"There was double tragedy in the face of the figure skaters who died Wednesday in the crash of their jet airliner - a kind of tragedy only the very young can know. Their past was short indeed. They had given it willingly, to long hours and days and years of practice. They had forfeited much of childhood's normal playtime. And now there is no future.... For each, the story was the same. The past that seemed so short was longer than they knew. It was all they would ever have."
-- The Burbank Daily Review, February 16, 1961
He shouldn't have been there.
Honestly, really, and truly, he shouldn't have been.
It was just something in the air that tugged him along with the swirling autumn leaves on the sidewalk, drawing them nearer to their destination. Or maybe it was Matthew. America glanced at his brother, smiling a little at the anticipatory gait as his twin tried to hide it. His brother was always a little more excited at the ice sports rather than real championships like baseball, but that didn't matter. It was time to get out of the house and away from the stupid paperwork that was a literal-mile-high on his desk. It had rotted his brain and now Alfred could barely feel anything.
And that was unusual, honest. He was used to going, going, going and he ought to be going, going, going right now because there were so many brill things going on, but he felt a strange detatchment. The 1922 world was suddenly very glassy and vague, like he'd been away from a smoke too long. The sharp wind biting through the wool on his overcoat didn't matter much and all the people passing by - his people - didn't matter very much because they all seemed to fade out of his life anyway. Alfred cleared his throat, swallowing to get the chill out of it as they turned the corner onto the newer section of town. The lights were a bit fuzzy in the dusk now; odd, but understandable with the coming winter.
Maybe that was what he needed.
Alfred dug into his pocket and pulled out a smoke. "Hey, Mattie, you want one?"
"Sure. Have a light?"
"Yeah." Alfred stuck the cigarette between his teeth and fumbled hastily - vacantly - in his coat for the lighter. Matthew held up his short stick of nicotine goodness for the flame and they took a silent puff together as Alfred slid the lighter back in his pocket. The world fuzzed out after a few minutes and Alfred sank into the deeper recesses of his brain. Contrary to England's constant denial, he did have them, though they tended to be locked until he was drunk where no one knew him or was in a mode like this with someone who was quite nice and did know him better than anyone else. Alfred grew a thin smile when he removed the cigarette long enough to puff, watching the smoke and steam billow up and dissolve into the air. "Mattie?"
"Why are we going to a rink?"
Matthew sniffed and shot a possibly-contemptuous-but-not-really-yes-kind-of-insulted look in Alfred's direction as they started across the street west. "To skate."
A few minutes of continuous walking later, the sky grew darker, lending the nearby alleys a sinister look. It wasn't likely they'd be mobbed - Alfred knew the .22 in his coat was at least slightly visible and there was a small throng of people around, for God’s sake - but you could never be too careful, especially with Matthew here. For the first time, Alfred felt his mind pick up a little and he lengthened his stride to pass the alleys quickly.
They hurried on, two young men with their head ducked against the growing chill and hands tucked tight in their pockets shuffling up the street. One of them looked up ever so often, but the other didn’t. Alfred knew it was because Matthew was looking to take in the changes of Boston, but he knew it all better than the back of his hand; he didn’t even need to watch the cracks in the sidewalk since he knew them by the buildings they were placed by. It took another fifteen minutes of walking till Alfred looked up, bringing a tightly-strung Matthew to a halt as well. "This is it, isn’t it?" He cleared his throat.
Alfred lifted his fingers halfway to take a puff before replying and discovered he’d dropped his cigarette at some point along the way, or perhaps it’d burned away. Either way, it didn’t matter. Matthew’s was gone as well and they were at their destination, so they couldn’t light another. Alfred jerked his head. "Yeah, the ice rink."
He still didn’t really feel anything as they walked to the building, letting the small, stunted, city-warped trees near the sidewalk pass by. Matthew asked him something about how he was and Alfred said he was fine - as usual. He was, honestly. It wasn’t like the fire at Berkley had done that much damage and there were dozens of exciting things going on and stuff to blow up and alcohol to rip past beaucracies. (Hell no he didn’t have a press a friend had asked to keep for him in his basement.) But he just didn’t feel much like doing anything tonight; that wasn’t an illness or anything work-related - unless the market had dropped a few points after he left the house this afternoon. He just- meh. He was fine.
Matthew shot him a curious glance, but left him alone. And then, of course, Alfred wanted to pat him on the back, ‘cause that was why he’d always be the best to hang out with. They had their own ‘bro policy’ usually: Stuff happened and unless they thought it was really important, no questions asked. It was far better than talking to France (who immediately guessed at l’amour) or England (who might get offended and go bar hopping and of course that solved everything) and generally, Canada was just awesome and Alfred was going to have to get him something equally awesome this Christmas, bar none. Like- really, really, awesome. Maybe a gigantic cake like no one had ever seen or eaten and then they could eat it all together. That would be incredibly awesome.
Alfred got jerked out of his thoughts as Matthew poked him through the ice rink door. It wasn’t much of a rink either, really, just a small room with a four-by-four coffee stand and a large pile of beat-up skates waiting to be put away behind the counter. But it wasn’t bad by any standards. Alfred knew there was much worse - and Matthew had probably seen much worse in butt-chilling Canada. The small wooden shack was unpainted but clean, and the carpet hadn’t been too worn with all the snow-covered boots tramping on it. There were two men waiting at the counters and they looked alright too: cheery enough anyway. The one in the tiny coffee booth had scruffy brown hair and a lean, hungry look; a kid off the streets, Alfred knew, but he had a decent smile. And the one leaning over the skate counter to their right had a ragged red beard with stark red cheeks and blue eyes. He looked Irish and ready for a good laugh.
Alfred nodded to the man at the skate counter and plastered the usual enormous grin on his face. "John!"
The usual greetings. Alfred didn’t bother to register the bull coming out of his mouth since it was all regular and who gave a crap anyway. Neither Matthew nor John noticed, but Alfred could feel the kid behind him watching closely, sharper than he looked. Alfred shot him a blinding grin and a wink and the kid turned away. Oh. Well then.
Turning a bit to hide his disappointment, Alfred turned to Matthew and John who were having a discussion about the Absolute Necessity of Good Expensive Ice Blades (Alfred might’ve seen Matthew sneak the man a roll of bills and a look of camraderie flash between them, but he was going to ignore it.) which they then cut short to fiddle with skate rentals. Matthew rattled off their sizes but Alfred found himself holding up a hand. "Nah, I’ll pass today."
John let out something a little like a breath of air and a little like an ‘aw’. "Why don’t you skate, Jones? ‘ll be good for ya. Get some cold air in the lungs - makes you feel in the best of health."
"Not tonight." Alfred shot him his patented Sincere Grin with another Sincere Nod(c). "Maybe later next week. I’ve been busy all last night."
John shrugged and put the other pair of skates away. "Suit yerself."
"Mmhm." Alfred ignored Matthew’s slightly Concerned Glance(c) to give a last wave to the man and push open the door to the outdoor rink and the biting chill.
The rink was quite ugly though. Not really horrid, but just realistic to someone who had never seen a frozen patch of outdoor ice before and expected it to be shining and beautiful and so perfect you could see your reflection in it. Leaves littered the four corners and hours of metal blades passing over the ice surface had rendered it littered with scratches and snow from the ice itself. It looked difficult to skate in honestly - one of the reasons Alfred had dismissed the idea. He wasn’t a great champion or an avid fan with ice in his blood, like his brother. The ice was just there, it was nice, and he didn’t feel like skating today. He didn’t feel like doing much of anything today, actually.
Why was he here at the ice rink anyway? He really, truly shouldn’t be here. It was just stupid and why was he freezing his butt off for Canada’s hockey?
Alfred silenced a huff as he plopped down on the benches next to Matthew and watched his brother lace up his skates. They exchanged a few pleasantries wherewith Alfred’s unusual silence and mood was thankfully ignored and Matthew eventually got on the ice.
Which gave Alfred a lot of time to do....
He made a face at the boards. He’d completely forgotten to bring his little whittling-improv-project or a book at least and now he had hours to waste since Matthew took friggin’ forever to get off the ice once he was on.
God, he had to spend at least an hour in the bloody cold- Alfred coughed violently into his hands and thrust them into his pockets. Might as well keep them warm for however long they could be. Puffing out a white cloud into the chilly air, he turned his attention to the rink itself. The little location was squeezed between two large stone shops with a strip of wooden benches on both sides, letting the rink set four lanterns on four corners that lit the ice and the skaters' profiles.
After a second, Alfred turned to watch the few partakers going about in circles. There were the usual young adults of course, falling all over themselves - and probably enjoying that more than they should - and one child barely strong enough to skate against the ice’s snow accompanied by her moth. Then there was Matthew. Alfred cocked his head, watching his brother glide effortlessly around the rectangle. He almost seemed older when he skated. Not because of strain, just because he liked the idea of such a sport so much the silent shell flew off. And that was a good thing; heroes could wait long periods of time to make people happy. Feeling better, Alfred glanced around the rink once more with a grin to see if he’d missed anyone.
Oh, he had. Alfred leaned forward on his knees as a young girl picked herself off the ice and brushed snow from her dress. Sighing a little, she skated over to the boards where a man stood up to talk to her. The words were brisk but kindly and she smiled as he sent her away back to the ice. Alfred watched with interested disinterest, half noting Matthew side-step-running drills over the length of the ice as he did so.
And then she spun.
He didn’t see the exact motion, but all his attention focused on her seconds later as she leaned back with her foot bent. He’d seen figure skating before; he knew what it was. Russia shipped his own figure skaters over to Alfred often enough; even England had a few to boast about and the man barely liked ice in his whisky. But it had never been real; there was something about her- something- Alfred swallowed and forced himself not to stand up and run across the ice and hug her because damn, that would be creepy. No- but- he didn’t even know what to say or how to say it. He just seemed to know that she would be important somehow. This was something new and beautiful and pretty in this dull, smoke-fogged world and she was suddenly there in it.
The girl brought herself back down into a one-footed position and pressed out, ending the spin in time to smile at the man and catch Alfred oogling at her. She instantly blushed and turned back away to her coach.
Alfred jerked back to the coffee shop cursing himself, a fierce flush coloring his own cheeks. Stupid, stupid, stupid. Honestly, he still acted like a bumbling stupid idiot. Stupid. Why was he staring at her anyway? Why was he here? He could just go home and mope- Oh right, Canada was visiting. Alfred cleared his throat and rubbed his hands inside his pockets. What had that been? My God, he was starting to turn into a European nation. Was this was happened to old countries? Dopiness broken by random, instantaneous bouts of bright? No wonder France advanced anything that walked on two legs (or maybe four). God, this was embarassing.
Alfred hid his face until the girl skated off to do something else - he pointedly avoided looking in her direction and stared at Matthew, which was probably weirder, but hey, he obviously wasn’t trying to be a perv - and he scrambled to his feet. "Excuse me." The man sitting on the bench turned, a tad surprised. "Excuse- ah-" Alfred suddenly found the need to cough into his sleeve. "Say, what’s her name?"
"Hers?" The man nodded towards the girl who was finishing another seemingly complicated spin. Alfred nodded. "Maribel. Maribel Vinson. Quite lovely, isn’t she?"
"Yes," Alfred breathed - and he actually meant it to his surprise - before Maribel came skating back, shyly focused on just the man.
Her voice was surprisingly flat, making her a bit older than she looked. "How was that?"
"Twist your leg more." The man stood up and cleared his throat, glancing toward the ice. "When you do the layback, it needs to be fluid; more grace. Pull your arms gently toward you like you’re hugging someone and pushing them away at the same time. Think of an uncomfortably doting aunt."
Maribel laughed, nodded some form of acquisance, and skated off again to do a ‘layback’ or whatever lovely spin she was going to make more lovely.
The man cleared his throat, bringing Alfred back to the ice rink. "Willie Frick."
"Willie Frick," the man held out his hand. "And..." Alfred blinked. "... you are..."
"Oh- Jones. Alfred Jones." Alfred shook his hand with a bit more force than probably necessary. "Sorry about that. I just- She’s a good skater, isn’t she?"
Willie smiled dryly. "She ought to be. Both her parents skated and she was made an honorary member of the nearby skating club at birth."
"At birth?" Alfred ignored the fact that he already really knew all of this and was merely too excited to focus and find information by himself.
"Mm." Willie stopped as Maribel skated up to the boards again, eyes still shy, but a bit bolder than last time. She stared at Alfred for a second, then carefully stuck her hand out.
"Hi." Alfred shook it. No he wasn’t shy himself. This was terribly awkward. Damn.
"This is my coach, Mr. Frick," Maribel managed after a second of realizing Alfred wasn’t going to say anything. "We’re going to go to the Olympics."
"Really?" Alfred grinned as his usual bouncy self came flooding through some random, secret room it’d been hiding in. "I love the Olympics. I never really paid attention to figure skating though. When do you think you’re going to get there? I’ll watch you."
"Oh, I don’t know. I’m eleven." Maribel shrugged, but her eyes were sparkling now. "But I’ll get there someday. Right, Mr. Frick?"
Willie nodded and Alfred grinned. "Splendid!"
And then Willie sent her out again to do another spin. And another. And another. And then a jump. And then more jumps. And Alfred honestly felt his eyes glued to her like he’d never see her again. Maybe he wouldn’t, but that wasn’t the point. It was just that he felt loads better and he didn’t quite understand why. She was a dreamer though; he got that. That’s what he was meant to be: a dreamer, and there was such a spark in her eyes. His people still dreamed and yes. Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes. That was all there was to say. Yes. Yes, yes, yes. He could barely hold it in for the next hour and a half.
Alfred popped to his feet when Matthew half-staggered off the ice with a happy grin and met it with a blinding one - authentic this time. "Want to get a pop?"
Matthew rolled his eyes and make a faux groan as he stumbled off the ice and onto the arena bench. "Oh God, he’s back."
"Course I am! Where'd I go? I’ve been here the whole time."
"Nowh-" Canada stopped mid-sentence and shot Alfred a look. "Nevermind. Isn’t there a really good restaurant around here though? The one with the pies-?"
"Oh right! Sure! It’s just around the street. You’ll have to hurry up or it’ll be closed!" Alfred couldn’t hold his energy and stood up, bouncing lightly up and down on the balls of his feet as he lit a smoke. (The tabacco didn’t even calm him down.) After watching Matthew undo two of his laces, he started pacing to the rink door and back. "Heeeeey," he finally whined. "You’re taking foreverrr, Mattie."
"Where's the guy I walked here with? Because I think you ate him." Matthew shot him another look and stood up. "Fine. I’m coming. Say, do you have another smoke? I did my last one on the walk here."
"Sure." Alfred dug in his coat pockets with both hands and produced the lighter and a cigarette which he carelessly tossed in Matthew’s direction and opened the door as his twin fumbled around with two skates, a lighter, and the smoke. "Hey, you comin’?"
The next time he heard of her he was writhing on a staircase, almost to the basement where Cal couldn’t find and give him reassurances that the agricultural colleges would fill the empty feeling in his middle. He was tired of it. Tired from the war and tired as great and bountiful fields of wheat were plowed under for cold, hard silver. There was always an ache there now, and every day it got worse as the farmers left for the city, feeding him only with more empty hope and the bile that rose like now, choking him in the dust of forgotten golden dreams. No war. Less food. Less money.
He spit on the steps, trying to will the stabs of pain away. He could imagine (it wasn’t the problem, but it was nice to romanticize) a rusting windmill by a farm, and each time the iron snapped, it was a knife in his gut. He slid down the steps, watching the farm in his mind’s eye and breathing far too loud in the quiet hallway to be feeling anything pleasant. The windmill pole cracked, it tumbled in half to the dusty ground and his hand slipped from the stairs, sending him down, down, down to the basement like the windmill head. Somewhere on the sixth to fourth step he lost his glasses. But it was quiet here and he curled up in a ball without his glasses to listen to the dusty years of his past surround him and mock the waste of a century.
It felt like hours when the pains died back down and Alfred could breathe. He found his glasses on the third step, the frame pretty much intact - one time before he’d completely smashed them and that had been awful explaining to Cal - so he put them on and flicked on the light.
This wasn’t even a basement really, just a storage room nobody cared about because it held a bunch of old-fashioned chairs and amemnities and it wasn’t the basement. Some were covered with sheets, but most were tossed on top of one another, shamelessly disregarding the handiwork of dozens of masters. Alfred had arranged a few in a circle just for kicks and pushed a table against them. Sometimes he would bring coffee and just stare into the corner, laughing bitterly at the feelings tearing him apart. Sometimes, like now, he came to recover.
Alfred stared at the dusty wall, letting the lives of his people flitter past him. As nations, it helped sometimes to see them still getting along; still working on their daily lives, wrapped in simplicity and hope for a better future. Sometimes, their ignorance made him sick. And America felt guilty at that thought, because honestly, it was better in secrecy. Nations with private interests wouldn’t have the pressure of the public and the public didn’t have to think they would be effected, in turn, by their nations. It was all very simple this way. Only he couldn’t help but feel that since they were part of him, he was stealing a little from their strength. When they were weak, he was weak, and no matter how much he tried to give back, he couldn’t give to all of them.
Pushing away his thoughts, Alfred let his mind whisk people by, like examining a crowd in a train station. Little Jimmy crying for his bottle. Cynthia: afraid of going to school because of the big slide. Ben and Thea, the happiest couple in the world at that instant as they slipped the rings on each others’ fingers and tied the knot. Alfred felt himself grinning at their happiness; a genuine smile, not the half-arsed ones he’d been in the habit of giving lately. Then there was John, an old man with his hands in the corn and Beatrice, a widower with three sons climbing through the window and on the linoleum with muddy shoes. He could feel her exaspiration, but being a man, couldn’t feel much sympathy. Hundreds of people flashed before his eyes: thousands then from the cities and the country and one man in Hawaii - that was odd. And then there was somthing on the east coast; an athletic event... Alfred closed his eyes; let a chill run over him and an ache of something hard resonate under his feet.
He felt a sense of deja vu at her actions - his citizen was a her - but it was difficult to get a read on who she was. She was almost ethereal; moving, but thinking of her actions, not of herself, and Alfred felt his legs twitching as he subconsciously followed her.
She was somewhere in New York. Figure skating; a figure skater jumped like that. Alfred let the cold wind of the rink and the visions of a crowd she barely noticed sweep over him. She was a small girl; barely twelve, but as she danced across the ice she seemed much bigger and she pressed his worries out of his mind. Concentration flooded him as he felt muscle memory twist her this way and that to the strains of a waltzing tune; a buildup of joy gathering every second till the music ended and Alfred found himself with tears fogging his glasses as he cheered at a wall.
Coughing lightly, he sank back into the chair as she stepped off the ice, receiving congratulations - from a familiar face. He’d seen that man. And- and he’d seen her before. Alfred blinked, trying to remember before his knowledge gave him the answer. Oh. Maribel. The one skater he’d seen a year ago when Mattie wanted to go to that Boston rink because he was in town. (And he was a guest, which immediately made him eligible for anything Alfred was indifferent to; but he complained whenever Al came over.) So she was still skating? And at Junior Nationals no less. He grinned again as a wave of ecstasy shot through him; he rephrased his thought. Won Junior Nationals.
Alfred leaned back in his chair, reflecting her childish cheer and basking in the hope she offered. She was only twelve, he realized; only twelve and she had so many big plans. Her goals had a semblance of order to them as well. They could be accomplished if she had a mind to do it, and she did. Alfred smiled a little at the dusty chairs. There were still beautiful things in this world then. People could make them like Maribel had: he wasn’t alone, and not everyone had given up. Alfred suddenly realized he felt better than he had in weeks.
He shouldn’t watch people.
America knew that. England had told him hundred of times/God knew how many and so had France. He even found northern Italy sobbing about someone one time and he gave him a lollipop and hugged him (that Italy hugged him was probably the better term) until Romano came storming down the hallway with red eyes and a "the f*** are you f*** looking at s**** s***faced b****" and dragged Feliciano away. When you started getting attached to people, you didn’t want them to die and it hurt like hell when you stood at their funeral listening to the rain pound on the freshly turned dirt; hiding your face because you looked the same forty years before. He knew that. He learned by experience from Washington - standing by a bedside as they tried to cure him with knives and leeches - and there wasn’t a week that went by without a groundless wish his human father had lived.
So he also shouldn’t be watching her.
America snorted a little at that, rolling over in his bed as every damn bone in his body screamed not to move. He’d gotten a bit better after a few months; the recovery period at the end of 1929 and all that, but the numbers of production and disemployment of 1930 still drilled holes in his marrow. Straightening up, he tossed his legs over the edge of the bed and forced himself to stand. He couldn’t let Hoov feel any more guilty than necessary; he was worrying himself to death over the crash, humming and hawing. The man probably ought to enforce more, but America couldn’t complain. Wanting to do something but abiding by rules meant a good bit after all.
Alfred got dressed, went to the kitchen to eat (just to see how the cooks were faring; they were fond of him and no, he didn’t worry about them), and had whatever they set out for the day. There were another series of meetings scheduled today, reflecting the radio, stocks, and of course, the people and what they ought to do. He knew he’d probably fall asleep in the middle again as they discussed raised tariffs - America didn’t bother telling them that the other countries didn’t give a damn about his tariffs, they’d just raise their own on American goods and screw him farther in the midwestern dust.
And yes, they discussed tariffs, and yes, America gave in to the aching pains (nobody woke him up which made him irked and grateful at the same time), but he burst awake at the familiar cheery esctacy that shot through him. "YES!"
Mr. President righted his inkwell and looked over his glasses at him as a dozen other face scrambled to hide their surprise. Alfred cleared his throat. "Yes to the tariffs, America?"
Heh. Well that was awkward. "No, it was- ah- Maribel."
The President frowned and Alfred reminded himself he’d only been in office for barely a year. "Maribel Vinson," he waved a hand. "The figure skating champion: she’s won three times in a row and always taken the podium and she’s only nineteen."
"Hm," the President thought about that like he did everything, slowly mulling the multi-faceted though over in his mind. "Have you ever met her?"
"Once," Alfred shrugged. "A long time ago."
"Does she skate well?"
"Stunningly, sir." He said that with a grin.
Hoover nodded, still wondering at those thoughts in his mind. "Maybe I would enjoy watching her someday."
And then the conversation abruptly turned back to tariffs and National Credit and Alfred was left to watch and rewatch Maribel’s dancing, twisting program in her gleeful memory. Through the most difficult times, he reminded himself, there were always more interesting days ahead and goals to find. Fear crushed that, so you couldn’t be afraid. Jumps had to be mastered and spins centered so they wouldn’t travel awkwardly in little loops across the ice. It took time and practice, but work ended up being beautiful precision. Ice skating had a lot of lessons, Alfred finally decided.
Alfred nudged his brother, who scowled, of course. "Come on..."
"You know you want to."
"You mean you think I want to, but I don’t."
"Matttieeeeeee," Alfred leaned across his brother’s red-and-white chair to hang across his brother. Matthew pushed him away and shot him A Look. "I looooove youuuu."
"But you don’t want love? I though alll ya neeed is loooove, luv luv luv luv-"
"Will you stop that?" Matthew stood up, brushing off his shirt. "I paid ten cents to get this clean and you’ve got your crumbs all over it- did you-?" His face grew darker as he picked up the now-possibly-mostly-empty jar of buns. "Did you eat my bread?"
Alfred cleared his throat and straightened off the back of the chair. "Idon’tknow. Well, now you’re out of those little bun rolls, do you want to take a walk?"
"Oh, come on. It a fricking gorgeous day for Toronto of all the damn places. Let’s go walking so I can inadvertently lead you to a wedding that starts in-" Alfred checked his watch. "-thirty minutes."
"You want me to walk all the way downtown and back."
"No." Matthew turned his back and went to put the empty bread jar in the pantry.
"Damn it, Mattie," Alfred stalked after him, almost skipping because of his mood-high before he stopped himself. He cornered his brother in the pantry entrance. "It’s Guy Owens. You aren’t even gonna be best man at Guy Owen's wedding."
Matthew rolled his eyes and pushed past him. "And since when did you care about poor ice sports?"
"Since- well, you know."
"You’re only going for Maribel, you know I know that, right?"
Alfred pursed his lips, thought a second - ‘cause actually that was a pretty good point; he was just going for Maribel. But he felt guilty about only going for Maribel, so that was why Matthew was supposed to go: to support Guy, because Guy was pretty awesome in his own way, even though he was Canadian and weird. Alfred voiced that train of thought. "Yeah. So you have to go for Guy."
"But why not?"
"Because!" Matthew burst out, throwing on the hot water and violently scrubbing a dish as he turned a deep red. "It’s- it’s rude!"
Alfred sidled up next to his brother. "It’s not like we’re going to steal anything."
"We weren’t invited, Al. That’s the point. It’s rude to barge in on someone’s wedding."
"So? All we’re going to do is watch them."
"Like some creepy vaudeville show? Are you kidding me?" Matthew shut off the water and darted to do something stupid to avoid him, like rearranging the pillows. Alfred followed him and twisted the pillows out of alignment after his brother had straightened them.
"No, just like- you know. It’s just a wedding! Why would it be creepy?! Are there ghosts in the church?"
Matthew scowled, jerking a pillow out of Alfred’s hands. "Yes," he snapped. "There are ghosts in all of my churches. I see them every Sunday and bring them Tulip Steakhouse. Happy?"
Alfred blinked, weighed his options of congratulating his nine-times champion and maybe being taken as a giant steak. "I- ah-"
"No, Al. You can go and I’ll call Arthur to bail you out when they call the police to take you to jail for trespassing, but I’m not going." Matthew scowled to prove his point. "That’s fina-" he turned away to cough. ... and cough. And cough more, hunching over as the dust choked his lungs. Alfred tossed down the pillow and helped him over to the couch, feeling the dust inside his own nation get stirred up as Canada lay down, choking now; swallowing to stop and keep the sand grains down. It was probably another dust storm. They were both prone to the coughing fits now and maybe they always would be.
No, Alfred snarled at his thoughts as he filled a glass with water and hurried back to the couch, no, there was hope and there would always be hope. Lives were continuing and everything was on an upward turn; unemployment was far lower than it had been, retail sales were increasing, and he wasn’t socialist. Alfred gave a slight grin. Not yet at any rate. The conservatives were taking care of that. War was brewing across the seas, damn Europeans, but there was hope. People were still alive: there were marriages, and love, and life. The worst might not be over, but by damn it was going to come to an end.
So America spent that one day in 1938 watching Saskatchewan be blown by dust.
Figures were excruciating things. Alfred had to give them that. Each skater slowly traced the circle, right arm in front and left arm behind, as their left foot - inside foot, as Dick Button’s voice was apparently explaining - led them back to the edge where they started. Then they traced the opposite foot in the opposite direction, left arm in front and right behind with the right foot leading.
Laurence wiggled and one of the judges marked something off on her clipboard, making Alfred purse his lips and lean forward. She was usually quite adept at figures: last year she’d gotten third, but she could make it this year. Now she just had to get a good score on figures to beat Stephanie Westerfield and it all relied on her freeskate. Skating cheerily through half a dozen more tracings on the ice, Alfred leaned closer, hissing through his teeth as she wobbled a little on the last one. That wouldn’t deny her the 1961 Championship, would it?
The door shut and Alfred jumped, tuning out Dick Button’s chatter as Maribel Vinson-Owen and Laurence Owen sat together, waiting for the scores. "Hey Al, I brought poutine."
Poutine was possibly better than moose stew, which was amazing. Alfred took the dish from Matt and sat down, pouting as the scores popped up. Stephanie had gotten an edge on Laurence; her figures had been well-executed, but still. Matthew scowled as he hung up his own jacket. "Can you save some of that for me? Or are you just going to eat it and let me drool all over your couch."
"Nope." Alfred licked the gravy off his fingers and handed the package to Matthew who snatched it away.
"Thanks. And why are these nationals so important again?"
"Maribel-" Matthew rolled his eyes and Alfred rolled his eyes back in return. "-she retired a while back, but now both her daughters are skating. Maribel - young Maribel - is doing pairs with D-Richard-somebody and Laurence is skating singles again. She got third last year."
Alfred glanced back and forth from his brother to the TV as Matthew started to think back, recalling things from his vast ice network of Canadian past-timers. "Right. She didn’t skate well and Carol Heiss was still ruling the title, but she retired and started a family after the Olympics, didn’t she?"
Alfred shrugged. "Maybe."
Matthew rolled his eyes again. "Alright, she did. Heiss retired and is leaving the championship open, so now you’re biting your nails over your favorite skaters. One of whom just placed second in the figures. And whoever wins gets to go to Worlds."
True, Laurence was behind, but Alfred crossed his fingers. There was still a full program left and he had faith in Laurence and her mother’s training. The two of them sat and ate poutine all afternoon, watching as the men botched their figures, but perfected eerily complicated jumps (Matthew critiqued them until Alfred shoved a french fry in his mouth) and the pairs ran their rounds. Maribel Junior won, of course, and Alfred grinned, but as the single ladies stepped on the ice for their warm-ups, he leaned forward again.
There was Laurence’s nervousness, but in the same motion, he could feel her cheer and grace. She started, dancing to the music and transfixing his eyes on the screen; she was more lyrical than her mother, but not as athletic. Each jump was given gentleness and grace rather than a fierce push-out and her short shag haircut complimented it, waving in the breeze she made. Her footwork was graceful and her cheeks shone bright against her dress in the black and white of the set, entrancing her watchers into silence as she skated. She wasn’t part of the mold all the skaters before her set, she was something entirely ethreal in an entirely different realm than her mother; and when she stopped, Alfred could feel her assurance that dash the compulsary figures, she had won.
And yes, three minutes later, the judges assured her victory and Laurence held her trophy. He sank back in his chair, feeling the rest of the nation doing the same thing and sharing the knowledge they had watched something spectacular.
Brrrrrrrrring.... Brrrrrrrrrrring..... Brrrrrrrrring..... Brrrrrrrrr-
He hated night calls. He hated night calls so bloody much it wasn’t even enough to call it hate. What was another word for hate? Abhar? Ahor? Alfred flailed around his bed, searching by hand for his glasses and with the other hand for the ringing phone. After not finding his glasses, he ended up looking blindly for the phone with it ringing bloody murder in his ear. That also didn’t work and the call ended, apparently deciding that he had been woken up enough to leave. Yes, he definitely hated night calls.
Alfred fell back in bed, then stared at the pale grey ceiling, too tired to get up and too startled to go back to sleep. He wondered vaguely what JohnK. was doing and if he was still asleep, or if he ought to call Arthur and pass this outrageous early telephone call on. Except it would probably be later there because- yeah- maybe earlier or something like that. It was way too early. Why the hell did he have a phone in his room anyway?
Shaking his head once, quick, to clear a good portion of the sleepiness out of his head, Alfred looked around for his glasses and found them, then lay back down and did his morning routine. Today was February 15th 1961, day after Valentine’s Day and his succeeded attempt to totally flip Arthur out by proposing to him in the middle of a G8 meeting. Kennedy was in office. Russia and Cuba were potentially crazy. Okay, not that eating ice cream all the time in 90 degree weather was crazy, but Alfred needed to believe that freaking crazy communists didn’t rule the globe, ‘kay? A chimp was in space (which totally didn’t make him crazy to all the other people who believed space was impossible to reach [take that!]) and just about everything about ballistic missles was interesting and hey. Awesome stuff. February 15th was going to rock balls.
That time Alfred was ready. He pounced on the phone. "Hello. Whoever this is, do you have any idea what time it is here?"
There was silence for a second. Then someone cleared their throat on the other end of the line and Alfred shrank a little, ‘cause nooooo that was a bad idea. Very bad idea to diss someone off at four in the morning - it was four, right? He glanced at the clock. Yeah. Four. "Yes, prat, it’s four in the morning there. Now may I share my urgent news, because I have other things to do and I’m sure I can call your brother who would be much more polite about my early-morning call and would tell you it oh, on-odds about a week later over which period of time you would be thoroughly confused and desperate."
Alfred rubbed his eyes. "... you’re sprouting a bunch of bull. Why are you calling?"
"Oh yes, a bunch of bull." Arthur sniffed. "Just like you sprouted a bunch of bull yesterday. What was that anyway? A public attempt to assure everyone’s opinion of you is of a ridiculous git? A marriage proposal? What were you thinking?"
"That- God Arthur-"
"I see. You either have no opinion or can’t reply. How fitting for someone-"
Oh, screw that. Alfred hung up. Whatever Arrhur's ‘urgent’ news was, it could obviously wait until he had had breakfast and maybe two cups of coffee with some toaster waffles and jam. Hey, that wasn’t a bad idea. See, he had good ideas about breakfast and enterpenuing and toaster waffles. Alfred tossed himself out of bed and started towards the door when the phone interrupted him. Again. He scowled at it and picked the curved nuisance up. "Yes, Arthur."
There was dead silence for a second, and then Alfred could picture Arthur’s lip curling up in his irked way before he gave a silent retribution. "You know your plane- where’s the bloody number; bollocks- Flight 548; the one with the figure skating team on it? It crashed when landing at its stopover in Brussels." He paused, waiting for Alfred to say something, but nothing came, so he continued a little gentler than before. "The plane was coming in for a landing on the runway that was blocked; it pulled up well enough, hiding the landing gear and circling again; three times. But then it was almost straight in the air; the plane nosed dived into a field nearby: shrapnel killed a farmer who was riding a bike nearby as well."
Alfred moved his jaw; blinked. "Were there-" he licked his lips "-were there any survivors?"
Arthur hesitated that time. Alfred could almost see him with a cup of tea in his hand, looking out the window of some cloud-covered cafe that viewed the streets of London. The hesitance of age that, as much as Alfred hated to admit it, suited him, and he couldn’t jab out about it because there was always that tiny voice that wanted to be as stoic as Arthur tried to be. Long story. But he hated it now as the man waited, telling the unwanted before it was said. "No- No, lad." Finally came the whisper. "I’m sorry."
Of course; an ‘I’m sorry’. That was fitting. Alfred found himself letting out a cruel, hurt laugh and hanging up on Arthur a second time - unintentional though. He almost picked it up and called the Brit back to apologize but thought better of it and left the room. The whole world spun as he made himself coffee like this was a dream. Wait, this was a dream. This had to be a dream. Alfred stared out the window at a snowy landscape as curls of steam traced changing patterns on the air before him. A call in this early morning misty dawn saying unreasonable things in Arthur’s voice? This ought to be a comedy. But Alfred couldn’t bring himself to laugh, even at a joke.
He looked for them, of course; they were still his citizens, even if it took a little more effort because they weren’t in his country, but he couldn’t find them. They had disappeared. Shutting his eyes tight, he looked harder: elder Maribel’s gruff voice, pretty Laurence’s poetic thoughts, Bradley Lord’s gung-ho enthusiasm. But the Winchester Pixie was still silent, as well as every other voice he had followed from their flowering promise. He couldn’t find them because somewhere far away in Brussels- Alfred closed his eyes again, but something - salty as Big Maribel’s language - still slipped down his cheek and into his coffee cup with a soft plop.
Hours later, Alfred discovered that the White House was quiet as his living room, made even eerier with the absense of staff to liven things up. He found Kennedy in the Office, sitting on the sofa and staring at the wall. He invited America to sit next to him, but Alfred declined; Ken somehow had a way of waking you up to see what could be and he didn’t want to imagine the unfinished lives right now; the pain was sharp as a toepick sticking him in this blur and an awake experience would be twice as unpleasant, perhaps. Heroes weren’t supposed to break. Ken spoke anyway. It was a personal tragedy as well, the man reminded him, Dudley Richards (young-Maribel’s pairs partner) had been a good friend of his and his brother. And why that made Alfred feel better, he didn’t know - cue another silent, sardonic laugh at the bitter irony of life.
But the meeting with the President passed quickly and Alfred could barely remember as he stepped on a flight - would this one crash too? Cue more laughter and odd stares - to stare out the window for God-and-Arthur-knew-how-many hours.
He landed at the Zaventem Airport in the same haze, staring blankly past the rows of people who struggled politely to get out of their tight seats. Belgium and England were here; he didn’t bring any luggage, Alfred realized for a moment at the door. But maybe Belgium would let him borrow something off Netherlands. Or he could call shotgun on a codfish barrel and steal some clothes from the red-light district. And how did he know Belgium and England were here again? He scanned the waiting heads halfway down the flight steps. Oh yes, he saw them a few moments back. Why didn’t he remember that?
Belgium ran up and hugged him as soon as his feet hit the tarmac. "I’m so, so, so sorry Alfred. For all of them."
Alfred attempted a grin, but he couldn’t make it reach his ears. "Thanks, doll." She kept hugging him though and eventually Alfred looked over Emma’s head to where Arthur was waiting. "Sorry I hung up on you, old man."
"You’ll be sorrier if you keep calling me that," Arthur sniffed, but there was no real menace in it. Alfred supposed they were to act civilized today. "Apology accepted. I give my regards in return."
It took a while to disentangle himself from Emma’s arms, but he managed after a few minutes. They traveled through the airport (Alfred couldn’t help noticing the patterns on the floor with little neverending chains and thinking that Stephanie Westerfeld would have liked them.) and biked a mile and a half (Alfred was surprised he hadn’t forgotten how to ride a bike at this point.) to a pile of charred rubble in the middle of a swampy field surrounded by rescuers - or at this point, just removers of the bodies. Alfred could feel the mud gathering in his shoes as they walked towards it so he wandered around to each tussock, probably annoying Arthur and Emma to no end as he prolonged the invevitable.
They reached it though: finally. And the first thing Alfred saw was the slightly charred cover of a Sport’s Illustrated magazine - the one issued the day before the team left - with a pretty Winchester Pixie pictured in a certain red dress, smiling her customary, cheerful, joyous smile with so much damn hope for Worlds after conquering North America. It was like a ghost of the past and a ghost of the future, fluttering there in the soft breeze with no one willing to remove it.
Huh, America thought as he finally sank down. Heroes do break.
"Do you believe in signs, Arthur?"
A glance over a cuppa. "Yes. Why? And eat your dinner. You haven’t touched a thing."
Alfred pushed the plastic carton back and forth. "Like the throw-salt-over-your-shoulder signs?"
"It depends. Once again, why?"
"Do you think they would’ve won at Worlds?"
Arthur looked at him over his tea, actually looked this time over the table. He sighed. "Alfred, I have no doubt they would’ve done well. Is this because of that copy?"
Alfred decided not to answer that and picked at his waffle.
"Do you think it was a good sign or a bad sign?"
A snort. Alfred shoved the food away to the side to poke at the table with the fork. "I don’t know. Is there something in your ‘magik’ books about a plane crashing and brutally ending seventy-two lives being a good omen? Is seventy-two a lucky number? Does it symbolize hope?"
Arthur set down his cup and leveled him with those emerald eyes. "There is always hope."
"Like hell there is!" Alfred shoved the table forward, thrusting himself back and making Arthur give a little gasp as the table crushed his middle. He pulled up a skate from under his feet; barely recognizable with the blade melted and distorted and the leather blackened to worthlessness, and tossed it on the table. "Is that hope?! Is that?!"
"You can’t take one thing-"
"They’re dead, Arthur!" Alfred found himself screaming as he paced the hotel floor. "They’re dead! All of them!"
"So there is no hope?" It was Arthur’s turn to laugh in that cruel, blatant way. "Alfred, you are so young."
"They had hopes and dreams! Maribel wanted to be a teacher and Laurence wanted to be a writer, or a poet or anything - she was sixteen, damn it, Arthur! Sixteen! And everything they wanted - everything their family wanted on that plane that they thought they could reach, was stolen from them by a- a- stabilizer-adjusting mechanism? Where?! Where is the hope in that?! Why do I have any reason to hope when entire families burn out of existence?!"
"Because they aren’t the only ones!" Arthur stepped forward and slapped his hand against Alfred’s cheek, ignoring his yelp as he dragged him back to his chair. "You don’t think the same thing hasn’t happened thousands of times before, Alfred? Ask Russia, will you? Or France, or Prussia. And they will tell you the same bloody story of hundreds of people who were damned to history that they knew and loved. You want to talk promise? Did you ever hear the story of the Romanovs? Of little Alexi shot to death so he wouldn’t take power? Olga and her sisters? Don’t- don’t cry, damn it." Arthur sat in his own chair and took a long drink from his tea cup, staring out the window. "Don’t cry, Alfred.
"I guess- I guess what I’m trying to say, is that you can mourn, but there are other promising lives." He glanced over his cup at the melted skate. "There is beauty in everything, Alfred, it just depends on how hard you look for it."
He could see her struggling a few seconds before. Not noticeably, but her breaths were lighter, harder to draw. The beeps of machinery grew faster and more rapid, filling the room with the theme of an invisible reaper. Alfred stroked her hand. The palm was callused, but those had been hard-won and the top was soft. Her hair was still done in a long grey braid; her face smooth against the undeniable pain. He could imagine her busy and bustling, but this was alright. This was the fall of age - the point of which he too would one day topple over, though it would be longer than hers. Alfred knew that; was at peace with it. He waited until both heartbeats and breaths stopped to let the nurses cover her and wheel her away.
One stayed, holding a clipboard with a soft look in her eyes. He hoped she spoke English, and yes, she did. "Are you of any relation, sir?"
"No, I’m afraid not."
"Did you know her at all?"
She stared at him for a long time, studying his face and Netherland’s clothes. If she had any brains she knew he wasn't Polish. "It was very kind of you to sit by her. Her son died yesterday on his flight here."
"I know," Alfred managed a thin smile. "I came in his place."
"Did you know him, sir?"
"A little. Not as well as I would’ve liked."
In the time after Alfred arrived back home from Warsaw - he didn’t stop in anyone else’s home which caused a few ruffled feathers; mostly from France - he listened to skaters across the country and their stages of grief. For some it moved quickly; for others, they kept their grief hidden and silent, mourning the loss of the nation far after the Belgian ground swallowed the scars.
However, a few days later Alfred listened to Laurence’s English teacher holding a small memorial in her high school. She read a poem, and honestly, Alfred hated poetry. England used to rock him away to poems at night and he was quite done with the whole ‘thy dead stand not in vain’ picture. But he listened this time because it felt fitting for someone who wanted to be a writer in life to be poetically summarized in death.
And he felt it cutting into him as he listened. He need to write this down: memorialize it somehow. Alfred scrambled around for a piece of paper as the teacher read the words, soft and haunting. He could feel the pain of the whole class as they listened, mourning as well for the lost life and the lost hopes. He threw himself into a chair when he finally found a pencil under the seat cushions and wrote down the last verses:
Gloom is but a shadow of the night, long past;
Hope is the light,
The teacher closed the notebook and faded away from his mind, leaving Alfred to stare at the words for hours, reading them; memorizing them; interring the little piece of Laurence flutting on the wing of a broken plane. Then he slowly stood up - still holding the scrap of paper close - and pulled the melted skate off its place on the counter. Placing the note inside it, he tenderly closed the blackened leather and set both in his storage room. The victims would be immortalized in his heart, not on a shelf; and to immortalize them there, he needed to live.
Because life was a sort of hope, wasn’t it?