It was said by some great wordsmith long ago that loneliness was a word to express the pain of being alone, and that solitude was a word to express the glory of being alone. Perhaps, Arthur Kirkland wondered, they were two sides of the same coin. If there was anything in his long lifespan that had taught him how quickly he could go from being alone and happy about it to being not just alone but lonely and drunk it was the voyage back home from (the newly united states of) America, finding himself with thirteen fewer colonies than when he’d arrived, and at least a hundred more bottles of brandy, which he picked up in Boston as he left.
He drank and remained drunk the entire shipride home. His first mate took over, trodding into his chambers once a week or so and giving him progress reports, but Arthur retained nothing of it.
Perhaps the coin of solitude and loneliness, for Arthur, can only be flipped by Alfred Jones.
To this day, he is the only one that can flip it as hard as he does, that can make the simple act of sitting alone, the first one to arrive at a meeting (to sort out his papers and perhaps doodle on the chalkboard a little) almost shameful. Alfred smiles, gives an acknowledging nod, and goes to open a window, mentioning that it was drafty.
Flip. And suddenly, Arthur doesn’t feel right, doesn’t feel strong, doesn’t feel powerful, doesn’t feel like much of anything. Never in his lifetime had Arthur stood before a(nother) superpower and felt so very intimidated inside. He snaps that New Zealand was running late, makes an excuse and runs for the hallway, to go anywhere, just anywhere so long as he can feel anything but pathetic being there.
He sits atop the flat roof of the building with his briefcase in one hand and his lunch in another, peering over the edge (and surely looking like a man ready to leap and end his life) and thinking about the past. He sees a portly man in a tophat, sauntering over to sit beside him and stare out over the skyline of New York City with him, nothing at all like what it was in its (and Alfred’s) infancy. He can practically smell the heady smoke of a cigar and feel those wise old eyes staring out at him from their corners. Centuries of wisdom lived in those eyes, yet he never saw his hundredth mortal year.
“What do you want.” Arthur bites.
“Why, I was just admiring the view, weren’t you?”
“Nothing to admire,” He replies bitterly. And he remembers, as he’s sure Winston does with him, the Great War and how and what it changed. He remembers falling back day after day, past the mangled bodies of horses twisted in barbed wire, crushed by tanks, past the dying men that he could not offer food or aid to. Arthur remembers clutching France’s hands in his, looking into his eyes and slowly, meaningfully telling him that they had to go if this continued, that their troops needed to go and defend Britain itself, because soon he knew the line would break and France would be on his own.
“You were so proud, you didn’t want to ask for help.” Winston says, slowly, surely, sucking on his cigar with feeling. ”Especially not from him.”
No, he hadn’t. And some day he’d gotten shot in the leg while stupidly trying to retrieve some scrawny little bastard from No Man’s Land, and he’d curled ‘round the cold body and shook as the life flowed out of him. And he only fleetingly remembered arms hoisting them both up and carrying them back, dipping down into the trenches and resting him there against the sides. Arthur had sworn he’d felt a rat crawling on top of him and had swatted it away purely by reflex, and he’d felt his hand grasped and clutched. ”You okay old man?” he’d asked. Had he looked okay for a single moment since 1914? Had he?
Flip. The feeling of solitude that he’d kept close to his heart throughout this entire war suddenly leaked out of him, as did the energy to fight it any more. He doesn’t remember what he said, only that it made America smile and whisper to him “I’m here now”.
“I had never seen that boy in my life,” Winston mentions, looking back over New York. ”But I knew, then, that he was your son.”
Son would be a strong word, wouldn’t it? Alfred had renounced that title years ago, swearing over all the times he’d crafted something and Arthur hadn’t been there to praise him, over all the times he’d had a birthday and celebrated alone, over all the times he’d been terrified in the night and had no one to hold him that he would never, ever be his son again, not —
And the door to the roof swings open, Arthur turns and the polka-dot bowtie and cigar are gone, it’s nothing but him and his half-empty paper sack lunch. And Alfred.
“The meeting was cancelled for today. Something about Germany coming down with a cold from Greece, so we’ll meet again on Saturday.” He looks over, sees Arthur not listening to anything but the sound of starving pigeons in one of the wealthiest cities in the world, begging for his meal. Alfred pauses, smiles, and “C’mere, I wanna show you somethin’.” is all he says.
It takes forever and Alfred doesn’t want to say where they’re going. After the fourth hour in the backseat of some fancy car Arthur is half sure he’s being taken out to the middle of nowhere to be dumped and forced to find his way home, Alfred laughing out of the back of his car the whole way back. Quickly, an air force base looms before them. Alfred steps out, takes a moment and lines up a group of young men, all in uniform, standing together.
“These are my boys,” He says, proudly but with a childlike glee. ”I got ‘em as cadets and I’ve been their commanding officer for six months now. I trained ‘em all up to be the best we got.” The men all try not to beam beneath their caps. Alfred steps cautiously closer, and that wide eyed look he gives him makes Arthur feel positively charmed. ”What do you think? They're good right?”
Arthur glances out over them all, notices more than half of them trying to lean in closer and listen to his response.
He gives a simple nod, and “Very good.” is all he can muster.