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 continues to tell himself that he doesn't care. But some things make him finally look into his feelings on this.
Time stamp: March of 1941.
Notes: Wow, so it's almost been a month since I updated last. I AM SO SORRY FOR THE WAIT. Any of you still out there? (/peers out through the cricket chirps.) HOPEFULLY, the next update will be sooner. Cause as of four days ago, I turned in my senior thesis. Yay! :D
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Alfred stayed in the room for a long time, after England stormed away. He spent the first few minutes standing there, staring off into space, eyes settled on the door—as if half-expecting England to return, or someone to come to figure out why doors were slamming. But no one came. He was alone. And it was better that way, he reminded himself. It was always better this way.
The anger set in soon enough, though. He furrowed his brows and jerked his face away, cursing under his breath and stomping towards the window. He crossed his arms defensively over his chest, biting at his lower lip to keep from muttering out a string of curses. He looked out at the cold, dark day and hissed to himself, “I hate this place.”
He almost punched something, but knowing his strength, it would send walls toppling over. And things were already falling apart around here—there was no sense in Alfred toppling down more buildings when the Germans took quick care of that. So he restrained himself. Eventually, he grew tired—angered further—at the world outside, and turned away, back slumped, hands pressing down onto the desk. He clenched his eyes shut tight, feeling the pounding headache beginning to strum up a steady tempo against the inside of his skull. He pressed the heel of his palm to his forehead, but it did nothing to alleviate the annoyance. It felt as if he was on the verge of realizing something, and his thoughts were screaming at him to focus. But he ignored it. He had no desire to know these things. He kept his head bowed and his shoulders slumped, his eyes clenched tight until he grew curious and stared down at the papers on the desk. He smoothed his hands over a crumpled piece of paper England had thrown at him, doing his best to smooth it out again, flat. It was well beyond repair, he knew, but he tried it anyway. It was worth a try. Everything was worth a try, even when everything was falling apart around him. He tried to smooth out the paper, but instead ripped it down the middle. He recoiled.
He paced around the room, after a moment, stooping to pick up the other balled up papers, tossing them onto the desk before continuing the task of smoothing them out. He moved slower this time, softer, trying to keep his touch light and restrained. He didn’t dare read what anything said, because it just made him sick to his stomach.
He was distracted, though. He couldn’t focus on anything around him, and his hands were shaking just a little as he traced the book’s spines lining the walls of the room. His eyes scanned everywhere, searching for anything. Alfred’s eyes found the globe across the room, tilted on its axis, North America beckoning him. Home. His home.
His hands almost fisted into the smoothed paper, but he resisted. Home. England had told him to just go home, had dismissed him so readily—as if he didn’t need him.
“He doesn’t want me,” he said quietly. He didn’t want him—he only needed him. “He can’t even call me by name.” Not that he could call him by name, either. “England.” He snorted softly. “Home… maybe I should just go home.”
Alfred stuffed his hands into his pockets, because he couldn’t stand the idea that perhaps they were shaking.
Alfred stood there for a long moment, his head bowed, lost in thought. His mind coiled and his thoughts stampeded, but he couldn’t focus on one thing or the other. So, with a heavy sigh, he stormed from the room, almost tumbled his way down the stairs, and left the building before anyone could stop him. He couldn’t stay. He shouldn’t stay.
This was not, and never would be, his home.
Alfred suspected that Winant suspected something. Or at the very least the ambassador had heard how poorly the reunion between nations had gone—probably because of something like England saying nasty things about him to his governmental officials and they, in turn, telling Winant. Alfred couldn’t be sure, and Winant never pried into Alfred’s business. Sometimes Alfred was thankful for such things, even if he couldn’t stand the way he felt judged at times—as if the ambassador was doing his very best to be, well, diplomatic and not let on just how much Alfred disappointed him. Alfred had no idea why the idea of disappointing Winant was so distressing to him, but that was the reality. But Winant never inquired too hard, especially when he could tell that Alfred was upset. It meant their times together were a little tensed, though. Alfred didn’t respond to most of what the ambassador would say. He would spend his days sitting at the window, staring out at the landscape and imagining that he was home, that he wasn’t stuck in this ugly, desolate, dying nation.
It’s only a matter of time before England falls.
He pressed his cheek against the window, frowning, his entire body fatigued. There was no point in him being here. He should be able to go home. Alfred suspected that Winant was only keeping him around to use him, in the hopes that somehow having Alfred here would somehow persuade the United States to be there as well.
And with every passing day, he felt his body seep into the soil here, as if planting new roots. It was the way of nations—and with every passing day, Alfred longed to return home. Home, where the people weren’t starving, weren’t standing in lines for hours on end in the hopes of seeing a pack of cigarettes (and what Alfred wouldn’t do for a cigarette—he’d already used up all his own). Home, where the people weren’t bombed into oblivion, where they didn’t have to live in fear of clear nights, where they weren’t sure if their sons or brothers or lovers would come home alive or dead, and when that would be.
He was torn. He was completely, and utterly torn.
And he hated it. He tried to convince himself it wasn’t the case, that it was never the case—that he didn’t care, that he never cared. If England couldn’t summon up the pride, or lack thereof, to beg him for help, and didn’t even want him here (only needed), there was no reason for him to be there. He should be able to go home—even England had pushed him to do so, had insisted he leave if he hated being here so much. And, god, how he hated it. There was nothing here—he only wanted to close his eyes, curl into the corner, and sleep away the centuries.
“Home,” he murmured to himself, and the rain battered cheerfully against the windowsill, as if mocking him. Home. It’d be better if he could go home, put this entire thing behind him, pretend that none of this had happened, this entire waste of time. He could just forget—
I do not beg, America.
Alfred shook his head. His face heated up and he pressed more insistently against the cold glass, warped from time, feeling the phantom of raindrops on his cheek, sliding down and cooling his skin.
Winant knocked at the door, and waited a few moments before he opened it, slowly. His eyes undoubtedly fell to Alfred at once and Alfred turned his face away from the darkening, rain-blotted sky. He stared at the ambassador, and after a moment reminded himself that it was important to smile. So he did.
“Mail?” Alfred asked, and Winant shook his head. He carried papers with him, though—undoubtedly embassy work he’d taken home for the night. Alfred asked, “Wires?”
Again, Winant shook his head. Alfred sighed, and turned his face away again, looking out the window. He was so far away from home, and the general disconnect didn’t help at all. The president rarely cabled or wrote. Barely anyone cabled or wrote him. And it was not as if there was anyone else back home he could write to—perhaps the First Lady, but she was the only one, and she had enough on her plate without sending well-wishes through an unreliable mail service.
“Guess the merchant ships keep getting sunk,” Alfred muttered.
“Yes,” Winant said, not looking up from his work—and somehow that single word held way too many emotions and feelings on the matter.
Alfred ignored them. He couldn’t afford to feel any sympathy for England—he was just a stupid, stubborn old man. And he was trying to manipulate him. He couldn’t afford to be manipulated. And even if he was, it wasn’t as if it would matter—he may be the United States of America, but he was not the one leading or controlling the congress. He was nothing but a pawn, torn between the two extremes—stay away from the war, and dive headfirst into the war. And no one cared to examine just how much power Alfred had—which was not much at all. And it was up to him to maintain the thoughts of his people.
Alfred traced the raindrops on the windowsill, imagined what it’d be like to trace them back to the source—or to go to places with blue skies. No clouds, clear night skies that didn’t mean the threat of bombs, just counting stars and tracing constellations. He loved the stars. He missed the stars.
The rain fell.
He just wanted to go home.
“Did anything come for me?” Alfred said, and knew that he was possibly whining and couldn’t really summon the urge to care. He frowned to his reflection in the window. The world outside was darkening further, falling away from the twilight and sinking into the blackout. Winant lit a candle behind him.
When Alfred turned to look at him, Winant nodded his head towards the pile of papers he’d left on the table. “There’s the newspaper, if you’d like that.”
Alfred got up—he hadn’t read, or really done anything, in forever. He’d passed the last few days in a state of silent discontent, weighing his options and stewing in the reality of his situation. He scooped the newspaper up and retreated to a chair, sitting down and propping his feet up onto the seat, wrapping his arms around his knees and pulling the newspaper open to read. There were a few scattered stories mentioning Winant, but a lot more mentioning some kind of war-related story. This was to be expected, and Alfred sighed to himself. Of course the newspaper would talk about the war. He continued reading, in any case, for lack of anything better to do.
And then he sputtered, loudly.
The ambassador looked up from his work, alarmed by the sudden noise from his country. Alfred, blushing, cleared his throat and jumped up from the table.
“They hate me!” he said, loudly, and hated how desperate that made him sound. His voice came out a little louder than he’d intended.
The ambassador continued to look confused. Alfred continued to sputter.
“They—I’m on par with Italy. Italy! Italy’s their enemy!” Alfred said, the volume of his voice raising progressively higher the more he spoke.
The ambassador, probably unsure just what Alfred was going on about, stood up and approached, touching the country’s shoulder.
“Alfred…” he began.
Alfred shook the newspaper at Winant. “They hate me!”
“Them—the British! England! They hate me!” Alfred said, and knew he sounded hysterical and couldn’t quite summon the reasons to explain why he cared. He shoved the newspaper under Winant’s nose, but his hands were shaking so much that he doubted the ambassador would be able to read what he said. “T-there’s a poll! Asking the British which non-axis country they view the most favorably!”
“And?” the ambassador asked, trying to read the article Alfred was gesturing to wildly.
“I’m in last!” Alfred shouted, and then turned his face away quickly, jerking the newspaper back and almost cradling it against his chest, his brows furrowed. He stomped away, drifting absently towards the window again and staring out at it. He said, softer this time: “Their favorable opinion is about as favorable as their opinion of Italy. Italy.”
With a startled shout, Alfred crumbled up the newspaper and threw it into the rubbish bin. And for good measure he kicked the bin away, and it tumbled against the leg of Winant’s desk. Alfred shouted out again and turned his face away. He stood there, moody, staring out the window until his vision fell out of focus and he stared at his reflection on the window instead. He looked older than he remembered. Perhaps a little thinner, too.
“Do you blame them for it?” the ambassador asked after a lengthy paused.
“I—” Alfred began, and then stumbled over his thoughts, unable to complete the sentence.
“Do you want them to adore you?” Winant asked after a long pause, his voice quiet and uncertain as he tried to collect his words fast enough to speak them. “Isn’t it much easier for you to ‘hate’ them if they hate you in turn?”
Alfred stayed silent. He turned his face away completely and walked away. He stuffed his hands into his pockets and sighed, resting his forehead against the window’s glass. It was cool to the touch. He closed his eyes, frowning. He didn’t want to have a deep talk with Winant again, because he hated to be forced to view his own failings and contradictions. He hated to be forced to stare down the years, or stare down the realities that he was making great pains to avoid.
So instead of answering, he asked, “Ambassador?”
“Yes?” he heard him say.
Alfred sighed. “Why am I really here?”
“Are you using me?” Alfred asked, and didn’t let himself feel guilty for cutting the man off. His breath misted the glass. He didn’t wait for Winant to collect his words, and just kept going. His words were not angry, his stance anything but accusing. But he felt his defenses raising, felt himself building his walls all over again. He turned slowly to face the ambassador, his eyes finding the other man’s easily. “Are you hoping that by bringing me here, I can somehow sway public opinion?”
He waited for Winant to answer.
He did not, so Alfred continued, “I am shaped by my people. I do not shape them. It doesn’t work like that… so if that was your intention, it won’t work. I can’t… be of any use here. I can’t change the course of the war. I can’t make the administration or the congress change their minds. I can’t convince them anymore than you can.”
They both fell into silence.
“Alfred,” Winant began.
“I’m of no use to you,” he said quietly.
“Then why are you being dishonest?”
“I’m not,” Alfred muttered. “I’m neutral.”
“Alfred,” the ambassador began again.
Alfred shook his head. “I know you care about them—I know you want to help them. I… I want—” He cut himself off abruptly, and shook his head again. What did he want? “Um. I. I…”
The room fell into an uncomfortable silence, and, slowly, Alfred stepped back from the window, straightening his back and sighing out. The tension wouldn’t leave his shoulders, but he hadn’t expected it to.
“I can’t afford to feel one way or the other. I’m neutral,” Alfred insisted, and lowered his eyes before he could catch Winant’s eye. “No, I can’t blame them for hating me. But I… don’t want to be. Hated, I mean. I can’t afford to be part of all this, to help someone across the ocean, and who has been out of my life for over a century. Why can’t they understand that I don’t want my people to be hurt?”
“These things are not so simple, Alfred,” the ambassador said gently, once Alfred lapsed into silence yet again. He felt as if he was suffocating on all the words he didn’t say. Back home, he felt no shame in saying what he felt, what he thought. But he felt as if he was slowly being strangled here, unable to express anything he truly thought—in fact, he hesitated to investigate what he truly thought. Because he wasn’t sure if he could handle what the truth would reveal.
Alfred sighed. He felt the borderlines he drew inside himself shift and quiver, and he pressed a hand to the side of his neck, resisted the urge to slide his hand down and fist in his shirt. He pressed his palm flat against the lines of muscles in his neck, feeling his breath run still for a moment as he mulled over Winant’s words. He closed his eyes and breathed out.
He couldn’t get anything he wanted back. Nothing would be the same again. In the back of his head he understood this—understood that, as much as he resisted it, there was truth in both England and Winant’s words. And yet, he wanted to get everything back again. Even if it left him battling through fire or water or anything, he just wanted those moments again. Before everything became like this, before he was forced to look at the world and have the world look back at him. He wasn’t ready for any of this. He didn’t want to feel any of this.
“I’d give so much to be able to go back home again and stay there—where it’s safe, where I’m happy.” He kept his eyes closed, felt his heart pounding, and he hated to think what the ambassador’s face was like in that moment. “If he’s too proud to beg me, to want me here beyond necessity—why the hell am I even here? He told me to go home. So why won’t he just leave me and my country alone instead of continually trying to manipulate and guilt me or scare me into helping him?” He breathed out. “Why is everyone so insistent on having me be here? Why can’t I go home and stay there? This war… this war doesn’t, and shouldn’t concern me.”
“These things,” the ambassador said again, no judgment in his voice though each word stabbed into his gut and twisted, “are not so simple, Alfred.”
“But—” he was the one to cut himself off at that time, finding that he had no words. His hands were shaking, and he shoved them into his pocket. He tried to steady his breathing. “Yes, I know. I know I can’t… I know this war concerns me. My people—some of my people… they want to help. But they don’t want war. They don’t want to send their boys to die all over again. And I… don’t know.”
“I’m sorry,” the ambassador said, and when Alfred looked up, he found that the ambassador was approaching him, and did indeed look very unhappy. “Maybe I’m selfish, Alfred. For taking you away from where you belong. But even so… I only want to break your isolationist shell. You cannot survive in this world if you remain this way.”
Alfred backed away a step, ducking away before Winant could touch him. “You’re a human. You have a short life. What can you know of the long-term? What can you know of something like this? I—I’m fine this way, and I don’t need you telling me what is and is not good for me.” He swallowed, felt the words lodge in his throat until he forced them out: “If this is the world I’m meant to be part of, I have no interest in it.”
He didn’t care if it sounded childish, he didn’t care if it was foolish—before the ambassador could say anymore, before the ambassador could say something to shove his entire world into upheaval, Alfred slammed the door open and left the embassy, moving quickly away. He wandered aimlessly for about an hour, until the sun disappeared completely and he forced himself to return before the blackout left him lost for the entire night.
Winant was not there when Alfred returned, and Alfred was fine with that. He slept. Slept for far longer than was necessary and dreamed of his home, far away across the ocean.
It was much easier to just disconnect.
Alfred spent the next few days away from the square, tucked away safely in Hyde Park. It wasn’t far from the embassy, and it let him soothe his own ruffled feathers, and ignore the world around him—at least for a time. He let the workers at the embassy know where he was, just in case any wires or letters came from the president. Alfred waited and waited, hoping for some reason to emerge that required the president’s command for Alfred to return to his home soil. But the letters never came. In the back of his head, Alfred never expected them to—but this didn’t keep him from hoping.
Alfred didn’t mind Hyde Park. It was nothing compared to his own parks—in his own opinion—but it gave him a chance to stay away from everything. He hated running into other people, though, as it broke his own delusion of peace and tranquility. He preferred the solitude—preferred the isolation. Back home, he loved to be around people—but outside the world, he’d rather be with himself and himself alone. He wasn’t ready for the world yet. He wasn’t ready for any of this.
Maybe he really was running away from his responsibilities.
One day, after a few days of drifting between the park and the embassy, avoiding talking to anyone or anything, he strayed away from the main pathways in the park and quickly got lost, but it was okay with him. He was fine with being lost.
It was a cold, damp day, and when he sat beneath a tree, his backside got wet from the dewy grass, but Alfred couldn’t even summon up enough anger to be properly scandalized by this. So he accepted it. He sighed and leaned back against the tree’s trunk. He felt the bark digging into his back and he stared up at the sky through the leaves of the newly budding tree, frowning. Spring time was really approaching now, through the dark and murky nearly perpetual rainfall. Even in the park, the air didn’t smell as clean as the wilderness back home smelled. Cities always smelled like cities, but Alfred wished he could tuck himself away into the trees away in the mountains—his mountains.
“Guess you wouldn’t have anything like that here, huh?” he asked the sky, frowning. “You’re too small. Too bombed. Whatever beautiful stuff you’ve got now is probably just craters.”
In his youth, he had images of England—the rolling green hills, the lily pads drifting across flat pond surfaces. Now when he thought of England, all he saw were skeletons. The boarded up windows, the sandbags and barbed wire in front of governmental buildings, the structural carcasses of bombed buildings, the rubble lining the gutters. There was nothing beautiful about that decay, and he didn’t know just how long England could defend against these storms, no matter how many people believed in him.
He could hardly remember what the country was like outside the urban centers, the days of his youth. And even if he could remember, it’d probably transformed significantly over the one hundred and fifty years it’d been since he’d seen the country last. England always came to him, after all…
Alfred sighed angrily through his nose, flopped onto his back, and rolled onto his side, feeling the wet grass press up against his bare arms until he shivered. It was still too early to leave without a coat, especially if he was content to lie in the cold, wet grass for hours on end. But Alfred had, as always, refused to think ahead. Live in the moment.
Alfred sighed and inhaled, and a blade of grass tickled his nose. He snorted, softly, until the blade of grass drifted away from his nose and flopped against the corner of his mouth. Alfred lowered his eyes, surveying the swaying, dew-ridden grass. He chewed on his lower lip.
England wasn’t like it used to be. England wasn’t like he used to be. Alfred dragged his hand over the grass, collected it in a bunch and tugged, until the grass pulled up from the dirt and into his fisted hand. Alfred rolled his face away, pressing his forehead against the ground, feeling the wet blades of grass press against his eyelashes and cheekbones. England was different—but the same. Still just as strong, still just as stubborn. But it didn’t take a genius to see that England was falling apart under the pressure, that everyone here was growing wearier and wearier. He could remember Murrow’s broadcasts, his descriptions of the relentless Londoners, acting as normally as possible as a means to thumb their noses at Germany. But he could see that the darkness in everyone’s eyes was growing larger and larger each day. People were weary, people needed help.
And somehow they thought that Alfred—no, the United States—would be the one to give it to them. But Alfred knew his people, knew his congress, knew that it would be too hard. And he told himself, again and again, that he didn’t care. That he couldn’t care less. That he was unconcerned and wasn’t involved in any of these affairs. He tried to tell himself that he didn’t care, that he never would again—that those bridges had burned back in seventeen hundred seventy-six. And that was that.
He lifted his head from the grass, and craned his neck, looking up at the sky. A gray cloud rolled by, slowly, weaving in the sky beyond the tree branches, just now beginning to show buds, just now daring to rejuvenate.
England is gone.
Alfred inhaled sharply and rolled onto his back, tucking his hands behind his head, cushioning it. He could feel the dirt and stray blades of grass in his hair. But he didn’t care. The water slipped over the lenses of his glasses, but he didn’t make a move to wipe them clean. He toed off his shoes, slowly, and wiggled his way out of his socks. The air was cold to the feel and he shivered involuntarily as he stuck his toes into the soil, felt England beneath his feet, felt the grass and the pulse of the earth. He inhaled again, felt his chest swell, his body shift as he closed his eyes and let himself sink against the ground.
He didn’t care, he reminded himself. His toes curled, the grass weaved between his toes, pressed against his arch, slipped over his heel and Achilles tendon. Alfred stretched, long and languid, feeling his body arch like a bow.
And then he relaxed, shivering again, his clothes wet, his arms and his feet bare to the touch of March weather in London.
“This is stupid,” he said to no one in particular, and wasn’t entirely sure what he meant when he spoke those words.
He sat up, and wiped his feet of with his socks and slipped them back on, tying his shoes back up. He closed his eyes again, grasping at his ankles and bending his head until his forehead rested against his knees.
“Fuck,” he cursed.
He flopped back onto his back again, covering his face with his arms, feeling the bridge of his glasses press painfully into the bridge of his nose. But he didn’t relent—he tried his best to drown out the sights and the sounds of England. He tried his best to pinpoint how much he didn’t care.
I don’t care, I don’t care.
I can’t care.
He had to break away from this habit, he had to break it. He had to break away from the habit of always dwelling, of always thinking. He had to set his task, set his beliefs, and stick to it. He had to tell himself he didn’t care, and actually mean it. He had to decide that he no longer cared, that these things did not concern him, and he had to march up to the embassy and demand a ship home. That was all. He had to stop pretending, he had to prevent others from manipulating him and shifting him. He had to push everyone away from him, push away the people standing there, all of them keeping their eyes on him. He could no longer allow this.
England is gone.
But even so—if he thought about it. If he thought about it for too long, he’d be able to pinpoint what was stupid. And all those pinpoints returned to himself—he was the stupid one. He knew it, but he’d be damned if he admitted it to anyone other than himself.
It’s only a matter of time before—
“Don’t fall,” he whispered, before he could stop himself. He curled into himself, grasped his knees with his shaking hands, and said, before he could stop the waver from his voice: “You… you can’t fall. You’re too strong. You can’t fall.”
He sucked in a sharp breath, his entire body shuddering. He clenched his eyes shut, his mind whirling. It was impossible. It was impossible for England to fall—it wasn’t possible for that strong, stubborn, stupid nation to fall, to die. He was too stubborn, too powerful for that. His people were moving, were living, were breathing. He had to be breathing and living, too. He could not fall.
But his gaunt face, his sunken eyes, the precise way he’d hemmed his clothing back together, hemmed it together as if everything was not falling apart. It was impossible. It had to be impossible.
“You can’t,” he whispered.
He didn’t know how long he stayed like that, but he stayed there for a long while. He kept his eyes closed, his face pressed against the damp grass. Curled into himself, he felt more protected, even as his entire body went spinning out of control.
He was perfectly content to stay that way forever.
“Alfred?” a voice asked, interrupting these thoughts.
So much for staying away forever.
Slowly, Alfred opened his eyes, blinking a few times so that the world came back into focus and color. Then, he tilted his head up and saw the ambassador standing there, frowning and holding an umbrella. It wasn’t raining yet, but Alfred just smiled at him—always prepared, it seemed. It was like him, in a way.
“Hi,” he said, quietly, knowing that his body was shivering.
“What are you doing?”
“Resting,” Alfred said. “It’s hard, ya know. Wanting to tell everyone who I really am, but not being able to. Everyone expects me to be one thing or the other. It’s hard. I don’t know how the other nations do it.”
He shifted his eyes away and saw Winant kneel beside him, shrugging off his jacket and draping it over Alfred’s shaking shoulders. Alfred tugged the jacket close and sighed, sitting up slowly, keeping his eyes lowered.
“No one can tell you who to be,” Winant said.
Alfred sighed. “I get it.” He shifted his eyes away. “Ambassador?”
“Yes?” Winant asked him.
Alfred licked his lips, wishing that the perfect words could cross his mind. But his head was filled with too many images, too many things. There was nothing in his head but thoughts of home, and thoughts of England.
“Do… they really hate me?” he asked, quietly, and hated just how much that simple question betrayed him, just how timid he sounded. Just how often he’d thought on it the last few days. It was ridiculous. But he knew that, above anyone else, it would be Winant he could be honest to—whether the ambassador was using him or not.
The ambassador shifted beside him, touching his shoulder briefly. Alfred sighed, relaxing—there was something so relaxing about being in constant with one of his own people, in contact with an America as he swam through such a foreign land, strangely familiar and yet so far away in another dream world.
“I don’t believe so,” Winant said.
“But the poll said—”
“They are only numbers,” the ambassador dismissed, and it was a strange day when he had the words quick enough to cut Alfred off, who had a tendency to ramble on a mile a minute. “They are not you, and they are not Sir Kirkland.”
Alfred flinched, and then sighed, leaning back against the tree, frowning down at the buttonholes of Winant’s suit jacket, thinking about a jacket similar to this one, with patches and torn seams.
“Hey,” Alfred said.
“Yes?” the ambassador replied, patient.
“Do you… think that England will fall?”
Winant smiled and said, with no hesitation or fumbling of his words: “No.”
“Really?” Alfred asked.
Winant nodded. “I was here, after France fell. You know this.”
“Yeah,” Alfred agreed.
“And these people were not broken, and even now, despite everything, they are not broken.” Here he paused, closing his eyes in thought. A few raindrops began to fall and Winant opened the umbrella, balancing it between the two of them. He hummed low in the back of his throat, and said, quietly, “They carry on.”
Alfred nodded his head. “But…”
Winant shook his head in turn, calling for Alfred’s silence. “They are strong. They do not relent, they do not surrender.”
“No,” Alfred said, his thoughts not on the people, but on the country—the man with burning green eyes, with a sneer he showed to enemies and allies alike. He remembered the many years that passed, the musket pointed to his face, before that man fell to his knees. He remembered the days of the Great War, sitting in trenches filling with water, gun tucked to his side, brows furrowed, his hair matted to his forehead. He remembered those times, remembered the wry smile on his face or the tiniest of smirks, the laughing in the face of great turmoil and the insistence just watch me show these fuckers who’s in charge here before storming out to gun down enemies. Alfred remembered all these things—remembered the high seas, the wind in England’s—Arthur’s—hair. He remembered the sweat, the tears, the blood that drizzled down his face and stained the collars of his well-pressed suits. He remembered that strength. He remembered that stubbornness. He remembered the unrelenting determination. And he knew those things hadn’t disappeared.
“For those in the occupied countries—they are a beacon of hope,” Winant said quietly. “There are many who are stuck in horrible situations, who are forced to bow down to tyranny. But it will not be that way forever.”
Alfred looked up at the ambassador.
The ambassador was silent for a long time as he sat with Alfred there in the park. Alfred knew to be silent—had grown used to the length of silences—knew to wait for Winant to speak.
He didn’t have to wait for long.
“For now, England and its people are the last stand, the last fight against those forces. They are hope for all those who have fallen. But they, too, refuse to give up. The English as well. They do not relent, and they do not back down. There is strength in that—” Here, Winant paused. But once he collected his words, he resumed, “And even now, after months of standing alone and fighting, they are tired. No one can deny that. But even so, they do not back down.”
Alfred shivered again and nodded his head. He said, quietly, “Yeah.”
“You would do well, Alfred, to learn from your old guardian.”
Alfred blinked his eyes open in surprise, turning to stare at Winant in shock. The ambassador smiled, and stood, holding the umbrella over them and holding out his other hand for Alfred to take. Alfred frowned at the hand, but grasped it, standing up and holding the jacket back out to the ambassador. Alfred held the umbrella as the ambassador put it back on.
Alfred understood what was happening. Understood the shift in his chest, the moments he refused to remember or accept. He told himself, deep in his gut, that he shouldn’t care. That’s what he told himself. He felt the slight, uneasy smile that’d worked across his face begun to unwound, and he stumbled a little in his confusion.
“My… old tyrant, you mean,” Alfred corrected, slowly, frowning down to his feet. Even if he couldn’t deny it, deep down—he also knew he couldn’t allow himself to care. “Not my guardian. My tyrant.”
“It’s a shame,” Winant said, in that manner of speaking he adopted sometimes—despite the harshness of such words, there was no judgment in Winant’s words, no condemnation or frustration. Just unrelenting patience.
“What is?” Alfred asked when Winant did not offer an immediate explanation.
“That you cannot see it,” the ambassador said, and began walking. Alfred walked with him, still holding the umbrella as Winant adjusted his lapels and straightened out his buttons. “That the world is… faced with the greatest crisis in its history, and its two most powerful democracies… bound by a common heritage, language, and allegiance to personal liberty… cannot work together.”
Alfred was silent.
He couldn’t think of a response fast enough, and Winant continued: “And they are divided by a prejudice and lack of understanding that has only widened since the Great War.”
“You are not the only one to blame,” Winant said gently. “Sir Kirkland is a very headstrong man, too. You can see as much reflected in his own people.”
“Yeah,” Alfred muttered.
“But,” Winant said gently as they waited to cross the street away from Hyde Park. “You would do well to remember that you, too, are incredibly stubborn. But I believe you come by that honestly.”
Alfred felt his cheeks turn red. “It’s not…” he cleared his throat. “I don’t know what you mean, ambassador.”
“I suppose not,” Winant said, calmly.
I do not beg, America.
Alfred chewed on the inside of his cheek. For a few blocks, the two walked in silence. Alfred observed the passing buildings, the bombed out buildings, the skeletons, the world-weary people who still managed to tip their hats to the two men as they passed. It was strange that, in a city that should be falling apart at the seams—like the seams of England’s own jacket—should be holding together better than Alfred. It was strange that a city such as this could make Alfred feel as if he was the walking dead, and not the other way around.
But he couldn’t afford to allow himself to care. He was supposed to not care at all. He couldn’t care less—that was his job. To observe from afar, to give as much assistance as he could manage, but not become directly involved. He was neutral. He couldn’t. And it was of England—someone he hadn’t cared for in years. Someone who was a stupid, stubborn old man. Someone who hated him in turn, who couldn’t stand to be around him or look at him. Someone who had moved on from their lives together and regarded him as nothing more than a nuisance. There was no benefit in helping this world-weary island nation, there was no benefit at all. He should cut his losses and return home. He should turn his back and never look back again. He should never have come here in the first place.
Go home, America.
He should go back home. He should leave England to die, and never be concerned with it. He had his life, and England had his. He had his home on the other side of the ocean. He should go home and stay there, never to return again.
But in his heart, he knew this was all a lie. He knew what he’d always known, what he’d always hated to admit, what he tried to forget—
He could remember it in the tobacco smoke saturating his study back home. He could remember it in the way England looked at him. He could remember it in the words in Winant’s speech that electrified him. He could remember all this.
He did care.
And he should stop being too proud to admit it.
Alfred inhaled sharply. “I need to talk to him.”
The ambassador looked surprised, so much so that he almost stumbled. Alfred caught him, effortlessly, hand around the ambassador’s elbow and steadying him. He looked away with a blush once the ambassador steadied himself and gave Alfred that surprised—pleasantly surprised—look.
“Cause… we fought, last time,” he offered as way of disclaimer. “That’s all.”
There was a long pause, and then there was the shift. The ambassador smiled, and he grasped the wrist of the hand holding his elbow. “Shall I give you his address?”
Alfred just nodded his head, refusing to look up until his cheeks were no longer red.
“Look, England,” Alfred said to the door to England’s house. He swallowed thickly, and shifted from foot to foot. He knotted his fingers together, cracked his knuckles, and then shook his hands out until they flopped to his side. “I’m not here to fight. I just wanna talk. And don’t slam the door in my face.”
He inhaled, and pressed his palm to the door, feeling the soft wood beneath his touch. He curled his fist, about to knock. Then he thought better of it and retracted his hand with a sharp exhale.
“Okay,” he said. “Steady.”
He cleared his throat and self-consciously smoothed his hand through his hair. He dropped it quickly away, and shoved his hands into his pockets, burying his nose against the lip of his coat. He cracked his knuckles a few more times, but there were no loud, satisfying pops to accompany the action.
“Jesus,” he swore. “What am I doing?”
He looked over his shoulder, debating getting the hell out of there.
But that was cowardly. He froze, and turned back towards the door. He had to be brave. Winant thought it was so bad that he was so isolationist? Fine, he’d take a step. And prove to him that nobody wanted him, only needed him. He’d try and smooth it over with England, if only to try and assure him that none of this was his fault. And then he could be on his way, and he could return home without a care in the world. He was sure the wire from the president would get there any day now. He’d be able to go back home, enjoy the approaching summer, and its swelling heat and sweet tea in the south and iced lemonade in the north. Yeah, his mouth watered just thinking about it.
He cared. He knew he cared. Somewhere deep inside himself, he cared. The rest of him may be neutral, but the small parts of him couldn’t forget Murrow’s broadcasts. He couldn’t forget the way his people wanted to help England’s people. He couldn’t forget the shadows that stretched across the emptying streets of London. He couldn’t forget the moment when he was outside the door as Kennedy spoke to the president. He couldn’t forget his thoughts when he saw Americans come home by the boatload, returning from England to escape a war they wanted no part of. He couldn’t forget the spark in his gut at the thought of England being gone.
He rocked back and forth on his feet, and tapped his toes against the ground.
“Okay,” he said again. “Relax. It’s only England.”
Before he could give himself a bigger pep-talk, however, the door suddenly flew open and Alfred yelped in surprise, jumping back a little.
England was there, eyes on the door handle. “Who is out here talking so damned mu—”
The words died on his lips when he lifted his head and saw Alfred there. His face shifted from a look of confusion to one of dismay, and then thinly veiled anger. His eyebrows slanted together, and his nose wrinkled in distaste. He looked away, briefly, his thumb pressing against the lock on the door. Then he whipped his face back up, steeling his face into one of forced indifference.
“You—!” he started.
“I’m not here to fight!” Alfred shouted, loudly, before England could start shouting at him or slam the door in his face. Just to be sure, he planted his hand against the door, to keep it open. He cleared his throat a few times, and still his voice came out a little too high when he shouted out: “I just wanna talk.”
England stared at him as if he’d grown a second head. Alfred stared right back, daring him to push him away or try to wrestle control of the door out of his hold.
England continued to stare at him, and finally looked away, muttering, “What the hell…?” And then he stepped away, turning his back to Alfred and walking. “Come inside before you let the damned cold in.”
Alfred didn’t wait to be told twice.
- President Roosevelt was notoriously sparse in his communications with the embassy in London. Winant rarely got cables from him. Churchill, too, often complained about the lack of communication and apparent concern from the US president. Letters, too, were very rare from the United States. But this is mostly on account of the U-boats sinking merchant ships. Letters could take weeks, sometimes months, to arrive—if they ever arrived at all.
- Hyde Park, just a few blocks away from Grosvenor Square.
- That poll is an actual poll from the time. When Britons were asked which non-axis country they viewed the most favorably, out of the choices, USA came in last place, with the same favorability ratings given to Italy, their enemies. I totally had a link for this, but it seems that I’ve lost my source for this. The number was something like thirty-five percent of Englishmen viewed US favorably and Italy favorably. Not the most shining of endorsements.