The Channel was cold this evening, as it often was in November, and Britain failed to suppress a shiver as he stared across the ink black ocean. His modest rowboat rests on the rocky beach next to him, the waves lapping against the dark wood, dyeing it even darker. His lantern is set on a larger rock along the beach, its soft glow reaching all the way across to the other shore.
He doesn’t know how long he’ll be waiting here, so he pulls out his pipe, packs it, and lights it with a match that struggles to stay alight in the strong sea breeze. He breathes in the bitter taste of tobacco, the glow illuminating his face for a moment as his thoughts slip into musings of the reason he was freezing his arse off in the middle of a cold winter night on the shore of the English Channel: France.
Britain’s relationship with France was complicated, to say the least.
He hated France, obviously. In fact, he hated France with such a burning intensity that he hardly knew who he was without it. The world itself expected them to be at war, their mutual disdain so painfully obvious. After all, who were they without their spiteful resentment for one another?
And from what he could tell, France felt the same way.
Their recent quarrels had only served to aggravate tensions between them. From Britain’s victory in the Seven Years War and his annexation of France’s Canadian colony, to France’s involvement in “America”’s victory against Britain. Now, to no one’s surprise, they were once again locked in conflict, France seemingly insistent on waging a war with all of Europe while sustaining a massive societal upheaval. Honestly, Britain has no idea how he was managing it.
Not only was France waging battles across the continent, he was winning them too; the taste of defeat still burned on Britain’s tongue. It was as impressive as it was irritating.
Despite all of this, though, the two have been able to achieve civil conversation, even amicable discussion at times. For all they fought, and bickered, and warred, there had always been something between them Britain couldn’t seem to be able to describe, no matter how hard he tried to.
Over the tens of decades they’d known each other, Britain could remember several instances that had been strangely peaceful. Moments when the two of them were alone together, away from the eyes and expectations of others, where they could share the thoughts that would have seemed out of place anywhere else. Where their bitter rivalry turned away from deadly conflict and toward friendly teasing, and where compliments were shared genuinely, albeit rarely. In these moments, they nearly resembled close friends; they knew each other well enough, after all.
Britain couldn’t think of a single country that knew him as well as the one he’d spent his entire life fighting, as ironic as it was. Who could know him better?
Britain had seen the plague tear through the known world, had fought in countless wars, remembered the fall of Constantinople and the discovery of an entirely new world. He had seen nations rise and fall, and while many others have seen the same, only France had been right next to him through all of it. Whether or not they were on opposite sides of the battlefield.
For most of their lives, they communicated sporadically by letters about either trade policies or war, with the occasional opinion on current events. But that changed a little over a century ago, when France suggested they meet in person, not to discuss trade or treaty, but just to talk. And Britain had agreed, though he still doesn’t know why.
They met on the English Channel back in 1674 and it hadn’t gone horribly, against all expectations. So they met again ten years later, and again, and now it had been a hundred and twenty years and Britain found himself almost looking forward to the fourth year of every decade, though he would never admit it.
It was nice to talk to the other nation without arguments or armed conflict. It was one of their unspoken rules, along with no boasting or gloating which they were both rather prone to. Strangely enough, however, Britain found that he, occasionally, enjoyed not arguing with France, and that the two of them had a lot more in common than Britain would ever have expected.
As they continued to meet, France started to bring food or wine, more often both, as Britain would bring a book to read or recommend, perhaps a story to share with the other. Despite appearances, France seemed to enjoy the stories Britain told, which never failed to inflate his ego a bit, just as Britain had always admired France’s art and cuisine. Something about the common ground they’d found made it easier for Britain to admit that, to let their rivalry simmer on the back burner instead of boil at the forefront of his mind.
As much as he hated it, Britain didn’t know where this conflict with France was headed, nor how long it would last. He would fight until the bitter end, of course, he was the Great British Empire. Still, he hoped it wouldn’t drag on terribly long. His debt was growing and seeing what debt had done to France’s government didn’t exactly inspire hope for a peaceful future. He had never been awfully fond of revolutions.
Their last meeting had been a year after the final peace had been settled after the “successful” revolution in America. His defeat had been both humiliating and infuriating and it wouldn’t have happened if France hadn’t decided to help “America” gain independence just to spite him. France gained nothing from that war other than bragging rights and a revolution of his own. But, Britain had to admit that seeing France on the battlefield was always strangely alluring. The country was so...driven, so passionate. He threw his whole self into everything he did. Every war with France, every battle, had an infectious energy that had Britain finding thrills in the fight that he didn’t usually indulge in. It made victory taste all the sweeter while defeat lingered on his tongue long after. Fighting France was always so... satisfying.
Neither of them had said much when they met back in 1784, Britain was still resentful after the loss of his most profitable colony and France was far too smug to be expected to say anything that wouldn’t further antagonize Britain. For the hours they spent together, Britain had read silently by the lantern light while France had laid back in his boat and closed his eyes, content to relax in their shared time. They split a bottle of wine France had brought with him. One of his better wines, though that wasn’t a fair comparison considering that there was hardly a bad bottle of wine in the whole of France, none that he would ever let see the light of day, at least. It had been a rich red wine that went down smoothly and, after a glass and a half, quieted Britain’s anger and resentment with its own comfortable warmth.
When he had looked at France that night, illuminated by the soft, flickering light and seemingly at peace had ignited another warm feeling in him that couldn’t be blamed on the wine.
Once, long ago, he had visited France’s capital, back when it had still been Paris. It was an early autumn evening, before the weather became unbearably cold and just as the leaves were starting to turn. Neither Britain nor France made a habit of visiting within each other’s borders, except in times of war. Publicly, Britain would never admit that France’s country was quite beautiful, magnificent even. And the city of Paris on that autumn evening was simply incredible to behold, the orange light of the setting sun reflecting off the Seine and alighting the leaves, the city glowed.
It was so much more beautiful than London was at this time of year, the fog and rain making the city dull and dreary while Paris remained full of light, vibrant. France had shared with him once, though, back in the 17th century, that he found the early morning London fog to be wondrously alluring in ways that could not be described by mere words, that is was no wonder Britain had so many great writers in a land so gorgeously eerie. That had touched Britain unexpectedly, such a genuine compliment from someone he had considered his enemy for so long. It was a conversation he continued to look back on with fondness, even as conflict between them pressed on.
That night in 1784, Britain could see the same beauty he saw in Paris that evening in the face of the person in front of him, and that warm feeling continued to grow until it burned like fire in his veins and made his heart stutter in his chest. It was something he felt every time he met France on the battlefield and the breath was stolen from his lungs because France was always so... beautiful. And suddenly, the book he had been reading didn’t seem half as interesting as it once had. Instead, his gaze was captured and held by the nation lying peacefully in the boat beside him. A nation that knew him better than any other, had seen him through the best and worst moments in his history, as he had seen France’s.
Britain felt, all of a sudden, that he wouldn’t mind being closer to France, in a more intimate way. He still despised France, but, in that moment, the other country had almost seemed...desirable. Which was absurd, of course, and neither of them would ever do something as foolish as...
Britain felt his cheeks warm at the thought, though he would later blame it on the alcohol.
“You are staring, mon ami.” A voice broke him from his musings. France was regarding him with lidded eyes and a knowing smile. As Britain internally floundered for the right words to say to assuage all potential suspicion, he saw France’s eyes flicker briefly down before looking back up, sparkling in the low light and giving Britain the distinct impression that the other was thinking less than innocent, or, for that matter, Catholic, thoughts at the moment.
Britain cleared his throat and tore his gaze away, “It was an accident, I was simply lost in thought for a moment.” He amended finally, though the smirk did not drop from France’s face.
When they eventually parted ways later that night, Britain rowed himself back to the English shore, unable to get France’s astute gaze out of his mind, nor his utterance of “mon ami”. My friend. Did France really consider Britain a friend or was it simply a mistake? A placeholder until a more suitable term was found to describe their relationship? Or was it purposefully ironic to call Britain a friend? They were anything but, right? He hoped it was because France felt the same strange feeling Britain had; that look France gave him had to have meant something after all. Unless Britain was reading into it.
He could just be reading into it.
It was in the past now, Britain supposed, as it was again time for them to meet outside of the war they were currently fighting. Back in 1786, maybe it was ’87, Britain had picked up a gift for France. A scarf. Small and inane but not entirely devoid of meaning. He’d seen it in the window of one of the high-end shops in London in the midst of Spring. Britain wasn’t really one for fashion statements, but there was something incredibly striking about it.
It was a stunning rich scarlet made of the finest silk money could buy, and when he asked the kind shopkeeper to take it down for him, he found it was feather-light and soft as freshly fallen snow. The colors shone a deep red that spoke of blood. Blood used to make promises and pacts. Blood spilt between them. The blood in his history and the blood in France’s. Yet, the fabric whispered across his palm like the softly voiced confessions of finding beauty in an enemy’s territory.
He bought a scarf for France.
The price was an inconsequential dent in his centuries of savings, but the potential blow to his dignity might come at a much higher cost.
The scarf sat like a stone in his coat pocket as Britain tried to convince himself that this gift wasn’t entirely out of place in the context of their relationship. After all, they had gotten each other small, more impersonal gifts before; a new tea Britain wanted to share, a bottle of champagne for celebratory purposes, a book the other would enjoy, a new pastry France discovered. But nothing like this. Nothing so personal.
This wasn’t a bad idea...Was it?
He supposed he could always keep the scarf and proceed as normal, then he could go home and throw the scarf into some deep, unknown corner of his attic, never to be seen again. But, as much as he wanted to do that, a larger part of him felt like that was a little too similar to giving up and if there was one thing the British Empire hated, it was giving up. Besides, maybe it was alright to show France that he didn’t entirely hate him all of the time.
This was getting complicated.
Britain exhaled a puff of smoke and trained his eyes on the sky, watching stars blink in and out of existence while clouds rolled overhead. The moon was bright tonight and it cast a subtle, luminous glow over the calm waters.
Britain was tempted to pull out his notebook to record the scene with words and would have if not for the pinprick of light that flickered to life across the Channel; a sure sign France was preparing to start his voyage.
Britain took one last long drag from his pipe before doing the same.
The cold nipped at his face and hands and his arms burned with exertion as he rowed, but soon enough he heard the telltale splashes of another boat approaching.
He looked back briefly in order to maneuver himself beside France without crashing into him, and while he saw France do the same, their eyes did not meet. This was unusual.
Britain stuck his paddles in the water, slowing his speed even more as his boat slid up to France’s. They both remained silent as they watched their slightly precarious situation with bated breath and when it became apparent that the ocean would permit them to stay, Britain sighed heavily and felt some of the tension bleed from his shoulders. He saw France’s posture in a similar way.
Britain set his oars in the hull of his boat at the same time he heard France’s clatter solidly in the boat next to him. They each had their oil lanterns on the spare benches of their two-person rowboats, creating a halo of dim golden light around them. With Britain facing the English shore and France facing the French shore they faced each other on the diagonal. It was perfect for them, removing the pressure and intimacy of any more formal arrangement.
The air on the Channel water was colder than that on the shore and Britain adjusted his coat, feeling his notebook pressed against his ribs in his inner pocket, and the scarf sitting heavily against his hip.
Though he had relaxed slightly, Britain still remained rigidly upright, anxiety keeping him rooted to the bench and his back straight. Conversely, France had shifted off his seat and now lay in the hull of his boat, his head resting against the bench he had previously been seated on. It was something Britain was plenty familiar with; France liked to relax. He lived in the moment, sometimes going as far as to bring a pillow and blanket with him, as though he really might sleep there, in an uncomfortable wooden rowboat, in the middle of the ocean. It has surprised Britain on many occasions, how easy it seemed to be for France to appear comfortable. France could be lying on a bed of nails and make it seem as though the King himself had given up his bed for France. A part of Britain was jealous of this seemingly innate ability, he always looked so uptight next to France.
Looking at France now though, Britain could see a crease in his brow, a slight downward turn of his mouth that indicated a discomfort in the other country that Britain did not often see.
Even in battles France was losing, Britain didn’t see such blatant discomfort, more frustration and anger. It had been centuries since Britain had seen France in so much...pain. His breaths were visibly short and stilted and he held himself almost gingerly as he laid back. It was subtle, sure, but obvious to someone who knew France as well as Britain did.
As far as Britain could tell, France hadn’t brought anything with him either, which was also highly unusual, considering how the other often insisted on creating a certain “atmosphère” as he put it. Usually the “atmosphère” France wanted to create included food and wine, not that Britain was necessarily complaining. Nonetheless, it was odd for France to come bearing nothing just as it was odd for him to be visibly pained and out of breath.
“Are you alright, France?” Britain asked hesitantly, after what seemed like an eternity of silence stretched between them.
At the sound of Britain’s voice, France’s eyes opened sluggishly, exhaustion lining them as he turned a focused yet tired gaze on his neighbor.
He started to take a deep breath before likely thinking better of it and said to Britain, in a raspy, whisper of his former voice, “Oui, mon ami, you do not have to worry. I am fine.”
Britain bristled at the implication that he would ever worry about France of all countries, but he couldn’t deny that a part of him was worried about France. A part of him that felt suspiciously similar to the part of him that had thought France was rather stunning a decade ago, and the part of him that had felt compelled to buy the scarf that still rests in his coat pocket. The part of him that cares an awful lot about France without Britain’s express permission.
It was that same part of him that compelled him to say, “France, anyone who knows anything would know that you are not fine, and I am not worried about you, merely concerned for your well being.”
“Britain, there are many intricacies in English which I do not understand, but one thing I do know is that ‘worried’ and ‘concerned’ mean the same thing.” France replied smoothly, falling easily into their typical back and forth for a moment before his expression was serious again, “But, it is truly nothing you need to be ‘concerned’ about.”
Those were France’s words, and Britain was never one to pry excessively in the other’s business, but after even that short conversation, France’s breathing appeared strained and though he had closed his eyes again, his expression was pinched in pain. Therefore, even though France had told Britain not to be concerned, Britain was. It was this concern that had Britain do something he never would have seen himself doing otherwise: he reached out.
By nature, Britain was drawn to solitude. He was an island nation after all, and he had never connected very well to his European peers. Even in something as supposedly simple as religion, he differed from the other nations. He had gone as far as to create his very own church just to avoid the restrictions of Catholicism. He never reached out, it wasn’t in his nature.
And yet, here he was, resting his hand on France’s, a country he had long considered his exact opposite. Britain wordlessly took France’s hand into his own two as France looked at him in confusion, wanting answers that Britain honestly didn’t have. As he turned the other country’s hand over in his, he noticed that the palm of France’s hand was rough and calloused in some areas, while raw and blistered in others, and when the sensitive skin was exposed to the cold night air, France inhaled sharply. Britain couldn’t blame him, it looked painful; it was a wonder he could even hold the oars of his boat.
As Britain stared at the hand he held in his, he spoke quietly, almost inaudibly, if not for the calm sea that night, “I know that we are not quite friends, and I know that, if our situations were reversed, I would be reluctant to share such weakness with you, lest you use it against me in the future. However, France, seeing you in such a state causes my heart to ache for reasons I cannot fathom.” Britain exhaled shakily, “My curiosity is a great beast that will not be sated without knowing what could have possibly exhausted the formidable France to such a degree.”
When Britain looked up, France was staring at him with a tired smile and affectionate eyes before he said, in an airy voice, “Well, Bretagne, who else would be capable of it, but myself?”
France was quiet for a bit after that statement, his gaze following a distant point on the horizon. Britain remained silent as well, waiting for elaboration without wanting to push.
“Revolutions, I have found,” France broke the silence once again, “Are quite an exhausting endeavor.”
Ah. The Revolution. Of course that was the source of France’s distress, could Britain really haven been so dense as to let it slip his mind?
Never before had Britain heard of a more gruesome or violent revolution as the one that has been taking up arms in Paris for the last five years.
Britain had received news of terror’s reign over the city after the death of the French king. The radical revolutionaries occupying the city were nearly giddy in sending even the most mild of dissenters to the guillotine. Even women and children were not safe from the paranoia of an illegitimate regime. When papers reported the death of that insane Robspierre fellow, Britain could only feel relieved, though now France’s government lacked any strong central command.
If he were to be honest, Britain didn’t want France to be a republic. It would feel too...lonely.
He stared at their interlocked hands and said, with a mixture of exasperation, fondness, and concern, “Well, I could have told you that.”
France let out a chuckle at that, one that lingered on his face as he sat up and leaned forward. Britain watched France’s movements curiously, his thumb rubbing small circles on France’s wrist.
In the hull of his boat, France was significantly shorter than Britain, but closer as well, such that they were nearly parallel to each other and Britain’s breath seized in his throat.
France looked at Britain, his eyes searching Britain’s face for...something. His left hand came up to cup Britain’s cheek and time seemed to stop altogether.
France’s hand was incredibly warm, impossibly so, given the cold winter air that surrounded them; it distracted Britain, but he didn’t dare look away. Something about France’s gaze left him feeling flayed open and intricately examined. He felt...vulnerable.
An eternity passed.
An eternity that Britain could relive a hundred times and never tire of.
An eternity that Britain wanted to savor for the rest of his existence, however long that may be.
An eternity that made him realize that he might be–
“I have so terribly missed you, Bretagne.” France’s whispered confession broke their moment outside of time.
Britain stared at France dumbfounded for a brief instance before he found the words to respond. “I have missed you as well, France; something I never would have thought possible.”
France let out a breath of laughter, “Well I’ve always been good at achieving the impossible.”
“Like at Fleurs?”
“Exactement.” France replied, eyes shining.
Britain had seen that expression before. When France won a battle, his whole face lit up, and that pure joy of victory shone through his entire self. It was as infectious as it was captivating. It hardly even felt as though he had lost that battle.
He was losing this war, it became more clear with every French victory and every British loss. But when he looked into France’s eyes that night, it felt like he was only one key strategic move from victory. He just needed a few more minutes to observe the board.
“France, I–” Britain broke off, realizing he couldn’t find the words to define the indescribable something that clawed at his throat and begged to be released. “I,” he tried again, but it seemed that the ever present, extensive vocabulary of his own language escaped him.
He stated, unfocused, until something caught his eye and derailed his train of thought.
“By God France, what happened to your neck?!” Britain exclaimed, staring aghast at France’s neck, which was hastily bandaged and stained through with blood.
Immediately, as though possessed, his hands moved to the other’s neck, holding it gently with his fingers while using his thumbs to coax France’s jaw upwards so he could observe more clearly the seemingly egregious injury. France made a noise of protest, but when it cracked and died in his throat, he appeared to resign to his fate.
Britain shifted the weight of France’s head to his left hand and used his right to peel back what looked to be an old shirt cloth that had been ripped and repurposed to get a look at the wound underneath.
He glanced at France briefly before going any further, only to find the other gazing at him intently; discomfort, pain, and...something else in his expression. Embarrassment, maybe? Or something closer to apprehension? Even mistrust? As though Britain might really use this vulnerable position to his own advantage. Or as though someone else had already done so.
Their eyes met for only the briefest of moments, but it had Britain mentally backpedaling and kicking himself for being so bold.
Before Britain could so much as utter and apology, however, France leaned more heavily into Britain’s hand and closed his eyes with a silent sigh, consenting to let Britain examine the injury that had escaped his notice all night.
With unsure movements, Britain slowly pulled the old, worn cloth away from the red, inflamed skin around the injury. It was mostly scabbed over, although there were still some areas that bled sluggishly. From what Britain could see, the laceration itself was very deep, almost impossibly so, and made its way around the entirety of France’s neck in a near perfect circle.
As Britain’s hand got closer to the wound itself, France let out what Britain could only really describe as a whimper, though Britain could hardly recall ever hearing such a sound from France. It made a pang of guilt ring through his core, which was exceedingly odd because he was the Great British Empire and he couldn’t remember more than two or three instances of guilt through his entire life. He certainly hadn’t ever felt guilt for causing France any amount of pain or grief before. They hurt each other all the time. They were constantly at war. What made this any different?
Britain removed his hand from France’s neck, letting the bandages fall back into place and resting his hand on France’s shoulder.
“What...happened?” Britain asked aloud, though he feared he already knew the answer.
France’s expression was unreadable but for the deep rooted, unshakable exhaustion in his eyes. Britain honestly wasn’t sure whether France was looking at him or staring through him. It was unsettling.
At long length, France spoke the words Britain knew were coming, yet feared all the same: “It was the will of the guillotine.”
Britain flinched slightly at the words, but France’s thousand yard stare was unyielding.
The English country swallowed hard, “I’m–”
“Don’t say you’re sorry Angleterre. Don’t lie to me.” France said firmly, gaze brought back into focus as he regarded Britain.
Britain bristled, “Don’t call me that. You know I’m more than that now.”
France’s eyes softened and his shoulders relaxed a bit, tension bleeding from his body. He leaned back, distancing himself from Britain, “C’est vrai.” He breathed, “Desolé, Grande Bretagne.” France rooted around in his coat and sighed when he found what he was looking for: a store of tobacco and paper with which to roll it.
Britain looked on with passive interest as France prepared his tobacco fix, his mind alight with a nervous sort of energy that compelled him to do or say something, anything, but refused to give him the slightest clue as to what he should be doing or saying.
France reached over to open the lantern that sat on the bench beside him and lit his freshly rolled cigarette with the flame therein. He closed his eyes and took a long drag before coughing it out roughly. Britain winced in sympathy.
“Have you given up the pipe then?” Britain asked, attempting to strike up amicable conversation once again.
France hummed, “Perhaps. This new tobacco picado Espagne has come up with really is quite excellent.” France coughed again, “Who can say though? We cannot know our futures.”
Britain nodded his assent, though, internally, was struck abruptly with the fact that he really didn’t know his future. And he hated that.
If there was one thing Britain feared above all else, it was being caught unawares by the future. Being defeated by something that could have been easily avoided had he only had enough foresight.
A cold breeze blew over the dark waters and France shivered visibly, breaking Britain from his thoughts as France so often did. If Britain could always count on France for one thing, it was his aptitude in distracting Britain from his constant, spiraling thoughts. France kept him in the moment.
Suddenly, Britain remembered.
Frantically, he patted down and dug through his coat to find it, willfully ignoring France’s curious eyes.
He pulled it out with a soft “Aha.” Its color was intense even in the dim light that surrounded them.
“C’est pour toi.” Britain said flippantly, handing the folded garment to France and avoiding eye contact by searching the water below them. “It won’t be much help in the cold, and it certainly won’t protect you from future beheadings, but it may keep a bit of the chill at bay and prevent nosy bastards like me from prying into your business.”
When he felt France take the scarf from his hands, he looked up and saw only the purest of awe and affection in the other’s face. With a shaky inhale, France asked only: “Pourquoi?”
“Je ne sais pas.” Britain replied. He really didn’t know why he had done it, not in any way he could put into words, at least.
France only smiled knowingly at his response and thanked him sincerely before putting the scarf on.
It looked...beautiful on him.
France was beautiful.
Even now, in the midst of war and revolution, he was beautiful.
And, for the briefest moment, France had looked...happy.
Britain found he wouldn’t mind seeing that more often.
For the hours that followed, they stayed together, France shifting between light sleep and unfocused thought, while Britain had taken out his notebook under the pretense of doing some writing. He didn’t get much done, though, with his thoughts vague and undefined and his eyes stealing occasional glances at his companion.
“Je suis fatigué.” France eventually uttered into the quiet air around them, regarding Britain with half lidded eyes.
“You should rest my friend.” Britain whispered back, afraid that speaking too loudly may shatter the world around them like glass.
France smiled, “As usual, Bretagne, you are right.” As he continued, his expression grew somber, “Though I fear I may not be able to rest for a long while.”
Britain didn’t know what exactly France meant when he said that, but he had a sense of foreboding all the same.
France smiled at Britain once again, but his eyes were resigned, “Thank you, again, Bretagne, for...everything,” France said, and then, quieter, “I’m holding onto hope for our future.”
The world’s? Europe’s? Or France and his?
Britain didn’t get a chance to ask. He wasn’t sure he would have even if their time was infinite.
They switched sides on the way back, Britain facing the French shore and France facing that of England.
France gathered himself onto the bench and pulled his oars out of the hull of his boat with no small degree of pain written on his face. With one last look at his neighbor, rival, enemy, friend, he said, “À bientôt, Bretagne,” before rowing himself back to his land, his people, his home.
It was odd, Britain, thought, as he rowed himself back to the rocky shores of England. France had only ever departed by saying “Au revoir”. Goodbye. A country as ‘laissez-faire’ as France knew of time’s fickle nature and avoided making baseless promises by saying they’d see each other again. They couldn’t know that for sure.
What made France so confident this time that they would see each other soon?
Why did it worry Britain so much?