"Did you hide all the knives in the kitchen, Belarus?"
"Yes, even the butter knives. I locked up all the ceremonial swords too. I don't think he'd try anything with the Sword of Stalingrad, but-"
"But it's best to be safe, yes. I've cleared all the pills out of his bathroom, and I think I found all his guns."
"Did you get the pistol in his desk?"
"Yes, and the revolver he keeps under his pillow. I think the only one left is the one he's carrying right now."
"No, I took that one away from him earlier. I...he didn't even seem to notice. I unbuttoned his coat and took the gun out of his pocket and...he just sat there. You know how he is about his guns, but he didn't...h-he's like a statue! He doesn't move, he doesn't talk, he-"
"Shh, it will be alright-"
"No, it won't! E-even if he doesn't try to hurt himself, I'm still scared he's going to die...I'm so scared..."
"He isn't dying, Belarus. He isn't."
"How do you know?! The Soviet Union's falling, everyone's leaving-"
"This doesn't have to kill him. Not if he doesn't let it. He's strong, he'll survive this."
"...He doesn't look strong at all right now. He looks like he's breaking along with the Union. I-I don't know what to do..."
"Why don't you get some rest? I don't think you've slept at all in days."
"No! I'm fine-"
"You aren't. You look like you're about to collapse. Get some sleep, I'll look after Russia. Go on."
Belarus hesitated before nodding reluctantly in agreement, and the two sisters finally went their separate ways: Belarus to find a spare bedroom (that wouldn't take long, Russia's house had gotten very empty lately) and Ukraine back to her brother's side. He hadn't moved an inch since she left him; he was still sitting on a well worn couch, staring blankly at the opposite wall. He had been like that for a while now, ever since they signed the Belavezha Accords last week that finally declared his Union dissolved. He mostly just sat in that same spot on the couch, although sometimes he got up and wandered around his empty house listlessly. Ukraine and Belarus followed him closely, afraid of what he might do if they left him alone. He hadn't spoken in almost a week, and wouldn't eat or drink unless they placed something in front of him. Ukraine tried to reassure Belarus that Russia wasn't dying, but that fear haunted the back of her mind as well. She knew countries could die, even if she had never seen it happen herself. Was this how they died? Maybe Rome died like this, from the inside out.
Technically, she and Belarus weren't even supposed to be there anymore. The Belavezha Accords said that they weren't a part of the Soviet Union anymore. They ought to have left by now, gone back home just like the Baltics. Their own people needed them now, but neither could bring herself to leave Russia alone yet. Soon she would leave for good, soon, but not yet, not until she was sure that he could survive this on his own.
"Brother?" she called meekly as she walked over to him. He didn't look at her, but that wasn't surprising. Taking a deep breath to steady her nerves, she took a seat next to him on the couch. Still no response.
"A-are you feeling any better?" Her question was met with silence, but the answer was clearly 'no.' He was still terribly pale, eyes sunken with lack of sleep. He had lost a great deal of weight over the past few months too; his formerly round face had turned thin, and his greatcoat hung awkwardly off his shoulders. If he had improved at all, Ukraine couldn't see it.
"Do you need anything? Something to eat? Are you cold? It's pretty chilly this year...do you want a blanket?" It felt silly to keep babbling like that when she knew he wouldn't say anything in return. She looked around the room nervously, trying to think of something to talk about, when he eyes fell on a small television in the corner. "Would, um....would you like to watch some TV?" There was a remote on the table that she assumed went to the TV, and sure enough, the screen flickered to life when she pressed the 'on' button.
"Turn that off."
Ukraine almost dropped the remote in shock. His face was as impassive as ever and his voice was rough with lack of use, but Russia had definitely spoken, his first words in days.
"Oh! Um...r-right," she babbled nervously, fumbling with the buttons. The screen fell black again, but Russia seemed to have no further comment.
"I-it's good to hear to talk again, brother," Ukraine said awkwardly, hoping to prompt him to speak again. "I w-worry when you're so quiet."
"There's nothing for me to say." His voice was painfully raspy. Ukraine almost wanted to go grab him a glass of water, but she was too afraid that she wouldn't be able to get him to speak again by the time she got back.
"Th-there's plenty to say!" she insisted, putting a hand on his arm. "Tell me...tell me what's you're thinking, what you're feeling, anything."
"It doesn't matter what I think or feel. None of that means anything now."
"How can you say that? It always matters!" It matters to me, she added silently.
"Then what if I say I'm angry? Or sad? Nothing changes. My Union is still crumbling around me." His mouth twisted up into an empty jack-o-lantern smile. "Everyone is in such a hurry to leave. Especially Lithuania...after all I did for him, he was still the first to go. And the others left after him...even Belarus wants to leave me. Even you." He laughed softly, a dry, brittle sound that sounded more like a cough than a laugh. "W-was it so terrible, being with me? Was I so awful?" His voice was still bitter and that hollow smile was still in place, but a note of panic had entered his voice. "I worked so hard for everyone, I tried so hard to make us all strong, but...b-but everyone still hates me, they all still go away, after everything I've...I-I...did I...w-was I wrong? This entire time?"
He turned to look at her at last, and it was a struggle to not avert her eyes. He hadn't looked so frightened since he was small enough to sit in her lap. What could she say to him? She thought about the man-made famines, the kolkhoz, the gulag, all the secrets and lies...and then she thought of her brother lifting her off her feet in a celebratory bear hug on the day Sputnik launched, the times she'd find him with The Communist Manifesto open on his knees and moving his mouth along to the words that meant the most to him, how alive he seemed when he talked about the future, the glorious future...
"Parts of it were wrong," she said, slowly and carefully. "But not all. Not all of it was wrong."
"Then why did it fail? Why did I fail?"
There was no answer to that question, or maybe it was that there were too many answers. Either way, it was too soon to put it all into words, so she just grabbed his hand and squeezed it silently.
"M-maybe I didn't try hard enough. Maybe I...I..." Tears suddenly welled up in his eyes and spilled down his cheeks half a second later. His expression shifted into confusion, as if tears were a foreign experience for him.
"Brother..." Ukraine whispered helplessly as he tried to wipe them away with his hands.
"I c-can't...don't know..." he muttered meaninglessly, shrinking down into his coat and grinding the heels of his hands into his eyes, as though he could stop the tears with physical force.
"Stop that," she said softly, taking hold of his wrists and pulling his hands away from his face. "D-don't rub your eyes so hard, you m-might hurt yourself."
He stared at her for a heartbeat, seeming to not understand her words. And then something finally broke in him. A shudder ran through his body as he squeezed his eyes shut against the flood of tears and twisted his mouth closed in a vain attempt to hold in the grief that was racking through his chest and shoulders.
Ukraine had spent the last week tiptoeing around her brother, uncertain of what to do for him, but for once she had no doubts about what to do as she grabbed his trembling shoulders and pulled him closer. Hugging him wasn't as easy as it once was; he was too big to fit neatly into her arms anymore, but he didn't seem to mind as he sagged against her. He must have been holding his breath because it suddenly came rushing out as a jerking sob. Another sob followed, and another, but they were muffled when he pressed his face into her shoulder. She held him tightly, as though she could keep him from breaking apart with her arms.
"I-I'm....I'm s-sorry," he choked against her neck, and she could feel tears on her skin. Why was he apologizing? An apology wasn't worth much if there was nothing behind it, and maybe it was only words.
Or maybe there was some substance there that was still too raw to put into words. Maybe he was trying to apologize for all the hurt he had caused her over the years. For all the chaos he had pulled her into, for Chernobyl, for the Holodomor...
"I forgive you," she whispered into his ear, her own eyes brimming with tears, more to sooth him than anything else. In the bottom of her heart she knew that things like that could never really be forgiven, but they didn't have to keep her from caring about her younger brother. She could lie a little, if it could help a little now. Later, there would be time later to worry about the rest, about him making amends if he really wanted to (and she hoped he would, she really did. She hoped he loved her that much.)
They sat there together for what might have been hours as the sobs died down to sniffles and hiccuping gasps and then finally faded to steady breathing again. Neither moved or made a sound for a long time, until Ukraine began to feel uncomfortably stiff.
"Brother?" she asked tentatively. He had been still and quiet for a while, and was leaning against her heavily. There was no response, and when she managed to shift enough in the awkward embrace to get a look at his face, she saw his eyes were closed. He had fallen asleep, and seemed completely dead to the world.
After a bit of awkward maneuvering to extract herself from the odd position they had tangled themselves up in, she set about making him as comfortable as she could. He really was fast asleep; he didn't even budge when she dragged his legs up onto the couch. From there she carefully unlaced his boots and tugged them off, wincing as the condition of his socks (his toes were peeking through! Didn't he know how to mend socks?) She found a blanket, but it wasn't long enough to cover him completely. A second blanket was found to cover his legs and ratty-sock-clad feet, and a pillow for his head.
She sat down on the floor beside him then and gently wiped the drying tears off his face with her sleeve. His face was still blotched red, but relaxed now in sleep. She hoped he was sleeping too deeply for dreams, and pressed a kiss to his forehead.
If they were both human, she would have stayed there forever, watching him sleep, but that wasn't an opinion. She had promised herself to only stay until she knew he would be fine. He hadn't recovered yet, and wouldn't for quite some time, but the honest human grief was progress in her eyes, and healing. He would survive this, she felt certain of that. He would hurt for a while yet, but he would live.
She wanted to wait until he woke up, but he might ask her to stay longer, and she wasn't sure she'd be able to refuse that request. No, she needed to leave now. Her people needed her now, more than he did. Time to say her goodbyes.
Ukraine stood up stiffly and made her way to the bedroom Belarus was in first, relieved to see that her younger sister was sleeping peacefully too. She dug up a piece of paper and pen, and jotted down a quick note to her:
I'm going home now. Russia was sleeping when I left, and if he's still asleep when you wake up, just let him rest. Don't worry, he's doing better now. Don't stay here too much longer. You need to go back to your own people soon. Take care.
Your loving sister,
P.S. When you think it's safe, tell Russia where we hid all his knives and guns.
She left the note on the bedside table, pulled the blankets up over Belarus' shoulder and brushed her hair out of her face before she tiptoed out again, closing the door softly so as not to wake the younger country.
She returned to Russia's side with another piece of paper, and watched him breathe for a while before she started writing her letter to him.
I'm sorry that I have to leave you now. If I could, I'd stay here much longer, but this is a difficult time for my own people as well. I need to be with them. You'll be fine. I believe in you. You're strong, you'll get through this and be better for it. Please take care of yourself. There is plenty of food in the kitchen, so get something to eat when you wake up. There's vodka too, but please don't drink too much, and eat something first. Alcohol on an empty stomach isn't good for you. There are clean towels in the bathroom, so take a hot shower later. I don't think you've had one in a few days. Don't forget to wash behind your ears. And be sure to keep warm, it's freezing outside and the last thing you need now is to catch a cold.
Ukraine stopped and stared at what she had just written. This wasn't what she wanted to say at all. Oh, of course she wanted him to look after himself, but there was something more important that needed to be said. She chewed on the end of her pen for a moment before trying again.
I...she hesitated, and then wrote: I love you. Another pause later, she added: very much. Don't ever forget that, I love you with all my heart. No matter what happens, I'll still love you. I have to ago back to my own home and people, but you'll be in my mind and heart, always.
P.S. The next time you have some money to spare, buy yourself some new socks. The ones you're wearing have holes.
Ukraine put her pen down at last and dried her eyes on her sleeve. It was time to leave. Russia was still sleeping deeply, breathing slow and heavy. She bent over him and kissed him once more on the forehead.
"Goodbye, brother," she choked. At last, she stood and walked out the door, leaving the Soviet Union and her brother's failed dreams and new beginnings behind her. She had played her part. The rest was up to him.
The Belavezha Accords was signed December 8, 1991 by Boris Yeltsin, Stanislau Shushkevich and Leonid Kravchuk (leaders of Russia, Belarus and Ukraine, respectively) and declared that the Soviet Union was officially dissolved. On December 21, all Soviet republics (except for Georgia and the Baltics) signed the Alma-Ata Protocol, which confirmed the breakup of the Soviet Union and declared Russia to be successor of the Soviet Union. On December 25, Mikhail Gorbachev resigned as president of the Soviet Union and turned power over to Boris Yeltsin. On that same day, the flag of the Soviet Union was lowered from the flagpole in front of the Kremlin and replaced with the Russian flag. And with that, the Soviet Union was gone and the Cold War was over.