Alternate histories are fun, ne? This story's been in my head for a while and I finally got inspired to finish it. Hope you enjoy. And kindly ignore the incredibly lame title, I just couldn't think of anything else.
Disclaimer: I own nothing involved in Hetalia, nor the actual history that's been distorted for this story.
Grey Skies Over London
London, it seemed, was a perpetually dreary place.
Not a day had passed in the three months since their arrival without a blanket of swirling grey blotting every last speck of blue from the sky. Chances of rain varied from day to day, but it always lurked on the edge of possibility, and what little sunlight managed to fight through was soon smothered by the choking black smoke of a hundred belching chimneys.
For those used to the endless blue skies and star-spangled nights of the western colonies, it was downright depressing. Matthew's heart hung heavy as he opened his brother's curtains to the dreary grey, every fiber of his being longing for the familiar warmth and blue of his home. But there was nothing to be done for it, so he pushed dark thoughts away and forced a smile as he turned to his twin's bed. "Good morning."
The tangled mess of sheets and blankets shifted until Alfred's gold-waved head poked from the mound. A sleepy blink revealed brilliant blue eyes and, once again, Matthew's heart ached for their home.
"Did you sleep well?" he asked, not expecting an answer. "You missed breakfast again, I'm afraid. I saved some for you, if you like."
Alfred shook his head and yawned a soundless yawn. Then he winced and brought his hands to his throat. An iron chain clinked against the gleaming, polished shackles that were locked around his wrists.
Matthew touched his brother's cheek in concern. "Still no change?"
Alfred shook his head. His vocal cords had ruptured and died months ago, during the crossing from Boston. Before that, he screamed and shouted for days on end, demanding his release from the chains and the cell and the man who raised him. His voice finally died, they later learned, on the very day that Thomas Jefferson was hanged outside his beloved Virginian home. Arthur called it coincidence. Matthew was not so sure.
Carefully, Matthew lifted a delicate china cup from the bed stand and set it in his brother's hands. Its smooth surface was warm to the touch. "Here," he said. "There's honey in it, so it should help."
Alfred wrinkled his nose. "I know you don't like tea, Al, but you need this. For my sake? Please."
Still reluctant, Alfred allowed his hands to be guided and steadied until the cup reached his lips. He drained it quickly, to the last drop. Matthew smiled as he took it away.
"Thank you," he said encouragingly. "Now come on, get out of bed. We need to get ready."
Alfred scowled, folding his shackled hands tight against his knees as his sheets were pulled away. He licked his lips and breathed a single word to which he could not give true voice. "Why?"
"We're meeting Arthur in an hour," Matthew explained, tugging a tiny key from the cord around his neck. He could release the chain, but not the shackles – Arthur kept that key for himself. "The carriage will be here soon to pick us up. He's taking us to a…a public display. In the square."
Again, Alfred swallowed and licked, carefully lubricating the path needed to birth the whispered question, "Why?"
Matthew bit his lip and focused intently on leading the key to its hole.
"There's to be an execution."
With a click, the chain fell into Alfred's lap. Matthew turned away, for he couldn't bear to see the heartbreak on his brother's face, nor could he answer the voiceless, wordless questions in his eyes: "Who?"
"Who else can you take from me?"
So many had already been lost, precious lives, precious men that were so dear to his brother's heart. Jefferson. Hancock. The Adams family, cousins James and Samuel and their wives and children all slaughtered in a final triumphant stand on their Massachusetts farm. Franklin, fled to France and choosing a scholar's death of poison rather than face expedition to England. Dozens of others, rounded up for trial, for hanging and firing lines, some on the ground they called home, others shipped to the so-called motherland to be made example of.
Alfred, thankfully, did not see most sentences carried out – at least, he had not since Arthur relocated them both to his London home to flee the colonies' martial law – but he felt them, every last one. Now, he would see. He didn't have a choice.
Matthew helped his brother dress in silence, never looking him in the eye. The suit was a gift from Arthur not long ago. It still fit well, but it didn't really suit Alfred. Not really. Matthew tried to forget that as he smiled sadly at his brother's reflection, smoothed his hair into place and gave his arm a comforting squeeze. "Ready to go?"
Alfred shook his head.
Matthew took Alfred's hands and reattached the chain with the greatest of care. When he let go, Alfred's arms fell before him, resting against his thighs at a respectful, humble distance. Staring at his shoes, he looked quite subservient. The back of Matthew's throat burned with bile.
"Come on," he finally said. "We're going to be late."
( - )
"Good afternoon, sir."
"Indeed!" Arthur Kirkland groaned, tugging at his cuffs. It was not the proper response, he knew, and his long-suffering driver did not deserve the disrespect, but even thinking of his morning made him feel all hot under the collar. Pulled this way and that by parliamentarians and secretaries alike, never getting a moment's peace or even a cup of tea for his trouble! Really, even for an empire, it was almost more than he could bear.
Still, when he stepped into the carriage, his mood was lightened considerably by the presence of his sons – brothers, colonies – sitting across from him. Both were smartly dressed, with their hair combed and their creased straight in all the right places. Matthew held his polar bear friend in his lap like a child's doll, while Alfred's hands were folded before him, the cuffs of his shirt very nearly hiding the gleaming manacles beneath.
Arthur beamed proudly at them both as he loosened his tie. "Good afternoon, boys."
"Good afternoon," echoed Matthew, and bowed at the waist. Such a delightful, polite boy.
Alfred, meanwhile, nodded to his guardian humbly and looked at the floor. Arthur's heart ached as he reached for the boy, brushing a few golden strands away from his forehead.
"No change?" he asked softly.
"None," Matthew sighed.
"I was afraid of that. Alfred." Arthur cupped the teen's face in his palms, turning his head up to meet his gaze. "It's all right, you know. You're safe now."
Alfred turned away from the touch, refused to meet Arthur's eye and gazed longingly out the window. Arthur sighed and settled back into his bench. "Well, then. How are you today, Matthew?"
Matthew shrugged, ruffling the polar bear's fur. "All right, I suppose. Breakfast was…very good."
"I'm glad, Arthur said, so pleased that he missed the teen's wince among the lie. "If you like, I could supervise dinner as well…"
"No!" Matthew gasped, and immediately turned red. "Th-That's really not necessary, Arthur. You always do so much, and I'm sure you have a full afternoon, so…so I'll take care of it."
Arthur chuckled, adjusting his tie. "You're such a sweet boy. Ah, it seems we've arrived."
The carriage rumbled to a stop. The driver climbed down and opened the door. Arthur stepped out first and waiting for his colonies to join him before continuing on.
There was quite a crowd, filling the streets to capacity. The only reason they did not have to push through the throng was because their carriage opened onto a raised observation platform. From up here, it seemed that all of London had come out to see the traitor hang.
Good, thought Arthur, and suppressed a pleased little pirate's sneer. He wanted everyone to see. Everyone.
At the top of the platform, seated beneath a wide canopy, was the king himself. He waved the personification of his nation over, indicating the empty seats to his left. "Come, come, have a seat!"
"Your Majesty," Arthur said, bowing to his lord. "A pleasure to see you well."
"Yes, yes, and you as well," King George chuckled, grasping his country's hand. "And your, eh, boys too, of course."
Upon acknowledgement, the colonies bowed. Arthur beamed with pride and chose to ignore the evil eye his king sent Alfred's way. Old George was still quite sore over the many slings and insults directed at his person from the American shores, and Arthur doubted that he would live long enough to forget.
Still, the king pushed whatever slights he still harbored away for the moment and pulled Arthur into his designated seat. Suitably, they were best seats in the non-existent house, with a clear view of the main attraction even over the heads of the crowds. The sturdy arm of the gallows towered above the street, its noose already dangling ominously in the wind.
"It's about damn time, eh?" King George muttered as the familiar open-air black cart appeared at the end of the street. "Now we'll finally be done with this whole bloody business."
"Indeed, sir," Arthur said, and his insides squirmed with an anxious excitement.
The crowd roared as the cart came into view. Matthew flinched away from the sound and clutched his bear against him. Alfred finally lifted his head, glancing blurrily about until the condemned man finally came into view.
Even in bondage, his hands weighed down ponderous iron chairs, the man bore himself with pride. He was dirty, malnourished and unkempt from weeks in prison. Frizzy, greasy red hair, normally hidden beneath a somber white wig, fell into his face. As the open cart passed by, the crowd jeered at him and threw rotten food. Still, he bore it all with dignity.
Alfred made a pained noise in the back of his throat, pulling once at the chain that bound his own wrists. Arthur's heart ached for his boy – this must be so hard for him, to once more come face-to-face with the man who stole him from his family, starved him, brainwashed him, and turned him against his Crown – but he needed to see.
As the cart passed by their platform, that man even had the audacity to look Alfred in the eye. His stoic expression turned soft, affectionate. Alfred's shoulders began to tremble.
Arthur's heart burned with hatred for the man. He took Alfred's hand, squeezed it in support and steeled himself as a protective wall against the man's gaze. The condemned watched them for a moment longer, then turned away as the cart rumbled on. Alfred's trembling, if anything, got worse.
"Steady lad," Arthur whispered, and gave his hand one more squeeze before he let go.
Slowly, to make time for all the jeering and humiliation that the crowd had to offer, the cart made its way to the center platform. Its occupant stepped onto the gallows without so much as a pull. As the hangman slipped on the noose, the officer beside him unrolled the slick parchment of his royal decree and began to read aloud.
"George Washington," he intoned, "having stood trial before judge, jury, parliament and His Royal Majesty King George the Third, you have been found guilty of the following charges: refusal to pay due taxes, organizing an unlawful militia for the purpose of rebellion against the British Empire, imitating an officer of the armed forces, high treason to the Crown…"
And kidnapping, added Arthur in his mind.
"…For your crimes, you are hereby sentenced to be hanged from the neck until you are dead. May God have mercy on your soul."
A smattering of cheers echoed through the crowd. The townsfolk were pleased and honored to witness the great criminal, the leader of the foul American Rebellion, be served his just deserts. The hangman tightened the noose around Washington's neck and stepped away with a wide, gap-toothed smile.
Washington's tired eyes trialed across the crowd without truly seeing any of the rabble her scoffed and jeered at his impending demise. He lifted them, slowly, to look at the royal platform. His gaze fell once more on Alfred. It softened, giving way to a tiny smile. Slowly, silently, he mouthed three careful words.
"Be strong, son."
Arthur's blood boiled like oil upon ancient battlements. At that moment, the hangman pulled his lever.
The trap door dropped away without a hitch. A ringing snap echoed through the city. A pair of boots dangled three feet above the ground.
As one, the crowd roared to life, cheering the traitor's demise. Arthur relaxed, sinking back into his chair with a sigh. He looked to his boys. Matthew was as white as the fur of his bear, in which he hid his eyes. Frightened by the graphic death, no doubt. Poor boy, but it was important for him to see. And Alfred…
Alfred's face was ashen tinged with green as though he were about to be sick. His arms shook, rattling his manacles. His eyes stretched so wide they bulged from their sockets, staring blankly at the dangling corpse that swayed in the breeze.
Cautiously, Matthew uncurled from his hiding and reached for his brother. "Al?"
He fell forward, out of the chair, both knees striking the hard wood at once. His hands covered his face, fingers splayed, barely able to hide the voiceless scream stretched across his face.
Arthur was beside him in an instant, kneeling to press as close to the teen as he could. "Alfred, look at me," he begged. "Pull yourself together lad. You're safe, you see that now, don't you? You're safe, you're home, he can't hurt you anymore."
Alfred was saying something, or trying to at least, mouthing the same voiceless word over and over: "Father, father, father…."
"I'm here, Alfred," Arthur soothed, slipping his arm across the boy's shoulders. "I'm right here. I'm here."
Alfred jerked away from his touch, tumbling instead into Matthew, who slipped up so quickly that no one had noticed. Leaving his polar bear to the side, he held Alfred in his arms and rocked back and forth. Alfred sobbed silent sobs into his brother's shoulder, clinging to his clothes like a child to his mother.
Arthur sighed and, with a hesitant hand, stroked Alfred's hair. "My poor boy," he whispered. "It's all right now. Calm down. You're safe with us."
Alfred's silent sobs only grew worse, his body heaving with each one as the crowd began to auction off the dead man's clothes. He did not stir from Matthew's embrace. Matthew, likewise, made no move to disturb his brother's comfort, only holding him tighter and nuzzling his hair.
By the time they moved again, the body was long gone, cut down and carted off to the pauper's cemetery where it belonged. All that remained to remind of the deed was a frayed rope, dangling from the end of the gallows and swaying mournfully in the wind.
Justice, Arthur thought, had finally been served.
( - )
Arthur was not able to accompany them home. Once the deed was done and the crowd dispersed, the king invited him to tea. Given who and what he was, Arthur could not refuse. Thus, it fell to Matthew to get his brother back safely. It was not a difficult task, but it wore heavy on his heart.
He remembered a time, not long about by the standards of Their Kind, when a great loss forced his Papa to surrender Matthew to Arthur as spoils of war. Unable to speak English, unused to the southern warmth and lamenting the loss of his guardian, Matthew was all but an invalid then.
It was Alfred, his spirited brother, who guided him out of that darkness. It was Alfred who showed him the best places to hide Arthur's cooking without being caught. Alfred, who taught him his first English words – brother, bear and bunny, all staring with 'B' because "Alfred and America are the only A-words you'll ever need to know!" Alfred, who played with him and shared his bed until the pain of separation finally dulled into background noise.
Now, it was Alfred who stumbled through the house as though he could not see the walls. Alfred, who did not move throughout the entire ride home. Alfred, who had to be led to his room, chains jangling, face ashen, so much like a ghost and nothing like the lively youth he should have been.
Matthew guided him up the stairs and settled him on the bed. "Alfred," he said with a sigh. "You don't look so good. Maybe you should lie down."
Alfred did not respond, but he resisted when Matthew pushed at his shoulders. Soon enough, the younger twin surrendered. "Okay, Al, if that's what you want. How about some light?"
Again, there was no response, but he did not object when the curtains were pealed back, so Matthew took it as assent.
"It's almost four," he noted, filling the emptiness with idle chatter. "I need to get dinner started. I'll leave your door open, so if you need anything, just come get me. Okay?"
Nothing. Alfred was staring at the sky.
"Okay." Matthew sighed, and clasped his brother's hands once more. "I'll be right downstairs."
Alfred's hands, when released, fell into his lap with a clatter of chains. His eyes, unfocused and dark, still looked to the sky. He did not move, not even when Matthew left his side.
Matthew's heart hurt. He stood in the doorway, watching his brother for any sign of movement. There was none. Once more, as countless times before, Matthew longed for their home and for his exuberant, annoying, beloved brother.
Then he went downstairs and rallied the servants to prepare their evening meal.
( - )
Arthur returned home around 5 that evening, following his tea-time with the king, to find Matthew and the maids already busy in the kitchen.
"I thought I told you I'd take care of dinner tonight," he said with amusement, undoing his tie.
"Oh!" Matthew fumbled and nearly dropped the pot he carried, hastily passing it off to the cook. "Well, w-we just didn't know when you'd be back s-so we thought we'd get it started early, so you wouldn't have to wait."
"Hm, is that so? And this was your idea?"
Matthew winced. "Yes sir."
Arthur chuckled, put his arm around Matthew's shoulder and pulled him in for a quick hug. "You're such a sweet boy."
With a sigh, Matthew relaxed.
Arthur pat his shoulder and released him, glancing about the crowded kitchen. "Where is –"
"Upstairs." Matthew pointed to the stairwell. "In his room."
"Is he all right?" Arthur asked with a concerned tone, hanging up his jacket.
Matthew gave a half-hearted shrug. "I think you'd better see for yourself."
"That's what I was afraid of," Arthur sighed. Once more, he patted Matthew on the shoulder. "Don't worry, lad. He'll be back to normal soon. I've got a special treat for him tonight."
"Special?" Matthew echoed, lifting his mewling bear from the floor. "Special how?"
"Don't worry. I know that he'll love it." Arthur smiled a secret smile and pulled a wrapped bundle from the cupboard. "Don't you worry, my boy. If anything can reach him, this will do it."
Matthew sighed a tired, world-wary sigh. "I hope you're right, Arthur."
As loath as he was to admit it, Arthur could only hope that he was right, too. He cradled his swaddling parcel like a baby as he climbed the stairs, his heavy boots sinking into the plush carpet of the second floor. Alfred's door stood open. Still, Arthur knocked before he stepped inside.
"Alfred," he called. "I have a surprise for you."
Alfred did not respond. He was perched on the edge of the bed like a life-sized porcelain doll, staring at the sky.
Arthur set his bundle on the pillows, sat on the mattress and took Alfred's head in his hands. "Look at me, Alfred."
With only a moment of hesitation, Alfred turned his head to obey. "Good boy. Now give me your hands."
Alfred lifted his arms and set them in Arthur's offered palms. With gentle fingers, Arthur felt the cool, clean iron of Alfred's shackles. They were reinforced, the only thing that could hold the boy in his tantrums, and Arthur personally saw to it that they were polished daily to avoid rust. Only the best, after all, for his boy.
"Close your eyes, Alfred."
Sky blue disappeared behind fluttering eyelids. From his pocket, Arthur drew a large silver key.
Seconds later, the heavy bonds, manacles and all, fell into Arthur's lap. The boy snapped open his eyes and stared at his own wrists in wonder. They were pink and raw from weeks in bondage, but now, they were free.
"Surprise," Arthur laughed warmly, gathering the chains. "You've been so good recently, you've earned it. You won't be needing these anymore."
He tucked the shackles away in the desk drawer and took Alfred's hands again to examine the ravaged wrists. "Hm," he said. "I'll have the maid bring you up a balm later. That'll get these healed up. Now, I have another surprise for you."
Alfred stared, dumbfounded. Arthur chuckled, reaching for the bundle of cloth. He unwrapped it with flare, revealing a hand-sew stuffed rabbit with a smiling face and cars as long as its body.
"Do you remember Flopsy?"
Of course he did. Flopsy, Alfred's favorite toy since he was too young for wood to be safe, was made special for him by Arthur's own hand as a substitute for the rabbit friends who were not allowed in the house. Alfred slept with the toy every night for almost a hundred years, keeping it especially close during storms, even after he grew too old for such things. Despite his great age, Flopsy looked almost new now, with his holes patched up and his ancient skin recovered with a smooth new layer. His sewn mouth smiled at Alfred from Arthur's arms, welcoming, familiar.
"I had him shipped home last month, and fixed him up good as new," Arthur said as he set the doll in the teen's grasp. "It's nice to see an old friend, isn't it?"
Alfred cradled the toy in his hands a moment before clutching it to his chest. His fingers found the well-worn left ear, the one he chewed as a baby and pawed as a tot whenever he needed the comfort.
"I knew you'd like it," Arthur chuckled, standing. "Now let's get some air in here. It's so stuffy."
He opened the first window. Cool London air blew into the room.
Arthur moved then, to the other window on the other side of the room, and thus did not see the way that Alfred stared at the window as though it were the open door to heaven. He did not see the clouds part, just for a split second, and spill a single beam of sunlight across the teen's boyish features.
Instead, he opened the other window to an alley that smelled of fish and leaned into a face full of smog. "Ah, there we go. That's much better, wouldn't you say – Alfred!"
While his guardian's back was turned, the teen made his way to the open window. One arm held his rabbit, the other reached for the sky, and one foot was braced on the sill, about to push off.
Arthur lunged, wrapped his arms around Alfred's waist and dragged him to the floor. "What are you thinking, boy? We're three stories up!"
Alfred stared at him, eyes wide and wild like a feral child, clutching Flopsy tight with both arms. Arthur shook him by the shoulders, trying to summon some sembelence of sense from the depths of his broken mind.
"God, Alfred, don't frighten me like that! Do you have any idea what I'd do if I lost you, now, after everything we've been through? What on earth were you thinking?!" Sucking in a fearful sob, Arthur pulled the teen against him and hugged as tightly as he could muster. "God, it hurts to see you like this, boy. I don't know what those rebellious monsters did to you, but I'll fix it, I swear I will. Just tell me what you need me to do, Alfred, please. Just tell me what you need."
Arthur stopped. He pulled back, just a bit. Alfred was whispering the same word over and over, each time giving it more and more voice, voice that came easily now and without pain. After only a few times, it became audible, and he only got louder with each word. "Free. Free. Free. Free…"
Arthur released him, and Alfred turned his eyes to the sky once more. Even in the muffled shadows, those eyes glowed as beautiful and brilliant as his own home sky.
"Free," he said again. "Free. Free."
Arthur touched his boy's shoulder with a hesitant, hopeful gentleness. "That's…That's right, Alfred. You're free now. You're home."
Alfred stopped. Then he laughed.
It was a horrible sound, nothing like his usual laugh that lifted spirits and brightened faces throughout the colonies. This laugh was hollow and cynical, deep in the throat, cracking vocal cords with maniacal callousness. Alfred would not stop the laugh, no matter what Arthur tried, until it finally drove the man from the room. He fled down the stairs, through the kitchen and into his study, slamming all the doors behind him.
Frightened, Matthew ran up the stairs to check on his brother. He found Alfred on the floor of his room, rubbing Flopsy's left ear and staring at the dreary, lonely London sky. No matter what his brother did, all he said was the same word over and over and over again.
"Free. Free. Free. Free. Free. Free. Free…"