A/N: So I figured that even though HRE would have had some knowledge of swordfighting, I wanted to have Austria try and assess/teach him. I also wanted to make HRE a little more grown physically in this (as a sort of set up to another companion one-shot I've got in the works...) but he's no Germany or anything. Just starting to be a lanky little kid perhaps. I hope it's not confusing!
The Austrian brandished his sword, back straight, head high; deadly tip angled delicately at the ground.
The blond gritted his teeth, toes digging into the cracks of the cobbles, launching himself toward his target with a tight, purposeful swing.
A shrill ring filled the air as metal bit into metal, the boyish warrior forcing an early engagement only to be broken by a quick evasive step.
The whisper of shuffling feet was deafening as the combatants circled each other; each one awaiting another opportunity to strike.
Blue eyes narrowed in concentration; a small tongue darting out to moisten sun-dried lips.
Without hesitation, the youth attacked again boldly, his tactics quickly turning erratic and desperate the more he was met with the man's fluid response; an experienced eye spotting not only the perfect defence for each attack, but every counter-strike as well.
The youth grunted and thrust towards the older man, throwing a little too much frustration and weight into the movement.
Parrying the attack with ease, the bespectacled aristocrat stepped out of the way, observing the blond pitch forward when his blade found no purchase. Slapping him firmly on the back with the flat of his own glinting blade, the Austrian huffed in exasperation.
Roderich could hear the laboured breaths of his young ward as he regained his footing rather quickly, not missing a beat, falling back in line to prepare for more observational circling.
But it was the Austrian's turn to test the blond.
He stepped forward, demonstrating a well timed and controlled thrust with his sword and twist of his wrist, manipulating the blade from the youth's smaller hand, sending it clattering across the cobbled courtyard.
That's how the maneuver was supposed to be executed.
For a moment all the boy could do was stand and gape at the haughty brunet, barely seeming to register that his hand was empty; chest visibly heaving.
The man's annoyed voice broke through the awed silence.
Obviously flustered, but with a look of determination, the youth took up the weapon, facing his friend and opponent again.
He didn't want to be hard on the boy. That was the last thing he wanted to do.
As far as he was concerned, it wasn't right to send one so young and inexperienced onto the battlefield. He himself had been fashioned for the sole purpose of conflict and conquest, but had his fair share of losses. Though the losses he suffered were a thing of learning and humility – sometimes in that order, sometimes reversed – his body was that of a man and with it he possessed more constitution than the small body he made demands of presently. Not to mention his ability to heal faster than others was, at the very least, useful.
He had long lean limbs, and a graceful manner in which he moved; swordplay being second nature to him as the blade melded easily with his own arm.
The subtleties of war were not unlike that of his piano playing.
Admittedly, he was much more proficient with the ivory than he was with the iron...
This boy was clumsy and ineffectual, and for his size and build he yet lacked the necessary dexterity to be successful. True that it was not his fault for being of such small stature, but even though he had all the world's knowledge at his fingertips it wouldn't matter if he wasn't breathing. If he knew what was good for him, he'd strive to take up a book or two in the language of war... not that there was much time for that now.
Typically clothed in the robes of a scholar, today the young one wore standard light leather armour which granted him important mobility. The only thing setting him apart from any other child at play was the shining breastplate on his chest. Lightweight and made of the finest metal; carved with the holy symbols and talismans of his faith, it was a beacon; a reason to fight.
If only he could fight with words and faith alone...
This was why he stood with the boy in the courtyard of their home trying to impart to him some sense of which end of a sword to hold. Even as physically limited as the boy was, he had a lot of heart.
Though the two males barely exchanged words, save for discussion of world matters, Roderich knew full well he had things to protect; they all did.
Unfortunately there could only ever be one victor in war... someone always had to lose; had to get hurt.
The little blond's forehead was sticky with sweat, the fringe of his normally neat and tidy hair plastered to his skin. His cheeks were flushed with exertion, lips pursed, his untrained hand trembling as it gripped the hilt of his short sword.
The Austrian didn't want to have to go to such measures before the boy had grown more, but he was running out of time. It was better that he be the one to put the pressure on to teach and correct rather than the inevitable opponents exercising a more permanent lesson.
Those young blue eyes, still so full of innocence despite the conquest in a shallow past, had never seen real war; real death; tasted real blood. In a war the blood shed the most was that of innocents, and Roderich wondered if the tender and heartfelt young man in front of him could handle not just the weight of his sword, but the weight of lives lost.
It wasn't just the battered and bloody physical body of a nation that could lead to dissolution and an end, it was the will of those who believed in that nation that contributed to their existence as well.
What was a nation without its people's love?
"Young Master!" called a familiar voice from the tabled nook hidden by the shade of the mansion. "We've brought tea!"
The young man's attention broke from amethyst eyes that crinkled in irritation.
Moving swiftly and easily, Roderich prodded the tip of his blade against the neck of his charge, twisting his grip mercilessly to draw blood.
The little one almost yelped, eyes darting back to the Austrian, panic and surprise staining his face.
Whether he had meant to or not, he had become distracted; allowed his attention to stray for what could have been, were his opponent a real enemy, the final second before his demise.
Lowly and without colour to his voice, the adult spoke to the blond, ignoring the Hungarian woman who toted a tray in her hands and a certain little Italian maid behind her.
"Your enemies von't vait for you to drink tea."
For a moment neither moved, Roderich silently hoping for the boy to pull something out of his sleeve to gain the upper hand.
With a look of determination on his face, the little boy backed off, swatting the doubting man's sword away from his body with a clang, readying himself for another contest.
The Austrian nodded.
The blond launched a flurry of attacks on the older man who countered and parried them all. Although, with each stroke the youngster grew more bold, swinging with confidence; renewed purpose. Even though his technique needed much work, his swift action was making the Austrian's forehead glisten under the afternoon sun.
Only then did he see the will to survive on the childish face; witnessing the glimmer of passion within the young man.
Something had changed in the few moments after Elizaveta's interruption.
Regardless of what had changed, it was what the learned desired to see from the unlearned.
With a flick of his wrist, the brunet disarmed the blond yet again, flinging the weapon uselessly into the air.
The two sets of eyes didn't part until after the shrillness of the discarded blade on the rock had died away.
There was much to teach and too little time in which to do so. But perhaps they could pull it off. The Austrian was much too practical for pretty lies, but...
Roderich eyed the crimson soaked jabot belonging to his charge.
...hope wasn't a lie... was it?
Hope, in this boy's case, could quickly be the only thing left.
Roderich sheathed his sword, ending the lesson.
"Have Elizaveta tend to your wound."
The diminutive blond nodded his head solemnly. "Si. Grazie."
The three of them walked quietly into the mansion, the pretty Hungarian maid leading the way.
Downtrodden, he realized how much his skill was truly lacking. At any point during the sparring match, if Roderich had been an enemy, he could have been ended quickly and, to his dismay, without much of a struggle.
Truth be told, he never possessed the desire to fight.
Until he met her.
Glancing to his right, he saw that she was sombrely walking beside him; his pretty little Mediterranean maid. That curious curl of hers barely moved when she walked; the carefree spring in her step missing. He frowned. The lack of jovial air concerned him.
He wanted to take her hand and ask her what she was thinking about. But he couldn't possibly...
He looked away quickly, feeling his heart skip a beat and his skin prickle.
But if she refused to join with him and become the Roman Empire, then how could he ever protect her? She said that it was for his own good and that she liked him just the way he was... but what would happen to her when he left this house? She couldn't protect herself; someone so sweet and defenseless would be easy pickings for anyone who dared to waltz right in.
It was no good.
His little hands clenched at his side.
He needed to get taller and stronger and better with his sword... Not just for the people who loved the Holy Roman Empire and believed in him, but for her; the one who made him strong.
She might have been quiet and unassuming; the food-stealing, siesta-taking, pasta-loving Italian, but he adored her.
How could he continue without her?
If things kept up this way, he'd surely be bested in battle by some stronger nation. As far as he knew, Roderich was skilled in swordplay... that much was obvious, but would he grow under the elder nation's tutelage in spite of his own shortcomings?
A few steps in front of him, Elizaveta stopped, opening a door for the two youths.
"Ita-chan, take him inside and get him cleaned up, okay?"
"Yes, Miss Elizaveta." nodded the little girl.
Once inside the privacy of the chamber, he sat awkwardly on a low stool, watching as she flitted around the room gathering things she'd need to tend to his wound. His neck throbbed dully, and he lifted his hand to probe it. It wasn't painful, but warm stickiness coated his fingertips.
Barely noticing when she returned to his side, she closed her little hand over his and drew it away from his melodramatically bleeding cut.
This time her touch didn't send his heart fluttering as it usually did, but instead his heart was constricted, stiff. Gazing at her pretty face, auburn strands the frame to a work of art, he saw her eyes narrow slightly; her own gaze concentrated on their joined hands. Following it, he gaped, spying his hand in hers covered in blood...
...on her hands...
With a mutual gasp, he ripped his hand away, and clutched it; crushed it against his soiled breastplate in horror.
She was painted with it, a smear on her wrist, a touch on her bare arm, all over her fingers. Those beautiful, tanned, delicate hands... the skilled hands of an artist, the gentle hands of a friend and ally, the warm hands of his Italia.
The one being in all this world that he wanted to protect had blood on her hands.
He raked his hands through his hair, his blood clumping strands together gruesomely as he grasped it.
Once his hands stilled, and his head drooped, tears dripped from the corners of his eyes.
What was he going to do?
Could he even take care of himself?
He wasn't strong enough to best that damn Austrian. How would he best anyone on the battlefield?
With a grunt, he tore the bloody jabot from around his neck, flinging it to the floor.
His chest was tight, the metal strapped to it felt heavy, trapping his breath inside. Uneven, hasty pants only plunged him further into panic as he struggled with the clasps of his armour, desperately fumbling with it; needing to get it off.
It was choking him; killing him.
The knowledge, the guilt, the uncertainty of everything was killing him.
...What if he didn't come home?
What if he...?
What would she...?
The clatter of metal on the hard floor and the feel of her arms around him; molded to him in place of the breastplate; a warm, comforting little body, the scent of fresh linen and oil paints... the familiar scent of her settled in around him, calming the terrified child inside him.
And she held him.
She held him until his breathing came easier, until reason returned to him and he relaxed, returning the simple embrace.
Warm hands held his again and he blinked, clearing the glaze over his eyes, seeing her kind face smiling at him.
She was fine.
She was here.
"Ital-...?" he started, his voice barely a whisper.
Before he could finish her name, an insistent, and rather loud grumble came from her belly, causing both of them to look down toward the sound.
She opened her mouth to say something, but no sound came out.
And he laughed.
It was just a chuckle at first, but before he knew it, it had evolved into a belly laugh until he was gasping to regain his breath, holding his sides.
She was watching him somewhat nervously.
It surprised him for such a sound to come out of his mouth after the emotional whiplash he just experienced, but he couldn't stop himself. Everything about her was precious to him, even those near-constant involuntary complaints of hunger and in this moment it was that very thing that grounded him.
He wasn't going to war tomorrow; nor next week, nor next month.
He wasn't dead, and because he wasn't, he knew it would be a travesty to waste a single moment with her in arms reach.
All he could do was work hard, take care of her while he was able, and love her like there was no tomorrow.
She was still staring at him curiously, in a way all her own, and he blushed, turning his head away. He must have seemed like a madman cackling like that for no reason; his behaviour wasn't anything short of odd, but it felt good.
Just being with her felt good.
"Uh... Help me get cleaned up, p-please..."
Nodding, like nothing had happened, she reached for a cloth to get started.
Peeking at her from the corner of his eye, he watched the line of her mouth purse adorably while she began her task. With gentle strokes, she tended to him, feeling no pain from the probing and cleansing.
"...I will see to it that we have pasta for supper."
He witnessed her brilliant smile, pudgy little cheeks blushed, eyebrows raised in elation, amber eyes twinkling.
It made him smile too.
Life wasn't to be lived as though one was just biding time until their death...
Life was to be lived and enjoyed with those who were cherished; enriching one's life with love and happiness.
This is what he promised her silently that day...
... It was also what he promised himself.