Regular font indicates the present.
Italic font indicates flashbacking or dreaming; whether it's a flashback or a dream will be clarified.
Bold italic font indicates thought.
Bold regular font indicates writing/typing.
Even though he had only been at Mount Sinai Hospital for a few weeks, Dr. Matthew Williams was already starting to feel the stress running him ragged, although that had probably less to do with his workload and more to do with…pretty much everything else going on in his life, mainly the fact that his July 1st wedding date was rapidly approaching and he had yet to talk to Alfred for longer than five minutes about whether he and Arthur were serious about participating in the wedding, as the two of them left in the middle of the dress rehearsal before Elizabeta could make adjustments to suits/dresses. And as both Alfred and Arthur had effectively gONE OFF THE GRID with the exception of last night's phone call Al hung up in the middle of, it was safe to say that the Canadian was losing his goddamn mind.
But he didn't get his PhD for nothing, and by God was Matthew going to smile and act like he wasn't ready to kick Al's ass so hard his vertebrae popped one by one out of his mouth like a Pez Dispenser because he had patients to attend to!
Well…ONE patient to attend to, but one very critical, high-profile patient that he was specifically-entrusted to in recognition of his accomplishments in Berlin. And to be honest, one patient that, if he screwed up, would probably ensure his blossoming career and reputation in the medical field was permanently terminated. No pressure at all.
At least she's pretty easy to handle, Matthew reassured himself as he clocked into his shift and stepped into the elevator, a fresh mug of coffee in one hand (with a dollop of maple syrup thrown in for some extra sweetness) and a clipboard in the other hand detailing the latest MRI scans of his current-and-only patient, Ms. Katya B. I just hope we can make a bit of progress, today.
He left the elevator once he reached his floor in the VIP ward, savoring the blissful silence as he quietly knocked and entered the room 1402 A in case any of the rowdier patients were lightly dozing—the last thing he wanted was to spend his morning running errands for cranky celebrities who were convinced his PhD stood for Doctor of Pedicures. To his relief, his patient was already awake.
"Good morning, Ms. Katya," Matthew greeted, closing the door behind him with a soft 'click'. "I have your MRI results, today. Were you able to get some sleep last night?"
"Yes, I was, thank you for asking, doctor," she smiled, the warm, genuine sight coaxing a similar grin from Matthew; he could usually count on Ms. Katya to brighten up his day given her politeness and happy disposition, characteristics rarely contributed to VIP patients; she was practically a unicorn. "I had a dream shortly before you came into my room, doctor."
That definitely piqued his interest. "Oh really? Please continue, Ms. Katya," Matthew implored as he grabbed a pen and sat in a swivel chair, swiveling to her bedside with his clipboard at the ready. Usually she forgets her dreams a few minutes after she wakes up—if what she's about to tell me is the same as what she told the night staff, it could mean her condition is improving.
One could only hope.
"Let's see," she began, one of her hands absentmindedly toying with a strand of her short, platinum-blonde hair; good, she usually did that when she was trying to remember something. Matthew was both metaphorically and literally on the edge of his seat. "I think…I was walking through an open field where it was snowing rather heavily. I was holding hands with one…no, two other people, though I cannot recall their faces; I just knew somehow that I needed to reach a certain place, or else something terrible would happen."
"Do you remember where you needed to go, or what would happen if you didn't make it in time?" Matthew asked, forgoing legibility in favor of verbatim—he wouldn't be surprised if the evening shift called him in to translate his toddler-esque scribbles, but hey, it's called doctor's handwriting for a reason.
Katya shook her head, and Matthew's soaring hopes fell at the motion. "I do not. My apologies, doctor."
"It's quite alright, Ms. Katya," Matthew reassured, sending her as sincere a smile as he could muster. Damn, he was glad that she was at least able to remember her dreams long enough for him to write it down, but the night staff gave him their report of her dreams when they handed him her MRI results, and the dreams she had then were different than the one she had just described. That meant only one thing: her short-term memory was improving, but her long-term memory was still falling behind. "I'm just relieved you were able to remember long enough for me to write it down. So, it was just the one dream?"
"Yes, just the one dream," she confirmed with a sheepish grin. "Um…I remember you told me you had the results of a test for me. What test was it, again?"
"You had an MRI scan last week," Matthew reminded, opening up her case file and handing her the copy of her schedule from the previous week. "As seen here. You drew this snowflake to remind yourself that you had the scan, do you remember that?"
"No, but it looks very pretty," Katya sighed, glancing down at her hands. "I guess muscle memory is much harder to undo than normal memory. Did you find anything useful in the MRI?"
"Well, we were able to confirm the cause of your diagnosis that Bellevue proposed in your casefile while you were in their care: head trauma and internal bleeding, a common precursor to amnesia." Matthew explained, using his index finger to outline the areas on the MRI indicating the structural and/or functional lesions. "Knowing that information is legitimate, we can proceed with the standard medical practices relevant to your particular case of amnesia without potentially inducing further causative damage."
The blank stare he received from her reminded him a lot of Alfred. "Uh, since we have a general idea of what caused your amnesia, we can take the necessary steps to prevent those causes from happening again while you're recovering."
"Ah, okay, thank you so much, doctor," she nodded, turning her attention to her bedside table while Matthew occupied himself with reorganizing her casefile. "Oh, doctor! When did these sunflowers arrive here? They are absolutely lovely!"
"They were brought in last night around eight, Ms. Katya," Matthew informed, pushing up his glasses as they were threatening to slip. "Same time every night."
"How thoughtful," she giggled, gingerly lifting the vase onto her lap and arranging them to her preference. "You know that sunflowers are my favorite flower?"
"Yes, I do, Ms. Katya," Matthew smiled, tucking his clipboard under his arm as he made his way to her door. If he strained his ears, he could hear the distant sound of clanking dishes and a shrill scream of their new VIP arrival. He could only pray for those poor nurses stationed with those patients like new recruits entering the trenches. "I'll be back with you in a moment to check your vitals and ask you some more questions. Please press the button on your bed if you're in need of assistance while I'm gone."
A joyful "thank you very much, doctor!" was the last thing he heard before he closed the door. Matthew sighed heavily, leaning against the door and rubbing his furrowed brow. Nothing else could really be said except that her case was particularly difficult and exceptionally sad, from what little information had been provided about her when she arrived at her first hospital, Calvary Hospital, over ten years ago, before she started being shuffled from place to place.
The only thing that remained consistent about her were the sunflowers that always found its way into her room, night after night, eight p.m. on the dot.
Matthew checked his voicemail as he headed towards the elevator; nothing from Alfred, nothing from Vash, one from Gilbert asking if he'd like to meet up for lunch during his break. He smiled at that, still determined to strangle a definitive answer from Alfred about his attendance at the wedding but not as stressed out about it. He could probably squeeze in a quick date with his fiancé once he finished his daily evaluations with Katya.
One could only hope.
~ na na na na na na na na na na na na na na na na~
One of the things Alfred decided he liked about London was the vast quantity of historical sites that made up the city. How, if someone wanted to stop time in its tracks even if for just a moment, there was a surplus of locations where one could find temporary refuge; it was so easy to find a place that would never leave, never die, and never change. So easy to be alone.
And St. Dunstan-in-the-East provided that safety net, at least for the time being; he had read about it when he had briefly perused the Kirkland family library earlier that morning, both its name and image sticking as if a part of him knew shit would inevitably hit the fan and force him away. But even though his feet were walking through the drizzled gardens of the former church, each step taking him further and further away from his fight with Arthur, his heart and mind still lingered in that abandoned bureau where it took place.
"You shouldn't have to deal with the truth. I don't want you to."
Alfred sat down on the first bench he could find, hunched over with his elbows digging into his kneecaps the longer he indulged in his rapidly-deteriorating train of thought. Okay, so it turned out that Arthur was lying to him about the fact that his parents have been dead long enough to warrant his seemingly spur-of-the-moment return to London, and that the Englishman was MUCH MORE emotionally-repressed than he had previously thought—why didn't Arthur just tell him that his parents were dead, instead of skirting around it for God-knows how long and keeping it bottled up until sleuthing through his dead father's bureau forced the truth out of him? Sure, when HIS parents died, Alfred holed himself up in his room to grieve and get some time to think, but he came clean to Arthur and told him what happened, so why did Arthur think he needed to keep it all hidden when it was evident how heavy the burden had become?
I just want to help him, Alfred admitted, his hands digging into his kneecaps. Like he helped me when my parents died. But why is he always so reluctant to let me in when he's clearly suffering? Why can't he just tell me how he's feeling instead of bottling it up until he breaks down? Why can't he be honest with himself?
Arthur had looked so sad when he saw the picture of his mother in the hospital hours after giving birth to him, and seemed so convinced that his father's name plaque would crumble the instant he brushed the dust away. He could understand the Brit being wary of strangers and people he hadn't known for very long, but he was his best friend—they had known each other for so long that it was harder for Alfred to remember a time Arthur wasn't in his life!
And yet, at the same time, Arthur was entitled to have his secrets just like everyone else; he wasn't obligated to tell Alfred anything if he didn't want to, and chances were likely that, if he hadn't pushed him, he probably would have continued to keep his parents' deaths to himself. And while it probably wouldn't have made him any happier to bear that pain on his own…he could at least pretend for just a little while longer. And who had the right to deprive Arthur his last thread of a false hope, to force him into a reality he didn't want to confront?
Alfred couldn't feel the cold iron of the church bench digging into his jeans, or the ivy climbing up the cobblestone walls that tickled his ears, or even the droplets of rain that dotted his glasses and slowly seeped through his clothing—he could only concentrate on what felt like a gaping hole in his chest, his insides twisting and aching with every pulse that made him both shiver and perspire as a single question reverberated through his skull, trickled down his spine, and settled into his toes:
Am I the problem here?
Was it him that made Arthur so hesitant to properly express himself? Was his mere presence a catalyst that provoked Arthur to go back into his shell? Arthur did seem more relaxed with Kiku, although it made sense for him to be more himself around Kiku since they were roommates after all. But it wasn't like Alfred was a stranger to him, it wasn't like Alfred was a nobody in Arthur's world—they had known each other for most of their lives, acting as comrades and confidants to questions and secrets that no one else could understand, so what about him could possibly make Arthur so withdrawn?
They were friends, best friends in fact. Alfred told him everything, right?
Alfred glanced down at his hands, staring at the pink crescents that bloomed where his fingernails had apparently dug into his palms against his volition; he remembered when those same hands were dotted with bruises, riddled with scrapes, and drenched in blood.
And if he closed his eyes, he could still feel the rope slashing into his wrists with every slight movement, still smell the stench of blood burning his sinuses and making his stomach recoil, still hear the ear-splitting screams interrupted by the echo of gunfire ricocheting off steel walls.
No, we…I don't tell him everything.
Arthur didn't know about America, or the full details pertaining to his parents' deaths. He didn't know about 'O' or Vash or how Arthur unknowingly kissed him as America and Alfred kissed him when he was sick and asleep. He didn't know any of that.
He didn't know any of that, and yet here Alfred was acting so…
He could still recall the absolute despair he had been flung into when his parents had died, a chaotic whirlwind of unrelenting agony that was as debilitating as it was heartbreaking, a state of psychological breakdown and emotional upheaval that he wouldn't wish upon his worst enemies, so what right did he have to demand such a sensitive secret when it was evident that Arthur was still coping with his loss if not in complete denial?
The bitter sting of tears pricked at his eyes, his face burning bright with shame as they trickled in rivulets down his cheeks; how could he be so demanding and mean to Arthur when he had done so much to help him in the past, when he himself had kept so many secrets from him, when Arthur was his best friend and his reason for putting himself in danger as America?
I have no right to judge him for the decisions he's made, he conceded, taking off his glasses and rubbing them clear of raindrops with the hem of his drenched shirt, well-aware of the futility but desperate to occupy his hands with something. And I definitely don't have the right to criticize him for lying to me when I've done the same to him countless times.
No wonder Arthur didn't tell him the truth, whether about his parents or how he was feeling—from the way he acted back there, convinced he deserved to know every little detail about him like a spoiled brat, Alfred would be surprised if he ever spoke to him again.
He looked so open, so hurt and vulnerable in the abandoned bureau, his hand clasping the hem of Alfred's sleeve with a trembling grip. "Just not now. I'll tell you eventually, I promise."
Arthur may not have been the reason he became America, but he was the reason he continued to be America: to protect him and keep him safe by making a world where he could be happy. Because he cared about him, even though he was stubborn and prideful and emotionally-repressed to the point of insanity. He didn't want to push him away or make him feel like he couldn't tell him anything, he wanted to be there for him and remind him that he was there if he needed someone to talk to, someone he could trust, someone who…
Who loved him.
Alfred loved him.
He loved him, and all time seemed to stop dead in its tracks upon that conclusion. The raindrops froze in their descent, the wind ceased to ruffle his hair into an irreparable mess, his fucking heart paused mid-pulse and he loved him. He loved Arthur.
Alfred didn't know his hands were covering his mouth until he felt and heard a soft "Holy shit" slip between his fingers. He loved Arthur. He loved Arthur. And whatever air his lungs had gathered in their futile effort to keep him alive got expelled in a rush of "holy shit holy shit holy shit", leaving his body decompressed and head detached from the rest of his senses; he loved Arthur, and it had been staring him in the face for a long, long time.
What seemed like a million thoughts, feelings, and sensations came flooding back to his memory, each piece of evidence more damning than the last: why he was so affectionate with Arthur, always hugging him or holding his hand; why he became so flustered when in compromised situations with him, like when Arthur wore that bridesmaid dress or when they were on the Bow Bridge in Central Park; why he felt so confused, surprised, and exhilarated beyond compare when he kissed Arthur, when Arthur kissed him, and all the little moments in between that only deepened his blush the longer he dwelled on them.
And just like that, Alfred was zapped back into the present with the realization that he was no longer alone, his eyes slowly trailing upwards to see the hood of a red umbrella dangling over his head, shielding him from the relentless torrent of rain and wind. But behind that, extending the umbrella towards him like an olive branch, was Arthur. And in that moment, with his messy blond hair catching rain and visible puffs of breath escaping his chapped lips, Alfred could feel his eyes widen and his heart stutter for far more than just confusion, surprise, and exhilaration.
He didn't know he had been reaching forward to accept the umbrella until his hand inexplicably slapped against his mouth, his fingers spreading as far and as wide as possible to cover his flushed face.
"What are you doing here?" He managed to cough out from behind his palm, focusing his gaze on a very interesting rose bush situated to his right when Arthur sat down at his left. He didn't realize how small the bench was until then, his throat tightening whenever their thighs touched or kneecaps bumped. "How did you know where to find me?"
Arthur sighed at that, his eyelids drooping momentarily and eyelashes fanning his high cheekbones; he looked so tired. "Ah, forget it," Alfred retracted, guilt nibbling on his conscience. "You don't have to tell me if you don't want to, it's not that important."
"Don't know why you came here of all places," the Brit mumbled, his left hand keeping the umbrella suspended between the two of them; Alfred offered his right so that they could share the burden, jolting only a little bit when Arthur's digits brushed his own. "There are certainly better alternatives that are less wet and have Wi-Fi."
"I didn't really put much thought into where I was going," Alfred mumbled sheepishly, braving a quick glance in Arthur's direction and seizing the opportunity to observe that the white, long sleeve shirt he was wearing beneath his dark green sweater vest was soaked to translucency. His mouth dry, Alfred's gaze darted back to the rosebush and was disheartened to realize it had not suddenly become more interesting in the two minutes since Arthur had arrived. His mind fumbled through its metaphorical cue cards in a vain effort to recall what he had been talking about, and in his eloquence, spat out quite the gem: "I just…did it, you know?"
The Brit snorted, a drop of rain catching on the corner of his grin only to trickle down the curve of his jugular and trace the width of his clavicle that was faintly visible beneath his unbuttoned collar; the American felt bad that that was the first thing he noticed. "Not even William Shakespeare could hold a candle to your eloquent speech and expansive vocabulary," Arthur teased lightly, his eyes crinkling with such fondness that Alfred became acutely aware of how simple it would be to brush a particularly tenacious curl of wet hair behind Arthur's ear. "But…I am glad I found you; you certainly didn't make it easy, though."
"Since when do I ever make things easy?" Alfred commented with a ghost of a smile, not brave enough to meet the Briton's expression, anymore. "Admit it: you like the challenge. If I was like everyone else, there's no way you would have stuck around for as long as you have."
"Not necessarily," the Englishman disclosed immediately, the abruptness of his response almost making the American do a double-take. Almost. "There's plenty of reasons I'd still be around you."
"Like what?" Alfred wondered aloud, more for the sake of keeping their conversation going than out of sheer curiosity, although he would have been lying if he wasn't at least a little curious. "I-if you don't mind me asking, that is."
A pause. Then, a small sigh, although it sounded less like frustration and more like contemplation. Hopefully he wasn't making him uncomfortable with his question—the last thing he wanted to do was act like an entitled asshole for a second time. "You're stubborn."
"Stubborn?" Alfred all but exclaimed, turning to face the him with a raised eyebrow and wide eyes. That's the last thing I expected you to say. "How is that a good thing?"
"I never said it was a good thing, but it's not a bad thing either," Arthur alleged, his unoccupied hand finagling absentmindedly with some wayward strands on the hem of his sweater vest. "You're fixed in your beliefs about things and about people, and while sometimes it can drive me crazy and cause us to disagree, you know who you are and what you stand for."
The Brit directed his eyesight elsewhere (possibly to the Very Interesting Rose Bush, but the American couldn't be sure), Alfred's attention drawn back to the long fingers that kept clenching and unclenching the body of the umbrella. "It's something not a lot of people can say about themselves," he continued, his expression distant. "Not something I can say about myself. But you…you have a relatively-solid hold on all that you encompass, and all that encompasses you; the things you like and dislike, the ethics and ideals you stand for as a person, the people you love and hate—there's no guessing game with you. It's enviable how seamlessly you've molded into adulthood with hardly any indication of conflicting beliefs."
Arthur cleared his throat at that, his white-washed cheeks flushed with traces of pink. "At least, from an outsider's perspective," he divulged halfheartedly, abandoning his grip on the umbrella to bundle his fists into his sweater.
Alfred bit his lip at that; there were certain things that he couldn't afford to tell Arthur for his own safety, but for him to think that Alfred was without faults…that at least he could tell him. "I'm not actually as put-together as you think," he confessed just a bit above a whisper. "I've been having doubts about all that you've said—who I am, what I stand for, what I care about, who I care about—and it's hard to keep it together when it feels like the foundation of my identity is crumbling beneath my feet."
He turned to look at Arthur, actually having to tilt his neck down so he could face him properly given their difference in height, and saw those dark, emerald eyes peering owlishly at him, specks of gold lazily flickering in and out of the viridescent pools and pulling him in with the serenade of a siren.
Arthur was looking at him like he was his entire world.
And there was no way in hell Alfred was going to tell Arthur he loved him. Not when he needed him to be a friend more than anything else.
"I'm sorry for the way I treated you, earlier," Alfred addressed, his unoccupied hand reaching out to grasp one of Arthur's to give it a comforting squeeze. His stomach glowed warmly when the Englishman returned the gesture without hesitation. "What I did was inexcusable, and you were absolutely right: I shouldn't have demanded so much from you when you were clearly uncomfortable with telling me; I'm so sorry for putting you in such a difficult position when you've been so patient and understanding with me in the past."
"You were right too, though," Arthur affirmed softly, as if those words were shards of glass in his mouth that would break and cut his tongue if he handled them too roughly. "As my guest, I should have informed you under what context you would be accompanying me for, but I didn't. In part because I barely understood what was happening myself, but also because I-"
He sighed once more, casting his sight to the grass surrounding the bench as he removed his hand from Alfred's touch so that it could to rake through his messy hair, shoulders sagging as his posture slouched. "I wanted to delude myself for a bit longer. So many things have happened in such a short span of time that I wanted a reprieve from the chaos, even if it meant keeping you in the dark for a bit longer as well. Because it meant keeping you in the dark for a bit longer as well. Then maybe I'd…be able to avoid coming to terms with what I did."
"What do you mean?" Alfred asked before he could catch himself, his breath stilled within his lungs as his question hung in the air until a full minute had passed with nothing but the thundering of his heart and the pitter-patter of rain to interrupt.
It was then that Arthur looked back at him with an expression Alfred again knew well, too well, as he himself had worn that same, hollow mask when he was discharged from the hospital and came to an empty home seven years ago. And when he wordlessly opened his arms, Arthur all but fell into his embrace.
With fingernails digging into the back of Alfred's bomber jacket and his face pressed against the American's shoulder blade, Arthur shuddered and coughed and sobbed so violently Alfred was briefly worried he would make himself sick. It was the kind of sadness that appeared all-consuming, a black hole of grief intent on swallowing all traces of happiness until only an empty void was left to mourn its absence; the kind of sadness that had Alfred rubbing small circles into Arthur's back without even noticing what he was doing.
Both milliseconds and eons passed before Alfred realized Arthur was talking.
"They're dead," he choked out in what sounded more like a wheeze than his actual voice. "Both of them—I-I wasn't—I couldn't-"
His speech rapidly deteriorated into nonsensical babbling as his body continued to tremble and his chest heave with uneven breaths. And after a moment of internal debate that was much shorter than it felt, Alfred cupped Arthur's cheek and tilted his face upwards so that he could wipe the tears with the hem of his jacket sleeve.
"You don't have to tell me everything if you don't want to, or if you don't think you're ready to face it yet," he murmured, his heart leaping into his throat when Arthur actually leaned into his palm, nuzzling it almost. I need to get ahold of myself. He's only like this because he's upset and needs a friend to help him through this. I don't want to jeopardize our friendship because of my selfishness again. "I just want you to know that I'm here for you, no matter what happens or what decisions you end up making. You're not alone in this, Arthur; you never were."
Arthur's gaze dropped after that sentence, his forehead pressing against Alfred's chest and his fists curled into the fabric of his bomber hoodie. "Alfred?" He began, his voice a tad muffled. "Do you want to know what happened to my parents?"
Tell him the truth.
Alfred took in a deep breath, and exhaled it carefully through a long sigh. "I won't deny that I'd like to know, but I care more about you and your welfare than I care about fulfilling my curiosity. So, if you don't want to tell me, I won't hold anything against you because…"
You're my first friend and first love.
"…That's what best friends do."
Another sigh was heard; a shaky, short one that came from Arthur as he pulled away from Alfred's embrace, rubbing his arms despite there being no signs of goosebumps on his skin. "I understand," he muttered, his cheeks still pink and blotchy with tears. "And…thanks. For giving me one last chance to go back to my comfortable lie. But I believe you deserve to know the truth more than anyone else in my life, and I can't allow myself to be haunted by the past when I've done so much to make a better future. So, Alfred, I-"
He looked like he was either going to vomit or run away, so Alfred took his hand again and gave it another reassuring squeeze. This time, however, Arthur didn't return the motion; his hand remained limp, trembling against his own.
"Alfred, I killed my parents."
Author's Note: Hello, again! Thanks so much for reading this installment and for all your wonderful comments—I apologize for being quiet for so long, but unfortunately (and as you all already know), university has been taking away any personal time and creative energy I would have otherwise devoted to 'Excelsior's latest installment. Luckily, I had enough time in my winter break between shopping and scheduling my next semester to push out this chapter (and hopefully the next one) in time for 'Excelsior's fifth anniversary. Yeah, I still can't believe it's five years old, and that so many people have followed, favorited, and commented on this piece through everything I've experienced these past five years—birthdays, funerals, friendships, heartbreak, panic attacks, therapy, high school, university—as I've grown from a shy, anxious, emotionally-repressed sixteen year-old playing life by ear into a confident, collected, content twenty-one year-old still playing life by ear but with better fashion sense. And even though I'm not as into Hetalia and don't have as much time on my hands as I used to, I'm still determined to keep updating, keep writing, and keep loving this fanfiction for all of you.
So sincerely, from the bottom of my heart, thank you for reading and continuing to read this silly mess, for all of your support and encouragement that I've read and re-read whenever I was in a low point in my life. Let's enjoy 2020 together, and stay awesome.