Notes: Thank you to puddingcat for beta-reading!
Summary: Hungary knows something about Prussia, and wants to help him come to terms with it.
Hungary found it difficult to keep from laughing in spite of herself. She didn't even like Prussia, she reminded herself. It was just that hardly anyone liked swapping war stories these days, at least not war stories in which she'd been victorious. Prussia was surprisingly happy to laugh at himself when they reminisced about the thirteenth century and how often she'd sent him packing bruised and battered. Probably because she was fair minded enough to allow him to run on and on about how wonderful he'd been against other opponents, she thought.
"And of course, in the eighteenth century I was particularly awesome. Those tight breeches," Prussia said with an obnoxious grin. "I remember how you used to look at me."
"I was probably thinking I'd rarely seen such a pair of knock-knees in my entire life," Hungary said airily. "You must have cursed the day long tunics went out of fashion."
"Knock knees?" Prussia said in outrage. "Miss? Miss!" he called, beckoning the waitress over. "To settle an argument, could you give an aesthetic judgment on my legs?" He stretched his legs out and waved at them as if to say God, I'm gorgeous.
"How well do you tip?" the waitress said.
"Extremely well," Prussia grinned.
The waitress smiled warmly at Hungary. "Honey, he has fabulous legs. You should sleep with him."
"You are an idiot," Hungary said, when she stopped laughing. "And it's your turn to pay." She gathered up her things and watched from the door as Prussia left enough money on the table to cover their meal twice over, and strolled after her. "Trying to impress her with your generosity?" she said.
"She already knew I was awesome, I didn't have to bribe her. So, do I get to seize your vital regions tonight? I bet they're prettier than Austria's."
She whacked his arm, hard enough to hurt. "I still haven't forgiven you for that." She stalked along, thinking he really did have an irritating, self-satisfied laugh. "Why are you always so pleased with yourself?" she asked, knowing it was a pointless question.
"Because I'm great," he grinned. "Give you a lift home?"
"At least it's not the Trabi," she said as he opened the door of the silver BMW with a courtly flourish and bow. She buckled up and examined the empty CD jewel case that she had found on the seat. Sappy Italian love songs. Huh. "Does your brother know you've stolen his car?" she said.
"Borrowed," Prussia said, turning the key in the ignition. Overly sugary romantic music began playing. "And he'll never miss it."
"Good God, you still have the Trabi, don't you?" she grinned. She remembered when she'd driven one herself, and how fast she'd been to get rid of it once better makes were available to her people again. "What happened? Did someone scrape the paint and take the whole side off?"
"It's getting a new gear box," he said, shamelessly. "What? It's a classic design, it'll be back in fashion and you'll all be scrambling to catch up with my taste and discernment." He grinned sidelong. "So I have some Ostalgie, lots of my people do."
She'd let that my slide, she thought as they drove along. A lady didn't rub people's faces in their misfortune, not even Prussia's stupid face. There was only so much a lady could endure, however. "Stop singing," she said. "Your voice is – "
"Awesome," Prussia said smugly.
"Better suited for yelling orders on the battle field," she said.
He glanced at her, as if surprised she'd say anything so nice. She was surprised herself. He didn't immediately sing even louder which was more surprising yet.
"This is terrible music," she said as the songs turned more sugary and sickly.
"What can I say? West's taste, not mine. I'll have to educate him. Or educate Italy, that might work faster on West, what do you think? I bet I could teach him a thing or two."
"You leave Italy alone," Hungary snapped. "Let me out here."
"You used to be able to take a joke," Prussia said cheerfully. "It's raining, let me take you to your door."
"Fine," she muttered. It would be only another few minutes at the speed he was driving, and it would save her from getting soaked.
Prussia pulled up outside her house, jumped out and ran round to open her door. Hungary rolled her eyes, and laughed as he produced a small umbrella that he ostentatiously held over her, walking her to her door.
"Idiot," she said, and, to show she'd forgiven him for his bad sense of humour, "D'you want to come in for a nightcap?"
Prussia blinked, and, she could have sworn, went a little pink. "It would be unchivalrous in the extreme to cause such damage to your reputation," he said.
"Right, because you're so irresistible that naturally I'd be tearing your clothes off before the door was even closed."
"Naturally," Prussia said. "Therefore, let me be chivalrous, and protect your reputation as a lady." He bowed over her hand, clicking his heels together, then trotted back to the car, tossing the wet umbrella into the passenger seat. With the barest of waves, he was gone.
Hungary shrugged. If he didn't want a brandy that was his business, he didn't have to hide behind the weird prudishness. Odd that, she thought, closing the door behind her. Probably something to do with speaking German. Austria was even worse, and as for Germany and Switzerland – Only Liechtenstein wasn't odd in that way, and that was no doubt because she wasn't a man. "Stupid German-speaking men," Hungary muttered, unsure why she felt so grumpy. She was well shot of the lot of them.
"You paid last time."
"How will you remember what an awesome evening you had if you're secretly thinking, Damn that Prussia! He had a more expensive dessert than me!, huh? Be a good girl and let the man pay."
"What man?" Hungary said, laughing meanly as he gave her a salacious wink. She quickly ordered them both a brandy, seeing as it wasn't coming out of her purse. Prussia shook his head in mock sadness over her gall, but took his glass happily enough. "Egészségedre," she said, knocking it back.
"Auf uns!" Prussia said, draining his glass. "Old warhorses that we are." He stood, put crisply folded banknotes on the plate with the bill, and politely ushered her to the door.
"You never wait for the change," she said as they strolled down the street. Stupid male pride, she thought. She knew well enough that Prussia couldn't afford the generosity he showed in restaurants, but she was too much of a lady to let him know she knew. "Flash bastard."
"It's only money. You spent too long with Austria, scrimping and agonizing over every groschen. That guy's so cheap I bet he made you rinse out the condoms for a second go."
She slapped him hard enough to send him reeling against a wall, and walked off not quite fast enough to count as running. Her hand stung for the merest moment and she clenched it into a fist as the brief pain faded. He was lucky she hadn't had a sword, she thought in fury. Or a gun. He was lucky she hadn't forgotten she was a lady and punched him with all her strength, the foul-mouthed bastard.
"Hungary – Hungary!"
She'd knee him in the groin, she thought, as he ran after her. He pulled her round, and stepped away from the blow with the speed of long habit.
"Hungary," he said, and stopped. "I'm – an uncouth soldier," he said finally, putting his hands on her shoulders and patting her awkwardly.
It was as close to an apology as she'd heard in centuries. "Don't talk about him like that," she said. His hands were still on her shoulders, his fingers tightening. She watched his gaze drop from her eyes to her lips and then lower. She really would knee him, she thought, but then he looked her in the eyes again, his obnoxious grin nowhere to be seen. He looked determined and sort of – scared, she decided. Prussia took a deep breath, his gaze intent on her face. He was going to kiss her. He thought he could be rude about Austria and then kiss her. And she was going to let him, she realized, raising her face to his as he swallowed hard and leaned in a little.
She blinked as Prussia stepped back, jamming his hands in his pockets. "I don't have the car tonight," he said, his voice light and casual as he looked round the street. "West's such a dick, he said something about how if he was paying for the petrol he should get to use his car occasionally."
"Where's the Trabi?" she said, to have something to say. She fiddled with her hair, not meeting his eyes.
"Getting new brakes," he grinned. His gaze shifted from somewhere over her right shoulder to look her in the face, like she was a challenge he'd set himself. "The old ones stopped working as I came off the autobahn. Good job I'm an awesome driver! Tschüß!"
"Goodnight," she said, as he went off, whistling. What was that? she thought. She'd obviously gone mad for a second, because there was no way she'd let that self-centred, nasty piece of work even get close to kissing her. Because she liked pleasant, soft-spoken, dark haired men, not loud, horrible idiots with stupid silver-white hair who were always so pleased with themselves. How dare he? How dare he reject her like that? She stalked off towards her house, still feeling the pressure of his hands on her shoulders. Oh. She stopped, looking back after him. He hardly ever touched her – he'd make a joke about bowing over her hand, and at the reunification party he'd got so drunk he could barely talk and he'd kissed her cheek – though he'd kissed everyone then, more or less, and Switzerland had to be held back when he saw him kiss Liechtenstein on the forehead – enlightenment struck. For century after century she'd seen him, arm slung round some male Nation's neck, leaning in to them as he said something insulting or told what passed for a joke in his tiny mind, but female Nations were kept at a safe distance. She felt a lot better and less insulted as she finished her walk home. She was so gorgeous he'd almost kissed her even though he preferred men.
"You should just have told me."
"Told you what?"
"That you prefer guys."
Prussia stared at her, crimson eyes wide, his cappuccino spoon still in his mouth. After another second, it fell out on the table. "I'm not gay, I like girls," he said, very, very casually, picking up his cup. "Where'd you get that from?"
"Oh, everyone," she said airily and smiled as he choked on his mouthful of coffee. "There's no need to be shy, you know, this is the twenty-first century and anyway, none of us ever held that sort of stupid prejudice in the first place."
"Wait," Prussia said, "Hang on – what do you mean everyone?"
"I asked a few people," she said. "Like Austria and Italy."
"Which Italy?" he said.
"Well, it didn't seem fair to ask Veneziano that sort of thing, he might think I was making some sort of personal comment. So I asked Romano."
"Oh, God," Prussia said, clutching his head. "That explains the weird phone calls from Spain." He glared at her in fury. "And France. I thought he was just drunk!"
"Why? What did he say?"
"He said it would explain a lo- never mind what he said! The point is, I have a well-deserved reputation as a ladies' man. Ring France right now and tell him that."
"Fair enough," Hungary said, pulling out her phone. "If the awesome Prussia wants to hide behind a woman. France? Hi, it's Hungary. Prussia wants a word –" She tossed the phone to him.
Bitch, he mouthed, catching it. "France. Hi. Yes. No. We're having dinner. As friends, France. No, hang on, it's a date. Yes, it fucking is! What do you mean, seeing what it's like to play for the other team? This is the team I normally play for, you bastard!" He hung up and glared at the other diners, who all found themselves fascinated by their food once more. "France would like to know if you'll be screaming my name in ecstasy later tonight," Prussia said.
"No," Hungary said flatly.
"Well, of course not. We don't even like each other," Prussia said. He stirred his coffee again, fast and vicious.
"That's right," she said.
They sat there in silence, then Prussia gave her his wide grin, and stood. "Your turn to pay," he said, and walked out, his dessert barely touched.
He just needed a little help, Hungary decided. He should be glad she was the one to give it to him.
Italy spun round from his car, a wide smile on his face, his arms already open for a hug. "Hungary! Ciao! It's so good to see you!" She felt a wave of fondness as he embraced her. Her little Italy, she thought, looking so very grown-up in his nice clothes that somehow never got creased, but still very much the child she remembered from Austria's house. He kissed her on both cheeks and stepped back, looking her up and down. "You look so mysterious! Like a film star hiding from the paparazzi!"
Hungary pushed her large sunglasses further up her nose and tidied her hair under the scarf. "I am, sort of. I want to go somewhere, but I didn't want anyone to see me heading there from my house. Do you mind if I go through your territory?"
"No, no! Why would I mind?" Italy said. "Where are you going?"
"Germany," she said casually.
"Ve! No way! I'm going to Germany's house today! Right now! I can give you a lift! What a coincidence!"
"Wow," Hungary said, as convincingly as she could. "That is a coincidence! Thanks so much, Italy!" She jumped into the passenger seat before anyone else could see her as Italy continued loading pasta and wine into the boot.
"All done!" Italy said happily, getting into the driver's seat. "We can just take our time, it's a lovely day, isn't it?"
"Beautiful," Hungary said tightly, breathing a silent prayer. She was a bad person to mislead someone as innocent as Italy, she thought. She deserved what was going to happen.
Italy drove sedately and gently down his drive and out his gate, nosing the car out into the traffic. Hungary closed her eyes and held on to the door handle as he hummed softly, looking for a break in traffic to pull out. She felt the whole car jerk as Italy suddenly pulled out impatiently, slammed his foot down on the accelerator and shot forwards, horn blaring.
Hungary heard brakes screeching and the sound of a horn that obviously belonged to something much, much larger than Italy's Fiat.
"Vaffanculo!" Italy yelled out the window, and sped down the road.
He's never hit anything yet, Hungary told herself as the car weaved back and forth.
"Have you been watching American Idol, Hungary?" Italy said cheerily. "Don't you think it's funny the way America's people get so easily shocked by England's people? Hey, you! Col cazzo, like you have the right of way, figlio di puttana!" He sighed, "Some people are so rude."
"Yes," she said, keeping her eyes firmly closed. Italy had clearly been driving with Romano recently enough for the speech patterns to have rubbed off - at least the profanities would probably stop once they hit the open road and he wasn't being irritated by other drivers, she thought. Though then Italy would be able to go faster. She tightened her grip on the door handle. It was very, very unlikely he could actually kill them in a car crash. So far everyone he'd ever given a lift to had survived, and it was really very probable that Switzerland wouldn't be lurking on his borders to shoot them during peacetime. All she had to do was remain calm. It would be a bad thing to scream and maybe take Italy's attention even further from the road.
She had very little memory of what happened next. There were faster ways to get from one person's territory to another than by driving, but Italy loved cars. They'd get there a lot faster than if a person was driving, Hungary knew – Italy did want to spend as much of the weekend as he could with Germany after all, as he happily told her, his eyes no doubt on her face rather than on the road ahead – but there was still an appreciable amount of time to be spent in dry-mouthed terror. She found it easier to breathe when at last Italy suddenly swerved across oncoming traffic, turned into a side road and then very sedately drove into Germany's courtyard.
"Here we are!" he said cheerfully. "That was fun wasn't it – oh! Germany! Germany!" He jumped out and ran off to greet Germany who had just stepped out of his door.
Hungary got out of the car, spent a few seconds calming the tremble in her hands as she took off her scarf and sunglasses, and took a few reasonably steady steps towards them, getting less shaky with each second. It was very sweet, the way Germany was trying not to smile helplessly and was obediently bending over to kiss Italy's cheeks.
"Look, Germany! Hungary came with me!"
Germany immediately straightened up, put his hands behind his back and looked serious. Hungary smiled, she knew masculine embarrassment when she saw it. Austria always looked just that serious when he was dying inside. "Hello," she said.
"Hungary," Germany said. "Did you want to talk to me?"
"No, no. I'm here to see Prussia."
Germany looked confused. "He's not here right now – is this one of your days to meet up?"
"No – Italy was telling me you've had the house redecorated," she said, dredging up a conversational topic from the terrifying journey.
"Er, yes, last year - but only a little to keep up with EU requirements."
"Well, give me the tour," she smiled, linking her arm in his. He was just like Austria, she thought, had no way of saying no to people who'd suddenly ended up in the category marked "guest". Even the category marked "unexpected and probably unwanted guest." She made encouraging comments about new – or at least newish – paint and wallpaper, sensible, hard-wearing carpets and the new fittings in the bathroom, Germany's dogs pattering along behind them.
"And what's up here?' she said, pulling Germany up the stairs and along a corridor towards the final doors.
"Just the bedrooms."
She opened the first door, peering in at a pleasant sunny room, everything neatly in place. Even the novels on the bedside cabinet were precisely aligned.
"My room," Germany said in tones that suggested he hadn't been expecting anyone to suddenly barge in and was mortified it was so untidy. The dogs shot in and leapt on the bed, wagging their tails. "Hey! You know you're not allowed –"
"I should get my bag," Italy said cheerfully.
"Ah. Yes," Germany said, wrestling the dogs back onto the floor and trying to neaten the covers. "Well, you know where the guest room is, Italy."
Italy looked at him blankly for just long enough for Germany to go a brighter shade of red than Hungary had seen for a long time, then he smiled happily. "Oh! You want me to show it to Hungary! This way, Hungary!" He led her to the door on the other side of the corridor, opening it to show another perfectly neat and tidy room with a door in the side wall. "Look, it has its own bathroom! Are you going to be staying over?" he asked. "That'd be fun! We could all go out together!"
"I'm not sure yet," she said. "What's that door down there?" She pointed to the door at the end of the corridor.
"That's Prussia's room."
She strode down and opened the door just before Germany could emerge with the dogs, saying, "My brother doesn't really like anyone going in there –"
She looked into the bare, small room with its single bed protruding into the centre of the floor, plain white walls and narrow wardrobe. A cross hung over the bed head, the wood looking almost black against the white paint. The only colour was in the large birdcage near the window, where two canaries hopped back and forth on their perches.
"Well," she said slowly. "This was not what I was expecting at all." Germany reached past her and gently shut the door.
"We don't want the dogs getting in," he said in a way that said clearly to her he would have loved to find a polite way to tell her to mind her own business. "What was it you wanted to see Prussia about?"
"I need to have a talk with him," she said.
"It's just that I don't really know when he'll be back," Germany said. "And I'm afraid we have to go out."
"Ah! Germany! Look at the time!" Italy said, holding up his wrist to display his watch. "We'll be late! What time is the reservation for? Will we have time for dessert? I don't want to miss the trailers! It'd be funny if you made us be late!"
"We won't be late," Germany said. "So you see, Hungary, it's just a little incon-"
"I don't mind waiting," she said. "You needn't worry about entertaining me."
"Maybe Hungary would like to come with us," Italy said.
Germany's look of utter despair under the polite façade was really nothing to laugh about, she told herself sternly. "No, no, you go ahead. I'll be quite happy here, if I could make myself some coffee? I could save you time by feeding the dogs?"
"Ah – thank you," Germany said, giving in to Italy pulling on his arm. "All right, I'm coming, we won't be late. Just let me get my coat."
"Poor Prussia, getting such a little room," Hungary said quietly to Italy as Germany fought the dogs out of the closet where he'd hung her coat.
"Oh, that's not all his stuff," Italy said absently. "His diaries and books are all in the study."
His diaries, Hungary thought, keeping a neutral little smile in her face as Germany finally extracted himself, his coat and the final dog. She went to the door with them, smiling fondly as they headed for the BMW.
"Are we taking your car? Can I drive?"
Then they were gone. She led the dogs back inside and opened several cans of food; a lady kept her promises. Leaving the dogs to devour their dinner, she sprinted to the study and searched – she opened a cupboard at last and found it stacked floor-to-ceiling with journals. She pulled one out at random, and squinted at the spiky, old-fashioned writing. Dear Diary, today I was particularly awesome . . .
She settled herself in the most comfortable of the chairs and started reading, fast as she could, the dogs joining her and lying around her feet.
It was several hours later that the dogs pricked up their ears and rushed for the door. Hungary quickly put away the volumes she'd been reading and followed them.
"Yes, yes, good doggies, I'm home, no, don't jump, Onkle Preußen is carrying things – gah! Down! Down, you mangy mutts!"
"Hello," Hungary said, stepping in to the hall.
"Fuck!" Prussia said, almost dropping the shopping bags. "Hungary? What are you doing here? Down! Bad dogs!"
"Italy gave me a lift. They've gone out. I didn't hear your car."
"It's getting a new set of tyres – why are you hanging round in my brother's house in the dark?"
"Waiting for you," Hungary said, taking the bags and heading for the kitchen. "I came to give you a hand."
"You thought you'd come to West's house to help me put away the groceries," Prussia said, grabbing one bag back to start unpacking. "While I can see that obviously you feel the need to relive your maidservant days only with a far better looking master, that – does seem like a pack of lies, Hungary."
"I'm here to help you with your love life," she said, ignoring the leer he gave her at that. "You need to come to terms with your preferences –
"Oh, right," Prussia said, "Because you've been so much help to me in recent weeks." He pulled out his phone. "Why don't we look at some of the helpful text messages I've been getting? Hey, Prussia, now we know why you never wanted to share any of your "girls" on campaign. That one's from Spain. My commiserations on the undoubted humiliation being heaped on your head by your ill-mannered friends. Every moment of it is richly deserved. Guess who?"
"Austria?" she said, wincing a little.
"Oh, yes. And a two-parter from France, Mon cher, if you had only said – the pleasure that might have been ours. I am unfortunately too busy at the moment, pray allow me to find you a companion; I believe Denmark is currently single. Followed fairly quickly by one from Denmark, Hey, France called. Am free this weekend. And then there's something in Danish which, if I stare at it long enough, looks enough like German for me to be sure I'm never going near Scandinavia again." Prussia folded his arms and glared at her. "I haven't decided who I'll declare war on first. So. How've you been?"
"Oh, I've been awesome," she grinned. "Make me some coffee."
"Make me some coffee," Prussia grumbled, pulling mugs from the cupboard, and busying himself with the kettle. "Crazy harridan spreads rumours about a guy and then thinks she can ask him to make her some coffee. You're getting instant."
Hungary took the mug he shoved at her and strolled into the sitting room, Prussia and the dogs following. "Don't you love history?" she said innocently.
Prussia looked at her in deep suspicion. "My own, yeah. Everyone else's is incredibly full of losers."
"That's good, because I want to talk about your history," she said.
"Finally, a mutually interesting topic of conversation. Biscuit?"
"Thank you," she said, taking a few cookies and gaining the fervent attention of the dogs. "Chocolate cookies are totally outside the carefully organized dietary regimen of these adorable creatures – yes, you are! Adorable! – right?" she said.
"Yeah, sure. That's what West says every time he finds someone else giving them treats. He sings to them, you know. It's embarrassing."
"As I was saying," Hungary said, neatly partitioning a cookie three ways and thereby gaining faithful canine vassals forever, "Your history is often – by some definitions of the word – awesome, and yet in many places it's full of gaping holes. All those detailed descriptions of battles, and so little emotional development except for your on-going love affair with yourself."
"I like battles," Prussia said, sitting back. "I like them a lot."
"Yet you are – according to yourself – a renowned ladies' man, as I believe you put it."
"A girl in every sacked city," Prussia said through a mouthful of cookie. "Don't glare at me like that, it was a joke. I'm more romantic than France and I have better hair."
"Only in your diaries there aren’t any girls mentioned at all," Hungary said. "Ergo, you prefer boys. Give Denmark a call."
Prussia set his mug down very gently. He sat up a little straighter and said expressionlessly, "Could you repeat that, please?"
"You don't give detailed – or any, in fact – descriptions of your womanizing activities in your diaries, so therefore –"
"You read my diaries?"
Prussia was always full of the joys of, well himself, even when he lost battles. The only time he'd really seemed down was the fifty-year bout of depression he'd shared with most of the rest of eastern Europe in the second half of the twentieth century. He was, therefore, not really as horrified as he seemed, Hungary concluded.
"Not all of them – you're awfully repetitive once you start going on about what a dashing figure you cut in chain mail, plate mail, embroidered coats and knee-britches, well tailored uniforms and so on. And having met Austria's Herr Doktor Freud it was really very embarrassing - though illuminating - to read your views on how much you like the feel of a well-balanced sword in your hand. But no girls. No descriptions of feminine charms and your supposed run of conquests in the field of love."
"I do not kiss and tell," Prussia said gallantly, if a touch desperately.
"Oh, bollocks," Hungary cried, forgetting for the moment she was a lady. "You're precisely the sort of man who kisses and tells every last detail. You're the sort of diarist who thinks it's vital to put down, and I quote –" she pulled a volume out of her pocket " - the Silesian peasants were much taken with the magnificence of my appearance, bowing as if to shade their eyes from the fiery majesty of the noonday sun. No doubt they are glad finally to belong to a country that knows how to wear colour, unlike Specs, still lurking in Vienna like the drab coward he is. Although let me inform you, Austria's sense of taste is subtle and refined, not drab. You'd certainly mention women falling under your magnificent spell."
Prussia grabbed it from her. "Give me that! My God, you've turned down the pages!" He flipped back and forth, carefully unfolding page corners.
"Your giant crush on Friedrich the second comes through very clearly," Hungary said. "And you get starry-eyed over several Grand Masters of the Teutonic Knights – yes, I read back that far – so really, Prussia, the only person you're fooling is yourself."
"It was not a crush! He was just awesome! Like me!" Prussia said desperately, clinging on to his diary as if it would keep him afloat in stormy seas.
Hungary felt the delight of battle run through her veins. It was just like old times, her with the winning strategy and Prussia about to break and run. "It's true there is one bit of contrary evidence," she said. She nodded at the diary he clutched. "The eighteenth century does seem to have been a rich emotional landscape for you. You should let yourself be that open more often, starting now. Unless you want me to tell Austria you considered Marie Therese to be a damn fine woman?" She held up the pages she'd carefully detached from the diary.
Prussia buried his head in his hands. "Those are private," he said. "No one was supposed to read them."
"He'll mock you for centuries. After he declares war on you for demeaning her memory for what you call her on the next page, that is."
Prussia didn't look much his usual cheerful self. Hungary finished her coffee and sat forward, smiling as professionally and irritatingly as Austria's collection of psychologists always had. It really was like the thirteenth century, she thought, only with fewer swords, and less risk of damaging Germany's house beyond repair.
"All right," Prussia snapped. "Fine. I don't mention girls. Or boys. And I loved Fritz and I never made any secret of that. Even you must have had one or two bosses you liked. He was like a father to me, if you can even understand that. And the simple fact is I haven't – " he cleared his throat. "I never actually had the time – Oh, for God's sake, woman, I haven't slept with anyone. Ever."
There was a brief moment of silence, then Hungary laughed till tears rolled down her face and her ribs ached.
"And that would be why I don't talk about it," Prussia muttered. "I'll make more coffee. You're still getting instant."
After ten minutes she followed him to the kitchen and found him scrubbing the worktops.
"Hiding the evidence that people actually do things like make coffee or open packets of biscuits. West takes some national stereotypes far too much to heart."
She took the mug he held out and sipped her coffee. It was instant, the cheap bastard, she thought. "You were kidding, right?"
"Nope," he said, drying the worktop and folding the cloths precisely in four before putting them neatly in the washing machine. "I'm sure the international community will be delighted to hear this installment. I await my next set of text messages with bated breath."
"But – why?" Hungary asked, following him as he walked off, mug in hand. "Prussia?" She frowned. "And how? You've made alliances -"
He raised an eyebrow. "Some of us can keep our word without the incentive of getting off, you know. Unlike Austria, let me add, marrying half the damn continent and pretending it made him better than taking territory with the sword. I'm going to check on my birds. Come on."
She followed him up the stairs to his room and stood in the centre of it as he whispered endearments to the canaries and checked their water bottle. They cheeped and hopped back and forth, coming onto his finger when he encouraged them. It was ridiculous, she thought, Prussia of all people in this bare little room, dressed in t-shirt and jeans like a student, the sole concession to frivolity being a couple of songbirds. It was like being in a monk's cell. Her eyes narrowed at the thought as her gaze flicked to the cross on the wall, stark black on white, the colours of his flag – and the insignia he'd worn for over three hundred years.
"You're really not kidding?"
"Isn't Tante Ungarn annoying?" he crooned to the birds. "I've already told her twice." He closed the birdcage and drained his coffee in one gulp, looking at her in challenge before going back to whispering to his birds.
"Prussia," she said, looking round. "Are you still keeping your vows?"
"No one ever released me from holy orders," he said, turning to face her. "I suppose no one ever thought they had to. Leaving things as they were - it was simpler, made things clearer in the long term. Of course, I knew people like you wouldn't understand and would just mock and jeer – but it turned out to be simple, keeping my private life private; it's been damn easy to fool the lot of you into thinking I'm as sex-addled as everyone else. A bit of talk and I could concentrate on the action I actually wanted to get. I wasn't making a virtue of necessity, so don't look at me like that, I was free to concentrate on what I was for. It's hard work being this awesome, I really was very busy with all that fighting. God, I love war," he said absently. "I really miss the Middle Ages; poverty, chastity, obedience and all those pagans to show the truth to with the edge of a sword. Good times."
"You were a Protestant state eventually," Hungary said, feeling she'd won the argument.
"Just because the rest of you are a bunch of fickle, backsliding, slippery hypocrites who don't know one end of a promise from another – I can't help it if my self-control is as awesome as the rest of me."
"You've been lying about this for centuries! Lying's a sin!"
"I'm awesome, not perfect," he grinned. "My private life is private, Hungary, it's no one's business but my own." His grin sharpened. "And it'll be the honest truth when I tell people I had you keep me company in my bedroom this evening. That should throw everyone off the scent for at least a century." He backed out of reach. "Hey, don't slap me, if we get coffee on the walls West will have a meltdown." He hopped over the bed and reached the door before her. "I swear, France!" he yelled, laughing as he took the stairs three at a time, "she chased me round my room, desperate to get her hands on me!" She almost caught him as he skidded through the sitting room, but he dashed out the door for the dining room, still cackling. "Whoa, Austria!" he yelled, "she's a real goer, how did you ever keep up?" On the third circuit, the dogs rushing after them barking hysterically, they had to stop, both laughing loudly.
"You're crazy," Hungary giggled. "I'm going to beat you up like you haven't been beaten since I last led an army against you."
"There are swords round here somewhere, I say we go out in the courtyard and settle this like men," Prussia sniggered.
"Let's have something to eat first," she said. "I'm starving."
"I hope you like potatoes," he said. "Because I'm putting leftovers in the microwave, and they're mostly potatoes."
"Prussians and their potatoes," she said laughing.
"Nine hundred years is a long time to keep a promise," Hungary said, when they were drinking real coffee and watching the DVDs of American Idol that Italy had brought. "Don't you ever think –"
"You know how in America's movies, people will have some idea that's just wrong, not bad, just - mistaken?" Prussia said, "And then the hero comes along and says, Here, guys, this is what's real, and they all go, Oh, well then, we're all happy to overthrow what we've believed all our lives and what our culture has taught us for year upon year, and everything's wrapped up by the final credits?" He grinned over at her. "That's not going to happen." He waved a hand at the TV screen. "Think of all the films where people mess up their lives for a moment's gratification - I'm not going to change my life in an instant by suddenly doing something rash. All that would happen would be that I'd have done something rash, and people like you wouldn't let me forget it for a thousand years. I prefer keeping things simple."
"You love doing rash things," Hungary said. "You used to invade other people's territories on mere whims."
"War," Prussia said fondly. "War is different. I love war."
"All right," Hungary said, deciding on another tack. "In theory, men or women?"
Prussia rolled his eyes. "I'm not one for theory, Hungary. Still, you know my reputation, so theoretically - women. Not as much as practically and war, though."
"But don't you ever wonder –"
"I wonder how I can be so awesomely unique, that's what I wonder. Don't even bother telling me pride's a sin. And I'm so incredibly awesome I don't rub it in your faces, and let you think I'm just like everyone else. Which makes me humble. The most humble Nation of all, I'd say."
"You're incredible all right."
"Thank you," he smirked. "So, Hungary my love, are you spending the night? There's a guest room, though that fact will be omitted from my exceedingly detailed emails and phone calls tomorrow."
"I think if I'm still here when they get back, your brother will want to shove poor Italy in there," she said, levering herself out of the armchair.
"Heh. And you think I need to be rescued from myself? I'll take you home - we can use Italy's car. He always leaves the keys in the ignition." He widened his eyes innocently and chirped, "This is Germany's house, it's OK! Everyone's so honest here!" He laughed as she tried not to. "Did you drop him on his head as a baby, or something?"
She smacked his arm, but not very hard. He helped her on with her coat, and together they managed to persuade the dogs to stay indoors as they went out. Italy really had left the keys in the ignition, she saw, shaking her head. Prussia adjusted the seat and started the car.
"You don't know what you're missing," she said.
"Yeah, so I'm told. I mean, I could be divorced by now."
"That," she said, looking straight ahead, "was low."
"Yeah, but then you and me both, we always thought fighting to win was better than fighting fair. So – Budapest? Or Vienna?"
"Budapest," she said. "Vienna is – complicated."
They drove in silence, fast but not as fast as Italy had earlier. In the usual way they had of getting from territory to territory it wasn't long before Prussia pulled up outside her house. He jumped out to open her door, the very model of a polite young man at the end of a date.
"You could come in for a nightcap," she said. "That's not code for anything."
"Gotta get the car back before it's missed," he said, and took her hand, bowing sharply over it, brushing the back of her knuckles with his lips.
"For a little while, a few weeks ago," she said, holding on to his hand, "you were going to kiss me."
He looked up at her, not straightening from the bow. "For a little while, you wanted me to," he said. He stood straight. "Being tempted isn't a sin – giving in, on the other hand –" he smiled. "Well, you know me, I'm too stubborn to give in to anyone. Goodnight, Hungary." He got back in the car and smiled perfectly pleasantly at her. "See you soon – my turn to pick the restaurant."
"Pick me up!" she yelled as he pulled off. "In the Trabi!"
He tooted the horn to show he'd heard, and vanished round the corner. Hungary stood there a moment longer, then went into her house, back to her own simple life.
The title is taken from lines from John Milton's poem, Comus:
'Tis chastity, my brother, chastity;
She that has that is clad in complete steel,
And, like a quiver'd nymph with arrows keen,
May trace huge forests, and unharbour'd heaths,
Infamous hills, and sandy perilous wilds
Hungary and Prussia's toasts - Hungary: To your good health!; Prussia: To us!
Italy's regrettable language
Trabant cars and their nostalgic value