"Alba, what are you up to now?" Cymru says tiredly as he frowns at the two small swords in his brother's hands. "Those are too bloody small for any of us. Kernow'll have your head if he thinks you're wasting forge-time on toys, you know how he is."
"They're not for us," Alba retorts, rolling his eyes. "I thought it was about time we started showing Albion and Eire how to defend themselves. I don't like what Breizh said the last time she visited us, about this 'Rome' who keeps going after nations. I know they're little yet, but they need to defend themselves." Cymru is not used to his auburn-haired, stormy-eyed brother being so serious and calm, and narrows his pale blue eyes at the other nation.
"Are you feeling like yourself? You usually leave the little ones to me; you said you don't have the patience to deal with them till they're older."
Alba's cheeks go redder than Eire's hair and he scuffs a booted foot across the ground. "I don't. But I don't want to see them get snatched up without a fight either. They're our siblings; if they're that weak it looks bad for us!"
Cymru manages not to roll his eyes, because surely even Alba knows how pathetically weak that defense is. But he's used to his brother's contradictory, contrary moods, and thinks nothing of it. Instead he beckons to one of the tree sprites and asks her to go fetch the little ones, which she does. Albion and Eire come over still playing at some kind of game, though he's not entirely sure what said game entails. It's fun, apparently, because two pairs of green eyes are sparkling.
"All right, you two, now pay attention to me," Alba says sharply, and those same pairs of green eyes turn wary as they focus on him. Cymru sighs, because Alba really doesn't know how to handle children, does he? Not that Cymru himself is much better, and Kernow's equally hapless, but Alba just takes the flaw to new heights. At least Cymru and Kernow don't make Albion and Eire terrified of them.
But he doesn't do so badly once he puts the swords in those small hands, adjusting stances and grips before showing them basic moves and setting them loose on each other. Cymru doesn't even have to intervene, though he willingly agrees to be Alba's sparring partner for a demonstration of how it should be done. And as the weeks pass he finds himself being drawn in, working mostly with Albion while Alba works with Eire. Kernow shows up and watches, his amusement plain to see, before he too starts to help. And the brothers get to share their pride when their younger siblings begin to show true skill. Even if, in the end, it's not enough to protect them.
In the end Cymru and Kernow escape from Rome's house by their skills with a blade. They leave Albion behind, since he does not have the ability they do, and if they take him they will all be lost again. Alba is safe in his northern moors, Eire hidden in her island's green fields, and when Cymru and Kernow return home they fade into the shadows so as not to be found again. They all forget the boy left to Rome's mercy and so when as Wessex he wreaks his vengeance on Kernow, and later on Cymru when the younger is England and the elder is Wales, they don't think of this as the reason why.
When Eire and Albion sparring for fun becomes Ireland and England in deadly earnest and the tip of England's sword rests at Ireland's throat, when Alba becomes Scotland and he and England feud for centuries, those days haunt them all. Except the one whose sword spills his siblings' blood, because he can't even remember why he knows how to wield his blade so well or why he is so angry. Only that he needs to make them hurt, make them cry, because somehow they deserve it.
Scotland insists on tagging along with England on his latest visit to North America. After all, England's King is his King, so technically these colonies belong to them both, right? The furious look he gets is highly amusing, but really Scotland is bored - and desperately curious. He'd like to know about this Canada that England is so willing to fight France over, even though England and France hardly need a reason to fight. More than that, he wants to know about America, because when England talks about the little colony he's adopted something in his eyes is more Albion than anything else.
They look remarkably alike, these two small colonies, blond hair and big eyes. Only Canada's eyes are violet and America's are blue, and their hair is different too. Most of all, America is loud and daring, while Canada is so quiet as to almost disappear.
And yet it's Canada who asks Scotland about the sword in his trunk, while America is pestering England about something. (Scotland gets the impression that happens a lot, though England's lack of irritation is a surprise.) The louder boy comes running at the mention of weapons, and Scotland is shocked to learn that they don't know the first thing about using swords. "At your age? I had that one in full fightin' form by then, lads," he says, jerking his thumb at England, who simply raises one over-thick eyebrow disdainfully.
"I have no idea what you mean."
Scotland ignores this foolishness, as that's what it must be, in favor of ordering a blacksmith to make two practice swords. When his brother demands to know what he's up to he tells England that he's simply remedying the younger nation's error in not teaching the boys how to use swords, and when the blacksmith is done and the swords are safe to hold, he passes one to each boy. It's as though the past has returned, and he glances at England, who has an odd look on his face.
Deciding that it will do America some good to come second now and then, Scotland focuses on Canada first, moving his hands on the hilt and adjusting the way the boy stands. His intentions are thwarted when England, previously standing aloof from it all, does the same with America, but he can't be bothered to care. Besides, becoming involved will do Englandgood, he decides.
America plays at fighting with the boundless enthusiasm he seems to put to everything else, and Canada flinches from his wild swinging. England calms America and helps him to focus, while Scotland shores up Canada's resolve until he stops flinching and blocks his brother's calmer strikes with ease. The older nations share an amused glance, and for a moment, they're a family at peace.
They'll use both blade and gun at Culloden, when Scotland's king is ousted from Britain's throne, and he will sink to his knees on the battlefield soaked with the blood of his clansmen. Scotland will lose his King and despise his brother more than ever, and he will try to forget the day when he thought teaching two boys might bring back the past.
And at the end, it is a bayonet, a blade, that England points at America's face, anger and betrayal heating his blood. It's a blade that he wishes he could use to stop this from happening, to keep America with him because for some reason he can't stand the thought of being left behind, as though it's happened before. It's the blade that he sees weakly glinting in the mud as he sobs, broken, on his knees in the rain as America walks away.
Canada, forced to watch those he cares for rip themselves and each other apart, hangs his practice sword on the wall and tries to forget he was ever a boy with all those memories, since no one else cares to remember them now.
Ireland doesn't know what it means when she finds the boy in the countryside outside Armagh. She knows some nations have two personifications, like Italy, but this sudden appearance of a little boy with red-gold hair and bushy brows with shamrocks in his hair is so very strange. His coloring is like hers, but his face reminds him so much of Albion, and the days before Rome when everything was so simple, that she almost can't look at him at first.
But somehow she is recast in Alba's role, carving practice swords of wood and teaching the boy she calls Thuaidh, North, how to use his. She's not sure why she does, except that she remembers her blood singing as she hefted her own sword in battle, and she knows this is the one thing she and her siblings all share. She wants Thuaidh to understand and feel it too, to know where he comes from.
He's a quick study, but so small that she's afraid to hurt him. So she spends as much time telling him stories of great war heroes as she does teaching him this ancient art of war. And she takes to calling him Patrick sometimes, after a gentle priest who stole her heart so long ago.
And she tells him about Alba and Cymru, and Kernow, and the inseparable pair of Albion and Eire. She does not tell him that she is Eire, because this far removed from that past she no longer feels as if she is. She could be talking about strangers when using those ancient names, not bitter Scotland, quiet Wales, resigned Cornwall, and especially not herself, lost among them, or England with Empire in his eyes.
She doesn't let herself think of them, not in this time with her new brother. Instead she moves his hands on the hilt, gently guides him into standing in a better position, and then crosses her makeshift blade with his, wishing it could stay like this with him, could have stayed like this with the others.
Ireland's battle for independence is ended by politicians who come to an agreement, but she and England need the symbolism of one last battle. And so it goes that blades flash silver death between them one final time, only at the end of it England's sword is knocked from his grip and he lifts his hands in surrender.
Victory is sweet but shortlived, when Patrick - Northern Ireland, she reminds herself coldly - sides with England, leaving her and her tricolor, green, white, and orange, in order to cleave to the Union Jack. She should be used to the betrayal of brothers by now, and yet it still hurts as though she has been dealt a mortal blow with a red-hot sword.
The sketch arrives just a few days later, of her and Thuaidh in the meadow where she taught him to fight, and the drawing is of them. On the back in her little brother's writing is a promise that he still loves her, he just didn't think she needed him as much. She can't understand why he thinks England needs him, but there is relief in seeing that the circle is not continuing. This is not betrayal, it is one sibling acting in what he thinks are the best interests of the others. It may not make sense, but it is a sign that things are getting better in this strange, warring family.
There are colonies underfoot all the time now, and Cornwall doesn't know if this amuses or irritates him. He's a shadow of his former self, these days, nothing but a part of England as far as everyone's concerned. He's still lingering, for now, but if people continue to forget him, forget that Cornish is a language and a culture and an identity, he won't last. He writes to Brittany, because she faces the same problem with France, but it doesn't make him feel that much better.
The colonies who live here now - because England is paranoid after America so he has his colonies stay with him - only serve to remind him that there are younger, brighter lights in this world now, and the chance that he'll ever catch up is slim. Still, the little ones are nice enough - the older ones like India ignore him and he returns the favor gladly - so he doesn't mind them much.
It seems, though, that Australia, Hong Kong, and New Zealand have gotten their hands on a book of fairy tales, since he finds them squabbling in the attic. New Zealand doesn't think that being a girl means she has to be the helpless princess, and she says they can both slay dragons together, and Hong Kong can be their sorcerer companion. Australia doesn't seem to like the idea that girls can fight, and Hong Kong just seems bored with all of it.
"Well, none of you can fight if you don't know how," he hears himself saying before he can help himself. They turn to look at him, bewildered, and he grins, going to a chest in the corner. It's his, and one of the things buried at the bottom are the practice swords he, Wales, and Scotland learned to use long ago. He doesn't know why he keeps them, but at the moment he's glad he does.
Australia and New Zealand take to the lessons quickly, eyes bright with interest, but Hong Kong leans against the wall with haughty eyes. "What makes you think my brother China didn't teach me how to fight?" he demands. "He is far older and more experienced than any of you."
Cornwall considers this, and then shrugs. "I'm sure he did, boy, but there's nothing like a good broadsword, and I'm damn sure you Eastern lot don't have those. Why don't you try it before you decide it's not worth your time?"
The commotion draws the attention of the Irelands, and little North wants to jump right in, fetching his own practice sword that he talked England into having made for him. Ireland, for her part, leans against the wall and watches, until Australia again tells New Zealand she's a girl and shouldn't fight, and then she takes the smaller female nation aside to tell her how very untrue that is. Scotland and Wales stick their heads in the door and laugh at the sight of New Zealand soundly thrashing Australia, and Hong Kong dueling with North, intensely focused expressions on both small faces.
England comes later, and is gone so fast that Cornwall almost doesn't see him, but he catches a quick glimpse of his little brother. Watching the young ones learn to fight, England's Empire-chill fades for an instant, and Cornwall sees the lonely melancholy behind it before England is gone and most likely back to his usual self again.
Nursing their 'wounds', Australia and North saw that moment too, and that is why they choose the paths they do. North stays with the United Kingdom even as his sister takes her freedom and runs. He wants to stay, because if England would just let him, he would make his brother less lonely. Australia gets the freedom from England that other countries took up arms for, and he hesitates to go, refusing at first to accept it. He's tried so hard to be a good little brother, why is he being sent away?
In later years, they won't be upset about it, as Australia learns that being his own country doesn't mean he has to reject his family, and Northern Ireland's twin desires to be with England and with Ireland tear him up until finally, finally, his brother and sister stop fighting over him and he has the chance to find out what it means to stand between and beside them both. Australia and New Zealand still cross swords from time to time - and Australia now thinks a fighting woman is downright hot, not stupid - and North calls up Hong Kong now and then for rematches.
As for Cornwall, hope returns when people become interested in him again, in what Cornish was and could be. He feels some of his strength returning, and the thought of not being the brightest no longer haunts him, as the fact that his light still burns is enough.
The U.K. is hosting this particular World Meeting, and that means all of the U.K. brothers are there. Even Scotland, who is normally banned from ever attending again after an unfortunate incident involving a kilt, bagpipes, far too much whiskey, and a pair of handcuffs stolen from Japan of all people. He's not drunk for once when he goads his younger brother, calling him a weakling and a runt, challenging him to a duel, and neither is England when he accepts with flashing eyes.
Sealand, who has so far managed not to get caught out this time, finds the battle fascinating. He wants to learn this! And it's not fair that so many of the other nations seem to know all about it! He notices the other countries in his "family" are all watching. Wales and Cornwall are rolling their eyes, Ireland is laughing with Australia and New Zealand as they cheer the brothers on, Northern Ireland, Hong Kong, and Canada of all people are discussing technique, and America can't look away from England, which makes Sealand roll his eyes.
When it's over he thinks about going and talking to Scotland, but he's talking to Ireland and there's something about it that makes Sealand think he probably shouldn't interrupt. So he looks for England, who is trying not to watch America laughing with Israel. Wow, those two really need to man up and make out, or something. Sealand doesn't really care, so he marches right over to England. "Hey, jerk. Teach me how to use a sword."
England slants him an annoyed look. "First of all, Sealand, you shouldn't even be here. And secondly, why should I teach you anything when you demand it like a spoiled brat?"
"Fine," Peter says sulkily. "It's stupid anyway." He turns to go, but then there's a hand on his shoulder. He looks back to see England with a look in his eyes that Sealand doesn't understand.
"Come on then," he says quietly, and then leads Sealand into a different part of the house and digs through a chest for two practice swords. There's a tiny shamrock carved into the hilt of Sealand's, and he wonders if this used to belong to one of the Irelands, but then they're getting started and he has no chance to ask.
They end up sitting on the floor against the wall and England is talking about King Arthur as Sealand catches his breath. And the boy closes his eyes and listens to his older brother's voice weave the tale, and he hears something in it. Something old and impossible to understand, but somehow soothing and right.
England teaches Sealand how to use a sword with the practice blades he and Ireland used when they were called Albion and Eire. He doesn't know why, though he tells himself it's because they're there and it's a sensible choice. And yet he doesn't really believe that himself.
Sealand is different from the rest of them. His land is man-made, and England doesn't know if that makes him truly something else or not. He doesn't know if teaching the boy to spar with a dull practice blade will wake the battle lust that sings through the blood even in a duel that means nothing more than show or to prove a point, such as his battle with Scotland. But he tries his best, with the old stories of knights and warriors, even with some of his own experiences as a soldier, a sailor (because he was an innocent sailor before he was the terror of the seas) and a pirate.
He teaches Sealand because the boy asked, and when he asked, England saw so many things. Eire, intent on their duel, America and Canada laughing as they overbalanced and fell, Cymru or Alba, adjusting his grip, Cornwall supervising North, Australia, New Zealand and Hong Kong at once. He sees America walking away in the rain, Scotland on his knees at Culloden, himself alone in Rome's house because Cymru and Kernow left, Ireland as she walks away free, North and Australia fighting against the very independence others went to war to gain, New Zealand waving a cheery farewell, Hong Kong conflicted standing between him and China, Wales and Cornwall's betrayed eyes when he conquered them, Canada's practice sword hanging on the wall..
He teaches Sealand a skill he hopes the boy will never have to use because it is part of a legacy he deserves to know about. He is part of the family, after all. But England would rather see this blood-soaked legacy fade away, and leave only the teaching of the art, something to bond over, behind.
A/N: It started as being about swords, and... I'm not entirely sure where it went from there. Also, Breizh is Brittany. As explained in the family tree, Brittany's status as one of the six Celtic nations makes me think there has to be a tie between her and the British Isles nation-tans, so she's a cousin of sorts, though France is her sibling.