Title: Ever Closer Union
Fandom: Hetalia
Rating: U
Summary: Sealand's latest brilliant plan to be recognised as a nation involves making a bid for membership in an international organisation. Finding the right one to join, however, is a lot harder than he'd expected.
Disclaimer: All original works are copyright of their respective owners; I lay claim only to this particular story.
Notes: The blame for this piece rests entirely on the shoulders of [livejournal.com profile] daegaer, courtesy of this drabble. Historical and other notes are at the end. (Also available at AO3.)

Ever Closer Union

It had been a busy day at the end of a busy week, and Sealand was feeling very tired by the time he finished tightening the fitting and connection on the length of pipe he'd spent most of the afternoon repairing. But now that the pipe was mended he'd finished all of his chores, and it would be at least an hour until the sun went down, so he quickly put away all of his tools and took the stairs two at a time up to the main deck.

The moment he flung open the door and the rough salt air rushed into his lungs, his tiredness evaporated like morning mist under the summer sun. The sea was choppy (Humber, Thames, southwest 6 or 7, occasionally gale 8 later) and the clouds hung heavy and grey overhead (Occasional rain), but he could see far into the distance (Good, becoming moderate in showers) in all directions. Seagulls were swooping in dizzying arcs overhead, crying out as they fought each other over precious bits of sky. Sealand grinned up at them, then cupped his hands to this mouth and added to their din with a few caws of his own. Giggling at his own silliness, he spun around and raced across the main deck, arms outstretched like a gull's wings, letting the wind whip at his hair and sting his cheeks with its salty sweet chill. There was no better way to end a long day than out here on the main deck, beneath the open sky, with the firmness of steel and concrete under his feet and the waves crashing somewhere far below.

A skip, a leap, and he swung himself up from the main deck to the helipad, collapsing in a happy, breathless heap with his legs dangling over the side. The seagulls were still screaming at each other, but if he tilted his head at just the right angle he could hear the faint, lonely whoonk of a ship's horn somewhere far out in the North Sea.

It was so great to be a nation.

It would be even more great if the other nations actually started treating him like one.

Sealand sighed as a little of his good mood went away. It really wasn't fair. He had his own boss, his own territory (no matter what that jerk England said), his own flag, his own currency, his own stirring and majestic national anthem...what more did he need? He was sure that some of the other nations hadn't even started out with that much. He might be smaller than they were, but you didn't need to have lots of land to be a nation. What you really needed was for others to recognise you -- otherwise, you were just someone else's territory, or colony, or some other kind of property. You couldn't do anything on your own.

England seemed to think that Sealand was still his property. England wouldn't recognise him, wouldn't send diplomats, and had even laughed at him the one time Sealand had offered to host the next International Maritime Organization summit meeting. Oh, you must be joking, he'd sneered. You're not even an associate member state, let alone an actual member, and you damn well won't be either one as long as I have any say in it. Host a bloody summit meeting indeed -- go play pretend somewhere else!

He hated to admit it -- he really hated to admit it -- but England had a point. Sealand wasn't a member of the International Maritime Organization, or of any other group for that matter. Not that he didn't try, of course. He went to every one of the big world meetings, but even when he could sneak around England to avoid being chased out of the building entirely, he spent most of his time wandering the corridors and listening at keyholes, waiting and hoping that someone would see him and invite him in. But no one ever did.

There was no getting around it. If he wanted to be a proper nation, he had to be a full member of an international organisation.

Joining one wouldn't be easy, though. After all, England had already said flat out that he wouldn't let Sealand join the Commonwealth, or the EU, or NATO. Sealand had sulked at first, but after thinking about it he'd decided that he didn't actually want to join the Commonwealth if it meant putting up with stinky old England. Canada was nice and Australia sometimes smiled at him and Seychelles was really pretty, but England was always yelling and complaining and trying to boss everyone around. And England was in the EU and NATO, too, and was probably just as loud and bossy there as well, and who wanted to deal with that all the time?

None of those groups would work. He had to find one that was right for him.

He rolled over onto his back and stuck his feet in the air (it was easier to think that way), and started to make a list of what he wanted most. He wanted to join a group that was big enough to make important decisions about things like defence and trade and the environment (especially if it involved oceans or other large bodies of water), but it couldn't have too many members because then he might be ignored again. And it had to talk about interesting things, at least some of the time. And it couldn't have England as a member, because that wouldn't be any fun.

Maybe it wasn't a very long list, but it was enough for now.

He wondered if he should talk to his boss about the list and see if he'd left anything out, but decided against it. He had to research things first, and maybe ask Sweden and Finland some questions -- they wouldn't laugh at him like some of the others would -- and once his boss saw how much work he'd done he would be very proud of Sealand for doing such a good job at being a proper nation. And soon, that jerk England and all the others would have to recognise him.

The sun was starting to set, and the wind blowing across the helipad was much colder than before. It was almost time to go inside. In a few hours he was supposed to go over to Sweden's house for the weekend, but that was all right. He could use the Internet there, and Sweden had lots of books about politics and economics and other important things that all nations needed to know. Most of them were in Swedish, but some were in English, and he was trying to learn Swedish anyway so he could understand all of Sweden's television shows without needing subtitles. He'd be sure to find plenty of ideas in no time.

He let his feet drop and slid off the edge of the helipad, landing lightly on the main deck. He cupped his hands to his mouth again, but this time he didn't caw like a seagull. Instead, he took a deep breath and shouted across the water as loudly as he could, hoping that England would hear every word:

'Just you wait, you jerk! You'll be begging me to recognise you soon enough!'

He didn't wait to see if England would stick his head outside his house and make a rude gesture at him, like usual. He turned on his heel and skipped inside, his head already filled with plans for the weekend.

****

As he slurped down the last of his cocoa, running his tongue along the inside of the mug to get at all of the chocolatey bits that had stuck to the sides, Sealand decided that now was a good time to take a short break from his work. Not to get more cocoa -- he'd used the last of the chocolate to make the cup he'd just finished, so until Sweden and Finland got back from the market he wouldn't be able to have another one -- but to take stock of all the hard work he'd done so far. (The cocoa was starting to make him feel a little sleepy, anyway, and he didn't want to fall asleep in the middle of his very important research.)

First thing that morning, he had set up everything on the desk in his bedroom -- his laptop, plenty of paper and sharpened pencils, a half-dozen books from Sweden's library that he'd sneaked upstairs the night before -- and went to work immediately after breakfast. He'd stopped just long enough to have a quick lunch and make some vague excuse to Sweden to get out of going shopping that afternoon, then hurried back up to his bedroom and shut the door. He wouldn't be able to do much work in the evening, because Norway and Iceland would be coming over for dinner, so he needed to make as much progress as possible before then.

He had already made quite a lot of progress, in his opinion. He had two browser windows full of open tabs, and he'd covered five whole sheets of paper with notes, including the paper on which he was making a list of all of the groups he was interested in joining. His eyes felt hot and sore from staring at his computer screen all day, and his right hand was starting to cramp from writing so much, but he had no intention of stopping now. A lesser nation -- someone who didn't deserve to be a nation -- would surely have given up long before, but he wasn't going to give up.

All the same, his brilliant idea was turning out to be more work than he'd thought it would be. He hadn't imagined that there were so many groups that a nation could belong to. It was hard enough to go to the big world meetings: how on earth could anyone stay awake long enough to attend all of the other meetings? Though some of the things he'd seen made a lot more sense now -- like how some of the other nations brought pillows and blankets and fuzzy slippers with them into the conference rooms, or how sometimes he'd seen two or even three of them hurrying out of the toilets with messy hair and rumpled clothes and very flushed faces, as if they'd just woken up from a nap. (Why anyone would want to nap in the toilets was a mystery to him; it couldn't be at all comfortable, and they certainly didn't look very rested afterwards.) Regardless, he would have to get plenty of sleep the night before his own meetings if he wanted to avoid nodding off during someone else's presentation.

Even finding a suitable group was much harder than he'd expected. At least some of the ones he looked at were easy to leave out: ASEAN and NAFTA, for instance, were for parts of the world that were nowhere near him, so it didn't make sense to seriously consider them. Most of the big European groups like the OSCE had England in them already, so those were out, too. He didn't speak French or Spanish or Portuguese, so all those groups for nations who spoke other languages wouldn't be right for him. And England would really have a fit if he tried to drill for oil below his seabed, so he couldn't join OPEC, either. It helped him narrow down his choices, but it was still hard to find a group where he might feel like he belonged.

It would be especially nice to be in a group with Latvia. Latvia was in both the EU and NATO, but he'd once told Sealand that he often felt left out of both groups because he had joined them so recently. (If it wasn't for that jerk England, Sealand would jump at the chance to join them and spend more time with his friend -- no one would be able to ignore both of them, not together.) Latvia had been in some other large groups as well, like Comecon and the Warsaw Pact, but both of those were no longer around, and Sealand knew better than to ask Latvia about anything from the time when Latvia had lived in Russia's house. He was curious about them, of course, but he'd never forgotten how England had pulled him aside during one of the first world meetings he'd tried to attend and told him that he must never, ever be alone in the same room with Russia -- and something in his voice told Sealand that this wasn't something to argue about. Maybe there were some groups that it was better not to join.

Still, he kept looking, searching for other organizations that might be more interesting and adding them to his list. There was the Nordic Council, which he was practically in already even if Sweden and the others hadn't ever officially invited him, but then he would have to sit in meetings with Denmark and Denmark could be almost as much of a jerk as England was sometimes. The Central Commission for Navigation on the Rhine sounded like a much better idea. Navigation was all about keeping ships safe, wasn't it? A very important goal, especially for an island nation. And the Rhine flowed into the North Sea, which was right where he lived, so even if he wasn't on the Rhine he at least had a reason to be interested in where the ships went. He underlined that one twice and put a star next to it for good measure.

No matter what group he decided to join, the tricky part would come when he actually made his application. No one would take him seriously unless he knew the right words to use. He had to show the other nations that he knew exactly what he was talking about and why it was right to let him join. Most of the books and articles he'd been reading all day used big words like neofunctionalism and supranationality and technocratic automacity, and even if he didn't entirely understand them he knew that he would have to learn all about them if he wanted to sound like he was an acceptable candidate for membership. One of his pages of notes was covered with nothing but those big words.

Maybe it would be a good idea to make flashcards.

He looked over his list of groups again, skimming it for the ones he had marked as most important. One group in particular kept catching his eye. It had only four members, which was a little smaller than he'd hoped for, but at least there would be plenty of room for him to make himself heard. It had been around for several decades, and it dealt with free trade in Europe, and England wasn't in it at all. It seemed like the perfect choice.

And to make things even more perfect, two of the group's four members might be downstairs in Sweden's kitchen right this very moment.

Sealand closed his laptop, picked up his empty mug, and looked over his notes one last time. A little flutter of nervousness rippled in the pit of his stomach, but he squashed it down. He wouldn't have a better chance than this one, and he had to make the best of it.

Mug in hand, he left his bedroom and clattered down the stairs, making a beeline for the kitchen.

Sure enough, Norway and Iceland were sitting at the kitchen table, drinking coffee and picking at a plate of cake left over from last night's dessert. Hanatamago was curled up on the floor between their feet, warm and content in the cozy darkness under the chairs.

As Sealand walked into the kitchen, Hanatamago blinked sleepily at him and thumped her tail once before settling down to continue her afternoon nap. Norway looked up from his coffee and gave him a little nod. Iceland glanced his way, but didn't nod. Sealand returned Norway's nod, ignored Iceland in turn, and headed for the fridge.

'Almost forgot you were here this weekend,' Norway said, without any other greeting. 'Thought you'd be out with Sweden and Finland.'

'I had more important things to do,' Sealand said, a little huffily -- and then remembered that he would have to be more polite if he wanted to get them on his side. 'I mean, I was in the middle of some very important work, and wanted to finish it this afternoon.'

Norway picked up the coffee pot and began to refill his cup. 'Mm.'

'I was reading.' Sealand took the carton of milk from the fridge and poured some into his own mug, swirling it to collect the sludgy layer of chocolate that had settled at the bottom. 'And taking notes.'

'Mm,' Norway said again, and handed Iceland the coffee pot. Iceland seemed more interested in the coffee than the conversation.

'And it's a good thing that you're here, because I wanted to ask both of you a question.' Sealand put the carton back into the fridge and closed the door, all very casual and natural.

Norway paused in mid-sip, peering at him over the rim of the cup. 'Mm?'

It was now or never. 'Can I join EFTA?'

Norway made a startled noise into his cup, somewhere between a gurgle and a very wet cough. Iceland, who had been about to refill his own cup, set the coffee pot down and reached for the napkin holder right beside it without missing a beat. He deposited the napkin holder in front of Norway, then turned to look at Sealand with his usual flat stare.

It took a handful of napkins and several more wet coughs before Norway was able to respond to Sealand's question. ' -- what?'

'The European Free Trade Association,' Sealand declared, clear and confident. 'Founded on the third of May 1960, following the draft agreement set forth in the Stockholm Convention of -- '

'All right, enough,' Norway said weakly, holding up his hands. 'Enough with the history lesson. We heard you the first time.'

Iceland's eyes darkened. 'Did England put you up to this?'

'No one put me up to it!' Especially not England, Sealand thought grumpily, though he didn't say so out loud. 'I came up with the idea all by myself, and I've been reading lots of books about it and taking notes and everything! And I've decided that want to be a member of EFTA, and you're both members, and I knew you were coming over this afternoon so I thought I'd ask you first. So can I join?'

Norway shook his head slowly, disbelievingly. 'I don't know what books or whatever you've been reading, but...really, you don't want to join EFTA.'

Sealand frowned. 'Why not?'

'Because it's...well, EFTA is...I mean, you don't want....' He shot a desperate glance across the table. 'You tell him, Iceland.'

'Don't try to pass this off on me,' Iceland said, picking up his mug again. 'You helped found it, you explain it to him.'

Norway glared at his younger brother, then turned back to Sealand. 'It's just some boring old officials talking about...about boring economic things,' he said. 'Tariffs and exports and quotas -- why would you want to join something like that?'

'But you're in it!' Sealand protested. He looked over at Iceland, who was still regarding him with suspicion. 'Both of you are! And Switzerland and Liechtenstein are in it, too, and my book said that England an' Sweden an' Finland an' lots of other nations were in it once but now they're not.' All of a sudden, he realised that he might have said something that would make Norway and Iceland feel bad. 'Did they leave because you had a fight?'

'What?' Norway sighed. 'No, Sealand, they didn't leave because we had a fight.'

Iceland raised an eyebrow. 'Speak for yourself.'

'Oh, whatever.'

'Don't roll your eyes at me,' Iceland snapped, with more emotion than Sealand usually heard from him. 'You didn't have England's little bath-time toys taking potshots at you every time you set foot outside your own front door.'

Norway looked exasperated. 'That was decades ago.'

'There's no point in continuing this until we get a few facts straight here.'

'Then you'll have to regale him with the thrilling saga of the Cod Wars, because I sure as hell won't be able to do it and keep a straight face.'

'All right, fine -- forget I said anything.' Iceland turned back to Sealand, who was trying very hard not to look as confused as he felt. 'Why exactly do you want to join EFTA?'

Sealand scuffed the toe of one slipper on the floor and ducked his head, peering up at Iceland through his eyelashes. ''Cause you're in it,' he said, soft and a bit shy.

Iceland gave him the same raised eyebrow he had given Norway earlier. 'That's not a good reason.'

Sealand scowled, all attempt at cuteness dropped. He'd forgotten that that sort of thing didn't work on Iceland. ''Cause I wanna trade and negotiate things and do all the stuff that everyone else gets to do at meetings all the time but can't because everyone always ignores me even when I wave my hand really really high in the air! And -- ' He took a deep breath, and tried to remember what his books and articles had said. 'And I am willing to accept some voluntary functional spillover in my, um...my in-ter-gov-ern-men-tal approach to free trade expansion and tariff harmonification as part of a broader increm...incren...incremen...incremenentalist strategy!' he finished triumphantly.

Iceland and Norway stared at him for a long moment, and then looked at each other.

Sealand looked from one to the other, bouncing a little on his toes.

Before anyone could say anything, Hanatamago suddenly sat up, and a split-second later she dashed out of the kitchen and down the hall that led to the front door. As the jingle of her collar tags grew fainter, the three of them heard the rattle-click of a key turning in the lock, followed by a volley of cheerful barks as the door creaked open.

'We're back!' Finland called out, raising his voice to be heard over the little dog's excited yips. 'Is anyone -- oof, Hana, get down! -- anyone in?'

In the kitchen, Iceland and Norway were still looking at each other. Neither of them responded to Finland's greeting; they sat very still, their coffee and cake long since forgotten.

'You want to be the one to tell Sweden?' Iceland said quietly.

'You do it,' said Norway, just as quietly. 'I...think I need to make a phone call.'

Sealand beamed. He knew those big important words would do the trick. And he hadn't even needed to make flashcards.

****

At dinner that night, Sealand ate every bit of food on his plate and politely asked for seconds. Normally, he would slip a few scraps of meat into his napkin to feed to Hanatamago later, but he didn't want to do anything that might get him in trouble. He wanted to be on his absolute best behaviour this evening, because something was definitely going to happen.

He had known that Norway and Iceland would be staying for dinner, which wasn't that unusual. What was unusual was that Denmark had come over for dinner as well -- 'since you so generously invited me, little bro', he'd said when he arrived, gleefully grabbing Norway and putting him in a headlock until Norway kicked him in the shins and broke free -- and was alternately grinning at all of them and eating his way through a small mountain of dilled potatoes. Norway and Iceland hadn't looked up from their plates once, and Finland was giving them worried looks even as he kept up a rapid flow of chatter to prevent an awkward silence from descending over the table. Only Sweden seemed to be acting normally, which meant that he ate slowly and methodically, listening to everything Finland was saying without offering more than a word or two of his own.

When the dinner dishes were cleared away, Sweden brought out coffee and a roll cake for dessert, and everyone took a slice. It was full of cloudberry jam and whipped cream, just how Sealand liked it, but as he ate he felt his stomach fluttering with the same sort of nervousness that had tried to get the better of him earlier in the day. Should he mention his conversation with Norway and Iceland? Should he wait for them to bring it up? Why weren't they saying anything? He was sitting right in front of them, and it wasn't as if they'd be saying something he wouldn't understand, or talking about him behind his --

Oh. Maybe that was it. He knew enough about world meetings to know that most of the real negotiations didn't happen in the meeting rooms. Maybe Norway and Iceland wanted to talk to Finland and Sweden first, without him in the room, just to be sure that they didn't have any objections to Sealand joining EFTA. It was only fair, after all. Considering what Iceland had said about England and whatever had happened during the 'Cod Wars', he didn't want to start another fight -- though it only confirmed his opinion that applying for membership in a group without that jerk England had been a very smart decision.

There were two or three forkfuls of cake left on his plate, so he mashed them all together and scooped them up, swallowing the whole thing in a single bite. Once he had licked the last of the jam from his lips, he set his fork down and faked a huge yawn, covering his mouth with his hand. 'Boy, I'm tired! It's been a long day. I think I'll go to bed in a minute.'

'Bed?' Finland said, sounding startled, and glanced at his watch. 'Are you sure? It's barely eight o'clock.'

'Really? It's that late?' He faked another yawn, slightly smaller this time, because now everyone was looking at him and he didn't want to make his departure too obvious. 'Well, bedtime for me!' Smiling brightly, he slid out of his chair and picked up his plate, fork, and napkin. 'Good night, everyone!'

Finland's smile didn't seem quite as cheerful as usual, but he returned Sealand's smile nonetheless. 'Good night, Sealand.'

'G'night,' Sweden said, giving him the tiniest of nods. Without another word, he picked up the cake knife and began to cut another slice of roll cake for himself.

Norway and Iceland mumbled good-nights to him as well. Denmark, still grinning, reached out and tried to ruffle his hair as he walked past, but Sealand was too quick for him and managed to dodge out of the way.

In the kitchen, he rinsed his plate and fork in the sink and added them to the washing-up pile, then ran upstairs and went through the motions of getting ready for bed: washing his face, brushing his teeth, clomping around the bedroom to make it sound like he was changing into pyjamas. But he left his clothes on, and when he got into bed he made sure to pull the sheets right up to his neck in case someone came to check on him. Now all he had to do was turn out the light and wait for a while, then slip back down the stairs and listen in on their conversation. Sweden and the others always sat around and talked over their coffee after dinner, and he was sure that the main topic of discussion that evening would be him.

After what felt like an hour, but was really less than twenty minutes according to his alarm clock, he pushed back the sheets and swung his legs out of bed. He made his way across the room with slow and careful steps, edged out into the hall, and crept back downstairs, avoiding all the floorboards that he knew would creak.

The dining room was dark and empty, but he could hear voices coming from the kitchen and water running in the sink. Skirting the edge of the wall, he tiptoed towards the kitchen until he was within earshot, and strained to hear what was being said over the noise of the running water and the clatter of dishes being washed. He didn't have to strain for long, because when the water stopped running the first thing he heard was Iceland's voice, finishing a sentence that was exactly what he'd hoped to hear:

' -- was what he said.'

'I see.' That was Finland, and there was a clink that sounded like a plate being set on the counter. He and Sweden would be doing the washing-up, of course. 'Did England give him this idea?'

'I asked that already,' Iceland said. 'He said he thought of it on his own.'

'And then he started talking about voluntary functional spillover,' Norway added, flatly.

'Voluntary functional...oh, dear.' Finland sighed. He sounded as if he had a headache, or at least the beginnings of one.

'Where does he even learn these things?' Iceland said.

'I don't know, but one of us will have to have a long talk with him.'

'Why're you all getting so worked up about this?' That was Denmark, louder than the others. 'It's not like anything'll come of it.'

'I just don't want him thinking about that kind of thing right now,' Finland said. 'His international legal status is still uncertain -- '

('That's one way of putting it,' he heard Iceland mutter.)

' -- and I don't want him getting his hopes up.'

'Eh, he'll find some other shiny thing to distract him soon enough,' Denmark said. 'Kid's got the attention span of a fruit fly, and that's on a good day.' He chuckled, not very kindly. 'Besides, maybe he'll do a little more research and figure out that everyone knows that EFTA's the sore losers club, anyway.'

Finland sighed again. 'Denmark -- '

'You want to come over here and say that?' Norway said, sharp and threatening.

'Why? You planning to referendum me to death?' Denmark snickered. 'Maybe I should come over and hold your hand until you get over being scared of playing with the big boys already.'

'Spoken like a true Europhile,' Iceland said dryly. 'How interesting, since as I recall you spent most of the first Maastricht referendum hiding under your bed.' He snorted, a very rude sound. 'Did England come over and hold your hand for the second one? Having a nice little tea party, just the two of you playing with your opt-outs -- '

Sealand heard the angry scrape of a chair's legs on the kitchen floor. 'Look here, you little whelp,' Denmark snarled, 'I'd be happy to opt out a few of your teeth, if you catch my drift -- '

'Enough.'

Sweden's voice wasn't very loud, but it silenced the rising argument as effectively as a fist pounding on the table. Sealand felt gooseflesh tingling on his arms just imagining the look on Sweden's face.

'Sealand wants t' join EFTA,' Sweden said, after a weighty pause. 'He asked you. So let 'm ask Sw'tzerland, too.'

'You can't be -- ' Norway began, at the same time that Finland said, 'Sweden, what are you -- '

''S not your decision t' make alone,' said Sweden firmly, cutting both of them off. 'He needs t' talk with Sw'tzerland.'

'Yeah, well, good luck getting that trigger-happy nutcase to go along with anything,' Denmark grumbled, and then said in a louder voice, 'So, are we done here? Not that I don't love our little family chats, but some of us have more interesting places to be on a Saturday night.'

'I should be going, too,' Norway said. 'You coming, Iceland?'

There were more sounds of chairs moving and other noises from the kitchen, but Sealand wasn't listening anymore. By the time the water started running in the sink again, he was already halfway down the hall, tiptoeing as fast as he could to the front door.

****

Slipping out of Sweden's house was easy, as was taking the shortcut through Denmark's garden. Germany and Luxembourg's houses were more difficult to sneak past, because of their dogs, but Sealand took his time and was extra careful to keep close to the borders in case he needed to make a hasty dive into Belgium's flowerbeds or over Netherlands' hedgerows. When he made it past both places without hearing so much as a bark, he took it as a good sign, and paused just long enough to make sure that his hat was on straight before he started up the long, steep walk to Switzerland's house.

He had never visited Switzerland before, though he had seen him at some of the big world meetings. Switzerland didn't always attend them, and he usually didn't look very happy to be there even when he was attending them, but whenever he did attend he was always on time and never seemed to fall asleep during the presentations like the others did. Sometimes Liechtenstein was with him, though she seldom said anything unless whoever was chairing the meetings directly called on her. Sealand knew that the two of them were very close, like a brother and sister, so if they both agreed that he could join EFTA then he was positive that Norway and Iceland would have to say yes, too.

He started walking a little faster, getting more excited by the minute. Even though it was long since dark out, it was a nice evening and the moon was high in the sky, giving him plenty of light to see by. He could see Switzerland's house already, looking neat and well-kept at the top of a hill not far away. In fact, he noticed, it looked like he could reach it in even less time if he cut through the little wooded area at the foot of the hill. The path he was on would get him there eventually, but there was a gap in the bushes that he could just squeeze through, and doing so would put him that much closer to Switzerland's front door.

As he pushed through the bushes, he couldn't help but grin. Even if his original plan wasn't going exactly as he had expected it would, everything was working out even better than he had hoped. Once he reached the top of the hill --

Before he could finish that thought, a sudden blaze of light turned the whole world white.

Instinctively, he flung his hands up, trying to shield his eyes from the blinding glare. Only by squinting through his fingers could he see that he was actually surrounded by searchlights, more than a dozen of them, all of them shining so brightly that it felt like he was looking straight into the sun. Hands still over his face, he stumbled backwards, only to blunder into one of the bushes he had just sneaked past. His feet slipped out from under him, and he tumbled to the ground.

The fall knocked the wind out of him, but the bush blocked some of the light, enough for him to lie still for a moment and blink away the white spots dazzling his sight. Once he had his breath back, he rolled over onto his belly and tried to peer around the leaves, but he hadn't raised his head more than an inch from the ground when he heard an angry shout that made him flatten himself against the dirt.

'Who's out there? Show yourself at once, or I'll blast you out of hiding!'

It was Switzerland's voice, and he sounded furious.

Still flat against the ground, Sealand tried to crawl away from the painfully bright lights, towards the better cover of the denser bushes and trees, but he didn't get far before a loud crack echoed through the night air -- and a bullet slammed into the trunk of a tree right above his head. He let out a terrified yelp as the bullet's impact sent a shower of bark fragments and leaves raining down onto him.

Trigger-happy nutcase, Denmark's words echoed in his head. Now he knew what Denmark had meant.

'That was your only warning, trespasser!' he heard Switzerland bark. 'The next one won't miss!'

Switzerland's house was ablaze with light now, the house lights glaring from the windows on the upper floors and the searchlights illuminating the ground all around it. Sealand knew that he was trapped. If he tried to stay hidden, Switzerland would keep shooting at him. If he came out in the open and gave himself up, Switzerland might still try to shoot him. Panic was turning his legs to jelly; he had to move one way or the other before they gave out entirely.

Desperately, Sealand flung himself away from the tree, staggering out of the tangle of bushes and into the open. He couldn't see anything but the searchlights, so the moment he was free of the bushes he dropped to his knees and threw his hands in the air.

'Don't shoot!' he wailed. 'Don't shoot me, please!'

He squinched his eyes tight shut, steeling himself for the sound of the shotgun's crack. But instead, he heard another voice, high and urgent:

'Brother, wait!'

'Liechtenstein, get away from that window!' Switzerland ordered.

'But brother, it's Sealand!'

'Who?'

Sealand's arms were starting to shake from the strain of keeping his hands in the air, but he didn't dare lower them. The lights were too bright for him to open his eyes. He held as still as he possibly could, heart thudding in his ears, until he felt the vibrations of footsteps through the ground around him. He sucked in a deep breath, bracing for the sudden shock of a hand grabbing his arm or seizing him by the collar to haul him to his feet.

'Sealand? What are you doing here?'

Abruptly, the glare that was making his eyeballs ache went away, as if something had come between him and the searchlights. Sealand opened his eyes a crack, just enough to see a blurry shape standing over him.

'I....' he started to say, but nothing else made it out of his mouth. His head hurt, and the white spots were flashing in front of his eyes again, and he wasn't able to stop himself from pitching forward.

The last thing he knew, before the darkness swallowed him up, was that someone caught him before he hit the ground.

****

His forehead was cold and wet, he could feel a drop of water trickling down the edge of his ear, and it was all very annoying. He'd just fixed that ventilation shaft over his bed; it shouldn't be leaking anymore.

Feeling groggy and sore, he started to roll over and reached up to wipe the dripping water away from his face. As he turned, though, the cold and wet feeling began to slip down the side of his forehead, and his fingers closed around a damp piece of cloth.

It slowly dawned on him that he wasn't in his bed at home, or even in the bed he slept in over at Sweden's house. He was lying on a sofa, holding onto a wet washcloth -- and that was as far as he got before a gentle, concerned voice cut into his thoughts:

'Are you all right?'

Sealand turned his head in the direction of the voice, and saw Liechtenstein sitting in a chair drawn up next to the sofa. She was wearing a long robe dotted with a pattern of blue and white flowers, the cuffs of her pyjamas peeking out of the lace trim on the sleeves. She was smiling at him, but her eyes were worried.

'I...I think so?' He tried to sit up, and Liechtenstein quickly leaned forward to help him, supporting his shoulders as he found a more comfortable position on the sofa. He glanced around at the room, but nothing about the furniture or wallpaper was at all familiar to him. 'Where am I?'

'The sitting room,' Liechtenstein said. 'In my brother's house.'

'Oh.' Things were starting to make more sense now, and with that understanding came a hot flush of embarrassment that made his ears and cheeks burn. 'Did I...I didn't wake you up, did I?' He immediately wanted to kick himself for asking such a stupid question -- why else would she be dressed for bed? -- which only made his blushing worse.

'Oh, please don't worry about that!' Liechtenstein's own cheeks grew a little pink, as if Sealand's embarrassment was starting to affect her, too. 'You see, my brother -- '

Before she could explain anything more, the door at the far end of the room flew open. Startled, Sealand gave a frightened squeak and seized Liechtenstein's hand as Switzerland strode into the room.

Even if Liechtenstein was wearing pyjamas, Switzerland looked like he had never been to bed in the first place. He was fully dressed in the military-looking uniform that Sealand remembered him wearing at the world meetings, and he was scowling as if he hated everything and everyone and didn't care who knew it. When he saw Sealand sitting up on the couch, his scowl deepened further.

'Ah, he's awake,' he said, looking Sealand up and down with a critical eye. 'Sealand, is it?'

Sealand gulped, and nodded weakly.

'To be frank, I can't say that I'm sorry for scaring you. You should know better than to go sneaking around someone else's house in the dead of night.' He stalked across the room, and Sealand shrank back into the sofa cushions as he approached. 'Well? What do you have to say for yourself?'

'I...I'm v-very s-s-sorry, Mister Switzerland, sir,' Sealand managed to quaver, his lower lip trembling. The older nation didn't seem to have his shotgun with him, but Sealand couldn't bring himself to let go of Liechtenstein's hand just yet. 'I d-didn't mean to -- '

Switzerland waved a hand dismissively. 'Yes, yes, consider yourself apologised,' he snapped. 'And consider yourself fortunate that you managed to avoid having a more permanent reminder of my general approach to trespassers. Now what on earth is so vitally important that it couldn't have waited until normal business hours?'

The experience of being shot at had all but driven the initial purpose of his visit out of Sealand's mind. He gaped at Switzerland for several seconds before he remembered why he had sneaked out of bed and travelled halfway across Europe in the first place.

'I...um, th-that is, I w-wanted to ask you....' It wasn't until that moment that he realised that most nations probably wouldn't consider it at all appropriate to go dashing over to someone else's house late at night and waking them up -- not unless it was a real emergency, and he suspected that this didn't count as a real emergency -- and that maybe, just maybe, Switzerland might have a very good reason to be so angry at him. It didn't help that he was fast losing his nerve under Switzerland's sharp gaze, and before he knew what was happening his original plan to make a proper and dignified formal request fell apart in a rush of words. 'Mister Switzerland, Miss Liechtenstein, can I please join EFTA?'

Liechtenstein's eyes widened.

Switzerland's eyes narrowed.

Sealand wished that the sofa cushions would open up and swallow him whole.

'If this is some sort of demented Anglo-Saxon attempt at humour -- ' Switzerland began ominously.

'No, please listen!' Sealand begged, clinging to Liechtenstein's hand as he looked up at Switzerland. 'England didn't put me up to this, sir, I promise! I did all sorts of reading about it and asked Norway and Iceland first, and they didn't say yes but they didn't say no, and I heard them an' Sweden an' Finland an' Denmark talking and they said I would have to ask you because you and Miss Liechtenstein are EFTA members, too, and I know I shouldn't have come over like this without being invited and I'm very sorry for waking you up, sir, really I am, but I'm so tired of everyone ignoring me in world meetings, and you're not mean to me like that jerk England is even if you did try to shoot me just now, and I really like your chocolate, and...and....' Hot, stinging tears welled up in his eyes, and he bit down on his lip.

'Oh, Sealand....' Liechtenstein patted his hand again, and then let out a soft gasp when Sealand suddenly buried his face in her shoulder so that neither she nor her brother would see him cry.

The long and uncomfortable silence that followed was broken only by Sealand's sniffles, until Switzerland purposefully cleared his throat.

'All right, that's enough crying,' he said, sounding less angry but no less annoyed. He waited until Sealand lifted his blotchy, tear-stained face from Liechtenstein's shoulder before he continued. 'Norway and Iceland said that you'd have to ask me as well, did they? That's more manners than I'd normally give those fish-brains credit for, but no matter. We can discuss this in my office.' He looked over at Liechtenstein, and for a flicker of a second Sealand saw Switzerland's harsh expression soften. 'Liechtenstein, would you please put on a pot of coffee? And you might want to dress as well -- we may be up for a while yet.'

'Of course, brother. I'll bring it to your office when it's ready.' Liechtenstein eased her hand out of Sealand's grip and stood up. 'It's all right,' she said to Sealand, giving him a reassuring smile as she took the washcloth from his hand. 'I'll be back very soon.'

Both Switzerland and Sealand watched her leave. The moment the door closed behind her, Switzerland reached into the breast pocket of his jacket and produced a folded handkerchief.

'Here,' he said stiffly, holding it out to Sealand. 'You're somewhat...damp.'

The handkerchief smelled of lavender and gunpowder, an odd combination, but it was clean and dry and that was what mattered. Sealand scrubbed his face until his cheeks no longer felt wet and then blew his nose. For an awkward moment, he wasn't sure what to do with the sodden handkerchief, so he stuffed it into his pocket and silently vowed to wash it as soon as he could when he got home.

'Follow me,' Switzerland said, and turned on his heel so abruptly that Sealand nearly tripped over his own feet in his scramble to obey.

He fell into a jog-trot at Switzerland's side as they left the sitting room, and did his best to keep up as they wound their way through the house's dimly lit corridors. Before long, Switzerland came to a halt at the end of a hallway, outside a wooden door with a large brass handle, and took out a ring of keys.

Sealand had heard the other nations joke about Switzerland and money, and the jokes they made usually weren't very nice ones. Even Finland, who was as kind-hearted as any nation Sealand knew, had once remarked that Switzerland's idea of a wild spending spree was to buy a new pair of socks before he'd darned the ones he was currently wearing. But when Switzerland opened the door to his office and switched on the light, Sealand had a sudden strong feeling that whatever Switzerland wasn't spending on new socks had probably been spent on this room. It was full of sleek and well-made furniture, all dark wood and black leather and polished steel, with a long conference table in the centre of the room and a massive desk at the far end. Switzerland and Liechtenstein's flags -- full-sized ones, made out of thick and expensive-looking material -- stood on either side of a large presentation screen that took up most of the wall nearest the door.

Switzerland pressed a button just below the light switch, and Sealand inhaled sharply as the room's electronic systems flickered to life. On the wall to the right of the desk, a group of a flat-screen computer monitors glowed softly, and a series of letters and numbers started to move across a long digital display mounted above the monitors, flashing red or green as they scrolled past.

'Wow,' he breathed out. It was a lot to take in all at once.

Switzerland, in the meantime, had walked over to the monitors near his desk. He was studying them intently, a frown creasing his forehead as he examined the complicated charts and graphs that had appeared on the screens.

'Disgraceful,' he muttered to himself. 'I really must speak to Hong Kong about that renminbi bond issue....' He trailed off, and glanced over at Sealand, who had not moved from the doorway. 'Would you care to sit?'

It was phrased like a question, but it sounded more like an order, so Sealand hurried over. He took the guest chair that Switzerland pulled out for him and settled into its squishy-soft leather as Switzerland walked around the desk and sat down in his own chair. Seated and facing him, Switzerland looked very serious and official and business-like, so Sealand folded his hands in his lap and tried to look just as serious and official and business-like in response.

'So you want to join EFTA, do you?' Switzerland said. 'Hardly the usual request these days, what with most nations falling all over themselves to join the EU. Though it's not hard to see why, really -- that lot will let just about anyone in.' His mouth pursed, as if tasting something unpleasant. 'Economy in shambles, exchange rate all over the place, creditors pounding on the door -- no matter, not to worry, just sign them up and slap a euro sign on their foreheads, everything will sort itself out!' He gave Sealand a stern look. 'That's no way to run a trade bloc.'

Sealand sat up a little straighter in his chair. 'Yes, sir -- I mean, no, sir.'

Switzerland nodded, and reached down to open one of the drawers in his desk. 'I took the liberty of running a preliminary background check on you while you were unconscious,' he said, taking out a pen and a pad of paper. 'You should know that I don't normally hold with trading partners who try to auction themselves off on the Internet. Investors don't like that sort of thing. Even a hint of insecurity in one's sovereign debt status plays havoc with the markets.'

Sealand felt his mouth go dry, but he sat up even straighter. 'It won't happen again, sir!' he said hastily. 'It was...it was an attempt to explore a new, um, method of, uh, expanding my global footprint! And....' His voice wobbled, and he blinked several times before the sudden tightness in his throat could made his eyes water again. 'And it...it didn't actually work.'

One corner of Switzerland's mouth twitched slightly. It wasn't exactly a smile, but there was something understanding in it that made the knot in Sealand's throat feel a little less tight. 'Well, we do what we can with the resources we have,' he said. 'I certainly would not fault you on that account. And it shows a certain amount of entrepreneurial spirit, if nothing else.'

Sealand managed a tiny smile of his own. 'I'm trying to be en-tre-pre-neurial,' he said, cautiously picking his way over the word. 'And that's part of why I want to join EFTA, because -- '

Switzerland held up a hand, interrupting him. 'Your reasons for wanting to join EFTA are irrelevant at this juncture,' he declared, and the serious expression was back again. 'What I would like to know more about is why I should want you to join. What can you, as a member, bring to our free trade area?'

Even though Sealand had spent a lot of time thinking about all the things he would do as an EFTA member, Switzerland's question caught him completely off guard. Desperately, he blurted out the first thing he could think of: 'I'm planning to open an Internet casino!'

'I see.' Switzerland jotted a note on the pad in front of him. 'And?'

'And...and I'm right in the middle of a lot of shipping lanes!' Sealand leaned forward, craning his neck to see what Switzerland was writing, but the angle was wrong and he was too far away to make out the words. 'So I know about boats and navigation and everything. And I've been reading lots of books about banking, and taxes, and I can maybe do stuff with oil! Because I do live in the North Sea, after all,' he added, in case Switzerland had forgotten.

'Offshore banking...North Sea petroleum concerns....yes, much as I expected.' Switzerland looked up from his writing, his pen poised over the paper. 'One further question, while I have it in mind: do you have any sensitive political or social concerns of which your prospective trading partners should be aware?' His voice took on a note of warning. 'I suggest that you provide a full disclosure now, because I will not be pleased if I continue my own lines of research and come upon something that you conveniently "forgot" to tell me about.'

'I...don't think so?' Sealand twisted his hands in his lap. 'My boss hasn't ever said anything to me about something like that. But he hasn't really been around much lately, so....' There was no good way to finish the sentence, so he let it fade away. His voice sounded very small and echo-y in the big, fancy office.

'Liechtenstein's had to deal with absent bosses as well over the years,' Switzerland said quietly, once it was clear that Sealand didn't have anything more to say. 'One of the inherent problems of having a ruling house. You might consider talking with her about it, principality to principality.' He replaced the cap on his pen and set both it and the pad of paper to one side. 'On the face of it, though, it seems a bothersome but not wholly unworkable problem.'

As Switzerland's words sank in, Sealand bolted upright so fast that he almost fell out of his chair. 'So you really think that I could -- '

'There's the little difficulty of formal diplomatic recognition, but we can deal with that later,' Switzerland replied, with a calm assurance that made Sealand's heart beat even faster. 'Everyone has to start somewhere. And in this instance -- oh, thank you, Liechtenstein, let me help with that.'

Head spinning, almost dizzy with delight, Sealand hadn't heard the office door open behind him. He watched, dazed, as Switzerland stood up and moved out from behind the desk. A nagging little voice in the back of his mind told him that he should stand up too and offer to help like a well-mannered guest, but before he could find his feet Liechtenstein was already sitting in a chair that Switzerland had found for her, and with a rattle of crockery Switzerland set a large tray down on the desk. On the tray were three mugs and two coffee pots, along with several spoons and napkins and a plate of chocolate-covered biscuits. The rich smell of coffee and chocolate all mixed together made his mouth water.

'You haven't missed anything,' Switzerland said to Liechtenstein as he took his seat again. 'We were only discussing a few initial concerns I had about Sealand's proposition.' He picked up the closest mug, a red-and-white-striped one, but before he could bring it halfway to his mouth he paused, squinting in confusion at the fluffy peaks of whipped cream that were threatening to spill over the rim. 'Is this...cocoa?'

'For Sealand.' Liechtenstein neatly lifted the striped mug from Switzerland's hands and replaced it with a plain blue one. 'Here's your coffee, brother.'

Sealand eagerly took the red-and-white-striped mug when Liechtenstein held it out to him, and without waiting for it to cool he took a long sip. His eyes drifted shut in a moment of pure bliss even as the scalding hot chocolate burned his tongue and the roof of his mouth.

'Is it all right?'

Sealand opened his eyes to see Liechtenstein smiling at him. 'Yes'm,' he said immediately, and felt his cheeks grow warmer -- which was only to be expected when drinking cocoa, he told himself.

'There's more in the white pot there, when you finish that cup.' Liechtenstein held out the plate of biscuits. 'Would you like one?'

'Yes, thank you.' He took a single biscuit, not wanting to seem too greedy. Liechtenstein gave him a napkin to catch any crumbs, and he nibbled at the biscuit while she and Switzerland finished serving themselves.

The cocoa was delicious and the biscuit was very good, but the best part of all was the feeling that finally, after all this time, someone was taking him seriously. After all, Norway and Iceland hadn't asked him proper questions or taken notes or anything. Even if Switzerland was a little scary -- or more than a little scary -- he seemed to understand why Sealand was so determined to join EFTA, and that made getting shot at almost worthwhile.

Switzerland finished his biscuit and took a long sip of coffee, then reached for a napkin. Once his hands were clean, he turned back to Sealand, all business once more. 'Now, where were we?'

Sealand quickly devoured the rest of his biscuit and gulped a mouthful of cocoa. 'Formal diplomatic recognition?' he said, hopefully.

'As I said, we will deal with that later.' Switzerland opened one of the other drawers in his desk and took out a thick black binder, just like the ones that Sealand often saw the other nations carrying during the world meetings. 'You can start by filling this out.'

He held the binder out to Sealand, who took it and opened it -- and blinked when he saw that the first page was full of blank boxes, all numbered in different sections.

'Your basic financial assessment,' Switzerland said. 'Current balance of payments figures, international investment position, existing forex controls, base tax and tariff rates. Nothing you can't rattle off in your sleep.'

Sealand turned to the second page, and then the third, and saw more and more blank boxes, and different sections, and instructions that told him to see Annex 2.1 for further information on reporting hedges of anticipated future currency transactions, and he hadn't even reached the middle of the binder before he started to get a sinking feeling in his stomach.

'Um,' he said, because he couldn't think of anything else.

Switzerland poured some more coffee for himself. 'You understand, of course, that we will have to establish a comprehensive free trade agreement before considering your full accession to EFTA,' he said. 'This assessment will help us prepare a feasibility study on closer trade and investment relations, and draft an agenda for exploratory discussions.'

'Um,' Sealand said again. The sight of all of the blank boxes was making his eyes cross. 'Can I, uh, take this home with me to, um...to look over it?'

'There's nothing binding in it,' Switzerland said, his brow furrowing at Sealand's request. 'No need for a signature or anything official that your boss might need to examine first. It's merely to establish a point of reference for further negotiations.'

Sealand looked down at the binder, then up at Switzerland, then over at Liechtenstein, and then back down at the binder. He caught his lower lip between his teeth and chewed on it.

Switzerland set his coffee cup to one side. 'If it helps to assuage your concerns, Liechtenstein and I consider it a matter of both personal and national integrity to respect the confidentiality of any financial information provided to us. You have my word that nothing will go beyond this room.'

'We can help you with it, if you want,' Liechtenstein offered. She sounded so nice and understanding that it made Sealand's throat feel tight again.

He couldn't keep looking down at the binder, and he didn't want to look back at them, so he looked over at the monitors on the nearby wall. A new chart kept appearing on each screen every few seconds. To Sealand, they all looked like jagged squiggles, but each chart had a title in big capital letters -- LIBOR or PALLADIUM or BRENT CRUDE or UK GILT -- so clearly they all meant something important. The long string of numbers and letters, some red and some green, kept scrolling across the digital display above the monitors.

Was this what it meant to be in an international organisation? Would he have to know what all those jagged squiggles and scrolling numbers meant? Part of him desperately wanted to drop the binder on Switzerland's desk and run out the door, but he couldn't bring himself to be so rude -- not after he'd woken Switzerland and Liechtenstein up, not after they'd brought him inside and made him cocoa and talked to him as if he were a proper nation and gone to all this trouble over him. And if he ran out the door, he would never be able to join EFTA, and no one would ever take him seriously again, and that jerk England would probably smirk at him and call him a scaredy-cat or even worse names, and Sealand wouldn't be able to do a thing about it.

He couldn't give up. Not after he'd come this far. So he drew a deep breath, sat up straight and squared his shoulders, and met Switzerland's eyes with fierce determination.

'Okay,' he said, and his voice didn't wobble at all. 'Where do I start?'

****

When Finland discovered that Sealand had sneaked out of the house after pretending to go to bed, his first thought was to dash out and attempt to rescue the unfortunate micronation from the inevitable consequences of paying an unexpected visit to Switzerland's house. Sweden, however, seemed far less concerned about the whole affair. To Finland's astonishment, no amount of persuading could convince him to leave the house and go after Sealand.

'Y' worry too much,' was all that Sweden would say, with a slight shake of his head. 'He'll b' back soon.'

Long years of experience with Sweden's unique form of stubbornness was enough to convince Finland that there was no point in arguing the matter. Reluctantly, he settled for the compromise of sitting up downstairs to wait for Sealand to come back.

For all of his fretting, Finland the first to nod off on the sofa, only to wake with a start when Sweden's doorbell rang just as the morning sun was starting to filter into the room. By the time he disentangled himself from the blanket that Sweden had draped over him at some point and managed to reach the hallway, Sweden was already at the door, gently lifting a sleeping Sealand from Switzerland's arms.

'Put 'm to bed,' Sweden murmured, before Finland could say a word, and started up the stairs. As they disappeared from view, Finland heard Sealand mumble something that sounded oddly like gross domestic product before the words trailed off into a faint snore.

Finland turned back to Switzerland, who was still standing on the doorstep, and gave him an apologetic but relieved smile. 'Thank you so much for bringing him home,' he said. 'I hope he wasn't too much trouble for -- '

'He was,' Switzerland cut in, brusquely. 'But I doubt that he will try something like that again.'

With effort, Finland kept his smile in place. 'Would you like to come in? For coffee, or for breakfast?'

Switzerland shook his head. 'Thank you, but no. The goats need milking, and I have a few other matters to attend to before noon, so I will take my leave. Good day to you both.' And with that, he gave a curt nod and turned away, leaving Finland to close the door and head upstairs to help Sweden tuck Sealand in.

Sealand spent most of the day asleep, waking only in the late afternoon to wander downstairs for dinner. He was very quiet, and said nothing about his adventures of the evening before, but he did not appear to be upset or depressed. If anything, he seemed lost in thought, chewing his food with a solemn steadiness and giving only one- or two-word responses to any of Finland's delicate attempts to ask him how he was feeling. Finland chose not to press the matter, and Sweden was no more talkative than usual, and so Sealand's midnight escapades in central Europe went by without comment.

And that, strangely enough, seemed to be an end of it. Sealand never mentioned wanting to join EFTA again, not to Norway or Iceland or anyone else. Both of them promised Finland that they would tell him right away if Sealand ever brought it up, but after more than a month went by without any further talk about voluntary functional spillover, the Nordic nations were willing to assume that there was no need to worry about Sealand making a renewed bid for EFTA membership.

One weekend not long after when Sealand was visiting Sweden's house, Finland found the young micronation lying sprawled on the living room floor with a mug of cocoa at his side and his chin propped on his hands, staring at his laptop. Finland was about to ask him to move to the sofa, but before he could open his mouth Sealand looked up at him with bright, hopeful eyes.

'Finland, can you teach me how to ski?' he asked.

Finland blinked, startled by the suddenness of the question. 'Why, of course, if you'd like to,' he said. 'The best slopes won't open for a little while yet, but if you want to try it out we can go as soon as the snow is deep enough. What brought this up?'

'They were showing it on TV!' Sealand replied. 'And I was looking up more about it online, and it looks really fun.'

Finland smiled. 'I think you'll like it,' he said. 'Now, why don't you find somewhere nicer to sit? It can't be at all comfortable on the floor.'

Sealand twitched his shoulders in a half-shrug. 'Oh, I don't mind. It's good for training.'

'Training?' Finland frowned. 'For what?'

'For stuff.' Sealand rolled over onto his side and reached for his mug. 'I'm going to make some more cocoa -- would you like a cup, too?'

Finland's frown deepened a little at Sealand's vague reply. 'No, that's all right.'

Without another word, Sealand collected his mug and got to his feet, leaving his laptop where it was on the floor. He was out of the room before Finland could think to ask him to move it.

Shaking his head, Finland bent down to retrieve the laptop. Sealand hadn't bothered to close the lid or set it to sleep, and several browser windows were open on the screen. Finland was on the point of closing it, but one glance at the screen and he stopped, eyes widening at what he saw.

The first browser window, right on top, displayed the Web site of the International Olympic Committee, open to the official list of the national Olympic committees of all participating countries.

Peeking out below that window was a window open to a popular online encyclopedia, featuring an article on Biathlon at the Winter Olympics.

The third window, off to one side, was an Internet shop that offered the finest range in sporting and competition rifles for all your shooting needs.

Finland swallowed heavily. 'Sweden?' he called out, with a voice that was not nearly as steady as he wanted it to sound. 'Would you come here for a minute, please?'

A moment later, Sweden appeared in the doorway. 'Hm?'

'You...you might want to see this.' Finland turned the laptop around, showing Sweden the pages that Sealand had left open.

Sweden studied the laptop screen in silence, only the flicker of his gaze from window to window showing any reaction to the revelation of Sealand's latest idea. Finally, he let out a quiet huff of breath, and put a hand on Finland's shoulder.

'Don't worry,' he said, and gave Finland's shoulder a brief squeeze. 'I'll take care 'f it.'

****

Epilogue

'Brother? There's a phone call for you.'

'Thank you, Liechtenstein -- I'll take it in here.'

The slim black telephone barely had time to ring before it was lifted from the receiver.

'Yes, Switzerland speaking -- oh, it's you. I should inform you that if you're calling to lodge a complaint, I have already -- what? No, I said no such thing to him. Well, it's hardly my fault if.... Oh, you cannot be serious. Do you honestly think that I have the time to.... Wait, for how much? I see...and that will include both the full complement of ammunition and expedited processing for the end-user certificates? I see.... Yes, I take your point. In that case, I suppose I may be able to clear a few hours.... Fine, fine, consider this a tentative acceptance. You have my fax number, of course -- I expect to receive the initial paperwork to examine before close of business tomorrow, or I will consider your offer withdrawn. Very well. Goodbye.'

The receiver went back into its cradle just as the office door opened again.

'I made some soup for lunch. Would you like a tray in here?'

'Let's eat in the kitchen. I'll join you once I finish this e-mail. Oh, and Liechtenstein?'

'Yes, brother?'

'If you have time to spare after lunch, I would appreciate it if you would help me take apart and oil the automatic traps. We may be using them soon. And I think I still have most of that last box of clays left, if you wouldn't mind checking on that.'

'Should I order some more?'

'No, not yet. No point in spending the money if we don't have to.'



Notes

The European Free Trade Association (EFTA) is a four-member free trade association that operates parallel to the European Union. It was initially formed in the 1960s as an economic counterweight to the European Economic Community (Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, Luxembourg, and Netherlands, known as 'the Six'), and included Austria, Denmark, Norway, Portugal, Sweden, Switzerland, and the United Kingdom ('the Seven'). Finland, Iceland, and Liechtenstein later joined, but over the years the pull of EU membership was too strong for most of the EFTA nations, and today the only remaining members are Iceland, Liechtenstein, Norway, and Switzerland. (Iceland has recently applied for EU membership, but as of the start of 2012 it is still part of EFTA.)

Sealand's grasp of European integration theory is not the best, but functional spillover is the process by which integration encourages further integration -- stronger economic ties between nations producing deeper political ties, and the like. Most of his other attempts to use theoretical vocabulary vary in their accuracy...but good for him for trying, at least. (That said, the thrilling saga of the Cod Wars deserves a much more elaborate description than I can give it here, though Sealand might be forgiven for thinking that Iceland and England wouldn't be on the best of terms even now.)

Much of this story was written well before the current depths of economic crisis in the EU, so in retrospect Switzerland's scathing assessment of EU membership standards comes across as more harsh than I initially intended. Not that it is wholly inaccurate, but he certainly does not mince words.

In conclusion, I probably owe a blanket apology to several of my European politics and integration theory professors for this shamelessly self-indulgent fic. All the same, I'd like to think that I'm putting their teaching to good use, and I hope that readers find it as enjoyable to read as it was for me to write.


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