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Three to a Match

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Prussia walked through the parking lot toward the conference center, twirling his car keys and whistling to himself. He was in a remarkably good mood today. The weather in Bonn was beautiful, and he was meeting up with Germany for a late lunch. From about fifty meters away he could just make out the front doors of the large glass-faced building as they opened, and various nations began to meander out into the plaza. Today’s meeting was some EU waste-of-time about import tariffs on dairy products or dietary supplements or some such thing. Prussia couldn’t really be sure; he couldn’t seem to get halfway through even the written agenda and list of presentation abstracts without his eyes starting to glaze over, but Germany took to bureaucracy like a fish to water. Prussia smiled to himself. Sure, his own transition to a post-modern peacetime mentality was tough, but just look how his baby brother was thriving. Yeah, he’d done pretty awesome with that one, after all.

“Speak of the Devil,” Prussia murmured as Germany emerged into the sunshine, with France and England not far behind. The three of them seemed to be chatting amiably, and didn’t that just warm Prussia’s heart? His proud, headstrong brother finally learning to forgive. Learning that, as nations, they existed on too long a timeline to hold grudges and count scars. The trio had paused for a moment to continue their conversation, and Prussia was content to hang back and watch them for a little while.

England had just removed the cigarette he habitually tucked behind his ear (usually about fifteen minutes before these meetings were scheduled to end), stuck it in the corner of his mouth, and was digging through his pockets. France, meanwhile, had leaned in close to Germany and was mock-whispering in his ear. Whatever he said must have been funny, as Germany broke into startled laughter. Prussia’s grin broadened. Maybe peace was good, if boring. It certainly was good to see his oldest friend and his little brother getting on so well. France reached into his jacket pocket, and brought out his silver cigarette case. After taking one for himself, he held out the case to Germany as well.

Prussia’s smile froze.

Germany gladly accepted, and after France, took his turn at England’s proffered lighter.

Prussia could hear his teeth grinding harshly inside his own skull. He remembered those dark, desperate days in the mid-1940s, when his occasional after-dinner pipe had turned into a ten-cigarette-a-day habit. He remembered the cold, lonely days in the late 1980s when he was up to two packs a day, and each morning began with a wet and growling cough. The worst memory, though, was from the early ‘90s when he finally moved back in with Germany -- who had decided, in some bizarre fit of conscience, that their home was to be smoke-free. That it would be best for both of them if they gave up this “filthy habit.”

And he had done it. He had buckled down and soldiered through the headaches, the nausea, the jangling nerves and the nigh-endless craving. He had quit because his brother asked him to: it was as simple as that. Hell, he had put up with Germany while Germany quit, and that had really been the worst. The passive-aggressive bitching, the nit-picking, the hair-trigger temper. For months, they hadn’t been able to be in the same room with each other without erupting into a screaming, cursing, throwing-things brawl. It had taken the better part of a year -- long enough for the yellow stain to fade from the back of the middle finger on Prussia’s left hand, at least -- before the two of them had been able to have anything close to a civil conversation.

Even now, there were times -- hell, hours, days -- when Prussia craved a cigarette like a drowning man craves air. There was the fact that coffee just didn’t taste right anymore. That he couldn’t enjoy a drink in a bar without that leg-jiggling want. That he’d gained four kilos since quitting that he couldn't seem to lose. But he’d toughed all of it out, kept his goddamn discipline, because it was important to his brother.

His fucking brother, who seemed to be enjoying that first drag way too much.

Prussia began striding double-time toward the conference center, ignoring as best he could the soft ringing in his ears.

“WEST!” he barked out from about ten meters away. “What…the…FUCK?!?”

Germany's head snapped up at the sound of Prussia’s old battlefield voice, and his eyes went wide. The cigarette tumbled from his mouth, leaving a soft smear of ash down the front of his suit lapel. His briefcase hit the ground a second later, falling open and spilling papers in a gentle arc.

Germany’s left eyelid ticked twice, and then he turned on his heel and ran.

Prussia stared at his fleeing brother in surprise for only a moment before breaking into a sprint himself. As he dashed past France and England, he had the presence of mind to snatch the cigarette from France’s gently gaping lips and jam it between his own teeth.

After that first harsh lungful (unfiltered, Turkish blend, probably Gauloises, that long-dormant part of his brain supplied), Prussia started to feel a bit better. Sure, war was no longer considered acceptable politics by other means, and thus he was pretty much benched in the global scheme of things, and smoking his first cigarette in almost two decades while at a full sprint was probably going to have its repercussions, but he was going to catch West and, by God, he would make him rue the day he was confederated. He could feel the old, mad laughter boiling up inside his chest, right behind where the smoke burned best.

“Don’t run!” he screamed, jaw clenched tight to keep the cigarette in place. “Don't run, you little shit! You’ll only make me angrier!”

***

England took a slow, considering drag on his cigarette as he watched the German brothers tear through the car park.

“Fiver on Prussia,” he offered, exhaling in a long, even breath through his nose.

France chuckled low in the back of his throat, and took a replacement cigarette from his case. “Come now, Angleterre, that is hardly sporting." He leaned in toward England for a light. "Twenty Euro says he catches up before he finishes the smoke."