Lol. IDEK. noticed this fic has gotten record low attention. XD
it's okay. I'm gonna keep writin' this jerk of a fanfic anyhow. Hope you enjoy.
This chapter is inspired by "What's the Matter" by Milo Greene
Present Year, July 2nd, Ottawa, Canada.
"Happy birthday!" Alfred shouted at the figure in the doorway, brandishing his signature grin and a carefully wrapped present. Matt grimaced at his enthusiasm, but seemed happy to see him anyway.
"Thank you, Alfred," He accepted cheerfully, reaching out to take his ungainly present off the American's hands. "And thank you for the hockey stick." He motioned for Alfred to come in, holding the door open a bit wider. Alfred moved as he was bit, pouting all the way.
"How do you already know it's a hockey stick?" He questioned skeptically, watching as Matt tore the paper carefully off and stacked the new stick up against the wall alongside several others.
"Alfred, there are only so many ways you can wrap a hokey stick," he intoned. Alfred squinted, glaring through his glasses at his timid brother.
"Challenge accepted." He announced, just as the Canadian started looking a little too nervous. Matt just better wait for Christmas this year.
"A-anyway," Matt stammered, fidgeting a little with the edge of his shirt. Usually he'd have his fingers twisted up in his sleeves by now, but it was a little too warm for his signature hoodie. "I'm really glad you could make it. What with it being so close to the fourth, and all. You're usually so busy." Alfred winced guiltily at the words. He'd not been the most… selfless of brothers in the past; that was true.
"Well, I planned ahead this year just so I'd have enough time. I haven't made it to enough of these," he mused, glancing around Canada's house as he spoke and taking in everything that had changed since he'd last been here. It had been too long. He'd just been so busy lately…
"What, you? Planned ahead?" Matt teased gently. "Never thought I'd see the day, eh?" Alfred laughed at his own expense, and Matt accepted the vigorous hair-ruffling gracefully in return.
"Yeah, yeah. Laugh it up," he goaded, watching Matt try to put his wavy locks back into some type of order. "So—"
"Oh excellent, the entertainment has arrived." The sarcastic comment caught him off guard. He looked to his right, traitorous heart beating faster within the cage of his chest. Sure enough, there Arthur was, leaning on the kitchen doorframe with a still-steaming cup of tea in hand. He stared disinterestedly in Alfred's direction, as usual.
"Good to see you too, Iggy," the American chimed, trying not to be hurt when Arthur just raised his cup in acknowledgement and walked back into the room he'd previously exited. He sighed, familiar twinges of guilt and regret reaching up from within to strangle his good mood. He and Arthur had been getting along so much better recently—he'd almost forgotten how tense things got around the Fourth. "I didn't know he was gonna be here," he grumbled to his younger twin. Matt picked at his shirt hem in response, neck bent with timid contrition.
"I… I was going to tell you, but you didn't RSVP, so… Yeah, he's here. And we were going to go pick up France at the airport later. I thought…" he sighed heavily. "I dunno, I thought it could be some kind of family birthday thing, or something." Matt looked more and more embarrassed and the longer he talked, like he was expecting Alfred to walk out or insult the idea.
"That sounds nice. I don't think we've done that for a while," he smiled warmly as he spoke, clasping Matt briefly on the back. In all honesty, he couldn't say he was looking forward to dealing with Arthur in one of his moods, but this obviously meant a lot to Matt. Besides, maybe when Francis got here he'd diffuse the situation by being a bigger pain in the ass than Alfred could ever hope to be. That man made getting on Arthur's nerves look like an art form.
"Not since the frog tried to shave my eyebrows off in the nineties." The Britton's voice echoed out from the kitchen, proving he could hear them perfectly well. Alfred winced. "I'll be rooming in a hotel tonight to prevent that kind of idiocy, by the by. Hope you don't mind."
"Oh, no I don't mind but… are you sure? I've got plenty of room here." Matt's confused disappointment was obvious to anyone who knew him well. Surely Arthur would rethink—
"No, I'm quite sure. After all, I didn't know he was going to be here either." Oh for the love of… for an old man, he sure could pull off the catty princess routine well.
"Arty, come on, I didn't mean it like that." Alfred whined. He waited a few seconds for a response, but there were no further comments from the kitchen. The American sighed in frustration. He turned back to his brother. "Sorry, dude. I'm messing this up already."
"It's—it's okay. I probably should have made arrangements for all of you at hotels anyway. I just… kind of wanted…" Matt was always so careful about the things he wanted. He would pursue them, but the moment they seemed to come into conflict with what anyone else was doing he just… dropped it. He put everyone else above himself. Alfred wasn't sure whether that was something to be admired or pitied. He settled for both, slinging a heavy arm over Matt's shoulders.
"Well, it's your birthday today, so what you want goes. Except with grumpy people, of course."
"I can still hear you, you know." came the muffled complaint from the kitchen. Alfred stuck his tongue out at it childishly.
"Um. I did get a few new games. I thought maybe we could try them out?" Matt diffused the situation before it could escalate, already trying to lead Alfred away from the dangers of an irritable Arthur.
"Sounds awesome," he mused. "Race you to the couch!" And just like that, things were back to normal. He and Matt roughhoused, tripped and wrestled each other all the way to the gaming system in their usual contest to see who got to use the best controller. Alfred 'let' Matt win, of course, seeing as it was his birthday and all. They started with a couple racing games and a classic arcade fighter. Then somewhere a few hours in, Matt mentioned being stuck with one of his single player games and Alfred heroically offered to play past the problem for him.
It had turned out to be much more difficult a game than Alfred was expecting. The beginning gameplay was fun, and had drawn him in immediately, but the finer points of the game were tricky. Frankly he was impressed with Matt for getting so far alone.
The point that had stymied Matt did indeed seem impossible. Alfred tackled it as if it were a personal vendetta, going at the mission over and over again and getting so close but not quite. Somewhere between the first attempt and the tenth, Matt passed out beside him on the couch, knees pulled to his chest, face in the couch arm. Alfred frowned at the screen and his controller in turns, wondering why even he couldn't get passed this part. He grumbled and tried again, this time sneaking cautiously into the last room. Predictably, he was spotted by a minion that shouldn't have been able to see him and summarily overwhelmed.
"Game over" The screen read in thin, white font.
"Ugh," Alfred replied. He would have preferred to respond with some Xbox Live level cussing, but he was trying to be minimally conscientious of his sleeping twin.
"Are you going to keep this up all night?" Arthur's voice surprised him for the second time that day. He nearly fumbled his controller in shock, but managed to catch it easily enough. Alfred turned to look over his shoulder, and there Arthur was, leaning on the back of the couch.
"Nah, we were just going till it was time to get France," He replied, setting the controller down and sighing. He didn't much want to beat this thing if Matt wouldn't be awake to see the next cutscene anyway. "We didn't accidentally miss that, did we?" Arthur snorted.
"Hardly. He bought tickets late. He'll just be reaching customs in about an hour, most likely." He glanced softly at Matt as he spoke, smiling when he realized just how ridiculously the Canadian had arranged himself. Alfred had to try very hard to deny the pang of jealousy frothing up within him. He couldn't remember the last time Arthur had looked at him like that—like he was something important. Something to be cared for.
He promptly wiped the thought from his mind.
"How he manages to sleep through such a noisy, violent game, I'll never understand," Arthur mused aloud.
"Um… right." Alfred searched for something he could say in response, but he couldn't think of anything intelligent. The silence stretched on, uncomfortable and stark. Not for the first time, he caught himself wishing he could find a way to make things easy between them again. Or maybe just a way to stop caring.
"So, are you—" He tried to say, at the same time Arthur blurted
"I guess that game was—" They stared at each other, seemingly overtaken by the same sense of awkwardness. After a few moments of mutual sputtering, Arthur motioned that Alfred should continue first.
"I was just going to ask, are you staying on this side of the Atlantic long?" The Britton stilled, taking an unusually long amount of time to think on his answer.
"I had only planned to be here a few days," he finally rejoined, his tone more than a little cagey. "Why?"
"Well I don't know, I was just thinking…it's really nice, us all being together at Matt's like this. It means a lot to him."
"Mmhm." Arthur still eyed him skeptically, waiting for the other shoe to drop. Alfred wasn't sure what it was he seemed to fear so much.
"And it would mean a lot to me if maybe we could all come to my house for my birthday." Arthur grimaced and began stomping back to the kitchen before he could even finish his sentence. "It wouldn't be a big deal! You could even fly home with me from Matt's tomorrow, come on Arthur you're not being fair."
"Fair?! Fair. I'm not being fair." He grouched back, halting his retreat. "No, what wasn't fair was—" He visibly stopped himself from saying anything further, going so far as to cover his own mouth. His breath hissed hot and angry from his nostrils as he fought for his usual stiff composure. "Alfred, it's never happened before and it's not going to start now. Please stop trying to get me to come over for your… party." Arthur managed to find his more usual volume and tempo. He lowered his hand, and settled for grasping both upper arms instead. The fabric of his button down shirt wrinkled noticeably under the pressure of his fingertips. Alfred growled in exasperation. Was it really so wrong to want to be able to celebrate with Arthur again? To share in another year of life?
"Arthur, look, I know there's some bad blood between us, but it was more than two hundred years ago—closer to two hundred fifty now. Why can't we just—"
"Stop it!" Arthur shouted raggedly, fabric of his shirt sleeves twisting in his white-knuckled hands. He knew he was going too far, but he just wanted to understand. Why couldn't he get past this point in their history? Didn't the idiot realize he'd done most of what he had for England's sake as much as his own?
"No, not this time," he insisted loudly, kneeling now on the couch, fully turned around to face his audience. "I walk on eggshells around you about this every other year, but for once I just want—"
"Somethin' wrong?" Matt slurred, voice still thick with sleep. His head sprang up from his position face down in the pillowed couch with unusual quickness. Alfred glanced at him and the words he wanted slipped away, leaving him shame-faced in their wake. He'd gotten so wrapped up in this mess between him and Arthur that he'd forgotten who this day was really supposed to be about.
Matt looked carefully between them, taking in their body language and the sounds that had likely awoken him. It wouldn't be hard to put two and two together.
"Nothing in particular," Alfred assured him with false cheer. He should have known better than to try to actually talk to Arthur. He'd been too immersed in his own personal problems to think about Matt and now he'd thrown the tentative peace of this little event. He glanced at the nation in question, tracking the tense line of his shoulders. Arthur was obviously livid, still standing on the other side of the room. His back was hunched, as if he were trying to hide from the things Alfred had said.
"Somehow, I don't believe you." Matt grumbled, his arms folding across his chest. Alfred could only sigh.
He didn't get it. He really just didn't get it. Was it that damn jarring to think about coming to a stupid birthday party? Still? He couldn't believe that after so long, Arthur hadn't gotten over it. There had to be something else, some other transgression or mess or something in play. He wanted desperately to know what it was so he could fix it. He just… he only wanted to be able to interact with Arthur again without the shadow of their past hanging over him.
Okay, that wasn't entirely true. He wanted a lot more than Arthur would ever be willing to give. He had it bad for the Brit and he knew it, but that wasn't anything new. He'd loved the stupid jerk from the beginning. Usually, he could manage not to let that completely rule his actions. Apparently not so much today.
"Listen, Matt," Alfred started over, standing from the couch. His legs protested as he stood, blood just remembering how to flow properly after sitting still for far too long. "I should probably go. I'm making a mess." He declared humbly, trying not to worry too much about the hurt look on his brother's face.
"That won't be necessary," Arthur cut in. He'd managed to put himself back together fairly well. His voice gave nothing away save his usual disaffected cool, shirt back to its smooth and un-rumpled state. Still, it was easy to see the place where he must have run a hand through his hair in frustration—a good chunk of it stood straight up in a testimonial cowlick. "I find myself a bit tired from the trip over. I think I'll retire early."
"Oh, but… I mean if you're tired that's fine, but I haven't made dinner yet and I thought—"
"I promise I'll be back bright and early for some kind of breakfast, I'm just… not very hungry right now." He placated, stepping into the next room where he'd apparently stowed his suitcase. "I hate to land the task of getting the Frog from the airport on you like this, but I honestly don't think I can manage to stay awake for too much longer."
"That's… fine," Matt sputtered. The twins watched with tense bafflement from the den as Arthur moved about the house gathering his things. "Well, at least let me call you a cab." The Canadian offered, scrambling to get up from the cushy sofa. He lurched to his feet with all the usual clumsiness intrinsic to his recently-awoken state. "As soon as I remember where I've put my cell phone, eh?" Alfred could barely hear him muttering beneath his breath. He started for his room, probably would have tripped his way up the stairs if Arthur hadn't chosen to stand in his way.
"No need. I've got it all taken care of," he insisted, his suitcase fully packed and wheeled to a stop at his side. He pulled a bewildered Matt in for a quick familial hug. "Happy birthday luv." Alfred turned away from the scene, his heart burning green with jealousy. "Toss Francis out on his arse if he does anything too annoying. It does him good to be reminded of his manners every once in a while."
"Yeah, okay," Matt agreed, "I'll see you in the morning though?" Inexplicably, it was Alfred he chose to look to before answering. He searched the American with an incomprehensible look, muscles of his jaw tensing and relaxing in turns as he pondered. Alfred frowned, growing increasingly more uncomfortable beneath his searching stare.
"Certainly," he finally answered, just when Alfred thought he might burst with annoyance. He turned and marched for the door.
"I'll make pancakes!" Matt shouted to his retreating back. Arthur waved to show he'd heard, and was gone with no further fanfare.
Matt's gaze snapped to Alfred as soon as the door was shut. His glare was uncharacteristic and sharp.
"What did you do?" Alfred made an abortive noise of frustration, collapsing languidly back to the soft embrace of the couch.
"I don't know!" he whined, only just resisting the urge to tear at his hair. He was really getting tired of this. Matt just continued to stare, quirking a brow in quiet disbelief. "Ugh, I'm trying, okay? I really am!" Matt said nothing for a few moments, before sighing and following his twin's example. He thudded back into the sofa, settling easy beside Alfred.
"Maybe you're trying too hard," Matt mused, staring tiredly at the ceiling. They lay in disgruntled quiet for a while, each turning the day's events over in their thoughts. "You know, I really thought it was going to work this year." Matt's mumbled words added another layer of guilt to Alfred's emotional state.
"Sorry Mattie, I shouldn't have tried to say anything," he offered, disappointed in himself.
"What were you guys even talking about to get him so upset?"
"I only asked him to come to my place for the fourth," Alfred grumbled. "He refused immediately as usual, so I said I didn't understand why one stupid war over two centuries in the past couldn't just be water under the bridge already."
He felt movement on the cushion beside him. When he raised his head to look, he was met with Matt's exasperated glare.
"Alfred, you didn't really..."
"What?" he repeated, defensive. Matt dropped his gaze, pinched the bridge of his nose to funnel his irritation.
"That's not the kind of thing you can just… I mean I knew you were a bit obtuse, but really, Alfred you can't just—"
"Why not?" Alfred exclaimed, his volume growing in tandem with his anger, "He's had plenty of wars with plenty of nations, and he gets along with them just fine."
"Well, yes, but those were different." Matt declared. He sounded so certain, so sure of the situation. Alfred wondered just what obvious bit of information he must be missing.
"How was our fight different from any other? It was a disagreement between our people, nothing more!" Matt gaped at him.
"You don't honestly think that, do you?"
"Yes!" he insisted, not sure how he could be wrong, or why there was some voice within already protesting that he was terribly off-base.
"Well, he doesn't." Matt's brows were furrowed with concern, his eyes locked on a memory. "Look, you weren't there when… after… well, back then. So I wouldn't expect you to understand, but when you left, Arthur was…" He trailed off, his slow lilt hinting at tragedy.
"No, I wouldn't understand, because he stopped talking to me," Alfred insisted, ire rising as he recalled all the slights and insults of that time—all Arthur's refusal to deal with him as a real country. It took another war for England to meet him seriously on even a diplomatic level again. "I'd think I'd have much more cause to be upset than he does, considering the way he refused to admit my existence for years afterwards."
"Alfred you—he…If you could have seen him back then…" Matt choked on his words, trying to pick out the right ones. After a few seconds of pained stammering, his mouth snapped abruptly shut. He bowed his head. "I don't think I should be the one telling you this."
"Well if you don't, I don't know who will. It's not like Arthur's going to open up any time soon." Alfred pointed out testily. Matt just shook his head, pulling himself to his feet with a sense of finality.
"No, I'm done talking." Matt insisted. Alfred grumbled unflatteringly below his breath. For all Matt was a pushover, he could be unbendingly stubborn at the most inopportune times. "Now come on, let's go pick up France." He held out his hand to take. Alfred glared defiantly at the offered palm, but took it all the same.
Present Year, July 3rd, 3:35 AM, Ottawa, Canada.
Apparently, when Arthur said he was going to "retire early," what he really meant was that he was going to find the nearest bar and drink himself into a stupor.
"You are so going to owe me for this." Alfred grumbled for the fourth time that hour, readjusting the drunkard on his back a bit more forcefully than strictly necessary.
"Mm," Arthur eloquently responded, his nose pressing painfully against Alfred's collarbone. Rain fell in sheets over them as they trudged down the block to Arthur's hotel, making everything even more difficult and awkward than it needed to be. Alfred took another few steps, had to readjust to keep the idiot from sliding off again, another few steps. The pattern had swiftly grown tedious.
"Next time you call me drunk off your ass at two fucking thirty in the morning, I'm just gonna hang up and go back to sleep."
"m'kay." Arthur's words were muffled, his breath coming in tiny puffs of hot air at Alfred's neck. The warmth weighing heavy on his back was a sharp contrast to the cold wet of their soaking clothes. It was a sensation that might have been distracting if he weren't so annoyed with the while situation.
" And then you can have your embassy bail you out of jail the next morning, because I won't come do that either."
"Shhhh," Arthur tried to placate him, one unsteady hand freeing itself to pat gently at his face. "Go back to sleep," he suggested incomprehensibly before the hand abruptly dropped, flopping back to its place hanging around Alfred's neck. He felt as if he were wearing some sort of demented stole.
"I would have loved to go back to sleep about an hour ago," he quipped back, even though he knew there was really no point when Arthur was this goddamn drunk. He probably wouldn't remember a word of this in the morning. "But apparently, your raging alcoholism had other plans." Alfred had to pause and shift Arthur's weight once again. He could see the hotel doors from here. He just needed to put up with this for a littlelonger.
"Well, 's your fault." Arthur's voice had lowered to a pathetic whine, only just audible over the pouring of the rain. Alfred rolled his eyes. Here they went again. He'd wondered when Arthur's weepy-drunk side would show. He'd hoped he'd missed that phase.
"It is not. You're a fucking adult, and if you decide to go drown in scotch that's no one's problem but yours." He wasn't convinced it was a hyperbole. By the time he'd gotten to the bar, Arthur had managed to pour at least one drink down his front, and had left two bottles of the stuff sitting around him as evidence. It was true that he'd likely been drinking for quite a while, but if he weren't a country he'd almost certainly have to be hospitalized for alcohol poisoning.
"Yer a jerk," Arthur retorted.
"Hey, this jerk is perfectly capable of dropping you on your ass and walking away. I am not in the mood for this." He didn't even know why he'd come in the first place. He'd picked up the phone, heard Arthur's usual drunken sobbing, and snuck out of Matt's house without a second thought. He supposed after their argument earlier, he was just glad to be needed… more the fool him.
Arthur finally fell into morose silence, allowing Alfred to focus on just getting them indoors. The journey seemed remarkably quicker and easier once the peanut gallery had gone quiet. He stumbled through the revolving entrance with more than a little difficulty and tripped into the lobby irritable and dripping with water. The lone worker at the desk stared at him with blatant surprise.
It only took him a little extra time, and Arthur's driver's license, to convince the lady it was really okay to give out the room number. He asked for a spare room-key, charged the extra fee to Arthur's stay with no little amount of gleeful vengeance, and made for the elevator. Considering the previous part of this foray, it was remarkably easy to cart Arthur the rest of the way to his room. The hall was well lit, but silent and devoid of life. It was strangely creepy.
"Just a little further," Alfred mused aloud, turning the last corner and counting down the door numbers with trepidation. Arthur kept his mouth shut on the matter. If it weren't for the distinct lack of snoring, Alfred might have assumed he was asleep.
The last few steps to Arthur's door were somewhat anticlimactic. Alfred juggled the Englishman one last time, had to swipe the card twice with his still dripping hands before the lock disengaged, and opened the damn door. He kicked it open with one foot and maneuvered into the room, taking care not to get his passenger stuck in the doorway. The latch clicked shut behind them with a sound of finality.
"Awesome, you're home." Alfred announced with sarcasm. He let Arthur finally slide unceremoniously off of him and fall to the bed, wet clothes and all. There was enough ambient light filtering in from the street outside that he didn't have to bother with the switch "Now promise me I'll never have to repeat this experience, and I'll promise not to tell Matt why you really aren't at breakfast tomorrow morning."
"Alfred, I am actually going t'be there." He slurred, eyes still closed. He looked quite pathetic, all his clothes clinging to his slight form. He'd started shivering at some point after they got into the air-conditioning, and he didn't seem to have noticed yet.
"I kind of doubt it, dude. You're going to be nursing one hell of a hangover tomorrow," Alfred glanced around the room and found the thermostat, quickly switching the air off. He didn't plan on sticking around, but he could at least be that considerate.
"Yeh, only hangovers are kind of a thing I'm good at."
"I don't really know that's something you should be proud of." He patted himself down, digging Arthur's cell and wallet out of his back pocket. The bar had confiscated them for him before he'd arrived. He set the items on the hotel desk. "Alright, if that's all, I guess I'll see you tomorrow then."
"Leavin' me?" Arthur called out weakly. Alfred tried not to let the words get to him.
"Yes," he sighed, exasperatedly. "I'm tired, Iggy. And I've gotta get back to Matt's before they realize I went out, right?" He didn't know why he was trying to use logic on a drunk. He was prepared to fight off Arthur's usual regimen of unrelenting whines and complaints, and so he was completely taken off guard when the older nation said simply,
"Right." He curled slowly into a ball on the bed, too out of it to remember how to use the blankets. Alfred had to resist the urge to waltz over there and take care of him; he'd never get out of here otherwise.
"O-kay then. Later," He called, walking briskly back to the door. He purposefully ignored the pitiful sneeze that followed him out. Alfred had more than done his part. He'd dealt with drunken singing, drunken weeping, and two instances of vomit already tonight. He was pretty certain he didn't owe Arthur anything further.
He actually made it to the elevator before guilt and his damned hero complex forced him to turn right around. Lucky for him, he'd kept the extra key.
"I swear, I am never going to let you live this down," he groused as he let himself back into the room. Arthur remained right where he'd left him, curled up and shivering in a miserable wet lump. One emerald green eye slipped open, ever so slightly, to stare at him. "Alright, where did you stash your suitcase?" Alfred asked wearily. He had to flip the light on this time, needing it to search for Arthur's belongings. He didn't know why Arthur couldn't just be lazy like normal people and keep his things spread out on the floor.
"Were you leavin' a minute ago?" Arthur remained unhelpful in his search, still peering skeptically out at him from a single squinting eye, brow furrowed with confusion. He looked like he was trying to decide whether Alfred was real or not.
"Nah, couldn't leave you like this," He admitted truthfully. He continued his search, going so far as to check under the bed skirts before wising up and glancing in the hotel room's tiny closet. "Aha!" he cried, reaching for the small, black suitcase and pulling it out for easier access. He unzipped it, and immediately found a pair of pajamas. They were the dorky sort of matched, patterned set. He'd usually be teasing Arthur over them by now if circumstances were anything different, but he was mostly just relieved to find them. "So, am I gonna have to dress you, or do you think you can do that by yourself?"
"But, you did leave though." Arthur was seemingly stuck on the mystery of his reappearance. "Yer always leavin' me." He spoke with a tired sort of resignation, left Alfred reeling with guilt even though he was sure he'd done nothing wrong.
"I'm not leaving now," he insisted, walking forward to sit next the bleary-eyed drunk on the bed.
"Don't see why not. I'd prob'ly deserve it."
"Hey now," Alfred chided. He hooked an arm under Arthur's knees, the other around his shoulders, uncurling him from his balled state. "I thought we were done with the moping part." It was easy enough, if a little awkward, to divest Arthur of his soaking trousers. He only had to lay the Brit flat on the bed, unfasten them without thinking about it over much, and yank them off from the cuffs. Arthur didn't seem to notice what he was doing, except to shiver harder as his skin was exposed to the air. Alfred considered doing something about Arthur's underwear as well, but decided that was just too creepy. He had only the most altruistic of intentions, but there were just some things he was better off not doing.
"I'll be done when it stops." Arthur mumbled perplexingly. He spoke with visible effort, both eyes fluttering shut. Arthur would be asleep in no time at all—was likely half way there already.
Putting pants on someone determined not to help proved considerably more difficult than taking them off. However, after pulling Arthur every which way and accidentally taking the back of Arthur's skull to his nose, Alfred eventually managed to figure the whole thing out. He kept Arthur balanced against his chest as he moved on to the task of removing a sopping shirt. Fortunately, Arthur had worn one of his usual stodgy button down shirts, so it was easy enough to unbutton and tug down the arms. He tried not to gag at the strong twin smells of scotch and vomit that clung to the fabric as he threw it into the bathroom doorway.
"'s cold," Arthur finally had the wherewithal to protest. Alfred could only sigh, reaching for the new shirt.
"I know, I'm working on that. Now hold your arms up." Of course, Arthur didn't bother to follow his instructions, just stayed slumped and shivering against him. Alfred muttered darkly and held the shirt out in front of them both, working Arthur into the sleeves first. Once he had both arms in, he pulled them up and started tugging the fabric over Arthur's head. He was just smoothing the fabric over Arthur's trembling back when his fingers hit the strange texture of scar tissue.
"Whoa, what…?" As nations, they were all bound to have marks, each scarred by one conflict or another, sometimes natural disasters or other calamities. He had a few decent looking scars himself, but this one was different. It was obviously old, stretched tight and pale white down the length of Arthur's spine. Even though it had healed long ago, it obviously hadn't healed well. The rest of Arthur's skin stretched away from its edges, leaving pink lines behind where the skin had pulled taught. The faint, half-moon impressions of old stitching glinted almost imperceptible along the edges of both sides, proving that this must have been a deep wound when it happened. "Arthur, what on earth is this from?" He asked in amazement, tracing the line unconsciously with the pads of his fingertips. The British nation shook beneath his hand, and Alfred snapped back to the present, scrambling to get Arthur's shirt down.
"You." Arthur's murmur was near to inaudible, but it hit Alfred with terrible force all the same. He froze at the word, went still with the shirt's hem still clutched tightly in his hands.
"I…sorry what?" He asked, voice uneven. Surely Arthur couldn't possibly mean... Arthur wasn't the most conscious of what was going on right now, he was probably just rambling to a delusion, not answering Alfred's thoughtless question. He turned back to what he was doing, settling the fabric around Arthur's waist and climbing out from behind him. He leaned the near unconscious man back against the pillows, tugging the blankets out from under him and tucking them over him instead. Arthur didn't say anything further on the matter, and Alfred felt awash with relief, though he didn't know why he should. There was no reason for a wound like that to be his fault, right?
He wandered to the sink, grabbing a glass and filling it with water. By the time he'd set it on Arthur's nightstand, the drunk seemed to have slipped completely into the folds of sleep.
"See you in the morning, dummy." He whispered, ruffling a quick hand affectionately through damp hair. There wasn't much reason for him to stay now. He'd already seen Arthur throw up, and there didn't seem to be any further danger of that tonight. The hangover would start hitting in a couple hours, and Arthur wouldn't want him around then anyway. He'd made sure his drunken charge wouldn't catch cold. The best thing he could do for him now was go down and arrange for a wakeup call and a room service delivery of Advil. He switched the light back off, and finally rerturned to the door, fully intent on leaving for real this time. Arthur's weak voice surprised him just as he reached for the door knob.
"Yer always leavin' me," Arthur repeated his earlier statement, sent frissions of dread threading through Alfred's whole being. "'s never stopped hurting."
He felt locked in place, the sight of the twisted scar marring Arthur's back flashing before his vision. He thought of Matt's flustered words earlier in the evening, the pained, angry look on Arthur's face any time he tried to bring up the Fourth.
"Arthur, did I—" He stuttered, a terrible picture forming in his mind. Arthur hadn't responded to his letters or messengers for months after the revolution, and after that he'd just stopped trying. He'd always assumed Arthur had been ignoring him, but with a wound like that… "Is my revolution the reason you've got that mark on your back?" He just had to know. The very idea of it was turning his stomach already.
"…still hurts," Arthur's too quiet, jumbled response preceded only snoring. Alfred was left in the wake, still answerless and tipping into a horrifying new vision of the past.
Present Year, July 4th, Washington D.C.
"You have reached the voice mailbox of—"
"Come on!" Alfred whined, flopping dramatically back on his bed with his cell still held to his ear. He huffed with annoyance into the receiver, waiting impatiently for the cold, female voice to just let him leave a message already. She continued to give him far too many options before giving way to a migraine inducing beep.
"Dude, you have got to do something about that intro of yours it is super annoying," he griped, switching the phone to his left side as he spoke. His right ear rang painfully with the voicemail tone's echo. "Anyway, I still need to talk to you. It's—it's about Arthur. And I know you said you weren't going to tell me anything, but I think I might have figured some of it out by myself, and I really just need to talk to someone about it before it drives me crazy so, Matt, please—"
"End of message. If you would like to erase this message—"
"Argh!" Alfred exclaimed in frustration, tossing his phone across the room. It met the opposite wall with a dull thud. He didn't know how many messages he'd tried leaving for his brother today, but all of them had ended the same way. He just wished the Canadian would find his phone and call him already!
He lay fuming on his bed for a while, arms crossed on his chest, one foot still anchored to the floor. His eyes were trained on the ceiling, but he wasn't watching anything in particular. He had only his thoughts, wrecking havoc on him as they had been all day, twisting in too many directions to focus on any one thing. He hadn't been able to think straight since the other night.
"This is so stupid," he complained aloud to the empty room, frustrated with his own confusion. He'd wallowed in what-ifs and visions of the past the entire drive home from Matt's house, and he apparently hadn't gotten enough of it yet.
It was just… that utter disaster of a night taking care of Arthur would have been enough to keep him unbalanced for a while by itself. But then he really had shown up to breakfast, exactly like he said he would. Alfred had spent the whole time squirming in his seat, burning with questions he was too afraid to ask. He consoled himself by being annoyed with Arthur's continued reticence, even in the face of all Alfred had done for him the night before, but then… then the jerk had had the gall to apologize for his behavior just as Alfred was leaving.
"Look, I know I might be… difficult to deal with sometimes, this time of year," he'd admitted, looking properly contrite, and tired and a thousand other things that just made Alfred want to jump through the car window and take care of him. "I'm sorry for that. I really don't give you enough credit sometimes, it's only… even after two centuries, there are still some things that I just… Look, I don't deserve it but, please, give me a little more time." And he'd sounded so sincere and stepped away so sadly that it was Alfred who was left feeling like he'd done something wrong.
He was tired of this. It wasn't like him to just… sit around and stew. He was going to get up, stop being such a wuss, and put an end to the whole thing. Alfred pushed himself to his feet, and stormed over to his fallen phone. It seemed unharmed, though he'd scuffed his wall rather well with his little temper-tantrum. He palmed the device and tapped in England's country code. He got half-way though the actual phone number before he chickened out, slammed on the end key and jammed the thing in his pants-pocket. He couldn't do it. What would he possibly say?
Hey, Arthur, I know this is something that you obviously have a lot of trouble talking about, but you know that terrible scar you've got? Yeah, I saw it while you were drunk out of your mind the other night. Is there any chance that's my fault? And maybe is that why you seem to hate thinking about the Revolution almost to the point of despising my existence this time every year?
Yes, that would go over so well.
He was briefly thrown from his reverie by the sound of a distant boom outside. Alfred padded to his window, peering through the blinds to watch as a burst of colorful sparks scattered across the dusky sky. He hadn't realized it had gotten dark enough for fireworks yet. Had he really spent the whole day cooped up in here?
He didn't know what he was doing. He should just forget about the whole mess with Arthur for now, get out there and enjoy himself. This was the one day of the year that was supposed to be entirely about him, and he wasn't used to feeling so conflicted about it. He should go out there with a couple handfuls of sparklers and watch his flashier neighbors set off their expensive displays. Add a beer to the mix, and he'd probably feel a whole lot better about everything within the hour.
In fact, it took him two boxes of multi-colored sparklers and three beers, but by the time the last vestiges of orange light had disappeared from the horizon, he really was feeling a lot better about life in general. He hummed the happy birthday song absently to himself, lying in a lawn chair and watching the fireworks explode across the sky. He might have gone the rest of the night without any problems if his phone hadn't started ringing.
He pulled the noisy device from his pocket, and read his twin's name on the display. His foul mood rushed back as he jammed the answer key and brought the phone to his face.
"Hello—ow."He was just buzzed enough to be a little clumsier than usual, and he wound up whacking himself in the temple with the cell. "Hello, Mattie."
"Um. Hi Alfred," Matt sounded atypically annoyed. His tone had that tense, weary quality that it only got when he was nearing the limit of his patience. "Did you know you've left about fifteen voicemails on my phone today?"
"To be honest, I stopped counting after the sixth," he admitted. He reached down to the six pack beside him for another beer, started prying the cap off with his keys. He'd lost his bottle opener at some point last month, and hadn't had time to get a new one yet. "I was more annoyed that you weren't answering the damn thing."
"Well if I'm obviously not answering it, what is the point in leaving a voicemail every time you call, eh? It just makes it take longer for me to call you back." He didn't bother to grace his brother's logic with any kind of response. The cap finally fell off, and he rewarded himself with a large swig. "So why am I calling you, Alfred?" Matt tried again with a long-suffering sigh, apparently realizing trying to reason with the American would do him little good.
"You listened to my messages, right?" Alfred inquired, pushing himself forward and sitting a bit more upright in the chair. He threw his legs over the side, sat with his elbows on his knees.
"They didn't make a whole lot of sense. Something about figuring Arthur out?"
"Helplessly trying, anyway." He corrected, tracking another whistling rocket through the sky until it burst on the horizon in a display of light and color. Even as terrible as he felt, he didn't think he could ever get tired of fireworks.
"What do you mean? And what is that noise? Alfred, are you even—"
"So, did Arthur say anything about the other night, after I left?" He interrupted, tapping his beer bottle mindlessly against his calf.
"I'm not sure what you're talking about, but probably not? To be honest, I try not to discuss you with him on the Fourth."
"Ch—yeah of course not." He grumbled bitterly, washing his anger down with another mouthful of alcohol. "So, you're probably not supposed to know this, but every once in a while Arthur gets stupid drunk and makes me come get him." He'd promised not to tell Matt about the other day in particular, but he hadn't made any promises about exposing Arthur in general.
"Alfred, I'm pretty sure any country who's ever been to a world meeting knows that." Matt's response was a little funnier than it should have been, made Alfred laugh just a little harder, sloshing some of his beer on the bare skin of his leg. This would have to be his last drink tonight if he wanted to remain coherent. He sighed, and set it down on the ground. He knew his limits.
"Right!" he managed to say between chuckles, "So anyway, I usually don't think much of it. Arthur's usually pretty damn annoying the whole time, whining about the revolution and complaining about everything I do… but it was different last time."
"'Last time'?" Matt echoed skeptically, "When was last time?"
"That's not important," Alfred deflected, though he knew it would just make Matt that much more suspicious. "The point is, he was a lot more pathetic and quiet than usual, a lot more down on himself than he was on me, and it sort of made me feel sorry for him…"
"You don't usually feel sorry for him?" The confusion in his voice was readily apparent. "I'd think you'd have to pity him in some respect, since you keep going back to help."
"Look, it's his own damn fault if he decides he wants to drink himself to oblivion, but that doesn't mean I want to leave him there," Alfred tried to reason, not certain himself as to what exactly he was trying to say. "But that's not the point. The point is, it was raining, and we got soaked, and I was just going to let him suffer for a bit, maybe as a reminder not to do it again? But I couldn't. I couldn't leave him, he was being too weird." He trailed off, thinking of the way Arthur had looked: tiny, pathetic, soaked to the bone. He didn't know why, but all his mind would supply him with was another rainstorm, another moment when his heart had been full of nothing but pity for the older nation. Arthur's bayonet at his throat, the shape his body made, small and crumpled on the muddy earth….Alfred's breath caught in his chest, his heart dully aching.
"…Are you still there? Hello?" Matt was growing impatient on the other end of the line.
"Yeah, sorry, what was I saying?" He mumbled, rubbing at his brow. What on earth was that about?
"I'm not really sure," the Canadian spoke uncertainly. "Look, it's kind of hard to hear you and you seem like you might have been drinking a little yourself. Are you sure you don't want me to just call back in the morning and—"
"No wait, I think I've got it. Right, so Arthur was being pitiful and so I helped him change into something dry and put him to bed. And I kind of might have seen this awful scar stretching all the way up his back and that's what I wanted to talk to you about, so there." He celebrated the completed thought by picking his beer back up for one more gulp, and setting it back with a little more force than necessary.
"A scar? What scar is that?" Matt's genuine confusion blindsided him. He didn't know why, but he'd just assumed everyone but him had already known about it. Wasn't that how things usually went when it came to Arthur? It always seemed like Alfred was the only one who didn't get it.
"Well, I just—it's a really horrible one. It's all twisted and old and looks like it must have been really painful."
"Okay?" Matt drew out the word, obviously not understanding where he was going with this.
"And I started thinking… well maybe not because I'm sure you'd know about it if… but anyhow, I started thinking that maybe it was from my Revolution?" The line remained silent. He didn't know why he was trying. He'd thought somehow that Matt would have all the answers—the way his twin had been talking a couple days ago, he certainly made it sound like he knew more about Arthur than he did.
"Well, it would make sense wouldn't it?" He finally answered, surprising Alfred with his quiet affirmation.
"Why is that, exactly? I don't remember doing anything that would—"
"Alfred, surely you've realized that, even if it's not that particular scar, you left a mark on him somewhere when you fought him," Matt chided, bristling with exasperation. "And I'd be liable to believe it must be a pretty terrible one since I seem to remember him being unable to travel for months after your fight."
"He what?" Alfred felt as if he'd been punched in the gut. Back then, he'd beaten Arthur because he'd had to. He'd seen it as the only way forward, the only way to do anything right in the future. He'd never once thought it would really hurt Arthur. Not like that. Sure he'd known it wouldn't be pleasant to fight a revolution, but he hadn't thought…
"You… didn't know about that did you." Matt's nervous words rushed out too quickly. They ran together, making him difficult to decipher. "I knew I shouldn't have called you about this, Arthur'll kill me if I say anything stupid. I should just—"
"Wait, please," Alfred begged, "It's not like I'm going to use this information against him, I just want to know what I did to him. I just want to understand what happened, while I wasn't there. Is that really such a crime?" Even through the phone, his twin's indecision was nearly palpable.
"I guess not," he finally gave in. "Look, it's not like I even remember that much, but… Arthur came to visit me, maybe a year after your fight was over. And he just looked… awful. Like he hadn't slept." Alfred hung on every word, trying to imagine a frazzled Arthur. It was far too easy to picture. "I remember waiting for him to get off the boat. I almost didn't see him because he was so muted, compared to how he normally was. He practically tripped down the boarding ramp, marched over to me, and without saying a word, he just picked me up and hugged me."
"Ha! Affection in public? From that old man?" Alfred groused, trying to ignore the sting of envy blossoming within his chest. Arthur would never have pulled such a stunt with him, not with all those people milling around the port.
"Yes, exactly! He was that upset, Alfred. He was so… he held me, and I think he said something like 'You can't leave me too.' And I just got so jealous of you because I knew you were the one he really wanted."
"Whoa, what?" Alfred blinked, picking up on the bitterness in Matt's tone. His brother sighed softly, the sound of him keeping his anger bottled deep beneath the surface.
"It doesn't matter." He brushed his feelings away so easily. Alfred wondered what that kind of control was like. He didn't think it was healthy. "What matters is: Arthur stayed with me that time for almost half a year, way more than he'd ever stayed before. And the whole time, I could tell he still wasn't over you. He was visibly broken up about it—every little thing seemed to remind him of you and it nearly drove me crazy to see him like that and I—" Another breath of air, another emotion pressed down deep. Alfred wasn't certain how he'd managed to miss this all these years. "All those times you tried to convince me to rebel against England, didn't you wonder why I never accepted?"
"I figured you were just being stubborn," Alfred remarked. His insides were twisting up in knots with every word Matt said.
"Partly," the Canadian laughed mirthlessly. "Mostly it was because I never wanted to see him look that way again." Alfred sat still, trying to process everything his brother was saying and reconcile it with his understanding of the past. He'd sent so many letters to England right after the war, begging for forgiveness or recognition or some kind of something. He wondered now if Arthur had even got them. It sounded like he'd been bedridden, and then visiting Matt.
He'd always sort of thought that, once everything was said and done, Arthur had just started seeing him as nothing but a mistake. The Englishman had certainly played it cool and detached enough—he'd started thinking that maybe Arthur had felt the same way all along—that Arthur had never actually cared about him except as a margin of profit. Arthur made it easy to believe that… but if he'd been as torn up about it as Matt said…
"I don't know, Alfred." Matt broke the silence, words rushing out on the wings of a tired exhale. "I probably shouldn't have said anything. It's not like there's any point to knowing this now."
"No, I—I really appreciate it." Alfred stuttered, bringing one hand up to cradle his brow. He hadn't heard the booming of a firework for a while. He wondered, distantly, how late it was. "It's nice to know he actually cared that much. Although, now I kind of wish I could find some way to make it up to him."
"What, like, your Revolution? You're not saying you wish you'd never—"
"No," he stopped Matt's incredulous line of thought before it could finish. He didn't regret the Revolution altogether. He'd known it to be necessary then, and he still believed that, if for different reasons. His people needed to be free, and he knew it now as he knew it then. It was just… "but I didn't exactly make it easy for him, you know? There were a lot of things I could have done differently." Too many things. Too many angry letters, and snubbed invitations, and minor conflicts at sea and fights for attention.
"Yeah, but it's not like you can just walk up to him and say 'hey, I've realized I may have been kind of shitty to you over the past two hundred years,' eh? He'd probably think you were making fun of him."
"Probably," Alfred laughed back, some of his good humor returning to him. He picked his beer back up and downed another sip. "Still though, would have been nice if I could have figured all of this out sooner."
"I'm not sure why you didn't, honestly. It was pretty much obvious to everyone else," Matt teased. Alfred stuck his tongue out in response, forgetting his twin would be unable to see it. "Still, don't think too much about it. It's all over and done with. There's nothing you can do about the past."
"Yeah, I guess," he agreed, sighing into the receiver one last time.
"Talk to you later, eh? And Happy birthday."
"Thanks. See ya." He hit the end button and jammed the phone back in his pocket, laying back in his chair to gaze at the stars. He supposed Matt was right. It wasn't like knowing any of this would change anything. He and Arthur would go on dancing around each other for years to come, just as they always had.
"Nothing you can do about the past," he repeated to himself, eyes tracing a falling star, or maybe an airplane or satellite, through the sky. He hugged his drink to his chest, wondering if he should go inside. Nah, it was warm enough. And even though he knew he'd be annoyed with the coating of dew in the morning, the idea of sleeping outside was appealing to him just then. He didn't feel like moving much. He closed his eyes, focused on the distant sound of children throwing firecrackers against the concrete….
And had a terrible idea.
He sprang to his feet, nearly tipping the lawn chair over on top of himself in the process. Matt and the rest of the world may live in their comfortable, mundane worlds, but didn't he know differently? Didn't he know firsthand that there were things that could cross dimensions, hop through time like it was nothing?
He fumbled for his phone, rushing back to his house to make arrangements.
Maybe it was time to give Roswell a visit.