Free Talk: Here it is, the final chapter of Outcast along with the epilogue. I really hope that everyone likes it and feels it is a fitting end (though it could never be a fraction as awesome as the LOST finale). Thank you all so very much for reading. For your kind, generous words and encouragement. For adding this story to alert lists and favorite lists. For overlooking typos and continuity and cultural errors. For creating gorgeous art. For caring about this story. I would be thrilled if everyone who has Outcast on their favorites list or alert list would leave a review just to tell me why they added it, what they liked and where I could use improvement. But that is an unrealistic wish. I certainly don't expect everyone to do that. But I figure it couldn't hurt to ask. Pretty please? Thank you. Enjoy.
A deep ache penetrated the center of my chest, but I couldn't identify if the main source was what I'd done to Berwald ten years ago or the fact that I had forgotten about it until now. They were like two puncture wounds too close together to be distinguished. The undeserved kindness of Berwald's arms was suddenly more than I could bear.
"P-please, set me down," I said in a quaking voice.
He hesitated for just a moment before doing as I asked and setting me on my feet without question. The look on his face was a mix of confusion and subtle hurt. Dang, I'd just made him feel worse.
"I don't deserve to be treated so kindly by you," I insisted, trying to make clear that I found nothing objectionable about his arms. "After what I did to you, and then forgetting about it."
His eyes held my face with a sort of baffled awe. "Well, I don't r'member it eith'r. Though it's hard t' b'lieve I wouldn' r'member meet'ng y'. Seems like… y'd be 'mposs'ble t' f'rget, T'no."
"But you've had Torvald messing around with your brain," I said, and the words had an acidic taste in my mouth because I knew I was the one who had summoned Torvald, albeit by accident, and brought all his devastation upon every aspect of poor Berwald's life. "And it's not like you did something horribly wrong that should've haunted you from that day on. I have no excuse for forgetting you, Berwald, for forgetting what I did to you."
Berwald scrunched his eyebrows low, curious but skeptical. "What exactly d' y' th'nk y' did t' me?" he asked, and his tone made it seem like he thought I was just overreacting to having lost one of his mittens or something.
It was too heartbreaking to look into his trusting eyes when I confessed so I cut my gaze to the side. "Well, first you saved me," I said guiltily—it certainly didn't help matters that he had saved my life right before I'd ruined his. "We were out in the snow, in a blizzard, and I was buried and freezing. You pulled me out and carried me to a cave, this cave, and you got a fire started." Now came the turn for the worse and my voice cracked in anticipation. "When I woke up, I wanted to explore the cave, even though you thought it was a bad idea. I found Astrid's tomb—well, now that I think about it, I guess it's Torvald's tomb, too—and I stole the Crystal Star. You told me to put it back, but I didn't listen. And then I fell and I knocked you down the same hill I fell down tonight. Like me, you hit your head and passed out. And I couldn't wake you up. I dragged you back to the fire and screamed and screamed for anyone to… to h-help…" I was starting to choke on my words, which had devolved into froggy croaks.
"Sound like y' did good," said Berwald, and his hand touched my shoulder with tenderness I didn't deserve.
"N-no!" I hiccupped. Again, the gentle physical contact he was giving me was too much to take and I pushed his hand off of me. "That's when Torvald showed up! He answered my calls for help and he hasn't left you since! All the tragedy that has plagued your life, Berwald, is all my fault!" A long pause followed where the only sound was my loud, ragged breathing.
"T'no…" His voice came back, just louder than a whisper, and his hand returned with feather lightness to my shoulder. "Y' didn' mean t' summ'n th' guy. Y' didn' ask 'im t' hurt 'nyone. But y' said he heal'd m' head. If he didn' show up at all, I might not b' here t'day."
As he spoke, he'd moved slowly closer to me, added his other hand to my other shoulder. I didn't push him away this time. I wasn't worthy of his kindness, but right now it felt like having his hands on me was the only thing keeping my heart beating. Words trembled from my mouth. "If… if I had just listened to you in the first place, you… you wouldn't have gotten hurt at all… Or if you'd never met me at all…"
He folded me into his arms. "I don't wish I nev'r met y', T'no. D' y' wish y' nev'r met me?"
My eyes immediately flashed upwards. "No! Of course not! I… just wish that I'd acted differently when we met! That I hadn't been so headstrong and… and…"
"Advent'rous?" Berwald supplied, one eyebrow very slightly cocked. This was about as close to a playful smirk as his face was capable of, but what struck me the most was that he showed absolutely no signs of being upset with me. "But I like th' advent'rous you," he said. "That's th' you th't decided t' break th' curse 'nd save me."
"It's not so much saving you as rectifying my own horrible mistake," I said, face flushed with shame.
"Y' didn' know y'd play'd 'ny part 'n it when you chose t' help," he said. "Y' just help'd me b'cause yer th' f'rst pers'n who ev'r want'd t' break th' curse. Yer j'st kind th't way." His right hand had slid up from my shoulder and now cupped my cheek, and although it was just the sort of unmanly display I normally tried to avoid (and I still didn't think I deserved it), I leaned my face into the warm cradle of his palm and let my tears roll onto his knuckles. "Please, don't cry, T'no," he soothed.
"I can't help it," I said between sniffs. "I want to take back what happened ten years ago and rewrite your past, Berwald."
"Nob'dy can change th' past," he said. "Waste 'f time t' ev'n try. But… y' did manage t' change my future. That's someth'ng t' be proud 'f."
It was one of those lines that you hear in a movie and snicker about with your friends, but when Berwald said it in his awkward, mumbled, sincere way, I found it absolutely beautiful. "I think you changed my future, too," I said. I maintained the connection between our two sets of eyes even though the slurry emotions it sent flowing through me—gratitude, affection, regret, hope, fear—was almost overwhelming and made me feel a little sick in my stomach. "That is, if you still want to be a part of it."
"Y' know th't I do," he said. "I wouldn've been able t' take back ov'r m' own body when y' offer'd it t' me if I didn' want it. Know'ng what y' did 'n th' past doesn' change th't."
My heart did a fast beat when I realized he was referring to what I had yelled during Torvald's fight against Russia. Those words hadn't been premeditated; they'd come out raw and instinctual and in the end they nearly got Berwald killed. But there was truth in them. I did want Berwald in my life and right now I was surer of that than ever. "Can you really forgive me?"
That small, peerlessly kind smile of his unfurled on his face. "Y' mean for what y' did when y' were five? I 'lready have. I wish th't I could r'member y' as a little kid, though. Maybe it'll come back t' me with time."
A feeling of trepidation settled like a weight on my chest. "Maybe you'll take back what you just said if you remember."
I tried to look away now, but his hand, which was still on my cheek, moved under my jaw and tilted my face back up towards his. The tiny smile had spread a little wider, like a late flower very slowly starting to blossom. "I j'st want t' p'cture how cute y' were back th'n," he said.
My face glowed hotly at the comment and I wondered if Berwald would ever lose the ability to completely disarm me with his guileless affection. I might never be able to match him in that quality, but I could try. "I remember what you looked like," I said, trying to sound unabashed but coming off as self-conscious anyways. "When you first appeared to me, Berwald, I thought you looked like an angel." And on the last word, I reached up and touched his cheek.
That was enough to render him beet red and speechless. I'd bested him at his own game, and for a tingling moment, I just watched his face. He really was cute.
"Okay boys," China cut in. His voice sounded just the tiniest bit impatient. "You two will have plenty of time to reminisce." That was wonderfully true. "But right now there are people waiting for us back at Saint Hetalia. We really should get going."
I couldn't say that it sat quite right in my head to think about the other five members of the Founders' Guild eagerly awaiting their demise. That was the part of this plan I was not happy about: the only way to rid Berwald of his possession would end the lives of all the Founders. The fact that this was something that they all wanted still didn't make me excited about playing such an integral role.
As we walked back through the forest to the jet, Berwald slipped his hand into mine and I felt comforted. "I th'nk there's a f'rst aid kit on th' j't," he said. "I'll clean up th' cut on yer head fer y'."
I furrowed my brow and immediately winced at the pain it produced. Funny, I'd totally forgotten about the injury. Now it felt sore and swollen. But, like all wounds, it would heal.
By the time we were back inside the cabin of the jet, I felt like I had lead weights stashed in my pockets; I was just plain tired. Berwald looked exhausted too. Neither of us remembered to look for the first aid kit, both just sank down onto the leather bench. We fell asleep leaning against one another, arms tangled together and Flower-Egg snuggled on our contiguous laps.
Berwald woke me gently with nudges of his elbow, but I still experienced a moment of annoyance at being pulled out of my peaceful slumber. I must have been sleeping deeply. "Hey, wha's the big deal?" I mumbled, scrubbing my face with the sleeve of my sweater. It took less than two seconds for me to reacquaint myself with the here and now; we were still on the jet, which was still in the air.
"Ch'na j'st said we're 'bout five m'nutes from th' school," Berwald said. "Though I was 'njoying watch'ng y' sleep, T'no."
I started to feel a twinge of embarrassment but quickly remembered how much I'd liked watching him sleep and decided on the spot that his behavior was acceptable. Apparently he'd been awake for a little while and done more than just sit and watch; when I reached up to scratch an itch on my forehead, there was an adhesive bandage over my wound. "You patched me up?"
Berwald nodded. "Nnn. Surpris'd y' didn' wake up. Y' sleep really deep."
There wasn't a clock in the cabin of the jet. I had no idea of how long we'd been gone, especially since I had spent portions of both flights asleep. I suppose if I had known, and if I had been one of those boys who are into planes and how fast they can fly, I might have been able to make an informed guess as to where Saint Hetalia Academy was actually located. It honestly wasn't very important to me. I was just fine thinking of it as existing in its own little pocket of the universe, a strange and magical school where the unbelievable happened.
I felt the bump of landing gear hitting the ground and my inside contents stirred. We had the last Crystal Star now. Were we going to go straight to the Foundation Stone and take care of business, so to speak? Was it going to be a formal ceremony of some sort? How exactly was this going to play out, I wondered?
Well, I was going to find out very soon.
I stood up stiffly and offered Berwald my hand to help him up. We emerged from the jet into the same big hangar where we started. China had disembarked ahead of us and was waiting. He had a contented look on his face that just didn't seem right to me considering that he was so close to the end of his long, long life.
"Do either of you need to go back to your room for any reason, or shall we proceed directly to the Foundation Stone?" he asked.
"Proceed," I said. Then I looked up at Berwald, who nodded in agreement. "The more we delay, the more nervous I think I'll get." I felt a little pang of guilt from wanting to hasten the Founders' deaths, but I reminded myself, again, that this is what they wanted. And it was the only was to save Berwald.
We passed through the door back into the school's underground train system and boarded the waiting boxcar in silence. I hadn't noticed all the little mechanical sounds produced by the train during my previous rides, even though there had been no more conversation then than there was now. The clanks and whirs were an unseen choir this time. Maybe it was because I was more aware of the lack of talking this time, and aware of things I still needed to say and wouldn't have another chance to. Not to Berwald, of course. I still had many years to say everything I wanted to say to him. But there were things I had to say to China.
But how to even start? China had made an impression on me the very night I arrived here at Saint Hetalia. He'd seemed wise beyond his years—this was back when I thought that his years numbered somewhere in the ballpark of sixteen—and he'd made me feel like I belonged at this school. Now, after everything he'd guided me (and Berwald) through, I couldn't help wondering if he'd known, back then or even earlier, far more than he let on. Maybe Berwald and Søren and I were not selected for admission by accident. Was this all part of China's master plan?
Maybe he knew everything all along.
I didn't like this line of thought. It made a lump form in my throat to even consider any sort of perfidy on China's part. Every effort towards saving Berwald had been thanks to him, and while he did have motives of his own—wanting the Founders to finally find peace and making sure their beloved school would be left in good hands—I felt certain that he genuinely cared about me, about Berwald, about every student at Saint Hetalia including those inadvertently hurt during his Tournament.
But I had to know.
"China?" I said. My voice was as dry as my hands were wet, wringing sweaty and nervous in lap.
His face was as serene as ever, but had a tired quality. "Please," he said, fixing his dark, almond-shaped eyes on my face, "call me Yao. I think it's only appropriate after everything we've been through together."
"Alright," I replied, feeling uncharacteristically shy all of the sudden. "Yao?"
"What is it, Tino?"
My sweat-slick hands started to worry the hem of my sweater. We were talking on familiar terms now, but it somehow made me feel even more awkward. My eyes darted to the side. "Yao, did you know all of this? I mean…." If there was way to ask this without sounding like I was accusing him of something, I couldn't think of it, so I spit the words out quickly to rid my mouth of any unpleasant taste they left. "Did you know that Berwald was hosting Torvald's spirit? Or that I had summoned the spirit in the first place? Or that Torvald was the one who had hurt all those people in Berwald's life?"
It was a lot to be asked in less than ten seconds and China, Yao, looked understandably surprised. He blinked several times without making a sound.
"T'no…?" Berwald uttered, similarly stunned by my outburst.
"No, no," China said, shaking his head slowly with closed eyes. "Those are all perfectly good questions, and, to be honest, ones I've been waiting for you to ask. It must seem like this was all an elaborate plan I cooked up before you ever came to this school." He paused for a long moment, as if expecting me to say something.
So I did. "Was it?" I ask softly, cautiously.
"Not exactly," China answered, handling the words as delicately as I did the question. "Ever since the day I witnessed Torvald take his own life, I have been waiting for him to reemerge in some form. I could feel it deep inside me that he hadn't left this world, but the only evidence I had was intuition." He stopped for just long enough to give me a little knowing look. "It is actually intuition as much as academic excellence that has always informed our decisions of who gets into Saint Hetalia. We'd pore over student records from all over the world, get a feeling about a name."
My eyes widened slightly. "Is that why there are two Italies? And a Prussia? Because you had an intuitive feeling about them?"
China let out a small chuckle and then a sigh. "Well, the case with Prussia would take too long to tell. But Italy and Italy, yes, it was based on intuition. We got a very strong vibe from that family and decided to take both brothers when we couldn't narrow it down. Being just one year apart, we had to take them at the same time."
I nodded slowly, absorbing his explanation even though it didn't completely make sense to me. "So it was just a… feeling?"
"A rather complex feeling, to be fair," said China. "And it is always a bit different for each individual. Sometimes we Founders haven't all agreed about potential new students and it has come down to debating and voting. But the feeling about you was unanimous, Tino. And you as well, Berwald. There were never any doubts that you were both meant to be here at Saint Hetalia. And now we know why."
"Did y' have 'ny idea th't it had t' do with th' end a y' guys?" Berwald said, the first time he'd spoken more than my name since we got off the jet. I felt his arm wrap around my back and his hand settle on my shoulder, a gesture unrelated to what he was saying. "I mean, when did y' know th't yer lives were goin' t' end?"
"Oh, that?" China was completely unperturbed by the questions, of course. "Yes, for a long time we've sensed it coming."
"Nother feel'ng?" Berwald asked, not derogatory, but curious.
China nodded. "Indeed. And one that's been getting steadily stronger. That's why I've returned to my natural appearance for my current enrollment here at Saint Hetalia. I wanted to be myself when the day came."
That's right, China was a shape-shifter. Even after I had seen him demonstrate his ability right in front of my eyes, I'd completely overlooked the likely possibility that the China I was familiar with was just another disguise. But, as it turned out, it wasn't. "So, this is how you looked five-hundred years ago?" I asked, eyes fixed on his youthful face.
"Besides the addition of a little ennui and newer clothes, this is exactly how I looked on the day we carved those words into the Foundation Stone," he said. He looked down at his hands, folded neatly on his lap, and added, "I was twenty-one years old, the second youngest of the Founders, after Torvald, but considered to be the smartest. Even I didn't foresee our curse happening."
The abrupt stop of the train acted as a period at the end of his sentence. We'd reached our destination, but my brain ached to keep listening to China's story. I wanted to know more. Suddenly, I wanted to know everything he'd experienced in his long life. Now, after his time to tell stories had run out. I had to fight back hot tears as I stepped out onto the little platform.
We passed through the door and were back at the Founders' hospital. The Founders', however, were no longer there. The Student Council members were likewise absent. Even America had apparently vacated his bed, leaving Russia, cozy in his drug-coma, as the only soul present. En route to the freight elevator, China detoured slightly to pause at his bedside and pat him on the back of his large hand. "You'll be all right, friend." He said.
It was one of the most oddly touching things I'd ever seen. "You aren't afraid of him like the rest of us all are." I said, half-statement, half-question.
China considered it for a second or two before responding. "I supposed I am one of the few. You can't really tell by looking, but I can hold my own if it ever came down to a fight." Actually, I thought he looked precisely like the sort of guy who could bust out some crazy kung-fu moves and take down opponents three times his size, but it wouldn't be appropriate to say so. "It wouldn't come down to that, though," he continued. "Ivan Braginski is a good kid and I consider him a true friend."
I waited a moment in silence to see if he was going to say any more on the subject, but he didn't.
"We'd better get going," was all that he added. He turned on heel to continue on to the elevator but a little grunt stopped him in his tracks and caught my attention as well.
It wasn't Russia who'd made the noise, of course. It was Berwald. The grip he'd had on my shoulder tightened. "I… I didn' meant t'…"
I spun around and, without even thinking about it, I set Flower-Egg down on Russia's bed, wrapped my arms around Berwald and buried my face in his sweater before he could say any more. "Stop," I said into the center of his chest. "You have to stop feeling guilty for what Torvald did in your body. Promise me." It was an unrealistic demand, I knew, but I couldn't come up with any other tactic at this point. I squeezed my arms around him tighter, unrelenting until I heard him reply.
"Nnn," he muttered, finally reciprocating my embrace. His arms were so long and thick that he didn't need to exert much force for me to feel like I was being crushed against him. "I'll pr'mise if y' pr'mise t' stop blam'ng yerself fer what happen'd 'n th' cave ten years 'go. How 'bout that?"
I was able to pull back enough to look up at Berwald's face. He wasn't coy or sarcastic—not that I really expected him to be, but it would have seemed fitting for what he'd said. No, his face was gentle and serious, just like his offer. Our guilt was totally different, but I accepted the exchange as even. I could let go if it helped Berwald do the same. "It's a deal," I said, smiling warmly.
After that, we didn't need any further prodding from China to pick up the pace and get ourselves into the freight elevator. I decided to leave Flower-Egg with Russia for now because even in a coma he shouldn't be alone. And then up we went, to the ending of China's life and the new beginning of Berwald's.
The school halls were as empty as the last time I walked them and the weak light from the windows seemed to indicate that dawn was just starting to break; everyone must be back from the party by now but were still fast asleep in their beds. Berwald and I had slept on the jet, but I wondered how China was still so awake and alert.
We walked a swift path to the main atrium in the front of the school, none of us saying a word as we did. This had been my first view of the inside of Saint Hetalia Academy for Boys when I walked in through the double doors we were about to walk out through. It felt like a year ago at least, but it really had only been a matter of weeks. My time here had certainly been packed with experience so far.
I held my breath as I stepped out onto the front of the school. The Student Council and the Founders' Guild were gathered around Foundation Stone, in pairs and smaller groups, engaged in many separate conversations. America was sitting awake in a wheelchair with England orbiting around him fussily, making sure nobody got too close to his caged-up arms.
All sets of eyes found us, the three latecomers, within a second of our arrival and it felt like we were in a spotlight. Everyone had looked surprisingly relaxed a mere moment ago, but now they'd suddenly shifted into serious mode. It made me feel like a bit of a mood-killer, but there was nothing I could do about it.
Alessandro, who had been conversing with Italy and wearing a broad smile, composed his features into a more sober expression and approached China. "Well, Yao my friend, I guess it is time."
China nodded. "Yes, it is time."
The Founders didn't need to be told any instructions to know what to do; they lined themselves up in front of the Foundation Stone, facing the school, and stood as regally as gods. The Student Council members stayed in their scattered positions, looking nervous and just a tad confused. China had to intervene.
"My friends," he said from the middle of the Founders lineup. "It has been my great honor and great pleasure to have served on your Student Council. You are all among the finest young men that I have ever encountered in my life. And that is saying a lot. Now we Founders of Saint Hetalia will move on to the next life and leave the school to a new generation." He paused to let out a sigh so soft it was barely audible. "This day is long overdue."
As China spoke, the sun was just starting to edge up over the distant, tree-studded cliffs and the first sparkles danced on the lake's surface. The timing and the idyllic scenery imbued the ceremony with an even more magical energy. Instinctively, I reached for and found Berwald's hand.
"You've all already been briefed on the Herculean task ahead of you," China continued. "And, as you know, we Founders have prepared comprehensive texts to guide you in the running and maintaining of the school. But, in a gesture of appreciation for the great performances you all put forth during the tournament at great personally risk, we would like to each give something special to the individuals we were matched against." Then he snapped his fingers once, quickly, and each of the Founders instantly had a book in his or her hand.
My jaw went slack as I stared at China. "How did you…?"
"I am Historian and Librarian," he said, as if that explained how he did it.
Really, I needed to stop expecting explanations for anything that happened at Saint Hetalia. It was magic. The thought made me squeeze Berwald's hand tighter.
The Student Council members aligned themselves with the Founders they had beaten or been beaten by, ready to receive their gifts.
"I never had a chance to congratulate you for defeating me, Germany," Ancient Egypt—Amunet—said in a velvet-smooth voice. Actually, she had been too busy sulking to congratulate him. She handed over a thick leather-bound volume that had a buckle closure on the front. "This is all the pertinent data about the school that I have personally collected through the decades. It is all the things that most people think are unimportant, but types like you and I know are quite important indeed. I am sure you will find good use for it."
German took the book and thanked her then he opened it up to the middle while Italy peeked over his shoulder. The stern blue eyes went wide. "Square centimeters in each room of the school. Exact mineral composition of the building's stones. Completion dates for every single piece of artwork."
"Sounds like the anal-retentive bible," America proclaimed. "It's perfect for you, Germany."
Next, France approached Ancient Greece—Helena—and did so with a romantic smile on his face. "It was a gift just to compete against such beautiful mademoiselle," he said, bowing down to bestow a gentlemanly kiss to her free hand. "Anything you give to me will simply be au jus."
Helena giggled, accepting his over-the-top affection much more graciously than last time. "Well, there are recipes for over fifty different kinds in my personal cookbook here," she said, nodding towards the massive tome under her arm. It was thicker than a Helsinki phonebook. "I would love for a gourmand of your caliber to have it."
"Merci beau coups," France said, accepting the enormous cookbook and hugging it to his chest. "I will make it a life goal to cook through ze entire thing."
The exchange between Japan and Germania—Leopold—was, like the both of them, very quiet and polite. "It is a collection of poems and meditations I wrote during my hike across Europe in the fifteen-hundreds," Leopold said, handing his small journal over to Japan. "Please accept it."
"Thank you," Japan said, bowing at the waist. And that was all there was to it.
England had to wheel America in front of Ancient Rome—Alessandro—to accept his gift. Despite—or perhaps because of—the fact that he was still taking pain medication, America had a huge, eager grin on his face. I got the impression that he was probably the type who woke his parents up at three o'clock in the morning on Christmas.
"I like your style, son," said Alessandro, beaming back an equivalent smile. "That's why I'm giving you the greatest book ever written. By me. And about me. It's my own detailed account of all my heroic adventures before co-founding this school."
America's eyes had gone wide as dinner plates at the word "heroic." Of course, he couldn't actually reach for the book himself, so England had to take it for him and lay it open on his lap. "Oh sweet! Illustrations!" America said. "Gory illustrations! Is that you beheading that guy?"
"The one and only," Alessandro said proudly, and I couldn't help but notice that the other Founders sort of rolled their eyes at him. Apparently their exasperation with him was somewhere along the same lines as the Student Council's exasperation for their president. "I also have a little something for the cute one," Alessandro added, and indeed there was another book in his hand. He beckoned for Italy to come over.
"For me?" Italy asked, pointing to himself.
Alessandro tousled Italy's hair in a fatherly way with his free hand. "Yeah, for you. I don't know why, but I've taken a shine to you. When you said you like to paint, it made me think of this book of renaissance portraits." He handed the book, very big but not particularly thick, to Italy. "Most of the paintings reproduced in there were destroyed in fires. So you are one of the only people in the world to see them."
"Wow! Thank you!" Italy said, enthralled with his gift. "Hey Ludwig, look what I got!" He was so happy he let a real name slip. Was there really any point in following that school standard at this moment, I wondered?
England's final exchange with the Ancient Celtic Isles—Evelyn—came next. And, from the start, it was a confrontation. His green eyes and her grey eyes seemed to shoot off sparks as they stared each other down, and I wasn't sure where the exactly the animosity was stemming from. Maybe it was mere rivalry as sorcerers, or maybe some residual resentment over the comments exchanged during their battle. After a moment, though, their looks mellowed.
"I saw a lot of potential in you, boy, when we had our match," Evelyn said (as if she hadn't lost). England's eyes rolled down and to the side, and she continued. "You think you won't be able to do it anymore, without the Arrow. But you will. It will just take some more time and a lot more work. And maybe this will help you." She handed England a book with a gilded and bejeweled cover. "My book of spells."
"Well," England said, awkwardly scratching the back of his skull with the hand not clutching the spell book. "Thank you."
"You're welcome," Evelyn replied. Her thin pink lips puckered in her white face. "And I'm sorry for insulting your loverboy," she added crisply.
America made a face, overhearing this, but my attention was now turning to China. Torvald obviously didn't have anything to give, and Russia wasn't here to receive it anyways, so the last gift was from China. Of course, I wasn't an actual member of the Student Council, so I wasn't sure that there even was a gift for me. I approached China with small footsteps, not because I was nervous, but because I wanted to draw out my last chance to talk to him.
"Tino," he said, looking in my eyes while he nodded.
"Yao," I replied.
"I suppose you're wondering if I have something for you?" he asked, and before I could do more than flash him a sheepish smile, he continued talking. "Indeed I do, but it's not something that will fit in my hands. As you know, with my passing, the seat of Student Council Historian is left empty. You took on the title for the purpose of our tournament, Tino, but I think you'd be a great fit for the actual position. That is, of course, if you want it."
My heart started thrumming faster; I couldn't help being excited at such a prestigious offer. But… "I could never do the kind of job you did, Yao," I said. "I mean, you've been around for the school's entire history. And you're… brilliant."
"Well, I wouldn't expect you to do the job the same way I did," he said, and at that moment, the sunrise hit the wet surface of his eyes and made them appear to twinkle. "But you wouldn't be without guidance. Tino, what I leave to you is my entire personal library."
I felt my eyelids stretch wide open. "You mean… all those books I saw in your bedroom?"
"Yes, those," he said. "And the others, underground and in the Student Council Room. You have the raw materials to make an incredible addition to the Saint Hetalia Student Council. I believe that you will use the knowledge you gain to accomplish great things."
"He's right y' know," Berwald said, giving my shoulder a squeeze. "Y'll be 'n awesome h'storian, T'no."
China's offer had put me on the brink of crying and Berwald's comment pushed me over the edge. The tears oozed silently from my eyes and over my cheeks in twin rivulets. "Thank you," I said, more breath than sound. "I… I know I won't be able to get through even a fraction of your collection, but I will read as much as I can and… I'll make sure that they pass into the right hands and are not forgotten. Thank you, Yao."
As I said my second 'Thank you,' China pulled me close with both hands and folded me up in a tight embrace. It undid me and my soundless trickles of tears became sobs against his shoulder. "I'm going to miss you… so much," I said, hiccupping between words.
"I will miss you, too, Tino," he said softly. One of his hands rubbed a gentle circle on my back. Then he pulled back and held me at arms length by both my shoulders. When I looked at his face now, I was stricken by the thick loneliness painted on his features, just beneath his usual glaze of serenity. "In the short time that I've known you, I have come to consider you a very dear friend. But you. And Berwald. And the Student Council. You all must do something that far too few of the many friends I've cared about over the decades—centuries—have been able to do. You must outlive me. That means more to me than you can even imagine."
"Outlive you?" I uttered.
"Live a long life and be happy, Tino," he said. Berwald had sidled next to me, and China—no, I should start thinking of him with the name I now called him, Yao—put his right hand on Berwald's shoulder while keeping the left on mine, like he was giving us his blessing. "And you as well, Berwald. Take care of the school and each other."
Berwald and I both turned and looked at each other and then back at Yao. "We will," I said, swallowing the thick saliva that had collected in the back of my mouth and nodding resolutely.
"Alright then," he said. "Then it is time to complete the task at hand." He used such simple words, as if what was about to take place were as mundane as the cleaning out of a cellar. But a second later he opened his mouth again and this time he spoke to everyone assembled, his voice calm and clear, but authoritative. "Student Council, Founders' Guild, bring your Artifacts to the Stone."
The circle pulled in tight around the Foundation Stone on his orders and one-by-one the owners of the Stars and Arrows placed them into their respective slots. The Council members faces seemed to disguise the twinges of loss and trepidation for their futures unaided by those pins; the Founders faces disguised elation. While this was happening, I noticed a large sledgehammer leaning against the stone. I didn't have to ask what it was for. When everyone but Yao had given up his or her Artifact, two Stars and two Arrows were still missing.
"I think that one of you should be the one to attach Torvald's Star," Yao said to me and Berwald. He handed the Star—the one that had been in my possession all along—to me, and I handed it to Berwald.
"It should be you," I said, looking up into Berwald's luminous blue-green eyes, and without needing any convincing, he pushed the Star into its perfectly carved out space.
Then Yao took a step forward and attached one Star and one Arrow, leaving one more Arrow slot. I scrunched my brow in confusion and he raised one eyebrow slightly. "I just added Ivan's pin. I believe you still have mine, Tino."
For a fraction of a second I had a sense of panic in my chest. Was he messing with me? But then I realized he was right; when I'd gotten dressed after my pre-flight shower, I'd re-pinned the arrow on my fresh shirt. Now I unpinned it with fingers slightly shaking and pressed it, the last puzzle piece, into place.
Even though I felt the tingle of anticipation through my skin that something was going to happen when I added the last Artifact, I gasped in shock and jumped back when, immediately, something did. The Seven Stars and Seven Arrows began to glow a brilliant blue-white and the bright light spread like ink over the relief image of the Saint Hetalia Crest. It filled the engraved letters that the Founders carved years ago and soon the entire Foundation Stone was emanating the blue-white light that seemed to be made of the same substance as England's magic circle.
This all happened in a span of mere seconds. When I lifted my eyes from the hypnotically glowing monument, I flinched at the sight in front of me: every one of the Founders was bathed in the same light and seemed intoxicated by it. The Student Council Members were all stricken speechless.
"Tino," Yao said, clearly though his eyes were glazed and euphoric. "You need to take the sledgehammer and destroy the Stone now."
I swallowed hard and grabbed the sledgehammer. It was even heavier than it looked; I had to keep my hands spaced far apart in order to wield it and I wasn't sure I would even be able to swing it hard enough to break the Stone. But then I felt Berwald's body press close behind me. His hands gripped the wooden handle of the sledgehammer right next to mine. This was how it should be, the two of us destroying the Foundation Stone together and breaking his possession.
Our two sets of arms moved in unison to bring the heavy steel slab up over our heads. But when it came time to strike, the hammer didn't fall; I was pulling downward, but Berwald was still holding it up. When my eyes flicked over his knuckles next to mine, I realized, with horror, that he was glowing with the same light as the Founders. Before I had time to even shriek out in alarm, the thick wooden handle of the sledgehammer had zoomed to my neck and was crushing my trachea so I couldn't breath, much less scream.
Torvald was making his last stand.
The lack of oxygen was making my eyes bulge and my vision start to darken and blur. But in the corner of my fading sight I caught movement; the members of the Student Council were flocking to my rescue and for a split-second I had a flashback to when they arrived in my dorm room to break up the fight between Berwald and Denmark. The Founders' states had gone beyond tipsy now to the point where they were catatonic. China's eyes didn't even blink. They couldn't even see what was happening.
Why didn't the light make Torvald drunk and disabled like the others? My consciousness started blinking out before I could ponder the answer.
Then suddenly the painful pressure on my throat released and I was able suck in a loud, gasping breath. The air made me lucid again, enough to see that Torvald had loosened his chokehold to retaliate. One of his arms hooked around my chest and hugged me tightly against him so I couldn't escape while the other swung the sledgehammer around us in a perfect circle, scattering his attackers by either crashing into them or forcing them to dive out of the way.
"Stay back!" he barked. His voice was like the boom of a volcano and made his chest quake against my back. "I will kill every last one of you if you try to stop me! Then I will kill every student in your precious school!"
My eyes were darting as he yelled, scanning the crumpled but—thank goodness—still moving bodies all around to try and assess who was hurt and how badly. To my relief, everyone was able to at least stagger to his feet, but they were all clearly frightened. A part of me wanted someone to attempt another rescue, but another part didn't want to anyone else to get hurt or killed. And I knew that's what would happen to anyone who didn't heed Torvald's warning. All of them together couldn't match his singular strength; the only one capable of fighting on his level was currently in a coma.
If anyone was going to stop Torvald one last time, it had to be me. But my brain was blank. I didn't even know what he wanted.
"I know what you are attempting here!" Torvald roared. "I know you are trying to get rid of me! Now that I have Astrid back you plan to tear us apart again!" He pause, heavy breaths hissing out from behind his teeth, and when he spoke again, his voice had boiled down to a menacing growl. "But I'm not going to let that happen. If I have to go, I am taking her with me. We will be together forever in our second death."
With both hands, Torvald turned me around and held me out in front of him, facing him. Even though his skin was glowing brilliant blue-white, his eyes were wide and wild and dark; no trace of the boy I loved shown through them. A sudden smirk twisted his lips up into a deranged expression that the real Berwald would never make and he shoved me back against the Foundation Stone so roughly it knocked the air out of my lungs.
"Berwald!" I shouted when I'd regained my breath. My voice was shrill with desperation. "Berwald, wake up! Come on! Just one more time!"
But Torvald just licked his lips greedily. "I've pushed that boy down to the deepest pit of his consciousness, Astrid. He's practically gone. There is no way he's coming back now. He thought he could keep you for himself and kill me off, but he was wrong. Dead wrong."
"I'm not Astrid!" I hissed as his strong hand pressed my shoulders down on the top surface of the Stone. The corner was digging into my back painfully. "And I will never love you. In fact, I hate you, Torvald." I'd never hated anyone before and the words felt like scorching hot lava spewing up from my chest and out of my mouth. "I'll never forgive you for what you've done to him and his loved ones." And then I did something that was pure impulse, something I would never do under less traumatic circumstances: I spat in his face.
Torvald didn't even flinch when my spittle sprayed his cheek. His crazy eyes narrowed down to slits, gleefully furious, and one of his hands zoomed to my neck. I barely had time to gulp in the air that I was sure was about to get cut off, but, for some reason, he didn't choke me. His curled hand held my neck down with just enough force to make me aware how easily he could strangle me if I tried to escape. He was holding me—my skull, more specifically—in place with one hand while the other raised the sledgehammer high in the air.
"I'll crush your beautiful head and the Foundation Stone with a single swing," he said. His voice was strangely quiet now, the voice of a psychopath.
It hit me like a cold wave, the realization that I was going to die. My darting eyes saw the Student Council members scrambling to come to my rescue. That is when the hardest words I'd ever spoken jumped from my mouth. "Stay back! Don't any of you try to save me!" I snapped, and there were tears in my eyes as I said it because I didn't really want to die. "He'll kill you!" If he destroyed the Foundation Stone along with me, Berwald would be free and I would be Torvald's final victim. "It's my turn to sacrifice!" This was the ultimate atonement for what I did ten years ago, the crime I'd promised not to feel guilty for anymore. Now I wouldn't need to worry about whether I could actually keep that promise.
I felt the warm tears sliding down the sides of my face, but in my heart I felt a strange calm. I lifted one hand to the menacing, beautiful face looming above me and stroked his glowing cheek softly, just like he—the real owner of that face—had done for me more than once. But my touch didn't bring him back; the eyes stayed ultramarine and evil.
"I love you, Berwald Oxenstierna," I told him, the boy buried away deeply. "When Torvald is gone, please, please don't hate yourself because he killed me. It wasn't your fault." And one more time, I said, "I love you, Berwald."
In the last moment of my life, everything around me seemed to happen in slow motion and I felt oddly aware of it all. I noticed the sun crouched low in the eastern sky, just starting its upward climb. I noticed how beautiful the school looked in the light of dawn, its stones and beams sheathed in sweet orange. I noticed the anguished looks on the faces of the Student Council members. England, who had tears in his green eyes, had to hold America in his wheelchair to keep him from leaping up and trying to be an armless hero. Italy was clinging to Germany and Germany was hugging him back. Even quiet Japan had reached out to hold hands with anything-but-subtle France.
The very last sight that my eyes took in before I squeezed them closed was the sledgehammer rushing down to split my head like a melon.
But in the next instant, I wasn't brained to death. Something inexplicable happened just in the nick of time: the Foundation Stone that had been supporting me, upon which I was about to become a human sacrifice, started to crumble beneath me and I was able to wriggle out of Torvald's grip.
My eyes shot open. Above me, Torvald's face still hovered, but he was paralyzed and his expression was frozen in a mix of shock and horror. Beneath me, the ground was shaking. It had started as a low rumble, but now it was growing into a very localized earthquake. I scrambled onto my feet, unconcerned at the moment over what had broken the Foundation Stone—my priority was getting myself and Berwald onto stable ground.
As I pulled Berwald's petrified body away from the Stone, I saw the crack in it. It was like a black lightning bolt zigzagging down the center, running deep into its core, and its origin appeared to be a bent metal axe head lodged just centimeters away from where my skull had rested seconds ago. I recognized that axe head immediately.
"Denmark!" I shouted and he stood up from where he was crouched behind the split monument, breathing heavily with sweat glistening on his forehead.
"Looks like I got here just in time," he said, grinning. "That's what I call a deus axe machina."
I had never been so happy to see that grin or hear such a lame joke. "I'd thank you properly, but right now I think this whole terrace might collapse! You have to get off it!" I yelled from the safety of the sidelines.
He started to dash towards me, but something large and fast streaked up to meet him. Torvald had regained his senses and his mobility and had launched himself at Denmark. The Foundation Stone was flaking apart, but he still had strength left in him for one last fight.
Somehow Denmark seemed to know he couldn't actually hurt his opponent in physical combat—maybe it was related to how he seemed to know exactly what we were up to, destroying the Foundation Stone—so he just bobbed and weaved to avoid Torvald's fists. The Viking may have had supernatural strength, but his agility appeared to be human.
"Consider this payback for what you did to Maren!" Denmark taunted as he barely dodged a vicious uppercut. "You know, Berwald would have been an awesome brother if it weren't for you!"
"Denmark! You have to get back here!" I shouted with hands cupped around my mouth. "You have to lure him, too!"
"Grab the sledgehammer and finish destroying that glowing rock, Fin!" Denmark yelled to me. "It's the only way to fix him, right?"
But Torvald heard him, too, and his dark blue eyes flicked to the hammer he'd abandoned on the ground. Both of us dove for it at the same instant. My fingers touched the wooden handle and immediately wrapped around it, and I whipped up the sledgehammer a split-second before Torvald could get his—Berwald's—hands on it.
I swung without hesitation, wanting nothing but to end this all. I swung again, striking the same spot at the base of the Foundation Stone and sinking the head of the hammer deeper into the crater the first hit had created. I swung a third time and the Stone was decimated.
Torvald stopped moving and stopped glowing, and I realized it wasn't Torvald anymore, but Berwald, who staggered to remain upright, his strength spent. The six remaining Founders, still statue-like in the background, stopped glowing, too, but now all that remained were columns of grey ash in the shapes of humans, an oddly gruesome sight. Particles of them were lifting and swirling in the air and if a strong breeze were to suddenly rip through, I knew they would disperse completely into dust.
The shaking didn't stop, though, like I expected it to. What remained of the Foundation Stone sank down into the terrace and the surrounding bricks started to follow, creating a rapidly growing sinkhole.
The Student Council jumped into action, rushing over to get me and Berwald and Denmark the hell out of there. France and Italy grabbed me by my arms and pulled me onto solid ground just before the bricks beneath my feet fell away. Germany and Japan got Berwald to safety with similar, perfect timing. But England's fingers just barely reached Denmark when the spot he was standing on collapsed. England had to leap back and Denmark was swallowed by the black hole along with the powdery remains of the Saint Hetalia Founders.
Less than a second later, the shaking stopped.
We were all in a sort of pile in the sand, holding onto each other, panting to catch our breaths, and staring at what used to be the front terrace of Saint Hetalia Academy for Boys. My hands were hooked so tightly around Berwald I could feel his pulse and my eyes were fixed on the spot were Denmark had just vanished.
"He's gone," I sobbed. "Denmark… Søren, he saved both of us and now he's… he's just… he's gone…"
Berwald squeezed me snuggly against him, pressed my hair against his cheek. I felt something wet on my scalp and I realized that Berwald was crying, too. As much anguish as I'd seen him in, I don't think I'd ever experienced his tears. "T'rvald woulda kill'd y' if 't weren't fer Sør'n. He was… hero'c 'n th' truest sense."
The Student Council members were all silent and somber; I don't think any of them had known Denmark personally, but they recognized the magnitude of what he had just done and all gave him the respect he had earned. England was different, however. I could hear him muttering to himself, crying, and when I tore my eyes off of the ruins to look at him, he was tucked in a tight ball next to America's wheelchair.
"I should have been quicker," he squeaked softly. "If I had gotten to him just two seconds sooner… or if I'd been able to use my magic…"
America was trying his best to soothe him. "It's not your fault, Arthur. I should've been able to help you. The others all got to be teams of two. You were just unlucky enough to be teamed with the injured me. And Denmark… he was a lot further in than the others. It was just really, really bad luck. If you had gotten there sooner…" He stopped and swallowed what I figured was a very uncomfortable thought. "If you'd gotten there sooner, you might have gotten pulled down, too."
England hugged America's knee and cried against it. America cried, too. There wasn't a dry eye present.
"I know I'm not supposed to say anything, since, technically, I am still being shunned, but why are you all crying like a bunch of girls?"
Seven heads turned in unison towards the voice. Denmark was limping over to join us, his clothing torn, his skin a roadmap of cups and scrapes. His left eye was swollen closed and he was holding one arm with the other. "Thanks for not helping me climb out of that hole, by the way. It was just the workout my morning needed." Yes, he was sarcastic, but he didn't seem genuinely upset with any of us. He was smiling.
I was smiling, too, one of those ridiculously goofy smiles that can't be faked. "Søren! You're alive!"
"Just a little fall," he said. "No big deal." Despite his assertion, though, he winced as he sank down to sit in the sand next to Berwald and me.
"Y' were amazing," Berwald said. "I can't b'lieve y' did that, 'specially since y' hate me."
"How did you know what was going on?" I asked, caught up in bafflement.
Denmark scratched the back of his neck with his good hand. "Well, the thing I discovered about being shunned is that you can sneak around a lot more easily without people noticing you. I've been following you around for days to find out what you were up to. That's how I found out what was really going on… who really killed my sister and the other Finland."
"So you know it wasn't Berwald?" I said, inclining closer to him.
His face took on a serious, penitent expression that he aimed more at Berwald than at me. "Yeah," he said. "I know that I was wrong. That my hatred was unfounded."
"Just misaimed," I corrected. "And you had no way of knowing. But I hope that the two of you can be friends again. The way you should have been as kids."
"I guess I'm will'ng t' start ov'r 'f you 're," Berwald said with just a hint of grumble.
"Yeah, I'm ready for a fresh start," Denmark said, a gentler version of his handsome smile returning to his face. "That is, as soon as my shunning is lifted. What do you say, Student Council? Have I earned the right to talk again?"
"Consider your sentence served," America said cheerily. "Welcome back to the world of the talking, hero."
"So I assume you still want to keep living with Ber, eh Finny?" Denmark asked. There was a tiny trace of loneliness on his face, but I could tell that he already knew my answer.
"Yeah, I'm going to stay with him," I said, exchanging a quick glance with Berwald. "But you know, I think Norway would be a perfect roommate for you. He likes you. And Iceland has been whining about wanting his own room anyways."
"Really?" Denmark was looking down, slightly surprised but clearly happy. "Yeah, I think I might like that. And we'll still all sit together at meals. All five of us."
"I guess things are going to get really normal now, huh?" I wondered out loud. I knew it was a good thing, but I still worried about how things would be between Berwald and I from now on.
"Norm'l 's good," he said. "Peacef'l."
But I felt I had to do something, some gesture to show him that my interest in him wasn't going to fade just because his curse was gone. I turned and looked into his beautiful blue-green eyes, the same eyes that had entranced me from the moment I first saw them. "I know it's still months away, but I want you to spend the winter holiday in Finland with me and my family, Berwald. You can spend every holiday with me from now on if you'd like. What do you say?"
I watched his face anxiously, hoping for a resounding 'yes' but worried he might not be so sure. Berwald didn't say 'yes.' He didn't say anything. His reply was a little smile that I couldn't figure out until his hand swooped behind my head and pulled my mouth against his. A real kiss. With Berwald. It was as perfect as any kiss could be, felt like an electric current of euphoria was passing from Berwald's lips to mine. Every inch of me was tingling, every nerve excited. I didn't want it to end, but we both had to surface for air eventually.
"Is that a yes?" I asked, still breathless.
Berwald smiled at me, the happiest smile I'd ever seen on him. "Yes," he said. "I love y' T'no."
"I love you, too, Berwald," I said, sniffing back tears of joy. "You'll never be an outcast again." And then I leaned in and kissed him again for good measure, knowing there would be many more ahead of us.
My shoes sink slightly into the loamy ground as I make my way up the last little hill. I can tell that it rained recently. From the top, I can finally see the towers and spires of Saint Hetalya Academy for Boys and Girls. It still looks the same as it did ten years ago, even though the name has been tweaked. During my second year there, the first without the Founders' Guild, the school returned to being coed.
A cluster of figures, their features are too distant to make out distinctly, is gathered on the lakeshore in front of the school. One of them waves to me and I wave back.
"Hurry up, Berwald," I yell back over my shoulder. "They're already waiting for us."
I'm not really impatient with him, and I know why he's moving slower than I am, but I am just so excited I can barely contain myself. I wait the minute or two it takes for Berwald to reach my side and grab hold of his hand before we head down to the shore together.
"I didn' want t' jostl' 'im too much," he says, nodding down at the bulging cloth sling across his chest.
"I know," I say, peeking into the little bundle and smiling uncontrollably. "I didn't mean to rush you. He's still sound asleep."
"Bet Sør'n'll wake 'im up w'thin th' f'rst minute," Berwald says, shaking his head slightly.
"We'll just have to wait and see," I say optimistically.
Søren is the first one to greet us in front of the school, also the one who'd waved at me. He is grinning, even more handsome at twenty-six than he had been at sixteen—though he will still always take a back seat to Berwald in my mind. Olaf, the man I'd called Norway when he was just a boy, is close at his right. Sigurd, our former Iceland, is at his left, somewhat less close.
"About time you two showed up," Søren booms in a jovial voice. "But man is it great to see you again. I don't think we've all been together since the wedding. I still can't believe you two got hitched. And now this." He is talking very loudly and very quickly, but he pauses to gesture towards the bundle against Berwald's chest, which is just now starting to squirm. "So are you going to let us see him?"
I can't even be mad at Søren for his volume because I am so excited to show this little guy off. With a wide grin, I reach into the sling with both hands and pull out what I can't help thinking is the most beautiful baby in the world. He's awake, his blue eyes wide open and curious, not emitting even a whimper as he gums a chubby little fist.
"Here he is," I say, chest welling with joy. "Peter Søren Oxenstierna. Berwald's and my son." We hadn't told Søren yet that we'd decided to use his name for our baby's middle name, and the happy shock on his face makes it well worth the wait. "What do you think?"
"He's adorable," Søren coos, joyful tears in the corners of his eyes. "He's got some interesting eyebrows on him, though. Were his biological parents English?"
My lips pucker into a small frown, but it is not a serious frown. I know he is just making a joke because Peter's eyebrows do bear a certain resemblance to our old friend, Arthur Kirkland. "I don't know. But it doesn't matter," I say, leaning down to kiss Peter's fat cheek. "He's ours now."
"Man, that makes me want one, too," Søren says dreamily and Olaf shoots him a curious look. They are business partners now, but business partners who, rather suspiciously, also happen to live together. Søren's feelings about wanting a baby definitely seem to interest him.
Sigurd is a geologist and still a good friend. All five of us are good friends. But there is another group of friends we are waiting for before we go inside.
"A baby! Cuuuu~ute!" The voice that cuts through the air is too high and sweet to belong to an adult, and indeed, when I look down the beach, there is a very small girl hurtling towards us. She has pigtails and huge green eyes behind plastic glasses. Running after her are two more familiar faces.
"Iggy slow down!" Alfred yells. "You'll trip!"
"Ingrid!" Arthur yells. "Ingrid!"
The little girl, Ingrid, is standing in front of us now, staring up at little Peter in adoration. "Mommy! Papa! Look at the cute little baby!" she says.
"He is a very cute baby," America says, squatting down next to Ingrid so that they're almost the same height.
"Mommy, I want upsies," she says latching her little hands around Alfred's neck.
"You got it, Pumpkin," he says, wrapping his arms around her and standing with her. He kisses her and turns to beam at me. "Hey Tino, Berwald, and the rest of you guys. Long time, no see." He sets his eyes on Peter and his grin somehow spreads even wider. "I see we're not the only ones who've joined the parent club."
"Name's Pet'r," Berwald says. "B'came ours a month 'go."
"Peter," Ingrid says in awe, her eyes as big as saucers. "Mommy, I want a baby brother."
"You'll have to ask your Papa about that, Iggy," Alfred tells her. Then he turns back to us. "This is our Iggy, by the way. She's almost three now."
"She's precious," I say, and I honestly mean it.
"Ingrid," Arthur huffs, still catching his breath from the sprint over. "Her name is Ingrid, after my mother." He leans over to kiss his daughter's forehead. "Ingrid dear, what did we say about daddies and mommies?"
The little girl puffs out her lower lip in an expression that is shockingly Alfred-like. "Daddies are boys and mommies are girls."
"That's right," says Arthur sweetly. "It's Papa and Daddy, not Papa and Mommy."
"But Mo… Daddy said I came from his egg," little Ingrid says and immediately Arthur makes a horrified expression.
"You're a teacher, Arthur," Alfred says sheepishly. "I thought you'd want her to be properly educated about where she came from."
"I'm a professor of English literature," Arthur says stiffly. "I educate people about Dickens and Shakespeare, not human biology. And she's two, for crying out loud!"
Berwald and I turn and look at each other, utterly confused, then back at the other family.
Alfred is all too eager to explain. "Basically, they took an egg donated by my sis, scooped out her genetic data and injected mine and then fertilized it with Artie's… uh, you know. Then they put it in Sis's tummy and nine months later we had our Iggy."
So that's why she looks remarkably like both of them, I think to myself. I'd heard that Americans liked to go to extreme measures to have their own biological children, but I had no idea they were making babies from two dads already. But just because Peter is adopted doesn't make him any less ours.
I remember when I first brought Berwald home to Finland with me and had introduced him as my boyfriend to my mom and dad. They'd been surprised for sure, but they just wanted me to be happy. Mom cried tears of joy at our wedding and when I told her that we wanted to have a family and give her grandchildren she cried again. Peter is already being so spoiled by his grandparents it's a bit ridiculous.
And, of course, Berwald is just crazy about him, too. There is no sweeter sight to me than when I watch from the nursery doorway as Berwald rocks Peter in his arms and sings softly to him in Swedish—I asked him about it once and he told me it was a song his own mother had sung to him when he was little. Then, when the baby has fallen back asleep, he comes over to kiss me and we go back to our bedroom together.
Sometimes I can't believe how wonderful my life has become thanks to Berwald coming into it. Thanks to Saint Hetalia. There are sad things, as well, of course. Last spring, the original Flower-Egg went to be with Berwald's parents, and Maren, and Yao. Her successor is named Hanatamago—a Japanese twist on our first dog's name—and looks almost exactly the same. But we will never forget Flower-Egg.
As I am sighing over the memory, Berwald puts his arm around me. More old friends have arrived. Francis Bonnefoy, perhaps the world's most famous chef, is here with his current lover, an island beauty with mocha skin and long dark hair. Apparently she is an alumnus of Saint Hetalia as well.
Ivan Braginski is here, too. I remember watching him win a gold medal for boxing at the Olympics two years ago, and another four years before that. He pats me on the head with a massive hand. He'd made a remarkable recovery after Torvald nearly killed him; the only brain damage he suffered was to the area that caused his Blood Rage. He never suffered from it again.
Ludwig and Feliciano have come together, of course. They haven't changed a bit as far as I can tell, except that now they are an engineer and a painter respectively. Kiku Honda is present and perfectly poised. He is president of a Japanese publishing house that I recently read signed some sort of big book deal with a Greek writer we all know. I somehow doubt that it is by coincidence.
I actually spoke to Kiku on the phone more recently than the other former Student Council members. He wants to release my first novel in Japan next year, which is very exciting. They also are trying to put together a full-color book of Berwald's creations. Only twenty-six and he is the most sought-after furniture designers in all of Europe. I always knew he had it in him.
Once everyone has taken the time to say their hellos and fawn over the children Feliciano chirps, "So, are we going to go inside? I'm getting hungry!"
"I want cupcakes!" little Ingrid chimes from her perch on Alfred's shoulders. "With blue frosting."
"I don't know if they'll have cupcakes, dear," Arthur says, making her pout cutely. "The party is because they are opening a new museum."
"But I eat blue cupcakes at Mo… at Daddy's you-see-em all the time. Pale-o-lentologists love cupcakes."
"Whatever they've got, I'm sure it's better than Papa's cooking," says Alfred as they climb the step up onto the rebuilt terrace.
The others follow one after the other.
Berwald and I each give our son another kiss before tucking him back into his snug sling, and then we make the ascent hand-in-hand. We pause in front of the new monument, the one the Student Council that I was a part of installed. It looks like the original Foundation Stone and even includes the school crest. But a new inscription is below it: Be at peace. It is a message for the Founders as well as every student who comes to Saint Hetalya.
Today we are celebrating the official opening of the Saint Hetalya Founders' Museum, a project all of us have been working on for years. It is housed in the underground of the school, where the Founders' lived for far longer than most of the attendees will ever realize, and is meant to showcase their dream and how they made it happened. Only a few of us know the whole story, of course. I see this day not only as a celebration of the school that shaped my whole adult life, the school where I found true friendship and true love, but as a fitting tribute to a man who'd helped me more than he ever realized.
I squeeze Berwald's hand and we pass through the double doors once again.