"You have a beautiful garden."
She looks up at him and smiles.
It had been Taiwan's idea to start a garden. Her little sister was fond of flowers, proudly claiming that they were pretty and that they were good for the soul. She'd showed her sister her own large backyard; filled with flowers from all over the world (it had nearly everything from daisies, gifts from the Italian brothers – "Anything to make a beautiful young lady's garden equally beautiful," Italy had said with a smooth smile – to a bunch of particularly lovely white dryas, courtesy of Iceland – who'd given it with bouts of stuttering as was expected). Vietnam, fond of her sister as she was, gave a sigh and agreed. After all, what harm could it do? She hadn't maintained a garden in such a long time.
"You're great with flowers," Taiwan had said. "Better than me, even."
"That's not saying much, is it?" Vietnam had quipped, and Taiwan had been furious in that adorable way of hers and they had laughed and all was forgiven.
"What?" Taiwan would say, an annoyed tone to her voice. "I had to do something at Japan's house. You honestly think sitting around being a perfect 'model colony' was fun?"
"You could have hung out with Korea," says Vietnam teasingly, and Taiwan's face would morph into an expression somewhere in the middle of disgust and shock.
"But seriously, jiejie, you really are great with plants. Don't even try to deny it. I mean, people walk in my garden and say they feel energized because of all the pretty flowers. But I walk in your garden and I feel so relaxed." She would offer her older sister a reassuring smile.
Vietnam hadn't denied it; she smiled and patted her little sister's head affectionately, because, really, she loves the feel of planting the seeds, carefully, one by one, then watching them as they stretch out and grow and learn under her own thumb. She loves the feeling of seeing the plant's first bloom, and she feels the pang of sadness when one of them dies. But later, looking out of her bedroom window at the gorgeous plants, she would think Taiwan was right.
When she wakes up early in the morning, too early to accomplish anything, she walks in her garden. It's well-lit, she'd made sure, so that she can see every flower even if it is still dark out.
She likes walking barefoot along the cool stone path, because it brings back memories of her childhood and lotus flowers and her brothers, most of whom she rarely sees nowadays. She likes walking around with her hair down, because it's still dawn and she likes the way her ink-black hair looks in the early morning. She likes the not-too-thin nightdress Taiwan had given her as a birthday present, and wears it every time she wants to feel beautiful – but you are already, a voice in her head says, they certainly think so but she doesn't want to think about that so she shuts the voice out of her head.
Taiwan isn't the only one who's complimented her garden – it had been small, once, containing only some plums and chrysanthemums from Taiwan and Japan, but now it's nearly as big as her sister's, and just as, if not more, plentiful. Being surrounded by gorgeous flowers does have a relaxing aura to it, and she's even built a special pagoda right in the middle where she can sit and light candles and incense to cool herself down, and it never fails to do so.
But Vietnam doesn't feel like doing that today, so instead she walks under the early morning sun and thinks. Her flowers look beautiful when seen with dew and morning sunshine, and every so often she bends over and examines them and feels their smooth petals and then pride swells in her chest.
Like Taiwan's, her garden has flowers from all over the world (although it's not as diverse as her sister's, but who's counting?), and when she sees a particular type of flower she thinks of the nation it came from, more often than not with fond thoughts and memories of laughter (except for the sunflowers that remind her of Russia, and that makes her cringe).
There are the plum blossoms and there are the sunflowers and there then are those four plants in the pretty little greenhouse she's had for a few decades now.
She can't stop herself once she nears the small greenhouse at the edge of her large yard; it's as if there's a force that inevitably draws her to it once she sees it. And she loves it and hates it at the same time, and the fact that she wants to run towards it so much makes her bare feet hurt. She loves the fact that it's nice and cool and yet sunny in there, and that there is nothing there except four different kinds of flowers, and she loves the fact that the flowers in that greenhouse are just so gorgeous because for reasons she can vaguely fathom she takes better care of those four plants than any other blossoms in her garden.
She hates the fact that they make her cry.
Vietnam's always been the tough one. She was never one for crying; she was always the one who comforted her sister or her younger brothers whenever they burst into tears. When she cried, it was serious business, because it took a lot to actually make her tear up. And she certainly didn't expect to cry over something as trivial as flowers.
But she can't help it.
She enters the greenhouse and once again feels the familiar wave of memories wash over her, faster than she can prepare herself, and all of a sudden she feels like breaking down into tears.
I will not cry, Vietnam wills herself. I'm mature and I'm strong and I can live with this. I will not cry.
Indeed, she does not cry. At least, not until she reaches the first flowers.
p – e – o – n – y
She barely remembers a time before France, and even then, she doesn't blame herself. Those were times of free earth and loose dresses, not marble castles and tight-bodied ball gowns, something she's lived with for so long in recent years that she can finally walk in three-inch heels without spraining her ankle. Back then, she'd had a garden.
She hadn't had the talent she had for gardening back then. As a little girl she'd struggled with her seeds, fretting over why they would wilt so easily and why their flowers were never as healthy as she would like. And her older brother, who looked so much like her, would look over her shoulder and ask, Vietnam, what are you doing?
Vietnam has many brothers. But none of them really are her brothers; they aren't like Germany and Prussia or the Italy brothers or Ukraine and Belarus. But they were all about the same age and they believed in more or less the same things, and they all looked up to China – they all saw him as a big brother. And that was enough to make them siblings in her eyes, because it was China who held them together.
And it was China who would tear them apart –
It was China who had first gotten her interested in gardening. She'd been touring his royal palace once upon a time, and had spotted a bunch of lovely peonies in a vase.
"What are these called?" Vietnam had asked with interest.
"That is the peony," said China, smiling a sunny smile. "It's a beautiful flower. My people love it."
He'd said it in the exact same tone that made her want to grow those beautiful flowers and gain the right to claim she had been the grower.
She hadn't exactly lived with China back then. He'd tried to get her to live with him several times, but she'd always bat him away because she loved her freedom.
"Ah, yes, freedom is a wonderful thing, aru," he would say. "But wouldn't you be just as free with me at my house? Japan, Korea, and Taiwan are there a lot, you can see them as often as you want. And there are many things for you to do, so you would never have to complain about boredom."
"Freedom isn't the power to do whatever you want," she'd shoot back. "If I were truly free I could walk around on my own two feet knowing that I don't have to answer to anyone except my maker. I would not have that freedom at your house, don't you think?" She would laugh then. "If I stayed at your house, I couldn't even walk on my own two feet!"
He would frown and say no more, but there was something in his face that she knew meant that he didn't understand. He did enjoy the position of people looking up to him, after all.
"Now what are you doing?" he'd ask after a while.
"Gardening," she'd retort, a hint of defiance still in her voice. "Isn't it obvious?"
"Frustrated, then?" China would tease, and he would laugh to himself when she'd shake her head violently. "You are, aru. Don't even bother trying to hide it."
"So what if I am?"
China would laugh out loud then, a loud laugh that showed his boyishness, so long ago compared to the nervous smile she'd seen around a lot recently. "If I help you, he would offer then, would you come live with me?"
Vietnam would frown at him and he'd laugh again, brushing it off as a joke, and then he'd help her and under his touch her flowers bloomed. She once asked him how he did it.
"They have the freedom to grow," he would say quietly.
She wanted to snap at him. She said nothing.
He might have been a good gardener and an even better brother. But he still didn't understand.
The peonies are looking well, she forces herself to think, strolling along in the greenhouse at a pace fast enough to keep her occupied. I have to order some more fertilizer, though, one of them seems to be wilting –
She pauses at the second plant and bursts into a new wave of tears.
l – i – l – y
"France wasn't lying when he called you beautiful," says the tall, green-eyed stranger. Despite the their new battle scars and the smoke in the air, his handsome face seems calm, his smile is friendly and his tone is anything but harsh, but there is something under the soft exterior that makes her want to cringe.
"You actually believed him?" Vietnam retorts. Her gardens may have burned, her city may have fallen, she may have lost, but she still has her pride. "That man is a liar, she adds sharply."
Spain gives a short laugh. "Don't be foolish," he says.
"You are the foolish one," she snaps before this foreigner can say anything else. "You were the one foolish enough to ally with him."
"And yet we won, didn't we?" He gives her a triumphant smirk. "Now come along peacefully, would you? France wants to see you."
She is about to resist, but Spain's eyes flash dangerously and for the first time Vietnam becomes a little afraid of him.
"He'll give you anything you want," Seychelles tells her once, before she leaves for England's house, a quiet smile on her face. "As long as you keep him happy."
Vietnam doesn't want to know what the girl means by keeping France happy, but she is sure it involves things China would disapprove of.
Just thinking of China makes her think of her siblings, and that makes her sad because here the closest she has to a sister is Seychelles who lives so far away, and while she and Taiwan have similar personalities it just isn't the same (and now she's living with England, too, so it's even worse). France has let her stay on her land, and she still sees her siblings sometimes, but she envies them because they are free.
The house France has built for her is large and beautiful – it's fit for a princess – but despite its grandness there's something about living in the lap of luxury that bothers Vietnam.
She hated him, initially. She hated the bed that was clean and white and large, she'd hated the wallpaper dotted with fleur-de-lis and she'd hated the high heeled shoes (he'd even had the audacity to get her ones adorned with lotuses, of all things), the coiffeurs, the perfume, everything about the grand Parisian lifestyle. Laos and Cambodia had wanted to stay with him. She hadn't. She'd rebelled so many times, and she remembers the time he'd taken her to the side after one such failed rebellion.
"What do you want?" France had asked, softly. "What is it you want? What will make you happy under my rule, Lien?"
It was the first time he had called her by her human name. And in tears of anger and frustration she'd slapped him, hard, across his face.
France hadn't called for security, hadn't called for her to stay locked in her unnecessarily grand house. Instead he'd taken her hand in his pale, foreign ones – she'd noticed how calloused his hands were despite looking so perfectly refined – and closed his eyes. And she'd been struck by the sadness that haunted his handsome face, something that she hadn't noticed before, something that spoke of happy days long gone and purity long gone and of a young girl who died in his name, of so many people he'd loved and lost.
"What is it you want?" He repeated his question, weakly." I can grant it to you. Whatever you want –"
"Freedom," she'd replied just as quietly. "I want freedom."
He was quiet.
"That is a vague term," said France, his eyes still closed. "I'm afraid I cannot grant you that."
"Oh," was all Vietnam said. She withdrew her hand from his grasp. "Thank you."
"Anything," France persisted. "Anything at all, except that."
"Give me a garden," she'd said after a while. "At least it will keep me happy."
France almost smiled.
"I will do more than that," he said. "China has indeed told me of your love for flora. I will grant you a large garden and it will be yours to tend however you see fit, on one condition."
Vietnam stands firm, hoping the condition had nothing to do with freedom.
"You must fill it with lilies," he said all of a sudden. "Please."
And, very quietly, he adds, "Jeanne loved them." I loved them. They were the innocence I once had.
She'd stood there, speechless. "I will."
If nothing else, he was a man of his word. He'd built her a large garden and given her servants to help her tend to it. And true to her word she'd filled it with lilies, not to mention more flowers from everywhere around the world. Whenever he was in her lands he'd visit it and comment on how lovely it was looking, how healthy the plants in it were. But every time she would always tell him it was because they had the freedom to grow.
"May I have that freedom?" Vietnam would ask, quietly.
His eyes would be pained. "No."
She may have learned to love him, in time, and she may have learned to love the lily. But he still didn't understand.
Those lilies were prize-winning, she tells herself. She remembers how much care and time she'd devoted to making them bloom. I mean, she says to herself, why would they make her cry? They were her flowers, weren't they, in a garden full of her flowers, shouldn't she shut up, stop being such a wimp, and show no favoritism among...them...
The roses, for example, are in peak condition, and just happen to be as beautiful as the lilies. But it's not like that fact makes her any happier.
r – o – s – e
She'd grown so used to the luxurious French lifestyle that it was hard to run. She couldn't even remember the last time she'd held a gun.
But he'd left and he'd left her with this mess.
She couldn't even remember her own forests anymore, forests she's watched and tended to from when her land was still barren. It takes her awhile to find the correct exit and watches the pale, fair-haired soldiers run past her.
It takes Vietnam time to realize that her house is within view, and that it's burning.
She takes time to wipe away a tear, remembering the beautiful gardens overrun with white lilies. She doesn't realize that she's run the wrong way and she finds herself in a clearing she'd loved as a child, and that there is a figure standing in the middle of it.
"I thought you'd be here," says America, his eyes as beautiful and hopeful as a Virginia sky.
Vietnam raises her gun.
"I told you," he says, raising his hands in surrender. He is as bloody and as bruised as she is. But it doesn't do much to hide the sorrows in his striking face. "We can stop all this," he says. "We can have peace. Come on," he pleads.
"I want more than peace," she spits out. "I want freedom."
Vietnam would have pulled the trigger had it not been for the flower he'd produced.
"Bastard," she hisses. "Those were his favorite."
"It was not," America says. "He loved the lily. Roses were my domain. And I knew him longer than you, don't forget." He doesn't lower the outstretched flower, letting its thorns pierce his gloves and send rivers of blood running down his arm.
"Let me rule my country the way I want it!" Vietnam screams, her gun still aimed.
"Or the way Russia wants it, is that it?" America retorts all of a sudden, as if he's about to draw out his gun, but the rose is still sitting comfortably in his hand. "Take it," he says all of a sudden, all the anger leaving his face. For a moment she sees him three hundred years ago, all innocence and smiles, wanting only to please his real and his not-real brother. And she sees him now, all sorrow and pain, just wanting the right thing to happen.
Or what he thought was the right thing.
She wants to laugh. It's probably the first time he's lost a war in all his four hundred years. And how long would that be to her, someone whose people didn't want to be free, someone who had lived so many long years of people begging her to stay with them?
It wouldn't even be a heartbeat.
She'd never regretted pulling the trigger. But she never did mind that her tears made it hard to see, that her tears made the bullet miss by a mile.
They'd both passed out after that.
Later in the hospital there had been a bouquet of roses on her bedside table.
America was young and naïve. He'd never truly experienced love, and he'd never truly understood what it was like to sacrifice for the one you loved, either.
Perhaps, indeed, if she'd gone along with what he wanted, things would have played out differently between them. But it wouldn't ever be enough, not ever, for before she is Lien she is Vietnam, and the nation has her own needs, too.
Vietnam pauses at the fourth plant – rather, it was more of a tree than anything. And she smiles.
It didn't stop the tears from falling. Perhaps they weren't tears of joy yet, but she wasn't crying out of sadness anymore.
"Nam," she hears her sister's voice calling, and when she checks the clock she realizes that it's nine o'clock and her siblings were supposed to be coming over today. "Nam, where are you? I came early and everything–"
Taiwan opens the greenhouse door and runs towards her. "I thought you'd be here," she says, her tone defiantly reprimanding. "I thought I was coming early to help you get ready, and you're still in your nightdress – Oh my goodness, why are you crying?"
She turns to face her sister. "It's nothing. I was just remembering things."
Taiwan looks around and sees the peonies and the lilies and the roses and the tree, and she sighs. "Really, you have to stop coming here. You just end up crying."
"Perhaps I want to cry," she replies simply, sniffing.
Her sister pauses. "I'll be in your room, okay?" Taiwan says, giving her an understanding look. "Just come on when you feel ready."
"I will," Vietnam replies. "Thank you."
Taiwan grins and skips out of the greenhouse, humming a song that was ancient one thousand years ago, a song that China had crooned to all of them when they were younger, a song of flowers and smiles and freedom.
Vietnam stares after her, and her face breaks into a grin.
She was still the same, after all. And there was still the future to think of.
"Thank you," she says. "Thank you for the golden shower trees, by the way. They're lovely."
"No problem. I heard from Taiwan you wanted some for your garden. Was it hard taking care of them?"
She laughs. "Terrible, actually. I kept worrying about them because they looked like they were about to drop dead any minute. But they pulled through."
"Well, you know," he says, grinning. "Your garden is quite spacious, and you did give it wonderful care. That plant went through some hard times, but in the end, look at it. It's gorgeous, and it will continue to be gorgeous." He gives her a knowing look. "It had the freedom to live, and it chose to live."
Vietnam stares at him, a shocked expression on her face.
Thailand smiles at her, and to an average observer it looks to be his own normal half-smile, but there is something more sparkling behind those glasses, and she knows he understands.