking at a loose bit of cuticle.
Rhys took that moment to sit down on Alfred's other side. When the cushions bounced in response to the movement, the child broke his silence.
"I just...I got really bad news and...then it got worse," Alfred seemed poised on the edge of a breakdown.
Unfortunately, it was difficult to gauge terrible on the boy's spectrum. It could range from having a favorite anime series canceled from a television lineup to a cataclysmic fallout resulting from supernatural intrusion.
"Just now?" Arthur asked.
"Yeah. Or...well...s-since I texted you. It all happened so fast!"
"W-what did, Sweet?" C'mon boy, spit it out.
"I….I...I-I'm dying!" The American blurted.
Rhys stared aghast.
Arthur's heart stopped and he forced in a steadying breath as all his hopes fractured.
He and Rhys shared a glance.
His brother mouthed, 'Cancer?"
Had to be. He must've gotten diagnosed with cancer. The boy had complained about his most recent check up being lots of you need to 'do this' or 'do that.'
Was it a result of radiation? From years of meddling with nuclear elements?
"It's terrible…" Alfred's breath hitched.
Rhys spoke up, "No, we've medical advances now. If you've a tumor, they can operate-they can. And we'll be there with you every step-"
"It's not like that!"
"It's inoperable? Are you certain?"
"It's a nation thing!" America declared.
That made Arthur's soul shudder.
Nononononono, the universe couldn't do this to him. America had partaken in Yule. His magic was replenished.
"I-I'm...falling apart," America choked out.
England abruptly pulled the child into his lap and systematically checked fingers and toes. He pulled off the trainers. The socks.
Toes were the first things to go.
Mother had started losing toes in the early phase of returning to the land. He recalled playing on the floor beside her deteriorating feet.
But...Arthur blinked at the soft, squishy pink toes. Alfred had all ten. All in perfect order. The nails were in need of a trim, but that could be easily remedied.
Same with the fingers. All accounted for. Just the nails were a little overgrown.
"It's not there," the child mumbled.
"Where is it then?" Rhys demanded as he moved closer.
Alfred opened his mouth and moved an index finger in; it rested on a lower tooth and wiggled until the tooth fell almost completely sidewise.
A loose tooth.
He blinked again and frowned.
Nearly killed his father with despair...over a loose tooth.
He looked over at Rhys.
The Welshman's face had puckered up. He was giving his all to try and maintain a serious expression, so as not to injure Alfred's dignity.
Alfred wrapped his arms around his father's neck and blubbered, "And we were finally going to be happy again! I had such plans...alas..."
So melodramatic; it meant the boy was watching all manner of trashy soap operas and ill-suited movies and entertainment channels.
Arthur was going to need to have Rhys set a strong parental block on all of Alfred's devices. It wouldn't hurt if Arthur weeded out some of his books by "borrowing" them. Alfred had an unopened edition of Girl With The Dragon Tattoo. The boy wanted to read the book, before he watched the movie. Arthur needed to nix all of that from happening, but he had to do it stealthily.
"It's such a cruel fate that begets nihilistic wonderings that I-"
Arthur blinked, "I think we may need to curb some of the literature you're taking in."
Nihilism was not a theme that needed to be floating around Alfred's brain at this time.
Poor child was starting to hyperventilate.
"Breathe, Alfred. Breathe. Take a breath."
The boy pulled back when he seemed to realize Arthur's sense of urgency had flagged considerably.
"D-don't you care?!" He wailed. "This is super scary. Daddy, I dunno what to do! What if they all fall out and I'll have to eat mush! And then my jaw might fall off next and-"
It was the heartfelt sincerity in that heartbroken tone, and the real horror in his face, and the way it rang through their bond that sobered Arthur and softened him.
He cupped the child's face gently as he murmured knowingly, "You've never had this happen."
"I've had them loosen when people punch me or strike me in the face, but they always tightened back down. I've never-I've never-this-and it happened unprovoked! I mean...yeah, it was kinda loose last week or so but...TODAY! My tongue just touched it and it-it-"
"It's perfectly normal," Rhys assured.
"Have either of you had this happen?" the child demanded.
Rhys couldn't hold in a snort.
Arthur smiled kindly, "Why yes, as a matter of fact we have...Once upon a time, a time very, very long ago...for some of us longer…" he looked at his brother. "We, too, lost our milk teeth."
Alfred stared, jaw open, his melodramatic wind stolen from his sails, "Like...a human?"
"Yes, Darlingheart. We share this in common with them."
"But-but-but I've never heard of...no one talks about….I never heard Mattie talk about...or Texas or Molossia!"
"Did you ask them?"
He shook his head, "You're the only ones who know."
"I see," Arthur frowned, "You've spent several hours tormenting yourself about your impending 'death' without consulting anyone on the matter?"
"You were on a plane. Tex is overseas on business. I didn't wanna get him antsy. And Hawaii's got a fundraiser going and Alaska's busy too. I didn't think Molossia could take bad news like that."
"You should've called your uncles!" Arthur insisted.
"Oh…" He scratched an ear.
"Reilley and Alistair might've been arses about it. But they wouldn't have misled you," Arthur replied. "Ah well, I'm glad we could clear that up for you. I daresay Fiacaill, or FiFi as we tend to call her, has been waiting a long time to collect on you lad."
"The tooth fairy," Rhys explained. "She usually visits our kind sporadically, but she takes special care to attend the first and last-"
Alfred gulped, "O. M. G. what!?"
Arthur frowned at the unusual reaction and then realized, "Blast your horror movies-"
"Don't even! Even without the stage makeup, she's waaay creepier than Santa Clause. He stays where the chimney's at. This fairy entity breaks into your bedchamber and reaches under your pillow WHILE you are sleeping. That's hella shady."
"Alright," Arthur moved the child from his lap back onto the couch. "Now that the fear has passed. Get yourself together. Use the loo, wash your hands, double-knot your trainers, and we'll-"
Alfred sulked and crossed his arms.
"Use. The. Loo." Arthur repeated. "I know you, we'll get into the car. And I'll have you all nice and buckled in your booster and we'll pass two blocks and then you'll need to go and spend a penny. Right then. Right when there's traffic-"
"I-I didn't just freak out for no reason, you know?" Alfred muttered. "It wasn't just the tooth. I just...I assumed they were connected."
He motioned to a letter on the coffee table.
"It was waiting for me here," the boy hesitated and then started to hand the piece of paper over, then stopped, and then succeeded.
Arthur unfolded it curiously.
General Alfred F. Jones,
We regret to inform you that your reenlistment has been denied on grounds of child endangerment and child labor laws (as cited below). Failure to abide by these legal statutes would result in a gross violation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, as recognized and abided by the United States of-
When Arthur finished it, he folded it back up.
"May I read it?" Rhys asked.
Alfred sucked in a breath and nodded.
A mixture of relief and sorrow flooded through England. Relief, that his child wouldn't be deployed in such a vulnerable state. Sorrow, that it was handled in such a bloody, impersonal fashion.
He laced his fingers, "I'm very sorry Alfred. That must've been a very difficult blow."
"I read that...and then my tooth just...I thought it was cuz they rejected me!"
Arthur pulled him into another embrace and tucked his head under his chin.
"It hurts," the child breathed.
Arthur held him tighter and nodded.
"Why?" Arthur asked softly.
"I-I told you," He rasped. "They're sending me away."
"Now I didn't get that impression at all. They don't want you in combat, true. But there was nothing about impeding you from acting as an ambassador and diplomat. You are still, the acting representative of your nation."
"But I don't get to fight anymore. I'll be a paper pusher," His voice cracked.
"There is nothing dishonorable about clerical work. As of late, much of my duties involve-"
"I've been discharged."
"Honorably discharged," Rhys remarked as he set the letter down on the table.
"I haven't been discharged since..." His hand hovered over his injured eye.
Rhys's brows furrowed, "I do hope you're exaggerating. If not, you're well within your rights to sue and I can suggest several attorneys-"
"They don't want me anymore…" Alfred whispered.
It was no use; England was going to have to bring up King Richard II and a slew of other monarchs who saw fit to to cut England loose when their goals clashed. Though...if Arthur were honest, they'd be heavily edited retellings.
He was finally regaining his boy's trust. He didn't want to sully that with messy tales of deposement. He'd just share the beginnings of those sagas where England was the one clearly wronged and in need of finding somewhere else to apply himself. That was something America could relate to. He didn't need to hear about England's vengeance on those cretins.
Arthur indulged in a glass of white wine and tapped his fingers rhythmically. It was a short flight, maybe an hour and a half, but by God he was going to enjoy it to its fullest.
It was a relief that Rhys hadn't meddled with the second half of his flight plans.
When he'd said as much out of the corner of his mouth, Rhys had frowned, "I wouldn't want Alfred to sit alone."
Arthur had scoffed back, "You couldn't crack his codes."
Rhys's lips twitched in amusement. He remained seated as the First Class passengers were boarded.
Arthur was trying to enjoy the upgraded seat cushions when his sleeve was tugged.
Alfred was chewing gum, listening to music with one earbud in his ear, and attracting curious looks with the jeweled eyepatch he was wearing.
He'd confided earlier, "It doesn't feel so bad if they're staring at me on my terms."
Arthur blinked hard. If he could've moved faster...maybe...blocked the strike somehow...there'd be two bonnie blue eyes gazing up at him.
"Dad?" Alfred tugged at him again.
"Yes?" Arthur answered wearily.
"Are you okay?"
Arthur stiffened, "O-of course, why do you ask?"
"Your suit's all wrinkly and your face is-" he reached a bold hand up "-bristle-y."
Arthur gently pushed the hand away.
"Late start," he answered shortly.
The little hand hovered in midair a moment before laying itself lightly on Arthur's hand, "...I...I'm sorry I freaked out earlier."
Arthur sandwiched the hand between his, "No, you don't need to be sorry. You didn't know. I'm glad you asked. And I'm sorry you received such terrible news alone."
The child nodded, "It kinda casts a shadow over everything...and I was looking forward to Valentine's Day snacks, too."
Arthur tapped the little nose, "As you should. There should be quite a feast of red and pink confections. Francis put up...er wait uh. Whatsit? Er 'Pinned' several desserts he was interested in making."
That ought to have piqued the American's interest into a new direction. It didn't.
"...What if somebody brings it up? What if they know-"
"Why should they?" The last thing they needed was America feeling paranoid. He made questionable decisions under duress.
"Cuz everybody's spying on everybody," Alfred remarked pointedly.
"We deal with it then at that moment."
"It's no good tormenting yourself over what-ifs," Arthur stated firmly.
"Hmm," Alfred pulled his hand away to grab at his Captain America knapsack. He pulled the garish, beat up thing (It was missing a strap and had scratches across it from being roughly handled by Grym) into his lap to liberate Hop before letting it slip back down.
Alfred hugged the stuffed animal tightly.
Arthur held in a sigh; the toy was in poor shape. The fabric was giving way to holes and old yellowing cotton was leaking from Hop's face.
While Alfred had stayed over in January, they'd found a nice green ribbon to tie on Hop. Sadly, the new satin of the bow made the rabbit look even shabbier.
He was just too old to be put back into an active line of duty as a vigorous child's companion. Two months in, after more than a century of aging in storage, and he was wearing out. Closed boxes couldn't seal off time's ravages indefinitely. Could only delay them and halfheartedly at that.
And while it still touched Arthur to have something he'd made be so clearly cherished—Arthur knew Hop's time on this Earth was ending.
He'd need to set to work crafting Hop the II. Perhaps, if he made it identical...except...he wasn't entirely sure he could. His early sewing venture had resulted in certain peculiarities that made Hop unique. Certain limbs were slightly larger or smaller than their twin. One ear was fixed at a jauntier angle. And the stitches, Good Lord, the stitches. So erratic.
He reached across the boy to pull the shade down. He just wanted to rest.
Arthur raised up the chair arm so Alfred could lean against him. One flight attendant whisked his empty glass away, while another offered them blankets.
Arthur then reclined his seat and motioned for Alfred to do the same with his.
"It's going to be alright," he assured the little one as he squeezed him close.
Alfred nodded, turned his iPod off, and snuggled against him—seemingly content to believe him.
Now if only Arthur could convince himself.
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