FIVE OF A KIND: A hand possible only in games with wild cards, comprising five cards of equal rank.
Berwald tried to make his footsteps as light as possible as he walked softly into Tino's bedroom. It was almost noon, but Tino had not stirred from his bed since Berwald had basically carried him there the night before. Frankly, with the amount he had drunk, Berwald wouldn't be surprised if Tino did not stir for a week. He very gently placed a jug of water and a glass on the bedside table, then turned to leave. He was stopped by a low moan.
"Am I dead?"
Berwald felt a small smile tug at his lips. "No. Yer not dead." He turned back to see Tino peering blearily through a small gap in the covers.
Berwald's heart beat faster. How much would Tino recall? "Hm?"
"Did I… " Tino's forehead furrowed as though he was trying to remember. "Did I... sing ABBA?"
Not much, apparently. Berwald wondered how to answer that question gently. "Um… yeah."
"Oh, no." Tino's face disappeared beneath the blanket. Berwald tried to control his smile. "I was hoping I'd dreamed it."
Berwald shrugged. "'t'was pretty good."
"I made an idiot of myself." Tino's voice was muffled beneath the blankets.
"No," said Berwald firmly.
Tino pulled the covers down enough to reveal a flash of blond hair and one violet eye. Berwald's heart stuttered unevenly. "And did I… did I say anything weird? When we got home?"
Berwald took a sharp breath as Tino's words came flooding back. And you're cute too!... I really, really like you… Do you think I'm sexy? Berwald only paused for a second. "No. Nothin' weird."
Tino closed his eyes and breathed out in relief. "Oh. Good. Berwald?"
"I'm never drinking again. How does Denmark do this every day? I'm going to die."
Berwald had to bite his lip to keep from laughing. "Ye're not goin' t'die. Go back t'sleep. There's water next to ye."
Tino disappeared under the covers once again. "Thank you, Berwald."
Berwald stumbled back down to the living room. The rest of the household were sprawled across the couches and the floor, all in various states of hungover dishevellment. Greenland and Faeroe lay under their usual layer of accumulated trash. Denmark sat with his feet in a bowl of water and a beer bottle in his hand, with a fluffy pink bathrobe around his shoulders and an icepack perched on his head. Iceland lay flat on his back, still dressed in his tiny outfit from the night before, a wet cloth over his face and three different packets of painkillers by his side.
Norway, however, just sat tapping at his laptop on the coffee table, a Simone de Beauvoir novel beside him. He looked completely unaffected, even though he'd probably drunk twice as much as everyone else. "How's the Finn?" he asked monotonously, eyes not moving from the computer screen.
"Sick," Berwald replied, resting his hands on the back of a chair.
Norway nodded. "Unsurprising."
"I'm pretty sure it was that last Jägerbomb," Iceland muttered, his voice muffled by his face-cloth.
Denmark groaned as he adjusted his icepack. "Or, you know, the fact that he drank his own body weight in coloured vodka."
"No alcohol tolerance, any of you," said Norway. "Pathetic."
"How much did we drink last night, anyway?" moaned Iceland. "Actually, never mind that. How much did we spend?"
"We emptied Den's bank account," replied Norway. "Counterproductive, in a way, but it felt fantastic."
Iceland whistled. "Good work."
Denmark took a long swig of beer then leant forward slightly. Berwald stared incredulously. How could Denmark even think of drinking again already? The night before he'd been so drunk he lost a fight with a fire hydrant. "All right, so I think we can safely agree that this 'party' idea didn't exactly solve our problems."
Norway looked up from his laptop screen to stare at Denmark derisively. "What an astonishing observation."
"And, I think we all understand, there's really only one thing we can do." Denmark took another sip of beer and shrugged. "We've gotta sell Greenland."
Greenland raised his head through a layer of empty chip packets. "Hey!"
Denmark raised a hand. "Look, I know your arid areas for production and generally shitty weather are gonna make you a tough sell, and let's face it - Faeroe's always been the pretty one."
Faeroe yawned and nodded. "He's got a point."
Berwald rolled his eyes. Okay, so last night had been an interesting distraction. But now they were back to the same problem: they a week to make ten thousand dollars, and no way to do it. Ten grand used to be nothing to Berwald. Now, it may as well be ten million. "Not sellin' anyone. But we've got t'do somethin'.
"What can we possibly do?" asked Iceland bitterly. "We went through this last night. We've got less than a week. Let's face it." Iceland raised a glass of painkiller-laced water. "That was our last hurrah."
"Jägerbombs and Abba," said Norway flatly. "What a way to go out."
Denmark tossed his icepack to the ground. "How hard can this be? We're Vikings, damn it!"
"Vikings, now?" Norway snorted. "So what, we should stock up our longship and head downtown to plunder the real estate office?"
Denmark's face brightened. "Ooh! I could use my axe!"
Berwald groaned under his breath and turned to leave. It was still too early for this. "I'll be in th'garden."
"You spend too much time in that garden, young man!" Denmark shouted after him. "It's not natural! And you're just raising the value for the next bastards who move in!"
Berwald ignored him and headed outside. Despite it being a work and school day for the entire house, everyone had come to the unspoken decision to stay home after their wild all nighter. But Berwald hadn't drunk nearly as much as the others, and alcohol never affected him much, so he was not feeling too bad as he started work on the garden. He tried not to think about the fact that this would all be a waste of time if they were evicted, which in all likelihood they would be. He tried not to think about where Tino would go; what he would do; how Berwald could bear to live without seeing him every day.
The hours passed peacefully out in the gentle sunshine. But as he worked, Berwald slowly noticed that the house was quieter than he had ever heard it. The phone wasn't ringing; the television wasn't blaring; Denmark wasn't yelling through the window or attempting to whistle or engaging in deafening bedroom activities with Norway. It was rather strange.
Berwald started on another row of yellow daisies. Perhaps his housemates finally understood the gravity of the situation. But that was ridiculous, Berwald told himself. They didn't care for anything. If they lost this house, what would it mean to them? All Iceland cared about was money. All Norway cared about was himself. And Denmark was too insane to give a damn about anything. Berwald wondered briefly if he was being fair, then angrily decided it didn't matter. This mess they were in was not his fault. It was not Tino's fault. Berwald tossed his shovel to the ground then ran a dirt-streaked hand through his hair. What was the point of planting this garden? They'd be out on the street soon enough. Letting out a frustrated sigh, Berwald stormed back towards the house. Maybe his only option was to start looking for another place to live.
As he neared the back kitchen door, Berwald slowed when he heard Iceland speaking. Something about the words made him stop and listen.
"She didn't… no! I can't even imagine… she did? With her hip? Giiirl, that is mad crazy. Me? Nothing as wild as your bingo nights at the hall, Gladys. Just the same old, I'm afraid…"
Intensely curious, Berwald drew closer to the door. This didn't sound like one of Iceland's usual phone calls.
"I know… Yeah, I know. You can surround yourself with a hundred people and yet, you still feel alone." Berwald paused at the door. Iceland sat at the kitchen bench, the phone against his ear, staring at the wall as he listened intently. Berwald felt guilty for eavesdropping, but Iceland's tone and manner were entirely different – something he had never seen from him before. He couldn't help being intrigued.
Iceland nodded, his expression almost pained. "Well, that's it, love. People look at you and they decide for themselves what they're looking at. Whether it's a fabulous diva they see as a crazy old lady, or a kid in white boots they see as a slut. Sometimes it's easier to just be what they think you are. But in the end, fuck 'em. They can think what they want. Doesn't make 'em right."
Berwald felt a complicated mixture of guilt and empathy. Was this the way Iceland felt? Was this was he was hiding behind his façade? It was too simple. It was too unfair.
Iceland's tone brightened when he spoke again. "Better things to do than chat with my best caller? Nonsense, love. And don't even talk about payment. No, stop it, don't be silly. I tell you what, you send me one of those fabulous crochet scarves of yours and we'll call it even. Until next week! Tell Doris that lady is insane!" Iceland laughed brightly. "Bye, love." Iceland hung up the phone, headed for the front room, then faltered when he noticed Berwald in the back doorway. His expression turned instantly blank. "What?"
"Nothin.'" Berwald looked at the floor and waited for Iceland to leave. He didn't. They both stood in silence for a few moments.
"What do you want from him?"
Berwald glanced up uncomprehendingly. Iceland stood with his hand on his hip and his head tilted to the side. He looked both curious and confrontational. "Well? I know you can speak, Berwald. I'm talking about Tino. What do you want from him?"
Berwald was more surprised that Iceland had used his real name than anything. "I don't know what ye mean. I don't want anythin.'"
Iceland scoffed. "Bullshit. No one is that nice. People always want something. They'll pretend they don't; they'll lie. They'll say they love you, and then they'll take what they want and leave you broken and empty while they just laugh at how very stupid you were to believe them."
"'t'was Ivan, wasn't it?" Iceland jerked his head away angrily. Berwald quickly continued. "I'm sorry. Really. But I'm not like that."
Iceland did not look convinced. "Everyone is like that. Are you saying you're different? What sort of person are you, Berwald?"
"What sort of person d'ye think I am? What do ye decide fer yerself when ye look at me?"
Iceland paused at that, then leant heavily back against the bench. He laughed softly. "Do you know, Berwald… I think you actually sort of fit in this mess of a household."
Berwald shrugged. He was quite aware of what an odd moment this was, and yet it felt completely natural at the same time. "Depends how long we're here, I s'pose."
Iceland nodded. "Well, that's true. I've been trying to take more calls, but… well, some people just call because they don't have anyone else to talk to. And I can't charge people for being lonely."
Berwald actually felt his chest ache at that. And he wondered, for the first time, if he had seriously misjudged this unfathomable boy known as Iceland.
The afternoon passed in the same slow, strange quiet, until Berwald started to wonder if he was alone in the house. Tino was still in bed, and probably would be until tomorrow; and Greenland and Faeroe still lay on their couch, but they didn't really count, somehow. It was as he was passing the study that Berwald was again stopped by someone's voice. This time it was the startling, unfamiliar sound of Denmark speaking seriously that halted Berwald in his tracks. He peered through the doorway to see Denmark sitting at the large central desk, his back to the door and the phone against his ear. His words were in Danish, which Berwald could understand well enough.
"Hey, Mum! Yeah, it's me… hi." Denmark tapped his foot restlessly against the floor and ran a hand anxiously through his hair. "Uh, yeah, I know Dad said that, I… I know, I just…" Denmark took a deep breath and spoke in a rush. "Well, I happened to glance at the calendar and I noticed it was his birthday the other day, so I thought maybe I'd call real quick and say…" Denmark's tapping foot went still. "Oh. He wouldn't, huh? Okay, that's… yeah, I understand. So, uh, how are y…" His hand froze in his hair and he lowered his head. "Oh, right, sure. I'll let you go then. All right. Good..." Denmark broke off, paused again, then slowly looked down at the phone. "...bye, Mum."
Berwald stood completely still, hardly daring to breathe. The surprises today just kept coming. He never would have guessed that Denmark could sound so serious, so... devastated. Berwald barely knew what to feel – sorry, sad, bewildered. It took him too long to notice that Norway was standing behind him. His skin crawled with guilty shame as he tried to think of a way to explain. But Norway didn't even acknowledge him. He simply walked into the room, took the phone from Denmark's hand, and placed it firmly on the desk.
"When are you going to learn, Den?" Norway's words sounded stern. But when he touched Denmark's cheek, his usually blank face looked curiously hurt, and he was only gentle. He sat slowly, gently on Denmark's lap; took his hand and smoothed his hair and kissed his forehead. Denmark pulled him close and leant into his neck as Norway's arms surrounded him.
Berwald immediately turned and left, his mind turning in circles and his chest still aching strangely. It seemed nothing in this place was the way he first thought.
It was three p.m, and Berwald was onto his third cup of awful instant mix coffee. He almost decided to buy a grinder, then wondered if they would be here long enough for that. The house was still uncannily silent. It had been an interesting day, to say the least. Berwald found himself pondering Tino's words from a few days earlier - It's easier to be odd or crazy or insane than to hurt all the time.
Berwald turned back towards the fridge and stopped short when Tino appeared in the kitchen doorway. His messy hair, ruffled pyjamas, and eyeliner-stained eyes were a stark contrast to his appearance the night before. Berwald thought, his head spinning and his heart stuttering, that he looked just as breathtaking. And very hungover. "Help," Tino croaked.
Berwald tried not to laugh. "More water?"
Tino's faintly wild gaze fell on the coffee pot. His eyes lit up and he dove at the bench. "Ohhh, coffee…"
"Here." Berwald pushed his coffee across the bench, then set about making more as Tino practically devoured the mug. "How 'bout breakfast? Can make bacon n'eggs if ye like."
Tino raised an eyebrow over the coffee mug. "It's three p.m."
"Greasy food'll settle yer stomach."
Tino looked slightly suspicious of that, but he nodded an agreement and took a tall seat at the bench. "Okay. Thank you."
Berwald really shouldn't feel such a flutter in his stomach at a simple thanks. He took bacon, eggs and tomatoes from the fridge, placed them on the bench, then opened a drawer to grab the pan.
"I'm still…" Tino trailed off, staring at the counter uncertainly. "I'm still a bit worried. Last night was fun, but... I really don't know what I'll do if we lose this place."
Berwald really shouldn't want desperately to pull Tino into his arms every time he looked uncertain like that. "It's okay. I'll take care of ye."
Tino looked for a moment like he was about to roll his eyes and laugh, but he bit his lip as though to stop it. "That's a very odd thing to say, you know."
Berwald felt the back of his neck burning. Of course it was odd. He concentrated on placing the bread in the toaster. "Sorry."
Tino shook his head. "Don't be. You sort of – fit here, Berwald. Like, you balance the rest of us out, you know?"
Fit here – it was the second time he'd heard that today. Berwald could have laughed. He'd never fit anywhere. To hear it about a place like this... He wasn't sure if Tino was completely wrong, or absolutely correct. He also didn't know how to respond, so he focused intensely on oiling the pan and adding the bacon and chopping the tomatoes and cracking the eggs and...
Tino let out a sudden burst of laughter. Berwald looked up in confusion. "What?"
"You're the Swedish Chef." Tino smiled as he said it, leaning on the bench with his chin on his hand, his violet eyes sparkling.
Berwald felt a smile on his own lips. He was getting used to these random statements Tino came out with. The Swedish Chef… Berwald remembered watching the 'The Muppets' with his father when they first moved from Sweden. It became a sort of ritual, to turn the television on every Friday evening and laugh at how silly the stereotype was. Berwald never did understand how the Chef was supposed to be Swedish – he actually always thought he sounded more Norwegian. Regardless, the mention brought back fond memories. "Well, I don't have the mustache, but... " Berwald reached for the tall, white chef's hat - most likely Denmark's - which always hung inexplicably above the stove. He flattened it slightly and placed it on his head. "I've got th'hat."
Tino's eyes widened, incredulous, then his smile grew to a grin. He picked a pink dishcloth off the bench, tied it into bow, and reached over to tuck it into Berwald's collar. "And the bow tie."
Tino's hands lingered on Berwald's collar; their eyes locked for the slightest second too long. Berwald wondered madly if Tino remembered anything of their conversation in the bedroom the night before. Tino eventually dropped his gaze, his cheeks red. Strangely desperate to keep this odd conversation alive, and feeling some long-dormant playfulness begin to emerge, Berwald determinedly picked up a spoon and a spatula from the drawer. Swedish Chef. He could do Swedish Chef. He was Swedish, damn it.
"Yorn desh born, der hur de disk der du, ye borsh dee born desh de umn…" Berwald gestured wildly with the implements as he sang the nonsense words, then tossed the spoon into the air to crash into the bench behind him. "…bork bork bork!"
Tino stared in utter shock before bursting into a fit of hysterical laughter. "Oh my God! How do you even…" He shook his head in astonishment and practically bounced on his seat. "Do it again!"
Berwald felt his chest swell with some silly sort of pride at Tino's reaction. "Noo, today vee goona hurdy burdy eggsky orn de born bork." Berwald reached for the pan. "Yoo plece-a zee eggs in zee pun, den smakar skit hur de squeer de eggsky…" Berwald proceeded to splatter an unfortunate egg enthusiastically with the spatula. "Smakar de eggsky…"
Tino's eyes shone as he clapped a hand to his chest and bent over the bench laughing. "That's perfect, Berwald! You can do Swedish Chef!" Tino was laughing. Tino had the most beautiful laugh in the world and he was laughing because of him. Berwald hadn't felt his chest so light in years.
"Den yuoo meke-a squeer-a yuu…" Berwald let an egg fall and smash on the bench. He shrugged and picked up another. "A ver de gurdy eggsky, inne go de poot." He dropped the second egg, then the spatula, then knocked the bottle of oil into the sink. Finally he successfully cracked an egg into the pot. "Eggsky, inne go de poot."
Tino put both hands to his face. He managed to look completely stunned and utterly wracked with laughter at the same time. Berwald felt like his heart was going to burst out of his chest. He forgot about his worries, about eviction, about everything, because Tino was adorable, and perfect, and he was laughing with him. Berwald felt like he'd done nothing but unintentionally scare Tino since he arrived; now, he wanted nothing more than to keep him laughing.
"Noo, vee goona…"
Berwald froze, hands in mid-air, and Tino broke off laughing. Denmark stood in the doorway, arms folded and an annoyed expression on his face. "No one does Swedish Chef in this house but me."
There was a brief pause, then Tino and Berwald both burst into laughter. Denmark's mouth fell open. "Holy shit. Norge, baby, get the camera! Sweden's laughing!"
Norway pushed Denmark out of the way. "I told you he wasn't a robot," he said, grabbing a piece of toast from the toaster.
"Terminator," Denmark explained. "I said terminator."
"Oh, great, food!" Iceland also pushed Denmark out of the way while heading for the bench. "I'm starving."
Berwald shrugged and took five plates from the cupboard. He was a little disappointed at being interrupted. But then Tino smiled at him, laughter still in his eyes. "Come on, Den, don't be mad - Berwald is the Swedish chef. If anything, you're the Danish Chef."
Denmark looked contemplative as he leant against the egg-splattered bench. "The Danish chef, hey? I like that. I bet the Danish Chef can kick the Swedish Chef's ass. I bet his moustache is even bigger." Denmark's eyes lit up as he nodded, a look of dawning illumination on his face. "Yeah. He probably has, like, twelve Michelin stars. Shit, there's a wait list of six months to get into the Danish Chef's restaurant." Denmark slammed a hand on the bench. "The Swedish Chef wishes he were as culinarily awesome as the Danish Chef!"
Norway raised an eyebrow. "What's his specialty dish? Mixing an olive with a bottle of akvavit, drinking the lot, then passing out on the front lawn?"
Tino laughed loudly. "How about the Norwegian Chef? Tells the Danish Chef to get his ass in the kitchen and cook his damn dinner."
"Or the Finnish Chef," said Iceland, winking at Tino. "Forgets the stove is on and burns down the kitchen."
Tino looked slightly offended. "Hey, that only happened twice."
"Ye make good coffee," said Berwald. Yes, all he did was pour hot water over instant mix then add a metric ton of sugar, but still.
Tino broke into a wide grin. "You see! Berwald believes in my culinary abilities!"
Denmark snorted loudly. "That's because he's in love with you." Norway threw a piece of toast at Denmark's head. "What?" Denmark whined. "It's not like it isn't completely obvious to everyone in a ten mile radius. Uh oh, was rule number nine followed here, Swedish Chef? Did these eggs have smiley faces before you deprived them of their shells and smashed them on the bench?"
Berwald was certain his face was burning red. Norway started serving from the pan; Iceland reached across the bench for the toast. No one seemed to notice Denmark's throwaway, inescapably true observation.
Tino rolled his eyes. "Den, considering the way you've blown our money, I think we're entitled to your eggs."
Denmark winked and wagged his eyebrows. "Only Norway's entitled to my eggs."
"Urgh." Tino looked at the eggs on his plate and shuddered. This time Iceland threw toast at Denmark's head.
Norway dropped a plate of eggs and toast in front of the giggling Dane. "Shut up and eat."
Berwald placed the bacon from the pan onto a plate. "There's bacon too."
Denmark shook his head and raised a hand, palm outwards. "I don't eat bacon, for religious reasons."
Berwald's eyebrows flew up in surprise. "Religious?"
Denmark nodded proudly. "I am an observant frisbeetarian."
At Berwald's puzzled look, Tino explained. "When you die, your soul gets stuck on the roof, like a frisbee."
Berwald was beyond questioning. "'f course."
Denmark nodded fervently. "When you've examined all the options it just makes sense. I have some literature you may be interested in seeing…"
The conversation continued as they ate, and it wasn't long until a strange semblance of normality settled over the kitchen. Everyone even stayed to help clean up, something Berwald had never seen happen since he moved in. Just as they were putting away the last of the clean plates, a knock sounded at the door. Iceland jumped up quickly. "I'll get it."
Denmark shouted after him. "I'm not in the country."
Moments later Iceland shouted from the front door, harsh panic in his voice. "LUKAS!"
The warm, comfortable atmosphere shattered. Denmark knocked over his chair, Tino turned white, and Norway simply ran before Berwald even had time to wonder at the unfamiliar name.
Following the other's frantic rush, Berwald's stomach turned and his nerves stood on edge when he reached the front room. The front door was open, Iceland already halfway back across the room. And standing in the doorway, his hand holding back the door and that eternal smile on his lips, stood Ivan Braginski. Norway marched furiously towards him. "Get out."
Ivan ignored him and took a step inside. "We need to have a conversation."
Norway practically growled as he drew to a stop between Ivan and Iceland, fists clenched and shoulders tense. "I said, get the fuck out."
"I do not wish to speak with you," said Ivan flippantly. He stood easily in the room as though he belonged there. "I wish to speak with Mr Køhl…"
"Don't you dare utter that name in this house, Russki!" Denmark shouted as he stormed across the room. Norway stopped him with a hand to his chest.
Instinct kicked in and Berwald drew himself to his full height, blood rushing to his head. He had no idea what the Russian was doing here, but Berwald had seen what this man could do when angry, and he doubted anyone in this house had the slightest idea how dangerous this could get. Berwald's eyes darted towards Tino, who stood uncertainly beside him, silent and observing.
Ivan simply looked amused. "If you insist… Denmark. I hear you are still harassing my friends."
Denmark snarled. "Your little minions approached us, Russia. And any friend of yours is an enemy of mine." Norway's hand was the only thing restraining Denmark from charging. Iceland stood behind Den and Norway, arms drawn to his chest.
Ivan simply waved a hand, visibly unconcerned by the heavy tension in the room. "That is the least of my concerns. I am much more worried for your financial situation."
Berwald could sense everyone in the room stare in confused silence. How could Ivan possibly know about that? Denmark's furious expression faltered. "I don't know what you're on about, Russki."
Ivan clasped his hands before him; he was acting like they were having a pleasant conversation about the weather. "It has come to my attention that you are on the point of eviction, yes?"
Denmark looked stunned. "Wha... huh..." He turned furious again. "What are you still doing here? Get the fuck out of my house!"
Berwald squared his shoulders and felt his hands twitch. If Denmark started a fight, the stupid Dane could not finish it on his own. Ivan obviously knew this. "But it is not your house, Denmark. And so you see my problem. If you can not even pay your rent, how are you ever going to pay the debt you owe me?"
Berwald's blood froze. He felt sick. "Den. Ye don't have a debt with Ivan?"
"What? It's just a little something I owe from poker..."
Berwald put a hand to his head and let out a long breath. Denmark owed Ivan. This was not good. This was beyond not good. This was disastrous...
Ivan sounded like he was having the time of his life. But of course – the Russian loved to terrorise people. "My friend Berwald here can tell you quite well what a little quandary you are in."
Berwald glared furiously. To play his games in the worst parts of town with the worst men in the city was one thing. But this was just a house of kids - crazy and stupid kids, yes, but innocent nonetheless. What the hell was Ivan doing playing these games with them? "Ye've got him on rising interest, don't ye, Ivan? Th'type he can never pay back."
Denmark interrupted. "What's the big deal, I've got a debt with the bank too..."
"The bank just takes yer money," Berwald snapped. "Th'Russian takes..." Berwald trailed off as Ivan's smile twisted cruelly. Everything… But this time, Berwald was not going to let him get away with it. He drew himself up, took two threatening steps forward, and narrowed his eyes. He never needed to do much to convey an aura of intimidation. The others watched in silent anticipation. "Ye're a gamblin' man, Ivan. Let's play fer this."
Ivan waved a hand at Denmark dismissively. "I've played this child. He is an extraordinarily untalented card player. I am done with him."
"What the hell does that… arghl…" Norway silenced Denmark with a swift kick.
Berwald raised his chin. "Then play me. Or try."
Ivan's cold eyes flashed, his expression a dark warning behind his fake, ever-present smile. "Oh Berwald. I thought you'd put all that behind you. Besides, I've had my fun with you." He lowered his eyes and smirked. "I see you still wear your father's watch. I wonder what the old fool would think if he could see you now."
Berwald dug his nails into his palm, forcing himself to contain the anger that boiled in his chest. "Cards, Ivan." He almost shouted the words. "You and me. If I win, ye drop Den's debt, and ye pay us the int'rest. If I lose, I'll take on Den's debt m'self."
"Wait a minute…" Denmark started.
"Hold mund," spat Norway.
Ivan tapped his chin as he considered. "I pay you the interest? That is quite a considerable sum. You would be able to pay your rent and stay in this house. But even if you do take on this silly boy's debt, what incentive is in it for me?"
Berwald spread his hands. The old negotiation came back easily. "Come on, Ivan. I know th'games ye like to play. Ye were determined t'destroy me once, but look... I'm still standin'." Berwald smirked, bared his teeth, and raised a shoulder. "Care t'try again?"
For a brief moment, as they glared at each other across the room, Berwald thought he had won. But the moment Ivan's gaze fell on Tino, Berwald realised the enormous mistake he had just made.
"Do you know…" said Ivan slowly, his evil smile lighting up his entire face. "This could be fun."
Berwald tried frantically to backtrack. "Actually, I…"
Ivan just grinned gleefully. Berwald started to wonder if the Russian had planned this the entire time. "Poker, I assume? Given the unskilled players, perhaps the simple old five card draw might be best. We'll start with a low buy-in."
"Look, maybe there's another…"
"Of course, I insist you all play." Ivan glanced towards Iceland, who drew his arms closer to his chest and looked away. "I even leave it to you to choose the dealer."
Denmark tried to rush forward angrily, but was again stopped by Norway. "Oh, we'll be there, Russia. We'll be there, and we're gonna kick your ass, du er et røvhul…"
Berwald closed his eyes briefly. He would have a hard enough time defeating Ivan on his own. But if the others played… if Denmark played… Oh, God, what had he done?!
"Wonderful!" cried Ivan, clapping his hands together delightedly. "Saturday night, shall we say? I look forward to it!" Then he snickered softly, winking at Berwald. "I knew you'd come back."
Ivan swept towards the door, leaving five angry, stunned, silent Scandinavians behind him. But just before he reached the door, Ivan paused and tilted his head. "Who are they?" he asked, nodding towards Faeroe and Greenland asleep on the couch.
"Our pets," replied Denmark simply.
Ivan's eyebrows shot up. He looked rather impressed. "Kinky."
The moment Ivan closed the door behind him, Norway fixed Berwald with a furious glare. "All right, Swedish Chef. What have you gotten us into?"
Tino interrupted before Berwald could respond furiously. "Berwald didn't get us into this mess, Norway. He's just given us a way to get out of it."
"With poker?" Norway laughed. It was strangely terrifying. "Poker's the reason we're in this mess!"
"No," said Iceland firmly. He still looked a little shaken, but also grimly determined. "We only played that stupid game to try and beat Ivan. And we failed, spectacularly. But maybe…" Iceland looked at Berwald appraisingly. "Maybe with Sweden we can win."
Norway raised his chin. He didn't look convinced. "Well, Sweden? Yesterday you said that no one wins against Ivan. And now you think you can beat him?"
Berwald shifted uncomfortably as four sets of eyes regarded him curiously. Oh, God… what had he gotten into? "I…" He looked from Norway's challenging stare, to Iceland's confident gaze, to Denmark's still vaguely angry look of bewilderment. "I think…" Then Berwald looked at Tino: his resolute expression, his trusting, eyeliner-stained eyes. If Berwald could beat Ivan, they could stay in this house. This was his only chance; the only chance he had to stay with the only person he loved. Berwald took a deep breath and returned Norway's stare. "I think I'm th'only one who can."
Denmark suddenly broke into manic laughter. "Fuck, yes! I am IN!"
Iceland grinned. "Hell yes. Let's teach that son of a bitch a lesson."
"You can do it." Tino nodded, smiling. "I know you can, Berwald."
Norway just raised an eyebrow perceptively. "I hope you're ready for this, Sweden. For your sake."
Berwald ignored what that might mean. He ignored what he already knew: Ivan played dirty, and he liked to destroy people, and he knew just how to do it. But Berwald knew how to fight back. This time, he had a reason to fight back. "Ye can all play poker, right?"
Denmark, Norway and Iceland all agreed. Only Tino shook his head. He smiled up at Berwald, earnest and dishevelled and beautiful. "Will you teach me?"
"And this is four'f a kind. Tough t'beat."
Berwald placed the cards down and Tino studied them carefully. They sat opposite each other on Tino's bedroom floor, the bright lamps casting soft shadows on the bedspread behind them. Quiet music Berwald did not recognise played from tiny speakers beside Tino's desk. This was still the cleanest, brightest room in the house, though Berwald was grateful he no longer had to sleep in the tiny alcove in the corner. Tino tapped his chin thoughtfully as he stared at the cards. He had picked things up amazingly fast so far. "Four of a kind. Tough to beat. You can beat it, though?"
Berwald nodded. "Yes. There's only one hand ye can't beat."
Tino looked up, interested. Berwald noticed that his violet eyes seemed darker in the lamplight. "What's that?"
"This one." Berwald took five cards from the deck and lay them out on the carpet, one by one. All hearts: Ten, Jack, Queen, King, Ace. Berwald gestured a hand over them. "Royal flush. Hearts. Can't beat't."
Tino looked amused at that. "So, hearts is highest?
Tino gave a tiny laugh, lowering his head so that his hair fell in his eyes. "That makes sense."
Berwald felt his heart skip in his chest, and wondered when the room had become so warm. He tugged at his shirt collar and quickly focused on reshuffling the cards. These little moments with Tino were the best of Berwald's life. Berwald wasn't sure if that said more about the kind of life he had lived, or about how desperately infatuated he was with this beautiful Finn. Either way, it was both scary and wonderful at the same time.
"Where did you learn to play?"
"M'father taught me."
Tino tilted his head, his eyes connected with Berwald's. No one had ever listened to Berwald as earnestly and as honestly as Tino always did. "For fun, or…"
Berwald understood Tino's unasked question. Tino knew some of Berwald's unpleasant past by now. Perhaps it was time to explain it a little more – after all, Berwald trusted Tino to hear it. Even if he was scared of how he would react. He took a very deep breath, tapped his cards against the ground, and began.
"My mother died when I was fourteen. We moved from Sweden the next year – I think Dad was trying t'escape the memories." At first Berwald faltered over the words. They quickly became easier, however, until he barely remembered that he found speaking uncomfortable. "But once we got here, everthin' just got – worse. He struggled t'adjust to th'different life. He couldn't speak English, so he couldn't get a job. There was only one thing he ever thought he was good at – poker. He found places to play, people in th'business. It's not hard when ye know where t'look. I'd go with him t'play, and he taught me. And he was good – not th'best, but he won more than he lost. He made enough t'buy us a small house, t'buy me books fer school. Sometimes if he had a good night he'd come home with beer and marshmallows and those disgustin' pickled herrings he liked so much."
Berwald almost smiled, then broke off at the painful memories. He was not used to speaking so much, especially about something so personal, and in some strange way he was not sure if he was doing it correctly. Tino, however, watched him as though engrossed, silent, still clutching his hand of cards. He was the first person Berwald had ever spoken to of these things. He was the first person Berwald had ever cared enough to speak to of such things. Berwald took another deep breath before continuing. "Like I said, he was good. Th'other players were scared of him, I think - scared of us. There was only one man who wasn't. Who spoke to us, and helped us."
Tino's eyes widened. "Ivan."
Berwald nodded. "Braginski was only young – not much older than me. But he was already unbeatable. He said he would help us. Ev'ry time we lost, the Russian would lend us money. But ev'ry time we won, he would raise th'interest. Eventually, we couldn't keep up. When we lost everythin', again, my father lost hope. He drank too much. He got sick, but he wouldn't stop drinkin'. Eventually, it killed him." Berwald stopped again. Why was he saying this? Surely he was only bothering Tino, surely he was only making him uncomfortable, surely…
Berwald's thoughts fell to pieces when Tino's hand reached out and brushed his. It was only quick, a brief touch of sympathy, and it was over before Berwald could be sure he felt it. When Berwald's thoughts flew back together, Tino was already fidgeting with the cards in his fingers. "Do you know that your accent has grown lighter? I'm sorry. I just noticed. Please continue."
Berwald nodded and, with a racing heart and a burning hand, continued. "After he died, I found out just how much debt he had with the Russian. Found out when I went to a gamblin' house t'visit a 'lawyer' – a man'f the Russians. He showed me a document signed by my father." All of Berwald's emotions swung abruptly to anger, just remembering that moment. The moment he found out just how deeply his father had been used and betrayed by Ivan Braginski. The moment Berwald had snapped completely.
"Th'paper showed that my father had signed everythin' we owned over to Braginski. Our house, our savings... everythin'. But it wasn't th'house and th'money that mattered – it was how the Russian treated him. My father could barely speak English. He certainly couldn't read it. He would've had no idea what he was signing. I tried t'explain, but it didn't matter. It was legal, and it was done."
Tino's expression was frozen in dismayed disbelief, though his hands still fidgeted restlessly with the cards. "My God. That's awful. What did you do?"
Berwald paused, rubbed his neck, and answered slowly. "I got… angry."
Tino's fingers stopped moving and his eyebrows drew together in confusion. "You? Angry?"
Berwald looked at the floor. Tino did not need to know. He did not need to know how Berwald had grabbed the crooked, underground lawyer by the collar, had punched him over and over and over again, had viciously slammed the man's head onto the desk. Tino did not need to know how Berwald had overturned the furniture, thrown chairs against the wall and smashed the windows, had almost destroyed the dirty backroom office before the police charged through the door.
Tino did not need to know how Berwald faced charges of grievous bodily assault, property damage, theft, and a dozen other offences Braginski managed to level at him. Tino did not need to know how Berwald had spent a year in prison only to come out hated by society, with nowhere to go and no prospects, and had fallen back into the one thing he knew how to do – cards. Yes, he had found the groundskeeper job at the university, in no small thanks to former gambler Professor Beilschmidt's generous help, but the fact remained – Berwald had never been able to stay away from that sleazy world of underworld gambling for long. But Tino did not need to know that; so Berwald just shrugged offhandedly. "Yes. Did things I'm not proud of. Things I'll never do again."
Tino nodded. That seemed to be enough explanation for him, and thankfully he did not press further. He just said, again, "I'm sorry. It sounds like your father really tried – like he cared about you."
"Yeah." Berwald wondered why he didn't feel anxious about the words he had spoken to Tino. Instead, he just felt relieved.
Tino let out a long breath. "So Ivan really took everything from you?"
His savings, his house, his father… Berwald relaxed his clenched fists. "Yes."
"You kept this, though." Tino reached out and gently took Berwald's antique pocket watch from his front pocket. He smiled as he looked at it, and Berwald followed his gaze, swallowing heavily at the growing tingling sensation from Tino's fingers against his chest. The long black hands of the watch read seven o'clock against the worn gold setting.
"Yes," said Berwald quietly. The watch meant more to him than anything he had ever owned. "This is mine. He'll never have it."
Tino's eyes grew slightly distant. "You're very lucky, you know. Having something to remember your father like this. All my dad gave me when he kicked me out was bus fare."
Berwald looked up sharply. Again, he felt a wave of fierce anger for someone he'd never even met. How could anyone do that to Tino? Then Berwald remembered Denmark's broken conversation in the study earlier. How could anyone do that to their child – to someone they loved? Berwald's father might not have been perfect, but he loved Berwald. At least he had that.
Before Berwald could think of a way to respond to Tino's harrowing words, Tino drew back his hand. "Thank you for telling me that, Berwald," he said softly. "I suppose everyone has their pain and their regret - no matter how strong they appear." Tino looked down at the cards in his left hand, his eyes a little sad and unsure, then laid them down carefully on the carpet. "So, I have these five..." Tino gestured over the four, five, six, seven, and ten; all of different suits.
Berwald looked down at the cards and raised his eyebrows. He was grateful that Tino knew exactly when to change the subject. "An interestin' hand. Ye need to throw in th'ten."
Tino bit his lip thoughtfully. "And hope for an eight, yes?
"Yes. Unlikely, but ye'll win if ye do."
Tino picked up the ten, tossed it in the centre, and watched as Berwald dealt him out another. He picked it up and smiled. "Guess what?" Tino flicked the card around between his fingers - a black eight of spades.
Berwald smiled back. What a lucky catch… "Catch perfect."
Tino tilted his head. "Huh?"
Berwald nodded at the eight of spades. "To get the one card ye need t'win. T'complete the set of five. Catch perfect."
Tino laughed softly. "Catch perfect. I like that." He brushed the hair from his face; his hand strong but soft, his hair like falling silk. Berwald shook his head and told himself to stop with the similes. After all, he could not compare Tino to anything – there was nothing perfect enough to compare him to. All Berwald could do was accept that he had never loved anyone like Tino, would never love anyone like him, and that if Berwald lost him now, he would lose the only thing he'd ever had worth losing. Berwald had always bet with nothing much to lose. Now, with an upcoming game against the only man he had ever hated, Berwald realised.
This time, he had everything to lose.
Frisbeetarianism is not my invention, but that of the late, great George Carlin.