Sweden appreciated that he looked like a young man in his late teens. It was nice, being able to tend to all the labor on his farm without having to worry about creaky knees or arthritic hands. He had the energy to get up with the sun and tend to all that needed doing in his modest home, often having some left over to help his not-so-lucky neighbors with whatever needed doing. He could even stay up late, carving a new chair or crib he'd been asked to make by candlelight, without feeling exhausted in the morning. It suited the simple lifestyle he preferred.
It didn't suit him much when he was called to court, though, and unfortunately it was precisely because of his youth that he and Finland had been forced to pack up and head to the capital for the eighth winter in a row.
The winter of his 14th year, Crown Prince Karl had decided that Sweden was now his best friend. Sweden had humored the Prince, assuming that he just wanted someone "older" to make himself look more sophisticated. But whether that had been his original intent or not, Karl definitely genuinely considered Sweden a close friend now, even has he'd reached and then surpassed Sweden's apparent age.
He wouldn't say it wasn't nice to have a friend, especially since he really didn't have any otherwise; he had enemies and territories and Finland, but not someone who actually liked him. Also, there was the tiny detail that Sweden couldn't say 'no' to his prince. Karl, however, was a very trying sort of friend. He seemed to have decided that Sweden was completely socially inept (not entirely untrue) and that he needed Karl's guidance to reform him into a charming member of the court. Which usually meant doing exactly what Karl did.
At first, it hadn't been so bad, but things had changed when Karl had discovered women. Apparently unconcerned with the fact that he would be marrying whomever his parents told him to, he gleefully instructed Sweden of all of the intricacies of wooing. Beyond the fact that any attempt would obviously end in unmitigated failure, flirting had never really been of any interest to Sweden, but when he tried to say so, then the Prince had cottoned on to the fact that Sweden had someone he loved already. After admitting under heavy questioning that the person in question did not share his feelings, Karl had latched viciously on to the idea of helping Sweden win them over, almost as if it was a personal affront to him that someone dare not love Sweden back. Hence, the yearly torture he endured listening to the Prince's plans and trying to get him to let go of this hopeless cause.
It wasn't that simple, Sweden wanted to tell him, even though he didn't dare. He understood how much it chafed to be subservient to another Nation, how it ached to be away from one's people, and he hadn't even been subsumed into another's house. Finland was weak and needed protection, and Sweden intended to provide it, but he still fiercely clung to his pride. It was pretty clear from the way that he refused to let Sweden try to treat him as an equal instead of a subordinate that he hated living with Sweden. And because Sweden was soft and let Finland have what he wanted, even his strange, symbolic protest, they'd gotten along more or less harmoniously for the decades since Sweden built their house and first planted their crops.
Prince Karl was intent on upsetting their careful equilibrium, though, blundering his way into Sweden's love life and insisting that Sweden stop silently taking "no" for an answer. Anyone was winnable, if you knew how to charm them, he claimed grandly. Sweden privately had his doubts, but again, he had no choice to listen to his only friend's advice.
Which is why, beginning the week they'd arrived that fateful eighth winter, he'd dutifully composed and sent love poems to his dear Finland. It was in fashion, Karl had claimed, and beyond that, it would be perfect to get around Sweden's speech issues. So he set his feelings into verse and sent it off with a messenger every few days. He never expected a response.
Although he liked to most of his chores promptly, Finland tended to leave the mending for the winter. He liked to say it was because the castle's seamstresses were much better stocked than the anything he could hope to have on Sweden's little farm, but it was just as much because he didn't like to waste nice weather inside if he didn't have to. As a result, he was friends with several of the seamstresses just by virtue of spending so much time borrowing their thread and expertise. Maybe he was a little too close with some of them.
"A runner has come for you." Astrid held out a note to him. He could see Sweden's seal on it.
"Thanks," he said, making no move to take the message and returning to his sewing.
"You're not going to look at it?" A line of disapproval appeared between her eyebrows, making her look a little older. In actuality she was still only an apprentice, but she had a strong motherly instinct that lent itself to helping, whether the person in question wanted help or not. "It could be important."
"I know what it is," Finland said, trying to get her off the topic. She turned away with a near silent huff, and he thought maybe the subject was dropped, until he heard the rustle of her breaking the seal. "Hey!"
"Oh, Fin," she said, features gone soft. "This is beautiful."
"It's private," he protested, putting down the shirt he was mending and getting up to demand the letter back. She offered it without any resistance, and he folded it up again, tucking it away carefully.
"I hope I can find a husband who writes me poetry like that," she sighed just as he was sitting back down.
"I'm not his wife," Finland insisted through gritted teeth. "I'm not a woman."
Astrid picked up her own work and resumed the long hem she'd been working on before, effortlessly producing perfectly spaced stitches. "You're just not that pretty," she agreed. Upon noticing his glare, she tacked on a barely respectful, "m'lord."
"Anyway," he mumbled, "It's not like he's ever... done anything."
"If it bothers you so much, you're a man, why don't you touch him?"
Finland sputtered; that was exactly the opposite of what he'd meant to say. "It doesn't bother me!" She gave him a look, and he continued, "He's the one who kidnapped me from my home in the first place!"
"Plenty of people are forced into marriages they don't want. He treats you much better than some."
Just because that was the truth, it didn't mean Finland wasn't unhappy being someone's territory. Sure Sweden was kind to him and was adorable in the same way little babies or puppies were, but he was still a Nation. His stitches got more and more reckless until he ended up stabbing himself with the needle.
"He's just making the best of the situation as well," Finland groused. It didn't help his mood when he saw her try to hide a smug smile. "He doesn't actually love me like a spouse."
"Hence why he wrote you that love poem."
"They're all platonic," Finland protested, pulling the others out as well.
"And you carry all these declarations of friendship around with you?"
Swearing, he tucked them back away. "If he really loved me, he'd let me go back home. These are just pretty words. Empty words."
The playfulness dropped off Astrid's face. "Then why not use his feelings to get what you want?" she asked lightly.
"What do you mean?"
"No man writes love poetry like that unless he means it. So let him get close, and then when he's absolutely, completely mad for you, tell him what you just told me, that if he loved you he'd let you go home."
It had never occurred to him to try something like that. Any little thing he said was liable to have Sweden tying himself in knots to be as accommodating as possible, but he'd never tried actually asking for something, particularly because he knew the answer was "no." "You shouldn't be conspiring with me against your own Nation," he mumbled, not sure if he wanted to take her mercenary advice or not.
"I'm conspiring with my friend against his husband." She offered him a wicked smile. He tried to pushed away the discomfort he felt and returned it.
Sweden was honestly surprised to look up from his work and see Finland standing there. Maybe he didn't like the poems. He probably didn't. He should never have sent them--
"So, um." Finland fidgeted awkwardly. "Sorry to interrupt."
Sweden shook his head violently, gesturing for Finland to take a seat across from him.
"I, uh." He flinched, and Sweden tried his best to tone it down. Stupid scary face. "Thank you. For the poems."
For the second time in as many minutes, Sweden was taken aback. "Just the truth," he mumbled, feeling his cheeks heat up.
"The one from this morning. Um, you mentioned stargazing?" Sweden nodded. "Did you want to...?"
"Yes," he said forcefully, before seeing Finland wince again and beginning to berate himself internally.
"Then, um. I'll see you then, I guess?" He waited for Sweden's nod before edging his way out of the room awkwardly. "Bye, then."
"Bye," Sweden said, wistfully watching him go. He nearly pinched himself, not able to believe it was true.
This was a bad idea, Finland thought to himself as he stood awkwardly in the snow a step behind Sweden, I never should have let Astrid talk me into it. The stars were the same as anything in nature to him, beautiful but not mesmerizing. Not like they seemed to be to Sweden, anyway. He had known the other man liked the night sky and would slip outside to look at it sometimes, but he hadn't realized until he'd read the poem that morning just how deeply he was moved by them.
That's what they were really good for, Finland supposed, absently stamping shapes into the snow with his boot. Giving him insight into Sweden. So he could use it against him. Something in Finland's stomach twisted a little at that, and he reminded himself why he was here. Straightening up ever so slightly, he forced out some words to break into Sweden's silent contemplation of the sky. "I wonder how many there are."
Sweden's gaze slid slowly to him, and from that angle, it was easier not to squirm when his eyes locked onto Finland's. "Don't think I could count that high," he said, and it was so hard to tell from his tone how he meant it, Finland just waited to see if he would say anything else and give him some kind of verbal clue to latch onto. "What're ya drawing?" Startled by the unexpected question, it took Finland a few seconds to realize he meant the shape at his feet.
"Oh, this?" He forced down the nervous laughter that threatened to bubble up and out of him. "It's a reindeer. I, uh, like them. A lot."
There was a long silence as Sweden nodded once, then looked back up at the sky.