Title: Beyond the Mountain Pass
Author: Zalia Chimera
Characters/Pairing: England, France, mild France/England
Summary: February 13th, 1960. France tests its first nuclear weapon. February 14th, 1960, England visits Paris to help pick up the pieces.
"The atomic bomb made the prospect of future war unendurable. It has led us up those last few steps to the mountain pass; and beyond there is a different country." - J. Robert Oppenheimer
February 14th 1960 – London
Arthur Kirkland speaking.
Hello? Who is this?
Look, if you don't answer then I'm putting the phone down.
France, is that you?
God, are you drunk?
…drunk? Non I… perhaps a little.
You sound rat arsed.
Rat arsed is for l'Anglais. I merely have a… a glow.
Jesus Christ, are you necking wine straight from the bottle?
Non. I would not be so uncouth. This is vodka.
France, you never drink vodka.
It was a gift. From Russia. It would be an insult to not drink it.
It's only just gone noon for you!
Look, are you in Paris? I'll come over. Be there in a few hours, as soon as I can get a flight.
France? France, answer me!
They tested the bomb yesterday.
Bomb? Wha- Oh god… France I-
I do not need your protection now. You or Amerique. I will not be left behind again. I will not be made obsolete.
France, we never-
France, please tell me where you are!
I… I do not feel safer, England. It was supposed to make me feel safer but I… I do not like this world we have made. I do not want to be hurt, but I do not want to be alone. I do not want to be able to cause such destruction, but I do not want to be destroyed. I-… I-…
I do not want to think anymore!
You aren't al-
It takes longer than England would like to reach France's Parisian flat, calling in favours and pulling rank on everyone from there to London, immigration officers to cab drivers.
The flat is not as grand as some of the places that France has lived; England remembers grand houses, his rooms at Versailles with the ornate mirror which hung full length down the wall. It had cost a fortune, that much glass, that much gilding. England has always been afraid to ask what had happened to it. This apartment looks very plain in comparison, despite being in the fashionable quarter of the city, although Paris changes so quickly that it will probably be considered a slum within the decade. The door is painted pristine white and England rings the bell and waits.
There is no response after several minutes and sore knuckles from rapping at the door, and England wonders whether France had been drunk enough to do something stupid which would involve ambulances and hospitals and then the inevitable calls to France's boss which England would hate because France's boss dislikes him immensely and the feeling is entirely mutual. He hopes that France has just passed out on the sofa or is ignoring him, but it is difficult for him to guess. France is unpredictable as the seas and this is far from a normal situation.
He sighs, rubbing a hand over his face tiredly. More of those weapons in the world.
Tentatively he tries the door and it opens easily beneath his touch, much to his relief. France hates it when he resorts to picking locks, says that he ruins them. The lounge, when he steps inside, is immaculate except for the large and empty bottle of expensive vodka on the cherry wood coffee table. None of that cheap paint stripper for France, and trust him to be neat even when completely plastered.
But there is no sign of France himself except for a startling crash from the direction of the kitchen. Just the sound makes England jump, heart speeding, and it is followed by profuse French swearing. England hurries to throw open the door, smells thick black coffee and burning. France is at the sink (white polished stone, he notices madly in the second it takes to view the scene), the water running over his hands. There's a pan on the floor, heavy cast iron, charred something stuck to the sides and at any other time there would have been a joke about France's cooking, but the whole scene is so wrong that the words die on England's lips.
"Merde!" France half turns to attempt to switch off the gas ring with his elbow to save the burning mess of meat and vegetables.
"Here, let me," England says, missing the way that France startles as he hurries to switch off the hob. The food is beyond saving, even by his standards, crispy black bits of onion and peppers, red skin blinking out like scalded flesh, and charred meat. He does see France shudder as he sets the pan aside, the other nation peering over to glance at the remains of his dinner.
"What are you doing here, Angleterre?" He still has his hands under the running water. England narrows his eyes, seeing the blisters and redness on the long fingers. France cooks when he is stressed, to lose himself in well known rituals, but this is hardly the picture of calm.
"After that phone call, did you really expect me to just ignore you?" It hurts to think that perhaps he did expect that. Their relations have not been the best recently, but he is trying.
France blinks, looks down at his hands. "Angleterre, I am fine. I have been drunk before." And he still is, if the slight slur to his words is any indication.
England gives France's burned hands a pointed look. "Not at barely noon you haven't been. And not while cooking."
France colours slightly, cheeks darkening from alcohol and embarrassment. "It is-"
"Sit down and let me see your hands," England replies firmly; tone giving France no room for argument, as he is already collecting the first aid kit from beneath the sink, a battered tin box relic of World War Two. France sighs dramatically and goes to sit at the kitchen table while England opens the box and pulls out cream and gauze. France sits silently as England smears the burn cream across his hands, not too deep thankfully, but painful and he has to bite his lip every time France hisses and makes the soft, hurt noises that England had hoped never to hear again.
France looks down at his hands, the gauze pads between his fingers, the bandages being carefully wound around them. "I have a meeting tomorrow," he says quietly, looking up at England with a pleading expression, like he expects him to make the burns go away through force of will. He really must be drunk. "I cannot face my boss like this."
"He's seen you in worse condition," England points out, just restraining himself from rolling his eyes. France and his ridiculous pride. "Why would he care about this?"
France chews his bottom lip pensively. "It is not wartime and I did this to myself. It is a shameful injury."
"Bollocks," England scoffs, touching France's wrist above where the bandages end. France flinches and England sighs, withdrawing his hand. "It was a sodding accident. Everyone's burned themselves while cooking at some point. I know I have."
A wry smile crosses France's lips. "Oui, but you are l'Anglais. It is expected of you."
"Your language is atrocious mon cher."
"My language is just fine for dealing with frogs like you. And you're dodging the issues."
France heaves a heavy sigh and gives England a look which is almost, but not quite, a pout. "I think that at times he is embarrassed by me," he admits, lips curved up in a sad little smile. "I think he wishes for a proud Marianne, unblemished by time and troubles. An ideal that does not fall or fail or mar their own body in a drunken stupor. He wants to make me strong, but I cannot change what I have always been."
England leans back in his chair, rubbing the bridge of his nose tiredly. "Sometimes I miss having monarchs as bosses. At least they had a lifetime to adjust to our quirks. And some of them were so cute as children."
France grimaces, fingers clenching on the tabletop. "Non, I think I like that my boss will change more frequently than a lifetime," he says after a moment's thought. "If I get a bad boss then I know that he will be gone after a very few years."
"You keep bringing them back though," England says, a faint smile lingering on his lips. It is rare that France speaks so openly about things which trouble him. England can only assume that the vodka has loosened his tongue somewhat.
"Sometimes the people wish for a hero of the past against the uncertainty of the future," France says without much conviction. "And the future is so very uncertain now, non?"
England has to agree. Once it had been an easy cycle. You warred, you had peace briefly, enough to rebuild your military power, you warred again. You could not be held to account save by a superior power and the dead numbered in thousands. And now? One flick of a switch and half the word's population was dead. Just. Like. That.
"You have the bomb now," England says quietly, meeting France's gaze as though he will be able to see some evidence of it there, a ring of deadly flame in the iris perhaps, but France's eyes are as unbroken blue as they have always been.
"Oui, I do," France replies, the slight tremor to his voice a crack in his outwardly calm expression. "I was there when it was detonated. I watched it, the cloud it created, the destruction. It was…" He breaks off with a shudder that runs through his whole body from his shoulders, and he drops his gaze to the tabletop, to his heat-damaged hands. "My boss says that it is good to have such a weapon," he whispers, fingers flexing, watching the bandages flex over his blistered skin. "He says that it will ensure that I remain powerful in the future, that I am not rendered some anonymous part of Europe to America and Russia, but I-" He falls silent, lips pursed together tightly as he thinks of how to voice his thoughts with any clarity. "I do not like having such a weapon," he says finally, cocking his head slightly to one side, eyes falling almost shut. "I saw what was done to Japan. I think I will never stop having nightmares of it doing the same to Paris, seeing my beautiful city burn."
"So tell your boss to shove it," England says with a dismissive tone that he hopes is more convincing than he feels. "You don't have to have it. The fewer of those things in the world, the better in my opinion. America and Russia already have more than enough." Because he has had the same dream, many time, except that in his London burns again and is never rebuilt.
France snorts softly, derisively, shaking his head. "It is easy for you to say that, safe on your island for centuries. You assured your position in the world when you… you did not fall," he says, his voice becoming harsh and hurt and it makes something in England's chest clench to hear it.
"France…" he whispers, reaching out to touch his cheek only to have France shake his head, giving him a wobbly smile. He drops his hand again, resting it on the table near France's, close enough to touch if he so wanted it.
"Non, it is not a rebuke, just- I only just managed to claw my way into the negotiations afterwards. I was so nearly just labelled as-" His lips twist down into an unhappy expression. "as spoils of war," he spits finally, bitterness in his voice. "To be occupied and administered again by America, by you, because I was not deemed capable of managing my own affairs. And I cannot allow that to happen again. I need to be recognised and for that, I need to be powerful. And yet…" He runs a hand through his hair tiredly, tugging at it sharply. "I am not very good at explaining when I am drunk I think."
"I get the gist of it, don't worry," England says with a lopsided smile. "I'll get you some coffee." He pushes himself to his feet, going to the coffee pot and grimacing at the congealed mess inside it. He empties it out into the sink, running the water into it to clean it before he started making the coffee.
"Ah, merci," France mumbles, folding his arms on the table, and resting his head against them. He peers through his hair at England, watching him with half closed eyes. There's no sound for several minutes except the clatter of England filling the pot and the hiss as he heats the water. It is all very domestic.
Finally though, France breaks the silence, his fingers tapping lightly against the table-top. "Do you think that you would use it?"
England turns around, leaning against the counter and regarding him with a frown. "If I had to, I suppose. I don't want it to ever come to that though." He's never really considered it much. Having the weapon is more about proving that he is America's equal than about having any intent to use it.
France frowns. "That is not quite what I meant. I think…" His frown deepens, and he chews his lip thoughtfully. "I think I mean that I know that I would have used it once, even if it was not necessary. If I had had it at the end of the war, I would have used it against Germany and... and I do not like that I believe I could do such a thing. Surely the deaths that occurred were enough! But I still think that I would have."
England does not reply immediately, busies himself with pouring the coffee, cream in his own, black for France because he probably needs it to sober up. He sets the mug on the table in front of France and sips from his own as he sits back down.
"After what happened then, I think I would feel the same," England says carefully, staring down at the coffee as though it will somehow give him the secret of dealing with France when he is in one of these moods.
"But it is not then," France says, brow furrowed into a rare expression of deep consideration. "I still believe that. I can think it with a clear head that is not clouded by anger. Germany is my dear ally now and yet I can imagine too clearly his skin blistering and burning, his voice screaming until his voice is gone, his pretty eyes burst and…" He stops, panting slightly, a wild, dangerous expression on his face that England remembers from the few times he had seen France before and during his revolution. It is an uncomfortable expression to witness, especially when coupled with such modern trappings.
"I…" France shakes his head violently as though trying to rid himself of the bad thoughts. "Non, I do not like it when my thoughts turn this way. But fifteen years is so little time and sometimes I wish that we had dissolved the entire country and left it dust." He huffs softly, pulling his head back from his face and leaning back heavily in his chair, eyes dropping closed. "People would think me vile, I am sure."
"They'd have us all hanged if they knew half of what we've done," England points out, trying to shake the image of Germany's broken body and he's glad that he doesn't often get these insights into France's psyche. It seems a very disturbing place even for one of them. "I do not think revenge is such a terrible thought to have. Desire for revenge seems a more human reaction than forgiving and forgetting and being best friends with someone who hurt you so terribly. We aren't saints."
France cracks open one eye and England is relieved to see a faint smile ghosting across his lips. "You are very pessimistic. I do not know why I thought that calling you would improve matters."
England snorts softly. This, this he can deal with. "You were completely pissed. I doubt you were thinking at all you wino."
"Rosbif," France mutters, finishing off his coffee and stretching. "I hate that these feelings can still control me. All of this," he gestured expansively, "these bombs and these wars, they make it all seem so very pointless. I had hoped…" he trailed off, shaking his head.
"What?" England asks curiously.
"You will think me foolish."
"I already think that you're foolish so you've got nothing to lose by telling me."
"I had thought that perhaps after everything, our people would be sick of war," France said wistfully.
"We said that after the first one," England replies, voice gone solemn for a moment. "And how long did that last? Not even twenty years and we got about ten seconds between the end of the second one and the start of this… this…" He gestures expansively. "This whatever it is that's the reason we have these fucking stupid weapons that we can't use anyway unless we want to have them used against us in turn." He frowns, rubbing his forehead. "I'm sure this stuff makes more sense when I'm drunk."
"Merde, I feel very old and very tired sometimes," France says, shaking his head at the ridiculousness of the situation.
"Well, you have got a few more wrinkles I think," England says slowly, looking at France between his fingers, the barest of smiles curving his lips.
France looks at him sharply, scowling, although his eyes have lost most of that terrible madness and his face is relaxed where before it has been drawn and tight. "Angleterre!" he snapped. "I am trying to be serious here. You are not helping!"
The smile shifts into a full blown smirk. "You're berating me for stupid crap instead of being all 'woe is me, I'm such a powerful country, my life is so hard!' so I think I'm helping rather a lot actually."
"…I hate you."
"Non. My kitchen is quite enough of a mess as it is. I do not need your failure as a chef to cause more damage."
England grabs both of the now empty mugs and went to dump them into the sink only to be brought up short by a hand wrapping loosely around his wrist. He turns to regard France curiously. "Merci, Angleterre," France murmurs, leaning up to press a feathery kiss against his cheek.
"Hmph. I just came because you had booze. Don't go thinking I actually give a damn."
"Of course not. I would not dream of it."