Under One Sky
England didn't see family reunions like normal people do.
Folks often envisioned them as a celebration of sorts, a time for rich, scintillating festivities with heaping banquets. A time to fill the air with that delicious gossip and raucous laughter. A moment to be happy with those you consider to be important.
For England, it was always a cruel, deviously crafted reminder that they have all drifted apart. No longer one.
No longer the British Empire.
Each of their last words at those times had been one and the same, jabbing at England's chest like white-hot needles. For some reason, he found himself powerless and defenseless against these poignant flashbacks, as if they knew what made him tick. They would always arouse that silent, insistent little pain right below his heart for hours at a time.
The whole damn world would have laughed, witnessing the regal, majestic England being held captive by the phantoms of his past.
A little shot of whiskey and a cold bottle of ale always helped steer them at bay, amusingly enough. Soft, soothing warmth would ripple inside him every single time, smearing that malicious ache away. But the pictures of the befores and afters remained vivid.
England didn't know what compelled him to do it, a wicked enchantment by the fae, perhaps; but he would always find himself going back to those blasted reunions every year – flat-footed and spiteful, but solidly present.
Such was the case this time around, still.
Canada, America, Australia, himself. That would always be the order they took when they sat on that special round table, like the quarter points of a grandfather clock. It offered England an unseeable panoramic view of his Empire, a mocking reminder of what he used to be.
What they used to be.
Indeed, time dwindled right by him. Every time he sat at that rickety chair, he would be a year older; a bit wiser, a little less young. Such an ironic compromise, England always thought.
They changed, too. Every one of them. With every year that passed, their bodies grew taller. Stronger. Broader. They no longer wore those little toddler gowns that England himself always insisted them to wear when they were children. Individual uniforms - freshly pressed and sharp - took their stead, a silent statement of their own history and identity.
When England looked at them one by one, (how they've matured …) he saw a different memory from long past behind his eyes, each embroidered with a different hue, a passing season.
They were all so different – personalities, flaws - yet they were all the same in the end.
"Australia, how many times do I have to tell you? I'm Canada. America's the one with the bomber jacket. Why do you keep confusing me for him?"
When England gazes at him from across the table, he remembers the stillness of Winter nights they have spent together – pale, chilly, and ensconced with a white melancholy.
When he was little, he would always ask England to linger with him by the fireplace, right upon the descent of the first snowflake. Bathed in vermillion heat and flickers from the firelight, Canada would sit in his lap and gloss over picture books, and he, England, immersed in his travel journals.
Canada thrived in the quiet. Strangely, the silence was never awkward. Talking was unnecessary; glancing and smiling with their eyes was just as good. They remained frozen in time until the embers died and crumbled.
Now, England always recalls that tiny child who remained permanently clung onto him; always shy, dependent.
A toddler tugged on the legs of his trousers, trembling and teary-eyed. "England, have you seen Kumakichi? I- I think I lost him again."
"America, you may be the best at nearly everything, but you have to admit – I still beat you at hockey. You can't beat me at that."
Canada still retains his trademark meekness; he keeps the lowest of profiles (Perhaps a little too low, sometimes, England ponders.), preferring not to speak during World Conferences and lets America do all the talking for the two of them.
Despite that unimpressive façade, England knows the existence of a quiet strength that Canada possessed, a vindictive sense of justice and determination that he rarely displayed. It's comparable to the strongest of blizzards in his country – frigid and ruthless.
England was and is still proud, very proud; but Canada eventually left him behind.
"Shut up, Canada. That was a little fluke and you know it! I'll get my revenge someday! I am the hero after all."
Strangely enough, America reminds England of the sultriest of Spring days – the very first day after the dead of winter, exactly at that ephemeral moment when life begins to thaw out of the frost.
America would always ask him to watch the very first sunrise together. The colors of the new dawn shined itself on his eager face; equally bright, equally alive. Eager anticipation shimmered in his eyes like the clear blue ocean, vast and filled with endless dreams.
Bent over an unusually difficult jigsaw puzzle, America's small fingers fumbled over the hundreds of pieces strewn about on the floor. With a furrowed brow and determined eyes, he turns to England. "I can do it right, England? You said I can do anything if I put my mind into it!"
His determination never wavers, even up until now. Tried as he might, England can't find a droplet of weakness in America; his willpower burns ever so brightly still, like everlasting fire.
Every one of them knows of America's rather ambitious side; it's already characteristic of him. Whether they liked it or not, he spearheads them with the most convoluted of plans and serenades them with the most heartfelt and charismatic speeches.
"Hey, England. Are you listening? I said we should totally team up against Canada here. Someone needs to put him in his place! And he keeps saying I'm such an attention monger. That's not true!"
Nothing ever daunts him; not even the prospect of a bleak and murky future. He shrugs and wakes up the next morning, grinning and ready to take the world on his shoulders.
"You used to be so big."
America used to be too small. He's grown so much.
The America of England's memories will not be ready to lift such a heavy responsibility for everyone. Now, he wants to be the harbinger of that fine Spring day, just to make everyone feel the awe and wonder of that sunrise.
England was and is still proud, very proud; but America left him behind, too.
"Calling for reinforcements now, mate? You certainly ain't the best. You can't even beat me in a drinking contest!"
He is the personification of a Summer's evening; as handsome as the fireflies' flight; as heady and passionate as the scent of immeasurable youth itself.
He bewitches people with that neon laughter, enough to vanquish insecurities and beleaguered inhibitions. Australia has always been like that as far as England remembers him, even back to the roots of his childhood.
Even if he was smattered with an agonizing assortment of cuts and bruises, little Australia continued to smile through a grimy face. He did have a high threshold for pain. He doesn't even bat an eyelash when England dabs a thin film of alcohol around the raw, open welts.
"Doesn't that hurt?" he asked, bewildered. This was usually the part when America and Canada winced badly and asked for England to stop.
"It does! But you're the one doing it, so I guess I don't mind as much. And I'm not a wimp."
"I'm not a complete wuss like you people. I'd try anything you put on this table!"
England is glad that some things never change.
Now, England still sees that little ruffian within Australia. Beneath his lackadaisical ways and devil-may-care attitude, Australia has something that no other Nation had – the appreciation of the present. He revels in the icy warmth of adrenaline; relishes that tiny inkling of fear, the uncertainty of danger. He gains an appreciation of life no one of their kind has. No one else has stopped to smell the flowers, cuddled a roadside animal, or wore every scar on their body like a badge of honor.
England was and is proud of him, very proud; but Australia left him behind, too.
All of them.
And what of him.
"England's not that bad at drinking." Canada.
"You have got to be kidding me. He practically tore his pants off at the last reunion!" America.
"Come off it, Canada! You don't even believe what you're saying." Australia.
Winter. Spring. Summer.
They are all so beautiful. Their memories together are still living in England's very core, complete with that kaleidoscopic color. Grimacing, England realizes how much he has aged.
He looks at himself now; a mere shadow of his former glory. A sodding old man with groaning joints and as bitter as the Autumn winds.
When time passes, some of the other images fade one by one, their colors muddled like diluted paint and the sounds garbled. He tries to reach to them, to hold him in his mind like the way he used to, but they just slide through his fingertips, loose and ungraspable, similar to fine, fine sand.
A part of him sometimes wants to forget; but he was just too attached.
He dreads the day when the last leaves of his memories of them flutter away in the breeze, forgotten and swallowed by the earth, as if they never existed.
Reunion after reunion, he remembers less of them, with the most precious of them - those three instances - just hanging in the air and ready to be torn asunder.
They say that the hardest part of someone's life is to let your loved ones go. Then, before you noticed it, you've become distant with each other. They'll leave a gnawing void that can never be filled.
He never did get a good enough closure from them.
England just wishes he could walk with them side by side together like they used to one more time, hand in hand.
"England … are you crying?" Canada.
"What's the matter?" America.
"Beer that bad, huh, England?" Australia.
England's voice comes out in a dry croak. "Shut up, all of you. This is nothing."
His first words to them that night are beyond feeble – he knows that they will no longer be intimidated by raised voices and a show of gritted teeth. They are not children anymore. Yet, a small part of him wishes to see them flinch in puerile fear like they used to.
Memories have their magical way of caging people, still. They're far more powerful than any enchantment England ever performed.
He tries to chuckle darkly - to save face and to cling on the last shreds of dignity he has left. Two pathetic puffs of air can hardly be called a fit of laughter.
Scrapes of wooden legs on the floor ruffles England just a bit. The dry screeching friction of wood against wood startles him into closing his eyes tight, like the whisper of an old and familiar specter in his ear.
He doesn't need to open his eyes to know where they're going. England knows them unlike any other. They're leaving.
It wouldn't be the first time.
A hand claps on his left shoulder. It's gentle, like mild heat from the fireplace. "I'm here, England. What's bothering you?"
Another hand on his right shoulder, comfortably rousing as the first licks of the springtime sun. "I'm here, too. Care to share?"
Someone's sinewy arm wraps around his neck, clutching him in a one-armed hug. England just notices a small twinkle of teeth on the corner of his eye, as bright and handsome as the fireflies' flight. "There's nothing a little drinking won't cure, old man. Cheer up!"
When England looks at them now, a flicker of their younger selves dashes across his vision; those eyes that cared, that tiny bit of concern in their voices that they couldn't mask. It's reminiscent of the Them in his memories, of those seasons past.
Brushing the wetness away from his eyes, England picks up the mug. The amber nectar swishes and sloshes, spilling in a small golden trickle on the side. With a surprising show of gusto, he finishes the entire thing in a few gulps.
Perhaps they never left in the first place, he thinks.
They don't live under one roof anymore; this much is true.
But they still live under one sky.
A/N: Thanks for reading, everyone! Comments and criticisms will be much adored! C: