The Red Road

Author's Notes:

Dedicated to everybody who has, or once had, to go to war.

Disclaimer: Himaruya owns Hetalia.

Soundtrack:

'The Rain' by Joe Hisaishi.

XXX

Young boys go off to war. It has been the fact since the time of the tribes, is the fact of the current modern world, and will be the fact of whatever the future will bring. (Else this paragraph would not have been written in the present tense.)

His village had plenty of fine young boys. He was fine but was not one of them. It was not that he was old; he was just not young enough.

He came to realise that when he had his first kiss. It was a present for his tenth birthday, from a fine young boy of the village called Alfred. Alfred's family ran the village bakery, and Alfred's mother, cheeks apple-red and arms slender and white, had called Arthur in to pick a loaf of bread for free.

Six-year-old Alfred, cheeks resembling his mother and his eyes resembling the village's blue, blue sky, wrapped Arthur's choice with a piece of brown paper and tied the package with a string. As a bonus, when Alfred's mother was turning away to greet an incoming customer, Alfred had thrown in some extra service. His small yet nimble hands tugged on Arthur's tie, jerking him down before planting a brief, wet, bread-scented one on Arthur's lips.

Alfred insisted to walk Arthur home afterwards, much to the humour of both boys' parents.

(They had to turn back halfway, though, for, in his flustered state, Arthur had forgotten his bread. Somehow it caused a permanent smug grin to settle on Alfred's face.)

Arthur lived at the border of the village, a good ten-minute walk away from the village square, where Alfred lived. The road that led to Arthur's house was a long snake-like puzzle of red bricks that glowed in summers and warmed the scenery during winters. Where the road ended was a wall of tall wild grass. As they grew older and surpassed the height of the grass, they could see that the field extended to miles and miles beyond the horizon, except for where a small river cut across it. On the other bank of the river, the grass domination continued on, as if unperturbed.

As they grew older, as they surpassed the height of the grass, they started to take longer and longer walks, and Alfred did not return Arthur to the boy's home straightaway. Instead, he took the older boy's hand and muttered, his eyes to the sky, "Wanna take a walk in the field?"

By then Alfred was a boy of twelve, already showing signs of a strapping young lad that he was destined to be. Arthur looked down at the boy, knowing that soon he would no longer be able to do so. (He often comforted himself by repeating under his breath the fact that he still had his own share of growing left. After all, he was only sixteen; he still had time.) "…You know I'm wearing a new shirt today, git."

"Come on." Alfred's hand, Arthur noted, could already envelope his easily. The gentle pressure on his fingers made him look up, only to see the younger grinning helplessly, pleadingly at him. "You can always blame me later."

It was Alfred's hand that guided him as they galloped through the reeds, the blades of green rolling and unfolding like waves before their eyes and feet. Arthur pulled at Alfred's hand, which pulled back in defiance, and it was no wonder that Arthur could not help but watch as they failed to come into a halt. Instead, their feet slipped, and they rolled down the riverbank. When the sky stopped turning and churning, the spring earth was soft and fragrant under Arthur's cheek, and Alfred's hand was warm around his fingers.

Alfred's hair was specked with dark brown dirt, the clean patches twinkling golden under the setting sun. "Bloody hell—," Arthur spat, rubbing soil off his face, only to let the curse peter off as Alfred helped him up onto his feet, gently.

"Come," called the latter, and he followed.

Rather than a river, it was more of a small stream, a cousin of a brook, with the water rolling off rounded pebbles in smooth, lapping waves. Its channel was shallow, its water clear and cool. Alfred rolled up his trousers, took off his shoes, and plunged calf-deep into the water.

He glanced at Arthur, who looked on, with the stance of someone stranded on the shore. 'Come,' his smile said and his eyes beckoned. Much to Arthur's reluctant chagrin, he found himself following suit, trousers up to his knees and shoes in his other hand, the one that was not being held by Alfred.

They walked against the current, towards a crumbling structure ahead. It was a stone bridge, a handsome one and of good size. Stopping underneath it, Arthur realised that it was built in the times when the stream was young and hale, when the stream was actually a river. He admired the rippling shadows the water cast on its white surface, and hummed pleasantly at the sight. "I've never been here before."

Slowly, painstakingly, Alfred let go of Arthur's hand. "Me neither."

When Alfred's hand touched his shoulder, Arthur turned his head and looked down, only to see the white stones and watery shadows reflected in Alfred's irises. He was not wearing a tie this time, and Alfred's hand curled at the back of his collar, pulling him down for a slow touching of their lips.

Alfred's other hand sneaked up and tugged on his collar. The lips that descended on Arthur's brows were slightly chapped but gentle, tender in their owner's youth, as cool as the water of the stream and the stone bridge would be in summers.

It was the last time Arthur had to bend down to search for Alfred's blue eyes. "I have to go," he whispered hesitantly against Alfred lips.

"Of course." And the coolness of his lips returned onto Arthur's forehead, where they stayed for several seconds.

It was the last time, because in the next morning he had to go. Alfred helped him carry his suitcase to the village train station, which was really an upraised platform that overlooked another field, a continuation of their field. "No need to be afraid," Alfred assured him, putting the suitcase down by Arthur's feet. "It's just like our field. Only it's got these black iron tracks instead of our stream."

"—Who said I was afraid, git?"

The train arrived early, chuffing and puffing and pistoning down its way. Arthur hugged his parents goodbye, let Alfred's mother hug him and Alfred's father ruffle his hair, before finally patting Alfred on the back, just once. "I'll see you soon."

"I'll write."

Arthur's smile was slightly crooked. He hastened to repair it, shaking his head and saying, "No. I'll see you soon. Don't stay a git."

Then he was gone, with all intention of returning soon.

The moment he got onto his seat, the train had moved out of the station. Still, he rolled his window down, and stuck his head out to see the blades of grass swaying, rushing like waves and rolling off like sceneries. Laughing, he thought of Alfred's eyes and knew him enough to know that he also knew.

"I'll see you soon," he whispered, letting the wind snatch his words off his tongue. The 'soon' would later turn out to be four years, but it was no matter to Alfred; he had seen it in the boy's eyes.

For they were fine lads, and they could be patient when it was needed. However, Arthur did let his impatience seize him on the final day. His books, the notes on lectures that he had accumulated along his four years, were not stacked neatly in his suitcase. Everything was thrown in, crammed and jammed into whatever space was available. Then he was off, shoes pounding the granite streets of the city, his tie swinging in the wind. He did not spare the white buildings, rising up like monoliths, or the blackened streets, patched white by pamphlets of war raging in the South or the North, a backward glance, and made his way through the crowd in the train station with the tenacity of God's waves, limbs slipping and pushing and yearning; they did not stop yearning even when he was securely seated on his seat and had rolled down his windows.

When the city was finally nothing but a grey speck in a sea of green, he did wave it goodbye. He was twenty-year-old and heading to a small, obscure village, where the sea was green instead of blue and the shore was warm, brown earth, where a station was an upraised platform overlooking an emerald world. His future never looked brighter; it was as bright as the summer sky and even more so.

The lad that picked up his suitcase at the village station was a strong lad, and his eyes were as the colour of Arthur's future. "Don't tell me," Alfred laughed, shaking Arthur's suitcase in his languid grip, "this thing's filled with books."

"Well, what were you expecting, git? It's not like I had the bloody luxury to arrange everything in its place; I was too much in a fucking rush. You going to complain?"

Shrugging, Alfred cheekily said, "No. I'm just calculating how much a porter boy's fee is around this area."

Arthur stared incredulously at him. "Bollocks."

"I did not mean money," Alfred interjected. The red bricks were warming up under their footprints. "I want your time, Arthur. You willing to pay me that much?"

They were approaching Arthur's front porch by then. Arthur skipped the two front steps and landed with a quiet thud on the wooden floorboards. With his back to the front door, he fixed his gaze on Alfred, who silently placed the suitcase next to Arthur's feet. It was in the silence that Alfred raised his head into the warm spring air and looked into Arthur's green eyes.

"Come," he beckoned, and his eyes, Arthur decided, were rather the colour of spring sky than summer sky.

They did not hold hand as they crossed the field. Instead, they walked together, matching their strides and every step. "Tell me about the city," Alfred requested, breaking a stalk of grass under his fingers by passing. He inserted one end between his teeth and began chewing on it. The scent of broken grass permeated the air, and Arthur looked up, only to meet Alfred's gaze.

"It is…different," he finally sighed, running a hand through his sandy blonde hair. "I learnt a lot of things in the city, but it is still different." Making a face, he decided, "I guess it is a hard place to call home."

Alfred nodded and grinned. "Unlike here."

"Unlike here," Arthur agreed quietly.

The grass stalk was thrown away when they reached the bank of the river. "Careful," Alfred muttered, and he had Arthur by both hand and shoulder as he led him down the steep bank, a precaution more unnecessary than unwanted.

"Alfred," Arthur panted, and he wondered whether spring used to be this warm when they were younger, "we are…."

He did not have a chance to finish his sentence, and it was not like he had any inkling how to finish it anyway. It had been an impulse, a nagging on his mind to say something, and he had followed it blindly. He had no idea what was going to come out next, whether it was "under the bridge already" or "best friends" or "together" or "under the bridge already, and we are best friends together in love"...

The lips against his were cool in the humidity of spring, and Arthur reached up, curling his hands on the back of Alfred's collar. The white stones, the foundation of the bridge, were strong behind his back, cold against the sweat dampening his shirt.

"Tell me about the city," Alfred sighed against his neck.

Arthur's fingers were working on the second button of Alfred's shirt. He had instinctively skipped the first button, knowing that Alfred never bothered to button it. "It has buildings," he whispered hoarsely, swallowing down a rising moan, "that rise like monoliths into the sky."

"More," demanded Alfred, sliding Arthur's shirt off his shoulders.

Shrugging it off to the ground, Arthur racked his brain and groaned as Alfred planted butterfly kisses on his collarbone. "Its streets are black instead of red."

Alfred's voice was soft, bouncing against the water and the rounded pebbles, as he spoke against Arthur's lips and unbuttoned the older male's trousers. "More."

"There is a war coming," moaned Arthur, warmed by the heat Alfred's palms exuded. Beads of cool sweat rolled down his bared legs like glass pearls, "from the South, or from the North."

"Which one is it?" Alfred whispered, his blue eyes darkening under the noon shadow. He stepped out of his trousers and pushed Arthur down onto the soft earth, where he had laid out their shirts together.

"I don't know," Arthur said through gritted teeth, before sucking on Alfred's offered fingers. He lapped his tongue against the digits. "I can't…."

The first intrusion jolted his mind with the sharpness of a razor, and he bucked involuntarily, before Alfred steadied his burning body. "I can't remember," he breathed out. He gave a small cry when the second digit was inserted, and trembled violently when the third followed suit.

"I'll be gentle."

Arthur grabbed Alfred's free hand and clasped both his palms around it. "No."

Those blue eyes were smiling. "I'll be gentle," he whispered against Arthur's earlobe, untangling his hand from Arthur's meek grip and taking both hands into his callused one instead.

When Alfred did enter, Arthur thought he saw red. The water of the brook turned crimson, like blood, and it moved sluggishly, licking red marks on the shore. When cool lips descended upon his brows, the vision was broken, and Arthur wept.

"I thought—" he stammered, "I thought…."

Then Alfred moved in him, and Arthur's head lolled back to rest on the ground. With bleary eyes, he looked up, through the shadows of the water on the ceiling of the bridge, at the sky, the blue, blue sky.

"The sky," he breathed out, one hand grasping for Alfred's cheek blindly. His fingers traced the younger's jaw line. "The sky is so fucking high…."

"No need to be afraid," Alfred said through gritted teeth, aiming for different angles, one hand reaching for Arthur's need. "It's just like our field." His gaze was intense and on fire, and his smile was languid. "I'll get you through it, Artie. I'll get you there."

The soil was getting warmer under Arthur's back, and he felt Alfred sliding in, getting closer to him and closer and closer and closer until closer and proximity was unbearable and nothing was definable, nothing had a border.

Then the sky itself exploded into a million little pieces, into fine quartz sand that fell twinkling back to earth. With his breath limited, with his life burning away before him, Arthur managed a weak, "You will?" before surrendering into spring, into the warm, moist earth, into the heat, into the dream of coolness and skies that went up in blue flames.

Alfred placed a cool kiss on his brows. "I have to go," he whispered.

The flame was dying into sweet ash in Arthur's mouth. He moved to kiss Alfred, who tasted like green grass. "I know."

They looked into each other's eyes and wondered when exactly the other knew. Probably it was from the beginning all right, because each always knew that the other knew. It had always been the fact.

Alfred requested that only Arthur would accompany him to the village station. And thank you very much, but he was perfectly capable of carrying his own suitcase.

"I have to go. There is a war, you see," Alfred said, rubbing the back of his neck nervously, "raging in the South. Or is it in the North? Crap, now I can't remember—"

Quietly, Arthur smiled and interjected, "I know."

The red bricks were warm under Alfred's boots. They climbed onto the platform, where Arthur promptly sat down on the only bench there. He scooted over to make room for Alfred, but not too much.

"Your collar is crooked," Arthur noted in displeasure, one nimble hand reaching out to rearrange said collar.

They sat in silence, knee to knee.

When the first puff of smoke became visible in the distance, Alfred rose to his feet and leaned down to kiss Arthur's brows. "See you later, Artie."

Arthur returned the gesture with a quick peck on Alfred's cheek. "I hope the army will be able to shave that git side of yours away."

Alfred smirked, and planted that smirk right on Arthur's lips. "I doubt it," he mouthed.

His foot was already on the first step of the train when Alfred turned and looked Arthur straight in the eye. "I'll write."

His hands deep in his pockets, Arthur shook his head and chuckled, "No." He raised his head and searched for Alfred's blue eyes. "I'll see you."

"Soon," Alfred reminded him.

Looking down to kick a stray pebble off the platform, Arthur nodded. "Yes. I mean, soon."

The four years that separated them, Arthur decided, never loomed so tall. If only they were not there, then surely he could let Alfred lead him away too this time; however….

The black serpent coiled and tensed, before springing forth on its way down its black tracks. One window was rolled down, and Arthur managed to catch a glimpse of a mop of golden hair, coloured like the summer sun.

Then everything was nothing but a single blurry point of grey smoke in the distance.

They could be patient when it required them to be.

"I can be patient," Arthur told himself, two years later. He watched the village square go up in smoke. The scene had the overall odour of burnt bread, and it rang with the screams of bullets and bayonets, slicing through the air.

He saw no reason why the wound on his side could not be patient too. Calmly pressing a palm against the round puncture wound, he limped away from the carnage, from the screams of Alfred's mother, and the cries of Alfred's father. He walked down the red road.

As he passed his house, he thought he heard his mother crying. He was tempted to take a look, but the house was enveloped in red, and Arthur was sick of red. Even the sky was the colour of wretched crimson, and so was the flower blooming from the puncture wound on his shirt.

He was thinking of Alfred as he crossed the field. They never wrote a single letter to each other; however, in every letter he sent home, Alfred always included the phrase "please tell Arthur"….

"He told me to tell you that he is alive, and he walks through fields a lot," Alfred's mother said, handing Arthur his bread, wrapped with brown paper and tied with a string.

"Please tell Arthur," Alfred's mother screamed across the heads of enemy soldiers, as they took her away, apple cheeks and slender arms and all, "that he is alive and he crosses a lot of bridges everyday, but he still likes the bridge beyond the field best of all."

The steep bank was a little bit trickier. He barely managed to get by. He remembered the day when they tumbled down the slope, holding hands. This time, he was holding his bleeding side, and the soft earth hurt him.

The foundation of the bridge was cool and white behind his back. He leaned against it, relishing in its lasting strength and chuckling at his waning one. The stream, he noticed, had turned red, and it chugged ad slugged along its channel. When it licked at the shore, it left long red streaks on the dirt brown earth. Bobbing up and down in the thick liquid, were the pale faces of people Arthur had known for all his life, their eyes closed in their last sleep, in their journey to the sea.

When his mother passed by, Arthur had to repel the urge at the back of his throbbing head to touch her. "Soon," he whispered to the leaking wound on his stomach. "Soon."

Following the current and going towards his way, splashing diluted blood clumsily onto the banks, were the heavy footsteps of a soldier.

He found Arthur in due time. His rifle was cocked and ready, and Arthur nodded at him and the rifle politely.

Arthur groaned as he struggled to get back onto his feet. It did not escape his notice that the soldier had blonde hair and blue eyes. The blonde was of a rather dirty shade, and the blue was pale and unattractive, but he would do, Arthur decided.

He took a step towards the edge of the stream. The pain blinded him, but he persisted in the reddish darkness, until he had one foot in the churning liquid. Occasionally, the severed but familiar limb of a villager would brush his calf. "I know somebody who has the same hair and eyes like you," Arthur managed, spurts of blood accentuating his every word, making sure that the soldier was listening. "He likes to kiss me good night before I go to sleep."

Arthur was grateful of his blindness, for the enemy's lips were cool upon his brows, and without sight, it was easier to pretend to whom that coolness belonged to.

He trembled on his spot, swaying. His body was not going to hold any longer. "Anytime soon?" he asked weakly, forcing out a smile, which cost him more blood. Thankfully he could no longer care.

He imagined the soldier nodding and aiming his rifle. "Soon," he heard the soldier breathe out, and his eyes widened, for he had pretended that it was Alfred's voice and it did sound incredibly like Alfred's: young and with just that hint of teenage arrogance. It did lack some of Alfred's git side and tender side, but no matter….

Who was he to complain?

The shot, Arthur thought, rang blue through the air. He thought of Alfred, but all he could see was the sky of the day when Alfred moved in him and he moved with him. God, it was the most beautiful sky in the whole world, and he died a happy man. For the sky was bluer than any other people's skies, and its sun was more golden than any sun Man had ever seen and would ever see….

(And there was Alfred. There had always been Alfred. There would always be Alfred, with his mop of the sun and eyes of the sky and emerald rolling fields and bridges forever white and strong. Arthur decided it was enough, and even more so.)

XXX

*Eyeing the story she has just typed in suspicion* I can't believe that! This story contains a lot of my firsts (first one-shot, first romance, first smut, first character death, just to mention a few). I hope you enjoy reading it, especially with the soundtrack I have mentioned above! Joe Hisaishi is a genius.

Your constructive criticisms are not only welcomed; they are practically begged for! Reviews and suggestions of improvement make a writer's world go round XD

Signing out,

Ilsa S.H.

Lost Duck Inc.