A real house was too much. Alfred had forgotten the honest costs of living in Boston, and the medical school wasn't ready to pay Arthur as much as they needed, no matter his seniority, no matter how the economy boomed. At first they were disappointed, and Arthur privately worried that the tiny future they had stitched together was already coming apart at the seams. Maybe it wasn't meant to be after all. Maybe the war was too much. But Alfred, of course, just smiled and said they would be fine with an apartment, and kissed Arthur in the cheap hotel they had rented with just the same fervor as before, and chased away his doubts as he clutched him and whispered over and over again that he loved him like he would never get tired of saying it.
They found an apartment in the center of the city. There was not the beautiful garden that Arthur had imagined, but rather a small box that jutted precariously from the windowsill, and some pots on the roof that the landlord let Arthur prune in his spare time. He knew in the spring there wouldn't be tomatoes and lettuce and peppers, but rather some straggly marigolds and a few sprigs of basil that Alfred could toss into dinner every now and again. And there was no sweeping porch or extravagant foyer or neat parlor to entertain guests, but rather a suspicious flight of steps down to the street and a tiny balcony with chipped red paint and rusted metal bars and two plastic chairs that molded when it rained.
There was no pretty walkway with smiling children and beautiful wives clutching the arms of their husbands who had at last come home from the war. Instead there was dirt and the roar of the city and soot that sometimes thickened on their window, and exhaust and cigarette smoke in the air, and people everywhere shouting and laughing and making love in the room above so that the feet of the bed slammed against the ceiling. It wasn't what Arthur imagined, but he signed the contract. It wasn't what Arthur imagined, but when the landlord left and Alfred grabbed him by the waist and wheeled him slowly into his arms without paying any heed to his protests, he thought that maybe it wasn't so bad.
Alfred kissed him thoroughly. He always kissed thoroughly; he wasn't the type to hold back, and when Arthur put his arms around his neck he could taste everything he felt right there on his mouth, and he almost wanted to shy away in embarrassment because Alfred was so proud and happy that he suddenly felt acutely ashamed of himself and wanted to hide. He ducked away and pressed his face into Alfred's neck. He felt his hands pressing into the small of his back, dragging a slow rhythm over his sides, dipping up and under his shirt.
"Look at us," whispered Alfred. His breath was hot against Arthur's ear. "After all this time we've finally found a home."
Arthur laughed and leaned away from Alfred's shoulder to look at his face in wonderment. "You're impossible, you know," he murmured. "I don't know how you do it."
Alfred knit his brow. "What do you mean?"
"Nothing," whispered Arthur. He stretched up and kissed the corner of Alfred's lips. "I love you, you know."
Alfred smiled and kissed Arthur properly. "I love you, too." His thumbs were still pressed into Arthur's hipbones, and he started to grin, eyes bright behind his smudged glasses. "Should I go bring out the mattress so that we can start getting settled?"
Arthur rolled his eyes and pushed at his chest, but Alfred only grinned harder and scampered away victoriously. Arthur went to the window as Alfred pulled out the mattress and some pillows and pushed the whole mess towards the center of the floor. It was a cold day and the city was awash in the freezing white light of the sun; Arthur sighed and rubbed at his arms, and then Alfred was there with his hands snaking up to Arthur's ribcage, tapping at each nuance of bone.
"I can't believe I'm really here with you," whispered Alfred. Arthur shivered a deep shiver that shook all the way up his spine and turned in Alfred's arms and really kissed him, digging his fingers into his hair and arching into the receptive curve of his waist.
"Me neither," he murmured, and then Alfred was pulling away to wrestle out of his shirt, and Arthur put his hands on his chest and collarbone and breathed deeply the smell of his skin. Alfred eased open the buttons of Arthur's shirt and pulled him into his arms; they kissed again, and Arthur felt that their skin was melting and would be stuck together for a very long time if they weren't careful enough.
"The mattress," said Alfred in a low voice. "Arthur, the mattress."
Arthur could feel him jutting hard against his thigh. He bit down on his lower lip and pressed his palm to the dip at his waist and smiled to feel him gasp. Alfred held him possessively and pressed him into the mattress and kissed him, only breaking away reluctantly to take off his glasses and put them to the side where they wouldn't break or get too foggy. Arthur was tired from traveling and felt like his whole body had gone pliable in an instant. He didn't have the energy to be aggressive, so he only sighed and pressed softly against Alfred in a silent invitation.
Alfred leaned away to undo his trousers, and Arthur, on a ridiculous impulse, took off his socks as well. They pressed naked together and Arthur felt Alfred tremble profoundly. A rough callused palm closed around his cock; Arthur gasped like he was drowning, like his throat was sandpaper, like he never needed to breathe again. Alfred kissed his throat and mumbled something unintelligible; he moved down to his collarbone and then back to his lips.
"I'm not gonna make it very far," he blurted.
"Me neither." Arthur clutched at his back, jutting his hips upwards just so, and Alfred groaned as their cocks brushed together. "It's fine like this."
"I love you," mumbled Alfred. "I love you."
"Hush." But Arthur pushed him away just a bit to get a good hold of his face. He ran his thumb slowly up and down his cheekbone, over his face, stopping at the plush curve of his lower lip. "You don't have to say that all the time. I know."
"I like to say it, though," whispered Alfred. "It's selfish. I just like reminding myself."
Arthur swallowed hard. Then Alfred's tongue darted out to wet his thumb, still balanced at the curve of his lower lip, and he pulled away with a low laugh even as he tangled his arms more closely around Alfred's neck.
"You fool," he murmured.
"I know," said Alfred cheerfully. "Hey, now who's the talkative one, Arthur?"
Arthur rolled his eyes, but then Alfred was kissing him again, and then he wasn't thinking about anything much in particular except for the gentle roll of his hips, easy and unhurried like the tide on a sunny day, the warm envelope of his arms, the taste of coffee and toothpaste and tobacco on his lips, the pressure of each fingertip on the bend of Arthur's back and the swell of his behind. Alfred was pressing them tight together for friction, and Arthur was rearing forwards into him, hands tangled mercilessly in his hair, unwilling to let him have even an inch of room as though he were always on the verge of escape, somehow fugacious instead of powerfully tethered right there where he was most needed in the circle of Arthur's arms.
"Close," he murmured into the burning bend of Arthur's neck.
"Me too." It sounded so faint in Arthur's ears that he wasn't sure if the words were really his, or if they belonged to someone else, someone outside of his body who was somehow worthy of all this, of everything. The room was blurry except for Alfred made out in too-sharp focus, smiling stupidly, smiling like someone in love, because of course he was in love, in love with Arthur, even though Arthur himself still had trouble believing it sometimes. And when Alfred jutted forwards one last time and Arthur came in his hand, he felt that he could memorize every detail of his face perfectly in just an instant, and he kissed him desperately, groaned his name into his lips as though he had stolen it and was somehow possessed of the right to give it back. Alfred grunted softly, and then he was spent, and pressed his face deep into Arthur's chest.
At some point, Alfred rolled a little ways away, still breathing heavily, and Arthur curled into the curve of his body and shoulder and laid one hand on his stomach, idly tapping a rhythm on his ribs. He heard Alfred laugh and looked up at his face. He was smiling and his eyes were bright and Arthur wanted to look away but he couldn't.
"What's got you on?"
Alfred grinned. "Not a house."
"Shut up," said Arthur. But then he blinked and propped himself up on one elbow and kissed Alfred softly as if they had all the time in the world to just live and kiss each other again and again until their mouths were sore and swollen. He hoped Alfred would understand what he really meant to say, even if he couldn't put it to words because he was too prideful, of course, always too prideful. Of course it wasn't a house; that much was painfully certain. But lying there on an old mattress staring up at a spotted ceiling with the roar of the city just outside the window, head propped on Alfred's shoulder with his breath at his throat and his flavor still on his lips, it was, at the very least, a home.
The time passed more quickly than Arthur would have expected. He had forgotten, perhaps, that in America everything was faster and brighter, and that nobody ever quite had enough time to do everything they wanted to do because really there was just so much. Work was demanding, of course, but Arthur was used to that; he had been a doctor all his life and he knew the costs. Having been his patient, Alfred was of course a little spoiled, and at first he resented his long absences and his occasional desertions in the middle of the night, leaving the bed (they had exchanged the mattress for a real model long ago) a little colder.
Things happened fast in the whole world, too, maybe because America had grown so strong and reached so far that now they set the tempo for everyone else. In any case, the war ended at long last, and suddenly Arthur didn't know what to do anymore. Celebrations erupted in New York and he wandered the house aimlessly and thought about pruning his tiny garden without actually doing a thing. Alfred was fastened to the radio and Arthur didn't bother to pry him away. It was him home, after all. It was his victory and he deserved to have it.
That night they ate sandwiches because neither of them had thought to cook anything. They were too immersed in the idea that the war was really over, that everything was really finished, and that now everyone could begin to heal wounds that ran so deep that nobody honestly knew how far they reached yet. The table was silent; they were both lost in thought. At some point, Arthur swallowed and got up and put on the kettle for tea. When he came back, Alfred suddenly lunged forwards and grabbed his hand, and pulled him hurtling down into a kiss so deep and jarring that Arthur couldn't respond because the table was biting too painfully into his side and he was breathless, without words.
"Sorry," said Alfred, gasping, glasses crooked.
"That's alright." Arthur eased away from the table, but he let Alfred twine their fingers together. "What was that about?"
Alfred shook his head. "Just c'mere, babe."
Arthur sat on his lap and put his arms around his neck and pressed their foreheads together because it was too serious a moment to be reluctant or coy.
"I can't believe it," whispered Alfred.
"Me neither," said Arthur. "It's wonderful, and yet I feel a little bit lost. It's insane, I know."
Alfred reached up to tuck a lock of his hair behind his ear, fingertips soft, eyes wide and unbearably, unbearably blue. "Insane? Why's that?"
Arthur ducked his chin. "The war has been everything for so long. When you think about it, it's what brought me to you. I don't really know what to do without it."
Alfred looked at him for a long moment, and then he laughed, and Arthur flinched.
"What? What's funny?"
Alfred grabbed the back of his neck and kissed him hard and Arthur couldn't really be mad when he tasted so urgent against his mouth. His other arm curled powerfully around Arthur's waist and Arthur had to cling to his shirt to keep his balance, cautiously leaning into the kiss.
"Nothing's funny at all, Arthur," gasped Alfred as he pulled away and cradled Arthur's face in his hands, thumbs framing his cheekbones, his eyes. "It's just that it was the exact same thing I was thinking."
And it was the most amazing thing. Once the war was over, it was quiet. Life was quiet. And most surprisingly of all, life was good. Arthur couldn't remember life ever being this good. Sometimes he was lonely and homesick and tired, but Alfred understood, and after a few shouting matches he learned that it was better to leave him alone than to attempt to appeal to his better nature. Likewise Alfred sometimes still woke shaking in the middle of the night, and Arthur held him unabashedly and ran his hands through his hair over and over again until he fell asleep with his face pressed into the curve of his shoulder.
They lived comfortably. Arthur moved up quickly even at such a prestigious medical school, and soon every doctor knew his name. In the fall, Alfred got a job as a schoolteacher, explaining sums and formulas to elementary school students that clamored for his attention and crowded around his legs and asked about his wife every other day. Sometimes Arthur had the time to take lunch with him, and nobody ever looked at them twice, even when Alfred laughed and tried to bat Arthur's foot underneath the table. Not even their landlord asked any questions, and Arthur sometimes wondered if he and Alfred simply seemed too exhausted to be anything more than old friends catching up, or maybe if everyone was simply willing to let them alone, seeing that, after all, they were very, very tired.
It would be a long time before they had the money to buy a house, but that was alright. The apartment was snug and homely, and Arthur had begun to develop little sentimentalities that he found tucked into corners, shoved up beneath the windowpane, between the sheets of their bed; nothing tangible, of course, just the shadow of a feeling when he woke up on a Sunday morning with Alfred breathing softly at his side, glasses askew. The shadow of a feeling that here he needed to be more than any other place in the whole world, that here was where he belonged. That he wanted to stay there forever.
It was a little frightening, to be honest. Arthur had loved Alfred for what felt like his entire life, but to become so entirely and helplessly engrossed in him was terrifying, especially after everything that had happened. He wanted to resist at first, but of course Alfred broke him down in that magic way of his, wearing him down with kisses and stupid little thoughts dropped between the pillows, and breakfast on the table when Arthur stumbled home from work in the morning after twelve hours bent over bleeding patients with the smell of antiseptic sharp in his nose. In short, Arthur loved Alfred more than he could comprehend, and he didn't know what to do with that.
Winter came around sooner or later, and one evening Alfred came home with a giant tree that scraped against their ceiling and frightened the cat they had gotten the last month under the table. Arthur wanted to protest, but Alfred smiled brightly and kissed him with the scent of pine in his hair and the cold still on his lips, and he couldn't bring himself to say a word. They decorated the tree together over the next few weeks, stringing up long glittering stretches of tinsel and winking lights, and at last crowning the top with a clear glass angel that Alfred bought at the store down the road.
"It's beautiful," said Alfred at last, just a few days before Christmas. He stepped down from the ladder and snagged Arthur into his arms by the waist. "Our first real Christmas together."
"I don't know about that," murmured Arthur, kissing the tip of his nose. "How would you classify real?"
"Alright, professor." Alfred rolled his eyes affectionately. "The best one so far, then"
Arthur smiled and kissed him again, because these days it seemed he just couldn't bring himself to stop.
Christmas Eve. Alfred had made sugar cookies that morning because he said it was a tradition, and then called his mother earlier that afternoon and talked to her for hours. It was evening and he was still talking, and Arthur had put on the kettle and was sitting on the couch with the light of the tree casting shadows over the room. At last he heard Alfred hang up the phone and come padding contentedly into the living room. Without a moment's hesitation, he curled up on the couch and pressed close to Arthur's side, jarring his tea gently, not enough to spill.
"Watch it," said Arthur reproachfully, but Alfred just kissed the top of his forehead.
"Arthur," sighed Alfred into his hair. "You never told me what you wanted for Christmas."
"I don't want anything," murmured Arthur. He was trying to sound irritable but he kept running his hand up and down Alfred's thigh. "I thought we weren't going to do gifts this year."
He could almost feel Alfred smile. "I've never been very good with listening. Close your eyes."
"Alfred," said Arthur darkly. "You shouldn't have."
"Close you eyes, Arthur."
Arthur frowned ferociously and closed his eyes. Nonetheless, he continued: "You really shouldn't have. And I know when people say that kind of thing, it usually means that they're grateful and such, and just trying to seem polite, but let me assure you: that is not the case in this situation. You're going to make me look like an insensitive fool because now I ought to have gotten you a secret present, too, and I really haven't because we promised we wouldn't. I'm really very angry right now; I'm just being nice to you because I also happen to feel bad. You should consider yourself lucky, you know."
"The luckiest man in the world," murmured Alfred softly. It was strange; his voice was drenched with amusement, but at the same time Arthur could hear a little tickle of nervousness in the back of his throat. As if to confirm, he cleared his throat, and the sound was jumpy, erratic. "Open your eyes."
Arthur opened his eyes. Alfred was on the floor. Arthur realized with a wave of nausea what this had to be. He didn't know what to do, so he just sat there, fixated on that little glimpse of gold.
"Um," said Alfred. "I love you, Arthur. I think we should get married."
"We can't get married," groaned Arthur. "It's against the goddamn law."
Alfred laughed nervously. "I meant it in the metaphorical sense."
Arthur glared at him fiercely. "I'm very angry about all this, you know."
Alfred swallowed so hard his throat almost convulsed.
Arthur sat forwards and leaned down so that their faces were level.
"I wanted to ask you something for once."
Alfred looked at him in confusion and Arthur rolled his eyes and took his face in his hands.
"I wanted to be the one to propose, you idiot. I love you more than I can say and I wanted to do something about it. I was going to do it tomorrow morning. Actual Christmas morning, when you're supposed to give gifts. But you've beaten me to the punch." He closed his eyes and kissed him on the forehead. "Oh well. I suppose you have always been the impetuous one."
Alfred's hands were shaking. "Is that a yes?"
"Yes," said Arthur. "An angry yes, at least. I will marry you."
"Angrily," said Alfred softly, eyes twinkling. "You'll marry me angrily."
"Yes," said Arthur. They were looking at each other now and it was a little absurd just how involved he felt in Alfred's expression. "Very angrily."
Alfred grinned and they kissed, and Arthur sort of fell forwards into Alfred so that they rolled painfully back onto the floor, and they started laughing halfway through the kiss and the tiny box with the ring flew halfway across the room, and it wasn't really romantic at all.
"We're hopeless," murmured Alfred against his lips. "But I wouldn't have us any other way."
And really, neither would Arthur.
AN – It's been a year since I started this fic I am SO SORRY. Thank you so much for your support and readership! As always, all my love and adoration to the lovely trumpet-geek, who helped me so much with pretty much every aspect of this story.
You all are fabulous! Thanks for sticking with me all this time. I may see you again, but it's doubtful. The USUK fandom has been nothing but good to me, and I want to thank you profoundly for your attention and your friendship. As an aside, you can always reach me over at tumblr (worldaccording or worldaccordingwrites), where I'll be publishing drabbles from time to time. Thanks again, and all my deepest love.