It all began with an armful of columbines.
"These are for you!" America said proudly, thrusting his sloppy bouquet into England's hands. Stray leaves and petals fluttered down to the floor of his study. England winced. He had just finished sweeping, and no doubt America had tracked in dirt when he came bolting inside. The boy himself was a bit of a mess, with smudges of dirt on his formerly clean shirt and enough leaves and twigs in his hair to make his head look like a bird's nest.
"It seems you've been very busy," he said disapprovingly.
America nodded, missing the tone in England's voice entirely. "It took forever to find enough flowers! I didn't want to give get you one or two. Aren't they pretty? Do you like them?"
England felt his irritation deflating. So this was a present. Mess or no, he couldn't scold the boy for a thoughtful gesture. "They're very pretty," he said, setting the flowers down in his desk. "Do you know their name?"
"They are indeed. But you should be careful who you give them to."
America's smile disappeared. "Really? Why?"
England gave him a teasing grin and began plucking twigs out of America's hair. "It's supposed to be bad luck if you give these to someone you're courting. These flowers can mean foolishness and folly and-...what's wrong?"
"Nothing," America said sadly, pulling away from England's hands and trudging out of the room, shoulders slumped.
A bunch of roses appeared on England's desk a week later, all carefully dethorned. Thin red scratches covered America's hands and forearms.
"Do you like these?" America persisted, even as England tried to dab at the cuts with a damp cloth.
"Yes, they're lovely," England sighed, exasperated. America had been behaving so oddly lately. He was constantly disappearing into the Virginian woods to fetch these little presents, no matter how many times England told him it was dangerous. The bunches of flowers stood out the most, but America had returned home with fistfuls of acorns, stones from a creek bed, bird feathers. England had initially felt that he should just appreciate it. America was a very generous child, but this was just getting stranger and stranger. He had started holding doors open for England, and kissing his hand from time to time too. Stranger still had been the letters, full of badly rhyming poetry and nonsense about comparing England's eyes to grass and his smile to sunshine and his eyebrows to caterpillars. America had yet to explain his actions, and England was starting to suspect that this was all some kind of elaborate joke.
"Do you really like them?" America pressed, squirming when England washed over a particularly deep cut. "Because I heard roses are supposed to stand for love, so-"
"You're right, that's what they mean. Well done."
America blew out a long suffering sigh that made his bangs rustle and said nothing more.
All the pieces finally came together on a warm spring day, when America grabbed England's hand and said, "I wanna take you somewhere!"
England had protested almost every step of the way as America dragged him along. Sometimes he could forget just how strong his little brother was, but every so often America would get excited (more so than usual) and England would be reminded that he couldn't physically overpower him at all. Threats of being sent to his room also failed to sway America. He was clearly on a mission.
At last they ended up in front of a rickety old barn and America let go of England's hand to dart inside.
"You can't go running about in someone's barn!" England tried to call after him. America just scurried up a ladder into the loft without a second's pause.
"It's okay!" America called over his shoulder. "I see people come in here all the time!"
"They're probably the ones who own this place!" England shouted up the ladder as he started to follow America into the loft. "I don't know what's gotten into you today, but it needs to stop right this minute!"
America was making himself comfortable in a pile of hay when England finally pulled himself up the rest of the way. "It's really okay, England!" he promised. "Humans do this a lot. Like Thomas and Betty! Do you remember Thomas? He's an apprentice at the blacksmith, and he's really nice! And he and Betty come up here all the time 'cause he's wooing her."
England just stared at him.
"And that's what people do when they're wooing someone!" America continued cheerfully. "They go hide up in barns when no one's looking and play games! But Thomas wouldn't tell me what kinds of games he plays with Betty. I bet it's hide and go seek. That's a good game to play in a barn."
England sputtered and choked for a few seconds before he managed to form words again. "And what the bloo-...what on earth does this have to do with us?"
America tilted his head. "What do you mean? I'm wooing you, so we gotta do it right! We can't get married if I don't woo you properly."
England was quite sure his jaw had just come unhinged.
"I think I messed up with the flowers at first, but the roses were pretty good. And did you like my love letters? Thomas said you gotta be a gentleman when you're wooing someone, so I tried to kiss your hand a lot and stuff, but maybe I should have-"
England's patience abruptly ran out. "That is quite enough of that!" he snapped, turning around and heading back down the ladder. "You will stop this foolishness right this minute and come back to the house with me or I'll...I'll spank you!"
He heard America gasp, and clatter about as he tried to follow England. "But it's not foolishness! I'm not being bad!"
"Who put you up to this, hm? Was is that Thomas you keep carrying on about? I should have known you'd get into trouble with humans."
"He's not trouble! He's my friend, and he talks to me and tells me all kinds of things while you're away!"
"Then you'll have to find new company," England said sharply as he reached the ground. "I don't want you being around someone who tells you nonsense about courtship and marriage!"
"Y-you don't want to marry me?" America's voice had gone very small and quivery.
"Of course not!" England snapped, turning back to face America. "That's completely absurd, it-"
He froze mid-rant when he saw America's eyes filling with tears. England didn't have time to get another word out before America bolted, out the barn door, around the corner and out of sight.
"Wait!" England shouted, chasing after him. He paused outside the barn and whirled around. No luck, America had already vanished.
England wanted to kick himself. It hadn't been a joke at all. Why hadn't he realized it sooner? Of course the idea of them being married was ridiculous, but it was quite plain that America was taking it very seriously. And now England had made him cry. There were few things in the world that made England feel more guilty than making America cry.
He ran all the way back to the house, hoping America would have ended up there. The rooms were all empty by the time England got there, sweating and out of breath. He ran back down the path towards town, hoping for a sign, and hint, anything that could tip him off to where America had gone. Hopefully he wasn't in town. That would only complicate things, especially if he had gone to that blacksmith's apprentice he seemed so fond of. The boy really did make friends too easily.
England was thoroughly exhausted after an hour of searching, and was feeling very desperate indeed when something caught his eye on the ground: a shoe, a little boy's shoe. England snatched it up and took a closer look to confirm that it was indeed America's before scanned the woods around him. America had to be nearby. He just had to! England was just about going to be sick with worry if America didn't turn up in the next few minutes.
Finally, finally, he saw a pair of legs dangling from a limb of a tree, with one foot missing a shoe. England hurried forward and looked up and, sure enough, there was America. His face was red and wet, and once he noticed England below he grabbed a handful of leaves and halfheartedly threw them down.
"Go 'way," he snuffled.
"N-now don't be this way, lad," England pleaded lamely. "It'll be getting dark soon. Don't you want to come down now? We can go home together and have some supper. Are you hungry?"
America folded his arms wordlessly.
"Please come down," England tried again. "I'll...I'll catch you if you jump. How about that?"
America considered this, and then pushed himself off the branch, intentionally away from England's arms. He landed unsteadily on his feet and snatched his fallen shoe up from where England had dropped it. He quickly tugged it on and started the trek towards home, refusing to talk or look at England.
"Come now, you aren't that angry with me, are you?" England said when he had caught up with him on the path. America shook his head. "Oh. Well. W-would you like me to carry you on my back?" America was always asking for that, but England often turned him down. He was really getting too big to be carried, but England would gladly do it if it cheered the boy up. America just shook his head again.
England sighed heavily, trying to plan out his next move. Bribes didn't seem to be working. What next? "I-I apologize for shouting at you," he mumbled awkwardly. "I shouldn't have lost my temper. And you aren't in trouble, if you're worried about that..."
America didn't answer, except to heave a sob that made England stop in his tracks. His shoulders shook, and tears rolled down his flushed cheeks.
"Oh lad, please don't," England said helplessly, kneeling down in front of the miserable boy and patting at his shuddering shoulders. "Why are you so upset? What's all this about?"
America sniffled wetly. "Y-you...you..."
"Shhh, calm down now. Take a deep breath, that's a good boy."
America sucked in an uneven breath and finally blurted out, "Y-you don't l-love me!"
The words struck England in the stomach, forcing the air of his lungs for a moment. "That...that isn't true at all! Who told you that?"
"Y-you did!" America wailed, falling apart completely. "Y-y-you don't want to m-marry me and you n-never say that you love me o-or anyth-thing!"
"I do too!" England protested, gathering America up into his arms and thanking the stars that he didn't struggle and just allowed himself to be held now. "I-I tell you I care for you all the time!"
"Th-that's it," America blubbered into England's shoulder. "You sa-say you care for me, b-but you never say you lo-love me. Never. N-not once! I t-tell you I love you all the time, b-but you never...n-never..."
"But it means the same thing, doesn't it?"
England chewed at his tongue for a moment and finally pushed America back, just far enough to he could look him in the eye. "I do love you, my sweet boy," he said, wishing it didn't sound so awkward. He was never any good with those words. America could say it so effortlessly, but it always caught and snagged on England's tongue. "I love you," he said again, finding it came a little easier the second time. "And I am so sorry I ever made you think otherwise."
America hiccuped quietly for a moment. He was beginning to calm down, England noticed with relief. "But you still don't want to marry me," he muttered softly.
"That has nothing to do with it!" England cried. Whoever put all this marriage nonsense in America's head deserved to be tarred and feathered.
"But..." America sniffled again and looked away. "But people get married when they love each other more than anyone else. That's what Thomas said. And I love you more than anyone else in the whole world." His eyes welled up again. "S-so why..."
"That's only one reason people get married, I'm afraid," England said, tugging out a handkerchief from his pocket and dabbing at America's tears. "More often marriage is an arrangement that suits their families, or a political alliance or something of that nature. Some people marry for love, but most have to grow to love their partners in time."
"But why can't we get married? I don't care what the other people do. I love you best, and I wanna marry you!"
England found himself at a loss, and busied himself with cleaning up America's face while he racked him mind for an explanation. "It's more complicated for nations. We rarely marry at all, and when we do, it's always about politics. I can't think of too many circumstances where a colony would marry an empire."
"But what if I turn into my own nation when I get bigger? What about then?"
"I doubt that will ever happen," England began, but stopped himself when America's lower lip started to tremble. "B-but if you ever do become your own nation then...then maybe we could be married. But all of this is a long way away. You can't be married at all until you're older."
America looked away, frowning in thought. "What if...what if I grow up, but I'm still a colony. Could I maybe still marry you then?"
England sighed and gave in. "If you still want to marry me when you're grown up-"
"I will!" America promised.
"Then maybe. I suppose it's possible."
America nodded. "Then I'm gonna woo you right once I'm grown up. And I'll even become my own country if I have to! You'll definitely want to marry me after that!"
England smiled fondly and ruffled America's hair. "We'll see. You've still got plenty of time until then."
"Nuh uh. I'm gonna grow up extra fast!" America insisted, grabbing England's hand between his own. "And I'll be the best husband. I'll take really good care of you, I promise!"
"I'm sure you will," England laughed, pulling America back into a hug. "I'm sure you will."