The last time, Alfred stands in line, rows of white and blue facing rows of red and black. Throbbing drums pound a hot, dull ache into his head; bitter winds slice lines of ice into his skin. This battlefield is burning cold today, loud and silent like a place removed, its forested edges bordered by the last of the winter snowdrifts. Alfred feels lost in these rows of blue-clad strangers who are supposed to be his allies. After two long years, Alfred does not know these men. Too many come, and too many go, and too many fall and lose and die. But Alfred is bound by chains of red, white, and blue, and his rifle is an anchor on his shoulder. The ground is trampled green beneath his feet; the sky is blazing crimson behind oppressive clouds above. Alfred knows this country, he loves this country, but he has never felt its ground so trampled or seen its sky so red.
The years are long, and Alfred is tired of this. They say this will be over soon, but they say so many things, and Alfred has long learnt that not all words are told in truth. The world is nothing now but lies on lies when all he ever wanted was the simple and the real. But life is not simple, and it never will be, for now Alfred has bled and fought and his once white hands are stained with blood. These age-old lines of blue and red advance; these eternal drums thread their hate through his veins. But Alfred does not want to kill, and he does not want to die. He does not want these coloured chains or this metal anchor; he does not want this trampled ground and this red sky. Alfred wants that blue afternoon by a river, he wants that white night in a forgotten barn. But now his days are red and his nights are black, and his Redcoat Lion is not here to find him. Yet still Alfred believes in fate, and he believes in destiny, because when nothing makes sense you have to believe in something.
This is familiar now: the pounding drums, the shouted orders, this thick storm of descending chaos. This is too familiar, and Alfred's blood aches with it, with too many months facing muskets and cannons and men who follow different orders than his. This is familiar, yet it is always a shock when the lines meet and the colours clash, when the screaming haze of battle descends and his row of white and blue turns red with heat and blood. These shouted orders never make sense; Alfred does not want these orders. He is still a nameless front-row soldier, because he still does not know what he is doing, and he will never understand these rows of red and black.
A man falls to his side; a man falls before him. Alfred fires and a Redcoat falls. The white snowdrifts turn quickly red. Alfred pushes forward through this senseless haze, but he does not know where he is going; he presses through a mass of red, white and blue without knowing who these colours belong to. A moment passes, a lifetime passes, then a stunning rifle butt sends Alfred sprawling to the trampled ground. His weapon is torn from his grasp. He tries to push himself to his knees. Mud-stained boots pass before his eyes; the dead already litter the green-turned-red ground around him. Alfred is lost. His heart pounds in his ears, louder than those hateful drums and those blasting cannons. Alfred is too confused to feel afraid. He can not move; he can not get up.
Alfred gasps at the unreal sound of his own name. He turns his head. The roar of battle fades; the blazing screams die away. Everything slows and stops until there is nothing, nothing but brilliant green eyes, looking up at him and staring through him and turning the world back into something simple and real and understandable. Arthur laughs faintly, nothing more than a breathless gasp on the icy wind. "Alfred. Fancy meeting a chap like you… in a place like this."
Alfred forces himself to move, drags his heavy body through the green-red mud. "Arthur," he breathes, desperate and believing. He reaches out and grasps Arthur's hand, clutches it like a drowning man clinging to land. "Arthur," he says again, laughing, heedless of the clashing battle that rages around them. Seeing his Redcoat Lion, Alfred forgets the last two years, and again he is young and foolish; again he is lost and found. "Didn't I tell you, Arthur? It's destiny. I told you I'd see you again."
Arthur lies unmoving in the mud, his chest rising too fast, his words too slow and too laboured. His rifle lies broken beside him. "Don't be absurd, Alfred. This is simply another… extraordinary coincidence." Arthur takes too long to breathe and Alfred takes too long to notice. Too-pale hands clutch torn cloth and too-dark skin. Alfred blinks at the red on white on red.
Arthur manages another breathless gasp. "Musket. Rifle. Bayonet, perhaps. I'm not certain."
Alfred can only stare, this impossible moment ripping understanding from his grasp. "But you have bandages, Arthur. You can fix it. You can fix it, like you fixed my arm in that cabin, don't you remember?"
"Every moment." Arthur's green eyes darken, and his hand grows warmer in Alfred's grasp. "But bandages can not fix this."
Alfred hears, he understands, but he refuses. He knew he would see Arthur again, he waited to see him again, he survived two blood-soaked years to see him again, but… "Not like this..."
Arthur begins an apology, as though he is to blame for the metal in his gut. Alfred refuses to hear such an apology. He gasps for the icy air and grasps for the pack by Arthur's side. He searches swiftly for something familiar, something to stop this bewildering haze, but there are no white bandages and no more oranges and the book of poetry is red with blood. Arthur gently squeezes Alfred's hand, shakes his head. Alfred lowers his eyes, ignores the screams and the orders and the passing boots that strike up the mud. His hand falls empty and defeated from the barren pack.
"I think I'm lost, Arthur."
"That's all right, Alfred. So am I." His Redcoat Lion always knows what to say.
"I found you, though." Alfred never knows what to say.
"You did." Arthur smiles, a simple line of truth in this stack of lies. "You came back. You are the only one who ever came back."
"I'll always come back." Alfred runs streaks of mud through golden hair, wipes drops of red from paling white lips. "I'll always come back for you." Alfred speaks words that can't be true, words he wishes he could mean, words that draw red-tinged tears from glassy green eyes.
"It's all right, Alfred." Arthur whispers softer than the wind, but Alfred hears him through the chaos and he wonders why it is Arthur who is reassuring him. "It's all right." Nonsense words, because it is not all right, but Alfred clings to them nonetheless.
"I don't want this, Arthur. This ain't like I imagined, and I don't want it. I…" Alfred pauses and chokes on his words. "I don't know what to do."
Arthur's breath is warm on Alfred's cheek. "Go home, Alfred."
Those two words are a clear strike of lightning in this thick, stormy battlefield. "But… I can't do that. That'd make me a traitor, and I ain't no coward." Alfred knows he fights for his country's freedom, for his country's fate. But even though he knows the reasons, Alfred does not know why Arthur's skin is white and his tears so red for such a thing as freedom.
"No." Arthur smiles as he says it. He smiles as he bleeds, as he breaks the chains of red, white and blue. "You have fought enough. You have been brave enough. Now it is your time to go home. Go home, Alfred, and leave these battlegrounds for old men like me. Go home to your blue sky."
"Come with me." Alfred knows it is hopeless. "Come home with me, Arthur, and then you won't be lost no more."
Arthur's red lips part, his green eyes flare. Arthur is warm and cold. He is Alfred's Redcoat Lion; his enemy and his adoration. He is noble and strong. He is all the simplicity and truth in the world, clutching to Alfred's hand and bleeding out in the mud. "But I'm not lost anymore. You found me, remember?"
Alfred always believed in destiny. But he does not understand why his destiny would give him this moment. He does not understand why it would lead him to Arthur, only to take him away. Maybe there was a reason, but here in the dirt and the noise Alfred does not understand. Maybe his fate was to follow Arthur's order to go home, or maybe it was simply to be with Arthur as he bled. Maybe it was so they could find each other, for only a few moments, whether by a blue lake or in a white cabin or in the midst of a blood-red battlefield. And maybe there never was a reason at all.
Alfred touches Arthur's white lips; touches his red tears. Alfred can see Arthur coming home to his farm in Virginia. He can see him patting the dogs and riding the horses and laughing as they run together to the river. Alfred can see Arthur with his brilliant layer of gold but without his coat of red. He can see him running through deep green forests under a sky of blue, lying in golden fields and watching the grey clouds darken overhead. In the midst of this brutal, bleeding battlefield, Alfred can see his Redcoat Lion lying with him under other, bluer, peaceful skies.
"Rain's comin', Arthur." Alfred whispers the words. "Watch the sky with me."
But Arthur does not respond. His eyes should be curious and brilliant and green as willow trees. But now they do not flash, or darken, or narrow; now they stare unseeing, and the first drops of rain mix with the last of his tears. Alfred feels his chest break and his dreams fade. There will be no deep green forest; there will be no sky of blue. There is only this bleeding battlefield, and these red clouds are the only sky Alfred will watch with Arthur.
Alfred lies his head in the mud, clutches tightly to Arthur's hand, and looks up as the darkened clouds open. But he does not see. The screaming storm of battle begins to recede. He does not hear. Those orders keep shouting, but they still make no sense, and he still does not want them. After two long years, Alfred just wants it to stop, because here by Arthur's side is the only place he has ever wanted to stay.
This red sky is not the sky Alfred wants; so he closes his eyes to it. He can not change this fate. He can not mend this cruel destiny. He can only wait to go home with Arthur. So Alfred holds to Arthur's hand, feeling it turn slowly cold, as the rain turns the blood and the snow and the last of the trampled green to mud around them. As lips turn blue, and skin turns white, and all turns red.