Disclaimer: I do not own Hetalia. I am merely a fan who appreciates the ingenious glory of such masterful tomfoolery.
Warning: Strong Language, Graphic Scenes, Gore, Violence and Character Death
Chapter Twenty-Five Characters:
-England/ Arthur Kirkland
-America/ Alfred F. Jones
-Germany/ Ludwig Beilschmidt
-Australia/ Gavin Scire (Non-Canon name)
-O.C./ Lance Corporal Lachlan Walker
Time Frame: World War I
-Never Your Hero-
"Dulce et Decorum Est"
Considering the infirmary cell he'd spent the past several days in, the desolate room shouldn't have felt so claustrophobic. He stood in the center of the large bunker straddling the waterway, meant for maintaining U-boats that sailed into the channel, and tried not to look up at the catwalk filling with armed German soldiers. It hadn't taken them long to find him, as he and Walker had anticipated, and now there was no going back on the plan.
The constant thundering of boot steps and men readying weapons at him made keeping his hands from going for the rifle on his shoulder or the pistol at his side a struggle, so he tried focusing on the cement floor beneath him and playing over again in his head what he needed to do. There hadn't been a detail he or Walker hadn't considered, but in his experiences life never seemed to like following a script. He clenched his jaw and fists in his effort to remain calm, and soon enough the noise began to settle.
The room, once cold and empty, was now far too hot and crowded. He was sweating and each drop that fell on his still tender wounds stung terribly. It occurred to him that using up so much energy threatening the hell out of Walker in his cell hadn't been the wisest idea, but at the same time it had gotten him the answers that had solidified his resolve to be here. While the Australians were searching for Arthur deeper inside the base, the bulk of the enemy was concentrated here on him.
This was how it had to be to finish this…and when it was over, he would owe Arthur nothing.
Like a parting of the Red Sea, the cluster of soldiers positioned on the ground level with him began making way for the largest presence in the room. The weight of him felt nearly identical to what he always remembered of being in the presence of the British Empire, but this manifestation was heavier with the cold burdens of industry and the kind of advancement that set him well above his elders. Alfred looked up at him now and felt the superiority of an empire pressing back against him, and immediately his old-seeded hatred for kings began to swell.
"You are an easy man to find, yet somehow an even easier one to lose," Ludwig stated, as he studied the American and made a flicking gesture with his hand. "Drop all of your weapons and kick them over to me."
"You shouldn't assume I'm here to negotiate," Alfred bit back, as he made no move to comply.
"Neither should you assume I am. Drop the weapons or I will take that as an indication that you want to be shot," Ludwig brusquely returned and reiterated his previous order. "There are no more chances, America."
After a tense moment of Alfred's continued defiance, the American finally let his rifle fall from his shoulder and pitched it at Ludwig's feet. His pistol soon followed, and then he grabbed the stick grenade at his belt and paused with it in his hand…
Ludwig's eyes locked onto it and every German around him tensed, especially when Alfred flipped it around in his hand to show that the safety cap keeping the delicate triggering mechanism protected was gone. "Should I throw this too?"
Finally sparing a moment to wipe the blood off his face, Walker turned back to Alfred for one last affirmation. "You understand that I can't back you up this time? What happens now is completely dependent on you."
Alfred avoided looking up and checked the rounds in his newly acquired Luger before nodding. "Yeah. Just hold up your end and I'll hold up mine."
Walker stood silently beside him for a moment before withdrawing the trench knife along his thigh and handed it hilt first to the American. "Take it. The German has a lot of stamina and you'll run out of bullets before he runs out of steam."
Alfred's mouth formed a hard line, as he accepted the weapon and sheathed it discreetly behind his back, wincing slightly when the handle brushed against one of his still healing abrasions. "How long until you and your commander can get Arthur out?"
"Scire is one of his Dominions, so it shouldn't take long for us to find him. But I can't start looking for either of them until I see your signal and can blow those charges," the Australian replied, taking a second to check around the corner to make sure it was still clear before looking back. "You remember where not to be standing when that happens?"
"I said I got it," Alfred snapped back. He hadn't recovered from his foul mood after Walker liberated him from his cell and the pair silenced those raising the alarm. They doubted they had much time until someone else noticed and raised another.
Regardless, Walker didn't have the patience for attitude. "Look, I don't know what kind of shape I'm going to find the pommy in, but if he's able enough to walk then I know getting him to cooperate is gonna be a lot easier if I know that you know what you're doing. You're not even close to being fully recovered yet and he's gonna know it, so don't fuck this up."
Alfred glared at him and seemed prepared to counter, but stopped short and just shouldered his filched rifle. Walker accepted it as Alfred's response and took a step to round the corner before Alfred's hand on his shoulder halted him. He looked back and saw Alfred staring hard at the ground, his jaw clenching, as the difficult words finally came.
"I don't agree with how you went about it, you or Arthur…but thank you. You've done more than most humans would have for any of us."
Walker didn't return the gesture and his expression of purpose never changed. It wasn't that Alfred seemed like he had wanted an appreciative response either, so Walker never gave one. Instead, he pulled a German stick grenade from his pack and tossed it to the American, who caught it and finally looked back at him without resentment.
"I'm not going to dignify my actions or be humanity's ambassador. If you want to thank me then do your job." Walker broke eye contact to look at the watch on his wrist, waited a few seconds and then looked back. "Go."
Ludwig appeared much more frustrated than nervous, and glared at Alfred, frowning. "Even if I believed you would purposely kill yourself, the damage you could do with that would be minimal."
"Maybe," Alfred replied and flipped the grenade in his hand again, making several soldiers behind Ludwig jump. "But then again, the multitude of these things armed and attached to the support structures beneath this hangar could easily do a hell of a lot of damage."
Looking at the German now, the American couldn't help but enjoy the sudden guardedness of the empire's expression; especially when this time he flipped the grenade, he saw real apprehension in his face. "Since we're assuming a lot here…I'm assuming that even you can't breathe underwater."
The German now looked incensed. "You're bluffing."
"No, just taking one from your book," Alfred replied then caught the grenade again, this time keeping it held tightly in his fist. "You remember, right? The little French village where you made your deal with Arthur…same place you shot my brother and left him for dead?"
He saw it the moment Ludwig began replaying the memory in his mind. Alfred had imagined what had transpired countless times since leaving Matthew and his unit to move on here to Belgium. Ludwig had taken Walker's pistol and shot Matthew in the neck, never once looking back as he crawled out from beneath the ruins of the church and disappeared. It didn't matter to Alfred if Ludwig had mistaken the Canadian for him or even that it had been a situation of war; Matthew was his brother, his blood…and Ludwig had done something unforgivable to him.
Standing before Ludwig for the second time in his life, Alfred realized that he hadn't found his motivation for being able to kill another of his own kind during the horrors of Passchendaele, or even after realizing the Allied commanders had betrayed him. It wasn't in having seen Arthur broken and bloodied on a stretcher in Arras or even in having been imprisoned here. No…it was in having felt his brother's blood pouring out onto his hands and knowing that it had been his fault for having hesitated.
For his brother having given him this chance, he wouldn't hesitate again.
"So, do you intend to hold me and my men hostage until you and Kirkland are released?" Ludwig cut in, watching the American cautiously.
Alfred stared back at Ludwig and without warning he grabbed the cord at the end of the grenade and pulled. "I thought I made it clear I'm not here to negotiate."
Most of the soldiers began to run when Alfred launched the explosive at the ceiling, but a few pulled the triggers of their rifles and fired. The bomb erupted and the shockwaves sent several men flying off the upper catwalk. The roof, not designed for taking hits from the inside, was blasted apart where the device made impact, and large chunks of brick and mortar fell into the space below. Smoke from fires licking along the wooden supports and hanging ropes coupled with the dust clouds filling the air. The hangar became a haze of noise, fog and frantic soldiers racing to assess the destruction and casualties, but it soon became apparent that the damage had been largely contained.
Ludwig, who had been tackled and shielded by one of his own men, began issuing commands to take control of the situation. He quickly leapt to his feet and cut through the cluster around him, immediately making his way to where the American had last been standing.
Though surrounded by debris, Alfred's downed body remained largely untouched. Judging by the fresh blood saturating his uniform he had clearly been shot, and Ludwig wasted no time in drawing his own pistol, as he took a knee and hauled the American up by his collar.
With his Luger pressed against the side of Alfred's head, Ludwig could barely restrain himself from screaming. "You absolute fool! Look around you and tell me what your bravado has brought you; tell me what you have gained for a few more wasted lives!"
Though the new wounds in his chest and shoulder were painful and his body was only sluggishly continuing to heal, he managed to grit his teeth, grab the trench knife behind him and growl out, "Time."
When louder explosions wracked the world beneath them, Alfred unsheathed the knife and buried it in the side of Ludwig's chest. The quakes caused by the detonations around the support beams blew out the foundations keeping the hangar anchored over the canal, and immediately the room began to tilt. Men went from trying to put out fires and move wreckage to scrambling to find something to hold onto. The noise of their screams and the building scraping against the barriers lining the canal were deafening, but far worse was the crash of the far wall impacting with the water – now quickly flowing into the room through the shattered windows and damaged floor.
Ludwig quickly latched onto Alfred's hand on the knife penetrating his lung and fought for control of it. Alfred wasn't letting go despite the pressure of Ludwig's grip and continued holding fast onto the knife and the German's gun arm, as his blood began lubricating a slickened path downward into the growing flood. Alfred used the advantage of gravity to pitch them both over and pin Ludwig to the deck while they continued to slide. The German, however, managed to roll Alfred during the descent but the move escalated into a tumble and before long the pair crashed into the rising waters.
It was like hitting a wall of ice and the near-freezing temperatures of the canal sent both men into shock, forcing Alfred to let go of the knife and Ludwig to lose his gun. But the German recovered first and used the advantage to slam one of his boots into Alfred's chest, sending him colliding into a fallen section of what had once been the catwalk. Alfred hit hard and agony exploded in his back, sending shooting pains radiating from the impact area and disorienting him. Ludwig was on him again and Alfred took a violent punch to the gut before being grabbed by the collar and repeatedly slammed back against the beams – Alfred's glasses being knocked off and lost in the process. Ludwig didn't stop until the wood fractured and the room jerked again.
The suction caused by the building sinking grabbed and began sucking them both under. Ludwig disengaged from Alfred to battle the current and when Alfred's senses returned to him he quickly latched onto the first thing he could and pulled. He hadn't realized it had been Ludwig's leg until he was almost face to face with the German, and immediately he drew his right arm back and slammed his fist into Ludwig's face.
Finally free of his assailant and the water, Alfred used the moment's reprieve to readjust to seeing without his glasses, grab onto the catwalk he'd previously been bashed against and haul himself up using the railings. He needed to stay on dry ground for as long as possible to keep any kind of tactical advantage, and right now he needed all the advantage he could get.
The adrenaline was the only thing keeping him warm as his body continued to bleed from bullet wounds and now one hell of a laceration on the back of his head. His right arm wasn't maintaining its strength well, and trying to pull himself up with it was a near useless endeavor. He used the spokes of the balustrade like ladder steps and pushed himself as far from the water as possible; unfortunately, Ludwig had the same idea.
The German had resurfaced and began clamoring up the banister after him. Alfred immediately rolled over the rail, braced himself against the floor and slammed his feet into the base of the catwalk, forcing Ludwig to grab onto what he could to steady himself. Alfred gritted his teeth and kicked again with all his strength, and this time the wood splintered and the boards of the walkway began to fold. Ludwig was nearly completely jostled back into the water, the surface of which was now licking his boots, when someone began shooting and Alfred was forced to stop and protect himself.
A German soldier, still hanging onto one of the large chains used for hauling boats out of the pen, had his pistol aimed and was firing at Alfred. With no cover but for the catwalk, Alfred tried to make himself as small a target as possible while Ludwig resumed pulling himself along the rail. The German positioned himself just above where Alfred was crouched and smashed his fist through the weakened wood, grabbed the American's neck, and yanked him up through the floorboards.
The sharp points of the wood ripped through portions of Alfred's uniform and along his skin, but that was the least of his concerns when Ludwig's hands on his throat began to squeeze. It was only by the grace of God that the adjacent rail Ludwig had been using as a foothold buckled beneath their combined weight and the two plunged back into the water.
The icy chill wasn't as much of a surprise this time, and Alfred became the first to recover by thrusting his arms up between Ludwig's, breaking his hold. Making use of his sounder left side, Alfred delivered a left hook across the German's face and sent him coldcocked beneath the waterline.
Given his state and weaponless situation, Alfred was grateful beyond words for still retaining some semblance of his inhuman strength. However, he knew his gift would give out long before the German's healing abilities. Right now he had to get out of this building before it finished sinking and find a weapon.
He knew Ludwig wouldn't be done with him yet.
His hand had just touched the frigid door handle when the childish exclamation stopped him. He turned back and the sight of the small boy bounding down the hall made him smile. It was still a marvel how his dearest treasure…always seemed to be running after him and never away.
"Dad," the child called again, slightly out of breath with his sky-blue eyes wide and frantic, as he looked back at him. "Dad, where are you going?"
Arthur sighed. Sometimes he thought Alfred had such a selective memory and only retained the things he wanted to hear. They had already talked about his inevitable departure before…it wasn't anything either of them could help.
"Alfred, my lad, why do you ask questions to which you already know the answer?" he replied, though his tone was softly chiding with the same undertone of sadness he felt inside.
The boy looked as though he might cry and stood before his elder, nervously squeezing his tightly clenched hand against his chest and biting the inside of his cheek. He was trying so hard to keep that stiff upper lip his mentor always talked about and failing miserably, but Arthur held nothing but endearment for the effort.
"C-can't I…go with you, dad?" he pleaded, his voice wavering.
For the first time, Arthur felt his heart seize and he swallowed back the pain rising in his chest. He quietly shook his head and after a moment knelt before the child and kindly raised a hand to wipe a stray tear that fell down his boy's young face. "No, my lad…I'm sorry, but this is a place you're not ready for yet."
Silently, he prayed Alfred never would be…though knew how foolish a prayer it was.
Alfred then seemed to give up his lost fight and let the tears fall freely, latching onto Arthur's hand placed against his cheek and sobbed. "Please, please dad, don't go," he pleaded with all his being, tightening his small hands around Arthur's. "I'll be alone again and I don't want to be."
Words had left him and truly none of all of the many languages he mastered had an apology deep enough and sincere enough to ease the broken heart before him. His tear-soaked hand slid behind Alfred's head, threading through his fine golden hair, and drew him close. Alfred immediately clung to him, as the man wrapped his other arm securely behind the boy, embracing him tightly, and rested his brow atop Alfred's head. The small body in his arms wracked with sobs and tears stained the front of his uniform, and all Arthur could do was quietly hold the child…and remind himself that this was the price he had paid…
He had to go…so Alfred wouldn't have to.
Eventually, Alfred seemed to tire himself out and his sobs eased. He sniffled and kept his face nestled against his caretaker's chest before taking the calming breaths needed to speak again. "Is it…scary, where you're going?"
Arthur gently combed his hand through Alfred's hair, soothingly rubbing his back with the other. "It can be…but not to me. It's just someplace I have to go until its time for me to come home again."
Alfred snuffled and finally lifted his head to look up at Arthur above him. Large and shining sky-blue eyes met weary green, and slowly hope began to return. "Home here…or back to the place you come from?"
The Brit smiled and gave a soft chuckle, moving his hands to settle on the boy's shoulders, as he touched his forehead to the lad's. "Home is wherever you are, my dear boy," he said and gently cupped Alfred's face, drying the tear tracks with his thumbs. "You're the only proof of goodness in me and the only reason anyone would let me come back…"
Alfred's brows furrowed and he leaned into Arthur's touch as he tilted his head. "How long will you be gone? When will you come back?"
In all honesty…Arthur didn't know. He never knew. But looking into those sky-blue eyes he felt compelled to give him an answer, some kind of answer that a child would understand. He averted his gaze, as he continued stroking his face and lapsed into silence.
Finally, Arthur looked back at the boy and stilled his hands. "Alfred…can you just trust that I will return? No matter what it takes or how long, I'll come back, just as I always have. You're a strong lad and more self-sufficient than you give yourself credit for," he said and gave his ward a reassuring smile. "Never doubt yourself and how strong you are. I'm so proud of you, my boy…if ever you need to believe in something then believe in that and my promise that I'll always come back for you."
Arthur finally managed to get that smile he so loved. He knew how much it meant to Alfred that he be proud of him, and that it was why he tried so hard in all he did. He could honestly say that Alfred had never failed once in his life because the boy never accepted the concept of failure, he just got back up again and tried harder.
He hoped with all his being that he never lost that quality. Looking at that small face now and knowing that someday it wouldn't be so small…that the life his boy would live would be a long and hard one…he hoped time never stole Alfred's spirit. He hoped it wouldn't break this child as it had done to him so long ago.
A knock at the door pulled him from his thoughts and he watched as Alfred's expression suddenly fell. They both knew this was goodbye.
Alfred swallowed hard and grasped his father's hands tighter; his breath hitching as he tried to speak. "You have to promise…swear it now that you're not going to die."
Arthur suddenly froze and couldn't tear his eyes from Alfred's. "What?"
"Promise me!" Alfred repeated with urgency, eyeing the door behind the Englishman when the knocks began to sound again. "You can't let me fail you, you have to live!"
Arthur was thunderstruck and couldn't believe what he was hearing, "Alfred, pray you lad, calm down, what has – "
Cool air rushed by his face as cautious hands brushed the side of his neck. The fingers against his skin were warm and it was hard not to fall into their touch.
A hand on his chest, too large to have been a child's, pressed against him and he felt the world beyond him moving. The most horrible sense of vertigo overcame him and gravity took hold. Someone carefully cradled his head but he couldn't see whom in the darkness. An odd thought that this state of inertia was protecting him took root…and he began falling away from feeling again…
The knock at the door sounded even louder this time, but Alfred screamed and Arthur could focus on nothing else.
He came back to his body, as if he'd been jerked mid-free fall. Light, sound and smell bombarded him and immediately his body collapsed beneath the burdens of being alive. A man in front of him was trying to keep them both steady, but Arthur's sudden movement knocked him off balance and the two fell hard to the floor. Someone grabbed him from behind, still being unusually careful, and instinct took over where conscious action was failing. He began blindly reaching for his hip where he would have kept a sidearm, but someone grabbed his hand and immediately stayed it.
He felt the urge to struggle but was so tired and the veil over him seemed impossible to lift. His body throbbed with terrible pain, most of it radiating from his side, as he tried to resist the weightless, incorporeal temptation submitting to the darkness promised. He wanted so badly to be free from the pain, the weakness, and the disorientation…
His breaths became calmer…shallower…
"Kirkland, I'm trying to help you so stop insulting me."
Opening his eyes had become the most difficult task of his life, and the more he fought to wake the more he began to dread the suffering of existence. He tried taking a deep breath but his lungs spasmed and blood spewed out of his mouth, spilling at an even faster rate as he was quickly rolled over.
"Shit, how does he have anything left?"
"He didn't until you got here. Keep his head and body as elevated as you can, he needs to keep breathing if we wanna get him out of here."
Arthur couldn't make sense of anything except for the awful dizziness when he was lifted and leaned back against something warm and solid. There was more pressure at his side again, but now he was latching onto the pain for all he was worth. The more pain he felt the more awake he became, and soon he was able to open his eyes and found only blurred images and flickering lights.
Suddenly someone placed an arm around his head to shield him before shouting, "Heads down!"
The world shook violently and dirt showered them from crags in the ceiling. The debris particles caught in Arthur's mouth and throat, causing him to cough, and his body wracked with the effort. The arm protecting him moved behind his neck to steady his head and keep him from falling back.
"I thought you said there were only supposed to be five charges," the man holding him quipped.
"Those explosions weren't mine. Someone must have blown the door we blocked."
There was a tense silence and Arthur gave up on his sight to focus on trying to speak. He coughed and spat out more blood before clearing his throat. "What's happening?" he managed to rasp.
"We're gonna be getting you out of here, so stay with us since there's no use in going to all this trouble for a corpse," said the man in front of him, and Arthur felt that he should know this voice. "Kirkland, it's really important that you tell me if they injected you with anything. Can you remember?"
For a while he couldn't. He must have drifted out again before a slap to his face startled him back. It wasn't enough to overpower the hurt everywhere else in his body, but it was a shock that made him more alert.
"Yes," he finally stated, as his last encounter with his German counterpart came to him. "Alfred…he knows – "
"Let's focus on getting you out of here first," the man interrupted, and the person behind him began to pull him up.
The move stretched Arthur's side to the point he felt he might rip in two, but someone quickly moved in to flank him for support. Arthur let his arm be pulled around his rescuer's neck and tried not to scream for all the pain he was in. He wasn't sure how, but he managed to keep his feet under him and barely maintain some of his own weight and dignity.
He could feel his body struggling to repair itself, but it was so slow…
Then he remembered: he was temporarily human now.
"Scire, stay with him and I'll take point. The boat isn't far once we're topside but I can't say how much resistance we'll have to put up with."
Scire…Gavin? The familiarity of the presence beside him now made sense and instantly he made the connection to the identity of the other man.
"What about America?" Gavin – Australia – asked.
A surge of urgency hastened Arthur's memory recall and immediately he gripped the shirt of his Dominion tighter. "Where is he? Ludwig knows…he'll kill him."
For a moment he thought his voice might have failed him, but it soon became apparent that neither man was answering on purpose. The realization pooled like ice within him and he finally managed to lift his head and capture Walker in his hazy vision. The other didn't even have the decency to look at him. "You gave me your word. Where…is…he?"
"He'll meet us at the dock, and we need to concentrate on getting there before our window closes," Walker sharply replied before he was quickly out the door to clear the path up ahead.
Arthur clenched his fists and jaw, feeling fear for Alfred growing and beside himself with frustration because there was nothing he could do about it. What was happening to Alfred right now? Had Ludwig already found him – …was he even still alive?
"Hey, once you're secure in the boat, Walker and I intend to go back for America."
Arthur looked back up to the Dominion supporting him and realized just how long it had been since the last time he'd seen his former colony. Gavin was young and looked it, with wild brown hair and a sun-kissed dusk color to his skin. His eyes were the same pale meadowy green of the life-giving fields of his lands, which were so few in comparison to his vast deserts. The young man was usually energetic and fit, but after so many months in captivity he looked lusterless and thin.
A sense of guilt began to rise at that. As his Dominion, Gavin's wellbeing was his responsibility and he hadn't even known of his fate until Walker revealed to him what the commanders should have. It had been plaguing him since his escape from Arras and even now he could not deny that he had utterly failed Gavin, as he had Matthew...
If they couldn't save Alfred…he would have failed him too.
"I will properly thank you…when this is over," he replied at length.
His Australian ward scoffed, but still managed that arrogant grin that had so annoyed his sovereign in the past. "It's because I owe the guy, not because I like you; so hold it together and we can talk about you owing me later."
Gavin's grip on him tightened and he began pulling Arthur out the door. The Brit initially faltered when the awkwardness of walking overcame him, but the Australian managed to hold him upright and keep moving down the hall after Walker.
Arthur saw the bodies of the two soldiers, who must have been guarding his cell along the way and tried not to think of Alfred's situation at the moment. It was hard to bear the thought that he might have failed him.
Having finally reached one of the shipping chains dangling from what had once been the ceiling, Alfred managed to painstakingly climb up to one of the scaffolds still hanging from the support rivets. The bunker was more than half submerged now and had only temporarily stopped sinking, as one of the sides had caught on the foundational pillar of another bunker. He had to admit that he was partially grateful for that, as trying to get out of here with only one arm and no glasses was a slow process; but he really needed to speed this up somehow to make it back to the boat where Walker said they were supposed to meet – provided he got there in time.
Walker had made it clear that the boat wasn't going to wait for him. If he didn't make it before things got too heated, he'd have to find his own way back to friendlier shores.
His motivation in mind, Alfred took another deep breath and kept climbing – his goal being to reach the other end of the hangar and get back to the shipyard as quickly as possible. He was nearly to the next chain he needed to climb when a bullet struck the rung above his hand. He turned and saw the same soldier who'd been firing at him before still clinging to the chain now adjacent to him. The man had apparently reloaded and was determined to finish the job.
Alfred completely let go of the chain and dropped to the platform beneath him before the next shot went off. He took cover as he continued looking for something to defend himself with – a rifle, pistol, something!
What he got was a steel wrench tied with a safety cord to one of the scaffold railings, but it was better than nothing.
Still under fire, Alfred quickly untied the cord and tested the weight of the tool in his left hand. He was more accurate with his right, but he'd have to make do and pray he hit the right blur trying to kill him.
He waited until there was a break in fire before springing up to his knees, and with all the power he could muster, launched the wrench and heard the sickening crunch of bone before watching the soldier's body fall into the waters below. It didn't feel good to have had to kill him but Alfred tried not to think about it as he started ascending the chain again.
He only just managed to pull himself onto the last scaffold before the monstrous groan of the building's makeshift support gave way and suddenly began to tilt again – this time on its side. Alfred scrambled to brace himself as the bunker began rolling further into the canal and latched onto the handrails of the scaffold before he was nearly pitched over it. The wall across from him slammed into the water, which began its invasion almost immediately. The windows that hadn't already been broken shattered under the pressure and even more water began gushing in. The added weight to the building began dragging it under faster, and soon it was almost completely on its side with Alfred barely hanging on above the churning waters.
Panic welled inside of him as he looked between the horror below and back up to his only ticket out of here, which was now completely out of his reach. The platform had swung away from the wall and now left him dangling like a fish on a line above the sea. He quickly began looking for a new escape route when the chain beneath him jerked hard enough that he almost slid off the platform. He crawled to the edge and looked over to find someone scaling the chain below him.
He didn't need his glasses to know it was Germany, he could sense the furious empire even in this chaos.
With the waters rising quickly Alfred tried grabbing onto the chain again, but his strength really had left him as he had feared. He had started this insanity before he'd been fully recovered from what happened the night he was reunited with Arthur, and the new injuries he had gained since hadn't helped his cause. He could tell the German wasn't in the best condition either, but he was still healing at a much faster rate…
Alfred hadn't wanted to use the serum Walker had given him because it didn't seem fair. In spite of everything, he couldn't bring himself to cheat against the German with something as underhanded as poison, but trapped as he was now…fairness seemed the least of his concerns.
Alfred reached down to the pouch on his belt and unbuttoned the flap when Ludwig grabbed the first handrail and began hauling himself up. Alfred quickly went to grab the loaded syringe when a shard of glass stuck him. His heart stopped when he felt the broken applicator through the cloth and realized his last-ditch opportunity was gone.
The German was over and onto the platform before he looked back up, but the American had just enough sense to get to his feet before Ludwig lunged at him. Alfred saw a fist coming towards his face and quickly caught it with his left hand, but he never saw Ludwig's other aimed at his stomach.
The trench knife plunged into him without resistance and Alfred's eyes widened in shock.
Time seemed to slow and his mind narrowed only to the sensation of pain in his stomach and the empire standing before him. He took a shuddered breath before tensing when Ludwig angled the knife deep beneath his sternum as he stepped forward. The German wrest his hand from Alfred's weakened grasp and grabbed the American behind the head, taking hold of his hair, as he felt Alfred's legs begin to give out.
Alfred couldn't seem to breathe deeply enough anymore, as Ludwig leaned in and hissed in his ear, "This is what should have happened on the roof that day. So many lives could have been spared."
Alfred remembered…He remembered his stupidity in trying to spare any more of Matthew's unit by sending them away and leaving himself exposed. He remembered being pinned down in that house and Arthur, seemingly back from the dead, saved him. He remembered the tower and meeting his target for the first time – the man now killing him. He remembered having the man in his sights and couldn't pull the trigger because he didn't think he could live with killing so many through him.
It had nearly cost Arthur and Matthew their lives…he had completely failed them then…
He had completely failed them now.
The very notion of it was killing him faster than the knife in his gut. He blindly reached out and grabbed onto the German's uniform, but could do little more than use it to support himself. Ludwig let go of the knife handle and grabbed Alfred's hand on him, pulling it away as he let go of Alfred's head and stepped back in anticipation that he would fall.
But Alfred kept to his feet and with one last bit of strength and insanity, wrenched the knife out of his stomach, swung his arm back and brought the blade down through Ludwig's throat.
Blood exploded over his already red-stained skin, as he fell forward into Ludwig, who was struggling to dislodge Alfred and the knife. But Alfred wouldn't let go and felt strangely calm…He managed to wrap his other arm around the German and take hold of his shirt from behind. His body was beginning to feel lucid and he felt so far away from himself…
A strange thought occurred to him then and almost made him laugh.
"I've never…died before. But I remember thinking that if I did…I wanted to…be able to see the sky…" he breathed, his hand finally relinquishing the knife so his other arm could reach around Ludwig and hold him closer to his own dying body. "Only…one way to do that now."
With Ludwig's blood pouring over his face and neck, while his own saturated the German's middle, Alfred leaned back and let himself fall over the rail. He didn't remember hearing a single sound until they hit the water, but he did remember looking up and seeing the blurry sight of a window open to a view of the waning night. He kept his eyes on it until the bloody waters clouded his vision.
It was the last thing he remembered before the powerful current pulled him under…and then the world was mercifully gone.
He opened his eyes again to the night sky and this time he could see it all: the stars, planets, even the moon full and bright above him. He was lying in lush green grass wearing a uniform that didn't burn his skin or weigh on his soul. He smiled and knew his colors were there on his sleeve without looking…it was the only natural burden of war he ever wanted to feel.
He took a deep breath and closed his eyes, smelling all the wonderful scents of his land: wildflowers, elm, juniper, and mountain air. He could hear the soft breeze blow and feel it brush along his skin in a gentle welcome home.
He was content…it was peaceful here.
"This was always the best part about dying...for a little while, you get to go home."
Alfred wasn't startled by the voice of the man lying on the ground next to him, and turned his head to see Arthur dressed in his fatigues, also staring up at the sky.
"Is this what you saw each time too?"
The Englishman closed his eyes and shook his head. "It's different for all of us…for me, it has changed a lot over the centuries. Sometimes I'd wake up in the woods of my lands when they were still young, and others it would be beside the Thames in a time before London got its name…Not long ago I used to wake up in a modest home outside of Boston and there was always a little boy there happy to see me."He said with a smile and kept his eyes closed, as if holding onto the memory. "I still think that one is my favorite."
Alfred swallowed and thought he should be sad, but for some reason he couldn't register that emotion properly. He still felt calm and relaxed, and there was an added happiness in having Arthur here. Still…
"Is this real right now…? Are you really here with me?"
Arthur chuckled at that and finally reopened his eyes, as he turned his gaze on Alfred. "Reality is a little different for the dead. When we die, our spirits go back to where they were born so that our nation can make us whole again. What you see here is a reflection of what you consider home…it's where you'll stay until it's time to go back."
Alfred thought about it and ultimately accepted this answer. He normally would have asked a million questions and likely have been more scared about the thought of being dead, but he couldn't seem to find it in him at the moment. He was just so glad it didn't hurt anymore and he wasn't alone.
With this thought in mind, he reached over and took Arthur's hand lying in the grass beside him. He squeezed it tight and smiled when the gesture was returned in kind. He was happy now, and let the words flow without all the pride and bitterness of life holding him back.
"Then it makes sense that you're here…I'm glad to be home again."
To Be Continued...
Notes from the Author:
Hello again everyone and thank you for returning with me after 3 months of idleness. I want to first apologize for that before announcing that there's only one more chapter of this story to go before this story is complete. Though this chapter did a complete 180 from its original outline and surprised even me, I'm proud with the results and realize that to have done this any other way would not have done proper justice to the characters. I hope those who had been banking on Alfred walking away from this with his life will understand and forgive me for the heartbreak, as my own broke too while writing this. The lad has and always will be my love and joy in this fandom, and his relationship with Arthur on all levels is something I deeply cherish. I also ask that the Ludwig fans out there know that I did my upmost best to preserve his morality and dignity in this story, as I too am a great admirer of his incredibly complex person. To my Australia fans and readers, I know I only gave brief glimpses into my head-canon for the avatar of this really awesome country but hope they were satisfactory and ultimately worthy of what you would expect. To all the Walker fans…his story will be concluded in the next chapter, along with the end to this era in the "NYH universe". :') I cannot thank you all enough for your patience and support while bringing this chapter together. It has been a long and arduous challenge, but in the end…I couldn't be happier with it.
I wish to extend a special thanks for my Beta, the Cap'm, for helping me to meet my deadline of June 12th, which would be my birthday. :') I'm sorry my reverse birthday present to you all had to be a boat load of feels aboard the ship of war, but hopefully you all won't resent me too much for that. I would also like to thank my darling and beloved Pie, who has been nothing but supportive and wonderful through my struggles with this chapter. Rest assured, many tears were shed in its creation.
On to the notes section, and I shall warn you ahead of time that they won't be too long.
-The port I so lovingly destroyed in this chapter is based off of the Port of Bruges-Zeebrugge off the coast of Belgium, which during WWI was occupied by the Germans and used primarily as a U-boat pen. In just under four months time from the events depicted here, the port that inspired my fictional one will be due for the infamous Raid of Zeebrugge, which was considered a major naval victory for the British and turning point for the Allies. It wasn't hard to find details of the battle that ultimately overturned control of the port, but holy crap was it difficult to find pictures and schematics of anything before it! The U-boat pens of WWI have long since been eradicated from Belgium, however this port still exists and remains fully functional to this day.
-The reason Ludwig and Gavin keep addressing Alfred as "America" instead of by his human name is because of my head-canon that addressing a nation by his or her human name is very intimate. Its also in my head-canon that most nations don't know each other's human names unless the nation in question tells them, then allows others to address him or her as such. Ludwig and Arthur are more familiar with each other and will call one another by their human names (their monarchies are historically and presently related by this time period - in fact, the reigning monarch of the British Empire in WWI was the Kaiser's cousin), and of course Arthur's Dominions have privy. But as America, and thus Alfred, is a very isolationist nation at this point in time, pretty much NO ONE in the international community knows his human name (aside from Arthur, Francis, Matthew and Antonio...the latter of which is actually a pretty funny story that I'll get into in a short at some point).
-The caption for the chapter here, "Dulce et Decorum Est", is actually from the poem of the same name, by Wilfred Owen. This poem was one I dissected in high school and again in college and will never forget. If you have not read this intense and very heart retching WWI era poem…then I highly recommend you seek it out. ): I will say now that if you have read it, you hopefully understand why I choose to reference it so. For a translation of the Latin verse: "It is Sweet and Right".
-This has been a very long and complex fic, and with this chapter there has been a lot of full-circling. So I will refer many elements seen here that I would normally explain in my notes to chapters and fics where I have already done so:
*U-boats: Chapter 2
*Stick Grenades: Chapter 7
*Alfred and Ludwig's First Encounter: Chapters 16 – 17
*The House in Boston: See fic "Home of My Smile"
*The Symbiotic Relationship between Dominion and Empire: Chapter 18
*The Humanizing Serum: Chapter 24
*Alfred's Memory of His Last Life's Wish for the Sky: Chapter 19
*Parallels to Alfred's Elysium: Chapter 12 & Chapter 21
This, my friends, concludes this latest and second to last installment of this story. It has been almost 3 years since I first brought this epic into the world and it truly has become like my baby. This universe and all its complimentary stories mean so much to me and I have been very happy and blessed to be able to share them with all of you. Thank you all for the reviews, favorites, subscriptions; likes on Tumblr and fanart many of you have given me. :') This has been one hell of an experience and I wouldn't trade it for the world. To all of you, my fantastic readers, I wish you all the best and hope to bring you one last hurrah for "NYH" and many, many more stories to come.
Sincerely and with all my heart,
General Kitty Girl / Kelbora