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In all but name

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France has always loved England’s words.

They’re constant contradictions to everything he claims to be. When they were little, he always pushed England’s sleeves up, wrote down the little ink scribbles from England’s arms to a stray piece of paper and would ask what they meant until he got them. As they got older, he had less trouble getting England to take his clothes off.

And while he enjoyed making England beg and plead and love things he claimed to hate, make no mistake- his favourite parts were always the words.

Subjugate, he’d had oh so early on, back when the memories were still fuzzy and France had just learned how to kiss. France had taunted him, told him the word was a verb and that he was destined to be forever under his superior’s heels.

It wasn’t until England had him pinned up against the wall, hands fisted in his coat at the end of the Battle of Waterloo, that France realised that the words meant to subjugate. England had pushed off his coat, and the revelation had made France fall apart.

Or another one: brutality . France had only started seeing that one in the sixteen hundreds, written in strong bold letters just over the curve of his hip. He’d loved to taunt England with it when he recited poetry, tell him no matter how many pretty stories he wrote it would never change him, would never make him like France was. France had culture and love and yes, preposterous on his calves and shoulder blades, but never was he so brutish, such swine. (France never told him bloodlust had been carved into his collarbone, until one day he couldn’t stand looking at himself in the mirror and sliced his throat open. When they asked he said it was from battle, and when England asked he said it was from a guillotine) England would always look ready to tear his throat out, but to that France would just say he was proving the point.

The one France remembered best though, was kindness . He’d taunted England ruthlessly when he’d first seen it, until England refused to wear anything but long sleeved shirts for the whole of the thirteenth century. The next time France saw him, it wasn’t quite so prominent. It’d faded as England had gotten older, until one had to be looking in order to find it.

France always wonders why, no matter the taunts, England had never gotten rid of it.

He wonders if it’s his fault it faded in the first place.

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Germany likes his words. He has a few. Fighting, for one, which his brother always grins in a way that makes Germany think of knives. The rest are a collection of bits and pieces, that fade and go with the years. Imperialism goes out and comes back, falls to efficiency and later astute , which ever since the war started had been difficult to see.

But all in all they’re fine marks. Except one.

Unexpected has bothered him the whole time he’s been alive, ever since his brother took him by the hand and gave him a gun and told him he was Germany, he was the nation destined to show the world his strength, his efficiency, his superiority.

He can ignore it most days. But trudging through the forest, stick in hand and gun shucked in his belt along the Italian border, he has to wonder.

It’s not until he pries open the nails on a rogue tomato box that the word leaves his mind, because he’s so completely distracted by what an idiot this supposed - successor of the Roman Empire- is being.

Unexpected remains a mystery throughout the war, as he drags his way through trenches, treaty agreements, crushing financial debts, cuckoo clocks, meeting an enthusiastic Austrian locked in a prison cell, and the Great Depression. He thinks, maybe, when the Nazi party comes into power, that’s what it is. Unexpected restoration of his greatness, cleaning of the state of all that might be detrimental, a return to efficacy. But the word doesn’t fade, as they do when they’re fulfilled. No matter how he scrubs at it, it remains painfully visible.

It’s not until 1939 when he’s negotiating a treaty with Italy that the word keeps coming up in his mind, and he keeps looking at Italy and his heart is beating in a way usually reserved for political rallies and exercise.

Italy asks him if they can talk in private and Germany thinks unexpected and Italy pulls him into a small dark room and brushes a hand over Germany’s lips and kisses him and Germany swallows bile.

He pushes Italy away, eyes wide and heart thumping like a hummingbird in a cage.

“What are you doing?” He spits out. “You- you disgusting-” His hands are shaking and his cheeks are burning- “-Stay away from me.” He says, ignoring Italy’s pitiful protests and wide golden brown eyes welling with tears.

As he leaves, he feels a hand catch on his wrist.

“Germany, I-I’m sorry. I just- I wanted to tell you that I love you. And I do. And- I want to be your friend. Can we still be friends?”

Friends?   Germany doesn’t have friends. But Italy is supposed to be his ally, and isolating himself on the European front… his heartbeat slows as he raises his gaze, steady though his breath is coming out uneven.

“Yes. Of course. So long as you never mention this again.”

Italy nods, not meeting his eyes. “Okay, Germany.” He says, rubbing at his wrist. Germany doesn’t ask. He’s got better things to do.

The next day, unexpected had completely faded from his wrist.

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“Hold still.” Japan says, knife skewed into the ground aside China. His hand curves over a needle, pale bent knuckles gripped harsh over black ink. His lashes dip easily over his cheeks, smeared with blood that is not his own.

China stays still, holds his bloodied and bruised body like a ruined painting; with grace.

Japan invades his country, takes his land, massacres and rapes his people and wear their blood as a symbol of pride. Japan has taken what family meant, turned it sideways and peered at it through a broken kaleidoscope. Japan’s hands fall over his body, and he does not say a word.

When the needle pierces his skin, he does not scream. When Japan wipes a bloodied thumb over his lip and smiles, eyes cold, he does not flinch. When Japan pulls back, steady hands drawing out the black blocked word of his own name, he does not react. He is calm, he is patient, he is already a corpse. He has seen worse. He has to have seen worse. Has to.

This is what he tells himself.

At least Japan did not take away his other tattoos, the real ones; tradition, culture, family.

And perhaps the last one is why, even when Japan loses the war and his people stop fighting and he cannot bear to look the man he once called brother in the eye, he does not take out the ink.

It’s a reminder. Of what, he hates himself for not being able to figure out.

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America has FREEDOM, loud and bold and inked across his chest without shame, bolded letters and blacked out font.

England knows this because he sees it, whenever he glances out of the corner of his eye to see where America has stripped off his shirt, bruised and bleeding from the grime of the war but still smiling, unabashed with his demeanor.

That was seventy years ago. He's seen America's words countless times since then- not all of them, but enough. Freedom, self-determination, a glimpse of crookedly inked  hypocrisy and self-centered when America'd forgotten he'd been there.

England knew the words by heart now, much to his own embarrassment.

It’s almost enough to make him feel ashamed of the elegantly scrawled tyranny faded near the crook of his elbow.

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For the longest time, England had so many words he lost count.

They kept coming, and fading just as fast. He could barely keep track of the traitor and loser and subjugate and empire and loves everything he can't have and does not forgive . They stained his skin so darkly he would never wear short sleeves. Some stayed for centuries, others disappeared in mere days.

The day he found little America, there was only one, one that carved itself into his palm with such ferocity he almost fell to his knees.

Occasus, it read, and he cursed Rome and his dead beautiful language that he still knew like it was yesterday.

Sunset. End. Occasus. He scratched at the word until his skin came off in peels, slashed his hand until the floor stained with blood, put his hand into a fire wrote over it. Every time, he would wake up, and the word would still be there, his skin perfectly pristine.

The sun never sets on the British Empire.

He fought tooth and nail against America's independence, against France and Spain and Prussia and his rascal colony himself. When America had him pinned to the ground, bayonet to his chest, asking why with those bright blue eyes, all England could think was because you will be the death of me.

He wasn't. Not yet, at least.

He forgot about America. For a while, at least. He wore gloves that he never took off, not when France taunted him or when Spain stabbed him or when Prussia suggested they do something more to 'fortify their alliance.’

It was the Great War when he forgot.

“Occasus,” France had said, strapping a piece of gauze around his wrist. He still remembered Latin, England knew. He prepared himself, certain of endless gloating. But France just smiled sadly, eyes absent of that usual hardness of battle. This was the France England remembered from years of going back and forth between Paris, women laughing and France proposing drinks and more.

“We all end someday, Angleterre.” England remembered that from somewhere, France at the end of Napoleon's wars, telling him, you'll fall too.

“You should let go.”

England hadn't told him that he didn't know how to.

Years passed. He avoided both France and America.

Then war fell on the world like a plague, and he was pleading, begging America, of all people, to help him, save him from Germany, from the same fate as France.

Occasus never left him. He had one glove on throughout the bombings of London, a silk leftover of Victoria's age that he refused to sell for food or money or water. He wore it throughout El Alamein, through Sicily and Italy and the Rhine and France and D-Day.

A bullet hit him once, seared through his palm in the middle of Calabria once, and America had been there (he’d had a bag of carrots, for some reason,) trying to get England to take his gloves off so he could fix it. England refused, gave him a sharp look that left them without conversation for weeks.

America only caught him at the very end. Filing a paper, of all things.

He’d forgotten about the glove, left it somewhere in the recesses of his debt filing cabinet, too busy wondering how much time it was going to take to pay off everything he owed to America. It wasn’t pretty, and he was close to tearing his hair out.

America burst through the door like all of Germany was upon them.

“England! We-” England would never know whatever idiot thing he’d been intent on saying, because right then America cut himself off.

“Wow, dude. You have a serious tan line.” England glanced down, eyes widening as he looked at his palm. The word was nowhere close to fading. If anything it’d gotten darker.

“Why do you always wear that, anyways?” America said, taking a step closer to stand behind England, ignoring the piles of papers in his way.

“Occasus,” He said slowly, furrowing his eyebrows in concentration. “What does that mean?”

America didn’t know Latin. Of course.

“It means…” England paused between shuffling his papers. “It means ‘forever.’”

America looked at him, eyes shining with all the vigor and admiration, something England had scant seen since the early 1700s, that he’d only glimpsed during the Blitz.

“Wow.” He said, and then seemed to regain words. “I always knew you were a stubborn old bastard,” He said, but his laugh wasn’t mocking. For once, England could almost stand the sound of it.

He left after many bad jokes and an acceptance of England’s offer of tea, where England kept glancing down at his watery reflection and thinking, sunsets, then looking up into America’s eyes and seeing, end.

He shouldn’t have been surprised when America kissed him, but he was. America tasted like coffee and kissed like it was new to him and England collapsed into his arms because he never did know what to do when someone was kissing him like they actually enjoyed it. Or maybe it was because he was bored of paperwork. Or maybe it was because America had eyes like the sky and enough money to run the world and enough dreams to ruins it and England had always enjoyed things that destroyed him. He didn’t know, and he didn’t know if he cared. All he knew was that at some point he had the key to America’s house and America to his, he knew more about American politics than he ever cared to know, and he had fought through about twenty different wars with no one but America by his side. Maybe it was love. He’d never really had time to figure that out.

Occasus never faded. England caught a cold he could never quite get rid of. At some point, he gave up. America kissed like nothing else mattered. England knew nothing else did. 

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Prussia doesn’t have words. Never has. Not a person, a concept, a name to his skin. When he was little, he used to believe they’d come, with the right events or action or person. So he threw himself into situations recklessly, came home every night and peered at his skin, but it remained as blank as it always had been, no matter his stunrts or battles. 

He used to think it was exceptional, back when he’d been a kid, watching the Brothers hide their inked skin under cuffs and layers, words like ‘temptation’ and ‘the wrong path’ upon their lips as they picked up their swords instead. They’d scorned him for having nothing, though- the marks, they said, were destiny, God’s words themselves. If he didn’t have them, what reason did he even have to exist, never mind to fight?

So he’d paused, and told them his kind didn’t have marks.

He didn’t realize just how wrong he was until some dim day halfway through the Cold War when Hungary fisted her hands into the fabric of his ill-fitting suit and pulled him down to her bed, fierce eyes and a smudge of dirt on the corner of her lip.

He hadn’t realized just how many words she had.  Conflict and heartbreak and gets back up no matter what all strewn over her arms, neck, hips, black ink and all.

At his gaze, she’d pressed a kiss to his jaw, whispered in his ear “What are yours?”

And he’d frozen up, just stared at her until the silence rung like noise and his arms were starting to freeze with goosebumps. He didn’t have a good answer. It was- it was abnormal, like having red eyes and silver hair and not being dead when Russia had all but killed him, when everyone knew ‘Prussia’ had been formally dissolved decades ago.

He had said nothing, and her eyes had gone wide. But she had stayed silent too, until she leaned forwards and said his name.

He had put a hand on her shoulder, sharpened his gaze. “I don’t want your pity, Hungary.” He’d turned and left. She hadn’t talked to him after that. It took her three years to ask in full sentences, and another three years for him to talk back.

If he were someone else, he might’ve asked why.

Truth is, he could figure it out himself.

“Hey West,” He says, casually tossing his brother a knife like it’s an apple.

His brother’s sole response is a curt nod, the type of thing that says I’m busy, Prussia, stop bothering me. Prussia doesn’t pay it any mind. “Yes?” His brother asks finally, catching the knife out of the air and casually placing it on the table, eyes always on his work.

Prussia knows he’s not really listening, but he talks anyways.

“Do you ever wonder why you still have fighting ?” He says, recalling easily his brother’s defeat at the end of the last war on their soil, his reluctance to put the army into any sort of conflict, the way he curls back when anyone mentions Germany’s war history.

Germany pauses.

“No.” he says, and that’s the end of it.

Prussia smiles sadly and turns on his heel out the room. Straightens his posture and keeps his eyes ahead, hand already on the other knife still shucked into his belt.

He once said he’d give anything for his brother. He hadn’t lied.

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For the longest time, Belarus had thought belonging had meant belonging with her brother. She didn’t know when the little scratched bits of ink had first spread on her skin in icy cursive, but it had been there as long as she could remember, sure as nails.

She was always running after him, because her brother was ahead of her, always, so fast he didn’t even need to run and she’d still end up panting, just trying to make sure he didn’t end up leaving them, leaving her, because everyone else was just trying to keep up (except America, and oh how she came to hate that). She couldn’t stand that he kept leaving. She couldn’t stand that he wanted to leave.

Belonging always seemed like a taunt, the universe’s vendetta against her. When had she ever belonged? Her brother rejected her; the whole of Europe thought her insane; no one would want to touch her.

Humans got a soulmate, a person to love forever, unconditionally. Belarus got rejection and a bitter taste in her mouth.

The tattoo lied, she liked to think. Because either the tattoo lied, or she was so fucked up as to ruin destiny itself.

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For as long as he’d been alive, Austria’d had the word Music scrawled under the sharp bend of his collarbone, curved thick scrawl complete with music notes that almost appeared doodles. When he’d first found it, he hadn’t understood it. For a long time, he hadn’t even known the word.

But then suddenly it’d been the eighteenth century and there’d been this beautiful ivory carved and wicked black beauty in the castles of his rulers, and he’d sat down and played a note and thought this is what destiny sounds like.

When they were together, Hungary would always trace the word. Sometimes absentmindedly, reaching a hand up under his high collars and pressing her thumb over it, smiling fondly at him. She’d always seemed happy about it, even if though hers were about as different as they came. Conflict did not make for a beautiful musical piece. When she was angry, she’d sometimes bite him there.

When they’d finally said goodbye, her last gesture had been to brush her thumb over the fabric of his coat, where the word would otherwise be. A peaceful parting, as close as they could come to that. 

He hadn’t paid much attention to the tattoo otherwise, but if he had he would’ve noticed the thick black ink fading. 

And one day, sometime in 1937, he shook hands with Germany, but something was off.

“What’s that?” He’d asked politely, gesturing to the scribbled of black ink on his fellow nation’s wrist.
Germany had paused, pulled up his sleeve and tilted his head dismissively. “Oh, that.” He said, nodding towards it.

“It’s just another word. I don’t know why I have it.”

And when Austria looked closer, his heart pounding, his eyes went wide, his throat dry.

“Music has never been my type of hobby, you know?”

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America has faithful written on his collarbone. It’s one of his most noticeable marks, right up there with  freedom, when he’s wearing regular clothes. He always thought it had something to do with always doing what he believed to be right- faithful to his people, his past, his ideals. It had come up during his Revolution, after all. There would be no other reason. 

He doesn’t think about it as he shoves a hand into Russia’s hair, knocking his shoulders into the wall and kissing him until he tastes blood. Russia has so many words it's practically a dictionary, but America never gave a fuck about Cyrillic so he has no clue as to their significance. But he still sees them everywhere- сломанный, пренебрегли, уцелевший- whatever they mean. He doesn’t ask, because he doesn’t care , he’s too busy trying to make making out as painful an activity as possible, and Russia doesn’t seem to care much either. (He likes that. England always looks at him forlornly, when he sees America's words, and it makes America want to shoot something) He only pauses once, places his thumb over America’s collarbone until the word is obscured. 

“The fuck are you looking at?” America says, and Russia smiles, shakes his head. “Nothing,” He says, and they fall back to the bed. 

It’s only the next morning when he wakes up that he realises what happened. 

“The fuck did you do? ” He yells at Russia, who calmly informs him, “Nothing. I simply guessed. You have not lost words before, da?” 

America doesn’t admit it. He storms out of the room and wears high collars for the next three months and doesn’t look at Russia and avoids Canada’s concerned glances.

It takes him almost half a year to lower his collar. He says he got it removed. “Faithful to what, huh? I am what I am, no need to make stupid fucking promises to karma or some shit.” He says when he’s drunk as all hell, and England looks at him like the sky’s fallen out and America tries very hard not to remember it the next day. 

The next day he calls up Russia, tired and hungover. 

“My house. After the world meeting. Next week.” He hangs up. 

Whoever needed loyalty anyways.

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There's no particular reason for it, France supposes. His people have each other's names inscribed on their wrist, chest, faces- symbols of who they are valiented into their very skin.

Countries didn't have that.

Except once, if the words Jeanne d'Arc placed just above his heel said anything.

But those words are ashed out now, burned in flames from centuries past.

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Canada never particularly resented the unnoticeable scratched between the crook of his finger, right on the side of his left pointer. It’d been there since America’s independence, or maybe before that. He hadn’t particularly been looking at his hands; he’d been too busy watching Alfred rip everything he ever knew and believed into little bloody ribbons, and then hang them up on the wall for celebration afterward. 

Part of him thinks the tattoo had just come about as soon as France forever signed him off to England. Maybe France had been the last person to ever remember him; when France forgot, it seemed the world followed. 

It wasn’t until the 1800s that he’d started noticing the word so much, staring idly at them as England instructed him on how to guard his border, eyes always shifty, always ready to snap at the slightest disturbance. Canada had always wanted to reach out, put a hand on his shoulder, smile in a way that could mean relax, please, trust me, but he never could. He never had the courage. 

Maybe it was just that little word that pushed him to burn down his brother’s capital, watch in ravaging glee as the White House went up in flames and Alfred went paler than a ghost. Can’t forget about me now, he’d thought. 

He’d watched the word for the next years, but it remained. 

In fact, it never got any dimmer, or more forceful. It was just a quiet constant, there whether or not Canada liked it. 

Sometimes Canada thought he did. Watching his brother stumble and fall over and over again was agonizing, especially knowing the whole world would judge. But sitting in the shadows felt like being slowly hollowed out from the inside. 

He didn’t know what was wrong with him. 

“Matt,” Alfred always said his name like an afterthought, right after, England, France, Spain, oh hey Prussia, is that Denmark? But he always said Canada’s name, never his nation. Canada had never known what to make of that. 

“You coming out tonight?” 

Canada looked over, past Alfred and onto New York. He never liked the city, the way everyone crowded and shoved and fought and showed off, and mostly, how incredibly noticeable it was. New York demanded attention in the same way Alfred did, and Canada hated it. It was too loud and bright made him hate himself for how inadequate he was, how no matter how far he came he would always be in Alfred’s shadow. 

But despite what anyone else might say, Canada knew his brother. And he knew that Alfred was good, down to his bones. An idiot, who made a lot of mistakes, but a good person. 

Canada met America’s gaze, lips twitching up to a smile. “Of course,” He said. “Sounds fun,” He lied through his teeth. 

America’s grin was brilliant. 

“You’re the best, dude.” He patted Canada on the shoulder in a way that was much more hit than pat, and Canada almost choked on his spit. He watched Alfred walk off, talk to someone else, say something stupid, take up the spotlight in every way person. 


The smile on his face was small, but only a bit bitter. 


If he had to be in someone’s shadow, there really wasn’t anyone he’d rather than Alfred.

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He’s not conscious of it at first, not really. When he’s young, all Romano really knows is that Spain’s smile is stupid and bright and that even when Spain comes home bleeding (like an idiot ) he’s still smiling and happy and it make Romano want to twist the life out of something. 

As he gets older, the whole thing becomes more easy to distinguish. He’s mad because Spain is always happy. Veneziano tells him (in a minced words watered down type of way) that that’s petty. No one else ever says anything, because he never tells them. 

Romano has the word angry in bold black, from his elbow to his shoulder. He doesn’t know when he got it. Maybe it was when Spain took him in. Maybe it was when his grandfather died. Or maybe it was all the way back in the beginning, when given the choice between the two of them Rome would always choose Veneziano. 

He knows how stupid it looks. There’s a reason he always wears long sleeved shirts with fancy cuffs and gleaming buttons. 

But for the most part, he doesn’t hate the thing. Sometimes he even forgets it’s there. It’s a part of him now, no way that’ll change after say, two thousand years. 

Maybe that’s why Spain always makes him want to put a knife in something. 

Because when Spain smiles at him, Romano almost wishes the word wasn’t so deeply etched in his skin.