Title: A Portrait of England
Author: Zalia Chimera
Warnings: Mild gore, blood, warfare
Summary: A few days lull amidst the horror of the Great War. France takes care of England.
Bile and blood rise in the back of his throat, fill his mouth, spilling over his lips and chin when he tries to spit. His eyes are burning blind, spreading through his skull and lungs, strips skin from flesh and flesh from bone, flayed alive and left to die as the mud soaks sticky through his uniform and into open sores and rot.
His scream is a siren wail, the hideous whistle call to the walking dead, futile in the darkness of mines and barbed wire, and is swallowed by the drum pound of artillery, the malignant seep of gas.
His scream dies, strangled away by the sudden horrible silence, the rawness of his throat.
He takes a shuddering, painful breath, which sears his lungs and leaves him coughing, strangled pitiful noises escaping him as he struggles. Something grabs him, makes him more frantic as it pounds on his back, shaking his bones with the force of it like a point-blank gunshot to the spine.
Something cool and damp is pressed to his lips and something, a hand, palm warm and broad with slim fingers, cups the back of his neck, holding his head. He almost sobs in gratitude as water, glorious water, floods his mouth to wash away the sickness in his body. He drinks greedily, lets it spill down over chapped lips and sweaty neck, pooling in the hollow of his throat, cool and delicious feeling.
"You'll make yourself sick." The voice is warm with a gnat's wing sliver of concern beneath and it takes him precious seconds to recognise it, his ears too full of gunfire and smoke to believe what he hears.
"France?" It comes out a rusty snarl and he opens his eyes to try to see only to find blackness and the coarse press of rough-woven bandages against his eyelids. He reaches up to pull at them, rip them away, but a hand stops him, grips his arm tightly.
"You were blinded by the gas," France, and it is France, has to be France, says, thumb smoothing against the just of bone in his wrist. It is soft and not at all what England expects from him. "You will heal soon enough. A day or so, I estimate."
He laughs hoarsely, letting his arm hang limply in France's grip. "Well, aren't I lucky?" he sneers. All those men, all those iboys/i dead or dying on muddy fields, but he will heal, he always does, fire and plague and war.
France drops his arm, and he can imagine the twist of his lips, the scorn in his eyes. It is, England is horrified to realise, reassuring, and when did that happen, when did he find France's constant intolerable presence in any way comforting?
"I was a fool to believe that you would display any kind of gratitude," France says as though this is an every day occurrence. Feels like it recently. How many times had he gone over the top now? "It is not easy to go and collect your broken corpse every time, you realise," he adds reproachfully. "You are heavy and Germany is not particularly supportive of my efforts."
"Can't imagine why," England replies dryly, not that his voice can be anything other than dry at the moment.
"You are too sick to be sarcastic with me Angleterre. Be a good invalid and lie there quietly."
"You didn't bring me here to be a quiet and obedient patient," England replies, grinning. He is sure that in his current state it is a horrible expression and he hopes that it makes France feel ill a little. "You'd feel betrayed if I was."
There is a soft huff from France, and then he feels the bed dip and France pokes and prods and generally manhandles him. "I'm definitely too sick for your twisted perversions, frog," he growls, then his words trail off into a shocked hiss of pain as France hits a particularly tender spot.
"I would not touch you in your current state if you were the last man on god's green earth," France says absently, probing the edges of the wound and England is sure that there is no medical reason for it, that it's just sadism on France's part. He half expects to feel fingers dig in and twist within the wound while France watches blood bubble up around them. "Bullet wound," he adds, as if the details will make the pain any less.
"Are you trying to rip it out by hand?" he asks through gritted teeth.
"I already did," France says, as though speaking about sending a letter or something equally banal. "You were unconscious."
"That makes me feel so much better."
"Ah, my apologies," France says, giving him one last unnecessarily hard poke for good measure before pulling away. "Had I known about your predilection for pain, I would have waited until you were conscious and the wounds had begun to heal. I'm sure that I would enjoy hearing your cries of ecstatic agony as I pulled chunks of shrapnel from your writhing body."
Well, when he put it like that… "You would have once." He can remember scenarios very similar to that in fact, when France had had no such qualms.
France is silent for a moment, and England can just hear his soft breathing near his ear, ruffling warmly at his hair. "Perhaps I have lost my appetite for inflicting needless pain." His voice is soft, almost hesitant, except France is never hesitant. He is determined and blunt and mad.
"What changed?" England asks, unable to entirely hide his curiosity.
"Angleterre you are utterly intolerable," France snaps and the warmth is gone from beside him. He hears boots clicking on the floor nearby. "Is it so difficult to imagine that even I might become tired when surrounded by such suffering?"
He hears a clatter, wood on wood, but he can't work out what would make such a sound. It isn't gunfire and that is all that matters.
"You find beauty in suffering," he says quietly, when the silence has stretched thin and taut between them. "You always have."
France's breath hitches. "Some things are too horrifying."
"Liar," England says, a cruel twist that he cannot resist even blinded and broken. "You find beauty in the most grotesque of happenings."
"I think," France says, each word careful and clipped, "that the pain is making you delirious. I will be sure to procure more opium to ease it."
The reaction is instant, the clench of fear in his gut, the harshness of his breath and the way he tries uselessly to rise to his feet. "Not that stuff!" he snarls, and he will fight if necessary, fights uselessly against air until France pushes him down once more. He hates how easy it is in his weakened state.
"You will be more in need of it if you do not stop moving," France says, enduring England's blows with calm fortitude, barely a wince from him.
England relaxes slowly, resting back on the bed because what other choice does he have? "There's no point in wasting the stuff," he says gruffly, "the men need it more than me. I will heal."
"Of course, Angleterre," France replies magnanimously, and England knows that he does not believe a single word of it. He is well out of range when he speaks again, his voice low as though he wishes it to go unheard, but too clear for England to believe that is true. "How ironic for a Nation to be afraid of his own weapon."
They lapse into silence once more, broken only by England's occasionally laboured breathing and the sound of France moving about the room. He might sleep, it's difficult to tell with no way of measuring the passage of time, and if he does it is a fitful, broken thing.
He stirs only when footsteps approach once more and France shakes his shoulder gently. "Angleterre?"
He makes a sleepy noise of acknowledgement but nothing more, opening his mouth obediently when a spoon is pressed against his lips. "It is broth, nothing more," France says distastefully, "and I will not help you if you are sick."
England snorts softly, but swallows the broth, savouring the taste although it is thin and salty. It settles in his stomach, warming him from the inside out. Afterwards, France helps him use the chamber pot and England tries not to think of how many people could be watching him. He doubts that it is a hospital, but it is difficult to tell.
"Do you need anything for the pain?" France asks, a genuine question this time, not a scathing taunt. "It is night and I sleep like the dead," he adds, morbid humour in his words, filled with nameless corpses on the battlefield. It makes England shiver.
"No," England replies. "I meant it when I said that they should be saved for our people." They are woefully short of supplies. No-one had even anticipated such need when everything should have been over by Christmas. How many Christmases had it been now? It all blurs into one somehow, the blood and mud and stench of death and gunpowder.
"You are remarkably stubborn," France says, and tired as he is, England almost fancies that he can hear affection there. It is madness of course. It always is.
France settles; there must be a cot set up to next to England's bed, because he can hear the rustle of starched sheets and the creak of the cot as France lies down, and he falls asleep to the sound of France breathing.
There are scrambled eggs for breakfast and England wonders who France had to bribe to get such a delicacy so close to the field. Everything edible in the fields and farmsteads has long since been pillaged and devoured. It tastes divine after so long on rations or less than rations.
"You aren't bad as a nursemaid," England says when the last of the food is finished and he feels almost bloated from the richness of the eggs after so long on plain food. "I'm sure that they would let you join and you could even wear the uniform."
"Better that than another dreary day knee deep in mud. I would gladly sacrifice what constitutes masculinity in your narrow mind, in return for a dry bed and not hearing gunfire all day and night."
"And back at home the boys are signing up in their droves, dreaming of glory." The words are tinged with bitterness. There can be glory in battle, but this is not battle, it is a slaughter and those who do not die from the enemy waste away in the trenches, starving and diseased. What splendour.
"All the bloodiest battles of our grand histories reduced to mere trifles in the face of this greatest of wars," France says, his voice uncharacteristically solemn. "Even we can grow tired of war."
"We can," England says, "Sometimes I don't think that they will, our leaders and our people, when they can so glorify this slaughter."
"We are them though," France says quietly. "In a few years we two will be warring again, or champing at the bit to do so. We are not so different."
England cannot respond to that, not with a denial at any rate. He just wishes... "Get these bandages off," he says gruffly. "I'm sick of darkness."
"There's precious little light at the moment," France says, typical morbid humour, but does as he is bidden without complaint. His fingers brush against England's hair and skin as he unwinds the bandages, and they pull away from his closed eyes sticky with fluid that England would rather not think about. France bathes them with warm water, cleans his face of grime and blood and then permits England to ease them open.
It hurts. Hurts almost as much as the gas had initially, his eyes dry and sore and he sees in shadows and movement at first, France a blurred figure of warmth beside him with calloused hands against his hair.
"Can you see?" he asks, leaning close; his face is out of focus and broken, but obviously him. England has known that face forever, he will never not recognise it.
"You look like some terrible abstract painting," he says, a bared teeth grin on his lips.
France snorts and moves away and now England can track his movements around the bed. There's something set up at one end, and he squints as France takes up position behind it. "You have no culture in your soul. Your blindness to art will never cease to amaze me."
"Your face is hardly art," England replies derisively.
He still cannot see the smirk, but he knows that it is there on his lips, maddening as always. "Of course it is, Angleterre. My entire being is the highest art as anyone who is not a rum-addled sot would understand and be content to bask in my glory."
England glares for a moment, glad that he can see enough to do that with reasonable accuracy. "You're mad. The shelling has curdled your brain."
"Better than curdling my spirit. You have all the charm of sour milk and that is at the best of times." He sounds distracted despite the sharpness of the jibe, nothing less than England would have expected from him.
England squints to try to see more clearly, but it just makes his eyes sore. "What are you doing?" he asks, wishing that he had something more than bickering with France to occupy himself.
"A painting," France replies, and England can imagine the way his tongue will be poking out between his teeth as he concentrates.
"You have time to paint so close to a battlefield?" he asks incredulously, brows furrowing. "There can't be much to paint."
"Ah, we are in my home in Paris," France admits, turning away to lean over something on what England assumes is a small table.
"How'd you wrangle that you manipulative shirker!" England barks, trying to push himself up into a sitting position and not quite managing it. Weak, he is weak and he hates it. "Anyone would kill for a chance to return home for a while." He would. He hasn't seen his own land in months and he sickens and pines for it along with his boys.
France stops, looks up at him, and he fancies that he can see the blue of his eyes fixed on him intently. "Your boss wished for you to be safe. Would you rather be settled in a filthy tent left to rot while your people die around you?" England's breath hitches and France continues doggedly. "You'll serve your people better hale and healthy. Even your generals know that."
"That doesn't explain your presence," England replies. "I'm certain that I could heal in places other than your home."
A wan smile flits across France's lips and he leans close to the easel, peering at something on the canvas. "No-one else would put up with you, or I am certain that your bosses would have found someone else to take on such an arduous task. I have things to be doing other than keeping you from injuring yourself further."
"What?" England says derisively, "painting?"
"Yes, Angleterre," France says sounding tired, "painting."
"What use is that?" England says and he'd roll his eyes if he weren't worried that it would affect what meagre eyesight he's regained. "Paint on canvas doesn't put boots on the ground." And with their losses, they are boots that are desperately needed. Boots and guns and bombs, not to mention drugs and doctors. This war was draining him dry.
"Art is important for other things," France replies sourly. "We cannot abandon it or this endless parade of dying and dead will be all that we ever see."
England looks away. "That's just it. There's nothing beautiful in all this. Nothing worth painting."
France's movements stop, his head bowed and even to England's weak vision, he looks exhausted and in pain. "Art is not always about beauty. Sometimes it is about reality and what we see in it." He doesn't sound certain about it though, and that makes England's gut clench uncomfortably. "This war will end, eventually. Someone has to remember and let people see what I saw, what my people saw."
"It won't... you can't think that it will change anything," England says, almost pityingly. "There will still be wars." There would always be wars. There always had been.
"Non," France says, voice oddly flat, and without seeing his expression, it's difficult to decide what he means. He hadn't realised how much he relies on the physical clues and France is so very physical. "There will always be wars. But perhaps there will not be one like this again."
England just stares for a moment, then lowers his gaze with a soft choked laugh. "Never thought I'd see the day that you become a pacifist," he says, fingers clenching into the cover.
"You are a blind fool," France replies and England can hear the sneer in his voice. "Do you think that we can sustain ourselves if all wars are like this? You are burns and broken and blinded. Once it would have taken you mere hours to heal and yet you are still lying there entirely at my mercy. So tell me, dearest England, how many of these wars do you think that you can survive?"
England doesn't reply, feeling sickness well in his stomach at the thought. He is exhausted, it is true, his blood bleeding out with every one of his fallen soldiers. Hasn't felt whole since this whole thing started. Still, he sneers; a comforting dismissal when he is at the mercy of one who is rarely merciful. "You'd be whipped for talking like that if you were one of mine."
"Oh Angleterre, you do promise me such exquisite things!" France replies dryly. "If I act appropriately defiant will you hit me harder?"
"Hard enough that you'll be begging me to put you out of your misery you twisted bastard," England growls. "And your bosses would do the same if they heard you speak so. Is that why they've stashed you away here, so that you can't infect the troops with your defeatist melancholy?"
"They hardly need to," France says, "they are doing such a good job of that themselves. I am merely the fractured mirror which reflects their folly back at them."
"How philosophical," England muttered, throwing an arm over his damaged eyes.
"Can you think of a better time for it?"
England snorts and closes his eyes, squeezing them tight shut. The darkness is soothing, easing the sting-soreness of them. He sleeps, dark and dreamless.
The smell of baking bread wakes him and he finds himself salivating from that alone. It's the scent of heaven after months of mud and blood and gunpowder and for a moment he is content to sit there, eyes closed still, focussed on nothing else as the cloudy remains of sleep fade away.
"You look like a man speaking with God."
The soft voice stirs him, and he opens one eye to give a lopsided glare. He can see details today; the uncommonly untidy scruff of France's beard, the dark circles beneath his eyes and the faint tremble which overtakes his hands every so often. It is a wonder that he manages to paint at all like this.
"You would know," England replies, pushing himself to sit up. It's easier today, doesn't make his lungs burn and sear anymore, or his body ache. Still, France is at his side, warm fingers on his elbow to help him up. "Your divine visions and relics."
"You can hardly talk," France says, smirking. "How many schisms and changes in ideaology have you gone through? You believed the same as I did once."
"Do you still believe, even now?" England asks. "There's no god here," he adds, gesturing towards the window; the trenches and battlefields, the razorwire and corpses stretch of no-man's land. If ever there was a place forsaken by any deity, then that was it.
France is silent for a moment, perching on the edge of England's bed, twisting a strand of hair between his fingers. "I have believed for centuries, so have my people, through wars and revolution."
"So you believe out of stubbornness," England replies.
France shrugs. "I believe because I do," he says with a small smile, odd and wistful. "I like to believe that my people have something more than death to look forward to. Especially now. There must be something after this."
"It's the future," England says, lips pursed into a sharp unhappy line. "The future hurtling towards us like an out of control train and heaven is the light at the front."
France just stares at him for a long moment, his expression half amused and half sick horror. "You come up with the most disturbing analogies. If I did not know you as I do, I would think that the gas has addled your brain. As it is, I just know that your mind is a twisted and disturbing place."
"Yours is hardly sunshine and roses," England mutters sourly and then pauses, brows drawing together in a frown. "Is something burning?"
France stands startled, eyes widening as he rushes to the kitchen, showing as much horror as he ever shows when faced with bullets and blood.
England hears him clattering around in the kitchen and smiles, leaning back against the pillows. When France returns it is with another bowl of broth and some slightly singed bread. "I suppose that it will not make much difference to you whether it is burned or not," France says haughtily. England resists the urge to throw the bread at his head and nibbles at it reverently. It is fluffy beyond the burned bits, and warm still, golden butter melting on it and it's better than anything he's had in weeks.
England can see the movements better now, the colours that cling to the end of the brush, thick and oily, and the way France's tongue pokes out from the corner of his mouth as he works.
"Can I see it?" England asks once the bread is gone and his stomach feels bloated. Even the broth seems rich fare after thin gruel and coffee that's not seen a real coffee bean in its life.
France pauses, stock still, lip caught between his teeth and the brush poised close to the canvas. His gaze flicks up to England's face, then down again along his body, bare bandaged chest and the rest hidden beneath the coverlet.
"I'm sorry, Angleterre, but you cannot." he says, looking away.
England snorts. "Why not? I don't care if it isn't finished. Something to look at other than the walls might be nice."
France smiles and sets down the brush carefully. "It is not that for once. I just think... this is a respite from the horrors of war. Enjoy it before we are both sent back to the front."
"I am the horrors of war at the moment," England says darkly as he reaches up to touch the bandages wrapped around him. "I don't think there is anything in this world that could make me forget them."
"Time," France says quietly, a bleak look in his eyes, his lips gone thin and hard and unhappy. "Time will soften the horror. It always does."
And England has no response for that and France hides the painting away.
"You are leaving," France says on the morning of the next day, watching as England dresses himself slowly, each movement painful. His lungs burn and his ribs ache, but he can stand and he can see and that is enough for him to return to duty. He cannot abandon his people when they endure worse, so much worse.
"Aren't you?" He has heard France on the telephone, the heated conversations when he thinks that England is asleep. Buying time.
France enters the room, lit cigarette dangling between his lips. He takes a long drag and removes it, holding it between long-fingered hands. "Tonight," he says quietly. "They cannot do without me any longer it seems and I will be back in the trenches soon enough."
England's fingers falter on the buttons, clumsy and stiff after the days of barely using them, his reflexes still uncomfortably sluggish. France is in front of him in a moment, fastening the disobedient things. "You're in no state for it," he says. "I will be most unhappy if I have to take care of you again."
It's makes England smile, although he cannot quite keep the sourness out of it. "Believe me, I have no desire to be subjected to your tender mercies again."
"Then we are quite in agreement," France replies, fingers brushing his cheek gently, a lingering touch. England licks his lips, not quite meeting France's gaze.
"We could leave before our bosses come," he says quietly, an offer that he knows is impossible even before it leaves his lips.
"We could slip into the streets of Paris," France says, leaning their foreheads together. "Catch a train to the countryside, walk until we find a ramshackle old cottage that the farmer will sell to us for a pittance."
"Grow grapes," England says. "And hops. We could have chickens."
"And a goat," France replies, his breath warm on England's lips for a moment before a loud knock at the door interrupts them. "That will be your boss," France says with a soft sigh as he pulls away. England feels the loss of warmth acutely.
He doesn't even have his kit bag with him; the uniform sent over new by his superiors, so he just catches France's gaze before he leaves. "Show me that painting when we're done here," he says, and then closes the door behind himself.
"I don't know why they made me come to this bloody thing," England grumbles as he tugs at his bowtie uncomfortably, before gulping down the last of the glass of champagne that had been handed to him upon arrival. Bloody booze was the only thing worth coming and even then, he'd have traded the fancy wine and canapés for a couple of hours down the pub with a pint of bitter.
"Because you are England and it is your place to honour those who fell," France says sounding thoroughly bored, even if he looks far less out of place than England. He fits in the fancy gallery, the sleek tuxedo, in a way that England never could.
"There are better ways to honour them than by fancy art galleries and fucking champagne!" he growls, earning himself a few annoyed glares from the very posh people who have been invited to attend. They're smiling and talking politely while surrounded by images of horror that most of them could never imagine. It makes him feel sick.
"What did we say back then?" he grumbles as France drags him around the gallery, images that he had hoped never to see again assaulting his eyes. "Time dulls all horrors. Didn't even take a century and it's parcelled up and sold to the highest bidder." He glares at France to make sure that he's listening.
"It can hardly be considered my fault, Angleterre," France replies with a long-suffering expression on his face.
England gives him a look which clearly states that it is art and so of course it is France's fault. How can it be anything else?
France catches the look and sighs. "Your soul is a barren, empty place," he says, stalking off into the crowds; a gentle word here, laughing at a joke at just the right point, and England wonders how he can bear to be sociable when the paintings stare down at them in such a way.
He looks around the gallery anyway, just to keep up appearances. He wouldn't want to seem churlish or disrespectful, but the subject matter chills him, no matter how long ago it was, or how irrelevant to modern life some people consider it.
There's one painting though that catches his attention, hung up in a corner and mercifully without a gaggle of people surrounding it, dissecting it's relative merits. It isn't a pretty picture. Not at all. The colours are muted, greens and blues, with splashes of vulgar scarlet. The painting shows a man, twisted and broken, his body burned and tormented like a sinner in depthless hell.
His gaze drifts upwards, the man's face, twisted and drawn in voiceless agony. His eyes are closed, squeezed tight shut against the pain, and the brows are thick and... oh...
Realisation hits him like a bullet to the skull.
He starts when a hand lands upon his shoulder, wisps of find blond hair brushing against the side of his face. His breath hitches. "You never told me," he says, mind drifting back to that day in Paris, oh so many years ago, when France threw the sheet across canvas.
He can feel France's shrug, pressed up against his back as he is. "Would you ever have allowed me to finish if I had?"
England is silent for a moment. He wants to say yes, but knows that it is a lie. He swallows thickly, gaze tracing the lines of that broken body caught on canvas. "Why?" he manages to grind out, hating the tremor in his voice. Seeing the man... seeing ihimself/i in such a way.
"Because you are your country," France says quietly. "Because when I saw you like that, you were everything about that war that I despised, and everything that should be remembered." He bends over, forehead pressed against the base of England's neck, and he sounds so tired when he speaks like that, as though the years that he keeps neatly locked away are suddenly heaped upon his shoulders.
England stares a moment longer, France a warm weight against his back, comforting in a way that isn't entirely comfortable when faced with the evidence of his own brutalised body; broken flesh and blind eyes and all.
"What's it called?" he asks after a moment.
"I never gave it one," France replied with a soft sigh. "They took it from me. I never saw it again. I didn't know that it would be here until I saw it."
England nods slowly. There's a little white tag on the wall next to it; Anonymous artist, it says, 1916, oil on canvas. And a title that makes his heart stop, just for a moment.
An unwitting title, unknowing.
A Portrait of England.