- 1945 -
It was over. The war was over. Though the surrenders were a mere formality at this point, Fort Roughs and his men were gathered around the radio in silent anticipation. Germany had been declared to be at the verge of defeat, Italy had folded long before, leaving only Japan's skirmishes with the United States an ocean away. Still, none of those things felt real. Fort Roughs didn't know any of them, had never met them or set foot on their lands, and he had no images in his head to associate with their names. Only the words mattered.
"Well boys," their commander's voice rang out over the speakers, "it's over. We've won." And while the men laughed with the relief at just being alive and present in the moment, at finding themselves at the end of this long nightmare when it had seemed so impossible to reach for so long, Fort Roughs felt a sensation of falling. It was like plunging into the cold of the water all over again, not finding anything solid beneath him. As much as they'd always talked about "after" - after the war is over, I'll marry my sweetheart, after the war is over, I'll write that book I've always wanted to do, after the war is over, I'm going to see the world - the concept had still been something foreign to Fort Roughs. "After" wasn't real, it was some idealized fantasy to keep the men going day after day.
But now it was here. Now it was after. The war was over.
And Fort Roughs was only just now beginning to realize that he didn't know anything else. He looked to his men, all of them exultant, their thoughts already turning to places he'd never been and things he'd never known. He swallowed, smiled as the captain's gaze drifted across him. The expression never touched his eyes, disappeared as the man looked away. Fort Roughs excused himself and none of them noticed.
Up he went, up to the platform above - empty for the moment with all of the sailors down below, planning for the futures they'd been hoping for all this time. Fort Roughs stood on the edge, looking out over the water. A breeze stirred his hair, the crispness and brine of the ocean against his cheeks, and he breathed in the scent.
It was over. His hands shook a little as he sank down to sit with his legs dangling over the edge. He gave a distracted kick, aware of his own body for really the first time since his 'birth'. Fort Roughs felt odd and awkward - legs to long and unwieldy - he wasn't sure what to make of this changing sense of self.
"What are you doing up here by yourself, lad?"
Fort Roughs turned with a startled yelp, his eyes wide and his expression touched with a hint of guilt, though he had nothing to feel guilty over. "C-captain." Fort Roughs ran one hand through his hair, not quite able to meet the man's gaze. "I just came up to get some air."
"Ah," and somehow that single sound spoke volumes, "I see."
Biting his lip a little, Fort Roughs added, abashed, "I'm sorry if I've troubled you, Captain."
"It's alright my boy. This is a strange time for everyone, I'd wager. The important thing now is to make the best of what we've got."
"And what is that?" Fort Roughs murmured, soft as the lapping waves below.
"Peter," the sound of his own name on the captain's lips startled Fort Roughs. He was so used to being called 'Fort Roughs' or 'lad' or 'boy', especially by his human residents, that 'Peter' was almost a foreign word. "I know you're worried about what this means for you - and there's nothing I can do to reassure you. I don't know what plans they've made for you with the war's end, but were it up to me, I'd wish to give you a proper childhood now that there's no need for you."
"I'm not a child, Captain." His words were an echo of England's.
"Aye, but that doesn't mean you shouldn't have the chance to be one." A hand patting at his shoulder, gentle. "You're a good boy, Peter. It may not mean much coming from a human, but I'm honoured to have spent this time here. I hope my Ben will grow to be as brave and hardworking a lad as you."
Fort Roughs felt a quivering warmth in his chest at those words, taking the Captain's hand and allowing the man to help him to his feet. "Thank you, Captain. I- I'm-" His voice cut off as he was tugged into a swift hug. He was still reeling as the Captain pulled back to give him a rough, but amiable pat on the shoulder.
"Come on, Peter. Buck up. This is a moment to enjoy yourself. You're a successful war-leader. There's not many your age who can claim such a thing!" The captain gave a slight smile, expression almost hidden beneath his mustache. "The boys have found some... urm... celebratory drinks. I'm sure they'll be happy to share a victory toast."
"Some might think I'm a bit young to be drinking, Sir." Despite his melancholy thoughts of earlier, Fort Roughs grinned.
"I doubt there's any among my men who would report you if you did. You've certainly earned it." Both of them shared a soft laugh, the last of Fort Rough's worries melting away for the time being. The uncertainties of the future would come soon enough, for now there was time to revel in the present.
"Lead on, Captain! Maybe we'll even get below before those lushes of yours finish off the bottle!"
The celebrations were short lived, indeed. Three days after the announcement, word came that Fort Roughs was to be decommissioned. All of the worries he'd had before were nothing compared to the sharp, cramping fear in his belly as he pondered what that entailed, exactly. No one was able to tell him what being "decommissioned' meant for a personification, aside from the papers that were put in front of him to initial and sign. There was a lump in his throat as he held the pen, fingers shaking a little as he put his name to the orders that would turn his entire life on end.
For a while, nothing particularly different happened - several of the men were pulled from their duty shifts and moved elsewhere, and Fort Roughs was grateful that the captain was not among these. Every time the boats returned, they brought fewer and fewer men with them and Fort Roughs began to feel hollow, like there was a gnawing emptiness building in his middle that no amount of food would fill.
Gradually the numbers began to steady, a constant crew settling into place. They began to talk about what would become of Fort Roughs now. Many ideas passed across the table, but no decisions. The limbo of uncertainty was worse than the war had been: more nerve-wracking.
It was after the bombs were dropped on Japan, the last holdout from the Axis, that England came to see him. The nation was dressed in a different uniform than usual, looking worn and still a bit gaunt, but somehow relieved. "Sorry to have kept you waiting so long," England began. "There were many things to take care of after the surrender. I'm afraid your decommissioning was not a priority."
Fort Roughs had no reason to be offended at that, he'd already known that there had to be many things to clean up after the war. He knew, but somehow it did nothing to quell the unhappy churning in his middle. Nonetheless, he drew himself up straight. "I understand br- England." A long pause, then he asked the question that had been lingering foremost in his mind for the last couple of months, ever since the end of the hostilities in Europe. "So what will happen to me now?"
The long silence on the heels of his question was far from reassuring. Fort Roughs darted a glance at England's face and saw hesitation there - it solidified the cold fear in him. "My government is... undecided on what will be done with the Sea Forts now that the war is over. We're looking for ways to continue making use of them, perhaps as communications platforms." England never referred to Fort Roughs specifically. There was a stiffness to his stance, his tone carefully dispassionate.
"So I'll still be working then?" Fort Roughs was both relieved and disappointed at this. "Will my crew be returned?"
"Most have already been reassigned. Those remaining will be your permanent crew."
Fort Roughs frowned a little at this, but gave a curt nod. "I understand, England. Is there anything else I should be doing?"
"Someone will be along shortly to assist you with realignment and make sure everything is set up properly for your new assignments." England shifted, his gaze going toward his ship, still anchored and waiting for him. "I can't stay, I have other things to attend to."
"England?" His eyes met England's green ones, the colour murky like the sea below. "Will I be allowed shore leave soon?"
"What?" The sharp note of incredulity in England's voice did not bode well. "Why do you need shore leave? You're not a human. You should do perfectly well out here."
Resentment bubbled in the boy, fired by the dismissive words. Did nations never leave their own soil? He knew they did, but even if they hadn't... England had land - coasts and hills and stretches of forest and the brackish moors. England had plenty of space to stretch his legs, he had variety to stave off any feelings of boredom or stagnation. Fort Roughs had a single platform and two hollowed towers. "I just want to go somewhere else and relax for a while." He blurted back, careless with his words. "I want to go to the beach and see trees and play in the grass!"
There was a flicker of something in England's eyes, but the nation was inexorable. "There will be time for that later, Peter." Fort Roughs was beginning to read a pattern in the way England used his given name. It was always the precursor to news he didn't want to hear, and this time was no exception. "There's still a lot to do before things can get back to the way they used to be."
Fort Roughs knew England was right - he did - but he couldn't conceal the slight bitter twist to his lips at never being the most important thing. Maybe he wasn't particularly talented or special, but they were family, weren't they? His men seemed to think family was important, so why didn't England? Fort Roughs crossed his arms in front of his chest, his gaze fixing on a point somewhere near England's right shoulder. "Fine." He kept his voice flat. "Then why don't you just let me know when you finally decide you want me?"
"Just-" He could feel the hitch in his voice and was afraid he was going to start crying and humiliate himself. "Just sod off and leave me alone!"
England went very quiet and Fort Roughs finally raised his eyes a little to see his brother's expression. England looked as frustrated as Fort Roughs felt right now, hands clenched but held very still at his sides. His voice was tight and controlled, "You need to calm down and be patient. I'm doing everything I can-"
"No you're not. You don't even care!" All of his insecurities bubbled to the surface, forced out by the fear and resentment that had been building deep inside of him. Fort Roughs bit his lip, feeling the damp trickle of tears escaping down his flushed cheeks. England's hand brushed his shoulder, probably meant to reassure him, and he wasn't even thinking as he lashed out, his small fist catching England low in the middle.
If it had been any other time, if England had already been given ample time to recover from the injuries inflicted by Germany, then the blow would have been laughable. As it was, England doubled over a little, swearing sharply. Beneath the open jacket of the uniform a dark stain was starting to spread on the fabric of his shirt. Fort Roughs staggered back a step, blue eyes wide. The sound of England's agonized wheezing cut through the haze around his thoughts and Fort Roughs darted away, descending into the far leg of the tower so quickly that he slipped halfway down and fell the rest of the distance.
He hit the floor hip first, panting silently in pain as he scrambled down the next two floors, slipping into his quarters and slamming the door. He threw the bolt, leaning his back against the door and wincing at the shooting pains through his leg. For a long time he stayed just like that, almost disappointed as the throbbing in his limb began to fade. Fort Roughs was caught on that look he'd seen on England's face, wanting to go back... fearing it. Guilt was eating holes in his insides as he stood there, silent. Expectant.
Even expecting it, he jumped at the sound of someone knocking on his door. Part of him was tempted to either yell at whoever it was - England? Would England have come himself? - or to hide under the bed and pretend he wasn't even there. The inclination was swiftly overpowered by a mixture of guilt and determination. Maybe he wasn't a nation, exactly, but that didn't mean he was going to sit here and cower in the dark. Fort Roughs let out a slow breath, rubbing at his forehead for a second before straightening up and turning around. The sound of the bolt unlocking was so loud it made him cringe a little inside.
It wasn't England on the other side of the door. It was the base's captain, standing there with a steady gaze. Their eyes met and Fort Roughs drew to attention and gave the man a salute which was quickly returned.
"At ease, Peter."
Fort Roughs sighed, letting his hand drop to his side. "Where's... where is..." He faltered, but the captain understood what he was trying to ask.
"England had to go back to meet with Parliament, Peter. I was told to let you know that they'll be providing new shipments of supplies within the week, with some new off-duty materials." If England had mentioned their little altercation up above, the captain gave no sign of it. Fort Roughs swallowed and nodded, not sure whether to be relieved or more worried.
"Captain." His tongue flicked across his lips, a quick, nervous gesture. If the captain had said nothing of the incident, then maybe he was a fool to bring it up himself. "I- how was England?"
A slow, steady look. "Is that all you want to ask, or is there something more you wish to tell me?" And just like that, Fort Roughs knew that the captain was aware of what had happened.
Eyes slid away from the man's gaze. "I- No. I guess." And when the captain still said nothing in response, Fort Roughs let out his breath in a sigh. "Would he not even reprimand me, then, or is that your job, Captain?" His voice came out flat. If England had wanted to take him to task, he would have been well justified and yet... he couldn't even take the time to do that much.
"No." There was no indication of which question the captain was answering. "It's not my place to decide what should be done with you." Of course not. It wasn't like he was technically under the captain's command. In truth, Fort Roughs' own role had always been a little nebulous; he was half the cute kid mascot - someone for the men to treat like a surrogate son or a kid brother - half the advisor of sorts, who could tell anything amiss based solely on his own senses. It wavered back and forth so much between the two that it was no wonder the captain had no idea what to do right now. Was he under Fort Roughs' jurisdiction, as he was under England, or was it the other way around? The uncertainty was taxing.
And England, the one person who could have declared his role with some assurance, was not here.
Fort Roughs let out his breath, a soft sigh, and seized his own future in both small hands. "Captain. I do have something else to tell you. I-I must admit that I have made a - an error... in judgment." And oh, it was hard, so very hard to say those words. He wasn't sure himself if he felt guilty for overreacting, or just because he'd hurt England doing so. He didn't really want to think about it. "And as you are my commanding officer, I ask that you take any disciplinary measures you feel to be sufficient punishment for my actions." Fort Roughs had no idea what those might be, save that he couldn't be court martialed. The irony of the fact that he'd essentially given the captain the order to command him like he was any of the other sailors did not escape him.
His captain gave him a curious look, one that made him want to squirm in a mix of embarrassment and impatience. "You understand that I can't allow someone under my command to behave in such a disrespectful manner. This reflects badly on my own leadership." From the slow way the captain was speaking, he was giving Fort Roughs a chance to take back what he'd just said. As tempting as it was, Fort Roughs only bit his lip and nodded assent. "For the next two weeks, you are to report to me at the end of your duty shift. I'm certain that I can find plenty of menial work to keep you occupied."
Two weeks of scrubbing the boiler room floors and doing inventory on the weapons locker was not going to be fun, but it was the uncharacteristic coolness of the captain's tone, the way the man deliberately refrained from calling him by name, that really drove it home. He'd asked for no quarter and that was exactly what he was getting. Fort Roughs swallowed. "I understand, Captain." His tone was soft, but he managed to keep most of the hangdog guilt from it.
He blinked. There was an 'and'? "I... uh..."
"You are late for your duty shift, Mr. Kirkland."
Oh! Fort Roughs flushed, making a flustered noise, but there was no lenience in the man's gaze. The young fort was forced to scramble for his post with the captain's watchful gaze on him.