A/N: This was supposed to be an introspective drabble for Germany, but I don't think I can really call it that anymore. This also happens to be my first attempt at Hetalia fanfiction, so it would be very sweet of you to review and tell me how I did.
I know one of the tags is "romance," but you can take the relationship as you will. This is more about Germany himself than his relationship with Italy, as sweet as it may be. Also, the "Nordrebber" mentioned in this story is the hometown of my German ancestors. Just thought I'd throw that in there. Yep. Totally relevant.
Disclaimer: I do not own Axis Powers Hetalia, or any of the countries therein.
The pavement is dyed with sunset colors and tiny spatters of sweat.
His boots slam down one after the other as he keeps his knees high. The necessary breathing pattern is second nature by now, and he focuses only on consistency. He has tried running with speed in mind, but that only tires him faster. He prefers to be sure and steady, all firm footfalls and slowly cooling sweat in Frankfurt's evening breeze.
Italy lags behind.
The smaller nation's breath comes in whines. Everything about him seems to reach towards the ground, his body drooping and stumbling, feet barely breaking contact with the road.
"Keep up," Germany barks. Italy groans. His reply weaves in and out of Ludwig's hearing, fighting through Feliciano's panting breath.
Germany glances back and wonders absently if the color of Italy's face is really similar to the color of his tomatoes, or if it's just a trick of the dimming light.
"I said no. You want to be strong, don't you?"
Italy looks anything but strong right now – it's only been half a mile, for God's sake – but Germany refrains from saying so, very politely in his opinion, given the circumstances.
"But…" Italy nearly stumbles.
Germany duly waits for the obligatory declaration about preferring pasta, or wine, or whatever else runs through that sleepy little head all day.
"Can't Germany protect me?"
Ludwig ignores this, keeping pace until he realizes that Italy has stopped. He sighs, letting his run peter out to a jog and then walking a few steps for good measure. His breath only comes slightly harder than usual as he turns around.
"That's not the point."
"But that's not the point - "
"Yay! Germany can protect Italy!"
Germany doesn't think Italy should have the right to sound so surprised.
"Shut up and listen." His voice is hard, and Feliciano tilts his head like a little dog. The vacant smile becomes fractionally more attentive, or so Germany imagines, and then promptly feels foolish for imagining it and just decides to start talking anyway. He crosses his arms.
"Running is…" He glares at the ground by his feet, but it offers no sudden inspirations. "We run because…because it's important, so don't question it."
That isn't what he had meant to say, but he's having trouble finding the words.
"Because we need to, that's why. You need to."
"Why?" Italy flops right down onto someone's yard by the side of the road, earning himself a disapproving glare. He stretches languidly, completely content. Life is good to me, taunts the lazy arm he raises into the air to trace the clouds. Why fight, when the grass is still green?
"Would you get off of there? It's private property! We run because you need to get stronger, damnit. We've been over this already."
"But Germany said - "
"That doesn't matter," he growls. "Of course I'll protect you, but you need to learn to defend yourself. Even if I try my hardest to keep you safe, to show up whenever you need me, even if - "
The words derail themselves, and he turns abruptly away. His shadow stretches long before him against the burnished orange tint of waning sun on pavement. After the awkward pause runs its course, he continues.
"But that is not all I'm referring to." He has reverted to hardened soldier again, a drill sergeant and commander before all else. "Running gives you endurance. You'll need that."
That's not quite it, he thinks, but he can't come up with a better word. Language has never been his strong point. He can give a speech to rally fighters to fullest glory, even though they know they may go to their deaths. He can convince them that they are noble and blessed and invincible, scream at them until they are more than ready to charge the enemy head-on, they are ready to fly, to fight for cause and country and the blood in their veins until they can no longer stand by their own power.
But giving a speech of pure passion before sending his people out into the fray isn't the same thing as talking. Battle, Germany is good at. It fills him with a sense of purpose and power. But other ideas transcend the battlefield, both hallowed things and normal things. These are different. These are difficult.
Italy, he thinks, is one of these things.
"Look - " he turns around almost apologetically, only to find Feliciano curled on his side, mouth open in a soft smile even while sleeping. Despite everything, despite the disturbing idea that nations who could rip him apart with a fraction of their strength are declaring him their sworn enemy, he smiles while he sleeps.
Germany hesitates, then scowls and sits on the grass. Stars peek through a heavenly blanket, and the half-moon makes its lopsided debut. The shadows are growing ever longer, close to coating all of his country in the cool of nighttime. In Berlin the cabarets will be opening, laughter and raucous jazz lacing the dark. In Nordrebber, families will be lighting lamps and bringing the cows in, perhaps singing snatches of old songs to each other as a countermelody to the crickets. As for Ludwig himself, he gets the seat of his pants dirty in a suburb of Frankfurt, guiltily sitting on someone else's lawn, studying the face of a sleeping country.
By now Germany is starting to wonder if inertia is contagious. Seconds go by in silence, then minutes.
"We need to run," he says suddenly, and his voice is embarrassingly gruff and uncertain but he goes on anyway, "because you should feel what it's like to be completely and utterly exhausted, to the point where you can no longer think straight, no longer feel your limbs. To the point where you know for a fact that it's impossible for you to go another step, you might just die if you do, and that you are about to collapse and there is absolutely nothing you can do to prevent it. And then…"
He pauses and looks up, but not at the stars or the moon.
"And then goddamnit, you keep going anyway."
His hand twines through the grass, rough war calluses scratching against the soft blades.
"Just once. You've never tried to get past that point before, but once you do…"
He glances at Feliciano's gently closed eyes, feeling foolish. All this time, and he still doesn't know how to make Italy understand.
The world is changing.
Italy is too fragile, and Germany needs him to be strong now, needs him to live through this.
A car door slams somewhere down the street, and he blinks the crude philosopher from his eyes. This really isn't one of his strong points either. He shakes Italy's shoulder.
"Mngh. I'm tired."
Feliciano sits up and looks around, momentarily bewildered.
"Why are we…? Oh." He makes a face, then his expression turns hopeful. "It's getting dark out."
"Do we have to run anymore?"
"But do we have to? Come on, I'll take you for food or something."
Germany looks at the boyish face, all rounded edges and good-natured inadequacy, and hesitates. Italy seems to sense weakness and presses on.
"Come on, you can yell at me extra loud tomorrow, how about that?"
"It would satisfy me more if you said you'd do extra miles."
"Ha, that's funny!"
And, to Ludwig's surprise, it almost is. He stands up, offering Italy his hand and pulling him to his feet.
"Alright. Seeing as you'd probably trip over yourself running in the dark, we'll finish early. No complaints tomorrow if I increase the distance, though."
"I love you, Germany," Italy sings.
The reply is an obscure grumble. Ludwig pretends to study the moon, turning his face away so Feliciano can't see the betraying flush, can't tell just how off-kilter he is thrown. Words are not his strong point, after all.
He still wants Italy to know the feeling, that crucial moment where a person or even an entire country decides to defy the limitations of their body and push through all odds. He thinks it will make him stronger, maybe even keep him alive in the coming war. Maybe running is the wrong way to evoke it, but he's ready to try. Any edge to help Feliciano.
"Oh, let's go to that once place!"
A suddenly energetic Italy grabs his hand and pulls him along, soft fingers tightening against Ludwig's calloused ones as he struggles to free himself.
Maybe, just for now, it's alright that Italy's hands are still so soft.
Because Germany has gotten quite good at protecting him, in the end.