It begins with a phone call.
Alfred should really be used to it by now; each and every one of his birthdays since the telephone was invented begins this way. He reaches for the phone, picks it up and listens to the customary ten seconds of silence before the call is disconnected and he's left with nothing but beeping in his ear.
He has a feeling that he knows who's behind the calls, but he'll never call that person out on it. Contrary to popular belief, he knows perfectly well how much he's hurt that person over the years.
Arthur is never happy on the fourth of July.
With a sigh, Alfred goes about his morning ritual. The rest of the morning seems to pass like any other morning, but for the various birthday wishes and congratulations. He's happy, he really is, and grateful too, but despite everything he still wishes that he could hear those words from Arthur.
By midday, he decides that he needs to change his birthday ritual. He's been waiting, and hoping, for far too long. Once, many years ago, he'd tried showing up at Arthur's house a few days before his birthday and physically handing over an invitation to his annual party. It hadn't worked, and he doesn't dare try it again. But he can call, surely.
The phone rings once, twice, and then a gruff, somewhat unfamiliar voice answers. "Hello?"
"Hi," Alfred begins, suddenly nervous. "Who is this? I mean—is Arthur there, please?"
"He's nae haur reit noo."
Alfred hesitates, brows furrowing. "Er… what?"
"Ah said th' wee laddie isnae haur reit noo!"
There is the sound of a scuffle on the other end of the line, and Alfred can only blink at the phone in confusion. "… Hello?" he asks finally.
"Hello." A much calmer voice answers this time. "Arthur isn't here right now. He's never home at this time of year, so you'll have to call back in a few days."
Where else would Arthur be, but at home? Alfred chews his lower lip. Perhaps Arthur is at the pub, though it seems rather early to be getting drunk. "Do you know where he is?"
There's a pause, then a sigh. "You're America, right? He's at your place. He's always at your place, every year."
Eventually Alfred thanks him and hangs up, but he's still horribly confused. Arthur is definitely not at Alfred's house. Arthur never comes to his house at this time of year, especially not on his birthday. So where is he?
The afternoon passes quickly and the president tells him to leave early, but not before handing him a patriotically-wrapped birthday present. Alfred grins and engulfs the man in a bear hug. He really loves his presidents, even when they're idiots or scumbags or even just plain assholes.
As he's leaving work, he pulls out his phone and quickly dials a number. "Kiku," he chirps, "you know it's my birthday, yeah? Yeah, I know you RSVP'ed but I'm just making sure… anyway, I have a favour to ask…"
That night, instead of mingling with his guests or stuffing his face with food or even fawning over the mountain of gifts that he's received, he's busy hovering over Kiku's shoulder as the other nation attempts to track down Arthur's mobile phone.
"I hope that you realise that this is illegal," Kiku murmurs, fingers flying over the keyboard.
"I know," Alfred confirms. "I just… I need to find him."
It's not just a burning curiosity about where Arthur spends his fourth of Julys. Alfred wonders what he's doing, if he's still upset, if he hates Alfred, if he's hurt, or drunk, or being taken advantage of in some pub somewhere… not that Arthur wouldn't be able to take care of himself, because he would be able to. It's just that Alfred likes to think of himself as a hero, and all heroes have a love interest or damsel in distress, and Alfred would very much like for Arthur to be his love interest. Because he's very, well… interested.
It takes him a moment to realise that he's blushing, and Kiku is watching him with a knowing look. "Here," the Asian nation says, wisely choosing not to point out Alfred's flustered state. "This is the address. I believe that England-san is staying in that hotel, though you'll have to ask the front desk about his room number."
The hotel is barely a block away from his home. Alfred quickly excuses himself and rushes to leave the house. His phone rings and he fumbles to answer at the same time as shoving his feet into his shoes.
"… stupid, stupid, stupid!"
The voice is familiar but slightly slurred, and Alfred wonders if Arthur is drunk. He's received similar calls in the past, and they never cease to worry him.
"Where are you, Artie?"
There's a breathy sigh. "Doesn't matter. Go…" the call cuts off, and Alfred quickens his pace. Soon enough he's bursting into the hotel's lobby. The receptionist refuses to reveal the room number at first, but one flash of his official-looking identification card is enough to soften her. A few minutes of sweet-talking later, and Alfred is sprinting up the stairs, key in hand. He has no idea why his heart is suddenly pounding so painfully in his chest; maybe Arthur is right and all of the hamburgers that he's eaten in the past are finally causing a heart attack.
He bursts into the hotel room without knowing what to expect. Perhaps he was bracing himself for a naked drunkard, or perhaps an orgy, but he definitely doesn't expect to see an empty hotel room.
At second glance, it isn't empty. There's a bundle of blankets on the window seat, with an unruly mop of blond hair sticking out of the top. Alfred quietly closes the door and takes a cautious step towards Arthur before stopping in shock.
"…Land of the noble free… Thy name I love… I love thy rocks and rills… Thy woods and templed hills… My heart with rapture thrills…"
The fireworks begin, sending streaks of light across the sky. Arthur shudders and leans his forehead against the cool glass of the window. "Happy birthday, Alfred," he whispers, staring up at the fireworks.
Alfred can't stand there any longer. In a few long strides he is in front of the smaller nation. He grabs the blankets swathing Arthur and leans in to smell his breath.
He can't smell any alcohol.
"Alfred," Arthur says softly, gazing up with unfocused eyes. His face is flushed with what Alfred quickly identifies as a fever, and his breathing is laboured. "Alfred, what are you doing here?"
"That's what I should be asking you, old man," he retorts, but his words lack his usual bite. He's worried, and he's not ashamed to admit it. "Why are you here if you're so sick?"
Arthur sighs, his eyelids fluttering. "Happy birthday, Alfred," he repeats hoarsely, struggling to free an arm from the blankets. Once done, he reaches out and strokes Alfred's cheek lightly. "You've become so strong. I'm proud of you."
"You're not dying, are you?" Alfred asks worriedly, pressing the back of his hand to the feverish forehead. "I mean… don't you hate me? I went to war against you, and kicked your ass…"
The only response is a gentle smile. "It was difficult to treat you that way," Arthur admits quietly. "Pushing and pushing, until you reached your breaking point. But it was necessary. The strength of a nation is forged by adversity. Baptism by fire, and all that." He coughs harshly into his cocoon of blankets, his entire body rocking from the force.
"W-what are you saying?" Alfred can feel his hands trembling. He sinks down onto the window seat beside Arthur, and wrings his hands in his lap. How have they never managed to talk about the revolution? It's a sore point for both of them, but for something this important to have gone unsaid for so long… "You mean, you did it on purpose? The taxes, the oppression… you knew that I was going to rebel?"
"It was difficult," Arthur says again, pressing his face to the window once more. "Difficult, but necessary. I looked forward to the day when you would become a strong, independent nation. But even now it aches, and I cannot make it leave me be. It haunts me, and manifests itself when I would like nothing more than to congratulate you and tell you how great you have become." He pauses, his entire body drooping as if he has used up all of his remaining energy by talking. "And you have become great. So very great; yet also kind." He breaks off into another round of hacking coughs, each one sounding more raw and painful than the last. "So kind, that you would neglect your celebrations to come and find me. I am truly happy, Alfred. But you needn't waste your time here. Go and enjoy your party."
"Like hell!" Alfred's throat feels tight and his eyes are stinging, which is strange because in all of his nonsensical daydreams about confronting Arthur, it has always been the European nation who dissolves into tears. He's supposed to hate Arthur, but he doesn't—and now he's found out that although Arthur is supposed to hate him, he… doesn't, either. Alfred takes a shuddering breath and continues. "Do you… get sick like this every year?" In his opinion, it is the least painful thing that he can ask. It's less painful than why would you do that, or what do you really think of me, or have you really been coming to this hotel every year and sitting here by yourself, celebrating my birthday by yourself?
It takes Arthur a moment or two, but eventually he nods. "I didn't want to bother you," he explains vaguely. "I wish I could attend your parties, honestly, I do, but…" he looks away awkwardly, chewing on his lower lip.
"But what?" Alfred prompts, leaning in and willing away the tightness in his throat. "I'd love it if you came!"
"But you're kind," Arthur whispers, his voice muffled by the blanket. "You're so kind that even though you wouldn't want to, you'd still neglect your party to ensure that I was comfortable and looked after."
Alfred gently cups Arthur's face in his hands, and tilts his head up so that they're looking directly at each other. "Who says I wouldn't want to?" he asks. "I'd do anything if it meant you'd come."
"I'd ruin things for you. You deserve to have fun and be proud of yourself. It's your day. You shouldn't have to waste it on me." Arthur's blurting things now, things that he's kept bottled up for so long. "I know that it wasn't a good idea, to come here and pretend that I was celebrating with you, but I really… I wanted to wish you a happy birthday, today and for all the years to come."
Alfred can't help it. Later, he'll blame it on the fact that all of his people are emotional on this day. But for now, he swears as his eyes fill with tears that quickly overflow and trickle down his cheeks.
"Don't cry," Arthur says anxiously, reaching up to brush away the tears. "Please, don't cry. You know that I can't stand to see you upset."
"Why are you so stupid?" Alfred chokes out, wiping furiously at his eyes with the sleeve of his jacket. "You won't be ruining anything! Don't ever say that you're a waste of time! It's my fucking birthday, and if I want to spend it looking after you then you'd better fucking let me!"
Arthur is looking up at him uncomprehendingly, looking almost dazed. Alfred decides to try and make it clearer. "I'd spend all of my time with you, if you'd let me!"
Arthur's confusion quickly turns into surprise. "What are you saying?" he whispers.
Alfred simply leans in and kisses him, quickly and chastely.
It isn't the solution to all of their problems, but it's a start. Arthur will blush and splutter, but lack the energy or coordination to hit Alfred or say anything particularly offensive. Alfred will laugh and pack Arthur's things up to take him back to his house, but not before Arthur throws up all down the front of Alfred's shirt.
Once cleaned and safely situated in Alfred's bed, Arthur will present Alfred with a suitcase full of birthday presents; one for every year that he's missed, including this one. Delighted, Alfred will kiss him again and again, until Arthur finally pushes him away, grumbling about infection and why aren't seeing your guests out.
Neither of them mentions the word 'love'. They don't need to. What they feel for each other spans hundreds of years. It could be like, or love, or even lust.
But it's probably love.
And maybe, after months or years of chaste kisses and shy hand-holding, one of them will finally utter it.
"I love you."
A/N: Thank you for reading my first uploaded USUK story! I hope you all liked my head canon. Happy Independence Day!