For anyone curious as to why, last chapter, Alfred (the self-proclaimed hero) wasn't more heroic, saving people left, right and centre… Well, I don't like to interfere too much with history that way. It's all very well to write Our Hero diving in to rescue people from the water, commandeering lifeboats and making sure they're properly filled and rowing back after the foundering to pull fifty people out of the water… but that didn't happen. I mean, sure, I know Jack and Rose didn't exist either but I feel like the Jack-and-Rose story is insular in its own way, not really interfering all that much with the actual events, and I wanted to do the same. 705 people on Titanic were saved due to the actions of her crew, not a fictional character, and really I'd rather Alfred was a little OOC than take the credit from real people, many of whom bravely died at their posts during the tragedy.
…Uh, not that anyone complained about that, per se! Buuuut I decided to justify myself in case anyone was wondering why Hetalia's most heroic character didn't exactly prove himself in a lot of ways. I hope this is an acceptable reason~
The stretch of time between the Titanic's foundering and the break of dawn which brought their rescuer, the RMS Carpathia, steaming over the brightening horizon towards the cluster of lifeboats had been the most awful experience of Alfred's life. When her grotesque black bulk had at last slithered out of sight, all that had been left of the almighty Titanic was a thrashing mass of swimmers helpless in the icy waters. Some had found things to hang on to but most had simply floundered blindly, sobbing and screaming for help - and knowing, really, that they couldn't go back, not in their tiny overcrowded lifeboat, Alfred had sat in the midst of the other silent survivors with his head in his hands. Arthur had had his palms pressed tightly over his ears but, glancing at him, Alfred had known that for once it was not because Arthur had come to resent chaotic noise; it was because he couldn't bear to listen to his people dying. The majority of RMS Titanic's crew, at least, had been British.
"We… we have to go back," Alfred had said hoarsely at some point; he himself had found it unbelievable, stupid with a self-indulgent echo of heroism, but it came out because he could contain the guilt no longer. "We can't… can't just sit here and-"
"This boat is too crowded," the seaman at the rudder had interrupted, not looking at him. "The earlier ones… they left half-empty. Some of them might go back. They should."
Alfred had said nothing at all after that, falling still. Within an hour the cries had faded to the odd forlorn wail and then Arthur took his hands from his ears and looked up at the sound of the lilting Welsh accent calling across the still waters for survivors. Fifth Officer Lowe's boat had drifted into the bed of floating corpses and out of sight, the blackness closing in around it. His was the only one that went back.
Alfred had vomited twice over the side of their boat, Arthur's hand at his back, by the time they pulled alongside Carpathia. With his eyes closed, all he could see was Titanic's corpse hiking bleakly over the skyline before plunging to her grave; all he heard were her roars and the screams of those left in the water after her violent departure from the surface world.
It would have been too easy, after all, to stand up and shove the seaman aside, to take the oar, throw the other to Arthur or someone else able to row and direct them back to the pulsing nest of dying people in the freezing waters… But Alfred, for all his brash and blunt behaviour, was not entirely stupid. He had been in wars - he had seen the desperate things that dying humans were capable of if they thought it would save them. Those people would not have formed an orderly queue and waited their turn to be pulled into the lifeboat; no, they would have surged and grabbed and, without a doubt, capsized the tiny boat, pulling down its folded canvas sides and dragging the forty-odd preserved people into the icy ocean with them. Humans were not the straightest of thinkers when they were panicked and condemned to die.
Not that that - as grimly sensible as it had been - had made him feel any better. Safe on Carpathia, bundled with blankets and plied with short glasses of brandy, Arthur had rested his head against Alfred's shaking shoulder.
"Surviving is harder than it looks, you know," he had whispered. "Because you'll feel guilty for not saving those who perished for the rest of your life. It's a pity, isn't it, that you and I have absolutely no choice either way."
"Here." Alfred sat down next to Arthur on the floor of the Carpathia's open deck, handing him a cup of hot, watery soup. "…I'm afraid I don't know what the exact measurements are."
Arthur's mouth twitched into a shadow of a smile.
"I don't think I'm in much of a position to make a fuss," he said quietly. "At least not without deserving a smack around the head." He held out the blanket draped around his shoulders for Alfred to get back under with him, wrapping his chilled hands around the cup. "Thank you."
"You're welcome." Alfred curled up next him, sipping at his own. It was a bit tasteless but so welcome that he had to stop himself from gulping it all down in one go.
"…Are you alright now, Alfred?" Arthur asked gently. "It was your first and… I confess it doesn't get much easier, really, but it's such a dreadful thing the first time you see a ship go under and… well, even I have never seen anything quite as monstrous as we saw last night-"
"I'll be fine." Alfred said it quickly, a little defensively, looking up at the sky. It was a bright, clear morning and the Carpathia, which had turned her Europe-bound course to race to Titanic's aid, was heading back to New York. "I just… I don't know. I need a while to recover, I think, but I'll be alright."
"You were very brave last night, Alfred."
Alfred shrank a bit.
"No, I wasn't," he muttered. "I didn't… I didn't save anyone, I didn't-"
"You stopped me from doing something very silly and cruel. I'm glad you did." Arthur paused. "I wouldn't have died, of course, but after seeing her lights stay on until right before she went under, after… after hearing my men, her devoted officers, dying in the water because they stayed on her until the last… I'm glad you stopped me. I almost had them branded failures and they weren't. They were good, brave sailors, every last member of the crew, and they deserve to be remembered as such."
"It doesn't seem like much now," Arthur went on, "after sitting in a lifeboat close enough to hear those people dying and doing nothing to help them. I know it doesn't - but the truth is that I've been in very bad form about this whole thing and honestly my behaviour has been quite unspeakable. You really… really helped me last night, Alfred. God only knows what selfish stunt I would have pulled if you hadn't been there to talk some sense into me. I really can be quite a prick sometimes, you know."
Alfred grinned weakly.
"Yeah, I do know," he said. "My lip still stings from where you punched me. Heads up, next time you hit me during one of your hissy fits, I'm going to knock you into the middle of next year."
"Ah, 1913," Arthur sighed. "I do so wonder what it holds. That war, perhaps."
Arthur gave a sigh, loosening his twisted cravat. His white-and-gold waistcoat was completely open, glittering in the morning sun.
"I had a look for my books," he said idly. "Where all the lifebelts and everything else from the boats was piled up on the deck."
"Yes." Arthur smiled. "…They weren't there."
Alfred's eyebrows arched.
"And you're okay with that? I thought you wanted them to be saved-"
"I did - they were beautiful books and they meant an awful lot to me. But looking around this deck, seeing all the new widows, the children without fathers, the people who lost friends and family and everything that they owned… I'm actually quite glad I didn't get my four measly books back. How would that be fair, Alfred?" He sighed, still smiling. "That poor stewardess, I bet she got her head bitten off by one of the officers for trying to put books into a boat when there weren't enough seats for everyone. I quite understand, really. I was just being… well, difficult and selfish and-"
"I haven't seen Sherman," Alfred cut in softly. "Or Stewart or Jameson or the driver who came on with us."
"I haven't seen Mr Jacobs," Arthur replied, "or the majority of the serving staff that were in my suite." He hesitated. "…It's dreadful, isn't it?"
Alfred looked down at his soup.
"Ismay is on here, though," he murmured. "I saw him."
"Yes, I had heard. That was a mistake, I assure you. He'll never hear the end of it. Smith went down, so did Thomas Andrews, so did Murdoch and Wilde and Lightoller, who was bloody lucky to be pulled out when he was… For Christ's sake, the bleeding band went down with the ship and they weren't even White Star Line employees. Of course it's the nature of humans to attempt to preserve themselves when faced with death but… well, Ismay really should have known better."
"Mmm." Putting down his cup, Alfred stretched out his legs, splaying them open over the boards and feeling the muscles pull, still tense from the hours sitting motionless in the lifeboat as they awaited the Carpathia. "…Arty, you know… the other day when… when you said that you wished Titanic would… sink…?"
Arthur didn't answer for a long moment. When Alfred (determined to make him talk) added nothing more, Arthur shifted, playing distractedly with the antique pin stuck savagely through his cravat.
"…And that she would take this wretched year with her," he sighed at last. "…Yes."
"Did you… mean it?" Alfred swallowed. "Not that you had anything to do with it by jinxing her or… or predicted it or anything, I only… well, I'm just curious."
Arthur was very quiet again.
"In retrospect," he said at last, "of course I didn't. It was a wicked thing to say - I even knew that then. But at the time I was so bitter, so resentful…" He closed his eyes. "…My god, you know, I really think I did."
The shower was only luke-warm but it filled him with a heat that he had begun to think he would never feel again. Carpathia's Third Class amenities were nothing like that of Titanic's but he was grateful just to peel off his salt-crusted clothes and scrub down his body, rinsing the brine out of his matted hair.
The passengers and crew on board Carpathia were doing everything they could for Titanic's survivors, offering their beds and spare clothes to people who had lost everything.
Stepping out of the communal shower and towelling himself off, Alfred pulled on the clothes that had been given to him by a Second Class Swedish man about his build - slacks and a grey flannel shirt. The sleeves were a little short so he rolled them up as he made his way through the ship to look for Arthur.
After the grandeur of Titanic, she was very plain and tired-looking - but she wasn't filling with water and that was definitely a point in her favour.
Arthur was in the smoking room talking to a tall, thin man in about his forties; by his uniform Alfred recognised him to be the captain, which made him wonder what had become of Captain Smith.
Both men turned at the sound of the name as Alfred approached. Whoever had donated Arthur their spare clothes had overestimated his size, for even with the extra weight he was carrying, the plain round-necked shirt was much too big for him. His hair was wild from being rubbed dry after his shower.
"Alfred," he said warmly. "This is Carpathia's captain, Arthur Rostron. I know him very well."
Alfred clasped Rostron's outstretched hand.
"Thank you, sir, for coming to rescue us."
"What else could I do?" Rostron replied. "We were the only vessel close enough to respond. I only wish we could have come more quickly."
"What about the Californian?" Arthur asked. "Have you heard anything more?"
"Not really. It's hard to know exactly what their position was last night. The coordinates we received from Titanic's distress signal were far north-west from we found the lifeboats."
"We were lucky you found us at all, really," Arthur mused, looking at the ceiling.
"Indeed," he said. "It was quite the ice field she foundered in." He took out his pocket watch and glanced at it. "I should get back to the bridge."
"Of course." Arthur nodded as he passed them. Alfred, meanwhile, sank into one the balding velvet chairs. He was dying for a cigarette, the scent of the room only antagonising him all the more - but of course neither he nor Arthur had any on them. Instead he sat twisting his fingers together.
"What was that about the Californian?" he asked dully.
"Ah, she was apparently near Titanic last night," Arthur sighed, flopping into the chair next to Alfred's. "Nineteen miles, something like that."
"Isn't that close enough to help?" Alfred asked. He felt too exhausted to be angry about this new information.
"Yes - but only if she was that close. The coordinates from last night are all over the shop. Titanic's last given position seems to have been inaccurate. We were very lucky to have been found by Carpathia indeed. Had we not... well, I shan't go into it. I've seen enough shipwrecks, after all - but I'll tell you that there's a reason that a lot of sailors chose not to learn to swim. Sometimes drowning is the least awful fate."
Alfred shivered. He had heard the stories, of course, of wrecked men and the lengths they would go to to survive.
"Do you want to hear something else?" Arthur went on, fidgeting with his cuff. "Just before you came in, Captain Rostron was telling me that they received a message from Olympic this morning. She's due to pass us soon. Her captain has offered to take Titanic's survivors on board."
Alfred looked up at Arthur slowly.
"Isn't Olympic exactly identical to Titanic?" he asked faintly.
"Almost. There a few minor differences but aesthetically, yes, she's more or less the spit. Funnels, staircase, paint job - the lot."
Alfred shook his head.
"There is no way on this earth that I'm getting on Olympic," he said hotly. "Not for a million bucks."
"Yes, I expect that would be the general consensus," Arthur agreed. "I suppose White Star Line feels they have a responsibility - Carpathia is a Cunarder, after all - but Olympic turning up is frankly inappropriate."
"I bet Olympic doesn't have enough goddamn lifeboats either," Alfred muttered.
"Same as Titanic - sixteen wooden, four collapsibles."
"I'll take my chances on Carpathia."
"I agree - I don't think I could stomach Olympic either, at least not so soon after watching the sea swallow up her sister." Arthur got up. "Come on, they'll be serving supper soon."
Alfred heaved himself up, following.
"I'm impressed with you, Arty," he said quietly. "Given how resistant you were to eating in the dining saloon on Titanic-"
"Well, I can't very well make a niusance of myself, can I?" Arthur smiled at him - although it was quite taut, almost nervous. "I'll just... have to make do."
But Alfred could see that it wasn't easy for him. It had been too much to hope that the disaster had shocked it out of him: when they sat down at the long tables in Third Class to eat, he wasn't long in taking out his notebook. Supper was a cobbled-together selection of Steerage fare: rice soup, bread, biscuits and cheese, salt fish and a choice of tea or coffee. Alfred was starving and ate quickly - but Arthur notably dawdled, playing with his soup as he looked around the room.
"I should have asked Rostron for the number of passengers on board Carpathia before she set off," he muttered. He started to jot down some numbers-
Alfred put his hand on top of his.
"Arthur, stop," he begged quietly. "Please stop. You must be hungry. Can't you just eat?"
Arthur exhaled, kneading at his forehead. He distractedly trailed his spoon around his soup.
"I'm sorry, I... if I just had the inventory-"
"You said you didn't want to make a nuisance of yourself." Alfred poured himself some coffee; in all honesty he was too exhausted to pursue this argument.
"Well, of course I don't - but I don't think it would be too much trouble, really. I'm sure a steward could... Mr Jacobs was terribly obliging-"
"Mr Jacobs is dead," Alfred said.
Arthur blinked at him.
"I know he is."
"Well, you got what you wanted," Alfred reminded him coldly. "It was a hell of a price but Titanic is gone and so are your shackles - but you're not going to be free, Arthur. I can see it now. Your Embassy officials will cage you when we get to New York and you won't learn a thing."
"I'm not the one who needed the lesson," Arthur replied acidly; but he did at least close the notebook and start eating his soup. "But if it bothers you that much then I'll do it later."
This was a retreat - and a hasty, injured one at that. Alfred knew Arthur was much too proud to ask for help no matter what it cost him so he didn't rub it in. He just nodded, glancing with despair at that wretched little notebook.
"Good idea," he murmured. "Out of sight, out of mind."
(RMS Titanic, of course, was out of sight.)
They slept on the floor of the Second Class dining saloon, lined up in rows like a dormitory. The beds were nothing more than bundles of blankets and linens from Carpathia's stores. There were some spare rooms, of course, but these had been been taken up by many of the First Class female survivors. Alfred, meanwhile, had found that he wanted to sleep with the handful of Second and Third Class survivors, resisting the attempt by Captain Rostron to put him in an empty Second Class cabin. Arthur, too, had refused such treatment, settling down next to Alfred. They amalgamated their blankets into a nest and curled up together, Alfred burying his nose in Arthur's thick hair. He had washed it that day but Alfred could still smell the salt on him.
Alfred couldn't sleep. When he closed his eyes he saw Titanic's black hulking form against the greenish sky so he kept them open, staring up at the plain ceiling of the saloon. He was so tired that it made his eyes ache but he dared not close them. The room was not quiet, the darkness filled with the muffled sobs of survivors.
Arthur got up, easing himself out of Alfred's grasp. He didn't seem to notice that Alfred was awake and, stepping gently over him, padded away through the rows of makeshift beds. Alfred lay quite still for a long moment. He wondered where he was going.
He rolled over and eased himself out from beneath the blankets, taking Arthur's path down between the lines of groaning and quivering passengers, careful not to disturb any in the narrow light.
Carpathia was a much smaller ship than Titanic - or indeed other Cunarders like Mauretania - and navigating her was nothing like the ornate maze of White Star majesty. From here it seemed that the only logical place Arthur could have gone was the Boat Deck, for it was the only stairwell. Taking the rail, Alfred hurried up the steps, the cold night air hitting him as he emerged onto the deck. He pulled the flannel shirt closer around his body as he glanced about for Arthur. The Carpathia's deck was still piled high with the ghostly mountain of lifebelts, stacked against the wall of the bridge. Further down was the clutter of empty lifeboats, the collapsibles folded up like paper fans.
Arthur was near the stern, his arms folded over the rail. Alfred crossed the boards to join him. There was a bit of a wind tonight, whipping past the rigging, and the sea was choppy, white waves overturning against the steel sides. Alfred wrapped his hands around the cold rail, exhaling as he looked out over the vast expanse of the Atlantic. It was completely empty.
"What's the matter?" Arthur asked.
"I could ask you the same thing." Alfred looked at him - seeing the red notebook clutched in his hands. He was idly running his thumb over the edge of the pages.
"I just needed to think." Arthur gave a sigh, looking down at the notebook himself. "About... well..."
"Look, I'm sorry," Alfred said. "I didn't mean to be abrupt with you-"
"No, I understand," Arthur interrupted gently. "After what we've been through, I realise that you really can't have too much patience with me. It must seem so trivial to you." He paused, fidgeting with the notebook. "Well... it is trivial, isn't it? Reams and reams of pointless numbers... It doesn't make any difference in the end." He looked at Alfred. "Besides, you're right. I know you're right. I have to start fighting the battle now or I'll never change."
"Come with me," Alfred insisted, closing his hand on top of Arthur's. "I know you think I'm kidding but I mean it - in New York, don't walk right into their waiting arms. Come with me and we'll get out of there, we'll escape to where no-one can find us-"
"W-well..." Alfred met his gaze earnestly. "I'll help you. I will, Arthur, I promise. No matter what it takes, we'll... we'll get you back to your old self. We won't come back until you're well again."
"I couldn't be such a burden to you," Arthur said, frowning.
"You won't be." Alfred took Arthur's shoulders, turning him to face him. "Arthur, please - please let me help you."
Arthur looked away, back out to sea. His white fingers stressed at the notebook.
"Will you help me with this?" Arthur asked quietly. He brandished the notebook. "I can't... quite muster the courage to throw it in."
Alfred reached for it.
"Are you... definitely sure you want to?"
Arthur smiled crookedly at him.
"I confess I feel rather guilty about it," he said. "After we went all the way back to the suite even as the ship was flooding just to get it..." He took a breath. "But I need to get rid of it - and it belongs down there. With her."
"I should beat you over the head with it," Alfred said, grasping it.
"I know. I'm sorry."
"As long as you're sure."
"I am." Another breath. "Please get rid of it."
"Alright." Alfred tried to take it from Arthur's hand - but found that he wouldn't let go. "Arty." He tugged. "Arthur."
With visible effort, Arthur released the notebook. Alfred wasted no time, not giving him an opportunity to snatch it back; he raised it over his head and threw it as far as he could. The wind caught it and tore it away over the waves, far away from Carpathia.
Arthur let out a very long breath and turned away, pressing his back against the rail. Alfred watched him put a hand to his gold hair and rake it back, holding it there.
"Are you alright?" he asked.
"Yes," Arthur sighed. "Yes, I'll be fine. Thank you, Alfred. I'd have been dithering out here all night."
"You're welcome." Alfred turned to put his back to the rail, too. He didn't like to look at the black, empty sea for too long - so instead he gazed up at the old-fashioned rigging and the single funnel belching smoke into the stormy sky.
"I'm sorry for being selfish," Arthur said. "I'm asking a lot from you."
"No, it isn't." Arthur touched his arm. "You're not alright, either - not after... that."
"It's so stupid," Alfred said savagely. He felt raw, his innards burning. "I've seen war, I've seen people die in their thousands - but when I close my eyes, all I can see is her lights going out and her back breaking, all I can hear is the people screaming in the water-"
"It's not stupid," Arthur said, touching his face. "Of course you're upset. So many of them were ours, after all. That is our pain."
He pulled Alfred into a sudden embrace, holding him close. After a moment Alfred clutched at him, his hands fisting into the shirt that wasn't his. He held him like he would never let him go.
"But it'll be alright," Arthur whispered. He sounded like he barely believed it himself. "Together, Alfred... we'll be alright."
Their names were put onto the list of survivors - more so that no-one would worry and no-one would be blamed - but, when they at last reached New York, Alfred took Arthur's hand and pulled him into the crowd and they vanished for two whole years.
Though there was a whole inquiry afterwards regarding the SS Californian (which according to varying sources was within sight of Titanic while she was sinking and didn't come to help/wasn't within sight but was close enough that she could have helped had she had her radio on/actually wasn't anywhere near as close as people say she was, etc), RMS Carpathia, a Cunard liner under the command of Captain Arthur Rostron, was the only ship to properly respond to Titanic's distress signal. Carpathia, 58 miles away,was rather old and quite small, built in 1903, and could only go seventeen knots at her very highest speed, but Rostron nonetheless turned her course immediately and headed towards Titanic's coordinates. Despite his best efforts, however, she didn't make it in time and, when she arrived at 4:00am, all that was left were Titanic's lifeboats, which she picked up. Rostron and his crew were rightfully recognised for their heroic actions in rescuing Titanic's survivors. Carpathia herself was later sunk in 1917 by a torpedo; chillingly, there is a photograph of her sinking.
Olympic, on her way back from New York, was supposed to be due to pass by Titanic in a few days' time - the sisters never did meet at sea, of course. Nonetheless, she offered to take Titanic's survivors on board but an appalled Rostron refused, fearing that it would terrify the traumatised passengers.
Epilogue tomorrow! Originally this chapter and the epilogue were together but additions to the Carpathia scenes made it into its own chapter, I think...