Socks provide little traction on Arthur's tile floor, not even the ones with holes in them - something Alfred relearns the hard way. Clumsy, punch drunk, Alfred nearly slips-slides his way into a face plant onto the multiple frilly comforters of Arthur's plush, overstuffed bed. Reflexes snap to attention, and he catches his fall with his hands, bracing himself just inches before contact. Wills the blood caked on his skin not to drip, drip, dry.

(You've made a mess on my pillows, Alfred, scolds Arthur's unusually nasally voice in his head. Hands to hips, annoyance flushed face pulled to a snobby frown. You sodding git.)

Luckily, the real Arthur remains at the front door with Matthew, talking. Hushed, worried tones. Furrowed eyebrows( haha ).

He pushes himself up, feels the mattress springs give way to his weight. As he makes his way to Arthur's bathroom, he can hear their voices echo, stretch, dance around and across the centuries old hallways to the space around his ears. The distance fades the quality.

I don't know why he'd possibly -

You did a good thing -

But -

His brothers sound like ghosts. The dead speaking of the living. Of him.

A flick of the switch fills the master bathroom with light, but he averts his eyes from the mirror. Washes the filth from his pores with scalding hot water, all traces of his epistaxis, then looks. Really looks.

Shrugging one shoulder, Alfred smiles at himself, lopsided, imagines thousands of his people smiling back at him. Eases into a grin, teeth showing. Invisible scars stretching, twisting. Sticks out his tongue, black eye winking at him. Laughs.

It's hollow, even to him. So he tries it again. And again, until his throat becomes dry and the ghosts outside stop whispering.

Then he reaches for the switch, fingers without fumble, and drowns it all in darkness.

What a joke.

"There you are."

Arthur finds his son-brother on his bed in Matthew's pajamas and sleeping cap, striped red and white. Legs hanging the over side like a child.

"The bottoms to these are damned short," says the younger, reaching down to pull at the fabric that ends at his ankles. As he does so, the sleeves droop down over his knuckles. A bit too big; a bit too broad around the shoulders. Tailored for Matthew.

"Right." Terse and harsh, but Arthur's tired. He sighs, loosens his tie. "And what are you doing in here, if I may ask?"

( Why? )

"I'm corked, you know. Absolutely smashed. Thought being in here would sober me up."

"Would it really," presses Arthur, lips thin, methodically removing the golden watch from his wrist. "In my room particularly?"

"You've got it. It's the dullest place in this entire mansion."

"Excuse me?"

"You heard me, old man. Or has your hearing gone along with your fashion sense?"

"Sense," sputters Arthur, repeating the word as if it transformed into something ugly and imperfect from its stay in Alfred's vocal chords, "I thought you were isolating yourself from us dreary old Europeans! Boo hoo, you bemoaned, boo hoo. And yet you're here, found disgracefully in one of my pubs of all the blasted places."

"Speaking of places," grins Alfred, as if willing Arthur's statement away with a dazzling smile, "Would it be alright for me to sleep here tonight? Here. Like in this bed, here." The empire watches his ex-colony make a sweeping motion with his hands, and feels his blood pressure rise.

There's a strained effort not to redden at the obvious change of topic, not to throw his bloody shoe at the tosspot, and for a second it works. An inhale. An especially furious unbuttoning of a button. An attempt to swallow his temper down with dignity.

"Do I have a choice now? Are you being so kind as to give me options, hm, Alfred?"

Flatly, "Sure am. Learned manners from the best, didn't I?"

"Did you say please when you punched my allied up countrymen?"

"You know me."

"Then I hope you gave your thanks when they returned the favor."

"Even asked for another, sir. Really, I did."

"Jolly good of you, then. Just peachy," sneers Arthur, sarcastic bite fitting very well with his sweater vest, ironed slack ensemble. Something Alfred is naturally used to.

"Clasped Matty on the back all friendly like when he jabbed me in the ribs, too."

"He did that," says Arthur, waving a scolding finger very pointedly and purposefully at his not-son, "Because he was everything you've done to him - every-bloody-thing - and he treats you like his brother regardless."

"Yeah, yeah."

Another sigh, and habitually, Arthur bends to fold Alfred's pile of dirty clothes. Holds a shirt in front of him, expression softening despite himself.

"And would you like some hot milk and cookies? Perhaps a story, dragons, knights, the whole she-bang?"

A beat.

And then another one, longer.

To Arthur's surprise, Alfred gives no quick, smart arsed retort. Just stares at him silently, through cloudy blue eyes and an expression slack behind comically bent wire glasses. That wounded eye, peering as if lost that hazy middle distance. Disconcerting.

So Arthur asks, "Well?"

"Well," Alfred repeats, "Yes. I suppose a story would be pretty swell."


The embodiment of America blows a stray bang from his eyes, hands folded loosely in his lap. "If you want me to scram, I'll scram. Don't know why that Matthew brought me here anyway."

Just a boy. Just a (his)boy, in this moment.

"Fine," Arthur suddenly announces, and walks a few steps to reach into a drawer. "Have it your way."

"Have what my way?" mouths Alfred, but then there's a glint of reading spectacles and his words give way to one honest 'O'.

( Cookies, too, then?

Don't push it. )

And so Arthur reads him a bedtime story, sitting with one leg crossed over the other under the golden glow of the lamp. In that arm chair, a meter away from the foot of the bed where Alfred lies in a hangover daze.

And so Arthur tells him of ogres and trolls, fey and heroes, stories he's all heard before, until the weight behind his eyes sinks and sinks. Until the world fades without fanfare or magic, sleep ensnaring him gently, without warning.

And there are no more nightmares. No wars, no failures. At least for the night.