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It was late, and Arthur was dead tired. He tripped into his boss's office without knocking, and Palmerston eyed him wearily, clearly worn out as well.

"Telegram," said Arthur blandly.

Palmerston wheezed as he took the telegram from Arthur's fingers. "Another from America?"

"From Washington," Arthur acceded. "America himself is still… missing."

Harrumphing, Palmerston frowned into the telegram, mumbling to himself. "April the fifteenth, yes, yes, hrm… It seems that - oh! Oh - oh God…" He paled, his eyes bugging, as he skimmed through the message. "Oh God," he repeated staunchly. "What horrid timing."

"What is it?" Arthur demanded.

Palmerston turned his aging eyes upon Arthur and dabbed at his neck with his handkerchief. "Lincoln's… dead."

"Dead," Arthur repeated. His chest tingled strangely. "How?"

"Assassinated," Palmerston murmured. "And now we've got to deal with Johnson…"

Dead? Lincoln dead? But Lincoln was the only link left. "But what about America?" Arthur insisted. "Lord knows he's got to be going mad…"

"Well, naturally," Palmerston sighed. "Surely he was mad even before the Confederacy emerged."

Arthur rubbed at his temples. He was too old for this. They both were. “Where the hell could he have gone?"

"It's not like you to be so worried," Palmerston observed. "I thought you were still holding that grudge over the Trent Affair."

"I can overlook such trivialities in times of crisis," said Arthur delicately. "And anyhow, it's different with you, isn't it? Lincoln was spry enough for his age, while you're practically senile, I keep expecting you to keel over any second."

Palmerston grunted. "I suppose I ought to send a telegram back to Johnson then. Pay my condolences and whatnot."

"Right," said Arthur. "I - I'll leave you to it, then, it's late, and I…" He trailed off.

Palmerston waved him away.

 

Arthur was fairly sure he had locked both the front and back doors to his cottage, so it was with quite a bit of trepidation that he heard a large crash echoing up the stairs from the kitchen. He bolted out of bed, leaving his slippers and robe behind as he seized a candlestick to wield against whatever intruder had made its way so cumbersomely into his home.

As he crept around the corner, candlestick raised high, he noticed a light was on. Squinting, he realized a lantern with a handle was resting on his kitchen table - a lantern he didn't recognize.

And then his eyes snapped to what seemed to be the immediate cause of the crash - two chairs had tumbled over, and behind them… Arthur shifted out from behind the wall a bit more and yelped.

There was a very long sort of person on his floor, half beneath the table, and it wasn't moving.

"Bloody hell," Arthur murmured, lowering his candlestick as he crept towards the figure on the floor. "Is that you?" He reached down and, bracing his feet on the floor, heaved the figure onto its back.

"Alfred," he whispered.

The American's glasses were askew, dangling off one ear. His nose seemed to be broken. His shirt was torn and bloodied in several areas, and his trousers were entirely ripped off above the left knee. One leg was skewered at an angle that made Arthur's stomach heave, and the other, upon a moment of inspection, had a bullet lodged in the calf. And it was disorienting to observe that young face slathered with half a year's worth of beard.

"Christ," Arthur said. "How the hell did you even get here? Or get inside, for that matter?"

Alfred did not answer, and Arthur finally accepted that he was not exactly present in the conversation. "What am I supposed to do with you?" he groaned to himself, rubbing the heels of his hands against his eyes. "You're a right mess… Bleeding all over my floor, you git."

It would be impossible, he determined, to drag Alfred up the stairs; he was just too heavy, and Arthur's years of brawn had passed him by. Five minutes’ effort found Arthur panting as he finally managed to haul Alfred's lifeless frame onto the sofa in the adjacent room.

Wheezing on the coffee table, Arthur surveyed the damage to the American. A thousand years of medical development resonated in his mind, and he hummed to himself in amusement. "I suppose I won't test your humors, then. That seems a bit last century to me."

Looking at the wreck of a country before him, he wasn't quite sure where to begin. If he should begin. There was something intrinsically binding about patching up another country's wounds, and with their history… Arthur shook his head and massaged his scalp violently. Yes, he'd forgiven the Trent Affair within a year, but Alfred had had Lincoln send over a full-on apology, and it was rather difficult for Arthur to stay angry when Alfred utilized the most beautifully imploring language.

Yes, Arthur rather liked that. Alfred begging for his forgiveness, Alfred swearing he would never wrong him again.

But regardless of how floral and shockingly academic Alfred's discourse could be (when he put his mind to it), his promises were blank pages in the end. Of course Alfred would hurt him, time and time again. It was in his nature, in the very bones of his existence. Arthur had nearly programmed him to be able to get under his skin - unintentionally, of course - by being somewhat controlling and easily offended. That combined with Alfred's headstrong will and his flair for increasing the irritability of those around him made them a somewhat destructive combination.

Perhaps that was why Arthur couldn't let him go. He had designed Alfred to be the bane of his existence, and in being the one country who could always strike a match beneath him, Alfred was the most precious - the rarest -

France laughed at him lately, telling him he was on his way out, and silently the others agreed. Arthur could see it in their eyes, in the bloodlust disguised as pity, that they viewed him now as tired, apathetic; they would plead wordlessly for him to falter, and when he did, they would strike. But as of yet, no active movement had been made toward his demise, and none of them were strong enough to overpower him on their own.

Except for Alfred.

And in that realization, Arthur knew there was hope. Perhaps he had grown a bit cold, a bit lifeless, a bit weary - but then Alfred would come along with his ridiculously inflammatory comments and Arthur was up and snapping again, and there was passion in his eyes and fire in his soul, and he would not die out if Alfred was there to goad him back into existence. It simply wasn't possible.

So it was ultimately somewhat suicidal to let Alfred bleed himself into insanity, into a state as weak and terrified as he'd been the winter of 1609 when Jamestown was starving and he was young and alone and crying to Arthur for help. Because if Alfred's flame died out, then who would be there to kindle Arthur's? (Against his will, of course. As if Arthur enjoyed being prodded and poked and pestered - and invaded, damn it - decade after decade.)

Alfred coughed rather violently before returning to his eerie stillness. Arthur smirked and gnawed on the joint of his index finger. "You think you've got it bad, do you? Should've seen me and France and Italy during the Black Death."

He supposed he looked rather foolish, speaking to the boy when he clearly couldn’t hear a word Arthur was saying. He looked over his shoulder to make sure France wasn't sniggering at him outside the window.

He wasn't. But there was no harm in checking, really. You never could tell with France.

Determined now, he reached forward and carefully detached Alfred's braces from his trousers. He shuddered slightly as he placed them aside and moved on to Alfred's shirt buttons. There wasn't anything off about this, he reminded himself briskly. The shirt was disgusting, blood-caked and smeared with dirt. It wasn't doing any good just sitting there.

His movements were smooth and precise as he pulled Alfred's arms out of the tattered garment. Frowning, he admitted that he was exposing the open wounds on Alfred's back to the fabric of his sofa, but the more taxing issue at hand was that of Alfred's trousers. And - and getting them off.

Arthur ran a hand through his hair in vexation and decided to focus on the boots for the present. He untied them and made sure to loosen them adequately before pulling them off, and the socks afterwards. They were damp and sweatstained and Arthur wrinkled his nose before depositing them as far from himself as possible.

His eyes roamed back to the trousers again and he groaned a bit to himself at the exposed left leg and the lack of undergarments it revealed. "Not even wearing drawers, you prat…" That was the problem with rebellious colonies. Once they became countries they thought they could flounce about without wearing drawers. Arthur shook his head. Ridiculous. "What do you expect me to do now, hm?"

He took the crooked glasses off of Alfred's equally crooked nose and placed them on the coffee table beside the braces. Alfred's brow twitched slightly in acknowledgement, his lips determinedly turned down, and something in Arthur's chest grew uncomfortably tight. It was probably because of his hair, he determined. Alfred's hair was always well groomed and fell into his eyes just right, and now it was clumped in tangles and greasy and disgusting.

"Such a mess…" Arthur repeated with a sigh. "You haven't bathed in years, have you?" But he knew how hard it was to maintain one's hygiene during a war - especially a civil war - so he dropped the subject.

After fetching a good deal of supplies from the upstairs bathroom, he managed to roll Alfred's trousers up enough to get at the broken leg, which he coaxed and goaded back into place. He hoped that Alfred was resilient as ever, and that even if the leg wasn't perfectly set he'd heal well enough. But damn, what the hell was he supposed to use as a splint? He jammed a hand into his hair again.

A moment of brilliance and a scrambling into the attic later, he was wrapping bandages around a pool cue, which he proceeded to fasten against Alfred's leg. Satisfied, he sat back and examined his handiwork. Not bad, really.

It was the bullet that worried him the most. As he contemplated whether or not to remove it, he snapped Alfred's nose into place and dabbed at the blood with a cloth. That was one of his good dish towels, too, damn it. Glowering, he rinsed it in a dish of water and began to mop up the gashes across Alfred's chest. When Alfred began to break out in goose bumps, Arthur registered that the water in his dish was rather cold. "Well it wasn't on purpose," he excused himself, lips pursed defensively. "And I doubt you'd appreciate it if I used boiling water, either, so there you have it."

Still, once Alfred's torso was cleaned and bandaged, Arthur made a point to fetch the patchwork quilt that hung over a nearby armchair and drape it over the boy's upper half. It was the decent thing to do, and Arthur was always decent. It had nothing to do with the way Alfred's eyes seemed to squeeze tight against the pain, or with the labored breaths that trickled in and out of his parted, cracked lips, or with the slight nausea that formed in Arthur's gut just from watching him.

Arthur cleared his throat and reached for the small bottle of carbolic acid. "Joseph Lister suggests using this, you know," he informed Alfred. "It’s recently caught on in the medical community. You can thank me when you don't get infected and die." He smirked to himself and made quick business of dealing with the wound. "You can find one of your own bloody surgeons if you want that bullet out," Arthur muttered as he wiped blood off his hands. "I'm not going to do it for you."

He leaned his elbows on his knees and stared at Alfred again until his cheeks began to heat up and he turned his gaze upon the carpet instead. "Reckon I missed you," he said to the floor. "Didn't realize it till now. But you scared the shit out of everyone, you know that?" He pressed his palms to his face. "We've all had our moments, I s'pose, but… well… you remember how France went off the deep end last century, it wasn't easy for the rest of us to watch him guillotine his own king and queen, Christ…" He swallowed. "Well, what matters is you're alright, in the end. I still want to shit myself when I think about the fifteenth century, but as it is…" He snorted, a slight smile working its way onto his face. "You're just getting started, America. Don't let this drag you down."

Alfred seemed to sigh a little in response, and Arthur rubbed his nose uncertainly before pulling the quilt down to cover his legs as well. A good meter of him was left uncovered, he was so stupidly tall. Grudgingly Arthur made another trip upstairs, exchanging his sullied supplies for the thick blanket on his bed. He also fetched his slippers because his feet got cold rather quickly.

"Trade you," he announced when he arrived back downstairs. "I'll take this one because I'm not eight feet tall." He stripped the quilt from Alfred's body and replaced it with the woolen blanket, which seemed to fit him better. "Now if you don't mind," Arthur said peevishly, wrapping the quilt around his own shoulders, "I'm going to try and get some sleep before Poland or God knows who comes crashing through my door with his arm severed off." He chuckled to himself at the notion. "Blimey, if this becomes a pattern… I'm drawing the line at the equator, so Australia can bugger off." Another surge of chuckles erupted from his chest and he flopped into his armchair grinning like a madman. Moments later, he sobered and found his eyes drifting once again to the dark blob that Alfred had become. "Don't you disappear on me again," he mumbled, and with that he curled up on the armchair and shut his eyes decisively.

 

Arthur opened his eyes rather testily to greet a seven o'clock sun. Green-pale light sifted through the curtains and bloomed in stripes and squares across Alfred's face. Arthur cracked his shoulder and wondered distantly why that same nausea had returned to his stomach again. It was probably because Alfred's nose looked sort of bizarre in its lingering crookedness. That was it.

With a stark nod to himself, Arthur did something he'd never dreamt of before:

He went back to sleep.

 

He woke again with a jolt, panic fluttering in his ribs as he registered the golden sunlight now pouring through the window. He seized his pocket watch. Ten-thirty. Gulping down his irrational fear of oversleeping, he swung his legs onto the floor and stretched his back, which was sore from being so crooked for half the night. Inevitably, his eyes gravitated towards Alfred's figure. He seemed rather dead still, which was unnerving even the second time around. Arthur crept over to his perch on the coffee table once more and bent his ear down towards Alfred's mouth. Thin, labored breaths bled onto his cheek, and, mostly assured that America had not died overnight, Arthur padded into the kitchen to make a cup of tea.

The cup of tea came and went along with a bit of toast, and then Arthur wondered what the hell he was supposed to do all day with an unconscious America on his sofa.

"You know," he speculated to Alfred, though he was all the way across the room, "I probably ought to tell Palmerston to let Johnson know I've found you. Or you've found me. Or that you're here, at any rate." He considered this, but decided to read a bit of Dickens instead. He found he quite enjoyed Great Expectations the fourteenth time around, and made his way through a good chunk of the book before it dawned upon him that it was one in the afternoon and he was still sitting here in his nightclothes. The very presence of Alfred in the room sent waves of diffusing laziness upon him. He hurried upstairs and only descended again once his state of attire was proper for a day running about at Palmerston's heels.

Then he reconsidered upon realizing that any statement involving "running" and "Palmerston" was an automatic contradiction.

And he made sure to put on his drawers, and a stock, and a vest, and had his coat handy. Because he was a presentable sort of country who didn't flounce about without wearing drawers.

At approximately 3:14 pm he became aware, as countries did without any sort of warning, that both Palmerston and the Queen had sent telegrams to the White House expressing their condolences for Lincoln's death, and for this Arthur was grateful. He knew it wouldn't soften the blow much, but anything to help America right now was, well, something.

He put down Dickens (who was a bit dry, really) in exchange for Pride and Prejudice. A good dose of Austen always lightened his mood.

Arthur grew restless as the day wore on towards sunset, but every time he thought he might just take a short promenade outside, he would glance over at Alfred and sigh back into his chair again. He wouldn't take the chance that Alfred would wake up and find himself alone. With his luck, it was bound to happen.

As the time neared six and Arthur was preparing to mull over the possibilities of supper, Alfred said somewhat blearily, "Hey, Art."

Arthur nearly jumped out of his socks; he did drop Pride and Prejudice, which clattered to the floor as Arthur gaped at Alfred and tried to regain his composure. He cleared his throat and said, "Er, hallo there, Alfred." He stood and managed to make his way to the coffee table. Alfred watched him with a glazed sort of expression and a sleepy half-smile on his face. "How are you feeling?"

Alfred let out a low breath, his eyes drifting closed again. "Kinda hurt like shit…"

"I imagine," said Arthur.

Alfred gave a single slow blink and said, "So… how the hell did I get here, anyway?"

Arthur snorted and scratched at his ear. "I was going to ask you how exactly you managed to break through my very locked doors."

The corner of Alfred's mouth twitched. "Yeah, can't help you there."

Silence pervaded for a long moment, during which Alfred seemed to doze off again and Arthur felt distinctly uncomfortable. "Look, can I - can I get you anything?" he offered at length.

"Water would be fantastic," Alfred mumbled, his eyes still closed.

"Er - right, sure…" Arthur strode into the kitchen and fetched a glass of water from the tap (his new tap, which was very shiny and functional and new). When he handed it over to Alfred, it disappeared in a matter of seconds.

"Thanks," Alfred said on an exhale, his head dropping back and hitting the arm of the sofa at an awkward angle. "I was parched."

"I see that," Arthur replied as the glass joined the braces and eyeglasses on the coffee table. "So… if you don't mind me asking, Alfred… where the hell have you been?"

Grunting, Alfred slung an arm up over his head. "It's kinda fuzzy, you know? I don't - I don't remember a lot of it. It's confused. All lumped up. In my head."

"Take your time," said Arthur.

"Well…" Alfred let out a low sigh. "I started losing track of things in the '50s. Like first I was talkin' to Pierce about the whole popular sovereignty deal, and I told him, look, the border ruffians aren't playing nice anymore. Then next thing I know I'm in Kansas and John Brown's hacking away at these guys and… Jesus, that was a nightmare." He turned his gloriously blue eyes upon Arthur, who was momentarily stunned by the intensity of their grief. "I couldn't keep track of where I was, or what I was doing, and sometimes people could see me and sometimes they couldn't… just flashes of this, flashes of that, and things going too fast and blurry. The he Republicans just appeared out of nowhere - and Lincoln was debating Douglas, and Brooks just whipped out his cane and started beating Sumner over the head - I mean it would have been hilarious if he didn't actually hurt him so bad - and I was at Harper's Ferry, God, I hate John Brown…"

Arthur smiled humorlessly at his hands.

"Lincoln told me they had voted to secede. That was when it got really bad. Half the time I was in D.C. and then I'd look around and find myself in Charleston, and Davis was beaming at me, he was so excited, and sometimes he'd mention things I didn't know about, like I was somebody else." Alfred shook his head and stared up at the ceiling.

"By the time Lincoln called for troops it was… it was fucking chaos. I kept thinking, it's okay, I'm going to wake up and Lincoln's going to tell me I just dreamed it all up, so let's get working on some peaceful negotiations, you know? But I kept jumping around. I wasn't myself anymore, I was Jackson or Grant or Lee or McClellan or just a soldier, standing on one side or the other and firing for my life, and I would be moving and killing and I couldn't stop, I couldn't stop myself…

“I told Lincoln, when I got the chance, that I never meant any of it, that I just wanted what he wanted. 'Part of you does,' he said. 'Once it's unanimous, then you let me know.'"

He gulped and wrestled with the blanket in his right hand. "And then at Antietam… I was… I was fighting for the Union, there in the line of fire and everyone around me's running and screaming, and I see… this guy… it was…" He took a heavy, wobbling breath and looked into Arthur's eyes again. "It was me, Art. I saw me, in a Confederate uniform. And he raised his revolver and he fucking shot me. Shot me in the fucking leg."

Arthur glanced down at the leg he knew was hiding that bullet, and said nothing.

"I dunno how I got out. I dunno if I even moved. I was so angry, always… always angry. And it always hurt. It never stopped hurting. I yelled at Lincoln a lot, and I yelled at Davis a lot, and at Appomatox I was standing next to Lee as he walked out, and I had half a mind to strangle Grant right then and there, God, I wanted to… I wanted to kill him…" He laughed, a hollow, hoarse sound. "It wasn't Grant I ended up killing, though, was it?"

Arthur frowned, confused.

"I thought everything was going to be normal again," Alfred whispered, the words barely tripping over his lips. "But it wasn't. I get it now, in retrospect. It was Booth. And I was following him around, and sometimes I was him, and I couldn't stop him. I couldn't stop myself, and that night I…" His voice was unnaturally high. "I didn't want to kill him. I liked Lincoln, I trusted him, I…" Alfred stared at his hand. "I shot him in the head."

"Alfred…"

Those blue eyes blazed ferociously at him. "I shot Abraham Lincoln in the head."

"You didn't… "

"I FUCKING KILLED MY OWN PRESIDENT, ARTHUR!"

"You didn't kill him, you great twit! Booth killed him, and you’re not Booth!"

Alfred shook his head, his eyes squeezed shut, his throat bulging. He lay there silently for a moment, his chest rising and falling rapidly. He opened his mouth as if to speak again.

Instead, a great shuddering sob tore from his lips and he crumbled before Arthur's eyes. The hand above his head seized a massive chunk of his too-long, greasy hair, clutching at it as if it were an anchor to his sanity; half his face buried itself in the other; and he bawled with great earth-shaking tremors.

Arthur stared, fascinated and horrified and absolutely clueless as to what he was supposed to do. He remembered being like this, quivering behind locked doors when the War of the Roses broke out, afraid to move or breathe or make a single sound in case he shattered into a million fragments and there was no one left to put him back together. And who would have been there to fix him, in the end? He hadn't had anyone the way Alfred had him. He'd simply wrapped up his wounds as best he could and tried to smile when Henry Tudor announced he would marry Elizabeth of York and that would make everything alright again. And things were alright, eventually. But still, he'd bled. He'd suffered. He'd cried.

And seeing Alfred go through the same trial, the same trauma - knowing what it was - knowing the nightmare he'd lived, the endless ache, the raging war in his head that rivaled the one on the battlefields, not being able to choose an alliance because it was all a part of him, and he was killing himself slowly…

Arthur leaned forward and gathered Alfred's head into his arms. "It's alright, you prick," he muttered. "It's alright…"

"It's my fault," Alfred chanted. "It's my fault, it's my fault…"

"It's not," Arthur insisted against his hair. "You had nothing to do with it."

Alfred simply shook his head and continued to sob quietly, and so Arthur held onto him and stroked that repulsively long hair and prayed to God that this would pass soon.

When, hours or years or centuries later, Alfred hiccupped into silence, Arthur said, "In December of 1170 Thomas Becket was murdered. I was just as young and… and just as scared as you, I imagine. I liked Thomas, I really did, and I had half a mind to march up to Henry II and wring his throat. But it was still my countrymen who killed Becket. Does that mean I was responsible?"

"Why the hell," said Alfred slowly, "do you think my leg's broken?"

That caught Arthur off guard. "Er - sorry?"

"Booth's horse fell on him while he was running from the theatre," Alfred explained in a dead voice. "Broke his leg."

"Yes, but which leg?" Arthur insisted.

"What do you mean, which leg? What does it matter, which leg? Booth broke his leg, I broke my leg, it's all the same, it's obvious, part of me wanted Lincoln dead, and that part of me killed him." He let out a tiny broken sigh.

"Don't be so irrational," Arthur said, somewhat peeved. "There's loonies wherever you look, and we're all a little mad one way or another. You're not going to love your assassins, and you're not always going to love your boss. That's what causes a revolution, hm?" He drew back a bit to look the younger country in the eye. Red-rimmed eyes, crooked nose still slightly chapped with blood, dry pale lips. He was a sight. "And look how much better France is doing now that he got a good revolt out of him."

Alfred squinted at him, looking rather dazed. "But I've got to do what my boss says.”

Somewhat nostalgically, Arthur smiled. "You didn't seem to care what King George told you to do."

Alfred shook his head, his eyes focused on the bend of Arthur's wrist. "But I have to do what's right. I have to - I'm supposed to…"

Arthur's head drooped wearily. "Alfred," he said, "has anyone ever told you that sometimes there is no right answer?"

"There's always a right answer," Alfred whispered. "You choose the right answer and that makes you a hero."

"You prat," said Arthur fondly. "The world's not made of black and white. Hasn't war taught you that?"

"No," said Alfred. "No - I - the Confederates were, they were wrong. They shouldn't have, I mean, if they hadn't… they shouldn't have wanted…"

"Independence?" Arthur chuckled. "States' rights? They shouldn't have wanted to make their own decisions?"

Alfred let out a groan and leaned his head back. "Stop fucking with my brain, Britain."

"Just because you can't handle the nuances of reality…"

"Just because you I beat you in two wars," Alfred retaliated with a smirk.

"You really are a prat!" Arthur cried, and wondered exactly why he sounded so delighted. "You show up here a complete wreck and this is how you thank me?"

Alfred laughed throatily, a sound that made Arthur's stomach turn two ways at once. "Yeah, gratitude, right…" He turned his head and eyed Arthur with a curious sort of expression. "You didn't have to take care of me, Art."

Arthur marveled at how he couldn't seem to leave that stupid greasy hair alone. "But you came to me anyway," he replied, honest simplicity in his voice. "You know I always will."

"Even after I kicked your ass twice within fifty years?" Alfred said, grinning.

"Even so," Arthur acceded, and the truth of what he'd determined last night came flooding back to him in waves. He needed America; he needed America to infuriate him and rally him and need him right on back. The idiocy of their relationship was what made it so vital.

"Why?" said Alfred. "I mean, I know I can be kind of awesome, but I haven't been, sometimes, not to you, anyway, and I know you don't like me very much, and you wish I'd kind of shut up and leave you alone…"

Alone? Arthur paled at the thought. Alone - without America - but he'd been without America for centuries, and then Alfred had come along and Arthur realized what it meant to be an ally and what it meant to be - to be something more. What it meant to want companionship, and then what it meant to want to take someone in your arms and shield their eyes as the world skidded and crashed, to protect and nurture, to watch them grow into something strong, something incredible…

"You stupid git," Arthur whispered. "You have no idea, do you?"

Alfred raised his eyebrows.

A pertinent blush rose to Arthur's cheeks, but that didn't stop him from leaning down to Alfred's ear again. "You - you mean everything to me." Brushing aside Alfred's bangs, he pressed his lips against his forehead.

When he had distanced himself enough to gauge Alfred's reaction, he noticed a distinct redness of Alfred's ears. A breathy sort of laugh trickled from his nose, and he grasped absently into his hair. "Geez, Art, I didn't know you felt that way…"

"Oh, shut it.”

Alfred just gave him a half of a grin. Arthur felt sick to his stomach and looked away.

"Hey," said Alfred suddenly, "where's Texas?"

Arthur chuckled and procured the eyeglasses from the coffee table. "How's Mexico feeling about that, lately?"

"I mean…" Alfred laughed and slipped Texas gingerly over his broken nose. "Polk was kind of a jackass about the whole thing, I know, but… Mexico can deal. We fought for it, I won." He flashed Arthur one of his trademark white smiles. "I'm just that awesome."

"Your ego is insufferable," Arthur said, shaking his head.

"To be fair," said Alfred in his Reasonable Voice, "my vision was getting kind of bad."

"Yes, and how are you handling the arthritis in your old age?" said Arthur somewhat scathingly.

Alfred stretched his arms over his head with another cheeky little grin. "Easy, old man. No need to project your own failings onto me."

"Old man," Arthur snorted. "I reckon what you mean by that is biggest bloody empire on the planet, did you ever consider that?"

"Not for long," said Alfred smugly.

"Is that a challenge?"

"Bring it on."

Harrumphing, Arthur stood. "I advise you work up the ability to walk before you go about conquering land that belongs to other countries."

Alfred coughed something that sounded strangely like, "Ghh-India!"

Arthur ignored him. "I suppose you're hungry?"

"Starving," said Alfred.

"Anything in particular?"

"Anything but fucking johnnycake." Alfred grinned up at him. "It's all I've eaten for the past five years, seems like."

"I've got a bit of stew left over," Arthur mused, rubbing a finger over his chin. "I could heat that up rather quickly."

"Yeah, 's fine." Alfred was still smiling at him like the great tosser he was, and it made Arthur squirm and turn away. "Hey, Art, how come you call it Yorkshire pudding when it's not pudding?"

Arthur clicked his tongue in exasperation as he headed into the kitchen. "It damn well is pudding, and it's been pudding far longer than you've been around. I dunno what possessed you to slap gelatin and milk together and proceed to name it something utterly unrelated."

Alfred's snickers wafted across the room. "I love it when you go off like that."

He loved it, did he? Well… well. He could just… go on and… love it… by himself. Across the room. Without making Arthur want to - want to go back over there and seize him by the back of the neck and - and -

Oh.

Oh.

Shit.

 

Alfred healed unnaturally quickly, but Arthur really didn't expect anything else from a country as young and boorish and generally irrepressible as Alfred was.

Arthur dug some old wooden crutches out of the attic and in the blink of an eye Alfred was hobbling around, poking around the house and wreaking havoc everywhere he went. He asked a lot of questions to annoy Arthur, like what was the deal with tar barrels and why did he say "jumper" instead of "sweater" and what the hell was a wassail, anyway?

"Is it a bird?" Alfred asked, clattering around behind Arthur as he tried to prepare a beef roast. "It sounds like a bird. Or like a wasp. A wasp combined with a sailboat. A wassail. Get it?"

"You never really grew up, did you?" Arthur grumbled. "And apparently you never learned to wear drawers, either. I thought I taught you that, if nothing else…"

"They're superfluous," Alfred said, grinning ear to ear as Arthur turned and found his nose centimeters from the other's chin.

"Do you mind?" Arthur said, sweeping around the crutches and proceeding to chop potatoes with vigor.

"Mind? Mind not wearing drawers? Not at all. It's very liberating, you know, frees up that whole area -"

"Yes," said Arthur through gritted teeth, "I imagine," and he cursed his face for being so hot.

Alfred would hobble after him when he went outside to garden and make snide comments about how inconvenient British weather was, and how it rained all the time, even (or rather, especially) on the days when it was sunny.

"If it's so horrendous here," said Arthur tautly, squinting through the noontide sun, "then why don't you just go home?"

Then Alfred would mumble something about his leg and not meaning to impose, and Arthur would feel guilty, but he went back to his work without another word.

Despite Alfred's tendency to get under his skin, Arthur found himself quite a bit happier than usual. Palmerston and the Queen were always implying that he didn't need to be under their feet so much, that they would run things and he could keep his nose out of their business, thank you very much. It was somewhat relaxing to let himself function automatically instead of fretting over every little nuance he couldn't control, and instead focus on the things he could control, like washing Alfred's hair over the sink so that he smelled less like gunpowder and more like soap. He had Alfred shave the beard off as soon as possible as well, which was a relief. One day when it was rainy and Alfred was getting restless, Arthur managed to sit him down with Pride and Prejudice.

"'It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man of large fortune must be in want of a wife…'"

Alfred snorted. "Says who?"

Arthur glanced up, brow furrowed with impatience. "It's irony, America dear."

"Yeah, well, irony or whatever, I'm just saying, wives aren't all that great."

"I'm sure Ms. Austen would deeply appreciate your commentary," said Arthur. "Shall I continue past the first sentence, or have you had enough?"

The banter, though tiresome, kept Arthur's spirits up, and he even went out and found Alfred some coffee, because, as Alfred had said, "I wouldn't have survived that damn war without it." And Alfred beamed at him when he brought it out of the cupboard. Which made him feel a little lightheaded.

Alfred was not quite so happy, however, that Arthur insisted upon redressing the bullet wound twice a day.

"Is it going to sting?" he asked the first time, his mouth twisted in anticipation.

"You're a hero, aren't you? You can deal with the sting, I'm sure," Arthur replied briskly.

"Well of course I'm a hero.” Alfred rolled his eyes, as if this were the most obvious thing he'd heard in his life. "I just like to be, you know, prepared. It makes heroic action more, um. Possible."

He still yelped when Arthur attempted to cleanse the wound. The process continued twice a day. After two days a scarlet-and-green welt had scabbed over the site, and as it yellowed and crusted with pus, Arthur began to grow appropriately concerned.

"Erm," said Arthur as he examined the leg yet again. "Alfred, I do believe you have an infection."

Alfred's brow furrowed as he blinked up at him. "I do?"

Arthur said simply, "Yes," and wilted on the coffee table.

A nervous chuckle escaped from Alfred's lips. "So - so are you going to amputate me, or something?"

"No," said Arthur. Not yet. "I'll have to remove the bullet, though. I didn't want to, before but if I had then this… shit…" He palmed his face helplessly.

"Well," Alfred said, and he stared at the floor.

Arthur sat in shame for a few long moments before saying finally, "D'you think you could manage to get up the stairs? I think everything would go more smoothly."

"Sure," said Alfred, his jaw tight but his eyes vibrant as ever. "Yeah, of course. That leg's feeling really good. You did a really good job with it."

"Alright, then." He hoisted Alfred to his feet by the arm and padded up the stairs, hearing Alfred limp rhythmically behind him. Arthur waited patiently at the
landing until Alfred, crutches and all, made it to the top. "In there." He pointed to the bedroom. "Just… set the leg up in front of you. We'll get it over with soon enough."

"Yeah," said Alfred hollowly, and he turned to obey.

Arthur rummaged through the medicine cabinet in the bathroom for that case of supplies he'd thrown together before he rushed out into the Seven Years' War. It was only about a century old, so he supposed it would be up to date as long as he sterilized his tools with Lister's carbolic acid. That same stuff would have to be applied liberally to the wound in order to knock out the infection.

He jogged downstairs again to fetch a bottle of whiskey.

When he returned to the bedroom, he almost dropped his case in surprise. "Alfred? What do you think you're…?"

Alfred blinked up at him expectantly. His broken leg was entirely exposed to the world; the pool cue and the gauze lay forgotten on the floor. "It's pretty much healed. I can walk on it fine."

"What do you know about whether it's - it's not - you can't just go around…!" Arthur spluttered for words and found none.

"Alright, keep your trousers on," Alfred said darkly. "You can bind it up again if you want, but let me show you first, okay? Don't have a cow, or anything."

"Alfred, don't - !"

Ignoring him, Alfred stood from the bed and walked (almost normally) over to where Arthur stood, gaping. "Well," he said, his eyes sparkling a bit nastily. "That was an adventure."

Arthur swallowed and tried not to notice how Alfred had regained his usual scent of pine needles and tobacco and coffee. "Sit down before you hurt yourself," he said quietly.

"Art, I'm fine!"

"You're bloody well not fine, America, now sit the hell down!"

Broiling, Alfred retreated to the edge of the bed, where he settled himself awkwardly, the now-healed leg hanging over the side, the infected calf stuck out in front of him. Arthur followed him and shoved the bottle of whiskey into Alfred's hands. "I advise you consume most of this unless you want to experience the full delight of this procedure."

"Yessir," Alfred said sarcastically, and took a long swig.

Arthur ripped the bandage from Alfred's left calf and cringed internally at how raw it looked, nearly technicolored in its hideous state. He settled himself on the bedside chair and opened the case of tools beside him. He cleaned the scalpel in the carbolic acid and dried it with a clean cloth.

"You can pray to Joseph Lister if you like," he murmured, squinting at his tools. "Without him your leg would be off for good."

"That's helpful," Alfred murmured, his voice lined with irony. "Thanks."

Arthur dabbed at the wound with a rag dipped in carbolic acid, which drew a shuddering cringe from Alfred.

"Wow," said the latter. "This is going to be awesome."

A few chugs of whiskey later, Arthur was growing impatient. He was no surgeon, he’d never done anything like this before. Not on someone else. He passed the time with his anxieties until Alfred set aside the bottle and gave him a striking sort of look as if to say, What are you waiting for?

"Ready, then?" Arthur said quietly.

Alfred nodded and looked away.

With a deft and precise hand, he stabbed through the skin in one quick movement, and with the tip of his knife he prodded about the area for the bullet; within seconds he dug it to the surface. He splashed carbolic acid into the incision, which bubbled and glugged into watery streams that poured down Alfred's leg onto the towel Arthur had set beneath. His mind was hazy, his ears buzzing under the beating of his pulse, and speed, speed was all he could think about; he had to end this as fast as humanly possible. Towels sopped up the blood that raced from the wound, staining greenish-yellow with pus, and as soon as he could see the skin again he ripped sutures into the wound until it closed.

A few more doses of carbolic acid passed, and his heart began to slow; only then did his mind begin to register the slight squeals that tore from Alfred's nose with every exhale. His chest shuddered and his fingers quaked and his throat grated with that terrible high-pitched noise.

Arthur forced himself to focus, and with fresh bandages he rewrapped the wound, taping it tight. Silently, diligently, he removed the sopping towels and cloths; he would dispose of them immediately. The rest of his tools he packed up in a methodical manner, and he left Alfred salt-stained with tears and blood and sweat to scrub the infection from his fingers.

When he reentered the room, he noted that a smudge of color had flushed back into Alfred's complexion, but his eyes were glued shut and his hands still fluttered jerkily against the sheets.

Arthur sunk onto the bed next to him and let Alfred's head droop onto his shoulder and stroked his hair as the gasping turned into winces which turned into sighs.

"Well?" said Arthur finally.

"Fuck you," said Alfred in a sort of croak. He shuddered against Arthur's shoulder for what seemed like centuries, until Arthur looked down and realized that he was asleep.

"S'pose you are a bit of a hero, after all," Arthur mumbled against his hair.

 

He had grown stiff hours ago, but that had not stopped him from moving. His calves were numb and his back ached and he couldn't feel his shoulder, but every time he considered moving, he couldn’t bear to do it.

And so he sat.

At length, Alfred said, "'S dark."

"Mm," said Arthur.

"I have to pee,” Alfred announced. Painstakingly, he dragged the infected calf to the floor, and picked up the crutches again. This time, he put his weight on the leg that had been broken and hobbled miserably out of the room.

Arthur decided to fetch a bit of supper, as it had grown late, and he managed to balance a lamp on one arm and a plate of chicken with potatoes on the other.

They sat in silence on the bed. Alfred ate half a potato.

"Are you sure you aren't hungry?" Arthur prodded him.

"Yes," said Alfred.

"You ought to eat more."

"Well I'm not going to."

"Well you should."

"Well I won't!" Alfred yelled, and that was the end of that.

Arthur clamped his jaw shut and set the plate aside. "How's your leg?"

"Hurts," Alfred snapped.

"You're lucky I didn't have to saw it off," said Arthur peevishly.

"You're lucky I'm not punching you in the face right now."

"I could have just bloody well saved your life!"

"Yeah, and you know what?" Alfred hollered, his eyebrows snapped down into a harsh line. "IT FUCKING HURT!"

I know, you idiot, I know it hurt. But Arthur said nothing. He stared, simply scowling at the young man before him, who scowled right back. They scowled and scowled for a good half a minute, and finally Alfred's shoulders drooped and he looked away. Still the silence pervaded, and Arthur felt his face growing hot again for no good reason at all. He sighed and fell back against the headboard. Alfred glanced sideways at him for just a moment before staring at his knees.

Finally Arthur said, "I'm sorry."

"I know," said Alfred, too quickly. "I know. You wouldn't do any of this if you didn't - I know."

Arthur breathed for a minute before his glance fell upon the unwrapped leg, which did look quite healthy after all. After just a week, too. At this rate his infection would be gone in a matter of hours. "You'll be alright," he muttered.

"I know," said Alfred yet again.

"When you're ready to go back…"

"I'll never be ready," Alfred interrupted, shifting his gaze to stare at the ceiling.

"Then when?"

"When you throw me out, I guess." The corner of his mouth quirked up.

Arthur hummed his amusement. "You'll be here for another millennium, then."

"It's not that I can't handle it," said Alfred in a rush. "It's not that I'm too weak, or anything, and it's not like I didn't - I'm alright on my own. I am."

"I know that," said Arthur, frowning in bemusement.

"It's just sometimes there's a difference between - between needing things, and wanting them. You know?" He stared desperately into Arthur's eyes and suddenly -

"Oh…"

He understood. There was a chance he was wrong, but maybe - maybe he understood.

And it was easy to go along with it, when America was looking at him sort of strangely, a flicker of uncertainty in that homeland blue of his eyes. They lingered there in the limbo of acknowledgment. Arthur knew he could stand right now, and go downstairs and pick up his book and never bring it up, and Alfred would leave soon and they wouldn’t see each other for another twenty years, and when they did it would be just the same.

And he knew if that happened he’d never forgive himself, so he snaked a hand around Alfred's neck, and kissed him - soft and uncertain and oh so hopeful.

A shudder ran through Alfred's body and his arm reached out and seized Arthur's bicep and leaned forward a bit, and things seemed to sort of click and lock and they were kissing, they were, and Arthur didn't remember anyone's lips ever being so soft and moist and rhythmic and he felt a writhing in his stomach, a painful excitement, the hot ache of wanting, wanting so much that it became needing, particularities be damned, and Arthur broke away with a silent gasp.

Alfred's eyes seemed a bit unfocused as they bored into his collarbone. "What," he breathed.

"I'm sorry," said Arthur, "I should have - I shouldn't have just…"

"Jesus, Britain," said Alfred with a husky grin, looking back up at him, "I've wanted this ever since I hit puberty."

That long? "But what about - what about the War of 1812?" Arthur demanded, searching frantically in Alfred's eyes. The grin widened, and Arthur gulped. "The Trent Affair?"

That sexy little smirk was going to kill him. That and the way those eyebrows twitched up quite flirtatiously indeed. "Foreplay."

A strange sort of growl tore its way out of Arthur's chest, and their lips crashed together, and it was messy and uncontrollable with hands in hair, fingers clutching at backs and necks and Arthur dipped down to parade a line of kisses along Alfred's jaw, down his neck, and Alfred seized him by the collar and dragged him back up, and then his tongue was in Arthur's mouth and Jesus God in heaven he tasted the way he smelled, pine needles and tobacco and coffee, rugged wilderness and careful maturity and Britain knew for a fact that France's cologne and cloying wine that one drunken night forever ago had nothing, nothing, on the untamed, slightly feral, very intentional vigor with which America was devastating his mouth. He sort of forgot to breathe, even as Alfred gasped in air against his lips, and instead laid wet and disheveled kisses along Alfred's cheekbone, across his nose, shivered convulsively as Alfred's hands dug into his hair and explored his scalp. When their lips crossed paths again Arthur took the liberty of memorizing that exact earthy taste of his mouth, and Alfred choked out a slight whine and pressed their chests together and Arthur felt the unbridled strength of that heart, beating, of those lungs, heaving, and of its own accord his hand plunged down to Alfred's groin and Alfred's ribs trembled terribly as he exhaled a hiss -

The sudden noise brought him to his senses and his hand shot away; he stood abruptly, tripping. "Shit."

He could feel Alfred's eyes behind him as he stumbled blindly to the door, their invisible gaze almost demanding him to stop in his tracks and turn around.

He stopped in his tracks and turned around.

Texas had slipped down Alfred's nose a bit, and his eyes were radiant with confusion and indignation and other sorts of forthright emotion that Arthur could never express so easily.

"What?" Alfred said finally.

"I shouldn't…" Arthur mumbled on repeat. "You're - you're confused, you're out of sorts…"

Alfred snorted, his outgrown hair tossing out of his face. "Having a civil war, or getting your leg sawed off doesn't equate to losing your mind and imagining that you feel things that you don't. Because, you know, I do. So you can just - go to hell, alright?"

"I don't think you're making it up," said Arthur, nettled. "I simply don't believe proceeding in this area would be… prudent."

"What's prudent?" Alfred said loudly, his hands gripping the edge of the bed. "What would be prudent would be for us to go downstairs, make a few tariff negotiations, and for you to kick my ass out of here! So why haven't you done that yet?"

Arthur rolled his eyes and stared at the floor. "Don't be ridiculous…"

Alfred folded his arms and shot him a glare that said, quite plainly, 'You started it.' When Arthur said nothing, Alfred lifted a hand to his hair and grasped at it; his tendons bulged in frustration against his skin.

Arthur cursed to himself. This was what he got when he didn't think.

"So that's it?" said Alfred finally. "Never mind, forget about it?"

"Look," said Arthur, his hand curling into a tight fist in his pocket, "if I had any hope that you would - that you'd actually…"

Alfred stared at him, eyes wide, urging him to continue, but he only turned away with a disappointed sigh.

"What?" Alfred cried. "If I would what? I was sort of under the impression that I kissed you back…"

Arthur's shoulders hunched up in a reflexive flinch.

"Oh, now you don't even want me to say it? Then you may want to plug your ears for this one, because you know what? Fuck you, Britain, you bastard, I love you. I fucking love you, you stupid fuck."

Arthur opened his mouth to say, "No you don't," and then shut it. Turned around again. Alfred was staring at him still, and his eyes were blue. They were blue, and…

"Are you serious?"

His hand finally falling from his hair, Alfred scoffed his disbelief. "No, I was just kidding, ha, ha, because that’s the kind of joke I would make." He shook his head. "And you call me ridiculous."

Arthur just gaped.

After a few moments of silence, Alfred squirmed. "Look, do what you want. It's your choice, I get that. I just thought - if that was why, well - now you know."

Arthur remembered to close his mouth but said nothing.

"So should I get out, or what?" said Alfred, impatient.

Finally coming to his senses, Arthur shook himself a bit and closed the distance between them in a few swift strides. "No," he said plainly, looking straight into those very blue very blue eyes. "No, you shouldn't."

A spark of hope ignited behind Alfred's irises, but before Arthur had time to relish it he was kissing Alfred again and life was beautiful. He pulled back a breath and grasped Alfred's cheeks between his palms. "I love you," he said. "As if I ever stopped."

Alfred's laugh was pure joy, pure relief, and they kissed exuberantly; Arthur relished the simplistic feel of those lips back on his, and it was all the sweeter with the knowledge that this wasn't the last time he'd have such a privilege. Time wore on and their tongues met slowly, uncertain as to which territory they were encroaching upon, but Arthur, in that primeval need of his to map out and explore and conquer, began to slide his hands across Alfred's chest, observing the crooked contours and intricate muscle; Alfred sighed in response and wove his fingers into Arthur's hair.

They were content to sit there and kiss for minutes on end, and Arthur felt himself sink into a lazy stupor, with a comfortable tint of arousal washing through his bones. He hardly noticed his erection until he pressed their groins a bit closer together and felt Alfred's own.

He made certain to caress every inch of Alfred's body, arms and neck and shoulders, before traveling south and inching his hands beneath Alfred's shirt. So very slowly he loosened the bottom two buttons and ran his hands along Alfred's abdomen, feeling the flat layer of muscle that barely concealed how thin he'd grown. Once he'd convinced himself that Alfred wasn't going anywhere, Arthur slipped a hand down his trousers.

Alfred hummed and breathed a drawn-out fuck into Arthur’s hair.

Arthur smirked against his neck. Perhaps forgoing drawers had some benefits, then.

Their kisses grew more heated as Arthur unfastened the buttons of the trousers as well. Hand fumbling slightly, he traced a finger up Alfred's cock; Alfred grasped more tightly into his hair. He analyzed the shape of Alfred's erection in the most meticulous of manners as they continued to kiss somewhat violently and Alfred's teeth scraped almost painfully against his tongue more than once, while his broad callused hands managed to untuck Arthur’s shirt and map out his back. When Alfred broke away, breathing harshly, Arthur shifted and persuaded him to lie back so that he could climb between his legs, and then Arthur's shirt was off and Alfred's trousers became quite cumbersome, and suddenly when he looked down, the whole of the American nation was stark naked, spread out before him, scarred and maimed and absolutely breathtaking.

"You," said Arthur, but then he couldn't speak, so he bent over Alfred's chest and traced his tongue over the red, rough scars, down over his pectorals as Alfred quivered and choked above him. His hands lingered over Alfred’s stiffly muscled neck, and as they moved down over his sides Arthur’s mouth captured his throat and didn't release it until he had sufficiently added his own, sweeter scars to the medley of color across his body.

"I love you," Arthur whispered against the crook of Alfred's arm, which he thought might be the Chesapeake, and proceeded to wrap his hand around Alfred's naked erection.

Alfred groaned quite loudly, which Arthur decided he liked very much, his own cock twitching in approval. He focused on the swelling of Alfred's cock and the eliciting of clear fluid from the head and which sorts of touches made his abdominal muscles clench and vibrate furiously. Despite the gnawing heat that swelled through the cavities of his body, Arthur wasn't rushed, and his fingers skated rather than chafed across Alfred's swollen flesh, brushing and skimming just enough to make Alfred’s brow furrow, his mouth hang open, lopsided, lips trembling. Arthur stared at him, somewhat entranced, for a good while until Alfred's groans grew a bit more strained and Arthur decided he'd tortured him enough. He bent forward further and inched his mouth over the tip of Alfred's cock.

Alfred swore, once again with little shame in his volume.

Arthur worked methodically, dexterously; whereas he knew Alfred displayed his passion through wild abandonment, Arthur knew of no clearer way of showing how much he loved this boy than to think things through, to ponder individually over the way his tongue should slide over Alfred's penis, the precise manner in which his hands should probe his testes, the fashion in which his lips should massage his skin, the optimum speed and pressure he should apply. As Alfred's breathing spiked in volume, hums of muted, aggravated encouragement riding on his exhales, Arthur contemplated with delayed apprehension the contact of Alfred's semen with his tongue; but then Alfred was coughing out a wretched sort of cry and his hips vibrated sporadically and his head thrashed and Arthur choked down the arrival of a lot of salty fluid. Pulling away, he observed with a glowing contentment the continual twitches of Alfred's torso as his chest heaved in air, Texas lopsided on his nose.

"Gawd," Alfred spluttered. "Sorry I - ahh… Jesus… Guess that's what happens when you've been horny for a century…"

"I'm sure we can work on your endurance," Arthur replied cheekily. "You're still young, as it is."

He blinked and then he was on his back with Alfred towering over him. "You think you can last any longer, old man?" he snarled.

As it was, Arthur did last quite a bit longer, but only because Alfred was a sadistic tease. Bloody American.

Alfred lay by his side, his face lingering over Arthur's as the latter caught his breath. "So I was better than France, right?"

Arthur choked. "What? How did you…?"

Alfred cackled. "Relax, he told me back during the Seven Years' war to try to convince me to join his cause or whatever. I told him to fuck off." He looked extremely pleased with himself at the memory.

"That bastard!" Arthur muttered. "Never can keep his mouth shut, can he?"

"Not when he can use something as blackmail, I guess." Alfred grinned. "But I was better, right?"

Arthur narrowed his eyes. "It was quite a long time ago - I was drunk, you know. Completely fucking smashed. I hardly remember a thing, so you needn't worry. You're better than sex with France just by existing, if you know what I mean." He gesticulated vaguely with his left hand.

"Okay," Alfred chuckled. "I'll accept that."

"Good." Arthur rolled onto his side so that his face was pressed against Alfred's collarbone. "When will you leave, then?" he asked, his voice slightly muffled.

"Soon," said Alfred quietly. "I've got to."

He nodded. He understood.

"How different do you think it will be?" said Alfred.

Whether he was referring to the state of his own nation or to their impending relations, Arthur couldn't tell, but that didn't affect his answer much, either way. "Too different," he replied. "And too similar, all at once."

"I'll still piss you off, I guess," Alfred said.

"You do seem to have a habit of it."

"You piss me off sometimes, too, though, so we're even, kind of."

"Thank God for that," Arthur mumbled.

Alfred sighed. "I just want things to work out. Is that really that much to ask?"

"Well I can't make any promises," said Arthur. "Things do, and things don't."

"You're very philosophical when you're tired," Alfred noted, pressing his smile into Arthur's neck.

"Mm." He shifted deeper into Alfred's arms. "Promise me one thing, though?"

"'Course."

"Don't be gone when I wake up, alright? That's exactly the kind of shit you'd pull on me."

"That wouldn't be too heroic though, would it?" Alfred said, sounding slightly affronted.

Arthur said, "Precisely," because it made sense at the time, and because he was mostly asleep.

 

Alfred was there in the morning. Texas was on the dresser and the scars were still angry and flushed. Tucked against Alfred's chin, blinking in the hazy golden sunrise, Arthur traced over them with the tip of a finger.

Some things would stay the same, and some things would change. And that was alright. Because Alfred blinked sleepily just then and smiled at him and kissed him gently and fell back asleep within the span of sixty seconds.

He would leave soon, and he would pull himself together, and his scars would flesh over with new and tender skin. Things would happen, and they would hate each other, and they would love each other all the more dearly for it.

Arthur only hoped he could manage to give Alfred a haircut before he disappeared again.