Title: The Healing Begins
Fandom: Axis Powers Hetalia
Rating: PG 13 (language)
Word Count: 3794
Summary: Snake AU. His captor is dying and Matthew is trapped in the garden with no means of escape. An unexpected guest reveals that there’s much more to Arthur’s story than he could ever have expected, and maybe, just maybe, things aren’t always what they seem.
This is bad.
Matthew was a shepherd by trade, not a healer, but even he could tell that the situation he’d been thrown into had become very grave, very fast. Almost as soon as they’d re-entered the garden Arthur had pushed him away again, slowly dragging himself across the grass to the safety of his lair and coiling up inside. He refused to look at Matthew, refused even to speak, but as time wore on he wasn’t even sure if the snake-man still retained such a skill. For the longest time he just lay there, listlessly panting and staring at the back wall of the cave.
Matthew could only wring his hands for so long before the silence began to eat at him, cautiously approaching his captor. “Arthur, please, let me look at it.”
The other shook his head, drawing a bit of the flannel from the bed up even farther over himself, but not before Matthew spied the ruin of his shoulder. He sucked in a sharp breath, violet eyes widening in shock. That was not the pale colour of healthy flesh, but rather it seemed to be a mass of blackening, dying tissue. He’d seen it before in his sheep after a wound had soured, but never anything that developed as quickly as this.
It was a sure sign of impending death, and he felt his heart lurch at the thought.
“What could… you do? Why… even care?” The snake-man eventually rasped, agony leaking into his voice. Eyes that had once been so striking were now badly bloodshot as they turned towards him, wide and staring over Matthew’s shoulder as if unable to see the young man who stood no more than an arm’s length away. “Doesn’t… matter.”
“Please, Arthur,” he begged, drawing closer in spite of the way Arthur’s tail twitched atop the cushion. “I know that we’ve said and done some things to each other, but no one deserves this. There’s got to be something I can do.”
Arthur laughed at that, or perhaps he coughed, a wet, pitiful sort of sound that could have been either. “I… deserve a lot. Perhaps Fate…” At that his voice trailed off, like the the words had merely faded from his mind to be forever lost. It wasn’t until Matthew laid a hand against his scales that he seemed to collect himself again to speak. “At sunset… go down… to the border… Wait.”
Wait? For what? Perhaps the poison had started to muddy his mind, a thought which made the young man wince. He wouldn’t wish a death such as this on anyone, no matter what they’d done to one another. “But why? There’s no one else in the garden, Arthur,” he softly responded. “Just us. I won’t be able to find any help, and that snake’s still out there. I… I think I should stay with you.”
The lashing of his tail grew more agitated. “Boy,” he ground out, reaching blindly for Matthew. Unable to watch him flail so helplessly, he tentatively held out his arm for Arthur to catch hold of and draw close, though his grip was pitifully weak. “Do as I say.” His voice broke then, something akin to a sob welling up in his throat. “Please.”
“…All right,” Matthew whispered, his heart nearly breaking at the creature’s plight. “All right, I promise that I’ll go. But let me tend to you first, okay?”
It was with great reluctance that the snake-man finally agreed, Matthew’s stubborn determination eventually wearing down his defences. Of course there was little more he could do but drape dampened cloths over the other’s burning skin and sit with him, but at least it was something. He tried not to think about how close he had come to being the one bitten, though he had a sneaking suspicion that Arthur bore it all with far more strength than he could ever have mustered. As time passed Arthur’s breathing became more and more laboured, his body’s involuntary thrashing growing weaker until it finally stopped altogether, and by the time the sun dipped down below the horizon Matthew was loathe to leave him for fear that he’d expire before he returned. The young man chewed anxiously at his lip, his gaze darting between Arthur and the cave’s entrance. He didn’t want to go, but he’d made a promise. “Arthur?” He whispered, brushing sweat-soaked hair away from the other’s face.
Arthur didn’t even respond, as unconscious now as he’d been for the past half hour.
Slowly Matthew drew himself to his feet, pulling the blanket protectively over the snake-man’s labouring chest before slipping away with a heavy heart. Perhaps that’s how Arthur had wanted it, to send him away on an imaginary errand as he drew his final breath with the last scrap of dignity that he could gather, but if it had been Matthew laying there he’d have been desperate for company until the very end. He wouldn’t want to die alone. The fading sun gave him just light to see by as he made his way down the path towards the border stones, dry leaves shifting underfoot. Once he arrived he sat wearily down atop one of the boulders and drew his knees up to his chest, staring out into the outer forest; he didn’t know how long to wait before he returned, or if he even wanted to. Perhaps it would be best to simply leave him where he lay… Matthew could feel tears well up at the thought. Gods, what a horrible thing to think, but he really didn’t know what to do.
He was trapped here, surrounded by death on all sides. Only this morning he’d been desperate to escape from this false paradise, but now… now he found himself wishing things had remained the way they were before. If only for Arthur’s sake.
A sound at the edge of his hearing snapped his attention back to his surroundings. Faint, like- there, there it was again. A rustle of sorts, something moving over the forest floor. Matthew slipped off of the rock he’d been sitting on and back farther into the garden, his eyes darting fearfully into the darkness. His heart began to pound within his breast; what if the monster had returned under the cover of night to finish what it had started? What if there was yet another danger lurking out there, one he hadn’t yet encountered, that would take advantage of Arthur’s inability to protect them?
Matthew nearly shrieked at the disembodied voice, heavily accented and totally unfamiliar. It took him a moment to gather his wits back to him, to realize that a voice meant another person, and another person just might mean salvation for himself or the beast lying back in the cave. Working up his faltering courage, he called back. “No, it’s not Arthur. I’m a… a friend. Who’s there?”
Silence was his only answer at first. He got the feeling that whoever-it-was had been just as shocked by his reply as he’d been to hear them calling out in the first place. “A friend, you say? Of Kirkland’s?”
“If by ‘Kirkland’ you mean Arthur, than yes, I am,” he gushed, wringing his hands. Still he saw nothing, but each moment spent talking was another moment slipping through Arthur’s limp fingers. “I-I’m sorry, but by chance are you a healer? He’s dreadfully ill, and I… I’m not sure if he’s going to make it.”
Suddenly something flashed in the darkness, a quick movement as someone dashed forward to grab his arm in a vice-like grip. Matthew gasped as he found himself face-to-face with an unknown man, barely visible in the dying light yet clearly distraught by his words. “No. Take me to him at once.”
Matthew’s eyes flickered over his face, over a nude abdomen, and… Merciful gods.
A long, serpentine tail.
Wrenching his eyes away from the sight, Matthew swallowed down his shock and gestured back towards the cave where he’d left his dying captor. “He’s-“
The other never even gave him a chance to finish, pulling him bodily from the ground and slithering full speed back towards Arthur’s cave, dropping him just inside before rushing to the other’s side. The fire revealed more of him to Matthew’s sight as the stranger muttered worriedly in a foreign language, his hair white and skin even paler than Arthur’s, a tail covered in milky white scales with a touch of gold and brilliant ruby eyes-
It couldn’t be.
Oblivious to Matthew’s sudden fear, the stranger gathered Arthur’s limp body up in his arms, one hand pressed furtively against the centre of his chest. “Dammit, Kirkland,” he hissed, slapping lightly at his cheeks. “We haven’t made it all this way for you to die on me now. Wake up!”
Miracle of miracles, Arthur’s eyes cracked open for the barest of moments. “Sleeping,” he mumbled deliriously, obviously out of sorts.
“You’re not sleeping, old man, you’re dying,” the stranger laughed, the sound strained with worry. “Why’ve you always gotta be so stupid?” He pressed his fingers to Arthur’s neck, those red eyes darting over the bruised and bloated tissue of his shoulder before he sighed and shook his head. Then he did the most curious thing. Clapping a hand to his own chest, the other murmured something in the same strange language he’d been using before, and Matthew watched in rapt attention as a soft light began to emanate from between his fingers. When he pulled it away, there in the centre of his palm lay a single, flawless pearl.
“What’s that?” He whispered, wide-eyed and momentarily forgetting his suspicions.
“I’ll tell you later, kid. Right now I’ve gotta take care of this idiot.” With that, he pressed the pearl against the swollen mess of Arthur’s shoulder. On contact it began to glow again and filled the cave with an ethereal light; soon enough Arthur’s skin began to glow along with it, bruised tissue beginning to fade back to a healthy pink as though the death were being sucked right out of it. Matthew clung to the side of the fireplace mantle as he watched, unable to tear his eyes away. Never in his life had he seen such magic, never in his wildest dreams imagined that he’d ever see anything like this. Slowly but surely the colour began to return to Arthur’s cheeks and the breath to his lips, until the pearl’s light faded away and stopped altogether. Arthur remained unconscious, but he no longer looked as though he were clinging to the last strands of life. The stranger sighed in relief, pressing the pearl back against his own chest where it disappeared without a trace. “God, that was close. Much longer and I wouldn’t have been able to bring him back. We’re damned lucky that he’s such a stubborn old bastard.”
Matthew rushed to Arthur’s side, pressing his palms against him and finding none of that devastating heat, just the same oddly-cool skin that he’d always had before. He felt the stranger’s curious gaze on him and dropped his hands back to his sides, suddenly self-conscious. “Will he be okay?”
“Right as rain, kid, once he rests up and gets some food in him, though he’ll probably be pretty woozy for a while. That’s just how these things work,” the red-eyed man replied, one hand dropping down to rub absently at a scar on his abdomen, the skin freshly healed and still puckered and pink.
A scar as if someone had dug their claws into the softness there.
“How’s your head?” The words slipped out unbidden, fears returning full-force and his gaze already darting around the cave for anything that might be used as a weapon. Why hadn’t he seen it sooner, why had led this thing right up into the safety of the cave, right up to Arthur?
“It’s kind of sore, actually,” the stranger replied, his voice tinged in surprise. “Hey, how’d you know?”
His fingers found the iron poker from the fireplace and yanked it up between them, levelling it at the stranger with more courage than he would have thought he owned. He was on his own; from the looks of things, Arthur wouldn’t be leaping to the rescue this time. “Maybe because I’m the one who did it to you,” he growled, anger giving his otherwise kind voice a hardened edge. “What, did you forget about me already, about the way you threw me around like a doll and tried to kill me? How you bit Arthur and then slithered off like a coward?” Before he could even cry out Matthew found himself slammed back into the wall of the cave, the poker dropping from nerveless fingers as his elbow cracked against stone. He struggled, kicking, thrashing, even trying to bash the other with his head, but his attacker’s tail wrapped around him with unnerving speed and left him immobile. He scowled up at the other, hair all over his face from his struggle and spectacles barely hanging on to the end of his nose, impeding his already poor vision. “Are you here to finish what you started, eh? Come on.”
“Shut your mouth, kid.” He muttered, giving him a little full-body squeeze before relaxing so that Matthew could breathe. “Call me anything you want, but don’t call me a coward. ‘Cause I ain’t one. ‘Him’, on the other hand, well… that’s a whole different story.”
“Stop talking in riddles, then! You’re not making any sense! That was you, wasn’t it, the gigantic snake that tried to kill us? What’s stopping you now?”
The stranger sighed, stealing a glance over at Arthur to find that the other snake-man hadn’t even stirred throughout the exchange. “It was and it wasn’t. Look, if you’re living here with Kirkland, you already know that there are a lot of things in this world that don’t make a hell of a lot of sense. I’ll explain it to you if you promise not to start threatening me with shit again, okay? ‘Cause I can and will kick your ass in a heartbeat, make no mistake.” Violet clashed with red, tension sizzling in the air between them until finally Matthew gave the barest of nods and the other slowly unwrapped his tail from the blond. “C’mon, outside. I doubt he’ll wake up, but just in case, let’s let him sleep.”
The two made their way out of the cave, just far enough that their words wouldn’t carry while letting them benefit from the firelight still burning inside. “We seem to have started on the wrong foot, so let’s try this again, shall we? My name is Gilbert, of the clan Beilschmidt. Are you familiar with my family?”
Matthew shook his head, propping himself up against the opposite side of the cave entrance. He didn’t want to be any closer to Gilbert than he had to be. “No, I’m afraid not. I’m… Matthew, of the Bonnefoy family of Morda.”
Gilbert frowned at his words. “And I don’t know of yours or of your homeland, unfortunately. What year is it?”
“What year is it?” He gave the snake-man a queer look. “The eighth year of the Winter King’s rule, of the reign of the House of Spades.”
He may as well have told the man that it was the year of the flying donkey, for all of the understanding that seemed to dawn on the other’s face. “Never mind, I’ll figure it out later. My concept of time is all kinds of screwed up.” He shook his head, winding his tail around himself until he could flop down over the coils with a relaxation that Matthew envied. “So, you and Artie, huh? I never thought he’d find himself a companion.”
Matthew made a face. “I thought we were going to be talking about the two of you, not of my own plight.”
“Yeah, well. Like a lot of things in this messed-up world, sometimes the two aren’t all that different.” Those red eyes studied him, as if calculating how to begin. “How much do you know about magic?”
“Not a whole lot, unfortunately. It’s been banned since the Great War from all but the upper castes, but before that, most anyone could use it. Back during the Old Kingdom, anyway.”
“…You have no idea what I’m talking about, do you?”
Gilbert waved a dismissive hand through the air. “Not really. But I can pick your brain for a history lesson later, if you’ll let me. It’s not all that important right now. So where to start… well, Artie and I’ve known each other since we were kids, yeah? And we got into all sorts of trouble together. After our coming of age we decided to explore the world and have a little adventure before we settled down, fight some monsters, track down some treasure, save a few damsels… but all we managed to do was get ourselves cursed by a really powerful sorcerer who did gave us these.” He patted at his tail. “Though I’ve got it worse than Arthur. From sunrise to sunset I’m actually stuck as a snake, instead of halfway between.”
Matthew let out a low whistle in response. “Wow. What did you guys do to upset him?”
The snake-man shook his head, his expression briefly pinched with sadness. “Something neither of us are proud of, kid. Let’s just leave it at that. Needless to say, we had to find a place to hole up and hide in, because if the humans saw us, we’d be as good as dead. We heard about this place from a trader, so once we found it, here we stayed.”
“…And that’s it, eh? You’ve just been hiding ever since?”
“More or less. There’s not much for us out there, especially not any more. Everything that we knew is gone, all our friends and family… it’s just been me and Artie for ages and ages now. Thanks to my little daytime jaunts, this place has a bit of a reputation, so people tend to stay away. Probably for the best.”
So that was it, then. All of this boiled down to magic, a concept that was almost completely alien to a commoner like him. “So… the offerings? The pearl? Where do they all fit in?”
The other shrugged his broad shoulders in reply. “The pearl is… well, I guess in the most basic sense it grants wishes, though it won’t get rid of our curse. And we’ve got to be together to use the damn things, which is why I always dart up here if I wake and figure out that we might’ve been fighting; if Arthur got hurt, he wouldn’t be able to heal himself on his own. I mean, I heal when I shift forms, but he doesn’t have that luxury.” He sighed, rubbing a hand over his face. “Arthur has a better grasp on the ins and outs of this damn curse than I do, so it’d be better to ask him if you want to know more. As far as the offerings go, somewhere along the way somebody decided that we were gods or spirits of some sort, and that gods and spirits need appeasing with maidens just like they did in the old days even though we don’t really have any crazy god powers. At least I don’t. I mean, I didn’t much care, but I know that Artie was lonely and craved the company. But they never really stuck around all that long… The stupid things always ran off on him, right into my territory, and I’d end up finding them after the sun went down and taking them back to the nearest village when it was dark enough to travel. It was all that I could do for them by then, you know?”
“That was my village,” Matthew grumbled, kicking at the dirt. “Those girls you killed were ones I grew up with, and it was almost my sister.”
“Look, kid, I’m sorry, but it isn’t exactly like we can walk on down there and tell you guys to stop. And I can’t control what I do when I get all scaly, either; the gods know I’ve tried.” Gilbert had the grace to look ashamed. “I can’t tell you the number of times we’ve ended up tussling during the day and then met up at night to patch each other back up, either. It’s just usually not this bad. Arthur usually has the sense to avoid my fangs, but I guess he must have been more concerned with someone else’s well-being this time.” The tip of a forked tongue flickered between his lips, briefly testing the air before he pulled himself upright. There was something about him that looked thoughtful, as if the pieces of some puzzle were coming together to reveal a truth he hadn’t seen before. “Maybe you’d better rethink your position a bit. If Artie hadn’t wanted you here he’d have driven you out ages ago, and he sure as hell wouldn’t have risked his life to keep you safe. I can’t claim to know you all that well or how well the two of you are getting along, but I think you two might be closer than you realize. And Arthur’s been alone except for me for a very long time.”
Those vibrant red eyes stared out into the darkness for a few long moments before turning back to Matthew. “I need to hunt before the sun rises and I don’t get a choice in what I eat. I’ll stop back up here some night to see how both of you are doing, okay? Just take care of that stubborn old mule.”
Matthew watched him abruptly slither away, his mind filled with an overwhelming amount of information that he wasn’t sure he could really understand or even know how to react to. But beyond the confusion lay a single kernel of realization. Loneliness didn’t change the fact that he’d been held against his will, or violated, or any other number of things, but for the first time since he’d walked into this godforsaken place, he realized that he’d only been allowing himself to see the monster.
He hadn’t really been seeing Arthur.
A low groan came to him from inside of the cave, followed by the sound of movement. For the briefest of moments Matthew entertained the thought of slipping away into the dark forest, of leaving the nightmare behind while Arthur was unable to prevent him from going, but he knew in his heart that he couldn’t. Glancing one last time at the path that could have led the way to freedom, Matthew slowly turned and re-entered the cave.
Perhaps it was time that he tried.