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: The bombs return to London, and Alfred is left to wonder just where England has gone.
Time stamp: April of 1941.
Notes: I've been really looking forward to this chapter, which is why it's ironic I got hit by a bad writer's block this winter. I hope I could have done this chapter justice and I hope you like it. But, because of the content of this chapter there is a TRIGGER WARNING for depictions of war and death. I don't think it's anything TOO graphic, but better safe than sorry!
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It began a beautiful day.
So beautiful that Alfred was content to leave the city limits once his daily work was finished—simple work, helping Winant and the others around the embassy. Mostly filing and organizing—things he wasn’t the best at. But he didn’t mind it. It at least gave him something to do. It was better than sitting around, bored and lost and lonely. (Though he never admitted to that last one.)
But as the late afternoon waned to early evening, he let himself give into the wanderlust. He allowed himself to leave sight of Grosvenor Square and even went beyond the scope of Hyde Park. He walked for hours, avoiding the main streets and the automobiles, the merchants and the pedestrians. He spent his evening nomadically, his thoughts drifting and wandering and never steadying for longer than a moment.
It seemed, at least, as if the cold winter was finally leaving the city, creeping and unwinding itself from the cracks and crevices of the city. The streets that evening were crowded with other London residents basking in the glorious weather—the warm and sunny weather that suggested the beginnings of spring and the endings of winter. The bitter winter was over at last, and daffodils and hyacinths were blooming everywhere.
Alfred wandered beyond the city limits, out along faded grass fields, hands stuffed into the pockets of his bomber jacket. He could see the way the people smiled to themselves as they passed him, either taking him no mind or nodding their heads kindly whenever their eyes locked. But it seemed as if the people were in higher spirits than before. The bags under their eyes were no longer as pronounced, the bloodshot eyes finally able to rest at night. It’d been over a month since the last raid on the city, and the Londoners seemed to have lost, at least a little, the endlessly haunted look. They no longer looked as ghastly, as tired, as haunted. They almost looked happy, Alfred dared to think.
The new rejuvenation in their faces didn’t seem to suit the destroyed city, though. And it was with that thought that Alfred padded along an empty road outside the buildings of London, looking out at the way the wind wavered the grass. He was far from being in “wilderness” but at least his surroundings did not seem so painfully urbane. He wondered if maybe he’d see a dogfight between a Spitfire and a Messerschmitt. At least it’d give him something to talk about.
He kicked at some of the pebbles lining the roadway. They skidded across the ground before bouncing away into the ditch.
He passed a farmer’s cart on his walk and bought an apple from the farmer—grizzly with an unshaved beard—before continuing his walk. It’d been a long time since he’d had one, really, and he bit into it with relish. It was crisp and sweet, and Alfred savored it as he walked, tumbling off the road and tripping into the grassy field, searching out a dry patch where he could lie down and search the sky and watch the waverings of the taller grass.
Once he found the desired patch of grass, he spent a short time looking out over the scenery, crunching into his apple and tasting the sweet fruit against his tongue. He sighed, sinking against the ground and staring up at the sky, still searching for that dogfight as the sun started to sink down towards the west. He chewed at his apple, glasses slipping down his nose until he stubbornly pushed them back up again. All and all, it was shaping up to be a normal, relatively peaceful day. He was want for nothing, save for the general desire to return home or to be surrounded by his people again—feeling that unconstrained, unconditional love.
Once his apple was nothing more than a core, he tossed it away and leaned back, arms tucked behind his head. He stared up at the sky, counting the clouds and seeing the shapes—one of them looked like a rabbit if he tilted his head to the side just right. In this simple moment, the war seemed so far away. For half a moment, he felt like he was home again. It was truly no longer winter. The people he’d seen today actually appeared happy. Winant’s family had come to visit. He could smell pollen and spring on the air. The flowers were starting to bloom again, the sun was starting to shine. He could hear other Londoners far off in other corners of this tiny world, along the road, far away in taller grass. It seemed as if the day could have no downfall.
But soon the buzz of insects—so absent this past month—dimmed. Alfred tilted his head back, frowning, as he heard a new sound. It sounded oddly familiar, but still far away.
And then he recognized it, his eyes widening. Engines.
He sat up in time to watch the sky fill with wave after wave of swastika-emblazoned bombers. He heard the harsh throb of aircraft engines as the planes curled across the darkening sky, following the curve of the Thames, aiming straight for London. His stomach coiled and suddenly the day did not feel so warm. He felt the ice in his veins, knew his face must be pale as he heard the scream of shrapnel from antiaircraft guns raining down around him.
He scrambled to his feet, arms curled over his head and his chin tucked to his chest as he ran. He dove into the ditch, covering his head again and staying there, eyes wide as he heard the hum of the planes. He tilted his head again, and watched the seemingly endless procession of enemy aircraft fly northward, towards London. The only sounds he heard now were sounds of war.
Within minutes, the sky over the capital was suffused with a fiery red glow, black smoke billowing upwards.
Alfred watched in stunned silence as the fire and smoke blossomed across the horizon. His throat felt too dry, his eyes widened.
London was burning.
And as he realized this thought he realized too that England must be burning. Before he could quite acknowledge it, before he could quite understand it, he was springing from the ditch and running as quickly as his legs could carry him.
Shit, shit, shit! was Alfred’s litany as he ran through the burning streets of London. He had absolutely no idea where England would even be in this fray, and he had no idea where to begin looking. The obvious choices were some of the governmental buildings, but what if England was at his own home or what if he was out of the city entirely? Somewhere in the back of his mind, there was a berating going on about caring but Alfred was more inclined to ignore that and focus instead of figuring out what he was doing and where he was going.
Above him he could hear the muffled sounds of explosions. The banshee cry of sirens deafened everything around him that wasn’t the distant throb of aircraft engines or the explosions in the south. Night had fallen, though, and there were no lights in London. The only source of light came from the clear night sky, shadowed by the billowing smoke and the fiery blossoms of flames and explosions.
Not knowing where to find England, Alfred’s feet ran the familiar arteries of streets back towards Grosvenor Square. The sirens continued to howl, and when Alfred reached the embassy, he felt his lungs wheeze from the lack of air, from inhaling the thick dust and smoke. He slumped against the door for half a moment before slamming his way in. He heard coughing and the distance shuffle of feet trying to sort out everything—the sirens’ cries screeched through the empty rooms and Alfred ignored the distant throb of aircraft, the muffled sound of explosions beyond his scope of vision.
Alfred entered the embassy, shouting out for the ambassador and his aides, but just as soon as he stepped inside he heard the ear-splitting drone of planes directly overhead—what sounded like hundreds of them—and a thunderous barrage of antiaircraft guns. His ears were ringing but he could still hear the ominous sounds, the freight-train whistle of the bomb that seemed aimed straight for his own head. He heard the rapidly approaching bomb blasts. He heard the scream of a bomb and a massive explosion—
Followed by the crash of breaking glass—and the force of the bomb knocking Alfred off his feet. He skidded across the floor for a few paces before he curled into a ball. All the windows in the embassy shattered inward, showering the floor in shards of sharp glass. Alfred ducked his head, covering his arms over his neck and the back of his head, clenching his eyes shut tight. He stayed like that, slowly trying to calm himself down even though his mind and his heart raced a million miles a minute, his ears ringing loudly as he slowly picked himself off the floor in time to watch the US embassy workers rushing past him, one pausing to help Alfred to his feet before darting away. One of them shouted out that the ambassador was on the roof, and Alfred took off in search of him.
He found Winant on the roof, just as the aide said. He pushed his way onto the roof, his breath short and his body taut and tense. He looked around, ran across the roof, where the ambassador stood with two aides and his wife. Alfred ran up to his side.
“Ambassador!” he cried out in greeting, breathless and fatigued already. He’d never been in a city during bombing—he’d seen war, he’d known bombs. But never among civilians.
The ambassador turned, and his face flooded with relief. “Alfred—you’re alright. You’re—”
“Are you well?” Alfred interrupted. “Are you hurt?”
Winant shook his head quickly, and his eyes swiftly turned towards the vacant Italian embassy next door, blasted out with an incendiary bomb that had set it ablaze. The rush of embassy workers Alfred had seen before were now struggling to put the fires out. Alfred stared at the burning embassy, in some kind of numb shock, before turning his gaze away to survey the rest of the damage around them. Across the street, one of the Georgian townhouses was completely demolished, and the windows of John Adam’s old residence were blasted out completely, much like the embassy Alfred now stood atop of. It hurt him, down in his gut, to see even a small fraction of his history destroyed—to see one simple house. He could not think of how England—he halted his thoughts. On nearby Oxford Street, Alfred saw the licks of flames devouring a department store.
Alfred’s eyes scanned the city, but in the darkness he could not see far at all, and when he tipped his head upward, all he could see were the occasional shadows blotting out the stars and moon—but he knew the planes were there, even should he be blind. No one could ignore the tearing sound of chopping air. No one could ignore the scream of bombs all around them, the shredding and ripping of the city. The city was blazing with light: flares bursting like Roman candles, searchlights crisscrossing the heavens, and fires blossoming everywhere like the new spring flowers—fire red and licking at the sky until it burned into the smoke-fog.
The raid continued. Alfred stood in quiet shock on the embassy’s roof, eyes widened and drinking in all the sights and sounds of war, of bombings, of pain. He had thought himself distant, distinct, from the war. He had thought himself uninvolved.
He was plunged into it, now.
“Shit,” Alfred breathed as he squinted out into the darkness, peppered with flames across the battered rooftops. His words disappeared under the scream of the sirens, and the ambassador was too busy speaking with his aides and staring out over the carnage. Winant’s wife stood in quiet shock, saying nothing, her expression a crippling, pained shadow that must have mirrored Alfred’s own face.
“I must head out,” Winant said after a stark moment of harshly spoken words and distant bombings. Alfred whipped his head up and stared at him in shock. His immediate reaction was to protest, to discourage.
“You—” he began, but could not find the words, could not find the will to discourage Winant, to tell him to stop, to leave these people to their own war. He knew Winant would not listen. He knew that he did not want Winant to listen.
“I must take stock of the damage,” Winant said, his voice almost lost over the banshee scream of sirens. He moved towards the exit, intending to get down to the street level and set out.
“… I’ll go with you,” Alfred said at once, rushing to the ambassador’s side as he turned away to retreat.
The ambassador said nothing—though there was a touch of something in his eyes—and merely nodded his goodbye to his wife and the two aides before leading the way down into the embassy and out towards the street. Alfred followed behind him, watched Winant shrug into his coat as he walked and placed his battered felt hat atop his head. Alfred buttoned up his own jacket, hurrying up to walk beside Winant instead of behind him. Winant moved like a man possessed, taking no heed to the crunch of bombs in the distance and the shrapnel crackling down around them as they walked their way from the square and out into the fray of turmoil and chaos. The smoke and dust were growing thicker, and presently the distant curls of flames disappeared from Alfred’s view, the fog thickening to the point where they could only see a few feet before them.
Alfred and the ambassador did not speak, as Winant was too preoccupied with finding anyone who may need help. Alfred kept his eyes peeled for anyone. They walked for miles in stilted silence, strained expectation.
They passed the smoking ruins of a building just as some young nurses were carrying out the bodies of other nurses. The living nurses who dragged and carried the dead were not weeping, but rather their faces were set in grim determination to line the young, dead women out. There was a haunted kind of calmness in their eyes, as they cast down their fallen sisters, slipping their hands over their eyelids to make sure they remained shut, before standing up with quiet fortitude and striding back into the rubble, searching out the others—searching for any survivors and yet knowing there would be none.
The ambassador and Alfred hurried over to them, Winant speaking in an uncustomary quick manner: “Is there any help I can give you?”
Some of the women seemed to recognize him, while the others did not. But they merely shook their heads as the last nurses emerged, helping carry over the last dead body. Alfred rushed over to them and wordlessly took the limp woman in his arms, holding her and carrying her to the row of dead women. She felt far too light in his arms. Slowly, feeling the sense of dread pool cruelly in the pit of his stomach, Alfred set the woman down—she was young. She was so small. She was so light. They were all too young for this.
Alfred stood over the women, watching them silently, as Winant helped distribute bandages to the injured women. Alfred stared down at the women—all lined in a row, as if sleeping, as if dreaming. Some of them looked pained, others looked peaceful. But none of them would make it home again.
His entire body felt too cold, and he had to look away. He blinked a few times, his breath coming in a stuttering gasp. He had to calm down, but he felt every nerve ending screaming at him to run away or to run somewhere. To go anywhere. To find his landing place—to make it home again. But there was another, equally as loud impulse—the impulse to stay there, to help anyone he could lay his eyes on. He couldn’t run away anymore. He wouldn’t run away anymore.
Eventually, he and Winant walked on, once satisfied that the women were as cared for as they could be, in the situation. They visited the packed shelters as they passed, and again and again Winant asked if there was anything he could do for the survivors. Again, they refused politely, calmly and with the quiet grit of a nation falling apart from the top but with the foundation remaining unshaken.
“Mister Ambassador should find shelter as well,” one of the survivors said with a small smile. “You’ll get lost in all this smoke.”
Winant just shook his head.
A young woman smiled up at Alfred when he handed her a cup of water. She cradled it, and smiled a low smile. “Thank you, sir.”
Alfred’s throat felt dry. “It’s… only water. It’s nothing.”
She drank the water down until it was halfway empty before handing the cup to her companion, slouched beside her, coughing feebly. Her mother, probably. She drank the rest of the water with a shaking hand, her daughter supporting her shoulders.
“Thank you,” she said again, not looking at Alfred now.
Alfred inhaled slowly, and nodded. “You’re welcome.”
He turned away—had to turn away—and slid up to Winant’s side. Winant nodded to him, but did not pause to speak with him as he set about helping the other survivors inside the shelters. Bombs screamed nearby, but nothing nearby exploded into rubble or fire.
They finished helping them in that shelter.
So again, Winant and Alfred walked on. The bombs screamed around them, and there were a few narrow escapes where they had to duck into archways for the sake of bracing themselves against the blast of rushing wind, swirling the smoke and dust around them so that their lungs burned.
Alfred lost track of how many miles they walked, how many shelters they visited, how many dead Alfred helped line up, closing their eyelids and wondering, beyond all hope, that whatever came after death for the humans, it was far more peaceful than this world.
“Ambassador,” Alfred said, loudly, over the cry of sirens, turning away from the dead and looking the ambassador, who ushered along a young woman after securing some bandages on her hands for her. “Ambassador, where is—”
He lost his words when Winant looked to him, his expression strained. Alfred stared at him for a moment, and then shook his head.
The look the ambassador gave him was one of sympathy before he turned away and crossed the street, calling up to a fireman hosing down the charred remains of a building if there was anything he could do to assist him.
Alfred stood alone, encased in the fog, and feeling his lungs constrict. He blinked his eyes a few times, inhaled sharply, and quickly crossed the street when he saw Winant guiding some dazed Londoners to sit down and help secure some bandages. Alfred wrapped the head of an older man, saying nothing, feeling crippled in his inability to say anything.
They walked until dawn. Alfred did not know how far they’d walked. They did not stop until the all-clear siren sounded at five in the morning, following eight hours of continuous bombing through the course of the night.
The sun was rising, and the day was now blue sky and sunshine, but only if one looked straight up. Straight-up above them, there were the familiar barrage balloons and the gentle, friendly blue sky. But at eye-level, there was only a pall of gray smoke and unsettled dust, the smell of charred buildings and shattered shrapnel.
Alfred had spent the entire course of the night by Winant’s side, helping him as he helped the Londoners, waiting behind him as the ambassador asked every person they encountered if there was anything that he could do to help. Alfred had remained practically silent the entire night, and only grew quieter as the night wore on and threatened dawn. The sights and smells of the bombing cloaked the city.
Firemen were hosing down the charred remains of buildings, and as Alfred and the ambassador walked back towards the embassy—weary and exhausted—Alfred watched as the Londoners whose homes were not destroyed (battered, charred, blasted out—but intact) walk outside with brooms and shovels, cleaning up the debris and shattered glass.
Alfred watched them in silence, and felt his heart heave and strike at the back of his throat.
“Ambassador—” he whispered, and despite the whisper, despite eight hours of ear-splitting noises, his whisper sounded far too loud. He swallowed thickly, and finally managed to heave out the words he’d avoided the entire night: “Where is England?”
The ambassador stopped walking, and turned to look at Alfred. He, too, looked older than he had the day before. Bags hung under his eyes, and there were bits of debris clinging stubbornly to his clothes and shoulders.
“Where is he?” Alfred repeated. “Where can I find him? Where is he?”
Alfred wondered—dared to hope—that England had managed to leave the city, that he was out in the countryside. Where he would be, at least, a little safer.
He told himself not to care.
His voice rose a pitch as he repeated, insisted against the ambassador’s silence, “Where is he?”
He was exhausted and drained, fatigued and weary—but he had to find England. He had to—
He swallowed thickly.
His heart thundered, battered against his ribcage in an insistent yet inconsistent song.
“I have to find him,” Alfred shouted. “I have to see him—he can’t be… I. I have to find him. Ambassador, please—”
The ambassador touched his shoulder. “I believe that… he is at the prime minister’s—”
“Estate? Estate, right? Tell me he isn’t in London. Tell me he’s out of the city!”
Winant stared at him, and then shook his head. “I cannot tell you that, Alfred, for it would not be the truth.”
The bottom of Alfred’s stomach dropped away. His mind scrambled for wherever else the Prime Minister stayed. “Number Ten, then?”
Before Winant could say a word, before Alfred could even think to utter a reply, Alfred was breaking away from Winant and running in that direction—running as quickly as he’d ever run before. He wove between the fallen buildings, between the shovels of tired Londoners. He inhaled the thick, broken air, but did not stop. He was exhausted, he was weary, he felt as if he hadn’t slept in months—but still he ran. He did not know why he ran so desperately. He did not know why he ran without restraint, blindly, hurling his way towards a man he had sworn to never care for again—towards a man he was not meant to care for.
But he refused to stop.
He was running to find him, and did not think to understand why he did so. He only knew that he had to run quickly, only knew that he had to keep running. He ached. He ached all over his body, and he ached to find England and, yet, afraid of what he would find once he found him. Afraid of what he would find.
He thought to himself that England had to be crying, that he had to be crushed, that he had to be crumbled and falling apart. He couldn’t imagine how anyone could stay firm in the face of such hardship, could not imagine that even someone like England could remain composed and calm. He could see him—slumped down into himself, tears coiling down his cheeks. He knew that look—he had seen it before. And he could not imagine that after such a night as this, that England would be okay, that he could stay strong.
He had to find him.
He refused to stop until he found England.
Alfred ran through emptying streets, skirting his way over the fence blocking the Prime Minister’s estate without encountering anyone. He managed to jump his way over the sandbags and barbed wire in front of 10 Downing without catching his leg and bleeding all over the prime minister’s front hall, at least, and that was something to be thankful for. Alfred crashed into the home, but his shout to England died in his throat as he stared around the dusty home. It had remained unharmed and intact—rattled, perhaps. The dust had managed to infiltrate every home in London, it seemed. Alfred stood in the foyer in stone silence, listening for any movements or sounds of life. He heard nothing. He stood in the small entrance hall for half a moment before rushing forward through the adjacent door.
His heart hammering in his chest, Alfred rushed through the adjoining hallways, down the myriad of corridors and staircases, searching out where England could be. He checked the all the first-floor rooms first, expecting to see him collapsed and writhing in pain. When he could not find England, he searched every other room, searching every nook and cranny, every closet and corner, searching for England, keeping his ears peeled for weeping for sobbing for someone falling apart. It was eerily silent. It was painfully silent. And Alfred got lost in the long expanse of rooms a few times, flying into rooms he’d already entered before, getting lost on the grand staircase and crashing into rooms with little semblance of control and decorum befitting such a place. But Alfred did not care. He had to keep looking. He was on the verge of giving up, on deciding that maybe England was with the prime minister instead, maybe he was out of the city limits, maybe he was—
And then he saw the trail of blood.
And he froze.
Feeling numb, feeling disconnected from his body, he moved without feeling, following the trail of blood through the silent hallways. He reached a bathroom and stared at the door, not shut entirely and opened just a crack, pooling distant light from windows across the threshold. He took in a deep breath, standing outside the door, lifting his hand to push it open all the way. But he hesitated. When he stood there, in silence and unmoving, he could hear the ragged breathing.
Alfred touched at the door, and it slipped open entirely, revealing the cool floor covered in the slides of blood leading to the bathtub. Empty of water, England rested in it, eyes open and staring at the wall. He did not react—and Alfred thought, figured, that England did not yet know he was there.
England stared at the wall with that same haunted look in his eyes which Alfred remembered from the first time he had seen England in the crowd, upon his first day coming to the country. England rested there, naked and bleeding and burned, staring at the wall. His head was tilted just slightly, green eyes staring in stone cold silence at the wall—seeing something far beyond it, or perhaps seeing nothing at all. The blood covered his body, one arm hanging out from the tub, fingertips just touching the ground, with blood pooling beneath him, dripping down one small drop by one small drop and curling towards the clawed feet of the bathtub.
Alfred watched him in silence, watched England shudder in pain occasionally but otherwise unmoving. He did not blink. He did not move. The only sound was the ragged, inconsistent shudders of his body and shudders of his lungs as he remembered to breathe.
And then Alfred watched England lick his lips and, finally, shift his eyes away from the wall and towards Alfred. He did not seem alarmed or indeed even surprised to see Alfred—and Alfred wondered just how long England had realized he was there.
His face was red only with blood, but his eyes were clear. He had not cried.
He watched Alfred in silence for a moment, before he tipped his head back defiantly, regarding him in cool resignation. He scowled.
“Do you mind?” he said, and though his voice was weakened, it still rang loud and clear in the empty bathroom.
Alfred stepped into the bathroom. He crossed the space, his eyes averted towards the long strings of blood leading up to the stained bathtub, running red with the injuries obtained from the bombing. England continued to scowl, but either from resignation or fatigue, did not yell at Alfred to leave him be.
Alfred knelt beside him, reaching out his hand and touching the flopped arm over the side of the tub. His hand smeared with blood as, slowly, Alfred raised the arm and tucked it back into the tub. He watched England relaxed, and realized that the arm must have caused him pain—but had been unable to move it on his own.
England slumped, closing his eyes and sighing.
“What are you doing here?” England asked, quietly.
Alfred swallowed thickly. He could not speak, not just yet. England sighed, slowly, his eyebrows furrowing and knitting together.
“Were… you hurt in the bombing?” England asked, quieter still—hesitant, as if unsure if he wanted to hear the answer or even ask the question in the first place.
“Shut up,” Alfred snapped, and felt a sudden anger grip at his throat. “Shut—why the hell are you asking me that? You’re the one bleeding all over the place.”
England did not open his eyes, but his lips quirked up into a bitter smirk. His lip was split.
“Indeed,” was all he said.
Alfred again felt the flare of anger at the strange calmness England displayed. Alfred turned his face away, groping around for a towel. Standing, he went to the sink, wetting it until it was damp. He stared at the wall for a long moment, his expression grim. He caught his own look in the mirror before he turned away, but he could not manage a smile, he could not manage the assertion of indifference. He could not pretend. He could not run away.
He knelt beside England, reaching out a hand and stroking the hair away from England’s face. It was caked with blood, sticking together and rigid beneath his touch. Alfred brushed hem aside insistently.
England cracked his eyes open and stared at him warily, but did not retreat from the touch as Alfred stroked the hair away from his face. They stayed like that in silence, neither saying a word nor looking away from one another. Alfred stroked the towel across England’s face, starting the long, daunting task of cleaning the blood away. Some of the wounds were still open, but England did not seem overly concerned—or perhaps he was too tired to be concerned, at this point.
“How…” England began, his voice cracking once before he seemed to change his mind, and fell silent. But Alfred was insistent.
“What is it?” Alfred asked when England trailed off.
England stayed quiet again, staring at Alfred with a grim expression. He studied Alfred’s face as Alfred continued to push the hair away from England’s forehead, trying to pull apart some of the dried blood from the dirty hair. His fingers worked tirelessly, carding through England’s hair, trying to clean away some of the blood. His hands were red now, too.
And when England spoke, his words were quiet, betraying no emotion though the words were thick against his tongue: “How many of my people… died?”
“… I don’t know,” Alfred said, feeling uncharacteristically sober and wishing, always wishing, to be able to turn his eyes away from this, to be able to tell himself he did not care. “I lined up a few of the dead, but… I don’t know.”
England’s expression flickered, for just a moment, before he inhaled sharply. He shifted, turning his face away and staring at the wall. He blinked a few times, clearing his vision. But other than that brief moment of quiet vulnerability, he did not react.
England remained calm. Alfred half expected him to break down. But he did not.
“You’re…” Alfred began, and then sighed. “Should I take you to the hospital?”
England’s expression flickered again, and this time his lips curled up into another smirk—with a quiet, ironic laugh. “No hospital can heal me, America. You should know that.”
Alfred nodded mutely, feeling infinitely small beside England, feeling infinitely like a little child, alone and condescended to. England always made him feel this way—always made him feel like he was too young, too small, too unimportant. Like he was only tolerated, like he was a complete fool who had never seen the world before. Like there was nothing in the world that could teach him, not when he was next to someone who had lived hundreds of years longer than he had.
Alfred stood. “I’ll get bandages.”
He turned away and walked from the room.
“There’s a supply closet down the hall,” he heard England call after him.
Alfred made a beeline for it, searching around for a first aid kit—for anything. He found some iodine. He searched further and found cotton swabs and bandages.
He returned to England, who had not moved. He stared at the wall with that haunted look again, though as he caught sight of Alfred out of the corner of his eye, he blinked his eyes and turned his head towards Alfred again, expression calm and grave—but he had pushed away the haunting, he had locked it away to visit only when he was alone. Alfred could not blame him for that, for the desire of silence and solitude in his vulnerability.
Alfred kneeled beside him.
“How do you feel?” Alfred asked.
“Do you have to ask, my boy?” England said quietly, and sank further into the bathtub, head lolling to the side with a bitter snort of a laugh. “I suppose it was foolish of me to feel safer. It’d been such a long time since a major raid. I’d foolishly thought that…”
“Stop talking if you’re going to be a regretful idiot about it,” Alfred commanded.
“Fuck you,” England said, though without much venom. He closed his eyes again.
“I have iodine.”
Alfred watched England shudder, and was unsure if it was for the impending iodine or because of a distant bomb or the renewal of some distant pain caused by the previous night.
“It’s going to sting,” Alfred said, cautiously, just in case England’s pain was for the latter and not the former.
“Get on with it,” England hissed, gritting his teeth already.
Alfred set down the bandages and twisted the cap of iodine, pushing the cotton swab to the top and pooling it in the swab. Setting down the bottle, he slowly pushed his arm beneath England’s back, feeling the sensitive, quivering flesh there, ripped open with wounds. England flinched and tensed up, but Alfred managed to weasel his arm back there and get England to a tentative sitting position.
“Will you be able to stay like that?” Alfred asked, slowly.
“I’m not a complete invalid, for fuck’s sake,” England muttered, turning his face away. He shifted to make himself more comfortable, his back curving and neck bowing. He said again, “Get on with it.”
But Alfred did not get on with it. Not right away. He stared at England’s back—stared at the crisscross of scars and new wounds, rivulets of blood tumbling down the lines of his back.
“Surely you have seen wounds before, boy,” England whispered. “Why do you dally?”
Alfred didn’t have an immediate answer, so he just said, “Just taking stock. Hold your horses.”
England did not say anything more. His body only slumped with his sigh.
Alfred steadied his gaze and clenched his jaw. Then he leaned forward, swiping the cotton swab across the wound just below his neck. England tensed up at once with a quiet hiss, but did not cry out in pain as Alfred would have done. He stayed still as the dead, not moving again as Alfred curved the cotton swab down over England’s skin, wiping away the blood and cleaning the wounds.
He worked in silence down England’s back, and if England was embarrassed by his nakedness, the loss of blood prevented him from blushing, and the fatigue of a night of bombings prevented him from voicing his modesty. So Alfred worked and cleaned his wounds, working his way down the curve of England’s spine, the cliff-faces of his shoulder blades, and the expanse of his sides, the curve of ribs.
“Does it hurt?” Alfred asked.
England didn’t answer, and Alfred took that for the affirmative. He did not flinch as Alfred worked through handfuls of cotton swabs, and with England’s face angled away from him, Alfred could not study his expression—but he could not imagine that he could be free from pain in these moments, after a night of bombings and not accosted with iodine.
Alfred touched his skin, thinking to himself. There was something elegant about England, even in these moments. There was some kind of painful fortitude in the slope of his shoulders, in the slump of his face. There was an elegance, a beauty—something that Alfred almost envied. The poise, the discipline, even in the face of chaos cascading in front of his very eyes.
He told himself that these things did not mean a thing to him. He reminded himself of not caring, but knew it was a foolish thought at this point—
“You’re so fucking brave, England,” Alfred said before he could stop himself.
England shifted, finally, turning his head to stare at Alfred over his shoulder. He watched him, and Alfred was wondering if he would say anything when, suddenly, England laughed. Laughed loudly, his eyebrows lifting as he laughed, as if what Alfred had just said was incredibly and terribly funny. As if he had said something incredibly hilarious. His eyes did not light up, but he laughed for a long while. He did not stop for several minutes and Alfred felt his brows furrowed, wondering if England was making fun of him.
“Lad,” he said around his laughter, and then shook his head. He stopped the movement immediately when it upset a wound on his neck, however, and he just ducked his head—still laughing in that ironic, bitter way of his. He stayed like that for a short moment as the laughter died away. When he lifted his head again, he was just as calm before. He stared at Alfred, sober and looking straight into his eyes as he said, “Do you think we’re really that brave—or are we just lacking in imagination?”
Alfred felt his mouth run dry. He blinked a few times at England, who, after a moment returned to looking cynically amused. He just tilted his head to the side and then sighed, closing his eyes. Again, Alfred was struck by the calm and stubborn nature displayed in both England and his people. It was something to be admired about them—
They were steady. They didn’t panic. They didn’t get emotional.
Alfred wondered what it would be like to be more like England. But he quickly banished those thoughts before he could linger on them for too long. He would rather die than be anything like England.
“I…” Alfred began.
“What is it?” England murmured.
“God, I… I hope I’m never bombed,” Alfred said, staring down at England’s body.
England did not respond right away.
Alfred finished England’s back and shifted, lifting himself to sit on the lip of bathtub so he could lean over England and blot the cotton swabs at his chest. England did not move though he did blink his eyes open to stare at Alfred unwaveringly. Alfred refused to squirm, but he felt far too exposed under such an unrelenting gaze.
“I hope not,” England said suddenly.
“Hope what?” Alfred asked, confused.
“I, too, hope you are never bombed,” England repeated.
Alfred didn’t respond, feeling his entire body freeze up. But England was still gazing upon him, studying his every feature and movement.
“Bandage me,” England said. “You’ve cleaned this area quite enough.”
Alfred nodded mutely and scrambled to pick up the bandages. Slowly, he uncoiled the gauze and wrapped it around England’s chest, covering the scars and wounds slashed across his chest and his back. He slowly worked his way up, curling around his shoulders, his collarbone, his neck.
Once he finished, he moved onto England’s arms, cleaning them with the same care as his back and chest. He held England’s hand, holding his arm outright and straight as he cleaned it. The blood dripped down Alfred’s own arms as he worked, and he took a moment to shrug out of his jacket and roll up the sleeves of his shirt. He seized England’s hand again, dead-weight in his arm.
“It’s broken,” England said calmly, as way of explanation.
Alfred nodded mutely, holding the arm more gently than before. He cleaned it slowly, gently. He stared down at England’s hand as he held it. The knuckles were braised and bruised, bleeding and knotted. Blood spilled over England’s fingertips and over the back of Alfred’s hand, along his wrist, down to the crook of his elbow and staining the rolled-up sleeves of his shirt. It seemed as if every inch of England had split open again and started to bleed. Alfred swallowed thickly and worked tirelessly—though unsure why he treated England so gently, so tenderly. There was no reason for him to be there. He could have sent for one of England’s people to find him and care for him. He could have insisted on taking him to a hospital. But he knew better than to move England, in all honesty.
He swallowed. “Why are you alone here, England?”
“Undoubtedly the Prime Minister is in one of his bunkers near parliament,” England said quietly. “I happened to be here dropping off a few files for him. I’d planned to return to my home, but that’s when the sirens sounded.”
“Were you alone the entire night?” Alfred asked, and hated how alarmed his voice sounded.
England didn’t nod, but the way he sighed indicated the affirmation. Then he said, slowly, “It is better that way.”
“Why is it bett—!”
“Because I have grown quite used to being alone,” England said sharply. Then added, as if ashamed and deciding it needed the clarification, needed the reassurance that he was not lonely in the world: “In these situations.”
“Oh,” Alfred said, quietly, feeling chastised and not quite sure why.
Alfred worked in stilted silence after that, wrapping up England’s legs—after throwing a towel across his upper thighs for modesty’s sake. He worked from thigh down to his feet. He kept his eyes down, unable to raise them and look at England again.
“How do you feel?” he asked, not taking his eyes away from England’s feet as he wrapped them up.
“I’m exhausted,” England said quietly, voice thick with honesty. “I’m lucky if I get four hours of sleep a night.”
“Every night?” Alfred asked, quietly.
“Indeed,” England said.
“You… never did sleep well during wartime,” Alfred said quietly, and instantly regretted turning his sights back towards the past.
But England did not respond negatively, didn’t lecture him or curse him for bringing up the ghosts of the past. He merely hummed an affirmative response. “No. I daresay I never have.” Quietly, he continued: “It’s surprising, really, that we could have gone this long without a large bombing. Really… it’s a shame.” He breathed in and then out, his voice thick. “It’s a shame—that you have to see my country like this. It’s seen better days, hasn’t it?”
Alfred didn’t answer, unsure how to respond. His heart was beating quickly and, slowly, he finished bandaging England and took his hands away from him, cleaning his bloody hands across his pants. He swallowed.
“Better days…” Alfred repeated, frowning.
“Hm. Though I… needn’t tell you that these are not our best days.” He laughed, bitterly. “You’re undoubtedly here to laugh at a tired old man, aren’t you?”
“No,” is all Alfred said. And that single word said more than he ever thought possible.
- On April 16, 1941, the Blitz returned full-force, with a major raid on London throughout the night for eight continuous hours. An estimated 1,100 Londoners died, the most devastating night of the Blitz since its beginning thus far.
- Alfred’s experience is taken from different accounts, mostly based off Murrow’s and Winant’s experiences during that evening and night. Winant’s wife was indeed visiting from London, and they did indeed go up onto the roof of the embassy to survey the damage. Afterwards, Winant along with the embassy’s political attaché, Theodore Achilles (whom Alfred replaced in this chapter, unfortunately), headed out into the streets to take stock of the damage. Wherever he went, to help nurses, shelters, firemen, anyone he found—he would ask if there was anything he could do to help. He stayed out the entire night until the all-clear signal at 5 AM. Winant interacting directly with Londoners, being there with them and helping them through it, was a stark difference from Kennedy’s approach.
- Damage done to Grosvenor Square are as accurate as I could manage. The Italian embassy—empty—was bombed and caught on fire. Some of the townhouses were destroyed, and the old residency of John Adams had blasted out windows.
- Spitfire and a Messerschmitt were different kinds of fighter planes used during WWII, and would often fight outside the city limits of London, even during non-bombing nights.
- 10 Downing Street is the official residence of England’s Prime Minister. Winston Churchill had a great affection for “Number 10” (as it is colloquially called), but he did not sleep there during WWII, for his own safety. He grudgingly slept in the bunkered Annex of Number 10. To reassure the people that his government was functioning normally, however, he insisted on being seen entering and leaving Number 10 occasionally during wartime. There’s a cool virtual tour of 10 Downing, if you’ve never seen photos of it before.
- “Do you think we’re really brave—or just lacking in imagination?” is an actual quote (not from Arthur, obviously). It was said by Eric Sevareid, a friend of Murrow. Murrow himself, among many others throughout the word and within the US embassy, were struck by the calmness, fortitude, and ironic humor of the British during these times. Indeed, the citizens of London spent as much time as possibly in the war years carrying on as normally as possible—this was their way of “sticking their nose up” at Hitler.