The 'Hug'

Chapter 11

Alfred could vaguely hear voices shouting as he tried to place where he was in the large building he found himself to be in, surrounded by yet distant from all the other men standing on the floor. He heard a beeping sound and as he tried to figure it out, his vision cleared a little as his mind rationalized it as a bell toll. "No, I remember this, but this can't be…" Alfred said, bracing as the voices dramatically grew in intensity as he realized he was somehow back in 1929 on that day that had him falling to his knees in pain as the economy struck back at him. Except this time there was no coughing up blood, only panic as he realized there was no Matthew beside him to help him either. He backed away as he clenched his middle from the pains he knew to be phantom pains, but he couldn't help wincing a little.

He backed up, looking down until he noticed that the marble floor had turned into tall grass, prompting him to look up. He noticed it had gone from morning to at least mid-afternoon, and he looked around to try and figure out where he'd gone. He'd only taken a few steps before he heard the bugle horn he'd been hearing at several reenactments lately for the sesquicentennial of one of the most difficult periods in his life. He could feel the twisting in his gut continue as gunshots began to fly around him, men appearing on opposite sides of the field he found himself to be standing in. He called out for them to stop, knowing they wouldn't listen but hoping there might be something different if he was only at a modern retelling of the events. But the men seemed to not hear him and the fierce looks on their faces made him shiver as he relived the inner conflict he'd had all over again. He ran from the middle of the field, feeling bullets whizzing past him as he aimed to reach the covering of the trees. He fell to the ground as he heard cannon-fire, quickly getting back up to resume running and reaching the trees. He leaned against one to catch his breath before realizing they weren't trees that would have been native to Gettysburg, Virginia. It looked more tropical and as he looked back in the direction he'd come all he could see was the smoke generated from the muskets and cannons.

Turning back around, trying to calm his breathing as his confusion and discomfort mounted, he pushed forward only to realize that he was in Vietnam as he recognized a helicopter getting ready to take off in a clearing not too far ahead. He trudged his way over there, thinking about the memory of this war and its impact on any other fighting he'd be caught up in. He'd reached the clearing and was trying to get one of his own men or any Vietnamese citizen's attention, but was cut off as more shouts came from the helicopter's radio and it began to quickly take off as more people piled inside. Alfred covered his head as the blades began to kick up the dirt around it, mingling with the gunpowder that had followed him so that he was forced to clench his eyes shut, coughing as the dust seemed to come from everywhere. He stumbled forward, his foot hitting the edge of what appeared to be a step.

Seeking any form of shelter from the dust storm, he climbed the series of short steps to a door, pushing it open and shutting it behind him quickly. He rubbed the dust from his eyes as best he could, covering his mouth with his sleeve. Looking around, he found his shelter to be a small farmhouse that he found comfortingly authentically American, although the appliances and furniture appeared to date from the 1930s. "All this dust…I'm…I'm back in the Dust Bowl…and in the middle of one heck of a storm…of course I am…" He murmured to himself, coughing a few more times as the smoke and dust continued to cling to him despite being inside. He tried to find an area without a window, flinging open doors here and there unsuccessfully. He tried another door, but instead of being met with more wind-blown particles of dirt that were scraping his skin, he was greeted with a wall of flames along with the smoke.

He tried to back up into the farmhouse, but the door had disappeared and he was standing in the middle of a burning room. His coughs kept coming as he tried to find an exit, realizing as he ran through the building that the architecture was incredibly familiar and that there were many objects he'd last seen in…."The older White House…" Alfred sputtered out, horrified to find himself reliving the experience. He maneuvered to where he remembered a door to the outside to be located, listening to the shouts he heard coming from the outside. Wrenching it open, he stumbled out of the burning building, falling to his knees as he tried to catch his breath. He was feeling dizzy from the rapid shifts in place and time that he wasn't questioning, but he was also incredibly thirsty as though the flames had dried up everything in him too. As he made to stand, he heard laughter he recognized as belonging to Arthur.

"Arthur, please, this is over. We're not enemies anymore." Alfred said, getting to his feet. "You know this. We're friends, or at least I'm trying. We're…" he was trying to explain, but Arthur laughed again.

"We are nothing, America." Arthur said, grabbing a hold of his gun and aiming at Alfred. "And when I take this land back, I won't be as soft on you as I was before, spoiled brat. You stabbed me in the back once but I'll burn you to your very core like you tried to do to Matthew." He said, his voice loud and clear despite the shouting that Alfred continued to hear. He couldn't see anyone other than Arthur, but it sounded as though there were more people nearby. Alfred tried to respond but found himself unable to voice his thoughts, eyes widening at his sudden muteness.

"You attacked me and you attacked him – both of whom you called brothers at one time. Do you think Matthew will still call you brother after you tried again to make him a part of you? It failed in the Revolution and it failed this time too…but not before you hurt him." Arthur said, walking closer to Alfred. "Burning York and terrorizing its civilians… no wonder you've got a bit of an uprising in Massachusetts against this war. Burning the heart of a colony doesn't hurt as much as a nation, Matthew's pain eased by my presence…but that doesn't mean he isn't capable of fighting back." Arthur said, looking over Alfred's shoulder. Alfred's eyes widened as he realized too late that someone was standing behind him, swiftly turning around only to find Matthew with his hands around his throat. He gasped as he struggled to breath, falling to his knees as his brother's grip remained firm. He shut his eyes as the world began to spin more, but the grip vanished as he felt the rain that had immediately came after the fire to the White House began to fall. He took gasping breaths as he opened his eyes, finding that the White House had disappeared along with Matthew and everything. All except the rain and Arthur, still aiming the gun at him much as he had done during the Revolution.

"You have no true friends, America." Arthur said with a mocking sympathetic tone. "And you've no family left. You've ended that all by yourself. You're alone. And this time, I will shoot." Arthur said, pulling the trigger. Despite the rain that should have dampened the powder and doused the fuse on his musket, the gun fired and Alfred clenched his eyes shut as his hands grasped his chest. He felt something shake him and he forced his eyes open, resolved to make one final plea. "Don't fire Arthur!" he shouted, his gaze being met with panicked green eyes.

As Arthur and Francis screamed at each other, Kiku trying to interject calmly while Feliciano squirmed as though fighting the grip on his sleeve Francis had, Matthew noticed something was up with his brother. He tried to get past the arguing nations as he watched his brother's face scrunch up as though in pain, the monitor beeping to inform them of something while Alfred's heartrate elevated. Alfred's mouth was moving as though to say something, but Matthew couldn't hear over the shouting between Francis, Arthur and Kiku.

"Arthur please!" Matthew said, resorting to pushing the British man with his own brute strength, Arthur stumbling a little at the unexpected shove. Francis laughed while Arthur recovered, looking to Matthew for an explanation. "Look! He's in trouble!" Matthew said, making to move around the end of the bed to get to his brother's side as Arthur had done. But as he did so, Alfred suddenly kicked out wildly, knocking off the footboard of the bed in his night terror-induced panic.

"Alfred! Alfred, love…it's okay. It's okay." Arthur said as he leaned over, grasping the other man's shoulders to keep him still. "Alfred! Open your eyes, Alfred!" Arthur said before looking up to shout to Francis to hit the call button for a nurse. Francis scrambled to do just that, Feliciano backing up against the wall while Kiku struggled to help Matthew out from under the piece of the hospital bed. "C'mon Alfred, c'mon dear." Arthur said, running one of his hands in what he hoped was a soothing manner over the other's hair. Matthew had disentangled himself at that point and was by Francis' side as quickly as he could, leaning onto the bed. He would have also tried to hold onto Alfred if not for Francis holding him back, explaining that they shouldn't be smothering him and to make room for when a nurse did come into the room. As Alfred seemed to struggle to breathe, Arthur continued to try and calmly wake him up with his words and soft-spoken encouragements. But his tactics changed when the group watched as Alfred began to take gasping breaths until he stopped taking in air.

"Feliciano, go grab the nearest nurse!" Francis shouted over to the shaking Italian as he continued to hold back Matthew from trying to get involved to the point of contradicting whatever Arthur might be doing to aid Alfred. Feliciano jumped and opened his eyes to look at Francis." Now, Feli!" Francis said, the urgency in his voice startling the other nation into taking off into the hallway to go find help.

"Al! Wake up Alfie!" Matthew shouted, reaching out to touch his brother on the top of his head as Arthur resorted to shaking him to shock him into awareness.

"You git! Don't do this!" Arthur shouted before practically lifting Alfred off the bed to drop him back onto it. "America!" He shouted, rewarded with a shuddering gasp as though Alfred had been released from some hold. "There you go, love, there you go." Arthur said, relief in his voice as Alfred seemed to relax until he suddenly launched himself upright.

"Don't fire Arthur!" Alfred shouted, his hands grasping his chest as he panted. He looked into Arthur's face, the older blonde looked incredibly disturbed and concerned at the sudden plea directed to him. He was about to ask Alfred what he was talking about but his focus was directed to the fact that when Alfred looked down at himself and pulled his hands away, there was a small amount of blood on them. "Wha-what…" Alfred managed to stutter before looking back up and over to Matthew. His eyes went wide as his gaze looked slightly off to Matthew's side. "R-reaper…" he whispered before he fell back into Arthur's hold and closed his eyes. Arthur caught the taller nation as he sagged into him, one arm around his back as he propped him up to pull the gown down, seeing the small bit of gauze on his chest that had become reddened slightly.

"What's going on?" Matthew asked, hands to his mouth as he and Arthur stared at Alfred. Arthur pulled the gown back up before gently laying Alfred back into the bed, contemplating what answer he could give. Francis looked as though he too was trying to answer Matthew, his hold on the boy tightening comfortingly. Kiku stood off to the side a bit behind Arthur, debating on whether or not to keep the promise he'd made to his friend about his ability to see ghosts when Feliciano came running back in with a couple of nurses. With that, they were promptly pushed out into the hallway and directed to a lounge by the nurses to wait until they'd looked over and cared for Alfred.

"What was that all about?" Feliciano asked, not reading the atmosphere at all and not waiting for the others to compose themselves before asking. Francis sighed at Feliciano's typical behavior, although Arthur didn't look ready to answer yet. "Why does Britain look whiter than his usual pasty white?" He asked, Arthur's head snapping up at that remark with an unamused expression. Feliciano whimpered and took a step back. "What? I-a only want to know what-a happened…" He said.

"Alfred had a really bad nightmare about Arthur apparently." Matthew explained, taking pity on the other nation. "It must've been really, really, terrifying for him to stop breathing like that. What do you think he was dreaming aboot?" Matthew said, turning to Arthur. But the other man simply shrugged, not trusting himself to answer without a few tears making their way down his face. "And did he say reaper?" Matthew asked for the sake of keeping someone talking.

Kiku fidgeted a little, unsure if he should say anything. His normally stoic expression was in place, but Arthur seemed to pick up on the other's indecisiveness. Looking up to face the Asian nation, he asked what Kiku had been dreading. "You know what he meant, don't you?" Arthur said, Kiku receiving everyone's attention at that point.

"I do not think I can be terring you. I made a promise to America-chan to not terr, especiarry to you Britain-san." Kiku said. "He specificary mentioned that you not hear about it. And it was a promise made in return for saving my rife. I cannot terr."

Arthur ran his hands through his hair in frustration. "Damn your honor, man, tell me!" Arthur said, Kiku's eyes widening at the outburst. "Kiku, think about it." Arthur said a little more calmly, seeing how Matthew and Feliciano were now stuck to either side of Francis. "You saw what happened in there. Any information that can help him get better I need to know so I can save my brother!" He said, voice rising as he spoke. Francis had to bite his cheek to keep from pointing out what Arthur had called Alfred, but made the judgement to wait and toss it back at Arthur later once things were not so tense.

Kiku swallowed in his nervousness, looking down before sighing as glancing back up at Arthur. "Very werr…America-chan….Arfred-kun…he mentioned when I was his prisoner once that he can see some ghosts." Kiku said, Arthur looking as though Kiku could have told him something as equally ridiculous as though Alfred was really from outer space.

"Come again?" Arthur asked disbelievingly to Kiku, the other man shrugging. "I had been praying a game with him when he tord me about having made a bet with a reaper to keep it from taking you at one point." Kiku said, Arthur's eyes widening in remembrance. "He said something about pretending to be happy so that you would push to keep going so that you could yerr at him. I did not know you had been injured so badry to be in the hospital, Britain. Were you?" Kiku asked, sincerity in his voice as he asked for verification of his friend's story and claim.

Britain numbly nodded, hand grasping behind him as he looked for his chair to sit back down. Matthew pushed it over to him just in time as Arthur sat down, face showing a thoughtful expression as he processed what he'd been told. "But he's always said he hasn't ever had any talent – or belief – in magic. The Salem Witch trials made it difficult for me to persuade him otherwise…" Arthur said, looking over to Matthew as though for further clarification.

"Well, maybe he simply prefers science to magic, mon ami. That does not mean he hasn't ever had any experience with it" Francis said with as much of a shrug as he could pull off with Matthew and Feliciano still by his side on the small couch. "'Ow could he not with so many different groups bringing their own versions of magic beliefs with them. New Orleans is a great example." He said with a smirk to his old holdings in North America. "I am guessing he simply does not acknowledge it and without practice, he has forgotten about it. But it is not that different from…oh…doesn't one of your brozers possess a similar ability?" Francis asked, Arthur nodding as he thought about his brother Wales' supposed ability with ghosts. As he thought about it, it didn't seem too out there with everything odd about the personifications that one of Alfred's 'uncles'' abilities was passed along to him.

"I wonder if there's any other magical talents he's not using…at least, not aware of using. Maybe his super strength is one of those." Arthur said, running a hand across his face.

"Ve~, do you have any magic skills too Matteo?" Feliciano asked, leaning over Francis to ask Matthew. The other's face turned red as he became the center of attention. But he merely shrugged, not having much history with any introduction to magic due to Arthur's hesitance to show him after the lack of a response from Alfred. "What about that bear you-a always bring to the meetings? Don't you make him talk?" Feliciano asked, curl bouncing as he tilted his head in thought. Matthew's eyes widened as he thought about it, but he still shook his head.

"No, that was Ar…Britain who gave Kumajiki the ability to talk. He did it when I was very young." Matthew said, but Francis shook his head.

"No, I am sure your bear used to mumble when you were with me. I do not think I heard actual words, but you two certainly understood one another." Francis said to Matthew, the other one biting his bottom lip as he tried to remember.

"You asked me to make him speak English so I cast an enchantment to help you understand English and all that wand waving over your bear was more to humor you than anything." Arthur said to Matthew, still looking a little overwhelmed at Kiku's news. "I thought it was surprising that it worked and figured Francis had done something before he left. You must've been the one to keep that up yourself, especially since that bear is the same one from so long ago and he's still speaking. I never actually stopped to think about that." Arthur said, Matthew looking increasingly overwhelmed himself.

"Oh, that is-a so neat!" Feliciano said, breaking the tense atmosphere. "You should-a come over to my house and make all the cute kittens in the street talk! Or better yet, we can-a go visit Greece's house, right Kiku? Greece would-a love to have a conversation with a cat!" He said with a cheerful smile, Kiku blinking rapidly at the suggestion. "Oh, maybe one-a them will tell you if she needs-a glasses or something and then we can make tiny kitty glasses. It'll be so cute!" Feliciano said, continuing with his idea at the newfound ability of Matthew's, not paying attention at all to the gestures Matthew was making in the negative to his ability to do any magic. Francis meanwhile had been chuckling at the sight of Matthew and Feliciano as the plans for kitty glasses grew more and more elaborate.

But the lighter mood was broken when Arthur suddenly gasped and sat up straighter. "Glasses! Matthew, I need your glasses!" He said, grabbing the pair of glasses off the other boy's face before he could protest.

"B-But…Arthur, I need my glasses." Matthew said, reaching out for his glasses as Arthur walked away. Arthur was mumbling something over the glasses, Kiku looking nervous at what Arthur was up to.

"Mon lapin, what are you up to now?" Francis asked with a tired tone to his voice, having been as up and down emotionally as Arthur. He may not have been Alfred's big brother at one time like he had been for Matthew, but he'd been a significant factor in the other's early history and he'd talked at great lengths with the more outspoken twin many times when Arthur had turned his efforts away. He'd confided how when he'd made friends with a Japanese whale, Arthur had offered to be friends with him under the assumption that Alfred had befriended the creature because he'd had no other friends. At the time, he'd been determined to show that he could handle being on his own just fine, and he really did find it humorous, so he'd laughed off the offer and ran off. And after Alfred had helped to release Francis from Ludwig's hold, Alfred had spent plenty of time taking care of Francis, even if he'd gone about a peculiar and thoroughly American way. He'd learned about his efforts to help out and spend time with Arthur on a more personal level other than the purely political efforts coordinated by their bosses that they often had to cater do – although there were plenty of actions that as personifications they undertook themselves, such as Alfred's role in his revolution. And Arthur would often talk to him about Alfred, some days referring to him only as America if he was particularly unable to think about him as his brother because it was too difficult.

Arthur finished up with his chanting and slipped the glasses on his head, looking comical with Matthew's glasses on. "Arthur, what are you doing?" Francis asked again, a small chuckle accompanying his question at the sight of a speckled Arthur.

"I enchanted them so I can see the ghost Alfred's supposed to have seen. But I need to hurry." Arthur said, walking forward. Unfortunately, not needing glasses, he couldn't quite see things clearly enough to avoid tripping over the edge of the coffee table in the room. "Oooh, blast..." Arthur mumbled as he stumbled to catch his balance, Kiku reaching out to steady him, immediately apologizing for having touched the other nation.

"Arthur, you cannot expect to be of any help if you cannot even walk properly." Francis laughed, but Arthur had already taken off back to Alfred's room, even though a nurse hadn't come back for them yet. "Arthur, wait!" Francis shouted out, but Arthur was long gone, prompting Francis to struggle out of the hold Matthew and Feliciano had on him. But Kiku made a halting motion with his hands. "Do not worry, France-san. I will forrow." Kiku said, slowly following after the other nation while the other three lingered in the lounge.

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