I have no excuses for taking forever on this. But it's finally done.
Disclaimer- I own nothing
Alfred's leg only heals a little bit between the night of the attack and the day he steps of the plane and into Heathrow. The wound is perhaps not quite as deep as it had been the night he tangled with the beast, but he still limps heavily when he walks, and he's not sure how much longer he can stand before it gives under his weight.
Alfred sighs in exhaustion and shoulders his carry-on bag as he waits by the luggage carousel. He's not slept much in the days between the attack and his flight to London, and he can feel the jetlag settling over him heavy, like lead. He hopes that when he reaches his hotel room, he might sleep, but he's not optimistic: he's had nightmares of the Devil every night since he fought with it, and almost as much of his fatigue comes from nights awakes as from his wounds.
He nearly falls asleep standing on line for customs, but soon enough, he's out of Heathrow and into the cab he's hired to take him to his hotel. Usually, he stays with Arthur when the meetings are in London—his brother greatly enjoys having guests over, although Alfred always finds himself fixing Arthur's electronics—but Arthur has been staying in the countryside recently and won't be back into London till late, so Alfred had decided that it would just be easier to stay on his own. He's grateful for it, he thinks, as he give the cabbie directions, because he's not ready to deal with Arthur's questions about the wound in his leg. He knows that Arthur would notice, and he knows that the man would not leave him alone until he gets the full story out of him.
And Alfred doesn't want to involve his brother—doesn't want to involve Matt or anyone else, either—in this, because the monster frightens him. If it could hurt him, whose sheer physical strength is the greatest of all the nations, then what could it do to those he loves?
Check in at the hotel is quick and easy, and in no time at all, Alfred finds himself collapsing bone-weary onto the bed. He'd meant to call Matthew—it'd been the first thing on his list—but he's asleep before his head hits the pillow.
For once, he is too tired for nightmares.
The next morning still dawns too early, and Alfred wakes up feeling muzzy and disoriented and wonders for a moment where he is before remembering the meeting he must be at. It takes him a good ten minutes to force himself to stagger to the bathroom, where he turns his bathwater red, and he nearly vomits, just looking at it: the skin is torn and raw and bruised around the edges. At least, he thinks, he cannot see the bone.
Alfred sighs as he re-bandages his leg, and thinks vaguely that it should have stopped bleeding now, right? Part of him wonders if there had been something on the beast's claws that prevents it from healing faster, but it's more likely the fact that he hasn't had time to rest it that keeps the wound raw and open. (He can almost hear Arthur's voice in his head, yelling at him to stay off of his feet and to give his body a chance to catch up with him.)
With a groan, he pushes himself off of the bathtub ledge, drains the bloody water, and hobbles out of the room to get dressed. He sets the percolator to brew him something strong—hotel coffee is overpriced and not very good, and usually he stops at Starbucks on the way to the meeting, but today he doesn't much care what kind of coffee he drinks as long as it gives him at least a little energy—and gathers his notes for the next few days.
"At least," he says to the room as he shoves the papers haphazardly into his briefcase, "I don't have to speak till tomorrow afternoon." He sighs. "Hopefully, I can sneak out early." Before people ask questions, he thinks but doesn't say.
He grimaces. The others would notice if he's not there, he knows, but he can dream.
Alfred nearly falls asleep again, sitting in the ragged old desk chair, when the coffee maker beeps at him. He takes a large gulp of the coffee and nearly chokes on it, but it wakes him up enough to motivate him to stand.
And with one last, longing look at the bed, he leaves for the meeting.
("Damn," he grumbles when he has to stand on the Tube, "why can't I just go home?")
The hobble in his step makes him a little late to the meeting—he hates being late more than anything—and he doesn't look a single nation in the eye as they all turn to watch him limp to his seat.
He wants to kill Prussia though—why's the ex-nation here anyway? He wonders irritably—when, cheerfully, he calls out, "Hey America, you sure are walking funny today! Who fucked you?"
A few of them echo Prussia's sentiments and ask if that's what took him so long to get in, and Australia ribs him good-naturedly, but Alfred resolutely ignores all of them and plops down into his seat beside Uruguay with a painful grimace. Out of the corner of his eye, Alfred can see Arthur frowning at him from the podium at the front of the room. He looks as though he wants to confront him, but now that Alfred's here the meeting can begin, and as the host, he holds his tongue.
Alfred refuses to look in his direction and knows that he'll have to leave quickly when the meeting breaks for lunch or else he'll never be able to avoid his brother.
Across the room, Matthew is also frowning at Alfred. Partially, it's because Prussia's comments have raised his hackles—he'd wanted to snap at him in defense of his southern neighbor, who he doesn't want to imagine sleeping with other nations—but mostly it's because that limp worries him. The other night, Matthew had woken to find himself on the floor, all tangled up in his sheets, trembling from the hazy memory of glowing red lights floating in the darkness and a burning in his leg—the same leg that Alfred can barely walk on.
The pain had faded fast, and while Matthew had pushed the nightmare from his mind, he simply has not been able to shake the feeling that something is wrong.
He stares intently at Alfred as Arthur begins his opening speech and knows—knows in the way he knows their shared geography, in the way he knows where their mountains and lakes and plains meet and meld—that something has very badly rattled Alfred.
And Matthew's determined to find out what it is, even if he has to pin Alfred down and drag it out of him.
Even if he has the sinking feeling that he knows what it is.
It's Arthur, though, who gets to Alfred first.
He corners Alfred when they break for lunch. He's noticed Alfred's limp the way everyone else has, but like Matthew, he doesn't make light of it. He says, irritably, "All right, boy, what have you got yourself into?"
"It's nothing, Arthur, I'm fine," Alfred snaps. He tries to push past the other man, but a pointed look and a shove sends pain shooting up his left leg, and Alfred hisses and presses his hand to the wound. Arthur's eyes narrow, and his gaze focuses on the place where Alfred clutches his leg.
"Take off your trousers, Alfred."
"Your trousers, you imbecile. Take them off so that I may see what you've done now."
"Arthur," Alfred sighs, "there's nothing you need to worry about—"
Arthur sends him a scathing glare, one that causes Alfred to shut his mouth with a snap. "Do it, Alfred, or so help me god, I will do it for you."
Alfred regards him for a long moment, but Arthur meets his eyes and does not look away. Finally, he decides that he doesn't have the energy to argue—his leg is stinging terribly, and he just wants to go to bed—so he sighs and begins to undo his belt. The corners of Arthur's lips curl up into a tiny, triumphant smile.
Taking his pants off is slow-going; the edge catches on his bandages, and he groans softly in pain, which prompts a worried frown from his brother. He manages not to stumble as he steps out of them and tries to kick them to the side. It only strengthens the aching in his muscles, so he settles for standing before Arthur.
The bandages have pulled loose a little, and the blood has already begun to soak through again, turning them bright red. Arthur breathes sharply and gets to his knees before Alfred.
"All right lad, you sit down and let me look." His voice is softer, now, has lost the sharp edge it had had when Alfred had been fighting him. He's worried; Alfred can see it in the way his brows have knitted together and in the pursing of his lips.
Alfred sighs gratefully, and lowers himself into a nearby chair. Arthur follows him, and settles in front of him. Gently, more gently than Alfred remembers Arthur is capable of being, he begins to unwind the gauze. Alfred bites back another groan of pain—Arthur murmurs something soothing and squeezes his knee—and grips the armrests.
They don't speak until he has managed to get everything off, and then Arthur swears softly. Alfred's thigh is a mess: the skin is torn and still bleeding, and Arthur can see clearly four deep, parallel claw marks. It's not so deep that he can see the bone, but it's enough to make Arthur wonder how the boy's even managed walking. Alfred, for his part, could barely look at the wound without feeling sick with terror and the memory of red glowing eyes. He breathes deeply and fights the bile rising in his throat—he can hear it growling and snapping branches as it rushes him, wings unfurled. It reaches for him, claws extended and dripping—
"Alfred!" Arthur says, "Alfred, lad, snap out of it!" He reaches for Alfred's clenched hands, where his fingernails have drawn blood, and Alfred jolts at the touch.
"Sorry, Arthur," he whispers, eyes wide, and Arthur stops and stares at him, disconcerted. Alfred is trembling almost uncontrollably, so Arthur moves to rest his hands on the man's shoulders.
"My boy… Alfred, it wasn't an animal who did this to you, was it?"
"No," he says quietly, unable to meet his eyes. "It wasn't."
"Alfred, what—" He's cut off by something outside the door, and both of them turn to see Francis standing over the threshold, eyebrows raised as he takes in the scene before him, because this is not what he expected to find while looking for Arthur.
"Well if this isn't interesting!" He says, "What this we have here? What have you two been up to?" He stops abruptly when he sees Alfred's bloody leg, and his jaw drops in surprise at the messy wound. Francis seems to notice their expressions now—Arthur's simultaneously worried and annoyed scowl, and Alfred's wide, shaken eyes—and says, "My god, Alfred. What happened?"
He strides in quickly, not bothering to close the door, and kneels down next to Arthur in order to peer at the injury. He reaches out to gently touch his leg and murmurs an apology when he feels Alfred flinch away from him.
"Alfred, dear, what's this?"
Arthur scowls at him and bats his hand away from Alfred's leg. "Christ, Francis, don't prod at it! He was about to say before you interrupted."
"Guys," Alfred sighs and rubs his eyes beneath his glasses. He sounds so weary that Arthur and Francis stop their bickering before they truly even begin. "Look," he continues, "I don't really want to argue about this right now."
"We are most certainly not arguing," Francis states, and for once Arthur is nodding in complete agreement with him.
"Lad, you've got to tell us what did this to you. Really, boy, I don't know how you were even walking today." Arthur says, the frown that had never really left his face deepening.
Alfred bites his lips, and looks down at his lap for a moment, before shifting his gaze to the chair's armrests. Arthur is still crouched at his feet, and Alfred's not ready to look at him as he steels himself. He'd been trying to forget the monster haunting his dreams.
He hadn't managed, but the meeting had been a decent enough distraction.
"Darling," Francis begins, but it's only when he notices Matthew standing in the doorway that Alfred feels brave enough to answer Francis.
He can see Matt's eyebrows raised in surprise at the three of them gathered there, Alfred sans pants, but before Matthew can speak, Alfred says, grimly, "It wasn't animals getting my chickens."
"Alfred," Matthew breathes, paling, "are you sure?" Unconsciously, he brings his hand down to touch his own thigh, where he'd dreamt of searing pain.
"Wait a moment," Arthur says, "Matthew, you knew about this?" He glares at Matthew somewhat accusingly, as if to say, and you hadn't stopped him?
"What's this about chickens?" Francis asks, at the same time Alfred speaks.
"'Course I'm sure. I think I'd know the Devil when I see him."
And that, of course, stops all other conversation, as Arthur and Francis both turn to gape at him.
Matthew takes the opportunity to say, "He called me the other day. Said his people were getting caught up in those old Jersey Devil stories, because chickens have been going missing all over town. But I thought you'd suspected bears or coyotes?" He directs that last sentence to Alfred, who shakes his head solemnly.
"I thought wrong. I waited the night after I spoke to you, 'cause I'd hoped to chase whatever it was away. Except it wound up chasing me instead. And, well…" He gestures with a grimace to the unwrapped wound on his leg.
Matthew comes to kneel beside Arthur, and touches gently fingers to Alfred's thigh. "I'd had the feeling," he says, "that something wasn't right. Do you have any clean bandages, Al?" He stands to retrieve them, when Alfred points at his briefcase, and briskly sets about winding them around Alfred's leg.
"I had a dream," Matthew tells the others, "that I was being chased by two red lights, and when I woke up, my leg felt like it was burning and I couldn't shake the feeling that something terrible had happened." He and Alfred lock eyes for a moment, and Alfred tries to smile weakly at him.
Matthew strokes him gently, and opens his mouth to soothe him more when Arthur clears his throat.
He looks vaguely embarrassed—although Francis watches the two of them with interest—and says, "And that's what exactly what happened to you, isn't it Alfred?" He shifts a little, and groans as he stands to lean against the conference table.
Alfred shudders visibly, but nods, and Arthur sighs. "Don't worry, my boy. We'll help you."
"But," Alfred starts, "I don't want…"
"No." Francis touches his shoulder softly. "Obviously, you cannot see to this on your own. Alfred, darling, we'll not leave you alone."
He speaks so gently that Alfred can't control the trembling of his lips or the tears that rise to the corners of his eyes. Matthew, kneeling beside him, pulls him into his arms and lets Alfred press his face to his shoulder.
"Guys…" He doesn't know what to say, so he lets his voice trail off. It doesn't really matter, though, because his companions know, and they share the silence until Arthur straightens and sighs.
"We don't have enough time for you to tell us everything, Alfred, but we'll talk more after the meeting. There're only a few hours left." He bends to grab Alfred's trousers and with a little help, Alfred manages to get them back on. They usher him over to his assigned seat, and as he makes himself as comfortable as he can, Arthur continues: "You'll come home with me, of course—no, boy, don't you roll your eyes at me; someone's got to look after you—and I'll make supper and—"
"I will make supper," Francis interrupts.
Arthur ignores him though and says, "We will make supper, and then we'll discuss what can be done about your monster. And we'll all be going back to the States with you, of course." As he speaks, he fusses over Alfred; he tugs at his jacket and straightens his tie and even tries to scrub his cheeks—Matthew snickers as Alfred bats his hands away. Alfred attempts to look indignant at Arthur's mother-henning, but he's smiling easily, feeling better than he has in days, and no one is fooled by his acting.
Arthur shooes Matthew and Francis back to their seats just as the other nations begin to file back into the meeting room, and as Alfred leans into his chair and watches them, he feels some of the tension leaving his shoulders. Fighting the Devil is not quite so daunting, now that he doesn't have to do it alone.
I wanted to thank you all for your lovely comments; I hope you continue to enjoy the story.
Also, thanks to everyone who let me complain to them about everything when I got frustrated.