He goes to war with a bounce in his step, a tune on his lips, and a promise to be home soon.
Of course, it doesn't go that way.
"War is hell," grunts one of the other men, dragging the fallen body of a companion.
"War is hell," sighs one of the lovely nurses, hands covered in the blood of a dying man.
"War is hell," laughs a lieutenant, deranged from the loss of his squad.
"War is hell," he writes his sweetheart and shoulders his gun.
After nearly two years, Alfred manages to make it home.
Home is a house in Kansas, white-washed with a little red brick pathway running up to a brightly painted front door.
Home is his Ma and his Pa, and his brother Matt. It's pancakes on Saturdays and meatloaf on Wednesdays, and trips to the movies Friday evenings with the girl from down the street.
Alfred walks up to the bright front of his home, but he can't bring himself to knock. So he stands there, fist lifted, gazing dumbly at the door.
He didn't tell them he was coming back.
Home is apple pie on the windowsill, and baseball, and the sound of plates crashing sounds too much like the rat-a-tat-tat of guns, the gasp of a woman sounds too much like a wheezing, desperate gulp of air, and the arms wrapping themselves around him feel too much like an enemy.
Alfred launches himself away, stumbling onto the too-green grass of the front lawn.
It's his mother, remains of a glass casserole dish by her pretty, patent leather shoes.
"Al—fred?" She asks, like she isn't sure that the frightened, skittish boy in front of her is the same self-proclaimed hero who left.
Alfred isn't though. He's changed. Saw too much death and caused too much death.
But his mother wouldn't understand that.
Alfred staggers, balancing himself on his feet, "Hey, Ma." He says, smile weak, "I'm a hero."
It'd been his dream, growing up. In youth it manifested itself in simple ways, taking the form of rescuing kittens from trees and defending Matt from bullies. When the war started, he signed up without question, eager to protect the country he loved.
But now, he's a real hero, with a real medal to prove it.
Except he doesn't feel so heroic anymore.
Matt's the first to notice something's up with him.
It's not surprising. Matt's always been the observant one out of the pair.
There's a knock outside his door. Another. Another. Knock, knock, knock, forming a rhythm that makes him curl up into a ball on his bed, pillow tucked soundly around his face.
It goes silent, blessedly silent and then a soft, "Alfred?"
"You're not…okay, are you?"
Alfred thinks about that one, turns it over in his mind a few times and feels the sharp edges of reality and sees the blood and the gore spread out in front of him, played out again and again on the blank white of his ceiling.
"I don't know," is the only honest answer he can give his brother.
Matt's his twin. Matt's Matt. Smart and dependable and nice. All great qualities to have.
But somewhere along the way, Matt lost his voice when Alfred found his.
It's not to say that Alfred was liked better—he was—or that he was more favored—the truth is vicious—but Alfred was Alfred, bright like the sun and just as beautiful. And if Al was the sun, then Matt was the moon, pale and only seen when in his presence.
Al loves Matt, he does.
But Matt's a sad, whispering version of himself. A ghost.
And Al's always been afraid of ghosts.
Life is hard to adjust to, when all you see is red.
Life after the war is hell, Alfred thinks and tries not to cry when the milk in his cereal takes on a darker hue and thickens on his tongue.
Because that's a lie. It's not blood, it's milk.
Milk that congeals in the back of his throat and chokes him with each forced swallow.
Around him, his family speaks of normal things. It's almost winter and Matt's talking about bringing out his hockey gear. His Ma brings up the church event, all the ladies coming together to do a fundraiser, to which his Pa groans good-naturedly.
It's so normal and picturesque and he cannot fall for it, it's a lie, there's something more to it.
There are bombs a world away and bullets. Blood in the streets and the fields and crying mothers and brothers dead and fathers gone.
And he's sitting here, in peace, dreaming about that.
There's something very wrong with Alfred.
He goes on a date with his old sweetheart. Elizabeth, who waited and wrote to him, who clutched him tight and cried into his shoulders when he said he was leaving. Who made him promise to come home.
The conversation stops and falters before it can even start.
"Al," she says, taking a hand. "Are you okay?"
And that's the end of the date, because he pushes himself away, fist raised threateningly.
And she's staring at him in horror, cowering before him.
Alfred runs all the way home, and tries not to think how familiar those eyes looked, staring at him. Tries not to remember the rush.
Elizabeth always did look better on the arm of Rod anyway.
At night he chokes on air, which sits heavy and cloying in his lungs.
He pushes himself up from the bed, stumbles into the bathroom and vomits, heaves out all of his dinner into the toilet. And then he sobs.
Long sobs that rack his body, that shudder out of him and leave him raw to the world. He cries for the death he saw, for the loss he incurred, for the people he could not save. He cries for those he killed and those he left to die.
Al cries long into the night, alone in the bathroom.
It's Matt who finds him, in the morning.
Who picks him up and tucks him into bed and takes off his glasses so he can't see the shadows of the past crawl up on his wall.
"Yer a good bro'ther," he tells him, sleep dragging his words and slurring them.
Matt strokes a hand through his hair and hushes him, telling him "Go to sleep, Al."
It's sound advice.
Matt always was the smart one.
His dreams are vivid.
He dreams of a swing set and of the park only a couple of blocks away. Alfred goes up to it, and takes a seat. Pushes his feet into the dirt beneath them and rocks back and forth.
He hears, rather than sees, a person take the seat next to him. Hears the creak of the metal and the way the seat sags under the weight of a body.
The German next to him looks into the sky above them, dark with ash. "Krieg ist die Hölle," he says.
Alfred was one of the lucky ones. He was smart enough and capable enough that he didn't need to fight on the front lines.
He did so anyway.
In a small border town of France and Germany, knee-deep in mud, he came across the German. Ludwig, his dog tag had read, last name scratched out.
Ludwig who he had killed, who had cried out a name as he gasped for breath, blood bubbling up from the wound Alfred had punctured in his stomach. Ludwig, whose too-bright eyes had closed, as his hand scrambled not to stop the bleeding but to pull out a picture, to save it from the blood.
Feliciano, the picture had written in careful letters on the back, like the owner always wanted to know the name.
Feliciano, Ludwig had breathed, hand reaching for the dark sky.
They give him a medal and tell him that he's done a service to his country. They tell him he can go home.
Alfred wonders if in another universe it's Ludwig who receives the medal and gets sent home to his Feliciano.
Wonders if he would have choked on not-blood-milk and seen bodies on the ceiling and been tucked in by his worried brother, who never was quite as good as him.
But those are not the kinds of questions he can ask his superior, so he takes his medal with a smile and says he's proud to have done it, would go back.
The problem is, now that he's home, Alfred does want to go back.
Because war is hell, but it makes more sense than this.
He wakes up with the word "kreig" falling from his lips like a mantra. Kreig, over and over again, until it loses meaning.
Matt just stares at him, mussed from sleeping in a chair by his bedside.
Alfred reaches up, hand shaking, and touches Matt. He's real.
It's getting hard to figure out what's real and what's not.
Alfred's pretty sure he's going crazy but he's also entirely sure he's lucid. It's a paradox he can't solve.
Matt watches him these days. He hovers, hand poised just above Alfred's shoulder, just at the point of his elbow. Ready to catch him should he fall.
He doesn't really say anything. Asks a few questions about he spent his day and doesn't question the silence that befalls them.
Doesn't question why Alfred's hand isn't steady or why he prefers to keep all the lights on, like he never questioned when they were children and Al would come crawling into his bed to curl up with him during a storm when the trees cast long clawed shadows in the house.
He really is a good brother.
The same can't be said for his parents.
His Ma tries to hug him and his Pa tries to clap him on the back. They don't understand why he flinches away.
They stand this for a few weeks and then they start questioning it.
Light whispers that follow him about the house, until they become direct questions.
"Alfred, are you okay?" and "Alfred, snap out of it!" and "Alfred! That's enough!"
Questions become anger. Anger yields to tears. Tears give way to frustration.
Alfred's been home for two months.
He tries to play hockey with Matt one Saturday. They dig his old gear out of the closet and it's okay. He feels okay, for the first time in a long time.
This is what normal feels like, Alfred thinks.
It's a good thing Matt's able to catch him before he hits the ground.
"You passed out," Matt says, soft and non-threateningly. He doesn't add, "You screamed yourself hoarse," or "You beat the ground until your hands were bleeding," even though these things are true.
Most important, he doesn't say, "You scared me."
His parents mention a hospital during dinner one night.
His Pa clasps a tight hand on his shoulder and his Ma pulls out a delicate handkerchief to dab at her eyes.
There are brochures on the table.
"I think it would be for the best," his mother starts to say, but it's Matt who ends her sentence.
"No!" Matt slams his hands down on the table. The brochures flutter in the air like ash, like bodies do when bullets rip through them. "How could you? How could you even think of sending Al to a hospital?" He sounds betrayed.
His Pa frowns and lets go of Alfred's shoulder. "Matthew," he begins warningly.
But Matt's not done. "He's your son! He's a war hero! And you fuckers—"Al's never heard Matt cuss before—"want to dump him in some hospital because you can't be bothered?"
Matt takes him by the hand and drags them outside, slamming the door on their way out.
It's the dead of winter and it's snowing. They aren't really dressed for this kind of weather.
Matt's trembling but it's not from the snow.
Alfred reaches a hand out to his brother. "Mattie? Are you okay?"
His brother lets out a frustrated sob and grabs him, burying his face into his shoulder. They stand there, in the snow, Matt hugging onto him like he's afraid Al's going drift away if he lets go. His face feels hot and wet where it's pressed against Al's shirt.
"You're perfect," Matt says, muffled. "You're perfect just as you are, Al. Nothing's wrong with you."
Then, softer, pleading, "You're a hero."
Alfred wraps his arms slowly around his brother, awkward and stiff. He tightens his grip very carefully, and rests his cheek on Matt's craned head.
They stand in the snow until their lips turn blue and then they stand there even longer.
Matt packs their bags during the night.
He talks while he does so, grabbing Alfred's bomber jacket and stuffing it inside a duffle bag. Says, "You can't stay here, not with them."
Grabs a small square box from the back of Al's closet and puts it in the duffle bag as well.
Grabs Al's hands and says, "We're going to go to Canada."
Alfred looks around, at his barren walls and his cream colored carpet. Looks at Matt's hopeful face. "It's gonna be cold in Canada," he muses.
It is cold in Canada.
But it's also nice in Canada. Matt drops Jones like it hurts and picks up Williams. Al keeps their last name, but only because it's easier for the pension checks to find him that way.
The nightmares come less. They hurt just as much, Ludwig with his blue eyes and red blood and his dying call for Feliciano.
But Canada provides some freedoms that Kansas could never provide. No one knows them here. More importantly, no one knows him, Alfred, here.
There are no expectations to meet. He doesn't have to be a hero.
It's a nice change.
Matt finds a job and an apartment, which is good. They'd been staying in hotels, Matt using all the money he had saved throughout the years to do so. They were almost out of cash.
But Matt meets a French man who goes by the name of Francis Bonnefoy who happens to be a chef. From there, he gets a job as a waiter.
The apartment's a bit harder, but only because Al manages to piss off the stodgy English landlord with bushy eyebrows when they first meet.
Al does so by asking if the scones they are served are actually rocks.
They aren't. They just look like it, and happen to feel like it when pelted with.
The apartment isn't big but it has two rooms, one for each of them, and big windows that open up and let fresh air in. Matt buys flowers for the living room, and never leaves them long enough for Al to see them start to wilt.
He also buys paint for the white walls.
Al finds that out when he goes to the store and comes back to see Matt splattered in paint and frowning at the walls.
They spend the day in comfortable silence, adding a pale yellow color to their little world.
Matt doesn't really leave Al alone, though. It's not that he doesn't trust Alfred; it's just that when he does, things tend to go bad.
Like, the one time he ran to the store and came back to find Al gazing blankly at the walls, hands tugging at the messy strands of his hair.
Or the other time he woke up to Alfred screaming about blood and Ludwig and how sorry he was, Feliciano.
So he decides it's best not to leave Alfred alone. Al appreciates it.
This of course, becomes a problem.
Matt needs to work, after all.
So he drags Al along to the restaurant. Francis adores him and immediately gives him a cookie.
Then with a sly wink, Francis asks Matt, "Est ce ton amant?"
Matt, who has been working with the Frenchman long enough to pick up a few words, blushes and shakes his head. "Frère," he mutters, and tries to ignore the way Francis' gaze sits on Alfred.
Al helps himself to another cookie, much to Francis' delight.
Al likes the restaurant. He sits on a stool in the kitchen and watches in delight as the chefs prepare meal after meal. When Matt comes to the back to pick something up for a table, Al leaps up and babbles about how the chefs made the particular dish.
"And then he adds the wine, and BLAM! Up it goes in fire!"
Or, "That one was tricky, Matt. They better like it."
Al's happy here.
Al makes friends in this new place.
He has Matt, of course, but also Francis.
He even makes friends with Arthur, their landlord, though the man denies any association with him.
Al likes to listen to Arthur when he reads.
He goes over in the evening when Matt gets busy with bills and begins to mutter to himself, doing calculations in his head, penning scratching on paper as he writes down what they took in this month and what they spent.
Arthur always lets him in and sets tea in front of him, though Al rarely drinks it.
Then for the rest of the night, Arthur reads from his old books, well-worn and loved, and tries not to sound happy. There's a picture of a boy about twelve that sits on the mantle in Arthur's apartment. Big Ben stands tall and proud in the background. London glimmers, whole.
Al doesn't ask why the Arthur left England but he knows the sound of bombers flying overhead well and he knows the smoke of bombs. He also knows what loss feels like and how London looks now.
Alfred listens to the man's voice, the words accented, as Arthur tells him, "Go to your bosom, knock there, and ask your heart what it doth know."
His heart says it hurts but that it's time to move on.
Alfred asks Francis to teach him how to cook. The chef smiles and agrees.
They start with a grilled cheese.
Alfred rummages through the closet and pulls out their old duffle bags, from when they first came here.
Matt peeks his head into Al's room, and finds him surrounded by piles of clothes and knick knacks, hands holding a small velvet box. It's his medal.
"Mattie," Al says, without looking at him, "I wanna find him." Alfred tugs a picture from behind the medal and unfolds it.
Him is a picture of a smiling boy, the name Feliciano written on its back.
"It sounds Italian," Arthur says, when they ask if he can recognize the name or anything.
"It sounds familiar," is Francis' input, a thoughtful look on his face.
"You know this is going to be hard, right, Al?"
"Shut up, Matt," his brother groans.
There's a reason why it sounds familiar.
"Mon cher! You owe me," Francis crows, waving around a slip of paper. There's a name written on it.
"You see, Alfred, I knew that the name Feliciano sounded familiar. I have this friend—"Francis pauses to wiggle his eyebrows—"who happens to know this delightful young man named Lovino. Now, Antonio and I go very far back and one evening I decided to revisit the letters we write to each other. You will never guess what I found!"
"Spit it out, already!" Alfred shouts, anxious. Matt giggles quietly in the background
Francis huffs a breath through his nose. "You have no appreciation for suspense, mon cher. No one here does, in fact. Really, why I ever left France, I will never under—"
"—Lovino has a brother, Antonio wrote, nearly as cute as him. Feliciano."
Francis hands over the paper.
"The boy you're looking for is Feliciano Vargas, I believe."
Feliciano lives in Italy. That's a problem.
Arthur disagrees and hands them two plane tickets. "Go," he urges, when Matt comes to ask for their deposit back, so that they can buy plane tickets.
They go but Al looks back in time to see Arthur wipe away dust from the picture on the mantle.
They wind up in Venice.
Francis had said, "According to Antonio, he is a painter in Venice."
Venice, Al decides, is home to a lot of painters.
"Mi scusi! Mi scusi! Sono in ritardo!"
Al stumbles as a boy runs into him.
"I miei quadri!" The voice wails, bending down to pick up the canvasses that fell to the ground during their collision.
Al and Matt move to help. "I'm so sorry," Al says, offering a hand to help up the boy. The boy looks up and smiles.
Grasps Alfred's outstretched hand and says proudly, "Oh English! I know English!"
Al freezes. "F-Feliciano?"
The boy frowns. "Yes? Do I know you?"
Feliciano invites them to his home. He pours water for the both of them and bustles about the house, looking uncomfortable.
In his hands, he holds the picture, creases lovingly smoothed out.
There's a small memorial in a corner, a painting lovingly surrounded by unlit candles. A rosary hangs off of one corner, wooden beads worn down. Off the other corner hangs an Iron Cross.
Feliciano doesn't cry, but his eyes remain wet throughout their conversation.
"Ludwig," he says, and looks at the photo of himself. "You knew him?"
"I ki—" Al starts to say, but Matt silences him with a hand on his arm.
"He loved you," Alfred settles on.
Feliciano laughs a little at that. "Sì, I know. But I don't think he ever figured that one out."
"He did," Al says firmly.
Feliciano thanks them for the photo and sees them out.
He kisses Matt on the cheeks and gives him a hug. Then he approaches Alfred and repeats the process.
Except he lingers.
"It's okay," Feliciano whispers in his ear. "Ludwig forgave you long ago and I forgive you now. It's time to forgive yourself." Then he rises to his tip-toes and places a kiss firmly on Alfred's forehead.
It is benediction.
"Ready to go home?" Matt asks.
Alfred really is.
So this just hit me like a lightning bolt. It started off simply as wanting to explore PTSD and how it would affect a person. And then, as my friend pointed out, I completely set up a plot point with Matt that I had failed to address (this was intended to have ended after Alfred has the nightmare about Ludwig). So then I just went with it.
I'm glad I did, as the original story ended on a sad note. This one has a happier feel by the end.
So basic things:
This is set after World War II if you can't tell. Alfred's meant to be a soldier returning home from the European concert who has PTSD. A lot of soldiers returned home from both World Wars and were never properly diagnosed.
If you didn't catch it, I imply that Peter is Arthur's son and died during the bombing of London. That would be why Arthur went to Canada.
Yes, Ludwig was a Nazi, possibly. And yes, I do say that he loved Feliciano. The thing I'm trying to make clear here is that there is a difference between a person and an ideal. Ludwig loved Feliciano but couldn't because of what he was. I know homosexuals were killed as well during the Holocaust but that doesn't mean people could not simply hide who they were, as in the case of homosexuals. And Ludwig strikes me as the person to pine away silently. Likely, there was never any evidence for him being homosexual (hence why Feliciano says that he doesn't know if Ludwig realized he was in love).
As for carrying around Feliciano's picture? It was the only expression of love he allowed himself.
...I hope this isn't offensive to anyone.