There are tearstains over the old photo album, tearstains that smudge the ink and blur the memories in Arthur Kirkland’s mind. It goes back to 1902, with some earlier pictures as well. Kiku has captioned several of them in Japanese, so Arthur’s not sure what they say. But the tear-stained quality of some of those pictures suggested that the Japanese man had read it at least once after 1921.
Arthur looks up from the desk where he found the album, in the empty house that had been the site of his first meeting with Kiku. The Japanese man is nowhere to be seen.
When Arthur returns to the hospital, he finds Kiku Honda lying on the bed facing the window, his head and chest heavily bandaged, his eyes closed. He could be sleeping.
Arthur sets down the photo album and takes a seat, finger reaching out to trace the bruised and bandaged cheek of the sleeping Nation. Tears rise, unbidden. Could he have stopped it, if he’d only hung on tighter? If he hadn’t left?
“Have you moved at all from that chair, Artie? I swear your ass is glued there!” a familiar loud voice rips through the air, as Alfred F. Jones arrives on the scene. Arthur hastily withdraws his hand and looks up, glaring. “Geez, I’d think you cared about him!”
“Why shouldn’t I?” Arthur demands, blushing and looking away. “It’s all your fault, you know.”
“Oh, since when?” scoffs the American. “You know he was going to go dark and scary on us anyway.”
“I could have stopped him.”
“No, you couldn’t.”
“Yes, I could.” Arthur looks down at Kiku’s calm face. “I could have prevented a third of what happened had I stayed. God, why was I so stupid?”
“You agreed to it. It’s just as much your fault.” Alfred takes the seat on the other side of the bed. “Poor guy, though. I didn’t know the bombs would be this bad.”
Arthur squeezes his eyes shut, feeling hot tears course down his cheeks. “What if he never wakes up?” he whispers, voice strangled. “What will we do then?”
“It was inevitable. I understand.”
Kiku's face is unreadable. It often is. Arthur sighs, pours himself another cup of tea before the Japanese man can stop him and pour it himself.
“I think we’ll be better off with Alfred’s idea of collective security, right? Arms limitations, navy quotas…” The Englishman trails off, wishing he can read more than just blankness in the eyes of his long-term ally. But Kiku says nothing, only sips his tea with calm, refined grace.
“The Washington Naval Treaty is… hopeful,” he says after a moment, eying Arthur from under dark lashes. “No doubt it will keep all of us in check.”
Except you. Arthur can’t help but feel it. That spark of red that flashes – all of Kiku’s bottled emotions, all of the expressions behind that placid mask. It’ll come out, eventually. He’s not sure how.
“We had a good run, Kiku,” he murmurs, letting his fingers trail lightly over Kiku’s hand. The Japanese man flinches slightly, a temporary shininess evident in his eyes. But it’s gone as soon as it comes, like that spark before, and Arthur looks away, face reddening. He looks around the room, at the framed pictures, at the two sets of cranes on the bureau.
They’d been so happy then, hadn’t they?
“You were gracious,” Arthur says suddenly, thickly. “In the 1911 treaty.”
“I’d always known it’d come down to that, Arthur-san,” Kiku replies quietly. “Between him and me, you’d always choose him. You and I are so different. In the end, it’s far too much.”
Arthur scoffs. “Don’t. Don’t you dare think… no. You and I are still similar. You know that. Our governments, our ambitions… they’re the same.”
“Not any longer. You know that, Arthur. You’ve always known that, right?” Kiku looks down at the table that separates them. “Ever since 1902, you must have dreaded the day when what we shared wouldn’t be enough for me and I would take over your territories here. You’ve never trusted –”
“No. I have trusted. Don’t – just – no. Stop.” Arthur tries to fight away the tears, fight down the lump that rises in his throat. “Time and time again, you’ve proven yourself the worthier ally. I’m not about to forget any of that.”
“But it’s not enough now. I was never equal to you Western powers.”
Arthur shakes his head. “Stop this, Kiku. Stop it now, before it becomes impossible for me to leave. They’ve agreed to let our alliance terminate, and there’s nothing we can do to stop them.” But he grabs Kiku’s hand, clinging tight, knuckles white – as if letting go will be the end of him, as if Kiku’s presence is the only thing that keeps his heart beating.
Kiku clings back. “You were always so bright, so larger than life. You and your navy, ruling the world.” His voice cracks. “I felt so special to be your ally, you know? Out of all the nations you could have had, you chose me.”
But Kiku is already getting up, loosening his hand from Arthur’s grasp, turning that contact into a formal handshake. Already dissociating himself. It strikes something raw and painful inside the Englishman’s chest to see the Japanese man retreat from the table, face as expressionless yet beautiful as the day they’d met.
Strangers again. Arthur sits alone in the room, surrounded by memories. After a while, the only thing he can do is cry.
Kiku still lies in darkness when Arthur wakes and Alfred is gone, and the night filters in through moonlit curtains, casting deathly pallor onto the Japanese man’s face.
But his heart beats on. Arthur feels his pulse under his fingers, steady and true. Alfred had been that close to burning that. Arthur’s almost glad Kiku had capitulated at that point. He’s pretty sure total control by America over Japan would not have ended well.
He’s not about to excuse Japan’s atrocities. He’s not sure if Kiku would ever forgive him and Alfred for quarantining Japanese citizens, either. When one is a Nation, one is forced to hate the sin but love the sinner. Kiku is no different.
Still, guilt lurks in the back of Arthur’s mind, dark and foreboding, a disease for the unoccupied mind. Even if war with Japan to curb Japanese expansion could have been inevitable, it didn’t have to end this way. Britain could have at least stopped a bit – there had been so much more at stake than the military and Arthur had been far too oblivious to realise that.
There’d been something deeper. A fear of isolation. Kiku had emerged from isolation and changed for them all. He’d wanted to be treated as an equal, and for a while Arthur had done just that. When no one else had, he had. And taking that away had left Kiku with nothing – nothing, that is, except the same old resentment against the West, this time aided by a powerful new navy.
How could he have been so stupid?
There’s something different in Kiku’s eyes that night, something desperate hidden in the corners of those endless brown eyes, and Arthur’s not sure why the desperation is there at all as he takes his sweet time to unclothe the other.
“The Queen enjoyed your exhibition,” he whispers into Kiku’s ear, smiling against the shell, nibbling at the lobe. Kiku sighs into the darkness of the room, tears pooling in the corner of his eyes as he arches his throat to Arthur. Arthur kisses the Japanese man’s Adam’s apple and licks a trail down his throat, humming against his collarbone.
“I’m glad she – ah! – does,” Kiku gasps.
Arthur grins. “It was a good show. Although you could have left out the people from your overseas territories.”
Kiku scoffs. “You do that,” he points out.
“So I do. But –”
“Shh, Arthur-san.” Kiku smiles softly, before leaning up to capture Arthur’s lips. “Don’t say anything,” he breathes, fingers trailing down the Englishman’s arms. “Just appreciate what’s left of our time together.”
At that Arthur pauses in the kiss and looks quizzically at Kiku. “You don’t intend on ending, do you?”
“No!” Kiku frowns, pouting his lips. “I would never do that.”
“Good.” Arthur smiles and bites lightly at the juncture between Kiku’s neck and shoulders, eliciting a gasp. “I presume we’re going to discuss the renewal next year, then –”
“Now,” Kiku says abruptly, his fingers already making short work of Arthur’s clothes. “We discuss it now.”
“It could at least wait until after this,” Arthur mumbles, but Kiku tugs him into another kiss, more solid and bruising and desperate. The Japanese man wraps his legs around Arthur’s lower body, bucking lightly. Arthur groans at the friction; Kiku’s eyes flutter closed and his lips open for Arthur’s tongue.
“I want an extension of ten years,” Kiku mumbles as Arthur reaches down to undo his trousers and pants. His erection springs free, already leaking pre-come. God, he hadn’t even known he needed Kiku this badly until now.
“Ten?” he echoes vaguely, as he fumbles in his trouser pocket for the sheepgut condom. “Are you sure –”
“Yes.” Kiku spreads his legs and sighs as Arthur inserts a finger and then two, scissoring and loosening him. “But I’m giving you a concession on the arbitration treaty –”
Arthur’s fingers pause at that, shock rippling through him. Kiku knew about his treaty with Alfred.
“Our alliance doesn’t have to apply if I go to war against America,” Kiku replies, expression grave. “You wouldn’t choose me over Alfred, anyway.”
An escape hatch. Kiku’s offering him an escape hatch, so if it comes down to it, he wouldn’t be forced to choose between his ally and his former colony.
He kisses Kiku all the more tenderly for that, and savours the quiet noises Kiku makes when he thrusts into the smaller Nation. As he moves, he notices still the quiet desperation in Kiku’s eyes, the determined set of his jaw.
It’s only later, after they’re spent, when he sees Kiku lower the expressionless mask and cry against his shoulder, arms clinging as if he doesn’t want Arthur to go.
Arthur stays, trying to quell the fluttering in his heart.
“I was so alone,” Arthur confesses to the sleeping Nation. “I really was. No one wanted to be my friend, but you were. You let me in, and I got to see your world for what it was, and I shared mine with you – and you didn’t judge, you emulated.
“Do you realise that? I’d never appreciated that until now. You were the one who called me brilliant when others called me freak. You were the one who broke down my walls without even realising it. I didn’t know you, too, were alone until it was too late, and I’m sorry.”
That could have almost been a twitch of Kiku’s eye, a quirk of his lips. But Arthur doesn’t dare to hope, or believe his own eyes. He takes Kiku’s limp hand instead and kisses the knuckles, tears streaming down his cheeks.
“I owe you a lot more than what I’d thought before. And I’d like to start again.”
But of course his words fall on deaf ears. That’s what hurts the most – that Kiku’s not listening, that he’s asleep and oblivious to Arthur’s pain.
Arthur tries not to look at the photo album lying on Kiku’s bedside table. He only squeezes the other Nation’s hands tighter and wishes that the pain would stop.
“I’m trusting you on this,” Arthur tells Kiku over the kotatsu, and Kiku smiles at him, nodding.
“You can rely on me, Arthur-san,” he replies calmly.
“I’m supporting you in Korea. Do whatever you’d like there. All I ask is that you respect my claims to India.”
Arthur smiles. “It’s good to have you onboard, Kiku.”
Kiku’s face positively glows at that, and Arthur can’t help but smile broader as he leans in to kiss the Japanese man on both cheeks. Kiku blushes, of course, his cheeks tinted the very shade of his beloved cherry blossoms. Arthur has never seen anything so beautiful.
“You did well at Tsushima,” Arthur whispers, cupping the sides of Kiku’s face. “I’m proud of you.”
“I only have you to thank.”
And then they’re kissing again, now on the lips, now moving away from the table to the floor. Kiku is soft and warm in Arthur’s arms, responding so beautifully to his kisses and caresses. As he lays temporary claim to the Japanese man’s body, Arthur thinks with all his heart that he’d like to take this moment and make it last forever.
“Sometimes I don’t know where I stand,” Kiku says when they’re done and Arthur has pulled out of him, limp and sated. They lie entwined under a kotatsu; Arthur kisses Kiku’s fingertips and holds the other Nation close, letting him listen to his heartbeat. “I’ve left Asia to go to Europe. I don’t belong anywhere.”
“Who’s been talking to you?” Arthur wonders, now kissing Kiku’s hair and thinking that he’d like to smell the smaller Nation forever. Kiku smells wonderful, of the wild sea breeze and cherry blossoms. Arthur hums “Rule, Britannia” against Kiku’s scalp, eliciting a few giggles.
“Ivan,” Kiku admits after he’s sobered. “He called me a…”
“If he called you a whore trying to get with the Western powers, I’m going to let you kick his arse again,” Arthur grumbles. “You are my ally, and you’ve worked just as hard as him – even harder, in some aspects – to get to where you are now. That idiot can’t organise his way out of a paper bag, you know. So don’t listen to him.”
Kiku smiles at him for that, but Arthur can feel the smile slip just as fast. Ivan’s insults must have struck a nerve, dug at a long-hidden vein of insecurity. Kiku was scared of revenge for Tsushima and far too much weakened to defend himself against it, yet far too proud to oblige Arthur to fight for him.
“Don’t believe them. You belong at my side,” he whispers into Kiku’s ear as they fall asleep.
“Come on, Artie, we’ve got to go.” Alfred pulls Arthur away from the bedside. But Arthur can only look back, at the forlorn figure lying on the pristine hospital sheets. “He’s not gonna wake from that coma any time soon. They’ll take good care of him, trust me.”
Arthur bites his lips and lets himself be escorted out of the hospital. Alfred regards him curiously as they take their seats in the car intended to drive them back to Tokyo Bay.
“Dude, you’ve gotta stop beating yourself about it, all right?” the American says after a moment, as Arthur continues to watch the hospital disappear in the rear view mirror. “What’s done is done, and really, you’ve gotta stop hanging onto stuff like this.”
“Bring up 1776 and I’ll –”
“Chill. I wasn’t.” Alfred smirks and mutters something like “but I was going to” under his breath. Arthur glares, but does nothing. There really isn’t much for him to do, after all.
“1873,” he mutters after a moment.
“What?” Alfred asks.
“That’s when we first became… well… you know. That was when Lord Douglas came with the naval mission that started our friendship. Before that things hadn’t been well between us.”
“I don’t think he liked any of us back then,” Alfred points out. “Commodore Perry was a dick to him.”
Arthur laughs. “That’s putting it lightly,” he mutters. “But the only reason I’m bringing this up at all is because it took place here. In this very city.”
Alfred grins. “Full circle, then.”
Arthur nods, his smile slipping from his face as the city falls away behind him.
Arthur surveys the other man sitting across the table from him. In between them sits the treaty, already signed and ready for their ratification.
“I’ve never done this before,” he tells Kiku.
“Not with a nation like mine, you mean,” Kiku replies quietly.
“I was honestly concerned that you were going to ally with Russia.”
“I feared the same from your side, too. In fact, I thought you would never look my way.”
“We will be good friends, right?” Kiku asks, and for a moment his voice is small, the insecure voice of a Nation who tries to be so strong on a foundation so slender.
Arthur’s not sure why, but one moment he’s looking at Kiku and the next he’s kissing him, desperately and eager to reassure the other Nation of something even he can’t quite grasp wholly.
“Of course we will. We won’t ever be lonely again,” he tells Kiku, and he can only hope that he speaks the truth.
They entwine their pinkies, they ratify the treaty. Kiku returns the kiss as he sets down the pen. Now Arthur enfolds the smaller Nation in his arms, feeling a certain strange elation expand in his chest, like some sort of golden balloon. Now he feels lighter than air, dizzy with happiness and – could it be?
When they kiss a third time, mouths opening, tongues brushing, Arthur tries to project all of his emotions into the kiss and hopes that Kiku would understand – hopes that Kiku feels the same way, too.
Could it be that love has finally saved the empty?
When Kiku wakes, Arthur is there by his side again. The world rushes on outside the walls of the hospital, but for all they knew Arthur could have kept a six-year-vigil by Kiku’s bedside.
“I shouldn’t have. I’m so sorry. I was stupid and I believed them. I shouldn’t –” All of it tumbles out of Arthur’s mouth before he can stop himself, and Kiku only watches, face expressionless, as Arthur blusters in front of him.
Arthur pauses at the lack of reaction. “Kiku?” he asks, voice quiet.
“You left me alone,” Kiku mumbles. “You left me isolated. Lonely and forgotten – what else could I have done?”
“I know! And that’s why I’m telling you this!” Arthur grabs Kiku’s hands. “I’m so sorry, Kiku. I’m so… so…” he trails off, sniffling heavily. “You wouldn’t wake. I was so worried for you, all this time. How could you put me in such a situation?”
Kiku snorts. “I think I can put two words to that,” he replies, but Arthur shakes his head and dives forward, wrapping Kiku in his arms and squeezing tightly, never wanting to let go.
“Don’t. Don’t say anything,” he breathes into Kiku’s ear. And in a softer voice, he adds, “I will always love you, do you understand?”
The other Nation freezes, breath catching loudly in the silent room. They break apart, and Arthur notes with mild alarm that Kiku is blushing furiously.
“Yes,” Kiku mumbles, hand extending for Arthur’s. He takes it and kisses the knuckles, squeezing the fingers. “I understand, Arthur-san.”
Arthur smiles, then, as he presses a kiss against Kiku’s forehead. “Good,” he mumbles. “This time I won’t leave you alone. Never again.”
After all, everything is just so much more beautiful when somebody loves him.