Author's Note: Hahah! Bet you thought this one got away on me huh? Nope! At last a brand new chapter! I apologize for the hideous lateness, October turned out to be an extremely busy and stressful month of IRL bullshit and writing was the least that was on my mind :/ But everything is good now, not to worry and I can get back to Hetalia happy fun times!
Also I'd just like to take a sec and thank everyone who's commented so far on this fic. The comments have just blown my mind and have made me so unbelievably happy you guys don't even know! This has received a level of attention and praise I never expected and I thank you guys SO much for that! ; w ; It has really inspired me to want to work on a few more of my Hetalia fic ideas, and so I think I finally will. I like to have 2 fic projects going on at once really. That way it allows me to always be working on something different, cause I have fic ADD sometimes :T So look out for more of this and mebbe something new from me in the near future!
That said, lets see what fate befalls our beloved British Hero in this chapter!
In which Arthur accepts a dubious invitation and sets out on a brave journey to meet with a monster most foul.
Arthur and Alfred whittled the morning hours away in bliss, chatting, eating, and sipping their coffee and tea. Arthur even forgot to watch the world go by outside the window, too absorbed in the conversation, laughing, and Alfred's strikingly handsome presence. Both lost track of time and the outside world completely, existing for a few hours in their own little world of good food and coy, flirtatious banter. With every passing moment they grew more comfortable challenging one another and retaliating, and made almost a sweetly playful game out of it. Late into the morning, and into the lunchtime rush, they talked, oblivious to everything else until finally, one of the cashiers behind the counter called Alfred's name and informed him he had a phone call. The duo realized at once they had collectively completely forgotten that Alfred had a previous engagement that afternoon with in-laws, and for the rest of the night. The author would be left to his own pleasures and devices for the rest of the day.
"Shit, that's probably Mattie. Sit tight, I'll be right back," Alfred snorted as he rose from his seat.
Disappointed their lovely morning had to come to a close, Arthur nodded with as much understanding as he could muster and idly began cleaning their table. Distantly, he could hear Alfred pick up the café's phone, exchange a few brief and tersely annoyed words with Matthew on the other end, and then finally hang up with an exasperated sigh. He trudged back to the table shortly after and joined the Brit in cleaning up, an equally dismayed half smirk on his face.
"I suppose you're in trouble with your brother now?" Arthur asked lightheartedly, despite his sadness.
Alfred chuckled and nodded as he mopped up crumbs and a bit of spilled coffee.
"Yeaaaah, he hates it when I'm late, especially to his family things. S'alright though, I'll just get him some of those fancy French chocolates he likes later and apologize and it'll be fine!" he casually rebuffed with a wave of his hand.
Arthur smirked a little and his cheeks colored a sweet pink as he stacked his dishes neatly.
"What about fancy French chocolates for me?" he ventured, boldly daring to flirt back at last after their eventually quite romantic breakfast.
Alfred looked up, stunned, and grinned slowly and wolfishly back at the other, gazing into his playful emerald eyes.
"You bet. Next time I see you, I'll have one of every kind they have for you to sample," he promised tenderly, reaching out and stroking his cheek with his thumb.
Arthur allowed himself to enjoy the sensation with a soft sigh, slowly discovering he didn't mind the American's bold advances quite so much the second day of knowing him.
"Does that mean you want to see me again?" he breathed hopefully.
"Definitely," Alfred replied without hesitation.
"Well good, you had better. I'm starting to wonder what the hell I'm even going to do in Paris without you," Arthur admitted sheepishly, looking away.
"A creative guy like you? You'll figure something out, I'm sure," Alfred snickered, grinning fondly at the sentiment.
His mirth was tragically short-lived, for he pushed back his sleeve absentmindedly to check his wristwatch and winced as he realized just how late he was.
"Damn, but I really am super late," he swore, flashing a grin up at his companion, "But I'll let you know when I'm free again, as soon as I can. Promise."
"Deal," Arthur agreed, and thrust a hand out for a parting shake, "See you around, then."
Alfred regarded the proffered limb for a moment, grinned, and while he did reach out and take it, his fingers clasped firmly over the slightly smaller hand, he gave a firmly graceful yank and hauled the unsuspecting blonde against his body. Before Arthur could even think of how to react, he swooped in and pressed his lips to his cheek, just mischievously grazing the corner of his mouth. They lingered for a brief, wonderful and terrifying moment frozen in time, and Arthur forgot to breathe as his heart hammered in his chest and became the only sound he could hear. He felt Alfred smile against his flushed skin, smelled his familiar scent of Lucky Strikes, rich leather, and a hint of crisp cologne, and then just as suddenly as it had begun, the moment ended. Alfred pulled away, winked, and saluted crookedly with one hand as he strode toward the door.
"Something to remember me by!" he called, holding a hand up in parting without looking over his shoulder, "See you around, Arthur!"
Too astounded to come up with anything more intelligent for a response other than a string of choked half words and nonsense, Arthur stood rooted to the spot, cheeks aflame, quivering with rage, embarrassment, and timid enjoyment of the all too ephemeral kiss. The heavenly tinkle of the café bell as Alfred left startled him out of his reverie, and his lower lid twitched indignantly as he balled his fists at his side.
"Damn it! I'll get you back for that, you git!" he screeched after him, heedless of the fact he was already halfway around the block.
After a moment, the confused stares of the cashiers behind the counter and the lunch customers just sitting down to eat clued Arthur in to the scene he had just made, and he hastily apologized in ineloquent French and made his flustered, fuming exit. He wiped his mouth and cheek furiously as he practically kicked the door open, the bell jangling in protest, and hurried down the street back to the hotel. Alfred certainly had a knack for spoiling perfectly lovely encounters with teasing him and getting him flustered, flushed, and at a loss for words.
The author fumed about it the entire walk back to Hotel Ècarlate, unsure how he felt, and even more unsure of how he should feel. It wasn't that Alfred was a man. He had always been attracted to men, he had simply never approached one. Nor had he ever approached anyone for that matter. The one short romance with a woman he enjoyed in college had been forcibly arranged by his friends, all of whom had been a tad too deeply concerned for his social and sex life, and had never been consummated at that. He simply had never imagined that his impromptu, mad adventure to France would begin with a handsome, devilishly charming man pursuing him so fervently. Strange new foods, snails and foie gras, fine wine to sip and decode the various carefully constructed bouquets of flavor, scandalous public displays of affection, art of the masters and inspiring artistry in everything, even the architecture; he had been prepared for.
Alfred Jones, he had not.
The only question that remained nagging peskily in the back of his brain, was whether or not he truly minded the American's adventurous spirit and cocky come-ons. The more he thought about it, the more the answer was a resounding, no, no he did not. For though Alfred could make him flush, snap, and snarl while his face burned red and his heart raced, it was exciting in a way nothing had ever excited him before. Despite his temper and Alfred's love of stoking it and provoking him, despite the name-calling and acrid words, even despite his seemingly constant belligerent rejection, Alfred still wanted him.
Feeling wanted was a warm, giddy sensation the oft unapproachable Brit could not recall ever having the pleasure to enjoy. It tingled through his psyche and his body simultaneously, fading his scowl into a private smile as a romantic, sweeping epic began to take shape in his mind. He could already see it so clearly; lush rich kingdoms, perhaps of the Elves, since he was so fond of fantasy, and their prince falling for the dashing, if a little uncouth, human adventurer through a series of accidental meetings leading to grand exploits and thrilling danger. He could see their faces, and hear their voices and witty banter in as much kaleidoscopic color and detail as Keiran's tale had come to him on the sweetly perfumed winds of inspiration. Arthur's heart was beating so fast and his mind was whirring so blindingly by the time he reached his hotel room, he forgot all he wanted to go back for was his camera. Instead, he hurled himself to the small desk beside the bed, yanked out the hotel stationary, and promptly filled several pages with notes, sketches, and bullet points.
Arthur sat back and admired the delicate, beautiful framework of his new creation just beginning to take shape, like a quivering rosebud only just flushed with color and promise of the glorious bloom it would become. A feeling of nostalgic accomplishment washed over him, and for the first time since his editor had asked him what he planned to do next, he felt like the brilliant author the world knew him as once again. Of course it was only just the seed of an idea, far from being the sophisticated epic allegory his previous saga had been, but it was a start, it was something, and Arthur packed it carefully away in his notebook to build upon as his trip continued. He then fetched his brand new camera he had purchased specifically for his journey, looped it round his neck and struck out into Paris proper to spend the rest of the afternoon as he pleased.
Paris, as the invigorated author would find, was far more breathtaking in person than a photograph or novel could ever hope to describe. Arthur spent the remainder of his day on foot, simply walking, photographing, and enjoying the city imbuing him with its indomitable spirit of decadence and beauty. The famed bridges, sprawling parks, flirtatious secretive little alleys and cobblestone rues all made for fascinating exploration, and coupled with feeling flush with creative power once more Arthur devoured the city until the sun slid beneath the exotic skyline and beckoned the night to follow. Left with no sunlight left for photography, he paused in a café for a light dinner and then made his way back to the hotel at a leisurely pace as the streetlamps flickered on coyly above him.
Night billowed over the city in a cool, diamond studded blanket of misty blue and held its breath for the one, magical moment of silent transformation between the Paris of the day, and the Paris of the night. Arthur had seen a glimpse of the creature of secrets and seduction she became once the sun went down, but left on his own and knowing almost nothing else of it he could think of nothing worthwhile to do with such a potent thing. The frustrating thought that Alfred would have likely known a good place to whittle away the evening hours nagged at the back of his mind, and he forced himself to banish both it and the light blush that rose in his cheeks. The American was busy with family, after all, and had not come to France for his amusement and company. He was perfectly capable of divining some manner of evening entertainment, even if it consisted of getting a pot of tea and curling up in his hotel room to work on his new novel idea.
Much to his dismay, his room back at Hotel Ècarlate he found was dark, stifled, and grotesquely quiet and desolate after the glorious day he had just indulged in. In the wake of the morning spent reveling in Alfred's warm and friendly presence accentuated by his boisterous voice and laughter and the subsequent afternoon in the music and color filled streets of the French capital, the austere little room was a veritable prison cell in the deepest dankest depths of some medieval torture chamber. The door slammed in protest through the painfully still air as the author closed it behind him, and his sigh was almost deafening in his own ears. He took his camera off his neck and wound the strap neatly, footfalls even on the worn carpet like the final march of a condemned man down a mocking concrete hallway.
Shafts of ruddy light fell from between the curtains and over the desk where he placed the camera after winding the spent film, whispering seductively in the voice of the night lurking just outside to beckon him out into its sinful embrace. Arthur ignored it, solemnly popped open the back compartment, and extricated the roll, sitting down heavily to stash it back inside its snug metal canister. The sound of the bedside clock ticking permeated the air, joined by the crisp metallic twisting of the film lid, and the longer Arthur spent sitting there, consoled only by minute and mundane noise, the more he knew he could not remain in his room. It was far too much like sitting in his old room back home, listening to the clock and idly striking the keys of his typewriter in no particular order, just to ward off the mind crushing silence that swallowed his creativity whole.
Despair tinting the corners of his mind, Arthur hurriedly emptied his pockets onto the table, searching for a pen to first label his film canister with the date before he forgot, and then his tightly folded paper map of Paris to search for something, anything, anywhere to go. The pen clattered onto the worn oaken desk, the jangling pile of keys and his pocketknife followed, and then the fluttering mess of receipts, cash, and his wallet all haphazardly stuffed away over the course of his adventure. He carefully slid out the bulky, rumpled map next and unfolded it ungracefully, but like a flash of divine light in the chaotic mess of his desperation, a flirtatious glimpse of blushing, naughty pink caught the corner of his eye as it tumbled from the mess and landed sweetly on the hard wood.
Arthur glanced over, and staring up at him with just as much coy invitation as the man who had given it to him, was the business card for 'Le Petit Oiseau Chanteur'. His bushy brows gathered suspiciously over his eyes and he simply stared back at it, as if it would somehow detonate or maim him if he made even the slightest move to touch it. The card remained innocently on the table, and finally, he could stand looking at it mocking him no more and snatched it up. He gripped it viciously in both hands to tear it into confetti and deposit it in the nearest bin, but the smooth paper and the illustration only recalled the words of its purveyor earlier that morning.
Francis Bonnefoy with the smug grin, the golden locks and mischief filled blue eyes had slyly invited him to something that night; something that began at nine if he remembered correctly. Arthur spared the briefest of glances at the clock, which read only a few minutes before eight in the evening. Whatever it was, it opened at eight as well. If it wasn't far, he could easily make it on foot and not even have to waste the money and dignity to have a taxi take him to whatever seedy Paris brothel to which he had been invited. He scowled at himself for even entertaining the idea that he might actually be curious for even half a second and moved to tear the card again. Yet even as his fingers tightened and the muscles in his hands twitched, the card remained unharmed.
The author couldn't shake the sinking feeling that he had been challenged, that he held the proverbial thrown gauntlet in his hands, and Arthur Kirkland never backed down from a challenge. It had all been there, in Francis' smug grin, in his laughter and teasing words. He knew he never expected him to show up at whatever it was he was attending, and the disgust he had initially felt was slowly beginning to turn to a burning desire to prove the Frenchman dead wrong. Alfred was busy, it was his first night in the city, and he had not the slightest clue where to go anyway, so revenge seemed only the most logical course of action.
"Very well, Francis Bonnefoy," Arthur said to himself, spitting the name out like poison, "I accept your stupid little dare, and you won't emerge the victor this time. That much I promise!"
He grinned and smoothed out his map to locate 'The Little Songbird' on the web of streets, only to remember that most of the card remained completely blank without any semblance of an address or even a general area at all. Arthur stared at it a moment more, perplexed, until the large space at the bottom reminded him of what Francis had also hinted. A flame was needed to reveal the mysteries of the seductive establishment, or so it seemed. Arthur laughed heartily at the sheer juvenile cloak and dagger secrecy of it all like some fantastical treasure map or ancient secret leading on a long and perilous journey to find the very meaning of existence. It was like the beginning of one of the cheap dime store fantasy novels his parents had bought for him in his youth. They always started with some sort of cipher or riddle only the intrepid hero could decode.
Invisible ink was hardly a new invention, or even a novel concept. It had been in countless stories, and he and his mates back in primary school had concocted the stuff on more than one occasion with lemon juice to write secret notes back and forth about oppressive parents, girls they liked, new hiding spots in town and other earth shattering childhood secrets that were for one set of eyes only. Holding the paper carefully to a flame burned the juice a legible brown, which they always did with the utmost of clandestine ceremony, and after revealing the secrets they had always made sure to include the phrase one of them had heard once, 'burn after reading!' like they were some sort of band of secret agents.
Arthur smiled fondly at the memories as well as the feeling of adventurous nostalgia that washed over him as he groped around the desk for the complimentary pack of matches from the hotel. They were placed quite logically in the smoky glass ashtray and Arthur picked them up and snapped one neatly from the pack. His heart actually fluttered a little like a child's in his chest as he struck it and the head exploded into bright flame, illuminating his face and the desk area in warped, mystic shadows. The fire flickered and burned down contentedly, and only then did Arthur slowly bring the pink card as close as he dared to its unveiling heat.
For a moment he was convinced nothing would happen, that reality would come crashing back down upon him and he would remember that there was nothing magical or unreal about France, Francis, or the invitation into his world at all, but as the match burned dangerously close to the fragile paper, slowly, words and numbers written in looping, elegant script began to appear out of thin air. As if penned by an invisible hand, an address materialized on the blank section of the invitation. Arthur's breath caught in his chest, and he held it as he moved the match along the length and revealed the entire message letter-by-letter, line-by-line. Along with it came a small warning, which from his limited French Arthur guessed was instructing him to bring the card along with him when he came.
The author stared in wonder at the singed invitation, marveling so long at the still carefully crafted sepia words the match burned down to his fingertips. He dropped the charred twist of cardboard with a loud oath and shook out his fingers, putting them in his mouth. The pain dissipated quickly, especially after it reminded him he had a task at hand, and he set to charting his course. Arthur spread the map out neatly and first made certain to circle his hotel several times as to remember where it was. Then, he located the street and the address of the club, and deftly plotted out the shortest and most logical course from his location with all the robust precision of a seasoned adventurer. He admired his handiwork for a few moments with almost as much pride as the treasure maps he used to make as a child, and with almost that much excitement he gathered his effects back into his possession, snatched his map up, and bolted out the door and onto the street.
The lamp lit, darkened streets of Paris were far from deserted as the Brit set out, bushy brows furrowed in concentration and his map grasped preciously in both hands. He could scarcely wait to see what was so amazing about this place that Francis felt he would shock him or send the stuffy British prude screaming back into the night, and then promptly turn around and score the winning blow by completely humiliating him. He was British, and he had lived a rather sheltered life, but it was entirely presumptuous and obnoxious to assume he would be shocked and disgusted. It was only fair to retaliate after he had been teased for it so relentlessly, and, as Arthur begrudgingly admitted to himself, he was actually mildly curious about the whole affair. He had come to France to experience new things and expand his horizons, and there might even be an idea for his new novel somewhere in what was sure to be a filthy business. Perhaps a flamboyant villain of some kind, a bothersome troll or ogre with a foul odor and a comical accent.
A few Parisians spared the obvious tourist a smirk and a glance as he wended his way through the streets, map shamelessly in hand, but he paid them no mind, determined to get where he was going to untangle the mystery. He navigated the labyrinth of Paris on the sure, deft feet of an explorer, dauntless, intrepid, and bold, even as his path took him away from the bright main thoroughfares and into the spindly web of back alleys and ancient cobblestone rues. The path delved deeper into the darkness as he went on, past the glory of the city of lights and into the mysterious underbelly of the ancient and sly metropolis. Once or twice a scantily clad woman in a bustier and lace would purse her rouged lips and cast him an inviting look, but the gestures were all were lost on the author on a mission. As were the increasingly ruddy and sensual colors of the architecture and foliage, black drapes on coy windows, and distant strains of slow and sensual music drifting from unseen dens of indulgence.
Finally Arthur lifted his head to survey his surroundings and found himself too deep into the abyss to turn back, for he walked down the final stretch of road where his journey would end at last. The narrow street was illuminated with sparse wrought iron lamps, all of which were lit with red wax candles that flickered and danced as they cast their smoldering shadows on the ancient walls of the buildings lining the sidewalks. Above him, wire was strung between the rooftops and brilliantly colored streamers of silk, paisley, and every color of the rainbow hung from it, winking and waving flirtatiously in the cool night air. The path lay straight and gallant before him, leading the way through the final corridor and ending at the terminus of the alley where the words 'Le Petit Oiseau Chanteur' flashed in bright cursive neon from the smoky depths.
It materialized from the mists as if it had never been there at all, a mystic portal twisting time and space and leading to worlds and realms unknown. The sign sprawled ostentatiously over the elaborate façade that was crafted to look like a birdcage fit for some grand human peacock of royalty. Red and pink drapes cascaded down from the top of the enclosure and coquettishly obscured the entrance where Arthur could barely see dim light flooding out onto the street and hear the excited chatter of patrons against strains of an orchestra warming up in the background. A swing hung down from the top as well, just over the door, upon which an elegant gilded bird sculpture sat, its beak open in triumphant song and bearing a sign in its golden claws that read, 'Ouvert!' It beckoned him closer in unspoken, enticing words, but Arthur remained rooted to the pavement, staring in awe and drinking in the strange and wonderful sight like nothing he had ever seen before.
Beside the entrance and perched pleasantly on an old iron bar chair with his hands in his lap was a pale haired man with an obliviously cheerful smile. He was dressed in a heavy cloak with a scarf wrapped snugly around his neck, and at his feet sat a half empty bottle of vodka and a length of pipe with the spigot still attached. It was only fitting, Arthur mused, terrifying as he looked. All pathways seemed to require a guardian of some kind, every gateway a gatekeeper, all of which were fierce beasts with impossible riddles, maddening puzzles, and murder in their eyes. Nothing Arthur had not come prepared for, and it only made it all the more exciting. The blond Englishman found himself smiling eagerly as he gathered up all of his gumption and approached with purpose.
The doorman sat with his eyes closed, as if dozing, but upon hearing the loud footfalls echoing through the alley he opened them slowly, the bright violet irises glittering in the evening light. They trained on the approaching stranger and he drew himself up in the chair to be certain of catching his attention first.
"Добрый вечер!" he greeted in sweet, fluid Russian.
His voice was soft and airy, pleasant on the ears and altogether angelic, but something about it made a dull shiver run down Arthur's spine.
"Uh, good evening to you too!" he replied, assuming he was returning the same sentiment, "I say I think I've come to the right location. The uh, The Little Songbird? I was invited by a Mr. Fra-"
"Da, this is The Little Songbird. You have your invitation?" a thickly accented voice cut in, causing Arthur to jump.
He was surprised to say the least to hear English out of the stoic Russian who had not budged an inch, yet managed to make him feel as if he might be struck down on the spot into a smoldering pile of ash. So surprised, the pink card in his pocket slipped completely out of his mind.
"I, uh, well, the er-? The what?" he stammered.
A slow delighted grin spread across the innocently youthful face of the doorman as he rose to his feet.
"No one gets in without the invitation," he repeated, as happily as ever, leveling his gaze down at the other man suddenly dwarfed by his height.
Arthur's body went rigid, the blood rushed in his ears, and his mind momentarily ceased all coherent thought. He stood frozen to the spot, emerald eyes fixated on the bloodthirsty violet irises that bore straight through to his very soul and mouth making the motions of words but no sound making it past his lips.
"Don't you have one?" the Russian solicited, tilting his head.
Arthur finally managed to pat at his pockets blindly, but the doorman crouched down, hand outstretched for the pipe stashed beneath his chair.
"No wait!" Arthur spluttered desperately.
He forced himself to think again, having been quite unaware his life would be threatened, and mercifully the Russian stopped. The flustered blond finally recalled the pink card Francis had personally handed him, as well as the stern warning to remember to bring it that suddenly made infinite amounts of sense. He rammed his hand in his pocket and snatched it frantically into his grasp, then thrust it out in a hand he struggled not to allow to tremble violently.
"I've got it, I've got it!" he said loudly with a nervous chuckle, "S-Sorry about that, old chap! M-Must have slipped my mind where I put the bloody thing!"
Arthur swore he saw the cheerful smile turn distinctly disappointed for a moment before the doorman stood back up without his pipe and reached out and took the card from him. He thanked him in Russian, stashed it in his own pocket, and lowered himself gracefully back down into his chair with a gentle sigh.
"That's too bad," he bemoaned with a childish giggle, "I was hoping you wouldn't be having it so I could teach you a good lesson about coming in where you aren't invited."
Arthur blanched and took a pointed step back from the ever smiling Russian. He had no doubts at all he was completely serious.
"Well then, you may enter," he continued, looking pleased with the fright on the silent Brit's face, "Please to have a good time, господин!"
Arthur nodded mechanically and quickly stepped past the gatekeeper, having successfully passed his test. Beyond him lay the open cage door of the club, ready and waiting for him to pass through. The music and the voices still floated mystically from behind the velvet curtains and the intoxicating smell of incense, cigarettes, and perfume clouded his senses as he forged ahead. His mind had concocted a thousand different things that could be waiting for him inside The Little Songbird, and at last he could unravel its mystery and put to rest his curiosity and imagination that had to have been far more colorful and spectacular than anything that could be real. Arthur knew not what awaited him on the other side of the curtain and down the hallway into hell or Wonderland, but he drew in a deep breath, steeled his nerves, and pushed his way inside.
Ohohoho, is that a kolkol I see thar? Did I mention this was gonna be a pretty much whole cast fic? No? Surprise! 83 I always intended for all our beloved cast to show up! And now you can guess where hehehe. How do they all fit into this bizarre little boudoir of mystery? Just what in the hell is The Little Songbird? And where the hell is Francis? Find out next time!