For all that Austria was born to fight, sometimes he just isn't very good at it.
This time around, he wakes to the cool touch of a washcloth and a familiar stream of angry muttering. Switzerland is scolding him again, harsh words at odds with his gentle ministrations.
Sleepily, Austria considers the prospect of becoming stronger. He thinks that he wouldn't mind working harder, if it were for Switzerland's sake…
He voices this thought, and smiles when Switzerland freezes mid-rant to turn bright cherry red.
Such a pretty color, red. Austria decides he quite likes it.
War takes Europe like a fever dream, and Austria joins his fellow child-crusaders as they sweep into Acre, trumpets in their ears and angels in their eyes. He fights until he is red, red in mind-heart-body, sanguine drumbeats in his veins, hair flecked crimson. France and England stand with him when the city falls, and all three step forward to raise high their banners.
Later, Austria removes the belt from his dark red surcoat, and is surprised to find a stripe of untouched cloth beneath it. He'd almost forgotten that his coat used to be white.
Red is strength and glory and everything Austria has promised himself to be. Power demands autonomy, so he moves away from the forested cradle that is his childhood, away from his best friend of—years, decades, centuries?—and the distance helps him harden his heart. He learns to be cold, warlike, belligerent—like his new coat of arms, striped red in defiance to Holy Rome.
He still remembers the chill of Switzerland's glare, the frozen moment when Austria realizes he's plunged past the point of forgiveness. But it doesn't bother him as much as it used to.
Hungary is a wild man, fierce and brutal, a tempest personified. It seems he will always be the bane of Austria's existence.
"Nice place," Hungary says as he surveys the wreckage of a city—his city, his heart, his Vienna—oh, it is all Austria can do not to snap at him. But Austria is better, more controlled and more civilized than this beast of a nation can ever be, so he says nothing when Hungary smirks and hoists his flag high above Austria's. A show of dominance.
For now. Austria vows it will not be for long.
The Habsburgs are shrewd with their calculated tangle of matchmaking, and from this Austria learns a new form of warfare. With Hungary's king dead, Austria is free to plot and scheme, and he finds that he is terribly good at plotting and scheming. Heaven knows why he bothered with fighting in the first place. Marriage is clean, elegant, effective. Holy Rome, the Low Countries, Burgundy, Spain…
All his without a drop of spilt blood.
And Frederick III—strange, distant, patient Frederick—gifts secret words upon him, like a signature, like a song:
All the world is subject to Austria.
Hungary is a woman.
Whatever it was Austria had expected in the wake of the Ottoman wars, this wasn't it.
She joins him under Habsburg blacks and yellows, all vague smiles, hands folded primly against a dress ruffled with soft-spoken colors. It is all Austria can do not to stare; this demure impostor cannot be the same nightmarish entity who plagued his childhood. It is dissonant. It doesn't fit.
(When Austria later discovers sweet, dewy-eyed Italy to be male, he has to wonder if his entire life is going to be one long streak of crossdressers.)
Nineteenth century. Holy Rome vanishes. Italy leaves. Prussia struts away, hand in hand with a solemn boy named Germany; Austria is left behind to tend his bruised pride. Of everyone, Hungary stays.
They marry in 1869. Austria finds a piano and lets Romantic-era music say everything he cannot express.
"You're less cold like this," Hungary says, and then murmurs, piercingly: "That bad, huh?"
A fermata. "I could say the same for you."
Her expression becomes carefully amused. "Oh, we are pitiful fools, aren't we?"
Austria replies with a gentle transition to Liszt. Hungary, smiling, listens in silence.
In his hubris, Austria forgets two crucial things.
One: for all that Austria was born to fight, sometimes he just isn't very good at it.
Two: he can plot and weave alliances to his heart's content. But so too can the enemy.
In Sarajevo, Austria watches his flag, their flag, their marriage of red and green. He wonders if Hungary can feel it, too—the beginning of an end—as a bullet born of nationalism rips into Ferdinand's throat, and spider-silk connections flare into motion across Europe.
They are all flies in this web of war.
Here come the staccato footsteps of incoming German troops. This is the Anschluss. This is a promise broken.
Austria could protest, but he remembers what happened to Spain, and does not want Vienna to become another Guernica. So he says nothing, welcomes Germany into his home like a long-lost brother, and when the plebiscite comes, he plays along with the Führer's twisted illusion of democracy. Austria is good at killing his heart, and his hand barely trembles as he writes "Ja" over and over again.
He forfeits his name, becomes Ostmark, and silently lines his cities with swastikas.
Austria isn't always good at fighting, but these days, he doesn't need to be.
"I'm neutral now," he says to Switzerland in 1955.
"Welcome to the club," Switzerland says flatly, and Austria almost smiles.
The swastikas are gone. His flag is once more his own, two stripes of red—
(the color of a crusader's surcoat, of the wars he has sworn to forsake)
—and a central band of white.
(The color of ivory piano keys, of moonlit melodies Hungary loved to fall asleep to, of edelweiss on snowy mountaintops.)
It is a good color, for peace.