Series: Axis Powers Hetalia
Characters: Arthur (England), Alfred (USA), major historical figures (and the occasional unnamed citizens and mentions of other nations)
Pairing: Eventual Arthur/Alfred
Rating: PG-13 overall (for language, violence, and war)
Warning: This is a WWII fic and deals with a lot of historical detail, most specifically the Blitz and the US build-up to entering the war. So general warnings for that. Note also that the opinions of characters are not necessarily those of the author's.
Summary: Before the victory of the allies, before the United States of America joined the war, before Lend-Lease, before everything — there were just two nations, two men, who just refused to meet halfway until it was forced upon them.
Summary for this chapter: Alfred finally meets with England. This was probably not what Winant had planned, however.
Time stamp: March of 1941.
Notes: Sorry for the wait! I hope to get the next part out sooner than I did this part, but I can't make any promises.
01 | 02 | 03 | 04 | 05 | 06 | 07 | 08 | 09 | 10 | 11 | 12 | 13 | 14 | 15
“I think,” the ambassador said, cautiously, the next day, “It might benefit you if you were to speak with Sir Kirkland.”
Alfred nearly tripped over his own feet. He gawked at his ambassador. They were on their way to the embassy across the square and Alfred hadn’t expected the suggestion at all—after the night before, he’d assumed that Winant would just let him digest everything, think things over. Apparently not. It seemed that in this respect, the ambassador really would push it in the only way he knew how. It wasn’t necessarily a bad thing, but—
Alfred looked away, his face a bright red. He hated being treated like a child, and he knew that his ambassador never meant for it to be like that, but this entire trip was doing nothing but making him feel juvenile and uncertain. And the thing he hated most was uncertainty. He just wanted to go home. Home. Being here was too hard—and it’d be far worse if he were to go and see England. Worse, he didn’t have any idea what to expect with England.
“I don’t think so,” Alfred said, but the hesitation was there before he could stop it. He hated the way his voice could waver so spectacularly.
“Do you really hate him so much, Alfred?” Winant asked as he opened the door for the two of them. He stepped aside, holding the door open for Alfred. The nation walked through, keeping his eyes lowered, his face continuing to color in shame. The words did cause him pause, however. Especially when Winant added, “He’s the one you hate the most?”
Alfred hesitated further, but walked inside. Winant followed after him, closing the door behind him. Alfred stared at his feet for a long moment, unsure what to say. Winant was patient, however. Of course he’d be patient—he understood what it felt like to search for words one cannot find.
It wasn’t the matter of collecting the words, but rather organizing the thoughts. He’d wanted to speak with England last night, but the way the luncheon ended, it’d have been impossible. And Alfred didn’t want to see him in public, to have someone listen in on him. He didn’t want anyone else to see the way England would glare at him, the way England would treat him with the distant coldness he’d adopted ever since the Treaty of Ghent. But the thought of seeing England in private was also rather overwhelming—far too much. He couldn’t stand to think of any of that—the anger, the dismissal, the indifference, anything—when he was the only one to see it.
And he didn’t know what to think anymore—neutrality, hatred, desire to help. It was true that the president had sworn all aid short of war, it was true that a good portion of his people wanted to help the United Kingdom. But there were many who didn’t want it, many who hated the British. It left him flipping back and forth, unsure. He told himself it couldn’t be helped—but he hated the way his thoughts constantly flopped in his pursuit for justification.
“It’s not that I hate him,” he said at last, keeping his eyes pointedly away from Winant. The words stumbled out, so quickly he was surprised he’d been the one to say them. “Even though I do,” he added, giving the ambassador a sidelong look before flickering his eyes away. It wasn’t quick enough to avoid the look the ambassador was giving him. Alfred’s cheeks colored. He cleared his throat. “I just… he doesn’t want to see me either, ya know? I’ve been here for two weeks. It couldn’t have killed him to ask for me.”
“He has,” Winant said, and Alfred froze in his steps. Winant continued walking, moved past Alfred so he was the one leading the way.
Alfred’s throat was far too dry. Alfred stared after the ambassador, then remembered himself and padded after him. He nodded hello to the people they passed, and he tried to swallow the simple words the ambassador had told him. The ambassador offered no other words until they reached his desk. He set his briefcase down and sat, folding his hands together and looking up at his nation.
Alfred stood in front of his desk, staring down at him. He opened his mouth, then closed it. HE cleared his throat, and asked, as casually as he could: “He asked for me?”
“More that he asked after you,” Winant said, face deceptively neutral. Alfred felt a shiver run down his spine. “Making sure you’ve settled in alright and that you’re comfortable.” The ambassador set about nonchalantly opening his briefcase, pulling out some folders and collecting his words carefully, a long stretch of time passing before he finally said, “I told him you were well.”
“Oh,” Alfred said, and looked away, his cheeks turning pink despite himself. “He’s…”
“He was waiting for you,” Winant said, pulling some more folders from his briefcase now, getting ready for his work. “You should know, better than I, that the British are very proud, Alfred.”
“… Yeah,” Alfred said quietly, “I know.”
“I understand your history with him, Alfred.” He paused, and let out a small breath. “At least, as much as I can understand,” Winant said, and there was a long pause. Alfred knew to wait. Finally, the ambassador said, “I think it would benefit you, if you were to speak with him. Clear the air. He needs you.”
“Even if he won’t admit it.”
Winant’s lips twitched into an almost smile. “And… well.”
Alfred looked at him, but Winant shook his head.
“Do you truly not wish to see him?”
“Answer me honestly,” Winant interrupted—a rarity for him. “If you want to spend your entire stay here in the embassy and not see him, I will understand. I won’t press you again, if the idea truly repulses you. Just be honest with me, my country.”
Alfred looked down, feeling his entire face turning red—though he wasn’t sure why. He shuffled his feet against the floor, toeing at the carpet absently. His thoughts whirled a mile a minute—his people were torn, back home, and so was he. He didn’t know what to think, do, say—he couldn’t wrap his head around it, and frankly, he didn’t want to decide how he felt. Having a solid belief would be too encompassing, it would bury him beneath everything else.
“I don’t like him,” he said at last. “But I guess I can go talk to him.”
Winant smiled, and stood. “I’m going to Whitehall this afternoon. Sir Kirkland should be there, with the prime minister.”
Alfred nodded and turned away. Before he could make his escape, however, Winant stood, touched his shoulder. Alfred looked over at him.
“I just wish you could see this country the way I do, Alfred,” Winant said softly, patted his shoulder, and then left him alone.
He was not supposed to be nervous. The fact that he was nervous was completely ridiculous. If he were to be literal, he could say that he’d seen England twice while being here. That was enough that he wouldn’t get that strange jolt when he saw him. And it’d just be a quick hello, goodbye, and then it’d be over with and Winant would stop haranguing Alfred about talking with England in the first place.
He was definitely not shaking, or fidgeting, or shifting around nervously. And the reason Winant patted his shoulder as they approached Whitehall was just because he was a nice person, not because he was trying to comfort Alfred. Alfred didn’t need comfort.
His hands really needed to stop shaking now.
“He’s upstairs, I would think,” Winant said, nodding towards the staircase once they’d entered the front hall. “Second door on the left.”
Alfred swallowed, audibly, and hated himself for it. Stuffing his hands into his pockets to try and work up some feeling of nonchalance, he walked, step by step, up the stairs and towards the second landing. He swallowed again, glancing over his shoulder to see Winant had left. He could turn around now, and be done with it. He could return back to Grosvenor Square and pretend he’d never come here in the first place. But that was cowardly, and it was just England, for fuck’s sake. There was nothing about him that could strike fear into his heart—perhaps normal humans feared the great British Empire, but Alfred had known England—known him as a caretaker, a guardian, a brother, a father… anything. As a child. Back when England had been Arthur, and to England he’d been Alfred. “Arthur” had been kind, then, if not misguided and suppressive. At least he had smiled at Alfred, up until Alfred began to actually think for himself and push “England” away.
He paused outside the door. Second door on the left.
He frowned, and hated that he was sweating in about twenty different places and his heart was racing. For fuck’s sake. It was England. It was nothing. He’d seen him years ago during the Great War. He’d fought against him, he’d traded with him, and now he was giving him aid. They were not “strangers” but Alfred would not deign to call him a friend or an ally. Even if their countries knew each other—the man behind that door was someone he had not known for centuries, not truly.
He shivered again, and crossed his arms. He decided quickly enough that it was too much of a defensive action, however, and dropped his hands back to his pockets. Nonchalance. This was nothing.
“Okay,” he told himself very quietly, inhaled deeply, and opened the door.
The man’s back was to him, but he recognized it as England right away. Hands folded behind his back, shoulders straight. The other country, the falling empire, was looking out the window. It was a cold day in March, but it hadn’t rained for a few days now. It’d even threatened sunshine a few times. Alfred closed the door behind him, making sure to make noise so that England knew he was there. He didn’t say anything in greeting, tried to still his racing heart. England didn’t offer any immediate reaction—he didn’t even flinch at the sudden sound of the door.
The man turned towards him. Backlit by the dim light outside, he looked even paler, and up close—closer than he’d been to him in years—he could see how thin he’d gotten. He turned full towards him now, arms still behind his back, lips pressed into a thin line. There was no jolt in Alfred’s gut this time, for which Alfred was thankful, but he couldn’t take his eyes off his old caregiver, couldn’t look away from all the ways that England seemed weaker, from all the ways in which he was still just as strong.
“America,” England greeted, watching him like a hawk does a prey it does not deem edible.
There was no reason one word should be so halting. Alfred refused to shudder, refused to back down. He tried to think of a proper greeting, something that would not betray his nervousness, something that would mean he refused, absolutely, to back down to England.
“Hey old man, long time no see,” Alfred said, squashed down any nervousness that was (not) there, and grinned. “You look awful.”
England apparently did not find this amusing, as the look he gave Alfred could have frozen fire.
The words he’d kept squashed down inside continued to rot inside him, and he could do nothing about it. He just kept grinning, kept telling himself he didn’t care, that he didn’t care.
England is gone.
England was standing there, right in front of him—paler, smaller—
Had he always been that small?
England was standing there, right in front of him—strong, capable—
England wasn’t shaking. England just stared at Alfred, and the younger nation shifted, just slightly, under the consistent gaze of an empire. He felt as if he were squirming, pinned to a wall. Turn away, leave—leave, go home. He wanted to. He ignored his thoughts. Descend, fly—fly!
Finally, finally, England’s gaze shifted away and he turned back towards the desk he’d been working on long before Alfred had come to the room. He shifted through papers.
Well, Alfred thought, this isn’t too bad. Horribly awkward—but…
“Was there something you needed?” England muttered to the files on his desk. He held a piece of paper in his hand, and it shivered in his hold, quaking. England set it down.
“I think,” Alfred began, inhaled sharply. He had to suppress this uneasy he felt. He did it the only way he knew how: “It’s been well established you’re the one who needs something.”
He saw England’s hand twitch before he fisted it in some scrap paper and tossed it in a wastebasket. He did not look up at Alfred again, and Alfred was fine with that—so long as he could avoid those eyes. He traced the slope of England’s shoulders, saw the fatigue and sleepless nights splayed across tensed muscles. The room suddenly seemed so very cold. Alfred felt as if he was falling, slipping away. He knew what he needed, knew what England needed and refused to say—and he felt as if he was falling.
It’s only a matter of time before England falls.
Alfred stepped forward, approaching the desk. “Whatcha working on?”
England stayed silent for a long moment, and then said, quietly, “Rations.”
“Huh,” Alfred said, “makes sense. Guess you’ve been losing a lot of supplies to the U-boats.”
“To put it lightly,” England said, and straightened.
Alfred refused to look away, as that was too much of a sign of submission, but God, did he hate to look into those eyes. Birds sang outside, the distant call of a swan’s song.
“So,” Alfred said, fiddling with the pens on the table before letting them drop and wandering around the library he’d entered into. He recognized some of the titles on the shelves, while others were too faded for Alfred to quite make out. He worried his bottom lip, wandering around, all for something to do that didn’t involve looking at England. “What’d you want to see me for?”
“You were the one who wanted to see me,” England protested, his face and voice eerily calm.
“No way,” Alfred said, and puffed up his chest. “Winant had to practically beg me to get to see you—even told me you’d been asking after me.”
He glanced over at England to see that the other nation’d colored considerably and whipped his head around to stare out the window again. Alfred let his grin slip, just slightly, and stood next to the mounted globe of the world. He twirled it around idly, and it spun. He watched it, ignoring the way his heart panged whenever he saw North America revolve around the upper hemisphere.
“I did no such thing,” England said.
“Told me you’d asked how I was settling here.”
“I did no such thing,” England said again, tensely.
“And I told him that I would much rather be at home,” Alfred told England’s back, fingers pressing on the globe to stop its rotation, fingers curling along the familiar shorelines of his home.
“That’s to be expected,” England said, and Alfred was momentarily surprised that England hadn’t jumped down his throat at it—he’d been so on edge during the last war. “You’ll always crave for your home, no matter how long you’re away for or how far you are.”
“Yeah,” Alfred said, quietly, a little taken aback from the reasonableness of such a statement. Perhaps he’d half-expected England to try to convince him how great it must be for Alfred to be here. Perhaps he’d known just as well as Alfred that saying such a thing would be a lie.
He watched England lift his hands, trace it down the window pane as he gazed outside. If Alfred tilted his head just right, he could make out the reflection of England’s face on the window glass. He looked sad, far away—haunted. Those damned eyes. Alfred looked away.
An incredibly uncomfortable silence, Alfred thought, passed. He tried to spin the globe again, but he couldn’t stand to look at North America spin by his field of vision. He walked away, looking over towards England’s back. England did not move as Alfred roved around the room, orbited around England, revolved his way around the room.
Abruptly, England spoke, still gazing out the window—at his bombed city: “It certainly doesn’t help, the difference between our countries.”
“You are not bombed,” England said, eyes on the window—looking so far away.
“Well…” Alfred began, but trailed off because he had no idea what he was going to say.
“That you have to be here after so long… at a time like this. There’s nothing that can be done about it, this way, but… My country is much better, when it and my people are at their best. Undoubtedly it does not meet your standards.”
The last bit was said in an almost-sneer. Alfred balked and stared at the bookshelves for a long moment—
Sirens. Bombs. Screams. Shrapnel.
England is gone.
Alfred shook his head.
“It’s not that bad, I guess,” Alfred said, cautiously, not admitting to anything right away, in case England took that as a sign that Alfred was weakening and he’d send more aid or join the war. The last thing he needed was for England to get his hopes up and then start yelling at him when Alfred explained the situation. He would not go to war. “I can kinda tell what it would have looked like before you got bombed. I guess it would have looked better before it got all messed up. Kinda sucks I only see it like this. Everything’s all boarded up and grey and kinda depressing.”
He watched England’s back stiffen. “Yes, being bombed for nine months can do that to a city—I am so sorry for you that your experience would be ruined because of it.”
Alfred stared at England’s back, and realized with a flush of shame that he had insulted England. But he would not apologize. Alfred bit his lip and glared at England’s back, wanting to leave—
Why couldn’t he just go home?
It’s only a matter of time—
“Hey, at least this way—I’ll appreciate what I have more,” Alfred said, and knew at once it was the wrong thing to say.
He watched England tighten his hold on the windowsill before he slowly turned around, his eyes alit with fire. He looked as if he was trying to decide where to start with the shouting, so Alfred just grinned at him, approached his desk to tap one of his pens against the wooden surface. He hummed slightly, waiting for England to explode. But he did not. The man kept his cool.
He did seem too tired to fight, maybe. Maybe Alfred would get away lucky.
“Is that why you’re here?”
“In England, you mean?” Alfred asked, and shrugged. “Dunno why I’m here. Ambassador’d wanted me to come, and the boss told me I should. So here I am. I’ll probably get to go back soon, though, I hope.”
“… Of course,” England said, straightening, tucking his arms behind his back again. “I’d been under the impression that you were here to assess the situation and prepare for war.”
Alfred nearly groaned, and quickly shook his head. “I’m afraid not, England.”
“You can’t be serious,” England said, a soft sigh—exhausted, fatigued, tired. So tired.
Alfred shrugged again.
He realized, dimly, that England actually was shaking. Alfred watched as England shifted forward, pressing his hands down to the desk so he could lean forward, his eyes staring straight at Alfred. Alfred got that same feeling of being a pinned insect to a wall, and could not look away.
“If this goes on, America, it will be the end of me.”
Alfred’s heart flopped down into his stomach, and rotted away with all the words he never said. “I—”
“I’ll die. Britain will be no more and—” He cut himself off abruptly, looking away. Alfred watched England bite his lower lip, stare off into the distance (the wall) as if there was actually something there. He did not say anything for a long moment.
Then he straightened, adjusting his tie with knotted, bandaged fingers and smoothing his shaking hands over his chest, fixing any wrinkles in his suit. The movement was useless, however—England’s suit was a complete mess. It was old, tattered, falling apart. Even Alfred could work out all the places where England had tirelessly stitched the holes back together, could see all the places patched and alerted. He looked as if he hadn’t seen proper clothing in years—and he probably hadn’t. The rationing wasn’t just for food, after all.
“And,” England began again, voice quieter, but somewhat more desperate: “For the love of God I’m sure the idea of my dying is more than wonderful for you but I…” He hesitated, let his eyes flicker up to Alfred—and this is what he’d been so afraid of, all along—“I do not beg, America, but if my people are not helped soon, they will all die. It will be the end of me.”
Alfred stared at him—hated that he was here. He wanted to go home. He didn’t want to face this—didn’t want to face England’s starvation, his destruction, the way he was falling, falling, falling. He hadn’t expected for England to admit it. Wasn’t he meant to be so proud he would hold firm until the very end? Hadn’t that always been his way?
Why was he staring at him now, with that expression on his face? The entire world was falling apart around him, and he only had his eyes on Alfred.
“I’m…” Alfred began, swallowed. His entire body felt far too cold, and he wanted, more than anything, to not be there. Listening to Winant had been a mistake. He should never have come here. He should never have come to this god forsaken country in the first place. “I…” he said, his voice dropping a pitch, “I’m sorry, England. I’m neutral.”
England’s eyes flared up at once and for a brief moment Alfred feared that the man would begin to cry. But it seemed he had no tears to shed since he merely turned his face away a moment, his lips thinned into a tight line, wobbling only once until he inhaled sharply and maintained his control. Alfred almost breathed a sigh of relief—if England had begun to cry, he wouldn’t have—
“Of course,” England said, his voice poison and bitterness, a brew of hemlock. “How foolish of me to believe otherwise.”
They fell into an uneasy silence. Alfred wanted to leave, go back, go home. Home. Fly away. He could find no landing place here, could find no place to belong. There were too many sounds, and he refused to lie about or lie in that sound, to understand it all—
He was tired, too. He wanted to go home. He couldn’t face England’s expressions—there was no way to know what was worse: England’s pride, or England’s desperation.
But England was staring at him again.
Alfred looked back at him, as evenly as he could muster.
“Neutral or no,” England said, voice quiet, “For the love of God, America, don’t make the same mistakes I did.”
Alfred hadn’t expected those words. He’d expected another plea, not a warning—
And then suddenly, for the first time in years, England was touching him. It was not gentle, it was not friendly—he grabbed Alfred by the lapels of his jacket and pulled him down and across the desk so he was nearer to England. Alfred’s knee banged against the desk. He watched as England, glaring up at him with such ferocity that it arrested Alfred’s attention immediately, refused to relent his hold on Alfred’s lapels.
“Don’t think that after I fall, Germany will stop there. Oh no, you think that you’ll be safe, when the entire world has fallen and you are the only one left? Alone?”
“Are you… threatening me, England?” Alfred asked quietly, eyes widened.
England shook his head, very slowly, eerily slow. And then shook Alfred by the lapels. Hair flopped in his face. “It’s not a threat if it’s a fact. Are you content to sit back and wait until the Nazis are crawling out of your harbors?”
Alfred’s mouth went dry. “They won’t—”
“They will,” England interrupted.
“No invader can keep my land,” Alfred whispered, staring down at England, “You should know that as well as anyone. England.”
England’s eyes widened, for just a moment, and he stepped back, pressing a hand to his face. He looked away, for half a moment, and in that instance Alfred regretted the jab, the sting. He pulled away from the desk, took steps backwards and adjusting his lapels. He shouldn’t have said that. It didn’t leave him feeling any better, and the look on England’s face was one that he did not want to remember.
“Foolish boy,” was all England said. “Don’t be so stupid because of your pride.”
“Like you?” Alfred asked, looking away. England’s words reminded him too much of the last broadcast from Murrow that Alfred had heard— Perhaps you can relax as these people did after Munich… But consider what’s happened in the last two years and try to ignore what the next two years will bring—if you can.
England didn’t say anything for a moment. Then he slowly moved away from Alfred. Alfred watched him move, stepping through the library as if he did not recognize the familiar paths. He looked up at the spines of books, endless. He stepped in front of the globe, ran his hand over it as Alfred had, only with his thumb tracing affectionately over the small markings of the British Isles. He stayed there, his head bowed slightly, as he let the globe turn, let his fingers trail along its surface as it revolved around its axis. His fingers traced over Britain every time it moved, slid over the top of the United States, curled along the lines of Asia and Europe.
“I,” England began, eyes still on the globe, “am in many ways, just as foolish as you are.” The globe stopped moving, losing its momentum, and England’s fingers pressed against random points in the Atlantic Ocean. “I cannot blame you, for wanting to stay neutral. After all, my people and I—we had done our best to stay out of war. We stood quietly by as Germany rose to power and began its conquest of Europe. For the sake of peace… well… for the sake of Britain’s peace, we did very little, almost nothing, to prevent country after country from being swallowed up by Germany.” England lifted his hand, pushed the globe so it revolved yet again. He watched it as it moved through revolution after revolution, his eyes hooded. “Then, suddenly… shockingly so, though it was obvious it would happen that way—I was alone. I was facing Germany on my own… After nine months of standing alone against the mightiest military power in the world… I am exhausted. I am financially, emotionally, and physically exhausted. It’s a chore to wake up in the morning, to continue on. I am holding out hope—but hope is all I have, and that is dwindling as well.”
He looked over at Alfred.
Alfred wished he wouldn’t.
“My future borders on the calamitous.” He looked away, then, as the globe fell still yet again. “My people—my Prime Minister… they hope that the United States will pay more attention to us than we paid to Europe.”
Alfred looked down. His eyes were dull and distant for a moment before they came back, and he blinked.
“My boss promised all aid short of war,” he said quietly. He meant it as some kind of penance—meant it for, perhaps, some kind of solace for England.
England snorted, loudly, as if Alfred had told a particularly amusing joke. Alfred stood there, rooted to the spot, unable to move but wanting to—only able to watch as England shook his head, that familiar, angry spark returning to his eyes.
“You say that, but what have you actually given me?”
“I’ve given you a lot!” Alfred said, shouted almost, much louder than he’d intended. “You’re the one who acts like it isn’t enough—you’re the one who demands so much and then you always want more!”
“It’s not enough!” England snapped, his own voice raising in volume. He marched a few steps towards Alfred and then seemed to think better of it.
“Fuck you,” Alfred shouted, and the words seemed to shake the very room.
England’s eyes narrowed. “And what’s worse is that I must grovel to you. To you.”
Alfred’s back straightened, and he glared.
England refused to look away, but he looked as if he wanted to. His entire body was tensed, ready to flee, to get away. Alfred wished he himself could get away.
“And I should know at this point it will fall on deaf ears. Needing help from you—you don’t care. Why should you? Why should you when you seem content to milk me dry financially while I exhaust myself to dying embers?”
“I don’t—” Alfred began, and swallowed his tongue. I don’t care. Remember that. He took a step towards England. “That’s your biggest grievance? That some supposedly all-powerful empire has to grovel to his former colony?”
England stiffened up, tilting his chin up defiantly, and turned away with a scoff, storming towards the desk. He leaned over it, his back hunched, staring down at the papers there. Then he clenched his fists around more of the papers, bundled them up into balls, and threw them at Alfred’s head. Alfred ducked, though one did bounce harmlessly off his nose.
“Fuck off!” the older nation shouted.
“Admit it! Admit that you’re just too proud! You can’t stand that you need to ask me for help after you were content to insult my every move, as if I was worthless. As if you hadn’t fought tooth and nail to keep me in your possession!”
“You’re—” England began, his face twisted in anger.
“You’re holding my revolution against me even now, aren’t you?”
“I,” England shouted, throwing more balls paper at him, “am doing no such thing!” Still, he threw more. At this point he seemed to be crumbling up important documents, but he either didn’t notice or didn’t care. “I have moved on, why can’t you?”
“What? Me?” Alfred squawked in surprise as he knocked a sailing paper ball out of the air so it went charging back towards England. England caught it and simply threw it again. “I have moved on!”
“Then why do you continually hold it against me?” England hissed.
“The way you look at me—it’s as if you still want me to be your little brother, sometimes! Admit it, you hate having to beg to me because it’s me! Especially because it’s me and because I don’t need you or want you, and now here you are, a sorry excuse for a country, having to ask for my help!”
“And a fat lot your help has done!” England snapped.
“I give you a lot of help!” Alfred protested.
“There is nothing that you have given me, America, that I haven’t had to pay for desperately. And none of those things for which I’ve paid have done me any good against Germany!”
“As if you wouldn’t do the same thing! And you’re avoiding what I just said!” Alfred protested, picking up the scattered paper balls and throwing them with unnecessary force at England’s head. England ducked easily and threw them back just as viciously. “You still see me as your little brother—your possession! You look down on me! You don’t take me seriously and your people may need my help, but they hate me. Don’t think I don’t see it!”
“I haven’t seen you as my brother in years,” England shouted, and then threw the pens at him. His voice dropped in volume, but he looked ready to murder Alfred and throw him out the window. “The day I surrendered to you is the day I lost my brother. I don’t know you, America, and I don’t want to.”
“And you wonder why I don’t want to join the war,” Alfred snapped, snatching up a pen that’d lodged itself in his hair.
“I make no qualms about your country’s feeling towards me,” England said, plainly, his voice still thick with anger and betrayal. “I have no delusion over how you see me, America.”
Alfred fell silent, clenching the pen between his fingers. His hand curled into a fist.
“You think that my ambivalence about asking for your help—my… our lack of a proper understanding, is because I hold your independence against you?” England shook his head, and looked physically ill. “You’re a fool. Here I stand, on the eve of what could be my last days—I could lose my island tomorrow, the next day, next month! I am on the verge of losing my people, my sovereignty, my home, and you think I can resent you for wanting your freedom and independence? Don’t insult me in such a way,” England snapped, and then wrenched the pen away from Alfred’s hand before Alfred’s strength snapped it in half. “I love your freedom, America.”
Alfred stared at him, his eyes wide. The last words rattled in the still room, and Alfred felt his breath physically leave him.
But England didn’t see it, turning away from him and steadying his desk. He stooped, picking up the discarded fallen papers, smoothing them out as best he could, staring down at the words almost lovingly, before he recognized that the papers were for rations for his own people, already starving, already begging, already desperately waiting for some kind of relief. He scowled.
“I am dying,” England said firmly. “I have no delusions about my situation. I will stand for as long as I can. Germany may have the upper hand, but I will be damned if I roll over willingly to die. He will have to work, to take my island away from me.”
He stayed silent, then, for a long moment. Alfred almost took the opportunity to leave, felt too exposed here—too emotional. His body was shaking—why was it shaking?
“But make no mistake,” England said quietly. “I do not ask for help lightly—regardless from whom I am asking help.” He looked up at Alfred, sharply. “The past is the past and it cannot be undone. My—my personal feelings aside, I have had time to think about what’s happened in the past. You were a part of my empire. You gave me many things, America. But I, too, was once part of someone’s empire, and I, too, fought for my right to keep what was mine. As I am fighting now, once again. You made your opinions of me loud and clear, back then—and your intentions to no longer know me, to hate me. I have accepted that. And I have moved on.”
Alfred’s frown deepened.
England straightened out his suit again, dusty and shredded. He looked awful, looked an awful mess.
“Continuing to bring it up, after we both should have moved on, is an insult to my character and to your own country’s history.”
“Stop turning this around on me,” Alfred shouted. “Moved on? Bullshit! That’s bullshit, England! Everything you do is bullshit!”
“And now you’re here, insulting me.”
“I had no desire to be here in the first place!”
“Then why are you here?” England shouted.
“I—” Alfred faltered.
“Why,” England gritted through clenched teeth, “are you here? If you hate me, if you hate this place, if you’d rather be home and have no intention to help me, to let me fall, then why are you here, America? Go home.”
“Don’t order me around,” Alfred snapped, and almost swept everything off England’s desk in his rage. Instead he whipped around and stomped to the globe, pushing it forcefully so it revolved faster than it had before, whirling around with no sign of stopping right away. “Don’t tell me what I can and cannot do! Don’t stand there and act as if I haven’t lifted a finger to help you when that’s not the case! Don’t stand there and act as if you’ve gotten nothing when I’ve given you all I can as best I can! And don’t—don’t act as if the past doesn’t matter to you, because I know it does!”
“You are not my brother,” England muttered. He seemed to be curling into himself. “I haven’t seen you as my brother in years—you are nothing but a nuisance. Nothing but an arrogant, foolish young boy.”
“Shut up, shut up, shut up!” Alfred shouted, felt the ridiculous urge to cry and hated it was there—why should he care? I don’t care!
“Whatever happened to ‘if England is to survive, we must act’?”
“Don’t throw my boss’ words back at me like that—!”
“You can stand there and say you give me aid—but all you’re doing is taking advantage of my people and myself.”
“You gave me destroyers from the Great War on the condition that I give you ninety-nine years of use on over eleven military bases—and once I receive these destroyers, what are they but desolate, worthless scrap metal! You call that charity? You call that all aid short of war, America?”
“You made me borrow money from Belgium because you refused to believe I could be running out of money.”
“You can’t possibly be running out of money! You’re the British Empire—aren’t you supposed to be limitless in your power? If you need more cash, you could just liquidate some of your investments in the Americas.”
“Isn’t that what it always is? You beg me for help, and then when I give it to you it isn’t good enough! None of you take me seriously—all of you see me as nothing more than a child—!”
“You have done nothing for us to see you as anything but!” England snapped back. “I don’t know what your intentions are, America, but know that while you milk me for your own benefit and economic advantage, I am fighting for my very life.”
Alfred shook his head from side to side, felt the rage bubbling inside him. The urge to punch something, to throw something—anything—was rising. Why had he come here? Why couldn’t he leave? Why was he here?
“I changed my laws for you! What more can you want? This isn’t my war, England—!”
“It’s everyone’s war!”
Alfred hoped that the rest of the people in Whitehall couldn’t hear them—feared that someone would come and disturb them. His heart thundered in his chest. All he wanted was to leave, but he refused to back down from England—not when it was like this.
“You did send me help, I will give you that. But… The help you sent was invariably too little and too late. And it always came with a cat’s cradle of strings attached.”
“How can I—”
“… Of course,” England interrupted, and suddenly looked far too tired. “I’ve had many allies in my long history. I’ve used my allies to further my own gains and interests, in the past. I suppose this is just turnabout as fair play—a proud, imperial power such as I, forced to beg you—and I do not have this trepidation because of any past relationships we may have had—”
Here, his voice dropped far too quietly, and he did look unhappy. It soon disappeared when he began speaking again, his voice tight and his face twisted in a pained reluctance to admit his own weakness.
“—but rather because of your arrogance, your own determination to take economic advantage of my own misfortune. No matter what country it would be… it would be humiliating.”
“England…” That saddened tone did not sit well for him, no matter how brief it may have been.
“And still, you give no apologies for this—I don’t expect you to. Perhaps it really is an economically sound approach, even if it digs me my grave.”
“Stop that,” Alfred said quietly. “There’s the Lend-Lease…”
“Yes,” England said quietly, “At least there’s something that keeps my people from eating their shoes.”
“I didn’t…” Alfred trailed off, felt his chest constrict. It was hard to breathe.
“But I need specific aid. And your… president… he seems unwilling to truly act, to sway or lead public opinion. I understand, America, that your people do not want to fight and that your congress especially does not want to fight—but I…” England paused, his voice shaking just slightly. He turned away, moved to the window, looking out and away. Alfred could see his expression, watch as his resolve, his brave, prideful front, was so quickly dissolving away—
He’s trying to guilt me, a small voice said in the back of his mind. He’s trying to trick me—like he did for the last war.
That had to be what he was doing. There could be no other reason—
He tried not to look at that face—didn’t want to believe it was true, didn’t want to believe it was just an act.
“You cannot continue to act as you do—dipping in and out of European affairs at whim, wanting to lead but by a distant example—isolation can only last for so long.”
“Well, ya know,” Alfred said, cautiously, “Most Americans still think of international diplomacy with all the disgust of a Victorian lady thinking ‘bout sex.”
He almost laughed, but the joke didn’t seem to tickle England in any way. He made a face.
“I’m being serious.”
“I’m not ready to be in the world, England. Not the way you want me to be,” Alfred said.
“You can’t be alone in this world. No one can be.”
“My people don’t want to fight, England.”
Alfred had to look away. He knew it was so—knew that England was dying. Anyone looking at him could see it was the case—all this time, Alfred had thought it was impossible—impossible for a stubborn, proud, and strong old man like England to actually be in danger of disappearing. To run out of money, to run out of food—But his people were starving, and Alfred could see that England was in turn. It wasn’t a lie. But there was nothing he could do, and a small part of him that tried to convince himself that England was only trying to manipulate him.
He kept looking away, bit at his lip. He didn’t know what to do, he was torn, and he had to keep telling himself that he didn’t care—that it didn’t matter. As long as his people were safe, nothing else would matter.
“I won’t be here long… just, long enough.” Alfred refused to look at England, though he heard him moving, heard him looking over his shoulder at Alfred. “The president told me to come over here and get a feel… and all that.”
“Well,” England said, looking away again—and he was so far away now. “Take your look, then. I daresay you’ll see everything you’ve heard about and more, and return to your precious home thereafter.”
“England…” Alfred began, bravado of earlier slipping away, the agitation, anger, abandonment—it all swirled inside him. And something clicked inside him. “I want to help,” he said, and knew it was the truth, knew it the instant the words left his lips—he couldn’t lie about that—he wanted to help him: “I want to, but you know… I don’t want to b—”
England stood, suddenly, collecting his documents sloppily into his shaking hands and, just as abruptly, walked away, walked right past him without looking at him. Alfred watched in petrified shock as England slammed the door open, his body passing through the doorway. He turned back towards Alfred, gripping the door handle—and allowed, for just one, hollow moment, to stare at Alfred in a look that Alfred never, for as long as he lived, wished to see. He could not describe it. He could not fathom it—could not suppress the way his entire body roiled from that singular look.
And, with that, England slammed the door shut behind him and it was the clear indication that the conversation was over.
- Whitehall is a street in Westminster, and refers to the Palace of Whitehall, gone now since 1698, and is the administrative centre of the Government of the United Kingdom, which grew up around the palace and remained there after the palace was torn down.
- “How the English hate being rescued by the Americans,” Canadian diplomat Charles Ritchie wrote in his diary. “They know they must swallow it, but, God, how it sticks in their throats.”
- Roosevelt was notoriously ambivalent towards the war, partly because of the anti-war, anti-British sentiments in the congress and partly from personal feelings and lack of understanding of European affairs. Yet it was hard to blame Roosevelt for his caution. After all, the British themselves had done their best to stay out of war in the 1930s, standing quietly by as Hitler rose to power and began his conquest of Europe. For the sake of peace—Britain’s peace—the Chamberlain government had done little or nothing in the late 1930s to prevent Germany’s expansion across Europe.
- Roosevelt promised all aid short of war, and, after Germany conquered France and launched the Battle of Britain, he declared: ‘if Britain is to survive, we must act.’ But, as the British saw it, America’s actions did not match it president’s words. Even Lend-Lease was privately believed by Churchill to be less than impressive, and too little.
- Churchill admanatly wanted Roosevelt to act instead of following public opinion. He believed that the president should sway and lead public opinion in order for England to survive. And although Lend-Lease was a huge step in the escalation of US involvement, the American envoys warned that it must not be viewed as the decisive one. Again and again, they sought to make clear to officials and the British public that strength of the US isolationist movement and the vagaries of American politics and government, particularly the system of separation of powers. Churchill, who had an American mother, liked to boast that he had a firm understanding of US political system. In fact, he and those in his government never fully grasped how very different it was from their own parliamentary system, where the executive and legislature were harnessed together and where party divisions were, for the most part, kept under control. Winant kept emphasizing that Roosevelt did not lead Congress the way Churchill led Parliament. According to the US constitution, it was up to congress, not the president, to declare war. And in the spring of 1941, American legislators, many of them isolations, were nowhere close to doing so.
- Example of this stupendous “all aid short of war”: in exchange for the fifty aging US destroyers that Churchill sought in the summer of 1940, the Roosevelt administration demanded that it be awarded ninety-nine-year leases for the use of military bases in Newfoundland, Bermuda, and six British possessions in the Caribbean. The deal was, as everyone knew, far more advantageous for the United States than for Britain, and it was deeply resented by the British government. Nonetheless, the British had little choice but to accept what they considered grossly unfair terms. The British felt even more aggrieved when the WWI-ear destroyers finally arrived. Dilapidated and obsolete, they could not be used without expensive alteration.
- As Britain’s situation grew ever more dire, the price of American aid grew ever more onerous. Since November 1939, when Roosevelt persuaded a reluctant Congress to amend the Neutrality Act banning US arms sales to countries at war, Britain had been permitted to purchase American weapons and equipment. But, according to the amendment’s terms, the material had to be paid for with dollars at the time of purchase, and buyers had to transport the supplies in their own ships. In the year that followed, heavy armament purchases had drained Britain of most of its dollar and gold reserves. To continue arms shipments, the British Treasury was forced to borrow from the gold reserves of the Belgian government-in-exile in London. So serious was the gold situation that the Chancellor of the Exchequer advised the cabinet to consider requisitioning from the British people their wedding rings and other gold jewelry. Churchill counseled delay. Such a radical idea, he said, should be adopted only “If we wished to make some striking gesture for the purpose of shaming the Americans.”
- The US government offered no apologies for the blatant milking of Britain for financial gain during its participation in the war. For the British to receive anything at all, Roosevelt and his men believed, the American people must be persuaded that their own country was getting the better end of the deal. He said: “We seek to avoid all risks, all danger, but we make certain to get the profit.” The administration felt obliged to assure the American public that the “scheming, tricky British” (reflected in Alfred’s belief England might be trying to manipulate him here) would not be allowed to lure the United States into another European war. The United States of America was, therefore, getting from England “far more than we deserved” and members of the administration and military were “happy rather than thoughtful” by this reality.
- “But I, too, was once part of someone’s empire, and I, too, fought for my right to keep what was mine.” He’s referencing the Roman conquest of Britannia, though in its history, the British isles have been the sight of many invasions and conquests, failed or otherwise.