Za naszą i waszą wolność...
“Where are you going, Feliks?”
“Poland,” Poland corrects without thinking. It's not where he's going, but it is habit to correct Austria (Poland, not Feliks). But he looks back, surprised Austria bothered to notice him leaving. Austria’s eyes remain fixed on the mounds of paper layered over his desk and he looks way distracted, so Poland says, “Um, thought I could, like, go feed the lamp post crocodiles or something.”
Austria doesn’t answer. Poland wonders if he heard, or what he heard. “Gonna give all my friends matches,” Poland calls to Austria a little louder, “to help them burn down your crappy imperialist government.” He's been running low on matches lately.
Still nothing. With a shrug, Poland leaves. Austria’s a smart guy. He’ll figure it out.
A dark cluster of people stand in the entrance hall as though waiting for him. They all hover in the corner with their arms crossed, looking miserable and tired. Poland can’t bother remembering all the names, but they’re Croatia or Serbia or Romania or someone like that. “Why are you doing this?” one of them says.
Poland snorts. “God, would it kill you to like, pick up a pamphlet once a decade? For our freedom and yours, guys.”
“It doesn’t matter," says the tallest of them. "Even if Hungary's successful it won’t change anything. Like there’s any difference between them when you get down to it. They’re no better than either of them deserve–”
Poland’s eyes roll as he pulls on an overcoat. “So I get now why nobody likes any of you. Total downers, seriously.”
“As usual you think only of yourself,” says the one Poland's pretty sure is Romania. “Nobody likes you.”
“Well, I'm not the one Hungary named her dogs after, so there.” And Poland sticks his tongue out at them on his way out the door.
It’s not that all his neighbors play chess, but that they all like to. And they insist whenever the hell they want and you’re not allowed to say no.
They probably think it’s a really cute and totally impressive metaphor. Poland thinks it's kind of dumb.
And Poland could care less, but not by a whole lot? He wouldn’t bother at all if he had a choice because, despite whatever popular opinion it is that keeps them all at almost-perpetual war with each other, psychos aren’t really that fun to play with.
At least Austria isn’t prone to shooting pawns when they don’t immediately go where he wants, like Prussia is. Austria won’t put the board on ice overnight if he gets stuck, like Russia does. Austria doesn’t have to, because Austria has faith in the rules, and the rules know Austria on a first-name basis, and the rules are more than happy to be played like a cadenza to suit Austria’s needs.
The House always wins.
But just maybe not always always.
They make camp after the sun sets. Poland has a fire going and twirls a match around in his fingers by the time Hungary returns from settling the horses. She has an unmarked bottle of Tokaji in one hand and krupnik in the other, and passes him the latter as she sits down. “Did you know they say this is some kind of illness?” she says.
“Seriously?” Poland says, then, “Like, the revolts and stuff? Who’s they?”
Hungary pauses with the Tokaji partway to her lips. “Austria.”
“Ugh, why do you even. As if we didn’t already know not all his lanterns are lit, am I right?” They drink in silence for a moment, listening to the fire crackle. Poland falls gracelessly onto his side, propping his head on the supply bag by her lap. “So, like, why’s it an illness?”
She sighs. “Well, he says this... thing that’s going around is an infection which produces madness, and that we are all ill from it. That’s all there is.” Her smile turns wry as she runs her fingers through his hair. “And the only cure…”
“… is to grovel and kiss the truly heinous Imperial ass?”
Hungary laughs. “That's about it.”
“Yeah. Totally fine with the whole being sick thing, then.” Poland looks up. “Does it, you know, feel like you're sick?”
“No! Not at all. It’s a great feeling. I wake up every morning happy and confident and feeling like I can do anything. It’s like being in love. It’s happiness. It's that sort of feeling.”
Poland picks at some dry grass. Hungary talking about love bothers him a bit, because it sounds exactly like when she’s talking about Austria but with the opposite inflection, and then Poland feels like he’s stuck in a bad opera and things aren’t going to end very well.
He stares into the fire, considering what he will say. At last he sighs. “Do you think your clothes still fit me?”
There’s a pause. “Depends,” Hungary says. “Do you think we still wear the same size shoes?”
Poland grins. “Deal.”
Massive chunks of ice collide and splinter under the bridge. Sword sheaths click on spurs. The sound of horses, yelling, screaming, but over all that Poland hears the mazurka. It sounds like water but it’s really fire, the kind that burns slow until the soil takes it into itself, biding its time until the next unsuspecting dry thing comes along. Poland hums under his breath and taps to it on the matchbox inside his coat.
But it’s only in-his-head audible. Not really audible, because Chopin’s, like, halfway across the continent right now. No getting away from that sound–Poland thinks that and kind of smiles. It’s just a little depressing Chopin might survive him, but at least one of them is going to live forever.
The day could not move any slower if it tried. It’s been frickin forever and after all that he’s still on this side of the bridge, and Austria plus Romania and the rest of those morons are still on that side trying to get over, but now it’s past midday and if they were fighting in the summer instead of February Poland would be plugging his nose for the reek of blood. And he’s still not totally sure who’s winning, which is a major bummer. For all they know this really could last until spring, and asskicking with General Bem in around Transylvania is great but it means Poland doesn’t get to see Hungary as much, which is also a major bummer.
Snowflakes hang suspended in the air, so light they float weightlessly up again after touching the ground. Poland squints through them to the returning Imperial army marching towards the bridge. For whitecoats, they’re easy to see on snow. Partly because the uniforms are yellow-grey from use, partly because none of the snow is actually white.
Which is how Poland manages to see Austria in time. His uniform must be the only truly white thing for miles, and Austria himself damn near glows.
Poland tells him so, after he intercepts Austria’s bayonet with his own, swinging their rifles in an arch over their heads until they hit the side of the bridge away from the soldiers. It earns him a lengthy stare, long enough Poland can see the ridges in the colored part of Austria’s eyes. They shove each other away. Austria frowns. “Feliks? What are you doing here?”
Ever so slight, but still there—the hesitation before the name, as Austria catches himself. “Oh my God you were like two seconds from slipping,” Poland says as they circle each other. “I don’t know why you bother, I mean, I know you call me Poland to other people. Anyway, it’s Poland? The nation? Hi. You’re actually like, inside me right now. How cool is that?”
“I am nothing of the sort,” Austria says touchily. He raises his blade and Poland smacks it away as hard as he can, causing Austria to scowl some more. “Poland does not exist.”
Poland groans. “Here we go. Anyway, I keep getting this flash of imperial glory out of the corner of my eye and I swear it’s giving me a complete migraine. Do yourself a favor and turn that crap off or roll in some mud or something. What are you doing this far north, anyway? Hungary’s totally not here. Shouldn’t you be trying to set fire to Budapest or something?”
“I see no reason to burn it, considering I am now very close to capturing it. This is merely wrapping up loose ends.” By the way Austria’s jaw muscles are working, Poland guesses he’s grinding his teeth. He keeps glancing to the sides too, trying to edge back into the fight, but Poland cuts him off. Intermittent jabs with the bayonet do a decent job of holding his attention.
Austria snarls. “What are you doing here, Feliks?”
“Totally handing one of my psycho landlords his butt back to him.” The fighting moves around them in a circle, the soldiers naturally giving them a wide berth. The point of who is more on the offensive is shifting, but it’s too soon to tell which way. “Anyway, if you were just popping up here for a quickie you’d think it’d be over by now, right?”
Austria glares. “Feliks—”
“Poland,” Poland snaps and the intensity of the battle rises around them. “Yeah, I can nitpick too, you jerk. And I’m way good at it, too. I could nitpick the leg off a small hoofed thing.”
“A horse?” Austria says wearily.
“I don’t know. Is it like, a small horse? Because I did say small hoofed thing, and a horse is kind of like a big hoofed thing.” Poland tilts his head to the side and takes a step forward, pressing Austria back. “Nitpicker, am I right?”
Before Austria can say exactly what he thought, which Poland could not care less about, Poland leaps forward and down onto one knee, grabs Austria’s ankles, lifts up, and flips Austria backwards over the side of the bridge.
It does his soul good to hear Austria squeal, if only because he’s finding himself falling unexpectedly backwards off a bridge into an icy river. The shriek doesn’t go on for as long as Poland was hoping and there is no splash. Poland rolls his eyes, rubbing his temples as he leans on his elbows and looks over the side. Austria is clinging by his fingernails. Poland says, “I’m, like, impressed despite myself?”
“How—” Austria pulls himself up a little, not enough to pull himself up, but enough that he must feel safe to yell about it. “—dare you. How dare you?”
Poland smiles thinly. “I would totally recommend letting go right now.”
“Of course you would,” Austria says, red in the face and baring his teeth as he grits them. He keeps attempting to find a better hold on the bridge and Poland just watches, curiously, ready to stomp any fingers that find their way over. “Of course! Why shouldn’t I take the advice of the ignorant, stupid little fool who is nothing but slovenly trash and a waste of air, why not indeed—”
“What’s with that totally bitchy attitude all of a sudden? Just because you’re losing?” Poland bends to picks up Austria’s dropped rifle. “That’s harsh. And if you’re gonna use Prussia’s words get them right. It’s slovenly Polish trash.” He grips the rifle near the end, by the bayonet, and stands on the railing so he can hold it over his head–and over Austria’s head. “I’m way big on forgiveness and second chances and rainbows and ponies and all that, so here’s yours for the day. Second chance,” he adds. “Not your second pony. I think we might like, have one around somewhere, though, if you’d like that more?”
If there's a moment when Austria is considering letting himself drop to escape Poland’s meandering thought processes, it’s probably then. But he blinks and seems to regain his composure. “When I retake this bridge,” he begins.
“You won’t,” Poland assures him. “Okay, for real. Seriously this time. Call me Poland?”
Poland shrugs. “Whatev. Not what I wanted you to say, but freedom is awesome so I will like, totally defend your right to say it to the death,” he says before swinging the rifle down, hard.
He can think of dozens of sounds lovelier than the one Austria makes before the butt of the rifle smashes into his face, but Chopin’s mazurka is playing in Poland’s head again so he’s probably just biased.
Austria’s eyes widen before impact, his mouth opens in disbelief so far past outrage it can barely whisper. “You—”
There isn’t a splash this time, either. When Austria hits the ice a few seconds later it’s more of a dull crack, but Poland doesn’t care. He rolls his eyes. “Jerk,” he mutters. He nabs the shoulder of a lieutenant running by and says, “Okay, you see all those jerks in white? The ones who’re, like, retreating? I don’t care how long it takes but I want every single one of them stained at least half red by the time this is over, okay? I don’t care if you have to chase them all the way to frickin China. Now get moving, like you’re being chased by bears or something. Come on, run! Bears!”
The poor messenger, looking heartbroken, walks in right in the middle of a toast.
The Republic forever! Down with the Emperor!
They’re just making plans to get their pianists to come home once everything has quieted down when the messenger approaches Hungary. The room is suddenly hushed, but the messenger must repeat himself three times and for their part all they can do is stare.
Austria made a deal with Russia.
Over three hundred thousand Russian troops.
Like, right now, huh.
The messenger leaves. The sound of small talk rushes back around them, the delegates at the party still able to fake calmness but overcompensating in volume, almost frantically. Hungary breaks away from them, arm folded across her middle like she might be sick. “Shit,” Poland hears her say when he pushes through the crowd to her side. She reaches out and holds his hand, saying a little quieter, “Oh, my God.”
“Yeah,” Poland says, numb. Because they don’t have the combined resources to push back that kind of force. They wouldn’t have it even if the rest of Europe deigned to acknowledge their need, even if it was at their final hour. Even if most of them weren't busy rising up or putting down their own revolutions.
“But we won,” she says.
He grips her hand tighter. “I know.”
Hungary moves to the seat by the window. He sits next to her and leans his forehead against her arm, and feels that she is shaking. Hard to tell why, if it’s fear or anger or shock, but death is in the room and they both know it.
She sighs as she gazes out the window at her city. “It looks like we’ll have to postpone those concerts for a while longer.”
Another game Poland's psycho neighbors like to play is the question game, or the How Much Of Your Neighbor Can You Get Before Your Other Neighbors Find Out game. Poland assumes it’s only a little better than the Polish Statement game, which he is pretty sure he hasn’t played yet but you never know, and if he had to guess he’d say his statement most likely has a stern Germanic period or manically happy Russian exclamation mark at the end of it.
Hopefully it never comes to that.
They had asked it with their eyes, over Poland’s head. Like he seriously honest to God couldn’t see them doing it. Just because they’re a little taller than he is.
And like, what are you supposed to do, with neighbors like that?
You never really know how fast you can run until a person like Russia is right behind you.
It’s like getting hit in the spine by a cannonball when Russia kicks him down. Despite the breath knocked out of him Poland somehow has the presence of mind to roll, and something sharp nicks his ear just as he turns. The blade sticks in the earth where his head was not a second ago, so deep Russia can't immediately pull it out again.
Instead, Russia draws a pistol from its holster. Poland yells, “Do you have any vodka?”
It’s the only thing he could think of, and as last words go he could have thought of loads of things better to say. But Russia stops.
What the hell.
Poland stares at him from his position on the ground, not at all sure, as Russia puts away his weapons and steps back. “What the eff,” Poland says, still gasping as Russia hands him a bottle. He glares, but takes it. “Are you serious? Like, that whole frickin time I could have asked for a drink and we could have taken a break?”
"I'm not here for you." Russia shrugs and retreats a few steps to sit on a bit of rock. Poland imagines a stark this time hangs unspoken over those words, but Russia says, “We will resume when you are finished.”
What the hell. "This is cold,” Poland accuses.
“So you just pulled it out of your coat,” Poland says. “What do you think?”
Poland works the top open and sits up slowly, still expecting Russia to pounce. “Whatever. Everything around here’s, like, beer and wine. I'm sick of it.” He takes a swig and immediately chokes. “But I’ve been in stables that smelled better than that tastes. You seriously have the nerve to call that vodka?”
The smile does not fade from Russia’s face. “My poor Poland,” he says. “Do not despair. I know one day someone will be kind enough to grant all your wishes. Who knows? Perhaps you will not even have to use your own matches.”
“Is that Russian for, I’m back to collect the whole set?” Poland says as he tears off a piece of fabric from his sleeve. “Because I’m totally not on the market right now.”
“No, this is strictly business. I am not here for myself.”
“Yeah, right.” Poland rolls his eyes. “Me neither.”
Russia sighs. “General Lüders has had to stop three times now to deal with you, and I cannot afford any more delays. It will also be much less stressful for me if you have been annihilated prior to the rest of the army meeting up to face Hungary. You understand.”
Poland winces as he gets to his feet. His ankle screams at him when he puts weight on it. “Uh-huh. Right.” He pokes the strip of fabric into the top of the bottle, working it inside. With the half-assed explosive in his one hand, Poland searches for his matches with the other and—
All his pockets are empty.
Poland covers his face with his hand. Oh God.
“I read about a seed the other day that made me think of you,” Russia says.
“Ugh. Please keep it to yourself.”
“It only germinates after it has been exposed to fire. Isn’t that interesting? It has to be a certain temperature fire, though, so everything around the seed and possibly the seed itself must first be destroyed. But then the seed is free to grow and flourish. I thought that would delight you to know.”
“Yeah, that’s… like, not creepy at all, Russia." He tries to take a step back, but his ankle protests. "So, not that I’m wondering for any particular reason, but you totally remember that talk we had that one time about personal space, right?”
“Ah, Poland. Always the joker.”
“Ha ha,” says Poland. He bites his lip.
Russia stands and brushes himself off. “I assume from the way you have inserted a strip of your shirtsleeve into my vodka that you have finished?”
“Uh.” Russia watches him, waiting for an answer, and Poland finally plants his hands on his hips and laughs. It’s not a joyful sound. “Okay, but you like totally have to admit,” he says, holding up the bottle, “that would have been the most epically badass thing ever if I hadn’t left the matches in my other pants.”
“Yes,” says Russia, smiling like always as he raises his pistol. “Totally.”
Someone is laughing as Poland walks—not limps, there’s like a rock in his boot or something—into Austria’s house. Yes, Austria's house. Not Prussia's side, because Prussia's been pissy lately too and at least Austria won't open fire on him in the hallway.
Poland hears the chuckle when he pauses before the office door, hand resting on the wood.
No Serbia or Croatia today. Just Romania, sitting quietly in a chair under the lamps, head tilted to the side. “You’re not dead.”
“Please. They like, always forget to scatter the ashes when they're done.” Poland glances aside, looking through the hair that’s fallen out of the tail. “And tomorrow you’re going to be just as messed up as her, so.”
Romania looks messed up now. “No. We helped Austria.”
Poland smiles grimly and turns back to the door. “He doesn’t care.”
He enters Austria’s rather spacious office to find it empty and eerily still, like the rest of the house. Austria’s not there yet, so that’s good. Bad maybe, depending on how you look at it. He pauses by a chess set, abandoned mid-game. The black side is in check. Glancing over his shoulder, Poland picks the white queen off the board and slips it into his pocket.
It takes Austria some time when he comes home to realize Poland is slouching down in one of the chess set chairs. When he finally looks up he double takes, hiding his surprise by resuming the search for whatever in the cabinet. “Good heavens," says Austria quietly. "If I had to guess I would say you’ve had a run-in with our mutual northern acquaintance.”
Poland says nothing.
“He was so sure you were dead, you know. Personally, I thought he knew you better than that. Otherwise, back so soon?” Austria asks in a clipped voice. “I assumed you would be busy helping the traitors flee to Turkey or God-knows-where right about now.”
Poland looks up from picking dirt out from under his nails. “So, getting pulled over a knee and spanked by your maid, that’s like... I mean, that's gotta be embarrassing. Especially since it's all your fault.”
Austria flinches. “If France would learn to cover his mouth when he sneezes none of this would have happened.”
“As if. We were already thinking it. Just took a little something to get people going.” He laughs a little and pulls his legs up onto the chair, wrapping his arms around them. “And then you ran crying to Russia, oh my God. It makes it like, so much worse. But he’ll be lucky if you honor half of whatever you promised him.” Poland rests his chin on his knees. “You don't have to tell me, I understand. Like, why keep promises when you can just fuck people over?”
Austria touches the back of the opposite chair as if to be seated, but he notices the board. He stops. His eyes search out the irregularity. When he finds it, the eyes flash behind his glasses.
“No big,” Poland says. “You can win without it, right?”
Austria takes a deep breath. “Actually, I should be thanking you,” he says, sounding much calmer than his now yellowed uniform and disheveled hair would suggest. He sits on the white side, determinedly not looking at the square of the missing queen. “If not for your involvement, I doubt if I would have been able to convince Russia to support me. In a way,” he says, drinking in Poland’s abrupt silence, “it’s sort of your fault she lost, isn’t it?”
Poland’s eyes get big. “No. No. Shut up! Me and Hungary are, like, bros, okay? I wouldn’t… I mean, you know, not… not on purpose...”
Austria allows the silence to extend uncomfortably. “Yes, I see. I’ll allow you to explain it to her then, shall I?”
“Jerk,” Poland mutters. “If you're so smart, where is she?”
Austria goes very still.
“Yeah,” says Poland. “You don’t have a clue.”
“Where,” Austria says.
It’s shocking to hear Austria laugh. The room doesn’t hear that sound often, and it doesn’t suit it. “No, she is not surrendering,” Austria says. “If Hungary were surrendering, she would be here in front of me.”
Poland is too tired to laugh, so he yawns. “And why would she surrender to you again?”
“Excuse me?” Austria says.
“Well, it’s not like you beat her or anything. You got Russia to do it. What did you do?” Poland holds his hands out and makes a floppy sort of gesture. “Moped around at home and played a stupid concerto or something, drank some tea and remembered all your past wives who never make half as much a fuss as your maid did. You lost. Deal with it.”
They jump when the door opens, Austria all the way to his feet when Russia pulls Hungary in by her arm. Russia has a new black eye but seems to be enjoying himself. But Poland can’t stop staring at Austria. The aristocratic disposition vanishes and suddenly he just looks nervous, legit rattled, upset, maybe because this obviously wasn’t how he saw this scene unfolding.
“Russia, release her,” Austria says at once. “And… and yes, I should think everyone has somewhere more productive to be at the moment. There is no reason why Po— Feliks cannot harass Prussia just now. Hungary, if you would—”
Austria stops. The room goes still and he turns around. “What?”
Hungary’s eyes aren’t red or puffy, but they are frighteningly alert. It’s her voice that betrays her. “I said no,” she says at a near whisper.
“Hungary,” Austria says again.
“I’m not your maid. Do it yourself.”
Poland and Russia may as well not be in the room as the other two stare into each other. Austria looks away first, tearing a small tricolor flower off her uniform as he passes. “Very well,” he says, almost primly, grabbing Poland by the back of his coat and dragging him out the door.
“Oh my God, are you serious!” Poland twists around but Austria has a surprisingly firm grip. “Why aren’t you dragging him around?”
“Russia,” says Austria evenly, “is a guest.”
“Guest? I live here!”
“Despite your perennial efforts!”
Austria throws him out–something in Poland’s nose cracks as he hits the street. Behind him Russia and Austria exchange stiff nighttime pleasantries before the door closes.
Poland is straightening is nose back out when Russia’s hand enters his periphery–holding his matchbox, and something in Poland goes, oh. Oh.
God help him, Poland takes it. “You're so creepy. You know, before you got here I totally told Austria that he had lost. Right to his face and everything.”
“How exciting for you,” Russia says politely.
“Yeah. And that he should just deal with it.” Poland sits on the edge of the gutter and stuffs the matches back in his coat. He thinks of Hungary’s stance as they left her in Austria’s office, and he knows he wouldn’t want to be Austria at this moment. “He’ll deal,” Poland says with a short sigh. “He just won’t make any of them with me.”
“No,” Russia agrees.
Poland looks up at him. “So how’s the secretary? Do we still call them that or is it like, executive assistant now or something? Executive protectorate?”
Russia says, “He is well.”
“And the whole, like... strangling yourself to keep from coughing like everyone else, how's that?”
“Good night, Poland,” Russia says a little coldly.
Poland rolls his eyes. “Whatever.”