A/N: Thanks for sticking this one out, guys! Notes at the bottom.
The apple is in Gilbert's hand again, though he isn't sure it was a moment before. He studies it numbly, imagines each little detail as it appears. When he takes a bite, it tastes like an apple, or how he would pretend an apple would taste. Elizaveta is not looking at him, gazing off instead into the vivid sky. Maybe this place wasn't so beautiful in the real world. Maybe that's just his memories, filtered through nostalgia like rainwater refraction.
Elizaveta tugs at his hair absently. "Sometimes we grow up different," she says. "Sometimes we gotta do what we can to stay alive. Go…sideways instead of up, you know? As long as we're moving."
Gilbert turns onto his side, resettling himself on the uneven ground. The details are stronger here, he realizes. It's easier to pretend because this place and time is deep inside of him, rooted like stone in his gut. "'M not a mind reader, ya know. Talk like a real person would. Jus' tell me."
"You just…you gotta be ready to do anything," she tries again, quieter this time. "You don't have to stop now." He feels that impression of Feliciano and Romano, fingers interlocked, and his childish head is starting to hurt again because it doesn't make any sense.
They stay in silence for a moment more, and Gilbert tries to remember what a real apple tastes like, and maybe he doesn't remember in the first place and that's scary.
"But I'm tired."
And suddenly it's the truth, it's always been, the words paint themselves over him, crack the dam built by bricks of year over year in his mind and he realizes yes –
"I know," she says.
"I'm so tired."
He lets the fruit roll out of his hand and turns to bury his face in Elizaveta's coarse fabric. It should scratch at his eyes, but it doesn't and he doesn't even know what that means anymore but he's grateful.
He feels a light slap on the back of his head, but Elizaveta doesn't move or force him off. "I know," she says. "And you can rest now, if you want to. Loads of people do. You're…sort of in-between. You just gotta choose. You can go rest."
And he doesn't think it's her voice that he hears last, warm and familiar and just on the frayed edges of memory, Rest with me.
The world is still. Rest with me.
He breathes in, but the air is painfully counterfeit. Looking up to the sky again, he feels as though he could fall in, gravity shifting around him like the rotational faces of the globe. But the sky here is not as blue as he first thought.
In fact, he thinks that he can remember this image from his last moment awake. He pulls living memories like air from the surface, sending ripples across his imaginary plane. He feels things stirring somewhere, slow and strong and rising, and the realizations just keep tumbling over him, don't they? Like water mills, or those little Chinese fountains.
That day, the sky was a heady rush of azure glory, solid and real, and this petty imitation cannot compare.
But since that day there are many clouds in the sky
many birds in the trees
and there's a lot of salt in the sea
There are also lots of other things.
He remembers what apples taste like.
Something echoes down his spine like war drums, power sizzling in his fingertips.
Or you can live.
Lightning explodes across his sky and the plains grow dark, and he is sitting on cracked, decrepit land with twilight burning on the horizon and he is not a child anymore.
It is as if the storm from imitation Versailles has finally caught him, run him down through smoke rising from dead earth and vicious winds snapping at his bare arms. Desolation stretches as far as he can see.
Coarse syllables like sacrificial knives shred the air from his throat.
"What time is it?"
There is a figure before him, colossal in its power, clothed in strong geometric fabric in stark, overpowering color and contrast clear as bone. Limbs like smooth, living porcelain. There is a phoenix emblazoned on its shining crown.
When Feliks smiles his teeth are heathen-sharp.
"Well, do you know?"
His voice echoes with thunder and something beyond himself. Gilbert loses his words. This presence is far beyond anything he has seen in his old enemy before, yet there is something distinctly Feliks here, people and earth and spinning proud patterns.
The Feliks thing tilts his head, and one eye is cloaked by hair spun from straw to gold and back.
"You just don't want to admit it. You know that it's time, don't you? But you're stupid and stubborn and don't want to go."
Gilbert forces his voice back into his control – "Damn right I'm stubborn!" – but his legs are locked beneath him and he remains collapsed on hard earth, as in a dream when running never, never works.
A seamless transition and Feliks is closer, leaning down and in until his presence is suffocating. His eyes are deep and burning and the phoenix is not just in the crown.
"Do you think you deserve to go back, after all you've done?"
Despite Gilbert's best efforts, he is caught by those flaming pits that pass for irises.
"Do you even deserve heaven, or should I send you to hell where you belong? My people, dying, falling beneath your zealot blade." The voice shakes with righteous anger now, but Feliks still wears a rictal smile, malicious and ready for revenge. "We have a long history, you and I."
"You don't get to decide!" Gilbert shouts too loudly. "You're not my fucking god." And if he felt he could spit on that face, he would.
"But it's your motto," the voice blinks in mocking innocence. "Jedem das Seine. To each his own. Each good deed has a reward, and each sin…" He draws his sword, and the ringing sound could cut through diamond. Gilbert panics.
"But I can't – I'm not the only one who's sinned!" He feels control spiraling away again, and he struggles for each inconsequential breath. Forgive us our trespasses-
And there is a sword, piercing thin and clean through Gilbert's chest. He opens his mouth, but finds that he can't make a sound. His eyes widen in unspoken agony as he slumps around the blade.
Feliks's bloodthirsty smile is gone now, but his eyes are sparking. "We are all sinners. And we must serve as one another's consciences. That is why they are killing you, isn't it? They don't even want you back."
And he remembers.
The dissolution of the Free State of Prussia, at the hands of the Allies. They heaped the blame for the war on him; they insisted that someone must die and Gilbert just stared up at the perfect, desperate azure sky.
So he is dying now, in his last throws. Fever-dreaming the last drops of his life away. The Allies stand in a ghostly row before his mind's eye, solemn and proud and righteous. Francis, dulled, with his hands behind his back. Here is the verdict-
The dancer will be executed-
He mouths something, desperate words around the pain, struggling to make a sound. Feliks leans closer to hear.
Fall, fall down.
The world stops.
Feliks is still as the reaper, poised almost comically, hunched over Gilbert's body, whose torso dangles from his sword like a rag doll. Blood oozes lazily from the wound. "What did you say?"
And Gilbert finds his words.
"Bullshit. You're not – you don't get to decide. None of you get to - no one fucking decides if I have the right to live except for me."
Feliks snarls. "Jedem das-"
"I know my damned motto. I believe it. But it's my motto, and I get to decide. So just – just fuck off!" The last words come out in a whirl of last-ditch effort, and leave him panting for breath around the sword. But he can't feel the metal anymore.
There is a long pause, and his enemy's gaze is strong, singeing him to the core.
"Very well." Feliks smirks, pulls the sword out as easily as if his flesh and organs were water, leaving Gilbert empty on the ground. "What do you think?"
And Gilbert feels, with perfect clarity, thousands of years. Every time his steel pierced flesh, every time his people left the villages of heathens behind, burning, children screaming for their mothers as their intestines dangled into the streets. Fathers in the ovens. Every sin, both that he had regretted and those he swore he never would. The death of an old man and his flute. And the weight is an entire ocean pressing on top of him, and he feels as though he might drown.
But that isn't all. Not by a long shot. He remembers other faces, other times. Brightness, reluctant chores around the house, and the taste of apples. Maybe a stolen kiss. And each feather-memory weighs more than ten oceans. And perhaps this is selfish, because the good memories are mainly for him and the bad ones are for others. And he knows this makes him a bad person. But he remembers helping people too, and he remembers trying, really trying, and the honey-sweetness he tastes makes his breath catch. The world is so different now, but parts of it are the same. And he just wants –
When he looks up, Feliks's face is solemn and careful. Gilbert gulps down his tremors and smiles sharply.
"Sorry. It's not time yet. For all I know it might never be."
Because no matter what-
Feliks gives him a long level glance, and nods.
"But can you face what comes next?"
He feels a warning chill down his spine, and the air turns from cold to frigid, the wind howling through his clothes like agony. Somewhere an invisible sun disappears and the vulnerable world is crushed under layers of inky night. Something rumbles in the blindness, and he thinks it might be guttural words.
No matter what, it's worth it.
The world implodes, ruptures down the middle through light and screaming sound. He sees frozen plains stretching off into eternity, hard dark tundra forbidding growth and escape, and the sky-
There are clouds, huge and black, turning with an awful power into a solid vortex, shades of a cyclone and from the center there is something that is not quite wind and not quite a voice. A jagged language, low and dark and creeping winter, and Gilbert can put a name to it, if he wants to. Ivan's voice catches in the gale again, high and childish yet exactly the same.
And all he can do is stand and stare up at the eye of the storm, the maw of some great and awful creature that will swallow him up. Everything he ever was, gone into a grasping black hole that sends waves of wrath into his frame like screaming bullets.
All the world leers, bending down around him like a sick concave reflection of who he is and what he will have to be. His knees bend beneath the strain and it's all he can do to keep standing, stars winking out behind the clouds, thousands of miles away in some glassy, impossible sky and this is his future, should he choose it, the devil incarnate leaking over every icy steppe in the waking world.
The thing laughs, and reality shakes and slides.
And he has to go forward, there is no other way, forward or down forever. But his legs won't move.
He feels something warm enclosing his left hand. He looks down to see other fingers, calloused and a shade darker, wrapped around his own. Antonio meets his eyes with a calm smile, and he feels something solid against his palm, a circle of points pressing into his skin. The wind roars into his bones as though it alone has the power to drag him to hell.
Bewildered, he feels another hand on his right, pale and slender. Francis's smile is wistful, but just as calm, and he feels a sharp point threatening to break skin with the strength of his grasp, that sentimental bastard.
He draws his hands back to look. Two chess pieces rest in his palms. In his left, the rook. In his right, the bishop.
He blinks back at them, turning his head from one to the other. Francis raises a delicate eyebrow, just bordering on the sarcastic. "With us, remember?"
He feels other shapes at his back, hands pressing things towards him. Pieces for his chessboard, old allies and enemies alike.
"Ready?" Wind whips through Antonio's hair and Gilbert watches how it sparks his tranquil eyes like war paint. One second, two.
Gilbert smirks, just the slightest bit, and faces forward.
There is a path, leading under the storm. Ludwig stands directly in the center.
He looks terrible, the wind tearing through his crisp blonde hair until it is a wild mess. The shadowed circles under his eyes suggest that he has not slept for days, and there is some sort of irony there that Gilbert doesn't have the time to think about right now. He stands tall in his military uniform, medals shining bright, glinting back the storm, but there is something lost in his eyes.
And it takes Gilbert a moment to remember that this is what his brother looked like during surrender.
He tries to move forward, but the wind buffets him back like a wall. A tall, glacial wall and he feels as though he knows this part.
Ludwig must see him now, because it looks like he's shouting something.
Sideways instead of up. The Italy brothers holding hands.
And the timing is incredible, isn't it? A power vacuum created just as another power falls. There is something splitting his brother in two up there, and the other half could be –
He takes a step.
The storm howls, red splashes and horror fairytales of dark forests in Siberian winter. Witches, Baba Yaga with long, sharp fingers to snatch up children in the night.
But Gilbert has his own fairytales to protect him. Dark Grimm, with their stark but twisting moral order and there has to be a choice somewhere so you can decide which morals to take as your own. Which rights and punishments and people to let populate your world.
And Ludwig stretches out his hand. Palm up. A trusting question in his eyes, and he hasn't looked at his brother like that in a long, long time.
Two more steps and Gilbert has already crossed the distance, a brush of their fingers and his world is on fire.
He rips into his brother, forces himself through his spirit, blind power mingled with hope and agony and maybe that's a little bit of pure trust. He takes something that was meant to be a continuation of Ludwig but would serve just as well as his own. He lets his brother in, becomes his other half. Francis would be proud, but he knows he needs to, because the world will be dark and unforgiving now and he knows it.
I choose earth over your goddamned heaven.
He feels hands pushing at his back, forcing him towards the swirling dark mass in the sky, freezing rain and thunder like cathedrals collapsing but it's worth it it's worth it and he goes willingly.
Lightning slices through chaos, and he is close enough to feel every hair on his body stand on end as the light bounces through the sky, rattles like a trapped beast in the center of the storm, and someone is screaming and the piano is pounding as the light grows stronger and brighter until his entire vision is one ineffable flash.
And there is a perfect stillness, in that blind light.
He sees shapes moving, just barely, and slowly his vision returns.
The light doesn't completely fade, and the parlor is bright and gentle. Peaceful early morning sun gives each object an ethereal halo glow. It feels thinner here, like swimming in shallow water, and the colors are blurred. He's almost free.
"Is that your final decision?" his opponent asks. The faded board is filled with pieces. "There is peace in the afterlife, you know."
Gilbert smirks, leans back in his chair. "Not really my style. It'd get boring as hell after-"
He looks up and the words die in his throat.
Dust motes float lazily through his opponent's glowing gray hair, and the wrinkles around his mouth deepen into laugh lines with his smile.
There have been times, during his convoluted escape, that Gilbert thought he had lost his words. That in itself was strange, for him. But now he isn't sure he'll ever find them again, faced as he is by this memory, blue eyes lit up like eternity.
And he knows, beyond a doubt, that everything that came before was nothing. This is the hardest part of all.
"That's true. And I'm glad for it." A yellow bird ripples its way into reality to perch on Fritz's outstretched fingers. He examines it carefully. "You'll have to forgive me," the old man says. "There is…of course, there is a selfish part of me that wishes…" His smile reminds Gilbert of Francis's, that tinge of sadness that shouldn't be there. Suddenly all he wants to do is erase it.
"I know," he says hurriedly. "You-"
Fritz shakes his head with a strange sternness and tosses the bird. It flies out of sight and form. "That really isn't your style, is it? You are a thing of life, even when the rest of us have been worn down to our bones."
Fritz reaches out to just barely brush Gilbert's cheek.
"Ah, listen," he says, drawing back, and it's all Gilbert can do to stop himself from grabbing that hand. "Someone is playing Mozart. Quite well, I may add. A pity whom the pianist is." His lip curls in wry distaste and Gilbert remembers that expression, just like he remembers everything else with crystalline clarity.
He hears the piano trickling through the crevices, and he feels, in a terrifying flash, his eyelids gently closed, his body sprawled horizontally on soft cushions. Life pulsing through his veins and that's been Roderich's playing all this time, resonating from the real world. He pushes his sense aside, just for another moment, but it lingers there on the edge of consciousness. His true body huge against this flickering, dying little room.
"No, you couldn't, mon pays." And it's French, of course it is. It was always French.
Fritz ruffles his hair. The sound of the piano is more real than anything else in this room. It always has been, except –
Fritz's hand ghosts over his head and he realizes that the world bends around it. The figures in the dream had been a part of the illusion; they had fit seamlessly into its endless flow of creation and destruction. But Fritz and the piano haven't fit from the beginning. Suddenly he can't breathe again and before his mind has caught up the words are tumbling over each other in a frantic escape.
"Are you – you're here." The realization crashes down and he can't focus anymore, his eyes aren't working properly and Fritz is just as real as he is, maybe.
Fritz's laugh echoes with old court banter. "Maybe. Who's to say for certain? I wanted to help you. Though…I must offer the other option as well."
And Gilbert searches that face through watercolors, looking for every last hint of meaning.
He feels Mozart pushing him upwards like a cool breeze in summer, and this world's colors are dimming, breaking like waves on the solid shore.
There are so many things he could say, here and now, that he may never get to say again. But Gilbert has never been good with words.
Somewhere he is lying down, cheek pushed openmouthed into the cushions, his eyes closed against the music and the light.
So instead he smiles with everything he has left.
"You just watch me, old man."
And this chapel of a room bubbles and fades like foam.
Man has always had a fascination with the afterlife. It permeates his dreams, his wars, his dying breath. The idea that there is something else, something better beyond, whether it be richer or more glorious or more peaceful–
Well. It isn't for everyone.
Of course, only a select stubborn few have a choice in the matter.
A sudden gasp wracks Gilbert's frame, a brief, spastic struggle against the couch cushions and worn old blankets pulled up to his chin. The room is strong and clear and so ridiculously real that it's a wonder he could have mistaken anything else for this, this perfect, earthy act of being. His heart is pounding, and it feels wonderful. The music, purer and louder than he remembered, stops abruptly and the pianist turns. Even though Gilbert is still seeing through a blurred curtain, Roderich looks so shocked under those sleepless shadows and slipping glasses that he has to say something.
"Bet you missed me," his voice croaks, and then he laughs.
That makes his head pound and his body feels cold and sick and like he hadn't moved in days, but he's alive. There is a bird singing outside the parlor window.
"Play your fucking song," he says, tasting salt on his lips.
Gratuitous note time.
February 25, 1947 – the Allies officially dissolved Prussia, as per one of their war aims. Prussia had no independent power at this point, since laws in 1934 and 1935 gave all of the former states' powers to the centralized government. But technically, Prussia still existed.
It should also be noted that, following a long history of Shit that Went Down between Prussia/Teutonic Knights and Poland, Prussian territory that had been given back to Poland in the Treaty of Versailles was re-annexed in WWII. After the war, some formerly Prussian land was then given back – again – to Poland.
In most instructions for invoking lucid dreams, the dreamer is told that one of the ways to tell that you're dreaming is to check the clock. Often the numbers won't make sense or will change.
"Good Day Good Evening" – Robert Desnos
"Ideal Mistress" – Robert Desnos
"Sports Articles" – Philippe Soupault
Aaand just in case you care, here is a list of songs that may or may not have had a huge effect on this story:
"Canvas" – Imogen Heap
"Judah (Reprise)" – After the Sirens
"Goodnight, Travel Well" – The Killers (Pretty much on repeat for the whole last chapter)
"Swimming" – Florence + the Machine (THIS THIS THIS. And no I don't think it can also be seen as a ridiculously sentimental PruAus song, what are you talking about. Cough.)
So anyway, thank you for reading!