This was written as part of the Secret Santa exchange on .com/usxuk/ for Madlytae. She seemed to enjoy it, and I hope you will, too!
Muchas gracias to my excellent beta, Yaoishadow66613, who I cannot recommend enough.
For exactly the past two-hundred-and-thirty-five years, Arthur Kirkland had spent Christmas Day (and usually Christmas Eve and Boxing Day) on his own. He would treat himself to a nightcap on the evening of the 24th – sherry, generally; God, he was getting old – and wake up the next morning around nine to the sound of Big Ben ringing in the sunlight. Because it was a special day (apparently), he would often allow himself a lie-in for twenty minutes or so, then he would get up, wash, dress, have a bowl of cereal (plain cereal, thank you very much), and begin cooking his Christmas Dinner. The fairies would sometimes fly in to see him, but he couldn't always count on that, so often by half-past eleven he would be finished with the lunch preparations, and be able to unwrap his presents.
Without fail, his brothers would send him socks.
Arthur had no need for any more socks.
He would then ring his esteemed relatives up, or they would call him, and they would exchange stiff, formal pleasantries, and then he would eat. After lunch, he would have just enough time to wash up before sitting down to watch the Queen's Christmas Message (which he himself helped compose) while knocking back a bottle of alcohol – because somebody always bought him a bottle of alcohol – and a box of far too rich chocolates.
He fell asleep at the end of her majesty's speech and never woke up until the Doctor Who Christmas special began (because this had been his festive program of choice over the past few years.) Then he might eat a bit of Christmas cake (Jesus, his cooking just got better and better every year!) and doze off again before heading off to bed around ten or eleven.
However, this year things would be a little different. Or at least he hoped – no, vaguely supposed that they would be – because he wasn't bothered about spending the Christmas period alone, not at all, not one tiny little bit. And it was all because Francis, of all people, had said something stupid and childish that had not a single grain of truth in it.
It wasn't that Arthur really wanted to spend time with friends or (God forbid) family over Christmas; after all, he never got lonely. Being an island nation, he was used to isolation; in fact, he rather enjoyed it. Being by oneself had many advantages, he had often thought. Nobody was there to irritate you, to pester you to do things you had no desire to do, to make fun of your cooking, your fashion sense, your behaviour, your age, your language, your special magical friends, and, perhaps best of all, being alone in the first place was the best way to prevent yourself being abandoned.
He was perfectly happy living alone, and had been for many years now, and hadn't once in all these years felt lonely, especially not at Christmas.
Arthur Kirkland was a man perfectly satisfied with life, and he certainly felt no need to spend the holiday season with any of his many obnoxious, irrational, childish, and downright stupid acquaintances.
In fact, the only reason he was thinking about considering asking Alfred if he maybe fancied popping over to see him on Boxing Day, or sometime in the New Year – not that he desperately wanted to see the chap; it didn't matter at all, really – was because that irritating frog-face, Francis Bonnefoy, had not for one damn second stopped going on about when he was going to pay a visit to his "dear amante."
Arthur knew just enough French to recognize that word, and, through gritted teeth, had to inform the frog, "For the last bloody time, I don't have a lover. Alfred isn't my lover. We aren't in love! I don't even fancy him! Stop saying that!"
"But I, uh, only said it once," Francis replied, with a smirk, "and I never mentioned dear Alfred. Oh, poor, lovesick Arthur...you have him on the mind, non?"
Arthur cried out in fury that he most certainly was not lovesick, that he wasn't in love with Alfred, that he never had been and never would be, and that he didn't have that American fool on the mind anyhow – Francis had actually mentioned him; this was just one of his many sly, dirty French tricks designed to make him look foolish.
But Francis only chuckled, rolling his eyes and flapping his hand, batting away the other man's words as though they meant absolutely nothing at all. "Oh, Arthur, you are so oblivious. What is it that your Shakespeare said? 'Methinks you protest too much,' non?" Then he winked.
Arthur spluttered in indignation at the nerve of Francis, not to mention the barbaric butchery of his nation's most beloved writer, but the Frenchman just smiled vacantly, and drifted away, humming that ridiculous "All I Want for Christmas is You" song Arthur had never been able to stand. He was fairly sure it was an American song – all the tackiest ones were, of course – but that was beyond the point. He didn't need to be thinking about America, and certainly not about Alfred F Jones; not now, not ever.
But nevertheless, he found that, for whatever reason, he could not stop thinking about him, and the more he thought about him, the more he felt rather sad, and even a little bit lonesome – after all, when Alfred was a sweet and moderately innocent child, the two of them had always spent Christmas together, right up until that terrible year when the boy had announced he was leaving. Of course, thoughts of the War of Independence brought nothing but bad memories, and swirling, churning sickness to the pit of Arthur's stomach, but those other memories, the times spent with Alfred when he was small and loving, when he would hurl himself into his guardian's outstretched arms with a delighted cry of "Arfur!" were much more pleasant. He remembered the smell of turkey cooking, of vegetables roasting, of mince pies and Christmas pudding baking and stewing, and the warmth that filled the house, heated his heart and body and soul as, after the end of a long, tiring but highly enjoyable day, the little boy would clamber up into his lap and rest his lovely golden head upon Arthur's chest.
Those days were long gone – probably forgotten by the frankly insensitive American – but he had to admit (if only to himself, in the darkest, quietest hours of the night) that it might not be quite such a bad idea to see his former colony just once over the Christmas season.
"I'll mention it to him," Arthur said, late one evening to Flying Mint Bunny. "I'll just ask him if he wants to meet up after Christmas for a cup of tea and a chat, and that'll be it. That will be fine, won't it?"
But Flying Mint Bunny just smiled enigmatically and dissolved into the air, and Arthur was left alone to worry about how exactly he would go about asking Alfred to come and see him without the proposal seeming like an invitation to go on a date, and then to worry if he was over thinking a simple catch-up between two sort-of-friends, and then to worry if he worried too much.
As a result, he hardly got any sleep that night, and was still yawning the following day when he stumbled into the World Conference ten minutes late, blushing and apologizing frantically. He then proceeded to drop all his files onto the table with a loud crash, causing both Alfred and Francis (bloody idiots) to snigger, and Ludwig to shout at everybody to stop making so much noise. He could hardly pay attention to what was being discussed during the meeting; instead, he was entirely focused on stealing quick, hopefully unnoticed glances at Alfred, whose big, blue eyes had glazed over behind his spectacles, and was chewing on the end of his pen – the bloody pen that Arthur had lent him only two weeks ago, the former empire noticed with disgust – in a highly unattractive manner.
He thought about that damn pen, and about how he was to go about speaking to the American in a casual manner with such intensity that he hardly noticed the others rising around him and preparing to head their separate ways as the clock struck twelve noon.
Arthur blinked, jerking upright as he realized.
"Very well," Ludwig was saying to the table at large. "We shall break for lunch and continue at one o'clock. Please try to be on time this afternoon, England," he added, turned away from the table, and was immediately accosted by an excited Feliciano, who was begging the taller nation to hold his hand, and hug him, and come get some pasta with him.
Arthur rolled his eyes. Some people were so obvious in their affections.
He glanced around the room, searching for Alfred, and quickly spotted him leaving the room, his pen – Arthur's pen! – stuck behind one ear. Quickly ducking past Ludwig and Feliciano (who were taking up a hell of a lot of space; the little Italian was, after all, practically swinging from the slightly red-faced German's arm), he hurried through the doorway, into the hall, and caught up with Alfred, who was by now almost at the stairs, his long legs covering the ground easily.
The American turned around, grinning widely as Arthur finally came to a halt in front of him.
"Hey, Artie! Oh, man, I'm glad you stopped me; nearly forgot I wanted to ask you if wanted to come to the theatre with me? On Christmas Eve? Be fun, won't it?"
Arthur's mouth dropped open in surprise.
Alfred was asking him to go to the theatre. The theatre. Alfred. Alfred, of all people, wanted to go with him, Arthur Kirkland, to the theatre. Alfred.
He could do nothing but gape like a fish.
The younger man was looking rather confused. "Uhh...Artie? Artie? You okay?"
He gathered himself, and managed to stammer out that he was quite alright, thank you very much, he'd just had a late night – he hadn't been sleeping well, you see, and he supposed he really should do something about it, but he wasn't sure whether sleeping pills were entirely safe, and surely there was a simple spell he could cast which would help him to sleep better, and –
"Artie!" Alfred said again, "Arthur!"
Arthur fell silent. Blood was rushing rapidly to his cheeks. "Yes?"
"So?" Alfred was looking down at him, smiling in a very odd manner. "Do you wanna come to the theatre with me, or not?"
"The theatre?" Arthur said weakly, wondering for the hundredth time if he'd heard the taller man correctly.
"Yeah." Alfred flashed him a slightly bemused smile. "Sure, why not? I mean, it's a kinda Christmassy thing to do, ain't it? Go to the theatre?" He hitched his scrambled files up beneath on arm, and stuck his hands into his trouser pockets.
"Umm..." For a few terrible moments, Arthur couldn't quite remember how to speak properly, then he blinked, hard, and somehow managed to compose himself. "Y-yes. Thank you, Alfred. I'd be...delighted to go to the theatre with you."
"Awesome!" The younger man exclaimed happily. "That's great. So, I'll pick you up at four-thirty, Christmas Eve, okay?"
"H-half...half past four," Arthur said faintly.
"Right." Alfred shrugged. "It's an afternoon thing."
"Matinee," Arthur corrected him automatically.
Alfred blew out a thin puff of air between his lips. "Pfft. Whatever. Anyway, that's when I'll come pick you up. See you then, Artie!"
And just like that, he was gone.
Bastard, Arthur thought, turning away to rearrange his own muddled papers and files, and grimacing as he caught sight of his crimson face reflected in a large picture hanging on the wall beside him. He just had to ask me out when I was going to ask him out! Does he just do it to annoy me or something?
The phrase "ask him out" rang loudly around his head several times, and he had to grit his teeth and shake his head rapidly from side to side before it would go.
He sighed heavily, and began making his way slowly downstairs.
"I'll pick you up at four-thirty, Christmas Eve, okay?"
"Hang on..." Arthur said, out loud, stopping very suddenly halfway down the stairs. "He's going to pick me up? I'm not a bloody girl!"
"No, but you are talking to yourself, da," said an amused voice from right behind him, and Arthur jumped out of his skin as the alarming, smiling face of Ivan Braginski appeared over his shoulder. "You must be going crazy, Mr Arthur!" And with that, the other man slipped past him and continued his descent, singing happily to himself in Russian, his loud, high-pitched voice echoing back up the stairwell.
With a soft, miserable groan, Arthur sank backwards until his back hit the wall. He closed his eyes and pressed a hand to head, covering his eyes. You knew that you were in desperate need of psychotherapy when Ivan Braginski thought you were insane.
For the rest of the week, Arthur tried to distract himself from thoughts of Alfred that were as unwelcome and attention-seeking as the brat was himself by focusing one-hundred-and-ten per-cent on finishing all his work in time for Christmas. This was slightly easier said than done, given that every time he opened a newspaper, turned on the television for half-an-hour before going to bed, or even opened his files and got down to work, all he ever saw and heard was, in some way, related to America.
He remembered, with a terrible pang, how it had been like this in the dark years following the War of Independence, how he'd been constantly reminded of that beloved boy – though he certainly wasn't a boy any more – and how, when it all became too much to bear, he'd shamefully retreated to bed, absolutely exhausted, his stinging face sticky with tears.
But that was all in the past, now, Arthur reminded himself. He and Alfred were friends again...sort of...and in just a couple of days they would be taking a little trip to the theatre together. His face flushed, for some stupid reason, and his stomach twisted a touch. The sensation was not altogether unpleasant.
During the week, when he wasn't concentrating very, very hard on his work (and his work alone, nothing else, definitely not – and definitely not Alfred) he would allow himself to wonder, just for a few minutes, which play the two of them would be going to see. After all, the younger man had not told him yet, and he was not going to ring him up and give him the impression that he'd been thinking about their da- about their meeting.
Because he most certainly had not.
He supposed that it was hoping a little too much that the American would take him to see Shakespeare's King Lear – he had read, a few weeks back, that the play was currently running somewhere in London (though he'd forgotten at which theatre), and he seemed to remember that it would be performed on Christmas Eve.
King Lear was one of his all-time favourite plays, and it always had been, ever since he'd seen the very first performance, alongside William himself, many years ago. He remembered reading it to Alfred, too – he'd read him all of the Bard's plays, and his poems too – when the boy was still tiny. Wouldn't it be wonderful, he thought, smiling to himself, if that was the play his former colony was taking him to see?
Perhaps this was expecting too much, though. After all, Alfred Jones was hardly a man of discerning taste. He'd probably end up going to see some horrific Broadway musical or something.
"Yuck," Arthur said out loud, and turned back to his rapidly shrinking pile of paperwork.
Finally, Christmas Eve rolled around. It was somewhat soothing to Arthur; after the collapse of the world economy, the terrible recession, it had seemed, in a way, that life on Earth had changed forever, and that simple joys like Christmas just wouldn't ever happen again. But there was the date that morning on his calendar, and in his diary, and beneath that magical and comforting 24th December were the words "Theatre with Alfred – half past four," in a neat black script.
He found himself reading it over and over a few times, as though he couldn't quite believe the event was going to happen and he needed further convincing, but the lovely letters did not fade, and though he had told himself many times over the past week that it was only Alfred, and it was bound to be a rotten let-down anyhow, and he wasn't that bothered, and he wasn't sweet on the silly git – damn Francis and his perverted mind! – there was something of a joyful spring in his step as he strode from the kitchen and back up the stairs to take his morning shower.
It wasn't as if it really mattered, of course, but as Arthur soaped up his hair and skin, closing his eyes tightly against the stinging suds which crept like thick insects down his neck and jaw, he found himself mentally rifling through the clothes hung neatly inside his wardrobe. What sort of outfit, he wondered, would be appropriate? The problem as he saw it was striking the right balance between looking smart enough to attend a play at the theatre – possibly King Lear, he thought, trying to prevent himself from becoming unnecessarily excited – and yet not look as though he'd dressed up just to meet Alfred. If Francis was saying these stupid and untruthful things about the nature of their relationship to him, it was more than likely he'd said it to the American, too.
He didn't want Alfred to get the (wrong) impression that he was making an effort for him because he – fancied him, or anything ridiculous like that.
Because he didn't. Fancy him, that was.
In the end, he decided on a navy suit – because being of smart appearance at all times was important, after all; looking like Alfred did, as though he'd just rolled out of bed, was nothing less than a disgrace to one's country – but with a pair of Converse high-tops (inspired by the tenth Doctor, of course) and the sleeves of his shirt and suit jacket rolled up.
For a few minutes, whilst still wrapped in a towel and dripping water all over the bathroom floor, he stared into the mirror, debating over whether or not to try smartening up his hair, but then he remembered he wasn't bothered in the slightest about spending the afternoon with Alfred, and so decided against it.
It was almost one o'clock when Arthur made his way downstairs, feeling anxious and jumpy, though he was uncertain as to why. Perhaps something bad was going to happen. Sometimes, Arthur felt that these feelings were caused by the intense connection he had with the fairies and unicorns and dwarves and sprites and hobgoblins whom had been by his side ever since he could remember. Perhaps they had imparted some special gift upon him? But they did not appear as he sat down in his favourite old chair to read King Lear yet again, deciding to eat late as there was no way of knowing if Alfred would bother to ask him to dinner afterwards. But he found it terribly difficult to concentrate on his reading, and found his attention drawn increasingly to the odd trembling sensations in his chest and stomach.
Maybe it meant the recession was taking a turn for the worse? Maybe his new government was having problems? They were already being criticised to a degree over the hike in university tuition fees – maybe things were actually worse for them than Mr Cameron had told him? Whatever the reason, Arthur found himself almost unable to continue reading; his stomach kept twisting and flipping, and his heart kept racing in a very distracting manner.
"Perhaps it is because you are so excited about your date with Alfred," said a small voice that sounded suspiciously like Francis in the very back of his mind.
Arthur growled out loud, turning a page rather more roughly than he usually would deem appropriate.
"It's not a date!" he snapped, to nobody in particular. "And I'm not excited anyway!"
Still, that little voice would not be silenced – not completely – and Arthur hunched his shoulders and blushed scarlet as it continued to snicker away somewhere behind him.
At a quarter to four he ate slowly, afraid of hanging around alone in his house – not that he minded being alone; he loved it, didn't he? – with nothing to do but think about Alfred and their...trip out to the theatre, and glance repeatedly at the clock over the fireplace in his sitting room.
"Not that I'd do that, anyway," he said to himself, and his voice rang in the large, empty kitchen, "I really couldn't give a toss about this whole daft thing one way or the other."
But there was no reply, and soon the Englishman found himself sitting still and stiff, gazing down into his empty bowl and gripping his seat with hard, white fingers, as if to prevent himself leaping up to action.
Every clock in his house ticked steadily in sync. It was ten past four.
The tap dripped miserably into the sink behind him, and as Arthur's jaw cracked as he gritted his teeth together, it sounded like a gunshot, like cannon fire.
Slowly, he rose to his feet and began washing up. Outside, it was snowing. Glinting white flakes spiralled down from the heavens, settled on the walls and the street and the pavements outside for a few moments, then melted into the dark liquid that had for the last month covered London. Only a light sprinkling of the stuff remained, dug into corners, nooks and crannies, icy and slippery to tread upon.
Arthur liked the snow. It reminded him of old times, when he and Alfred would spend Christmas at his country house. They would build snowmen, marking features into the compacted white glitter with small stones or lumps of coal. Then Alfred would shove him over, and run away, shrieking with laughter, and he would splutter and gulp, and struggle upright, and finally catch the young boy before throwing him down to the ground, and then, hours later when the sun was beginning to set, they'd head back for home, hand-in-hand, and he'd have a cup of tea, and Alfred would have warm milk, and they'd warm their wet toes through before a roaring fire, and sit in comfortable silence together until the boy finally fell asleep, his cup slipping through his fingers to the carpeted floor and his head flopping to one side to rest against his guardian's slim, flat chest.
Bang bang-a bang bang.
Arthur jumped about a foot in the air, splashing now cold dirty dishwater down his front.
Someone was at the door.
Suddenly, he hoped very, very hard that it was not who he was certain it was, despite the fact that he'd recognize that ridiculous knock anywhere.
"Arthuuuuur!" he heard from outside.
He glanced down. He had been standing in a daze at the sink for an age. His hands were cold, and the tips of his fingers were wrinkled and soft.
Quickly wiping himself down with the nearest towel, Arthur tried his best to compose himself before making his way out of the kitchen, down the hallway and to the door.
He saw Alfred's bright white megawatt grin before he saw the rest of him; his clear blue eyes, exactly the colour of the sky hidden behind the grey clouds, his sunshine hair, Nantucket, Texas, and his own crimson face reflected in the glass.
"Good afternoon, America," he said, stiffly.
To his surprise (and annoyance), the other man simply burst out laughing, tilting his head back and opening his mouth. Arthur was just about to enquire what the devil he found so funny when Alfred snorted:
"Damn, Artie, I always knew you were a stick in the mud, but why the hell're ya being so damn formal?"
Then he slapped him on the shoulder and invited himself inside.
Arthur grimaced and closed the door.
"Those my sneakers?" Alfred said, turning around to look the smaller man up and down. True to form, he was wearing his ever-present bomber jacket and a pair of disgustingly frayed jeans.
"If by 'sneakers' you mean these shoes, then yes, I believe the design originates from the U.S," Arthur said, disappearing from view in the hallway cupboard where he kept his coats. The dark little room was cool, and soothed his cheeks, which had inexplicably began to sting the moment he had laid eyes upon his former colony. Must be allergic to the stupid git, Arthur thought, finding a suitable coat and a matching pair of gloves and scarf. "However I suspect that these shoes in particular were manufactured in China. Does that answer your grammatically incorrect question?"
"Whatever," said Alfred, apparently bored already. "You ready to go yet? Psyched about goin' to the theatre with me?"
"Over the moon," said Arthur, finding his wallet and keys on the telephone table. "Alright, git, I'm ready. Just let me lock up."
Alfred bounded out of the house like one of Ludwig's huge, horrible dogs, rocking from foot to foot and kicking snowflakes from a nearby privet bush while the older man fumbled with the lock.
"Hurry up, Artie, or we'll be late!"
"That's probably your fault," Arthur said, and glanced down surreptitiously at his brown leather wristwatch. It was twenty minutes to five. Just how long had he been standing there, drowning in sentimental memories? "You were ten minutes late!" he scolded, and stuffed his keys into his coat pocket. "Where's your car?"
"Thought we'd walk," said Alfred airily. "Can't drive anywhere in this place, can you?"
"I manage," said Arthur, and suddenly found himself disgracefully short of breath as, unbidden, a rose-tinted image of himself and the American man strolling side-by-side and hand-in-hand through the streets, their clouded exhalations entwining and dancing skywards entered his mind. He ducked his head a little and moved quickly along the icy pavement, blinking rapidly.
Alfred caught up with him easily, his long legs covering the ground in only a couple of strides.
They walked close together in awkward silence for several long, painful minutes before Arthur finally screwed up all his courage and said: "So...what are we going to see?"
"Something totally awesome!" Alfred replied, and Arthur died a little inside. "You'll love it, Artie, I know it."
"You've, uh...already seen it then?"
"Duh! Yeah, like fifty million times!"
Arthur suddenly wondered who else Alfred had taken to see this "totally awesome" play, and was almost shocked at himself as the taste of jealousy, thick and bitter filled his mouth. Perhaps he'd taken quite a few people to see it. Must've done, Arthur thought irritably, If he's already seen it fifty million times...
"What're you gonna do tomorrow, then?" Alfred asked out of nowhere, waking him from these unpleasant thoughts.
His companion repeated the question.
"Oh...oh, well...same thing I do every year, I suppose," Arthur said, without thinking, and immediately the younger man crowed:
"Hah! Stay at home gettin' wasted on your own, old man?"
For some reason, these words hit hard on something deep inside him, and he sped up again, pressing his chin even further into the soft woollen scarf around his neck. His throat felt tight, closed up, and his eyes were beginning to burn.
The footsteps which had originally been exactly in line with his own slowed, then stopped, and Arthur would have paused and looked back, were it not for the hard knot of anger, shame and sorrow wedged between his lungs. So he kept his head down against the cold air, and he kept on walking.
No-one else was out on the street, and he could no longer hear Alfred. Once more, he was utterly alone.
He closed his eyes for a second, skidding a little on a tiny patch of black ice.
Then the footsteps were back, quickening, and he tightened every muscle in his body against the salty tears he felt threatening. He hadn't cried in a long time...in a long, long time, and by God, he wasn't about to do so now.
There was a light touch against his elbow and he stopped, as if compelled by some omnipotent cosmic force, and then he heard and felt the American's soft, warm words against the cool red shell of his ear, and all of a sudden it was very difficult to swallow.
"I'm sorry, Artie," Alfred said quietly, and it seemed that everything in England was silent for this moment. "I didn't mean to upset you. I mean...even I get...lonely...sometimes." He hesitated. "If you want, you could always spend Christmas with me and Matt...'s not too late to say, y'know."
Alfred's long, strong fingers squeezed lightly, momentarily around his arm, and Arthur almost sniffed.
"Wanker," he muttered, and shook the younger man off. "I'm not upset. You forget everything I've been through. Takes a bit more than a pathetic sneer from a git like you to make me tear up."
Alfred stepped in front of him, and Arthur could almost see that raised eyebrow, but he couldn't bring himself to look up. Not quite.
"I was...I was just walking faster...because I don't want to be late for this "awesome" play. Now – come on, pull yourself together," he finished, more to himself than to Alfred, and at long last managed to meet the taller man's gaze.
Alfred was wearing a round false red nose and a pair of antlers. His expression was almost one of concern, save for the slight trembling at the corners of his lips.
"I really am sorry though, Arthur," he said, and burst out laughing.
"Bastard," Arthur said, pulling the nose and antlers off, and they walked on together.
They weren't quite late to the theatre, though Arthur felt they were cutting it fine, very fine indeed, but when they rounded Denman Street and he saw the bright pink banner proudly proclaiming "GREASE," he desperately wished that they had been late. Very, very, very late.
"It's a musical," he said flatly, trying to ignore the childish man practically bouncing on the spot at his side. "An American musical."
"It's awesome!" Alfred crowed, and turned to look at the older man. "You –" his face suddenly dropped. "You don't like it?"
Arthur was about to say that of course he didn't like musicals – and he had absolutely no desire whatsoever to see this one, which he knew, despite having never seen the damn thing, was chock-full of greasers and bleachers and coarse American slang and burger bars – when his eyes met Alfred's, and his heart dropped into his stomach. The younger man's lips had turned down at the corners, his eyebrows were sloped, meeting anxiously above his nose; and he was standing very still, which wasn't like him at all.
Arthur sighed heavily. He was going to regret this.
"I...suppose I don't mind watching it once. I mean...I've never seen it before, so..." He trailed off, unable to think of a single positive thing to say about the whole experience looming before him, but Alfred had already grabbed his hand with a cry of delight, and was dragging him into the building, waving a pair of tickets high above his head as though he'd just won admission to Willy Wonka's chocolate factory.
They bought sweets, much to Arthur's annoyance ("It really is very irritating to hear nothing but sweet wrappers crinkling in the theatre, Alfred,") and bottles of coke and water, then Arthur was dragged into the auditorium, and they took their seats. Arthur had to admit, he was surprised by their positioning; they were in the Royal circle, slap bang in the centre, able to see not only the whole of the stage but also the musicians in the pit.
"These are...rather good seats, Alfred," he said, a little stiffly, because he felt quite awkward, truth be told; the younger man kept turning to him and grinning, hardly able to sit still in his seat; and every time he caught a flash of those gorgeous blue eyes, something deep inside him would tremble and melt like snow on a hot, well-travelled London road.
Alfred just winked at him (Oh God, Arthur's hands were actually shaking) and ripped open his purchases, eagerly stuffing them into his mouth as the lights slowly dimmed and the show began.
The story, being American, was simple enough to follow, even if Arthur couldn't concentrate fully on the action onstage. The way tiny shards of light shivered on Alfred's glasses and across his golden hair, and the way he leaned forwards to rest on the rail, his whole countenance alight with joy distracted the older man terribly and sent something that felt almost like the lovechild of fear and sheer happiness coiling down rapidly into his stomach. The plot appeared to centre around the love story of a rather charming young girl named Sandy, and a horrible show-off with well-oiled hair called Danny. It seemed that Danny had treated his love interest like a princess during their whirlwind summer romance but when Sandy began attending Danny's high school, he was no longer interested in her; preferring to maintain his boneheaded gang-leader image rather than continuing his courtship of the lovely girl.
Though the story was set in a school, Arthur noticed that very few of the students (save for Sandy) seemed interested at all in their studies. Disgraceful.
The musical was full of awful, slang-filled songs, all of which Alfred knew and sang along with in that smooth, rich voice Arthur was in no way at all attracted to, and by the interval Arthur felt ready to gouge his own eyes out with a spoon.
"Well, what d'you think of it?" Alfred asked as the lights came back up. "Pretty sick, huh?"
"Sick..." Arthur had no idea what that meant. "Umm...yes." The whole thing was certainly making him feel sick.
"I'mma take a whizz. Be back in a minute," Alfred said, and vanished.
Arthur rubbed a hand over his eyes, and slouched back in his chair – something he would have admonished others for, usually, but he was steadily being sapped of the will to live.
His companion did not return in a minute. In fact, almost twenty minutes had slipped by before the other man returned, clutching yet more junk food.
"Hey, Artie, I got us some – hey, what's wrong?"
"What?" said Arthur, and quickly sat up again, forcing himself to arrange his features into an expression of enjoyment and interest. "What do you mean? Nothing's wrong."
Alfred looked as though he was about to argue back, but then the lights fell once more, and Arthur looked away, back towards the stage, and when he just happened to glance back at the taller man beside him a minute or so later, Alfred had also looked away. This disappointed him rather – though he wasn't entirely sure why.
The rest of the horrid production continued. Arthur stopped concentrating entirely, and watched the lighting above them twinkling like constellations in the night sky. Occasionally, through no fault of his own, he would find his gaze inexplicably drawn and lingering upon the fair-haired man at his side, taking in every detail of his face, his hair, his neck, his clothing...then Alfred would stir and turn to frown at him in confusion, and Arthur would have to pretend he'd been looking at something else.
The ending (finally, Arthur rejoiced) of Grease seemed to be a sappy, silly, happy one as the main couple reunited, declaring that they went "together, like rama lama lama ka dinga da dinga dong," whatever that meant. In the final scene, Sandy wore some hideously tight leather trousers and skyscraper heels, having apparently dusted off her good-girl image forever. Arthur wasn't sure what kind of message this production was sending to its audience, but he was sure it wasn't a positive one.
They left as soon as the cast, red-faced and elated with success, had taken a final bow, and skipped offstage. Alfred wanted to stay and see if they could get anybody's autograph, but Arthur feigned a headache, and insisted that he wanted to go home.
Outside, it was freezing cold. The dampness on the streets had frozen over, snow was falling more heavily now, and beginning to settle, and the sky was a thick, navy cloth of velvet. The moon was almost entirely hidden from view.
Alfred was strangely quiet, and Arthur said nothing to him.
Taxi cabs sliced past, skidding a little on the wet grey mush filling the roads, and 7,556,900 people rushed past them, eager to get home and spend Christmas with their loved ones.
They passed a couple of cafés and coffee shops, still open but slowly shutting down for the night before Alfred turned to him and said: "You wanna get a coffee before you get home?"
Arthur shook his head, adjusting his scarf for something to do. "No, thank you."
They continued on a little further, still saying nothing, before Alfred turned to him again, and said, "What's the matter, Artie? C'mon, tell me. Please?"
"Nothing," said Arthur.
"Was it the play? Did you not like it, or something?"
"It was a musical," Arthur said irritably, trying hard not to slip on the ice, "not a play. And honestly, Alfred, did you really think I'd like a silly thing like that?"
"Y-you didn't like it?" Alfred asked, and Arthur winced at the hurt in the man's voice.
"It's just...well, musicals aren't my thing, anyway...and it was all quite daft, really, wasn't it? And I mean, what kind of message was it sending out?"
"It's just for fun," said Alfred, rather quietly.
"But honestly! She had to change herself to get the boy to like her! She had to start smoking, and drinking, and she never wanted to do those things...she had to be someone else who she'd never wanted to be just for that –"
"Arthur!" said Alfred, and he was laughing. "Arthur! It's just a bit of fun! It's Christmas, I thought a musical comedy would be a cool thing for us to see! I didn't wanna take you to one of your serious plays when you're gonna be spending the holidays on your own anyway! I didn't wanna depress you, Artie!"
Arthur swallowed, feeling those earlier tears building once more. He was terribly frustrated all of a sudden, and he really had no idea why. It – whatever "it" was – just was not fair. Not fair at all.
"I...I wanted to see King Lear," he mumbled, and he could almost hear the younger man smiling beside him.
"Oh, Artie," he said, and he almost jumped out of his skin as a warm, strong, American arm slid around his shoulders, pulling him close, "Artie! I always hated that play, you know. And...I thought you would, now."
Arthur blinked, somehow, despite the dark flush that covered his face, managed to look up at the other man in confusion. "But...it's my favourite piece of Shakespeare. It always has been, don't you remember? I used to read it to you when you were little..." He stopped, biting down hard on his lower lip. "You don't remember..."
"Artie!" Alfred said, and they stopped. Alfred bent over a little at the waist, both hands on Arthur's shoulders; his face uncomfortably close. "I know! I know it was your favourite back then...but I always hated it 'cause..." He struggled. "Because of how the guy gets abandoned by his kids. I hated how they left him." He suddenly looked sad. "I hate it even more now."
Arthur stared at him, open-mouthed. The tears were well and truly welling up now. His throat was horribly tight, and his eyes were wide and painful. He tried to say something, but only the tiniest ghost of a whisper escaped from his parted lips.
Alfred was smiling awkwardly at him, looking rather embarrassed.
"I...I didn't want you to be reminded of that...of how I...how I..." He ducked his head. "'I'll never leave you like that again, Artie. Never."
The conviction in his voice bowled Arthur over, and he could not do anything, say anything in response to this extraordinary statement. He simply gaped at the taller man, and it took Alfred's warm, ungloved hand on his cold red cheek to realize that he was crying.
Alfred's arms were warm, too, and his chest, and his hair and neck and sweet, soft lips, and Arthur, trembling with cold and long-suppressed emotions could do nothing but cling to him, his legs weak and knees knocking. He almost passed out as he felt hot breath inside his ear, and fingers combing gently through his hair, and feather-light kisses upon his frozen nose, and his eyelids, and his cheekbones, and his forehead, and finally, at long last, his mouth.
Arthur clung to him as if to a strong rope amidst a frozen lake. Ice was closing above his head, and soon he would be trapped, but Alfred was there, firm and warm and comforting, pulling up from the depths and into a loving embrace, and he felt tired...so, so tired that he couldn't pull back and ask him what the devil he thought he was doing.
Then he felt those lips at his ear again, but instead of silent breaths of love, Alfred was whispering words to him that Arthur had recited to his dear colony so, so long ago...words he would never in a million years imagined Alfred would remember – and on that frozen, bitterly cold Christmas Eve, Arthur Kirkland found a new favourite piece of Shakespeare.
Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate:
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
And summer's lease hath all too short a date:
Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,
And often is his gold complexion dimm'd;
And every fair from fair sometime declines,
By chance or nature's changing course untrimm'd;
But thy eternal summer shall not fade
Nor lose possession of that fair thou owest;
Nor shall Death brag thou wander'st in his shade,
When in eternal lines to time thou growest:
So long as men can breathe or eyes can see,
So long lives this and this gives life to thee.