Captain Matthew Williams looked at his watch (for the fourth time in the last ten minutes, he realized), picked up the stub of the pencil he was using to write his daily report, then put it down again and stared out the window at the bleak landscape. For a few moments he occupied himself watching his breath ghost in the chilled air. He glanced longingly at the small supply of fuel for the tiny stove, then gave himself a brisk shake. He was Canadian, for goodness sakes; he could handle a little cold. Later, he’d build a fire, when it was needed. Another glance at his watch. Forty minutes to go.
A brisk rapping at the door brought his head up to see Sergeant-Major Cochran in the doorway, waiting to be recognized. “Yes, Mister Cochran?”
“New intake, sir,” Cochran answered in his broad Australian accent. “Would you like to see him, or should I wait until…?” He didn’t finish the question, just bit it off, then looked angry with himself.
“I’ll see him,” Matthew answered, pretending not to notice. “Then you can get him settled. Any information on him?”
“He’s a Yank, sir. Flyboy.”
Matthew frowned. “What was he doing this far in?” His eyes widened and he started to rise. “Have they really made it this far? Are they --?”
But the Sergeant shook his head. “No, sir. Said he got separated from his unit in a firefight and got off course. Way off course.”
Settling once again, Matthew repressed his disappointment. “I see. Well, show him in.” As the sergeant turned to leave, he asked, “Mister Cochran, how much longer?”
The other man turned back, face grim. But when he answered, his voice was almost gentle, “Thirty-six minutes, sir. No worries; I’ll come for you when it’s time.”
Matthew looked toward the window. “Has there been anything, any sign? I mean, recently?”
“Not for the last three hours, sir.”
This time Matthew did let out a deep sigh. “I see.”
The sergeant cracked one of his rare smiles. “He’s a tough one, our major. I’d put my money on him any day.”
Matthew managed a slight smile back. “As would I.” Then the sergeant nodded and stepped out. He heard the sergeant’s broad voice, then a loud and cheerful American voice in return. A voice that sounded achingly familiar. A voice that couldn’t possibly be… Matthew’s chair overturned as he shot to his feet. “Alfred?”
The next moment, a tall, blond American captain stepped into the room, the smile freezing on his face as he gasped, “Mattie?”
And then they were in each other’s arms, squeezing the life out of one another and speaking at once, asking questions, demanding answers, and staring at one another in disbelief.
Alfred F. Jones looked delighted to find his brother here in the prisoner of war camp he’d just been brought to. Matthew Williams on the other hand felt sick to his stomach. “Oh, no, Alfred. Not you too. Oh, please, I thought you were safe.”
“And I thought you were safe, or at least not in a POW camp. The last I heard you were –“
Matthew gave his head a sharp shake and then gave Alfred’s shoulders a shake for good measure. “Forget that. I’ve only been here three weeks. Alfred, this is bad. This is very, very bad. You have no idea how bad this is.”
But Alfred just grinned a slightly maniacal grin and squeezed his brother’s shoulders affectionately. “Mattie,” he said calmly, “you don’t really think I would’ve let them shoot me down if I didn’t want to be shot down, do you?”
Matthew froze and looked into those sparkling blue eyes as he realized. “You’ve come for Arthur,” he breathed. Alfred’s grin widened, then faltered as Matthew dropped his forehead on one of Alfred’s shoulders with a thud. “Oh, thank god,” he murmured, sagging as he felt a terrible weight lift from his shoulders. “Thank god.”
“Matt?” Alfred shook him gently. “Hey, you’re scarin’ me a little here,” he said, giving an uneasy laugh. “What’s going on?” When Matthew didn’t reply immediately, Alfred took a step back and ducked to look at his face. “Mattie, what is it?” he demanded more urgently. “Where’s Arthur? When the sarge told me he was bringing me to see the C.O., I thought…” His eyes widened in alarm. “What’s happened?”
“He’s here, Alfred,” Matthew assured him quickly. “And he’s…well, he’s alive. And okay. Or, well, not really, and I’m not sure –“
“Matt, you’re babbling,” Alfred cut in sharply. “Tell me what’s going on. Where is he?”
Matthew looked at him for a moment, seeing the worry in his eyes and the tenseness in his body, and took his arm. “Come here,” he said quietly, and led him over to small window with its dirty, ill-fitting glass that let in a steady flow of cold air around the frame. When Alfred was standing beside him, he pointed to a wooden structure in the compound outside. It looked something like an old root cellar from here, only Matthew knew it wasn’t nearly deep enough for that; it was barely deep enough to stuff a man into, and certainly not long enough to allow that man to lay full length or even turn over. “He’s in there.”
“What the hell is that?” Alfred asked harshly.
“Punishment box,” Matthew said flatly. “He’s been in there almost twenty-four hours.”
Alfred tore his horrified gaze away from the window and turned on Matthew, wild-eyed. “Matt, he’s the ranking officer here! Jesus, he’s a major in the British Army! What the fuck is he being punished for? Not even the Germans would –“
“They would and they do. At least the kraut in charge here does.” He tugged at Alfred’s arm, leading him away from the window. “You’d better come over here and sit down and let me fill you in.”
One hand still clamped around Alfred’s arm, Matthew leaned over and righted his chair, then pushed the other man into it. He snagged the only other chair in the small room and sat down opposite Alfred. When Alfred kept staring at the window, Matthew gripped his chin and gently forced his head around to look at him. “It doesn’t help to keep looking at it,” he said quietly, but not without sympathy. “He’ll be released in --“ he glanced at his watch – “twenty-nine minutes. Then we’ll get him back and we’ll take care of him.”
“How long has this been going on?” Alfred demanded. “What else –?” He broke off and dropped his head, grabbing his hair with his hands. “He’s been missing for four months, Matt. And I’ve been searching for him, and I kept hoping maybe he was just caught behind enemy lines and laying low.” He looked up, his eyes dark with anguish.
“He’s been here for six weeks. Before that he was in a couple of camps in Italy. I think he must have been moved once or twice. I don’t know why.” Matthew made a face. “You know how he can be. I’m lucky I learned that much from him. I’m not surprised you weren’t able to find him though.” Then he leaned forward and lowered his voice, although there wasn’t anyone to overhear them. Cochran had long ago arranged for a signal to be given if any guard got near enough to overhear anything spoken in the small building used as the C.O.’s quarters. “What happened in Italy, Alfred? All those prisoners, British, Australian, my men, thousands of them. They were all ordered to stay put and wait for liberation. Arthur did tell me that much; they got the word through code on one of the radio programs they were allowed to listen to.” He rubbed his face. “They got liberated all right. By the bloody Nazis.”
“Clusterfuck, Matt,” Alfred told him bleakly. “The biggest clusterfuck you can imagine. I don’t even know the whole story, but I know the order came from somewhere near the top. They thought they were days away from liberating Italy. And we know it didn’t happen that way.”
Matthew nodded despairingly. “They were all herded into boxcars and shipped to camps in Germany and Poland. Including this one. From talking with some of the lads, it was a hellish journey. Anyone already sick or wounded didn’t have much of a chance; they died on the way and were left along the side of the tracks. Many who did make it through were sick by the time they made it to their camps, and there isn’t enough medicine or food to give them a chance to recover.”
Alfred asked quietly, “Arthur?”
Mathew huffed out a little sigh. “I think he was sick before he came here. You know how it is with us: we get sick, we get over it quickly. So he doesn’t get as sick as anyone else, but it’s drained his energy. And watching his men die like that…well, you know how hard that is.” He stopped talking then, and bit his lip.
Alfred’s eyes narrowed. “What else, Matt? It’s more than that, isn’t it?”
Matthew took a moment to collect his thoughts. “This comes from Cochran – the sergeant-major who brought you in. He arrived at the same time Arthur did, but he didn’t know him then. Seems Arthur had a blazing row with Commandant Richter over conditions as soon as he got here: lack of food, lack of medicine, lack of Red Cross packages, lack of sanitary conditions, you name it.” He smiled thinly. “You know how he can be. In his head he’s still the British Empire. He won’t put up with someone mucking with any of his people. The men love him for it, but after that, that kraut was determined to break him. So there was a new rule instituted: whenever there was an infraction of camp rules, the commanding officer was the one who was punished.”
Alfred went completely still. “You have got to be fucking with me.”
“I wish.” Matthew rubbed at the developing pain in his forehead. There was never enough aspirin either. “Of course, that suited Arthur just fine, because that meant no one was laying a hand on any of his lads. And he wouldn’t allow them to stop the escape attempts. The commandant tried everything: he cut Arthur’s rations, put him in solitary for a week, even had him hauled off to his headquarters once and he wasn’t seen for two days.” Matthew swallowed. “Cochran said they finally brought him back and dumped him in the middle of the compound, unconscious. He had two broken fingers, a concussion, his left knee had been dislocated, and it took two days before the swelling went down enough that he could open his eyes again.”
Alfred’s voice was very quiet and very calm. “I am going to kill that motherfucker kraut.”
Matthew smiled without humor. “Stand in line, bucko. We were here first.”
The other man frowned, but nodded toward the window. “What was this about?”
Matthew looked at the floor, his voice growing quiet. “Four men managed an escape two nights ago. The next morning, when it was discovered, Arthur was front and center at parade, fully expecting to take the punishment for it. But Richter changed the rules again; he’s a sadistic bastard. Four men escaped, so he chose four men at random – all English of course, just to drive home the point – and hanged them while we were forced to stand there and watch.”
Alfred choked on his breath and covered his face with his hands. “Jesus.”
“After it was over,” Matthew continued quietly, Richter ordered everyone back to their barracks; we were to be locked in for the day, no exercise, half-rations, no fuel for the stoves. Arthur ordered Cochran to dismiss the men, made sure we were all back in our barracks, then he came to attention in front of those four poor bastards and he stood there.”
Alfred took off his glasses and rubbed viciously at his eyes.
“Stood there for five hours. He’d probably still be standing there if they hadn’t knocked him down and dragged him off to that box.”
Abruptly Alfred got to his feet and strode angrily around the room, breathing heavily, hands clenching and unclenching by his side. Finally he came to a stop in front of the window. “Do you know if he’s…?”
With a sigh, Matthew joined him. “See that little crack there in the side? It’s just enough for someone to wiggle a finger through. For a while he was, well, giving us the finger every three hours or so. Learned that from you, by the way.”
Alfred grinned weakly. “Yeah, that sounds like him.”
“But there hasn’t been anything for the last three hours.” Then Matthew gave Alfred a jab in the ribs with his elbow. “You do know he’s going to flip his lid when he finds out you’re here. And that it wasn’t an accident.”
“Don’t care. He can flip whatever he wants to.” Alfred slipped an arm around his brother’s shoulders and Matthew felt himself relax a little. Everything always seemed better when America was around; that’s the way it had always been since they were little. “We finally got intel that he was here. And if we got intel, how long do you think it’s going to be until Ludwig and that crazy sonofabitch he works for, figures it out?”
Matthew swallowed hard; that had been on his mind ever since he landed in this camp and discovered England here. “We can’t let that happen. If Germany got his hands on England –“
“Not gonna happen.” Alfred squeezed his shoulders and gave a big grin. “That’s why the hero’s here to save the day.”
“Yeah, I’ll just be somewhere else when you tell England that,” Matthew said dryly.
Alfred laughed, then the humor drained out of him as he continued to stare through the dirty window. “How much longer?”
“Cochran will let us know when it’s time. So, come on, tell me what’s been going on in the outside world. We don’t get any news here.”
Alfred allowed the change in subject, probably needing the distraction as much as Matthew did, so he put himself to it and talked steadily until Cochran knocked on their door.
“Sir. Two minutes.”
“Right.” Matthew settled his cap on his head, slipped on his coat, and strode to the door. “That fucker better be on time.”
“I daresay he will, sir,” Cochran said sourly. “The krauts are very precise like that.”
When Alfred made to follow, Matthew turned and laid a hand on his chest to stop him. “I’ll meet you outside, Mister Cochran,” he said over his shoulder.
Alfred glared. “Matthew, what the fuck --?”
“You need to stay here, Alfred.”
“Listen, he’s probably going to be disoriented, and not in the best of shape. You know how he hates that.” When the other man opened his mouth to argue, Matthew said quietly, “Don’t make this any harder on him, okay?”
Alfred snapped his mouth shut, but gave his brother a resentful look. “That was low, Mattie.”
Matthew gave him a gentle pat on the chest. “It worked though. Stay put. We’ll be bringing him in.” Then he turned and strode out the door.
Alfred stayed put as long as it took for Matthew to be safely on his way, then he slipped outside. There were enough men milling around, all of them waiting for the same thing, for him to blend in. He couldn’t not be there.
He wormed his way through the men, nodding as they made way for the new officer in camp, until he was near the front. Matthew and Cochran were standing on either side of the door to the box as a guard detail marched up. A third man trotted up, one of his boys, with a tattered makeshift medic badge tied around one arm. Off to the side, Alfred saw a uniformed German officer watching with amused interest and he took pains to memorize his face. Then his attention was wrenched back to the box as the padlock was unlocked and the door was lifted open with a rusty creak. Matthew and Cochran quickly stepped forward and bent down. Alfred held his breath as they slowly stood, carefully supporting a filthy, fragile-looking Arthur Kirkland between them. His eyes were screwed shut against the cold-bright sun overhead, and Alfred heard Matthew murmur, “Keep your eyes closed, sir. We’ve got you.”
A corporal in a worn British uniform stepped up with a tin mug, and Cochran said, “We’ve got water for you, sir,” and nodded for the soldier to place it in the hand Arthur raised. He didn’t miss how Arthur’s hand shook and how he needed both hands to raise the cup to his mouth. The thirst must have been killing, but he drank it slowly, every drop, then held out the cup for the soldier to take back. “Thank you,” he whispered, his voice barely audible.
The medic approached and spoke to Arthur. Alfred couldn’t hear what he said, but he did see Arthur shake his head, no surprise there. But, Jesus, it hurt just to look at him. He was bent and stiff from the cold and cramped muscles, and it was obvious he wouldn’t have been able to stand without the hands supporting him. It took every bit of Alfred’s self-control not to go over there, push everyone aside and just pick Arthur up and carry him to his quarters.
Similar thoughts must have been going through Matthew and Cochran’s minds too, because they exchanged a look over Arthur’s bent head and Matthew said hesitantly, “Sir, it might be best if we carry –“
“I’ll walk, Captain.”
Alfred nearly grinned in relief. Arthur’s voice might be weak and raspy, but he still managed to convey that old authority and irritation that was so much a part of him.
One of his boys nearby in the crowd said admiringly, “Tough little bastard, ain’t he?”
Alfred thought, You have no idea.
“Y’know, I served under Patton once,” someone else said, in a voice Alfred recognized as an Oklahoma drawl, “and let me tell you, he’s got nothin’ on this little Limey.”
Arthur continued, calm, clipped, “Just…my muscles are cramped. I merely need some… support.”
“No worries, sir,” Cochran boomed. He looked around the compound. “Make way, lads. The major’s going back to his quarters now.” He made it sound like Arthur was going out for a Sunday stroll, and with Matthew and Cochran bearing most of his weight, he began a slow shuffling walk toward his quarters.
As the men made way, Alfred took his chance to slip quickly back into the little building before Matthew spotted him. Besides, he really didn’t think he could stand there and watch their painful progress. As he couldn’t do anything else, he made himself useful by starting a fire in the small stove and putting on a pot of water on to boil. There was a battered tin with some tea in it, but he decided to leave it to Matthew to do the honors; there wasn’t enough tea to waste in case he made a mistake, and according to Arthur, he didn’t know how to make a cup of tea. Then he stood out of the way as they guided Arthur, his eyes still squeezed shut, over to his bunk.
“Here’s your bunk, sir,” Matthew said, as they eased him down. His eye caught sight of the pot of water on the stove and he sent Alfred a grateful grin. “We’ll have tea in a moment.”
“Lovely,” Arthur murmured, sighing in relief as Matthew settled some thin blankets over him and tucked them in snugly. He put an arm over his eyes to continue to block out the light, then suddenly grimaced. “Fucking hell, watch it, lads.”
“Got to get these cramps worked out and get the circulation going, sir,” Cochran said briskly, applying his large, capable hands to massaging Arthur’s legs under the blankets.
Alfred continued to stand in the corner, shifting from foot to foot, feeling absolutely useless, but Matthew looked over his shoulder and gave a little shake of his head: not yet. Alfred rolled his eyes and crossed his arms over his chest. It was so tempting to go over there and shove Cochran’s big Aussie hands aside so he could put his own hands on Arthur again, even if it only was to massage his legs.
Matthew busied himself making the tea, then he and Cochran carefully raised Arthur to a sitting position and put the cup in his hands. Arthur wrapped his hands gratefully around the warmth and there was a faint smile on his face as he brought it to his lips. Really. He never saw anything put Arthur in a good mood faster than a cup of tea. Except perhaps a blow job.
“Some of the lads are getting a hot meal ready for the major,” Cochran said. “I’ll just go see how that’s coming along.”
“Thank you, Mister Cochran,” Matthew said. Once the sergeant-major was gone, Matthew cleared his throat and said cautiously, “Arthur, there’s someone else here.”
Arthur stiffened, “What? There’s someone else – Matthew, how dare you –“
“Now, now, don’t go yellin’ at Mattie, old man. It’s not his fault.”
Arthur’s eyes snapped open. They were bloodshot, red-rimmed and a little unfocused, and he blinked furiously even in the dimness inside the room. When Arthur’s gaze finally settled on him, Alfred watched the flash of emotions chase across his face: shock and delight was all too quickly followed by crushing despair. “Oh, no, oh dear god, no.”
“Is that any way to greet a hero?” Alfred asked cheerfully, as he dropped down beside Arthur on the cot. Matthew quickly rescued the cup while Alfred gathered him into an all-engulfing embrace. He felt his eyes sting a little as he finally held the familiar body in his arms again. “You scared the crap outta me, asshole,” he whispered into the tangle of dirty hair, his voice catching. “Don’t ever do that again, okay?”
“Oh my dear boy,” Arthur breathed unsteadily, and there was a wealth of emotion in those few words.
Alfred closed his eyes and sighed as Arthur’s fingers clutched the material of his jacket and he felt a kiss pressed to his temple. For long moments he just reveled in holding the other man in his arms. But, of course, this peaceful reunion couldn’t last. As soon as he felt Arthur struggle to get free, he released his arms and sat back, ready for an argument. Instead, an unsteady hand cupped the side of his face and he felt a thumb gently stroking his cheek.
“Alfred, you cannot be here,” Arthur’s eyes were bleak and his voice thick and hoarse. “It’s bad enough that Matthew is here, but you cannot be here as well. You must leave and it must be tonight. There’s a tunnel that’s nearly completed. It’s under the American barracks. The men can have it ready by tonight, I’m certain.” He slipped his hand behind Alfred’s neck and brought their foreheads together, his voice dropping to assure only Alfred heard his next words, “And you must take Matthew with you. Promise me.”
“I will,” he whispered back. Arthur sagged in relief, and Alfred grabbed the opportunity guide Arthur’s head down to his shoulder and nuzzled his hair for a bit. “Not only Matthew, but you and everyone else in the camp. In two days’ time, so you need to rest and eat and get your strength back –“
Arthur’s head shot up so fast that it was only Alfred’s lightning-fast reflexes that kept him from a broken nose. Arthur stared hard at Alfred for a long minute, and then snarled, “You fucking imbecile!” He gave Alfred’s chest a shove that under normal circumstances would have had him on the floor with a bruise the size of Colorado on his chest. It did sting a bit, but the bruise would be more like Rhode Island, and Alfred tried not to think about how weak Arthur must be for that to be the case.
“Yeah, well, I’m the fucking imbecile that’s going to save the day,” he grinned cheekily, absently rubbing at the light twinge on his chest.
“Did I teach you nothing?” Arthur hissed. “How dare you deliberately put yourself and the Allies and our whole war effort at risk! Do you have any idea what a prize you would be for the Germans? What they could do – what they would do to you – if they knew they had you?”
“You haven’t even heard my plan yet,” Alfred protested.
“I don’t want to hear your fucking plan!” If Arthur actually had a working voice at this point, it would have been a bellow. Instead it came out as a painful croak, and he looked absolutely furious that he couldn’t shout. His face was red and his eyebrows were so scrunched together it looked like they were trying to eat each other.
“Arthur.” Matthew appeared beside them with a bowl in his hands. “I think you should listen to Alfred’s plan,” he said, the picture of reasonableness. “He’s explained it to me, and while there are flaws that can’t be helped under the circumstances, I believe it’s the best chance we have. And I think we all agree that remaining here is too great a risk. We’ve been lucky so far, but I think we know we can’t count on it holding.” In the past, the power of Arthur’s glare had often reduced Matthew to a puddle of maple syrup, but he stood there now as calm and solid as Mount Rushmore. He held out the bowl. “Mister Cochran brought this for you. A lot of men reduced their rations in order to for you to have this,” he said pointedly. “I wouldn’t like to think you’d want to repay them by not eating it all.”
Alfred threw his brother a look of surprise mixed with not a little admiration; damn, when had Mattie become so sly at dealing with Arthur? For his part, Matthew just looked smug as Arthur accepted the bowl humbly, with a muttered, “Please thank the lads for me.”
But in the next instant Arthur gave them both a look of intense dislike. “And I liked you both better when you were colonies and did as you were told.”
“Yeah, there’s a shock,” Alfred said dryly. While Arthur’s unsteady hands were occupied holding the bowl, he leaned forward, brushed aside the tangle of hair on Arthur’s forehead, and pressed a quick kiss there. “Eat your food. I’m gonna go check in with my boys, and then I’ll be back and we can talk.” As he passed Matthew he murmured, “You might want to soften him up a bit for me, seeing as you’re so good at it now.” Matthew’s only answer was a snort, and Alfred knew he was on his own in this one.
When he returned, Arthur and Matthew were standing toe-to toe, arguing. Alfred took one look and did an about-face, but halted at Arthur’s snarled, “Get back in here.”
He turned around with a fake smile. “I hate to bring this up yet again, but you can’t tell me what to do.”
To his surprise, a very scary smile formed on Arthur’s face and his green eyes glinted dangerously. “Perhaps you’d better check the regulations, Captain, because as commanding officer of the prisoners in this camp, I bloody well can tell you what to do.”
Alfred wrinkled his nose. “Oh, please, don’t even try that on me, England. You can court martial the hell out of me later if you like, but I think you’d better let me tell you who sent me on this mission first. You may outrank me, but you sure as hell don’t outrank them.”
Matthew shuffled his feet and murmured apologetically, “I tried to tell you.”
Poor Matthew’s reward was another glare, and he sighed and gathered up his coat. “I think I’ll get some air.” As he passed Alfred, he muttered, “Good luck,” and firmly closed the door behind him.
Arthur was standing beside his bunk, listing a little to one side, and it looked like he was keeping on his feet by sheer stubbornness alone. At the sight, Alfred felt all the fight go right out of him, and he crossed the room, abruptly pulling Arthur into a full body hug.
“You’re going to indulge me, Arthur,” he said firmly, face buried in his hair.
“Already indulge you far too much,” the other man grumbled, but Alfred felt fingers thread through the hair on the back of his head.
“Then indulge me some more. I’ve been worried sick about you for four fuckin’ months. Not knowing where you were or if you were okay or who was doing what to you. So I think you can just…” His voice threatened to crack and he had to take a moment to swallow. “You can let me have this for a few minutes before we start shouting at each other, okay?”
Alfred felt rather than heard the breath sigh out of the other man, and the fingers in his hair tightened as Arthur hooked an arm around his waist and anchored them even more tightly together. “Oh my lad,” he murmured. “It was much the same for me, you know. We got precious little information about what was going on, and I, well, I was just so used to us being in contact and knowing where you were and what you were up to and if you were safe. It was like you had simply disappeared.”
Alfred winced. “Yeah,” he agreed, realizing only now that, of course, it had been the same for Arthur. “So you can see how I’m not about to let that happen again, right?” Arthur tensed, but Alfred kept his arms wrapped around him, not letting him get away. “Let me tell you what’s going on, okay? And believe me when I tell you, you really don’t have a choice in this.” He nosed Arthur’s hair. “Even made someone a promise that I’d knock you unconscious and carry you out over my shoulder if I had to.”
Arthur jerked in his arms. “You never –“
“Umm hmm.” Alfred kissed a stubbled jaw. “The Queen Mother is a pretty scary lady.”
“Queen Mary? Certainly not.” There was a brief pause. “I like to think of her as tough but fair,” Arthur qualified.
“Yeah, well, that tough but fair -- and very scary -- old lady all but told me not to bother coming back without you.”
“Pish. You want tough, you should have met my Bess. Now there was a tough lady.”
Alfred felt the smile against his cheek. “When she had to be.”
Alfred gradually realized he was supporting more and more of Arthur’s weight as the man’s strength began to give out. “I’ll tell you everything, but let’s get you off your feet first.”
“Nonsense. I need to build up my strength.”
“You need to rest and drink lots of water,” Alfred corrected. “Had a little chat with the medic, Corporal Welles. Seems he gave you those instructions.”
“He’s a good man, Welles,” Arthur said, ignoring the rest of what Alfred said. “Poor man has been overwhelmed with all the sickness and lack of medicine and decent facilities, but it hasn’t stopped him from trying to do everything he can.”
While he was talking, Alfred managed to maneuver them over to Arthur’s cot. “He tells me you’ve been pretty sick.”
“Everyone here is sick,” Arthur snapped. “I at least know a case of dysentery isn’t going to kill me, unlike most of the men here.”
“Might be easier getting your strength back if you didn’t spend your days in a hole in the ground,” Alfred muttered.
To his surprise, Arthur actually spluttered against his chest. “You think I haven’t spent days in worse places? Compared to the trenches at the Somme, that box was a night at Claridge’s.”
Alfred grinned too. “Yeah, okay, but I did promise him I’d get you into bed.”
The other man raised his head from Alfred’s shoulder and gave him an old-fashioned look.
“To rest,” Alfred clarified innocently.
“Hmm. Well, I’m afraid that’s all I’m good for at the moment anyhow.” He sniffed. “And I stink.”
“We’ll get you cleaned up later. For now –“ He neatly turned Arthur around so his back was plastered to his chest, then eased them both down on Arthur’s cot. A bit of wriggling around resulted in him sitting up, propped against the wall, with Arthur settled in his arms. Alfred guided the other man’s head to the curve of his shoulder and murmured, “Okay?”
A long sigh was his response. “You’re mad,” Arthur said finally, “but I have missed you, my dear boy.” He shook his head. “Still, I wish they had sent anyone but you for this foolish attempt. The risk is unconscionable.”
“Wasn’t about to let them send anyone else. Besides, everyone – and I do mean everyone – agreed that I had the best chance of making you see reason.” He hummed thoughtfully. “I have no idea where you got this reputation for being such a stubborn bastard.” Arthur snorted. “So it came down to either me, or airdropping Monty in here to give you a direct order.” He began carding a hand through Arthur’s hair in what he hoped was a soothing manner. “Are you ready to hear about it?”
“Start at the beginning,” Arthur directed, all business. “Who approved this mission?”
“Everyone approved it, and trust me, I think this is the first time the Allies have all agreed on anything. Your boss, my boss, France’s boss – the real one, not the fake one --, Poland, Russia, Belgium, Greece – I meant it when I said everyone, Arthur. It didn’t take a genius to realize what it could mean if Germany got his hands on you, and I never saw a plan come together so fast once we finally knew where you were.”
Arthur rested a hand on the arm circling his chest. “How did you find me?”
“One of your boys who escaped from here. Name of Browning. Remember him? Little guy, talks funny.”
Arthur pinched his arm. “He’s from Yorkshire, you git. Yes, of course, I remember him. Used to draw cartoons when he could find paper. If he didn’t have paper he drew on the walls or in the dirt. He escaped my first week here.” His voice softened. “He made it home. I’m glad.”
“Yeah, well the guy has a memory like you wouldn’t believe. Not only did he draw us a complete layout of this camp and every building in it, but he did one hell of a detailed map of the countryside he went through. Once we put it all together, we had a pretty good idea of what we were dealing with.”
“Matthew told me what you had in mind,” Arthur said, and Alfred heard the disapproval in his tone.
“It’s not a perfect plan,” Alfred acknowledged, “but it’s still our best shot. A land assault’s impossible right now, and even if it was possible, there’d be a far greater chance of casualties to our boys in here. You have to admit, Arthur, no one expects the Allies to bomb a POW camp. We’ll have surprise on our side.”
Arthur’s hand tightened painfully around his wrist.“But if something should go wrong, the men will be sitting ducks. They won’t stand a chance.”
“Christ, your hands are like ice.” Wrapping Arthur’s smaller hands in his, Alfred rubbed them briskly. “Arthur, I handpicked every man who’s going to be flying this mission,” he said evenly. “They’re the best. I’m not saying nothing could go wrong, but I am saying we have done everything we can to make sure it doesn’t. The idea is to drop enough bombs around the perimeter and lay down enough cover fire to throw the Germans into total confusion, hopefully take out some fences, and give the men a chance to get out.”
“They won’t all make it,” Arthur said, his voice strained.
“No. They won’t,” Alfred agreed carefully. “Even with all the confusion, a lot of ‘em probably won’t make it out of the compound before the guards round them up again. More will get lost and wander around in the woods before they’re picked up again. But some will make it out and they’ll make it back home. It’s an acceptable risk.” Alfred hesitated a moment before continuing slowly, “I have to tell you, this was actually Plan Number Two. Plan Number One was sending me in here and getting you out, just you.” He was ready when Arthur tried to jerk out of his arms and he tightened his grip accordingly. “But France and I both told ‘em you wouldn’t leave your men behind, so they’d better come up with another plan.” Arthur relaxed a little, but Alfred heard him mutter something about a frog. “Now, now,” he said, and assumed the most awful French accent he could muster, “Big brother has been very, very worried about you, Angleterre.”
Arthur spluttered. “My god, boy, you’ve already butchered one language. At least leave that one alone.”
Since Alfred spoke quite passable French, and Arthur knew it, he ignored the slur on his linguistic abilities; besides, the whole point was to lighten the atmosphere, even for a short while, and to get Arthur to smile. But abruptly the other man stiffened in his arms. “Arthur?”
“The infirmary,” Arthur said, his voice hoarse. “Those men… Fuck it all,” he hissed viciously. “Do you know what the Germans did to the wounded when they ‘liberated’ my camp in Italy?”
“That’s not going to happen here.”
“I have your written guarantee of that, do I?” Arthur demanded harshly.
“The Germans have no reason to do that here,” he said reasonably. “We’re not going to make the camp unusable. Any damage to the fences can be easily repaired, and the barracks won’t be touched, so they can keep everyone locked inside until they are. They have no reason to move the prisoners, so no reason to kill the wounded and sick.”
Arthur worked one hand out of Alfred’s grip and rubbed his eyes tiredly. “Is this where you give me absolution?”
Alfred growled impatiently and used his awesome strength to turn Arthur on his side, but carefully, carefully, until he could look into his eyes. He looked tired, so tired, his green eyes dark with despair, and clouded with having seen too many terrible things men did to each other over the centuries. “No, you stubborn jackass, ”Alfred said clearly. “I’m trying to tell you that this isn’t your decision and that you don’t have any choice.” He drew a shaky breath. “Look, I know what it’s like, okay?” he said in a gentler voice. “My people are in this war too, and they’re dying every day. But right now, you’re just a soldier following orders. My mission is to get you out of here, and that’s what I’m going to do, whether you cooperate or not; it’ll just be a helluva lot easier if you do.” He gave Arthur one last, long look, then gently pressed his head back down to rest on his shoulder. “And, I’m going to remind you of all the boys who are going to be risking their lives to get you out of here.”
“Bastard,” Arthur growled, but without any real heat.
“Mmm hmm,” he agreed readily. “Whatever it takes.”
They were silent for a long time, and then Arthur murmured, as if to himself, “When did you grow up and become an adult?”
“December 7, 1941,” Alfred answered flatly, and felt Arthur flinch.
After a moment, Arthur said quietly, “I suspect it was before then, but I just didn’t notice. Or perhaps I didn’t want to notice.”
Alfred thought back to a time near the end of the last century, when he was trying his hardest to ignore what was going on in Europe, telling himself it had nothing to do with him. In one of the few times France had ever been truly angry with him, he had called Alfred ‘a stupid, spoiled child’ (and wow, didn’t that sting, coming from France). He’d been bitching about England (he didn’t even remember about what, but back then he was always angry at England about something) and out of the blue France had given him a narrow-eyed glare that made his complaints dry on his tongue. That’s when he had spit out, “stupid, spoiled child,” and looked at him like he was something stuck to the bottom of his well-polished boots. “When you were young and defenseless and knew nothing, you had someone who loved and protected you until you were strong. Not all nations were as fortunate as you, Amérique. If your upbringing had been as…brutal as some nations, perhaps you would not still be such a stupid, stupid child.”
And this was coming from France. Of anyone, America should have been able to complain to him about England and at least have his full and joyful support. Those two had been at each others’ throats for centuries; why on earth would France actually defend England? But then, he would never understand the twisted relationship those two nations shared. It gave him a headache just thinking about it. But, France had gotten his attention; he did make him think. It was true he was a young nation, and he didn’t have the same experiences as the European nations. He hadn’t had to watch a plague wipe out a third of his people or suffer invasion (multiple times) and witness his populace being brought their knees by a foreign king, their language and customs replaced, or lose the colonies that made him an Empire. And the wars, all those wars. How many wars had England fought in? What was the first one he remembered? Had he still been a child? Yes, of course, he must have been.
The worst part was, even if he could have found his tongue after that unexpected scolding, he wouldn’t have had an argument. Despite the fact that England had been so very wrong in the way he’d treated the Colony with all the taxes and restrictions and basic lack of liberty, America admitted his earliest memories were of strong arms lifting and protecting him, callused fingers easing away hurts and brushing away tears, and a calm, soothing voice chasing away his nightmares. It had all gone to hell much later, but as he was growing up he never felt anything but love and protection from England. For a very long time he’d tried to forget that, tried to bury it so he would never think of it again. But every now and then it would rise to the surface, and he’d have to ruthlessly tamp it down again. Much later, when they were finally able to deal with each other as equals and the old hurts had more or less been put behind them, he didn’t force down those memories any more. He allowed them to rise, like the sea brushing gently over his bare feet, and accepted the comfort they brought. Perhaps the fact that he was able to do that meant he had grown up. He might still be a younger nation, but at least now he was treated as an equal, and most important to him, England saw him as an equal.
Arthur was quiet for so long that Alfred thought he might have fallen asleep, so he was taken by surprise when he managed to pull out of Alfred’s arms and push himself up. “Hey, where do you think you’re going?”
“We need to get Matthew in here, and we need to bring in Sergeant-Major Cochran. Then you need to go over the whole plan again so we can all hear it.”
Alfred frowned. “No, you need to rest.”
“I’ll rest tomorrow,” Arthur said impatiently. “We don’t have much time and there are details we need to work out.” He paused. “And there are some things you don’t know, so please find Matthew and Cochran.”
It took them the rest of the day to go over the plan and work out the details. First Arthur made him go over the plan for Cochran’s benefit, and then made him repeat it while Arthur examined it, dissected it, questioned it, timed it, and finally, improved it. Watching Arthur work was like taking a master class in strategy. Alfred was a big picture kind of guy, he liked to look at a whole event from above, like he was viewing it from the cockpit of his Mustang. But Arthur put everything under a microscope, tore it into itsy bitsy pieces and examined each one. Alfred had memorized the map Browning had drawn for them, along with the maps the Allies had, thanks to their own intel. Using the table that doubled as a desk, and making use of every small moveable item in the room, Arthur had him lay out the map, identifying the barracks and landmarks on all sides of the camp. Standing around the table, using pencil stubs and bits of wood, they devised escape routes; Arthur was adamant that the prisoners in each barracks would need to initially head in different directions in order to make it harder for the guards to recapture them, and only later would they be able to turn in the direction of the nearest border. It was exhausting, exacting work, but by the time they were done, Arthur nodded thoughtfully. “I think we’ve done the best we can, given the circumstances.”
Matthew, who had always been more of a detail person, agreed. “It’s a good plan, sir, and I think it’s the best we can hope for.” He hesitated. “We still have one problem though.”
Arthur rubbed his eyes tiredly. “Yes, yes, the Russians.”
Alfred’s eyebrows rose. “There are Russians here? The krauts don’t usually put them in POW camps. Don’t they usually use them for forced labor?”
“We’re not sure why they’re here,” Matthew replied. “But we suspect part of the reason may be because the Germans have planted a Ferret. A bi-lingual German,” he explained to Alfred, “who can pass as Russian. We know information is being leaked and, I’m sorry, but I can’t see any of our lads doing it.”
“Which leaves us with a problem,” Arthur said heavily. “We need to choose one person from each barracks to tell them the plans in advance so they can lead their men out –“
“—But we can’t trust anyone in the Russian barracks,” Alfred finished. “Yeah, that’s a problem. If we don’t tell someone there, they’re not going to know what to do. They might even get in the way.”
Cochran, who had made some damned good suggestions during their council, cleared his throat. “Sir, my barracks are right by the Russians’. I think the most efficient solution is for me to be the one to give them the information once the raid starts. I can send them on their way with as much information as I can get through to them, and then I can catch up with my lads. We won’t be able to give them the information we can give everyone else, but at least it will give them a chance without jeopardizing it for everyone.”
“I would not ask you to do that Mister Cochran,” Arthur said quietly.
“I’m volunteering, sir.”
Arthur let out a breath, clearly not happy, but it seemed they had few options. “Very well. Thank you, Mister Cochran.” Then, a bit more briskly, “You and Captain Williams know the men best. We need to select someone from each barracks and give them the full plan. They’ll be instructed not to release any of the information until an hour before the raid.”
“What about the infirmary, sir?” Matthew asked, not looking at him.
Now Arthur began rubbing both temples, a sure sign of a headache. “I think we all know that Corporal Welles won’t leave his patients. I’ll talk to him myself.”
“If it’s all the same, I’d like to talk to him,” Alfred said. “He’s one of my boys.”
Arthur nodded. “Of course, Captain.”
“If I may make a suggestion, sir?” Sergeant-Major Cochran looked like he was girding his loins for something, and straightened his spine. He didn’t look happy, but he did look determined.
Arthur was studying the ‘map’ on the table and didn’t see his expression. “Of course, Mister Cochran. What is it?”
“It’s regarding you, sir.”
This did bring Arthur’s head up. “Me? What about me?”
“I suggest we tell the lads not to do anything that might result in any more punishments, sir. We can’t afford to have you separated from Captain Jones, as it’s his job to get you out. And if the commandant removes you again –“
“Yes, yes, that’s quite sensible, of course. But I’ve already given the order for the men to continue their escape attempts, regardless of the repercussions. If we order them to cease those attempts now, that could cause the sort of rumors or speculations that we can’t afford. Especially as we know we have an informant.”
“Mister Cochran and I came up with a solution to that, sir.” Arthur raised an eyebrow at Matthew who twitched a little under his gaze, but continued gamely, “We think you should go on sick call.”
“Sick call?” Arthur looked like he had swallowed something distasteful, which was all the encouragement Alfred needed.
“That’s an awesome idea! And, hey, we can have Welles come here, like he’s paying a house call, and confine you to bed.”Alfred grinned broadly, enjoying himself. It was such an awesome idea, he wished he’d thought of it himself. Not only would it force Arthur to rest, but it would take him out of the line of fire from that commandant.
“It would give the men a plausible reason to postpone any escape attempts, sir,” Cochran added respectfully.
Arthur frowned. “I don’t see how –“
“Because you will be sick. In your bed,” Matthew interrupted, through gritted teeth. “You don’t think anyone actually enjoys watching you go though those punishments, do you?” Then belatedly, as if just remembering they weren’t alone, he added, “sir.” But he didn’t sound as if he meant it.
Everyone went completely still, and Matthew scowled at the inoffensive tea tin on the table that was currently doubling as the infirmary on their map.
Beside him, Alfred could hear Arthur quietly clear his throat and shift uneasily. Alfred would have said something to lighten the mood, but he was just starting to get an idea of what Matthew had been going through while he’d been in this camp if it pushed him to the point where he’d been rude. So he gave his brother a light bump with his shoulder by way of support.
“Very well, then,” Arthur said quietly, but Alfred caught him sliding a sideways look at Matthew, a little frown of perplexity on his face. Honestly. And Arthur often told him he couldn’t read the atmosphere. “Who are you proposing for the contact in each barracks?”
There was little discussion about the choices, as Matthew and Cochran readily agreed the names. And then Matthew said, “And I’ll be staying with my lads.”
“Wait – what?” Alfred straightened abruptly. “No, you’re coming with us.”
“I’ll be staying with my men, Alfred,” Matthew said quietly, but with a stubbornness that Alfred recognized from their childhood.
Before Alfred could open his mouth again, Arthur said, “Thank you, Mister Cochran, that will be all for now.”
“Very good, sir.” The Australian performed a neat about-face and left the building, closing the door behind him.
Alfred barely waited until they were alone before he insisted, “England, tell him. Order him. Hell, a few hours ago you wanted me to break him out of here –“ He snapped his mouth shut as Arthur sent him a furious look, but didn’t regret the slip as Matthew’s eyes narrowed at their elder nation.
“That’s enough, America,” Arthur said, steel in his tone. “You will either remain silent or you will leave the room.” He turned his attention back to Matthew, and it was only because Alfred was still glaring at him that he saw something…crack inside England. “I could order Captain Williams to go with us,” he acknowledged, sounding tired, “or I could insist that Canada defer to me for the good of the Commonwealth. But I won’t do either of those things. Matthew has the right to make that decision for himself.”
“But it’s the wrong decision,” Alfred burst out.
“It’s the right decision for him.” Arthur stepped up so he was directly in front of Matthew, looking up into his eyes a long moment before speaking. “A soldier’s duty, if he is captured, it to attempt escape,” he said evenly. “An officer’s duty is to lead his men. A nation’s duty is to survive.” His voice softened. “There is no disgrace in surrender in order to ensure survival, Matthew. You must keep your men safe and you must survive for the sake of your country. If you are taken, we will come for you; I promise you that.”
Matthew smiled, a singularly sweet smile. “Eh, we’re pretty cunning, us Canucks. I think we have a pretty good chance of getting out of here.”
“I agree.” Arthur returned the smile, but it was strained, “And, yes, you were always most cunning,” he concurred, but his voice caught on the words. Suddenly, to the surprise of everyone in that room, Arthur pulled Matthew to him and wrapped his arms around him in a tight embrace.
Matthew’s eyes widened almost comically, then he squeezed them shut, and returned the hug, pressing his face into Arthur’s neck. Alfred knew, in that instant, Matthew was remembering callused fingers brushing away tears and strong arms lifting him up to pluck apples from tree branches out of his reach. And in a sudden flash of insight, he realized Arthur was remembering small hands in his and eyes filled with wonder as he explained the mysteries of the constellations overhead. They had both been in his care for so long, and those memories, as much as they all may have all tried to tamp them down at some point, never really went away. Oh hell. He felt a stinging in his own eyes and had to blink very fast and look away.
“Stay safe, my sweet boy,” Arthur whispered, then abruptly turned away and walked over to his cot, pulling the thin blanket on a cord that acted as a curtain to give them some privacy.
They both looked at that blanket for a long moment, and if they each had to slip a finger behind their glasses to rub their eyes, they said nothing about that. Apparently, they were saying their good-byes now. “Don’t be angry with me for doing exactly what you would do under the circumstances, Alfred.”
“Being mad at you was always a little like being mad at myself,” Alfred admitted, with a reluctant grin. “And even if I did get mad at you, I couldn’t stay that way for long. I’d just feel a lot better if you were going with us.”
“I know. “ Matthew closed the distance between them and poked him in the shoulder. “Want to make a bet who makes it back to London first?”
Alfred grinned. “Oh yeah. Loser buys dinner at the most expensive restaurant in London?”
“I’ll make the reservations so they’re ready when you get there,” Matthew shot back.
“Ha ha, dream on!”
Then the grins faded from their faces, and they were once again in each other’s arms. “Damn it, take care of yourself, Mattie,” Alfred said fiercely.
“You too.” He pressed his mouth close to Alfred’s ear. “And take care of England, even though it makes it damned hard at times.”
Alfred snorted at the truth of that, then stepped back, putting his hands on Matthew’s shoulders and squeezing. “See you in London, Matt.”
“See you in London, Alfred.”
Letting Matthew walk out of that building was one of the hardest things Alfred had ever done. He stood there for a long time after the door closed behind him, then slowly walked over to the blanket curtain and pushed it aside. Arthur was sitting on the side of his cot, his head in his hands. Alfred dropped down beside him and chewed his lip. “He’ll be all right,” he said finally, trying to sound utterly confident.
“Yes, I believe he will,” Arthur replied, dropping his hands. “He is more than qualified to live off the land and has a fine head on his shoulders. Of anyone, I think his chances are excellent.”
Alfred felt a rush of relief even as he stared at Arthur in shock. There was one thing about England: he didn’t lie, at least not about important stuff. If he had bad news to tell you, he told you and expected you to deal with it; he didn’t try to sugarcoat it or dance his way around it. “That’s what I thought,” he said quickly.
When Arthur didn’t comment further, Alfred ducked his head to look at him more closely and frowned at how flushed he was. Putting a hand against his forehead, he swore under his breath. “You’ve got a fever,” he said accusingly.
Arthur waved that aside dismissively. “It comes and it goes.”
“Okay, that’s it,” Alfred said firmly. “You need to rest, and don’t give me any bullshit this time.” Grabbing the nearest hand he pulled Arthur to his feet, and had to steady him when he stumbled.
“For fuck’s sake, Alfred –“
“Come on, into bed.”
“What, no innuendo?” Arthur asked, a little waspishly.
“Excuse me for not finding anything funny about you looking like you’re about to fall on your face,” Alfred snapped.
The older nation let out a sigh and lightly gripped Alfred’s arms, giving him a steady gaze. “I’m well aware of how I look. But I also know my limits, and I am nowhere near them. I’ll be ready when the time comes, Alfred.” Then he dropped his forehead against Alfred’s shoulder and chuckled lightly, “But, yes, I’m quite ready for that rest now.”
Alfred abruptly felt all the anger drain from him. Arthur could provoke him like no one else, but he could also disarm him like no one else. He sighed, the puff of breath stirring the other man’s hair, then pressed a kiss on top of his head. “Okay, then, let’s get you into bed, with no innuendo, and then I’ll go get Welles to come here and officially put you on sick call so we can get the word out. Then you should be able to rest until it’s time to bug out of here.” And then finally, he thought, we’ll get you home safe.
Finally, Alfred allowed himself to stretch out on the other cot in Arthur’s room. Arthur was asleep almost from the time his head hit the thin pillow. He never even knew that Welles had come and didn’t hear the conversation Alfred had with him. Welles had been trying to get Arthur to take to his bed, even for a few days, since the English major had arrived in the camp, but he had refused up to this point. He also refused to accept any medication, insisting that be kept for the men who needed it. Alfred gladly accepted some aspirin on Arthur’s behalf and a small amount of sulpha powder. That was like gold dust, it was so precious, but Welles, who knew about the upcoming raid, pressed a small package into his hand, along with a roll of bandages.
“You two are going to be a long way from any medical care, so please, take this,” Welles insisted. “I know he’s tough as nails and heals faster than anyone I’ve ever seen, but you don’t want to be caught out there with an infection that just keeps getting worse.”
Alfred thanked him and carefully secreted everything away in his jacket, wishing once again he could get everyone out of here. As if reading his mind, Welles grinned. “You just give ol’ Hitler a bloody nose when you get out of here, sir.”
Alfred grinned broadly, “That’s the plan, Corporal. That’s the plan.”
Things were quiet after that. Arthur slept the night through and didn’t show up at morning parade. Alfred and Matthew were both on edge until the men were dismissed, afraid the commandant might actually order guards to drag Arthur out. But nothing happened, and he returned to Arthur’s barracks.
He had just checked on Arthur and noted with relief that his temperature was closer to normal now. It was amazing what some aspirin mixed in with tea could do when the recipient was too groggy to realize it. He felt himself sliding into sleep when the door suddenly slammed open and he was on his feet before he’d even opened his eyes.
Matthew stood in the doorway, his eyes wide and panicked.
“Jesus, what is it, Matt?”
Matthew all but stumbled into the room and grabbed Alfred’s shoulders, and now up close Alfred could see the fear in his eyes as well. “It’s Germany,” he whispered, his voice hoarse. “Ludwig’s here.” He gave Alfred’s shoulders a shake. “Alfred, Ludwig’s here.”
Alfred felt his heart stutter to a stop, then painfully restart. “Are you –“ He swallowed. “Are you sure it’s him?”
“I know what Ludwig looks like,” Matthew snapped, shaking him again. “He just went into the commandant’s office.”
“So he knows I’m here.”
Alfred and Matthew both spun around at the sound of England’s voice. He swung his legs over the side of the bed and silently beckoned them over. He looked so calm, but when they reached him, he clamped a hand on each of their shoulders, his fingers digging painfully into their muscles. “Into the tunnel, both of you, immediately,” he ordered, his voice crackling with authority.
“Like hell!” Alfred exploded. “I’m not going to let you –“
Arthur turned his attention to Matthew. “Canada, knock him out if you have to,” he snapped, “but you get America into that tunnel, and the pair of you remain there until the raid. That’s an order.”
But Matthew shook his head. “Arthur, we can’t let Germany get his hands on you.”
“He’s already got me, boy,” Arthur said impatiently. “He knows I’m here, that’s why he came.”
“I. Don’t. Care,” Alfred gritted out. “Do you think I’m going to -- Jesus Christ, Arthur, do you have any idea what he’ll do to you?”
“Better than you do, lad,” Arthur answered calmly. “Now you both listen to me,” he said, giving them both the kind of compelling look neither one had ever been able to look away from, no matter how badly they wanted to. “Ludwig is a man of very little imagination. I know what to expect from him, and I can withstand anything he throws at me.” His fingers tightened to the point where Matthew actually grunted. “Anything except watching him torture either one of you in order to get me to talk. Do you understand? That is what he will do if he finds you.”
Matthew gasped as he realized the truth of that, and Alfred grabbed a handful of his hair in frustration. Arthur was right, damn him. They’d use Matthew and him against Arthur. Or Arthur and Matthew against him. It was an impossible choice, which Arthur had just taken out of their hands.
“It’s only a day,” Arthur said quietly, looking at Alfred now. “I’ll be all right.”
Alfred didn’t know who he was more furious with: Ludwig for showing up, or Arthur for being so damned composed about this. No, it was himself for being helpless to do anything about it. Some hero he was. “Yeah, and then I’m coming for you,” he snarled, trying to sound confident and determined, but afraid he just ended up sounding as desperate as he felt. Oh, just fuck it all. He grabbed Arthur behind the neck and pulled him into a hard, possessive kiss.
Arthur allowed it and didn’t try to gentle it, but after a moment he pulled away. “I know you will,” he said, and there was understanding and something like sympathy in Arthur’s eyes. Then he gave them both a hard shove, “Now both of you get out of here, and don’t either one of you even dare think of disobeying me.”
And then Matthew’s hand was gripping his arm like a band of steel and he was pulled from the barracks.
Still in something like shock and once again worried out of his fucking mind about Arthur, he automatically started in the direction of the American barracks, but Matthew yanked him in the opposite direction. “We shouldn’t go straight there,” he hissed. “Come into my barracks, and take your jacket off so you blend in with everyone else. We’ll make our way from there.”
Alfred took a deep, calming breath and did as he was told. “You’re pretty sneaky,” he said, matching his stride and looking sideways at his brother.
“Cunning,” Matthew said shortly. “The word is cunning.” And then he faltered. “I can’t believe we were this close,” he whispered. “This close and…”
And just like that, it was Alfred’s turn to take charge. Straightening his spine to his full height, he gripped his brother’s arm and squeezed it in support. “I’m going to get him out of there, Mattie,” he promised, grim and determined, “and I’m going to get him home. And I will kill anyone who tries to get in my way.”
Matthew let out a long breath, and then he nodded. “I know you will,” he said, and there was nothing but confidence in his voice.
Arthur sat at the small makeshift desk in his barracks, sipping his cup of tea. He didn’t know when he might get his next cup, so he was determined to enjoy this one while he could. He was dressed as impeccably as he was able, given the state of his uniform, and now he was waiting. He had the cup to his lips, sipping primly, when the door was kicked open. He watched as the door crashed against the wall and then hung precariously when one of the hinges came loose.
“How very dramatic of you,” he said dryly, as Ludwig filled the doorway. Germany was bigger than he remembered, or perhaps it just seemed that way, given his own condition. Ah well. He’d fought bigger opponents, and had even won in the past. He had no delusions about his chances this time, of course, but still, he had his pride, and a few tricks up his sleeve. He’d make Germany work for it.
“England.” Germany grinned at him, something like excitement in his ice blue eyes.
“Took you long enough,” Arthur observed, taking another sip. Damn, he was determined to finish this cup of tea.
“You’re very good at hiding,” Ludwig said, with an admiring tip of his head.
“I’ve had a lot of practice.”
“But now the hound has cornered the fox. And the fox has nowhere to run.”
Arthur finished his tea and set the cup down with a satisfying clank. “You should know animals can be dangerous when they’re cornered,” he said with a sharp little smile. “You don’t really expect me to make this easy for you, do you?”
Something like anticipation lit Germany’s face. “Oh, I hope not,” he said softly, and he stepped into the room.
Alfred had never been good at waiting, and this was, hands down, the worst waiting he’d ever endured. Crammed down in the tunnel, hearing the men above moving around perhaps a little more noisily than normal in order to mask any sounds he and Matthew might make, he had never felt more helpless.
He and Matthew could at least take grim satisfaction in the fact that the wild forests of North America had been their playgrounds while growing up. They may live in houses and use automobiles and airplanes these days, but they had never lost their skills of living off the land, building shelters, starting fires, scavenging food, and hiding when they needed to. The camp was surrounded on three sides by woods, and that’s where they would be heading, slipping back into an environment that was as familiar to them as a kitchen was to a housewife back home. They spent some time reminiscing about those times when they were growing up, remembering playing hide and seek with England in the woods, and how both of them were astonished at how good he was at both hiding and finding them. They hadn’t expected England, with his fine clothes and manners, to be so adept in the wild. Much later, they had laughed at themselves for their naivety.
But reminiscing only reminded them of Arthur, and that only made Alfred more tense and frustrated. It was Matthew who came up with the way to keep themselves occupied and make themselves feel useful: they planned out every step they were going to take when they left the tunnel. Alfred wasn’t a big planner. He’d confessed his plan when leaving the tunnel consisted of: Kill the commandant, pound Ludwig into the ground, and rescue Arthur. But once Matthew began reciting exactly what he planned to do, step by step, with a strategy to deal with any roadblocks that might come up, Alfred found that this was exactly what he needed to keep himself focused. Matthew prodded him, questioned him, argued with him and made him think through every step, plan every move he was going to make once he was topside. He made him think of things and situations he hadn’t thought of, and forced him to come up with plans for every contingency they could imagine. They were so absorbed in their planning that they could almost convince themselves they couldn’t hear Arthur’s screams.
When they heard the first explosions, Alfred didn’t wait for the tunnel opening to be cleared; he burst through the debris overhead, pausing only long enough to order the astonished men, “Get your asses moving!” They didn’t need to be told twice, and the barracks emptied.
Matthew gave him a hard clap on the shoulder, “See you in London, Alfred.”
“See you in London, Matt.”
And then they separated, each of them heading in a different direction in the chaos outside. Alfred moved like a man possessed, and in a way he was, and he was grateful for the planning Matthew had forced on him. He ignored the planes overhead, trusting in the men he’d selected to do exactly what they were supposed to do, and he ran for the commandant’s building. It turned out to be pathetically easy to take down a guard who was looking in the wrong direction, and arm himself, and even easier to get to where he wanted to go. Prisoners were everywhere, heading for the fences, and no one was paying any attention to someone who wasn’t intent on breaking out of the camp. He even glimpsed some of the walking wounded, men on makeshift crutches and gaunt, sick men, lurching around with the sole intention of adding to the confusion, anything to help their comrades to escape and make things harder for the Germans. Bless them all.
The first person he saw when he kicked the door of the commandant’s office off its hinges was Richter himself. He’d never forget that smirking face as the officer watched Arthur being pulled from the punishment box. The man’s eyes widened as Alfred crashed through the door, and he reached for his sidearm. Alfred smiled sharply, his weapon already aimed and steady in his hand. “I was hoping I’d run into you.”
As the commandant’s body hit the floor, another door was yanked open and Alfred turned.
Ludwig actually looked stunned, then his blue eyes narrowed as he spat, “Amerika!”
Alfred’s finger tightened on the trigger of his gun. “Hello, Germany,” he said softly. “I think you have something I want. I’m here to take it back, you sorry sonofabitch.”
Alfred tried not to think about the blood that was seeping into his clothes, or the feel of broken bones shifting under his unsteady hands as he cut the last of the ropes binding Arthur to his chair and the man slumped bonelessly into his arms. He only allowed himself one moment, a moment of cradling Arthur’s head against his shoulder, and a whispered promise, before he slung the deeply unconscious man over his shoulder. He knew if he allowed himself to dwell on what had been done to Arthur in this room, he’d be tempted to take this whole camp apart with his bare hands, and that was time he didn’t have to spare. So he cleared his head of everything but the mission. He just hoped Arthur remained unconscious until he got them to safety and he had time to heal. He had taken a few precious minutes – minutes that he and Matthew agreed could make a difference to their success – to snatch some items from Richter’s office, and now he balanced Arthur carefully on one shoulder and slung a bag over his other. Stepping over Ludwig’s body, he ran back out into the chaos of the compound, heading for the safety and security of a forest. Catch me if you can, he thought as he melted into the darkness, and he knew they couldn’t.
One moment there was nothingness, and the next moment awareness flooded Arthur. Since the last thing he remembered was excruciating pain and Ludwig’s grinning face floating in front of his dimming vision as the sound of his own screams filled his ears, he woke fighting. A hand immediately clamped over his mouth, which made him struggle all the more.
“Easy, easy. It’s okay, you’re safe. You’re safe now. I’ve got you.”
Even as he worked to clear his mind, there was no mistaking that voice in his ear, the shape and size of the hand on his mouth, or the scent of the man surrounding him. He stopped struggling, realizing he was no longer tied to a chair; rather he was encircled by strong, familiar arms, and the weight on his chest was a heavy, well-known jacket. He nodded his head in understanding, only realizing then that his eyes were open and it was still dark. For one brief, terrifying moment he wondered if he’d been blinded.
The hand fell away from his mouth. “We’re in hiding,” Alfred said in a low voice by his ear. “We’re in a cave, safe enough for now. It’s still dark out, so if anyone’s looking for us, we’re going to hear them crashing through the trees long before they get near.”
Gradually, Arthur began to take in his surrounding, and as his eyes began to adjust, he saw that it wasn’t really pitch black; he could make out a gradual lightening at what must be the entrance to the cave. With centuries of experience behind him, he had his bearings within moments. The cave may be deep, but it was narrow, and he could smell the damp earth close around them. He was sitting up, resting against Alfred’s chest, the other man’s arms wrapped around him. So, Alfred had gotten him out. Not that he ever doubted that. He’d seen the look in Alfred’s eyes when he’d ordered him into hiding, and he knew the boy would keep his promise no matter what the cost. “How long?” he asked, his voice rusty from disuse.
“You’ve been out for two days, but I think you must be pretty much healed by now.” Alfred rested his chin on his shoulder. “How do you feel?”
Considering his last memories, Arthur really couldn’t complain about how he felt now. He was aware of some lingering soreness in his muscles and an irritating ache where bones had been broken and knitted back together. The bones in his hands still felt a little brittle, and they wouldn’t stand up to any hard use yet, but he could manage. He could feel his clothes were stiff with dried blood, but he knew the wounds would have closed by now. Once Ludwig started playing with knives, it had gotten messy rather quickly. His pounding head was a testament to Ludwig’s iron fists and no doubt he still had a concussion at the very least, but Alfred was right, he was pretty much healed. “I’m fine.” His hands found Alfred’s, and Alfred shifted his grip to wrap his larger hands around them. “Is Ludwig still alive?” he asked casually.
Alfred nosed his hair for a moment before answering. “Yeah,” he drawled, “but I doubt he’s enjoying it much.”
Arthur was looking forward to hearing about that. “Where are we? Besides a cave, that is.”
“We’re about ten miles from the camp. This is a place Browning told us about; he stumbled on it and holed up here for a couple of days before moving on. It’s high up and well concealed, and there’s water nearby and trees everywhere. I knew we’d be fine here until you were ready to travel.” Something cold and hard was pressed into his hand. “Here. Took this off Ludwig. It’s got a full clip.”
Arthur recognized the shape of a Walther P-38 in his hand. His hand itched for his own Webley, but this would do. He wanted to ask about the raid; wanted desperately to know how many men had managed to escape; wanted to know about Matthew and Cochran and the men in the infirmary. But he couldn’t bring the words forth. He wanted to know, yet he was terrified to find out.
Alfred, for once, managed to read his silence and tightened his arms a bit. “The raid was awesome. You should’ve seen my boys coming in, and yours too. You’ve got some shit-hot RAF pilots yourself. They did everything they were supposed to do.”
Arthur felt himself relax a bit. “How many men do you suppose made it out?”
“Dunno. It was like an apocalypse or something, like the end of the world, fire and brimstone everywhere.”
“Hmm.” Arthur could picture it in his mind. “Like the Blitz.”
He didn’t realize he’d spoken out loud until Alfred said, “Just like that. The dumb fucks didn’t know what hit ‘em, and our boys were ready for it. I don’t know how many were recaptured, but prisoners were running in every direction.” Alfred breathed damply on his neck. “Mattie made it out,” he said quietly. "He said he’d be waiting for us in London.”
“I suspect he will be,” Arthur agreed with a fond smile. “He is, as he said, most cunning.”
“Yeah, but not as awesome as me.”
Arthur ignored that. “So you…?” he prompted.
“Busted into the commandant’s office, shot him, disabled Ludwig – which I probably enjoyed more than I should have – threw you over my shoulder like a sack of flour, and took off for the woods. Put some distance between us and the camp, and then climbed a tree – still holding you like a sack of flour,” Alfred said cheerfully, “and waited for the dust to settle. Once I was sure they were done combing the area, I brought us here.”
Typically, Alfred made it sound a lot easier than it must have been. “Are you sure Ludwig’s been disabled?” Being hunted by humans in unfamiliar enemy territory would be dangerous, of course, but with the combined experience of himself and Alfred, he had a measure of confidence they would succeed; but being hunted by another nation in his own country brought the game to a whole other level. He didn’t give another nation much of a chance of hiding in his country if he were determined to find them.
“Emptied a clip into his both his knees and then put a bullet in his head just to make sure,” Alfred said evenly. “He’s not going to be conscious for a good long while, and even then, he sure won’t be walking.”
“My god, Alfred. Well done.”
“I just wish there’d been something a little more permanent I could’ve done. Like put him in a coma for a decade or so.”
“What you did was more than sufficient, and should cause them a good deal of trouble.”
Having been brought current, Arthur pulled against Alfred’s grip. Alfred let him go, a bit reluctantly, and Arthur turned, laying his hand against Alfred’s face, peering at him intently in the dimness. “And what about you? Are you all right?”
Alfred nuzzled the palm of his hand.“Not a scratch.”
He wished he could see Alfred’s face clearly to know if he were really telling the truth, but contented himself with rubbing a thumb against his cheek. The way Alfred was being a bit more clingy than normal told him all he needed to know about how worried he’d been for him. “Thank you,” he said quietly. “I still think it was a reckless decision to allow you to risk yourself like you did, but I am very grateful.”
He felt Alfred smile against this palm. Arthur thought he might say something cheeky about the number of times he’d ever heard England say ‘thank you’, but all he said was, “You’re welcome,” and his smile widened until he was positively beaming. Arthur forgot, sometimes, when he looked at the adult America who was big and powerful and so very independent, just how eager Alfred could be for his approval. It was something he’d never really grown out of, from the time he was very young. Arthur didn’t indulge him that often because frankly he didn’t want to feed his already over-inflated ego, but the boy had taken extreme risks to be here for him, and if any situation called for praise, it was this. Then Alfred fumbled for something by his side and held out what looked to be a wine bottle. “Don’t get too excited,” he said dryly, “it’s water from the stream.”
Arthur accepted the bottle and cautiously took a drink, sighing when the sweet-tasting water slid down his throat. “Where did you get this?”
“Mattie came up with the idea. We didn’t have anything to do while he were hiding in that tunnel except think about what Ludwig was doing to you.” Alfred’s voice held enough of a hint of accusation that Arthur rested a hand on his leg, and after a moment, he felt the tense muscles relax a bit. Alfred could be as angry as he liked, but Arthur knew he had made the right decision. He had withstood countless forms of torment and torture in his past and had never broken, but if Ludwig had discovered Alfred and Matthew, he would have discovered his weakness, and there was no doubt he would have exploited it. The mere thought of watching Alfred or Matthew suffering what he’d been forced to endure made him feel sick even now. Luckily, Alfred couldn’t read his thoughts, and he kept talking.“So we came up with all these scenarios of what we were going to do once the raid started. It was his idea that I grab whatever I thought we could use while I was in the commandant’s office. There was a half-empty bottle of wine on his desk, and I knew that would work for carrying water.”
“Half-empty?” Arthur asked.
“Hey, it was cold in that tree.”
“Hmm.” Arthur patted his leg in understanding. “Have you gotten any sleep at all?”
“Well, now that you’re awake I can get some sleep. I figure we can head out tomorrow night as soon as it gets dark. With both of us rested, we can make good time. But you’ve been, like, unconscious for two days, and it’s been a little lonely. Can’t we talk for a while?”
He knew that tone of voice from when Alfred was just a youngster, exhausted, but fighting against sleep. Just one more story, please, England, and then I’ll go to sleep, promise!
“How about you lie down and rest and we can still talk, all right?”
Alfred chuckled, but he moved away and Arthur heard him scuffle around until he was lying down. “You gonna tell me a bedtime story, old man?”
“I might.” Arthur draped Alfred’s jacket over him, then located his head easily enough from the sound of his voice and brushed his fingers through the thick hair. “Now, what did you want to talk about, poppet?” The old endearment slipped out unconsciously, and he heard Alfred humming in contentment, like a cat purring.
He thought that Alfred would just chatter on about this or that until he talked himself to sleep, but apparently he actually had something on his mind. “Arthur, if I asked you something about you, would you tell me?”
“That’s a pretty broad question, lad.”
“About your past.”
Arthur pursed his lips. “Well, my past is pretty much merely history, so I see no reason not to tell you. What in particular did you wish to know?”
“How’d you and France meet?”
Well. He hadn’t seen that question coming.
“I mean, what were you like when you met each other? Was it like, when you found me?”
“What? Good god, no!” Arthur burst out, horrified. “What has that frog been telling you?”
There was an awkward silence, and Arthur asked, a little stiffly, “Been spending a lot of time with Francis, have you?” He removed his hand from Alfred’s head, only to have Alfred grab his hand and hold on.
“Yes, I did spend a lot of time with Francis,” he answered, and he sounded like he was gritting his teeth in exasperation. “Because I was worried out of my fucking mind about you, and Francis was worried about you too. So we’d get together and we’d brainstorm and pool what information we could get and try to come up with plans to find out where you were.” Alfred sighed. “Obviously, we didn’t make much progress, but Francis always brought wine, and he always got me a little drunk. Hell, he was just trying to help me forget for a while.” He squeezed Arthur’s hand. “He was a good friend to me, Arthur.”
Arthur rubbed his thumb over Alfred’s knuckles in silent apology. “If I found out he hadn’t been, I would kick his arse,” he sniffed. Then he let out a sigh and asked with resignation, “So, let’s hear the worst. What did he tell you?”
Alfred sounded like he was trying not to laugh. “He said, when he found you, you were a – an enfant sauvage.”
“For fuck’s sake, boy, speak English.”
“A wild child,” Alfred said gleefully. “He said you had basically been raised by wolves.”
Alfred had obviously been expecting a furious denial of this claim, and dawn was near enough by this point for Arthur to see Alfred’s eyes widen in surprise as he merely snorted in amusement.
“You mean it’s true? You actually were raised by wolves? ” Alfred blurted.
“No, you fool, I was not raised by wolves.” Arthur cuffed the side of his head, then soothed the small hurt with his fingers when Alfred protested. “Wasn’t raised by anyone really.”
“How can you not be raised by anyone?”
Arthur shrugged, leaning back against the cold wall of the small cave. “There really wasn’t anyone to raise me. We were a tribal society back then, at least that’s as far as my memory will go. I remember I was welcome at any hearth or fire, could stay as long as I liked and could leave when I pleased. And I didn’t stay long at any one place back then. Thanks to my brothers, I had to keep moving.”
Alfred grabbed his hand again, holding it tight. “You mean no one looked after you?” he asked, and sounded faintly horrified. “But you were just a little kid, right? And you just wandered around by yourself?”
“You were just wandering around by yourself when I found you,” Arthur reminded him.
“Yeah, but… But I really don’t remember anything much before that. I mean, my first really clear memory is you finding me.” Arthur had to fight really hard at that moment not to get misty-eyed sentimental over that. “I wouldn’t have liked being alone,” Alfred added in a small voice.
“Well, I really didn’t know any different,” Arthur explained, keeping his tone neutral. “And you didn’t have three older brothers whose idea of a good time was dangling you over a cliff. Wales wasn’t so bad, but Scotland enjoyed the blood, and Ireland just went right along with him.”
“Wonder how Scotland’d like being dangled over a cliff,” Alfred muttered darkly under his breath. “Or a skyscraper. Or maybe from an airplane.”
Arthur allowed himself a moment to picture that, then gave his head a little shake. “It was actually pretty good survival training,” Arthur mused. “I learned to be quick on my feet and how to hide, two skills that served me quite well then and later.”
After a silence, Alfred said, “That doesn’t sound like a whole lot of fun. In fact, it sounds like a pretty crummy childhood.”
“To be honest, there wasn’t a whole lot of fun to be had back then. Surviving – for everyone – was a full-time occupation.”
“So, you were alone most of the time.” Alfred’s head shot up. “Is that when you started seeing your imaginary friends? The fairies and the unicorns and the trolls and stuff? Because that totally makes sense now.”
Arthur rubbed at an aching spot between his eyes. “When this war is finally over,” he said wearily, “I’m going to take you to visit Norway, and I’m going to let you tell him that there’s no such thing as fairies and trolls.”
“Was he raised by wolves too? Because that really explains a lot.”
“All right, I think we’ve exhausted this conversation,” Arthur said flatly. “Go to sleep.”
“No, no, please. I’m really interested, Arthur. Tell me more?” Alfred whined. “Were you just on your own like that until France showed up and took you under his wing?”
“That bastard. Is that what he told you?”
Alfred’s teeth flashed white in the cave as he grinned.
“No, Alfred,” he said with gritted teeth. “It was a long time until France appeared on the scene.” He sighed. “There were many other invasions, many other cultures. I spent quite some time with the Druids. My brothers didn’t dare come around when I was with them, and I learned a lot from them. But again, I came and went as I pleased. Then there was Rome, of course.”
“Rome. Big strong guy. Okay, finally, someone to look after you, right?”
Arthur shook his head, smiling at the idea. “Look after me? He wanted to turn me into a little toga-wearing Roman citizen.”
“And you wanted to be a little British hellion?”
“I wanted to be what I was. Which, wasn’t Roman. Oh, I was too young to know what I was feeling, but that’s what it was.”
Alfred shifted, then said cautiously, “Sort of like, when you were trying to make me British and I felt like I was American.” Arthur knew Alfred was watching him closely in the dim light of the cave and he felt some measure of relief that at least they had reached a point where they could mention that time and he didn’t feel like going off into a corner and getting drunk off his arse.
“Yes, if you like.” Then he thought about it. “That’s actually not a bad analogy. But we didn’t have the resources to fight Rome, so Rome stayed for as long as he liked. Or at least as long as he could, before he had his own problems he needed to deal with and he packed up and buggered off. Then, there were the Angles, the Saxons and Jutes, and the Vikings…” His voice trailed off as his memory meandered, remembering patches of peaceful times and then Lindisfarne and death and blood and carnage. “Alfred was actually the first king who took me in and protected me and taught me.”
“Alfred? You mean, Alfred the Great?” Alfred perked up, as Arthur had known he would. “Hey, is that who I’m named after? That is awesome!”
He completely missed that Arthur neither confirmed nor denied that he was named after this king, and Arthur didn’t bring it to his attention. “I suppose that was when I was first actually under someone’s care and very nearly had a home. There were other kings after Alfred died, of course, and then, eventually, there was 1066.”
“And that’s when you met France.”
“No, I’d actually met France before then, because our kings were being raised and educated in Normandy, and they would bring him over to visit.” He grinned maliciously. “He dressed like a girl.”
Alfred laughed. “He still has hair like a girl.” Then he prodded Arthur’s boot. “So, 1066?”
Arthur shrugged, not really wanting to dwell on it. “He was bigger, older, and stronger than I was. He beat me bloody into the ground and forced his language and his culture on my people. Built castles on my land and claimed my country as his. I’d seen the other invasions, of course, but this was the first one where I’d been old enough to understand what had been taken from us. And I swore then that I’d never let that happen again.” Then he laughed a little. “Of course, eventually, I made all those castles mine, the culture became British, the language English, and we eat roast beef instead of frogs legs. I never get tired of reminding him of that.”
“You two have a very strange relationship.”
Arthur couldn’t deny it. “So we do.” He lightly ruffled Alfred’s hair. “And now, my boy, it is really is time for you to get some sleep. We’ve got a long way to go before we’re home.”
“We’ll make it,” Alfred yawned, but dutifully settled down, pillowing his head on his arms.
To Arthur’s reckoning, he’d gone about seventy-two hours without sleep and must be beyond exhausted, but he knew Alfred was resisting letting go his role of guardian. “Go ahead and sleep, love. I’ll keep watch.”
“Mmm. Call me if you hear anything.”
“Of course,” Arthur agreed, knowing he would do no such thing. He found Alfred’s head again, and began to brush his fingers through his hair in a relaxing manner.
“Glad you found me, England,” Alfred mumbled, settling in more comfortably.
Arthur couldn’t stop the fond smile that tugged at his lips. “As am I, America.” Gently he massaged the skull under his fingertips. “Couldn’t leave you to be raised by wolves, could I?”
Alfred gave a little shiver. “No wolves,” he mumbled.
“No, Alfred,” he soothed, “no wolves.”
As he felt Alfred relax under his hand, Arthur tuned his ears to the outside, alert to any sounds. Alfred let out a deep sigh and muttered, barely audible, “Francis was right about one thing: I really was a stupid, spoiled child.”
Arthur opened his mouth to ask him what on earth he was talking about, but Alfred was already asleep.
Arthur spent the next few hours resting and keeping watch while Alfred slept. He examined the sack Alfred had brought from Richter’s office and found an assortment of items: extra ammo clips, - and he saw now that Alfred had a pistol laying by his side as well; a hastily folded sheet of paper that turned out to be a map – a map! Well done, Alfred; a pair of German field glasses; a field knife – he wondered if it was Ludwig’s; some matches, a pack of cigarettes. Arthur’s hands twitched to liberate one of those cigarettes, but he didn’t want to risk the chance of anyone smelling the smoke. Regretfully, he dropped the pack back into the sack, but now that he knew they were there, he knew he wouldn’t be able to stop thinking about them, damn it. A tin pot for boiling water, a spoon, and a tin cup. Alfred had made good use of his time. He thought that was it, but then his fingers closed around one last item and he pulled out a square tin. Not even daring to hope, he pried open the lid and couldn’t hold back the soft chuckle as he saw and smelt the tea leaves. Dear, sweet boy.
Shuffling over, he leaned down and placed a soft kiss on Alfred’s forehead, careful not to disturb him. Alfred mumbled something, then sighed and his breathing once again eased out in sleep.
Settling back against the wall of cave, Arthur opened up the map and spent some time studying it. Alfred had told him the route they were going to take, of course, but it was always good to have a broad understanding of the lay of the land.
It was just after mid-afternoon when he decided he needed to stretch his legs, and along with that, he would do some scouting, bring back more water, and do a bit of food gathering. Used to slim rations in the various camps he’d been imprisoned, he wasn’t unduly hungry, but he knew Alfred would be ravenous later on. Besides, they had a strenuous journey ahead of them, and they couldn’t afford to let their bodies become too depleted. The least he could do was try to provide a meal.
Two hours later, he had walked a perimeter and climbed a hill to use the field glasses, assuring himself that they were very much alone here in their section of the forest, had located the stream of water and replenished their supply, and managed to find some edible nuts, greens and berries. It wouldn’t be a very substantial meal, but he was sure they would be able to do something with it. After all, they had both made do with less in their lives, and hopefully they would come across a farm or field fairly soon where they could liberate something a lot more filling.
He was making his way back to the cave when he saw a large, very old oak tree ahead. He walked up to it and ran a hand gently down its bark, lips pursed in consideration. He reckoned he didn’t have anything to lose in the effort, so he set aside the pot of edibles he’d gathered and the bottle of water, and sat down at the base of the tree, his back pressed firmly against its trunk. He took a deep, calming breath and cautiously reached out with the little magic still remaining in his body. He had been gone from his own land for so long that he knew his magic was weak and wouldn’t replenish until he was back on his own soil, but hopefully there was enough. If there were supernatural beings in this forest, perhaps he would be able to make contact.
He sat there for a long time listening to the birdsong and sounds of insects around him, seeming to breath in time with the oak at his back. And then he saw the first one. Just a little glimmer of twinkling light off to his side. Carefully he turned his head and smiled. Then another little twinkle of light, and another. “There you are,” he said softly, and raised a hand, turning up his palm. It took several moments, but then the first little sparkle of light moved toward him, and he felt a feather-light tickle on the palm of his hand. “Hello, there,” he smiled. “My name is Arthur. I won’t hurt you. I’ve been friends with your kind as long as I have been in existence, and for a very long time, they were the only friends I had.”
Soon, little darting bursts of light were everywhere around him and he sighed happily as the fairies excitedly came out to investigate the human-shaped being who could see them.
It was late afternoon when Arthur returned to the cave. Alfred was still deeply asleep, snoring softly, and Arthur set about preparing what food they had. The fairies had been most helpful in showing him to more nut trees, and he had quite a pile now. He again debated a fire, but reluctantly dismissed it. He wanted to be a lot farther from the P.O.W. camp before he risked it. Cigarettes and tea would just have to wait. Damn it.
He waited as long as he could, but finally he put a hand on Alfred’s shoulder and gave him a little shake. Alfred grunted, but came awake immediately, blinking blearily. Arthur handed him Texas, and he slipped the glasses onto his nose and sat up, groaning as he stretched out his back.
“I wish I could have let you sleep longer, but I wanted you to have some time to eat before we left.”
Alfred’s eyes lit up. “We’ve got food?”
“We’ve got nuts and berries,” Arthur said dryly, “and some edible greens and mushrooms.”
As he could have predicted, Alfred’s face fell, but then he shrugged and grinned, good humor restored. “Brings back memories. Although, I have to say, I don’t miss that part of the good ole days. Give me hamburgers and Coke any day!”
“I’m afraid you’ll have to wait until you get back to your own house to have those again,” Arthur told him. He indicated the largest pile of nuts and berries, and said, “Eat up.”
Alfred eyed the two very uneven piles and frowned, “I’m not eating twice as much as you. Divide it equally.”
“I don’t need as much food as you do, Alfred. I never have, and even more so now. I’m quite used to low rations.”
“I don’t care what you’re used to,” Alfred retorted, a little angrily, and used his hands to divide the piles evenly. “Just eat the damn nuts and berries.” Arthur leaned back against the side of the cave and didn’t say anything. Finally, Alfred sighed and slumped a little. “It’s just…you’ve lost a lot of weight, okay? I’ve been eating full rations all along, and trust me, I haven’t missed a meal. I may whine and bitch about it, but it’s not going to kill me to miss a few meals now.” He stopped and took a big breath. “So please, eat the damn nuts and berries.”
“Very well.” It certainly wasn’t worth arguing about or further upsetting Alfred, so he accepted the evenly divided portion without further comment.
Alfred shifted a little. “That’s it? No argument?”
Arthur cracked a walnut, pleased when the bones in his hand felt normal and strong again. “Would you like me to argue?” he asked mildly.
“No, no, just let me enjoy the moment. It’s not like I get that many of them.”
Arthur threw a walnut at him.
It was approaching dusk when they finally left the cave. They’d removed all traces of their stay there, and luck would give them a full moon tonight, so they were planning to make full use of it and get as far away from the camp as they could. Alfred was more than ready to move on, but as he shouldered his pack and stepped out of the cave, he saw Arthur standing off to the side and apparently holding a conversation with himself. “Oh, not again,” he grumbled. “Arthur, say good-bye to your imaginary friends and let’s go.”
Arthur turned and scowled deeply at him. “Mind your manners,” he snapped. “They’re here to help us.”
Alfred gazed at the obviously empty air around Arthur. “They?”
“I found them in the forest. It’s been generations since any human in this country has been able to see them.” Arthur held out a palm and smiled sadly at his hand. “It seems no one here believes any longer, and now the poison in this land has driven them even further away from any contact.”
Alfred struggled not to roll his eyes. “Are you sure you haven’t found some little Nazi-fairies?” Then he yelped as Arthur smacked his arm quite sharply.
“Show some respect, pup,” he growled. “They’re older than you can even imagine, and they’re willing to help us.”
“Okay, fine,” Alfred said, pointedly rubbing his arm. “And how are they going to do that?”
“They’re going to scout ahead and let us – me – know if there is any danger, and they’re going to watch our backs and warn us – me – if anyone is on our trail.”
Alfred chewed the inside of his bottom lip, looking in vain for any sign of a fairy. “Yeah, that could be real helpful,” sounding completely unconvinced.
“Oh for heaven’s sake, Alfred, I know you can’t see them,” Arthur said impatiently, “and they know you can’t see them. All we need to do is –“
“Trust them.” Alfred crossed his arms and gave the other man a level look. “Are you sure you can trust them?”
Arthur smiled once more at his hand, lifting it a little closer to his face. “I’ve trusted them my whole life, Alfred, and they haven’t harmed me yet. And all I’m asking you to do is to trust me.”
Alfred sighed and ran a hand through his hair. One day he would learn not to push this particular button where Arthur was concerned, because the man would turn this back on him. “You know I trust you,” he grumbled.
Arthur cocked his head as if listening to something Alfred couldn’t hear, then laughed softly and dropped his hand to his side. “She thinks you’re very handsome,” he said with a twitching grin. “And she said your eyes are the color of a summer sky.”
Alfred blinked, then puffed his chest out a bit. “Well…thank you, ma’am,” he answered automatically, falling into a charming southern accent and smiling at the compliment. Then he saw the smirk on Arthur’s face and instantly deflated. “You just made me talk to a fairy, didn’t you?”
“So I did,” Arthur said serenely, giving a gentle pat to the arm he’d earlier swatted, as he walked past. “Come on, lad. Let’s get moving.”
Alfred took another moment to glare narrow-eyed at the dusk around him, and then turned to follow.
They made good progress that night. The moon provided adequate light, even through the trees, and both he and Arthur had excellent night vision. Arthur led the way, sticking to the direction they’d agreed on, and Alfred was content to let him. Arthur had taught him how to navigate by the stars when he was just a child, but he had to admit he was out of practice and he’d never really had to rely on it; on the other hand, Arthur had lived by it for centuries, and it was still second nature to him. Alfred kept an eye on the older nation as he moved, watching for any sign of flagging energy, but Arthur moved with his usual economy of motion and showed no signs of slowing down. Of course, Arthur was so good at concealing any weakness that the man would probably collapse before Alfred even realized anything was amiss. So he insisted on regular breaks, even when Arthur argued they should keep going. That was one argument Arthur seemed to realize he wasn’t going to win, so he finally stopped trying.
It was nearing dawn and from the lightening sky he could see ahead, Alfred knew they were nearing the end of their wooded cover and facing open countryside. Then Arthur stopped so suddenly that Alfred ran into his back.
“Quiet!” Arthur hissed.
Alfred immediately stilled, and stealthily reached for his sidearm. “What is it?” he whispered.
Arthur pulled him closer, but hesitated before answering. “The fairies sense something ahead.”
“’The fairies sense something ahead,’” Alfred repeated flatly.
Arthur rubbed his forehead and seemed to struggle to find the words. “They haven’t interacted with humans in generations, and they don’t really have words to convey what they’re trying to tell me. But they insist that something is wrong.”
“Not exactly good intel, Arthur.”
Instead of answering, Arthur slipped the strap of the pack off Alfred’s shoulder and began digging through it.
“Hey, what are you –?”
Arthur pulled out the field glasses. “I’ll climb a tree and try to see what’s ahead.”
But as he turned away, Alfred snatched the glasses from his hand. “I’ll climb the tree.”
Arthur made an impatient sound. “You think I can’t climb trees, boy? I’ve climbed into crow nests during naval battles and storms that would make you puke your guts out.”
“Yeah, well, that was a long time ago, and I can climb trees better than you can.” As he turned and headed for the tree most likely to give him the best view, he muttered under his breath, “And I’d really prefer if you didn’t get any more broken bones.”
If Arthur heard that last comment, he made no reply.
Arthur was waiting impatiently for him when he at last dropped silently back to the ground. “Well?”
“Well. I’m kinda impressed. That’s some kind of sixth sense you have.”
Arthur’s eyes widened. “There’s something out there.”
“We never would’ve seen them until it was too late. There’s a squad of Kraut on the other side of a hill just outside the woods. If I hadn’t been as high as I was, I wouldn’t have spotted them, and we sure as hell wouldn’t have seen them if we’d been walking. My guess is, they’ve already caught some of our boys coming out around here so they set up a net in hopes of catching more.”
“We’re going to have to backtrack,” Arthur mused, “and put some distance between us and them, and then change direction.”
Alfred agreed. “It’ll add distance and time, but it can’t be helped.” They were both too old at soldiering to let something like this throw them. As they turned and made their way quickly back the way they had come, Alfred asked, “What do you think the odds are they have more traps like this in other directions?”
“Unlikely,” Arthur decided. “This really is the most direct route to a safe border and the one they’d assume most prisoners would head for, and I don’t think the Germans have the resources to set more traps. They need their men for fighting, not recapturing escaped prisoners. I just hope some of our lads got away.”
“I’m afraid some of the city boys might have walked right into it,” Alfred said, thinking back to the men he’d met in camp. “But I met some good ole boys from Tennessee and Kentucky who would have fit right in with Daniel Boone, and I’m betting they’re still out there.” He grinned, “And I bet most of the Aussies and Canucks are giving the Krauts a run for their money too.”
“Don’t discount some of my lads. Remember, our Private Browning was from Yorkshire. He may talk funny, according to you, but he found his way home.” After a moment, he said, “We need to find a place to sleep for a few hours.”
“We really didn’t pass anything that looked promising, at least that I could see in the dark.”
“Agreed. We need to change our direction. I had a look at that map you brought – good job, that – and we could head north. It will take us out of the woods a bit sooner than I’d like, but the land’s a bit higher, and we might have more luck that way.”
“North it is then.”
Again, Arthur led the way, and Alfred was content to let him, trusting his instincts. It paid off because, before long, they came across a game trail, and he gave a grunt of approval as they began following it. Game trails usually led to water, and they needed to replenish their supply. Later, they both heard the sound of running water at the same time, and Arthur murmured something, but Alfred only rolled his eyes when he realized the other man wasn’t talking to him. Still, when Arthur struck off sharply to the right, Alfred followed without comment.
Finally, Arthur stopped and pointed ahead. “What do you think?”
Alfred saw immediately what he meant. Striding ahead, he walked around the humongous trunk of an uprooted oak tree on the bank of the small stream. It wasn’t exactly a Redwood, but it was impressively huge, and the crater left under the tangle of roots was large enough to hold two full-grown men, if they huddled together. And Alfred had absolutely no problem with that. The best part was that the area was so overgrown that anyone hiding there would be pretty much invisible. “Well, he said finally,” hands on his hips, “I’ve slept in worst places.”
Arthur smiled wryly. “As have I.”
Their meal consisted of whatever they’d been able to scavenge along the way, and soon they were huddled in the hole for a few hours of sleep. Alfred had backed into the hole first, and opened his arms with a grin. Arthur must have been unusually tired or feeling unusually indulgent, because he wriggled back without a word, sighing in something like contentment when Alfred closed his arms around him. “I’ll take first watch,” Alfred whispered, kissing him behind the ear. “Get some sleep, old man.”
“Wake me in three hours, brat,” was the response as Arthur made himself comfortable, but he wrapped his hands around Alfred’s and anchored them together before falling asleep.
Alfred smiled as he rubbed his thumbs over Arthur’s knuckles. Oh yeah. He’d missed this.
It was late afternoon when they set off again, and as expected they came to the end of the woods within an hour. “This is as far as the fairies will go,” Arthur murmured, again holding his hand, palm up. “They won’t leave the forest.” He smiled gently at whatever he was seeing, and murmured something in a language Alfred didn’t recognize. Then he dropped his hand and turned to Alfred in an expectant manner.
Alfred blinked. “What?”
“I taught you manners, lad. Use them.”
Alfred screwed up his face. “Oh, come on.” But when Arthur merely leveled a stern look at him, he heaved a put-upon sigh. “Okay, fine.” He flitted his gaze around and mumbled, “Thank you.” It wasn’t the most gracious thank you he’d ever uttered, and the look of disappointment on Arthur’s face made him sigh guiltily. “Thank you, you completely saved our asses back there,” he said, and was surprised to hear the honest sincerity in his voice. Truth be told, he didn’t know how Arthur had known about that Kraut ambush, or how he’d walked right to that little hiding place they’d used last night. The thought made him clear his throat. He wasn’t admitting anything, but polite was polite. “And I hope,” he continued, a little self-consciously, but earnestly, “that, you know, you’re happy, and have a good life…and everything.” It was a little awkward, but the look of pride and open fondness on Arthur’s face was absolutely worth it, he decided.
“Well done, Alfred,” Arthur said softly, and patted him on the arm and he moved past him to step out of the cover of the trees.
Alfred went to follow, but flinched when he felt something brush against his cheek. He looked around wildly, but saw nothing. Chewing his lip, he touched his cheek as he followed Arthur. “Leaves,” he murmured to himself. “Must’ve been a leaf blowing.” He didn’t dwell on the fact that there was no breeze
“What do you think?”
Alfred lowered the binoculars thoughtfully. “Well, the light in the house has been out for a half hour. I don’t see any dog. We know there’s at least one cow in the barn and some chickens. That means, milk and maybe eggs.” He looked over to Arthur, who was lying flat beside him on a small knoll a fair distance from an old farm house and barn. The place had definitely seen better days, and his eyes picked out broken fences and peeling paint and missing shingles from the roof. “I say we have to take the chance. Nuts and berries are all well and good, but we’ve got a long ways to go, and we need to keep our bodies going.”
Arthur nodded in reluctant agreement. “I don’t like taking food from civilians,” he murmured, “especially ones so obviously poor.”
Alfred felt a similar twinge of conscience, but he knew, as did Arthur, that they didn’t have much choice. “We won’t take much. A little milk, some eggs.” Alfred raised the binoculars once again and scanned the farmyard. “No clothes on the clothesline. Damn. We’ve got to get some civvies. These uniforms are bad enough, but with all that blood on yours, you look like the walking dead.”
“We’re going to be hard pressed to find civilian clothes we can use hanging out to dry. All the German men have been conscripted. It’s the women – and children - who are keeping the farms going now.”
Alfred got to his feet. “Well, we’ll just have to keep looking. Right now, we have a chance at some food, so we’ll take what we can get.”
The flimsy barn door had creaked ominously when they opened it, but Alfred doubted it could be heard in the house. They both slipped inside quickly and closed it behind them, standing still and letting their eyes adjust to the dusty dimness. The barn itself was in bad shape, and there were gaping holes in the roof above, but the interior was neat, with tools and utensils in place, and hay and straw stacked neatly. The lone cow was a pretty little Guernsey, and she turned her head to look at them for a moment, before losing interest. She looked healthy and well cared for, and there were a dozen chickens dozing in a makeshift roost on the other side of the barn.
Alfred walked slowly over to the cow and gently ran his hand down her flanks, murmuring to her and hoping she wasn’t a kicker. “You want the cow or the chickens?” he asked, grinning over at Arthur.
“I suspect you’ve had more experience liberating milk from cows’ udders than I have, lad. I’ll plunder the eggs.”
“Not much milk-stealing on the high seas?” Alfred teased, picking up the milk pail and three-legged stool situated nearby.
“Not many eggs to steal either, but I think I can manage.”
Alfred settled down to the cow, wrapped his fingers around the udders with confidence, and soon a steady stream of warm milk was squirting into the pail. His mouth was watering already with the thought of fresh milk and boiled eggs. “How’re you coming with the eggs over there?”
“Alfred.” The odd tone of Arthur’s voice made him freeze. “Don’t make any sudden movements. Get to your feet slowly and keep your hand away from your gun.” Alfred mentally calculated the distance from his hand on the udder of the cow to the gun stuck in his waistband and tensed to make a move. “Do as I say, Alfred.” That tone, quiet, but firm with command, stopped him, and he slowly stood and turned, his hands held out in plain sight.
A grey-haired woman was standing in the opening that led out to the barnyard, an old rifle in her hands that was aimed straight at Arthur’s chest. She held it like she knew how to use it, and she was too far away for either one of them to try to make a move against her.
Arthur, who was standing completely still, with an egg in each hand, spoke to her in German. To Alfred, he said quietly, “I told her we meant her no harm, we were just hungry.”
The woman was tall and rangy, and she reminded Alfred of some of the frontier women he’d met on the plains when they were homesteading the West. Calm, determined, tough and fearless. They had to be back then, and he saw the same bearing in this woman, who looked to be in her sixties. Her face was lean and fine-boned, and Alfred was struck by the thought that she must have been a beauty. “Amerikaner?” she asked Arthur abruptly.
Alfred could see Arthur stiffen as if insulted; under any other circumstances it would have been amusing. “Englisch,” he rapped back, then nodded toward Alfred. “Amerikaner.” Then he said something else in German, and translated for Alfred. “I apologized for the eggs and the milk and told her we would just like to leave in peace.”
The woman frowned a bit, cocking her head as she studied Arthur. Then she said something that caused Arthur to bark out a cynical laugh. “She said from my accent, she thinks I must have learned my German from a Prussian.”
“Gilbert,” Alfred murmured to himself. All those decades – hell, centuries – Arthur spent drinking with Gilbert, of being friends with a guy who was now trying to kill them.
“Von einem alten freund.” Arthur’s tone was bitter enough for even Alfred to pick up the meaning. An old friend, indeed.
The woman nodded her understanding, her face thoughtful. But she still hadn’t moved that gun from where it was pointing at Arthur’s chest. She seemed to come to some sort of decision because she called out, “Hette!” A child, maybe seven or eight years ago, slipped inside from where she must have been hidden, and stood behind the woman, peeking out at them. Her dark eyes were watchful, but she didn’t look afraid, merely curious and wary. The woman spoke to her for quite a long time while not taking her eyes off them. When she finished, the girl darted away and slipped out into the twilight.
Arthur let out a surprised huff of breath. “My god,” he breathed. “Alfred, she’s going to give us some food – not much, but what she can – and some clothes. And then we need to leave, immediately.” He nodded at the woman, “Vielen danke,” he said with feeling.
She gave a sharp nod, but said nothing.
Well, hell. They’d come here to steal from her, and now she was helping them. He wondered for an instant if it could be some sort of trap, but that made no sense at all. She really was going to help them. He cleared his throat. “Arthur, is there something we can do for them? I mean, we can’t pay for anything, but can you ask her if there’s anything we can do? There are lot of repairs that need to be made around here. It wouldn’t take long.”
Arthur looked over at him for a moment, then turned back to the woman and presumably asked the question.
Her response was immediate and firm. “Nein.”
Arthur didn’t seem surprised by her response, and he nodded his head, murmuring something.
“Think about it, Alfred,” he said quietly. “If we made any repairs, how would she explain them if anyone saw them? And you know what they’d do to her if they thought she’d assisted the enemy. No, she wants us to leave and not let anyone see us.”
“Right, right.” Alfred sent an apologetic smile to the woman. “Sorry.”
Silence fell between them all, and they continued to stand there in their frozen tableau, Arthur and Alfred with their hands held out from their sides, the woman holding the gun. A few minutes later, the little girl ran back in as silently as she had the first time, two cloth bags clutched to her chest. The woman said something to her, and she put them down n the barn floor and moved back behind her grandmother. At least that was the relationship Alfred had decided on. The two of them backed away until they were away from the door Alfred and Arthur had entered through, and the woman nodded toward the bags on the floor.
“Come on, Alfred,” Arthur said quietly. “We need to leave.”
Alfred scooped up both bags as Arthur leaned over to carefully lay down the eggs he’d been holding all that time, then stopped when she said something. Straightening, he slipped the eggs into his pocket with a polite nod, and as Alfred stepped out into the growing darkness, he heard Arthur speak to the woman one last time. Then they were trotting across the yard, heading for the fields, and they didn’t stop until they came to a small copse of trees a good distance from the farm. There they finally opened the bags and pulled out their gifts.
“I doubt they had much to begin with,” Arthur murmured, as he pulled out an entire loaf of bread, cheese, two small potatoes, and a few bits of salted pork. “This was incredibly generous.”
“Why do you think she did it?” Alfred asked, sorting through the clothes and dividing them by size.
“I don’t know,” Arthur answered honestly. “Perhaps she’d just seen too much war. I promise you, every citizen in the United Kingdom knows why we’re fighting this war, but I wonder if the civilians in this country, especially the ones out here in the countryside, cut off from the cities, know why their sons and husbands have once again been taken from them.”
“Well, it was damned kind of her, no matter what the reason.” Alfred looked around them. Only fields, no other lights from farmhouses. “Do you think we can chance a small fire? We could boil those eggs and potatoes.”
“And we could have tea,” Arthur said a little wistfully. “Yes, I think we can risk it.”
That night they had hot food and changed into plain work clothes that were a little too tight on Alfred and a little too large on Arthur and probably belonged to men who had gone off to war and would never be back. And afterwards, they smoked a cigarette each, then continued on their journey.
In the weeks that followed they never found another benefactress like the German grandmother, but they did find barns with cows and chickens, and they lived on stolen eggs and milk, and occasionally a liberated loaf of bread or other small items from an unattended farm house; and other times they went hungry. They both lost weight, and while Alfred had enough muscle to stand a few lost pounds, Arthur didn’t want to think about how ghastly he must look by now. He had a pretty good idea how bad it was going by the concern he saw in Alfred’s eyes whenever the boy looked at him. But Alfred still maintained his unshakable optimism and confidence that they would make it back to London; and Arthur could feel himself getting closer to his lands. He knew, for example, when they crossed the border into France, just because he knew, and the further they walked, the more strongly he could feel the pull of London.
Then, one day, as they crept along hedgerows and crested a hill, it happened. “By god, Alfred,” he breathed, “I know where we are.”
Alfred looked at him sharply. “Are you sure? Things have probably changed in the few hundred years since you fought Francis here.”
“It wasn’t a few hundred years ago the last time I was around here,” Arthur mused, scanning the countryside, although he had spent time here a few hundred years ago, he recalled, bloodying his sword with French blood. “It was a few years after the last war. Francis had a country house around here somewhere. Probably taken over by the Krauts now, so we’ll have to keep well away from it. Here, let’s have that map you took, and tell me again what Francis told you.”
Three days later they stood in the small village Francis told Alfred about, in an alleyway across from the town bakery, and they had spent the last fifteen minutes having a blazing row.
“Alfred, be sensible for once in your life,” Arthur hissed. “If this is a trap, or if they’ve been compromised, we would be risking both of us. I speak far better French than you do. It only makes sense that I go in alone –“
“No, you get it through your big, fat head, Arthur,” Alfred snarled, poking him hard in the chest with an index finger and backing him into the wall, “you are not going anywhere alone. It took me four fuckin’ months to find you, and I’m not gonna lose you again, especially when we are this close to getting you back home.” The two glared at one another until finally Alfred threw his hands up in the air and spun away with a choked cry of frustration. “You fucking drive me crazy, you know that?” he wailed, clutching his hair. “What does it take to -- ? Can’t you understand --? Gah!” Running out of words, he had his fist drawn back to smash into the wall when strong hands wrapped around it, holding him back.
His breath coming in harsh rasps, he ignored Arthur and ignored the quiet voice. He just wanted to stew in his oh-so-warranted righteous anger and punch a hole in this fuckin’ wall. Fingers tightened around his fist. “I’m sorry.” He looked at Arthur in surprise. The other man’s face was half-hidden in the shadows, but his tone was apologetic and unexpectedly kind. “I do understand.” He felt Arthur’s thumbs rubbing over his hands soothingly. “You’re right. We go in together.”
Alfred let out a little huff of breath. “’Course I’m right,” he muttered, but shot a grin at the other man. “And you’re right too – you speak frog so much better than I do.”
They waited in the alley and timed it until just before closing time, then walked across the cobbled street and opened the door to the little shop. A bell tinkled overhead. Alfred didn’t know how much in the way of bread and pastry they’d started out with in the morning, but the shelves were bare now.
“Bonsoir,” Arthur said to the man behind the counter. He was an older man with shirtsleeves rolled up, exposing his muscular arms and the flour caught in the hairs of his arm.
“Bonsoir,” the man replied, watching them warily as he ran a towel over the empty shelves.
As agreed, Alfred stayed by the door, surreptitiously keeping an eye on the street outside, as Arthur stepped up to the counter. Alfred only caught a word now and then as Arthur began talking. At first, the man only answered in grunts or monosyllables as Arthur apparently put out feelers, all calm and pleasant. Alfred made a mental note to himself to ask Arthur about how often he’d played spy in the last few hundred years, because he seemed awfully at ease with it.
A few more words were exchanged, but Alfred only found his attention yanked back when he heard the name ‘Bonnefoy.’ Suddenly the man behind the counter was all business, and apparently they were honored guests as the shop was immediately closed and locked and they were ushered urgently into the back of the shop.
They were left sitting at a small table in the back with cups of steaming coffee and plates of bread and cheese placed before them. As an afterthought, a pack of Gauloises cigarettes was dropped on the table between them, and then the owner slipped out the back door. They tried not to wolf the food down, but it was a close thing; it had been two days since they’d eaten anything.
A half hour later the owner returned with three other men, while Alfred and Arthur were smoking their way through the pack of cigarettes. The newcomers poured themselves a cup of coffee and waited out of the way while the owner sat down at the table with Alfred and Arthur.
“We need to get you to the coast as soon as possible,” he said without preamble. His English was heavily accented but very good. “Monsieur Bonnefoy is waiting for you there.”
Alfred felt rather than saw Arthur stiffen. “He’s in France?” he asked sharply.
The Frenchman looked at him oddly. “Oui.”
“Stupid frog,” Arthur hissed fiercely.
Privately Alfred agreed with him; it was far too dangerous for Francis to be in France, but he also didn’t want someone to take a swing at Arthur, so he put his foot to good use and gave him a sharp kick to the shin.
But the baker only laughed and lit up the remaining cigarette in the pack. “He said you would say that.”
“Did he now?”
The man took a deep draw on the cigarette and blew out the smoke. “Said to tell you…” He thought for a moment, head tilted. “’Big brother was worried.’”
Arthur smiled sharply as he finished his coffee. “Bollocks,” he said pleasantly.
“So,” Alfred said quickly, his voice a little louder than necessary, “what do we need to do?”
The baker turned his attention to Alfred. “These men will take you. You must leave now.”
“Right.” Arthur got briskly to his feet and held out his hand. “Thank you, and good luck to you all.”
The baker shook his hand. “Bonne chance to you as well, Anglaise.” He turned to Alfred and gripped his hand firmly as well. “And you, Americaine.”
And then Arthur did something totally unexpected, and yet Alfred realized he wasn’t surprised in the least. He picked up his cup and snapped his spine straight as he raised it in a toast. “Vive une France libre.”
Alfred loved these French Underground guys. They reminded him of his own Patriots, although he didn’t share that thought with Arthur. Arthur probably would have understood though; Alfred could see that he had a great deal of respect for them and their organization. They weren’t as fluent in English as the baker had been, but he managed to communicate with them in limited English, while Arthur used French and translated when necessary. It took them a week to make it to the coast, doing everything from hiding in wagons of hay to using false identification and transporting vegetables to hiding in the cellars of other members of the Resistance. Alfred liked it best when they were able to spend a night with one of the families. The women invariably took one look at gaunt, underweight, bedraggled Arthur and descended on him with all maternal instincts on full alert. Alfred was aware that he still looked disgustingly healthy, and he watched with amused delight as French mothers and grandmothers fussed over the other man. Arthur didn’t find it nearly as amusing, but he was always a gentleman and unfailingly polite.
They reached the coast at night, on foot, having evaded two German patrols on the way. They could smell the sea, and Arthur - oh god, he was so close to his own land - could feel his blood singing with it. Their transport was to be a small fishing boat, and they would sail without lights until they were away from the coast. Alfred and Arthur were guided along the sandy beach, their ill-fitting civilian boots sliding in the uncertain footing as they made their way down to where the boat was waiting. There was a soft whistle from behind some rocks, and everyone froze. Then one of the men of the Resistance whistled in return, and there was the shadow of movement, and then the shadow was in front of them.
“Angelterre. It took you long enough, mon cher.”
“Hello, frog.” It was both a relief and an irritation to see Francis there. Relief that he hadn’t been captured, and an irritation because it was always an irritation when Francis was involved. Before he could avoid it, Arthur found himself wrapped in a tight hug, and without meaning to, he returned the embrace. “You’ve got good people, Francis.”
“Oui, I do.” Releasing Arthur, Francis clapped Alfred on the shoulder. “Matthew made it through two days ago,” he said quietly.
“Oh, thank god,” Arthur breathed. His legs might have given out a little at the news, if the way Alfred and Francis both grabbed an arm was anything to go by. He hadn’t realized how truly frightened he’d been for the boy’s safety.
Alfred hugged him from behind, chanting, “He made it, he made it, he made it.”
Then Francis was tugging his arm, leading them to the boat. “Come, the tide is going out. We must leave now.”
Home, Arthur thought. Home.
“Home,” he whispered, as the White Cliffs came into sight. The spray from the sea mingled with the tears on his face, and Alfred’s strong arms wrapped around him from behind, anchoring him.
“I told you,” he whispered in Arthur’s ear, nose buried in his hair. “I told you we’d make it.”
And Arthur could only nod because his throat was too choked to speak.
Once they landed, it was like being caught in a whirlwind. Arthur saw flashes of faces he recognized: a senior aid to his boss, someone from the War Office, the Home Office, a senior MP, and dear Christ, that was the Duke of Gloucester. They were swept up in the tide of people ushering them into cars, and he was only aware of Alfred, gripping his hand tightly and refusing to be separated from him. Bloody hell, just let them try. He sank into the back seat of the car he’d been shepherded into and closed his eyes, letting the sounds and smells of his land sink into him. He was home.
As the miles flew by, Arthur felt himself dangerously close to falling asleep and asked no one in particular, “Where are we going?” Really, all he wanted right now was a hot bath, a hot meal, and a soft bed, with Alfred beside him, sleeping the way he always slept: with a heavy arm across his chest and one of his legs thrown possessively over his, his breath steady and reassuring against his neck. He let out a long sigh. Dear God, how long had it been? He laid a hand on Alfred’s leg, and immediately one of Alfred’s big hands covered it.
“To London, sir,” the driver said over his shoulder. “To meet with the Prime Minister. He said you’d want to go straight to London.”
“He was right about that,” Arthur murmured, but sighed again nonetheless. He was aware that his borrowed clothes were filthy and he was covered in grime and sweat and the stink of a POW camp. He did hope the debriefing could wait until he had a good night’s sleep at least.
“Not to worry, Arthur,” Gloucester said from the front seat, as if reading his mind. “Churchill just wants to see for himself that you’re all right, as we all did. And he wants to personally thank Captain Jones here for his part in all this. He won’t keep you long, I promise.”
“I’ll hold you to that, Henry.” Reassured, Arthur closed his eyes, let his head drop against Alfred’s shoulder, and was soon lulled to sleep by the motion of the automobile and the feel of Alfred’s thumb brushing over the top of his hand.
They stood in the middle of the hotel room set aside for Arthur and just stared at it for a while. There was a bath adjoining Alfred’s room to this one, and the idea of a hot bath, hot food and a soft bed was almost more than Alfred could process at the moment. Arthur looked tired enough to drop. It had been equal parts amusing and touching to see Arthur’s slight, fragile-looking body engulfed in the arms of that bear of a man, Winston Churchill. While he was obviously loathe to let his Nation out of his sight again, Churchill had kept the meeting brief, thanked Alfred sincerely for bringing Arthur back to them safely (and had called him a hero!), and then promised them both rest and recovery time. Alfred had taken the time to make a call to his own boss and accepted his praise for the successful mission (and again he was called a hero!), and then they’d been ushered here.
Well, one of them had to make a decision. “Bath. Food. Bed,” Alfred said decisively.
“Bed,” Arthur said wistfully.
“Bath and food first,” Alfred insisted, “or you’ll hate yourself in the morning. He gave the other man a little nudge with his elbow. “Go ahead and strip. I’ll run the bath for you.”
“Mind the water level,” Arthur said automatically, clumsily unbuttoning the rough shirt he’d been traveling in.
Alfred rolled his eyes and he walked into the bathroom and knelt down by the side of the tub. Sure enough, there was a neat black line drawn around the inside, reminding potential bathers about the rationing. “Arthur, you’ve missed out on four months of baths,” he called over his shoulder. “I think your citizens will forgive you if we use enough water to actually get clean this one time.” And he grinned to himself as he filled the tub with hot water to the brim.
Arthur had no idea what time it was, but he imagined it must be afternoon at the very least. He felt like he’d slept the clock round, although it probably hadn’t been that long. It was light in the room now, and he spent a few minutes looking at the man sleeping peacefully beside him. Alfred always looked so much younger without his glasses and his face completely relaxed in sleep. It had been so long since either one of them could fully relax in sleep, always on guard, always listening for the approach of the enemy, always ready to run. Living in London these days didn’t mean you were safe, but it was the safest he had felt in months. And clean. Dear heavens, he’d forgotten how it felt to be clean. He drew a deep breath and let it out slowly, smiling when all he smelled was the faint scent of soap, shampoo, and freshly laundered bed sheets. Raising a hand, he touched Alfred’s hair gently, reveling in its softness, and snorting softly at the sight of Nantucket standing proud and tall. He pulled his hand away before he got carried away, because all he wanted to do was touch, but all in good time.
As expected, he was anchored by a heavy arm across his chest and a leg pinning his own legs to the mattress. He needed to extricate himself to visit the loo, but it wasn’t like he had had to untangle himself countless times in the past as it was rare for Alfred to wake up before him. So he eased himself out from under the heavy limbs, quickly shifting his pillow into Alfred’s arms when he mumbled a sleepy complaint. The boy breathed deeply, apparently contented with the scent of his pillow, and quickly dropped off again.
When Arthur came back to bed, his bladder relieved and his teeth brushed, he left his pajamas neatly folded on a chair and slipped back under the covers. Alfred immediately gathered him in closer. “Where’d ya go?” he mumbled sleepily.
“Just the loo.” Arthur pressed a kiss against his forehead. “Go back to sleep, love.”
But Alfred had registered the feel of naked skin under his hands and blinked open drowsy eyes, lifting a hand to cup the side of his face. “How’re you feeling?”
Arthur grinned, nuzzling into the warm palm. “Frisky,” he said succinctly.
Blue eyes widened, and a broad grin spread across Alfred’s face as he came fully awake with alacrity. “Hold that thought!” Arthur watched with amusement as he scrambled out of bed and jogged into the loo. A few minutes later he was running back across the floor, trying to discard his boxers along the way and nearly tripping over them in the process. The boxers finally went flying, and he dove back into bed and pressed himself against Arthur, the two gazing at one another from bare inches apart. “Hi, there.”
“Hello yourself, soldier.”
Alfred grinned, and leaned in, Arthur meeting him halfway. The first kiss was soft and sweet, so sweet as to be almost heartbreaking. One of them made a needy sound deep in their throat, and then Alfred had him pressed to the mattress and was placing sweet, almost reverent kisses to his eyes, his cheeks, his throat, his hands traveling carefully over Arthur’s naked body, fingers skimming over his ribs, careful over bones that were closer to the surface now. Arthur knew what Alfred saw when he looked at him, knew his cheeks were sunken, his ribs visible, but he was damned if he was going to be treated like some piece of breakable porcelain. He put a hand behind Alfred’s neck and pulled him sharply down for a deep kiss.
That was more like it. Alfred moved until he was straddling him, and he deepened the kiss until Arthur was surging up helplessly. “Let me, let me, let me,” Alfred mumbled, his voice pleading as his hands slid down Arthur’s sides. “Please, let me.”
“Okay, all right, yes,” was all Arthur could manage before Alfred’s mouth was everywhere, kissing, licking, nipping, branding and marking him, possessing him in a way he had never allowed anyone to possess him before. But then Alfred wanted him like no one had ever wanted him before. They had fucked and they had made love many other times and places: in soft beds, in the garden behind his house, in a camp cot, under the stars, once in the blazing sun in the mountains of Colorado, in haste and with all the time in the world. But never had there been such a sense of raw desperation, and such aching tenderness. By the time Arthur came, sobbing Alfred’s name, he felt like he had been taken apart and put back together again.
Minutes – or was it hours? – later, Arthur was trembling with the aftershocks of his orgasm, but Alfred was absolutely shuddering, his face pressed against Arthur’s neck. Arthur tangled his fingers in the thick hair at the back of his head, holding him there. He couldn’t stop himself from breathing into his ear, “You are so very precious to me,” and heard what sounded suspiciously like a snicker. Stung, he abruptly tightened his fingers, ready to yank Alfred’s head sharply away. Then he felt the warm wetness on his bare shoulder. Ah. He didn’t say anything; instead he tried to soothe with touch, fingers through Alfred’s hair, gentle strokes down his back, until the shuddering calmed.
“And I love you,” Alfred mumbled against his skin, his voice sounding thick and a little choked. After a moment, he raised his head and looked down at him, his eyelashes spiked with wetness, “So I would appreciate it if you didn’t go missing anymore, okay?”
Arthur reached up and stroked the side of his face, gently thumbing away a stray tear. “I shall do my best,” he promised solemnly. “And I’d very much appreciate it if you didn’t get yourself blown out of the sky in that Mustang of yours.”
Alfred grinned down at him, and his eyes were so soft with love that Arthur’s breath hitched. Alfred lowered his head, and smiled against his lips. “Copy that,” he whispered, and kissed him. There was nothing sweet about this kiss: it was deep and dirty and open-mouthed, but they were both too spent for anything to come of it. After a few moments, the kiss eased into little pecks, and Arthur chortled, “Optimist.”
Alfred merely rubbed their noses together and said, “Let’s eat, and then we’ll see if you’re up to another round, old man.”
Arthur pinched the skin on his shoulder. “I’ll show you old man.”
“Oh yeah, that’s the spirit.” Alfred sat up, bringing Arthur with him. “I’ll phone and tell them to send the food up. Any requests?”
“Tea. And more tea.” My god, he had missed his tea.
They were both dressed and respectable when the table of food was wheeled in. Arthur eyed it suspiciously as Alfred began removing lids, because this was far too much food for two people given their rationing. But when Alfred lifted a lid, exposing fresh oranges and strawberries, he exploded, “What the hell is going on here?”
Alfred froze and looked up nervously. “What?”
“Where has all this come from? By god, if I find out they’ve shortened the rations of anyone else just to –“
“No, no, they haven’t shortened anyone’s rations, I promise,” Alfred said quickly and a little too loudly.
Arthur narrowed his eyes. “Just what do you know of this, Alfred?”
The younger nation screwed his face up, then rubbed the back of his neck. “Don’t be mad, okay? But this is kind of…your own personal Bundle for Britain.”
Arthur stared at him, his voice raising. “It’s my – what?”
Alfred immediately strode over to him and pulled him into a hug, apparently ignoring the fact that Arthur was as stiff as a stick. “Please don’t get mad,” he repeated. “It was my idea, and the First Lady took care of it for me. You like the First Lady, don’t you?”
“She’s a wonderful woman,” Arthur replied immediately. “One of the most gracious, intelligent women I’ve ever met.”
“Right, she is. And she thinks the world of you. I talked to her yesterday when I called my boss, and she asked how you were, and I told her. I said you’d recover a lot faster if you had more food than we could get over here, and she agreed. So I told her the kinds of things you couldn’t get over here and what some of your favorite foods were, and she organized it all. Some of my boys were already scheduled to fly over, and they brought the food with them.” He seemed to have run out of words for the moment, then sighed. “Are you upset?”
Arthur was so stunned by this revelation – and by the sight of fresh oranges and strawberries on the table – that it took him a moment to find his voice, and he had to clear his throat before he could speak. “That was very thoughtful of you, my boy,” he said finally, and pressed a kiss just under Alfred’s jaw. “And please thank the First Lady for me.”
Alfred abruptly relaxed and tightened his arms around Arthur, lifting him so his feet were completely off the floor. “We’ve got marmalade,” he sing-songed, “and chocolate and sugar, and ham, and fruit and cream, and she sent lots and lots of tea.” There was laughter in his voice. “Apparently there was some we missed dumping into the harbor.”
Arthur gave him a sharp thump on the arm, but he was grinning like a fool against Alfred’s broad shoulder.
“And your boss knows,” Alfred continued, finally putting him down and resting his chin on top of his head, “in case you’re worried about that and feeling all guilty about having food, and he agrees: your people need you healthy, so you need to rest and get your strength back, and that means some proper meals.”
“All right, all right, lad, you’ve convinced me.” He couldn’t deny his mouth was positively watering at the thought of the food Alfred mentioned. “And I expect you to eat your share,” he added, “so let’s sit down before it goes cold.”
After three days of more sleep, rest and food than he had seen in four months, Arthur felt almost fully restored. He knew he still looked ragged, but he felt strong. The reunion with the royal family had relaxed a tightly-wound coil inside him, and he had allowed himself to be coddled, just a bit. (For the sake of the princesses, of course; they had appointed themselves as his nursemaids, and he didn’t want to hurt their feelings.) It had been amusing to watch Alfred try to hide behind him when the Queen Mother had made her appearance, but she had been graciousness itself with him, and Arthur had even seen a spark of amusement in her eyes. Despite Alfred’s feelings about royalty, and the fact he still couldn’t remember the proper way to address them, he had walked away from the royal audience with his feet barely touching the ground, after once again being hailed a hero.
News was still trickling in about escapees from the prisoner of war camp. Matthew’s small contingent of Canadians had all thankfully made it out, and Australian, British and American stragglers were showing up in France. Francis’ people were doing their best to locate and assist them, and just yesterday another group had been brought to England. There had been no word yet on Sergeant-Major Cochran, and that worry was constantly in the back of both his mind and Matthew’s. The Aussies who had come through confirmed that Cochran had made it outside the fence, but then they had broken up into smaller groups. So Arthur still had hope that the doughty sergeant-major would safely make his way to England.
It was late afternoon, still light enough that the blackout restrictions weren’t yet in place, and Arthur sat on the roof of the hotel building, looking out at his city. The breeze was chilly enough to be uncomfortable, but he wasn’t ready to go in yet. The damage he could see from here was heartbreaking, and he knew there was worse out there - his bones ached with it - but damaged as she was, London was giving him strength. He heard the door to the roof open behind him, but didn’t look around; it could only be one person, and although he hadn’t told Alfred where he was going, he wasn’t surprised that he had found him. He heard footsteps, then something warm and heavy dropped over his shoulders, and Alfred sat down beside him, dangling his longer legs off the side of the building. Arthur shook his head a little, but still pulled the warm, leather jacket a little closer around his shoulders.
“Thought I’d find you up here.”
“Did you get your orders?” Arthur asked quietly. He knew Alfred would probably be leaving any day now to rejoin the war, and he knew it would most likely be the South Pacific.
“Yeah. My boys are fighting for their lives in the Pacific, and I need to be there for them. I’ll be flying out tomorrow.”
Arthur nodded, expecting no less, but he still felt a pang of worry. “I’m on desk duty for the foreseeable future,” he said bitterly.
“Only ‘til you’re back to full strength,” Alfred consoled him. They’d had this conversation last night, Arthur recalled, if his ranting could be considered a conversation.
They lapsed into silence and Arthur continued to stare bleakly out over London. “I’ll help you rebuild,” Alfred said softly. “Whatever you need, you know that, right?”
The offer came out of nowhere, and was so like Alfred, but it wasn’t unexpected. “I know, lad. Thank you.” He let out a weary sigh. “But before we can rebuild, we need to end this bloody war.”
“We will.” There was a determination in Alfred’s voice that wasn’t merely his usual optimism. “We don’t have a choice, so we will. And we’ll end it on our terms.” Then he was grinning again, kicking his feet back and forth over the side of the building like a kid on a pier. “Hey, I thought we’d have a little get together tonight with Mattie and Francis. Francis got his hands on some wine, and I thought we could spend a couple of hours with them before we all split up to go our separate ways. And then…” He slid an arm around Arthur’s shoulders and leaned over, “I thought we’d kind of have our own private get together, if you know what I mean.” The silly git waggled his eyebrows, and Arthur didn’t know if he was going for sexy or comical. He just ended up looking like a fool, but, Arthur acknowledged fondly, he was his remarkable, heroic, thoroughly loved fool.
“Hmm.” Arthur pretended to think about it. “What time are we meeting Francis and Matthew?” Both those nations had refused to share in any of the food Alfred had arranged for him, and it had been decided to defer the ‘best dinner in London’ bet that Matthew had won until after the war. And then Arthur intended to pick up the tab for the best food he could arrange for both Alfred and Matthew. And he supposed he’d have to include Francis in that as well, and if that was the case he was going to make damned sure it was going to be roast beef and Yorkshire pudding for everyone.
“Couple of hours,” Alfred murmured, busying himself with nuzzling the side of Arthur’s face.
“Then why,” Arthur asked, placing his hand on Alfred’s muscular thigh and squeezing suggestively, “are we sitting up here on a cold, hard roof?”
Alfred laughed softly into his hair. “You got a better idea, old man?”
“Oh, I’ve got quite a few ideas, my lad,” he promised, and pulled Alfred in by his collar, fitting their lips together. Tomorrow it would be back to fighting the war. But tonight would be for them.