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Between the Lines

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Matthew was walking into the world conference room when his BlackBerry chimed twice in rapid succession. He didn't need to look at his display to know who sent them; part of Alfred's routine each time he hosted a world conference was to cram in a hundred and one messages in the hour or so before the conference began. 

He set down his folders on the table and pried his phone from his pocket. The first is an email, with attachments of the meeting files - the agenda, the last meeting's minutes, the environmental policy they had been working on - together with a single-liner: Matt, can you put the agenda up on the screen for me? I'm sorta running late and my boss is getting on my case about being prepared. Thanks - Al. 

The second was a text message: plz, like ne1 else is ready >_<

Matthew glanced towards the ceiling, then back down at his phone. 

"What happened that has you entreating toward the sky, mon ami?" a voice asked from behind his shoulder, and Matthew relaxed, because it's Francis; he recognized the accent and voice. 

"Just a bit amazed at how easily Al can go from totally business-like and serious to a goofball in less than a minute." Matthew turned. "Bonjour, Francis." 

"Bonjour, Matthieu." Francis draped an arm over Matthew's shoulder and tilted his head. "That is an advantage you young ones have, that flexibility. Pity us elder nations, who cannot easily separate our history and nationhood from our personal lives." 

"You're still flexible," Matthew said, then quickly amended. "You're adaptable." 

Francis gave him one of his dazzling smiles. "You are too kind, Matthieu." 

Matthew smiled back. He glanced down at his phone when it chimed. "Sorry. Give me a sec. It's probably Al again." 

u r talkin to F or E 

"How in the world does he..." Matthew muttered, then blinked when he received another text. 

cuz u'd re: by now. say hi if its F

"Al says hi," Matthew dutifully passed along, then typed his reply. and if it's arthur? 

no hi if E. his grump lvl = ∞ lately

"Let me guess," Francis said. "He's having trouble with Arthur." 

Matthew hummed a reply as he typed, then looked up with a sigh. "I only hear all about it after every meeting they have. Usually it's something stupid that Alfred’s done, but lately he hasn't been very specific, just... frustrated. They're fighting more than usual, I think."

"You've noticed too." Francis tapped a finger one cheek. 

Matthew didn't bother responding and busied himself with the laptop and projector. 

"Perhaps it's time to have a word with Arthur," Francis mused. 

"They've been doing this for two hundred years; I don't think a word is going to do much." 

Francis patted him on the shoulder. "Depends on the word, Matthieu. I do know Arthur longer than either you or Alfred has." 

"That's... not very assuring, Francis." 

Francis flashed him that smile again. "Trust me, mon ami."

"That's really not—” 

Matthew's BlackBerry rang. He gave Francis a look to stay - their conversation was so not over - before answering his phone, jabbing at the call button without looking. "Matthew Williams speaking." 

"Matt! Did I put Francis and Arthur next to each other in the sitting arrangement?” 

Francis winked at Matthew, and pushed away from the desk he had been leaning against, a devilish smile lurking on his face. Matthew did his best to snag Francis’ sleeve, missed, and had to grab at a chair to catch his balance. 

“Crap!” Alfred continued, oblivious to Matthew’s struggles on the other side of the phone. “I bet they're going to be fighting with each other before the hour's up!" 

Matthew watched Francis saunter off to his place across the conference room and didn’t doubt it at all. 

*

Tap. Tap. Tap-tap-tap-tap.

Arthur gritted his teeth and resisted the urge to plunge the pointed end of his ballpoint into Francis’ hand to stop the incessant tapping. 

Tap-tap. Tap. Tap. Tap-tap-tap. Taptaptaptap. 

And each time Arthur thought he caught the pattern of taps to the point where he could dismiss it to the background, Francis would twist the pen in his fingers and start afresh. With a different set of taps. 

Arthur glanced up at the presentation to make sure he already knew the finer points of Ludwig’s financial scheme, then flipped to a fresh sheet on his notepad. Stop it, or I’ll stop you. 

He angled it pointedly at Francis, and focused on a point across the room. Yes, nice ceiling. No cracks, no cobwebs. A plain cream color, but very nice nonetheless. 

He looked down when Francis pushed the notepad back, looping cursive handwriting under his own neat words. 

And risk getting both you and myself shot? You wouldn’t have the ♥ to disturb Amérique’s conference. 

Arthur stared down at the tiny heart symbol and wondered if Francis’ antics would ever stop being so disturbing. 

Then do us both a favour and be quiet. 

Francis smiled sweetly and tapped his pen once at him, then quickly tucked the pen away when Arthur made a motion to stab his hand. 

Arthur glared at him a while longer, then distracted himself by looking around the conference table. Most nations either listened raptly to Ludwig or were off in their own world. He smiled a little at Kiku when the other nation’s dark eyes met his, and moved on until his eyes caught, as it inevitably did, on the man with the bomber jacket draped over his chair. 

Sometimes when Arthur looked, he couldn’t look away. Mostly it was because Alfred was doing something that made Arthur itch to fix, like wearing that ridiculous Spiderman tie with his suit or the haphazard pile of candy wrappers surrounding his pen and notepad, almost encroaching on Matthew’s side of the table. 

But occasionally, all it would take was a smile or some words spoken in a particular tone, and those times always caught Arthur unaware. 

He pinched the bridge of his nose and breathed out slowly. The past months had been… trying. They had a dysfunctional relationship, he and Alfred, and it was one that worked for them. But lately, he found himself scrambling to maintain that balance.

Alfred’s boss had been focusing on ties with other nations, sure, Arthur understood that, but recent world events - on which he and Alfred often took opposite sides - had really thrown a wrench into things. He’d been on edge, his words more personal and cutting than usual, and although Alfred gave as good as he got in a fight, Arthur didn’t like the rare flashes of genuine hurt he saw in Alfred’s eyes, underneath the anger. 

“You’re pining after him,” Francis murmured, leaning back against his chair and angling towards Arthur. “Again.” 

“I am not.” 

“I didn’t even say who.” He could feel the smirk on Francis’ face without looking up. “It’s not very healthy. In fact, it must rouse great frustration in you, frustration that I can–”

Arthur growled under his breath. “Continue that line of thought, Francis, and–”

Francis held a finger up to his lips. “Yes, yes. Torture, maiming, I’ve heard them all.” He smiled, and simply looked, and stayed remarkably quiet, not even tapping his pen to be annoying. Arthur felt the hair at the back of his neck rise. 

“You don’t like it, when something disturbs your nicely organized world.” Francis leaned forward and placed one hand on Arthur’s knee. “You like routine. Everything in their proper place.” 

Arthur looked down at Francis’ hand and didn’t move. “I like normalcy and routine, yes,” he said. “It usually means less nasty surprises like economic downturns and social unrest. Or weekly strikes, as I’m sure you’re very familiar with.” 

Francis laughed, his voice low. “My dear Angleterre. You’re missing the point. How long will you spend staring at Alfred and pretending that everything is fine between the two of you?” 

“Everything is fine,” Arthur said. 

“So you think. And so you thought, before the Revolution.” 

Francis didn’t drop the name of that event casually, Arthur knew, because Francis was watching him very, very carefully. Arthur closed his eyes for a moment, and took a careful breath, because yes, he had worked past that, he had made his peace about it, but it didn’t mean he liked being reminded about it on top of all his other problems. 

Especially not by someone like Francis. 

He met Francis’ gaze steadily, and said, “It’s no longer the eighteenth century. And you better have a damn good reason to bring up the Revolution.” 

“You are overreacting, Angleterre.”

For one moment, something in Arthur almost snapped. It would have been easy, so easy to jump forward, to whip one hand up and forward to smash and break Francis’ nose, but he clamped down on the reaction, clenching the arms of his chair to hold himself back until the moment of blind instinct passed. It didn’t stop him from glaring and wishing he could just curse the Frenchman into oblivion, however. 

His voice came out a low growl. “Fran—”

“You held back,” Francis cut in, his voice quiet, his hand on Arthur’s knee solid and unmoving. The smirk was missing, Arthur realized. No smirk, no bemused smile, no smug leer. Francis was serious, and the anger Arthur felt edged towards alarm. “That anger was genuine, but you held back. And yet you can’t do the same with Alfred.”

“I’ve—” Arthur’s voice was rough, and he swallowed “—never thought of physically hurting him, not the way I’m itching to break your face.”

“Perhaps,” Francis said. He glanced up at the podium; miraculously no one seemed to notice their tense conversation. “But Alfred is important to you, and you overreact to every slight and strain in your ‘special relationship.’ You yell and scold and sulk, and it chips at Alfred’s bravado.”

“I’ve done that for years.” 

“Yes,” Francis agreed. “You have. But Alfred, lately, he’s been reacting differently to your ever present temper, hasn’t he?” 

Arthur stared at him. 

Francis turned his head towards the North American brothers. “Others move on, Arthur, and when you are the only one who stands still, you lose things." He chuckled, and rubbed one hand ruefully against his chin. “And you lose pieces of yourself.” 

“Hold on a sec, let me check the minutes,” Alfred’s voice suddenly cut through their conversation, either in response to Ludwig or moving on down the agenda, and the sound of that familiar voice made Arthur startle and shift his attention away from Francis’ words. 

“Can we not have this conversation at a world conference?” Arthur hissed, tapping his pen pointedly against his notepad before remembering how much he had hated the tap of pens on a table. He dropped the ballpoint. “In fact, let’s not have this conversation at all.” 

“It’s the only time you’d actually listen to me,” Francis said, “without swearing or trying to curse me.” 

“And now I’m going to stop,” Arthur said. “Kindly remove your hand from my knee before I remove it from your arm.” 

Francis pushed his chair back slightly, and Arthur drew a breath as the other nation backed out of his personal space. He wished he was back at his home in London, where a pot of Earl Grey or Darjeeling always sat ready to soothe nerves and settle his thoughts. He knew best how to deal with Francis; have had to deal with his fickle neighbouring nations for centuries. He was fine on that front. 

His gaze wandered back to Alfred. 

Of all his former colonies, Arthur had the most difficulty defining his relationship with Alfred. Officially, politically, it was easy. Allies. 

Personally? Arthur had no idea. 

They argued. They fought together, on fronts far away from both their homes. They did silly, inconsequential things like attend world premiers of Hollywood movies that Alfred liked inviting him to. After the sheer chaos of the past century, Arthur appreciated having all that. He nurtured what feelings he possessed in secret and enjoyed what he had without upsetting the status quo, because what he had now was precious enough in and of itself. 

But another side of him, the one who had once taken to the seas to build an empire on which the sun never set, whispered that Arthur was caught in a loop. That he was content to let things be because he couldn’t move towards another level in the relationship, and had always chosen not to move back away from it either. So he had let it be, letting that feeling linger and build and build and build until his heart filled to the bursting like a container with too much liquid. 

The space between clearly defined boundaries, Arthur found, could be a very precarious place to be. 

The ripping sound of paper pulled Arthur from his thoughts. A piece of notepaper, with Francis’ curved handwriting on it, fluttered to his side of the table. 

Pick a direction and stick with it. Then you’ll be back to the little terror we all know and love. 

Arthur crumpled the note in one fist. He looked again at Alfred and tried to imagine still arguing with him, still fighting together and still attending those dreary movies, but without the underlying tug to do more, without the hurt that came from Alfred’s obliviousness, the frustration that made him lash out. 

He closed his eyes. 

He didn’t want to think about it. 

“I really, really hate you, you damn frog,” Arthur whispered under his breath, softly, he thought, but not quite enough to escape Francis’ notice. 

“My dear Arthur–” Francis began, leaning forward, the pressure of his hand a sudden hard line on Arthur’s thigh, and Arthur thought, why yes, it is perfectly acceptable to break the perverted frog’s arm now and promptly whipped his tea into Francis’ face, cup and all. 

It was just a plain mug, after all, as expected of a world conference organized by Alfred. Arthur glared at the stupid blonde nation and his stupid glasses and upswept turn of Nantucket before Francis’ retaliating kick forced his attention away. 

*

“Told you,” Alfred said, not even bothering to keep his voice down. “Didn’t even last an hour.”

“I know.” Matthew sighed. “That’s why I didn’t bet against you.”

Matthew winced when Francis’ head bounced off a corner of the conference table. A second later, they heard Arthur yell as Francis swept his feet out from under him. Half a second later, the sound of Vash’s guns drowned out both their screams. 

“But if you did, I’d have won.” 

“But I didn’t bet, so you didn’t win,” Matt muttered. He nudged Alfred’s elbow. “Al, it’s your conference, can you do something so we don’t have to explain to our bosses why Europe’s at war again?”

“Come on, Arthur and Francis have always been at odds, what else is new?” 

Matthew kicked him under the table. 

“Okay, alright!” Alfred stopped slouching in his chair and sat upright. “Roderich and Ludwig look like they've got Vash. Can you get Francis? I’ll handle Arthur. I hope he doesn’t’ snap at me.”

They made their way across the room easily enough, since most of the nations didn’t want to risk getting shot and had used the distraction as an excuse to take a break themselves. At least the gunshots had forced Francis and Arthur apart to stand on opposite sides of their conference table. 

Matthew slipped under Francis’ arm and maneuvered the other nation into an upright chair, clucking his tongue a little at a cut at the side of Francis’ head that bleed quite liberally. 

“Ah, Matthieu,” Francis muttered, shaking out a corner of his tea-drenched jacket as Matthew pressed a napkin to the wound. “Merci, but would you mind moving just a little to your left so I can see?” 

“See what?” Matthew asked, shuffling sideways. 

“Angleterre and Amérique.”

Matthew looked over. It had taken Alfred a minute to work around the crowd surrounding Vash, Kiku slipping through the mess of broken furniture to join Alfred along the way. He hopped over an overturned chair, snagged Arthur’s wrist and pulled him upright, drawing closer and steadying the other nation by the elbow when Arthur swayed. 

“Hey, you okay, old man?” Alfred said, his voice carrying. 

Matthew shook his head and checked on Francis’ cut. “Arthur’s going to yell at him for that.”

“Is he?” Francis’ voice was noncommittal, and that was enough to make Matthew really suspicious. 

“Francis?” 

“Let go,” Arthur said quietly, not quite commanding and not quite asking, and Matthew’s head whipped up just in time to see the look of surprise flashing across Alfred’s face. His grip tightened, then dropped away. 

“Arthur-san, are you all right?” Kiku asked, glancing between the two nations. 

Arthur stepped away, not quite looking at Alfred, then said in a stilted voice that sounded almost normal for Arthur. “Ah - I apologize for causing a ruckus at your conference, Alfred. It is most ungentlemanly of me.” 

“Oh... nah, it’s cool, we kind of expected it anyway – I mean,” Alfred hurriedly corrected himself when Kiku stepped on his foot. “It’s almost time for a break. You and Francis just had to jump the gun, ha!” 

They all waited for the lecture Arthur always gave Alfred about responsibility and commitment, and Matthew saw from Alfred’s expression that Matt himself wasn’t the only one who was bewildered when Arthur simply nodded before turning to Kiku and asking for ice. 

“There’s going to be drinking tonight, isn’t there,” Matthew muttered to himself, and didn’t even realize he had spoken the thought out loud until Francis answered him. 

“Best if you go with him,” Francis murmured, still speaking in English because their French conversations always caught Arthur’s attention, made him suspicious about what the Frenchman was plotting. “I rather enjoy not running for my life, and I’m sure you’ll agree that letting Alfred anywhere near our dear Angleterre isn’t prudent at the moment.” 

Matthew glanced around for Alfred, but his brother had turned to focus on the rest of the room, a look of single-minded determination on his face. Matthew sighed and turned to meet Francis’ gaze. “What did you do, Francis?” 

Francis smiled lopsidedly at him. “Ask Arthur.” 

*

Matthew took a measured sip of his beer and glanced sideways at Arthur. They were at a nice bar, fairly low key, away from the upscale establishments of the business district. Arthur had dressed down to shirt and loosen tie and traded his suit jacket for a trench coat when he left his hotel. He didn’t say a word when Matthew had fallen into step with him.

Matthew’s BlackBerry buzzed in his pocket, as it had every ten minutes since they got to the bar. Matthew had stuck it on vibration mode after the first text message, not wanting to get distracted by Alfred as he wove in and out of the end-of-the-work-day crowd, dogging Arthur’s footsteps. 

Arthur was smiling at something the cute bar girl said, looking more relaxed than quiet and withdrawn as he had been earlier. He seemed fine enough for the moment, so Matthew dug out his BlackBerry and scrolled through the list of text messages, starting with the earliest one, which he received about ten minutes after the meeting ended. 

re: meeting. ??? 

Then, r u w/ E? and F wont say nething before descending towards r u even reading these? >: Matthew rolled his eyes, replied with an obligatory we’re fine, i'll talk to you tomorrow and scrolled past the rest of Alfred’s messages for the ones marked from his government. But after his phone buzzed for the third time while he was trying to reply his boss, Matt gave up and opened Al’s latest message. 

seriously, matt! talk to me or else i'll think E knocked u out too n i'll hav to come over to save both ur asses and E might flip out again

Matt dug one knuckle into the side of his forehead, then hit the reply button. 

“Strangely,” Arthur said, and Matthew jumped at the unexpected voice, “his messages become more coherent the longer you ignore him.” 

Matthew stared down at the sent note on his phone and wondered what Alfred would think of his blank reply. “Is that why you don’t reply his texts, to the point where he uses me as a go-between and floods my inbox instead?”

Arthur made a quiet noise in his throat. “I’ll talk to him about that. Sorry.” 

“Um. It’s fine, Arthur.” Matthew fiddled with the BlackBerry, then moved it further down the counter, out of Arthur's sight. 

They sat quietly for long minutes. The bar girl swiped the counter down, smiling at Arthur each time she passed, and although Arthur nodded back at her, he seemed more content to stare into the golden depths of his glass. Matthew grasped his beer bottle with a sigh and settled down to wait Arthur out. 

"If you nursed something long enough, does it just fade away?" Arthur tipped the last of his drink down, then set the glass down with a faint clink. "Or does it imprint itself onto your skin, soak down into the bones like old ink on paper?"

“Ah.” Matthew pulled at the bottom of his sweater, not sure if it was just a rhetorical question. Arthur slanted him a look, and he thought about it for a moment. “That… depends, doesn’t it? If it’s important, it wouldn’t just go away.” He swirled the beer in its bottle, then drank deeply from it. 

Arthur turned sideways on the bar stool to stare at him. 

“I love him.”

Matthew choked on his beer.

People often overlooked him, gazed past him like he was his brother’s shadow. Even Arthur did, sometimes. But there was one thing Arthur had never done and that was to fully mistake Matthew for Alfred, because when Arthur looked at Alfred, he saw someone else all together. Matt wasn’t particularly bothered by it, but now he felt as if someone had slammed him into a wall and left him reeling. 

“I—“ Matthew tried to say over his coughs. He pounded one fisted hand against his chest, and tried again. “I— him?” 

Arthur looked amused, and reached over the bar to snag a bottle of orange juice the bartender had been using as a mixer. He pushed the bottle over and gestured once at it. “I know who you are, Matthew. And no, I’m not insane. Just tipsy.” 

Matthew took an obligatory swig, allowing the citrusy liquid to sooth the burn on his throat. “Then why are you telling me?” 

Arthur’s gaze flickered away, before returning back to meet Matt’s eyes. “Because he doesn’t listen.” 

“And I do?” Matthew asked. 

“You didn’t ask who ‘he’ is.” Arthur laughed, his tone flat, and the sound echoed as he ducked his head, pressing his fist to his forehead. 

“Arthur.” Matthew’s hand hovered uncertainly over Arthur’s shoulder. “Why are you telling me?” 

Arthur looked at him over his fisted hands. “Because I love him, and maybe it would be easier if I didn’t.” 

Matthew stared at him. “Why?” 

“Maybe I want peace. Maybe without this hidden thing between us, we can be more honest with each other.” Arthur pushed his glass away and steepled his gloved hands; Matthew remembered that, remembered that Arthur never quite broke the habit of wearing gloves after the wars, had always preferred to keep his hands hidden. “Yes, he’s important. He is an ally, someone who will always be dear to me, but I need to stop treating him as special. Perhaps we’ll fare better with a true friendship than we do in this one-sided love of mine.” 

“I—” Matthew bit at his tongue, then opted for the truth. “I don’t know what to say.” 

“I'm drunk," Arthur said softly, sweeping one finger along the rim of his glass. 

Matthew knew Arthur wasn’t drunk enough. He had had several glasses, his face flushed and eyelids heavy, but the glint in the green irises behind those lowered eyelids told Matthew that Arthur knew exactly what he was saying.

“You’re not asking for my opinion,” Matthew said slowly. “You’ve already decided.” 

“About time, don’t you think? It’s been years.” Arthur breathed out. “Bloody long time.” 

Matthew’s BlackBerry buzzed again, rattling against the counter. Matthew bit his lip and dropped his hand over the phone, muffling the sound. “What are you going to do?” 

Arthur shrugged. “Be civil. Keep my distance. I need to think about it when I return to London. He’ll notice a difference, I’ll give him that.” He paused. "Already has noticed." 

Matthew remembered the flash of surprise on Alfred's face at the end of the meeting. 

Arthur’s lips curved ever so slightly upward, but Matthew couldn’t quite call it a smile. “But hopefully, that change will be for the better.” 

Matthew concentrated on the texture of his phone under his fingers – the smooth edges, the raised buttons of the keypad. It was strange, to be sitting there and hearing Arthur’s confession. But then again, Matthew admitted to himself, it wasn’t the first time he had stayed by Arthur’s side, not quite in place of his brother, as a silent, non-interfering supporter. 

This was one role Matthew chose for himself. 

“Will you be okay, Arthur?” he asked, and it wasn’t the question he wanted to ask, but it made Arthur smile, a genuine little smile. 

“Yes." Arthur touched his index finger to his lips and held it there for a long second before reaching for his trench coat. "Think I’ll head back now. Go ahead and stay out.” 

“But—” 

Arthur waved a hand at him. “I promise not to be a nuisance tonight. I’ll head straight back to the hotel. And I’ll be all right in the morning.” 

He looked tired, the bruises from his scuffle with Francis showing clearly on his pale skin, but vindicated, somehow. Maybe it was the look of personal conviction in his eyes; it reminded Matthew of how Arthur often was during wars; bleeding and injured but most definitely not defeated. 

“I’ll call in half an hour to make sure you get back safely,” Matthew said. 

“Thank you,” Arthur said, and leaned over to ruffle Matt’s hair as if he were a young nation all over again. Matthew rose with him, hovering by the counter, as Arthur pulled on his coat and left a crisp note under his glass. He dropped back on his stool the moment the door swung shut on Arthur’s back, feeling winded and oddly displaced out of time. 

His phone buzzed again, and this time, it continued buzzing. Matthew stared at the caller ID – Alfred F. Jones – and wondered if he should pick up the call, let Alfred in on his uneasiness even if he couldn't outright tell him what had just happened. 

His phone buzzed on. 

Matthew closed his eyes, and hit the cancel button. The cut off sound and the resultant silence was a blessing. 

Chapter Text

Matthew woke up uneasy the next morning. 

He had sent his brother a text after he got out of the bar, just a simple arthur's gone back to his room. relax. see you tomorrow, before calling Arthur. He wasn't particularly surprised when Arthur didn't pick up, although Arthur sent him a rare text message of acknowledgment a minute later. 

He ended up lingering in the corridor outside the conference room, tugging at the end of a blonde lock and worrying over whether Alfred suspected anything about the night before. Finally, after giving himself a mental kick, Matthew took his seat and smiled weakly at Alfred, who gave him a preoccupied nod. His brother was actually early, arguing about something or other with Yao, and didn't seem like he was going to interrogate - oh sorry, question - Matthew's ears off. 

But Alfred always looked fine even if he wasn't, so it wasn't a clear indication of whether Matthew was in the clear or not. 

Arthur, on the other hand, looked deathly pale when he arrived, a sight that would have alarmed Matthew if it were not for the alert gleam in Arthur’s eyes. He walked in with Ludwig and - surprisingly - Francis, who looked in Matthew's direction and winked. 

“Looks like everyone’s finally here!” Alfred’s voice boomed from beside him, and Matthew almost leaped out of his skin. Alfred stood with one hand on his hip and a cocky grin on his face, waving the arm wearing his watch and looking towards the European trio as if to rub it in that they were just barely on time. “So let’s get this meeting started!” 

Ludwig looked a little chagrined. Francis’s smile grew more and more amused as seconds ticked past, and Arthur – Arthur just gazed steadily at Alfred, his arms crossed and spotting a somewhat strained version of his best withering stare. It was Yao who finally slapped Alfred upside the head with a “don’t yell when people are standing beside you aru!” that broke the tableau. Everyone blew out a collective breath after that – it was far too early in the morning for another shootout. 

Matthew wished he could bring Kuma to world conferences, if only so he could bury his face in the bear’s fur and forget about everything else. He decided that his mind needed a break that morning and forced himself to think of nothing but the day’s agenda, although his gaze continued to sweep back to Arthur over the course of the morning’s meeting. 

"God, I'm tired," Alfred said when they finally broke for lunch, stretching his arms up above his head before slumping back into his seat, rolling his leather seat away from the table so he could straighten his legs out. 

"You don't say," Matthew muttered, pulling his glasses half off and pinching at the bridge of his nose. "What were we debating about?"

"Renewable energy or nuclear disarmament, I got lost somewhere between those." 

"Actually," Arthur said, and barely blinked when Alfred jolted upright, his momentum tipping his chair right over, the wheels spinning wildly, "we were discussing the deployment of international aid in the event of wide scale damage due to a natural disaster, but we ran off track. Are you all right, Matthew?" 

"I'm fine," Matthew said hurriedly, rubbing the side of his face where he had stabbed himself – but thankfully not in the eye – with his glasses. 

Alfred groaned from somewhere below the table. "I'm okay too, thanks for not asking!"

"I was going to ask you next." There was a soft, wry sort of smile on Arthur's face as he reached out to give Alfred a hand up. The movement pulled Arthur’s sleeve back to reveal a slice of skin, a darkening bruise from his fight the previous day marring the paleness of it. Alfred stared, whether at the bruise or at the proffered hand, Matthew couldn’t tell, and Arthur’s hand hung there, in midair. 

Matthew’s gaze flickered between them and finally settled on Alfred as he willed his brother to do something. He was contemplating speaking up or maybe kicking the conference table to break the silence when Alfred rocked forward and finally grabbed at Arthur’s hand. The movement nearly pulled Arthur down before he regained his balance and tugged back. Alfred’s momentum on the way up carried him forward a few steps, but Arthur moved back rapidly, then quickly dropped Alfred’s hand. 

"Um,” Matthew said. 

Arthur’s shoulders rose just a touch. 

Alfred laughed loudly and busied himself by patting down and smoothing out his suit, brushing at imaginary dust stains. 

Matthew swallowed a sigh. 

“Did you need something, Arthur?" he asked carefully, unsure of why Arthur was here after the night before. 

“Yeah, Arthur.” Alfred straightened his chair and threw himself back on it. “Need something or something?” 

"I do, actually." Arthur tugged once at each of his gloves, then folded his hands primly behind his back. "I wanted to let the two of you know that I will be predisposed for the next few months." 

Alfred straightened, his chair creaking softly. "With what?" 

Arthur met his gaze right on. "We - the EU, that is - are planning to work internally to strengthen our policies and deal with the debt crisis before focusing on the world at large. You won’t see much of us on the international scene for a while." 

"You didn't say anything during the meeting," Alfred said, perplexed. 

"I was just on my way to talk to Central Europe, actually. Ludwig and Francis—” Arthur’s nose crinkled slightly “—are seeking out the others. We'll let you know by tonight if everything pans out." 

Matthew blinked. "Already? That’s fast." And not quite what he expected when Arthur said he was going to keep his distance. 

"Ludwig and I will host the discussions jointly, so we'll be taking the brunt of responsibility." Arthur didn't quite fidget, but he was standing almost at parade attention now. "I will still attend scheduled meetings with either of you, but Ludwig and I will be mum on lesser issues until the next world conference."

Alfred drummed his fingers on the table. Arthur shot him a look but said nothing, and the rhythm of Al’s drumming eventually pattered out. "Six months from now, huh?"

"Yes." Arthur paused for a long moment. His stance seemed to go even stiffer before his hands clenched once, then forcibly relaxed. Matthew, sitting at an angle to Arthur, saw it all, but Alfred did not. "I'll fly over to Washington for the environmental review we're having in two months,” Arthur said. “Is that fine?" 

"Oh." Alfred sounded surprised. "No, yeah, that's good."

"That's good," Arthur echoed. "So... I'm not going to be very social the next few months." 

"Geez, Arthur, you're way over the age to be worrying about being a social butterfly," Alfred said. 

"We'll survive, Arthur." Matthew elbowed Alfred pointedly. "Look, it'll give us a chance to concentrate on our own economies too." 

"As you should. Take care, the two of you." 

The two of them sat quietly as Arthur took his leave. It didn't last long, because the moment Arthur was out of earshot, Alfred resumed drumming on the table. "That was. Huh. Different." 

Matthew decided to head off that train of thought. "What was it about DC?" 

"What?" Alfred turned to him, still looking thoughtful. 

"You sounded... pleasantly surprised when Arthur said he was coming over to Washington DC. What was that about?" 

"Ha, that.” Alfred dragged a hand through his hair, sweeping his bangs back and leaving it mussed, Nantucket still curling upwards defiantly. “Well, we had a huge-ish fight a couple of weeks back. I don't really remember what we were fighting about, but at the end of it, Arthur snapped that he'll ‘never fly over to Washington, you ungrateful little whippersnapper’—” Alfred’s voice rose in a fair approximation of Arthur’s aristocratic accent “—whatever that means, so of course I said quite happily that I won’t ever go to boring old London either! He’s been prickly about it ever since."

Alfred was doing that thing where he was trying to be nonchalant and gallant, all the while tilting his head at an angle so his glasses reflected the glint of light, hiding his eyes. Matthew only noticed the telltale habit during the Great War, realized that was how Alfred got away with coming off calm and collected the weeks after the first blitzkrieg attacks in Europe, when he walked the fine line of neutrality. 

“You were ‘prickly’ about it too, weren’t you?” Matthew asked gently. 

Alfred cleared his throat. “Whatever! It’s the past, and that’s not the point.” 

Matthew allowed him that escape. "How did you guys have meetings and stuff, then?" 

"Teleconferences, mainly, ‘cause I was so not going to cave in first. But you know how things drag on and on with those. You’d think it’d be easier not to argue over the damn phone, but it kind of sucks when he starts swearing in one of his crazy dialects and it counts out all scratchy and shrill over the phone.” 

“Then agreeing to come to DC was Arthur's way of offering a truce." Matthew smiled a little. Sometimes, Al just needed someone else to say the things he knew out loud; Matthew was his usual sounding board. 

Alfred pressed his hands flat to the table. "Yeah… but Arthur doesn't offer truces. He's either right and smugly so, or he'll pretend he's right even when he's wrong and do all sorts of roundabout things to let you know he knows he’s wrong."

"Maybe." Matthew glanced at his watch, then stood up and hunted for his briefcase; they only had forty-five minutes left to grab lunch before the afternoon session started. "Look, don't over think things. You two have been bickering with each other on and off so much that it feels weird when you're not, that's all."

"Yeah, that could be it. It's been a while since Arthur and I just hung out, what with the Euro Zone crisis and my unemployment rates." Alfred pushed off the floor and spun his chair around, tilting his head back and staring at the ceiling. "Guess that won't happen any time soon, either."

Matthew glanced suspiciously at his brother. "You're not going to do something silly, are you? You know how tense Arthur’s been lately."

"Nah. Arthur sounded serious about the EU discussion. I wouldn't do that to him, and I definitely don’t want him yelling at me again.” Alfred kicked a foot out to halt his spinning and sat upright, his usual grin back on his face. “He said he was going to be busy, but he didn't say anything about not contacting him with emails or texts or phone calls!" 

Matthew was pretty sure that was not what Arthur expected at all when he engineered his perfectly valid excuse to avoid Alfred for the next half a year. The problem with Arthur's plan to retreat back and move on with his feelings for Alfred, Matthew thought, was that Alfred was capable of making himself darn-well unignorable. 

But Matthew looked at Alfred and didn’t quite have the heart to tell him to leave Arthur alone. Nor did he have a good reason, really, not without spilling the entire story. 

"Just don't go overboard, Al," Matthew said, holding back yet another sigh. 

Alfred merely flashed him a smile. 

*

From: Alfred F. Jones <alfred.jones@usa.gov>
To: World Conference Nations [expand]
Date: Tuesday, July 20 
Subject: World Conference Jul 14 – 18 


Hey guys! 

Just forwarding the minutes and the final list of goals and stuff we finally managed to hammer together. If anyone wants access to the presentations, just drop me a note and I’ll link you to the external files on my server, ‘kay? They’re too large to send over email. 

Kiku, we’ll be crashing at your place in January for the next conference. We should totally head to Mt. Fuji for New Year prayers or something! All in the name of peace, y’know? 

Alfred / The US of A 




From: Arthur Kirkland <arthur.kirkland@direct.gov.uk>
To: Matthew Williams <matthew.williams@canada.gc.ca>
Date: Tuesday, July 20 
Subject: RE: World Conference Jul 14 – 18 


That idiot! 

When will he learn that this is not one of his internet games? As the host of a world conference, he should uphold dignity and formality in all his correspondences. He’s the United States of America, for goodness sake, not the daft nineteen year-old he appears to be. 

I’m doing my utmost not to lecture him, so could you please tell the fool he’s forgotten to attach the files? Thank you, Matthew. 

Sometimes I don’t know if I simply feel the way I do about the idiot or whether I’d love to throttle him more. 

Arthur




From: Matthew Williams <matthew.williams@canada.gc.ca
To: Arthur Kirkland <arthur.kirkland@direct.gov.uk>
Date: Wednesday, July 21 
Subject: RE: World Conference Jul 14 – 18 


Um. Don’t throttle him. I think you’re one of the few who could do it successfully. 

Anyway, I texted him. He should be sending out another email soon. 

I thought you should know, you’re not going to be able to escape Alfred all that easily. I mean… he does have phones and emails and web chat and a host of other technological communication mediums at his disposal.

Matthew




From: Alfred F. Jones <alfred.jones@usa.gov>
To: Matthew Williams <matthew.williams@canada.gc.ca>
Date: Wednesday, July 21 
Subject: RE: World Conference Jul 14 – 18 


Thanks for the heads up, bro! Though you were like, the sixth person to tell me. Our friend over in Estonia must be glued to his screen – the timestamp says he emailed back about the lack of attachments something like a minute after I first sent out that email. 

Hey, Arthur didn’t get on my case about it! You know how he usually goes into a frenzy about my slang and my so-called corruption of his precious language. Does this mean I have his unspoken approval? 

Sah-weet. 

- Al




From: Arthur Kirkland <arthur.kirkland@direct.gov.uk>
To: Matthew Williams <matthew.williams@canada.gc.ca>
Date: Thursday, July 22 
Subject: RE: World Conference Jul 14 – 18 


Thank you, Matthew. I appreciate it. 

And I appreciate your thoughts. I can't isolate myself completely from him, at any case. 

Don’t worry, lad, I have my ways. Being across the Atlantic does wonders, and I’ve had plenty of practice at holding your brother at arm’s length. 

I’ll simply have to try harder this time. 

Arthur




From: Matthew Williams <matthew.williams@canada.gc.ca>
To: Alfred F. Jones <alfred.jones@usa.gov>
Date: Friday, July 23 
Subject: RE: World Conference Jul 14 – 18 [UNSENT] 


Al, two days of silence hardly counts as tacit approval, especially with you sending out emails in the dead of the night for Europe. Of course it’s going to take Arthur a while to reply you. 

Except he’s drawing lines again. Do you know what’s happening? You were always the one who looked constantly to Arthur. When we were kids, during the Revolution, even during the world wars when you two finally looked at and not past each other. Whatever you did, you’d turn unconsciously towards Arthur. And when you passed us by, you were always distracted by him catching up to you. 

You know, I don’t even know what I’m writing anymore. I can’t even send this to you, can I? No, I can’t. Ugh. 

Think I’ll head to Montreal to clear my head. 

*


“Hey y’all, it’s Al! You caught me at a bad time, so drop me a note after the beep and I’ll give ya a holler when I’m back!” 

beep 

“…” 

click 




“Hey y’all, it’s Al! You caught me at a bad time, so drop me a note after the beep and I’ll give ya a holler when I’m back!” 

beep 

“… ah, Alfred. This is Arthur. I called earlier as well, but I wasn’t expecting to reach your voicemail – you always were inexplicably attached to your mobile phone. I’m rather surprised not to reach you twice.

I’m up to my ears in paperwork and meetings, so I’ll keep this short. Our meeting this coming September – would you take charge of it? My prime minister insists we address a number of lesser issues in addition to the environmental review; he has already spoken to your boss. We’re barely into August, so you should have ample time. You’ll need to ring up the appropriate representatives. I’ve already sent notes to your ambassadors on my side, but I need you to do the same with mine, and to follow up with both teams as we move closer to September. 

I’m scheduled to be in Washington for at least five days. I’ll leave the arrangements of that to you as well. I… yes. Yes, do what you will. I’ll trust your judgment for this. 

The situation with the EU is looking more dire the further I dig. It’s a bloody mess, but it’s nothing we can’t handle. If I seem off-kilter, it's only because of that, all right? That’s all it is.

… you really should look into changing your voicemail message, Alfred. Just… think about it. 

Email me if you need anything for the Washington meeting.”

click 




“Hi, you’ve reached Matthew Williams. I’m really sorry I’m not available. Please leave a message and I’ll get back to you.” 

beep 

“Hey, Mattie, don’t worry ‘bout this message. But man, you’re so predictable! I know you never take calls during a hockey match and I thought I’d call while you’re at a game so I can get to your voicemail. You know, I just realized the best time to ambush you. You might want to look into that. 

B-T-W, your voicemail message is boring. Boring… and proper. Proper enough for a guy with an undisclosed high position in the Canadian government. Okay. I get it. 

Yeah, anyway. Catch ya later, bro!”

click 




“This is Arthur Kirkland. Leave a message, and I will get back to you as soon as I’m available.”

Beep 

“My dear Arthur, such lies you utter even on the phone! I've left you countless messages and yet you only call when you’re completely drunk or when your prime minister makes you. Big brother is wounded, he truly is! 

That aside, I wonder what you said to Alfred. I had a nice teleconference with him just yesterday, and he let slip that he’d be busy organizing something for September. Such enthusiasm for someone who has just juggled a world conference. It’s quite refreshing to see young Amérique bouncing back a little bit from the sluggishness his economy sent him into, hm?

Just thought you'd like to know. No need to thank me, although if you do, I certainly won't say no. Adieu~” 

click 

*

From: Alfred F. Jones <alfred.jones@usa.gov>
To: Matthew Williams <matthew.williams@canada.gv.ca>
Date: Wednesday, Aug 18
Subject: stuff in general 


Hey Matt! 

Borrowing the boss’s BlackBerry – he’s a fan of your smart phone – since I’m attending this secret little meeting as a special civilian guest (ha! guess the boss doesn’t want them to know who I am). I’m not even sure why they’ve got me in on this, I’m here in “observation capacity,” but all this stuff isn’t up my alley. And they confiscated my iPhone for the day. At least it’s good to know that my agents are taking security seriously. 

Are you seeing Francis any time soon? Cause if you do, can you give him a smack upside the head? I can’t do it. Ever since like, the 1900s, every time he thinks I’m out to get him, he starts groping me the moment I get close. Actually, he does that to everyone. Except you. Or maybe he gropes you too, except you don’t yell harassment or kick him in the balls or bean him with a frying pan… actually, if that's the case, I don’t want to know and let’s pretend I never asked. 

Wait, I was going somewhere with this. Right. There are articles in the papers about the Special Relationship being over, you know how they do that every couple of months. They don’t really register on my radar – got enough stuff to worry about – except Francis decided to be an ass and forwarded an email to both Arthur and me about it. With the entire article pasted in the email body. It’s kinda hard to ignore “The Withering of a Once-Special Relationship” when it’s screaming at you in font size 36. 

(Apparently he got it off one of your news sites, or so he says. Seriously? Even folks at your place feel the need to gossip about us).

Anyway, an hour later, Arthur sent back a positively snarky reply. In fact, he sounded almost perky, if tiny words on a computer screen can radiate perkiness. It started with “If you have time to gambol about the Internet, frog, perhaps you would like to hop over the Channel with the financial report that was due three days ago? Oh, I forgot – your ‘special’ relations more often than not leave you with the clap, and yes, frog, I do mean it in that sense.” It went downhill from there. Which was pretty refreshing, considering how Arthur used to brood for days over those articles. 

So it’s cool that Arthur’s cool about it too, but it’s kinda annoying that Francis is taking advantage of things, y’know? It’s like he’s got to keep poking at Arthur’s buttons until he snaps… though I like doing that too, cause Arthur’s a lot more fun to be around when he isn’t so uptight about everything. 

Although lately he’s loosen up a little. Maybe it’s because he’s too busy bitching at the other EU nations, what do you think? 

… wait a sec, I have no idea if this will be going into the presidential records. Crap. Oh well, my boss keeps complaining that no one sends him juicy gossip on his BlackBerry, maybe this will amuse him. No state secrets in here, just chitchat.

Uh, I think he wants his phone back. Catch you later. 

- Al 




From: Matthew Williams <matthew.williams@canada.gv.ca>
To: Alfred F. Jones <alfred.jones@usa.gov>
Date: Wednesday, Aug 18
Subject: RE: stuff in general 


Al, 

That’s great and all, but I don’t think emailing non-official stuff while on your boss’s hyper-encrypted phone is a good idea. And how did you managed to write all of that – in coherent language! – on a qwerty keyboard, I don’t even—

Never mind. 

I’ll have a word with Francis if you want. But Arthur seems to have gotten a point in their mangled frienemy relationship, so I’d just let it go. 

Matt




From: Alfred F. Jones <alfred.jones@usa.gov>
To: Matthew Williams <matthew.williams@canada.gv.ca>
Date: Wednesday, Aug 18
Subject: RE: stuff in general 


Hey, at least I’m writing from my own email account, right? I'd get on chat or something but it’s bad rep to hack through my own firewalls. And that’s what I’d have to do. 

I’m back on my iPhone if you’re wondering. Boss pulled a few strings. You know, I’d normally bother Arthur or something about the whole thing with Francis, but he sounds like he’s just drowning in paperwork or something, and that one time I spoke to him on the phone he sounded really stressed. And he hasn’t really been getting on my case lately, so… yeah. Anyway, guess I’ll cut him some slack and give him some peace and quiet this time around. 

Plus, he’s coming to DC next month. Do I get a point for that? Arthur gets a point on Francis, and I get a point on Arthur which means I win the whole shebang! 

This is totally awesome. 




From: Matthew Williams <matthew.williams@canada.gv.ca>
To: Alfred F. Jones <alfred.jones@usa.gov>
Date: Wednesday, Aug 18
Subject: RE: stuff in general 


Arthur isn’t here, so I’ll say it for him. 

You idiot. 

*

Sunday, September 5th

  • Finalize observations on European Central Bank report
  • Review Antonio’s scheme and proposed course of action; liaise with team 
  • Pass over fact files to Ludwig, with reminder of possible unavailability two weeks from now
  • Crosscheck list with PM
  • Check weather in Washington. Begin packing 
  • Brew chamomile tea. Add honey
  • Write lists on loose leaf paper. Write thoughts in diary. Not vice versa 
  • Find spell to divert attention of persistent fairies 

--

Once upon a time, there lived a simple traveler. 

He wandered far and wide, over hills and through vast valleys. He chased the length of streams until they trickled into brooks, and had met all manner of creatures, some seen from a distance, others deigning a light pet to their soft fur coats before leaping away in great bounds. 

The little things in life - sunshine breaking in bright bars through the dense foliage, the subtle scent of blossoms and the whistle of wind - gave him the greatest pleasure. Many a person had laughed at him for his joy, calling after him to stay, to give up his wandering ways, to take up a family, a job, a real purpose. He would simply smile, wish them a good day and go about his way.

Despite his simple ways, the traveler had one single wish. For although his ever-moving feet had stepped across a distance that could span an entire nation, he had yet to outpace the all-encompassing forest. Interlocked branches formed a dense mesh of leaves over his head; his feet never failed to sink into thick grass and clover. 

His was a life painted in shades of green. 


--

Once upon a time, there lived a simple traveler. He wandered far and wide, until he came upon a wide, shining lake. 

He had dipped his feet in pretty ponds and fished in many free-flowing streams, but never had he ever seen such a wide body of water, reflecting sunlight like the expensive hand mirrors the village women fancied so much. The glare threatened to blind him as he approached and he shut his dazzled eyes as he took the dozen paces towards the lake. In his haste, he stumbled and fell head long into the water. 

When he finally opened his eyes, all he saw was blue, the bright, wide blue of the sky. 

The wide open spaces should startle him after the almost oppressive press of the forest, but he stared upward, feeling only awe. The water enveloped him in a cool embrace, and when he raised one hand to catch a piece of the sky, he tipped backwards until he was floating on his back. He stayed that way until night fell and little stars dotted the darkness. His fingers never caught a wisp of starlight or cloud, but it wasn't for a lack of trying.

He wondered if he could fall into the sky the way he sunk into water. 

--

The fish that tickled his feet when he swam asked him why he loved the lake. “Because it reflects the sky in all its brilliance,” he said. 

The robins flitting through the air asked him why he held his face to the caressing winds. “Because they travel where I cannot go, but whisper secrets in my ears,” he said. 

The gentle deer that nuzzled at his hands asked him why he prowled the lake’s shores but did not retreat back into the forest. “Because,” he said. “Because. Sometimes, there are reasons no words can give voice to.” 

His watery reflection was his most constant companion. 

“You’re trapped like a dragonfly upon a spider’s web,” it tells him. 

“You can’t call yourself a traveler if you don’t travel,” it tells him. 

“You’ll freeze when winter comes,” it tells him. “You’ll starve, you’ll drown. You’ll die.”

If he stared at his reflection, he could see the mottled patterns of clouds and the sheen of sunlight on the water. 

If he stared up at the sky, the sun now blinded him. 

--

Once upon a time there lived a simple traveler. 

Some say he settled down with a pretty blue-eyed girl, as free-spirited as he. Some say he traveled through the forest to spread tales of the open heavens. And some say that his bones lay in a neat pile beside the lake, his empty skull still gazing skywards. 

But there are some who believe he is still there, tied to the magic of the lake, living on the cusp of sky and earth. 

Some stories have no clear cut endings.


--

I wish the fairies wouldn't insist on new tales when I'm worn out. Time was I could get away with just whispering the stories I heard carried on the winds. Now they want me to write the tales down for our yearly visitors because I will be away for the autumn equinox. They always are precocious, my little friends. And I’m always terrible at saying no. 

Apparently, that has yet to change.

Chapter Text

From: Alfred F. Jones <alfred.jones@usa.gov>
To: Matthew Williams <matthew.williams@canada.gv.ca>
Date: Friday, Sept 24
Subject: (none)
 

Hey, 

Have you talked to Arthur recently? 

- Al 




From: Matthew Williams <matthew.williams@canada.gv.ca>
To: Alfred F. Jones <alfred.jones@usa.gov>
Date: Friday, Sept 24
Subject: RE: (none) 


You know how Arthur is. When he takes on a responsibility, he goes all out on it. We’ve only really exchanged phone calls on official business since the world conference at your place. But wasn’t he just down at your capital for a meeting or whatever? 

… something up? 

Matt 




From: Alfred F. Jones <alfred.jones@usa.gov>
To: Matthew Williams <matthew.williams@canada.gv.ca>
Date: Friday, Sept 24
Subject: RE: (none) 


Yep. He should be getting on his plane right about… now. 

I wonder how the rest of the EU’s doing. You wouldn’t believe the number of times I got to go on a coffee break because everyone – and I mean everyone, hell, except maybe Ludwig – over in Europe kept calling Arthur about “urgent” matters. It’s pretty funny listening to him rip pieces out of people when “people” doesn’t include me. 

When’s your Thanksgiving this year? 




From: Matthew Williams <matthew.williams@canada.gv.ca>
To: Alfred F. Jones <alfred.jones@usa.gov>
Date: Friday, Sept 24
Subject: RE: (none) 


Well, with the way they’re bickering over there, I’m not surprised Arthur’s stressed. Hope he at least got some sort of a break while he was at your place. 

Thanksgiving’s Oct 12. You better come, I need you to help eat the turducken. I know you can’t resist turkey, duck and chicken, especially when it comes bundled together. 

You never did answer my question. 




From: Alfred F. Jones <alfred.jones@usa.gov>
To: Matthew Williams <matthew.williams@canada.gv.ca>
Date: Friday, Sept 24
Subject: RE: (none) 


Heh, turducken. Who has the big appetite now? 

What question’s that? 




From: Matthew Williams <matthew.williams@canada.gv.ca>
To: Alfred F. Jones <alfred.jones@usa.gov>
Date: Friday, Sept 24
Subject: RE: (none) 


Never mind. 

*


SceptredIsle is now online


AllAmerican: arthur!

AllAmerican: heh, didnt think id c u on 

SceptredIsle: a;lkdsgj

SceptredIsle: Sorry. The chat window startled me and my hand slipped. 

SceptredIsle: Why am I signed onto this? I was just trying to access the Internet. 

AllAmerican: lol how’d i know? but it sounds like u got signed on automatically. y'know, its a messenger function? 

SceptredIsle: Ah. 

SceptredIsle: This will be the last time I leave my laptop in the princes’ presences. I thought that it would be safe, being in the same room as the Queen. 

AllAmerican: haha, dont know the younger generation all that well, do u 

SceptredIsle: Perhaps. 

SceptredIsle: Well, I don’t have time to chat. So if you’ll excuse me. 

AllAmerican: can i come up to london next week? 

SceptredIsle: Why? I can talk just as easily on the phone, if you need to discuss something. 

AllAmerican: do u ever think of nething but work? i wanna visit. its october, autumns here and u should take a break. europe can handle itself for a while

AllAmerican: … hey? did u get signed off or something? 

SceptredIsle: No. 

AllAmerican: gotcha 

SceptredIsle: No, I meant—

SceptredIsle: No, you can’t visit. 

SceptredIsle: I’m busy, Alfred. I have meetings planned. If you’re coming only for a social visit, I simply can’t spare the time. 

SceptredIsle: You should focus your attention on your own region. And – it’s not that you’re not welcomed! It’s just not the right time right now.

SceptredIsle: And I was just down at your capital two weeks ago.

AllAmerican: relax, arthur. i was joking

AllAmerican: i know how u are about the eu. n stuff like the commonwealth. u’ve got to mother everything

SceptredIsle: I do not! 

AllAmerican: u keep telling urself that ;) 

AllAmerican: anyway, u should grab some dinner. i bet u’ve only been drinking tea. ur blood’s going to turn tea flavored one day

SceptredIsle: I doubt that. But you’re right – it’s rather late now. 

SceptredIsle: Have a good afternoon, then. 

AllAmerican: yep. have a good dinner! 


SceptredIsle is now offline


AllAmerican: …

AllAmerican: interesting 


Your message cannot be delivered 

AllAmerican is now offline

 

*


TheWildNorth is now online 
AllAmerican is now online 


AllAmerican: hey, comin up 2 ur place this weekend y/n 

TheWildNorth: … you’re a week early for my thanksgiving 

AllAmerican: yeah well wanted 2 go 2 london but that didnt pan out so im crashing ur place 

TheWildNorth: what

AllAmerican: i'll still come for ur thanksgiving! 

TheWildNorth: wait. go back. what about london

AllAmerican: i asked. E said no. 

TheWildNorth: no what? 

AllAmerican: no visiting

AllAmerican: hey, u there

TheWildNorth: sorry. arthur’s that busy? he likes your visits. 

AllAmerican: E, like my visits? do u hear that noise?

TheWildNorth: … what? 

AllAmerican: thats the sound of flyin pigs prancing past my window 

TheWildNorth: that was horrible. and he does too. it’s just sort of hard to tell

AllAmerican: wateva, beats gettin stuck in london bored off my ass if hes always @ meetings 

AllAmerican: so neway, y/n? 

TheWildNorth: … fine

TheWildNorth: i'll call you to work out the details 

AllAmerican: cool 


TheWildNorth is now offline
AllAmerican
is now offline

*

“Allô, vous avez atteint la chambre des malédictions et la magie noire. Courir pour toi la vie.” 

Matthew pulled his phone away and stared at the display. Arthur Kirkland; London – yup, he had dialed the right number. He put the phone back to his ear. “Francis? Why are you picking up Arthur’s home phone?” 

“Ah, Matthieu! Such a pleasure to hear from you.” 

“And you.” Matthew threw himself into his favorite armchair, fidgeting restlessly until he found a comfortable position. “Where’s Arthur?” 

“Arthur has stepped out for the moment. He’s trying to broach a new policy to deal with the situation in Spain and he’s forced us to have this informal little meeting at his place.” Francis chuckled at something, then continued. “Imagine that, Matthieu! It’s ten in the evening, and yet our adorably vicious island nation refuses to let us leave, on pain of one of his curses.” 

Matthew drew a breath and tried to relax; it was oddly jarring, to listen to Francis and his whimsical theatrics when he had been steeling himself to speak to Arthur. “That’s not very nice. The cursing, that is, not the new policy thing.” 

“And he won’t serve any wine. Just tea, pots and pots of the stuff. I know he has alcohol here, but I can’t find any of it.” 

“Ah.” Matthew shifted his foot; Kuma was skulking near his chair, and occasionally when the bear was bored, Matthew would find himself with shredded pant legs. “I’m sorry to hear that.” 

“Indeed.” The line went quiet, and Matthew wondered for a moment if the call got cut off. “Are you all right, Matthieu?” 

“Hmm? Yeah, I’m fine, why?” 

“Arthur is quiet and brooding and occasionally very dangerous when something bothers him. Alfred goes to extremes when something bothers him. Either extremely boisterous to prove that he is fine, or extremely stubborn, to prove his point. I imagine you bear the brunt of it in either case.” 

Matthew curled himself into a corner between the armchair and a cushion, and stared out his window. He didn’t know if Francis knew, or whether they were even talking about the same thing, but Matthew was glad either way. “No, Al sounds okay enough. But that’s almost a given. Of course he’s okay if he doesn’t know what’s going on.” 

“Oh, Alfred can be perceptive, and he is perfectly capable of taking the initiative. He just needs a good hard push in the right direction.”

“Yeah.” Matthew breathed out, rotating his neck and trying to loosen the muscles in his shoulders. “It’s just knowing when to push and when not to, that’s all.” 

“They are quite similiar, Arthur and Alfred." 

Matthew made a low noise of disbelief. 

"You don’t agree?” Francis said. “I’ll grant you that they take different approaches, but the end result is still the same. They dig themselves too deep.” 

Matthew closed his eyes. “Over two hundred years, huh?” 

“You would understand it rather well,” Francis agreed. “They make things complicated. Passion is supposed to run hot and fast, but instead they drag it out into this convoluted love.” 

Matthew watched shadows dance across his floor as the maple trees outside his window swayed in the wind. “Francis, do you know…?” 

“Oh, I suspect enough.”

“Yeah…” Matthew tugged idly at a strand of hair, then dropped his head back into the chair’s cushioned back with a sigh. “Anyway, I don’t want to take up your time. I just wanted to ask Arthur something. I thought if I got to him on his London line that he'll be off work, at least."

“You are never a distraction, Matthieu.” Francis’ voice was low, and very clear. Matthew couldn’t quite put his finger on what was different about it – it wasn’t Francis’ normal voice, but it certainly wasn’t his sultry purr, either. “I hardly get to see you nor visit your lovely country unless it is on official business, and those hardly count.” 

“You’re welcome any time,” Matthew found himself saying before he even thought it out clearly. “Of course you are.” He paused. “You might want to avoid coming during the winter, though, the blizzards are hell, but yeah. Come by.” 

Francis was smiling, he could tell. “I would enjoy that very—merde.”

“Would you like to get off my phone, frog?” Arthur’s voice came clear over the line. There were sounds of things slamming into wood and a loud crackle as Francis presumably dropped the phone. A moment later – “Matthew? It’s Arthur. Sorry about that.”

Francis groaned in the background. 

“Is Francis okay?” Matthew asked tentatively. 

“He’s in one piece.” Arthur snorted. “I still need him for the meeting. So, you called to…?” 

“I was just going to ask about the Queen’s visit, but we can work out the details later. I don't want to distract you from your meeting.” 

“Believe me, you’re much less distracting than this poor excuse of a nation here,” Arthur said, his tone bland. 

Matthew could hear Francis protesting in French in the background. He contemplated simply making his farewells and leaving the two nations to their bickering, but stopped before doing so. He tugged at his sweater, one that Arthur had knitted him for Christmas a few years back, and stared at the little hand calendar sitting on his side table. Alfred had always made fun of it, his sentimentality of marking anniversaries and visits from the people important to him, decorating the simply calendar with symbols – stars, roses and lilies, and other like representations. He touched one finger to the gold star marking the coming weekend, then spoke. 

“Arthur?” 

“Yes?” 

“Your visit to DC last month… did it go okay?” 

For half a minute, all Matthew heard was the phone’s white noise. He pressed his phone tighter to his ear. 

“If you’re asking about the business side of things," Arthur finally said, "it went well." A sigh rustled over the line. “As for what you’re really asking… it was a bit of a shock. I had steeled myself to see him in person this first time, but rehearsal hardly compares to the real thing.”

“Ah…” 

“Your brother was surprisingly attentive, however. We miraculously finished discussing most of the issues a day early, instead of dragging things out for another meet up. He even went an extra step to work around my schedule, although it didn’t stop him from crowing over how I caved in first and came to Washington and therefore I lost…” Arthur trailed off, and then seemed to remember who he was talking to. “It worked, though. We’re getting along better. We... bantered, I suppose, more than we fought."

Matthew stayed quiet. 

Arthur’s sigh rustled down the line. “It feels odd... but I'm not convinced that it's a bad thing. I’ll put these feelings behind me. I just have to compare this past meeting with all the times he and I have clashed this year to see that it's better this way."

Matthew swallowed a sigh of his own. “Well, I’m glad things look like they’re working out.” 

“Thank you for calling, Matthew.” Arthur’s voice was back to its usual wryness. “I have to get back to the meeting before Francis and Antonio wreck my sitting room between them. I’ll email you the Queen’s schedule when I have a moment, all right?” 

Matthew dropped his phone on a cushion after he hung up. He slouched back into his armchair to stare at the ceiling, and Kuma poked a nose into his elbow. With a sigh, Matthew gathered the bear up into a hug, pressing his face into Kuma’s thick fur. 

*

Matthew loved his brother, but it didn't mean he didn't find him annoying. He just tolerated it a lot more than others would. 

The visit started off normal enough. They often visited each other during the fall; it was one of their traditions, to sometimes have a weekend just to themselves to take a break from the politics and world issues and act like normal teenage brothers instead. And true to form, those weekends resulted in bickering fights over silly things like chores and food choices as much as they did in normal hangouts with Rock Band or a hockey game. 

Matthew’s BlackBerry chimed. ur wireless cut me off x2

Matthew sighed and refrained from typing in all caps. It only encouraged Alfred. i'm two rooms away. stop texting me 

The reply came almost instantly. u txted back 

"Stop texting me, I'm not replying you!" Matthew hollered at the top of his voice. 

"Then I'm going to yell at you from here!" Alfred yelled back. 

"You're not getting any coffee then!" 

Alfred loped into the kitchen a minute later and threw himself into a tall stool. "Threatening me with food, Mattie, that makes you almost as bad as Arthur. That, and the texting. What do you guys have against texting?" 

"Nothing." Matthew pushed a steaming mug of coffee in Alfred’s direction. "I reply you all the time, don't I?"

"Huh. And what's up with Arthur and texting?" 

"Arthur likes talking to people face to face, or at least to hear their voices." Matthew paused. "But you already know that." 

"That I do." Alfred took a sip of his coffee. The steam fogged up his glasses. "What's up with Arthur, then?" 

Matthew set down the coffee pot and stared hard at his brother. He had a nagging feeling that this was not one of Alfred's usual gripe sessions. 

"Is there something up with Arthur?" 

There was a glint in Alfred's eye. "Oh yeah. There definitely is. Though I'm not complaining. It's nice, how well we've been getting along lately." 

"Oh?" Matthew asked casually, picking up his coffee and taking a careful sip. "That's good, isn't it?" 

"Mmhm." Alfred swirled his coffee mug. “But it’s kind of weird how Arthur’s been. He’s always been hot and cold, and now he’s just… warm and cool.” 

Matthew stared at him and wondered if he had accidentally put something a little extra into the coffee. “Al? Not everyone can follow the logic in your head.” 

“Warm and cool.” Alfred sat his coffee cup down – even pushed it off to the side, to be less of a distraction. “It’s still Arthur, but toned down. We still argue and stuff, and there are policies that we just don’t agree on, but he’s less touchy, y’know? Crazy as it sounds, I sort of miss how he seemed to always be on my ass about something.” 

Matthew leaned back against his fridge and watched his brother. “You mean you just miss being the center of Arthur’s attention.”

“What? No way!” Alfred forced a laugh. 

“You always did like it when Arthur looked at you, and only at you,” Matthew said quietly, then bit at his tongue. 

Alfred’s laughter trailed off. “Well… yeah. Who wouldn’t want to be in the center of attention?” He began drumming his fingers on Matthew’s counter, and Matthew was beginning to suspect something about that habit. “A hero’s got to impress the world, right? That includes stuffy old grumpy Arthur.”

“Al.” Matthew placed his coffee cup down as well. “What’s really bothering you?” 

They stared at each other from across the kitchen. The late afternoon light spilled in from the windows, and despite the illumination, Matthew could not read Alfred’s expression. Alfred’s fingers tapping against the counter was the only sound in the room. 

“Arthur’s visit to DC a month and a half ago,” Matthew guessed. “You noticed something.” 

Alfred didn’t look at him. 

Matthew kept his voice light, almost casual. “I’ve been asking you if something’s wrong for weeks. And now you’re sitting in my kitchen.”

The finger-tapping increased in tempo, then stopped all together. Alfred clenched his hand in a tight ball, then relaxed. 

“He was… normal enough,” Alfred said, meeting Matthew’s gaze steadily. “The usual self-assured, no-nonsense thing. He still gave me the usual Arthur-patented lectures whenever he thought I did something he thought was wrong, but he didn’t seem to actually take them that personally anymore, if you get what I mean?” 

“But.” 

“Yeah – but.” Alfred pulled one hand through his bangs. “Once or twice, he’d go quiet. I thought it was just from being in DC after our last fight, but it’s not. He’d go quiet, a little wistful, and then he’d smile and go back to being Arthur. But something shifts when he does that.” Alfred seemed to be on a roll now that he started. “And this whole thing with Arthur saying no – okay yeah, he does it all the time, but it was different this time.” 

It took Matthew a second to realize what topic Alfred had shifted to: the reason why Al was sitting in Matthew’s kitchen and not up at Arthur’s. 

“Part of it is just me being used to Arthur always –always – answering ‘maybe’. For stuff like these, visits and whatever. And I know why he said no this time. It bugged me when he made promises but didn’t really keep them.” 

Matthew bit back the urge to remind Al that “maybe”s did not make promises. 

“But his no this time was different. I appreciate that he’s being considerate, but damn it! It feels like he’s closer to me, but also further away. I’m missing something, Matt! Something’s going on with Arthur and I have no idea what!”

Alfred glared at Matthew’s counter, pressing his hands flat against the surface. It was a gesture Matthew appreciated, because even without the added force of frustration, Alfred could crack the wood with ease on any normal day. 

“You know.” Alfred’s voice was quiet. “He’s sort of treating me like he does with you. And the rest of his former colonies. Not so much singling me out and grilling me and turning everything I do into something that’s against him personally. I mean, he still plays favorites, that crazy ex-empire, but yeah. I really like not fighting over everything.” He breathed out, and said with resolution, as if he was trying to talk himself into it, “This is good. It’s fine. Nothing’s really changed, after all.” 

Matthew closed his eyes, squeezed them shut so tightly that he could see bright after-images against his eyelids. He rocked unconsciously onto the tips of his toes, shifting uneasily from foot to foot, almost as if his body was echoing the way his mind wavered on the edge of decision. 

“Do you love Arthur?” he heard his voice say, and realized that he had spoken out loud. 

He heard a splutter and a thunk and then a muffled curse, and opened his eyes to see Alfred fumbling with his coffee cup, reaching for a napkin to wipe his hands, his cheeks flushed. 

“What kind of question is that, Matt, I mean, way to be out of—”

Matthew leaned across the counter and grabbed the coffee cup and napkin away, tipping them into the sink with a loud clank. The silence that followed seemed to echo loudly in his ears; now that he started down this line of action, Matthew couldn’t stop. “Yes or no question, Al.”

“Fuck.” Alfred made a move to get out of his seat. 

“Sit down,” Matthew said, his voice deadly calm. “It’s a simple question. And you know what kind of love I mean.” 

“I…” For a moment, it looked like Alfred would rebel and storm out of the kitchen anyway, if only to avoid answering the question. Matthew stared him down, willed himself to ignore the mild guilt that scratched at him, because he wasn’t going to let this go down without a fight, not any more. 

“Yes,” Alfred finally spat out, and the answer seemed to surprise him almost as much as it did Matthew, who expected him to stall more. “Of course I do, I mean—“ He stopped, then changed gear, glaring back. “Do you think I like this – I thought something would change this century, you know, with both of us finally fighting on the same sides and me finally being able to protect him and everyone instead of being protected all the time—“ 

“Then why didn’t you do something?” Matthew had to yell back to be heard above Alfred’s voice. “You’re holding the cards, Al!” 

“The cards to what—“

Matthew didn’t quite lunge at Alfred - he knew better than to go straight up against his brother like that - but he grabbed Alfred’s shoulder and forced Alfred to look at him. “Al,” and his voice came out soft, and he whispered a quiet apology to Arthur in his heart. “Arthur loved you. No—“ he pushed hard at Alfred when his brother tried to pull free. “He loves you, but he’s trying to move on, to move beyond his feelings for you. That’s what you’re missing.” 

Alfred looked up, met his gaze, and Matthew knew instantly why his brother always choose to hide his eyes, because god, they gave him completely away. Alfred’s eyes were stormily dark behind his glasses, confused and angry and growing more and more alarmed. 

“Do you really want that?” Matthew asked, backing away slightly but still keeping his hands on Alfred’s forearms. “Are you really happy just being independent nations who can trust each other and see eye to eye, or do you want to risk getting tied down, but maybe forging something better? Because you have issues, Al, you’ve always had issues with Arthur and being tied to Arthur, but if you don’t do something, he’s going to put his feelings for you behind him and that will be it.”

“How do you even know about all that, Arthur loving—” Alfred stumbled over the word “—me, and…” 

“He tells me things he can’t tell you,” Matthew said truthfully when Alfred trailed off. “I wasn’t supposed to say anything.” He pushed away from Alfred and stumbled backwards until he hit one of his high stools. “But if Arthur’s that important to you, why don’t you go over and find out?” 

“But—” Alfred had his hands in his hair, dragging them through his blonde locks in agitation. “Wait. Just wait.” 

Matthew pushed himself off the counter and slid back onto his own stool. 

He watched his brother fidget restlessly, taking off his glasses and pressing one hand to his closed eyes for a long moment. Then he went completely still. It was a habit from his days in the military, when thinking hard very, very quietly meant not attracting enemy attention and getting shot. 

“Cards,” Alfred finally said. He pushed his glasses back on and stared hard at Matthew. “Arthur’s holding them too. If he really loves me.” 

Matthew blew out a breath. “Yeah. But he’s been looking at the game and somehow he’s decided that the game will turn out best for him if he stepped back. But he doesn’t know what cards you have. He can guess, but he doesn’t know for sure. ” Matthew watched Alfred carefully. “Game comparisons aside… it’s your move now.” 

Alfred’s finger-tapping was back. 

“You know,” Alfred said slowly. “I never did anything because I didn’t want his response to be because he needed me as an ally. I didn’t want to get tangled up in all the politics, and I don’t even know if you can call what we had before a friendship, and I didn’t want to risk losing that now that it seems like we have it, not with the way world events have been going.” 

Matthew smiled a little. “You know, beyond your diplomatic ties, Arthur doesn’t need you very much. If he wasn’t a nation, he wouldn’t need you at all.” 

“I know that. And I wouldn’t want him to. I didn’t want to need him back then, why do you think I would want—”

“Yeah,” Matt said, and his words, although spoken softly, sounded awfully loud in the sudden quiet between them. “Maybe, Al, maybe it’s just enough that he wants you. You, you idiot, not you from his memories, and definitely not you as a superpower. Why do you think he’s trying so hard to move on? He’s also doing it for you.” 

Alfred breathed in, then out. “Yeah.” And then, “I need to talk to him.” 

And just like that, the tension in the room fused out, Matthew slumping down against the counter and smiling weakly, Alfred blinking owlishly and looking somewhat mollified at his own words. 

“He’s going to be pissed if I show up on his doorstep after he told me not to come,” Alfred said. 

Matthew chuckled. “Like you ever listen. What have you got to lose?” 

Al dragged Texas off, cleaned them with two brisk rubs against his hoodie and plunked them back on. “An awful lot. But not going means losing everything by default.” He jumped to his feet, his stool rattling back and forth on its legs. “Sorry, Matt. I’m ditching you this weekend.” 

Matthew smiled at him, shrugging his shoulders to loosen his muscles and finally relaxing back into his stool. Arthur was probably going to kill him, but whatever happened after this, Matthew could at least accept with a clear conscience. 

“But wait a minute!” Al said suddenly, whirling around, and Matt almost jumped out of his skin. The other nation jabbed a finger accusatorily in Matthew’s face. 

“What?” Matthew yelled back, and wondered if it was too childish to put the thought of biting Al’s outstretched finger into action.

“You’re on Arthur’s side, aren’t you?” Al lowered his voice. He arched one eyebrow at Matthew. “How do I know that this isn’t some elaborate scheme you guys came up with? Because that’s just not cool—“

“Alfred,” Matt said calmly, and felt his lips twitch with grin that kept going lopsided. “I kick your ass regularly in hockey, and I can do it again off the rink if I really have to.” 

“Hmmm.” Alfred grinned, neither agreeing nor disagreeing. “No seriously, Mattie – why’re you doing this? I thought you said Arthur told you not to say anything.” 

“He didn’t technically say that.” Matt stopped himself from pulling at his hair – damn nervous habit – and glared. “And you know why.” 

“No, actually, I don’t. You’re always on Arthur’s side.” 

“Al.” Matt dragged the syllable out, his voice going slightly higher at the end of it. He went from preventing himself from pulling his hair to preventing himself from grabbing his brother’s neck and throttling him. Because if he really was that dense, then damn, he and Arthur together would be a disaster. 

“Aw, Matt.” Al smiled at him, shoving his bangs out of his face with one easy movement. “You already did the whole ‘smack some goddamn sense into my brother’s head over his stupid love crisis’ thing, so what’s weirding you out?” 

And that’s what did it, really, the smile underlying the shit-eating grin Al often had pasted over his face, the one that Matt saw often when they were young, the smile that Alfred always wore when he did things like the “longest undefended border” and “each other’s largest trade partner” mini-documentary introduction he made ahead of Matthew's last Winter Olympics in Vancouver. 

“Because you need to read the atmosphere, and I did it because I’m on your side too, okay?” Matthew said. “For things like that, you know I am.” 

“Yeah.” Al leaned over the counter and pressed his forehead against Matt’s, miraculously not knocking their glasses together, and for a moment it felt like they were young and inseparable and simultaneously fighting and caring for each other again. “Thanks, Matt. I’m on your side too, whenever you need me. I just wanted you to know that.”

And then he was off, pulling his bomber jacket from the closet with a clatter of swinging hangers, shit-eating grin back on his face, rushing off into things as he always did. 

Matt just shook his head and yelled after him. “And also, I did it because I’m really sick of you and Arthur talking at me and not to each other. I’ve got a life beyond you two, you know!” 

Alfred’s boisterous laughter echoed back at him just before the front door slammed, and Matt was left grinning at it, wondering how different the next world conference would be.

Chapter Text

Matthew was clearing up the coffee cups when his doorbell rang. It wasn’t Alfred – his brother liked banging directly on doors – like Matthew half expected; Al had left his duffel bag behind when he rushed out half an hour earlier. 

Somehow, though, Matthew wasn’t terribly surprised to find Francis standing on his doorstep, dressed in a fashionable grey coat, a cream colored scarf over his throat and a self-satisfied grin gracing his face. 

“Very efficient, Matthieu,” Francis complimented him. 

“Francis,” Matthew said, and then stopped, feeling a bit light-headed. It wasn’t every day he confronted his brother over something as deeply personal as his love life, and he couldn’t help feeling elated that finally, finally, Arthur and Alfred would get things out between them. He clung onto the door knob, blinking fuzzily from the glare of the setting sun, and finally settled for smiling somewhat sheepishly at Francis. 

Francis placed one gloved hand on Matthew’s shoulder, squeezing lightly, then arched an eyebrow at him. “Will you not to invite me in, mon ami?”

Matthew nodded and stepped back to let Francis through. 

He was familiar with the way Francis operated and simply trailed along as Francis made for the kitchen, the other nation navigating through the hallway and rooms with an ease that made him seem as at home here as he did strolling through his café-lined Parisian streets. Francis was already sifting through his cupboards and pulling out the old French press and a small packet of quality coffee blend when Matthew finally caught up with him. 

He spotted Francis’ suede gloves on his small dining table, and settled himself there, preferring to watch the other nation than to risk getting in the way. Matthew knew that Francis loved cooking and baking, though it wasn’t something he advertised, and gravitated naturally to the kitchen when he was in the right frame of mind. 

It was comforting, the small quiet sounds of water boiling and spoons clinking against ceramic, and the scent of rich coffee slowly warming up his kitchen. Matthew drew in a deep breath, and when he breathed out, he felt the subtle knot of tension between his shoulders melt away. 

He looked up in time to see Francis settling a mug of coffee in front of him. “Just like the old days,” Francis said. The elder nation tugged a stray lock of wavy hair behind Matthew’s ear, then took a seat. “I added cinnamon to the brew – I remember you liking that when you were younger.” 

“What are you doing here?” Matthew finally gathered his thoughts enough to ask, a little amused at how Francis sometimes felt the need to coddle him, just the way Arthur did with Alfred. Maybe it was an elder nation thing. 

“Alfred called me after Arthur told him not to go to London. When he became tired of my riddles, he went straight to you.” Francis stirred sugar into his coffee and took a sip. “I had wondered what he would do. Imagine my surprise when I stepped out of my taxi only to see him running past me like a crazed fool. I reminded him that cars move faster than humans – and nations – can run. How did he think he was going to get to the airport, I’ll never know.” 

“That’s… very much like Al.” Matthew shook his head. “He’s going to London. I don’t think Arthur can stand up against him for long if Al goes all out.” He paused. “And if he doesn’t do anything stupid.” 

Francis smirked at that for half a minute, then placed his coffee down. “That is all well and good, but let us put Arthur and Alfred aside for a while, shall we? I can almost guarantee that the world will be abuzz about them for the next year if anything comes out of it. Elizabeta will make sure of it.” 

“Oh.” Matthew blew on his coffee. The rising steam fogged up his glasses. “Then why’re you here?” 

“We little helpers are so rarely remembered when the main actors finally – what’s the phrase? ‘Get their act together’?” Francis curled one hand under his chin and propped his elbow on the table, studying Matthew. “You’re always doing so much for your brother and for Arthur. I wonder when you will begin taking something for yourself.” 

Matthew’s eyes dropped to his coffee, but flickered back up almost immediately to meet Francis’ gaze. “I don’t mind. I mean…” He fiddled with his mug, and felt comforted by the warmth it radiated. “I’m just so used to following Arthur. The Queen is still my monarch and I know it’s supposed to be honorary, but… it’s hard to break the habit, sometimes. And Al’s my brother. For stuff like this, we stick together, you know?”

Francis continued watching him, and Matthew fought the urge to tug at his hair again. He laced his fingers around his coffee mug instead, holding it tight and breathing in the scent of coffee and cinnamon. He closed his eyes and took a moment to himself. “Don’t worry about me, Francis. I can take care of myself.” 

He looked up at Francis. “And when I know what I want, I’ll fight for it.” 

Francis nodded, just as solemnly, then smiled. And although it looked remarkably like his usual lopsided, charming smile, somehow Matthew didn’t think it felt the same. “As long as you’re aware of that, Matthieu,” Francis said. “It wouldn’t do to let Alfred overshadow you all the time.”

“Mmhm,” Matthew hummed an agreement. 

He traced circles along the sides of his coffee mug, the silence falling comfortably between them. It was only when Francis reached up to flick on the lights against the growing darkness that Matthew remembered – Francis still hadn’t made it clear why he had flown all the way across the Atlantic. 

“So, um. Why are you here, Francis?” Matthew looked around, hunting for Francis’ luggage even though he knew Francis had arrived on his doorstep with nothing in hand. 

Francis chuckled. “I checked into a hotel. I didn’t want to get in the way if you hadn’t managed to knock some sense into Alfred yet.” 

“Ah…” Matthew blinked, but Francis continued on. 

“As for why I’m really here - why, you invited me, Matthieu. So here I am.” Francis arched an eyebrow at him. “Europe will be distracted for a while, so I might as well make my getaway, hm? It’s been far too long since I have last visited Montreal’s boulevards or walked along Quebec’s fortifications.” 

Matthew blinked again – he must look ridiculous, he spared a moment to think – then smiled, a smile that might not rival Alfred’s shit-eating grin, but one that was bright and endearing all the same. 

“I’m still welcomed, am I not?” Francis asked. 

“Of course.” Matthew nodded, his smile going wider. “Of course you are.” 

 

 

*

Contrary to popular belief, Alfred didn’t always rush into every situation without thinking. For one, even though it was mid afternoon over in Ottawa, it was late evening in London, and it would much later when Alfred finally made it over. Alfred didn’t think it would make a very promising beginning to crash in on Arthur like that, especially without any warning.

Instead, Alfred headed to New York for the night, then caught the earliest flight over to London to arrive in Arthur’s capital in the afternoon. Arthur was out, still so busy that he was working even during the weekends, but Alfred had anticipated this, banked on it, even. He just knew that if he had to knock on a door and wait for it to open, all the weird jumbled thoughts in his head would fizzle out and he’d say something not-so-romantic like insulting Arthur’s bushy eyebrows or stodgy sweater vest. And Alfred might be awesome and capable of catching or dodging most of Arthur’s punches, but he wasn’t going to risk that this time. 

Instead, he wandered through the garden and fished out the spare key from a small hollow in Arthur’s favorite rose bush. The key was miraculously rust-free and turned easily in its lock, and Alfred whispered a polite little “Hey? It’s Al” as he pushed the door open. He felt a little silly, but Arthur had one single, unbreakable rule for guests letting themselves into his house when he was out and that was to announce who they were and to enter politely. Alfred carried the memory of Arthur’s lambent green eyes and the warning in the Briton’s voice at the back of his mind as he stepped across the threshold.

He left his jacket hanging on the front door’s knob to let Arthur know he was around, then wandered all over the house, ending up in the sitting room. He paced restlessly, circling a brocade chair, skirting along the edges of the many side tables. Alfred had been in Arthur’s house many times before, but to be here without Arthur and yet still be completely surrounded by sheer Arthur-ness – it was weird. The embroidery and lace, the ceiling high bookshelves with their heavy tomes, the faint perfume of flowers that lingered even though fall was upon them – they all held pieces of Arthur. And Alfred looked at all of them, dressed in his oversized jeans and bright sneakers and with his headphones hooked around his neck, and felt something gnaw at his stomach. 

Alfred stomped over to one of the bookshelves and scowled at a book with such a loopy, embellished font that he couldn’t make out the title at all. 

So maybe he hadn’t thought this out properly. On the flight over, he had jammed on his headphones and cranked his music on as loud as they would go without his neighbor yelling at him. He hadn’t wanted to think about... consequences. Thinking about things like how this confrontation could affect how their working relationship, what it would mean for their policies, (what he would do if Arthur really had moved on) - that wasn’t Alfred. That was Arthur, who overanalyzed and sought control over everything, as if doing so could empower him. 

Alfred fought the urge to drum his fingers against the shelf’s fine dark wood, and scanned the bookshelf of English authors and poets and playwrights until he hit a collection of T. S. Eliot’s poems.

“Ha!” Alfred crowed. “So totally one of mine, even if you stole him from me!” And he pried the compilation out, ignoring the indignant flicker of movement at the edges of his sight and completely disregarding how snatching the book out might disturb the other tightly packed volumes. 

He sneezed at the rising dust, but that was okay. Because that was what Alfred did – he thought in the now, not the later. So maybe his immediate course of actions didn’t always pan out; his nose was still tingling, from the dust and the heavy scent of old paper. But when Alfred waited, everything seemed to come out worse. 

He rubbed idly at his left shoulder, where his most recent scars still ached and pulled, a constant reminder to be vigilant. And he thought about the scars that marred Arthur’s chest and back. They would have faded to thin silvery lines by now, but Alfred knew they were there. He had bandaged them himself, after all, in the later days of the Blitz when that was the most he could do because he was still officially not involved in the war. 

A sudden pressure against his hand made Alfred glance down, at the way Eliot’s collection was starting to warp from how he clutched at it. He smoothed the cover out.

So Alfred wasn’t going to think about this. So what if he didn’t quite fit in with Arthur’s needlepoint and his roses and his crazy array of tea? So what if he really had no idea what the hell Arthur was thinking, what the other nation really felt and thought, about Alfred, and—and everything? He just needed to get his point out and then he’ll worry about everything else later. 

Alfred nodded once to himself, then dropped down on his haunches to stash Eliot on the second bottom shelf next to Arthur’s squashy cushioned chair, right between Ernest Hemingway and—

—oh.

There they were, a neat row of books by American authors, stashed together in haphazard order. Alfred ran a light finger across the spines, some of them first printings that Alfred recognized because he had dumped them on Arthur, often just to spite the elder nation, but sometimes simply because of the longing glint in Arthur’s eyes, a thirst and love for literature that Arthur wouldn’t admit because it was Alfred’s literature. 

“You’re so incredibly impossible, old man,” Alfred muttered, almost breathlessly, warmth pooling in his chest. “And I must be crazy.” 

He eased Eliot in amongst his fellow countrymen, then sank onto Arthur’s couch to wait for evening and Arthur’s return. 

The sun was just setting when Alfred heard Arthur coming in, the muted sound of doors opening and closing as Arthur put his coat away. He saw Arthur making his way to the kitchen in the periphery of his vision, but neither of them said anything to each other. Alfred waited, his hands sweaty, for Arthur to come to him. 

He felt a light touch and turned as the other nation draped the bomber jacket over his shoulders. Arthur hadn’t dressed down; he stood parade straight, his expression neutral, only the slightest hint of a frown marring his lips. 

“Hey,” Alfred said, and gestured at the space beside him as if it was his couch and not Arthur’s. 

Arthur simply rested one gloved hand on the couch’s back, quiet. 

Alfred stared at the black leather, then raised his gaze, following the line of Arthur’s arm up to meet Arthur’s eyes. “Aren’t you going to at least take off your gloves?” 

Arthur shook his head. “I heard you went up to Matthew’s after I told you not to come. And yet, you’re here.” 

“Yeah, well. I wanted to see you.” Alfred stood, letting his jacket fall from his shoulders, and moved around the couch to stand beside Arthur. It took him a second to get used to looking down slightly to meet Arthur’s eyes again when moments earlier he had had to tip his head back just to see Arthur’s face. Arthur gazed back at him steadily, and Alfred had to remind himself – not thinking about this. “Matthew told me what you told him. That’s why I’m here.” 

Arthur didn’t say anything. No protests. No lectures. He wasn’t even flushing or flailing madly like he often did when Alfred teased him. There was only an odd silence surrounding him. 

Alfred shifted uneasily. “Arthur?”

“I knew something was going on when I came home to find your bomber jacket on my door and you quietly sitting in my sitting room with only a single light in the corridor on.” Arthur reached past Alfred, leaning in to pull the switch on an antique lamp, his spine a perfect arch over the couch’s back. Warm amber light washed over them, coloring Arthur’s pale skin a warmer tone. “And the fairies – they didn’t quite know what to make of you.” 

“Oh.” Alfred knew he couldn’t see those fairies, if they even existed, but he couldn’t help sweeping the room just once to see if any glimmering figures were around. 

“What did Matthew tell you, precisely?” 

Alfred looked back at Arthur. “You’re not going to get mad at him, are you?” 

“I never expected Matthew to choose sides. He has always been there, quietly and loyally so.” Arthur smiled, a strange little smile that flickered over his lips and faded just as quickly. “How can I fault him?” 

Alfred felt a prickle of annoyance run through him and couldn’t quite explain the feeling away. He gripped the back of the couch, feeling the fabric pull tight under his fingers. “Matt told me that you… had feelings for me—” Alfred paused, and felt a quiet shiver under his skin as he finished “—and that you were trying to get over them.” 

“I thought as much.” Arthur’s neutral expression crumbled; he looked tired, looked like he wanted nothing more than to head to bed with a cup of tea. “Look, I’m exhausted. I’ve been up since five in the morning, stringing together policies and cutting through red tape to keep our existing ones afloat, I’ve been arguing with nations and politicians all day and I’m not in the mood to get in a tiff with you. Go away.” 

Arthur turned away, dismissal in every line of his body. But now that Alfred knew to watch for it, he saw how Arthur’s head was barely turned in his direction, still aware of his presence, and that was enough for a start. 

Alfred grabbed at Arthur’s wrist. “Wait,” he said, then remembered to loosen his grip. “I’m not just going to go away.” 

Arthur gave Alfred’s hand a poisonous glare, then seemed to decide it was too much effort. “Fine,” he said in an even tone that suggested he was humoring Alfred. “Why are you here then?” 

“I’ve got something important to tell you,” Alfred said. 

Arthur blew out a long suffering sigh and jerked his wrist pointedly away from Alfred’s loosened grip, crossing his arms. “Oh, very well,” he said, and Alfred perked up, because that sounded a lot more like the usual Arthur. “Hurry up.” 

Alfred simply gazed at him for a long moment, then was seized by the urge to take Arthur’s hands, just to feel him there. He was getting distracted by the way the light played on Arthur’s hair, pooling in shadows at times and highlighting his cheeks and curve of his throat at others. Alfred wanted to touch… but it wasn’t the right time to do so. 

“I…” Alfred had thought about this part. He couldn’t help it, because the words played under the surface of his thoughts whether he actively considered them or not, and now he tried to turn those jumbled thoughts into words. “I didn’t really believe Matt when he told me – I still don’t know if I do, and that’s partly why I’m here, to hear it from you, because how can I do anything without hearing it from the horse’s mouth, so to speak. And then I heard that you’re moving on, and it’s like suddenly too much has changed, and I never even realized. But— but—” Alfred drew a deep breath. He hated how the words were stumbling all over his tongue, but this part – this part he knew he wanted to say, and he couldn’t help the way his lips curved into a smile. “I do love you. And I don’t want to lose you like that, without even trying, because that would be really stupid, so that’s why I’m here, but I think I already said that…” 

Alfred finally grabbed control of his runaway mouth and told himself to look at Arthur – he wasn’t sure when he looked away, because he knew he was looking right at Arthur for the most important part of his proclamation. 

Arthur was staring at a point somewhere around the vicinity of Alfred’s ear. His eyes were wet; Alfred could tell from the way light shone off them before Arthur closed them. Alfred caved into his impulse and reached forward, sweeping his thumbs lightly over Arthur’s eyelids, pressing closer as Arthur tipped his face towards Alfred. 

“You can’t do this,” Arthur whispered, his voice wavering. He reached upwards and caught Alfred’s wrists in his hands, twisting to break Alfred’s hold, and that’s when Alfred realized that Arthur’s voice trembled from anger. 

Shit. 

“You— you—” Arthur voice rose with each word. “Do you think you can just waltz here and charm me over with sweet words and empty promises? Or perhaps you think it’s funny,” Arthur’s thumbs dug painfully into Alfred’s wrists and they went instantly numb, “to mock me?” 

“What?” Alfred wrenched his hands free, hoping he wouldn’t have to tackle Arthur to keep him down. “I’m not!” 

Arthur glared at him. “Oh, please, couldn’t you at least come up with a better lie—”

“I’m not!” Alfred shouted over Arthur’s voice. 

“How do you expect me to believe you, you—”

“Arthur, I promise that I am absolutely not joking or making fun of you! Cross my heart—” Alfred had only meant to say the first part, but the rest of it slipped out anyway “—and hope to die.” 

There was coiled tension in every line of Arthur’s body, but it was Arthur’s eyes that almost scared Alfred; there was a stillness in them, an unnatural calm like the ozone-charged hush before a storm.  “I’d be careful what promises I make in the presence of fairies, Alfred.” 

A shiver went up Alfred’s spine, but he clenched his fists. “I’ll keep that in mind. I stand by my promise.” 

The silence stretched out before them. Alfred watched Arthur, watched a number of emotions flicker across his face before Arthur’s eyes narrowed. “Your timing is most impeccable. But you’re too late.” 

Alfred knew Arthur was trying to rile him up. Arthur was angry and defensive, and Alfred shouldn’t take his words so personally without knowing the situation. But he couldn’t help it; he had so many questions and so little answers. 

“Does this,” Alfred’s throat tightened and he almost choked the words back, “does this mean you no longer love me?”

A flare of pain went through his skull; Arthur had clawed his fingers in his hair, pulling back sharply. “Don’t be stupid, Alfred,” Arthur hissed. “I have always loved you. It’s part of who I am. I've simply chosen not to treat you as special anymore. I’ve closed that chapter of my life. I’ve moved on.” 

“But you can’t move on!” Alfred protested childishly. 

“Why the bloody hell not?” 

“Because I didn’t know that you—it’s not—“ and Alfred swallowed the fair. Damn it, how he hated it when his thoughts ran away from him. He worked at words for a while, and the whole time Arthur glared, eyes narrowed to thin slits, his face darkened with anger and indignation. Alfred had no idea why he was in love with such a stubborn nation, but he somehow was. And that hadn’t changed much over the years. “I’m sorry.” 

Arthur’s eyebrows went up; his grin was full of teeth. “Are you? Pray tell what for?” 

“That was a terrible question to ask. I don’t think you’re the type of person who can get over something as profound as a love that easily.” 

“My, that’s a far cry from what you were implying just moments earlier.” 

“Can you tell me straight to my face,” Alfred challenged, “that you’ve truly moved on?” 

“Oh trust me,” Arthur took a step forward, pressing into Alfred’s personal space and not backing down. “Give me enough time, and I’ll do it.” 

It took a second for that to sink in – Arthur realized what he had said first, because his eyes widened and his cheeks flushed, a blotchy sort of bright red that made the Englishman look more feverish than charming. Alfred opened his mouth to reply, but closed it, and then opened it again. 

“So, you still—” he said. 

“No,” Arthur said immediately.

“But you just said—”

“I don’t!” Arthur insisted. “You’re not listening, Alfred!” He backed away slightly and squeezed his eyes shut, forcing himself to relax. When his eyes opened, it was now with a quiet placidity that made Alfred want to scream. 

“But why?” Alfred knew better than to touch him right now, so he fisted his hands in his shirt instead and just stared at Arthur, willing him to make sense. “And why would you still want to move on now, I mean, if I love you, and you still love me, then why—”

Arthur’s eyes softened, and he shook his head slowly. “Things were easier when I didn’t care so much about you. Look at us these past three months. We haven’t fought nearly as much because I didn’t focus my world around you. And you responded to that. When I stopped lecturing, stopped yelling, you stopped going overboard trying to prove a point. You became more mature. You always had that capacity – you just so rarely show that side to me.” 

They looked across the scant space between them at each other. 

“As for why now… well. Let’s blame that on my pride.” 

Alfred’s mind raced with a dozen thoughts and questions, but the one that came out was— “Why didn’t you say anything to me? You told Matt, but I’m the one that—“ 

“What, and give you leverage to cast the hand I hold out to you back in my face?”

Alfred felt his heart jolt, felt his breath leave him in a rush. 

Arthur pressed the heel of one hand against his face. “No. That was unkind of me. Your independence is not the issue here. But I would be lying if I said that that fear didn’t hold me back. Why yes, Alfred,” Arthur laughed, and the sound echoed oddly off the walls, “I fear. I fear many things.”

Alfred stared at Arthur’s gloved hand and wondered if Arthur was always wearing them, wondered how long it had been since they had touched each other – a friendly handshake, a pat on the back - without the barrier of leather in the way. He remembered what Matthew had said about cards and wondered if this was one of Arthur’s, one of the ways Arthur chose to protect himself, to hide his vulnerabilities. 

Alfred turned his gaze to Arthur’s face. Arthur hadn’t changed much throughout Alfred’s memories; he looked about the same age as he was before Alfred’s independence, but there were differences. They changed. Of course they did. And sometimes, those changes were momentous. 

Alfred held a hand out, palm facing upward, fingers loose and curling slightly. 

Arthur stared at it, perplexed. “What?” 

“I’m holding my hand out to you. So you get to be the one to throw it back in my face, though I really hope you don’t.” Alfred wiggled his fingers. “This is also me meeting you halfway. I want this, but you’ve got to want this too.”

He took a step forward, hand still outstretched. 

“You said we’ve been getting along better; I like that. I really, really like that. And I think we can take it further. I’m not your brother, Arthur. I’m no longer the child you brought up across the ocean. I’m your ally, and your friend, and—” Alfred looked straight at Arthur, locking gazes with those bottomless green, green eyes— “if you let me, I want very much to be more than that.” 

The silence dragged on for long minutes. All Alfred could hear was the rush of blood in his ears and the pound of his heart within his chest. His outstretched arm started to ache. Arthur didn’t blink, barely even breathed, and Alfred almost wanted to do something crazy like laugh or maybe punch Arthur in the shoulder just to break the damned silence. But he didn’t, because this was important, damn it, and the horrible suspense and the physical toll were worth it. 

Arthur’s worth it. 

When Arthur finally moved, Alfred almost smothered him in a hug in a knee-jerk reaction. But he held himself still, his heart almost stuttering to a broken halt when Arthur’s hand reached past his own and settled on his head, petting. A second later his heart jolted to a frantic run, because Arthur continued the motion, sliding his hand down the side of Alfred’s face. 

“Are you listening, Alfred?” Arthur said, and Alfred drew a breath; held it. 

“Yes,” he whispered back. 

“I hate you—” but Arthur’s hold on him was firm and unflinching, and Alfred stayed still, although there was a horrible, horrible pressure squeezing around his heart, “—I hate it that you can just come in here and turn my world upside down in a matter of minutes. You weren’t like that before, you were so young and pure and now you just crash through my defenses, you settle in and take root and I can’t get rid of you, you beastly—”

Arthur cut himself off and took a breath. Alfred was slowly growing light-headed from holding his and Arthur noticed, caressed lightly at his cheek, the leather of his gloves soft and cool. “I loved the child you were, the sweet youngster that thought the world of me. But that’s not who I fell in love with.” He gave a self-deprecating laugh and cupped Alfred’s face in both hands. “Things really were less complicated when I didn’t care so much about you.” 

“Does that,” Alfred could feel his heart rising in his throat, “does that mean you—”

This time when Arthur smiled, it reached his eyes. He tugged one glove free of his hand and tangled his fingers with Alfred’s. “I’m meeting you halfway. That’s how it works, doesn’t it?” 

Alfred crushed him in a hug; Arthur made a low breathless noise of surprise. That buoyant feeling bubbled in Alfred’s chest and spilled out in the form of laughter, pure, joyful laughter. He had Arthur in his arms, finally, and it felt so good. 

“What’s that stupid saying?” Alfred said into Arthur’s shoulder. “’If you love it, let it go, if it comes back, it’s yours to keep’? You can't keep me, Arthur, but I wouldn't mind. If you kept my heart.”

Arthur gave a choked laugh. "Oh god. You're one of those horrible romantic types, aren't you?" 

"Shut up." Alfred squeezed Arthur closer, until the other nation gave up on laughing and hugged him back breathlessly. "I can be smooth, okay? I'm just reeling from everything right now." 

"No, I understand." Arthur said, and walked his fingers down Alfred's spine, his hand settling on the small of Alfred's back, then clinging tight. “Please,” Arthur whispered; Alfred could barely hear him. “Please, don’t make me regret this decision.” 

Alfred closed his eyes. They both know that it was a promise neither of them could make, but hey, he wasn’t a hero for nothing. “I’ll do my absolute very best,” he promised.

He felt Arthur breathing against him, soft puffs of air fluttering against his skin. “You’re saying that in the presence of fairies,” Arthur reminded him. 

“Yeah. I know.” 

Alfred felt Arthur’s smile against his throat, and he looked down when Arthur tipped his head backwards slightly to meet his eyes. 

“Then,” Arthur said, “I promise to do my absolute best by you as well.” 

*

Matthew heard from Alfred and Arthur, separately. Alfred sent a text message the next evening, when Matthew was out on Old Quebec’s fortifications watching the sun set over the city. The BlackBerry chimed happily from his pocket; Matthew barely felt the accompanying buzz through his sweater. 

everythings a-ok. cept my stomach (E’s cooking). but yeah. alls good!

Arthur’s letter arrived two days later, addressed to both Matthew and Francis. Francis’s eyebrows crawled upwards at the sight of his name, but the envelope only contained a folded note, Arthur’s crisp handwriting on thick creamy cardstock. 

To Matthew, and Francis, 

Thank you. 

Arthur