End of an Era
A/N: Written for the summer exchange on the Germancest LJ community. :3 I'm very grateful, because it got my brain jogging and my muse to come back to me.
Dedicated to fearedeyepatch.
Disclaimer: I do not claim ownership of Axis Powers Hetalia. Not even the research belongs to me; everything was shamelessly pilfered from Wikipedia. OTL
The brisk November wind did nothing to relieve the cold.
The unrelenting chill seeped through his old military jacket, and his breath came out as sharp puffs of white steam. He fingered the jacket's worn cuffs against his wrists, sudden images from the war assaulting his mind in lightening flashes, but he quickly pushed them aside.
It was over. There was nothing left to be done. Next to him came two identical puffs of air. Only their breathing shattered the eerie silence of the empty train station.
His older brother was uncharacteristically silent. Gilbert walked in steady strides, but his eyes remained downcast. His gloved hands were jammed inside his pockets, adding to a rare stand-offish demeanor. Only God knew what Gilbert could be thinking of at the moment.
The man sandwiched between the brothers was equally distant. Wilhelm II was nearing his last moments on German soil; the train about to carry him away already waiting to depart. The abdication documents had already been signed, and all that was left was to leave.
Ludwig gave the ex-Kaiser one last look.
Wilhelm boarded the train, but paused on the last step. He turned to the side, facing the two brothers, as if to glance back one last time upon his country or say one last parting word. Something changed his mind, and he only briefly pursed his lips before disappearing inside the compartment.
The train gave a loud whistle, smoke pouring out the top. Moments later, it had left the station, setting a course for the Netherlands.
Ludwig watched until the back was only a small black speck on the horizon. The wind blew without remorse around him, but he found himself frozen there like a statue beside the train tracks.
"Well, there goes the emperor. I suppose that's that." Gilbert's voice was almost welcome after the unbearable stretch of silence. The Prussian turned to leave, plodding ahead back the way they had come.
The train was no longer visible before Ludwig finally tore his eyes away and followed his brother. The road didn't end there for him, unlike his former king. The road of hardships and unrest still lay before him, paved with revolution and war reparations. It wasn't long before he caught up with Gilbert, the back of the Prussian blue uniform a familiar and comforting image in the cold November landscape.
"You think he'll ever come back?" His older brother suddenly asked.
Ludwig gave no answer, for he didn't have any.
His silence only triggered a sigh from the silver-haired man. "I didn't think so either. It seems at last the ties between our country has faded, Wilhelm being the last crowned Hohenzollern and all."
At this, Ludwig gave a start, troubled azure eyes searching for his brother's ruby ones. It was true that the country was now without a monarchy, tossed into the hands of social revolutionaries. But he never questioned the ties between him and his older sibling. Their bond was much more than some royalty bearing the title of both their lands, but a bond forged in wars of unification and tempered by the passage of time.
Ludwig desperately wanted to refute his brother's statement, but his throat was threatening to close and all the breath seemed suddenly squeezed out of his lungs.
"Hurry up, West! I can't wait to get out of this weather!" Gilbert was already moving quickly ahead, seemingly blind towards his younger brother's inner distress.
His chance to speak up had gone, leaving Ludwig to hastily follow the elder's footprints and hope the dull ache in his heart would eventually recede.
The house was a dingy old thing.
It was of a moderate size, but the shingles on the roof were in need of replacement and the interior walls a new paint job. There was a slight leak in the ceiling and the window panes would rattle at every gust of wind.
The rattling was enough to keep Ludwig up at night, and tonight was no exception. The noise seemed somehow much louder in the small bedroom that he shared with Gilbert. He sighed for the umpteenth time, finally opening his eyes upon realizing the utter futility of trying to fall asleep.
The bed was large enough to fit two, but the springs would creak at the slightest of motion, an obnoxious sound that wasn't at all welcome in the dead of night. Gilbert also had an obnoxious habit of hogging the entire blanket, enough to bury himself under the covers and leaving the blonde only a corner.
Ludwig shifted onto his side, seeing clearly the outline of his brother's back facing towards him. Moonlight reflected off the silvery strands of hair, splayed in tangles across the pillow. Gilbert, of course, was fast asleep, undeterred by ugly background noises.
He envied Gilbert for that. It was always during the night when depression threatened to overwhelm him and he saw zombies from the recent past. Bismarck, Hindenburg, Wilhelm, and even Wilson. Ghosts of the almost two million dead also haunted him, and the sound of artillery fire still echoed within his mind. The present wasn't any better; his joints ached from the onslaught of the inflation and his back muscles cried out from the social unrest.
He bit his lip, trying to keep his body from shaking.
As if on instinct, he inched his way closer to the still form of his brother, snaking an arm around Gilbert's waist and pressing his face against the bare back. How could anyone stand it? He couldn't stand the current state of his country. He couldn't stand the outrageous demands of the Allies. He couldn't stand the simple fact that the threadbare blanket around them was probably worth more than all the Deutsche Mark in the house.
He couldn't stand Gilbert's casual remarks about their fading ties from earlier.
The tiny petulant part of him refused to be alone, clinging onto the older Prussian in a way that was reminiscent of the unification days. Gilbert was always beside him, ruby eyes winking in mischief. He couldn't fathom how the other nations endured their hardships, all alone in the large world. How did Alfred survive his civil war? Two halves of himself threatening to drive him into madness. How did Francis survive his revolution? The thousands lining up in front of the guillotine.
"It's hard enough to sleep without you shaking around me."
The blonde jerked in surprise, stifling a gasp. Gilbert should have been fast asleep by then. "Sorry…" He murmured quietly. However, his grip around the elder only tightened.
Tense silence enveloped the duo, and Ludwig prayed his brother wouldn't feel the rapid pounding of his heart.
Without warning, Gilbert twisted around in one swift movement, bringing their faces only inches apart. Bright red clashed with resigned blue in the dark. Slowly, the elder brought up a hand to cup Ludwig's cheek, stroking his still face with a warm thumb as if to wipe away invisible tears. "My back hurts too…" The silver-haired man spoke quietly.
Cobalt orbs widened. "I thought you didn't want anything to do with me after the Kaiser left." He hated how his voice sounded so frail in front of his older brother.
The corner of Gilbert's lips twitched upwards in a humorless half-smile. "Fool. If I wanted to abandon you, I would have run off to Königsberg without so much as a backwards glance."
The dull ache within Ludwig's heart ebbed a little, but the words from the morning still fed his doubts. "But… this morning… you said there wasn't any connection between us anymore."
Gilbert's eyes glittered in the dark, piercing in its intensity. The hand cupping Ludwig's cheek tightened, and the small gap between their lips closed. It wasn't a passionate kiss by any means, just a light touching that kindled all the suppressed desires and yearning love burning within the blonde. He rested his forehead against his brother's pale one, letting Gilbert's face fill his entire vision.
Softly, almost a whisper, with a voice laced in temptation, Gilbert sealed their fate. "And where would you go, my brother? Back to the old days when you were shattered in fragments? Back to the times when you were mercy to the whims of Austria or France?" A pink tongue slid out between moist lips, creating a damp trail along Ludwig's cheek and up into his earlobe. The tongue continued its path, tracing the outer shell of his ear before giving a quick nip at the top. "Not even Bismarck could save you now…"
The small flame within Ludwig's heart grew to a raging fire. The stark realization that only he could save himself crashed against his mind. He had fallen once, the acid of defeat burning his throat and coursing through his veins. It was bitter, more bitter than any moment he remembered.
But he cannot let himself be broken.
Like a small beam of light shining through a chink in his prison. Like the phoenix reborn from its ashes. The road did not end there for him. Instead, he realized, it still stretched into the future. A future that only he could build over the ruins of 1918.
In a flash, he had twisted himself away from Gilbert and repositioned his body so that he hovered over the elder. His brother's eyes were twin red pools of ink, staring up at him so unflinchingly that he could see his reflection within them. "I know!" Unconsciously, his hand reached upwards to form a fist around silver strands. "I know I'm the only one who can fix myself. And I will, with you beside me."
Did Gilbert think he was mad? Desperate? Heroic? Ludwig never knew. All Gilbert did was quirk up a corner of his mouth as usual and replied in a low voice, "Then I have nothing left to teach you."
The same hand found its way to Ludwig's cheek again. "You've truly grown, little brother."
Ludwig only paused to release the breath he had been holding, before their lips were fused together once more. This time, the kiss was heated and wet. For once, Gilbert let him dominate the kiss, and Ludwig didn't hesitate to plunder the hot cavern until the Prussian was shuddering beneath him. He delighted in the sensation of their bare chests pressed tightly together, and Gilbert's long arms coming up to wrap around his shoulders, slender fingers playing with the fine strands of blonde hair above his neck.
Only the moonlight bore witness to their passion and saw Ludwig worship his brother's pale skin. He traced the smooth planes of muscle along Gilbert's torso with his mouth, eagerly digging his fingers into the elder's firm sides. Gilbert smelled of generic soap, but not even that was enough to completely mask the underlying scent of steel and gunpowder.
It was rare that the Prussian let his younger brother top him in bed. But, as Ludwig reminisced, the number of times were becoming more frequent. He didn't know if Gilbert had just gotten lazy over the years – just like he had with other aspects, notably the cooking and laundry – or if he had discovered his control kink and decided to indulge him. The thought always brought a dusting of pink to his cheeks.
Ludwig loved his brother's exposed form, loved the way the red of his eyes gave way to a deep crimson in lust, loved the way their bodies moved as one. Gilbert's pale hand, calloused and trembling, would always sweep along his spine, leaving a hot and damp trail before burying itself in matted blonde locks. Every hitch of breath, no matter how subtle, never failed to reach Ludwig's ears, his neck soon unbearably warm from the heated puffs of air.
Finally, finally, Gilbert utters a low moan. The sound carrying all of the unspoken words between them. Ludwig allows his eyes to slide shut, losing himself in the whirlwind of his brother.
"You're my better half, dear Ludwig."
"I'd fight a hundred years to keep Roderich's hands off you."
"You are destined to become great. Your time will come."
As Gilbert's movements became increasingly erratic and his voice steadily rising, Ludwig suddenly snapped open his eyes, twin devastating sapphires in the dark.
No, he could not let himself fall.
A casual flick of the lighter, a small flame at first, and then the burnt odor of a small fire.
Ludwig supposed the scene was domestic, just him and his brother cooking lunch in the kitchen. It was a good break from work, completely worth the walk back in the chill winter weather. A delicious aroma was already wafting from the lukewarm pot over the stove. A ladle was being twirled around in Gilbert's hand. A stained apron was tied around his own waist waiting to be washed.
And a pile of marks was burning healthily beneath the stove.
"Just a little hotter to bring it to boil…" Gilbert observed, lifting the lid.
Ludwig wordlessly tore out a few bills from the nearest stack, feeding them one at a time into the flames. He grimaced at the growing pile of ashes, tiny flakes of blackened paper that would fly everywhere while attempting to clean. It was a messy job afterwards, but at least it was cheaper than firewood. Amongst other things.
He tried hard not to think about it. Berlin had become a stranger to him.
Children could be seen on the streets, playing with stacks of banknotes as if they haven't touched toys in months. Wives could be seen hurrying to stores immediately after receiving the day's pay, lest the money became worthless after the hour. Banks could be seen exchanging foreign currency at the rate of handing out bulky bags, counting out marks by the trillions.
"Any news from the Ruhr?"
The blonde gave a start, snapping out of the daze only to be aware of his brother watching him closely. He tried his best to keep his neutral mask in place, but he knew that the emotions were displayed within his eyes. "Nothing new." He only murmured quietly.
Of course Francis would be demanding for his head. The Frenchman had been unsatisfied with his reparations, and promptly occupied the Ruhr with the help of Belgium. Like icing on the cake, Ludwig thought sullenly. Francis had truly shown his merciless side, and the bruise of the Ruhr Valley was growing darker with each passing day. Worse of all, he could do nothing but passive resistance.
Gilbert, however, plowed on. "It's rather worrisome. That Francis sure is a sly bastard. The Ruhr is, after all, one of your vital regions."
Ludwig's left eye gave a twitch. He didn't know if his ears could stand another round of abuse courtesy of his brother lecturing over vital regions and delving into another retelling of the dramatized version of his conquest of Silesia from Roderich back in the golden days. The whole story from his point of view was ridiculous to listen to, right down to the fact that he always omitted the mention of Elizaveta in the telling.
Before Gilbert could open his mouth again, the blonde quickly removed his apron, turning to leave the kitchen. An idea had suddenly occurred to him, which momentarily abated his appetite.
"Do we have any leftover glue in the house?" He called over his shoulder.
Gilbert had donned a confused look on his face. "There should be some in the cabinets. What do you need it for? Lunch is ready."
A forlorn jar of white glue was sitting in the back corner of the living room cabinet, looking as if it had been forgotten during the cleaning. Ludwig poked around for a small brush, emerging victorious and setting his supplies down on the floor. He grabbed a stack of extraneous banknotes from the bag off the kitchen counter, before dipping the brush in the glue jar and applying liberally a coat of glue onto one side of the bill.
"These chips in the interior wall paint are driving me insane. And there's nothing better to do with hyperinflated money anyway." It was all the explanation he provided before pasting the mark onto the wall, then smoothing the thin paper out.
Silence rapidly descended onto the scene, broken only by the clinking of the glue jar and Ludwig's motions as he meticulously pasted each small paper bill onto the wall.
Then, a quiet snicker.
Before long, it grew into a chuckle, before erupting into a full blown laugh. Gilbert laughed as he hadn't done since the war ended. The silver-haired man was almost bent double, shaking his head at the sight of his little brother using banknotes for wallpaper. The ringing sound echoed across the house, brightening the atmosphere if just for a moment.
Gilbert was beside him in an instant, reaching for the brush and a bill. "Genius, West. And we can pretend we're filthy rich." Another snicker bubbled forth.
Ludwig couldn't help but quirk up a corner of his mouth despite it all. His dear brother was beside him right now, and had been there all along. His country was a far cry from just five years earlier, like a building toppled to the ground. But time still flowed endlessly on, and he was left to rebuild, one step and at a time. Like repairing the wall before him, perhaps he could find some strength from his defeat and construct something new and glorious again.
The future… he would make it shine once more.
A/N: My inspiration? This picture of an actual German man pasting money on his wall as wallpaper during post-WWI. And you would be correct to guess that I found it on Wikipedia.