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A/N: Some rather unsettling truths are discovered in this chapter, so please be aware of the warnings listed below.

Please enjoy!

Warnings: Dub/con elements, non/con elements, implied rape.


Wine had been his favourite beverage ever since he could remember.

Even as a young boy he had enjoyed taking tiny sips from his mother's glass, delighting in the comforting flavour as it slid down his throat and warmed his stomach. For Francis, it wasn't even about the alcohol. He wasn't searching to get drunk, he just enjoyed the taste, how it perfectly complimented a nice, quiet evening in with a book, or a loud, fun-filled night out with friends. Wine was delicious.

Which is why he was questioning his current situation and how he had ended up at this party with, not a nice, full glass of wine, but a can of cheap beer in his hand.

Well, strictly speaking, it wasn't even in his hand anymore; it had been deposited (or rather dropped) on a cabinet nearby, the remaining contents shaking with the beat of the music that echoed throughout the house. It was a loud, pounding track with a heavy bass that seemed to be lasting hours.

How long had Francis even been at the party? He wasn't quite sure anymore, but it had to have been at least at hour or two.

He'd arrived with some friends, all of them eager to have a good time, have a drink and perhaps find someone to make-out with. Despite the majority of them being underage, the alcohol flowed freely and he'd had a can of beer pressed into his hand upon arrival. The can bouncing upon the cabinet was not the same one (he'd already gone through two or three since they first arrived, but he still felt in control. He wasn't drunk yet, and he didn't plan to let himself get that far, either)-- no, this particular can had been offered to him by someone else; a senior in the year above him.

They hadn't spoken much before, but Francis recalled seeing him around the hallways, remembered his sweet smile. That evening, though, they had spoken quite a lot and, as the empty cans increased, had found themselves becoming quite close indeed, and not just in a mental sense. After about an hour of talking, the two began to kiss rather passionately, eventually moving upstairs together in effort to find some peace and quiet.

This is how Francis found himself sprawled over a bed with this man hovering above him, tangling his hands in chestnut locks and gazing into amber eyes every now and then as lips moved from his own to the smooth skin of neck.

"Louis," He breathed his name, chuckling softly. "My dear, if you keep that up then I'm going to have marks all over my neck tomorrow. I know that I'm too delicious to resist, but even so..." Breaking their contact, Louis looked up and raised a delicate eyebrow, his amber eyes meeting blue.

"You're a right charmer, aren't you?"

"Mm, is it too overwhelming for you? I could always turn it down a notch or two."

"Who said I was complaining?" He purred, leaning up for another kiss. After indulging Francis for a few moments with the brief contact, he pulled away and sat up, taking a long drink before pulling his shirt off and throwing it across the room, where it landed on the floor. "It's getting hot..." Noticing that his partner was staring, he clambered back onto the bed and straddled him with a grin. "Why the blush? You're no prude, are you? I know that you understand this stuff, Francis, you're no child."

Francis felt himself blushing. "It's not that I don't understand, but.."

"Well, what is it then?" Louis' face fell. "Am I not good enough for you? I should have known..."

"What? No! No, it's not that at all! God, Louis, don't say such things..." Francis shook his head, looking appalled. "You're far out of my league, so much so that I have to wonder if this is a dream. You're gorgeous, dear, you have the prettiest eyes that I've ever seen, and such smooth skin..." As he spoke, his hands began to roam gently, caressing the other's sides.

"You think?" The brunette smirked slightly. "Well, if you think that I'm above you, then perhaps I should teach you the basics of my league? I'd love for you to be on my level. Let's get your shirt off, for a start," Francis looked apprehensive as he began to slowly undo the buttons. Had it been any other situation, Francis would have begun to lament how little regard Louis' rough fingers had for the quality of the fine shirt. Alas, he was rather preoccupied with other, less innocent thoughts. At the forefront of his mind, however, was the notion that this was a very bad idea indeed. "And then I'll show you why this is most certainly not a dream... your mind couldn't possibly predict the things I'm going to do to you."

Hesitating, Francis shifted around on the sheets, voice faltering as he began the protest.

"My dear, I'm... not so sure. You're very beautiful, yes, but--"

"Then do what I say." Louis cut him off, boldly meeting his gaze. "You trust me, don't you?" His lips twisted into a smirk as he finally managed to pull the shirt off and press Francis down into the bed. Francis found himself flinching, shaking his head.

"No, it's not that I don't, I just.. I don't think that we should... we've only just met properly, Louis. Don't you want to get to know me before--"

"I know you already. You're hot, and I want you right now, so stop talking and just let me take care of you. Besides, you can hardly refuse me now, not when we've come so far already..." He pressed his bare torso against Francis' own as a reminder and waited until the man gave a hesitant nod.

"Good boy. Now, just trust me..."

Being 'taken care of' was a very loose term indeed. In fact, Francis couldn't have felt less comfortable in the moments that followed after. There were no warnings and no reassurance, just pure, hot lust. Lips that choked the very breath from his lungs, fingers-- nails-- that dug into his wrists, preventing movement, preventing independence, another body smothering his own and it was too hard, too hot. It was only when his cries of 'slower' and 'stop' or 'you're hurting me' were met with 'shut up for a minute' and 'you're so whiney' did Francis truly realise the mistake he'd made.

He'd asked for this, and now it was happening he hated it, hated the way that he couldn't move, couldn't stop, could barely breathe and no no no no this wasn't happening he hadn't wanted it like this and where was all the romance that he'd so dreamed about, the love that he'd so craved--

Awake. Francis woke up screaming, flailing, pushing the blankets off of him, desperate to get away. It didn't even make a difference when he opened his eyes to view the boxcar once more because he couldn't see, not through the tears that were pouring down his cheeks and blurring his vision. He lay down, sobbing and trembling, throwing punches at the air and crying out "Stop, please, stop, stop--" over and over, still waiting for the man in his dream to finally listen, to pay him some attention and treat him like a human being again.

There had never been peace like this before.

Somehow, in the cargo car of a rusty old train, Alfred felt more at home and content than he could ever remember feeling anywhere else. Maybe it was the endless, rolling fields, flowing past outside the boxcar's gaping opening for his exploring. Perhaps the wonderful blanket of peace and tranquility draped over him was woven by his company; his best friend-- his only friend-- finally at ease and happy and at Alfred's side; a place where he'd always be safe. And for that reason, Alfred was peaceful.

Even the slightly shaky ride and the grinding sound of wheels against track didn't disturb the tranquility.

But Francis' scream; that did. God, did that do the trick.

A gasp left his lips as he jolted awake, he sat up quickly, eyes round and practically overflowing with concern. The dots connected quickly in his head as he realized the reason for Francis' panic was a night terror (and not any real danger, thank God). For fuck's sake, hadn't Francis been traumatized enough in the last few days? Hadn't he suffered enough, cried enough? 'Stop, please, stop, stop--'

"Francis.." Alfred was at his side in a second, searching his tear-soaked face. At the moment, it didn't matter what the contents of Francis' nightmare was; Alfred just needed it to stop tormenting the poor man. His heart ached at the sight of him so broken, so desperate, pleading and begging for an invisible danger not to hurt him. Alfred's hands closed around Francis' fists as he swung them around in a futile attempt to defend himself from whatever was causing him so much terror.

"..Francis, Francey, hey.. Francis, it's me.. shh, shh... Francis, look at me, it's okay." He brought the Frenchman's shaking hands to his chest, holding them over his slightly rapid heartbeat. One hand held Francis' own and the other went to cup the back of his neck, the pad of his thumb nothing but gentle against the side of his jaw. He realized that, in that moment, more than anything, Alfred wanted to take Francis into his arms and hold him against his chest until he stopped shaking, stopped sobbing, stopped begging for the safety he already had. He wanted to rock him gently and stroke his hair and kiss away his tears and there was no time to concentrate on why the hell he wanted to touch Francis so badly because there were far more important matters at hand.

"No one is gonna hurt you. You're safe, Francey, look at me; I won't let anyone hurt you.."

Away, away-- Francis wanted to be away from bed, the covers that restrained him, the chilly air that he blindly defended himself against with wildly thrown punches. Whatever lurked in his nightmare, Alfred realized, was out to get him, and Francis wanted to be away from it. Did he want to be away from Alfred too? The last thing he'd wanted to do was to satisfy his urges and pull Francis into arms, only to frighten him more, give him another reason the thrash and cry and plead for freedom.

But suddenly, there was no decision to be made; Alfred's body seemed to move on its own and veto any protests his brain rushed to think up as the American lent forward and embraced the other tightly. One arm looped his back, the other curled around his head, hand covering Francis' damp, closed eyes so he couldn't see whatever threatened to hurt him, whatever Alfred would never let touch him.

Don't push me away, he silently prayed. You don't have to fight, you don't have to be afraid... let me protect you.. let me make it better. The words echoed through his mind; Alfred didn't even realize it as they slipped past his lips, hardly a whisper, barely reaching Francis ears. Dad had told him to be a hero. He'd told him that, to do what's right, the bad guys had to be brought justice, had to pay for their wrong doings. It was his Dad's job, and it was Alfred's job, to bring justice to those who deserved it. But Dad never told him what do to when it was all switched and upside down, he'd never prepared him for that.

When undeserved punishment was upon someone entirely innocent; what was Alfred supposed to do them?

He was great at standing up to bullies, great at spotting the villain, even if that villain was his own brother. But what was he to do now, when all the unnecessary anguish was upon the least deserving person? He wished he could do more than comfort Francis. He wished he could venture into his dream and fight off whatever was hurting him. But when his hope was impossible, he was back to comforting; the only way he could help Francis. In the end, it didn't matter what method was used; as long as he'd stop crying like that... "It's okay... shh, you're okay, you're okay..."

A figure blurred his vision. There were hands over his, fingers touching his face and neck, a voice speaking in his ear and all the while Francis resisted, fighting to get away, to escape, because this wasn't going to happen again, he wasn't going to let it. He knew he was awake, knew that something was trying to hold him down, subdue him-- wait. He knew that voice too; but it wasn't Louis'. It was more familiar, yet more foreign at the same time.

With a start, he realised. Alfred. He was with Alfred, in America and not France. Louis was not here, Louis was not with him, and all of a sudden Francis began to cry for a different reason entirely. Alfred was here-- Alfred would protect him.

Feeling himself be scooped up into the man's arms, Francis immediately curled into himself, though he didn't resist any longer, instead clinging onto Alfred's arms, his body, anything at all. There was a hand over his face, blocking his vision, shielding and protecting him from the outside. He could feel his eyelashes brushing against it, stuck together and damp with tears. Alfred's hand was warm, surprisingly so.

'Don't push me away. You don't have to fight, you don't have to be afraid... let me protect you.. let me make it better.' The words were soft, but Francis heard them clearly, those gentle utters of reassurance over the sound of his sobs. His arms settled around Alfred's back, pulling himself closer towards the man. It was as if they were one; every part of Francis pressed against Alfred, holding him near and keeping him safe. The pain was in his chest; that awful feeling of betrayal lurked deep down within his heart.

Struggling to calm his breathing, he concentrated on the feel of the American against him, the safety that he represented, and the words that he was saying. Listen, he told himself. Listen to him. You're okay. He's telling you that you're okay. They rocked back and forth at a slow pace, holding each other close. It was as if Francis was a small child being calmed down and Alfred's words were acting as his lullaby. However, Francis did not go back to sleep.

Instead, he reached one trembling hand up to his face, took Alfred's own, the one that was shielding his eyes, and gently pulled it down. He met a brilliant blue gaze that became clearer after Francis blinked and another bout of tears slid down his cheeks, allowing him to see again. There was still fear in his eyes, but it was clear from his ever-steadying breathing that he was beginning to calm down.

"Alfred." His voice sounded strained, emotion welling up and catching in the back of his throat, soon escaping in another sob. A mix of joy and sadness and relief and pain and happiness and disgust and dieu merci he was safe. "Oh, Alfred, you're here..."

The sight of the man set him off again, his free hand gripping the other's tightly. This wasn't fair. It had been months since he'd thought of that night so vividly. Up until the previous night, his dreams had been filled with joyous things, thoughts of his love and his friends, the ones that he was so lucky to have. But now the nightmares were re-surfacing.

Francis said his name, and Alfred's heart felt as though it would burst.

He looked up at him like that, with tears in his eyes and on his cheeks and Alfred had never struggled so hard in his life to resist the familiar urge that just wouldn't quit. He looked so small, so desperate for the security and love he so obviously deserved and Alfred wanted to give it all to him, wanted to never let anyone else touch him or get close to him ever again because he didn't trust anyone but himself with Francis Bonnefoy.

"I thought that I was back there, in that room with him..." It had never bothered him so much before. Perhaps it was because that same feeling had resurfaced... the feeling of being used, made to feel insignificant. Louis had done it, and now Matthew and Arthur too. It was like a grand game of chess-- they were the players and he was a mere pawn, one of many whose only purpose was to be manipulated and made use of in order for the player to win. A sacrifice. Is that all he was?

"With who?" Was all Alfred could ask, finding it hard to speak, as if the ruthless waves of emotion that crashed over him had stolen all the air from his lungs. "Who?" Alfred was furious. With who, he didn't know. Someone had hurt Francis-- again, someone had hurt the most golden-hearted man on the face of the planet and Alfred hadn't the slightest clue who it was that'd had the nerve to lay a finger on his Francey.

Alfred took a slow breath to steady himself, all the while holding the Frenchman protectively against his chest like the world was out to hurt him.

"...Was it Matt?" He wondered out loud, his eyebrows creasing together and his hand drawing slow, comforting circles over Francis' back, over the worn leather of his own bomber jacket that coverer it. "...For Christ's sake, has he not caused you enough pain? Dammit, this isn't fair. You've cried enough over him." Alfred knew the nightmare was something like a memory, a memory of someone hurting him. And Alfred had assumed the star of the Frenchman's night terror was none other than his own twin brother. After all, it was ridiculous enough that Matthew had thought up a reason to hate Francis; some cruel justification for hurting him.

The idea that Matthew may have not been the first to do this didn't even cross Alfred's mind. Francis was good-hearted, kind and loving by nature-- the sole idea of what Matthew had done, that he could somehow find the incentive to hurt an angel like Francis, was still extraordinary to him. The inclination that not one, but two people had found it in their stone-cold hearts to hurt Francis was simply unfathomable. It didn't even cross his mind, so he assumed it was Matthew who was once again the reason for Francis' pain. But regardless of who'd hurt him, Alfred kept his eye on what was really important in this moment. Francis.

Drying his tears, taking away his fear, making him feel a little less alone and a little more wanted again. That was what mattered.

Halting his anxious questioning, Alfred focused on comforting Francis, understanding that the man needed reassurance. "Shh, shh..." He was gentler now, just as furious, but some things couldn't be fixed by fighting. "Of course I'm here.. Francey, I'm here, you're okay..." Francis was too close to the edge of the boxcar, and it was making Alfred nervous. "...Come back to bed, it's safe here."

He guided the Frenchman back to their soft bed of hay, sat back against it, then took the smaller into his arms, in his lap. Alfred's head was no help, as every thought was drowned out by his heart shouting orders, convincing Alfred to do what he felt like doing every time. So, he crossed his arms around his friend's shoulders, dipped his head and nuzzled his face into his neck, daring to allow himself one faint, comforting kiss to the crook of his neck.

"...Francey, Jeez... I'm awful sorry you had to go through that..."

Nightmares like those-- nightmares with thrashing and crying and begging and screaming-- Francis was far from deserving of nightmares like those, nor any at all, he thought.

"...Do you want to talk about it..? You know you can, you can.. if you want. I'll listen.. I'll make it better..."

Francis could feel the anger in Alfred's voice, could feel his utter disgust. He thought that this was Matthew's doing. The Frenchman knew that he should explain, but he struggled to find the words. How could he say this in a way that wouldn't break Alfred's heart even further? How did he tell him that there had been another terrible partner in his life?

Unable to find the words, he simply didn't speak, allowing Alfred to just rock him and vent his own frustration. The American's own words brought tears back to his eyes. It was true. He'd been caused enough pain before he came to the United States. Did Matthew have to add to it?

He wondered, if the Canadian knew the truth about his past-- but of course, he did know. Because Francis had told him everything. Everything that had happened to him. Matthew had been kind and sympathetic as always, but deep down, the Frenchman now understood that all of that tender emotion he had been shown must have been false. Matthew didn't care-- he never had. The only one who cared was Alfred. This was why, as they sat down together once more, Francis decided that he would explain, because Alfred deserved to know what had happened.

Their bed of hay was comfortable, soft and still with a lingering warmth, but it was nowhere near as comfortable as Alfred was. Just being held in the man's arms, having caring arms wrapped around him and a warm, tender kiss pressed to his neck was enough to calm him down. Francis welcomed Alfred, holding him close as he settled in his lap.

'Do you want to talk about it..? You know you can, you can... if you want. I'll listen.. I'll make it better...' He considered the other's words, pausing for a mere moment before nodding because yes, he did want to talk about it. He didn't even know how he would begin, but he knew that Alfred would make it all okay again, that he wouldn't be judged. Not when it was just them in their boxcar, in their little world, arms wrapped around each other so securely that Francis felt nothing in the universe could pry him away from Alfred. They wouldn't be allowed-- Alfred was protecting him.

Giving a slow, careful nod, his hand sourced Alfred's and he squeezed gently. "I'd like that... I should explain everything."

Taking a breath, he looked down at their joined hands as he thought of what to say and how to say it. "It.. wasn't Mathieu." Francis spoke in a small, rather hesitant voice. "It wasn't him. It was all before I met him, before I met you." Before things were good, he thought.

"He was a man called... Louis. In the year above me. We met for the first time properly at a party after I'd just turned seventeen. We started kissing, and ended up alone, upstairs somewhere. It... it wasn't his fault because I gave my consent, though I didn't.. really want to.. but he asked and I nodded so he didn't... he didn't force..."

Francis trailed off, squeezing Alfred's hand, gripping it tightly within his own. He hardly knew what he was saying, the words just falling out of his mouth as he was overcome with emotion. "I shouldn't have agreed, but I was naïve and.. and new to how it all worked, how it was supposed to be. He must have seen that... how fragile I was. That I didn't know how to refuse because I'd never had to before, I'd never..."

Breath catching in his throat, he looked around as a reminder of where he was, remembering that he was safe from harm, that Alfred's arms were still wrapped around him. "But he hurt me.. he didn't listen, not like a partner should. He should have cared..." Another shake of his head. "You don't treat your partner like that. Not even once... you use love and respect, gentleness..." There were tears in his eyes again, and he let them fall. "But that's not the worse part. The next day... everyone knew what had happened. I.. I must have been limping and Louis probably told someone because everyone knew. Some of the students.. they called me a slut and a... and other horrible things. Even my friends... they judged me too. So I found Louis and I asked him to date me. Because if he was my boyfriend, then I thought it wouldn't be so bad anymore."

He gave a half, painfully empty laugh.

"He agreed. We dated for a month or two before I ended it. I couldn't... I couldn't stand letting him hurt me anymore. I couldn't keep pretending. There was no love between us... he just wanted to use me.." Francis trailed off, this time burying his face into Alfred's shoulder. His hands were shaking. "I had a dream about that first night. I.. I don't know why, but I did and it just terrified me. The thought of being back there again. W-With him..." He shook his head. "I'm sorry, Alfred, you... you didn't need to be burdened with all of this..."

"Not... Matt?" He repeated the words numbly, not sure what to make of them. But suddenly, he was all too sure of what they meant. It was just what he'd feared, just what he'd thought the world wasn't cruel enough to do to Francis. Matthew hadn't been his first heartbreak, had he? And, judging by the crying and the screaming and the haunting nightmares that seemed to follow his best friend, Alfred feared that whomever had broken Francis' heart first hadn't done it gently.

Maybe... maybe, he'd managed to hurt him even more than Matthew had.

The mere inkling made Alfred dizzy with rage and protectiveness and something that burned and fluttered, all boiling furiously inside of him as Francis spoke, his voice too small for Alfred's liking. "...Didn't force..?" Alfred gently coaxed Francis to continue his trailed off sentence. "... Francey, what'd he do to you...?" Alfred had to know. He had to because, right now, nothing mattered more to him than Francis, and nothing was of higher importance than his happiness. If no one had cared enough to try to make it better, to listen, to give their sincere comfort and love after so much heartbreak, then by golly Alfred had his work cut out. Francis deserved to be loved as much as anyone; more than anyone.

The American couldn't make Francis forget about what had been done to him, how many people had toyed with his heart and so carelessly broken it. But he could do his best to remind Francis that he was loved, that someone cared. No one could hurt him now, not on Alfred's watch.

Francis' eyes matched their view from the makeshift sunroof perfectly; a lovely deep blue, sprinkled with bits of light where his eyes, misty with tears, bore delicate reflections like two glass marbles. He was beautiful when he cried, beautiful when he was afraid, beautiful when he was broken. But he was perfection when he was happy, and Alfred wanted nothing more than to see Francis smile again and mean it. Jokes and grins wouldn't do right now. Alfred knew exactly what he had to do.

"Francis.." He murmured as he listened (as much as he couldn't bear what he was hearing), tightening his arms around the smaller and bowing his own head slightly so it met Francis'. A careful hand brought the blanket up over the Frenchman's shoulders, and when Alfred held him like this, surrounded him with warmth and protection, not Louis nor Matthew nor anyone else who'd danced over the pieces of Francis' heart could touch him. He held him like nothing else mattered, like the world was out to hurt him, like he had right after the Parisian was pulled away from the edge of the rooftop. Eyes closed, eyebrows knit, Alfred just listened, whispered his name every so often, pain in his emotion-thick voice.

Francis finished, and thank God because his heart ached and Alfred wasn't sure he could even begin to fix damage as bad as this. The Frenchman buried his face in his shoulder, his hands were shaking, and Alfred was a hair away from giving into that urge (not that he had the slightest clue of what every ounce of his conscious was begging him to do). Instead of giving in to the irresistible temptation, he took Francis' hand in his own larger, warm one, held it against his chest, over his heart.

"Fuck..." He choked, the same humorless laugh that had escaped Francis leaving his own lips as he cursed. "...I don't know where someone-- anyone, can find it in their stone cold heart to... to hurt you like that. Use you like that, fuck..."

Burdened? God, no-- Francis meant the world and more to Alfred, didn't he know that?

"Francey... Francis, look at me." One hand on Francis' shoulder, gently pushing him away only to lock eyes with him and draw him closer than he ever had before, just with one look. And just when he had his attention the words failed to form on his lips and the emotion that filled his heart couldn't translate into English. So he just spoke, and hoped what his conscious told him he had to say could bring a bit of comfort to Francis.

"He... can't hurt you. No one can, because you're with me now... and..." He swallowed, wet his lips. "...and your days of being used and hurt are over. No more." He wouldn't allow it. But as the words tumbled free of his lips, Alfred came to the realization that if he didn't trust his own twin brother with Francis' heart, he wouldn't be trusting anyone. "...I promise. I promise."

How was Alfred going to ensure that Francis found the love he so deserved when he couldn't even trust anyone with him?

Francis' throat was dry. He felt sick. Never did he think that he'd be having this conversation, that he'd be having to explain this to his dearest friend; his only friend. This horror show that was his past, it was something that Francis thought had been buried a long time ago, back in France. But now it had found its way into his dreams, instead.

"Not Matt." He repeated in a quiet voice, hardly seeming to notice his own words as he shortened the Canadian's name. Of course. Matthew. Alfred hadn't know about Louis, nor would he ever have if Francis had not been willing to tell him the truth. He could have lied-- could have left it all in the past and refused to speak of it again; but this was Alfred. He couldn't lie to the man, it just wouldn't be fair. No, Francis wasn't like that, he didn't try to cover things up. He had an open personality, wearing his heart on his sleeve just like Alfred.

However, the fact that Alfred was so open presented Francis with another challenge. Both of them had been hurt, and if the Frenchman told his friend the truth then it could backfire badly-- Alfred was still very fragile, though he tried not to show it. But Francis could read emotions well, even now. He could see how his smile didn't quite reach his ears, how his eyes had lost a touch of their sparkle and that sadness was now present in its place. He wanted to fix the American.

"I was naïve, and... unclear in my decision. I didn't exactly agree, but... I didn't disagree either. But he shouldn't have... that's not how consent works..." He trailed off, shaking his head as he moved closer to Alfred. "S-Such an awful man. I thought he was so beautiful, and he was, on the outside, at least-- eyes like a sunset and a smile that.. that..."

Lips on his. Teeth gripping, tearing, harsh and relentless. Growls of lust and pain and salt tears drip, dripping down and falling onto skin, marked and thin and almost broken, the blood waiting to rise up from underneath, blue and dark.

Francis closed his eyes tightly, remembering.

Every movement felt like someone was slowly hammering nails further and further into his back and sides, and it did not cease. Francis was forced to say something in the end, despite having spent the last few minutes biting his lip so hard that he could taste something metallic and warm.

"Louis... please, can you slow..." But his request was never heard as the man continued at his own pace, drawing a cry from his younger partner's lips.

"Shh, don't ruin the mood. Relax your muscles. How can I do anything when you're tense like this?"

"Wait, I... I can't yet. Please, dear, just give me a second to-- oh!"

"There, you didn't need it, see? You can do it. If you just listen to me," His nails bit into the skin of Francis' wrist, and the younger desperately shifted until their two hands were intertwined, squeezing it tight. Desperate for some semblance of comfort. "Then it'll all be fine. Just like that..."

"No, I-- oh God, wait, stop... stop, please Louis, stop..!"

Louis sighed, muttering to himself before addressing Francis.  "God, you're such a whiney little bitch. Will you never shut up? You've been complaining all evening, Francis. Don't ruin my night-- I could have found someone else who wouldn't have complained, you know."

There were tears in Francis' eyes now, falling down his cheek as he turned away to the side, still as tense as before. Whiney? Was he not doing it right? Was he making it feel bad for Louis?

"I'm sorry, but.. you're hurting me... I don't know what to do, you know that I'm... new to this..."

Louis sighed, continuing on. He could see that this wasn't going to work unless the other became more tame. Trust him to get stuck with a virgin. What to say, in order to make his partner more compliant?

"Look, it's fine. I'll teach you, or something. Just relax, okay? For me? It'll feel good in the end. Promise. But for now," Leaning down, he looked into Francis' eyes, hanging over him like a shadow as his voice turned dark, threatening, and the happiness quickly dissipated. "Just. Be. Quiet. I only like my partners vocal when they're not complaining."

Shuddering, Francis nodded. Louis leaned down to press his lips to his partner's, who complied happily in search of some comfort as they continued on. However, the man's own kiss was cold and without passion, nor any other emotion at all.

Francis opened his eyes again with a quiet intake of breath, almost gasping. He had been silent for a while, simply remembering, cataloguing the memories in his head. He felt grateful that Alfred had allowed him peace and the time to think for so long.

"You asked what he did to me. He was loveless. He had no interest in building a relationship between us, nor any kind of bond. I was just... conveniently there for him to use. But he had no care for how... I was feeling, or what he was doing to me. It was all about him. Even when he did pay me attention, I see now that his caring attitude was just an act. It was... false." He trailed off and began shaking his head, suddenly appearing more aware, almost regretful of what he'd already said.

"Alfred, you don't need to know, it's... not nice to make you hear such things. Just know that it was wrong, what he did. Dieu, the things I have learned of love since then." Looking up, Francis was met with that brilliant, blue and oh-so-sincere gaze, 'Your days of being hurt and used are over. No more', and he smiled, taking the other's hand and squeezing it tight.

"Alfred. My dearest friend, I wish to ask you a favour. Make another promise for me... promise me that you won't do the same." There were tears in Francis' eyes as he spoke, struggling to get the words out. "Don't be foolish like I was. Don't let anybody ever hurt you. I promise to always protect you, but... others can be cruel. There are people out there who will want to take advantage, but you must not let them, Alfred. Don't let them take away what is yours. Please promise me that. Don't be naïve as I was."

There was a desperate, pleading look in Francis' eyes, a true need to make Alfred understand, to protect him as much as he could. Francis wanted to take Alfred into his arms, wrap a blanket around the two of them and just disappear. He wanted to leave the cruel world behind, along with all of the bad people in it, and just be with his friend, the one person in life that truly mattered to him. But that, of course, was impossible. They were stuck with this dangerous, harmful world, so Francis had vowed to make it into something beautiful. Alfred; sweet, perfect, darling, kind Alfred had to be protected. Francis wasn't about to let him make the same mistakes as he had. No, he was far too precious for that to ever happen. If Alfred got hurt, then Francis would never forgive himself.

"..Fuck." Alfred certainly hadn't intended on cursing. It wasn't like there weren't other, better things to say in a sensitive situation like this. I'm so sorry. That would have worked. That sounds awful. An appropriate response. But Alfred couldn't say those things, because he wanted to say them all, and on their own they hardly meant anything at all. Simple, bare minimum sentiments that sounded like they could be printed in a factory-made card you'd find in a gas station or bookstore. But Alfred's one filthy word spoke so much disgust, hate, affection, love and protectiveness that nothing else could have possibly said enough.

"I wouldn't do the same." A misunderstanding. Alfred had assumed that when Francis had asked him this favor, this promise, well-- he'd assumed the Frenchman was bidding him not to be like the cruel bastard that'd taken everything from him. It was only when the Parisian went on did Alfred realize he was being warned about people like Louis, about being on the receiving end of such abuse.

There was a foreign feeling in his chest like his heart was a tub of ice cream and Francis was the hot sun at the sight of that desperate, pleading gaze of his. "...Francis, you're worried about me? Honey..." Melting, he was melting. "...After all the shit you've been through..." Like the words had raced to get past his lips again, tumbling over one another and failing to cross the finish line in time. "...Let someone else protect you for once. Jesus, Francey, I..."

He opened his mouth like he was going to finish his sentence, but the air and the words kept getting stuck in his lungs every time Francis so much as looked at him, and Alfred hadn't the slightest clue why. "...You're worth more than just an example of what not to get into."

Hearing the swear, Francis flinched, not used to hearing such a harsh word come from his friend's sweet, innocent mouth. That one syllable held so much in it, so much raw emotion, and Francis was able to hear the tremor in Alfred's voice as it shook with something powerful, some kind of sadness or anger or dread. Something strong enough to render Alfred almost speechless.

Upon instinct, Francis clutched more tightly at his hand as the man spoke again. "What?" His blue eyes were wide in shock. "Alfred, I wouldn't dream of.. I know that you would never..." Francis trailed off. It wasn't something that should even be said; it didn't need to be clarified. The fact that Alfred felt he needed to say that made Francis feel ill and compelled him to go on with his warning. His need to speak was so intense, he felt like he was going to explode. Like a firework on the Fourth of July, primed to go off at a certain time, but that time wasn't soon enough, he needed to speak before then and suddenly the words were just pouring out of his mouth.

'Honey...' Hands formed fists, going tight in the back of Alfred's shirt where they had moved to, clinging onto him. His breath came oh-so-quickly, but it still felt like there was never enough of it to fill his lungs. Francis was burning.

"If I don't look after you," He whispered softly in response. "It feels like I'm neglecting a part of myself."

Meeting Alfred's gaze, he took a sharp intake of breath and suddenly found himself drowning in blue, blue, blue. So much blue. Every time Francis looked into Alfred's eyes, it was as if he was doing so for the very first time. He was not wearing his glasses (as Francis had stirred him from sleep in a hurry) and the pools of blue were so clear without their usual lenses covering them it was almost blinding. A soft, gentle blue hue flecked with specks of sea and sky, his eyes were like a beautiful landscape painting of the Atlantic.

"You protect me everyday, Alfred. You value me like no-one else ever has before-- not with the same strength of emotion. Life is this... this grand sea of emotion, and if I am a boat sailing along then you are my sails. You are my structure, my mast, my steering wheel, my flag, and your breath is the wind that pushes me along. As long as you are alive and well and close to me, I can continue to move. But once the wind stops..." His breath hitched. "The boat is still. She may topple and break her mast; rip her sails on the rocks. With no-one to steer her, she is lost to the waves, just as I would be lost to life without you. So please, stay with me, Alfred. Stay with me forever." He smiled gently-- hopefully-- a hint of fear still in his eyes.

"You don't have to think of me as an example, but rather as a lesson. I didn't intend it to be this way. I haven't thought of that night in so long, it was a shock to recall everything so vividly... I thought that I'd succeeded in forgetting. But old memories will resurface..." He said almost regretfully, a sad kind of smile upon his lips. "It's a warning of sorts... a reminder of your value, because sometimes, dear Alfred, I think that you forget just how much you are really worth."

There was a moment where they just looked at one another, blue on blue, hearts wide open, everything silent like the grind of rails and wheels and the howl of wind wasn't there at all and Alfred shivered, even if he knew by now that he could never be cold with Francis so close.

They didn't sleep for the rest of the night. Not that there was much of it left. They stayed awake; stayed up and talked. It was endless, it was too short, and Alfred could hardly believe how natural it felt, just exchanging words for as long as the unholy hours of the morning could stretch. This was no passing period smalltalk, no cheap gossip or brief conversation. It was open-heart surgery, trusting one another with fragile and long-buried secrets, stories that they wordlessly agreed would never leave this boxcar.

Alfred strummed the guitar for a little while, and as nicely as the wooden instrument sat in his arms and lap, Francis fit against Alfred like two pieces of a puzzle and Alfred wondered if the Frenchman felt as complete as he did when they were close like this.

When the sun rose, Francis had taken his seemingly permanent position sitting in front of Alfred, leaning back on his chest as he allowed the American to play with his hair. Said American was as gentle as anything, of course, a faint smile on his lips as he watched his own fingers smooth over and glide through the perfect rivers of gold that Alfred didn't realise he adored so much until this morning.

He'd gather all the hairs into a tiny ponytail, let it go, make a few loose French braids down either side of his head, only to carefully comb them out the moment he finished, and then he'd start all over again. It seemed to be relaxing Francis, comforting him, just as their early morning full of talking had. And what more could Alfred ask for than the happiness of his most beloved friend?

It felt nice to talk into the night, only the sounds of nature, their own soft voices and the gentle strum of the guitar filling the air. In a strange kind of way, the sounds actually appeared to harmonise with one another, and the whole atmosphere became very natural to Francis. At one point he feared that he might be hurting Alfred with his weight, that perhaps his elbow might be digging into his chest, but it soon became apparent as he observed their position just how comfortable they both were.

The sunrise was beautiful. As it tiptoed its way up into the sky, Francis couldn't help but glance upwards, turning his head a little from where it rested upon Alfred's shoulder to see the man himself. A set of sapphires framed in gold, he was still as beautiful as ever. Francis wouldn't deny that Alfred was a very attractive man, and seeing him like this, bathed in fresh, golden sunbeams from the early morning sky, his soft hair the first thing to greet the new day, he looked even more so.

Somewhere along the way Francis had lifted his head up so that Alfred could play with his hair, gentle fingers twisting this way and that, creating delicate little patterns before erasing them and starting over, never seeming to tire of this game.

"So, when are you thinking we bail?" Alfred asked with a bit of a playful edge to his voice. It was just last night when he'd pulled off that stunt of his and assured Francis he'd be more careful, and yet now he wanted to jump out of the train; he was reckless again. What could he say? He was Alfred Jones.

"Don't get me wrong; I love our train, but there's gotta be more to see out there." A closed-lips chuckle, a content sigh sounding through his nose as his hands lowered to loop around Francis' waist. He hugged him from behind, resting his chin atop his shoulder as he closed his eyes happily. Oh sure, he wasn't so blind as to what they must have looked like (like a couple, that's what), but they'd been cuddling like this all night, for God's sake, what harm was a little more of the closeness that came so naturally?

"Let's play 'Guess which state we're in'! Hmm... I think it's a little warmer. Maybe we're headed to one of the Southern ones!" Alfred chimed, looking like an excited puppy as he gazed out of the gaping opening in the side of the boxcar. Really, it didn't matter. None of it mattered, Alfred realized, as long as he was with Francis. As long as he kept finding new ways to make him smile. As long as he could protect him from the Matthews and Louis' of the world, and finally treat him like he so deserved to be treated. But even like this, when it was just himself and Francis and they had the whole world at their fingertips, something deep inside his heart wasn't satisfied.

No, more than that; this emotion that Alfred chose to ignore-- the same one that was constantly urging him to do... to do something-- was crying out for attention, impatient and unsatisfied and always wanting more, wanting to be closer to Francis in a way that Alfred couldn't even understand himself. The blond simply didn't trust this emotion, just like he didn't trust anyone with his best friend, because it was unknown and it was strong.

So, Alfred shooed it away, back into the depths of his heart, and ignored it once again.

"No, no, I understand." Francis replied as Alfred began to speak." Mm... perhaps soon. We should really find ourselves found breakfast and a warmer place to spend tonight, don't you think? Though I must agree with you and say that I will miss this old place." He looked around their boxcar as he spoke, a loving, appreciative tone in his voice.

Feeling warm arms wrap around him and a chin rest atop his shoulder, Francis titled his head until it pressed against Alfred's and adjusted his hands, moving one down to touch his friend's arm whilst the other travelled up to tangle in soft golden locks that were shorter than his own.

"Guess which state?" He echoed, smiling. "Unfortunately, American Geography is not my strongest subject... though perhaps we could be in Kansas by now? Je ne sais pas." He laughed, still slowly combing his fingers through Alfred's hair as the man had been doing to him before, delighting in the feel of such smooth, silky soft strands against his fingers. "What do you think, Alfred?" His voice was soft, as it had been the entire time, Francis being mindful of the fact that the American's ear was so close to his mouth-- he spoke in tones that bordered on whispers.

It felt nice to be this close to him. A sense of comfort radiated through Francis, along with a strange kind of... urge. He immediately pushed it away, not wanting to dwell on more questions but rather simply enjoy that moment that they were sharing instead. Questions could be answered later. Right now, Alfred was the most important thing in his eyes.

Alfred was no doctor, but he knew that a racing heart, lightheartedness, and something like queasiness in his stomach couldn't be good. And as much as he wanted to keep Francis so close like this, he was afraid of these feelings without a name, these symptoms with no diagnosis.

So, he slowly pulled away from the other, instantly regretting it the moment his arms were empty and Francis' hand wasn't in his hair. There was a brief moment where the American paused, wide-eyed and regretful, before quickly picking up the conversation again and trying to shake the desire to be close. He couldn't go back to the lovely position they'd been in before. But maybe that was for the best; an emotion that was both unknown and strong couldn't possibly be safe.

"Breakfast sounds amazing right about now." Alfred admitted, rubbing the back of his neck and chuckling in a boyishly cute fashion. "And tonight, we should find an inn or something. Camping is fun, but not every night, you know?" He spoke pleasantly, but deep down he couldn't shake the emotion that felt as though it was eating him away. He shouldn't have pulled away from Francis, because it was almost as if the closer he was to the Frenchman, the less angry and demanding the emotion was, the less it hurt.

"Oh yeah, this old thing," A soft chuckle sounded from his lips as he glanced around the boxcar, somehow elegant and homey despite the fact that it was nothing more than a huge, rusted metal box. The American realized it then; Francis had that effect on things, didn't he? He could make anywhere feel like home, just by being present.

Alfred let his gaze fall back onto Francis, and then he couldn't look away. Generally, it was difficult to look away from beautiful things, but Francis was like a sunset that never dipped below the horizon, glowing and breathtaking and never seeming to dim and set for the night. Perfect skin, smooth and soft and Alfred knew this because he'd wiped away Francis' tears, he'd held his face. And the Parisian wasn't the only one in love with his hair. Alfred's hands practically itched with the temptation to draw his fingers through the long, sun-colored strands like he had just a few moments ago (before he'd so stupidly backed away out of wariness). God, and the blue of his eyes, deep and endless and soft but piercing; Alfred wanted to look into them forever.

His own eyes, the color of the sky on a warm, cloudless day, continued to trace over Francis' features; he didn't even pay any mind to the fact that the Parisian had gone silent.

What a.. pretty nose bridge, Alfred thought, tilting his head a bit like he was standing in front of a sculpture or a painting at a museum, simply admiring. ...It bows away from his face only slightly, and the tip is so nice--damn pretty, if you ask me-- and then if you look lower...

Alfred gulped. His lungs felt tight and he didn't know how he was still breathing. He hadn't really noticed Francis' lips before, not like he was now. And all of a sudden, like finally understanding the beauty and meaning in a painting, Alfred was mesmerized, staring, and it was no question as to what he was looking at.

...Holy cow, do you have perfect lips... Alfred noticed it all. The indents on the corners, the lovely profile, lifted cupid's bow, how his upper lip stretched wider than the lower and, when he smiled... God, how could Alfred even describe such a thing? All of Francis' features were nothing short of perfect, both the ones on his face and in his heart, and Alfred absolutely could not understand how anyone lucky enough to win Francis' affection would want to to anything but treasure every bit of him.

Stop staring, you'll weird him out. Think of a state, Al, come on... "Hm..? Oh, I don't know... maybe Wisconsin or something..."

That's up North, dipshit. Jeez, maybe he's French enough not to notice your slip-up.

Francis wasn't one to pride himself on his intelligence, but he knew he wasn't an idiot either. In fact, he was a very observant man indeed; sociable, good with people, friendly. However, the trouble began with the fact that Alfred wasn't just any old person. He was special. Alfred said things, did things, and they didn't have to be big things, mind you, but they were somehow enough to set Francis' heart aflutter, to warm his chest and colour his cheeks and skew his perception.

With Alfred, it wasn't as easy to read the mood so simply, because with him, it was as if thousands and thousands of emotions were all flying about in the air at once, and that was too much for Francis to deal with, too much for him to process all at once. What scared him most was the fact that Alfred was just one person. Was it even possible for one person to have all that power, to have such a profound effect on Francis?

It must have been, because Francis hadn't been able to read the mood clearly around Alfred since they had found each other. This was mostly to do with the fact that Alfred wore his heart on his sleeve a lot of the time, so there was no need to look underneath what was being displayed outwardly upon his face. But now that they were alone together, things were different. Their world was far more intimate now, things were shared between them that they both knew would never pass the other's lips again. Secrets. There was an... unspoken agreement not to repeat these words to anyone.

Francis felt comfortable, there in Alfred's arms, but returning to his observant quality, he knew that something wasn't quite right. He was trying his absolute best to read the mood, but the buzzing in the air made it difficult, so instead he just looked at Alfred. Francis felt the man shifting and recoiled his hand, though it did linger helplessly in the air for a few moments, sitting up to support his own weight. Fingers clenched into a loose fist to ease the sudden shock of having such an empty hand, and blue stared into blue, observance registering shock. However, the moment soon passed as Alfred began to speak again.

"Oui, it does, doesn't it? And I agree. Our adventures in the countryside are over for now, I think." He chuckled softly, fingers flitting about restlessly in his lap as he sat there, still adjusting to the new space now that Alfred's arms were no longer around him. Their eyes met once more and Francis smiled gently, nervously, unsure what emotion was being conveyed between them.

Looking away rather sheepishly, Francis broke their gaze and touched his hair, taking a few moments to adjust it before lifting his head again and returning his eyes to Alfred's face. When he did, Francis inhaled sharply, feeling his muscles tense up a little. Alfred was still staring, those blue eyes seeming brighter than ever as they practically bore a hole into Francis' face. Was he being... analysed? No, not quite, there was something else in those bright eyes of Alfred's. It was... admiration. He was being admired.

He could feel his throat growing dry, feel his own eyes going wide and his muscles start to tense further at the sudden realisation, preparing to look away again before he was released from his gaze. He started when Alfred spoke, flinching slightly where he sat.

"Wisconsin." He repeated dumbly, giving a little nod in agreement. Now was not the time to worry about American geography. "Perhaps it is."

Alfred told himself to snap out of it, to stop staring, especially when Francis was staring back, meaning he'd been very much caught.

"I-I'm sorry." Alfred tore his gaze away and forced himself to look out of the opening of the boxcar. "Damn, my bad, dude, I didn't mean to stare, I just..."

Be honest. When did being honest start feeling like such a risk?

"...You're just really goddamn pretty is all, I have no idea how people aren't always staring at you and choking on their words and bumping into shit. D-Do you get stared a lot..?"

Curse his stutter. Curse his big, rambling, cursing mouth. Curse his racing heart and pink cheeks and his weak attempt at returning to a casual conversation after so blatantly (and probably creepily) staring down the poor Frenchman. Alfred sighed, pushed his fingers through his wheat-colored hair and forced himself to look out, away from Francis.

"Sorry." He muttered again, and he nearly winced at how much he reminded himself of his brother just now, mumbling apologies like he was. Eyes down to his own lap, fidgeting hands-- oh, now he was nervous too, great-- then back up, and Alfred blinked a few times, creasing his eyebrows.

Francis couldn't help but wince as the apologies tumbled out of his friend's mouth once he realised what had happened. "Alfred... Alfred, please, it's alright."

'I just...'

Francis bit his lip, waiting for the man's next words. When they came, he didn't believe them; in fact, he didn't speak for a few long moments. Now it was Francis' turn to stare. "Pretty..?" There was his proof-- Alfred really had been staring at him. "W-Well, I..." He touched his face; suddenly self-conscious, nervous, feeling more aware. Every nerve was on fire. "Not really, no. No." His voice became a touch flatter. "Not... not ever. Never in such a... beautiful, spontaneous manner."

Francis, be stared at? No, that wasn't right. Francis was the one who did the staring, who handed out the genuine compliments that seemed to come so easily to him. It was a gift, really. He saw the good in people, and wanted to share that-- a beautiful sentiment. At least, if his words were well received. The fact that Alfred had done the same thing seemingly accidentally was extremely endearing to the Frenchman.

Francis' own cheeks were as warm as Alfred's by the time they finished speaking. After hesitating for a moment, Francis whispered. "Thank you. There is no need to apologise for such... kind words." He was pretty. Alfred thought that he was pretty. His heart raced in his chest, and he raised a hand to cover it, a tiny smile tugging at his lips.

Alfred looked as if he was about to reply, but suddenly became distracted, turning his head to face the world outside.

"Hey, Francey..." Standing, he placed a hand on the edge of the boxcar's opening to steady himself, looking out down the track. "...I think we're stopping." Fields were still there, but in the background now. The scene framed by the rusty boarder of the boxcar's door was now covered with small homes, shops, roads and, on occasion, people. Suddenly, the train had stopped, right on the edge of God knew what town they were in.

A voice made him look up. "We are?" Sure enough, they were in a quaint looking town. "You're right, Alfred! How pretty..." Remaining seated on the floor as the American began to pack up their belongings, Francis smiled, sitting quietly as he admired the landscape.

"Well would you look at that, Francis, I think this is our stop." He allowed himself a slight smile (despite still being very much embarrassed about a few minutes ago), stooping to sling the old guitar across his back and grab his small bag of belongings. Everything would be fine; Francis would forgive Alfred for staring like he forgave everyone for everything, they'd be okay and--

Opposite to the opening Alfred was standing in, a second door was thrown open that neither of them had even known existed, in the wall the other side of the boxcar.

The two of them instantly looked shocked, eyes going wide and mouth falling open slightly as the men climbed onto their boxcar, invading their safe haven.

"That one's empty, go on and start loading up cargo in there!" A foreign voice called to the man who'd opened the door. He didn't seem to notice Francis or Alfred at first, but their luck was short lived as the man glanced up. There was a fleeting silence and then--

"Damn freight hoppers!"

"More? How many?"

"Two."

"Well, what are ya waiting for?! Get 'em hitchhikers!"

Suddenly the man was joined by a second worker who jumped up onto the floor of the boxcar, and Alfred knew they had to move if they didn't want to get into serious trouble.

"Run..!" Alfred jumped from the boxcar onto the side of the tracks, turning back only to hurriedly signal Francis to follow. He looked to the side and another man ran towards them, gaining on them quickly.

"Come on, Francey, jump! We gave to get outta here now!"

Jumping to his feet with a startled cry, Francis grabbed his bag and Alfred's jacket, leaping from the boxcar as Alfred beckoned him down. The moment his friend was down, Alfred took his hand and began to run, straight into town.

"Get back here!"

Fear turned into exhilaration as they were chased, his heart pounding as they ran like the wind, whizzing past strangers who stared with wide eyes and hands over their mouths in surprise. Alfred let out a laugh, one that Francis surely recognized now as one of pure excitement and thrill.

"Zut alors, where do we go?" Francis panted, looking around frantically as they continued to move. "Alfred, should we hide? Are they following us? Are they--"

When Alfred laughed, Francis stopped in the middle of his sentence, at first looking quite shocked before bursting out into laughter. He felt his fear evaporate and be replaced with happiness. It was all alright. Alfred was still with him. They'd figure this out together. He clasped his hand tighter, letting a laugh slip past his lips.

"Quickly, in here!" Francis called, nodding his head at one of the buildings. "Let's hide!" He took Alfred inside the store, sounding breathless as he yanked open the door and walked inside, still holding the man's hand. It was a bookshop, endless shelves crammed with novels and comics and everything else imaginable stretching out in front of them. Francis turned to Alfred with a smile, exhaling slowly. "I think we're safe here."

Alfred may have paid more attention to the rushing footsteps just outside the bookstore's entrance if he hadn't been so busy being mesmerized by a certain someone who seemed to glow when he was flushed, winded, and smiling. "Yeah.." The American let out a soft laugh, not meaning for it to come out as breathless as it had. He only hoped Francis couldn't tell that it wasn't the running that'd taken his breath away.

"In here!" One of the trainmen shouted, snapping Alfred out of his trance. His round eyes met Francis' for a second, exchanging a glance.

"Okay maybe not..!" To follow was a string of hastily whispered curses, the two of them scurrying around for a moment trying to find places to hide before they were discovered. Alfred could have been scared, but how could he be when this was all so thrilling, when Francis was smiling like he was finally living? The American ducked behind the bookshelf, pressing his back to the many spines of old, yellowed books. "Francey!" Alfred hissed in a hushed whisper, glancing around in an attempt to see where the Parisian had gone off to hide.

His heart sunk when he found the Frenchman in plain sight without a hiding spot, nor a second left to find one, as the trainmen had already burst through the entrance to the bookstore.

"I could'a sworn those hoppers ran in here." One growled, glancing all about.

Alfred knew he was safe-- he was hidden fully out of sight--because he was good at sneaking around and staying out of trouble after he'd caused it.

Oh, but Francis-- what would he do? With his easy-to-spot hair and blatantly different voice, he stood out like a sore thumb! Alfred peeked worriedly through the spaces between books, holding his breath as the trainmen glanced over at the Frenchman. Dammit, what if they arrested him? What if they took him away, what if they sent him home? Suddenly, getting into trouble wasn't so much fun now that the possible consequences weren't all on Alfred.

"Hey... aren't you..?" One of the men asked with narrowed eyes and slow, suspicious steps towards Francis.

Alfred's eyes rounded as he took in a sharp breath of the sweet, crisp, dusty smell of old books. A single bead of sweat formed on his forehead as a second man advanced towards Francis.

"That's him alright! I'll bet you a million bucks that's one of the guys!"

How on earth was Francis going to get out of this? Alfred's heart was pounding, his hands twitched, and then the worry in his heart caught fire. It smoldered, burned, and Alfred's chest was filled with the familiar heat of protectiveness. He grit his teeth as the men took another step forward, throwing all kinds of accusations (most true) at poor Francey.

The American positioned himself near the edge of the bookshelf, about a second away from blowing his cover in the name of defending his best friend. In the worst case scenario, they would both get dragged off by the cops, but at least that way they'd still be together.

"Well, freight hopper, what do you have to say for yourself?! And where's your friend, huh?"

"Merde..!" Francis couldn't move. He found himself rooted to the floor, suddenly stricken with an unmistakable sense of panic. He had been so sure that they were safe inside, but the men had followed them. Those few seconds of deliberation about what to do next cost him a lot. Alfred was already hiding, Francis could hear his voice calling his name and turned round to flash a nervous smile at the man, all the while racking his brains for an idea. The men were coming-- he could hear their footsteps.

Thinking fast, Francis grabbed a book off of the shelf and threw it open, just as the doors of the store hit the wall with a sudden thud. Exhaling slowly, Francis crossed one leg over the other and raised his head, looking towards the door with a confused expression. The men drew near to him and began to speak, throwing accusations and goodness knows what else, but Francis just stood still, looking more and more confused by the second.

When they had finished speaking, ending with a question directed towards him, he paused a few moments before speaking.

"Excuse me?" However, the voice that came out when he spoke was not his usual, strongly French accented tone, but a harsher sounding American accent.

"Are y'all quite finished with these accusations, or is there more? You gon' accuse me of somethin' else? Robbin' a store, perhaps?" He paused once more, drawing himself up to his full height (which was still rather small, but intimidating nonetheless) and looked between the men with an unimpressed expression.

"No? Didn't think so. 'Ere I am, minding my own business and reading about our great nation's past," He waved the book he was reading in the air, glancing up at the section he was standing in. It read 'History'. "When I'm rudely interrupted by you two wisecracks 'ere, saying somethin' 'bout fright hoppers?" Frowning mightily, he placed the book down on a nearby table, folding his arms. "Now, I don't know 'bout you boys, but my Mama taught me to be kind to folk, not go around accusing 'em of committin' serious felonies without any real evidence. Are ya sayin' that ya think I look like I'd commit a crime? Is that what you're sayin' to me, boys? 'Cause I don't very much appreciate that." He tapped his foot, cocking his head to one side in impatience.

"Well? I don't have all day. If you're quite finished, then I'd like to get back to this 'ere book."

Alfred had seen Francis at his lowest. He'd seen him broken, he'd seen him lost, he'd seen him miserable--but he'd never seen him genuinely afraid, not like this. The American clenched his teeth, chin lowered and eyes narrowed and he didn't care what they did to him if he intervened. As long as they got the hell away from Francis.

However, just as he was about to sacrifice his hiding place and enter the scene, he heard someone speak. The person's voice rang with the same accent as anyone else's there. He sounded confident, he sounded terribly offended, he sounded suspiciously like...

"Francis..?" Alfred breathed, eyes round as he peeked through the books at the blond, suddenly coming to a realization. As the irritated, offended voice filled the bookstore, Francis' lips moved with the words-- he was speaking, forcing an accent, and playing the role of an innocent customer.

Suddenly the fire in his chest was quenched as his mood instantly shifted, brightened-- he could hardly hold back his laugher. Alfred could hardly contain himself, his lips pulled back into an ear-to-ear grin and laughter lines creasing under his eyes as brilliant blue filled with the tears that came with laughing much too hard.

"Holy shit--" He laughed under his breath, bringing a hand up to cover his mouth and muffle his laughter; he didn't want to blow Francis' cover, not when he was on a roll like this! Oh my God, is that really what I sound like to you?

By now there were tears running down his cheeks, he couldn't even breathe, and he feared if the trainmen didn't leave soon then that signature, booming laugh of his would escape his lips. If the American's loud laugh could make an entire classroom of bustling students turn to look at him, there was no way he could get away with letting it loose in a quiet bookstore without earning both of them an arrest. So God was Alfred relieved when the conductor shared a glance with his staff, took off his hat, and nodded apologetically to Francis.

"Sincerest apologies, sir, we must have the wrong guy." The man who'd suggested they look in the bookstore received a light slap to the back of the head for being so foolish before they left, talking amongst themselves about where to search next.

Still standing with arms folded and a powerful stance, Francis gave a slow nod. "I'll accept your apology, but ya be careful now, ya hear me? The guy you're lookin' for might've had a good reason for commitin' such a crime. Go easy on 'im, boys, when ya find 'im." With another nod, Francis turned and picked his book back off the table, going back to reading it until the men left the store and biting his lip all the while to quell his amusement.

The tiny bell that hung above the entrance to the bookstore gave a crisp, victorious little ring as the train's crew walked out the door, and Alfred finally let loose the laughter he'd been holding in.

Clutching his abdomen, Alfred stumbled back into the bookshelf behind him, grinning widely and squeezing his eyes shut, barely able to get out Francis' name through his hysterical laughter. "Fra-- Francey!" In no at all time his companion had joined him, and the American wrapped his arms around his shoulders, laughing into his light hair. "That was hilarious! How did you--"

He had to take a second to compose himself before continuing. "Is that really what I sound like to you? Holy shit, you totally fooled them!" Larger hands moved to his shoulders as he pushed away just enough to look down at the Parisian. He decided that, after such an excellent performance, Francis deserved some praise. "You were amazing! You had the whole act down, dude, you even had me believing you for a second there! That was--" Another fit of laughter, their foreheads meeting and Alfred's eyes closing in delight as he smiled brilliantly. "That was incredible!"

A loud, bellowing laugh split the air and Francis jumped slightly, turning around to face Alfred, startled to see that he was laughing so hard, though soon found himself joining in with his friend. He smiled at the way the American held his shoulders and leaned in close, feeling little vibrations against his scalp as his friend voiced feelings of happiness and amusement.

"Mon dieu, Alfred, that was terrible. I do apologize that you had to hear that horrible attempt of an accent." Giggling, Francis wiped at his eyes. "How on earth did that work?! I mean-- that sounded nothing like an American! Luck must be on our side. But I nearly blew our cover; I was almost laughing myself." His own hands, hanging loosely at his sides, reached around the American's back and came to rest upon his shoulders, Francis keeping him close in an affectionate hold. It felt nice to be with Alfred again.

"I was so terrified when they came in that I couldn't move at first-- I just didn't know what to do! I thought we were going to be arrested. You were smart to go and hide, Alfred." He smiled once more. "Honestly, though, how did they not see through me? I was just trying to copy a voice that I'd heard on the television before, that's all." Laughing to himself, he shook his head. His smile widened as their foreheads met, letting himself gaze into Alfred's eyes.

Despite his relaxed voice, Francis was blushing lightly, feeling embarrassed from the praise he was receiving and the fact that Alfred had heard him with a voice so far from his own natural tone. "Well, it gave us a laugh and an adrenaline rush, at least, and we made it out alive." Pushing his feelings of awkwardness aside, Francis reached up and carefully wiped at Alfred's eyes, tears of laughter still gathered at the edges of his bright sapphires.

"Perhaps we should just have bought tickets... though I wouldn't want to give up our little boxcar for the whole world. A shame that we had to leave it behind, but it just wouldn't do for us to stay there forever. Speaking of which, we should probably check into a hotel soon. Do you think we should stay here for a little while before we do so? Just in case they're still looking in this area?"

"After the talking to you just gave the two of them?" Alfred raised an eyebrow, still grinning madly as he tousled the shorter's hair. "I think we'll be alright, Francey. They won't be coming back in here, or bothering you, for a long while."

"Alright, then. As long as you're sure." His anxiety seemed to melt away at Alfred's reassurance, bringing a genuine smile to his face.

"I'm sure. Now, are you sure you're ready for our next adventure? We may have saved a little money by not buying train tickets, but we're not millionaires just yet. I present to you: 'The Quest For Cheap Accommodation!'" Alfred made a show of bowing extravagantly before extending his arm outwards. Francis took it with a laugh, linking it with his own. The reminder that they had a limited supply of money should have scared him, but somehow being with Alfred alleviated that fear. For now, at least.

"I am indeed-- now let's hurry, or they'll all be booked up!"

"Booked up? But Francey, it's still morning!"

"This is a new town, Alfred-- who knows what it's like here!"

And with that, they made their way out of the bookshop, arm-in-arm and still high off the thrill of it all as they laughed and debated the customs of hotels as if it were the most interesting topic in the world.

To them, perhaps, it was-- this marked a new chapter in their journey, and neither one could have been more excited about being alone together, far away from the clutches of those who wanted to hurt them.


Translations:

Dieu merci - Thank God

Je ne sais pas - I don't know

A/N: And we're back with another update! Apologies for the wait, but life is busy as ever. This fic will continue to be updated, although there will be no set schedule for the release of new chapters.

Our apologies to any potentially offended native Americans-- accents like the one Francis was trying to imitate are notoriously difficult to write in text, you know? XD

It's a good job Alfred was able to laugh about it!

Thank you so much for taking the time to read our work. We'd love to know what you thought!