Peter has never had anyone he's been close with die before. He doesn't know what to expect when the rest of them start making preparations and he really, really doesn't know what he is supposed to be feeling while he watches them do it. He wants to help, but he's so emotionally bowled over that all he can do is lay on his side, trembling in the cot while he watches Norway wring an old dishtowel in soapy water and begin to clean Denmark's face in gentle little swirling motions, his mouth set in a deadpan frown as he works. He pulls the rag across his cheeks and lifts away the layers of ash and grime until nothing but chalky white skin faces him, and he sets the water back on the floor and spends several minutes staring down at him, a hand on top of his head, blinking and touching without saying a word, turning only when Finland quietly steps to his side with an armful of canvas bags. There is a nearly silent exchange of words and the bags change hands before Finland leaves Norway alone again with his thoughts. He goes right back to his staring and Peter wonders how he's managed to keep himself together without crying for so long.
Iceland and Sweden spend a few hours outside of the bunker looking for supplies while Norway finishes and Finland takes his place to cut Denmark's hair. He works differently than Norway; his hands are not steady and every so often, his shoulders will jump with a quiet hiccup. But he is meticulous and careful and the snip snip of scissors fills the space around the cots until he's done and Denmark almost looks like used to.
"Maybe the long hair was better," Finland murmurs, paying no mind to the tufts of blonde littering the floor beneath his feet. He wipes his nose with the back of his sleeve. "It helped hide how thin he is."
Peter doesn't have an opinion one way or the other. Bangs or not, Denmark still looks dead and no amount of washing or trimming is going to change that.
When Sweden returns, he has dead leaves clinging to his jacket and a long cord of rope looped around one shoulder. He nods to Norway. "We're ready."
Norway looks like he might have something to say, but he replies only with a jerky incline of his head and asks Finland to help pick Denmark up. It's a grim spectacle, watching them wordlessly strap his body to Sweden's back, swathed in a blanket even though he no longer needs it, but Peter can't look away. Not because it scares him or makes him uncomfortable, but because he needs to see this through. There has been plenty of beginning and end, but if he's learned anything, it's that the middle is what he needs to pay attention to, even if it is through tear-blurred eyes. Even if it hurts his heart, he mentally catalogues the way Sweden stumbles when he stands up, counter-balancing Denmark's weight, and how Finland wrings his hands and sniffles. How Norway's face doesn't even change.
Finland shuffles back to the cots and places a hand on Peter's shaking shoulder, coaxing him to sit up and put his coat on. "We need to go outside for a while," he says. His voice cracks on 'while' and he swallows it to keep it from deepening. "You should be there."
Peter nods and slowly starts to get his boots on. He doesn't like the way Finland is biting his lip and clenching his hands together. "You don't have to pretend it's not sad," he says aimlessly. "If you want to cry, just cry."
Finland's teeth threaten to chatter and he nods. "I know." He sucks in a shaky breath. "I just don't want to scare you."
"You crying doesn't scare me." He scrubs his wrist over his eyes and slides off of the cot, immediately reaching to take Finland's hand and squeezing. "Denmark being dead scares me."
Finland's tears hit the concrete of the bunker floor while they climb the latter.
Iceland is waiting for them outside, looking pale and tired when they emerge. "They're getting a head start," he says and waves at them to follow him. "I'll show you where it is. The clearing is about a kilometer from here."
Peter winces against the cold and stands as close to Finland as he can without tripping him. "Where are we going?"
Iceland glances back. His eyes are red. "The ocean."
Somehow, the walk there feels longer than the months it took to find their way. He plods alongside Finland with Iceland a few paces ahead, a deliberate distance created by the snowy haired boy in an effort to hide the way he drags his feet and tugs at his coat sleeves with the pieces of his hands that he still has left. Finland isn't fairing much better. His nose is still pink and clogged with sniffles. The air is cold, but Peter doesn't feel it; all he feels is the dense, awkward sadness of people who have known each other forever, but have no idea what to say anymore.
When they get to the clearing, Sweden is hunched over Denmark by the water's edge. He's laid out on his back, resting against a flat, shoddy little raft made of broken tree branches and rope, a craft apparently put together by Iceland and Sweden earlier in the day, and Sweden is adjusting a wool blanket around him, tucked in beneath him and secured around his now bare neck.
"No sense in wasting the coat," Norway says before Peter can even ask why they've undressed him. "Resources are too scarce."
Peter nods and swallows. His eyes follow Denmark's body to his feet. The canvas bags from before are full of sand and tied to his ankles. "You're going to put him out to sea? You aren't going to just… bury him?"
Finland shakes his head. "The soil is too loose by the water and too hard in the woods to make it back by dark." He fixes his mouth in a grim smile. "And we don't have a horse to send with him."
"Too dangerous to burn 'im," Sweden mumbles and tugs at the knots keeping the raft together. "Could lead scavengers to th'bunker."
Norway carefully folds Denmark's coat and tucks it away in one of the empty bags they've brought with them. "That, and I'm sure he's had enough ash to last him into the next life." He turns and slips the back of his hand down Denmark's cheek. "Modernized or not, he's always been a sailor at heart. I think he would approve of a burial at sea."
Peter is pretty sure he would have approved of being alive more, but he keeps that thought to himself and just nods.
"The ropes are old," Iceland says quietly. "They'll start to break apart after they've been in the water for a while."
He nods again.
"The boat will sink in deep water."
"We'll just need to push it out far enough for a riptide to take."
"I don't like it," he blurts, ignoring the startled faces of the rest of them. "It's the ocean's fault that he lost all of his land and made him weak enough to get sick." He balls his hands into the front of his coat, staring at Denmark's still face. "It's like giving it the last laugh."
Norway's face hardens and he straightens to his feet. "Then what do you suggest?"
The question catches him off guard and he flounders uselessly for an answer before managing nothing but a meek "I don't know."
"It's a cruel joke, this whole thing," Norway says. "But no one is laughing. Not even the ocean." He sweeps his hand over the coastline. "Water in, water out. If it took his land, then all we are doing is sending him home."
"But…" Peter deflates and sinks back into Finland's arms. "It's not home if your family isn't there…"
Not a single one of them has anything to say to that.
Sweden takes his time with the ropes, but there is only so much dawdling he can do before it becomes obvious that he is stalling and Finland moves to wrap his arms around his neck, kissing the back of his head and pulling him up. He whispers something in his ear and Sweden pushes his glasses up his forehead to rub his temples. A nod. A wave. All of them circle the raft and again, each of them bends down to kiss Denmark's face, lingering little touches that seem far too gentle and kind for the way they have all lived. When it's Peter's turn, he doesn't know what to do. For the whole journey here, he has clung to Denmark's arms, held his hands, and curled into his embrace while they slept; it all seemed right then, but just desperate now that his arms are stiff and folded beneath the blanket. He sits on his knees next to the raft, his fingers moving back and forth in a million false starts, and he has to blink to keep his eyes clear enough to even look at him.
"What should I…?" He whispers. "I don't know what I'm supposed to do."
Iceland exhales quietly from behind him. "Whatever you need to do to say goodbye. Say whatever you need to say, even if it's only to make yourself feel better."
He can think of so many things he needs to say, he isn't sure how to sort them. They get jumbled up in his head, tangled to the point where he can't even figure out which is which, and he can feel the rest of them watching him expectantly as he digs a shaking hand into his coat pocket. He holds the crinkled, waterlogged map and marker in front of himself for a moment, eyes locked with the enthusiastic, black 'X' over Poland. He can't remember how many times he caught Denmark staring at it during the night when he thought Peter was sleeping, a small smile turned up on his face as he had his whispered conversations with an imaginary Norway. That stupid mark had been their hope. His hope. Having their path get closer to it had motivated them and inspired them and, in the end, they never were able to finish drawing a line from the border to Slupsk. They had been too busy running for their lives and leaving their uncles to face a hail of gunfire.
He bites his lip and pulls the cap off of the marker. Balancing the map on his knees, he draws a careful line through Poland, across the water, and up to Sweden, where he makes a thick circle around Växjö. It seems a little pointless, since they'll be leaving for Gothenburg in the morning, but seeing it there helps to ease the churning in his stomach. He discards the marker to the dirt and reaches forward to tuck the map into the blanket, against Denmark's chest. He leans forward and gently presses quivering lips to his forehead.
"Thank you," he whispers, feeling tears streak down his face. "For taking me home."
The ocean is bitterly cold when they each take a corner of the raft and carry it into the water, wading in as far as they can before lowering it and letting it bob out of their hands. Norway stands at the head of the rickety thing, the last to let go, his fingers seemingly unwilling to move away from Denmark's cheeks. He doesn't say anything at first. He doesn't even look down at him, his eyes focused instead on the horizon as the first signs of sundown begin to turn the clouds a darker shade of gray, his thumb absently sweeping back and forth in Denmark's hair. Finally, he turns, unfazed by the freezing waves, and bends to brush their lips together.
"Goodbye, old friend," he murmurs. He draws away and gives the raft a small push. "Enjoy the great hall."
It doesn't take long for the water to grip the branches. They stand in a limp half-circle, still waist deep in the sea, and watch as the waves tug the ropes and draw Denmark out, small droplets of water brushing up and rolling down the blanket until soon, he's out beyond where even Sweden can go and they are left to wait for him to simply vanish. Peter's teeth chatter, but he doesn't feel the cold. He isn't sure he's feeling anything but the sting in his eyes and the twisting in his stomach.
"Is anyone going to say anything?" Finland asks quietly.
Iceland unfolds his arms and lets his hands dip into the water. "What is there to say?"
"I don't know." He takes a step back to stand closer to Sweden. "I guess I've gotten used to funerals with toasts and songs." He glances at Norway, whose eyes are still locked with the raft. "Like from before this all happened."
There is another break of silence where Finland tries to think of something, but fails to get a reign in on his thoughts, giving up in favor of sinking against Sweden's chest and releasing a shaky sigh. Iceland looks like if he tries to open his mouth, he might start crying right alongside Peter and Norway is still as quiet as a stone wall, refusing to look at any of them. After a moment, Sweden reaches out to take Peter's hand and pulls him close, clearing his throat and straightening his back.
He begins to hum.
Peter doesn't recognize it at first. It's slow, but inappropriately upbeat for the occasion, and he nearly rounds on him until Iceland joins in and realization hits him like a bag of bricks. Der Er Et Yndigt Land. There is a Lovely Land. Denmark's civil anthem. He's heard it before at football games. Finland starts in as well and Norway a few seconds later; Peter doesn't know how the song goes and Sweden's voice is hollow sounding and scratchy. But somehow, it manages to overcome the churning water and just as it ends, he squeezes Peter's hand and they watch in silence as the raft disappears somewhere where the sea meets the sky.
They stand in the water for a short time after, making their last, personal farewells, before one by one, they trudge back to the shore, dripping wet and dragging their feet through the loose soil.
"We should go back," Finland suggests gently. "It's going to be dark soon."
Norway nods, not turning away from the water. "I'll be right behind you."
He shakes his head. He doesn't want to leave just yet. "I'll come back with Niels."
"Peter, I don't think-"
"It's fine." Norway waves over his shoulder. "He can stay."
Finland doesn't look terribly convinced, but Sweden and Iceland each take one of his hands and begin the walk back to the bunker, leaving Peter alone at the shore with Norway and a heavy, heavy silence. He stands a few paces away, not wanting to invade his space, trying desperately to conjure up some kind of comfort but coming up empty. He doesn't know Norway that well. He's always been the quiet uncle who knocked around the noisy uncle and the one who was in charge of their annual New Years party. He's never hung out with Norway like he did Denmark. Although, had he arrived in Munich rather than Denmark, Peter is sure he would not have been any less excited.
He isn't sure what to do with his hands; his pockets are as wet as the rest of his coat. He looks down at his feet and tries not to chew his lips worse than they already are when he starts to mumble something that he himself is not even sure makes sense. Probably not. He doesn't know what comfort is. Not like this.
"What do you think happens to people like us when we die?"
Peter blinks and looks over at Norway. He's still staring out at the sea. "What?"
"You're still young. You have enough imagination."
"Oh." He digs the heel of his boot into the sand. "I don't know. Probably the same thing that happens to everybody else."
Norway closes his eyes and sighs, a wisp of a breath that catches on the breeze before Peter can really hear it. "Probably."
There is another period of struggling silence before Peter manages to gather the guts to finally speak. "Can I ask a question?"
A noncommittal hum that could mean yes or no.
"When we were letting him go… how come you didn't say that you loved him?" He fidgets. "Or something?"
Norway glances over at him. "You don't like it?"
"Well, no, it's just..." he bites his lip. "While we were out there, he used to take your hair pin out and talk to it like it was you. And then, he would tell me stories about stuff you guys did together and he would get really upset when he worried about what might have happened to everyone." He stuffs his hands into his waterlogged pockets. "He really, really missed you."
Norway is quiet again for a moment. "And I missed him," he says finally. "More than you could know. Iceland and I searched for him for months after what happened and when we couldn't find him, that's when it started to feel like the world had really ended. It wasn't fair that all of us made it out when he didn't." He brushes his fingers through his hair and touches the pin. "I spent a long time dealing with it. I've already mourned him once and I'm not sure I can do it again." He sighs. His hand drops back to his side and he tilts his head to the sky, blinking against the drifting ash. "I made my peace with him last night. He already knew how deeply I cared for him and if he still didn't get it after last night, saying it one more time wouldn't have made a difference."
Peter nods dumbly. "Sorry. I didn't mean to sound like you don't care about him."
"No, it isn't." He takes a tentative step closer. "I know that you love him."
Norway's breath stills. He looks down at Peter. "What?"
"I said I know that you love him."
"Ah." He turns back to the water. "Thank you."
"For not using past tense."
Another step and he starts to notice that Norway's hands are trembling. "Just because someone is gone, that doesn't make you love them any less." He pauses. "Right?"
Norway brings his fingers to his lips, releasing a barely restrained breath and blinking rapidly against the wind. "Right."
"Do you think the boat has sunk yet?"
"You don't really like being touched, do you?"
"No, not particularly."
"Would you get mad if I-"
Peter takes the last step between them and carefully wraps his arms around Norway's waist, pressing his face into his back and squeezing him tightly, listening in silence as the waves swallow up his sobs.
The next several days pass in a blur for Peter. Shortly after their makeshift little funeral, he falls ill with a fever. His bones ache like he has never felt before, stretching and pulling through the heat in his skin. He tries to play it off as nerves, but after less than a day, he can't even stand up without shooting pain in his feet and his knees and Sweden has to carry him between the cots and the wash bins to clear away the sweat and tears. He cries because every touch hurts, but he still grasps for Finland and Sweden, anyone close enough to hold his hands, because being alone isn't something he can handle when everything hurts like this. His heart hurts, his body hurts, his mind hurts. He doesn't know what's happening. He's exploding with heat and pain but he doesn't feel sick. It just hurts.
Sweden stays with him, running his fingers through his hair, and tells him that he is having a growth spurt.
"S'what happens when y'inherit a population."
When it comes time to leave, Finland wraps him in blankets that are too warm and places him in a rusty, metal wagon that he rides in a delirious haze while Sweden pulls him along. In the five days that it takes to reach the closest coast to Gothenburg, he grows three inches.
When they come to a stop, they don't need to go far to find what they are looking for. A long twist of white smoke is there to greet them from over a kilometer away and they follow it to the carved out shore where a group of people are waiting with blankets and dry clothes, all dressed in mismatched fatigues and coats with a lopsided felt star sewn into the sleeves. Peter forces himself upright, staggers to his feet on legs that tremble, and surges through the throng of humans with Sweden until he crashes headlong into the huge, imposing figure that he's been looking for.
Russia looks like he's been mauled by a tiger on one side of his face, but he is smiling when he turns to face them. He's still wearing his scarf, torn up and ratty and dotted with rusty stains, and his gloves are worn down to threads when he offers an armful of heavy, winter coats to him.
"We have been expecting you."
Peter twists around him to stare blearily at the commanding figure that is the huge submarine's conning tower, dull black and bobbing a ways offshore, small rowboats going back and forth between the vessel and the camp they have made in the sand. Russia's eyes follow his and he grins as he drops a coat over Peter's shoulders.
"Impressive, isn't it?"
Peter nods and grips the corners of the collar, still looking out over the water. "It's bigger than I thought."
"It is the biggest," he sweeps a hand across the shore. "Typhoon class. We have modified it to have a seating capacity of three hundred." He turns back to face Sweden, nodding sternly. "There are specially reserved places for our kind. We have set aside six seats for your family."
Sweden grimaces and starts to say something, but he is interrupted by a loud yell and a flurry of clacking metal as a leather clad figure comes crashing into him, arms wrapping around his waist and yanking him off of his feet, wet sand sent splattering against Russia's coat.
"Sweden! Ikea guy!" America laughs, swinging him around and bouncing, much to the grunting dismay of Berwald. "You made it!"
"Good t'see ya too, 'merica…" Sweden twists himself free and coughs into his fist, glasses askew. He looks up when Finland hurries through the crowd to meet with them, Iceland and Norway trailing behind him.
Peter doesn't have time to say hello before America grabs him up as well. "And you! You made it, you made it, you made it!" He twirls him around, lighting Peter's bones on fire again as he does, oblivious to his uncomfortable spluttering until Finland steps forward and plucks him free.
"I see you're still as fresh faced as ever," Finland smiles. He places Peter back down to sit in the wagon. "He's a bit sore, so if you could please refrain from trying to swing him into space?"
America laughs loudly. "Thanks for thinking I'm so strong, but even I couldn't throw someone into space! Trust me, we tried that during the Cold War!" He starts forward to grab up Norway and Iceland into a bear hug, but they both step back much faster than he can close his arms.
"No, thank you," Iceland sticks out his hand. "A handshake will be fine."
America blinks at him. After a moment, he grins and offers a fist instead, bumping their knuckles (and Iceland's nubs) together. "You weird Viking guys. Even the world exploding won't loosen you up."
Norway rolls his eyes and makes no effort to acknowledge America beyond a nod of his head, both hands tucked securely in his pockets and feet poised to shift out of harm's way should another flying tackle come for him. America bounces between them all. He picks at their coats and lifts up their arms, inspecting them and babbling excitedly all the while.
"Wow, you guys look great! Way better than everyone we pulled out of Berlin!" He laughs again when Sweden shakes him off. He grins over in Peter's direction. "We found some friends of yours, even!"
Peter's heart clenches. "Really?"
"Really! England and France really were with Germany! We found them easy as pie!"
"Are they okay?"
He nods enthusiastically. "Yeah! Well, I mean, England's kinda beat up and his voice is even more annoying than usual and France is in pretty rough shape, but they're both still breathing!" He plants his hands on his hips. "They're already heading back in the smaller sub that they filled up in Germany with Mattie. You'll get to see them when we get home!"
"Your home," Norway mutters into his coat lapels.
America's grin widens. "No, it's home for everybody! The whole continent is just one, big community now. No borders or anything!"
Norway stares at him skeptically, but says nothing. During the silence, something seems to click in America's eyes and his smile falters.
"Hey…" he drops his hands. "Where's Denmark?"
Again, Peter's heart seizes. He starts to reply, but nothing comes out and Sweden lays a hand on his shoulder.
"Didn't make it," he says flatly.
"O-oh…" he glances at Peter. "Did you at least get to-"
"Yes," Finland cuts him off. "He made it back and we were able to say our goodbyes."
Peter can feel America's eyes boring into him but the energy to say anything is just too much of an effort and he keeps his gaze focused on the shifting sand below the wagon. Even when Alfred crouches down in front of him and awkwardly squeezes his hand, he doesn't look up.
"Hey, look, I'm…" America falters and sighs. "I'm really, really, really sorry. Are you okay, buddy?"
Peter bites his lip and shakes his head.
"Ah, geez, yeah, that was a dumb question. Sorry." He hesitantly releases Peter's hands and straightens up again, turning around to face Russia. "What should we do with the f-?"
"Give it to them," Russia nods. "Let them decide."
Finland exchanges a glance with Sweden. "Give us what?"
America looks sheepish and jerks his thumb in the direction of the submarine. "Whenever we find someone, we have a guy who sews together their flag. We've got a big field of poles set up at the main colony and whenever we get someone new, we pull the flag up. Y'know, for old times sake." He licks his lips and laughs, a little, hollow sound. "I honestly thought he would make it too, so…"
"You had someone make his flag," Norway finishes for him.
Norway's face doesn't change. He moves behind the wagon and places a light hand on Peter's back. "You can still fly it." He nods downward. "He left his lands to Peter. In a way, he is bringing Denmark with us."
Peter isn't sure if he is supposed to feel good about that or not.
Russia makes sure they get on the first available boat and personally shuttles them to the submarine waiting in the deep waters. When they tie to the ladder and begin the climb up, Peter expects to hear the mammoth machine creak and groan, much like his old lands, but the whole structure is eerily silent in the water, quiet to the point that it makes him uncomfortable as Sweden gathers him up and carries him to the top. He keeps his head down while they go. He listens to the waves lap against bulkheads. Unsettling, but comforting. Like home.
The inside of the submarine is unremarkable. Benches wait for them along the walls and chairs are bolted to the floors for anyone who comes in too late to find a place on the sides. Already there are people milling amongst themselves, some wrapped in blankets and speaking quietly, others winding clean bandages over infected wounds, injuries that are common enough to make the whole craft stink. Russia leads them past these people to the far end where a whole section of seats has been roped off for them, a stack of blankets and a few bottles of water placed beneath the bench beside salt-stained life vests. He waits patiently while Sweden sets Peter down and wordlessly directs everyone to take a seat.
"Make yourselves comfortable," he says once they have settled. "We will be traveling at twenty-five knots at a depth of three-hundred and fifty meters. It will be a long journey." He motions to the blankets on the floor. "Rest will be the best way to pass your time. If you need them, sleep aids are in the first aid kits on either end of the craft."
Finland smoothes the blankets out over Peter's shoulders and eases him sideways to lie down. "You sound like a flight attendant preparing for take-off," he says lightly.
Russia looks down at him and offers a crooked smile. "Perhaps I am preparing, but I am certainly not the attendant." He leans over. "I am the captain."
From somewhere above them, America yells a loud "No he isn't!"
He straightens up, adjusting his thick coat, and nods. "We will be departing soon. I will check in with you in several hours."
Watching Russia go, Finland relaxes slightly. "I don't think I'll ever get used to being friendly with him." He turns back to Peter and sweeps his fingers through his hair. "Would you like one of the sleeping pills? Maybe take a nap to give your legs a break?"
Peter only hears him from somewhere in the very back of his head. His eyes are focused elsewhere, on the bench across from them a few rows down. On a dirty, little family wrapped in blankets. On a young girl with tangled, blonde braids.
When Ida finally notices him, she waves and smiles, bright and toothy. It reminds him instantly of Denmark. He does his best to wave back, but it's more of a limp flap of his hand than anything, and her smile starts to fade into a questioning look, eyes scanning across their bench and widening when they reach the empty seat. Her attention spins back to Peter. He just shakes his head and pulls the covers up to his chin. He doesn't wait to see her reaction; he knows that he should get up and go sit with them for a while at the very least. They are technically his people now and he does feel drawn to them, but still.
"Can I have one of the pills?" He asks quietly, voice muffled by the blankets and eyes hidden in Finland's lap.
Tino nods and sends Sweden to retrieve them. He breaks apart a plastic capsule, helping Peter sit up and waiting for him to chew it before he lays him back down and leans across to wiggle his boots off.
Peter is out before the laces even come undone.
He looses track of time after they set out.
His ears pop.
The metal creaks.
Someone holds his hand.
Resurfacing gives him a headache, but he is more than ready to be on dry land again. They don't have to stand in line to leave, Russia makes sure of that, but still, they linger above deck and watch as the weather beaten band of people files down the ladders, into boats, and then into the back of huge delivery carts when they land.
"Transportation to the main colony," America explains. "They run on rechargeable batteries. Pretty cool, right?"
Norway turns away from the railing and blinks at him. "You have electricity?"
America shrugs. "Not throughout the whole camp, but we have a water powered generator that everyone is allowed to use. We mostly just use it for batteries and stuff, though. Y'know, like for flashlights?"
"Impressive," Finland says. "And no one tries to steal it for themselves?"
"Nope!" He smiles proudly. "Everyone is working together! The goal is to get as many people back to health as we can and then once things calm down over in your neck of the woods, we can start setting up colonies in Europe too." He points across a line of trees in front of them. "See that smoke? That's where the camp is. It's about half an hour from here."
Peter stares at it and grips at the rails. "It's not raining ash," he murmurs. He turns back. "You and Canada really did make it out okay."
America claps his shoulder and starts for the ladder. "Nobody got out okay," he says. "Things are rough all over. There are still bad patches and a lot of the east coast is under water." He looks up over the edge of the deck. "But you're safe here." He grins at every one of them. "All of you."
They watch him slide down the ladder and make for the boats, quiet as the air around them. They are the last ones left on the deck other than Russia, and there is strange cloud of apprehension that surrounds their ragged little band; a hesitance that doesn't seem to shake.
"We should go," Iceland sighs after several minutes of tense staring. "We don't want to miss our shuttle."
Peter steps back. "I kind of want to walk," he says quietly.
Finland gives him a curious look. "Don't your legs hurt?"
"Yes, but…" he absently fingers the goggles around his neck. "We walked all that way to find you and my legs hurt then too. It doesn't seem right to just ride across the finish line after all that."
Finland glances at Sweden, worry written all over his face. But Sweden just nods and crouches down, so that he is at eye-level with Peter, and draws a folded piece of cloth out from the inside of his jacket.
"We can walk," he says. He presses it into Peter's hands. "Y'can carry 'im to the end."
Peter carefully unfolds the fabric and feels his stomach tangle up. The shock of red and white that is Denmark's flag seems woefully out of place against the black metal of the submarine, and it's stranger still to see it pinned together with his own flag. "When did you get these?"
Sweden jerks his head in Russia's direction. "B'fore we landed. Y'were sleepin'." He reaches out and runs his thumb along the surface of the cloth. "S'a nice job they did. S'gonna look good'n the air." He looks at Peter. "Don't y'think?"
Peter smiles and wipes his eyes. "Uh-huh."
Sweden straightens up again and gives him a gentle push toward the ladder. Peter doesn't resist.
The walk to the camp is spent in complete silence. Each of them are lost in their own heads as they go, taking in the smell of the air and the bits of green still left in the trees and plant life that line the dirt trail. It's humid; cool and damp and Peter thinks that it must still rain here sometimes for it to taste so good with each breath he takes. It's not clean, but it's a far cry from the polluted skies he's been so used to.
Voices trickle through the trees as they get closer and after what seems like a short time, people begin to drift past them along the trail, some carrying baskets full of ashy looking cardboard and paper, others with rubber bins sloshing with water. They seem curious as they pass, smiling and greeting them with the same keen interest that Peter and his family show them. It's strange to receive such warm welcomes after so many months of running and hiding and Peter is overtaken by a sudden bought of shyness, unable to really say hello to anyone without stammering and gripping tight to Sweden's sleeve. It isn't that he doesn't trust them- it's just that he doesn't really remember how to do it.
America is waiting for them at the end of the trail with a huge grin and a yellow folder full of paper. "Welcome home!" He crows, throwing his arms to the side and whirling them into the camp. "Come on in!"
Peter stumbles forward, propelled by Alfred's enthusiasm, and comes to a stuttering stop in the middle of what is apparently town square. A huge pile of charred concrete debris lies in front of him, bigger than Sweden, and keeps a tall, metal flagpole anchored straight, flying the blue flag of United Nations. Behind it, rows of heavy, canvas tents make up common areas where throngs of people sit, preparing food or playing cards, work mingling with play and changing out in shifts that Peter can't quite figure the pattern for. It isn't much to look at, really. Collections of tents, concrete, and rubber. But the air is buzzing with the conversation of a multitude of languages, laughter, and the sounds of every day, routine life.
The air is alive.
"We've got a tent set up for you already." America slaps the folder into Sweden's hands. "It's a big one so you can all stay together! There's a map in there and your registration forms. Just turn 'em in whenever and we'll figure out your work schedule later." He points at Norway. "Everybody's gotta work!" His finger moves to Iceland. "It's what makes the system work!"
Norway scowls at him. "I've been getting my hands dirty for a lot longer than you have," he says flatly. "We have no problem with work."
"Great!" He plants a fist on his hip. "Any questions?"
Peter tilts his head slightly and takes a step forward, around the flag block. "What's that?" He asks and points to a dented, metal box bolted to the brick wall of a crumbling building. It's covered in stickers and paint, so many that he can't see any sign of an original color, even around the thin slot in the front. "It looks like a post box."
"Oh yeah!" He spins and trots over to it, giving it a firm, clanging pat. "This is the mailbox! The kids decided to decorate it, so that's why it looks so cool."
Iceland blinks and takes a curious step toward it as well. "You have a mail system?"
"Ah, well," America makes a face. "Not quite. We have a bulletin board for leaving messages. This," he bangs on it again. "Is for sending grief letters. Y'know, notes to people who probably'll never get 'em. You know how sometimes when you're really mad at someone, you can write them a letter complaining and venting about them and then never send it? It's kinda like that. Except the letters are nice. And you do send it. Sort of." He wiggles a finger into the slot and sighs. "Lotsa people do it. There are a lot of people missing somebody."
"That's a very creative form of therapy," Finland hums. "I like it." He looks over to Norway. "What do you think?"
Norway shoots him a pointed glance, obviously annoyed at being put on the spot. "I think I'll be needing a pen," he says simply and turns back to the box, crossing his arms. For the briefest moment, Peter thinks he might see him smile, but he can't be sure.
"Oh, one last thing," America turns and points to hill past the tents. "The flags are over there." He grins at them. "You should hang yours up. Everybody'll know you're here that way!"
"That's a good idea," Finland says, fishing the carefully folded fabric from his bag. "Afterwards, we can explore for awhile." He turns and holds a hand out for Peter to take. "You ready?"
Peter pauses, not really looking anywhere in particular. "I'll catch up with you," he says slowly. "I need to find someone first."
Finland blinks. "Do you want me to come with you?"
"No, that's okay," he turns and begins to jog in the direction of the tents. "I'll be up there in a few minutes, I promise!"
He doesn't wait to see if Finland approves or not and hurries to the rows that weave between the lines of canvas. Many of the people who came in with them are milling about, introducing themselves and filling out their papers while they wait for housing assignments. It's as good a place as any to start and he finds a few people with clipboards who look official enough to ask. They point him to the big tent at the end of the last row.
Much to his surprise, he finds Ida and her family almost immediately upon pulling the canvas flap back. She's waiting with her own stack of folders, trying to keep her siblings quiet as they stand in line to turn them in, her father and mother talking in low voices; trying to figure out what is going on if Peter had to wager a guess. He runs up to them, bumbling through an awkward 'excuse me' when he runs headlong into her father.
"Ida," he tries to smile. "Can you come with me for a minute?"
She looks perplexed, but nods. "Sure," she hurries after him when he turns around and falls into step with him. "What for?"
He holds out his hand. "We're gonna hang up some flags."
Again, she seems confused, but she breaks out into a mischievous grin (once more reminding him of Denmark) and laces her fingers with his, eagerly picking up the pace to run beside him to the main path up the hill. It's an odd thing, holding her hand as they run. In the bunker, she had been distrustful of them, even after talking to Denmark, but now, she laughs when he stumbles, squeezing his hand and encouraging him to hurry up like they are old friends. He still doesn't quite feel like she is one of his, but he begins to wonder if perhaps the odd gravitation to each other is mutual.
When they reach the top of the hill, they are met with a wave of color against the gray sky. Flagpoles reach for the clouds in a wide spiral over the whole clearing and there is just enough of a breeze that the cloth flaps cordially, greeting them. Finland waves to him from near the middle of the circle, a hand still on the rope from pulling his own up to the highest point, right next to Sweden's with two empty poles in the middle, Norway and Iceland on the other side. They are out of breath when they stop and Norway surprises them by being the first to speak, before introductions can even begin.
"You're Danish," he says.
"And you have a good eye."
Peter clears his throat. "This is Ida. We met her and her family when we were coming to find you." He motions to them. "Ida, this is my family."
She smiles. "I figured." She points to Sweden. "You're Berwald, right?"
"You have the scariest face," she laughs. "Mathias was talking about you and he said that he had a brother with a face like Frankenstein's monster." She turns to face Norway, her face softening. "And you're Niels, huh?"
Norway nods. "I am." He sighs lightly. "I suppose that oaf told you something equally obnoxious about me as well?"
"No, not at all," she shifts slightly and, for a moment, looks very awkward. "He talked about you the most, but it was never anything bad. He went on a lot about how completely in love you were."
"How does that make you recognize me?"
She shrugs. "You look the saddest."
Norway's frown deepens. "Ah."
"Here," Peter tugs on her sleeve before the situation can get anymore depressing and pulls her to the empty flag poles. "I wanted you to put this one up." He hands her the bright red flag. Her face lights up and Peter grins. "Since he can't do it, I think you should."
She gently unfolds the thick cloth and runs her fingers over the tightly woven fibers. "I haven't seen one of these in years," she says quietly. She looks up, beaming. "He was your uncle, right?" She grabs his hand and stuffs one corner of the flag into his palm. "We can do it together." She cranes her head around to look at the others. "You too. Everyone can help."
There is a brief, completive pause before Norway and Iceland both step forward at the same time, each of them crossing to take a bit of the rope between their fingers while Sweden and Finland both thread the line through their own respective corners, bringing Peter's flag to the pole directly next to it. Ida, Peter, and Norway line their hands up, one on top of the other, on the rope beneath Denmark's flag. Sweden, Iceland, and Finland take the other.
A moment of silence and up they go.
It's been a month since we got here and I think it's starting to finally feel like home. It's nothing like Sweden's old house, since we live in a tent and stuff, but everyone is really nice and does a good job with helping each other. We all were assigned jobs and I guess mine is pretty good. I get to go out with a bunch of other people and dig for cans, kind of like how we used to go scavenging. It's really messy and dirty but it's also a little bit fun because sometimes it feels like I'm digging a hole to China or something. I don't have to do it forever though, since America is teaching me how to filter water. England is learning too, but he spends most of the time with Germany trying to work on a cure for Canada and everybody else who is sick. I think they're getting close to figuring it out. Canada was able to wiggle his toe yesterday!
I've been making a lot of new friends too. I know I'm a lot older than they are, but it's still fun to go and play with them sometimes. We have a real basketball hoop, even. A ball too, but I still throw that stupid dog toy through it sometimes. All the other kids think I'm weird for doing it. So thanks a lot for that, jerk.
Everybody is doing okay, but we all really miss you. Especially Norway, but I guess you probably already know that since he writes you a letter every single day. Iceland too, but he doesn't know that I know that he does. What does he talk to you about in his notes? Sometimes he goes outside of the tent at night and he talks to his hairpin like you used to do, but it's always in Norwegian so I dunno what he's saying. (I'm not trying to spy on you guys, I promise.) Mama says Norway is just telling you that you're a big fathead, but I don't think that's true. He also told me what 'perkele' really means. Just so you know, I said it when he and Papa were saying goodnight and I thought they were going to explode. Mama turned really red and I had to wash dishes for a week as punishment. It was kind of worth it though because the face Sweden made was really, really funny.
Anyway, don't be surprised if they scold you in their next letters. You deserve it.
I think you would really like it here. It feels a lot like how Copenhagen used to be when we would come visit you in the summers and you had all of those festivals going on. People are just really happy and it's easy to tell since they're always smiling. There's a whole area just for playing board games and there's a big field where a lot of the kids like to go play tag in. (They always take a grown up with them, though. Just in case, you know?) There's also a big brick oven that we are allowed to use if we bring wood to fuel it, so I'm trying to learn how to bake so that I can make sweet bread or something. I go out and look for wood every Sunday so that I can use it for a few hours. We don't really have the ingredients to make anything except bread right now, but we have fruit preserves so it's a little like pastry. Mine are okay but I think yours would be better. Norway says you always burned yours, but I don't believe him. I bet they are awesome.
Russia and America are still going out to find people with their submarines. They say that the air is starting to clear so it might be possible to fly safely in a few years, so Alfred is really excited for that.
It's kind of hard when they bring new people back though. Some of them are really suspicious and don't trust us, so helping them is really tough. Most of them start warming up after a few days, but it's kind of hard to ignore the ones who don't. There are some people who have taken their families and refuse to come into the camp and they just camp out in front of the church down the road. I asked them why one time and a lady started screaming at me that there had been a mistake and they were waiting for the real rapture to save them. I tried to tell her that they would be safer if they waited with the rest of us but that didn't go so well. There are some other people who do stay in the tents, but I don't think they're happy. They stay up all night because they don't trust us. They'll only take food if it's from a can and they're just really weird.
I think all of them think that there's no hope left. They're just waiting around to die because they don't think things will ever get better. But that's can't be right, can it? If someone has a goal, especially now, they should hold onto it. It will make them stronger. That's how it was for us, right? For you? Before you found me, I used to think like the people who want to give up, but after everything we went through together?
I just think they're insane.
Sovereign State of Sjælland
Final word count: 98,120
And so it has come to an end. I always feel so weird when I finish a long story like this. I get so attached to what I'm working on… I feel like I'm sending my kid off to college or something. ;_;
A few notes:
"Enjoy the great hall" – Norway is referring to Valhalla. Though Denmark technically did not die during combat, per say, I think Odin will still let him in. And Fólkvangr doesn't quite seem like his style.
"Sovereign State of Sjælland" – The largest island in the collection that makes up Denmark is called "Zealand" in English and "Sjælland" in Danish. It all amounts to meaning "Sealand." Get it? Get it? SHUT UP, MY MOM SAYS I'M CLEVER OKAY
"I think they're insane" – Remember chapter one? He thought they were crazy then and he thinks they're crazy now. I have a bad habit of ending my stuff the way they began. Oops.
I think that's all for now. OP, I think I lost you somewhere along the way, but if you are still around, I hope you enjoyed it. This prompt kind of ran away with me after you said you liked the idea of a post-apocalyptic setting, so if it was not what you were wanting or hoping for, I sincerely apologize and will do my best to make it up to you in the future.
For everyone else who stuck along for the ride, thank you so, so, so much. You guys are what make this so much fun and I still can't believe how many awesome people I've met throughout writing this thing. Your comments were incredibly motivating (Jii, I'm looking at you, girlfriend) and the PMs with crit were very, very helpful and I am extremely grateful for all of the feedback I've received. Comparing this to my first huge fic, I think I've made a noticeable improvement, and I owe it all to those friendly anons and not-so-anons who were there to give me a kind kick in the pants whenever I'd start flubbing into bad habits.
And to everyone who drew fanart, you guys are my heroes. Seriously. I have a wall above my work desk and I've printed out every piece of art anyone has ever made for me and pinned it there. You are all amazingly talented and it just makes me all fuzzy when I see the pictures. Thank you so much!
It's been fun, but I'm relieved to be done with it. It's time for brighter fields! I'm going to try and get caught up on some requests in the next week or so, and in a few weeks, I'm going to start work on that Netherlands/Denmark romance that I've not-so-secretly been gargling on about. (If anyone has some recommended reading for Dutch history, I would be forever grateful. I've got a few books on hold at the library, but since school is in session, there's a pretty long wait on them. And I'd feel like a dick for hoarding a book that a sad high school student needs to finish their history report.)
See you all again soon! I love you all!
PS. It's not 100% over. I have one little surprise left for everyone who has been reading at my journal.