Warnings: Suggestive themes, foul language, character death
Characters/Pairings: Prussia-centric, with cameos from the rest of the Germanic nations, North Italy, and some mild Prussia/Spain
Summary: When Prussia was dissolved, he did not die. But as time passes, even greatness fades to dust.
Notes: OH MY LORD I EXIST. Ahem. Wrote this for the aph_historyswap, which was just fabulous. It was kinda hard because I've already written something about the dissolution of Prussia (about a million and a half years ago) but I think I worked it. Beta'd by the darling breagadoir, and the story is laid out in a similar vein to Time's Arrow or, more specifically, the musical The Last Five Years. So I apologize if you get MASSIVELY CONFUSED.
“In accordance to Law number forty-six, of the Allied Control Council, as decided and agreed upon by the heads of the United States of America and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, the Free State of Prussia is officially dissolved.”
This was it. Their declaration, their grand announcement, their spoken funeral dirge for one Gilbert Bielschmidt—the time had come. Gilbert had expected a dramatic death, as if the hand of God were reaching down and stealing him away to be with all other great nations of the past.
But nothing of that sort happened. Gilbert signed his name on the form, below Ivan and Alfred’s, his fingers twitching at the weight of the pen he’d been given. The cut still healing along his forehead throbbed and he waited for the sudden darkness, the rapid beating of his heart to cease, anything that signaled an end—
He didn’t collapse into a boneless heap on the floor before the Council, he didn’t have a grand arsenal of a funeral as thousands of his citizens mourned him and threw flowers as his body passed on a procession into a tomb for all eternity. No, none of that happened. Gilbert had just been roughly pushed back into his seat and sat in a numb haze until the end of the meeting.
February twenty-fifth, 1947. The Free State of Prussia was obliterated, nothing, no more. Not nominally, anyway. Gilbert had wandered home with Ludwig that day (he had no house of his own anymore), sat down on the run-down sofa in the living room, and drank until he no longer remembered who he was, where he was, or what a sofa was.
“Brother,” Ludwig pressed as he sat down beside his brother on the sofa a few hours later. “You know where you’re moving to, right?”
“Why d’you think I’m drinking so much?” Gilbert said through a glass that was pressed to his lips. He closed his eyes and took the last of the liquor in the glass in one tidy gulp, wiping his brow with his forearm and reaching for another bottle from the floor. Ludwig frowned at him but said nothing, just watching Gilbert as he poured himself more.
“I have to report to that—was he limping? Did he have a cane?” Gilbert said suddenly. “I have to go live in his house with Toris, and Eliza, and it’s such a shit show.” Gilbert stared at his liquor, swirled the glass gently, and then tossed back the entire glass with a smack of his lips.
“They’re thinking of building a wall,” Ludwig murmured. Gilbert waved it off. “Have you been feeling sick at all? You look pale, Brother, and you were so sick recently, what with all your people migrating—“
“Pah, let them build a wall, I’ll just have my people tear it down,” Gilbert said as he leaned back into the cushions. “The thousands that are still loyal to me. My name may have changed again but really, it’s just a name, they’ll always be Prussians.”
Gilbert only knew they were at this bar because he overhead Ludwig say the name as he hung up his cellphone. When Gilbert wandered in, he pushed through the smoke and haze and came across a certain round table in the corner, surrounded with all the usual suspects; Elizabeta, with her hair pulled back in a modern style, her hand resting on Roderich’s thigh and her ankle curled around his; Roderich, looking flustered and aroused and only giving eyes to Elizabeta; Lili, with her tall stein of beer, looking precariously out of place but, Gilbert knew she was on at least her third; Vash, looking annoyed; and Ludwig, leaning back, cheeks rosy from liquor.
“There you assholes are,” Gilbert said as he dragged the chair beside Ludwig out and sat down, taking a swig from Roderich’s beer. Ludwig raised an eyebrow but said nothing as Gilbert leaned forward. “Took me forever to find you in here.”
“Well, all that matters is you’re here now,” Lili said, and she gave Gilbert a warm smile. She was wearing a dress that cut lower than normal, but considering the sizable growth spurt she recently had, it was no surprise. Lili sipped delicately from the stein and shifted, her legs crossing at the knee, and Gilbert noticed the new curves her hips took and muscles that moved just beneath her skin. Gilbert stopped looking when he noticed Vash’s eyes on him, and instead looked across the table, to see Roderich and Elizabeta looking sickeningly sweet. Just go and fuck already, Gilbert wanted to say, but he bit his tongue instead and turned away from them.
“So, uh, how was the meeting?” Gilbert asked off-hand. He hadn’t gone to a world meeting in so long, it’s not like it mattered to him, but he wanted a distraction from the show just across from him.
“What’s it matter to you?” Elizabeta asked suddenly, from her position in the crook of Roderich’s neck. Gilbert’s lower lip twitched. “It’s not like you can do anything about whatever happens.”
“It’s nice to know what’s going on around you, though,” Ludwig offered. Gilbert said nothing; he only leaned back, one arm draped over the back of his seat, lips pressed into a thin line.
“Besides, we didn’t invite you to come, anyway, Gilbert,” Elizabeta said, getting louder with each word. Her cheeks were flushed and her face was sweaty—she was drunk. And drunk Elizabeta said whatever came tumbling into her head.
“Lili’s gaining more sovereignty,” Ludwig added in nervously. Elizabeta was shifting in her seat, preparing to verbally berate Gilbert as she normally did. The only difference was he wasn’t nearly as drunk as she was, and they both knew it.
“This table,” she said, jabbing her painted nails into the soft wood, “is for nations only.” Gilbert sniffed indignantly and gave a wave of his thin hand, trying to ignore the ache in his shoulder from sitting in his position for so long.
“I’m the greatest nation here,” he said simply. He took a sizable gulp of Roderich’s drink, pushed himself away from the table, and stood, narrowing his brazen eyes at Elizabeta’s stark expression.
“I’m going to go get my own beer—Rauchbier— and I’ll show you who a real nation is,” Gilbert countered, wobbling slightly as he stalked away from the table and towards the bar.
As soon as he reached the bar, he wedged himself between the people there, hid from view, and stole away into the men’s lavatory instead. There was no one inside; everyone was out in the pub, enjoying themselves in the haze of evening and cigar smoke. Gilbert took a deep breath through his nose and stared at his reflection under the fluorescent lights.
If it weren’t for the fact that his hair was already very light, he was sure someone would have noticed the white streaks running through it. His pallid skin masked the crow’s feet at his eyes and the defined lines around his jaw. His lazy lifestyle hid the aches and pains in his joints and his muscles that had started developing slowly, but increased at a faster rate every week.
No one noticed that he looked older. Much, much older. Gilbert pawed at his face and pulled at his eyelids, inspecting the yellow tint the whites of his eyes had adopted as of late. He hunched over the sink and stared down into the white basin, listening to the sound of his own breath echo. He raised his head once more and stared right into his own eyes, watching his pupils dilate around the crimson iris. He pushed his hair from his forehead and looked at the longer, deeper wrinkles that had formed.
With a heavy sigh Gilbert collapsed forward onto the counter, head on his arms, trying to contain his weariness but failing. Since he’d spend time with the dogs that day he was even more tired than usual, and was having a hard time hiding it from Ludwig.
“Stay strong,” he muttered to himself. “Don’t let Ludwig see you like this, idiot.” He splashed water onto his sweaty skin and ran his hands through his hair, leaving the restroom and heading back towards the bar to retrieve the beer he never got in the first place, while Elizabeta’s words burned into the back of his mind.
“Is this your dog, Alfred?” Ludwig asked, kneeling beside the golden retriever that had trotted into the house behind the other nation. Alfred beamed and clicked his tongue, which caused the golden beast to heel behind him and look up expectantly.
“Yes, this is Sammy. He was getting awfully lonely at home so I thought he could get to know your dogs,” Alfred explained. He was carrying a manila envelope of papers for the German brothers to look over before their ‘very important’ Council meeting in the following week. “And I love your dogs so much, Ludwig!” Ludwig beamed and looked down at his own dogs, who had appeared from the recesses of the house to inspect this new visitor.
“What’s all this crap?” Gilbert asked, half-walking, half-limping into the room. His hip was still a mess and he was covered in bandages, but he was able to walk stronger now. Sammy barked at Blackie, who seemed taken aback. America sat down in his usual place at the desk in the den, where he’d been working every single day since the occupation at the end of the war, and opened the document.
“War reparations and whatnot are being finalized on here,” Alfred said, handing the packet over to Ludwig. “Now that the Nuremberg Trials are over, we were just waiting for the International Military Tribunal to give us some things so we can start moving forward.” Alfred lifted his brilliantly blue eyes and smiled. “If all goes to plan, pretty soon you won’t need me anymore.” Ludwig held the report in both hands, his jaw dropping as he flipped through the pages. Gilbert peered over his shoulder.
“Of course, some adjustments will have to be made,” Alfred said, leaning back in his chair and brushing his fingers over Sammy’s head. “But with these plans... Ludwig, Germany can be a great nation once again. Your name isn’t tarnished.” Ludwig bit his lower lip and skimmed the outline, taking in every other English word printed on the page.
“This is...” Ludwig started, but he couldn’t form words as the reality of the situation set in.
“When we have the meeting next week, this will be finalized, and we’ll be able to really make strides,” Alfred said. The American nation absently ran a hand through his tousled hair, and Gilbert noticed the bags under his eyes and the limp way his wayward hair seemed to stand. The boy was tired; understandable, for an up-and-coming empire.
“Wait, what’s—“ Ludwig started, but Gilbert snatched the paper from his hand and frowned.
“What the fuck is this?” he demanded, flipping the page. “Is this—I’m being given away?”
“It’s called appeasement, Gilbert, and you should be rather familiar with that term,” Alfred said, and his voice took on an uncharacteristically dark tone. “Stalin is very particular. And... and the Allies have had something like this in mind for a long time, Gilbert.”
“What, I’m going to have to go move into—“ Gilbert started, but his eyes caught the words at the bottom of the page, and the words turned to daggers that shredded his very soul in the pit of his stomach.
Dissolution of the Free State of Prussia. It was written right in front of him, in real, solid words, and not just whispers and suggestions muttered from one smug Ally to the other. One for the other; they were giving up him for Ludwig.
Gilbert drew a deep breath and spat on the paper.
Gilbert returned home much later than Ludwig had. Ludwig was sitting up, head in one hand, reading through some novel or other that he had started but honestly kept forgetting about. If he didn’t wait up for Gilbert to get home from excessive drinking, he may wander straight into the door, which was never a good thing.
“Ludwig?” a somber voice called through the house. “West? Ludwig?”
“I’m in here,” Ludwig called, and Blackie raised her head from Ludwig’s lap, eagerly perking her ears in the direction of Gilbert’s voice. Gilbert entered the room, pulling his cot off with one arm and flinging it to the carpet while dropping onto the other edge of the sofa, barely missing Blackie’s tail. Blackie yelped and leapt from the sofa to patter away into the darkness, leaving Ludwig and Gilbert alone.
“You’re earlier than I thought you’d be,” Ludwig commented. Gilbert said nothing, only sat with his eyes closed, leaning against the couch. “You alright, brother?”
“Fine,” Gilbert answered. He kicked his shoes off and curled his feet into his lap, eyes still closed. Ludwig watched as his brother gave off subtle hints to the pain in his body, and Gilbert finally placed his feet on the floor as his knees ached from being bent so much. Leaning to the side in the dim evening light, Ludwig was able to pick out the patches of hair that were white and not a white blonde; the streaks running through that shone.
“Your hair is turning white,” Ludwig noted. Gilbert snorted.
“You have some grays too, West,” Gilbert said, although he didn’t bother to point out said grays. Ludwig closed the book and removed his reading glasses, still staring at Gilbert. Gilbert, however, had leaned over onto his arm, eyes still closed, sitting in a seemingly half-conscious state. Ludwig wasn’t sure if Gilbert ever slept anymore, or he just sat in a partially-conscious heap every night, lost in his own thoughts.
“Eliza was out of line tonight,” Ludwig offered finally. “She was drunk. You should have heard the way Vash and Lili yelled at her.”
“She went home with Roderich, didn’t she?” Gilbert said. Ludwig opened his mouth, and then bit his lip.
“He went home with her. It’s a normal routine for them.”
“Jesus, she sucks,” Gilbert murmured.
“There are only four days left of the conference; I don’t know if we’ll be going out after many others,” Ludwig explained. “At least, if they go, I won’t.”
This wasn’t the first time Ludwig had done that. For years, during these week-long summits, Ludwig would opt out of the festivities after the meetings ended to instead go home and be with his dogs... and Gilbert.
Sad, lonely Gilbert, the Prussian thought to himself. All alone at home all the time. Turning white with age.
“You don’t have to,” Gilbert said suddenly. Ludwig raised his eyebrows in surprise. “I’ll take care of the dogs.”
“Don’t worry about me,” Gilbert said, and he finally opened his eyes, although he avoided Ludwig’s worried gaze. “You should go out after meetings. I can tell it’s dragging on you. You need to relax more, Ludwig.” Ludwig pressed his lips into a thin line, but said nothing else in response. “You’re trying to take the world’s problems onto your shoulders.”
“I have the means,” Ludwig said. He cast his eyes down to his hands, which were folded in his lap. “I... I have to help.” Gilbert chuckled deep in his throat and closed his eyes and leaned back into the sofa even more, if that were possible, enjoying the plush carpet between his still-socked toes. He knew Ludwig was dragging himself thin from the ‘responsibility’ he felt for most things in the twentieth century.
Ludwig rustled on the sofa, and the weight dipped at Gilbert’s waist and suddenly warmth was hovering beside him, coupled with a soft breathing. Gilbert opened one eye and Ludwig was there, a breath away from him, his eyes trained back on his book.
Gilbert shifted, and, in a rare moment, laid his head down on Ludwig’s shoulder, staring absent-mindedly at the fire place, his heart thrumming against his rib cage as if it would burst.
“Y’know, the Allies aren’t all bad, sometimes, are they, Gil?” Gilbert snorted into Antonio’s richly-colored hair and then pressed his lips to his scalp, breathing in the scent of salt and warm air and tomatoes and sunshine. Antonio was working at the buttons going down his chest, each deft finger pressing against Gilbert’s heightened skin as each button slid from its hole.
“Why do you say dumbass things like that?” Gilbert murmured into the side of Antonio’s head. He all but tore Antonio’s trousers from his body as he shoved the other nation into a wall and pressed up against him, creating delicious friction between the two of them.
“They’re helping you out, and you’re stronger now than you were before,” Antonio commented, just before sucking at Gilbert’s collarbone. He pulled away and said “Your wounds have healed much faster with their help than without.”
“I would have healed just fine,” Gilbert said defensively. His hands were trailing over Antonio’s lower body, every dip of muscle and puck of flesh putty in his hands. Antonio was about to say more but Gilbert covered his mouth with his own. Antonio moaned between his lips, threading his hands through Gilbert’s brilliant shock of hair, practically pulling Gilbert to his face and sucking the life from him.
“You taste like Rauchbier,” Antonio muttered when they pulled apart.
“Thanks,” Gilbert murmured. “If anything, the Allies know how to party.”
“Funny how they throw a party a few mere weeks before the final decision on what’s going to happen to you,” Antonio commented, one hand pressed against Gilbert’s chest, his eyes roaming Gilbert’s flushed face. “They seem confident.”
“People who win wars are always confident,” Gilbert remarked. “But it’s alright, let them have their fun.”
“What fun? Occupying your sorry ass?” Antonio said, and a wicked smile crossed his lips as he flashed his perfect teeth. Gilbert scoffed and wanted to shove Antonio away, except he was horny and drunk and God did he miss him.
“My people are doing fine without them,” Gilbert said as he kissed Antonio’s cheek. He shrugged out of his shirt and suddenly Antonio’s arms were around him, and Antonio was making these sounds that made Gilbert’s skin crawl.
“You’re so frustratingly Prussian,” Antonio said in a hoarse whisper.
“You’re so stupidly sexy,” Gilbert replied, and that was it, he’d hit his limit. “And if we don’t have sex right now—“ Antonio took the back of his neck in his hand and drew him in a long, tight kiss, leaving Gilbert heaving and his knees buckling. Antonio pulled back, green eyes lidded, staring at the white muscle and red scars littering Gilbert’s body.
“This war did a number on you, are you sure you’re up to it?” Antonio asked mockingly. Gilbert grinned at his partner.
“More scars to add to the bunch,” Gilbert said. “I’ve handled far worse than this.”
Gilbert hated being alone.
As much as he preached against it, talking about how great and fantastic and awesome isolation is, in reality, he hated it. He hated it when he lived in a monastery, he hated it when he was battling around Europe, he even hated it when he was off at war and Ludwig was back at home.
An article about the Soviet Union caught Gilbert’s eye in his email when he was checking it at two p.m. Just after he’d gotten up from bed.
He curled his legs up onto Ludwig’s office chair and clicked the link, reading over the words placed in front of him. It was a typical Soviet Union article, an article written by someone who was just a child at the time, living under an iron fist, in East Berlin.
Gilbert’s eyebrows perked at the mention of East Berlin.
My parents had lived east of Berlin their entire lives, the article read. Before the war my family came from there. I could trace my family all the way back to the nineteenth century Berlin. Berlin was my home. I couldn’t imagine a world that was different from East Berlin and the Soviet Union. Gilbert licked his lips and scrolled down, skimming over the rest of the article. An ethnic Berliner. Someone who could trace their lineage back to the early days of Berlin, when Berlin was nothing more than a sad little village.
One of his people.
But there was no mention of Prussia, the Kingdom of Prussia, even the Free State of Prussia, in the article. All there was was Germany and the Soviet Union. Either it was Germany, or Poland, or the Soviet Union. Always. Never Prussia.
“No one ever says they’re Prussian,” Gilbert said as he scrolled down to the bottom of the article, which linked to other ‘similar’ articles. He bit his lower lip and pushed away from the desk, instead opting to go into the kitchen.
Once he was there, he found himself staring at the cabinets, trying to decide what he wanted to eat. But nothing in front of him appealed to him, at all. He opened the refrigerator, and was met with bags of produce, packages of meat, milk, and bottles upon bottles of beer, wine and some soft drinks. There were wurst just in front of him, practically calling his name, but instead he stood up straight and slammed the door shut, stalking out of the kitchen. He stood in the living room, where not even the dogs were lazing about. Ludwig had gone off to meeting after meeting for the day, and at Gilbert’s insistence, was going out that night with the rest of the G8 for a “work gathering”, which meant a drinking contest between Ludwig, Ivan and Arthur.
Gilbert stood on the edge of the room, staring at the wall with the flat-screen television, the shelves upon shelves of books, picture frames, and other random artifacts. The Prussian looked down at his right hand, curled it into a fist, and winced. His fingers twitched as they tightened and his joints felt as if they were cracking, even making a few audible pop pops. Gilbert then extended his hand and stared at his splayed fingers.
“Either my knuckles got bigger,” he murmured, “or my fingers have gotten thinner.” He ran a hand through his hair while staring at the other one, wiggling his fingers. Even his knuckles had wrinkles.
Gilbert reached down and pinched his thigh through his cotton pants. He felt muscle, a thin layer of fat, and then nothing.
I wonder if these legs would take me even three kilometers, he thought. He took a deep breath and felt his chest expand, his lungs pressing against his ribcage, taking in as much air as possible and then becoming smaller once again as he closed his eyes and sat down on the floor, his hands holding onto his thin feet, trying to figure out just when the shirt he was wearing became too big.
Ludwig couldn’t remember the last time he’d had a decent night’s sleep. He opened his eyes at the sound of horrible, painful sounds coming from the lavatory just down the hallway from his bedroom. He groaned and rolled over onto his side, trying to ignore the sound of someone retching, even though his own stomach hadn’t fared well since 1939. It wasn’t until he heard a thud and a clunk that Ludwig sprung out of his bed, half stumbling across the room and hurried into the lav, where he found his elder brother, sitting on the old tile, wedged between the toilet and the bathtub. His arm was propped up on one of his knees, he was as white as his hair and his eyes were at half-mast. He had blood at the corner of his lips and his chest heaved with painful breaths.
Ludwig ran a rag under some cold water and wiped Gilbert’s face, trying to get his pale complexion to retain at least some of its color, while murmuring “Gilbert, Gilbert” over and over.
“What happened?” Ludwig said as he ran the rag through Gilbert’s sweat-soaked locks. Gilbert pointed to the toilet.
“Sick,” he mumbled. He gave Ludwig a delirious grin. “ ‘S the worst it’s been so far.”
“Has this been happening for a while?” Ludwig asked. His heart leapt into his throat. Gilbert shrugged; normally Gilbert lived in his own house, but when they had many back-to-back meetings he lived with Ludwig in Berlin. “Do you get sick often at home?”
“Never like this,” Gilbert said, and he hiccupped. He licked his lips and made a face. Ludwig swallowed thickly, his own stomach roiling.
“What’s causing this?” Ludwig asked, although he had an idea. He hadn’t seen sickness like this since his own sick spell, when he was in and out of consciousness for four days in 1941. “Does it have something to do with the people?”
“They’re leavin’,” Gilbert muttered. “Everyone. They’ve been leaving, running away, ‘cause they’re afraid of being handed over to Poland and—and Goddamn Russia,” Gilbert said, and his eyes rolled to face the wall. Ludwig sat down on the tile beside Gilbert but didn’t touch his brother. Gilbert smirked.
“Are you worried?” Ludwig asked, his voice strained and tight. Gilbert shook his head.
“Nah,” he says. “You’ve heard, I’m assuming?” Ludwig pulled his knees into a cross-legged position and nodded fervently. Gilbert’s eyes landed on a cloth on the edge of the sink, and immediately Ludwig scrambled up to retrieve it, first dousing it in ice water, and then handed it to Gilbert, who pressed it to his face.
“Do you think it’ll happen?” Ludwig asked. Gilbert made no motion of knowing, instead wiping his face more with the cloth.
“Doesn’t matter,” Gilbert muttered. He stretched his legs out around the toilet bowl, curling his toes into his feet and breathing steadily. His stomach was finally settling down. “Because... we were an empire, Ludwig,” Gilbert said, and his eyes rolled to Ludwig, who looked at him with a straight expression. Gilbert stared at the bruising around his eyes, how dark and painful it looked. He only wished his injuries were half as bad as Ludwig’s.
“People don’t let empires die and disappear,” Gilbert said. “Even if I do die, I know that people will remember me. They’ll remember me through you. They’ll remember us both.”
“But... what if they turn me into an American state?” Ludwig muttered. Gilbert gave out a hoarse cackle that turned into a cough.
“That’s stupid, West, that isn’t happening. You’re not turning into a state. We’re too much of a presence. We’re descendants of Germania, of the German States, of the Holy Roman Empire. We’re not going to fade into the woodwork and melt away as a culture, or a people.” Gilbert rolled his eyes and closed them again, leaning against the tub. “We’re cut from a strong lineage.” Ludwig just stared at his brother, wondering when Gilbert started waxing poetic about his own life. As much as Ludwig was unsure, hearing Gilbert be so sure helped him as it always did. A small smile curled Ludwig’s cheeks, although Gilbert couldn’t see it.
“I wish we could go outside without shackles,” Ludwig said, changing the subject. Gilbert coughed again and opened his eyes lazily, eyeing the toilet.
“According to Alfred, they’re letting us have a little fun soon, having drinks and a big party to celebrate the end of the war,” Gilbert said. “Even neutrals are invited. I bet we’ll be able to go around without shackles then.”
“We’ll be watched,” Ludwig pointed out. Gilbert nodded and then shrugged.
“Better than shackled. And if we’re not shackled, you know what that means? Getting laid,” he said, and he pointed at Ludwig, grinning from ear to pink ear.
It was, oddly enough, not Ludwig who walked into the room two days later to drawn curtains and tense air. Gilbert was lying on the sofa in the living room, the curtains drawn around him. Ludwig hadn’t returned from meetings in those two days. He went out, slept in a hotel room, went to arduous, terrible meetings about how tenuous the financial and political spheres were, and then drowned his frustrations in the best alcohol he could lay his hands on. It was a never-ending habit that the developed nations of the world were slowly forming, one that was surely going to get one of them seriously injured very shortly.
But alas, Ludwig wasn’t the one who tumbled into the room, wearing one shoe and half a coat. Feliciano rubbed at his pink face, eyes hazed over with vodka and rum and beer and scotch, pulling his coat on his shoulder, kicking off his other dress shoe and practically falling into Ludwig, who was just as drunk if not drunker.
“Feliciano, eat this,” Ludwig demanded as he shoved a piece of a pastry into his hands. Feliciano was still staring into the living room where he had noticed the slumbering Gilbert, and then took a bite of the pastry. Ludwig leaned against the counter, one hand on his tie, the other pressed against his aching forehead. He groaned and closed watery eyes.
“Fuck,” he murmured. “Fuck, fuck, fuck.” Feliciano gave him a small smile as Ludwig groped for the first thing his hand came into contact with—a loaf of bread. “Fuck.”
“I told you Alfred was a strong drinker,” Feliciano said, although his words seemed to slur together. “He learned when he lived here.”
“I got that,” Ludwig muttered. He turned on the light in the kitchen, winced, cursed, and turned it off again, stumbling instead into the dining room. He collapsed in a chair, pulling his suit jacket off and leaning back. Feliciano just watched, wondering how such a large man could be so affected by something such as alcohol. Feliciano took another bit of flaky bread and fruit filling and walked into the living room once more as Ludwig bemoaned his headache.
Gilbert was lying on his back, one arm over his chest, the other hanging down on the floor, his head turned slightly to face the window. Feliciano stared down at him, and then glanced at the clock, noting it was about seven in the evening.
“This is either the latest you’ve ever slept or the earliest you’ve ever gone to bed,” Feliciano said softly. He looked around the room and wandered over to a wicker basket that held a thin blanket which Feliciano then draped over Gilbert’s thin frame. Gilbert stirred at the sudden warmth, and he opened his eyes to see Feliciano kneeling above his head. Gilbert blinked once, twice, coughed, and just stared at Feliciano, surprised to see him. Feliciano said nothing in explanation; he only reached out and stroked Gilbert’s forehead. The Italian’s fingers were warm against Gilbert’s skin. Warm, and plump, and strong.
Feliciano’s eyes widened a fraction at how frail Gilbert looked. His own hand seemed to burst with color in comparison to Gilbert’s pallid complexion. Feliciano ran his hand through Gilbert’s hair, noticing more white as opposed to white blonde.
Gilbert took a deep breath through his nose and closed his eyes to Feliciano’s touch. Feliciano gave Gilbert a small smile, running his fingertips gently down the slope of his face.
“It doesn’t hurt,” Feliciano murmured. He could hear Ludwig sighing heavily and going back and forth to the kitchen for water, the rustling of papers, the muttered grumblings of ‘recession this’ and ‘Euro that’ and ‘economics used to be easy’.
“It’s like falling asleep. Or at least, that’s what I’ve been told.” Gilbert didn’t respond, although he dearly wanted to. Feliciano leaned in, hovering just above his ear, debating on whether to press his lips to the pale flesh and deciding against it.
“I’ll take good care of Ludwig, I promise.”
“Hey, West, my lighter is empty or somethin’.”
Click. Swooooosh. Gilbert leaned into the flame, lit the cigarette perched between his lips, and then inhaled deeply, breathing happily through his nose. He leaned back, eyes closed in contentment as his nicotine-deprived brain calmed its frenzies as the drug infiltrated his head. With a flick of his wrist, Ludwig closed the lighter and put it in his pocket, removing his own cigarette from his lips and breathing a cloud of smoke into the air.
The smoke curled around stray pieces of falling snow that melted in an instant. Gilbert chuckled at the sight and took another deep drag, closing his eyes.
“Ugh, God, I don’t know how I would have gotten through the rest of this meeting without this,” Gilbert said as he exhaled another puff of smoke. Ludwig gave a half-hearted chuckle and looked past his brother into the nighttime sky. Another puff, and two more snowflakes melted into vapor.
Gilbert didn’t like his brother’s silence. Even with Gilbert’s ‘cheery’ disposition, Ludwig didn’t seem interested in talking whilst on their smoke break.
“We have to go back inside soon,” Ludwig said softly. Gilbert ‘hmmed’ low in his throat and brought the cigarette back to his lips.
“I bet those bastards are at the front door,” he said between drags, turning to face Ludwig. “Smokin’ their fancy cigarettes and cigars and talkin’ about how they’re gonna chop this place into a million little pieces and give it all away to Allied nations.”
“No one has said that, Gilbert,” Ludwig said in the same soft tone. “You know as well as I do that these meetings are necessary for us to ever be able to really move on.” Gilbert said nothing to that admission, instead choosing to pout into the darkened sky.
Ludwig coughed from beside him. Gilbert glanced at him from underneath pale eyelashes. Ludwig had his head bent towards his chest, his left hand over his mouth, his right out-stretched with his cigarette between his pointer finger and middle finger, hanging precariously from Ludwig’s grip.
“You gonna be alright, West?” Gilbert asked as Ludwig straightened back up, rubbing at his eyes with his free hand.
“Yeah, I’m fine. Still recovering, and—and you know,” Ludwig said, and he shoved his hand into his coat pocket and avoided Gilbert’s eyes. The angry purple bruise on Ludwig’s forehead may have been fading, along with the gash on his chin and the bruising on his throat, but the pain lingered in Ludwig’s solemn features.
“Are you glad he’s gone?” Gilbert asked to break the silence. They only had a couple minutes left to themselves before having to go back into the meeting. Ludwig closed his eyes and said nothing. Gilbert took that as a ’yes’.
“Oi, you two,” a voice said from behind them. Both men turned around to see Arthur standing in the doorway to the veranda, watching them with an expression that could only be described as miserable. “The Control Council wants to get on with it.”
“Alright, alright, we’re coming,” Gilbert said, taking one last drag and snubbing the cigarette out on the snowy marble. Ludwig stared into the darkness once more, seemingly lost in a thought.
“You comin’, West?” Gilbert said, slightly surprised at his brother’s disobedience. “I’m just gonna go in there and rip them all a new one.” Arthur frowned at Gilbert and the ivory-haired man cackled, but they both knew that Gilbert had neither the strength nor the health to do any such thing. His skin was tightened around bony cheeks and sunken eyes, and he had his fair share of welts and gashes decorating his flesh.
Ludwig nodded and put his cigarette out, following his elder brother inside. Arthur shut and locked the veranda door and dug into his pocket, pulling out two sets of iron shackles.
“I know and you know that you don’t need these,” Arthur said as he fastened them onto Gilbert’s thin wrists. “But Stalin insists.” Arthur didn’t even want to think about the argument his boss would get into with the Soviet leader if his orders were disobeyed. Gilbert frowned at the medieval instruments but said nothing in protest as they were led back into the meeting room. Ludwig glanced at the walls as they passed, wondering if he’d ever be able to use this government building in the heart of Berlin as a free nation ever again.
Gilbert glanced once more at his younger brother, his flesh and blood, his pride and joy for so, so many years. He saw the look in those striking blue eyes; he saw the remorse.
‘Don’t feel guilty,’ Gilbert wanted to say. ‘You are a great nation.’ He wanted to reach out and pull Ludwig into his chest and stroke his hair, just like he did when Ludwig was a little boy, and shush him and dry his tears on the edge of his cloak and wipe his face so his cheeks were pink.
“Yes, brother?” Gilbert offered a wry smile. It was December, 1946, and their fates would sooner than later be sealed in blood.
“To each his own, Ludwig.”
He never knew that Ludwig personally arranged for his casket to be lowered among the remaining graves of the people who last identified themselves as Prussians.
London is effing freezing!