Free Talk: This is just the intro to an AU I've had cooking in my head for a while. There will be more.
I had always thought of myself as being very lucky. After all, I was the only child of parents who were generous with their time and their love, adored and doted upon as if I were a little prince. Mom and Dad were not rich, but we lived well, in a beautiful log house that was hand built by my great-grandfather, and I was never for want of anything. The teachers at my elementary school told me I was clever and good and the girls in my classes told me I was cute. And I ate it up, believed every word.
I lived the first fifteen years of my life behind a curtain of ignorance, knowing only love and nothing of hate or cruelty. I was a naïve and self-absorbed boy who believed that people were basically good, and although I'd only encountered evil in works of fiction, I felt confident that if I were ever to come face-to-face with the real thing I would recognize it immediately. But of course, I never imagined that a gentle and lovable child like me would ever have to make such an assessment.
The day my world began to change came in the late spring when my final year of middle school was nearing a close. Winters in Finland were long and cold, and while I loved the snow and all the festivities surrounding Christmas, I welcomed the thaw and the flowers bursting into bud like lifelong friends that I hadn't seen for a full year.
This was going to be a good summer; I could feel it in the core of me. It was, in a way, the last summer of childhood. Come September, I would be enrolled in the public high school preparing for entrance into a university. For the first time in my life I would have to think about my future, a career.
But it still felt like a lifetime away. Three sun-drenched months stretched in front of me like a long hiking trail that meandered over the landscape and disappeared into the forest. No end in sight. My intention was to spend as many days as I could outside and barefooted, camping and fishing with my friends, laughing carefree with the local girls in their pretty summer dresses. I might lose their favor to manlier males once they got older and less intimidated, but for now I was quite popular. I was going to revel in all the pleasures my splendid little town had to offer.
It was on the last day of classes that the letter came.
I was brimming with excitement as I pushed open the big wooden door of our house, itching to shed the cumbersome school bag from my shoulder and shove it to the deepest recess of my closet to be forgotten until September. When I passed through the entranceway and stepped into the kitchen I found my mother standing still as a statue, an unfolded piece of white paper clutched in her slender fingers holding her attention hostage.
"Mom?" I said in a quiet tone that would announce my presence without alarming her.
"Hi," she greeted in a perfunctory sort of way that didn't require her to look up. Whatever was on that sheet of paper must have been of grave importance as the flour on her apron and half-mixed bowl of… something on the counter indicated she paused mid-recipe to read it. Mom was the type who very rarely let anything distract her from her favorite activity, cooking.
"Is something wrong?" I asked timidly.
She said nothing but her pupils continued to trace lines of text that I couldn't see. It was too early to be my marks for the year, and besides, I always did exceptionally well in school. I turned to the torn envelope on the kitchen table for clues. There was no return address, no destination address or postage either- it must have been hand delivered. There was only one thing written on the envelope, my name.
"Mom! Am I in trouble?" It was such an unusual occurrence for me to get a letter that I couldn't even be upset with my mother for opening it out of shear curiosity.
Finally she looked up, as if she'd just been snapped out of a hypnotist's trance. Her amethyst eyes were glazed thickly with unshed tears of… Joy? Despair? I couldn't tell when she was acting so strange. Dread pooled in my belly, threatening to overflow until I saw the apples of her cheeks round in elation and a grin spread wide across her face.
"Oh Tino! Tino! Tino!" she chimed, her blonde curls shaking with emotion as she pulled me into an embrace.
"Did you get some good news?" I asked as I tried to turn my body around in her grip enough to read the paper she still held as she hugged. But the question just made her squeeze tighter and kiss my forehead several times.
"Not good news, son. Great news!" she chirped. "And it is for you, Tino!" She pulled back and held me by my shoulders, freely crying now. "You, Tino, have been accepted into St. Hetalia Academy for Boys. Isn't it wonderful?"
I stared back at her, blinking, and on her face I could read that she really did expect me to mirror her enthusiasm. But I had never even heard of this school. How could I possibly get excited about it?
"Mom, what is St. Het… whatever's Academy for Boys?"
"St. Hetalia," she corrected first. "It is only the finest educational institution for young men in the entire world! Where future Presidents and Prime Ministers from all nations are taught!" The way she spoke of this school reminded me of young girl describing her first crush. It seemed almost daffy to me.
"But… I don't even remember applying to St. Hetalia," I said, very confused.
Mom chortled as if I had just said something ridiculous. "Tino dear, you don't apply to St. Hetalia. If you have the right qualifications they will find you. The admissions board scours the globe to find the best and brightest and only a handpicked few are allowed to matriculate." She paused to beam the widest, proudest smile I had ever seen at me. "And you, my brilliant Tino, have been chosen."
I opened my mouth to say something, but was pulled against her petite frame in another smothering hug before I could even make a croak. How could such a tiny woman be so strong? Of course, I was delicate-boned myself, not exactly hard to restrain.
When she finally released me, I staggered back a step, my brain trying to cobble back together what thoughts her arms had squeezed out. "I… I'll have some time to decide if I want to go, right Mom?" I had intended it to sound very calm and casual, but it came out as a nervous stutter nonetheless.
The way she reacted made it clear that it didn't matter what tone I'd used. She looked at me like I'd just disowned her, or maybe just slapped her in the face- though I couldn't even imagine doing either. "Tino, how could you even think about declining such an rare honor? It's unthinkable!"
"But Mom, I…" I didn't know how to get any further than that. I'd never seen her so worked up about anything before and the shock of it disarmed me. "Well, there is some time before I have to give them an answer," I sighed. "Maybe I just need to get used to the idea."
Mom shook her head and clucked, still a bit frantic. "Oh no, no, my boy. The welcoming ceremony for new students is in five days and if you do not show up, your admittance will be considered null and void. They'll give your spot to someone else, Tino."
"Five days?" I squawked, nearly choking on the words. "Summer just started! I want to play with my friends!"
At this her tense expression softened into something more gentle, wistful even, and she spoke with a voice that matched. "You aren't a little boy anymore, Tino. You are on the cusp of manhood now and it is time to live up to the greatness I see in you. Wasting one's days playing outside might be suitable for some young men, but you are special. The fact that you have been chosen by St. Hetalia is proof of that."
I was having a bit of trouble wrapping my mind around her insistence that I was special. Every child was special to his own mother. But the way she was looking at me now, with such hope and pride glittering in her pale eyes, wouldn't allow me to question her. I suppose this is what I got for a lifetime of indulgence. Being a polite and good-natured kid who got high marks had always been enough to satisfy her, so now fifteen years worth of parental pressure were being dumped onto my shoulders all at once.
"Well, I guess if this school is as remarkable as you claim…" I spoke the words slowly and let them trail off at the end, hoping this would close the conversation, at least until Dad came home.
But Mom, for whatever reason, took my vague response as an absolute acceptance and clapped her hands together in triumph. "Oh! Your father will be so thrilled. This is the grandest honor ever bestowed on our family! On our little town even!"
"Yeah," I said, smiling but putting no enthusiasm into my voice. "It's great news."
Mom didn't even seem to notice, too caught up in her private celebration.
Any hopes I had of Dad supporting my wish to choose my own school were dashed almost as soon as he walked in the door, when Mom flung herself into his arms and read the letter out loud to him. Not only was he familiar with the renowned St. Hetalia Academy for Boys- the World's Greatest School, apparently, of which I alone was unaware- but he thrilled at the news that I would be attending.
"Proudest day in a father's life," was a phrase he used more than once while the three of us sat around our little kitchen table eating dinner. He and Mom were having such a jubilant time planning out my future that it would have been rude of me to interrupt by giving my input.
I was to be a surgeon. No, lawyer. No, politician. All three! My mother was certain a St. Hetalia scholar could manage it easily.
Meanwhile I just sat silently, prodding my helping of baked fish with my fork, flaking the delicate flesh and pushing it around on the plate but not actually eating a single bite. My usual appetite just wasn't there. Funny how I never knew my parents held such grandiose aspirations for me until that letter arrived.
I actually did feel some regrets about not eating by the time I was in bed. My stomach gurgled angrily beneath my ribs at regular intervals, as if growling to me what an idiot I was. I knew, though, that even with a full belly sleep would be evasive. There were too many worries tossing in my normally carefree brain.
How could this school, this St. Hetalia Academy, be so universally lauded when I had never heard it spoken of before? It sounded more like a secret society than a school to me.
And yet that is where I would be shuttled off to in a matter of days. Days. Why did they need me there so soon? I had no idea by what means I'd be going, since I hadn't a clue to St. Hetalia location. Was it here in Finland? Probably not. Since everyone these days spoke English it didn't really matter, except that I harbored a ridiculous love for my native land and longed to stay here.
I sighed in my head and tried to self-sooth. I already knew that the time for responsibility was just around the corner. Hadn't I been reflecting on it as recently as this afternoon? It was merely coming a bit sooner than planned.
With a few unanticipated sacrifices: my summer, my friends, my hometown, the company of my loving parents… girls. The inclusion of the words "For Boys" in the name of the school was the first thing I noted when Mom shared the joyous announcement.
When I fretted over this, I could almost hear her voice in my brain. "Girls will just distract you from your studies. There will be time for them later, but right now you are a scholar."
Another sigh escaped me, a real one this time. She must have my best interest at heart. Always did after all. And all these questions and concerns I had I knew would go unmentioned to her or to Dad. I didn't have any fight in me. I was a good boy. If going to this school brought my parents happiness, I would go and endure it. They had made sacrifices in life to make me happy.
Even though I had made up my mind about attending St. Hetalia's without objection, my brain just couldn't seem to settle in for sleep. It kept conjuring up long dim hallways in a cloistered stone building, upper crust boys in stiffly starched uniforms blandly reciting Chaucer under the stinging gaze of a humorless professor. These were the only stock images I had for the term "boarding school." They made me feel unbearably lonely already.
I hoped more than anything that I was mistaken, but I wouldn't know for five more days. I wondered if I would get any sleep between now and then.