Title: Last Wishes
Disclaimer: APHetalia is property of Hidekaz Himaruya.
A/Ns: It has been a while. I won't bother you with my nonsense and excuses, read on.
Chapter 3 – That Which is Precious
Matthew had very few precious personal items but of those that he did he treasured immensely. Little gifts of lost items found by his tutor composed much of his small collection. Lost battle-scarred marbles, brass brooches with broken pins, the most pretty paper sculpture (origami it was called if he remember correctly) of a pink rose, and a few other objects retrieved from their dusty hiding spots under couches and low tables. There were some that were gifts, such as a homemade shirt from Roderich's lady friend, an embroidered modest kerchief, and others. It made the blond wonder whether his tutor had disclosed his existence to her whoever she was.
Among his treasures, the one which held a special spot in his heart was the thick cotton quilt with which he spent all his nights. It was put together out of necessity, a cold snap rolling over their port city bringing with it the coldest winter for years to come. He had been seven at the time but even today, almost past his teenage years, he recalled vividly the time he and Roderich slaved over it in the warm, dim glow of a single candle in their cramped study room. Every stitch, every prick that drew blood from his clumsy fingers, every carefully directed movement his tutor demonstrated.
Although it was still autumn, the fabric creation embraced his slumbering body gently, accommodating his minute unconscious shift in posture.
It was early morning and Alfred felt overwhelmingly intrusive, standing in his twin brother's room as silent as a statue, blue eyes fixed on the curious whites, grays, and purples of the quilt pattern. His mind scrambled for something to do, anything, but a bedroom as small as this one barely allowed for much standing room let alone any other activity or even a chair.
Admittedly, Alfred had been thoughtless to barge in here without knocking first and now that he was inside, he was afraid that any further movement might arouse his sleeping sibling. Oblivious to his presence, Matthew turned over in his narrow bed, pressing his face into the cool side of the pillow with a satisfied sigh. A few strands of golden hair curled against high cheekbones, close to irritating his close eyelids.
Repressing the urge to reach forward and brush them away, it amazed him the progress they have made in this past week. It was difficult to imagine life without Matthew despite that regretfully being the story for most of his life. The days they had spent together, activities organized courtesy of one Francis Bonnefoy, had been vibrant with laughter and joy, forging a bond Alfred hoped would last forever. Before Matthew came into his life, before when his father was alive, he'd have grudgingly called the mansion his home, now just looking at the wallpaper kindled a ball of warmth in his chest.
Dimmed reminiscing blue eyes jolted up to meet drowsy violets.
"Good morning, sleepyhead. Or should I say afternoon?" he replied with a grin.
"...what time is it...?" Matthew yawned, groping the side table for his time piece.
"I'd say about two in the afternoon. Roderich's not happy about it but he said he'll let you sleep in this once on account of us going to bed late last night." They had spent the evening stargazing, if you could call it that, out the small, smudged hallway window in the servant's quarters. It didn't matter that Alfred's astrology wasn't up to scratch as Matthew seemed to enjoy Alfred's made-up names and absurdly spun stories for the patterns in the sky from his endless bubbling laughter.
Pushing back the thick quilt, the smaller blond put on his spectacles and fumbled for his shoes which had found their way under the bed. Alfred backed out of the tiny space and waited patiently for Matthew to dress, amusing himself with the odd green glow of his portable lamp. It still bothered him that his younger brother's living quarters were suffocating in darkness from its lack of windows. It almost bothered him as much as Matthew's stubborn objection against moving to a guest room upstairs.
One step at a time, he supposed.
"What has Francis arranged for us to do today?" Sounds of gushing water almost overwhelming the softly spoken words.
"Actually, Francis and Arthur's gone out today to the post office and won't be back until later tonight. Roderich's gone out too. We're out of groceries again and since we're running a bit low on money, he's going to stop at the bank to see if they will clear a cheque signed by me."
A faucet snapped shut and then came the reply:
A moment of painful silence ensued.
"Um, but I sort of have something planned. If you want to, I mean. Unless you'd rather, you know, do something else."
The oak door swung open with a soft click. Raising his downward cast gaze, Matthew managed a reassuring smile, one hand still toying with the brass doorknob.
"I would like that."
The closer they neared their destination the more stupid Alfred felt. He didn't let this fact known to his twin who was trailing meekly behind him through the narrow servant's halls. Finally, they stepped out into a wider corridor carpeted with a long threadbare carpet that might once have been a shade of red. Golden afternoon rays illuminated the faded wallpaper and closed doors through the window they sat in front of the previous night.
A strange misshapen contraption sat on the tiny hall table under the dusty sill.
As they approached, details came in focus but did not make it any more obvious to what it was supposed to be. Metal pipes jutted out of the complicated object, something that resembled a small tin robot made up the centre, and gave off a feeling that it might fall apart from a sneeze in its general direction.
"What is it?" Matthew inquired with genuine curiosity. A pale hand reached forward to touch it then withdrew, thinking better of it.
"It's a robot-music-box-pipe-thing-machine," Alfred explained, his cheeks burning red. "I made it when I was ten out of a-, well, exactly what the name says. Anyways…"
Probing the strange machine for the switch buried in a mess of decorative springs on the back.
"I think it should have enough power now…"
A sharp click and a stream of soap bubbles shot into the air, bursting against its creator's nose and mouth. Sputtering at the taste, Alfred stepped back as the lilting tune of Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star began, mid-verse. Rusty gears turned one way and then another, whether for some function or for pure aesthetics, no one knew. Tiny incandescent lights (one burnt out) flickered uncertainly inside the large round robot eyes as though confused on why a mass of unnecessary metal parts were soldered onto its body.
Sitting down with his legs crossed, Alfred gently adjusted the pipes, freeing one of the robot's arms which began to spin in jerky quarter-turns. There was some shuffling to his left, indicating that Matthew was joining him on the floor.
"I wanted to be an inventor when I was little after touring all the local laboratories. It was the first time anything caught my interest so strongly. For a little while anyways. I wasn't very good at it, as you can see," he added, finding the whole affair sillier by the second. When he had dug it out of the ancient toy chest in the corner of his room, his first instinct was to show it to his brother, to share the excitement of rediscovering old memories.
He had forgotten that they didn't have memories together that were old enough to be rediscovered. Just the thought of that sat heavily in his empty stomach. Their own father had denied them the chance to create such experiences. Perhaps it was a far too corny sentiment (reserved usually for the elder middle-aged) but it was regretful that they could not say simple things like "Remember that time when we were twelve? Good times." To Matthew, it was probably nothing more than a child's attempt at science, cute but useless and generally a waste of material and space.
"I think it's brilliant." Warm violet eyes twinkled with acute fascination, fixated on the irregular bursts of rainbow bubbles. "How does it work?"
The honest words transformed the searing embarrassment into glowing pride.
"It runs on sunlight. Absorbs it and stores it in a little battery-like thing. That's why I put it here for a while first so it could warm up. I'm amazed that it still works after so long actually. You see, I wanted to make a giant robot at first but Roderich made me to start with something small. So I tried to make a little robot but I couldn't get it to walk properly and after a while I gave up and then I found this music box in one of the other rooms and took it apart, except then I couldn't remember how to put it back together and I got to thinking, hey, I have a ton of bits and bobs, why not just put them all together? So I convinced Roderich to nick me a bit of…"
"What do you mean you can't do it?"
Several other patrons of the post office turned to stare unabashed at the source of the commotion. Flowing blond hair swaying gracefully with every shake of his head, Francis moved forward to stop his companion before the situation complicated itself enough to involve the authorities.
The tense shoulder under his hand twitched at his touch. At least he was no longer pounding the wooden counter so hard it shook from impact. The hand not curled into a white-knuckled fist was gripping a leather wallet.
"I-I'm sorry, sir, but I cannot accept your telegram," the terrified employee stuttered, eyes focussed on the rather distinguished pair of heavy-set eyebrows before her.
"And why, pray tell, not?" He had stood in the queue for hours in the blazing sunlight with only Francis and Madam-I-know-more-about-what's-good-for-you-than-your-mother-even-if-we're-perfect-strangers for company and he was not going to be denied after all the harassment he suffered to get to this counter. Arthur let out a low unyielding growl as he was gently but firmly pulled aside. The stern disapproving look he received was answered with one of his own.
"May I ask, miss, why you are refusing us customers services that are as stated on the door open to everyone?" The velvet tone of his voice and the proximity of his handsome face as he leaned over the blank forms prompted her to subconsciously reach up and smooth down her hair. "I can see this isn't a matter of money. Perhaps you've received specific orders keeping us from sending this telegram?"
"Who?" Arthur interjected sharply the moment she averted her eyes to avoid answering.
"I-I'm sorry, sirs, b-but I cannot accept your telegram…"
With a sigh, the Frenchman retrieved the note for transcribing and beckoned for his partner to follow him out.
"We should have known."
"What?" The amassed irritation evidently had not sufficiently dissipated. Following the path as directed by the pointing finger, his green eyed gaze settled on the signboard. Though not prominent, the 'Jones' curved into the wood was noticeable amongst the other family names that contributed to its opening.
"Ça m'étonne…" Francis tapped his bottom lip in a moment of mental calculation. "They've taken over quicker than I would have thought."
"This is not a time to be amazed, frog. I knew we should have done this earlier. All those days sidetracked by your little bonding activities while those money-grubbing lawyers were working to cut off our connections with Europe-"
"Now, now. That's no way to talk. Rehabilitating Matthieu is just as important as sorting out the legalities, if not more. Don't tell me you dislike the sweet boy."
"Of course not. He's a very nice lad, but-"
"-and this is just one minor setback to achieving our goal. They may play dirty to get what they want but they do not control everything," Francis said firmly, nudging the disgruntled attorney with his elbow good-naturedly. "Come, let us head back."
"I have a feeling this isn't going to end easily." He received a curious look and a chuckle in response.
"Since when has it ever?"
"…so I said to him, I said-, wait, did you hear something just now?" Alfred pressed a finger to his lips, straining his ears to pick up on the source of the noise he just heard. It couldn't be the robot since it had run out of power an hour ago after the sun shifted and cast the shadow of the large cedar outside into the hall. A few seconds later, Matthew's laughter subsided when he realized this wasn't part of the story.
"Perhaps you should try looking behind you." The two of them scrambled to their feet and turned to face the unfamiliar woman. Even in anger she was very pretty although the iron frying pan gripped in the slender fingers was no doubt alarming.
"You have some nerve, you know," she said, jabbing a finger harshly into Matthew's shoulder. The startled teen shrunk away with every sharp prod. "He was going to propose to me and then you had to go and call him back. Couldn't you have waited an hour or two? I waited years for him to come back and-"
Before she could get any further, Alfred stepped forward, thrusting a protective arm between her and his brother.
"Stop that, you're scaring him! If you have a problem with something, talk to me. But first of all, who the hell are you? What are you doing in my-, our house?"
Pulling back, she rose to full height with an air of utter defiance and mild contempt. "Ah, then you must Alfred then."
"Aren't you going to answer my question?"
"I don't have to take that language, young man," her gaze softened, catching sight of the shell-shocked blond behind Alfred. "I'm sorry, I didn't mean to scare you, dear. My name is Elizabeta, what's yours?"
"Hey, don't ignore me!"
Snapping out of his anxiety-induced stupor, Matthew peered up meekly, shifting to hide more of his body behind his twin. He answered barely audible, eyes fixed on his shoes.
"Matthew…" A warm motherly smile blossomed on her face, a hint of recognition in her expression.
"Oh! You must be the boy my Roderich spoke of; you're taller than I would have thought. I'm Roderich's Eliza," she added in hopes that it would help stimulate his memory.
"…the one who made the shirt and the handkerchief?" Reaching into the pocket of his trousers, the embroidered kerchief was retrieved, wrinkled and creased but clean.
"Yes, the very one. I hope you like them."
"Y-yes, I like them very much," he replied hastily, still unable to meet her eyes. "Um, thank you very much, Miss Elizabeta."
"Elizabeta is fine, dear."
"Hello? Can someone explain what's going on before my head explodes? Figuratively speaking," he appended the last bit when Matthew looked towards him with panicked concern. The once-recluse may be well-versed in metaphors and other literary devices half of which his twin brother couldn't even define but the ones Alfred and most common people used in casual speech were a touch less flowery and astonishingly crude.
"And you," Elizabeta said, her displeasure resurfacing in an instant. "I have a bone to pick with you, Mister Jones."
"What did I ever do to you?"
"For one, you called Roderich home early when he promised to stay for at least another two weeks, my word, the audacity of you rich folks these days, I'd never-"
"It's not like I asked my father to go off and get drowned to death at sea!"
An uncomfortable silence settled into the narrow hallway which steadily grew dim as late afternoon faded into evening.
"I'm sorry for your loss then-"
"Don't need any of that. Matt and I are better off without him in my opinion," he said tersely, waving it off. "More importantly, how did you get in here? You said you know Roderich-?"
"Eliza!" the interjection rang through the air, chiding but with a soft tender edge, followed by quick footsteps of heavy soled oxfords on threadbare carpets. "I thought I told you to wait at the servants' entrance-, oh, young masters, I apologize for the disturbance. She…she has not done anything…regrettable, has she?"
This Roderich said reproachfully as he spared a sharp glance at the tarnished cooking utensil in his would-be fiancée's grip.
"Nah, but she did freak Matthew out," said Alfred with undisguised disdain for the strange out-spoken female. "What's her business here anyways?"
"I brought her in to do the housework seeing as the maids have left us. I have mentioned this before, of course."
Tucking the frying pan under her left arm, she dipped into an elegant curtsey. The challenging twinkle in her deep green eyes however was highly noticeable as was the teasing angle to her smile.
"Pleased to work for you, Mister Jones."
"I would like to apologize about Elizabeta, young master."
"It's fine. If you think she's the right person for the job, I trust in your judgment."
"I do not know the whole story, however I know part of why her behaviour is…somewhat brash," Roderich began uneasily. He hesitated until Alfred nodded his head, prompting him to continue. "During my absence, our home town in the north was savaged by bandits. I'm sure you have heard about it."
Several years ago, the Upper North Territories suffered under bandit invasion after an unprecedented alliance among prominent groups of travelling bandit in the area where law was not as strictly enforced. The situation had quickly worsened, spurring major cities in the lower West to collaborate in dispatching police officers, mainly former soldiers, to assist their local militia. You didn't need to know how to read to know what was going down, paperboys were hollering about it on every curb while elsewhere folks milled around gossiping loudly about the happenings. It was easily the biggest news story of the decade.
"Law and order ultimately fell to the hands of the common people, those who weren't afraid to strain themselves, to lay their lives down and protect their township. The few wealthy families who resided in the north thusly grew out of favour. From then on, the militia became the source of power and authority, and in the eyes of the people, far more worthy of it. Elizabeta lived through this and, needless to say, she does not have a particular high opinion of nobility and the rich. Please understand this is a bias, an assumption she constructed from her current knowledge. She is a good person at heart and recognizes good qualities in others regardless of their income and heritage."
The firm look in his former tutor's eyes was enough to convince him. At the very least, the New American should give her a chance. The fact still remained that the mansion needed someone with expertise to tend to its dusty state and could cook a hearty meal or two without burning a third of the dishes. Besides, she did apologize to Matthew straight away after realizing her mistake. Alfred had almost snapped right then seeing her intimidating his younger brother almost to the point of terrified tears.
Snapping out of his revelry he gave Roderich a reassuring grin, clapping his shoulder in a friendly manner.
"I trust you, Roderich. You've done a lot for us already, and if you say you want her here, I wouldn't care even if she's a stuck up disciplinarian, okay, maybe I would a bit, but like I said I trust you on this. Anyways, we should go inside already. I bet everyone is starving waiting for us."
Cracking open the door to the servants' parlour, four heads turned towards the sound of their arrival.
"About time you two joined us, we were getting sick of waiting," grumbled Arthur, arms crossed over his chest, before adding, "not that we were waiting."
"Come, sit down! The food is getting cold and that would be a great disrespect to cette demoiselle-ci who prepared it for us all. Come, come!" Behind Francis's jovial visage, Elizabeta's smile looked a little strained. Even the Englishman's expression was flat. Although timidly, the barely noticeable wave from Matthew on the other side of the table put Alfred at ease.
"Well, don't let us keep you, dig in!" Mismatching dining table chair legs scuffed the carpet as they took their places. It had taken some getting used to after all the cushy ones he grew up sitting on.
"Manners, young master."
"I've been like this for years, Roderich. I'm not about to change, that's for sure."
"Sometimes, I worry whether that's a virtue or not."
Supper passed in relatively high spirits right up until the clinking of ceramics as Elizabeta and Roderich cleared the table. Daubing his mouth with the corner of his kerchief, Arthur glanced to his French partner for confirmation and cleared his throat.
"We, that is, Francis and I have something to say."
There was an exchange of looks across the table, most of them concerned to some degree.
"We regretfully must leave you for Europe as soon as possible. It seems our attorney friends down Main street have cut us off from the telegram system. It is unfortunate that it has come to this but there is no other way, the post will take far too long and there exists a possibility of sabotage. Of course, they cannot prevent us from leaving the continent through legal means. Arthur and I will retrieve the relevant documents related to this case and come back tout de suite."
"This…really cannot wait?" Matthew's voice was tiny and morose. His blond hair hung over his downward turned face. Having grown used to their presence, to hear that they must leave was disheartening.
"I'm sorry, lad. But time is of the essence. In order to restore your standing and your family's belongings back to their proper owners, legal matters must be processed before the Jones' solicitors snatch everything from under your noses. There may also be a need in the near future for Alfred to travel to Britain in regards to your father's overseas business. But all in due time."
"We understand, do you require travelling funds?"
"That would not be necessary, thank you all the same."
"When…when are you leaving?"
Francis seemed to deflate a little, a touch of reluctance in his expression seeing Matthew withdrawing into himself, unable to meet their eyes. Reaching over, the English attorney gave the boy a kindly pat on the forearm that only surprised him for a moment.
"I'm afraid we have to leave tonight, the sooner the better."
"Safe journey to the both of you."
"Thank you, Roderich. We'll come back as soon as possible."
"We will be waiting," the Austrian tutor said, peering down the vast hall for any sign of his ward. "Where is the young master? How could he skip out on seeing our guests off?" He tapped his foot impatiently at this development. Elizabeta was down in the kitchens, dealing with the aftermaths of their meal.
"It's fine. Let's get going, frog. And stop making that face, you were the one who booked the flight for this evening."
"Je suppose…," he sighed for the umpteenth time, running his fingers through the tangles in his blonde hair caused by the infrequent gusts of wind. "Please send the boys my farewells and au revoir."
As they turned to descend the stairs to the courtyard, a commotion stirred inside the mansion.
Shivering from the unfamiliar feel of the fresh evening breeze that seemed to crawl over his exposed skin, Matthew skirted towards the open door, grateful for darkness that obscured his vision. All the same, he kept his vision cast downwards and unfocussed, trying not to see more than he could handle. If he squinted, he could barely make out the faint outlines of the two men at the foot of the stone steps.
"Please be safe and return soon."
Smiling, they waved back up at him.
"But of course. Take care of yourself, lad." With that they continued across the gravel driveway and through the slightly ajar steel gate.
Startled by the hand on his shoulder, he flinched but allowed himself to be lead back further into the hallway, away from the looming presence of the outdoors. Alfred grinned at him and gave him a hearty pat on the back as Roderich swung the front door shut.
"See, you did it, didn't you? It wasn't so hard after all. I'm proud of you, bro."
Though still unnerved by the vastness of the outside world he barely glimpsed, Matthew felt a sense of achievement and terrified fascination. It wasn't an issue he could tackle very soon, but he would like to go outside someday.
"It was the least I could do."
A/Ns: Yay! And so the plot progresses a little (wait, this story has a plot?). I'm kind of wordy, am I not? Ah, well. I'm planning to expand a bit on Elizabeta's backstory in the future so if she sounds kind of unnecessarily rude at the moment, I hope it isn't distracting. Also, I haven't written those two (Eliza and Rod) very often (or at all, haha) so I'm still working on how to properly characterize them. If they seem out of character, I'm sorry. In the next few chapters, more characters will appear (whether as recurrent or not, we'll have to see). I can't remember what little French I used in this chapter but I tried to keep it simple and within context so it should be understandable regardless. If not, please go ahead and ask me what they mean (or google, haha).
Thank you for reading! If you have any questions, complaints, or simply want to share your thoughts, don't hesitate to drop a review!