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Unsteady Ground

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Unsteady Ground

Oceania likes to tell people that he knows exactly what they’re afraid of.

“It’s not hard,” he says cheerfully enough. He is an unassuming and mild-mannered sort of boy, with the same blond hair as the rest of his family, and if he were human he would still be considered a teenager. “It’s all research and psychology. I’m amazed no one else thought of it.”

England stares fixedly at the wall, aching and bleeding from the war.

Oceania continues on as if he doesn’t care that he’s being ignored. “Once you understand how people work, the rest is really simple. It’s great, I swear.”

He sounds so much like a delighted child that England can’t help but turn his head just enough to glare at him. “What’s great?”

Oceania laughs.

“Knowing how to break people,” he says, as if this is the most obvious answer in the world.

In those early years, more often than not England refuses to dignify his wayward child with an answer. He is still standing proud and tall, for all that he is bound back-to-back-to-back with his three siblings, and he is quite confident in his ability to survive absolutely anything.

They all feel the blows simultaneously – not physical ones, of course, but crushing defeats to governments and leaders and entire ways of life. England grits his teeth and weathers them, refusing to make a sound. Wales leans against him as if offering support, his face white with pain and body shaking with poorly-hidden anger. Scotland and Ireland are yelling curses and threats: here is what they will do to him if he doesn’t let them go, all of them, laid out in rage-filled detail.

It does not occur to England then that maybe they feel the fall of the government less strongly than him, or that they are used to it, or that they are protecting him as best they can. He only knows that it is the first time he has ever heard them refer to themselves as a united front – these are our islands, our shared tangled histories, get the hell away from us.

They’ve spent so much time trying to kill each other in the past that together, they can remember all of it.

Without warning, Oceania claps his hands together and announces that they could do with some time apart. After that they’re all separated, dragged away from England one after the other.

Oceania is good at finding people’s weaknesses.

Ireland is the last to go, and before he does he tells England to keep an eye on America. Damn idiot’s got himself captured too.

“How did you know?” England asks, because he can’t help himself.

Ireland gives him a withering look. “Because he’s my kid too,” he says as if England is criminally stupid. The mutual antagonism is filled with too much blood to be an old joke, but it feels familiar all the same – this is the way the world used to be.

England doesn’t realize how much he misses his siblings until he is left to his own devices, wondering if he will ever see them again.

After America, the rest of England’s more proper children fall like dominoes. Oceania laughs at this, friendly and open like he isn’t rewriting everything they are from the inside out. He insists on a group photograph once he finally manages to corner South Africa. He hangs it in their cells, bolted to the wall and just out of reach – a reminder, he says, that they will always be one big happy family.

No one notices who isn’t in the picture. Not yet.

It’s sweet and jolly and nostalgic and England hates it, not so much because it’s proof of how completely helpless he is, but because it’s a concrete example of how quickly and easily Oceania can distort the truth.

England can tell it was taken at gunpoint, but only because he was there.

“Russia’s kid is such a pain,” Oceania says. He is dressed very neatly, although his casual slouch is rumpling his suit jacket, and he has the air of a boy who still has to look in the mirror to tie his tie.

He’s sitting on a chair carried into the room by two guards. England doesn’t have any furniture, and Oceania says it would be rude to sit on the floor. He makes England stand, of course.

England has never met Eurasia, nor does he have any particular desire to. “Is he.” It’s not intended to be a question.

“He’s creepy, too.” Oceania wrinkles his nose. “Really big on that cult of personality stuff.”

He doesn’t seem to be expecting an answer, but England supplies one anyway. “You’re a hypocrite.”

“No need to be rude.” Oceania’s sudden grin is the same as Australia’s or America’s – except for what’s lurking behind it, anyway – and when he leans forward, elbows propped haphazardly on his knees, it takes all England’s courage and pride not to take an involuntary step away from him. “I sort of get where he’s coming from, though, even if he is nuts.”

England thinks of the poster behind him, the one that appeared on his wall not too long ago, just as out-of-reach as the photograph. He wonders if what he feels is Big Brother’s actual existence or simply his people’s belief, and then he’s not sure which is worse.

“Did you know we’re all scared of the same thing?” Oceania is saying. “Not people, I mean. Us.

England feels something cold and heavy in the pit of his stomach. He doesn’t know where this is going, only that he won’t like it. “And what might we be scared of.”

“Being erased,” Oceania whispers like a child telling his first ghost story. “It’s the worst thing in the world, isn’t it? All that history, all those words and stories – poof!” He spreads his fingers wide, pantomiming fireworks. “Gone like we never existed.”

England tastes bile in his throat. He clenches his hands, nails digging into his palms. “That’s not how it works,” he whispers.

Oceania’s face lights up. He is the perfect picture of innocent little-boy mischief. “Then we’ll just have to make it work that way, won’t we?”

There are attempts to escape, of course – not just from the usual suspects like America, but also from quieter Canada and New Zealand, and certainly from the others who weren’t in the family picture. England has too much experience wrangling unwilling colonies to expect anything else.

He doesn’t participate, although he does listen to the sounds of dissent being swiftly silenced, to anything that could be used as a weapon being confiscated and anything that could inspire rebellion being rewritten or simply destroyed. England knows something about surviving attacks on his homeland and staying on the defensive. He tells himself he is not afraid.

Even if he were, Oceania’s government sprang into being from his people.

There is nowhere left for him to go.

Hundreds of years of history do not vanish overnight. Instead, the disappearances come in fits and starts.

England wakes up to the sickening realization that he’s forgotten which Henry kept going through all those wives or that he used to know what happened to Robin of Locksley – the man, not the story that came after him. He doesn’t remember why Agincourt is important, only that it was full of mud, or why exactly thinking about Hastings give him a splitting headache. He shudders at the horrible creeping sensation of it and turns in on himself, forging a shield made not only of the Magna Carta, but of King Arthur and Macbeth and “half a league, half a league, half a league onward.”

His stories are stronger than his past. They always have been.

The others, at least, are better off than he is. America has the pieces of himself everyone else forgets about – the ones that don’t look or speak or act like their government. Canada and Australia have their lands, because maybe ordinary people can survive the tundra and the outback, but Ministries can’t. New Zealand has her distance and her flashes of sudden defiant bravery. South Africa has his languages; he speaks Afrikaans until Oceania learns enough of it to crush it, and then takes refuge in Xhosa because Oceania will never bother to learn it at all.

Without his siblings, England only has the proles for support, and they’re his long before Oceania taps him on the head like an over-affectionate little brother and tells him what he’s named them.

“Animals are free too,” he adds, and he sounds like he means it as a warning.

Prole is the only word of Oceania’s butchered chopped-up language that England permits himself to learn.

He has to. The proles are the ones keeping him alive.

Some of his fellow captives come and go in time with Oceania’s never-ending battles – India, Indonesia, a collection of North African countries. Three times New Zealand disappears for months on end until Eastasia is beaten back from her shores, and once a portion of continental Europe briefly turns up in Oceania’s custody, which is how England learns that Germany looks like absolute hell under Neo-Bolshevism and that Poland still hasn’t learned not to spit in his captors’ faces.

Then there are the others.

Oceania doesn’t seem to know what to do with the rest of his permanent residents – certainly he never puts them in family pictures or mentions them in his official versions of the truth if he can possibly help it – and maybe that is why they walk defiantly up and down their cells while England and his children are beginning to struggle to stay sane. He stalks over to smile at them and they glare right back, but he can’t strip the life and beauty out of languages he doesn’t speak and his boots can’t stamp down people who already know how to endure it.

The others – collected haphazardly from South America and the Caribbean and pieces of Africa – already know what the worst thing in the world is. They’ve had centuries of practice fighting against it.

“Something wrong with your psychology?” England asks through clenched teeth, after the others won’t stop shouting and Oceania finally resorts to having them gagged.

Oceania grins at him. “Don’t get your hopes up,” he says – which is just stupid, because it would take a miracle to give England hope in anything. “They can’t help you.”

The next morning England hears Haiti whistling La Dessalinienne through the dirty cloth over his mouth.

He can’t remember God Save the King, so he settles for humming Rule, Britannia until he forgets that, too.

Sometimes Oceania brings him newspapers and other officially sanctioned versions of the world, because he can. “You should really try this sometime,” he says, waving hacked-up pasts and butchered languages under England’s nose. “It’s a lot of fun, you know.”

It takes him a moment to remember how to speak properly, without the clipped sharp words that are beginning to creep up on him, but he refuses to allow Oceania the satisfaction of hearing him mangle his own language.

“Go to hell,” he says, making up in venom what he lacks in eloquence.

“Love you too,” Oceania says. He pats him on the head. “Don’t worry, you’ll come around.”

Coming from him, it sounds like a simple statement of fact.

Every time England sees India, she looks like a nightmare, bruised and battered. She is kept near him whenever she is temporarily recaptured. In her presence he can think clearly and his vision fills with fleeting impressions of lost glory and empires under the sun.

The nostalgia lasts until she reminds him that his people made this world, not hers, and that maybe one day she’ll find a way to kill him for it.

She has been shot more times than either of them can count – sometimes, before Oceania, he was the one who pulled the trigger – but Ministries can’t be built in hails of bullets and IngSoc can’t grow in scorched bloody soil. India remembers Rama and Krishna with perfect clarity and still knows every footstep the Buddha took on her land, and when she speaks, none of her hundred languages have been shorn of their meanings and mutilated almost beyond repair.

“You’re weaker than I thought,” she hisses as she files a stolen toothbrush into a knife. “If I can fight back, the least you can do is not lose who you are.”

England knows that not so many decades ago one of her people was speaking the first words of nonviolent resistance – something that might have undone him in a less terrifying world. There is nothing peaceful about her now.

It is hard to find India’s weaknesses. She has always been too adaptable.

“My people are forgetting,” he says. His voice trembles and he hates himself for it. “I’m forgetting.”

“Then remember,” India snaps. “They will too, someday. Oceania won’t last forever.”

England tries to focus on her. Her hair is chopped short and heavy with grease and there are abrasions around her too-thin wrists, but there is nothing defeated about the set of her shoulders or the expression on her face. She believes this, he realizes. Maybe it isn’t her disputed status that saves her. “How can you possibly think that?”

She slides the makeshift knife into her shoe and looks at him – really stops and looks – and her lips twist up at the corners. It’s not a smile.

“Because I remember what you used to be,” she says.

He forgets all the important meanings of the word “free” for a week. The sense of hollow loss doesn’t hit him until they all come rushing back at once, and the shock of it makes him double over and vomit.

When he leans against his right wall, he can hear Canada pacing restlessly across his cell, half-shielded by his cold winters. On the left, he hears no movement from America – just the sound of him saying something over and over under his breath. England waits until he can make out “we hold these truths” before he moves away.

Across from him, New Zealand and South Africa are absolutely silent, as if hoping they will be forgotten. Australia is anything but, for all that Oceania’s come to visit him. He’s laughing without any humor, tired and in pain, asking his little brother if he’s found Arrernte and Wonnarua and all the others hiding in the vastness of the outback.

“Don’t worry,” Oceania says soothingly. “Soon enough.”

England thinks of once and future kings and playwrights and long-lost siblings and the proles, who are not powerful or informed or cohesive and can never ever change anything.

Except that the knife India dropped during her latest escape attempt is dark with blood, proof that Oceania is not invulnerable.

Except that La Dessalinienne echoes through the hallways and cells, because Haiti is still exactly as proud and defiant as he used to be and still remembers every word.

Except that the proles are the ones keeping England alive – and half-mad though he is, England is still here.

Oceania doesn’t understand free will or resistance or humanity. He can’t. His whittled-down language won’t allow it.

Just maybe, that will be his undoing.

England crouches in his cell, hums the not-quite-faded pieces of Jerusalem, and remembers how to sharpen a knife of his own.