The 'Hug'

Chapter 22

The beeping wouldn't stop and Alfred was getting really annoyed with that alarm sounding through the passage he was following. He'd begun to suspect that there was something else coming after him and just waiting behind every corner, putting him on edge and it was eerie how the alarm would blare more frequently when he felt himself getting more scared or if he'd had to exert himself for some reason. It made him feel like whatever else was in there with him was tracking his every movement and he wanted it to stop. It was unsettlingly like a case of déjà vu with having to run from some alien-looking monster that kept to the shadows. He'd briefly encountered a shadow that looked humanoid, but his friendship with Tony had him still on guard with that observation.

Hissing and more fog from some malfunctioning equipment seemed to keep the corridors partly obscured and even his trusty Texas wasn't giving him an edge, making him clutch his gun tighter as he stealthily made his way onward. He felt like the corridors were getting tighter in this direction, making it feel to him like his air was being cut off. He thought he might need to find the control center for such details, guessing that there always was one on spaceships in his games, even if they came with creepy and belligerent AI systems. But that's what his pistol was for so long as the ammunition could penetrate the thick metal and he didn't come across whatever was following him.

He came across another wheel panel and realized he'd reached another door. He gripped it as best he could with his gun still in his hand, pushing the door open tentatively. He braced for something to come at him but when it seemed he was in the clear, he stepped inside the room and breathed a sigh of relief at having entered a larger space. Although, it wasn't much warmer than the other corridors he'd been in and he was really worried about the cold – no heat in space, he figured - and reasoned that was another justification for finding the control room. He shivered and he could see his breath coming out in puffs in the cold room as he walked forwards. He was only a few steps in when he heard the door he'd closed creak open, spinning around and firing off a couple of rounds before he sprinted off to reach where the room's other door might be, jumping over things that looked like they'd fallen over when the spaceship stalled or something. He could hear the alarm start going faster and he nearly growled as it seemed to give away what he was doing, the thought passing through his mind that he'd been given some sort of implant as he ran.

Alfred ran through the next door, slamming it shut and spinning the wheel a few times before continuing his sprint until he reached another door that he hastily opened to reveal a staircase. He huffed as he tried to catch his breath, mumbling about how 'of course there would be a staircase 'cuz I'm not out of breath enough already' as he climbed as quickly as he could. He'd almost reached the top of the staircase when he heard banging coming from below as the creature pursuing him followed him onto the staircase. He felt his heart jump in fear at being in such close quarters with that unknown thing, gripping the railing as the creature shook it. However, he found that rust could occur in space – or that the crew that decided to build the railing had been slacking off that day – as the metal gave way and he fell down into the blackness that he assumed eventually led to a floor of some sort. He braced for the hit and groaned loudly as he did, urging his body to get back up and find his gun.

But the creature didn't seem to need to fear a fall, jumping down with Alfred. Alfred unsteadily got to his feet as he fumbled around on the walls for something, his actions resulting in some of the lighting turning on and introducing him to his attacker. It was a humanoid thing, green with scales and what Alfred assumed were feelers on top of its eyes. He gasped as it approached him rapidly, lunging out of the way despite wanting to only take a break to calm his ragged breathing. But as he tried to pick himself up, he felt the creature grasp onto his leg and pull him back towards him. He waited until he was close enough to turn around and land a solid kick to the thing's torso before making another attempt to get away, spotting his gun conveniently by another door. He ran over to it but was tackled from behind and he struggled with the creature to escape its grip.

"Can't hide the heart" The creature said, a roughness to the voice that caused Alfred to nearly whimper in fright as it seemed to lower its head towards Alfred's chest. Out of desperation, Alfred really hoped that aliens of this variety had as sensitive of vital regions as humans as he kneed the creature between the legs. He felt satisfied at hearing the grunt of pain before wriggling an arm out of his loosened hold and landing a punch to the creature's head as he broke free and grabbed his gun, slamming the door shut and locking it tightly. He walked forward again at a much slower pace, his lungs aching as he tried to take a deep breath and he could feel every beat of his heart down to his feet from that race and wrestling match with the alien. He found another room that looked like it had only one way in and out and closed himself off in that before sliding to the ground and laying out as he continued to pant. He could hear the quick frequency of the beeps in the alarm and he tried to calm himself down to get it back to the usual tempo, unsettled by how much his theory was playing out that he'd had some sort of monitor implanted in him as the alarm continued to match his heartrate. That and the fact that the creature seemed to be able to track him by it and had some desire to probably eat Alfred or anything equally disturbing. Plus the temperature was making it harder to concentrate as things got colder and Alfred closed his eyes briefly. Opening them again, his heart jumped at the sight of the reaper he'd spoken with at the hospital staring back at him.

"What…How…What are you doing here in space? I thought you were, you know, an earth-bound thing?" He whimpered as he tried to get out from underneath where the reaper was hovering over him. He was terrified now, both alien monsters and ghosts coming after him was the worst possible nightmarish combination for him. He mind reached out for other possibilities that he was stuck in some dream and if he died in the dream then he would wake up. But he also considered that this could be like those Freddy Kruger movies and if he died in the dream, he died for real – that and if it was reality, dead was dead. Out of those three options, he wasn't too happy with his choices, especially since the ghost continued to hover closer and closer. Alfred reached the wall and slowly sat up. "C'mon man. Say something." He said, the reaper too close to his face for comfort but he was too scared to try and move his head to the side. His breath was coming out in quick pants as he tried not to start his usual response to scary movies, eyes going wide when the reaper reached out and laid a hand over his heart. He heard the alarm's frequency sound incredibly fast to him before he realized that it was him.

"You've not taken care." The reaper whispered to him as Alfred stared back at him. Alfred could feel the cold getting to him, especially from the cold touch of the reaper. "Not paying attention." He said, his bony fingers gripping the shirt over Alfred's chest.

"It's the hamburgers and milkshakes Arthur's always talking about, isn't it?" Alfred whimpered, breathlessly laughing. "Oh come on man, I eat plenty of healthy stuff too – whole organic craze been goin' on for a while now. There's ain't a thing wrong with my ticker…right?" He sighed, feeling the chill getting to him. He blinked a couple of times when the reaper removed its hand, drifting back from him. "Right?" He asked again, clutching at his chest.

"Hear the voice and find the warmth." The reaper said before disappearing into the dark, leaving Alfred panting and trying to figure out the warning or advice that had been imparted to him. He let his head lean back against the wall as he tried to calm himself down, repeating the final statement before the reaper disappeared.

"Find the warmth? I'm tryin' to find it. It's damn cold in here." Alfred said aloud to himself. "How am I supposed to do that with a voice? Is it that AI system, 'cuz reaper, I'm doin' my best to find it. I ain't Germany. I haven't read the manual on how this is supposed to work, ya know." He repeated, breathing finally back to normal as he began to rub at his sore shoulder that he'd landed on when he fell off the staircase. "Oh come on…" He repeated. "I got lots of other stuff back home to, you know, get back to. America's always got things to do and who else is gonna be the hero?" He said, letting his eyes rest for a moment in the relative safety of the locked room. He could hear the alarm continuing but at a slower frequency except for when the bangs of the creature with whom he was sharing this spaceship would randomly begin again and startle him.

"Hear the voice, huh? Well who's talkin'?" He called out once more before groaning and curling up on the floor, his gun clutched in his hand. He felt himself relaxing a little bit as he strained to hear anything over the noises of the spaceship and the alarm continuously going off. About to give up with the whole ridiculous idea when he heard what he could only believe were the sounds of other people talking. "No way…" He mumbled as he sat back up, focusing as much as he could at hearing those voices.

Alfred could make out different tones, guessing that he was hearing more than one person having a conversation. "Hey! Hey!" He shouted, standing up and waving his arms around. "I'm in here. You guys, wherever you are, I can hear you. You must be able to pick up on me with something…some monitor or a heat signature or something wherever you are. It's just not workin' on this end…Hello?…" he shouted upwards, but not even his own voice echoed back to him. In his panic, he heard the voices drifting away. "No, no, no…" He muttered, sitting back down to try and concentrate on them again.

"He's not so tense right now. That's a good thing." He heard one voice say, Alfred tilting his head to the side as he tried to distinguish the familiarity. He gasped as his eyes flew open, shouting gleefully. "Matt! Matt, you're okay! Iggy must've gotten to ya!" He said, feeling joy run through him as he realized his brother was at least wherever the voices where coming from and therefore must be in a safer area than wherever he was currently. "Oh, Matt, keep talkin' bro." He said with another laugh as he heard his brother's voice even though he couldn't make out all the words. "I don't care if it's even in the gibberish you call French-Canadian, I'm so glad you're out." He said, looking up in the hopes that whatever monitor he was on, his brother would know he was happy to hear from him. "I knew Arthur'd be able to get you safe. He can come in handy sometimes I guess…ha, ha….He and this big ugly alien could face off. I mean literally bro, you should see the whiskers on this dude's face. Kinda reminds me of old Artie himself…and he's green too…Oh my God!" Alfred said, standing up as he had this epiphany. "That's…Oh my God! The reaper wasn't talking about me, but Arthur….I knew there was nothin' wrong with my heart. I'm as healthy as an ox, well, except for those headaches or those other times…never mind. Oh why am I still talking to you, you aren't even here, are you?" He asked again, listening for an answer despite not really expecting to hear one. "Hiding the heart, finding the warmth in the voice…this is a nightmare I built like all those others but it's Arthur's fears that are the main players. I built the video game playground, but he's put the characters in, with my twist on them….I knew he liked the American touch…" Alfred said with a smirk before becoming aware that this was turning into one of those dreams where the dreamer is aware of dreaming, but still can't pull himself out. He growled in frustration as he walked back over to the wall and sat back down again.

"Okay, so, all I gotta do is hope Arthur wants to talk to me at some point. Then I can…what can I do?" He said, running his hands through his hair as he thought up a plan. "I can, I dunno, make rainbows and unicorns to cheer up that creepy Arthur-lizard-alien…"He sarcastically said as he dropped his head into his hands. "Come on…Matt, Artie, reaper dude…hell, Francis, give me something to work with here!" He shouted before quieting. He took a deep breath to try and clear his thoughts, finding it amusing that he should do so within his own mind – except that maybe he was sharing something with Arthur and this was his body's way off trying to keep out any intruder.

Staying quiet, he could hear the alarm start to drop and the voices become slightly louder. He shook his head at the absurdity that became apparent to him if he wanted to hear those voices again. Concentrating on what China and Japan had tried to impart to him during one of those extended world conferences that included workshops to promote better awareness and talking. He'd accidentally signed up for a meditation workshop, which turned more into naptime than actual meditating. Although the other nations in the room hadn't bothered to wake him up until after the workshop, Alfred thinking they'd just been really nice to let him sleep after he'd been kind enough to share some of the newer songs he'd downloaded from the top American musicians. He took another deep breath and tried to recall what India had said when he'd sat beside the other nation and the other personification had offered additional advice to Alfred. He did everything he could remember, pleasantly surprised when he found the alarm dropping low enough that he could start to make out the voice he desperately needed to hear.

Francis was standing out in the hallway as he said goodbye to Antonio and Gilbert after their promised visit, spreading along information from the meeting to Arthur courtesy of a large stack of papers compiled by Ludwig. Of course, an alcoholic beverage had also been smuggled into the hospital by Gilbert, although he hadn't been too thrilled with the option since he'd been too drunk the night before to realize that Romano had made the choice for him. Francis told the two of them that wine was hardly a consolation prize and the group had been somewhat less stressed during the visit. Matthew had been more or less fully recovered from the nausea, but the migraine was keeping him in the bed, although he did try to argue that he needed to help take care of his brother. It was a short argument however, since the Canadian was aware that he'd be closer to and with his brother around the clock if he remained where he was. Visiting hours were nearing their end anyway and Matthew wasn't sure if Arthur and Francis would be able to persuade the hospital staff to stay overnight again, even with pulling their status as personifications. Shortly after Antonio and Gilbert had left, Francis suggested to Arthur that they too head back to the hotel, assuming that their things were still untouched given that the conference was technically over.

"No. I usually book an extra day as a precaution and I know Alfred does since he usually oversleeps on the last day and misses what should be checkout time." Arthur said as he stood beside Alfred's bed again. "I'm willing to bet that the hotel staff are painfully aware of our predicament and most likely haven't touched your rooms either." He said, Francis shrugging but urging him to head out nevertheless. Arthur nodded and leaned over to give Alfred as close as a hug as he could manage before heading over to do the same with Matthew.

"I'll call you both later, eh? Don't want you to worry. I'll be keeping a watch on him." Matthew said as he hugged Francis goodbye too.

"As much as we'd appreciate it, you should rest too." Francis said as he patted the top of Matthew's head affectionately as he said his goodbyes. With the two of them gone, Matthew felt very anxious on his own, looking over to watch his brother continue sleeping like he'd been all day. There were times when Alfred seemed to be more agitated than others, but the doctors had said it seemed like they were able to get his body more hydrated again without resorting to dialysis. Matthew closed his eyes in an attempt to ease his headache as time wore on, trying to get himself to sleep again despite having napped most of the day. Suddenly he heard the monitor beside his brother start to pick up and he sat up abruptly to look over his brother. He called out to him as it seemed like his brother was getting more and more distressed, resorting to hitting his call button for help. When the nurse came walking in minutes later all he had to do was point over to his brother and she immediately called out for another nurse before dashing over to his bedside.

"What's wrong with him?" Matthew couldn't help but ask the woman as she took measure of the readings on the monitor.

"I'm not completely sure at the moment, dear. We'll get your brother back to relaxing in no time, but we need to lower his heartrate. This isn't a safe speed with him like this." She said, Matthew's face paling and causing him to feel nauseous again for an entirely different reason. If what she said was true, then the fact that his brother's heart continued to race faster only made him more anxious as another nurse came in with a doctor. Matthew wanted to keep asking what was going on, but as the doctor administered something else, it seemed like Alfred was relaxing again. "He's not so tense right now. That's a good thing." Matthew said as the doctor and nurse left, the male nurse remaining behind to adjust a few things. But there was also a questioning tone to Matthew's voice and the man was able to pick up on it. He shot Matthew a sympathetic smile before looking back to the monitor.

"You're his brother, right?" The man asked, just to be sure. Receiving a nod he looked to be considering whether or not to tell Matthew anything while the Canadian was also convalescing. But at Matthew's pleading look he sighed and looked out into the hallway before he continued, "To go from resting heart rate to that speed so quickly typically is not a good sign. The medicine the doctor gave him slows his heartrate, but as you can see, it's dropped below what's recorded as his resting heart rate. It could mean nothing except he's a little sensitive to the medication and we'll know that in a little while. But try not to worry too much about that. His oxygen level is doing much better and we should be able to take off the mask so long as he doesn't have another panic attack." He said, Matthew nodding in response at a his lack of ability to form words at that news. He waited until the nurse left before climbing out of bed to stand beside his brother, squeezing his hand tightly as he urged his brother to keep fighting. He stayed where he was for a while, until one of the nurses returned to check on Alfred and pushed Matthew back into his bed. Overwhelmed, Matthew fell asleep not too long after he'd been settled into bed again with the nurse commenting on how pale he looked still as she looked him over and pulled the covers up around him.

Matthew woke up again around seven, knowing that Arthur and Francis would likely be up to visit as soon as possible. He yawned and looked over to see his brother with his oxygen mask off, smiling to himself that his brother was doing better. He let his eyes close again and was surprised when it seemed like in the very next moment he felt a hand running through his hair as he was met with the sight of Francis smiling down at him. "Bonjour mon petit. Are you feeling better?" Francis asked as Matthew rubbed his face again to wake up, sitting up to face the Frenchman while sleepily nodding.

"Oh! Arthur! I forgot to call after…" Matthew said as he looked over to the Englishman hovering nearby Alfred. "Last night, oh it was horrible!" He said, Arthur's face taking on a confused yet anxious expression as he let go of Alfred's hand to walk over to Matthew as the other North American twin recounted what had happened. "But his mask is off so he must be making progress, right?" Matthew finished in a tone that practically pleaded with the others to agree with him. Francis nodded in encouragement and spoke to him comfortingly in French, while Arthur numbly nodded before heading back to his seat.

"And more good news, mon cher, is that if you really are feeling as better as you say and not pulling a move worthy of your brother again…." Francis began, Matthew looking a little sheepish as he recalled lying to the doctors about feeling completely better so he could find his brother's room. "…Then you shouldn't have to sit in that bed anymore. I brought you clothes and perhaps you and I can go for a walk to help you feel refreshed, hmm?" Francis suggested and earning a smile from Matthew in response. With that plan agreed on, Matthew was up and out of the room with Francis to watch over him, just in case, as Arthur had asked. It gave him a chance to try one more time to get through to Alfred before he lost the other personification. Based on what had already been happening and what Matthew had just told him, Alfred was still in danger physically and mentally because of this curse. He should have known that reciting an Old English variant of an Old Welsh translation of Nordic runes would leave something lost in translation. He'd have to find the time to review some of those less used curses once he'd gone through the stack Ludwig had given to him, although he was fairly certain that the other man had made it larger than necessary for him.

"Hello America." Arthur said as he sat beside Alfred's sleeping form. "I…I thought it could just be you and me for a little while, hmm? I said it before and I'll say it again, I am sorry that you're in this position. But don't expect me to say it again to your face once you're awake, you bloody fool." He said with a fond smile, feeling as though it was difficult to keep it on his face when Alfred continued to be unresponsive. "You know, the last time one of his was this bad off, it was me. I think I could handle it much better if our positions were not reversed this time." He said, not sure where to go with his conversation. He'd only come to the idea that he needed to just keep talking to Alfred to guide him back to himself based on something Francis had said to him, and as he tried to carry it out, he found himself getting embarrassed.

"Alfred, you know I'm very good with words but you do make picking the right ones difficult at times. Not that I don't have a plethora of choice insults set aside for you when you deserve them, you git." He said with a laugh, holding Alfred's hand. "I suppose you must be able to hear me somehow. I've been able to get through that thick head of yours a couple of times at least – I'm thinking that must be a record for me." He said with a bit of sarcasm as he attempted to make this one-sided conversation not seem so awkward if he could pretend the other personification wasn't in a coma-like state and was just his usual, unobservant self. "I do still worry about you. I wouldn't be here if I didn't you know. And I am aware that you do pay attention to what's going on from time to time with me as well, although it took you bloody long enough to come out of your isolationist front when I needed you the most." He said with a shake of his head. "You were particularly stubborn then, but you did come through and have been since you decided to be the world's hero and not just your own continent's hero. It's annoying as hell at times but endearing too." He said, deciding to do as Francis suggested yesterday. "Don't go getting any ridiculous ideas in that spacey mind of yours, but I'm going to…I'm going to hug you and just like when you were little, I'll be here when you wake up. Alright, Alfred? Just don't take your sweet time with things this time when I need you." He said, gathering up the other man into his arms as best he could as he sat beside him, resting his head on top of Alfred's. Arthur could feel his face flushing, but decided that if this could break the curse, then he'd find a way to circumvent those inevitable teases sure to come from Alfred and Francis.

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