By Diane Long
A/N: My head cannon is that Alfred often hides his sadness and fear under a carefree mask and that Arthur is the only one who really understands.
Chapter one: Three Ringed Circus
Summer in DC was a real bitch.
For weeks, the late August sun had blazed down upon the capital's concrete and tarmac to be magnified and radiated back, raising the city's temperature even further over the record breaking 110 degrees (F) of the surrounding countryside. Resulting power grid drops and fear of cascading brown outs had the city rationing its power and discouraging non-emergent use of air conditioning.
Of course, Arthur had known better than to summer here, even before the advent of the Federal City. However, work often made him take actions he less than preferred.
The nations holding their conference at the Pentagon had to make do with sweating glasses of ice water and box fans that did little more than blow around hot air and disorganize their paperwork. Overheated bodies only added to the irritation of personality conflicts and stress from negotiating solutions to global problems.
Arthur mopped his forehead with a handkerchief and watched America and China argue over their finances. China had given up all pretense of civility and was banging his fists on the table to accentuate demands for the immediate repayment of his loans. Arthur wondered if all the world wars had their antecedents in summer.
America, tie so loose as to be almost undone and his white oxford unbuttoned down to the third button, maintained a cheerful, if sweaty, expression as he tried to cajole his debtor to give him more time. Not missing a beat, Alfred used a fist as a puppet and threw his voice while chugging down a glass of water. "The terms were vague so I get fifty more years," he squeaked.
China's already red face purpled. "This is not the time for your vacuous humor!" he seethed. "At this point, I imagine I own everything in your capital. I might as well start packing it up to take home." A bead of sweat trickled down his neck and stained his high, silk collar.
Alfred made a show of deep thought. He then jogged over to the lectern and scooped up a laser pointer. He pushed his glasses up and squinted at a small sticker at its base. "Aha!" he crowed. " 'Made in China'." He offered it to the fuming Asian. "Want it back?" he asked with a cheerful grin.
France groaned and pressed his tumbler of ice water to his face. "It is too hot for this foolishness."
Rage seemed to lodge the words in China's throat. His fists squeezed so hard his knuckles whitened.
Ivan rose to his feet and placed a calming hand on his comrade's shoulder. "Peace for now, my friend, I have pressing issues also." He aimed a serene violet smile at Alfred, seemingly unaffected by the high temperatures. "I am being interested in the invitations of my children to NATO without parental consent."
America winked at post-Soviet Latvia and Estonia, before shoving his hands in his pockets and shrugging at Russia. "I only invite autonomous sovereign nations to my parties. I can assure you there will be no underage drinking, Pops."
"Encouraging children to rebel against their guardians is so distressful," Russia said smiling sadly. "I am sure England agrees with me on this one," he said with a little laugh. "It can only lead to tears."
England frowned. That was particularly low, and even more than the pain it caused his own heart, he felt a further sting from the brief eclipse of Alfred's smile before it flashed back into place even brighter than before.
Arthur was sure no on else had noticed. Alfred was a master of concealing his real emotions, but over the years, particularly their two decades of committed relationship, Arthur had become the best of all at reading Alfred.
Alfred chuckled warmly, as if he was trading jokes with a longtime friend. "Ok Ivan, we both know you are an empty nester now. I'm just inviting some free, consenting, non-communist nations to a new party since the Warsaw Pact is so retro these days."
"Maybe if you take that scarf off, this heat won't addle your memory so much," Alfred announced making a fake gun with thumb and forefinger and flicking it at Russia with a sharp cluck of his tongue. "Anyone else have a complaint or can I finish my presentation on Healthcare Reform?"
Syria opened her mouth only to be shushed.
"Sorry, darlin', you got your turn last month. Let's take a break, 'kay?" Alfred blew her a kiss and launched back into his Powerpoint presentation. "As I was saying, we should consider stopping childhood immunizations so all of our population's density drops, allowing us to afford quality healthcare to the survivors..."
Arthur fanned himself with his agenda, wishing he could allow himself to loosen his tie, tuning out Alfred's purposefully misleading blather to watch Syria text angrily into her phone. If anyone would actually try to assassinate Alfred it would be her. He made a mental note to get the MI-5 to start doing regular surveillance on her.
"And that's the usual brilliant plan," Alfred bragged sticking a thumb into his chest. "Don't worry, I've totally got this." He pulled his tie tight and buttoned up his shirt before sliding on his jacket. "I'd ask for questions, but our earlier discussions have made me late for a meeting with my boss. Later!" He swept up his brief case and hurried from the room, only pausing to mouth "White House" at Arthur.
Arthur got the intended message. Instead of Alfred's private Georgetown condo, they would be spending the night at Pennsylvania Avenue. He scowled. Less privacy, and harder to get the lad to stop working for the night. Living at one's place of employment did not facilitate a good work/life balance.
He allowed himself to listen in to the by-play around him as the countries complained about how stupid America was, about how ridiculous and vapid his ideas were. He noticed that none of the original Allies joined in, and how worried they looked. They knew how frightfully intelligent and calculating Alfred was. The more bizarre the behavior, the more he had to hide. It was all Barnum and Bailey; glitter and sawdust. The truth was hidden in the shadows created by the spotlight.
Things must be truly grim.
Chapter Two: Removing the Grease Paint
An abbreviated security check and a quick examination of Alfred's empty suite of rooms had Arthur stamping towards the Oval office frowning at the thought of Alfred working extra late yet again. Arthur had stopped off at the pub with Prussia after the meeting to give Alfred time to finish up for the night. The lad had enough pressures without his guest demanding attention. It was nearing 9:00 pm – too late to be working in his book.
Lush carpet muffled his angry footsteps and he barely spared a glance to the gorgeous oil paintings lining the walls. They were old, dear friends, but his mind was sharply on rescuing his boy. His conservative clothing masked it greatly, but his stride had enough swagger to put him back in his privateering days if only he had a cutlass at his hip.
As he approached, the door swung open to reveal a smiling President patting Alfred's back. "I'm delighted you have agreed to start volunteering at the Children's Hospital on Saturdays! This will do wonders for our image."
"Yes, sir!" Alfred grinned back. "I sure love kids and I'm happy to help out." He avoided Arthur's narrowed eyes as the nation drew along side of him. "Of course I will have to start next weekend as I have a guest in town."
The president glanced at England. "Hello, Lord Kirkland. Always a pleasure to have you stay with us- what with Special Relationship and all. Alfred here just loves to spend time with you."
"Indeed," England said cooly, formal ice crystalizing over his ire. "I fear I am here to make sure Mr. Jones makes his dinner reservation. If you don't mind?" He subtly accented his more polite appellation for America and gestured down the hall in the direction of Alfred's rooms.
"But I had a couple more things... " the President protested weakly, squirming a bit under Arthur's regal gaze.
"I'm sure they can keep until tomorrow, as your Nation," again the focus on respectful terms, "has had a long and tiring day." He gently worked a hand into the crook of America's arm and tugged him away. "Until tomorrow then."
The President shrugged. "I suppose it is time for dinner. Good evening, gentlemen."
Alfred twisted around as he was marched down the hall. "Good night, sir! I'll find you first thing in the morning and we'll finish up."
Facing safely away from the President, Arthur rolled his eyes. "Don't pander to him, he already needs to treat you with far more respect, " he murmured under his breath.
Turning back, smile still firmly in place, Alfred grumbled softly. "That was uncalled for."
Arthur shrugged. "If I hadn't intervened, you would be working until midnight. Again."
Alfred laughed nervously and allowed himself to be lead back to his rooms.
As soon as they were through the door with it locked safely behind them, Alfred let his mask drop. His smile became a grimace and his entire body sagged. He leaned against the door. "I'm fucking exhausted."
Arthur continued on into the living room and switched on a dragon fly patterned stained glass lamp and stood in the pool of golden light examining his lover.
"You were out of bed before me love- what time was your first meeting?" Arthur asked with a frown.
"Uh – five? Navy officials."
"And no one else in your bleeding government could have done it?" Arthur asked careful to not allow his annoyance to make it sound like an attack.
"Well, sure, but I had special intel, ya know? More of my boys will survive that mission because I was the one who did the briefing." The deep shadows in the room masked Alfred's expression.
"What do I keep telling you about delegating, darling? You can't keep this up." Arthur ran a fingertip over the lamp's mosaics of bright glass with a sigh.
Alfred leaned toward the soft light and winced. "Please – just stop. I can't deal with a lecture tonight." He banged his head back against the door. "Seriously."
"Of course you can't... 16 hour work days will do that to you."
Alfred's eyes scrunched closed and he rubbed a hand over them. "Artie, please, not not now. I've missed you so much and now you're here. Let's not fight."
Arthur's face softened. "G and T?" he offered
"That sounds fantastic." Alfred opened his eyes and pushed away from the door, kicking his dress shoes off. His quickly unbuttoned suit jacket was removed and draped over a wing backed chair as Arthur took over drink preparations at the small wet bar with a proprietary air that spoke of long affiliation.
"Miller's or Plymouth Gin?" Arthur asked, dropping ice cubes into simple glass tumblers.
"Whichever." Alfred, now just in his half unbuttoned oxford, blue boxers, and black dress socks, shrugged and opened the heavy damask drapes in the seating area. Soon he was at work jimmying at the stuck window over-looking a rose garden.
Arthur poured the Miller's into the glasses, and leaned down to open the small refrigerator under the bar and rooted around. "Diet tonic water?" he asked in disbelief.
One more push and Alfred had the window going up. "I've... I've put on a little weight," he admitted. "I'm cutting back on my calories."
"Having a hard time getting your work-out's in?" Arthur cut a lime into small wedges, using two of them to garnish the glasses. He avoided stating his concerns over the actual taste of diet tonic.
"Yeah, the meetings have been starting earlier and earlier," America pushed up the screen and leaned out the window.
"What on earth are you doing?" Arthur asked setting the drinks on a glass end table near the window.
Alfred shot a guilty look over his shoulder before sliding a hand behind the curtains and coming back with a hard box of Marlboro's and a Zippo.
England raised an eyebrow. "I thought you quit decades ago."
Alfred leaned as far as he could out the window and lit up. "I did."
Shaking his head primly, Arthur sat down on a leather love seat and sipped his gin and tonic. He watched Alfred smoke in silence for a while. His posture was far from relaxed, even his sock clad toes clenched unconsciously at the deep pile of the carpet.
"Don't forget your drink." Arthur purposefully didn't remind Alfred that the White House was a tobacco free facility- Alfred was about to tumble out of the window as it was. He only hoped the sprinklers wouldn't activate.
"Thanks, Babe." Alfred exhaled, then ground out his cigarette on the window sill and flicked it into the garden. He ducked back through the window, shutting it behind him. He took up his drink and settled into a chair across from Arthur. He stared into it, using the the swizzle stick to move the ice around. The small laugh lines around his eyes were deeper than usual and only drew extra attention to the purple circles under his eyes.
"Anything I can do, love?" Arthur asked softly.
Alfred looked up, his face drawn. "Nah. You just being here helps. Why don't you change into something more comfortable and I can order us some dinner from the kitchens."
Arthur looked down at his usual sweater vest ensemble. "I'm quite comfortable, thank you."
That earned him a brief grin. "At least take your shoes off, so I feel more comfortable."
Arthur held his drink steady with one had and used the other to unlace his oxfords. He slid his feet out and hooked his middle and index fingers into the shoe's heels and lifted them as he got to his feet. "Very well. Its late enough for me to change into my pyjamas." He left his empty glass on the bar and wandered around the room picking up Alfred's discarded clothing. "Where did your pants get to?"
Alfred reached to the side of his chair and came up with the dress pants from his suit. He balled them up and shot them towards Arthur's chest like a basket ball. "I'd tell you to leave them for the maid, but I know that you can't help it."
What was there to say to that? They both knew he couldn't relax in a messy environment. Arthur cocked his head at Alfred who had gone back to staring morosely into his cocktail. The atypical silence in the rooms reminding him that Alfred was not relaxing at all.
Things had been hard on his lad lately, making it harder for him to keep his public persona of slightly flighty charisma in place. Over the last six months Arthur had watched Alfred's natural cheerfulness and enthusiasm erode and be replaced by a poorly constructed mask.
The moment Alfred was in private the fake face fell away revealing the drained husk that remained. Arthur was honored to be the only one Alfred allowed to see his true state of distress. But the depth of it was disturbing and he had been seeing it far too often lately and nothing seemed to help. Certainly not asking direct questions – Alfred would only talk about it when he was ready.
Arthur wandered further into the suite, comfortable in the relative darkness, and carefully lined his shoes up in the closet he used when visiting. He turned a corner and flipped the switch to the bathroom lights and pondered the large soaking tub that could easily accommodate four. Perhaps a nice hot bath would do the trick?
He dumped Alfred's clothing in the hamper for his support staff to handle later. Then removed his watch and rolled up his sleeves before stoppering the drain and starting the water, turned all the way to hot. A scoop of cinnamon bath salts later he pulled his sweater over his head and returned to his closet to hang it up neatly along the seams, draping his tie around the hanger. Everything else but his white oxford came off in quick efficiency and went into his dirty clothing duffle. He headed back to the living room.
"Nice PJ's," Alfred said taking in the way the oxford fell to the tops of Arthur's thighs.
"Enough brooding -I am running us a bath. Come along." He held a hand out to Alfred.
Alfred's eyes shifted in embarrassment. "Aw, Artie... ya know, I'm kinda not in the mood... for... you know..." he trailed off with a tight cough.
Arthur strode over and flicked Alfred's nose sharply, deaf to the resulting pained yelp. "Don't be a prat. Give me some credit, would you? We will just have a nice relaxing soak before bed." He took Alfred's hand and tugged him out the chair and to his feet. "Don't fuss."
The silent ease with which Alfred allowed himself to be steered down the hall spoke volumes to Arthur. Alfred was regressing a little because what he needed the most was to be cared for and loved. Arthur could easily provide that and more.
They entered the bathroom and Alfred blinked at the brighter lighting.
Still holding his lover's hand, Arthur bent to dip a finger into the rising water. It was almost scalding, just the way Alfred liked it. He straightened and pulled his hand free to make quick work of removing his shirt.
Alfred, still subdued and compliant, watched the filling tub as if mesmerized.
Arthur rounded on Alfred. "Let's get these off of you." He pulled the boxers down Alfred's legs, lightly smacking his calf to prompt him to step out of them. The shirt, already mostly unbuttoned, came off quickly. There was nothing remotely sexual about it, just nurturing and care taking. Dumping these items into the hamper, Arthur looked back over at Alfred still just standing there. "Off with your socks then," he suggested mildly, and began to climb into the tub.
Hot... it was much hotter than he preferred, but it would be just what Alfred needed, so he tolerated it. He eased in the rest of the way trying not to wince as the scalding water closed in about his waist. He looked to a now barefooted Alfred and opened his arms in invitation. "Come join me."
Stepping over his inside-out socks, Alfred clambered into the tub and settled his back against Arthur's chest with a gusty sigh as the steam curled around them. "This feels awesome, honey."
Arthur wrapped his arms around Alfred's chest and rested his chin on the taller man's shoulder. "Splendid."
They soaked in silence for a long while, just enjoying the comfort of being together. When the water threatened to spill over the edge of the tub, Alfred stretched out a long leg and turned off the spigot with his foot.
"Your toes are far more prehensile than they have any right to be," Arthur muttered without malice. "At times I swear you are more monkey than man."
Alfred laughed. "You've been saying that since I was little."
"I'd like to see you try to coax a little America out of a tree for dinner. Only I could do it."
"Who else even tried? Alfred asked, lolling his head back onto Arthur's shoulder.
"France – many times," Arthur said smugly. "Several of the Scandinavian countries as well."
"What about Mattie?"
"Every time I sent him out to try, he ended up in the tree with you and I had the chore of convincing not one, but two filthy little boys down from their arboreal adventures."
"Sounds fun," Alfred sighed. "I don't really have fun any more."
Arthur's heart broke. "None at all?"
Alfred's voice and words were hesitant. "As Nations, we have always been busy. There has always been important stuff to work on and never enough time to do it... ya know what I mean?"
"I do," Arthur answered, careful to stray neutral. Alfred rarely spoke of his personal problems as he preferred to keep up his persona of a hero who could bear any burden. That hadn't much changed even as their intimacy had deepened over the years. Arthur had learned that when America tired to open up, it didn't take much to shut him back down. The less said the better, as it was less for Alfred to interpret as disapproval. He watched the mirror over the sink cloud with steam while he waited.
Alfred rubbed absently at Arthur's knee where it stuck out of the water. "It used to be that unless we were in the actual trenches in combat, that no matter what was going on we could go home from our politics at a reasonable hour, maybe play a little football – you know, my football, or go to the bar and just hang out before dinner."
Arthur made a listening noise and kissed at America's neck, encouraging him to continue.
"Something has changed in the last decade and it keeps getting worse," America whispered and stopped as if afraid to say more.
"What, love? What has changed?"
"Do you think... nah, never mind," Alfred cut himself off with a sharp jerk of his chin.
Arthur kept silent, rubbing a wet hand along one of Alfred's arms, watching the water bead up along the follicles of the fine hairs growing there.
They both kept their thoughts private for a few moments, focusing on the regular drip of the tap into the water.
"I don't think I can do one more thing. Period," Alfred said at last and clenched his fist. "I don't like living this way. All I do is work... all day, all night, all weekend. It seems like my government has started to see me as free, limitless resource for everything it needs."
"Are you happy?" Arthur asked carefully. Alfred had always loved his governing bodies with a deepness that made his ears closed to outside criticism.
Silence was all the answer he needed.
"My dear, you know how I feel about how hard you've been working," Arthur began.
"Right."Alfred said flatly. "I knew you would take it like this. Yes, you were right- my government is a mess. Congratulations." He made a jerky movement to get up.
Arthur held tight and wouldn't let him go. "Shut it," he snapped, worry and frustration giving his words and edge. "Get your bollocks out of a twist and listen for once in your life. No matter what I say, you always take it the wrong way."
"Let go," America ground out, deep and threatening.
"Or what?" Arthur scoffed. "You'll make me do some over due paperwork with you? Maybe some filling, hmm?"
America flexed his arms and Arthur fought to keep his grip. "I mean it England, let me up."
"Perhaps if you were not so bloody exhausted you could have your way, but as it stands I fear you are stuck with me." He hoped America wouldn't try again, he likely still had the strength to get loose and England didn't want to chance it. This was a dangerous point for the discussion to stop.
Alfred collapsed back against Arthur's chest with a splash. "What the hell do you want from me, Artie?"
"I want you to be happy. So are you?"
"No," Alfred said in a small voice, exhaustion replacing his earlier tones of anger.
Arthur hugged Alfred fiercely from behind. "Then the situation is completely unacceptable. I will not tolerate it."
"Arthur, Babe," Alfred's voice was more of a groan. " I don't see what you can do about it. I'm up to my eyeballs in debt, my economy is so bad the White House has me doing entry level busy work because they can't afford to hire enough staff, and the rest of the world hates me."
"And you can solve all of these problems by just working harder?" Arthur asked into Alfred's hair, dropping little kisses along his scalp.
Alfred made some unintelligible noise, his usual escape when he didn't like the answer he was forced to give to a hard question.
"Is all this misery what you expected when you worked so hard to become sovereign?" Arthur nibbled an earlobe to soften the delicate topic.
"Then let's change it," Arthur offered. "I will help you, my darling."
"I don't see how," Alfred muttered. He hooked a knee over the edge of the tub and allowed his wet foot drip onto the bath mat.
"Take a holiday. Come home with me and let me spoil you."
"Take a break?" The hope in Alfred's voice pained Arthur.
"Yes spend a few months with me in the countryside." Arthur ran his hands through the damp strands of Alfred's hair, scratching at his scalp. "I know you like my rustic little cottage with all the wild rabbits in the fields," he tempted.
"Months?" Alfred sounded panicked.
"The world won't end if you step off its stage for a while."
"Sweetie, the things I need to do can't wait that long." Alfred turned his head and kissed one of Arthur's wrists. "Things could get really bad for me."
America pulled his foot back into the tub and curled in on himself, becoming as small as he could. "Things are code red critical. If I'm not constantly vigilant everything I've built could..."
Sensing the real fear Alfred was feeling, Arthur hugged him tight. "Could what?"
It was barely audible. "I might... you know...fade."
"Pardon?" England rasped.
"I don't want to disappear," Alfred whispered.
"I will never allow that to happen," England said fiercely. "Get that thought out of your mind this instant." He grabbed a handful of America's belly and pinched it viciously.
"Ouch! Okay, okay," he laughed, stunned out of his melancholy for a moment.
"I'm serious, Alfred, you, The United States of America, will always be." Arthur rubbed the red skin on Alfred's tummy. "As long as I exist, so shall you."
"I believe you," Alfred breathed. "I don't think I could keep going right now if I didn't have you."
"Come home with me," Arthur urged. "Let me love your heart back to its usual stoutness." He twined his ankles around Alfred's under water.
"It's so tempting to think about just hiding away for a little while, Alfred admitted, rubbing his big toe along the arch of Arthur's foot. "Just sleeping in sounds so fantastic."
"You remember the sleigh bed don't you? With the goose down pillows and feather bed?"
"You can sleep until noon every day and then go see the rabbits in the briar patch. I'm certain they have been missing you," Arthur soothed.
"How many bunnies do you think I'll meet?" Alfred murmured, tucking his head under Arthur's chin.
"Oh, dozens at least."
"And will you make me scones for breakfast?" Alfred asked after a large yawn.
"No matter how bitterly you complain about them."
"We'll have Darjeeling?"
"First blush. Though I believe you will prefer coffee, dear."
"We'll hunt grouse and pheasant?" America's breathing was evening out even as his voice softened.
"Every day. Just like we used to do."
"Those early days were so golden," America said as his eyes started to shut. "So perfect."
England kissed the tip of America's ear. "I'm glad you have them to remember."
"Precious." It was barely intelligible and was the last word Alfred uttered before he slid under the healing veil of sleep.
"So very precious," England agreed.
Arthur used a small amount of his magical reserves to heat the water back up a bit and then keep it steady at that temperature. Cooling water would wake his dear boy and that was the last thing he wanted. He would try to keep Alfred sleeping as long as possible before he began a serious campaign to convince him to steal away from his stresses for a well deserved holiday.
Since the moment England had fallen into those wide, endless blue eyes, Alfred had been his most important person. While that bond had lead to pain and misery, it had circled back to even deeper devotion. Despite what Alfred may think, Arthur was still the protector in this relationship. It was his duty to ensure that the younger nation would endure and he had every intention of carrying it out. It would take subtle manipulation and convincing, but Alfred was going to get his spirits renewed. Even if England had to kidnap him.
Old Empires still had a few tricks up their sleeves after all.