Ukraine stood in front of Russia's house and tried to gather up her courage. It shouldn't have been so hard to pay a simple visit to her little brother. She shouldn't have felt like she was standing in front of a stranger's house. She wasn't sure when this gap had started to grow between them but somewhere along the way he had stopped being the little boy she grew up with and now...she wasn't sure she knew him anymore. Maybe she could no longer reach him. Maybe she didn't really have a place in his life anymore.
She was old enough to know that it wasn't wise to waste time dreaming about how things used to be, but she held on to her memories anyway. She was also smart enough to know that things weren't really that much better for her when she was young, but she still missed those days. She missed when it had just been the three of them, when she had actually felt like a big sister, when Russia was still small enough to sit in her lap, still young enough to need her.
He was so clingy back when he was still small. He had been especially difficult at night; he was terribly afraid of the dark and firmly believe in any kind of monster that came at night and ate little boys. Once she had woken up in the middle of the night to a tiny, pudgy hand shaking her arm and a little ash blond head peeking over the side of her bed.
"Ukraine...Ukraine, wake up!"
She had tried shake him off and go back to sleep, but the note of fear in his voice couldn't be ignored.
"What's wrong? Did you have a nightmare?"
He seemed to shrink a little in response.
"It's alright, Russia. It's just a dream. Not real. Can't hurt you," she mumbled around a yawn. "Go back to sleep, it won't be scary in the morning."
"No, Baba Yaga will eat me if I go back to sleep!" he wailed. She frantically gestured at him to be quiet and glanced over at Belarus on the other side of the room. The youngest of the three was still asleep, breathing slow and deep. Russia's outburst hadn't woken her up. Ukraine let out a sigh of relief.
"I won't let any monsters or witches eat you, Russia. So can you go back to bed now? Please? Big sis is very tired."
"Can...can I sleep with you tonight?" he whispered, twisting the edge of her blanket in his hands. "Just to make sure Baba Yaga won't get me?"
"What? No, we talked about this. Don't you remember? I already told you why you can't sleep in my bed."
"But..." he shrank even further. "But I promise I won't wet the bed tonight. I promise."
Ukraine made the mistake of looking him in the eye, and her resistance broke down. She could never say no to that face.
"Just for tonight," she grumbled, rolling over to make room for him. "I mean it, only tonight. And you better keep your promise or I'll be very upset."
He nodded and crawled up beside her, curling against her body like a bear cub with its mother. She sighed heavily, but couldn't bring herself to be annoyed with him, not when he was so warm, not when he needed her to chase the monsters away.
"Scaredy-cat," she whispered, pulling him closer and kissing the top of his head. "I wouldn't let anything hurt you. You're safe with me."
For all the trouble he gave her, she could only remember yelling at him once in all the years they were together. They had been out looking for firewood together, just the two of them (Belarus was still too small to be much help with that kind of work.) Ukraine had stopped for a moment to get a better grip on the large bundle of sticks she was trying to carry and by the time she had turned around, Russia had vanished. Panic overwhelmed her at once. It wasn't until she noticed the little trail of foot prints he had left that she was able to calm down again. She couldn't afford to go to pieces, not when Russia was still lost.
She took a deep breath and followed the tracks. She almost had another meltdown when the newly fallen snow covered the rest of the trail but at last she managed to find him, hiding under a tree.
"Why did you do that!?" she yelled, grabbing his shoulders and shaking him. "I told you, I told you a hundred times not to run off without me!"
He had been staring up at her with huge eyes, but as soon as she stopped shouting his face crumpled entirely. Ukraine's anger collapsed along with him.
"Oh no," she groaned as he buried his face in her skirt. "No, don't cry, I'm sorry, I'm not angry. I was just scared, please don't cry..."
"I d-d-didn't think you'd f-find me," he sobbed, clutching her material of her skirt tightly. "I d-didn't think you'd come..."
"Of course I would!" she said, blinking hard against the pricking in her eyes and wrapping her arms around his shaking shoulders. "I wouldn't leave you. You have to believe me, I would never leave you behind."
She remembered thinking it would be nice when he got bigger and stronger, so he could help her more with the work around their house, but when he surpassed her in height she couldn't help but feel that something had been lost. He didn't need her as much as he used to, he didn't insist on holding her hand whenever they went out, he didn't ask her to tell him bedtime stories anymore... Even then, she still felt like his big sister, but that was before the Mongols came. She tried to cut that period out of her memory, like cutting off the bad parts off a piece of meat, but she couldn't forget what Russia was like when she finally found him again. He was even taller than before, and his hands were unnaturally cold. There was something broken behind his violet eyes, something even she couldn't touch or fix.
"I'm sorry about the scarf you gave me," he said, and she tried to not stare at the horrible wounds on his neck. "They took it away from me. I told them not to, I told them it was important, but they took it anyway."
She had to bit her lip hard to keep from crying. He was being brave; she had to be strong too.
"I'll make you a new one," she choked out, and managed a little smile for him. "Your old one was getting ratty anyway."
It became something of a tradition for them, even after they moved apart and became their own countries. Every few years she would show up on his doorstep with a new handmade scarf, no matter what else was happening in the world. They grew further and further apart over the years but this was one thing she could cling to, the one way she could still act like a big sister for him. He would always accept it and thank her, even when the ritual became progressively more awkward over the centuries. The tradition almost stopped during the Soviet years. It wasn't that she forgot about it, she just didn't know how to approach him at all. He scared her, and that made her feel sick with guilt. When she finally got up the courage to talk to him in 1952, he was still wearing the same cream scarf she had given him in 1917. It was little more than a rag at that point, and she burst into tears when she saw it.
Ukraine had started just mailing the scarves to him from that point on, but that had to stop. She was no kind of sister if she kept avoiding him just because it was difficult. And it had barely been a year since he fell...she needed to see his face. She had promised to keep him safe and to never leave him, but she had already broken both those promises. She had to at least show him that she still cared, that she was still there for him.
She shook her head to bring herself back to the present, back to the cold spring morning, back to Russia's front door. She took a deep, uneven breath and knocked. After a moment the door opened a crack, just enough for him to peer out at her. His thin face and hollow eyes made him look like a ghost.
"Brother, c-can I come in?" she stammered. She half expected him to slam the door in her face (she deserved it, for neglecting him for so long) but instead he opened the door without a word. She followed him inside, feeling horribly out of place in his huge, empty house.
"Are....are you alright?" she asked, wringing her hands nervously. "You look very pale."
"I'm fine," he said, in a voice as hollow as his eyes. "Why did you come here?"
She swallowed painfully before saying, "I brought you a new scarf. Do you want to see?" She pulled it out of her bag without waiting for his answer. It was light brown, with the face of a sunflower painstakingly embroidered on each end. She held it up for his inspection, and Russia's eyes looked a little less empty for a moment.
"Can I try it on?" he asked after a moment.
"O-of course you can. It's yours, you can do whatever you like with it," she said softly.
His hands came up to his neck and only hesitated for a moment before pulling the threadbare scarf off. She held her breath; she knew how sensitive he usually was about exposing his neck. In the past he would make her look away when he'd try on the new scarf she brought him. Did he not care about that anymore? Or was this a sign of trust? She brought him a scarf to show him she was still cared, was he showing her this to say that he would continue to let her come close?
He let the old scarf drop to the floor and reached out to take the new one from her, but she pulled it away suddenly.
"No, let me," she said, and stepped closer, standing on her toes as she looped the material around his neck. He went rigid when her hand brushed against his bare skin, but didn't pull away. When she was finished, she dropped down from her toes and wrapped her arms around him tightly.
"You're still my little brother," she murmured into his chest, hoping it was loud enough for him to hear. "It doesn't matter what happens, you'll always be my little brother. I'm here for you. I...I always will be."
She expected him to push her away, or to just keep standing there awkwardly. Instead, slowly, he brought his arms up to return her hug.
"I know," he said, and even though she could feel the deep rumble of the words in his chest, and even though he towered over her now, and even though she knew he wouldn't cling to her like he used to, she suddenly felt like a big sister again.
You know the drill, I love those review things.